Tag Archives: My Life Around Art

11. Live temperately

Most people I know, when they think of temperance, imagine crowds of people, mostly women, protesting the sale and consumption of hard liquor – usually proceeding and following the passage and repeal of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which prohibited production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States between 1920 to 1933. Other interpretations found in guides for living in many world religions and published in private “how to live” guidebooks suggest that temperance means moderation, in all things. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation”. Many sages and saints talk about keeping the belly only partially full of solids, with the remainder air. The Stoic idea (and Buddhist monk) idea of unflappability in the face of adversity, hunger, pain, arousal, or any kind of distress provides the name for the Middle Path. Only during periods like the height of the Romantic period, when enlightened thinkers took William Blake’s the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…you never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough to its logical extreme, has the “advice” to humanity on a good and suitable life ever veered from a more or less strictly defined narrow way of barely enjoyed pastimes. Certainly, Montaigne’s ideal given his Stoic, Epicurean and Skeptic influences and nature included always seeking and preferring that Middle Way of centered non-perturbation.

Where one’s influence ends and nature begins is always a subjective argument. Without digressing completely into nature versus nurture again, I think unless we redefine what is meant by nature, and one’s natural state, any discussion is probably absolutely pointless. After all, is it more important that we possess a nature, that we become aware of it, or that we act in a way that we believe is in accordance with that perceived nature – even though in truth we probably have no idea how to actually define something so apparently outside ourselves (and if it is human nature, it is outside the purview of the individual), nor how to actually point our actions to achieve a demonstrably nebulous goal? What we know of nature is more or less a function of how we are nurtured. We are only able to subjectively make the distinction when we observe others; where these shades of gray melt into each other in our own persons is indistinguishable to our own eyes.
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5. Survive love and loss (part 1)

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “The most beautiful people are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” I first became acquainted with Kübler-Ross my freshman year in high school – quite accidentally, and by osmosis. My freshman English teacher was Joanne Fahey, who also taught an upper-class elective on Thanatology that used Kübler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying” as its primary text. Seeing students with copies and finding a couple of copies in Ms. Fahey’s classroom, I eventually picked it up and read parts of it. I also think Jiddu Krishnamurti’s “Think on These Things” entered by consciousness the same way. I was very lucky to land in Ms. Fahey’s Freshman Honors English class, by the way. As a transfer student (we had just moved from Ohio that summer), by the time I got to pick my first year classes, the Honors classes were full with a long waiting list. I therefore landed instead in David Spaid’s regular freshman English class. It is to Mr. Spaid’s credit that upon reading my first assignment, he pushed to have me reassigned to Ms. Fahey’s class almost immediately. Both of them saw something in me that I certainly took a long time to recognize myself, and I will never forget their encouragement (and often, gentle scolding).

When it comes to surviving love and loss, I suppose everyone feels they’ve had their share. Of course, it’s a very subjective measure in any case. Throughout our lives what we call “love” and what we consider “loss” evolve almost geometrically, and often in directions that make both states probably unrecognizable to us at any other time of life.

When you’re young, love and loss are different from when you’re older. Maybe not different, maybe just profound on a different scale, measured by a different yardstick. When you’ve only had one friend in your short life, losing that friend is monumental – regardless of the reason. When you don’t make friends easily to begin with, a life that involves moving every seven years or so results in a pattern of loss that establishes how you interact and entertain people for the rest of your life. It’s hard to put down roots anywhere when you’ve been repotted several times. You learn to get your nourishment nearer the surface.
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4. Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted

I think it goes without saying that my life has been full of books. But reading goes beyond literature, doesn’t it? Newspapers, magazines, comic books, bumper stickers, cereal boxes, email, blog posts, novels, short stories, poetry, music scores, instruction manuals, they all come in formats other than what we traditionally call books. And honestly, most of it I have forgotten. Except, as they say, you never forget anything; it’s only misfiled. My archive storage room must be packed to the gills.

As far as being slow-witted. Well, I suspect that in myself, and also in Montaigne, the appearance of slow-wittedness is more a propos. In the same way that Jack Benny worked extremely hard, with no small amount of technical ability, to appear as a horribly bad violinist, I believe the trick here as it applies to living well is to not appear quick-witted, that is, to not be the first to interject with a barbed comment, to be slow to engage in sarcasm or irony – since they are so often, particularly in print, misconstrued and/or deliberately misinterpreted. I cannot remember where I read it now, but somewhere two rules of true victory were imparted to me: first, to understand that you cannot understand everything, and second, that being right is the most effective way to lose an argument. It is enough, I think, to be perceived as dark, pessimistic and peevish, simply for insisting upon a doctrine of personal responsibility. To be completely without friends, all that is required is adding a sharp tongue and speaking with irony or sarcasm about those sacred cows that others find dear, and about which they permit no humor or levity. The obvious targets here are government, politics, religion, morality, life’s purpose, the sanctity of the home, work or marriage, and other life and death issues about which people are so often willing to extemporize or sermonize, and find it extremely difficult to remain objective.

