Sunday, October 30, 2011

Poems for Samhain

Two older resurrected poems for Samhain, brought back to life temporarily. The first a boneyard poem, an existential poem. The second of defeat and victory, reminding now, years later, of nothing so much as poems George Herbert used to utter. The collars we fight against that bring us home.

the skull behind the sky

the imbrecating winds, the desolating sun.
the shock of the other: the sun
moves; a turn of phrase wakes it,
you see the skull behind the sky.

mare’s tails split you open,
spit your heart over the fire;
suddenly sober, watching a raven’s
aerial dance: a hole in the sky

everything will always come to nothing:

children laugh in the distance,
there are birds, and freshets in the leaves:
still the hollows fill you, emptying you,
leaving nothing but your plucked eyes

and the unvision that fills them,
seeing nothing but vacuum beyond the blue.
only the desert never lies:
the bones beneath the brush.

the unnamed

I give up, great christ!,
I give in.
if you still want me, I am yours.
I have spent so many years
beating my way out of your church
of bones, only to find myself
again at your altar of blood.
I would turn this way and that,
fighting my way to an exit,
and, bloodied, succeed.
and then the door would open
only into your own cathedral.
now I grow tired,
unwilling to battle on;
if you still want me, take me,
hard master, or discard me,
or chastise me, or fill me.
it is all the same, I know,
I know.

(The illustration here was developed from acrylic paintings and technical pen drawings I had made as a teenager, in the 1970s. Apparently I already knew I was destined to make visionary/shamanic art and poetry even as a boy; apparently I have spent most of my adult life coming to terms with that, and undenying it.)

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In the Bone

I was searching for more things to write about Halloween, for more bones from the boneyard, when I came across an old exercise and workshop.

Back a few years ago, when I was involved in poetry workshopping with others, I was asked to craft an exercise, present a writing prompt, however you want to put it. I wrote an introduction and essay on stream of consciousness writing in poetry, and then presented an exercise about one way to do it, and how to mine it for ideas.

One only has to murmur the phrase "stream of consciousness" and many poets look up in alarm. We have come to think of this style of writing as: diary fodder, illegible nonsense, meat for a poem but not yet itself a poem, awful drivel, teenage journal-rambling, and worse. But we perhaps miss the fact it can be done extremely well, if it's done with concentration and attention. More to the point, it's a valuable tool in any poet's briefcase: even if your poem only starts in that vivid stream, it's a fine place to fish. A poem can be made from the mush. The free flow of words doesn't have to edited till later. Revision as visioning. You can be a completely metrically-minded formalist poet and still mine poems from this exercise. You don't have to mine anything but the mood, maybe an image, you're not required to recycle any of the language. Maybe all that happens is that a door opens to possibility.

A lot of contemporary poetry is too intellectual, too planned, too verbal in origin (as opposed to imagistic, or somatic), too left-brain. The list goes on. With this workshop prompt, I was hoping to get some good responses, to shake some people out of their writing habits, and I did, if only temporarily. The poets who participated presented first their raw passages, then the poem they had extracted from the flow. It was fascinating to observe. A real lesson in how consciousness works, and how the editing mind pulls out of the random flow something that has a shape and form. I heard comments from participants along the lines that this had stretched them out of their usual ways of writing; I heard comments that this had produced unexpected results, atypical poems, different sorts of writing. The project was declared a success, and pretty much everybody went back to doing their writing the usually do. Habits weren't really changed. A door was briefly opened. People made their own choices as to whether to go through it.

But I realized for myself, those years ago, how important writing in the flow was for my own process. I already knew this, but this exercise helped crystallize my self-awareness. I articulated it clearly to myself as a method, perhaps for the first time.

(I later rewrote this workshop exercise as an essay, which can be read here. And the poem I myself contributed to the process, seen below, was published, as mentioned here.)

Here, in the theme of Halloween, Samhain, October light, the Day of the Dead, the boneyard piling up with fresh bones, is what I myself wrote for this workshop exercise. I leave it more or less unedited, to show how the exercise worked: first you write in the flow, not pausing to "fix" the language or make it pretty; then you pull a poem out of what you're written.

stream-of-consciousness flow writing exercise:


that time of year: the cold dripping rain outside tonight getting into everything bones heart lungs and cheer; taking the trash outside before bedtime, 2am, stopped raining, ground still wet; I'm the only one awake in the neighborhood; trees move in the wind, shipping streetlight shadows across grass and driveway and cold pooling water, gutter choked with leaves; smell of burning, somewhere distant; memory of candles being snuffed, whiff of matchblack and quenched wick, waxtouch and watery shiver; the walls getting thin: the walls between worlds; easier to hear those voices, inner and other, this time of year; walls between worlds thinning till All Hallow's, they break through, and all over Latin America children play with their dead ancestors in cemeteries decorated for afterlife birthdays; raucous and wild, the spinning fireworks, sparklers on a wheel;

coal black eyes in the trees; roosting wild turkeys beaks tucked underwing; sleep of prey and predator alike, the game resuming in cold dawn; roost high, roost lightly; drone of tires on the highway past the river, past the fields and woods; find in the centre something like a nutshell, cracked, opening, black light within; what the right hand says to what's left; palmlight glow both hands burning with ornage fire; every year, this time, scrying; i rememebr the boy that was, blood luck dripping from both hands, standing crucified before the iron doors of a schoolyard in the cold wind and rain; wanting to be loved, wanting to not go in, knowing what would happen: fright, what is unknown and different scares us; trying for years to fit in, be like everyone else, incapable of pulling it off, incapable of effective masks; crippled at last by self telling self to hide pretend to powerlessness; and the blue electric explodes shimmering pop of fire falling from the skypole onto the snow, hands punching through drywall and stem unbruised, unbloodied, capable beyond capability; I become the thing we fear the most; I become capability;

candles in a circle of silver; Buddhalight; litter of otters spilling across my grandma's secretary desk; leave pull and fall all around; orange leaves, gold yellow red green amber, all together, scatter under tree, stillfall leaffall notyetfall; all one tree, all reflections of that One Tree; what do you tell people who can't see the archetypes directly like you can; what do you tell as a lie to make them love you, to pretend to be less than you can see; parlor tricks and seances, masks to cover the truth of experience; when you open wide, things get in, not all of them friendly; shunt attention and pain to a dot four feet in front your eyes, pain fades, goes away, jawache subsides to root and readiness;

dark brown wood of memory and longing; masterful emulation of something real, without being anything more than hashmarks on blank white page; superstition of the printing press; turbulent anticipation of the doors between worlds opening, and the dead stepping out from between the trees, watching benignly and wanting to tell you their stories, all their stories told silent and austere and with mouths filled with bees and leafrustle and mold; the dead open their hands: their hands are filled with light; the dead move easily between trees, gathering dreams and memories like fuel for an invisible fire; signal fires on the hills; bonfires leapt by naked young men and women, sparks rising into the clouds that reflect fireglow from the high peaks; castoff and dionysiac, emblems of blinded third eye remnant pressure behind the forehead exploding out into the night, you see, you see, you cannot help but see;

poem made from the writing exercise:

come see: how quietly they move through the stones.
parchment fingers rustling their leaf tambourines.
the dew is on the grass. their feet, in all their wanderings, do not touch.
they float above the earth, or dissolve near to it, into it.
their compass rose is of the greater earth: these leaves fall through them.

we rise up out of the very fields we tilled: these cemeteries, plowed anew.
every year, the miracle of wheat. sweep the garden for next year’s roses.
snow falls around us, whitens our scalps: no summer’s day outruns us.
shake the leaves off the headstone: a million butterflies take wing.
the ash tree whispers: home; we’ve come home.

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Friday, October 28, 2011


Decorating the house and front garden for Halloween, planning on having the spookiest house in the neighborhood if at all possible, again, I found myself the other day out looking for decorations to use, and my heart wasn't in it. I wasn't seeing what I wanted to see. Granted, this year things seem smaller in terms of what's being offered for sale, few new designs, little new marketing in the usual stores, that sort of thing; perhaps a reflection of the overall economic gloom and political fearmongering that has dominated public discourse all this year. When I was out driving, and engaged in shopping, it seemed to me people are ruder than usual right now, too; perhaps because they're distracted by their own worries into being less observant, less courteous. On the flip side, the wingnuts certainly seem to feel more empowered to express their sociopathic tendencies by the current political climate, empowered by heartless example, out of the mouths of wingnut politicos.

So it's strange times. As we approach the Day of the Dead, and the walls between the worlds get thinner, my dreams become more vivid, as usual, and my own restless spirit feels the need to wander. The political is also the personal.

