Monday, December 27, 2004
Then there is the verb "to cleave." I'm told that the sense of "to split" comes from Old English cleofan, while the sense of "to cling" comes from Old English clifian. I wouldn't know; I still remember cleofan, from my former life as a student of Old English poetry, but I don't off-hand remember ever seeing clifian in any text. Of course it's rare in Modern English, too. Fossilized in the wedding vow, or maybe it would have disappeared altogether by now.
Or maybe not. Both verbs run to flesh. The only common sense of the first is also all-but-fossilized, in the combination "meat-cleaver." And the uppermost sense of cleaving in "forsaking all others, and cleaving only unto him" is fleshly.
There may be a perception behind the stubborn survival of these two apparently contradictory meanings in a single verb. On the one hand, a sense of intercourse as wounding; on the other hand a sense of grafting. Things cleave together not because they're glued or tied but because they are cut open, and the raw surfaces brought together then try to heal together.
The People of the Book begin as herdsmen, and the glaring fact about herdsmen is that they slaughter and eat creatures they have tended and cared for from birth. Hunters kill animals that are strangers and (more or less) equals. Herdsmen kill their own trusting dependents. This treachery, I sometimes think -- especially at this time of year, when my tolerance of revealed religion is worn very thin -- informs the whole subsequent history and psychology of their relationship with God the Father. The Lord is my shepherd; but even the best good shepherd fully intends to cut the throats of his flock, in the end. In my mind's eye I always see a solemn, dark-eyed child watching her loving father in the slaughteryard with his bloody cleaver, trying to make sense of what she sees.
Monday, December 20, 2004
I was in Powell's, yesterday, buying Christmas books -- a mystery for Martha, collections of Manga for the kids (I still don't get Manga. It looks pretty much like Western cartooning to me, except with huge eyes, and endless martial-arts contests between minor deities. But everyone the age of my kids seems to be besotted with it. But anyway, that's not what I started to say.)
I was in Powell's, I say, and walking through the philosophy section, I felt a dreary hopelessness. Lots of people must feel that about books from the git-go, but to me it has been strange and scary, developing this response over the past couple years. Books used to be enticing. I used to look forward to them with an insatiable appetite. But now they're oppressive. Seldom, seldom does a book take me anywhere new, now. I read a few pages of a "new" book and it's just an old book, dressed up a bit or down a bit, salted with a few new facts sometimes, if I'm lucky, or set in a new place. But it's old characters in the new settings, and they wander through old stories like forgetful old men, their pasts more vivid than their presents. Supposedly factual books are just the same -- the same tired old narrators, the same rhetorical moves. I know them all already. Nothing they say will change my life. I know that before I start, so I read them idly, inattentively. Does this mean that I'm old? Or just that I've read too much?
It's not depression. I know depression intimately, in all its guises. I recognize the taste of depression immediately, and I know its physical sensations -- the slightly intensified power of gravity, the sense of the sun hefting a vast mattock over the sky, ready to drive me into the earth. This isn't that. It's a milder, sadder feeling, a bit careworn, quite ordinary. It's like being impatient with the children when they're tiresome. Like pushing away a leftover dinner on its third day. Just tired of it.
There's no sense of intellectual triumph here. Quite the contrary. It's not that I think I understand everything conceptual. It's that I think I have understood everything conceptual that it's in my power to understand. I am less intelligent, fractionally, than I was ten years ago. I can tell that. My mental edge is a little blunted. I used to be able to solve quadratic equations in my head. Not now. And I know that only gets worse. I pretty much know what I'm going to know, understand what I'm going to understand -- conceptually -- in this life. If I am to travel to new countries, any more, it will not be in books. Chaucer wrote:
And as for me, thogh that I can but lyte,
On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
And to hem yeve I feyth and ful credence,
And in myn herte have hem in reverence
So hertely, that ther is game noon
That fro my bokes maketh me to goon,
But hit be seldom, on the holyday;
Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
Is comen, and that I here the foules singe,
And that the floures ginnen for to springe,
Farwel my book and my devocioun!
