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The storm chez moi: One tree was lost on our street, and a downed branch in the Hall’s Pond Sanctuary

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Years of solitude had taught him that, in one’s memory, all days tend to be the same, but that there is not a day, not even in jail or in the hospital, which does not bring surprises, which is not a translucent network of minimal surprises.

–Jorge Luis Borges*

Our encounter with Irene here in Brookline MA was minimal. A tree fell across the street, and the Town of Brookline had it sawed and gone in an hour. Branches, some of them large, fell in the quiet pond sanctuary across the road. But no power outages here, unlike friends in Virginia and North Carolina.

While I am not trivializing the damage and discomfort caused by the storm, it did bring its own translucent network of minimal surprises: The reassuring solidarity that comes when everyone is participating in a larger-than-life event; the quality of light when the storm finally passes through (Is it an ionizing of the air? There is something is different about the way light is reflected post storm); A day spent slowly and mostly indoors; The disruptive but sober reminder that we are in fact tiny creatures on this planet. Perhaps we should consider ourselves just guests here.

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*Thanks once again to Whiskey River for this great quote.

I have a restlessness that constantly moves between two extreme nodes—from the “language is useful” end of the spectrum to the “language is not useful” at the other. When you find yourself hovering closer to the latter, the chatty wisdom of someone like Tom Robbins can feel comforting. Here’s one from my ever-reliable wisdom source, Whiskey River, that made my day a bit better.

If you need to visualize the soul, think of it as a cross between a wolf howl, a photon, and a dribble of dark molasses. But what it really is, as near as I can tell, is a packet of information. It’s a program, a piece of hyperspatial software designed explicitly to interface with the Mystery. Not a mystery, mind you, the Mystery. The one that can never be solved.

To one degree or another, everybody is connected to the Mystery, and everybody secretly yearns to expand the connection. That requires expanding the soul. These things can enlarge the soul: laughter, danger, imagination, meditation, wild nature, passion, compassion, psychedelics, beauty, iconoclasm, and driving around in the rain with the top down. These things can diminish it: fear, bitterness, blandness, trendiness, egotism, violence, corruption, ignorance, grasping, shining, and eating ketchup on cottage cheese.

Data in our psychic program is often nonlinear, nonhierarchical, archaic, alive, and teeming with paradox. Simply booting up is a challenge, if not for no other reason than that most of us find acknowledging the unknowable and monitoring its intrusions upon the familiar and mundane more than a little embarrassing.

But say you’ve inflated your soul to the size of a beach ball and it’s soaking into the Mystery like wine into a mattress. What have you accomplished? Well, long term, you may have prepared yourself for a successful metamorphosis, an almost inconceivable transformation to be precipitated by your death or by some great worldwide eschatological whoopjamboreehoo. You may have. No one can say for sure.

More immediately, by waxing soulful you will have granted yourself the possibility of ecstatic participation in what the ancients considered a divinely animated universe. And on a day to day basis, folks, it doesn’t get any better than that.

–Tom Robbins, from “You gotta have soul”, Esquire, October 1993


A watercolor by Renee Collins, from my collection. I don’t know the name that Renee originally gave it, but I’ve always referred to it as “Leaky Margins.”

If you spend a fair amount of time online, you have probably come up against The Membrane. It functions a bit like a cell wall, as the boundary between the cyber inside and cyber out there, the me and the you, a sense of being connected and yet protected, visible and yet not. At certain places that membrane is only a few air packets thick, with lots of porosity and flow back and forth. At other places it is a glove fit and impermeable, invisible armor that makes for easy escapes and to travel incognito. There’s nothing quite like it IRL. Sometimes it frustrates me. Sometimes I think it is the coolest thing in all the world.

It was in that context that I found this quote so provocative.

I do not know if it has ever been noted before that one of the main characteristics of life is discreteness. Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only insofar as he is separated from his surroundings. The cranium is a space-traveler’s helmet. Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment, death is communion. It may be wonderful to mix with the landscape, but to do so is the end of the tender ego.

–Vladimir Nabokov

Beautiful thing, discreteness, even when contemplated within the entropic morbidity we all face. Thank you Whiskey River for bringing me another great quote moment.


Simplicity and complexity: A piece hanging on the wall at sculptor Paula Castillo’s studio in Santa Fe.

The two entries below, a poem by Moramarco and a quote by Tom Robbins, were included in two separate posts on my favorite random access wisdom source, Whiskey River. But when I landed on the site this morning they both happened to shared the screen together. Intentional or not, these two are natural bedfellows.

For anyone who is a maker and pulls things into existence from who knows where, the states of mind described in both of these entries should sound familiar. They also perfectly mirror the questions my friend and former Yale art prof Susana would pose to any student who asked her if they should pursue a career in fine arts.

Hers is still the best litmus test I know, and it came in the form of two questions:

1. Can you imagine living your entire life in uncertainty? Of never knowing if your work is any good, of never really being able to get meaningful feedback from anyone else since you and you alone have to be your own measure of success or failure?

2. Can you imagine living your life knowing that at any point in time you could read something or see something that would force you to abandon everything you thought you believed?

Being willing to see the mental forms that inhabit the mind as migratory and transient—Moramarco’s poem is a direct hit. And as for failure, Robbins’ advice should be ensconced on every artist’s studio wall and read daily.

