Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gratitudes 2008

This has been a very hard year. A very hard year for me, and for my family, and for many of my friends. It's been filled with death, with stress, illness, moving, sorting, purging, starting over, travel, grieving, recovery, and much more. It's been only a year and a half since my father died, and a year, next week, since my mother died. I've been having a very difficult time, this holiday season. I've been emotionally vulnerable a lot of the time; I've felt fragile, I've endured waves of unpredictable overpowering emotion that seem to come out of nowhere, like tsunamis or hurricanes, suddenly arriving onshore to drown everything in sight. I've been up and down the emotional and physical roller-coaster for months and years, by now, and I'm wrung out, tired, and occasionally depressed. Just exhausted. I don't even have the strength to hope for anything better to come. I'll get back to the problem of hope a little later.

So I'm late, this year, for writing gratitudes. I wasn't to get to it sooner; I've been overwhelmed, and exhausted, and busy, and coping. Life goes on. I've done the best I can, and ask no more of myself than that.

As I've said before, I don't do New Year's Resolutions. One reason for this is that I actually celebrate New Year's on the old calendar, on All Hallow's, which to me, in the religion I chose to follow some twenty and more years ago, is when the Yearwheel actually turns. And Chinese New Year happens in Feburary. New Year's Day is as arbitrary as the calendar you choose to follow: every day is a new day, a new year, a new life. Every morning, you start over again. When you learn to live day to day, and not obsess on either the future or the past, each sunrise is creation.

Another reason I don't do New Year's Resolutions is that they're a set-up for beating yourself up when you fail at whatever you resolved, this year, to accomplish. Most people make resolutions that are too big, that they cannot keep to, and that are too dramatic and ambitious to be realistic. When you make a resolution that's too grandiose, you never keep your word. You can't. It's forgivable because no one could. But it's a set-up for feeling bad about yourself, about your willpower, about your ability to make changes in your life, and about a host of other shortcomings. Sometimes all we can see is our flaws, and we don't give ourselves enough credit for having gotten as far as we have.

So rather than making resolutions, I focus on what I've achieved, and what changes I can see that I've already started, or am in process of achieving, or that have happened all without my own will being the driving force. I focus on progress made, rather than what remains to be done.

I had to learn how to do this. I taught myself, as my natural tendency is more dour than sunlit. It took many years of hard work to get to this point, where gratitude means more to me than ambition. I cannot tell you how much peace that has brought to me, and how much angst it has helped disperse. If you're stressed out about your own life, give it a try: it works. If I can do it, so can you. Trust me on that one: you have no idea how steep the mountain I've had to climb has been, on this topic. Or how often I still slip back down into a crevasse, and have to climb out again. Again, if I can do it, so can you.

Now, let me say this about hope: Hope is toxic. Hope is like a resolution, only hope assumes that some outside force will hand you your life's problems solved on a silver platter. Hope is too passive, most of the time, which is why it is often betrayed by circumstance. Hope, like a resolution, the way most people talk about it, is also too grandiose and unrealistic to ever be realized. Hope is often a set-up for feeling bad, in the end, because we all have the habit of hoping for tangible, physical outcomes to spiritual and emotional matters. It's a category error: we hope for quantitative returns on qualitative investments. But those universes rarely cross, for most people, most of the time.

So don't go on to me about how things will get better, how my life will now turn around, how I must have hope for the future, how I must keep my chin up, how I must be positive, and think positive. Maybe my life will turn around, and everything will get better: I might believe that, but do not hope for it. Be clear about the difference. To be blunt, many people who tell you to keep a positive attitude are trying to avoid their own emotional fallout, and want you to be okay so that they can feel okay. Many people would like you to recover from your grief on their timetable, too, because your grief is upsetting to them. They don't know how to deal with it, or handle it, and being around it makes them uncomfortable. (You can sort out who your friends are, any time you go through some major life change: the ones who stick it out with you are your real friends.) Don't take any of this personally: we all do it, one time or another. There have been times when I have chosen to do the hard thing, and sit down, shut my mouth, slow down my thinking, and just be present, just hold space, for a friend or loved one who was going through hell, or in the hospital, or in emotional blackout. There have been times when I've been unable to slow down, sit by their side, and just hold space—and then I could only offer a unit of grace to them, a prayer for their highest good, and mine, and let them go, and move on. Life goes on.

The future will be what it will be. I embrace it. But I don't expect it to be what I want it to be. I'm cured of the lie of hoping for roses when I know from experience that sagebrush is more durable.

