Unsticking

I’ve been stuck lately. It happens to all of us. Now and then, we feel like Dante, who lastleafopens his Divine Comedy in the midst of an existential crisis:

IN the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct. . .

Fortunately, most of us don’t need to walk through hell and purgatory before we reach the heaven on the other side. And we don’t need to need to wander between dream vision and sleep, gradually learning how to “do well” like William Langland’s protagonist in Piers Plowman. 

But what these texts from the Middle Ages note remains true: sometimes we lose our momentum. Like a turtle pushed out to the center of a frozen pond, unable to gain footing and reach the shore again, we feel lost, adrift, and powerless. Sometimes, this makes us stiff and wooden. As Albert Camus writes in his essay “Return to Tipasa“:

A day comes when, thanks to rigidity, nothing causes wonder any more, everything is known, and life is spent in beginning over again. These are the days of exile, of desiccated life, of dead souls. To come alive again, one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland.

Indeed, sometimes we really do need to come alive again.

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Alan Watts on a Sunday

I need to get some serious work done on a few things today, so I don’t have time to type up my usual post–I swear I’m getting better at this, haha–but rather than leave you with nothing, I wanted to post a video with a spattering of Alan Watts lectures.

Alan Watts was a notable (though some would say notorious) Zen practitioner who dabbled in a variety of other fields, from philosophy to physics. Born in 1915 and dying in 1975, he spent much of his life lecturing and writing, becoming a central figure in the counter-culture movements of the 60s and 70s. His thoughts are often iconoclastic and his metaphors can be pointed, so few read Watts indifferent or unchanged.

A wealth of Alan Watts lectures exist on YouTube. Some users pair them with music and inspiring images or splice together clips of crowded city streets and airy mountaintops. This particular one is a short collection of meaningful excerpts animated by the creators of South Park. Some of the excerpts are quite insightful. Others are a little more out there, depending on your taste. But on the whole, they do give a brief view of Watts’ style and insights.

I hope you enjoy this, question it, and enter the week with some new ideas. Cheers.

Sisyphus and the fair field full of folk

Yesterday, while sitting in the cafeteria, sipping the last of my tea, I scanned the seething mob of students around me. Pockets collected around tables, laughing. Some weaved through the rows of chairs, balancing plates. Most were focused, making beelines through the groups, mumbling excuses and smiling as they dodged bodies and carts, slipping into their own chair. Others took their time, stopping at tables, picking out apples like a chef at a farmer’s market.

Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library
Image courtesy of Vanderbilt library

Each person had a way of being. Some wore exercise clothes, others had prim button-down Oxfords, most shuffled through lines in pajamas. They had places to go, things to do–or an absence of things to do that they filled with conversations and distractions.

Having spent the morning reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century, I recalled one of the more famous lines. The narrator, a mysterious figure named Will, falls asleep and finds himself in the midst of a strange country. He describes it:

I saw a tower on a toft · worthily built; 
A deep dale beneath · a dungeon therein, 
With deep ditches and dark · and dreadful of sight 
A fair field full of folk · found I in between, 
Of all manner of men · the rich and the poor, 
Working and wandering · as the world asketh. 

Will then goes on to describe these “fair folk.” Some toil in fields, while “Wasters” devour their products in gluttony. Some seek after salvation, becoming monks and anchorites; others wear the habit as a means to a escape poverty and cheat others. Merchants sell wares. Pilgrims travel. Kings rule, judges judge.

The poem describes a diverse spectrum of life, from highborn to low, and sandwiched them between these two towers: the one on a hill, the other in a ditch. We later discover that the tower on the hill is the tower of Truth, a symbol for God and salvation. The tower in the ditch belongs to Wrong, providing a symbol for a wasted life and a doomed afterlife. As the poem progresses through it’s many “steps,” visions chronicle Will’s search for salvation through Truth.

In the cafeteria, I considered Will’s vision, particularly this “fair field full of folk,” buzzing, weaving, laughing, and living around me. Where are they all going? I thought. What are they doing? Why are they here? A surge of compassion welled up in me as these questions turned over in my head, rolling one to the other. I felt connected to everyone and detached at the same time, an outside observer with a unique stake in the observation.

