Thursday, May 23, 2024

This, and That

But my question, the linchpin question, is, "will I come through for myself?" Am I actually on my own side? Can I rely on myself to defend myself and protect myself? Because there is a Gollum portion of me that believes that it can hide, and survive in the wretched dark on cold fish, and by throttling the occasional goblin imp. I have betrayed myself, at critical moments of my life. I can see my way to doing it one last time, and I very much do not want to end my story this way.

You see, this is why the Food Thing has been so important to me: it has been the most basic and chronic betrayal of myself. When in stress and doubt I would hide, and let myself down. Let the Dale of the Sun fend for himself, let him be fat and ridiculous! I was going to hide in the dark, and eat, eat until my mouth was raw, eat until my belly was swollen, eat whatever ever I wanted and never stop, not for him, not for anyone.

But we are not two different people. We are one person, in the light or in the dark. That's why the food thing is important. And though the solution may look like simply thwarting and oppressing Gollum, it must not actually be any such thing. It has to be bringing him gently into the light, reminding him of flowers and grass and sunlight, reminding him of when he too had a family, and listened to wonderful tales out of the South. 

We are not equals. I must be the master. Because I can see him clearly, but he can't see me clearly. Because I can say, "this is enough: this is due proportion." When I let him misbehave I am letting him down, as well as myself. He can't look after himself, not really, though he doesn't understand that. 

---

"There is one God, and his name is Allah," one of them said; and the old man answered, "maybe there is only one Kindred, but there are many people." The roses came back and gave me their scent, yesterday. White roses. If there's not room for them, what is there room for?

But anyway my time for disputation has come and gone. One God or many, my life is His, or theirs. Little noises come piping from our mouths, for a little while, and a wind bends the roses. It's not my part now to quarrel with anyone. And anyway, I only ever quarreled in my head: I taunted my phantasmal enemies, while I grovelled in front of anyone real. It's time to admit that courage has never been my strong suit. Nor do I think I would have done much good, if I had had it. The first struggle is to see things clearly; swinging wildly at shapes in the dark was not going to help anyone.

The Dalai Lama said it was best to stay within your own tradition, "if you could": I used to take that to mean I should be a Christian, if I could, but of course the tradition I was raised in was not Christianity, it was Nothing, the religion of furtively snatched treats, and my god was the Self I was going to be someday but somehow never quite got around to being. Heya! Enough of that. Square One is a fine place to be, if you don't fool yourself into thinking you're somewhere else. Times of collapse are times of beginning.

I used to think that I would figure the world out, and establish a solution, and then impose it -- by force of my brilliance, I guess; that part was always a little hazy -- and the stupidity and hubris of that idea, the revolutionary's idea, has been late in appearing to me. The thing to do was to talk to people, and to come to a common understanding of what was wrong and what needed to be done. That would actually be a political life. Issuing manifestos and marching in shows of ritual (or real) violence is actually about as apolitical as you can get. Politics is talk. It's talking with people you don't understand, and people you don't agree with. It's listening. It's making yourself vulnerable to your neighbors. It's something I can't do. Heya! Enough of that.

So what now, you little rootless last-gasper? Do you go to that little Orthodox church, where the people are so benighted as still to think that a church should be beautiful and services should be reverent? Do you go to that Episcopalian church, where awkward people are actually trying to be nice (in a clumsy and ineffective fashion) to the unfortunate? Do you go to that Zen temple up the street where they take silly Japanese names and dress in weird overalls and take it from the top, all bald heads and rationality? Do you walk under such stars as still can be seen through the city glare, and chant heya? Hah! You don't know. You're hopeless. Go home.

Monday, April 29, 2024

Aubade

 Have I mentioned that a wind blowing up my nose
inflated me to gigantesquerie, and flew me, uprose,
(rows encolumnated, hedgerows overthrown), and gave
to every cipher just the meaning it could hold?

Have I said already (I have already said) that one
dog's cold nose could turn the world to ice, and
a cat's tongue warm it all, in the space between 
the first line and the third? Well, it's left undone, then,

and the sun lays rude and violent hands on me,
shakes me awake and tells me all the things still left to do.
All right. The first on my to-do list was to love you,
and that's done, that's never done, to do.

