Sunday, July 21, 2019

Live Sanely, Live Simply

Reality occasionally cuts through the artificial world we’ve created for ourselves. It is at such moments we realize how distant the two have grown from each other.

It happened to me today at work when a coworker noticed I was being bothered by the fan blowing at me and stated that it really wasn’t warm enough to have a fan on. He then said he could point it in a different direction if I wanted.

That’s it. That’s the moment. I realized that people no longer consider turning things off as an option. That would have been the logical choice for anyone from a past generation. That is the correct action that was drilled into my skull by my parents as a child. If you're  not using it, turn it off. If you’re not watching the television, turn it off. If you’re not in a room, turn the light off.

Sounds like nagging, doesn’t it? What it actually is is common sense. Your parents nagged you for a reason, because you had a lot to learn. They nagged you because they knew there was an electric bill to pay every month and there were real consequences for wasting energy.

More than that, though, they grew up in a different reality, one where thrift was not only wise, it was necessary. You did not waste because the alternative might just be hunger or abject poverty. For many of our ancestors, it was a matter of life and death.

We no longer have real connection to the world in which we live. Out of sight and out of mind is the supply side for the electricity. We do not see the power plant where the electricity is created. We are not aware of the excess heat created along with the energy that contributes to a warming planet. We do not see the mountains of coal that have been shipped from out of state, mined by people who work horrible jobs and destroy their health in the process. We do not see the ravaged landscapes that are the result of coal mining. We never think about the many people involved in bringing electricity to our homes and places of business: the linemen, the loaders of ships and the crew of such vessels. So given our blindness to our reality, why would we ever think to turn something off, especially at work where someone else is paying for it?

I caught myself in my own little bubble recently. I was about to pour myself a glass of water but had just done the dishes and didn’t want to dirty another glass. So I thought about just having a can of Pepsi. And then it hit me: I would save myself the energy of washing a dish by having others mine aluminum, ship it somewhere to be fashioned into a can, fill it with ingredients from God knows where, and then take it by semi to my local grocery store, where I would waste gasoline extracted from Saudi Arabia, shipped to Texas where it was refined, and then brought north to Wisconsin where an attendant is paid money to take mine. But it really was simpler on my end to have a Pepsi.

The problem is that we are all interconnected in ways we don’t ever stop to think about. In fact, we have become so interconnected that it is impossible to comprehend. Truth be known, we would not have a cell phone or the clothes we wear without people—often children—being exploited in order to provide us with cheap goods we don’t really need. Nobody, given a direct choice, would choose to have children mining precious metals for subsistence wages. But, you see, it’s just so darn…convenient. And the underlying principle of convenience is that we don’t want to think too much about it. So much easier to go with the flow.

The problem with going with the flow and with convenience is that in the long term they lead us to a bad end. Nobody got anywhere worth going by taking the convenient route. There’s a price that isn’t being paid and a reality not being dealt with, and eventually it will come back to bite us.

It is time—way past time—for us to begin reconnecting to our world and our fellow humans in simple and concrete ways, of trimming out the complexity that leads to alienation. To do this we have to swap out the concept of convenience for simplicity, replace quantity of goods for quality of experience.

We don’t need more possessions, larger televisions, or faster internet service. Anyone complaining they don’t have enough of those things in 21st Century America is sick in the head. In truth, we are a society that has been suffering for quite some time now with the disease of consumption. We have made as our heroes those who do much, create much, have much. The people we need to start holding up as role models are those who take little, both from others and from nature. Those who find contentment in the simple joys that are afforded to the many instead of those that can only ever be afforded by the few.

This is not only necessary, it will feel good. Once the sickness has passed, we will realize just what a fever-induced delirium we have been living. Once we have freed ourselves from our insulated bubbles, we will feel how healthy it is to be connected to the world in real and meaningful ways. We will once again know how it feels to walk barefoot through the grass with the sun on our skin. We’ll realize that sun-dried sheets smell infinitely better than a dryer sheet. We’ll once again eat real food, live in the seasons, wear clothes made by willing workers rather than children under threat of starvation. 

This is going to be good.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Meditations On A Poem By Caitlin Johnstone

If you have not yet read it, I highly suggest this wonderful poem by Caitlin Johnstone. Her book Woke is never too far from my side and I often reread it and meditate upon it. I was recently doing so and would like to add to what she said in my own non-poetic way.

Have the courage to speak, yes, but also have the courage to feel. Because the bastards not only want to shut you up, they want to shut you down. Sadists are like that. They not only want to control your behavior, they want to control your very thoughts and emotions. They do not permit you your own feelings. Your feelings are an assault upon their mastery. They will seek to convince you your very feelings betray what a worthless person you are. Feel!

And you are tempted to shut down your feelings, aren’t you? You see the horrible things the bastards are doing--the killing of innocents, the perversion of childhood, the destruction of forests, the defaming of truth-tellers--and it all becomes too much to deal with, so you look away, pretend it isn’t happening and distract yourself with lesser things. You create you only little niche where you feel you can have some impact, and in so doing abandon the idea of being powerful on the more important issues. You create for yourself a smaller--tiny--world, because when you open up your feelings all you get is pain.

But don’t stop feeling. Take it all in, every bit of it. Accept what your eyes see, what your ears hear and what your heart knows. It is not your feelings and senses that are betraying you but the sadists who see you as another commodity on the shelf which they can buy and then dispose of when you become useless. Feel more intensely, and you will feel the power surge back into your weary and faded essence. Feel more fully and you will once again be flooded with your own power, and it will rinse away the fear and self-loathing that has dominated your life for too long. Feel and you will have the power of righteous indignation Dr. King spoke of. Feel because that’s what it means to be alive. And you are ever so gloriously alive. Feel because if you don’t you are already dead. Feel, because if you are already dead you have nothing more to fear from the sadists.

