Trials

I just imbibed two healthy pints of Scotch Ale, a small handful of psychedelic mushrooms and a chunk of potent marijuana brownie…while printing 32 greeting cards so that I can replenish my rack at the grocery store and contribute to my gasoline fund for future trips into the present.

I’m hoping that some combination of the above will somehow blast me out of a sense of helplessness in the face of all the craziness and suffering, although I know it’s not really my responsibility and that I’ve done my part to advance this whole contraption…

I’ve been watching VICE NEWS documentaries looking into the darkest corners of the world, watching ‘Severance’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, reading a Jonathan Franzen novel about a Christian youth group and reliving so many moments in the deep past in order to write about them, and writing about them, and wondering if this voluntary isolation from all the world matters anything at all.

I can only bear witness:

“This happened…this is what I felt.”

Endless Grief

Endless Grief

Grief is an ocean. It comes to us in waves, every wave possessing a different character and momentum. This is an ocean we all live in from the moment of our birth. The grief of a child is easy to see; in growing up we learn to hide our grief beneath an endless variety of disguises. We weep, we are depressed, we stare at the walls or create art. Some of us learn to project our grief on others in the form of hatred and prejudice. Some of us seek redemption through power and influence. Some become saints and some become monsters.

We’re often told that we can ‘get through it,’ and once we manage to do so the grief will no longer dominate our lives.

I can locate two points in my life where the waves peaked. I was torn between total numbing withdrawal and the painful and cathartic release of the deepest pain. My freedom from the struggle came in the act of unrestrained weeping. Both events were in response to the loss of someone very close and dear to me, one was mostly due to my own regrettable choices and one was a suicide.

This past year I spent mostly in bed or on the couch fighting the onset of cancer (if ‘fighting’ is the proper word). My main occupation, besides taking drugs for sleep and pain, finding new ways to eat, and showing up for chemo, was reading esoteric fiction and Doctor Strange comic books going back to the early sixties. I watched old Star Trek episodes on Netflix and made cannabis tea. My strategy in dealing with the loss of function was partly nostalgic and partly a form of pure escape. It stifled the sense of passing time that was leading me toward some mysterious ending.

I was given a reprieve. Time returned me from a state of suspended possibilities, bringing me new opportunities for choices and a chance to reflect upon my interrupted journey. Release from work and the need to meet schedules set by others put me on a bridge between regret and hopefulness. I’d survived for now but had lost a degree of functionality. It left me with no certainty about where I was headed or where I wanted to land.

It left me reeling between feelings of almost absolute freedom and a deep conviction of failure and incompetence. When I finally arose from my time upon the couch, I faced an altered world. The peak of the worldwide pandemic coincided with the height of my own illness. Everything was changed. The undercurrents of grief and anger had risen to the surface. Everyone appeared to be traumatized in some way. Businesses were closed; streets were full of the homeless and hospitals full of the dying. Nearly everyone now is masked in public, while hidden emotions and collective resentments force their way toward the surface. Politics have split the nation into warring factions, to a degree that the basis of trust that makes a functioning society possible is seriously, and perhaps irrevocably, frayed.

Grief appears to be everywhere.

In spite of all of this I forced myself to climb out of the hole of indecision and aimlessness that had ruled my existence through a year of trauma. I resumed the discipline of sitting every morning in meditation, observing my mind in a mirror. I witnessed the ghosts and demons of repetitive patterns that carry me through both hope and despair. Gradually my life regained a sense of direction and purpose that informed my daily routine of waking, sitting, reading, listening to podcasts while making breakfast, then making the time to write or to practice photography. A feeling of freedom began to ascend over thoughts of self-hatred and despair.

In the ocean in which we swim only change is certain.

A couple of weeks ago I opened a series of doorways into computer hell. I automatically upgraded my computer to the latest operating system software without thinking very much about it. After the upgrade the application in which I did the organizing, processing and printing of my photographs simply ceased to function. Nothing I tried solved the problem. No help was available from either the software provider or the computer maker. The advice of these massive corporations was to wait a month or two until they managed to coordinate with one another.

My forward motion was brought fully to a halt as I spent many hours desperately seeking help online. Instructions provided by people having similar problems not only didn’t work, but their results forced me to take the whole mess to a professional technician. He first encountered the same problems I did, but eventually a workaround was found that not only cost me a lot of cash, but also led to the irrecoverable loss of a good chunk of historical data.

I found myself once again floundering in the waves. I felt incompetent and helpless, angry and depressed in turn. I couldn’t find the inspiration to write while obsessing on the problem. My feelings began to bleed into my relationship with the world of other people. Friends who could see my distress offered well-meaning advice, and the advice was angrily rejected. I felt that I was on my own, that there was no help to be had, that every choice I made led to worse problems. My anger was petty and mean and an expression of accumulated grief for the loss of relationships, the community of work, my bodily functions, and as much as anything the loss of the world I’d grown accustomed to living in.

