27 May 2002

  "Would you tell me, please dear 
Cheshire Puss, which way I ought to go from here?'" 

  "That depends a good deal on where you want to 
get to," said the Cat.

  "I don't much care where," said Alice.

  "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," 
said the Cat.
     - Lewis Carroll

Today is my birthday. I'm moving into my second half-century, and I'm sitting here wondering what it's all been about. My life, I mean.

I've had my share of successes, and I often think I've had more than my share of failures -- but that's not what's driving the thought process for me. No, indeed. Today I have bigger philosophical fish to fry. I want to understand what the driving force in my life is, and I want to know the destination toward which I've been heading all these years.

I feel like I've been asleep at the wheel for a long time. I've cruised for a lot of years down a high-speed back road on autopilot as I passed exits, roadside attractions, other vehicles, and hulking signs warning me of hazards ahead. Buddhism teachings emphasize that we must be at all times responsible for how we drive -- the "Mahayana" actually translates as the "Great Vehicle." We're expected to keep our vehicles clean and functioning, and always under our direct control. We're supposed to be alert, and mindful of how we drive. And now, it appears I'm waking up just in time to see the oncoming headlights of what looks like a Mack truck--a "mahayana" not of my own making.

The problem is, my vehicle seems to have been driving itself for such a long time, the autopilot switch is frozen in the "on" position. My vehicle--my own life--feels sluggish and unresponsive, and I'm worried I won't be able to regain control in time left to avoid a disastrous meeting between me and the truck.

It feels to me that my vehicle accelerated when I should have been applying brakes. I cut corners too sharply, and didn't keep an eye out for falling rocks. I frequently forgot to signal when turning, and more than one crack-up occurred as a result. Still, I didn't bother to keep my eyes open and on the road. I even made a wrong turn or two at points and now I have lost my way totally.

My map disappeared a long time ago, and I never bothered to stop and ask anyone for directions, which is how I got to this godforsaken place where I am currently stalled. I didn't refuel often, and when I did, I never bothered to check that there was air in the tires, or water in the radiator. I frequently paid more than the fueling was actually worth.

My only guideposts right now are the stars and the wise people whose taillights I am trying to follow, and I'm focusing hard on them. Maybe I'll find my way back to the main road.

Excuse me. I need to check that my license and registration haven't already expired.


13 May 2002

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee..."
   - John Donne

Mercy. This was absolutely the worst day I can remember.

I went to the funeral service today for Rolf and Amy Andersen. I have never seen such a thing before, and I hope never to see such a thing again in the brief time I have here on this swarming little planet at the far end of the galaxy. Everything was doubled, it seemed. Double the number of people who generally attend such events. Double the number of coffins. Double the amount of grief.

They were vacationing when Death arrived for them, in the form of a pickup truck with a blown tire crossing a dividing strip and overturning in front of their rental car. Witnesses say nothing could be done for them, and that things happened fast. Death scooped them up when the metal, plastic, flesh and bone all fused. Rolf, Amy, and their unborn baby all stepped out of time together, and into eternity.

The coffins were closed. There were flowers sitting on both, elegant grand sprays of violet-hued roses, mixed with miniature gladioli, daylilies, and purple heather. Rolf used to grow roses in his garden for Amy. I remember him telling me one day what a pleasure it was for him to cut the roses and give them to Amy, how she would smile and inhale the fragrance, and then kiss him silly with her thanks. The flowers were being watered today by all the tears we shed, and as the tears were salty, they will grow no more roses. It didn't matter, though, because of all Rolf's roses, his most prized flowers, the blossoms he most cherished, lay unmoving and empty in the wooden box beside his own.

It was impossible to tell whose body occupied which coffin. There were no distinguishing marks, no identifying tags that said, "Rolf's remains are here, Amy's there." I knew, too, that Amy's box bore a terrible burden -- when she died in the crash, so did the five-month-old life within her. There were two hearts in the box, and two generations of children for the parents to mourn. I don't know why the polished wood did not burst from the weight of all the grief it contained. But I could not tell just by looking, which was the fuller box.

I can scarcely comprehend the grief in the family. Two such nice, kind, gentle people, one cannot imagine. That they were known and loved, an impossible heartache to bear. I was numb, listening to the two ministers talking us through the forms of social mourning -- a hymn to God's glory, some Psalms, another hymn praising the everlasting mercies, and prayers for the dearly departed. Tears leaked unbidden from my eyes, and I was not aware of them until I felt one drop on the back of my hand.

