The Mission is Everything

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Reflections

A number of elements drew me to Linda’s Mission-Possible Blog Challenge this year, but the first was the Louise Hayes desk calendar image she posted that read, “I chose to come to this planet, and I am delighted to be here.” The image included the eyes of a fox peering playfully over the top of a log. Something about that just cracked me up. It’s certainly not what we’ve been feeling of late—it’s not the most obvious emotion at play in the world, at any rate—and yet it sort of begs the question, what else would I be doing? And where would I rather be?

Linda’s blog challenge is about having a purpose to fulfill in this earthly life. A soul mission. I’m at the point where showing up seems like maybe it was the mission, and this doesn’t seem inconsistent with the image of a fox peering over the top of a log, readying itself to pounce. I think it is the playfulness of that picture that I loved when I saw it, and it is playfulness that seems important to me somehow. To play is not necessarily to have a serious mission, but it’s not wasted time either. Play gladdens the heart, communicates equality and innocence, requires vulnerability. And it transmutes all that time I spend being serious into something useful.

You may have an image of what it is to be a playful person, and I probably don’t fit it. I’m not Will Farrell. And for swaths of my day I’m quite serious about things. But there’s always this fox peering over the log of my own seriousness, waiting to catch me in my own forgetting, and when the time presents itself, he dives into the fray. I can only hold my breath in serious waters for so long. I’m definitely not built to reside there indefinitely, which is kind of interesting given what’s going on right now in the world at large. It’s a pretty serious time, with some form of fear and destruction in the ascension on every front.

There’s a sense for me that weathering the storm of this age may be the mission. Living right through the middle of it. Maybe just knowing that what’s important is our being for one another—being sideless in a way. And I think play can be like that. It doesn’t require a declaration of identity and ideology. It doesn’t require qualifications or expertise. This play to which I’m drawn isn’t what you do when you’re bored, or escaping—it’s the kind of play you do when you’re building something new. It’s a whistling-while-you-work play.

There is a challenge I have sometimes with the specificity of the mission idea, like there’s this one thing in which our lives culminate and which our “success” hinges upon. Maybe that was true of Tesla, or Churchill, or those who have made specific contributions with their genius or strength of character. Maybe it’s true of those who seek to escape the wheel of reincarnation—maybe there is a particular experience to be lived, absorbed, and forgiven that will provide the desired release. I don’t know. But my sense is that in all of these cases there is something even more expansive, more common, even more immediate that underwrites these other notions—the experience of sharing of a meal, of traveling from one place to another, of the wind whisking over the grass, the color of flowers in spring and the scent of snow in winter. There’s a way in which we’re almost always placeless, even when we’re right here.

The idea of a mission breaks down for me when it posits a goal related to being somewhere else. So for me, the mission is to be right here, and to continue being right here, now, free in the creative balance of this moment. I think this brings me back to playfulness, which is always so immediate and so enlivening. If we can discover how to be at peace with one another in these times, it seems a tremendous accomplishment, far greater than any technology or political coup one may have achieved. And so this mission isn’t mine alone. It isn’t personal, in the sense that this sort of goal is not achieved in isolation, or in spite of what else may be occurring.

If I do have a mission, I think it must be the type that unfolds day by day, little by little, under the cover darkness perhaps, whether I am conscious of it or not. The mission is the energy that moves me. It’s the wind that sets my life into motion, and nowhere it takes me will be removed from its aim. I am most content in the knowing that my mission is here and now. When I can settle into the calamity of being with greater ease, I feel the most purposeful, the most powerful, and the most fulfilled.

A Selection of True Awakening Experiences Part III

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Reflections

My days are no longer numbered. That’s one thing I’ve noticed.

And I feel okay about being up this creek without a paddle. I’m even starting to think whatever it is I don’t know is probably the best part, and always will be.

Today, I must confess, the full moon cracked me like a nut, and I wasn’t the only one. For a while we were floundering. All of us. Working up a righteous indignation there in the conference room. Awakening is realizing Hafiz is there the whole time, standing just outside the frame with his stopwatch and kazoo, counting down until real forgiveness strikes–that breath that says, what’s all this about?

I admit, I inhaled. The wounds we receive are never what they seem. Those are where the sweetness resides. We tunnel through them into glory. Most of the time I’m ignorant of what’s happening and I have to look back to see what it really meant. I have to dig down until I strike the nectar of who we are. Then I understand. I was thinking the whole episode meant something pretty good while I was driving home, realizing I wouldn’t have it any other way, while overhead the sky was splitting open into colors.

