Alpha Omega

On the architecture of hope.

You get this finite span of years; we have the bodies to prove it, and yet. There’s this persistent dream of forevers just beyond our knowing, held aloft as constant possibilities, and it is into these dreams that we forever pour devotions, as if there were no way to avoid a strong sense of something adjacent to these bodies, some transferable essence moving through us, across time and geography, language and species, a vastness that is in and not of us. How wildly clumsy we are in our attempts to name it, our dance the balletic gestures over cliffs of possibilities we can’t unsee, these reaching poses straining to catch what will not be grasped, washing over us most vividly as we leap towards our beginning and our ends, from rupture to renewal, and it’s hard not to wonder, which came first, creation or memory, or were these always entwined, in the dawns born of this substance ever stretching toward the ripe possibility in the amniotic bubble of the first word?

An Elegant Intelligence

Is it the stone that makes the statue beautiful, or something else?

The following is a meditation culled from ideas and phrases emerging from time spent this morning with Plotinus, namely with his treatise “On the Intellectual Beauty” from his Fifth Ennead, written between the years 300-305 A.D. Plotinus was of the group of Neoplatonists that located reality “in a transcendental spiritual realm that gives meaning to the visible world” (from the Norton Anthology introduction).

***

Plato may have distrusted the storytellers, but I’d rather hear them than any new ideas.

Rather than pale imitation of more perfect forms, art is the access point for transcendence.

Nature is an emanation from a higher realm, its source the same as art. Here we are, between the worlds.

Let’s go to the realm of magnitudes. Suppose two blocks of stone, side by side: one untouched, another wrought by an artist’s hands into a fine statue, concentrating all loveliness of form. Is it the stone that makes the statue beautiful, or something else?

The form is not the material, but the design, held not by crude equipment, but participation. Revelation happens when the resistance of the materials is subdued. The resistance? Stone, yes, but also these hands, these eyes, this stubborn heart. Every prime cause, indwelling, more powerful than its effect. What is musical comes from music itself. You may call it God, although I won’t.

Also note how the elegance will not depend on magnitude. Where does it come from, if not an original power? All gods are august in grace beyond our speech, and why? All there is, is heaven. Truth, then, is mother and nurse. All transparent, light running through light, all only mirrors.

Eyes in the divine, no satiety to call for its ending: to see is to look at greater length. Wisdom is not built of reasonings, but primal, complete from the start.

Powers of fire and the like may be thought great, but it is through their failure in true power that we see them burning, destroying, wearing things away––slaving toward production, they destroy because they belong to the realm of the produced.

There is no beauty outside being. Only in self-ignorance are we ugly. Light upon light, shine.

You Can Do This

Yes, you can. A tribute to the DIY gene of the species.

At times when the weary pilgrim wonders, about any of life’s endless challenges, Can I? ––it can be helpful to review the endless ingenuity of fellow humans. For those inclined to protest, No, but can I . . . myself? I am pleased to share this morning’s list of promising DIY possibilities.

You can, if you are so inclined, make an authentic cup of matcha tea while optimizing your computer’s RAM. You can regrow vegetables in water and remove cactus spines from your throat. 

Are there snakes in your home? Not to worry, you can remove these yourself, and then use this foil to fireproof your house. While you’re at it, why not turn your garden into a tortoise sanctuary? While you are observing the tortoises, why not preserve your stuffed animal collection in formaldehyde jars for a festive display on your living-room shelves? 

In case you were wondering, while doing your man’s laundry, you can make a crop top out of those way overdue BVD briefs. You can wear it while riding in your newly wood-paneled Prius, and if you prefer a bit more bling over your bumper, you can give your ride a custom exterior with pennies and superglue. 

Speaking of glue, while you’re at it, why not upcycle those old milk jugs and detergent containers into a DIY set of faux animal-head taxidermy wall hangings? Trust me, your visitors will be amazed by your chutzpah as they are wowed by the collection of googly eyes greeting them at the door.

