Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Popular Pack & the Conservative Ear

Someone recently, in a listening session devoted to choosing between five composers for a new musical commission, labeled my music as "modern." I don't take this is a slight, although the speaker partly intended his remark as such. As I was reminded later by a musician colleague, "modern" like "experimental" is often used pejoratively by the musically untrained. The untrained ear likes the familiar, not the challenging. Untrained listeners like pop songs because the words carry meaning, regardless of the quality of the music or the execution of its performance.

Let's face it, your average rock star is a Dionysian performer, taking on the god's aspect of revelry and rule-breaking onstage and off, but only rarely does a rock star have the musical skills of a trained musician. Music school was an Apollonian environment; playing in jazz, rock and punk bands later, for me, was comparatively Dionysian. As a composer, I often seek to balance the two gods and their aspects. The point is, you need both gods in dynamic balance to make genuine, authentic music.

In this same listening session, I was surprised and dismayed at the works presented by the other four composers. My dismay was not caused by any lack of quality, as each was a skilled, accomplished composer. What dismayed me was that every piece by a given composer sounded alike: the same basic style, the same basic treatment of materials, the same basic tempi and harmonies and chord progressions. And everything was in 4/4 meter. The sameness to each piece by more than one composer made one wonder where one piece ended and another began. As if each piece were a single variation on the composer's deeper theme; as though each piece were a fresh attempt to climb the same mountain.

And there was also a certain deeper-level sameness of style between all these composers. Perhaps there was a self-selection process going on that led to a certain sameness in samples chosen to be presented on this occasion, that led to this veneer of identical cabinetry. Nonetheless there was an overall blandness and stylistic cohesion. Each composer seemed to represent a variation on a deeper, perhaps subconscious, theme. I suppose this is what has made each of these composers popular and gotten them commissions: they are unthreatening to either performers or listeners, their music not too hard to execute, not very challenging to listen to. I suppose that a certain blandness has always led to popularity. In this instance, it also led to conformity.

As my musician colleague expressed it later, the reason my pieces were pejoratively labeled "modern" was only partly because I sometimes employ 20th century musical vocabulary rather than 19th century. The other, deeper reason was simply that my compositions stood out from the pack as, well, different. (Which was completely unintentional on my part.)

Thus one wonders if there isn't a deadening of creativity going on in new music these days, just as there has been in poetry and the other arts of late; a certain mannerism that has come to replace spontaneous originality or diversity of musical style. Two of the composers presented works that were overtly neo-classical, by which one means they overtly quoted or copied early 19th century tonal music styles. Does faux Mozart represent wit, these days? Does recycled classical tonal music represent what's cool? (If so, this is indeed Mannerist.) Is it more hip nowadays to sound Schubert than Messiaen? (If so, then I am indeed genuinely out of step with my times.)

In contrast, as my musician colleague reminded me later, my own music stood out in this listening session as the music with the most diverse range. Not that I do not have my own recognizable style and voice. Nonetheless, I presented sample pieces that were alternately consonant and dissonant, small-scale and epic, up-tempo and down. While it is true that I am more naturally drawn to life's adagios than to its allegros, my music can be passionately intense and celebratory, as well tranquil and contemplative.

And for this difference, this lack of sameness among the other composers in the listening session, I was dismissed.

Well, this was a feeling I've had before, of course. I've felt it many times at poetry readings, where I was also the odd man out (as it were). Even more so at poetry critique group gatherings, or at online poetry wrokshops. I recall more than one occasion where my poetry has been criticized for being too passionate, too intense—we do after all live in a culture and era skewed more towards Apollo than Dionysus, overall—and where I was told to "tone it down." It seems this is equally true for my music. Perhaps if I toned down my music, and blanded it out, it might be more acceptable and popular, at least to the untrained ear.

The irony is that I never set out to stand out from the pack, to be Original, or different, or unpopular and experimental (which are the same thing in most circles). I only ever set out to write in ways true to my experience and my inner life. Which is what I was taught that all artists are expected to do. Apparently there is more of popularity contest, more expectations of conformity, going on than I was early led to believe.

I grew up in a thoughtful household wherein was often repeated the myth of the Hero-Artist, the Solitary Innovative Genius. My mother, after all, was a classically trained pianist and teacher, and she had biographies on the family bookshelves of several great composers and performers, which I read avidly when young. I grew up thinking the composer's (and artist's) job was to explore or discover or invent the next new thing, not to repeat the old. I was raised in the belief that innovation in the arts was a positive value, a necessary contribution to cultural evolution.

And yet I am reminded, in recalling that childhood reading, of the constantly recurring narrative of bad reviews of genuinely original music. The popular, average, musically-untrained listener and reviewer almost universally despise the innovative when confronted with it in the present moment. No matter how much the average listener recycles the narrative of innovation in the arts throughout history, or the stories genius innovators, whenever they hear genuinely original music they at first misunderstand it, misrepresent it, even vilify it. One thinks of Beethoven in this context as much as Stravinsky or John Cage. Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, and many other composers received notoriously horrible reviews of the premieres of works now considered classics, essential parts of the musical canon. John Cage, dead nearly two decades, and Charles Ives, dead nearly half a century, still get bad reviews. Cage once joked that his work was more acceptable to people when they thought of him as an inventor rather than a composer.

In other words, the ears of the average listener are in fact deeply conservative. They remain so.

In hearing the music presented by those other composers at that listening session, I wonder if perhaps they aren't wiser than I. If perhaps they are consciously aware that the music they compose is more conformist, more popular, more bland, and therefore more, to blunt, sellable. Certainly they've all received numerous prior commissions. Maybe they're on to something, and once again I'm just the odd man out.

To be clear, I make no claims for the originality of my own music. I never have. While it's true that my training as a composer is diverse and wide-ranging, in the end I just write what I hear in my head, and what I want to hear. I write the music that I want to listen to—that's the real bottom line. I can't help it if it seems unfamiliar, or strange, or original, or experimental to the untrained listener. I make neither apologies nor excuses for this.

I am aware of my influences, the most prominent of which are, paradoxically, the music of 14th century and 20th century composers. I find deep spiritual and emotional riches Bach's music, but I don't imitate him. I enjoy Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms, but I don't try to sound like them. If I listen for overt influences in my own music, I can hear Perotin as well as Steve Reich. I am aware of using techniques invented by Earle Brown and John Cage and Morton Feldman, but also others invented by Tomas Luis y Victoria, John Dowland, and William Byrd. Lately I hear a strong tendency, which I welcome rather than try to conceal, to absorb and redefine for myself the lineage of Debussy, Messiaen, and Takemitsu.

So it seems to me that my music is not particularly original or unusual. It's true that I prefer to write modally (which is part of the Medieval influence) rather than conventionally tonally, and that alone makes my music sound different than the neo-classicists. Perhaps the Mannerists are more adapted to the times, more tuned in than I, since after all it does seem as though we live in artistically Mannerist times. For most of post-Modernism nowadays is fundamentally mannerist.

It is perhaps a personal failing that I seem unable to conform, to blend in, to not stand out from the pack. It is very likely that the results of this listening session will be that one or another of these other composers, whose music is easy on the conservative ear, and non-threatening, will be chosen to undertake the new music commission being competed for. And not I. Maybe they're right, and I'm wrong. Maybe they're completely right that their more sellable music is the way to go, if you want to get commissions. Even if to my ears it is relatively dull and all sounds the same.

Well, what can I do? I seem unable to conform or blend in, no matter what I do. I've never been good at blending in with the pack, no matter how I've tried. All I have ever done artistically is try to be authentic, to be true to my inner experience, and to try to write the music that I want to listen to, write the poems I wanted to read, make photographs that I wanted to see. All I have ever done is pursue my own course. if that's not popular enough, if that's too "modern," I have to accept that there's nothing I can do about it. Well, I would love to receive this musical commission, in part because it would give me work for the next year; and it seems increasingly unlikely. In any event, I'll keep writing what I want to hear, even if no one else does.

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Rose Shadows

Having completed the rose ritual of a year and a day, a ritual in remembrance of my parents, I was free to put the roses away. I took some photos before doing so. I haven't been able to bring myself to dispose of the roses themselves, and in truth I see no need to. So they're now in a storage cabinet along with some other family goods and decorative items. Meanwhile, these shadows of these roses, making lines and lights on the floor.

Rose Shadows

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Quote Poet Unquote

A short trip last week to St. Paul, MN, to stay with a friend newly moved there, help him with some post-moving needs, and just visit. The first night a major thunderstorm, with golfball-sized hail at 2am, amidst heavy rain and high winds, followed over the next 15 minutes by more, smaller hail, more rain and wind. In the morning, no damage to the truck, but leaves and small twigs and ripe crabapples scattered everywhere on the sidewalk and street gutters and lawns, literally shotgunned off the trees by the hail and wind.

