Sunday, April 24, 2022

Freeway Practice

I find myself on the freeway, a few times a week, driving home from work, and I've changed the ceremony.

Here's how it used to work: I would get on the freeway, anxiously squinting ahead to see what the traffic would be like: how many people were blocking my way home. The freeway was a thing built by a stupid people, who were willing to destroy real walkable neighborhoods for a few minutes' commute time out to their achingly ugly and stupid suburbs; and I was falling into the trap too, pitching myself into a concrete cauldron to get out to my own ugly and stupid house. Ugly and stupid all round.

And all around me the ugly and stupid were driving foolishly and recklessly, ignoring the obvious plain facts of physics, following the cars in front of them so close that even a tap on the brakes would necessarily cause a pile-up. Idiots. Others checking their damned phones: their desperation for validation easily outweighing their mild interest in not dying, not to mention their total indifference to me dying. What a bunch of fucking clowns. And there I was. If we all drove attentively and reasonably, we could move along at the speed the road was designed for. But no, they bunch up, accordion-style, coming almost to a halt and then jerking forward. If they left enough fucking room for people to get over, then they could all just flow through: it's the stickiness of the particles, not the volume of flow, that's the problem. Jesus. Does no one ever think?

After twenty or thirty minutes of this spiritual practice, I pretty reliably get the results you might expect: I feel isolated and persecuted: I hate my fellow human beings passionately, and my contempt for them is limitless.

So here's the new practice. I begin by thinking of the building of these works, which were among the world's engineering marvels when they were first built. Built by the financial contributions of millions of people for the good of the nation, and having served for a couple generations. All those people working in the rain or in the sun; all that expertise marshalled to make these soaring, curving ramps. They really are kind of amazing things. They have downsides: of course they do. But they make possible the daily respiration of a great city that I  love.

That, to set the stage. Now: my project for the next twenty or thirty minutes. It's not to get home as quickly as possible. Who cares about clipping off a minute here or ten seconds there? Will I be an ounce happier? will I treasure the few minutes I've snatched away from others? 

No, the project is to read the traffic so as to detect the knots forming, and do what I can to stop them. Notice when someone wants to get over, and make it possible. Speed up or slow down, so as to mitigate the bunching-up. We're all trying to get somewhere: home to see loved ones, to the store to pick up a prescription for a grandparent, home to prepare for a date. This is a project we're all in together: and my mission is to help us all achieve it. Maybe I understand the physics of this problem a little better than most people, and I can put that understanding to use.

It's a totally different twenty or thirty minutes, if I spend it that way, and I if I arrive a minute or two later than I did when I was struggling against the idiots, it's well worth it: I live in a  nicer world.

Monday, April 18, 2022

No Path Back

At sixteen -- seventeen, maybe -- I first read Plato, and decided he was wrong. No further action required. Around the same time, I acquired a copy of Being and Nothingness. Maybe I even read it: I don't remember. But I decided all philosophy was wrong, or at least inapplicable. I remember thinking "what I need to learn I am not going to learn from these people," which was fair enough, at the time. There were more pressing things I had to learn: for example, "how do I stop being a repulsive jerk?" and "how do I make a living?" And also, I had Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Blake to read. I wasn't wasting time.

But that was fifty years ago, and now I meet a neo-Platonist for realz, and suddenly the summary judgements of a teenager no longer do for me. What if Plato was right? What if he was even kind of right? What if I'm not such a clever lad, after all, that I'm smarter than thousands of years of people trying to understand what we are doing?

It's too late to become a philosopher. I don't have the stamina now to do mountains of difficult reading. I'll have to accept -- as I never did, as a reader of literature -- secondary sources and summaries, watered-down versions adapted to the meanest understandings. Well, bring it, then. I'm not reading the complete works of Kant and Heidegger at this time of my life. But I may need to know something, at least, about what they meant. I don't aspire to be a figure of any sort, literary or philosophical -- which is all to the good -- but I still aspire to understand: I still aspire to live a life that might mean something. I still aspire to take a bit of the edge off my own suffering, and other people's, in whatever way I can.

It's not just reading, of course. It's practicing. It's meditation, contemplation, prayer, visualization. Mushrooms. Being a damned fool, or even a blessed one. And it's writing poetry, and possibly even making art.

I don't see what else I can do, honestly. It's not just that there's no other path forward. There's also no path back. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Easter Moon

The Easter moon recedes behind
an impasto of cloud. The first Sunday
after the first full moon
after the vernal equinox. Christ.

The booing of the geese, the jeering of the crows.
What else? What did you expect? 
The echoes fade, the light goes. The palette knife
lays down diamonds of silver, squares of slate,

banked snow mounds of white, and the moon
(remember the crescent? That was Ramadan)
is extinguished. You said
there was another life, on the far side:

you said to think of it. What life?
What side? I think of the side
running, running till it runs clear. Maybe
that's not what you meant. 

Done on this side, said 
St Lawrence: also not what you meant.
But the moon? The walk by moonlight?
The cloud runs from rim to rim,

the sky is painted over; no hint
of light behind. God's 
theater make up: can't smile 
or it will crack. Christ.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

Before Morning

Begin when all the rest had left behind them 
Headlong death in battle or at sea  
I had thought it was morning. I lay in bed awake, having counted my breaths in a desultory manner, losing track always somewhere in the sixties, but not proceeding on to sleep; tugged at by worry and a growing sense of failure. The window seemed lightening, as if dawn was outside, so I finally maneuvered myself awkwardly out of bed. (The bed is shoved up against the wall for now, so Martha can get her rebuilt knee in and out, on her side; which means that I have to crabwalk carefully to the foot of the bed to get out of it.) But now the windows of my breakfast nook are dead black, and there's nothing to be seen in them but the reflection of my lamp. Well. There's no sleep in me anyway. Get my breakfast underway. The advantage of getting up this early is that my back hasn't had a chance to stiffen up with a night's immobility, so I can skip my stretches and breathing exercises. It's after 4:30, and by the laws of the realm that counts as morning. The sun will be along presently.

There is a drumming in the distance, as always, nowadays; the natives are restless. And the silver song of my tinnitus. The distant roar of the refrigerator motor, to take the place of the sea that Sophocles would have heard. 

This life -- is not to my taste.

Still. What good to linger in some artificial preserve of nature? That's not where we're going. We're going forward with the roar of the refrigerator in our ears, for the foreseeable future, if we're going forward at all.

Supposing Vervaeke is right, that there is still a path to wisdom that would draw me to into closer contact with reality. A wisdom that would make me understand more, rather than less. Then what could I do but follow it? In fact, if there's even a chance that there's such a path, I would have to follow it. If there is any way in which I could find purchase, any ledge for my fingers or toes, I have to grope for it. 

I've read most of Graeber and Wengrow's book, The Dawn of Everything; I have only the conclusion left to read. It's as good a case for political hope as I can imagine, and I'm grateful for the attempt, but it doesn't sway me. Not really: not the way Vervaeke does. I can imagine -- barely -- becoming wiser. Usefully participating in revolution, as a shy, deaf, effete intellectual, is an absurdity I really can't imagine.

The conviction has grown on me, as the years dribble away, that only a religious "great awakening" can save us. Of course, it would more likely damn us finally and completely, but still. William Morris observed that "you can't build socialism without socialists," and I would fall back to an even more primitive starting point. You can't build humanity without human beings. If we have no way of being human, we're defeated before we begin.