But this is not May. It's December. I go from my books to a white sky and a sharp wind. Love has no new words for me, either. It speaks to me more of death than of beginnings. If the Dharma will not take me anywhere, now, then I think my travelling days are done.
I wrote this to Suzanne just now, clarifying, I hope --
You see, I used to walk through a bookstore seeing new worlds to conquer. I would master Kierkegaard. Eat up Nietzsche. Engulf Hegel. And then I would be a transformed creature, a creature who lived in the land of wonders, seeing a new heaven and a new earth.
Or in the stories, I would be Odysseus, or Dante, or Frodo. Travel with them, see with their eyes, and come to a new country. Even foolish science fiction would take me to unimagined places. And I would be new, there, a newly-made traveller.
Or I would learn Greek or Latin or Hebrew or Old English, and find the very roots leading into the heart of truth. And then I would be a different person, because someone who can reach right into the heart of it is a wizard who can see things other people can't.
So I walk in the bookstore now, and I feel the tug of those yearnings. Even then they seldom paid off. It may be now that they will never pay off again. That's okay. In real life we never get to strike the same bargain over again. Those new countries ready for conquest -- they were largely imagined. Never conquered. Wonders came in other ways, mostly.
Transformations too. Or, when they did, looked different. It wouldn't be a transformation, after all, if it looked the same from the inside as from the outside.
Friday, December 17, 2004
I hold your desire, this small thing, in the palm of my hand. An opening eye, hot with tears. A ticking pulse in the furred vulva. A wriggling living request. And after the ruckus, I hold it in my hand again, protectively, while its tears dry, and it's soothed to sleep.
All night the rush of the river. The sleepy rounding of flank and breast, soft breath and sudden restless turns. And finally the sun comes to the crowns of the trees, and the stars are gone, impossibly gone.
I revive the fire. My fingers smell of ash and pine pitch, and of you. I set the coffee-water in the flames. The sun comes down, finally, to the river, and the glitter off the water dapples the kettle.
The mountain, they say, is behind the hills, and the stars are behind the blue sky. I wouldn't know.
Dave claims to have been around only a year. I've done some poking around. The first link I have recorded to Via Negativa was on January 31, 2004; but I know I'd been reading Dave's blog for at least a couple of weeks by then. So I must have found him soon after he opened up shop. As with nearly every blog I especially like, the history of how I found it is lost in the mazes of beginningless time.
I guess I'm supposed to believe that since the Via has only been open for traffic for a year, I must have stumbled across in in the past year, but that's hopelessly reductive linear thinking, and it doesn't square with my experience at all. I was a raw teenager, full of despair, when he gave a me one of the kindest dope-slaps I've ever received, along with the gift (not be divulged in public) of the secret meaning of dragonflies. It was early in my marriage that I shared his account of his affair with Kwan Yin with Martha (his only venture, he claims, into the popular genre of religious porn), and we both laughed till we had tears in our eyes. And it was late in the evening of my days that I heard the words of his pianist, reminding me that I should
...Let outlines grow
fuzzy, liberated from their shadows.
Play all the fractional notes
between white & black, hemidemi-
semiquavers in milkweed pods,
seed-clouds of goldenrod, bare
branches. Their ordnance spent,
freed of primary obligations,
the empty casings have room
for more world -
Making room for more world. Via Negativa has been doing that for me for a year now. That's Dave's story, anyway, and I suppose he's wise to stick to it.
Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Suddenly, it's all okay.
I suspect that's more a chemical response than a conceptual breakthrough, but it was accompanied by some recovered understanding.
