Wednesday, February 24, 2016

These Employers Were

These employers were famous for their meanness. They took all they could from the men and boys who worked their land. They bought their life's strength for as little as they could. They wore us out without a thought because, with the big families, there was a continuous supply of labour. Fourteen young men left the village in 1909-1911 to join the army, There wasn't a recruiting drive, they just escaped. And some people just changed their sky, as they say, and I was one of them.

- Ronald Blythe, Akenfield, "Leonard Thompson"

* * *

When I came across this passage from Akenfield I knew I'd have to write about it but I didn't quite know what I'd say. I'd set it aside, but invariably it echoed back and I'd sit with it wondering how to sort through whatever it was that kept me coming back to it. There are hundreds of passages in the book, an oral-history of a forgotten farming village on the Eastern edge of England, that speak to me for they speak in the voice of those who are long dead and lived extraordinary lives of poverty, labor, faith, and yes, joy. But Leonard Thompson's comment about meanness and how some people just changed their sky because of it, has stayed with me. It wasn't til a week ago that I understood it.

* * *

We spend the strength of our lives at work. We do not spend that strength with our families, our beloved, or ourselves. We trade our strength for pay and count ourselves lucky to have a job, to have a job that covers the bills, to have a job that adds money to save, to invest so that some day we don't have to trade our life's strength for pay. Mostly we cash the check and go back to work for others who profit from our labor. 


There was a brief moment in this country where that deal meant a growing middle class and a single job could fund a family's life and men (almost exclusively men) took that deal. It was fine, except for those excluded from that ride: African Americans, women, new non-European immigrants and as ever, farm labor. The ferocity of the stupidity and anger evident in the body politic today is simply all the white guys realizing they've been fucked just as badly as they once fucked over anyone who wasn't them. Sputtering rage. Infantile tantrums. Violent hatred. It all churns forth from an immutable law that has withstood time and place: the famous meanness of employers who trade a life's strength at the lowest cost for their profit. Once it was the size of families who kept the labor pool full and cheap. Somewhere mid-century last unions broke that cycle and pay rose and then the tide turned against labor and the lie was repeated that wages are too high and so from 1980 to today the decline took hold. The first twenty-five years the pain was distributed downward, but once the middle white lost their homes and heroin became a past-time all hell has broken loose.

Forgive my admittedly brief, caustic overview of economic decline. There's a point to this and Leonard Thompson is the key.

* * *

When I read that passage above I recognized the truth of it and I saw it played out in my life, my father's life and even my brother's life (a man who has achieved much), the truth about being worked to death for the small recompense of a bit of folding money. I can think of no employer who's had an interest in my labor except for the transubstantiation of it and turn my body and blood into gold. Take a minute and run the inventory of those whom you have worked for. Be honest. How many of them saw you as a complete human being? Saw you as worthy of fair pay? Worthy of consideration and respect for the effort you bring? No doubt you've had a few good bosses, but the business itself... How much of your life's strength and goodness, how much of your good name have you given to your employers? And what have they returned for such a fantastical offering? Odds are there is some meanness in the exchange. I am not so foolish as to believe that all employers are feral thieves, but it's close. And the next question I have for you is this: If your life is fucked and stuck and going nowhere, how much of that is defined by the work you do and the strength you sell to others?

In Leonard Thompson's time, as it is today, one can always join the Army to escape and the poor do escape along that route, trading the chains of poverty and no opportunity for the chains of conformity and violence. They change their sky, but is that the only option here: the military or crushing inequity in labor?

No. There are other ways to find a new bit of sky.

* * *

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” 

* * *

We run in ruts, well-worn from overuse, that keep us cycling through the same effort for the same pay and time ticks on and we don't notice at first and then the catalog of ailments and the wear and tear on our bodies and spirits accumulate and the sky over our head does not change. We have debt. We have kids who are getting on their treadmill and going to college where the tuition has risen over 300% while wages are flat and well, welcome to student loan debt, and the dream of a bit peace and all the bills paid at the same time and not owing anything to anyone just gets a bit further out of reach and the strength you once relied on to push through is a little less these days.

Except you can quit.

Maybe you quit the job entirely. 
Maybe you simply speak up and make the deal better for yoruself.
Maybe you keep the job and reorganize your life to point you in another direction and leave in a year or so.
Maybe you live with fewer belongings and use your job to fund travel instead of pay bills.
Maybe you wait for the gold watch.
Maybe you reject the terms of employment entirely and work for yourself.

