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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Sunday, August 13, 2017

On Wisdom and Aging

Wisdom is a matter of aging with grace. This is an aphorism Marissa and I came up with this morning while lying around in bed, unsure whether it was time yet to get up. A raven kept cawing indignantly just outside our bedroom window saying "get up now!" Understood in this light, wisdom is a kind of insight that we receive but don't really possess; it's most important that we be open to it rather than engage in its active pursuit.  Much as with the Daoist concept of wuwei, wisdom comes to us through our least effort and but for the grace of the Dao pointing us in the right way.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Deeper into the Meadow We Go: my week in Nova Scotia with Henry David Thoreau

Life in this Nova Scotia meadow seems to unfold according to a very different logic than Marissa and I are accustomed to back home in Long Island. Up here Nature is that much more accessible - it happens in the open meadow, where every critter struggles to define and defend its niche. We witnessed a perfect example of this soon after we arrived when Marissa threw open the double barn doors and started setting up her summer studio.  Almost immediately a flock of swallows appeared, hovering overhead, as if responding to a neighborly invitation. A few of the braver birds took turns dive bombing us, flying in one door and out the other. One briefly perched in the rafters, and then, just as suddenly as they appeared, the flock took wing, apparently declining the invitation on the grounds that the accommodations weren't spacious enough.

The countryside here is only half tamed. It always seems to be renewing itself through its ready association with the wild. The humming birds are ubiquitous. The dogs must stay fenced in the backyard and cats remain strictly indoors lest they become prey to larger predators lurking at the meadow's edge. The boundary line between the human and the natural realms has clearly been redrawn in a number of interesting ways.

* * * * *

My first week in Nova Scotia has been greatly enriched as a result of what I've been reading. Walden Pond it turns out is still a pretty reliable guidebook when it comes to a spending an extended period in or around the country. It was Marissa who had the foresight to pack a copy of it, a beautiful new edition she came across recently which was published to comemorate this year's bicentennial of Thoreau's birth.  I picked it up as soon as we unpacked and immediately began enjoying the opportunity to reacquaint myself with Thoreau. What a remarkable presence he is  - still vital after 200 years.  And it's even more remarkable how a great book like Walden Pond can actually transform your experience of Nature right down to the present day.

Let me give you a concrete example of what I mean. A few days ago I went down the coast for a short hike in Delaps Cove. There's a footpath there that runs through the woods and then drops into a ravine and ends by a waterfall on the coast. I went on this walk largely at Thoreau's urging to explore the great outdoors. As I was hiking along a rock outcropping that overlooked the Bay of Fundy, I noticed two brownish birds bobbing in choppy water about 30 yards offshore. I watched as both of them in quick succession dove underwater and counted to myself as almost a minute elapsed before they resurfaced, far distant from where they first submerged.  It was then that I realized I was watching two loons at play. I only knew it because just the night before I had been so completely engrossed by Thoreau's description of chasing a loon in his rowboat all across Walden Pond. And here I was experiencing the very same delight, with two loons of my own, as it were, watching them at play in the Fundy surf.  Nature is full of such wonders; we discover these deep correspondences everywhere around us almost as soon as we begin to look. It defies ready explanation.  Suffice it to say El Shaddai of the forest and meadow seems to be keeping busy performing amazing new work.

* * * * *

Next week I plan to follow up with a further blog post about Thoreau. I was really deeply impressed by the depth of Walden Pond this time around, much more so than when I read it last back in college.  As Thoreau himself sought to remind us - it is a pond with an amazing capacity that never disappoints in its ability to surprise and refresh us.





Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Seeing the World Anew: reflections on what emerges from crisis

High in a hilltop meadow in Nova Scotia, overlooking the basalt reaches of the Bay of Fundy, it's possible to contemplate the Age of Trump, without inducing the usual gag reflex from the onrush of outrage and bile. The Canadians we find ourselves amongst are warm and  sympathetic hosts who have attained a far more measured outlook on the bizarre turn of events in the lower 48 - this too shall pass, they assure us. It reinforces our gratitude for having come north to this tranquil spot, far removed from the daily barrage of breaking news and fake news alike.

