Archive for April, 2013

A Conversation Was Had

Sara sat on the edge of my bed hunched over. The way she held herself suggested that she was hurt and trying to defend herself. I asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t say. I kept asking her what was wrong and she wouldn’t say.

Earlier that day she said to somebody that she wouldn’t see them again. It struck me as odd. She’s just going to Thailand, I thought. Flag.

“Are you going to Thailand, or are you going to Thailand and killing yourself?”
“I don’t know.”

I raised myself on one elbow and looked at Sara. Her arms were crossed like she was keeping herself warm, but her hand was scratching her wrist raw.

“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Why not?”
“What good will talking do.”

We assume that talking makes things better. That if you share what is bothering you with someone, the problem will go away.

“Sara. Listen. You can talk to me about it. I’m not here to judge you.”
“No. Not with this. Talking about it never helps.”
“What do you mean?”
“People just tell me I Have So Much To Live For. Or, It Gets Better. But they don’t understand that that just makes it worse.
“OK. Tell you what. I won’t tell you you’re wrong. I won’t say you shouldn’t do it.”

A friend of mind killed herself last fall. Lately, I’ve felt angry toward her- angry that she didn’t take care of herself- angry that she was so rash- angry that she didn’t consult me first.

“But Goddamn. Sara. Last fall, my friend Cassy killed herself. You know what I feel now? ANGER. Suicide is fucking selfish.”
“Dammit Gopher! That’s exactly what my mom said!”
“Last time I was going to kill myself she found out and said I was being selfish. She said everyone has problems and who the fuck was I to kill myself.”

Fuck. I promised Sara she could feel safe talking with me about it. But then I became angry with her, triggering her old feelings of rejection and isolation. So much for trying to help.

I sat up and hugged Sara like a strait jacket. There was nothing to say. We kept hugging and hugging. And hugging. In my arms, she felt just like Cassy. Both of them had the type of beauty you see in Greek sculpture rather than fashion magazines. While clutching Sara, I began to imagine she was Cassy. If it was her, what would we say?

“What the fuck. Why.”
“Dammit. You couldn’t call, you couldn’t wait.”
“Ugh. Ach!”
“I shouldn’t be angry at a friend.”
“Woah! Eureka!”
“What is it?”
“I want to hold tight, but I’ve got to let go”
“Awesome- do it.”

Then I stopped hugging Sara, and said it to her.

“I want to hold tight, but I’ve got to let go.”
“You are free to choose. Both of you.
“I don’t understand.”

Usually I try to fix people. It never goes well. If it does, it’s not an equal relationship. This time, I thought that by having a conversation about Sara’s issue, she would be saved. Instead, the space was created for me to have a conversation with a lost friend. That allowed me to move past anger toward a shred of acceptance. It was that acceptance that did Sara good, if any at all.

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What comes first, myself or others?

The tribe comes first, before one man,
And the village, before the clan,
Forsake the village for the nation,
But, for yourself, the whole creation.

What is the meaning of this riddle? The first three lines constitute a heirarchy with the nation at the top, followed by the city, the family, and finally, at the lowest position, the individual. The fourth line then flips this heirarchy upside down (or makes it cyclical) by placing you at the top. But not only that, your own existence is to be valued more than the entire universe.

I love this riddle because it captures the truth of both objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, relative to the group the individual is insignificant. I might be a great asset to my organization, but it would be megalomania for me to think the group wouldn’t succeed without me. Likewise, if I go on a family vacation and am in a bad mood, oozing anger and self-pity, it’s not the family’s duty to make me feel better, but my duty to harmonize with the family.

On the other hand, my being is all that I have. If I cease to exist, the universe ceases to exist (for me). No matter what the group demands of me, no matter how important its imperative is compared to mine, what matters to me is my own well-being, growth, and survival. This becomes most clear when I am sick. I stop answering phone calls, keeping appointments, and doing things for others by necessity. If I do not, I become more sick (and even less able to fulfill my duties).

I think it would be wrong to interpret this riddle as saying at the end of the day the individual is the most important thing. The heirarchy isn’t inverted, it’s transformed into a circle. The point is that it’s relative: the individual is both the least and most important, depending on your perspective. None of us are the center of the universe (the world doesn’t revolve around me). At the same time each of us are- from our own perspective- the center of the universe (the world does revolve around me). But it also revolves around you, and him, and her, and it, etc.

There’s not a single center to the universe, but many.

How can we practice this knowledge? The Buddhists call it ‘being alone in order to connect’, or ‘practicing solitude with and for others’. This seems like a paradox, and probably is, but not impossible to resolve.

