Done

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Look at my face!!!

It’s important to me that you be able to connect this face with the following words, because this is a moment in which anonymity only serves to make things worse.

By now you’ve most of you probably heard about the school shooting in Oregon yesterday. Once again, I’m faced with the undeniable need to say…something…don’t know what. I’m losing the will to write about this stuff, since it’s obvious that the right people are not listening.

I could write another poem, with language well-couched and mostly unintelligible, but let’s face it: the ones who need to understand don’t generally devote enough energy to the situation to ferret out my meaning (whatever that may be).

I could be level-headed and politic, but we all know how far that sort of thing gets us these days, and in any case I don’t have the intestinal fortitude for it this morning. I don’t feel level-headed; none of us should.

So, follow the bouncing goddamn ball.

Did the shooter target Christians? Who the hell cares?! Beyond being one more excuse for Christians in this country to go on about imaginary persecution, this redirect elbows out the more important point: he targeted people, human beings, all of whom are and were of great value regardless of their religious inclinations. So let’s ask the question that matters, okay?

Do guns kill people? Or do people kill people? Or are we just making up stupid questions and mincing meaningless words to keep from having to address the real problem? Innocent people are dying, and we’d rather ignore that than risk having some of our toys taken away.

Are these shootings down to mental illness? Sure, some of them. Not unlike the NRA party line. But the fact remains that an environment in which the mentally unstable may so easily obtain what in cases like these can only be called weapons of mass destruction relegates the shooter’s mental state to a position of secondary concern. An insane system obviates the sanity of the individual: whether I am nuts or not doesn’t matter; only whether I happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong freaking time.

If you are one of those who values the 2nd Amendment over the lives it has taken and will continue to take, I say this with all the vehemence I can muster: Screw you. It’s not about you. So get over yourself, stop inventing excuses for your own selfishness, and get it through your heads that these “fun guns” you crave were created to kill. Even when they’re used for protection.

We inhabit a cycle of unending and ever-increasing interpersonal violence. It’s not because of The Fall or original sin. It’s not because of mental instability or video games or hip hop and heavy metal. It’s because we refuse to pull our thumbs out and take even the most minimal of actions. It’s because the majority of us, after being briefly outraged, turn a blind eye and wait for the next one to happen.

True, this is a problem that isn’t going away any time soon, but that’s only because we’re too busy sitting the fence (or shooting at it) to do anything about it.

So this is on us. Again.

And again. And again. And again. And…

Here Today

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(Photo courtesy of Prakash Adhikary)

The Buddha said: “The life of mortals in this world is troubled and brief and combined with pain. For there is not any means by which those that have been born can avoid dying; after reaching old age there is death; of such a nature are living beings. As ripe fruits are early in danger of falling, so mortals when born are always in danger of death. As all earthen vessels made by the potter end in being broken, so is the life of mortals. Both young and adult, both those who are fools and those who are wise, all fall into the power of death; all are subject to death.”

– The Parable of the Mustard Seed

There are those who believe that, given time and resources, scientific advancement will one day conquer death itself.

I am not one of those people.

As much as I yearn to see the future, to walk in a world defined by galaxies rather than continents, to travel at the speed of light to the place where stars are born; as much as I’d love to watch history’s eons unfold endlessly around me; as much as I’d give to read the end of the story–even so, the thought rings hollow.

I have a sneaking suspicion that my life is exalted by its inherent limitations, without which it would be meaningless, moment-less. I wonder if they are really limitations at all, or if they are simply infinity in disguise. I am who I am because I will not be forever. True eternity dwells in the finite; the vicissitudes of time render time timeless. My existence matters only because it will one day cease.

This is my time. I am here today.

This person called “Vance” is a moment in time, a blip on the radar of reality–it cannot be otherwise. Whatever fate awaits is predicated upon birth and death. I am in between. It is the only place I can exist. It is the only arena in which I may act. And when I act, I act as one who will soon disappear and who therefore must act now.

Chögyam Trungpa taught that “we are quivering between this and that.” We live our lives poised on the razor’s edge, at a moment’s notice. We dwell in the instant between first breath and last. And in an instant, the instant will pass.

This is my time. I am here today.

I do not fear the loss of tomorrow, because it is the elusiveness of tomorrow that makes such a precious commodity out of today. A precious stone is precious because it is scarce. If there is always to be Vance, then what real value can Vance really possess? I am precious because I am scarce. The promise of death makes a precious commodity of my life.

There are things only I can do, words only I can say, and thoughts only I can think–and I have only today in which to do, say, and think them. They have never been before; they will never be again. Life’s greatest glory is its own impermanence. Here today; gone tomorrow. Precious now.

If I am to live as Vance, I must one day die as Vance. And in between, I must act.

