ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
To Write is to Live Inside a Dream.
This is not the sort of thing I do much, talk about writing. Unless you count one of the main characters in my first novel, or several essays I've written, or unless someone asks and I know they are not just making small talk, or conversations I have over dinner with friends, or if I just feel like talking. But other than that, almost never.
I dance around words. I pretend to hide from sentences. I tease turns of phrase. It takes me days to pick up a pen. I am a writer.
I want to tell you how some days I'm taller than buildings, can stop speeding bullets with my fingertips, carry babies from burning houses, and write my way out of anything and into anything else. Before you make coffee.
But it isn't always that way. Not for me. Probably not for you. Not for anyone else I know.
How can I tell you what it means to be a writer? Imagine you knew nothing of science, how would you describe air or what it feels like to breathe? How would you explain to someone from a dry planet that water is wet, or show the colorblind how the sky is blue.
I scribble masterpieces on matchbooks. I collect sentence fragments like fairy dust. I watch the world through my own kaleidoscope eyes. I am a writer.
To write is to live inside a dream. More than this, it is to be the dreamer and the dream. To live in a limitless world of seamless dimensions. Writing and dreaming share a common language. Both speak in metaphors, the only suitable tongue for this extraordinary experience called life.
I awake from a world of limitless possibilities inside a world of narrow boundaries. I scramble to scribble down the memories of the other side.
You and I are metaphors. Along with all we see and do. There is no explanation for life beyond the dreamworld, beyond what we can learn from poetry and from Zen masters. This world is an illusion, a fact we forget again and again and again.
Buckminster Fuller reminded us, There are no solids in the universe. There's not even a suggestion of a solid. Think about that.
To write is to fully embrace the world where the illusion does not matter, a world where things like love defiantly reign supreme. Because love is not the opposite of hate, of fear, of oppression, or inhibition. Love contains all these things and more.
This is what Rilke was talking about when he said, Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I'll meet you there.
To write is to begin to know. To know is to begin to become.
Once you lose the illusion that love, good, righteousness are on one side, and whatever other thing you can imagine is on the other, then your ears start to open. Then your eyes start to hear. Then you may begin to write.
But make no mistake, that's what it is, a beginning. The dreams of our greatness, they come and they go. The moments of fearless are fickle and slow.
Maybe you'll read these words and either nod or shake your head. Depending on the sun or the moon or the tides. But it may or may not change your world. Because the truth is that there are days we all wonder how we got here. Days we stumble, days filled with fear. Days we look around at the room, wonder who will find us out and how soon.
These things, these thoughts, these soul-crushing doubts, by the way, are how we know we're on the right track.
Without them, without a sense of humility, without some acknowledgement of grace, of magic, of the muse, of the 10,000 hours of practice required, we'll never really inhabit this world. But that's a story for another day. Today we're talking about writing.
Because there is almost nothing better. As Bukowski once reminded us, you will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.
I spent the better part of ten years writing my first novel, Waking Up at Rembrandt’s. I say that like I did nothing but sit in a room for ten years and write that novel. That isn’t true, of course. Back then I did not have a small child dependent upon me for his livelihood. But I did have a day job, a penchant for travel, a taste for good wine, an epicurean addiction, and when I wasn't suffering a bout of espresso-induced insomnia, a love of sleep, each of which take up a lot of time.
The thing is, a writing life is neither glamorous nor easy. And yet, if it is in your veins, no amount of transfusions of normal life will help. So if you are called by these words, I invite you to let go of your resistance and join me. You won’t regret it.
As Bukowski also reminded us, the gods wait to delight in you.
A word is a magical thing.
Young children are not that interested in books without pictures. No matter how good the story. When we are very young, a word on a page, by itself, is just not that interesting. We need pictures to make the words more engaging.
As we grow older, our stories also grow, and there are fewer and fewer pictures. As this happens, another kind of magic takes hold. The words on the page begin to mean something. And we start to participate in the story. We bring our imagination to the page and create our own pictures.
This is because a word is a magical thing. And the reading of words is actually an act of creation. As readers, we get to participate in the art itself coming to fruition like no other art form. We are brought into the world made by the writer and get to do our own co-creating while we’re there; completing the circle of art in a way wholly unique to the written word.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love the visual arts. Words and pictures have long worked together. And they’ve enjoyed a beautiful working relationship. I’ve just noticed that lately the relationship has become a little lopsided. As if there’s been a regression of sorts. At least as far as the internets are concerned.
