The happiness of fishes

In thinking about happiness, we begin by paraphrasing writings included in the works of the Taoist thinker Zhuangzi:

Zhuangzi and Huizi were walking together above the dam on the Hao River and Zhuangzi said, “See how the little thryssa swim forth so free and easy!  This is the happiness of fishes!”

Huizi responded, “You are not a fish.  How do you know what the happiness of fishes is?”

Zhuangzi answered, “You aren’t me.  How do you know what I know?”

“If by not knowing you, I can’t know what you know, then you, not being a fish, also can’t know what they know,” said Huizi.

“Let’s return to your original question,” said Zhuangzi.  “In our pleasant walk here on the Hao, you asked me how I knew what the happiness of fishes was.  You already knew that I knew, and you asked me.” 

–from the Autumn Floods section of the Zhuangzi (莊子)

More in this than clever play with the ball of extended semantics.  Much like Hamlet’s “nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”, we almost picture the two friends, Huizi and Zhuangzi, out for a pleasant stroll above the rushing river, small silver fish making glittering patterns beneath the dam.  Joy, participatory, darts everywhere.  It flashes not just beneath the water, but beneath the playful dialogue of the two friends, in their cleverness and the love that only manifests in such types of play.  Happiness seems multitudinously manifest on that lost day, preserved only in this dialogue between friends purported to have been recorded perhaps some 2400 years ago.

Yet, that nugget of truth.  Happiness.  Infectious.  Promiscuous.  Participatory.  When we feel happy, days seem to respond.  Our lives respond.  Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.
Sing, and the hills will answer;
Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
But shrink from voicing care.
–from Solitude
We all know this though.  Good days.  Bad days.  They drift on with each kind of day feeding others of its kind. Multiplying.   Prufrock’s crushing lament smacks of the self fulfilling prophecy:
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
— from T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
No.  They will not.  The point that the quality of our course depends on our psychological, or more importantly–more essentially–our emotional terrain remains clear.  The mermaids will not sing to Prufrock not because he is aging.  Not even because he is unsure.  More because he not only voices an inner despair, but also inhabits it while the world rushes past him.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Similarly, in As You Like It, Jacques, seeing a wounded stag,  stands upon the bank, “weeping into the needless stream”, lamenting the stag “being there alone,/Left and abandon’d of his velvet friends”.
Weep and you weep alone.
Perhaps the key to avoiding disaster, if there is one, is to participate, as much as possible, in the joyous.  Or at least the mildly pleased.  The content.  The small smile of the zazen practitioner.  When displeased, put a half smile on your lips so that the inner terrain begins to change again–moving again towards light and success.  The emotional landscape becomes (even if just a little) easier to deal with, easier to navigate.  The looming rocks recede and a few sunbeams make it through that thin patch in the clouds.
Soon, we stand again amongst the dawn chorus of the birds, assembling for the conference that Farid ud-Din Attar describes, where, after a long search for their king, the birds discover that their king is themselves.  We stand upon the dam watching little fishes, swimming forth and flashing silver.  We hear cool water and we sense the smile of friends, even if we cannot see them.  This is where we want to live, in the gentle side of the turning days.  The breeze across the sea, and the fog nestled into those hollows where it serves as a sometime blanket for the sleeping moon.
It seems like a cliché, but we can get there, and we don’t need a course to tell us how.  Just give yourself five minutes.  Stop, and really give yourself that little bit of time.  Then close your eyes.  Breathe.  Pay attention to the breath.  Just count each breath, but don’t let it matter what the number is.  Should you think of laundry, groceries, or bills, start the count again at one.  Should you get to ten, then start again at one.  Just breathe.  Half smile.  Soon you find yourself amongst the fishes in the stream, scalloping the sky with birds, rolling with the sea, or sleeping or rising with the moon.  Your mind’s eye can see everything, so you can too.  Be there, in those places, or any other places where you might find peace, for just five minutes.  Then see how the day goes after that.
This week sees Independence Day in the United States.  Whether celebrating raucously, outrageously, obscenely and courageously, or quietly, I wish you well.  I urge you to keep breathing, and just stop and pay attention to that process once in a while.  Then see what happens.  Have a great week.

From where I write

When complaints come, we listen.  Not really complaints, perhaps, but comments.  Notes that the posts are relentlessly depressing.  That in a down world, consistently reading more down is too much down.  Endless down does not look like a sustainable trajectory.  Not down.  Perhaps some gentling has been overdue.  The great oracle tells us that we cannot persist amidst obstruction.  That the clouds “that lour’d upon our house” must eventually break.

What grounds us then?  Where do we find this “sure and firm set earth” from which any steps we take towards our own descent represent transgression?

We look down.  Beneath our feet.

From where I write, less than a mile to the east, rises a small mountain that geologists tell us was part of the sea floor about 12 million years ago, in the Miocene epoch.  The subduction of the Pacific plate beneath the western coast of the U.S. has rumpled up the land, like blankets on the edge of a fussed bed, raising the mountain that is there today.  In fact, this is the origin of the California Coastal Range, still rising and rumpling, still slowly groaning into folds in a relentless march of ongoing time.

