Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The List Is

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order.

- Umberto Eco

* * * 

- You are not alone.
- Commerce is not life.
- You are here to experience being here.
- You are part and whole.
- What makes us human is our story.
- People need hope.
- Service to others is our highest good.
- Creativity is the umbilical to the universe.
- Because we are finite, we are to leave gifts behind.
- Hatred is the denial of mystery.
- When we come to know God we become God.
- We are free to fail. Narcissism is proof.
- Resisting the mystery induces sorrow.
- We are easily deluded.
- We mistake metaphors and signs for reality.
- We fear death because we fear life.
- You are part of the trees.
- We are to be amazed, alive to wonder.
- Fear is the absence of trust.
- You have something to give: your life.
- Life is an on-going act of creation.
- We cling to unhappiness because it is known.
- All gifts can be perverted, used poorly.
- All communication is imperfect/partial: a sign pointing past itself.
- Every life is a sign.
- It is less teaching and more simply reminding.
- Selfishness is born from a lack of imagination.
- We are to give it away.
- It takes courage to walk your road.
- Our job is to create so others will find it and be emboldened to find their way.
- The expectations of others will drown you.
- Compliance is death each day.
- Everything is at hand, everything is nigh.
- Immersion is how mastery is approached, how life unfolds.
- Time is a measure of fear. 
- What is called God is simply loving the mystery–trusting it.
- You are to care for your body so your soul can do its work.
- Artfulness is artifice: shallow.
- Wake up to your own way of seeing things and never doubt it.
- We get lost because we forget all this.

* * *

I wish you well.


Friday, August 26, 2016

A Writer Is

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he hadn't started to say them.

- Wm. Stafford, "A Way of Writing"

* * *

As above, so below.

* * *

I have come to disbelieve in the idea of outcomes, end points, products, completeness, finality, terminus, omega, the definitive, once-and-for-all, the drolleries of certitude, and the sense of an ending. Not that these things don't exist, but that I have abandoned their presumed utility and dominance. All stories stop. My story will stop some day - the wherefore and why to be determined - but until that very moment all that matters is engaging with the life I have. This point of view squarely values the process of living over any thing made along the way.

Creativity, in the arts, in putting one foot in front of the other, has become a commodity to be monetized. The pervasiveness of turning everything into a dollar soaks into every pore. Writers struggle for publication, a measure of result, cultural heft, an audience. So, too, painters, dancers, sculptors, actors and the whole of the fine arts, but more so in the creativity we expend as parents, siblings, co-workers, bosses, husbands and wives and friends. This creates a linear life with specific rest stops along the way. It is a matriculated life. And that is fine, but it is just one way of encountering this experience. Just because it dominates doesn't mean it is the better way for you. It dominates because it is the lowest common denominator with articulated rules that even if you hate them, you know them.

What Stafford suggests occurs in his writing, that things arrive and as they arrive they lead to other things you couldn't have intentionally set out for, I will suggest occurs in our lives and if we pay attention we can be brought into a different sort of life than the fucked up jumble we have. This new life has no religion other than its faith in meeting what happens next. Out of that encounter between who we are at that moment and the arrival of a thought or idea or understanding we didn't see coming a new, third, thing emerges and so leads to the next arrival and its interaction with who we have just become and so on.

This is a meandering life. At least from the outside, from the world of productivity and judgment, but there is an internal logic that sustains it: the process is greater than any of its effects.

To get here it requires not having something to say, but the willingness to discover what might be said.

* * *

There is an over-ripeness to the banality that things change, that the only constant is change. It is spoken as if it were an acted on wisdom, but in truth those ideas that change surrounds us at every moment is an entrenchment to resist change, to withdraw, to not hope for too much, to acquiesce to fate. It has the effect of getting in line, shutting up and being thankful for what you have. I am all for gratitude, but not the meek and timid kind, the kind printed on a t-shirt or shared as a meme. No, the only gratitude I can offer is for the chance to try again, to keep working, my feet to fly, the world to see, the mystery of our breath set aside to breathe in the mystery. 

There is nothing rote or safe or known before hand. It frightens and thrills. It tests and saves. It calls and you respond. And here's the thing: when the hour comes and there's no voice left in your throat another will take up the cause and so keep us discovering who we may yet be. And those effects that I don't believe in anymore, those products and creations? They become part of what those who come later will encounter and process and transform in their time. The only value I can see in these effects (poems, children, songs, gardens, laws, dances, stories, images, films, trees planted, students taught) is in the message at the root of each one: you are not alone.

* * *

Your exact errors make a music
that nobody hears.
Your straying feet find the great dance,
walking alone.
And you live in a world where stumbling
always leads home.

