Tag Archives: inspiration

The Weight of Greatness: The “Classics” and Intellectual Insecurity

22 Feb

So a question was posed recently of whether one should feel “guilty” about not reading the great classics of literature. It’s a distressing question, because it gives these important and amazing works a flavor of burden, as though they are unpleasant responsibilities that fulfill some sort of cultural requisite. It’s easy to see how this came to be – whenever we institutionalize an art and make a whole industry of its criticism and analysis, things start to get esoteric, detached, insulated. This easily turns off people who feel like they are on the outside of that field. It’s a trapping of the sciences, too. Delve far enough into any science and you hit the point where they are speaking a language utterly foreign to the lay-person, virtually existing in a separate world.

Many people feel this way about great literature, and I think that’s a damn shame. They find it intimidating, or assume it’s dry and irrelevant. It reminds them of the tedium of the classroom, the stuffy murk of academia. But here’s the thing: learning is the absolute most natural impulse of humanity. We are born curious sponges, and this thirst only dries up through our convoluted approaches to learning. We turn it into a responsibility, so that even as adults we come to associate it with duty and un-fun-ness. Sure, learning is work, of a sort, but it’s the best kind of work, the kind that foments growth and leaves you feeling happily spent and accomplished.

Great literature from the likes of Cervantes, Tolstoy, Poe, Goethe, Nabokov, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Camus… it does more than tell a story. It expands our inner lives. It connects us to our human legacy, each a vital link in the literary chain. It asks questions that we are still asking, probes our heights and depths. And though these books seem grand and imposing in this light, they were written to be read by regular old people like you and me, read widely and deeply and often. They are not sacrosanct relics, but rather inexhaustible, accessible treasures with a value that grows with age.

Now I didn’t care for much “serious literature” when I was in school, even though I’ve always loved reading. I’d read the assigned books and write the papers, and I’d do well, but they seldom stuck with me. It wasn’t until I was out on my own that I began to really self-educate, seeking out new experiences and understanding. I’d go to thrift stores to get cheap paperbacks of the classics, devour them, let them digest in my brain for months. The trick was to ween myself out of the mindset of “learning = work”. I then found that I wanted to read these great books even if they were difficult or alien. I wanted to learn why they were great, why they mattered in the world, why the other authors that I loved loved them. Even if a classic didn’t become a personal favorite, I was always glad to have read it, because it gave me new perspectives and knowledge to draw from. New understanding.

Point is, no one should feel guilty about reading or not reading the literary heavyweights – we (probably) only get one life apiece, and we should fill it as we want. We should always go with what excites us, be it space operas or dead Russians, beat poetry or vampire romances. The thing is to realize that all literature is an awaiting experience, and the greatest of our writers have given us some amazing gifts. Those literary masterpieces that taunt us from their pedestals, those sacred tomes of the learned, those papery self-improvement projects that we keep putting off – they can easily become “wants” rather than “shoulds” with a little tweaking of perspective. Don’t view a classic as a responsibility, something to get around to, like a diet or oiling a squeaky door. Test it out, explore, let it pull you in naturally. Dive into the richness of the world, and you will emerge the gladder for it. Guaranteed.

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The search for a better normal.

11 Jan

Kicked off the new year with a flu.  I had all these January ideas to start exercising regularly, writing regularly, finding regular employment, eat more regular meals – apparently it was to be the year of regularity.  Instead I watched six seasons of Frasier on Netflix and constructed monuments of phlegm out of kleenex.

I didn’t even read very much, which is the only plus-side of the bedridden scenario.  Only two books were finished – Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr. (a highly recommended new author) and Nabokov’s The Defense, one of his early Russian novels with a chess motif and a stunted, phlegmatic protagonist (just what I want to read about in this condition).  The Defense was not as tight or probing as Nabokov’s later English-language novels, but the spark is there, and there are moments of beautiful prose that could only be his.  And I’m an on-and-off chess lover, so I appreciate the metaphors.  Next on my list is Nabokov’s Pale Fire, along with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.  I’m challenging myself this year to read 52 books in 52 weeks – a modest goal, not so much to read more, but to read more regularly.

