Companero

I often refer to the ‘aesthetic’ (such that it is and why it must always be accompanied by quotes and qualifiers) of my fiction as equal parts art and spirit.

We can—and often do—toss around the notion that imbibing certain works of music or books or films is akin to having a religious experience. Those experiences often lead those of us so inclined to seek out an artistic life; we want to create something that evokes the same monumental response in another person.

I’m guilty of this desire, although the sad fact of aging is that these profound artistic experiences are fewer and farther. And creating works that evoke anything close to a religious experience in another human is, well, incredibly difficult.

Regardless, and speaking of desire, actor Bruno Ganz passed away yesterday. He was the protagonist angel in Wings of Desire - one of those few films that had that profound impact on my artistic sensibilities, on my soul. I couldn’t imagine another actor whose very face could evoke the wonders of a fallen angel experiencing coffee and cigarettes for the first time.

Wings of Desire is an amazing film. Bruno Ganz was an amazing actor. Losing one feels like losing the other.

Farewell, Companero.

How We Live, How We Die

My high-school friend committed suicide 5 years ago.

The event, and the circumstances around it, aren’t as present as they once were, but invariably on the anniversary of his death, something will trigger a memory followed by an acknowledgement.

We—his family and friends—collectively know more about why (although why is always extremely tricky when discussing suicide). He and his family suffer from a genetic predisposition to Huntington’s Disease, and he was experiencing symptoms. Again, causal connections that explain why someone would take his or her own life are always specious, but for many of his friends like me who could fathom no earthly explanation as to why he’d end his life, I found some solace in the deeper understanding of his circumstances.

Still. The obvious feeling that doesn’t go away is one of shocked loss. An abrupt realization that the person I knew and did some of my growing up with is gone. Five years hasn’t dulled that reaction.

In a similar way, recent end-of-life experiences with my wife’s family are making the turn of the year somber and reflective. I don’t spend much time thinking about death—or more specifically—my own death. Like I suspect many of us do, I shy away from the chaffing discomfort and outright fear of that event, that common denominator.

Age and circumstance and overwhelming evidence are showing me that it’s time to consider more than just the mortality of other people.

Thanks to the news-feed on my phone, I discovered some fascinating articles about the topic—and the practice—of dying. Stating the obvious, this is a specific (and Buddhist) perspective, but for me—someone who was more or less raised around a haphazard exposure to Christianity—I find that the disconnect from my childhood religious tradition makes it easier for me to consider the topic. It’s less…fraught.

Perhaps it will be for you, as well.

Not Too Soon

We often delay beginning our creative or spiritual work with the false belief that we must be ‘ready.’

It’s a protective measure, meant to preserve our egos and ward off detectable inadequacies.

I’ve of course been guilty of this same delaying strategy in my own professional life, in my creative life, in what amounts to my spiritual practice. I’ve dallied and delayed, and I’ve put off action by waiting for whatever skills I’m trying to flex to be primed, as if I’d just gone through a Rocky-like training montage out of sight of everyone in order to unveil to a surprised and unsuspecting world just how awesome I am.

Life is made in the doing, in the trying, in the failing and re-trying. We cannot be ready for this. There is certainly prepared, educated, practiced, but ready is something else. Ready is only accomplished in the doing of the thing in real time and with real consequences. Ready is open to the moment, to the nexus of performing work and to being yourself, to struggling and being vulnerable. Ready is being open to failing.

Waiting to be ready, as tantalizing an option at that is, only delays progress. Ready sounds like it’s about the future, but it’s really about the now. And as we all know, now is all we’ve got.

This One You Feed podcast addresses, among several other ideas, the fallacy of being ready in an interview with Srini Rao. Check it out here.

Stuck in the Middle of the Middle

As I’ve hit the middle of my middle-age, I’ve been confronted more and more often with the evidence that the people in our lives don’t know who we are. Not really.

I was struck again by this realization when I attended the memorial/celebration-of-life for one of the principals at my former company. He was a generous, patient and exceptional leader, one of those rare personalities who put his soul into how he conducted both himself and how he conducted his business.

The celebration was hardly celebratory. Most of us were too wrecked with the loss and uncertainty caused by his passing. We all sat there with our separate, fragmented memories of him and what he meant to each of us, and we attempted to share those recollections as a kind of check on who we believed him to be.

