Monday, June 22, 2009

Letter to Old Friends

It took me a long time to understand that I don't like people.
   Around the same time I made this discovery I also found that I have "Life ADD". Every 4 to 5 years I find myself getting itchy; I start noticing the cracks and stains; I begin criticizing and get cranky. I leave--jobs, organizations, friends. I try to put a smiley face on the situation by telling myself that it keeps things "fresh", that I avoid the inevitable corruption of staying in the same job for 30 years. But the truth is that I'm not a reliable or dependable friend in the long haul. Pam and I have been married for 31 years and I'm very proud of that. And we're best friends. But truly we're not the same people we were 4 years ago. So, actually, my "Life ADD" may have contributed to the longevity of our marriage.
People change. Marriage is like 3-dimensional chess. Who will I wake up to tomorrow...and who will I be tomorrow...and how can we make these 2 unknown beings live and love together? Interesting problems. A lot of young folks worry about marriage: how can I possibly live with (sleep with) the same person for the rest of my life? Not to worry, old son!! You don't live with the same person!! In fact, you won't know from day to day who you're going to bed with. Feel better? I didn't think so.
Anyway, back to friends. I keep my friends in folders near my heart. There's the early childhood folder; the high school subway friends' folder; the boarding-school friends' folder; the early-mid 60's summer friends' folder; the college friends' folder...and so on. Each folder seems to last about 4 years with the exception of my musical friends' folders.

I'm writing this post because I feel I'll be leaving a cherished group of musical friends soon. I hate it. I wish I were a more rock-solid person, not the one who leaves continuously. I value my old friends and keep them near my heart always. Doesn't seem to matter much when that old feeling creeps up my spine.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Gates of Hell

One of the great experiences a person can have is to pass through the Gates of Hell and travel to the assigned Circle while still alive.  Getting in, as Virgil tells us, is the easy part. I can vouch for, I'm sure, many of you can. The trick is getting out. Returning. Bringing back the Eternal Vibration and spreading the news. 
You learn a great deal about yourself standing at the precipice staring down into limitless darkness. Will you jump or fall? Or will you back away and slowly claw your way out--past all the familiar sights you enjoyed so much on the way in? Yes, a lot can be learned out there on the edge. And it's all wasted if you don't return and share your story. Other people can feel where you've been--you don't even have to tell your tale intentionally. Those who return from the Infernal Region have a certain look and feel. The occasional thousand-yard stare. The residue of pain and suffering that adds weight and color to your actions.
And a lot is stripped away from your life--the unnecessary, the socially-required toys and wardrobe, the excess baggage. You come closer to yourself. Sometimes that's a real victory. And sometimes it's too much to bear. Sometimes the revealed mystery is unbearable. And once you know a thing, you can't un-know it. Still, in spite of all the danger, regardless of the inherent risks, if you haven't passed through the Eternal Gates at least once in your life, you're looking at life through a heavy veil.

Monday, June 15, 2009

June 14, Shakespeare, Mom

Yesterday was June 14--my mother's birthday...she would have been 86. Strike that. She turned 86 in my heart yesterday. Happy birthday, mom. I miss you. Not every day, but often enough. Yes, indeed, certainly enough. It was my mother's death that taught me the meaning of the word 'forever'. Like the first time you actually come in contact with a barracuda in the open sea. Just you, the 2' barracuda, a beautiful reef, clear Bermudean water, and a beach about a lifetime away. So!!!! That's what they look like. Damn!! I had no idea! Forever. Oh...
Yesterday was also Flag Day. I'm not sure what Flag Day was all about. Probably a show of patriotism. But I remember being taken by my mother to Flag Day services in our town. Some gray old man in a suit would say important words in front of a monument listing the names of the honored dead from WWI and WWII. I'm not sure if the Korean War honored dead had made it up there yet.
I was there because I was named for my mother's brother who was killed in Italy in his own side. 'Friendly Fire'. My son is named for his mother's brother who was blown up disarming a land mine in Viet Nam. He was shipped home in a bag labeled "Body Parts". There was an accompanying letter telling my wife's grief-stricken family that no one was sure which parts belonged to whom, so it might be Tommy, but it might be someone else. Sorry.

