The work never stops speaking…

the work never stops speaking

If what Cormac McCarthy says is true, that “Books are made out of books”, then Grayson Perry is equally as accurate when he says that “work comes out of work”. He says that “Work makes ideas”, and those ideas feed back into the work. Like an eternal karmic return of creative iteration, our own work rebirths itself into rejuvenated forms and reincarnated lives. To have faith in the fervor of the work is to believe that its potency can never be contained within the bounds of a single setting, a single use, a single context, a single frame. That regardless of the application it is never exhausted. It is to believe that there is always an experiential excess that spills out and over the coterminous corners of its context, that it’s over-abundance perpetually exceeds the limits of what seeks to hold it. It is to be a panentheist. It is to believe in the transcendent immanence of the work, to believe that it inundates all that is and that it still somehow overflows exceedingly, abundantly above and beyond all that we could ever ask, imagine, or think.

Rollo May says that “the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.” We work within the limits of varying forms and structures, and we discover that the constraints of the forms, themselves, create the conditions for the expansion of the work by order of magnitude. Finding that these original limits of form are, as May explains, “an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing [our] meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence [we] wish to express.

We must willingly and purposefully look for places and ways to reuse, reinvent, reinsert, revise, and revisit past work because we must learn to recognize that the place in which the work is born may not be the place it was intended to be. Nothing is ever static. Nothing is fixed or unmoving. The content that came to life as one separate continent may be meant to drift across the span of 8799 miles of geologic time and space in order to form a more perfect union; a Pangea of love’s vast and totalizing potentiality.

The work is never disposable, never one-time use. Instead, it is ever evergreen. It never dies. It is always alive and still breathing; always evolving, iterating, reiterating, and self-replicating. The work never stops speaking, the question is are we still listening?

to live is to learn, to learn is to live

The only way to learn is to live, and the only way to live is to learn. To truly learn means that one’s hands must be constantly dirty with the work of being alive. To be alive means that one’s heels must be steadfastly dug into the lessons that our efforts offer up to us. To live is have mud on your cleats. To learn is to have blood in your teeth.

Shelley says that “To live…we must not only observe and learn, we must also feel; we must not be mere spectators of action, we must act; we must not describe, but be subjects of description. Deep sorrow must have been the inmate of our bosoms… sickening doubt and false hope must have chequered our days”

We have but one task. One mission. One directive. One calling. Our only objective is to learn something profound about ourselves and the world in which we live and move and have our being. To heed this call is to believe in the potency and potential of our words to grow legs. But, this, in itself, is no easy task, especially because so often it will seem as though nothing has happened, as though nothing has changed.

For extended durations all our efforts are seemingly ineffectual. But, then, somewhere in the terror and bewilderment, something changes. Something arrives. Something comes into being and comes to life; it is our LIFE, provoked and prodded by lessons learned through tedium and trouble. We are transformed. It is a transformative metamorphosis that comes about not in a climactic moment of instantaneous realization, but instead, arrives amidst an almost infinite expanse of minute and incremental adaptations. When we are the one thing that changes, everything else does too. This is what it means to be awake. This is what it means to be alive. This is the arduous task of what it means to grow.

As E.M. Cioran says “There is never too great a distinction made between those who have paid for the tiniest step toward knowledge and those, incomparably more numerous, who have received a convenient, indifferent knowledge, a knowledge without ordeals.”

a fragment unfolding…

a fragment unfolding - poem and art by Duane Toops

Elena Ferrante says that “We have to accept the fact that no word is truly ours.” She says that “We have to give up the idea that writing miraculously releases a voice of our own, a tonality of our own”. We never achieve excellence out of nowhere. Never all at once, and never on our own. If we think that it can come out of the blue, if we think it can arrive fully formed in an instant, or if we think that we can achieve it alone, all we have really done is failed to think it through, failed to pay attention, failed to retrace our steps, failed to cite our sources.

“Everything, in writing has a long history behind it”, Ferrante says, and we must get “comfortable with everything that has already been written”, we must “reckon with other writing.” Excellence is iterative and incremental. It is the slow and unfolding outcome that follows from the daily act of making choices and adaptive corrections. And no matter how solitary the process seems to be, our ultimate achievement of excellence is predicated upon a plethora of engagements, interactions, and exchanges with people and ideas that have each discreetly and imperceptibly pushed us to be better than we were before. “Writing,” explains Ferrante, is “entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned”, it is “seizing everything that has already been written and gradually learning to spend that enormous fortune”.

