Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Book Of

The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It's full of charts and facts and figures
And instructions for dancing but
I...
I love it when you read to me and
You...
You can read me anything

- The Magnetic Fields, "The Book of Love"

* * *

What is the chiefest deed that is asked of us?
To dance in front of our sorrows.

* * *

I read some. I am not well-read. I am selective. I trace down echoes that already reverberate inside me, inside the works I already know. I am eclectic within a narrow range. I am sometimes a complete-ist - reading all the works of one author, mostly I am not. I am open to recommendations, but only if they come with the force of conviction. And in the entirety of a lifetime of reading so, of ignoring huge swaths of creative effort, I have learned that the whole of wisdom is contained in the following words: You must learn to dance in front of your sorrows.

Most cannot do this. It is sacrilege, diminishing the weight and profundity of the sorrow, the sacred sorrow.

Some will do so in spite of the sorrows and that seems better than the ones who won't venture the game, but to do so is to do it wrong, is to miss the opportunity laid before you like a Persian rug.

No, you must not dance in spite of your sorrow, but because of it.

* * *

In January of 1993 my father died. It is what all fathers eventually do. I grieved him grievously for seven years, until the birth of my third child. His death became my sacred sorrow, the one fact I could not overcome, the one that sat on my chest and dared me to breathe. I married as I plunged into the icy waters of my grief - dancing in spite of my sorrow. It ends poorly.

There is something about sorrow, travail, trial, grief, trouble that leads us to think we are somehow immune to it and when it shows up, as it must, we are ill-equipped to understand it. We spend a lot of time rhetorically asking, "Why?" But it ain't why, why, why. It just is. What remains is up to you. What remains is a choice, always a choice, about how you will answer the questions, the tasks life is putting in front of you. You can, as I did, withdraw into a cocoon of meaningless sorrow, sorrow just for the sake of feeling something without the courage or love to feel something more. Or, you can grab your metaphoric crotch and yell, "Right here with yer fuckin' grief" and dance a furious dance to scatter the ghosts, to show the world you ain't been beat yet (which I did as well).

Or...

Or you can take your partner by the hand and dance. You know how to dance, right? You hold someone close and start swaying, maybe humming soft and low in their ear. From there anything can happen. And if no one is close by, take hold of your sorrow, whisper soft and low, "I know, I know, I know..."

* * *

The book of love is long and boring. No one can lift the damn thing. But is only through love, love beyond the self, for another, for a cause greater than your own that you finally let go, finally stop worrying if anyone is watching you dance and you embrace the entirety of your life, your chance to live, your experience, your desire, your hope, your sorrow and find it better to do so than to withdraw or get angry.

* * *

What is the deepest loss you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine

* * *

What is the chiefest deed that is asked of us?
To dance in front of our sorrows.

* * *

Boom.

__________

Thursday, November 24, 2011

If It Takes

If it takes my whole life
I won't break, I won't bend
It will all be worth it
Worth it in the end

- Sarah McLachlan, "Answer"

* * *

The only ones who can promise to not break or bend are those who have already been broken - not like a horse, but like glass dropped from a great height.

* * *

Here's the news: it takes your whole life to figure out what your whole life was about. The answers we come up with along the way (money, marriage, kids, work, etc.) are provisional, the best we can do with the information at hand. We fuck ourselves by assuming these answers are all we've got. Lots of bad juju gets stitched into our souls when the money runs out, or the love fades, or the kids leave or the work turns out to have been a straw man. It takes a lifetime to live and, for better or worse, you won't be here to judge the results. No, that's for others to suss out. What you have right now, right there in your hand, in your head, in the heart that still splashes inside your chest, what you've always had is this one moment to breathe, to think, to act, say and do as you will.

And what you think, act, say and do is born out of two things: your experience and your desire. You need both in order to unfuck yourself. Too much emphasis on one or the other will keep you screwed. Each is the tonic and cure for the other; each has something to offer you, your life; each, when lived on the sleeve, becomes the arc and direction of your life.

You follow?
Good.