So, having said all that, I can come at last to my gratitudes. Finding things to be grateful for is extremely difficult for me, this year. I do gratitudes every year instead of resolutions because they mean more, they go deeper, and being grateful is essential. As Meister Eckhart once said, If the only prayer you ever said in your life was "Thank You," that would suffice. I firmly believe that; I have come to know it to be true, through experience, rather than blind faith. I also know that it's easy to be grateful when life is a feast laid out in front of you; and I have indeed been able to be grateful at such times, remembering to say Thank You when things are going my way, rather than just taking them for granted. It is much more difficult, and means much more, to find gratitude when there is no feast, when times are lean and dark and difficult. If the only thing I can find to be grateful for, in my darkest night, is my mere life—or to be grateful for being able to be grateful even for something as small as that—that is still sufficient; and I do believe that it means a great deal to be grateful, especially then. So, tonight, I have to start small, to find little, tangible, physical, solid things, to be grateful for. Perhaps I can build up to something greater from there—practice expands our field of view—but I make no promises. If I can only say the sufficient prayer of gratitude, so be it.



I am grateful for my new home, which I was able to buy outright, with no mortgage, because of the small amount of money I inherited from my parents' estate. I am grateful that I have a place to live, and no debt. Even on my nights of worry about the future—a habit that might be incurable, although it has gotten lighter to bear of late—I know that I have a place to live, a home base, and no debt. There will always be maintenance costs, of course; but there is no mortgage.

I am grateful that I somehow managed to survive the last four and more years of pure fucking hell, during which I was homeless and unemployed much of the time, during which time I gave up my own life and career, perhaps unwisely, to be my parents' live-in caregiver. But it was no choice, it's no more than what you do for family, and I'd probably do it again, if I could. I am grateful for all the lessons learned throughout this period of life, when I did experience, for real, the dark night of the soul. I am grateful that, somehow, I got through it, and, even if I still can't see through to a new life on the other side of this wide river, I know there's something there, if I have the strength to find it, build it, grow it, birth it, make it, let it happen, be in grace and gratitude about it.

I am grateful for those friendships that ended during this period, that I thought were deeper and more enduring than they proved to be. For I learned from them lessons that will endure, and I learned that I was both stronger and deeper than I knew, than those former friends could ever imagine. I release them to the winds, I bless them, and I wish them well in their own flights or plummets. They are deserving of good life, as we all are, and more. I breathe to you the White Winds: be free, and soar. I shall carry you no longer.

I am grateful for this weeping that is taking me over, right now, as I write this; making it a little hard to write. (I give up any shred of ambition to form this writing into some kind of structured essay: it is what it is, and is not to be judged.) This is a release that comes to me far less often than it ought, after everything that's happened. Not that I am less able to find such release; rather, I've been too exhausted even for this, this ordinary release. Get these emotions out of your body, as soon as you can, lest they fester, and make you ill.

I am grateful for the stupid ideologies of artists and critics who should know better, who think their ideologies and more important than their art-making—they would deny this, but manifestly it is true, their actions outshouting their denials—and who carry forward banality and mean-spiritedness into the future. How is this possible? How can I be grateful for this? Because it gives me something to sink my teeth into, to wrap my talons around, and has given me something to focus on, and sharpen my wits on, this past year and more, when I have most needed to keep me wits and talons and tongue as sharp as possible. I needed to be sharp because I had to be there for those I was caregiving for; I needed to be sharp in order to survive my own stresses and crises; I needed the intellectual distraction, at times, so that I could feel alive when all I was dealing with the rest of the time was the dead. I am grateful for those mornings when responding to some idiocy gave me the strength to get out of bed, write a damned good essay, get dressed, eat something, and actually be able to start my day.

You must be grateful for the obstacles that are put in your way: you must: it is absolutely necessary and essential that you be grateful for the obstacles: because they are what hone us, what temper us, what forge and refine us: they teach us who we really are and what we are for. Without obstacles, life might be placid—but it would be dull, purposeless, bland, it would give no incentive to grow up and get over it. Every seed must force its shoot through the soil, to reach the light and air: the effort of life is the strength of life. With no obstacle to exercise our strength against, we would never know how much we could overcome, how much we could withstand, and how much we could give back.

I am grateful for the insights into my own character that have been coming to me continuously, these past few months, as I sort through old photographs and memories, and write out fragments of personal memoir, that are really etudes in memory, personal healing, and grace. I am grateful for this ongoing process of self-discovery through the windows of memory and personal history. There will be more to come.

