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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

where we come from & where we're going.

I am greed. 

I live in your very cells, a genetic response to the monumental struggle to possess and maintain possession over vital resources. Back when you were closer to animal than human, I controlled you.

A social attitude, born of a need to survive as a family, then a tribe, then a nation. Back when you were closer to warriors than diplomats, I controlled you.

I am a feeling you cannot quite shake. You are beholden to me, to the push I represent. I am there, in your conscience, in your gut, in your lungs. I urge you to take, and never to give. Now, in this moment, I control you.

---

The human body is a response to the choice of two other human individuals to conceive a child. The human personality is a response to the choice of many individuals to create a culture. The human being is mostly a product of social and environmental factors. The human being lives because of others, loves others, hates others. The only constant in our interactions with the world is otherness. We are here, secluded in ourselves, each of us a house undivided. But as a family, a community, a country, or a planet, we are dependent on our relationships with those other houses.

And yet we are beset by a mindset, one that perhaps is not entirely our fault, that breeds in us a terrible fear. We are afraid of not having enough, of dying from starvation, thirst, lack of shelter. We are afraid of social rejection, of poverty, of finding ourselves at the bottom of a hierarchical social structure. These fears are born from our needs; we must, first and foremost, as natural creatures, protect and sustain ourselves.

The reality is that the only lasting way to ensure our own survival is through interdependence. Each person is, at the beginning of their lives, a dependent. And most people, at the end of their lives, are dependents. We spring forth from others, and we rely throughout our hundred or so years on others to give us food, water, shelter, respect, love, and community.

And herein lies the difficulty. Animals want to be independent; they want to amass for their own use the things which make their lives possible. We are animals, and the world we have built is an animal one. We take for ourselves, and we give much less often than we take. We cluck our tongues in sympathy over the starvation and oppression in the Third World, and then we go home to our spacious First World houses in our spacious First World cars. We eat large First World meals, and then we eat large First World desserts.  But the next day, when confronted with pictures of children in sub-Saharan Africa, with the staggering numbers of people dying of starvation in North Korea, with the terrible reality of violent regimes and unjust wars throughout the world, we cluck our First World tongues. And nothing more.

Now, I will be the first to freely admit that people in the developed and very wealth nations in North America and Europe do a lot of good for the rest of the world. And I am not up on my soap box reciting the Communist Manifesto. I, myself, lead a comfortable First World life, and I, myself, often fall victim to the desire to grow complacent. And at the core of that desire is greed. Greed whispers in our ears You first, and it brings to mind all the things we want when we go to the "Donate Now" tabs on the websites of UNICEF, Free the Slaves, World Vision, and all the other countless charities that work to make the entire planet a First World.

We are people, and inevitably people need others. We cannot go on living the way we are: destroying the environment, celebrating success above all else, and growing increasingly apathetic to tragedy and death. We are products of the world we come from, and if greed is allowed to run that world, we will eventually be products of greed, and nothing else.

So, I propose a solution. It is small. It may you cost you money; it may cost you time and effort; it may cost you a bit of discomfort. But it is necessary. I call all of us, myself included, to critically assess what we value, and to whom those values useful. If profit comes at the expense of peace, perhaps profit is not valuable. If comfort comes at the expense of life, perhaps comfort is not valuable. If financial security comes a the expense of human dignity, perhaps it is not valuable.

And above all, when you take for yourself, remember to give something to someone else.

We must define the world that defines us.

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.
-michael

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

mountain climbing with a monkey on your back

The ache in your legs in unbearable; its heat mirrors the cacophony of torches exploding behind your eyes. The monkey, black and snarling, hangs off your shoulders, its overlong nails cutting fiercely through your sinews and tissues; it raps on the bones, making a percussion at once terrible and beautiful,  but beautiful only to you. You know that to others it would be garish. You know that it is garish, and you want it to end.

