Flipping God the Bird

A lesson on defiance.

It was one of those mornings. The kind where as soon as you wake up, the world greets you with a shitstorm… an eviction notice, a threatening email from a bill collector, your lover’s suitcases by the front door… take your pick.

For me, it was the 17th rejection to my latest book. For fuck’s sake!

No matter how noble my intentions or how hard I work, the world appears determined to thwart my best laid plans and lay waste to my illusions.

Yes, I’ve trained myself on the life force of clear-eyed optimism. I have accepted the universal law of resistance and have more grit than Sisyphus. But still. There are times when it’d be nice to see a silver lining in my otherwise gunmetal clouds. Just a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, for fuck’s sake!

As I pounded my laptop lodging the 17th rejection to my growing list, dawn broke through the window arrayed in radiant blue.

 

It seemed insane for me to remain indoors banging my head against the same wall while nature beckoned me with her splendor. So I suited up, wanting to ease my distress by surrendering to her soothing embrace.

Silence is so hard to come by anymore that upon entering the wild, I try my best not to fracture its hallowed stillness, especially not with my first-world laments. As it is, our frenzied, noisy existence has made it impossible for us to figure out what to do in quietude and has rendered us insensible to nature’s austere beauty. No wonder we’re always bored and desperate to find the meaning of life. Like discarded violins in the dusty attic of our past — strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bouts — we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize with nature so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. Not surprised we seem bent on destroying her.

My boots sank deep in snow as I trudged around the entrance gate leading to the trail. I advanced slowly, like a camel, still ruminating. Gusts swept through the tall trees making them groan, creak, and knock against each other producing hollow sounds, toppling large clumps of snow from their branches, and churning the white powder underfoot in diaphanous swirls that pricked my face.

The wind died down. Faint ticks and rustlings, the only sounds… sacred whispers… like a symphony about to begin.

I decided to silence the fretful voices in my head, shed my human integument, and commune with the wild in spirit.

That didn’t last too long…

 

“Salvation is a sham!

Disrupting my incipient serenity, the defiant voice of Greek writer Kazantzakis boomed in my head.

Man’s worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.

No salvation, no hope, no expectation of recompense… how liberating must it be to live that way!

“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free!” is the epitaph on Kazantzakis’ tombstone.

Hope, for the Greeks, is not a gift. It is a calamity, a negative striving, for to hope is to remain always in a state of want, to want what we do not have, and, consequently, to remain in some sense unsatisfied and unhappy. — ‘The Wisdom of the Myths’ by Luc Ferry

As I reached the river and turned right, I recalled these words from Rudyard Kipling: “You’ll be a man,” he said, “if you can dream, and not make dreams your master; if you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. If you can make one heap of all your winnings and risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, and lose, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss.”

Will I ever become such a man?

Joining the chorus of these audacious, carefree men, Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’ accompanied my ascent to the highest peak of the vast wilderness I was in:

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman — a rope over an abyss.”

“I love the great despisers,” spoke Zarathustra, “because they are the great adorers and the arrows of longing for the other shore. I love him whose soul is lavish, who wants no thanks… always bestowing and desiring not to keep for himself. I love him whose soul is deep even in the wounding. I love him who is of a free spirit and a free heart. I love him who chastens his God…”

My God is not All-holy,” echoed Kazantzakis. “He is full of cruelty and savage justice, and he chooses the best mercilessly. He is without compassion, nor does he care for virtues and ideas. He loves all these things for a moment, then smashes them eternally and passes on.”

My God is not Almighty. He struggles, for he is in peril every moment. He is full of wounds; his eyes are filled with fear and stubbornness. But he does not surrender, he ascends.”

My God is not All-knowing. His brain is a tangled skein of light and darkness which he strives to unravel in the labyrinth of the flesh.”

My God struggles on without certainty. Will he conquer? Will he be conquered? Nothing in the Universe is certain. It is our duty, on hearing his cry, to run under his flag, to fight by his side, to be lost or to be saved with him. He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved.”

“We set out from an almighty chaos, from a thick abyss of light and darkness tangled. And we struggle — in this momentary passage of individual life — to order the chaos within us, to cleanse the abyss, to work upon as much darkness as we can within our bodies and to transmute it into light. It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

“My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar. My prayer is a report of a soldier to a general: ‘This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I found, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.’”

I have given my book everything I’ve got. Where will I find the strength and spirit to fight another day?

 

I reached the summit and sat down under a tree to catch my breath.

Kazantzakis’ God — not almighty, not all-knowing, not all-just and benevolent — contrasted starkly with the one I was raised to trust and believe in. The compassionate one, who answers all our prayers.

