We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

In My Dreams

Summer                                                                   Monsoon Moon

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smThe strange things that come to me before I drop off to sleep. Thinking about Lycaon, the anti-hero protagonist of Superior Wolf. He sacrifices his own son, Nyctimus, at a once every four year festival, the Lykaia, to Zeus Lycaeus (Wolf Zeus). Stray thought then. Sounds like Abraham and Isaac. Oh. Wait. Abraham was a polytheist before his covenant with G-d.

moloch william blake

Moloch william blake

What if? What if the Abraham and Isaac story recorded a very different intention than the one we Westerners, long infected by the idea of monotheism, have imputed to it? What if the context was one of child sacrifice? In other words, the religions around Abraham, perhaps even his own previous to the covenant, might have required child sacrifices. I know about Moloch who certainly did.

In the context of gods requiring child sacrifice, the story would read more like this. This new God requires sacrifice, his beloved son Isaac. Nothing new there. Many gods require the sacrifice of children. Yes, it’s always fraught with heartache and pain, but that’s just what Gods do. What’s new here is that this God relents, aborts the sacrifice and accepts an animal in place of a human child.

In this reading then Abraham’s new God evolves from a ruthless eater of human flesh to one who says, no, we no longer do that. The story becomes one of triumph and joy, this new god is better, much better.

Fangs and Claws

Summer                                                                     Woolly Mammoth Moon

twilightModern technology is so wonderful. Over the last few days I watched all five of the much maligned Twilight movies. You might ask why, at 71, I would subject myself to all those teen hormones, questionable dialogue, and odd acting. First answer, I’m easily entertained.  Second answer, I’m revising Superior Wolf right now. Werewolves from their source. Also, a project I work on from time to time is Rocky Mountain Vampire. So, the Twilight saga is in the same genre as my own work, though aimed more at a young adult, tween to teen audience. Which is, I might add, a very lucrative market. Maybe, it just occurred to me, some of them will be interested in my work as a result of their exposure to the Twilight books and movies.

20180711_065526The supernatural is a dominant theme in my life, from religion to magic to ancient myths and legends to fairy tales and folklore. My world has enchantment around every bend, every mountain stream, every cloud covered mountain peak. No, I don’t know if there are faeries and elves and Shivas and Lokis and witches who eat children. I don’t know if anyone ever set out on a quest for the golden fleece or angels got thrown out of heaven. Don’t need to. We wonder about what happens after death, a common horror experience often and always. If we’re thoughtful, we wonder about what happened before life. Where were we before?

670HandbookAfterlifeOur senses limit us to a particular spectrum of light, a particular range of sounds, a particular grouping of smells and tastes, yet we know about the infrared, low and high frequency sounds, the more nuanced world of smells available to dogs. We’re locked inside our bodies, yet we know that there are multiverses in every person we meet, just like in us. We know we were thrown into a particular moment, yet know very little of the moments the other billions of us got thrown into. My point is that our understanding of the natural is very, very limited, in spite of all the sophisticated scientific and humanistic and technological tools we can bring to bear. Most of what exists is outside our usual understanding of natural, certainly outside our sensory experience.

The expanse of the wonderful, the awesome, the amazing, so vast even in our small human experience, is cosmic outside of it. That’s where the supernatural realm lies. Not only Just So stories, then, but What If stories, too.

Sure, there are gothic stories, horror stories, fantasy that are poorly conceived, poorly written and poorly executed. I’ve contributed to that slush pile, but at the same time there are stories of the supernatural that allow us to get outside our human chauvinism, to imagine, to wonder. The part of me that loved the Ring cycle as a fourteen year old enjoyed Tolkien, King, Wickham, Kostova, and Clarke.

I have a sophisticated, adult aesthetic, too, and I enjoy it; but, I don’t see why I have to leave behind my more childlike appreciation of things like Marvel Comics, the Twilight Saga, Harry Potter, Hunger Games. So, I haven’t. My inner tween/teen needs screen time, as well.

 

 

 

 

 

Fear and Bitachon, trust

Summer                                                                     Woolly Mammoth Moon

article-new-ehow-images-a07-ti-j3-duties-literary-agent-800x800Spent most of yesterday on submissions. I revised School Spirit, taking 2.0 down to 2,700 words from 4,800, and submitted the revision to Mysterion. I developed a table in Word to track my submissions. It has these columns: submission, work, publisher, response, rejection, acceptance, contract, published. Later on today I’m going to begin revision of Superior Wolf, which I want to get out as soon as I can get it where I want it.

