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otherness

dive

Hello, struggler, wisher, thirster-
I meet you at the well to wonder,
to ponder, and possibly to fight for
what it is to be alive.

Both of us are drinking from the same cistern.
We created it; the cracks refused to seal
and the water refused to heal our parched souls.
Goodness knows we have looked in all those cracks
for answers and heard enough echoes
to reassure us we are alone.

But what of the music that we didn’t make?
We hear it shake the ground sometimes
and we analyze the sounds that aren’t our own.
O great unknown, you sing to us
and call to us in open roads
and feather-leafed mesquite groves
and in places that are kind or bleak to us-
you are deeper than our well goes.
O Otherness beyond our echoes,
you have a voice that fills us
in the emptiness of subway halls
and other people’s flawless love.

Mend our cisterns! we cry,
and you reply,
Leave them dry. I will supply parched lips
with my munificence and drench
you in my providence.
O holy Christ, your voice is stronger
than the torrents tempting us to take
the earthy waters; human potters mold more vessels
but you call us-
like a wave: one but recurring.
Beyond words, beyond our singing
you are matchless:
to have tasted of your depth
is to know Already and Not Yet
and greater love and greater debt.

call and response

stretch out your hand in trepidation

open your palm with your frightened eyes shut

do you trust the gifts you’re given?

neither do I, yet we both risk the touch

often our reaching has brought us to ruin

there have been serpents disguised as doves

like a fisherman, your sight is blocked by the surface

like a fish, you so seldom look up

in your chest is a heart and each pump starts a pulse

your body is water; your heart is a stone

a stone splashes once and the ripples convulse

every vein channels rhythm and urges the flow

your pulse is a call to you: open your hand

gifts may betray but will not fail to teach you

I once wished for love and got wisdom instead

each gift you accept is a bite you can’t chew

you will swallow the bitterest dose of reality

you will wish you had never unfolded your fist

even in pain your pulse will keep beckoning

you are constantly summoned to open your gifts

stretch out your hand in trepidation

open your palm with your frightened eyes shut

do you trust the life you’re given?

neither do I, yet we both risk the touch

fly

[this post appeared first on Torrey Gazette]

astonishment

astonish

In your endless quest for progress,
when you are ceaselessly tending your mind,
you cultivate the finer elements of intelligence,
insisting on the necessary climate;
insisting on learning to thrive in it.
It’s intrinsic: this constant adjustment
and movement. Simplistic reductions won’t do it.
Recalcitrant neurons must renounce skepticism
and fall into place like a game of Tetris; wisdom is
beckoning like a professor inviting you
to think, like the brink of a scientific discovery,
like a melody gleefully smashing your boundaries.
When all these analogies intrude on your privacy,
you, the cartographer, channel the pathways
of mental activity and, as though you were gardening,
you find time to plant and to water, to weed and to fertilize
the soil of your mind. So through all of it, I ask this:
That in your endless quest for progress,
you would cultivate astonishment.
The quick breath of it; the open eyes that enable it,
and with all of this, a propensity to discern the beauty
in every ordinary chord of reality’s performance:
that indecipherable symphony in which we are
indispensable miracles, feeling ourselves in it;
integrally at home in it.

[this post appeared first on Torrey Gazette]

written while driving

[this post was brought to you by the voice memo iPhone app]

white night clouds

what good do you accomplish
when you allow your heart to drag you deeper?
you must let your eyes dwell on the low clouds that shine white
(unreasonable in the darkness)
reflecting city light.
you must look!
when your instinct is to hide your eyes, you must look farther.
this is the only way up.
what good does it do you
when your hiding place keeps you not only from pain but from salvation?
for there is salvation in the clouds.
there is salvation in the dwelling of the eye.

dream and strategy

human in mountains

I am ever so much more a poet now.
A startling awakening, but gentle- you know-
like coming upon a new tree in a field you used to walk
a time and a half ago, when there was only grass
and sky.