The truth is, we’ve gotten a bit lazy. We can’t be bothered to write out the full words for things. And in order to get us to read something, there needs to be a picture attached. It’s like we’re all in kindergarten again, and we’re easily bored.
Which is a shame. Not just because I’m a writer. But because the word is fundamental to our understanding of everything in our world. Including pictures. Imagine describing a picture without words. Now imagine seeing a picture and not attaching words to it in your own head.
And the thing is, understanding is pretty important. Because mostly what we understand is so vastly outweighed by what we don't understand that if we understood only that simple truth it would blow our minds. And maybe it would lead to things like humility, compassion, and even curiosity.
In order to understand our world a little better, we need to exercise our brains a little more. Reading is a little like yoga for our minds. And who among us couldn’t stand to do a little more yoga, right?
Here's something really crazy. New studies show [I promise this isn't a gum commercial] that our brains might actually see words as pictures. Did you hear that? At least some of us see words as pictures. If that’s so, then putting pictures with them is redundant.
I guess what I’m saying is: In a world that is already increasingly disconnected -- and almost unbearably truncated by letters and numbers that are supplanting words -- to continue to act as if words themselves are not important is to further distance ourselves from each other and from our natural environment.
It’s not just that always supplying the picture is too much spoon-feeding. Nor simply that it doesn’t allow us the space to create our own worlds with words. It isn’t even that it makes us lazy. It’s that it also deprives us of the raw beauty of words.
And beauty, as you know, is just about everything. So bring on the written word, the spoken word, the poetry slams, the calligraphy pens, the handmade paper, the ragged journals, and the tattered book covers holding so many precious gems.
Language existed before the written word. But the written word built bridges for us that language alone could not. Let’s get creative and figure out how to lift up the word again. In all its art forms. In all its glory. In all its ravenous beauty.
After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, why not let the picture speak for itself. And set the words free again.
Words contain questions. I know that sounds funny. But it’s true. While words give us answers like who we are talking about or where they are or how much they’ve had to drink, they also contain questions, like what did he mean by that? In fact, the very word what could be a question or an answer. Words can tell you what she was wearing and also leave you wondering, what’s going to happen next?
Pick a word, any word, and I'll bet you'll see what I mean. Here's a random list: light, bar, clock, sort, kiss, swim, trace. Are these words verbs or nouns or adjectives? [It’s time to sort the laundry. –or- He’s the sort of guy you don't want to date.] Are they commands or descriptions? [Trace that call! –or- She left only a trace of perfume her lover's torso.] Are they meant to be friendly or foreboding? [It was their first kiss. –or- That’s the kiss of death.] I could go on...
Everyday we use hundreds of words without really thinking about their meaning, without even acknowledging the questions. Take the word illegitimate, a word that -- until very recently -- was widely used to indicate a child born of two people who were not married. To me, the unspoken question in this word is, Really?
Consider the phrase Happy Holidays. It seems innocent enough, a straightforward gesture of goodwill. Apparently though, there are many questions lurking in those two simple words. Enough of them to evoke complaints and pleadings for us to use the words Merry Christmas instead, so as not to exclude Christ in the season’s greetings. But Happy Holidays is meant to be inclusive not exclusive. It is meant to enfold the Christian celebration along with many others.
The best example of a word that comes with questions is love. I think Howard Jones has my back on this when he asks, What is love, anyway? The question is not merely lyrical. Love is so vast that it defies explanation. More than this, it begs for questions. Questions which force us to stop and pay attention. To examine ourselves and our actions, our thoughts and feelings, our preconceived notions. Love asks us to reach beyond our ideas of ourselves in order to find bigger answers.
We give honor to words, to ideas, to beliefs, to our common humanity, by acknowledging the things that lie outside our understanding and experience. These questions hidden in words are born of the things that awaken our curiosities, things that form questions on our lips, our hearts, our minds (and possibly other parts of our anatomies). Rigidity is good for things like dams, for objects which need to hold things back, to constrict and restrain. Trees, grasses, flowers, rivers, birds, minds, and spirits, these things need to flow and to bend. Let’s acknowledge the questions in our words and ideas of the world. Let’s embrace them and take time to discover their secrets.
Or as the master once put it:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Be well everyone.
Stay in your magic.
