Wednesday, October 23, 2013

golden age or churning of the waters

            It is late Pentecost, and approaching All Saints' and All Souls', and my church is doing a pop-up blog.  The following is a piece I originally wrote in response to something in the mass — though I can't recall what it was anymore — and so I thought it appropriate to contribute it when asked if I could offer something.  The following went up today, so I thought I'd share it here as well.

golden age or churning of the waters

the peach            sliced in half            fell open
gladiolas            stuck out their tiny            purple tongues
and strawberry blossoms            by magic            became strawberries

still your doubts hover            swoop in
and out             follow
an unknown will            behind me
behind me            behind me
where oh where
                                did the fruits with
their sugar and petals go?

it was that spring            the one people talk about
but it's gone            and somehow you know
you were never there for it

up under the mind            come floodwaters in the night
dark            and rotting what they touch

get behind me
i see it coming            and suspect
i am less necessary than you

behind me            where
shall we wait            for the boats that won't come
for the turtles            lumbering and snapping their mouths
to float us            towards a different death            one followed
by a spring            we may never see

            The concept of a “golden age,” from what I’ve read of world history, seems to be nearly universal.  There is always, “back then, when everything was great.”
            I am tired of this idea.  Not because I don’t believe in a golden age, but because I believe that almost by definition it must have been before human memory as we know it.  On some level we know deep, deep in our brain, the hunter-gatherer we are, and will never be again.  All of civilization — all the beautiful architecture, all the art, all the music and poetry and mercantilism and supposed glories of the intellect — seem to me a symptom of the degradation of our species.  A falling away from what we are, what we evolved to be.
            A bleak view for a Christian, I know.  We are such optimists!  Such unrelenting believers that all will turn out well.
            I present no solution to this.  Please don't take what I am about to say as a solution.  It is entirely possible there is none.
The churning of the waters comes from another mythology:  Indian/Vedic.*  So too the turtles.  They represent a moment when the muck that came out of Shiva’s destruction was churned, and lo!  There were good things hiding in that mud!
What the good things are, I don’t know.  I suspect they don’t include me as I know myself now; I suspect they are made from my recycled innards.  But I would like the turtles to have a chance to float a new world on their backs, even if they do it on the strength of fish they ate, who in their own turn gnawed on my bones.

*  I should mention that I do not understand Indian or Vedic philosophy well enough to expound on it/them (really there are Indian schools other than Vedic, but it's the best known).  I will say that I think that poetry is a different realm altogether, and I claim full license to do whatever the hell misunderstanding I please in poetic form.  I would work much harder — and probably write something much less useful — if I were composing an essay on soma and the samudra manthan.  Which I'm not.  Yet!

Friday, October 18, 2013

φιλοσοφἰα, γυνἠ, part one

            Philosophia.  The original meaning is "love of wisdom."  That's a lovely original meaning.
            I go back and forth on the term "philosophy."  For now, I am happiest with the phrase, "the life of the mind."  Philosophy has started to sound so cold, and what drew me to the life of the mind (originally) was much, much more personal.  It was an aching loneliness, that started sometime in grade school.
            So here, for the next two or three posts, I will stories centering around two different words.
            First, a chronology.

            Long time ago:  Somebody writes the fucking book of Genesis, which is one of the better pieces of literature.  But strange once you read the really old creation myths.  In which the reader discovers that most of humanity believed that the world was created by a goddess and a serpent, and the whole dude thing didn't show up until much later.

            Approximately 1933-1945:  Shoah, or the Holocaust.  Or the really brilliant PR concept, the Final Solution.  During Shoah, probably around 6 million Jews were killed by Nazi programs in and around Germany.  If we broaden to "the Holocaust," and include in that all of the religious dissenters, homosexuals, Romani, disabled, and other lives deemed unacceptable by Germany, the number rises to about 5 million more humans, for a total of approximately 11 million people dead.