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One Hundred and Eighty Degrees

Have you considered the possibility
that everything you believe is wrong,
not merely off a bit, but totally wrong,
nothing like things as they really are?

If you’ve done this, you know how durably fragile
those phantoms we hold in our heads are,
those wisps of thought that people die and kill for,
betray lovers for, give up lifelong friendships for.

If you’ve not done this, you probably don’t understand this poem,
or think it’s not even a poem, but a bit of opaque nonsense,
occupying too much of your day’s time,
so you probably should stop reading it here, now.

But if you’ve arrived at this line,
maybe, just maybe, you’re open to that possibility,
the possibility of being absolutely completely wrong,
about everything that matters.

How different the world seems then:
everyone who was your enemy is your friend,
everything you hated, you now love,
and everything you love slips through your fingers like sand.

–Federico Moramarco

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So you think that you’re a failure, do you? Well, you probably are. What’s wrong with that? In the first place, if you’ve any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free.

–Tom Robbins


Galactic beach wood, from Half Moon Bay

We fall into a story about enlightenment—about life, in fact—and we can get trapped in it for many lifetimes. I wonder more and more how well any life really fits a story. What if our life is not this, then that, in a flat and sensible way, but is equally round like a globe, like the earth itself? Maybe our life never did lie flat on the page and read from left to right.

Having a deeply non-languaged day, I was deeply moved by this quote from Susan Murphy (author of Upside-Down Zen: Finding the Marvelous in the Ordinary). It feels perfect. Another find from Whiskey River, a blog that just keep giving.

vase

What Kafka had to be so clear and simple about was that nothing is clear and simple. On his death bed he said of a vase of flowers that they were like him: simultaneously alive and dead. All demarcations are shimmeringly blurred. Some powerful sets of opposites absolutely do not, as Heraclitus said, cooperate. They fight. They tip over the balance of every certainty. We can, Kafka said, easily believe any truth and its negative at the same time.

–Guy Davenport

It was with pure relish that I read the latest posting by my friend Mimi Kramer-Bryk, Confessions of a Theme Whore, on the blog she writes with her husband William Byrk, City of Smoke. Nobody makes popular culture as entertaining, engaging and provocative as Mimi does. Who else could take us on such a satisfying search for meaning and significance through Hugh Laurie’s TV series House or the Sopranos?

It was Mimi’s insights into the pervasive House theme of the Divided Self that made this Guy Davenport passage about Kafka even more personal and thought-provoking. That’s one of the steady themes that is prevalent on my personal programming right now—the concept of leaky margins, of the “shimmeringly blurred” demarcations between things, states of mind, knowing.

Guy Davenport–poet, essayist, literary critic, teacher, visual artist–died in 2005. This passage was included in the Whiskey River commonplace book.

tshirt

And then the kicker is this: in passing from the real to the imagined, in following that trail, you learn that both sides have a little of the other in each, that there are elements of the imagined inside your experience of the “real” world – rock, bone, wood, ice – and elements of the real – not the metaphorical, but the actual thing itself – inside stories and tales and dreams.

–Rick Bass

A timely mantra for the day: Elements of the imagined inside our experience of the “real”, and elements of the real inside our “imaginary” makings… Bless those leaky margins, the boundaryless nature of consciousness.

Thanks to Whiskey River for another nugget for the deeper well.

This is an exquisite truth:
Saints and ordinary folks are the same from the start.
Inquiring about a difference
is like asking to borrow string when you’ve got a good strong rope.
Every Dharma is known in the heart.
After a rain, the mountain colors intensify.
Once you become familiar with the design of fate’s illusions
Your ink-well will contain all of life and death.

– Hsu Yun

(Thank you once again to Whiskey River for this wisdom.)

Hsu Yun (1840-1959) was a great Chán master, and one of the most significant in Chinese history. Chán is less well known in the West compared to Japanese Zen, but the teachings of Hsu Yun have persisted in China and Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam and Myanmar.

Whatever you may be, you are being ‘lived’. You are not travelling, as you think: you are being ‘travelled’.

Remember: you are in a train. Stop trying to carry your baggage yourself! It will come along with you anyhow.

– Wei Wu Wei, from Open Secret

One of the best things about being online IMHO is the deep network of blog offerings of what I refer to as the “wisdom tradition”. A great place to start is Whiskey River. That’s where I ran into Lacuna Moon who in turn provided me with this nugget of simplicity and expedience.

Something happens when we face the truth about ourselves. For one thing, there is no room for pomposity, arrogance, or self-absorption. More than one person has pointed out how closely conjoined “humility” is with “humor.” A sense of humor, like a true sense of humility, involves ruthless honesty about who we are, without disguise or pretense. The temptation, of course, is to become weighted with gravity, and to take ourselves very seriously indeed. The point is that the opposite route is the direct one.

The truth of the matter is that we are singularly gifted in avoiding self-discovery, even though we pay lip service to it. Impressed with our self-importance and weighted with the seriousness of the adventure of self-discovery, we are sitting ducks for missing the meaning of what is going on.

–Doris Donnelly

One of my favorite blogs, Whiskey River, offers a steady stream of wisdom. Thank you to WR for bringing Donnelly’s quote to me. (The tagline on the site is a quote by Vladimir Nabokov that always inspires: “Our imagination flies; we are its shadow on the earth.”)