The universe is an endless paradox of limited visibility. (How's that for an opening line.) Too often we believe that only this or that can be true. That there is such a thing as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That people can only be with us or against us.
From our flawed judicial system to the daily conversations inside and outside our heads, we live in an increasingly thin slice of reality. One in which people, things, and ideas are categorized, stereotyped, and affixed with childish labels like right or wrong, good or bad. Where, in the name of a loving God, people hate one another.
What all these thoughts and conclusions have in common is the arrogance of believing that the universe is knowable. And that the thinkers of all these thoughts know all there is to know. Think about that. Think about what this mix of certainty and arrogance requires.
The internet both connects us and keeps us separated from one another. Not just because we are glued to our phones instead of physically interacting. It also allows us to be insular in our associations and narrow in our exposure.
Yes, to a certain extent this has always been true. We have long subscribed to the newspapers and magazines that fit our worldview, favored one news channel over another, and stayed steadfastly true to one political party. Technology has simply amplified those tendencies. While also allowing us to avoid anything like an actual conversation.
It’s easy to hate on a certain segment of America for not seeing things the way we do. But there’s also a kind laziness in that behavior. And a measure of hypocrisy. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all become willfully ignorant to things we find unpalatable or inconvenient, and those blond spots allow us to be unquestionably sure that our conclusions are the right ones.
The marketplace of ideas thrives when people are talking. To each other. Not just to the choir. I'm not talking about opening the corral gate so free speech can lead us to the truth. (See paragraph one.) I'm talking about expanding our ideas (of ourselves and each other), our possibilities, and our humanity.
Like never before, we need to step out of our bubbles and breathe fresh air. We need to understand that America is every gradation of white, black, brown, and orange. We are also young, old, gay, straight, transgender, strong, feeble, smart, dumb, courageous, and confused.
If we look around and all our friends are the same color, religion, or end of the political spectrum, we are part of the problem. We must go out and mingle outside our comfort zones. And while I’m not advocating we go out and make a token gay friend so we can say we’re not bigots, why not start with finding that one friend. And then have some real conversations with them. Conversations that are based upon curiosity and not knowing.
In fact, here's my recipe for a happier future: Take one part your ideas and add several parts of the ideas from others around you that you mostly agree with but have not fully explored. Next add another handful ideas you've heard of, but are not so sure about. Blend together and let sit.
Once settled, slowly add equal parts ideas you've never heard of and those you think you disagree with. Stir vigorously and put in the oven at low temperature for as long at it takes for you to understand that alone, your ideas are just flour, with maybe a little water sprinkled on top. In order for them to be truly interesting, they need to be combined with other flavors and textures.
Once your batter has turned into something with more substance, remove from the oven and let cool. Then invite over your closest friends, some people you know, but don't really hang out with, then add a few strangers, and those who do not share your political, ethnic, religious, gender, or sexual identity. Slice up the concoction. Set out the plates and glasses. Pour some lemonade, open some wine, and start talking. And listening.
Be well everyone.
Stay in your magic.
Music is known for its mysterious ability to unlock memories that have been secreted away for years. Somehow it has access to a portal that leads to a hidden world. But that’s not where the mystery ends. With just a few lines, a songwriter can tell us many stories. And it’s uncanny how often they seem to be about our own lives.
Let me show you an example. Because I don’t want to alter your own stories of one of your favorite songs, I chose something a little obscure: the Elton John song Come Down in Time (lyrics in bold):
In the quiet silent seconds
[I believe in jazz. I believe that the space between the notes is more important than the notes themselves. I believe in the in-breath. I believe in the power of silence. I believe in the importance of friends who do not have to talk to understand each other. I believe that less is more. And that the most powerful writing lets the reader fill in some blanks.]
I turned off the light switch
[One of my favorite poets, John O’Donohue, reminds us that the soul likes candlelight. And that it’s best not to use bright lights when seeking to know ourselves. For me, darkness is also comforting, seductive even.]
And I came down to meet you
[I believe in bridges. I believe that the meeting of two beings, even though it happens every day, all day, and we mistake it for something commonplace, contains all the mystical metaphor of life. Everything in the universe is constantly in motion. And everything (ourselves included) is constantly crossing a magic threshold, towards recognition, towards awakenings, towards oneness.]
In the half light the moon left
[There is no such thing as the half moon. And yet this metaphor is everything. We are all whole. And yet we mostly do not see this. And while the moon, like everything in the universe, has its own light, the light we mistake for its own is actually a reflection of something else. And the moon not only casts light, but shadows. Just like us.]
