Sunday, October 26, 2014

Say That You

Say that you have several objects on a table. Put a frame around any portion of this situation, and what is within that frame is now to be regarded not as an assortment of separate objects but as something else: a single entity, a wholeness: integritas.

Now, when you have integritas, wholeness inside such a frame, the only thing that counts is the harmonious placement of everything, the consonantia, what Joyce calls the "rhythm of beauty," which includes the relationship of colors to each other, of masses to each other, and of the spaces in between. When the rhythm is fortunately achieved, one experiences the claritas, or radiance: one sees that the aesthetic object is itself and no other thing, and one is held in esthetic arrest.

- J. Campbell, Reflections on the Art of Living

* * *

It was sometime in the 80's. I found myself in downtown Chicago with time on my hands. It was midweek, midday. I was near Michigan Avenue and thought I'd go to the Art Institute. There was a show there - Treasures of the Vatican - or some such thing. The jewel of the show was the Belvedere Torso, a fragment of a marble sculpture from the 1st century B.C. There were several stories about its possible subject: Hercules after his labors, Ajax contemplating his suicide. It was impossible to know, but what was known was this headless, legless, armless fragment unearthed in Rome in the early 15th Century has never ceased to inspire artists and the common man alike since the day it was found.

I was common. I wanted to see.

I will always remember the gallery the Torso was displayed in. It was in a room to itself in my memory. There may have been paintings on the wall, but in my mind I don't see them. I did not come for the paintings. I wanted to see the Torso. It was a wide room, empty as I say, as I believe, as I want to believe, of anything but the 2000 year old marble. I turn a corner. I think I turned to my left, and the gallery opened before me. There was a small crowd in front of the sculpture, maybe 6 or 7 people. I know there were children there. When I stepped into the gallery the 6 or 7 people, the children!, all scattered as if on cue and flew from the room. I was alone with the broken thing. I could not believe my good fortune to be entirely alone with it. As I moved closer to it the air surrounding it shimmered and moved in waves as it does when looking down a hot, empty road. I know I continued to walk to it until I was within the 4 or 5 feet they'd cordoned off on every side. It thrummed. It was alive to me and I was stock still. For another minute or two I was alone with him, Hercules, Ajax, the sculptor Appollonios, the creation itself. There was no separation between myself and the sculpture and the air shone like diamonds. The moment others entered the gallery to view the piece it was like a switch thrown: everything snapped back to the everyday: no thrum, no diamonds, no radiance. I lingered in the gallery hoping to feel that way again, but the moment had come and gone.

* * *

Here's what I love: in the quote above, Joseph Campbell quotes James Joyce, who took his ideas from Thomas Aquinas (and Aquinas, Aristotle before him). I love this because each used what was at hand - the work of others - to transform it into the work in their hands. Nothing exists in a vacuum. It is born from what preceded it.  Joyce and Campbell are talking about "proper art," not decorative art, or the art of propaganda which they knew to be pornographic, but the art that erases boundaries, that draws you in and holds you, if only for a moment, above and outside of time so that you experience timelessness. The Belvedere Torso gave that to me, as did William Faulkner's Light in August, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Gjertrude Schnackenberg's Heavenly Questions, Daniel Lanois' song Fire, and on and on and on. And that is just how it went for me. You have your own list. We all do, for if we ever let our guard down shit like this just pours in and we are stilled and made to feel more alive from the experience.

But, listen, if this is so for works of art, how can it not be so for the work of the life you are living? Isn't your life born from the lives of those who came before you? Isn't it possible that each step you take is a form of creation, of willing the next thing, the new thing, the thing that has not arrived yet, into being? Isn't it true that when you are in your stride all time recedes and you are simply in the moment, fully experiencing it without filters or categories, but simply are?

We fuck ourselves when we think and believe otherwise, when we live otherwise. The unfucked life is experienced and created, not categorized and judged; it's frame of reference is itself and no other.

* * *

There are two things that really have my attention:

1) the frame of reference, and
2) the idea of harmony.

Most of what fucks us is a withering belief that we are out of step, unwelcome at the table, unskilled in the ways of business, romance, just putting one fucking foot in front of the goddamned other. We are always wrong to the light, never catching a break. And, I promise you, we have all felt some stripe of all that. The mistake we make is in using the definitions others have devised as to what constitutes a worthy life. We use a frame of reference (the scope and scale of what is possible) that is not of us, but of the long agreed upon expectations of the society we are born into. Inside such a frame our life looks ill-fitting, unbalanced, the proportions are wrong. We suck. We suck because we never ask the question about using a different framing device, a different understanding of life.

