Things get dirty and we have to clean them if we don’t indulge our inclination to sloth, not to be confused with resting after our labors. In play group and kindergarten, they now mercifully teach that cleaning up is part of making a mess and having lots of fun doing so, thank you very much. Chefs learn to clean as we go so we don’t end up with a mountainous mess at the end of an otherwise lovely evening replete with groaning board and decorous imbibage. I work in the garden, must scrub under nails because I prefer digging and puttering with hands nude, nails mangled. Perverse perhaps, but insulated in gloves, we lose the ability to learn through our sensitive fingers, the delicate touch referred to as green thumb. But meanwhile, back at the sink where I am scrubbing away dirt, grutch grows apace. Soon comes the reckoning. The sink snickers. Even though I scrubbed the sucker …surely not a week ago, it’s grungy again. The body the body: brushing flossing bathing, over and over again…
So what makes us think this doesn’t apply to the Macrocosm? We know the rudiments of ecology, the reality of a polluted planet with catastrophic consequences looming around the bend on the road we’re traveling. Who in their right minds would accede to this? Somnambulists… Ce sont nous, pardon the French. In our culture we’re seduced by the fast and easy. Time and labor saving devices in themselves are marvelous. While beating clothes on rocks is picturesque, I have other fish to fry, honey, and I love my washer/dryer in the shed. But I prefer to make slow food and as I faintly recall, there are other swell things best enjoyed in tranquility, not in haste… though I’m not knocking fast rides for the thrill…except on the roadsides, though some would rather do it there. Easy is sleazy if we take short cuts that short change. Anyone remember the thirty kids who fell from a balcony in San Francisco a while back because the profit motive drove bosses and possibly unwitting builders to shave the ply?
Agatha Christie in her autobiography said two cool things. She thinks we are created in God’s image as portrayed in Genesis. As creators, we are to work and see that it is good, what we make and what we do. In our culture, we have lost touch with natural rhythms and harmonies. There was a corny but telling lyric…late fifties?
“Lucky lucky lucky me, I’m a lucky son of a gun. I work 8 hours, I sleep 8 hours, that leaves 8 hours for fun.” Hmmm. That’s a lot of R and R. What’s called for is needed, though few get a moment of between every this and that necessity, obligation, time – quenching constraint. It’s making us sick, kids. Too much stress, not enough fun! And the Sabbath day of rest…wither?
On the seventh day, rest. This is the day to absorb and assimilate, to see where we’ve been so we can learn from our mistakes, appreciate our successes and the wisdom to know the difference. Taking stock enables us to make better choices and decisions for the future. Taking time to contemplate and meditate daily and weekly, we are less prone to heed manipulations of the media or the siren spell of propaganda. We think for ourselves and know from the inside out, what’s what. All this takes time, and you won’t get a quick fix in a how-to manual. Physician, heed thyself. There’s no substitute for reflection, an ongoing long term process, a way of being in the world.
The wise Greeks wrote over the gates of their temple at Delphi: Know thyself. Nothing in Excess and E, translating to something like: You are alive…rejoice! Live!
Nothing in Excess. There’s the rub! Moderation or the middle way is the path embraced by the wise. Consider the Seven Deadlies, none of which, if not blown out of proportion, inflated, or hyperbolicized, would be a sin. We are erotic beings. We need nourishment and rest. It’s good to take a modest pride in our accomplishments. It’s fine to admire ,not obsess over our neighbors’ endowments and handiworks. Without the energy of anger, how would we fuel rectification? We all need our stuff, but how much? I save greed for the last because that is what’s consuming our nation of consumers. Why do we drive gas guzzling cars when we know the impact of petroleum products on the atmosphere? Two big cars in every garage and skin cancer on every face? Spraying from the sky for pest control gives a greater headache than the problem it attempts to forestall. We can do better. But it might not be as easy or quick to find the most intelligent solution. Why aren’t we both putting our heads together and listening to the scientists to solve our problems instead of evading ignoring denying or pickling ourselves in them. The evidence is in. Why don’t we act on what we know? The gap between knowing and doing, like the grutch, grows apace. The clock is ticking. Pick up the brooms and scrubbers, chums. It’s time to clean house!
The crows have been gathering again, circling and cawing. I think they’re talking about us, weighing the benefits against the disadvantages of our presence here among the living generations of animals and plants all brilliantly occupying a niche with success, with prowess and grace, in harmonious interconnection with all contiguous entities… not that there isn’t blood on coyote’s muzzle or plundering intent in plants competing for light.
But we, the so called crown of creation, have missed the mark. Everyone is wondering if we shall relinquish dominion for stewarding and occupy the niche the Algonquin believed human. Our job in forest life is removing the fallen trees to make poles for wigwams and logs for fires to warm our bones and cook our meat. Simple and perfect for nomad hunters, canny gatherers and basket makers.
But we ceased following the herds and became farmers. We settled by alluvial plains and planted grain we harvested and hoarded against famine and want, preferring surety to the peril and hazard of chance, preferring more to less, too much to not enough.
We began to schematize and organize, relegate and script. We began to forget how to live by our wits, how to track and outsmart an animal to survive. Perhaps men go to war to live in this fundamental way, to try themselves in the arena of consequence, survival at stake. Better to go fishing instead, with poles made from saplings and shaped with skill and knives, tools, not weapons.
I wonder if the crows have considered this possibility. Then industry, the slag heaps and barrens, The iron horse and the car, carbon and coal, and little by little, earth air and water sickened. How many greeny springs revived and released fertile fields from the somnolent stasis of winter, all in held breath released in blossom and fruit: the eternal round of endings and beginnings, over and over, seeming forever, but no, not so. We have marked the silent spring.
Then virtual life and forgetting the lost arts of making and living, the lost ethos of fair and share, Here we are with melting ice caps and stranded bears, oil spills, and the oil slick sick rookeries, the dying wetlands, as we know.
The crows are gathering…likewise the whales in deep water
swimming away from the islands of plastic, away from the unbearable sonar blasts. I have heard them grieving. Listen to the “Songs of the Humpback Whales.” Listen.