I’m now in recovery mode, sorting through this relatively minor wreckage, and yet I feel some kinship with those who experience the aftermath of flooding, fires, earthquakes and economic collapse and have to rebuild their lives from the ground up. Although small in comparison, my problems evoke reactions based on far more than the event in itself. I carry with me the sense of everything I’ve personally lost and gained, as well as the victories and losses experienced by people all around me.

In the West we worship our individuality as if it were a Holy Grail, but it’s mostly a fiction. As much as we isolate ourselves and our feelings from others, we are inescapably social beings who share together both joy and pain, immersed in the currents that surround us.

Here I stew alone in my ‘laboratory’, surrounded by computers, camera, iPhone and streaming television, struggling to find my own voice through all of this. The place is small, two rooms with a kitchen alcove and a tiny bathroom. Every move in the past decade has seen me downsizing, sorting through every object that has a story, deciding which to let go. There’s little room in here to live in the past, so I’m forced to live somewhat ruthlessly in the present. Although I stay up on the affairs of my country and of the world, I’m growing more of a protective shell to separate my feelings from the emotional maelstroms provoked by our collective struggles. I often fail. The struggles continue and will never end, but their weight is never mine to carry alone.

Loss is a given, grief is forever, and I swim in the same ocean as all of you. We can’t stop the storms that are coming, but maybe we can learn to swim with the tides.

ROXBURY

Bill Halas briefly attended Goddard College in the early seventies, a rather progressive college for that time. It was rather small, compared to the University I’d attended, tucked away in the snowy mountains of Vermont. In this, our first journey to the East after we’d both dropped out of our respective colleges, we stopped at Goddard to pick up a few artifacts that remained from his stay, and then we proceeded on to Boston.

There we met with another Goddard alumnus, a friend of Bill’s. We chased him down as he was selling green carnations and flower bouquets on the sidewalks near Harvard Square. With his imposing height, girth, burly beard and wide expressive face, he was a dead ringer for Peter Ustinov. With a performer’s verve he swooped along the sidewalk. Concertina in hand he pranced alongside his basket of flowers. He made barely enough money to eat.

We stayed with him for one night in one of the poorest sections of Roxbury. He’d claimed a small section of the second floor in a ramshackle, unkept three-story wooden house. The house had been abandoned and was now occupied by Bill’s friend and at least two other families. Someone had tapped into the city’s electrical grid by stringing a wire over to the cable on a nearby telephone pole. The place had a sharp stench of backed up toilets. It was one of the coldest nights of a Boston winter and the plumbing had burst. We tried to sleep curled up in our sleeping bags, crammed into a space the size of a closet. The only outside warmth was that of a hot pad used briefly before bedtime for making tea. We stayed up long enough to drink a cheap bottle of wine purchased with the proceeds from carnations, have a short conversation, and try to find a pocket of warmth to sleep in. That night somebody had an argument out front in the middle of the night and someone crashed in a front window while shouting in anger, adding to the cold.

The next day we crawled out to have breakfast somewhere and afterwards we crammed us all into our small compact car. After loading up at the flower store with green carnations we stood with Bill’s friend most of the morning, helping him to sell flowers on the street. We actually raked in a good bit that day. Bill and I collected a small but generous stipend for gas money and then we made our way out of Boston, heading south.

Roxbury is sometimes called, according to Wikipedia, the “heart of Black culture in Boston”. We arrived a decade after the Great Migration, and there were still some remnants of the English, Irish and German immigrants that had populated the neighborhood since the early 20th century when there were opportunities in the local foundries and breweries. Most had fled as blacks moved in and the property was arbitrarily devalued by the city. Eventually the foundries and factories were replaced by warehouses and retail businesses. The aging infrastructure, much of it built in the 19th century, began to seriously deteriorate along with the fading tax base.

Boston was known for its riots, going all the way back to before the Revolutionary War. There were 103 riots between 1700 and 1976. Everyone had their turn. There were riots over food, the British, the Stamp Act, race and slavery, anti-Irish, anti-Union, anti-busing and…you get the picture. When we arrived it was a couple of years after the riots of 1967, and large parts of the Roxbury neighborhood had been devastated, littered with abandoned buildings and homes. The poverty and discontent that had infested communities for centuries had been passed on to the latest group of people that had immigrated into the neighborhood in flight from poverty and brutal oppression where they came from. In this last instance the flight was from this very country and the Jim Crow policies of the South. They were poor, and in this instance most of the rules and regulations were stacked against them by reason of race and thus the opportunities for leaving were very much narrowed.

