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My House has no Spirits

My house has no spirits.

We don’t ascribe to all that can be read in the many books of feng shui that can be found in nearly any bookstore. I have a few on my own shelves, as well. But even those we don’t follow. Not really.

It seems what is right in one culture is not so in another. What one country, or one people, think is bad luck, not beneficial, may bring blessing in another. I, for instance, very much like exposed beams. The feng shui books tell me to cover them or, at the very least, to place a flute or staff in the rafters. They advise us in the use of fortune corners and love corners and corners for this, that and the other thing.

Nearly none of which we follow.

But we do follow the principles behind these rules, the concept of space and the flow of energy, the movement of people and air, light and sound in a home. And so, our corners are softened with long sticks of bamboo, a didgeridoo or a long flute. None of our furniture protrudes past wall to block a walkway or into a hall, we don’t have our windows covered with furniture. Our kitchen table is not in view of the bathroom. That’s just makes sense if you think about it, but many homes have bathrooms right next to the kitchen. “Excuse me,” you say, getting up from dinner with friends, walking to the bathroom five feet away so the dinner guests can wonder whether that is the kitchen sink or you running. Some guests won’t use a bathroom in view or earshot of the table. And the sound a toilet flushing is so very appetizing.

We do have a mirror in view, up high, at the top of the wall you see as you walk into the house. It confuses spirits who don’t belong in the house. Or so the theory goes.

Spirits. There is the central idea. The spirits of the house. What makes them comfortable and allows the household spirits to live in harmony with the house and the land and the more corporeal inhabitants? Find the answer to that and you have feng shui. And this is what the feng shui books try to tell us with their compasses and diagrams and rules. But the spirits in my house are not Chinese spirits. I need the spirits in my house to be happy, not the ones in China.

But my house has no spirits.

I came to this realization this evening while listening to a television program that had a brief reference to feng shui. It hit me, suddenly and strangely, my house had no spirits. And I started to cry. Just a little, but the tears were there and a deep sense of sadness within.

When we looked at this house, it was what we could afford. It was what we could get financed for. Not too old, newly refitted with the type of contractor-grade carpeting and paint and fixtures one would expect slapped into a home to make it salable. We weren’t blind to that. We needed a house we could move into then, not later, and didn’t have the money just then for repairs.

The house we wanted, twenty thousand more and needed twenty thousand in repairs, felt alive. We wanted it. But we had a month to move in unless we wanted to renew our lease for a year which removed that house as an option. But it was vibrant and alive. It had spirit. Or spirits. Or both.

So we bought the house ready to move into, the one we could afford. We said, before long, we’d make it ours. That was three years ago

So far, we ripped out the carpet. It became stretched and beyond usable within the first year. We cleaned the terrazzo beneath but still have not repaired the nail holes. We painted the master bedroom, but that was a year ago and we still haven’t removed some of the blue painter’s tape. We painted my office. We used the best canister vacuum on all the house’s carpets and floors alike, we had to get this place spotless. We bought a used but comfortable couch but that is it as far as furniture. We had many plans to green the home, to make it more ecologically friendly, but, other than the ducts and insulation, which were paid for by Florida Power and Light, and changing all the light bulbs, we’ve gone as far as we will. We compost, but there is no will to garden here. The plans for green are gone.

Gone also are the plans to close in the carport, to move a wall and enlarge the living room, to screen in the patio so we can enjoy dinner outside. Gone are so many plans I can’t even remember most of them. Many low-cost. It’s not for want of money. We just don’t care.

We don’t even want to put screws back into the light switch. There’s just no motivation. None.

And no spirits either.

We sensed something wrong after we moved in. My wife, perhaps, before we moved in. But we didn’t know quite what it was or even what to do with it. This seemed our only option. We took it.

And it feels strange. We lived in trailers we liked. We kept them well and fixed them, improved them, made the homes.

Our home in Gainesville, smaller than this by far, was alive. The land was alive. The trees were alive. We improved, changed and enlarged that home. Pulled carpet and placed wood floors. Made wood baseboard, hung our cast iron from hooks in the kitchen ceiling, built small wood decks at the front and back doors to catch the dirt as one came in, planted trees, built stone circles, hung parachutes, made gardens. The house was happy. The spirits were happy. We were happy. Still we miss that house.

But here? I think of the houses I have been in through Palm Bay and Melbourne. Some empty and void, some alive. Nice houses empty. Some not so nice ones, full of life. Vitality seemingly having nothing to do with the youth or state of the house.

So what to do? Toward the ocean? To a creek? Across town? We aren’t sure, but something has to change. Soon.

We miss the life. We miss the happy spirits. It’s time to move.

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Posted by on August 5, 2009 in Culture, philosophy, Religion, Social

 

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Seven Questions for Craig Smith

Craig Smith is an author and web designer, a translator to and from dead languages, the well-respected and well-read author of the blog Notes from the Dreamtime, the translator of The Inclusive Bible and a shaman. Even better than that, he is my exceptionally good friend.

Craig has been interviewing interesting characters for some time now. But no one has interviewed him. While I could not believe such an oversight, I sought to correct it. The result is below.

Enjoy.

________________________

Late Monday night, Adam emailed me and asked, “So who’s doing your interview?” I replied that he was the first to offer. On Tuesday morning, these questions appeared in my mailbox. I replied that he was the cruelest human on the face of the planet.

His questions both terrify and exhilarate me, which I guess means they’re good ones.

1. You spend much of your time, it seems, as an editor. Thurber once wrote about editing, “Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, “How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?” and avoid “How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?”

Do you prefer to be an editor or collaborator? Or do you play both roles or either role depending upon with whom you are working?

The latter. It depends entirely on the writer.

A good writer—that is, one who has a strong writing style and a good command of the language—needs minimal editing. Then the task is to find overt mistakes (which the writer in haste simply didn’t notice), and occasionally smooth over rough passages where the writer’s intent doesn’t come through clearly. I am very careful not to change their style, and yes, it’s very much the role of a counselor.

The vast majority of writers fall into a second class. They’re not great writers, they’re just writing as a means to an end. These I take a heavier hand with. For a while I got a reputation for being able to cut a piece in half without the writer even realizing he or she had been edited—”You make me sound so good!” is a comment I’ve heard more than once. For them, I honor the writing style they’re trying to establish, but which they haven’t quite succeeded in creating. For them, I am definitely more collaborative.

Occasionally I come across bad writers. Honestly, I want nothing to do with most of them. I don’t want to read them, I don’t want to correct them, I just want them to go away. A few are on the bubble, and if I like the individuals at all, I absolutely want to show them how I’d approach it if it were my piece.

