Dividing Up the Blame

There is no religion for the whole of “god”,
just some small and all-too-human scraps.
We are not equipped to know the universe,
nor much more than we hold in our laps.

There is nothing that is end-all, be-all
that we can imagine. Only fools
seek a formula that folds it all in;
we know not the game, or half the rules.

There is no united, single pathway,
nor a sole, most sacred mountaintop.
All we see are ripples and faint echoes,
not where things begin or where they stop.

We are at the shore of a great ocean,
thinking that our buckets hold the sea.
Salt dolls sent to measure depth and distance,
we dissolve. That’s how it’s meant to be.

There is nothing sacred that is separate;
just some shattered fragments, nothing more.
That we cannot put them all together
doesn’t mean we’ve failed. There is no score.

It is not religion that imagines
some connection that escapes our sight.
The small gods we carve out in our image
leave us blind and deaf out in the night.

There is nothing missing from the picture;
only our misjudging of the frame.
Drawing rigid lines between each other,
we each die dividing up the blame.

25 JUL 2017

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6. Use Little Tricks

Every mystery or philosophical tradition from the beginning of time has invented mechanisms to help adherents pay attention to the right things, or stop paying attention to the wrong things. I’ve always been fascinated by Zen koans, Sufi teaching stories, and parables of all kinds. After all, that everything that is communicated contains messages at more than one level, geared especially for those at each level who can grasp the meaning, has always been more appealing to me than the idea that there is hidden knowledge out there in the world that requires learning specific hand signals, and paying certain club dues, to learn. Of course, the big thing you learn after investing in any system of this kind is that NO KNOWLEDGE IS HIDDEN. If it’s actual and real knowledge, it’s as plain as the nose on your face and right there in constant view. Again, we return to perspective. You wanna know how small and unimportant you are, and how ultimately ineffective you are likely to be in this lifetime, go out every day to the beach, find and examine the same single grain of sand each day – if of course you can even find it. You can after all only be humble by practicing humility. For years, I’ve practiced imagining looking down at myself in space, starting from just a few feet away, and gradually pulling away, seeing my house, the neighborhood, our town, the state, the continent, the Earth, slowly becoming smaller and smaller and ultimately lost in the everything else that there is. Having a GPS system and playing with the zoom gives you a taste of that. I mean, where ARE you as far as the universe is concerned? And why even bother considering the universe? There are so many infinitely closer and more immediate things that are so much bigger, and grander than we are.

An interesting little trick that is worth trying is the Stoic imagining of the happy death – to imagine yourself on death’s doorstep, imminently departing this mortal coil. With what in your life are you satisfied? What mistakes would you rectify? Most importantly, what that you could have done have you left undone? Whether there is a judgmental overseer to be faced at the portal of the next Bardo is irrelevant. To appease an unfair or despotic deity is no great show of worthiness; likewise, to bully your way past an ineffective and less than omnipotent ruler with an excess of bravado or cash shows no surplus courage or chutzpah. So stripping it down to the bare bones, to the essence of the thing in itself, life, what use have you made of it? Montaigne suggested that a true Stoic approach would be to approach death believing that you either did everything you could, and lived that life to its fullest, wearing it out, in which case you have nothing to regret and can leave this world satisfied – or if you did not fully life, to realize that the opportunity was lost, and that the life was wasted on you in the first place. In either case, no cause for sorrow, no occasion for weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There are of course little tricks you can play every day. One I recently noted was that every night I go to bed hoping to be happy to be alive when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes that works; so I keep doing it. Of course, they are all games we play with ourselves – and often with those who live with us. You say, “good morning” even if you don’t believe in either goodness or the state of the current day. Just like so many “religious” people keep icons, guru pictures, shrines, and happy little “churchy” slogans or out of context Bible verses strewn profusely around their houses to “remind” them that they are “good” people and will act accordingly, the games we play with partners, lovers, children, parents, friends, co-workers, and incidental strangers on the street help us maintain a premise (usually only shared in part with others) not about how the world actually is, but how we believe it should be, or could be.