You realize at some point you have a secret inside you that you’ll probably never finish telling. But it’s sure fun to try. I listened to a podcast last week by some philosophers who were saying living forever wouldn’t actually be good, because we’d run out of new experiences to try, and then we’d get bored. It would be best if we could control when and how we died. Then we could maximize. I think that’s how I felt before I read Rumi, before I cried alone in the forest, before I realized everyone has the same secret inside of them and no clue how to tell it. Somewhere along the way you realize we’re already endless, and that all these different faces we’re bumping into are the Answer to the problem of eternity.

So can you really be awakened and have a day job?

Yes, of course.

In fact, that’s pretty much how it works. The ocean works all the time. The plants. The microbes. The stars. We need breaks, of course. During one of them you swat a fly and suddenly you realize: it’s all just being the thing you don’t know how to be. Now you have perspective. It does get easier.

Underneath the continuous rant of dissatisfaction we call a world, there is always light gathering. The world is a tree laden with ever-ripening fruit. It’s easy to say it’s something else. Something stifling and hot. Something to be wary of, at least.

Get as wary as you’d like. It’s okay, the moon will come along and crack you open. That’s what I learned…

Many thanks to Barbara for inviting me to participate in the next leg of this collective journey of discovery…

Concerning the Heart

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Christ / Course Ideas / Reflections

Beauty is witnessed in the heart.

In the midst of calamity, when the towers are crumbling, and the temples are crumbling, and the skies are crumbling, still the heart is free. It is quiet amidst the waves. Gratitude may enter us then. Beauty may be recognized.

For it is the heart that recognizes its own.

Avowed of neither persecution nor vengeance, the heart has a talent for blessing, for insight, and for gentleness. In the midst of calamity, when something must be done, when the mob is gathering, and one must diminish another in the service of greater good—when deceit and distortion are blackening the skies, and a voice must be raised to be heard—still the heart sees innocence. How can this be?

Is not our anger righteous? Must something not be done?

What say you, my heart?

And still the heart is quiet.

When viewed from afar, the heart is but a stone. Wake up! we shout. The towers are crumbling!  The heavens rending! Now is the time!

And yet, it is true, even here the heart knows the way. For what must be saved has already been saved. This the heart knows. Here is the beginning of reason. Here is permission to recognize the innocent, and behold the beautiful.

What is there to do when what must be done has already been done?

Alert the others. Gather them close. Break the heart open and pass it around, like bread, that there may be nourishment. Offer the heart, that those who know it not might see it and remember. Don’t look for it, but let it come. You will know it has arrived.

For it is the heart that recognizes its own.

On the Possibility of Unity

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Christ / Course Ideas / Science

There are periods in our lives when we make decisions with far-reaching implications. Doing nothing is hardly an option, and a few fundamental choices must be made that establish a line of action for the years to come. Deciding what you would like to study, do for work, or explore in life are examples of these decisions, but an even more important one is deciding what sources of information you will trust, or at least consider, in learning about yourself and the world.

Early in my exploratory journey I came to the conclusion that everyone was at least a little bit correct in their assessment of the human condition, and I chose to value traditional forms of knowledge with roughly equal weighting to modern forms of exploration. These terms are a bit misleading and require some clarification to be meaningful. Another way to say it is that I chose to give roughly equal weighting to the findings of cyclotrons, microscopes and laser beams as to our ancestral or ancient forms of wisdom, including the modern variants of long-standing traditions that are embodied in present day spiritual teachers, as well as receivers of so-called channeled material. I didn’t decide any one thing was correct above all else, I decided to investigate them all and look for distillations of knowledge when dogma, convention, and cultural particulars were set aside.

My reasoning, though not consciously clear to me at the time, was rooted in my intuitions about the nature of our reality, as well as the sense that reason is only as good as its foundation, and the choice of foundation is not easily made based upon evidence. In fact, no evidence has any meaning until the choice of a foundation has been made. I think this was one of the most powerful and fortunate insights of my youth, and it led to one of the most important decisions of my adult life, which I will get to in a moment. First it is important that this assertion of mine be understood.

When something happens, and we take note of it, the next step in our conscious appraisal of things is to deduce what it was that actually happened. This may sound foolish, but let’s say our attention was drawn to the flash of a colored light. It’s simply not enough to say that a light flashed. We want to know why it flashed, what caused it to flash, and what it represents in relationship to our own well-being. If we’re driving in a car and the light is on the dashboard, then we can explain this intrusion of light into our world pretty easily with a high degree of certainty, but if we didn’t know what a car was—if we were transplanted from 100,000 B.C into an Aston Martin with a coolant temperature alarm—the way in which we would interpret that experience might be quite different. Or so I conjecture.

