Friday, July 29, 2011

Are You Righteous

The soldier
Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth? 

- Japanese Soldier, The Thin Red Line

* * *

There is a hitch in our thinking, a flaw which betrays the innate puniness of our desire, our rush to pleasure and goodness and peace and a life lived in accordance with our dreaming: we presume that such a life will be without trial or suffering or injustice. That is why we pursue that life–to be beyond the reach of harm. In this, we are dogs chasing our tails.

Are you righteous?
Are you a serious character?
Are you going to live forever?
Why would you?

The value of a life, of any life–yours, the neighbor two doors down, the stranger you'll never meet, those in the meat grinder of Ciudad Juarez, the slums of Mumbai, and so on ad nauseum–is measured by it's finite nature and the demand, the expectation, that each life is utterly unique: a once in a lifetime occurrence. If the only value you place on your life is that which is totted up by how much ease, or pleasure, by how high you build the walls in a vain attempt to keep Life out, then you are quite fucked.

There is no wall that can't be breached. There isn't enough pleasure or leisure to satiate your desire because you'll always want a bit more and therein lies your doom. Just as Siddhartha's father could not protect his son from seeing, witnessing, participating in the sorrows and trials of the world, so, too, are you unable to flee from it. So, quit trying.

Viktor Frankl stated there were three ways to find meaning in one's life: love, creation and suffering. Each is completely unique in how it is expressed and each is a universal truth that anyone can understand or participate in. When the dead Japanese soldier in Malick's The Thin Red Line asks, Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?, it speaks directly to the fucked life, this woeful half-life you and I have been living. We desire love and goodness. We seek for ways to put a balm to our pain and we move through our lives either awake and hoping for something better, or asleep and hopeless. We do this because we cannot wrap our minds around the third option before us: it is love and goodness and suffering and loss and peace and trial all at the same time.

There are no divisions between darkness and light, between love and suffering. We place those dividing lines there so we have something of a contour map to follow, but it always keeps us from ever reaching our destination. You want to unfuck your life? Quit trying to separate the strands. Quit saying you'll only have goodness and truth, health and money, love and pleasure. Doing so keeps you on your back foot, always guarding against what you can't stop or have any control over. Your only control is over how you respond to Life in all of its richness and paucity, its delight and poison, its truth and lies.

If you read this as a negation of love, goodness and truth, then you're even more fucked than you know. It is all of it. At the same time. In all of its cyclical glory. You unfuck your life by not running from it. You unfuck your life by engaging it as it emerges. You unfuck your life by recognizing and accepting you have no control over external events, only your own actions, your own thoughts.

Consume it all or be stunned to silence when it dawns on you how you fucked it all up.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cause If We

'Cause if we knew where we belong
There'd be no doubt where we're from
But as it stands we don't have a clue
Especially me, and probably you.

Low - Especially Me

* * *

We are the six blind men describing an elephant, holding onto that piece our hands fall to and saying, "It is so. It is so." And we are are not wrong, but our truth is parochial, narrow, immediate. There are worlds we cannot imagine, let alone see or verify through our senses. This tips uneasily into ontology, the nature of being - a rabbit hole of ever tightening gyres - and in its headlong rush to origins it misses the greater, larger fact and mystery: we are here, now, and there is work to do.

What is that work?

Here's my answer: to embrace our consciousness, our limits and still reach out toward the future - the numinous juncture of desire and time.

And remember, this is a timed test.

* * *

A life lived hemmed in by the immediate, always responding to the blows of time and chance never has a chance to get any wind in its sails. We stumble and fall. We stagger from one point to the next: paying bills, holding onto shitty jobs, remaining in failed relationships or rifling through them like shuffling cards and never are we satisfied, never satiated, always uncertain that this is how life is, or is supposed to be. To answer such doubts we double down and drive harder into our immediate concerns. We booze. We whore. We sit on the couch and watch circus geeks parade in the puny glory of their fifteen minutes of fame and call it a day.

If that was all life had to offer us, well, I'll take a pass.

It isn't that I am above the immediate pleasures of this time and place, but there is more to it than just this. In answer to the question: Is this all there is? The answer is, fuck no.

