Archive for March, 2013
[Last week I took the ‘California Zephyr’ from Chicago. Zephyr means the west wind, a gentle breeze, or something transitory. It’s named after Zephyrus, the ancient greek god that is the western wind. And the time of the year is March, named after Mars, the God of War. I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or not, that we ‘march’ to war. Anyway, my time in Boulder Colorado was the dance of both these spirits: a gentle breeze at war]
The 2-D land
into the third dimension
My heart goes out to you, Kewanee, IL.
Your tractor distribution center
each tractor, painted golden-rod
a little boy’s dream.
And the FedEx® distribution center spells
JOBS… for now.
An antique store, an old-fashioned ice cream bar,
you’re neither shabby nor rich, Kewanee.
A Mexican-American restaurant
both flags painted, side-by-side.
An indoor bridge that spans Main Street-
something to marvel at
Especially when you’re a boy
from an even smaller town who thinks
Kewanee is huge.
Out there is a philosophy major
who knows this town is desolate.
Will she leave before
it stamps her fate?
Early evening makes me depressed. The sun’s decided to go. My mind returns to childhood in Northern Illinois: the sun setting, dad coming home from work, kids at the baseball diamond. The growing quiet, the end of games. Worse than night, because the sun is still hanging around― but it won’t be. Like an animal confronted with death- a surge of vitality comes to everything: the last breeze of the day blows shredded plastic across a field until it’s caught in a rut.
A cross country team
jogging out of a cemetery
geese fly north
this way and that.
I read the handwriting
of Chinese calligraphy
and cannot understand a word.
But it looks sloppy, mocking
the way Shakespeare
wrote slang: with a mastery
the academics, orderly and reverent,
could not match.
Dark rocky Oolong
Gongfu, or ‘tea with skill’
In the back of a shop
A remote space
Separated by a wall
Low to the ground
And paper lights
Young Socrates dons his new hat past
The homeless folk. They call him out.
He shoots back- logically- and loses his cool.
He walks away, ashamed
The sun shoves his shadow into the rushing water.
To swim he’s got to let go his wealth.
The furnace is making noise:
one long exhale that never stops.
An old wound re-opened.
I don’t want to hurt
them or me.
Guide and protect me
So that I can carry It further
In that realm
And great calm
Guiding the next.
Enthusiasm. What is it? That’s a difficult, if not impossible question to answer. For what it is now is not what it used to be. It used to be, way way back, entheos– which is ancient greek for god-within. In other words: to be possessed, to have a god acting through you. That to me far exceeds the current definition of ‘enthusiasm’ as being eager or happy. In fact, it is my contention that to be enthused, in the old sense, is the exact opposite of the new sense. Imagine yourself doing the dishes, you have completely forgot what you were doing, yet you’re still doing the dishes, perfectly. Or are you? Is something else working through you?
You see, “what is it?” is far too general a question to get us anywhere useful. Let’s ask instead, “when is enthusiasm?” It’s hard for me to think of myself as having enthusiasm while asleep. Even the best dreams sort of happen without any sense of enthusiasm. Even when I wake up, I’m not exactly enthused. Maybe I am if I know there’s something good going on that day. And maybe I should be enthused every morning for the sole fact that I am alive, that every day is good. Yeah, that’s a good attitude- now I feel enthused. But then I go to work and I lose my enthusiasm.
But why? Why does going to work mean I can’t be enthusiastic? This is an important question for all of us (and for those of you who are retired, students, or in transition, you can substitute ‘work’ with whatever you spend a third of your day doing). Let’s state the question: am I enthusiastic about what I have to do today?
That depends on which sense of the word ‘enthusiasm’ we’re using. For example. Part of my job is unplugging the toilet. Now, it’s next to impossible to actually be excited about fixing the toilet, to be eager to have the chance to unclog a public toilet (enthusiasm in the modern sense). It is possible, on the other hand, to evoke the name of my god, view cleaning the toilet as a spiritual exercise (an opportunity to practice humility) and proceed entirely enthusiastic about the ordeal. Possessed by God, fixing a toilet. God’s fixing the toilet; I’m only a vessel.