Year after year fits over your face–
when there was youth, your talent
was youth;
later, you find your way by touch
where moss redeems the stone;

And you discover where music begins
before it makes any sound,
far in the mountains where canyons go
still as the always-falling, ever-new flakes of snow.

- Wm. Stafford, "You and Art"

* * *

I wish you well.


Friday, August 19, 2016

In What Way

In what way were we trapped? where, our mistake? what, where, how, when, what way, might all these things have been different, if only we had done otherwise? if only we might have known. Where lost that bright health of love that knew so surely it would stay; how, did it sink away, beyond help, beyond hope, beyond desire, beyond remembrance; and where the weight and the wealth of that strong year when there was more to eat than we could hold, new clothes, a granfanola, and money in the bank? How, how did all this sink so swift away, like that grand august cloud who gathers–the day quiets dark and chills, and the leaves lather–and scarcely steams the land? How are these things?

- James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

* * *
How are these things? By what mechanism do they come to be? Where was the moment the wheel came loose before popping off? What seed was inadvertently planted? What weed came of it? How did intention and inattention become this?

There is no answer, no true answer, just feints and eclipses and ellipses. We are troubled by the answers we find because of their incompleteness. There is no grand unifying theory of fucking it up, having it get fucked up and being fucked. It is unique in its specifics, but I’ll suggest there is a thread–different colored as the case may be–that runs along and through such questions. It is this: the underlying premise that our lives are made meaningful by ease or comfort or success or the good fortune to not be familiar with tragedy is wrong. Our lives are not made meaningful by the pursuit of happiness, but by the willingness to undergo the experience that is uniquely ours. It may or may not hold much peace or quiet or love or relief. It may have all that in spades. What is certain is it is yours to suss out and see what is there for you to see, to learn, to forgive, to experience.

Sounds grim. Lord knows it can be. But that, too, is a type of lie, a keeper on the very experience you’re to wade into. Preconceiving, prejudging, allowing circumstance to be the arbiter of what is possible for you is as crippling as the saccharine mantras of self-help gurus who peddle a snake oil that, at its root, blames you for not believing hard enough.

No, the life in your hands has but one master: you. What you choose to believe, how you choose to act, where you choose to go are all under your control.

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

What is outside of that choice is the outcome, the very circumstance you find yourself in, but to you goes the freedom to choose how you’ll experience your life. This is the only truth to hang a hat on. Everything else you do, from religion to politics to work to love to how you will experience your death, flow from that one point. Culture and expectation may blind you to it, but it is there waiting for you.

* * *

Agee wrote about tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression. Impossibly hard lives: subsistence farming, no education, crushing poverty and failing health from overwork. Children died early and often. How could that be bearable? How could the yoke of a nation’s indifference have a shred of meaning or purpose? It would be easy to say they lived so Agee could write of them and haunt us with their desolation, but that is facile. No, Agee took with him the photographer Walker Evans to document these lives and if you can’t find the meaning of these lives in the fury and righteous fire of Agee’s words, you’ll see the inherent dignity of these lives in the photographs themselves. The physical, the corporeal, the bent and withered bones themselves answer back: I lived. I struggled. I didn’t choose my birth, but made my way.

Would you switch your life for theirs? No. No one would. But that is beside the point. We have but the life we have to see what can be made of our days. Comparing it to the experience someone else is going through or has gone through keeps you from seeing all there is for you to see. There are no promises made about what that will be, only that it is yours to know.

* * *

Things sink swiftly away when we pay no attention, when we take their presence for granted, when we make assumptions instead of taking the time to learn and know. We do so, in part, because we fear what we might learn: a love shorn of its wonder, a job reduced to paycheck to paycheck living or no job at all, a mole ignored for fear it might be cancer. We tend to delusion, indifference and being a victim as it is easier to skate by. Few things actually sink swiftly. Mostly we lower our expectations for ourselves bit by bit until things are threadbare.

But there is a tonic, a cure: being awake to the life in your veins. That alone is promised (for a while). The rest is up to you.

* * *

“It is not likely for any of you, my beloved, whose poor lives I have already betrayed, and should you see these things so astounded, so destroyed, I dread to dare that I shall ever look into your dear eyes again: and soon, quite soon now, in two years, in five, in forty, it will all be over, and one by one we shall all be drawn into the planet beside one another; let us then hope better of our children, and of our children’s children; let us know, let us know there is cure, there is to be an end to it, whose beginnings are long begun, and in slow agonies and all deceptions clearing; and in the teeth of all hope of cure which shall pretend its denial and hope of good use to men, let us most quietly and in most reverent fierceness say, not by its captive but by its utmost meanings:”

I have lived and this is my story.

