Sunday, May 20, 2018
Renunciation of possessions has a very long if not very thick history. Siddhartha Guatama and Francis of Assisi are two rock stars of that tradition, and they all have received a lot of press and not much shade. Somehow not having things is supposed to be a sort of spiritual path, some way of finding one's true self. I would suggest that supposition is seldom true, and that more often it is in acquisitions that one finds one's true identity. One cannot choose one's inheritance, nor have much control over one's environment. But one can choose what one acquires, even if one has a very small budget and can only afford pebbles and feathers.
Much of my life has been an average one of getting and spending. When I was a kid, I had dreams of a somewhat wild and adventurous life, but fear of facing my homosexuality led me into marriage and fear of getting shot in Vietnam (and repulsion at the idea of shooting others) led me into teaching, and soon I had a family and bills, mini van and golden retriever. I often thought of the scene in Zorba the Greek when the Englishman asks Zorba, 'Are you married?' Zorba's response defined my condition for years: 'Am I not a man? I am a man. And is not a man stupid? So I married. Wife, children, house, everything: the full catastrophe.'
It would have been convenient for me and for many other people, probably, had I not been so stupid, if on one Saturday outside a Shoney's on Poplar Avenue in Memphis, when my future wife had said to me about my orange hunting cap, which embarrassed her, 'Choose between me or the hat', I had kept the hat and walked away. But, I married. After too many years, I divorced and went out in search, I suppose, of 'my true self', as well as the joys of sex and love which I had been told I would find in marriage, to which I had pretended all those years.
All of those years, and in the years following divorce, I collected things, mostly books and pottery, two of the heaviest collections, but also clothes and textiles and paintings. Those collections of things were much more a window into my 'true' self than the various roles I played in the various societies that formed my environment. But, as I began to become something of a traveler, those collections became more and more of a burden. Looking for a new home, I would discard and recollect. One of the first things I did when I arrived in Santa Fe was to donate all of my Memphis clothes to the Holy Faith Episcopal Church rummage sale, along with my matching set of Land's End luggage, and start to acquire Santa Fe style duds.
A common metaphor claims that life is a journey. One can easily look at the journey without much consideration of the life within the travels. Bruce Chatwin's books describe the search for home, for one's place in the worl. He was always disappointed that they were placed in the travel section of book stores. When, in Santa Fe, I discovered his books, they were like a mirror to my own life, except that it seemed Chatwin's life had been the one I had imagined in high school, and he had a bigger budget. Chatwin was introduced to collecting and wandering by a curio cabinet in his aunts' house, I by a curious round cardboard box in my father's dresser. Both of us collected things, had problems finding homes for them, and often spent long periods away from them, Both of us kept setting up housekeeping somewhere just to wander off and abandon the home fire for a campfire in some strange place. Both of us had a tendency to show up on some friend's door step and expect room and board in exchange for the pleasure of our company. He had a slight advantage in that he and his wife maintained a mariage glanc, something I had hoped might have been arranged with my wife, so he had an agent for selling and storage. Just as it can be hard to separate the journey from the life, it can be hard to separate the collection from the collector. Having no agent, I trimmed down to very few things indeed for a three-year kayak adventure.
When I came again to land, I had even less. That story can be revisited here, if one should desire. What is interesting about my having few things is that people thought I must be 'spiritual', must be anti-materialism. It gave me a certain entirely undeserved attractiveness. What was much worse is that I began to believe it myself, as one can tell from the linked post. I became for a willing public the detached monk they thought they admired. What is missing from that post is how carefully I had selected--the hipster term is 'curated'--the items with which I awoke at 6:00 am in my little hut, beginning with the blanket, woven by the abbot at Christ in the Desert Monastery from wool of the monastery's sheep, and certainly including the Eyre & Spottiswoode books from which I read the offices and the riranium pot in which I boiled water for coffee in my carefully selected mug--at that time I think it was a Francoma piece from the 1930's. Everything I had was carefully selected--curated--not because I was anti-material but because, despite my 'put an axe in your television' rant, I had and have a deep respect for material. The wind may blow where it will, but without a body to blow into and out of, it don't mean much.
What is often overlooked in stories such as Siddhartha's or Francis' is that in order to renounce possessions, one must have them. Both of them had inherited possessions and roles in an accepted social structure. Because they had wealth, they had the freedom to renounce it. (It was harder for Siddhartha's servant Channa, and would have been even harder for the people Siddhartha saw along his way.)
I and most of my friends are, by historical standards, almost unimaginably wealthy. It is easy for us to renounce stuff, and just as easy, perhaps easier, to reacquire stuff. What I think is more important than renunciation is what one then chooses to acquire, symbolized by the Buddha's begging bowl and the Saint's grey habit made of rags and belted with rope. That's the tricky part. I am going to risk great heresy here and say that I think that both Siddhartha and Francis never really got past their renunciation to explore their potential. When he sees the parts of life that had been screened from him, Sid decides that all life is suffering and wants to escape it. After abandoning his monks for a bit of self-indulgent masochism, Frank returns to yell at them because they have built huts against the snow and rain. People who have those cute little statues of Frank in their garden, preaching to the birds, forget that basically what he said to the birds was 'Shut the fuck up! I'm talking.' These rock stars were still arguing with their fathers. Hugh Chatwin, Bruce's brother, thought that the reason Bruce never admitted to having AIDS is that he didn't want to disappoint their father.
Insofar as one can go beyond one's inheritance and environment, it is with acquisitions. They may be physical, or they may be ideas or knowledge. It is often the physical acquisitions that give one strength to pursue the journey to finding oneself. They are like sacraments, outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. I mentioned pebbles and feathers as I started this essay, and it is I think an interesting coincidence that Chatwin's most closely held possessions were Peruvian feathers and some small objects almost like pebbles, little Inuit carvings that reminded him of Brancusi's stone-like sculptures. When I was wandering on the bounding main, I carried with me a stone from the bottom of the White River and a hawk feather from along the Buffalo. These are the sorts of things anyone can cling to to assert who they are, to define themselves in a grasping environment.
