Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Best New Post You'll Read Right Now

Don't know about you, but when I'm in the library (and this happens but to a lesser extent in a real-world book store) I do a lot of judging going by covers.  You've just judged the change to this blog look right now, without even noticing, I bet.  A new style trial, is all; like it?

I wander along the stacks in the local library, head canted at that special bookshelf angle that probably makes librarians and booksellers really good customers for chiropractors, and let my mind do its random-seeming thing.  But inspecting my process, a whole bunch of biases at work, not the least of which these days is a simple practical one - will I be able to hold the book easily? Right up there level with that is my own design and beauty aesthetic.  To big, too small, or too floppy, or too ugly means it really has to either grab my attention with the author's name (known to me somehow), a great title (unlike this post), or a particularly attention-grabbing subject matter.  My secondary scanners are doing calculations to re-scan unconsciously those I weeded out on format or ugliness and connecting with deeper layers of my mind.  after all, I've seen pretty much all these books before anyway.  Why am I looking at this one today when I saw and rejected it previously?

Luckily, I do not know, and I choose not to interrogate myself too deeply on this one.

I just wanted to say Happy New Year to those with nostalgic or practical allegiances to the Western calendar and introduce you to this style trial.

Oh, and a big special shout-out to the roughly 1 in 365 Samoans who are missing out on a birthday this year.  At least now you all get to be the first, rather than the last, to flip the calendar.

Whatever it is you do to mark the occasion, enjoy.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Golden, apparently.

Silence, so goes the saying, is golden.  I'm not sure what that means.

Gold is shiny.  It is very, very heavy.  It is a relatively abundant element yet tends to be too widely dispersed in the environment for it to be easily accumulated in large amounts.  It is extremely useful technologically, and for some reason people like it.  It is even a safely edible metal - gold can do us no harm (unless a bunch of it falls on your foot or something) but its extraction from ore tends to be a very toxic process indeed.

Silence could be reminiscent of any or all of these qualities.  But that's the thing about silence - silence isn't saying.  In any case, those who seek gold do so mainly for what it signifies, rather than for its usefulness to a real-life purpose.  Those who seek silence, on the other hand, tend to seek a deep quality of experience.

Being of a contemporaneously omenological bent (I like to pay attention to clustered events or signifiers as indicative of something worth feeling out beyond the mere use of our ordinary sensorium - that is, I 'read the signs' in life) I note well how the theme of silence surrounds me at present.  As does silence itself.

Ironic, for such a wordy chap, to be speaking so of his silencing.

I posted back HERE in March 2010 on my thoughts about losing my vocal abilities.  I've been toughing it out ever since, making do, adapting, using Internet Relay for the phone, doing as much bureaucratic and commercial stuff as possible online and via email, and of course having a social life almost entirely by the written word.  But a day or two ago, I had no voice for an entire day.... It. Just. Didn't. Work. Even with a whole breath per syllable and being as gentle or forceful as I could be; nada.  I crossed the watershed, and allowed The Realisation to seep in deeply - it is over now.  Speech has gone.  In that post closing in on two years ago now I spoke of my petty fears and my deeper ones.  I put forth that I would try to let go with some grace.  Well, if I am to judge myself on the latter, I wouldn't give a very high mark.  Never mind; grace comes in good time.

So it's been a little while since I heard much of myself.  Habit is dying hard (as they also say) so I've tried to speak a few times, and I have yet to work out a few little details; like how to communicate with the dogs on those important matters of "no", "sit", "go lie down", "wait", and importantly "good dog".  Using the iPhone program I have (the excellent Proloquo2Go) is not an easy conversational replacement either.  Typing is problematic for me at the best of times, and timing is vital to ordinary conversation so - very quickly I've settled in to a vibe of only saying what's necessary, or framing a simple line with clear intent.  What I'm saying is that it's been much quieter round here, word-wise.

But you can't make an omenological observation on just this - one swallow doth not a summer make after all. (There they go saying things again, and who are these they that so fill our heads with these pithy flippant lines?).  No - silence has been approaching stealthily yet in plain view, from many fronts, simultaneously.  You actually can hear it coming.  I am reminded of the sound of Mexico City over Christmas, when more than half the cars are off the roads or out of town and all the noisome businesses shut.  The silence creeps in from the mountains around.

All the neighbours left over Christmas.  Some of them have left for good, and others seem to be living there only part-time.  At any rate a lot of loud kids have departed; barky dogs and shouty parents too.  A series of events has led me into e-conversation with a Buddhist centre, one that specializes in assisting the dying, and of course the whole core of the practice in Buddhism is silence.  Or stillness, or something.  The things I'm reading all seem to feature silence as a theme.  And then Facebook decides to partly silence me by making sharing things more difficult, most especially these blog posts. (I suspect it's part of a Cold War between FB and Google, like the way FB quickly killed the apps that let you post on FB and Google+ simultaneously).  There are many little examples and pointers I could winkle out for you here but it's obvious to me what the theme of the moment needs to be for me.  And I admit, I am as powerfully drawn as I am egoistically repelled.  For the ego seems to cease to exist in real silence (the inner kind), it truly does.

The message for me is that of imbalance.  It's not an extreme position or massive inversion of my worldview that's called for; the message is that I'm ignoring silence far too much for my own good.  As my disease is a perfectly-tuned spur to grow through my unique karmic deals so is my final loss of speech a finely wrought - indeed golden - opportunity to experience the opposite of my erstwhile moment-to-moment habit.  You know, that thing where we humans always feel the urge to speak.

The astute observer may have noticed this tendency creeping in more and more with my written communications as well.  Fewer blog posts, less Facebook blathering.  The focus has shifted qualitatively also.  There's more room for the silence.  And this increases the value of that which I do say, I think.

