Those Words of Wisdom


That’s Mr. Fraser in the middle

The future does not seem as inviting as it once was. It’s not that I see the glass is half empty so much as I fear it is being inexorably pushed to the edge of the counter, not by a playful cat, but rather by a spiteful man with a heart that cannot humanize his experience of being human.

Fifty years ago, I read William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech. What we should write about, he said is the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. That alone is what is worth writing about, he says, worth the agony and the sweat.

I return to that speech at least once a year. The memory of it comes to me rather randomly. In a strange way, in much the same way that grief decides to pay a visit. But, unlike grief, Faulkner’s speech is welcome.

I read it in my senior year of high school, in my English Honors class, taught by the lovely-hearted Mr. Fraser. I had also been in his freshman English class where he read us passages from the Shakespeare plays we studied—read them with the voice of an actor who understood that Shakespeare wrote about the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.

I was in his freshman English class the day JFK was killed. Mr. Snodgrass had rushed into our classroom to retrieve a radio just before the bell rang. As we pulled out our books, the news that President Kennedy had been shot floated across the hallway.

For the next twenty minutes, Mr. Fraser held that class of 14-year olds in his steady heart as we waited, not knowing what we were waiting for. First we heard he had been shot. Then we learned he had been shot in the head. Twenty minutes into the class, the news that he had died floated across the hallway.

The president has died, the announcement came over the school’s public address system. School is dismissed.

A few of the 14-year old boys sprang to their feet and cheered that school had been dismissed. I suspect their reaction didn’t come from malice, but rather a 14-year old boy’s confusion about how to react to his emotions.

Mr. Fraser, who had been so calm and comforting, pulled off his glasses and glared at them. He was barely 5’4’’ tall, but he loomed over the classroom at that moment. “A man has died.” He said it with his Shakespeare voice. “Respect that.”

Mr. Fraser was the adult in the room that day, though he was probably no more than twenty-four. What he spoke were words of wisdom.

I cherish my education at Granada High School in Livermore, California. It comprised literature, history, science, and civics. It gave me no absolutes. It gave me a foundation to think, and taught me how to learn. It gave me a way to be in the world, to navigate what was to come.

That is why I fear the glass is about to be pushed off the edge.

dad with still

My dad in his khakis — he wore them everyday when he went to work in Saudi Arabia. Here he is with his still—homemade hooch because alcohol was illegal in Arabia.

I come from a working class background. My dad was an electrician, a proud member of the IBEW. Whenever I hear that the working class white man is angry and feels forgotten I understand what that means. My father did get left behind. And it was Ronald Reagan who left him behind by weakening his union, breaking its ability to negotiate the value of his labor. He spent the last five years of his life without getting a cost-of-living raise. That ate into his pension and left him feeling that his labor was not valued and so he was not valued.

What I don’t understand is how that justifies the trope, “the heartland doesn’t care about whether Russia interfered with our election — all they care about is not being left behind economically.”

If that indeed is true, that those in the heartland feel that way, I say shame on them. My father never would have bought the bullshit that is being spewed by our current president. He never would have believed that this man-boy born into financial privilege was anything like the men who toiled as my father did, counting on their paycheck to care for their families. He understood that we are a self-governing nation. And he was proud of that and understood that meant vigilance.

The easiest way to gain control over a nation is to divide it. To convince those who have been left behind that that “other” over there is the one who took from them their God-given right to whatever was taken. God chose them, not the other.

What I learned in high school has never been more clear to me than it is now because I have never felt that what I cherish about my country is in danger of being overtaken by men and women whose conflicted hearts have been turned to stone—who have spurned the better angels of their nature.

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”~Abraham Lincoln

Whether that glass is half full or half empty, once it is pushed off the edge, there is no more glass, nor what was in it.

I don’t know how to protect that glass or how to catch it if it is pushed over the edge. I have never felt so hopeless and helpless as I do now.

And then I re-read this by Joseph Campbell in “Thou Art That”:

We can no longer speak of “outsiders.” It was once possible for the ancients to say, “We are the chosen of God!” and to save all love and respect for themselves, projecting their malice “out there.” That today is suicide. We have now to learn somehow to quench our hate and disdain through the operation of an actual love, not a mere verbalization, but an actual experience of compassionate love, and with that fructify, simultaneously, both our neighbor’s life and our own.