As I have gotten older, I have come to refuse, as much as possible, to be surrounded by things that I do not love, that do not encourage me to be true to what I think is real and dear. I do not want many things. Whether that makes me nearer the gods or not, I only want things that I really like, that I enjoy seeing around me. I cannot control all of my environment, or I am too lazy to try--I hate aluminum window frames but am too lazy to change them--but I can control the things I touch and that touch me every day. This is more difficult than one might think. I am bombarded by suggestions that the proper home environment is designed by Jony Ive. It is much the same in the world of ideas. One who would be acceptable in my environment should mouth the platitudes of Progressivism. But I think iOS icons are tacky, and Progressivism and facts just don't jive. So, I walk a more difficult path of discernment and selection.
So, just as I had spent an extra $1000 on a kayak than the cost of the more common fibreglass boats that might have taken me to the same places because it was more beautiful to my eyes, or as I spent $350 less than the cost of an iPhone because I find my V20 more beautiful, more personal, I spent an extra $200 for a new Kindle Oasis on which to read Utz, because I like it's balance in the hand, and its grey colour. It's easy for me to be choosy in most of my purchases, because I have chosen not to have a car and its expenses. In all of the acquisitions the primary consideration was whether I wanted this thing to become part of my world, part of my life.
Utz was Chatwin's last novel, the story of a very discerning collector of Meissen figurines, who used them to maintain a degree of liberty in a totalitarian state, but who is also bound to them with ties that restrict his liberty. They become his world, and he a character in that world. *
I know: this sounds almost like the old New Yorker cartoon of a newly married couple in which the wife asks the husband as they survey their wedding gifts, 'Do you think we can ever live up to our dinnerware, dear?'. But in a world swirling with values and claims, it is necessary to have both rocks and feathers. One needs at least a small pebble for ballast, to keep one from being tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind. And one needs a feather to mount up with wings as eagles, to renew one's strength, and to look beyond's one suppositions and prejudices.
*I am giving Utz very little due here, for it is actually a rather densely packed little book that deals with politics and journalism and sexuality and academia and more. I reread it a few weeks ago, as I was thinking about writing a blog post about collecting, and I was surprised by how much I had forgotten.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
This essay is an attempt--isn't that what all essays are?--to put into context some ideas that have come up in conversations I have had with friends on Facebook over the past few days about how many things I have, how many things there are, and why I now live with only one 'physical' (molecular?) book.
It is not a coincidence that the one meatware book I keep around is by McLuhan, who predicted, explained, understood far more than most, but lamented books' being replaced by other media as the primary shapers of our minds. Over the nearly 72 years of my life, I have owned thousands and thousands of books. One of my first possessions was an Encyclopedia: my father bought it for me soon after I was born. (He also bought me a swim suit at about the same time, but I outgrew it much sooner than the books.) I have owned Aubrey Johnson's books on Ritual and Kingship in the original hardback University of Wales editions. (The University of Wales Press had similar dust covers to those of Oxford, but replaced the green buckram of Oxford with a somewhat less robust grey.) I spent much more money than I had for the OUP publications of the Dead Sea Scrolls.I have had a collection of Psalters that took up a book case 8 feet by 8 feet, and some did not fit within i.I could go on for a very long time--Peter Beard's photography books and journals, The Sacred Books of the East in the OUP Bombay Edition, which smelled like sandlewood. But I also like to be able to wander. One day, sitting in an beautiful apartment in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, which included my little chapel, and a closet full of vestment, whose every wall was lined with book cases, I realized that I was confusing the container for the thing contained. I was paying rent on an apartment from which I would be gone many months at a time, in order to house my containers. Let me assure you that divesting of my collection was not easy. When I asked the local library if they would like some of my books, they of course said yes--until they saw how many there were. But I did find them new homes, and bought a Kindle. I still enjoy fondling books, and from time to time buy one that has a particularly nice hand.
More importantly has been my growing realization that books are not the only way ideas and knowledge can be shared, and they are not necessarily the best way, even though they have ruled of our lives and minds since Gutenberg made the printing press the master of all things. Indeed, printed books, which are what we usually mean when we say books, have been around only a few hundred years. Writing, especially as a medium for anything more erudite than shipping letters and invoices, only a few thousand. Socrates expected writing to be a curse on human knowledge. Consider especially the Phaedrus.) A. R. Johnson (from the beautiful grey books above) theorized that the Psalms were written descriptions of dramatic rituals.I have the I think good fortune to be living at the time which bridges writing and neo-iconic/neo-oral forms of data sharing. And frankly, I often find books are second- best or less. An example: I am a fan/follower of the works of Max Tegmark, whom partly I enjoy because he illustrates his ideas with bicycling stores. I have some of his written works, in fact, stored in my new Kindle Oasis which is at my side as I type. But I much more enjoy watching his videos, because then I can see his body language, his facial expressions, his emotional involvement in his work.Another example: I prefer even a mediocre performance of one of Shakespeare's plays to reading them.
I find digital publication a wonderfully democratic thing. This week I have read two sorts of memoirs. One was Bruce Chatwin's letters, published as 'Under the Sun'. An easy choice to publish for whoever is the head publisher of Viking&tc. this century. The other was a memoir by a young dude I saw on YouTube once, accidentally, who has been trying to carve out a career for himself as an entertainer, either in clubs or on the internet. They are both stories of people trying to find a way of living that is rewarding and answers their basic questions and pays the rent. One of the really nice things about reading them as ebooks is that they are equally printed. I can read Chatwin and Damien on the same medium, which takes away a lot of the glamour that can accompany the production given to 'big' authors.