Feel because only in feeling do you realize your power. Only in being fearlessly yourself can you counteract those who wish to possess you in a material as well as a mental and spiritual manner. To feel is to be in touch with that miracle of life that flows through you every second you are on Earth. And this alone is the answer to oppression. This is the spiritual response to the materialist’s preference for possessions over human beings, domination over love. To be open to what you are feeling and thinking is the answer to conformity and authoritarianism. If you allow yourself to feel, you will finally realize you are not a thing which can be owned but an individual who needs not bow to anyone.

To be open to that which flows in you is to take the greatest of pleasures in the simplest of experiences: the smell of a flower, the touch of a cool breeze, the sound of waves lapping on the shore. In being open to that flow you realize all the temptations of the sadists are perverted and ugly distractions. In being open to the life within you, you understand that there is nothing they can threaten you with that is more fearful than closing yourself off to yourself. The only real hell is submission to their dominance. In realizing you are not a thing but life itself, you will no long require their baubles and their cheap toys they sell as the keys to happiness, no longer fear what their wrath.

Live, and do not resign yourself to a life within the shadows. Live and abandon the cages they wish to keep you in. The only real means of resisting is by rejecting. They cannot define you.

It means nothing to speak without fear, it means everything to feel and look without fear. The timid soul can speak fearlessly because, never daring to look at things as they are, never allowing themselves to feel genuine emotion, they will never utter a disquieting thought.

Nietzsche’s expression “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back” sounds as if it comes from one who has been to the edge and come back to tell the tale. It sounds like the statement of a great explorer who has come to the end of human ability to explore reality. In truth they are the words of a coward who peered into the depths, saw things that frightened him, and ran away. Look, look into the abyss without worrying about what stares back. Do not fear the utter darkness for it is your mission to bring light to it. When the abyss stares back be so unafraid and open that your brightness causes it to avert its gaze. You are light. You are life.

Once you have gazed upon the abyss and driven away the monsters of your own creation that lurk there, you will have no need to worry about what it is you should say. The words will burst from you. They will burst from life itself, because that is what you are.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Atman: An Attempt At Poetry

I saw a plastic water bottle
Bobbing on the waves
Of a poisoned lake
We cannot drink from the river
But it’s okay
There’s a bottle for you
And a bottle for me
Just none for the fish.
It’s the best way
It’s the only way
It is God’s way.
It’s the Market’s way.
We cannot share
That is wrong,
That makes us lazy
That makes us unfree
We must work for ourselves
So we can buy a plastic bottle
For our own private use
Or the poison will get us.
We are all bottles of water
Bobbing on the sea
Afraid to spill ourselves into the whole
Separated by a plastic barrier from the all
Our lids snuggly tight
Killing the planet
To save ourselves

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Clipper City Co-Op

Above is a picture I took a couple months ago. Back then, it was hard to imagine being where we are now, basking in the warmth of summer weather.

Two months ago, the first fruits and vegetables of summer seemed so very far away. And yet now my sink is full of the food we've acquired through our CSA and the local farmers' market.
You see, while I was feeling stranded in a seemingly never-ending winter, others were getting ready for the growing season. While others prepared the soil, planted the seeds, and did all of the hard work required to bring a bounty to my table, all that was required of me was a little faith and patience. Now I am enjoying the results of their planning and efforts. It's a pretty good deal for someone who knows next to nothing about growing food.

But I have planted a little seed of my own. If you look once more at the picture of my front yard buried in piles of snow, you can catch a glimpse of it. It is my yard sign for the Clipper City Co-Op. It symbolizes my commitment to community and to a better way of bringing food to our families, a way to help sustain local agriculture.

Oh, I know, the Clipper City Co-Op is not yet a physical grocery store. But the first signs of its growth are apparent in the many signs you see in people's front yards. While others sit in their houses, not capable of imagining anything other than the current season, those who see the need are preparing for the season to come. Even those who are not involved in the work of bringing it to fruition can contribute through a small token of faith. Become a member, the season of the Clipper City Co-Op will be upon us before we know it. Happy Eating.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Farewell, Hartman's

Bella, hoping for a cookie.

There is something sacred about a bakery. That may seem like an absurd statement to you, but you would think differently if you had the smell of freshly baking bread about you. For the last 20 years I have had that privilege, as Hartman’s bakery has sanctified my neighborhood with it’s intoxicating aroma the way a church is filled with frankincense.

There is no better neighbor than a baker. There is no business you would rather have in your neighborhood than a bakery, except perhaps a cafĂ© or bookstore (fortunately, we have both within blocks of our house). I have lived a block away from Hartman’s for decades now and I only have to step out of my house and breath deeply to be reminded that we are blessed by its presence. There is no bottled perfume at any cost that can be as alluring.

When I was young, we would go to visit my grandmother, who also had a bakery right around the corner from her house. It was one of my fonder memories of visiting her, being sent to buy a loaf of bread and given enough money to buy myself a cream puff, as well. Bread had always been nothing more than bread to me, until I had toast at my grandma’s. The bread was not the type I was used to, did not fit perfectly in the toaster, so that some parts were burnt while other parts still white. But there was a taste to it that could not be compared, especially when paired with boysenberry jam canned by an aunt or friend of the family. The most enduring memories are those that are related to a smell, and to this day I can still vividly recall the smell of fresh bread toasting in my Grandmother’s kitchen.