What shall become of us? Come with the children back to the garden to dig and weed and plant carrot seeds. Let the young men vying for cock of the walk take up the bravado of break dancing again. A knife is for carving and a gun for a clean shot to feed the family or molten metal to turn into spades.
I tell this to the assembled crows, but I’m not sure they believe we can outgrow our soiling and spoiling as we did when we were little children when we learned restraint through effort, when we stopped pooping in our pants.
Surely we can make a niche by dint of our restless wits and live companionably, compatibly as toes and fingers do, parts of the whole in concert with every other part, none more important than the rest. That is our hope, our survival.
United we stand
A pervasive double standard divides our country, privileging some and marginalizing others: rich and poor, powerful and powerless. Some are so bolstered by wealth and connections, they are free to do whatever they choose. Others hampered by insufficient means are not so fortunate or free.
Their range of choice is limited. They are either neglected or exploited by the system, a blot on the conscience of a nation that aspired to a classless society. The campaign to undermine our nations’ economic Town Commons, the Social Security system whereby hardworking people can enjoy the fruits of their labor, security and comfort in their old age, is an alarming development of the two-tiered treachery. Why do CEOs and Celebrities need such astronomical remuneration while the minimum wage is so pitifully small? How much breast of lark can a star consume in a week?
Meanwhile, our nation’s resources funnel into an egregious war and the pockets of the already surfeited private treasuries of the corporate moguls and profiteers, narrowing and limiting the funding of our domestic and civil agencies. Why can’t we all have decent health care and an education that nourishes our minds and spirits? Health Education and Welfare used to be a cabinet chair before Reagan dismantled it and the welfare of the people was consigned to the private sector where the largesse of the Haves was to have trickled down into the sphere of the Have-nots.
Deregulation and privatization were just the beginning of the piracy that occurred and the corporate private sector began spreading like the virus it is: the profit of the few at the expense of the many…and I say this with great sorrow. Free enterprise is the economic backbone of the country, but there is a big difference between free enterprise and corporate greed . We have seen Big Agri- business drive our small family farms into the dust and the chains drive the Mom and Pops into oblivion.
Have McBurger and Colonel Grease contributed to the health and well being of our people? Chains…ironic the name, no? the shackles which bind, betokening the current brand of enslavement in a culture that aspires to full participation of all its citizens but which at any given moment includes and excludes, restrains, constrains, detains, feigns, and, you should excuse the expression, sucks.
The omnipresent, virtually omnipotent, but happily not omniscient megalithic entities are obliterating the free enterprise system which like all sports are best played fair and square. Think of all the anti-trust legislation enacted in a more populist era. What about another round of trust busting ? Let¹s repeal the amendment that gives the rights of individuals to corporations. Boycotts, Class Action Suits, Referenda, Eye Witness Accounts… tools to cultivate our garden.
Hypocrites in high places give lip service to Liberty, the scoundrels, and the good, not necessarily well educated or informed people of our country who respect authority, cannot believe their leaders would lie to or betray them, their very decency being used against them. Never-the less, it is we the people who must breach the walls of divisiveness and the artificial coloration of red and blue and find the common ground to reestablish common decency and reinvigorate the common weal.
Think of the Body Politic as a macrocosm of each human body. We need maintenance cells and growth cells. We need stability and structure, for growth and renewal. We need traditionalists and innovators, conservatives and progressives. Both/and, not either/or. United we stand.
Are we not at a crossroads or a forking point? Not to load the dice ( or is it deck?), but things seem so consequential, more than usual…what with the drought, all the wildfires raging around California and the slow drip just below the surface: war…war…war and we are all affected even as we sweep the floor, read a poem or hug a friend. Even as we mix the salad greens, work up a sweat on an uphill slog, even as we potter about, muse and dream, even as we watch the wind rocking the laden boughs of the cherry tree, even as we breathe. Nearing saturation, the tipping point or even just past, as some surmise, we’re at the end of the inning, the bases are loaded and everything hangs in the balance. It’s our move. Batter Up. Easier said than done.Pema Chodron says: war begins and ends in the human heart. I’ve been pondering this and have come to the conclusion that as much as I’d like us to put the current Bozos who have brought us to war in the stocks for public reckoning, for the well earned disdain and scorn of the body politic for having sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, squandered our youth, their youth, their men women and children. their monuments and soil, our moolah, our trust, and whatever was left of our good name in the family of nations whose members surely look upon us as a willful unruly intractable child, we can’t. And we can’t, alas, tar and feather them and run them out of town. Nor can we rebuke and send them to their rooms to think the matter over or put them to bed without their suppers, though it gives me some perverse and pitiful solace in thinking about doing so.
…begins and ends in the human heart which means a very real reckoning of the state of our own being in the world, our unalloyed union with life. For this the wise Greeks counsel self knowledge and moderation, the Buddhists, non attachment, freeing ourselves from partiality or aversion and the Hindus similarly say: Do the best you can and don’t be attached to the outcome. This is hard to do. In the old days before we thought we must win at all cost, we were guided by the cardinal rule of good sportsmanship. It’s not about winning or losing, but how we play the game. People were also once guided by a sense of decency and honor, doing the right thing, taking into account what was fair and square and in the best interests and well being of all, or a select sampling of all, given the rules of the game and the prevailing light and understanding of the time. A gentleman gave his word, his word was his bond, and there were no further oaths or contracts or signatures on the dotted line….a world with a moral center.
The great appeal of the classics is, for the reader, just such a moral center, an imaginative participation in the rectification of wrongs, or the reward and satisfaction of the good and kind which we find in the little worlds of domestic drama by the timeless novelists Austen, Eliot, Meredith, Thackary, Hardy, Forester and more recently Alexander McCall Smith, writers who portray the inevitable collisions of character and circumstance,and the consequences of virtue, vice, and petty human flaws. In the larger sphere of enterprise, Dumas looked into the souls of men swaggering on the stage of principled resistance, rebellion and daring do. In the Three Musketeers which is set during the era of Cardinal Richelieu,Dumas portrays and reasserts the enlightenment values of cooperation and brotherhood: One for all, and all for one.” In The Count of Monte Cristo, he invites us to ponder honor, justice, vengeance, and forgiveness, themes found in childhood tales we’ve read and loved because things come out right, with values we want to embrace, values absent in our world, values we long for.
