Lose Your Words

A gentleman reads widely in many books basically in order to augment his innate knowledge. Instead, you have taken to memorizing the words of the ancients, accumulating them in your breast, making this your task, depending on them for something to take hold of in conversation. You are far from knowing the intent of the sages in expounding the teachings. This is what is called counting the treasure of others all day long without having half a cent of your own.

– Ta-hui

I love words, but at the end of the day, that’s really all they are: words. Sounds to which we have assigned arbitrary meanings, and which consequently serve as ironclad cages for ideas, for understanding.

During my time in graduate school, I fiddled frequently with words. As an author, I continue to do so on a daily, even hourly basis. I string them together, like so many polysyllabic beads, to form chains of conceptual jewelry. I’m doing it right now. And they shine. They glimmer and glisten and sparkle. They dance uproariously by the light of my fevered imagination.

But what do they mean? More importantly, do they allow meaning to flourish, or do they kill it where it stands? Not my words, specifically; all words, on all the pages printed, scribed, or etched throughout history. What are these words that tie us down and capture us in our own intellectual mousetraps? Shuttlecocks, all, awaiting indecent aim and an unwary forehead.

Can I give them up? I love them so. They are my children, my brain-children, my intellectual offspring–can I walk away and leave them to starve in the cold? It is painful, excruciatingly painful, impossible. But I must. Words distract from experience, like the photographer who captures only images without ever seeing the world from which he takes them. They categorize, but they do not open our eyes; they define by murdering definition; they identify while obliterating identity.

What the donkey has kicked, the rooster cannot set right. And so I struggle with words. I must treat them as what they are: meaningless, the constructs of a feeble mind unable to deal with the magnitude of experience.

Words. Nothing but words.



Shade-Tree Philosopher

“Listen here, young man,” he said,
A glint of pride in his eye,
“I’ve seen the sky change color;
I’ve seen it pass from blue to gray to green
And back again. I’ve felt its presence, felt the
Wind, faced the storms, faced them down:
I’ve stood when other men have drowned.”

“I’ve sailed the Seven Seas, my friend,”–
He tapped his graying brow–
“In spirit if not otherwise. I’ve seen the world
Through many eyes. Pages yellowed, cracked with age–
The words of fools, proverbs sage. Pictures painted
In the mind; false conceptions undermined and built anew,
Some convenient, fewer true.”

“I’ve seen the face of Death, young man,
A face of many guises. Many a glimpse of
Light I’ve seen, even as the darkness rises.
It is no threat, the end’s approach, it is no curse,
No grim reproach, if only those who face it know
It cannot kill, nor overthrow, a life lived well.”
He smiled, then, as evening fell.

He left me standing in the road, and as the moon rose,
Gibbous, at my back, I remained in silence, lost in thought;
I weighed his words, wondered if I ought to write them down.
These things I’d heard, they seemed so wise and full of meaning.
And then I heard the sound of singing. The feast’s begun and I am late–
I must be off. All this can wait.

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.

Straw Theory

“Your common sense is nothing more than the voices of thousands and thousands of these ghosts from the past. Ghosts and more ghosts. Ghosts trying to find their place among the living.” – Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


I’ve been thinking recently about straws. As in, the one that broke the camel’s back. I was recently queried on the subject by a friend: What was that last straw, the one that pushed me over the edge, the one that transformed me from devout Christian and dedicated minister to…well…whatever I am now?

I say “whatever” because, beyond my general dislike of labels, I honestly don’t know which one to apply to myself these days. The straws make it so. I’m not comfortable with the term “atheist,” at least not in my particular case, not yet. I’m not sure what “agnostic” even means, again in my particular case. Does it mean I’m between choices, or that I choose to eschew choices as inconsequential, or that I simply acknowledge that some things are beyond understanding, and therefore beyond choosing? As Gandalf said to Bilbo, “Good morning” can mean any number of things…

So, back to that straw…

I’ll tell you what I told her: I don’t really think in terms of final straws, only present ones. Change is progressive, it is evolution on a personal, existential level. And life, rightly understood, is change. In other words, life is full of straws, and each one pushes me a little farther toward the true ME, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left, sometimes forward, sometimes back, but always toward my own full realization as an individual and a human being. Think of it this way: I am a ship, and life, experience, is my rudder.

Furthermore, there are no value judgments here–there are neither good straws nor bad–there are simply straws, lots of straws, everywhere and in everything. The value of the straw is determined not by its nature, but by what is done with it. Often, we assume a straw is bad because the outcome of our encounter with it is painful or traumatic, destructive even. Conversely, we judge a straw good because the upshot of meeting it is pleasurable, leading to happiness and joy, personal fulfillment…whatever. But this false dichotomy is rooted in a flawed understanding of happiness, joy, and fulfillment. It interprets each as feeling rather than as state of being.

