‘Not Always What They Seem’

Dolphins-and-Greek-Merchant-Boat-Painting

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much – the wheel, New York, wars and so on – whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man – for precisely the same reasons.”

– Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

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Champions of the Commonplace, or, “Call Your Mom and Tell Her You Love Her!”

A11193.jpg

The champions in our lives come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re often hanging out in places we’re not looking for them – in our homes, or even in our own families.

I haven’t gone into it – in part because I’m still debating how personal to make this space – but one of the main reasons I’m back on WordPress in 2017, dipping my toes again into writing online and sharing that writing with others in the form of a blog, is my mom.

My mom is a great writer – a journalist by training and profession, although she’s held many different kinds of jobs over her lifetime so far. Told during her early years at school that she “couldn’t write” by well-meaning but misguided English teachers in small rural schoolhouses, she nevertheless persisted in her love of words – both reading and writing them – and discovered, later on, that her first love as a writer was for journalism and news-style writing, a genre her early teachers hadn’t comprehended well enough when they gave her low marks on her classroom essays and composition assignments. It turned out she had a knack for the “inverted pyramid” structure of a crisp, well-written newspaper story – leading with the most important parts, then adding supporting quotes and background facts, and then letting the tail end of the piece drift away into tertiary details before coming gracefully to a close.

Of course, over the length of her writing career – professional and otherwise – she developed plenty of strength and facility with other writing styles and formats, but journalism was where she first found her voice as a writer, and it’s always been an important part of who she is as a storyteller and a communicator.

A few years ago, she left a job writing for a local newspaper in order to take on a broader role related to municipal arts management. She missed the frenetic energy of the newsroom and the thrill of chasing down a hot lead, but the hours in the new job were better – more regular, with fewer evenings and weekends – and the benefits were a vast improvement from what the paper could offer.

One downside was that, in this most recent iteration of her professional life, she was doing less actual writing, something she really missed. She and I are forever encouraging each other to find new creative outlets and ways to share this common interest of ours with others. She would ask me about the short stories, essays, or songs I was working on writing, and I would ask her about the interviews and feature stories she was doing (usually on a volunteer basis) for publication in some small local journal, paper, newsletter, or the like. But we both remained curious about the idea of writing blogs, an idea that would always come up from time to time.

And so, long story short, my mom and I, separated by half a continent but connected in our love for language and the written word, have been talking off-and-on for a while now about becoming “blogging buddies.”

Unfortunately, she’s been dealing with some relatively serious health issues these past few months that have taken a lot of her time and energy. Her life – forever busy with her job, her volunteer work, time spent with family, or just curling up with a good paperback mystery – has become, recently, a series of seemingly unending visits to doctors’ offices and being too tired, often, to even pick up a novel, much less write one. After several months on leave from her job – all the time champing at the bit to get back to work and some sense of normalcy – she recently went back to the office, only to be sidetracked a week later by another unexpected stint in the hospital.

She still hasn’t had time to keep up her end of our “bargain” and launch her own blog, but it’s not something I’d ever hold against her. Right now, she’s got more pressing matters to attend to, and I guess, in the meantime, I’m kind of blogging for both of us – even if that “inverted pyramid” news-writing style will never be my cup of tea, being much more disposed to long, rambling essays and discourses on myriad inter-related (and often unrelated!) topics.

I’m really hoping that, one day soon, my mom will be feeling well enough to open up her computer and join this lovely blogging community to tell a bit of her own story in her own words, or to share a few of her observations about life and living. I know her pretty well, but I know I’ll never be able to tell it like she could.

So, write what you know, or write what you don’t know, write what you love, or whatever you have to write, but for god’s sake write something. Do it with your words on a page, or with your actions out in the world, but do it. “Write while you have the light,” to paraphrase John 12:35, “so that the darkness may not overtake you.”

And, while you’re at it, you may as well start with a card to your mom. Or, call her up and tell her you love her. I know, I know, you’re still working on forgiving her for that insensitive and probably-too-judgmental thing she said the last time you two argued, but why not just let it go? It’s a little early for Mother’s Day, I suppose, but you never know what might happen between now and then. Only today is, only this moment.

So, this one’s for you, Mom. I love you! Feel better soon.

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Champion
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/champion/)

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Will Sing for Wontons

Busking_literaturepage

“I’ve made a small fortune busking in my days. A very small fortune.”