This past year, having almost died, having come close to seeing my own guts spill out, held in only by staples over a suture after my surgery to have my ailing colon removed, i've been more close than ever to a sense of my own mortality. This Day of the Dead I can't help but think about myself as one of them, almost. I still feel very close to death—not to dying, as I am recovering on schedule, and coping with life as best as one can—to death itself as an experience and an abstract concept. I am more aware than ever of my own mortality, the limited span of life I have left, barring accidents or illness, and more aware than ever of how much i want to get done.

The experience of illness and surgery has made me impatient with people who would thoughtlessly waste my time; I was never a very patient person to begin with, but if anything has changed it's that I don't censor my mouth the way I might have before, and if someone is wasting my time I don't suffer their presence as well as I used to. Conversely, and hopefully to my credit, the long, mutually-supportive talks I have had with my best friends who are fellow artists have deepened and become more profound, more durable, and more inspirational. Now I have no reason anymore to put off making art, and I make art every day, one way or another. I hope I have enough time left to make the art that I'm supposed to make, before I'm done.

I am looking at the autumn cold nights, the chill in the air, the fallen leaves, the crisp fall air, and can't help feel annoyed that once again I completely missed the summer. Last year I missed summer because I was too ill to do anything, and this year because of the curative surgery. Not in two years have I been able to bask in the July heat, as I was too frail each time to survive it unaided. Now it's getting cold, and I feel, for the second time in a row, that I never got to experience feeling warm enough to satisfy my needs. I am having flashbacks to the time when my family returned to the US from India, when I was almost seven: it was in fall, and I spent that first year shivering. After an early life spent in tropical heat, the thin sunlight and cold winters of North America were a profound shock to my young self. I still love to linger in tropical heat, whenever I can get it.

So, in wandering around thinking about the Halloween decorations I want to put up, perhaps it's my brush with near-death this past year, perhaps it's my increased sense of mortality, perhaps it's the feeling of having died and been brought back to life—and all I want to decorate with this year is bones, bones, bones.

Bones, bones, bones. Skeletons, skulls, bones hanging from the tree. The revealed flesh of mortality that melts away. The skull as a symbol of what remains behind after we're gone. A symbol of the dead, but also of immortality. The skull and bones that endure after the soul has moved on, making symbols of what remains as a sign of what doesn't die. Do we all die, or do we all live forever? Which is it? What is there, after the body dies? No one really knows. We all have beliefs, and some of us who have almost-died bring back images and narratives of afterlife and near-death experiences—which are remarkably the same, no matter where or when they come from. So maybe there is something to it. Whatever you believe is not my concern. I know what I know. I don't care if anyone believes what I know. It doesn't concern me.

The shaman's path can be a lonely one, but then again, you're never alone, because you're always surrounded by the spirits, those hollow voices in the wind, the song of the skull, and the jaguar that drops from the tree to rip out your diseased guts in the Otherworld, and the bears who fill you with healing bread that nourishes your spirit-body and heals your scars. You die and are reborn a thousand times in this life. Some deaths are more enduring, but you always come back to life. You go on, having died. The spirits kill you many times, in the Otherworld, and you bring back something of being healed when you return, to be used to heal others, and yourself. And there is a platter of wisdom that comes with each disembowelment, a bit of self-knowledge gained, as well as the knowledge given you to be passed on to others. Death and rebirth, an endless wheel of schooling.

This Halloween, this Day of the Dead, I feel very close to the Otherworld, the thinning of the Veil between worlds is very personal for me this year, not abstract, not theoretical, but gut-real. So in decorating the tree and garden and front door with skeletons, bones, tombstones, skulls, and more bones, I feel a very personal reflection. I am mirroring my experience of recent death and rebirth. I am seeing my own "skull beneath the skin," and I am mirroring artistically and creatively what I feel in my bones was a near-miss, a near-death, and I am commemorating that near brush. It's not a superstitious keep-away kind of anti-magic, the way many Day of the Dead celebrations are. It's an acknowledgment of the truth of my own mortality.

Bones, bones, bones. I make poems, a jumble of words, a jumble of bones. I make food for the living and the dead. The dead eat the essence of the food brought to the gravestones by the living, the night of the Day of the Dead. While they wander, we feast, too. Everybody says hello, one last time. It's a chance to finish unfinished business, neglected and unfinished conversations. It's a chance to connect to eternity, and to heal the world's wounds. Not just yours, not just your family's wounds, but the hurt that chasms the dead from the living. Even this mortality was a rare chance for growing up. Bones are growth, have growth rings like trees, bones are how tall you are, look how much you've grown, your height in life, seeing around the open grasslands to the horizon, bones take you taller from the ground till you fall down again. You stand to die. You contemplate your own mortality in the images of the wedding of the dead. The dead marry the dead, and the living. But they're not separate anymore, not on these cold nights when the Veil is thin. Let the dead bury their dead. But they don't stay dead, they come to visit. Bones, bones, bones. Rattle and play. Them bones gonna rise again. Rattle, rattle, bones, bones. Music of humming bones.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Spooksville: Getting in the Mood

    Night Music
—AD, piano, processing, bells, effects, soundscape

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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Theokritikos: poem series

I've been writing an occasional series of poems for about four years. They are poems rather different from my usual style and forms. They have been rather controversial at times. And now, I have found a name for the overall series. Not that it needed a title, but it does help give the series coherence, and a handle to hold onto. Also, it seemed appropriate to find an overall series title in the same spirit in which the individual poems are named.

I cycle back around to poet and novelist Nikos Kazantzakis' strange little book, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises (translated by Kimon Friar). This book is a poetic statement of the author's inner mystical vision, written at white heat during an unexplained and disfiguring illness that vanished as soon as the book was completed. It is one of the least known of Kazantzakis' several books—he is best known for having written the existential novel Zorba the Greek and a modern sequel of The Odyssey—yet Saviors contains in summation his entire cosmology, his motivations as a poet and mystic, the ideas that lie behind his entire corpus. Kazantzakis titled his little book, askitiki, or ascesis, connoting both "asceticism" and "aesthetics," given in translation as "spiritual exercises," which further evokes other series of spiritual exercises composed by other mystics. The spiritual and the artistic are one, a truth the poet lived as well as believed. It appears in one aspect or another in all of his writings. The Prologue states:

WE COME from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life. As soon as we are born the return begins, at once the setting forth and the coming back; we die in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of life is death! But as soon as we are born we begin the struggle to create, to compose, to turn matter into life; we are born in every moment. Because of this many have cried out: The goal of ephemeral life is immortality! In the temporary living organism these two streams collide: (a) the ascent toward composition, toward life, toward immortality; (b) the descent toward decomposition, toward matter, toward death. Both streams well up from the depths of primordial essence. Life startles us at first; it seems somewhat beyond the law, somewhat contrary to nature, somewhat like a transitory counteraction to the dark eternal fountains; but deeper down we feel that Life is itself without beginning, an indestructible force of the Universe. Otherwise, from where did that superhuman strength come which hurls us from the unborn to the born and gives us - plants, animals, men - courage for the struggle? But both opposing forces are holy. It is our duty, therefore, to grasp that vision which can embrace and harmonize these two enormous, timeless, and indestructible forces, and with this vision to modulate our thinking and our action.

I think about Kazantsakis because it bears directly on this poem series I've been writing since 2007. I wrote the first poem in the series (before I knew it would become a series) when I was the live-in caregiver for my father, who was dying of colon cancer. I drove him to his medical appointments, I cared for him at home, I did all the errands and shopping when he wasn't able to, and more. I did much the same for my mother, who had Alzheimer's; although my mother didn't live at home, but in a care facility, I still needed to make decisions for her care, and more. About the same time that they died, I was diagnosed with my own chronic illness, which got worse, then I had surgery this past summer, and now I am in a state of ongoing recovery.

The poems in this series have titles in classical Greek, words that serve as titles and themes for each poem: specifically, ancient Greek terms used in both classical and contemporary theological writing. These Greek words are complex, nuanced, and layered in meaning; they all have long histories and many subtleties. There are associations of meaning that have accrued over centuries or millennia of theological writing, but there are also the original meanings of the words in their original ancient Greek contexts. I tend to weight my own interpretations towards the latter, but meaning is not dictated in a poem, and the reader is free to find meanings in my poetry that even I did not know were there. (I occasionally make such discoveries myself, implying that on a conscious level I didn't deliberately insert such meanings, but, on some super-conscious archetypal level, some greater part of me perhaps did.)

I admit that it does help to know what the titles mean, when reading the poems in this series. I've encouraged people to go look the words up, and discover for themselves. If I ever publish these poems as a group, I may have to provide an endnote or lexicon. Each poem reflects the title word in both content and form, and in some cases, represents the concept of the title as a process that happens during the poem. The poem therefore becomes an enactment of the title.

