Tuesday, June 30, 2015

calling your bluff

Once, at a Zen Monastery I would later flunk out of, I was assigned the chore of cleaning up a walking trail that bordered a lake on the monastery grounds. There was to be a ceremony or celebration in the near future and there would be weekend visitors, not least among them, the blue-haired ladies who form the financial background of any religion from where I sit: No need to have them or anyone else fighting their way through the brambles and thorns that might lately have humbled the trail since last it was cleaned up. And so, at a morning meeting that assigned daily chores, trail clean-up was mine.

Being a monastery -- a place of spiritual focus -- no chore was ever assigned or assumed without an eye to the deeper meanings the chore might exemplify. This was a place in which individuals were encouraged to slow down and take a deeper look at their lives and anything -- anything at all -- deserved the sort of attention it might not have received in the hurly-burly, hurry-up, workaday world. The implicit question was, in what way did even the most mundane activity exemplify the deepest meaning that life might have?

I don't remember the specifics of the meeting at which I received my mundane and spiritual marching orders, but I have no doubt that someone, somehow, suggested that the outcome of my work -- the goal I might strive for when cleaning up the trail -- was that things should look "natural." "Natural," but neat, if that paradox were not too daunting.

But of course it was too daunting. Nature may receive drooling accolades in certain corners, but all the evidence points to the fact that nature is more frolic-some than anyone's notion of neat or messy, beautiful or ugly, austere or enriched, thin-lipped or frolic-some. Nature is beyond not-giving-a-shit. It's just nature.

And so, in the end, I was left cleaning up the trail as I might have under auspices that had nothing to do with 'spiritual' life. I could be as neatsy-poo, anal-retentive about every thicket and twig as I wanted and still it was just clean-up... the kind of observation that the spiritually-inclined might applaud (and in so doing, applaud and elevate their attentive way of life). And in a certain sense, they would be right, but there is something irritating (however useful) in all the folderol, the sweet sounds of spiritual violins: Fuck it! clean up the trail! And a smug voice may respond, "Exactly!"

Like Plato's (among others') snake (ouroboros) the situation comes around and eats its own tail -- the false becoming true and the true once again relegated to falsehood -- until ... poof! no more snake.

Associatively, I sometimes think that the process of aging involves nothing so much as the dwindling-away of people who will call your bluff. On the one hand, who does not pray for friends with whom to agree -- a sympathetic group in whose midst the need for social connection is requited? One way of expressing this kinship might be, "I won't call your bluff if you won't call mine." The bluff is not exactly a lie, of course. But when a lifetime has been taken to build and maintain a certain intellectual and emotional persona, there is some desire to find a place of rest and friendship and support.

On the other hand, with aging, it becomes more and more apparent how wonderful and downright needful it is to be in the company of those who will, indeed, call your bluff... those who will, implicitly or explicitly, ask, "On whose watch is this bluff being run?" and "About what, precisely, is anyone bluffing in the first place?"

As age advances, those who can or do ask such questions have a way of dying off. Fewer and fewer either accept or challenge the bluff and it becomes apparent that those who did challenge it were a wonderful support mechanism that now rusts in the corner. It's a bit like a rabid Tea Party member fetching up on some deserted island: The island, like nature, doesn't mind what your politics or sensibilities or righteousness are. Go ahead, bluff or expound all you like.

And so the snake turns upon its own tail, seeking out a sustenance and strength once provided by others. What was once skepticism and challenge is no more ... the current environment has bigger fish to fry, other fish, younger fish, more compelling fish. You can do what you like -- your bluff or persona or whatever is no longer called and, more, is no very big or compelling a deal.

Want to find deeeeeeep meaning in clearing a trail -- go ahead. Want to husband and exercise great power -- go ahead. Want to amass money or accolades -- go ahead. Unless you go on a shooting rampage, nature or the environment or the universe doesn't flinch. All the creative exercises in the world no longer receive a challenge, a bit of nourishment. What's left is the snake's tail ... closer and closer and closer to ... poof!

Today, I have a hankering for a good orange sauce to put on top of some chicken for dinner. Not some sicky-sweet 'Chinese' restaurant stuff, but something with the bitterness of the rind ... something "French" as I think of it. I'll try to look it up and hope I have the energy to follow the instructions. There's more to life than just eating my tail.

Monday, June 29, 2015

staking an essential claim

In the early-morning grey-and-rainy -- where the colors are best and the silence has a tactile quality -- it seems to me that every (wo)man needs to stake a claim in life to a place that sheds imperatives and improvements, that sings its own song and is devoid of social harmonies, that provides a beginning and end without addenda, that declines to agree or disagree, but is simply relaxed and at home.

A place within which no "we" can enter. A place to touch base before moving on to the cares and caring, tears and laughter ... kind of like a starter-motor on a big-rig diesel truck... a place that makes all other places possible and gently declines to do so.