Taking this sort of issue to its extreme, then it is possible to see that an entire structure of logic and reason, such as the traditional shamanic practices of a South American tribe, or the body of art and practice we call physics, are simply not possible without axiomatic beginnings. Those axioms are not disprovable, and thus, in a sense, are arbitrary. Of course they are never really arbitrary; I would argue the axiomatic beginnings of a thought system are the most fundamental expression of who the operands of the thought system (us) believe themselves to be. We could also say that the axiomatic beginnings are ultimately statements of what the universe is, leaving us (seemingly) out of it for the moment, but this is for my purpose here completely equivalent. The most important point is that once this point of origin is established, a complete thought system with self-supporting chains of experience, evidence, and logic will follow.

The major decision of my adult life was to declare that the point of origin for my own thinking would leave in tact the possibility that the universe has an interior dimension—that knowledge itself was possibly fundamental to its own becoming. In doing so I admitted of the possibility that the wisdom contained in ancestral or traditional philosophies arose from genuine contact with this dimension, but I did not feel this required that the light on the dashboard of a car need be explained as anything but what it was. To be fair, what I ultimately declared was that the universe was more than a material system, at least in terms of what we understand material systems to be. I, too, was forced to assert a point of beginning. (In point of fact, there are no neutral points of beginning, which I think is significant…)

Now once you have a beginning, you must run some experiments to develop the thought system that arises from that beginning, and my early experiments led to fairly intense (for me) psychological difficulties. But in time I came to understand the sources of my confusion and one text that was most helpful in this regard was called A Course in Miracles—though of course it was not this stand-alone document that was helpful, but an entire dynamic of history, memory, thought, insight, conversation, meditation, grace and engagement with the ideas that it contained. I think the metaphysics described therein echoes the metaphysics of countless traditions, although the language is quite unique, and this weekend I came to an interesting conclusion.

What I realized is that the point of origin for what I would call the modern rational worldview, whose philosophical labels I’m not well-equipped to offer, but which would certainly include materialism, necessarily describes the condition from which many wisdom traditions suggest we must recover. To unpack that statement, I would say that the foundation of a materialist, rational worldview would be the idea that the universe is a self-contained causal structure consisting exclusively of localized energetic transformations. To make that even simpler: what we see is the product of what preceded it, and the causes of what we see are local. This means that what happens cannot be impacted by any cause that is physically distant from the event. (I cannot flip a switch in another galaxy in the same instant that something happens in this one, because the two points are too far away to be physically related.)

Let me turn to the other portion of my assertion. The condition from which many wisdom traditions suggest we must recover is the perception of separation—the view that we exist as fundamentally distinct beings, or to say it another way, as beings without any ultimate unification. Who and what I ultimately am is independent of who and what you ultimate are. To make this as clear as possible, we are separate bouncing balls on the gymnasium floor, not two fingers on a common hand. What the wisdom traditions would suggest is that this notion of separation is illusory, and that there truly is a universal now—a non-dimensional locus inclusive of all time and all space, of which we actively participate.

So, back to my claim, which is this: the assertion of local causality in modern physics, as powerful as it is, is not only a restatement of the axiomatic foundation on which the entire intellectual exercise of modern physics rests; it is also axiomatically equivalent to the premise that the universe is a collection of fundamentally separate entities—the very premise which traditional wisdom cultures argue is the root cause of suffering as manifest in our experience.

Why is this important? Well, I think it is important because a necessary outcome of the axiomatic assertion of separateness is that we live in a zero sum game. The two notions are concomitant. This is the bounding feature of our interactions, our policy debates, our relationships, our institutions and the fundamental manner in which we attempt to organize our world. I would even hypothesize that the world so many well-intentioned persons wish to participate in creating—a world that not only works for everyone, but doesn’t require unacceptable levels of sacrifice—is simply not possible in this environment.

This hypothesis of fundamental unity is tough to test, of course, because it cannot be evaluated in the context of the current paradigm, in which it can only be judged as insane. Yet what is sane or insane is deemed such, in any thought system, by comparing an idea’s accord with the very axioms on which the thought system is founded. Also, if the possibility exists, however slight it may seem, that even our best efforts are founded upon untenable foundations, and will not be capable of succeeding in the manner that we sincerely hope, it is worth a moment of sincere reflection.