We commune with what has come before, with all those that are both present and past, all the people on the other side. Their words like crumbs marking the path. And we realize that we are but one in a long line of “I’s” who writes in effort to make a more excellent version of the last; “a fragment among fragments”, Ferrante says. A piece of an elegant theory that helps us get to a better one.

a continent coming home…

In one of my favorite passages from Thomas Merton’s book, No Man is an Island, he writes that “We ought to be alive enough to reality to see beauty all around us”. He says that “Beauty is simply reality itself, perceived in a special way that gives it a resplendent value of its own.”  A reality demonstrating the fact that, as John Donne says, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.

To be an island, then, is to be adrift and uncoupled from the commonality of the mainland. It is to be detached from the special ways of seeing the resplendent value and beauty inherent in reality. It is to be ‘apart’ rather  to be a “part of.”  It is find oneself separate  from the unifying will towards life. The underlying the will to life. The will to persist. The will to go on. It is to lose that tremendous sense of resplendence and aliveness. It is to be stuck, stale, and small. Not only alone, but lonely.

Mary Oliver writes that “Even the most solitudinous of us is communal by habit”.  Even the artists, authors, thinkers, those of us who relish the the quiet seclusion of our inner worlds, require the replenishment of connection in order to see the many splendored beauty of reality all around us. Yes, solitude is necessary in order for us to make work that is significant. But, so also is “solidarity” essential, Rollo May says, especially if we hope that our work will speak to our own “age”, as well as to that of “future generations”.

When we are isolated too long in the solitary place we “forget how big and expansive the world is” Matt Haig says. We forget our own immeasurable enormity, and we begin “to imagine [that] mediocrity and disappointment [are our] destiny”. We forget that the beauty of reality is that there is a “part of the main” threaded through us all, a piece of the continental vastness of which we each connect and contain.

yearning to be whole…

yearning to be whole

Robin Wall Kimmerer says that “writing is an act of reciprocity with the world.” She says that “It’s what I can give back in return for everything that has been given to me.” This is how I relate to writing as well; as a grateful returning, a show of thanks and connection to the elaborate interwoven-ness of all that I have been the recipient of. It is, as Parker Palmer says, a way to hold the pivotal paradox of community; an adjoining to one another in such a way so as to “protect each other’s aloneness”, coming together “in ways that respect the solitude of the soul”.

In the fastening activity suffuse within the written word we are softly un-individuated. We become, what Maria Popova calls, “unselfed-not persons”, healed from the lacerating scars of ego, identity, and ideology, in restorative “fields of grateful awareness“.

But, there are days when I’m tired. When I feel so unbearably slow. Days when my eyes burn, and all my atoms ache. When my skin bristles and stings. Days when everything hurts. When extinction feels not only eventual, but inevitable. When survival is almost always the exception, and almost never the rule. Days like today. Days when its hard enough to breathe, and even harder to write.

To not be able to write is to not be able to give back. To not be able to give back is to be broken off from the mutuality of exchange with the world. It is to come uncoupled from the earth’s orbit round the Sun. It is to be disconnected. It is to be an island; an island that is both desert and deserted, both uninhabited and uninhabitable.

On these days, I press my pen into the page with the lamentable angst and travail of David’s psalm: “How long…?…How long…?…How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?…How long…?”

I try to remember the words of two other David’s. David Foster Wallace reminds me that “Writing is very difficult…and it takes a lot of time and energy”, and David Sedaris advises me that “its important to not be in a hurry”. And so I tap out a penitent prayer for not only perseverance, but also patience

To stumble across even just a few good words is to regain a revelatory sense of connected vastness, in which “hope emerges”, Matt Hiag says, “and…clings to you as stubbornly as lichen clings to rock.” Like tiny fragments of life clustered together in an indomitably effort to endure against every insurmountable obstacle, all in the service of an obstinate yearning to be whole.

Memory and Imagination

memory and imagination

John Green writes that “Language shapes our memories, and it is also shaped by our memories.”

He says in one of the footnotes of  The Anthropocene Reviewed that “Nothing lies like memory”.

Memory is inaccurate and unreliable. Memory decays and degrades. But, perhaps, if it is a ‘lie’, it is a lie in the same way that fiction is a lie; “good lies that say true things”, as Neil Gaiman explains. True things that can “keep you sane,” says Matt Haig, and that can keep “you you“.

