ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
Remember your dreams and fight for them.
Most of us walk around in a quasi-coma state of being. We’re numbed up and dumbed down. We’ve been programmed by society, school, law enforcement, advertising, and social opinion to act a certain way. And that way looks a lot like milktoast.
Somehow our dreams and aspirations for personal greatness got blended in with the rules of do and don’t for the common good. And then the batter was thrown into the oven to make a cake for the masses to eat. The result is a life that looks nothing like you thought it would.
Thoreau called it quiet desperation.
Fight back? But I’m a pacifist, you say. Great. A pacifist is one who believes war and violence are unjustifiable. And since that’s not at all what I’m talking about, you should be fine. Nothing I’m saying should land you in handcuffs. (Unless they’re velvet-lined and you’re into that.)
I’m talking about taking down those questions you long ago put on a shelf. About reminding yourself why you are and what you’re about. About remembering your childhood curiosities and tracking their scent to your better self.
I’m talking about finding your way out.
Now that you know how to dig deeper, you must also discover how to dig your way out. And I’m here to tell you that you can. Yes, it looks like a long way to the top. Yes, you’ve been down here so long your eyes have adjusted to the (lack of) light. Yes, your muscles have atrophied a bit. Yes, it will be worth the effort.
The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses…long before I dance under those lights.
We are constantly being asked to take up someone else’s fight. Our employers, our country’s, and those of our friends and loved ones. In this interconnected world, more and more we’re asked to fight the fights of people we don’t even know. And I am not here to tell you whether any or all of those are worthwhile. But the most important fight you can choose is the one that ends with you living the life you came here to live.
In big and small ways, along the path of so-called adulthood, we’ve each let go of so much. We’ve cut loose parts of our lives that are as essential to us as air and water. The saddest part is that we’ve traded it all for the cereal prize of an official Grown-Up merit badge.
And we’re constantly being told what a smart trade that was.
To fight your own fight, the first step is to take a good look around you. Take stock of where you are, what you have, and how you spend your days. As the poet John O’Donohue reminded us, your life becomes the shape of your days. Next you have to figure out where you want to be. And if you’re one of the lucky ones who already knows, well, then you need to say it out loud. Somewhere that you can hear it.
You’ve got to invoke its presence.
After you’ve dared to speak its name, guess what, you’ve actually got to put on the gloves and get in the ring. And fighting your way back to you might take some time. There are no shortcuts. It’s taken you a while to hide you from yourself as well as you have. Becoming you again involves creating a day to day habit of being the best you that you can be. And we’re definitely not used to that.
I know, that sounds like a lot of pressure. It’s okay to admit. With rare exception, we’re not really supposed to be the best we can be. Unless that best that we’re being looks like a law-abiding, tax-paying, perfect-children raising, level-emotions having, gap-fill-volunteer doing, almost constantly-consuming, take-what-you’re-given-and-don’t-complain type barely-human.
Don’t fight forces, use them.
Now that I’ve gone on and on about how much you need to fight the forces, inside and out, that conspire to keep your heart at bay, I’m going to throw a literary wrench into the grinding machinery of your brain. That’s right. To really master this thing I’m talking about, this being the you that you dream to be thing, you’ve got to get in touch with your inner tai chi master.
And to do that, all you really need to do is to get out of your own way. To set down all the have-to, supposed-to, ought-to, need-to mentalities you’ve been packing around and simply be who you are.
Everyday all the time.
That’s not much, I know, just everything. The trick that no one tells you, though, is that it’s much easier than it sounds. All you’ve got to do is sidestep the forces of sabotage and let their own momentum drop them to the ground. Don’t worry that you’ve never practiced tai chi. Once you set down all that other stuff you’re supposed to be instead of you, you’re going to be a hell of a lot lighter on your feet. It’s as easy as: Dream. Do. Be.
Go. Fight. Win.
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable. He manages his condition, in part, by regular contributions to Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine and to the borderless virtual tribe known as Rebelle Society. He also finds it helpful to talk with other humans. Feel free to friend him, follow him, or just invite him out for a beer.
His debut novel, Waking Up at Rembrandt’s, has received local and national critical acclaim. The second edition of the novel is available in print (think of vinyl, only for books) and on multiple e-version platforms. There’s also a book of poetry, love jaywalks, available everywhere ebooks are sold. On the horizon: a collection of essays, some new paintings, and a second novel, painted oxen, due out just as soon as all the words finish lining up. In the meantime, feel free to visit his website whenever you like. There’s more stuff there. www.tlqonline.com.