It is not the words, for even now they scrape, out of shape,
through mental ligaments. I write less.
But I walk more, and I speak plainly, for apparently I’ve lost the art of adornment.

I walked half-witted into anguish and it jolted me awake.

Do you know the wandering?
The lovely but vague paths of foot and thought,
the words words words of the playwright;
and latent strength waiting like the sea below a dock.

And then the electric incision. The indiscriminate pain.
Once I brought the edge of a shovel down hard on a brown snake
and its lithe body jolted over and over; every muscle angry; its tongue
grasping at air as if trying to escape on its own,
and as I killed, I wished I could have left it lying lazy and alone.

But I wish no languor on my soul.

Wandering must share its space with exploration,
and exploration with purpose. To bring it to the surface:
I stand forever at a crossroads between dream and strategy.
And to defend the soft animal of my heart when cruelty
strikes indiscriminately,
I want to curl tight like a fern to the touch.
But instead I learn, every day, to open my arms.
I learn how to walk instead of write; how to make every step a vibrant,
tactile act of creation.

Once I wrote a poet’s words.
Now I wield them.

(ft. inspiration by Mary Oliver, Shakespeare, and Lin-Manuel Miranda)

come and go

Every year when South by Southwest is over,
the airport fills with jostling and bags
and a collective sigh of Californians and New Yorkers
being packed into planes like potatoes
every which way, sometimes stacked.

And Austin returns to introspection.

Inspection! Tester of spring, the wind crescendos
and asks the leaves, “Are you sure?”
They hold tight through the tossing, the winnowing billows
that ask every branch, “Do you mean it?”
They pass. Like a second fall, the air is confettied
with brown leaves and weak ones flying,
embarking; but the younger leaves cling desperately
to dynastic continuity.

For you, there is a time to withstand every gust and to be “wick”
as a secret Yorkshire garden, but there is also a time to
be carried away; to be packed into planes.
Someday green leaves will turn old and pray-
for strength not to hold on, but to pass away.

It is a time of both going and staying
here every year in the spring.
The airport fills with leaving,
but the leaves in Austin cling.

timeless dear love of everything

this post first appeared on: Torrey Gazette

the day after the kite festival

The day after the kite festival
The great field is empty
Except for five lacrosse players
And half an orange abandoned in the grass.

Yesterday this place was a whirling,
Pulsing cacophony of color and running
And kites swarming under the sun.
Of sisters shouting “higher!” and “now you’ve got it!”
To sweaty-palmed little brothers tugging on strings.

Today at the field’s edges,
All the trees are littered with kite shards-
Colors trapped in skeletal branches,
Ribbons flayed to shreds, ripped by the wind and a grey sky.

Convince me not to see all of life in this field:
One day everything is brightness and celebration,
And the next it’s all tangled in trees.

What trust is there in soaring, if kites are so easily caught?
Or laughter becomes silence and kisses turn to stone
And tenderness is exchanged for indifference?
Seamus Heaney pulled up a railroad tie and asked the same.
What is fixed, if things so solid can be utterly undone?

I have heard there is a future
And a hope that will not be cut off.
Next year the kites will swarm again.
So as I walk under the littered trees,
I sing softly
but am not quite
ready
to fly.

over

Marcus Aurelius vs. Modernity

A week and a half ago I finished Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I’m currently halfway through Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. I can hardly imagine two more dissimilar books. Notes is a literary personification of The Enlightenment carried to its logical extreme. Constantly second-guessing himself and wrestling with both pride and insecurity, its anonymous narrator begins by soliloquizing on the state of man and the world. His statements are often contradictory, i.e. “Man, after all, is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is to say, although he is not in the least stupid, he is so ungrateful that it is useless to expect anything else from him.” Through this narrator, Dostoevsky exposes modern man’s addiction to progress detached from achievement, and good reputation detached from hard work and morality. Boredom and embarrassment are hailed among the chiefest of evils.