Sartre said that we must be the model for humanity we think the best, embody those values we admire, live our lives as we think all people ought. In a sense, Sartre’s existential philosophy comes close to Chodron’s truth. We may not be able to alter world events but we can work on ourselves, which most people I know are engaged in doing. There’s a wonderful Hopi address called “The Eleventh Hour,” in which the elder says: “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.” How so? We know from experience, from Aikido in every day life, that we cannot oppose evil directly. Confrontation begets confrontation which escalates to the very state we decry. Was it Bucky Fuller who says we spin our wheels in protest against an evil or ill; rather we must put something else in its stead. And so we do, all we everywhere endeavoring to live amicably in community, inspired by the beauties and mysteries, informed by mutual regard and aid, by forgiveness.
Why forgiveness? In a snit of indignation or choleric blame, we stumble onto an iffy path. The justifying monkey finds a million reasons to vindicate evening the score. Victims of malice and mayhem cry out we shall never sleep until we have our revenge, an eye for an eye, tit for tat, they had it coming and all that misery begotten misery. In a land where so many professto be Christians, it’s good to remember that the new dispensation of Christ was to renounce vengeance and turn the other cheek. We are to not only love but feed our enemies. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord” we understand as poetic justice. Pre Trojan War, justice was meted out by the Eumenides, the Furies, impersonal agencies. It was out of our hands. But for better and worse, we have lived a long time by rules, codes and laws created by mortals and at best is a very good thing. But go figure! Justice is now often understood in the Old Testament frame which has been played out in the Martins and McCoys and other feuding families, gang wars, the Mafiosa wars and so on, tooth for bloody tooth. We see the terrible price paid for bloodlust and revenge in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and we know in our hearts there is never a good enough reason to thwart love and incur such loss, such tragic loss.
To respond to fraught situations with forgiveness means a lot of hard work.Our big egos are challenged to renounce narcissistic exclusivity of privilege and entitlement, to not take things personally, but rather acknowledge multiple points of view. By including the other, it’s possible to give up anger and blame and have compassion for all, even if one does not come out winner, often a big ouch. Not that it’s easy. Pride is easily wounded. But still, we can take offence which leads to retribution o renounce the fray and make peace. The ancients knew that taking offense causes as much suffering in the world as giving offence. Our folks used to say two wrongs don’t make a right. And wouldn’t you know it, turning the other cheek wasn’t built in a day, if I may borrow Jack Kerouac’s “Walking on Water wasn’t built in a day.” But it is good to consider such a possibility even if we are not yet up to it. Implementation often lags behind good ideas. Such is life. Things take the time they take and so it goes.
I’ve often thought our country is still reeling from the consequences of the injustices meted out at its inception. By now, we know better and deeply rue the Trail of Tears, Slavery and later, the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, the occupational hazards and suffering of coalminers who routinely died of black lung disease. We can all think of people and groups who have not been treated well or fairly, who were not or are still not included in “us.” They are “them,” betokening a country divided which, it is said and sung, cannot stand. There’s a low level awareness in the midst of our good fortune, our prosperity and mainly free society, of the huge black mark on the national character, the elephant in the living room that is rarely spoken of or regarded. There’s never been a public acknowledgement of all the misery inflicted and some reckoning needs to be made. I’d love to see some rite of contrition, a national day of mourning, apologies made and some compensatory action taken, not that there is any way to fully compensate. But we can endeavor to make amends, to love our neighbors, to embody the self evident truths.
Our human history seems to be a journey to consciousness, awareness, better choices, to maturity. The birds have got it knocked. Every year they woo, nest, mate, lay, sit on and hatch their eggs and feed the offspring till the kids fledge and can get food on their own. It is the way of the animal kingdom. Everyone knows and plays their parts, everyone but us. Our apparently still unfinished species is having a hard time growing up and settling down into our domestic responsibilities and finding contentment and satisfaction in living life fully, simply. Granted our complexities, proclivities, our misconceptions and mistakes, our capacity for both ignominy and grace, futility and fulfillment, misery and happiness, some of us still look for thrills in other domains. Not that there is anything wrong with diverse expressions of our humanity. For some, amassing a huge fortune is the sine qua non of human endeavor. If this is not taking more than one’s fair share, rock on. A.S. Neill, the thoughtful and innovative philosopher of education, defined freedom as doing whatever we want as long as what we do doesn’t interfere with others’ doing what they want. Doesn’t this seem a reasonable, prudent and mature maxim, a rule to live by?
What is keeping us from growing up? Vested Interests, ignorance, vengeance and greed, blah blah blah. Perhaps it is a matter of modulation, temperance. The word sin means missing the mark. What if we come to understand the Seven Deadlies in terms of excess? We all have appetites. Two pieces of toast is breakfast. Twelve pieces? Gluttony. We are all erotic beings or we wouldn’t be here. We all need rest, want admiration, want to feel admiration and take inspiration from others, are often roused to protest indignity and injustice. Without moderation, we sin or miss the mark. What else is new? Nothing for it but to try again, fail better…until there’s a sea change.
After so many incremental steps, quantitative changes, there’s a qualitative one. What has been obdurate, becomes fluid as ice melts into water.
We have as a species yet to live happily ever after like our animal kin or fully realize the fate of fairy tale beings whose journey is growing up, becoming adult in the embrace of what is kind and good and beautiful in life.
Stand Up More Again March 27,2008
In the late 40s and the 1950s when we were kids, Europe was recovering from the cataclysm of Nazis and Fascists. In America, authoritarianism sank roots and flourished. Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt wrote the bibles of behavior and father knew best. My brother and I grew up in Pleasantville, a sunny suburb under the shadow of the Victorian. Children were seen and not heard, questioned but not answered. It was an age of unconsciousness. Motive and intent were unrecognized, unacknowledged, swept under the Persian carpet. There were rules for every contingency, places for every thing. Order and routine prevailed and from this regularity, we were to draw strength. Life was predictable, stable, and secure. Sure it was.