2. You once traveled, though shortly, rather extensively across the U.S. Whether you were in search of something, drawn by something, or leaving something may be of debate, but travel you did, and you wrote about it rather extensively in your blog before stopping short. Many of your readers might think you stopped before a revelation or just at the point you found a portion of your travel unresolved.

A Zen monk once asked, “It is the same moon outside and the same person inside, so why not sit?” Does location really make a difference or is it the process of transition? What did you gain? What did you lose? What is stuck? Could you have done as well staying at home? Does changing location change the person?

“Many” of my readers? Really?

Did I stop just before some major revelation? I didn’t think I did, but maybe you’re right. I had gone all revisionist on it in my mind; I thought I had stopped writing about the trip shortly before I took that long break between last December and this April, but it turns out my last Big Trip post was in March of 2007. I was shocked when I realized that.

Let’s see, when last I left the story, I had just visited Little Bighorn and was heading toward Bozeman. And I guess I do view Bozeman as the gateway to the most significant part of the journey. It doesn’t feel like I’m afraid to dig deep and expose something important, but my behavior may be telling another story. I’ll have to look at that.

That said, each trip post takes a long time to write. At the time I remember thinking I wanted to do some lighter, faster, easier posts, to take a little break. But you and Indigo have rattled my cage long enough; I’ll have a new Big Trip post next week.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that trip changed everything for me. You know how a lot of people personify Nature, talk blithely about the Web of All Being, and speak of divine immanence as being “the Goddess”? I knew all that, intellectually, but on the trip (somewhere in Washington, if I recall, but I haven’t checked my notes in a while) I had a palpable experience of it.
Does location really make a difference? I have no doubt that it’s possible to have any important growth experience in any number of ways. The same truth keeps knocking on our house until we let it in; sometimes it comes in by the door, sometimes through a window, sometimes down the chimney or up through the floorboards.

But for me, it was important to go out on my own, with two thousand bucks in my pocket (and no credit cards), in a car that really wasn’t all that road-worthy, to follow a quiet but insistent tug in my heart—a “calling,” if you will; to camp out in the national forests and wildernesses, searching for some essentially spiritual experience, rather than trying to go sightseeing; to be utterly alone with my thoughts and the world for an extended period of time. All of which I don’t think I could have gotten sitting at home.

“What did you gain? What did you lose? What is stuck?” Tough questions. I gained an understanding of the living, nonphysical energy that interconnects everything in the material world. I gained a hunger for greater personal and physical freedom. I opened the door just a bit to becoming more authentically myself and less what others expect me to be. I lost a parochial worldview, a limited image of who or what God is. I guess I’m still stuck in Comfortville (I laughed as I typed that, because everything in my life seems the opposite of comfortable): I don’t need to risk my life, physical or emotional, right now. I’m all initiation and no completion. As one of my favorite (and one of your least favorite) poets, T.S. Eliot, wrote:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act . . .
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow.

3. It has been argued that cues for discrimination that are obvious, such as gender or color, are of greater import than those which are not, such as religion or gender preference.
Is this so? Has discrimination affected you and, if it has, has this been your choice to reveal what could be occult and accept the discrimination as burden?

I don’t know that obvious cues for discrimination are of greater import as much as simply inevitable. When you can’t hide, the bigots have a more obvious target.

I came out in 1982, at the age of 26, shortly after my father’s death. I used to describe it as feeling a cloud of judgment over me had been lifted. In time I came to feel that my father had been a convenient excuse for my not being true to myself. On the other hand, when we decide it’s time to make a change in our lives, I think we probably use whatever tool or trigger is at hand to aid us.

For me it was all tied up (as just about everything is in my life) with my spiritual journey. I was wrestling with the realization that the God I knew intimately and the God of conservative theology (and much of society) were in conflict with one another. I knew that my God valued truth in the inner being above all else, so I knew I had to speak the truth about my sexuality even if it meant being damned for eternity: to save God, as it were, I had to be willing to give up God. And the moment I did, I knew that love and acceptance and was the ultimate truth, and nothing else mattered.

I can’t say I’ve faced a lot of discrimination. Some of it is because I’m not terribly fey (though I’m not terribly butch, either), so many people just assume that everyone is straight unless they announce otherwise. And I don’t wear buttons or have gay bumper stickers, and I tend not to announce it unless or until it comes up naturally. On the other hand, I tend to correct people if they make invalid assumptions about me, because (a) it’s nothing I need to keep quiet about, and (b) it’s no big deal. The older I get, the less I care what anyone thinks. To quote that old philosopher, Popeye, I yam what I yam.

In the ’80s, I lost dozens of gay friends or acquaintances—thirty-two to AIDS, one to a gay-bashing incident, two to drug or alcohol abuse. That was pretty awful. And I’ve seen lots of discrimination; I just haven’t been on the receiving end, except for having a few bottles (and epithets) hurled at me. Annoying, but not that big a deal—just some drunken rednecks.

So I don’t feel much of a burden, honestly. I once had a dream in which I was standing at the creation of the world, and God said, “This time, would you like to be straight instead?” I thought a minute then said, “No thanks, I’m quite happy the way I am.” It was a very satisfying dream.

4. Your religious and spiritual experiences are not quite within what we might call the common American experience. How do you define your present spiritual life? How have you come to where you are? Do you find your spiritual life effective? If so, are you more a spiritual materialist than purist—in other words, do you practice to build ego or to gain something, regardless of what that might be, or for the practice itself? Where do you think you are going with it?

I am an animist because I see all natural phenomena as alive. I’m a pantheist because I see God as synonymous with the material universe. I’m a panentheist because I see God as interpenetrating every part of nature and extending timelessly beyond it as well. I’m a Christian because for me Jesus is God enfleshed, and teaches us how we too can become God enfleshed. I’m an adopted Jew, a God-fearer who learned Hebrew to read the Bible in its original language because I wanted to know what YHWH was really saying. I’m a Buddhist because of the life and teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, and the silence, and the kōans, and the still point. I’m a Hindu because I revere Ganesha. I’m a Yoruba because I was visited one night by the orisha Shango, the sky father, the god of thunder and ligntning. I’m a pagan because I honor the natural rhythms of the earth, the sun, the moon.

But beyond all those classifications, I am a shaman, because shamanism, stripped of its cultural overlay, is simply a toolbox. It’s how the human brain naturally accesses nonordinary reality. It’s plugging into the way the body and the psyche can be balanced and healed. And it’s what underlies all human religion and spirituality, the barebones of our Selves, if you will.
How have I come to be here? Wow. I guess it’s just a straightforward process of following where my heart and spirit have led me. I would say it’s a combination of the theological and psychic shattering that my coming out afforded, and working through decades of chronic depression until I came to understand myself and God (or spirit or the Universe or whatever terminology you want to use) and the world in a radically different way.

