Lake of sirens and babies howling! Lake of the grumbling anaphora, of trials and tribulations, of thoughts collected before the brutal stumbling of day on day. Lake of the narcoleptic, the first and last dead sleep. Lake of resurrections, smoldering fires and soggy ashes, the rusted undiscovered gun. Lake of the furious flinging of the tarnished ring, the broken cross, the twice-crossed heart. Lake of rekindled romances, evening murmurs, nursery rhymes and benedictions, long forgotten kisses and endless embraces. Lake of the daily-illuminated sky translated into a dozen watery languages. Lake that sighs and shudders, that shakes off misery, that slumbers and dances and makes no distinctions. Lake of the cast-off whiskey bottle filled with the bottom's sour liquor. Lake of the house key, the car key, the keys to two locked hearts, of the poured-free goldfish, the three pet turtles and five blind kittens. Lake of starlight and moonlight, of streetlights reflected through the night. Lake of the luminescent midnight cloud. Lake of the cormorant on the first bright morning hanging her wings out to dry. Lake in the middle of the city, of long-forgotten flesh and bone. Copyright 2020 by Rick Clark (written 1996)
A smudge of warm sunlight
showing through the city’s
first time in two weeks,
shining through the pandemic,
the political violence up on the hill,
the runaway presidency,
the rising seas—
a smudge glowing on my face,
filling my nostrils with sunny air,
glinting on my reading glasses—
for a moment, this is all there is….
Copyright 2020 by Rick Clark
He loved her with a fury
that would never know redemption,
she who has sung for centuries,
oh lovely as Madonna.
Nothing is wooden whose voice shapes flowers
and gathers light in constellations
and soothes together broken figures,
Bones grown stiff with strain
would never dance again
their overheated precision,
his fingers never find that tender tuning
as much as he goes on fumbling
in the darkness of second chances,
with or without the sensual love
of the moon or a woman’s lips.
His dance would turn to battle,
his song to hoarseness,
to a whisper once the resonant cry
of beauty fallen on with open ears.
He loved her with his arches,
with the giving backs of his knees,
with the muscles in his solar plexus
where the pulse abandoned him.
He loved her from every side,
her length, her curving shoulders,
since long before he felt the molten
bubbling at his human core,
before he was electrified.
She never once rebuked him
but made him stand up straight,
embrace himself, and fly,
to be a man before his fears
distracted him, before his love for her
hid in the thickening
night of his heart.
Copyright 2020 Rick Clark
Beyond the golden opportunity
tarnished by jadedness,
beyond the comforting squabble
that is the great chicken coop of this world…
you stand like a testament
to pure unadulterated existence,
not as simple as the stone at your feet
nor as complex as the crow
who topples reaching with her beak
for one of your tiny over-ripe apples.
I could cut you down, cut you up
into firewood; I could shape you
into an image I have in mind,
yet you expect nothing of me;
you take everything I do to you
with chainsaw and loppers,
and yet you do not move,
while I need endure nothing of you
except your incremental growth.
I make metaphors of your crusty bark;
I turn you into symbols, into syllables;
I go so far as to abandon myself spiritually
to your grace, yet there you stand,
rooted so profoundly I can’t imagine
such rootedness, my body is so insane
to move and only for a moment
can I follow your example—
and only superficially at that.
I might imagine—I might be so vain,
so egocentric, as to believe—you love me
in some inhuman way. But I already take so much
from your stillness and strength, from the slow
flow of your colors through the seasons,
that I do my best not to turn you into a man,
grateful that if you cannot love
then you cannot hate me.
Previously published by Spindrift Art and Literary Journal, Shoreline Community College
Recently, longtime friend and colleague Priscilla Long gave a talk on Aging and Creativity at Elliott Bay Bookstore, which got me to thinking about the subject as it relates to my own life. Following are some miscellaneous thoughts that came to me rather briskly after I watched the video of her talk. The video can be viewed at:
To begin with, I’m so impassioned and engrossed as an artist that I’ve hardly ever given thought to my creativity in relation to my aging. I give more and more time and energy to my writing projects and pursuits along with ever-greater effort toward playing the violin more beautifully (the physical activity of the latter seems to sustain the mental activity of the former). I feel full of potential, imbued with purpose and meaning, and rewarded by ever-stronger messages of confidence and satisfaction. I’ve noticed no lapse in my personal successes, my voice, my innovation, or my overall productivity. I never have doubts, tremulousness, or even hesitation in taking up my pen or bow. Although occasionally I feel a little dry, particularly with my haiku writing, I never have writer’s block. The only question I have is this: How much more time can I squeeze out of the time I have left on Earth to do what I love, the work that, in turn, seems so much to sustain me, to enrich me, and perhaps even to extend my life? So-called “retirement,” for me, has turned out to be my greatest opportunity to have a full-time writing career.
