Who Am I?

Dude! I’ve got plans up in this joint!

(I say this on the off-chance anyone’s taken the time to ask themselves: “I wonder what his plans are?” I’m sure there are quite a few of you who have been on pins and needles, anxiously gripping the edges of your seats, fretting away the sleepless nights about it.)

Anywho…

It occurs to me that most of what I’ve written, while it may address obliquely the question of who I am, never really gets to the heart of the matter. You see, to me, identity is less about the grand “WHAT I BELIEVE” (add impressive echo here) than it is about the little things, the experiences I’ve had that have brought me to whatever place I am now. Because, quite frankly, the “WHAT I BELIEVE” is largely dependent on those experiences. They are the reason why I believe what I believe.

This whole blogging thing doesn’t really do much for me unless I can really share with others the person that I am, without code names, without censorship, without obfuscation (which is, by the way, one of my favorite words to say). I take the time to write because, as I was reminded recently by a friend’s post, I crave connection: I want to know people. This is, incidentally, why I suck at networking–my interest in others lies in discovering who they are, not in discovering what they can do for me. I find that often the people who could do the most for me, be it professionally or personally, turn out to be the least interesting people to know. And vice-versa. It’s also why people who are good networkers want nothing to do with me: I seriously doubt that I will ever be in a position to do anything for anyone, either professionally or personally, but I like to think I’m a pretty fun guy to hang out with. (Of course, that may just be a latent narcissistic streak of which I am blissfully unaware…)

What’s more (and this is intended as a commentary on no one but myself), I’ve learned the hard way that if I have something to say that I’m not willing to own, I’m probably not ready to say it yet. Nor is it generally really worth saying. I try to live life according to the following philosophy, couched in Shakespearian parlance: “‘Tis better to hold up thine head and be cudgelled in thy face, than to remain unbruised through keeping it hid.” In other words, as Martin Luther would have put it, sin boldly; if you are to stick your foot in your mouth, do it with pride. Leave a Sam-shaped hole in the wall, for cryin’ out loud!

All this to say, I want you to know me: not just what I think or feel, but where all that thinky-feely stuff comes from. I want to give you a face to go with all the cockamamie ideas. (Feel free to use it as a dart-board; at least this way you’ll get some sporting fun out of the experience!)

So, first things first: Lo! here I am:

148499_10100741148544263_1419274769_nThat’s “Jack Kerouac” me, to the left there. Generally, I find myself somewhat un-photogenic, but then, generally, that’s probably mainly my fault. Because I’m also an irredeemable goofball. If you really want to know ME, you need to see this (below):

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Or this…

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Or perhaps even this…

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If you’re sufficiently scared, we’ll move on…

You see, I’m not afraid to look like an idiot. I’ve spent far too much of my life standing on ceremony, minding that “image” thing everyone keeps talking about. I’m not afraid to admit that, as standards of beauty go, I’m no Mona Lisa. But then, if you stop to think about it, by our standards of beauty, the Mona Lisa is no Mona Lisa, either. Which is, really, what makes the Mona Lisa beautiful in the first place, isn’t it…?

I’ve got flaws and blemishes coming out my ears (in some cases, literally). But in those flaws and blemishes, I am ME, the individual no one else can be. Which brings me to the most important fact anyone can ever learn about me: I AM A TOAD! And I’m damn proud of it.

My goal in life is to fit no one’s bill but my own. I was born to break the mold (as were we all), and I am bound and determined to live that way, too. I want to be nobody else but who I am, because who I am is like nobody else.

(And here’s a secret: I only buy all that stuff I just said about individuality most of the time. The rest of the time, I’m one more insecure face in a giant, frightened crowd. Which is to say, I may talk a big line, but when you come down to it, I keep my head down as much as anyone else. But don’t tell–it’s a secret…)

Which brings me back from my constant urge to digress to the reason I started writing this post in the first place: Who I am. I am a scared, lonely, overgrown little boy who for a few minutes each day (if I’m lucky) manages to break free from the anchor-weight of living long enough to glimpse the breadth and depth of life. I am a boat tossed on a sea of uncertainty, hopeful of someday reaching the shore. I am a mystery shrouded in a riddle wrapped in an enigma coated in cliché. I am, in short, one of you. And you are more of me. And as such, I want to touch and be touched; I want to know and be known; I want to love and be loved. Don’t we all?

