Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The World Of

The world of men has forgotten the joys of silence, the peace of solitude which is necessary, to some extent, for the fullness of human living.  Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally.  When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his own true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting.  For he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul.  If man is constantly exiled from his own home, locked out of his own spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person.  He no longer lives as a man.  He becomes a kind of automaton, living without joy because he has lost his spontaneity.  He is no longer moved from within, but only from outside himself.

- Thomas Merton, The Silent Life

* * *

If Rilke is the poet of silences, then Merton is his pastor.

* * *

The language betrays us. It reaches for analogies that might help explain ideas that have no physical presence, dimension or direction, but are a truth nonetheless. I might speak of a well of silence that lies within each of us. By implication it suggests depth, perhaps darkness, but also a cool reprieve from the water drawn up and tasted. If not a well, then, as Rilke suggests, a vastness within - not an emptiness, but a vastness, unfathomable to know its borders it is so complete. Always the direction of silence is within. To discover silence always involves a transition from the outer world to the one within. Some travel great distances in order to find silence. Others sit still and listen for it. There is no one way to do any of this. Of course, all of this takes as a given that there is an inherent value in doing so.

30 years ago I'd go on retreat to the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane, Merton's home, twice a year just to have a place where I could be quiet. It is a frightening thing to be shorn of the need to talk with others, to be engaged with others, to have nothing expected of you save that you use your time to be quiet. Terrible things emerge: fear, doubt, longing, a grasping at straws as your vanity evaporates in front of you. And there you sit, metaphorically naked. Then you are left only with yourself and the question emerges, can you stand your own company?

Hesitating here, dwelling on the threshold of that silence is the last obstacle you must overcome if you are to find a way to unfuck what's gotten fucked inside you. There is a doubt that grows that you will not be able to sustain the silence, that you may very well drown in it and not know if what you are doing is the right thing, or if it is just another failed attempt to set things right. Know that this is the great crisis for all who want to hear their own voice, who have come to believe that their voice is to be found in quieting everything else so they can listen for it. 

The Buddha had his tests under the bodhi tree, Christ his temptations in the desert. You and I are questioned by the silence we both fear and need.

* * * 


It must be immense, this silence, in which sounds and movements have room, and if one thinks that along with all this the presence of the distant sea also resounds, perhaps as the innermost note in this prehistoric harmony, then one can only wish that you are trustingly and patiently letting the magnificent solitude work upon you, this solitude which can no longer be erased from your life; which, in everything that is in store for you to experience and to do, will act an anonymous influence, continuously and gently decisive, rather as the blood of our ancestors incessantly moves in us and combines with our own to form the unique, unrepeatable being that we are at every turning of our life. 

Solitude is essential to each of us, yet we do not prioritize it, make it central to our lives. This isn't meditation, though that can be part of it. I am talking about solitude, the aloneness of your being, the separateness of it, the fact of it. We make ourselves overly busy to avoid acknowledging the fact that we are an unrepeatable experience, a singular expression of life and as such, though our bonds of love and kinship are strong, we are, in all essentials alone and must face alone the task of understanding those facts. This thought scares us, for we do not want to be alone. From this fear we hesitate to find out what our voices sound like, what our desires and abilities can do, we hesitate to even name them for fear of being outside the swim of things. I will tell you this, my friends, that the world around you, the world of kinship and family, of loves and rituals, of passing days, of commerce and matriculation, as vast and varied and impossible to know in its fullness is, at its root, the outward expression of all our inner dreams going back through all generations. We once knew this, but are now removed from that knowledge because we are no longer silent.

Finding a space to be quiet, to be still, to be able to listen does not require that you travel to a Trappist monastery, but it does require your care. You have to choose it.

The idea of the Sabbath - sacred because it is set apart - touches upon this, and this, too, was once part of our dreaming. What remains of it might seem like an empty husk, a valueless ritual that belongs only to those too afraid to think for themselves. What is not valueless is the quiet it implies.

And let's say we somehow find a way into our solitude, our silence, the inner sea and there we come to know our name, our voice, the truth about ourselves. So what. It smacks of an unhealthy ego trip all self-absorbed and proud of itself for making the trip. If this happens, if this is your experience, just know you haven't left the threshold. You're still just as fucked and stuck as you were. For this is the capital "T" truth about solitude and silence: when you encounter yourself, when you hear the sound of your own voice unencumbered by others' expectations and demands, when you are at home in your solitariness another door opens in that solitude and you are brought back to the rest of us, only this time the silence has made you kinder and gentler.