Here's a difficult thing, a thing that is hard for me to put into words, that I struggle with, and I am grateful for this struggle, because it means that it continues and has not ossified and died: there is a difference between faith and belief and knowing. Faith is often hard for me, because all of my spiritual knowing is based on experience. Really, in many ways my approach to spiritual matters is without belief or faith, entirely, as there have been so many visions and tellings and knowings given to me, all these many years, that I trust what I've learned by living over any received institutional faith-wisdom that is handed down to us by ecclesiastical authorities. The mystic's way, the shaman's way, is to work with the spirits directly, to seek to know the Divine directly, without the mediation of priest or organized institutional religion. This of course makes the way difficult; and many such are labeled heretics, and persecuted for their efforts, even though each mystic is a font of renewal within established faiths, a door to ongoing revelation, continuous creation. So I struggle with faith: because faith is based on what you do not know, and cannot know. One of my favorite "masks of God" is the simple word Mystery: it says so much, says so much that cannot be said, and provides comfort in knowing that much more cannot be said, cannot be known. I have faith in Mystery. I believe in the sacraments of the Unknown and the Beyond. I practice the strictures of Unknowing. There is overlap here with the strictures of riddlery: learning to ask the right questions, knowing full well that there are no answers. All too often, via intuition and guidance, I am given to Know what is not known, to See what many do not see, to Hear what there is to hear. I rarely mention this—it drives people away. So, while I am comfortable with Knowing a great deal more than I probably need to know, or ought to know, I have a harder time with trust, surrender, and faith—and these three, trust, surrender, faith, are all the same thing. I am grateful that I don't have a solid answer for this Unknowing, that goes along beside the Knowing, and is a celtic knot of a breathtaking, beautiful paradox. So mote it ever be. The day you think you have all the answers is the day you are in deep, deep trouble; because those who think they have all the answers stop looking for them, and to stop questing and seeking for the truth is to go dead inside. We all know and recognize the symptoms: the closed mind; the fixed opinion; the religious zealotry; the intellectual rigidity; the ascendance of ideology over intuition. All the gods spare us from such a death in spirit.

I am grateful to the genuine friends I have in this life. These are the friends who know pretty much everything there is to know about you, good and bad, and still want to be your friends, hang out with you, and be part of each other's lives. Most people only have two or three of these real friends in an entire lifetime. I have been very lucky to have no less than four in my life at any given time, for the past several years. I can count about 8 in my life right now. My gratitude for these friends goes beyond what any words can carry. In one or two specific instances, it was these friends who almost literally kept me alive through the darkest periods of the past four years, giving me reasons to live when I couldn't find any on my own, giving me laughter when I was unable to find any myself, giving me support on all levels—emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual—when I most needed it. I know how rare and lucky it is to have the friends I do, and I am grateful beyond words. You all know who you are. Champagne all around!

I am grateful for the endless synchronicities on which my life is supported, and which drive me forward down the endless road. I am grateful for the guidance received, the ever-more-practiced and reliable and occasionally eerily accurate intuition that has been one of the greatest gifts of grace ever given to me, or that ever be given to any person.

I am grateful for the opportunities I've been given to fail, so that I could learn where and when I wanted to succeed, instead. I am grateful for the practice in growing up that these opportunities have provided. I am grateful for the intuition that keeps putting me in the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons—even if I don't always get to know why, exactly—even if the reason for me to be there is just hold space, to hold the Light there for awhile, to be one small part of holding the world together, of working to make the world a finer place.

I am grateful for my fireplace in my new home, which warms both the room and my mood, on cold bleak nights. Right now I have all the other lights off, and am staring at the ever-dancing flames. I am grateful for each time I lose myself and my woes into the firelight.

I am grateful for the time and ability to travel, for my photography and video work. For the opportunity to have driven my truck from here to the Pacific Ocean, and back again, three times during the last four years. For the chance to do it again, soon. For the future trips I have planned. I am grateful for each episode in which my truck has saved my life, these past four years and more. I am grateful for each reminder of my own mortality, and each reminder that J'm not done yet, not done with my work here yet, maybe I haven't even started my real work here yet. I am grateful for purpose, and for circumstances, not always pleasant, that bring purpose into sharp relief.

I am grateful for the opportunity, still being shaped into manifestation, to turn my creativity into my source of income, following several streams, covering much ground. I am grateful for the chance to engage in creative work every day of my life, from now until I die. It is as necessary as breathing: it is life itself. It is co-creation with the Creator, in the ongoing collaborative unfolding of Creation. I know I will never retire, I will be art-making on my last day, given half a chance. I am grateful for the chance to now make my photography and videography into a business with my partners who are also my friends, and to have that grow into a sustainable living income; one among several. I am grateful for the time that money brings. Money's chief purpose in our creative life is to give us time to do what we want to do, what we are compelled to do, what we most desire to do: make music, make art, make words into sculptures, make, make, make.