Silence and stillness are very closely related, aren't they?  As my body continues to contract and my abilities of movement diminish, so the urge towards just sitting increases.  Stillness has stalked me like silence.  I need reading glasses now, but besides this reading can be physically uncomfortable.  Watching TV is more difficult with the aircon on; I don't like it to be too loud and obnoxious.  Writing here is painful after 20 or 30 minutes.  In a beautifully self-sabotaging twist my main music repository, my iPhone, is the very device I also use to 'speak', and only a week or two prior to Christmas did we re-sell an iPod that we'd never used (because I had the phone) thus meaning I can now either listen to music OR speak.  Oh hey, I'm not meaning to screed out a litany of complaint, I'm just reading to you some of the signs.  And they're all pointing to conscious stillness and silence.

I wonder, right now, why it is I feel moved to say any of this.  Perhaps I simply wish to see it in front of me, to 'speak' and thus validate my thoughts on the matter.

What we say becomes what we think.  What we think becomes what we do.  What we do becomes who we are.  Or so they say.

So what happens when we say - even inside our own heads - nothing?

It's no wonder people fear silence.  It's the sound of death.

Bring it on now, I say.  I'm ready to listen properly.

Two last things:  Please remember I am still open to receiving help with my final stillness as the me that I am; you can donate to my natural burial fund here, that I may compost nicely when the moment arrives:

Secondly, this blog will quite likely end here soon, and be shifted over to an alternative blogging platform.  It seems if I want to remain free to speak (and I do for now, in this way at least) then a freer way is to avoid the internecine strife between the Net Titans.  Maybe wordpress, or something.  Just a heads-up, OK?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Luftschliffe For Christmas

Meeta teased me a bit in the run up to Xmas this year, with little dropped lines like "If something arrives in the post from Germany, don't open it, OK?"  As if I'd open something addressed to her, I had replied. "I know ... just saying."  Later it was "gee I realy hope this thing arrives from Germany in time for Xmas" the inference being, since I am aware of all our gift-giving (or not) arrangements that this was something for me.

"I've bought you porn for Xmas". Again, there's an important assumption here.  The mutual knowledge that such things as are usually connoted by 'porn' do not float my boat and are in any case held in extreme general distaste by Meeta  coupled with our casual use of 'porn' as a denoter of visually-pleasing collections of imagery of a variety of subject matters meant that I could start to begin to wonder what sort of subject area she was referring to.  The double-entendre continued with the affixation of "... it's German porn."

I did indeed remove from our mailbox, on the 23rd of December, the last mail delivery day prior to Christmas, a smallish parcel, weighted and sized to suggest something possibly paperbackish, but in a larger format.  And heavier.  Yet it bent like side-bound paper goods do; in one axis, and not the other.  Must be a book.  "Excellent ... but that's only half.  Weird that the other half didn't arrive the same day".

Cometh the day, today.  Over the preceding weeks we've posted off a few choice hopefully well-curated little gifts and cards for friends and family, and yesterday we had a small family gathering with Meeta's youngest brother, his wife and our niece.  There was much good food, and some gift-swapping, and child's play in a little inflatable pool in the shade on a perfect summer's day.  This morning, with the neighbours all away, another of the very best and most amenable sorts of early summer's days ahead, it was to be just us.  Special presents under the tree.  'German porn' presumably included.

About ten days ago, in a quiet relationship moment - one of those long companionable silences in a home where two people have a comfortable love - I ventured that it seemed I would make another Christmas, as I was feeling both grateful, and a tad wistful.  We shared a Look.  It is great, we silently decided, that life has given us this Christmas together.  And that is all.  Remembrance of that close shave those few months ago now, that rapid, lurching, brutal veer toward the edge of my mortality and the subsequent climb back out has lost its anxiety already; replaced with a far more ever-present sense of acceptance that at any day now, it could (and probably will) happen again, without a physical redemption, perhaps, the next time. Our Look says that we can never really know what it's like for the other, but that we're as close to knowing as two people could be.  And that it's OK, because we have this one bright spot, whenever we remember it, right here, now.  And we can share in it, in a way.  This is a deep and abiding human comfort.  Possibly the best and most honest thing a couple can ever have, I think.

Up early, Christmas greetings exchanged.  The house is all lovely and shiny and clean and pregnant with delights in wrapping paper and fun with giving the dogs their new toys.  But first -:  have a feed, water the garden bits, put on a special loaf of bread for my beloved so it's hot and ready at lunchtime.  Reflect on giving, and gratitude at our amazingly lucky lives.  A hug and a Look, or two.  But eventually, we run out of excuses to prolong the titillation any longer, and we gleefully disburse Santa's bounty upon our furry four-legged family members.  They are most pleased.  To us, then.

First, I am instructed to open a certain smallish present, as this is one that she's just a tad unsure of whether I'll love it completely or maybe think it's a bit ... I don't know, something.  The least hard act to follow, I suppose, was the idea.  As it turned out, I love it. You are so not getting a list.

We took turns, and I was pointed at a parcel looking very like the dimensions of the aforementioned item from the mail.

Anyway ...

 ..... zeppelins.  It's even a satisfying word just to type.  Zeppelins.  There, I did it again.  Try saying it.  Feels nice too.  If ever there were to be a word to define and encompass the Middle European aesthetic from the first few decades of the 20th century then zeppelin would be it.

I love the things, but it's a weird, selective love; one which I have not ever interrogated or given much (or any, come to think of it) thought over the years.  It's just been there.

Massive sky penises? (There's that porn thing again).

Could it be that simple?  Is it just some odd primal masculinity-objectification worship being projected; a tantalizing blend of the purposeful shape with utter enormity yet a refined, redeeming lightness and grace?  Just a muscle-car fetish for a retro-machine geek?  Maybe, but who cares.  My favourites are those produced at the peak of the mania back in the mid 1930s like the Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg.  I never really went for later models, and certainly not faux-zeppelin things like the Goodyear blimps.  And it was always the German ones I liked best, aesthetically.  My very favourite "if you could travel back in time...." fantasy is travelling on the Graf Zeppelin; doing the South America run in particular.

Imagine my delight then, when the item from Germany turns out to be a beautifully-printed catalogue from a specialist auction house in Nuremburg with their massive annual zeppelin-related auction stuff.  Amazing things like letters and postcards, posters, brochures, and of course objects.  Old collectable zeppelin toys and models but then also Precious Things, like bits of the LZ 129 Hindenburg both from its early service years and salvaged after what the dual-language catalogue refers to as The Lakehurst Disaster.  Pieces of other zeppelins of the era, sections of struts and spars, gears, steering wheels, wine lists, teas services, zeppelin equipment ... anything you can think of that might have been on or is in any way related to zeppelins.  In this lusciously printed book.