I’m not sure what an “effective” spiritual life would be. Does it give me comfort or meaning? Yes, definitely. Does it make my life work better? Yes and no. It doesn’t make me more “successful,” particularly as the world defines success, but it gives me tools to deal with many of the challenges I face, and gives me a context with which I can understand the world better. But I can’t honestly say I practice it as a means to an end, as a tool to get something or become something.

It all comes back to that ineffable Call, the music from the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I’m like a dog snuffling the air, forever following the scent, wherever it may lead.

5. We all have traits that are annoying. Some of those traits, when found in another, are deal-breakers and we simply cannot abide them. What traits can you simply not abide in others? Which traits mean “I’ll not deal with that person,” and why? Which traits send you running? Of those traits, how much of each is found in you?

When I was a good deal less self-confident (and those of you who know me well will be rolling on the floor by now, because you know that deep down I am a mouse afraid of his own shadow), I was in a relationship with someone I believe has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One day he gave me a collection of Jane Kenyon’s poetry, and told me to read a poem called “Biscuit”:

The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.

I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.

He didn’t need to say so, but I knew I was that dog to him. And more often than not, I was given a stone instead of bread. Much has changed in me since then, and such cruel treatment—toward me, or toward anyone, frankly—is intolerable, and provokes a fierce reaction from me.
I can’t abide liars, though I understand the impulse all too well: the need to protect oneself at all cost, even when telling the truth might be so much easier in the long run.

And yes, the cruelty and the lying that I hate: both of these are parts of me. I don’t know that I hate them because they are in me; I know that I have worked hard to overcome them in myself, and so perhaps I am like an intolerant ex-smoker. I don’t know.

I am impatient and short-tempered with people who give poor customer service (I used to teach classes in how to go above and beyond expectations when dealing with the public). And I am intolerant of people I call “willfully ignorant,” who seem defiant in their lack of education or gentility. Perhaps this intolerance is a form of intellectual snobbishness, but I hope it’s because I love the language so much that when people abuse it, it’s like spitting on something sacred.
Occasionally I’ll run across people whose “vibe” makes me want to either run away or (more likely) do them bodily harm. I can’t explain it. It’s nothing they’ve done or said, really, or maybe it’s everything they do and say. It’s a reaction so visceral and so strong that I have to step outside myself and say, “What in the world is that about?” So far I haven’t found an answer.

6. Tell me about poetry. You say you are not a poet. Why have you said this?

Payback is so unbecoming, Adam.

I am not a poet because I am clumsy at it. (And don’t tell me that lots of people say they are poets who write perfectly wretched poems. Just because a mouse is in a cookie jar, it doesn’t make him a cookie.) I can sometimes shape prose with enough felicity that it sings; poetry needs a much sparer touch, which I don’t often have. Generally the best I can do is take a prose poem and break it into shorter lines.

What I think I do have is a poet’s heart. I think Deloney is a natural poet, despite the fact that his poems always look like paragraphs. Indigo Bunting sometimes comes up with phrasings that are breathtaking. I can see poetry in words. I can even edit poetry pretty well. But I think my natural element is prose. Maybe I just need a larger canvas to say what a poet can express in a few brush strokes.

7. We each have ways we make others suffer. Most of the time this is inadvertent or, at least, not on purpose. How have you made others suffer? Was any of it purposeful? How have you made yourself suffer? Are you doing so now? How and why? To what end?

I have been cruel. I don’t know if my cruelty made them suffer, or if they just shrugged it off. On the other hand, our actions have far-reaching consequences, and even acts of charity may have caused suffering, while acts of deliberate meanness may have brought someone to a new and better place.

I have certainly wanted to make a few people suffer, to make them feel what they put me (or others) through. I have wanted them to have a taste of their own medicine.
But me—ah, that’s the person I have been the cruellest to, both deliberately and inadvertently. I have a running tape in my head (I guess we have to change that metaphor now, don’t we? No one uses tape for recording things anymore!) that tells me what an enormous failure I am, how I always let everyone down, how I never live up to my potential, how stupid and petty and worthless I am. I think I am starting to hear it as old, worn-out programming, and I am trying to say “No, that’s not true,” and replace it with something that heals those old self-inflicted wounds.

Why is that programming there in the first place? Some of it stems from my childhood molestation. Most people who are abused spend their lives trying not to feel dirty and worthless. Some if it is habit—we keep repeating the things we’ve heard repeated over and over; we don’t question, don’t object. We’re sheep at heart, especially when the critical voice in our head is our own. We just say, “Yes, you’re right,” without questioning it. One of the blessings of meditation is that you get to see your thoughts as just thoughts, without attaching any value to them. You get to look at them dispassionately, then decide if you want to keep them or not. So I’m trying to rewrite the old self-destructive script, and I’m making progress. But I don’t know that I’ll be finished anytime soon.

 
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Posted by on September 19, 2008 in Culture, philosophy, Religion, Social, Writing

 

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Seven Questions for Adam: An Interview by Craig Smith

I’ve known Adam Tritt for a few years now, though it simultaneously feels like forever and no time at all. He’s a kindred spirit with enough significant differences to keep things interesting. His blog, Adamus at Large, is where he publishes essays and poetry. He doesn’t post as frequently as any of us would like, but when he does, it’s an incomparable feast of words and ideas.

(Note from Adam: To make this as authentic as possible, I did no revision and answered all questions given without reservation and as the responses came to me. What you see is what was written the first time. I looked back at not one question. I wanted this to be as conversational as possible and not a prepared document.)

1. Why are you a poet?

I am not a poet. What a strange question. To call myself a poet would be terribly presumptuous and boorish. Not only that, but it would set up an unfair expectation and then I’d have to perform. Sit, Adam, sit. Show the folks how well you poe.

I am not a poet, I simply think metaphorically. I think in metaphors about everything. The contents of the world—whether we believe they originate from within one’s head, are a combination of that which is without and the experiences and expectations from within, or come wholly from within one’s head—always rumble around and find things to connect with. Everything is a metaphor. Since I don’t see terribly well and remember nothing of the visual world, I think in words. So I get a picture or a sound and I make them into words.

Well, enough of that and my head fills up, so I write. I can’t stand not being understood so I revise and revise and revise, cutting out everything that is not meaning because I’d hate for people to think something I didn’t want them to. My goal is to lead them to the same metaphoric feeling and understanding I experienced. By the throat, if need be. By the hand, if I can. Though truthfully, by the throat is much more fun.

The poetic model allows me to do this in a way that is deceptively short so people will read it. Otherwise I’d have twenty-six page essays.

I then put it out there for people to read, on the blog, in magazines, in anthologies, and in my own books, because part of me believes Descartes: I publish, therefore I exist. Besides, I like the fan mail and the undies that get thrown at me.

