Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Only Gifts

The only gifts from my Lord
Were a birth and a divorce
But I read the script and the costume fit
So I played my part

- The Lumineers, "Cleopatra"

* * *

There are times when you read something, hear something, some song, some bit of conversation, see something and your only response is to say, "Yes, fucking yes," under your breath because whatever it was that you read, heard, or saw so completely matches up with a truth you have known but haven't articulated that its: right on, yes, fucking, yes, that's it. And a thread of your loneliness flies away.

"Cleopatra" has that all over it. For me.

* * *

Rabbi Nachman wrote:  "Every day the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement." 

That this is true is difficult for us to imagine. We move through our days as best we can trying to tend to the immediate, the need in front of us, the task at hand. It is our way. It is also our way to become trapped in the immediate, the need and task in front of us, for that is an endless wave: moment by moment we have to choose what we do next. Over time this choosing becomes automatic, without thought, born out of experience and mostly it helps us to make it through each day. And yet these daily obligations are drained of any grace or meaning because they play on an endless loop. The only changes we notice are when we shift roles from child to adult to lover to parent to bread winner to caregiver to being aged to our demise. Each transition is marked by how expectations for us shift from no responsibility, to wearying responsibility, to no expectation but to die in our fashion and in turn.

I know: grim.

Yet, that is just the commonest story. It is not fate or destiny. At any moment you are free to choose differently. At any moment you can decide to choose differently and so live differently – even at the very end. The sort of life you have can be changed for a different sort of life, a life closer to the bone of your existence and the threshold to that life is not far, it is not remote, nor does it have to be earned by acts of worthiness. Every day the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement, is one response. There is also this: you simply choose it because what has come before has not sustained you.

I know,  I know: there's nothing "simply" about it.

Except that's how it is. What gets you to that point, what drives you to your knees, what breaks the hold of others' expectations for you - that's not so "simply." But once there the distance is not far. It takes but a breath.

* * *

The first gift is a birth. After that they tumble out, hand over fist, head over heel, one after the other in a torrent of possibility. But we are taught early to narrow the field and the wonder we once felt at the smell of rain, how walnuts make the tongue raw, the work of ants, the color of our blood, the stickiness of peaches, how running felt like flying, the flash of anger when we felt poorly used, the way water from a hose tastes better than from a glass, our first achievements, our first losses, the sweetness of our memories of a childhood dog, the Mississippi River, lying on our backs and staring into trees, into clouds, the taste of snow is slowly ebbed from us. But that is only our perception. The gifts remain and as we get older, as we matriculate along the timeline of our lives it takes greater and greater disruptions to catch our attention.  

Other gifts arrive: divorce, job loss, foreclosure, death, disease...

Each is a chance for you to change how you are experiencing the one life in your hands. Those latter gifts are terrible, can be terribly painful, but within each, just as within all the other gifts of taste and memory and sensation, lies the seed of your possibility. It is never far. It is always at hand. You just have to see it, to recognize it, to choose it.

And to choose it will mean to not choose other things, perhaps things that have been expected of you since birth, or that you've assumed you must take on because the larger society approves of this over that. Parents, well-meaning, may send you down a career path of stolid respectability because they fear economic hardship for you otherwise and because they are your parents you listen and perhaps stop listening to yourself. Reasonable things are lovely, but perhaps not for you. But if you follow there will come a time when you understand you didn't have to live this way. That will be a hard day and the threshold will still be right there for you.

* * *

Cleopatra was taller than the rafters, but missed much because the costume fit. 

This is a great sorrow, for everyday the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement, for everyday it is possible to choose a different sort of life, to build it out of other materials, to center it on a different idea. Perhaps the gift handed to you of faith and certainty is a hand in glove for you – right on, fuck yes, have at it. Perhaps the large, slow moving currents of society's expectation make perfect sense to you. Then go with your God. And perhaps the costume doesn't really fit, you've just convinced yourself it does so you can get along in the world. I get that. But listen, love, don't give up. You can choose a different way of being in the world, one that does no harm to you or those around you. You may disappoint some, but that is no harm. That is just a gift you give them to remind them the threshold to a different way of experiencing the one life they have to live is right there, at hand, not far, just the length of a breath.