Most of my suffering here is born of the idea -- arrant nonsense, as I knew even before I had the Buddhist philosophy to back it up -- that I should be the one person in the world who transcends his circumstances. I treat this work as if it didn't matter very much because it doesn't matter very much. My company has deliberately chosen to make people redundant -- managers are instructed to make sure that if one of their people is run over by a truck, everything necessary will still get done. & If my company doesn't produce this product, someone else will. I have no sense of urgency about my work because there's nothing urgent about it. Nobody will be a whit the happier if I blaze through this project in four weeks, rather than in four months. I'm not rewarded here for how well I do my job; I'm rewarded for how well I establish verifiable objectives and then verify having achieved or exceeded them. In fact no one has a clue as to how well I do my job. Under these circumstances it's rather odd that I care about doing it at all. My understanding that keeping my job mostly has to do with company organizational changes and industry trends I have no control over is perfectly accurate. Would I really want to be someone who misunderstood things so badly as to think this work was important? Or who didn't respond reasonably to the relative importance of things?
The question of my own worthiness, as usual, simply muddies the water. I'm just a human being, in a particular set of circumstances. There's plenty of evidence that, given sufficient motivation, I work hard. They employ me here because I do what's important to them -- keep a level head, keep communications open, deliver exactly what I say I will when I say I will, have a good instinct for what constitutes a real problem, and send up warning signals when I recognize one. If they wanted something else, they could get something else. Or they could change my circumstances.
The question of whether I want to change my circumstances -- here or elsewhere -- is an entirely different one. But it's foolish to expect that I'll suddenly behave radically differently in the same old circumstances. That sort of triumph-of-the-will fantasy is a by-product of believing -- as we are daily exhorted and encouraged to do -- that our Selves are free-standing independent impermeable essences, sailing through a world that is completely distinct from us. We act on it, but it doesn't act on us. A silly belief, but I still get caught by it when I let my guard down.
The only really interesting question all this brings up is -- do I want this kind of job? Would I really rather have a job that mattered, or am I happy to cruise along like this, my creative energies mostly directed to blogging and studying Chinese and meditating and so forth, so long as the money's good?
I've understood clearly for years that the reason I do this job is to make money. I want to get the kids through college and have money for retirement. That's it. I neither get nor expect a lot of other satisfaction from this work. If that's not okay with me, I should find something else -- but in any case there's no need to get in a tizzy about what all this proves about my character. There's not much to be usefully proven about the exact ethical qualities or moral worth of chimeras.
Monday, December 13, 2004
I have had, for the last three weeks, the worst case of procrastination I have ever had. And we are talking here, mind you, about the man who got his driver's license at age twenty-seven, and who got his M.Phil. eight years after beginning graduate school.
I resolve each day to plunge into working on my new project, and only twice have I actually done anything. This is starting to look grim. I always worry, when this happens -- is this going to be the time when nothing kicks in? When I simply stop doing anything, ever again? What will become of me and my family, when I simply stop, for the last time?
A couple nights ago, I decided -- "this is my Dharma practice, right now. A grand opportunity to practice, eight hours a day. Every time I'm tempted to do something other than work, I will just sit with it, and watch it."
Well, it seemed a brilliant idea, and the next day was in fact one of the days I worked. But the power of the idea expired after one day. Today I've done it again. I sat here all day. Did a few piddly things as requests came in. But I'm paralyzed.
One thing this taught me (this is a lesson I've learned scores of times, but it never seems to stick) is that reason I practice on the cushion is that it's too damn hard to practice in real life. If making life my Dharma practice was going to work, trust me, amigos mios, I'd know it by now. Which is not to say that informal practice, what we call "carrying the practice" in my daily life, has no place. It's just that, if I try to go to war with daily samsaric life, armed with my Dharma practice, like that, samsara will simply win, & all I'll get is a broken life and a broken Dharma practice.
Procrastination is one of those truly inexplicable strategies I come up with, one of those ways of avoiding suffering that plainly inflicts so much more suffering than it could ever save me from, that I'm baffled as to how to deal with it. When I tell myself, "if you sit here and read blogs and write comments for the next three hours, Dale, you will be unhappy all the while, and miserable by the end of the day," -- when I see that with absolute clarity and without a dissentient voice anywhere in my head, and thereupon sit here and read blogs and write comments for three hours -- what's left to try?
Well, for one thing, I can make it public. (Et voici.) That often has a transformative effect on anything shame-based.
