Saturday, December 31, 2011

Quickly As If

Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was - her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.

- Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse

* * *

But what did that matter? This is the question that lies at the root of your life, of all lives. The answer you give is what gives your life its meaning. Lily Briscoe, Woolf's doppleganger, the independent female artist resisting the concussive weight of male domination, decides, or better still, recognizes the final judgement of her work is meaningless compared to the experience of having created it in the first place.

Knowing the true order of things and their true value - which is always and in all places determined solely by you - is the end of death and the source of life.

* * *

Life is without meaning. 
You bring the meaning to it.
The meaning of life is whatever you ascribe it to be.
Being alive is the meaning.

* * *

When do you die?
When you stop breathing?
How about when you stop living?
Do you know the difference?

We are sent hurtling through our lives like so much buckshot: POW, and off you go in a million directions from that one point in time. It is an open field and all possibilities are initially present, but soon, too soon, the possibilities are hacked and hewed by circumstances outside of our control: culture, gender, affluence, want, etc. Paths are made for us by others. Expectations are raised and we follow - not out of cowardice (initially), but rather devotion to those who prepared our way. As some of the shot falls to the ground, as other pellets are refused, our lives narrow to a fraction of what was possible. We matriculate. We accommodate. We abdicate. We suck. We worry about where the painting will hang instead of simply painting another. Out of the many possible lives we are reduced to the habits of others who were, in their day, in their turn, reduced as well.

Orwell writes: "But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks."

This is the way of us fucked fuckers.

The task of living is to restore "the scattered light of God," that buckshot of potential and make it whole again within your own life.

* * *

Like cavalry horses at the bugle, we are well trained by others to assemble and charge in the direction of their choosing. But before a cavalry horse was cavalry made, it was a horse: unfettered, complete. Stop answering another's call. Stop caring about other's expectations. It doesn't matter. All that matters is your vision and your willingness to make it complete.

Lily Briscoe did it.
You can too.

It's the whole fucking reason you are here.

* * *



Friday, December 23, 2011

Hey Willie How

TVZ: The hard road
Hey Willie, how you gonna feel
When leaves turn gold beneath your heels?
Twirl and spin never gonna fall.
Fallin' just wont do at all.
Naw, that wouldn't do at all.

- Townes Van Zandt, "Hey Willie Boy"

* * *

I read to find clues others have left behind. Truly. I read, I listen, I watch for the clues others have left behind. As a kid I always searched the ground for money that had fallen out of pockets, and usually could find some if I was walking for a bit. I also scanned the ground for the stray Playboy magazine and could find that as well. It was all about choosing to look for those things. Had I chosen to look for hubcaps or pop bottles, I'd have found those and filtered out the scraps of money and the stray pages of naked girls. So, when I read and listen and watch for clues that others left behind - whether they did so consciously or not - I find hints and threads and trails and it keeps me moving. 20 years ago I came upon Townes Van Zandt's music. It's been a motherlode.

* * *

I know. I know. Your life is fucked. I get it. Your demons have you by the short hairs. The world doesn't give a shit about you and you are fucked, stuck and going nowhere. I get it, but the clock is ticking. That is the one constant for us all - the clock is always winding down on our tour of this time and place. So, you have to make some choices. Are you looking for money, naked girls, hubcaps or pop bottles? What you choose makes all the difference and if you choose to wallow in your fucktitude by not choosing you will find that too: exactly nothing.

This isn't wishful thinking, The Secret, or any such feel-good pablum. No, no, no. This is about the hard road and the choices you need to make to reclaim your life. It isn't beauty or ease that are the ends. No, it's about living by what light you have in your head and organizing every aspect of your life to tend that flame, to keep it burning and finally to use it up before laying it down. Your choices are the filters of your experience. While there is the objective truth that the Grand Canyon exists, there is no accord as to its meaning because each of us brings to bear our choices, our filters and what each sees and responds to will necessarily be different.

And this is the incredible gift you have been shitting on.
Snap out of it.