Monday, April 22, 2024

Names for Things

 If I ask myself why I do certain, in some sense altruistic, things, the answer that seems most apt is "because I don't want to live in a world where..." I don't want to live in a world where no "rational" person voted, or made efforts to conserve energy, just because their contribution made no significant difference; I don't want to live in a world where we turn our backs on the weak, the suffering and the needy, because they are not productive; I don't want to live in a world where we always counted the cost before engaging in acts of helping others. This acknowledges the fact that every decision we make is not just a response to a known and certain world, but is part of co-creating that world for what it is. 

 -- Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things, p 1144

As I slowly reread both Ursula K Le Guin's Always Coming Home, and Iain McGilchrists' The Matter With Things, I find myself continually seeing McGilchrist's book as an immensely long footnote: giving in expository form what Le Guin has distilled into vision and story. Just in case you thought it couldn't be made into exposition, that it couldn't be rationally laid out end to end in a single argument: here it is. For those so crippled by the shoes of the modern world as not to be able to walk so far on their own.

I know that in fact McGilchrist read and admired Le Guin, so the fancy maybe isn't so farfetched.

The joy, the pure joy, of having names for things at last. All these gifts. And so little to give back, and that so uncertain, in these troubled times! But no matter. We go on, as we always have, co-creating the world: it's not as if we could stop.

Lots of love, dear ones.

Wednesday, April 03, 2024

Autistic Kid

"One, two, three, ONE; one, two three, TWO; one, two three THREE..."

We were supposed to chant aloud as we did our calisthenics, in gym class. If an exercise had four sub-moves to it, we counted like that: rather than saying "four" on the last move we inserted the number of full exercises completed. 

I found this bewildering: in fact, I couldn't do it, and when I tried to do it, I couldn't move my body. So typically when performing these sorts of calisthenics, I slowed, moved spasmodically, and ground to halt. Following the two sequences felt deeply wrong. In what world does "three" follow "three"? What is the relationship between the murmured "three" and the bellowed "three"? The further the count went the more confusing it got: my brain worked desperately to establish a mathematical relationship between the sequences: there really wasn't one. but I couldn't help looking for it. 

From the outside, of course: here was that weird kid slacking off again, not even trying to look like he was doing the exercises. Not paying attention, not willing to to try. I can hardly blame my gym teachers for being exasperated with me. Explaining my internal experience was beyond my capacity, even if they had had time to listen, which they didn't. 

It was the more galling, because I prided myself on my mathematics. Numbers were my friend. I could solve quadratic equations in my head. I was in math classes with these kids: some of them found adding 1/2 and 1/3 insuperable. Yet here they were, chanting enthusiastically, tracking two numeric sequences AND moving their bodies. It was a total mystery. How did they do it? And how was I to fake it?

I faked it by trying to ignore the numbers, moving my mouth randomly, and trying to do what the others were doing. It didn't fool anybody. They may have had trouble with fractions, but my classmates had no trouble distinguishing my awkward counterfeits from their own fluid, well-grounded movements. I was the weird kid, and I always would be. 

I pretended not to care about gym class. I aspired to the position of "absent-minded professor," at school: it was not the same thing as a full-fledged person, but it was a role; it qualified you for a spot on Gilligan's Island. I got by. I was bullied a little, but not too much. I had a way with words and a deep fund of malice -- I might land you with a nickname you'd have trouble getting rid of -- and there were easier targets. 

---

Long ago, long ago: why bother with it? I've gotten by, sidling through the world, finding dusty corners to live in, like a wary spider in an untidy house. The weird kid had a will, and a brain. He did all right. Burned out spectacularly twice; threw away two promising careers, but he had a nice family; he ended his working days comfortably doing part time data entry and part time massage: and he had time enough to spend on meditation, prayer, history, literature, and philosophy to actually understand some things. To write some essays and poetry. More than most people ever get. Far more than that kid under the florescent lights of the gymnasium, bewildered by the rhythmic bellowing of the neurotypicals, dared to hope for.

