Rail Yard at Night

Peace.
The beast that slumbers
On the other side of action; that
Threatens to give traction to
Thoughts without a voice. When all is
Quiet–
Silent–

What choice but to
Listen, to focus on the beat
Of wheels meeting track, of life
That’s doubled back and sprung
A tidy ambush. Taken by surprise,
Slightly-widened eyes blinded by the
Stillness of life beyond the sunset, where
Hustle muscles bustle into abject surrender and
The moon returns to sender all the
Noise
Of frantic living.

Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I have ever read.

Every once in a while a book comes along that takes all the thoughts you’ve had milling around in your brain for years but have been unable to express, and puts them into words. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of those books for me. I find myself connecting with Pirsig’s thought processes on an almost visceral level: the neverending, almost obsessive search for the Quality that underlies daily experience; dismay at the extent to which the world has abandoned the Good in the interests of pursuing the Reasonable; frustration with the orthodoxy outside of which one risks being labeled a fool or a lunatic. Pirsig’s words resonate in me with surprising clarity, they strike a chord deep inside my soul (as they have done with countless others since their first publication in 1974). They help me to understand who I am and where I’m trying to go. Which is…right here…

At the heart of his book lies the quest to overcome the duality that has become so entrenched in the Western mind that we no longer accept any other angle of perception. Unless we overcome the cognitive divide that separates us as individuals one from another, we will never truly understand this world, this reality, that we inhabit.

“What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven’t been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know” (p. 343).

The only real objectivity, then, is reached by way of multiple subjectivities. We need each other to be able to fathom this world we live in. What is more, we need each other in order truly to understand ourselves. Quality, the centerpiece of Pirsig’s book, is the source of both subject and object, located in the intersection between the two, without which neither can truly, substantively exist. We learn ourselves through interaction with the other. We become who we are because of who others are. We define one another, and Quality is the touchstone for that process.

Quality resides in any “objective” encounter: between the individual and nature, between the individual and occupation, between the individual and the smallest of ideas. Until I pick up the hammer, it is not a hammer at all; it becomes a hammer only when I come to appreciate its uses and its purpose through using it to drive home a nail. I am not a carpenter, until that hammer allows me to complete the carpenter’s task through driving home the nail. In other words, until both object and subject allow the other to tap into the Quality that resides in each, neither is complete. They need each other to be who and what they truly are.

As a library cataloger, this is a particular stumbling block for me. It is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing “just one more book,” of forgetting the Quality that lies within both the object and myself, and that is activated and realized through my interaction with it. A piece of myself is taken by the object. I am, in a very real sense, IN the record I produce and the book on the shelf; without me, it could not be as it is. I, at the same time, take a piece of the object. Each volume that passes through my hands, each new cataloging challenge (and they are many) increases my knowledge and expertise, adds to the Quality of “library cataloger” that resides in me. This awareness of underlying Quality, of the true nature of the interaction between myself and the work that I do, brings to the task at hand a refreshing sense of intention and joy. There are no meaningless tasks. Everything is meaningful.

This is a book everyone should read. Given this emphasis on work (especially, as Pirsig notes, the dull kind) and the Quality inherent in it, this book is one which lends itself to use as a training tool for supervisors in all lines of work. It holds the key to change, and opens the eyes to the potential for creativity and meaning in every aspect of daily living, however mundane it may seem.

It really doesn’t matter whether you ride or not: “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself” (p. 417).

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Book Review: The God Delusion

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Dawkins’ The God Delusion is by far the most frustrating book I’ve read in a very long time. I so desperately wanted to love it, as it’s been recommended by several people whose opinions I value. But the best I can go is two stars out of five: the author makes some very good, very perceptive, very necessary points, but they are swallowed up by all the points he doesn’t quite land (including his central point), and by the tone of the book in general.