While a cluster of night jars
[I had to look this up, long ago. Nightjars are nocturnal birds. They have very small feet and so spend most of their time flying. I just love the way the words sound. There is something enchanting about them I can’t explain. Which is another reason to love it. Our desire to explain so many things, instead of simply feeling them, is part of our folly.]
Sang some songs out of tune
[We put too much emphasis on voices being pretty. What a shame if Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young had decided not to sing. Heart is far more important than technique.]
A mantle of bright lights
Shone down from a room
[Light can come from anywhere. And everywhere. Like the importance of silence, this phrase let’s us fill in the blanks. It could be a literal upstairs room. Or the room could be the sky. And the mantle of lights the stars.]
Come down in time I still hear her say
So clear in my ear like it was today
[Memory is a mystical thing. Songs, smells, words, sounds, and places all have the ability to transport us back in time. And time is an endless enigma. So much time elapses, and yet, no time at all has gone by, like it was today. And longing can bend time -- both backwards and forwards -- as deftly as any force in the universe.]
Come down in time was the message she gave
Come down in time and I'll meet you half way…
[Even though we are constantly interacting with one another, it is rare that we really meet. We must be present, in the flow, and so grounded that our own gravity lines up the stars. We must meet each other, opportunity, love, and beauty at least halfway. We must build these bridges together. We must remind each other of the oneness inside every split-apart in the universe.]
Be well everyone.
Stay in your magic.
It's these expressions I never give
That keep me searching for a heart of gold.
I’ve listened to Neil sing that song maybe a thousand times. (Raise your lighters if you know what I’m talking about.) And so, naturally, I thought I understood what it was about. It's a theme song for every soulmate-searcher on the planet, right? It's a lyrical manifesto for every sensitive romantic looking for The One. You know, the search for the glass slipper’s perfect fit, the twin flame, the split-apart, the heart of gold.
Sure, that's part of it. But if you read the quote at the top of the page again, you’ll discover it’s not just a story of the search for true love. We've all done our share of mining. And we've all come up short of our expectations. Is that because we were looking in the wrong places? Or were we looking for the wrong things?
I won’t pretend to have a backstage pass to Neil’s psyche. But I think he was trying to explain that he didn't have to go to Hollywood or to Redwood (or across the ocean) to complete his search. He confessed that he’d been spending too much time in his mind. (It’s such a fine line.) And as everyone knows, no good has ever come from that.
So what’s a determined glass slipper-bearer to do? I'm not going to tell you that you need to make yourself into the kind of person who would be lovable by the kind of person you want to find. Because other people have probably told you that. I'm happy to remind you it's true. But that's not the end of the story.
The crux of the tale, I think, was best told by Sam Phillips: We don't want lives of steel / We don't want hearts that feel / We want to live above it all. At first glance, these two lyrical stories don't appear to cohabitate very well. But if you listen a little closer, they’re both saying the same thing. The hard truth is that you won't find a heart of gold without doing a little work.
If you only want a soulmate so your life will be cushier, well, I've got some bad news. Life's not really like that. If you want a heart that doesn't feel any pain, then you're not going to have a heart of gold. And if you don't have a heart of gold, well, you're not likely to find a heart of gold.
The key is in the first line of Neil's quote, "It's these expressions I never give" that keep him searching. In other words, he needs to get out of his mind and out of his own way. He says he wants to live and he wants to give, but he's not doing the latter, so he can't do the former.
Hearts of gold don't find themselves lined up at the doorstep of those unwilling to give anything of themselves. And I'm not taking about the desperate kind of neediness that disguises itself as having just so much love to "give." I'm talking about being willing to live your own life. About being authentic. And about still being strong enough to share that life, its gifts, and the space it inhabits, with another human being, heart, soul, and sometimes messy fallout.
Real life is not neat and clean. Life is about digging in and getting yourself dirty. Look around at the people who are happiest. You’ll see they aren't worried about mud. Because without a little mud, life is not possible.
Wanting to live above it all means we never even scratch the surface. And while staying on the surface might keep us clean, it isn't all that interesting, is it? One thing’s for sure, we are never going to find any gold just laying around on the surface. That's not where gold likes to hang out.