Still the mind goes back, and gnaws on things; misspoken words return, the scent of chalk dust and gym ropes. The painfully obviously developmentally disabled kid I should have befriended, and did not. God's going to ask about him, at our debriefing, and I'm not looking forward to that conversation. His name was Martin -- as if he didn't enough troubles already -- and he was even more duck-footed and awkward than I was, even more easily confused. I didn't participate in tormenting him, and that's as much as I can say for myself. You don't have to run faster than the bear.

---

The physical awkwardness went away completely: I think of myself now as fluid and deft in my movements. Maybe it's just because I'm no longer required to do unfamiliar things at unfamiliar tempos, while receiving a firehose-stream of nonsensical verbiage. Maybe it's some delayed developmental thing. Maybe it was dance class and contact improv in college; maybe it was as late as massage school; maybe it was reading and writing poetry. Anyway I live comfortably in my body now, which has been one of the great, unexpected blessings of adulthood.

---

In the morning the light gleams on a rectangle of copper foil, as I let my spine extend, and the Copper Buddha appears in a circle of radiance. Sometimes it's the sun blazing through a circle of wet twigs. Sometimes it's neither, but only a feeble, elderly reaching of the mind for things half remembered and half made up. If you push for resolution on these things, all they'll do is collapse and shrivel. You take what you get, gratefully; and when there's nothing offered, you take that gratefully too.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Vulture

When this poem germinated I was thinking only of vultures, of their long patient deliberations in the sky: the math teacher walked into it and surprised me. He was an ancient man who taught me calculus -- an amazement that still amazes.

A math teacher stooped in his pulpit walk:
as he turns he lifts one dull black tine
(a primary feather, like a sprig of chalk)
and slowly underscores the horizon line.

He is deliberate, hooded, ugly, sincere.
There is a beat (stroke of pen, sweep of oar)
in his blood-naked head only he can hear:
this is what it means for an old man to soar.
 

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

In Praise of a Huntress Moon

And the sky en vidrios corúscat, multisplending;
O sake us for God, and mend us for bendas, bensittay!
Say clearly what you mean, before you end your say.

Look where the vultures ride the thermals, where you can
or can't see
the waves of air they ride on, hypérvolant and vigilant:
if we love to watch them, it's because we love to watch

the things we can't quite see. Mr God is like that: you find
the lint from his pockets, but his hands are always elsewhere.
I would not spend a lot of time 
turning inside out the cloth, or checking all the seams.

Bang! this damn tambourine, and sing a song of praise,
song of ending, song of nightfall, the iridéssing of default,
when the sky is violet lavender and fades, surprised
by such a clair à voyant, clair à voyaging moon.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Lever

Time is our home and death is our friend

-- Iain McGilchrist,

Knock when you come to the west door; be sure
to touch the river pebble in your pocket 
for luck; forget your excuses. 
Just answer the questions best you can.
No one is trying to trick you here.

Today the long road, east and west, was tilted
to be level with the sun. I guess you were busy
with your pry-bar, Archimede! 
That at least was an easy one to solve.
Lay it down on me: pull as hard as you like.

That metal crossbeam catches the morning sun: 
even second-hand, these tines of light 
pull gently every strand of me apart:
the brisket of me would fall from the ribs 
at a nudge. I have been a long time in the pot.
They say a friend might happen by for a meal,
and welcome. I have kept house untidily:
but friends will forgive the debris of a lived-in life.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

The History of Smoking. Not parsimony

‘You do not know your danger, Théoden,’ interrupted Gandalf. ‘These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures of the table, or the small doings of their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers, and remoter cousins to the ninth degree, if you encourage them with undue patience. Some other time would be more fitting for the history of smoking.’ 

It adds to my pleasure in this passage that the enjoyment of tobacco is one of the many things regarded with puritanical horror by my people. It might shorten your life. Horrors! (As though a short life was worth less than a long. Lung cancer is a hard way to exit, I acknowledge: but many of the exits are hard.)

I don't, as it happens, smoke: I share the hatred of the corporate deceit about the health risks of smoking, and I prefer you to smoke out of doors and away from the cradles of my grandchildren. But so long as you have the facts fairly in front of you, I don't have the slightest desire to stop you -- let alone to prevent you from speaking about it because we're sitting on the edge of ruin. Where else have we ever sat?