And there’s that word again.  Regular.  Everything lacking in my life, according to me, seems to boil down to a lack of routine.  What is it about our identities that we think our true and better selves can be molded if we just find the right regimen, the right techniques?  As though our lives were slabs of marble that we hammer at with an array of chisels.  I wrote last year about “discontentment” as a necessary creative force.  To quote myself:

“When people talk about the “human condition”, what immediately comes to my mind is our perpetual discontentment.  This might sound like a negative thing at first, but actually it’s what makes everything move forward; culturally, scientifically, politically, artistically.  With our tremendous capacity for conceptualization, we can’t help but analyze and reinvent everything around us – tearing down and building up.  It drives our achievements, and the fulfillment of that urge, the attainment of satisfaction, means a slow, mediocre death for progress.  The constant restlessness of humanity is both essential and inescapable – the bane and the boon of our existence.” (April, ’12)

It’s a tidy, romantic little argument.  But now it’s 2013, and discontentment hasn’t gotten me anywhere.  I’ve been unemployed for longer than I care to admit, and besides an uptick in my writing, I have very little to show for 2012.  Why is this?  We see ourselves, and we see the selves we’d rather be, yet we struggle, and self-help quacks make billions off of our self-inflicted paralysis.  When I was younger and knew everything, I mocked this as a first-world problem of the soulless consumer class, who had lost the ability to embrace passion and possibility, to embrace the freedom attached to their mortality.  We’re all going to die, I’d think, and very little matters in the mean time.  “It’s only life” I’d announce in the face of crisis, wise as Zarathustra.  I wasn’t wrong, really.  It is only life, and we certainly take much of it too seriously.  But perhaps inevitably, I find my fear returning as I age.  What have I actually done?  What do I have time left to do?

As this sickness fades off, I look out on the cloudy world and think about the years.  I am not satisfied with what I have done with them.  I think many people aren’t.  Is there any worse feeling than to contemplate the vacuum left by each lost chance?  Instead of regularity this year, maybe there’s something else I need.  Openness.  A return to fearlessness, without the self-inflicted pressures of an imagined perfection.  The guts to love who I already am, and to make a life that can never be perfect, but that is wholly and inimitably mine.

~

“Not knowing when the dawn will come, I open every door.” – Emily Dickinson

The Triumph of Failure

6 Nov

I’ve been told that once you get your first official rejection from a publication or publisher, you can then call yourself a writer without embarrassment.  So here I am, world!  Unabashed, undaunted, unsuccessful.  One more among the starving throngs of quixotic dreamers and creators.  I am a writer!

It came today, an e-mail form-rejection for a mediocre story that I only spent a few days on.  And yet, I feel oddly invigorated by this failure.  I have completed my first full life-cycle of a story.  I dreamt it up, I wrote it, I edited it, I edited it again, I submitted it, and the judgment was handed down.  Never mind that it wasn’t in my favor; there is a satisfaction just in crossing the finish line. Truth is, I’ve written much better pieces since that submission.  Reading the story now, I have trouble remembering why I thought it was publishable at all.  This is not mere self-deprecation.  The story has some good writing and some nice moments, but the effect is weak, the action slow.  It is too self-conscious, and doesn’t really go anywhere important.  The journal’s rejection of this story, rather than saddening me, simply reinforces my own judgment of it.  It makes me realize my own improvement over only a few months, and brings me closer to having the “literary eye” of those more experienced.

Now I’m stoked for my next submission(s), which I am hoping to have ready for the end of the year.  I’ve had some positive feedback already, which is more than I had on the rejected story.  I am also taking a stab at NaNoWriMo this year, though I’ve had a slow start.  But there is nothing better for writing than writing, and hopefully I can gain momentum from today’s sobering reality-check rejection.  I want to have a piece published, however small, before my next birthday.  Much as the world of blogging and self-publication seems ever-growing, I am still a believer in external quality control.  Objective validation.  I want my work to succeed not just in my own eyes, and those of my friends, relatives and teachers, but also in the roiling, unpredictable seas of critical and public exposure.  I want my words to matter to a world larger than my own.  And with each try, and each stumble, I know I’m getting closer.

NYC Poetry Fest 2012

27 Jul

So I know I still have to write up the second installment of my Cleveland vacation post, but I first wanted to comment on a really great event I attended last weekend – the second annual NYC Poetry Festival, thrown by the good people at The Poetry Society of New York.  It was a two day fest of visiting and resident poets, literary vendors, bit of food, bit of silliness, and a lot of awesome people.  Sadly I did not have my camera on hand, but I’ll relate what I can.  They held it on Governor’s Island, downtown Manhattan’s favorite ferry-ride weekend retreat.  I thought this was the perfect environment for honoring poetry – a green oasis at the end of a (admittedly short) watery voyage.  The fest itself was casual and low-key as such things go, which was good, as it enabled a nice mix of all-day activity without the exhaustion of over-stimulation.  I went on Sunday, a perfect summer afternoon, meandering from stage to stage, a poet here, a poet there, chatting with small press people and up-and-coming wordsmiths, laying out on the grass as words and the breeze swept over me.

The shindig was laid out in a sort of triangle, with three small stages at each corner.  The quality of the readings was very high, and there were several poets that I became quickly enamored with.  Some highlights for me were Michael Alpiner, Jenny Xie, Ronaldo Wilson, David Lawton, Dorothea Lasky and Timothy Donnelly.  I chatted with some fine people at Brooklyn Arts Press about the challenges of small publishing and the range of new talent, and picked up an anthology from poet Jane Ormerod‘s newly managed press, Uphook.  All in all, it was a splendid day celebrating language and art and the people who keep it all going.  Definitely hope to go again next year.