If you were to lay your losses on a table and frame them as you now feel judged, it looks fairly shitty. A few splashes here and there where it started to come together, but mostly it is a mess. Re-frame it according to your internal compass. It looks different, no? Maybe it even begins to make sense. Now, is this wishful thinking, just blotting out the bits you don't like? Not at all. Remember Campbell's first condition of proper art: wholeness/integritas. You have to use all of it, not just some of it. And this gets to the second idea of harmony.

By harmony neither Campbell nor Joyce nor I mean anything rigidly, categorically beautiful or sweet, but rather an accounting of the whole seen so that light and dark have their place and in fact relate to and reciprocate a continuity that could not exist if what was desired was merely aggressively pretty or fine or fair or just. Harmony, consonantia, is the condition of wholeness that is not static, but is, instead in motion to an internal rhythm that needs no justification, but simply is. This would include your pain, your despair, your bright promise, your redemption and your grace.

* * *

Michaelangleo knew the Torso and copied it into several figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He was asked by the Pope to repair it, to give it a head, arms and legs. He refused. He preferred it as it was: beautiful.

I want you to look at the Torso and if you ever get the chance, you should be in its good company, but until then, look at it: broken, forgotten for 1400 years, and yet it lives, it inspires, it makes the air around it to vibrate and shimmer. Its beauty comes from its brokenness.

Just like the rest of us.

* * *



Sunday, October 19, 2014

It Will Actually

It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true. The only thing that's capital "T" True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

- David Foster Wallace, "This is Water"

* * *

Several months ago, a reader reached out to me to tell me she was going to have something I wrote tattooed onto her body. As a man with no tattoos and as someone who never considered the possibility that anything I wrote could be tattoo-able, this news knocked me off my pins. It was terrifyingly humbling and all I could think to say was, "Make sure the tattoo artist knows how to spell." It was the most useful thing I could think of to say. I mention this because I have been thinking of inking someone else's words onto my right forearm: This is water. It will remind me, because I often need reminding, that I don't know a goddamned thing.

* * *

The deepest truth is that we don't know anything. We want to make things knowable. We want the life spread before to make sense - not only in the immediate, day in and day out sort of making sense (the work we devote our time to, the people we devote our love to, how dinner is going to be paid for and made), but also in the colossal, impossibly huge sense of our place in the cosmos, the hand of God, if there is a God, gods, deities, djinns, or the mindlessness of biology writ as all we are or can be. We want to know, so we take it in bites, portions we can manage and over time - the length of a life, the length of generations, skipping back to an eon - we have mistaken these bite-sized portions for the mystery they were once part of and so reduced ourselves to certitude, knowability, and the ugly smugness of having an answer.

Into this we fucked fuckers are cast, the dross to be burned off because what is knowable is useless to us. It doesn't work for us and we assume, incorrectly, that the fault is ours. We medicate our unease out of existence. We take on the yoke of others' expectations as to what can and cannot be done with a life, our life. Eventually we settle like dust into the corners of our existence. We do this because we make the mistake of believing what we know is all there is to know. If your life has brought you betrayal or abuse of any kind, that is the filter you view the world from and the world tends to conform to your sight. If your life has been one of frustrated ambition, false starts and the gnawing sense that you are not ever going to find your footing, then so it is. And so on regardless of the experience you have encountered. This is an internal caste system of which there is no escape because you have made the mistake of presuming your experience is the only experience available and that even acknowledging the possibility of other people having other experiences does not move you to see that you, too, could live otherwise. No, your default setting is a type of narcissism that fucks you up: this is all there is.

This is the hell of living. This is the wasteland. This is our default setting because we experience our life as disconnected from the multiplicity that surrounds, supports, connects and ignites every form in every world.

* * *

The groundfloor of our existence is not suffering, nor life, nor death, but is, instead, a mystery unsayable, but entirely possible to enter and experience for it swims above your bed, on the street, in the darkest possible wood, in the gift of your lover's body, the meal you make, the child you raise, the love you give to your time, your place. It is here, now, and always has been. It is our self-importance, our arrogance at presuming to count the number angels on the head of pin, at extracting the last of fossil fuels, at assuming every one else is the asshole that blinds us to the possibility that our lives are greater than our imaginations currently allow, that we ebb and flow into and out of gradations of understanding just as we ebb and flow into and out of existence.

No feeling is final.

Your certitude is what is fucking you.