How incredibly well my wife knows me, I think.  And how creative a gift was this to find (the 'other half' is another such catalogue but from this last year, the first one I have now is from 2010's auction).  I am glad (given our bank balance and the temptations) that their auctions are held in early December.  Who knows, maybe I'll be here for next year's ....... but porn indeed.  Glorious, fascinating looking and reading, and no-one else in the world would have known that I would totally have dug this gift.  No-one.

I'm not into the crash-porn aspects of zeppelin collectordom and I admit to a certain suspicion of one who might only covet a section of torn and burned Hindenburg outer skin or a twisted piece of spar from the wreckage, you know, ghoulish folk.  But then, the spars and pulleys and all that amazing manufactory is incredibly aesthetically appealing just in and of itself. I also note the very careful language used in the preface to the catalogue about anyone purchasing any object related to the "III Reich" does so only for interest and educative purposes (it is a long disclaimer to dissociate the vendors from any Nazi collectors you see).  I find the swastika on the pictures of the gorgeous airships like the Graf a little sad, personally, but it doesn't ruin the thing for me.  It's honest, they were forcibly leveraged by Hitler's National Socialists for propaganda of the "Germany Is Soooo Great, OK?" kind.  I'm not going to analyze myself and my love for all things airshippy from 20s and 30s Germany today, anyway; perhaps another time.  I'm just going to enjoy it.

But wait, it gets better.  You see, next I unwrapped this t-shirt:

So all that lightness and love I invited in has come aplenty this year, and I thank you each and every one of you. Even if you're brand new to this blog and we never met before this moment, I thank you, for you are part of the world I so adore being so palpably a part of today.  I hope your seasonal rituals and rites bring you even half as much depth of light and contentment as I have been brought to today, for that would be an awesome day in itself.

Happy Luftschiff Christmas.  Love to you and yours. <3

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

I Am Ridiculously Wealthy

Well, I am.  I'm not bragging, or claiming some social superiority, or even just OMG FAR OUT AMAZING GUESS WHAT WE WON THE LOTTERY crowing because that didn't happen either.

It's just that I need a new bookcase.

So, once upon a time when this happened, I might well have made one, being pretty handy and all.  We still have a pretty funky and very solid piece I made from recycled jarrah floorboards (jarrah is a local native hardwood, lovely to work with if heavy and HARD) and oregon pine pallets that does the job very nicely.  It was actually a bit of OT for while I was recovering from my back operation back in '05.  Now though, depite having a shed etc my hands/arms/everything are not up to the task.

Why do I need a new bookcase anyway?  Because we are fabulously wealthy.  Our book collection, along with the stuff you accumulate over the years that needs to live on shelves, is growing.  Even though we recycle, donate and delete crap quite regularly, there is more stuff now than we can store.

I should be very clear here - we are incredibly poor.  By Australian standards, living on a Disability Support Pension, with no other source of income, and with all the added costs that chronic disease adds to a lifestyle, puts us firmly hovering just above the poverty line.  We do better than those on Unemployment Assistance, but then my life costs more in some ways too.  As you know, I have a funeral coming up pretty soon (or soon enough) and feel the need to plan ahead.  I have gotten nearly half way to funding it too, through the kindness of friends and strangers, so that when I am gone, Meeta won't be entirely cleaned out and destitute.  Well, that's the idea - we'll see what happens.  Or she will.

But I need a new bookcase.  You see, this is a very modestly-sized house, and Meeta's study apart (a small room already crammed with shelves and so forth) it needs to be pretty tidily kept so as not to feel cluttered and full of bad feng shui.  We're already doing that horizontal stacking, tiltingly-piling on top of normally-arranged books thing and it's getting out of hand.  Flat surfaces are being slowly subsumed by displaced objects and books.

Also, I've worked out two potential spots in my room where a bookcase of one or the other dimensions will go nicely, without looming or disrupting the sense of peace, balance, and functionality.

So this afternoon, I'm going to go and see if I can get one.  Because I can.

This is my definition of being incredibly wealthy.

Maybe its because I've spent pretty much all my adult life (I was well catered-for as a child, but frugality was always a pointed theme from my parents) being hand-to-mouth. So many of my generation who never did (or who couldn't do) the career + mortgage = settle into wage slavery equation know the feeling.  But today, I can just comfortably enough find a way to wrangle a hundred or two dollars out of the consolidated revenues, having just a teeny buffer against small fates like vet bills and plumber call-outs, because we stash away as much of the precious government dole-out as we can against such eventualities, and are real about what things bring us happiness.

A new bookcase will make me inordinately happy for days at least, and will contribute to my sense of home and the amenity and beauty of my surrounds no end.  We own a nice-enough, nearly ten-year-old car that's OK on petrol and we can afford to drive down to the city every now and then on such a whim.  I'll pick up some other 'city' supplies while I'm down there.  And at present I can still drive safely and well, so I shall.

Choice is the thing that makes us truly wealthy.  Beyond food, shelter, water, clothing, and a reasonable expectation of this continuing, having enough resources to make a choice about some stuff constitutes real wealth.  Any more than that doesn't really increase your happiness much, I don't think.

Thankful, I am.  That I can have such wealth, compared to the vast majority of my fellows who struggle to meet the basic needs of life, and are lucky to get the education to enable them to read a book, let alone own enough to even warrant a bookshelf.  That I can substitute my own labour with the luxury of purchasing someone else's to make a piece of furniture grown from trees is a testament to the luck of my birth.

So anyone who does those FML posts who gets three (or more) meals a day, has a house to live in tonight, and internet access?  Yeah.  Shut up.  You got it good.  Let's not forget it. <3

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Born to it, I deeply suspect.