These are special places, dotted with oak dominated woodland in the cooler folds of north facing ravines, and covered with green savannah in the fall and winter that goes spectacular gold in the dryer, hotter summers.  These mountains are largely given to viticulture on the lower slopes, and some residents have built spectacular homes there, braving the dangers of the summer fire season that is capable of causing great loss of property and life.  Can hardly blame them though.  Spectacular wildlife in spectacular weather.

Given to sunny days and foggy nights, this area was once considered largely too cold for viticulture.  Grapes like the hot sun, but they tend to shy away if the weather gets too cold and nights here can turn brisk.  It even snows once in a while, but only about once a decade.  Still, most days doze in the shelter of those golden hills, running, as they do, with pooling rivulets of forest.  Hawks punctuate the skies.  Owls at night.  Small lizards.  Morning hummingbirds.  Decidedly drowsy.  A feeling of being tucked away from the world.

Still the world is too much with us late and soon, as the sonnet aptly says.  Hens no longer dominate the economy.  It is not all eggs and farmland.  Just a smaller town nestled in a valley of occasional fog between the thriving thrum of two much larger towns.  The usual kinds of growing pains that accompany any town, any region, are here too, and the tourism that pads the region’s pockets.  Shops and restaurants–with one or two of the latter being among some of my favorites in the world.  No.  Really.  (Seek particulars anon and I’ll tell you.)

No moral here either except that sometimes posts become a little like a drowsy valley.  Not all can be rain and thunder, after all.  Sometimes we are quiet and grateful, just for what we have.  A roof.  Meals when we need them.  Sometimes truly beautiful days.  Life has enough defeats, enough precipices, dark hollows, evil sorcerers and trolls of all kinds.  Some days, we should simply be where we are.  Sit on the porch a spell.  Drowse in the sun.

At the end of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, the formerly blind flower shop girl finally meets the benefactor who gave her the money that enabled her to have the treatment to regain her sight.  No spoilers here, in case you haven’t seen it, but it is one of the great endings in all of film.  Maybe the only real ending that there is.

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut the gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

The play goes on, and we all do our best.  In spite of everything.  Good to remember.  Best of luck out there.  Rest in the sun when you can.  Watch those puddles.  Here’s hoping that each of you reading this has a fabulous week.



You cannot eat or sweat enough to keep you sane, these humid, still, sepulchral summer eves.  You find yourself wandering out into the field behind the house, standing for hours, staring into an indeterminate distant space.  The hills and sky are there, but you do not see them.  Not properly.  Instead, a something eats away inside your mind, inside that heart or soul that lesser poets talk about.  Inside sunsets and the days.  Inside the moon and mad paths leading to the woods.

Somewhere near the garden, drums sound strange and tiny, and birds chirp pointed chirping punctuations.  Relentless torture smells like burning on still air.  You sweat profusely, shirt sticking to your chest, but you do not notice.  Neither can you see black curling margins growing all around the world–night falling at the corners of your vision, speaking seriously of mudpuppies or blooms pre fruit.

People press you for answers where there are none, and the rage shakes the trees around you while you stand perfectly still.  Because only stillness saves you now, keeping you from shattering like ice plucked off the bucket and held sideways till it slips.  Like the hard ground rushing to meet it, rushing to meet you, even though the summer blazes and the ice is all inside.  Your feet splay.  You try to listen.  Try so hard.  To listen.

Around you, pine cones fall from the Giant Redwoods and  those Atlas Pines, sounding like blunt bombs as they strike pavement, cars, and whatever else  may stand between them/ between you and the comfortable oblivion of stopping.  You may go in and eat a bite or drink a sip in time.  The hours pass, and in the end it makes no difference whether you went in or stood.  You end in the same place.

Why can you not recover?  Why can you not improve?  Why can you not stop and just enjoy the day?  Because around you roll those drums, beating from somewhere near the garden.  Drums you know you can’t confront, and yet you still long to see and to revisit that moment at the end.  Drums.  You can’t tell where they might be now, and that black curls in around the vision like paper on fire, and you don’t mind, and wouldn’t know where else to look.

The seasons alter

as they always do.  Yet not.  It is not that “hoary headed frosts/ fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose”, but rather that the rose too often finds itself roasted.  Scorched beneath an unaccustomed sun to the very point of being burned away.  “The spring, the summer,/ the chiding autumn, angry winter change/ their wonted liveries, and the mazéd world,/ by their increase, now knows not which is which,/ and this same progeny of evils comes/ from our debate, from our dissension./ We are their parents and original.” (MND 2.1.96-102)

We are destroying, and perhaps we have already destroyed, our world.  But no.  They tell us there is time.  Protocols and changes can still pull us back from the brink of irreversible destruction.  Power generated from other sources that do not so magnify the sun.  Of course “they” tell us this.  It profits no politician to admit the truth on this score.  What good would worldwide panic and despair do in such a case?  Better to keep living as we have, pretending.  The old Puritan idea of keeping your eyes straight ahead and acting “as if” you were one of the lucky elect (the exclusive 144,000 who the Bible says are already slated for entering heaven).  If we behave “as if” it will all work out, then we live our life with the potential of heaven before us, instead of the reality of hell that almost everyone else will face.  Clever at diplomatic politics, those Puritans.