What this illustrates is that no task is inherently bad; what matters is your attitude. So we can rephrase the question: am I enthusiastic about today, regardless of what I have to do? Probably not. Because we’re human. And some work really sucks, despite our spiritual conditioning. A better question: how can we become enthusiastic?
The first and most obvious answer is to have a positive attitute. That gets us somewhere but not all the way. For one, some of us have a dour aesthetic and appreciate the fact that the glass is half empty, too. Secondly, saying to yourself “I should be positive” is rather hollow- it doesn’t actually make you feel positive. If anything it makes you feel guilty for not being positive. Does it? I don’t know. From my experience, being positive is a good first step, but eventually I’m going to need something more convincing to make me believe I should be enthusiastic.
Another attempt: enthusiasm makes me feel better. That’s right, when I actually care about what I’m doing, I feel better while I do it. It’s called taking pride in your work. Other people benefit, because you do a good job. But the important part is you benefit, because you’re not divided in two, one half trying to do the work/one half complaining about the work being done.
But sometimes that strategy doesn’t work either. Because no matter how good your attitude is you feel like shit. Better yet, you feel like shit, and that emotion needs to be felt. Rather than staying busy in order to feel better… sit down, turn off the cell phone, and don’t move. Feel the shitiness. Is it in the shoulders? The throat? How about the stomache, or chest? What words would you use to describe the feeling? If the feeling had a voice, how would it sound? Is it the type of voice that you should listen to, or not? Good, you felt the emotion. It’s grateful for the attention. Now you can go on with your day. Look- you were about to clean the entire apartment or call somebody because you felt guilty. Instead, you did nothing, and now you don’t feel guilty. How about that? That didn’t take any zeal or excitement. And you feel better. Is that enthusiasm? Is there a type of enthusiasm that has nothing to do with work or excitement? The type of enthusiasm with which we slow down and allow space for (insert divinity here, “nothingness” perfectly acceptable) to enter and do the healing work our own busy-ness cannot.
Somewhere along the way “enthusiasm” has lost its way. The culprit, I believe, is our assumption that to be inspired is to be manic. That’s certainly not the case all the time. Another form of divine possession is to be free from acting out every single impulse, to relax. To do the dishes and forget what you were doing, and keep doing them anyway, casually. To floss your teeth and not view it as a chore. That’s the gift, to do mundane things, and have them not be a burden.
Because so much of what we have to do today is, let’s face it, far from heroic. Yet if we don’t do it with some form of enthusiasm we don’t enjoy it. I’m sorry, Lack of Enjoyment is far too weak for what I’m trying to get across. Remember, enthusiasm means the presence of a divinity. So if you’re doing something without enthusiasm, the divine is absent. In some theological ciricles, that’s equivalent to HELL. No enthusiasm equals Hell On Earth. And who wouldn’t want to escape from that? So we drink or become obsessed with Netflix because we’re unable to cope with the absence of god.
Let me wrap this up. I saw a crew removing christmas lights from the trees outside Walgreens. They were using these aluminum telescopic poles with hooks at the end that you use basically to push the lights off of the branches and let them fall to the ground. The lights. When I walked by, the sun was shining and a southern wind tickled my heart: I imagined they were partaking in an ancient pagan tradition of waking up grandfather tree for spring. Two of them worked gracefully, that is, unnoticably, preserving my day-dream. But the third worker struggled. He stabbed at the tree. He hated what he was doing. A chord of lights was stuck. He started whacking them with the broad side of the pole. Then he threw the pole to the ground. He jumped and grabbed the lights and started to pull. They were stuck, so he pulled harder. Suddenly a tree branch snapped in half. He was pissed, because on the ground were the lights, still tied in a knot around the amputated tree limb. I was horrified, because of how senseless was his rage. This time, his lack of enthusiasm hurt a tree. Next time, it could be his daughter or friend. But even worse than the pain he causes others, is the pain he causes himself. All of us have experienced it. When we’re doing something we don’t want to be doing: drudgery.
Perhaps, drudgery it is. But I want to come back to something. We can always shape what we are perceiving with our perspective. If I am constantly bored, perhaps it is because I am boring. If I think people are awkward, maybe it’s because I am awkward. If the work is a pain in the ass, maybe I’m a pain in the ass… we tend to project our shadows onto the external world. But the fact is, those shadows dwell within us. Doing work isn’t so much bad, as it is an opportunity to externalize how shitty we’re feeling.
