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

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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.

Stuck in the Moment!

Ever since the early seventies, folks have spoken dreamily of being in the moment, aka living in the moment, being in the here and now, going with the flow, etc. Since then, they’ve returned to nature, tried transcendental meditation, and practiced yoga, and they’ve heard and repeated the lofty aspiration to live in the moment as if it occupies their every thought, as if they’ve mastered the here and now and dwell here interminably—as if they reside forever in some eternal Nirvana. But I was always a little suspicious of their aspirations, since, speaking for myself, I’ve found it almost impossible to escape the moment.

Just us turtles here!

Just us turtles here!

When I was a child, I couldn’t help but live in the moment, as I was so completely mesmerized by the present world shimmering, dripping, whirling, singing, fluttering, crawling, and leaping through space, along the surface of Earth, the ground, or emerging from water then diving back down into its depths, or soaring to heights near invisible. This being-in-the-moment skill was innate, or compulsive, as far as I could tell.

What is this big pink creature I've landed on?

What is this big pink creature I’ve landed on?

And childhood wasn’t the end of it, either. I continued to be as attentive in my twenties. Not only was I still wholly fascinated by nature, all the vibrancy of life shimmering about me, but now I was also as attentive to women, how they looked, how they moved, how they responded to me or not, how they felt when they held me—all the physical pleasure I experienced (now only my wife gets my attention). I was so there! I was so inescapably trapped in the moment by my fascination with all that moved and glowed around me that I had no thought for the past or the future. Nor was I plagued by actual thoughts made of words that I could remember and recite or write down, for that matter, actual syllables pitter-pattering inside my skull to distract me from nature, art, and women.

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Do the winter birds dream of spring?

Fact is, I didn’t manage to make any headway out of the moment and into some other place called “not living in the moment” in my thirties, either. Only, by this time, I was living in the moment of my travels, hooked on the ephemera and colors of exotic culture and other-worldly fish and birds, and, yes, women with new and intriguing appearances, movements, and scents. Where else was I to go besides where I was? How could I think about those people and places where I wasn’t, about my old home, my friends and family, far away on another continent, when I was confronted with so much eye-riveting, sense-engaging life and energy around me exactly where I was?

Early morning reverie...

Early morning reverie…

Might I add that in my forties I was little better about owning up to my responsibilities to step out of the moment and into that place where my thoughts, memories, worries, and expectations might take me to someplace other than where I was. I was a complete failure in my forties at escaping the present moment, at living elsewhere than where I was. Thus I give myself a D- for effort!

Are we like an unborn bird in a shell?

Are we like an unborn bird still in its shell?

I was so addicted to the present that I took up reading Zen poetry, mostly translations by ancient Chinese and Japanese hermit monk poets who lived in caves or stone or wooden huts with thatched roofs—who were the masters of living in the moment, who made an art of being here and now. I read and reread them living in their moments, because their moments were just like my moments. For this failure, I kicked myself altogether out of the school of “not living in the moment”!

Ryokan, (Taigu) Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant's life.

Ryokan (Taigu), Zen monk hermit poet, lived a strict Buddhist mendicant’s life.

Even in my fifties, even after I’d gotten married, gotten a masters, built a house, taught college English for many years, I still slipped back into the moment for hours, days, and weeks on end, hardly coming up for air in that other world of elsewhere and otherwise, where I could wring my hands, or pat myself on the back, or gloat till I was bloated, or worse, lose my bearings or forget what my hands are doing—which I have to say is what’s happening to me now as I seem finally to be breaking my inexhaustible ties with the present, slipping away a foot or two or even a psychic mile on occasion, wondering what it was I came upstairs to get, etc. I’ve become so absorbed with my own thoughts that I’m missing the whole world around me.

Do our bodies leave our minds behind?

Do our bodies leave our minds behind? Or the other way around?

Mostly, ironically, I’ve been working—and working more, at this and on that, so that I might have my old moment back, so that I might slip back into that saddle and ride like a wild-man upon the horse of my body, feeling every atom brush against my skin, hearing every warble inside the thrush’s song, smelling the earthworm crossing the rainy road and the slowly rotting camellias lying crumpled and bruised on the deck, tasting the dried-hard currant in the Irish scone, sensing my muscles rippling and sliding over my bones, feeling more alive than I’m likely ever to feel again. If only I can slow down once more and forget the past and the future (they’re still there, but only in the mind and in the changes we’ve made to the world around us—hopefully for the good) without succumbing to dementia or mindless lassitude.

