Tuesday, September 18, 2018

INTEGRITY

I have behaved badly. If ever I were to sit today in the candidate's seat before the Senate Judiciary Committee and every detail of my past were to be subject to examination, I would soon be exposed as a reckless and shameless miscreant, wholly undeserving of seat on America's Supreme Court. I suspect there are few among us who would qualify if the unexpurgated truth of our lives as young people were known. We have all done things of which we should be deeply ashamed.

That said, if we wish to live a life of integrity today, we owe ourselves an honest accounting of those things we have done in the past. To be right with ourselves in the present, we must exorcise the ghosts that will continue to haunt us, whether consciously or unconsciously, absent our having confronted them without fear or prevarication. Our true happiness, if we can attain it, depends on our freedom from the damage they can wreak.

So should someone we have offended or wounded in the past show up in our lives and require us to account for our actions, we have no choice but to examine our conscience and, where necessary, make amends. Blunt, out-of-hand denials and counter-accusations or blaming of others suggest that we are not ready to acknowledge or take responsibility for our part in any past wrongdoing, and leave our integrity in doubt.

A man who receives the life-time honor of a seat on the Supreme Court of this country must be one of unquestionable integrity. If the current nominee proves unwilling to listen and respond with honesty to that which he is credibly accused of, even many years ago, his integrity is compromised and he has no claim to that seat.

Friday, September 14, 2018

MY RIGHT HAND

The debilities that come with age are a humbling reminder of our human imperfections. Yesterday my right hand was so painful that I could type no more than a few words. Today, well... it's better.

When I write about such things I wonder how anyone could possibly be interested. Mulling that thought this morning--and realizing that so much of my writing has been about myself--I asked myself why I persist in this peculiar occupation. I have written about others, of course, over the years; I have written about art and artists, books and writers, poetry and film; I have written novels--whose main characters, I am forced to admit, have an uncanny resemblance to... myself! But mainly, looking back over all my work and all my publications, I have been my own main source of subject matter.

(I think with gratitude of those who chose this path ahead of me, from Michel de Montaigne to Jean-Jacques Rousseau to, more recently, say, Christopher Isherwood--a countryman whose books seduced me into writing at the earliest age...)

The answer to my question is a simple one: for me, writing is a way to discover more about what it means to be a human being and how best to live my life. The process of self examination, on matters as large as the experience of aging and as small as the little finger on my right hand gives me the opportunity to find out more about the one human being I can know the best--myself--and, by extension, about simply being human.

The next step, once I see, acknowledge and understand the origin of the imperfections--so many of them!--is to ask myself whether improvement is possible and, if so, then how to go about it; or if not, then how to accept the reality.

It is my right hand that now calls for my attention. Here's the story. For many years I have experienced a condition known as Dupuytren's Contracture--a condition I share improbably with both Ronald Reagan and Samuel Beckett, among others, whereby small knots of tissue gather under the skin of the hand and gradually pull a finger (or fingers) in toward the palm. (The condition is named after Guillaume Dupuytren, a military surgeon who distinguished himself for all eternity by treating Napoleon's hemmorrhoids, and was also the first to surgically remove the contractures named after him). Several years ago I had the contractures on my left hand surgically removed--successfully as it turned out: they have not returned.

They did return, however, more recently, on my right hand. If you have shaken my hand recently you may have noticed how the little finger can slip embarrassingly inside the grasp of the person I am shaking hands with, with a resulting sensation that is strange and unsettling--to me, and I suspect also to my partner in this social ritual. This physical anomaly is not painful, but it has been growing more pronounced in recent months, and has been the source of uncomfortable distraction.

But that's not what took me to the doctor. What took me to the doctor was the sudden, alarmingly painful escalation of an arthritic thumb on the same right hand. It was so painful, one night a couple of weeks ago, that I was unable to sleep. Very sensibly, I took it to the doctor the next day--I was fortunate to get a same-day appointment with my regular physician--who gave me a shot and advised me to consult with a Kaiser orthopedic surgeon who specializes in the hand.

The shot was great. Whatever is was--some kind anesthetic/steroid mix, as I understood it--worked a miracle. The pain disappeared overnight! And a week later I saw the orthopedic surgeon. He was not optimistic about dealing with the arthritis but--back to that other part of my story--he did think it was time to deal with the Dupuytrens. I now have to make a date for surgery.

But the arthritic pain did not return at first. It seemed to have been taken care of with the shot, until... was it the pliers I was using to twist the picture wire with which I attached a hook to hold a new hummingbird feeder in place? The clippers, to cut off the wire to the required length? I don't know, I can think of no other reason, but a couple of nights ago I was back in agony. My hand was reduced to a painful, non-functioning claw. When dawn came, mercifully, I found that I could not stir my morning tea, nor squeeze the little plastic eye-drop bottle that I use to wake my eyes up from their sleep. Worse, I could not even type more than a few words--a dire situation for a writer.

And then, within a day or so, happily, it was gone again. I sit here two days later typing merrily, with only a ghost of the pain in my right thumb. Two-handed once again.

So what do I learn? That certain conditions can be treated with surgery? Others can't? That my right hand is a part of myself that I can ill-afford to lose, being right-handed, and being a writer? That, should I lose it, I would need to detach from that particular identity, which would in itself involve some considerable pain--and some accommodation. I wonder if I would feel the need to find some other identity to replace one I have lived with for so long? Or... that pain--even severe pain--comes and goes, and asks to be heard and respected before it leaves? That it is sorely tempting to accede to its imperious demands for attention, but that I do better with it if I choose to put it in its place? A reminder that pain is unavoidable, but suffering optional?