* * *

In the story of Sir Galahad, the knights agree to go on a quest, but thinking it would be a disgrace to go forth as a group, each "entered into the forest, at one point or another, there where they saw it to be thickest, all in those places where they found no way or path." Where there is a way or path, it's someone else's way. Each knight enters the forest at the most mysterious point and follows his own intuition. What each brings forth is what never before was on land or sea: the fulfillment of his unique potentialities, which are different from anybody else's. All you get on your life way are little clues.
     In that wonderful story, when any knight sees the trail of another, thinks he's getting there, and starts to follow the other's track, he goes astray entirely.

* * *

You listen to Townes' music for a while and one character always tends to show up, makes his presence felt: the road, the hard road. Townes wrote about the men and women of the hard road. The music is by turns sad, haunting, occasionally shot through with graveyard humor but always, always, always, always human, humane, soaked in compassion for the losers and drifters on the road. Having been lost, having drifted in my time I am drawn to that compassion. It is a clue to my redemption, the thing I now look for instead of loose change or rainsoaked porn.

Willie Boy tells me that fallin' just won't do at all. You see there's still a bit of road left in his feet and things can still come 'round. It may be a hard road, but it is his road and that is all anyone ever gets or could ask for and what each brings forth was never on land or sea.

Fallin' just won't do.
You have to choose and you have some ground to cover.
Now quit looking at me and enter into that place where there is no path.

* * *



Monday, December 19, 2011

At The Moment

Joyce's Nora
At the moment of the wakening to love, an object, apparently without "passes (in the words of Joyce) into the soul forever... And the soul leaps at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!"

- Joseph Campbell/James Joyce

* * *

To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life: put that on your tombstone.

* * *

I woke to love and found myself ruined for it. Blessedly ruined.

* * *

The fire ate slowly into the wood. Little tongues of orange and yellow flickered a few inches above the logs and right at the base, where the combustion was occurring, there was no light, no color: invisible heat. It is possible to stare into a fire and believe it is the most beautiful thing. It touches on something primal. Silence attends it in order to hear the pop and hiss of the fire's work. The room was darkened except for the light from the fireplace. Outside snow had fallen in high banks against the house insulating it and us, muting all sound. We sat, her head in my lap, my fingers quietly drifting through her long dark hair, and watched the fire burn.

Out of all the possible moments, out of all the possible moments to say, "Here," "Here, love began," "Here, it started," it is the fire, the small fire on a winter's night that comes to me and says, "No, it was here." And I will not argue, for it could have been any of them, all of them, but it is this moment that rides certain and true.

It was the moment I understood my life was now, and forever unfucked. Unbidden, love awoke and called me to live, to err, to fall, to triumph not for myself, but for another. And at that moment my world collapsed, the world of an awful half-life, the world of fear, of false suffering, of hiding out from my ability and desire. All that had been built to house my arrogance, my self-righteousness, my sense of being what others wanted/expected me to be disappeared the moment I woke to love. The fire, the fire, my fire...

* * *

To unfuck yourself, your life, requiresinsistsdemands the destruction of your life, your fucked life, that ill-used, poorly attended life that you've assumed would be better than it is without any effort or sacrifice on your part. To destroy it you must wake to love. Lust alone won't do it, for lust is always self-directed, but love - desire tied to the realization you hold another's life in your hands and will sacrifice everything to protect and nurture it - takes you out of your head, out of your life, out of control and delivers you to the leading edge of time where danger and redemption walk together.

Do you not know this already?

But love ends, you say. Affairs run their course. Love dies. New loves arrive only to die in their turn.

And that is true enough when you live an awful half-life, moving from desire to desire, with all your choices and actions self-centered, self-satisfied. But that is a poor use of the word "love." It allows you to build up a formidable life, a formidably fucked life that by needs be must be destroyed, or die fucked. Love lived for another is outside of time and death.

Which will it be, the destruction of waking to love, or the waste of sleepwalking past love?

* * *

Do not for a moment think that wakening to love makes your life easier, or better, or any other sentimental thing. It is a life and death challenge; it is life asking you if you are up to life and that requires something other than the scattered effort you've shown so far. To fail the challenge is to die while you still breathe.

When I err, when I fall, doubt harps at me, tells me I am a fool. But then, always then, I see the fire.

