Mystic and Membrane: Vicissitudes of Language

Words are strange sound symbols we can’t live with and can’t live without. They are and aren’t. They bridge us over to one another and block our way. We forever hazard mistaking word for object, solidifying a word or idea into a specific form or image, making us forget that the universe is forever changing and words today don’t mean what they meant yesterday or what they’ll mean tomorrow—let alone in a thousand years. Words are life rings to which we cling; attire with which we clothe our psychic bodies; weapons, shields, and armor with which we go into daily battle.

Sicilian Water Skippers

When language falls away, like a veil or mist, we’re faced with the naked world around us, harsh and beautiful. To arrive at pure presence in pure reality, bursting through the membranes of our delusions (to suggest Zen satori here), if such an achievement is possible, is to have undertaken the longest, most difficult journey to a place that, ironically, is all around and within us.

Language may be the most troublesome membrane we grapple with in an effort to break through to reality. Thus mystics, poets, and metaphors are born. The mystic-poet who merges with or intuits the deep nature of reality then returns to tell about it, may return with words that merely allude to the experience, thus pointing more to the mind of the mystic than to ultimate reality. The mystic may still be tainted or inspired by it, but once the mystic poet begins to place words one after the other, during later moments of inspiration, new experiences occur and new realities are born.

Language is perhaps our most dangerous friend, since new collections of words may subvert our experience of reality. Still, such language, regardless of its failure to take us to the heart of an exclusive reality, may seduce us into strange, beautiful, soul-altering experience and enliven us in a potentially mind-deadening world. As long as words—tough, inspiriting, slippery words—take us to new and challenging places, our picture of reality deepens and expands. Reality depends on us to make sound symbol journeys into the intimate body of the unknown.

Copyright 2018 by Rick Clark (previously published in CORRelations: Newsletter of Center for Object Relations)

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Declaration of Healthy Intimate Relationship Needs

To feel acknowledged and appreciated for what one is, who one is, and what one does and not just in the passing, under-the-breath, mundane way.

To be respected for hard work, worldly knowledge, and achievements and as a human being, man or woman, hard worker, senior, learned person, leader, artist, dream-fulfiller, innovative or productive person, etc.

To be understood, to have one’s feelings understood, or at least to feel the effort another makes to understand.

To be responded to, not with silence, but with a full, thoughtful, and delving response. To be soothed if necessary. To have both pain and joy responded to accordingly. Not to be taken for granted.

To be cared about (or for, if and when necessary) as much as is possible or reasonable. To have an interest taken in one’s life, work, pursuits, struggles, and successes.

To feel one is needed and that what one has to give is valuable and of use. To receive credit or acknowledgment for these offerings.

To be known and remembered. To be heard and understood (not criticized, judged, prescribed, or directed). To be asked questions until a full understanding is reached.

To be apologized to, as necessary.

To receive affection and tenderness.

Most importantly: To be communicated with clearly and carefully at all times, especially about all of the above. No relationship is more important than the central love relationship, materially, emotionally, and socially. Nothing should get in the way of clear, careful, well-meaning communication.

Note: This is a lot to need, yet the fulfillment of these needs, the humble effort to fulfill these needs, is the basic prescription for a fully blossomed, finely tuned, healthy intimate love relationship. Also, it’s necessary to have the courage to admit that responding to needs is difficult or requires work and to understand the difference between love and mere dependence.

Copyright 2017 by Rick Clark

Wrenzai’s Philosophical Spiritual Journey (in short)

I had my first “realization” when I was eight, as I was lying on my back out in a wheat field near our rented farmhouse in Aloha, Oregon. I sensed, I decided, that there was no god in the sky and no god perched over in the walnut tree and that the people, my parents and all the other people in the world, had made up all the stories about God, Soul, Heaven and Hell, etc., and that to believe as others do would be to become a blind follower of arbitrary human constructs. I didn’t have this realization in exactly these words, but the sense or sensation was there, sharp and clear.

Crows Walking on Water

This was a life-altering, perspective-founding experience for me, because in that moment I consciously penetrated the nature of human civilization and psychology. I knew I was alone in the Universe, and I knew I would always rely on my own view of “the nature of things.” I would never take anything at face value and always remain skeptical of the claims of humans. Seeing is believing. I would have made a great scientist. I settled for poetry.