The poems in the series are for the most part written in new styles and forms that emerge organically as I write, spontaneously, without pre-planning. The poems were written in the wake of several powerful life-changing events (as mentioned above, the illness and death of my parents, my own chronic illness, surgery, and ongoing recovery). Many of these poems have surprised me in the process of their emergence. I find that I am not writing at all like I used to write, before all of these events happened in my life; in fact, I'm unable to write the way I did a decade and more ago. I am in transition, learning to read new maps, after having discarded all the old maps which had become worse than useless. When you go through a life-changing experience, it affects your art, even how you make your art.

So, the title for this poem series came to me rather late in the process, really just a few days ago, after most of these poems had already been written. The title is Theokritikos, derived from kritikos, defined in classical Greek as one who is capable of judging; and from theo-, or theos, classically defined as god-related, as involved with the gods. Adding theo- to kritikos changes the latter from a mostly literary or social-justice implication of analysis, judgment, and understanding, and brings in the transcendent, the mystical, and the theological. I do this deliberately. I am well aware that the poems in this series have always contained questions that are eternal, even theocritical, in implication.

Theokritikos is a complex formulation that I hope might have pleased Kazantzakis. Implied is both criticism of the gods, and criticism of life in service to the gods. I realize in retrospect that many of these poems are in the spirit of Saviors of God, which questions everything, even the abyss, and sets fire to the heart and mind.

Here are a few lines from Saviors of God, which I feel resonate strongly with what I am writing about here, and share tone and temperament with the poems in my Theocritikos series:

I have one longing only: to grasp what is hidden behind appearances, to ferret out that mystery which brings me to birth and then kills me, to discover if behind the visible and unceasing stream of the world an invisible and immutable presence is hiding. . . .

During those fearful moments when the Cry passes through our bodies, we feel a prehuman power driving us ruthlessly, Behind us a muddy torrent roars, full of blood, tears, and sweat, filled with squeals of joy, of lust, of death. . . .

PAIN IS NOT the only essence of our God, nor is hope in a future life or a life on this earth, neither joy nor victory. Every religion that holds up to worship one of these primordial aspects of God narrows our hearts and our minds. The essence of our God is STRUGGLE. Pain, joy, and hope unfold and labor within this struggle, world without end. . . .

In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant - then the Universe might possibly be saved. . . .

Few poems in this series have been well-regarded. Some have generated intense controversy, most have been ignored, some labeled incomprehensible or baffling or worse. Well, you know, poets argue eternally about accessibility and difficulty in poetry; my opinion has always been that a poem should be what it is, in order to be true. If a poem is more difficult, that may only be because it's addressing complex, nuanced ideas, which the poems in this series do. I readily admit that they are "experiments" in the sense that we experiment with life till we get it right. All life is trial-and-error, experimenting with the tools we have to build what we can. Two or three of these poems have been officially published, placed in various journals and periodicals. Most have not, except here. They've so often been greeted with bafflement or dislike that I admit I haven't tried very hard. (I began the Letters series of poems during my own illness, begun when I almost died from anemia last year, and are ongoing—the Letters poems aren't really any more welcomed than the Theocritikos series.) But that's okay: I'm not writing them to be loved, I'm not writing them for you.

I foresee printing the Theokritikps series, someday, as a small-edition illustrated chapbook. Despite their unpopularity, I am moderately fond of these poems, for meeting several of my own artistic needs. They've been responses to darkness and light, and have helped me sort out my thinking. I've learned much from their making.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011


Long walk down a long incline, long exhaling,
slow long disintegration, and you sit there
curled in your easy chair wondering if you should go on.
Spent all your energy today trying to care either way.
Fingers stroking root to keep you going, fingers
in the cleft of a life, somehow tickling the soul.
Some rhythm, some fuel in the mitochondria that could be
the power that powers the soul, which the body is inside.
A long cloak. A long remembering of winters.
Death and rebirth are all you have to live for.
Still a reawakening, a cold morning cocooned in wool.

Then a bleak cold rainstruck day full of wind and ire.
No impression made on the flow of otherness, though,
since everything seemed to be smooth on errantry.
Dying to live in the same precession as living to die.
On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
the path turns to leafmold and ash. Flicker of werelight.
You have to die and be reborn to be transformed.
A lot less theoretical than it used to be, this threshold.
The renewal and replacement of nature. Why did the Buddha
die from eating a mushroom? Like all fungi, mushrooms
break down old useless dead things, making way for
new life that is to come in its place. The Buddha died
a natural death.
You can't go on till everything is shed,
shriven, taken from you. The transformed life is emptied,
first. So many days of wander.

Long dream of being unable to either wake or dream.
Some days you just live, inside a disposable bag of separation.
Dying and living, the same. Out back the mold smell
comes from trees in high cold winds. Comes down the chimney,
comes over the threshold, where a new world begins.
Doesn't make a scene, just arrives. The gray and the green,
eternal conflict of growth and dissolution. The gray takes down
what the green has wrought. Elemental Pan, spirit of growth,
of life, Green Man, his twin brother the Brown Man, Gray Man,
cloaked in wet rotten leaves, autumn threshold of decay.
One enters the woods, one leaves the grasslands. Wave
as you pass on. Cells eat each other when it's time to go.

I've died and been reborn. Again and again. This time, skin slotted
by knives, thin hard scars seeming an ecstasy of drowning,
seepage and sainthood in one flesh, this time the healing begins
with dying. The creative destruct, end of the world. Clear out the old,
bring in the new. Have to demolish the living world to make room
for the next to come. Clear out the old dead things. The Goddess said,
Your heart didn't heal right last time, so we'll have to break it again,
and reset it so it heals properly this time.
And struck Her anvil.
It was a true dream. The morning birds pulsed with light.

Oh but this suffering and endurance I've witnessed 40 years of days
in the wilderness is supposed to be for my own good, my healing,
If only it didn't ache so. Rather be in bed with four naked souls
exploring the death of epidural skin cells under massaging fingers,
than spend another day in ascetic cemetery glut. What hospitals
lack in their chapels are those sacred temple prostitutes of gone eras.
Those lovers who give you a reason to want to live, to come back
from the dead, thereby healing you faster, bringing you back to life.
Love and death, the only reasons to go on living.

If we are hollowed out and emptied, it's to make room for spirits
to enter and entwine. It's we who are the vessels. Greenmantle is the shell
that sheds a cloak of leaves that burns in autumn to make new spores
for spring renewal. And so the house that Pan built. You have to be broken,
again and again, to become soft enough for the god to enter you.
A million years to make this black earth soil. Blown to dust in a dry season.
Desert wind that hollows the heart, make mine a pilgrim's cave.
Have to let go of what you thought you knew. Have to empty the teacup
in order to be able to fill it with new tea. Each drop of pure water
into the bucket filled with scum pushes one contaminated water drop out.
Eventually, a million or so drops later, the pure replaces the oilslicked.
It takes no naked skull to know that the god created a mechanism
of making, the power under life. It takes no bridge to stretch the chasm
between the making and the mechanism of the made.

Now we fall down. Now we slow to winter's sleep.
The dead of the dead. That spring will come around the wheel
once more requires a leap of faith. This could be our last winter,
the gods' sleep when wolves eat the moon and the father-god, half-blind
so he could see, loses hold of the runes that hold the worldtree
in its shape, so it all goes to snow and frozen fire. We come from
a dark abyss, we end in a darker void, we call the luminous
interval between those life. When we stare too long into those
silver-edged voids, they tend to stare back. Everything unnecessary
gets stripped away. That can be a great undoing, or a little one.

A thousand sayings, a thousand days. All of it unnecessary fog
over the mind of clover. Too much of mind, now, the overflowing
teacup, let's return to the body's inner fire, blue stars in our flesh,
blue sun on a necklace sparking out hearts, fire inside bones and thighs,
and the long return to life, after long dark, each dawn. Shut up,
now, in the cabin of words, and watch birds flash in the fire of green.
At last it's morning, after nightlong embers have fed the dying.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Jumble of Bones

What's left of the poor saint
but this jumble of bones?
this grinning sodbusted palette,
these fragile winglets of ribs?

What's the end of every quest
but a scatter of fossil and blood?
this empty airfilled dugout
where a brain once claimed to mind?

What's the future of bones
but to be forgotten, not forgiven?
all come to dust, but bones in situ,
remains of a silo of ended dreams?

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Process of Writing 24: Forward Momentum and Emergent Order

I've overheard myself say lately that I'm on a creative roll. The truth is, I'm at a point in the project of writing the new music commission where the writing has become easier, more fluent and fluid, and so I get a lot done each week. A few weeks ago I wrote three songs during the week; I've been averaging about two songs per week since, with some weeks only getting one song done, due to external circumstances that have prevented me from sitting down at the writing table. Not bad distractions, just logistical things that need to be taken care of.