Of course, none of that explains why I also write twenty-six page essays.

Asking why I am a poet is very much like asking why I have two legs. I can’t help it. I’d have a prehensile tail if I could. My wife would love that. It would be like in Venus on the Half-Shell. But I don’t. So I have two legs. So I think metaphorically. So I put everything into words. It’s burden. It’s a pain. I’m simply built that way. It’s not my fault, I swear. I blame my temporal lobe. I once filled an entire sliding glass door with poetry. I write on my office walls. I write on people if they stand still long enough and give me enough exposed area.

2. Your first public reading was at a clothing-optional event, and you performed in the nude. And you’ve written about your visits to the local nude beach, and clearly have no problem with nakedness. On the other hand, you write about how you wrestle with body image, and seem to feel ashamed when you are battling weight. For me, being fat means I don’t want anyone to see me naked, even though I thoroughly enjoyed my one and only visit to a nudist resort, and am a closet naturist (I’ve even been skinny-dipping in my neighbors’ pool while they’re away, when I go over to feed their cat).

So how do you reconcile that dichotomy? How do you find the freedom to be nude with others even during those times when you feel discomfiture over the way you look?

Because I’m ornery. Because, unlike dancing, which scares me silly and I force myself to do, or parties, which scare me sillier and I don’t force myself to do, reading poetry at a clothing-optional gathering flies in the face of so many conventions I have no choice but to do it. I teach myself my fears are meaningless and my self-judgments are baseless and thumb my nose at society at the same time? Hell, where do I sigh up? Can I do it twice?

You can walk all the fire pits you want, jump out of airplanes hoping the chute opens, bungee-jump from any bridge you choose, but for sheer fright, read your poetry in front of a crowd while wearing nothing but glasses.

I always reserve the right to not reconcile anything. No need. What makes sense anyway? I am about as dysmorphic as a fella can get. I just got over yo-yo binge and starvation. I no longer run three miles because I ate a piece of bread. That ended last Thursday. A friend who knows me better than well (bless you Joyce) will notice the look in my eye as we are out to eat and take away the menu and order for me. It’s insane. And so, through all this, while I thumb my nose at the culture I live in I simultaneously thumb my nose at that part of the culture that lives in me and is discordant with my world-view, or at least the view I would like to have of the world.

In my mind, the more I push this particular illusion, the thinner it gets and, sometimes, I can see clearly through it and know it is untrue.

There is another part to this as well. I want the walls, those illusory walls between self and other, to disappear. I want the illusions to go away. I am happiest when I cannot tell self from other. That is a theme in my writing. That is a theme in my spiritual practice. That is a theme in my massage practice and in hypnotherapy. That is a theme in my life. Maybe I know it is true and I am working to make it happen, to experience it as much as possible and bring that to other people as well. Maybe I am just trying to convince myself that it is so. Which depends on when you ask me.

And let’s be clear—I do not seem to feel ashamed when battling weight. I have, in this area, a self-disgust that is deep and abiding. It’s open 24/7 and never takes a vacation. I am not sure where it came from and I’m not sure when it’s going, but my job, since I can’t seem to shake it, is to be happy anyway. Happy with the world around me. Happy with myself. My job is to thumb my nose, even from within, at anything that keeps me from being happy, at anything that keeps the illusion of separateness alive.

Besides, I am awesomely cute.

3. In both “Funeral, Expurgated” and “My Grandmothers Came from the Ukraine,” you talk about the quandary a writer faces over how much personal or familial information to reveal and how much to conceal or change to protect the innocent (or guilty). David Sedaris, when asked if his books should be filed in fiction or nonfiction, replied, “Nonfiction. I’ve always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale. And if it’s 97% true, I think that’s true enough. I’m not going to call it fiction because 3% of it isn’t true.” And I can’t remember which writer says that the first duty of a writer is to kill his family—that is, write as if there were no one to offend, no one who would be upset if secrets were revealed.

So how have you struggled with the issue of “truthiness” in your writing? And what kind of fallout has there been among friends or relatives when you’ve revealed something that they would rather keep quiet?

Some of what I write falls into the category of New Reporting or New Journalism. Some into creative non-fiction. But, regardless of what I write, I have never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Many have made the mistake of thinking every piece I write is true just because most of it is non-fiction. So the poetry must be as well. Sure, some of it is but much of it is not. Poetry can be creative storytelling just as much as any other type of writing. My daughter never gathered angels in a field. My wife never complained about her life over coffee as I dreamed of moving west. But with few exceptions, what I write is based on the amazement of that which makes up everyday life. So I did almost hit a wall while she was changing in the passenger seat and the monk did make the spoon stick to his nose. But just because most of it is true does not mean it all is. I reserve the right to tell a story from time to time.

Given that, those who read me know if you see a name in the essay, the account is true. Percentage? If you see a name, it happened. If you see my name, I reserve the right to make my life what I choose it to be. If that is after the fact, then that is just fine with me. My memory is fluid.

That said, there are some things I just don’t write. I don’t write things I feel will hurt a person or compromise them in some way. I have made that judgment incorrectly from time to time but I never set out writing knowing what I am putting down will hurt. I can’t do that. It’s not in me. Even if the person has done me harm, I won’t.

There is so much out there to write. There is no need.

As far a narrative therapy goes, that is the truest account, the most full exposition I can manage. Your example of “Funeral, Expurgated” is narrative therapy. So is “The Shadow.” I write them so fully, so completely there is nothing left inside and, in the end, the content is all without and not within.

Many fail at narrative therapy and are sure it does not work. But they just write it once and get it out in the immediacy of the moment. That is ineffective. To work it must be revised and revised and revised again, experienced over and over in the writing, pared down, blown up, filled and emptied until it is all truth as you see it, until it reads like drama and feels real to one and all. Then, and only then, is it out.

In the essay you mentioned I spoke about the potential fallout a writer can experience and the fear that can engender. My wife, I mentioned in the first paragraph or two, said she cannot grasp the bravery of writing in tha manner. Sometime, neither can I.

But I did not think I wrote anything that would hurt anyone. As my daughter had pointed out, if they thought what they did was wrong or embarrassing, then why did they do it? One would think they felt their actions just fine and so why not record them?

But I did hurt some feelings. After it was out for a while my mother calls with some confusing story about an email and a letter and whatnot. It took me quite a while to put the bits together and figure out it was about the essay. The feeling was, I gathered, that I had aired the family’s dirty laundry in giving the blow-by-blow account of the funeral days.

I have a very small family. Now, it is much much smaller.

4. A casual reader of your blog may be confused about your spiritual inclinations. Are you a Buddhist? A Jew? A Unitarian? A Pagan? How do you reconcile all your disparate beliefs? Or are they really disparate after all?