No thought but what she's doing!

No thought but what she’s doing!

Still, now and then I dabble my little toe in the chilly moment. I watch an ant tussle with a fly’s wing or memorize the shape of a newborn purple plum where once a blossom blew, and I’m delirious to have returned. The moment welcomes me back—I’m so here again!

Like the sign says...

Like the sign says…

The Greatest Gift

While so many people were roaring about trying to fulfill the various obligations of the giving season, I was wondering: What is the greatest gift we can give our selves and one another? Ask this question of most people and they’ll admit, after a lot of thought—or after almost no thought at all—that love is the ultimate gift. But talking about love is easier than loving. Or rather, if we felt secure in our exchanges of love, we wouldn’t go roaring about trying to fulfill all these seasonal giving obligations all at once and not as much at other times. And I suppose that amongst all the many forms of love that we can usually identify and present in a list—motherly love, romantic love, familial live, brotherly love, spiritual love (compassion), adoration, affection, care, and tenderness—the kind of love I’m thinking of fits nicely: belief in the self and in one another—on a par with trust.

Shadow of Self

Shadow of Self

We can place our belief in money, guns, power, or violence, but none of these is so non-materialistic, so non-destructive of life, so humanizing, or so self-evident as the belief we can place in ourselves and in each other. I’ve seen a father break down and give a daughter what she has longed for all her life, that belief in herself that she has felt or managed not to feel as lacking for as long as she can remember or not remember. The same goes for fathers and sons. This is why so many of us set out in search of affirmation, because we grow up without receiving it. Some parents simply aren’t equipped to provide that affirmation, because they never received or found it for themselves. Thus we set out into the world in search of affirmation, that is, for evidence that we are worthy or capable or at least adequate to the task of our responsibilities and dreams in life, and we find ourselves circling back to our parents or teachers, seeking fulfillment of that great lacking, that vacancy in our hearts: the need to be believed in.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Prize winner

I for one have received a great deal of affirmation as a teacher, in turn, through providing affirmation to my students. I have had it said to me on numerous occasions that it was due to my belief in my students that they felt they could write better, write well or beautifully, or simply pass the course with satisfaction. I’ve seen it in their faces, when I’ve expressed my confidence in their abilities, ideas, or intentions. They are exhilarated at having someone, anyone, believe in them! As a result, I’ve had a minimum of plagiarism or cheating in my classes, because few are willing to pass up a chance to be believed in. Thus many of my students have far surpassed their expectations for themselves coming into my classes.

Great Belief

Great Belief

I remember a moment when an internationally respected composer, when I was wrapping up an undergraduate degree in music performance, asked me to undertake a masters in music composition with him, one on one. What an opportunity! But even as I swooned at the offer, I heard my mouth say, “I’m honored, but I have to get a job.” But my real reason was that I felt like a phony as an instrumentalist and didn’t have the confidence to move ahead with music in my life, even though this composer whom I highly esteemed had expressed his belief in me. But I felt the affirmation of the man, the composer, in that moment and felt that, had I been prepared instrumentally, I would have soared as his student of composition. And I would have carried on that affirmation with me over the decades like a plump bag of gold in a vest pocket. As it is, I carry about with me a single gold coin as a reminder.

Belief in Self

Belief in Self

A writer can have received only so much belief from parents or even friends if those parents or friends have no power of affirmation to give. Thus the writer wanders almost blindly and without belief, possibly for a whole lifetime, if some small affirmation doesn’t come his or her way. Where to submit? From whom risk rejection? Then, one day, the writer receives notice that a piece has been accepted by so-and-so a publication and soon the writer is busy grooming poems, stories, or articles for further submission and sends a number of pieces out. The affirmations begin to add up to out-and-out self-belief.

Belief is a psychosocial phenomenon. Belief doesn’t exist without other people. One doesn’t worry about being accepted as a writer if there are no readers. Editors, and especially readers, become the writer’s believers. And even if a writer hasn’t broken into the greater world of writing, he or she imagines—must imagine—a reader who believes enough in the writer, in the writer’s story, to keep reading and for the writer to keep writing.

