Patterns

I don’t believe in fate—providence, if you will. If there is a plan, it does not proscribe outcomes. Rather we wander in and out of circumstances bumping into two sets of patterns—those we make out of our lives, and those that are beyond our immediate control. Life goes out of balance when we cannot get the two patterns to jibe—when we cannot reconcile ourselves to the patterns that exist. Out of balance we can neither accept what has happened in our lives or we cannot break those patterns and create new ones that are made from familiar pieces but reflect possibilities that we had not imagined. Out of balance we fight against the patterns that life provides, missing obvious signs (rising temperatures, repeated cruelties, even the tender messages of love) and careening against the walls of a maze that we cannot perceive and causing damage to ourselves and those around us.

The patterns in our lives start with family. I constantly share Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.” There is something reassuring in the thought that we are in a cycle of “fuck you up.” As opposed to Larkin, I think the ways we do it, as we do it, inescapably echo what has happened to us, perhaps a refracted and distorted echo, but if we listen closely the voices of the past are there. Beyond that we try, inexpertly and haphazardly, to shape something new—sometimes in the bounds of that was happened—marrying tin castings of our mothers or fathers—and sometimes creating almost new ones—bouncing from job to job, leaving or being fired, until we find something that makes sense; switching churches running away from one doctrine to another until we find answers to our questions, or questions for our answers, failing in aspects of our lives until we discover paths that lead to understanding and accomplishment.

If we pay attention there are patterns to the world—some are startlingly easy to discern: evolution, geology, philosophy, math, literature. We go to school to learn to recognize those patterns, or at least learn the methods behind those patterns. Maybe—there’s no guarantee—we learn to accept that life does not always follow the neat regular order of all that we learn—like a geometry proof—but proceeds in fits and starts—like punctuated equilibrium. Or that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the cagey repetitions of a Mandelbrot set—a kind of beautiful and frustratingly decoded paisley.

I am writing this, because I can see—but only when I’m not looking straight at it—a pattern. The school where I will teach in the fall is near the junctions of routes 17 and 29—roads that ran through my earlier life. The mountains nearby are mountains on which I hiked when I was twelve. I am now split, three hours in either direction—when the traffic is good—from both ends of my family. These are entirely random coincidences—of that I am sure. However, coincidence when it travels in large numbers begins to wear the shape of a pattern. Perhaps it is a pattern of my own making—I look for affirmation and discover it where I will.

And yet, these days, I find other coincidences accruing—but not coincidences, more like reflections and refractions.

How many times in my life have I wondered how someone significant has entered my orbit—or rather, how has the rogue moon of my existence been captured by another’s gravity? I recognized early on the awful fact that I was chasing those tin castings from my family. Inevitable, and not always destined for failure, yet, somehow, not strangely, I ended up at 58 single.

When I looked through the kaleidoscope of my past relationships, I recognized the shifting bits of glass and plastic that first came present in my childhood. And with each turning, I noticed newer, more original bits. I could see how I was adding to the portrait, or finding, fortunately, new colors and shapes. This bit—a runner who lead me onto the road and into extended jaunts over hills. That bit—a wild heretical sense of magic and religion that helped my questioning soul find new answers. Over there, now sliding out of the periphery—an abiding sense of motherhood that helped me see fatherhood in a clearer light. Here—a love of play and pretending that rekindled my dramatic heart. In the corner—a fervent commitment to words and learning that at least matched my own. Sliding past in a glint of light—a traveler’s heart that would call me away from the familiar and to new destinations.

All these marked shifts away, additions to, and surprises in my vision of who I would walk with down city streets and along autumn trails. Singularly, each one added a variation to a familiar pattern, but that pattern remained dominant. All together they formed a secret wish—not just for someone else, but for the person I wanted to be.

Do we get to pick that person? Are we trapped under years of habit and gentle conditioning? They have carried me this far. What to do with the secret and not so secret longings—dreams set aside for expedience and practicality, or for some ingrained fear or limit? What if I began to write a new story—still with some familiar elements, but now with a center I have let waste in a box kept in a closet, underneath last year’s shoes, out of sight, but never, naggingly, out of mind?

I don’t believe in fate, but what if, instead of providence, I relied on my will to call forth a story, to create a possibility I had turned from year after year? What would happen? Would the kaleidoscope turn to reveal someone, or—by dint of will and willingness to shake my life into new form—would someone appear, almost without request, almost by chance? I don’t believe in fate, but I can see patterns, and can follow stars that have not lifted above the horizon before now.

Onward!

Two Sides: Ambivalence Part 2

When we are young, we change.  The hurtling forward into growth exhilarates us. We learn at full gallop, disastrously adding new ideas before old ones have taken shape. We are gluttons, and the table is richly laid out and endless. Our Apollonian and Dionysian sides eat together—the only rule is More, and more we do have. We learn and learn, good gods I hope we do, like gods.

rr-apollo-quiz-apollo-lyre_23f7551cSome people, most people, grow up, and cast their lot on one side or the other. Apollonian selves dream into an idea of logic and order—think a sonnet by Shakespeare, glorious in its arrangement of rhythm, rhyme, and idea. This is Apollo brought to earth, walking firmly on the ground. Dionysian selves trumpet feelings and instinct: Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” is as much a dictum as can be borne.

180px-Dionisio3

Rule three thousand one hundred and sixty-two: if you are one, do not marry the other. And do not ask about the other five million rules.

And recognize that just because one is Dionysian, do not think there is a lack of rules about how to go wild. A little Apollonian memory slips in.  You need to party like this, or you aren’t really partying, dude.  On the flip side there may be a wild inconsistency built into that Apollonian logic—call it hypocrisy if you feel like it but know that wildness finds a way.