Living in a Tree

From there I drifted along as a social agnostic till I was 27. It never seemed important or useful to me to argue about beliefs with others. And in those days, the mid to late 70s, people weren’t discussing such matters much anyway. One evening I was soaking in the tub when I had my second realization. I called my girlfriend to come into the bathroom and told her I just realized I had no real, conscious philosophy and that it was time for me to “get one.” As I was attending classes part-time at Portland State University, I began taking philosophy classes. When I took the class entitled “Existential Literature,” I knew I’d found my major affirmation. Perhaps my interest in Existentialism derived from a kind of nihilistic tendency to undermine all the structures, rules, and delusions of religion and even of some Western philosophies, but the real reason is my love of the potential in my fellow humans. I read Camus, Sartre, Gide, and de Beauvoir, mainly, which helped clear the psychic air for me. But I was irritated by the fact that humankind—thinking, reading, critical-minded humankind—found the conclusions of godlessness, soullessness, and afterlifelessness to be so unbearably negative. They couldn’t live with it; it was too bleak.

Nature

That’s when I began to meditate, reflect, think logically, and write in order to find the positive in Existentialism. Thus I coined the expression “Positive Existentialism.” In other words, I realized that only when the whole of humankind can come to realize that we’re “grounded in Earth” can we work together to create a better world. Sartre’s final words really helped here, that “with freedom comes responsibility.” Since we can’t depend on supernatural beliefs, beings, or practices to help us, then it’s up to us to take action to create a better world, here and now. My idea of Positive Existentialism has come in handy with students and others who come to me saying, “Why do anything? I’m just going to die anyway.” I’d reply, “Why not set out to do everything you dream of doing? Why not fulfill your potential, be the best you can be? You’re alive here and now, and this, for all you know, is your one and only opportunity. Besides, would living forever be reason for you to do everything you otherwise can’t bother to do because you’re going to die anyway? Sounds like a cop-out to me.”

Nurturing

A couple problems came up. One was morality and the other was free will. Larry Bowlden, who was the PSU Philosophy Department head and who was teaching the Existential Literature class in 1977, said that maybe morality is based on intuition, that we know intrinsically that’s it’s bad to kill one another. Ah, survival of the species, of course! Later, I found a page, which I used as a handout in some of my college intercultural communications classes to build unity, that translated and quoted fourteen versions of the Golden Rule, each from a different religion. The Golden Rule, religiously and secularly, is a universal. It was then that I realized that universals, principles, and ideals that no one can argue with and that can be found in all religions and practical philosophies is the answer that the Existentialists did not deliver.

Search for Universals

As for free will, I came to realize that even the humanist, secularist, iconoclast, and/or atheist must accept certain unknowns. Do we have free will? Or is it just an illusion? I choose to believe we do have free will and are not simply driven by fate or providence or mechanical chains of events in nature. Otherwise, the world wouldn’t be changing so quickly. Many strong free wills are in conflict. So I came to accept, as bottom-line in my thinking, that morality is inherent, that free will exists in humans, and that humans must inevitably make choices. And if we must choose between dying (or killing others) and living a productive life (and not killing others), we must choose the latter. Many years later I found affirmation for this idea in Plato’s concept that the Form (or Idea) of the Good is the ultimate object of knowledge. The human mind cannot compare seeking good and seeking bad without ultimately choosing to seek good. Good is shinier. Not that we don’t backslide now and then.

Most of these thoughts began to emerge in my 40s, as I was building a cabin in the woods.

Beauty Not to Be Accounted For

Zen Buddhism came to me first from my Grandma Glenda, who was into the esoteric (Rosicrucians, for one). There was an atmosphere of peace amidst exotica in her home. There were Buddhas and books on the Far East, incense and Chinese checkers. But it was reading and writing poetry, years later, that led me to ancient Chinese and Japanese Zen (Buddhist) literature. That was in the 90s. I was 45 or so. And it was Zen poetry that led me haiku. (Note: I should mention that I “killed the Buddha,” which is an expression referring to a famous Zen koan, some years ago, so now I simply refer to Zen.) Positive Existentialism was the perfect secularization to set me up for Zen. Once I had the philosophical reality in place (nature only), how could I find peace and purpose in that reality?

Play

Zen is psychology, all about the mind. Thus the emphasis on meditation. Some would call it self-psychology. And it is. It’s just not overly analytical. A good way to think about it is to focus on the idea of “universal mind.” This is why I like Buddha, because it wasn’t supernatural beings (who in his dream were merely tests of his enlightenment) by which he became enlightened; it was by transcending them and achieving a sense of universality in the face of the particulars of earthly existence, including the fact that we must die but just don’t know when. He realized that our fears and desires were our burden and that we need only to rid our fears and desires to be free. In Universal Mind, one can imagine one’s death, one’s not existing, and feel equanimous at the thought, even breathe a sigh of relief. This goes for all fears, desires, and other forms of monkeymindedness. One can let go of all these vanities.

