Archive for February, 2014
early 15c., “a joint promise to abide by an arbiter’s decision,” from Middle French compromis (13c.), from Latin compromissus, past participle of compromittere “to make a mutual promise” (to abide by the arbiter’s decision), from com- “together” (see com-) + promittere (see promise). The main modern sense of “a coming to terms” is from extension to the settlement itself (late 15c.).
There are some people who walk around the world stepping (and stomping) on other people’s toes. This is not for them. They already have their golden rule. This golden rule is for those of us who tip-toe around others acting like we don’t have any desires. This is for those who, when cabin loses pressure and oxygen masks fall from the ceiling, help everyone else put on their masks before putting on their own, and then find themselves suffocating.
How would I like others to be treated? I want them to have the space and time to be themselves. I want them to fulfill their wishes and desires. I want them to be met half way. Do I permit these things for myself? No.
When others ask me for advice, I find myself saying things like ‘life is complicated, don’t blame yourself’, ‘follow your truth and don’t feel guilty about it’, ‘do what you need to do even if nobody else is doing it or encouraging you to do it’. Do I follow my own advice? Hell no.
Only after much fretting or literal sickness do I finally do what I need to do. Why?
It could be low self-esteem. It could be easier said than done. It could be somewhere down the line I’ve internalized the belief that taking care of the needs and wants of others would bring security for myself. It could be is guilt.
For the past month and a half, I’ve been in a relationship. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a relationship. The last time I dated somebody, she had a flight booked to China where she was going to live for two years before we even started dating. Basically, we didn’t have to figure out if we were right for each other because the relationship came with an expiration date. Great for somebody unable, unwilling, or otherwise afraid to commit, which in this case, was both of us.
That is not the case with my current relationship. I am not diagnosed to die and she is not joining the Peace Corps. We’re both here for good. With no external factors tearing us apart, the relationship depends only on our own respective willingness.
My fear of or aversion to commitment extends beyond intimate relationships. I have lived in Chicago for seven years but am yet to live in one apartment for an entire year. Within the past three months I’ve quit one job, started another, and went back to the first one. I don’t finish books. I have two dozen half-finished books lying around my apartment or back at the library that I’ll never see again. Recently I adopted a cat, and am already kicking myself in the ass for taking on such a responsibility.
Why the inability to commit? Instead of blaming myself and calling myself names like flakey or afraid, I’d like to focus on the positive. I’m 25. Precluding any accident, I have my whole life ahead of me. It’s a blessing: I’m not fated to become a shoemaker like my dad or slave my life away on some field. Basically, I got options. I could become a writer, a musician, a business owner… Just like I could spend the next year travelling, read a different book, start a new relationship or not be in a relationship at all.
Maybe reading a travel diary by Thomas Merton is a waste of time, maybe a job at a tea shop that’s going no where is a waste of time, maybe having a cat for the sake of having a cat and because you feel bad for it is a waste of time. It’s good to quit things you don’t find worthwhile. Which brings us to the conclusion, the crux of the matter.
This relationship. What am I getting out of it? A lot: a partner who is bright, caring and considerate, who is fun in and out of the bedroom. Someone I could be in a relationship with without any expiration date.
But there’s a problem, and it finally came to the fore this weekend, though we both did our best to deny it. We have different lifestyles. I like to wake up and see the sunrise. She likes to stay up all night and then see the sunrise. I like to get to bed early and she likes to go out. It’s not that black and white, I’m not some sage and she’s not a party girl, but it is a problem. I keep getting sick, tired and depressed so long as I don’t take care of myself and stick to a regular sleeping schedule.
The thing is, both of us are the types to tip-toe around others, acting like we’re OK with the situation. Some nights I go out later than I would want to. Other nights she forgoes drinks she might have if she wasn’t with me. We’re both frantically trying to put on the other person’s oxygen mask without putting on our own. But the other night, we both stood our ground in a respectful way recognizing something was wrong. I’m stretching in her direction, she’s stretching in mine. The question is, are we stretching too much?
Yesterday I went on a date. With myself. First I went to the Chicago Cultural Center, because I understood it to be both beautiful and free. I walked in to a gorgeous staircase made of Greek columns and tiled mosaics. Up there I saw the name Emerson… an American deity. A middle aged woman welcomed me from the Information Booth. She asked if I needed help. Usually I would avoid interacting and pretend I knew what I was doing or that I preferred to be left alone. But I was on a date and my focus was on the journey not the destination.