I think there are two benefits of solitude that we need daily. One is physical. Being alone allows my nervous system to relax. For as long as I’m alone, I’m not worried about appearing to others as a sane and compassionate person (I am, I think, but it’s the APPEARING sane and compassionate that’s really exhausting). This is most easy to notice by observing your face when you’re alone. 95% of any social interaction is spent mirroring the face of other people. When you’re alone, you can let your jaw go slack and your face go neutral. You quit smiling, and ideally, quit clenching your jaw. In a social setting, this would make you look like a bored yokel or worse. But it’s really relaxing and resorative! The other benefit is pyschological, and here I’m going to be auto-biographical, assuming you’ve experienced something similar.

I grew up with an ethical imperative to be nice to other people. While this imbued in me good habits, it’s not good “pure and simple”. That’s because often the reason I was being nice to somebody was because I was afraid- afraid of not being liked, afraid of getting in trouble for bad behavior, afraid of disappointing or making God angry, afraid of being alone if people saw how I really felt.

Part of my growth has involved a rejection of “being nice” because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the wrong thing to do if it’s motivated by guilt or a sense of duty, and not an honest expression of love.

Part of my continuing growth has been to reintroduce kindness with the knowledge that it needs to come from an authentic place. Enter: solitude. I need solitude so that I am not overwhelmed by other people, so that I have a chance to crawl inside myself and see what’s there. When I do that for myself- it usually only takes an hour or two- I can then rejoin my fellows with a good attitude. I can be kind because I welcome, rather than resent, their presence.

I still haven’t made a strong case for helping others. Maybe some of you could help, by commenting below. I know most of my readers volunteer in some shape or form. At the very least, I can say the following: that giving yourself to other people frees you from your own worries, that being concerned with the welfare of others makes you less concerned with satisfying your own pleasure- which itself is an ephemeral type of joy, that working with others feeds the spirit in a way a self-seeking society would rather have us not believe possible, and that why not, I mean, we’re all visitors on this planet farting around until we die, we might as well do something other than ensure our survival- hold that thought, my stomache is growling.


Homage to Aleister Crowley: The Image of Darkness

I woke up energized. I thought, “This is good. I’ve had a full night’s rest.” But then I checked my watch and it said 1:30 AM. I looked out the window. A silver silhouette revealed the hills of Nebraska. Orange barn lights littered the floor and hundreds of white crystals hung from the sky. I considered going to sleep but was too awake. The kind of energy that’s both calm and intense.

I stepped out of my seat and walked into the car I hadn’t been in before. Its walls seemed to be made of stainless steel, glimmering violet. None of the passengers were awake, except for one, a young man sitting erect in a booth at the opposite end of the car. When I got there I realized he was sitting cross-legged, his knees beneath a low-lying table. Behind him was the sky, somehow more brilliant than the one I saw moments before. Comets and meteor shot back and forth every second. The milky way was discernible, its creamy infinity flowing through the vast abyss.

I saw constellations I’d never even seen before, and somehow knew the myths about them. For example, there was the broken lobster constellation, named after the king who- with his mighty hands- killed his two wives at the same time when a beautiful woman walked past; then, the woman transformed into a man and cast a spell on the king with his staff, splitting him in two, banishing his separate halves to the sky and to the sea. This knowledge came into me from an unknown source with no effort on my part.

I stared at the young man and saw in his features- the long hair, slender nose, and delicate hands- the figure of a woman. He had on the table a clay pot, two cups, and a deck of cards. He nodded when I motioned to the empty mat across from him. I sat down and said, “Thanks” but he didn’t reply. He poured tea into our cups, first mine and then his. We lifted the cups up to our lips and slurped- the taste was sour and sweet, creamy and warm. I felt drunk, instantly. I panicked, but he reached out his hand and touched my arm to say it was all right. Then he held out his other hand, palm facing up as if to say: observe.

I did. A shadow washed away the clear lines of the room. Although nothing could be told from anything else, I could now feel where the energy in the room came from and where it went, and could respond to it, feeling myself become more vital, unimpeded by my own tendency to resist wherever the world is headed.

Then he picked up the deck of cards and began to shuffle. The cards were made of actual paper: old, yellow and musky. His hands shuffled and spun the cards this way and that, grouping them and dividing them, re-grouping and shuffling again, with both method and absolute indifference.

Then, he picked out a single card and slid it across the table. “Don’t I get to pick my own card?” I asked. For the first time he spoke. It wasn’t english or any tongue I knew.

He repeated what he said, looking intensely at my card. I noticed the separate syllables he made this time- they told me this was my card. I turned it over and a sudden pain entered my throat. I started to choke. Tears went down my face and a gordian knot in my neck grew tighter and tighter. Then, cut by a sword, it snapped and I was able to breathe clearly, deeply, better than I have for a long time. A tightness in my shoulders and chest that I didn’t even know was there went away. My hands started to shake and he held them. Then the room became clear again and all the objects and passengers re-appeared.