Feeling like you’d like to work with your hands? You can make superhero finger puppets. Feeling dirty? Take last night’s Jack Daniel’s bottle out of the recycling and turn it into a nifty soap dispenser! Use liberally.

But make no mistake, earthling. You can’t wash away that creative spark, oh no. There ain’t no mountain high enough and there ain’t no project fine enough, that you can’t invent––with enough time, whiskey, moxie, and patience––some version of the ideal, blessed with your signature flair, and the beautiful, relentless confidence that keeps you from thinking it might do anything but work out perfectly, in the end. 

***

This post was inspired by a culling of numerous DIY sites I visited this morning, including these:

And by all of the earthlings who have shown me ingenious uses for duct tape, superglue, humor, and a prayer. I love you.

Art and Silence

Considering the subtle choreography of silence.

On this day in 1973, philosopher and political scientist Leo Strauss died at the age of seventy-four. Among his many works, Strauss published Persecution and the Art of Writing in 1941. In honor of the occasion, this will be the text for today’s found reflection––not quite a found poem, but a meditation constructed at least partially with phrases from a parent text.

Once there were public spaces of free public discussion, and now it may be worthwhile to consider certain compulsions: to coordinate speech with the accepted norms of a given group.

Hasn’t this always been true? Perhaps, and yet. The possibilities of voiding a name have never been more endless; it remains unclear yet if they run parallel to those for saving one. 

The issue is no longer so clear cut. People vs. government? Only sometimes. People vs. the ideas they have been conditioned to believe are their own? Frequently. People vs. machine? Often, and yet: few blanket statements are effective. People vs. the blanket statement, easily codified into an algorithm? Here is something. 

Who checks the rampant impulses that so many have been conditioned to believe themselves to own? Compulsion paves the way by silencing contradiction.

If freedom of thought is the ability to choose from among a variety of ideas, what happens when a choice is diminished from a vast number of possibilities to a simple either vs. or? What account can ever be made for censorship by noise?  

There is no need to silence the still, small voice when it may be easily overcome––on first listen, anyway––by an onslaught of noise. What does the average listener call a statement constantly repeated without contradiction, but true?

On the Night Train, with P.D.

A “Real Talk With Dead Folks” installment featuring French painter Paul Delvaux, who would have been ninety-eight today.

Today is one of those days for Real Talk with Dead Folks, an occasional Breadcrumbs feature. I knew it this morning when I learned it was the birthday of French painter Paul Delvaux, and I spent my coffee silence with his work.

Joyeux anniversaire, Paul Delvaux. You would have been ninety-eight today.

You are known for your nude women, your long shadows, your anxious isolation.

I like your Break of Day, the topless figures gathered in what is either a palace courtyard or its ruins. At first I think they are women, then I see what appear initially to be the finned tails of mermaids. 

But that is mossy bark, not scales, and those are roots, not tails. And then I look closer: the faces, the pose of their hands, their stiff necks. These are not women, exactly, but statues of flesh and trunk. 

I consider the roots, how tight they look, not quite spread and not quite rooted, and so close to one another. It seems impossible for them to make it very long like that, in such arid land. Behind them, a clothed woman is running, the desert floor behind her. 

Mountains congregate in the distance, under sky. 

Elsewhere, Gestapo were making arrests, Stalin was enforcing his Great Purge––mere preludes to the next world war. Your skeletons were often more animated than your fleshy counterparts. 

The home of your childhood was burned during the war years. What became of your beloved trains? Desire and horror met on your platforms. You studied music in the museum room, while skeletons in a glass cabinet appeared to watch.

You knew the anxious city, haunted with skeletons. You called it the climate of silent streets, with shadows of people who can’t be seen.

Mirrors, moon, candles, books: these were your favored elements. Around the nudes and the flute players, your skeletons danced.  Always in your paintings, this sense of waiting: of separation, this terrifying emptiness; this ongoing cycle of arrivals and departures.

It’s the little girl in the dress I am wondering about, the one with her back to the viewer. She is watching the trains by moonlight. What else does she see?