One of those people who say stuff that ends up being quoted in desk calendars and shared as inspirational Facebook stati (I've decided to use the short form of the plural for 'status' there, see how many letters I saved?) said something once that went a bit like this:  Do the thing you love most, fully, and you'll never have to work a day in your life.

At some point, most of us find ourselves asking a version of one of those Big Questions about what we're 'meant' to be doing here, what it's all for ... I'm thinking of the "what do I want to do with my life" variant here.  I received some wisdom late in life that illustrated to me that I, along with most people in my culture at least, had fallen for the myth of predestined inspiration.  That there was a 'something' that you'd find, a career path, or a certain way of expressing art, or something, which was innate - and which, once found, would provide some magical wellspring of motivational energy and force and transform you into a driven, productive, purposeful and happy person, living out the fulfilling life "that you were meant to live".

It's a crock, as a universal truth though, innit?  For most of us, happily, we are not so embound as to have some early-imprint narrow path carved into our karmic talisman, the pursuit of which becomes a life's consuming work.  Who am I to judge anyway?  Whether that is fortunate or unfortunate, I mean - if it makes you happy, then it does; end of.  The truth for most of us is somewhat different however, and we find that motivation to 'do' things is actually a skill we need to learn, to grow and develop as we go along, and it's especially obvious in our society of incredible affluence, where we have choices abounding beyond the requirements of sheer survival.

Today, as often happens, someone did me a great kindness (thank you Joe) and I was moved to write him a little thank-you for their presence in the world, as he is Good For Us in the way he does his thing.  I threw in that platitude about doing the thing you love, for it seems he's doing it now, and it's been really gratifying to see someone have the courage and do the work to overcome all sorts of life obstacles and internal machinery set up to block their path; to see them succeed in finding the voice that speaks their own power, and which sustains both them and, through its honesty and creativity, all of us.

Then suddenly I looked at myself and saw that, in a weird, weird way, in a very deep and 'karmic' (for want of a less cheeseclothy term) way, I'm doing what I love too.

By being sick, and dying of it.

Look, it's not exactly news to me either, but I did see it fleetingly in a new and sparkly light.  I shall explain.

I got born with something already in place, I suspect.  If not, then various accidents of Fate produced in me a very good semblance of some karmic deal (there I go again with the hippy word, but it fits) and which is no less real to me however you want to reduce its origins in your theories of existence.

There's a school of reincarnative thought that tells us we live many lives, and in each life we have a lesson to teach, and a lesson to learn, and we reincarnate through a set of such lessons more or less randomly, occasionally 'succeeding' in learning and/or teaching a lesson sufficiently well to blank it off our karmic slate.  I don't go for the exact details of this arrangement, but broadly speaking, it's a metaphor that has some resonance for me.  These 'lessons' can be seen as the foundation stones, or stories, beneath that thing we often seek that is the 'thing we are meant to do' in life.  And to me now, it does rather seem that 'die this way' is a thing I am meant to do.

Or less dramatically and perhaps more accurately, I can say to you honestly that it has become a thing I truly love.  I do, I truly do love this whole process now; the suffering, the periodic relief, the knowledge, the wisdom, the ignorance, the doubts and uncertainties, the fears and loathings, the light of sharing and the darkness of self-protective hiding.  It's not so much that it has just become so familiar as to be a contemptible 'comfort zone' but rather has found its place as an actual vocation.

Dying is a thing I'm actually working at, and working at doing well.  And it's really cool, because the way to die well is to live well along the way.  Like everything else Zen, it works in a mirror too.

Early clue:  I used to really love funerals as a child.  My mother used to organise the roster for the altar boys in our local church, so naturally I got the plum jobs (and was trusted to handle them I guess) like funerals, which got me out of maths class or whatever for an hour or so.  More than that though, I always felt very much at ease around death, the dying, and the bereaved.

Later clue: 18 years old or so, entirely unsure 'what I was meant to be doing' and just randomly floating along landed me a job as a hospital orderly at Kalgoorlie Regional Hospital, where - due in large part to the superstitions and cultural sensitivities of most of the other orderlies - it worked out that maybe half of my job would be working in the astonishingly busy morgue with Weird Earl.  I'll say this for Earl, he was organised, and neat.  He kept his Penthouse magazines in date order in the bottom drawer of his desk, and was fine for you to 'use' them whenever as long as you didn't crinkle the pages and put them back in date order. This oddness in the middle of the main morgue floor didn't strike me as out of place at all; analogs of sex and realities of death right there next to each other.  I found the morgue work really peaceful and nice, actually, even the 'gross' stuff.

Later clue: decided to seek work in funeral homes, but discovered quickly it was a) incredibly poorly remunerated and b) pretty much sown up by family ties.

Early clue: when my mother was first diagnosed with a malignant cancer, I found myself confusingly split between a calm coping compassion and envy.  I envied her the closeness to death.  For a long time I thought I envied her being the necessary centre of attention, you know, that power of martyrdom where the one who suffers the most gets the lion's share of authority and urgency in the room.  Then she had the gall to do it *again*, years later. But it was the proximity to mortality I envied, really.  The sharp relief of life against its immanent absence.

You'd think, then, with all this awareness, that I wouldn't actually have to go through all this illness and stuff.  But it's the deal, you have to live stuff for it to be real, you can't just go all Cartesian and do it in your head.  Plus, the ways and flavours of my illness tell a story of the other part of the lesson duality.

One of these things I am here to teach.  The other I am here to learn.  And I can have no way of knowing which is which, but that they are a pair, I feel sure.  The dying part, and the illness part.

The manner of my illness also tells of my karma.  The oppression of the restricted movement, the slow compression of the body and the shrinking size of my physical effectiveness in the world.  The way certain senses are rendered less, all the flavours and quirks are telling, for sure.  That's all fodder for another story though.

What I'm here to share today is that somehow, I've come to live my life well, and the irony that it took an impossible prognosis, an entirely uncertain and indefinable future projection but one whose direction and destination is nonetheless all to patently clear, is delightful to me.  That some sense of certainty in life should come from my acceptance of uncertainty in its continuance and the embracing of inescapable doubt over the circumstances of its ending is wonderful to me now.  Now that the pathos has well and truly worn itself out, anyway.