I now have an Evernote file for Novel and Short Story markets which contains 25 new markets and I will build that file. I need another log to track reading periods, periods when a particular market opens to submissions. They are often only a month long, so you have to both have work that fits their interests and know when to send it. Once I get a rhythm going here, I’ll get back to agent submissions, arguably more important than submissions to markets.

tumblr_mh1q88lsfr1s19s9xo1_500So, I’m facing my fear, not only that, I’m leaning into it, grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and saying, “Come on, now. Message received. Stop already.” This is partly mussar driven, the practice I wrote about on July 6; but, it’s also driven by self talk that long preceded mussar, though ineffectually, and even a bit by the shame and embarrassment.

What, exactly, has the fear been doing for me? It’s tried to protect me, fence me off from disappointment and failure. It feels the pulse of shame before it rushes through me and says, go another way, that feels bad. Just keep your head down, don’t poke it up, make yourself visible. And, of course, in spite of that self-protective urge, the result has been that for 30 years I’ve felt disappointed and I’ve failed at publishing because I never took the risk.

Fear, like doubt, is good. To not fear the fall from a high cliff is stupid. Getting a flu shot makes sense because fear rightly says the flu is worse. Slowing down around a mountain curve? Sure, fear tells me I’d fly off into the void otherwise. But fear is pluriform, it responds to many things. When on the Savannah, a fear of vulnerability probably sensed a predator nearby, or an enemy. Pay attention. Hide. Be ready to defend yourself against death. Having a red light moment is adaptive, until it isn’t.

2011 05 06_0875Publishers and editors and agents, even critics and readers, are not lions or hyenas on the veldt. The fear I’ve allowed to rule me for the past three decades however has believed them so. The shame then is a complicated emotion which recognizes the self-deception and self-protection. It knows I’ve chosen the critique of intimates, why hasn’t Charlie ever published, to the critique of possible readers. That’s embarrassing, but it’s where I’ve been for a long, long time.

Now, however, a strange, new moment is on the rise. In part I got tired of the narrative I’d been telling myself, been telling others. “I’m just not good at marketing.” I call bullshit on that. In part I read this article about setting a rejections goal and this time it made sense to me, a sort of akido move, use the power of your adversary against them. In part it was this month’s mussar practice of facing fear in order to learn about trust.

Yesterday, for the first time I can ever recall, I felt like I was getting down to the business side of writing. Yes, I’ve made submissions before, but I have never made as organized and concerted an effort as now. It feels good.

But, if I’ve begun to push the fear, tried to educate it that this is not an arena where it’s helpful, which I have, I’ve begun to wonder about it, too, from the mussar perspective. If I face the fear, face it down, then does trust appear? If the student is ready…

CBE (1)I know that fear vitiates trust. If we’re afraid of another person’s motives, we’ll never get to know them well. If we’re afraid of public speaking, no one will hear us. If we’re afraid of our own motives, we’ll take few risks. In these cases, if we face the fear, listen to it, talk it down, choose to act differently, then we may find love, may discover that people want to know what we have to say, may open ourselves to the world’s rich opportunities.

I’m starting from the fear, however, not trust. If I eliminate the fear, if I continue (and I’m pretty sure I will) to organize, revise, submit, and create new work, will trust appear? In what? The question I’m asking is this, does eliminating or modulating fear create trust, always? If so, in what?

20180624_095408

seeing through the fear goggles on

In this instance, for example. If I have pushed back the fear, acknowledged the shame of constant wheedling about submitting my work, and have finally gotten somewhere with both, in what do I now have trust? That eco-system of publishing and readers will therefore embrace my work? Not really up to me beyond getting my work out there. That I’ll be a better person? Maybe. Since the fear has weighed heavily on my psyche for all these years, lifting it might have, probably will have, a positive effect on my sense of self. Perhaps I’ll trust life more, be less reticent. This would be huge, obviously.

Don’t think this is the heart of it though. Somehow the trust that emerges is, more importantly, in acceptance of vulnerability, trusting that when I’m afraid, or even ashamed, that I can still be in this world. We’ll see, of course, if this is true, but it feels right. Fear, then, can be seen as a tool, an important and necessary one, but one to pick up and then set down. It’s not a tool we want to always have to hand and when it is in hand, we need a plan to get it back in the toolbox after it’s done its work.