So there they are—the words of wisdom I was seeking. And these:

I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which (sic) have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail. ~William Faulkner from his Nobel Prize speech

Write about the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself. Recognize the darkness that lurks in the heart, but glorify the better angels of our nature. To write is to hope. And so I will.

Post Script: Tom and I saw Mr. Fraser, by then we called him Bert, in 1995 while visiting New York City. Sadly, that was the last time we saw him. He passed away shortly thereafter, leaving the world a little poorer.

2012: A Sink Odyssey

If you have come to see that the Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth while others do not, the End of the World has come for you. For the world as it was for you has indeed ended.”

From Thou Art That by Joseph Campbell

We had a sink problem recently. I had some work done in our garage that was supposed to fix one problem, but led to the sink problem.

Our old utility sink, into which our washing machine drained its cycles, had to be disconnected to complete the work that was supposed to fix the original problem. When it came time to reconnect it, the fittings were so old, they crumbled and needed to be replaced. The original thingies (technical term) to which you connect the sink are over sixty years old. Let’s just say that the interface with new materials was not compatible. Kind of like trying to hook up a manual typewriter to a wireless printer.

Well, not quite as bad as that, but close.

Our options were to find a way to connect the sink, or sink (so to speak) more money into drilling and cutting our way into the pipes to let the washing machine cycle drain.

Tom was eventually able to reconnect the sink. He is one of those men who combines a highly developed artistic sensibility (he’s an amazing composer) with a roll-up-his-sleeves ability to master common, and not so common, home repairs.

I am, in some ways, responsible for the odyssey. The person I hired to fix the original problem had found me wandering bewildered through Orchard Supply Hardware (OSH) looking for a thingie (again, technical term) that would make the thing you use to turn the water on and off for the hose outside fit the thing it was supposed to screw into.

He presented himself as a fixer of problems, down on his luck, who would fix things cheaply. He seemed nice enough and knowledgeable enough that I convinced myself he could do the job in our garage, which involved laying cement.

To make a long story sort of short, he scheduled then rescheduled the work because of doctors’ appointments, upped his estimate the day he showed up to start the job, kind of did the job, it kind of led to the other problem, and he was indeed down on his luck—so far that a dark cloud hung over him.

He told me that the fittings didn’t match, instructed me on what I needed to get from OSH (the place in which he found me floundering, let’s not forget) so he could reconnect the sink, then went to his car to go to another job.

He couldn’t get his car into gear. It was frozen in park.

He was clearly freaked out. He needed the car for work so he could pay for his medical bills which had mounted up since he lost his job and so his medical insurance.

I called AAA, used my card to get his car started, watched him drive off, and decided that perhaps keeping him away from our garage might be a wise decision.

Let me be clear. Tom did not blame me for any of the fallout from my attempt to “fix” the problem.

And, while I don’t exactly feel I am at fault for the cascading events of fix-it folly I do see something that has lurked in my psyche—a bit of a demon really—that leads me down a questionable road.

I sort of felt sorry for our fix-it guy. I told myself that, well, these times call for us to cover each other’s backs. He needed work. I needed it done economically. He gave me an estimate. I believed him.

A warning bell went off when he had to reschedule, and then rang again when he raised his estimate just as he started the job. But the demon whispered to me that this was as good as it was going to get. And I listened to the demon. My bad.

Now, here is where I see progress in my life—stay with me, I think this will make sense.

For much of my early life, my relationships were based on decisions much like the one I made about Mr. Fix-it. I made excuses for behavior impelled by mortal emotional wounds, believed we had mutually invested in working towards a healthy, loving relationship, then thought this was as good as I could get when it became clear that our ideas of investment were not—shall we say—equitable. I was the one who tended to have the AAA card in case of emergency, for example.

This was my MO for romantic as well as friendship relationships.

I woke up when I was 40 and thought, “Hmmmm. I seem to be doing something wrong here.”

That’s when Tom came into my life, and I discovered what it was like to be with someone who cherished me. We’ve definitely had our rough spots—we are, after all strong personalities. But underneath it all, we cherish each other. And because I am cherished, I have learned to extend that requirement to other relationships.

