Questions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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?

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):

205188_1017221241686_3934_n

Or this…

149_541775216053_3935_n

Or perhaps even this…

128_540180327223_5395_n

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…

Orthodoxy

Eyes open, refusing to see…
Heart choking, pretending to be
Alive inside. Freedom named but
Never claimed, shore in sight but
Holding tight to tossed shred of flotsam
Tied to an anchor. Well-disguised
Anger wrapped in false confidence:
All Sherlock, no evidence. Stuck with
A telescope dressed as a microscope, when
All the while
What’s required is a periscope to
Punch through the surface of
Play-pretend purpose, an act in
A circus of clowns
With no tent.

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Definitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Good and Lost

This morning, I jumped in my car and just headed off. In a way, I was also headed to church–my church, the place I go to experience the awe and wonder I used to find sitting in a pew. Awe and wonder not in any supernatural sense; awe and wonder in a supremely natural sense. I rolled down my windows, cranked up the music (Evanescence, today), and hit the road.

The road, you see, is my chapel. It is where I worship (if worship’s the right word). And no, I don’t worship nature in some pantheistic, animistic way (although I do sometimes wonder whether primitive tribes were on to something we’ve lost, insofar as respect for the true identity and purpose of nature is concerned). I seek simply to immerse myself in this world of which I am an integral, inseparable part, and which is the extension and completion of my self.

But my purpose is not just communion with the world at large: it is to become one with that world, to atomize my being, if you will, and engage with existence at an essential, basic level. It is to do away with the line between myself and the other, to become other, to bond on a molecular level with the rest of reality.

You may be scratching your head or cocking an eyebrow at this point, wondering what in the world I think I’m playing at with all this mystical mumbo-jumbo. Obviously I cannot boil myself down to my elements and sprinkle myself across the landscape, or dissolve myself into a puddle of water and seep back into the earth. So what am I talking about? And is it safe to feed me?

I speak, of course, metaphorically, and in this sense I believe I can do all of the above. And what it comes down to, quite simply, is the willingness to get lost. Completely and hopelessly. My rule of thumb on these little outings: always carry a map, just in case, but never, ever use it unless you have absolutely no choice. Just…get lost. Or rather, lose yourself. Don’t even let it be an accident; do it with purpose, with gusto. Go out and…lose yourself.

(Oh, yes–and leave your cell phone at home.)

Our world is obsessed with locate-ability. How many “apps” are there for people who desire to broadcast their position at all times? “I’m at the mall”; “I just finished my meal at Cracker Barrel”; “I’m walking down the hall toward my kitchen and preparing to take a left at the den.” New cars come with GPS installed; we don’t even need maps anymore, or road signs for that matter, because some British guy or digital hooker (depending on which voice you choose) will tell us everything we need to know. We have cell phones with Internet access so we can be out of pocket without being out of range: I can go on vacation and still take my whole life with me. Talk about defeating the purpose!

We have, technologically, made it almost impossible to get lost, or to be lost. We are connected to everyone, everywhere, all the time. (Yes, I can more than likely hear you now.) And in this giant information superhighway we call life, our very connectivity becomes that which disconnects us from what matters: being.

When I am lost, I have, in a sense, no identity. I am no one. I just AM. I am in the world; I am of the world; I AM the world, and the world IS me. Time stops, in that it stops mattering; no one can reach me; nothing can touch me but the overwhelming presence of nature borne into my path on the breathing wind. I am an atom in a sea of fellow atoms, woven into the fabric of existence, part and parcel of life. In that moment, I have–I NEED–no other meaning than that.

After I’ve lost myself, I always find myself again, and the self I find is refreshed, redefined, re-formed. It is almost like I’ve chosen to put something back on that I once willingly took off–the sweater-vest of social identity, you might call it. And, counterintuitively, the act of intentional disconnection strengthens my connection, when it is resumed, to everything and everyone around me. I have ceased being myself, of my own free will I have thrown myself into the universe and been handed back, by the universe, a new person. And all is rediscovered, as if for the first time–the faces, the voices, the thoughts, emotions, relationships. All is new. All is adventure again.

Herein lies the secret of eternal youth. Forget the fountains and the chalices. Just. Get. Lost.