I’m not sure what you’re waiting for. But let me give you permission. It’s been said, you know. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. It’s happening right now. And now. And now. And it’ll keep on happening until, well, it doesn’t. (I’m not actually sure that’ll ever happen. And if it does, we won’t be here to know.)
As Steve Jobs famously reminded us, we’re all dying and we’re all going to die. So why not do what you want to with your life. I mean, imagine how silly we’re all going to feel years later and wiser when we look back and say, I stayed there for how long?
You know that perfect time you are anticipating. (When you graduate, when the kids are grown, when the bank holds more of your money, when you make that promotion, when you pay off the credit cards, when you lose 10 pounds, when you have more time.) The truth is that time is never going to get any closer than it is. Why. Because it’s already here. And here.
Go on, kiss the girl, write the book, form the band, go out on your own, test drive the car, study the language, save the money, use the passport, take the pictures, paint the canvas, buy the poetry, lace up the running shoes, pump up the tires, paint the walls, plant the flowers, grow the vegetables, try downward dog, sign up for dance class, have a child, say Hi, show up.
Whatever it is that you think you can do, Goethe told us, begin.
Your big bank. Your heart-break. Your prejudices. Your anger. Your toxic attitude. Your toxic job. Your toxic relationship. Your stress. Your old ways of doing things. Your self sabotage. Your bad habits. Your clothes you haven’t worn for years. Your fear of the unknown.
Because less is more. And almost everything is inessential. Let me say that again, because it is so entirely counter-everything we are sold in modern life: Almost everything is inessential. Most of all your reluctance to do x, y, or z. Yes, that, most of all. Let it go. Flush it down. Take it out. Recycle it. Compost it. Post it on craigslist. Stack it on the curb. Hang a sign on it. Burn it. Break up with it and change your number.
What is essential is invisible to the eye.
-Antoine de Saint Exupéry
We carry around entirely too much in our days. Like the term baggage, our phones are now great metaphors. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007. In less than eight years, most of the planet cannot function without it or some imitation. Being anywhere without our phones, including the restroom, is cause for panic. A casual glance inside any café or coffee house proves that it is our phones that control our lives and not the other way around. Real life does not care about almost any of what occupies most of our modern time and attention.
With everything that makes you uncomfortable. For all the unnecessary stuff we carry around, there’s an equal amount of important stuff we’re ignoring. Stop running. Stop avoiding. Stop denying. Stop going the long way around. Stop turning around. Stop making yourself busy. Just stop.
Take Pema Chödrön’s advice and lean into it. In fact, take this on as your new daily mantra. No matter what you are feeling. Whether it is reluctance, hesitation, fear, or excitement, anticipation, overwhelm. Stop. Breathe. Sit with it a moment. Lean into it. Become its intimate. Its confidant. Its co-conspirator.
Only then will you know the taste of marrow. Only then can you really understand what it means to seize the day, the moment, this electric now called life. Only then can you truly harvest the sweetness of life. And that, afterall, is the point. To harvest all the beauty you can find. It is your birthright. In this brave new world, we are asked to sow and sow and sow and yet most of us only manage to take home table scraps in return.
That wave of enthusiasm. Optimism. Gratitude high. Belief in the invisible forces that are really in charge. The ones that playfully shape our lives. Wrap the reins around your gloved hands. Tuck down. Kiss your unicorn on the neck. And give her a meaningful nudge with the heel of your boot. Like you mean it.
Then hang on.
And enjoy. Sure you’re scared shitless when she jumps over walls and leaps over crevasses a thousand feet deep. Yes, she’s going pretty fast. Yes, it would hurt if you fell. Yes, you’d probably break something. And it would be so totally worth it.
Feel the wind in your face. Watch the trees rush by. Feel the power in her stride. And marvel at the lengths that life will go to just to make you sit up and take notice. Trust your steed. Trust your hands. Trust the reins. Trust life.
Thomas Lloyd Qualls is a writer, a condition that is apparently incurable. (He’s also a novelist, essayist, videographer, painter, bike rider, and sometimes salvager of troubled lives.) He manages his condition, in part, by regular contributions to Reno Tahoe Tonight Magazine and to the borderless virtual tribe known as Rebelle Society. He also finds it helpful to talk with other humans. Feel free to friend him, follow him, or just invite him out for a beer.
