Questions

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1) I do not believe in objectivity. I do not trust subjectivity. This creates a dilemma, for if objectivity is impossible and subjectivity inadequate, what can I ever hope to see?

2) If words are distractions from meaning, how do I explain myself without destroying myself in the process?

3) If ego is merely a guest, who owns the home in which it abides?

4) If one sees oneself in a mirror, in how many pieces has the image been shattered?

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.

The Dustmobile Diaries: Day Two

Sometimes the meaning of a journey is unknown to the traveller.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

October 10, 2013

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A bit of peace and quiet, showing that setbacks, if ignored, often prove to be opportunities in disguise…

1:11 PM, Mountain TIme. Another roadside picnic area, this time just shy of Sitting Bull Falls. Tourist season is over for the year, and the recreation area is closed for refurbishment, which means this is as close as I’m going to get. At first, the little orange sign announcing this unexpected fact got under my skin: I seem to have a knack for showing up at just such inopportune moments. However, I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me (it’s always the way to go, trust me) and took off down the road anyway, just to see what I might see. As it turns out, my timing was quite opportune.

Silence–a precious commodity in this 21st-century world we live in. You know the question, right: “Can you hear me now?” I always want to yell at the television when I hear this: “Yes, dammit! Now please go away and leave me alone!”

I have been sitting at this picnic table for almost an hour and a half, and have neither seen nor heard a single sign of human life, save the beating of my tell-tale heart. (Sorry, Eddie…) I have not experienced silence like this, I think, in my life. Complete and utter solitude. I’ve come close, wandering the dunes of Lindisfarne in the northeast of England, but even then, I could see the homes and shops of Holy Island in the distance. Other than the table I’m sitting at, and the shelter overhead, there isn’t another man-made structure in sight; I’m seven miles from the entrance to this road, off of yet another back road, so there aren’t even any traffic noises to disturb my reverie. It’s just me, the breeze, and the beauty of a desert mountain-scape.

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Be here now? Closest I’ve ever come…

That pesky little park closure turned out to be the best setback ever, the purest, most genuine moment of my day. As I always say, when one door closes, break a window…

* * * * *

Rewind.

The Carlsbad Inn sits on Canal Street. It’s not a bad little place for the price, which is going to be slightly elevated due to the fairly impressive hole in the ground a few miles down the road. Not a bad little place at all. Except for the AC unit. Carlsbad’s in the Chihuahan Desert, making the days very warm and the nights pretty cold, and thermostats ridiculously hard to regulate. The room was nice and close when I first entered, so I switched on the air. Which proceeded to turn itself off and on at ten minute intervals throughout the night. Like a bike chain slipping, accompanied by a shotgun blast. With a jolt. A jolt so pronounced that it shook the whole room, each minor earthquake threatening to dislodge me from the bed and deposit me on the floor. I woke up. A lot. What is more, since I was in the desert, the temperature outside dropped like a rock as soon as the sun went down, so I woke up this morning with Jack Frost nipping at my pretty-much-everything, not to mention what may very well over the next few days turn into a beauty of a head cold. We shall see…

They say that the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. I am a coffee addict. No, that’s not my problem. I didn’t have any. That was my problem. Having admitted as much, I decided to hit the bricks and see if I could track some down. A Chevron sign in the distance, peeking over the roof of the motel next door, seemed a promising target, so I headed off to find it.

Canal Street is a busy place at 7:30 on a Thursday morning: people off to work, kids off to school. The pedestrian proceeds at his own risk, dodging schoolbuses and tardy employees at every street corner.

Sign-reading is a favorite pastime of mine. You never know what pearls of wisdom you’ll discover. Like my favorite of all time, outside a fast food joint in Marietta, Oklahoma: “It’s time to eat y’all!” Demonstrating the importance of punctuation. Canal Street did not disappoint. A couple of doors down to the south, a Chinese buffet heaps upon its fare the highest praise it can muster: “Costs less than a trip to China.” The Best Western, two blocks north: “Welcome Lt. Governor John A. Sanchez, DJ tonight.” One wonders if they’ve told the LT exactly what’s expected of him. And the No Whiner Diner, outside the Stagecoach Inn, warns the ladies to watch their hair, because “it’s fly fan season again.”