At minimum, perhaps, the mere acknowledgment of such a possibility might temper the swiftness with which we judge who and what is “right” in our world. A healthy dose of uncertainty would do all of us some good, I think, and create the space for choosing compassion before we reach for the rhetorical guns.

In Defense of Polyculture

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Book Reviews / Reflections

There’s a way in which identity politics are a luxury. To engage in them, you at least need a voice.

Over the past several months I’ve listened to Sam Harris’s interview with Charles Murray, for instance, his subsequent debate with Ezra Klien of Vox magazine, and a later interview by Harris of Coleman Hughes. These were interesting segments that collectively explore the residual difficulties of speaking about the issue of race in America—among other things. The paradox that has emerged for me is that while, on the one hand, I agree with treating each person as an individual and not through the lens of race or ethnicity, I also feel something stands to be lost in the absorption of cultures into the dominant amalgam.

There’s a paradox here. While it is unquestionably virtuous to consider people of all races and ethnicities for a job opening on the basis of their individual talent, character and capabilities, this belies the fact that the jobs which are available, and the ideas which are judged to have merit, are themselves dictated by the dominant culture.

Recently I read There There by Tommy Orange, a novel that I see has been critically acclaimed and which I thoroughly enjoyed. The novel is about various persons of Native American descent, with varying degrees of affiliation for their heritage, who converge upon a powwow in Oakland, CA. Orange gives us a view, up close and personal, of what it means to exist in an American modernity with a heritage that is frayed, diluted and at times nebulous. What does it mean to be a Native American who has never known anything but city life? Who is Native and who is not, and what does it mean if you are?

The one character in this novel with an advanced degree lives with his mother. He pursued an advanced degree in an effort to understand who he is, but after graduation finds himself adrift and unable to find meaningful work, and loses himself in the spree of information that is the world wide web. Another character teaches himself a traditional dance through YouTube, wondering all the while if his grandmother will approve of his interest. Another character brings ruin to his family through drug and alcohol abuse, while tinkering with medicine powers he doesn’t understand. This novel is a tragedy, if nothing else. But the paradox is that it is a tragedy with which we can all relate.

We all grapple with issues of identity, particularly in a world in which we are brought into ever-increasing contact with people of diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and traditions.

In one segment of the novel, Orange addresses the high rate of suicide in Native American communities, and notes that interventions focused on giving people better reasons not to jump rings hollow. People need reasons to live, not reasons not to jump. Don’t we all need these reasons? And where do we find them if not in our familial and cultural affiliations? Ultimately we find meaning in knowing and sharing who we are, and if we are part of a culture without a voice, the terms on which we meet the world can seem to be limited.

This novel is about the tragedy of not knowing who we are, or what to express, or once we’ve found it, how to even express it. I sometimes think of myself as a member of an incoherent tribe. I’m a middle-aged white man, and from that perspective identifying with my tribe is tricky business.  I’m not enamored of mainstream values, I enjoy nuanced conversations, and many of the trends I see at work in the world are troubling to me. So I felt at home in Orange’s novel. Because while on paper I’m not dispossessed, in my heart oftentimes I am.

I don’t know if the times we live in are more turbulent than others. I don’t know if intolerance of other cultures runs higher or lower than in times past. But it seems like the shrinking of the world has made it that much harder for subcultures to carve out their niche. Before I read There, There I read a book called Spirit Talkers by William S. Lyon. It is a book by an anthropologist exploring all of the historical evidence related to the medicine powers of North American indigenous tribes, many of which have waned as a result of the “corporate mergers” affected by the dominant culture of the last few hundred years on our continent–the culture that, on paper, is my own.

There’s no going back, not to the way it was. And the past certainly wasn’t perfect in any culture. But in my opinion it is vital that we create space for other cultures to flourish. I think its akin to seeking to preserve the species of the rain forests and coral reefs, those rich stores of biodiversity that may yet hold cures for the diseases that plague us.

Continued Reflections on Perception

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Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

I wrote last week about the idea that bias is inescapable because the world that we experience is not a fixed reality, but the product somehow of our perceptions. A related idea is that we each experience the world differently because we each have a unique relationship with it. I think that gives an insight the previous statement does not.

In any case the word “world” is a difficult study, and here I mean it as something like all that exists within the meaning-making organs of our awareness—not all of which is present to our consciousness at any given moment—and which would include sensory perceptions, emotions, memories, concepts, beliefs, ideas and our various forms of self-identification. They’re all in there. Try to explain this to someone who insists the world is a perfectly obvious thing, and notice how quickly you start mumbling quietly to yourself with all the phonetic acumen of a person who has just had a tooth extracted.