But I have to do this as myself. I cannot do it as Everyman, because I am not every man. To quote one of my favorite Sting songs, “the mask I wear is one.” I am, at the end of the day, the only person I can be, which is myself. And this mystifies me, too. As much as I want to understand and know others, I want to understand and know myself even more, and after nearly 36 years of trying, I’m convinced that our selves are the hardest people to fathom that any of us will ever meet. So, back to my plans: I want to share me with you in order to decipher my self. Where I came from, those moments in life that define us in silence, without us even being aware that they’ve passed: all those events, encounters, characters that have cast shadows across my path and brought me to the place I am today.

Because the greatest, most important truth of all is this: I am one, but I am many. I am the sum not just of my parts, but of everyone else’s as well. In order, then, to truly undertand myself, I have to understand you. And him. And her. And them. In the end, “me” and “we” are mutually inexclusive. We are all pieces of a whole. without any of which pieces the whole cannot be…well…whole. Nosce te ipsum? First nosce illos ipsi.

So, listen, O bloggers, and you shall hear of all the little things that brought me here. And perhaps, when all is said and done, we will effect a parting of the waters and a meeting of the minds…

Dots, Connected

This space between
Feels
Insurmountable–
Unaccountable as it may seem,
I see your face in every dream,
In every ray of dancing light
Glancing from each dreary surface
And racing toward some foggy distance
Not yet reached by sight or speech.

A thought that leeches flesh from bone
And turns the hottest blood to stone;
Shout of joy made moan of longing
As demons of displacement, thronging,
Gather cloudy ’round my heart and keep us
Ever
Far apart.

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“I love the stoic elegance of bare trees.”

Victoria N℮ür☼N☮☂℮ṧ

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.

Definitions

Between the lines,
Meeting of minds. Reading
The signs, mixing the signals:
Copies of originals, never exact.

Society’s act, the playwright’s
Mistake with no second take, no
Chance to correct the
Misapprehension, to dull the
Contention that misleads
Intention. Beginnings of wars to
Audible snores; what more can a tree
Say of its roots?

To be (who are we?) set
Free from confusion. Fusion,
Not fission: the illusion of false
Definition put down, set aside. And
All
That is left
Is the ride. A path
Not on maps, in the
Mind; no lines to
Divide, no limiting
Pride behind which to hide
The truth of Inside.

How Much Do You Really Want To Know? (Redux)

Recently, I wrote a piece on that paragon of insincerity, the “How are you?” routine. I received a number of different responses, ranging from the “well said” to the “seek help” ends of the spectrum. I’ve even been told that, emotionally disturbed as I apparently am, it’s a good thing I don’t want kids, ’cause God knows what lunacy I might pass on to them if I did. Yes, it seems that my imbalance may well be contagious…

I fear, consequently, that some clarification is in order.

My purpose in writing the bit in question was not to elicit sympathy from the teeming masses. It was not a cry for attention. I was not out to be patted on the head and clucked at in a soothing manner. I am not in need of a tender rendition of “Soft Kitty,” or anything at all like that, anymore than anyone else. (Although, to those who did express encouragement or support, I extend many sincere thanks.)

Yes, I did use myself as an example, but that is simply because my own mind is the only one I can come anywhere close to actually knowing. The things I shared were the scary little tidbits I rarely allow out of their cages because there’s a very good chance that if I do, they will turn on me and swallow me whole. We all have them, and we all keep them hidden. Because, after all, who wants a visit from the white lab coats? Who wants to be that box in the far corner of the moving van that nobody touches, because it’s marked “Fragile” and looks like it’s two prods from falling apart?

My goal was not to highlight my own issues; it was to point out that this tendency toward “stuffing,” as they call it, is very much a part of the unspoken social contract by which we regulate our lives in community. It is strong in all of us, all the time. It fools us into thinking we’re healthy and strong, when, by very virtue of accepting the status quo of silence, we are rendered sickly and weak. We are less than we can be because we share less than all of our selves.

But it goes even further than that: Our deathly fear of interpersonal honesty often causes us to forget how to be honest even with ourselves. We don’t ask life’s important questions because we’re afraid to admit their legitimacy. We don’t shine our inner flashlights into that particular nook or cranny because that’s where the real shadows are, and they’re best left alone. Like children, we pull the covers up over our heads in the desperate hope that what we can’t see can’t hurt us. If we stay still, maybe the lions will go away.

The range of responses I’ve received since my original post shows that, out of practice as we are, not only do we often not know how to be honest, we also often have no clue how to deal with honesty when it comes our way. Suddenly, we’re missionaries stuck on Bourbon Street: we will snap our own necks trying to look anywhere but at the peepshow in progress. Which is an apt metaphor because, as it is understood, the act of revealing one’s true self–pain, problems, and all–is tantamount to removing one’s clothing in public. We become spectacle at best, public nuisance at worst. And there’s a good chance we’ll be taken into custody and tossed in a cage somewhere, if not for our own good, then at least so no one else has to deal with us anymore.