I finally reached the Chevron station, which was strewn with fake cobwebs and laminated Jack-o-Lanterns in honor of approaching Halloween. As I stood at the counter waiting to pay for my cup of slightly watered-down lifeblood, I noticed a box of Peeps (if you don’t know what these are, you have my sympathies…and probably a lower cholesterol count than me) shaped like ghosts. It occurred to me that it’s possible to find these things in almost any shape these days. They ain’t just baby chickens anymore. And then the lightbulb really went off: custom-made Peeps, little family portraits in sugary marshmallow fluff. What greater gift could one give? “Here you go, Grandma–eat yourself for Christmas!” “Happy anniversary, dear–at least it’s not another power tool…”

* * * * *

On my way out of Carlsbad, I made a stop at the Living Desert State Park. Don’t let the name fool you; it’s really something of a glorified zoo. Although “glorified” may not be the right word. Or “wildlife,” for that matter. What they’ve got, to my mind, barely qualifies as “life.” I’ve had the great privilege of seeing some of these creatures–elk, black bear, bison–in the actual wild, in their natural habitats, and after that sort of experience, the caged versions only leave a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t even bring myself to approach the bison enclosure. The phrase itself–“bison enclosure”–feels oxymoronic somehow. There are few more majestic sights than a herd of buffalo roaming free across the prairie (or staring down a Winnebago in a national park; that was an interesting half hour); conversely, there are few more depressing sights than that same herd trapped behind chain-link, forced to walk the same circular path, day in and day out, around a tiny, dusty corral…

I did, however, capture a couple of little guys who deserve a place in this post:

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“Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m busy…?

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FROGGIE!!!

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The Bolson tortoise, the largest native to North America, and on the Endangered Species list.

Before long, I’m overtaken by a family of four–mom, dad, and two teenage daughters–who took the idea of “outdoor voices” a tad too literally. These blabbermouths epitomize my dislike of people in nature. Why is it that we are incapable of quiet? Why is our interaction with the natural world around us so rarely reverent and so often downright raucous? Is it that we feel the need to prove the right of ownership? Is it that being reminded of our own insignificance vis-à-vis our ecosystem scares us a little bit? Do we realize in these situations just how unnecessary we as a species really are to the functioning of this planet? Up ahead, at the bear pit, the mother bellows, “I sure wish we could see him!” That’s odd. I wonder why he’s hiding…

The Living Desert’s less than impressive attempts with fauna were more than made up for by its spectacular array of flora. There is something about desert plant-life that speaks to the wonders of evolution: a more bizarre assortment of organisms would be difficult for the most prolific of artists to imagine, poking their spiny extremities hither and yon, self-designed pictures of perfection. Some seem simply to have erupted from the sandy soil with no particular thought beyond survival, and aesthetics be damned. And it is precisely this disregard for symmetry that makes them such beautiful specimens of natural selection. So, you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to indulge in what I like to call “Cactus-Fest 2013.”

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Later, as I entered the gift shop in search of the mandatory refrigerator magnet, I asked the woman behind the counter how her day was going. She looked at me for a moment, and responded, “Are you sure you want to know?” Hmmm. “Well,” I replied, “I asked.” As it turned out, her mother had just undergone knee surgery in Lubbock, Texas, and was at that point waiting to be discharged and sent home, a long, cramped trip for someone whose leg had just been cut open. Sometimes, that one little question–“How are you today?”–sincerely asked, is all it takes to create a sense of camaraderie, of fellow feeling, between two people. And it is too rarely sincerely asked. By the time I left the shop ten minutes later, I knew where she was from (Alaska) and why she came to New Mexico (her parents retired); she knew where I was from and why I’m on this little trip of mine. It was a short-lived connection, but a real one. This is the goal, my friends: coming together, however momentarily, as real people. Stranger danger, indeed!

