Friday, May 4, 2012

principle and decorum

The old-fart-looking-back kicked in this morning:

I was a decorous child -- polite, moderately smart and later charming in an effort not to excite rejection in others ... the kind of rejection I felt from my intellectually-imbued parents. If I were decorous enough, perhaps I could elicit, if not love, at least not rejection.

No one, in my probably-flawed memory, asked me what I wanted. It was up to me to find out and decorousness seemed to be a good way not to excite the disdain of the gods. Being naughty was never something I was very good at.

Decorousness -- the formal and polite parameters of much of this life -- grew into principles ... the adult version of decorousness. Principles are those things that a person will do that s/he might otherwise prefer not to do. Decorousness means meeting the expectations of others.

My sequestered, decorous, principled world was accompanied by a curiosity that grew, perhaps, out of the fairy tales my mother read to me as a child. In fairy tales -- the brothers Grimm and others -- the wicked stepmother or other frightening presence that gave the story salt was always defeated. The stories all ended with lines like "and they all lived happily ever after." And I was curious: How was such a thing possible? How could I break away from the wicked stepmother of a decorousness that I rightly sensed gave no honest answer, provided no freedom, nourished no love.

Of all the office-work jobs I ever had, newspaper reporting before the Internet was the most delicious. It dabbled in a world that was decidedly indecorous and full of juice. There were cigarette butts on the floor, bottles of Wild Turkey that old-timers kept in the right-hand, bottom drawer of their desks, and just before deadline at 12:15 p.m. the news room was positively stuffed with reporters on the phone, cheek-by-jowl, screaming epithets and trying to elicit one last piece of information to include in a story that was due on the city editor's desk ... NOW!

Every day was a new day at the newspaper. You never knew what assignment you might get. Somebody shot, a house fire, a political gathering, a heart-throb lost dog, skulduggery in finance ... I never knew when I got up in the morning what the assignment might be. I purely loved going to work. It was chaotic and rich and in the end, "they all lived happily ever after" -- the newspaper came out for better or worse ... but it came out. The indecorousness was a delight. The principles were principles I could buy into, at least initially ... be nosy, get the facts, order them, write them, live through the gnawing irritation of not having gotten the whole story ... ever.

I had been a German linguist in the army, sitting hunched over a tape recording machine, listening and re-listening to intercepted telephone calls that 'enemies' of the United States made. The pages on which I took notes about these conversations all bore a stamp at the top saying "Top Secret (codeword)." The principle was that my country had enemies and I was helping to make those enemies less powerful by learning their intentions and activities. It was a principled activity, in one sense ... and yet it didn't convince me or bring me credibly closer to a home I could relax in.

Later it was on to book publishing, a scrubbed and savvy world. I wore a suit and tie. I loved books at the time, but of course, as a friend of mine observed before I went to work there, "you're not selling books, you're selling shoes." The people were sometimes a lot of fun with their smarts -- I liked playing the smart game from time to time -- but their smarts made me suspicious: Was this decorous smartness much different from a decorous childhood, the childhood that left me uncertain and longing and confused? Was this a world I really wanted to credit? And no, it was not. So then it was on to the newspaper where, I had been advised by a city editor on Long Island, "there are only two things to remember about journalism: It's a craft, not an art. And, be yourself."

The art of decorous and principled living seemed to leave something out. The indecorousness of a craft came closer to easing my mind and life... something loud, something profane, something free-wheeling, a place that I could call home in my own mind. How I envied those who said, "I am a reporter" with pride and assurance ... who knew their place in the universe according to what they did and thought. I wanted to be assured too, but the fact was, I wasn't. I was brought up to distrust what I longed to trust most -- home, parents ... I had been brought up with decorousness and later principle.

And then I stumbled across Vedanta Hinduism. It sucked me in as surely as a tornado sucks up an Oklahoma trailer park. I would get up each morning at 4 or earlier in order to read -- to gobble like a starving man -- the pages in front of me. Work at the newspaper began at 7:30 and I desperately wanted to get in more reading before I went to work. Bit by bit by bit, it filled my curiosities with satisfactions. This made sense. This promised relief. This ... well, this was worth loving.

And then the day came, one early morning, that the thought stood up in my decorous mind and announced with indecorous clarity, "It they (all these gurus and saints and holy people I was reading) could do it, then so could I." I was purely shocked at my audacity. How could I make such an arrogant claim?! It was apostasy ... and yet the thought refused to be stilled. The decorous confines of mere belief had been, if not shattered, at least badly cracked. After several days of thinking that some punishment might be visited on me for having such a thought -- of being so indecorously daring -- a second facet of the assertion arose. I may have read what I once estimated was about 500,000 pages of spiritual text and descriptive prose, but I didn't really have a clue as to what, precisely, I was supposed to DO. I knew words like "prayer" and "meditation," but up to that point, I had been a believer. I could talk the talk (in spades and sometimes to the despair of my newspaper colleagues) but didn't know the first thing about walking the walk. How the fuck did you DO this stuff? I was dying to find a world that was free of decorum and principle and goody-two-shoes politeness -- a world of relaxed ease -- but, but, but ... well, how do you DO that?

