Friday, August 5, 2011

The Tao Of Water

Clouds are water. Odd to think a substance can change so radically from one thing to another. Liquid, solid, gas. Water.

Montaigne writes about inconstancy among humans as if it were pervasive as rain. But I’m not sure I agree. He writes: “Nothing is harder for me than to believe in men’s consistency, nothing easier than to believe in their inconsistency.”

This has not been my experience, except in the case of politicians, such as Obama, who say one thing to get elected, and do another once elected. But this is duplicity, not inconsistency. Most of the people I have known over a long period of time have been very consistent. My view of them may have altered, but they have remained very much the same.

“Our ordinary practice,” observes Montaigne, “is to follow the inclinations of our appetite, to the left, to the right, uphill and down, as the wind of circumstances carries us. We think of what we want only at the moment we want it, and we change like that animal which takes the color of the place you set it on. What we have just now planned, we presently change, and presently again we retrace our steps: nothing but oscillation and inconsistency: ‘Like puppets we are moved by outside things.’ Horace.”

This was true when I drank alcohol. There were mornings far too numerous to number upon which I awoke with the pounding headache and sharp anguish of a hangover, after swearing to myself for the umpteenth time I would never drink so immoderately again. But once I made it to AA, and quit drinking, and eventually smoking, I was left with a course that was pretty steady.

I’ve led a pretty Spartan life, largely self-imposed as the result of pursuing a chimera called poetry. Maybe that’s why my behavior has been so spectacularly consistent. I haven’t had the financial means to indulge my desires. All I’ve ever wanted to do is write. And read. I’ve always loved books. I’ve always loved writing. I’ve done what I could to support myself with menial jobs that provided just enough money to procure shelter, food, and a few creature comforts.

Which isn’t to say I’ve been free of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy has been a pretty useful cover for working around people I could not stand. It has been a tool of survival. I don’t have any reservations in that regard. No one can hold down a job without pretending to like people you otherwise loath. Particularly managers and supervisors.

What troubles me now isn’t a chaos of contradictory actions left in my wake, but the inheritance of the decisions I made when I was in my 20s. Despite the mythology of opportunity engraved in the stone of the great American swindle, there are few opportunities available to those below a certain income. And those opportunities are becoming fewer as the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. The career path you have chosen after leaving high school, if not before, will remain your career path for the rest of your life.

I decided very early in life to become a writer. This was at a time when it was still somewhat possible to make a career out of writing. Not journalism, necessarily, which used to be a pretty good opportunity for up and coming writers, but creative writing: novels and short stories and poetry. Writers such as Norman Mailer, Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan, Joan Didion, Erica Jong and Joyce Carol Oates demonstrated that it could be done.

I recognized by the time I was 18 that, unless I hit the jackpot à la Brautigan or Kerouac, I would never be financially well off. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make. But then, I was only 18, it was 1966, and Bob Dylan made the open road look sexy and cool. “How does it feel / to be on your own / with no direction home / like a rolling stone.”

The biggest change I saw in people came between 1970 and 1980. People who, in their 20s, had been full of passion and creativity and joyfully embraced a life of simple, inexpensive pleasures, became obsessed with careers in their 30s. They became dull, lifeless zombies. It was sad.

For someone who prides themselves on their creativity, it is embarrassing to admit to being so consistent, particularly when it comes to one’s principles. I wish I could say I have changed my mind more often. But I haven’t. I have always despised war, the military, the ludicrous posturing of male aggression, a vulgar, craven materialism that seems so much a peculiarly American trait, willful ignorance, bullying, intellectual squalor, Babbitry, and sentimentality.

The one area where I have felt the most out of control, the most regret for past actions and stupid, mean things that I have said, is anger. Rants. Dry drunks. Occasions upon which I am grateful there wasn’t a recording device around.

I’ve never hit anyone, killed anyone, or cheated anyone. Never stole, never told a lie that hurt anyone. This is depressing. I’m starting to feel like a little goody two-shoes.

The closest I have come to betraying my principles, is when, in a moment of weakness, circa 1973, when I was in my mid-twenties, I applied for a job at Lockheed. My application was not taken seriously. No one called for an interview. I can’t even remember what I applied for. I probably left that part blank. I just wanted a job that paid enough money to allow me to rent a decent apartment and feed myself.

Life must have been very different in Montaigne’s time. It is highly probable that I simply haven’t been tested. Life was rougher in his day. My life has never been so hard that I’ve been tempted to steal or kill. I’ve had it pretty good as far as that’s concerned.

“No one makes a definite plan of his life,” says Montaigne. “Our plans go astray because they have no direction and no aim. No wind works for the man who has no port of destination.”

What if you become the sea itself? One day salt and waves, the next day vapor splayed out against the sky. One day ice. The next day bubbling and boiling.

But always water. “The best man is like water,” says Lao-tzu. “Water is good; it benefits all things and does not compete with them. It dwells in lowly places that all disdain. This is why it so near Tao.”

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