When you finally get the ship going and build up a good head of steam, it keeps going for a long time, and requires effort to slow down and stop. In physics, it's called the law of inertia, of forward momentum: A body in motion tends to stay in motion, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. (Yes, that's a law of physics, not just a tag line for a TV commercial for some energy drink for athletes.) So I've built up a creative head of steam, now, and am in what athletes like to call "the flow"—that non-ordinary state of consciousness where each move seems simultaneously spontaneous and pre-planned, where the tip of the paradox is that you are moving very fast but to your own perception there seems to be lots of time in which to observe and make decisions, choose paths, decide on tactics within your pre-planned strategy. (Tactics are the operations on the ground. You may have a per-planned strategic goal, and strategy is how you plan to reach your goal. Tactics are what you use in the moment, always adjusting your forces to approach maximizing your end strategy.)

It's easy to get pulled into watching a video or film or TV show and forget that what you are seeing is not continuous motion but a fast series of still frames. Moving pictures are an illusion. To create the illusion, we rely on the persistence of vision, which is a trick of the eye and of perception. The light coming into the eye lands on the retina, triggering bio-electrical waves in the neurons of the eye's sensor elements. Being biological rather than electronic, the waves of neural transmitters take a moment to pulse, and each pulse takes a moment to fade away. So, if you show 24 or 20 frames a second in the front of the eye, it perceives it as continuous motion because each frame lingers in perception long enough to overlap with the next frame, and create the illusion of smooth, continuous flow. You can affect the viewer's experience, in fact, by changing the frame-rate. (Of course, all this could be wrong. Some people like to think so, but seem to have no better explanation as a replacement.)

How can I describe how I feel when I write music? The persistence of pencils? Neurological inertia? The truth is, when a musician looks at one of my scores they perceive it as a seamless, continuous flow. But the writing proceeds by fits and starts, frame by frame. I build up what feels like a static charge of restlessness, when I sit and write for awhile. What I usually need to do is get up and walk around, go do something else for five or ten minutes, then come back to the writing table. I'm sure some writers will view that as seriously undisciplined, but maybe it's just another kind of discipline. The static charge analogy is a good one, because it describes how I literally feel after a half-hour or so of intense concentration on writing music: like I'm about to get struck by lightning. I have to walk it off.

I'm aware, too, that the static build-up is also about catching up to where I am in my mind with the writing. More precisely, I've caught up with writing the notation to the point where I have written down as far as I could go, and I need to go do something else to let the inner voices recharge and give me the next bit of music. This is very hard to put into words. It can feel like waiting to take dictation. Even though I am making musical decisions, and using all my craft to bring the musical idea into being, the inner process is at core very intuitive. it's all about listening with the inner ear.

People complement me for using a particular musical style for a particular piece, assuming it was my conscious intention. (In typographic design, the principle of transparency is often cited: That the type should be the transparent glass in which the wine of the text is contained. If the type is set up ideally, you don't notice it. ¶In poetry, the principle of transparency is similar: The perfect form to suit the content, form following meaning and function.) But as with writing poetry, I don't know what style the music is going to have until I hear it with my inner ear. True, I hear it before I write it down in score notation, but it often arises when I'm reading the lyric through, thinking about what music to use to set it. I might have some idea going in, but it really depends on the inner ear. Sometimes I have even had to reshape the lyrics, once the music started coming, to make them a better match.

This really is hard to describe. Basically, it's about listening to those inner musical voices, which is very intuitive, then using what you hear as the kernel of what you write down, at which point all your knowledge and experience and craft comes into service. The craft and music theory I have learned, which is more than most people ever even imagine, is all in service to the inspiration. It enables me to notate what I hear inside.

Back in music school, all they could teach us was craft. You can't teach inspiration. It's there or it isn't. You can teach how to be receptive to it, but you can't force it to come to you. There was a lot of bland music back in music school, a lot of failed experiments, as we composition students fooled around learning out craft, and often not having much to say. Having something to say is essential, in poetry or in music, or everything you write is hollow, or worse, if it's self-congratulatory for no real reason.

Getting up and walking away from the table, then, is a chance to let that creative voice inside you take a breath and decide where to go next. I can talk about it using analogies to other arts. Creative process is similar no matter what art form you're working in; or I should say, it is similar for me, who practices artistic crop rotation. So, analogies. Stepping away from the music writing table is like painters stepping back from their painting to look it over for awhile, till their eye sees what needs to be done next. Lots of non-artists think that everything artists do is all planned out beforehand, very consciously and deliberately, but that is rarely so. Many painters "follow the brush" at some point, and make decisions during the creative process that surprise even themselves. I am constantly surprised by the music I write, finding things in it later that perfectly support what I am writing, but I wasn't conscious of them being there while I was writing them. I've gone back over sacred music I've written and found numerological and geometric resonance patterns that enhance the meaning of the text, operating on some subliminal level even the composer wasn't aware of till I went back and found them.

Of course, that could partly be the human habit of consciousness that likes to find patterns in even random systems; call it the persistence of form in consciousness. But chaos mathematics has demonstrated very well by now how order is an emergent property, how self-organizing systems arise out of chaos and create self-consistent patterns. This in fact may be how amino acids converged in the early era of our planet to organize itself into life as we know it.

Like many others trained in the sciences, I have no problem believing in a higher level of being, a Great Spirit or whatever label you wish to use, and I find that the mechanisms of how life organizes itself are beautiful and even divine. The problem with the anti-science religious-right creationists, who are for the most part scriptural literalists, is that they have taken a mythic story, a simple story, and tried to explain it as literally true. That is the root error that spawns many others: the belief that mythopoetic scripture is literally, factually accurate and true. They may be right in that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," after all every story has to have a beginning, even the story of spacetime—but they are flat out childish and naive in their explanation of the mechanism of Creation. The story of Creation given us by emergent order arising out of chaos, of self-organizing systems that emerge and evolve into life, is no less a divine story than some anthropomorphized deity waving his hand and making everything in less than a week, some four thousand years ago. In fact, emergence is a more elegant, more wondrous, more beautiful, and more coherent and attractive narrative by far. It contains no less of the divine spark. As a story, like all life, it glitters from within. Visionaries can see the sparking of the mitochondria powering the cell. The fire of life that supports all life, that is the power under life, which can perceived even by the science-trained as divine in source and origin.

The desire of scriptural literalists for a simplistic, even childish, literal story proclaims their unconscious desire to remain children before their God, and never grow up: never be allowed to grow up, never want to grow up. It is an infant's narrative of total dependency on the absent parent. It expresses a desire to remain infantile. Well, adult life can be complicated, and require that one take personal responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. That can be daunting. Some people never do want to grow up, and do everything they can to avoid it. And if not remain infantile children, then remain sheep guided by a shepherd. But anyone who has ever herded sheep, especially up in summer mountain pastures, knows how stupid and helpless sheep really are, unable to get themselves out of trouble without assistance. Is that really who you want to be? Is that really your divine image? The Adult who keeps you a child, the Shepherd who makes you be a sheep?

In my theology, which is not mine alone, the Adult wants you to grow up and become an Adult yourself. The Divine leads by example, not by dictatorship. The lesson of mysticism, as it has appeared again and again in every age and location on this planet, is that experiencing the Divine directly is everyone's birthright. We can all see the sparking of the mitochondria, or the growth of the seed into the tree. All you have to do is look, and watch, and see. It's not hard. It doesn't require special talent or guidance. Intuition and vision is a skill that can be trained, and has a craft to it that can be taught—just like in music school, in art school, and in other creative disciplines.

In my theology, artists are co-creators with the Divine. Everyone is creative, and capable of co-creating with the Divine, although not everyone is overtly an "Artist." Not everyone paints, or writes, or draws, or invents a melody to sing. Well, actually, that's not true: Everyone does do those sorts of things, but in our culture where "artist' is categorized as a discreet profession separate from everyday life (like most jobs, like jobs from which one "needs a vacation:) we tend to view artists as a special class. In other cultures, especially in certain indigenous tribal cultures, everyone is an artist because everyone engages in handicrafts. Ordinary objects are decorated by their owners, who made them, who did not need to go to a specialist to make them, and did not need to hire a specialist to decorate them. We in Western culture have a real blindness about this, because we assume artists are specialists; in fact, we tend to overlook or dismiss this very level of continuous creativity made every day by ordinary people precisely because it is not specialist art, not seen as different and special. We overlook the masterpiece of bone-carving made by an Inuit hunter from the tusk of the walrus that he killed to feed his family last winter, because it's not the Mona Lisa hanging on a museum wall. Western culture is very blind about this. We ignore handicrafts by dismissing them as "handicrafts" when in fact they are the source and origin of all "higher art." They are the emergent order rising out of creative chaos. Even great painters made finger-paintings and humble sketches when they were children.