Ruben Dario: Voice of Modernismo

14 May

“What sign do you give, O Swan, with your curving neck
when the sad and wandering dreamers pass?
Why so silent from being white and being beautiful,
tyrannical to the waters and impassive to the flowers?”
(Longman 837)

Ruben Dario (1867 – 1916) was a poet of tenacious drive and discerning passions, the founder and foremost advocate of a vital artistic and intellectual movement.  It was called modernismo, and it had a tremendous impact on the Spanish-speaking world and beyond, though today it often evades popular awareness.  Coalescing around the turn of the twentieth century, it was a literature that blended influences of Romanticism and Symbolism, and concerned itself deliberately with emotional intensity, individuality and creative freedom.  Dario himself was the embodiment of these ideals – a poet of vibrancy and dreamlike urgency, an artisan of words both tactile and hypnogogic.  As seen in the stanza above, he had a special fondness for the symbolism of swans, and would often juxtapose their beauty with sadness and death, giving them a mystical status that recalls the Romantic and classical.  It’s an example of what made Ruben Dario the champion of Spanish poetry in the early modern era.  His modernismo style was impassioned but classically melodic, radically exploratory while revering the legacies of the past.

Dario was a cosmopolitan man, a product of a growing sense of global connectivity.  He absorbed all of the influences of the literary scene abroad along with the experiences of his travels, yet his poetry reflects a singularly beautiful insight.  His sensibility is well-illustrated in the opening line of one of his most celebrated poems, a piece which has retrospectively become the standard of the movement:

“I seek a form that my style cannot discover,
a bud of thought that wants to be a rose.” (Dario 60)

As Octavio Paz notes in his prologue to Dario’s Selected Poems – this particular line “is a definition of his verse… He seeks a beauty that is beyond beauty, that words can evoke but can never state.  All of Romanticism – the desire to grasp the infinite – and all of Symbolism – an ideal, indefinable beauty that can only be suggested – are contained in that line.”  (Dario 14)  But even as we dissect the influences of Dario’s poetry, there remains that abstract, indefinable “something else” which makes it inarguably his, penetrating and sublime.

When Ruben Dario first pursued the writer’s craft, his efforts were suppressed by the reactionary government of his native Nicaragua.  At the tender age of fifteen, he tried to obtain a scholarship to pursue the literary arts in Europe.  He read some poems to the authorities, who immediately denied his request, fearing that exposure to European culture would only breed further liberalism in the young man.  Dario’s restless artistry led him to leave Nicaragua on his own and begin a new life, traveling all over Latin and South America, writing poetry and forging relationships.  He soon found himself quite successful, receiving official recognition all over the Latin world, where before as a youth he had been denied.  He was appointed consulate in Colombia and the ambassador for Nicaragua, which would later rename his home town of Metapa to Ciudad Dario, in his honor.  As his fame grew, he eventually did make his way to Europe.  Spain welcomed him as a diplomat and as the most celebrated artist of the New World.  From there he was drawn naturally to Paris, the epicenter of art and poetry, where he came under the spell of the French symbolists.  This was a defining moment, both for Dario and for the movement he was leading.  From then onward, Dario’s poetry would become increasingly complex, dreamy and profound.

The modernismo movement was giving a new voice to Spanish artists while socially and politically redefining Latin America.  While Dario was recognized as the movement’s head, the movement as a whole grew from a scattered network of poets looking to redefine the art of their language.  They were examining themselves and also looking to France for artistic queues: Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine top the list of influences.  These influences informed much of the structure and tone of modernism, but it was the singular Spanish sensibility, the natural rhythm and fire, which gave the poetry its power.  Modernismo is said to have “officially” begun with Dario’s first manifestos, and with the international publication of Azul (Blue), his first collection of poems and stories.  The poetry of “Azul” is at once familiar, and breathtakingly new:

“Month of roses. My poems
wander through the vast forest
to gather honey and fragrance
from the half-opened flowers.”  (Dario 41)

There is a clear Romantic sentiment here, but there is also a uniquely sensual flavor.  And Dario was every bit a sensualist; a man of deep feeling and endless curiosity.  Gerald Brenan calls his verse, perhaps a bit disparagingly, “hedonistic, pagan and steeped in a violently sensual and erotic atmosphere.”  (Brenan 428)  This is where the “modern” in modernismo shines through.  Such unabashed liberty of expression was something novel to Spanish literature, and though there were many disagreeable reactions from traditionalists, the fresh air was largely welcome to the younger generation.

