Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Friday, January 27, 2006

How to get out of Hell

My good friend Ray gave me a copy of the new Sinead O’Connor album ”Throw Down Your Arms”, and let me tell you folks, it is a masterpiece. She worked with two of the best reggae producers of all time, Sly and Robby, and she makes some beautiful music with them. Reggae music is not an easy sell for most people. Somebody looking like me (white, longish hair, bearded, slightly spacey look in my eyes most of the time) comes up to you, says “Hey man, you gotta check out this new reggae album!” you give them a wide berth. They’re either a wigger, a college student, a stoner, a frat guy, or any combination of those. I can cop to being any one of those at some point in my life, but I do not lie, this is an amazing album. I’ve been a fan of Sinead since Lion and the Cobra, ever since I saw this beautiful bald chick singing about Troy (I think I’ve had a thing for chicks with really short hair since the first Star Trek movie. Long long hair, or really short – either way works for me). Gospel Oak was a really important album to me for a certain period of my life, and I have a feeling this album came along at the right time for another changing time.

Now, reggae’s like the blues, but with more God, less Devil. Plus, any God that’s down with the Rastafarian sacraments is A-OK with me. Like the blues, reggae music is good for when you feel bad – and I’ve been feeling pretty bad, lately. Lots of pressure and stress at work, trying to keep ahead of too many projects in my real life. I don’t know where exactly I’m going with a lot of these projects (and by extension, my life), and the time for decision and consolidation is rapidly approaching. Something’s got to be done. The work thing, in particular, is giving me pain like you wouldn’t believe. So, when I’m feeling victimized (and, no question, a person is a victim only to the extent that they believe themselves to be one) I sometimes entertain revenge fantasies. You know the ones: telling the boss exactly where to stick it, and how deep, screwing the company at exactly the right moment when they depend on you most. Yeah, those fantasies. Not that we’d ever act on them, because we’re far too well trained for that. We’ve got student loans, and spouses in grad school, and health insurance that keeps us in antibiotics when we’re sick. But we still get that slight sickness in our throats, that taste of bile that has just a tinge of blood to it when the boss tells us we need to pick up the slack, and we think these thoughts.

So I’m listening to this new wonderful reggae album, and a song I’ve never heard comes on. The little black-on-grey LCD letters on the Ipod screen tell me it is called “Downpressor Man.” And the lyrics go like this:

Downpressor man
Where you gonna run to?
Downpressor Man
Where you gonna run to?
Downpressor Man
Where you gonna run to
On that day?

If you run to the sea
The sea will be boiling
(x 3)
On that day

If you run to the rocks
The rocks will be melting
(x 3)
On that day

If you make your bed in hell
I will be there.
(x 3)
On that day.

Downpressor man
Where you gonna run to?
(x 3)
On that day?

Simple. The revenge/justification fantasy of the downtrodden and poorly treated everywhere. “Well, you may be on top now, but one of these days, there’ll be a judgment, there’ll be a reckoning, and you will get what you require.” And like I’m so oppressed, right? Still, everybody thinks, at least once (some people, more like once a day) “Man, I can’t wait till you get yours.”

But then came that line: If you make your bed in hell, I will be there. I heard something quite extraordinary, and I don’t know if it was the writer’s intention or not, but there it was. One of the central tenets of Rastafarianism is “I and I”, that is very similar to “Tat Tvam Asi” or “thou art that." It is the ultimate identification of self and God that comes in the awakened spirit and mind. One understands, at one’s root, that one is not ultimately different from God, and that God lives in one, as one lives in God. Now, this idea has ramifications.

Think about it this way: When you condemn one person, you condemn the God that is in them, and, by extension, the God in you. And since God is in you and you are in God, ipso facto – you are in Hell.

Similarly, if one condemns oneself to Hell, through guilt or a gross misunderstanding of the truth behind all religions, one puts the entire world in Hell.

Thinking this, I suddenly saw the verse that ran, “If you make your bed in Hell, I will be there” not as a promise, i.e. wherever you try to hide, I’ll find you and make you pay, but as a plea. “If you go down to hell, I have to go with you. If you act against what you know to be right, you condemn yourself, and by doing so, you kill us all.” This made the song incredibly sad for me, but also wise.

We almost all of us labor under our guilt, straining at the weight of it. Heavy, brown, turdlike guilt, awkward in its bulk and threatening at any moment to crush us under its smelly burden. Some of it was placed there by others, some of it we picked up along the way, some of it we were born with. When I am particularly down with the guilt, I speak with the voice I like to call “The Critic” (not the cartoon). He is vicious, ruthless, and utterly truthful, and he hates everything, and himself (myself) most particularly. He adds to my guilt with his hatred and rage and then turns it on the people around him. He puts the world in hell and then wonders why the place smells like shit. I’ve discovered, however, that there is a way out of Hell. But it’s not easy.

