Thursday, July 21, 2016

What Was That

"What was that? Does my face look strange?"

- The last words of RL Stevenson

* * *

In 1894, on the island of Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson struggled a bit to pull the cork out of a wine bottle. It was the evening. His wife was with him. As he managed to free the cork, he looked up at his wife and said, "What was that? Does my face look strange?" and then fell to the floor. He died hours later from a hemorrhage that flew through his brain. He was 44.

I was put in the mind of this story yesterday when a strange flutter, an angry tremor danced alongside the right side of my head and a whanging headache roared instantly to life, encasing the right side of my head in a vise. I was instantly nauseous and light headed and all I could think of was RL and his wine bottle. Without meaning to, I asked myself, "What was that?"

* * *

We take our days at a gallop, then believe they cease to move. We become stuck in our miseries, trapped, and we come to believe that time, too, is stuck, trapped, stoppered like a wine bottle. Except, invariably we are jarred by circumstance and we wake to see the calendar has fled. Why is this so common a thing as to be a cliche: yes, yes, I know, time flies, etc, etc. I think it has something to do with forgetting. We forget our histories. We forget our wild, unruly dreams. We forget our silences and the deep well that surely exists inside of us: the reservoir of our soul, the umbilicus to the mystery of our existence. We trade it for such passing things as a mortgage, or a promotion, or a partner we've come to believe we cannot exist without. That's fine. We all have holes to fill, but unless we remember ourselves, our central self and try to build a life around the message of that self, then when the cork gets stuck a bit and our face becomes strange what will we have done with this one chance to know the world?

Against forgetting. Let me stand here, against forgetting. Let me stand against the unnoticed drip of days, the unnoticed sun. Let me stand against the tide of commerce and work as a free man. I will stand against forgetting the line of light, the limb of a tree, the sweet line cast out, the line of fathers and mothers stretching back behind me, the line of lives that bent and turned and were broken and healed and shuffled off and brought forth until at last I took my place and replaced myself with another. I stand against the forgetting, the abdication, the fear that whispers futility in my ears and I stand for the deeper well, the well spring of the driven green fuse. I stand with my brothers and sisters who dare to not forget themselves in the crush and welter of politics and instead work and live and create lives of integrity, which is to say lives of beauty. This is where I'll be.

And you, my best beloved, where will you be? Where will you stand?

* * *

The work of our days is to discover this well and never lose sight of it. It can be discovered in the dreams we have. It can reveal itself in the work we are drawn to. It is always part of us, even when we refuse it or ignore it or deny it. Regrets are illuminations come too late. Do not refuse, ignore or deny what is essential in you, whatever that may be. It is different for each of us, but there are echoes and rhymes that help us to feel less alone, part of a larger body than our solitary one. We know this is how love works–we are less alone and more willing to be our true selves. It is the mystery of religion, scholarship, craftsmanship, care-giving. It is what is best in us: to be known and a little more. It is found in respect for the other's journey and the compassion that attends such acknowledgement.

Joseph Campbell said that all of his work, all of writings, all of his scholarship was intended for artists only. He could care less about academia and its ilk. He wanted to get what he discovered into the hands of those who lived out those myths on a daily and hourly basis: those who create. I have always loved that about him. It is frank and telling and willing to stand where he saw fit. I have come to realize that this, too, is my work. I have tried to imagine this page as open and broad enough to take in all who aspire in any manner to find a bit of solace and encouragement. I hope that has been the case. I hope it remains so, but it is well past the time to be honest with myself and you. I know nothing about money or politics. I have opinions, but no knowledge of their workings. I know nothing about religious life. What I do know is the will to sit and write. What I do know is the impulse to create and that, at last, is where I'll stand.

* * *

CAT scans, blood tests, EKG, etc., all came back unremarkable. No change in my face. But I am pulverized this morning. It is the feeling the day after the car accident. On my way to the hospital, my son at the wheel, all I could think of was all the work that remains. Unremarkable tests tell me I have at least today to work at my work, and not at anything else.

I wish you well.


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

I Write You

I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve-year old child whom they were oath-bound to protect. And you have seen men in the same uniform pummel Marlene Pinnock, someone's grandmother, on the side of the road. And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed wit the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter  if the destruction springs  from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be help accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.
   There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in the moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing–race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy–serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

* * *

I write you in the sixth year of producing this work. I am writing to you because this is the work I have found for myself. It is my hope that the work here helps open up the possibilities inside you, allows you the permission to change, become the person you may yet be, the one you imagine freed from the sorrows and losses and fears that have attended and attached themselves to your days. The basic premise of what I do is this: fear = fucked. If you are fucked there is fear lurking inside it, perhaps a hundred fears, maybe just one, but fear is the marker of a fucked life. If you take even a cursory glance at the world around you you will know that fear stains, colors, skews, distorts and limits the lives we are living. Fear feels like it is the mortar of our society: present, solid, secure, binding each to a particular way of thinking and being in the world. Demographics change, but the fears remain locked in place: militarized, anxious, coiled, certain of itself.