From here it is easier to see this moment for what it is, without feeling crushed by the negativity it engenders. We have entered a darkly farcical stage in the drama of American public life. It is Brechtian  in the sense it is characterized by an equal share of buffoonery and corruption. Suki Tawdry and Jenny Diver both being on intimate terms with Donald Drumpf.  Of course, low and darkcomedy have always been an important element in American popular culture, as evidenced by such long running successful franchises as the National Enquirer and The WWF. But in the Age of Trump this mode of discourse has achieved ascendency. Bathos rules the airwaves. It turns out that the market for public discourse is subject to something akin to Gersham's Law, as a result of which the value of our public discourse has undergone abject debasement.

This, as I remember learning in college, is one of the rules of farce as a genre - all the participants in a farce are eventually dragged down to the same low level.  Not just the sycophants, like Mnuchin and Cohen, but also the sparring partners, like Joe and Mika. You could hear the same principle at work in the recently released transcript of the post innagural call Trump placed to Enrique Nieto, in which the American president ably ensnared his Mexican adversary in his trademark brand of radical idiocy. Sooner or later everyone looks ridiculous.  Ridicule simply replaces reason and commentary. When you fight a buffoon you become a buffoon, even if you lay him bare.

* * * * *

This farcical turn of events has been deeply unsettling to many of us. Ever since the election we've been walking around with a bad hangover that just wont go away, no matter how long we meditate or how much herbal tea we drink. As citizens of a hegemonic world power, we are accustomed to thinking that what happens in our public life should be dignified and of real consequence, both domestically and abroad. How strange it is to become a laughingstock to the world, how disruptive to our sense of well being.  In other words, what is happening now in the US has all the hallmarks of being a major social and political crisis. Trump is merely a symptom of a much bigger problem.  What began as a financial crisis in 2008 has festered and morphed into contagion that has seriously destabilized the political order. The system, which long maintained stasis through alternating two party rule, seems to be breaking down and nobody knows if it will end up being damaged beyond repair. Trump is merely a catalyst or accelerant speeding the system's demise. Or sticking with the contagion metaphor, Trump is the vector by which the disease of disaffection  has spread from the margins to the mainstream of society. It is a debilitating condition which may result in a complete loss of confidence and the knack for self-governance.


* * * * * *


I don't mean to sound full of doom and gloom. From this mountain-side meadow in Nova Scotia, the view is quite breathtaking - the panorama spans across three or four different vistas, each with its own story to tell. As I sit here writing, two hummingbirds are working over the hydrangea by my side, accompanying my thoughts with a pleasant occasional low register hum.

Already it is evident how much good can come from this most unfortunate turn in our public life. I'm not speaking about the eventual political outcome because frankly I have no idea how events in Washington are likely to play out. The positive outcome I'm thinking about is on a more personal level. In a time of political and social crisis, each of us faces the challenge of renewing our understanding and connection to the society we live in.  The old world order is most likely irretrievably lost, which means this is a good time for us to think about the world we really want to live in and consider what we can do to make it happen.

There is another more spiritual way to appreciate the unique quality and opportunity inherent in the present moment. We find ourselves cut adrift from both our past and future. The Age of Trump heralds a break in our sense of historical continuity - we have lost our connection to a stable social and political order. At the same time, the specter of climate change hangs as a dark cloud over the prospects for our collective future.  Bereft of a strong connection to past or future, we have no recourse but to come alive to the present tense.  This of course is the very place that sages and wise folk (from the Buddha to Thoreau) have long urged us to direct our attention. In a way then we should be grateful that world events have thus conspired to make our spiritual quest that much easier to accomplish.





Thursday, August 3, 2017

Letter from a Nova Scotia Meadow

How much better the world begins to seem with a little Port Lorne home grown coursing through the bloodstream - in the golden light of the late afternoon there's a whole meadow to embrace. And where we're living now there's this apple tree growing in the middle of the back yard. What was a farm once may yet spring back to life with Marissa gearing up to start painting in the purple barn. So it's time to let the telemarketers talk amongst themselves as Guan Yin and I have plans for the next few weeks. Blue tooth has taken  control of the stereo casting a spell of trance and the apple tree has commenced to flex its muscles in a light onshore breeze.