Whatever such a world is, it’s not easily grasped. And this is partly why the perception of bias in one another is all but inescapable. We tend to see what we call bias most readily when critiquing a person whose opinion is at odds with our own, and not at all when it comes to our own thinking. An alleged means of keeping the peace when any two persons interact is to stipulate some rules about what is admissible and what is not admissible when one is trying to explain why one is right and the other wrong. This assumes one is right, and the other is wrong, of course, which is itself a mode of thinking that reflects an inherent bias. We could call such a bias “reasonable” if the contents of the worlds we each perceive were the same for all of us, but they quite obviously are not.

There are a couple of considerations here. The first is that nothing we see really means anything in the absence of a tremendous chain of conceptual logic that we apply to it. And I would also say that everyone’s chain of conceptual logic is tremendous. If you get the smartest weasel you can find and set it up in a well-maintained aquarium in front of two tiny lights that flash every once in a while following the parametric down conversion of a photon, it may become interested, but it probably won’t realize that the flashing lights are proving the validity of Bell’s Inequality. I’m not sure there’s a single human being on this planet who would be able to ascertain what two lights had to say about Bell’s Inequality without considerable knowledge of how those lights came to be where they are. The difficulty here is that it’s really, really hard to set up little calamities on a work bench that definitively mean one thing and could not possibly mean anything else whatsoever. It takes vast stores of knowledge to make inferences about the nature of the universe from two flashing lights. But let me say that I think we do amazing work in this regard.

It’s just that to unpack the slightest observation requires a considerable conceptual scaffolding, each tier of which is often predicated on the previous and thus, as a whole these structures can be subject to assumption, bias and misperception that is thousands of layers deep.

The second consideration is that people simply don’t have the same experiences. For starters, we’re almost never in the same place at the same time looking in the same direction paying attention to the same little bits of energy. And when we are, we’re certainly not considering those little bits of energy in light of the same histories, memories, training, life conditions, or ideals.  One argument is that if we were in the same place looking in the same direction at the same things, then all else being equal, we’d be having the exact same sensory impressions. But for me, even that’s a bit tricky. We can probably agree that if we use a device that’s not smart enough to be distracted to record those sensory impressions for us—something like a photographic plate—then we could agree on certain aspects of what just happened.

The real issue is when two people who were in two different places, and who occupy two very different relationships to what we call the world, try to tell each other what could or couldn’t have happened where the other one was. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that one Friday evening Person 4,327,005 elects to attend a Native American ceremony known to be useful in the recovery of lost items, while Person 1,983,411,309 elects to attend the symphony. Person 1,983,411,309 reports that the lead cellist was a sublime musical talent, and Person 4,327,005 reports that a flying gourd almost hit her in the head during the ceremony, and that Mrs. Smith’s great grandmother’s diary, which had been missing for thirty years, was located and placed on the altar by the spirits.

What happens next depends upon all sorts of factors, but we know that a very common scenario would involve Person 1,983,411,309 telling Person 4,327,005 that she ought to submit herself to some sort of psychological or medical evaluation; that she should avail herself, when time permits, of the Laws of Thermodynamics; or that she should consider the possibility that she has been the brunt of a joke. Basically, Person 1,983,411,309 means to say that Person 4,327,005 is wrong.

Now why is that? Why do we do this to one another?

It’s a good question I think.

The Need For Better Questions

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Course Ideas / Reflections

Lately I’ve been listening to a few more podcasts and reading a few more op ed pieces in the media than I ever have before, and one really interesting observation has become clear to me. We are (all of us) biased in ways I think would surprise us were they actually understood. While it may seem obvious, nevertheless this had the feel of real discovery to me. And I think there is a reason for our collective myopia: the world rewards perception.

The world validates perception.

I think it’s worthwhile to consider that the “world” does not exist as an objective reality like we suspect it might. And in the case where there is no objective reality, then the very concept of bias is meaningless. You simply have people describing their vantage points. Everyone has a particular view, and while all of them are more or less biased with respect to all the others, very few are actually mutually exclusive. The world as I see it is more like a web of partially overlapping perceptions than a fixed subject that reveals itself to careful scrutiny. Because of this, I think we mislead ourselves whenever we make sweeping claims.

But is the world simply what we make of it then? Can I simply declare how much money I have in my bank account? Who will love me? What my job title will be? How long I will live?