Memory can be molded. Fashioned and refashioned. Constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed. It is something we are always actively and creatively engaging with and participating in. Memory is a story. It is like a text. Its meaning is malleable, and at any given time we attempt to reread through fading pages of memory in an effort reinterpret what it means now in the light of this day, at this time, in this place. Perhaps memory is always an activity of exegesis and eisegesis. Reading-out and reading-in. Remembering and re-membering. Interpreting and reinterpreting. Imagining and reimagining. The hermeneutics of our own history.

Carlo Rovelli  says that “our consciousness is based on” the meeting of “memory and…anticipation“. He says that “This space” where memory meets and combines “with our continuous process of anticipation is the source of our sensing time as time, and ourselves as ourselves”. This space, “Suspended…in these patterns,” between image and event, where “we might reimagine our lives…through story”, writes Barry Lopez; where “we embrace the great breadth of memory, [where] we can distinguish what is true, and [where] we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.” Where we can right and re-write ourselves.

love will tear us apart…

love will tear us apart

I don’t know a lot about Space, or astrophysics, or science in general really, but that’s never stopped me from trying to think about it or trying to write about it, at least in small fragments anyway.

Black holes are really interesting. Figuratively we often use Black Holes as way in which to represent a vacuous void of emptiness and absence, but really nothing could be further from the truth. Black Holes are anything but vacant or unoccupied. One of the defining features of a Black Hole is that it contains a disproportionately large amount of mass in comparison to its size. Even a Black hole with the scale of an atom can hold an amount of mass equivalent to that of a mountain.

The other defining feature of a Black Hole occurs as a result of the first. Because they contain such an extremely large amount of mass condensed into a small space, Black Holes are places of immense and overwhelming gravity.

Unsurprisingly, I now realize that pretty much everything I know and understand about Black Holes can be consolidated into those few brief paragraphs above, and more than likely I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know.

But, maybe that in itself is an example of what a Black hole is and what it does. It is a place where rich complexity becomes densely packed, where the tremendous mass of something ineffable is expressed within and amidst something comparably infinitesimal, places with such great force and gigantic gravity that we are inescapably pulled toward them and into them, places that are capable of capturing, containing, holding, and harboring light.

They are bigger on the inside.

Perhaps, I’m romanticizing Black Holes; that’s fair, I’m a writer, not a physicist, and that’s just what we do.

To be sure, Black Holes are dangerous and scary; perhaps, the scariest thing in the universe. It pulls apart everything that falls into it and never lets it go.

But, then again, perhaps, we could say the same thing about love

do the work you want…

do the work you want

It’s up to you to push back. To expect more. To expect better.

It’s easy to pander. To give up. To cave in. To do what’s expected. To give the people what they want.

True, there may be a wisdom available in crowds, in the collectivized base of knowledge that can extend problem-solving and innovation into an expanse beyond the tyranny of isolated expertise. But, there is also a madness; an impressionability that is maddened and maddening. There is fickleness, and volatility, and caprice. Crowds are susceptible to the frenzied delusions of mania and misconstrual. 

The crowd is capable of much, but “the crowd,” Kierkegaard says, “is untruth”, especially when it comes to the truth of you, the truth of who you are. You alone are responsible for your own invention and intervention. It is your duty to come alive, to experience your own becoming, to learn “more about what’s inside you”, writes Kurt Vonnegut, and to make “your soul grow”.

Endeavoring to do so is not always easy.  It will require commitment, courage, and resolve. It will not always please or appease others. But, as Seth Godin says “[we] have to embrace the cost of…focusing on what [we] want to promote” and be willing to pay “the price to do so,” realizing that “culture is almost always improved not by what the masses want tomorrow, but by what a small and dedicated group of people are willing to commit to for the long run.”

