Tag Archives: perceptions

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.

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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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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.


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Using Twenty Questions as a Starting Point

Maybe a better way of organizing a life is using something like Franklin’s admirable virtues and contrasting one’s life events against it. In that vein, Sarah Blakewell’s How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer is perhaps more helpful. In any case, it’s a starting point – and every journey, or so we’re told, must have one.


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On Discussing Beginnings

Discussing beginnings always degenerates into some kind of talk about the universe, spirituality, theology or at the very least physical philosophy – because when speaking in the present, it is usually assumed there is a past. A place where, at a minimum, the facility for speaking in the present was acquired along with the concepts and ideas that make any discussion worth the participation. But where does the beginning actually begin? And which or whose beginning is the important point of origin? For example, is physical birth the beginning of your life’s tale? Or is it more likely that you become you at some later point, when you begin to accumulate an idea of self and start storing it up with that old friend, memory? The psychologists may interject at this point that it’s a question of nature versus nurture. Your DNA being one part of that nature, and the conditions into which that DNA is placed, nurture. The one seems fixed, while the other seems dreadfully dynamic. Things change. Because everything changes. You might go so far as to say that everything IS change. In that ever-shifting milieu, how important is it to pinpoint an exact point of origin? To fix it, like a bug in amber, is to preserve it. But to be preserved in this way, a thing must die – and it is not particularly auspicious to speaking of life using the language of death. Or maybe auspicious is the wrong word. In any case, describing one’s life in comparison to one’s death seems more like building a sandcastle at high tide than anything else.

So where to begin? And where is begin, anyway? With the benefit of crystal clear hindsight, one can perhaps point out the key milestones on the journey. But often, the milestones we acknowledge now are not the milestones that were at the time, or that we even noticed along the path.

Returning to the Stoic idea that this life is a minutely crafted reproduction that simply repeats infinitely, with no variation or pause, you could imagine the details would be easily recalled, if only because it’s not likely this is your first rodeo. But if in fact a life were simply repeated, it would be necessary for each repetition to be a clean slate. There would not be, as in Eastern reincarnation, the remotest possibility of “remembering” things from previous lives – because those memories would make this reoccurrence different, even if only infinitesimally, from any previous version. These smudges on the carbon copy, in essence, would make subsequent versions less and less legible. So Stoically speaking, there is no benefit from living on infinite repeat other than in the here and now, recognizing yourself to be in a cycle, to make each moment as meaningful as possible. Does that dovetail with the Eastern idea of mindfulness? I’m not sure. I’m also not certain that from the Stoic point of view, the mere act of watching or recognizing one’s breath is sufficient to ensure the meaningfulness of the moment.

So what’s more important – the birth of a person, or the birth of the idea of that person? The physical manifestation of their body, or the self-recognition of themselves as a conscious entity? The dull laundry list of what happened to them as a child, or the perhaps just as dull, but potentially instructive list of how they conducted themselves as a result?

And where, you might ask, does the world fit in? It’s busyness, artifice, interactions, distractions, beauty and ugliness, ongoing growth and decay?

Beginnings indicate a story. A story implies a journey. A journey implies a beginning and an end. So how can the story of one’s life be written while still underway, except as a journal or series of notes that ultimately will need to be reviewed and updated based on current conditions or perceptions before every time it is shared? It is often said of Mozart that he did not compose music – that the piece was formed, complete in his head, and he simply transcribed it. Talk about amor fati! To think that everything, each act, is birthed, like Venus from the half shell, in its final, most perfect state, without error or need for modification. Sometimes, it feels like creativity works that way. But more often than not, at least in my experience, there is a version of a thing that springs forth whole from the source. Sometimes, but not often, it is perfect upon arrival. More likely, it needs a little tweaking – often, a whole lot of tweaking.

Although I have never had dreams or memories that “felt” enough like déjà vu to convince me they were flashes from past lives or previous reincarnations, my own belief in the order of the universe is more akin to Eastern reincarnation and karma than to the Stoic idea of perpetual and yet unmalleable motion. Is there enough of “me” to pass through eons of space and time? I’m not sure. Certainly, compared to the unimaginable (and pointlessly imagined) vastness of infinity my own little spark is insignificant. As Ramakrishna put it, imagine the universe and all time to be a bucket full of water. Your life, while you live it, is the tip of your pinky finger carefully dipped in that bucket, so gently that it causes no ripple. At your death, an equally calm motion and your fingertip is removed. Where is the evidence of your being present at all? A few drops of condensation on your finger? An imperceptible change in the bucket’s water level or temperature?