Baton Rouge. Falcon Heights. Dallas.

Place names that stand in for the names of the dead, for the names of those killed most assuredly by fear: anxious and coiled, angry, sisyphean in its hubris and futility. Place names that will be used as a shorthand for every fear about the other, the one who does not think, act, do as I do, the one who does not have my experience, the one who blathers platitudes, the one who thinks himself conscious and free, the one blind with hate. Shorthand for a refusal to take more than a cursory look at what has been wrought over 240 years and self-righteously assure ourselves we aren't like that anymore.

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," declared Mississippi as it left the Union, "the greatest material interest of the world."

But we are. We are like that and we are in ways that have nothing to do with the oafs and open sewers with their Confederate flags and neo-Nazi hate. We are trapped in institutions and systems that can't even name their sins, but instead seek to blame the victim for her plight. We don't have a language mature enough to say what is plain: our nation was birthed on the black and brown bodies of native peoples and slaves brought against their will to be the economic engine of the nation's wealth. To do this, to conceive of such genocide and generational brutality requires the elimination of the humanity of those enslaved (and their subsequent heirs).


"The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black. And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals."  

- John C. Calhoun, motherfucker.

This dis-logic, this contortion of piety, this vomitous rationale is not a remnant of the past, a thing dislodged at Gettysburg, but has been subsumed into our nation's DNA, part of the background, always there, always exerting an influence, never leaving us alone. The deeper problem than all of that is how easily we don't see it, how we imagine ourselves past all that, for we, ourselves, don't believe we are racist. That is for crackers and dumb-fucks. We pride ourselves on our post-racial bona fides. And because of this we do not examine, do not question, do not challenge the status quo and instead place the blame on rogue cops, or on the people who cannot bear the destruction of their bodies another minute and rise up in their anger and their desolation.

But this must not be allowed to stand, this unquestioning of self and country. This willful ignorance of the sources and wellsprings of our habituated disregard for the other, smoothed over by a myopic insistence on judging the immediate, the personal and refusing to account for the inherent, coded, embedded privilege of being "white" only sustains and extends the suffering.

Case in point:

In 2002 my then wife and I adopted a child who was 5 days old, abandoned at the hospital where my wife worked. My daughter is African-American. We needed her birth mother to relinquish her parental rights to complete the adoption and she agreed to come to court to do so. She stood before an Irish-American judge disheveled, scared, completely outmatched by the room and the moment. He was brutal to her. He shamed her for doing, what I believed, was a remarkable thing. She signed some papers and stepped aside in tears. My wife and I stepped up. He winked at us. He didn't ask a single question. He said, "God bless you for doing this. The child is yours. I already signed the papers." We drove the mother of our daughter back to the West Side of Chicago, leaving her at her methadone clinic and we went to the hospital to take our daughter home.

Was the judge an evil man for the way he treated this broken woman, for the favor he showered on us? Wasn't a child saved from desolation? He wasn't evil. He was in the system and couldn't see out of it. All he saw was a white suburban couple and that spoke volumes, besides, he had other cases to get to. We were the easiest thing he did all day.

This is the unexamined bias, birthed in the cancerous mouth of Calhoun, that prompts some to insist that "All Lives Matter" as a way of dismissing the generational destruction of black lives that ever enter the maw of the system, or even just stand along the edges of it selling mixtapes and cigarettes. It is the bias that informs the "twice as good" mantra of black families (which means they settle for half as much). It is in the air we breath and the water we drink (think Flint, Michigan). It stalks the streets of the Southside of Chicago and drives up sales AR-15's. 

Black lives matter more than white feelings. 

If can you unfuck just one thing in your life, let it be this. I don't say this as one who has it figured out. I say it only as the father of my daughter. She is heir to what we do next.

* * *

I wish you well.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

In The Meanwhile

In the meanwhile our schools are designed to produce fractional men by the million, and the emphasis of life is placed on the extreme lower range of humanly realizable values. We are trying to live by bread alone, with far less than half of reality; and through the jungles of the world stalk monstrous hates and greeds, and even in the press of thousands upon thousands of our fellow creatures we are lonesome.