– Spotted on a musicians’ online message board

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Fortune
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/fortune-2/)

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‘A Subtle Game of Equilibrium’: To Live and Die in Go

Go Players (by Ogasawara Issai)(1)

“Any game where the goal is to build territory has to be beautiful. There may be phases of combat, but they are only the means to an end, to allow your territory to survive. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the game of go is that it has been proven that in order to win, you must live, but you must also allow the other player to live. Players who are too greedy will lose; it’s a subtle game of equilibrium, where you have to get ahead without crushing the other player. In the end, life and death are only the consequences of how well or poorly you’ve made your construction. This is what one of Taniguchi’s characters says: you live, you die, these are consequences. It’s a proverb for playing go, and for life.”

– Muriel Barberry, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”

“The go board is a mirror of the mind of the players as the moments pass. When a master studies the record of a game he can tell at what point greed overtook the pupil, when he became tired, when he fell into stupidity, and when the maid came by with tea.”

– Source Unknown

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Territory
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/territory/)

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Stubbing Your Toe on the Philosopher’s Stone, or, ‘If It Ain’t Broke, You Can’t Fix It’

Echo and Narcissus (John William Waterhouse)

Note: The quoted material in this post contains a wee bit of adult language, so ‘caveat lector.’

“Golden Elixir is another name for one’s fundamental nature. There is no other Golden Elixir outside one’s fundamental nature. All human beings have this Golden Elixir complete in themselves: it is entirely realized in everybody. It is neither more in a sage, nor less in an ordinary person. It is the seed of the Immortals and the Buddhas, the root of the worthies and the sages.”

– Liu Yiming, “Wuzhen zhizhi”

“The Tao is clear, yet this clarity requires you to sweep away all your clutter. At all times watch out for your own stupidity, be careful of how your mind jumps around. When nothing occurs to involve your mind, you return to true awareness. When unified mindfulness is purely real, you comprehend the great restoration. The ridiculous ones are those who try to cultivate quietude – as long as body and mind are unstable, it is madness to go into the mountains.”

– Liu Yiming, “Wudao lu”

“After sudden enlightenment comes gradual application.”

– Thomas Cleary

In a weird twist of timing and coincidence brought about by the vicissitudes of my local public library’s hold request system, I’ve found myself reading, during this Lenten season, a number of oddly matched books, among them Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck,” a book which I’ve found strangely moving and insightful, despite the author’s salty language and often irreverent attitude (or perhaps because of it).

There’s a lot in the book that could be food for thought and reflection, but I think it’s fair to say that one of Manson’s primary theses is that, while human beings by nature have a hard time not caring about anything, most of us do a pretty terrible job figuring out what to actually care about and what to do as a result of that caring. Often we care way too much about things that are either ultimately worthless (like the many “false highs” we self-medicate ourselves with in our lives) or ultimately unattainable (like getting everyone everywhere to like and approve of us and everything we do).

I was particularly struck by the way he talks about “entitlement” as a kind of double-bladed sword that we often wield to rather ill effect – thinking we’re defending ourselves from our enemies when more often what we’re really protecting ourselves from are useful truths about ourselves and the world around us. In this way, entitlement – which can take both “positive” and “negative” forms, both “I’m so great!” and “I’m so worthless!” modes of expression – functions more as a defense of the false self, or of that stubborn, anxious, and fear-ridden version of ourselves that isn’t willing to face facts about who we really are. Entitlement, though it manifests as a sort of privilege and self-preservation, actually makes us brittle and, ultimately, incredibly fragile in the face of life’s difficulties.

Manson speaks about this in several ways, including the following example:

“Entitled people exude a delusional degree of self-confidence. This confidence can be alluring to others, at least for a little while. In some instances, the entitled person’s delusional level of confidence can become contagious and help the people around the entitled person feel more confident in themselves too. … But the problem with entitlement is that it makes people need to feel good about themselves all the time, even at the expense of those around them. And because entitled people always need to feel good about themselves, they end up spending most of their time thinking about themselves.”

When we’re unwilling or unable to face hard truths about ourselves and the world, we run the risk of getting stuck in a kind of twisted feedback loop, one that’s primarily self-centered and solipsistic.

As Manson notes:

“Entitlement closes in upon itself in a kind of narcissistic bubble, distorting anything and everything in such a way as to reinforce itself. People who feel entitled view every occurrence in their life as either an affirmation of, or a threat to, their own greatness. … Entitlement is impervious. People who are entitled delude themselves into whatever feeds their sense of superiority. They keep their mental façade standing at all costs, even if it sometimes requires being physically or emotionally abusive to those around them.”

He contrasts this with genuine “self-worth,” which isn’t so dead-set on preserving – at any and all costs – the false stories we so often tell ourselves about how things are.