Being believed in by another reminds me of a famous story in which the Buddha set out to confront a murderer in the forest, a man who’d become a murderer in order to bring 100 first fingers to his spiritual master as payment for his services. When the Buddha came upon the murderer, whose name was Angulimala, Angulimala set out to murder the Buddha as he had so many others but found he couldn’t catch the Buddha, although the Buddha never moved. Immediately, the murderer broke down due to all the crimes he’d committed and became Buddha’s disciple. Eventually, Angulimala achieved enlightenment.

budda-angulimala-01

Angulimala

What interests me about this story is what happened in that moment when the Buddha saw deeply into Angulimala and saw the man for who he was, a man first and a murderer second, and Angulimala felt those loving eyes on his heart. I believe this is the kind of love I speak of here: the profound belief in another that the other can feel to the core and is then pacified and changed forever, powerful encouragement.

Belief in oneself and others and trust are foundational forms of love—closely related. The belief I’m talking about here enables us to become fully ourselves and to make our dreams come true, while trust is the belief or faith that others have our best interest at heart…

In other words, if we can’t trust others not to hurt us, then how can we possibly believe in ourselves to become everything we can be?

Universal Symbols

Universal Symbols

Reservoir Raccoon

Just who is this raccoon?

Just who is this raccoon?

The raccoon has been stuffed,
been set on the edge of the reservoir
behind the chain link fence,
is an artistic statement.

The raccoon is dying,
is just now being reborn,
is practicing tai chi so slowly
I can’t see him move

on the crumbling balustrade
by the city’s central reservoir.
The raccoon moves no one;
everyone is responsible.

The raccoon is dancing the dance
of stillness, is frozen in time,
his nose to a crack,
and the earth is moving.

The raccoon has a sexually transmitted disease,
is about to drop into the reservoir,
is about to commit suicide
in the city’s water supply.

The raccoon is withholding
key information, is straining
to communicate, is meditating
on the crack, is stuck to the rail.

The raccoon is the enemy, a friend,
reason to get alarmed, to call the authorities,
reason to move on, to think about my day,
to listen to and tell his story.

The raccoon has had a rough night,
has had too much to drink,
has found hell here
escaping the night’s howling dogs.

The raccoon is a monument to survival,
stands taller than an eighty-five story building,
is the dot missing from an i in a love letter
burning in a rusted-out incinerator.

The raccoon is dangerous, will explode
if tampered with, is a toy, a game, the second coming,
a saint, a martyr, the sacrificial lamb, the Sphinx
rising from the ashes of a cigarette.

The raccoon doesn’t exist,
is the center of the universe,
is a satellite orbiting a distant planet,
is a grandfather, a father, a son.

The raccoon is the reservoir.

The raccoon knows nothing, knows everything—
my name, yours, the earth’s true name—
and spits it out with a hiss
before I call the National Guard.

Who's feet are these?

Just whose are these feet?

Note: Poem by Rick Clark previously published in Washington Community College Humanities Association Arts Journal.

Making Humans Animals: An Advanced Lesson in English

Most of us have heard of anthropomorphism, giving animals human characteristics, but few of us have heard of, or given much thought to, zoomorphism, giving humans animal characteristics. And yet we probably commit the crime of zoomorphism much more frequently than we do anthropomorphism. In fact, once we move past the well known literary examples of anthropomorphism, such as Aesop’s fables, George Orwell’s Animal Farm (this may also be an example of zoomorphism), the iconic Disney movie Bambi (which has had a huge impact on political thinking about animals and hunting), and how we think about, talk to, and treat our pets—we’re left to consider an endless list of words, phrases, and expressions we use to refer to each other as—or as like—animals.

Egyptian gods often had animal bodies or heads

Egyptian gods often had animal bodies and/or heads.

While some words and expressions draw attention to them selves as comparisons and are thus not particularly deeply integrated into our language and how we see each other, others are so deeply ingrained in our language and thought that we hardly notice them. Not only can we classify zoomorphic words and expressions, but I’d suggest we can also order those classes into a kind of hierarchy extending from the least integrated and most noticed to the most integrated and least noticed. The classification might also range from traditional expressions to relatively new expressions in modern usage.

Many Indian gods have animal features and powers

Many Indian gods have animal features and powers.