Moving into a house that had a bakery so close brought back vivid and pleasant memories of youth. More than that, it created many new moments, for my wife, myself and our son. I remember our son being an early riser, and we could buy a few extra moments of sleep by giving him a small amount of change to purchase something from Hartman’s. He always seemed to return with more than he had money for, and I half-suspect someone there had taken pity on the boy whose appetite was greater than the sum of his quarters.

My dog, too, was a fan of Hartman’s bakery. For years we would walk by it on an almost daily basis, and often I’d stop for a dog cookie or two (all right, I might have gotten a cream-filled Long John to go with it). I’d put her cookies in a white bag and hand it to her, and she would carry it home in her mouth as daintily as Jackie Onassis with a hand bag. One of my great pleasures was seeing drivers-by stare at my dog as we walked home. Dogs, too, would stare, sticking their heads out of the car windows as if in envy.

My dog would want to stop at the bakery every time we passed by it, and often times when it was closed I would have to drag her away. On one occasion, the owner was outside and noticed my dog’s intent. He told us to wait where we were, and in a moment returned from inside with a handful of cookies for my very grateful dog. And—I think it’s okay to say this now—on several occasions, he permitted my Bella into the bakery itself in order to have a look around.

I can tell you everybody’s favorites. My wife likes the peanut squares, my son likes the frosted cookies, and I like the cream-filled Long Johns. Or the cream-filled chocolate cupcakes. Or the seven-layer squares. My mom’s favorites were the apple fritters and the glazed croissants. I can’t recall how many times I stopped at the bakery to grab donuts on my way to my mom’s house. I always brought extra because my mom loved to share. It was a real treat for her neighbors on the south side of town.

I like to walk, and in the 20 years I lived in the neighborhood, I’ve easily walked past the bakery thousands of times. I have seen countless people go in to Hartman’s and come out with arms full. I have bought donuts to bring to work for my birthday, seen parents buying cakes for their children’s. I have seen the happy faces of those who walked up to the door, and have witnessed their secret suffering when they saw the Closed sign on the door and had to turn away empty-handed. I have seen the misfortune of a child who dropped his cookie on the sidewalk and the good fortune of my dog who was not at all shy about eating off the ground.

There are certain things that make a community unique, and for many years Hartman’s was one of them. Hartman’s is closing, and it makes me very sad, but I understand that nothing lasts for ever and I wish all the best to those who have given so much to the neighborhood for so long. You have touched many people in positive ways, and the smell of baking donuts will linger forever in my memory. Thank you.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Beggar Who Blessed Me

I was recently in Columbia, spending time visiting loved ones and seeing the sights. When travelling somewhere for the first time, especially for someone who doesn’t have the opportunity to travel much, figuring out how much cash to bring and how much to convert to local currency can be a guessing game that doesn’t go very well.

So after a couple of days bumming around I was out of pesos. Which, added to the fact that my credit card wasn’t working, left me in a rather foul mood. It wasn’t because of a compulsion to shop and consume, but because I felt a bit of a drag on those in my company because I didn’t feel like I was contributing my part. Worse than that, I wasn’t able to give a pittance to help the local economy. In Columbia there are a lot of street performers and vendors who aren’t shy about looking to do business. On two separate occasions I had street rappers decide to do their rap in front of me. It would have been convenient to throw them a few thousand pesos and have them move on to the next sap. More importantly, it would have made me feel good to support those vendors who are out there all day hustling to earn an existence. Buying an arepa from a local for the price of a U.S. dollar would have been a mutually beneficial exchange. But there was an even greater reason I was feeling bad about not having cash on hand.

Coming from a small city in the United States, I am not used to witnessing homelessness and poverty so close up. There was a fair amount of that on display in the areas of Columbia I visited. And while I’m past the age of believing I am morally obliged to fix every bit of suffering, I am also past the age where I'm comfortable turning away and pretending I don’t see it. But having no cash on hand, I had no other choice. It made me feel bad.

The first time you turn away from the misfortune of others is hard, but it becomes increasingly easier thereafter. It is a habit that forms quickly, and pretty soon you are able to walk past those people in need as if they don’t really exist.

There are plenty of good explanations and rationalizations for doing so. “They’re just playing upon your sympathies.” “They’re not really that bad off, they’ve just found an easy way to make a buck.” “If you give to one, the others will take you for an easy mark.” “You’re not really helping them, you’re just contributing to their problems.” And there are plenty of people who are eager to share these explanations with you, those who have experienced the same discomfort and found easy explanations in order to relieve themselves of this discomfort. People you trust, people you like, friends, family. But it’s just a way of avoiding real problems in order to live in a more comforting, imaginary world. I’ve come to realize this is not a good way to go through life, that reality can only be walled off for so long.

Fortunately, my wife woke up early one morning and managed to find an ATM, allowing me to carry some pesos along with me. The first thing I did was to give a meager amount to a man sleeping in a doorway across the street from our Airbnb. I thought at first that he was one who had so tugged at my heartstrings the night before when he pled with me for a little something and I had nothing to give, but it turned out to be someone else. There is no shortage of the truly needy. Nonetheless, I gave this man a few dollars and he gave me a “God bless you” in return. It was a greater blessing to me than any that could have been given by any spiritual or religious leader, and I have no doubt as to who got the better of that transaction. I was not expecting that. I was expecting a strictly financial transaction, but found myself dealing with a real human being capable of touching me as I did him.