Waking Up at Rembrandt’s, his debut novel, has received local and national critical acclaim. The second edition of the novel is available in print (think of vinyl, only for books) and on multiple e-version platforms. There’s also a book of poetry, love jaywalks, available everywhere ebooks are sold. Still on the horizon: a collection of essays, some new paintings, and a second novel, painted oxen, due out just as soon as all the words finish lining up. In the meantime, feel free to visit his website whenever you like. There’s more stuff there. www.tlqonline.com.
I’m just going to come right out and say this: You are okay.
I know that is completely counter-everything that you think and say to yourself all day, every day. It’s also the opposite message you’ve been fed your whole life. The church says you need to be saved. The ad folks say you need more stuff. The army will help you be all you can be. And you probably had a girlfriend who had a tip or two for you.
And then there’s the self-help book, guru, workshop.
There is a nauseating amount of self-help programs out there. From healing family karma to past life regressions to soul retrievals to dealing with money issues. From protecting yourself from energy vampires to how to attract a soul mate to ensuring you never have a bad hair day again. Ever.
And really, who can resist the chance to finally learn the secret handshake.
There are so many of these kinds of things out there for you to trip over that if you weren’t fucked up already, just reading through the list could convince you that you’re broken in ways you never even imagined. But who has the time or the money to be able to fix all these maladies in one lifetime.
And thinking about more than one lifetime is no less troubling.
I recently read about a process that helps you clear karma from your ancestors. Really? This is a thing now? Trust me, I’m issue-rich enough just dealing with my own behaviors and self-sabotaging thought patterns. Don’t tell me I’ve got to bear the weight of the mistakes from generations ago.
What thinks will they think up next?
That may be all you need. Really. Science shows that if we are grateful, we either become happier or we attract more things to be grateful for. Either way, it’s a boon. I’m ok with being happy because I have more to be happy about, or with being happy because I learned to change my thinking. Either way, I’m happy.
Truthfully, I’d be okay with the ignorance-is-bliss variety of happiness. I’d still be happy. Which is the point.
Being grateful is not as hard as it sounds. It’s really just being aware of how ridiculously fortunate we are to be alive. Hey look, this wrapping on my body (called skin) is still keeping all my blood from leaking out all over the room. And check it out, the sun came up again, allowing us to continue to see, eat, not freeze to death.
Also, the color blue is really beautiful.
As I’ve mentioned, there’s so much out there about being “present” that I hesitate even to utter that phrase. But the simple truth is, when we are focused on the present moment, then we are not able to worry about the past or the future. (It’s liberating just to think about, isn’t it?) This one thing has the power to free up all kinds of space in your psyche.
And if you’re not worried about the past, then whatever your ancestors did or didn’t do doesn’t matter one damn bit.
I think the important thing to remember about being present is that you really can’t be anywhere else. We lie to ourselves all the time about this. And we imagine that it takes years and years of discipline to be present. But really, it takes no energy at all. We’re already there. We just have to remember.
Oh, yeah, I’m present. Look there, I’m still present. Even now. Still present.
Finally, being kind just makes us feel better in general. It costs us nothing. I am far from the first person to suggest this. The Dalai Lama, for instance, has often reduced his whole philosophy of life, the universe, and everything to one simple tenet:
My religion is kindness.
And who doesn’t want to be kind. Think about it. Being shitty doesn’t actually make you feel better. If you’re honest with yourself, you’re never mean to someone (even someone you think deserves it) and then walk away feeling better about yourself.
Being kind is the ultimate win-win.
Well, there you go. And it didn’t cost you hundreds or thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of dollars. And you didn’t have to commit to a weekend workshop, or buy a new yoga mat, or even change your diet. (Though, come to think of it, you do look like you could lose a few.)
I’m just kidding. Really.
Some people will say I stole that title from beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Though if I did, it wasn’t intentional. It’s just how it came out. And so I let it. And you should, too. If you want to live, that is.
In any case, nobody owns that word. Or any word. Put another way, we each own every word that comes from our authentic voices. Because those words are what matter. And little else.
I’m not saying words are the only thing that matter. I’m saying your words, from your voice, no matter their shape, are what matter. I’m saying using someone else’s words, hiding behind them for safety, illusion, respectability, while understandable, won’t move your piece down the board at all. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
More importantly, they won’t lead to an understanding of yourself or the world, which is essential to really living. Without your true voice, you’ll just be one of the walking dead, another Dr. Malcolm Crowe walking around believing you’re alive. (There’s a reason why zombie movies are so popular.)