Another thing I can try is breaking the job up into tiny parts, and setting myself the task of doing just the very first tiniest lowest-risk part of the task. Because once I'm working, the whole complex sometimes just evaporates. The interest of the problem itself starts to get hold of me.
Well, in any case, here we are. End of day.
Friday, December 10, 2004
All day, dribbling words across the internet, arguing in an increasingly shrill and unconvincing voice. I am sick of my incapacities and anxieties, my posturings and pretenses. I did not really have much to say. Reaching out for comfort, as I used to when I was fourteen years old, by being obnoxious.
I did have two things to say, which of course I never said. So I'll say them here, now.
First -- I will consider no one my enemy. No one. Not now, not ever.
Second -- everything matters. Everything matters.
Thursday, December 09, 2004
Springfield, Oregon, 1971. It was very dark, very narrow. I emerged at twilight to wander through the hills, through black oak trees and high grass that was pale white under the stars.
The sign of our connection was the stars. Tolkien understood them as I did: A glimpse of a country that had never fallen under evil and doubt. William Blake is dear to me, but I find his stars, the spear-carriers of cruel Nobodaddy, preposterous. How he could look at the stars and see that, I don't know. Cruel cold indifferent stars, I suppose -- Dickens saw them that way too -- but to me they have always, always been heart-piercingly beautiful. I want to die under the stars. Their country is the real country, of which this, under the breeding sun, is a travesty.
Always the sense that I was not fit for this world. An awkward foreigner. The ordinary tasks of life that people of the sun did carelessly and easily were ordeals for me. Making a phone call. Chatting about the weather. Learning to drive. I did not want to do them, they never came easy to me, and even when I learned them I could forget how in the blink of an eye. In the middle of conversation I would stall, staring at the face or the phone as though I had never ever seen such a thing before. A light would turn green, and I would know that I was supposed to set the car back in motion, but I would have no idea how to do it.
Under the stars, those things never mattered.
I don't think I ever thought of myself as helpless or powerless. I thought of myself as Peter Beagle's Schmendrick, the magician whose famous master finally told him that "your uselessness and incompetence are so monumental, it can only mean that a power far greater than mine must dwell in you -- only it is working backwards at the moment."
I think of my situation in those years as precarious. Maybe I was tougher than I think; maybe I would have come through in any case. But my sense of it, looking back, is that I lived close to disaster, and that I could have pitched into it at any time. I lived outside of Springfield, Oregon, as full of hate as a water-balloon is full of water. When I read the news, a few years ago, of Kip Kinkel taking his gun to his Springfield highschool and slaughtering his classmates, all my sympathy was with him. My heart went out to him. I conscientiously evoked sympathy for the children killed, and their parents -- I was a parent myself by then, and I had lost friends and relatives to murderous violence: I knew the cost of these things -- but that was work of the head. My heart was with Kip, a creature of the night forced to walk under an alien sun. I thank God that I did not in those days have a father to helpfully buy me a gun. Anything could have broken that balloon.
Tolkien guided me out of that hatred and despair. The fact that I was Smeagol, hating the sun and everyone who lived under it, was immediately obvious to me; the fact that I was Frodo, as well, gradually became so. If John Ronald Reuel had come to me undisguised, as a Catholic talking about sin and temptation, I would have never have listened to him. But he came in a Pagan guise, and he was clearly in love with the natural world. No critic I know of (not that I've kept up) has ever commented on the single most obvious and surprising fact about the Lord of the Rings -- that it's a fifteen-hundred-page close narrative of a walk outdoors. And people read it. Nobody, I think, ever wrote better descriptions of sky and wood and open hill than Tolkien. So the fact that he was a Catholic, with a deeply Christian (if maybe heretical) message, was invisible to me. I could hear what he had to say.
The message was, that God is deliberately breaking us. That we are tested beyond our strength. That we are, and will remain, foreigners in this world, however much we love it.