Arrived home with several piles of new books to devour. On the way out of St. Paul, before starting the multi-hour drive home, stopped in at a favorite used book store on the south side of town, to discover they were having a clearance sale on poetry books. Who can resist a sale in which a hardcover first edition of the recent biography of John Donne is only 1 dollar? In which Countee Cullen's complete writings are only 50 cents in a thick paperback edition? In which another 50 cent thick history of Emily Dickinson's literary friendship with Thomas Higginson is explored? Two or three more selected and collected poems, from poets you might not have been interested in before but are worth exploring at this price. A recent selected poems from a poet whose first two books you sort of liked, then abandoned and hadn't paid any attention to for some time, now intrigued by anew. Backup copies of a few favorite books of or about poetry that are handy to have on hand, as loaners, or as spare copies to put in with the camping gear for future roadtrips. And more.

So I came home with a huge pile of new books.

At this point I have to admit something. Even though I've declared my independence from the ongoing continuous bullshit of PoetryWorld, from the contentious literary-critical world, from the snark and invective, I can't get away from caring deeply about poetry, from being engaged with its making and its processes. Yet I wish only to read and write with pleasure, not have to deal with even friends' criticisms and always-judgmental negative commentary. I've been booted and banned from some corners of the online poetry world in the past year for expressing just this opinion. As though somehow wanting to be positive was a sign of mental weakness—as though only negative opinions were valid and true—and as though simple appreciation and enthusiasm were a sign of amateurism, or worse, betrayal of an ideal. So I've gone my own way, severing most ties, even the most enduring ones, to navigate for awhile either well or poorly but nonetheless by my own compass.

The arrogance of those former poet-friends who threw me out the moment I chose to go my own way was astounding, and more than a little shocking in its expressions of its own certainty of the error of my ways, as though my judgment had always been inferior to theirs. Anyone who is that sure of themselves, that sure of their opinions and judgments, has lost their way. Of course they'll deny it, and even attempt to turn the tables. But such certainty is itself delusional, a force of self-belief beyond the pale. The sin of pride, if you will.

Of course, this is nothing new. Such arrogant pride is rampant throughout the world of poetry and poetry criticism.

One of the books I picked up so cheap demonstrates this admirably. It is a collection of quotations and commentary. Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary quotations on poets and poetry, edited by Dennis O'Driscoll (Copper Canyon Press, 2008). O'Driscoll began collecting quotes in the late 1980s, eventually publishing them in an ongoing column called Poetry Pickings and Choosings in Poetry Ireland Review. The result here is a gloriously polyphonic mess, often contradictory, with plenty of opinions from many directions all placed side by side.

Ultimately, this book of quotations inspires deeply mixed feelings. On the one hand, it merely adds fuel to the critical fires, stirs the pot of contention and argument, and adds no clarity to the questions it raises. Lots of quotes here seem to be chosen not for their wisdom, which is often lacking, but for their pithy contentiousness. Yet the comparisons and contrasts between viewpoints do serve to help one clarify one's own thinking, by both positive and negative association.

This project is not undertaken without humor, which manifests in every section of the book. For example, in the place usually reserved on the back of the volume for a praiseful call-out blurb about the book in hand, we read from Joseph Parisi this gem: Among the foremost repositories of demented prose today are fashion magazines, art journals—and the back covers of poetry books. What more truth can one add to that? None.

O'Driscoll opens his Introduction with an acknowledgment that nothing is solved: A defining mark of poetry is that it defies definition. On this, if nothing else, poets and critics of all stripes, camps, and persuasions tend to agree. I don't. I've defined what poetry is, and is not, numerous times; the issue being that, like most other definitions, few will agree with me, and no one is required to. So in one way this book of quotations merely underlines the point often made before: The reason poetry criticism is so very vicious is because there's precisely nothing at stake. And viciousness and vitriol are amply represented in these pages. O'Driscoll admits in his Introduction that likes a good argument. Again, there is humor here, as a well-taken reminder to take none of this very seriously. But the humor is also often drowned by the sheer meanness of some of the remarks. One's appreciative laughter begins to fade, after several pages of this.

One is reminded of Nicolas Slonimsky's classic book in a similar vein, A Lexicon of Musical Invective, which reprinted historical bad reviews of pieces of classical music that time has proven to be masterpieces. The first reviews of Beethoven's symphonies, for example, were extreme examples of critical hatred. Quote Poet Unqoute is very much in this vein, dominated by invective and dismissive commentary—even when it's amusing in the long view how wrong critics usually are.

And I have to say, some of the critical comments here smart and chafe precisely because they state the truth so clearly. For example, Australian poet Les Murray sums up one of the key problems plaguing PoetryWorld at this time: There is very little real poetry coming out of America at the moment because they have tried to harness Pegasus to the university and have turned it into a carthorse just plodding along. Ouch! And yet, ouch with a recognition of the truth of Murray's dead-on metaphor for the current state of affairs.

And so it goes.

On the other hand, there are points of illumination here as well. Quotes that get at something real, about poetry, about poets, that I will pore over in the near future, seeking and finding rewarding insights. Other quotes that express something about poetry in such elegant and economic language that they approach the status of poetry themselves.

For example, this is what Charles Simic muses about the prose-poem, which is the borderland I find myself most often exploring and occupying of late in my writing: The prose poem is the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does. This is the sole instance we have of squaring the circle. Simic is describing the paradoxical existence of the prose-poem, the hybrid born of two worlds. (Of course historical Japanese literature sees the haibun as the logical outgrowth of the poem, and no contradiction.) A more technical definition of the prose-poem is offered in a quote from David Lehman: Just as free verse did away with meter and rhyme, the prose poem does away with the line as the unit of composition. It uses the means of prose towards the ends of poetry. That's it exactly: the means of prose aimed towards the ends of poetry.

And how can one resist such a sublime insight as this: Unless we read poetry, we'll never have our hearts broken by language, which is an indispensable preliminary to a civilized life. —Anatole Broyard

To return to what it is that I must admit: my continuing engagement with poetry, and with thinking about poetry. I can't set it aside. Even though I no longer care to label myself A Poet, but mostly tell people that I'm an artist who occasionally commits poetry, I cannot pretend indifference. Obviously, I still care a lot about poetry. Obviously I still read a lot of poetry, and read about it a lot. The clearance sale treasure trove found in St. Paul last week, which I am still sorting through, is evidence enough of my continued obsession with the stuff. It won't go away, and neither will I.

What I find liberating at the moment, though, is that having been evicted from the poetry-critical pseudo-communities I had previously been engaged with, I'm free to write my own opinions, and damn the torpedoes. I feel freed to read whatever I want to read, and also to revise my previous opinions by looking at existing work with a fresh eye. Such freedom existed before, of course, but it was tempered by social contracts and sometimes channelled by subtly coercive peer pressure. Now I am, for example, refining my criticisms of those types of poetry I find meaningful and useful, and also of those I now find ever more hollow and unhealthy.

I am reminded of Michel de Montaigne, writing his essays in solitude in his contemplative tower, refining his opinions ever more discursively. Montaigne invented the essay form which I enjoy practicing here; his example as an eclectic reader is also a role model for one such as I, operating in solitude and obscurity far from the halls of publishing and the central corridors of the critical elite. Where I have the leisure to take my time, read a lot, and form my own opinions at their own pace. No pressures of any kind, except those internal pressures brought forward by the questing self.

I do believe that every writer ought to write the occasional review, to hone their critical faculties. But I also believe that critical snark is a contemporary fashion, not a necessity. I write an honest review, an appreciative review, a mixed review, but that's all it is: a review expressing my responses, my opinions. Unlike the prideful Critics of PoetryWorld, I don't have any agenda beyond the pure pleasure of engagement with poetry's products. (Yes, I intended that bit of wordplay.) I have no critical theory or agenda beyond honesty and love and enthusiasm for the products at hand.

Now back to my new stacks. I need to make room on the shelves, too, to sort them out. I anticipate a pleasurably busy time.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rain in the Garden

images from the Japanese Garden, Como Park Conservatory,
St. Paul, MN, September 2010

These first drops of rain are from the beginning of a heavy storm that lasted 36 hours and gave almost 10 inches of rain on the land, causing flash floods and other problems later.

When I was in the Japanese Garden, it was just beginning to rain, and the drops of water were a perfect moment in the garden. The quiet was deepened by the rain, which also sent most people running back indoors. The wise photographer, however, is willing to risk everything, even to get a little wet, in order to be in the right place at the right time to capture such momentary beauty.

This remains one of my favorite Japanese Gardens, which I have visited many times. I have sat here before, meditated, people-watched, experienced the tea house. I have written music here, made many photographs here, emptied my mind here. This garden is also featured prominently in my DVD Japanese Gardens, from Liquid Crystal Gallery.

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Dark Night

I am prompted to write by a brilliant commentary on the dark of the soul and the new atheists by the Maverick Philosopher. (Hat tip to Frank Wilson for the link.)

The Maverick Philosopher's short article takes on professional gadfly and contrarian, Christopher HItchens, one of the loudest voices of the so-called New Atheism:

Hitchens, like the other members of the 'Dawkins Gang' as I like to call them, does not have a religious bone in his body. He simply does not understand religion, and has no sympathy for it, so much so that he must dismiss it as nonsense.