Gold is a little more secretive than that. Gold is a cat, hiding god knows where until it is ready to be found, snuggling down into its makeshift forts of cardboard and cupboards, bushes and boxes, blankets and pillows. The more layers the better. And there it rests, waiting for our wits to grow sharp enough to find it.
Gold is a playful lover. One who wants you to work a little for it, knowing the payoff will be worth the effort. Yes, gold is kind of like foreplay. And if you think of it more as play than work, you're likely to have a lot more fun.
Hearts, as it turns out, are much the same. Though, from time to time, we've been known to wear them on our sleeves, this is not their preferred location. Hearts prefer to stay deep within our chests, where only those willing to look deep enough will be able to see them.
Hearts of gold are the rarest of metals. And the only way to find a heart of gold is to first transform your own heart. Like attracts like, no matter what you've been told. If you want to live, you've got to give, of yourself, and your heart.
You've got to give to yourself and to others. You've got to use your voice and to make space for other voices. You can't stand above it all, like some heartsick Gatsby peering over the balcony. You've got to walk into the crowd, the river, the mud, this thing called life. Yes, you.
Keep turning over stones. And I'll see you in the river.
-from "Dig Deeper" - one of 66 essays in the Gold Nautilus Award winning collection, Happiness Is an Imaginary Line in the Sand.
Available here: https://www.tlqonline.com/happiness-is-an-imaginary-line...
Your minds to what I am about to say.
I am not here to hand you another overwrought cliché for you to toss into your growing stack of inspirational quotes you'll forget by dinnertime. I'm talking about changing the way you see the world around you. About rethinking your interactions with that world.
It's not just about your heart.
Sure, being open requires an open heart. And I promise I'll get to that. But first we need to talk about the mind. We all live such a ridiculous amount of time there that the mind is the first door we need to get through.
It would be easy to blame our modern habits. How, increasingly, every spare second of waking life is spent in a frenzy of multi-task-driven dysphoria. And so I will, a little. But it isn’t technology’s fault. It’s what we do with it. It’s how we do what we do with it.
While our technological abilities are growing like a virus on, well, virus steroids, our minds are being numbed into submission. Our minds are constantly opening to new ways to use technology, and steadily closing to almost everything else.
The mind and technology have one primary thing in common. They both are meant to work for us. Instead, we end up working for them. To be open means that sometimes we have to stop. We have to put down our electronic addictions and rethink every thing in our lives we have put on autopilot.
Though your heart is essential.
What can be said about the heart that hasn’t already been said? Plenty, I’m sure. Because the heart knows everything the mind has ever learned and forgotten. And so much more. The heart has a stash of secrets so large it has taken thousands of years of poets just to reveal a tiny few.
Yes, it is counter-intuitive.
Because everywhere, all day long, there are reasons to close down. To protect yourself. From the naysayers and the nit-pickers, the needy and the ne’er-do-wells. What you cannot see with your heart slammed shut is that everywhere, all day long, there are millions of reasons to stay open.
And I’m not just talking about the birds and the butterflies, the sexy storms and the saturation of colors under Sierra clouds. But when you open a door for yourself, you open a door for others.
Find your door to freedom.
Because that is the only way. Because until we are open, we are not free. While we are vigilantly patrolling the borders of our egos, our comfort zone, our I-don’t-want-others-to-know-I’m-human, we are missing out on real life.
The battle between open and closed is not new. Its roots are ancient and are still deeply embedded in the modern world. From the oppression of religious theocracies to the free love and new age movements, this tension between open and close remains a central theme of life.
I get it. The world can be a scary place. But the secret to freedom is the same as the secret to conquering dream monsters. You must turn and look them in the face. Though you’re afraid of whatever may be on the other side of the door, you must open it anyway.
This is the only way to freedom. You must open doors. Everywhere, every day, all the time. Open the door to smiling at strangers. Open the door to asking him out. Open the door to admitting mistakes. Open the door to saying you’re sorry. Open the door to letting more go.
And then open a little more.
I'm talking about standing on desks. About challenging your thoughts, your feelings, your fears, your ideas, your knowings, your ways.
You may think you’re already there. You’re already open and out there. But I'll bet you a beer you’re not. I'll bet that you could add a million tiny freedoms to your life that take no time or money.
Open to the idea of rain, to the possibilities of flowers. Open to the rush of your real life lived, not simply imagined. Open your skin to the touch of a lover. Open your arms to your friends. Open your wallet to a stranger. Open your chakras, your mantras, and your ideas of yourself.