But I have since realized that the meek shall not inherit the earth. Blessed are not the poor in spirit. That justice is not always meted out on the unjust. Sinners are not always punished. Life is not game of musical chairs where everyone gets a chair. And that regardless of my best efforts, my book might never see the light of day.

I must come to terms will all this.

“Only that life is worth living, Kazantzakis said, “which develops the strength and integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world.”

When fortune lays waste to our illusions, what can we cling to if not hope?

Sitting deep in snow and lost in thought, I felt a light tap on my head.

As if by a celestial tablecloth bluely shaken on high, a faint breeze stirred the snow-laden branches above me and let fall a glittering drizzle of miniature diamonds which kissed my face with icy pinpricks.

 

Which made me recall another defiant call, this from author John Cowper Powys: “Do thy worst, O world! Still, still, and in spite of all, will I enjoy thy beauty!”

God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your child bouncing on your knees, or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk. — Nikos Kazantzakis ‘Zorba de Greek’

I rose and began my long walk to the house in a state of agitated defiance uttering these phrases under breath:

Bring on the shitstorm, I will still enjoy the view!

I will not kneel in prayer to ask an almighty, benevolent God for good fortune. Hereon, I will make my own.

If my book flounders and dies without seeing the light of day, I will start another and then another and never breathe a word about my loss.

I will accept hardship as a man, sharpening my sword against every obstacle on my way, walking the tightrope on the edge of uncertainty viewing the abyss with a defiant stare.

If God insists on testing my resolve without cutting me some slack, I will prove my worth without hope for recompense or salvation. The ascent alone will be my reward.

Waiting for me as I walked into the house was the 18th rejection to my book. For fuck’s sake!

Fuming, I stepped out on the front porch, and with a lit cigarette insolently dangling from my lips, I flipped God the bird.

No lightning struck me.

Regaining composure, I realized my contempt was misplaced. Deserving my rebuke wasn’t God or fortune. It was myself! My ego. The slobbering beast and slavish pursuer of esteem and recompense. Surrender the beast, and you’re free!

With that, I rushed to the bathroom, stared at my insolent reflection in the mirror and flipped myself the bird.

The Call of the Wild

And the wish never to return.

It happens every time. Once in the wild, I don’t want to return to civilization.

Civilization brings out the worst in me. Frustration, anger, stress, prejudice, the need to wear a mask, to jostle and compete. My zany, playful edges rubbed dull by work and toil. My wildness tamed.

Dullness is but another name for tameness, said Henry David Thoreau.

Nature’s allure shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, she cradled and shaped us for 99% of our time on this planet. Nature was once our home and governess; her lessons simple: harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation, and balanced competition. No need for therapy, Prozac, Ritalin or Xanax.

Environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan say it’s the visual elements in natural environments — sunsets, streams, butterflies — which reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.

Regardless, once out, I just can’t bear the thought of heading back indoors.

In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it. But alone in distant woods, I come to myself. I once more feel myself grandly related. I suppose that this value is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. — Thoreau

City life makes me envious. Nature humbles me. City life numbs my senses. The wild awakens them.

Our sensitivities and vast compendium of knowledge gained as hunter-gatherers have been lost. We’ve retained all the fears of the savannah but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we can’t find our way now without a GPS. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or the silk of a leaf have become unfamiliar. Constant exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality has blunted our sense of smell and taste. We no longer know what to eat without consulting labels. Bleared by the glaring and flickering light of screens, our sight misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us 24–7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear — with increasing doses to keep us hooked — have made it impossible for us to know what exactly to do in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored, anxious, angry, or depressed. No wonder the meaning of life eludes us.

Chocon Machacas
Chocón Machacas River in Guatemala

My fascination with the wild began at an early age. Born and raised in one of the most magical spots on earth, I had ample opportunity to commune with nature.

One of my fondest childhood memories are of my solitary trips in a tiny wooden canoe through the lowland flood forest and mangrove thickets lining the narrow brown-water tributaries that fed into ‘El Golfete’ in northeast Guatemala. They ignited, I believe, my yearning for quietude and a life of vagabondage. It was a place where my senses were spellbound. Sighting turtles, spider-monkeys, toucans, macaws, parakeets; gliding on my canoe as if inside a green concert hall filled with their animated early morning chatter; dipping my hand into the tepid chocolate-colored water and feeling the growing heat of the sun rousing the dense smell of swamp, my whole body was pervious and receptive to the atavistic arousal of all those primeval and sublime sensations. Being just a boy, I wasn’t conscious of their profound effect, and that’s the crucial point. I was feeling, not thinking. It is our much-vaunted rationality that blocks our path to intimate connection.

