Thursday, June 30, 2016

John Alec Baker

John Alec Baker (1926 - 1987) was born and lived in Essex, England. He left school at the age of sixteen and worked at the Automobile Association and later for the soft drink company Britvic. He was forty-one when he published his first book, The Peregrine, the culmination of what he described as a ten-year fascination with hawks.

- From the inside cover of The Peregrine by J.A. Baker

* * *

Driving home from work yesterday I saw a guy walking on the sidewalk. He moved slowly, with some difficulty up the very slight incline of the shaved and dimpled handicap access curbs that corner all new streets. He was tallish, heavy, his musculature soft, sagging - as if from long idleness, and he had a backpack clinging to him like a papoose. He appeared to be in his mid-late fifties (my age) and he looked like death would soon overtake him if could not ever find a way to move just a bit faster: the flat, wide sidewalks too much for him to bear. He thereafter entered a bar.

What does his home look like? What are the rituals of long, quiet decay? Did he eat standing at the sink? in front of the television or computer? Was he alone? Who knew him? At ten, could he have imagined the life he now lived? Of course not, but once he imagined something other than a slow walk to a bar. We bolt out into the world and some simply fade, fall to the side, as anonymous as any, but somehow more so: an accumulation of food eaten, chances taken, missed, bungled, a clot of redemption, a knot of unknowability and the unfair judgment of passersby.

How can this be? How can we remain unknown, unknowable? Were we not once loved? If not by a mother or father, but surely a friend, a lover? Is it possible to live a life without a fraction of love? And what have we done with it, our one wild and precious life? 

* * *

I am haunted by rivers, by winter skies, by winds and weather that are indifferent to me. I have stood along canyon edges and felt myself annihilated by the time it took for the water to cut the rock. I have wished for eyes that could see more than I am capable of - to look into the distant, dim past and look for hints of my arrival - but can only see to my front door. If I am honest, this is who I am, this is what occupies me, but often, always often I am dishonest and am busy in other thoughts: 

Perhaps there remains for us some tree on a hillside,
which every day we can take into our vision;
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.
There remains for us yesterday's street
and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease.

The habit at its ease, the easy pattern of low expectation and making it to the next paycheck, the companionable slide into wanting less, being less, accepting less becomes a default setting which allows you the pleasure of not noticing others in their plight, in their days, in their hopes. If you don't see, then you cannot be troubled and an untroubled life is better than one turned and roiled by thoughts that go nowhere, have no answer or at best are unsatisfactory.

A man in his fifties walks slowly on the streets of Elburn, IL and heads into a saloon. What the hell am I thinking? Could it not just as easily be the case that he is delighted with his life, his work and the slowness in his step is part of a recovery? It is impossible to know, unless I knew him.

* * *

In 1968, a man named J.A. Baker published an odd and beautiful book, The Peregrine. He worked for a soda maker. He was married. Something, unnamed, unmoored him: illness, a breakdown, something. He went into the wintered fields near his home and watched the hawks to cease being as he was. He took notes. He saw another book come into the world a year later and then not another word was spoken. He died at 61. The story he left behind, the clues he left behind are incandescent in their fury and elegiac despair at ever ceasing to be what one was: hunter and hunted. Time, you know? And while my eyes fall to the easy habit of searching out odd voices, my honest habit looks to all that is missing in the biography of such a man, of any man, woman or child who ever bolted out onto this plain, this vista of experience and was known not.

You, my best beloved, are anonymous to all but a handful, and I to you. Perhaps I leak out some information here and there and you may have a picture of me, but I assure you it is just a framing device, a fiction that allows me to speak at all. This is our fate: to see the world and not be able to impress upon it our existence. Kilroy was here, alright, but unless another is there to read the graffito, then Kilroy wasn't there at all. It is this sense of needing another to close the circle that births the impulse to create, to speak, to move, to hammer at stone so that another might find it and know something of the one who came before. It is the home of elegy, of annihilation of a self bound by its fearful smallness and its burgeoning into life, connection, communion with the things on this plain: hawk, canyon, river, sky.

And this, too: solitary men and women confronting their fates and being moved to action, to plant their feet, plant a flag and proclaim: this mattered.

