Thursday, March 1, 2018

My Divided Self



The concept that the human psyche, or Soul, is made up of multiple, conflicting parts is nothing new. As such, perhaps it is worth giving it pause.

In Plato's Phaedrus, the Soul is seen as a chariot with two horses, each vying for power and position, while the Soul's charioteer must hold the reins firmly in order to keep the cart in balance and the horses of desire in check. In the Bhagavad Gita, we see that Arjuna's Soul is tormented by what he wants and what he must do, his dharma. His charioteer, no less than the human embodiment of God, in the form of Krishna, tells him he must overcome his specious grieving for those about to die, mainly because they are already dead, yet also, never shall die and always will be. Arjuna is conflicted, torn between what he feels and what he knows.

More recently, William James, in a series of brilliant lectures for the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion, which were given at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in 1901-02, talks about the concept of the Divided Self, and the Process of Unification, something I can highly relate to at this juncture of my life.

I recently visited New Mexico, my birthplace and Texas, where I mostly grew up, with someone I love dearly, despite our paths seemingly going different ways now. I wanted to share something very personal, special and close to my heart with her. The trip had some serious ups and downs, and many things were brought into question that later culminated in the troubles we've had of late. But, not to go down that road at the moment, it is significant to talk about what happened to me when I saw certain things through her eyes.

Although I have not lived in New Mexico since I was very young child, I have always kept it close, and have visited it nearly every year for at least the past 30+ years of my 49 years on this earth. It was a refuge, my ashram. Especially living as a foreigner in Flanders, Belgium, where it is very difficult to meet people as being a said foreigner, and it is highly congested being the most densely populated country in Europe. Quite the contrast from Texas and New Mexico, where open skies and friendly faces are the norm, not the exception.

My friend was indeed moved by the openness of the country and the people, though the latter can become tedious when you sense a veneer of falseness. Not always the case, but it can be overblown at times, and is in stark contrast to the closed nature of the Flemings, and the claustrophobia one can feel at every turn.

She was moved, literally to tears, by the countryside as we drove across Northern New Mexico, which was moving to me, and I realized how different this was for her, having never been outside of Europe, much less to the American West, which is iconic in its scope of vastness and otherworldly landscapes.

However, things have changed in New Mexico, and I had not noticed so much the last few times that I had returned, either on my own, or with my daughter. Whether it be Heisenberg's Breaking Bad, which is ubiquitous in the curiosa shops now, along with the handful grab of gemstones at Clines Corners and the like, or if it be the heavy tourism marketing that I witnessed in many places, including the DFW airport, screaming out the glorious Nature of New Mexico, something had changed.

For literally decades I have told people I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and for decades I received blank stares, even from people in Texas and definitely when further afield, and absolutely when in Europe, where I have lived nearly half of my adult life. Now, if I say Albuquerque, I can hardly finish saying the name, before Breaking Bad comes up. Don't get me wrong, I binged on Breaking Bad, and loved it, and moved through Better Call Saul just as swiftly. But, something is gone.

When we went, it was during the worst snow season in a very long time for Northern New Mexico, and there simply was no snow. As such, the hordes of people on vacation who normally would be on the slopes, were on the streets and elsewhere, such as Bandelier and Meow Wolf and in the restaurants and so forth. It was crowded, congested and did not feel like New Mexico, but rather Flanders in the West.

My friend was divided as well, loving some, yet highly critical of other things. I took offense (yes, I believe one can only take offense, not be offended) at first, until I began to see it more through her eyes, and then I became disheartened, and even worse dis-enchanted in the Land of Enchantment.

When I was still married, we had a plan. We moved back to Belgium to begin raising our daughter so that she would be bi-lingual, and then, maybe after elementary school, we would move to Santa Fe, I would get a great job at St. John's and my ex-wife would had a great job at an art gallery, and life would be beautiful. That did not happen. We got divorced, she is with a Belgian man, and I stayed in Belgium to co-parent our child.

I then thought, okay, I'll go back when she is done with High School and can split my time in Europe and New Mexico. Then, I met my friend, and we thought we might spend the rest of our lives together...and that seems to have come to an end, and moreover, the idea of splitting time in New Mexico and Europe with her evaporated while were there for less than a week. It was obvious that that would never work. My Self and Soul were rent in pieces, as was my heart.

William James says:
The higher and the lower feelings, the useful and the erring impulses, begin by being a comparative chaos within us--they must end by forming a stable system of functions in right subordination. Unhappiness is apt to characterize the period of order-making and struggle. (from The Divided Self)

More true could these words not be for me now.