* * * * *

About ten miles outside of Carlsbad, I veered off the highway to the west and struck off down the Guadalupe Back Country Byway (otherwise known as NM-137). “Veered,” indeed–the intersection snuck up on me, and my left turn maneuver would have made the Andrettis themselves green with envy. Mind you, I did not know I was striking off down the Guadalupe Back Country Byway; I didn’t know there was such a thing until I was ten miles into it. Here’s what really happened (and I offer you here a window into my approach to life): when I got up this morning, I opened my atlas–the paper kind, you know, the Google-free kind–and picked a random line on the map, one that looked good and promising, which in my case means good and nowhere. And that, my friends, is what led both to the byway and to the moment of true solitude I described above. Try it sometime; you’ll be glad you did.

The GBCB is a beautiful stretch of glorious two-lane highway, some thirty miles of it. The only thing that detracts from the experience is the fact that, not unlike US-67 yesterday, it’s lined with pumpjacks and processing plants. I even passed a sign warning of the potential for poisonous gases “when flashing.” Abandon all breath, ye who enter here. Ah, nature…

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The view from the Guadalupe Back Country Byway.

At one point, a tarantula (a big one, big enough that I could make it out from inside a car moving at 55 miles an hour) ran across the road in front of me, and I swerved to miss it. And thought to myself, “Wouldn’t that make an entertaining bumper sticker…”

* * * * *

6:30 PM, Cloudcroft, NM. I left my picnic table paradise only five hours ago, but they have been an interesting five hours. I headed north to Artesia to catch US-82 west to Alamogordo. Like yesterday, I had a vague notion of spending the night in Alamogordo, and like yesterday, it was not to be.

As I sat at the intersection of 285 and 82, waiting for the light to turn, a sixteen-wheeler hauling a monster generator (a big generator, that is to say, not a machine that generates monsters) discovered, a little too late, that his cargo was too tall for the stoplight. Sounds of twisting metal against stubborn payload filled the air as the hapless driver fought to salvage the situation, to no avail. He was well and truly snagged. But he could not back up, so he gritted his teeth and struggled forward, dragging the mangled utility pole with him as he went. At last, he broke free, leaving the city of Artesia a little out of pocket and the poor traffic signal hanging lifeless and limp, dangling from a few slowly swinging wires, the rope to its gallows. Alas! he was too young to die.

Heading west, a strange feeling overtook me, filling me with a sense of dislocation, of timelessness, of total emptiness. In the distance, the shadowy outline of the Sacramento Mountains loomed, ghost-like, through a gathering mist, a token of impending rain. A heavy crosswind buffeted the car as I drove, catching up and casting prairie grass plumes across the asphalt, covering it in a silken carpet of forest green. The whole of nature, bent double before the rising wind, seemed to be running for its life, whipping violently this way and that, desperately seeking shelter against the coming storm.

The ethereal scene unfolding around me put me in a pensive mood, and I lost myself in thought as I advanced. Suddenly, the unexpected happened: a great feeling of homesickness washed over me in waves, the mirror image of the morning’s solitude. I realized I was lonely. And I very nearly turned the car around to head for home. In fact, I had to force myself to drive on. In that moment, a paradigm shifted; I learned something about myself that sent me reeling, a revelation that landed like a thunderbolt and blew my self-image to smithereens.

I missed my wife. Don’t get me wrong; I always miss my wife when I’m away from home. But this was different: I didn’t just miss her, I felt her absence like a shortness of breath. I missed my home, not because of the comfy bed or the easy access to food and entertainment, but simply because it was home. You might think it odd that this surprised me so much, but it did. See, my whole life I have been an inveterate loner. I have prided myself on my independence since I was in high school. I had friends, but I only needed Me. When everyone else congregated, I was the guy off by himself somewhere, thinking, reading, reflecting. And there I was on that New Mexico highway, alone in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been before.

The walkabout just got real, folks. I’m beginning to see through the pretensions of my life to the reality underneath. In the back of my mind, I’ve always embraced the romance of disappearing, of fading away into the hills and never being seen again, an unsolved mystery for the ages. A day and a half into this thing, and I realize this particular fantasy has lost its appeal. I’m not meant to be alone. Behind me, my other half waits, and that’s not just a metaphor anymore. Out there, somewhere, you beckon, friends, family, the promise of connection the fruition of which is no one’s responsibility but my own. Life is calling; I cannot but answer.

