Monday, February 27, 2012
- Colum McCann, Let The Great World Spin
* * *
There are times, fallow, empty times, when no words come. I am empty of words. Hollow with words. Hollow words. And I know the cure. Rest. Read. Quiet. Fill the well. But there are times the well does not fill and the emptiness becomes anger, becomes a rage of silence and all the king's horses and all the king's men are useless to me. It is then I realize (how many times?) that I am not empty of words, but instead have lost faith in them. I have emptied them of meaning, turned them back into so much phonetics–the sound and my fury signifying nothing.
This is the dark night of the soul: trying to re-attach meaning to where it has broken off.
The test is being able to climb up again. That's what I'm looking for.
* * *
I come from silent and raging people. Our woundedness was carried in great yawning silences, absences punctuated with wolf-like howls of despair and rage. I learned early I preferred the rage to silence and so became silent because the rage was an unhinging, a free-fall of emotion that could not be spent. There was always more. I withdrew from the other silences in the house. I withdrew my own rage and fell to books. I filled out every come on for the world's greatest books, the classics of the western canon complete with gold-edged pages and near leather bindings. The books would arrive and they were never paid for. I collected the starter sets and watched the subscription end because there was no money for it and worse, there was no interest in it beyond my own.
Here, as balky and misunderstood as it was by my family, was where I became over-awed with the fact of artistic production. I had to have every book by Kurt Vonnegut and when I stacked them on a shelf I was devastated by the fact that one man wrote all of those books. One mind caused those books to be and rather than simply read I needed to write, to be such a mind.
You know, when you are young, God sweeps you up. He holds you there.
* * *
It is easy to fall in love. It is easy to give yourself over to romantic fantasies. But to quote Billy Bob Thornton as Morris Buttermaker, "Baseball's hard guys. I mean, it really is. You can love it, but believe me, it don't always love you back. It's kinda like dating a German chick, you know?" Writing was and is my German chick, but for years the pursuit was all that mattered. There was enough potential to pretend for a very long time.
And then you fall.
All those days when you can't hold on any longer. When you tumble.
The easy God, the God of your youth is spent. What held you cannot hold you. A rough God goes riding over potential and insists on products, proofs, a performance as opposed to imaginings. And slowly you come to love this God more than the God of youth. This is a difficult God, the God of your ability. You have to earn it. And so you work.
This blog is part of my work. I write and write and when I finish a project, a story, an essay I am as empty as a broken cup. But I know this pattern. I know the cure. Rest. Read. Quiet. Fill the well. It comes around. Just keep writing. Keep moving a pen across a sheet of paper. Keep tapping out lines. Even if they suck, especially if they suck, keep the words moving. This is how books are written. This is how Vonnegut built his books. This is how anything in this world is done: keep the pen moving.
And here––mid-tale, mid-war, mid-labyrinth,
Mid-birth and -death, mid-once upon a time,
And midway through the names of all who died
In wars we can't say where, we can't say when,
Their stories broken off, the fragments fused
Annihilation gusting nearer; here––
Here the god of writers broke his pen.
* * *
My words ring like lead. It is what fucks me––these faithless words. I live through words and when I lose my faith in them I am unmoored. I used to imagine a stack of books published the old-fashioned way; something to put on a shelf. Maybe my life's work would add up to a foot or more of shelf space. That would be nice, eh? But somewhere in the scouring of my pride I lost the desire for a stack of books. Instead I sought to keep my faith in building meaning into my life one word at a time. Journals, blogs, notes, stories, essays, stories that might become novels, histories of small things would be enough and my life would know its arc. The real snag is to stay there and to know how to fall.
* * *
Saturday, February 18, 2012
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow
* * *
The questions have been around for as long as we've been around: How am I to live? How is happiness, meaning found in between the cradle and the grave? The answers have been around for just as long: Resist being a mere plaything of chance. Take control over that which you can control - your thoughts, your words, your deeds. External rewards turn you into a hungry ghost. Turn within and never go hungry again.
The answers are easy, self-evident.
It is the doing that is hard.