I am a Jewitarian Buddhaversalist Pagan. What could be more clear than that? I follow the shamanic elements in Judaism as well as in Buddhism but find Buddhism and Judaism are quite similar in their emphasis on tikkun and right action.

I am, of course, a panentheist. But I am also a solipsist and once attended a convention of solipsists where we spent the entire weekend trying to figure out which of us it was.

I spent ten years studying with the Center for Tao and Man. Master Ni told me I had the cosmic egg. What difference what I call it? OK, so I am a Taoist. I follow the watercourse way and sometimes that flows through Judaism and sometimes it washes me into the Thai Buddhist Temple where the abbot explains to me the deeper meaning of the Kol Nidre.

After many years of attempting to reconcile seemingly disparate paths, I have stopped any attempts at reconciliation. The result is that all things now seem much more similar and it becomes more and more difficult to see the space between them or recognize there are differences.

Besides, name one cantor who does not like to be accompanied by a rattle or drum.

5. Tell me about turtle shells.

[Note: I had a turtle shell that I brought out whenever I did any group shamanic work. Every time Adam was present, he clutched the shell as if it were a talisman or protective shield. And when I do energy work with him, particularly when I use quartz or amethyst crystals, he seems to find the shell soothing, since my energy feels “edgy,” for lack of a better word. It became clear one evening that the shell wanted to go and live with Adam.]

The carapace is the dorsal, convex, magical part of the shell structure of a turtle, though a turtle would argue it is concave. It consist primarily of the ribcage which is a strange concept because there is never any chance of the ribs escaping. The spine and ribs are fused to bony plates beneath the skin which interlock to form a hard shell when blue and yellow make green, locking freshness in. Exterior to the skin, the shell is covered by scutes, horny plates that protect the shell from scrapes and bruises. Underneath they are made of backhoes.

They are alternately named Don, Horace, or Filbert.

They are not like crystals at all.

They go wonderfully with a cup of papaya juice and Northern Exposure.

One called to me for a year before it ended up coming home with me.It was playing hard to get.

If you lie one on your stomach, you might not have seizures.

Turtles don’t mind.

6. A dear friend of mine named Geralyn said an old chum once told her, “You know what’s so wonderful about you, Schulz? You can’t sing worth a damn. But it never stops you!”

I know you love to listen to music—music of all genres, music that makes you think and feel, with a smattering of Broadway just for good measure—but I think you like making music even more. Singing for the joy of it.

I remember a workshop you conducted on chanting. It was something everyone could do even if they couldn’t carry a tune. And there’s that wonderful Yom Kippur piece you wrote where you imply that chant and prayer and incantation are different aspects of the same thing.

So what does singing give to you, or do for you, that other forms of creativity do not?

Everything sings. The Earth sings from beneath and around us. Everything on/in/apart of it sings. We come out of the Earth and go back into the Earth and, therefore are never apart from the Earth, and so we sing. Any part of a whole carries the nature of the whole. So I do a whole lot of singing.

I think everyone should. And, no, it does not matter if the person can carry a tune. Sing. We are made of an Earth that sings and it is a function of our bodies. We get caught in subjective notions of quality which we mistake for objective ones and which we then assign value to. People do not sing because they are not good at it. But we do many things we are not the best at. We don’t see people refusing to walk because so many other people do it so much better. So sing.

Music reconnects me to all that is around me. I can disappear as a separate entity—the illusion of disconnection evaporates—when I sing. When I am singing with others in harmony there is an experience that is ecstatic, in what I feel is the true sense of that state: I am outside of myself. The harmony creates a larger sound that is made of but is not simply the voices that create it. The harmonious vibration is larger than the sum of the voices. Larger and different. And that applies holographically from the macrocosm to the microcosm, and fractally from the microcosm to the macrocosm.

What is it that vibration does not do, is not made of? I remember someone wrote somewhere in some well-known book something about “In the beginning there was the word; the word was in God’s presence, and the word was God.”

Names, sounds, create things. And it is the naming that creates separation and, therefore, identity. It is my feeling that what wounds can also heal, and sound heals. Singing heals. Music heals. The cantor sings to the congregation the holy words. We chant holiness. Incantations create. All is sound.

Other forms of creativity are, for me, secondary. They are derivative. They pale. To learn to write I took music classes. My writing exists because I do not play an instrument well.

7. I actually went back and reread every single entry in your blog this evening. I teared up at a few, but mostly I smiled. Or sighed. I am honored to know you.

One of my favorites (though to pick even a Top Five would be next to impossible) is Day of the Manatees. There’s a quote by Henry Beston that we both like—in fact, we’ve emailed it to one another, forgetting that the other had already sent it to us—that goes:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

If you’re a panentheist, then you believe that God (however you define the concept) interpenetrates every part of Nature. My friend Tim has a wood carving of a fish; on the side is painted the word COD, except that the bottom of the C curls in just a tad too much, making it halfway between a C and a G. It’s the God Cod. (Or, for the dyslexic, the Dog Doc.)

Speaking of dogs, here’s my second favorite zen kōan: A monk asked Zhàozhōu, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Zhaozhou answered, “Wú!” (Wú means “no” and “non-being,” and is also the sound of a dog’s bark.)

There doesn’t seem to be a question in there anywhere. Hmmm.

How’s this: Manatees. Dogs. Cod. Us. God. If all our separateness is maya—illusion—then do manatees bark, and does God swim in Turkey Creek?

Hafiz tells us:

Ever since Happiness heard your name
It has been running through the streets
Trying to find you.

And several times in the last week,
God Himself has even come to my door—
Asking me for your address!

If God can come to my door, I am sure God can swim in Turkey Creek.

 
 

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Gallipolis

We are driving out of Charlestown, WV. It is nearing four in the afternoon and my son and I have spent our day walking through the city. I have been walking. My son has been dragging. Sometimes a sinker, sometimes an anchor but never a balloon. Never a kite.

This is, on a Saturday, an amazingly vibrant small city. There is a literacy festival at the library, jammed bookstores all over, a chili festival along the waterfront, kids playing in public fountains as though they were waterparks. Families stroll slowly through the June early afternoon along the streets and riverfront. We have walked downtown, the capitol complex, seen The Mountain Stage, the Museum of Art and Folk Art. Everywhere people. From this small city I had not anticipated such a density of activity. I’d never had expected to see such life.

No more than I would have expected to see the dollies. So many people, for lack of working legs, pushing themselves along by gloved fists against the pavement. Some lack legs so fully I am reminded, uncharitably I admit, of a cartoon I had seen many years ago of a crowd of legless bayou frogs, all pushing themselves on dollies, with one asking another what he wanted for dinner. “Frog legs.”

