Wednesday, June 30, 2010

long gone

A long time I have lived with you
And now we must be going
Separately to be together.

-- Nancy Wood

She dreamed that they were in a boat together on a calm sea, he at one end and she at the other, under a warm sun, in a mild breeze. The boat was of gold and the sea was of blue.

Then the boat split in two. The sea poured in and both of them were sinking. The parts were still joined by two golden chains. She had golden shears, and she cut the chains with them. The two halves of the boat drifted apart, but as their tracks diverged they both were healed. Each part became a whole; each part floated safely on separate currents. His boat receded, and receded, into a region of cobalt blue. She was enveloped in orange light. She came to a dock, and disembarked. She found that she was in a crowd of people, who looked out with her into the blue – that cobalt blue where he had gone. He had gone to sea, and she had come safe to land. She was not alone in the orange light of evening. Or was it morning? Or was it mourning?

She told me her dream a few days before he died. In the telling, she was already distancing herself from it. The telling of a dream requires what Freud called a secondary revision. And by the time I tell it to you, it becomes tertiary – or maybe quaternary. I’ve already selected the elements and filtered the affect according to my own prejudice. But this, for what it’s worth, is what I see in it.

It is a brave and living dream. This was not her first time; she had loved two husbands, each for a quarter of a century. When the time comes, she will be buried between them. In losing the second, she was living the first loss again. The details came back to her, in a kind of re-presentation called abreaction. She didn’t know whether she could bear it. She asked for help. She told her story.

She didn’t cover her grief. She was doing, I think, just fine. She didn’t cling to him. She wouldn’t be drowned, or let their love be deathly. She cut the chains. The two of them would be safe only if they separated. She let him go to the place where he had to go, and she came back among us.

I’ve never seen such courage. She joyfully paid the price of love. She had broken her heart, and offered it again, and it was breaking again, and she let herself bleed.

And what, I ask, is the alternative? Never to venture from the land, never to feel the sea wind in your face, never to travel on ocean currents that exceed our plans to fix them.

There’s a fairy-tale phrase that we grow up with, but after a time we must grow out of – “they lived happily ever after.” The happy ever after is what comes after the story’s problem has resolved, after the prince and his true love have married. But as grownups know, that is just the beginning of their troubles. Even if their love is true, the course of it cannot run smooth.

I grew up with the “adventures” of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. These were not real adventures. No Nelson ever traveled anywhere. Nothing important ever happened. Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky were stuck in a living death, the happy ever after. They lived to numb themselves; the pitchers of martinis were always just outside the frame. The purpose of the story was to prevent any passion, and offer reassurance to a traumatized public that it’s good enough to venture nothing.

The generation that devised these entertainments and gave them to the children was the one called “greatest,” the generation who, abused by Depression and by War, set out to make a world where adventures were forbidden. They told us their story in movies, in public monuments, and in television network documentaries narrated by war correspondents. These correspondents later became our TV anchormen. We could never match their story, because new stories were against the law – the code of grey flannel suits, of housewives who cleaned house wearing pearl necklaces, and of loyalty oaths. Because our parents had been through hell and partially survived, we were all required to be happy ever after.

Ozzie and Harriet are long gone. In kindness I hope that whichever of them lived to lose the other had a genuine grief. Some say that death is the wage of sin. But grief, I say, is the deposit and the proof of love.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

half ass

Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.

-- Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

So every day I try to do something imperfect, something truly half-ass.

Don’t laugh. It’s not easy.

Because if I leave a thing half done, formless, mediocre, not what it might have been, I hear the voice that says, You could have done better.

The voice doesn’t stop there. You could have done better, and you didn’t. You’re lazy, and if you go on like this you won’t amount to anything. You have limitless potential. You could do anything you want, achieve anything your heart desires. But look where you are, just getting by, just better than average, and that’s not good enough. Do you want to be a – a truck-driver when you grow up?