How did I get here? I was talking about creative inertia: A body that is in the creative flow tends to stay in the creative flow. As I've expressed it before, one the basic laws of creativity seems to be: The more you do, the more you do. Creativity becomes an anentropic self-generating power station: a genuine case of perpetual motion. The more you make, the more you are able to make. This is partly the practice effect, how practice hones and sharpens skill. Raw talent is inchoate and chaotic, not knowing how to do what it wants to do; learning craft that supports the talent turns the talent into a skill: a disciplined, orderly practice that emerges out of inchoate chaos.

The connection between creativity and Creation is obvious: Both are Order emerging from Chaos. This is why when we are engaged in creativity we are co-creators with the Divine. It's not that we are only co-creators when we're making art, it's just the connection is more obvious at those times.

So I have forward momentum. And I'm approaching the completion of the new music commission. This doesn't mean that everything is suddenly easy to write. Some pieces flow very quickly onto the page. Others I still struggle with. I admit that today was a day of some struggle, but I did manage to finish the piece I was working on. Tomorrow is a new start. And we go on.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

The Road Is a Tunnel of Light

Time exposures taken in infrared from the vantage of a slow-moving vehicle driving down a forested road in a state park in northern Wisconsin on a warm autumn day.

images from Interstate Park, Wisconsin Unit, St. Croix Falls, WI

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tony Levin on Stick

This past weekend I went to see a concert in Minneapolis, in a small, intimate club, of some of my favorite musicians on the planet. Stickmen, featuring Tony Levin, opened for the Adrian Belew Power Trio, and both groups joined forces for a third set of long and often brilliant covers of King Crimson songs. Which is only appropriate, since three of the people onstage were past and/or present members of King Crimson.

This the first major progressive rock concert I've been to in a few years—the last one was King Crimson, in St. Paul—and while I know I keep saying lately that since my surgery everything is new and for the first time, again i saw and heard things at this concert that sorted out my thinking as if for the first time.

I've seen Tony Levin play Chapman Stick many times before, live and via video, and each time I watch him play I learn something. It's like getting a lesson. There are so many ways he plays both Stick and bass that I find directly influential. This concert was no different. At the same time, it was validating and affirming as never before, for me, as a Stickist. I'll get to that a bit later. But first, a sidebar.

Within the Stick players' community, there's sometimes a strong pressure felt to be a solo artist: to play all the parts on your singular instrument. That's entirely possible, and there are great players who do just that. The seminars I've attended, along with many solo concerts, I've been quite impressed with some players, and musically uplifted by others.

But I like playing in a band, with other musicians. I like the give and take of live improvisation with others. I like playing bass in a band, and I like playing Stick to play the bassist role. I also like playing a "guitar solo" on Stick, which I did more often in an improvising prog rock band called ƒUSE I was involved with when living in California a few years ago. Doing a "guitar solo" on Stick makes you think in ways, and produce lines, that a guitarist might not.

The afternoon before the concert, I spent some hours with my musician partner in the duo Wind, Sand & Stars, Eddie Estrin, laying down tracks and elements and musical ideas. We hadn't played together for awhile, but the session was inspirational, and we've agreed to make music together more often again, starting soon. (Several previous WS&S sample tracks can be found on my website's Music page.) After jamming for awhile, we had a light meal, then went to see the concert together, along with another musician friend. At the show, I might add, we met several other musicians we knew.

One cardinal virtue of the Stick is that you are able, like on piano, to play all parts at the same time: melody, bass, and chords. The Stick is played with two-handed tapping technique, a technique pioneered by the Stick's inventor, Emmett Chapman. The technique came first, when Emmett was playing guitar; he invented the Stick in order to have an instrument with which to maximize the possibilities of his two-handed tapping technique. The Stick is set up for tapping, not strumming and plucking. It's not a guitar, and it's not really like a guitar. (So stop thinking like it is one.) Emmett is not a musician who performs, or lives, in a rut. He is one of the most original thinkers I've ever met, and enjoyed conversing with. I've said more than once that Emmett doesn't "think outside the box," for him it's more like, "There's a box?"

We all get into ruts sometimes. It's good to break out of ruts. But at root most ruts are conceptual, not actual.

One does meet Stickists who have a hard time getting out of their conceptual and motor-skills source or background boxes. It actually seems easier, based on observation, for a pianist to take up Stick than it is for a guitarist: the tapping technique is very pianistic (also very similar to how one plays small frame drums) in terms of motor skills. The fretboard theory required—in other words, learning where the notes are—is straightforward and logical, unlike the guitar's historical and idiosyncratic standard tuning (descended from oud, lute, and flamenco practice).

I never liked guitar precisely because I never liked its tuning, which on one level was designed to be easy and natural for chording but on another level requires contortions of the hand to get away from any music not tonal or chordal in nature. The players who tend to push that envelope are often players who use alternative tunings, including open tunings. At this point in life, learning guitar for me would be like learning to build a bridge: a long learning curve at the end of which I would only be competent at a skill in which others are demonstrably brilliant. Why invest the time in learning a skill that only makes you ordinary? I'd rather invest my study time in ways that find for me a voice unique and different, and notably my own.

I recognize and acknowledge there are great players on all instruments, and they are often inspirational to me as both a listener and musician. I've learned a lot about melodic form and improvisation from players on instruments other than my own. Honestly, I've learned less from my fellow Stick players than I have from two or three radical and brilliant guitarists (Julian Bream, Robert Fripp, Sonny Sharrock, to name a few guitarists in my very small pantheon), a few equally radical and brilliant bassists (Dave Allen, Charlie Haden, Bill Laswell, again to name only a few), and even from trumpet and trombone and saxophone players. Jazz phrasing isn't limited to voice or instrument: it's about feel, about timing, and the way you end a note or phrase that brings it life and dramatic intensity. It all begins and ends with the breath; even string players know to breath with their phrases. Breath is life.

And this leads me back, after a long sidebar, to my impressions of Tony Levin playing Stick at the concert the other night. What I mostly was reminded of is how powerfully he plays, the way he chooses his notes, the style of playing he does on Stick. A lot of two-handed bass playing. He's not trying to play the instrument as a soloist, and as a result in a band setting he does not overplay, he plays just the right amount of notes. When he plays a melodic solo, he often stays on the bass side of the instrument, using the upper ranges; this has a distinctly different tone color than simply moving over to the strings on the treble side of the instrument, and makes it sound more like a hyper-bass solo.

I watched and listened and—returning to my own everything is new perspective mentioned above—realized anew how strongly Tony Levin has influenced me as a Stick player. I play a lot more like Tony than I do any of the solo Stickists. I realized all over again how strongly he influenced me. After all, my route to this music was: first, I discovered the Stick; then I discovered Tony Levin; then I listened to the bands he was playing with, notably King Crimson and Peter Gabriel. That was my route to listening to King Crimson in a nutshell: because I was interested in Tony Levin.

So I feel pleased and validated and reassured that my Stick playing is just fine. It's in the Tony Levin vein, which is a very valid, mostly band-oriented rather than soloistic vein. That encourages me and affirms my commitment to playing Stick the way I want to play it. I have attended more than one Stick seminar where I left feeling like I was being told I lacked something, since I wasn't playing Stick like everyone else was, or wasn't playing enough solo stuff, or wasn't playing things inside the box. Where I didn't feel encouraged to play Stick the way I wanted to play it. Watching and listening to Tony play live again, and in a small club, close up, where I could see everything close up, was a validation that I'm doing just fine, thank you very much. I'm going my own direction with my music, and not playing like a lot of other guys play—which is another reason I like Stick, for its endless possibilities. While that's nothing new, sometimes you feel a little ostracized for being different.

I left the gig feeling very inspired and full of ideas. Days later, I still feel that way. I have ideas in my inner ear for a whole new set of Stick pieces. I've been wanting to start up the recording work again, maybe begin work on a new album, now that I've recovered enough from illness and surgery, and this concert inspires me to get busy right away. I've already laid down a couple of test tracks, one for an almost-Steve-Reichian piece, made using just Stick and delays. I hear a potential bass line mixing in; I can hear Tony playing it in my inner ear; the musical territory between Steve Reich and King Crimson is potentially convergent, after all. I'll see where I can go with these ideas soon.

But that's how I play Stick. Thanks to one of the greatest living bassists and Stickists I have ever seen and listened to: Tony Levin. My sincere gratitude.

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Really Not Interested

I was just away for five days. Five days away from home, right now, is still a lot. It still takes careful planning and adjustment and preparation, because five days away means dealing with changing the ostomy bag at least once. I thought I had everything accounted for, but in my travel pack of supplies I somehow overlooked a critically essential ostomy supply, and had to run out to the truck where I had my back supplies; or I would have been in serious trouble. It all worked out okay, but it was a bad start to the day. That supply-chain oversight will be corrected in future equipment and travel plans, making this into a shakedown cruise for how the system will work for future roadtrips.

But that's only a symptom. The disease is overwhelm: Too many things to remember, to do, to have to deal with, to make the right preparations for.