It was hard to get a grasp of commonplace reality. Things were not as they seemed. Teeming beneath the calm and tepid waters of daily life were passionate impulses, unreasonable demands. Oblivious, the Zeitgeist ! Convention and propriety, gender roles and double standards obtained. It was
an era of mixed messages: a time of unbridled restraint, extravagant repression, a wide application of the straight and narrow. Everyone lived by a script. On this occasion we do this. On that occasion we wear, say, think that. Simon says do this. Do that. Some things could never be said. Under our outer garments we wore our unmentionables, and under them? Don’t ask. At school we sat at our desks with hands folded lest they be tempted to stray….which would make us go blind or our fingers wither. Those silly numbskulls… They spoon fed us white lies like chicken soup. Didn’t they know we could think outside the box?
There were only two subjects forbidden at our table: life and death.
The cold war was referred to by grownups sotto voce and we practiced duck and cover drills in the long corridors of P.S. 64 as if this would save us from the fallout of an atomic blast. We did what we were told, what they asked, but didn’t really register the reality of terror. We didn’t know that thousands of kids had been done to a turn in the ovens of Auschwitz and we were being protected, that in their silence, our elders were trying to spare us from suffering. Trouble is once you start erasing, bleeping out, Bowdlerising, you censor some of the hard truths we need to know in order to avoid the potholes, manholes, the sand-traps, the pits. Thin ice over muddy water.
Reality ? a guessing game, an elusive je ne sais quois. We were mired in euphemism. Bodily acts and functions were perceived as sources of embarrassment. There were words I never heard until comic genius, first amendment martyr, Lenny Bruce, uttered them for all the world to hear, the shock and fatuous fear of which liberated some and closed down the rest, the poor amnesiacs we now call middle America whose very decency is used against them by the friendly fascists, the oil barons et al who have usurped our country, desecrating our noble vision and real strength: liberty and justice for all. We have now, not a president, but a would be emperor only Moliere could have written.
We for whom the emigrés made the perilous journey to the new world became Americans. We became what they yearned for and then feared because of their programming, free-thinkers. Free beings. And because of the cotton candy confection of half truths and white lies they spun to sweeten our lives, we yearned to know the truth. We who sat in the Peanut Gallery were cheered and heartened by The Howdy Doody Show. Buffalo Bob Smith made us laugh, gave us a reality we could live in and enjoy. I watch so little TV, it was a small miracle I happened on the 40th anniversary of the show’s closing some years ago. I marveled when Smith looked us in the eye again and said : “Boys and girls, now men and women, I’m proud of you. I always told you to stand up for what’s right and you did.” We did. We answered meanness with generosity, competition with cooperation. We spoke up for Civil Rights and protested an unjust war. Now we are sixty, we need to stand up more again.
Surface of Now April 3,2008
While it’s true, right here right now in Marin county, at once sybaritic and green, we can spend time if not a small fortune on a weekend that will help us focus on the present through techniques and practices of relaxation and meditation, breathing, chanting, reciting mantras, and dancing, all of which summon us to an embodied grace of this and no other moment, and considering that we live in the unfolding of time, even granting that our awareness of and participation in each moment is fulfilling, gratifying, possibly enlightening, that there is an exhilarating satisfaction in being fully awake and alive, I never the less brood when I see my students locked into the eternal moment, the surface of now, the provenance of childhood and the refuge of the so called insane.
We have been living in a seductive macro-culture that promises instant gratification, the quick fix and effortless convenience, luring consumers ( formerly customers) to spend moolah and save time on whatever is fast and easy, though now, we can be happy and relieved to note, there is a growing resistance to the siren spell sell of fast food and the new look. The slow seasonal food movement is growing apace and we are becoming more conscious of our carbon foot prints and willing to resole our boots rather than purchase the trendy new cuties. Is anyone safe from the bait? What creative spirit hasn’t been intoxicated by the gift of a bravura, one take performance, a great meal or poem, what I call when something comes perfectly formed, the Zen Pen. It’s what gets ink stained wretches on the hook and willing to endure, even enjoy the sweat of one’s brow, the time and effort, the second thoughts and revisions. The seasoned and enlightened know that time matters, that depth matters, that “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” (Kerouac)
I can’t know what it’s like to be young right now, though I see the bright and deep ones who face the immensities and challenges of the new century if not stopped in their tracks, then driven inward, as I suppose all heroes must. They know as we do how much is required of us if we are to squeak through the bottleneck of skewed values and perceptions to a harmonious and sustainable future. There’s so much to wade through, translate and master. Not everyone wants to do this, many of my students among them. Kids just want to have fun. They are like the ferandulae in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door who won’t sink their tails into the earth and sing the song of the universe which, in the macrocosm, makes Charles Wallace, the kid whose mitochondria are misbehaving, so ill. They want to spend an hour on an essay and then get on to the real thing….and who can blame them? Sex drugs rock and roll. Pleasures. Diversions. Ever thus.
Robert Reich postulates four impediments to a full participatory citizenry: denial ( There is no global warming) escapism( It may be true but I can’t face it. Let’s go shopping) buck passing (They started it. It’s their problem) and cynicism ( Yes it’s a mess, but what can any one person do?) The kids are cynical. They see how entrenched the powerful and greedy, how apparently indifferent the benign elders. ”The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”( W.B.Yeats) They inherit the future, these children who have not been left behind, who are lost in the surface of now. I want them to be not just consumers, but fully alive, authentic beings, engaged in fulfilling lives, real people who are individuals, members of families, communities, cultures, citizens.
What to do? We can teach them that language creates and skews reality, how the rhetoric of advertising and the propaganda of politics influence their choices if they skate on the surface of things( hence freedom to be and do and have what is in their…not the Fortune 500’s best interests). We can teach logical fallacies so they can know that an either or proposition, the black or white, eliminates the myriad shades and hues, the rainbow of possibilities. We can model the redoubtable virtues, the steadfast pursuit of our aims in the face of all odds. We can teach creative and collaborative problem solving, and assign them problems to solve, knowing the dignity of service far outweighs the drudgery of servitude. All this I do. But it is the artists, musicians, film makers who will reach them. Roll up your sleeves who can.