 

 

 

99 to go

Summer                                                                              Woolly Mammoth Moon

shame-1-1-2-638Ouch. I got this note back:

Dear Charles,  Thank you for sharing your writing with us! We received a very large volume of submissions and can only accept a small number; unfortunately, we are going to have to pass on your work this time. We wish you well as you continue writing, and we encourage you to consider submitting to us again in the future.” submission to the Metz Review, School Spirit

When I read it last night, a sharp flash of shame and embarrassment went through me from top to bottom. The old familiar response came, too. Not gonna do that anymore and I marked the e-mail done to get it off my screen.

shame 2Then, I paused. Wait. This is the moment I wanted. Lean into the shame and embarrassment, see what it means. Why do I feel that way? So many reasons. Personal competence. A big risk taken with no results. Kate’s been so supportive of my writing. Most of all though it’s my work, being rejected. And it feels bad.

OK. So, I feel all those things. I’m vulnerable, made myself vulnerable, put myself and my work out there. And, I’m not dead. I didn’t shrivel up like the Wicked Witch of the East. The fear is me trying to protect myself from rejection, from disappearing, yet it will cause, has caused me to reject my work myself; to write, then let the work lie in bits and bytes, hidden on my hard drive.

Maybe it’s like a phobia, the more times I expose myself to rejection, the less painful it will become? I don’t know, but in any case I know I have to lean into rather than flee from it. This fear is real and painful.

shame 3Not sure here all of a sudden. It was shame that I felt when I read this note. Didn’t realize it, name it until I began writing this. Why though? Why shame? Perhaps it’s from that old, underlying conundrum, am I living up to my potential? Who’s to say? Perhaps it’s wanting to be seen as a creative person, a writer of books, yet secretly suspecting that I’m not worthy of those identifiers. Perhaps it’s as simple as failing and being ashamed of failing?

shame3What I do know, for sure, is that this shame, a hot desire to hide, to cover myself, to flee works against me, is not for me, in any way. And I could identify that paradox in another, in Kate or one of the Woollys, or a friend at Beth Evergreen. I would have compassion for it, yet also have a tough love move against it. It’s not who you are, it’s an attack on yourself from within. Perhaps we could call it Shaitan, the Devil because it is evil to push yourself down or to push another person down. Why? Because living is all we have and shame makes us shrink from life.

Shame, huh? Gonna have to give this more attention.

Face the Fear

Summer                                                                            Woolly Mammoth Moon

300px-Gutenberg_pressAt the Mussar Vaad Practice group we all come up with a practice for the coming month, a practice based on that month’s middah or character trait. Each month the congregation has a middah of the month. Emunah, or faith was the middah last month. My practice focused on sharpening doubt, a practice that made me feel more alive, more grounded in faith as a necessary human act.

This month I’m getting even closer to the bone of my inner skeleton, as we focus on bitachon, or trust. This radical confidence is a natural sequelae of emunah. Like doubt is on the same continuum as faith, but at one end of it, trust is on a continuum, too, with fear. In the Jewish approach to these matters it’s not doubt bad, faith good, fear bad, trust good; it’s about knowing how to deploy them at the appropriate times, or if not deploy them, be able to feel them, to know them without hiding.

Following on the rich experiment with sharpening doubt, I decided to go with the same approach, the far end of the continuum, and focus on fear. I said as much at the MVP, but the fear I wanted to confront embarrassed me (probably making it an excellent candidate), so I didn’t name it there. I will now.

Albert Camus 1955

Albert Camus 1955

My fear, the core fear, is exposing my writing to publishers and critics. Ancientrails doesn’t ignite that fear for some reason, maybe because it’s seen by only a few, but sending off my novels and short stories and poems to publishers causes my fear to burst into a wildfire.

It’s quiet, though. How it works is I think about submitting work, I make a move or two toward that end, then abandon it. Often not intentionally, at least not overtly, but I allow this or that to get in the way. Query letter? I can’t do a good one. Mail the manuscript? Too much hassle. Find an agent? The old writing ouroboros rises from north sea. Nothing published? An agent won’t want my work. Yet, I need an agent to get my work published. A problem that constantly eats its own tail.

artistsThat same fear is the one I faced after the Durango trip, writing here about setting a rejection’s goal. I have made two submissions so far, one of Missing, a novel, and one of School Spirit, a short story. By focusing on my fear of rejection, the vulnerability it exposes, the possibility that I’ve been wasting my time for over 20 years now, I hope at least to get my work out in the world. Whether any one wants it is, well, up to them.