Rilke again:

For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been given to us, the ultimate, the final problem and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.

* * *

The function, if that is the right word, of solitude is to teach us to be more patient and forgiving of ourselves and others, that the harm we do to ourselves and others is born of a disconnect between what is external and fleeting and what is internal and thus eternal. Generations wax and wane. Rilke and Merton exist only in the pages of their books, their bodies long turned to dust, but love, our one true genius, does not cease. The journey within always leads you back out to the world where others are struggling and who need the love you have to give. The Buddha got up from under that tree and began to teach, Jesus came back from the desert as well. It is the hero's journey though I know that term is overused and often misunderstood.

* * *

I am told that love is the meeting of two solitudes who protect each other. That seems right to me and if that is so, then to know love you must first be quiet.

I wish you well.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Now I May

Now, I may have been more than half asleep at that point, but a thought arose that abides in me. I wished I could sit at the feet of that eternal soul and learn. He did then seem to me the angel of himself, brooding over the mysteries his mortal life describes, the deep things of man. And of course that is exactly what he is. "For who among men knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of the man, which is in him?" In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable–which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.

- Marilynne Robnson, Gilead

* * *

I consider it a particular blessing to have lived long enough to have read this book.

* * *

The fact that no one can ever possibly know what it's been like to be you, to have been you, what the exact fall and order of your going has been, the memories you have lost and the odd ones that cling to you like burdock seeds, the scars latticed below your skin as well as skating across it, the frustrations, losses, griefs, ecstasies and dreams you've held, the private history of touch your body has known in tenderness, in passion, in violence, the things you do not say, do not admit even to yourself, the absences and omissions as well as the details of every move are lost, lost, lost to all but yourself and too often you do not consider these things at all. You are busy with work and routine and managing the tasks set before you and the days whip past and the days whip past and the days whip past so quietly that you do not notice that you have not noticed them. The aesthetics you live by (even if you reject the idea of aesthetics) are on display in the clothes you wear (or don't), the furniture you keep, the dishes you use, the food you eat and all those things you keep close at hand: pets or pictures, keepsakes of no value save your own, the color of your walls, the condition of your shoes and each and every small thing is a decision made or unmade, an accrual of layers and layers of decisions that form the aesthetic you live by, even when you don't notice you have one.

And so too, the things you judge to be worthy or not - in your own sphere, and in the larger spheres in which your own orbit is consumed. 

And all of this is to say simply that there is more inside your head than you realize and the bit you are able to share with us, with others is but a fraction of that vastness poorly realized. We round up, we cut corners in our memory because the specifics are too hard to keep straight or too hard to look at. And we are oceanic with tides that pull us apart as we try to sort out how to forgive our parents, how to forgive ourselves, how to make a place to lay our bodies down, how to face a world that is indifferent to our presence and still be at home in it.  What we share out is just the easiest thing we can do. We can bear it and we can make it rhyme with the stories of others and place ourselves inside a continuum where things make some sense.

Except when they don't. Except when all that we are, all that is known only to ourselves, the spirit that is in us rebels, rejects the sense that has been made for it. It wants its own voice, but where to begin? How can we ever trust what is just ours when it so often doesn't match the route and map placed in our hands?

* * *

I am drawn to this idea that we each are our own little civilizations. We stand on rubble and ruin and re-imagine life out of the materials at hand. And what is at hand, always, is the past, those who've gone their way and left whatever mark, however transient or misunderstood, behind. Here language solidifies the little civilization in our head: I am certain when I use the word "work" I am not referring to employment. This is not mere semantics and the splitting of hairs. It matters. To me. Perhaps, only to me. Perhaps only to this degree. But it is the language I have. This is what Robinson is getting at when she writes: We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity.

Yet, these same notions of decency and sanity are approximations, willfully ignorant agreements that don't get too close or shine too brightly. For the fucked, this is maddening. Language is the one tool that we think is universal, that can excavate, make clear, make beautiful the civilization inside our head. But if it is all a social agreement that we generally mean x instead of y, where can you turn to unfuck what has gotten fucked?

Further inside.

The language you use and the way you use it is idiosyncratic, imprecise in some ways, surgical in others. It is a mixed bag, a mixed diction of high and low and sacred and profane. And what is sacred to you is just as idiosyncratic. This is not a cause for hopelessness. It is the very source of your freedom.