I recommend reading. I would go so far as to say that if by the end of the third grade, you do not love to read – not merely to complete assignments, but to gain access to knowledge and ideas beyond those provided in the “nurture” that surrounds you – your lot in life will be more unpleasant and boring than necessary. Reading gives perspective, no less than physical traveling. Both take you out of your comfort zone – if you read or travel well. And perspective is essential to understanding both yourself and the world in which you exist. Of course, some will say that a single book, like the Christian Bible, is sufficient unto itself as a sole reading subject. In my experience, no worldview than cannot stand being seen from multiple angles, that cannot manage scrutiny from external, non-affiliated sources, is capable of free-standing.
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14. See the world

In my life, I’ve met a large number of people who have lived and traveled no more than 50 or 100 miles from their birthplace. To me, this gives modern people no advantage over generations and ancestors past who did, could, or would not travel further. There are ALWAYS sociological, technological, financial, political, religious and/or other logistical constraints. But I think traveling abroad seems fascinating and absolutely necessary to one’s education and philosophy of life, particularly if you’re interested in improving the world as a whole. To me, however, Americans should start foreign travel simply by leaving their current state. The size of the United States is sufficiently large that the time and distance in even this seemingly minor world gallivanting is the equivalent of crossing another continent, and the in process, passing through several to dozens of sovereign nations. And honestly, having lived in eight different US states, and travelled through or in 48, each one is unique enough to be considered a separate, foreign nation. There are a few similarities, true enough. The language is common (although, honestly, the dialectic differences between southern California, Maine, and southern Louisiana strain the bounds of that idea). A few “federated” functions operate exactly the same (but different): the postal service, private package delivery services (although delivery promises differ, especially to and from large remote areas like those found in Alaska). The system of law is generally the same, although its method of execution and consistency varies greatly between states. And in Louisiana, unique to its sister states, retains the French Napoleonic Code in addition to upstart America’s Federal statutes.

But unless you actually travel to different parts of this country, stay there a while, and get to know each region’s both urban and rural population, you really have no idea what the “whole” of America is like. And you certain don’t understand that there truly isn’t a “plurality” or single way of doing things, speaking, practicing faiths, tolerating difference and indifference, that can be considered nationwide. The fact that there are national brands, television stations, chain stores, and holidays does NOT a heterogeneous population, identity or sense of self-awareness make. Yes, decentralization has split a lot of formerly isolated groups of individuals, as families separate to find employment, better weather, true love and/or “their own way”. But a Texan relocated to Oregon, regardless of how difficult the transition may be for either the host or the implant, eventually adopts at least some Oregonian ways – or through their own influence, makes at least some small part of Oregon more Texan. There are some that might tell you that communication, particularly as it concerns universal interests like music, of information purportedly nationalistic or nationally “popular”, serves as a way to enlarge the world views of recipient reasons. Whether in Maine or Georgia or Utah or Michigan, the National Top 40 is the National Top 40. So everyone shares that culture. But the funny thing is that what makes regions worth living in, culturally relevant, unique, and often magical, is not these shared contrivances. It is things that are absolutely human, absolutely essential, and absolutely transcendent when experienced first- hand: music, food, and language (i.e., slang, patois, idiom, dialect, literature, humor). And honestly, experiencing it on television is not enough – no more than sitting in your living room watching Marlon Perkins is NOT an experience of traveling the African veldt. When you participate, when you partake, in a southern Louisiana crawfish boil, or a Cincinnati Octoberfest party, or a baseball game in a place like Fenway Park, or visit a museum in a strange city, it becomes part of who you are. You cannot undo the experience, nor erase it from your psyche or DNA. Travel helps ensure you are never again an isolationist, a xenophobe, a stranger – unless, of course, you simply seek out the McDonald’s restaurants wherever you, stay in neatly sanitized chain hotels, and stick to the first three items listed in your AAA guidebook. Of course, these things have a place – they represent the concessions that local and regional diversity and culture make to accommodate those who aren’t interesting, therefore not interested. If you’re going to bother taking a foreign adventure, why stay in the American sector? It’s almost like you’re afraid of learning just how boring you actually are.

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.

2. Pay attention

One book of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s lectures refers to the Flame of Attention, pointing out that the meaning of the word “attention” is a reminder of the perils of constant watchfulness – you must be “at-tension”, so at any moment you can react in a myriad of ways to any number of encroaching or interrupting signals. This peripatetic vigil, if not conducted carefully, can result in a huge, and probably considering the likelihood of perilous events pretty low, mostly hyper-prioritized and undue stress on the attendee. There is always the danger of micro-managing, even oneself. The trick, I think – and probably both Montaigne and Krishnamurti would agree – is to be aware, rather than attentive. To be conscious, if not fully cognizant. The Buddha and so many other spiritual guides suggest the same: to be in the world, but not of it, you must be fully open to the information constantly being presented, but you must learn to observe it and let it go. The instant I discovered this in Montaigne, the word mindfulness immediately came to mind. There is however so much psychobabble currently about mindfulness (in theory and practice) that it is in danger of becoming a parody of itself.