As we grow up, we gradually lose our embodied awareness. We become brittle and live at right angles to the land. We alienate ourselves from our primal sensuousness and begin to divide the world into spirit and matter. We commodify our aliveness. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth (from Latin mater or mother) becomes but a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.

Our heedless violence against the planet might be explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensuality.

No European who has tasted savage life, can afterwards bear to live in our societies. — Benjamin Franklin

“In pre-and post-revolutionary America, Puritans loathed the natives’ simplicity, serenity, and sensuality,” suggests Barry Spector in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City,’ “for they were aspects of themselves they had banished. Because of the grief for what they had lost, or found too difficult to recover, they demonized these virtues and proceeded to remove them from view.”

When I came of age, I cut the umbilical cord tethering me to Mother Earth and sacrificed my natural sensitivities at the altar of ego, consumerism, and societal approbation. I had to lose everything twenty years later to find my way back to enchantment. Stripped of everything, I learned to succumb to nature’s wild embrace.

“The essence of the western male mind, says author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, “has been its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world.”

If there’s ever a chance to save the wild, we must surrender to its seductive power and relearn nature’s wisdom. We must recover our lost scent.

I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. — Thoreau

I answer the call of the wild and enter its hallowed space to remember where I came from and to where I must constantly return.

The Meaning of Life

Is simpler than I thought.

The riddle has vexed humans for ages.

It’s made some walk across scorching sands for weeks, goaded others to ruminate for days in caves, and made others squat under trees in lotus pose to cook up recipes for enlightenment and bliss.

Hunger Artists’ is how poet Stephen Dunn names these restless seekers.

Like chefs in a mystical season of ‘Chopped,’ they tried to turn baskets of the ingredients of life into plain but nutritious meals for humankind, all because the available food they tried tasted wrong and they knew that the world was sad.

These sages of antiquity gifted their answers to the world hoping to alleviate suffering and injustice only to see their simple dishes repeatedly ignored, perverted, rejected or disdained.

Thus, the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.

“He who has ears, let him hear.” — Matthew 13:9

Like those who have lost their taste buds, we cannot appreciate a plain meal. We need spicier fare to awaken our numbed sensibilities. What stirs us most is fear. The fear of death is what sends us rushing back to the kitchen.

Spooked by our mortality, we have kept writing elaborate myths, rigid doctrines and incomprehensible philosophies to try to make sense of the universal law of entropy: “from dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”

We conjure kingdoms in the sky where, for eternity, we will continue bedeviling the universe with questions of meaning accompanied by harp music or in sultry embrace with seventy-two virgins.

Imagination cannot grasp simple nothingness and must therefore fill the world with fantasies. — Alan Watts

Like troublesome, high-brow English professors, we appear incapable of savoring the poem of life in all its ‘nonsensical,’ majestic simplicity, so insist on pounding meaning out of it with the rubber hose of our arrogant incomprehension. In the vast cosmic scheme, human impermanence and insignificance drives us mad.

Meanwhile, the rest of life looks with mute dread at this aberration of nature, sensing its fate now irrevocably in the self-destructive hands of an unhinged primate with anger management issues.

Imprisoned in the torturous chambers of our minds, we continue burning the midnight oil writing scrolls and scrolls of answers to the meaning of life while the gifts of life pass us unaware. Shuttered inside our egocentric caves, we remain deaf and blind to the divine spectacle happening all around us every second of every day.

God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises. At one moment he is a glass of fresh water, the next, your child bouncing on your knees, or an enchanting woman, or perhaps merely a morning walk. — Nikos Kazantzakis ‘Zorba de Greek’

A simple recipe, like “love is the religion and the universe is the book” baked by the poet Rumi, sounds too straightforward. It cannot be that simple, can it? No! We must write more complicated rules, morals, and injunctions to govern our abnormal appetites. We need to create heavenly overlords after our own image who can keep us from harming ourselves and others. Certainly, we cannot govern ourselves without the looming threat of eternal damnation braised in fire and brimstone.

This madness is exclusive to our species: Homo Absurdus.

For all my walks in nature, I have yet to come across stone tablets, codices or surahs written by weasels or worms — not even by the wisest owls — to regulate their lives. They seem miraculously able to do so on their own. Perhaps this is why I have also not seen temples, mosques, churches, synagogues, sex shops, opium dens, torture chambers, prisons, rehab clinics, mindfulness retreats or therapy couches out in the wild.

You’re behaving like an animal! has always smacked me as praise rather than opprobrium.


ME imperturbe!” scoffed poet Walt Whitman. “Standing at ease in Nature, aplomb in the midst of irrational things. Finding my occupation, poverty, notoriety, foibles, and crimes less important than I thought.