We’ve inherited many common zoomorphic expressions from the distant if not obscure past. She’s got ants in her pants. A little bird told me so. He and she are birds of a feather. He was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. She has the memory of an elephant. Don’t let him get your goat. They have their heads in the sand. He’s mad as a March hare. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. She looked like a deer caught in headlights. I have a frog in my throat. And so on. These expressions have been around for decades if not centuries and attest to a long history of zoomorphic indulgence. And of course we have zoomorphic aphorisms: A bird in hand is better than two in the bush. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. And there are countless colloquial or regional expressions. My brother-in-law from the mountains of Pennsylvania shared these with me: as fine as frog’s hair, raining like a cow peeing on a flat rock, and slower than a herd of turtles.

Zoomorphism and evolution

Zoomorphism and evolution

We use zoomorphic similes relentlessly, yet writers, editors, and readers alike view these expressions as unabashedly cliché: blind as a bat, busy as a bee, snug as a bug, sly as a fox, quiet as a mouse, scared as a rabbit, wise as an owl, stubborn as a mule, bray like a donkey, drink like a fish, and pee like a racehorse. Note that those similes describing nouns (people) use the comparative “as,” while those describing (people’s) actions use “like.” Some employ rhymes. Others simply aren’t true, the best known being wise as an owl, as scientists and naturalists claim owls are rather stupid for a bird (do they use a standard human IQ test to determine animal intelligence?). Regardless, the writing instructor and the editor will mark these common similes as cliché.

Not quite birds of a feather

Not quite birds of a feather

As we move deeper into our zoomorphic body of language, we arrive at our use of animal nouns to call each other names. He’s an ass, a jackass, a bear, a buck, a tom cat, a chicken, a sitting duck, a fox, a stud, a peacock, a swine, a pussy, a rat, a slug, a snake, a card or pool or loan shark, a paper tiger, a shellback, a weasel, a wolf, a lone wolf. She’s a bird, a cow, a fox, a clotheshorse, a butterfly. He or she can be a crab, an old goat, a silly goose, a lamb, a pig, a hog, a real tiger while they are sheep (see John Updike’s short story “A&P”). Note that a majority of the list breaks down on sexual lines and that many expressions are mean, vulgar, and/or chauvinist. Note also that these expressions do not merely compare, using the terms “like” or “as,” but rather out and out equate humans with animals. Other animal noun expressions referring to human life include catfight, chicken-scratch, doe eyes, dogs (meaning feet), eagle eye, hawk eye, paws, horsepower, lion’s share, piggybank, rat-tail, swan song, and swan dive. We might conclude at this point that it’s hard to think about ourselves without thinking about animals.

Old goat

Old goat

Our zoomorphic tendencies reach such depths of integration in our language that we hardly notice when the words we’re using refer back to animals. Many of our zoomorphic adjectives fall into this category: catty, clammy, bull-headed, crabby, doe-eyed, dogged, dog-eared, dog-tired, fishy, foxy, lionhearted, mousy, mouse-brown, owlish, piggish, hoggish, prickly, ratty, sheepish, slothful, wolfish, and raven-haired. Because animal names or characteristics have been converted to adjectives in this case, they tend to draw less attention to themselves as animal words and we hardly think of the animal when we use them. Yet the animals to which these words refer are nevertheless sorely used, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Bull-headed

Bull-headed

I’d suggest the deepest we go in our sublimating of animal words and characteristics is via our zoomorphic verbs, animal words describing our actions. These words are so deeply imbedded that they’re almost imperceptible when we use them. We ape, parrot, badger, paw at, dog, outfox, gull, goose, and rat on one another. We buck the system, clam up, crane our necks, weasel (equivocate), and crow (boast). We fish for items other than fish. We horse, monkey, and cat around (two-word verbs or idioms). We hog up the food and wine. We squirrel money away. We’ve taken a quality from an animal and applied it to how we act or move. By giving each other what we perceive as animal characteristics, we’ve taken the animals fully into ourselves. We’ve applied animal nature to our own nature where it means the most: our actions.

Lionhearted?

Lionhearted? (image by Kenneth Rougeau at kennethrougeau.com))

Similarly, we humans make a cacophony of animal sounds for which we’ve created words. We too howl, growl, hoot, hiss, bark, squeal, bray, crow, snarl, and purr, to list a few. The example of a braying human that comes to mind is Nick Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose head is turned into that of a jackass while Queen Titania has been given a love potion to fall in love with him. And for a while she loves him all the more for his braying—till the potion wears off.

Meowing, hissing, purring?