So, what's in a name? Well, in Tom's case, his name is a talisman--something to protect him from the treachery of this world; also a constant reminder of a loved one gone forever, but also here in the namesake of his nephew. In my case probably all of the above as well as a constant reminder of the unspoken, obscene costs of every war. I watched my mother suffer every day when she visited her mother, a grieving woman who had been driven into madness by her son's death in Italy. Grandma never left her bedroom. She had a younger woman who acted as companion and bartender. Tough work, we found out. When Grandma died we were surprised to find every drawer filled with empty Johnnie Walker Black scotch bottles. Must have been hundreds. Grandma had a string of liquor stores--about 5--who would deliver the goods and not suspect how much scotch she was consuming. Must have been good days at the Johnnie Walker Distillery.
My son's grandmother was also partial to scotch. She'd stand at the kitchen sink in her robe and stare out the window with a cigarette in one hand and a small Dixie cup of scotch in the other. Never saw her drink from it, never saw her over-loaded. But she kept my grandmother's flame burning. Also, tortured her daughter, my wife, in the same fashion my grandma tortured my mom. I wonder how many other women have retreated to their bedrooms or kitchen sinks across this wide world. Grieving the loss of some beautiful boy killed in one of the countless wars we worship so profoundly. Cheers.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Memories, All Alone in the Gloaming

I was pacing back and forth at the stone wall, yelling for my dogggiez to come back from the Scary Woods before dusk became dark, when a great idea blossomed in my brain...I think it was pretty important, too...but, by the time I got 2 of 3 dogggz back in the house, I forgot everything.
So, nada. Nothing. Nada. Our nada who art in nada.
Spain. If you're a fan of Hemingway, you know the city of Pamplona. Every July suicidal maniacs run with fighting bulls down the narrow streets of beautiful Pamplona. But, go there--just not in July. The countryside is breathtaking. You want to pull off to the side of the road, unload your gear, set fire to the rental car and walk up to one of the shepherds' huts that dot the pastures all around.
You live. You die.

Last night I was awakened by the sound of jack boots stamping up my stairs and the bedroom door bursting off its hinges. Pam and I sat up in bed staring into blinding lights. A group of men stood around our bed menacing us. It turned out that we were the most recent victims of the Blogosphere Ton-Ton Macoute. The internet Gestapo. The Secret Police of Bloggers. Beware!! I was told that my blog had been classified as SPAM. Is that good, I asked the officer in charge. Don't be coy, Mr Spaeth, he growled, as his one good eye twitched and his thin lips pressed together firmly. Seriously, Colonel, why are you standing in our bedroom at 3 am? Very clever, Mr Spaeth! I'm a major, not a colonel. And we're here to inform you that your blog has been classified as SPAM. SPAM is obscene--a rot in the foundation of our 1000 year empire. Do you understand??
What?? I'm sorry, colonel. I just had a great idea for another posting on my blog site. What did you say?
Bamg!! Bang!! The room lit briefly twice and filled with smoke, choking the uniformed soldiers standing over the dead bodies of a man and a woman lying on the floor.

The pink/gold clouds have turned to gray, and I can actually see shadows moving across the fields this evening. The daylight creatures are settling in for an uneasy rest while nighttime predators stretch and clean themselves for another round of hunting. Owls cry. Coyotes yip.

One and Done

I've been trying to avoid writing about THE AFTERLIFE until I exhausted thoughts on life itself. No dice. Needs to be addressed. Try this experiment: ask your friends if they believe in ghosts...see what happens. Yesterday I asked a friend if she believed in ghosts and got this answer: ghosts are actually demons masquerading as spirits of loved ones to cause us--the living--pain and confusion.