We see so many fist-driven four-wheelers that, after the first few, we feel the need to take tally. Seventeen – after we started to count. We move twelve miles through this city in six hours, despite a lack of our dollies all our own, and have been having a wondrous day. At least I have been. My son – my son, at 14, is having his own experience.

We are ready to head out. Our target is Ohio, Gallipolis specifically, and our goal is to get there before dark with enough time, this Summer evening, to find a room and stroll the town before the sun sets. Gallipolis, for no good reason other than someone having told me it was close enough to our destination – P.S.G., Pagan Spirit Gathering – that we can stay overnight and drive an easy pace the twenty miles to the Wisteria gate by nine. Time enough to ride behind the Amish buggies and enjoy the experience and the word patience need never come to mind.

We drive west along I64, out of Charleston, crossing the river over humming tangles of black-girdered bridges looking for I35 – the closest way across the Ohio, the easiest way to Gallipolis.

My son is mapmaster. This has not worked as well as I might have liked. I had thought map reading might be genetic. The only genetic tendency expressing itself at the moment is that towards frustration.

I glance over and look quickly at the map, unfolded on my son’s lap, as I drive. Taking another quick look away from the road I see his frown, his furrowed forehead, eyes turned toward at each other. The highway numbers are upside down. So are the names of the cities. Perhaps there are one or two other genetic tendencies expressing themselves we shall have to look into upon our return home.

I have been reading maps nearly as long as I have been reading words. I am fascinated by them. Where do the roads go, where do they start? I liked my late nights to extend far into the early morning tracing routs from origin to end. When our family took trips, I was in charge of the map, navigating from the front passenger seat. Exactly where my son is now.

We have a year old Rand McNally atlas, purchased not many months ago. I prefer actual maps to printed directions. Mapquest and Google can only go so far. What if we wish to change routs, see what we can see, drive where we might? What an interesting name. Look, there is a cave just ahead. See, there is a gorge down that road. Off we go. With an atlas I can find my way back again, back to the beaten track from off, back on the path and on to our destination. No loss. All gain.

We find our way, road upon road, I-64, I-35, headed toward the Ohio River, to cross into the state of that same name. As we approach the Silver Bridge at Point Pleasant there appears to be something missing: the bridge. There is no bridge. Now, there is the pitted rampart to the river edge, battered pillars from the water surface, confused us to the end of the road. What was, is not.

We pull over, parallel to the Ohio and perpendicular to where we had every reason to expect a bridge entrance which would continued onto a bridge.

The map. It shows a bridge. The land begs to differ. The water – a clear expanse bridge-free to the Ohio bank. Do not mistake the map for the territory.

We ask. The bridge fell down. Recently? No. 1967. Have you ever heard of the Mothman? Seen the movie? No. The one time it might have done me some good to have paid attention to popular culture.

A bridge, off the Earth thirty-five years, still on the map. If you can’t trust Rand McNally, who can you trust?

We travel further south, a half hour more distant of our evening’s destination, to where another bridge is shown, fully ready for that to be gone as well but gone it was not. It exists, as the map shows, and over the Ohio we go. Once on the other side, we follow the river again and Gallipolis is near.

It is small, sparse, quiet. We drive past the fringe Wal-Marts and K-marts, pass by the motels on the outskirts and plunge into the town itself. That is our goal: to find a room where we can park the car and spend the evening walking to dinner, walking to the shops, walking, walking, walking and no driving need be done. My goal. My son’s goal fixed firmly on tomorrow morning. That the youth exist in the here and now and age dwells in the past and future is cliché, not axiom.

We find one hotel. Just one that fits our bill. Just one in town. The William Ann. We could not happier. Older, quaint, friendly and directly in the middle of the town. We put our bags and baskets in the paneled room and set out for a walk.

Dinner comes from a small local grocery store we stroll past. We are stunned by the contents. It is appointed very much as one would expect a small grocery in the inner-city: no fresh vegetables, a deli counter of prepared animal or creamed products, a surprising amount of space devoted to chips and breads, sodas and snacks. We purchase some sandwiches and two apples well past their prime and eat as we walk into the town commons.

In the middle of the commons, on the southern side, the side closest to, within a stone’s toss of, the Ohio River, is a statue that commemorates the bringing of yellow fever to the town and the fifty-seven killed when the disease made landfall in 1878, brought by the doctor who was on that south-destined barge specifically to treat the disease already being carried by those on board; people looking for a new, better life downstream. An agent of mercy, he boarded it upstream so the victims would not need to disembark for treatment or supplies and risk infecting others. Until all aboard were well, only he would have the infrequent necessary contact with the off-barge world.

The rudder arm broke and the ship drifted ashore at Gallipolis. So did the flavivirus.

A four sided post about five feet high, each side is inscribed. One side tells us it is in memory of the yellow fever victims, another has the fifty-seven names on it, yet another lists the barge crew and another side tells us who bestowed the memorial upon the town. Atop the post is the rudder arm. That I know of, this is the world’s sole memorial to viral hemorrhagic fever.

The Scioto Company ran an ad in Paris attracting middle-class French to America with cheap Ohio land. They bought the deeds, sold their goods, and made the long voyage to America and into Midwest. They found nothing. No homesteads. Worthless deeds. It was 1790 and they petitioned President Washington for land. They got it in The French Grant. On the Banks of the Ohio River. Gallipolis. City of the Gauls.

The town failed to thrive. Mining did not quite take off, agriculture was a plan that came to little in an area more swamp than soil.

In 1818, a few families from Wales set sail from Liverpool to Baltimore and traveled by horse and cart to Pittsburg. Tired of the trials of over-land travel, they opted to trust themselves to the Ohio River, counting on it to take them the rest of the way to Paddy’s Run – a frontier town near Cincinnati.

The barge would abruptly, constantly, run aground on the shifting sandbars of the river. The men would jump out onto the dissipating sand and often require rescuing.

The journey taking longer than anticipated, and needing to reprovision, the water-borne pioneers set ashore in Gallipolis, a settlement then with fewer than one thousand people and barely hanging on.

Everyone got off the barge for a night on dry land. Fresh and full, they would shove off again the next morning.

The stories run two ways. Townsfolk got the bright idea the Welsh provided an immediate increase in the population, workforce and gene pool and, like it or not, would be staying in Gallipolis.

The other story is the Welsh women, tired of the river, fatigued from life with no home, weary of seeing their husbands and sons risk their lives, conspired to make Gallipolis their final destination.

Either way, the next morning, the barge was gone. All that was left ashore was a bit of rope.

And five new families.