There is chaos in my Self, in my Soul and in my heart, and the reconciliation is a process, one that may take quite some time, rather, will take quite some time. To love so intensely, both a place and a person, and in one fell swoop, to lose them both, is not an easy pill to swallow.

I will be returning soon to New Mexico and Texas for a short visit to my mother and her partner. I do not know what my feelings shall be, having had such a close encounter of late with the disillusionment of my memory and of my expectations. I imagine I will also re-visit India in the not-so-distant future, another place that has its tenterhooks in my Soul, but perhaps that too shall be a strange experience.

I live straddled. My Self is indeed divided between places, amongst loved ones, and within my own body.

James suggests that as with older medicine, the concepts of lysis and crisis, gradual and abrupt cures were roads to recovery, and that the same bodes true for the divided Self, that there can be a gradual or an abrupt unification. In the tradition of Zen, enlightenment can come like a lightning flash or slowly like a glacier, or, not at all.

My life's path has hit forked ways of late, and I will take one or the other, and the journey at hand is yet to be seen...






Saturday, February 24, 2018

Farewell Andromeda

Farewell Andromeda

Listening to my dad’s old vinyl John Denver’s 1973 “Farewell Andromeda” this morning, with a steaming cup of coffee in hand, looking out my frosted window of sub-zero Edegem, Belgium, I had an epiphany.

Coming off a very intense relationship in every aspect, it was time for reflection. I’ll be turning 49 soon, living a life that I could have never predicted, which none of us really can. Divorced, single father of a soon-to-be teenager daughter, a foreigner in a foreign land, who also doesn’t feel at home in his own country either, living in a nice rental house with two cats and no fixed income, there are many parameters at play to say the least.

As we all have challenges in life, I have had my share, both internally and externally created. Each time, however, has been a learning experience. This time, I believe, has been the most significant because I feel that my latest epiphany solves my biggest problem with the precision of Occam’s Razor, a favorite trope of my father. In short, Occam’s Razor means that the simplest explanation is the best. In this case, it is.

“Farewell Andromeda” has a variety of songs, ranging from a man contemplating adultery by looking at a beautiful woman on a porch while his wife stands next to him; a father coming home drunk at Christmas, ruining the family’s holiday again; the desire to leave it all behind and become a “cowboy”; the spiritual desire to find peace and solitude in the mountains; the desire for a family; the solace in solitude and even misery; contemplating a home life that no longer exists; the sadness about the destruction of Nature; the desire for true Love; contemplating the “good ol’ days” that have passed us by; and, most importantly…the simple appreciation of Beauty in life and the desire to share it with others.

That is my life contained within 45 minutes etched into vinyl, sung by a singer/songwriter whom is special for one very important reason: both my mother and father loved him.

When we are in relationships, we try to find common ground, something that we share. Too often though, we try to either lose ourselves in the other, or we want the other to lose themselves in us. In other words, all or nothing. And, this means one person compromising. A relationship is a constant give and take of this, and sometimes the balance becomes out.

However, this is also true within one’s own Self and Soul. And, it is confusing as hell, both to ourselves and to others when they witness this struggle.

I have been a source of confusion, frustration, anger and yet also love; again, both for others and myself.

Normally, I am a very calm, shy, introverted, composed, compassionate, empathetic, caring and considerate person.

Sometimes, I am a very volatile, angry, extroverted, seemingly uncaring, harsh, rude and judgmental person. When that happens, it almost always involves alcohol.

Now, the general and quickest answer seems to be that it is alcohol only. Well, that is true to a degree, but it is a symptom of a cause that the razor just cut for me.

As people generally know me as the former, the so-called Dr. Jekyll of the equation, when the other, lesser-seen side, the Mr. Hyde shall we say, comes out, people then exhibit the aforementioned confusion, frustration and anger or even fear. And, rightly so.

So, where does this come from? Why has this come up? How could this happen?

Occam’s Razor.

As most of us do, as children, we fight “not to become our parents”. I am no different, in fact very much so.  I have fought so hard not to be my father at many levels. He struggled with drinking as well and was hardly what one could ever call him being a family man. I denied him being part of me. I have fought at times not to be my mother as well. She has a self-described Pollyanna optimism and is hardly risk taker.

Yet, both of them are/were fiercely intelligent in their own way. And, they both loved John Denver. And, that’s when it hit me…the razor never cut so deeply as when it did listening to this LP alone (except for my two zen-master cats).

