Friday, October 31, 2008

Was Don Quixote serious?



I've been prompted this morning to wake up early and have my breakfast at a local bakery (Panera Bread). It's already the end of the week and I'm seized by that terrible feeling I could have gotten more accomplished. So I launch my morning in a final attempt to squeeze the juice to the last drop. At 9:30 a.m.--when I'm usually sitting at my computer and checking email in my boxer shorts--I'm at the library ready to work.

Last night I watched a clip on YouTube with my girlfriend. I'd seen this clip the night before but because it made me think I wanted to see it again. In this short video, Alan Watts, a British philosopher and student of comparative religion, asks the question, "Is it serious?"

By "it" he means the drama of human existence. And this is a question that has lurked in the back of my mind for some years now. I've wondered about the illusory nature of reality; I studied Buddhism for awhile. I've questioned my deepest struggles and asked whether they were basic or essential, or simply an involuntary creation of my emotions and my ego.

Ask my girlfriend, I am not an especially serious person, and I can even be downright nonsensical at times. I am however very goal-oriented and I take great pleasure in getting things accomplished. In addition, I'm a writer and it seems that writers have to prove themselves before anyone takes them "seriously". Which means, by extension, I have to take myself seriously.

Mr. Watts points out the distinction between work and play. Work tends to follow a linear path; we are working toward a certain end point, even if that end point is the beginning of more, perhaps different, work. In contrast, when we play we have no destination in mind, and the object of play is play itself.

Where does my rigid mentality toward life come from? Was I taught this attitude of seriousness? At times even my play feels effortful and self-conscious. In the last chapter, Autumn Unfolds, I talked about how nature unfolds rather than works to become the different seasons. The leaves fall without effort, not a moment too early, not a moment too late.

I've lost touch with my internal clock. It may be in sync with the seasons but I'm not in sync with it. The clock that I bow down to is the external one on my dashboard. I need to keep an eye on the hour so that everything gets done in a day.

Should there be a point to everything? Should there be a destination?

I've forgotten about the journey. The journey has completely slipped my mind.

Let me tell you a story. In my junior year of college, I dropped out of school. I was on drugs and my parents wanted to send me to rehab so I went to a fancy rehab center in Tuscon, Arizona. After twenty eight days in rehab, they said I wasn't done yet so I went to live in a half-way house in California.

While I was supposed to be getting clean, I was fantasizing about a journey. I wanted to run away from the halfway house and travel around the South West. It depressed me that I was stuck in a house full of ex-junkies and that my day was strictly regimented, drug classes in the morning, work in the afternoon, AA meetings at night. It angered me that I had to sweep the floor, cut the lawn, pull the weeds, and clean the toilets. There seemed to be no end to these menial jobs. My life had become all work and no play.

One afternoon I bought a bottle of whiskey and drank it in the parking lot behind the liquor store. They tested us for alcohol every week, and so I got caught. They asked me to leave the halfway house. Finally, I had the perfect excuse to go on my journey. Like Don Quixote, I set off to an unknown land. Instead of a skinny horse I took a battered Greyhound bus; instead of chasing windmills I went to Las Vegas.

During this erratic wandering, I didn't have a goal in mind. Without a destination or even a purpose for leading an existence other than to have adventures, I immersed myself in a sort of dreamworld. The people I met would enter into my Novel of Life and become instant characters.

I traveled from Las Vegas back to Tuscon and then I hitchhiked through Arizona, where I was picked up by strangers on the highway, and on some nights I slept in the desert. Looking back it seems there was more "play" during this time of my life than any other. My undisciplined mind exulted in breaking the rules of a serious life and "playing" with the limits of reality. Doctors and psychologists had a hard time talking to me because I turned everything into a performance. I also suffered from delusions of grandeur.

Today, almost ten years later, I find myself confronted with the opposite extreme. Too much work and not enough play. I am living the regime of the halfway house without the halfway house itself. My adolescent self understood something that not even my adult self can grasp. If somebody had played the Alan Watt's clip for me, I would have recognized the philosophy as my own. Back then, it was my job to undermine seriousness. I mocked authority figures who seemed to represent a culture of goal-oriented freaks.

While it's true I've become one of those goal-oriented freaks, I do understand that play is not simply a wild rampage. Play is more nuanced than I once thought in my adolescence. The drama of existence may not be serious, but on the other hand, it is also no joke. Therein lies the paradox.
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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Autumn Unfolds



Fall is my favorite time of the year. I live in Central Illinois where despite the cold winters, I enjoy the succession of the seasons. If I lived in a place where the seasons never changed, I imagine I would be stricken with a sort of grief.

Change is inevitable, impossible to avoid, and Fall over all the seasons demonstrates this to us. Why? Because Fall is beautiful, more beautiful than the other seasons. In her bright burst before death, Fall heightens the senses, brings us closer to our bodies, refreshes the psyche.