The mountain before you is perfect, the quintessence of mountains. Its slopes are exact, its point glistens in the milky rays of the moon, also perfect. You have come so far, so close to collapse, or worse, time and time again, but here is the mountain. And here are you, at its base. It is not cold yet, but you know it will be, and your clothes are rags. Your mother once sang you a lullaby about a ragamuffin stealing bread, and now you know what it means; you understand why the ragamuffin steals, why the ruffian bites, why the tycoon sneers. It is the monkeys, the hordes of aping warmongers, seemingly ageless, that ride their backs tirelessly. You understand them now, as -- certainly -- you finally understand yourself.

Go, the trees command you. And you do; step by step, you begin to scale the mountain. Your hands slip, covered over with grime and sweat, but your feet do not falter. And all the while that terrible tapping, that horrendous display of fireworks behind your eyes. The need that you cannot satiate, the need that drives you higher and higher is enigmatic. It does not matter what I seek, you hear yourself think, only that I seek it. And so you climb, and you know the air is thinning. You can feel it sear your chest, feel the lightness in your head; the torches are so bright now!

But they are not torches any longer. No, you realize. They are lanterns. And they seem to stretch forward to the moon atop the mountain peak. If you can reach the moonlight, you know, you will be safe. Your fear seems indomitable, and so, too, that monkey on your back. What a bitter cliche, you think. But this is only a dream, and cliches are allowed in dreams. You know it is meant to teach you something, and yet you know that if you fail here, fail this imaginary feat of mountaineering, you will fail forever.

The wind chills your body to the bones, more ruthless, even, than the nails of the black thing that leers up at the back of your head. You capture lanterns as you walk. One, two, three, four, five -- you count them as the shining motes slip within your grasp. There must be hundreds, hundreds if not thousands of these lights. But the pain in your shoulders insists you continue, despite the answering pain in your chest and in your legs.

It is a herculean effort, but you begin to see snow. It is also lighted by the moon. It looks like granules of silver fire, and you remember the way you used to believe in magic. Perhaps you still do. You hope that you still do. It is only magic that will free you, after all.

Reaching the top of the mountain is not transcendent. You collapse, exhausted upon the stones, and you sleep sound as death. The moon is your final lantern, so close you could reach out and take hold of its powdery luminescence, but you do not have the strength for that. So you fall into oblivion instead, and you do not wake until high noon.

But as you start down the mountain, on its other side now and with the ocean waves in sight, you notice the monkey is gone. That, indeed, you took your baptism by fire--no, not fire: light. And it is the light in your eyes, when you finally see your reflection gazing up from a mountain pool, that convinces you a new time has come.

---

Thank you to all those who have shown me this year how to face, and overcome, challenges--particularly those terrible challenges that spring from within us.

May you find peace in 2013, and, as always:

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.
--michael

Thursday, November 1, 2012

You Race Yourself & Everything You Know

For a few different friends:


It's raining, and you feel like you're drowning in the heaviness of the air. Somewhere a flutist plays through a cracked window and the hair on your soaked arms stands up as the music travels down your spine. You just want to appreciate something beautiful. You catch sight of yourself, fragmented, in the mirror-like shatters of the scattered puddles spread about your tennis shoes. You are alone on the street. "I want winter to arrive," you say aloud to nobody in particular. Winter means storms and events, but now you are hung - suspended - in Time; you feel empty and strange.

You walk down the middle of the road; you do not care if a thousand cars come raging over the horizon. You own the air you just breathed and the ground upon which you are stepping. You take off your shoes and your jacket to feel the chill, because it is something to feel. You listen to the neighboring buildings for the flutist, but she has shut the window. Evidently.

And you are alone. And you hang - suspended - strange and empty. In Time. And Space. There is so much Space when you really look at it. Marveling at the expanse of sky above you and the infinity of ground, the thousands of mountains you could climb in hundreds of thousands of ways, you shed the smallest of tears, which immediately disappears among the rain. The mountains grow from the magma beneath the earth; the air flutters with the air, making wind; the trees stretch from among the plants and the bodies of dead animals, who eat them; but you - you are so very alone.

People have told you a lot about God in your life. They started when you were little. Seven days for Creation. First He made Adam. He loves me, yes I know. Heaven is for real, and so is Hell. Enoch went up to Heaven, and so did Elijah, and so did Jesus, and maybe Mary and - it bothers you that you cannot rise up with them. You figure you'd get to rise up with them if things were this hard, that God would pay attention and say NO MORE in a voice that made it really true. They build cathedrals and wars for Him, and He can't pick you up off the street.