Lack of religious sensibility is like lack of aesthetic sensibility. There are people who lack entirely any feel for poetry and music. They lack the 'spiritual organ' to appreciate them, and so their comments on them are of little interest except as indicative of the critics' own limitations. Others are bereft of philosophical sensibility. I have met mathematicians and scientists who have zero philosophical aptitude and sense and for whom philosophy cannot be anything other than empty verbiage. These people do not lack intelligence, they lack a certain 'spiritual organ,' a certain depth of personality. And of course there are those with no inkling of the austere beauty of mathematics and logic and (let's not leave out) chess. To speak of their beauty to such people would be a waste of time. They lack the requisite appreciative organs.

Hitchens is also, right now, dealing with esophageal cancer, a life-threatening illness with a low survival rate, despite chemotherapy, radiation treatment, etc. I've known other people dealing with esophageal cancer, and it very much depends on when they catch it, and if they are able to remove all the affected tissue.

No one expects Hitchens to have a religious conversion due to his illness, and no one expects him to be anything but continuously contrarian. I for one would never require any person to have a religious conversion, nor would I require them to change themselves in any way contrary to their nature. Nonetheless, serious illness promotes change. We have two usual responses to serious, life-threatening illness: one is to resist mightily and fight hard to retain our identity; the other is to give in to the process, float along with the changes, and emerge as a pilgrim on the other side, one who has undertaken the journey and emerged changed. As a natural part-time Taoist I tend to go with the flow, but there are times when I also fight hard to retain some sense of the self that I used to be.

However, just this morning an artist friend of mine sent me a quote relevant to her upcoming New York gallery show, on the topic of pilgrimage:

Only the walker who sets out toward ultimate things is a pilgrim. In this lies the difference between tourist and pilgrim. The tourist travels just as far, sometimes with great zeal and courage, gathering up acquisitions and returns the same person as the one who departed. The pilgrim resolves that the one who returns will not be the same person as the one who set out. The pilgrim must be prepared to shed the husk of personality or even the body like a worn out coat. For the pilgrim the road is home; reaching the destination seems nearly inconsequential.
—Andrew Schelling, poet and scholar, from the anthology Meeting the Buddha, edited by Molly Emma Aitken

It's hard not to view my last few years as a pilgrimage. This chromic illness that I have waded into full-body has elements of pilgrimage. I resist the New Age cliché that all experiences are teaching experiences, because that is too glib, as usual; nonetheless there have been lessons learned from my illness that are life-lessons, that have utterly changed the way I perceive the world, and my relationships. Many insubstantial relationships have fallen by the wayside, leaving me often alone, and just as often embraced within the circle of my closest friends. You know, those real friends who are there for you no matter what, and you return the favor.

I set out on each longer roadtrip, those trips of a month or more, with the hope of pilgrimage: the hope of returning changed. So far, so good. My last roadtrip out to the winter mountains and the stormy winter Pacific Ocean did accomplish this ambition, at least in part. You cannot expect your life to utterly change, when you go away and return: you also have to integrate the new experiences, somehow, into your returned, existing life. Re-entry to that normative life within the normative social order can be relatively painful, the more you have changed during a journey, the intense the pilgrimage has been, and sometimes the urge to just stay on the road and never go home seems unbearable. And when on a longer roadtrip I do function as a pilgrim, as Schelling says, when reaching the destination seems nearly inconsequential. I never feel freer than when I drive only so far in a day, and stop early, make camp in a state or national park, wander about seeing the sites, then make a meal slow-cooked over woodfire or the Coleman stove under the stars. I do some of my best thinking during those long drives. I sometimes settle life-long issues in heart and mind. More often, I find my own inner philosopher, the part of me who is able to articulate, often in poetry or essay, what most matters to my life. And I make dozens or hundreds of photos; the process of sorting might not begin till months after I return, but the process of making fresh images of favorite scenes, under the changing light, is itself a reward, itself a kind of pilgrimage.

And so I return to the Maverick Philosopher's point about sensibilities, aesthetic, philosophical, and religious: It is obvious that an aesthetic sensibility is in play when I'm out on the road, making photographs. I have had friends and other photographers question me, while watching me at work, about my working methods. My method is to look a long time before raising the camera to my eye and making a single image. I watch the light change till it's just perfect. A lot of my best photographs were made by being in the right place at the right time—often when no one else was around. Several good photographers looking at the same scene will often make very different images, since each sees through his or her own eye and experience and desire. This has been made obvious every time I've taught a photography class, and I do encourage it when teaching: the group scatters on location, and almost no one duplicates an image by another.

Nonetheless, I am often questioned as to why I don't make more images than I do, on location, and why I often contemplate a scene in nature for a long time before making an image. The answer I give in the moment is usually that I'm waiting for the right moment, waiting for the light. And while that's true, it's also true that I am waiting for my heart and soul to quiet and become still, as reflective as a still mountain pool reflecting the moon. I am waiting for my inner stillness to reflect the scene before me. At that point, I'm ready to get to work, because making a photograph for me is not about "artistic self-expression," it's about reflecting and responding to what is already there. This process has little place for egotism. I am often waiting, when I wait, for my ego to dissolve into some larger vessel, so that it doesn't get in the way of making the photograph. It's not that the "I" completely goes away—one still has to retain enough "I" to manage one's camera, and to be aware of where the trail approaches the cliff—it's that the "I" doesn't dominate the aesthetic experience, the artistic process.

With regard to the religious sensibility, which I must point out overlaps significantly with the aesthetic sensibility, at least for many artists and musicians of my acquaintance, as well as for myself, the Maverick Philosopher continues with the meat of his commentary:

Hitchens, who remains a man of the Left in his total lack of understanding of religion, doesn't seem to appreciate that [Mother] Teresa was a mystic and that her dark night of the soul was not a crisis of faith, where faith is construed as intellectual assent to certain dogmas, but an experiencing of the divine withdrawal, an experiencing of God as deus absconditus. A believing non-mystic might lose his faith after applying his reason to his religion's dogmatic content and then finding it impossible rationally to accept. Although I haven't read Teresa's letters, I suspect that this is not what happened in her case. After the fullness of her mystical experience, she experienced desolation when the mystical experiences subsided. So, contra Hitchens, it was not a realization of the "crushing unreasonableness" of Roman Catholic dogma that triggered Teresa's dark night, but her experience of the divine absence, an absence that is an expression of the divine transcendence.

I suggest that an atheist like Hitchens, for whom theism is simply not a live existential option, cannot understand the spititual life of a person like Mother Teresa. He can understand it only by caricaturing it.

The reason this makes so much sense to me is that the Maverick Philosopher has put his finger on the experience of the dark night, and why it's not a merely intellectual or moral choice. It often strikes me that the New Atheists have no sense of life whatsoever beyond the intellectual. Do they ever actually stop to appreciate a sunset? Perhaps, but they never write about it (except to negatively claim that their enjoyment of a sunset didn't require God's presence), so there's no evidence of it.

Let me be clear: I have no use for most of organized religion. I am a person who has had numerous mystical experiences, including the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. I have no more use for the organized Christian church than do the New Atheists. Where we differ is that I do have a religious sensibility, and have had mystical experiences. We also differ in that I don't attempt to explain away my experiences as mere brain chemistry, or with merely intellectual rhetoric. The Maverick Philosopher is quite correct that the New Atheists seem unable to even comprehend mysticism, even accept it as an existential possibility, and so they must do their best to denigrate it.

In the year 1990, for several years, I was lost in what St. John of the Cross termed the dark night of the senses. The religious sensibility was taken away from me. Everything I had ever believed, every idea or belief I had had about my personal spirituality and connection to the Divine, was removed from my sight. Everything was hollow, meaningless, pointless. I was terrified of the emptiness. I had had my first real vision of the Void, and I could hear its emptiness continuously, in every waking and sleeping moment, for about four years. I couldn't find belief, much less faith, anywhere. Everything crumbled as soon as I touched it. Every tenet became provisional. Nothing had any substance, any reasonable verity. it was all hollow and blank. You could try on a belief system, but it was exactly like trying on a coat: something you could shrug off again all too easily. During those years, I did indeed throw a lot of paint at the wall of spiritual practice and belief—but nothing stuck.

I continued to have what some would call visions, what others would call waking dreams, but which are so normal to me that just call them "Oh, you again." It was during this period that I realized the full truth of what Rilke wrote about in his Duino Elegies: that Every angel is terrifying. So one could say the messengers, the intermediaries, the animal spirits, the angels, were still tapping me on the shoulder. But nothing they had to say meant anything. At least not then.

And then it was over. About four years after my first vision of the Void, I had a second, even more powerful Vision of the void, which was curative and healing. It was the moment of Letting Go. Even though meaning did not suddenly flood back into the world, even though tenets and dogmas have remained always provisional, suddenly I was at peace. It didn't matter anymore what I or anyone else believed. It didn't even matter if they believed in anything. I had re-found, or more accurately I had been re-gifted, my own center. My tenets to this day do not require anyone to share them, nor even for anyone to believe in them, or in anything I have to say on the topic.

The great science fiction writer and philosopher Erik Frank Russell once defined our fundamental basic right as: "Every man has the basic right to go to hell in his own way." My approach to that tenet, which I largely agree with, is to have become ever less willing to intervene in anyone else's progress or process. Non-intervention. The Prime Directive. Individual destiny. Whatever you want to label it.