* * *

I wish you well.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Film Of

A film of weariness enveloped everything. Events passed in slow motion, and thoughts became so confused I lost all sense of time passing. When I stopped I would make an excuse for it, so as not to feel guilty. My frostbitten fingers became the most common excuse. I had to take my mitts and inner gloves off to check that they were not getting worse. Ten minutes late the voice would jolt me back to reality, and I would pull on the glove I had only half managed to remove and tug my mitt over it, and crawl. My hands were always deep in the snow as I crawled, and when they had gone numb I would stop again and stare at them. I meant to massage them, or remove the gloves and heat them in the sun, but I just stared at them until the voice called me.

- Joe Simpson, Touching the Void

* * *

The voice, the voice, where does the voice come from, the italicized voice, the one that is separate from the day in and day out voice always running through our head, that internal dialog of bits of song, catch phrases and the testing out of ideas? The daily voice, the common voice, the voice of our meandering minds is just us having a conversation with ourselves. It is no worry. It is part of how we think. As I type I hear each word and listen for patterns and what comes next. I hear my voice. But the voice, the one outside of time, the one that is separate from the mundanities of habit and daily life, the one Joe Simpson had to italicize to make you know it was different, where does that voice come from? Dare we listen to it? Viewed quickly, it smacks of a disconnect with reality. But this isn't the horror of schizophrenia. No, this is its opposite. If your life is fucked, if it has ever been fucked, you have heard this voice. To be sure, it is part of you, but it is larger than you and you know it. That's why you pay attention. That's how it can save you.

* * *

Joe Simpson and Simon Yates had just ascended a 21,000 foot peak in the Andes and were on their descent when Simpson fell off an ice ledge, breaking his leg. Yates rigged a system of ropes to get Simpson down the side of the mountain when a blizzard struck. The rigged ropes became entangled and in the howling wind both would have been pulled off the mountain to their deaths. Yates cut the rope to save himself and Simpson plummeted to his certain death. Except he didn't die. For the next three days and nights he crawled, hand over hand off that mountain and was rescued by Yates, who racked by an oppressive guilt stayed behind in hopes of recovering the body.

In the 1920's when Air France began the first mail service over the Andes, a pilot, one Guillaumet, crashed and was given up for dead. He, too, walked off the mountain. He, too, as he made his way out of the ice and snow would lose track of time, would pull his gloves off to stare at his hands and then suddenly remember to move. He later said, "What saves a man is to take a step. It is always the same step, but you must take it." 

* * *

To be fucked, to have your life fucked is to be alone. No matter how many people you know, who know your story, who want to help, who truly, truly, truly are there for you, the overwhelming sense of being alone is its marker and signifier. Perhaps guilt isolates you, as in, "I did this to myself"; or it is the loneliness of being a victim: "This was done to me." Maybe it is simply the stunned silence of recognizing the wheels have come off - for whatever reason - and you can't imagine how it ever gets moving again, can't imagine where to begin to re-assemble the parts. Outside forces well beyond your control can compound this feeling. The blizzard struck Yates and Simpson. Guilaumet's engine failed. The Recession began right at the time of your divorce. These outside events act as a multiplier in your isolation, your sense of being lost and it washes over you and you lose track of time, of what you meant to be doing and are solely occupied with your predicament.

And then you hear that voice. And for five minutes you move again until you lose track of what you were doing and remember how alone you are. You think to warm your hands in the sun, but can only stare at your hands. And then you hear that voice. In time, over time, if you pay attention, you learn to trust this voice, so different from the voice of your woe, your losses, your fuckedness. You are able to move a bit more each day and then one day you find yourself near base camp and the sense of being alone is swamped by the realization that others have been there all the time, looking for you, waiting for you to come back.

What is this voice that kept you alive? What is this voice that brought you out of sleep and brought you back?

It is both of you and beyond you. 

God? Nature? Spirit? Science? I can only tell you this: it is sum of all life as filtered through you. It is the inaudible thrum of all life, of all transformation as realized in this very moment by you.