There will always be naysayers. Open the door and let them go. Let go of all your collected thoughts of you. And make room for the joy that will flood itself in as soon as you unclutter your you.
Because really, is there anything better? Then do it in everything you do. Strip off the layers of closed-door clothes and dive in. Feel the silky caress down the length of your life. And live all the secrets of you.
Let yourself unfold like all the flowers of spring. Give yourself and your beauty to the world. And then let the world shine it right back on you.
-from the Gold Nautilus Award winning collection, Happiness Is an Imaginary Line in the Sand. Available here: https://www.tlqonline.com/happiness-is-an-imaginary-line
Last night I dreamt of the ocean. In all its endless mystery. Of setting out into its wilderness on the journey of a lifetime. Of being on a large ship, in charge of the mast, full of hope and courage. Buoyed by the adrenaline of adventure. And also feeling utterly ill-suited for the task.
What is it about the sea? Its vastness either provokes awe or makes us feel insignificant. Or some combination. Its perfect rhythms offer comfort, but they also drive home how little of this world is within our grasp. The ocean can wash us clean of our earthly cares or – with too little effort to measure -- simply wash us away.
The ocean is also a mirror of our human hearts: wild, restless, unyielding, untamable, unknowable. In that reflection there is both inspiration and terror. To admit that our own hearts are so uncharted, so unknowable, despite a lifetime of effort, is more than a little daunting. And also, we know we must continue to try.
There is so much that is beyond us. We cannot know all there is to be known, as we cannot count the waves on the sea. We cannot read all the books in the store, as we cannot love all the lovers to be loved. We cannot solve the riddles of our own hearts, as we cannot count all the grains of sand.
He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea.
- George Herbert
We are in perpetual need of getting out of our own ways, of getting out of our own heads, of surrendering to that which we cannot know, of letting go of the rocks and the shore and letting the water take us where it will. This, too, is why the ocean calls to us. To share with us its wider view. And to grant us reverence for the one wild and precious life we have been given.
Just as we have drawn imaginary lines to define nations and states, so we have created imaginary boundaries in our own lives, our own hearts and minds. And while some of these made-up borders allow us to get up, make the coffee, put on our shoes and go about our days, they also keep us from the natural human wandering that is required in order to rediscover the magic of just being alive.
Just as I was enthusiastic for a dream journey that I was also completely unprepared to take, so we walk out into everyday of our lives. We ignore the fact that we live in a world that is overwhelmingly designed for things with gills. Not to mention that even that vast world floats on an almost imperceptible wave of the universe’s unknowable sea. Maybe it is because our brains can’t grasp the size of these mysteries that we ignore the greatness of this wonder as we stumble through each day. Or maybe we spend too much time asleep when we think we are awake.
All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage
of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean.
So continues the taunting paradox of the universe. Perhaps it’s the ocean’s great size which makes it all the more poignant that we are both profoundly lost and found in its presence. Even in its memory.
There is not a thing in the world that does not feel the tug of the sea. Though it seems there are some of us more built for adventure than others. Some who have no choice but to seek out the sea. And still more who cannot be content to simply walk its shores and gaze on its beauty, but must be out in it, as close to part of it as humanly possible. And they cannot imagine any other life. They would not feel whole without it. So it is with our lives on land. Some of us are more willing to take the risk on our dreams.
The ocean is the great metaphor of unknowing, the great mystery, the divine feminine, the collective unconscious, the land of dreams. So a dream about the ocean is then a dream within a dream. A dreamer lost in himself. Out in a universe of fluid borders. Where we are free to dream new worlds into being.
How do we see our way out?
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky not-so-famously said, "Perhaps it is beauty that will save us in the end." I couldn't agree more. And I wrote a piece for Rebelle Society in 2013 on why our most important job is to find beauty. It was true then and it is true now.
I've written before how the world is broken, in many, many ways. And how it is also beautiful. And that we should focus more on the beauty. And I have been criticized for saying that kind of thing, because people mistook it for some kind of spiritual bypass, or they said it was born of white privilege. But despite this criticism, I have never been one to shy away from the full picture. So let's talk about the broken parts for a minute. Let's not shy away or paint glossy pictures of unicorns with rainbows coming out of their nether regions. Let's talk about the state of our modern world.
