I.M.U.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe lives in wisdom,
who sees himself in all and all in him.

– The Bhagavad Gita

Please listen. Because this isn’t about me; it’s about you. And it’s about me.

I recently said, in an e-mail to a friend, that I was taking some time to rethink my goals for this blog, because the endless cycle of bravado and breakdown was proving unsustainable. It occurs to me, though, that this is what life is: we’re all teetering, all the time, on the brink, poised on the precipice that separates false certainty from overwhelming doubt. It’s a shell game, this search of ours: we move our fears from one place to another, like Sisyphus, up the hill, down the hill, and back again.

Happiness is an elusive animal. Here I let Edwin Arlington Robinson speak for me:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

In one of my latest posts, I commented that I don’t feel like I belong. On reflection, I see how selfish a statement that is. Who am I, that my belonging or not is what really matters? And what of you? Do you, in the dark moments, in the shadow of gathering clouds and pouring rain, feel that you belong? And if not, where does that leave me?

That’s not as self-centered a question as it seems, I think. Whether you be clod or promontory, we stand or fall together, we fade or remain as one. But we have to understand and honor that connection for it truly to bind us…and by binding us, to set us free. Free from ourselves, in order to be each other.

Let me try to explain.

I have walked in some very dark places. I still do, and I always will. Sometimes, the darkness by its nature obscures perception, redefines sight. When you can’t see past the nose on your face, your face seems to be all that there is. And so I forgot something very important, vitally important. I’m not alone, here in the dark night of the soul. You’re here, too. All of you.

For every face in this world, there is a mask hiding it from view. Masks we’re taught to wear by those who’ve worn them before us. We think we are all different, because the masks make us so, but underneath the masks we wear we share the face that matters. The human face, the face we recognize in one another on those rare occasions when pretense is dropped and the masks come down.

Please understand: I say this not by way of claiming a position of gnostic clarity, but as one whose mask is set firmly in place. If I pretend to be wise, it is because in doing so I may momentarily fool myself into believing I have any wisdom to share. If I pontificate on the “real meaning” of friendship, it is because I myself have no idea what that “real meaning” is. If I claim selflessness, it is because I can just glimpse a light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m self-involved enough to think that light is me.

Really, the light at the end of my tunnel is you. You are what I cannot live without. All of you.

I will not apologize for my weakness, because my weakness stems from my humanity, and without my humanity I wouldn’t be in such need of yours. It’s like this, see: each of us is a piece of the puzzle, and each of us is a puzzle. We are missing pieces, and pieces are missing from us, at one and the same time. Call it a God-shaped hole; call it a donut hole–whatever its shape, we are each of us incomplete as we stand, and it isn’t more cowbell that we need. What we really need–what I really need–is to see the ways in which we fit together. Buddhists call it “interbeing,” but what you call it doesn’t really matter, so long as you know that it’s real.

Of course I belong. I belong to you.

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.

A New Day

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that to-morrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

– Lucy Maud Montgomery
Anne of Green Gables

Do what you love.

That’s what everyone says, anyway. Do what you love. Which leads me to ask:

What do I love?

If you’ve read my last few posts, you may have noticed a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain level of uncertainty, or ennui, or angst, or whatever the YA crowd’s reading about these days. A lot of that, I think, stems from the fact that I don’t really know what I love anymore. I’ve gotten so caught up in the daily grind that I haven’t really put much thought into it lately.

And I should. So here goes:

I love writing. That’s a gimme. More specifically, I love words. I love the power contained in such tiny vessels: one syllable can change the world, one letter can spark off unending controversy. You say homoousios, I say homoiousios. (What’s life without the occasional obscure church history joke?)

I love to travel. Balls to the wall. No preplanned tours for me. I want to mark out the beaten path, and then avoid it at all costs. I want the old diner by the side of a wooded, two-lane highway, where no stranger has gone before, and from which no one departs a stranger. I crave hairpin curves, iron lattice-work bridging, and populations under one thousand. That’s where the stories are. And I covet them.

I love food, but I’m not a foodie. I’m an anti-foodie. Someone once asked me whether I preferred quantity or quality. My reply? Why not both? I want a recipe as old as the woman preparing it, and her mother, and her mother’s mother. I want six-person capacity, classic fare: keep your truffles; I’ll take a slab of good, honest bacon any day of the year. And I want to eat that bacon elbow-to-elbow with Farmer Bob, while his John Deere waits patiently outside.

I love conversation. Which is why I prefer Farmer Bob to the faceless masses in overpass fast food wastelands. I love to talk, and I love to listen. I want to know what makes you tick; I want to know what you love. I want to share, and to be shared with. I love conversation because I love history, and I believe the history that matters is all the stuff of life unfolding around us all the time, each moment of every day. And I believe the only way we can save history from itself is by learning from each other, together.

Words. Travel. Food. Conversation. Put them all together, and what do you get?

Well…Me. The Toad. The longer I’m deprived of any of these things, the less myself I am. I am the words I write. I am the back roads I travel. I am the greasy bacon burgers I eat (which can’t be healthy, right?). And I am the dialogue I inhabit. My loves make me who I am.