At the same time, my capacity for empathizing with the suffering of others, my capacity for compassion, was deepened by the visions of the Void, by my experience of the dark night of the senses. I am politically as well as naturally Taoist, yet the Vow of the Bodhisattva means a great deal to me: I vow to put off my own escape into nirvana until I have been able to assist in the enlightenment of all other sentient beings. In practical terms, this means you have to stand by while others fail, but bear witness to their lives, and be there to offer help if they ask for it. Some will never ask for help.

Have you ever noticed how so many of the New Atheists commit the sin of pride, if only by their extreme lack of humility in their opinion that they're right and everyone else is wrong? The New Atheists are as convinced of the rightness of their beliefs as are many religious fundamentalists; indeed the psychological parallels are noteworthy. (cf. Eric Hoffer's The True Believer for more on the psychology of political and philosophical fundamentalism) A genuine commitment to the truth cannot be hampered by ideological prejudice. You have to be open-minded enough to admit that you might be wrong. That's something I can't imagine Christopher Hitchens ever admitting, not even on his probable deathbed. His utter certainty about the verity of his own opinions leaves no tenet unprovisional. It is this very smug self-certainty that undermines everything the New Atheists have to say that I might otherwise agree with; after all, their critique of organized religion has some very valid points, some very harsh but true criticisms of the evils that organized religion has perpetrated on humanity. But in their utter certainty that religious belief itself is the cause of all this evil, and their total lack of religious sensibility, the New Atheists succeed in undermining themselves, and in the end convincing no one. (Except each other—which is one psychological characteristic equally shared by high school cliques and ideological cults.)

By contrast, even now, every tenet I hold remains provisional. This is the truth of mysticism: that unknowing is as important and valuable as knowing. After experiencing the dark night, I can never have total certainty again about any idea or belief. There remain a few certainties that I hold as valid and true, even if I might sometimes myself question them: That everything will die; that resisting entropy is nonetheless worth the fight; that I can discover beauty in almost anything if I look long enough; that there deep inside me, when you strip everything else away, something unbreakable, undefeatable, indestructible. During even my worst days and nights, when I'm ready to give up because I just can't take it anymore, I remember that despite all the times I might have died, I'm still here. I'm still here.

In 2004 I moved to New Mexico to live for six months in the desert outside Taos. I was lost again. I had hit a career dead end, and stagnation. I was laid off just before 9/11 and like the economy itself, I had never really recovered. So I pulled up stakes in the Midwest and tried to start over again in a new place. But this was the beginning of the period of my life, still ongoing, when things, no matter what I tried to do, seemed to only get worse.

In the desert of New Mexico, for six months, I experienced the dark night of the soul full force. Actually it lasted longer than that, in fact it's been revisiting me this past year of major illness, but my desert sojourn is a convenient marker for those who need bookends to every experience. The Presence of the Divine was withdrawn from my cognition. make no mistake: I have no use for the word "God" precisely because we all use it thinking it means the same thing when it never does; so it's a label I avoid. My desert dark night experience taught me that the truest, most potent name for the divine, at least for me, is Mystery. I thrive on the Unknowing, on not-knowing the true nature and depth of the divine. My tenets all remain provisional. It is not that I tolerate and put up with not having all the answers, it's rather that I actively and passionately embrace not having all the answers. My life's experience has given me many answers to specific situations, always somewhat provisional of course, that I find myself repeating when asked for them by someone I'm teaching or mentoring or discussing life with. But the last thing I'll claim is certainty that I have all the answers. I know that I do not, and never will, at least not while I still inhabit this flesh. Paradoxically, I suppose, I am certain that my certainty has severe limits.

How can you go through life not knowing all the answers?

An indirect yet very necessary response to that question is to point out that the idea that one can know all the answers is an intellectual, rational, logical-positivist idea, one which contains its own assumptions and ideological baggage. The New Atheists, many of whom are renowned scientists, seem unable to comprehend that their own position is an ideological position, and not representative of the way science is actually practiced: that is, experimentally and provisionally.

I trained in science from a young age and all through my college years. As a result, I am not likely to agree with the committed religious that science is the enemy, because they too misrepresent what science actually is: a method of study of the natural world that is based on observation and provisional questioning.

From my viewpoint, which is a mystic's viewpoint, both the New Atheists and the religious zealots who are their most profound mirrors, are wrong, and wrong-headed. Both of these opposing camps are certain of their own tenets. Both camps are sure they possess the truth, and no one else does. This accounts for their equal zeal in trying to convert others to their way of thinking—as well as their intolerance for internal dissent amongst their rank and file. Again, the psychology of each camp seems mirrored in the other.

A second response to the question, How can you go through life not knowing all the answers?, lies in the tenet that many spiritual traditions hold: That one must learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. Even, with practice, to make uncertainty into a positive value, not merely something one tolerates because one must. This is the way of Unknowing. It turns up as a mystic's wisdom expressed in all the world's major religions; it is as often expressed in Tibetan Buddhism as it is by the Medieval Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart and St. Teresa of Avila. The wisdom of uncertainty lies at the very root of Taoism, and therefore of Zen Buddhism, which is a blending of tenets that occurred when Indian Buddhism was brought to Confucian and Taoist China centuries past.

So it seems to me that one of the aspects of religious sensibility that the intellect-based New Atheists such as Hitchens cannot seem to ever comprehend is this very truth of Unknowing. Once again, they dismiss it as a merely intellectual belief. "Of course we can eventually know everything! That's the magic of human consciousness!" This intellectual certainty of the New Atheists' response to the tenet of uncertainty seems like an almost allergic reaction: an instant denial that is more knee-jerk than thoughtful, exactly like you how can't help sneezing when hay fever strikes.

One the chief lessons of the dark night of the soul is that one must become comfortable with uncertainty. There really is no choice. It's one of the profound lessons of the experience: because you don't know what's going on, or why, you are forced to accept that you may never know what's going on, and may never know why. When you're in the dark night, it's impossible to see the exit. There is no exit. There is only the dark night. It is a self-contained experience, and it takes place inside a container with no doors, no windows.

Eventually, someday, a little light comes in. I knew that I had begun to emerge from the dark night, or at least from that period of the dark night, when it didn't matter to me anymore that I couldn't feel the divine presence anymore. All I could perceive was Mystery, and that was as it should be. The dark night is key to the mystical path of the via negative, the Negative Way, which is the Way of Letting Go, the Way of Unknowing. You have to learn to trust and surrender to the experience of the darkness itself. This is a profoundly non-intellectual experience, because if there is one thing the ego and the intellect have difficulty doing, it's surrender and trust. In the dark night you discover that "trust" and "surrender" and "faith" are all the same thing: just different labels for the same attitude, the same feeling, the same groping, the same experience. I still struggle with this. It's hard for me to trust that "All shall be well again" one those days when the only truth I can confront with certainty is that "pain hurts." This isn't a matter of belief. It's a matter of the religious sensibility.

For myself, one way I have managed to survive the dark night is by discovering that for me, as for many other artists and musicians, the aesthetic sensibility and the religious sensibility overlap to a great extent. My practice of faith is in my art-making, in my music. Johann Sebastian Bach signed every one of his musical manuscripts, Deo gratias, "To the glory of God." I don't have a relationship with the straightforward Christian God, even though like Bach I was raised in and participated in the Lutheran church. It's not that I had an atheistic conversion and left the Lutheran church in a huff of annoyed resentment, it's rather than I outgrew the tenets I had been raised with. The version of the Lutheran church that I was raised in was a very rational church—miracles only happened in the Biblical era, and in our contemporary world they had no more existence. So what was the Lutheran church to do with a boy who started having visions of angels and other worlds from the age of five? I hold no resentment, and I held no resentment back then; rather, I think I just outgrew the Lutherans. By the time I had my first vision of the Void, and the dark night of the senses that followed, I had long since moved on.

(The only point of resentment and distrust between myself and the church I was raised in centered on the issue of my homosexuality. I don't want to make that big a deal out of this. I was not cast out or dramatically condemned the way so many other gay men were; I don't carry those anti-Christian wounds that many gay men suffer for decades after being vilified and ejected from their home churches. My Lutherans were far too rational and liberal-minded for that sort of casting-out and hatred. They were at most just uncomfortable and perturbed. I did leave the church in part, it's true, because I was gay, and felt I had no place there anymore; that was part of my coming out process, as for many other gay and bisexual men. But again I don't want to make it into more than it was. The deeper reason I left was because I had outgrown it. There was no rejection, but rather a realization on my part that I would never really fit in. It was also about my lack of interest in group worship, as opposed to solitary spiritual practice, my preferred mode. About twelve years after I had left my church, I first started seriously reading Thomas Merton, the contemporary writer and mystic. It was through Merton's mysticism and example and writings that I found my way to accepting that the Christian church was not all bad, in fact it had some good aspects. Merton was my path to genuine acceptance, and perhaps forgiveness. I remain unaffiliated with any organized religion, and I remain a maverick, fitting poorly into group worship situations, preferring to follow my own idiosyncratic path wherever the visions have led.)

So for me, making music, making art, making poems, is very much akin to a religious practice. It is a daily practice: I make something every day, even though I don't write a poem every day, or record a piece of music every day. I know a lot of the musicians I work with would agree that most of their spiritual awareness and experience goes into their music. Few of them would frame this using any variety of religious language. Most of them would squirm at the very idea. But some would agree with me that the aesthetic experience and the religious experience are sometimes indistinguishable. One or two might even frame the overlap between the aesthetic and the religious as I have here.