The wider context of how I read, of whether or not I have books, is the emergence of the whole new, connected, electronic world in which I live. I had posted a memory on Facebook from a time that I 'owned; 117 things. A friend asked how many things I own now. I counted. It wasn't that hard, and Goodwill will probably benefit from my inventory. The number came to 142. But that's a cheat number, because most of what I 'own' is digital. Another friend, when I said I wouldn't know how to begin to count my digital stuff, suggested 'value'. 'This,' I suggested, 'is actually part of a much larger problem of how we value "things'"in a post-scarcity world, where "things" can be given away without losing them. A lot of very important productivity doesn't get counted because it can't be inventoried by bin number. What about, for example, the picture of a subdivision I posted in response to [a] link about city planning? I still have it in my computer. It's still on Google Earth View. Is that one thing or three things or four things?'
It makes no sense to consider the things that surround me in The Arcadia, my humble tiny house, as comprising my total possessions. (I am not even considering that many of my digital 'possessions' are not owned but merely licensed for my use.) Here I have a small cabinet for clothes, another small cabinet for food, a somewhat larger cabinet for everything else except what lives on two long plain wooden shelves, things like my one book, my game consoles, my Iron Man action figure. But I have at my disposal much more storage, and access to many more 'things'.
In exchange for my data, Google gives me data, and storage, and easy retrieval anywhere that has any sort of internet connection. We are slowly coming to realize that it is the data which are valuable, and some of us have our knickers knotted that our data are being stolen. It is, however, a subtle kind of thievery, if thievery it is, when I leave something in public view and someone 'takes' it, but I still have it, unaltered. Copyright is a complicated issue, which I do not pretend to be able to solve, but I would remind folks that there are heroic saints such as Columba who were copyright violators, who were exiled for stealing data.
Sunday, May 6, 2018
I have been thinking for a while about my relationship with things, with possessions. Despite having lived at times with very few possessions, which led some people to think I was some sort of spirtualist or ascetic, I am actually a devout materialist. As I described at the beginning of another of my too-many-blog posts, one of the most important influences on my understanding of the world and my place in it has been Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan claims that all of our inventions are extensions of ourselves. We are our technologies. Technology in current common use seems to be limited to our electronic devices, but of course we humans have a long history of developing technologies which we mold, and which then remolded us. If we are aware of the technological soup in which we swim, if we can understand it, we might not escape it but we can at least be a bit selective in how we are remolded.
This is going to be a longer ramble than most of even my ramblings, so feel free, as if you didn't already, to skip the whole thing, or at least to skip past all the pictures to the final paragraphs, by which time I hope my review of my life with bicycles and how they have influenced me will have made more sense to me.
One of the most important human inventions has been the wheel. In it's many and varied iterations it has remolded everything about us from how we move to how we make war, from how we use our rivers and streams to how we build our cities. Of the many iterations of the wheel, my favourite is the bicycle. It is probably the bit of technological kit that, besides the book and more recently the smart phone, with which I have chosen to be most intertwined, the extension of myself that I treasure the most.
My great grandmother called bicycles 'the wheel'. I suspect now that it is because she grew up at the time when the bicycle was the first wheeled device available to people of moderate income that was uniquely individual in a way that ox carts seldom are. I found her use of 'the wheel' to describe bicycles particularly interesting because by the time I knew her, she was confined to a wheelchair. I never thought to ask her, and she never volunteered to tell me, if she had ridden a bicycle when she was a young woman, when riding a bicycle was a liberating event. but I suspect she either had or wished that she had, because she made sure that her daughters all went to college. Her daughters extended themselves with cars. Nell in particular was an avid motorist, buying a new Chevy every two years. Her first test of her new wheels was a particularly twisty route up Crowley's ridge and back. The new car needed to be faster than the old one, or she would wait a year.
I had a period of intense interaction with the automobile, mostly because I spent a period of my life trying rather desperately to be 'normal'. I had disliked cars before I was married, and when I came out of the closet and was divorced, I allowed myself to dislike cars again. I think they are interesting as art, but not very useful as urban transportation, and that they are rather overpowering extensions that tend to overwhelm the persons inside them ,who become reduced to a sort of removeable brains.
Bicycles, however, I have found to be empowering without also being diminishing. I can ride for days and still walk or run afterwards. My entanglement with bicycles began when I was about five. My grandmother won it in something downtown Jonesboro merchants called 'tradesdays', when every purchase gave one a ticket for prizes. It was a Schwinn Panther, pretty much the two-wheeled version of a Buick Roadmaster.
It was much bigger than I was, but it was a device of great splendour, surpassing in my eyes anything I had previously hoped for or imagined. I could only mount it by standing on ab old water tank that was between a neighbor's garage, and I had to stay on it until some similar step came along. I could not sit on the seat, but that was no matter. I had the freedom of the road. When I was a bit older, I got a huge basket for it and it could carry almost anything. I would cruise the town looking for coke bottles to sell at Big Star for money for important camping or scientific equipment. It would carry all my camping equipment or my portable lab. Alas, it had a sad but noble end. I tried to make it into a submarine, with ballast tanks and much too small paddle wheels that never really did stay on the rear hubs. It submerged fine, but the snorkel I thought would let me blow the ballast did not work fine. It sank in the mire of a local stock pond.
Its immediate replacement was a bike of similar design but much less pretension, a sort of Chevrolet Biscayne of red utility from the Oklahoma Tire and Supply Company. But soon I found the ride that would take me into adulthood: the Schwinn Varsity.