Before I came to Roxbury I’d skirted the edges of black culture, more or less as an invited guest. My family was poor enough and I was smart enough and ornery enough to be allowed into a government War On Poverty program called Upward Bound, that was part of Lyndon Johnson’s response to the growing unrest and uprising in the black community. I’d previously been considered for a similar privately funded program at Yale, and when I hadn’t made that cut I was offered a similar opportunity much closer to home. The program, which still exists, was for lower income students that had somehow demonstrated great educational potential but, without a major assist, weren’t likely to meet that potential.

Being in Upward Bound meant spending my high school summers attending classes and workshops and hanging out in the dormitories of University that I’d one day attend. Of the 80 or so students in the program at that time, about 65-70% were black. The rest were divided between mostly Puerto Rican and a smattering of white folk like me. Most of the graduate student counseling staff were of a similar mix and the local head of the program, who later took me under a wing, was black.

It was in the years between 1965 and 1968 that I attended the program. While there I was given a crash course in everything I couldn’t learn back where I was from on the West Side of Cleveland, one of the most segregated cities in the north. I soaked up literature, history, art, music and dancing, hair straightening, getting drunk and getting stoned, making movies, talking without being afraid. I was introduced to the sounds and words of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, Malcolm X and The Temptations. I participated in debates about civil rights strategies and black culture. We were all trying to determine our places in the world. In 1967, I sat with my friends, black and white, and watched from our dormitory windows a horizon filled with flames after the assassination of Martin Luther King. We were silent, filled with a stunned awe at the sheer immensity of the burning. In days after we watched the jeeps and personnel carriers of the National Guard enter and claim the campus, which was surrounded by the ghetto. At night we watched them leave the campus in convoys sent out toward the burning. On our way to classes we passed Guardsmen in the Student Union, some lounging, one playing beautiful Gershwin on the grand piano in the reception hall.

During the school year I’d take all of this back to my almost all-white high school in the western suburbs. Surrounded by fences and barbed wire and rules, I was slotted into a college prep channel and got to hang out with the nerds. I was pretty comfortable with my fellow nerds, but it always felt like I had a secret life and a secret identity born of unique experiences, that I’d never be able to truly convey to anyone.

The next years, those spent in college, were a blur of education and rebellion and drugs as the awareness and protests against the Vietnam War eventually merged with the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Like two rivers meeting, they fed a new level of interchange between races and cultures. The divides between black and white music fell down, fueled by resistance and protest and beautiful passion, accompanied by floods of psychoactive chemicals and a rising ecstasy of imagined futures. During those years my ‘secret’ identity was submerged or merely merged into the template of my upbringing. Although many of my black friends attended the same school, I found myself pulled more and more naturally and irrisistably onto the track of white privilege. There were simply more doors open for me, and I went through without much thought.

My chief nerd friend, Bill Halas and I, after we missed out on being sent to Vietnam via the lottery, decided that what we’d seen of the world rendered it difficult to just ‘follow the program’. We both dropped out of college and decided to take a trip together in his small compact to visit various friends on the East Coast. Thus, on a particularly cold night of the year, we came to Roxbury. Where we stayed was where the fires had burned back in 1967, here, there and everywhere. This was the damage and the aftermath.

At the end of 2019, while black men and women were being publicly executed by police and during the aftermaths of grief, protest and more police violence, an HBO drama vividly opened with a depiction of the Tulsa Massacre of black citizens in Oklahoma in 1921. ‘Watchmen’ traced the lifeline of a survivor of that massacre to a sort of poetic justice, ending where the descendants of the perpetrators of white supremacy and their army of thugs meet their just rewards. Whatever else that drama did, it brought into the conversation one of the biggest racial crimes of the last century. More satisfying and more challenging was another drama on HBO, ‘Lovecraft Country,’ which takes place in the 1950’s and brings the viewer deep into the visceral horror that lurks behind the day to day commonplace of being a black American and a black family in a racist culture. Most recently the August Wilson play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was produced and displayed by Netflix, offering a raw portrait of the passion, the creativity and the rage that fuels the black experience.

I see all of these productions and so many more as having cracked open the doors of memory so that more of us can face the sins and crimes of our history and begin to make amends. They bracket a particular period that began to incite conversations that can either lead to a national resolution or become the basis for a nation’s further fragmentation.

I’m told that Roxbury’s still the poorest section of Boston and, like in every northern city, the symbol of a segregated culture, but that there are efforts to revitalize the district with access to rail lines and shopping districts and revitalized housing. I hope that’s the case. During this long cold pandemic, however, when I see the statistics on joblessness, homelessness and increasing poverty my memory summons up that cold night in an abandoned house, with a family next door, surviving in almost impossible conditions on the edges of America.

QAnon? More New Age Bullshit

Listen…I live in Santa Fe New Mexico.

I came here from Denver after an almost 14 year sojourn in Denver as a refugee of sorts from an intensely immersive experience in spiritual revelation, guru worship and community politics. I thought I knew what there is to know about cult behavior, the proliferation of memes, the sheer power of collective focus and the creation of dogma. I needed a change.