If it is that I am born to teach something about this, then I hope I do a decent job of it,even if it's only me that I teach well.  If it is rather that I am born to learn this thing, I trust I am being a diligent pupil.

As to the question of whether it's 'meant' to be; whether it's karmic, or whether it's just an adaptation I have made to a situation I found myself randomly in ... well, it just doesn't matter, does it, the 'reality' of that answer?

My deepest gratitude in all of this though is for your company along the way, dear reader, for without the mirror of your singular, unique humanity, it would all be just that bit less piquant and potent, this whole life thing.  I'm so glad we're here, together, in this moment.

Thanks to all those who contribute materially also; this is every bit as great a gift as your taking the minute to reflect life back my way by reading this.  Humbly, deeply, thank you. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bible Study Class is IN ('Ceci n'est pas une pipe').

Yes, I'm one of those types who thinks monotheism has a lot to answer for.  So does Descartes.  Have a lot to answer for, that is.  Put perhaps more kindly, my idea is that we can, with a certain view of history and of our own times' zeitgeist, determine a distinct evolutionary trend in human development, and make a good case that we're at a tipping point now of the same sort of magnitude that we passed through those millennia ago at the rise of monotheism.
This is a post about how we are all changing, and how we need to keep some momentum behind it.  And how you might help. Anyway .....

Speaking of great figures in history called Rene, it's Magritte's birthday today.  I'll come back to that later.

First, Bible Study Class is IN.  There's a documentary series on TV at the moment here, simply called The Bible, in which seven different people from all sorts of backgrounds each take an episode to explore a Biblical theme.  First was Howard Jacobsen doing Genesis, then Rageh Omar on the whole "children of Abraham" thing and just the other night was British MP Ann Widdicombe on the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue.  I really disliked her by the end of it, I must admit, but that's beside my point. I want to refer especially to the first two commandments, as we understand them to be.

The First Commandment, in the most widely used translation in English, is "Thou shalt have no other gods but me."  In other words, "I am THE ONE, OK??"  So here we have it, codification at last of the thing that started with Abraham those many generations before, monotheism.  At this point in time, it's still a pretty radical idea, that there might be a single overarching being, a Creator divinity: This is regardless of any other attributes we might ascribe to such a being; the historical point of turning is that this is the start of what became a movement to sweep the world and which now informs the lives of all of us profoundly, believers or not, that there is ONE God.  Prior to this, the status quo for millenia were varieties on the theme of there being many gods, you see.

Having lots of Gods is really handy, politically and socially.  Since we seem intent on ascribing human qualities onto whichever inhabitants of our various Divine Pantheons we decree, having a bunch of them we can give different themes, emotive forces, or responsibilities to can be extremely useful.  It's also a spiritual get-out clause.  If something goes wrong, it may be that a) you failed to please your own favourite/responsible god correctly or b) it might be the fault of another deity.  You never really have to run up hard against the idea that with a single creator God, they must either be a) not entirely as loving of us as we'd like to be of one another or b) simply incompetent in the omnipotence stakes, or c) possess some nasty punitive and judgmental streak, all seeing as how Bad Stuff continues to happen.  With monotheism, for the believer in a singular Creator, these problems can never be resolved, and have essentially given rise to every schism, restrictive dogma, conflict and malpractice of the various major Abrahamic religions and all that have spun off from them.

Here's what I think about the First Commandment: That it was a message intended to convey an insight that actually does have a deep and truthful resonance for most of us humans.  I would actually almost say all humans, such is my personal worldview, ignoring for a moment the central place that the inevitability of uncertainty holds in my understanding of Things.  That this message about a singular God was intended to strengthen a core shift in the thinking of the now-called Israelites and possibly the wider world at the time, to assist in the evolution of the human mass consciousness/spirit/collective soul/whatever to a step removed from this Gods-in-our-various-self-images meme that had swept the world previously.  And that this insight has in a new translation been coming increasingly to the fore again now, via the changes wrought by mass education. literacy, and communication.  The idea that All Is One.  That this Commandment is nothing more than someone trying to explain to people who cannot possibly get their heads culturally around there being no gods with humanlike attributes messing with us from above that at its core spirituality and spiritual experience - apperception of Godhead if you like - is a unitary and unifying thing.

OK, so maybe it's an artefact of our neural and physical architecture - maybe it is all due to a rush of DMT from the pineal gland or whatever, or maybe it is the case that there is some yet-to-be-measureable unifying field that connects with everything on a plane that intersects with what we experience as life and which gives us somehow the impression of an existence of itself beyond physical death.  Or something like that.  I don't know.  What I'm saying is that at its heart, the First Commandment got two fundamental things wrong, from a modern-day perspective.  Firstly, it commanded.  How terribly disempowering, how very disconnecting a thing to do, to assume there is a power separate from and greater than oneself.  Secondly, it codified God as a personality, thus limiting the possibilities of apprehending Spirit as something other than some dude with a life of their own and probably a beard.

Which brings me nicely to the Second Commandment, one often just simply overlooked everywhere but in the most modern Abrahamic religion, Islam.  "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth".

For sure, it's a tricky translation.  Graven image we can take pretty much as 'physical representation', like a picture or sculpture.  But then, how is painting a picture with words any different, if I do it well enough?  And the definition of the subject matter in question is problematic.  The heaven part is clear - don't make pictures of stuff like God or the Afterlife etc (a precept roundly ignored all throughout modern-day Christendom anyway) but those other two - referring to Hell or life on Earth?  In Judaism and Islam they use no images of things at all in worship, and have various other rules about what can and cannot be depicted.  The Amish won't even keep photographs.  The modern Christian watered-down version is "don't worship images of stuff that isn't the One God, OK?"  Which I think has entirely missed the point.