Try it. Lots of folks are quite sure that there is an active afterlife awaiting each of us. A dear friend who plays banjo in our band just gave 4 lectures on reincarnation. Well-attended lectures. I went to 3. So, what's the deal?? Why do so many people believe in something for which there is 0 proof. Religion bases its power on the afterlife, of course. "If you behave yourself, do what you're told, stay poor, make me rich, fight my wars of empire, and disregard all the obvious hypocrisy in our doctrine, you have a real good chance of spending ETERNITY in HEAVEN with GOD where you live in PERPETUAL BLISS. So, think about it: we're asking you to trade 70+ years of suffering and deprivation for eternity of Bliss. What do you say, friend? You look like a smart fellow.....". Nah. One and Done. I hope. Who in the world who's been paying attention would want to do this trip again?? Not me.

But, talking about BLISS: The best advice I ever read about living a meaningful life came from Joe Campbell, the great mythologist and teacher. He said, "Follow your bliss". Do what makes you ecstatic, joyful, and satisfied. In a class of high school seniors that translates into getting stoned early and often and having sex about 15x a day. Sounds good to me, but that's not what Joe meant. He meant pay attention and do what makes you complete, live where you feel at home, associate with those people who make you feel comfortable. Be yourself, I guess. Good advice. Suits me better than OBEY, SUBJUGATE YOURSELF, AND GIVE US ALL YOUR MONEY.

There are True Believers and Cynics. My experience--13 years of Catholic School and 62 years on the road--leads me to Cynicism. I don't trust the World. It's a treacherous place. Beautiful too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More Life

So, Witnessing--or Experiencing--is my reason for living. Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world. Not much of a reason, but mine own. Think of the things you've seen or heard. The things you've felt or smelled or tasted...

I've seen the Parthenon, sitting atop a monolithic stage overlooking ancient Athens. I've seen Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on the bank of the Seine. My son calls the Parthenon the greatest example of monumentality, but Notre Dame was my first truly architectural life-changing experience. I sat in the courtyard for 3 days in 1974 before I could actually go into the cathedral. But I've seen other things too. I witnessed the birth of my daughter and my son. Talk about blow-away experiences. There is truly THE BEFORE and THE AFTER. Nothing is the same after witnessing the birth of your child. Nothing.
I believe that the more you see, do, feel, taste, smell the fuller your journey will be. I believe it is our responsibility to live a full life--to learn as much as possible, to see as much as possible. There is no reason to stay inside your village walls. Yes, there are dragons and other dangers out there, but the real danger is fear and ignorance. And there's enough fear and ignorance for several worlds.

I remember shaking hands with William Calley in 1971 in Columbus, Georgia. I was about to graduate from Infantry OCS at Ft Benning and Calley was under house-arrest, awaiting court-martial for a little operation known as the My Lai Massacre. Bill Calley was a year or 2 older than we were, an inch or 2 shorter, and a lifetime away from our experience. We shook his hand because we knew he was taking the fall for our national guilt in general and for the superior officers' guilt in ordering him to 'kill everything that moves' in My Lai. Billy obliged. He rounded up the babies, the mothers, the old women and men and murdered 218 of them with automatic weapons. I shook his hand and looked into the eyes of Evil. Surprisingly banal. A jewelry store clerk with gallons of blood on his hands. Some on mine now, too.