The isolation we feel when things are all jacked up is born out of a preponderance of ego: we are kings of fuckitude and lonely is the crown. Yes, you have helped make this mess, but no, the mea culpa is just more ego and is useless here. Somewhere you know that, but won't act on it. Somewhere you know to put one foot in front of the other, but refuse it because the pain is great, the isolation pure. You stare at your hands until, in your fatigue, the voice makes it through. It is the voice of life insisting on itself, insisting on change and transformation: out of the darkness, light. From nothing, something. 

Viktor Frankl wrote, "What is to give light, must endure burning."

That voice is the sound of all life expressing itself through you. It needs you to take a step so we all can discover what comes next, because, listen love, we're all on the mountain.

* * *

I wish you well.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

I Cannot Be

I cannot be liberated from anything that I do not possess, have not done or experienced. Real liberation becomes possible for me only when I have done all that I was able to do, when I have completely devoted myself to a thing and participated in it to the utmost. If I withdraw from participation, I am virtually amputating the corresponding part of my psyche. Naturally, there may be good reasons for my not immersing myself in a given experience. But then I am forced to confess my inability, and must know that I may have neglected to do something of vital importance.

- C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

* * *

I first read Jung's autobiography when I was 24. I remember being taken with density of the writing, but at 24 so much of what a man had to say at the end of his life had little traction for someone at the start. But I still possess and still read that dog-eared copy, the pages a dark yellow (the lignin from the pulp darker than the cellulose and susceptible to time), my scrawled marginalia drawing my attention to what I once thought important, but now I only care for what I did not notice 30 years ago. 

* * *

You hear the chants and the mantras of letting go. You see images of sunsets at beaches with someone meditating and an inspirational quote stands in for a body of learning and everywhere you are reminded to let it all go. 

Right on. Sign me up.

Except, maybe we fucked fuckers have put the cart before the horse here.

How can we let go of something we do not possess, have not experienced? 

What fucks us is fear, the anticipation of a bad outcome, the hesitancy to step across the threshold. We have internalized the expectation that things don't work out for us: love, money, career, understanding, acceptance, faith. We have extrapolated from our experience worlds that do not exist except in our fears. This leaves us betwixt and between, nowhere, really, and we feel out of step, unequal to life. It frays the soul and we wonder how it ever got this way.

Perhaps it is as Jung said, by withdrawing from participation we have limited what was possible for us. And why? Because having failed before, we assume we will fail again; because having lost something or someone before, we assume we will lose again. And our worlds narrow, become proscribed by the reach of our doubt. And then, and then, and then, we search for answers and are told to let go, to seek liberation, to sit in silence, to walk in the woods, to perform rituals intended to release our pain and still the shadow of our fears remain. At what point in all this self-awareness and self-work will the promised liberation come? Maybe never, for the basic assumption is wrong: you cannot be free of something you do not possess. If all you possess is fear the way to be free of it is not to whisper affirmations, or promise yourself this time it will hold. 

The way out is to go in.

We refuse the experience before us, some of it for good reason, but most of it out of fear, a lack, a doubt in our ability to master the moment so we hold it off at arm's length. But it is never resolved, only held in abeyance, ever ready for an opening to appear to come rushing forward. We resist it sometimes because it is so damned important and we claim we're not ready, not worthy, unskilled and it never leaves our side. Now imagine the obverse: you run to it, embrace it and wrestle with it until it blesses you. You have entered the stream of your life and now have that experience and if needs be you can now release it and your fear with it. 

To possess only fear, only doubt is to possess nothing of the potential in your life. 

To flesh out what is possible you have to go in, willingly, in order to find out what is there for you. This is no excuse for self-destructive behavior or narcissism. The opposite is true: by being willing to engage and experience your life, to confront what you resist, to overcome what has stalled you transforms you from the quiet, insidious narcissism of being a self determined victim, a mere plaything of chance, into one who has passed through the fire and is kinder and gentler, more forgiving and generous with those who still stand by the side of the road.

* * *

It s impossible to know a priori which experience and what circumstances are ripe, telling, important. There is no book or guide here, only yourself, your intuition, your psyche, your soul responding to what is in your life. You have to listen closely. You have to be quiet enough to listen. Perhaps you'll mediate at sunrise along a beach. Perhaps you'll write down your dreams. Perhaps you'll draw mandalas. No matter. The form of your listening is immaterial. What matters is that it come from you and fits you, aligns with you, emboldens you to accept the call to immerse yourself in your experience, to not shy from it. Then and only then do you have the option to let it all go.