I arrived in Santa Fe to help start a grocery business with some friends and fellow refugees. When that fell apart, I ended up working as a deli manager at the only New York Style restaurant and sandwich shop in town at the time. I knew it was New York Style – or as near as we could manage – because it attracted all the expatriate artists, writers, actors and business people who’d moved here from the Coasts to get away from the traffic and the noise, I suppose.

Since high school I’d been writing and publishing a journal that I’d pass out to friends and a few of the customers I got to know while serving them cappuccinos and pastrami. Some who admired the writing or just enjoyed the conversation began to pitch me to apply as a sales assistant for a locally based publishing house. 

At the time, this wasn’t just any ordinary publisher at the time. Bear & Company started as the brainchild of Matthew Fox, a radical and openly gay catholic priest who had been inspired both by the liberation theology born in Central America and the mystical earth based traditions of medieval mystics like Hildegard of Bingen. The company had recently been taken over by a wealthy couple who were steering the editorial direction toward the popular New Age movement that had emerged out of the political ashes of the sixties. 

When I came aboard, the company had just published several visionary books by a Colorado based art teacher whom I’d met in my Denver/Boulder days. Jose Arguelles’ book about an upcoming ‘Harmonic Convergence’ had been covered on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and sales for Bear & Company had blown through the roof.

Harmonic Convergence came and went. As with all apocalyptic prophecies it bred some degree of disappointment in those who took it literally or expected some awesome and incontrovertible manifestation of radical change in the outer world. Others like myself, who exist more comfortably in the world of metaphor and myth saw the ‘prophecies’ of Harmonic Convergence as part of what became a massive piece of global performance art. We were able to move gracefully toward the next imaginative performance, the next ritual, the next metaphor.

Looking back, I think that global event truly marked the peak of what’s generally regarded as the ‘New Age movement.’ Not the end by any means, but the marking boundary after which the most popular fantasies, pseudo-religious mythologies and channeled cosmologies began to be less coherent and less taken seriously. It also happened to be one of the first pseudo-religious movements that was seeded across the early private bulletin boards of the Internet. It’s explosion into a short lived mass movement presaged a new era dominated by the influence of digital technology. 

While ensconced as a sales assistant I’d written a letter to one of my mentors, William Irwin Thompson, a cultural historian who worked on the boundaries between science and mysticism, and whose books had absorbed my attention for many years. I thought he might be a good fit to the catalogue and my letter asking whether he’d be interested in publishing with us. To my humble delight he replied in the affirmative. We published two of his books, one a reprint and one a cultural critique of New Age thinking. Around that time I’d also become involved in organizing a week long speaking and workshop engagement for a popular psychedelic guru and advocate, Terence McKenna. The event was a rousing success and it put me in touch with the west coast Esalen based community of intellectual visionaries, artists and poets. What followed was a book of speculative conversations between Terence, the English parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham, a chaos math pioneer and associate of William Irwin Thompson.

By this time I’d become part of both the acquisition and editorial effort. The  company had gone beyond its very modest beginnings in theological reflection. Having veered toward the booming and more lucrative New Age market we’d arrived at a fork in the road where two paths diverged at greater and greater distance from one another. In one direction, advocated by me, was the slightly fringe but earnest attempts to continue a quest for knowledge and seeking that was more or less in continuity with western intellectual traditions. On the other road was the quick cash and fame and public adoration that could be gained by finding the right meme or popular trends that would attract the fleeting attention of those in quest of some transcendent explanation that could provide relief in a world full of chaos and disorder. Between the serious and critical inquiry with a visionary bent advocated by the likes of Thompson, Abraham, even McKenna and the politically charged messages channeled from the Pleiadians or Twelfth Planet invasions outlined in the work of Zecharia Sitchen there was an increasingly insurmountable gulf.

Things came to a head between myself and the owners in a struggle for influence that I had no chance of winning, and I soon found myself and my family cast out into the world of practical survival by whatever means available. Gone were the days when everything was possible. In spite of all of our speculation and utopian fantasies the new world had mostly failed to manifest to my generation in any recognizable form. Instead the New Age, with its prophets and messiahs and ascended masters, its apocalyptic visions of the ascent of the chosen in mother ships and collection of heavenly astral entities had come more and more to mirror the Judeo Christian mythologies against which so many of my generation had rebelled.