Think about it: do you enjoy “free time”? Be honest. So few of us know what to do with our free time. Most of us waste it. Is it because it’s the one part of the day where we have no excuse, no one to blame for our feeling bad?
A theory for why we’re not too enthusiastic about free time: we’re beginners. For centuries, free time was a luxury. Only a select few, the aristocracy, had the opportunity to dive into the depths of unstructured time. Sometimes they came up with treasures: art, literature, music. Othertimes, they degressed into elaborate codes of behavior or indulged in perverse proclivities. Now, all of us have free time. But we’re so accustomed to being workers, we don’t know what the hell to do with “free time”. Secretly, we loath it more than anything. We act like we hate work and that we wish we could be doing what we really wanted to. But the truth is that work is a savior, because it gives us a time of day where we’re not faced with this perennial existential question: what should I do with my life?
I don’t think it needs to be that way. We can free time (read that in the imperative, as in “set time free” or “liberate time”). We can start by realizing what it is we really want to be doing with our lives. We can start by not distracting ourselves with entertainment or work. We can become enthusiastic for enthusiasm’s sake. I’m sure by now you’ve thought of at least one thing you’d rather be doing.
While walking along the lake I saw a stick poking its head out of the sand. It was incredibly smooth from god knows how many years of water washing over it. I picked it up- because somehow I think I need to touch something to know something- and felt it. Sure enough, it was smooth. I bent down and put the stick back in its place. But not quite. The snug hole where it originally was had caved in. I felt like I committed a crime against nature. Sure, not as horrific as mountain top removal or industrial farming, but a crime against the order of things nevertheless. That stick came to be where it was through a sublime process of time, gravity, and chaos. It was one with the sand. Now it’s just a stick on the ground. Out-of-place.
I take a few more steps and see a bright red plastic straw, like the one you’d get at a gas station to drink a slurpee. It’s smooth, but not like the stick: it was manufactured to be that way. It’s smooth the way a bullet casing is. In fact, it won’t de-compose for hundreds if not thousands of years, long after the stick and I have vanished.
Somehow, standing on the horizon of Lake Michigan, I identify more with that straw than with that stick: out-of-place, artificial, unnatural. I get that feeling a lot. And despite being more grounded and optimistic than I’ve ever been in my adult life (knock on imitation wood), it only takes the thought of how much destruction goes into the perpetuation of my existence qua modern man to throw me into a morass of self-loathing or send me scrambling to justify my existence. Anyone who admits what we’re doing to the planet faces a similar question: being the artificial straw that I am, what am I doing here?
Actually, this problem is a lot older than you and me. And it existed even before the environmental crisis. The ancient greeks, hundreds of years BCE, were boggled by the fact that they existed, and tried to answer why. It was a serious riddle, for them. There’s a myth of this one king going into the woods to seek out the demi-god Silenus and ask his advice on the matter. The king asks, Why do we exist? Silenus responds, You shouldn’t! And the best thing you can do is die early! Such is “Silenic Wisdom“.
OK. That’s the dark side of all this. I don’t mean to imply it’s the only side. But it’s there, like it or not. If the ancient Greeks had a hard time justifying their existence, and that was before when human society was more of a weather-beaten stick than a plastic straw, a part of rather than apart from nature (then again they were already drinking the milk of other creatures just for the fuck of it, which seems an act against nature as any), then it is all-the-harder for us, whose very existence demands the annihilation of Gaia’s finest, to be as we are. At the least, we can’t act innocent.
Right there I have to stop myself. Am I taking this language of transgression too far? So what if I moved a stick? The stick doesn’t care, the sand doesn’t care. If a dog came over and kicked the stick would we hold the dog responsible? No. Then why me? Why the hyper-responsibility? Why the guilt? Even if the plastic straw isn’t really real, it’s made of elements found in this galaxy. It’s not like it’s another substance from another universe. And so what if we humans have set up a global factory that is harvesting the Earth of everything it has? We still are, at root, made of stuff that catapulted from the sun billions of years ago.
We are nature. Humanity’s domination of nature is actually nature’s domination of nature. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. As far as we know, we’re the most intelligent thing the universe has created. Maybe this is the best it can do. Sure, it’s not perfect: we’re destructive and selfish and out of control, but maybe nature is imperfect, destructive, selfish and out of control, too. And without being those things, we wouldn’t have anything to transcend.