The picture we collectively created was incomplete, and it always will be incomplete. The only person who knows my now passed former coworker is him. And even so….

When we ourselves pass, and our mourners are gathered, they will remember, and they will likely remember wrong. Or more generously, they will remember parts of us and not the cohesive whole.

My (forever) cursory study of Tibetan Buddhism tells me that our interior lives are often unknowable to us; we have thoughts and we have feelings but we are not the sum of those thoughts and feelings. Like anyone who has attempted to monitor and to even influence my less than stellar behavior, I’ve learned that with practice there is a self (whether it’s a large S or small s is up for debate) who sits behind our thoughts and feelings. A smarter, wiser self who drives the bus.

Most of my friends and family, however, know me only by the outward expressions of my thoughts and feelings. They see only what I project, express, convey.

This isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s not right, either.

A couple months back, I wanted to connect with my life-long friends over my disdain for the Hallmark holiday that is Father’s Day. Even as a father myself, I hate that day. I was feeling pressured to contact the man who inhabits the shell of my dad, and I blurted out via text message how I hoped that I was a better father, how I needed to believe that I am a better father, even if I’m not. The stupid, made-up day is fraught with doubts and guilt about my own performance as a parent, and it’s fraught with these pangs of loss about how I still don’t have my own father in my life and how I never will.

It was heavy. Too heavy for text message.

I realized after the fact that these friends have no context with which to help me. Hitting them with something so powerful as my perpetual disappointment in the man who originally left my life when I was six years old is too much. I can’t help but feel cheated, though, that other men couldn’t or wouldn’t understand the depth of betrayal that abandonment causes, how that betrayal hits you perpetually as both son and then again as father.

Maybe it’s just too much to ask that others know who we are. Not just what we’ve done but why we’ve done the things that we’ve done. I don’t necessarily know the inner truths of other people, either.

We all have our stories – the version we’ve lived and the version we tell. In our rush to be heard, we often forget that we have to listen, we have to listen more often than we talk, in order to allow people to tell of who they are, what they are, why they are. Perhaps if we’re lacking connection, listening to others is the only way we can eventually hear ourselves.

 

Art and Spirit - A Vamp on Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton, writing of his conversion to Catholicism in The Seven Storey Mountain, underscores his realization that the creating of art is a contemplative act as one of the primary reasons he converted to Catholicism.

He thanks his study of William Blake’s poetry for this realization; specifically how ‘Blake rejected literalism and naturalism in lieu of the mystical and the supernatural.’ Merton expanded this reflection to the people in his life, especially his own father:

“I had learned from my own father that it was almost blasphemy to regard the function of art as merely to reproduce some kind of a sensible pleasure or, at best, to stir the emotions to a transitory thrill. I had always understood that art was contemplation, and that it involved the action of the highest faculties of man.”

The artistic process, as Merton sees it, is integrally entwined with the artist’s spiritual practice. The artistic process IS the artist’s spiritual practice.

This sentiment, the conjoining of the artistic and the spiritual, has always made ready sense to me, and although I do a poor job of synthesizing the two regularly, the devotion that creating art requires draws on the same soul-source that my spiritual practice (a practice that is admittedly loose and haphazard) also employs.

I can’t at this point separate the two practices.

To vamp on Merton’s ideas, though, I would add a couple of clarifications/realizations.

One: thanks to good old American commodification, we often expect a product from art, a ware that can be sold to the world as some end-result of our artistic efforts. Although I respond to this like any American would (maybe MY novel will be discovered, and I’ll make a gazillion dollars) this notion is demeaning to the act of creating art as a spiritual practice where the art is as much in the doing as it is in the artifact being made.

Two: Merton’s own vision of having once wanted to be known and validated as a novelist—a desperate validation I am familiar with—portrays art as a singular, myopic act. As a younger man, I often held in great esteem those writers who sacrificed family, health, sanity for the pursuance of their art. Merton, who eventually lived a monastic life away from the temptations and the messiness of day to day America, is making art sound like a singular process when it is multi-faceted, raggedy, personal and public – much like the pursuance of spiritual matters.

These ideas—that artistic and spiritual work must produce something, that there is only one God, one religion, one way at the exclusion of all else—reduces and diminishes the many routes, the many small acts, that we all have available to us to go beyond the literal world before us and enter into the mystical, the supernatural.