Don’t fool yourself that they aren’t all around us now.  I won’t go into Claude Fischer’s ideas about the Puritan legacy being one of “individual choice and social contract”, but I will argue that Jack Greene’s point about the Puritan use of “mutual surveillance to . . . suppress individual deviance and sin, exert tight control over the unruly forces of the market, diminish acquisitiveness and the covetousness or frivolous indulgence it engendered”*, is something clearly still in use today in the way that the so-called “Christian right” tends to make pronouncements and level judgements.  How people in high places will try to justify separating mothers from their children by citing scripture.

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart. (MV 1.3.96-9)
The Bible itself will tell us of Christ’s caution to his followers about the end times:  “Take heed that ye be not deceived: for many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and the time draweth near: go ye not therefore after them.” (Luke 21:8)
And here’s a story from the BBC news:
and also this:
In the end, it becomes about what we’re going to do.  How we endure, or what we do about it.  Do we sit by and throw up our hands?  Go into politics?  Fight crime with crime and compound the face of sin upon humanity?
Here, the season of the frogs is almost past, although their chorus will endure in some places through the summer and into autumn.  The great horned owls have finished their breeding, and the night sky quiets as they raise their howlets without the characteristic hooting of February and March.  Not yet the summer solstice, and the weather has already gone hot on many days, heating up the rooms until after dark when some cool air usually gives a bit of relief.  Last summer, another summer of devastating fires, people tell me that temperatures reached 109 degrees Fahrenheit, (almost 43 Celsius).  The kind of heat that melts asphalt and fosters pounding migraines in the sisters and brothers of that affliction.  Even if such heat does not kill people outright (which it sometimes does), it is like feeling the hot breath of death upon our neck.  We feel what Nick Cave’s Golden Horn Hooligan felt: something behind us, hot and angry and explosive, chasing us with a detonator.
About death, we are told we can do little.  At least about our own.  That unseen car behind us.  Headlights on the long dark road.  Only headlights.  Don Juan Matus talks of the lights that death wears on his hat.  Sometimes he turns the lights off, but he is always behind us.  Or she.  The angel of death that appears as a popular cultural icon (as opposed to Gabriel or Michael, who also variously serve in that office in the Bible) may be as beautiful as they say.
Still, sometimes we can prevent, or forestall the deaths of others.  Or their misery.  I marvel at how we can allow our government to function so.  Separating mothers from their children and quoting scripture to justify the act.  “What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?” (MM 2.2.208)  We become “not angels” in our tacit support.  Anti-angels.  The only difference may be that, in Measure for Measure, the sanctimonious Angelo realizes that he has lost any holy thread, and that the adversary has won him over.
What will we do about this?  I urge anyone reading this to listen.  Pay attention.  Every day.  Every minute.  If you think those who cite scripture to support evil will not come knocking on your door, then you are dead wrong.  They have always been with us, and they will remain so.  And they may well come for us too, leaning on scripture to justify silencing the dissenters, sooner rather than later now.  That spray paint on the wall does not bode well.
Pay attention.  Know what’s happening around you.  Be aware.  Too much damnation arises from oblivion.  Sharpen your words and use them when called for.  Pitchforks and torches?  I do not advocate such things.  But it might not hurt to keep the garden shed in order just in case.  Tiki torches all in a row.
No, frankly, I don’t know what happened to the formatting, which seems to be confused.  But be safe out there, and keep out of the heat as much as you can.
* See

Summer’s lease

Our lives are inconstant.  Some days, some times, there is less to say.  Sometimes, we find ourselves in shaded canyons where the water flows fast and deep, where one misstep will sweep us away forever.  We may even be able to see the ridges tinged with sunlight, see our colleagues and companions there, but we cannot reach them.  We cannot figure or foresee any way out of our predicament, and the walls seem high and close and closer.  Oppression threatens to crush us.

Times of falling away, where silence supplants the bubbling of the brook and the long slow conversations of the trees.  In the distance, green trees and the sound of birds, but in the foreground the black, hard stone surrounds us.  This is the emptiness at the very base of existence.  The emptiness of Tao, the Dharma, or God (and whichever or which several you prefer).

Not to dispute that the unseen hand may hold us, guide us, carry us across ravines that we cannot perceive and of which we remain blissfully unaware.  Not to dispute that the universe may care for us and provide for us in ways that we cannot begin to apprehend.  Yet, so many remain hungry and on the streets, forgotten, and shelved by society.  These don’t have time to wait for another election to “vote” their way out of their present circumstances.  Not that they have voter’s registrations, and I privately suspect that many polling stations would rapidly turn them away should they even try to make their voices heard.

