Stretching

I’ve in the last week picked up a copy of a book composed by Timothy Leary and associates back in 1994, two years before Leary’s death in 1996, and around the time when I was imbedded in the post-psychedelic New Age culture of art and speculation that nested in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. I’d actually passed by Doctor Tim in person as he toured as guest speaker and celebrity for some sort of exploratory consciousness fair that took place at the city’s main Convention Center.

I am certainly no stranger to Leary’s thought and his writings. From the time when he was advocating from an eminent platform at Harvard for boundary breaking explorations of consciousness via LSD and Psylocibn, to the time when I spent days trying to process my own headlong perceptual journeys out to the boundaries of consciousness and beyond. I travelled along parallel paths while Leary made his way through prison and exile and paranoia and the trials that came along with pop stardom and self deification.

When I walked into my dormitory room at Case Western Reserve one night, getting off on some form of chemically induced revery I heard Leary’s voice come over the radio, telling me to, “Sit down Ralph.” He then took me on a guided verbal tour of my brain, the universe and the whole history of human DNA. It turns out that the ‘Ralph’ in the recording, played that night over the student station was of Leary at Harvard conducting an LSD session with one of his grad students, Ralph Metzner. I didn’t learn this until years later, and in the meanwhile carried it around with me like the inner knowledge of some secret synchronistic initiation, a mystery for which I sought no further solution.

The book I’m reading is one I wasn’t particularly familiar with, lent to me by a friend. It’s called “Chaos & Cyber Culture.” By 1994 Leary as visionary prophet had been largely discredited by both popular and serious academic culture. He had spent time in prison, in Europe and in North Africa, in flight from the American police, hobnobbing with revolutionary elites and movie stars and science fiction writers, hounded by governments and ideologues of the Left and the Right. The 60’s dream of storming the barricades of capitalist/consumer culture had long ago faded or been absorbed and replaced by the high octane quest for new meaning and new wealth accelerated by revolutions in technology and communication.

Society was itself going through the initial stages of the sort of destabilization one encounters on an acid trip. Timothy Leary, along with many former prophets and outlaws and explorers were now mere flotsam in massively circulating currents of change. He was gone before the currents would peak and then break into fading fragments after September of 2001.

The book is a collection of words and images splattered across pages designed in the mode of a psychedelic version of The Whole Earth Catalog. There are dozens of typefaces in all sizes floating in the form of giant quotes and poster graphics and images from the past and the future. There are interviews and conversations with the likes of William Gibson and William Burroughs and David Byrne and all sorts of artifacts assembled around a political documentary and summary of sorts of Leary’s broad visions of past, present and possible future.

Other than in worlds of extreme science fiction I haven’t read anything like this in years. Drawing on history, art, mysticism, biology, psychology, computer science and literature, framed with over-the-top optimism regarding the future of civilization and human consciousness, Leary’s vision has no boundaries, and in reading I grow increasingly aware of how much my vision and that of my culture has narrowed over these past four decades. As a nation and as a world we’ve become increasingly ruled by fear and apprehension, which by nature is a narrowing of consciousness to the primitive state of flight or fight that responds robotically to a wider and wider range of stimuli.

We sit in our cocoons of political power and economic anxiety and anticipate the worst. We are a shell-shocked population with eyes and ears open to more and more information but with less ability to integrate it into something that makes sense. We live in a world of chaos, awaiting signs of the next real ‘strange attractor’ that we hope can assemble all of this mess into meaning. We’ve entered a historic and geological period where the shocks come in accelerating waves of war, recession, natural disasters and forced migrations, and our response is to reach out to the person who promises to protect us and shield us and make it all right. Increasingly we realize that the future can’t be controlled by any power wielded by the few for the supposed welfare of the many. Individually we awake once again to the knowledge that the portraits we perceive of the world around us are painted mostly by ourselves.

At first this makes us all feel incredibly alone, until we make an effort to explore and find new ways to make contact with one another, not as crowds or constituents or mobs or armies, but as fully responsible human beings. Our challenge always, is to create entirely new realities for ourselves, through our storytelling and our imagining, that are fluid and adaptable enough to deal with the constant change that our world throws at us. We have the tools to do it, and our task is to awake to our possibilities and to summon the courage to face and dismiss those who would build walls out of our fear.