“Me, wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies! To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as trees and animals do.”

Afoot and lighthearted, Whitman traveled the Open Road unencumbered by the doctrines without which humans seem unable to joyfully navigate their brief time on earth.

“Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,” Whitman declared. “They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not prove at all under the spacious clouds and along the landscape and flowing currents.

“The earth, that is sufficient!

I do not want the constellations any nearer,

I know they are very well where they are,

I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

Whitman lived his eternity in the here-and-now. He hoped for nothing, feared nothing, and was therefore free. “Healthy, free!” he exulted. “The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune. Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing!

The prophet who wandered for forty days in the scorching sands of the Judean Desert returned with an equally simple message: Wake up! Yours is the kingdom as soon as you recover the delight of childhood and live with presence.

An uncarved block of wood was Daoism’s response to our insistence of making our lives unnecessarily complex.

To the question of the meaning of life, the Buddha responded by holding up a white flower.

The briefest sermon never ends.

A wake-up call, a chunk of wood, and a stinking flower… is that it? Surely there’s more to the meaning of life than that! We need more rigid dogmas and heady philosophies, more ritual, more prayer, longer liturgies and a horde of cowled middlemen or supercilious interpreters to make sense of it all. We need miracle, mystery, and authority as said Dostoevsky in ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’

Having arrested and imprisoned Jesus after he returned to walk among his fellow men once more, the Grand Inquisitor reprimanded the Christ:

Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely. [That] in place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter, with free heart, decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. [Didn’t you] know that he would reject Thy image and Thy truth if he [were] weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? Thou didst ask far too much from him. [Man] is weak and vile.

The “free choice” mocked by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor is the divine instinct German writer Georg Groddeck called “Gott Natur” or God nature — our kinship with the rest of life and our capacity to tell right from wrong and good vs evil without needing to hit the stacks or run to a confessional to confirm our intuition.

If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. — Gospel of Thomas

In ‘The Gospel of Jesus,’ Stephen Mitchell says “the portrait of Jesus that emerges from the Gospels is of a man who has emptied himself of desires, doctrines, rules — all the mental claptrap and spiritual baggage that separate us from true life. When Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God, he was not prophesying about some easy, danger-free perfection that will someday appear. He was talking about a state of being… a way of living at ease among the joys and sorrows of our world.”

Other hunger artists were pretty much saying the same thing.

Kazantzakis said life is only worth living if we develop the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying to an imaginary world.

Philosopher Alan Watts suggested the world is an ever-elusive and ever-disappointing mirage only from the standpoint of someone standing aside from it, and then trying to grasp it.

For Greek poet Homer, life was a succession of contingencies. He believed our lives are ruled by fate and chance. Shit happens and life’s not that hard or complicated. Socrates, however, could not accept this, so he invented morality, says John Gray in ‘Straw Dogs.’

Instead of wasting precious time searching for “eternal truths” or formulating redundant morals, Gray points to the simple lives of other animals as the source of ethics. “The beginnings of justice, prudence, moderation, bravery — in short, of all we designate as the Socratic virtues — are animal.”

 

As I write this, the first snowstorm is blanketing the meadow beyond my window. Unperturbed by questions of meaning and purpose, a pair of thick-furred deer nibble hungrily at the last tufts of grass. The forest is serene and placid except for a prudent squirrel hurrying to store the few remaining acorns. The black bear must already be snugly burrowed, dreaming of sunshine, golden honey, and the exultant spectacle of spring wildflowers.

It brings to mind the comfort author E.B. White said he found “with the pleasing thought that to live in New England in winter is a full-time job; you don’t have to do anything. The idle pursuit of making a living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself; a task of such immediacy and beauty that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.”

And it makes me wonder…

Do we, by nature, already carry the blueprint for bliss?

Might the meaning of life be truly found once we recover our divine instinct and live with childlike presence?

Is the purpose of life, simply, to be?


Read my Winter Solstice meditation in celebration of the birth of Jesus.

Happy Birthday J!

A Winter Solstice Meditation

I write this on the Winter Solstice as the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light. On this day, I perform a simple ritual: I sit in quietude, light a candle, and read the words of Jesus.

Does that make me a Christian or Catholic?

No more than reading Buddha’s teachings makes me a Buddhist.

Does it matter?

It seems to me that walking away from a banquet just because we don’t like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes us lose out on a wonderful meal — we throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry.

That baby is Jesus’ message, now drowned in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, or co-opted and distorted on the other by religious dogma into petrified historicity and rarefied into canonical balderdash making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as a communion wafer. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded and that the world remains hungry, sad, bewildered, and afraid.