It wasn’t much, and I certainly was no one’s savior, but I was now able to give a few coins to the indigent I met in the streets, was now able to see them as human beings, part of the same community and world I inhabited. The pull to resist such an attitude was strong both from myself and others, as if I was threatening to pull apart the very fabric of reality. And in a way, it was. It was the smallest participation in the message that Jesus delivered two millennia ago, it was the faith of a mustard seed which moved our perception of the world undiscernibly but undeniably. The mountain hadn’t moved much, but it had shifted, at least within my understanding. It’s an understanding that is threatening to the accepted way of viewing the world.

Cast your bread upon the water and you will anger those you call family and friends. Embrace ever so slightly the vision that our hope for security rests not in what we can gather for ourselves and loved ones from a harsh world but instead in our shared humanity, and you will witness just how radical Christ’s example was.

I can understand why people are afraid of Christ’s teaching, because it rips you away from all you’ve known, takes you away even from the security of family and friends and offers only the unseen and unproven community of humanity. But even the smallest taste of the reward of seeing Christ even in the eyes of the humblest among us will have you desiring more. And I understand the fear of believing in a sky god, so if that’s your hang-up, get rid of it for now. Embrace instead the idea of loving others as yourself, fearlessly. There is something to that notion that is real as gravity, though both are invisible forces. “Ah,” you say, “but science has proven gravity exists, it has not proven Christ’s message.” That may be true, but gravity did not require science’s blessing to exist, it had been doing its thing long before Sir Isaac Newton. It existed when man’s scientific understanding of the world they lived on could not fathom the Earth as a sphere but merely a flat plain. But the laws of gravity were obeyed despite the fact they were not understood, were intuited though not explored.

I invite you to investigate the radical notion of Christ’s teaching as a scientist would an unexplained natural phenomenon. With an open heart and an open mind. Not with a preconceived idea of what it is or is not, but with a curiosity for a force that has existed for millennia, an undeniable though as yet unexplainable something. I do not ask you to believe, in fact I think it is preferable that beliefs be left behind for this voyage. I ask only that you leave yourself open to the possibility of the experience, the seeing of the divine in even the least of your fellow human beings.

I could have done more, should probably always be doing more. Like I said before, I wasn’t anybody’s savior. But I do think perhaps we can all be each other’s saviors, each of us helping to save one another and humanity as a whole. And we can do so by always making the effort to see the humanity that exists in even the least of us.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Think Twice Before Finding Something To Do

Hamlet Contemplates Doing Something

It has come to my attention that the less tasks I undertake the less busy I am and the more time I have for other things, such as relaxing. As a matter of fact, the only logical explanation for doing anything at all is to get it out of the way so that later you can relax. And the truth is, most things don’t need doing in the first place so you’re just putting one extra step in between you and relaxation time.

Always put off until tomorrow what can be done today, because by tomorrow conditions might change. If they do not, you will it least have an extra day to come up with a reason you shouldn’t have to do it tomorrow, either. If you follow in this advice long enough it is very likely that some busybody will tire of waiting for you and do it himself, or else people will adapt and forget a problem exists at all. People adjust rather quickly once realistic hope fades from the equation.

Thinking about doing something is okay, but it's a step in the wrong direction. If you do it properly, it is a nice form of relaxation to contemplate actually accomplishing something. But sometimes such flights of fancy lead to inspiration, which is quite dangerous, in that it leads to actually start something, and that is the kiss of death. Starting something is like signing a piece of paper an Army recruiter puts in front of you: you’ve committed to a long stretch of time in which you will suddenly find yourself wed to work you have no interest in performing.

There has never been a time when I started a project that my inspiration has outlasted the task. 15 minutes into even the simplest job will reveal complications I never imagined possible. But there’s no stopping at that point: even stopping will require work just to get back to where you were before you started. If you quit and walk away then you’ll be left with a mess of tools lying around that were neatly packed away before motivation got the better of you. Not only will you have yet another messy area in your house, you will have that sense of failure hanging over you as you settle into your place on the couch and try to watch television. There will be a sense of guilt you cannot shake, and guilt is a very dangerous thing, because it will lead in the future to you trying to redeem yourself by starting some other unnecessary project and seeing it through to completion.

And say you do carry a project to completion, what then? Say you’ve found the intestinal fortitude to build a garage or a swimming pool: it’s only going to lead to more work. That pool will have to be cleaned frequently, that garage will need painting and repairs. Whereas if you had simply sat on your couch for the amount of time it took you to accomplish something, you would now have far more time to sit around now. Not only that, you’ve established a very bad precedent, one which others will then try to hold you to.

Now you may ask me if it was worth all the energy it took me to write this. I would say that if it stopped a single person from doing some unnecessary task, then yes it was. And writing about work is really no different from talking about work, and as we know talk is cheap. I would go so far as to say that thinking about work is the finest ways to react to work. One has never dirtied one’s hands thinking about work, never had to make multiple trips to the hardware store, never cracked one’s knuckles or made a mess by thinking. As a matter of fact, the more you think about doing something, the less likely you will find the time to actually start on it. Just ask Hamlet. It was thinking too much that prevented him from killing his uncle. More than that, he thought himself out of killing himself with a dagger. And that would have made a mess which someone would have had to clean up.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Improving On Miracles

I wanna love you and treat you right
I wanna love you every day and every night
We'll be together with a roof right over our heads
We'll share the shelter of my single bed
We'll share the same room, yeah! - for Jah provide the bread
Is this love - is this love - is this love
Is this love that I'm feelin'?
-Bob Marley

Is This Love? By Bob Marley was playing in my head at work today, and as it did I contemplated the innocent joy contained in the lyrics. And whether or not it was intended, the impression I got was that the life the singer was offering to his lover was one of modest creature comforts: a roof, a single bed, and daily bread. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Doesn’t sound like the American dream, that’s for sure. How many women nowadays would accept such a meager proposal, and how many men would be comfortable offering no more. Women are expected to view themselves as princesses, and men as conquerors.