How can anyone feel important enough to attempt capturing the essence of their life’s uniqueness?

Where does that story – the notion of importance – begin?

I’ve often quipped that if I were to have a grave marker – which is not my wish, by the way – it should read, “Here lies a man who accomplished a great deal of Nothing. Some of which was cherished by those whose lives it touched.” In an essay I wrote in the late 1980s (when I really began to see myself as a manic, peripatetic writer), there is a big different between saying there is nothing to be afraid of and there is Nothing to be afraid of. One implies an absence of an enemy, while the other implies the presence of a great all-consuming void. It is easy to be brave when you face nothing. Confronting Nothingness, on the other hand, with its cheerless implication that win or lose, the encounter may leave you with less than you started in a way that perhaps is not immediately measurable or meaningful, is certainly more daunting. Leaving no record of one’s life, no sure transcription of why you thought you did what you thought you did because you thought it was the right thing to do, is accepting that Nothingness is the not only the ultimate goal, but a great deal of the journey. Not a “cloud of unknowing” but a “mist of un-being”, in which there is no yoga or union with the Divine, but a simple flash out of existence that leaves no trace.

So what is there to trace in the first place? Benvenuto Cellini asserted that “all men of whatsoever quality they be, who have done anything of excellence, or which may properly resemble excellence, ought, if they are persons of truth and honesty, to describe their life with their own hand”. But excellence is so subjective – and so much of what is believed to be excellent, when compared with stuff that really is excellent, is mediocre at best. And again, it seems the notions of honesty and truth are also highly subjective, particularly when viewed at convenient distance across decades of comfortable remove. Like the title elder or sage when self-applied, there is something smug and distastefully self-serving about naming your own output as excellence. But then again, if it really is excellent, who else could possible know it, except someone capable of producing an equal or greater excellence? It’s that damned Dunning-Kruger effect again, making it impossible for someone to really understand how little they know, or how little excellence their output contains, without a certain amount of knowledge or the minimum level of excellence required to even know what excellence is.

Ultimately, it becomes like Western civilization’s ultimate Zen koan – John Cage’s poem 13 Words (“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it. That is poetry.”). In the ultimate reversal of the quip, “those who can’t do, teach” the serious self-biographer straddles a Taoist tightrope: the way that can be described is not the way; the history that can be written down is not really the history.

Better then to start with the present; or at least, to use the present as an anchor thrown down to the ocean’s floor, linking the boat to both the depths, and a dynamic, fluid circumference around which to float back and forth, viewing alternatively the skyline through the mists hanging in each direction, and the varying illusions that bubble to the surface or can be caught in nets thrown overboard. A lot of metaphor for a single, deceptively simple set of tasks.

Ever since reading Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television I have surmised that we absorb information (for both education and entertainment – and I’m not altogether sure the two are ever actually separated) in three very different ways. The first source is direct sensory connection – we touch, taste, hear, see, smell a specific dataset. Closely aligned, but slightly different, is the secondary sensory connection – we hear but must interpret, like a spoken conversation; we read in a book and imagine various direct sensory connections and manufacture in our minds a response. The third source is involuntary absorption, occurring without consciousness handling or otherwise rational interpretation during loading. This is how a medium like television, which presents us with an image not formed externally from our bodies and scanned, but actually presented as a million points of light (or pixels, if you will) shot into our eyes like a ray gun and assembled by our brains in an area just past (or inside) the rational cognitive regions of our collective gray matter. Of course, we remember each of these experiences very much the same – with an upload date, upload type, summary and detail of the contents. Very effective computers, our brains; but the same maxim of “garbage in, garbage out” applies to all computing systems, including our cranium cased Hyper-Cray.

But do we remember everything the same way? And how, if there is a difference, does that affect how we recall our lives when in the process of chronicling our past? From personal experience, I can verify that there are events that I recall as actually occurring moments in my life, in the meat space of actual place and time, that seem more like a memory of a television show or movie than something real. Of course, there’s that pesky subjective real again. Is imagination somehow less real than tangible, physical action? Aren’t both, if you believe some Eastern philosophers, equal parts illusion, a veil of maya covering our true selves and their underlying Self-Realization?