But I can’t turn back. Like the trucker back in Artesia, I’ve snagged on life but cannot stop. The only way out is forward, even if that means dragging all my signposts down with me. So, amidst sounds of twisting mettle, I drive on. I’ve met myself. Now for that long talk…

* * * * *

Fifty miles shy of Alamogordo, and still no rain. I am at a dead stop: one-lane road ahead, and we await the arrival of the lead vehicle guiding oncoming traffic along ten miles of unpaved mountain highway. My windows are down again, allowing the crisp fall air to flow in gusts through the inside of the car. On any other day, I’d be climbing the walls about now; I am not a patient man, and I have places to be. But that’s the beauty of this journey–I have no place to be but right where I am. In any case, it could be worse; I could be the guy standing for hours on a mountainside holding a stop sign up to people who aren’t generally thrilled to see him. So I shut off the engine and sit, enjoying the scenery and embracing the moment.

Finally the lead car arrived and we took off after it, moving at around fifteen miles an hour (do the math–ten miles at fifteen miles an hour). We snaked our gravel-laden way through mountain passes encompassed by steep ravines, a 21st-century wagon train blazing a trail through semi-civilization. What probably should have been an onerous bit of work felt more like an adventure of pioneer proportions. A coon-skin cap, and I could have channeled Daniel Boone.

After some forty-five minutes of sinuous progress, we cleared the road work and I realized just how hungry I was. So, a quick stop at a cute little roadside cafe in a one-horse town called Mayhill, for the requisite green chile cheeseburger (I think it’s against the law to visit New Mexico without eating one of these). I realized two things after my meal: 1) It was getting on toward evening, and I was still a good forty miles outside Alamogordo, and 2) that rain I’d been anticipating for the past three hours was just ahead. Downpour driving is not my thing, especially on a mountain road I’m not familiar with, in the dark.

So, when I wove my way into Cloudcroft (how cool is that name, by the way?) and saw this place, I tossed my former plans out the window, slammed on the brakes, and ordered up a room.

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The Aspen Motel, Cloudcroft, NM. That’s my room, last door on the far right. Also recommended.

As I write these words, it’s 33 degrees outside and a steady drizzle is falling. I’ve wandered into winterland. The crazed October heat of Central Texas seems a world away, and forgotten. And now, to sleep once more…

* * * * *

Final thought for the day:

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The essence of my life, in pictures…

I live for the bend in the road, under the assumption that the greatest of treasures lies just around the corner, and if I turn back too soon, I’ll miss it. I must press on; I must see what comes next; I cannot stop, because life is motion, and the meaning of life is always out there, somewhere, ahead. He who stops short, he who assumes he has found what he is looking for and need not continue, will never truly understand, never truly know himself. Never truly live.

I am a seeker. Finding is beside the point…

Walkabout

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Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
 
– Dylan Thomas
 

Okay, enough with the “wise old Indian,” Grasshopper bullshit…

This Saturday, I will “celebrate” my 36th birthday. (If one more 50-year-old jackass tells me it’s “not a big deal,” I’m throwing down.) And here I am, to paraphrase a rather asinine song, stuck in the middle with me. I have no earthly idea where to go or what to do. I spout inane philosophical drivel again and again–generally the same drivel again and again–like I have a clue what the hell I’m talking about. As it turns out, this is not a Shaolin temple, and I am not Kwai Chang Caine. So, this is me being real: I’m completely clueless about most of everything, and I use great big words and half-baked, grandiose ideas to comfort myself in my hour of ignorance.

There was a time when I thought I knew what was going on, when I thought I knew what my calling was, where my life was headed. I had a mission, for cryin’ out loud! I was set to save the world (and its soul) or die trying. So I left my theater program (which I was quite enjoying, by the way) and jumped into ministry school–because what else does a good little former missionary kid do, right? In other words, I set aside any actual chance at a marketable resume to chase ghosts and fairy tales. By the time I realized what I was chasing, it was too late: I had eight years of ministry under my belt, and absolutely no practical skill-set at all. Imagine spending your whole life preparing to hunt the elusive Jabberwocky, only to discover the damn thing never existed in the first place. Then imagine yourself at a job interview or filling out a job application: “Well, no, I have no experience in customer service or management, but I can hunt mythical creatures like a son of a bitch!”