One could do a lot worse than grow up to be a truck-driver. Two of them in their big rig rescued my daughter in a blizzard. A truck-driver is a small businessman; he makes payments on a massive hunk of capital. Or perhaps he is a skilled employee; a corporation trusts him with that capital. Either way, he looks pretty solid. How would I, a journeyman of genteelly poor professions, look down on such a person?

Though the parable was contaminated with class prejudice, its meaning shone through. If anything went wrong, or even not quite right, it was my fault, because last week or last year I hadn’t worked hard. Good is never good enough. Don’t do the things that are easy for you, get to work on the things that are painful and difficult. Always work harder, because you never know when your slacking off will exact its penalty. Thirty years from now you’ll come a cropper because you slacked off today. And you’ll be sorry.

Don’t ever tell a kid he can do “whatever he wants.” It’s a lie. God made me for some tasks, unmade me for others, and I’m supposed to learn the difference. I cannot be a concert pianist or a shortstop, no matter how hard I might “work at it. I am not a scholar, though I was taught to impersonate one. What was I to become? I’m still working on that question, perhaps because I fell behind in the research.

A popular personality test says I am an “Intuitive Introvert.” “Introvert” means that I know my mind before I speak, not afterwards. “Intuitive” means that I have no study skills, I get it or I don’t. For me there is no process of learning, only god willing a flash of lightning.

So “studying hard” is a kind of fakery, a self-deception and pretense, not the angel’s but the devil’s work. Ah, my wasted youth! I am not one of those who can catalogue the trees until a forest is deduced. Why did I spend so much time studying? O that I had run with the wrong crowd, skipped my classes, lost my virtue, broken hearts (theirs and mine), paid my dues in dissipation and in vice! On my deathbed I shall not wish that I had taken better notes.

In my seventh decade I’m beginning to catch on. The Calvinism of Hard Work is not a godly doctrine, but a dirty trick that Satan plays on the upwardly mobile who fear, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, to fall. Old Nick wraps damnation in a tissue of sulfurous virtue, and we are lured off the rails of our destiny to pick up this pretty bauble of drudgery. Stop the world, I’m going too far too fast, having too much fun! I should be doing heavy labor, pushing that great rock up yonder hill.

The thing that’s really hard to do, and once done leaves you tired and stupid that’s probably not what you ought to be doing. But when you are called to a place, and you are prized for what you never thought were skills, and they are glad you’re there, doing only what is natural to you – in the heart’s silence where no complaint is heard, that is God’s voice, trying to teach you something. This is where you’re supposed to be. This is your talent, knucklehead, live with it. It’s what I fashioned you for. Enjoy. That is your mitzvah.

When the Siren of Unlimited Potential sings, stop your ears against her bourgeois ballad. We do not make ourselves. We were each of us created. For each of us, there is a place we’re supposed to be. To be in any other place, particularly if we’re proud of ourselves for being there, is impiety. “I’m really a song-writer,” you say, “but instead I make a good living lying about money.” Well then, to blazes with you.

Broadway sentiment aside, Quixote was delusional. He wasn’t really supposed to be tilting at windmills. He was supposed to be doing the work of a good man – loving kindness, acting justly, walking humbly. And I’m not supposed to do six impossible things before breakfast. If what I do easily isn’t good enough for you, then to hell with it, and with you. In this time of life, I go where I’m wanted. I do what I can. Because the thing I can do, breathing easily and without noticing my skill – that’s my talent, the gift I am supposed to pass on to you before I lose it.

I was taught to scan the horizon for the thing most painful to do, and then do that. Always getting it right is very difficult, and that’s what I was taught to do. Perfectionists have their uses: they get a lot of things right. So if you want a particular thing done exactly right – if everything depends on it – you should call up a perfectionist. But you may not want to be around while he’s working. Or afterward.

