Thursday, April 27, 2017

Waking's My Care

Waking's my care-
I'll make a broken music, or I'll die.

- Theodore Roethke, from "In Evening Air"

* * *

The only measure of poetry that matters is its ability to startle, to plunge a knife and keep moving.

* * * 

The task set before us is to live the life we have: the one with the imperfections, losses, fears, strengths, joys and desires that are unique to our shape, our skin, our presence. There is no other work for us. What we call work is the carving and parsing of that essential task. What we call ambition or hope is the manner in which we go about being in the world. There are lots of answers, lots of ways to respond. We travel through various forms and stages trying things on, trying them out, believing without knowing why, knowing why, but not believing. We move through our days often, it seems, on a conveyor belt to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. It is as if our feet are still and the world whirs and spins on ball bearings: mere passengers, we.

This is the how and why of being fucked: a lack of agency. Which is bullshit, of course, because that is the one thing that always remains, always is at hand, a tattoo on your soul: choice. For you always retain the freedom to choose how you will respond to the unbidden facts of your days. If you glide by, that's your choice. You did that. That's yours. It will remain in place as long as you allow it to. But if you want to unfuck, what's gotten fucked, then read poetry:

Waking's my care-
I'll make a broken music, or I'll die

* * *

None of it is easy, but it can be beautiful. Easy is the glidepath to your grave. Beautiful demands your commitment. It is a daily thing, an hourly thing, a breath by breath thing. It is never fixed in the sky, but changes as you change, moves as you move. What is static is dead and gone. What pulses creates. By your wit and will you bring forth the future. You alter it by adding your voice. Nothing is predetermined. Should you remain silent, another voice will take the place you could have held and the thing you could have given will be lost, unused.  Should you give half, then half is all we'll know. And if you hesitate because you are unsure of yourself, or find that your voice cracks, or is somehow, in your mind, lesser than the gifts of others you've misunderstood the question. All music is broken. All of it. What Roethke called music is simply his voice, his life standing where he could, John the Baptist-style, and crying out what it was like to be in that skin, with that soul, at that time, in that place. 

It is what each of us, in our own ways, are called to do.

Roethke wrote. Constantly. Less than 2% of the lines he wrote made it into the final poems. He burned, burned out and burned again. My father, no poet, but an embalmer, put his hands to over 10,000 deaths, 10,000 lives, families, hundreds of thousands of friends and acquaintances. He could give one last look, when one last look was the way things were, and he helped bridge the sudden gap. That, too, is a broken music.

* * *

You are here to move your body in space. You are here to fill the wilderness with your voice, broken as it may be. Its brokenness its virtue. We bring forth life when we do so. Neglecting it, or working against it brings misery and desolation. That is why the easy glide to the next and the next and the next must be resisted, fought against. That sort of matriculation does not serve you, but serves the well-worn grooves of the powers that be: the cults of youth, money, politics, religion. No, to serve the truth that only you can express requires one thing of you, a choice: make a broken music, or die trying.

But, if the choice is so stark, why bother?

Easy: you don't know who is listening and what effect you might have on their lives, their music.

When you are awake to this, when you see this in your own way, by your own effort, you will see that instead of being just one voice, you have become a choir - no heavenly host, but flesh and bone birthing the future.

* * *

I wish you well.

__________


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What Was Better

What was better then

Than to crush a leaf or a herb
Between you palms,

Then wave it slowly, soothingly
Past your mouth and nose

And breathe?

- Seamus Heaney, "A Herbal"

* * *

A prideful thing: my children refer to him simply as Seamus. As in, "I'm reading Seamus' Beowulf." Or, "Was reading some Seamus last night." Such things make me glad.