I can remember thinking, once I’d set out on the path of writing poetry at age 39, that I’d better get as much down on paper as I can now, before I grow old and “dry up.” That way I’ll have built an archive of material to work up with my “drier,” more editorial mind later. The operative stereotype, then, was that with aging comes creative desiccation. This stereotype is supported by the common expression “creative juices,” the idea that, as we age, our creative juices dry up. Many people have this idea that aging, in general, means “drying up.”
Another idea, a more positive one, is that if along the way I somehow concluded I wasn’t very creative, that is, not very imaginative or innovative, then it was only by facing that question with sincerity and openness that I set out on a path to become more successfully imaginative and innovative. In other words, I had to ask myself, what does it mean to be creative in the first place, and what makes a work imaginative or innovative? I’ve encountered many significant questions along this line since I set out on this path: I wondered if by being more concerned with clarity and reality in my writing that I was being less creative. I wondered if by being more vernacular in my style I was being less creative. I wondered if by not relying on figures of speech and prosodic devices I was being less creative. Worst of all, I wondered if by not imbibing in drugs and alcohol or other sense-deranging approaches to the creative process I was being less creative.
The irony is that, as I’ve come to understand what it is to be creative, to understand what makes a work more imaginative or innovative, the more imaginative and innovative I’ve become. Considering that I didn’t get serious about playing violin until I was 28 and didn’t get serious about writing poetry until I was 39, most of the creative enlightenment that has occurred in my life has occurred in my forties, fifties, and sixties. I have to say that at sixty-six I’m only now in the throes of producing my richest, most structurally creative, most humanistically purposeful work of writing: In Search of Morris: The Ancestry Research Writing How-to Memoir. And my sentence writing at this “late date,” is, indeed, like greased lightning—sinuous, leaping, soaring, delving, poetic, multi-textured, and musical. Of course it helps that I’m spry, if not still athletic and agile, in body. Keeping the body young, I believe, helps keep the mind young.
The book, in 1992, that helped me address what being more creative in my poetry writing entailed is Leaping Poetry, by Robert Bly. I read this book when I was 40. The idea that I took from that book that was so helpful is that there is a sideways leaping of imagination, rather than a linear one, involved in bringing together surprising words and images. Another book that helped was Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town, the idea that we need to expose our selves to word-stirring places, people, and stories to excite poetic responses and deeply human stories in ourselves. In other words, rather than lying down and dying by thinking I’m not naturally creative, I dove deeply into the question of what creativity is and how it works and, in turn, opened the way to being more imaginative and innovative. And I did a lot of this work starting when I was 45, when I got interested in Zen poetry in translation. Zen has played a huge role in my life in seeing how my thoughts were in my way.
A lot of the stereotypes and blocks that prevent or slow us from being creative, from continuing to be creative, or from becoming all the more creative as we age, involve the tiny, confining boxes and bubbles with which we close ourselves up: I’m too old. I’m too stuck in my ways. I’m not creative. My creativity will dry up. I have no imagination. It’s all been said before. I’ll never write as well as so and so. I’ll never write as well as I wrote when I was 25. I get frustrated too easily. I’m lazy…. And one doesn’t have to be old to close oneself up in these little boxes and bubbles. As a college writing instructor of many years, I’ve heard the same kinds of excuses and justifications expressed by people in their teens, twenties, and thirties. I wonder how many of us defeat ourselves even before we’ve stepped into the game or the battle.
This brings up that greatest of all psycho-spiritual issues: How can we come to believe in ourselves? Maybe it takes the better part of one’s life to come to believe in one’s self. Young people who appear to believe in themselves may only be ebullient—putting on the dog, so to speak. Not that feigned confidence doesn’t work. Feigned confidence may, indeed, result in authentic confidence. In any case, as we age it’s possible we can begin to see that we’re still hugely full of potential that we never even began to fulfill and that it’s just a matter of setting our minds to doing so. We are not predetermined by the stars, our genes, our parents, or even by a certain past lifestyle or life mistake. We can erase the chalkboard if we choose to do so and pick a new color of chalk—a lot of new colors, if we like.