Octavio Paz dubbed Dario “the bridge” between these old and new spheres of Spanish verse.  “His constant travels and his generous activity in behalf of others made him the point of connection”, notes Paz in his prologue.  (Dario 11)  Poets rallied around Dario for inspiration and leadership, and he in turn led them to reinvent not only Spanish literature, but the language itself.  Between the end of the “golden era” of Spanish literature in the seventeenth century, and the beginnings of modernismo in the late nineteenth, Spanish had stagnated.  During the conservative Napoleonic age, literature and poetry (a largely liberal endeavor) had utterly ceased.  The language was largely stuck in the baroque.  There were some achievements in the Romantic period, notably from Gustavo Be’cquer (an influence on Dario’s early work), but nothing as profound as that in England, Germany or France.  And then Dario and his modernists came along, and breathed new life into the Spanish language.  Through them, Spanish verse regained its vitality, became once again a viable and effective literary force.

As we see, the effect of modernismo was monumental, and it spread beyond poetry.  It gave a powerful voice to Latin American communities who were feeling the pressure of outside forces, particularly those of American imperialism.  Ruben Dario was not a particularly political artist, but even he could not keep his pen still about the problems facing Central America.  As a journalist for a paper in Argentina, he covered the Spanish-American War, illuminating the struggle of Hispanic cultures.  And when U.S. President Roosevelt began to strategically foment the Panamanian revolution in 1903 (with the goal of acquiring the valuable Canal Zone for America), Dario called him out in verse:

“You think that life is a conflagration,
that progress is an eruption,
that where you put your bullet
you set the future…
…Beware. Spanish America lives!”  (Longman 836)

The acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone and the building of the canal was of course a major component of America’s growing global influence.  It gave the U.S. tremendous economic and military power at the expense of much bloodshed and upheaval, and the Latin American people would not soon forget the manipulative self-interest of the U.S.  Poetry was at least one way in which they could vocalize their grievances, though the Canal Zone would continue to be a violently contested issue for most of the twentieth century.

Along with its importance in the historical context of its time, Ruben Dario’s modernismo was a surge of energy for all Spanish literary arts to come.  As Brenan notes, regarding the publication of Dario’s most innovative volume Prosas Profanas, “These new, intoxicating rhythms and cadences burst the narrow banks in which Spanish poetry had long been confined.”  (Brenan 428)  The eruptive effects of Dario’s verse make it a vital subject of study for world literature, while the verses themselves continue to enthrall generations with their deep emotion and magical imagery, their profound and unequivocal artistry.  Federico Garcia Lorca says it best, in this excerpt from a speech given in Dario’s honor in 1933:

“He gave us the murmur of the forest in an adjective, and being a master of language… he made zodiacal signs out of a lemon tree, the hoof of a stag, and mollusks full of terror and infinity. He launched us on a sea with frigates and shadows in our eyes, and built an enormous promenade of gin over the grayest afternoon the sky has ever known, and greeted the southwest wind as a friend…”  (Dario 140)

~

Works Cited

Why Write? In Defense of Discontentment

25 Apr

“Why do you write?”

This question was posed to me recently for a class assignment, and harmless as it might seem, it immediately sent my mind into a spiral of abstract and tangential questions, like “What is art?”  “What is beauty?”  “What is meaning?”  “What makes it meaningful?”  “Why do we search for it?”  “Why do we do anything?”

It was a long night, I’ll tell ya.

Well, people are weird.  That much I know.  For as long as we’ve been banging rocks together and looking at the stars, we’ve channeled our weirdness into amazing displays of creativity and thought.  We’ve painted cave walls and church ceilings, built towers and tanks and toilet bowls, blasted our brethren into outer-space.  But why?  What makes humans so uniquely obsessed with all this constant mucking about and manipulation?  When it comes to simply being animals on planet Earth, why are we so weird?

Goya's Sleep of Reason

Goya's "Sleep of Reason"

When people talk about the “human condition”, what immediately comes to my mind is our perpetual discontentment.  This might sound like a negative thing at first, but actually it’s what makes everything move forward; culturally, scientifically, politically, artistically.  With our tremendous capacity for conceptualization, we can’t help but analyze and reinvent everything around us – tearing down and building up.  It drives our achievements, and the fulfillment of that urge, the attainment of satisfaction, means a slow, mediocre death for progress.  The constant restlessness of humanity is both essential and inescapable – the bane and the boon of our existence.

Now, a question like “Why do you write” can certainly be a fun intellectual and creative exercise, and no doubt I could muster up some sort of profound bullshit to make it all seem very inspiring and inevitable.  But really, there is no easy answer for me, and I won’t pretend there is.  Me, I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer.  When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist.  And then I wanted to be a cartoonist.  And then I wanted to be an architect.  But throughout all that, the one thing I’ve always been, and always hope to be, is an explorer.  Explorers are impelled by insatiable curiosity and unrest, and I see every artist as an explorer, in league with Jacque Cousteau or Ernest Shackleton.