My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner far away from both the commercial din and religious sorcery. Once there, I eat with my hands, sink my teeth into Jesus’ flesh, and suck the marrow of his wisdom. I require no intermediaries to partake in the banquet, no miracles or High-Priest authority and no translation necessary. Like a plain loaf of bread, his words are simple, yet all-nourishing.

A ritual is the enactment of a myth, a symbolic image or narrative of the possibilities of human experience. By participating in the myth, I am put in accord with that wisdom.

The Winter Solstice marks the day when the sun ends its southernmost decline. Tomorrow, it will turn back north and begin its ascending cycle making light prevail over darkness once again. That is why, on December 25, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.

It never ceases to baffle me how, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is stirred once again, further drowning his message under inane calendrical calculations or through attempts to debunk the Nativity narrative by pointing at the presence of sheep at the manger claiming they would have been corralled and not left out on such a cold night in Bethlehem.

Again, does it matter?

By focusing on the factual, the symbolic meaning is lost, and we deny ourselves its gifts.

I like to think of December 25 as the birth of what is possible in human experience; of the greater light we can kindle in ourselves to shine upon the world. Among Jesus’ teachings, I am always drawn more strongly by this one:

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is great news! That the highest peaks of human transformation are within our reach and not in some remote place at some distant point in the future once we’ve perfected our harp-playing skills.

When some Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would come, he answered: “God’s kingdom isn’t something you can see. There is no use saying, ‘Look! Here it is,’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ God’s kingdom is here, with you.”

In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, Jesus elaborates: “If those who lead you say — ‘See, the kingdom is in heaven,’ then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will go before you. The kingdom is within you.”

It’s the same idea contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ of the sacred Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE) — ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its primordial state, is identifiable with the Ultimate Reality and ground of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said, “we’re all stardust feeding off starlight.”

The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said that an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere far off in the heavens, not to be reached by us unaided. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far-fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness.

After Jesus delivers his simple truth, he offers the key to this inner realm:

“Change and become like little children.”

I take his words as an invitation to return to my primordial state. Back to the way I was before the blank slate of my innocence was scarred with the ‘thou shalls’ and ‘thou shalt nots of the world.

Back to the time I could take a boy by the hand and not find it unseemly. When neither race nor station dictated who I could play with. When I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive. Full of passion and compassion. When I could cry without shame. When days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present. When everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awe and delight. When I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy. The time when I didn’t pretend to have all the answers and was thus humble and insatiably curious. When I was trustful, accepting, authentic, vulnerable, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder. That sublime stage in life when we still believe in invisible friends and dare build castles in the sky with magic bricks made of phrases like, ‘I wonder…, What if…, and If only…’

The lens through which most of us apprehend the world is what blocks our way back into that holy realm by being blurred by the blight and shadow of an endless Winter’s Solstice — the blight of cynicism, apathy, egoism, pretense, prejudice, intolerance, fears, false pride, vanities and our unbridled greed.

The Unconquered Sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.

“If an honest-minded man is really concerned about evil and injustice in the world,” proposed writer Fernando Pessoa, “he will naturally begin his campaign by eliminating them at their nearest source: himself.”

That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual — to illume my way back to the source. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas and invite you to sit at the banquet and feast.


I also invite you to join my mailing list.

No Bucket for My List

Fate smashed it two decades ago.

Bucket on Beach.jpg
Photo by Gregory Culmer on Unsplash

I used to have a big bucket. So big in fact, I never bothered making lists. I just did anything I wanted.

I scuba-dived, trekked across rainforests and jungles, climbed Mayan temples, honeymooned in paradise, sailed yachts, piloted airplanes, wore gold watches, built financial empires, cavorted with prostitutes, powdered my nose with blow, briefly retired at age 36… that kind of big.

Fate smashed my bucket two decades ago.

I now have neither bucket nor pot to piss in, but I’m happier than ever… how’s that possible?

Because my bucket, you see, was riddled with holes, that no list — no matter how long or exotic— could plug. It took me years to figure out I was scratching the wrong itch. My thirst for adventure was masking a yearning to reconnect with my wild side. The bling and blow were desperate cries for attention and acceptance. Wealth, for respect and validation. Prostitutes, for intimacy.

They were, and are, the misty hidden yearnings manipulated by the sly persuaders of unruly capitalism to keep us in a perpetual state of unsatisfied desire… always scratching the wrong itch, always pouring more stuff into our buckets.