Always in your paintings, there she is: the beautiful but inaccessible muse. You painted her anyway, unable to keep from looking. 

It is for this that I bow to you. The way you saw death everywhere, and still looked for something else. The way you seemed to know your salvation to be just out of reach, while you reached anyway–– seeming to accept, by your actions, some unspoken contract. We all sign it to live here, but most are afraid to read the fine print.  It’s enough sometimes, to live for the unseen, the untouched. I like to think that this is what makes your skeletons move the way they do.

More about Paul Delvaux’s work:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

More Real Talk with Dead Folks

Real Talk With Galileo

Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work

Here’s to W.G., absurdist O.G.

The Paper Artist

Seeking insight on working with these unwieldy pages, I turn to an artist known for making sculptures of paper.

I was wondering what to do with these blank pages, the ones that need to be written to make these other ones make sense. Developing a manuscript sometimes feels like the messy middle of a construction project, with the piles of debris everywhere, and material under tarp, and the eyesore of scaffolding all you can see, one of those that inevitably leads to someone asking, what is going on here?

It seems like they haven’t been doing much.

Maybe the funding ran out. I forget what it was supposed to be.

Then I learned about the paper artist. He makes these vivid sculptures from the pages.

How does he do it?

Begin with a single fold, he says, and curiosity. The first action causes a transfer of energy. This leads to subsequent folds. I follow to understand, he says, about how the energy moves. If I knew where it would go, he says, I wouldn’t have to do this.

Where do you find it? They ask him.

Everywhere, he says. Music, architecture, Islamic tile patterns, protein misfolding. 

My favorite is this: I have this habit of misunderstanding, he says. It helps me see what is often overlooked. 

Thank you to My Modern Met for publishing the article, Paper Artist Crafts Incredible Three-Dimensional Relief Sculptures Entirely by Hand, featuring the work and words of artist Matt Shlian. I especially appreciate Shlian’s descrition of his process. Phrases from the interview are featured in this post.

Lens on the Littles

How do you discover something new? By looking where no one else is looking, with a new and better lens.

Huh.

What?

It’s Antonie Phillips van Leeuwenhoek’s birthday today.

Wait. Does this mean you’re inviting people over? I’m not up for it tonight. I have––

It’s not like I know him, know him. Besides, he died in 1723. It’s just, you know.

I don’t. Who is this guy?

He’s the father of microbiology. Dutch guy. He lived in the same town as Vermeer. Funny, he didn’t even think of himself as a scientist. He was a draper. He wanted to get a better look at the thread, so he worked on making better magnifying lenses. 

Is he that guy in Vermeer’s Astronomer?

Some say, even though the resemblance is questionable. What’s funny is he didn’t tell anybody about the lenses. Competition was fierce. But then he had a look at pond water, and he saw all these moving creatures.

Wonder of wonders. 

That’s exactly what he said!  So, he tells his friend, who is a scientist, and eventually word gets out and he captures the attention of The Royal Society of London. 

He published his findings?

Eventually, in letters. He had to be talked into this. He was like, I’m not a scientist, I’m a businessman! They’ll laugh at me! I don’t even know the terminology!  But his friend assured him that biologists used mostly made-up words, especially where discoveries were concerned.

Studying biology is like learning a new language.

Okay, he said. I’ll call these little guys animalcules!

That’s the spirit, his friend said.  The term is out of fashion now, but it encompassed lots of little creatures: unicellular algae, small protozoa, tiny invertebrates.

All in the pondwater?

At first. Later he turned his lenses on other findings. He found bacteria living in the human mouth and he the guts of animals. Spermatozoa, too, and the banded pattern of muscle fibers. 

Well, that’s something. 

Isn’t it?! That’s the point! Where everyone else saw nothing, he saw something. His followers called him the first with the power to see.

Well, here’s to you, APL.  I’m still not cooking, but I’ll raise a glass.

Something small, maybe?

Hah! Better get your microscope. With the right lens, it’ll be a feast.