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We weren’t the first generation to be disillusioned with the lies and excuses of our forebears, but we were the first to see those lies uncovered on television. Having thus lost our innocence and willing acquiescence, we searched for something we actually could believe in. Turns out we were willing to believe in just about anything. From UFO’s to Gurus to Harmonic Convergence to Jim Jones Rallies, we were willing to try any sort of Koolaid. Like the poster in paranormal investigator Agent Muldur’s office in the generational defining TV series, ‘The X-Files’ we ‘wanted to believe’. Like Muldur we were open to any possibility. Over time we became drawn to reductive explanations that would wrap things up in a simplified picture of what’s ‘really’ going on. Along with an ingrained distrust of authority these took us down paths of private obsessions, with Y2K predictions and UFO sightings and JFK assassination plots. Many found refuge in the more deeply rooted paths of American evangelicalism and were ‘born again’. 

The proliferation of cults like QAnon is nothing new. Entire cohorts of seekers have disappeared into the dark rabbit holes of self-reinforced collective denial, where the confusing and isolating ‘real world’ is left far behind. Cult behavior is exactly like a fire in the forest. Once the smoldering starts beneath the quiet surface of leaves and ground cover, the potential for explosive destruction escalates. People are bewildered that your average QAnon follower or conspiracy theorist can accept what, on its face appears to be totally absurd. When shown evidence of incontrovertible facts that contradict whatever it is they believe in, they immediately put the facts through an amazing process of deconstructing reality into a sort of code, and then they reassemble the code to fit their beliefs. It’s an astounding thing to watch.

This shouldn’t be hard to understand. In most people the power of belief far transcends the powers of reason, or even of perception. For a generations steeped in contradictory narratives while the foundations of civilization are shifting, the need to find and cling to manufactured realities can be perceived as necessary for survival. It becomes the very basis for some sense of identity and connection. Reality be damned when a tunnel of explanation embraces you and comforts you and closes you in. With the confusing world outside explained, you and your community of true believers are soon beyond the reach of evidence or facts. In the electronic age, surrounded by the fragments of a deconstructed world, surrounded by screens and mirrors, the need for self identification and self absorption becomes an irresistible pull. When I look into the frightened and angry faces of the QAnon set I see mostly a desperate fear that their whole world could vanish with a thought.

Consider for example in my lifetime the transformation of the Republican Party in the United States, historically the home of both progressive and conservative philosophies, into a refuge for deranged paranoia and fascist cult worship. Over a span of decades I’ve watched with horror as a political party transformed itself at its base essentially into a terrorist organization. This isn’t an accident. At least since the reign of Reagan, an astute product of the dream factory of Hollywood and a promoter of the ‘Southern Strategy’, the transformation has been quite overt. To win national elections in a country growing increasingly diverse, the most paranoid aspects of racist conservative ideology has been deliberately fed and encouraged by those who profit from it. These days the ‘code words’ for bigotry and xenophobia and white supremacy that once hid behind ‘trickle down’ economics and acted as the magic lubricant for its success have mostly been discarded, exposing the weird ideation of fear that lies just beneath a surface of superficial hope and unrealistic expectations. While an aging population of white men and women fight to hold to their place of historical dominance, they inflame the delusions that ignite a fear of chaos in a shrinking base of privilege. ‘Race, abortion, socialism, black folk, and antifa gonna come and ‘steal your money, burn your suburbs, and murder your family’ – anything that separates people into warring tribes is used a tool to attain power or sow the seeds of division. In the end it’s all about the power of those who, like magicians, control the reigns of delusion in a fearful and shrinking majority. Thus are created enchantments so powerful that consensus about common reality becomes increasingly tenuous. The final break occurs when the line of reason held against an ongoing state of emergency is breached. Only through the force of Will and some luck and foresight can a society hold the line against the ‘true believers’ and the rising forces of conflict born of ignorance. 

Apocalyptic movements come and go throughout history. How many false alarms does it take to finally outdo and circumvent the mind twisting rationales addressing the lack of results, the failure of ‘prophecy’ and frankly a total and monstrous gullibility? How to overcome the abject embarrassment that occurs when, inevitably, you’ve been totally made a fool of in front of family, friends and the general public? One can always apologize, but then what?

There are two ways to dispel the mysterious cloud cast by cult-leaders and their acolytes. The first and most short-lived victories are won against those who prove to be dangerous by seeking out, exposing and  eventually purging the leaders of lies and the promoters of fear. Unfortunately replacements are usually found and when we become complacent they return. The other more long-lasting solution is a battle fought within our own individual and collective imaginations. By turning away, by disciplining our minds to erect walls against the spells and bullshit that surrounds us on screens and billboards and in social networks, and in rediscovering the path of true and open discovery, the forces of light become as strong as the illumination that fills a dark room when a candle is lit.

My personal approach is rather hard line and one of little tolerance. I won’t allow the creeping shadow of conspiracy thinking into my presence. Like with an addiction, I believe there is a firm line between serious inquiry and raving lunacy. I will not permit paranoid discourse to thrive in my presence. Even in small doses it’s advocacy becomes the seed that corrupts our future and degrades the collective consciousness, spreading dangerous poison throughout the body politic. For me, there is no other word for the promotion of mass psychosis in the name of power but ‘evil’.

