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?

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.

The Human Me

Writers who wish to do more than bear witness to human suffering or add to the overburden of entertainment have a responsibility to advocate for justice, humility, and compassion.

– Alison Hawthorne Deming

Recently, a friend of mine slapped me upside the head. Not literally, of course, and not intentionally; figuratively only, and in a good way, a necessary way. She posted the above quote on her blog’s Facebook page. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. I went to bed thinking about it; I got up thinking about it. I’m still thinking about it.

There is so much truth in that short little statement that I have no idea how to begin to unpack it. What exactly am I up to here?

As a writer and a human being, I am under a dual obligation, both to tell the truth and to be the truth. And it’s that second one that gets me. It’s so easy to take a bird’s-eye view when I’m sitting at my keyboard, communing with a lifeless monitor; so easy to expound upon the errors of others and lay out a carefully-crafted philosophy for living as a corrective to the world’s ills. But if I put down the message along with the pen, if I follow pontification with prevarication, then my work becomes all plot and no action: my life is, to quote the Bard, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Moreover, to act in the moment as the moment demands (one of my favorite Zen teachings, and one that challenges me every time I attempt to live it) is more difficult, more threatening, than we often imagine. True spontaneity is a rare gift; it is also the essence of authentic living; it is also usually just beyond my grasp. To be truly spontaneous is to respond to the exigencies of the moment simply because they are there, thoughtlessly, not in the sense of acting carelessly, but in the sense that action follows opportunity naturally, as inhalation follows exhalation. And for me, anyway, that sort of open response to unfolding circumstance is much more easily said than done.

I want to know how to marry deed to word. I want to be that finished product, The Compleat Writer, that Alison Hawthorne Deming references in her quote. But how to do such a thing? Will Wheaties-eating do the trick? Is it enough to say what needs to be said and hope to hell someone’s listening? More importantly, am I listening? Am I the same guy, out there in real life, that I am when I’m all crammed into this blog post?

Writing humanity is a difficult task: character development, authentic dialogue, the ability to tap into the core of human emotion–all these things require great skill in the best of writers. But humanity in writing is another thing altogether: I can’t afford to be just another one of my own characters, and my dialogue can’t get by just sounding real. I have to be willing to let others tap those human emotions right out of me; I have to bleed so they can see it; the ink and the sweat must mix.

This is a responsibility I cannot ignore. It is also one I all too often pass over unthinking. So thank you, my friend, for the wake-up call. I needed that…

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Book Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into ValuesZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I have ever read.

Every once in a while a book comes along that takes all the thoughts you’ve had milling around in your brain for years but have been unable to express, and puts them into words. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is one of those books for me. I find myself connecting with Pirsig’s thought processes on an almost visceral level: the neverending, almost obsessive search for the Quality that underlies daily experience; dismay at the extent to which the world has abandoned the Good in the interests of pursuing the Reasonable; frustration with the orthodoxy outside of which one risks being labeled a fool or a lunatic. Pirsig’s words resonate in me with surprising clarity, they strike a chord deep inside my soul (as they have done with countless others since their first publication in 1974). They help me to understand who I am and where I’m trying to go. Which is…right here…

At the heart of his book lies the quest to overcome the duality that has become so entrenched in the Western mind that we no longer accept any other angle of perception. Unless we overcome the cognitive divide that separates us as individuals one from another, we will never truly understand this world, this reality, that we inhabit.

“What guarantees the objectivity of the world in which we live is that this world is common to us with other thinking beings. Through the communications that we have with other men we receive from them ready-made harmonious reasonings. We know that these reasonings do not come from us and at the same time we recognize in them, because of their harmony, the work of reasonable beings like ourselves. And as these reasonings appear to fit the world of our sensations, we think we may infer that these reasonable beings have seen the same thing as we; thus it is that we know we haven’t been dreaming. It is this harmony, this quality if you will, that is the sole basis for the only reality we can ever know” (p. 343).

The only real objectivity, then, is reached by way of multiple subjectivities. We need each other to be able to fathom this world we live in. What is more, we need each other in order truly to understand ourselves. Quality, the centerpiece of Pirsig’s book, is the source of both subject and object, located in the intersection between the two, without which neither can truly, substantively exist. We learn ourselves through interaction with the other. We become who we are because of who others are. We define one another, and Quality is the touchstone for that process.

Quality resides in any “objective” encounter: between the individual and nature, between the individual and occupation, between the individual and the smallest of ideas. Until I pick up the hammer, it is not a hammer at all; it becomes a hammer only when I come to appreciate its uses and its purpose through using it to drive home a nail. I am not a carpenter, until that hammer allows me to complete the carpenter’s task through driving home the nail. In other words, until both object and subject allow the other to tap into the Quality that resides in each, neither is complete. They need each other to be who and what they truly are.

As a library cataloger, this is a particular stumbling block for me. It is very easy to fall into the trap of seeing “just one more book,” of forgetting the Quality that lies within both the object and myself, and that is activated and realized through my interaction with it. A piece of myself is taken by the object. I am, in a very real sense, IN the record I produce and the book on the shelf; without me, it could not be as it is. I, at the same time, take a piece of the object. Each volume that passes through my hands, each new cataloging challenge (and they are many) increases my knowledge and expertise, adds to the Quality of “library cataloger” that resides in me. This awareness of underlying Quality, of the true nature of the interaction between myself and the work that I do, brings to the task at hand a refreshing sense of intention and joy. There are no meaningless tasks. Everything is meaningful.

This is a book everyone should read. Given this emphasis on work (especially, as Pirsig notes, the dull kind) and the Quality inherent in it, this book is one which lends itself to use as a training tool for supervisors in all lines of work. It holds the key to change, and opens the eyes to the potential for creativity and meaning in every aspect of daily living, however mundane it may seem.

It really doesn’t matter whether you ride or not: “the real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself” (p. 417).

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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

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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.