But we get hurt, don't we? We get hurt and we get hard - in our hearts, in our heads. Our experience teaches caution, fear, doubt and when this happens our desires stay close to our wounds: my father was a child of the Depression and sought out work that would always be needed and so became an embalmer; an old college friend only wanted quiet in his life after a rugged childhood and so took on work far below his ability in order to find the anonymity he craved. I cannot say how well served these two were by their choices, but their experiences taught them not to hope for too much, to desire more. Reach out for something and you could fall a long way. They'd both seen it, both lived it.

And yet...

* * *

And yet, this seems to me to be an abdication of the privilege each of us has in drawing breath. There is no doubt that life can be a cruel master, but if that is all we choose to see then the picture remains incomplete. Desire, the spark of genius, the lust for another breath, another lover, another chance is our way out and up, up from the floor of our hard experience, up from fear and into the marrow of our lives.

The lessons of experience (the past) are not here to limit you, but rather to test your desire, your willingness to submit to the demands of your desire and so overcome every failing, every mistake, every miscue, every circumstance that limited your ability to express your highest desires.

And what are those desires?

Here's my answer: love beyond the self, love for another, for a cause greater than yourself. When the parochial, provisional desires lead you to unhappiness, when their promises shatter (as they must) like glass dropped from a great height, you are then free to love beyond your self. If it takes your whole life it will be worth it. Love makes you timeless. The vicissitudes of time are no more than falling leaves.

Viktor Frankl wrote: "A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life l saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth--that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way--an honorable way--in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, 'The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.'

* * *

'Cause I can only tell you what I know
That I need you in my life
When the stars have all burned out
You'll still be burning so bright

* * *

Boom

__________

Thursday, November 17, 2011

At Poor Peace

The Welshman
At poor peace I sing
To you strangers (though song
Is a burning and crested act,
The fire of birds in
The world's turning wood,
For my sawn, splay sounds),
Out of these seathumbed leaves
That will fly and fall
Like leaves of trees and as soon
Crumble and undie
Into the dogdayed night.
Seaward the salmon, sucked sun slips,
And the dumb swans drub blue
My dabbed bay's dusk, as I hack
This rumpus of shapes
For you to know
How I, a spinning man,
Glory also this star, bird
Roared, sea born, man torn, blood blest.


- Dylan Thomas, "Author's Prologue" Collected Poems


* * *

Ah, damn, but someone has said it before me, and better.

* * *

The days of poets has ended, its ending a quiet fading behind the sounds of self-important slams and raving rants that have all the fury and none of the grace and art and love of words, this rumpus of shapes, hacked and hewed into exact shape and cadence. A spinning man spinning in self-made circles, spinning out yarns, bits of string, a thread to follow back to some original source, some moment that could be held for just enough time to enter it and so be consumed in it: bird roared, sea born, man torn, blood blest, indeed.

So it is for me. When I keep the company of poets, especially Thomas and Yeats, their rhythms, the propulsion of their words, steadies me, emboldens me and so unfucks what I've fucked up, redeems the life I've wasted and calls me to put one foot in front of the other, one word after the other. This is what I have, this is what I do, this is when I am me.

What do you have? How is it for you? Roethke wrote, This shaking keeps me steady.  What steadies you?

* * *

At poor peace I sing to you strangers - poor because I have squandered my days and there are fewer ahead of me then now trail out behind - and I stifle the thought I am a fraud to say a word at all. Better to be mute than betray my own failings, but the rhythm and cadence of words tells me I am not unique in being prodigal, not unique in failing to grab hold of the sweet line and ride it to my grave. No, I am not unique at all. I am part of a large tribe of human beings who allowed fear or uncertainty or the loss of love or the arrival of hate or the sure knowledge that no one gets out of here alive to slow my step, to break my stride and mud-spattered I have to rise and rise again from the floor of my doubt to put one foot in front of the other, one word after the other to reclaim my fucked up life.

This is how it is for us fuckers. There are no answers, only the rhythms that you find.

