Monday, June 29, 2020

CORONAVIRUS TIME

Coronavirus time is providing me with the opportunity to tackle a long-neglected task: cleaning out and organizing the packed shelves in our garage. For more than a decade they have been the repository for everything for which we could not otherwise find a place. Our shelf space in the house, for instance, is inadequate for the hundreds of books we have acquired along the way. We have boxes overstuffed with family photographs and memorabilia that remain unsorted, disorganized, neglected for these many years: Clothiers and Williamses, Blankforts and Spingarns... Everything thrown into a box to avoid having to choose a place where we, or future generations, could ever find them. Some of the boxes, too, are falling apart with age and neglect and need to be replaced with something stronger. Some of them have been chewed on at the corners by inquisitive rodents. Or were those creatures so hungry they could even eat old paper?

It's a huge job. We are taking it slowly. I tackled one corner the other afternoon and turned up three whole storage boxes filled with manuscripts. There were a few duplicates, along with a few first drafts of books that were subsequently published. There's no earthly need to keep these early drafts, but I have not been able to throw them out--some writer's instinct to keep things archived, perhaps. A hesitation inspired by nothing more than vanity, as though some future research into the newly-rediscovered work of that overlooked genius Peter Clothier would require a close textual examination of thousands of typewritten pages with all their underlinings, deletions, handwritten improvements... Why would he have crossed out "and" and substituted "nor"? Weighty decisions. 

And then there are the manuscripts that were never published. My doctoral dissertation, for example, completed and finally approved in 1969 after months--well, years, really--of nit-picking pedagogical analysis and criticism from a distinguished academic literary theorist whose name I have conveniently forgotten. (I do him an injustice: he was a brilliant scholar, Italian, and at home was surely a kind family man with many grandchildren. I honor his memory, and his patience with a recalcitrant student). The title of the dissertation was "Magicians of Insecurity" and it was a study of contemporary French poetic theory seen through the eyes of a number of post-surrealist poets writing about their art. It was approved as a semi-creative dissertation, since much of it consisted in translation. I was at the Poetry Workshop at the time, translating poetry; and, in my last year there was appointed "Instructor" of the Translation Workshop, with poets from throughout the world working under my supervision. Target language: always English. Protocol required an appropriately scholarly introduction to the dissertation, though, which was where the problems started. I was not, and have long since abandoned any pretension to be, a scholar.

As you might have guessed, I have not taken the time to re-read "Magicians" since turning it up. More interesting to me was a handful of other unpublished manuscripts. Several of them were novels, at least three of them attempts to follow up on my initial 1980s success as a mystery-thriller writer: "The Closing Room", "Trompe l'Oeil", "Percent for Art"; and one of them a love story, titled simply "M". I spent many months working on them, many years in fact, in the hope that I might one day be able to make an actual living as a novelist. That hope proved vain. It never happened. I was distracted from my burgeoning career by a commission to write a monograph on the British artist David Hockney. 

There were also manuscript versions of books that looked back obsessively on my formative years in the English countryside as the son of an Anglican minister and at boarding school: "Sticks & Stones," "Down the Brain Drain"...  They remind me that I have been a lifelong disciple of the great French Romantic writer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote these words at the beginning of his Confessions: "I have begun a work which is without precedent, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I propose to set before my fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself." Later he wrote that his "real aim" was "to make known precisely my inner state, in all the situations of my life. It is the history of my soul that I have promised to give."

"Precedent"? St. Augustine, perhaps. Michel de Montaigne, my great hero, whose work led me to what would eventually become my preferred medium: the introspective essay. "Imitators"? Well, there have been many. When I first came to know, as a teenager, that I wanted to devote my life to writing, I was reading Christopher Isherwood, who saw things famously through the lens ("I am a camera") of his own eye. I still think of Isherwood's early work as my first inspiration. Those autobiographical stories I was writing even then, back in the 1970s, have blossomed into the trilogy I have been planning and working on these past two years or so. I have completed drafts of the first two books, but am still stuck on revisions to Part I, about those years of childhood and boarding school. It's called "What a Good Boy Am I".