Reading Notes is a bit like looking into a mirror at the worst parts of myself. I suspect these are problems common to all men and all times (many times while reading, I was reminded of the human diagnosis in Pascal’s Pensées), but with the advent of modernity, the problems began to solicit praise. They cannot stand scrutiny, however! As Pascal notes in his thoughts about diversion, boredom is unbearable because it forces a man to think about his inadequacy: “Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.” The fictional narrator of Notes from Underground thinks a great deal too much for contentment. He cannot decide whether to applaud himself as clever or denounce himself as an idiot. “Can a thinking man have any self-respect whatsoever?” he asks.

Notes-from-underground

Notes is divided into two parts. In the second, the narrator tells a story from his past which centers around his encounter with a girl whom he first belittles and patronizes. Speaking from his position of occasionally optimistic cynicism, he tries to instruct her about life. But although initially captivated by his words, his supposed student soon reveals the petty contradictions of his nature. Because of this, the narrator realizes that he cannot truly love. He can only tyrannize. But even in his anguish and self-loathing, he cannot escape the calculating introspection that leads him to poeticize his every thought. He reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara, who realizes too late that she loved and lost Rhett, but still relies on her own arrogant charm. “Tomorrow is another day,” she says, but when you’re that level of selfish, tomorrow won’t be better than today unless you make the decision to change your core self. Actually I don’t know what happens. I haven’t read the sequel because Gone With the Wind irritated me so much!

The narrator from Notes both hates and adores the nature that causes him pain. But he knows he is not alone. At the end of the book, he addresses his readership, saying that we have lost touch with reality. And when he imagines readers protesting at being generalized so, he rebukes them, “After all, I have only carried to a logical conclusion what you yourselves didn’t dare to take more than half-way.” He is modernity, honest and personified.

Contrast all of this with Marcus Aurelius! What a stark difference. A Roman emperor stoic, Aurelius believed that everything happens in accordance with nature, and thus there is no true evil. A “ruling mind” can internally reorient experience and dissatisfaction in order to be perfectly at peace. His Meditations are like a journal of notes to himself: reminders and tips for living his own life. “This you must bear in mind:” he writes in 2:9, “what is the nature of the whole, and what is my nature, and how this is related to that, and what kind of part it is of what kind of whole; and there is no one who can hinder you from always doing and saying the things which are in accord with the nature of which you are a part.” The Meditations are full of wisdom. But in denying the reality of evil, Aurelius underestimated its power. He relied on the Soul to preserve virtue, but the aggregate soul of humanity wasn’t up to the challenge.

Still, the Meditations are inspiring. Aurelius had such hope for mankind. He lived a life of measured wisdom and perspective, knowing that his mind was his citadel, and that he could defend it from any external frustration- even using suffering and inconvenience for his own advantage. One of my favorite meditations is 4:1: “When the ruling mind acts according to nature, it so takes the events which happen as to always easily adapt itself to whatever is presented to it and whatever is possible. For it requires no special materials, but moves toward its purpose, imposing only certain conditions. It makes material for itself out of what opposes it, as fire lays hold of what falls into it. A small light might have been extinguished; but when the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the stuff which is heaped on it, consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.” Reading Aurelius, he doesn’t strike me as a carefree optimist, but as a man who thoroughly analyzed the world and determined to live rightly regardless of circumstance. He took refuge inside himself: the very place that Dostoevsky’s narrator could not abide.

Aurelius

Why was Marcus Aurelius able to find peace where the Underground Man could not? I’d love to just say the answer is Jesus, but Aurelius wasn’t a Christian. He did, however, believe in “the gods” or a consciousness that controlled the world. Even though he had doubts about eternal purpose and immortality, he believed in the prescribed order of the universe. And I think that sustained him, along with many other thinkers of the time and throughout Western philosophy. When you believe that everything happens for a reason, even if you don’t know the reason or the arbiter, it’s easier to rest. But with the dawning of the Enlightenment and Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead”, uncertainty in the existence of meaning turned into certainty that meaning was a child’s dream. Faith in an impersonal controlling force could no longer silence enough questions. In the infancy of Western thought, Marcus Aurelius could retreat into the order of his own mind. But as philosophy matured, it cut its bonds to God and therefore to order. And now the human thought process has nowhere to go, for Truth has become one hypothesis among many: all equally valid or invalid. We are left asking, “Can a thinking man have any self-respect whatsoever?”