I looked down at my card and saw it was blank. I started to flip over the other cards. He didn’t stop me. Each card, one after another, was empty. We started to laugh. He re-organized the cards and began to shuffle again. I re-filled our cups with tea.

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Practice (and performance) Makes Perfect

I’d like to counter-balance the lies of last week with a dose of honesty. I am answering the question, What’s the point of this blog? And it begins with a story.

When I was about twelve years old I ran cross country. If you knew me then you know I was a fanatic. I logged forty miles a week and ran to a literal breaking point, suffering not one but two stress fractures. I ran so much and so hard because I wanted to be the best. I wanted to win every race- by a lot.

Before a race I would feel one of two ways: prepared or unprepared. If prepared, it didn’t even feel like a race, but a practice run- a fast one; I was confident, even goofy. On the other hand, if I thought I was unprepared, then I felt anxious and angry at myself for not training enough.

As I became more obsessed with winning, paradoxically I became less concerned with training. I stopped pushing myself. I started taking short-cuts. As a result, I started to feel anxious at the starting-line more often, freaking out that I might not win. This culminated at the state championship for cross country when, somewhere during the second mile, I had a panic attack and passed out.

Shortly after that, I quit running.

I haven’t become as passionate/obsessed with a single activity since then. That’s probably a good thing; it’s allowed me to cultivate a variety of interests. But I wonder if- because I’m less a fanatic- my potential remains dormant.

Take this blog, for instance (I told you I was answering the question). My goal is not to write the absolute best piece of writing ever. I’m more focused on producing regularly. This blog has definitely allowed me to reach that goal. I play with ideas throughout the week. Most of them get thrown out, but the important thing is that I’m writing every day. In fact, my favorite part of the week is Monday morning, when I have to start all over and don’t know what next week will be about.

This is the opposite of how I ran cross-country. Then, my focus was on the race, the performance, the finished product. Now my focus is on the training, the practice, the process… this way is definitely healthier, more sustainable, and more enjoyable every step of the way. However, again I ask, could I be doing better?

Yes. Perhaps the time has come for me to re-introduce “the race” into my life- in regards to writing. What would that be? Writing a book, getting published, and performing live. These three tasks, by their very nature, would demand of me a more rigorous training process. They’d force me to write 3-4 hours a day, study grammar, expand my vocabulary, learn from the greats, and- most intimidating of all- revise, revise, revise… things which, frankly, I don’t need to do in order to do this blog. Not to the extent that I’d have to with a more challenging goal.

I am not saying I resent this blog. Last week was a complete Aprils Fools’. I love this blog. Underspecialized has gotten me into shape as a writer- and continues to keep me in shape. It’s the equivalent to the weekly long distance run I used to do as a foundation for the rest of my workouts. And I’m not going to shift my focus to writing “the Great American novel”. That old wish to be the best was pure ego.

The balance I’m trying to achieve involves a reversal of how we look at things… usually we train in order to race, practice in order to perform. My hope is to perform in order to improve my practice, to race in order to train harder. Looked at in this way- giving the process the respect it deserves, while not making it the sole purpose- I’m more likely to tap into my potential, as well as less likely to pass out.

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I want to begin by thanking you all for your support, week after week. Without you I would not have made it this far. However, I have decided to cancel the blog. It was not an easy decision. The least I can do is tell you why.

1. Blogs are a bad idea.
A blog is the most narcissistic thing I can imagine. It’s like Facebook except there’s only one face (mine) and all you can do is comment, which nobody reads anyway. Why have a blog when I can just email everyone I know, tell them everything I think, and then never reply to anything they have to say.

2. Blogs are a bad idea.
Nobody reads a blog without doing three things at once. At least. When I read a blog I’m scanning for key words and become appalled every time I scroll down and see there’s more to read. Doesn’t the author know I have emails to check? I should be on Facebook reading a post that takes a half a minute tops.

3. I’ve run out of things to write about.
You should have known this was over when I wrote poetry last week. If I had to do this anymore I’d resort to sharing my to-do lists and, if you’re lucky, the reasons why I didn’t do them.

4. We all have better things to do.
I have a job, hobbies, and a beautiful physique to maintain. I imagine you have plans for summer like swimming at the beach and getting laid. Nobody can read a laptop under the sun, and the most erotic thing I’ve written was about a man having sex with a spider.

5. Writing isn’t important, anymore.
Chicago Public Schools stopped teaching kids how to read and write years ago. In the future, Google will write everything for us. And anything worth reading certainly won’t be more than 160 characters, which most blogs tend to be. I guess this is just another reason for why blogs are a bad idea.

Again, thank you for everything. Maybe I’ll send you a letter both of us actually care about.