In spite of our laziest tendency we are still builders of meaning. We want our lives, our deaths, our sacrifices, our joys to have meaning. We want to be immortal, though the horror of that is never hinted at. No, meaning comes because time is short for each of us. A lifetime is a pittance, except if you are the one living it (and I assume, because you are reading this you still live, therefore this shit matters to you). So, what is to be done? No one gets out of here alive. All the miracles of Jesus raising the dead and healing the sick, even if you believe them as gospel, were temporary. They still succumbed to life's hard calculus. Dust a thousand times over by now.

So, what is to be done?

Knowing that even those saved by the hand of Jesus still bit the dust has to take some of the sting and worry out of trying to out fox death. We are, each of us, dead men walking. So instead of fearing the inevitable, the unavoidable, try living fully awake instead, try reaching out beyond yourself, beyond your sense of the elephant, and tie your desire to your courage and meet the future as one who is awake, smiling and unwilling to miss this one chance to live.

Or you could just stay fucked.

Your call.


Friday, July 22, 2011

I Am Conscious

I am conscious of the softness and warmth of my thumb as I draw it across Jean-Pierre's skin. His eyes are closed. There's a booger in his nose hairs. "Into your gentle hands, dear Father, I commend the spirit of your child, Jean-Pierre Levesque…"

- Kate Braestrup,  Here If You Need Me

* * *

The mystery of our days is not that they are short, but that we assume they are infinite. How else to explain our willingness to subvert our essential selves, to live with and as something less than we are capable of? Too often we are simply barking up the wrong trees, chasing lives others want us to live, or lives we have assumed we must live because we lack the conviction to live by what ever light may yet be in our heads.

An old joke: What is the difference between a transvestite and a trans-sexual? A question of commitment.

* * *

Jean-Pierre Levesque got drunk and took his snowmobile for a ride across a frozen lake which gave way and he died under water. He died with a booger in his nose hairs. An anonymous, ignominious death, surely a waste for his wife, his friends, his family. You, too, will be found by someone someday, your death a discovery, a new event for the living to manage. You, too, will be yet another death, another corpse to be removed from the presence of the living. Knowing this, if you dare to know it, how's the whole living thing working out for you?

Life consists of a series of tasks set before you, tasks you are challenged to complete, or at least attempt. Some lives have difficult beginnings: poor health, disruptive, abusive childhoods, hunger, poverty, or plain ignorance. Other lives take on weight mid-way. Others still are burdened toward the end. Some just suck all the way through. There is no avoiding it, and yet we all wear a mantle of pride in our wounds, as if we were the only ones to ever suffer inequity, pain or prejudice.

How's this for a thought experiment: Instead of concentrating your energies on what has proved hard, or unfair you focused on finding a way to live in spite of those trials. You are wholly un-original in having to deal with suffering, disappointment, betrayal, neglect or any other stripe of suffering human beings can suffer. What makes you wholly original and irreplaceable is how you respond to those circumstances.

You dig?

If your life is fucked, only you can unfuck it by how you engage the stuff of your life. I am not of this time. I crave silences more than noise, solitude over the cacophony of company. If I could have a monastery with just myself in it I would, but I am of this time. I am a father to four who need something other than a withdrawal into solitude from their old man. This is part of my task. What is it for you?

* * *

Jean-Pierre Levesque lived a while. Had friends, a wife and then broke through the ice and died. Surely, he was surprised by that turn of events. He didn't mean to die, and yet death found him. Who can say how he lived? Only he knew. Maybe he paid it no mind and just went about his day-to-day without a thought past his next meal, or the next hunting season. Maybe he prayed every night for guidance. Maybe he did a bit of both - enough prayer to whistle past the graveyard he was hurtling toward. But he had a wife who asked that the sign of the cross be rubbed across his head if they found him dead and so that was done for him.

"Into your gentle hands, dear Father, I commend the spirit of your child, Jean-Pierre Levesque…"

* * *

You dig?


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

To Live Content

To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to listen to stars and birds, and babes and sages with open heart; to study hard; to think quietly, act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never; in a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the commonthis is my symphony.