So I went back, scraped together some facts about meditation, went out to the street-side garbage and found an old wooden milk crate, put an orange cloth over it, placed a picture and an incense burner on it, and tried sitting cross-legged at the end of my bed each day after work. Before attempting to focus the mind -- whatever the hell that meant -- I would read a prayer from a little book called "Universal Prayers." Aloud ... I forced myself to read it aloud. All by myself ... aloud. It embarrassed the hell out of me at first. What if someone heard me doing it? What a jackass I might seem! I certainly felt like a jackass, but some part of me insisted, "Read it aloud. I don't care if you think you are a (indecorous) jackass!" So I'd sit cross-legged as the incense burned down ... and wonder why, if I were doing all this for "God," "God" made my knees hurt so much. It seemed unfair ... doing something 'good' and being punished for it.

Time passed and eventually I realized that spiritual life was what really interested me, really excited my attention and love. The newspaper waned. I still loved the world of indecorous chaos and swore to myself that if religion, as I then thought of it, could not find a home in a barroom brawl, I wanted nothing to do with it. Simultaneously with a waning interest in the newspaper (I had been there for five years or so), there came a recognition that I was not much attracted to the ritualistic aspects of Hinduism. So when my mother took me to a Zen center she belonged to and when I saw that Zen emphasized DOING what I had learned in my own inept ways, I switched gears. A roomful of people, all sitting straight and still and silent may have scared the crap out of me, but something inside me said this was the way to go ... sit down, shut up, and DO the work.

Zen had its principles. And, in its Japanese format as I experienced it, it was decorous to a fare-thee-well. Several years into practice I remember talking to a fellow student, a somewhat eccentric older woman, and telling her, "I have no problem loving the people here, but I have a hard time liking them." And she replied, "That's strange. I have no problem liking them, but I have a hard time loving them."

I never was much good at Zen practice, but my failures suited me. I lived through the first idealisms of wanting to be a "good Zen student," of daydreaming about becoming a "teacher," of thinking monastic life was the only lifestyle worth living (and then flunking out of the monastery), of being deeply upset, confused and angry while living through not one, but three sex scandals involving the teacher, of slowly but surely ingesting an experience I had thought I wanted only to find it was something I really did want (and it was nothing like what I had claimed to want), of wondering why others could seem so assured and strong when I felt so inept and insecure ... no, I wasn't much of a Zen student.

But on the other hand, I did do what I had wanted to do and I look back at my fragilities and ineptness with some kindliness. Poor bastard -- c'mon, I'll buy you a beer. I never did come to rival the "teachers" I admired or wanted to keep company with ... and I thank God for it. Zen practice rubbed off on me so that....

So that yesterday, when I managed to irritate three people in separate incidents on the Internet, I was unrepentant. At another time, I might have been frightened that my lack of decorousness and adherence to principle had aroused rebuttal or even anger in others. I had been schooled as the good child, the decorous child, the one who didn't make waves in a vain effort to receive approval and love. Principles and decorum were my weapons and I used them freely to defend whatever it was I seemed to consider my self to be. Safety and love -- and if not love, at least acceptance -- had been my mantram in the past. A knee-jerk reaction to a childhood I would wish on no man: If I were just good enough, just decorous enough, just principled enough, then, at last, I might receive the love I longed for and had felt I was denied.

But yesterday, I uncharacteristically felt no fear or anxiety about pissing people off. One was irritated that I had used the word "nigger" on this blog. Another, in the same venue, called me to task because of a free-wheeling use of the word "pussy." And another, on a Zen Buddhist bulletin board, called me out because I had pointed out the hypocrisy of the words used by a man the bulletin board had dubbed a "teacher."

Principles and decorum. Where are they today? I'm not sure. Certainly they are there when I need them or want to use them. And I don't feel that I am beyond their constraints. But our roles seemed to have subtly shifted. I am too old and tired to be anyone's slave ... and the same goes for principle and decorum. They are available, that's all. I try to correct what mistakes I make, but the 'explanation' and 'meaning' and 'importance' for this has dwindled. The expectation that my knees won't hurt or that I will receive some favorable reaction or result from a 'good' effort is ... it just seems too energetic and out of sync with the world around me. It's nice to have the tools and to use them according to circumstance, but isn't that enough? Well, if it isn't, then I have well and truly missed the boat ... a boat I simply can't get into a caviling, cowering snit about.

Once upon a time, a fellow who was into astrology did my horoscope. And according to the practice he followed, each person's time and place of birth came with a little attendant phrase. The Buddha, for example, was "an empty hammock between two trees." And my little phrase was, "an Easter parade."

An Easter parade. I can't claim to know what it means, but I know I like it ... a celebration that seems to be explained ... but never could be.

I never was much of a Zen student.

Ain't that grand?!

1 comment:

  1. adam,

    my pastor in bible college was a simple country preacher. he had a saying about 'principles and decorum.' he told me often, "rules are not for decent folks; they are for law breakers. when i got up this morning, i was free, in christ, to slap my neighbors wife, call her a whore and take whatever i wished from him. in fact, i can do anything i desire; i can't lose my relationship with god. thing is, i have no desire to hurt anyone. so my freedom to do those things i desire matches the decency society expects'.

    if by 'principles and decorum' you meant taking off your hat in a house, wiping your feet, etc., i could agree they are merely tools one can use or discard. but being mindful not to degrade others is not, for me, a tool. it's my nature. you don't have enough of anything to coax me into being disrespectful of a fellow human. i don't want to do it.

    i've never heard of anyone on their death bed lamenting they were not insulting enough, disrespectful enough or had acted too kindly throughout their life because the were 'slaves' to decency. in fact, most dying people wish just the opposite.

    i truly don't understand your spirituality. good luck with your blog.

    be well,