Of course not. But it simply doesn’t follow from the fact that we do not control the world, or our specific place in it at any given time, that it must be the fixed, objective and singular “thing” we wish/suppose it to be. What’s interesting to me is that if there is any veracity to this claim that the “world” as we think of it simply doesn’t exist, then our relationship to the world changes. Our responsibilities change. Our experience is no longer simply a report on the world’s condition, but the return on our perceptual investment. I want to explore what this could mean, but first I’d like to clarify what I’m suggesting.

For my purpose here it’s fine to declare that water flows downhill and electrons radiate light when they shift places within the atom. I don’t dispute these notions. What’s more interesting to me is how the world’s utterly reliable mechanics mislead us into thinking that our experiences are the result of particular and finite causes—of the world being a certain way. This idea compels us to identify the factors at work around us that have led to the conditions in which we find ourselves. As to what these are, or which are most relevant, we simply do not agree. If half a lifetime of observation is any clue, we’ll never agree.

If the world were as objective as we’ve hoped, meaning that the experiences it engendered were due to orderly causes whose underlying mechanisms were more or less amenable to our tinkering, then it would be meaningful to think we could modulate the world’s dials and change the quality of our existence. But if, instead, there are fundamental relationships between the modes of perception with which we seed the “world” and the sorts of evidence, or experiences, that it returns, then no amount of tinkering with the dials will lead to sustained transformations of experience. This, I believe, is the reality of our condition.

Why does this matter? Well, let us suppose that what we call “the world” exists only as an experiential engine that returns evidence to us of precisely what we have chosen to perceive. If this is so, then 99% of the strategies we find ourselves seeking to implement will fall short of the promised return. This would be important I think. Also, this discovery about the world would suggest we possess capabilities we’ve simply not understood.

Perhaps the most essential argument against what I’m proposing would be this: I can’t wake up tomorrow, flip a switch on my perception, and end poverty. In fact, I can hardly flip the switch on my own life, and if you’re talking about the power of positive thinking… then I can’t believe I’ve even read this far. So let me be clear: I’m not talking about the power of positive thinking.

I’m talking about hereditable, self-reinforcing conditions of perception universally active in the collective human population so fundamental we don’t know how to interrogate them. So fundamental they may even be hard-wired in our biology. One such perception might be this: we exist in a zero sum game. Another might be this: our existence is fragile. Or this: I can draw upon only on what I own. I’m talking about ideas so fundamental, and so ubiquitous, they appear to us as givens. We can’t imagine how they could be outcomes instead of facts. We’ve baked them into the world engine in spades.

If these notions I’ve suggested about perception were so, then what would be the rational response to the world as we “see” it? It would be simple, I think. Being the smartest or most astute would be useless, really. Being “right” about policy would be secondary. What would be most important would be the inner act of perceptually undercutting these hereditable traits of perceptual orientation that have produced the word as it appears to be, and of making other possibilities real to ourselves and others. I think we’d recognize with little to do that any contributions we can make to supplying evidence of the possibility for genuine transformation would be of lasting value. What other response would compute?

Instead of mud-slinging, shouting one another down, insisting on our version of the “truth”, or focusing on achieving the greatest degree of control over external conditions, we’d recognize the greatest resource we have is one another. We might even recognize that policies or actions we take that enable others to perceive the world anew are the ones that matter most, for these contributions would in essence contribute to the lasting cessation of needless suffering. If the gift we wished to give the world each day was the gift of evidencing the idea that the world does not need to be as it is, it would not be so hard.

I don’t have all the answers, not even a fraction of them, but I’m not sure it’s answers that we need. I think we need better questions.

The Round House, A Review

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Book Reviews

Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House is first and foremost a good story. If I was to recount the basic narrative in less than a page—as you would if someone asked you, “what was that one about?”—I think you’d find it interesting even then, and for me it would be hard to do so without wandering off into some enticing narrative thicket. That’s not something we can say about every book that toys with literary greatness.

Imagine someone asking you to tell the story of Mrs. Dalloway, and how difficult it would be to answer. They’re quite different entities, Mrs. Dalloway and The Round House, to be sure, and that’s not to say one is objectively better or worse than another. Such comparisons are ultimately facile. But it is to say that Louise Erdrich tells a beautiful and compelling story—in this case, a story that pushes and pulls on you from start to finish.