Pay attention, but don’t get lost in the details. That’s a hard thing for an ADHD hunter-gatherer to accomplish, particularly in our “busyness is holiness” and “look busy, the boss might be watching” Protestant-driven culture of work for work’s sake. We spend a lot of time talking but very little effort thinking about just breathing. Just this morning, I said to myself, until you change the way you hear, you can’t change the way you listen. Until you change the way you listen, you can’t change the way you see. Until you change the way you see, you can’t change the way you think. And until you change the way you think, you can’t change the world.

One of the duties of a Bard, as traditional defined in Celtic culture, is serving as the historian, the memory, of your own culture. This includes not only where it is today, but where it started, how it traveled the path from there to here, and what indicators point to where it might be in the future. A lot of emphasis is placed on remembering things: verse forms, definitions, cultural events – the usual hows, whys and wherefores. As someone trained in that tradition (I first became associated with official Bardic business as a member of both the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) and Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) pagan (more accurately, neo-pagan) traditions. The ADF was not for me, but I did manage to digest and complete the OBOD’s Bardic grade lessons and complete the required initiation. Among a lot of pretty useless information (if only because it involved attempting to reconstruct a system based on a fantastic, romantic interpretation of a long-past reality, from a language and culture with which I had insufficient familiarity), there is at least the idea that someone is responsible for keeping an eye on everything that’s going on. This appeals to my distrust of cultural specialists; that the history of one thing should be detailed and kept “sacred” completely separately, and in isolation from, each other thing’s history – that there should ultimately be at the top a mere conglomeration, but no real sense of synthesis or, to borrow Buckminster Fuller’s term, synergy, has always seemed to fall flat.

Falling flat – now there’s an interesting concept. I immediately think of Hamlet’s mournful, “oh, how flat and unprofitable are the things of this world” and I want to say, “well, things are flat because you lack perspective.” Perspective, however, is not just the ability to see things from varying points of view. It is the desire to do so – and the belief that just as Ramakrishna put it, A lake has several ghâts. At one the Hindus take water in pitchers and call it ‘jal’; at another the Mussalmâns take water in leather bags and call it ‘pâni’. At a third the Christians call it ‘water’. Can we imagine that it is not ‘jal’, but only ‘pâni’ or ‘water’? How ridiculous! The substance is One under different names, and everyone is seeking the same substance; only climate, temperament, and name create differences.

 

1. Don’t Worry About Death

I can honestly say that right now, I don’t worry all that much about dying. I don’t fear what is, or isn’t, to come. I thank my parents, and their introduction to their parents’ religion, but an otherwise free-thinking non-religious upbringing. Although of course soaked in that Protestant idea of work as a holy thing, their point of view was “let them draw their own conclusions” – a logical perspective for an engineer and a biologist. I often felt that the holy trinity of our house, rather than the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, was Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Henry Ford. For some time now, probably first felt instinctively when I was around 10 or 11, but definitely reinforced after taking a hit of acid and then subsequently reading Ram Dass’ Be Here Now in the hours after receiving news of my father’s death in 1993 (at age 28), I’ve believed that we are after all merely energy borrowed that must at some point be returned. I do worry over those I leave behind: how will their needs be met, how will they cope with any grief over my absence, is what I leave behind the best possible representation of what I have been? Of course, others’ happiness and peace of mind is ultimately not my responsibility. There is little I can do, especially after I’m gone, to ensure that those I love continue to seek and find happiness and peace rather than sadness and strife. While I don’t fear death per se, I do fear becoming a burden on anyone in that period preceding my departure. That I would need someone else to tend to my care and feeding, like a pathetic zoo animal, causes me continual worry. Not enough worry, however, to look to my physical care to a greater degree or attempt in any serious way to that deterioration.

There are have been periods in my life where I seriously considered signing out prematurely. Which raises, of course, an interesting question: what does it mean “to die too young”. You expire exactly at the time you expire, not a moment later or sooner. So much of “if only they had lived longer” sentimentality is nothing but greed. We want more art, more sacrifice, more for us, out of the life in question. I rarely see this idea suggesting that the extra time is desired to allow us to give more to the person we miss.

The years 15-18 were especially trying for me. Likewise, a later interval between 22-25 was also difficult. I think part of the problem was, as is often the case, that I really didn’t have anyone’s problems other than my own to occupy my time. In those years I was single and really didn’t have close friends. Isolation, I think, more than any other factor, contributes to depression and hopelessness. Of course on the flip side, I find social immersion with people with whom I find no common ground, no shared interests, equally as oppressive.

But a death wish, or desire to stop living, is NOT the same as boredom, and certainly not temporal hopelessness or that sense of simply being overwhelmed. I think focusing on one’s hopelessness is worrying about your life, not your death. After all, depending on your spiritual bent (and the strength of those convictions), death is either an end, an upgrade, or a detention.