Exploring is how we grow, personally and as a civilization.  And one of my favorite ways to explore has always been writing.  I was the kid in class who loved essay assignments while everyone else around me groaned.  Still am, actually.  Later on, as an angsty teen, I began to write terrible poetry (who didn’t?).  I was exploring my identity, trying to understand who I was and where I fit.  Then as I got older, and the pressure was on for me to choose a direction in life, people began pushing me to pursue a writing career.  And when my first college made me the “Featured Writer” of their journal, I considered it for a minute. But discontentment soon reared its head.

I was a good student, but I wasn’t satisfied with where I was or where I was heading. For better or worse, a stronger force began working within me.  It was what my grandmother would call “that old gypsy blood”, the restless seduction of the new and uncharted.  I was feeling directionless and powerless, unimpressed with the options on the table and drawn to the Siren song of new adventure.  Thus, in true explorer fashion, and without very much thought for the future, I abandoned the predictable and turned my back on school, home and economic viability.  I quit my job, broke my lease, sold my stuff, and hit the road.

Frontispiece from the book - South: Shackleton's Last Expedition

I traveled about for years, settling momentarily here and there, but never long enough for roots to touch ground.  I was thirsty for life and drunk with freedom, an American pioneer.  But I was also running away, Peter-panning, breaking through the atmosphere of a prescribed world that simultaneously bored and terrified me.  I didn’t want to carve out a career, or start a family, or improve my credit score.  I just wanted to explore.  I guess I figured life would figure itself out, and all I had to do was drift, let the eddies do the work.  Then I blinked, and I was twenty-eight years old, and I realized I’d become stuck somehow.  I hadn’t actually escaped anything; I’d simply let myself sink, let the world wash over me.  I hadn’t outsmarted the system, or created anything new, or even found any meaningful answers, at least not any that, deep down, I hadn’t already known.

And that’s when I really began to write.  Poetry, short stories, essays.  Once I stopped running, and faced my discontentment head on, I discovered that the real “uncharted realm” wasn’t out there on the highways and train-tracks – it was something broader and deeper than physical space.  I wanted to be a vagabond on the sphere of ideas, a pilgrim of imagination.  I realized how much I love to think and research and learn and argue.  How much I love words, and lyricism and well-crafted language.  I realized that story-telling, whatever form it takes, is probably the greatest achievement that us weirdo humans ever came up with.  Right up there with hammocks, beer and bicycles.

The more I wrote, the happier it made me, so of course I did it some more – an animalistic pleasure response.  I discovered the beauty and acuity of poetry, the sheer joy of fiction – a thrill of omnipotence and creative surrender that made me feel like a kid again.  I had found a way to hold on to my fascination and creativity, a way to focus my restless, discontented energy in a way that might actually matter.  I had found my Neverland.

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

View from Pi'ilani Highway in Maui, HI

So that’s why I do it.  I definitely don’t write under any illusions of fame and fortune waiting on the horizon.  I don’t know whether my words will mean anything to anyone but myself.  I just write, because I want to share, and understand, and create, and expand.  I write because if I didn’t get at least some of these synapses down on paper (or computer screen), I’d be just a little less happy and a little more nuts.  There’s no easy answer to why we feel this compulsion to create, to push boundaries and be heard.  Perhaps, like George Mallory climbing Everest, we do it because “it’s there”, a crucible standing before us, waiting to see if we have what it takes to go just a little further.  Maybe there is an intangible divinity of human spirit pushing us to become the best versions of ourselves.  Maybe we’re dissatisfied, over-thinking apes, screaming defiantly into the void.  Or, maybe we’re just weird.

Personally, my money’s on that last one.

~

Forgotten Places

9 Apr

Whenever I come across abandoned space, I’m drawn in.  I want to rummage in the shells of the past, imagine the stories left inside of forgotten walls.  The above picture doesn’t seem like anything very special, just a closed-down pool supply store on a busy highway outside of Philadelphia.  Yet, as I drove past it, I had to pull over, poke around, take a picture.  It wasn’t specifically amazing, and I’d bet I was the only person on that highway all day to give the building a second glance.  But there was something beautiful about it, and I spent the rest of the day dreaming of that building’s past and of its future, wondering about the people who invested themselves into it, and the happiness or despair it may have witnessed.  I imagined the space in a hundred years, wondered if the building would still stand; would it be converted into a store selling Tang and personal jet-packs?  Or would it be devoured by the surrounding woods, covered in creeping vines, with young trees growing straight through the roof?