In fact, “artists of age” may have the edge over youthful artists simply by dint of the fact that they’ve had more time to get to know themselves—as people and as artists. They may also be imbued with that beautiful energy known as “having nothing left to lose.” Young artists, ironically, may actually be more conservative and less willing to take chances. They may also be too concerned about the reception of their work by the public since they tend to be new to the game of peer pressure and the Jones effect.
Finally, having lived more years, more decades, the older creator or artist has the abundance of his or her entire long life from which to draw stories, images, memories, landscapes, characters, wisdom, and insights. And the memories that stick and continue to recur are those that have floated to the surface as the most poignant or meaningful. There are not that many young artists who have seen through to the heart of life and can write that life deeply and beautifully. However, there are some who seem to be born with gifts of human understanding and linguistic sensibility. Yet there’s no evidence that they lose that ability as they enter their forties, fifties, or sixties.
As for continuing to strive to improve at playing violin: I was stuck at intermediate level from age 28 to about age 55. Not only had I quit playing for 14 years prior to that, from age 14 to age 28, but I had a foolish self-inflicted accident at age 23 in which I severely yanked both my shoulder joints out of their sockets so my arms dangled numbly and uselessly at my sides. So at age 55 I began working harder at increasing the range, fullness, speed, and facility of my bowing arm until I developed tendonitis and bursitis in the shoulder. I saw a therapist who had me take Ibuprofen routinely and work out with elastic bands in order to strengthen my shoulder. Meanwhile, I continued to practice violin while trying all the more carefully to play in a gentler and lighter way. At the end of nine months, at the age of 56, the tendonitis and bursitis had subsided, my shoulder had strengthened, and my bowing range, power, and speed had increased considerably.
Then, at age 56, I set out to strengthen my left shoulder in the same manner. I began by trying harder to support the instrument in such a way that I could finger and vibrate with greater facility and power until, again, I developed tendonitis and bursitis in the shoulder. And again I began with the Ibuprofen and the elastic band therapy while continuing to play in a more gentle and light way. In a year my left shoulder had strengthened such that I could finger more freely, speedily, and powerfully and without any pain whatsoever.
I am a 100% believer in the idea that “if you don’t use it you’ll lose it.” At age 23 I injured myself and didn’t do any healing therapy but then underwent the needed therapy in my mid-fifties and was still able to heal the injuries. The body, like the mind, is infinitely more resilient as we age than we tend to think. And as my body has grown more facile with the instrument so my mind has grown more facile with the music making. The body was no longer an impediment to the mind, the artistic sensibilities. I’m also a believer in the idea that the body supports the mind at least as much as the mind supports the body.
More broadly speaking, creativity is a big part of my spirituality (in the secular sense to the word spirituality). Art and spirituality for me are synonymous. Throw in Nature and Mind and you have the basic outline of my personal spirituality. It wasn’t until I was well into my forties before I had a stable working philosophy. Only with age, I believe, can a person evolve a truly authentic, experientially derived spirituality or working philosophy, and it’s my belief that a truly mature art must be informed by a mature, worldly philosophy.
Then there’s the matter of distractions. I find that as I grow older I manage my time better and can concentrate for longer periods of time. I’m not as attracted to everything that’s going on around me, as I was when I was a younger, wilder person. I didn’t want to miss anything when I was younger. By now I’ve seen and done so many things that I’m not drawn to them anymore. Also, I’ve learned to make better use of my thinking mind. I used to think more in abstractions, sensations, and images. Now, not only can I think in these earlier ways, I can think in solid sentences or dialogue when appropriate. I can write in my mind and remember what I wrote, although I always keep my voice recorder near to hand for when I need to remember longer chunks of material or when I want to capture my authentic voice. I’ve written many a good haiku in my mind.
There is nothing I’ve described or explained here that I experienced or thought of in my early twenties. Most of these thoughts, developments, and approaches I’ve come to realize or have evolved in my forties or later. If life can be an adventure, then I’ve certainly had an interesting and exciting one since I set out to write beautifully and to redeem my violin body and sound. Maintaining a day job as an educator has been fulfilling, but I’ve kept the day job to support the night job, in order to more deeply educate myself in the ways of art making and to enrich the spirit. If I’ve been a successful educator at the college, then it’s because I’ve persisted in educating myself in these challenging and deeply fulfilling ways and sharing the adventure, the spirit of the adventure, with my students.