This kind of thinking will always come and go, whenever and wherever humans fear the uncertain future. It’s no accident that many of those who’ve invested the most in the utopian future guaranteed by New Age thinking have wound up advocating violent fantasies in the virtual ‘community’ of QAnon.  These fantasies throughout history, using different buzzwords or selecting different designations for victimizers and the victimized, take inevitably a familiar shape, pitting those within the initiated circle of true believers against everything and everyone who remains outside. For them, the final salvation, the Mothership, always coming, never arrives.

Apologia

IMG_Storyteller

Ralph E. Melcher

For more than three years I haven’t known what to say.

It wasn’t that I was altogether silent or unengaged. I was in turn angry, hopeful, apprehensive, and disgusted as much as anyone. I passed along other people’s notes, wrote headlines for postings on Facebook and Twitter. What else could I add to the conversation? I’ve been part of a nation undergoing daily shock treatment by a madman who rivals any villain in any James Bond film. It feels to me like a battle to the death between my own hopes and visions and a parallel world of absolute insanity.

On top of this, since a month or two before the beginning of my 70th year and just in time for the pandemic, I became afflicted with a double carpal tunnel condition that would require the kind of ‘elective’ surgery that couldn’t be done until the plague emergency lifted a bit and which was a related precursor to the more serious cancer with which I’d be later diagnosed and which eventually brought my work life to a halt. Over time the condition worsened from mild to severe, and the numbness and pain in my fingers became continuous and exhausting, not to mention distracting.

The overall effect of chronic pain isn’t dissimilar to that of a pandemic. It compels me to turn inward. As the pain increased I found myself withdrawing somewhat from less than intimate relationships and from the outside world in general. As virtually every activity in mind and body became more of a labor I spent more of my time alone. I caught up on books I’d been reading, listened to podcasts and Zen lectures, contemplated my daily Tarot card and read Doctor Strange comic books (a source of strength and endurance).

It occurs to me that this is an incubation period. In mathematical terms it could be a ‘bifurcation point’ where our collective evolution takes an unexpected turn toward some new level of organization. This inescapably leads to some kind of world and life that’s clearly different from the one left behind. In times like these when forces accumulate against our forward momentum, and we’ve forgotten where and how to move, we have to learn to think sideways, around corners and into the curves.

Almost all of the conversations I hear in this time of restrictions and forced contemplation are voices yearning for movement in a new direction. We feel the need for damage repair as well as total renewal. We are faced with a world that finds itself in the rapids of a stream, having strayed past safe boundaries in our sleep. Now we face civilization’s apparent rush toward oblivion. Still the dream and our sleep hang on. We want to awake into some sort of normalcy, but normalcy eludes us every minute.

We are compelled to construct a new world.

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For now I offer these brief reflections and recollections for your entertainment or edification or perhaps even a seed of inspiration. More importantly, I invite you, who are staring into your screens, an opportunity to respond, connect, and maybe experience the seeds of whatever grows out of all this compost.

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Weird Tales

I became dismayed and extremely frustrated the other day when somebody for which I carry a lot of respect and affection parroted to me the same right wing propaganda that constantly proliferates on You Tube and Facebook. Both sources are essentially ‘Rabbit Holes,’ programmed to drive gossip, controversy and sensationalism while selling ads.

Between the paranoia and the propaganda, much of it not even generated in this country, our adversaries have gotten America’s number. We are a society that appears to be coming apart at the seams. Only the slightest encouragement is required to cause us to turn on one another like frightened dogs. Since Americans tend to trust our screens more than our actual experience we are VERY ripe for programming and manipulation. Tell a good yarn and it’s certain you’ll create a following. Provide a cliffhanger or sense of constant crisis and you can, like Trump, create a cult.

A cult functions like a cancer on the collective consciousness. Ideology is substituted for facts, programming takes the place of thinking, Individuals begin to function like robots. People once regarded as intelligent humans begin repeating the currently circulating memes and claims in a kind of science fiction nightmare that features suffocating hordes of mindless clones.

When a sufficient number are pulled into the myriad belief systems and ideologies that offer alternatives to the actual processing and evaluation of information, collective decision making becomes almost impossible. There can be no accord, because every position becomes an absolute. The quest for solutions becomes a battle between religions.

So, here we are America, trapped in our own tar pits of misinformation and increasingly obsessive fanaticism. As a nation we appear to be suffering various forms of mass psychosis, shouting at one another from totally different perceptions of reality.

The anxiety of the final days and weeks leading us toward our fate is that we don’t really know how bad is the disease. We know it’s pretty bad, and it’s spreading in waves, mostly driven by social media and those who profit from chaos. Everyday the stories and rumors get more imaginative and ridiculous, while people huddle in groups formed mainly to reinforce their own fears and premeditations.