I’ve always loved to explore abandoned places.  As a kid I would poke around boarded-up houses in the neighborhood, wander empty lots, even walk into big drainage pipes, feet sloshing through rain water.  I was fascinated by anything discarded or unacknowledged.  I’d peek into dumpsters (when my mother wasn’t watching, of course) and wonder what kind of strange treasures might lie therein.  When I got older, this impulse did not leave me as I started traveling the country.  Abandoned buildings became not just a fascination but also my temporary homes.  I’ve inhabited some odd places: neglected school houses, empty office building rooftops, condemned ghetto high-rises, the iron ruins of old factories.  There was a thrill in exploring these places, climbing and crawling around, bedding down among the artifacts of a forgotten life.

And, I discovered that those mysterious dumpsters of my youth really did have treasure in them.  It’s true!  The sheer glut of American excess would astound you.  One could find all kinds of working electronics, surplus clothing still wrapped in plastic, books, appliances, even whole cases of still-packaged, unexpired, completely salable and edible food.  And there was a simple, child-like joy in it, like being on an Easter egg hunt, the wide-eyed pursuit of unknown fortune.  It also brought to light the heart-breaking waste of the first-world, waste which certainly still happens.  Except now, the dumpsters have been replaced by unapproachable trash-compactors, much to the dismay of scavengers of all species.

A friend sits writing in the hall of a squatted high-rise

 

The crazy thing about a life on the road – and I mean really on the road, no hotel rooms, no rental cars, no brunching at the vineyard – is that you never actually know what is going to happen on a day to day basis.  This sounds like a simple enough thing, but think about how controlled our lives are.  How often do you wake up without knowing, at least generally, what lies in store for the day?  And whenever we are shaken out of this security, it is unwillingly, unpleasant, often due to some kind of tragedy, making us long for the comfort of our routine.  But what if you made the choice to nurture the possibilities of the unknown?  What if you consciously discarded the predictable, and let “fortune”, whatever name you want to give it, write your story for a while?  I don’t mean to romanticize things; I’ve slept in dumpsters and alleys too, battled frost-bite, rain and angry property owners.  It isn’t all carefree vagabondage: sometimes it’s getting mugged by random crackheads for your beer, or diarrhea in a remote span of woodland, with nary a toilet for miles.  But sometimes… sometimes it is a beautiful, indescribably liberating, utterly joyful and peaceful thing.  Sometimes you sit on a cliff-side and eat sandwiches in the early morning, as the sun is just inching over the horizon, and look down on the world and smile.  Because that world is yours, and you are it, and you are fully your own self yet part of everything else, too.  In our anxious and disconnected times, it’s a feeling that can really approach holiness.  I would not say it’s a path for everyone.  But I would say that however you do it, it’s good to sometimes find ways to step out of your insulation, to let go of our conditioned control over life, and let life happen to you.

Down & Out on a Desert Mesa – [Retrospective]

25 Mar

Not far outside of Taos, New Mexico, there’s a stretch of raw, scrubby desert inhabited by the oddest assortment of people.  Here you’ll find young eco-yuppie families living in yurts and earth-ships, burnt out war veterans in sheet-metal shacks, gun-hoarding wingnuts, cultish hippies, freedom-loving anarchists, ranchers, ramblers and rogues.  They’re drawn here by dreams or desperation, hoping to start fresh, paint new lives on the desert’s wide, blank canvas.  Some are just hoping to play out the rest of their days unnoticed and unfettered, quietly drowning in their own histories, demons and addictions.  And some have simply washed up there by chance, relegated to society’s fringe by circumstance or lack of options.  This somewhat uncivilized off-grid realm is known locally, and often with a tone of disdainful mystery, as “the Mesa”.

Now I don’t know what it’s like these days, but when I lived there, the Mesa was considered by the “townies” of Taos to be a lawless and chaotic Neverland.  The roads were packed, rutted dirt, that mangled axles and became an impassable mess in bad weather.  We’d often walk or hitchhike those treacherous roads, sooner than drive them – even when it meant hauling water or food back home on our backs.  Dwellings were spaced far apart, dotting a drab landscape of sage-like silvery wormwood, spreading monochromatically like asphalt in every direction.  I compare it to asphalt because the plant is an introduced species, overly-proliferative, smothering what little diversity a high-desert ecosystem might normally have.  It suppresses the growth of any other desert vegetation, thwarting the potential of beneficial grasses and vibrant flowers: squashed before they could even bloom.

Pulling up sage became a daily job on our half-acre of land, the humble patch of dry, scraggly Earth which I had bought with my closest friend, right at the onset of winter.  We had bought this land as an antidote to the trappings of the culture around us, a chance to rebuild at least our own subjective realities.  We were young and full of ideas, pursuing self-sufficiency and sustainability and freedom.  We wanted to build houses out of dirt and grow corn and beans, write books and push boundaries.  So we pulled up those scratchy sage bushes to clear areas for building, pulled them up to dry for firewood, pulled them up because we were sick of looking at them.  For me, the sage became a ubiquitously irritating metaphor.  But at least it smelled good when it burned.