I am learning that I don’t have to give my heart away to have the open heart I need to live my life fully.

I think that demon got towed away by AAA to the land of junker demons.

Which brings me back to Joseph Campbell’s quote. This might be too much of a leap, but what the hell.

That demon had the influence he did because I wanted someone or something else (God) to rescue me from my own life. The voice of that demon was a compilation of “truths” that were bequeathed to me by well-meaning family members, and reinforced by a social zeitgeist that enforced the rule that one must mold oneself into an image of God that existed out there—somewhere—and existed without any connotation of what it meant to be human.

Trying to find the divine out there is a fruitless search. It happens here, inside us and in the beauty of the world around us.

2012. That’s the year the world is supposed to end according to the Aztec calendar. Or so people believe that’s what the Aztec calendar predicts.

I think, perhaps for me, the world as I knew it has come to an end. It was a world of shame for being human—for not knowing.

This new world is about stumbling through life to discover what life is to me.

The end of the world ain’t so bad.

Our sink odyssey led us to purchase a new sink. I love our new sink. It brightens up the garage.

People ask, ‘When will the Kingdom come?’ The Kingdom will not come by expectation. The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men don’t see it.”

Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas

Deliver us from Fear, Lead us out of the Wasteland

We can no longer speak of “outsiders.” It once was possible for the ancients to say, “We are the chosen of God!” and to save all love and respect for themselves, projecting their malice, “out there.” That today is suicide. We have now to learn somehow to quench our hate and disdain through the operation of an actual love, not a mere verbalization, but an actual experience of compassionate love, and with that fructify, simultaneously, both our neighbor’s life and our own.

Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That page 30.

I “liked” a Facebook page called Pledge of Renewal. It showed up on the right column of my page with the suggestion I might want to join it because it was a group who pledged a renewed support and dedication to the Constitution.

I took the bait and clicked over to the page. I found that this group’s interpretation of the Constitution, and what America represents, was quite different than mine. It (PoR for short) insisted that America is a Christian nation that has lost its way through political correctness.

I “liked” the page so I could participate in the comments and discussion. I had to leave after a couple of weeks. Willful ignorance fueled their hatred. Obama was an illegitimate president because he was born in Kenya. His Hawaii birth certificate was a fake, but the Kenyan birth certificate was valid. He is a Muslim who is out to destroy America. Glenn Beck’s Restoring America rally showed that white people could own Martin Luther King (perhaps they didn’t realize the irony in that statement). The rally was peaceful (uh . . . maybe because it was homogenous?) and those geese flying in formation down the reflecting pool were sent by God to prove that America is a nation of white people blessed by God – no not that god, “our” god.

Good white Christian people had been oppressed long enough. It was time to claim their right to be right, and the “other” wrong. That was what our Founders meant by freedom of religion — the freedom to put the full force of the law behind their Christian beliefs. They might tolerate same sex relationships (hate the sin, love the sinner), but God reserved marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman (serially, perhaps, but  . . .). Once a man fertilizes a woman’s egg (whether by rape or consensual sex), she becomes an incubator with no rights over her body.  Islam is un-American and evil.

Oh, and, of course that mosque (that isn’t a mosque) should not be built at ground zero (even though it wouldn’t be) because ground zero is sacred ground and Muslims build mosques on conquered ground.

Most of the time I was measured in my comments and responses, suggesting that no laws respecting the establishment of religion meant just that; that the founders had learned through years of bloody battles that religion is a private matter, between the individual and their god (or lack of god). That religion that is forced by law of the land has little to do with faith.

Or, as Joseph Campbell says, when force, not love, is required to give the myths and metaphors of religion meaning, you have wandered into the Waste Land.

The good that came out of my wandering into the Waste Land was that I started reading Joseph Campbell and Karen Armstrong again. They chased the Blue Meanies away.

If asked, I say that I am spiritual, but not religious. My father was a Catholic who had been married before; my mother a Baptist who drank, smoked, and danced. I checked out both religions. The Baptists dissed the Catholics; the Catholics insisted that they were the true and only church. According to the Catholic Church, my parent’s marriage was not sanctified by God (sort of like a marriage between two people of the same sex) and thus invalid. If Catholicism determined the law of the land, my mother would not have been recognized as my father’s legal widow and I would be considered illegitimate.

