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.


  1. I'd say make extra orange sauce for your tail. But you'll have your fill of it by tomorrow and be hankering after another flavor. But then tail eating isn't really about flavor i guess.

  2. Lemon goes better with chicken. Ask MFK Fisher (no relation I presume).

  3. Dunno why I cry

  4. MFK Fisher was my father's first wife.