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Time, art, and negative capability

I found my summers yesterday, in the fall, the whole of them blue-sky bound and strewn with wind. The oak and maple leaves weaved paths like a wandering needle as they settled to the ground, sun-curled and scattered. Meanwhile, the afternoon light shimmered in the shaking leaves like a mirage or a whispered poem.railway-autumn

Legs folded, I sat on a red Adirondack chair, looking at the backyard where I grew up. A few things were different. The white picket fence wasn’t there anymore. My brother and his friends had taken sledge hammers to it some hot day years ago, celebrated with beer, and piled up the boards like felled trees. A wire fence replaced it, rattling in the wind and squaring off the yard like the lines on a chess board.

My grandfather’s old table was gone too. It was old when I was a kid, gray like the weather had bleached the life out of it, while lichen and moss filled the cracks. I used to poke my finger through knotholes and wiggle it, like a worm, legs swinging too high to touch the flagstone patio where the table rested. I don’t know where that went. Maybe firewood. Maybe the soil behind the stand of hemlocks in the back.

There, on that old table, my neighbor and I built planes with computer paper from my dad’s old Macintosh. That’s gone too, or maybe buried somewhere in a dim corner of the basement, beneath rusted wrenches and coffee cans of old nails. Those days, before the wire fences went up, my neighbor would cut through our backyards and knock on our back door. We rarely called. I’d see him on our back step, his hair like a pile of feathers cemented under a baseball cap, and I’d steal the paper.

For the whole summer day, we’d sit out at that table, folding, and cutting, and throwing our planes when the wind blew. Sometimes they weaved, crashed, and tumbled on the ground like drunk pigeons. And other times, the wind caught the frail wings of our creations and carried them up into the blue, blue sky like birds chasing the sun, and we forgot that there were boundaries, forgot that there were fences and time limits.

Yesterday, sitting on that red chair, I found that joy again. I could see the table, the paper, and my neighbor folding planes beside me. Memories pooled in a puddle that never dried up. The images had a deep resonance, like the memory had bounced back from some distant place, bringing echoes as it returned. Time dissolved.

Then, the moment passed, as a gust brought a branch full of yellow leaves sailing down like a dozen paper planes, all weaving, and diving, and settling. I locked back into time again, like a wanderer suddenly brought back to the path.

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Augustine and Evil

My dad closed the door and flicked off the lights, pitching the room into a clean black. Whistler-Nocturne_in_black_and_gold“Goodnight,” he said as he walked way. He footsteps receded as he walked downstairs to rejoin my mom. My brother sat up beside the bed.

“Ready?” he asked.

I nodded.

We piled my stuffed animals and realigned my pillows, burying the human-like decoy in a thick comforter. From the doorway, it looked like a body curled up in deep sleep. Perfect.

My brother and I snuck downstairs, our soft footfalls swallowed by explosions and gunshots from an action movie. We opened the basement door and slipped downstairs to my brother’s room, where we watched kung-fu and R-rated movies, eating chips and dip, until dawn.

I could have asked my parents to sleep downstairs. They would have probably said yes—it was a Friday and I was almost nine. But the thrill of subterfuge tinged my flight. Breaking rules was liberating, saying “no” was exciting. Doing the “wrong” thing was a thrill.

In his Confessions, Augustine of Hippo tells a similar story. One night, he and his friends sneak into a garden and steal pears. They don’t eat the fruit but still enjoy the theft for its sinful pleasure. As he writes, “The malice of the act was base and I loved it—that is to say, I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me” (Augustine and F.J. Sheed, trans., 44).

One of the many picture's of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)
One of the many pictures of St. Augustine (by Antonio Rodríguez)

In my forbidden flight and Augustine’s theft, we broke rules. Using Augustine’s theological language, we “sinned,” turning away from God toward ourselves. In Augustine’s case, he picked a forbidden fruit. In my case, I disobeyed my parents. This “turning away” forms an essential crux in Augustine’s argument defending God against the charge of evil. But to understand his argument one must first understand his notion of being and non-being–gleaned from the Greek tradition.

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Solitude and Loneliness

A friend recently mentioned in a message to me that she doesn’t mind spending time alone anymore. As she put it, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel like I’m a loser when I’m alone.” She even described a moment walking home in the rain alone without a raincoat or umbrella. Wanderer_above_the_Sea_of_Fog

“People driving by probably thought I was miserable, but I just smiled the entire time like I had a big secret that I couldn’t tell anyone,” she wrote. “The rain was so refreshing.”