The author declares that the anthropic principle “provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence” (p. 136). However, the anthropic principle, on its own, is of no explanatory value: it is tantamount to arguing that the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds because the building one is standing in is a Macdonalds. It is a tautology at best: as Dawkins uses it, the presence of life in the universe is explained by the presence of life in the universe (we’re here because we’re here), which is not so much to provide an answer as it is to beg the question. As such, the anthropic principle is not an “alternative” to the creationist stance, as Dawkins claims. It is not an “alternative to” anything. It is a starting point, not a conclusion.

Dawkins espouses natural selection, in part, as the means by which the anthropic principle worked itself out in the case of planet Earth. In this regard, he does a fairly decent job of arguing his case: it is an actual explanation for the ways in which life came about on this world. Many may find it more convincing than the creationist stance–for that matter, so do I. But it is still only AN argument, as is the creationist stance itself. The same may be said of the other mechanisms he suggests whereby the anthropic principle may have found expression in our solar system/universe. They are each continuations of the anthropic principle; without them that principle applies to nothing. While Dawkins accuses religious thinkers of misunderstanding the anthropic principle, one is left with the distinct impression that he has not understood it himself (or that he has, and has chosen to use it anyway, hoping no one will notice the difficulty).

This, however, is not the biggest issue I take with his book. In the final analysis, Dawkins is an elitist and a bully. Throughout the book, contrasts are drawn between the atheist sophisticate and the unsophisticated religious thinker, the “Brights” and the “Dims,” if you will. He makes it very clear, if implicitly so, that disagreement with the Darwinian point of view equals a lower-level intellect, immaturity of mind, etc. It is impossible, in his opinion, for a rational thinker to arrive at any conclusion other than his own. Thus far the elitism. As for the bullying: the natural outcome of Dawkins’ attitude to what he considers unjustified opposing viewpoints is itself fairly Darwinian. One wonders how many “Dawkinsians” came to their position freely, and how many did so because to do otherwise would consign them, willy-nilly, to the stupid, uneducated junk pile? In the case of the “evidence from majority scientific opinion,” how likely is a scientist openly to embrace a religious worldview if the inescapable consequence is being (literally) laughed out of her profession? Ultimately, Dawkins does not allow for honest opposition or argument, not unlike the religious thinkers he criticizes.

Again, Dawkins makes a number of very good, quite necessary points with which even lifelong religious adherents might easily agree. The idea of pasting religious labels on children before they are able to form any concept of what the labels mean is ludicrous and potentially harmful, whether psychologically or simply as affects intellectual openness and honesty. It is laughable for Christians to embrace scientific discovery when it supports what they believe and reject it as soon as it begins to contradict. And so on. Ultimately though, the tone of the book (at least in my opinion) overshadows its content. It is a good rule of thumb to distrust anyone who insists that others think as they do in order to be judged intelligent. This is exactly what Dawkins does, again and again throughout the book.

I am no disciple of any particular faith tradition, but having read this book I am also no disciple of Dawkins. The points he makes are often good; the manner in which those points are made is off-putting at best, completely alienating at worst. The old saying is true: you catch more flies with honey. Dawkins has chucked the honey pot out the window.

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Dawn

Fire-drop sky.
Sparks fly; the heart
Of the heavens burns by beat.
Blood-burnished spirit transformed,
Reborn, rebaptized: christened anew
In dew-laden chrism, prism
Of morning, mourning the passage of
Night.

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Eternal Life Is…We

If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. – Angel (2001)

I had a friend in college named Geneva. She was born on Valentine’s Day, and a better-suited synchronicity of date and personality seems nearly impossible. She was a beautiful person, in every respect. And she had a weak heart. Not long after I switched majors and colleges, that weakness ended her life. At the time, my reaction fell very much along the lines my “Christian” upbringing had drawn for me: it was self-accusatory (why hadn’t I ever sat her down and preached to her, asked her if she’d “met my Jesus” or something like that?); it was self-righteous (I still remember standing before the congregation of the church I was working in at the time and “confessing” my failure to proselytize); it was self-aggrandizing (I shared in that common Christian pretension, that my actions or lack thereof somehow sealed her eternal fate). And in all this, I completely missed the point…of her life and of her death.