My take on the point of this Second Commandment, and one which, as with the First, is rearing itself up spontaneously in a purer and reinvigorated expansion of itself in our consensual hallucination of a mass consciousness, brings me back neatly to the birthday boy, Magritte, and this painting:

"This is not a pipe"

Magritte painted a series of what came to be known colloquially as "ceci n'est pas une pipe" works, in which he'd use captions to deny that the object was, say, what it looked like.  That an image of an apple was not, in fact, an apple.  When asked about this pipe painting, Magritte explained it thusly: "Of course it is not a pipe; just try and fill it with tobacco".  He was making a commentary on communication, on the use of imagery and of any means of conveying an idea (in this case the idea of 'pipe'); that however hard we try, the communication is not, and never can be, the thing itself.  Take this notion further, and we get somewhere very interesting with this Commandment.

On one level, this Commandment is saying that "images of Oneness (or 'God' for those still needing to wear those limiting spectacles for the moment) are only pretend, and cannot give you the real meaning of the thing".  The logical corollary of this is that the idea of God, or Oneness, or whatever, is not able to be conveyed - that you must actually experience the pipe.  The extension is of course that the Other, the Divine, is in fact able to be experienced.  To me, that's the core underlying message of the Second Commandment.  That worship of images of anything is an easy fallacy to fall for, a sup to our egotistical need to project ourselves into some place beyond what we can perceive with our senses, to insist we can connect with some other sense of Unity in a solid and tangible way, but that the Thing that is Everything - Godhead - must be experienced personally, and any meaning must be gleaned by direct experience, as anything else cannot approach the truth of it.  If an image or message does seem to point to some truth, then that truth must be understood fully inside the context of the message's layers of purported intent, the medium, and all that.

Again, as with the first, we are commanded that this be so.  How terribly counterproductive if the aim now is to inspire people to seek for themselves a sense of spirit, a personal connection with feelings and notions of morality and ethics, wonder, awe, and the utter poignancy of life - let alone how we might approach issues of death and dying.  That we even have issues about death and dying is surely a great piece of evidence for our need to pay attention to matters apart from material concern - for Spirit, etc.  There is however a clue to be had when we use the wider translation of "images of everything are false representations".  It says essentially that everything in existence, in 'heaven', on earth, and 'below' share one singular characteristic - that you can't know them except by personal, direct experience.  This is powerful evidence too for a Oneness as Divinity.

I have spoken already of two points in evolution.  That first I referred to was the codification of monotheism, the addictive thought experiment that there is a singular deity responsible for this thing we call existence.  The second I speak of is what I believe to be happening around about now.

It's been called things like 'the rise of secularism' or the 'death of the religions' but I see no clear evidence of either of these things being things in themselves.  They're almost like pictures of the thing I am thinking of.  I'm talking essentially of a rise in the actual number of people seeking and (importantly) actually experiencing the sort of direct-connection experience of Oneness (I'm gonna call it this from now for shorthand) that is genuinely life-changing and which tends to leave people far better equipped to be content in life and make good fellow citizens besides, regardless of the way they found this experience.

Certainly, some find it via a traditional spiritual path, but I cannot recall any such reported time when someone got there by study of and adherence to sheer dogma.  Mysticism and direct revelation have played an important - but historically fraught - part in the world's religions, yes.  The limitation of codified religion in this is that it is so small in scope of potential experience.  There may be fuzzy concepts like The Holy Spirit, but one never fully escapes dualistic thought (reminding us again of that thought crime perpetrated by Rene Descartes) inside a religion.  That there is a here and now and also a 'there' and 'then' after death.  Most people I know who report the sorts of teeny (or massive) glimmers of enlightening experience tend to not be quite so narrowed to such concepts.

How is this different from before, how is it an evolutionary step?  I think it's that once we were in such a state as a species that being led in our thoughts, being commanded morally, and in certain social disciplines, was a valid and probably most efficient way to move forward for the betterment of our kind.  That such phenomena as the emergence of enduring ruling patriarchies were just logical symptoms of this requirement for most of us (not all, note) to be shown, led, made to feel safe and trusting of things beyond our control.  Now though, the wealthy (by which I mean one who has food, clothing, water and shelter - you know, wealthy) can control so much themselves, or at least have been able to until very recently, but more importantly all of us, even many of the very poor majority of our brethen can see clearly what life looks like - the picture of life - for others, for those with more personal control, and we want that feeling.  We discover quickly that beyond a certain point (food, water, shelter, social choices), nothing material brings us an increased sense of control or happiness, and neither increasingly do the messages of command from on high have any resonance or relevance to our inner search.  We are, all of us, seeking direct experience without rules, constraints, priests or dogma as intermediaries.

It matters not what this Oneness is, whether it is some numinous other-seeming as yet immeasureable Thing or whether it's just a ubiquitous species-wide quirk of neurotransmission equipment or whatever.  What matters is that pretty much everyone seems more than ever to be needing it, and either seeking it directly, or showing such fierce resistance to it that it gives the game away.

Of course, whatever I say will just be a picture of the thing.  But I encourage you to look around at your fellow beings, and see afresh the need in so many people's eyes for this lacking meaning, which once we filled so well with religious praise, adoration and supplication.  Look at the hand-on heart fervency of the Religion Of America, that famously One Nation Under God.  Remind yourself of every news clip you've seen of men in various Arab countries these last years performing violent acts (with a sense of righteousness or otherwise) or even just firing off weapons into the air joyfully, all shouting as a mantra, over and over again, the deeply incongruous phrase "Allah'u akhbar". "God Is Great".  These images that point to realities well past their time, and which many of us perhaps recoil from occasionally, or better still feel deeply compassionate around.  Think of the whole OWS and other nascent Occupy events, even as seen just through the sensationalist media services - the steadfast refusal to codify a single best way forward. The anti-dogma movement.  This is the part that really inspires those who are already on song with this individual Oneness thing (to pardon my seeming oxymoron there please) and really niggles those stubbornly clinging to the sort of worldview that requires An Answer.  That requires the Right Answer.  That needs things to be True For Everyone and The Way It should Be.  All the thought-pattern descendants of the monotheistic moment those millenia ago, I think.

Or perhaps you disagree.

(Speaking of beyond death, here's something that I still presume will happen after mine, in the not-too-distant future.  If there is to be some accidental headstone to my Natural Burial, it would be cool if it were one of these. You can still help here if you like.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Not Fiercely Vulnerable

Kick me around
a bit more, O Lord.
I see at last
there's no other way
for me to learn
your simplest truths.