Meowing, hissing, purring…

Other ways in which animal words have penetrated the human sphere can be found in a variety of expressions we use today: bear, meaning big cuddly, lovable man; coyote, meaning one who guides an illegal north across the border into the United States; cougar, meaning an older woman hunting younger men; mole, meaning a spy penetrating an organization or government; mossback, meaning an extremely conservative or old-fashioned person; and lemming, meaning a mindless follower. We also have such expressions as crying big crocodile tears, hens’ night (equivalent to men’s bachelor party), and monkey mind (busy, distracting thoughts that get in the way of clearing the mind in yoga).

Hanuman, Indian monkey god

Hanuman, Indian monkey god

Finally, many animal images and words have acquired great symbolic and cultural depth and weight. For example, the eagle is the symbol of the United States of America (since the eagle is as much a carrion thief as a raptor, I’m not sure what this says about the country). The donkey represents the Democrats while the elephant represents the Republicans. Hawks are warmongers and doves are peaceniks. A bear market refers to a declining economy while a bull market describes a vigorously growing era. In the New Testament, lambs refer to followers of Jesus. Fraternal lodges and sports teams boast whole menageries of animal mascot names, yet it’s ironic that the animals whose names they’ve commandeered can’t rise up against such blatant stereotyping because they can’t speak or write human.

Menagerie of animal men

Menagerie of animal men

Why do we make people animals or like animals? Perhaps the impulse derives from an inherent tendency to make fables of our selves. We may do it out of an infantile impulse to give concreteness to our abstract thinking, the way we use animals to tell stories to our children—or as Aesop did to convey his morals. Maybe debasing animals gives us a means to debase one another. Many of our animal words and expressions have a negative twist, which I would suggest says more about how we feel about animals than how we feel about one another. When we call a man a pig, what are we saying about pigs? That pigs are dirty because they eat slop and slop about in the mud? But do they trash our water, air, and land, our yards, cars, and houses, or our bodies and minds (not to mention outer space) as we humans do? Hardly. Then perhaps it’s more denigrating to call a pig a human than a man a pig. The fact that we don’t see it that way hints at a kind of human zoophobia, a fear of or hatred toward animals that comes clear through a study of our language. I remember how triumphant I felt when I read Part IV of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which the horses are the masters and the humans the slaves—how language, irony, and satire can hold a mirror to our faces.

What are our thoughts?

How human are our thoughts?

In other words, we stereotype animals at least as much as we stereotype people. Yet animals have no recourse to fight back. They may forever remain the victims of our need to denigrate one another with their images and the words we attribute to them. Although there exist animal rights organizations, these groups are concerned with the treatment of animals and not the language we use to describe them or the fact that we use their names to call each other epithets or to suggest something negative about each other’s behavior or character.

Lamb Santa

Santa the Lamb

On the other hand, as much as animals enrich our lives on Earth (probably more than we enrich theirs), the language we borrow from them to refer to ourselves also enriches our language. Animals give our language color and expand it to include another dimension. Conversely, language, like a mirror, helps to remind us of our animal nature, true or false. Whether in anger we call a man an ass or with adolescent fervor refer to a girl as a fox, animal words have weaseled their way so deeply into our collective psyche that we no longer notice—and the weasel winks at us from beneath our consciousness. In the end, when we howl or growl “You animal!” there’s more truth in it than we might think.

I welcome comments and especially further examples of and angles on this subject.–r

Bats in the Roof of My Brain

The world is magic enough, without adding the supernatural, if only we’re observant enough to see the beauty, mystery, and meaning that we otherwise miss when we don’t look, which we rarely do, we’re so busy, so hurried and harried, so preoccupied. All the colors are contained by the world around us, all the patterns and shapes, and especially the stories. And ours aren’t the only stories, those of us humans. No, stories are unfolding all around us, with every bit as much drama, depth, and weight.

Bats, or maybe squirrels, or both, have taken over my roof. I hear them at night, coming and going, and particularly during the day, the late afternoon, when they become restless, prematurely hungry, or uncomfortable—crowded, perhaps. I’ve watched and listened closely enough that I know it was a flicker that helped the bats find their way into my roof. That one handsome fellow pecked at the joint where the fascia boards meet at the gable of the roof, till the joint grew into a hole.

Red-shafted Flicker, Master Penetrator

Red-shafted flicker, the master penetrator

Once a bat enters, the story begins. Once they make a roof a home, they return every year, meaning to enter that roof as they did the season before. One leads another into the dark insulated interior of the raftered roof till a family grows into a clan and a clan grows into a colony—and the colony becomes a cacophony by late afternoon as the young begin to get hungry and anxious to try their wings.