The only possible release is to accept. Everything. Completely.

Ain’t that a bitch.

The only way out is love, complete and total, unconditional, doggy chewing a bone, baby playing with a soap bubble, Jesus on the cross, Gandhi taking (another) beating, Martin Luther King in a pool of blood love. And I don’t care what anybody says, that is damn near impossible, some days. And the worst of it is, it’s gotta be for everybody, including and especially your stinking, horrid, selfish, unreliable, forgetful, vain, lying, cowardly, weak-willed self. Or else it doesn’t count.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

quote for the day

Read at Jonathan Carroll's blog

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

"Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you're doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing."
both quotes from E.L. Doctorow

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Kids, don't do drugs... or whatever

Michael was a hippy. He played guitar and did Tai Chi. He had long, straight, thin hair that hung down almost to his waist. He liked to smoke pot and do drugs. He was my roommate for several years and I adored him.

He introduced me to psychedelic drugs thusly: when I said I wanted to do LSD, he told me that he would not, absolutely would not get me anything more intoxicating than a saltine cracker unless I read the following books – The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg by Joseph Chilton Pearce, and Beyond the Brain by Stanislav Grof. He handed me the stack, told me to read them and went back in his room to play guitar.

I learned a lot of crazy crap from that hippy. I also obtained my first (and many subsequent) dose of mushrooms.

My early experiences with mushrooms were lovely. Numinous, heart opening experiences where I saw the true nature of the universe. The world was a living, breathing, loving creation. I was an integral part of this living creation, and the pain of the world was that we never knew how alive and loving it was.

Yeah, that was until my first bad trip.

Now I liked listening to music on shrooms. I found that it helped me to access those deeper levels of emotion and sacredness during the trip. One time though…

I ate the mushrooms, drank my orange juice, and settled in for a nice trip. But what music should I use? Kate Bush was usually a good bet (The Hounds of Love is a particularly good album) or maybe Spacemen 3 (Taking Drugs to make Music to Take Drugs to). No, I’ve done that.

What about the Smiths? Yeah! That sounds like a GREAT idea! The Smiths…!

…the most depressing, whiny, self-absorbed music ever created. Sad-bastard music before they even invented sad-bastard music.

I listened to, I think, Meat is Murder, and got angrier, and angrier, and angrier. I saw myself through this music, through what listening to this music said about me, and I despised it. I was tired of being an effeminate, ineffectual, weak little hippy boy. The girls thought I was gay, the guys didn’t respect me. I hadn’t had sex in months and I was horribly lonely. I didn’t do what I wanted and I didn’t do what I should. I hated myself and this music represented everything I hated. In a second I was off the couch and had launched the tape-player across the room, where it smashed on the wall like a bomb going off (louder than bombs? whatever). I then found myself stalking around the center of the room in a tight circle, my hands clenched into claws, and this sound was coming out of my throat that I did not recognize: inarticulate, mid-way between a scream and a roar, strangled and raw full of hate and rage. An animal sound, a sick, wounded sound.

This continued for several minutes until Michael, hearing the commotion, decided to check on me. Upon seeing an obviously enraged maniac lurching in increasingly tighter circles around his living room he did not, bless him, call the police, or try to restrain said maniac. No, he actually tried to talk me down. “It’s alright,” he said. “Everything’s alright…”

My jaw clenched, barely in control, I growled, “Go back in your room!” He beat a hasty retreat.

The screaming/roaring/choking continued until I finally fell into an uneasy sleep a few hours later. I slept fitfully through the night.

On waking the next day, I wandered around in sort of haze. I remembered clearly what had happened, apologized to my slightly shaken, but none the worse for wear, roommate (who was, I’m sure, making a mental note to get the fuck out as soon as possible), and went out to fix breakfast.

Now, as I may have mentioned, my housekeeping skills left a bit to be desired. The house was usually a sty. Sometimes, there might have been dishes in the sink. From, say, a week ago. With food on them. Or maybe the garbage hadn’t been taken out. In, like a month.

But today, the house REALLY reeked. There was a smell that was something like rotten cabbage at the bottom of the sink, spoiled milk, and something dead. It was foul, and it was everywhere. Even I, with my ability to ignore filth, couldn’t let this pass. I had to clean it up.

But I couldn’t find the stench. The refrigerator was clean. The garbage had been taken out. The dishes were done. Where was that smell coming from?

