ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
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.
There is only one word, split into infinity.
In the beginning was the word. And the word was all that is. The word was both the creator and the created. The blessed and the blessing. The Shakti and the Shiva. The I AM. The wholeness, oneness, universal mother, father, sons and daughters.
All writing, then, is sacred. Each word carries the DNA of the origins of the universe. All voices echo the sounds of the birth.
All words also contain their opposites, their duality, their polarities, their twin flames, the paradox of oneness and separation. Each contains the memory of both everything and nothing. Each has intrinsic meaning and the meaning you give to it.
If we imagine the universe is a word, what word would that be?
A word is all-powerful. And a word is only a probability. Both possibilities exist at once. In order that words not penetrate us, we must imagine ourselves to be invisible. But even this is futile, as we are made up entirely of their stardust. And holding the memory of every word ever born, ever whispered, ever shouted from any mountaintop, we cannot deny their essence.
After all, how do we know what words mean? Who has told us? How has it been decided? Did we invent them? Or did they invent us? Who is the dreamer? And who the dream?
Words are born knowing. That is the answer. And the question.
Why is it then that we cannot talk to each other? With all this history together, with our origins bound together in infinity, why is it we have such trouble? How can we fail to communicate so consistently? We create computers to connect us all, so we won’t have to talk to each other. And who can be surprised, when we cannot talk to ourselves?
What is so frightening about a word? When we have been together for eternity, why are we not comfortable with each other? When we share the same cosmic lineage, how can we forget our birthrights? If the genetics of the word are patterned into our own DNA, why isn’t language reflexive, like breathing?
Words are essential to life.
Why else would we invent false hierarchies for them and wage war over their meanings? We cannot kill a word, but we can bury it with ignorance. When any one of us uses a word, its meaning is as unique as we are. Because the word was split into infinity, there are an infinite number of ways it can show up. In other words, in the beginning, the word contained the whole. And each split-apart word carries the holographic imprint of the whole.
If we say the word is God, it must be understood the word God is a metaphor for that which necessarily translates to any number of other words, like Goddess, Buddha, Allah, Tao, Elohim, YHWH, Great Spirit, Jehovah, Shangdi, Khoda, Tengri, Hu, Bahá, or Om. And any of the 101 names for God in Zoroastrianism. And all of the Hindu deities. The beauty of the word is not lost in any translation, but only shines its different facets. Each word contains all the others. Each word holds infinite possibilities of completion.
What then is completion?
So, if I speak a word and you do not hear it, what is the point? If I write a word and you do not understand it, have I said anything? If I say that sheet is white, and you think I said, bad cheetah, right, have the words served us in anyway? Other than to show the frailty of our efforts?
Wake up and speak. Wake up and listen.
Our DNA operates without our commands. But it is not unaffected by our thoughts and words. Sometimes we put our brains on auto-pilot and somehow do things like driving to the store. But this is not really a good thing. We do this with words countless more times a day.
Words deserve more. Words deserve our full attention, our admiration, our respect. Or, as I have said before*:
words are demanding lovers.
you must take your time.
turn down the lights,
gather the candles, put on music.
you must remember poetry
and forget expectations.
you must speak of their beauty
and swoon at their voices.
you must stand naked before them
and allow them their mystery.
you must ask them to talk
and then remain silent.
It is time to resurrect the word. And to complete the sentence.
*words: study 3, an excerpt from the novel Waking Up at Rembrandt’s, © 2009, 2012, Thomas Lloyd Qualls.
** a version of this piece also made an appearance at Rebelle Society
“Things we’ve wanted
Let’s face it, we are a needy lot. I want, I want, I want. I need, I need, I need!And the irony is that getting what we want or think we need almost never makes us happy. Most importantly, it doesn’t lead to joy.
As much as we’d like it to be otherwise, joy has nothing to do with achieving our goals. Joy has nothing to do with pleasure (or money or status or #winning).
Think about it. When was the last time you experienced actual joy because you completed a big project, crossed the finish line, or had a mind-blowing orgasm? Wait, nevermind, forget that last one. I’m pretty sure that counts as actual joy.