One minister said it was not God's will that these people died, or died the way they did. He said, God is not going to interfere with the course of our lives, but when bad things happen, He will embrace us and receive us and tend us, if only we open our hearts to Him. The minister said, God is "minimal prevention, but maximum care." I could not help but bristle, thinking this was a better description of a bad HMO ("no preventive measures, but excellent care once you're sick"), and unworthy of worship, if this is indeed the truth.

The homilies were intended to comfort us, but there was no comfort to be had, no way to overcome the shock and horror, no solace or peace as the coffins were wheeled down the aisles. Rolf, Amy and the unborn child stepped out of time, and left us behind to figure out how we could continue to exist in time, with all of them gone. As I watched the hearses drive away with their precious, still burdens, I was thinking there should have been only one coffin, and they should have shared it, the way they shared life, love, and death.

Excuse me. I have some meditating to do.


05 May 2002

Hell is -- other people!”
   - Jean Paul Sartre, Huis Clos

I found a sheet of three-hole punched notepaper folded and tucked between the pages of a book about the salutory effects of a positive attitude at the Public Library last week. On the notepaper, a message, or maybe a fragment of a message, that fills the whole of the front, top to bottom. The writing is large, bold, written in a hasty, slapdash hand that courses across the page. Surprisingly, the haste didn’t seem to prevent the writer from staying within the lines. Given the content, that’s peculiar. I did not decide to check out the book, but I did decide to take possession of the notepaper, the contents of which I now share with you:

constant elaboratan elumemanation from the one who with viger perades the avounus of my brand, revoliving is aparent, the tide ticks away at the stone sand is left to hold on, my mind flounder when it comes to remembering how one lives without a box, keep the bug far from the human living aperatis, this is how: know i’m dying. Survival of the fitest, delivering am end to something living, erks my being. he was a humbel, gentil, son of a bitch. Made ju feel guilty for living, every time: sayed somethin his face would make ya regreat you ever say anything at all, He never sayed a goddam word besids Please and Thankyou i swear, I wanted to beat him sensles. and so I digress: simply just ad water, you dimwits sertinly should not have a problem with this. Fear of flachuwance caused by los of stability intestents in dis eray bills not payed lost friends to no end junk yard dogs fester in onsted turmoil. i watch as she begins to pay more atintion to the little deils of this creation The faks existing matters are far from gone, but i hear her pleas, When bugs becom the pashin every thing will be okay.

It’s fascinating, reading this stuff. How often do we have the chance to see, up close and personal, a thought disorder in action? I’ve amused myself for a week with this piece of paper, in its white-ruled mystery. Who is the author? How old? Is it a man or a woman who thinks these things? Where does the author live? Is this one of my townsmen or neighbors? Is this an adult, or a child? Why does the narrative break off the way it does? And why is this screed sitting in a self-help book about positive attitude?

I could write a story about this, I think. Several stories, actually, each told from a different viewpoint, all about this single sheet of paper, and its significance and meaning in the world. It’s not enough simply to tell how it arrived in the book, because the story doesn’t end there, does it? Nor is it enough to tell only the effect on me of finding and reading it, because heaven only knows how many before me found the sheet, and left it in the book. Maybe some of those indifferent discoverers lacked the curiosity that afflicts me, makes me want to know the cause, the reason, the motivating force that compelled the writer to put down those words, and then leave them in the book. Maybe the words and the hand in which they were written felt too threatening, or too crazed, and the discomfort they generated was enough to make those people abandon the book, and the paper.

When we communicate, we send both significance and meaning with our words and actions. The way we present is as important as the what it is we present. I once was told I was loved by a person whose face was beet-red, and the corners of whose mouth were turned down in a grimace. Do you think I believed in that person’s love, for even a heartbeat? Not on your life. And looking at the heavy strokes and slash of the pen on the notepaper, can I believe what the writer says at the end of the page, that everything will be okay? Can you?

Excuse me. I want to write to my congressman about the prevailing policies toward de-institutionalization.