Why do you feel suspended? It is like swimming in milk. Am I swimming in milk? you wonder.

You get past the city eventually and you enter a forest, because the trees surround the skyscrapers on all sides. Once you are covered over by the darkness you run, you run so fast that you don't notice when stones and twigs slice open the bottoms of your feet, leaving drops of your blood on the roots of trees. And you hum the music of the flutist as you run. And a nightingale picks up the tune. And you pray to God. LIFT ME UP! you scream out into the silence. And you leap high into the air, but you land in a flash of white-hot, horrific pain. You stand up. And you keep running. And you hum the tune with the nightingale, and you keep praying, and your blood keeps feeding the trees.

When dawn breaks, you are watching the east. And the light penetrates to that little corner of yourself where you know you are hiding your soul, where it sits quietly, waiting for you. And you find other souls you have collected there with yours. And you feel better about the day ahead.

And you tell yourself that to be is to connect.

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.
-michael

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

river folk

I haven't blogged in a while, but I have been thinking a lot, which is good, because thought matters.

A couple things:

First, I hate political races, particularly presidential races.

Second, the Buddha had it right.

Okay, first things first. There is a very solid and substantial reason why politics, and presidential races in particular, disgust me: they are not instances of truth in our society. There is no transparency; there is no passion; there is only deception and distortion. Political races in America are isolated events of extreme, though controlled, chaos. They are divisive, and the delude the population. Reading through the platforms of the two parties this year, I find no mention of humanity that rings true. I find plenty of points on the rights of the human being, many of which ring true, but none of them are rooted in the solid and concrete reality of the human person. Life, my friends, is painfully messy. It is a series of triumphs and disappointments. The fabric of our lives is not made up of universal healthcare or fair tax brackets. It is made up of love, lust, passion, pain, frustration, joy, terror, and — ultimately — a lovely brokenness that no amount of political discourse can ever piece together. "All the King's horses and all the King's men could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again." That's the sorry truth, right there in that playful and oddly sad nursery rhyme. We won't be saved by referendums or initiatives. Neither Obama nor Romney will turn out to be our messiah. In the end, they will deepen the chaos, because that is what power does. It distorts and contorts the very real and very poignant act of being human; it reduces all the vivacity of the self into a number. And I balk at becoming a number.

I want a candidate who does not hide behind their Harvard education or their success as a business man. I want a candidate who does not tell me what I want to hear. What I want is a candidate who tells me exactly what I do not want to hear. I want a person who looks America in the eyes and says, "We are failing. Our children are committing suicide in epidemic numbers; our elderly feel alienated; our poor get poorer; our hungry don't get fed; our mentally ill hide; we are self-interested, and our self-interest is crippling the third world; and this needs to change." Don't win my vote. Win my very human soul.

Second things second. The Buddha once said, "Live like a mighty river." What he meant by that was interesting. Mighty rivers do a few fascinating things. They do not stop; when a mighty river is challenged it flows over, around, and through the challenge. It continues. They are pure; the sheer volume of water outweighs the impurities that the broken world dumps into them. I feel comfortable drinking from a river that is mighty. They give life; trees, plants, flowers, and animals depend upon the mighty river to sustain them; the very earth's survival is dependent upon the mighty river. They flow to the ocean; they seek to be reunited with that which is greater than themselves. I have a tattoo on my wrist that reads AD MARE SEMPER, which is Latin for "To the sea always." The sea dwarfs me. The very sight of it, the way its smell permeates the air, the boundlessness of it, its power — all of these things remind me that my obstacles are insignificant, that I, too, will flow to that which is great in the end.

In the face of the brokenness which we all feel, which collectively contaminates our world, we ought not be numbers to small men on great thrones. We ought to be mighty rivers: indomitable, uncorrupted, life-giving, and aware of the greatness beyond our isolated selves. We are one body of water moving in one massive exodus to the sea.