My personal dietary needs during the process of post-surgery recovery have changed yet again. I was getting frustrated for awhile because it felt like every time I got a system organized and ready to roll, some new wrinkle would make me have to start all over again.

While I was on the road, I thought about sitting down to write my thoughts out, to work through some feelings that had come up, some conversations during the trip that were beneficial and helpful to me. But I absolutely was not interested.

I'm still not interested. I'm only writing this down now as a way of observing my own creative process, and it's the middle of the night near a full moon and I'm having insomnia, and know from experience that it's better for me, when I'm having insomnia, to get up and do something, rather than lie in bed and let my thoughts churn. That only makes the insomnia worse. I haven't had much insomnia in the past few months. Yet during this full moon, this is the second event of restless sleeplessness.

So: I was on the road, lots was happening, there as a great deal wot think about and do, and I was absolutely not interested in writing about it.

First, there were a lot of new changes to write down, a bit of fresh healing brought to me, some of which I haven't integrated yet. I could write about that, but such writing would be flailing at the still-unknown, incoherent and tentative, and I don't want to commit anything to words. That's the sort of writing you do as venting into a private journal that no-one is ever going to see: just to get it out of your system. I've done enough of that lately to choke a vampiric equine. I'm sick of it. I've been dealing with PTSD, yes, and I've needed to vent a great deal, but at the moment that is not a productive means of venting. Might as well just break all your pencils into little pieces: it would feel about the same.

Second, I am not now and never have been keeping a daily diary or logbook. I don't do a daily diary. I never have. Not even when I began journaling. I've never kept any kind of daily diary and never want to. (The appeal of posting one's continuous activities several times a day on some social networking website strikes me as a cross between abject narcissism and a reflection of the empty hollowness of most peoples' lives: that they would need to go out of their way to make their lives appear to be interesting is a sad commentary on how dull they really are. Facebook is the dreariest imaginable form of autobiography.)

Correction: I am keeping a daily logbook of things I need to write down in order to track my medical and weight-loss progress; but that's incredibly dull stuff no one ever needs to see, not even the doctors who require me to do it. The entire purpose of tracking such details as what I eat and what exercise I do is purely to deepen my own conscious awareness to the purpose of managing my life with more awareness and purposeful choice. It's a good thing for me to do, in the sense that one is making conscious life-style changes for one's future benefit, but literally nobody ever wants to read it.

Third, and most importantly, I found myself absolutely not interested in writing anything down. Anything. I always have my written journal along with me on roadtrips. Lately I've been using large-size artist's sketchbooks with unlined pages. I write freehand on the blank page, and there's room on there for drawings or poems as sidebars should I wish to do so. Lots of poems have begun in the handwritten journal, and will continue to begin there. The past few poems I have completed have been written in this journal, rather than at the keyboard, breaking a pattern that had begun to ossify and instilling new life and new interest in the process of writing itself.

But I'm barely writing poems these days. All my energies are going into completing the new music commission, which I am at the moment days or weeks away from concluding. Even though I was busy with concerts, meetings, dinners with friends, hanging out, and having good talks with fellow artists and musicians about our lives and work, I managed to write two new pages of final score one morning while on the road. I also spent an extra day or two on the return trip to travel into the woods and make photographs and video. And I made a few other kinds of artistic stops as well. But that's all event-based material I could log and chose not to.

Fourth and finally, I realized I was resistant to writing things down because I was beginning to feel obliged to. What am I writing a journal for? Is it to record my own thoughts on the creative process, to watch my own mind (yes, for me a kind of Zen self-awareness practice not unlike watching one's thoughts during meditation, not to cling to or catalog them, but to let them rise and fall away without clinging to them, to regard them as substanceless as cloud-shadows moving across the ground on a blustery day), to keep a record for my own benefit of what I am thinking and doing? Mostly, that's what my journal is. It's not required that I write it. I write it for my own needs, not for an audience. If I don't feel like writing in it just now, what penalty is there? Where does this sense of obligation arise?

It arises I think in part from attachment. Attachment to writing essays here, even, that generate comments. Attachments to being a public intellectual, a poet who shares his poems on this and other venues rather than hoarding them all for some illusion of official print publication no-one cares about and no-one will ever read. Writing poems and essays is something I do, but it's not even my most important form of art. Writing this new music commission these past several months has underlined the truth that music is the central form of art in my life, and that when I am musically satisfied I don't feel any desire to write anything else anyway. Much less a poem. Not to say that poems don't happen; and there are always haiku falling off the back of the wagon as we ride forward down the rutted highway. But these are almost like accidents, little sports of nature, discovered like one suddenly sees a rare color of flower when passing by an overgrown hedge. They just sort of happen, without even thinking about it.

Bollocks to the idea that "art is self-expression." There are many occasions on which I don't feel like expressing any aspect of my self, and still make art. If anything, making art for me is overtly anti-self-expressive. It's often enough about anything but "expressing my self." It's often about transcendence, or overcoming the little self, that personality-ego self that likes to imagine it's in charge and much bigger than it really is, but is actually rather clueless, and often the last to learn anything really important. Letting go of the self is one of the projects of (my) art.

So here I am, writing about not wanting to write anything down. Note that I still haven't generated any interest in writing about the five-day roadtrip. Maybe later on some aspect of the trip will be worth mentioning. I did make some new experiments in infrared photography that were fun and interesting.

Truthfully, I wish I was still out on the road. Some of this insomnia is typical of first nights home after a roadtrip, when I want to still be traveling, not having yet arrived. Some of the discontent I felt during the middle of this short trip was about feeling stuck, mentally, rather than feeling the freedom of the open road. I guess I'm still a nomad at heart.

I stayed in a budget hotel in Wausau last night that was surprisingly sedate and comfortable, with a bed that was surprisingly easy to rest peacefully on. The first two nights of the trip, staying with friends in Minneapolis, when the weather was hot and pleasant, especially for October, I slept on the futon on their front porch, and slept deeply and peacefully. Indeed, it was like camping in a tent: just enough breeze and fresh air and sounds coming into the porch to be like tent-camping at a national park somewhere. I slept the best I had since the surgery, on some level. Freedom of open air spaces. Also freedom of not being stuck at home. Cabin fevre has been a major issue since the surgery. Feeling trapped and confined to home-based routines necessary but unloved. Having to take some of those routines along with me, on the road, is no doubt part of the discontent I felt at times. Love me, love my ostomy. Bollocks.

Tomorrow, I'll get back to intensive writing of words and music for the commission. This short roadtrip has not really been a departure, even though it was a mini-vacation. The roadtrip was all about creativity, and music, and art, and talking with artists, and making photographs and music. My musician friend and I jammed and recorded what we played for a few hours one afternoon. We then went to a terrific concert together. On the trip overall I did some music and art myself, I made some new images, I wrote some music, and I didn't write about "my feelings," not even once. Still not interested in doing that. Or in "self expression." Nothing's more boring right now than the self that no longer is, and will not be again. The self that is gone, and won't come back. The new self is as yet uncertain and unknown, but I'm tired of having to create it, to think about it all the time. People who think that making art is all about "self-expression" really know nothing about making art. That myth about art-making is one of the most toxic, pernicious, and flat out wrong ideas about making art ever perpetrated by any critic.

In just this moment I realize that one important reason I don't want to catalog the changing self right now, why I have no interest in journaling my thoughts and feelings, is that I've been doing too much of that since the surgery. I'm tired of it. The real vacation aspect of this short roadtrip has been a vacation from that relentless self-regard and self-cataloging that I've been forced to do in recent weeks, trying to get the all the systems in line for the next phase of recovery and preparation for the next surgery. I'm tired of thinking about all that all the time. I'm tired of being told what I must do. I'm tired of watching what I eat. I need a break from the endless self-examination and self-regard.

I took the opportunity of this short trip to take a break from myself.

Any moments of discontent while on the road were very much about those times when I was unable to get outside myself and those necessities I must undertake but am not in love with. Love me, love my ostomy. Its endless relentless demands on my attention. Its joyless repetitious needs. Medical necessity be damned, dealing with the ostomy bag is no fun, it's not creative, it's cheerless. There's a quality-of-life issue in operation here. I don't ever get bored with making art, but I'm really bored with the medical self-care tracking and necessities right now. If I need a continued vacation from anything, it's from that. Even the PTSD had become a chore and a bore. The happiest parts of this small road-trip were when I was out there making art, or talking to fellow artists, or engaged with music. When every other concern fell away into silence. When I was not thinking about what I was supposed to be doing, or otherwise scrutinizing my self so thoroughly.

This past morning, drenched in fog and mist in northern Wisconsin, I was at a beautiful country park, the Dells of the Eau Claire river, a rough exposure of blocky bedrock over which a fast stream pours, across rapids, and into narrow channels defined by tall standing stones. I was making video and stills, and just listening to the silence filled by the sound of the water, a bluejay nearby calling out periodically, crows in the distance, and a small blue-fletched bird skipping from pine branch to lichen-covered rock. The clouds parted to the north, showing some feathered blue sky. The pine tree smell was thick. Underneath was a thick orange carpet of fallen oak leaves wet with dew and rain. I was in heaven.