Little Brown Bats Owning a Rafter

Little brown bats, owning a rafter

Meanwhile, I sit at my usual spot at the end of the table nearest the kitchen, where I can keep an eye on the many other stories unfolding at the bird feeder beyond the window. The bats are getting restless, they’re scratching, creaking boards, skittering along between the insulation and rafters and sheet rock. I begin to wonder if they’re not bats but squirrels, the ones I see trying for hours to leap up, over, or down to the bird feeder housing, in order to eat freely of the abundant bird seed I so graciously provide for the small birds I love (I seem to pick and choose the creatures I’m willing to love) rather than scrounge about for a few microscopic crumbs of seeds fallen to the ground below. But how can bats make so much noise? How can they alter the shape of my house, which I assume they’re doing when they make whole rafters squeak and bang?

Bird Feeder in Housing

Bird feeder in housing

Last year I waited patiently till late October, till the time Orkin Pest Control told me I should wait, to haul the big ladder up out of the crawl space and lean it up here and there to fill the holes and crevices that might lead into the dark cozy depths of the roof—late October because, by that time, the bats will have made their great en masse journey back up into the mountain caves to hibernate for the winter. Any time before then and I might have sealed the young, the whole clan, up inside my roof so they’d die as in an Edgar Allen Poe story, after which I’d be plagued by guilt and ultimately reveal my crime, although I’d hate to admit that not only have bats been pissing and shitting up there over our heads but also dying and decomposing up there, I admit again, just above our heads. I don’t like the thought myself.

The Sneakiest of All Intruders: The Squirrel

The sneakiest of all intruders: the squirrel

Yet for all the careful work I did to the roof with the liquid spray foam I sprayed and the small boards I nailed, the bats have returned with a vengeance, and I wonder how they’ve gotten in. I can see that the one knot hole I filled with foam the swallows seem to have pecked open again, inviting the bats back in. And while my imagination may carry me away to think the squirrels have managed to take over the inner recesses of my roof, they may have at least reopened other crevices to the bats, knowing that the bats themselves will eventually open the way so the squirrels too can make themselves at home in my roof. There seems to be a plot, a conspiracy of bats, squirrels, swallows, and flickers, to blast open my roof for general occupancy, for indeed there’s plenty of room for all.

Barred Owl, Waiting for Her Chance

The barred owl, waiting for her chance

The fact is, I love all these beautiful creatures, but do they know my house from their house? To them my house is just a big tree or a slowly decomposing stump. Nothing on those roof tiles says Keep Out. There aren’t any No Trespassing signs—no booby traps, no iron walls, no guards with pikes standing by. My beloved creatures know nothing about property ownership or the money and work it takes to build a house and make repairs. Nor do they have any sense that their excretions are worthy of concern to us humans, not to mention the eerie noises they make like ghosts at night.

The Rabbit, More Interested in the Garden

The rabbit, more interested in the garden

Today, I caught myself tearing my hair out, as the ruckus up there got out of hand. I imagine young bats arguing with their parents about going out in the world, about trying their wings, about catching and eating mosquitoes firsthand, while their parents fight them back to their roosts. They scrapple and scratch, scuffle and bump and begin to distract me from my thoughts, from my precious writing time, and I imagine cutting a hole up there where I think they’re hiding and driving them out, patching the hole, then scrambling all over the roof, here in the month of July, and sealing it with concrete and the latest rocket-science epoxies. When I realize I’ve jumped to my feet, I have to talk myself out of lighting the house on fire and being done with the whole nerve-wracking mess.

The Coyote, Wanting Nothing to do with me

The coyote, wanting nothing to do with me

I remember a cartoon in which the main character is driven to blasting his house to pieces with a shotgun trying to shoot a fly that’s driving him nuts and distracting him from his favorite television show, until the house lies in ruins at his feet. Then I feel silly and console myself with the thought that late October’s only four months off and they’re only bats, after all, although I’m beginning to think they could be raccoons (or something bigger), and I sit down to write my evil thoughts and not-altogether-unjustified paranoias away. I begin to feel grateful for the story they provide me, a story that is inherently theirs as much as it is mine, and I start listening and hearing the plot line in the scratching. I decide I’d rather dwell in a work of realism than in a cartoon, so I simmer down and start talking to the kids upstairs and urge them to obey their parents. Freedom and full participation in the story is not long off.