MAKING ART copyI’m embarrassed to write this, ashamed I’ve been so fearful, yet I have been both embarrassed and ashamed for most of the most of the time I’ve been writing. Now is not different. The only way I can make it different is by finding publishers and agents and getting my work to them.

I’ll let you know how it goes. I just got a new shot of magazines and book publishers open to submission today. That means tomorrow I’m going to be reading submission guidelines, looking at finished work and getting stuff out there. Staying at it is the key, I know that. Persistence. Something I’m usually pretty good at.

 

 

A leather jacket, leaning on the nose of the plane

Beltane                                                                           Sumi-e Moon

09 11 10_Joseph_0256-1He wore a leather jacket, leaned on the nose of his liaison plane, a dashing aviator surely in his own mind. It was a pose redolent of the early days of World War II when young American men, he must have been 23 or 24 at the time, answered the call. This was the so-called Greatest Generation, looking for adventure after the downbeat thirties, soaked in the dustbowl and post-depression blues.

He told me stories of flying these little planes, sort of air taxis, close cousins to the Beechcraft single prop planes. One time, he said, he was in a huge thunderhead, his tiny plane ravaged by the winds, bucking, twisting, lightning strikes and rain all round. “Never,” he said,”did I want to parachute out of my plane, but this once. And I couldn’t do it.” The air pressure in the thunder head conspired to keep his cockpit door closed.

He told me too of flying under utility wires just for fun and dropping sacks of flour on troops training below to simulate bombs. Then there were the trips flying personnel of the Manhattan Project from place to place. A close brush with the greatest and deadliest secret of the war.

Stillwater, Oklahoma, home of Oklahoma State University, had, has a topflight journalism program and he had graduated from it before joining the then Army/Air Force. He dreamed, he told me once, of buying a boat and traveling the Gulf of Mexico, writing as he went. I wish he had.

counter intelligenceThere was, though, the story of counterintelligence work that soured me on him from a single digit age. As a recruit in this branch of military security, he spied on possible Reds who’d infiltrated the Army. “I made friends with them, then went through their lockers, that sort of thing. I reported back.” A man, I thought as a very young boy, who would make friends with someone in order to betray them is at least morally flawed, certainly not someone I’d look up to. And he was my father. Sure, it was war time. Sure, there were spies. And, sure, someone needed to find them. I just didn’t want one of those people to have been my father. But he was.

He was a distant man, plagued by migraines and allergies. Often we had to tiptoe around the house while he lay in living room in the dark, a cold cloth laid over his forehead. He sneezed. A lot. Used the cache of my brother’s no longer needed baby diapers as soft handkerchiefs.

BiloxiOne year we drove all the way to Biloxi, Mississippi from Alexandria, quite a journey. We rented a room in a motel by the beach while Dad went to an allergy clinic. When he came home from one visit to the clinic, his back looked like hamburger, having been pricked, in orderly rows and columns, with possible allergens. Oddly, I don’t remember, perhaps I wasn’t told, the results of any of these tests.

Meanwhile, we had the beach and that same Gulf of Mexico. I made a point of getting out there.  Even then strange places, different from home, drew me like magnets. I met a boy at the beach. We both had trucks and cars that we drove on roadways we made in the sand.

It was not long after a fireworks celebration had been held beach side and unexploded or partially exploded fireworks lay everywhere. We were boys. An opportunity offered itself. Soon we were opening small firecrackers, bottle rockets, fountains and scraping out the black powder.

fireworksWe made a little pit and filled it with black powder, then placed a plastic dump truck over it. We’d both seen movies where the fuse was a line of gunpowder so we made a small crevice in the pits side and dribbled black powder in a thin line away to what we calculated was a safe distance. Lit it.

Nothing happened. I imagine the sand was damp, dampening the powder, but that didn’t occur to us at the time. He, I don’t remember his name, offered to put a match to the powder under the truck. We really wanted to see that truck go up. He did. It worked, blowing up the small truck in spectacular, wonderful fashion. His thumb, too.

We went home and Biloxi was a bizarre memory, my Dad’s hamburger back and my friend’s thumb gone. When Katrina took out the Biloxi waterfront, I thought about that week.