My earliest memories are flashes that may be either internally or externally captured snapshots. I wonder, in a world obsessed with digital self-documentation, the extent to which anyone will be able to discern in ten or twenty years what actually happened to them in the flesh, versus what happened online.

It’s been suggested that the human mind never forgets anything – that everything to which it has been exposed is stored in the memory. The trick in remembering is then just recalling exactly where, in which file drawer, so to speak, the memory is found. The difficulty in such a system is that there is no master index, no card catalog. While it may seem that you could say, “give the events of May 13, 1977” and eventually have them brought to the table, like the contents of a safe deposit box, the reality is that these memories are more akin to a spinning roulette wheel – or spinning dart board. You can place a bet on a specific number – or take aim at a particular spot on the board, but it really is a matter of luck whether you are successfully in making it there. Elvis Costello, on a couple of his world tours, provided a huge wheel at the back of the stage, where each slice represented a song from his at that time, medium-large catalog. The wheel was spun, and the song upon which the needled landed, was played – potentially multiple times in an evening, or conceivably, in a row. Extending that device to the days or moments of one’s life makes for either an immense wheel, or incredibly small instances upon which to land. And of course there’s always the question – is this the actual memory of an event, or is it a memory of that memory. For example, I remember receiving my first Hardy Boys book on my 6th birthday. But how and through what filter is that memory delivered? Are the details as I perceive them now, or are they colored by how I remembered that event when I was 16 or 26? In other words, memory is always a subjective interpretation based on the conscious now of the person remembering, but are they remembering an original or a reprint? Does it make a difference, ultimately, since even if separate people who were present were to offer their interpretation of an event, and by comparison of these separate experiences one could eliminate any deviations and arrive at a somehow cumulative “true” narrative of it, how much of it could be truly believed to be a factual recount? Every history ever written down, from the ancient Greeks to the Romans to the present day relies upon the filter of its current lens to put the importance, weight, and/or significance of past events in perspective. Ah, yes, perspective. The dictionary tells us perspective is the art of drawing solid objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point; alternatively, a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view; or even an apparent spatial distribution in perceived sound. Since one’s life is, more than anything else, either work of art or at the very least, a point of view, both definitions are instructive. A life, one can imagine, is like a stone tossed in a pond – it has repercussions, reverberations. Ramakrishna suggests that these ripples are so short-lived, in the overall scheme of things, to be infinitely meaningless. I suppose that depends on both the size of the bucket into which the stone is dropped, and the height of the water in the bucket at the time. Once can imagine in a small enough bucket (and ultimately, the size of the bucket reflects the cultural boundaries of one’s time) with enough water in it (representing, I suppose, the relative “fullness” of that culture in terms of atmospheric absorption of moisture – or illumination, enlightenment, readiness, etc. – to the size of one’s bucket), even the smallest pebble might cause a significant enough upset to cause waves sufficient to spill water over the edge. You could draw the analogy that as a bucket’s capacity is reached, the individual drops of water represent individual people in a given time. Enough of a disturbance would, like a war, cause a significant drop in the bucket’s water level as thousands or more drops were splashed over the side – even accidentally.

On a personal level, the same could be said for individual change. When I was young and philosophically foolish, I used to describe the use of drugs or other self-medication in this way: a person’s life is a door which opens to two rooms, one reality and one fantasy. We live by constantly swinging that door back and forth, between the two chambers. Self-medicating is the equivalent of adding oil to the door’s hinges. The door swings freer, and faster. Some people, however, are born with better hinges than others. When their door swings, it stays affixed to the door frame no matter how violent or passionately the action. Others’ hinges begin to loosen, their screws stripped from the wood. At some point, their doors come completely away from their frame, and the door falls completely into one room or the other, or is jammed in between – in a state of hardcore reality or hardcore fantasy, or simply stuck in the middle motionless. There are some voyages from which you only return half-way home.

But what if that half-way point is actually supposed to be your destination? If you accept the proposition that “everything happens for a reason” – ultimately a kind of fatalism that rejects both free will and the notion of grace (i.e., salvation granted without reason, at Divine whim).