I am not a Soprano. Then why did I sing last week with the Sopranos at the United Methodist Church in Mill Valley in a Gospel workshop under the auspices of the Light House Singers? I’m not a Christian. I haven’t been born again. I’m not drawn to organized religion and haven’t been since I was a kid and jettisoned pew attendance in favor of ecstatic woodland worship. I’ve wanted no Intercessors, screens or filters between the ineffable and myself. I wanted to experience and know from the inside out and commune directly with the great spirit suffusing everyone and everything. Even now, I am a pagan knocked over by the sheer loveliness of creation, the loveliness of a swim in the bay, the loveliness of a ripe peach, a well sung aria, a great line of verse, a well turned phrase, or an assemblage of molecules so exquisitely contrived on canvas or screen, I jump out of my skin for joy.
Suffice it to say I am a sucker for a spiritual and love the all out, full tilt boogie of Gospel. When my pal who has been egging me on to join her in an annual Gospel Singing Workshop which she’s been devoted to, despite her proclivity for reason and inability to get behind the message, asked again, I couldn’t think of any reason not to. Since another dear neighbor had signed up for the ride, car pooling clinched the deal. I sat with my friends for fellowship, as we say in church, and they sing Soprano. It was a stretch, but I let the spirit take me to the highest reaches of the stave, beyond my range. And it is pure joy to sing with a choir, take direction from demanding directors who are talented and skillful musicians, primarily African Americans whose tradition this is, who asked for our all.
In the past, I’ve brooded about the unfortunate rift between the Secular Humanists and the Fundamentalists. I’ve come to see this as a dispute in reading….whether we read the sacred texts as prose or poetry, as the revealed word or mythic narrative, the only story or one story among many, symbolic rather than literal truth, poetry. If text is read as prose, as the Gospel truth, there’s no room for variation or multiple voices and this has troubled me. How, I’ve wondered, can you have a dialogue with orthodoxy if everything comes back to the last word, the final authority of the deity. Why? Because God said so, end of discussion. I began having misgivings, almost reneged. Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite or imposter, mouthing words I didn’t mean? Fortunately, I remembered Coleridge’s advice to readers of poetry. He recommends a willing suspension of disbelief and in this spirit I went to sing in a choir, one voice among many.
I know a lot of people who think religion nonsense who swear by the Course of Miracles, Eckhart Tolle’s work and most recently “The Secret,” the premise of which is that we create our own reality. This is not a new idea. I encountered the notion years ago in a class at San Francisco State taught by an ex Harvard philosophy professor who gave up his first field as pointless and futile. He had us read Scientific American articles on sense perception, Eric Erickson’s “Childhood and Society” which details the psycho- sexual stages of our development and a lot of poetry. His thesis was: we create order and project the world moment by moment, and this was both a thrilling and terrifying proposition to encounter, one which invites us to be responsible for our perceptions and choices. In its minimalist form, is the bumper sticker: You don’t have to believe everything you think. Our late great Inverness friend, Barbara Dewey, wrote several books on the idea, one of them, ”As you believe,” in which she too notes the primacy of self fulfilling prophecies. But here’s the rub: I found these ideas latent in Gospel Music read as poetry.
In my inherited tradition, the old Rabbis loved to dispute interpretation so they could understand what God wanted of us, so we could live fulfilling lives and be happy. One of the hymns our choir sang told us to be still, to listen, much as the Buddhists speak of being empty, empty of preconceived notions, empty of ego, empty of desire. This makes so much sense that I began really listening to the seemingly simplistic lyrics of what we were singing. One of the lines that really got to me was “ Look how far the Lord has brought me.He’s brought me from a mighty long way.” The Reverends kept suggesting we pay close attention to the words and meditate upon their meaning. I don’t know if this is what they had in mind, but all I could see was the mainly white choir obeying every minute hand gesture of the able black directors and know that we have all indeed come a long way since Plantation days and the fantasy of white supremacy. So my counsel for all who want to dismiss the fundamentalists: Don’t even bother trying to beat them. Join them. Sing with them. E pluribus Unum. Hallelujah!
Who’s on First?
Merciful Minerva, it’s bad enough we’re all pumping gas and some of us more often than not, more’s the pity, but today I rolled into a station in Petaluma and thought I’d finally flipped my lid. I heard singing and there was no one there. I didn’t smell blossoms. The trees weren’t bare. No. There are TV sets at the pumps. Hmm… advertising and oil. Oui. Connect les dots. In his short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut limns a futuristic dystopia in which equality is enforced by the Handicapper General who mandates and dispenses artificial disadvantages for the gifted. The athletes and dancers have to cart around sandbags lest they be stronger, lither, more graceful than others. The brainiacs must wear head sets with bells and whistles, sirens and loud crashes that kaibosh their streams of thought so they won’t be smarter than anyone else. “Their thoughts fled like bandits before an alarm.” Not that the gas pump is where we necessarily go to meditate or sort things out, but you know while we’re fueling up just standing around, virtually captive, idle, available, if we’re not cleaning the windows, who knows what thoughts may come? Or bumper-stickers….
I was mighty nervous when they launched the Cassini probe knowing there is a big bang waiting to happen, what with all that plutonium orbiting hither and thither, what with asteroids out there cruising around, an accident in potentia, signaling if not devolution, then The End: Exeunt Omnes. It may never happen. It may even be foolish to worry when the folks at Cape Canaveral are so sure no harm will come, certain as they were when the Challenger was launched, not allowing for human error which escalates exponentially when the payload stakes are high. Five degrees off course is negligible if you’re sailing a small craft on a seventeen mile long bay and can correct…no harm done. But out on open waters, you could end up in the shipping lanes and the obit column. And that’s not all.
Was anyone else taken aback if not put out when they ( whoever they are, you know…the Pacman barbarians with gaping maws and ravening appetites ) threatened to launch Space Billboards or Logo Satellites, so that any innocent mortal among us ( even the not so innocent) could look up at the starry panoply of the night sky: Look! There’s Venus, yon Rigel, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, also NBC, Nabisco, Shell Oil…Ptooey. When you wish upon a star/know they’re rich and we’re at war. And if you think that’s nasty, how about the new interactive TV commercials which I’ve heard are tailor made to the viewers’ own tastes, predilections, weaknesses and impulsive buying practices. Consider the collection of data that makes this possible, never mind the intent, the end in view. Oh Brother!