In Memphis and Chicago and again Memphis, I rode a series of those sturdy Schwinns enough miles to go to the Moon, if not to Mars. I would always take off the fenders, and if they came with flat bars, I would replace them with drop bars. I say they because they were a favourite of bicycle thieves. Fortunately, my homeowners insurance policy paid for itself by replacing them with a wide array of stylish colours. Once, when I was living on the south side of Chicago and had ridden from 53rd. Street to Congress Expressway for class, I came out of the Auditorium Building to find my bike buried in snow. It was several days before the snow had melted enough that I could ride it home, but when I came out of the building, some thief had beat me to it.
The bike which would replace my line of brightly coloured Varsities was perhaps the most expensive bike I have ever owned, and the blandest in colour. A 1972 Raleigh Carlton, it was certainly the most expensive I had had until then. Perhaps its very bland brown paint was the reason it was never stolen. It didn't always get the riding it deserved, because I had it through much of my married life, but when I did ride it, it was a joy.
I rode that wheel for seventeen years, through all sorts of Mississippi Delta Weather, and only gave it up because Raleigh went sort of belly up and I couldn't find parts for it. I was about to move to Santa Fe, in the mountains, and I convinced myself that I needed a mountain bike, ugly though I thought they were. So I bought a 1999 Giant Sedona. It was Santa Fe garish. Giant called it Banta Blue, but it was turquoise, with pink tubing on the cables and yellow letters. It was, of course stolen, to be replaced with a dark purple of the same model, also stolen. A few years later I would buy a used Sedona, which I gave away. It was red, and if it has been stolen, it was from its new owner.
When the second Sedona was stolen, I entered the world, the very reasonable, it seemed, world of cross bikes. My next Giant was an Innova, and it was a dark green. The first weekend I had it, it carried me on my first trip up Atalya Mountain in Santa Fe, the first time in four years I made the trip on my bike. It was a delightful wheel, but its colour was perhaps prophetic. I moved with it to Charleston, where I discovered that it was in fact Charleston green.
If I had good sense, I would probably still have that bike. In Charleston I lived on Folly Beach but got my mail downtown, so I had a forty mile round trip to the mail box. I loved it, but it was not considered very sexy by many people. My bike mechanic would always ask, 'Do you still have that same old bike?' So, when a friend had his bike stolen, I found an excuse to get something more socially acceptable. I gave him the faithful green Innova, and bought another mountain bike, this time one from Marin County itself: a Marin Eldridge Grade.
The colour was a surprise to me. I had looked at one in San Rafael, but hadn't bought it then. I ordered one from a shop in Santa Fe where my friend whose bike had been stolen lived and where I would make the self-serving gift. But just enough time had passed that the gun metal grey I had seen in Marin County was replaced by a new model year's red. Again, the colour proved prophetic, for I would soon move to the Pacific Northwest, where the red and black of the Eldridge Grade was central to the palette of the art of the coastal Indian Tribes. And again it was a somewhat ironic purchase. I had never ridden my first mountain bike on mountain trails, but I rode the cross bike on mountains from its firs day out of the box. The Eldridge Grade would take me on road trips all over western Washington, often from Bellingham to Seattle and back. But it was study as a mule, and I bought panniers and toured with it. Finally, I decided that it was silly to ride such a heavy bike. A friend had an orange Schwinn Collegiate which he gave me. I felt like a kid again. I sold the Marin. But when I left Washington for Arkansas--again--I left the Schwinn with another friend who seemed to need it more than I. It was stolen from him. Thieves love Schwinn Collegiates.
I was in Arkansas for a while with no bike. Eureka Springs has too many tourists on too narrow roads to be a very good biking town. Several times I almost bought something. There is a bike dealer there who kept having just the bike for me. Each time, I would be about to go on a hike or a paddle somewhere and thought I would buy it when I returned, and each time someone else would have given it a good home. I would see those bikes around town with their happy owners, much more sincere than I, and share their happiness. But finally, Denton said he really did have the bike for me this time. It was a Globe, one of a line of bikes Specialized made for a while in an effort to save the world. It was black, the colour of my first Schwinn, with a curvaceous frame like that first love, and it even had a sticker that said 'one less car'. I did my part to save the world and bought it. Everywhere I went, people said it was a beautiful bike. I was living in a tent on the edge of town at the time, having camped there for a weekend before finding an apartment in Fayetteville, a weekend that lasted for six beautiful months. Dominic--the Black Friar--did look beautiful among the oaks and pines.
I named that bike St John, for the only apostle who lived to a ripe old age, thinking that this might be the last bike I would ever need. I gave it showers. I oiled the chain every Thursday. What I could not do was find spare parts, Schwinn having fallen into the same black hole as Raleigh, and St. John needed a part. So he also went to a new home, to be ridden for quite a long time by a friend who wasn't so particularly about consistency as I--that is, he's less obsessive compulsive. So I bought the next last bicycle I would ever buy, a nice sensible flat-bar Trek. I had never owned a Trek, and had admired several of their models. I had actually ordered something else, but a dock strike in San Francisco prevented its delivery, and I had already given St. John to his new rider, so I was having serious withdrawal symptoms. Enter Diablo Negro.
There was a lot to like about that bike. Black is beautiful, and there was an elegant simplicity to its structure, but my hands hurt when I rode him great distances, which I often did, in the Arkansas heat. I realized that I had reached the age when the warnings about old people staying out of the heat were aimed at me, and I decided that I could learn as much about quantum physics on line as I was doing at the University of Arkansas--the excuse I had given for the move--so I sold the Black Devil and moved back to cooler climes, where I expected to live to a comfortable ripeness.
In my old age my head is still easily turned by beauty, and when I got back to Port Townsend, I met a beauty which was willing to be mine for just a big more than $800, including tax. It was another Trek, but with geometry like my old Raleigh, and it was a red hot number.