* * * 

I'll ask, is there anything better than crushing a leaf and slowly breathing it in? The oils in the leaf are released and your nose becomes the conduit for those smells to touch deep centers of memory: I know this place. I have been here before. And if the place is already familiar, known to you through daily encounters, then that fresh perfume renews your vows to that place and you know your part in it. The simple, almost absent-minded pleasure of taking in a fresh, green smell - mint, grass, hay, woodruff, lavender, creeping thyme - has the ability to place you outside of time, to hold you for the length of time it takes to breathe in and out, above past, present and future, to arrest your thoughts and bring you to an unnameable, wordless understanding of your life, all life and your place in it. And as quick as another breath it fades. But it was there and your body and mind know it now and become alert to the possibility of its return.

My father had the habit of taking a handful of grasses and rubbing them slowly in hands while he talked to you. He'd occasionally bring them to his nose, take in a deep breath and go back to rolling them back and forth in his hands. It was a habit he learned from his grandfather, a farmer at the turn of the 20th century, who, it was said, spoke few words, but could listen for days. His name was Alphonso Burdell Child, known simply as A.B.. Taciturn, hard working, gentle, a church-goer, A.B. passed along to his grandson the quiet habit of taking in what pleasure there was and so stay rooted in that moment listening to others talk, or to the wind whistling a bit. Somewhere near Castledawson, in County Derry, around the same time, Seamus Heaney learned that same habit. In time it became part of a poem to that place.  I learned it from my father and when I read Seamus' poem I was held, caught in the memories of green oils and my father as a young man. I could see him and smell the grass and time was nothing to me.

Poems and crushed leaves are the same thing: they hold you for a moment, lift you out of the toil and moil, and anoint you with their fresh relief.

All of which is to say, that the means of renewal are ever at hand. You simply need to reach out and breathe.

* * *

It is green today. It is that deeply saturated green infused with yellow that only appears in April. It is a rain soaked green. It looks like a velvet of moss on cool, wet rock. When you walk on it the ground gives an inch or two (or so it seems). The world, for now, is lush and cool, inviting, unconcerned with anything whatsoever, and everything what so ever is at peace in it.

My yard is a playground for crows, fat, lazy rabbits and a neighborhood cat who likes to sun himself on the drive. The tree outside my window is active with cardinals building a nest. Red-winged blackbirds, juncos, starlings, sparrows and swifts pierce the view as well. It is a reminder to not focus on the self too much, to not build up thoughts about the problems and trials of the day. For it is green and wet and Spring is promising to stay this time and though you know it won't, you indulge its optimism and feel it leak into your bones.

Old men crush leaves and herbs and grasses and so reclaim the green of their days. They draw in the freshness of it and for a moment they are not old, but wise and lithe and strong to know the way leaves smell when crushed. The green of April is the same: not old, but wise, renewed in a breath, a relief from what is weathered and worn.

It never leaves me, this notion that our cure, our balm is always at hand. It is in the paths of swifts rising like smoke and sparks; it is in the tiny purple and white flowers insisting upon their rights in all this green; it is in a half-feral cat making himself at home. It is also in the eye willing to notice such things, the mind that alerts the eye to be on the lookout for the return of a green and fragrant idle: cityside, exurb, emptyfield, no matter - it surrounds.

* * *

This green will harden and then brown out. With each day's turning everything changes, if only by degrees and it takes months to notice. But it is in those degrees of change, imperceptible, persistent that the cure for what ails you remains ready and at hand. The problem we fucked fuckers encounter is a problem of too much mind, too much pacing back and forth over a thought, a slight, a wound, a betrayal, a tragedy, a missed chance to be who we thought ourselves to be. While I will never suggest that anyone stop thinking or learning, it is not, on its own, an absolute good. Context matters, and if you cannot see the paths of birds, or know enough to stop and crush a leaf in your hand for no reason other than the pleasure it brings, then you have trapped yourself in your pain, or worry, or fear.

To know which leaves smell best is to know something other than your pain or worry or fear and that, my best beloved, is the start of something that can carry you for a while while you regain your footing.

It is right at hand. Crush a leaf or herb between your palms. Breathe, and you will understand.