* * *
We fucked, we unhappy fucked are unhappy, in part, because we know the cure but refuse its balm. Just like the external reward system of money, power and sexual conquest keeps us ever hungry for more and more, thereby never finding an once of satisfaction or happiness, so too, the carrot of an unfucked and flourishing life remains just out of our reach. We believe by knowing the answers, or some variation on their themes, our worlds will right themselves in fealty to our knowledge. But fucked fuckers that we are we are blind to the agency through which happiness and meaning and unfuckedness flow: discipline.
We are lazy in body and mind and wonder why things aren't better than they are. The effort to harness our energies along the lines of our goals is too great. Our weakness betrays us and we remain as we were: fucked and stuck and going nowhere. The exact opposite of Csikszentmihalyi's flow.
To unfuck your life you have to be willing to submit to the discipline required of any endeavor if you want to do it well. And what better goal than to live your life well, fully awake and aware of the experience as you live it?
In order to become adept at something, an expert, a journeyman, a professional you have to commit to learning and practicing and developing whatever skill or ability that lights you up over time. No art is made on the first day. No life is lived in an hour. Progress does not arrive because want it. It arrives because we will it into existence day in and day out, moment by moment. This is the discipline required. It isn't the word discipline as punishment, but rather as the path to freedom.
Are you up to it?
As the song goes, "This ain't no place for the weary kind."
* * *
Look, it's hard to stop fucking up. If you've wasted more days than you can remember on sorrow and longing, I'm with you. If you've wasted more days than you can remember being tied up in hate, I'm with you. If you've wasted more days than you can remember feeling like everyone else had the key and you were stuck with the lock, I'm with you there as well. But here's the news - life is always emerging, is always creasing the horizon and coming at you. It is always flowing. To free yourself from the fear and self-loathing that comes from living in the past you have to take hold of the only thing left to you, the only thing you ever had: your spirit. Give it some room. Discipline yourself to tend it, to give it room to grow and take up what space it will. This is something you can do without buying gym equipment or a bunch of fucking self-help books.
Help yourself by deciding, by committing, by disciplining yourself to tend your spirit, your soul. The rest will fucking take care of itself. Your life needs your best effort, not the sack of woe you been dragging around.
Start now and remember every moment is now.
* * *
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
- JL Borges, "The Witness"
* * *
Much is made, and rightly so, of Borges' blindness. The irony of it demands some mention of it (haven't I just done so?). He famously wrote of it:
No one should read self-pity or reproach
Into this statement of the majesty
Of God; who with such splendid irony,
Granted me books and blindness at one touch.
But unlike the eyes of the "some one man" that closed and took with them the last memory of Christ or Helen or a now forgotten battle, Borges eyes closed before he died, slowly fading over years and in that dimming, fading time he stitched into every sentence a vision that continues to burn and light the way for anyone willing to look for it. It is a vision of an immortality stretched impossibly thin yet which nonetheless succeeds in conquering death. It is a lie, of course. Death cannot be conquered. But it can be tricked.
* * *
What space-filling acts of yours will astonish us when they come to an end? What will we suddenly realize was a significant part of our lives–noticed only too late? But space-filling sounds like so much Hamburger Helper: nothing real, just some sawdust to stretch a meal or stuff an animal. Not real, just the semblance of real. It sounds unreal, but make no mistake, this is what we do, what our lives are for. We occupy this time and space and fill it with meaning through the doing of things, through space-filling acts. A fucked life takes this basic truth and turns it into sawdust, sees only the pejorative in space-filling, believes the finite nature of our experience in time is justification enough to sit on the curb and whimper, "Woe betide me."
There is woe that attends our days. We fuck it up. Chance breaks our hearts and our spirits. But there is more as well. There are balms and cures and healing wells. There is joy and quiet to match the sorrow, maybe not equally, but certainly in the fact of it. When you let your life run off its rails because your time here seems like so much space-filling, a place holder, a stop-gap, you lose sight of of the incredible privilege you have, that each of us has, to discover who it is you are and fill the space around you with those acts that describe the singular truth of your life.
But "The Witness" has something more on its mind as well.