Dad made me shine his high topped shoes every Sunday morning, a task I hated. He gave me a quarter for it, later thirty-five cents. I mowed the lawn, too, with a cranky push mower. He never did it himself. Paint the fence. Salt the weeds in the interstices of the bricks in our sidewalk. Carry buckets of water up from the basement that flooded predictably. He made me do these things, never explained them, never did them himself, save for the carrying of the buckets and then only with me. I know, hardly child abuse. I’m pointing here to the underlying, assumed authority of father that rested in his heart.

father2I have no warm memories of him. No moment of, God, I’m glad this guy is my Dad. Mostly my memories are blank, him lying on the floor, watching television, eating. Memories devoid of emotional valence.

When I began to do well in school, well enough that I would become my class’s valedictorian, he told me, “Grades aren’t everything. It’s how you get along with people that counts.” Not that it wasn’t true. It is. The lack of validation was what left a hole.

Even then I pushed back against authority, his, scout leaders, the school system. He wasn’t able to distinguish critical thinking and willingness to challenge authority from a defective personality. He didn’t see that I was tight with my peers, that they constantly chose me for leadership roles precisely because I was willing to say and do the things they only thought about.

Later, he bailed me out of a drinking related expulsion from campus when I was a junior. He bought me a car, a Volkswagen Beetle, so I could commute to school which was 20 miles away in Muncie. I moved back into my old room, ashamed. Even in this incident, my fault, I don’t recall warmth, only fulfillment of duty on his part.

father estrangementIt led to the rupture that mattered the most. I was at home, my hair was long, early Beatle’s long, which was not very, even for the day. He asked me one day, “Charlie, are you a homosexual?” Long haired musicians were often considered gay in those days. I laughed.

“No.”

“Well, then, cut your hair or get of my house.” That was the last time I was in Alexandria, or talked to him for over ten years. Sure, I was misguided, abrupt, overreacting. Yes. But, and this was the lesson I took from this incident, I was the child. He was the parent. It was his responsibility to find a way over the gap, a gap he had created out of his Roosevelt Democrat, communist hating paranoia. He never did.

He was not an absent father in the sense of not coming home at night, of always being unavailable due to hobbies or travel. He was an absent father in his heart, walled in, tucked away behind the moat of his early childhood, his own father’s abandonment. From the vantage point now, years long past look different of course. I can see the roots of his difficulty, even be moved by them. But their work was done a long time ago, long before I knew I could rewrite my narratives.

father driftMaybe it could have gone differently. Maybe. But it didn’t. With Mom dead young and Dad unable to cope I felt, though only in retrospect, like a rudderless boat. Navigating that craft through the astonishing turmoil and wonder of the sixties was difficult. In a real sense I failed.

It took into my thirties, with treatment for alcoholism and long term Jungian analysis, to regain the helm. This was not Dad’s fault. I’ve come to believe that no matter what the circumstances of our childhood, when we’re least able to shape our own lives, we alone are responsible for our adult lives. It’s our task to find, in whatever way we can, the tools necessary to give us a life of our own making.

This is the essence of reconstruction. We cannot wish away or abandon our past; it will be and is what it was. Yet the interpretation, the hermeneutics of that past is ours. Would that Dad had had the chance to reconstruct his own story, to dig out the bravery it took to live a life in spite of Elmo’s sudden disappearance, to join the military, to raise a child with polio. These are not trivial accomplishments, but somehow they did not shape him. I don’t know why.

 

 

 

 

Reconstruct. Remember.

Beltane                                                                    Sumi-e Moon

UNESCO and European Union undertake to reconstruct the cultural heritage of Timbuktu

UNESCO and European Union undertake to reconstruct the cultural heritage of Timbuktu

Had an insight the other day about Beth Evergreen. The reason I like it there, feel comfortable there, is that I’m a reconstructionist at heart. Not a Jew, but a reconstructionist.

If I’d known about the concept when I started my reimagining project, I’d have called it reconstructing faith. Now, I do and I think of it that way. Reimagining and reenchanting are still part of this journey for me, but reconstructionist thought captures me in a particular way.

reconstruct scrollHere’s the key idea, from Mordecai Kaplan: the past gets a vote, but not a veto. That is, when considering tradition, in Kaplan’s case of course Jewish tradition, the tradition itself informs the present, but we are not required to obey it. Instead we can change it, or negate it, or choose to accept, for now, its lesson.