Here I am, at the midpoint of my life, at a mother of a crossroads, without an inkling. I have become so enmeshed in the “daily grind” that I seem to exist in an endless cycle of work, eat, sleep. And that doesn’t cut it for me, see. Before, when I believed that my time here on Earth was simply a prelude to the “real life” up there in the sky somewhere, just getting through the day didn’t bother me so much. I mean, this world’s not my home, right? Wrong! It most certainly is, and my mortgage is running out (as is everyone’s, day by day by day). There has to be something more to this life than clock-watching. There HAS to be! If not, then why the hell bother?

Having invested so much time in a hollow pursuit, and now that that pursuit has been revealed as hollow, I am adrift, caught up in the undertow known as anomie. As Adrian Monk would say, it’s a gift and a curse. The death of the nomos, the governing worldview, the meta-legitimation, can be a liberating experience, allowing you to see the world again as if for the first time. But it is also a traumatic one, forcing you to face that world for the first time alone, on no pre-structured terms, with no one to blame but yourself. It is exhilarating; it is devastating. It is wondrous; it is loneliness redefined.

I have no doubt that there is a bigger picture out there somewhere. I just don’t know how I fit into it, what part I’m meant to play on the somewhat poorly-lit stage of human life. Until I’ve found an answer to this question (an answer; the answer may be beyond me, beyond all of us), the uncertainty and perpetual lack of equilibrium will continue to wear me down until I eat myself alive from the inside out. I’ve said in former posts–like the self-deluded ass that I am–that I’m content to be none other than who I am. Which is all well and good, except for one teensy, little problem: I haven’t the foggiest idea what that means. I don’t know who I am anymore. And not knowing is killing me, slowly. I’m edging my way toward the day I wake up and just don’t care anymore. And I refuse to let that happen…

So, I’m going walkabout. For those of you who don’t know, the walkabout is a commonly referenced though unconfirmed ritual in Australian aboriginal culture, in which a man removes himself from the regular routine of life and sets out across the wilderness to experience himself in solitude, a process similar to the Native American vision quest. On the sci-fi television show Babylon 5, Dr. Stephen Franklin, an adherent of the fictional religion of Foundationalism, adds an intriguing detail: the man on walkabout is actually in search of himself, having lost his own identity in the midst of the hectic demands of everyday living. He walks until he meets himself, and when he finally does, he sits down and has a long talk with himself, in an attempt to rediscover the identity he has lost.

All the gobbledygook I’ve been posting on this blog over the last couple of years has been written for the sole purpose of figuring out who I am, here in the ashes of Grand Design. Along the way I have encountered many wonderful people, and some of them I now number among my friends. I have enjoyed trading thoughts and commentary, and it has been a pleasure to share a little bit of me with them. With you. But at the end of the day, I write for me. Please understand that I mean no offense by this; you have no idea how much your support and forbearance have meant to me; if I told you how much, it would probably just scare you all off. At the end of the day, though, I write for an audience of one: myself. This blog has been something of an escape valve for me, the place I go to let off the steam that builds up throughout days of meaningless monotony–here’s a book to catalog; oh, here’s another; yes, and for the sake of variety, here’s another one! I write to dump the inner boiler, to give the inner voices something to do besides scream inside my head.

But the farther down the road I get, the less I get out of good old Toad. Or rather, the less time Toad has to figure out what the hell he’s after. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not leaving the Toad behind–but he needs something to add a little flesh to his bones, a little fiber to bolster his diet, if you will. So, I’m going walkabout. Well, drive-about, really. As much as I’d like to do the whole Michael Landon, Highway to Heaven thing–grab a rucksack and an army jacket and hit the shoulder–it’s really not practical. So, drive-about, then.

I have always identified with the back roads, the roads less traveled. I am convinced that somewhere out there, down some two-lane to nowhere (and everywhere) my self is lurking, lying in wait to spring itself on me when I least expect it. That moment of recognition is what I’m out to find.