04 May 2002

Margaret, are you grieving
over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
  - G.M. Hopkins, 
    Spring and Fall: To a Young Child

Everything's blossoming at once, it seems. As I was driving along the highway yesterday, I noticed something unusual. The trees in their half-budded states seemed caught between the death of winter and the promise of summer. If I squinted, just a little, the landscape suddenly appeared to me exactly the way it did in October, when the season changed. I saw red, green, yellow, brown, and the flaming mixed orange that takes my breath away amid the silvery and greyish-green branches. A few trees, early bloomers like the apples, dogwoods, and cherries, wore pink, white, and purple finery in thick clumps along their limbs. There were still plenty of trees that didn't seem to quite have the message from nature that it won't snow on us now, so it's time to get on with the greening, but they were fewer than those whose leaves were beginning to unfurl and open to the sun's warmth.

I've lived my whole life in places where the weather moved in definable, recognizable transitions from season to season, and the plants responded according to their life stages. Soft, fresh, tender shoots and buds in the spring. Heady, vibrant fronds full of greenery in the summer. Brilliant, blazing, brittle husks falling to the waiting earth in autumn. And the frosty whites and greys of winter over everything. I never realized the spring colors were so close to the autumn ones. This has meaning for me because as I move toward autumn in my own life, it occurs to me that I am experiencing many things the way I did when I was much younger and fresher myself.

The only problem is, I have been around a while, and the nostalgia for the freshness is frankly overwhelmed by my cynical awareness of the underlying workings of what I find at times wonderful.

I wish I'd never heard of clorophyll, or global warming, or any of the other things that are making nature do the seemingly impossible things it does on these spring mornings as I drive to work. If only there was a way to make my mind "squint" just a little bit, the way I can soften focus with my eyes.

I've been so busy going about my business, I've not noticed how spring and autumn frame our years, just like an embrace.

Excuse me. I need to go hug a tree.


01 May 2002

"The unexamined life is not worth living."
    - Socrates (attrib.)

I've been cruising Buddha's "net of jewels" we know familiarly as the Internet, and have come across several things that made me stop dead in my tracks. There's a movement about, folks, one that is going to change the world for sure. I'm not talking about cyberporn or online auctioning, either. I'm talking about philosophy, pure and simple. If you step off the glitzy cybertrack for an instant, you'll stumble onto it, and you'll wonder what hit you.

I was already reeling, having just finished J. Gaartner's amazing book, "Sophie's World." I wasn't searching for more to question about life -- I was looking for answers, having already had my fill of questions for the time being. I mean, how can you ever answer the question, "Who am I?" At the very instant you frame your answer, you've changed, and you're something else, not quite fitting whatever description you mere moments earlier thought or felt appropriate. Don't even get me started on thinking and feeling, either. I was edgy as I read most of the book, because I had a difficult time imagining myself closer aligned to Aristotle (the original list-keeper and organizer) than to Plato (the man who made shadow-puppetry a vogue). You see, one fellow believed it was impossible for us to perceive the real world through the pitiful (and often unreliable) limitations of our senses, and the other believed it was impossible to know anything that did not come to us directly through what we sense. As I read, I had a hard time making up my mind, because I felt there was truth in both positions, and that neither philosophy was complete without a portion of the other.

Come to find out, I'm neither Platonic nor Aristotelian. I'm a believer in the thing Immanuel Kant put forth, which was a sort of synthesis of both. But honestly, do I like this discovery about myself? Not in the least. For starters, I don't know what to call myself -- if not Platonic, which has a nice, classical ring to it, or Aristotelian, which calls to mind science, order, and classification, then what? Kant's philosophy has been described as radical, non-reductionist, determinist, empirically realistic, deductionist, and a slew of other high-flying terms, all of which boil themselves down to the single most important thing: According to Kant, the representation is what makes an object possible, rather than the other way around. If there is an input -- what he calls "perceptual input," that is, coming from the senses -- then somehow the input has to be processed, or recognized, before it is meaningful. I think he's got a point, and I'm willing to stand with him on it. One of these days I might even take on "The Critique of Pure Reason," just so I can find out if there's a single word to describe his followers.

How in the world am I supposed to figure out who I am, when I can't even figure out what I am? To make matters worse, in my travels today, I picked up four more questions I don't know how to answer: What is philosophy? What is a question, and why are they so important in philosophy? How is a philosopher different from a person who has some philosophical ideas? How is philosophy like a tree? Damned if I know. Yet.

Excuse me. I think I need to feel the ... oh, never mind.