           1991:  I started attending the public junior high in Mercer Island.  I lived on Mercer Island, but until then my mom had driven me to another nearby town to go to a small Christian school there.  Because I hadn't been going to the public schools where I lived, I hadn't known much about the demographics of my own neighborhood.  One of my first discoveries was Jewish kids.  Lots of Jewish kids.  I was initially thrilled to discover that the Hebrews of the Bible had survived in the modern era.  I had thus far believed them to be extinct because we always talked about them in the past tense in church and school.
            I was, however, quickly apprised of the events of the Holocaust.  Being raised in an Evangelical home and church, with a heavy emphasis on guilt, and being mostly German American, the results were fairly predictable.  Not least because — and this itself was probably due to the historical influences on Mercer Island's ethnic composition — everyone my age was obsessed with ethnicity.  When you were meeting a peer for the first time, you would exchange names, ages, and would immediately be asked something like, "Where is your family from originally?"
            If I'd had any sense, I would have said I was Scottish.  My last name is Scottish.  But I am predominantly German, and compulsively honest.  So when the inevitable, "What ethnicity are you?" came up, I couldn't stop myself from saying "German."  The responses were less than favorable.  Usually it was just a quiet "Oh," and they would suddenly be not interested in being my friend.  Once, I got a horrified, "You're a Nazi."  Luckily even then I saw some of the silliness of this.  (Some.)  But it didn't change the fact that my family's origins shaped my whole social experience of junior high.  And, perhaps most importantly, I knew it.

            What got me interested in philosophy — probably between the ages of thirteen and fourteen — was neither the supposed topics, nor any interest in a method of questioning.  It was weirdness.  My weirdness.  Weirdness, and its requisite alienation.  It was being an outsider, having no friends to eat lunch with at school, and every time I did try to talk to my peers I was terrified by how casually they seemed to take life, and how seriously I took it.  You could call it being uptight, on my part.  And also, loneliness.

            At the church I went to in high school, the pastors were fond of expounding on "the roots of words."  These were mostly botched attempts, which frequently conflated the history of the form of a word, with the history of its meaning.  The word "sin" is a great example of this.  Or the etymology of a word — say, "woman" — would be used the prove the accuracy of the same ideology which gave rise to the word in the first place.

            Eventually, in college, men discovered me.  The supposed consolation of human companionship was mostly supposed; still, I was distracted from philosophy, from my newly discovered smarter-than-thou status, and thought I had found a cure for my isolation:  sex!
            Still the loneliness continued, and I discovered many of the real reasons so many women are suspicious of men.  And being intellectual does not help.  Most intellectual men want a woman who will "Ooooh" and "Aaaahh" to their fascinating observations, and less intellectually oriented men seem to resent the idea of a female companion being smarter than them.

            Philosophia is a beautiful word, with an important original meaning.  These days, it feels like a word for something out of reach.  Every time I use the word "philosophy," I feel like I'm in a Monty Python skit and the skies should pop open with a booming voice:  PHILOSOPHY.  I dig Monty Python, but such antics make me feel awkward and unfunny.  Not so much inspired to join in the conversation.
            But this feeling isn't an accident.  It would appear that the only way to get called a "philosopher" is to go to a university and get a doctorate.  Now that is a very, very expensive way to read books, write papers, and sit around discussing them both.  But academicians keep encouraging us to view philosophy as a highly specialized field, because why else would anyone be willing to spend that kind of money or, more realistically, take out loans they'll be paying off for the next thirty years?
            It remains to be seen if this trend will change for the better anytime soon.  I am encouraged by a lot of what I hear/read going on outside of the academy; for example, at Partially Examined Life* and at Philosophy Bites**, whose own Nigel Warburton recently left the academy because he isn't so sure it's the best place to do philosophy anymore.  But I'm not convinced this exactly heralds a sea change.  Both Philosophy Bites and Partially Examined Life focus almost exclusively on responding to the same people and topics that are dealt with in the academy.  It's not that I think the academy has it wrong about the importance of the philosophical literary tradition and its foci.  It's just that I'm not sure when we can expect to see non-academicians coming up with original, well-articulated ideas that are taken seriously enough to make it to some kind of larger discourse.  Unless/until that happens, it seems we are stuck with the academic model, both in terms of what subjects are discussed, and which interlocutors are taken seriously.