Find what it is that haunts you, moves you, sparks your desire, makes you bleed, won’t let you sleep, completely envelops you, tucks you in and kisses you goodnight. That is what will save you. And most of us need some kind of saving, big or small, from time to time. Maybe forever and always.
I often find myself lost. Somewhere between the world I want to live in and the reality of things like mass poverty, political crimes, profit-based environmental destruction, and sex trade. These worlds are so close to our own, right next door, really. But we all have our own obstacles, which often live much closer, things like equal rights, health insurance, overdue taxes, relationship struggles, and inadequate internet service.
Like you, daily, I have to map my own way out. Towards the ideal creative life of my dreams. Because there is no worn path. No posted signs, no permission slips. There is only my voice. And a long time ago I listened to Sam Phillips when she told me told hold on to it. You should, too.
Find your voice.
If you’ve made it this far into this piece and you’re still wondering what the fuck I’m talking about, it’s likely because you haven’t found it yet. Your thing, your passion, your medicine, your calling, your dream. You know, your voice. (Because we live in the age of YouTube, if you want more of a video example of what I’m talking about, checkout the Power of Words Video Project. www.pow.tlqonline.com)
I’m far from an expert on this sort of thing, but what if there are things more important than enlightenment? Being a whole human being, for instance. I’m not saying that’s true. But I know this one thing, you can’t be whole without your voice. Simply impossible. So I think it’s safe to say that enlightenment requires wholeness. And wholeness requires a voice.
The bottom line is, if you want to be whole, if you truly want to be alive, then you’ve got to do whatever it is you’ve got to do to find it. And simply finding it, you’ll see, is the most important thing. Because once you have, well, there’s no turning back. After that, one way or another, your voice will make sure it gets used.
Catch your breath.
The key, once you have it, is to release that energy. Sure you can ignore it, for a while. But ultimately, it will not be suppressed. Your voice will find a way to make itself heard. Like the songbird, your voice will not be caged by your feeble and useless efforts to contain it.
Your efforts are put to far better use by making space for it to thrive. Clear away as much of the chaos and clutter as you can. Breathe in and open up space within yourself where it may dwell.
Here’s the thing, and I probably wouldn’t say this to just anyone, but we are the light-bearers, the ones who hold the world together. Complacency does not become us. Your voice already knows this. And it is waiting for you to take up the torch.
Let it out.
I’m no different from you. This column is just one of the ways my voice makes itself known. This page is my teacher and these words are my lovers. Each time I sit down to write, my voice acts as flowers, pushing their way through the clay. Awakening from slumber, and breaking through the earth to unleash the beauty of its colors once again.
I know you are afraid. Who isn’t? But you need to know that your voice is a butterfly trapped in the cage of your heart. And it simply must be released. There is no other way.
Go ahead. Fall the fuck apart.
The idea that we are supposed to keep it all together every minute of every day forever and ever is what’s insane. By contrast, falling apart occasionally is normal. But then, modern society is kind of bat-shit crazy if you think about it.
There is an expectation for us to perpetually multi-task our minds out every moment, to work smart for 50, 60, or 70-hours a week, and to raise our children to be whole human beings, all while we keep our relationships healthy, maintain sustainable friendships, stay fit enough to compete with our magazine-cover ideas of ourselves, grow our own food, give back to our communities through volunteer work, and still have enough of a life for me time. Does that sound sane?
Of course not. So go ahead, unravel.
What’s in a word?
Sometimes, too much.
In the world in which we find ourselves, the word unravel sounds an awful lot like unstable, untrustworthy, unsound, undependable. But it doesn’t have to. If we can just unthink for a minute. And rewrite a little.
What about the word unwind, instead. Go ahead, try it. Unwind. Untangle. Undo. See, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. We all find ourselves too bound occasionally by the things, places, people, attachments, and other insanities of modern life. What else is there to do, then but untie the knot? Go on, let go and let yourself untwist.
And maybe unshout.
Just because you’ve gotten yourself all worked up into knots is no reason to stay that way. I’m not saying cut the rope. Although sometimes, if the knots are too tangled, that’s not a bad option.
What people will say.