Perhaps there are still enough Americans out there who are capable of rational decision making, who aren’t afraid of facts and data, who can make the mental leap to figure out that voting out of fear and insecurity will only lead to more of the same.

It’s hard to tell. Rational people find themselves trying to be heard above the noise, and the noise is everywhere. In the year 2020, with pandemic, racial tensions, climate change and election fever all appearing to peak at once, we will be forced to see more clearly, once the dust settles, just who and what peers back at us in the mirror.

Continue reading “Weird Tales”

Seventy

This week I approach my seventieth birthday. It’s the same as Thomas Jefferson’s, with whose passions and contradictions I can totally relate, particularly the fact that his vision so far exceeded his grasp. As a privileged and prosperous inheritor of great wealth in an economy based on slavery, as an obssesive tabulator of facts and figures and an elevated member of a race and culture that considered itself inherently superior to all others, Jefferson’s restless mind would not allow him to reside in any fixed station. Instead he imagined an ideal world, nonexistent at the time, where every human being had, by virtue of being, inherent and inalienable rights to pursue satisfaction in whatever way they could. The nation he helped to get off the ground has yet to achieve those ideals, having been saddled, as was Jefferson, with the contradictions between commerce and equality.

Today I took a walk into the center of my city to find a public mailbox and to appreciate the beauty of an early spring day in Santa Fe. The streets were mostly quiet, except for occasional cruisers in huge pickup trucks and a flotilla of motorcycles that wove themselves around the Plaza. A few couples and isolated characters wandered like me past the close galleries and restaurants, museums and churches, appreciating the blossoming trees and the opportunity to pull down our face masks to appreciate their scents in the open air. As I walked I listened to Zen talks given from Mount Tremper in New York via podcasts on my iphone. I contemplated my own conflicts and contradictions and my own position in regards to the present and the future.

In contemplating the inner struggles of the past three years it occurred to me that I could turn things, so to speak, on their head. Instead of seeing only chaos and obstacles culminating in the crashing and devastating halt of the pandemic, I could see all of this as an opportunity. Perhaps, as we each approach a sense of possible and impending mortality, we can sort out the the wheat from the chaff both in our individual natures and in the world at large.

The basic contradiction in American culture, it seems to me, is where the cult of individual freedom clashes with the common welfare, and by extension where the demands of a capitalist system clash with the aspirations of democratic institutions. Perhaps, with the ascendency of the present administration, these contradictions have been put before us in as plain a vision as could be possible. As a nation addicted to celebrity culture and to the pursuit of personal wealth we’ve managed to elevate to the highest level the perfect embodiment of pure ego and self interest, devoid of empathy or of compassion or of any consideration that transcends the possession of pure power and an illusion of control. Some of us have done this out of avarice and some out of fear and pure desperation.

For those of us who have conceived of a different world, governed by the notion that the welfare of one is inseparable from the welfare of the whole, these three years plus have been both a travesty and a challenge. Most importantly, it has daily shown, in our responses and reactions who we really are, at our best and at our worst.

For me, it has fully exposed a current of rage and resentment that I’ve lived with for most of my life, and which I’ve strived to suppress or which has been the engine of my own self judgement. Where does it come from? Perhaps some is inherited through family dynamics or early childhood disappointments and frustrations. Not a little has emerged out of the pure disillusionment of having been raised with the highest ideals only to see them continually subverted within the world I’m forced to navigate. Some of it is a product of an empathic reaction to gross injustice done to others. Whatever it’s origin, this steady undercurrent of rage has in many ways made my life and the experience of those around me more difficult, rather than less.

For this I am deeply aggrieved.

Yet, on the other side of rage is compassion. I’ve long considered his to be my greatest failing. On the one hand, I’ve always experienced an acute sense of empathy with those who suffer in this world. On the other hand I’ve allowed those feelings to feed my sense of outrage against those whom I perceive to be the propagators of that suffering. In my mind and in my emotions I’ve separated those who I perceive as the victims from those I’ve perceived as the victimizers. As our culture has become more and more polarized, between the rich and the poor, the white and the non-white, the powerful and the weak, this has metastasized into what amounts to an internal ‘civil war’ that I find myself fighting on a daily and hourly basis. There are the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys, and my vision doesn’t allow for anything between total victory or total defeat.

What has become increasingly clear to me, in this cultural moment when the rug has been pulled out from under both the perpetrators and their victims, is that we are all relatively helpless in the face of forces that are so much larger than our petty struggles over greed and ego. So, now the question becomes whether I can overcome my feelings of rage and resentment, and join once again the collective experience of the human race in a manner that goes beyond ego and ideology, and is nothing more than a reflection of the forces that I perceive as the enemy.