* * *

Sing to me. Tell me your song. Hack and hew the rumpus of your life and tell me your story, for story is all we have to steady us, to make us ready, to make us feel less alone in the infinitude of space. It is a brave, brave thing to sing, to be heard, to spin out tales and meanings, to mark this one moment, to hold it for just enough time to allow another to enter into it and so undie before we crumble.

Once, a long time ago now, a beautiful woman sang to me. She held my head in her lap, told me to close my eyes and sang:

OH! why left I my hame? 
  Why did I cross the deep? 
Oh! why left I the land 
  Where my forefathers sleep? 
I sigh for Scotia’s shore,  
  And I gaze across the sea, 
But I canna get a blink 
  O’ my ain countrie. 
 
There ’s a hope for every woe, 
  And a balm for every pain, 
But the first joys o’ our heart 
  Come never back again. 
There’s a track upon the deep, 
  And a path across the sea;   
But the weary ne’er return 
  To their ain countrie.


It's called "The Exile's Song" and to this day I hear her voice calming my fears, shushing my fevers. It was the kindest thing ever done for me, and so I ask you to sing. Find your song, tell your story, find the rhythm and cadence of your days and sing it out at poor peace, burning and crested, a hope to every woe, a balm to every pain.

* * *

Boom.

__________

Friday, November 11, 2011

All That Is

Teilhard in Mongolia
All that is really worthwhile is action. Personal success or personal satisfaction are not worth another thought.

- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

* * *

This from a man who, bound by his dedication to his Jesuit brothers and also bound by his dedication to science, was endlessly at odds with the church he'd hoped to liberate from its hidebound orthodoxies and so was endlessly prohibited from publishing his work, from living in his home country, from having the same love and dedication returned to him by his church. He was as fucked and stuck as any last one of us, but only in terns of personal success or satisfaction that his work had reached distant audiences. As good and fine as all that is, of greater value, the only value was in doing the work in the first place.

* * *

My friend, Annie Dillard, tells me "In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander or the grief of loss; or to endure torture."

My friend, Annie, is not wrong; especially about that last part.

The ability to endure, to abide, to suffer and still move is the greatest of all man's tricks. Any one can curl up and die. Any one can be co-opted, but the ability to retain your integrity, your liberty in the face of trials large and small, chronic or acute is not a talent that comes naturally, easily. It must be chosen. It is in the choosing that you are free. It is this first act of choosing A over B that liberates and provides solace. Always we are asked to choose. Always we are asked, Who the fuck are you? Always, but we fuck ourselves by mumbling an answer about success and satisfaction as if this was the only possible answer–everything else being lesser, a sign of weakness, failure.

This kills.
This kills the spirit.
This kills the spirit that is required to be able to choose, to be free in the face of all adversity.

This is not acquiescence. This is not giving up, or in, but placing a primary, solitary value on those actions that are under your control: the way you think, what you choose, and how you live it out in the field of time. That must be your success. That must be your satisfaction.

* * *

Teilhard was banished to China for decades. Each year he petitioned Rome for permission to return to France, to publish his writings, and each and every time he was refused. He maintained a deference to church authority that even his Jesuit brothers couldn't understand. They encouraged him to leave the priesthood, but he refused to do so.  In effect, he wore the yoke they placed on him, a yoke he never ceased trying to remove, but accepted. And in his exile he worked. He wrote 18 books, only one of which was allowed to be published in his lifetime. Denied access to a teaching position in France, he traveled the world talking to those he could reach to spread his ideas on evolution and science and the sacred. There was no comfortable life, no acclaim for him. He'd have preferred it, but it didn't change the basic need: the call to action.

And you? How is it with you?

My friend, Annie Dillard writes: "This hospital, like every other, is a hole in the universe through which holiness issues in blasts. It blows both ways, in and out of time. On the wards above and below me, men and women are dying. Their hearts seize, give out or clatter, their kidneys fail, their lungs harden or drown, their brains clog or jam and die for blood. Their awarenesses lower like lamp wicks. Off they go, these many great and beloved people, as death subtracts them one by one from the living–about 164,300 of them a day worldwide, and 6,000 a day in the United States–and the hospitals shunt their bodies away. Simultaneously, here they come, these many new people, for now absurdly alike–about 10,000 of them a day in this country–as apparently shabby replacements."