Pity the poor atheists, who have nothing in them that allows them to partake of the aesthetic sensibility, the religious sensibility, or the philosophical sensibility. I express neither judgmentalism nor pity when I say that I would find such a life hellishly empty and excruciatingly hollow, devoid of even a sense of sacredness of place, or of the solace of art-making.

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mortality & Futility

When you strip away all the balderdash around the Cult of Positive Thinking, when you realize that the New Age mantra "Your beliefs create your reality" is often used to blame the victim, when you get past all the self-help stereotypes and clichés, when you give up denial of suffering in the form of believing that adversity is somehow a good thing, you are left with one very fundamental fact that sweeps away all the rest:

Pain hurts.


This past week, I received an email from a friend stating, basically, in a few well-written sentences, what was wrong with an organization that we have both been members of. It was also a resignation letter. Now, while I sympathize with his feelings, and his attempts to clarify and codify the problems within the organization, I find I can generate little sympathy for the tactic of telling people off on the way out the door. it may be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't solve anything. His letter is bound to shake things up, in a positive way; but if he departs the situation in frustration, he makes it impossible for him to witness that outcome, for himself.

If you can identify a problem, stick around and be part of the solution. Stage a coup d'etat, step in and take over, and fix things. In my lifetime I have witnessed many situations in which impatience and unreasonably high expectations have led to bitterness and judgmentalism, neither of which are helpful towards creating genuine solutions. So while I sympathize with my friend's feelings, I don't sympathize with his apparent unwillingness to be part of the solution. The organization in question could actually use more persons of his caliber and clarity of thought; and the solution won't be found if such people always leave in bitterness rather than stick around in hope.

This past week, I was feeling physically better: a little stronger, a little more recovered. Nonetheless, after the most recent blood test, I am still anemic, still weak, still have a long way to go towards full recovery. I spent some time on the phone with the nurses, with the doctor, discussing what to do next. In the end I felt like things had, once again, gotten worse rather than better.

That is an exhausting thought: for the past long period of time, it has felt like things have gotten worse and worse and worse, and not gotten better. Hope is a lie. Any attempts to think positive are an exercise in futility.

Sometimes it all feels futile, like I'll never get better, never recover, never get my strength and health back, never get out of this black hole, never get past depression, never reclaim a career path that allows me to pay my bills rather than deplete my savings. This is what living with a chronic illness is like. Or a disability. Or some other thing you cannot just fix. Sometimes the sense of futility is overwhelming. You get so close to the edge, you can see over it into the abyss. (As Nietzsche once opined, Remember that when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.) It can take all your strength just to keep from tumbling over that edge, into oblivion. Some days you spend the entire time holding on by your fingernails.

Life just isn't much fun on those days.

Sometimes, I can make a poem, work with photos, make a change, do a simple household chore. (Fortunately, my plan for my garden as I've built it up over the past few years has been to make it low-maintenance, with mostly perennials. I've largely succeeded at that; which is good, as this past summer I've been too debilitated to do much more than the occasional weeding.) As I've often said, making art is the best revenge. It's also one of my very few genuinely effective coping mechanisms. The New Age self-development stereotypes and clichés, which are mostly mental, are useless for coping with chronic illness or depression, because chronic illness and depression are simply not things you can think your way out of. The body has to be involved, at the very minimum. Some days the pain is distracting enough that meditation is simply impossible, and the monkey mind simply cannot be effectively stilled. If you could simply think your way out of illness, everyone would. (Well, except perhaps for those professional Victims who derive personal power from their woundologies.)

There is one stereotypical truth that is fairly effective:

When you stop dwelling on your own problems, and go back to being of service to others, your own suffering is lessened by that much. This is not some power of distraction, of denial or avoidance. It is an application of the universal spiritual law that Shared pain is lessened, and shared joy is increased.

This past week, I've been in occasional written touch with an acquaintance who has suffered a seriously broken leg after being hit by a car, and all the trauma of hospitals, potential surgery, casts and braces, and feelings that follow in their wake. There is a loss of personal dignity. I sympathize with her sense of loss of personal integrity and personal power. Dignity and integrity and health are things we miss mostly when they're absent, otherwise we tend to take them for granted.

A lot of the stereotypical advice comes from well-meaning friends who don't really get it.

Without denying the strength of empathy and imagination to connect people, and get them to perceive and change their lives, there are experiences which many people can only offer useless advice about until they've been through those experience themselves. People mean well. But some don't seem to comprehend how exhortations to be stoic and strong are more harmful than helpful.

Such comments often end up making you feel guilty, like not being stoic enough is somehow a personal failure. As though you were somehow responsible for everything that's happened to you, and equally responsible for everything that follows. Sometimes you find yourself apologizing for weeping because you simply can't cope anymore, it hurts too much. You feel required to apologize for not being perfect, not being stoic enough, not being manly or macho enough, not being tough enough. You start to beat yourself up for falling short of these types of expectations of perfect behavior, perfect wellness, perfect coping, perfect management of your mind and body. As though you could think your way out of it all, and your inability to do so marks you as failing.

But, pain hurts. Period. Sometimes that's all that there is to it.

it's no failure to complain about being in pain: venting is healthy. When you're in pain, it's not whining, it's venting. And a good dose of weeping can be cathartic, even healing.

And you have to remember that some people want you to be stoic and tough purely because they are feeling uncomfortable and helpless in your presence. When confronted with suffering they can do nothing about, some people fall into distraction and denial; others offer advice that is usually more useless than helpful; and yet others will try to cheer you up so that they themselves can feel better. As the person who is ill, it can require a great deal of your energy to navigate this. It's helpful to remember that none of these responses to your illness have anything to do with you: these behaviors are all about them, all done for their sake, not for yours. Sometimes the best way to navigate is to ignore these tactics, and just let them go.

A brilliant, deep, loving minority of people, exhibiting genuine empathy and understanding, won't try to fix you, won't try to cheer you up so that they can be cheerful. These blessed few will simply sit with you, and share your pain, and lessen it simply by being present, by witnessing. In my experience, such loving genuine friends don't try to talk you out of anything, or try to distract you; they are often quiet, willing to just sit there with you and hold space for you to be safe and true within. This is more supportive and caring than most people realize; it goes a lot further towards relieving suffering than many other methods. Shared pain is lessened.

With regard to the loss of dignity that illness and broken bones generate, that occasional sense of feeling dehumanized and discarded by the medical establishment—with regard to all that, again empathy is the key. It doesn't take much to help a suffering person regain her dignity: you just have to acknowledge and witness those feelings, and be genuine in your empathy.

Speaking as the son of a doctor (who passed away three summers gone), and as someone with a bit of medical training and knowledge myself, I say without reservation that the way doctors are trained in medical school—the system, as it were—is very much the root of the problem of dehumanization. At the same time, this is now changing, as many medical college programs are admitting more alternative approaches to medical care, and acknowledging that a good bedside manner is something that can be taught. The vast majority of doctors who I personally know are very caring, human people. They encounter their patients as other human beings: the experience of witness, of genuine listening, of humility, is key to this approach. The other major contributing factor towards patients feeling dehumanized is the way that medicine is managed by the for-profit medical institutions such as HMOs—again, the system—in which doctors' choices of medical procedures and their desire to help people can be severely constrained. It's hard to do much with a required short appointment of only a few minutes, when you don't really get a chance to talk things over, and have the human encounter with the other.

I make no excuses for annoying doctors who are arrogant and don't listen to their patients' concerns. Yet in my own experience those kinds of doctors are in the minority. Most doctors really do want to help you get better. And the really caring ones will acknowledge that you're suffering, and won't prescribe useless platitudes along with whatever pills you might need.

Making art is the best revenge.

Making art is the reason I'm still here. I would have given up awhile ago, otherwise. I am just getting clear in my heart that I came very close to dying just a couple of months ago. Yet I'm still here. There must be some reason I'm still here, even if I can't imagine what it might be. I don't think about it all that often, to be honest, because that's a mental hamster wheel that doesn't serve me well. Frustration, depression, futility, increased awareness of my own mortality: these have all threatened my life in the recent past. You probably have no idea how boring feeling sick all the time can be. You probably have no idea just how crazy being cooped up at home can make you, driving you towards serious cabin fever, and potentially stupid and self-harming attempts to break free.

All you want, sometimes, is a single day wherein you don't have to deal with any of this, don't have to think about it, don't have to cope with it. Those rare days when you achieve that are like a vacation at the beach: a complete mental vacation. And even if it all comes rushing back tomorrow, for one day at least you were free.

Meanwhile, everything you do is a coping mechanism. Everything you do is in defiance of entropy. I don't have the strength to fix a few broken things in the house: entropy confronts me directly with increasing disorganization and chaos. Some days I just want to scream. The least little thing pisses you off—not because the little thing is significant in itself, but because it's the last straw on top not being able to cope with everything else. Well, I can't just now fix the lamp that gave up the ghost today. It will have to wait till I can. Which might be awhile.