But I couldn’t help getting the impression that what Marley was singing about was love in its purest form, the simple idea of two people coming together and appreciating the other and wanting to commit their lives to each other. This is one of the true joys in life, and all else is adornment. More than that, I would say it distracts from the miracle which is best experienced when stripped of all baser elements. Love without expectations of other things is love unadulterated, is love fully experienced. It is participation in the miracle of existence.

Love is not improved by silken sheets, it is made decadent. It is no longer the merging of two souls but a sensory experience augmented by material possessions. It is not a miracle found but a hunger never to be satisfied.

Our problem is that we are always trying to improve those things which by themselves are miracles. We are given gifts and experiences of inexplicable beauty and we ask ourselves how we can make them better.

We pride ourselves in creating a society where we can purchase asparagus at our local supermarket any time of the year, but we have lost the connection to the season, have no idea what it must have felt like to have survived a long winter and experience the first blessings of spring. There was a sacredness and connectedness in our existence that we can no longer begin to imagine. We have created for ourselves a reality where words like sacredness and blessings and miracles are alien concepts. But they were words that were created to express genuine human feelings and ways of seeing and being. We use the word awesome when so few of us have ever come close to experiencing awe. We experience the most profound of miracles and all we can think of is how can we improve upon them.

I can’t help thinking the lowliest peasant in the most backwards of nations has experienced life’s true joys more than most of us ever will. Surely there was something life offered to primitive humans to make them want to endure and reproduce, because they lacked all that we hold most dear and yet it seems we ourselves are barely holding on to any sort of happiness, any sort of hope for future generations.

Think to the times when you felt happy, content, connected. Think of those moments when you were closest to finding real meaning and joy. I’m willing to bet such memories are accompanied by the smell of something your grandmother was cooking, the sound of waves lapping on the shore, or the touch of the sun upon your skin. I’m guessing they involve staring up at the stars and contemplating life with friends of your youth, or staring at the daytime sky and wondering if you’ve ever seen it so blue.

Our lives are non-stop explosions of miracles, each instant a potential connection to both mystery and contentedness. And the more simply we live the more connected we are to such miracles. A bowl of vegetable soup or a discovered patch of strawberries gives to us a gift we can never repay, and in feeling gratitude and an awareness of being blessed, our joy is increased yet further. Yet we continue to seek ways to augment our experience, pile up more blessings not only in fear for the future, but because we cannot sufficiently appreciate the present. And in wanting, in desiring, we reach past what gives us true happiness. We endlessly chase our own misery, even as miracles abound.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

You Have The Power To Choose

When the seas can no longer support life, when the last forests have been clear-cut for timber and agricultural interests, when climate change becomes an undeniable catastrophe and nature a ravaged monstrosity we shun, remember that this was your choice. You chose it in the smallest of ways countless times. It was a choice you made with every plastic bottle of water you purchased. It was made every time you said “plastic’s fine”, “I need a bigger car”, “I want a big family”, “I’m building a new home in the country”, or “I’ll take a bacon cheeseburger”. It didn’t just happen and you weren’t powerless to make a difference. You matter, but you chose to listen to those who told you you didn’t.

But just as your bad choices can doom the planet, so can even your smallest choices and actions help to save it. Every time you have a choice to make, you have the opportunity to choose a revolutionary one, regardless of its individual impact. For each positive action you take, you will show to yourself and others that change is possible, desirable, and not so very difficult. Each refusal to accept the status quo will make the next choice not quite so difficult. Soon you will realize you are not living in fear. Soon you will realize you do not have to subject your will and your hopes and dreams to some greater authority, but are in fact an agent of change capable of helping to make the world the way you want it to be. You will not be a slave but a free man. For God’s sake, you might even find yourself feeling joyful.

You can find yourself not merely rushing through life but actively connected to each moment. You will experience the feeling that you are where you are meant to be, living the life you were meant to live, rather than feeling you have to accept the lot handed out to you by a cruel and ugly world. You won’t have to foster idiotic and immature fantasies of what your life might be because you will experience happiness as a real, mature, human being. You might even catch yourself thinking something like “Holy fuck, life is beautiful. I never thought it could be like this. This is what I’ve been working for my whole life, and it had nothing to do with a big house and an expensive car and a fake-titted wife.” You might find that happiness is not something the outside world rewards you with if you sacrifice yourself to it but instead something you feel when you get in touch with your real desires and motivations.

You have the opportunity to choose joy over desperation, hope over resignation, improvement over hopelessness and resignation. Because you are not only powerful but good. Because you want both what is good for you and good for everyone else. All you have to do is believe that a better world is possible, just like a junkie can begin to see that his addiction doesn’t have to rule him.

Just remember, the only argument you have against what I am saying is “I’m powerless, there’s nothing I can do.” It is the argument the addict makes again and again. It is what leads him to rock bottom. We are all there now. We have reached the point where there is nowhere to go but up. Let us, like the addict who seeks to turn his life around, no longer lie about the reality of the situation. Let us make the first steps back towards life in the only way possible, in faith that there is a better tomorrow out there for us. And once you do so, once you take that first step, you will realize that it isn’t about the destination at all but the joy you will experience walking the path. You will feel happy, you will feel empowered, and you will wonder why you have not taken this path long ago.