Copyright 2018 by Rick Clark
This morning a friend and I met for breakfast with the intention of talking about writing. She’d like to dump the day job and take up a vocation she’s always loved but never fully pursued: yes, writing. Her father was a Hollywood writer and a novelist, so writing is in her blood. She has no illusions about writing; she’s simply reached that place in her life when the day job is growing old and she has the time and money to make a much-needed change. So I shared some of my approaches with her that have evolved out of years of writing, teaching writing, and publishing and thought I’d shape them up into paragraphs (adding a few thoughts unthunk till after breakfast) and share them here:
Every second is an opportunity to write: If you’re obsessed with your writing, your project, you’ll carry a field notebook or a voice recorder (smart phone works well). Ideas, memories, lines, and dialogue don’t wait to occur till you sit down officially to write, during the sanctioned period you’ve set aside for doing so. The best ideas and words often come when you least expect them. Be ready. I’ve “made note” in almost every setting or situation imaginable: the woods, at a concert, in the midst of an interesting or important conversation, while brushing my teeth, and upon waking. I’ll add that very often there’s more space for ideas to occur when you’re not in the mode of expecting something to happen, when you’re not sitting at the one and only writing desk between, say, ten and noon, when you’re not all boxed in spatially and temporally. I keep my voice recorder near to hand as I drive. My thumb knows where the record button is. I’ve produced hundreds of useful notes while driving.
Write every possible minute: I write every minute I can. People tend to think writing isn’t really a job. I’m always available to meet, to visit family, to help with a project when it’s convenient for them to do so, not necessarily when it’s convenient for me. But, ironically, this works for me. I’m not a time-structured person. I’m really quite flexible about when I write—and where I write, for that matter. I meet for coffee in the early morning, mid-morning, and even early afternoon on occasion. So how do I produce so much material, books, manuscripts, essays, blog entries, emails, etc.? Well, I write every chance I get, any time of the day, any day of the week. I can sit down for ten minutes and complete or start a writing or writing-related task. The beauty of starting such a task is that I’m anxious to get back to it when I have more time.
Write everything: I write everything of interest, applicability, and/or authenticity, not just material for the book or project at hand. I find I have time to do this. But this implies two things: one that I’m energized and flexible; and two that I know what my genres, subjects, and themes are. There’s a kind of obsessiveness connected with the former, that I don’t want to miss anything; and the latter has required that I’ve written so much and grouped and regrouped my writing so many times that I’ve come to know who I am, what I have to say, and how and in what form I need to say it. I’ve come to know that my strongest genres are poetry, memoir, and creative nonfiction, my subject matter travel (the journey), nature, mind, music, birds, ideas, and writing itself, and my forms are haiku, long-form poetry, journal-based memoir, and in general highly structured books. More recently I’ve found I love the detective work involved in doing ancestry research writing. I could never have come to know this much about my own writing tendencies if I hadn’t made the space for those tendencies to express themselves.
Mix it up: I write till I reach a point of fatigue, scatter-mindedness, and/or accomplishment, then get up and do some dishes, neaten the house a little, take care of a chore or an errand, walk, or sit in the woods. Within 15 minutes or an hour, I find when I sit back down in front of the computer I’m completely refreshed, with new material or a new course of action at the ready. I do some mental work, then some physical work, and then return to the mental work. I can sustain this mixed activity longer than if I concentrate on only one kind of activity. I also go back and forth between producing material and organizing material, between researching material and producing material, and between researching and organizing material. I use my fiddle to clear my mind and to find the rhythm and music in my writing; after all, making music and writing poetry are attached at the hips, according to the Greeks. After writing long paragraphs, I work on a haiku. The short informs the long, the long the short. Keep the interest fresh, the body alive for the mind.
Use email to generate material: I often use email and, to a lesser degree, texting and messaging to produce material—and, by expressing them, I explore my ideas. The strength in this is that I have an audience for my writing. I’m engaging a correspondent or correspondents at the other end of my email, which makes the writing real, authentic (and of course I’m staying on topic—because I’m obsessed!). I have a manuscript consisting of about 90% material from emails—the great American email! Also, more people know about my project and may want to buy my book. And often my email recipients have ideas, affirmations, and helpful questions. I have to keep in touch and email folks anyway, so why not tell them all about what matters to me, my writing project.