Mortality clarifies your priorities, as well as juggles them. Fixing the broken lamp just doesn't seem important in the face of more urgent and deadly concerns. Will I need another blood transfusion soon? Will my fears of worsening anemia be true, or will I really get better, as promised? Blood loss is what almost killed me a few months back, so some anxiety around the issue is I think forgivable. And if I never stop bleeding, if the drug therapy doesn't work, what then?

Pain hurts.

Right now, I don't care. I cannot afford to care. I cannot afford to worry about it. I cannot afford the luxury of a negative thought, even though I am unable to Think Positive either, lately. A good day can be simply that you don't feel negative; not that you can get to the positive, but simply that you don't sink into the negative. I am left with the truths that pain hurts and shared pain is lessened, and even though joy has been hard to find lately, shared or otherwise, this has to be enough for now. For now. That's enough for me to have to cope with, for now. The rest is not my problem anymore, if it ever was.

Despite Everything

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wish I Was There

Having one of those dreary "I wish I was anywhere but here" days. it's cold and rainy, blustery and damp, here in southern Wisconsin today. We need the rain, and the claps of thunder and flashes of lightning at dawn were welcome for their drama. I've been having bouts of serious cabin fever, having lost most of this summer just past to illness, then spending the last few weeks recovering, trying not to overexert myself into relapse. Which meant spending a lot more time sitting around not doing much. The coyote is starting to gnaw on his leg, trying to get free of the bear-trap. The eagle (or is it a reborn dragon?) wants to try his still-damp wings. I need a roadtrip, soon, to clear my mind. Anywhere will do.

So I am drawn back to the Pacific Ocean shore, to the mountains, to the icons of place that speak to my spirit and mind, as clearings of stillness, of places where I am as real as the earth, where there is no doubt of the beauty of life.

This photo is one of my personal favorites, taken at oceanside on a stormy late winter day, at high tide, at a location sacred to me. I was standing in the high winds on the cliff overlooking Pescadero State Beach in central California. Something about high sea winds clears the mind, as it simultaneously clears out the mouth and lungs.

Pescadero State Beach, CA
(Click on image for larger view)

Note the seagulls on the rocks in the foreground, sheltering from the wind. The coastal hills march north towards San Gregorio, and in the far distance, towards Half Moon Bay. The clouds whipped into froth. The heavy surf. The beach itself, the sandy strand, lost in the wild storm's aftermath.

winter storm in the Grand Canyon, AZ

Cabin fever makes me crave being out in the wild places. Where even the weather is a challenge, but the mountain air is so clean and clear that its very chill is crisp and refreshing. I need to be at mountain altitudes, overlooking a precipice, toes on the edge of a canyon in a high wind, only the pressure of air keeping me aloft. Cabin fever makes you want to go out and test your limits, see how close you can approach the edge of the abyss and still return. I'm no adrenaline junkie to seek out extreme sports or put myself deliberately in harm's way for no good reason, and yet I've had plenty of ordinary heart-racing moments. Being close to the edge really focuses the attention. It clears out the mental clutter, renews your priorities, makes you aware of what really matters, and that most everything else doesn't. Most of everyday life is a series of pointless, purposeless distractions: things we think we have to do in order to keep the wheels moving in their mundane tracks. But for what? To keep the gears of civilization smoothly turning? Why? Is there a point? That is, beyond the bare minimum social contract required in order for predatory humans to live together in relative peace and freedom? H.L. Mencken, no fan of pointless civility, said it well: Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

clearing storm, Grand Canyon, AZ
(Click on image for larger view)

The storm blows itself out, leaving the mind clear and refreshed. It's possible to settle into the clear mind in the mountains, with nothing cluttering your thoughts. The monkey mind tends to stay at home, at the lower altitudes, spinning on the hamster-wheel of social expectations. In the mountains, the stillness of clear glacial run-off pools reflect the perfect sky in serene stillness. The ancient Buddhist aphorism says: Is it the wind that moves the prayer flag, or the prayer flag that moves the wind? Neither: it is the mind that moves.

snow at sunset, Grand Tetons, WY
(Click on image for larger view)

And so I must go. To the mountains, to the ocean. In mind, in memory, if not today in actual body. In these few photographs, among my personal favorites of all my years of travel, made through the grace of being in the right place at just the right moment, lie many memories that renew and refresh me. That transport me. That take me away. Almost as good as being there, when I can't actually be there, right now.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Royal Green

I have a small collection, about a dozen, of vintage and antique typewriters. I find them to be aesthetically interesting, mechanically and typographically, and also purely visually, as much as for the history of writing they demonstrate. I've an ongoing series of photos and artworks based around these typewriters, and others I've photographed in thrift stores but not brought home.

I was playing with saturation and desaturation in these images: making everything into grayscale except the bright green typewriter keys. Then I just started to have fun. Good way to spend an evening, to make a little artwork.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Sheppards Dell Falls, OR

Images from the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, OR

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Contradictions & Paradoxes & Not

There is no argument between "religion" and "science." The argument is on the level of appearances, the insistence that one's own relativistic observer's viewpoint is the only valid observer's viewpoint. The argument of "science" (which is nothing more than a method of inquiry that leads to a practical body of descriptive knowledge) against "religion" is that religion is superstitious, unnecessary, and delusional. The argument of "religion" (which is nothing more than a method of inquiry that leads to a cloud of unknowing of which faith is proof) against "science" is that science is heartless, faithless, unethical, and detached from moral direction and social consequence.

Both viewpoints are true.

Both viewpoints are also incomplete and inaccurate, based on mutual misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

My personal, practical mysticism is grounded in, and confirmed by, theoretical physics. I am not alone in this.

But even theoretical physics is often considered heresy by mainstream physics. People don't like to have their cherished assumptions about the nature of reality questioned. This is as true for some scientists as it is for some religious. Both religious and physicists sometimes contort their ideologies into ridiculous pretzels merely to preserve the cherished assumption of causality (which is the assumption that all causes must precede effects, therefore that time is linear and unidirectional). Paradoxes, which can be miraculous, are no more accepted by standard (theological) religious logic than by the logic of classical (Newtonian) physics.

And yet miracles do happen.

The bottom line in deciphering an explanation of an event is to ask if it is necessary to invoke an outsider cause to explain an effect. In terms of theoretical physics, which contains some interpretations in which time can move in any direction and is focused, as it were, on physical objects (mass bends space and time) in a Gaussian distribution, miracles are inevitable. Cause does not always have to precede effect; effect can precede cause, from one observer's viewpoint, while from another observer's viewpoint, causality is preserved. Miracles can happen.

The religious observer's viewpoint invokes God, an outsider operator, to explain miracles. But theoretical physics argues that no such explanation is necessary and sufficient. It is not necessary to invoke God under normal physical operations. A sufficient explanation is available, using the observed laws of physics, to describe observed physical effects. In order to describe and explain the current observed state of the Universe, invoking a Creator is not necessary. This in a nutshell is the physicist observer's viewpoint.

Yet the wise physicist will point out that "necessary and sufficient" does not mean "impossible." in other words, it is not necessary to invoke God to explain human consciousness, but this does not "prove" that God doesn't exist. Scientists make this logical mistake as often as religious do. "Necessary and sufficient" to explain a physical phenomenon says nothing about faith or proof of faith—although some anti-religious scientists (such as the militant atheists) try to make it do so. But they cannot explain away the aesthetic experience of "beauty" either. And "truth" has a very limited definition within scientific experimental practice, in which a proof can be true only within specifically defined parameters relevant to the experiment. Mathematical proofs are not always true in the real world, in practice. Time can flow in more than one direction. Tachyons do seem to exist, and do seem to have been measured.

Neither classical physics or standard quantum physics today permits ‘intent’ or ‘free will’ or ‘creative intelligence’. This essential hallmark of life demands a violation of the statistical predictions of quantum physics as formulated today. This is the key idea of what I call ‘postmodern physics.’
—Jack Sarfatti, theoretical physicist

Life cannot be explained purely by causality, because will and intention and choice are involved. We not only have choices about our actions, we have choice about what we believe, and how we perceive the world. Our choices about what we believe filter our perceptions, which in a feedback loop can then also filter our beliefs. We cannot perceive what we do not believe is there; unbelief affects perception as much as belief does. We tend to view the familiar as more beautiful than the unfamiliar; we tend to preserve our habits-of-thought as our cherished assumptions about the nature of reality, and we tend to dislike and deny contradictions to those cherished assumptions. There are people who probably cannot actually have a religious experience, because they've chosen to believe in their impossibility. (Some of these are dedicated churchgoers, as well.)

The goal of meditation practice is, at bottom line, to remove the filters, so that we can perceive what's actually there. Meditation has been measured and studied using scientific operations and instrumentalities; and it has been shown to make actual changes in both biology and consciousness; and some scientists are also meditators.