It seems that writing one’s personal history implies a sense of urgency. Why start now? Why not wait until after something really important happens? This of course infers that nothing to date passes that test; and I suppose it is the curse of every creative person to look at their oeuvre to date and think little of it, to see it as mere preamble to one’s Great Work. All the while others are cooing and gathering around telling you how great you are, or at least how important you are to their sense of importance. After all, knowing a great or smart or talented or famous person is almost as essential as being one, right? It may in fact be a preferable state, since it means a life lived near enough to the limelight to bask in the glow, and yet not be continually tortured by the personal demons that by necessity must accompany the genius. What was it Soren Kierkegaard said, What is a poet? A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music … And men crowd about the poet and say to him: ‘Sing for us soon again’; that is as much as to say: ‘May new sufferings torment your soul.’

So what is so urgent in my own life? Am I more worried about forgetting than of convincing myself that the Nothing I’ve undertaken and completed is actually important enough to merit documentation? Where is the line in the sand drawn by that pendulum that swings between optimistic underachiever and philosophical busy-body? Is that in fact the polar axis of living, or is it something else entirely?

I feel woefully unqualified to either satisfactorily document my own life, or to examine the reasons I feel unqualified to do so.

Henry Miller writes of finding an anchor around which to float and collect thoughts worthy of transcribing. Every time I think I’ve found an anchor, it feels more like a millstone – that I’m not carefully held in place on the surface, but being taken down, down into the depths.

I read the histories of others; autobiographies are the most useful, and at the same time, most daunting, because they suggest that committing an interesting history of self is at least possible, if not at times entertaining to others. Those works that are at best semi-autobiographical, like Henry Miller, seem to make the most sense; but to what extent are they true? And the “purely historical records” like Benjamin Franklin’s seem like recollections at safe and comfortable enough distance to make them mere recitations. The memories of popular living or recently living figures (e.g., Keith Richard, Bob Dylan, Billy Graham, Johnny Cash, Patti Smith, Tony Iommi) seem inflated with assistance of ghost writers or editors to make sure what is supposed to be most important is seen as most important.

In a lifetime that consists of a myriad of choices, I suppose writing an autobiography requires the writer to identify what they feel are the key, critical decisions. But as I’ve noted before, are these the decisions that seemed most important at the time, or through the lens of hindsight seem the most critical and informative? Further, a memoir implies an audience. Does the audience really care about the decisions or choices someone else makes, unless they support their worldview and perspective on the validity and nature of the outcome? In other words, so what that I made decision X, if it doesn’t validate the reader’s belief that people who make X choice end up like Y – a positive or negative outcome depending on the philosophy, morality, religious inclination or other agenda. To prove, for example, that a lifetime of sin and debauchery results in the epiphany necessary to get through the Pearly Gates seems an outcome at odds with the moral code of a person who believes in the strict straight and narrow as the only acceptable path, who holds in contempt any individual attesting, believing, or acting otherwise. Of course, the Devil’s advocate, or any other rational person for that matter, might suggest that very contempt is the reason why people who believe they will be raptured still seem to be around after every proclaimed Days’ End. What if the Devil’s mark, the Bible’s “666” was in fact, “stick, stick, stick” or a crucifix, and all who wore it were marked as lost?

Choices. Forks in the road. The road less traveled. The path of least resistance. The high road. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

But what if there is no “destination”? What if it’s all about the road, and not so much the distance you travel, or your difficulty in “keeping up the pace” so as to not block traffic? So often we look at life as having a beginning, middle, and end – and an implied velocity. Excelsior! Ever onward! Never backward (and don’t look back, because someone might be gaining on you, quote Satchel Paige), never sideways, never idle. Keep your eye on the prize – true north.

Today is November 8, 2016. The annual elections occurred yesterday, and the Republican Party now has control of all three branches of government. This does not change true north, for me. But I suspect it is a tipping point. I wonder whether or not true north can be a shared destination. I have never believed it to be. Talk of universal ideals and brotherhood and noble truths and shared goals always seems to be little more than talk. Our theories of universal brotherhood look good on paper. But there are few examples of those theories ever working out in practice. Plato’s Republic was a pipe dream too – just another old man’s imagining the world in a way it was never meant to be.

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Each thing that starts must have an end

Each thing that starts must have an end; for every wax there is a wend that once begun, moves to its finish. Every birth has “bury” in it.