I said I’d never been to the Cultural Center before, even though I’ve lived here for seven years. She told me the main art exhibits were under construction so I wouldn’t be able to see them. She said this apologetically, as if I knew or expected art exhibits (I didn’t). “But” she said, “There is a glass dome on the third floor that was built as a memorial to the Union soldiers lost in the Civil War.”
I forget Chicago was the new town on the block, an industrial powerhouse built with smoke and steel, a metropolis Thomas Jefferson would have hated. The Cultural Center was built in the 19th century. As good as ancient in this part of the country.
After speaking with her I meandered up the marble stairs and went in to use the bathroom. Sitting down, I saw a piece of toilet paper on the ground in the stall next to me. It was covered in shit. It wasn’t a complete mess; it just looked like somebody had used it multiple times instead of making a single pass with one paper and grabbing more.
Outside the bathroom, before walking through the center, not knowing what to expect, I ate a handful of almonds that I had kept in my backpack. I needed to wash them down but the aged water fountain didn’t work so I had to hike up a ramp trying to swallow the dry almonds. A difficult task. Their insides were cold- an odd sensation- from the time spent in my backpack in the frigid weather outside.
I found the dome for the Union soldiers. It was beautiful without a doubt. Stained glass, heavenly angles, illuminated. I craned my neck, gave it a good long look, and then moved on.
The next room was partially under construction. Two or three construction workers stood around talking about football. Clipboards in their arms. Not sure if I was allowed in, or even if there was anything to see. It was a magnificent room, rectangular with windows and doors at least thirty feet high and half as broad. On the upper walls in gold letters were the names of Civil War Battles. Shiloh. Appotomax. March to the Sea. I was about to leave until I noticed on the ceiling under the arches over the windows a bunch of symbols… the cross, the Star of David, a shamrock. An iron cross, a couple arrows, a Muslim crescent. Over each window these different symbols, incongruous, unexplained, more fascinating than the heavenly dome just minutes before.
I left the rectangular room and marched up more steps. The staircases would bring you to a new floor and then stop. You’d have to wander down long halls to find the next stairwell, also gilded, also glorious, at a different end of the building. Completely non-functional, lovely. In the halls were art exhibits and signs that read ‘Staff Only’. Everywhere ‘Staff Only’, as if the Cultural Center employed half the city.
I came across a small model of a sculpture entitled ‘Build Your Ship’(1). It resonated with me immediately, and as I read the description it resonated even more until the point I was shaking. No, not really, but shaking is a type of resonance. The gist was this: the sea of life is mysterious. It is the universe as such. It has spat you out and will swallow you whole. But in the meantime, you can hop aboard a ship to navigate the sea of life.
Now, many ships come pre-made. People tell you how to look, think and behave. They tell you what to believe in, who to be. Some of these pre-made ships are fine. They’ll get you to open water. But why not build your own ship? It won’t be state of the art. It won’t be the greatest. In fact, it will probably leak. But it will be Your Ship. You will know it both in and out. You will know its strengths, its limitations. You might even use it for a while and decide to build a new one!
The point is authenticity. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve humbled myself a number of times to different masters and mentors, groups and organizations, because I believed them when they said (often implicitly) that I needed them to find the truth. ‘Get On Our Ship’, they said. Being insecure, I climbed aboard… and found myself not being the captain of my own journey, unable to navigate life. During my date with myself at the Chicago Cultural Center, I envisioned my ship under construction: hardy, eccentric, me.
On the top floor of the Cultural Center I looked out at the drab office buildings, traffic and commotion disguised as productivity. It all looked naïve from inside an ancient building. Then, looking toward Millenium Park, I saw someone skating. I knew instantly I’d be doing that once I left the center. I haven’t skated for years, and as a kid did it every day. To feel the grooves in the ice, the cold air passing through my lungs, would make this a really unique date.
I walked back down to the first floor. In one hall was an exhibit about Frank Lloyd Wright- before he was Frank Lloyd Wright. Long before becoming the master architect he was a simple boy from rural Wisconsin. Then, one day, his maternal uncle Jenkin Lloyd Jones appeared for a visit. Now, Jenkin was an outlandish fellow. His dress and ideas were foreign to Frank’s prosaic home. Jenkin ran a church called the All Souls Church. He was a charismatic figure who, unlike the rest of Frank’s family, didn’t work with his hands but with his mind and his voice. Frank saw a lifeboat and hopped on, leaving Wisconsin behind and going to Chicago with his uncle Jenkin, until later learning how to build his own ship (and plenty of other things).