------

And the bell, ringing. "What I do is me: for that I came."

Life, in its essence, is a making new: a wholly superfluous, superabundant, self-overflowing -- an exuberant, self-delighting process of differentiation into ever more astonishing forms, an unending dance, in which we are lucky enough to find ourselves caught up -- not just, as the left hemisphere cannot help but see it, a series of survival problems to conquer. If reality is ultimately just an eternal, unchanging, perfect unity, as some philosophies seem to suggest, life is going the wrong way about making that clear. To the degree that we can discern any governing principle to the cosmos, it is not going to be parsimony.

Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things, p 853

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

March

The clouds have not quite lost their grip on the mountain's hair
blow though the wind blows, but
the fall leans away and misses the splash pool: March
is master here.

The god whispers at my ear, rapidly and in Greek I cannot catch
some dialect of Olympus no doubt
why send a messenger I can't understand? Do not fear but bring
these three as gifts...

But the slap on my face will do, in place of understanding, the sting
of celestial fingers on my face;
swim in the Sound in spring and the jellyfish will lay their tentacles
across your nose and cheek, just so:

many messengers, one message. You are asleep at your post. Little enough
We've asked of you:
Not even to understand: just to listen. The clouds tear free; red weals
on the face of the mountain,

which treads water and gasps. The swell is pale gray, mottled with white;
this time of year snags
buck silver and even the seals show them some respect: it is early,
too early: but even now too late.

Monday, March 04, 2024

Again, The Matter With Things


The Matter With Things
is two weighty volumes, some 1,500 heavily footnoted pages, not even counting the appendices; and you might think I would have finished it with a sigh of relief, and turned to something else. Instead, I turned instantly back to the beginning, and began again.

I read ten or fifteen pages a day, in the portion of my sacrosanct morning time dedicated to demanding reading. I'm halfway through again, which means I've been reading this book for four months, without ever the slightest desire to desist or turn to something else.

(I guess scrupulous accuracy requires m to qualify this by saying that when I turned back to the beginning, really I turned to the beginning of Part Two: Part One is a fresh setting-forth of his brain hemisphere hypothesis, which I already knew well from The Master and his Emissary, so I skipped reading it again.)

It is just such an entertaining book, and so full of things! There's a hint of those old absorbing Medieval encyclopedias, that are stuffed full of fascinations: but unlike them, this is a sustained coherent argument that makes more sense of the world -- and what is presently the matter with it -- than any twenty other books I have ever read. To stay in the pedantic and literal mode -- the fact that it's ten times longer than most books still leaves it with twice the concentration of value per page. I opened the book today at page 766, and found this, speaking of the importance of negation:

It is not often enough remarked that science establishes what is not the case; that we are propelled into philosophy similarly, by the feeling that something widely held to be the case cannot, in reality, be the case. p 766

And on the facing page, speaking of Coleridge's distinction between imagination and fancy, this anecdote:

There is a story told of a Fellow of Merton College, a mathematician, who was irritated by the attention paid to J.R.R. Tolkien, a Fellow of the same Oxford college, by the fawning guests of other Fellows. One day in the Common Room yet another guest was introduced to the great man, and gushed, 'Oh, Professor Tolkien, I do so admire your writing, it's so -- so full of imagination!' The mathematician could bear it no longer, and from behind a newspaper was heard to snort indignantly: 'Imagination? Imagination?! Made it all up.' p 767

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Collapse

It is idle, I suppose. "Civilizational collapse," I intone, as if I knew what that meant, or what it portended. What it means is -- precisely that I don't know, that I can't guess. Bad times, at least, for a while. Possibly end times. But also huge opportunities arising, as the glaciers of the world's civilizations calve. We just don't know.

There will be eddies: places almost untouched; surprising recoveries; it's not going to be unrelieved disasters all the way through. 

I see people who pride themselves on how dark their vision is; but really they're upset because they have been clinging to a rosier picture than was ever been credible, and now they're dealing with the possibility of it not turning out so well. Let me know when you're done with all that, and we can go on to building what we can, eh? In this mournful and battered world, rather than in the world of your fantasies.