Most of the morning I had this natural wilderness park to myself. At one point, a man walked by, smiling, and we agreed that it was a glorious day, a beautiful day, and a spectacular place to be. He was an intimidating man to look at walking briskly towards you on the trial, looking like a rough biker or a tough dockworker, but he was lit up from within, soaked up in all the natural beauty around him, and I felt an instant connection with him during our very brief encounter. Certainly he could see what I was doing, draped with cameras and hauling a tripod and shoulder bag, but we just exchanged our appreciation for the day and parted ways, glowing a bit more in unspoken companionship.

An hour later, I was just finishing filming, was tired, was ready to finish up for now, hike back to the vehicle and drive on. An older man and woman were prowling the rocks now. The man had already, a little while ago, walked into one of my shots, completely oblivious, as he restlessly prowled over the rocks, not really stopping to look at anything, just skimming the view. The woman now came up to me on the trail and asked me what there was to see around here. Isn't there anything to see around here? Isn't there supposed to be a high bridge in this area? Completely flabbergasted, I nonetheless calmly replied that we're standing in one of the most beautiful places in this region, and there's plenty to look at right here. I waved my free hand at the lichen-covered boulders, the piles of green moss at the bases of the pines, the rushing river. But my reply went right past her and left no mark. She was fixated on man-made tourist attractions, apparently, wanting to make another notch in belt of collecting the sites and sounds of tourist attractions, and seemed unable to appreciate the beauty that she was standing in the midst of. Or so it seemed. She wanted to see something more, I don't know, dramatic. I told her I didn't think there was anything like that around here, but directed her towards the nearest large town, a good two hours drive away, feeling no guilt whatsoever about this blatant misdirection. If that's really what you're looking for, so be it. Rarely have I been so astounded by the human presumption that every human is as self-absorbed in the works and ways of man, as though nothing else was even worth looking at. People with blinkered attitudes like that about natural beauty could stand at a banquet and still starve. It makes me think, in this late night writing, that there is a strong parallel between the human need for self-congratulation regarding our material achievements as species, and this tracking of self-aware logbook diet and exercise details that I have been told I need to do to advance my personal health and recovery. Both seem to demand an equivalent self-regard, and not in a good way.

Self-regard of the constructions of civilization versus appreciation of the world's glorious depth and possibility, each moment the start of a new day full of ripe vision. I know which I'd prefer, given any choice on any given day. As for the other, I'm really not interested.

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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Japanese Garden: Fresh Visions


I am currently getting heavily involved in infrared digital photography. I've been wanting to get into IR photography for several years, but during the era of film it was so technically challenging and difficult that it was beyond me. Now, in the digital photography era, it has become much simpler and easier to do. I purchased an IR filter for my digital camera(s) at the beginning of September, and have been exploring ever since. It's a whole new way to see the world: the world revealed as the eye never sees it.

I'll have more to say about all this soon, both technically and philosophically. Meanwhile, I'm going to hit the road for a few days, take in a concert, do some fall color photography and videography up north, and I'm taking along the IR rig.

Meanwhile, here are some IR photos made at the nearby Japanese garden—one of my favorite settings for making photographs. I find the stillness and peacefulness in this images to be what my spirit needs right now, to become settled, calm, and refreshed. I hope they do as well for you.

Infrared photography, because it makes use of the longer wavelengths both near and far from the red spectrum that we can see, requires longer exposures. The IR filters themselves function to block out the visible spectrum while letting through the longer wavelengths. All of this means time exposures on the tripod. Even on a sunny afternoon, exposures can take between 1 and 4 seconds to achieve proper exposure and contrast.

(time exposure with zoom in IR)

(time exposure using natural light and color)

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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Spleen and Ideal

On a day of zero tolerance, I have to talk myself into liking things. It's not strictly judgmental, this annoyance, it's partly simple irritability. Enough stupidity to choke a horse, and all of it laid at your feet. Constant reminders of how humans don't want to evolve, don't want to grow up, don't want to be at their best, don't want to better than they are. By turns tragic and comic. Always give someone a second, even third, chance, and many waste them on inconsequentials. Can't you see we're all dying here? I feel very alone in my perceptions some mornings. Yesterday was better, if only because I was involved in writing hard all day. Taking breaks, and not finishing till late at night, but accomplished nonetheless. This morning woke too early, then napped till too late. Now everything's out of kilter. But don't be glib about it. Don't go thinking that's just me being out of sorts and not awake yet. I'm awake enough to know when and where to put my energies today. And it's not where everyone tells me to. A few days ago I was aglow with the sudden knowledge that my purpose in life is finally revealed. Now it's all doubted, rather, the purpose isn't but the possibility of fulfilling it is daunting. Too practical a climb up that cliff face. Nothing at the top worth climbing for. Who cares?

I don't want to be Baudelaire, dying and full of spleen. Brilliant writer that he was, his contrarian impulses could turn violent on paper, an I don't want either wound or scar from his attitude. I have enough of those. The problem with spleen is it's usually violently coin-flipped idealism. No one is as cynical or mean as a disappointed idealist. Once your ideas have turned over from the general apathy and resistance yawned by your fellow man, it's hard not to turn into a raving tyrant of the lost ideal.

How do you keep your head? Some ideas you can't talk yourself into, and some moods you can't talk yourself out of. Where's yesterday's glow of vision? There are situations you can't solve by trying to think your way out of them. Some things have to be visceral. Are visceral, are endlessly physical. Your best intentions go down to the sea and gasp for air. How do you walk upright in face of such an emotional hurricane?

Stop looking in the usual places for solace. That's insanity, which can be be defined as doing the same thing over and over again while each time expecting a different outcome. It was insane to ever believe I could earn certain kinds of love from my family, if I just tried harder. That's a common madness, though, and I forgive myself for its mistaken identity. Every individual who finds himself outside the tribe is going to be riven with suffering for wanting to be just one of the boys, and for being unable to ever really fit in. You carry inside yourself the deep sorrow of impossibility. Insanity is forcing yourself to be a round peg in a square hole anyway. Everyone suffers from that jamming.

No one here gets out alive. So much wasted effort and energy on what people think the world should be, rather than accepting it for what it is. Embracing it, even. So much wasted breath on rules that are impossible to live up to. What are rules but ossified expectations that never quite match the statistical sample?

Why am I always depressed after I'm exalted? After a day of great giving, a single day to encompass the writing of such beauty that I don't know where it came from and can't claim it as my own, I suppose a bit of post-partum irritability is acceptable. I never expect it, yet there it is, to be handled as best I can. When the mind is sharp, I remember this is what happens. When I'm more fogged, it surprises me. Sharpness is linked to memory, apparently. Memory being my secret superpower, which annoys people sometimes but has saved me numerous times.

I take intuition seriously. I remember previous events, even locations, where a sense of danger saved me from a worse fate. I suppose I can find gratitude this morning, although it's slow and torpid and a bit grudging. The bears are going to sleep this time of year, not waking up. Expect in emergency, I've never been a rapid riser. Sometimes I hate my life, but I know it's disappointed loving. Hate is not the opposite of love, indifference is. Hate is disappointed love, so is envy. The gods themselves, even as projections of ourselves, set the bad example with their internal family disputes. Loki hates Thor because he's jealous of Odin's favor, when all Loki wanted was to be as loved as a son. Don't even get me started on the dysfunctional Greeks. Zeus couldn't keep it in his robes for anything, not pretty girls or boys. No wonder Hera was a jealous goddess of home and hearth. Men are stupid and fickle, it's true.

I don't want to be judgmental. It's in the air a lot lately, though, and sometimes you have to be so in self-defense. The political climate right now is more stupidly and viciously polarized than at any other moment in my lifetime. The political wingnut fringe has never felt so empowered as they do now to spew their trademark flavors of ideological hatred. That sets a certain social tone that is corrosive to conviviality and engagement.

On the home front I'm dealing with weight loss and diet issues wherein the entire paradigm is built on negatives, and edges over into "should"s very easily. I think people don't even realize that the entire weight loss industry is set up in a way designed to make you feel bad about yourself unless you conform to advice, follow rules, and a good little robot. People involved in the weight loss and fitness industry don't even realize this, for the most part, even though it's built into the language used. The entire way of thinking about it can be quickly and ferociously negative and self-hating. Emphasis is on "loss" not "gain." Where's the pleasure, where's the sensuality, where's the quality of life? Mostly you are expected to be a self-flagellating ascetic who takes no pleasure in life except for the masochistic urge to beat oneself into conformity.