This is a powerful idea, especially when considering religious thought, which too often wants us to turn our backs on the present, get out a prayer rug, put our butt in the air toward the future and stretch out our hands in submission to the past.

LiveWhich brings me to another realization I had this week. Just like environmental action is not about saving the planet, the planet will be fine, it’s about saving humanity’s spot on the planet; the idea of living in the moment is not about living in the moment, it’s about remembering we can do no other thing than live in the moment.

In other words, this moment is all we have and all we will ever have. There is no way to be in the past or in the future, not even for a bit. We only live in the present. Living in the moment is not a choice, it’s a necessity by the laws of physics. What is important is realizing that, remembering it. Which goes back, come to think of it, to sharpening doubt.

ichigo-ichie_6The past is gone, the future is not yet. Always. We can be sure, confident, only of this instance, for the next may not come. To be aware of the moment is to be aware of both the tenuousness of life, and its vitality, which also occurs only in the moment. To know this, really know it in our bones, means we must have faith that the next moment will arrive, because it is not given. Not only is it not given, it will, someday, not arrive for us. That’s where faith comes in, living in spite of that knowledge, living as if the next moment is on its way.

 

Waiting for the darkness

Beltane                                                                             Sumi-e Moon

Got an e-mail from Mario Odegard. “…over Loveland pass to Dillon, WOWww mind blowing.” The mountains have that way about them. He was on his way to visit a friend in Frisco.

Summer2Probably not many folks count down to the Summer Solstice, but I do. It marks my favorite turning point in the year, the point when the dark begins to overtake the light. Yes, it’s the day of maximum daylight, but that’s just the point, maximum. After the summer solstice, nighttime begins a slow, gradual increase until my favorite holiday of the year, the Winter Solstice.

This may sound sinister, but it doesn’t feel like that to me. I’ve long been struck by the fecundity of darkness: the top six inches of the soil, the womb, dreams, the silence. In my world darkness is a place of growth and inspiration, a place where insistent vision can rest while other senses, some of them unknown, can take over the load.

winter solstice4Summer and the light has its charms and its importance, too, of course. A warm summer evening. The growing season. The ability to see with clarity. The sun is a true god without whose beneficence we would all die. Worthy of our devotion. And, btw, our faith. So I get it, you sun worshipers. My inner compass swings in a different, an obverse direction.

 

Remember the Shark

Beltane                                                                           Sumi-e Moon

  • I know how well you have succeeded in making your earthly life so rich and varied, that you no longer stand in need of an eternity. Having made a universe for yourselves, you are above the need of thinking of the universe that made you.
  • On every subject, however small and unimportant, you would most willingly be taught by those who have devoted to it their lives and their powers. … How then does it come about that, in matters of religion alone, you hold every thing the more dubious when it comes from those who are experts?
    • Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, 1799

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smFaith. The middah of the month for Beth Evergreen. Emunah. Last night at MVP, the mussar vaad practice group, we talked about emunah. Rabbi Jamie and Marilyn said that in the early days of mussar classes at Beth Evergreen, some time ago, the middah that caused the most consternation was this one.

I can see why. Faith is a word often used, but little understood. Faith is also a word often abused both by religion’s adherents and by religion’s cultured despisers. (Friedrich Schleiermacher) Faith is a sine qua non inside any mega-church in America. Either you have faith or you don’t. Black and white. It was true for me as a clergyman in the Presbyterian church. When I could no longer claim with authenticity that I had faith in God (whatever conception of God I was using at the time), I could no longer serve in that role.

Religion’s cultured despisers, a term coined by Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1799 in his book of the same name, often use faith as a straw concept with which to flog the irrational religious. Faith makes people blind. Faith makes people malleable to cult leaders. Faith makes people believe in a magical world. Faith blots out a person’s capacity to see the world as it is.

universe has your backOne of us in the group last night said, “The universe is for me.” I have other friends who believe the universe is a place of abundance, or, as author Gabrielle Bernstein titled her book, “The Universe has my back.” I don’t buy it. This abundant universe will kill you. It will kill you. This is not a matter of faith, but of oft repeated experience. The universe offers up all we need to live, then takes it all away.