* * *

I'll go down burning in your embrace
On fire, on fire
My tremolo
You're my fire

* * *



Thursday, December 15, 2011

Seeing One Could

Seeing. One could say that the whole of life lies in try to see more and to see better is not, therefore, just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury. See or perish. This is the situation imposed on every element of the universe by the mysterious gift of existence. And thus, to a higher degree, this is the human condition.

- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon 

* * *

When I taught fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago, we used a common coaching to help our students understand the task in front of them: See it and say it so someone else can see it. These eleven words seemed to me to be the whole of what I had to offer as an instructor. Teilhard manages to reduce the idea even further, to three words: See or perish.

* * *

Vonnegut once wrote about the human need to see a horizon. I cannot recall the essay, but I am certain it was Vonnegut. If it wasn't Vonnegut and my memory is faulty as to the source, it does not change the truth or value of the idea I am now attributing to Kurt Vonnegut: you need to see a horizon. Think about it for a minute. What happens when you see an uncluttered, building-free horizon? What happens when you step out of the canyons of any downtown and move out, way out  to more open spaces? It is a feeling of relief and release bred in the bone. Horizons could always show primitive man trouble that was headed his way and the escape routes out. This is part of what Teilhard means in "see or perish."

But as we have evolved, as our interior lives have taken on language, as our emotional intelligence has evolved along side our intellectual capabilities, the idea of horizons and the necessity to see or perish takes on meanings that echo and thrum inside each of us. We must attend or perish. We must be awake or perish. We must unfuck our lives or perish with the sure knowledge that we fucked it up.

* * *

Most students at Columbia when they "saw" their stories saw them as movies. That is often a huge step. It helps them gain a measure of control and knowledge about their stories that helps them tell it more effectively. But it is also crippling. To see as a movie sees, as a camera, or a director sees is to put strict limits on what is possible in the story. John Schultz, the father of fiction writing at Columbia and the progenitor of The Story Workshop® Approach, places a further demand on the writer - to see in the mind the totality of the scene in front of them, the secrets each character knows, the objects hidden from sight but present, the sounds three miles away and on and on. It is a demand to have a god-like consciousness of everything: a 360 degree, three dimensional thought process with the added concept of time. It is tough for the students to let go of their movies, but the most successful writing they'll do begins when they own it all.

The same is true for you, for your fucked in the fuck life. You want to unfuck your life? Then see it or perish. Just as horizons once made us safe by knowing what direction the danger was coming from and still provides a measure of peace when we encounter an unbroken horizon, so too are there horizons within you that can help restore your sense of place in the world, in your world, can help you see the ground you need to cover. The whole of life lies in seeing. Some of it is the light that enters your eye and then some of it is the inward sight of knowing who you are, knowing your desires and having the courage to act in accordance with them.

We get lost when we lose sight of these inward horizons. Our life becomes a movie instead of the profound mystery it is.

* * *

I wear glasses. My sight is unfocussed without them, and I know I need a new prescription as it has been years since I've been to see an eye doc and the glasses are a weaker and weaker filter for what I see. A secret fear is that I will go blind, as Borges did, because I love words too much. But until such time I must use what I have available to me to do the work that is set out in front of me. And this touches on the broader aspect of Teilhard's dictum to see or perish. We are each gifted with existence, this existence and to short change the possibilities of that existence because we cannot see past our fears, our sorrows, our fuckedness is to shit on the gift and turn it into a punishment instead of a joy ride. But there is this as well: you have to move past the categories of fear and joy and move out into that open space, that horizon that offers both danger and redemption in equal measure and is silent in front of both.

Get there. Get to that place and you'll see.

* * *



Sunday, December 11, 2011

I'm A Million

The Unsung
I'm a million miles away
I'm a million miles away
Sailing like a driftwood
On a windy bay

- Rory Gallagher, "A Million Miles Away"

* * *

Songs, like poems and books, come in and out of your life in waves - crashing in, receding and making for shore again - and each successive round adds something that wasn't there before. Of course, what wasn't there before was you, the you you are at this moment, this one moment, the only moment there is. I've listened to Rory Gallagher for decades now, a gritty Irish blues that matched my own blues note for note, and truth to tell, I've missed the boat time and time again.