My parents took no sides in the religious wars going on around me. They let me choose my spiritual road for myself.

I am grateful for that. And, it makes me laugh at the notion that calling America a Christian nation means something. Which sect of Christianity are we talking about: the one that says the Pope is infallible, or the one that says women can be ordained as ministers? The one that says dancing is a sin, or the one that sponsors dinner dances as fund raisers? The one that says homosexuality is a sin, or the one that has a lesbian as its minister? Or the one that says ordaining women as priest is more heretical than protecting priests who molest children?

In the Power of Myth series Bill Moyers asks Joseph Campbell if humans create myths based on their environment. He said yes. He gave the example of what it was like when a Pygmy, who lived in a rain forest, was taken to a mountaintop. The vastness of the landscape overwhelmed him. He wanted to retreat into the rain forest where he felt safe.

I think we are all Pygmies standing on the mountaintop right now. The site of the earth viewed from the moon, has altered forever our notion of boundaries and horizons. The earth is home to all living creatures. We are interdependent. Our mastery of weapons makes none of us safe. It puts us all at risk.

I think we have a choice. We can look out over the vastness of our world with awe, and be willing to embrace it. Have compassion for being human. Feel fear, but not let fear determine our actions. Retreat to the safety of our rain forest, but keep the memory of the vastness that lies beyond it alive in our hearts.

The alternative is to let fear lead us into the Waste Land.

Perhaps this September 11 is a good day for America to go to the mountaintop. Maybe that will quench the flames arising from the Quarans the church in Florida threatens to set on fire. Let us not become the men, crazed with fear of change and hatred of the other, who flew planes into the towers, taking lives and inflicting unmerciful pain on the loved ones left behind.

Let us experience compassionate love, so we can experience our own lives and apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Thar’ be Dragons

I wrote to a friend recently about the difficulty of moving back to my hometown after a 34-years absence. I was afraid, I said, that there would be dragons lurking there. And there were.

One could say that I entered the dragon’s cage.

So this morning I googled “Joseph Campbell dragons” and found a transcript from the “Power of Myth” and an excerpt from “The Heroic Journey.”

I learned that slaying the dragon is a part of the journey Campbell refers to as “the soul’s high adventure,” the journey each of us has to make if we are, I concluded, to live and not just survive.

We are called to make the journey perhaps when we have “ . . . a realization that the story we are living no longer matches the story that we are;. . .,” Campbell says. “Psychologically,the dragon is one’s own binding of oneself to one’s ego. We’re captured in our own dragon cage.. . . The ultimate dragon is within you, it is your ego clamping you down.”


Captured in my own dragon cage.

Then there was this exchange between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell:

Moyers: How do I slay that dragon in me? What’s the journey each of us has to make, what you call “the soul’s high adventure”?

Campbell: My general formula for my students is “Follow your bliss.” Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.

Moyers: Is it my work or my life?

Campbell: If the work that you’re doing is the work that you chose to do because you are enjoying it, that’s it. But if you think, “Oh, no! I couldn’t do that!” that’s the dragon locking you in. “No, no, I couldn’t be a writer,” or “No, no, I couldn’t possibly do what So-and-so is doing.”

Moyers: When I take that journey and go down there and slay those dragons, do I have to go alone?

Campbell: If you have someone who can help you, that’s fine, too. But, ultimately, the last deed has to be done by oneself.

So I came back to my hometown so I could follow my bliss. Not what I expected. For one thing I thought bliss was — well blissful. Filled with fluffy clouds and maybe even bare-assed angels playing hand held harps following me throughout the day, whispering “No pain,” in my ear.

Now I think that bliss is finding your authentic story and living it. And while that surely will include pain as well as joy, it is much less painful than living the story that no longer matches you. There is certainly no joy in living a story that doesn’t fit.

But to follow your bliss you must first free yourself from the dragon cage; embrace the story that you are, which might not be the one you’ve been living. To do that you have to be willing to let the fire of the dragon’s breath burn away what isn’t you, then slay the dragon — with compassion.

And here’s the thing. My writing took on a new depth after moving here. Perhaps because when the story isn’t working, you have to go deeper to find the real story.