Sometimes there’s nothing to say at all.  Birds sing in the canopy and we are too wrapped up in the mundane to worry about the sick, the poor, or the elderly, or to spend energy on fruitless concern about those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t make it.  In the United States at least, there remains an unspoken underlying idea that people “should” be able to manage, “should” be able to thrive, “should” be able to utilize their own ingenuity because “they are given every opportunity” to succeed in this glittering capitalist marketplace.

And if they don’t?  It’s their own fault.  Like “non-adaptive” species, they should be allowed to fail and go extinct.  If certain kinds of owls or frogs, fish or mammals cannot manage to survive, what is it to me (the reasoning goes)?  Nature will adapt.  God will take care of it.

Handy justification that absolves ourselves of responsibility for our own connectedness to the world.  We want to help people in war torn places like Syria, but we want to “help them in their own countries”.  We don’t want them to come to ours.  We certainly don’t want them to overtax our support systems.  We would much rather throw a few dollars to the efforts to rebuild the war torn neighborhoods so that such people can stay where they are.  In the meantime, children sleep in the streets.  In the cold.  Children.  We turn our backs on them with our justifications.  We turn our backs on our sisters, our brothers, and the world.  We get up and go to work.  We have things to do.  Others are taking care of this.

The rest is silence.

Still, don’t mind this voice too much.  It’s just a blog.  One of so very many blogs rattling on in the seemingly endless wilderness of the internet.  Even ghosts have difficult weeks and this has been a proverbial doozy.  Bitter and dissatisfied?  You bet.  The thing is that I know what I’m doing about it.  I have to wonder what others might be doing about it, right now and today.


If the nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud

Once upon a time, there was a boy who liked horses.  He learned to ride them and to groom them, to feed them, care for them, and even how to catch them when they had been set loose in the field for a time.  He respected them, and although they were much larger and more powerful beasts, they also respected him, and they taught him their secret ways and the boy and the horses were happy together.

In that country, they had riding competitions where young people would compete in various skills that involved horses–riding, roping, hitting targets while moving on horseback, and guiding horses through challenging courses.  Once, in one of these rodeos, another rider for some unknown reason lost control of her horse, something that can be relatively easy to do, especially when the rider is young.  Her horse panicked and plowed into the neighboring horses, spooking them and their riders.  The shoulder of her horse caught the boy under his right leg, hard enough to knock his foot from the stirrup, and the impact drove his leg up and over the saddle so that the boy lost his mount.

Down he went, fleetingly hoping that a horse would not kick him or trample him as he fell into their midst.  They did not, however.  Instinctively, whether through mutual respect or some divine providence, the horses moved away as the boy fell face first into the dust.  He felt his left knee connect sharply with a hard object, but other than that and the temporary loss of his wind, the boy was unhurt.

The rodeo proceedings stopped and the announcer fell silent.  The other riders milled about on their mounts as one of the officials came into the ring to see whether or not the boy had been injured, but the boy was already standing as the official arrived, favoring his left leg a bit.  The official asked if the boy was okay and the boy nodded, looking for his horse, which stood only a little ways off, looking quizzically back at the boy.  The boy went to the horse and winced as he bent his left knee to swing back up into the saddle.

The official came to him and said, “I’ve not seen that.  I’ve not seen a youngster thrown from a horse who was willing to just get back on like that.”

The boy answered simply, “It wasn’t the horse’s fault.  There’s no reason I should be afraid of him.”

The rodeo continued from that point, and although the boy’s knee later swelled painfully, things settled back into their routine.  The knee healed, but continued to remind the boy of the incident through painful predictions of rain for the rest of his life.

The point is that it is easy to blame the horse, and we often do.  In life, however, it is almost never the horse’s fault.  Not that there can’t be extenuating circumstances, black swan events, revolutions, disasters, and all the parts of life that we imagine might dramatically impact our own.   And it might be that a politician (or several, or many of them)  might promote the agenda of widespread wage slavery, for example, by systematically undermining education while holding up a given country as a shining example of individual economic opportunity.   That it can be up to us to plan for such eventualities makes life challenging, for such events or current can be difficult to discern in the subtly moving current of our days.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures. (Julius Caesar, 4.3.224-30)

Interesting that the speaker here is Brutus, in his self described process of riding at the top of his fortunes, in which he foresees a precipitous impending decline.  Brutus seems a good man who makes bad choices, and throws in with bad associates with other agendas.

Yet, Winston Churchill also closed a staff memo with this quotation in 1943, and history has come to see Churchill as having caught (or perhaps created) his own rising tide.

