I think I’ve long had what I now see as fundamental misconceptions regarding the role of truth on my life. Those misconceptions have been embodied in my presumptive understanding of two phrases, “To thine own self be true” and “The truth shall make you free.”
“To thine own self be true” comes of course from Hamlet. I’ve always seen it as an admonition and invitation to follow my inner self whenever I come up against some social demand to do otherwise. That it’s a good thing to be assertive in the face of opposition. March to the beat of my own drummer, and so on. But I note that the phrase is followed by more: “And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”
That seems to transform the first line from a suggestion that I always be myself to more of an observation about the role of truth in one’s behavior -- and a strong suggestion that being honestly true to oneself is not a doorway to self-indulgence, but rather incorporates an obligation to be honest with others, because that’s the essence of truth. Be yourself, but openly and with understanding that others also deserve respect. Honor my inner nature but also those of others.
“The truth shall make you free” comes of course from the Bible, John 8:32 (Authorized King James version (1811)). I’ve always seen it as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card, suggesting that if and when I realize what really matters, I will be freed from the misconceptions and social limitations of life. But, more fundamentally, I always thought of truth as a ticket to freedom, providing me with the option of getting free when it’s convenient to me. Or when I can dig up the courage to change, If I can dig it up.
But life has taught me something else.
Life has taught me that the truth is a powerful and irresistible force that will be known, and once known will make one free whether one wants it or not. That at some point the error and fears and self-serving nature of my life will become clear to me, and when that truly happens I will be pushed or even dragged kicking and screaming into living a more honest and open life, no matter what the cost. That at some point denial will become so obvious and transparent that I can’t hide behind it any more, that the truth cannot be hidden or avoided forever.
Truth is, the truth is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That’s a hard truth to swallow. An inconvenient but fundamental truth.
I come from a long line of handyman-types, especially on my mother’s side. Her father was a housebuilder/contractor, one of her brothers built sets in Hollywood, and one was a master plasterer. Her maternal grandparents farmed (though they lost the farm, so maybe they don’t count). My father’s side, not so much. Though his paternal line spent a lot of time on the westward migration across the U.S., so I’m presuming they were at least competent in that the line survived. Dad was what I called a “desperation handyman” - he built under duress and necessity, like when he couldn’t put it off any longer, or when he or one of his kids brought home an animal that immediately needed a cage.
I bring up my lineage because I spent a large part of today attaching the cross-pieces to the roof-rack on our new car. The process went through the usual steps. Like when I accepted, against my better judgment, the sales person’s assertion that it would be simple. Then I studied the instructions for awhile, and set it all aside. After first putting it on my “to do” list (right near the top). Then worked on it for awhile, got it so it seemed all was ready to attach (though there had been a troublesome point when I accidentally backed a screw out too far and had a hard time getting it back in). Then I set it aside, knowing it was silly to be intimidated by the final step (but also knowing I was).
Today I decided ‘twas time. I grabbed all the pieces and went out to the garage. Put the front bar on, the fastener dropped into place and it tightened up just like it was supposed to. Ah, I thought, and began to feel accomplished. Of course the other side wouldn’t fasten, though it looked the same. I compared the pieces and they all looked the same. Just to be sure, I put on the back bar, and it too worked like a charm. Then it struck me -- the recalcitrant one must have been the one I had the screw issue with. So I unfastened the one end and lifted it up, then went to get the other. It stuck under the rack, so I (of course) pulled on it. The result was that the innards came out.
I gathered up the pieces and studied them. First, I saw what had gone wrong -- there was an inner piece that needed to have the screw through it and I had obviously not put it back correctly. And I had a bigger problem -- the inside was out, and I saw no way to get it back in. After more thought and not inconsiderable perspiration of frustration, I studied the one I had not disemboweled, and saw not only how the innards looked inside, but also that maybe, maybe, a way to force the innards back in. This step I took with considerable trepidation -- forcing things together rarely does other than damage them both irreparably, but I saw no other choice.
I shoved and they went in. But I had another problem -- once inside, two metal tabs, one on each side, tended to cover the screw hole, which also had a tendency to be facing up and down instead of back and front, which of course made it impossible to thread the screw back in. But, with a lot of cursing and some fine work with an awl and a tiny screwdriver and a small flashlight held in my mouth, I finally, finally, got the screw in, went out, and put the bar on the front. It worked. Yay. After my whole morning was gone. Then I realized that the two bars were too close together, and both had to be more centered on the roof. But that was but the work of an instant, given that I was now a veteran.
And it’s done, looks as good as it would if I’d had REI put it on. And I was, and am, filled with a warm sense of satisfaction. Seriously.
I admit there were moments, many of them, when I thought it was all a waste of time and I should just pay someone to do it and get around to doing other things -- until I realized that there was nothing better I should have been doing. I had no immediate fires to put out. And the time I spent, absorbed in, and learning from, the task, was time very well spent. I used all of my brain and scrounged up some ideas I never knew I had in me. And I succeeded. Next time, if there is a next time, I’ll know more what to do -- and what not to do.