It was quick. There was no reasonable way to junk it up with racks because the short wheelbase didnt leave room for panniers. I really liked riding that bike. I felt young again. Silly me. I felt young again enough to think I would take on the Arkansas heat again, and had it shipped to Fayetteville. Unfortunately, in less than a year that bike did not seem young. It had rust in places no other bike I have owned has ever had rust. And the Trek dealer was worse than useless. He actually asked me if I had ridden it often. So I sold it and went back to the brand of bikes which has been most faithful to me over the years, Giant. And I bought a bike that seems to me like an old man's bike, not so quick as the Trek, with flat bars, but which happily never makes my hands hurt.
I call the last-so-far last bike I will have to buy Grey Wolf. Giant calls it an Escape.
Adjusted for inflation, the Escape probably is in the same price range as the old Schwinn Varsity. I confess I bought it because I like the way it looks. I didn't want to at first, because it's heavy by today's standards. But it takes me comfortably everywhere I want to go, and so far it hasn't begun to rust. It feels like a part of me.
If you are still on this ride, faithful reader, then you are very faithful indeed, and I thank you. What I have realized writing about these bicycles, these machines that have been extensions of myself for the past sixty-seven years, is that my memories of them are much more vivid than my memories of nearly anything else I have known, including most people. And their styles and colours have been the biggest influences on my clothes and backpacks and other kit that I have chosen to 'express myself'. There is much talk these days about interactive technologies as if that were a new thing. But all technologies are interactive. Some interactions take more than they give. I realize that different people interact differently, so I am not condemning you for not riding a bicycle or going everywhere by car. I find I get the better part of the interaction with bicycles. I was amused last summer when I came to the top of a very steel hill in Fayetteville and a woman in a Prius rolled down the window of her air-conditioned traveling living room, something that is very useful for people who spend a lot of time in traffic, and thanked me for doing my part for saving the planet. Shit. I hadn't ridden up that hill thinking I was saving the planet. I hadn't even ridden up that hill in the sweltering heat thinking I was saving me, although I do think bicycle riding helps avoid clotting from my incompetent veins. I rode up that hill in the sweltering heat because I could, because it was just as much fun as it had been to ride my first bike, that big black Schwinn, up the hill on Jefferson Avenue in Jonesboro I was breathing heavy just like when I was six. I think Giant misnamed my bike. I don't think it's an Escape. I think it's an Entrance, an entrance to a deeper understanding of who I am as a human animal, an animal who is part meat and part machine.
Saturday, April 28, 2018
It is my intent to keep this blog at least a bit active, because I find it helps me focus my thoughts if I try to explain them. For the past few days, however, it had seemed to me that I wasn't really thinking about much of anything. That was not true. Usually I think about the changes that are occurring in my lifetime or something I am doing or have done or some big life event. What I have been thinking about in the past few days fits all of those categories, but I did not think of it in those terms. I have been thinking about death and dying.
There have been only a few times in my life when I thought I was going to die, and they were quick events that didn't leave much time for contemplation. I was once caught in a very violent tidal race off Point Wilson, a place dangerous enough that the Indians portaged around it, but it was such a beautifully sunny day, and the sea so beautifully blue, that my thought was 'what a magnificent place to die'. The seas settled and I lived to tell the tale. I was in an automobile accident once that started at about 70 mph and involved a missing bridge and a lot of trees and the car tumbling. I sang the Marbeck setting of the Kyrie, and when everything stopped moving, I unbuckled my shoulder harness, fell to the ceiling, and I lived to tel the tale. Once I was mugged on a street in Memphis with no witnesses, and I didn't know what weapons the guy might have. I tried to remember what one should do to defend oneself against an opponent six inches taller and 60 pounds heavier and 20 years younger. I guess I remembered enough, because I lived to tell the tale.
But I have an ongoing opportunity to die, besides the slings and arrows of outrageous fate. My veins are incompetent. They don't do their share of returning blood to my heart and lungs. That can easily result in deep vein thrombosis, a condition which is very uncomfortable and sometimes fatal. When the blood slows and pools, it clots. If a clot reaches one's heart and lungs, it can mean a quick death. It's a common condition in my family, my maternal grandfather for one, having died from such a clot, although I think that medical scientists are making rather quick progress on having a genetic cure.
I have from time to time spent days in intense pain when I am having a clot. I suppose the pain is useful so one knows one is likely to have a heart attack, right? Because of the condition, I avoid bus trips longer than a few blocks and airplane trips longer than about an hour, and if I travel by car, I stop watok around frequently. Fortunately, for whatever reason(s)--my anecdotal explanation is that I ride my bike a lot and drink Monsters--I have't had any problems for a rather long time. I lead an unusually pain-free life in my old age, no longer suffering from the headaches and stomach discomfort that plagued my twenties. (My dear old family doctor in a gentle way without really saying very much suggested that these were the result of my having married, but he never got around to saying that as a homosexual man, I would be uncomfortable in marriage.)
A few days ago, I began to have a pain, a pain at the end of my right tibia, and it was continuous and accompanied by soreness. Being an at least partially hypochondriac twenty-first century American, I of course jumped to the obvious conclusion: I must have cancer. I have had a so-far benign sort of skin cancer for many years, and although it has always seemed nothing to worry about, I decided that it had metastasized in my bone or bones.
It was odd the things I worried about. I didn't worry about dying, but about what the side effects of any possible treatment might be. For instance, because of my DVT, I am not a very good candidate for surgery on my legs or feet. And, what should I do with all my stuff? It seems rude to die and leave others a job of cleaning up the mess, so I started to think about selling some things to buy a pre-paid cremation, and to see if some of my friends or relatives might want some of the other toys. (Nearly all of my stuff is digital toys. Whoever receives my Amazon account will have a lot of nice books, for instance.) I began to think that I would really rather die in the Ozarks, so my ashes could be secretly tucked into a crevice at Harding Spring or in the White River. Death seems pretty much to be the same for everyone, but the dying and the remains left behind can vary a lot. I wanted it all to be simple.