Why stake such a claim? Because, I think, without such a claim, this place that nitwits may acclaim will perch like a mountain lion on some strategic rock ... not attacking, not sleeping, not muddying the waters of action in any way ... just perching and waiting and being and ... and ... reminding the one who has yet to stake a claim that there is something left undone, that goodness and mercy and war and improvement are all well and good, perhaps, but what is left undone needs to be requited as well.

Stake a claim where and how...? The improvement books cannot capture or define. Blog posts cannot cut the mustard. One man's hermit hut is another man's contemplation of a Popsicle. One woman's kiss is another woman's 100-meter dash.

It cannot be praised, this whatever-it-is-that-is-essential, and it's never far away, nor near either. It is just the place to stake the claim ... and relax ... and move on.

I apologize for calling it "essential."

Sunday, June 28, 2015

dead cat becomes goddess

TOKYO (AP) — Tama the stationmaster, Japan's feline star of a struggling local railway, was mourned by company officials and fans and elevated into a goddess at a funeral Sunday.

early spiritual questions

A fellow who didn't come last Sunday to visit and talk Zen appears to be coming later this morning. I don't know him but imagine he is looking for some sort of support, which, if I can, I will give him. It makes me think back to my earlier times and the two questions that whispered from the shadowed corners of an interest in/longing for spiritual clarity: 1. am I crazy and, 2. will I get sucker-punched?

The answers from where I sit today are,

No, you are not crazy...


Yes, you will get sucker-punched.

On second thought, maybe you are a little bit crazy: Anyone attempting to set aside belief in favor of something more assured is bound to look crazy from the point of view of a 'sane' world.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Montana surrenders ... sort of

I have always been a fan of Montana, the state that bucked the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United to allow corporations to give as much 'free speech' money to those seeking election as they chose. Montana's 1912 law which limited campaign contributions remembered a time when politicians bought their way into office.

Now Montana has given up its battle with the Supreme Court. It will conform to the Citizens United ruling, but, like a good martial artist, has added a proviso:
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana, a state that has long prided itself on strict campaign finance laws, is giving up on barring corporations from political spending and is instead attempting to expose every penny spent by them in elections.
Proposed rules released Wednesday to guide the state's expansive election law approved earlier this year would increase disclosure requirements for corporations and committees granted free-speech rights by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 Citizens United ruling.
"This is an embracing of Citizens United," Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said Thursday about the new law. "They can speak, they can spend their money. They simply have to tell Montanans how much they're spending, who they spent it against or for, when they spent it and where they got that money from."

drone delivers to Poland

Dutch campaigners have used a drone to fly abortion pills into Poland.
The group, Women on Waves, flew the aircraft from Germany to highlight Poland's restrictive laws against terminating pregnancies.
Waiting for the drone on the other side were two Polish women who took the pills, used to induce a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy.
Abortion was legal in Poland in the Communist era, but outlawed in most cases in 1993.


One of the adult difficulties about struggling for an envisioned future is that success immediately falls into the past. What person, spiritually-inclined or otherwise, foresees a brighter tomorrow living a life in a dimming yesterday? It would be a fool's errand, as anyone who dotes or relies on his or her own past can tell you.

Here in the U.S., yesterday's Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage the law of the land is a case in point. Locally, I cannot help but wonder if that decision will mean that my home town will no longer hold its annual "Gay Pride Parade," a celebration that I always found both understandable and a bit sketchy since there was no similar "Straight Pride Parade" to bring a wider meaning to the matter.

But my local concerns don't really mean much. What interests me is the struggles and tears and frustrations and efforts that led up to the decision that is likely to face more challenges. I dislike prejudice or religious conviction that shuts out or shuts down or legislates one conviction at the expense of another when it comes to personal matters.

Gawd, what a struggle! I cannot know the half of it and yet the half I know seems heroic, though I cringe at the word. And yesterday, there it was -- a decision that in large measure spelled "success." How long had anyone slaved or hoped or prayed for such a day?! Legal rights underpinning what can be caring or careless relationships ... you know, the relationships anyone might have.

Up-hill, up-hill, up-hill -- fighting for a more equitable future. The froth-meisters may jump in here and do a jig about the trials ahead, but it's basically self-serving. In a very real sense, what the Supreme Court did was to proclaim victory ... and success.

Success resides in the past. People live in the present.

Imagine that: Struggling in the present so that in future you could live in the past. Am I wrong or is that devoutly screwy?

I guess I think there is some reason to recalibrate the ways in which "success" might be viewed or longed for or adored.

Yes, you won the race.

You made it into heaven.

Now what?

Living in the past is not a happy or sensible pastime, do you think?

Friday, June 26, 2015

practical joke

Sent along in email, this practical joke which, for anyone who has turned a hand to carpentry, is not so far from the Murphy's Law actuality of life in which the old saw was born, "Measure twice, cut once."

consumed by drugs?