I have no quarrel with fantasies per se, fantasies that are recognized as such. But your outrage at seeing your fantasies declined by the world shows that you were taking them as more: as the actual program of future events. It's time, it's long past time, to see that the future is totally unknown. That we can lose and be annihilated. Time and chance happeneth to us all. It's good that it should be so, actually, because we are a little, trivial people, pettifoggers, engaged in endless litigation, swollen full of indignation and self-righteousness, unable to endure a moment's quietness. Our disappearance is not going to be a bad thing. Suffering there is, and suffering there will be, but that was a given from the start. We are not capable of making a new world. We never were. Get over it: go home, change a diaper, wash the dishes, mend a window. Cold weather is coming.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

Reprise

Picture my astonishment, when reading Keiji Nishitani, to find a Buddhist Heideggerian soberly discussing sin, for all the world as though it was allowed, as though it were something that could stand the steady, corrosive gaze of a modern philosopher; as though it was something that had to be reckoned with. I have not yet gotten over the surprise. I still have not really read very much, and most of the modern philosophers I have met, by chance, have been timid creatures who want to live in orderly houses, where they can be depressed in decent comfort and privacy: they would certainly not admit a concept that might blow the roof off their house, let alone blast a hole in the floor.

----

So. The point is, that I was taking myself to task: I should be thinking about the One, in all its multiplicity -- of God, if you want to use that word -- and how I should or could or might turn towards it: but whenever I began I veered into trivial thoughts of what I needed to do to stop overeating and make sure I got regular exercise. For God's sake, Dale. Grow up.

But then I backed up a little bit and asked myself: are you so sure that these two things have nothing to do with each other? That they're not, in some difficult-to-grasp way, the same question? And as soon as I thought that, that little fragment of Middle English verse came into my head: Adam lay ybounden, ybounden in a bonde... and kept flittering around my head. These little tendrils of habit, this commitment to excessive comfort and relentless stimulation -- what if that is, precisely, what is binding me? And the two wheels converged. The same spin, the same speed. This is in fact one wheel. I don't know exactly how, but I know that it is; and that it stands in some relation to that queer foreign concept of sin.

It's not that I imagine God gives a tinker's damn, let alone one of his own, whether my pants fit. It's the contortion, the throttling of one part of my mind by another part. The striving and writhing in a narrow, airless space. Ybounden in a bonde. The fact that it's an undignified struggle -- that's just one more reason to think it's the one to lean into. 

Not the only struggle, of course, nor one I can (or necessarily want to) win. It's a well-trampled ground and I no longer think that local victories and defeats are going to lead to sweeping breakthroughs: it's not that sort of fight . If I eventually manage to get some distance from it, it won't be because the battle's over, but because I'm no longer invested in it in the same way; which is not the same thing as pretending it's not going on. It's a flicker on wall, the pattern of lights a small boy glimpses moving on the wall as he falls asleep. Real enough, but due to be washed away by morning.

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Cathedrals

A couple comments, here and on Facebook, gave rise to a discussion with myself, last night, as I walked under the night sky. Some people said, they have never had any interest in any religious topic, never had any religious experiences, and they were well content that it should be so.

In some moods, I think I could almost say the same; perhaps I have said the same. After all, have I had any religious experiences? Really?

One irrelevancy has to be cleared away at once. It is not at all surprising to me that people who equate religion with what happens in a typical North American church should be uninterested in religion, and devoid of religious experience. What mostly happens in those churches is lectures, by remarkably ignorant and stupid people, consisting of attempts to assert obviously false propositions, accompanied by crude petitionary prayers and maybe some mediocre 19th Century songs. At no time does silence supervene -- possibly for fear that God might get a word in edgewise. I would not blame anyone for a lack of interest in these proceedings. The boredom they inspire is intense, and is well-recognized even by the people who willingly attend them.

So leave that aside. No, the question that I paused on, was "do I actually have any religious experiences at all, or do I just imagine them? Do I just make them up because at one point I had an audience that liked to hear me speak about them?" I walked under the restless night clouds and thought about that.