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3. Be born

Everyone that I know was at one point born – so far as I know, all joking about hatching in the desert sun under the watchful eyes of vultures aside. I am no exception. The facts are readily verifiable: at 2:55 am Eastern Standard Time, at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan in the United States of America, Robert Leroy and Nancy Ann Litzenberg found themselves in possession of a male child. Interesting to note that I recently saw a film about Jack Kevorkian that included scenes from William Beaumont, where he practiced his euthanasia for a period of time, and although I have only two experiences in that facility (my birth, and a subsequent hospitalization for tonsillectomy at age 5, neither of which I remember very much if at all, although I do remember receiving ice cream and the board game Candy Land in a hospital bed) seeing the camera sweep through the halls gave my spine a shiver in recognition of a place for which I had physical, if not psychological, memory. In reference to the circumstances of my birth, I can only offer anecdotal evidence: first, that I was born in the midst of a quiet unusually violent blizzard. Second, that the timing of my birth resulted in two things that I think may have permanently affected my relationship with my father: he was forced to miss the broadcast of the Rose Bowl featuring his beloved Ohio State – and, due to an almost three-hour delay in my arrival, he was forced to forgo deducting my expense on his taxes for a full year.

Many of those who surround my life considered themselves “born again”. To borrow a bit more from Montaigne, I think this rebirth happens once or twice throughout your lifetime, if you are fortunate. The trick with any rebirth of course is that you must at some point grow up into life. You can’t remain a child of God, creativity, nature or anything else forever, any more than having experienced a first physical birth you can remain an infant interminably. Again, like Montaigne, I think I was born again the first time when I began to appreciate what music as an inseparable force felt like. I think I may have been 10 or 11 the first time performing music transcended being a purely physical act, an application of technique to muscle memory, and became an act of conscious yoga, or union, with the universe. The first time you “lose yourself” in any activity is a sign that you are susceptible, and in some way acceptable, to magic. While I had once or twice before 7 actually felt my bicycle was leaving the ground and I was flying across the yard, the experience of playing music amidst a group of other musicians was the first time I really began to understand the possibilities.

I think I was likely born again when I began writing songs. It seems so long ago: my first efforts coincided with the deaths of both my paternal and maternal grandfathers in 1974 – incidentally, the year I received my first record albums: Elvis Presley’s Gold Records Vol. 4 and Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. A year or so later, when my cousin Jim gifted me a two-volume 8-track tape collection that he had recorded himself, including the Beatles’ collections Love Songs and Rock and Roll Music, supplemented by various singles and Live at the Hollywood Bowl, my initial introduction to popular music was complete. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Divine Intervention: Blessing or Curse

For a while, it is comforting to think everything happens for a reason. But honestly, MOST people who lay that on as a platitude mean that it applies when bad things happen to YOU. Just like so many go around with, “God is good” on their lips when they’re in clover, but blame others when the chips are down. There’s even a Muslim proverb that states, “Everything good in my life is thanks to god; the bad things, the rest, are my own doing.”

When people think of divine blessing, they usually think of largesse, of abundance, of ease and the absence of strife. A divine curse, on the other hand, is usually the opposite: ruination, famine, loss, defamation and sadness. If the presence of the divine is in both, who is to say which is the preferred state, at least theologically?

Diversity and conflict define us as individuals in a way that blissful homogeny never can. It is only along the fault lines that the world grows.

A loving god, like a loving parent, wants us to grow, right? And like a wealthy father (and by definition any divine being surely qualifies) they surely want “to give us enough that we can do anything, but no so much that we need to do nothing.” There’s a balance between hard and easy, convenient and difficult, joyful and painful that MUST be the underlying composition of any divine gift or inheritance.