I suppose the millennial generation feels particularly pressured to avoid “being alone.” We’re increasingly connected with cell phones and social networks. A “lonely person” conjures images of a Friday-night recluse in a concrete room with cold fluorescent lights pouring down on a clammy floor strewn with old magazines. Meanwhile, everyone he knows–even the smelly kid with the sketchy sweatshirt who sat near him on the bus in third grade–is at some party with Aziz Ansari and David Tennent, having a great time. FOMO, it’s called: “fear of missing out”

We fear being alone because we fear loneliness: the sense of exclusion, the shame, the boredom. But you don’t have to be alone to feel alone. It can hit anywhere, even at a party.

And sometimes being alone doesn’t mean you feel lonely. As my friend realized, being alone can be empowering. Even fun. As theologian Paul Tillich notes in The Eternal Now, “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.

But what’s the difference?

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Egypt: a reaction

When I first read Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out–“ about a boy getting killed in a chainsaw accident, I cringed at the final sentence: “And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

Egypt, street scene

How could they be so calloused? I thought. That boy just died, and they “turned to their affairs”?

I now understand that we must often turn to our affairs despite tragedy or else nothing would get done. Held down, scarred over, and silenced with whiteout, our memories remain, but we move on. There’s even a sort of stoic courage there.

Egypt has resurfaced in the news as the violence worsens. As of this writing, the mainstream media has confirmed over 800 people dead since unrest began. That doesn’t count the thousands of injured. The burned churches. The torched and dismantled government buildings. The barricades. The shattered lives. The unconfirmed dead. The fear.

Another teacher I worked with reported on a blog how a priest she knows was riding in car when a man with a knife started chasing him. The fast-thinking driver saved the priest’s life.

“Today this same priest told me that priests in Egypt fear being led like sheep to the slaughter,” the teacher wrote.  

It’s one image in a complicated mosaic.

“It was a hell,” a doctor said about the violence a few weeks ago. I can’t imagine what he’d say now, with hundreds dying and motorcycles carrying bodies back from front lines to makeshift morgues in mosques.

I, too, worry about the friends I made, the places I saw, the people I shook hands with. They are more than statistics. The grease and dust from their hands has washed off, but I still feel it. I still hear their stories, remember their smiles. Every update makes me think of them.

I want to mourn or fight, but I must “turn to my affairs”–so says that voice inside my head, that voice that points to all the practical, at-hand problems I must deal with: loans, money, drivers’ tests, GRE exams, messy kitchens.

I’m getting them done, but my mind is still in Egypt.

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The Quest for Peace

Something I wrote before: “I am not like yesterday. Not yet tomorrow. I am today.” This line returns to me like a long slow breath, stretching syllables until they share the weight of my body and soul.   And then I remember what I lack, what I fear, what I need for “today” to be here with me as my present self. Because tomorrow I will say, “I am not like yesterday.” Thoughts are my enemies, but I learned that peace is something that never ceases to exist. It’s there. But peace is humble; it doesn’t seek our attention. In lieu, we must be the ones to pursue it—or perhaps, realize peace.

The quest for peace in our days is a labyrinth with its dark tunnels and hidden passageways. I am in this maze just as much as you are.  But I have discovered that the peace is the maze itself. Or maybe not? Well, I am still living and learning. Ten or twenty years from now I might assemble a different perspective on peace. But, as of now, I am taking a stop in my travels, so I can let my life stir what it has collected over the years.

Within the stream of my thoughts and endless needs and desires, I can feel the weight of the world dropping on my hands like tiny seeds waiting to be planted in my head. And within my fears and doubts, I can distinguish which seeds I had actually considered to plant ten years ago.

I am not drawn to gardening at all, but if I had the influence, I would. As of now, I am tending the garden in my head and, especially, my heart.

Peace grows where we unite ourselves to the soul of peace.

I don’t want to say the ground of peace or the core of peace, but rather the soul—the soul is its life, its true breath. The soul is an intimate substance. It is where the encounter of our essence and intangibility gaze at each other as lovers do before they depart. The only difference is that the makeup of our soul never leaves—it is us. And we make that precious encounter with peace when we contemplate on its authenticity as opposed to the benefits or outcomes of peace itself. In a similar way, we make that distinctive encounter with ourselves when we contemplate on the intimate reality that we possess in our souls. Not in yesterday’s reasons and excuses or tomorrow’s goals and desires, but today’s moment. Peace is for today; it’s meant for today. And it’s meant for us and it longs for each of our distinctive union.