If at the end of the day I’m thinking, I really blew that off, I didn’t concentrate, I didn’t get to the essence, I didn’t finish, I didn’t wrap up all those loose ends – then I close up shop and thank the Lord that I’ve located my daily imperfection. Yes, it’s a mess, I’ll clean it up tomorrow. Or better yet, let someone else clean it up. Who died and left me the Messiah?

They’ll thank you for your imperfection. There’s no one more insufferable than the one who leaves no messes.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

wise ass

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

-- Hamlet

“That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

-- “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Experience is over-rated. Some of life’s lessons you’d be better off forgetting. That’s what therapists are for, I suppose, and resurrections -- forgetting.

It’s a fallen world. The humble are reviled for arrogance, while the arrogant are praised for their humility. Was Socrates a humble man, or arrogant? How humble, to put his ignorance on the table! How arrogant, to think his questions worth reply! How dare you, sir, confess to ignorance! Why didn’t you make something up, like the rest of us? You make us all look bad. Hemlock for you, wise-ass.

Given where I started, I’m amazed to be here at all, doing what I do right now. If I can maintain this vector, there’s no telling what I might yet accomplish. It’s the course of my journey that predicts the future, not my inventory of wisdom and foolishness.

It’s not rocket science. Anybody could do it. I note in my heart’s ledger the ways that I can mess things up. Then I do something different. I learn responsibility by naming the thing I shall not do again. That’s what introspection, examination of life, therapeutic progress, are about – the sorcery of names: if you name the beast you have a chance to disarm it, and to open the portal that it guards.

My teachers say I am a teachable person. I provide, for myself and for my teachers, an inventory of my achievements and disasters, strengths and flaws (nowadays it’s correct to call them “growing edges, since no one’s self-esteem can endure any less than a perfect grade). That’s how one learns to do what one could not do before, what no one (not even one’s friends) thinks one can do.

But gatekeepers are not teachers. They do not deserve one’s integrity. My honest inventory, thrown before the three snarling heads of Cerberus, is so much steak awarded to bottom-feeders. I say, This is where I came from, and this is where I have come to, and look now where I’m going; and they say, That is not what we meant at all, that is not it, at all. Thank you for telling us your faults. We’ve written them down as you told them, and this is now your punishment.

That’s what wannabes do. They close doors, keep you in your place, and confine you to the Egypt that you came from. “Once a slave, you’ll always be a slave. That’s our job.”

Wannabes leave you with a “trust issue.” It’s one of life’s harmful lessons: don’t believe gatekeepers who claim the authority of teachers. Don’t ever “be yourself” with them. Pearls before swine.

This is a lesson you’d be better off without. You must come out of your hiding place, because if you don’t you’ll be a phony, unworthy of trust, a nascent wannabe. Thou canst not then be true to any man. It is only truth that can make us free. We can begin our journeys on no other terrain than the topographies of our selves. If you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where to go.

So you have to forget life’s deathly lessons. Like Scrooge, you must wake up one morning and love again, give again of your substance, offer again your trampled heart, name the beast and open the portal that it guards. That’s what I’m doing right now.

It’s been said that the Jews invented guilt. That’s not quite true. What they invented was responsibility. When the exiles came back from Babylon, they wrote about their Triumph and Disaster, and about their Second Chance. It was a history neither triumphal nor lachrymose. We had the blessing, they said, and we lost it, and it was our fault that we lost everything; and now we’re going to do better.

So when I go to Judgment, this is what I will say.

I’ve messed some things up, Lord. Here’s my ledger, you might have missed a few. I am, as my headmaster used to say, molded out of faults, but faults do not define me any more than bricks define the schoolhouse. Here’s the video; watch my story, and see how far I’ve come. I tell the truth and I’m teachable. I name what I don’t know; I declare what I don’t do well; I tell you what, if I’m not on my game, could go wrong. But notice that, because I name these terrors, things don’t usually go wrong. I’m often on my game.

“I name my faults. It’s the best thing about me, Lord, so deal with it. If You're threatened by my honesty, You are not God.

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