1. Thomas McDonald http://www.choosechicago.com/articles/view/THE-REST-OF-CHICAGO/324/
Painters found their balls in a vice with the invention of the camera. Painting, long the best way to re-present reality, found itself precariously obsolete. Invention saved the day. Painters like Cézanne started to depict things that cameras couldn’t depict. Like time. The Cubists went ahead and painted one image from several perspectives. The result is something wholly unrecognizable, in the strict sense of representing ‘what is there’. In that spirit, my fellow writer friend Adam and I, completely satiated after noodles and tea, decided to write about the same moment from our two separate perspectives. This was an exercise I’m sharing here.
I sat quietly alongside my Friend at the small square wooden table sipping my tie guan yin tea. The moment was peaceful, all anxiety put aside. A man sitting directly behind me commented: ‘The here and now- listen, see, be!’ He was right. And I sat to think on it.
I didn’t want to turn around to see him though I felt as if he were speaking directly to me. There were two radios playing classical music, one over the other and it made for a mostly dissonant experience except sometimes when the notes coalesced in pure harmony, and there were the phrases I listened for when the ‘now’ seemed the way that it should. In all of the chaos are hidden glimmers of unity- a unity solidifying everything into one total Being.
I closed my eyes and shut out the dullness of the day to listen, not harder and more concentrated, but relaxed… layers upon layers of thought came at once and the sifting for sense of it all began to naturally occur. There! That swelling of the strings breaking down into a soft calm, smoothing the tension that had just taken place between instruments.
My breathing slowed and my eyes opened, the day turning a little lighter. The tiny plants along the window ledge appearing perkier than before. “This is a dull day”, the man behind me said, “I only see the world and its possibilities and its becoming ways”. I still could not bring myself to look back but indeed the leaves on the plants were a brighter shade of green, the colors on every article jumping with a happier hue, the people passing the store front smiling larger. Is this man some type of philosopher, I thought, Who is he speaking with, anyway?
My mind was so focused in the moment that everything else became remote to me. Though it was there, and passing, I was here and resting, stopping my thoughts. Everybody and everything else seemed so busy. “Too much to do and no time to realize what one is doing”, he said.
I turned around to finally look at the man who had been philosophizing in the back of my head. But I saw no one. There was nothing behind me. It had only been my Friend and I, the music, the tea, and the storefront. That was all it was! —A.T.
* * *
Time- punishment or reward? If the former then I am bored. Right now, it is a reward. I want to be here: right where I am. 89.7 FM, Chicago’s classical music. ’Dream About Tea’, a tea shop in Evanston, IL. Adam, my friend, is sitting at my table. He is writing, too, except with his right hand, his perception, and his cup of tea. But for neither of us is the time punishment, right now, I can tell.
French horns. Cars outside. The back of a hand moving across paper. Slight creaking in the wooden seat. The humming of a refrigerator. Steam rising from the cup filled with leaves. The sound of thoughts entering and leaving my brain. If I was under water with the leaves I would hear the sound of my own heart— ba-bump, ba-bump, ba-bump. Slurp. The hot water on the pads of my fingers. The sound a mug makes set on the ground like a tomb closing around a pharaoh for good.
I know time can be punishment. It can be hell. In varying degrees, a man waiting on a train platform looking ruefully every 2-3 seconds to see if the train is finally arriving. Finally. Or a lover left feeling their beloved isn’t there anymore. Or worse yet, victims of torment at the hands of hearts shut off to the pain of others, the screams for mercy. These voices shout behind brick walls muffled by their density, but they crop up from time to time in the newspapers in black and white paper and ink, silent.
For these instances where time is hell, time is something to be gone through, gotten through. On the contrary, when time is its own reward, when passing it is both a joy and a pleasure, then time ceases to exist altogether. It seems once time begins to exist, it sucks.
A more cavalier song plays on the radio, forces running this way and that, sonnets twisting around the limbs of violas, like snakes wrapped around the trumpet. But then it all falls away, and in the silence is a melancholy emperor on his St. Helena, deprived of his pieces he once moved so briskly. Adam is still writing. He seems to have gained momentum, although he stops at intervals, thinking about where to go next. I call it hesitation. I write constantly as if I there’s no alternative, never deliberating over which direction I’m headed. How can I know? Or rather, why would I want to?
Music has a way of making sense only after-the-fact. A few notes in a row aren’t in harmony, lingering… until another note completes them, creates a collection, forming a cohesive hole. Not so with life- we keep adding notes attempting absolution finding only ourselves waking up and dreaming even more. If only we were on our death beds to set the record straight. But that’s a task for biographers, not the livers of life. —G. P.