* * *

I wish you well.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

Come On Pilgrim

Come on, pilgrim, won’t you stay the road?
Put that distance from your mind,
Don’t you let it show
Well, it’s just a ride, and I’m at your side
If you didn’t know
Come on, pilgrim, won’t you stay the road?

- Glen Hansard, "Stay The Road"

* * *

The hardest thing to remember is that no feeling is final; the hardest thing to remember is how far you've come and not how far you've yet to go; the hardest thing to remember is that small, terribly small steps are steps nonetheless and are harder won than the sudden great stride. The hardest thing to remember is you are not alone.

Baby, this I know.

* * *

Doubt is the easiest response to trial because it fits a narrative that somehow our brokenness, our struggle, the unique, completely personal story of how we got here is out of step with the surrounding story, the expected story, the story of "thou shall" and "thou shall not," the story that takes the cracks and wounds of your life and turns them into judgments against you. Ah, fuck me, doubt turns your story against yourself. That just cannot be, love. That just cannot be. The road you've come, every step upon it–the difficult and painful ones, the easy and joyous ones, the bored and tedious ones–these are the very heart of your existence and to let doubt (seeded by others) rob you of one moment is to cede your chance to know what it was like to live out the fullness of being you.

Except it can be withering out there. Quitting the road for a bit of shelter is a powerful call. I get that. I get that, and if you have to do it, if you have to let up and come in for a while, well, you do as you need. I'll be here waiting for you should you want to try again. So will every singer, every poet, every artist, every dancer, every writer, every friend, every true love, every soul that has passed this way, passed through their trial and found solace in the presence of another to keep their feet moving.

The sum of all wisdom is: keep your feet moving.
The sum of all love is: Come on, pilgrim, won't you stay the road?

* * *

My beloved said this to me: "There are days when our cracks are turned just so, faced just so that it lets in the doubt and anger of others and so we come to doubt ourselves. And other days the angle is wrong and all the doubt and anger in the world just rolls off our backs." No one is immune to this. No one can walk their road without this being part of it: you cannot carry it all perfectly and to think otherwise is to keep you fucked and stuck. They say bones are stronger at the break, that once healed it is stronger than it was before. Lovely metaphor, no? Except we're not bones alone. There are times, there will be times when you'll be staggered by doubt or loss or fear or any of the trials a person can face. Having traveled a bit of road is no promise the road ahead will somehow be easy. All that you get is the experience of having gone this far, and look, love, if you have made it this far, you can make it a bit further. This much is promised: the road changes, but only if you keep moving.

The singers and writers and poets and artists I've littered this place with for the past five years are the ones who kept me on the road and allowed me to survive the days when my cracks let in the sins of anger and fear from others. But that is just how I managed it. You, you have your own saints and traveling companions and you must, you must, you must lean on them when the days are hard, when the small step is worth a hundred miles. No one does this alone. I have a tendency to solitude and yet I cannot do this alone. None of us can. It is a catastrophe of spirit to assume you could.

From my friend John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. 

We are bound to each other through the fact of our existence.  If we are lucky we carry this knowledge lightly and give it freely as needs be.

* * *

The hardest thing to remember is no feeling is final. Even in death, out past death, far beyond life and death, no feeling is final, but is renewed by the next pilgrim to hit the road. The road is littered with the doings of the pilgrims who came before and gave what they could give and those doings are made to live again in the memory and doings of those alive now. Now it is your turn to do for others what others have given to you.

Stay the road, love. Stay the road. You have no idea how important that will be to someone you'll never know.