The trouble is that these experiences are fleeting and fragile, while the memories and descriptions of them are durable and robust. What I call to mind, when I try to bring them back, is my own words, and a few vivid images: poplar leaves trembling in afternoon sunlight; the blaze of a sunrise through wet twigs, forming a fiery circle around an intolerable brightness; things I have written about repeatedly, I'm sure. I grope backwards and find the words, and the images. I don't find the experiences. They're not to be summoned at will. "Not a tame lion," you can say: but anybody, with any motive, might say that.

On the other hand, the analytical mind has its own weaknesses. It prefers to dismiss as illusory anything that is can't be frozen in time and broken into constituent parts. It's always questing after atoms, fundamental particles, elements. And these experiences are experiences of totality, of gist. No wonder the left hemisphere of the brain shrugs impatiently. They are not the sort of thing it can cope with.

I finally concluded: yes, I have had these experiences: though I had more of them when I was younger, and I have been very bad, lately, at putting myself in their way. You can't summon them, but you can invite them. "I don't go to church because God is there," somebody or other said, "I go to church so that if God does come, I'll be in the right place to receive him." Just as wise writers go regularly to their writing desks, not because inspiration lives there, but so that, if inspiration does happen by, they will be in the right place to make use of it.

So when I speak of "church" I mean partly just any place or circumstance that make it more likely that God will happen by. The wild places, the sea and the mountains and the waterfalls, are obvious instances: and I must spend much more time in them. But a "church" is also a community, a sangha, that is oriented towards -- whatever it is. Because in groups we are more than we are as individuals, loath though we Americans are to acknowledge that; loath as I am to acknowledge it. We build ugly convenience stores: but we could build cathedrals. It has happened before and it could happen again.

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Pretending not to Believe

This business of pretending not to believe -- like a scientist who devotes his life to discovering what is true, and pretends not to believe in truth -- that's what's exhausting. And that's why I called it quits with Buddhism: the fact is that Buddhists believe in reincarnation, and I do not. Buddhists believe in a pure realm, and aspire to it, and I do not. There are all kinds of ways to practice as a Buddhist without believing those things, but you finally end up like the scientist who purports not to believe in truth: your whole life is a tottering, jury-rigged house built on nothing, and you could wake up tomorrow with the walls fallen down and the wind whistling through. I think it's better for the scientist to admit he believes in truth, and it's better for me to admit I'm no Buddhist.

There are (at least) two ways to go wrong here. One is to say, I know so little, why not accept my ignorance and practice with whatever group may be handy? And the other is to say, I must lay down the total schema of reality and not talk to anyone else until I'm done, and then bustle about with a checklist on my clipboard and see if any church meets my specifications. Both wrong. But what then is to be done? I don't know. 

I admire those people who, wherever they are, just walk into the nearest place of worship, of a Sunday, and take up whatever practice is to hand -- confident that if it's God's house God will take care of it, be it church or temple or mosque -- but I don't think I'll ever be one of them. 

But though I don't know where I am, or where I am going, I am not lost. Finding my location and my path is not something I have to do before I can take up my work: it is my work.

Monday, February 05, 2024

A Blue-Behinded Ape, Home from the Hill

I am unfamiliar with the trends of literary fashion, nowadays -- praise be to God! -- so I have no idea how Robert Louis Stevenson is faring. Probably worse than ever. But remember that he wrote the two best auto-epitaphs in English. Both appeared in Underwoods, published in 1887. One is almost unknown now, I think:

I am a kind of farthing dip,
    Unfriendly to the nose and eyes;
A blue-behinded ape, I skip
    Upon the trees of Paradise.

At mankind's feast, I take my place
    In solemn, sanctimonious state,
And have the air of saying grace
    While I defile the dinner plate.

I am "the smiler with the knife,"
    The battener upon garbage, I
—Dear Heaven, with such a rancid life,
    Were it not better far to die?

Yet still, about the human pale,
⁠    I love to scamper, love to race,
To swing by my irreverent tail
⁠    All over the most holy place;

And when at length, some golden day,
⁠    The unfailing sportsman, aiming at,
Shall bag, me—all the world shall say:
⁠    Thank God, and there's an end of that!