Tolkien has many flaws. Maybe fatal ones, I don't know -- maybe he won't survive this century. He has the mild down-to-the-marrow sexism and racism of the culture he grew up in. He has no invention, although that's what he's often praised for. His plots and countries are pastiche, cobbled together from a dozen mythologies. He launches into a painfully pompous pseudo-biblical "high style" at the drop of a hat. If his nations were not mercifully disguised as "long ago and far away" the fact that he was so economically and politically silly as to, for instance, think that Franco was a blessing to Spain, would be obvious. His noble houses of Rohan and Gondor float on a terrain empty of peasants, with no visible means of support. He understands nothing ot the economics of class or imperialism.
But no one, maybe, has better understood and expressed the homelessness of the modern age. Tolkien's childhood was ahead of its time. His father died early, and his mother had to move repeatedly. He knew no home. As a fatherless Catholic, born South African, he was always an outsider in England. He had no roots, but he longed for them, and put that longing into story so vividly that the homeless, rootless Americans who made him really popular have always believed that the Shire was a representation of the safe, cosy Old World that Tolkien really knew and belonged in. In fact Tolkien appealed to Americans not because he was different from them, but because he was the same. He lived in the same noisy, ugly, industrialized world we do, in cheap suburbs, among desecrated landscapes. He yearned for a lost home in the Green World, just as we do.
What I learned from Tolkien, ultimately, was that nobody is home. There is no one at ease, here. We are all exiles, and this alienation that looks like it keeps us apart is in fact exactly what we have in common. It took me years to understand all of that, but I understood immediately that one person -- just one -- understood my homelessness. And that was what I most desperately needed.
I don't know how many times I've read the Lord of the Rings. I lost count at forty. I've read it aloud to my kids, repeatedly. I understand, intellectually, that there are better novelists and poets than Tolkien. But I also know that no one will ever mean more to me.
Tuesday, December 07, 2004
From warm countries
Take this promise
Dry woody oranges
From hothouses in Cleveland
Picked green by nervous Hondurans
(Always on the make,
Never scoring, always missing
The kindness of the Honduran sky.)
Taste these, and know
Exactly how the Lord thy God
Yet teach me never
To despise the fruit.
That is hard.
And teach me never
And teach me never
To whisper, "I earned
This; this is mine!"
Father, into thy hands
I commend this orange
That can't yet bleed.
Monday, December 06, 2004
I wonder if all lives are as strewn with wreckage as mine?
I harbor the fantasy that Marina is reading this, and gradually forgiving me. A fantasy that rests on the fantasy that she remembers me, in particular. The one no more probable than the other.
I remember the narrow white scarf she so often wore, her signature wry smile, the way she would begin by rolling her eyes, but lose the exasperation in sheer amusement, melting into a warm smile before the rolling was even finished.
I miss her today.
April 1980. I made my way to the far side of a little Greek island -- I don't remember its name any more -- stripped, and swam in the chilly Mediterranean Sea. It was harder to climb back out on the rocks than I had expected, and I remembered how Odysseus tore his hands when he tried, with his last strength, to get to a rocky shore through the surf.
Polytropon. Everyone tries and fails to translate that epithet for Odysseus. Much-turned. Widely-travelled. Many-metaphored. Well-versed. I wonder if you'd use the same word a bit of jetsam rolled in the surf. I suspect you would.
Do you remember that rather maudlin Hollywood cold-war comedy, The Russians are Coming? The stranded Russian sailor with the extraordinary blue eyes, on the beach with the girl he's ineptly tried to take hostage, suddenly throwing a stone far out into the sea and shouting "I do not want to hurt anyone!"
I've received so many loving sensitive helpful comments and emails that I'm being very slow to respond. Please know that I treasure every word, and the help given is very real and very appreciated. I would be more glib if it meant less to me.
Bless you all, new friends and old.
I'm back on the cushion. Thank you.
Friday, December 03, 2004
Seeing as how I came out with a post against Justice a while ago, maybe nobody will be very surprised to see me come out with a post against Democracy.
I think this country is far too democratic. Everywhere I read, left and right, that if the political system really reflected the People everything would be hunky dory. I don't think so. I think the problem is that this political system reflects the People all too well, with all their ignorance, impatience, and childishness.