I've read a lot of the world's greatest literature. There's real pleasure. To settle into a comfy chair, or ,in my case, bed, and begin reading a masterpiece that connects to some universal well-spring in your soul. One day I was riding the NYC subway to Wall Street--the World Trade Center complex--to make a life-or-death sales pitch for our little financial planning firm. I was alert and aware of the importance of my journey. I looked up and noticed one of the subway ads. This one was "Poetry in Motion", a verse from some poem provided by The Arts Council. This particular ad I was reading was Dante--the first verse from The Inferno: "Midway on our life's journey/I awoke in a dark wood/ To find myself lost." It was as if a cathedral bell had been struck. I was transfixed. I knew at a profound level that I was lost, doing something I was not meant to do. I completed the journey, made the sales pitch successfully, returned home and asked my wife to get me that new translation of Dante's Inferno. A year or so later my financial planning firm hit an iceberg and sank. I became a teacher and gradually stumbled out of the bushes and found the path I'd been seeking for over 20 years. True dat.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

We Live

'Q: Why are we here?
A: To know, love, and serve God in this lifetime and be happy with him in the next.'
--Baltimore Catechism ( memorized by thousands of Roman Catholic boys and girls in the mid-20th century)

'Life is what you make it. Always has been. Always will be.'
--Grandma Moses' saying

'A single life
Is such a short time
To right a wrong beginning.'
--handwritten poem on a scrap of paper found in a book of poetry given me by my daughter several years ago.
We live. 

I'd like to examine the time 'between the forceps and the stone', the time we spend on this earth. 
What is the point of life?
Is there a universal goal we strive for in the time we're given?
Why do I do the things I do? 

I'm having a lot of trouble getting started on this section. Too many trails to follow. Woods too rough and dark. Life. I don't know. We are born, we procreate, we eat other life, we get eaten. It's all a bit too much for me. I don't want to simplify and I don't want to overcomplicate--but I also don't want to miss the prize. 
I think what bothers me most about life is the eating of other life-forms. Watch a herd of cows or a solitary horse. Drop into a popular lunch spot any day of the week. We spend a lot of time and cash eating other life forms.
 Visit a butcher shop or fish store. By all means visit a slaughter house or spend 3 weeks on a commercial fishing trawler. One student brought in a DVD documentary about the US meat business. We had to turn it off before everyone started vomiting. Melville said it straight: "It's a cannibal universe". So, at the most basic level life is all about eating other life. But, let's climb that ladder a bit. 
What I like about life is the ability to experience--to witness the world. The good, the bad and the ugly. I think of myself as a witness. I see, touch, taste, hear, and smell all the things that I come in contact with. The more I witness the better my journey will be. Again, it's not about beautiful vs ugly, it's about the act of witnessing. Maybe because I can then shape the experience into a story to tell. I have some stories to tell.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

We Are Born.

We're born. We live. We die. But let's examine these 3 universal truths.

We are born. 
   True: I was born. You were born. They were born. 
   Like a lot of people, I was born to the wrong parents. I was born in New York City and I don't like cities. I should have been born in northern New England--northern Massachusetts, Vermont, or Maine. Maine is a lovely place. Weird people. Lots of vanity plates--like "DARKNESS".....but the natural setting is really fine. 
   My parents were polar opposites. I loved my mom.  She died at age 51 from cancer. I went into a tailspin that lasted many years and threatened to shake me to pieces. Pam was the only person who could protect me.
   My dad was another story. 
   Here's a vignette:
  My dad was 81 and had been fighting cancer for several years. The end was near. My 2 brothers, Pete and Ed, and I were at dad's house to witness the end. We had just stepped out to see the hospice nurse off and I decided to go back and check on dad. As I got to the threshold of his room he was reaching out to me, straining, staring directly into my eyes. I watched the light go out in his eyes and stood there feeling nothing...maybe relief. Maybe revenge. Pete and Ed were in the driveway. I stood there making sure dad was dead. 
  Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
  I loved my mother very much and suffered with her as she cared for her crazy mother and my dad. 
   I felt nothing for my father. 
  So, I was born to the wrong a lot of you. Think of the ramifications: wrong parents, wrong siblings, wrong uncles and aunts, wrong friends, wrong neighborhood, wrong religion, food, wallpaper. 
   The trick, I believe, is to find the right substitutes--right parents, siblings, aunts/uncles, friends, neighborhood, religion, food and wallpaper. 
   And that, komrades, will be the subject of my next post: Living.