That has helped me vanquish the bogeyman who haunts my manual labors -- the snickering ghost from somewhere who laughs at my incompetence. “A real man,” he sneers, “would be long done with this. Your uncles could have done it in only a few minutes, humming and whistling and likely with a cigarette hanging from their lips. Look how you struggled.”
But that of course is only half the story. I only know of my relatives as accomplished workers. No one brags about or remembers the early learning days. Everything has to be done a first time, and there is no way to learn but by doing. Reading about it only gives a vague idea -- real learning is from the hands up not the top down. Mistakes serve as signposts for the next time.
Failure is fine. There is indeed an art to incompetence.
Sitting, as usual, on my screened porch this morning, feeling the slight chill breeze that signals an approaching autumn. Morning sunlight streams across the still-green grass, birds chitter around the feeder. Two chipmunks scurry about looking for dropped seeds. The sky is crystal blue, with the faintest of white streaks.
A perfect moment. A perfect morning. For that perfect moment, all felt so good. Two thoughts arose. First, that the present moment is all we really have, the past is uncertain memory, the future is uncertain projection. We live here, now. And only here now.
The second thought, that we each of us have the option of living in the moment, and letting go of past regrets and future fears. No one else other than ourselves can do it, and no one other than ourselves stops us. It is within my purview as a human being to live that way. My privilege. My power, perhaps, Maybe my liberation.
With that second thought I felt as though I stood at the edge of a new and uncertain world. A can, if I choose, if I dare, step through a door in the wall of ordinary life, and move into one of extraordinary life by simply choosing to do so. Moving from ideas about faith in the universe to the reality of it, a chance to throw myself open to whatever powers may be. The realization that I really have no choice anyway, that living anywhere but in the present is simply stepping into illusion.
That reminded me of a concept in extreme empirical philosophy. Which is that we can only know what we can sense, that our “understanding” of the world is limited to the tips of our fingers, the range of our vision and hearing. We know we touch and see and hear, but all that really consists of is our brain evaluating and imagine the results of our sensations.
We can be reasonably sure that we see and hear and feel something, because it seems to be a shared something with other people. We both see the sky and the birds, and feel the breeze and so on, simultaneously. So what gets sensed has a universal quality, at least in the context of the effect it has on our minds. [Unless of course our shared universe is an illusion and you, the reader of this, are really the only mind, afloat in a world of make-believe companions. But let’s not go there]. Presuming, then, that we all exist, we all seem to sense something in the same way.
But that’s all we know. Something is out there, but it’s beyond our understanding. The image to me is of one being wandering in an infinite, unknowable blackness, with our arms outstretched and touching the surface manifestation of something that is beyond knowing. We work mightily to shape those sensations into a sensible image, which of course implies that we can also stop shaping them and allow the unknown to simply be. Perhaps that is merely death, which of course seems inevitable [I say seems because each of us alive has yet to experience it, at least in this incarnation, if there be incarnations].
My concluding thought then, my Eureka moment, such as it is, is simply this. We are points of consciousness in a vast unknown, and the idea that we have any control over our future is a laughable illusion. We have no idea of what’s really real, and we slide through an uncountable series of moments. We should maybe let ourselves more fully experience the moments and leave the past and future to the dustbin of discarded ideas. Couldn’t hurt.
And now, by the way, it’s night, that morning has slipped into that uncertain past. Right now I’m in a moment of a nice red wine and fancy cheese, neither drunk nor, far as I can tell, insane. The wine is good, the night is dark, I hear only the faint and distant stirrings of the other sentient being with whom I seem to share what seems to be a comfortable and functional shelter. All seems well.
Good night all.
In the dark I hear a siren
It screams across the night
Someone else is in trouble
Eric Burden & The Animals, “Hotel Hell”
I’m sitting here in the blackness of my screened back porch, hearing the distant rumble of traffic, the high-pitched drone of crickets and tree frogs, and the steady beat of rain on the roof and the metallic plinking as water works its way down the drain spouts. It’s been raining here in my upper Midwestern city for more than two weeks now, and it’s time for it to stop. The two large lakes downtown are reaching historic high water marks, and streets are closed due to high water, most sporadically, a few for a long time, and water is inching ever closer to the houses close to the lake..
I’m not affected personally, our house is on high ground a few miles away. Our neighbor got water in his basement, but ours is dry. For now anyway, the occasional distant siren is reassuring in a strange way, because I know it’s not for me. This time.
I’m reminded of Douglas Adams’ concept in his Hitchhiker “Trilogy” about SEPs -- “Someone Else’s Problem.” The idea that if something does not affect us directly, and we don’t want to deal with it, we just consider it someone else’s problem and we don’t even see it any more. Another word might be denial. Whistling past a graveyard. Burying one’s head in the sand.