What will it matter how satisfied you were with yourself? What will it matter about your success? We all know how this story ends. What we don't know is what to do or how to do it until then. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger, the bush may flare and you choose to avail yourself of the power to love your enemies, to accept slander, failure, the grief of loss, to endure torture because that is within your power to do so. It is a choice to derive meaning out of trial, just as it is a choice to build meaning through creative acts, through love. Refusing the choice, or only focusing on outcomes fucks you up but good.

* * *

Teilhard survived 30 months on the front during WWI as medic/stretcher bearer plucking the wounded off the ground. He exalted in the work. He wrote:  "All the enchantments of the East, all of the spiritual warmth of Paris, are not worth the mud of Douaumont...  How heart-rending it is to find oneself so seldom with a task to be accomplished, one to which the soul feels it can commit itself unreservedly!"

Take up arms against your fuckedness. Take action. Live, choose and bear what you must bear to do so without complaint and you may yet find success and satisfaction, but only because you weren't aiming for it. And if it never comes you will still have accomplished your task.

Now go. You have work to do.

__________

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Pharaoh's Army Got

Amenhotep II, The Pharaoh of Exodus
Pharaoh's army got drown'ded
O Mary don't you weep

- "O Mary Don't You Weep," American Spiritual

* * *

The Old Testament is a gleeful panoply of destruction, vengeance, of fucking with the wrong dude, of the mighty brought low and more terribly the righteous as well. It is the tribal promise of an eye for an eye, of promised lands that are never seen, of murder on an epic scale, of impossible rules and the stories that inhabit our Western brains.

O Mary don't you weep. We got that fucker.

* * *

Each of us is tasked with figuring out how to put one foot in front of the other, of how to move through this life. We fuck it up pretty well and sort of stumble forward trying to pick up a thread, a clean line to follow. We hold high the banner of consistency and fail to achieve it. We reach out to find some answers, something that can provide us with that sweet line and so like beggars at a feast we ingest copious amounts of other people's ideas and beliefs trying to stuff ourselves once and for all and get some goddamned answers around here. Except, we're always hungry a half hour later. Those sure answers become uncertain guesses and we stumble forward again.

Try this on: the longer you or I or anyone looks outside of themselves for answers the further away those answers become.

And this: consistency is not a primary value, but is, instead, a sign of a closed mind, and by extension, a closed off life.

That's not to suggest careening through life is your best option, but is to suggest to you fucked in the head fuckers, that life evolves, thought matures, changes with new experiences and if you think there is only one way you are most assuredly not on it.

O Mary don't you weep.

* * *

Folk cling to their guns, their religion, their stories because it is a comfort that someone else, something else has done all the thinking for us. All we gotta do is believe. And there ain't nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong so long as you actually live by it. Trouble is, most people do so only in part, the easy part, the quotable part, the showy part - never the hard part. They claim consistency, but like all us fucked fuckers, they fail to achieve it. What makes this worse is they think they are consistent and so close off their lives from the possibility of change.

But change is all we got. Just ask Amenhotep II.

Now you're really fucked.

* * *

But what about the bad guys, the fuckers who fuck with us? Don't they deserve to get drown'ded?

You bet. That's why our religions promise vengeance, why African slaves found the story of the Old Testament so vital, why any one who is oppressed or beat down understands these stories - they are a reflection of our life and times no matter what year it is.

But you, good fellow that you are, endeavoring to reach a higher ground, live a better life, a forgiving life, a life of peace, are sorely tested by the inequities that are present in every life. You desire to turn the other cheek - you've read past the Old Testament - but the sonsofbitches won't leave you alone. You want to be "good." You've chosen your story and yet, you fall short of the consistency you believe is required of you.