My list of plaints and lamentations is nigh encyclopedic. Noting the reactionary vocab. in the face of such invasive and nuisance idiocy, I confess I do so want to retreat and retrench to an era previous, before neon, billboards and commercials, but with Internet and blue jeans, CDs and DVDs. sigh. What’s a woman to do? Wait for the pendulum to swing? Alan Watt’s tells an old story maybe from the steppes of Mongolia where the other cowboys flourished for centuries. A man captures a herd of wild horses. An admiring neighbor says: Lucky you. Man says: Maybe. Next day, the man’s son is thrown from a horse and breaks his leg. Neighbor says: Too bad. Bad luck. Father says: Maybe. Next day the army comes through to conscript the able bodied youth and the boy escapes. So we never know. We cannot precisely predict the far ranging effects of things that go bump in the night, however ill or well we play our hands, wield our cues or move the pieces on the board. But TV at the pumps? Puhleese.
I find myself in a snit of indignation, even full throttled fury over the impedimentia and thwartage of the common weal. Great gusts of distress blow me off the steadfast and steady, as the great storms of winter unsettle the mild and meek trees, the howling winds knocking down great limbs as well as weedy branches which fly about the yard, landing in scattered heaps, the tell tale signs of the much ado. A lot of bending, lifting and lugging are now required to set things aright. I brood. I reason. I wring my hands. And then I see a bumper sticker: “January 20,2009: The end of an error.” Winter IS coming to an end. Budding spring is finally full throttle here…cherry blossoms, mustard, red winged black birds, trillium and all. Time to plant some seeds and dream up a garden again.
For the record, to salve not so much my conscience as a sense of inaccuracy, there are a few linguistic malapropisms in current use that drive me bonkers. Beware a lady with an umbrella. It’s not that I’m in a snit of righteous indignation. It’s the loss of sense engendered by mistakes of the kind I am about to detail that troubles my sleep. How can we come to our senses if we are careless and unconscious in our speech? Magic bullet is the expression I most want to set straight. This is a term now used in place of magic potion, an elixir of great restorative power that could revive the ailing king or wounded maiden, anyone, to health and wholesomeness. The potion was a mythical and magical substance of great power and value because it could heal, make hale and hearty, make whole. It was a draught taken from a fountain or remote spring or sylvan stream that could return the moribund to life, hence often called the water of life. There are stories sagas tales and legends of this potent and efficacious liquid from all over the world. King Amfortas in Parsifal is thus restored as are countless worthy mortals in folk and fairy tales many of us read and loved in childhood. One such tale, ”The Water of Life” was collected in Germany from many sources by the Brothers Grimm.
First, let’s consider the raison d’etre of folk and fairy tales which are the repository of the collective wisdom of the ages. Children understand the symbolic value of stories in which the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Our sense of the rightness of things is satisfied. We know instinctively what is fair and just. Give any two kids a cookie to share and both know an even break down the middle is fair and square. They know goodness consists of kindness friendliness and generosity and that wickedness is brutal cruelty and meanness of spirit. It is so satisfying to be in a movie theatre with kids to hear the welling and outpouring of feeling in the roar of yeas and boos, the quieter sighs and groans as the plot thickens and the powers of good and evil are tried in the arena of mythic encounter. When Obi-Wan Kenobi says: ”Use the Force, Luke,” and he does, the audience in the Saturday matinee I attended exploded with joy. Similarly, when the arrogant and calculating step mother and her narcissistic daughter are banished to the laundry room in Ever After, we are enormously pleased and satisfied.
In fairy stories, the hero or heroine often has a series of tasks to perform, among them the sorting of lentils and beans, a symbolic rendering of discrimination and good judgment, learning to discern one thing from another, to know what is good for one and what is not. Learning values is at the heart of the hero’s adventures. Learning what is important, what matters is the work of our growing up. For ages past, women routinely died in childbirth and men in the hazards of work and war. The fairy tales taught children whom life has thwarted or hurt through the loss of a beloved parent, patience to endure what now befalls, to await a better chapter later on, especially if he or she is like the youngest child, guileless and kind. In the tale,”The Water of Life,” it is the child who, making his way up the road, goes neither to the left nor the right as the older brothers do, the ones who take the goldness of the road into account and avoid treading on it because of its worth. The youngest brother is heedless of such considerations and only wants to make his way to the princess at the end of the road, to love. It is the youngest child who restores the king to health by being kind to a dwarf who tells him how to succeed in finding the magic potion and wins love by being unaffected by the glitter of material wealth.
So now to the point. Magic bullet was a term coined to describe the trajectory of a single bullet alleged to have passed through both President Kennedy and Governor Connally which common sense tells us was not only wrong but physically impossible. Since then, the term magic bullet has been used instead of magic potion, meaning a quick fix. We’re said to be looking for a magic bullet to end world hunger, poverty, homelessness, joblessness, pollution, the shrinking ozone, the warming globe. Not me, kids. I’m still sorting through the lentils and beans, in search of the magic potion.
Every day pleas for the relief of the distressed arrive in my mailbox, and since I’m not exactly Daddy Warbucks, I send ten bucks to this and that always worthy cause, wishing I could send more. Actually I could, but I’ve been apparently too taken up with the pleasures of Babylon, on however a reduced scale. I’ve bought my silks and cashmeres at the Goodwill, the Salvo, thrift shops, flea markets, garage sales, and deep discount emporiums. I’ve indulged myself thus, not because I’m a cheap-skate, but because I want to be able to be generous to my friends and causes and if I bought the perfect sweater in season, preferably during the pre-season sale as I was trained to do, I’d have fewer things, meaning I’d be a lot more portable which is better for a vagabond, which historically I’m inclined to be.
But it’s not only my penchant for feeding and garbing my friends or the need for the ready when dropping into a box office, book or CD store, that’s made me frequent the second hand shops. I like recycling and the treasure hunt, the you never know what you’re going to find, what odd collectable or adorable relic, what exotic has-been, superannuated chic, or beautifully made garment. I’ve believed myself to be on a rescue mission, saving the exquisite old darlings from the shredder or the dump, oh the delusional spell of rationalization.