It is dusk and the summer light is fading. Alek is asking for food again. We walk back toward The William Ann and to the malt shop across the street. It seems everyone is here. The outside is packed and, from a distance, the crowd hides the glass walls but, as we approach, we see through the people, through the panes, the inside is packed as well. We enter and get in line.

He has a milkshake and fries. We linger and he eats. The end of his long day. We go back to the hotel but I am not done. I want to walk some more. As he watches TV, I set out again.

There is music in the dark. I walk parallel the river. There is a wedding and the music is heard blocks away as a party is held under canopies beside a church. I walk on, walk by, music fading. The street ends and I come upon the bank of the Ohio.

I had passed slips and docks but they did not draw. The bank, though: the bank, the natural boundary, does.

It is a slope. Grassy and steep in the dark, I am drawn to the bank, to the brink where land ends and water begins. Through the trees.

There, in an opening between the trees. Steps down through the thick. It opens out. I enter a field of stars before the watery black.

Grass, trees. Fireflies. More than I have seen in, perhaps, all my childhood years together. All my adult life since. Flittering light, bright movements of starlight on wing. Filling the grass, trees, bushes, hovering over the ambiguous bank.

And there is a swing. To the right, hanging from a tree, next to the river, a smooth board on two knotted ropes. I sit, rock, glide. I am a body in motion, surrounded by light.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2007 in Family, History, Nature, Travel

 

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I am a Shaman, Perhaps

I am a Shaman, Perhaps.

I have been journeying for many years. Perhaps centuries and perhaps longer. If I count this life, all common life as we understand it, as a middle-world journey, longer still.

I am a Shaman, perhaps. I have not the confidence to say for sure. I have not the patience or the compassion to give that patience to myself. Such is the work of my life; to learn this compassion, this patience and this trust in myself. Several lifetimes perhaps. I am diligent. Perhaps too much so. Such has been the work of many journeys and soul-retrievals.

I am a Shaman, perhaps. Far too many coincidences lead me to feel that what has been occurring has been something more than coincidence. Far too much has worked; far too much has fallen together instead of fallen apart.

I met a fellow: a shaman. I introduced people to him, one at a time. Asked him to come here or there, brought people with me. The Universe ordered itself and I am here as the tool of this, as the messenger.

I am a Shaman, perhaps. Part of that is wondering if what I do is real. Even if I start deciding to make up my journey, without fail it comes to fullness in fruit common to those with whom I travel and so it must be we are part of the same tree, our journeys from the same root. And so it appears what we create and what is are also of the same root. All from this world and so what is within is without. And the question is begged: not that is everything we see in a journey real, but is anything we make up not? Is imagination simply a way of seeing non-ordinary reality?

I think, I feel, in some ways I live in non-ordinary reality ordinarily. In so many ways my life is a blessing of uncommon circumstance. Among those blessings are the people with whom I am journeying. Such a group as this has come together around a drum or two and lying still in our bodies while our far flung minds travel where they will, visiting with power animals, guides, finding bits of self, restoring them to those we love, those we have never met, and to ourselves.

Such a group as this has more in common than we immediately imagine. We journey, find the same places, the same symbols. We think it a creation and then find our report duplicated again and again by those who did not hear what we had to say.

We have our pasts in common: similar experiences, dreams, childhoods and the
hallmarks of Core Shamanism. We are of a kin.

We’ve had our heads off, limbs off, skin off. We’ve had our psyches stripped and put back and here we are together.

I trust those with whom I journey. I am comfortable with them and with two in particular with whom I know I am safe and well. They are part of the non-ordinary blessing of my life and with one I feel the most comfort and safety. I listen to these people and they listen to what I have to say. One of them I believe. That I do believe is an amazement to me.

I start my journeys with jokes and attempts at humour. They disappear as I fall into comfort and remember I’ve nothing to protect.

This last evening we start with introductions and I do not participate and
inadvertently create the tenor of the evening as we, instead, introduce each other. We each in turn are told who we are, what others feel about us, know about us, love about us. I can do this with others and do so easily, with facility. There is truth to be told and joy in the telling.

And yet I wonder, from time to time, should a thing be said? Will it be understood? Will I be understood? These are constant worries of my life and on evenings such as this I can give them up, put them aside and say what is right and just and true. On nights like this there is no need for fear.

Some speak of me matter-of-factly, state what I do well, speak from an illusion of objectivity, speak from the brain and the mind and some speak of me emotionally, from the truth of subjectivity, speak from the heart and gut. The entire time I look down, stare elsewhere, cannot look at people, feel discomfort as I feel loved and feel the paradox that is a shamanic life.

Our journey starts and I take out my drum: a frame drum of birch and horse, it was made for me by a woman who invited me to a sweat lodge where she suddenly decided she was bashful and we had to remain fully clothed. The fabric left burns on my skin as I asked for the strength to forgive those who hurt me as I suffered, my skin portraying the marks of their absolution.

I forgave myself for my trespasses against myself and for those against others as the burns deepened. I was ill that evening and the next day. A week later she tried to convert me to be a Christian. I said no thank you and she said she could no longer speak with me. As my drum was a tool of Satan, she could not accept money for it and I could keep it. I had yet to pay for it and she would accept no money.

We start a slow heartbeat rhythm and my drum thrives on this. I drum, another drums on one slightly smaller and another on one much, much larger.

We decided to work on ourselves: a night to allow the healers to heal. But, unlike other nights, we do not ask others to do the work but instead agree to work on ourselves, to plumb our own depths. If work comes up for others, it is fine and well and a blessing but we will work on ourselves, learn to give to ourselves so we can carry on for the community.

In the recent past we have worked on each other, doing soul-retrievals. We have collected and returned bits of flowers, watched bats brought back home, seen colours snuffled up. In a few of us, this reintegration has brought a re-evaluation of our places in life. Of our lives and of life itself. Some have been sad, some depressed. I have been depressed, thought much of death as inevitable and comfortable. So another has thought of death but not comfortably and has sounded scared and sad for the first time since I know her. I try not to say anything but seeing her in such a way leaves me feeling sad as well. But in a conversation, she tells me what she has read.

If in the process of reintegrating one’s life, one thinks, what would appear to others, too much or too long on death and life, what then is the proper occupation of one’s thoughts? What may we think is more important as we put our lives back together from the bits and pieces taken by our everyday existence? A million little deaths are brought back home and slowly rematched with our ongoing life. Is it any wonder the simultaneous turbulence and calm which follow?

She told me this. I feel she is right. I listen to her. She is one of the few I do. And with our conversation I know the sadness will pass; hers and mine.