Afterwards, Adam and I were struck how, even though we did our writing in complete silence, our observations struck common themes. Serenity, harmony, impermanence. Adam pointed out if we sat at a different table, this would have looked much, much different.
I imagine a cartoon depicting a bunch of zombies in the basement of a church. It’s a twelve step meeting. One of them says, Have you seen Ed? Another of them says, He ate brains last weekend.
Zombies are a perfect symbol for addiction. They’re also the perfect symbol for consumerism, mindlessness, and craving, three things all of us embody at one time or another. If that rubs you the wrong way then fine, I’m only speaking for myself.
It’s my speculation that it’s no coincidence that in the past fifteen years there has been a proliferation of zombie movies. Once an obscure facet of voodoo religion, the movies about zombies are now numerous: Shaun of the Dead, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, etc. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I don’t think it’s just that zombies are entertaining and look good on screen. I think what’s really happening is that we as a society are projecting ourselves onto the screen. We’re zombies.
I first became aware of this while working at a coffee shop. I came face to face with the bottomless maw which is human desire. It was most acute at the cash register, when you’re trying to punch in people’s orders while they’re oblivious, listing the things they want at a fast tempo. Latte. Cappuccino. Brains.
Somebody once told me their favorite alcoholic beverage was called more. That’s how it was for me too. I remember lighting a cigarette, taking a few drags, then feeling depressed that it was going to end, and getting ready to light the next one. This doesn’t necessarily have to be alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. It could be shopping, sex, food, you name it. Food is the biggest and most fundamental craving we have. It’s hard to call it an addiction, because it’s so necessary. Yet we often eat excessive amounts, and post-period of contentment is often all-too-short.
Eat a sandwich, need more in a couple hours. Have sex, need more in a couple days. Buy a pair of shoes, return to Amazon in a couple weeks. Whatever we give ourselves to feel better, fails to bring lasting happiness.
That’s exactly the way of zombies. They spend days wandering through urban centers, breaking into barricaded buildings, all to devour human flesh. But once they’ve feasted, they want more.
I’m not suggesting we become saints and stop consuming. I’m pointing out, in me at least, the zombie is my default mode. If I don’t pause and think, I live life like a zombie. I may not use alcohol anymore, but I eat voraciously with no appreciation of my food. I work and run errands compulsively, with no awareness or enjoyment in what I’m doing, an impending anxiety that I won’t get done what I (supposedly) need to do.
Answers. I’ve listed a lot of problems but haven’t come up with any answers. Before putting forward my own, how about the Buddha. He is famous for The Four Noble Truths. The first noble truth is that life is dukkha (suffering, anxiety uncomfortability). Pause for a second. That’s an American sized pill to swallow. Life hurts. That’s the first noble truth. The second noble truth is the source of dukkha– Taṇhā, which literally means thirst or craving.
Not just for coffee, sex, and sweets. Craving to be somebody, to become something one’s not. Craving to be free from who you are, your faults and limitations. Craving for greatness, superiority, security. This a psychological component, in addition to the physical cravings we all have. Fundamentally, we’re ill-at-ease because when it comes to anything, our favorite is more.
The third noble truth, like much of Buddhism, is gloriously practical. Cessation. Remove the cause of suffering. If drinking gives you a hangover, stop drinking. If cheese fries give you heart burn, give up the cheese fries. Mere cessation is simple enough, but we know it takes a lot more to simply quit things that are bad for us.
Bringing us to Noble Truth number Four: a practice. You need a practice. The Buddha called his practice the Noble Eightfold path, which consists of: Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
But it’s not just Buddhism; every spiritual tradition has a practice. For AA, it’s the twelve steps. For Catholics, it’s the seven sacraments. For Islam, it’s the Five Pillars.
More than likely, you don’t fit neatly into one category. Not anymore, not in the post-modern world we live in. Maybe you go to Mass on Sunday and Yoga on Tuesday. Maybe you practice mindfulness because you know it lessens your anxiety and makes you a more compassionate person. Perhaps you simply treat people kindly because it’s the right thing to do.
There’s a multitude of spiritual exercises, each of which can be beneficial, no matter what practice they belong to, if any. The point is to wake up to your true nature, which is not a zombie.
A common image of enlightenment is some guy having an out-of-body experience akin to an acid trip. How bout this? A zombie, walking across a field, approaching a barn hiding in which is a cowering family. The zombie stops, it looks up at the sun. Enlightenment.
Then goes on to eat them, because we’re only human.