As I have mentioned before, peace is humble, so it is not ignorant or oblivious to its own beauty and power. As each fear or troubling thought marks its territory in my mind, peace remains quiet and patient because it knows I have to make the effort to enter into its sanctuary.

We must humble ourselves to encounter peace. We must admit our faults and frustrations and realize that there are things in life we do not have control over. Deep inside ourselves, we are vulnerable and powerless. Deep inside ourselves, we fail to remember our human quality which is truly vital to recognize as we face our struggles and disappointments. But, we, most importantly, overlook the active presence of our soul that is oftentimes deadened by our fleeting pursuits of unnecessary and damaging ambitions. And, yet, peace still waits for us. Underneath, above, in between our angst and fears and concerns—peace is there. It exists. It exists. It exists.

Option overload

Standing in the tea aisle of my local Wegmans, my heart pounded and my head froze. Too many choicesThe prim, brightly colored canisters and shiny, cellophaned boxes stared at me, rows of them, emblazoned with brand names, alleged health benefits, and flavors. Some were fair trade, some were organic. Others were just cheap.

I didn’t know what to do.

In the end, I picked a compromise of price and quality. The anxiety seems crazy. And, as my dad quipped when I mentioned the issue, it’s better to have too many choices than none at all. True. But option overload has become an increased problem in the West.

As absurd as it sounds, too many choices can be a bad thing.

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Egypt, week 3

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This past week, I’ve found my niche back in Egypt, after some uneven footing. On mornings when I don’t teach, I sometimes walk, sticking to the shady side of the street, saying hellos to those who meet my gaze, and finding shops to nose through when I reach the main road.

I like exploring bookshops the best. They’re usually air-conditioned and contain hours of entertainment. Also, many of the people who work there speak English.

In one, I met a young man name Ahmed, with the typical slicked-back hair, tight button-down shirt, and blue jeans. The store was empty, and he got me a coffee as I was looking at memoirs to burn away my 14-hour flight home next week.

“You like books?” he asked.

Well, I was in a bookstore, but I decided to be polite. “Yes,” I said.

“What kinds?”

“Many kinds,” I said.

Ahmed flashed me the seemingly universal you-can-trust-me (even when you can’t) Egyptian smile and handed me my coffee.

“I like philosophy, essays, and memoirs,” I said.

“Philosophy is very interesting,” he said.

I sat down, and welcomed him to sit nearby.

“Yes it is,” I continued. “What do you like to read?”

In alternating moments of coy reticence and loquacious openness—replete with dramatic Egyptian hand movements—Ahmed listed a few books, ranging from Arabic pop lit to the classics that sat on his parent’s bookshelf at home.

“I love The Great Gatsby,” he said.

We had more in common than I thought.

Ahmed had just finished his studies in computer science at The American University in Cairo and practiced his English as often as he could. Savvy and driven, he wanted to work for an American corporation, like IBM, and hopefully use it as leverage to move to America.

“At least, you know, at least for a time,” he said. “Until things get better.”

“Any luck with jobs?” I asked.

He held up his arms, showing the bookstore.

Ahmed’s position is normal—perhaps even a little lucky—for many young men in Egypt. Two years ago, the grim job market and the influx of unemployed college-educated helped spur the Jane. 25 Revolution. Now, the same young men face a similar job market: 13 percent unemployment.  If anything, the continued stagnation has only worsened the situation.

A recent college grad myself, I’m always thinking about jobs. Society forces me to. Everyone wants to know what I’m doing, what my plans are. Now what?

Sitting across from Ahmed I couldn’t help but realize how different our worlds were. Random births, karma, or fate—whatever you believe—had flung us in utterly different circumstances. A recent grand, he’s a lot like me, but his options are diminished, and in a few days, another revolution may rupture his country once again.

Eventually, we finished talking. Ahmed took my cup, empty long ago, and I went back to the seminary for lunch. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him.

As I walked back, I took in the mangled sidewalks, the widows begging for lose change, the skinny cats picking at garbage, and the dusty, dented cars that dotted the road.

After a while, it all becomes background. But now and then, something hits you. Like Ahmed.

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