My life has been split at times between being my mother and my father, but often so sharply that it is shocking to the outside world. How can a calm and reasonable and caring person suddenly become so different?

My repression of trying so hard not to be my father has caused me at times to want to be him so badly that I then literally have gone off the rails to be so, but to an extreme. I have sought out the hard-drinking, non-caring side, but not embracing the better qualities, and yet denied that is what is happening.

For the majority of my life, I have tried to be there for people, to be self-less, to help, to make things better, just as my mother has. But, at a certain point, the tipping point of genetics kicks in and it shifts dramatically to what I always saw as the dangerous side of my father that I tried to excise from my life.

This is mistaken.

This morning I realized that I have to embrace both parents without going too far on either side.  I am an extremely responsible person, but I also cannot deny the very strong urge I have to give the world the middle finger when I look around at humanity. As a result, when the two worlds clash, they clash violently and dramatically because they seem to be polar opposites, and yet, as Socrates tells us in the Phaedo, they are two ends of the same means: I care.

My mother cares. My father cared.

I care.

My mother cares for people in service ways and my father cared for people as a physician.

But, caring can become carrying. And, when we carry too much, we break. I try to carry as much as possible, for as long as possible, rarely asking for help, and then I break. My mother seldom asks for help, but she does. My father only asked for help when it was too late.

I have moved from caring to carrying many times in my life, and when I break, the “dangerous” side of my father surfaces, and it confuses and confounds as I seemed so strong on the outside, the stoic Sisyphus rolling his rock.

People have asked me more times in my life “Why?” “How?” when this happens.

Simple.

I have denied being just as much of my father as my mother.  The razor never cut so precisely.

I have gotten drunk at Christmas, inter alia, ruining others’ joy, and yet, I have also devoted my life to optimistically finding the silver lining in everything.

However, one simple thing I have done more than anything in my life, which both my parents gave me is: I try to find Beauty in Nature (in its broadest sense and scope) and share it.

No longer will I deny my father in me. It is because of him that I listen to this very LP, 45 years after he bought it with my mother, one of the last years they were together. I do not deny the optimist of my mother in me, because, it is after every time that I have slipped that I find the courage and strength to keep on and keep my chin up.

To find the balance within the biggest thing in our lives, that is…who we are because of two people, is the goal.

Farewell Andromeda


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Pancakes with Kaz


Today I had the pleasure of escorting the pre-eminent Calligrapher, Writer, Poet, Artist, Peace Activist, Translator and Zen Sensei Kaz to the airport in Brussels. Last weekend I participated in one of Kaz’s “signature” calligraphy workshops and last evening I was able to attend a truly special event in which for the first time (as far as anyone knows), the poetry of the Japanese Zen Master Ryokan was set to music and performed live. Kaz had translated the poetry, Luc De Winter composed the score, and the duo of Els Modelaers (mezzo) and Veerle Peeters (piano) brought the poetry to life at Antwerp’s Kunst Humanorium (Performing Arts School).

Within a mere week’s time, via Kaz, both directly and indirectly, I was exposed to an entirely new aspect of a city I have lived in for the past five years. As I have written before, there are two ways to see the world: to travel as much as possible to as many places as you are able to; or, to sit still and the world will sooner or later pass by. I have tried to balance both of these approaches, and this past week, the latter proved to be quite effective as I discovered many things “in my own backyard,” so to speak.

I picked up Kaz quite early this morning, and the brilliant autumn full moon was still quite high and bright in the sky, and the air was crisp and clear. It was a beautiful morning.

We made it to Zaventem with no problems as it is Sunday, and the infamous Belgian traffic jams were not to pose a threat today.

However, when Kaz tried to check in, there was a bit of a security snafu as he had previously lost his Green Card and is waiting for his new one. As such, we were told he was not going to be able to fly and that he would have to go to the American Embassy and procure papers, etc.

Two things could have happened. The first, which unfortunately is more common, is that he could have made a scene, complained, be rude to the woman helping him, or a myriad of other ways to cause ill will. We had just experienced that as the woman in front of us had been told she had to shuffle her luggage a bit to make the weight limit. She loudly protested, became highly agitated and in the end left both herself and the woman helping her in a huff. That was the woman who was helping Kaz next, and she began in a rather defensive tone from the beginning.

Yet, the other way to deal with such situations is the way that Kaz did. There was no huffing and puffing. There was no anger. There was no anxiety (at least not outwardly as far as I could tell), and Kaz remained calm, which is what one would expect of one in his station of zen practice. After various people coming to help out, calls to INS in New York, re-booking of tickets, and so forth, the end result was that we got Kaz on a later flight, which ended up having a better connection as well, and each person that we dealt with, in the end was smiling, and everyone wished him a fine journey.