The subjects she chooses are visceral and necessary: violence against women, the cuckolding of justice on an Ojibwe reservation, the power of true friendship, and the symmetry of desperation and greed in our world. The urgency Erdrich feels for her themes is obvious, and it gives the work both tenderness and grit. She writes with the need to tell it just so, to be truthful to what it is and who it involves, and to avoid any proximal reporting. The result is a work that orbits the potency of its core on every page, a work unashamed of being what it has to be.

The characters, too, are unflinching in their construction. Flawed and hungry, unique and beautiful, they are accessible to us even as they kindle awareness of meanings that transcend the particular. What I loved about the characters is that they are not layered creations out of literary necessity; they are layered precisely as the world is layered, as we are layered. In this, The Round House is as much a vision as it is a story. It is a book that pierces the illusion of individuals disconnected from the powers they represent, to reveal that we are each indeed containers of history, agents of dreaming and need, and portents of time and place.

The externalized systems in our world attempt to displace the archetypal knowing of ourselves we once possessed, but those systems destroy what they seek to preserve. They rob us, too, of the power of who we are. Erdrich senses this I think, and lets it be what it is on the page. Thus the judge who cannot find justice, the priest who cannot find God, and the cop who cannot find clues. The powerful in this story are the ones who go against the grain, who walk the way that is their own to walk even if they flounder along the path. They are the ones who bring gifts back to the people.

The tragedy revealed by The Round House is the gifts that have been stolen, the physical and spiritual sustenance we all require that has been squandered, usurped, defiled or forgotten. It is when we find ourselves bereft that we, in turn, profane what matters most. In a fable contained within the greater novel, this force takes the form of hunger, which leaves a person vulnerable to possession by a wiindigoo. Such a person becomes an animal that sees other people as food, and if everyone in the community is in agreement, then the person must be killed. But great care must be taken in the killing of this person. Such a step should only be taken once all other remedies have been attempted.

The Round House is the story of one boy’s confrontation with a wiindigoo in the broad daylight of our broken world, and of the steps that must be taken to cast it aside. Erdrich shows that those steps, even taken with care and with courage, exact a toll. In a sense, there can be no justice—no genuine redemption—until the altar at the center of our being, and of our communities, is restored. The altar in this story is the Round House, the ceremonial ground where the physical world is joined with the spiritual, a place that echoes with the wisdom of the buffalo, and also the scene of the crime that sets this novel into motion. Erdrich shows us that the consequences of hunger are not individual, but shared. Until the hunger in us is fed, and the original bounty of this world recovered, we all remain vulnerable to the wiindigoo.

The Sellout, Satire At Its Finest

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Book Reviews

In his landmark paper “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” philosopher Thomas Nagel suggested that an organism is conscious when there is something that it is like to be that organism. It’s a beautiful definition, I think, and one that can be expanded to all sorts of questions of identity. What is it like to be American? To be a farmer? To be an art critic? To be a woman? To be Latino?

Is it possible that we partake of many forms of consciousness simultaneously? I think so, and in Paul Beatty’s delicious, raucous, and profound novel on racism in America, The Sellout, Beatty describes in laugh-out-loud satire and rollicking detail what it is like to be black, only to undermine his own exploration with the discovery that blackness is unintelligible lest it be understood in the context of what it is like to be human.

I’ve read a number of great books in the last few years, but none that I would say were better than this one, and few that I would say were as good. Great art has a sort of recursive genius, a multi-layered exposition that cannot be planned or forced, but arises seemingly of its own volition and I daresay surprises even the artist at times. Individual lines echo major themes. Sequences illumine facets of the whole, and a spirit emerges from the work itself that speaks at every point, yet wriggles out of sight whenever we try to grasp hold of it. This book has that quality in self-referential spades.

We first catch sight of the book’s slippery theme in the Prologue, when the narrator—who is on trial at the district court for reinstituting segregation and slavery in his hometown, as part of an effort to restore the community’s lost identity and literal place on the map—asks why his only plea options are guilty or innocent. “Why couldn’t I be ‘neither’, or ‘both’?” he asks. Then he says, “Your Honor, I plead human.” His lawyer instantly intervenes to clarify an innocent plea, then jokingly requests a change of venue, with Salem, Massachusetts and Nuremburg, Germany being the obvious choices.

The narrator’s father is F.K. Me, a social scientist “of some renown” who conducted experiments on the narrator throughout his childhood. In a reprisal of research conducted by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark on color consciousness in black children, Me presents his son with two dollscapes—one of Ken and Malibu Barbie chilling by the Dreamscape pool, and a second of famous black civil rights leaders being chased through a swamp by plastic German shepherds. Harriet Tubman is a 36-24-36 (bust-waist-hips) Barbie painted black, and the North Star is a Christmas ornament. When the narrator says, “I’m down with Ken and Barbie,” (because they have better accessories), his father yells, “What? Why?” And the research program is terminated. The narrator is sent out to work in the fields.