* * *

Don't think for a minute you are alone. Don't think for a minute you are the only one who has walked a hard path, suffered the loss of love, the loss of beloved ones, been lost. Don't you ever fucking indulge that fantasy. You read me? If anything fucks you up, it is that exceptionalism, that sense you were the first to ever walk the earth with a sack of woe, walk the earth in circles, walk heroically under your burden. It isn't true, so stop it.

Your stew of confusion, hurt and loss is particular to you, but there is nothing particular about confusion, hurt and loss. The longer you wallow in your unique miseries the longer it takes to unfuck your life. The world is littered with the detritus of confusion, hurt and loss. It is called music, art, literature, performance, ritual, myth, faith: solace. This is what human beings do when confronted with their lives, with the arrival of joy, the arrival of despair - they cry out their stories and join a chorus of stories stretching back millennia to the Caves of Chauvet.

You are not alone. You never were. You are just next.

* * *

The blues embraces what ain't right, gone wrong, unfair and lost. It embraces it, holds it close and wrestles it into a communion of recognition: you, too, motherfucker, you know what I'm talking about. That is why I play "A Million Miles Away" on an endless loop while I write. It soaks in, tells me I ain't alone. There was this guy name of Rory Gallagher who felt like I do and wrote it down and played it out and so I get to know what I already knew if I'd just had the balls to write it down and play it out.

The same thing when I look at the paleolithic paintings of Chauvet: horses, lions, mammoths, and the one insistent artist who had no means to give his name, but dabbed his palm print in red all over the cave: Kilroy was here, too.

We've been at this since we began.
You are not alone.
The key, the key, the key is to listen, look, attend.

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”

* * *

Not Inferno:

The hotel bar has lost its people
The piano man has caught the last bus home
The old bartender sleeps in the corner
So why must I still be here?
I don't know

But I'm a million miles away
I'm a million miles away
Sailing like a driftwood 
On a windy bay

* * *

Boom. Boom. Boom.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I Was Drowning

I was drowning in champagne eyes
Skipping along in compromise
When dignity rattled me on the back
And my rebel mind needed to attack

Don't sit waiting for the thing to come

Get lit feel the power of the one
Don't sit waiting for the thing to come
Get lit feel the power of the one 

- Daniel Lanois, "Power of One"

* * *

We fucked sonsofbitches are strangers to ourselves - the disconnect between what we've become and who we are a canyon of unknowing, by turns blind, fearful and wearying. In moments of insight, second sight, sightless sight we capture an image of our disconnect, see it in the ways our lives have been contorted or made too smooth by living our lives removed from our very selves: an empty marriage, useless work, too many marriages, too much work. We spend our lives building lives to hide our life, the one true chance we get to live.

What the fuck, right?

It has something to do with time, something in the way we assume there is enough time to get around to living the way we imagine it could be, the way we need it to be. And yet, I tell you upon your face, there is no time, no such thing as time, not as you and I have conceived of it. There is only now, this one moment to live. Just this one. Waiting for a better day never creates that better day. Waiting for love to find you never convinces love to appear. Waiting for your life to be coherent never induces your thought to cohere.

Don't sit waiting for the thing to come.
Get lit feel the power of one.

You have to undergo a transformation: from out to in (as per Rilke). You have to shed, scrape away, pull apart the blubbery skin of compromise, of the compromises you've made on your way to becoming a fucked fuckity fuck. Every encounter with externals, with the world of other fucked fuckers, with the desires and traps and rules of others is a pinch-point of compromise and the erosion of who you are into what you've become happens because you've located your life in those compromises, in those negotiations with the prerogatives of others. Yes, we live in and amongst others. Yes, there are many, many, many great things that accrue to us all for doing so: food, shelter, faith, a sense of being of a place and time. Keep all that, but don't mistake it for your soul.

"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs are people who've come alive."

* * *

I was drowning in champagne eyes, skipping along in compromise, always taking the path laid out before me: here, this is the way to go, boy-o. I tried on the hats and uniforms offered to me as answers to the only question that matters, the only question I've ever asked: how do I live? There are rewards for doing so, for going along - money, affection, a measure of acclaim, smugness, arrogance and clueless-ness. Each of which is a shield against the canyon eroding in your soul, blinding you to it, anesthetizing you to the pain of doing so. And if you're lucky, this world falls apart under its own weight. But don't sit waiting for the thing to come. Get lit and feel the power of one, one soul, one mind, one life, your only life, lit from within, lit by a desire to be exactly who you are regardless of the world outside your skin in order to return to that world a boon beyond all telling: your life on fire with life, with desire, with the canyon bridged and life renewed, made complete.