Realize the bigness of small things. Embrace humaneness of your scale. Try. Think. Learn. Change. Grow. Make things you love. “Artistic excellence”, Maria Popova says, lies not in running oneself into the ground on this clattering hamster wheel of public approval, but in continually and quietly ascending one’s own private ladder of creative development.” Do the the work you want to do, and then keep doing it; again and again and again and again.

the ‘velocity of being’ together…

Sometime around the fall of last year my two-person book club partner and I were finishing up reading John Green‘s essayed appraisals of the human-centered world called The Anthropocene Reviewed. And as we were gearing up to start reading Matt Haig‘s melancholically hopeful novel, The Midnight Library, I came across a blog post about a book called A Velocity of Being; a book containing a wide and sprawling collection of letters  and original art created by what might be the most interesting amalgamation of people one could ever hope to come across. Writers, artists, musicians, poets, physicists, astronauts, entrepreneurs, and more, all coming together to share the redemption and salvation that books have the capacity to give to the human soul. I was wowed by the premise of the project, and moved by the beautiful symbiosis of image and word. I sent the article to my co-reader in arms, and a little over one week later she had bought a copy for herself and sent a second copy to me.

velocity of being

After we began reading, we were initiates newly committed to an apostles creed, meandering meticulously through each of the epistles with reverence and fervor. We were trailing at the heels of discovery and devotion. We were disciples covered in the dust of a rabbi’s motion. But most of all, we were together. We were together with one another, but we were also together with the choired mass of other voices who also found themselves within the sacred solidarity of books.

That’s exactly what books are. That’s precisely what they do. Books are the surest cure for loneliness; a communion of blessed fellowship that can cross the span of continents and collapse the constraints of time. Books are a kind of religion; a space of ultimate concern, the gift of what grows from the nutrient-dense ground of our being. And, reading is a form of faith; a faith in the fact that we are never alone, that we when we read we are always and at all times reading together.

goals not met…

This blog co-written with Carolyn Jones

Sometimes you hit the target. Sometimes you smash it. Sometimes you take a shot, and it rebounds on the crossbar. Sometimes it’s so wide you wonder whether it was even a shot worth taking. But that’s the thing about goals. Whether the ball hits the back of the net, or whether it ends up in the crowd, every attempt teaches us something. We learn from every try.

In 2010 I set out to read 50 books by the end of the year. I fell short by seventeen. I tried the following year, and I missed the mark again. And again. And again. And again. And again. In 2017, I finally reached the goal and read 51 books. But the celebration was short-lived. It took another four years before I was able to do it again. And when I did, I exceeded it by 10 books. But that’s the other thing about goals; they aren’t meant to be easy.

Sofia Segovia says that “life [does] not make promises,” but “sometimes it [offers] opportunities”. While the years of unmet goals sometimes stack up taller than the instances of achievement, there are countless opportunities to be offered and accepted. I am still just as filled with all the pages from all the books that I did manage to read in the years I failed to meet my minimum. Those pages taught me so much. Gave me so much. Guided me through so much. I learned about myself. I learned about the world. I learned about the parts and places within the world that pull up on the strings of my passions, like something lost being dredged from the depths of forgetfulness; a wreckage salvaged from the abyss. Rescued from oblivion. Those pages helped me through innumerable moments of misery, loss, trauma, sadness, and depression. I stood tall. I fell short. I fell hard. I managed to stand back up. I fell even harder still. And I found that all the pages that I held had been upholding me all along.  

We try. We learn. We think. We grow. We make good art. We write a great story. We realize the bigness of small things. And whether we make the goal, we move forward and we move on. Like the clanging persistence of a pinball constantly pivoting the trajectory of the way we think, what we garner in the process remains present and undeterred

It’s easy to think about all the things we didn’t, and perhaps won’t ever, do. All the books that go unread. All the goals that go unmet. The happiness we didn’t have. The wealth and success we didn’t achieve. But those “are matters mostly out of our control,” Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Canor explain. Instead, it is “the work, that we choose.” It is the work we set before ourselves. The tasks we are willing to take on, and the effort we are willing to exert in the attempt that decide who we are and what we will become. 

Rollo May says that we become “fully human only by [our] choices and [our] commitment to them. He says that our “worth and dignity” are attained only “by the multitude of decisions [we] make,” and “These decisions require courage”. It takes bravery and courage to challenge ourselves, to decide to push toward some desired end. To see through the clattering and stagnation. To realise that we need to change. To decide to try, and to commit to seeing it through. 

We may not meet the end we tried for, but regret is the metric of something unreal. Calculations of the things we can’t change. A fixation upon the mathematics of all the events that cannot be other than the way they have been. If these are the means by which we measure our worth, we will always be found wanting. The true testament to our quality is in accepting the humaneness of our scale; the fortitude of our fragility. As Marin Popova says it is in “the presence, persistence, and grace with which we face reality on its own terms” that we achieve something that can never be lost.  

Thanks again to Carolyn Jones for cowriting this essay with me, and for literally everything else.