* * *

A three sentence biography, the coldest of obituaries, will not suffice. The slow walking man in Elburn is vastly more than I imagined for him. He contains dozens, hundreds of lives that have crossed his, of which he was part, of which he is heir to. If he is wounded then that makes him my brother. If the bar is his wintered field where he struggles to understand, then so be it. Even the anonymous live lives of feral glory, of feral sadness and we are all anonymous save but for the few closest to us. And since that is the case, be kind to them. They will, in their turn, struggle and will need to know  how you managed, where you went looking for hawks.

I wish you well.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

People Expect You

People expect you to fall
Hit that same old wall
Really they don't want to help at all
They talk behind your back today
Shake their heads and say
"Well, I always knew that the boy
would come to no good anyway"

- Barbara Keith, "Detroit or Buffalo"

* * *

We are prisoners of expectation,  forever holding our tongues or gibbering like monkeys to suit the needs of the room. We modulate ourselves to accommodate what is expected from us in a given situation: you can say this, not that to your employer, you don't ever mention x in front of your mother, avoid politics, sex and religion around your father-in-law, but speak of nothing else with your closest friends. It is all of one piece: the expectations of others shape and determine what we say and do. This is, in itself, unremarkable, for it is how we manage to survive much of our days. What is remarkable is how little we believe we do it. That is someone else's problem. We rarely see it in ourselves or in how we've lived our lives. Yet, I can think of nothing else quite as powerful, insidious and deleterious to the potential to know one's self (and this presumes that that knowledge is the singular task of being alive), as how the expectations of others can define a life–your life, my life, the life of the kid in the room down the hall, the lives of every last one of us making our way, on our way to find out.

People expect you to fall and hit that same old wall because they need you to fall in order to keep their understanding of the world locked in place. Should you "exceed expectations" folks are shocked, just shocked that it could be so. Why? Because patterns and well-defined roles are the grease in the grooves that keeps things moving. To where, no one asks, but move along, go along to get along, we do. God forbid you have a creative bone in your body, it will draw the ire of people who want you to drop it and get a real job, or monetize it - "Honey, making logos and brochures is a kind of art and it pays," or "You should try writing something people will like, a best seller sort of thing, and then you'd have enough money to write whatever you want." Have you noticed that expectations come with a price tag? It is the definitive mode of setting expectations and defining worth. And it cripples those who don't fit neatly into niches. It wears on each who struggle to make art, eat and keep the lights on. It is a scarlet letter, a brand, the mark of Cain among those torn between the expectations of others, the ones they've absorbed from others, and the ones they still have for themselves. Expectations define and over time we adjust our sense of self to accommodate the results.

And that, right there, bubbe, fucks you up.

* * *

What wall do you hit? What is the name of the expectation you fail to reach for others? What is the absolute keeper on your endeavor? How do you sublimate your own desires to fulfill the desires of others? How many bottles of wine does it take to wash that stain out?

We fail ourselves when we fail to be truthful with others.
We fail ourselves when we promise to get back to our work just as soon as there's money in the bank.
We fail ourselves when we believe what others tell us to believe.

Over time you can lose any thread of yourself blistering your heels running in the darkness of others' expectations. But there are magnificent pressures to stay lost: money will be tossed your way, love (just so long as you act the part), a measure of prestige perhaps, a scosh of fame, a local hero, the corner office and a gold watch.

Am I unfair? You bet I am. It is possible to live well and contentedly by meeting the expectations of your parents, spouse, employer and community. No doubt. No doubt. But those folks aren't reading this blog. You are. Those folks aren't like you or me. They are glad for the knowledge they have, while you and I think there is something more to do. Artists, if they are nothing else, are inventors of the possible. They shape chaos, birth form out of nothing and can only do so when they can hear their own hearts splashing inside their chests. Expectation is white noise blotting out that rhythm. You gotta listen, man. You gotta listen for what is calling your name, calling you into action, calling you to set aside worry over any expectation save for the one: the tattoo of your heartbeat calling you back to yourself.

It's hard to open up the door
Like you've done so many times before
Sometimes you think you just can't do it anymore
Take a chance and take a train
Out into the pouring rain
All you've got's your suitcase
full of pain

* * *

Keep this in mind: in 1972 Barbara Keith returned the advance she received for this album. She didn't want to live under the influence of the label. Unsurprisingly, the album hardly sold because it wasn't backed by the company. No matter. She lived up to her own expectations. Should you ever find a copy of the album in a junk shop or antique mall, buy it. Play it if you can, if not, frame it. Place it where you can see it everyday and bend a knee to no one. Listen to what you know to be true and go have a life free of the limits others would place on you.