True happiness requires passage through pain, as surely as light without darkness has no meaning, as certainly as good cannot be understood in the absence of evil. True happiness is found only in self-realization–happiness is fulfillment, and fulfillment is happiness–and both together are the source of real joy. Real joy comes not only with success, but with having overcome failure (which is a success in its own right); without failure, indeed, success itself has no meaning, no identity, no ultimate purpose. We must fail in order to succeed.

So, again, straws are value-neutral; straws are straws, nothing more. Sometimes they comfort and sustain; sometimes they hurt like hell; sometimes they even destroy. None of this is either inherently good or inherently bad. The straws are the forest fires of our souls, gutting as a means of rebirth, regrowth, rejuvenation; at the same time, they are the rains by which the flames are extinguished, offering relief and respite from the blaze. Life and death operate in tandem, symbiotically, within the straws. Structures are simultaneously demolished and rebuilt, razed and raised, as we encounter each successive straw that is thrown into our path.

Once we understand this about the straws, we begin to see the bigger picture of which we are but a tiny part, a pixel lost in a sea of pixels. Our lives, finite as they are, are both inconsequential and of the greatest consequence imaginable. Darwin, Locke, Aquinas, Augustine, Hitler, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Lucrezia Borgia: each of these individuals shared a common temporality–here for only a brief period, in cosmic terms. And yet, each one left behind an indelible legacy, for good or for ill, that in its turn has become part of the warp and woof of human experience. And these are only the great names. How many lesser known personages have wandered momentarily across the stage, unknown and unhailed, but still vital pieces in the jigsaw of past, present, and future? What about each of us, whose contribution may seem insignificant as we make it, but which, whether appreciated or not, inevitably becomes a part of the accumulated knowledge (not to say wisdom) of our race?

The straws are the basic ingredients of who we are and what we believe, the building blocks of philosophy, religion, social and political theory. But that in itself is not enough. It is not sufficient to select the cumulative results of another person’s journey through the straws, as if doing so offers a shortcut through our own. To do this is to fundamentally misunderstand the straws and their nature and purpose. It is not enough to look to the Bible and those who wrote it (or the Qu’ran, or the Bhagavad Gita, or The New York Times) and allow these thoughts to become an impenetrable frame encapsulating our existence; it is not enough to be socialist, capitalist, Christian, atheist, Jew, Muslim, Democrat or Republican, as a prearranged program for living. It is not enough to look to these systems for answers, because they are each themselves questions demanding to be asked. They are each themselves straws.

It is ours to take up these straws, examine them, evaluate them, listen to the questions they ask of us, and then pass them on to the next person through the filter of our experience. But even then, the process is not done, for not only do we walk among the straws, we are straws ourselves: our lives, our words, our actions, our thoughts, our particular way of viewing this complex web we call reality. We are straws; this is the most vital truth of all straw theory. We deal in straws, and by dealing in them, we become them. We become thoughts and opinions and deeds to be taken up and digested by succeeding generations, so that they might in their turn become straws for the next. We. Are. Straws.

Everything is a straw, and all things result from encounters with straws. And still, they are so easy to miss. Awareness is everything; one must be alert and awake in order to see and understand the straws for what they are. This requires attention to detail: the little things are often the most important and meaningful. Handshakes with strangers; a smile across a crowded room; words shot into cyberspace on Internet wings–relationships all, connections made almost subconsciously, quickly forgotten but never quite eradicated. A small bird on a high branch, swaying in the warm, summer breeze; a ray of sunshine, echoing in the fading light of day’s end, and catching the eye at just that angle, that cannot be ignored and cannot be erased. Memories built upon the smallest of foundations, and yet which, in the end, come together to make us who we are, and without which “we” would not (could not) be.

Straw theory, indeed! If it serves no other purpose than setting itself up in order to be knocked down; if it provokes nothing in the reader but ridicule and a growing conviction that my madness is progressive; if it sits, even, and is never read, but becomes only a persistent pothole on the information highway–even then, this post stands as the result of straws I have stumbled on along the way, and a new straw of my own making. It is one interpretation of the straws, and a straw in need of interpretation. And so the pathway winds and widens, each thought, expressed or unspoken, adding to its breadth and its length, and along its unfolding way, human consciousness grows and matures, indefinitely.

Life is my bucket list. And that bucket is full of straws.


My upside-down is inside-out, no doubt
Because I’m cattywampus. (For those of
You who’re unfamiliar, I hope I don’t come off
As pompous when I use such techno-
Babble, but I fear I might incite the rabble.) Anyway,
I feel today like turning topsy: all askew and filled with
Moxie, head awhirl and heart akimbo, brain all shot
To hell and limbo. And in this holy handful mess, a
Feeling of complete undress. What’s my name? I’ve clean
But bored I’m not.

Wide Awake

You know that little light bulb they say
Lives in your head? Is it red?

Born and bred, deep within–
Is it a
To give in? To

Let go, and throw
Caution to the wind? Don’t
Pretend you cannot hear it–
The siren’s call–
You know you fear it, because beyond it
There be monsters, perhaps some
Honest answers to life’s more
Nagging questions:

How can a flower bloom, given
No room?