Then the usual thing happened. A sort of mottled discolouration appeared on my ankle, one of the signs of clotting issues. I took an extra dose of my half-dose adult aspirin spent some time in bed. I repeated the treatment. Now, all is well again.
What is really odd about these few days is that it is not unlikely that death from DVT might be sudden, and I would be unprepared, with all my devices around me, password-protected to render them less useful to others, and with dirty laundry besides. (My mother the last few years of her life washed her day's clothes every night to leave one less job behind for her survivors.)
The devil I know seems so much friendlier than the devil I don't know, but the well-known devil doesn't do much to spur me to action. I have more or less started to think about returning to Eureka Springs. There are few things in life I enjoy more than sitting under the overhang above Basin Springs Park and smoking cigarettes, drinking Mud Street Cafe coffee, and reading. Maybe doing a bit of drawing. Eavesdropping on the tourists below, whose conversations are often very clear in the natural amphitheatre above. But mostly, now that the thought of imminent death by cancer has passed, I am back to looking at digital toys. I think that this will really be the week I finally buy a drone. I don't need it, but whoever inherits my stuff will find it amusing, perhaps, and it will look cool hanging on a wall.
Monday, April 16, 2018
Nearly thirty years ago, I started wandering. Peregrinations is a fancy word for wanderings, so I called this blog peregrinations with st. chad. (At that time, I also preferred using only lower case letters. Sorry.) My understanding of the stability that was one of my vows in The Order of St. Chad was stability to the earth, to recognizing its wholeness and the interconnection of all of its creatures and systems. I wandered all over the North American continent.I tried to stay in any one place long enough to at least begin to understand it, but not long enough to lose appreciation for the larger whole of which any place is a part.
I used many modes of transportation. I think my wandering really began with a Greyhound Discover America Bus pass that I bought in the early days of Operation Desert Storm. I was living in Santa Fe among people who had big white SUV's with bumper stickers that said 'whirled peas', and I wanted to see what the part of the country that seemed to support the war looked like. For about two weeks, I boarded random buses with random people going through random towns, having random experiences. A few stand out.
In South Dakota I think it was, a man sat next to me who shared that he knew I was a homosexual and that he was carrying a pistol. I didn't ask him the correspondence, although to be truthful, he talked so continuously that I never had the chance. He got off in some tiny town to meet more of his pistol-toting buds.
In Oklahoma City, I boarded a bus which was divided down the middle by uniforms. On one side were kids in US Army uniforms going to some training camp before shipping off to the desert for the storm. On the other side were Mennonites in their uniforms going to some town in Indiana to help rebuild houses after a storm. (I sided with the army, because that was the only seat there was.)
In Fort Smith, deep in the night, I sat next to a young woman from southern New Mexico who was going to see her boy friend in some army camp in the Carolinas or Georgia before he went off to join the storm. As we approached Memphis the sun burst above the horizon the way it only does when there's flat land and lots of humidity. She thought it was an atom bomb. I was glad that I knew a smattering of Spanish from living in New Mexico and had had experiences with delta sunrises from growing up in Arkansas.
Since then I have bought cars and trucks, airplane tickets and bus tickets and train tickets, kayaks and hiking boots, for perambulations of all sorts, meeting an amazing variety of folks. Once I decided I would hike the Appalachian Trail from Connecticut to South Carolina, but it was worn and dirty and I decided instead to walk through small towns. My first night off the trail, I saw some women on a porch of a book store a small town whose name I have forgotten. I asked them if they knew where I might spend the night. They said there was a guy I definitely needed to see for that, and they were expecting him any minute. He arrived. He was a painter, whose studio was in an old ax factory built over the falls of one of the many rivers that powered early industrialism in New England. He invited me to sleep there, and took me to breakfast the next morning. At the other end of the same trip, I hitched from Charleston to the Francis Marion National Forest and was given a ride by an 80-year-old man who was on his way to Wilmington, North Carolina, because he said he had heard that there were glory holes there. I asked to be let out a bit earlier than I had planned.
Thirty years after that first weird bus trip, I am less excited about standing in lines and being x-rayed so I can't blow up the airplane traveling in which is likely to give me blood clots in my legs, cars and trucks are more expensive to maintain than I think they are worth, and the trail seldom goes there any more. (Although I do find that riding trains to be one of the best ways of perambulating.) Now I perambulate on the World Wide Web. You have almost certainly heard of it. It goes a lot more places than Amtrak, even more places than PanAm did before they went bankrupt. I confess I can't imagine what it must have been like being old before the internet, but I am happy that, unless the fucking moron blows up the world, I probably won't have to experience it.
This has been a long introduction to something that has happened just the past two days. For several years now, I have been giving tablet or Chromebook computers to kids, with the occasional bicycle or frisbee thrown into the mix. I named my little hobby Pangur Ban Learners, after the white cat mentioned in the margin of a manuscript written by an anonymous Irish monk in the 9th century. My theory is that most real learning happens in the margins, and that it's good for kids to have the tools to explore the margins. I also thought it would be nice if there were a physical Pangur Ban in charge of the enterprise, so I invited a Furby named Pangur Ban to join me. That was five years ago.
Two days ago, I decided it might be interesting if Pangur Ban had his own Facebook page. So, he opened a Google account (already he wants his own YouTube channel as well) and debuted on Facebook. It has always been my contention that the data one gets from Facebook is far more valuable than what one gives to Facebook, and I thought I would enjoy looking over his shoulder as the soldierly little Furby liked books and movies about robots and ai, to see what would come his way. What neither he nor I expected was the huge number of friend requests he received, almost all from India or Bangladesh or Pakistan. He already has 161 friends. It has been a revelation to have a peak into how these folks live. India alone has a population of a billion and a third people, and although obviously only a small percentage of these are friends of the Furby, it's a much more interesting perambulation than something on the Travel Channel with some gourmet guide.