Lifeguard on Duty

So there are different kinds of meditation, each of which may be related to different brain wave states. One says, Clear the mind; seek emptiness. Another says, Attune your five senses to your body or to the outside world. The last says, Observe your thoughts; notice them, but don’t argue with, chastise, or dwell on them. Simply let the mind observe the thoughts as they pass (the mind is not the thinker but the observer of thoughts). Without being analytical, the mind will note the trouble spots. Adjusting the mind will come naturally this way.

If only haters could observe and note their hateful thoughts they’d slowly fade away (the thoughts, I mean)!

Universal (meditate on this)

Two other problems came up: One is existence itself and the other is the human need to believe (in something or someone). I know Zen talks about nothingness, but I’ve come to think that this nothingness does not imply that matter, energy, space, and, by extension, life don’t exist. Nothingness can be conceived of, only by something, someone, a mind, and in relation to somethingness (think yin and yang here). So I choose to believe that, bottom line, we exist, we have free will and must choose good, ultimately, we are inherently moral, and we need to believe in something. These are my points of faith (but I eschew the word “faith” because the Evangelicals have monopolized and narrowed it). I was helped with the latter problem by Jung and Campbell. Jung said humans need to have a mythology to believe in. Campbell showed us that different tribes, cultures, religions, and stories contain many of the same elements, or archetypes. He posited the idea that these myths, symbols, patterns, and archetypes reflect the presence of psychic organs. While this idea may be helpful to account for common beliefs among diverse cultures, I’m not sure that this knowledge makes overcoming our worst inner selves any easier. If we have an incorrigible psychic organ called Trickster that regularly gets others into trouble, should we, or can we, overcome him?

Just because one doesn’t believe in the supernatural doesn’t mean one can’t have beliefs, healthy beliefs.

The Knave, the Foolish King, the Human Imagination?

As for the inherent need to believe in something or someone, I believe that beliefs themselves are completely negotiable. Thus my final thesis: I believe that the highest faith we can have is in our selves and one another, to become better human beings and create a better world. This is my belief that supersedes all others in my world. It’s a lot to believe in, and, considering the mess that is this dangerous world, a long ways off. Believing in a supernatural being about whom we actually know nothing is infinitely easier and may be a way of shirking our responsibilities on Earth.

Etna (volcano)

Did I mention “absurdity,” the “absurd hero”? Thurber’s moth, Voltaire’s Candide, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Chance the Gardener in Kosinski’s Being There? There’s a lot of cowardice in believing in the given paradigm; it’s much bolder and deeper to believe in the nearly impossible.

One With

Copyright 2017, by Rick Clark

I Am Building a Nest, by Timothy Fichtner

I’m building a nest for our mutual fascination, contemplation, and comfort.

It will be my work to construct just the right cup to hold our respected interest.

I would like us to look closely at my particular weave in the hopes that our valuable eggs of time and reflection will hatch a healthy and subsequently edified brood. I will loop and wrap and twist and turn and tug and tie and tamp the muddy mortar of adjectives and nouns with all the right conjunctions that support and protect me and my reader and our personal perspective and insight.

Coarse to fine (photos by Timothy Fichtner)

By the sidewalk (photos by Timothy Fichtner)…

I promise you—though my story may fall short of some well researched tome that illustrates finite points on the construction of nests built by any particular species of bird—I will try to impart the richness of steeped sentiment from an imaginative and curious mind.

A bird’s nest is a piece of work. Maybe in the eye of the beholder it is Art, the higgledy-piggledy catawampus of skewed warp and weft loomed by an articulating beak into a necessary object, unique and yet the same, simple and yet complicated.

Bit by bit

…in the garage…

I have been halted in the midst of my practiced amblings by the sight of an avian domicile, a nest of distinct necessity and purpose, for, what I can proclaim are, deep subconscious and profoundly relative existential confrontations with my reflective comparative thoughts on humankind’s evolving complicated existence.

Allow a thread of psychology to be placed on my mat of experiential twigs, so to speak. Humans are known for the use of the symbolic. Birds’ nests are the symbol of the parenting of burgeoning life, physical proof that at one time, in that place, that nest, a life, an offspring, had received devoted care and protection. Inarguably, birds’ nests are that evidentiary symbol.

Cozy

…in a tree…

Sometimes I feel that my sentiment, when I see a bird’s nest, is corrupt. I see yet another work by a creature toiling to perpetuate its species, a species with no free will, just an overwhelming laborious drive that mocks the phrase “free as a bird.”

A sentiment that, whereas compared to human beings, viewed through the microcosmic lens, of course, I consider that all avian types live a most difficult existence and are the true bearers of terror by the circumstances of the elements, the predation of disease and other wildlife, sustaining greater mortality numbers among their offspring.