The world is not organized for your convenience. Every hardship, every pain is still life presenting you with the opportunity to choose how you will respond to the circumstances of your life. By withdrawing, by casting about for blame, by internalizing your victimhood, you cut off other possibilities. The world is reduced to the knowable, the bite-sized, the narrow, the small, the fearborn, the lifeless. This is what fucks you.

Listen, life is more than your misery, loss, unhappiness, joy, contentment or ease. It is present, pregnant, pulsing with variations on the theme. This is water, love. This is our milleu. It is larger than all of us, but needs each of us to be awake to something other than ourselves.

You get to choose. So do so. Refusing it wastes the one thing that is certain: being alive right now.

* * *

This is water.
This is water.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

In Reality Everybody

"In reality, everybody can't make it. If a guy makes a million dollars, he can do so only because another thousand people are making $3,000 a year."

- Scott Farwell, quoted in Studs Terkel's Hard Times

* * *

It has been troubling me for some time. I root and rumble through these ideas trying to grab hold of something that I can show you, give to you to play with, to consider. I've been doing this long enough now to know when there are changes coming, when there is a shift in the ideas and in the writing that I could never have planned for. It begins when something troubles me for some time.

During my stint at Columbia College Chicago getting my futile MFA in in fiction writing and then in the not futile years I taught there, an idea took root that I swear by to this day: throw away your ideas and see which ones are strong enough to come back and insist on being heard. It is a tonic to hubris and believing one's shit does not stink. It is the easiest of tasks to write lists of ideas to be turned into projects. It is just as easy to begin those projects. It is entirely different to complete them. Here's part of the reason why: we never tested the idea, risked losing the happiness/challenge the first blush afforded us and as that first rush faded there was nothing underneath to sustain the effort.

Or so it has been with me.

So, something has been troubling me for some time and is making its way into the conversation, in fact has been hovering over it, occasionally flashing in and out of the work, but now wants a place at the table. It is this: if one is to unfuck one's life then by needs be one must talk about money and the hold it has on this conversation.

Except, this isn't a polemic for or against any economic system, but rather is a polemic in favor of what each of us needs to live unfucked: authority, autonomy and cooperation.

* * *

It is a lie told so often it is gospel: anyone can make it in America. Hard work is rewarded. Upward mobility is routine. Self-fulfillment is found in the market. Build a better mouse trap and the world's your oyster. Fuck, does anyone really believe that anymore? It is a pernicious myth that enslaves us to a lifetime of debt, of enriching others through our labor, of believing the crumbs cast off from the table are a just reward. Listen, capital accrues to those with capital through the theft of labor. Money is not made off of goods, but the labor to craft and deliver those goods.

And, you know, whatever. The machinations of the monied are their own business, but what I do care about is how their operating story (opportunity! hard work!, mortgages! credit scores!) permeates everything we say and do. Take a minute and listen to the incessant drone of commercials, the endless marketing of things no one needs. Listen to the language. Listen to how stupid you are presumed to be. Listen to the easy stereotypes, the maddening jingles, the sense of unease and want you experience. Listen to that story and then listen to your story. Is there any place they overlap? Is there anything in you, deep down in the heart of it all, that finds its expression in the story being told over and over to you? Buy this. Be that. Do this. Vote this way. Protest the vote. Donate to the cause. All of it moves out from the same premise: the best way to organize human life is via the marketplace, albeit a marketplace that is rigged to privatize reward and socialize risk.

If you're fucked, how much of it has to do with the work you do, the money you earn, how you treat the money you earn, the dreams you exchanged for the money you earn, the debt you service and the lifestyle you've grown accustomed to or aspire to having? How many zeroes at the end of your check do you need to be happy?

I'm not hating on money, or earning it or wanting more of it. I am hating on how this is presumed to be the best measure of a life.

* * *

At the start of the recession I lost my marriage, my home, my savings and my job all within six months. Every identity was stripped from me. I was reduced to one modifier: failure. And it was true. I'd failed in every way a man is judged. Go and read Hard Times and you'll find that story repeated a thousand different ways. But what saves a man is to take a step, and then another, and another. It is always the same step and you have to take it. Having been flayed bare I started from zero and wanted to see what I could yet make of my life.

What is it about money that controls us? I do not believe it is mere acquisition or the ugly habit of Veblen's conspicuous consumption. No, this goes back further. In the west the story begins with the fall of Eden and the collective punishment of labor. We have been held by these stories because there has always been someone who benefited from them: priests, rulers, bankers, burghers. If you want to get to heaven/own a business/rule and judge others, then work, work, work. We have never escaped the idea of castes and of trying to escape them and so have internalized this poison until we can sing its praises.