Probably some will say what you think they’ll say: Oh my, look at that. He’s come undone. She’s lost her mind. They’re nuts.Because that’s how it goes. That’s how we’re programmed. Can you believe it, he fell off the hamster wheel? What a shame.
But that doesn’t mean you have to listen to those things. Much less believe them. We need to set about collectively unlearning the meaning of some words. Unusing them. And then, rewriting how we talk to each other.
Who knows? I’m willing to bet there are more than a few folks out there who will wish they’d thought of it. They’ll wish they had the courage to untie themselves. To spin out of control a little. To fall into a little yard sale of their own.
Once the untwisting is finished, and things are still, and a bit unorderly, to be sure, what’s next? Maybe just let things lay there for a while. It isn’t like falling on the ice. You don’t have to jump right back up and pretend/hope nobody saw. Stretch out. Relax. Soak up some sunshine.
It isn’t a race. And there’s no trophy waiting for you at some imaginary finish line for your supreme skill at being inhuman. What’s waiting is likely a massive coronary, a blinding stroke, panic attacks, or a room with extra padding.
Sure, eventually you’ll probably need to get back up, dust yourself off, and start again. But hopefully you won’t start right back where you left off. Hopefully you’ll try a little something different. Like more books, less screens. Less money, more time. More sandals, less suits.
Can’t I just stay?
For a while, maybe longer. I’m guessing that eventually you’ll probably want to start creating your next design. L’est you forget how to weave altogether. This time, though, try not to use so much material. Try not to make it so tight. Take a few strands, leave a few.
You can always unwind again. You can always change out colors and textures. And it’ll be easier to do, the less complicated you make it.
I know this sounds easy. I know it feels hard. I know you think these are pretty words, but it’ll never work. Well, maybe it’ll work for someone else. But not you. Not now. But why not try? If enough of us say enough, the world starts to change. If enough of us unravel, it starts to be okay. And unraveling becomes a thing that you just do.
Not that you’ve untied and untwisted. Now that you’ve shaken loose all the threads you didn’t need. It’s time for show and tell. Go on, strut your new stuff. Walk the walk, turn the turn.
Go on, tempt us. Let us all see your new colors.
There is a deeper wave than this rising in the land.
It is easy to get discouraged these days: Faceless companies with money and power to spare seem to be able to get away with endless greed, theft, and destruction, without accountability. The progress we once made towards clean water and air seems to backslide, our ideals of equal rights and opportunities wear uncomfortably thin, and our civil liberties are becoming a faint memory. The leaders on which we have probably heaped an unreasonable amount of hope seem to fall far short of our expectations in plugging the cracks in the dams.
Being a dad changes one’s world in countless ways. For one, you learn that big developmental growth is usually preceded by regression. I feel like that is where we are worldwide. The mind-boggling advances in technology and science right now have the potential to lead us into a golden age of affordable, clean energy sources and more sustainable lifestyles. All around me I see renewed interest in community-building and in taking care of those around us.
In a previous age, where overconsumption was a sign of wealth and prestige, the Gluttons would participate in eating contests in which the contestants would consume entire animals, hooves, horns and all. Of course, the prize meant little when death followed soon after due to the sharp bones lodging in a stomach or small intestine. The big banks, oil companies and insurers – the modern day patrons of the vomitorium – cannot possibly digest all they are attempting to devour from the rest of the world’s tables. Like the behemoths before them: the Mongols, Alexander’s, the Romans, and the Soviet Block, the giant multinational corporations are going to be swept away by new waves of technology, innovation, and the human spirit.
Surfers talk of the seventh wave being the strongest, the one you want to ride.
Bill Zebuhr predicts that the next generation of technology and true knowledge will be the seventh wave. Sting sings of Love as the seventh wave. I believe these are both true. I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll hang out on my board for a while, enjoy the water and wait for the big one.
This has to be said: We are all, more or less, pretty much lost, pretty much most of the time. In between, we have these moments of clarity. And then, the rest of the time, there’s this glimpse, just off to the side, of things we know to be true, of a place of comfort and peace. An oasis of serenity that is familiar, but just not really where we are right now.
Sometimes, the veils are so thick that we lose sight of the oasis all together. All we know is the general direction where we last spotted it. Or maybe it’s reduced to some vague memory of a feeling. In these places, a wide hole opens up inside us, and despair takes this opportunity to set up residence in the hole.
Because of despair’s densely opaque nature, not only is our view of the oasis eclipsed, but it also tends to block out the light altogether. Despair is the blackout curtain to the rest of the world.
