How many things that we consider ours are external to us, come from elsewhere? My body, for example. Did I create it? No. Not at all. My eyes, hands, fingers, skin, bones, feet, nose, ears are all someone else's invention. Or, at least, the fruit of some other force. It would never have occurred to me to think of such things in response to the kind of adaptations I would be making in this world. I was born into this body. This is where my sense of self resides. I would not have thought of that, even. A me. Who, or what, proposed this? An identity, a sense of personhood? The universe, of course. The universe wanted to become self-aware in order to ask questions about itself, why and how it was created, why does anything exist, where did it come from, if there was nothing before the universe then who or what created the universe? And so the universe created creatures like ourselves and gave us all that particular sensation of self-awareness that inevitably begins to wonder why it exists. I realize that’s a huge presumption on my part, imagining why the universe brought us into existence, but why else would I wonder about all this? I'm certainly not the first, or the only one. We all do. Everybody wonders. What the fuck? What am I doing here?
More importantly, where am I going to be when I’m not here? Where am I going to be when I’m not being me anymore? When I’ve been. He was here. Now he’s there. Where?
Today, ‘here’ is a desk in a bedroom in a Seattle neighborhood on Planet Earth. Doing is doing this. Writing, wondering, weighing, weaving, conceiving, being.
I’m a wrapper. I’m wrapped in skin. But the me, or the sense of me that is within me, that seems to be in my head, viewing the events of my life like an air traffic controller at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, is what? An illusion?
Could be. I wouldn’t be surprised. None of it feels all that real. I mean, it’s fleeting, for starts. One minute it’s now and the next minute it’s not now. It’s in the future. I’m in the future. Brooding about the past. Which I’ve also been told is unreal. Well, tell that to the past, because I’ve got to say, the past feels pretty fucking real.
Anyone who has taken drugs knows that most of life is pretty much bullshit. The important part of living is to wonder about why one is living.
Having a sense of wonder is wonderful. Don’t lose that. It’s easy to lose. Shit jobs will rip it out of you. Life’s ridiculous routines will kill it. Maintain a sense of wonder and life will be far richer. I know, it’s hard. You finish a shift of work and feel like shit. It’s going to be hard to find that sense of wonder again. I used to do it with beer and whisky but that got ugly. Had to stop. Now I do it with poetry. Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Dylan.
Don’t Look Back, 1965, Dylan sits on a couch being interviewed. He holds a giant lightbulb in his hand. An English reporter asks him what his message is. “My message?,” he responds. “Keep a good head and always carry a lightbulb.”
Lightbulbs: they never cease to amaze me. Electricity. Jesus. I don’t even know what it is. But it powers everything. Lights, radios, TV, computers, baseboard heater, hairdryer, stove.
I just now changed a bulb. I replaced the old bulb with a 60-watt LED (Light Emitting Diode) made by Sylvania. There’s information about it on the back of the box, in English and French. “Light Facts.” Données d’éclaire.
Brightness / Luminosité: 800 lumens.
Life / Durée de vie: 13.7 years / ans. Based on 3 hrs / day. Basé sur une consommation de 3h / jour.
Wonder is hard, but being honest with oneself is harder. Clarity is tough. Illusions are comforting, immoderate in remedy but impervious to truth. They can be dangerous. They can get you into trouble in places where the splinters and creosote are real. Insidious things, illusions. You can have illusions and not know you have illusions. It’s easy to think an illusion is the truth when it’s not the truth at all. Or partially truth, partially fiction. A mutation of truth, a viscous little critter accommodating contraries like a lawyer swaying a jury with warmth and color.
Have you ever laid awake at night writing and rewriting scripts for things you plan to say and do the next day? And then the day comes and it all comes out forced and weird because your acting isn’t that great and the lines you wrote in the liquid of night got stuck in the clay of day.
And, you know, self-consciousness, that fucks things up.
“There's not even room enough to be anywhere / It's not dark yet, but it's getting there / Well my sense of humanity is going down the drain / Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain,” sings Dylan on my headphones tonight.
It’s easier to go over lines from the past and make changes because that theatre never shuts down the curtain is forever going up on one scene after another. It’s like having Tennessee Williams in your head night and day. Ava Gardner chopping the shit out of a lobster in a Mexican kitchen. Richard Burton walking barefoot over broken glass.
Decimals don’t cut it. Everything has to be large. Even in the margins. Especially in the margins. Nothing but small talk goes on in the living room. If you want to see something between the hips and lower ribs you’ve got to go into the margins.
According to the message on our side mirror, things will have often seem larger than they actually are. Which got me into trouble one afternoon parallel parking in front of a Tesla. If you’re going to negotiate a tight space don’t do it around a Tesla. Do it elsewhere. Go around the block if you need to. You can’t stretch a car but you can stretch a few minutes to fit the right kind of space.
Lord knows the vast majority of narratives I’ve got running in my head at any given moment are (at best) distortions, exaggerations, misconceptions, misinterpretations or delusions. Ignus fatuus: foolish fire.
There are memories (and what memory isn’t, ultimately, a narrative?), that have acquired a vintage. Things I never thought about until recently. Things that occurred forty to fifty years ago.
Like the summer of 1967 when I quit my job at Boeing deburring machine parts and returned to San José, California to go to school. I loved that summer. I spent a lot of it in a friend’s garage listening to the Velvet Underground.
Or the poetry class I took with Michael Palmer in the fall and winter of 1971 at San José State and heard names like Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett for the first time.
Or hitchhiking across France with my ex-wife in May, 1972, and going to a gypsy festival in a little town south of Arles called Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer and watching four horsemen ride a black doll on a palette into the Mediterranean to reenact the arrival of the three Marys (Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome and Mary of Clopas) on the shore of southern France. The black doll is a representation of Saint Sarah, the patron saint of the gypsies, who, it is said, was either the Egyptian servant of the three Marys, or a local woman who welcomed them as they came to shore. What I most vividly remember was the heat of all the candles in the crypt of the fortress church where the statue of Saint Sarah is kept in a niche, notes and prayers pinned to her.
I remember the night in Paris in January, 2015, when Roberta and I left our hotel room to go looking for a restaurant to have dinner and seeing soldiers everywhere in camouflaged battle fatigues carrying assault rifles and wondering what that was all about and discovering later on our hotel TV that the offices at Charlie Hebdo had been attacked and twelve people had been killed by two gunmen, members of an Islamist terror group.
And then there’s coincidence.
Today, while waiting in a doctor’s office, I read a prose poem by Francis Ponge about the word ‘cruche,’ no other word like it, ‘cruche,’ which is a clay pitcher, and thanks to the ‘u’ in the middle the word est plus creux que creux, more hollow than hollow, and how easily they break, how careful you need to be when walking with one, how - if it drops and breaks - the shards look like flower petals. I finish the poem and pick up an issue of Architectural Digest lying on the table to my immediate left. It’s a thick magazine with glossy pages. I open it to an article about a Chicago ceramicist named Theaster Gates, who stands “inside his sprawling studio….a ceramics atelier littered with pots.”
Who, or what, weaves the narratives of our lives? Is it one big sweeping novel or a collection of short stories with no particular theme holding it together other than our own privately weeping selves?
“I Forgot Ars Poetica,” writes Eileen Tabios in her memoir titled (with exquisite irony) Amnesia: Somebody’s Memoir. “I forgot my poetry is going to change the world. I forgot my words are healing. I forgot my words are apples infused with cheerful cinnamon. I forgot my words are holy. I forgot my words are going to lift you - all of you! - towards joy.”
And those, my friend, are words to live by.