know thyself

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Selecting poems to share as National Poetry Month starts to wind down, I also came across a note from a phantom from the past – someone who was startlingly insensitive in the ‘heyday’ of our acquaintance but occasionally comes up with something both sweet and thought-provoking now.

On relationships/sharing space and time with someone: “I think it’s more about understanding the necessity of being able to share and sustain the vital moment-to-moment microbial details with someone, which has nothing to do with the legendary impacts of romantic impressions that soon become questionable – perhaps not finding this in someone is where your ‘incapable’ lies presently. After all, your details are lovely – slow, patient and kind – whether you recognise it or not. One of those sayings that has given me access to a different perspective has been floating over me lately, ‘Above all else, know thyself’.”

And who will guide us back to friendship with and knowing of ourselves? …

 

Impossible Friendships
By Adam Zagajewski

For example, with someone who no longer is,
who exists only in yellowed letters.

Or long walks beside a stream,
whose depths hold hidden

porcelain cups—and the talks about philosophy
with a timid student or the postman.

A passerby with proud eyes
whom you’ll never know.

Friendship with this world, ever more perfect
(if not for the salty smell of blood).

The old man sipping coffee
in St.-Lazare, who reminds you of someone.

Faces flashing by
in local trains—

the happy faces of travelers headed perhaps
for a splendid ball, or a beheading.

And friendship with yourself
—since after all you don’t know who you are.

happier stains

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Happy moments tempered by the certainty that they are ephemeral and temporary. But should they be tempered or embraced? Pain and monotony are as much a part of life and learning to live it as happiness, despite what the self-help industry wants you to believe.

Thanks to J.

The Sunlight on the Garden

Louis MacNeice
The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

the narrow path

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L’ignorant
Philippe Jaccottet
Plus je vieillis et plus je croîs en ignorance,
plus j’ai vécu, moins je possède et moins je règne.
Tout ce que j’ai, c’est un espace tour à tour
enneigé ou brillant, mais jamais habité.
Où est le donateur, le guide, le gardien ?
Je me tiens dans ma chambre et d’abord je me tais
(le silence entre en serviteur mettre un peu d’ordre),
et j’attends qu’un à un les mensonges s’écartent :
que reste-t-il ? que reste-t-il à ce mourant
qui l’empêche si bien de mourir ?
Quelle force
le fait encor parler entre ses quatre murs ?
Pourrais-je le savoir, moi l’ignare et l’inquiet ?
Mais je l’entends vraiment qui parle, et sa parole
pénètre avec le jour, encore que bien vague :
«Comme le feu, l’amour n’établit sa clarté
que sur la faute et la beauté des bois en cendres… »

Oh, I love this reading…

The more I read, the more ignorant I am. That is, the more aware of my ignorance I become. This awareness, which I have always had but gave little thought to, becomes daunting but challenging as I learn more each and every day. But it also makes me angrier about uninformed, willfully/proudly ignorant people who have strong opinions that they insist are valid or equal to facts, even though their opinions have no basis in fact at all. Like a merit badge, they loudly state these “alternative facts”.

I can only keep gorging my mind from the broadest of intellectual and multidisciplinary buffets, but what good will that do if so much of the rest of the world rests comfortably in, at best, mediocrity, blindness and anti-intellectualism? Probably none – not if, for example, climate deniers rule the day. But hell, maybe we won’t reach that point of destruction if the world continues on its current destructive trajectory (politically). Maybe we can all be wiped out much sooner. Or just be subjected to dubious leadership from people who are, as Mr Firewall put it, “a roll of tinfoil away from making a helmet”.

I am desperately and actively trying to seek new learning, new paths, new sources, new fields, new conversations, new debates, new perspectives, new disciplines, new ways to develop the mind and expand my thinking. I don’t mind being contradicted – or presented with other ideas – if they can be backed up with something.

I know and see how creativity dies, and in my case, how everything I do and write comes out completely flat when life’s path and focus narrows too much. I would like to believe, and have managed to bamboozle myself for some time, that I haven’t fallen into this trap. But I have. I might do spontaneous, random stuff with a fair amount of frequency, and stuff my brain with information and stimuli, but am I ever really stepping out of my comfort zone?

I was recently confronted by this reality – more than usual – not because anyone accused me of anything to the contrary, but because someone, in casually telling me bits about himself, unveiled glimpses of a selfless and grueling – but rewarding – set of quests and travails that make up the topography of his life. And as I marveled, unresponsive and awed, I eventually thought, ‘Wow. I’m a complete fucking wuss and only become more of one every day.’

Oh, those Russians

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Untitled
Viktor Sosnora/Виктор Александрович Соснора

There it all was: the gaslamp, drugstore,
street, a kiss,

a fountain, imposture, Mniszech,
Evgeny and the Neva night,

a madman and revolvers,
a genius and the jealousy of hands,

friends with double eyes,
wit of our will-o-the-wisp,

Salieri with the wrong goblet,
take everything to heart: tomorrow, love…

how light it is to love the dead!
how late it is to love the living!

Photo (c) 2006 OiMax used under Creative Commons license.

 

The bony prominence

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there’s a body on the railings/that i can’t identify/and i’d like to reassure you but/i’m not that kind of guy” –robyn hitchcock & the egyptians, “raymond chandler evening”

The gaze of the besotted: “You could talk, and I could simply… stare.” And the response of the sensei-like object, quietly bearing witness to repeated patterns and burned one too many times: Soften this with caution. After all, on Friday, all the animals behaved strangely. Deer and cats all racing up and down hills and into hiding with swiftness that suggested they were all being chased by some invisible predator. Birds were flying in strange, almost panicked, patterns. Should this signal that we take cover, adopt caution as the mantra, or that we should live with reckless abandon?