The drollest commentary is this: Arbeit macht frei. The full horror of which was not lost on its creators.

* * *

No, we fuck ourselves when we cede the authority over our lives to others who have no scruples about meeting their outsized need to control and manipulate in the name of wealth/power. We fuck ourselves when the autonomy we are fucking born with is traded for debt and a bigger house we cannot afford. We fuck ourselves when we cease cooperating with one another and make it everyman for himself: a hellhole of Darwinian economics.

Listen, bubbe, you want to unfuck your life? Unfuck the way you measure it. Your bank account is the least important thing about you. We all need dough to live. No doubt, no doubt, no doubt. But we sure as hell don't have to participate in the shitshow that keeps us indentured to systems that steal not only our labor and years, but our very sense of self in the process. Do not die a mere plaything of chance. Instead, die a free man or woman who devoted their labor to a cause greater than themselves, who, through the sustaining power of that commitment, used their wit and soul to author their own life and so be a wellspring of fearlessness for those who encountered them.

* * *

Go. Let no man choose for you.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

We're All Broke

We're all broke down
We're all well hid
We're all just kids
Despite our age

- Nathaniel Rateliff, Nothing to Show For

* * *

Here's the thing: what breaks us is the sense of disconnect, the distance between what we want/expect and what is. This disconnect can be born out of hubris and entitlement and those poor fucks are easy to spot and it is tough to work up the spit to feel overly sympathetic to their plight. Though plight it is. No, man, that's how it goes for the obvious shit, but what breaks the rest of us isn't hubris or ego or vanity or the silver spoon in our mouth. What breaks us is the nagging sense it didn't have to be this way, that we never really felt welcome at the table, the haunting sense we are out of sync with our lives. From here it appears the rest of the world knows its way and is content in their goings. We struggle. We rage. We collapse. We struggle again and in our struggle we wonder, as Jesus must have after each raising of the dead, how many more fucking times can I do this?

You do it as many times as you need to, love. If your way is the way of struggle to find your footing, then you keep at because those closest to you need you despite your withering sense of disconnect. You are not alone in feeling outside the swim of things. You are not alone. And here's the proof: you are reading this.

* * *

No one runs cradle to grave without trial and loss and grief and worry and disconnect and betrayal and anger. And no one runs from cradle to grave without wonder and peace and happiness and love  and connection and laughter. No one. It isn't a balancing act. Some lives tilt more one way or the other. Some barely have a sliver of a taste of either, but don't be fooled into thinking someone else has it better than you. They don't. They don't have it worse, either. What they have, what you have is the single life you and they have to live. There is no one else who can live it for you. If the universe is to find its fullest expression, then you have something to give, to contribute. Pulling back from what you may yet be leaves a hole where your life could have been.

We are all broke down. We are all well hid. We venture this far and no further. We fail to tell our beloved we love them for fear they won't understand or reject us. We fail to venture any risk except the foolhardy ones and replace courage with the hollowness of bravado. We root and grub for our bread when we could have looked up and found the world teeming with possibility. Why? Why the fuck does this happen over and over again?

Because fear, our fears, have us by the short hairs.

Here's the news: fear is always about something external to us that we then internalize: the judgment of others, of God, the acceptance or rejection of our gifts, the measure of our cocks and bank accounts. And it is all bullshit.

What is outside of us is beyond our ability to control. What we can control, and often fail to do, is how we respond to our circumstances. By locating our wellness in others we make ourselves sick. By absorbing the judgements of the market, of the church, of the governments we happen to live under, we become lost. This is the disconnect that eats away at us. This is the sense that we are out of step. This is why our struggle seems endless.

As long as you accept those conditions then the brokenness cannot heal.

* * *

Last night a young woman I know tried to kill herself. Her sense of disconnect was so complete nothing stood between her and her oblivion. She did not succeed. She will be starting again from less than zero with very little belief that it will be worth the effort. Maybe she will be scared straight. Maybe she will try again. Maybe she will limp through her life always wounded. Maybe, maybe, maybe. What is known is her pain was so great she needed to gouge it's eyes out. What is unknown is what her response will be to the life she is now living.

There is this: you are not alone. You belong here, to us, to this time and we belong to you. We may be mis-shapen hulks, but we are yours and that is the best of all things, the sense of belonging, of a place being saved for you at the table without judgment, just gladness that you are here. It is not our brokenness that matters, but the truth we're all just kids despite our age and every kid wants to belong, to be welcomed, to be part of a family. If your family is scattered, non-existent, then realize there are other families for you, including this one.

You are always welcome here.

I'll leave a light on.

* * *