Similarly, Hamlet, telling Horatio how, on his journey to England, he could not sleep, but that the very lack of sleep fated him to discover his uncle’s plot to have him killed:

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will— (Hamlet, 5.2.8-12)
Choice or fate?  Can we even tell.  Chaos theory doubts that we can make sense of it–that even if there were to be a purpose, there are so many inputs and potential outcomes that we cannot tell, at any given moment, which tide to take.  Certainly, there is an element of chance.  But thought enters into it as well.
When Hamlet tells Rosencrantz that “Denmark’s a prison”, Rosencrantz protests that he and Guildenstern do not find that to be true.  Hamlet responds:

Why then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing                                                            either good or bad , but thinking makes it so: to me                                                            it is a prison. 

ROSENCRANTZ                                                                                                                              Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too                                                       narrow for your mind.

HAMLET                                                                                                                                                      O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count                                                myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I                                                          have bad dreams.

Like Hamlet we all have them.  Bad dreams.  At least occasionally.  Even those we forget about in the morning.  Yet, there is a power in forgetting.  In moving past.  There is a power in seeing our own tide as the rising tide, a power in seeing our boats sailing happily to fruitful lands.
I know.  Magical thinking.  Dangerous.  Like all things, it can be.  But perhaps the Puritans were correct on that point, that it is better to behave as if we were heaven’s elect here and now, or else we live constantly with the presence of gaping hell before us.  That is all I encourage for this week, to think well.  To not complain, but to see things better than they actually are, even if they happen to be bleak.  See how that goes.  If it doesn’t go well, or if you choose to do so, you can always go back to whinging next week.
Just think that it is good, and if that is challenging (and believe me, I know how challenging that can be sometimes), then spend the energy figuring out how it might be good and try to reframe the picture with that in mind.  Seems simplistic, even childish, I know.  And yet, yet, yet, just trust me.  Try it for a week and then look back and see how that week might have been compared to others.
Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.  If we can all be kings and queens of infinite space, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to play that game of nine men’s morris after all.

That God did but describe by making where human words were lost

Why lead by describing what we’re losing?  Because this is a great collective human loss, brought about by “sulphurous and thought-executing fires”.  I argue that “covert enmity/Under the smile of safety wounds the world”.  But what do I mean?  I mean the general loss of the humanities, yes, but in particular of our awareness of, and our familiarity with, our literary heritage and what it tells us.

No secret that English departments, for example, are being scaled back or shuttered, especially in the United States.  Newly minted English Literature PhDs might be more readily employable if they specialized in composition.  Those are the available jobs.  Teaching composition.  And most of these “jobs” tend to be adjunct posts–not secure, not tenure track, not really steps on a career path as much as they are jobs that might help a candidate “get by” until something more secure presents itself.

Where there is an English Literature post, the tendency is to seek out candidates who specialize in some aspect of literature from a particular cultural milieu, or literature that somehow focuses on gendered issues.  Shakespeare, of course, addresses a number of these issues, sometimes in ways that even after 400 years can be uncomfortable for his readers and his audiences.  The Me Too movement is very current, but the idea of sexual consent as a commodity that might (when clothed in monstrous thinking) somehow define or delineate a given woman’s worth in some terrible and misguided way, this was discussed long ago.  Don’t take my word for it.  Instead, read the opening of All’s Well That Ends Well, especially that part of the text that begins at the point in 1.1 (around line 115, depending on the edition) where the braggart soldier, Parolles, asks the young maiden, Helena, “Are you meditating on virginity?”

The ensuing discussion focuses on virginity, but that idea also appears to encompass the broader context of women’s sexuality.  Parolles’ conclusion about “virginity” seems case in point:

There’s little can be said in ‘t; ’tis against the
rule of nature. To speak on the part of virginity,
is to accuse your mothers; which is most infallible
disobedience. He that hangs himself is a virgin:
virginity murders itself and should be buried in
highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate
offendress against nature. Virginity breeds mites,
much like a cheese; consumes itself to the very
paring, and so dies with feeding his own stomach.
Besides, virginity is peevish, proud, idle, made of
self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the
canon. Keep it not; you cannot choose but lose
by’t: out with ‘t!

Reading this, four hundred and two years after Shakespeare’s death, the words seem to conjure the terrible reasoning of a Harvey Weinstein, pounding on a hotel door, seeking to equate silence with consent, seeking indecent access that flies in the face of considerations of dignity, propriety, or human good.

The reasoning begins with a premise which is largely (but not exclusively) correct; the idea that the world–or at least the human world–has always been built on trade.  Much of human interaction exchanges need for need, or gives service to others for what we need from them.  Let us, for the present, set aside ideas that Nature sometimes exercises examples of this as well–symbiosis and mutual advantage–the clown fish and the anemone.

Yet, our human version differs by how it has evolved, building societies where human interaction becomes predicated not on service or mutual interdependence, but on profit.  Too often, we seek not to do our best to obtain the best in return, but rather to obtain the most, to enrich ourselves while providing less to others.