My earliest memory is of walking down the street beside my mother, who is pushing my brother in a stroller. It is a shady oak-lined street, which puts the place probably on Oakdale Boulevard in Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, and the time somewhere between 1966 and 1968. A pleasant memory, but not particularly instructive. We lived in a house on Oakdale for a few years before moving to a much larger house on Ridge Road. There are pictures of activities in the back yard at Oakdale, but not any real memory of those events. My first actual memories of things happening, and things being done, are at and around Ridge Road. Bicycling, tennis, basketball, sandboxes, pole climbing attempts, the huge Dutch Elm tree (and talk about Dutch Elm disease) in the lot corner, surrounded by jack-in-the-pulpits and other shade plants. The swimming pool (and swimming lessons) across the street. The Detroit Zoo (and the revolutionary train that ran through the park), and Theodore Roosevelt Elementary just a few blocks down the road – in opposite directions.

Some Stoic philosophers imagined life as an endless cycle, to be infinitely lived over and over again. In contrast to the Eastern idea of reincarnation, where each successive life leads up or down the ladder of enlightened beings or states based on your conduct in the present, this Stoic idea suggests that we live the same life, exactly the same, over and over again. This of course is a pleasant thought if you believe your life a good one – and less pleasant should you believe otherwise. It also magnifies the importance of every single moment, act, and thought – because you will be repeating it, ad infinitum or ad nauseum, in exactly the same way each time through. There are no little things. Like minor cosmetic errors in a computer program, they don’t have much impact individually. But when considered a thousand, ten thousand, or a million-fold, their sheer volume causes as much risk as a single high severity show stopper application flaw. Each decision, each considered idea that leads to action, gains a certain gravitas that it lacks if considered in the context of a single life. Another Stoic idea is to imagine yourself at the edge of death and consider at that moment, as you prepare to expire, whether your life has been well lived. If yes, you can depart, like Montaigne interprets Seneca, as a satisfied dinner guest leaving well-fed and happy. If no, then the loss of your life is of little consequence anyway, as you obviously had no idea what to do with it. A useful exercise, of course, before your actual moment of death so you have time to remedy your failings and get on with the business of living well.

In these two Stoic scenarios, memory serves a completely different purpose. In the first, where everything is to be lived over and over again, memory seems much less important. After all, you’re going to be living the exact same life over and over again, right or wrong, left or right, up or down. In the true spirit of alma fati, what will be, will be, and remembering one’s mistakes or victories doesn’t really matter all that much, because changing one for the other isn’t any option. In the second scenario, the ability to remember one’s failings and strengths in detail is much more important. After all, if you’re going to correct a wrongness, or reinforce a rightness, in order to continue, or return to, living in plumb with the universe, it seems essential that you recognize and understand a thing for what it is, in its infinite complexity.

I suspect that the reality is somewhere in between. All cultures, at some point or another in their attempt to achieve “enlightenment” or at least to alleviate the boredom and monotony of suffering and pain, suggest that the answer lies in simply paying attention. Call it mindfulness, devotion, atonement (at-one-ment), attention (at-tension), or any other cultural buzzword of the moment; it all boils down to being aware of what is actually happening versus what seems to be happening. Of course, that eliminates the idea of writing one’s memoirs altogether, because it requires absolutely living in this moment, and not wasting the time of a single second imagining actual or perceived past events. How all this reflection leads to enlightenment at all is of course subject to debate. Aleister Crowley quipped that if you loved life, you would not waste a single moment of time, that being the only actual measure of life we had. He however spent a great deal of time pondering signs and portents of the past, and scribbling endless polemics that it would seem could not have done anything but consumed vast quantities of his time – and ultimately, if you can stand to follow along throughout his writings, taught him little or nothing about actually living in any kind of balance or harmony with the world around him.

I like believing that my own life has been a tight rope act of sorts, and while my physical balance is horrendous – due I think to numerous inner ear infections growing up – that my mental or spiritual balance has over the course of my life greatly improved. Believing it and making it so, of course, are different things. The accumulated evidence, at least as I recall it, points to a much less glorious conclusion.

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Space Between Breath

What still remains when words have run their course,
and soundless, lay exuberant and spent
beyond the realm of sound? What is the source
that waits between each breath, self-evident

for just the briefest moment, as the lull
when one idea dies and one is born
expands in pregnant silence and is full
of consonants and vowels not yet quite formed?

In which dimension does such time exist?
It has no breadth or width, nor is it tall.
It has no form, but hangs like evening mist
on summer nights surrendering to fall.

And past that quiet whisper, when all sound
has faded into nothing and is gone,
the meaning of the universe is found:
the stuff that only dreams are built upon.

02 JAN 2009

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