- William Henry Channing

* * *

I have always loved the cadence and certitude of nineteenth century writers. It is a verb strewn existence: to live, seek, be, listen, study, think, act, hurry, let, grow… Active, not passive, and filled with an enthusiasm for its subject that we are too cynical to attempt. And where did all of their certitude and facility with words get them? A long dirt nap. Though none of their efforts could save them, those same efforts can save us–for a while, at least, and that seems to be the best bargain available.

I possess a slim grey book called Right Living As A Fine Art, published in 1899 and written by one Newell Dwight Hillis who takes Channing's Symphony as a starting point on how best to live. It, too, speaks of a time of gentleman scholars and serious inquiries into the nature of our being and how to manage the life thrumming before and within us. As I say, I love this sort of writing because it has something that has fallen out of favor, out of consciousness, out of our minds: faith. Not religiosity, but faith in one's self; faith in the possibility that one could be connected to all and that the fate of one was the fate of all; faith that there was more to life than it being brutish and short; faith that an individual could find his or her way through this life by allowing the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, to grow up through the common. It makes me believe I have lived before because I can find no other explanation as to why these seemingly fussy and old-fashioned ideas and words move me so other than to suggest that I may have once spoken or written them.

* * *

But what of it? Channing, like Emerson and Thoureau are long dead and their language dies in the mouths of us modern fucked fuckers who have no time to think, but can only ape the fears of our age.

Here's what: it doesn't have to be this way.

The difficult poet Ezra Pound would ask of those he met, Are you a serious character? Think a minute before you answer. We have come to equate serious with ponderous, humorless, dull, and certainly those who find themselves to be worthies are often ponderous, humorless and dull, but such thinking misses the mark. Read Channing's Symphony again. It is in the common that the spirit grows–unbidden and unconscious. To unfuck your life you have to quit angling for prizes and instead live content within yourself. This is what Pound was going after.

But you're fucked, right? How can you be content?

Here's how: by being serious instead of frivolous, instead of heavy, instead of assuming only you have suffered a fool thing in this life, instead of assuming that the tonic to suffering is denying its existence, by paying attention to the stuff of your life and using it build meaning and purpose into your days.

We get hurt. We get lost. At times this hardens into a protective shell that walls off anything that might trouble us again, but we are troubled just the same.  Channing wants us to look into what is common to find our depths, to find our place. Our deaths are our common fate so it must then be our lives that inform our deaths, that stand outside of time. Every life is presented with the same task: figuring out how to live. If you are fucked and stuck, then, baby, you ain't living. You're just waiting around to die.

* * *

The clue bag is open. Every generation wrestles with these questions. For thousands of years now they've been writing down their answers.

You can't say you've never been told.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Impermanence Mocks Us

Impermanence mocks us. Our efforts - to learn, to acquire, to hold on to what we have - all eventually come to naught. This is the final and controlling paradox: Only by embracing our mortality can we be happy in the time we have. The intensity of our connections to those we love is a function of our knowledge that everything and everyone is evanescent. Our ablity to experience any pleasure requires either a healthy denial or courageous acceptance of the weight of time and the prospect of ultimate defeat.

- Gordon Livingston, M.D.

* * *

Two great silences bracket out lives. We assume, because we are in between those silences and our lives are so very loud, that this spit of time that we stand on is the whole of human experience, or at least,  our experience. If we are religious we have accepted on faith a reunion of sorts (with our loved ones, our heavenly father, etc.) that awaits us on the western horizon, so that silence is really another form of this life. Believing it to be so allows believers to navigate the troubles of living because an end to tribulations is our reward.

My son asked me a few years ago if I believed in heaven. I told him I did not. I said that when we died we simply became part of it all, the cosmic all. Such is my sense of it, but the silence or reunion that waits is of little concern to me. What concerns me, what takes my attention and asks that I attend to it is the present. Our lives are evanescent; we expire; we are brief by any measure and yet we act with impunity, squandering our days in self-made prisons of anger, doubt, fear and delusion. Time is infinite. We are not.

But it is not enough to be awake to one's mortality. Something more must be added to that knowledge: the ability to be happy despite our impermanence.