I’m truly sorry for the people sandbagging their houses, and for the family of the man who got swept from his car and into a culvert. People whose life’s mementoes have been reduced to soggy pulp, and who found out their insurance does not cover floods. And to carry it further, I’m sorry for the players on the world’s larger stage, for
“the warriors whose strength is not to fight . . . .
for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An' for each an' every underdog soldier in the night “
(Bob Dylan, “Chimes of Freedom”)
But inside I am so relieved that it isn’t me. Selfish or self-preservation? Does it matter? Truth is I have so far dodged a bullet, the one I know is out there with my name on it, but somewhere and sometime I will have my own rendevous with an overwhelming problem, and someday I will be gone from this life. So what’s wrong with me enjoying this bit of night air and noticing the magical rhythm of the raindrops, smelling the damp greenness, sipping a nice red wine? Would it help others if I make myself feel guilty, or deprive myself of doing something I want to do? Would my self-inflicted suffering in any way lessen theirs?
The simple answer might be for me to do something, whether it be fill sandbags or send money or become an annoying internet zealot. But would that really make a difference, such small drops of water into a sea of troubles, what would even that accomplish other than to assuage a nagging feeling of guilt? Or is that rationalization?
I don’t know those answers, but I do know I need another glass of wine.
I heard a musician on interviewed on the radio the other day -- I think it was Travis Williams, but I don’t recall and who it was doesn’t matter much -- and he was asked about a line from one of his songs. He said (I’m paraphrasing) “That’s how I know the words come from somewhere else. No way I’m smart enough to write that.”
That’s how I look at my writing. When I’m really into it (in the flow) it wells up from inside me and it’s all I can do to keep up with it. In those times, first drafts, edits and rewrites are a pleasure, refining something I know needs to be said. The right words in the right places, ideally the best words in the best places. Tone and tense and tempo all fit together, almost without my help, me as scrivener rather than writer. One time I tried googling a phrase I’d heard and only one citation turned up -- mine. I remember writing an article in a law review commemorating a recently-deceased federal judge for whom I’d been the final law clerk. I stopped by the office of a cynical old law professor and he had it in his hand. He looked at me and said, “Marvelous.” I’m not boasting here, I’m merely setting out the record. When I start to write, I write well.
But I don’t write often. I put it off, I find other things more demanding at the moment. I believe I could have made a career as a writer, but instead I worked at the fringes, as a lawyer, PR guy, attorney-editor, all jobs that required writing, but not only writing. I’ve never kept a job where my sole obligation was to sit down and write. I came closest by far two times -- once as a general news reporter for a small but respected weekly paper (I left that job because it was starvation wages and I told myself I couldn’t wait around for a big break) and as a law clerk for a court of appeals (I left that because I had to move away). And no place that wanted fiction --though I might have been a more successful lawyer had I been a better liar. In all those jobs, as in private letters and blogs and the like, the audience is limited and the writing is peripheral, often seemingly cast into the wind.
Not complaining here, either, just the record again.
There seems to be something else at work, too. Though as I said the words flow through me, they don’t flow easily. The image that comes to mind is that of a medium who goes into a painful and exhausting trance when the spirit moves him. It’s demanding of my spirit and it’s draining. So what happens is I tend to avoid it, sort of like trying to avoid throwing up after a night of drinking -- I know it’s going to happen, and I know I’ll feel better after. But I’ll do almost anything to avoid doing it.
Until the spirit moves me (literally, I think). Like now. I had to say this, and once I’m saying it, it flows, words following a pattern I didn’t know I knew. A message of some sort that had to come out, and at the outset I really had only the vaguest notion of what it would be. Is it good? Is it worth reading, much less worth writing? I don’t know. I rely on the kindness of strangers to find that out, and usually they have been kind. I hope you all will be at least understanding.
So that’s that part.
But there’s one more thing. If those writings come from somewhere beyond my conscious mind, where do they come from? The easiest and ostensibly most likely answer is, from my subconcious. But of course I can never know that for sure, “sub” meaning “under,” as in hidden from concious mind.
If one is of a religious or spiritual bent, the answer could be that they come from somewhere else in the metaphysical cosmos, and it is my lot to have to transcribe and polish them. (No, I’m not a meglomaniac or narcissist -- at least as far as I know -- I don’t claim to have written anything seriously profound and I don’t feel special). My personal view is more Jungian, I guess, the idea that we all share a common set of archetypes, and we each tap into them (willingly or not), each in our own way and style. I can even envision humanity as a gathering of weavers of consciousness, each of us drawing threads from our subconcious and knitting them into a lasting framework of human reality. (Are weaving and knitting interchangable? I think not but my source won’t tell me and I don’t think it much matters)
But anyway, and this is what I thought I had started out to say, are there things I’m supposed to write but don’t, or will I be blessed (or condemned) to hang around until I say what I am supposed to say, and then maybe fade away into dust? Or do those things I should have written simply stay unsaid, or does someone else draw that duty?
Is that even answerable?
Enough stream-of-consciousness for one night. I only know these ideas came to me today, and I avoided the writing as long as I could.
This is the result.
Separate names with a comma.