In Kevin Brockmeier's, A Brief History of The Dead, he imagines the end of human life on this planet. Melting polar ice caps wash us down the drain. As people die they find themselves clustered in odd groupings. There is a connection between them, but there are so many of them it s impossible to know. And then the dead start to disappear. They are the memories of those still living and as long as one person lived who knew them, who carried a memory of them, the dead lived on. But as all human life is swept away the city of the dead ceases to exist. At last there is only one person left alive to do any remembering and when she goes, it all goes.
Borges wrote of this forty years earlier in "The Witness."
There is a thin veneer of immortality available to us. It is made of memory. At best, death can only be wrestled to a draw. Attempts to avoid this unshakable truth only waste the bit of time we have to work with. But those space-filling acts, those acts undertaken because they express and reveal the central truths about your life, about your perception of what your life is for, about what you did with the privilege of being, those acts sidestep death. Your body is washed away, but the things you did continue to exist for a while anyway.
Artists and writers have it easy. They leave behind artifacts. I read the private journals of Marcus Aurelius to help guide my way. How is it possible they still exist? Eyes closed a long time ago on the last person who knew the man when he lived, yet all of us can continue to know his mind, his spirit.
What space-filling acts of yours will astonish us when they come to their end with your death?
Fucked fuckers that we are we assume only artists and writers get to live on. But nothing is further from the truth. How you live, the way you conduct yourself, the love you have to give, the work and sacrifice you can offer to another is all that matters. The pathetic or frail form does not matter. What matters is that you give your life some form. Do you understand? You get to choose.
* * *
I have no idea where Serrano and Charcas is. One day, whether it was in full command of his eye sight, or part of the fading, Jorge Luis Borges saw a horse in a vacant lot there, or he simply imagined one there. One of an infinitude of images that made up his life, that make up all our lives. At a certain point only so many people could have seen that horse there and perhaps there is still one or two still alive who could attest to the sight. (If you like you can imagine one.) Surely the horse is dead, but by placing the horse on the page he saved it from the dustbin of history and gave it to us in a frail and pathetic form - not the thing itself, but a description of the thing. And that is nothing short of miraculous. You do the same with every word spoken, with every gesture and act.
Death always wins, but we fucked fuckers can still out live it.
Now get going. You have space to fill.
* * *
Monday, February 6, 2012
|As imagined by Michaelangelo|
- Heraclitus, 500-ish B.C.E.
* * *
The cosmos was Heraclitus' aim. My reach is not so far, yet I find in the fragments of his thoughts that have survived the fall of time a voice that speaks to the matters that speak to me. Another of his fragments tells me, The way up and the way down are one and the same.
And damned if it isn't so.
* * *
What fucks us most is a misunderstanding about time and how we are to use it. For we clansman of the tribe Fucked Fuckers make presumptions about time that derail us from the start. We presume time to be an extension of our self, our ego, our personality, rather than the other way around. We suck at the tit of our dominion over matter and believe only we matter. What is commerce and war but a clever manipulation of raw materials? What is our religion but a self-fulfilling prophesy of our place at the top of the ladder? What are our relationships but a side business of commerce and war and prophesy? And as wealthy as we may become, as victorious as we may be, no matter how many blow jobs we get, we still are wrong about time and it fucks us.
Time is an everliving fire, kindling in measures, being quenched in measures and we are the measures. Our ego tells us we are the fire, but, in truth, we are the fire's kindling and it's dousing.
To be fucked and stuck and going nowhere is to deny the contribution only you can make to the fire. Your life is the kindling, the fuel, not the fire itself and through your acts the fire burns or gutters out. As you die another takes up your place, just as you took another's. The contradiction of a fire roaring and being quenched at the same time is resolved by seeing time (your life) from the fire's point of view. It is always coming into being. It is always expiring.
Knowing this, what are you waiting for?
* * *
If you read any of Heraclitus' work (a single scroll of which only a hundred or so fragments remain), you are confronted with his insistence on pairing opposites to describe unity. He wants to break you out of static thought and get you moving again, or for the first time.
I want the same.
Having lived a fucked life for too fucking long, having burnt up most of my kindling trying to live so that others would be satisfied, having once denied my gifts the way Peter denied Jesus for fear of his own skin, I want you to use it up before you lay it down. But before you can use it, you have to know what it is. And how does one figure that out?