And for that reason, I refuse to be separated from my brothers and sisters by differing opinions. What is good shall come to pass, and, eventually, shall pass away. And what is bad, too, shall pass.

"Love all, serve all, and create no sorrow." —Trevor Hall

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.
—michael


Thursday, September 13, 2012

On the verb "to be" --

Hey, Coffee Lovers.

Wow, it's been a long time since I've blogged, and I've missed it quite a lot. Trying to find a way to balance my time has been more than a little bit challenging lately, but I think I'm getting the hang of it again. I hope, anyway.

Tonight I want to write about mindsets. When we hear that word, typically we think of things like success -- those concepts which we know are dependent upon the way in which we approach our lives. But there are other mindsets, which are both more deeply ingrained and harder to notice, that we overlook on the daily.

I think the primary mindset I see in those around me, when I really look closely, is inferiority. It isn't an inferiority complex, nor is it simple insecurity. It is, rather, a mode of being, a habit of existing -- if you will. Many of the people that I love have bought into  a belief that their selves are lesser. It is not the things that they do, not the ways that they think, not the feelings that they feel, but, rather, the deeply rooted self, the essence of them, which becomes lesser in their own minds and hearts.

Lesser than what though? Isn't that the question which logically follows? What I find so disturbing about this lesser-as-a-way-of-being mindset is that it indicates there is something above, but I have yet to find nor yet to hear of anything to which we are actually subjugating our sense of self. We simply self-subjugate, believing in the absence of all evidence, that there is something better than we out there.

At this point you either agree with me and see the terror of this, or you disagree, in which case: oh well.  But if you do agree, if you do, in fact, see and feel this mode of inferiority as a pervasive and destructive element in our culture, you, like me, must wonder where it stems from. The typical answers don't satisfy me. I don't think it comes from the media. I don't think it comes from hormones. I don't think it comes from Twitter or Facebook.

Rather, it seems to me that this mode of inferiority is being belched forth from the empty space in our culture. Human beings are seekers of value; they attach values to everything they do, whether they are aware of it or not. That is actually one of the reasons I created this blog three years ago: to document my search for value around me. And I have found so many things of worth! People, events, places, times, memories, pieces of art -- all of it has something to share and express which touches on the depth of which we are capable. But these things, these beautiful, everyday things, are not celebrated for what they are in mainstream America. What is beautiful is celebrated not for its beauty, but for the use that beauty presents. And this is where we get such a distorted view of beauty (see the post entitled "the ugly beauty" for more on that). But it reaches deeper than just beauty. It reaches into all layers of our everyday lives and interactions. We are walking about color blind, and no one has ever told us how vibrant red is.

And I believe it is from this lack of value, or, rather, lack of sight, that we arrive at such a deeply ingrained sense of our own inferiority. It is illogical, because there is nothing to which we are inferior. We cannot name it. We try to explain and medicate it away, but it does not work. People, young and old, weather their lives until they can't take them anymore. And then most continue to weather anyway.

So what's the solution? Well, I think there are a few. The first comes in realizing we are no better or worse than we are. It is a simple matter of fact. I don't typically like biblical references, but I think one is particularly applicable here. When asked His name by Moses in the Old Testament, God could give no better answer than YHWH, meaning "I am." Now, if God exists I imagine He can be as cryptic as He damn well pleases (though Moses could have at least requested a social security number). But that 5000 year old idea has significance for each of us, regardless of our religious beliefs. The ancient conception of God is that He stands as the root of all being. To ask God to define himself requires God to define all that is. And, rather than dilute what ALL is, He simply offers its existence as proof of its divinity.

Why don't we simply offer our existence as proof of our value? It is the same idea. I am. And nothing more. It is a scary thing, to claim yourself in all of your imperfection as the only thing to which you can lay claim. We don't want to do it; we want to throw layer upon layer of excuse and pretention atop our brokenness to make it appear whole and beautiful. But this is inferiority; this is self-subjugation.

The second way to beat back this culture of inferiority is simply to recognize that there is no superior. The media, the government, the social network, the supermodels, the actors, the writers -- they all are. And nothing more. Everyone is on a level playing field in this beautiful mess that we call Earth.