The other is the sort of poem that gets put on ornamental plates, and is taken for anodyne by careless readers, who miss how it plays with time and point of view, and take it for bluff hearty stuff in the line of Kipling or Henley. It's nothing of the sort, and it will live a lot longer than we will:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
⁠    And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor; home from sea,
⁠    And the hunter home from the hill.

Just now I'm reading Kidnapped to Martha, and we are taking deep delight in it, and mean to go on to Catriona.; and I'm going to tackle the second volume of Underwoods. I stupidly skipped it a few thousand years ago when I was first reading Stevenson, because the poems in that volume were in Scots; which at the time was a discouragement rather than an inducement. I was in a hurry then. Now I'm so old that I don't need to hurry ever again, so I have time to read it.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Quotidian

Oh, man. I so needed a morning like this, a long morning studying at Tom's, equal parts of Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo -- which is a fabulous book -- and Greek. What with one thing and another my mornings have been eaten by dragons, lately. So this was restorative.

I need a vacation, and I will take one soon. Have to get the year-end letters out first. This year has been the nightmare calendar for getting gifts processed and thanked: I didn't even get the lion's share of the gifts until after New Year's, because of the way the non-post days fell. It meant I was all caught up on Christmas Day, which has never happened before, but I was only caught up because the bolus dose was yet to come.

I may have to force the issue of a vacation with Martha: say, "you don't have to come with me, but I am going away for a couple days." We're old, but we're not that old. And even if we can't find someone to feed Van Buren, he'll just do what he did before: break into somebody else's house and eat whatever he finds. He's not exactly a delicate flower. More a semi-retired brigand. He may wreak havoc, but he's not going to starve.

A cold snap coming, four days with the temperature never rising above freezing, so we'll have to lug the earthquake water from the shed back into the house. Maybe change it out while we're at it.

Take good care, friends! xoxo

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Vanishment

That he is vanishing all men know: 
a lift slant eyelid tells them so, 
not that I think it's noticed much -- 
not a vanishment as such -- 
so much as shrinking from the touch,
a disinclination to know at all, 
all that he knew in time before.

Read the note, it's all in there; 
the leaning angels twist their hair,
and wait the interim music out. 
Nothing they have to show more fair 
than tit for tat and this for that -- 
he says he's gone
but he's said stuff like that before.

Gone, alas. How would you know? 
His absence glows
like the moon from just behind the hill. 
You used
to think him not so ill: 
but he was much more cheerful then -- 
his opinions more like those of men;

lately he has turned so queer.
I think you know his late career,
the smell of tar, malignities,
his patience with indignities,
the twist of yarn between his fingers
catching on his scaled skin. 
For the lingering sake of God:
let him go, or let him in.

Monday, January 08, 2024

Swerve

So I practice. Visualize space not as empty, but as overflowing with sensitivity and awareness: not an emptiness, but an ocean. Picture each supposed atomic particle as a world of luxuriant life, too tiny to bother with the occasional comet-like photon blazing by. What if there is not a single still, dead thing in all the universe? Turn the whole thing upside down. "An object at rest tends to remain so," intoned Mr. Newton: but as it turns out there is no such thing as an object, let alone one at rest. Everything that looks like an object turns out to be an eddy, holding its character only so long as the flow of the river and the obstructions it flows against remain. And the river and the pylon in turn are eddies, arising from larger flows and greater obstructions. If you try to understand why an eddy behaves as it does by scooping up the water it's made of and examining it in a bucket, the progress you'll make will be meager. "See? An eddy isn't real!" declares the Newtonian, proudly displaying the contents of his bucket. "It's an illusion!" And before his back is turned the eddy is there again, swirling in the same way, entirely untroubled by the interruption. Not real. Sure.

It actually matters, how we think about space. It matters dreadfully. We are sick from our delusions of vast empty spaces speckled here and there with inert particles, billiard-balls flying about from a dimly-conceived cosmic Break. This particle moves because something bumped into it, and that something moved because something else bumped into it, and so on. Why did anything ever move at all? Oh, that is a forbidden question! Only a very naughty child would ask that. 