Greed is no new idea either, of course.  But the problem seems to be that, in spite of Gordon Gecko’s speech (again misguided) about “Greed is good” in terms of capitalistic marketplaces, greed tends to behave like a lead based paint or cigarette smoke.  It slowly leeches into the things around it.  It pollutes the placid waters of our being, incrementally perverts our moral compass, and gradually yellows the walls in the houses of the soul.  Once greed takes hold within us, we soon find on some level that we have

sucked up from the sea

Contagious fogs, which falling in the land

Have every pelting river made so proud

That they have overborne their continents.

Once we find ourselves dissatisfied with what we have, we tend to reach for more, which can become a self perpetuating habit, growing into the very texture of the forest trees.  Reaching for more encourages us to reach for more in increasingly multitudinous ways.  We gradually lose our ability to distinguish, but we cannot see that we are losing it.  We forget that gold and food are not like people.  We become willow trees who, if we do not happen to grow aslant a brook, suck water away from others, all the while wrongly regarding it as our very own.

But how do we distinguish the margents, banks, and continents within us?  How do we come to know the natural orders that strive against wild growth within ourselves?

Winston Churchill rightly said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”

But what of our human past?  Our individual struggles as opposed to those carried out in some broader national theatre?

These past struggles, and the guidelines that help us to again avoid such pitfalls, tend to be encompassed in the literature.  Yes.  In the writings of Shakespeare among others.  Descriptions of a myriad of human challenges accompanied by guidance and enough space to let us work further on them within ourselves.

Why then would we dispense with the greater body of literature, and with Shakespeare, in schools today?

The answer is money.  Greed.  These subjects seem, on the surface, to be less and less useful in a life, and in social interactions, that are predicated on profit.  We live in a country where people must make enough to pay for their health care and their retirement, where costs, for the common human, seem to spiral endlessly upward, where the cost of affording shelter, food, necessities, and medical care in retirements seem staggeringly high.  As the American Association of Retired Persons puts it:

[H]ow much do you need to retire comfortably? By now, you’ve likely heard the conventional wisdom: that you should aim to have a nest egg of $1 millionto $1.5 million. Or that your savings should amount to 10 to 12 times your current income.

So many of us won’t get close to this.

But the prevailing idea seems to be that we will get closer by not wasting time on Literature.  These subjects, especially in the shrinking number of universities that still offer more traditional majors, are not typically regarded as providing a stable and lucrative future path–not when compared with the money making degrees like business, health care, or IT.  “Don’t waste your time with useless degrees like those in the humanities and the fine arts.  You can’t make money with them.”  Or, my personal favorite, “If you’re going to go into theatre, make sure you get an accounting degree or something you can have as a backup plan.”

True, we all want our children to do well, and doing well in this United States has come to mean doing well financially, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

If you doubt that, have a look at the current president and his cabinet.  They are all billionaires.  If you really doubt what kind of collective concerns these folks might have, no matter how much lip service they pay to being devout members of a particular faith, or being on the side of the working man, then pardon me, but you aren’t thinking right.  Of course they want the working class to do well, because the rich have always made money from the bended backs of other people.  They want the working class to do well as long as they stay right where they are–serving as wage slaves–and then they want them to die early to decrease the potential financial burden on the state.  Doubt that?  Why else did certain Congresspeople spearhead movements to get rid of Medicare and Medicaid (programs that underpay for the sick and elderly anyway, but at least they are something).

Having money has become so prioritized that it has edged out almost all other concerns.  In almost the whole of the corporate dominated world (oh, did I write that out loud?0, but certainly in the United States.  I don’t pretend to know the figures, especially in other countries, but being homeless in the United States apparently tends to lower one’s lifespan significantly.   How significantly?

“Without health care, many homeless people simply cannot pay. … The average life expectancy in the homeless population is estimated between 42 and 52 years, compared to 78 years in the general population.”  (from 2012,

But certainly we don’t have to lose our homes or our healthcare.  We simply need to be smart about studying not what will make us money, but what is likely to make us rich.  And we need to behave in ways that will promote the acquisition of wealth.  Unfortunately, educating others about what humanity has already learned, whether through philosophy, literature, art, drama, or anything too abstract to be less applicable than metallurgy or painting houses, is not.  It pays those at the top of the economic pyramid to keep the greater number nearer the bottom.

Yet, when we dispense with Shakespeare (and the attendant understanding that the study of literature and the arts teaches us), we dispense with the tremendous beauty that sometimes makes life worth living.  Subtlety, graciousness, reserve, and all the attendant graces of looking for a time through a great lens of human experience.  Love and despair.  “O brave new world that has such people in it.”  “‘Tis new to thee.”

Be not afeard.  I do not need to go with Titania to the fairy bower.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in:
And with the juice of this I’ll streak her eyes,
And make her full of hateful fantasies.

“Look at that beautiful flower!”  “Lovely!  Is it a peony or a rose?”  “Who cares?!?  It’s just amazing!”