At this point some will opt out of all conflict. Others will opt out of all faith. But it doesn't have to be either or. When consistency means rigidity you are lost. Consistency can only be of any value if you consistently test and question yourself, your beliefs against the reality on the ground and are willing to adjust and evolve your thought so that you become more COMPLETE, more completely yourself, with all of your contradictions and inconsistencies fully integrated into how you move through this world, how you put one foot in front of the other. This is how you unfuck your life.

O Mary don't you weep no more.

* * *

Moses lead his people out of slavery. Pharaoh's army got drown'ded in the process. One tribe defeated another tribe: the arc of human history.

And who will lead you out of your slavery?

Don't worry about the Pharaohs in your life. Don't worry about their doom. Don't worry about being the agent of their doom. You have to be your own Moses. Remember, Moses offered Amenhotep several chances to avoid his destruction, but the pharaoh was utterly consistent and so was drownd'ed.

O Mary don't you weep. He earned it.

* * *

Boom.

__________

Friday, November 4, 2011

Watching The Moon

Watching the moon
at dawn,
solitary, mid-sky,
I knew myself completely:
no part left out.

- Izumi Shikibu, 974-1034

* * *

It is told (who can know for sure, such stories we are willing to accept!) that Izumi Shikibu, a Lady at the Kyoto Court, had numerous affairs, marriages and wrote with such passion in her poetry she became known as The Floating Lady.

* * *

Each morning in the autumn, when I let my dog out at 4:30 in the blessed AM, I look up and to my left, and there, regular as the clockwork he is, rests Orion - floating just above my house. This morning was a fine, clear, dark morning and the sky was littered with stars, but Orion is the one I know and take great comfort in its arrival.

My father tried to teach me about the stars, to be able to recognize the constellations and so know where I was in the world. I could only master the obvious: Orion. After his death, I placed my father's spirit there: sky-born, forever the pilot he once was. I mention this because I only know Orion just before dawn and it is in the darkness of the hour before dawn that steadies me, that I know myself completely, no part left out.

* * *

For each and every last one of us on this whore of an island, an island in God's sea, is tasked with using the fact that we live to find out who we are to become - completely, no part left out. This is the great call of Life to our lives: who the fuck are you?

Are you listening?
Do you not yet know Life is without meaning?
You bring the meaning to it.
The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe to it.
Being alive is the meaning.

But we fuck it up, don't we? We want pat answers and sure things and so we compromise who we are, who we could yet be, in order to fit in, be made useful, smoothed into our niche; we accept the institutional, organized rules because it is easier to go along than to fight the system. Such foolish fears we have! As if by dulling ourselves down, stripping away what is unique, irreplaceable in us, becoming a consumer only (never a creator) death will somehow spare us, will take pity on us because we played by the fucking rules. Ha! You're a dead man walking, brother. Now what are you going to do about it?

I dare you to live.
I dare you to carve meaning out of time.
I dare you to wake the motherfuck up.

I triple dog dare you.

* * *

Izumi Shikibu paired off with numerous men at court: married men, princes. She even married a few herself. She wrote:


My black hair is unkempt; 
unconcerned, 
he lies down and first gently smooths it, 
my darling!

This intimacy between lovers is, I pray, universal. It contains passions best imagined off-stage. And it is passion that drives The Floating Lady; passion that earns her the scorn and opprobrium of the court, her society; passion that saves her for watching the moon at dawn, solitary, mid-sky she knew herself completely, no part left out.

We are not here to become better people; we are here to become complete, no part left out. If you live without passion - for someone, for a cause other than yourself, for your work, your time - you are already dead. Izumi scandalized her peers and they are both dead over a thousand years. Who lived before they died? The one who knew herself completely. You needn't take on numerous affairs in order to be alive, but you do need to live by whatever passion or desire stirs in you.

* * *

In the days before my father's death he said he was content with the way things worked out because he'd flown, a farmboy turned into a pilot, and that was all, that was all, that was everything to him.

* * *

The hour before dawn.

Boom.

__________