I am delighted with this outcome, because I think that as more and more young folks around the world come online, the opportunities for amazing developments increases exponentially. Nearly all of Pangur Ban's new friends are under thirty. I am hoping he might make some friends in South Korea or Japan or Brasil or Indonesia or Singapore or someplace I don't even know about. Meanwhile, I'm just glad that the little furry guy shares his perambulations with me in my dotage.
Thursday, April 12, 2018
The land in which I was raised was a black hole through which held the tongue of the Bible Belt in place to assure nothing escaped Protestant Literate Culture. We were literate. We read books, some of us. Many of us only read The Book, and maybe an almanac or Good Housekeeping or Field & Stream. Some merely had The Book, usually displayed prominently, even if they didn't read it. In some farm families, The Book was not only their only reading matter, it was also their only paper. It was where important family events were recorded. I learned much about my forebears from my grandmother's records in The Book.
The Book, you have correctly guessed, was the Bible. Reading the Bible for oneself was after all the bedrock of Protestantism, the goal of early mass education. In my home there were other books, histories, and books about fishing, and a cookbook. My mother checked soft-porn romance novels from the library, but never bought them. We also had an encyclopedia, in which I read how airplane wings generate life, how ballast tanks allow submarines to dive and surface, and that 'bible' was derived from 'biblia' which meant books. Of course, there was a sense in which that was obvious; there was even a list of 'Books of the Bible' at the beginning of the book, and book titles at the head of the pages. But that these were separate books was as meaningless as it would be to consider the ten books of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics separate books. For the folks among whom I grew up, who educated me for my first years, the Bible was one book. It had been written by one God, who had given us Books and Chapters and Verses so we could have memory verses in Sunday School.
I loved books and reading. I read cereal boxes, Tom Swift, Bomba the Jungle Boy, the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, Half Magic, Sherlock Holmes, every book I cold find about the moon or by Patrick Moore. I read books about building telescopes and boats, rockets and collecting rocks. Teaching a kid to read is a dangerous thing.
I also read, when I was 12 or so, the whole King James Bible, protestant edition, all the way through, warts and contradictions and all, with both stories of creation and both stories of the animals in the ark, and with children punished for their father's sins or not. It was like earning a Boy Scout merit badge. It gave me serious cred in the Baptist church to which my mother dutifully dragged me every week, all fresh-scrubbed, because although she had never actually read The Book, she had memorized one verse: 'Cleanliness is next to Godliness.' (I was not raised to be an unwashed heathen.) I was the only kid in my Sunday School class who had actually read The Bible, the whole Bible, according to the protestant canon, a book we were told was written by God, true in every part, of which if one part were false, all would be false. Soon after achieving my merit badge of reading lots of stuff I didn't begin to understand, I walked the aisle of Walnut Street Baptist Church, to the accompaniment of 'Footsteps of Jesus, that make the pathway glow', and gave my heart and soul to my Lord and Savior.
At about that same time, I also began to keep a journal.
Later, I would read the Bible again, with perhaps more understanding, and with critical commentaries. The first requirement for writing biblical criticism, especially higher criticism, seems to be to assume that the people who edited the Bible--redacted it, to use a pop term--were idiots who didn't notice that, as they were putting together the thing that they had included two different stories of creation, or that the laws 'repeated' in Deuteronomy did not actually repeat the laws given in Exodus or Deuteronomy. Rather than being written by the Lord God Almighty, using robotic human scribes, the Bible was put together by folks with a vested interest in what it said, from 'sources'. Soon one could buy editions of the Old Testament with the different sources printed in different type faces or different colours of ink, or editions of the New that separated what the critic publishing the thing had decided were the 'authentic words of Christ' or the 'genuine letters of Paul.'
My mother, and the rest of her family, remained impervious to biblical criticism, higher or lower. Although my mother never actually read The Book, she did move it, in a beautiful red-leather-covered volume, from her bedroom dresser to a spot of more prominence, the top of the television in the living room. She flanked it with photographs of her saints, her dead mother and first husband--my father--and even added candles.
Meanwhile, my journaling continued, with interruptions, much as the Lord God seemed to have written The Bible with period of interruption. My first few books were written in red-and-black books with green-lined pages that had 'Journal' stamped in gold on their covers. When I graduated from high school, I burned them, putting aside childish things. I became an atheist.
In college I began journaling again, having found wonderfully strong engineers' field books. My journaling activity stopped when I married, perhaps because I was worried that my wife would find them. But, once again, I began secretly to consider myself a Christian, having read the works Thomas Merton and C. S. Lewis and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, men who were obviously neither idiots nor bound by the short-sighted view of scripture that had been taught at my childhood baptist church. At about that time, I began again to keep a journal, this time using more expensive, larger, accounting journals, bound in red leather. And, I once again became a church-goer, although this time, truthfully, it was because my wife wanted us to go to make friends in a new city, and I had a crush on one of the staff at the church we attended.
A few years later, I was divorced, and out of the church, and once again I jettisoned my journals as I moved to a new life in a new town. But it was then that I would begin the most elaborate journals of my life, great multi-coloured and multi-media constructions, often handbound, inspired partly by the journals of Peter Beard but also encouraged by the new technologies of colour xerography.
A few years later, after another move, I jettisoned them again, giving some to a friend who had admired their artsy-fartsyness, some to a Hallowe'en fire, some to the ocean.