Who cares indeed?  We continue to wallow in the increasing apathy of ignorance.  Opinions and facts smell the same in the bread line, or waiting for our daily soup.  Of course, that won’t happen.  We won’t be in a bread line because we didn’t bother to study that silly literature and art crap.  Can’t understand that weird Shakespeare talk anyway.  Besides, who has time or money for a play?  That’s ancient history.  I’d rather watch the new season of Bed Me Down.

Not fair?  Zombies and rogue computers?  Docs and cops as someone once summed up the wasteland of television.  I’m not really certain what’s on tonight, but it smells like soup to me.

Doing away with Literature and the Arts serves our masters too.  It serves them better soup and bread than we will ever be able to afford.  It loses us understanding,  perspective, breadth, and depth.  It loses us shades of burgundy, replacing them with “red”.  It loses us the ability, in many ways, to exercise compassion towards ourselves, to see ourselves with the understanding that the arts and humanities offer.  Yet, arguably, the abandonment might gain us an incremental advantage in the pursuit of wealth without compassion.

Thanks, I’ll take the soup.

Next time: how to fix this loss, prepare soup, and fix other problems, including your (yes, I’m writing to you) life and everything.



The great globe itself

When we talk about unities, Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action usually spring to mind.  Classical unities.  A sort of unified dramatic field theory.  And yet.

To be or not to be, that is the question.

Shakespeare follows a different kind of unity than that of substantive happenstance.  To be or not to be embraces both being and not being on the pinhead’s reflection.  A Schrödinger’s cat of a line with being and unbeing embracing each other in a single moment of consideration.  In a second, we could be either.  Neither.  Nāgārjuna’s fourfold negation that one 1. cannot say that it is, 2. cannot say that it isn’t, 3. cannot say that it both is and is not, and 4. cannot say that it neither is nor is not.  Our proper being is or isn’t empty.

Methought I was–there is no man can tell what.  Methought I was, and methought I had–but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.  Here is being and having, and both of those states offer no definable human value.

That is the question again encompasses both–“the question”, and “that” which answers it.  Subject and predicate fulfilling each other yet remain undecided.  Yang becoming yin becoming yang again.  Thou talk’st of nothing.

Except perhaps in theatre, where nothing may become everything dependent on only a little light and even less imagination.  Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?  How much does theatre echo human life?  Is everything in both?  I am that I am.  Or should that be that I am not what I am?  An equivocator, that could swear in both scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, but could not equivocate to heaven.  Literature defending itself against Plato for eternity.  Poetry.  Theatre.  Lies.  Lives.

Best perhaps to settle down for a drink, albeit drinking has its problems too, couched again in curious dualism, the Tao gives rise to one, which gives rise to two, which gives rise to three, which gives rise to the ten thousand things.  Two balanced between one and three, between the pangs of despised love and quietus.  Between a fardel and a bare bodkin.

Was I what methought I was?  Had I what methought I had?  Are we, do we ever?  Let it go.

Sigh not so, but let them go, and be you blithe and bonny, converting all your sounds of woe into hey, nonny, nonny.  If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to sack.  Of course, drinking, fine as it may be for passing the time, encompasses its own potentially problematic duality.

Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance: therefore, much drink may be said to be an equivocator with lechery; it makes him and it mars him; it sets him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him, and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.

Damned if you do.  Damned if you don’t.  Damn.


I saw him hold acquaintance with the waves

The old cliché about our lives being  journeys  remains true.  Travels.  Travails.  Losing, finding, and then losing again.  Bourne to sea on a rotten carcass of a boat, not rigg’d,/ Nor tackle, sail, nor mast, but are there rats?  Big fish beneath the waves?  Leviathans swimming half a league?  What kind of journey do we have?  What kind of journey do we seek?

What country, friends, is this?  Each turn, each day, each moment the spinning wheel spins anew, in thunder, lightning, or in rain.  We run upon a Möbius strip, threatened with the speed of turning, changing, staying the same.  Aching to stay on high ground while the surface undulates beneath us, threatening to plunge us off the edge, into the waves.  Into the abyss.  Mariners always risk entering wet.

What do we do?  Why am I reading this?  How can it possibly help me navigate anything?  Shakespeare?  Literature?  Writing?  Expression?  My own life?  What’s in it for me?  How do I get where I think I want to go?

A cause more promising
Than a wild dedication of yourselves
To unpath’d waters, undream’d shores?
Looking into ourselves, our lives, is the unpath’d water.  In doing so, we find ways.  Navigation if we wish, like the Polynesians of old who could see the paths that boats had taken on the waves long days after those boats had passed.  Wade Davis points out that people from certain cultures (often those from cultures thought of, in some misguided way, as less technically sophisticated than modern western culture), can see Venus in the daytime.  Remarkable, because I will wager that you and I (unless you happen to hail from one of these “less technically developed” cultures) cannot see it in the daytime at all, even had its precise location in the sky been pointed out to us.
Part of the point of this so called blog is to help locate ourselves in a variety of ways so that we might know where we are going, and where we want to go.  Using the vernacular of early modern literature, literature in general, performance, creative writing, and the intersection of the mythic with our lives helps us.  These subjects serve as lenses through which our unshaped understanding can begin to define a context, not just for our comprehension of some or other literary passage or mythic archetype, but for the definition of our lives, and the idea of where those lives might take us.