I'm stuck, I think, because I have begun to question the very premise that I started out with--and one I have embraced throughout my writing life. I expressed it once in an essay titled "Tell Me Who You Are". I was writing not only about my own work, the philosophy I had evolved as a writer, but also about my work as an art critic. It's what I looked for from an artist, when I saw an exhibition for review: "Tell me who you are".  It's what the always elegant Montaigne was asking, of himself. He was infinitely curious about the vehicle of his body and workings of his mind. It is the most impulse and the most basic act of communication between human beings. We are driven to ask it of others, driven to tell it of ourselves.

Yet I find myself torn between this passion for the idea and practice of self-reflection, the deep study of the inner self, and the nagging awareness of an external world--a universe, if you like--in which the individual self is an infinitesimal fragment whose significance is proportionate to its fleeting presence. I read what I have written and watch the judgments rise: the wounds of those early years are real... but how much less significant than those experienced by so many of my fellow humans who live in the throes of hunger, poverty, of disease and unending, brutal violence! Even today, in the context of a raging plague, rampant discrimination, ignorance and poverty even in my richly endowed adopted country, I am among the most fortunate of people on this earth. I have a safe home, sufficient financial resources, the support of friends and family...

And what I realize is this: That what is essential to my well-being in the world is the spirit of generosity. Enough with the self-reflection. It has served me well in coming at least to this awareness, but it no longer serves me. Coronavirus time, the time of a vengeful, narcissistic and despotic leader in the country where I live, a time of crisis for the very planet we humans are given to inhabit, the time of my eighth decade here on earth, offer other possibilities. It's time to look outward with a compassionate heart. Time to find ways to practice generosity in meaningful acts of personal and public service. Time to leave little Peter behind and embrace the bigger world, the universe... And that's the ticket, as any Buddhist should know: the ticket to happiness.

These are the daily questions to ask myself, then: how can I be of service to one other living being today? Is there some way to better serve the world I live in? Is there some way to make connection with one other human being? Or heal a connection that was lost or broken?

I have taken some pride already in discarding worthless parts of my ego, where I have found them. Here's another big piece to discard: my attachment to the passion for self-reflection and self-knowledge. I have reflected for too long; I know as much as I need to know already. I was brought up short by these words from Thanissaro Bhikkhu in a post-meditation Q & A discussion yesterday: he said, in his quiet and utterly convincing way, "You don't need to listen to that voice." He was addressing a question someone else brought up, something perhaps not relative to what I'm writing about here. But it's a piece of wisdom that has wide, if not universal application. Our inner voices can be scolding, seductive, cautionary, repressive. We obey them all the time, even without acknowledging them. Listen! You'll hear them if you listen. For myself, the voice I don't need to listen to right now is the one that calls me ever further inward. I'm grateful to have heard it.



Wednesday, June 24, 2020

IT'S HARD

It's hard to maintain a semblance of equanimity. Hard, too, to find a satisfying answer to the self-doubts that arise, the judgment that 25 years of meditation practice should equip me better to access the compassion I need in our current circumstance--for both myself and others. To not get entangled.

Like everyone else these days, I look around and see turmoil everywhere. I see the effects of this global pandemic on the physical and mental health of almost every sentient human being. I see the disastrous economic tidal waves it causes, crashing down on especially those least able to survive. I see the cracks--the crevasses!--in the social structure that it has exposed. I see the massive, inexcusable injustices in many Western countries but especially in America between white people, comfortably unconscious, for the most part, of their "supremacy," and vast numbers of people of color. I see the widespread suffering caused by poverty, disease and hunger, violence and oppression. 