I don’t believe the universe gives a damn. The problem for me is placing a value judgment on the actions of this vast context into which, thank you Heidegger, we were thrown. I don’t believe the universe is out to get me; nor do I believe it has my back. I’m a part of that universe and I can choose to live into my part, follow the tao as it manifests in my life, or I can resist it and struggle, but in either case the universe will keep on evolving and changing. Maybe what I’m saying here is that I’m not willing to shift the religious notion of God’s agency to the universe, no matter how construed.

If the universe is, as I believe it is, neutral to us and our lives, or, said another way, if we are no more privileged than any other part of the world, the cosmos, then what can faith mean? What is there in which to have faith?

nightdiving_titleTurns out quite a lot. Another of us last night told a story of night diving. A favorite activity of hers. She said she turns off her diving light and floats in the night dark ocean. While she’s in the dark, she imagines a shark behind her. The shark may kill her in the next moment, but until that moment she is keenly alive. This is, for me, a perfect metaphor for faith. Each day the shark is behind us. A car accident. A heart attack. A lightening bolt. A terminal diagnosis. Yet each day we float in the dark, suspended between this moment in which we live and the next one in which we are dead. And we rejoice in that moment. There is faith.

SharkThis is the existentialist abyss of which Nietzsche famously said, “If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Living on in spite of its direct glare, that’s faith. This sort of faith requires no confidence in the good or ill will of the universe, it requires what Paul Tillich called the courage to be. I would challenge that formulation a bit by altering it to the courage to become, but the point is the same.

Here’s the interesting twist. Doubt and faith are partners. As a quote Rabbi Jamie offered last night says, they live in the same apartment building. Here’s the big learning I got last night. Doubt is the true sine qua non for faith. And to the extent that we have doubt, I would identify doubt with awareness of the shark, we have faith. There is, and this is the aha for me, a frisson between doubt and faith that makes life vital.

sacred tensionSo. My practice for this month involves, in Rabbi Jamie’s phrase, sharpening my doubt. I will remember the shark as often as I can. I will recognize the contingent nature of every action I take, of every aspect of my life. And live into those contingencies, act as if the shark will let me be right now. As if the uncertainty of driving, of interacting with others, of our dog’s lives will not manifest right now. That’s faith. Action in the face of contingency. Action in the face of uncertainty. Action in the face of doubt.

I want to sharpen doubt because I want to taste what it feels like to live into doubt, to choose life over death, to have the courage to become. If I only use the automatic responses, make money, achieve fame, watch television, play with my phone, immerse myself in the needs of another, or several others, then I blunt the bravery, the courage it takes to live. I do not want a life that’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage. I do not want a life that is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5)

I want a life that flourishes not in spite of the uncertainties, the contingencies that are all to real, but because of them.

 

One meeting, one moment

Beltane                                                                                    Sumi-e Moon

ichigo-ichie_6

enso-zen-circleMy presentation on time falls under the sumi-e moon and I plan to use sumi-e. I’m taking my brushes, ink, ink stones, red ink pad, Kraft paper, and rice paper. As well as my hourglasses. I will do Shakespeare’s soliloquy from Macbeth as a counter point. Each person will first practice an enso on the Kraft paper, then do one on rice paper.

icho.go.ichi.e3What is an enso? The word means circle in Japanese. In Zen it has a much more expansive meaning.* Zen is, of course, Chan Buddhism, a curious blend of Taoism and Buddhism created in China. Monks from Japan went to China to learn about Chan and brought it back to Japan. They also brought back the practice of drinking tea, which initially was a stimulant to help with long meditation sessions. It later transmogrified into the Japanese tea ceremony with its beautiful idea of ichi go ichi e, or once in a lifetime.

*”In the sixth century a text named the Shinhinmei refers to the way of Zen as a circle of vast space, lacking nothing and holding nothing in excess. At first glance the ancient ensō symbol appears to be nothing more than a miss-shaped circle but its symbolism refers to the beginning and end of all things, the circle of life and the connectedness of existence. It can symbolize emptiness or fullness, presence or absence. All things might be contained within, or, conversely, excluded by its boundaries. It can symbolize infinity, the “no-thing”, the perfect meditative state, and Satori or enlightenment.  It can even symbolize the moon, which is itself a symbol of enlightenment—as in the Zen saying, “Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.” In other words, do not mistake doctrines, teachings or explanations, which are intended to guide one toward enlightenment, for enlightenment itself. Ensō can also represent the moon’s reflection on water, thereby symbolizing the futility of searching for enlightenment outside oneself.”  Modern Zen

August 2018
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