Life is ironic.
And sometimes cruel. It seems that the brighter the light someone shines for the rest of the world, the darker it can be in their own home. Despair must have sensitive eyes, because when it sets up shop it throws a blanket over all the lamps inside.
And it hangs thick rugs over the doors and windows, so the voices from outside cannot be heard. We are constantly confused when wildly successful and widely beloved people kill themselves. But this is how it happens.
They wandered away from the oasis. And when their views of it became obscured, they soon became lost. Pretty soon, they could no longer see the light or hear the voices outside signing their praises. And they couldn’t even see the treasures in their own house, but all the lights in their house had been covered up.
I’d love to offer you answers.
I’d love to tell you that because I know how it happens, I also know the way out. I know how to pull down the rugs and throw off the blankets, open the windows and doors, run out into the rain and the sun and fields. But I don’t.
The only thing I know is that I’ve been there. And, like a bad acid trip, somehow I was able to wait it out. To use the fitting cliché, I was able to tie a knot in the end of the rope and hang on. And that eventually I found myself outside again, staring at the sunrise. Bowing deeply. Breathing in and out.
Perhaps the only help I’m able to give you about this is to let you know that I know what it’s like. That I’ve been there. That I’ll undoubtedly be there again. That when you are there, isolated from the whole world, you are not actually alone. That there are people, things, a world surrounding you, holding you up, laying you down, covering you with blankets, massaging your feet.
The best thing we can do is talk about it.
Admit that things are not always bright and shiny. You don’t have to wallow and roll around in your grief. But you must learn to turn around and look the monster in the face. Stop running from it. Stop pretending it isn’t there.
When we drag these monsters out into the light, when we use our words to expose them, they lose most of their powers. We see them clearly for what they are: parlor tricks, illusions, games that are rigged.
Our words are bridges to everyone else sitting in the dark right down, believing they’ve seen the end of the light. Dare to speak up. Use your voice. Create safe spaces with your words for others to leave the shadows of self-imposed shame and come forward. There is strength in letting go.
And we need to teach each other to see.
If we can talk about despair, then we can also teach ourselves to see beyond it. We can train our cats’ eyes to see in the dark, our ears to hear the faintest of songs.
I may not know the way home, but together we can teach each other how to look for the road markers. We can practice together seeing in the dark.
We can leaves ropes scattered about our paths so there will always be lifelines. We can go about lighting candles wherever we go, so that we can find our way in the dark when the power goes out. So that others can find their way to us, and so we can all walk each other home.
The Buddhists say that awareness is the most important thing. Actually, as the parable goes, it is the three most important things, sometimes called attention. Attention, attention, attention. Hiding in plain sight in that word is (the sound of) the word tension.
Now, I suppose that when one has become a master, the tension part of attention goes away, and there is only relaxed awareness. But I’m not really qualified to talk about that. In fact, let me just relieve any suspense and tell you from the beginning that I am probably not going to do this subject the grace it deserves. So I’m going to recruit a little help.
David Foster Wallace once told a graduating class the story of an old fish swimming by two young fish, greeting them and asking, “How’s the water?” After a while, one of the young fish turned to the other and said, “What the hell is water?” His point being that the most important things in life are often the most obvious and the hardest for us to see.
The other thing Wallace said was that, in order to see life, really see it, we need to put aside our own arrogance about our ideas of it. My interpretation of his speech is that we lean too heavily on our own ideas, beliefs, expectations, worldview, in order to get through the day. When the irony is, these are also the very things that keep us from living the life we want, from true happiness. And yes, that seems like a really cruel joke for life to play. But it doesn’t make it any less true.
Life is dangerous.
There are things that happen in life that cause us to pause. Like death or sudden violence, mostly. And so many things that don’t. Like the patient presence of beauty all around us. Or, using the fish analogy, the air we breathe all day and night. Every day and night. Our whole lives.
I can’t explain exactly why, but the unexpected death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman shook me. It was just something I didn’t see coming. Something senseless. Something that happens in a dream. And then I wake up and think, that was weird.
I was also a little embarrassed to talk about it. Or to write about it. I mean, lots of innocent people die every day all over the world in terrible circumstances, (and most of them did not voluntarily stick needles in their arms). So I processed it silently and (mostly) got over it.
Then came the untimely death of our beloved O Captain! my Captain! And I decided instead of just stuffing his death away as a silly romantic media-fueled event, I would explore why it felt the way it did.