* * *

May your well run deep.

__________

Saturday, April 8, 2017

This Life Is

This life is more than
Flesh and bone
Turn back now before you're gone
When you go your spirit lives on
This life is more than
Flesh and bone


- Buddy Guy, Flesh & Bone

* * *

I have been away for a while. It has been important to be elsewhere, to be away from words. From time to time I need to step back, to silence my thoughts, to drain away the habits of thought and see if/when I might say something again. I fill my days with the day job, painting, music and cooking for my best beloveds. It is good. It is a good life and I didn't know if I had anything left to say and that was fine, just fine, with me.

A few days ago something new arrived. Something unexpected. It is the song above: a duet between Buddy Guy and Van Morrison. The song caught my eye because it was dedicated to the memory of BB King. So I listened. I listened and a dam I didn't know existed burst within me and I could write again.

* * *

Viktor Frankl wrote that happiness could not be pursued, it cannot be aimed for. Happiness, he said, could only ensue, could only occur if one did not aim for it. It was the by-product of living for a cause greater than yourself. 

In the Dhammapada there is this:

In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.

These two comments are the saying the same thing.

* * *

The way to unfuck your life is to live it so that others will know they are not alone. We, the living, assume we are the most important to have ever lived, for our time is important to us. But we are waves, cresting and falling again and again, each wave thinking it was the ultimate. You know what's the ultimate in this metaphor? The ocean, the thing that holds, supports and is changed by waves. To presume a greater significance to your life - over and above the dead and gone, over and above others now living who are not you, not like you, over and above the ones making their way here - because you are the one living it is the very mechanism of fucking things up.

Listening to Buddy Guy and Van Morrison trade verses about the nearness of their deaths, the recent death of BB King, and the call and response of a sweet by and by, it split me open: thunderbolt and sword. We come and go. Others came and went. Our time to depart will have its day. The ones yet to be will know the same. It is here, now, now while we have breath that our work is to be done. And that work is to set the table, to leave clues, to live so that stories of our days outlast our days. Not for immortality's sake, but for the comfort it may bring to those who stay behind, the solace our effort might bring those we could never know. It is kindness, generosity, courage and the strength to choose such a life.

* * *

There is no promise made to any life. There is no guarantor of happiness, wealth, love, peace. None. It is up to each life to sort through what is at hand to craft a life. Some lives are a torment throughout. Others run in a greased groove. What is essential regardless of what is suffered, is how it is engaged. We retain, in all circumstances, the freedom to choose how we will undergo the life we have, the life we create, the life we live. In that freedom lies the seed of all wisdom: our lives are not solely for ourselves, but are part of other lives - present, past, future. What we choose we change by the choosing. This, too, is the law, ancient and inexhaustible. To live with that forward in the mind changes the things you say and do. It makes you kinder, gentler than you might otherwise be.

But don't fall into the trap of perfection. Such a thing is bloodless and nothing to aspire to. No, it is precisely because we are fallible, imperfect, often inconsistent, forgetful, fearful that these choices have the power to encourage and embolden others to live closer to the bone. Imperfect is within reach. Never forget that.

* * *

Our work is to be free and act like it. Those acts hold the possibility of touching other lives. What message you send is entirely yours to choose. It can be for good. It can be for ill. Your call. It does not matter how many know your story, know parts of the story. Again, your story may be one that encourages by example; it may encourage by rejecting your example. Your call. Your freedom.

I will venture this, promise this: if you find your way to some place where your fevers have cooled, your anger quieted, your hurt healed, you cannot help but be generous to others for you will have passed through the fire they are walking through. Buddhas are perfect - fuck that. Bodhisattvas reject perfection in order to stay close to those in need. They stay because of compassion. They stay because they know much it can hurt to be stumbling and they choose, from the well of their being, to lend a hand.

This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible: happiness ensues when you give your live to a cause other than your own.

* * *

May your well run deep.

_______________