“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” ~ W. B. Yeats
The simple truth that we forget over and over is that joy comes from letting go. From giving away. From showing kindness, generosity, forgiveness.Some of my most vivid experiences of joy happen when I am doing something for someone else. Or when I let go of a worry or a grudge or a perceived injury that I had been carrying for god knows how long.
Joy also happens anytime we can let go of control. Vacations work best when you can absolutely leave your cares behind. When you disconnect from the persistent reality of the virtual world and go somewhere out of cell phone reach.
We know all of this, but we are a society of amnesiacs. And so we keep creating monsters to chase, dragons to slay, bad guys to capture, windmills to tilt.
“What giants?” asked Sancho Panza.
All fear is really based in the fear of loss. But we are not so much afraid of losing something or someone as we are afraid that the loss won’t be on our terms. Control issues are all based on the anxiety that things won’t go the way we want. The thing is, the more we let go of, the better off we are.
We waste so much energy on all these things we see that need to be fixed, the to do list that never ends, the injustices that must be righted, the countless arms that beg to be wrestled, the arguments that have to be won…
But these are all just our own brand of windmills, hulking giants we trick ourselves into believing we must joust, despite the voices of others who tell us they are simply tricks of the brain.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” ~ Lao Tzu
These endless lists of things we are forever updating, these imaginary enemies we drag around with us, these pieces of identity we hold on to for so long we forget they are there. These are the things that keep us from ourselves.
We walk around the store filling our carts, our hands, our pockets with all the things we don’t want. Meanwhile we starve to death.
Joy is letting go. Joy is keeping the cart empty enough for the things we really want.
Do not seek the because – in love there is no because, no reason, no explanation, no solutions.
If you are still reading, then you must doubt something of what she is saying. You must believe there is not only a why, but a how. You must have personified love with all the frailness of human understanding. Love is more than this.
We all struggle to know its secret innerworkings. Nevertheless, love simply is. With all due depth and clarity, love simply is. The ultimate answer to the infinite mystery is that love simply is. And what this means is beyond human understanding. Except in those small glimpses we each get. Those times when, voluntarily or not, we meet life up close and with all our fullness. Then we know love, in all its beauty and terror.
When this simple idea (that love is) is not enough for us, when we strive to dissect it further, to name it, label it, categorize it, these are the causes of much suffering. Despite what all the ascended masters tell us, despite what we say in our best hours, despite what your guru teaches and even what Bryan Ferry sings, we believe love is more than this.
But what more can there be than what is?
This conundrum, this insatiable need for something more than everything, takes up most of human existence. This irrational need turns the conversation toward something that distracts us from the real, the primary, the immediate, the sensual flooding of the spiritual gates.
I suppose it is this mystery within a mystery that leads us to think love can be planned, calendared, defined, or plotted on a graph by human hearts and minds. Trust me, this could never be — though I doubt we will ever stop trying. And that, too, is part of love’s gift.
All my life, my heart has yearned for a thing I cannot name.
Love is not subject to our unwittingly small designs, our persistent needs for order, for instant gratification, our stubborn insistence on going in the wrong direction, our misdirected desires, our dearest fears. Love’s sight is longer than you may see in a thousand lifetimes. Its wisdom is deeper than a thousand voyages into space. Its compassion is fuller than all the water balloons of all the childhoods of history’s memory.
Love is by design. Despite your mistaken beliefs in its timing, its accuracy, its best intentions. Like petals from a faded rose, you must learn to let all of these things go. Sit back and be still. Love knows the way.
Next time you think, oh, that one was such a mistake, know that you’re wrong. Love doesn’t make mistakes. Love’s intelligence is infinite.
Love is always in alignment. Love is always in synch. Love is always on its game and in the flow. Unlike you and I, love does not need to trip, to stumble, to fall, in order to learn about cracks in the sidewalk, balance, gravity. Love is gravity. Love is the crack in the sidewalk.
I think there is no unreturn’d love, the pay is certain one way or another.