 ~ Nissim Ezekiel, The Egoist's Prayers.

Fiercely independent.  That would be a good little phrase to sum up one whole portion of the thing that is my personality.  How much I got born with, and how much was as a result of a sort of fuck-you response to certain childhood stressors seems entirely unimportant as a question now.  How this happened is not important, as it has essentially always been the case.

Before marriage, this independent streak manifested itself in a very "I'll do what I want and worry about money later" kinda way, which meant I got off to a pretty poor start in things financial.  Getting married - even though it was to a completely kindred spirit in this regard - threw some sort of deeply buried switch and suddenly I found myself needing to be fiercely in charge of my own financial security and that of my new little family unit of two.  Go figure.

Eventually, I got sick, as we know.  It started with the lower back injury - if you read the new agey/holistic sort of things that folks like Louise Hay (You Can Heal Your Life etc) write, or perhaps this just makes innate good sense to you - then you'd have an inkling that a lower back injury might manifest as a result of 'issues' in 'supporting' oneself.  Well, um, yeah.  And the injury effectively forced me to stop this madness and properly go bankrupt.  Literally, btw.

But still, this urge to prevail, to remain independent, stayed strong.  I adapted, found ways to cope, and eventually healed.  I was not to be let go of that easily however, as we can trace the start of my current symptoms to that event and time.

Independence is in a very real sense the opposite of connectedness.

A sense of connectedness is what we strive for in any spiritual search, religious journey or quest for enlightenment.  In that, there must come a relinquishing of the ego's need to stand apart.

I am a Utilitarian by nature also, and do not wish to burden society (or my species), especially those closest to me, with having to look after me.  So digging a little deeper, that wound that made me such an independently-oriented persona shows itself as fear also - fear of being dependent.  Of course, this is exactly the direction I am going.  I am dependent on the good grace and noble sacrifices of my wife now, and have been for a long, long time it sometimes seems.  It all came rushing in, in one of those wonderful (or terrifying; same difference) Moments Of Perfect Clarity earlier today.

I've been on a little downhill run the last few days symptom-wise you see, and part of me has just been bumping along going with not denial, exactly, but a sort of studied ignoring of the facts, hoping they might just bugger off.  Today I went out to get some stuff and it was all really, really hard, and I came home and just as I was about to tell all about it to Meeta she asks the question; and no, I'm not OK.  But that wasn't the Moment.  The moment was a few hours later when she offered to run me a bath, again, just as I was about to ask.  And I couldn't remember back to when it was I was last able to manage that task myself, and noted coolly that my dependence in this, and in so many other little ways, is actually OK, and has been with me, for some time now.  That somehow, after years and years of constant struggle with being vulnerable and dependent that I passed some critical mass point without even noticing, where I became, on balance, more OK with it than not.

Which is nice.

I think there's little danger of my pendulum ever swinging out into that terrible territory where I expect to be cared for, to have others (Meeta, really) always make allowances for my requirements first and foremost and be entrapped in constant availability to service the needs of a martyred emotional tyrant.  I mean to say, I know that songsheet all too well from past experiences with others, and have seen the shadow cross my behaviour once too often already - it is not a place I will go to now.  Part of my karmic journey this time around is to heal that ancient wound, that awful and cruel deceit of emotional blackmail some of us live out our lives enacting.

And the thing that heals it is the incessant letting go of that fear of vulnerability, whenever it pops itself up for my attention.  It means accepting insecurity as the natural state.  Which it s, as we see all around us when we take our blinders off for a moment.  It means sometimes watching my own suffering actually mount inexorably in helpless moments, and allowing nature to have that power over me - as I simply have no other choice, struggle being futile and only worsening things.

Over the last months and years I've collected some lovely recordings of baroque music, and I take John Francis' advice when he opines (in his book The Ragged Edge Of Silence) that pre-industrial revolution music, especially baroque, comes inspired from a set of realities much closer to natural harmonies and rhythms.  So I put on my playlist of gentler pieces, mainly Bach, soaked in the bath with epsom salts and lavender essential oil, and went deeply in to this downturn I am in, seeking grace.  I found just a little; enough.  I'm feeling a bit better this evening, and thought to share all this with you, before a sleep - (perchance, to dream).

This isn't my bathtub....but wouldn't it be lovely?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

"... perchance to dream ..."

Recently through my various personal online networks I shared an article by Richard Parker on the ABC's The Drum website, entitled Silence on suicide: just talk about it.  The author spoke well, and with the authority of some personal experience, and essentially asks that we endeavour, individually and as a society, to break out of this deafening silence.  In my sharing, I supported the view that we talk about this seemingly taboo subject, making the point that I would in every likelihood end my own life at some point - by means of ceasing the intake of sustenance and possibly also water - and that this at least might be a comfortable enough way in to some discussion on the subject - to bring in a little light to this seemingly darkest of conversational topics.  For those who don't know, I have a progressive, incurable, degenerative autoimmune condition.  And I'd like to go a step further than Richard Parker did here.

I got a really wide range of responses, and you can probably guess at them all.  None were unkind in the least though, far from it.  God got a fair run in its various religious and other guises, and the point was very well made by a few commenters that what I propose might be my final act is at a very far remove from the 'archetypal' suicide; following a cascade of negative, self-harming ideations, the sort of thing we generally think of as that most violent of acts towards our self.  True, and that's why we have that other, safely anodyne word 'euthanasia'.  Yet interestingly, some folk seem to bridle at applying either tag to what I suggest for myself.  I ask you though, if consciously and permanently choosing to cease doing a thing that is necessary for immediate survival is not paramount to a decision to end one's life, then what is it?  Technically, it is in fact suicide.

I want to suggest something.  I want to suggest that we start getting real with people who are 'at risk'.  I want to suggest that we don't just fall back every time to a safe, unthinking default position that suicide is always a bad option.  Because, in the hearts and minds of some people, some of the time, it isn't.  That deserves honouring.