The present informs the past: I also assume that what’s going on around me might somehow be related to what I’m writing. I’m presently writing a book in which I have the opportunity to explore the parallels between my life and my once-unknown-grandfather’s life, at both the personal and historical levels. I needn’t just stay focused on my grandfather’s experiences and historical context, but suddenly what’s going on with me now and what’s coming over the radio may have some relevance to the book.
Writing like breathing: Writing is like breathing for me, as it should be, ideally. I have to admit it wasn’t always like this for me. But since I got comfortable with it, writing resembles breathing in many ways. Inhalations are like questions while exhalations are like answers. I have to do it to stay alive, or at least to keep the writer alive—the linguist, the storyteller, the explorer. But how does one get comfortable with writing? Well, mostly by doing it, and by getting to know oneself as a writer, as I mentioned above. But not just by doing it, but by doing it with few enough expectations as to leave an opening for authenticity of expression to occur. Read a lot. Emulate. Try new modes and styles of writing. Throw your sentences up in the air and see what they look like when they hit the ground. Don’t be precious about your writing. If you do, you’re probably stuck and just don’t know it.
Trust your mind: Trust the mind to work on your writing even when you’re engaged in other activities or while you’re sleeping. Sure, struggle with an idea or a sentence for a while, but then forget it. You will have left a hole or a question for the mind to fill or answer if you just give it a chance. Pressure can often shut down processes.
In us hide many stories: It’s been said that everyone has a story, and as a sailor, a bartender, a teacher in Japan, and a college professor, I’ve found this to be true. In fact, I think that we have within us more stories than we can write, if we can only realize this, hear the stories within us, hear the stories inside the stories or the stories growing out of stories (as in fan fiction). Around us are an infinity of subjects. Haiku poets know this and can write a successful haiku on a leaf falling unlike any other haiku on a leaf falling ever written. The problem is that we become inured to the world around us. The world is so present that eventually we shut it out; we don’t notice what’s going on. Virginia Woolf wrote a short piece called “The Mark on the Wall.” It’s about just that, a mark on the wall, and it’s quite well known.
Do not compare: Trouble begins when we compare ourselves with other writers, dead or alive. How many give up writing, saying, “ I’ll never write as well as so-and-so”? In the University of Washington Master of Fine Arts program, Rick Kenney instructed a poetry writing class called Imitations in which we imitated other styles, poets, and cultural forms. In my introductory letter to him I stated that I’ll never lose myself in another poet because I’m too anxious to express myself, to become the poet I must become. It’s very important to imitate and emulate in order to learn, but then move on. One of the most destructive forces on creativity and self-expression is the ego. Best to just grope along in the search for one’s authentic self.
Structure, structure, structure: Many aspiring writings have come to me with what for them is their number one problem or question: How do I structure my book? Virtually every book has “structure.” Chapters are structural devices. Beginnings, middles, and ends are aspects of structure (they may also be aspects of plot). Structure has more to do with the physical arrangement, organization, or flow of material (which may nevertheless have everything to do with content and story), while plot pertains to conflict and resolution. Plot is generally an element of fiction, although it may be present in memoir. Therefore, it’s probably best, for the moment, to think about structure in memoir, (creative) nonfiction, and poetry. Memoirs are generally delineated by chronology; nonfiction by the various elements of the subject in some logical order; and poetry by stanzas, line breaks, patterns of rhythm and rhyme, various forms of repetition, etc. I find that thinking about structure early in the process of writing a book aids both the production and consumption of the book. If I have small sections or chapters, I can knock off two or three a day, tick them off on the abacus, and sleep deeply that night. It’s comforting, measurable piecework. It’s easy to reorganize as I go, to change the order of sections and chapters. I keep my mind clear this way, as it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by so many ideas and materials. This goes for the reader, as well. Structure is major means of producing clarity. You can use bolded subheadings early in the writing game and then remove the headings later. My breakfast friend mentioned she likes to use outlines in order to structure and organize her writing. I can’t tell you how many of my students from my college teaching days thanked me for insisting they produce and hand in outlines in advance of their drafts. Many professional writers admit they sketch out a little word-map and stick to it to the end. Yet a word-map isn’t set in stone, is it? There is no stone, only words.
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.
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)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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)!
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.
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.
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.
Copyright 2017, by Rick Clark
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.