Dr. Me wears a number of hats, one of which is the local “nigger whisperer.” The narrator witnesses his father’s therapeutic talents on full display when a local gangster takes to the bed of his truck with a nickel-plated .38 and begins reciting poetry from his notebook in iambic pentameter, giving birth to the “crack rock era.” Dr. Me intervenes so the SWAT team doesn’t have to, and when asked by his son what he said to calm the drug dealer down, he replies, “I said, ‘Brother, you have to ask yourself two questions, Who am I? And how may I become myself?’ “

These same two questions bookend the novel, and are asked again by the narrator, of himself, near the novel’s conclusion when he is reflecting on all that has transpired. Despite the many efforts he has made to restore dignity—albeit an obscene variety of it perhaps—to the community of his youth, he still hasn’t been able to answer the most basic questions about himself. While the fact that he is black permeates the entire course of his life, it is not a fact that affords him any genuine self-knowledge. At one point the narrator says, “Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I’d have been better off. I wouldn’t have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn’t have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it.”

This is the paradox that Beatty reveals so masterfully. Blackness isn’t an answer in and of itself, but nor is it anything but relevant to the narrator’s experience of being human. Through prose that cuts and bites and rips with humor—several times I laughed out loud in an otherwise empty room—Beatty grapples head-on with the very real tragedy of racism. He left me with the realization that there is, in fact, something it is like to be black in America, something encoded in the world and its history which we cannot simply strike down with a wand, but also it is a thing which defies absolutes. Its boundaries are diffuse, and whatever it is, we’re all involved in it somehow, whether inside or out.

When we look closely at it, as closely as we can, we find that the center of blackness, as of whiteness, and of every other –ness we would discern, is our tragic inability as humans to hold difference and sameness together. This failure is the essential human handicap. We’ve failed to recognize that both are part of being human, and that each is necessary to the other—that we, in all of our colors and shapes and sizes, can only truly possess our humanity when our uniqueness and our commonality are respected as treasures equally worth preserving. It is this paradox, surfacing in passage after passage to peek at us through Beatty’s delicious harangue of racism in America, that gives this novel life.

What It’s Like

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Poetry

Once I asked Hafiz
what it was like to be God
and Hafiz told me one night
when he should have been sleeping
he asked himself the very same question
and when he imagined what it was like to be God
he discovered God was imagining
what it was like to be Hafiz.
A psychic tremor occurred
in the air of his breath
like when you know your mother is calling
right before the phone rings,
and when Hafiz answered it
and said “Hello…”
the silence of ten thousand angels
holding the line
awoke him
from one cracking hangover of being.
He said that in that state
he couldn’t help but note
that a rose had appeared
in the dry earth
by the well.

Well, Hafiz said to me,
just like he’d told himself
while still holding the barren receiver
up to the side of his head
and witnessing the beauty all around him
in forms too countless to tally,
there could be many explanations
for a rose.

Sometimes for instance, at dawn,
the atmospheric conditions
are just right to produce the sort of dew
that no seed can deny,
and sometimes a seed is carried
to that unsuspecting spot
of dry and well-trodden earth
by the wind or the storks
or in the belly of a deer
when the deer’s belly,
unbeknownst to the deer,
glimpses the Beloved passing through
in the vessel of a perfect seed
and sculpts its enzymes
to clear a labyrinthine path
so the seed
can pass unharmed,

but!
Hafiz told me,
sometimes the Beloved
takes the most direct route possible,
bypassing the wind and the storks and the deer,
so that a rose can occur
not for any particular reason
but for every reason at once,
as if out of nowhere.
This usually happens, he said,
when you imagine what it might be like
to be God imagining what it might be like
to be you.

And you don’t look away.

Then you get that rose
by the well in the dry earth,
or…
you receive, unbidden,
the urge to forgive everything
that ever was or will be,
but in either case
by the time the townspeople
gather their water
and trek to their homes
and wash their babies
and water their goats
and tidy up the kitchen
they forget they ever saw
that rose (or forgave the world)
until later,
at dinner,
with a Friend,
when the light is gentle
and desires are sated
and candles are flickering in the corners,
they get a fuzzy tickle
in the back of their minds
and they wonder
if this is what it’s really like…

…what it’s really like
to be a thought
inside of God
that’s actually
thinking back.