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In a few days, I’ll be climbing into the trusty Dustmobile II (every good road trip car deserves a name) and heading off to who knows where. Beyond that, the plan is fluid, and simple: Just drive. Move. If there’s a byway, I’ll take it. If something intrigues me, I’ll stop and take a closer look. And I’ll be back when I’m back. With any luck, I’ll get just lost enough to find myself again.

Until then, this is my last post. I’m turning the cell phone off (except for when I call to let my wife, who is understanding enough to sponsor this bit of lunacy, know that I’m still alive), and I’m going off the grid. I’m headed…somewhere. North, south, east, west–yep, one of those, almost certainly. Or perhaps, all four.

I leave you with an old Irish blessing that I just made up: May the face you see in the mirror every morning be a face that makes your heart smile…

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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…

How Much Do You Really Want To Know?

Every day, they ask us: “How are you?”

What if we told them the truth? What if we let our guard down just once, and let them see what sort of darkness lurks silently inside, behind the plastered smile, behind the cheerfully (and artfully) concocted reply? What if we told them just how fine we’re not, just how much pain we’re in, just how miserable we feel?

What would they say? Would they stick around to say anything, or would they take the first opportunity to pull a Houdini and disappear, abandoning us to the next poor sap who bothers to show superficial interest in our state of being? Would they call the medics, a shrink, a priest, a cop?

Some days, I’m being perfectly honest when I tell people I’m doing “pretty good,” but lately, more often than not, my words reek of bullshit. Complete and total. They taste like it, too, even as I speak them, and the reality of the deception, and its inevitability, drag me down even farther into the slough. I begin to wonder whether anyone really cares about my actual condition, or if they just want to be allowed to think everything’s good with me, because then they are reassured that, maybe, really, everything’s good with them, too.

We cannot be honest with one another, because by doing so, we cull ourselves from the herd, and we threaten to drag those with whom we’re open and forthcoming down with us. And everyone knows what happens to the weak and the old: the lions get them. And we mustn’t fool ourselves: we’re surrounded by lions, everywhere and all the time. And when we’re not, generally we’re the lions surrounding somebody else. And we will all eat each other if given the chance.

How much do you really want to know, O ye caring multitudes? Do you want to know me, or do you want me to let you think you know me? Do you want to see into my shadows, or would you rather pretend that I have none so that your own don’t frighten you too much? How much do you really want to know?

Do you want to know that on most days, thanks to this irritable bowel thing I’ve got, I’m uncomfortable at best and in terrible pain at worst? Do you want to know that sometimes the entire tenor of my day comes down to whether or not I’m able to successfully take a crap? Do you want to know these things, or is it too much for you?

Do you want to know that, at 35, I feel like my life is stalling out? That I feel an unrelenting, frustrated, blind anger at the sheer amount wasted on student loans for graduate school, so that I can sit at a desk doing work for which only a high school education is required? That this lack of fulfillment often becomes so overwhelming that even the greatest of successes feel like monumental failures? That I want to punch all the shiny, happy faces who tell me to buck up, that “this too shall pass,” to “be happy with what I have,” never stopping to realize how hard it is for people who have what they want to understand those who don’t? Or is that too much information, as they say?

Do you want to know that everything I said in the last paragraph makes me sick at myself? That I hate how selfish it is to be unhappy with my job when so many people don’t have work at all? That I can’t stand how I feel about my life situation when I’m so well off compared to many? That I detest the lack of gratitude I show on a daily basis, and that I detest even more the thought that others might detest it, too? And that in spite of all this self-awareness, I can’t seem to break out of this cycle of ingratitude and unhappiness? Do you want to know, or have I gone too far?

Do you want to know that for a long time now, I’ve felt friendless and family-less, and all because I’ve tried to be honest with others about who I am? That it kills me that more people seem to care about my whereabouts on a Sunday morning than my ideas and principles and everything else that makes me Me? That I’m afraid of revealing myself too openly to people I once thought as close as family, because I don’t know how they’ll respond? That, deep inside, I’m furious at the people who are disappointed in me because they’ve never stopped to consider that maybe I’m disappointed right back? That I’m saddened at accusations of having “changed,” because they prove that some of my closest friends never really knew me at all? Have I stepped over the line yet?