Once, many years ago, I was traveling with my ex-wife and we were on a flight that was canceled from the US to Europe. It was about midnight when the flight was finally canceled after a couple hours of delays. As a result, the entire flight had to be re-booked, one by one. Tempers flared immediately. People were loudly protesting and generally making the women’s lives behind the desk quite miserable. We were the last to be re-booked, by then it was nearly 2am. The people in front of us had been particularly rude, and the woman that helped us was at wit’s end.

Instead of following suit, I tried to be as understanding as possible, and lighten the mood for us. A slow wave of change came over the woman’s face, and she said, “just a minute.” She went into the computer, began ticking away, and ultimately handed us new tickets for the next day. She said, more or less, “I ‘accidentally’ booked you in these new seats, I think you will like them.” She slid the tickets across the counter with a knowing smile. That was the only time I have flown first-class on a transatlantic flight…

After Kaz had his tickets sorted out, we still had a couple of hours before he had to board on his new flight, so he suggested we have breakfast together. As there is not much in the Zaventem airport for departures before you go through security, we were limited to a couple of places, one of them being a “themed” American-style dinner, which we chose.

We both decided upon a small stack of pancakes, which neither of us had had in some time as it turned out. Complete with a jug of Maple Syrup, we had a very nice breakfast, and I was able to learn more about Kaz and his family as well as being able to tell him about my wonderful daughter as I had given him my book that I made for her, so he was “familiar” with her vicariously.

Last Sunday I learned of the inspiring art of the enso/enzo zen circles, and today I enjoyed a very pleasant conversation over a stack of American pancakes with an elderly (only in years…), kind Japanese man in the Brussels airport, served by a Turkish waiter. Again, the world does indeed sometimes come to us in our own backyard, and the more receptive we are to it, and the more we meet it with kindness and understanding, the richer our experience can be.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Circles Squared


This summer I re-discovered one of (if not the) America’s greatest thinkers, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I picked up Emerson at a rather low period in my life this summer, one in which I needed some inspiration, some words of wisdom, some encouragement from somebody, and I found them in his words.

Emerson had a very difficult life, despite a seemingly cozy, entitled position. Because of his revolutionary and challenging viewpoints, he was ostracized for nearly 3 decades from his alma mater of Harvard before eventually being anointed with an honorary doctorate, once clearer minds prevailed and realized what a treasure he was for them.  Often that is the sign of a truly “great mind,” to be marginalized on knee-jerk reactions only to eventually be recognized by a measured response, though just as often this may come long after his or her death. For Emerson, it came within his lifetime, but he was no stranger to hardship and tragedy as death shrouded his life with many younger relatives and friends dying early deaths.

From those experiences though, Emerson did not shirk, nor did he resign himself to quiet desperation as many in his place would have. Somehow, somewhere, he delved deep within and found a strength to continue to write, to continue to speak, to continue to live, never outwardly bemoaning his fate, even after the death of his son Waldo from Scarlet Fever.

Instead, Emerson met each adversity with writing and lecturing. He did not withdraw from the marketplace, but rather used his strength to overcome his tragedies and to share that strength with others through his words.

In his essay “Circles,” Emerson writes:

Life is a series of surprises. We do not guess to-day the mood, the pleasure, the power of to-morrow, when we are building up our being. Of lower states, of acts of routine and sense, we can tell somewhat, but the masterpieces of God, the total growths, and universal movements of the soul, he hideth; they are incalculable.

For as far as I can tell, Emerson did not wallow in the Past, nor did he try to divine the Future, but rather was firmly rooted in the Present.

As with Kant’s concept of the impossibility for our human reason to comprehend the totality of Space and Time, Emerson gives us the same caveat. There are just some things we cannot do. That is not failure, but it is the necessary imperfection of life that we must encounter on a daily basis. We can respond with despair, or we can embrace the imperfection and move forward. In those moments of embrace, we can discover new worlds within our own, or maybe just see what is right in front of us all along.

Life is indeed a series of surprises. Although I don’t like to be “scared” (never was a fan of Haunted Houses), I embrace the surprises because as Emerson said, we cannot measure what tomorrow may bring. As such, to expend the energy of fretting about something we cannot know, is futile. A difficult, yet necessary lesson to learn, and one that needs to be refreshed on a daily basis, lest we drink the waters of the river Lethe and forget.