All kinds of useful things to learn, then, even from the most minor of our afflictions. And--again for a writer--there is always that extra gift: a story to be told.


Monday, September 10, 2018

BE KIND

Have I written this post before? Perhaps.

Many times, perhaps.

I woke thinking again how it all comes down to these two simple words: Be kind.

Be kind if you want to be happy.

Be kind to yourself when you feel the judgment or the self-doubt arising.

Be kind to others if you want them to be kind to you.

Be kind to the natural environment if you wish to contribute to its preservation.

Be kind to those you would be inclined to hate, if you want to avoid being infected by their poison--or your own.

It's simple, really. Take a breath, reach down into the depths of your compassion, and you will be kind.

And you'll feel better for it. Promise.


Thursday, August 30, 2018

SERVICE

I'll admit to indulging in a pleasurable bit of quiet malice this week, imagining the fury that "president" Trump must be nursing as he watches (on television, of course) the adulation accorded the late Senator John McCain--and the cost to himself of the air time to which he is addicted.

I hold no brief for the late senator's politics; and I frankly find it hard to forgive him for having invited the Tea Party into the Republican establishment in the form of Sarah Palin--which act I believe to be a lapse in his celebrated integrity, and one that promoted precisely the kind of partisanship he deplored.

I do, however, honor this man for his mission of service, both in the military and in civilian life. At a time when the whole idea of service has become a mockery at the hands of Donald Trump, who appears to serve no one other than himself, this is a rare and precious quality. It is, in my view, what defines a man.

Whether conscious or not, the "heroism" so widely attributed to McCain is a manifestation of the national hunger for this quality. We are so busy serving our own interests that we too often forget the value of serving others. I believe that we are in for more dire times until we learn this lesson.

Friday, August 24, 2018

THE DEVOTED, by Blair Hurley: A Book Review


The Devoted
, an accomplished and moving first novel by Blair Hurley, is the story of two journeys of self-discovery and liberation woven deftly into one. The first follows the stumbling, unskillful and sometimes perilous path of Nicole as a fretful and rebellious schoolgirl into young womanhood in her native Boston; in the second, we find her mostly in New York City, a distraught, unhealthily dependent and emotionally rootless young woman searching desperately for substance, purpose, and spiritual meaning in her life.

We first get to know Nicole at the beginning of the second of these two stories, already in the iron grip of the man she calls her “Master,” a predatory and, we soon discover, an emotionally and sexually abusive Zen roshi--the teacher to whom she submits her entire being in the search for what passes for spiritual refuge from the vicissitudes of her life. As she recalls, in alternating passages, the stories of the childhood that has endowed her with a legacy of crippling insecurity and self-doubt, the Master hovers, a dark, clutching and seemingly inescapable presence over her every effort to come to a sense of individuality and freedom.

We learn the story of that childhood, at first in snatches and glimpses, through Nicole’s recurring flashbacks and the partial stories she allows herself, gradually, to share with two confidants: the strange, generous, and awkwardly loving man who courts her affections; and, later, a seemingly protective woman friend--and eventual betrayer--who watches with apparent sympathetically over her emotional lurches and missteps.

Nicole reveals herself, acknowledges herself, only reluctantly, deeply shamed by her past, unforgiving of its wounds, and unable to shed an overwhelming sense of guilt. Brought up by a distant father and a demanding and unstable mother whose only emotional support is a kind of frenzied Catholicism, she rebels against the Church—at this time, in Boston, in the throes of its own sickening scandals of abuse—and, to her mother’s dismay, develops a lasting passion for Buddhism, immersing herself in every book she can discover and devour; and soon sets off on a runaway road trip that leads her through sex, drugs and homelessness to eventual tragedy.

In the meantime, as this tale unfolds, we have been following  Nicole’s emotionally fraught attempt to escape the clutches of her Master by establishing herself in New York—an effort as disastrous in its own way as the wreckage of the childhood she has now left behind. Friendship and intimacy elude her; she spurns the superficial social intercourse that makes living tolerable for those who are content with its surfaces; and spins ever further out of control. It is eventually the icily sadistic commands of her Master, bringing her on the telephone to the point of death and, perilously, back, that confront her with the need to take responsibility for herself.

The Devoted is a short, compelling read and, its brevity notwithstanding, is unafraid to tackle big issues without simplification or evasion. It exposes the potential of religious orthodoxy—whether Catholic or Buddhist—to degenerate into the exercise of male domination and exploitation of the innocent. It explores the difficult territory of gender differences in one young woman’s prolonged struggle to acknowledge and assert her personal power. It delves into the problematics of family ties, between mother and daughter, father and daughter, brother and sister. It takes us through the heartbreak of betrayal and loss, and investigates the narrow ground between devotion and dependency, between spiritual fervency and unhealthy addiction… In the end, it manages to bring Nicole to the most welcome, sacred and eventually satisfying of all refuges: love. 

The Devoted is a good Buddhist lesson, too, in its acknowledgement that turmoil and suffering are unavoidable in our lives, but no less impermanent than every other aspect of the human experience. Tough as it is, Nicole’s story bears out the wisdom of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, that there is an end to suffering; and offers her a way forward, through imperfection, toward a happier, more hopeful, and more enlightened way of being in the world.