* * *

I wish you well.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Around Every Man

Around every man streams an atmosphere that influences his experience.

- Albert Steffen, Meetings with Rudolph Steiner

* * *

I rummage in used book stores. It has been a constant therapy for me since I first left home. The thing with used book stores, as opposed to a book store devoted to new releases, is that you can't walk in with a plan. You are always thrown back on your memory, on vague memories of authors' names that you might have once come across, or a title someone once recommended to you and there, somehow, on the shelf was a book you couldn't have sought, but are deeply satisfied to find. Such is Meetings with Rudolph Steiner. Steiner was a philosopher, lecturer and public intellectual when that sort of thing was prized and respected. He is part of the welter of German arts that roughly coincides with Rilke and Hesse. He was, by all accounts, generous with his time and driven to understand man's spiritual life in scientific terms which would lead to an evolution in man's being, creating freer, more fully complete human beings, which would then bring about societal change because we'd all be so damned free.

You have to respect such hope.

I have been aware of Steiner's name for years. He started the Waldorf Schools and I have friends who sent their children there. He is the father of bio-dynamic agriculture that goes far beyond mere organics and is the holy grail of wine producers. He founded the Anthroposophical Society (an off-shoot of Theosophy) and spent his life writing and teaching his ideas in such a way that thousands were drawn to him and in time, after his death, the Nazi's sought to blot out his name. Steiner believed, man. He believed in his systems, his thought, the, to him, logical extension of that thought into every realm of man's endeavor. He wanted and expected us to evolve into something better than we'd shown.

You have to respect such hope.

And so rummaging in the used book store this book caught me eye. How odd, how wonderfully odd Steiner was and here was a book written by his protege about the great man. Had to have it, but I put it back on the shelf as its cost was greater than I allow myself. But then my daughter went into the same store two weeks later, found it and made it an early Father's Day gift. 

You have to respect such things.

* * *

Around every man streams an atmosphere that influences his experience. This atmosphere can be personal, idiosyncratic, familial, part of his community, nation and most broadly, his or her time. It is colored by personal acts, as well as events far removed from one's daily life. It is easy to imagine this atmosphere as being layered, colored, weighted by what occupies the mind most: personal loss, societal rage, money, faith, family, sex, work that does not insult, etc. This atmosphere, this mist of influences accompanies us everywhere we go and we are no longer able to see it in ourselves, but only in the actions of others. This atmosphere is light or dark depending on the time of day, the day of the year, the year in the life. It is the air we breathe.

You can understand all that as being an albatross, a fated unhappiness. You can also understand it as being the very thing that sustains you, that feeds your next step. It is neither. It is both. It is and what is made of it, how it is used and understood (if considered at all) will determine the rough shape of your days. It is impossible to not be influenced by one's family, or lack thereof. Impossible to not feel the shifts in the society one is born in and then grows into. And we, here, today, are moving in an atmosphere of upheaval, violence and the disintegration of civil discourse. Just like it always has been, only this time it is our turn to make our way through and we are horrified by what we see - regardless of which side of the political spectrum you sit on you are angry that it is so.

The ease with which we can vilify and dismiss anyone who is not of our mind is breathtaking. Social media allows for punches to be thrown, but from a distance. No one is eye to eye which makes throwing that punch, throwing shade, throwing aside any civility that much easier. Better to create a snark filled meme than imagine things are more complicated than that. What is the rise of Trump other than snark and anger made manifest to the world?

Around every man streams an atmosphere that influences his experience.

There is a second line to that quote. It reads: How can one tear him out of it?

But that is a useless thing to ask, for it can't be done. Horses to water and all. No, the answer, if there is an answer, lies elsewhere and it is deeply unsatisfying: if our experience is colored by the atmosphere that surrounds us–from the personal to the societal–then the task set before us is to live in such a way that the manner in which we live shifts the weight and color of the atmosphere of those closest to us, and they in their turn do the same. If you want a more just and free society, then you must be just and free to the darkest hour of the night. If you seek a return to white, male hegemony then you will follow that path and you will influence those around you. You will particularly influence those who stand opposed to such retrograde doings. You will engender the protests that will, in time, be the undoing of such chains. Here's why: the atmosphere that surrounds us is changeable, not fixed, regardless of any propaganda that says otherwise. The arc of history is long, but it bends to justice and along the way the atmosphere has been polluted by those who imagine the past is better than their present and who fear the future. Yet, despite world wars, despite holocausts on every continent, despite cruelty and fear, the atmosphere changes and hope and history rhyme.