At Work

At Work

Put yourself in a box,
a tin can,
an official one.

Make lists.
Count inventory.
Walk the aisles,
dreaming art and poetry
only at night
and on weekends.

Watch the light
going out.

Take notes
with a short pencil
on a yellow pad:
“This is where I left my mind,
in this particular section
of this particular warehouse
before it was sold
and eaten.”

It’s a Good Time for Doctor Strange

(upon leaving Santa Fe)

The darkness intensifies
The mountain no longer calls me up
Fall has arrived
The world descends into chaos
Syrian women screaming at the gates
Children drowning

When we invented the internet
(The children of psychedelia)
We rejoiced to think the world was saved
Through communication
And good will
Peace. Love. Music

Instead we unleashed
All the demons of our forgotten histories
They swarm around us
And above our heads
Threatening our souls
Stealing our eyes

War creeps toward us
Like a fungus
It despoils the land
And crushes hopes
Except for those insane dreamers
Of the Apocalypse

There is no Rapture
No conspiracy
No escaping into worlds of mind
No avoiding our mirrors
There are only the revelations
And awakening

I came to this place for refuge
And respite from the World City
Where mostly we live
I came to recover the questions
And for 28 years I’ve been a fox
An outlaw cast into cause and effect

Now I’m riding the ox
Feet first
Head first
Back to the war and peace zone
Excuse me I mean
The zone where deals are made

America loves the deal maker
Is entertained by the drama
House of Cards
Madmen
Breaking Bad
The guy with the Big Hair

“I can sell you this handy device
With accompanying extras
If you take advantage right now…!”
That familiar hum of gangsta
The power broker
The guy wearing the suit
The thing about demons
They are nourished by our weakness
Our worst qualities
Our fears and angers
Our arrogance our guilt
They steal it from our veins

I believe in heroes
And stories of heroes
When we are lost
Uncertain and facing death
Honestly
They teach me not to panic

The stories help us to navigate
Unless they swallow us
They grow ever larger
The library of earth is always expanding
The record of our existence and imagination
Stored in narratives

We are always on the brink
Of life and death
Of miracles
When we can step back
We see the patterns
And the path

The city is a refuge
Galleries museums bazaars
For trading myths and memories
Separate from the real art of the world
Those inarticulate hearts
Of everyday pursuit

Who is this
What is my purpose
Am I just a ghost
Passing by in site seeing buses
Wandering the narrow streets
Filing through the Plaza

I pass you everyday
I don’t even see you
Whispering all around me
Like whiffs of shadow
Your reality
Only parallel to mine

To you I’m like the ghosts of soldiers
Looking down over the divine city
From the old hill fort
On the bluffs
Constructed out of mud
Now dissolved into mounds of sand

We wonder about Chaco
The ancient villages
The multistoried structures
The trails from everywhere
The total abandonment
What if it were a retirement community

The Spanish overwhelmed the pueblos
Until the villages rose up
A compromise was reached
Leaving saints to be martyrs
Until the soldiers of a white army
Postponed all agreements

While friends are anchors
That hold us to the earth
They are shadows growing more real
Even as they drift
Into the past
Becoming memory

Real cities breed desperation
There is real madness on the streets
Eyes that beg for mercy
In the midst of plenty
Not every part can fit
But every part has purpose

The Train – An Introduction

So, I’m reading Pynchon again. That’s Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day, one of his most recent novels. I always go back to Pynchon, the person that made me fall in love with writing. I remember the day and the moment of impending revelation. I remember, in fact the precise angle from which I looked up and above the racks of Fiction and Fine Arts saw that book standing open, beckoning like a monument for me to enter.  One huge letter on the cover, V with a period following, standing like a surrealistic sculpture on a plain of lines with the outlines of a woman, face hidden, standing off to the side. I remember the streets where Benny Profane wandered and those merchant sailors at the Sailors Grave brawling over the barmaids and singing strange sea shanties and perched upon the rigging of that old World War Two ‘Tin Can’ that carried them over to bizarre foreign adventure. I remember and am now reminded of the pleasure of those sentences written with such a sense of oceanic rolling beauty that it almost didn’t matter what story they told. I was too young to really understand the stories anyway.Therein were the streets that Benny Profane wandered toward that tin can tavern, The Sailors Grave where merchant sailors roiled the Sailors Grave, brawling over barmaids and singing sea shanties and later climbing the rigging of the old World War Two freighter that carried them across the oceans into foreign adventures. This was a world just after the Great War that I was too young to really understand, but I remember the pleasure of those sentences written with a sense of rolling comic beauty that made it almost irrelevant what story they told.