We cannot avoid working for pay. What matters is that you choose it rather than go along with it. Your sky changes when you choose to see your life's strength as something for you to use as you see fit and not simply as a means of profit for others. You can keep the same job and do the same work, but if you see yourself as choosing this labor for the benefit you derive from it then the sky above has changed. This isn't semantics or a self-soothing lie. It is transformative and relives you of the anger and self-doubt you've been dragging around.

The waves of anger and violence roiling the waters is a sign of the impotency at the loss of one's strength and all the calls for a return to greatness are the dirge of those who have realized too late the devil makes no deals he doesn't win.

To unfuck what's gotten fucked you need to choose it and never lose sight or trade away your strength for another man's profit. Let the harvest rot in the field if necessary. Be no man's slave.

* * *

I wish you well.


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Only One Desire

Only one desire
That’s left in me
I want the whole damn world
To come dance with me

- Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, "Man on Fire"

* * *

Ideas are cottonwood seeds in early summer: they float everywhere. If you are even half awake, you hold millions of conflicting ideas and thoughts about life, your life, the day in and day out-ness of life, the silence of the other side, the distance between galaxies, why your parents stumbled, the morality of religion, the constancy of war, what makes for a good time, death rituals, how dogs are so easily superior to cats, why you prefer the color green to all others, how sex can either open or close a door inside you, what should be done to cool our planet, about oligarchs, politicians, money and the insidiousness of profiting from illness and old age; you have ideas about books (nah, don't read 'em), books in translation, comic books, hipsters, old farts, gentrification, institutional racism, poverty, debt, veganism, margaritas, Michael Brown, commencement speeches, corporate values (hah! like there is such a thing), the invention of love, and any last thing that humans put their hand to, their mind to, somewhere you have an idea about that, a way of filtering and knowing the world so you can navigate it. These ideas and filters often come to us from our families, we believe as they believe or we reject what they believe as a matter of conscience, from the communities we grow up in, to the media we absorb, the stories we accept and the ones we reject. Each judgment is a means of wrestling life into a small enough box so we can simply fucking move through the shit shower and shaveness of living and not go mad.

Except when you're fucked anyway. All those ideas, coming out of the sky, coming at you left and right, the ones you are attracted to and the ones that sicken you are not to be trusted because you don't trust yourself. Maybe you carry a barrel of guilt with you. Maybe a barrel of shame, or anger, or fear. Perhaps you've been betrayed and trust is elusive. It could be you've endured tragedy and the world is ever seen as an untrustworthy place. Barrels of guilt, buckets of tears, the metaphors of our losses and yet this one fact cannot be denied or shunted away: by every choice, by each decision, every word and act we birth the future we will walk into. Moreover, we create the future others will inhabit in their turn.

* * *

There is a difference between honesty and truth. Truth speaks of certainty, irrefutable, unchanging, sacred. It is the home of religion and faith and doctrine and dogma and sin and heaven and hell and forgiveness and ritual and finding one's identity in those tenets. Honesty is personal, vital and prone to error (I am certain there is at least one climate scientist who hasn't been bought by the oil industry who honestly believes there is no man-made global warming, but that doesn't mean his honest effort isn't wrong); it includes memory and requires judgment–in order to be honest you have to be able to determine what is dishonest as well. All of this is to say the two words, the two ideas are not identical and carry very different meanings into the field of your days. I have come to the point in my life where I value honesty over truth because it demands my attention, requires my effort, holds me accountable for the things I say and do. By being honest with myself about myself, my ideas, my gifts, my lack, my mistakes, I am ever honest with the world around me. Truth, as I am using it here, is always focused away from this moment trying to grasp a certainty that either remains out of reach or we contort to fit our expectations and so hold a truth while others cannot.

Honesty is a challenge. Truth is a nap.

To live honestly is to be fully engaged in your life: its trials and triumphs, its fallow days, its fleeting glory and mystery. This isn't meant to describe a hyper censor or black robed superego. Not in the least. It is meant to describe a way of putting your feet on the ground and not hiding from yourself or others how you've come to be the person you are and to chart a way to becoming who you may yet be.