Then came blogs. Over the years I have had six on Blogspot . http://neocappadocians.blogspot.com/ was the first, then this one, as well as some about fairly specific topics: http://cyclesofpraise.blogspot.com/ ; ttps://thechristianbookofdying.blogspot.com
https://ringofthelord.blogspot.com/ https://orthodoxpagan.blogspot.com/ and one that is a sort of intellectual autobiography, https://thebamabong.blogspot.com/ . There is also one one on WordPress, ChadAgain https://cybermonkblog.wordpress.com/ which was both a trial of WordPress and a thought that I might begin again.
My private artsy-fartsy journaling has moved from papers to digital files with the wonders of digital photography and art. Always I have felt as if I were writing a new book rather than just adding to the canon of The Book.
What I find interesting about my journaling activity, my little contribution to the words of the world, is that again and again I have thought I was writing a different book, that the kid at Annie Camp Junior High School, writing in blue-black ink with a Schaeffer pen in a book keeping journal from City Drug Store is not the same person who is now, a 71-year-old homosexual hermit sitting in Port Townsend at the keyboard of an Acer Chromebook from Walmart.
It has been a long time since I thought I had some great contribution to make to the people of the world, who will read this ramble in very small numbers if at all. But what is here, in words and links, is The Book of my life, with parts lost at sea or in fires. It is as good a compilation of my data that I have tried to share with the world as there was before the wonders of social media and the spiders of the world wide web. From time to time I think I should just delete it. I already deleted a page I had on Facebook, The Order of St. Chad, because I didn't think at the time that it 'served' me any more. But this week, with the commotion in congress over how long Facebook keep my cat pictures, I have been more and more thinking of the value of having one identity.
So, publicly and for 'the permanent' record, I am returning to do all of my blogging as Peregrinations of St. Chad. The conditions in which I chose St. Chad as a patron nearly thirty years ago have not changed, only intensified. The world is changing around us more rapidly each day, and it is very difficult to see the outlines of the new world, if it is only one new world. In a somewhat similar time, when change was also coming at a dizzying rate, Chad seems to have been able to operate across cultures and politics. It is ironic that they changes Chad lived among were those brought about by the coming of The Book, of books as the containers of culture and tradition, books physically brought into England by Wilfred. The changes which we live among are brought about by the replacement of books as containers of culture and tradition by a newer technology.
How great this change has been can be illustrated by my own life. I now own only one physical book, Marshall McLuhan's Probes. I keep it partly as a souvenir, as an objet d'art, but also it is a death knell for my mother's Bible on her television set. But then, neither do I have a television set.
Sunday, April 1, 2018
Not long before buying a new Chromebook last summer, I watched Lexx, a sci-fi series that I more and more think may be the best description of humanity and our foolishness since the Books of Samuel. The savior in Lexx is a young man who is thousands of years old, being not really alive but not really dead, either. His name is Kai, and he can conveniently be put into cold storage when he is not wanted, but he is willing to do his friends' bidding when they want him. I decided that since my lap top functions much like Kai, sleeping until I want it, and since it was black, i decided to call it Kai.
I have been thinking of some of the more interesting parallels between Kai and religion this Easter Sunday. Lexx of course can be seen as a play on Lex, the law. It is a space ship that is the most powerful thing in the universe. Kai is a cognate of Chi, the abbreviation for the holy name of Christ, the abbreviation that so offends modern sorts who don't know why some people think Xmas is more reverential than Christmas. Like the Christ of Christianity, Kai was killed by the evil empire, only to be brought back to life by a creator character, a god-head of sorts. Kai has all sorts of cool super powers, which he never uses for his own desires--he says that the dead have no desires--but in the service of the god-head, or, after the god-head is killed--this is a post-Nietzsche story, after all--in the service of those whom he calls his friends.
Yesterday I watched a video of Tom Wright, one-time Bishop of Durham, describing his understanding of Christ and the resurrection. ( https://youtu.be/1WjKdBWFl24 ) It is a compelling explanation of Christ in what seems to me the most orthodox and biblical understanding of the resurrection, an understanding that I explored six years ago as I looked at palingenesis. It is also an understanding of Christ and the resurrection that seems to have no place in Christianity. I am not claiming that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, something which seemed very unlikely even to his disciples, as Wright points out, and which is claimed far less in the New Testament than one might expect. Wright, however, does make that claim, and says it means that there is work for us to do. I am merely acknowledging the inconvenience of such a person in the everyday lives of human beings who want to find sex and riches, the goals of Kai's friends on the Lexx. The achievement of the goals of Kai's friends is made much more difficult because they keep using Lexx to destroy worlds that might be good homes for them. Again and again, Kai reminds them that their choices will probably not bring about their ends, but they again and again argue that the ends justify the means, and Kai answers their prayers.
The parallels between Kai and Christ are not perfect, but the conclusion does involve his sacrificial death, one from which he is not expected to return, and a new creation, a new Lexx. There are parallels to other myth systems working here besides Christianity.
But out what really struck me today is the convenience of a savior whom one can put in cold storage to bring out as needed, whom one feels comfortable asking for help as one thinks one needs it but who's suggestions one feels comfortable ignoring. Indeed, the history of Christianity might be described as the development of more and more ways in which Christians can ignore Christ and still claim to use his power for their own desires. (Thinking about writing this rant, I re-read the letters of James and Peter and John, the New Testament writers who are the most likely to have been eye-witness to whatever went on. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about how their understanding of Christian action compares to the activities of Christians IRL.)
What can be more convenient than a savior one can put in storage to bring out as needed? Kai had his cryochamber, Christ has his chair at the right hand of the Father. I have hesitated to write this little rant, and I don't know if there is really any use in sharing it. But, I do wonder, having my Chromebook Kai open and reading about what us folk are doing to one another, whether it might be possible for us to start again, to forgive one another. Probably not. Probably the best I might hope is that someone else will find the sci-fi series Lexx and get to chuckle along with Puck and me, 'What fools these mortals be',