*  Which is awesome, by the way.  Totally worth checking out.
**  Which is also awesome, and much more succinct.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

an experiment

The following was an experiment/mash-up using the very, very strange and wonderful poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, including some of the original German.  All of the words are Hölderlin's, or from the English translation by Michael Hamburger.

Fragments of the Fragments of the Later Version of Patmos, by Friedrich Hölderlin

Voll Güt' ist; keiner aber fasset
Allein Gott.

Most kind is; but no one by himself
Can grasp God.

In gloomy places dwell
The eagles, over
The chasm walk the sons
On bridges lightly built.
Give us innocent water,
O pinions give us, with minds
To cross over and to return.

So I spoke when
a Genius carried me
From my own house. There clothed themselves,
Like men,
The shadowy wood
So, fresh,
golden haze

Now, Asia burst into flower for me,
drowsy almost with flowers the garden,

O Insel des Lichts!
land of eyes,
More athletic
In ruin.
The hand of the Lord.
Rein aber bestand
Auf ungebundnem Boden Johannes.

von Cana.
A little while I shall stay, he said.
the Baptist's head,
Just picked, like script
on the platter. Like fire
Are voices of God. Yet it is hard
In great events to preserve what is great.

Johannes. Christus.
But that's
And now
I wish to sing.
Werden Träume. Fall on the heart
Like error, and killing, if one does not

Consider what they are and understand.
the Lord
Pronounced death, for never
He could find words enough
To say about kindness. Sein Licht war

Alles ist gut. Thereupon he died.
as when
A century bends, thoughtfully.

The evening had come. For to
Be pure is a skill.
But much is to be avoided. Too much
Of love
Is dangerous.
und der Heimath.
beside them
Walked, like a plague, the loved one's shadow.
mightily trembled
The house and God's thunder-storms rolled
Distantly rumbling,

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Tugging and Prying, in its Subtler Forms

            Thoughts on Chapter 10 of The Artist's Way.  Part ten of twelve on creativity.