How can I experience all this without palpable, destructive distress in both the body and the mind? It's an incessant bombardment of those "slings and arrows" evoked in Shakespeare's memorable formulation, the flotsam and jetsam (to mix metaphors!) from life's fraught and endlessly restless ocean. I end up feeling battered, exposed,  barely able to find refuge for a short while even in the meditation practice that is the lifesaver for which I grasp out each morning.

It's not as though I don't know the answer: breathe. Then take another breath. And then another. Put those skills I have acquired to work to avoid attachment, to sit quietly and allow the vicissitudes to slip away with an understanding of their radical impermanence... And take another breath. 

It sounds so easy. It IS easy. So why should it be so hard...?



Sunday, June 21, 2020

CANCELLED

I have been using some coronavirus time to clear out a lot of old stuff from dusty files that have lain neglected for these many years. One of the things that turned up in the process was a British passport issued in 1970, at a time when I had already been living in America for some time but was still a British citizen. The stamp beside the photograph indicates clearly the passport had been cancelled. I became a naturalized American citizen in 1972, so this was presumably the last British passport I held before renewing it in the early 2000s, during the second Bush era--a time at which I began to feel the pressing need for an escape hatch. I was already far from happy with what was happening in the social and political landscape of my adopted country. 


I look at this image now, though, and wonder who I was back then. I was 34 years old in 1970, but I look so impossibly small and young. That smooth chin scarcely needs a shave! The long hair and the loud tweed jacket and patterned tie, contrasted with the almost certainly brightly colored striped shirt, speak of a time when the "flower children" had brought bold color, along with revolution, into our lives. I was a newly minted university professor, having arrived in Southern California just two years before to take up an appointment in Comparative Literature at USC. I was a poet. As a graduate student in the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in the 1960s, I had met and studied with some of the distinguished poets of the day, but my insecurity, I think, is evident in this picture. It's as though I was even then wondering who I was.

This was 50 years ago! It was a troubled time in my life. I had arrived in California with my family--my wife and two young sons. The boys would have been only five and three years old when we drove across the country in an old AMC Rambler. The car was literally falling apart as we drove into Los Angeles on the 10 freeway, so badly impaired that I worried whether we would ever make the last miles into the city. The drive from San Bernardino seemed interminable. I was in terrible emotional shape, torn apart between a British boarding schoolboy's unforgiving sense of duty and a British boarding schoolboy's flawed and deeply inhibited sense of myself as a man. While acutely, even desperately aware of my own sexual needs, I was hopelessly ill-prepared to meet those of a partner--a deficiency that turned out to be fatal to an already foundering marriage.

Looking at that face now I see a boy and not a man. And I realize there is little that remains of him in who I am today. Has every single one of those thirty trillion cells that make a human being died since then, and been replaced? Am I in any way the same purely physical entity represented in this picture? It takes no more than a glance in the mirror to know that the face has collapsed...

(an unflattering, but truthful enough selfie!)

... and I doubt that my young body experienced the daily, familiar aches and pains to which the older version is subjected. There are many parts, too, that worked efficiently back then but fail me now. So, no, as a purely physical entity, I am no longer the same.

I bring, however, far more of life's experience, and I like to think that I'm in many ways the better for it. I am more tolerant of both myself and others, kinder, more compassionate, slower to arrive at judgments. I have learned to listen more closely to the heart--and to exercise appropriate skepticism when it comes to the mind. 

There must, though, be something of the same. A through-line of some kind that connects the young man that was to the old man that is. The word "character" comes to mind. No matter the changes--I like to think of them as improvements--over the years, that aspect of my being has some kind of continuity. What I am today was surely there, if only incipiently at the time of that passport photograph. I was perhaps not in touch with it, not able to see it, not able to express or realize it, was blinded to it by the narcissism of youth. My self was more important to me then, more in need of assertion and protection. I was unable to see much further than my own paltry needs.