* * *

On the island of Malta, in St. John's Co-Catherdral, inlaid on the floor, are the marble tombstones of 400 some Knights of St. John. Each tells something of the story of each knight. To the right is the one belonging to one Francois de Tressemanes Chastuel Brunet. The inscription reads: “He exhausted the incurability of a long lasting illness by his invincible endurance, so that it may seem that Death did not assail him, but that he challenged Death to a wrestling match.”

O, to be a Knight of St. John.

* * *

Our inevitable death is something feared, and because it is feared it distorts and diminishes the moment at hand. We spend so much of our time fearing the end of our time that we rarely break free of that fear and actually live unencumbered by the weight of such things. Isn't the task set before each of us to find the courage to love this life despite its brevity and unfairness? Aren't we here to do something more than fear our death and then die?

Yes, my fucked in the head friend. We are. We are to challenge Death to a wrestling match by living until we exhaust the incurability of dying. How is this done? With something entirely foreign to the fucked life: happiness rather than pleasure, courage rather than bravado, acceptance rather than despair.

Your death is nothing to be concerned about. It is your life that needs your attention and you must attended to it in the only time you have: right now. Since you don't know when the curtain falls on your act how can you postpone for a moment the pursuit of your happiness?

Wake the fuck up.

* * *

All this begs the question: What is happiness?

Here's my answer: the risk of loving another, of being loved, of loving despite all the evidence to the contrary that it is a fool's game.

* * *

Dr. Livingston quotes the late Raymond Carver as the author of the epitaph he'd like on his tombstone:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on earth.

* * *

Now go and sin no more you fucked fucker.


Monday, July 4, 2011

I Believe That

God's athlete
I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes the shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.
   Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

-  Martha Graham

* * *

Does Ms. Graham's statement seem a world away from the life you are living? If so, then you are fucked. What thing, name one thing, anything, you practice against all odds, in the face of whatever adversity, at whatever cost so that you might stand in "some area" as an athlete of God (even if you profess no belief in God or gods you get what the lady was aiming at)? What is it my fucked friend?

Name it.

We're all waiting.

* * *

It is easy to imagine the hours of practice performers put into their performances. We sit in the audience and are blown away by the musicianship, the skilled delivery, the movement, the presence of those we've paid to see do just that. Every sort of performer, every sort of job requires practice: athletes, doctors, lawyers, dancers, artists, accountants, teachers, furniture makers, farmers all improve their lot in life by practice, by burying the thought of what they are doing deep in their muscles, deep in their thought processes so it be comes fluid, limitless, instinctive. These, by the way, are the unfucked among us.

It is an obvious statement that in order to achieve any measure of self-hood you have to work at it, you have to kick at the darkness til it bleeds daylight and all that. But what of Graham's more revolutionary statement, the one about learning to live by practicing living? How does one practice living? Let me re-phrase that: What thing, name one thing, anything, you practice against all odds, in the face of whatever adversity, at whatever cost so that you might stand in "some area" as an athlete of God? What precise set of acts define you?

* * *

I believe every last one of us fucked fuckers, every last sonofabitching one of us, holds within our double helixes the possibility - and possibility only - of being that athlete, of achieving that sense of one's being, that satisfaction of spirit. It rises and falls based on the attention it receives, the love it engenders, the sacrifice willingly given so it might see the light of day. I believe our sole task in life is to attend to this spirit, this desire, this echoing of ultimate origins and we fail or succeed in doing this entirely by our devotion to seeing ourselves stand in some area as Miss Martha's athlete of God.

But we fail this test mightily. We pay to see others perform what should have been our dance. We become the audience to others' athleticism of mind and body. Whither our dance? For the want of a desire greater than our apathy and our doubt and our fear we let it age and molt and take on weight. We let it die, its arteries clogged with not giving a good-god-damn because we fear our own deaths.

If you would have your life be unfucked you must give it over to a cause greater than your fears. If you would be that potential, that indescribable wow that exists solely within you, that perfection that only you are capable of - be it any sort of perfection large or small - then you must be willing to practice being unfucked, you must attend to that forgotten spark, give it room, let it grow and ruthlessly abandon all those fears and doubts that cloud your vision. Day in and day out. Minute by minute until time becomes a distant memory and you stand, you stand motherfucker, as that athlete only you were capable of being.

And know this: perfection doesn't mean perfect. It means simply the willingness to try again.

You feel me?