Old Shells, New Forms

Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

On this day in 1883, English poet and critic T.E. Hulme was born.  Considered “the father of imagism” his work influenced the modernists who were seeking new forms across the arts, finding that the old forms, like shells ready to crack, no longer served the honest vision.  At the age of thirty-four, he was killed by a direct hit from a shell during the first World War.

I will not pretend to give an overview of Hulme’s career. In honor of his birthday, I am assembling a verbal collage of phrases from A Lecture on Modern Poetry, an influential paper Hulme delivered at the Poet’s Club in 1908, which was published and widely circulated after his death.  The verses below are mostly collected from Hulme’s text, rearranged as one does with “found poems,” which are one of my favorite forms for listening to unfamiliar texts.

Toward verse, I anticipate criticism. Don’t call it the means by which a soul soared, but a means of expression. I suspect the word soul in discussion, its hocus-pocus like selling medicine in the marketplace.

We are not the Mermaid Club, but a number of modern people. I have no reverence for tradition, and certain impressions to fix. I read for models but found none that fit. Forms, like people, develop and die. After too much use, their primitive effect is lost.

For the living, burdened with thought too difficult to express using old names, what possibility is there? The actor has no dead competition, as the poet does. Immortal arts need new techniques with each generation or risk an age of insincerity.

Consider decay of religion: dead carcass, the flies upon it. Here’s what happens when the spirit leaves the form.

After decay, a new form. I wish you to notice: the marvelous fertility, the fluidity of the world, its impermanence. If you prefer the ancients, consider the Greek theory of universe as flux, and how they feared it. The disease that followed? A passion for immortality. You know the rest.

Now we focus on impermanence. Leave the siege of Troy to the ancients. Let’s linger instead within the mind of the child by the drying lake. We cannot escape from the spirit of our times.

It’s a delicate and difficult art. A shell is a very suitable covering for the egg at a certain period, but when the inside character is entirely changed, to become alive, the shell must be broken.

Arts of the Mind

Magic: the art of reframing what appears to be happening.

For the past two months, the pace of things and the hectic, noisy nature of a given day has been, to put it mildly, strenuous. Or, to put it more forcefully, profoundly difficult.  It’s what has me longing for silence, considering life underwater, and imagining journeys to cat island. This and staring at walls and their respective shelves, which is what I was doing this morning while I sipped coffee through bleary eyes, trying to prepare for the day. It was because of this stare that I noticed a gem of a strange book that I had bought along with some other magic books year ago. I had a minor character who was into magic, and although I was able to develop much of what I needed without needing to get bogged down in research, I keep the books on my shelf and turn to them from time to time. Doing so never fails to enlighten me in some unexpected way––which is, after all, what one wants when dealing with anything magical.  The book I noticed this morning is 13 Steps to Mentalism, by the English mentalist Tony Corinda (1930-2010), who is widely considered to be an expert in the field. 

My first question, when opening this volume was, “What is mentalism, exactly?” I had placed it in the family of magic, but I realized that I couldn’t exactly define the term. I quickly learned that Mr. Corinda wasn’t a fan of offering explanations to outsiders, as the book came with no preface, no introductory overview, and a table of contents that a newcomer may find inscrutable. For example, the opening page dives right into techniques for using an apparatus known as the “Swami Gimmick Writer” without any explanation as to what one of these devices actually is, or why someone who practices mentalism would want to know how to use them––or, needless to say, what it is that a mentalist is actually supposed to doing. 

Perhaps the point was to get me to develop my capacity for conjuring hidden meanings. With this challenge in mind, I was inspired to interpret that the device in question, which has some lead in a point like a pencil tip, attached in a subtle manner by a tiny device that fits on the tip of an index finger, is used––I think–– to make surreptitious markings on paper. This can be useful, I imagine, in the event that a participant has just revealed that the number they were thinking was six and you mean to show that the number you anticipated they would be thinking when you pretended to write one earlier was actually also––“Tah-dah! Six!”