The choice, and the power, is yours.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Reflection Is Only Possible In Tranquil Moments

“When I was young I would throw a rock into the water just to make a splash, now I am content to gaze into the calmness in order to gain some appreciation of what the reflection can show me.”
Stand at the edge of a dock or look out from the edge of a boat and you will see your reflection in the water. It will not be a perfect image, there are always distortions caused by waves or ripples, even on the calmest of water. Nevertheless, you will get a pretty good image of yourself and all that surrounds you.

Most of us are content with what we see on the surface, never bothering to question what may lie beneath. In fact, many of us are not interested in what the image in the water might have to show us. We buy the largest motors and boats we can afford in order to get from one side of the lake to the other as quickly as possible. In the process, we stir up the water so much we can see nothing in it at all. In our haste, we only see confusing flashes of light.

To see clearly, not only our own reflection but the reflection of our surroundings, we need tranquility. Calmness is not an easy skill to master, especially not in this age of ski boats. It requires bringing in the oars for a moment and seeking quietude. Ah, but what a picture can be seen if we remain silent and still. It is in such moments that we not only are able to see the world around us, we are able to get glimpses beneath the surface. For all we have known before is merely a reflection, a mirror image, an illusion. But if we stare, if we stay still, if we reflect, we leave ourselves open to glimpses of another reality, one that is deeper than any we have ever known. We have sensed it when diving into the water and feeling seaweed rub against our legs. We have sometimes felt the gentle nibbling or movement of small fish upon our skin, responded reflexively to the contact. But never before were we able to know what it was.

And once we train our eyes to see beyond the surface image we will always know, even at the most tempestuous of moments, that there is something deeper and more abiding than the surface turmoil.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Wisdom Perspective, and Love

You can be clever and intelligent, you can be shrewd and cunning, but you can never be wise until you are courageous to the point of being nearly fearless. You cannot be wise without courage because you will always shy away from looking honestly at life, and without an honest appreciation of what is real, you will never have anything truly meaningful to say. Martin Luther King Jr. was wise, Mahatma Gandhi was wise, and they were wise because they put no prize above their desire to see life as it is. In their pursuit of wisdom, they did not place the barriers so many of us do of personal safety or profit. Wisdom requires a transcendence of self, requires not seeing through your own eyes merely but through every possible set of eyes one can imagine: through the eyes of your family and friends, your neighbors, and strangers you pass on the street. You cannot restrict your viewpoint to those with whom you agree but also must seek to understand those who call themselves your enemy.

The courage that permits wisdom demands you relinquish all of your biases, which act as defenses. You must abandon not only self but your larger affiliations, which, after all, are merely larger sorts of self. You must attempt to see reality through God’s eyes. And in doing so, you must not limit God to what you believe him to be or what your larger group tells you God is. Again, you must see through the eyes of others. You must attempt to see God through the eyes of those who call him Allah, must see him through the eyes of those who call him Vishnu, those who do not call him by any name and yet seek him though they know it not.

You can only hope to achieve wisdom through humility. A man with one eye is a fool if he claims he has good perspective. A man with two eyes is a fool if he believes himself imparted with wisdom. Wisdom cannot begin to emerge until you have seen life from the perspective of a thousand eyes, from every corner of the globe, from various points of history, from various points along the economic ladder. A farmer has wisdom, but it is not Wisdom. A professor has wisdom, but if he has no dirt under his fingernails, it is not Wisdom.

Seek the wisdom of the young, who see life through unbiased eyes. Seek the wisdom of the old, who at last have seen through the many stages of life. Though their eyes be weak, their vision blurry, their knowledge of what to look for is unsurpassed.

Lastly, look through the eyes of animals. Perhaps they have more to tell us than any human. Certainly they are more free from human bias. Certainly they can teach us how to live in the moment. They can teach us too in their foibles, their inability to comprehend the things we do. Because though our brains may be more complex, our limitations—in the grand scale—are far closer to theirs than to the unlimited universe.

Look through the eyes of all of them and you might achieve the greatest wisdom achievable to man: love. After all, perhaps that’s what love is, the ability to see life through the eyes of another. When we love another, we seek to make them happy. To truly make another happy, we must first ask what it is that makes them happy. To do so, we must place ourselves in their situation, look through their eyes. It is only when we can do this that we can fully express love, only then will our actions be a blessing to those we love.

The greatest courage we can attain is to step out of our own little shells, to leave self and ego behind and float, selfless and vulnerable, through all the life we encounter. In leaving our home, we find everywhere to be home. In leaving ourselves, we find everybody and everything to be us.

Once wisdom is attained, courage is no longer required.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Some Thoughts On Depression

When I was young, perhaps in my early teenage years, I experienced a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness I had never felt before. The feeling passed after a while, then occurred again some time later. I experienced it on and off for years until I first heard of SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, and realized that my depression seemed to occur at the same time of year every year. And that knowledge alone was enough to make me realize that this change of mood had an explanation and could be dealt with.

When I began to feel this sense of depression coming on—it usually began after Thanksgiving and lasted up until Christmas—I had a name to call it, recognized it as a transient phase rather than some unknowable darkness that had descended upon me and might never leave. In this way I could manage my depression. One, by telling myself it was something I only had to endure for a limited span of time, and two, by making sure I stayed occupied and didn’t allow myself to dwell in it too much. For years I coped with feelings of hopelessness at this time of the year, but each year seemed to get easier as I got better at dealing with it.