Postmodernity is a peculiar place. We pursue sacred experience apart from its source. We want the numinous but cannot bring ourselves to believe in it. Essentially, we long to be Marcus Aurelius but we are stuck as the Underground Man. Posting quotes from the Meditations on Tumblr cannot align our identities to its author. “For we have sinned and grown old,” wrote G.K. Chesterton, “and our Father is younger than we.” Once mankind believed in a ruling force. But a force is not a father. I admire Marcus Aurelius more than Dostoevsky’s anonymous narrator, but neither of them knew the Way, the Truth, and the Life. At the end of C.S. Lewis’ book, Till We Have Faces, when Orual finally finds rest in encountering the person of Truth she says, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” The wisdom of Marcus Aurelius was real but partial, and obviously it has broken in the confrontation with Modernity’s questions. In order to sustain us, a force must have a face.

Modernity exposed humanism for the dead end that it is and made us realize that the answer cannot come from inside any of us, for our very hearts are fickle. Isn’t that the point of all this post-apocalyptic youth literature we’re currently enduring? The Hunger Games is a good example of the frailty of human goodness. But Christians trust not in human virtue, but in a force that became flesh: a father, a face before whom all questions fade away. In Christ we have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf,” as Hebrews 6 promises. HE guarantees our life and salvation, not we ourselves. And in him, we really can burn through every obstacle like Marcus Aurelius, but with greater certainty because we can put a name to the hand that controls our fate. Christ takes the disillusioned, tired soul of mankind and gives us back our innocence by reuniting us with our Father. In him, I become a child again and enter the kingdom of God.

river

You have seen it while hiking,
Whether you walk energetically or drag your feet on the gravel path,
You have heard it asking questions.
And whether you carry half your wardrobe in a pack or travel light,
You have come to its bridge or its bank.

You have seen it swirl, caught in its own undertow.

“How can I go on,” it asks, “and leave the mountain spring behind?
I was a pupil and a lover there and every molecule of me
is stamped with the memory of belonging; of holding on and being held.
I loved those cold depths.”

You have sat by the side of this stream.

“Did I fill it too full?” you have heard it wonder. “Did I do something wrong,
to cause the mountain to cast me out?
This cannot be the justice I was promised.
How can I go on?” it asks
as it goes on.

You have followed its cascades as it rushes over rocks and into canyons.
Whether you run to listen or walk slowly, watching the Catskill eagles soar,
You have overheard its questions and caught snatches of the answer.

“I learned to be swift and supple,” it whispers. “And to overflow.
And if overflowing means leaving high coldness for the warmth of the valley and the sea,
I will leave it. But,” it sings, “in every molecule of me I retain
the best and truest parts of that place. Once I belonged to it, but now I have made it my own.
As it pushes me away I will mourn for it, but I will bless it.
I will bless it and I will go.”

catskill eagle

 

The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard

Gaston Bachelard was a man of science. He had written more than a dozen books on the philosophy of science and physics when, quite without warning, he suddenly published a book called The Psychoanalysis of Fire. That book was the first sign of his defection from the realm of scientific rationalism to the world of poetry. In December I knew none of this. I was simply scanning the architecture section at HPB when I came across this title: The Poetics of Space: The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places. It seemed a little bit magical.

poetics

The book is, above all, a defense of poetry. Bachelard delves into many of the various aspects of House and its “oneiric form” as he calls it, and follows his study of houses with a few chapters on inhabited space more generally. But throughout the book, he philosophizes as a poet writing to scientists, justifying the nuance of poetry to his erstwhile colleagues. For him, poetry transcends knowledge. It reaches the depths of the mind before it disturbs the surface. And it does this through its use of the Image: simple, almost prehistoric concepts that somehow evoke feelings in every human soul. When they are spoken, they need no lengthy explanation, because an understanding of them predates our comprehension of logic or science. The house is such an image. In analyzing the organization of a house, Bachelard aims to plot the human mind.