It all depends on who you're talking to, I suppose, but when I catch myself feeling so judgmental it's usually because on some level I'm feeling very judged by others. I don't want to be judgmental. I don't like it, and it's not innate to my character. If I have to exercise my irritability in this manner out of self-defense right now, though, so be it. I never claimed to be an enlightened master in control of all his emotions and able to let bad things just float by with no effect on my mood. I'm not that enlightened, not yet. Maybe someday. It's one goal among others, for others, for myself. And what I flatly refuse to do is start beating myself up for not being perfect about any of this: about meeting others' expectations, about the judgmentalism, about my imperfect and very human responses to the stresses I'm under. I'm doing the best I can. If that doesn't live up to someone's ideas of perfected mastery, that's their problem, not mine. Frak 'em if they don't like it. There's no gain in beating yourself down for things you may have no control over.

The truth is, when you're objective, considering the things I've been facing, I'm doing well. I'm not "not doing badly," I'm doing well. I am on a long road, and it's going to take him. Losing weight for me is going to involve a total life-style change, which I have already begun, and have been working on for more than a year. I haven't been idle. I'm already engaged in the process. What I find irritating is how many people keep me advice without knowing the context. So it ends up being theoretical rather than pragmatic. There are only a couple of people who really support me in this, rather than judging me. I have to start over from scratch again, and although a bit of me resents having to rebuild yet again after all I've been through lately, I'm willing. But it's going to be my mode, my terms, and my means. Off the shelf solutions actively contribute to my stress because they don't work for me. Customization is essential. That's logical if you think about it, but everyone overlooks the obvious. Nobody looks at what's in front of their noses, they see only what they expect to see. Filters and projections.

Whatever. I've had enough spleen for one day. I'm focused on writing today, and don't want to spend any more time on this. It's healthy to vent, and rant, and get it out of your system. And then you have to act.

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Monday, October 03, 2011

What's New

The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something,—because it is always before one's eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein

The old saying goes "A fish doesn't know he's breathing water." One part of that is that self-awareness, the root of conscious awareness, requires threshold wetware: the memory span of a goldfish is about five seconds.

But the real point is what Wittgenstein is getting at: Things are so familiar to us that we do not notice them.

I constantly discover that most people I know don't think about many of the things that I do. I wonder if it's part of being an artist that makes you notice more things than most people do. Or at least other things. It's common wisdom that artists see things in ways most people ignore. One definition of art is that art makes you, the viewer, perceive things in new ways you never experienced before. Open doors and windows into ways of seeing that you never thought of before.

The flip side of this is that, as Jean Cocteau famously said, We tend to judge the new by what is familiar. There is always a period of education in new art. There is some art that remains so new and out-of-the-box that it can take a long time for its impact to become absorbed and normalized. Some new art never achieves any kind of popular recognition because it remains uneducated about.

Sometimes the dreaded superhero Captain Obvious arrives on the scene, stating the obvious as always. It's surprising how often I think I'm stating the obvious and folks around me hadn't noticed what I was talking about. My superhero secret identity remains secure because no one can believe it. They don't even notice it.

These days, since the surgery last summer, I often feel fog-brained and fuzzy around the edges. A measure of how clear my mind is, is how many things I can multitask. I've usually been able to do about four things at once. Since the surgery, and still getting over the cognitive impairment caused by anaesthesia, I can still manage to multitask two things most days. But sometimes it takes all my energy to just stay focused on one task alone. Lots of folks tell me that one thing at a time is all they can handle—which is hyperbole to an extent, and most people can multitask two things reasonably well. Driving and talking on the cellphone at the same time is not, or should not be, one of those occasions. Most folks drive worse when splitting their attention in that way. Still, for me, only being able to do things at once is a sign not of ability but of relative impairment. I am diminished still by the lingering cognitive impairment caused by anaesthesia, and still not fully back to myself. Surgery takes a lot out of you, not all of it physical. It can be extremely frustrating.

But cognitive clarity is something most people take for granted. They just assume it will always be there. When it's gone, it can be a tragedy, as memory is one of the roots of personality and identity. You only notice it when it's gone. Since the surgery, and the way that death-and-rebirth has rearranged my life, I am clear that I will never take anything for granted ever again. It's all new, still, like doing everything again for the first time. My mind cannot go back to complacency. I am unable, at least for now, since the surgery, to take anything for granted even in the simplest way. I assume nothing. It could change any moment. You realize how ephemeral and precarious is the balance that we take for granted as the way of life. It goes down to the basics: Will the truck start today? Just because it did yesterday is no guarantee. Post-surgery life is a constant awareness that there are no guarantees. No guarantees about anything. It could still all fall apart tomorrow. I made it through this surgery, but I am not done yet with either healing nor with reconstructive surgery.

I have a long road still to go. I still need solace and support from friends. I realize now as never before how what holds your sanity together is the web of friendship. Nothing keeps you grounded in your own identity better than the mirror given to you by the people who know you best. Even when those mirrors are funhouse distorted, they remain panels that cast light back at you.

At the end of this road is the certainty of my own death. My own sense of mortality is present to me as never before. I've now been through a few almost-death experiences in the past couple of years—not the first of my life, as I've had the opportunity to die at least four times previously, although I'm still here—and am more aware than ever that there is an end-point, an omega-point. I don't know when it will be, and I'm in no hurry to meet it. I have a lot that I still want to do. I have finally figured out that my truest purpose in life is to make art, to be an artist: and I feel like I am just starting out, starting all over again. If I live another 20 or 30 years, that's long enough to be an entire career.

This self-awareness is new. Rather, it's not new on the intellectual level, or a philosophical level, but it's very new on the somatic level, the if you will gut level. Ouch. Gut level is a little too visceral an analogy for me, now, having had some of my guts literally taken out. This knowing goes deep down into my tissue in ways that I've not previously known about. I always knew about mortality, I've seen a lot more death than most people do in the normal course of life, but that was other people who were dying, not my own flesh. When it's your own flesh, it becomes very personal. Hard sometimes not to take it personally.

Yet I've always noticed things more than the people around me. I learned some years ago, around the time I was training extensively in the martial arts of Ki Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan, that I perceived and observed and could catalogue somewhere between two and four times more than my friends. It's not that my ears are sharper, or my eyes—my eyes are legendarily near-sighted—rather it's the processing of data. I don't filter out things so much. I wonder again if that's common to many artists, this extra sensitivity that is really a lack of filters, a lack of taking things for granted.

Wittgenstein was an artist of philosophy: his philosophy is so well-written and readable, it serves as a model for thinking out loud. He certainly noticed and thought about things many others have simply ignored because they were too common to be bothered over.

I am constantly reminded on each visit to a thrift store that even the most incredibly tacky objects on display were nonetheless designed and made by someone. Done in poor taste, perhaps, but designed. Everything you take for granted, even the fork and spoon you eat your meals with, were designed by someone, and manufactured by someone. Great contemporary designers of everyday objects that no-one thinks about until they see them redesigned in fresh ways—tea kettles, napkin rings, automobiles—are great designers in part because they make us notice things. I'm thinking of type designers and graphic artists who created revolutions in their fields by creating entirely new looks: David Carson, for example. Or architects who also designed everyday household items in a fresh and unified style: Michael Graves, for example. I also think of artist who designed their environs, their houses, the objects on display, that created not only a personal space, but an eternal, spiritual space: Georgia O'Keeffe, for example. The object with which you are reading this text was designed. Everything you never notice but use everyday was designed by someone.

These are the things we ignore. It's stunning, really, how much we are able to ignore.

Since I died and was reborn I'm not able to do that anymore. It's interesting. Some days overwhelm me with new experiences, new objects, new things. Even things that were familiar to me before the death-and-rebirth are new again, as if I'd never seen them before. I am constantly tripping over the familiar as if it were new and unknown. The experiences I've been through have made it impossible for me to ignore this. I wonder if this awareness will ever fade. Perhaps it will fade a bit without ever really going away. Perhaps it will fade back just a little, become less foreground, will still being in my mind. Perhaps it will fade away in several years, and I'm still too close to those life-changing events that caused this change in perspective. Perhaps this perceptual shift is to become permanent. Time will tell, as will emotional distance.

Regardless, I can't imagine now how I could ever go back to things as they were before. I am changed, my art is therefore changed, and I my perception may as well permanently changed. It wouldn't be a surprise if in the long run this was all permanent. It's all still rather new, as I said, but I find myself getting used to it. I keep running into life as if I was about to trip over it, but that's all to the good: more signs I'm still alive. For now, that's enough.

Meanwhile, I'd encourage anyone to notice everything. Don't take anything for granted anymore. Don't assume that things will go on as they always have. Nothing is guaranteed. Sooner or later it all falls apart. What you can do is be prepared for that disintegration and reintegration, by not clinging to what you think will never change. Of course it will change: change is a given. How we respond to change is what matters.

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