Is "God" an artificial intelligence, a constructed intelligence? "God made us in his image, and we returned the favor." We project our psychologies so well onto the Universe that the Universe, which is malleable, transmits them back. "God" might be ourselves under magnification. The gods certainly seem to act in very human ways. Perhaps "God" is not necessary to explain physical phenomena, but is necessary nonetheless. Not as a balm for the troubled soul, nor as a superstition (which is what anyone convinced of their own belief system tends to label the conflicting belief systems of others), but as an awareness for the many "anomalous experiences" that people seem to keep having, over the ages, that lie outside explanation. Even scientists have had anomalous experiences, as have many mystics. My personal mysticism (which is based on personal experience, anomalous or otherwise) is not contradicted by theoretical physics, but instead seems to be confirmed by it. Yet many scientists distrust intuition, except when it confirms their own gut feelings. But scientists are human, and therefore subject to the same logical paradoxes as the rest of us. The purpose of the scientific method of experimentation is to remove bias from the experimental outcome: the attempt to see what's really there rather than what we want to believe is there. Skepticism is a positive value. (Of course, any positive value can be flipped to a negative value, if taken to an extreme.)

We won't arrive at final-stage truth by reductionism, the process of breaking processes, objects, and explanations into ever-smaller components and sub-components. Molecular biology and neuroscience have unfortunately lately developed all-too-strong a tendency towards reductionism. One objection to neuroscience that many religious have, and it is a valid objection, is the attempt to explain, or explain away, the mind and soul as wetware components of the brain-as-supercomputer. Having invented the digital computer about a century or so ago, humans now have this tendency to filter all their perceptions of reality through the paradigm of the digital computer. But binary logic, while fantastic for computing, and useful for mathematics, doesn't describe the real world, which is much better described by those still-controversial mathematical/logical tools, fuzzy logic and fractals. The world is not actually Euclidean, although many scientists continue to perceive it that way. The cherished assumptions we make about the nature of reality (life, God, the Universe, and everything) in turn filter how we perceive reality. This only gets us so far, however.

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
—Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist

The reductionist explanation of human consciousness as a software (wetware) derived from and generated by the organic computer of the brain falls short of real-world experience. It is not necessary to invoke human mind and soul in order to explain human behavior, or brain chemistry, but neither is it sufficient to explain all aspects of human consciousness as brain chemistry. The criteria of "necessary AND sufficient" has not been met by contemporary neuroscience in its dominantly mechanistic interpretations. In other words, while it is not necessary to invoke the soul when describing human consciousness, it is not sufficient to merely explain away the soul as a delusion created by brain operations. Real-world experience has documented many cases of anomalous experiences that cannot be explained away by anomalous brain chemistry. The universal human belief in an afterlife, which has been documented via near-death experiences and mystical experiences from many cultures across time, cannot be sufficiently explained away as anomalous brain chemistry. So there is grounds for faith.

So it seems obvious to me, whose real-life experiences have encompassed both rigorous scientific training AND extraordinary metaphysical experiences, that both "science" and "religion" are true, and that the argument between them verges on psychological hysteria, since it is not totally supported by experience. (Denials are not proofs, as proving a negative is beyond the scope of philosophy.) In fact, there is a great deal of overlap between science and religion, as the new physics suggests, and seems to prove, at least some of the time.

What is in conflict between science and religion is differing sets of cherished assumptions about the nature of causality. But both the fearless scientist and the probing mystic, who keep open minds, who are likewise willing to explore avenues of inquiry thought mad by their peers, who are willing to look past the cherished assumptions, to remove the known filters, and attempt to perceive what's really there—both of these might in the end realize that they are not conflict, but rather in some level of deep agreement.

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Circles & Curves & Edges

I've spent most of the last two days and nights feeling like something was going to happen.
Something like a poem, but not a poem, not to emerge as a poem.
Something wanting to emerge all day, all evening, that pressure in the chest.
Something like creativity's geometry. Better as not-words.
Last night I went out to dinner. Ate a good hot meal that I didn't have to prepare or clean up.
I had my journal along. I was writing in it while waiting for the food. And then I was drawing.
I found myself sitting alone in the restaurant feeling suddenly self-conscious about drawing.
I was suddenly aware of the families with noisy little children all around me.
I was drawing things they wouldn't understand. Or care to know about. I felt uncanny.

It's not a lonely feeling. It's not particularly that I care what others might think.
I followed the brush, as I always do, and what emerged was something archetypal, animal, shamanic.
Not the first time. All this "I" means nothing in this context of process.
I hate art that is nothing but "I". But I also hate poems that are nothing but language.
With no self present, with no Presence present, why bother? What's the point?
The antler staff on the wall of the boy's apartment I gifted it to finally after years of guarding it.
Not mine to use. Now finally gifted to where it was supposed to go. It comments on nothing.

When we walked into the mist of the falls, it was like nothing so much as continuous rain.
Thunder on basalt boulders, never ending. It was cool, and it had rained all day, and the day before.
All the winter rain had made all the waterfalls loud and resplendent, dangerous to touch.
When we walked into the mist, it was cold and drenching. I had to hide under my coat.

Somewhere in the verdant green of the falls-carved canyon there is a face in the rock wall.
A green man or a hunter god's face, tangled in the weeds, in the curve of branches.
An oracle of twigs laid upon the altar of a stone railing overlooking the stream.
Curving to point in the direction of the power under life.

Desert light. Dry branches curved on a platen on glaciated stone. An altar of limbs.
Dry as dust. Stunned under the spinning sun's hammer. Cold nights.
In the mornings canyon wren and hummingbird investigate the tent.
I sat naked in the early morning light, in the tent's open mouth, before hiking to the road.
I wore only boots that morning.

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Latourell Falls

images from Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, OR, February 2010

Latourell Falls is, for me, right now, my favorite waterfall in the world. Considering how much I love waterfalls, how often I seek them out to visit, to make photographs, to listen to their voices, that's saying a lot. Latourell Falls is not most the famous falls in the Columbia River scenic area near Portland, OR, nor the most visited; but for me it is the most sublime, most beautiful, most personally beloved.

The falls are set back in a slot canyon carved from the native basalt, carved like all these falls, like the Columbia River Gorge itself carved by the giant Missoula floods of the Pleistocene.

If you want impressive size, go visit the most-visited falls in the area, Multnomah Falls, which is also the most "developed," with an inn, tourist attractions, shops, and other amenities. Go to Multnomah if you want the tourist experience; seek out Latourell if you want to be alone with the elements.

Whenever I enter the canyon of Latourell Falls, it's like stepping into a Japanese Zen meditation garden. The walls of the canyon and green and black, rich with living things. They are sculpted as if by an artist's hand, with trees and fallen boulders placed just so. The falls themselves are heard before they are seen; even in winter, with most of the trees bare, you get only glimpses until you are hear at hand, partial views that almost seem designed or planned. The everyday sounds are lost under the sound of water falling 224 feet from cliff edge to bouldered foot. The falls make the world silent. The trail twists back into the canyon a couple of hundred yards, then passes near the foot of the falls, across a wooden bridge over the creek, and up the other side of the canyon.

For me, Latourell Falls are perfect in every way. Not too large to be able to absorb, sublime rather than spectacular, hidden back in the canyon away from the casual eye, therefore less crowded, more contemplative, more meditative. You can be alone in there for long periods of time.

I can spend hours at the foot of these falls. I've made some of my personal favorite photographs here, the personally-chosen images I've printed large and hung on the walls of my home.

Here, I am refreshed, I am renewed. Walk in, spend time by the falls, walk out changed, recharged, made whole. Just breathing in the cold misty air at the bade of the falls is a balm.

The world outside is lost and forgotten as though it had never been. Even after you leave the falls proper, the world is slow to reassert itself, giving you a space before you must come back to yourself. The transition is gradual, like a pilgrimage, like walking the labyrinth, like entering and exiting sacred space. It takes time to arrive, time to depart.

This is a sacred place. A place of power, of delight and healing alike. The spirit of this place is alive with green life, dark with old beautifully-shaped cliff rocks, dark with the eyes of the magic of silent deer, bright with the goldfinch's wing. This is sacred time: there is no time here, only a shard of eternity.

Every time I pass through this part of the country, I stop in to these falls for a visit. And when I leave, I go on with life, with whatever journey I am on, renewed, refreshed, my mind stilled and cleared, calmed and replenished. Healed. Remade. Bouyed up by whatever power there is, that supports and bears up all life.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Rainbow, Columbia River Gorge

Images from Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area, OR, February 2010

From east-side Portland where I was visiting a friend, we drove up the Columbia River Gorge for the afternoon. Heavy rains, cloudy skies, with the sun breaking through at times. Driving along the scenic road alongside the precipice, sudden rain, then clear skies, and a most amazing rainbow over the River, seen through the barebranch trees and green mosses of winter.

Cliffs of the Washington State side of the Columbia River seen from among the cliffs and trees of the Oregon side, with rainbows painted in between.

Rainbow doubled, vivid in its intensity, the angle of light just right, lasting only a minute or two, then fading back into the grey skies of winter rain.

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Poem & Process

Courtesy of Jerome Rothenberg's Poems and Poetics, an excerpt from "A Provisional Poetics" from Mark Weiss about the process of writing a poem that speaks directly to my own experience of writing poems:

I never set out to write a poem. I will jot things down in my notebook, sometimes ideational, sometimes not, sometimes from the environment, or misheard, or from a dream, and occasionally a phrase will have a rhythmic urgency that compels me to jot something further, and then I'm lost in process and have no idea where I or the poem is going. This is a liminal state fraught with both joy and terror, and it is processual. The process may extend over few or many lines and take a few moments or days and months. It lasts until one emerges at the other end, back into the everyday, arrival signaled by the loss of urgency.