Where affluence is the rule, the chief threat is the loss of desire. With wants so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of ever more exotic vices. What is new is not that prosperity depends on stimulating demand. It is that it cannot continue without inventing new vices. The health of the economy has thus come to depend on the manufacture of transgression. New vices are prophylactics against the loss of desire. — Alan Watts

The loss mourned by Watts is Eros, which, at root, means the passionate and intense desire considered by ancient Greek philosophers as the prime mover, the motivating principle in all things human and non-human. There is no suggestion that this desire is specifically sexual. Eros is an impulse or energy that links us to the whole web of life. Thus, in the original vision that gave birth to the word, erotic potency was not confined to sexual power but included the moving force that propels life from a state of mere potentiality to actuality.

Wasting my potential climbing ladders leaning against wrong walls, running the rat-race wearing ill-fitting masks, concealing my mute despair with glitz and glamor, and seeking safe harbor in the arms of lust, my life-well ran dry of erotic energy. I burned out without ever having been on fire.

Man builds on the ruins of his former selves. When we are reduced to nothingness, we come alive again. — Henry Miller

Adrift for twenty years in the wasteland strewn with the ruins of my life, I finally got it. Unless I made peace with who I was, I would never be content no matter what I had. I needed to shift from a state of having, to a state of being.

My bucket had been filled to the brim with useless stuff, and I’m now certain that it wasn’t fate that smashed it but I the one who gave it the heave in unconscious revolt against the paradoxical emptiness of my life to finally wake up from a forty-year lie.

Once stripped of all the falsehood, I also thought that what would remain would be my authentic core — dreamer, poet, lover… a metaphysical gypsy encircled by a placid sea of inner truth. But even those remnants are not static and solid ground onto which to stake the flag of personhood, as cautioned Maria Popova. “They are but fluid currents in an ever-shifting, shoreless self.”

We change, and must. Only a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living. What we desire today will change over time… just like a river, as said poet David Whyte, with a particular abiding character, but showing radically different aspects of our self according to the territory through which we travel.

For many years after the crash, I dreamt of pulling my stakes and moving to Greece. The idea had long beguiled me. Ever since reading British author Lawrence Durrell describe its landscape as pure nude chastity, and its light like coming off the heart of some Buddhist blue stone or flower. Or perhaps it was when I came across his alluring account of the women of the Mediterranean whom he said burn inwardly like altar candles and are the landscape wishes of the earth whose overpowering sensuality drive great poets to slash their veins.

Had I the money at the time, I probably would have checked the item off my bucket list and be now married to a Greek peasant girl wondering why the hell she wasn’t burning inwardly like an altar candle and, instead, nagging me for not having milked the goats. Luckily, I didn’t. Instead, I had to examine the fantasy to find the true nature of the itch. I discovered I was simply yearning to recover my erotic power.

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had to offer was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a white man disillusioned. — Jack Kerouac

I’ve since understood that Eros is not to be found on Greek isles nor in the arms of young girls. Neither can the ecstasy Kerouac pined for be found by assuming a different persona. The real voyage of discovery, said Marcel Proust, consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. It is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, echoed Henry Miller. “If there are flaws in your paradise, open more windows!”

Which brings to mind the summer day I took my young daughters to the beach.

I had no money to pay for camps or trips abroad and had just traded my new, luxury SUV for a drab-brown Altima sedan to lower the monthly payments. To lend magic to an otherwise boring Wednesday, I had to open the windows of our imaginations.

“Let’s pretend,” I said, as we walked out of the house, “let’s imagine we lived in a small, whitewashed stone house perched on a craggy hill in the island of Corfu… chalk-white, with electric blue window shutters and the Ionian sea only minutes away. “Pretend we’d usually trundle down the rutted road in a red wagon pulled by goats, but today — in our only compromise with the trappings of the affluent life we’ve left behind — we will have to take the Altima.”

With nothing more than our bathing suits under our clothes, a pair of borrowed boogie boards, and a yellow, cracked surfboard I had fished-out of a dumpster just days before, we headed out.

We didn’t need to see flocks of sheep grazing under olive groves or drive past the nude chastity of rocky hills dotted with asphodel flowers as we made our way down the winding asphalt of Highway 1. Didn’t matter. Instead, we feasted our eyes on towering emerald thickets of Eucalyptus to our left, and wind-and-fog swept hills to our right. To heighten my girls’ thirst for the ocean’s chill embrace (which I suspected would be no warmer than 65 degrees) and to recreate the imagined summer temperature in Corfu, I closed the windows and turned on the heat. Within seconds, sweat drops bloomed on our skin, making the shimmering steel blue surface of the Pacific Ocean, by then in view, even more alluring.

As soon as parked, doors flew open. The glistening sweat on our foreheads and forearms was blown dry by the chill air as we made our heat-maddened dash to the waves. And then the plunge! All care and fret washed off our backs by the welcoming ablution of the Pacific!