In the arts, Autumn has been depicted by a hare, vine-leaves or a horn of Plenty brimming with fruit. In mythology, the season is sacred to Dionysus, the god of wine.

Every Fall, I become super-sensitive to the two-day interim between the tail end of Summer and the beginning of Fall. I can remember the warmth of the final day, how the clouds looked, and how I felt; and then, I recall the arrival of the first Autumn day and her cold breath on my face.

I am rejuvenated in the cold air, my whole body awakens. As if Summer were only a long slumber. The scents in the air come alive. I can smell the high school bonfires burning before homecoming. And the corn husk after the fields are cleared. The sky appears as if it has been scrubbed clean; provides a stark background for the range of colors in the leaves.

Driving down the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood, I think of golden apples, which is what the trees look like to me.

The succession of the seasons punctuate the rhythm of life. The seasons reflect our own stages from birth, growth, maturity, and decline. If the leaves are able to move us, then perhaps it is because we see a reflection of ourselves in their beauty. Their beauty represents change, alteration, succession. We sense our own fate in the changing of the landscape.

Really the only proper attitude to take toward life is to marvel at it. To marvel and to keep marveling and never to stop.

When my energy returns (and I'll never understand how I lost it), I gain momentum in my thoughts and my emotions and once again I have a passion to accomplish things. When my energy returns, I feel alive again, throbbing with motivation and good ideas. This overflow of energy of course produces an excitement and a desire for more energy, more action, more accomplishment. Sometimes I get too far ahead of myself.

If there is any "work" to be done in nature, I don't see it. What I see in nature is an unfoldment, a succession of events without effort. I wonder if my life can become like that.

As an adolescent I swung between two extremes--an excessive, almost manic self-directedness, in school, sports and social life--or the opposite, which was undirected, amorphous, purposelessness. You watch the seasons and see neither one of these extremes. You watch the seasons and see how life occurs, how nature unfolds.
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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Balanced or not?



I've stepped back from making individual posts on my various blogs in order to gain a larger perspective. My goal is to fill these notebooks with rough drafts I will then use to make a series of blog posts.

The Book of Innocence was originally intended as a nonfiction book, something in between a collection of personal essays, a book of digressions, a journal. I used a basic structure for the first seven chapters, which is "flight" and "descent," and I would like to maintain some pattern for the next section of the book although I don't know yet what my overall subject-matter will be. Flight, descent, then what?

This book is a contemplation on my life, on my experiences, and on life itself. Recently I've come up against the rapid cycle of my emotions; anticipation, excitement, and then disenchantment and frustration, endlessly repeating. Because this experience was so vivid to me I had to investigate it. What I found was that a pattern lurks beneath the surface of my life, a pattern based upon rising and falling emotions, and the ebb and flow of energy.

Balance. Is there an inborn desire for balance in our species? Or is just the opposite true: our nature keeps us forever imbalanced and incomplete?

Within me I feel there is a chemical reaction that carries me away from myself, just as there is a chemical reaction which draws me nearer to myself, closer to my center.

Ever since Tess (my girlfriend) moved in, there has been a dramatic shift in my lifestyle. But of course I don't attribute all of my changes to her moving in. Another major change occurred during this time period. I began blogging . . . like mad.

I stopped meditating. I stopped working out. I grew fat and addicted to caramel-flavored lattes. All of these instances are evidence enough for some sort of imbalance. It is almost impossible for me to have donuts or ice cream in the house without them disappearing in two days.

But in other ways I've grown. That is, I've gained more balance in other areas. Such as working at the hotel. For the first time in my life, I'm working a regular job--with demands I've never had to cope with before--such as pleasing customers. Also, since Tess moved in, I've become less self-focused. I'm learning to be with somebody other than myself. I can recall when I lived by myself and how that felt. Even in my happiest moments I was still utterly alone in life. Sharing my experiences with Tess has definitely brought me closer to a state of balance with others.

Can a person be balanced and imbalanced at the same time? Can one be healthy and unhealthy? Sane and insane? And if so, how do these opposites mutually coexist?

In any given moment, the human essence, that which I call "me", is in flux. For this reason opposites are allowed to mingle and exist side by side one another. The flux of the human essence refuses to be pigeonholed into an absolute state, happiness, for example, or total misery.

Perhaps a suicide commits suicide not because of the certainty of his feelings, but the uncertainty, the flux. Being human means being incompatible with oneself. One is balanced in a certain way and imbalanced in another. We cannot just be this or that. We are all things, contradictory and inconclusive.

The flux involves elements that are both in order and out of order. Nothing will ever be complete. Forget perfection. You are torn at the roots of every moment. Which gives us a chance to renew ourselves if we are looking forward. But also a sense of disappointment and disenchantment if we are looking back.

Maybe I won't write out all of these chapters ahead of time. Maybe I'll just come to the library every day and write a chapter in my notebook. Then I'll return home and transcribe it into a post as I have done today.

Wow, it feels good to be writing again.
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