We used to call her Pinball, because she had a tendency toward hyperactivity. To this day, anytime someone gets a little more worked up than the occasion warrants, this is the label I use…and I’m reminded of Geneva each time I do. She was kind, cheerful, trusting to a fault (we all, to one extent or another, played the role of big brother or sister with her), and her smile could light up a room. She was an encourager, always. Most importantly, in reflecting on Geneva’s passage through the world and through my life (and the lives of the rest of the Wells House Lounge Lizards), I have come to a new understanding of life, death, and many things in between. Her influence, among others, has changed the way I see the world, I think for the better. In a very real sense, Geneva lives on in me.

A lot of people do.

Grandma Durst in the ’50s, with my Uncle Dean and my mother, Pam, peeking in between.

My Grandma, Fern Durst, died in November 2010, fifteen days shy of her 93rd birthday. This was a traumatic experience for me on many levels. She was my last living grandparent, and in this sense her death was for me the end of an era. I had the privilege of living with her on the family farm from the time I returned to the US for college until (almost) the day I got married, and in those years we had become very close. In some ways, she was as much a parent to me as a grandparent, and she taught me to approach living in a way I had never before done. The day she died, then, I lost more than a grandmother: I also lost a mother, a friend, and a mentor.

(“Lost.” Death is always couched in terms of loss. The more I think about it, the less fitting this becomes.)

All of this, though, is eclipsed by the timing of her death: it was the first time I went through this process since leaving the church, and it scrawled a giant question mark across the face of reality as I had known it for most of my life. I was well into the transition from belief in Heaven and afterlife to the lack thereof, and while I hadn’t quite arrived at the negative end of the spectrum, the thought of my “eternal destination” had long been of little concern to me. And here I was, faced with the exigency of formalization: I had to put all the fuzziness in my head into some concrete form, in order to make it through the day. My upbringing demanded of me one of two things: either rejoicing in the “homecoming” of my beloved grandmother, or despair at the meaninglessness of death in the absence of the Divine. I was, epistemologically, forced into a brutal dilemma: belief in God, or spiritual disintegration at the possibility of his non-existence. It is a dilemma many Christians are faced with at intervals throughout their lives, and it is merciless and unforgiving.

This was the mother of all existential hurdles. And it hurt like hell. But it occasioned a feeling of cognitive dissonance that, in itself, brought me back to hope, and to reformulated belief in “eternal life.” The thing was, as I stood in the farmhouse my grandmother had lived in since the 1950s, and as I drove to the church for the funeral, I realized two things: I did not believe in heaven, and at the same time I felt no despair. I didn’t feel compelled to rend my garments or dump ashes on my head; I didn’t go mad with grief, “as those who have no hope.” And this made no sense; it didn’t fit the mold in which I was cast. Did I, deep down, not love my Grandma as much as I thought I did? No. I loved her very much, and I missed her very much as well. So what in the world was going on? What part of me was broken, defective, in need of repair?

I began to think a lot about the person we had “lost,” and as I did so, memories flooded in:

Grandma and I both possessed terrible tempers, and tended to lose them frequently. When I was a kid, the two of us made a pact. We became temper-buddies, co-conspirators in the quest to remain calm. We kept one another accountable. Three decades later, this pact is still an inspiration to me: when I feel the lid getting ready to fly off, I can’t help but revert in my mind to my childhood and my Grandma’s encouragement to “keep that lid on tight!” To this day–and, I expect, to the end of my days–she is my temper-buddy, and it is a bond that will never be broken.