When everything fades away there is always the present tense to fall back on. That's what a Nova Scotia meadow means - a few acres of transparency. A visible perimeter in which the bounded space begins to cohere.  Sitting on the porch you better appreciate how a meadow is a living thing, its  very own organism. The purple barn standing astride the old stock apple tree - it is almost as if we have stumbled upon a Tree of Life right in the backyard, as it blends into the meadow, the present begins to feel quite enlarged.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The End of the End of the World as We Know It

It was Tom Moloney – one of the smartest lawyers I ever had the pleasure of working with -- who taught me an important lesson about drafting. After working all night to settle a sordid dispute among Wall Street finaglers, shuttling back and forth from one conference room to another, we were at the point of exhaustion and capitulation, a time when even the greediest financier is prepared to make a deal.  That’s when Tom instructed me to insert one final revision into the terms of the settlement.  Where the agreement purported to release any and all claims against our client, arising from the beginning of time to the settlement date, Tom told me to modify the clause to specify that our client would be released from all claims arising “from the beginning of the beginning of time”, a clarification he felt would be beneficial, as he explained it, so that any matters stemming back to the very first day of creation would inarguably be covered by the agreement.

Tom's drafting point underscores a fundamental difference between lawyers and poets, as they typically work at opposite ends of the language spectrum.  Lawyers face the Sisyphean challenge of honing their phrasing to remove any conceivable ambiguity (such as the gap between the first and seventh day of creation) whereas poets more often busy themselves making the most of language’s inherent uncertainties.   But a great lawyer, such as Moloney, sometimes can achieve a true poetic effect in the pursuit of precision, just as a great poet, such as William Blake, is capable of suffusing the deepest ambiguity with an overarching sense of clarity.

* * * *

Tom's drafting genius also highlights how what we think of as a discrete moment in time (such as the beginning or end of the world) may actually extend over a very protracted period.  Do you remember the REM song The End of the World as We Know It? It must be more than 30 years ago since it was an MTV hit. Does anyone even watch MTV anymore? And yet the lyric still seems perfectly apt, except now, borrowing Tom's conceit, we seem to have finally reached a new stage in the process. Today we seem that much closer to the end of the end of the world as we know it, as opposed to the beginning of the end as Michael Stipe so blithely sang about it.  Indeed, after 30 years of social and political floundering and drift, as the liberal welfare state finally seems prepared to give up the ghost, who among us (other perhaps than Steve Bannon) really feels fine about it?

But for the most part I  think it's good that we are closer to the end than the beginning of this process. If the world as we used to know it is really caput, we'll then it is time for us to get on with our new understanding of things. Now it is incumbent upon each of us to take no comfort in the tired old certainties of creeds outworn; we may not feel fine about it, but it is high time for us to discover the world anew.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

To Step Without Feet: My Dream About Dying

I sleep to wake inside a bardic glow
A fretful state, this fear of letting go
To lose my self in what I cannot know

*  *  *  *  *

Last night I had a dream about dying. I've had a version of this dream many times before but never managed see it through to the moment of my actual demise.

In the past, whenever I've had this dream, it had always been my habit to wake up a moment or two before the trigger gets pulled or the car I'm riding in veers off the side of a cliff. But last night, when the firing squad cocked their rifles and the Generalissimo gave the order, I found the wherewithal to stare down the fusillade and die my dream death.

I suppose this is another way in which our dream life corresponds with our waking life because it takes a certain amount of courage to see a difficult situation through to completion.

Dream death as I experienced it last night can be compared to a core dump in which your nervous system lets go of whatever it is holding in storage.  This is consistent with the way death has been described in literature, such as the great story by Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, where the protagonist sees his entire life flash before his eyes the moment he is hanged.   In last night's dream my life story was presented textually - as a series of flashcards that were revealed to me in quick succession.  It was like reading the chapter headings for the key events in my life. Learning to swim. First taste of falafel. Birth of a child. These cards were displayed with increasing rapidity until they became an unreadable blur, just the way a core dump scrolls by on the computer screen. Then my body convulsed a few times and the energy discharge gradually subsided. It was not the least bit unpleasant.  In fact, it felt exhilarating.

I awoke this morning completely refreshed and quite alive, ready to start over again with the memory stacks cleared and all synapses firing.

*  *  *  *  *

I had a chance to speak about this dream briefly with Dr. T, my friend and spiritual advisor, who also happens to be a psychotherapist.  The good Doctor was pressed for time and unable to delve deeply into dream interpretation but he did share with me the following poem by Rumi:


This is love: to fly toward a secret sky,
 to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. 
First to let go of life.  Finally to take a step without feet. 


Friday, July 14, 2017

Poem for Jack

What could be worse than knowing
The bitter gall of failure
Is to feel despair even
At the height of success
Anhedonia comes uninvited
But ends up becoming
A long-term house guest