Retail therapy is a drug for the polite, the mildly disgruntled, the burdened, the discouraged, the over- worked, the whelmed. It’s what I do when blue or spent or confused…when in a daze after too much hard edge focus and the press of plans, duties and obligations all threaten to consume me utterly. On the one hand, it is a perfectly harmless if silly form of recreational escapism as well as an inexpensive source of clothing. On the other, it is an activity promising a temporary relief from the challenges of life and therefore a form of balking, a refusal to step up to the plate, bat the ball, play the game as best we can, try ourselves in the arena, maybe even score a single, double, hoboy! grand slam home run. In a roast given him at the end of his life, film director John Huston observed that most of our lives are lived by our understudies, a remark worth thinking about. It is my understudy who shops. I prefer to sing and dance and type.
Then comes the moment when a habit or an addiction (spade a spade) becomes an onerous burden rather than an outlet, pass-time, or spree, when going to usual kick-back haunts there isn’t a ghost of a thrill. We know too much, have too much, too many are doing without, so how can we continue to shop? We’ve had it with extraneous time and place holders. A surfeit by any other name is, enfin, too much, already. The shopping, the patrolling the rows and rows of cast-offs, looking for the sine qua non, the ne plus ultra of well made timeless outer ware, the very togs of chic: Genug. Farewell Goodwill, Salvation Army, Sack’s Thrift Avenue, Senior Service’s.
Oh if it were that easy. Years ago I had another little habit. I walked from North Shore Boats to the Marshall Post Office, then in the cove where the oyster Co. now is. After posting my letters, I stopped by the general store and bought my daily dose of corn nuts, a nickel a bag….harmless enough, though hard on the molars….oh the path to perdition! After I ceased cigarettes, not quite through with my oral fixation ( Ach du lieber, I’m afreud ve do know too much), I took up blue corn and Kettle chips and threatened to start a Marin chapter of Chips Anonymous. In college, I thought of making a hand book for compulsive eaters and printing it on ham and Swiss on rye, hold the mustard. Naturally I am grateful my obsessions and compulsions have been trivialish. There were some who latched on to more serious anesthetics with stiffer consequences. There is the dark side, a shadow land to any idyllic village or town and every Western Weekend, we remember sad events that transpired here, swept under the carpet… and we carry on. Sigh.
Life is tough and sometimes unbearable. I blame no one who takes time out.
I have friends who have little bon bon habits who will understand the pattern. However, as we know, every obstacle blocking the path is an opportunity for self knowledge and growth. Mitigating awareness, presence, and the observant self watching the nibbler or shopper, noting the need for comfort, provides the space required for choice, not mindless caving in when we are immersed in drives and longings, blindly unaware. Our mothers told us to count to ten when we were angry so we would have the presence of mind not to indulge in a temper tantrum, to choose not to. Growth is painful. Self mastery…it never ends. Next level, please.
Did you ever as a child have to stay at the table long after everyone else had left, still compelled to eat, still resisting Popeye’s khaki spinach, a cold and soggy smear on the china? Blech. Character formation. In the long ago, we were told so that we would appreciate all that was set upon our plates that the children were starving in India. I would have gladly shipped them my vegetables, but they had troubles enough of their own without having to deal with the inedible ersatz vittles I had to offer.
Progress was our most important product. So Americans had been told and my darling if deluded elders bought canned and then frozen veggies, clearly de rigeur because they were the newest hottest item, leaving behind the real thing. Assimilating émigrés are often the most steadfastly loyal to any convention or practice of the new home land. The technology of lightly cooking fresh greens had been forgotten by the current cooks and not yet remembered by the next generation, so there was this long post-prandial spinach-twirling before I perfected the art of slipping the glop into my napkin little by little. “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”…often how we respond to the presiding and unacceptable circumstances of family and culture. I then excused myself from the table and threw the revolting brown greens into the john without the intervening trip through stomach and intestines via the critical, tender-hearted mouth which, Like Emily Dickenson, prefers to select her own society… a lot of merde to swallow, excuse the French.
There’s so much we still apparently have to swallow…so much that is unacceptable put upon our plates. How many of us want this war? What about the reallocation of our country’s wealth which has meant more rather than less inequity, less rather than more benefit to the common weal, the greatest good to the greatest many? We had imagined during the dreaming days of the Great Society that progress meant homes, jobs, education, access to health care, sufficient social security pension in our retirement to enjoy the fruits of our labors and a well earned rest for as many people as possible. Life: clean unpolluted earth air and water. Liberty: equal opportunity, freedom of expression, freedom of choice. The pursuit of happiness: free to be whoever we are unimpeded by the biased distinctions and privileges of race, class, gender, orientation, age, and body size. I think we may be level with the same economic distribution of resources as we were pre American Revolution when society still mirrored the Old World’s class system of masters and servants, Aristocrats and Serfs. The upshot of the enlightenment was the rise of a large middle class which could enjoy the pleasures of life like the Aristos, earned by working for a living like the Plebes. That the middle class has shrunk has been well documented and Robert Reich details this precisely in his essay, “Why the Rich are Getting Richer and the Poor Poorer.”
I don’t begrudge anyone’s wealth. I do embrace free enterprise, but as we know having studied the history of the Robber Barons and profiteers of earlier times, a huge fortune is often amassed at the expense of others and finally called ill gotten gain. What can anyone do with a billion bucks? How much breast of lark can anyone eat in a week? Not that I would. I’m not envious, though the social disparities and progressively large divide between the haves and have-nots could put one’s nose out of joint.
I’m with Blake: “Can I see another’s woe and not be in sorrow too?”
And of course there is simply too much evidence of the declining health of the environment. And then there’s the fragmentation! We simply can’t keep in the mind’s eye all the wretchedness of a society without a moral center and carry on… which we simply must. What was once the richest country in the world, richest in natural resources, is now in despoiled, in need of restoration. T.S. Eliot wrote the “Wasteland” invoking Rotten Denmark and Polluted Thebes. How unbearably sad and entirely unacceptable to see our country in this framework. Forgive me. I don’t know how to write it lite.