When I first got back to the States in 1996, I was not exactly familiar with the outdoor chore. And I ended up on a farm, living with a lifelong farm woman, for whom the outdoor chore was not just part of life, but life itself. I learned more in the six years I lived with her than I did in the 18 years previous, one example of which being the art of truly finishing a job. Namely, the job of mowing. You’re not done, it turns out, until no evidence remains that a job was done in the first place. You take a broom, and you sweep up the mess you made. But even that’s not the whole lesson: it’s not just that you do it, it’s how you do it. I still remember the first time she saw me pick up the broom and begin tentatively to scratch at the clippings on the back walk. In a flash, this 79-year-old lady was out the back door, had seized the broom from my hands, and had begun to imitate–to my untrained eye–a windmill on crack. That broom flew back and forth so fast you could hardly see it. And the grass clippings disappeared as if by magic. To my amazement I realized it wasn’t even the broom that was doing the work; it didn’t even really touch the ground. It was the air; the woman was using the force of the displaced air to send the clippings on their way. I remember thinking: my grandmother’s a genius. Even now, after mowing my own yard, you will find me standing on the sidewalk, swinging my arms like an idiot, cleaning up my mess. I no doubt look like a fool, but it works…

And then there’s the chocolate pie. My God, the chocolate pie. It has ruined me for all other chocolate pies, ever. People all over Bates County, Missouri know that pie. My mother and sister still make that pie, and I presume that my nieces and nephews will someday as well. One of Grandma’s worst moments came near the end when she couldn’t get that pie to turn out the way it always had. She thought she’d lost it. But it’s still here. It’s still talked about. Generations of Dursts, Woodses, and Bramsens will be eating that pie for years to come. And when they do, even if they don’t know where the recipe came from, even if they forget, they will be experiencing a part of her, of Fern T. Durst, piewoman extraordinaire. Take and eat in memory of me, indeed!

Suddenly, something clicked in my brain. Herein lies the secret to eternity: the little pieces of ourselves that we hand off to others as we make our way through life, the things for which we are remembered (and even the things for which we are not, but which persist nevertheless). French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy wrote, in L’Adoration (2010):

There is no sense of sense: this is not, ultimately, a negative proposition. It is the affirmation of sense itself–of sensibility, sentiment, significance: the affirmation according to which the world’s existents, by referring to one another, open onto the inexhaustible play of their references, and not onto any kind of completion that might be called “the meaning of life,” “the meaning of history,” or even “salvation,” “happiness,” “eternal life,” no more than it opens onto the supposed immortality of works of art, which are in themselves nothing other than forms and modes of reference. Yet our true immortality–or eternity–is given precisely by the world as the place of mutual, infinite referral.

As I sat in the funeral service, I found myself growing very sad. Not because I had lost faith in eternal life, but because I had found it. Because so many of the people around me didn’t seem to understand what it really meant. I began to take offense, almost, at what seemed a complete disregard for a life lived fully and completely, a life lost among endless talk of “final destinations.” It seemed almost as if, as long as she ended up in the right place, it didn’t matter where–or who–she’d been along the way.

“We’ll see her again someday,” they said. People tend to say things like this at funerals. As far as I’m concerned, I see her again every day. She–her wisdom, her love, her appreciation of a job well done–is a part of everything I do. Everything anyone who knew her does. Her image remains in me, and I see her anytime I look in the mirror. Sometimes I see her smile, sometimes I see her frown and roll her eyes at me; I don’t always live up to the memories I have. But I see her, just the same.

There are lots of folks living in my mirror. Lots of folks whose lives are perpetuated in my own, and in those that come after me. I have shared these stories with you, and now you are the next link in the chain, a chain that stretches into infinity, human souls connected by human experience.

I do not believe in Heaven, but I do believe in eternal life. And it is We.

On the Death of My Grandmother

Sometimes
Somebody dies. Where they go
I do not know that I care: for a moment, they
Were,
Grain of sand in outstretched,
Open hand.

Screen door slamming; skillet
Sizzling on the range. False teeth in
Small glass; thoughtful critic, new-mown
Grass. Leaf chopping, weekly shopping. Trips
To the bank. Often a crank but always
Loving. Pushing, pulling, even
Shoving; molding, scolding, gazing firm
At something I could not see, something
She knew
I could be.

A better place?

I see her face
Not in the sky but in
Myself:
I keep no ashes on my shelf.

Sometimes
Some body dies; but
People
Live.

-Dedicated to Fern Durst, 1917-2010

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