Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Pause for Reflection

So, in reading through the flurry of new posts to a long conversation about online poetry, in which actors reveal themselves by their actions as well as their words, this cold crisp early winter morning I am moved to a moment of reflection.

La plus ça change, la plus meme chose. Because what the vitriol of hatred and envy in that recycling argument about the online poetry workshop world reveals, again, is the ego-centered weakness of compassion, the self-centered deficit of empathy, the overall lack of community in a corner of the world that pretends to be communal. When you need to count on community, on fellow-feeling, can you, really? When you need succor, will it genuinely be there? When you need a mentor, will you be lucky enough to find the one you need? Who will help you grow up, as writer, and as person? If you are unable to grow up as an artist, I hope you can at least grow up as a person; it's the more important, more necessary venue, after all.

A lot of life revolves around the truth that no-one will do it for you—or can. A lot of growing up revolves around living with the truth that you're pretty much on your own. When you get to a certain point in your artistic (and personal) maturation, you come knees-to-asphalt with the realization that most folks can't really help you anymore. Your mistakes are your own, as are your joys and triumphs. This is when you must start trusting your inner compass, if you haven't already. Trust and faith are often the same thing: but whatever you have faith in, outside yourself, trust is something you can't place in a lot of external realities. (And as Vladimir Nabokov once quipped, "reality" is a word that should always appear in quotes.) Faith in something undefinable that is greater than yourself does not excuse you from the burden of still having to do the hard work. You're on your own, regardless.

Yet the awareness that one is personally responsible for one's actions is the parent of fellow-feeling. If indeed we are all solitary, still we have that as a place to start finding common ground.

I am also thinking, prompted by another conversation elsewhere, about the long shanks of the future, my own future as well as others like me. There are huge number of us older gay men who, if we are not already aging and ailing, shall be soon, and who have no partners, no families, no circle of friends who will care for us. Will we all fall through the cracks? Those cracks made wider by the col equations of the unempathic political savage selfishness of the past two decades? Those cracks in the social fabric that have become crevasses, which we must somehow still bridge across. Whose hands will be there for you, to help you across, when you most need them?

I was the dutiful son: I gave up my own life and career, a few years ago, and moved back home to live with and care for my aging and ailing parents. (This was not without its rewards, in other ways.) I have no-one in my life, at present, who could do the same for me. I am not alone in this dilemma. I feel for my fellows who lack even the meagre safety net I have (which is in some ways another reward for being my parents' live-in caregiver). I don't know how to help my fellows; even as every habit of caregiving in me, well-practiced in recent years, surges forward with the desire to help, I must balance my own needs against how much I can actually do for anyone. Does it serve those with no safety net to give them all of mine, leaving me as helpless as they once were? Will they return the favor? Will someone else pay it forward, if not back?

if you have supportive familial, communal, or partnership/relationships resources for your later life, consider yourself very fortunate. Don't take them for granted, and don't abuse your privilege. For those of us who do not have such resources, and have no current prospects of acquiring them, the future remains unclear. Just getting through each day seems like enough, for the moment.

Of course this can make one feel rather lonely, of a cold clear morning. It's the price you pay, though, for evolving away from the tribe, and becoming an individual. But don't stop there, at individuality: most people in our culture, which praises individualism as some ultimate goal, get stalled when they finally break away from their birth-tribes. They stall, and never get any further. Some of them spend the rest of their lives baffled as to the lack of some entitled reward for simply being good.

Becoming an individual is only one step in the process, though. We're all meant to go on, to the symbolic level. This is where empathy and fellow-feeling return to us, and really count. This is where we learn that we must care for each other, because in fact we're not separate. The spear in my brother's heart is the spear in my own: we are One. The paradox of living the symbolic life is that you know how much every little thing you do leaves ripples in the ocean in which we all swim. You're less and less tempted to intervene, unless absolutely necessary, while at the same time your gifts of compassion and empathy become ever more acute. You know ever more personally how impersonal life is, and simultaneously you know how necessary it is to create the ties that bind us all into One.

Go out and make those ties. Work hard at it. If you want to be cynically and economically self-centered about your own aging and ailing years, view the work of compassion as an investment in your own future. Ideally, your motivations will be sweet rather than sour: out of love, pleasure, genuine desire to meet the Other on the threshold. But even egoists deserve succor.

Find some other ways to be self-sufficient, too, and make plans for your own long-term needs. Self-sufficiency, in matters of shelter and economics, is something one needs to have. Self-sufficiency is not something you should give up, if and when you do partner up with others, either: solitudes meeting (as Rilke described love relationships), who choose to be together, cannot give up their solitudes. They must rather refine them.

And all the gods bless you if you're already self-sufficient. Be so kind as to temper your boastings about it with the same sort of compassion you'd ask from others when you do need aide.

If there's one life-lesson that's been thoroughly underlined by the recent difficult years in my own life, it's not to expect much help from other people. Oh, I can always be relied on to provide a shoulder for others to cry on; but there isn't a lot of reciprocation. The best of friends will be there, when they can, as much as they can; but that still might not be enough to meet your needs, in the moment, or across the years. If such support manifests, excellent: but don't expect it. In the meantime, don't stop giving out love, because that's how it comes back to you, in the end.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled small cares of the moment.

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Blogger Rachel Fox said...

You talk about some of the most important issues here, Art. It was good to read it.


1:34 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I've had to think about this one for a bit before replying. This is my second tour of duty online. The first ended about ten years ago and I only used my computer in the interim for research. The reason I left was due to the fact that it was eating up all my time, not the computer as such but the people I was involved with mainly on Zoetrope where I was getting into longer and longer conversations about all kinds of writing; they became very needy. Back then I was on the short story site too and I was spending hours and hours playing with my friends. But when one day I stopped showing up they just got on without me, not a single z-mail to ask if I was dead or at death's door. And that says it all about online relationships. I get so many e-mails and news feeds every day that if I didn't my wee reminders a month could pass easily before I'd wonder, Where's that Art chappie I used to talk to?

For reasons too involved to go into I also walked out of my real life about the same time as I abandoned my virtual one and now I'm alone but for my wife and daughter. Although the people I abandoned were nice enough people – most people are in my experience – I had nothing in common with them other than we ran in the same circles. I too played the dutiful son until my mother died although I didn't need to quit working to do so fortunately but I would have done if necessary.

As my wife is twelve years older than I I fully expect to spend my last days alone. I guess this is where the strength of my individuality will be put to the test but the fact is that less and less do I find I need people around me other than to do the occasional bit of spotting, to use a weight-lifting term, and online relationships work fine for that. I know full well if I put up a post bemoaning my lot in life people will rally round and offer a word or two of support and I can live with that not making more of it than what it is.

I like the expression 'solitudes meeting' – there could be another poem there – but even if there isn't it expresses well how I view pretty much all relationships. Interestingly I find myself benefitted more by giving than receiving. I'm not good at receiving.

So, chin up, Art. It could be worse and it may well become worse. But not today.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Giving is always easier than receiving. There are issues of self-worth bound up in that, that usually are tangled up with feeling like we don't deserve whatever good comes out way. It's always easier to see the bad in ourselves, rather than the good.

The trick as ever is in finding the balance.

1:04 AM  

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