Lucretius saw it: that to explain movement at all you had to endow atoms with a capacity, an inclination even, to swerve. You can worriedly push the necessity farther and farther away and farther back in time; you can assert, rather improbably, that there was just One Big Swerve a long, long time ago -- call it the Big Bang, if you like -- but something, at some point, swerved. Is it not more reasonable -- since we daily experience ourselves swerving here and there -- to assume that everything everywhere is swerving all the time?

Newton and Einstein, of course, were much smarter men than I am. The story goes that when Einstein first realized that his relativity equations accounted for the "wrongness" of Mercury's orbit -- its tiny but persistent deviation from Newton's laws -- he was shocked into silence for days. Had he actually seen into reality? Apparently so. 

But even he, though his faith was strong, could not demonstrate an deterministic universe. I am way beyond my writ, now -- I readily confess it -- but my point is, so are you. We know fuck-all about it. A little humility is in order here.

Saturday, January 06, 2024

The Matter With Things


Finished The Matter With Things, including all eight appendices, and now I'm feeling a little lost and forlorn. I didn't really expect him to end by giving me marching orders, but there lingered a wistful hope that he'd tell me exactly what to do and how to do it. Of course he didn't, and the whole point of the book is that there is not and could not be a context-free algorithm for what to do. The world is not like that.

Vervaeke, of course, coming like me from a Buddhist tradition, delivers practices -- meditations, contemplations, yogas: too many of them, probably. A lot of people probably just walk away from that part of his talks confused. We were already studying a three hundred page menu: adding on to it may not be the most useful thing to do. McGilchrist doesn't offer any practices. He doesn't advise you to walk down to the nearest church on Sunday morning and see what happens. He doesn't advise you to do anything: that's not his business. Which is appealing in its own way: as is his humble admission that he is just as damaged by modernity as anyone else. We are dug into a deep hole here, and nobody is going to just step out of it. The first order of business is to strike a match and get a good look what we've fallen into. For one thing, we're each in our own special, custom-made hole. Getting out will take some custom wriggles, in addition to general hole-climbing skills.

But I do come away with more direction, and more hope. I have been postponing practice until I knew what to practice. "My business, first, is to understand," I keep saying to myself. But it gradually comes into focus that I've misconceived things. It isn't that I need to understand in order to practice. It isn't even that I need to practice in order to understand. I need both of those things, of course, but the missing part, the part that McGilchrist supplies to me, is that figuring out what to do is in fact my purpose. The program is not to make the right guess at what God wants me to do, and then do it. I am God figuring out what to do, you might say; God coming into being. This confusion and aporia is a feature, not a bug. I'm in exactly the right place doing exactly the right thing. And so what I think actually matters. Like, really matters. In all my life I've never taken seriously the idea that what I thought could matter. But suppose it could? Suppose it does?

So many things fall away and so many things come in question, when I really shake free of reductive determinism. What had seemed so very rational and unprejudiced now looks in many cases more like begging the question. What if my family and my nation -- to take just two examples -- are as real as I am? Well, then the world becomes more complex. But it also becomes deeper. And we are so tired of this damned two-dimensional, schematic world we've made for ourselves. It's remarkably easy to convince people of the absurd hypothesis that this world is a simulation. Because so many of us have already made a simulation of it, and crawled inside our representation to live there. So the idea sounds right. 

But it isn't. The world is quite, quite real. And so are we.

Here I sigh, and shake my head, and resist the urge to highlight this whole post and hit the backspace key. The trouble with talking about God is that the moment you start doing it you start thinking you have a handle on Her. (Case in point: you assign Her, or Him, or It, a gender, which is patently ridiculous. You capitalize Her pronoun or you don't. The absurdities multiply inexorably) But the trouble with not talking about God is that you start to forget Her. Equally catastrophic, especially in the poisonous atmosphere of radical individualism. Hypoxia sets in immediately.

Around the time of the equinox, the sun rises and shines straight down Burnside street, and if you are walking east, the sidewalk and the wet twigs of the trees are all on fire, and they make concentric circles of light around it: you are in a fiery tunnel going towards a brightness you can't endure, and it's shockingly beautiful.

“When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, `Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.'