I wonder, too, about that thing called "spirit." "Soul"? I am skeptical of those words. But in one particular form of meditation that I like to practice, I take my mind back as far as the body's in utero experience, to babyhood, the life of the toddler and the little boy, through adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, to where I am in my life at 83 years old; and then project still further, into extreme old age and to, and past, the moment of my death. And I ask myself, what part, if any, has always been the same? What part may have been present even before birth and may persist, perhaps, even after death? An energy, a life force, a gleam or column of light... And even as I realize that this... call it "experience" might be fanciful, no more than delusion, I think to catch, at times, the merest glimpse of a presence that is real, though evanescent, suggesting a kind of deathless inner self that existed at the time of that passport picture as it still exists today. 

I am, as I say, a skeptic. Except for those curious sometimes, when everything seems more real.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

WATCHING TV...


Ellie and I just finished watching "The Worricker Trilogy" (Page Eight, Turks & Caicos, and  Salting the Battlefield) last night. We thoroughly enjoyed it. It's an intelligent and cleverly nuanced spy thriller written and directed by the British playwright David Hare. Far from the wham-bang, chase/explosion James Bond tradition, this has more of the subtlety and moral ambiguity of a John Le CarrĂ©. Violence is sparse, and almost exclusively off-camera, but there's no absence of suspense and general skullduggery.

The lead character (and spy) Johnny Worricker is played by the fabulous Bill Nighy...


... who manages to handle profound personal struggle with a surprisingly light, engaging touch as he wrestles with both his social conscience and the temptations the flesh. Opposite him in parts two and three, of the trilogy, the equally fabulous Helena Bonham-Carter (in her best performance for ages), matches the dimensionalsubtlety of his character with her own brilliance and sly sensuality. It's a compelling, utterly believable relationship that combines romance and sexual tension with an emotional complexity that engages our sympathy and compassion. We root for this couple despite the instinctive understanding that their love is doomed. 

The rest of the cast is also outstanding with, particularly, touching performances by Rachel Weisz (in Page Eight) and Winona Ryder (in Turks & Caicos) as smart, but damaged, vulnerable women with their own internal struggles. Ralph Fiennes, throughout, is a British Prime Minister caught between political ideals and the nasty practical necessities of political actions, between service to his country and personal ambition--and between British autonomy and the ugly weight of American power. And Christopher Walken (in Turks and Caicos) is a smart, cynical, ever watchful CIA agent comfortably attuned to the evils of his profession as well as those of the world. Great performances, too, by a wonderful supporting cast throughout the trilogy.
There are few among us who would not agree that torture is anevil, and recent history tells us that it was practiced by the United States in the "war on terror" that followed the attack on the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. Were such measures as those infamous "black sites" and "enhanced interrogation" techniques necessary, to identify the guilty and guard against the future loss of innocent lives? Did that presumption of necessity justify their use? The Worricker Trilogy addresses these issues forthrightly, even though it refuses to come up with easy answers. The British Prime Minister is aware of what's happening, as is his intelligence service. The entire drama pits Johnny Worricker, an MI-5 man of conscience of the old school, scandalized by the American action, against his former college-mate, the Prime Minister, who insists on remaining silent--and therefore complicit.

Almost as interesting as the drama are two "making of" segments sandwiched between the three episodes--don't miss them!--which feature revealing interviews with the actors and the writer-director, David Hare. Altogether a more-than-usually satisfying television experience, and one that tests the viewer's own conscience at a time when moral compunction is too often overlooked in favor of material and political advantage.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

QUIET, PLEASE!

My neighborhood group met on Zoom last night for a "bread-and-butter" breath meditation. Nothing fancy, just careful and concentrated attention to the breath. We went slower this time than usual, leaving more time for the mind to get settled and focused on one part of the body before moving on to the next. It was a quiet, pleasant experience, and I think that those who joined me left feeling somewhat cleansed from the events that have been happening around us this past week. This is one of the great benefits and pleasures of the practice: to find a quiet place within where nothing comes along to disturb or upset the mind. It's a place that is much needed, not least by myself, in our current multiple and multiplying predicament.