Do you want to know that in the scheme of things all this barely scratches the surface, that there are fathoms of darkness left in me to explore? Do you want to know any of this, or do you just want me to help you feel secure by pretending that I’m secure, too?

Even as I write this, I shrink from the way my words may be received–words like crybaby, wimp, and panty-waist come to mind. It turns out that what I’m most afraid of is people finding out who I really am, even people such as you wonderful blog-fellows whom I will probably never physically meet. I am terrified of honesty. Like Pinocchio before me, I long to be a real boy…but I’m afraid of the consequences. I’m afraid of being hung out to dry, of being written off the page, of being discarded as second rate. Even more, I’m afraid of being ignored. I’m afraid of taking that step, of opening up and being completely, nakedly real, only to have no one notice at all. Of being silenced before I’m even able to speak.

But never mind all that. I’m fine.

How are you?

What I Believe, Pt. 3: Dying to Be Good

Allow me to preface this by saying: I am a hopeful cynic. I know, it’s an odd combination. Many people have told me that this is paradox, that it is an impossible combination of elements that cannot exist in the same space-time, but the fact remains: I am a hopeful cynic. (And in any case, I prefer to think of myself as an oxymoron…)

On the off-chance that I’ve confused with my mixing of metaphors, I’ll define. A hopeful cynic (i.e., me) is one who believes firmly that there is great potential both for good and for progress nestled away in the bosom of the human race, and that this potential can be tapped without mediation–in other words, this potential is not dependent upon outside (read, supernatural) influence or activation. There’s the hopeful part. Unfortunately, the hopeful cynic, while believing in the possibility of these things, also has a difficult time believing in the likelihood of their ever coming to pass. That’s the cynical part. We CAN do it, but there is serious doubt as to whether we ever WILL.

The irony here is that I got this way (at least insofar as the cynical side of me is concerned) by way of what purports to be the ultimate source of hope: the Christian religion. We’ve all heard the voices, right? The Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the dot-dot-dot, for they shall inherit dot-dot-dot.” John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to give you hope and a future.” (If I had a dime for every time I heard this stupid thing, I’d have paid off my student loans by now.) Translation: Come and get your share of the hope, ’cause we’ve got it by the bucketload.

I have preached these sermons and taught these lessons any number of times. I threw these verses out like candy from a parade float. Until one day I realized that all this “hope” Christians talk about all the time is a giant bait and switch. Because it’s not really hope. Really, it’s nothing more than a gamble, and one that tends to throw the rest of the world under a very nasty, very significant bus.

The epicenter of this switcheroo lies at the heart of what pretends to be the most hopeful (and oft-quoted) of Bible passages, the good old John 3:16. All together now: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish but shall have eternal life.” (I apologize for the King James–that version of this verse was beaten into my brain so punctiliously as a child that I have a hard time remembering anything else.)

Hopeful, right? We’re gonna live forever!!! And yet…

The overwhelming emphasis on this verse within Christian circles shifts the paradigm just enough that whatever hope humans may have for this life is not only taken away, it’s tarnished, its reputation is destroyed. It’s no longer needed, you see, because real hope isn’t of this earth. Real hope belongs in heaven. This life, this human existence becomes inconsequential; it’s not real life, even. Real life is eternal life, so forget the stuff going on around you in this world, and fixate on what’s coming in the next. And voila! We abandon the concrete in favor of the insubstantial, and in the end, we come to believe that the insubstantial is the concrete.

Many have remarked on the determination with which many Christians (especially, but not exclusively, of the Evangelical variety) avoid the world issues that have turned our planet into the craphole it so often is: poverty, war, economic injustice, prejudice, etc. This is often taken as a sign that Christians don’t care. While this may raise a few eyebrows, I promise you that this is not (always) the case. It’s not that Christians don’t care; it’s that they often don’t believe they can do anything about it…at least, not anything that matters. Because, since the hope is in the next life, that’s the only legitimate place to look for it. The problem is otherworldly, therefore the solution must be, as well. And, somewhat morbidly, the troubles of the global community are often even taken as proof that God’s way is the way: because of course we did it, we violated his rules. He told us, in the Bible, that there would be suffering as a consequence, and look! There it is!