* * *

I wish you well.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

'Cause It's Sweet

'Cause it's sweet, couldn't be sweeter
Just watch the colors of the morning fly
May not be getting any younger
But my lord we're feeling so alive
Come on baby let the river roll on
(Lord don't let me lose this feeling)

- Cotton Jones, "Somehow to Keep It Going"

* * *

What can I tell you that that that will be of any use to you? On page six of one my copies of Aurelius' Meditations are these words: to communicate liberally, to be useful. This was a note he made to himself, a reminder of what was at stake for him and how he was to proceed. It has always struck me as the core of all this this this.  What is useful is often the thing we take no notice of at first, the thing we pass by because it is everpresent, part of the view. It takes a measure of time to see it for what it might be to us, how we might build something around that and so begin to have a different sort of life. We already know the life of getting in line, getting in debt, following the path well-marked. If you don't look closely it passes as close enough. But sometimes, if you are lucky, if you happen to pay attention to something you hadn't noticed before or hadn't seen in its uniqueness, or hadn't experienced as something new or vital or solitary, you get the chance, and chance only, to alter the path, to not follow, to build from this new insight a different way of being in the world. It needn't be all ferment and turmoil.  It could just be watching the colors of the morning fly.

* * *

The task set before us, each of us, is to build from the materials at hand. You cannot worry about the life you wish you had, but must, by needs be, focus on the life you do have, the one in your hands, the one filled with delight and horror, beauty and destruction, peace and desolation. It is by looking closely, honestly, the veil of your fears lifted that you can begin to sort through the possibilities of what to do next. So much of life as I have known it, as informs this this this writing is simply rebuilding. You have the option, at any moment, to build your life around something different, something other than what's been handed to you, expected of you, or what you have made of it so far. The center of your life is not fixed, but rather is fluid, responding to new experiences and new ideas. The faith of your childhood is different than the faith of your middle age is different than the faith of your deathbed. We fuck ourselves by trying to keep the center still, static, immobile, solid. Or, if we are desperate to be rid of that center we despair of ever having the strength and will to alter it. Either is harrowing, but both are resolved by the act of seeing the world that surrounds you as one of possibility and not inevitability. Nothing is inevitable save for death. The task for us is not found in our dying, but in how we live. 

If you have not looked into the sky and had a small burst of wonder or awe or silence at how it is always new, then maybe you should take another look. And when I say "sky" you know I mean anything of this world. Anything. Anything will do. And once you see it, truly open yourself to the color of it, the shape of it, how it resonates inside of you, you have the option, always the option, of incorporating that shape, that color that resonance into a new way of engaging the world.

Not long ago I took a walk along the edge of Lake Michigan. It was one of those briefly warm late winter days that cranked itself back into winter after a few hours. My friend and I were walking and the horizon, if you looked east, was water only: a great grey-green mass of gently heaving water and the sky shading into evening. I have always felt at home next to water, which is incongruous because I am not a good swimmer and do not like being in or on water. But put me next to it, next to a great body of water and I am calmed, made well. I have experienced oceans and lakes and great rivers and known I would be happy while I was in the vicinity, but on this day, in that company the water seemed wholly original to me. It changed from an experience I knew would be pleasing into something altogether different. The water looked like time to me, it felt like patience waiting for me to catch up to its imperturbable nature. Since then I have decided that I must live near water. Not simply within walking distance, but next to it so I can hear it, so I can feel its presence. I don't know how long that will take or if I'll ever be able to get there, but my life is now altered because of it.

Your willingness to see the things you think you know already as wholly new is a way out of your fuckeditude. It changes your perception and your perception changes your doings.

* * *

It is easy to imagine that time is somehow the enemy of life: tick, tick, tick... It is easy because we have been born into a time when our species values itself, its primacy, its conquering nature, its acquisitiveness as an ultimate expression of life. But truly, I tell you upon your face, that is exactly backwards. Acquisition, ego, man as the pinnacle are the manifestations of our ancestral, ancient fears that we are alone: our loneliness the engine of our genius. Time is. It is neither good nor bad. We experience it in our bodies and our minds. We make it an enemy. We call it the avenger. But, without being naive, it is possible to experience it differently. You and I are capable of watching the morning sky shift its colors and some mornings it takes our breath away in the way water feels like a call to me: we're alive, we are gifted with experiencing our lives, with meeting water and sky and imbuing them with meaning, comfort, motivation. We are able, if we choose, to use these things to build a way of being in the world that is different from the path of expectation and matriculation and conformity. We can do this because it is sweet, couldn't be sweeter to just watch the colors of the morning fly.

We're not getting any younger, but this is how you get to feel so alive.

* * *

I wish you well.