The goal isn't to be understood, but rather to understand–yourself and the life you are living: its sources, currents, the wells of its meaning. By needs be this is idiosyncratic, specific to you in this time and this place, by the experiences you've had, endured and half-remembered. There is no need to dumb it down or round off the edges or make it so others find it appealing or approve of it. There is only the need for you to be alive to it, to be immersed in it, to know it and understand why you prefer to be near water instead of mountains, why poetry does nothing for you, but house music does, why the sight of old dogs kindles peace in your breast, but the idea of zoos repels you. It is not for us to know you, but for you to know yourself.

From there the work you do (according to my definition of work) is how we, the rest of us, the stretch of eternity before us, will have some inkling of what moves you. There may even be an echo or a rhyme, but it can never be copied. And that is to be heartily desired.

* * *

Maps are for tourists. And that is one way to undergo the experience of being alive. It may even be how the vast majority do it. As such it can also be the thing that stops you, makes you feel out of joint, disconnected: not really yourself. Nothing feels real, just proven, tired, proofed. 

The utterly vast spaces between the life you are living and the life in your head, the utterly vast spaces between the two of us, between you and the rest of creation feel inviolable: an impossibility. Yet, your concern is not the distance between us, at least it should not be. Rather, your concern is to know yourself, the vastness of yourself, the multitudes that you are. And from there turn that knowledge outward. Not so that others know you, but so that you can add beauty to the world's store. A life alive to itself, unafraid of the cosmos, willing to be here, now, is a beauty beyond words. It emboldens and encourages the lives it meets. It sends out messages of hope: not for a universal communion, but an individual renaissance. 

Lives so lived live long after their deaths.
Lives so lived are rewards unto themselves for the sheer pleasure of having had a body and a chance.
Lives so lived are unfucked where it matters: inside.
Lives so lived are the metaphor and the thing itself.

Ditch the map. Know what is vast and beautiful inside yourself. It will tell you what to do next.

* * *



NOTE: I'll be posting only once a week for a while. I want to stretch out and work on longer pieces. Let me know how it goes. Thanks.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

For Me Writing

For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering you are only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any number of reasons. Well, how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there's intimacy in it. That's the truth.

- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

* * *

If you have not met John Ames, the man at the center of this book, you have done yourself a dis-service and you must correct it as quickly as possible.

* * *

There is an intimacy in anything done for another, in anything done with someone in mind, the very impulse to care and do. The very good man, John Ames, writes letters to his seven year old son because he is old and soon to die and entire passages of his son's life will not be shared, so he shares what he can, as he can, from where he is. Imperfect. Incomplete, but then again that is where any of us begin. It is this willingness to accept imperfection, to recognize that whatever ideal we may have placed before ourselves, life insists upon it own rhythms and instead of bemoaning the loss of an impossibility we are better served fleshing out the fullness of our imperfection.

Part of what stops us is the premise we've been working from. We postpone and delay the acts of our intimacy waiting for a perfection that does not arrive while we wait. Perfection, if that's the name for it, is found only after the fact, in the doing, the certain, un-name-able knowledge that we have reached out far beyond ourselves and our fears and brought friendship, love, hope, kindness or the plainest decency to another. And such insight arrives in ways that have nothing to do with the visions of "just so" we've lied to ourselves about. It arrives sometimes bruised, sometimes sorrowfully, sometimes with a quality of joy over the simplest of things (the patter of rain on leaves, a quality of light only available under October moons, a kiss, the sight of your children strong, the memory of those you've lost that somehow no longer brings grief). But always this imperfect perfection arrives when you get out of your head and into your life.

As I write these words, I know I am somehow finding you. By what ever strange confluence of events, my words have reached you and I take great care not to be an asshole. I used to worry over mis-readings, but I no longer do. I figure if I am honest and fully engaged with these works, then the chance to be mis-read becomes very small and is well outside of my control. But only if I have been honest. Perhaps, there is a part of me that cannot recall what, exactly I said five years ago here, and that is the source of my worry, but I will leave it alone. I can go back and re-read, but I don't. I have this here, today, to do.

* * *

Each of us has our work to do. I believe, if you can quiet yourself long enough, you will hear your work calling out to you. I am not talking about what pays the bills - though there are some who manage to blend the two - no, I am talking about the very thing that lies at the center of your experience. There is a passage in Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha that I have always loved:

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

If you can allow this to happen. If you can set aside your fears and your worries that, well, shit, I am already working to two shitty jobs to cover the bills and I am just so damned tired. If you can let go of that mindset of fatigue and instead open yourself up you will find that whatever work you discover in yourself is the most intimate thing you are capable of. There is a deep-seated strength and grace in that. Your work becomes intimate precisely because it no longer references you and your fears and afflictions. Your work is, once you give yourself to it, always outward facing, always a gift you bring to others that also soothes your soul for the giving of it.