It is easy to get wrapped up in the romanticism of the ritualistic ties of the avian family. Especially when we see such pure fledging directives, unwavering and unmatched or even challenged, when we compare them to human rearing behavior.

In the garden

…in the garden…

But I say that is foolish projection. It is foolish because no tool exists in our psychological quantum toolbox for this sort of figuring or measuring. No amount of documents from the sentiments of Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. or Dr., no amount of she saids and he saids from speculation, no crude incursions with scalpels and electrodes or countless hours of observation can give us a read on what dimension or plane other natural forms of life (other than Homo sapiens) are operating on…. That is simply my complicated opinion.

This is my opinion, my opinion that is built on my fascination with the subject of birds’ nests, the wonder and mysteriousness of them all. The quirky precision of their construction and the cruelty of their necessity transfix me.

I have no doubt that the enticement of nature’s mysteries—in this case birds’ nests, and the pat expression of pragmatism aloft on the wings of anthropomorphic speculative transcendental sentiment—has my thinking flying in circles. For me, knowing the way I think, there is no recovery from this mind-full tailspin.

And in the gutter

…and in the gutter.

To you avian kind, I am enamored with your art, your craft, if you will, your nests. Why you lay this over, why you tuck that under, I cry, is fascinating! I am troubled by your plight for survival. I am confounded, as I am with humankind, by your purpose and meaning. I am also glad. I am glad to see you, to hear you, to watch you and to know you are working hard to continue to be here.

To be here as you are while I am here.

Four Ant Poems

Ant War, 1958

Two little generals
wage a little war:
the red ants against the black ants
in the black-ant ant farm.

With superior mandibles
the red ants sever the
black-ant heads
from the black-ant abdomens,

leaving the black-ant soldiers
lying in tangled mounds
on the black-ant ant farm
battleground.

The red ants charge down
the black-ant tunnels
to feast on
the black-ant young.

The two little generals
are satisfied:
One army lost,
the other won.

Everything is
as everything should be,
just like in the movies
and on TV.

Ant’s Load

He who hasn’t seen an ant
hasn’t seen the world—the ant,
who hauls with superhuman strength
the precise timber for a gate
or drags behind him
some hulking, wriggling meal
across a wilderness a hundred ant-miles wide,
all the way up his city’s ramp,
a hero returning
with a boon for his tribe.

Pushes, pulls, then flings it about—
hour after hour till the long day’s work
is finally over. If necessary camps beside it
through the black wet night, surviving floods
and creatures of the dark, hunting bugs.

In the morning heaves its great weight
up over his head then flips it forward,
the way Hercules threw the lion,
battling failure to the death.

Applies leverage, utilizes fulcrums, steps back
to ponder the possibilities, renegotiates
the rugged terrain, backtracks
with a kind of certitude.

Hour after hour,
without food or water.

For the tribe,
for the future,
to fulfill his nature,
makes a tiny but no less significant
contribution to his culture.

Who who’s watched an ant
can argue?

Ant Pastoral

Ants swarm under the first sun
of a summer day, as on the first day
of spring, glistening red and black
in their shiny new armor.

The day’s long tasks begin,
of a day as of a season,
to build, then rebuild,
the hill that houses them,

to further hump over
with the detritus of the woods
their precious queen
and her countless unborn children.

In teams and solo, workers struggle forward
logs of twigs and straw
to the top of the mountain
to lay them in tight.

They chop with the axes and saws
of their mandibles the timber grass sprung up
through the hillsides of their home,
notching trunks to fall away from their dome.

Some make the long but routine haul
to and from the compost pile
to place in store abundances of food
for the night and winter both.

Others make the longer journey
to the fluttering meadows of new green leaves
high up in the windy trees
to milk the aphid herds.

Forest Mound Ants

In fall I study up close
the forest mound ants
dwelling behind my house.
Where they stream
they’ve worn a groove through grass
that disappears into the woods beyond
(and not into the compost box,
as once I’d thought).

With what tribe do they trade?
Do they plan to move their mound?
Who decides? What force of Nature
determines their fate?
Is there too much light here
since I cleared away the trees?
Do they seek a territory un-trod?
Is the great tsunami about to crash?
I take great care to step over
the telltale arm of their race.

In Spring I see them
back to wearing their path,
busily clearing the byways,
gathering twigs and needles
to build up their mound.
Only this time I follow them
to the woods and sure enough
they’re building a new hill
around a clump of sedge
beneath a myrtle branch.
How happy my wife will be
to know they’re moving on!
(We needn’t argue any more
about my burning them out
or drowning them, dead.)