            Humans (I'm told) are a social species.  I happen to be human.  Also, I'm a heterosexual and a woman (or maybe cis female would be a little more accurate), and these aspects of my social identity have contributed significantly to shaping me into someone who is nigh-on obsessed with social cues and norms.
            I've been on two silent meditation retreats now*.  Both were only five days long.  On neither of them did I achieve anything like the blissful state of calm I hear so many people describe.  I was definitely calmer by the end, but mostly that just made me realize how hopped up I am for 99% of my life.  And I have a pretty good guess what I'm hopped up on:  socialization.  Not because I like it.  I hate it.  I would almost go so far as to say I hate humans, if I wasn't afraid of alienating my readership.  (God how I aspire to having whales who would take my work seriously.)  But think about it.  This whole smile, make eye contact, then listen and talk thing is beyond exhausting.  I don't know how I manage it.  Because on both of my silent retreats, I spent the whole time on one loop:
            "Oh, no!  Should I have held the door/waited for him to take a bowl first/left my shoes outside/done my hair better/been quieter when I moved my eyeball?  They must be so irritated with me!  I'm sorry!  I'm so, so — Oh, wait!  We're in silence!  No one cares what I do!  I can relax!!"
            I relax for five seconds.
            Then, "Oh, no!  Should I have..."
            That is how I spend my life.  And I will go out on a limb and say that I suspect it is how you spend a large portion of your life, too, whether you're conscious of it or not.  Because I had absolutely no idea how I spent most of my life until I went on a meditation retreat and discovered that my universe turns on the axis of what people think of me.
            Obsessing about social cues, pressures, and norms looks different on different people.  I think it's important to realize that always pushing against the norm is still a way of defining oneself according to the norm.  Two of the many little boys in my life were recently discussing this with me.  Keshav, the elder brother, pointed out that his younger brother could be pretty easily manipulated by using reverse psychology.  Just say, "Ishaan, you better grab my car!  Or else!"  And, presto!  Ishi will stand defiantly over the car refusing to touch it for the rest of his life.  So I asked Ishi what was going on when people told him to do things.  He couldn't explain it (he's four years old, so such an explanation is probably a couple of years away), but he affirmed that no matter what, he always has to do the opposite of what he's told to do.  When I asked Keshav how he feels when grown-ups give him instructions, he got wide-eyed and a little serious and said, "Oh, I do what they say."  He also couldn't explain why; he just said that he felt like he really needed to do what the grown-ups told him to do.
            As Keshav's observation about manipulability demonstrates, Ishaan doesn't free himself by being so contrarian.  Both boys are making decisions, and the opinions of grown-ups weigh heavily in the scales.
            In Week 10 of The Artist's Way, Cameron discusses some of the most common blocks that people turn to in order to stifle their own creativity.  Two of them, erm, rang a bell with me:  relationships, and their best friend, sexuality.  I'm using the term "sexuality," and not "sex," because I'm not really talking about coitus.  I'm talking more about the mating game.  The relentless energy drain that is worrying about the bloody opposite sex/sex of interest.**
            When combined with the myriad other subtle pressures to smile, dress appropriately, not raise your voice in public anywhere ever on the West Coast, and rave about Mad Men/Breaking Bad/Walking Dead/insert popular show Leigh either despises or knows nothing about — these things add up.  As in, get heavy.  Get heavy and occupy the almost immeasurable quantities of mental energy we have, and never know we have, because they are always preoccupied with the things we're not conscious of.
            There's another trick to beware of here:  as soon as we hear the phrase "sex and relationships" we lie to/console ourselves by saying that's just a part of our life.  Like, somehow we compartmentalize sex and relationships (both the sexual and the non-) into these little, well-controlled sectors and don't let them interfere with the really important stuff.  This attitude is dangerous for at least two very obvious reasons:  it denigrates relationality/sexuality, by making them into distractions from the supposedly important stuff; and secondly, it's just not true.  You — the mass of creative, spiritual, intellectual, physical, and mental energy that you are — you are relational.  In other words, your relational and sexual qualities are not just a couple of the compartments, like intellect and physicality.  (The debate about the above list and which parts of it constitute "parts" and "wholes" will have to wait for another day.)  The you that is you is not even exclusively one you; it's a part of a whole.  By definition.
            The problem when you're talking about creativity and this relational aspect of us humans, is that frequently they directly conflict.  For one thing, there's time and energy.  Everyone in the world thinks they have a claim on your time, whether you've met them or not, and that goes about ten times over for women.  But beyond that, there's the weird, insistent tug that relationality exerts on our psyches.  You can kick everyone out of the room, for an indefinite period of time, and yet you know they will keep prying into parts of your head, the subtle desires and fears of approval and rejection, the obligations will never relent even in your own goddamn head.
            And of course, do you even want to kick everyone out of the room?  I, for one, do not.  I actually love some of those weirdos and wallflowers, and some of the rest I can even stand with measurable pleasure.
            But if I'm supposed to be writing about creativity (which I am), I have to say:  sometimes you gotta kick those guys out.  Like, everyone.  Everyone, even at the risk of making some people mad.  Even at the risk of making some people not like you, which is terrifying.  Even at the risk of kick them all out, to attempt (and fail) to clear some head space, so you can attempt to make an artifact that you will look at afterwards and know immediately:  it's a failure.
            Still, I stand by it.  Sometimes, you gotta kick those guys out.  Even the best of them.  Because not one person who has a claim on your love, affection, time, energy, interest, etc. — not one of them can live your life, can make the things you can make.  Not one can give you back that time later on so you can finally get to the work you've always been meaning to get to.

*  The silence of a meditation retreat is often called Noble Silence, and it means more than just not talking.  It means not talking, but also not listening in if/when you hear others talk, not reading or writing, and (blissfully) no eye contact.  No eye contact!!!   NO EYE CONTACT!!  That is what heaven is for me.  An eternity of being left alone.

**  Okay, so I assume heterosexuality when I say "opposite sex," and I'm not totally happy with the replacement, "sex of interest."  But for now, it's what I've got.  If someone could suggest a term that includes both opposite and same sex objects of interest and torment, please do.