And here's the thing no one tells you: your well never runs dry.

The more you give yourself to your work, the more it fills you up. The more you give away, the more you have to work with. And at the center of all this is the intimacy of acceptance that you have been looking for. 

Have you noticed that when you toss money in a collection plate, or donate the old canned goods in your pantry to whom ever is collecting them, that there is little satisfaction in it? It is good, yes, but it is missing the critical element of what I now know as intimacy. Those gifts are from you and not of you and they may be helpful, but they are not intimate and that, right there, is the whole ball of wax, my brothers and sister. 

The whole ball of wax.

* * *



Wednesday, January 6, 2016

I Was Sleeping

I was sleeping, and being comforted
by a cool breeze, when suddenly a grey dove
from a thicket sang and sobbed with longing,
and reminded me of my own passion.

I had been away from my own soul so long,
so late-sleeping, but that dove's crying
woke me and made me cry. Praise
to all early-waking grievers!

- Adi al-Riga, as quoted by Jelaluddin Balkhi (Rumi)

* * *

The call can come from anywhere. The voice sounding in the wilderness could be a dove song from a thicket. The birth-cry of a new life could come from something mis-spoken, or spoken in anger. The alarm can be raised from the sound of rain. It does not matter where the call comes from, its source or its intention, only that you have the ears to hear it.

Really, anything will do.

Must you wait for the sound of a god thundering from on high? How many lessons must you repeat before you drop your guard and listen? What if the world that surrounds you - in its beauty and grim violence, its cacophony of voices and empty, quiet places - what if the world was ceaselessly calling you out of your sleep, calling you to remember yourself, your passion, your truest self? What if in the smallest gesture - a bird alighting on a branch - you could enter your life shorn of your fears? 

I'm not saying you can. 
What I'm saying is it is possible to be done with your awful half-life at any moment and the trigger to that moment can come from anywhere.

Even a grey dove written in a book 800 years ago.

* * *

Listen, the world is shit. It always has been. It always will be. Human beings are, in the end, motivated more by fear than hope and out of that fear comes the shitty, inequitable, unjust world we live in. Your life is fucked because there is a disconnect inside you between the fear and the hope. You want to resist the former, but fear the latter is foolish and you stand between them: neither hot nor cold. And it tears you up inside. Baby, this I know. And you'd give anything to move from that spot. Anything that is except actually moving. You wait on signs. You wait on occasions. Everything must be just so before you are ready to change: your mother has to apologize (and she's dead), the NRA has to be dis-banded, a white moth has to enter your room at midnight. Whatever. You promise to change when the world has changed to suit you. Not how it works and you are being called out of your dolor with everything that surrounds you - good or bad - but you refuse the message.

Because you have come to believe your identity is measured out in pain, suffering and longing. 

You're wrong, love. Please stop.

* * *

On one of my shelves is a four-volume set of Don Quixote published in 1820. There's some foxing on the end pages and the full Moroccan leather is a bit cracked in places. This is not, in the world of book collecting, a valuable set. But it means everything to me. I bought this set sometime around 1985. In four years it will pass the 200 year mark and once that happens I will give the books to my oldest child. I have taken it as my task to shepherd those books safely to 200. The point is those books call to me to care for them, to see them through while I can, to pass them on. Once upon a time I read passages of the books aloud to my girlfriend who briefly became my wife. When she and I were no more I was pushed out on a journey that took me to a Trappist monastery where one of the monks told me: "God is always calling us into our name. It is all around you. You just have to listen." And so a set of books bought secondhand, once charmingly read aloud to a once beloved, books that have traveled at my side, books I will let go of once my promise is kept, books that sit quietly waiting to be read again, these too are a call out of my cares and into my life because there is story and meaning there. Connections I wove to remind myself of the road I've been on.

And you? Look around you right now. What calls to you to wake the fuck up?

Really, anything will do.

You just have to allow yourself to choose it, to choose to listen for it.

* * *

After the poem by al-Riga, Rumi writes:

"Some go first, and others come long afterward. God blesses both and all in the line, and replaces what has been consumed, and provides for those who work the soil of helpfulness, and blesses Muhammad and Jesus and every other messenger and prophet. Amen, and may the Lord of all created beings bless you."

One needn't be a believer to know the truth of this: all prophets and messengers were once asleep and then one morning they heard a dove's song.

* * *