So, with slight help from ability to use context clues, and much greater help from Wikipedia, I now understand that mentalism is a performing art in which its practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities. Performances may include hypnosis, telepathy, clairvoyance, divination, precognition, psychokinesis, mediumship, mind control, memory feats, deduction, and rapid mathematics.

And who couldn’t use more of this? So, in case you are wondering, I thought I would harvest a few pearls of wisdom regarding these various and related arts, because it is hard to imagine that such a wide range of skills would not be almost universally applicable to anyone in any field. 

This proved harder than I thought, because in Corinda’s own words, “I am not a fan of teaching anything to anybody at any time, except if they are one of us.” Given that teaching is my stated profession, I was moved to appreciate the bald-faced, albeit somewhat pessimistic nature of his honesty. By around page 275 of the volume, in the Chapter “Mediumistic Stunts,” I found a few clues that I am choosing, by exercise of will, to deem immensely useful. Who couldn’t benefit from some mediumistic stunts?  I read on eagerly, thinking as I considered the day ahead: Sign me up, Tony. Sign me up.

Here are some preliminary findings. First, the most important part is the dramatic delivery of speech. The element of surprise is always our friend, and some may be surprised to know what one can get away with in a setting like a séance. Note the importance of word choice. Instead of mind-reading, say Telepathy, or ESP. Rather than sight, refer to Clairvoyance. Instead of hearing, refer to your Clairaudience, and regarding matters of feeling, Clairsentience evokes the ineffable je ne sais quoi that any performer of mental–– um, Events (never, ever call these tricks) ––depends upon.  

These people are not the audience, but The Gathering! Not Ladies and Gentlemen, but Sitters and Friends! Not tools or thingies, but Psychic Appliances with specific names: auragoggles, spirit trumpet, gazing crystal.  Not Ghost, but Spirit; not Assistant, but Guide. The living are On the Earthplane, and the others are Beyond the Veil

To vanish is to Dematerialize, and Apportation is when something is apparently brought into the room my supernatural means.

There’s more to be explained––much more, but after hunting so long for something I could understand, I am going to rest on my laurels here. On days like this, in times like this, when I’m acutely aware of the need for some magic or divine assistance with the details of the day, I am refreshed by the reminder that sometimes what is needed most is the opportunity to reframe a situation through language.

It is not overwhelming, but sensorily and spiritually fertile; not soul-crushing, but soul-strengthening as with an athlete’s weight routine; not desperate, but ready to transform.

One Hundred Days

Celebrating the mystery of daily practice.

Today marks one hundred days of these posts, which started as “this thing I am trying” and evolved into Breadcrumbs, and which are now evolving me.

The project began from an impulse of love and a wish to connect. Someone asked: Why, where do you see yourself? I thought, Dead, eventually. Hopefully not soon, but a person never knows. It mattered not to do so while waiting for someone’s invitation to the table. 

I was working on manuscripts, which is long and lonely work. I am still working on manuscripts, some of which are new since beginning this project. I publish here and there in journals, and this is also slow-going. That’s how these things are. And meanwhile, every morning since I started this experiment, I also publish here. The idea was simple: try this thing and don’t stop.  I could evaluate after a hundred days. 

Evaluating now, I feel mostly gratitude. It never got easier, but it did become more automatic, the practice of––this thing. I don’t have to name it to learn from it. Daily practice teaches what I could not think to learn, including invitations to new questions. Friend, thank you for joining me here. 

The mind offers many reasons to stop and change course. This is what minds do, offer reasons for things. They can be acrobats of distraction. But the still part, the listening part, knows. This is the part I show up here to visit. This is where we meet, at the edge of the deep, still lake we share. Most of what is happening in it, I will never explain. This is the kind of presence I trust. The mystery is always more compelling than any of my own ideas.

Looking back at selections from the archives, I see something moving that is vastly more intelligent than I am, the logic of which I could never have planned. One hundred is a special number, and in this case, only a beginning. I mark this day with this prayer of gratitude. Friend, thank you so much for being here with me. I bow to you with a heart full of wonder.