Sometimes we seem to be heroes in the sun.  Miraculous in powers and decision.  Feeding the very air around us with our bright souls, our sinews strung to sing heavenward even as we simply move.  Our movements dances, great mornings of infinite and intersecting worlds.  We recognize moments of great pith and moment.  Face that launched a thousand ships?  The rage of Achilles?  How easily the current turns awry.  Beauty and rage may motivate us or lose us.  Sometimes, often, both.  Some days we sing and sing until we weep and still the world remains a stone; stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.  We cannot turn the beacon’s eye inside such rain.  We cannot see through the beauty of thickly falling snow, or ragingly inclement weather.

Still, it is all right in the end, because we have different ways of seeing.  Different ways of understanding.  Perspective and understanding, and expression.  That’s the point.  There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Zhuangzi may have said it best: Don’t listen with your ears, listen with your mind. No, don’t listen with your mind, listen with your qi. Listening stops with the ears, the mind stops with recognition, but qi is empty and waits on all things. The Dao gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.  (This is Robert Eno’s translation, by the way, should anyone wish to read more.)

Great understanding is broad, small understanding is picky.

Great words overflowing, small words haggling.

Asleep the bodily soul goes roaming, awake it opens through our form.

Reading this takes time, and we are oh so busy.  We glance at the top of the page and think we see.  We think we understand.  Yet, I encourage readers to stick with this.  Draw from it, yes, but also see what it brings up in you.  Some of these posts will be more about the journey of our lives.  Some will be more about specific points in literature or drama.  All will be relevant.  But I fear they may not yield well to skimming because, like Shakespeare (and I do not claim to be anything like Shakespeare), this is more of a process than a single how to prescription on the electronic page.  This is as much about what we might bring of ourselves to the writing, as what the writing brings to us.  Should that sound too metaphysical, too out there, too “woo woo”, or just too nebulous, then there are plenty of blogs that purport to offer answers, methods, quick and easy ways.

What country is this?  This is the country of many ways (as Chad Hansen might claim) that combine into a greater Way.  It is the way across the waves, the way into and out of ourselves, ways to approach life’s journeys.  Yes, it is also about ways to approach literature, Shakespeare, drama, philosophy, performance, and writing.  Mostly, it is about ways into ourselves.  The way to find things.  The way home.





O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?

All our lives, we wonder at what we and others might be.  Who are we?  Who might we be and become?  Who are we to others?  With others? To ourselves?  Who are we when we are alone?  Who are we or what might we be after this brief physical identity has been shed?

Identity bedevils us.  It troubles us because it remains so difficult, even impossible, to pin down.  Owls hoot to us messages from the dead, but even those who have finished with this life before us tell us nothing definite.  Hooting in the night can be as vague as fog beneath the moon.  Amorphous.  Nebulous.  Such tricks hath strong imagination.  Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Beelzebub?

Who indeed? Desdemona hears the knocking, hears the ravishing strides of approaching death, while Emilia only hears the wind.

Affirming or denying ourselves, our name, Montague or Capulet.  I am not what I am.  We are spirits of a different sort.

If I say, “Call me Ishmael”, it does not necessarily mean that I “am” Ishmael.  What is a whale?  A composite of its constituent parts?  A vengeful ghost?  A god?  Perhaps we ourselves are conglomerates, assembled and morphing, heaving with change and temper, at once a one thing of a many.

We often define things, ourselves and others, like lists of characters in a play.  The King of France.  The Duke of Florence.  Bertram, Count of Rousillon.  Yet, perhaps just as often, we seek to transcend or defy prescription:

Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Usually, we think we or others “are” something or someone, even grinding down identity to the point of being or not being.  Poor Yorick.  I knew him, Horatio.  But he has gone somehow, leaving only this relic and my memory of him bearing me on his back a thousand times.  Kissing his lips.  Where are his or Gloriana’s lips now?
When we meet, we so often ask, “What do you do?”  In the United States especially, but in other places as well, this tends to mean “how do you make a living?”  How do you earn the money around which our society seems to be predicated?  We might do better to ask “What do you know?  What do you understand?  What could you show me?  What might you teach me?  How might contact with you expand my own understanding of who and what and why?
This might only ask a small shift in the thinking.  A small shift in perspective.  A shuffle of the feet, moving our weight from one foot to the other.  The tiniest alteration of a tone of voice.  Yet, the benefits might be enormous for both ourselves and others.  How might we recognize others as the beacons that they can be, and the potential guides they are, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.
Wherefore art thou Romeo?  Art thou Romeo?  Or art thou many perspectives, ways, engagements, spirits, all of them the like of which I may not ever yet have known?  The bell may toll for all of us, but we might do well in the meantime to try to hear what lies behind the wind.
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