So here I am. Being the Toad. Having great adventures, remembering who I am, and seeking out amazing people with whom to share it all.

And that’s you.

And thanks to you, the Toad goes ever, ever on…

The You-Turn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…But is it in your conscience that you’re after
another glimpse of the madman across the water?

– Elton John

The way I see it, we have two choices in life:

1) We keep ourselves under wraps, we counterfeit (to borrow a term from a fellow blogger) our feelings, we censor our identities. And we live a half-life at best.

–or–

2) We come out of the shadows and we takes our lumps. And we set ourselves free to be who we are. We live authentically.

But disaster looms. Coming out of the closet–any closet–promises to reach into one’s life and unravel it, thread by delicate thread. It is bridge burning taken to new levels, and it is arson by one’s own hand. We wonder if the precarious structure we call identity will be able to withstand the ensuant tremors as we begin to plumb the fault lines of our existence. And we hesitate, one foot off the precipice, one foot on, hugging the edge for all we’re worth.

These are the moments in which purpose is forged. Not in any teleological sense: no one can see into infinity. Farragut had no assurances of victory when he uttered his famous words at Mobile Bay. But he knew he would accomplish nothing by simply remaining where he was, and he knew better than to think he could go back and maintain any shred of self-respect. So he damned the torpedoes–as we all must do at some point–and leapt into the fray.

Purpose is simply this: movement. Movement that reflects who you are. Movement that honors who you want to be. We cannot know what is out there, but we can set out to meet it. On our own terms. In our own way.

But movement is, by definition, away from something, and toward something else. It implies leaving things behind: the static things, the things we can’t carry. In some cases, the people or the places. The safe. The certain. The comfortable.

It may mean cutting ties. There are relationships in this world that lift you up, and relationships that hold you back. You will know them by their deeds. The ones that lift you up also let you go, give you your head. Reluctantly, possibly, at first, but faithfully throughout. They let you explore, become, grow. They let you Be.

The ones that hold you back will strangle the life out of you, if you let them. On a deeper level, they are not real relationships in the first place, because you are not really part of them. Not really. Only the part the other allows you to reveal, just a shadow, an outline. Hollow; shallow; false.

But they feel real. And it hurts when they fall away. Which is why it is so hard to leave them behind. They are the training wheels to our bicycles, the nets to our tightropes. But these things only blight our vision. Their sole purpose is to obviate our need for wings. They anchor us to the ground; they mock our dreams of flight. They whisper to us, cajole us–this is as far as you can go, so stay. Here in the darkness, where it is safe.

Which will it be: the shadow, or the light?

 

Population: Me

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Atanasio, que significa ‘El inmortal’, murió en el año 373 d.C.

– Miguel Catalán, La nada griega

What’s in a name?

In the fifth grade, I told my Argentine friends that my name–Vance–meant “prince.” This was an honest mistake; I thought I was relaying what my parents had told me. As it turns out, the name actually means “marshland” (or, as a somewhat sarcastic friend once put it, “swamp”). This is odd enough, and might have led to nicknames of its own, but given my unintentional falsehood, everyone referred to me (when they weren’t just calling me “el norteamericano“) as el Príncipe Azul, the Argentine equivalent of Prince Charming. For three years…

So, what’s in a name?

Just the name itself, without all the princely complications, was headache enough. The rest of my family–Steve/Esteban, Pamela, Sara–enjoyed monikers that translated quite fluidly from English to Spanish. And then there was Vance. Or “Bouncy,” which is what you get when you pronounce it phonetically. Add to that the last name–Woods, also phonetically challenging to Spanish speakers–and you come out with, roughly, “Bouncy Boo.” Which is why, for the eight years I lived in Argentina, I was known by my middle name, Eduardo.

So, what’s in a name?

Some folks become very indignant when called by the wrong name, or by the right name poorly pronounced. I have spent my life dealing with this issue, and I’m over it. I’ve been Lance, Vince, Vincent, Van to some. I even spent a year in Costa Rica being addressed as “Max” (phonetics strikes again). So, I’ve gotten to telling people to call me anything they like, and I’ll adjust accordingly. Throw in an odd sort of auditory narcissism–from a distance, many monosyllabics sound like my name–and I will, quite literally, answer to anything.

So, what’s in a name?

“Athanasius, whose name means ‘the Immortal,’ died in 373 AD.” At the end of the day, none of us is a permanent fixture. Vance, charming prince of the marshy swamp, will one day be no more.

So, what’s in a name?

Nothing. And everything.

Becoming

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecoming, I am
in worlds at once, foot
in the one, heart in the other.

I am the leaf that falls, too
the wind that bears it, spiraling,
to the receptive ground, and I am
that which receives it.

I am the tree from which it falls, also
the space between its beginning and
its end: there when it was but a bloom,
and when its bloom has died, there as well.

Becoming, I am in worlds at once,
once and never still, and what is and what will
are one.

Becoming, I am.

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.