He is quite the dreamer. (And he uses the word “oneiric” frequently, which was a new word for me. It means “of or relating to dreaming.”) I can’t sum the book up into a strict flow of ideas because… can you ever do that with dreams? I’ll just touch on the parts that most interested me.

He begins with discussing House as FORM, which throws back to Plato. Bachelard says the ideal house requires “verticality”- that is, attic and cellar- to allow its inhabitants to fully daydream. (I wondered about this, and my first question was “what about hobbit holes?”) I do not know what the inhabitants are meant to dream about. I don’t think Bachelard would prescribe that, but he thinks it’s very important that they be able to do it. The geometric structure of houses influences the mind, as do their settings in nature (or lack of). Bachelard isn’t entirely sure what to say about cities because he thinks city dwellings (for example, skyscrapers in Paris) lose magic and are less conducive to dreaming when inhabitants live in one-level “rooms”. Also this quote: “Elevators do away with the heroism of stair climbing so that there is no longer any virtue in living up near the sky.” Bachelard’s idealism is endearing. He believes houses need some element of the natural. “Where houses are no longer set in natural surroundings,” he says, “the relationship between house and space becomes an artificial one. Everything about it is mechanical and, on every side, intimate living flees.” However, he claims that the natural can be imagined with good effect, interestingly. He suggests turning traffic noises into a rumbling storm or the sounds of the ocean using one’s imagination.

In chapter 2, B talks chiefly of the image of the house, how it must be a lived-in image to communicate full feeling, and how its creation (or imagining) reveals much about the architect or dreamer. Envisioning a house makes us all poets? The fascinating thing to me is his concept of contrast: in a massive, undulating universe, the house lends boundaries to the imagination and gives it a Center. With frequent quotations from Baudelaire etc. to support him, Bachelard says, “Everything comes alive when contradictions accumulate.” For example, storms bestow more significance upon shelters. This quote also helps to elucidate: “Well-determined centers of reverie are means of communication between men who dream as surely as well-defined concepts are means of communication between men who think.” The form/image of House is (should be?) a well-determined center. That center exerts gravitational force. “The house remodels man,” B says starkly.

STATE ARCHITECTURE Small Houses_USA_STATES_Map Drawing_TurnoftheCenturies_13x19_close_Mid

He acknowledges the physical geometry of a house honestly, but really shies away from strict physical analysis. Once he said, “We are tempted to analyze this rationally,” which I thought was funny. But he’s just such a poet about it all– constantly harping on transcendence. “To give unreality to an image attached to a strong reality,” he says, “is in the spirit of poetry.” And look at this: “An immense cosmic house is a potential of every dream of houses. Wind radiates from its center and gulls fly from its windows. A house that is as dynamic as this allows the poet to inhabit the universe. Or, to put it differently, the universe comes to inhabit his house.” He never apologizes for passages like this. In a later chapter he says, “Exaggeration is always at the summit of any living image.”

B is always talking about the Image vs the Metaphor. I think by this he means that a metaphor is too objective to allow for the “feel” of a thing. In ch 5 on shells, he gets deep into shells as an image: what the thought of them evokes, etc. This section gave me serious throwbacks to my study of epistemology. Again, if an image communicates the “feel” of a thing through poetic sensitivity, images enlighten because in seeing we begin to see from and gain new perspective. And perspective leads to appreciation. Essentially, real sight breeds knowledge and real knowledge breeds love. One of my favorite novels is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and this concept of understanding turning into love reminds me of a quote from the protagonist when he’s having a bit of a crisis involving his purpose:

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

In chapter 7, which is about the concept of Miniature, Bachelard gets deeper into images and nearly becomes philosopher Michael Polanyi. While reading the chapter I kept thinking of P’s theory of tacit knowing. Bachelard reverences the transcendence of imagination: “The imagination does not want to end in a diagram that summarizes acquired learning.” Imagination is what takes learning to the next level of loving. This connects to all the epistemic philosophy I’ve read in the last 3 years! He says as well, “Daydream is not geometrical. The dreamer commits himself absolutely.” Perhaps it is that commitment that makes Bachelard so value dreams. They require your whole soul, which B longs to give? Which we all do, or ought? I do wonder, though, why Bachelard is so loathe to diagram. Perhaps his imagination was squelched by the particular scientific community of his day. But I think of scientists like Einstein who clearly valued imagination, and it confuses me why Bachelard seems eager to distance himself from all data and definition. He says at one point, “To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.” That seems very extreme.

The chapter on miniature was a high point of the book for me. Especially the section where he says poets can use imagination to change the size of things, making large out of small and vice versa. If vastness is infinite and if smallness is infinite, the two infinities have much in common in their extremes. B quotes Paul Claudel on microscopes vs telescopes: “Just as we see little spiders or certain insect larvae hidden like precious stones in their cotton and satin pouches, in the same way, I was shown an entire nestful of still embarrassed suns in the cold folds of the nebula.” To close the paragraph after that beautiful quote, Bachelard simply asserts, “If a poet looks through a microscope or a telescope, he always sees the same thing.”

bilde

In the following chapter, B moves on to write about immensity, essentially claiming that immensity has its root, not in the exterior universe, but in our own souls and our capacity to think vast thoughts. I thought a lot about the power of surroundings and physical environment in this section, especially due to this quote: “The exterior spectacle helps intimate grandeur to unfold.” As has become more and more evident to me due to urban design/development, WHERE you are affects how you think and ultimately changes WHO you are. “The two kinds of space, intimate space and exterior space, keep encouraging each other, as it were, in their growth.” Yes, exactly.

Pause for this concept: “voluptuousness that pervades high places.” ……….thank you.

One of the most memorable parts of the chapter on immensity was the story of Philippe Diolé, a psychologist and deep-sea diver. After years of love for the ocean, Diolé chose to travel through the Sahara desert and found there a similar feeling of weightlessness as what he experienced in water. But what strikes me most is why Diolé exchanged water for sand. Bachelard asked the question and said Diolé answered, “as a poet would. He knows that each new contact with the cosmos renews our inner being, and that every new cosmos is open to us when we have freed ourselves from the ties of a former sensitivity… And by changing space, by leaving the space of one’s usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating.” Expanding your surroundings expands YOU. This seems oddly contradictory to Bachelard’s earlier tirade against experience. Perhaps earlier he meant to rebel against the graphing table and the drawing board rather than life experience. Because he ends this chapter so: “But poems are human realities; it is not enough to resort to “impressions” in order to explain them. They must be lived in their poetic immensity.”

space

Bachelard concludes his book with studies of outside/inside and the concept of “roundness”. I got a little lost in this part and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not intelligent enough to get what he’s saying or if he’s actually going down confusing rabbit trails for no reason! There were several haunting ideas, however. At one point he poses this question, seemingly unconnected to the overarching point of his book: “And where is the root of silence? Is it a distinction of non-being, or a domination of being?” I think this did flow logically in Bachelard’s mind. Once started on the concept of contrasts begun with the discussion of Miniature vs Immensity and continued with Outside vs Inside, he couldn’t stick to physical examples or even to those spatial subjects. For him, everything is connected poetically. Immensity to Miniature, Outside to Inside, Fullness to Emptiness, Noise to Silence. Everything is connected, and everything finds significance when considered against its counterpart. When you look at it long enough, through the continually surprised eyes of poetic sensitivity, everything begins to look like different facets of the same crystal. Or, to bring us back around to the beginning, different rooms of the same house.

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