* * *

Steiner was a lunatic, a beautiful, kind lunatic who believed in the spiritual evolution of mankind. He believed that nature revealed itself to man in such a way that man, too, could reveal his truest self to his brief time and so move, by degrees, closer to a perfection, a completeness that had yet to be accomplished except, for Steiner, in the person of Jesus Christ.

Steiner believed, man. He believed and his works live past him, have been taken up by others, added to and edited and shaped by new hands. These works spark creativity and autonomy in children, produce healthy environments that yield clean foodstuffs. By feeding off the atmosphere that surrounded him, his own story with the story of his time, he changed the atmosphere for others and it continues almost 100 years after his death.

Listen, love, you don't have to be Steiner to do this. You have to be who you are–complete, with no part left out. The things you say and do today can and will influence others unknown to you, as yet unborn. Your actions will be the atmosphere they are born into, that they start from. So, what will it be? Will you join your time and fight and work and live from what is essential in you, or will you let it slide? 

As Rumi says, everything depends on this.

* * *

I wish you well.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Where Are The

Where are the favors?
Where are the wise men?
Where are the open doors?
Where is the Revealer of Secrets?––
The answer is: "Right here!"
They are here, 
From the beginning to the end.
So it says,
     "You are what you seek."

- Jalaluiddin Rumi, "From Black Soot"

* * *

We forget this. We forget to slow our thoughts and let a bit of silence and birdsong into the clanging of our worry and frustration. We forget to be silent for long enough to hear our own voice. We forget to heed this voice when we hear it because it seems so out of place. We forget this and we do so time and again and do it at great cost to ourselves, those close beside us, to our days, our time, our sense of being in the world.

It is an easy thing to remain tied to the business of our daily lives: our Promethean struggle to live in the time and place where we stand. For some of you that place is an ugly field of broken opportunities, promises and the people you are near may be worn down to their poorer selves because of their own struggle to make sense of things. Others of you may be running in greased grooves money-wise, but there is no kidding anyone that once that spigot is turned on, all you want is to keep it flowing and that creates other sorts of trials. Fuck, listen, it doesn't matter where you stand. Each place and each life is its own test to see what can be done. Do you often wish you could trade your problems for another's because they seem to have it easier? That only makes you human. It also keeps you fucked.

Where are the favors, the wise men, the open doors? 
Who will reveal the secret to making something out of this? 

You will, or it won't be done.

The cavalry is not coming, love. You are already it.

But this does not mean you are alone. It means only you must remember who you are: not by the measurements and judgements of the world surrounding you, but by the silence of your higher self waiting for you to reveal it to yourself.

* * *

We wait on occasions. We hesitate to trust. We'd rather be certain. We do this because our identity is bound up in the goings on of commerce, religion and politics. We look to these institutions because they have answers, answers that have been honed for millennia. If we don't look there, we turn to our beloved, the one who loves us over all others. We tie our well-being to their estimation of us and should that love founder so, too, does our sense of identity and purpose. We do this, time and again, because it seems as if the world moves in those circles and that is where we want to be: safe, within, accepted, part of a whole, aiming for "better."

Neither you nor I need to be better. We need to be complete. 

What fucks us is conflating one for the other. We seek completeness in our beloved, our work, the rewards of that work and the promises made by falling into line and singing from the same choir book. And that works for many. But maybe not so much for you. You want to believe, but can't cross that line. You want to believe in your corporate work, your minimum wage work, your bullshit job that was left after the recession and the hope that this will somehow turn out all right because you worked hard.

And that's cool, man. I feel you there, but it really never feels too good, does it? The fit is off the rack: close, but nothing great. And if you follow the lead of your parents, who in their time had to choose where they stood, your life will be an echo of theirs. Even if they were poet-saints, that's no good for you. No, man, you want the secret to be revealed, then you'll have to reveal it. If you are waiting for the arrival of Shams Tabriz, you'll have to be Shams yourself. If you need a favor, then give it to yourself. If you pray to your God, you'll have to recognize that you are both supplicant and God. To get here, to get to this you need to quiet the noise and listen within yourself. It may take days, weeks, years, but my love, it is where your life takes hold. The answers you find will not be like mine. The answers you find may leave you out of step with others who want you to be like them. Your answers may not ever find their way into the world except for the way you carry yourself. Your greatness may lie in your dying as my father learned. Your silence may reveal upheaval. It may calm you. What is certain is that it will be yours to use, to build your life around, and if you follow the message of what you find and build everything in your life around that, of what you reveal to yourself, down into the marrow of the night, you will have a very different sort of life than the one you are living now. This says nothing about ease or success, only that what you find is yours.