Or maybe the tribe’s grown
too big and the queen’s little sister
is building her own domain,
and we’ll have two tall anthills
in the garden instead of one.

Copyright 2016 by Rick Clark

The Taste for Writing

The following words by Ira Glass were recently quoted on Good Reads. One of my writing-coaching clients shared it with me, saying how much it spoke to her. I couldn’t agree more with Ira’s message. But I got to thinking about why so many aspiring writers give up, so I wrote an email response that splits hairs between two kinds of taste. My response follows Ira’s quote. Here’s his quote:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Certainly Ira’s words are true. But there’s another kind of taste. Some of us have this kind of taste, and some don’t, and that is a taste for, a love of, the process. The act of creation itself. Much of the joy I’ve experienced in writing is in the journey through the unknown, the discoveries in nature, the discoveries about human nature, myself, language, story, and poetry. I have an insatiable taste for all of this.

The taste that Ira is talking about I call “high taste,” and I have this taste too, of course. That is, the recognition of beauty, meaning, truth, interest, drama, suspense, and identification in others’ writing that we want to produce ourselves. When we read something tantalizing, we want to be able to create writing that tantalizes others the way we’ve been tantalized. This is the taste for something rather than the taste of something. The former is a desire to have something, to “get,” while the other is the actual consuming of it in the process, to be had by something, the “being gotten,” being consumed by verbal creativity. Writing as adventure.

Delicious meal, by Fran

Delicious meal, by Fran

Thus, I’m addicted to the act of producing a beautiful, authentic poem more than I’m driven to produce something I think others will find beautiful and authentic, although this becomes important too, but usually after the fact. Even as I write these words, even as I travel the unknown journey of what I might write next, I’m mesmerized by how I might be surprised by what I never knew I might write. I feel like the magician and the completely baffled and awed onlooker, both, at the same time.

The taste I speak of is a romance with possibility that makes me feel in love, jittery, as if I were about to meet my true soul mate, while she remains just slightly out of reach, perhaps around the next corner, behind that tree.

And being too addicted to the love of, and joy in, the process can get in the way of following through, of becoming a writer in the professional sense of the word. Yet a lot of little things add up to a big thing, and my addiction, my obsession, has resulted in a number of plumped up manuscripts and others plumping up. I can’t not write. Writing tastes too good.

Icelandic Ethiopian meal

Icelandic Ethiopian meal

I wasn’t exactly born this way; I groomed this madness. It’s as if I got a wheel, a few wheels, spinning inside me, and now they’re shooting off sparks that I only need see, hear, and write down. But these fireworks, too, take time. I’m not saying that writing beautifully or professionally doesn’t take time. It does. But if you eat what you cook as you cook it, you’ll sustain yourself until others pay you to consume the delicious dish of the writing you’ve cooked up.

In other words, it’s not only having a taste for a delicious dish of good literature or exciting writing; it’s also the tasting of it while cooking it. It’s delectability. It’s the sight, the smell, the sound, the taste, the physical sensation of words tumbling from the tips of the fingers.

Always trust, always have faith, that if you mean well and work hard (cook with love), you will produce your dream.

The Fine Print on the Tree of Knowledge

The Garden of Eden, by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens

The Garden of Eden, by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens

On one tiny twig of the Tree of Knowledge
is the knowledge about the Tree of Knowledge itself,
the small print that nobody reads,
which says that just because Eve
ate of an apple from the Tree of Knowledge
we don’t have to spin out uncontrollably
into the outer space of technology
without any moral or ethical restraints,
without considering not only the immediate
consequences of our actions
but also the far-reaching consequences as well—
the simplest, most obvious, most ironic
being inventing and setting in motion
the computerized apple-picking machine
putting people out of work.
It should be against the law
to put people out of work
just to make more money.
Since when is technology
or even making money
more important than people?
It’s ironic that Eve was judged as evil for eating
of the apple with which the serpent tempted her
and, with Adam, was banished from the Garden of Eden
while the vast race of creatures
who supposedly descended from her
eat of the Tree of Knowledge every day
and in every corner of the world
producing, consuming, and making
vast quantities of money off
the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge,
and they are not banished from any garden
but are welcomed to the fruit with open arms.
And let’s face it, making money
is just another form of consumption,
and what are the producers paying us
so they can consume all that money?
They’re paying us the technology
that in many cases is making us sick,
making our planet sick,
causing us to go to war,
and putting us out of work.
It seems we’ve made the best
meaning of the story of Eve
a mockery and even the thumpers
of digital bibles don’t care.

Copyright 2015 by Rick Clark