“What does a yellow light mean?”
“Slow down.”
“Whaaat …. does …… a yel-llllllow……light… mean?”

In the simmer of the slow, thoughts on the theme of training or re-training (the self) resurface. I wondered, after reaching middle age, having spent most of the first half of my life alone (the adult part), whether it is possible to train yourself to – and can you – be around another person – that is, all the time? Not just a dinner date or a weekend together in the Algarve. But really be together. All the evidence I see around me says no. And all the case studies of people who have toughed it out for 20, 30 or even, like my parents, 43 years (actually more than that, but 43 years of marriage as of this past suntanned Friday full of wild and domestic animals run amok), indicate that it’s more misery than mirth.

Having lived without sharing space or time, can you shift the routine and way of thinking to accommodate another – can you even become desirous of spending life’s second half (or some part of it) with someone else? Or is the temptation of liberal and free abandon too great? I wonder sometimes if this form of isolating oneself is actually a form of alienation, which Erich Fromm touched upon:

“Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness.” (from The Art of Loving)

On the other hand, Calvino offers:

“And Polo said: ‘The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it’.” (from Invisible Cities)

I hold no truck with your burning my goat

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Friday, I do believe, may have been a/the sobriety anniversary for someone I know/knew. At least that’s what my memory started telling me on Thursday – or actually Wednesday – while walking in central Oslo passing some of the things I had seen with him the last time I wandered through the city center. All those hi-fi stores – I will never understand how they all stay in business. And there was even a semi-sung rendition of “Just Like Christmas” by Low. Strange how far away all of that, and even winter itself, feels. Things that happen in the permanently dusky, fictive period that is December/holidays/early new year are like that: they happened but take on an almost invented quality later when looking back.

Yes, these spring days in cold but sunny Oslo: This time it was a work dinner (at a restaurant that seemed to serve little, other than ceviche). I winced my way through the whole day, hobbling through a good 28 waking hours by the end of it, despite feeling a kind of searing pain surging wildly in much of my body. I, however, was more annoyed at the complaints I voiced and the visible indications of pain I showed than with the pain itself. (Back pain, which has been on and off for weeks, had abated but came roaring onto the scene again after an ill-advised long drive coupled with other stuff.)

This drummed up different thoughts, none of which were linked.

For example, I wondered how one comes to realize s/he is an alcoholic in a country and culture that is technically full of them? Where is the line?

As David Sedaris writes: “Turn down a drink in the United States, and people get the message without your having to explain. ‘Oh,’ they say, ashamed of themselves for presuming otherwise. ‘Right. I should probably… quit too.’ In Europe, though, you’re not an alcoholic unless you’re living half-naked on the street, drinking antifreeze from a cast-off shoe. Anything shy of this is just ‘fun-loving’ or ‘rascally’. Cover your glass in France or Germany — even worse, in England — and in the voice of someone who has been personally affronted, your host will ask why you’re not drinking.” (from When You Are Engulfed in Flames)

I thought of a colleague who kept using the word “pivot” but pronounced it “PIE-vot”. The kind of guy who suffers from a kind of Napoleon complex, driven by a must-boast, one-up, must-be-right, I-was-there(-first) syndrome – but luckily only at first (he has to mark his territory when you meet him) because eventually this gives way to a smart, sarcastic personality that is also warm, competent and insightful. I recalled one of his humbler moments, “I fucked up. And from the fuck-ups of our lives, we learn a lot. Immense amounts.” Or another colleague (although that implies there is something collegial or cooperative about our working together) who said, “Let’s not rewrite the wheel.” What?

I remembered also all those times people said things to me that smacked of other motives than what they thought they were transparently offering, betraying true intentions that lurked just beneath the surface. Much like a child who draws attention to his transgression before there is ever any suspicion aroused. The, “Oh, I might have this Mexican woman move in as my new roommate. But she’s not my type or anything; I am not attracted to her.” Hmm. Did anyone say you were? But you just showed your hand, friend. Or, “Nothing happened. I just got her phone number because she has the right look for my photography.” Um, okay. All the things that illuminate without lights.

But then, just as quickly, the mind shifts to asking what the difference is between ceviche and poke. Or to figuring out if I can finish reading all 13 books I have going right now before the end of April. Or to how expressions get muddled – the aforementioned “rewrite the wheel” or, my favorite flubs from Mr Firewall (of which there are many), who at least can laugh at himself first and longest, saying “burns my goat” instead of “gets my goat” and “tans my hide”.

Many thoughts but nothing too coherent – that’s how it goes in the delirium of too little sleep. Often it comes back to Pessoa:

“All that was lost, all that should have been sought, all that was obtained and fulfilled by mistake, all that we loved and lost and then, after losing it and loving it for having lost it, realized we never loved; all that we believed we were thinking when we were feeling; all the memories we took for emotions” –Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Photo by Medena Rosa

lucid moment

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…Don’t allow the lucid moment to dissolve
Adam Zagajewski

Don’t allow the lucid moment to dissolve
Let the radiant thought last in stillness
though the page is almost filled and the flame flickers
We haven’t risen yet to the level of ourselves
Knowledge grows slowly like a wisdom tooth
The stature of a man is still notched
high up on a white door
From far off, the joyful voice of a trumpet
and of a song rolled up like a cat
What passes doesn’t fall into a void
A stoker is still feeding coal into the fire
Don’t allow the lucid moment to dissolve
On a hard dry substance
you have to engrave the truth