I had loved the western high-desert at first sight.  Some combination of the crisp, thin air, the endless skies, an indefinable sense of directness and truth.  It felt boundless – an ocean of possibility, and we were ready to dive in.  We purchased our half-acre from a rather shady character, bundled in a puffy coat, shifty and mysterious behind dark sunglasses.  He had made it clear that he needed to get out of town.  Fast.  And was thus willing to give us a pretty excellent deal on his property.  We handed him a wad of cash at the county clerk’s office, and relished our apparent good fortune.

We didn’t ask questions.

The half-acre had good drainage and a nice view of a nearby hill, actually an inactive volcano.  It came with some tools, a run-down RV, a basic shed, and a smashed-up SUV.  The tools were a blessing, as was the RV, since my friend had a wife and a baby to worry about, and adequate shelter was something they had been sorely lacking.  After we installed a wood-burning stove in it, the RV became a pleasant and relatively safe little home for their budding family.  The junked SUV left on the property was less useful.  It was an ugly eye-sore, and at times we would go at it with a pick-axe or a sledge-hammer, enjoying the satisfying crunch of metal meeting metal – our cathartic, symbolic revolt against the suburban culture we had grown up to despise.

While my friends now had the RV, my only home was still my van, furnished with several plastic storage bins, and a large sheet of plywood laid over top for a sleeping surface.  The storage bins contained mostly books.  A lot of books.  Way more books than someone who was, for all intents and purposes, a homeless traveling bum, would ever actually need to keep on hand.  I also had a bin of clothes, though that one stayed shut most of the time, since it was winter and I was pretty much wearing everything I owned.  The New Mexican high-desert is, technically, part of the Rocky Mountains – the lower foothills.  Our elevation was around 7000 feet, and the winter was bitter.  Luckily, I had a quality down-filled sleeping bag that a friend in Virginia (I’ll always be grateful, Hap) gifted me when I first started traveling.  That, combined with multiple hooded sweatshirts and three layers of socks, kept the threat of frost-bite at bay. But the chill nights did offer one spectacular compensation – the most amazing, mouth-gaping, breath-taking starry skies I have ever seen, and maybe ever will.  A fair trade, I say.

Living on the mesa was, at first, a liberating but challenging adventure.  We were free from the utility grid-system, the duties and despair of consumer/wage-earner culture, and the oft-oppressive constraints of society at large.  Ensuring our supply of things like adequate water and firewood was a daily concern, but there was something satisfying in working for our immediate survival.  We had big dreams about growing our own food, building with sustainable techniques, using wind and solar, learning new skills, et cetera and so on.  My friend had been my closest cohort for a few years at this point, my hetero-life-partner I liked to say, and this was our dream coming true.  I felt optimistic about everything, like we were truly reinventing things – not just with arm-chair theorizing and reactionary protest, not just with letters to Congress and pamphlets and angry music, but by actually going out and creating the lives we wanted.

Three Peaks

Three Peaks Mt., as seen from our half-acre

But something happened out there.  The disconnection from civilization, while a welcome respite for me, seemed to gnaw at the happiness and sanity of my friend.  His less-admirable tendencies began to take over, and he became isolated, a bit neurotic.  Meanwhile, other people  had come to stay on our land with us, a turn of events that didn’t turn out so well for me.  Without divulging messy details, I can only say that I saw some dark sides of human nature during these months.  It eventually became clear to me that it was time to move on.  My friend and I had a falling out, culminating in my escape from the desert, and the abandonment of my emotional and material investment therein.  The dream, unceremoniously, came crashing down.

My exodus from the desert was, in retrospect, a good and necessary thing.  It allowed me to grow, though I was sorry that it came at the price of a friendship.  We’ve since made amends, and perhaps he is stronger for having faced the “abyss” and returned.  Me, I had a new chapter of life ahead of me.  Because fortunately (and thank the gods!), it seems the old adage is true – when one door closes, another always opens.  During that strange and dramatic period out on the Mesa, I had also met a girl.  My love.  And we soon began our own dream together, on greener pastures with happier endings.  We traveled insatiably, all over the country – first cramped with a dog in a sub-compact car, then later wandering the country again in another van, vastly more comfortable than my last (this one had an actual bed installed – goodbye plywood!)  Nowadays, we’re a bit more sedentary, and we’re saving up to buy another piece of land, our own version of paradise.  So that particular dream, bruised and tangled as it is by the past, does smolder on.  Dreams can be resilient things.