When this piece was originally written, people were still reeling from a mass shooting in Vegas. The one where one shooter with an arsenal of 23 guns, including semi-automatics and hundreds and hundreds of rounds of ammo, caused unimaginable pain, injury, death, and chaos. By the time you read this, the talk of reasonable gun control may have quieted, and the great majority of the nation may have gone back to sleep. But I hope not. I hope that we are all still talking about how we can fix the many things that are broken in our country. Because the way I see it, they are all connected.
I'll start with a list of what I see is broken, those things I believe have contributed to the state of our world. The poverty, the crime, the mass anxiety and hopelessness, and the every-other day mass shootings, as well as other catastrophes, including the 2008 financial crisis from which we are still recovering:
1. Unfathomable disparity in income distribution. We do not live in a free market. The US grants something like $125 billion or more a year in corporate welfare. And that does not include tax loopholes and offshore accounts. Meanwhile more than 43 million Americans live in poverty. There are 6 heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune who have amassed more wealth than over 100 million Americans. This is not because they are smarter or work harder or are just luckier. It is a rigged system. Add to this the fact that because those 6 people do not pay their full time employees a living wage, our tax dollars must pay for those employees' food stamps. To the tune of $6.2 billion. In another not-so-far-off time, where we weren't all distracted by our smart phones and social media approval, we'd be marching with torches to tear down their walls. And there would be guillotines waiting.
2. A Congress filled with people who do not give a shit about you. Sure, there have been outliers: Franken, Sanders, Warren. But mostly Congress cares about getting re-elected and amassing secret wealth on the side that they do not need to disclose while they refuse to pass legislation preventing them from capitalizing on insider knowledge. The NRA, big banks, big insurance, big oil, and their ilk have each of them by the balls. If you don't believe me, just look at the numerous recent efforts to give billionaires tax cuts while throwing millions of Americans off health care.
It is hard for my mind to wrap around how absurd this is. Mostly because of the fundamental truth that billionaires do not need tax cuts. They wouldn't even notice them. Which leads me to the real problem, which is not greed and corruption, but figuring out why we haven't risen up against this nonsense. Why is it that vast numbers of Americans, who will not benefit from these policies, will likely still re-elect most of these politicians next term. We must correct this problem before any other progress can be made.
3. #45. Look, I sort of get his selling point for some people. We are sick of business as usual in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in politics. (See numbers 1 and 2, above.) We want big change. We want to break the system into tiny pieces and rebuild it. But this guy was never going be the solution. This guy is the problem. He is the poster boy for The Sociopathic Capitalists Society (except for the ironic fact that he has apparently been propped up by a communist mafia since the 90s). But more troubling than that, he seems to be a bona fide moron on just about every topic there is. Even more troubling than the fact that he doesn't know things, as George Will noted, is the fact that he does not seem to know what it is to know something. That so many millions of people voted for him, and that so many numbers continue to support him, despite his daily incompetence, is disheartening to say the least, and frankly beyond comprehension;
4. The archaic, dysfunctional, and misguided judicial system. We have a Supreme Court who has perpetuated many of our current problems. Including decisions that: (1) grossly misinterpret the second amendment as to allow the NRA to continue its bullying and to allow Americans to stockpile lots of guns that are designed only to kill many, many people very, very quickly. Say from the 32nd floor of a hotel; or (2) the one that equates money with speech and has allowed big money to take over our elections; or (3) the one that gave away the Presidency to a guy who lost the election. And then there is the obvious problem of privately-owned prison systems. And if you can't see the problem with that, just consider how these people would make money if the prisons weren't full. And what a conflict of interest that is for the so-called departments of justice. And consider that the majority of people in federal prison are there for non-violent drug offenses. Many of which are for drugs that are now legal in several states;
5. Our belief in otherness. Despite the infuriating reality of the first four enumerated paragraphs, this is probably the most troubling. From religions, to skin colors, to languages, it seems it is human nature to fear what we do not understand, what is different from us, and how we do things. And maybe there is some anthropological good cause for this. But we have greatly exaggerated its usefulness in the modern era. It is time to build bridges to each other, not walls. Our prejudices far outweigh our curiosity, and we need to flip that.
Maybe you knew someone affected by the Mandalay Bay shooting in Vegas. Or any of the countless mass shootings that happen every year. Maybe just the pure senselessness of any of them have shaken you. Whatever the case, how many wake up calls do we need? How many times, after the immediate shock of another mass shooting, another financial collapse, another election of a dangerous and willfully ignorant sociopath, another avoidable environmental disaster, another murder of an unarmed black man, another attempted racially-motivated travel ban, will we roll over and hit the snooze button? We must demand more from ourselves and our leaders.