Where the Walkabout Ends

**Last night, I participated in a gathering in which the subject of human mortality was raised. In response, I’m re-posting something I wrote for another of my blogs in May of 2014. If, as was ventured last night, our thoughts on death illustrate our attitude toward living, then here you have both, as I see them…

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

– Shel Silverstein

We’re all winding down the clock, working our way into Thomas’ “good night,” whether or not we rage in the process. And when the time comes that my plug needs pulling, I feel I should have the right to decide when and how it’s pulled.

This is a tough subject, a very loaded topic on which people tend to cultivate strong (and often stubborn) opinions, so I’ll try and tread carefully. It is also an issue which may fit awkwardly for some into the walkabout mentality, in which every day is an adventure, and every experience a treasure. So allow me to explain.

For me, the walkabout is about knowing my self, who I am both in the absence and the presence of others. It is about continual becoming. It is about, simply, being Me.

Every adventure along the way points toward one goal: the evolution of identity. As long as I am able to self-identify, that evolution goes on: each new day in the walkabout unveils a new piece, a new aspect, of who I am, who I can be. But there may come a time when all that is gone; sooner or later, the Vance-ness will begin to slip, I will begin to forget, either through age or infirmity, or both. The prospect of losing myself, of un-becoming, terrifies me–I cannot lie–unlike anything else. It is the ultimate threat, and it hangs over us all, sword to our Damocles.

The early Zen masters were renowned for their willingness to accede to the exigencies of mortality. Countless hagiographies end with the master “deciding to die,” meditating one last time, and then just going. This theme is meant to convey the true nature of Self-hood; as Seung Sahn taught, the original face has no life and no death, and the Dharma body does not disappear with the disappearance of the physical body. The Zen masters understood that their final breath was not the final movement in their symphony.

Interestingly, this is a key tenet, in one form or another, of most world religions: death is not the end. And yet…we fight, so hard. We confuse persistence with existence and the heartbeat with the mind (and the soul). My heart is not Me; remove it, hook it up to a battery, run a current through it, and it’ll go right on pumping. Put it in someone else, and it will serve them just as well. I am more than that, more than a machine with interchangeable parts. I am Mind; I am soul (whatever that construct may represent). I am my relationships, my emotions, my thoughts, my actions. I am my memories. Take those things away, and I am not me. Not anymore.

I have watched one grandmother descend into extreme senescence, another into perceived obsolescence, and my paternal grandfather into such a desperate state of cancer-related physical degradation as to be almost unrecognizable. From my very core, my being screamed out at the injustice of it, and at the notion of one day being myself in their shoes. No one should have to suffer the half-life of outliving himself.

One day, I will reach the pavement’s end. One day, my walkabout will be all walked out, and it will be time to face the weeds beyond. I do not fear that day, because in my Mind I know that meaning and mortality are not as inextricably intertwined as we sometimes assume them to be. Whether we believe in heaven, reincarnation, or none of the above, our essence resides as much in others as it does in ourselves, and we will go on in their hearts, minds, and memories. Like the argon in the breath of Alexander the Great, lodged still in unsuspecting lungs around the globe, I will linger. No, I do not fear death.

What I fear is the misapprehension of life, the desperate confusion of husk with heart. I fear no longer being myself. I fear the day the walkabout ends, and I (or others) insist that it has not. I fear the prospect of clinging to something that no longer exists: my Self. For Vance is more than a pulse; more than artificially pumped oxygen. Vance is me, and when he goes, so do I.

To those I leave behind on that day, whoever they may be, I say:

Look into my eyes, and see what you can see.
See if it’s really me
in there. And if it’s not,
hard as it may be, say goodbye,
heave a sigh, have your cry,
then let me fly, for I am
Free.

Whitman v. Woods

I

I sing a song of my shelf
and everything upon it: faded photos,
equally faded memories, blurring the lines
between new friends and old enemies.
Somewhere, somehow, maybe then,
maybe now (maybe never), I must
quit myself of this tether holding me
back, gray against black, black against blue.
Me against you.211215_105067042918278_7462179_n

II

I sing a song of my shelf, with all its
broken toys, of youth with all its noise and
no sense of silence. Pilot at the ready, hands strong
and steady: life, with all its heady liquor, cannot
strengthen legs of wicker, marching to
a fading ticker. Beat by beat, stanza by stanza,
vignettes tucked away in a moldy credenza: This,
O poet, is your life. Rhyme is wife; rhythm lover;
extra-metrical affair, undercover.

III

If anyone asks,
I want to go out with the sunrise,
fitting beginning for a fitting end:
one light goes out as another lives
again. And when the dawn, curtains drawn,
shines forth once more, bar the windows,
lock the door. I’m gone to find another floor
to host my dance, to break my trance and show me
a good time. Not on your dime anymore;
just mine. Just fine.

All Fall Down

The world233_556262822773_8404_n
(like breakfast cereal) is a
mix of nuts and flakes,
stuck in ruts and catching breaks
both big and small. And through it all
darkness falls, bit by bit,
piece by piece, a periodic lease approaching
final terms. Then come the worms…