A poll right after the presidential debates, of students at the University of Tennessee, if I remember right, asked which candidate wanted to roll back tax cuts for people making over 200,000 a year. About 50% thought it was Kerry. About 25% thought it was Bush. And 25% had the decency to admit they didn't know.
How about the fact that 87% of Americans STILL can't find Iraq on a map? And a majority can't find India? And to 29% the location of the Pacific Ocean is a mystery?
These are not, in my opinion, people who have any business selecting the government of the United States.
It's not that I think Americans are particularly stupid. They're as clever as anyone else when it comes to things they know about and care about. It's just that most of them don't know or care about things such as the nature of the Egyptian government or the dwindling of America's merchant-marine or the current state of scientific opinion about global warming. Yet we have a poltiical system that requires that they do (since they'll vote more or less directly for the president, who sets most policy about these sorts of things).
I know that many of you are angry at people who don't vote, but my own feeling is that if they don't know enough to vote confidently, they probably shouldn't do it. They're probably making the right decision.
The electoral college was intended to be buffer between the raw public and the election of the American executive. The idea was that each state would send its best people off to meet together and have a long talk and select a president. But now that we all bind our delegates to vote according to the popular vote of the state, that's been lost. The election of the president is no longer buffered against the raw public. It's made quirky by the electoral college, but it hasn't really been buffered.
I do think that legitimate power can only be derived from the people, and that all people should have an ultimately equal voice in choosing their government. But that doesn't mean I have to think a university student who believes that Bush wants to roll back his own tax cuts and that the Pacific Ocean laps gently on the Florida shore is a good presidential elector.
I would like to see a real republic. Or maybe a rerepublic. I trust a group of 100 people who know each other to select five from amongst themselves who are (on average) better qualified than they are. Bring together a hundred people selected that way, and let them vote for five amongst themselves, who would then vote for congressmen and presidents. Give those congressmen and presidents single long terms -- twelve years, say. So they have time to learn the job and don't have to spend most of their time getting re-elected. Once elected I don't want my representatives responding to the public, and being accountable to them. I want them responding to events, and being accountable to their own consciences.
Thursday, December 02, 2004
I found the paragraphs below. Written, I suppose, in September, always a month of openings and beginnings, for me. I've lost my way, since then. Groping. Never sure what to make of these bardos, when I'm seemingly in between lives. Waiting for something to happen. For the way to open in front of me. The writing below struck me because today I am so heavy with grief and worry. Was this really me? Musn't it have been some other person, in some other world?
Suddenly the door of this cell blows open, and fresh air rushes in. I wonder why?
I feel free and light as I often used to when I was an undergraduate. Something has lifted off me, for the moment anyway, which has been weighing on me since long ago, since my dear friend Shauna was murdered, maybe. A darkness came to live in me then. Came to stay for twenty-four years. And suddenly it's gone.
I was flirting, lightheartedly, at the school potluck the other night. I can flirt now without "meaning it." Completely without meaning it. Which means that that particular light-heartedness no longer carries a nasty hangover with it, in the form of contemplated secrecy or cultivated obsession. It's light now in a way that it's never been light. I'm free as I've never been free.
I was reading The Jew in the Lotus in the doctor's exam room. (Another small example. Why have I never before taken a book to the doctor, for that inevitable wait in the exam room? Because the waiting room is a place to wait, I guess.) Both the nurse and my doctor started conversations with me about it -- my doctor told me about a friend of his who went to shoot the video for that conference (The Jew in the Lotus is about a Buddhist-Jewish dialogue, a meeting between the Dalai Lama and several Jewish leaders) -- and who came away spiritually tranformed -- not something he had been looking for.
I have gone through life assuming that no one I know "in the real world" cares about any of this. I've always assumed that my spiritual yearnings (even before I knew enough to call them such) were something no one else had. As a child, and ever after. And so of course I've carefully avoided ever revealing them to anyone -- which means that no one has had any reason to think I'd have any interest in theirs.
I think I need to backtrack. Start again. Back to the shrine, back to Machik Labdron and Milarepa. I have been too willing to wait patiently. Patience is not always a virtue.