When I think about the mesa – with its population of the untamed, the hopeful and the hopeless, with its bleak landscapes and extreme conditions, its drug-addicts and activists and lost, aging souls – I think about dignity.  Simple dignity, the goal that I believe underlies many of our decisions in life.  It’s the hunt for dignity which pushes us into low-paying jobs and car leases we can’t afford.  It’s dignity we long for when arguing with relatives or fighting alcoholism or talking our way out of a speeding ticket.  And it’s dignity which has me still hoping to one day own my own bit of Earth again, to create a home and a name and a purpose in this crazy, chaotic, beautifully confounding world.

“Without dreams, there can be no courage. And without courage, there can be no action.”

– Wim Wenders


Art and Solitude

1 Jan

Last night, during my wild mild New Years eve carousal, I had my fortune told by a friend at a bar.  Between sips of whiskey-sour, I casually examined some of her colorful tarot cards. They were in their own way lovely and intriguing things, and New Year’s being a night of hope and forward-thinking, it seemed fitting.  For now I’ll leave off the topic of whether I “believe” in such practices and phenomena, as I’m not the sort to make absolute declarations about the many mysteries of our little-understood reality – especially when it comes to the slippery subject of Time.  Really, I find absolutes to be generally bad things, contrary to our innate creativity and the sense of wonder which enables all art and science to succeed.  If I have a personal ideology, it would be the consistent rejection of ideologies in general.  “All I know is that I know nothing”, said Socrates, maybe the wisest thing ever uttered by anyone.
Stop: Hermit Time!

Anyway, my tarot reading was pretty positive, with an exception.  It called for me to seek solitude, to reconnect with my truest self. This was apparently essential for my happiness and success, and according to the cards, my path to good fortune had to be a lonely one.  I looked down at the Hermit card, a robed and white-bearded fellow with a thin walking stick, and thought about my general dissatisfaction with things lately.  I felt a strong and unexpected agreement with the cards’ advice, felt it somewhere deep inside my guts.  Now, this is a tricky thing, as I happen to be in a long-term and happily committed relationship with a lovely lady, and have no burning desire to return to the solitude of bachelordom.  Whatever the cards may say, I could not sacrifice love in pursuit of art – it would be in a way the antithesis of its own goal.  Though it’s true that relationships, for all of their benefits, can certainly strain one’s sense of self, and infringe on the creation of peaceful, mental space.  Add the fact that I work full time and take evening classes, and it’s clear that solitude is not naturally occurring in my present life.  Even when I’m alone, I’m not – I keep company with the distractions of the internet, or an author I’m reading, or the emotional swells of music.  To be “alone”, truly and fully, is harder than it sounds.

Yet when I think of the people I have most admired in history – artists, scientists, “tortured geniuses” of all kinds – they tend to share an appreciation for solitude.  Rilke was a major advocate for it as absolutely necessary to the artist; for the “journey within”, which enables true creation.  Wilde knew it too, and da Vinci, Picasso, Gaugin, and Osho.  Cicero called solitude the pabulum of the mind.  Einstein relished his autonomy and alone time, and would likely not have made half of his achievements without it.  There seems to be a common sentiment that solitude foments the purest creativity and insight, and from my own experiences, I think I agree.  This raises tough questions, as someone who wishes to devote his energy to creation and exploration.  What about love? Or friendship? Do relationships and sociality cripple the creative process?  Can I achieve my best while living in this busy, fully-inhabited life?  Or must I retreat to the cliche cabin in the woods, cut off all distractions and duties, and devote myself fully to art?

Maybe.  There is a lot to be said for full-speed, self-absorbed commitment to a singular process.  But then, there’s also a lot to be said for balance.  Actually, balance seems to often be the answer to existential quandaries in general.  There is, after all, a lot of gray area between Thoreau and Jackie O. (of course in reality, Thoreau was actually very sociable, and much of his hermit-like persona is invented).  I’m looking for that sweet middle-ground between focused isolation and the distracted integration of modern life.  To find it, I believe I’ll have to create a dedicated time/space for creativity, somewhere between the necessary logistics and pleasantries of daily life, a temporary but periodic oasis.  I don’t do well with time-management usually, though I blame that on Time rather than myself, that slippery and mischievous phantom.  But I’ll have to try, and if anyone else out there has struggled with a similar dilemma, this would be my advice.  Perhaps it won’t be enough, but it will be better than nothing.

So today, in this spirit of self-rediscovery, and in search of that uninterrupted contemplation, I wandered about some woods a few miles from home.  I  spent this first day of the new year walking a trail along a steep gorge, resting occasionally to appreciate the babble of the brook and the ominous creak of tall pines bending to the wind.  It was the first time in a long time that I was truly alone, in every sense.   I hiked up and down hills, into groves of bare oaks and across rocky streams.  I needed space to reassess and come to these conclusions; conclusions which may or may not work out in the end.  But at least I feel better.  I suppose that’s a start.