And then one cleans up the mess of blind alleys, dishonesties and false starts. What’s left is the record of the process. in which the poet is reinvented and the poem discovered.

This is exactly how I "work" as a poet. Essays can be more planned, but some of my more poetic essays, such as the Spiral Dance series of essays, are written this way as well, and written at white heat.

This process orientation of writing, which leaves us with a poem that is the record of the process, accounts for why sometimes a poem sometimes emerges more or less complete, as a first draft. The finished poem, the "record of the process," is exactly how it feels to me, about some of my own poems, notably the vision-poems and poems whose topics are more visionary than mundane.

Speaking to Paul Valéry's dictum that "A poem is never finished, only abandoned," what Weiss refers to as the "loss of urgency" also comes into play. Sometimes I know a poem is finished simply because I am no longer emotionally invested in it; either in continuing to revise it, or invested in polishing it towards a particular outcome. If this means sometimes that some poems have unpolished, rougher edges—imperfect grammar, unusual syntax, dangling metaphors—so be it. it's possible to over-polish a poem to the point where you polish all the life out of it. I often feel that my own poems that retain a few rough edges are more alive, more perhaps true to life's actual chaotic and unruly experience. Sometimes it seems to me that poets who over-polish their poems have a psychological need to create certainty and perfection in an uncertain and imperfect world; this seems to be true for at least a few neo-formalist poets I've encountered.

But Weiss has more to say:

What I’m describing is a particular form of possession. I think of poor Yeats in “Among School Children,” realizing that, despite the watchful eyes of the nuns and his desperate desire to behave properly, he is falling into a sexual revery about a little girl. And suddenly he gives into the revery and finds himself transported to a brutal figuration of generativity and destructiveness, of the erotic refusing to be tamed to the appropriate. The life built by the public man can be torn apart in a second, and the whole world with it. It's Red Hanrahan, the hero of his early stories, being carried off by the fairies all over again, the victim of their purity of impulse. And where does that leave you?

I suspect that all poetry is a form of possession. There's the sense that no matter how we try to train ourselves we can become at best receptive—the poem seems to come when it wants to and to leave when it wants to, unless we try to constrain it to our preconceptions, in which case we certainly lose it. And it's no respecter of occasions, so that those who have the dubious fortune of being on the receiving end often find themselves less than well-fitted to the world of time-constraints.

For me, this speaks to the shamanic, prophetic, vatic aspect of poetry. It speaks to the oracular nature of poetic prophecy—such as the visions of Ezekiel in the Old Testament. It also speaks to the shamanic worldview, expressed by a Tungus shaman as "Everything that is, is alive."

"Possession" is a strong word to use here; yet in terms of depth psychology, in Jung's terms, possession occurs when our unconscious forces which we know little about take over our conscious waking life. People are possessed by their archetypes, and act out neuroses that exist in their shadows, those parts of themselves they are not consciously aware of. When possessed by something in one's own shadow, one cannot account for one's own behavior. Why did I overreact to that little thing, blowing it all out of proportion? Psychologically, we get triggered when someone pushes our buttons about a core issue; and then we are briefly possessed. Afterwards, it always seems a bit ridiculous how badly we over-reacted to a trigger; and indeed sometimes apologies are necessary.

I do not believe for an instant that art-making is a neurotic process. Hence my wariness of the word "possession" in the context of writing poetry.

However, the ancient Greeks spoke of the daimon, the other, darker self, that steps in and takes control in liminal moments in numinous spaces. It is through the mouth of the human oracle that the god speaks. The Greeks well comprehended how the erotic can refuse to be tamed to the socially appropriate. They accepted this, and accounted for it with the concept of the daimon, and of being "taken" by the gods. (In Voudoun, the trance-possessed celebrants are ridden as though horses by the loa, the spirits, the Horsemen.)

The relatively modern writer Rudyard Kipling believed strongly in the Greek concept of the daimon, and wrote of how his daimon was the source of his own creative work. I find this believable in Kipling's case, since his writing was so open and lucid and progressive at times, yet the man himself could be an incredible stick-in-the-mud as well as a social conservative.

Weiss: "the poem seems to come when it wants to and to leave when it wants to, unless we try to constrain it to our preconceptions, in which case we certainly lose it." This is exactly what I mean when I insist that poems written entirely from the head ultimately fail. The pre-planned poem is often dry and formal, not alive. When we try to constrain the poems, or when we try to force them to emerge, they balk. The daimon leaves us, high and dry.

I often have had the experience of the poem coming when it wants to, and leaving when it wants. This is why my practice as a writer is not to sit and write for two hours a day in a "disciplined" practice; but rather, to be ready at all times for when the poem comes. My discipline is to always be ready, and to keep the tools sharp and at hand. Experience tells you by some system of anticipation and internal radar, if you will, that something might be ready to happen. So you keep the journal and pen at hand, so if and when the flood appears, you'll be ready for it. I've had to pull over to the side of the road more than once, to get the poem down before it evaporates, before it leaves. And I'm willing to do so. That's a different kind of discipline: not the discipline of diligent craftsmanship, perhaps, but the discipline of preparedness. I may not write every day, but when a poem comes forward, I'm ready to receive it.

Weiss makes the important point that this sort of discipline is not passive:

I’m not talking about a loss of choice. For one thing, the field in which our possessed selves operates is the field we bring to the experience. And the momentary changes and impulses are directed by what comes before, but also by the changes in a bodily chemistry whose stability is always fragile. We learn, we enlarge the field, but it's still the field, and the physiology, we brought to the game.

Choice. It is an active choice to be ready for the poem to appear. It is receptive, but it is not a passive receptiveness. More importantly, what Weiss refers to here as choice means, I believe, that we bring all of our life's experience to the making of every poem. The art is not context-free, and it emerges through us, which means that Weiss and I would not write the same poem because we are different people with different biographies, experiences, and attitudes. So even though our writing processes might be almost identical, our poems will not be.

And everything I've learned, that I've experienced, every roadtrip I've taken into the mountains, every evening I've spent watching the light fade at dusk, everything I've ever loved, all of this feeds into each of my poems. Because all of that is part of me, all of it is in every creative act I engage in. Choice is then manifest in what elements of life and experience will fall into this poem, and not into these others.

Writing a haiku, for example, as a spontaneous response to a moment of luminous insight, contains all of the Universe in that particular moment. Even though the poem might be about Everything, everything be found by following what is particular in that individual poem out towards the rest of the Universe. I choose to write a haiku about something specific to my experience; but shared human experience allows others to find themselves in the poem, and complete it.

Making a poem, then, as Weiss continues later, is a choice to let go and trust the process:

It's the willful relinquishing of resistance to liminality. And it differs from the ritual practice of possession because, unlike the ritual, which, if done properly, always brings the participant out the other end (imagery of rebirth is inevitable here), it has no preordained pattern, no life-rope, no social structures surrounding it that announce when the participant has reached the new place and what place that is.

This may sound like the fugue state of psychosis, but in fact the crazy rarely will themselves to relinquish the inhibitions to behaviors seen as crazy and to the internal states that drive those behaviors. They really know that they may not be able to come back. I once asked a group of for-the-moment stable schizophrenics about a fantasy. They exchanged a few panicky glances and then assured me, one after the other, in the manner of well-behaved school-children, that they didn't have fantasies.

Again, to be clear, possession (by the daimon, if you will) in order to engage in the creative process is not the same as neurosis, or of losing one's sense of self. it is not madness. Although in our overly-rationalized, logicial-positivist cultural worldview of contemporary so-called-civilization, any letting go of the reins of ego-driven conscious control of any aspect of life is often perceived and labeled as madness. This is why the archetypal variants of the Dysfunctional Artist remain so popular in the general cultural mind: because making art is seen as a form of madness: non-conformist, outside the bounds of the social order, subversive, disreputable, disruptive, and so forth. Well, it's true that when the god takes you, you're no longer part of the social order. The difference between we moderns and the ancient Greeks, though, is that the ancient Greeks had a paradigm of acceptance for these disruptions of possession, and we do not.

Weiss concludes:

Somewhere the poet has the sense that there's an internal structure to escape to, and it's that faith that gives him the courage to dive in when he's able. Yeats, for instance, knows that he's not about to throw himself on that little girl, although he may allow himself to court the danger. The internalized self-definition as Poet, which contains within it the privilege to depart from the everyday to bring back news from the margins, is a part of that structure.

I agree entirely—although I no longer label myself as Poet or Writer. But Weiss' conclusion also applies to the self-definition as Artist, which I do accept for myself. An artist who occasionally writes poems. My experience is that the making of a poem, of an essay written at white heat, of a drawing, of a piece of music—all of these happen to me in the way that Weiss describes in his opening paragraphs. The process in each case does not feel different to me, no matter which medium I am working in. The feeling of pressure building, then the loss of urgency, feels the same, to me, regardless of whether the result is a poem, a drawing, or a composition. (The process of teaching-myself-to-draw is engaged in consciously, as a means of learning technique and craft, whereas the process of making-a-drawing is as Weiss describes. Technical craft practice is in the service of when the daimon comes.)

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