“A person who actually has high self-worth is able to look at the negative parts of his character frankly … and then acts to improve upon them. But entitled people, because they are incapable of acknowledging their own problems openly and honestly, are incapable of improving their lives in any lasting or meaningful way. They are left chasing high after high and accumulate greater and greater levels of denial.”

I’ll offer one more passage from the book, regarding the difficult balancing act we face whenever we commit to the path of real growth.

“The rare people who do become truly exceptional at something do so not because they believe they’re exceptional. On the contrary, they become amazing because they’re obsessed with improvement. And that obsession with improvement stems from an unerring belief that they are, in fact, not that great at all. It’s anti-entitlement. People who become great at something become great because they understand that they’re not already great … and that they could be so much better.”

This passage made me think first of artists – constantly striving towards greater and greater levels of mastery in a chosen craft – but it also reminded me of stories from the lives of the saints and sages of both East and West. Oftentimes, those who have progressed farthest along a spiritual path end up becoming the humblest and the first to point out and insist upon how far they still have to go. And it’s not necessarily a false modesty. As we come to see ourselves with deepening clarity, we become a bit like scientists, uncovering more and more questions with each new discovery, revealing further complications and complexities with each layer removed or each order of magnitude gained in our vision.

Perhaps because it’s Lent, it also made me think of the prayer of the fourth-century monk and hymnographer Ephrem the Syrian, commonly recited throughout the Lenten season by Orthodox Christians.

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sin, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

Or, we could turn to the texts of Soto Zen Buddhism, where one often finds the following repentance chant included as part of the daily service.

All my ancient twisted karma,
From beginningless greed, hate and delusion,
Borne through body, speech and mind,
I now fully avow.

In each case, interestingly, the recitation or chanting is punctuated by full bows or prostrations – knees and forehead touching the floor – in what might be seen as a universal gesture of humility. We change our posture to change our paradigm.

In any event, I’m really intrigued by the idea of this “anti-entitlement” attitude that is able to recognize our own imperfections and weaknesses with openness, honesty, and compassion. Once we can drop the charade of needing to always appear as if we’ve got everything mastered and figured out, only then can we move beyond our fears and get down to the difficult, ongoing work of actually getting better at the things we really care about, and of actually figuring out some of the things we’ve been pretending so hard to have had figured out all along.

Growth and development are often really hard work – almost as much work as keeping up appearances of the false persona of perfection. And there’s the rub. The work involved in growth and the work involved in keeping everyone (up to and including ourselves) in the dark about who we really are – these forces are all too often diametrically opposed to one another. As long as you’re trying to do both, you’re like “a house divided against itself” and you cannot stand as such for long, certainly not forever.

And so, today, may you own your own weaknesses, not as an excuse to beat yourself up and denigrate yourself – because, when all is said and done, that might be nothing more than the dark side of entitlement – but as a kind of liberating clarity of inner vision and useful self-reflection. As long as we’re still breathing, we’ve still got interesting places to go, fascinating people to meet and spend time with, and plenty of things to do (and, perhaps, to do better).

There’s nothing wrong with finding ourselves a bit off-course “midway on our life’s journey.” At that point, the dangers lie in the twin fallacies of either (1) pretending everything’s perfect just the way it is, or (2) abandoning all hope and opting instead for soul-crushing despair and bitter resignation. Both of these responses are poison – they halt our progress along the way and make growth exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

So, are you broken in some way? Are you suffering? Have you fallen short of your own freely chosen values and ideals?

Because, if so, that’s okay. That’s actually where things start getting exciting. As Manson stresses in his book, our lives are often filled with problems, some of which we don’t get any say in, but many of which we get to pick and choose. Learning that we actually have some choice in what to “give a fuck” about – and that we don’t have to blindly adopt others’ values as our own – is itself pretty liberating. After that, a big part of the trick of living well is choosing interesting problems to work on.

After all, if it ain’t broke, you can’t fix it.

Posted in roundabout response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Elixir
(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/elixir/)

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‘For the good are always the merry’ – On the Luck of the Irish Fiddler

The Fiddler of Dooney
by William Butler Yeats

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.

When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;

For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance.

And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.

Posted on the occasion of the feast of St. Patrick, in response to the WordPress Daily Prompt: Luck

(https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/luck/)

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Staying the night at Summit-Top Temple

china-misty-mountains

INSCRIBED ON A WALL AT SUMMIT-TOP TEMPLE

Staying the night at Summit-Top Temple,
you can reach out and touch the stars.

I venture no more than a low whisper,
afraid I’ll wake the people of heaven.

– Li Po (701-762), transl. David Hinton

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