But something has happened in the last few years, so that now a third stage of what I once called depression and later called SAD has emerged: I have come to view this change of seasons not as a bad thing at all but merely something to be accepted and embraced for what it is. In short, I no longer view it as a condition or a disease, but merely a necessary change. I have come to appreciate the change of seasons, come to realize there is a need deep within me to change inwardly as my external environment changes. Winter has become a time to rest, recuperate, plan, and work towards an impending spring.

For years my internal processes were at odds with external patterns. In my youth and without the background to see it properly, I named that discord depression. Later, having something upon which to base my experience and emotional transformation, I called it SAD. Still later, having an outlook that makes me seek balance between external reality and my inner workings, I have come to see a need for me to change with the seasons. While the suffering I felt was real, the process I went through was a necessary and helpful one. Progress comes through pain because discomfort is an incentive to change. Through it all, never did I feel the need to be prescribed drugs. I did, however, suffer; I don’t want to make light of that.

Now let me stop my story for a moment in order to address an argument many have expressed to me: “You were able to work through whatever was wrong and that’s good. But there are others who require drugs in order to help their depression, and you shouldn’t judge.”

Fine, I accept that argument. Some people need drugs in order to cope with their mental or biological deficiencies. There is something lacking in them that requires help from an external source, something wrong with their internal chemistry that requires added chemicals.

Nevertheless, I did not require drugs prescribed to me and it turns out there was nothing fundamentally wrong with me that I could not fix on my own. I’m sure there are those who would have been willing to provide me with medication to solve my problem had I sought help. As a matter of fact, my general practitioner once asked me if I wanted some kind of psychoactive drug even though I never made the slightest indication that I had a problem. I believe that not one of us would be turned away from being given prescription drugs to deal with emotional or psychological issues should we seek it out (and have the money to pay for it).

Again, drugs may be necessary or at least useful in some circumstances, but that does not mean that in other circumstances we are not better off figuring our own way to deal with problems that cause us emotional pain or psychological discomfort. If this is true, then some individuals are being hurt by unnecessary drug prescriptions rather than being encouraged to seek out natural, moral and spiritual paths to answers. And the harm done to individuals by unnecessarily medicating pales in comparison to the damage caused to society. When we visit a doctor—be it one for the body or the mind—we are never told that the fault lies in society. We are never told that we feel bad because injustice exists or that institutions are corrupt or inefficient. In short, we are never encouraged to work together to solve the problems that are causing our physical or psychological ailments. It is the job of the medical professional to fix the individual so that he/she can function in the society in which he/she lives rather than considering it is the existing systems and society that are the problem. Medicine cannot address the problems of a society, it can only help the individual adapt to his society, be it a healthy or a sick one. If society itself is sick, molding individuals to function within its framework will only make society that much worse.

When Leo Tolstoy reached the age of 50, he underwent a profound disillusionment with his life. He was unable to find contentment in his success or his place in the world. Had he lived in the present age he most surely would have sought help and been given medication in order to make him once again content with the role he played in society. As it was, after thorough soul-searching and a great deal of personal unpleasantness, he underwent a spiritual transformation that altered the course of his life. Not only did it change his own life, it went on to influence Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Tolstoy’s conversion to the principles of non-violence have literally reshaped the 20th Century, and the full reverberations of his final thirty years have yet to be felt.

One last time, let me reiterate that I do not say drugs are never necessary. What I am saying is that they are not the answer for every instance where an individual feels anxious, uneasy, or depressed. Quite often there are legitimate reasons for their psychological anguish. But to administer drugs without ruling out every other possibility is akin to prescribing oxycontin to a patient who has a pain in his foot without first checking to see if he may have a piece of glass lodged in it. It is generally better for the individual—and much better for society at large—to experience emotions, even unpleasant ones, rather than automatically drown them out by altering the chemistry of the individual. The human being is a tremendous creation (of God or nature, I care not which you choose). We are capable of far more than science has yet begun to realize, more complex in our relationship to others than perhaps our conscious minds can ever understand. To tamper lightly with God’s or nature’s creation is not wisdom but foolishness.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

I Am Blessed

A nun once paid a visit my elderly mother and my mother told the sister how lucky she felt. The sister corrected her and said, “You are not lucky, you’re blessed.” Afterwards, my mother would always correct others who would say they were lucky. Often it would be herself she would correct, as the habit of saying how lucky she was wasn’t easy to break.

I am reminded of that when I look back at memories of my mother, when I look for ways to embrace the past and keep in contact with those I loved who are no longer with me. I look back at the many lessons I learned from my mom and consider myself blessed for them.

I know there is a tendency of some to point out the misuse of such a phrase “I’m blessed.” I’ve heard people compare it to considering yourself more loved by God or so deluded in your religious beliefs that you justify your own wealth while others are permitted to suffer and die. I recognize the potential for misuse of the concept of being blessed, but I am not talking about that. Allow me to explain.

At the time my mother first came to use the phrase “I’m blessed”, she was already quite elderly. She was a widow who did not drive a car and was at the mercy of others to get groceries, get to doctor’s appointments, or get a haircut. For the most part, she was at the mercy of others as to whether she had any company at all or whether she would be home all by herself all day. When she spoke of being blessed, she was saying that her needs were being provided for. Her catchphrase would be triggered by the smallest of kindnesses or the most commonplace gifts from nature: a call from a child to see if she needed anything or a neighbor stopping by with a fresh tomato from her garden. I can’t imagine the term blessing used for anything more ostentatious.