Like trays of delicate pastries, the swells carried our boards aloft, out and back to shore, as we raced one another. My yellow cast-off board with its cracked paint and chipped nose always the winner.

Let’s go!” I yelled, as we completed the final wake run and hurried up the soft sand chased by spindrift, all ashiver and dripping wet. “Pretend our caique has drifted away. We’re stranded and must overnight here. Help me find driftwood to start a fire. It’ll get very cold soon. Let’s move!” I commanded, ignoring the Pringles and Power Bars nestled inside my backpack.“Go look for crabs, mussels, and octopi in the tide pools. Quick! We’re having grilled seafood for dinner!”

A half hour later, crestfallen and empty-handed but for a few pieces of driftwood and a fistfull of seashells, my daughters came back. By luck, a group of jolly Latinos had invited me to sit by their bonfire and partake of their food and steaming pot of Mexican hot chocolate.

Sitting in circle by the roaring flames, the wind gathered strength and blew my eldest’s sun-and-honey laced hair in a straight horizontal. My youngest shielded herself from the smoke that seemed bewitched by her Byzantine eyes. Very few words were exchanged or necessary as we fixed our gaze on the darkening horizon and basked in the comforting embrace of fellowship linked to the whole web of life. Pelicans took advantage of the last flush of golden light for one final dive-bomb into the ocean. A sea lion arched its silvery back and vanished. Tiny crabs scurried into their holes. The first star glittered in the western sky.

As we drove back home — hair and skin satin soft and salty — I recalled these words from the poet Rumi: “And you, if you have no feet to leave your country, go into yourself, become a ruby mine, open to the gifts of the sun.”

That magical summer day, we traveled to Greece without having to postpone our wish for that hoped-for day that often never arrives. No feet, no bucket, no list… simply open to the gifts of the present.

That day, I learned to squeeze delight from the fruits of the here-and-now and vowed to never again use the phrase ‘just as soon as’ I experienced the truth of Miller’s assertion that it is through the eyes of the soul that paradise is visioned, and realized that the key is in understanding what makes us tick which is discovered by removing ourselves from the distractions and needling noise of the modern world to listen to the true longings of our hearts.

Now, far removed, I know that no Caribbean cruise, no matter how luxurious, can make anyone escape a meaningless job or humdrum existence.

That no gold watch can make up for the lost time we should invest on what truly matters.

That lust is no road to intimacy nor rugged adventure the way back to our wildness.

That neither wealth nor power can ever recharge our erotic potency.

That true joy is found in being, not in having.

Which is why I’m not surprised to learn that the country with the most buckets is one of the world’s unhappiest.

We don’t need buckets or lists. All we need is to open more windows.


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Why we keep making the same mistakes

Over and over again.

Chimp covering ears

When kidnapping was my country’s favorite sport, I pleaded my wife to change her routine, use different routes while driving, to be vigilant and check-in with me every few hours over the phone.

She scoffed, “I don’t need to. I have my saving angels.

It made me pity all the unfortunate chaps who had arrived late to God’s ‘Saving Angel Allocation Party,’ and it wasn’t until the threat of abduction came knocking at our door that I had the ‘foresight’ to flee.

Despite multiple warnings, humans seem unable to act until it’s almost, or already too late.

Ancient Athenians condemned Socrates to death after he warned them about the dangers of hubris. Soon after, their empire collapsed.

When Jesus said it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God; that we should love our enemies as we do ourselves and turn the other cheek when slapped, people found him a killjoy and nailed him to the cross.

Clair Patterson was excoriated by the press and ostracized by the scientific establishment for warning Americans that lead in gasoline was making them crazy. It was only thanks to his stubbornness that his compatriots kept their sanity.

Galileo was imprisoned and forced to recant his ‘shocking’ discovery that man wasn’t at the center of the universe after all. The persecution of ‘heretics’ by the Inquisition did not end until almost two centuries after Galileo’s death.

Today, every scientist — worthy of the name — is warning us about the looming climactic threat to our species and the rest of life on the planet. And how do we respond? With business as usual. With our jolly Black Friday and Cyber Monday orgies of consumption. With quarter-measures and endless world summits spewing bromides and ineffectual agreements.

When a 16 year-old autistic activist dares confront the fecklessness of world leaders and warns us of the dire consequences of inaction, she is mercilessly attacked on social media and mocked by the most powerful man on earth as a “very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.”

Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again. — André Gide

We keep making the same mistakes because we don’t listen or — worse — refuse to listen. We don’t care. We only care when the shit hits our fan. Water will have to reach our nostrils, wildfires singe our hairs, or a horde of climate refugees come knocking at our door before we act. Why? Because change is inconvenient. Because we deem ourselves too special to have something bad happen to us. Because in the back of our deluded minds we hope someone will eventually come to our rescue and save us from our addictions.