Lurid, yes. But the possibility that drugs could consume a human being so utterly is ... is ... I'm not sure what it is.
PROVO, Utah - Investigators had a hard time believing a man didn't know his wife killed six of their babies and stored them in their garage, but they didn't have any evidence to pursue charges and eventually concluded he may have been so high on drugs he didn't realize what was happening, according to public records obtained by The Associated Press.
Under intense questioning from detectives after the April 2014 discovery in Utah, Darren West repeatedly denied knowing of his wife's shocking actions, according to transcripts of police interviews obtained through a public records request.
West acknowledged that he knew of a couple of Megan Huntsman's pregnancies from 1996 to 2006, but said she told him she had miscarriages. West said he had no idea what his wife did with the fetuses or bodies.
That was, in part, caused by the fact that he spent most of the decade high nearly every day on cocaine, methamphetamines or marijuana before being sent to federal prison on meth charges, he said.

racism ... the 2nd column of the month

Yesterday, I literally had one foot out the front door for my daily pretense that I am getting some exercise by walking around the block, when I got dragged back indoors by an idea. It was as if some well-known bear had opened its hibernating eyes: I had an idea and the idea, for better or worse, grabbed me and turned the old circuits back on ... DO IT! So I sat back down at the computer and knocked out a newspaper column on a topic I generally shy away from ... it's too vast, too faceted, too electrifying, too self-serving ... no one can get a handle on racism and pretending there is some handle is a pastime for fools. OK, I played the fool, wrote the column, contacted the editor who had told me that I was allowed one column a month in the local paper (this would be my second), and he agreed to shoehorn the piece in today because, as he put it enigmatically, it had "value." What the fuck does that mean? I have no clue and am not inclined to find one.

Where had the energy and drive come from? It popped up like some teenaged pimple that had just been waiting to appear full-blown ... not-cleared-up at all. Other writing projects have been dwindling, waning in my mind. My social outrage circuit has run out of the pep it once had. And yet this one for no good reason I could discern, insisted that I spend forty-five minutes not walking around the block. I didn't really think it was very good or very important ... all I knew was that I was bound to do it. I did. Then I walked around the block.

Here's what the newspaper printed:


NORTHAMPTON — Here’s another column about racism you do not need to read.

In the emotional tsunami that rose up after June 17 fatal shooting of nine black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a friend of mine sent me a proposal.

The Rev. Emmett Coyne, a Roman Catholic and author, suggested in a draft of a letter he wanted to send to a newspaper that a serious approach to racism in United States might be an American version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that a good choice to head such a body would be Charleston’s longtime mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., who is planning to retire.

Emmett and I knocked a few emails back and forth, tweaking the wording he wanted to use in his letter. I played the skeptical — very skeptical — editor ... and did what I could to help make the proposal more newspaper-friendly. Emmett hoped to get it published in time for President Barack Obama’s trip to Charleston today: Maybe the suggestion would catch his eye.

Emmett needed to cut the emotional chaff, I said — there was enough of that abroad in the land. Angry? Grief-stricken? Weeping? Historic? Forgiving? Healing? Forgetaboutit! To create an impact, state your premise in clear terms and leave the tears and hymns to others. That was my half-hearted suggestion.

It was half-hearted because I didn’t think the proposal stood a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving liftoff. If there is one thing America has proved it can do, it is to forget the lessons of the last news cycle.

Kids gunned down in a Connecticut grade school? That’s last year’s news. Banks and stock brokers fleecing the world? Bail ’em out and gut meaningful reform. Jon Stewart is a hoot as he points out hypocrisy after greedy hypocrisy on his Daily Show, but as we laugh, not a hair on Mitt Romney’s head is dislodged. And then there’s always “Mission Accomplished” followed by yet another conflict in which young Americans will die.

Well, I’m just your average white-guy liberal — someone exhausted by the mounting examples of things that need doing and fail to get done on behalf of the country I live in. I am beyond infuriated: I am tired. Mitt Romney et al. know I am tired. And the same is true for any more overtly racist covens.

The trouble with the idea of an American version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a place where people could speak and be heard — is that it would require a willingness to admit that such a commission were warranted in the first place.

It would require me to step up and say that despite all my feel-good guilt and make-nice talk, I am a racist. Not overtly, of course. I don’t burn crosses or act super nice around those of other races, but my fatigue outstrips my outrage. I have my excuses.

To step up to the plate and concede that I have been part and party to the grinding slights that other races have suffered requires an energy and patience and courage and self-assessment the leaves me breathless ... as I suspect it leaves other good-hearted liberals as well.

There are children to rear, bills to pay, lawns to mow, family fights to fight, jobs to be fretful about, ... the whole panoply of living life. There are many ways as well in which I may chastise myself — and I really don’t want to shoulder another. Really, I don’t.

I am thankful for Emmett’s efforts. I am thankful that anyone might consider a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I am grateful that some less galling outlook might claim the national scene and the bullets and poverty recede, if even only slightly. Grateful, yes. But not willing to buy into some “caring” solution that solves little or nothing.

I am unwilling to express a hope I do not feel. If I could make things better, I would. But in the meantime, the best I can muster is a bit of honesty and a hope that I can live up to the Buddhist suggestion that, “It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do — that is my concern.”

It may not be much, but it beats the heartfelt pretense that rises up and falls away with such striking regularity.

Adam Fisher of Northampton is a regular columnist.