The painter folded back the heavy curtain, standing in the stream of light breaking through the damp thickness of the room. He paused, still holding the drape in his hand as he considered with suspicion that a world could exist outside the window. Then he reached for a stained cloth and tied back the opaque fabric. He returned to the easel, wading through the illuminated particles of air on his way.
To paint one must forget everything else. Where you live, who you know, what you eat, when to sleep. The landscape of the canvas becomes your only reality. The planet you inhabit is a single plane of infinite dimensions, stretched like a guitar string, and standing before you like a concubine waiting for your command.
The painter knew that color was not something you controlled but something you set free. He believed that color knew its way home. But he lived in a time and place that considered color suspect, blasphemous even. Those who worshiped color, who cavorted with it, who dared to practice its alchemy, were seen as witches. The respectable world would tolerate his kind to a point, for entertainment’s sake. So long as the painter could rein in color, make it behave. So long as he painted the world the way they wanted it to be. So long as he had no thoughts of his own.
You might think of a thought as an invisible, innocuous little thing. Something that barely exists. But a thought is something hard to conceal. Hold a thought and it melts all over your hands. Touch something else and now you’ve left traces of it. Hide it under your shirt and it bleeds through.
The painter was not afraid of thoughts though and did not consider thinking to be risky behavior. To the painter, the only risk which existed was to stop painting. To stop trying to solve the riddle of light and dark. Or to paint what someone else wanted him to see. To tell the colors to stand up straight, form a narrow line, eat their peas. That was death.
The painter knew the mirror lied. And the canvas told the truth. A simple breakfast of beer, fried eggs and herring. These things you could trust. Words, whether written or spoken, were barely worth sitting still for, not worth repeating. In the end there is only light and dark. And the two are not so far apart.
*excerpt from the beginning of the novel, Waking Up at Rembrandt’s.
Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists.
– A Course in Miracles
There are days where the world will break your heart. I don’t mean that you will be sad or disappointed or even angry. I don’t mean that your feelings will be hurt or that you will sob into a pillow. I don’t mean that you will be so depressed you won’t want to get out of bed or talk to anyone.
I mean that your heart will break. It will bleed out right on the desk, the floor, the kitchen table. And the pain in your chest will be so great that you’ll think you cannot bear it. And everywhere you look, everything you read, every conversation you have will feel like peroxide being poured onto an open wound. I mean that you will not be able to see any future that is habitable, because everything will seem irreparably broken. The meanness of the human race will appear beyond comprehension.
The destructive nature of children, their inhumane treatment of one another, suddenly explains all the world’s woes. And you realize that everyone you know is just a child in grown up clothes, with more responsibilities than they are capable of handling, throwing the occasional toddler’s tantrum that is disguised as either righteous indignation or hormonal vicissitudes. And that their poor treatment of other humans is exactly the same thing as the oversized playground bully ruthlessly making the younger kids cry with his taunting and name-calling.
The rich getting richer, the greedy greedier, the hard-working even more marginalized. The sick, more in debt. Meanwhile the insurance companies steal our money, month after month. The banks take our houses and then take some more. And Congress and our President are impotent to do anything about it. Meanwhile they handover our lunch money to the oil companies, the garden itself to Monsanto, and whatever is left to the NRA, you know, for protection.
The world is mean. That is all there is. Meanness. And the occasional bout of insomnia which shakes us from our chronic slumber of unawareness to acknowledge our inability to do anything about it just before we fall asleep again, exhausted.
There are days where the world will not only break your heart, but tear it out of your chest, stomp on it, and set it on fire, right before your dumbstruck eyes. And you won’t know what to do.
And I won’t know what to tell you to make it any better. And I probably won’t even have enough money to buy you a beer you can cry into.
And yet somehow, somehow, you will find a different set of days. In those days, the sun will be warm on your skin. But there will be just enough cloud cover to allow the colors all around you to show themselves. And your world will be saturated with beauty. You’ll get buzzed by a hummingbird on your morning walk. And the green and yellow foothills will spread their beauty across the horizon as if just for you.
These are the days that are true. This is what is real. All else is nonsense dreamt up by small minds and feeble imaginations. All else is illusion.
Come with me. Let’s live all our days saturated in beauty.