Never in history have we faced a more nefarious enemy, ourselves!

In discarding the monkey and substituting man, our Father in Heaven did the monkey an undeserved injustice. – Mark Twain

Don’t let my righteous thundering fool you in believing I’ve been spared by the contagion. I am as guilty as anyone. Despite my carbon footprint being almost as shallow as the water table in Cape Town, I know there is much more I could be doing, but don’t. For proof of my lack of foresight consider the fact that as I write this, I am about to step outside in sub-zero temperature to smoke another cigarette barely a week after my father died from bladder cancer and emphysema caused by his addiction to nicotine. Kurt Vonnegut described his own cancer sticks as “a fire at one end and a fool at the other.”

Foresight is obviously not our strong suit. Never has, never will. We are nature’s biggest blunder.

Let’s just hope the rapacious madness of such an unhinged primate doesn’t drag the whole world down with it.


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Please, Save us from our Addictions!

Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.

addicted
Cartoon by Nate Beeler

WHAT A PIECE OF WORK IS MAN! — Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

Incapable of tempering his auto-destructive impulses despite the growing fury of tempests, fires and floods wrought by his own hand, he acts like a dimwitted teenager who throws a secret party at his house yet hopes his parents walk in, turn on the lights, and put an end to the mayhem.

Please, please make me stop!

What a piece of work, indeed.

Either demanding his government step-in to regulate the sources of his addictions, or cravenly cheering for a 16 year-old autistic activist hoping she’s the one! who will save the world from the scourge of his untrammeled appetites.

When told his lifestyle must radically change, he proudly points at his Tesla, his recycling and LED lights as solid proof of his green, goody two-shoes, much like a deluded and bleary-eyed alcoholic announcing he’s down to only one drink per day.

What part of “radical” don’t you get?

It’s too disruptive, he nervously says. We must slowly wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Take it easy. Step-by-step.

Confronted with the consensus of the world’s scientific community that we’re running out of time, he shrugs his shoulders, scoffs, and takes another drink while tracking his Cyber Monday orders on Amazon.

Why are we so incapable of imagining how much better our lives would be if we went cold-turkey?

True, the onset of delirium tremens would be a bitch, but the withdrawal pains would not last forever. Earth would continue spinning as it has for over 4 Billion years.

The great source of the misery and disorders of human life, said Adam Smith, — “The Father of Capitalism” — arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice, for example, overrates the difference between poverty and riches. Ambition, that between a private and a public station. Vainglory, between obscurity and fame.

“The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions,” Smith warned, “is not only miserable in his actual situation, but often disposed to disturb the peace of society in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. This slightest observation, however, might satisfy him: That in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others, but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardor which drives us to violate the rules either of temperance or of justice, or to corrupt the future tranquility of our minds.”

I am speaking as one who has skirted near the extremes of affluence and poverty and now live in the in-between. I have dined at the world’s most expensive restaurants and dumpster-dived for scallops and Jimmy Dean sausage. I assure you I don’t miss the extremes. In fact, I’ve pulled the veil and uncovered the wily subterfuge by which the great persuaders of unruly capitalism seek to control us through the levers of mass manipulation which I think would make Mr. Smith very proud.

The enemy, however, is not capitalism. It’s us!

“The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst. If we long for anything more, we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. The man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is. It is the mind that creates our wealth.” — Seneca

The virtue of temperance, to which Seneca and Smith refer, is one of the 10 essential life forces featured in my book for boys. It is the ‘Golden Mean’ first posited by Greek philosopher Aristotle and one of the principal maxims inscribed on the pediment of the Temple to Apollo at Delphi — “Nothing in Excess.”

The writing has been on the wall for centuries, and repeated ad-nauseum by the greatest sages of humankind:

Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Socrates: “The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

Chuang-Tzu: “Desires unsettle the heart.”

Henry David Thoreau: “I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.”

Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.

Fuck that shit! Right? As long as there’s a chill-pill that can ease our unsettled hearts and enough stuff online to fill the gaping holes in our empty, meaningless lives, who cares?

Perhaps, our children?

“Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?”- Groucho Marx

As is stands, they are trapped inside our modern-day bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while gazing with terror in their innocent eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future knowing they can’t get out.

“Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder,” said historian Arnold Toynbee.

I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.

Today is obviously one of those days.

When the smashup comes — which is starting to seem inevitable — I’ll be here, fingers at the ready, to chronicle man’s denouement in a final missive from the printing house of hell.


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