I am grateful for a second wave of tears on my cheeks, tonight, not weeping, just crying quietly as I continue to right, because these are tears of joy, or acceptance, of forgiveness: of gratitude.

I am grateful for this openness, this vulnerability, this fragility, this supple bending in the wind, that comes of having my heart broken open so many times that it can never scab over and harden again. I think I'm stuck with being an open Sacred Heart from here on out; I don't think I can go back to that ice-cave in which I once kept my heart cold and safe, in which I lived in terror, and out of which I chose to melt my heart. I don't want to go back to that cold, hard place. I cannot, I will not.

It's a risk to fall in love with the world, all over again, every morning, and I want to keep risking that every single day. Knowing full well I might get hurt all over again, again and again, in the necessity of agony and ecstasy that is living, life, lifelove, breadth of breath and spirit. Have you any idea what I'm talking about? I'm grateful for the pain and suffering of being one with the world, with you, with everyone I have ever loved or unloved, with you, you how I know intimately even though we shall never meet. How can you know you're loved? Precisely because we don't deserve it, we are loved. Precisely because we are small and insignificant, we are loved. Angel, come immolate us continuously in the fires of passion, love, and laughter. Angel, come slaughter us every day with beauty. Beauty is the beginning of terror, and every angel is terrifying. May your heart, like mine, be open to this fierce loyal joy every single day. And may we all be grateful for this immolation, this burning, this spinning ever outwards into the Light and Sound of God. Will we burn in Heaven, as we do down here? Most certainly. This I know, and am grateful for the knowing. I weep for this immolation, and its cleansing.

ª

Well, then. I must cease, for now, as the hour grows late, the snow scatters on the windowpane, the fire dances brighter for late, dark hour. I must cease, for I can do no more, just now; I haven't the strength to go on much further, tonight, and I cannot bear to attempt any less than my very best at this task of writing out my gratitudes. I will not dishonor this practice by taking it too lightly. (Just lightly enough.)

I know that there is still more that I can say here. That I must say—that I cannot say, that I unable to say, that I will never be able to say. Still more gratitudes that I can list, and many more I have no speech to breathe. I know, and I have faith, that still more gratitudes will append themselves to my mind's tally over the next few days—in fact, every day, every week, every month. I may not write them all done, or append them here. I know they will arise, and I know that in the fullness of time, as we cycle around the Yearwheel again, I will have another chance to write down whatever gratitudes I can, knowing full well that the list is ever partial, incomplete, and excruciatingly inarticulate. I am grateful for each ongoing chance to find gratitude rather than hate or fear, to embrace gratitude rather victimhood, here in Earthschool where we are all playing the game of Life, all learning together how to get back home to the Divine, and that none of us will get out of here alive. And yet, life will go on.

By firelight, starlight, sunlight, and moonlight,
reflections of the Light Eternal,
Who made us all in the beginning,
receive us all in the end.

So Mote It Be!

Amen.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Hope is something to do when there's nothing to do. I'm not very good at not doing anything but I'm not big on hope. I could hope for x or y and x or y may well come about but they might also not. Hope has no power but, as I've said, it's something to do when there is nothing to do.

I wish I had some wise words of wisdom to offer. I could probably come up with something if push came to shove but I'm still learning myself. I'd love to offer some cliché like, "I understand," but I don't. I can offer a sincere, "There, there," which in your position I'd probably appreciate, indeed (and I'm not sure why this would help) but the fact that someone took the time out of their own miserable life to try and read my post would probably help more than anything. I guess it's the old adage, "A problem shared is a problem halved," which on one level makes absolutely no sense but, hey, when did this ruddy life start making any sense?

There, there, Art.

3:54 AM  
Blogger mand said...

2008 seems to have been a very hard year for many people. I was surprised to find readers taking hope from my story At the turn of the year, as i hadn't thought of that while writing it, but it's good that it helped. If that's what art's about (whole new question, that).

Your practice of listing gratitudes is a wise one and i'm going to borrow it if i may. I'm keeping this essay, too. 80)

Here's to a thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile '09.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Frank Wilson said...

I am too moved to say more than that, Art. God bless.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, thanks for the thoughts. Making sense? Hmn, that could be overrated.

mand, thanks very much. Do feel free to borrow the gratitudes practice.

Frank—

Thanks very much. Very much appreciated. And the blessings are mutual.

9:30 PM  

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