* * *
The work you have is to decide what happens next. You create that. That choice is inherent in each of us: we get to choose how we will respond to the world that we inhabit, that surrounds us and feeds us information and ideas. To choose honestly is dangerous. It can be upsetting to the flow of your days. It may require adjustments, abandonments, acceptance, acquisitions, but mostly it will require action. Living by truth can absolve you of any requirement to think or act or discern a way forward. It has been done for you. It is in the book. Follow the rules. If this makes sense to you, if this is your honest response to life, then all will be well for you there. If not, then there is work to do.
* * *  

Hasidic Jews dance as part of an exaltation of joy and community, but also because their scholars believed dance and music was a mystical act that altered the course of heaven. It was both a requirement, an expression of faith and an honest response to their circumstance: to dance in front of one's sorrows was to give no dominion to those sorrows. I have loved this image for years and years, but only now understand it. 

Ideas can come from anywhere. It is what you choose to keep that matters, regardless of the source. Judging and assessing the litany of life's trials and joys is a function of discernment and the filter for that discernment can be honesty or truth and each leads in different directions. Choosing your way will have an effect on those close beside you and those you cannot imagine. Make certain your words are your own and your acts are conscious rather than rote. 
As for your sorrows, there's only one desire that's left in me. I want the whole damn world to come and dance with me. It is how the course of heaven, the course of the future is changed.

* * *


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

If You Don't

If you don't write down whatever you know–without telling any lies or concealing the truth with embellishments–then I'll never be able to understand what happened. At this point, of course, neither you nor I have very many years left, and it seems to me that just as we want to live the rest of our lives honestly, without resorting to lies, you would want to write that way, too... for the rest of your days.

- Kenzaburo Oe, The Changeling

* * * 

It is my belief that words seek us out: books, songs, snips of conversation overheard, an off hand remark. Whether it is the words themselves who do all the work or if our ears are somehow tuned to listen for the next thing, the thing we need to hear, or the thing we must remember that we heard or saw, the fact is when our ears and eyes are open we find the very thing we didn't know we needed, but now cannot imagine doing without. Oe's passage about honesty and the crawl of time and the work that remains unstrung me.

* * *

You, my best beloved, are the only one who can tell the story so I can understand what happened. You cannot lie or embellish or withhold any portion of the story you have to tell for that will change it into something else, something other than the truth. It may be beautiful, pleasing, dramatic, sorrowful, but it won't be the truth. For us, the truth is our only tonic. There is no one else to do this work.

We live inside patterns of habit writ across culture, society, familial reckonings and finally in the darkest hour before dawn as we lie awake and listen to our blood moving inside us. We are habituated to patterns for they make much of life knowable, manageable and it carries us along. Yet, these patterns, these habits, these necessary accommodations also serve to round off our edges, blur our vision and shorten our reach. For many this is no crisis, but proof of their wisdom to fall in line and get the rewards that are promised for doing so. It is easy to re-write memory to conform to this story, to imagine that yes, yes, I have always wanted to work for 40 years in the insurance game. Perhaps this is so for a few, but not for you, right? It is this sense of unease with the habits and patterns of culture and family and the ones you've created for yourself by default that has you fucked and stuck and wondering about your place in the world.

Time is ceaseless and the time to be who and what you are–honestly, without self-flagellation or hubris–is limited to this very moment, the successive moments you have to choose how you will navigate the next steps.  If you don't tell this story it doesn't get told, it leaves no trace, no memory for someone else to happen upon and hear just what they need to hear in order to tell their story.

This work is not just for you, but for those who follow after.

* * *

But we stumble over what the truth is, eh? How can memory be trusted? How can we be certain that the story we tell isn't self-serving, or a type of vendetta, a lie clothed in half-truths to ease ourpainourguiltourcomplicity? You can't be certain. You can't trust memory. There's no arbiter of truth. There's just you and the willingness you bring to bear to be as honest as you are capable of. Withholding the story, the writing down, the gift you have because it isn't perfect is cowardice and a betrayal of the life in your veins. This cult of absolute truth, of being right, righteous is a cult of death. It says: don't hope on this side of the grave, your imperfect mind, imperfect life has no place to speak. 

That is exactly wrong.

It is our imperfection, our failings, the faultiness of our memories and the scars we bear that make us worthy of the story we can tell. Waiting until all the sins have been washed away is to wait for life to be washed away. You are here, love, among us, struggling with us, just like us, and we need to hear from you, we need to hear your story told as honestly as you can, without lies or embellishments.


Because it is how we are emboldened to take another step, to try again to express the life in our veins, the blood we listen to late at night. It is the communion and connection we crave to feel less alone. It is who we are.