* * *

I wish you well.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Be Not Solitary

Be not solitary, be not idle.

- Robt. Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Sec 4, 2:6

* * *

Suffering is a dislocation, a misalignment from what was expected or desired. It is a broken link in a chain of circumstance. It is unavoidable. It returns like a lost dog coming home and takes on so many forms–both large (in the moment) and small (at a distance). Memory plays a role in it. Those who are once bitten twice shy come to wall off parts of their lives because of life's refusal to comply to expectations and desires. Though seemingly protected they actually suffer twice: first the fear and then the isolation that curbs what could have been possible with their days.

This isolating factor, this add-on cruelty makes formidable what was merely difficult. 

And what are we to make of it? to do with it? I think if we suffer it alone there is hubris in it, a pride in the ability to endure that displaces the causes of our suffering–an injustice and an unjustness as may be the case–with the deeply satisfying thrill of knowing how much you can bear. This is all self-referential, a glorying in being fucked. This is the false suffering Viktor Frankl spoke of. It is, in many ways, our default setting. But that still does not answer what are we to do with this dislocation, this rupture between our expectation and what has occurred instead? If suffering alone isolates us then there can be no value in the experience at all for it is closed loop: it begins and ends and begins with us. It is only when we use the raw material of our suffering to help another, to share our story so another might be spared or comforted, only when we overcome the isolation can the suffering be considered a useful thing, an essential thing, a necessary gift if our consciousness is to inhale all it can and so build our capacity for compassion.

Perhaps I have this wrong, but it seems to me this is the function of our days. No one gets a pass on suffering. No one. But many forego the peace it can bring.

* * *

To suffer alone, to endure, is to suffer without end, without pause, without respite or a cool glass of water. To bear up burdens alone is, in some very compelling ways, heroic: Atlas and Hercules all in one, the golden apple being the certainty that one was strong enough. And like most things heroic, it is foolish, the bluntest instrument to do the job.

No, the answer lies not in carrying an ever greater load, but in transforming it into weightlessness, refusing its gravity by denying the impulse to withdraw, circle wagons, close the blinds and turn out the lights. Italo Calvino wrote:

"After forty years of writing fiction, after exploring various roads and making diverse experiments, the time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language."

This seems a good place to begin, for what are our burdens, our sufferings except the language we use to describe them and to describe ourselves in the midst of carrying the weight of our losses? This is our story, the one we tell ourselves over and over to make sense out of the facts and occurrences of our lives. But if that story is is only whispered in our own head, if it never leaks out, if it never finds an audience of at least one, then the weight of that story grows until it is impossible to tell where the point of suffering ends and the story of the suffering begins. It becomes all of one piece.

But to dare to reveal it to another is the beginning of a new life, a new way of understanding and dealing with what ever it was that brought you to your knees.  Like all things, even your sufferings are to be used because they are the material at hand. The great flaw in the logic of what passes for stoicism is that life will begin again after the suffering has ceased, that there will be a day in the future when the way is cleared of this debris, but until then all that can be done is to bear up one's pall.

No, man. That ain't right.

Life has not ceased to continue. It continues and flows around you, the way a river slides past a rock. You are no longer carried, but are an obstacle. To rejoin the river's flow you have to subtract the weight and the way to do that is to take what is at hand–your loss, your sorrow, your anger, your fear– and use it to expiate the notion that you are alone in this. We are easily wounded. We are often afraid. What is best in us can be drained by being too long in the wasteland. The cure is not found in seeing how long we can endure, but in finding a way to let grief be a falling leaf. We are not to deny our losses, but to use them to be a bit kinder than we might otherwise have been, to be quicker to forgive, to be present when others are lost, to judge less and live more. This is the pearl of great price: out of suffering comes kindness.

To get to this understanding two things are required: be not solitary, be not idle.

The transformation of your losses is not done in a vacuum. It can only be done with at least one other: your spouse, your child, a friend, a stranger, a cause that touches countless others. To reach out from the solitary into the injustice and unjustness of the teeming world is a refutation of idle isolation. There is a force in it that learns to sustain itself on that contact, that feeds further action. And what is truly remarkable, what is the gift in all this is that action taken to redeem what has been lost, to forgive it, is never self-referential. It moves outward from your unique experience so that others can see a part of their own lives reflected and so feel less alone.

The struggle of our days is not between life and death, but between withdrawing from life, or engaging it. To have been hurt, to have been lost, to have struggled leaves open the door of greater compassion. This possibility is available to each of us because no one gets a pass on suffering, but this is achieved only if you be not solitary, if you be not idle.

I wish you well.