The Buddha I think had it right when he proposed, “all life is suffering.” We suffer when we are without, surely. Without food, water, shelter, opportunity, we wither. But at the same time, unwarranted (or should I say untoiled for) abundance creates another kind of suffering. Without challenge, without effort, we become weak, shallow, malleable and cruel. Of the two conditions, the complacency inherent in luxury is the more dangerous, if not to the “soul” and our spiritual health, then as the result of the “rich man’s” problems (i.e., diabetes, gout, high blood pressure, obesity) that the majority of oppressed, underprivileged and cursed of the earth are blissfully free from.

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Absolvo-Meal: an advertising jingle

Your hair is gray and thinning, Jack!
Your prime is gone and won’t come back.
The cure for everything you lack?
Absolvo-Meal, the perfect snack!

Young whippersnappers run the show,
and no one cares how much you know.
When your past actions plague you so,
Absolvo-Meal’s the way to go!

Who needs responsibility?
Who wants the blame? Not you or me!
Besides, no work can make you free;
Absolvo-Meal’s the trick, you see.

It matters not how cruel or wrong
you’ve been so far, to get along,
to rise above the mindless throng;
Absolvo-Meal! The winner’s song!

So, try it now! It’s not too late!
Remove the trouble from your plate!
Don’t weakly give in to your fate;
Absolvo-Meal, the dish that sates.

Your ethics, politics and such:
who needs them? You and I? Not much!
Compassion, empathy? A crutch!
Absolvo-Meal, great in a clutch!

Forget your faults! Don’t make amends,
just have a quick glass now and then.
A clean slate every time, no end:
Absolvo-Meal, your new best friend!

So, is your soul in trouble, Jack?
Do sin and sorrow hold you back?
Just take a slug and then, relax!
Absolvo-Meal, the perfect snack!

10 APR 2014

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Art is required

If you would this sad world improve: a battle cease, a mountain move, or seek to build up or destroy a single thought of fear or joy, there is one place alone to start. You must teach all your children art.

Imagination is the key.

By thoughts alone there come to be great mysteries, faith and belief in gods and demons, kings and chiefs; in justice and equality, in separating I and Thee.

So teach the arts, and music, too, in your religion, path or school. To have adherents worth a damn, they must imagine what “I AM” you would propose designed the world, created life, or wrote the rules.

Imagination is required.

Without it, none can be inspired to see beyond their own small selves, or care for something else that dwells beyond the sight and smell and touch; and such a life is not worth much. It does not toil, nor hope nor try, imagining no reason why, nor answer worth the seeking out.

Art teaches balance: faith and doubt; without it, gods are merely rules: like architecture without tools.

Teach art to all your children, then; for they must learn how to pretend if they would use your sacred texts for more than mindless genuflects or rote performance of some rite that without teeth, has lost its bite.

Imagination is the key.

Without it, all gods cease to be. Existence becomes drudge and trial, an endless chasm of denial where anything we do not see does not exist and can not be.

05 MAY 2010

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I Wonder How They Do It

I wonder how they do it:
save their sins for Saturday,
when the sirens at their honky-tonks,
their claws attached to whiskey-rocks
or draft beer cold enough to freeze
a witch’s tit, sing out the same familiar song.

I know they must have plugs of wax
stuffed in their ears, ’cause they don’t listen
to the band, or much to what the sirens say;
their only interest is the way
a pair of too-small jeans is filled
with that forbidden fruit they’ll spend
’til closing time trying to pick.
Then in the pew next to their wives
they’ll squirm and pass the buck,
blaming their weakness.

I wonder how they do it:
how they manage to survive
when every other thing about their lives
is cataloged and sorted out;
the neighbors know what business hours
you ought to keep, and just how long
it takes to make the trip uptown
and back. How is their secret kept?

And of these sirens? What’s their game?
What kind of life do they expect?
They sift among the wild or weak,
and hope these sailors will respect
their song, after the whiskey-rocks
are emptied from their hands
and they are perched outside the trailer door
to watch the low tide back at sea.

SEP 24 2007

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