I come out of the Christian tradition which is, if anything, more coercive than society at large in the vow of silence it enforces among its adherents. Because, you see, things can’t be wrong without the entire foundation of the tradition collapsing around itself. Things can go wrong, mind you; but even then they cannot be wrong, since everything happens according to divine plan. That being the case, any acknowledgment of dismay is transmogrified into “whining” or “complaining” or, worse still, “questioning the will of God.” And how dare we do that?

In this scheme of things, honesty becomes not only difficult but downright suspect. Perhaps your faith is weak, Grasshopper. The Force is not strong in this one. Suddenly all interpersonal communication turns into a Twila Paris song (which, like much CCM material, seems on the surface deep and meaningful, but turns out on closer inspection to actually say little or nothing). And all of this is designed, not to provide a solution to the problem at hand, but to serve as a distraction from it.

In this sense, at least, Karl Marx was right: Religion is the opium of the people, and the supposed heart of a heartless world. We are, all of us, caught up in what is broadly termed “the human condition,” and religion (in this case, Christianity) is often set up as the only viable outlet, the only feasible response to a situation beyond our control. We can’t stop this craziness; surely there’s Someone out there who can. In seeing through the pretensions of religious thought, Marx also understood that we have another option. What is structural can be demolished and redesigned, rebuilt. It can be replaced. His genius lay not necessarily in his specific solution–socialism–but in his general point: the true solution to the human condition is a reimagining of community. We have, if nothing else, each other. It is not religion, but we, who are the true heart of a heartless world.

We all have baggage, a nice array of Samsonite we carry with us as we move from experience to experience, cradle to grave. Life is about what we do with those pieces of luggage: we can conceal them in our closets, locked and impenetrable, or we can open them, lay out the contents, and deal with the jumble. Life is about what we do with where we’ve come from. But in order to do this, we need to be free to air all that dirty laundry conventional wisdom encourages us to pretend we don’t have; we need to be free to strip our selves bare for all to see, to be the broken toys we all become, to one degree or another, as life plays with us through the years. We need the freedom to be weak, because in vulnerability we will find strength, if not in the eyes of others, at least in our own.

Weakness lies not in admitting the painful nature of life; weakness lies in pretending we are strong; weakness lies in not having the courage to face our pain head-on. Life is not just a flesh-wound. It is a gaping, bleeding, oozing GSW to the chest, and we need each other like an assault victim needs a paramedic. So, instead of hiding our struggles and whispering them at the sky, we need to take a look at our fellow travelers (I mean this not as a political label, but as a genetic one). We need to talk to one another, freely and openly, and listen to one another in the same way.

Perhaps this is pie in the sky, but it has to beat the idea that there actually is pie in the sky, and nowhere else…

Do Not Touch

Some things, behind the glass, are made
To be seen; touching may
Shatter, soil, or stain the illusion of
Real. Point and stare;
The invisible barrier between
A wall, crowding out comprehension.
Connection disconnected; closeness outdistanced by distance
Enforced. A wolf
In experience’s clothing.

Those Who Have Hearts, Let Them See

Increasingly, I’m coming to believe that it is enough that the world IS. In that simple statement there is as much wonder as can be found in any theological or scientific formulation of its origins, and as profound a mystery as any koan or philosophical argument could either contain or express.

Grand Lake II

Sunrise over Grand Lake, Oklahoma

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Looking out on the North Sea, Holy Island, Northumberland, UK

Seeking a desert place...

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

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Mother Neff State Park, Texas

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Durst Bros. Farm, Bates County, Missouri

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Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma

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Linn County, Kansas

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West Point Cemetery, Bates County, Missouri

Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

Trimontium

The site of the Roman fort Trimontium, England

The road to Melrose

The road to Melrose (Scotland)

Cairngorms

Above Braemar, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Whatever be the lenses through which you view these scenes–whether it be as the work of an intelligent designer, or as the result of millennia of evolutionary progress and change–the one fact upon which we have no choice but to agree is that we all live here together, and together we stand or fall. There is no stronger bond. We are a family, we the human race, and we have a home for which it is our responsibility and privilege to care. It is a beautiful place, a home filled with never-ending surprise and delight, always one more trail to follow, or one more mountain to climb, just to see what awaits beyond. It is a monumental abode, filled with many rooms–many lands, many cultures, many histories–and if we know the secret of seeing, we will never tire of its offerings…