A few people never settle into one side or the other.  The two halves bristle within like ions in a storm cloud. Ambi-valent: charged in two directions, fire in both hands.  We don’t grow up, but out, finding hidden paths through the forest, wanting one last opinion, and reassessing as we charge into conflict. Yelling at our superiors and demanding a reckoning.  Being schooled by our students and admitting our blindness. and always, always learning.

I bemoan my ambivalence; I cherish my ambivalence. It’s a dirty little secret about my life. I hate being fenced in, and I love the elegant symmetry of a well written novel. You point out chaos, and I will chart the forcelines that create paisley swirls. I want to love someone and build a life with them and I want them to dance right out of the picture on their own. I want to lead the way, and I am happy to chase comets.

Oh, it’s the worst. And the best. Or the other way around. And the other way around.

Some folks tell me that I’m too strict, or not enough of an adult, or that I have too many rules, or that I don’t follow their rules. Dude, this is how we party. How am I a teacher? How could I be anything else? How can I not shake up my life and take my daughter along for the ride: reassuring her, giving her the foundation she needs, and teaching her that when the earth shakes, the ground still loves her. And that everywhere I am, I will love her.

coin_flipping_by_uroskrunic-d36x79rMy youngest brother has told me many times that I am too serious. And of all the boys, I am. And not. My wildness is serious, and my seriousness is wild. Flip a coin, and watch the light glint off side after side after side as it tumbles through the air. Heads or tails, the glinting wins.

Beltane

I gave a quick talk to my congregation about Beltane this past Sunday and it felt awful.  I hope it did not seem that way to the people who heard it. I talked about the beginning of summer and moving the cattle to the summer pastures, and, glancingly, about animal generation as opposed to vegetable generation.  I commented that our animal lives need more intentional tending, and then connected the whole spiel to what kinds of things the kids (and congregation) do intentionally to help their households and the church.  We are, after all, in pledge season.

But this absolutely failed to address the deeper meanings and possibilities that Beltane has for me. I tend to see religion and spirituality in their most metaphoric values. Man, as meaning maker, defines the unknown (and even the known) world with stories; I am supremely interested in those stories.

As a story, Beltane contains so much that is vital.  It is driven by agriculture and animal husbandry. Half way—kind of—between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, after the planting season has finished its first great stage and the buds have either burst, or are about to burst, the cattle is sent to the summer pastures.  Unlike plants, animals require direct contact to generate; no bees act as romantic intermediaries. Just as seeds would be blessed before going into the earth, the flocks received blessings on their way to the fields—so much relied on the herd and its health.

Beltane was not simply about cattle.  At its heart, and as it is celebrated now, it marks the joining of the goddess and the god—of nature and man.  Human generation was equally essential. Infant and maternal mortality rates were staggering.  Fertility was a bulwark against decimation and disappearance.

In Matthew, Jesus Christ counsels, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” Nature, as opposed to agriculture, finds its own way. It is, if you will, in some god or goddess’ hands. Life waxes and wanes in (sometimes perilous) balance, but it is a balance that existed before us and without us.  When we began to organize the world to suit our needs, it behooved us to learn nature’s rhythms. Nowadays with food produced on demand and infant and maternal mortality rates reduced to be exceptionally and not ordinarily tragic, nature’s rhythms seem more distant. We can live as we please.  “Can live,” of course is different from how we do live.  We are caught in other less natural rhythms.

What strikes me about Beltane is the confluence of intention and nature.  Or, to put it another way, how we think about will and desire. Human sexual desire, or eros, if you wish, tends to be framed as an ungovernable facet of who and what we are. It is the part of us that is most of nature.  We talk about “chemistry” between people that leads to romance, and this implies some kind of arcane, mystical experience.  Our desire for love, for children, for sex, is baked into us.  It may be influenced by those less natural rhythms (I can only be turned on by movie star beauty), but desire is not a bus that I can drive. I am a passenger.

And yet, we, as people make things—homo sapiens, and homo faber.  We think.  We make. And making takes will and intention.  It seems to me that we fall back on inspiration—crediting our ideas to a muse or providence or some other source—rather than staking a claim to our own will.  “Rage–Goddess, sing the rage” begins my copy of Homer’s Iliad.  The goddess provided the song, and then like an amanuensis Homer put her will onto the page. Even Rilke’s” rope-maker in Rome” must have some ancient idea of rope, “formed over generations” that guides her hands.

Isn’t there something wild in creation, in making, too?  Isn’t there some aspect of it that is more closely (if, at times a bit mechanically) connected to eros?

I first learned of Beltane what seems like a million years ago, when reading George Frazier’s The Golden Bough (driven there by an interest in understanding Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; go figure, I was a movie nerd). I conflated Beltane and Bloomsday when I read Ulysses (there’s a paper to be written somewhere in all that), and made even more use of those ideas when I read Finnegan’s Wake. I am not the only one who has linked Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of carnival with Beltane.  So I became more than a movie nerd.

Still, what always bothered me was the ritual, and the programmatic nature of the one day (Mardi Gras, Purim, Beltane, Bloomsday) that was meant to somehow contain the generative energy that the ritual pointed to.  It almost always felt that the ritual existed to cordon off all that energy to one safely wild day—or a week, in the case of something like Burning Man.  And I understand that, even if I don’t like it, because who can live with wildness every day?  Who can make love with the kind of reckless abandon that honors the goddess every single time? Who can tap into the discordant creative chaos of the subconscious each time he or she picks up a pencil, a palette knife, or a paint brush? Who would set himself on fire, over and over again, only to return, each time, more brilliant and more ready, once again, for the flame?

It’s just not a way to live, unless one has decided that it’s the only way to live.