The way up and the way down are one and the same.
You have to move through the changes you are holding back. You are the one damming up the flow of your life. You are the one refusing the price of admission to your life, namely, your death. You can pretend you won't die for only so long and then you die. The risk is not in defying death, but embracing life. You have this bit of light you can add to the fire, or not. Your call. But know this, that fire, that everliving fire will burn with or without you. The fire does not need you. You need it. You need its purpose. How you arrive here is material only to you. The way up and the way down are the same. What matters is what you, and only you, can bring to the fire.
* * *
I said we misunderstand time because we view it as belonging to us, when the hard truth is the reverse: we belong to time. From this we misunderstand what our lives are, what they are for, what we might do with them in our time. But here's the news: the distance between a fucked life and an unfucked life is the distance between between the fire and the kindling. Both of which are inside you.
Light 'em up.
Thursday, February 2, 2012
|The lion in winter|
- James Dickey on why he continued to write and work everyday despite the debilitations of age and illness.
* * *
Sometimes the universe brings about miracles of coincidence that have no explanation other than serendipity. This morning as I scratched about looking for a way to begin, I settled on this remembered quote from James Dickey, poet and novelist best known for his book Deliverance. When I searched the web for a picture of him in his old age I discovered that today, February 2nd, was his birthday.
I don't know about you, but that pleases me in ways that are hard to explain. It's like watching the Fibonacci Sequence unfold and explain everything.
* * *
In the years before he died, weakened by lung disease and the effects of a double-fisted life, James Dickey kept writing, kept producing poetry and commentary and fiction. In his office at the University of South Carolina at Columbia he had three, maybe four typewriters placed on tables around the office. Each typewriter had a sheet of paper in it and each typewriter represented a different project he was working on. He would move from typewriter to typewriter, project to project, gaining ground where ground could be gained. When asked why he continued to work so hard after all he'd accomplished in his life he answered, "Some good may yet be done."
It seemed to me then that this was a good and honest way to die.
I took that line and inserted it into a scholarship application I wrote for my (then) wife. In my hands the words became pompous, bragging, all brass and no timbre. My ex and I laughed and laughed about the words. She got the scholarship and I lost my way.
* * *
If your life is fucked, if you have lost your way, or don't ever remember ever being on your way, then the notion that some good may yet be done is a yakfest, a laughriot, a sop for maroons. It appears childish, naive, sanctimonious, full of foolishness and pride. We fucked love to snark and tear down those who are not like us, those for whom life is worth the pain of living in order find out what's next. We are certain we are wiser, more realistic, and so become more caustic in our judgments of anyone who bothers to try. Trying is for rubes.
Or so we say.
But it's not so, is it?
Trying is all we have.
Trying is all we get.
To bag on it is to bag on living, is to fuck yourself and contort your life into a mis-shapen, soulless thing. Spiritless. Fucked. Useless.
The race has to be run to the finish line, or it's all been a lie, a waste of potential.
I was wrong about my first assessment of Dickey's words. They were not a good and honest way to die, but a good and honest way to live. So what if the days of his finest production were behind him. So what if he was slowed by pain. Until you are stopped dead in your tracks, you have to keep pushing at life, demanding more of it, not less.
* * *
As my sad and gentle father died he gave me and my brother a gift beyond all telling. His first impulse was to let death wash over him. He'd had it hard and unhappy for large swaths of his life and the few joys he had were tucked deep in his soul. He could go now and that would be okay with him. But he didn't. He took on the burden of what he knew was futile treatment in order to give his sons the full measure of his devotion to us: For you, I will do this because you need this from me. I don't need it, but you do and while it is in my power to give it to you I will.
Such love. Such love. Such love.
His words to me were, "I'll kick this can as far down this road as I can." And that was the good that could yet be done for us. And he did it. James Dickey had a handful of typewriters to show his devotion to life. My dad had rounds of chemo-therapy. It is all the same. Don't you fucking dare quit on your life, on this life. There is good that must be done and you are the only one who can do it. Even it takes a lifetime of struggle and your last breath to reveal it, some good may yet be done.
Now go. I'll send you the typewriters. Just ask.
* * *
Quidam tamen bene fieri.