* * *

Of course, this has nothing to do with writing anything down, unless that is who you are. It is solely about how you live the rest of your days. The willingness to be honest with yourself, with others, about the road you've traveled does not come easily. We have too many mistakes in judgment, too many tragedies, too many losses, too few moments of peace to want to recall them all. But living honestly does not require a recitation of your crimes (real or imagined). Instead, it requires one thing only: for you to know the road you've traveled and to act from that knowledge. It will make you kinder, gentler with yourself, with others. It will warn you against those who misunderstand their own experience. It will free you from the burden of having to carry your losses as a curse, an albatross. It will transform you from what you were into who you are.

There aren't very many years left and it seems to me that just as Oe suggested, we should live honestly, without resorting to lies–about ourselves and the road we've come. And whatever work it is we do, whatever tasks we've set for ourselves (to write, to feed our children, to teach, to build homes, to plant trees, to grow food, to dance, to graduate from college, to ease the fears of the dying) we should work that way, too... for the rest of our days.

* * *

I wish you well.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I've Been Trying

I've been trying to find
What's been in my mind
As the days keep turning into night

- Alexi Murdoch, "All My Days"

 * * *

It is always nigh. It is always being nigh: this one chance to get to the marrow of things, to understand our lives as they are lived, as they are and so settle our minds before our departure. It is always here. It is always waiting for you to see it, to get it and let go of the difficulties that brought you this far. 

The days keep turning into night and always will, so the question that remains is not one of inevitability (how can one question what is inevitable), but the larger and more profound question: have you found what's been in your mind, the very thing that has brought you to your knees, brought you here, brought you every joy and betrayal, every loss and success, every hope to find your place to stand?

Have you?

It is a loaded question and I offer it with no smug certainty that it is inevitable to have that answer come out right. In fact, we struggle for it most of our lives and can die without ever knowing it. But it is possible to have that answer. It is possible to know your mind. It is possible to find your feet. It strikes me that the only useful advice is to keep your feet moving, for you don't know what comes next.

* * *

The wasteland of our days, the arid places where all our effort turns to dust, where we find none of the hoped for rest that others seemingly enjoy cannot be avoided, or parlayed away with promises of fidelity and faith if only, if only this wandering would end. No, the wasteland is unmoved by you. It exists because you don't know yourself, your mind, what to do with the life in your hands. You are ever on the outside looking in and every attempt to find and know love evaporates, every job and opportunity is seeded with its end right when you begin and you move from unhappy place to unhappy place and wonder at the misery of it all. Perhaps you withdraw. Maybe you go searching in churches and temples. Maybe you use your body to dull your pain. All of that activity is an illusion that doing such things will bring you the peace you crave. But that only delays the task before you: crossing the wasteland. 

To cross this empty place you have to go within and listen. 

You must listen for your voice in the cacophony of voices echoing inside you: your family, your teachers, your mentors, your friends, your employers, your beloved, your culture, your faith and sort through them to find your own. Once found, the wasteland does not end, but now you know the way.

This is what I mean by keeping your feet moving–regardless of your circumstances. For you cannot know what is possible beforehand. You can only learn by undergoing it. And the wasteland? It is no such thing. It is where you come alive.

* * *

Every difficulty, every pain can be transformed by your willingness to use it as a means to know your mind. These difficulties can be organic (disease, genetics), abrupt (accident, betrayal), unjust (circumstance, politics) and slow simmering (self-loathing, fear). But I'll argue that each holds within it the possibility - not the inevitability - but the possibility of helping you cross the wasteland. And that, for us fucked fuckers, is probably easy enough to believe, for we are masters of the struggle. 

But there is more.

Every kindness, every act of grace, of love can also be transformed by your willingness to use it as a means to know your mind. What I am calling the wasteland is the sense of being disconnected from your life, yet it is not life that is disconnected and as such it is still filled with infinite possibility including kindness, grace and love. You know this to be true. In the harrowing of your losses, there was someone you held your head, or you found a place to rest it if only for an hour. The wasteland is not outside of you, but is what you have made of the inner life.

To find what's been in your mind you must also include the possibilities of finding and knowing love, of friendship and acceptance. 

It is a great harm we do to ourselves to believe it is all one way or the other.  The days keep turning into night and the point of your departure is always being nigh. What has been hard should make you kind. What has been loving should make you kinder still.

Never give up. Never give in. The wasteland ends when you see it for what it is: a gift to know your mind.

* * *