Arising from this equality of beings comes a profound love. If everyone is, and I am, then we are. And that, while simple, gives me peace.

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.
--michael

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

guided meditation: wideness

You are walking within a forest a few hours after noon. It is lit slantways with golden light, which, in filtering down, becomes emerald and shimmers. A bird cries somewhere, but it is so far off you wonder that you did not imagine it.

You are at peace.

You notice that you are not wearing shoes, that the moss beneath your bare feet and the dirt between your toes is good. You are dressed in white; your eyes are sunlit. The boundary between yourself and the forest is indefinite; you do not know exactly where you begin and the air about you ends. You take a deep breath, and the wind from the north promises snow, but that, too, is far, far off.

You are sure of nothing but the presence of yourself, magnanimous and ethereal in your own power.

You come to a fork in the road. The right surely leads you to the mountains and the left, surely, will take you down to the sea. You stand at the fork, stretching upward to the sky and downward to the earth, touching the trees about you with your fingertips. They whisper to you. The sound of the wind through their leaves is that of the waves through the sea, and so you turn left.

The path gradually slopes downward; the sentinels of trees transfiguring, mile by mile, into the the sturdiness of stones, marking the roadway with their immobility. And as jade becomes sapphire, you step out upon the precipice, the spray blanketing your face.

The sun sinks below the waves. It carries the last of your inhibitions, and you sink into your wideness.

You walk a twisting stone path as the darkness settles about you. The stars wink to life overhead; moonlight enraptures the sea. You walk on, your feet distant, your eyes fixed upon the sky. You expand to contain every star.

And as you arrive, you are huge and looming. It is a whitestone temple, silvered amongst the ink of the midnight. It is all domes and towers, and it is a gentle light, the warmth of dawnglow, that radiates forth from the doors and the arches. There is a soft chanting.

The man that comes to meet you is dressed, also, in white. He takes you, in your largeness, and he brings you inside. And as you lay your head to sleep you gaze out at the wilderness through which you have come, which you have become.

And you smile.

You smile to be so small.

Peace.
—michael






Saturday, July 28, 2012

51

I was mildly disturbed by a piece of feedback I received about a week ago. Someone close to me, whose opinion I value very highly, told me that my world view is operatively negative, i.e. that my values are good, but the way in which I communicate and structure those values retards their real-world applicability. I was angry, offended, and immediately defensive.

But, after some thinking, I went back and read a blog post that I have since deleted about the body politic in the United States, and I realized that while I may not be entirely operatively negative, I sometimes forget what I really stand for. So, let's get something straight:

I believe in passion, compassion, and action.

But I also believe in thankfulness, and maybe sometimes that doesn't come through. So, here is my list of fifty-one reasons to smile and be glad:

Sunsets
Sunrises
Smiles from strangers
Walking in the rain
Being free
Feeling free
Singing badly in public
The smell of new books
The smell of old books
Commas
That way that children smile
That way that the elderly smile
Playing tag in August
Old friends
New friends
Feeling comfortable in your skin
Feeling uncomfortable in your environment
(Learning to deal with the above, and smiling through it)
Peace, even if it's an illusion
Unity, even if it's more of an illusion
Choosing to believe those things aren't illusions
Modern medicine
Ancient fables
Other languages
This language
Quiet music
Sunday dinner with the family
Monday mornings
Friday afternoons
Sunshine on Saturday
Thunder on Thursday
Midnight
3 AM
Long lunches
Trees that have faces
Seashells
Latin
How small the world is
How vast
The ability to wonder
Daydreams
When you realize it was just a nightmare
The fact that Abraham Lincoln started wearing a top hat because a letter from a young girl told him he'd look good in one
The fact that the Dalai Lama has worn pants only once and found it highly uncomfortable
The fact that Walt Disney was afraid of mice
Mothers & fathers & brothers & sisters & grandparents & aunts & uncles & cousins & second-cousins-twice-removed-from-Europe
Laughter
Weeping
Food and Water
Shelter and Safety

and, of course:
Coffee

May your coffee be strong, your passions electric, and your laughter easy.
—michael