Where is the Count of Monte Cristo when we need him? Where’s the Green Hornet, Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk? I think it’s up to us who care, who can take the largest view, embrace the most inclusive vision… and as Joseph Campbell states in Hero of a Thousand Faces, the first impulse of the hero is to refuse the call. Liberation is a daunting task requiring effort, concentration, one pointed intent. Enormous effort…the vanquishing of ego driven desires of the self to realize the well being of the whole. Daunting. But such was the vision of the founders we remember each July 4th, Independence Day.
Editor and members of the community:
A little over a decade ago, Harold Pinter delivered the Herbert Read Memorial lecture for Salman Rushdie who had been put under fatwa or condemnation of death for writing The Satanic Verses, which challenges the fundamentalist certainty that orthodox views, and only these views, are right because they iterate the revealed word of the Almighty and are the absolute truth,end of discussion. This novel, a work of fiction,of art, is not about religion. Rushdie said, ” The subject is not faith,but loss of faith.” However,the act of casting doubt was enough to provoke not a polite demur but a death sentence by those whose faith was absolute and exclusive, by those who would brook no dissenting, hence, heretical voice.
In this lecture,he observes: “We have been witnessing an attack upon a particular work of fiction that is also an attack upon the very idea of the novel form, an attack of such bewildering ferocity that it has become necessary to restate what is most precious about the art of literature — to answer the attack, not by an attack, but by a declaration of love….
Unlike the true believer, the devotion of the lover is not militant. I may be surprised- even shocked- to find that you do not feel as I do about a given work of art ; I may very well attempt to change your mind, but I will finally accept that your tastes, your loves, [your point of view] are your business and not mine.The True Believer knows that he is simply right, and you are wrong.”
Carlos Fuentes calls the novel ” a priveleged arena,” privileged because it is the stage upon which the great debates of society can be conducted. The novel is essentially democratic because it is filled with many and diverse voices…communing,opining, arguing,laughing.Anything, everything can be said in any possible way. And this is, I think, a very good thing.
In a free and open and democratic society ,we want to be able to express our views and our neighbors to be able to express theirs, whether or not we agree with them. Tolerance for views not our own is the hallmark of an enlightened society. Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest” has been used as the justification for backbiting and exclusionary competition which divides rather than unites people. Perhaps even more valueable is his observation that survival is best served by diversity rather than uniformity.This means obviously that if the aphids get one variety, there are dozens of others remaining. In the human community, this means dialogue rather than monologue.
Aristotle prefers democracy to monarchy which may easily become a tyrannical dictatorship. He says that in order to have the most complete understanding upon which to make the most reasonable and efficacious choices about the disposition of our communal lives,people need to engage in public debate and share points of view. Individually, we see in part, but together, we have a better chance of seeing things whole and acting in the best interests of the whole: the greatest good for the greatest many.
My point? I’d like us to forgo the us and them dichotomies that separate and pit people against one another, as sufficiently evidenced elsewhere on our benighted, beloved planet. Let our community be one place where we embody the privileged arena and debate the great and troubleing issues of our time without losing our respect and compassion for each other.
What was that you said, Jessie? ” Come on people now, smile on your brother …. everybody get together,try to love one another, right now.”
July 16, 2014 Wednesday…. last day of 72nd spin around the sun…
Who was it who said the best writing comes when he, Billy Collins? has nothing, no plan, no idea, no objective or focus…just sits down and sees what emerges… Eccomi. Ahora, ici…
Make of it all what you will… Do leap imaginatively, dear ones, to follow association, the turbid and pacific flowing of mind. Anyone home to follow the bouncing ball? To whom, for whom am I writing this? Journal yes, but as well, want to leave a trail, not just slug slime…a report…this is where I’ve been, what I’ve seen or rather what I saw and noted, what registered, struck a chord, signified. I’ve been principally, singularly, a solitaire, so if allusions to writ show up, it’s because reading is what I’ve done, mainly, before this fit of Carpe Diem, Live life to the fullest,has had its way with me and alas that’s all that has, we confess (me myself and I…the Heckle Jeckle and Jive sorellas).
“Who,” asks Psyche,”is sitting in my chair ?
Others? I have had so much homework to do to come up from under to level, integral, whole, which more or less, more and less, I am… rich in friendship, open to love.
Also accompanying and keeping track are the voices of wisdom. ( Scusi: while I was seeking le mot juste in the word horde heap of possibilities, pardon my meta etcetera, I lost track of what it was the wise would counsel). Oh yes…being present and paying attention…I can only surmise, feeling a bit embarrassed for having forgotten what I was saying or alluding to, having fallen short of perfect as is… and why, by the by, the injunction, to effortlessly utter as a tree utters twigs? Because,she opined, we must mature, find our niche,no more or less, to synch with the fulsome beauty and harmony and interconnectedness of all that is…
Be it known, we are sickened by war. I just want us to not only get along, but to evolve so that we can and must, as a given, to sing the songs of get along, and, as we did when kids, out of consideration for the others, for the good of the whole, to stop pooping in our pants.
The impediments to growth and maturation, healing and thriving, are obstacles morphing to opportunities on the road of trials, the gauntlet of necessary conditions, facts to be faced, the realm of what is, the whole megillah: the good, the bad, and eek, i don’t want to know… seen and experienced….so, how you say, we go on, by learning from experience.
My current personal afflictions are discouragement ( If I’m so smart, why aint I rich and if they’re so rich, why aint they smart?) and impatience which is, sigh, jejeune, the two year old foot stamping insistence…I waaaaaaaaannnnnnnntttttt ( don’t waaaaaannntttt) NOW ow ow ow ow….heavy on the reverb….the slime trail, the wake of consequence….
ah yes the antibodies of trial and error and a learning curve, for we are, je pense, educatable. WELL THEN….and I am thinking of us would be Sapients and our maladies…
Rx: a Universal Yom Kippur…to contemplate, own, and atone…let go…release all the log-jammed energy, forgive everyone for everything
and then onto the Feasting, for Pete phuque sake…
Here’s to maturation, the fullness of being and happily singing the songs of the living universe….and so begin again, Finnegan, to record our saying doing and being here on Terra Firmish…
Onward and Tally ho!