I mentioned it to Michael, and he looked at me, a little sadly. “You mean you don’t know?” he said.

“No. What is it?”

“It’s you, man. You released all that shit from inside you. That smell is your anger.”

And I knew he was right. We had to air out the house for two days.

Friday, January 6, 2006

So this is the new year, and I actually feel kinda different

It’s the 6th of January, and I’m writing this outside, next to my parent’s pool. The palm trees sway in a gentle breeze, and the birds chuckle and coo to one another.

It is 85 degrees out, blue skies, dry and sunny. I cannot see a cloud in any direction.

When I was growing up, Phoenix was a punchline. An upstart L.A. without any culturally redeeming qualities to recommend it. Phoenix was where you went if you wanted to commit suicide, but didn’t have the guts to get it over with all at once. It might take you years to die in Phoenix, just because it sucked so much.

Times have changed, or maybe just me. I don’t have anyone to hang out with, aside from my lovely wife and my folks, but I have been supremely content. I’ve been in Rivendell…

Aside from a few small, desperate inconveniences. They’re my fault, no doubt, but still, it’s been trying.

So I get the check from my roommate for rent and sundry expenses on New Year’s Eve – no time to put it in the bank, as we’re leaving first thing in the morning, and why rush? There’ll be plenty of time! I’ll deposit the checks in the bank first thing on Tuesday (Monday being a bank holiday) write a check to the landlord, and have done with it. Easy!

Except I forget my checkbook. OK, no problem, I’ll still deposit the check, get a bank check, mail it out, and still be fine.

Did you know that Citibank has not a single branch or ATM in the entire state of Arizona? No, neither did I. After driving all over God’s green earth to fucking Scottsdale of all places, only to discover that the ATM I was directed to by the ever so helpful Citibank website was not, in fact, a Citibank ATM, but only one owned by one of their affiliate networks. Of course I couldn’t deposit the checks there. Of course.

My brief and, understandably, terse conversation with Citibank revealed these facts, along with the helpful advice that I should “buy a money order and send that.” Cocksuckers. With what money should I buy this money order? And will the extra that I pay for this miraculously purchased money order be reimbursed by the gentle benevolent blockheads at Citibank? No it will not.

Keeping myself in check, I decide to go with this dunderheaded new plan, nothing else leaping forward to suggest itself.

Frankly, I’m boring myself, but suffice to say that the money order was purchased, only I had to buy two, and Walmart kept refusing my debit card, and Citibank told me I could only purchase $1,000 per 24 hour period, and every time I tried to call Citibank to discuss it, my cell phone would die and I had to go back and forth to Walmart four times, and Steph and I got in a wicked argument about money, which was made all the worse by the knowledge that it was all my fucking fault, and had I simply brought the fucking checkbook (or better yet, paid the rent before we left) none of this would be happening. Arguments where you know you’re wrong have the tendency to turn into vicious personal attacks, just to keep the focus off of the fact that a) you’re wrong, b) you’re stupidly defending your wrongs and c) you’re just wrong, wrong, wrong. A process that could have taken fifteen minutes and a stamp took 3 days, 4 trips to Walmart, fourteen dollars to express mail the money, an argument with my wife, two hour-long conversations with various fuckwits at Citibank, and the admission to my parents that, in spite of living on my own for well over 15 years now, I’m still an irresponsible twit.

It was as if the ghost of 2005 wanted to get some last licks in before I could really arrive in 2006.

That’s Steph’s interpretation. My thought is that I asked for this.

Through various methods, I have recently asked that the universe provide me with opportunities to increase my “Strength”, that is, my ability to deal with the world effectively and to control my own character flaws. Now, most of my life, I have had the ability to coast by on sheer luck – good karma, good timing, call it what you will. I watched that rug get jerked right out from under me this week, and I think that that is the lesson the universe is trying to teach me. In watching the lives of my friends and loved ones, I have noticed that the kind of convergence of events like the ones I experienced this weekend happens pretty frequently – people get kicked out of their apartments on holidays, simple arguments escalate into trips to the hospital, promised funds don’t come through, trusted equipment fails. But I was always amazed to watch it happen. But now that it’s happened to me, I realized something. I have lived a charmed life up to this point, and there is no guarantee that it will continue to be so charmed. I have asked to become stronger, and the universe has obliged by removing the net, the net I barely recognized was there, but which I now know was essential. That little bit of wiggle room, that space to procrastinate which I always had because “hey, everything always turns out alright in the end” is gone. The training wheels are off, and now I get to play for real.

Looks like it’s going to be an interesting year…