Saturday, December 29, 2018

Squinting into the Distance

Three months ago, I took a pretty complete set of measurements: chest, arms, shoulders, thighs, calves, with the intention of repeating the measurements quarterly: I was setting out to build muscle, working out four or five times per week, and I wanted to be able to measure my progress. Yesterday I did it again, and found that all the measurements were -- exactly the same, except a quarter-inch smaller around the chest and around the thigh. So that was disappointing.

Well, except. I weigh myself and measure my waist and hips every morning, so I know those measurements quite precisely. Three months ago I weighed three pounds less, and my waist was 3/4" larger, and my hips were .5" smaller. When I actually put all these facts together, I realized that there's really no other way to interpret them. My volume is staying the same while my weight is increasing: that can only mean that I am becoming denser. That three pounds can't be fat, given that the waist was shrinking. It has to be new muscle, and I have to have been becoming leaner. In fact the numbers meant I was doing exactly what I set out to do, and in fact going at twice the pace I had hoped. I've been building a pound of muscle per month. So that's cheering.

The point of this is not to brag, although of course I'm doing that too: the point is that it's easy to mistake and misinterpret what numbers mean if you don't have enough context. My initial and quite erroneous response was, "I haven't built any muscle, I've failed!" I might have taken that to heart and given up the project.


Ultima Thule. It hadn't even been discovered when New Horizons launched, and now we're going to get a look at it. Four billion miles is a long, long way from home.


"Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand," said Thomas Carlyle. 

You have to do some of both, of course, but my life has skewed toward squinting into the distance. It's surprisingly refreshing to spend most of my energy on what's clear and close at hand: cooking my food, doing my exercise, tending my finances, doing my work at the foundation. I am distinctly happier.

Monday, December 24, 2018

This Pleasant Lea

"If your religion excluded hearth and home, and was intellectual self-indulgence, then no wonder you jettisoned it," said Lekshe. It would be too much to say that was all it was, but some of it was. There was also Wordsworth's longing for attunement:

...For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Well and good, William, but you don't get attunement for free. A world in which you really believe in Furies is a far different world from one in which you saunter along pleasant leas and indulge a passing literary yen for wholeness. 

I've recognized in myself, and in some of my readers, a weakness for following the story rather than the discoverable and verifiable facts, which leads by easy stages to caging children in border camps. I and my people have been far too fond of having our cake and eating it too. 

Bread and stone, tree and water: a few things we all have handled daily, Pagans, Christians, and Buddhists alike. The morning sky and the bell. 

I am realizing my loyalty to science and experiment: to keeping alive the suspicion that if you can't dream up a repeatable experiment to demonstrate a difference, the difference may not be there. However obvious it may be. Lots of obvious things aren't true.

But also science is not enough, and a regular practice of compassion is necessary to keep me from "falling off the other side of the horse." Because in certain long views, who the hell cares? So the human species is experiencing an "outbreak," and will drown itself and many other species in its own shit -- why should I care? How is that different from any other biological shift? Much of what I cared about most deeply is already gone. The old growth forests of Oregon linger in a few little parks and sanctuaries, but the whole point of the old forests was their immensity, the fact that you could get lost in them. A lion on the savanna is magnificent, but a lion in a zoo is just sad. 

I don't know. I get muddled, I lose the thread, I repeat myself. And after all, the question of "am I a Buddhist"? is neither essential nor even interesting. The interesting question is, "what next?"

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Sucky Little Promises

The changes come slowly, and all at once.  Two years ago I was rolling along consuming my way through an American life, despite realizing that, unless I increased my income, something was going to have to give. Despite fully understanding that the consumer life was not delivering on any of its promises, even its sucky little promises: the treats didn't even taste good; the conveniences weren't convenient. I was living lavishly, like a lord, but the poverty of my spirit was every day more obvious.

And then I just stopped.

It's not quite as simple as that, but almost.

Now I eat things that have names, rather than trademarks. Eggs, oats, apples, potatoes. I cook my own food. I have spreadsheets to tell me when, for instance, I'm spending a ridiculous portion of my income on Worcestershire sauce. I take the train or the bus to work. I think about what I earn and spend and invest, as if this was actually my life, as if I actually lived here, rather than being one of Steinbeck's temporarily embarrassed millionaires, camped awhile on the banks of the Willamette while my glorious future is preparing.

Many things converged. Some, I'm sure, I will only understand later, or not at all. "The death of Jesus set me free," as William Blake asserted: that's part of it. The election to the presidency of a man who, improbably, manages to unite in his person practically everything I have ever despised had a hand in it: my political despair is absolute. It's odd I guess that it's just when my sober assessment tells me that adopting a simple life can no longer move any of the needles that I should have found the wherewithal to do it. But I'm doing it for me, not for you. You can rot in hell, my countrymen. You will. You already do.

But I pull myself away from that. I don't mean to pay him or his people any more homage or attention than I must. Send them on their way. Don't let the trap hit you on the way down, sweethearts. I have other things to do, in the time left.

No. What is important now is dismissing fear, and turning only and always to what is beautiful. I practice this over and over. If it's neither practical nor beautiful, I want no part of it. And it must be here now, today, or this week, this month at a stretch. Not ten years from now. Not when the city on the hill is built.

And -- not opposed to this, but actually gracefully part of it -- I have to live as if my choices mattered, even though I know they don't. I have to stop consuming more than I need, not because it will have any effect, but for my own peace of mind. I don't mistake it for political action, which is the only real path forward (if there is one) for the environment. But I just can't do it any more, the relentless spend spend spend acquire acquire acquire waste waste waste. I'm done. I'm living as simply as I reasonably can. 


Milk-white sky, the ferns nodding occasionally, like sleepy old men pretending to pay attention: the quiet of the morning, one of the few parts of The Season that I really like, has set in. 


My religious impulses have withered, in these last two years, as my attention has turned to home and hearth. My affable tolerance for magical thinking has vanished, to be replaced by a maybe more authentic hatred for that sort of intellectual self-indulgence. I am much, much less nice. I have moments of contempt that frighten me: they come surging up from basement rooms I didn't even know my brain had. This is me too, of course, as I've always been. I work on it, kneading it, trying to soften it. Sometimes I think I'm getting somewhere.

"I'm a religious person..." I began to say, somewhere. Social media, I expect. But I stopped and didn't hit "enter." Maybe I'm not a religious person. What was it I started to mean, when I said that? That for me ecstatic experience trumped quotidian concerns? That I was willing to entertain falsehoods, if they would lead me to new understandings? That I was aware of larger consciousnesses than the one I call "mine" sharing my space? 

Or maybe, just that I'm a contrary old cuss, whose friends are largely unreligious academics, and I like rattling their cages? All of these, none of these, I don't know. 


The wind picks up, and for a moment or two the ferns are lively, and the hedge shakes itself like a dog coming out of a river. Merry Christmas, y'all.