And should you do this, should you venture the game (for this is not to be heavy or lugubrious–that closes off the possibility) you will be Shams, the favor, the secret revealed and every step you take will be a sign and signifier for others to dare it. You have to do this alone, but you are not alone. Others have been where you are now and their birdsong lingers in the air.

Just as yours will when you are done.

* * *

I wish you well.


Thursday, June 2, 2016

Unvisible Barbed Wire

Unvisible barbed wire all along
Around the neck of my song
Hey Romale, I'm beat up but going strong

Unstoppable fire of my tongue
And the path ahead that's long
Will get me at the end where I belong

- Gogol Bordello, Last One Goes The Hope
* * *
Bend a knee to no one.
* * *
Have you ever choked back a diatribe? Have you held your tongue because your spouse, your boss, your parents, your teachers, friends, co-workers, children, neighbors, politicians, museum docents, dolphin trainers, jai lai players, bar-room drummers, janitors, Comcast installers, gamblers, nurses, Boy-Scouts, garbage men, book store clerks, rabbis, small-town cops, and barbers all managed to take some advantage in their dealings with you: bullying, nagging, accusatory, demeaning, unthinking, thoughtless jibing, arrogant blustering, self-centered ego tripped blathering? Yeah, of course you have. Ten minutes later you've thought of the perfect thing to say, but the moment passed and the saying is never done. So you choke it down, add it to the pile of bile that has no outlet and you fuck yourself just that much more each time.

Love, bend a knee to no one.
Our habit of what we incorrectly call "decency" is, in fact, an indecent act of self-annihilation. To manage the dickheads, asshats, douche-y douchebags and the various and sundry people who have no sense of what they say and how it comes off and how it wounds, limits and bullys us into compliance and we clam up, we let the moment pass for fear of tapping that reservoir of unsaid things and losing control. Besides, we live to fight another day. But honestly, do we ever actually fight? No, we don't. The only examples we have are the dickheads, asshats and douchebags bullying and insulting their way along the road, and it isn't in us to be like them.

But, I tell you true, bend a knee to no one.
The question before you isn't will you encounter assholes and idiots, but rather will you allow them to define you and your choices?

And there is this: to resist their nihilism does not require you to become as they are, but demands that you become as you are.

* * *
It is simple to say: the only things you can control are what you think, say and do. So own it. You have no obligation to bear responsibility for the ridiculousness of others, only your own. To know yourself well enough to take no shit from anyone without becoming a shit yourself is what mastery is for.  To arrive at this mastery isn't simple, but it is direct.
Here's the dope: to get there, keep your feet moving; to get there, keep your fire alive; to get there, you'll take some beatings from others who don't get it, who want you to comply, get in line just like them, but use those obstacles to further free yourself.  Make ready by learning the contours of your soul. Learn the places where no more grief will be allowed to pass. Stand, love, stand and when challenged by a bully or a nag or a coward or a gossip or a prima donna just say, "No." Explain nothing, do not justify yourself to those who would limit you. Let your no, no more, no mas, pas plus, niks meer nie, zadna, nicht mehr, nincs tobb, nach bhfuil nios mo, non piu, kore ake stand as your final word and keep your feet moving, keep an eye on the fire and bend a knee to no one.

When you get drawn into the infernal pettiness of corporate politics, identify politics, partisan politics you cede ground and concede your integrity to their terms. You are ever fighting from your back foot and the best you can hope for is a draw. That is why you hold your tongue in the first place: you know it's futile. You've already lost before it's begun. Over time it wearies you and you forget what you ever felt so bad about.

Bend a knee to no one and you'll always know your name.
Bend a knee to no one and ask no one to bend a knee to you.
Bend a knee to no one and be free.

* * *

One last thing: there are forces you cannot control, things outside of your ability to influence - the unvisible barbed wire all along, around the neck of your song. Your task is not to undo that barbed wire, but to sing in spite of it, to move in such a manner that every act is an act of rebellion, of radical freedom that bends a knee to no one because it knows its name, its source, and where it is bound. 

The path ahead is long, love, but it will take you where you belong.

I wish you well.