Life is uncertain.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
Just like the fishes’ water or the air we breathe, there is much we take for granted. Like our ideas of the world, we somehow think that we have to take these things for granted, you know, in order to function. In order to do the so many other things there are to do in a day.
Yet I believe the masters would say that this thinking is folly, that this constant ignoring we do is part of the grand illusion. That, in fact, it is the exact opposite of what we think. That the reason we find life so difficult, so much of the time, is that we have stuffed away most all of the things that are essential to life, in favor of the illusion.
I believe death rocks us because it temporarily wakes us from our near perpetual slumber. Whether it is the death of a loved one, known to us personally, or the death of a bright light — the likes of PSH, Robin Williams, or even Wallace himself – who we had come to take as a never-ending part of our human landscape. We relied on them, like water or oxygen, to provide us with the illusion of permanency.
Life is beautiful.
The morning after I found out about PSH, I slowed down a little. Instead of being hurried and stressed about getting me and my son out the door in time, I just slowed down. I watched him. As we gathered our things. As I asked him for the seventh time to put on his coat and boots. As we walked to the car. As I fastened his seatbelt.
I slowed down enough to watch what was happening. I saw him. I saw us. I savored every little moment. As if it were a delicious, but tiny meal.
I hadn’t slept well at all the night before. We were late to wake up. And on top of that, all the usual Monday morning complications and frustrations were there. But somehow these things didn’t get to me. A smile crept to the surface, even as I was struggling to get dressed and to collect all manner of things for our day.
We must let life happen. We must allow it to get our attention. To wake us up. And then we must do our best to stay awake. That is the whole point. Stay awake. Shake others awake. Grab them and hug them and kiss them. Show them the stars and the equally incomprehensible numbers of leaves of grass right in their own backyard. Get down in the grass and see how they would look if you were tiny bugs. Stare into each other’s eyes and wonder at the remarkable ability we have just to see things, how many billions of organs and tissues and membranes and cells and firing neurons it takes just to gaze upon a bee getting drunk on a sunflower. Stand on your desk.
Don’t get used to any of it.
We get used to the light. Here in the high desert, we get used to more than 300 days of sunshine a year. So when it rains, we pay attention. I love the rain, more than I can express with words. And I also imagine that if I lived somewhere like Seattle or Portland or London, I’d get used to the rain in the same way.
There are people and things that shine brighter than others. And we need their light. Their light is important to remind us of beauty, of humor, of lightheartedness, and grace. And, as the Master Ajahn Chah reminded us, the glass is already broken. It is important to understand that the glass is already broken and to enjoy it all the same. It is the balance of the spiritual and the material worlds.
Life is random. Life is complicated. Life is often unforgiving. And we must each live it anyway. And I don’t mean live it as if it’s a chore, something to be endured, survived. I mean dig in, get muddy, howl at the moon, take pictures of sunsets, play in the rain, make love, savor your food, smile as much as you can. And cry when you’re sad.
Live it despite the fact it pisses you off. Live it and pay as much attention as you can muster. So when a light goes out, as even the sun will eventually, you can say, Damn, now that was a beautiful one!
we do not create words,
we discover them.
words have their own identities,
their own minds, their own sense of purpose.
right and wrong, left and right, true north.
we build fences to contain them,
they slip through the rails.
we lock them in their rooms,
they move through walls.
they hide under beds, smoke cigarettes in bathrooms.
they eat junk food, read dirty magazines.
fornicate with other words.
we call words to the table.
but they may not answer or they may not eat.
words play with their food.
if you kill their spirit, they die.
lying flat on the page, translucent.
the dna of words cannot be mapped.
there’s only a probability of words.
words fold space. bend time. outrun light.
-from love jaywalks: poems from the novel
Waking Up at Rembrandt’s
I know why you’ve come.
You want me to tell you stories
of dragons I have chased,
armor that men wear,
castles where we have dwelt.
But you must understand time.
Time begs no forgivenesses,
gives no excuses,
won’t be broken.
Though the mystics tell me
So be time for me.
Just for a minute.
A s t r e t c h e d out second.
the dream of the blue speckled lizards
and find your place
in the dry river bed of time.
to understand the movement
of water — it keeps its secrets
inside of stones.
Its poetry is there for you to read.
But only the lizards know why.
And something inside them
longs to breathe fire
into your settled soul.