Later, after The Crying of Lot Forty-Nine and Gravity’s RainbowVineland and Mason Dixon I started to see a theme in all these narratives about characters wandering in a dislocated world all following clues to the pattern that held it all together, never really arriving at the source but learning that the search itself was the key to the journey. In the book I’m reading the  Archduke Ferdinand of Austria near the end of the nineteenth century is found in a negro bar on the south side of Chicago. He stiffs the bartender before leaving thus establishing his character as a precursor to the century to come. Strangely, the locations in this story are places that I’ve lived or spent time in: Cleveland, location of the famous experiment by Michelson and Morley at my old college first measured the speed of light, and the library founded by Andrew Carnegie, where I actually discovered the author, one of the first public libraries in the United States; Colorado with all of it’s mining towns filled with the relics of failed westward dreaming.  

Maybe that’s where this story begins, a flow of subversive narrative hinting at a mystery always just out of reach. Pynchon’s characters circling around the mystery, getting ever closer only to see the puzzle endlessly unravel leading to  ever greater mystery, the mystery that can never be finally solved or decoded. The key is always in these sentences, even more than the wider narrative. It’s like watching a movie where, if you know the language of movies and how to look beneath the plot a whole story is told in the structure of a single shot or in the arrangement of lines and planes, the composition of light and dark. 

The world follows a narratives based on our assumptions. Preconceived ideas  determine not only what we see but how exactly we see it. Sometimes things come at us from out of the mystery that make us suddenly drop one set of assumptions for another, and the whole world changes in an instant. Sometimes we change because we decide to, sometimes the change is forced upon us, and maybe most often the changes just seem to happen underneath at the level of chemistry, or like the slow process of erosion. We wake up one day and notice that we’ve become a different person altogether than the one we were the day before.

One of the oldest stories, and one of my favorites is at the center of The Mahabharata, one of the oldest scriptures in the world. The story is called the Baghavad Gita and it’s unique among all of the scriptures I know about as it   takes place in an instant when time itself pauses in the middle of a battlefield where two enormous armies are about to clash. Prince Arjuna  is in despair because he knows that he will have to fight and kill friends and relations in the fight that’s coming. In the ensuing conversation between Arjuna and his charioteer, who is Lord Krishna and a manifestation of the Godhead. Krishna demonstrates the inevitability of the laws of cause and effect and outlines the path of wisdom, devotion and selfless action in a world where we are ultimately responsible for our own choices.  

These teachings are the well from which the essential kernels of eastern religion pour. Krishna’s ultimate revelation is that our particular personality is merely a vehicle through which one of the myriad forms of the Supreme Being manifests. Our journeys in this life are always in relation to this single truth.  Whatever we see before us, shaped as it is by our travels through cause and effect, we respond to according to our true nature and the key to revelation is to act with clarity and commitment and  without attachment to results.   

As I move from one passionate encounter to another these lessons come back to me. It may be that the metaphor of life as a battlefield suits my particular nature.  I engage in daily struggle with my own inner demons and alien armies, and the quality of my actions proceed from the clarity of my mind. In the end, all of the angels and demons I meet are images seen in a mirror.   

The train is moving very slowly today. Some sort of ‘signal’ issue. We’re crawling toward Albuquerque at about ten miles an hour, rather than the normal eighty. It’s okay with me. This is my weekly study hall, my time for contemplation and reflection up here on the second level of the Rail Runner, looking out over the New Mexico landscape with few  interruptions, out of contact, quietly weaving across the high desert and plain, between the mesas, through the river valleys.