OK, I’ve absolved myself of the billions of plastic straws floating throughout the world- that’s out of my control. But I want to return to that feeling I had when I moved the stick. I did feel like I did something wrong. Not because my action would kill some poor animal but because I disturbed the stick’s being. Some might say I’m committing a pathetic fallacy but I think every part of the world (perhaps even man-made straws) is available to being experienced as sacred. Just the other day I observed a puddle of water that was on its way to becoming a sheet of ice- you could see the geometric shapes crystallizing across the expanse of liquid- but then I stepped on it with my boot. That disturbs me more, these days, than not recycling.
Last night I came home very late. My wife was standing in the doorway. I tried to go past her but she would not move.
Where were you? She said.
On a walk.
What kind of walk?
What do you mean what kind of walk. I was on a walk.
You know what I mean. That kind of walk.
I don’t know what you’re talking about, a walk is a walk.
I tried to go around her but still she would not move.
Come here, She said.
My wife grabbed me by the collar and pulled me into the room and began looking at the collar under the light.
Honey, please, I said.
I tried to get away but she wouldn’t let go.
There, I got you, She said.
You got me?
Not you! You...
She lifted her hand into the air. Inside her palm was a black, eight legged spider.
See what I’ve got here? She said.
Oh, what is it, a spider?
Don’t Oh me. This is not any spider. This is the black widow. You slept with the black widow!
No I swear! It’s just a spider.
The spider in my wife’s hand tried to escape, descending down (for what do you expect, to descend up?) a string of silk. But before it reached the ground my wife swooped it back up as if she were knitting.
Into my home! She said.
No! No! You know how that can be- I accidently stepped into a spider web- I had the web all over me. I thought I got it all off, but look: I accidently took the spider home with me. Heh. Here, hand me the spider. I will bring it outside and set it free.
You brought her into my home!?
Don’t dear me. It’s one thing to cheat on me. But to bring this slut under my roof, under my nose…
Slut? Now, come on.
My wife had the black widow cupped between her hands. Trapped.
I know you don’t love me, She said. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst is that you don’t respect me. You don’t love me? So what. But to not even have the decency to conceal your affair!
Darling, please! I said. It’s not quite like that. I, I’m a fool. I’m pathetic. I’m a pathetic, pathetic fool.
Oh Charles, said my wife. You are most certainly a fool. But you are not pathetic.
I looked up at her hopefully.
Don’t think I’m not still angry with you!
A long silence ensued.
Do you remember, I said, that time we were driving, we were in the middle of nowhere, what were we doing there?
Driving to my cousin’s wedding.
Driving to your cousin’s wedding!
And I got lost. So I decided to drive faster. Do you remember that? And you said…
Before my wife could say her line she started to scream in agony, running around the room knocking over furniture in a deadly panic. I tried to restrain her but by the time I got a hold of her her muscles were cold, her lips white and face purple. She collapsed. I bent down to see if she was still breathing. She was not.
I fell to my knees; my soul paralyzed. Then, I felt a cold tickle on the back of my neck. I raised my hand to slap it but stopped myself.
You, I said.
The tickle stopped.
You killed her.
The black widow said nothing.
I put my hand to the back of my neck and she crawled onto my fingers. We stared at each other for some time.
You shouldn’t have done this, I said. It was not necessary.
The black widow said nothing. She did not even blink. I think I saw her heave a deep exhale, if spiders even exhale, I don’t know.
I glanced at my dead wife and fell onto my back in despair, forgetting the room, forgetting the spider.
I felt the tickle move up my arm, across my shoulders and around my chest. Then it passed gracefully over my stomach and down to my pubis.
No. Not now, I said.
The black widow cast her silk web around and around, working her eight, delicate legs. My heart began to hammer and my breath became hot. Then my body grew stiff, almost like a corpse, and went limp.
Black Widow, I said. Black Widow.
Then she bit me.
I had a fit of agony very similar to my wife’s. I yelled at Black Widow. I wanted to kill her. At the last moment I saw her, climbing up a string near the window.
You said…. you said you wouldn’t do that— to me!