* * *

In the last couple of months the vicissitudes of age have finally caught up with me. The work I do for a living has taken a deep toll on my body. My shoulders are a tight mess, the tips of my fingers have grown numb with the carpel tunnel effects of the former, yesterday when I took out my bike for the first time since the Fall, I had trouble lifting my leg high enough to mount up. My plans for the future and for retirement are, as a consequence, all in serious question. On top of this is the virus and a question about how my previously strong immune system has stood the vicissitudes of age. In short, the question of mortality stands before me as never before.

The lesson that I believe needs to be learned is that the outcomes are out of my hands, and that my responsibility to myself is to live this life as much as I can in a state of acceptance rather than one of eternal conflict. This is admittedly very difficult for someone who feels both like a warrior and a disillusioned idealist. I will always be a warrior. What I need to let go of is the disillusionment. Then I can begin to address the problems and situations in front of me without having to view them through the destructive discoloring of rage.

Who knows, perhaps the possibility of compassion is not even out of reach. Perhaps even that possibility can extend to an America still caught between dream and reality and having to face its own collective demons.

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.

To the Super Bowl

So, this evening (Monday, Feb. 3rd) the REAL Super Bowl begins. Now that all of the Impeachment drama is coming to a close and the football drama is over for a year and we’ve watched the most expensive commercials ever made, perhaps we can get down to business of moving forward.

For the year’s total anticlimax there’s the State of The Union embarrassment taking place tomorrow, in which the Donald will…who knows what the Donald will do or say? The best approach in dealing with our Asshole in Chief is to ignore him as much as possible and go forward with our lives, using our thoughts and imaginations to conjure more palatable futures.

Rush Limbaugh is dying of lung cancer. That’ll take some of the wind out of the sails blowing toward oblivion. While Senators bloviated, the biggest news this week is that the Thwaite Glacier is getting ready to drop and could quickly raise the ocean levels by up to 3 feet. The impending drop of what scientists have dubbed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’ will only be the first of many. There goes one civilization, to be replaced by necessity with another.

I’ve spent the past three years stewing in the juices of my own anger and it has gotten me nowhere. The daily disaster has driven me to forget that the best way to observe the ongoing bombardment and spectacle of news and information is to step as far back from the sheer noise and confusion as possible. The news of the ‘moment’ is mostly made to sell personality and product rather than offering much in the way of useful information. What happens in the moment isn’t as important as our collective mediated response to it. The Reality we perceive in this digital world is of necessity always second hand.

We are each in the business of assembling a world that corresponds to our own predilections. For myself I’ve chosen to accept information primarily through online digital conversations, rather than merely accepting what is ‘broadcast.’ Avoiding antiquated mediums like television and radio or newspaper, I seriously engage with information only after it’s been processed through trusted networks of intelligence and discrimination, carefully evaluating the materials with which to assemble my own picture of the world. I’m a subscriber to reality, mostly through print and podcasts, and an occasional glance at headlines from selected inputs on Apple News or Flipboard or the front pages of newspapers.

When I encounter, as in the laundromat, televised news formats in real time I’m conscious that what I’m receiving is an agenda that has more to do with commerce than truth. This stuff, including all forms of mass public broadcast, from out and out propaganda to public radio, is safe to consume only to the degree that one is aware that every broadcaster has their own agenda. Whatever presents itself as absolute truth is only ideology.

Everyone I know who merely consumes ‘The News’ on television or radio appears to be driven crazy by it.

As a consuming culture many Americans are being consumed by cynicism, doubt and despair. The world we’ve constructed in our minds is one in continual emergency, to which we must react without being given a trusted set of tools to react with. Too many of us are swimming and drowning in a pool of helplessness where new alarms are shouting every day, “Danger! Danger!” After years of daily bombardment we are shell shocked and numb, unable to pierce the fog that obscures the future. Christians and New Agers await the Apocalypse, white supremacists look forward to their ‘boogaloo,’ conspiracy fetishists obsess over every revelation while screwing themselves into increasingly paranoid fantasies, and the rest of us deal with a growing sense of apprehension and dread.

Meanwhile, the world trundles on within webs of mind boggling complexity and we are swept along in rushing rivers of karma and consequence. So easy to imagine that we are either victims, or else we are fighting a constant war for particular outcomes. So easy for me to spew words into the void like weapons, effecting only to increase the chaos instead of offering clarity or hope.

Well, it’s a new year and I’ve been mostly silent lately, after what has felt to me like constant struggle against overwhelming odds. It’s true that there is struggle. The need for change is obvious. The change that’s needed however, can only come about through a change of channels. I’ve been paying too much attention to the idiots waving the flags, and too little time spent in a world where human beings are meant to live, one that’s woven through our minds and our imaginations, where we tell each other stories and look at dire situations as problems to be solved. This is the only kind of world where we have a chance to live beyond our fears. It’s the only world where we can construct the necessary bonds that will hold this ship together.

Let’s try something different for a change.

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.”