Your rebel mind must attack.

Get lit. Feel the power of one. You.

* * *



Sunday, December 4, 2011

I Want To

Georgia O'Keefe's hands
I want to explore, namely, the mutual entanglement of intellectual qualities with moral qualities. This entanglement shows itself in the work we do.

- Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class As Soulcraft

* * *

A hundred years ago I worked in film/commercial production. I started as a PA, the lowest of the low, moved up to Set Dresser, up a bit more to Art Department Coordinator, sideways to Assistant Director, and finally, on my last job, Art Director. I lent my name and effort, my time, to selling salsa, chocolate bars, bottled water, air travel, fast food, casinos, shoes, anything that you can buy or can be induced to buy, I was part of in large or small ways. I also worked on violent, misogynist movies (I'm looking at you Excessive Force), the crapbucket entertainments of Home Alone 2 and the greasy luster of blockbuster-y nostrums like The Fugitive.

All because I wanted to make movies, write scripts, and instead was shunted off into cul de sacs of production. I was eventually well-paid and that was nice, but neither my intellectual nor moral qualities were engaged or acted upon. At which point the pay became compensation. I was bought off early in order to keep the highly specialized machinery of film production running without any hiccups from the likes of me. I loathed myself, but kept working, begging for work because I lacked the intellectual and moral qualities of a man who knew his work and worked to become a master of it.

Such is the fucked life: working against one's intellectual and moral qualities - often in utter un-awareness of them in the first place.

Motherfuckin' A.

And you, my fucked fartlet, what of you, your work, your intellectual and moral entanglements?

* * *

Aurelius wrote in his notebooks to himself: to communicate liberally, to be useful.

How useful are you? Of what use is your work? What is it you do? Do you build, create, fix, solve anything? Being a "knowledge worker," as I have been for years, is a euphemism for clerk, and while the world does need its papers shuffled, is this what you set out to do? Or were you bought off on the way to your goal, as I was, gladly bought off so you could buy some stuff and show everybody you arrived.

Your work is what you do, what you do because of who you are. Your employment is what you get paid for. Making the two be one is the great trick, but even trickier is being someone who doesn't need stuff to know who and what they are.

Your work is to discover your work
And then with all your heart
To give yourself to it.

So says the Buddha So says I. What do you say?

* * *

The set of Excessive Force was no different than any other I'd worked on: the crew was made of a mix of lifers and artists, and the out-of-town, above the line folks never bothered to learn our names. We locals comforted ourselves with the platitude, "It's not who you work for. It's who you work with." And we were mostly glad to work with one another. But mostly we were very glad to be working - families and all. It was that sense of obligation to our families, to the hope our careers would take off that kept us on set, adding our names to shit films like this one.

There was one guy, an electrician named Bill Reilly, who hated what he was doing on this film. My memory of Bill tells me he was a filmmaker who earned his rent as an electrician or grip on other productions. We got along well, and daily he wondered aloud, and for all to hear, why the holy fuck were we participating in the production of this worthless-piece-of-shit movie. Bill's intellectual and moral entanglement prompted him to quit, to shed his association with such USELESS effort.

I wanted to do the same, but because I didn't know my work, didn't know what I wanted, or how I might find out, I stayed because, well, the pay was good and other good people stayed and it was hard for Bill to find other work because he was viewed as a quitter and none of us wanted that for ourselves and on and on and on.

Bill was the only one willing to live by his entanglement. He was the only one who knew his work was worth more in dignity and integrity than in dollars.

* * *

I have spent a lifetime working at things that were not my own, that did not engage my intellectual and moral qualities because I always traded one or the other for some cash in my hand. Now, don't misunderstand. We all need money and we all need work. The problem arises when you don't know what your work is, what useful thing you could do and earn enough to keep doing it.

Mastery is the goal. Your work is the means to attain it.

Now go. You have work to do.