The larger drum is liquid, languid. At this slow pace it swims in its own vibration and I lay in the fluid, stuck. Soon, the oceanic drum drops and we are left with the two others and I drop as well, into a habitrail of tunnels and think what am I doing here? I should be in temple of the Amidah and then I am in my temple: the temple of my brain, the amygdale. I spend time there connecting and disconnecting bundles of neurons as seems the need. I move to the corpus collosum and do the same and my shaking slows, seizures decrease.

I am my own brain surgeon and soon, the drumming comes to an end though, since I am drumming, I am not sure how this has happened.

We talk. The slow rhythm is conducive to going within ourselves and working on ourselves and such was successful. We share our experiences.

We do this each time we work. Some of us find ourselves alone, find ourselves hanging, dead, discover ourselves fleshless. We find our power and sometimes our weakness and often, they are he same.

Tonight some of us discover our fears and some our powers and again, for many, they are the same.

We go ’round the circle and tell our stories. Each different yet each so very similar.

And we start to drum again. This time faster; nearly twice the speed of the first time. The larger drum feels at home and the smaller drums do as well and I drum, fall into my hole and am told my job now is to get up and drum. Drum for the others; drum to shake off the matter, to loosen that which is stuck.

I drum over my son, stand there, holding the beat for more than five minutes. I move to drum for others, standing behind them, before them. I and see their hair shake in the compression waves. I am moved here and there, directed where to stand, in what direction to drum, told who needs the energy and for how long

I stand behind the big drum and beat into it, amplifying my own drum, smoothing a sound of multiples into that of one. My journey this time is of service and I feel at home and comfortable and I know, in a sense, it is where I belong and, in another, it is an escape.

Again we share. Again, we are a group on a similar path. Some need contact, some need to be touched here or there. Some need a tear or two to be shed.

We end, drink coffee, plentiful through our entire evening, eat apples. We have been here since seven. It is quarter ’till twelve and we have traveled much further than our five hours would suggest. And this time was real and important and full of life. I think of this as I ready to leave and look forward, already to the next time we journey together.

I will journey before then.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2006 in Religion

 

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My Friend and the Eternal War

Joseph is a soldier. He joined the war before he was old enough and, with faked papers, became a sniper. If you ask Joseph, he has been a soldier as long as he can remember, in his past lives, in his present life even though he is a father, is no longer in the military, cooks, cleans, is a massage therapist. Joseph is still at war.

War follows Joseph. He is randomly shot at, challenged, fought. He is six-four. Impressive. Imposing. Intimidating. Still, things happen to Joseph. Violent things. Hateful and hurtful.

Joseph feels this is normal. Others shake their heads, look with disbelief. To who else do such things happen on such a regular basis? In Melbourne, Florida? Fort White and Gainesville, Florida?

I suggest we get what we expect. Become magnates for what we carry, create our worlds within.

Joseph eschews help, picks up a washing machine by himself, hurts his back, bemoans his misfortune.

I want to fix this but can’t. Joseph is capable of so much compassion, care, kindness. He is the most moral of people, trustworthy. In constant battle.

It is a Saturday night. We have met at Craig’s house to sing, talk, drink coffee, enjoy each other’s company. Evanne, Jack, Beth, myself. We will create sweetness in an evening with our company, our voices. A fat songbook, a dulcimer. It is an evening of pleasantness planned after a difficult week and I know, now, Joseph is coming and the evening will change.

He will talk of war. He will talk over the singing, needing to be heard. There will be bodies, bombs, special forces, politics, shrapnel, combat. I will sing “Peace” by Tom Paxton and he will shout over it about soldiers having body parts cut off, hung in show.

Coffee is served. No-one makes coffee like Craig. He has Kahlúa and Baileys Irish Cream and I ask him if he would not mind preparing my coffee. If I make it, it will not taste the same. He does, smiling, unsatisfied until it is perfect. I appreciate Craig. More and more, as a matter of fact.

We sing, Evanne and I. Joseph comes with his family, long-time friends; beloved, respected, treasured but not always an easy friendship. “Lemmon Tree” is sung in two part harmony and it is sweet, melodic. My voice blends with Evanne’s well and creates one of my favorite sounds. She tells me she cannot sing but her voice in song is a sound of water falling from a height, of children playing at a distance, the sounds of a night-forrest. In harmony it is the sound of peace, the tones sing of friendship, they capture comfort, give it back for all to hold. Suddenly we cannot hear ourselves and Nicaragua is recreated in Craig’s living room. Or it is El Salvador? I use to know this.

I pick up my dulcimer and play “The Water is Wide.” The lap dulcimer is not a loud instrument. I am straining to hear it over a story of conflict, a history of a secret violence. Evanne is singing “Savage Daughter” and I am attempting to learn it on my dulcimer as she sings, but I cannot here the notes over the grenades.

Jeannette, Evanne, Craig and I are singing a shaker hymn, then “How can I keep from Singing”, we try a showtune and always over the notes is a cacophony of gunfire, wounded, the taking of bullets. Hymns of peace in combat with combat.

I think I should be more compassionate, but this is a constancy. At some point, compassion must include oneself and I have heard this as an ongoing saga of bluster and fear. He may be re-deployed. He may have to serve again. I keep my own counsel and say nothing. I only sing louder.

I then do that which I perhaps should not. My birthday is soon. Soon. Joseph is, of course, invited. I could not think of not having him there. I tell him, over his voice, interrupting, next Saturday, there is no talk of politics. I agree with everything he says and still, no talk of politics. My muscles are tight, my stomach hurts. I wish to celebrate my birthday with the living, the breathing. I wish for the dead to be at peace just for a few hours. I pick up my dulcimer and slip it into its bag.

I know we deal with violence. In order to handle violence, we must have a place of peace to hold fast. We can hold it in ourselves. If we can keep peace in ourselves, we bring it into our homes. If we can all bring it into our homes, each home, we have brought it into our neighbourhoods. If we have done that…

And so I should have been able to have handled it, let is flow in and through but it is a practice. It is not perfect. I am not and I spoke up for the first time in a decade. More than a decade.

Last year at my birthday, we were eating cake to stories of street violence, martial arts demonstrations, paramedic episodes. Space around Joseph became wide. In a small apartment, a large man took up more and more space, a wider swath. Is he always like this, I am asked. Yes, he is. He tells me he would take a bullet for me. I have no doubt. I would for him. No question. What I can’t do is take another night of death stories.

It is not that war did this to him. After all, he chose to go before he was of age. This is inside Joseph.

His answer? He will not show up. He will not come to my birthday. He chooses his dead over the celebration of my life. I am more sorry than hurt.

The stories continue. People leave. Joseph wonders if he chased them away. Apologises to Craig.

It is three am. I cannot sleep. I walk into the backyard and hang bamboo shades. I wonder if I should have held my tongue. When is kindness not kind? And what is kindness when it comes to Joseph?

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2006 in Culture, Social

 

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