- John G Neihardt, Poetic Values: Their Reality and Our Need of Them

* * *

I look around me - in papers and books stacked and stuffed and stored on every shelf, in every drawer, packed in boxes I rarely open but am fully aware of, littered across the several desks and folding tables I seem to need to spread myself out - and I am surrounded by voices, voices stoppered and held on page after page by the million. They wait for an eye to read them and they roar back into life. It is easy to forget how these voices sound (there have been so many pages and so many books and stories and poems and essays and it seems enough to just touch the spine of the book and dimly remember you'd read it once, but could hardly say what was said) and you lie to yourself that in fact you do remember. But pull a book down and open it again and it is not what you remembered. It is, invariably, better, more alive than you'd allowed. You then think,  how will I ever reread them all?

* * *

Here is what is: every age, every era, every epoch is fraught with destruction, stupidity and willful ignorance. What should be stable is made tenuous by the avarice and greed by those pretending to the throne. Lives of the day in and day out aren't worth the effort to breathe their name. Even the god of writers, Ganesha, cannot keep up with the streaming toll of the dead to note even their name. It has always been so. It will always be so. It is, without hesitation, unbearable if you take but a moment to consider it. It is why we don't consider it and pass our days in distractions of acquisition and feral entertainments. Yet, here is what is: there is always a voice crying in the wilderness, there is always a poet, a healer, a saint, a thinker, a fool who speaks out truths and rhymes and points in a different direction. Always marginalized, always doubted, they hold to their vision and carry on until they are carried out. Their memory echoes a while, maybe even disappears, but if an eye falls upon an open book the possibility, the chance, to be heard again exists. This very subversive idea is what put the Gospel of Thomas in those caves along the Dead Sea; it is what sits inside each unread book from 1925; it is the single copy of Aurelius' notes to himself that someone saved at the time of his death, copied, held onto, passed along until another copy was made and 2000 years later we heirs to such unlikely events can know his mind as if he sat beside us.

John Neihardt wrote of poetic values not as literary values, but human, psychological necessities to navigate the experience of being alive. The fractional men were ones without those values, or who looked down upon such things a poetry. They were practical, striving men. Yet the better part of life was missing in them: the soul's desire to be known and at home in the world. It isn't rhyming schemes that gets you there. It is imagining rhyming schemes at all. It is imaging movement, color and form for no reason other than it seems to connect, belong and throw some light on what it might mean to be alive. There is no meaning to life. You have to bring meaning to it and the meaning you bring is born by your actions. Fractional men and women (churned out by schools whose primary function is to provide a profit center for themselves while sending out half men, half women who will know enough to desire wealth, but not know their own worth) fill the coffers of others with their labor, their time and have no solace except for the passing pleasures of consumption.

No, this is no way to live. It is the belief, the rock-bottom belief that life could not be any other way. Trapped in systems that do not benefit us, that do not sustain us, that do not even keep the paltry promises made for our time, our labor, our bodies, we cease trying to escape and just get behind the mule and plow. At our deaths people nod and say we worked hard, as if that was all a life could be.

* * *

Open a book. Set aside the self-help books and the celebrity confessionals. Open a book that once meant something to you. Maybe you read it years ago. Maybe you simply purchased it, but never read it, but once you thought it might be of some value. Open a book. Take it in for a minute. If it is an older book, maybe it was hand sewn. Look at the font. Claude Garamond, William Caslon, John Baskerville gave their lives to punch cut die so that others could read. There are lives on the page that have nothing to do with the meaning of the words. This is a miracle. Look at the binding: modern and glued, or are there boards and endpages? The object itself is an achievement in imaging rhyming schemes in three dimensions. Now read it. Read it. Another human being sat still long enough to gather her thoughts and organize them, find a pattern to them and lay them out for you and you alone to see so that you might understand what she was thinking. If Neihardt's fractional men, stalking hate and greed are also lonesome it is because they read but do not see the human effort behind the words, do not recognize the very soul required to imagine rhyming schemes and the value inherent in trying to share out what is ephemeral, evanescent before it disappears: a thought. To read is to be joined to another, is to hear their voice counseling you, encouraging you, cautioning you, warning you, exhorting you to pick up the mantle of your unlikely existence and run with it. Fully. Completely. No part left out.

* * *

To be fucked, is to be living a half life. The world sucks. It always has. The malicious buffoonery of presumptive leaders invariably creates fear, creates insiders and outsiders, the haves and have-nots. It will always be so. Quit trying to save the world. Save yourself instead. Become a fool, a saint, a poet, a healer, a thinker. Use your voice so others might hear it. If your audience is but one, you have done well. Leave notes, clues, passages about what it was like to come this way. They don't have to be books or poems. Something on the back of napkin will do. These acts are inherently subversive, inherently poetic in nature for they reject the prevailing culture and suggest there might be more than work, death and taxes.

The world does not need another corporate shill. It needs poets so others will be made brave enough to imagine their own rhyming schemes.

* * *

I wish you well.