And though it may seem counter-intuitive, one of the things we must demand of ourselves is that we spend more time finding beauty in the world. And also more time creating it. Because finding and creating beauty will, without a doubt, change you and the world.
As I have written before:
We have stacked so much rubbish on top of ourselves, that our true beauty, and the beauty of everyone and everything are buried under our prejudices, our beliefs, our pages and pages of worn out stories. Dig yourself out. Brush yourself off. Throw away the never-ending manuscript of why you can’t.
The world is neither this thing nor that thing. It is not our ideas of how it is or of how it should be. The world is the world. Like love, the world contains all possibilities. All darks and lights, all ups and downs, all rainbows of doubt and joy, hardship and pleasure. But I want you to forget all that.
Your job is to find beauty.
Doubt everything. Find your own light.
Socrates made his students answer their own questions. Galileo dared to doubt the church. And Darwin later took up his legacy. The Buddha described his own path, but wanted people to find their own way. Even Jesus was a man of doubt. If not for the doubters, we’d all still be in Plato’s cave.
From Rumi to Rimbaud, the great poets have always been doubters. From Da Vinci to Descartes, our great thinkers have looked through the lens of doubt and reimagined the world.
Bad things happen whenever we excuse doubt from the table at decision time. Without courage to doubt the President, we get a ten-year, two trillion-dollar war. Without courage to doubt our bankers, we see the collapse of a world economy.
If you would be a real seeker after truth,
it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt,
as far as possible, all things.
If faith is the vehicle to carry one's vision to fruition, then doubt is the bridge upon which it travels. Blind faith is as destructive a force as self-doubt. Both are out of balance and misplaced.
A certain measure of faith is necessary and constructive. We must believe in ourselves, our purposes, our relationships with each other and with the universe, in order to be whole. This faith cannot exist in a vacuum, though, or it becomes a senseless and destructive force that is counter to its essence.
Faith in the unknown, the invisible, the passion which moves us is as essential as oxygen to the human experience. Indeed a full human life is not possible without it. Still faith must know its split-apart doubt, in order to serve us.
Faith keeps many doubts in her pay.
If I could not doubt, I should not believe.
-Henry David Thoreau
Yes, doubt has its place. We are supposed to question, it makes our faith authentic. Those who are afraid to question their beliefs tacitly admit the weakness of them. Those unwilling to acknowledge the possible validity of truths beyond their own, become rigid to the natural flows of life.
If we were to peek behind the flimsy curtain, instead of strength, we'd see fragility. If we were to read between the lines of these manifestos, the ink would reveal dogmas, not truths. A building that is too inflexible will crumble when the Earth shifts her weight. A tree that cannot bend will break into pieces in the wind.
So is the mind like these things. When we travel the same thought paths too often, it creates ruts of thought, action, belief. Soon we are limited by where we can go, because the wheels of our brain cannot escape these ruts. Just as we do yoga to keep our bodies flexible, so we need to bend our brains to keep them useful.
Perfect confidence is granted
to the less talented as a consolation prize.
- Robert Hughes
I doubt any of us were put on this earth to accept someone else's story without a question. We were not given such wonderful brains only to follow instructions. We were not built with an innate sense of our own path, to follow a broken compass someone else gave us. We were not handed a blank piece of paper to color in someone else's lines.
If life is a daring adventure, as Ms. Keller told us, then we must not squander the chance to explore. I would rather doubt and be wrong than blindly accept and be right. At least the misjudgment would be my own.
The aphorisms of the ages are filled with encouragement to step to the beat of your own drummer. There has never been anything memorable written about following convention. No soul was ever inspired by lines teaching that life is about following orders.
You are never dedicated to something
you have complete confidence in.
No one is fanatically shouting
that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.
- Robert M. Pirsig
Part of the magic of life exists in the balance of many forces that appear, falsely, to be opposites: beauty and decay, love and hate, fear and courage, light and dark, life and death. This is part of the great illusion.
We must believe and doubt in balance or else neither has value. If we are to build the new world, then like an old married couple who've lost their rhythm, faith and doubt must learn to dance again. Let’s commit ourselves in the coming days and weeks to learn some new steps.
And to never lose our faith in the power of doubt.