This is how so many people can ignore so many parts of the book they claim guides their every move: a metaphysical problem demands metaphysical solutions. So, all those Bible passages dealing with social justice and gender equality and freedom and all that are read as metaphor (in another ironic twist, often by the same people who insist on a literal interpretation of scripture), or at the most, as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. Thus, when Jesus says he came to preach the good news to the poor, that news can only be salvation at a spiritual level: as with many interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount (of the poor in spirit), what matters is not their hard life on earth, but the joy they will have once they reach heaven. Likewise, freedom for the prisoner and the oppressed deals with spiritual imprisonment: mankind is oppressed by and imprisoned in sin, and it is the Christian’s job, not to touch others on any physical level, but to show them the way out of this sinful life and into heaven. And when Jesus tells the rich young man to sell everything and follow him…well, that can’t possibly be literal, can it? We must be speaking of pride. Yes, that’s it! Riches make us proud, and pride is a sin, so what Jesus is telling the rich man to do is to stop being proud. By all means, keep your possessions, but stop it with the pride thing.

This leads, I think, to the ultimate irony: Christians who not only fail to uphold or act on any of the justice-related parts of the Bible, but who even go so far as to argue against taking them up, on the grounds that they’re a distraction from what Christians are really supposed to be doing. Which is preaching the gospel. Or at least the parts of it that don’t include actually helping our fellow humans in any practical way. And I have had my share of these arguments. Sadly, I haven’t always been on the right side of them. But, then, that’s what I was taught: if it doesn’t end with the plan of salvation, it’s just not worth doing. In an unfortunate turn of phrase coined by yours truly (and of which I am not proud), “What matters isn’t what we do down here; what matters is who we take with us up there.” Followed by dramatic gesturing towards the ceiling. And so it goes.

In the final analysis, this approach to hope ends by emptying what is supposedly one of the world’s greatest ethical systems of most of its ethical content, and turning it into a giant subterfuge. I do good for the other, not out of any fellow feeling or sense of shared humanity, not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because it might give me a chance to slip a tract into the situation. And that’s if I do anything at all, other than spout nonsense about the “hope that is to come.” Whatever I believe about God or the divine nature of Christ, I do believe (as do many) that Jesus was (if he was at all) a teacher of ethics, and one worth listening to, but that person becomes lost behind the metaphysical screen of spiritualized ethics, and his teachings on how to interact with and care for one another are swallowed up in the church’s teachings on how to get ourselves into glory. We choose heaven (which we can neither see, touch, nor prove) over the suffering that surrounds us on a daily basis (which we can very easily see, and even touch if we care to do it, and which is in need of no proof at all).

If you haven’t figured this out from my last few posts, I no longer count myself among the flock. Haven’t for nearly four years. And still, I struggle against this central lesson, taught to me through years of determined indoctrination (well-meaning indoctrination, surely, but let’s call a spade what it is). They say that if you tell a student she’s a failure every day, eventually she’ll get the message and become what you accuse her of being. The same, I think, applies here: a good portion of the earth’s population has for centuries heard one message over and over: humans are inescapably bad, and cannot be otherwise unless and until God “completes that good work” in them. In other words…until they die and go to heaven. We have fallen, we have sinned that “original sin” (courtesy of Augustine, who I believe to be pretty much responsible for everything that’s wrong with Christianity today). And there’s no fixing that, is there?

Put bluntly, in many ways Christianity discourages its followers from doing the good its scriptures seem to be demanding. The problems of the world are not meant to be solved, at least not by us measly humans, so why bother? Attempting to be or do good is largely a waste of time; in any case, give a man a fish or teach a man to fish, he’s still going to hell unless you bring him to Jesus, right? To the people (like myself) who tend to equate all the “Kingdom speak” with the search for a more just, equitable society here on this plane, these folks turn a mournful eye: even the suggestion of making the world a better place is greeted with consternation and contempt as being  beside the point. We’re not meant for this world, anyway. We’re in it, but not of it, after all. (Which Pauline quote, tossed around willy-nilly, does not even exist.)

So here I stand, a hopeful soul with a gun to his inner cynic’s head, wanting desperately to pull the trigger, and impeded by the very part of his past that promises nothing but hope. And that tells me something…