The realization of the joy my mother felt in the phrase “I’m blessed” struck home last summer when, while walking my dog, I came across a little outdoor workout area near my house. Along the lakeshore, free for anyone to use, were six exercise machines. It became my practice over the summer to visit it several times a week. Riding a bicycle given to me by my brother, I would pedal my way through glorious sunlight and summer weather to my little spot on the lake, one which I almost always had to myself.

It was while sitting at one of the machines, taking a breather, that the memory of my mom came to me. Across the street from the little workout area was Lake Michigan, glistening in the sun. Even on the hottest of days, the cold it retained kept me from ever getting too hot. And on the other side was an offshoot of the Manitowoc River. On any given day I would see a variety of bird species there, most notably redwing blackbirds and ducks. From time to I would see a heron or egret. Sitting here amongst the beauty of nature I could not help appreciating the feeling of being blessed. The bike I rode was gifted to me, the place I sat at was open to all, and the beauty nature provides is a right gifted to us every living being.

At such moments—and there were many throughout the summer—the awareness of being blessed would overcome me and I was not concerned with other matters. I was not thinking about having to go to work in a few hours nor any other responsibilities I might have. I was not worried about what I was lacking because I was intensely aware that the most important and most rewarding things were also the simplest  and that which we all share in common.

This is the meaning of being blessed to me and the one which I would like everyone else to experience. I understand those who hate the term because of those who use it to justify having great wealth while others are lacking the basic necessities. But I would like to point out to those who are justly turned off by such an attitude that they are losing out by not realizing the true beauty to be found in the feeling of being blessed. Between the misuse and dislike of the word is a wonderful and profound experience to be had, one that will stay with you and guide you into a way of life that will provide lifelong contentment and a sustainable future for all.

May you live a blessed life.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

A Trip To Walmart

If you ever find yourself feeling overweight, unattractive, or lacking self-awareness or a fashion sense, take a trip to your local Walmart and you will soon feel better about yourself. You’ll feel worse about humanity, but better about yourself. Wearing your pajama bottoms to go shopping? Seriously? I take greater care dressing even when I’m staying at home, for fear my dog might judge me.

I no longer go to Walmart to shop so much as to observe the shoppers and merchandise in order to get insight into the country I now live in. It is while wandering around Walmart that I really appreciate just how far on the fringes of society I have become. The movies, the music, the food, and the clothing are all alien to me. It’s like walking around a toy store as a grown up: everything that was once out of reach is now affordable, but you wonder what you ever saw in all that cheap plastic crap.

I wonder what those making such merchandise on the other side of the world think about us. I wonder what they think about a people and a country that don’t make their own patriotic merchandise but rely on foreigners to provide. And there is plenty of patriotic merchandise on display, from clothing to paper plates and plastic cups, to actual American flags. Can a nation incapable of or unwilling to make its own flags long endure? What would Betsy Ross think if she were alive today?

The food aisles are a testament to American obesity. Our forefathers would not recognize anything on the racks as “food”. Those rugged explorers who founded this country knew how to live off the land, eating roots and berries in a pinch to survive. I can envision them starving to death if they became trapped in a Walmart for any length of time. God knows how the rest of us survive.

What is exactly “wholesome goodness”, anyhow? A bag of crackers advertised it was full of it but I could find no mention of it in the list of ingredients. I sometimes wonder about the people who are paid to create packaging like this. Does it feel good to go home after a day at work, knowing you’ve degraded speech and meaning to the point where the words “wholesome” and “goodness” have lost all their value? Is there some joy to be found in wasting your education in such a manner? I have to imagine it would be equivalent to getting paid to masturbate and that it would ultimately lead you feeling just as empty and cheap. “What did you do today?” “I made it seem fun and healthy for people to eat processed sugar and genetically modified food.” It has to be especially soul-crushing as these are the kind of jobs open to those who studied art and literature in college.

Have I mentioned the customers yet? If you ever want a totally immersive television viewing experience, pop in a zombie movie into the wall of display TVs there and you will feel like you are truly in the movie, as Walmartians shuffle past you in the electronics section. Scary.

Not all the food there is unhealthy. They had a bunch of grapefruit in the fruit and vegetable aisle. Funny, I remember grapefruit when it came in the yellow packaging. I believe it was called a rind. Now it comes in clear plastic. I don’t see why this was necessary. Nature was quite good at providing a protective cover, it’s been around forever and it’s 100% bio-degradable. Do we really need to involve plastic in every purchase we make?

It seems like people are going out of their way to create excess waste. I saw cases of water in plastic bottles, wrapped in plastic no less.

I brought my own reusable bag to the checkout, a fact the cashier ignored, as he started stuffing a plastic bag with my groceries. I told him I had my own bag and if it didn’t all fit, I’d carry it rather than use plastic. He asked, “Are you sure?” Like he was trying to save me from committing a grave error, from something I’d regret doing. It’s funny, when you try to do something to save the planet from being drowned in plastic, people look at you like there’s something wrong with you. If you’re not consuming diabetes-inducing foods in mass quantities, if you don’t have a nose ring or aren’t pawing at a smart phone, you’re viewed as suspect. If you don’t want to use the self-checkout because you don’t want to make people lose their jobs, the people who stand to lose their jobs make it seem like you’re inconveniencing them.

My trip to Walmart today has reminded me why it has been so long since the last one. But still I can’t remove myself from it all together. There is a realness to it in its very unreality. It is who we are, what we have become. I need to check in every once in a while just to stay informed on how far along the evolutionary scale we have fallen, how near the inevitable collapse is. And besides, I need to know that my 55” Ultra Hi-Def Smart TV is still keeping up with the Joneses.