There are places I go on the internet where people with certain types of chronic illnesses frequent.  Ostensibly, these places are to enable support from the crowd of fellow-travellers, and there you will find people who will talk about 'ending it all', by way of a cry for help one supposes, but we are to a person (myself included) so touchy about what we say, lest we somehow give any hint or nudge in that direction accidentally, that nothing much more than platitudes boiling down to "you're special and loved" ever seem to eventuate.  Just perhaps, the squeamishness, this paralysis that strikes and prevents us from discussing how suicide might seem an option, becomes in some situations yet another instance of disconnect for the hurting one.  Another click on the ratchet further away from the feeling of human family and inclusion.  another strech of lonely road being travelled, to nowhere.  Why can't we admit that it might, just sometimes, be or at the very least reasonably seem to be a decent idea to commit suicide?

One hears talk of the 'slippery slope' of euthanasia.  One of the commenters on my link and post told me they were in principle against euthanasia because of this 'slippery slope', which led to I'm not sure where in their mind, but they went on to say that what I proposed I might do if certain likely circumstances come to pass did not really amount to it.  Well then, what is it?  Is it not in fact a conscious decision, and set of actions, specifically designed to bring about my death?  It's suicide, plain and simple.  Euthanasia, if you prefer, which by another name is, precisely, suicide.

There are ever more chronically ill people in this world, all thanks to the marvels of modern medicine keeping us alive where not long ago we'd have died.  23 week term premature babies now are resuscitated (in most countries that is), despite the odds of them surviving very long being maybe 10% and that only a further tenth of those who do survive will make it to an adulthood relatively free of permanent damage and able to live a quality, unassisted life.  So a 1% shot, in other words.  Many of the other 9%, along with traumatic injury survivors, the chronically and irretrievably ill etc etc naturally enough, given a certain amount of suffering, reasonable expectation of its continuance, and a bit of perspective, might be thinking.........but for the fact that I AM alive, it might well have been better not to have been born, or survived.  And many do, in fact, end their own lives. I'm not judging, and it's always sad, whatever we might think.  Even if I truly thought someone had self-euthanased in the most conscious and even 'sacred' possible fashion, their death would still be a loss.  Preventable?  Certainly.  Desirable? WHO AM I TO SAY?

So how is a mental illness actually different, I wonder?  We seem fairly prepared to accept that someone like me, who experiences recurrent bouts of suffering and a steady degradation in life quality, might at some point feel like it's time to let go; that there can be a point at which the suffering truly outweighs the pleasure or even just the comfort in life, and that an end may fairly be sought.  But what if my illness were of the mental kind?  What if it took the form of recurrent emotional anguish and torment, of cascading self-hating thoughts, urge to self-harm and suicidal ideation?   What if it seemed that despite all my best attempts over years and years that the cycle endlessly repeated, with each new iteration only increasing the weight of angst and pain, as the remembrance of every previous "oh no here I go" moment crashes in around me?

I don't know either.  It's not a problem I experience, thankfully, but I know some who do, and some for whom that may well have been something like what led to the end of their lives.  I don't, and cannot, know.

One thing I do know though.  That there have been times when I've thought, after the suicides of friends I've had - and there have sadly been a few - when I've thought "at least they're not suffering whatever it was that drove them that far".  Certainly, that is an article of faith.  I cannot know what if anything they experienced after dying, and it's entirely possible that I'm just telling myself a story to ease my pain, or my conscience, or somesuch.  You know, all the "but I only saw him two days before....did I miss some sign?" sort of stuff that one must work through. Guilt. Regret, remorse, all that.  But then, how is it any different?

There is someone I hardly know, amongst my online contacts, who right now is actively thinking and talking about suicide, and I completely get where they're coming from.  There's probably always someone around each of us right now who has such thoughts. The details are unimportant - judgment is not helpful in these matters.  What is important is that they feel validated in their thinking, that they not just be told that "your thoughts are bad and what you must do is to find a way to think about other things".  They HAVE to think about suicide.  Why?  Because they ARE.  And we do people in that space no favours by handing out such conditional advice and support as to say that suicidal thoughts are there to be overcome. They're not. They're there to be experienced, and like anything that comes in life, experienced fully, that we might heal them fully, should we choose that opportunity and challenge. We need to be able to sit with people in such a state and help them work through it in a genuine way.  A way that allows that right now, suicide is one of a set of appropriate-seeming options.  Just telling them it isn't is anti-healing, whichever way you cut it.

I don't know if I'd sat down and had these sorts of talks with my self-departed loved ones if it would have made any difference.  I'm fortunate indeed in that I have friends with whom I have discussed such things on a deep and raw emotional level.  One time, I remember vividly a friend and I ending up rolling around in fits and stitches laughing at the precise images we would sometimes conjure up of self-harm and self-extinguishment, from depression or angst or whatever.  But the conversation had not started out that way at all.  No, not at all.  That friend, despite having attempted suicide, is still with us, not that this says anything about the value of talking about suicide, necessarily.

But it just might.  Not talking about it with a genuinely open and non-judgmental mindset is getting us where, exactly, anyway?  The statisticians tell us of an epidemic in parts.  Maybe it was ever thus.  But they say to get what you always get do what you've always done, and this taboo, I feel, needs to change if we are to change the number of times we grieve for those who choose that lonely, disconnected sort of suicide that leaves we survivors so wounded, bewildered and adrift.  And just as importantly, to help those who will survive the 'suicides' like I will very possibly be, who choose well and wisely, consciously, in a manner that honours both life and death in the Final Acts.

So go on. Tell a friend your REAL thoughts and feelings.  Get comfortable with it.  Help others be comfortable with it.  Help the 'whole' us relieve the terrible burden of pre-judgment and "thou shall not think these thoughts".  Be a hero, and say what you really feel.  Be more of a hero, and honour when someone tells you that suicide seems like the best way for them right now, that they might just, in the only world that matters to them in that moment, be right. Being OK with that, being real about it, is a necessary step to truly changing it, if that is to be done, anyway.  Go there.

I leave this post in honour of those I love who are no more, by virtue of a final deed.  As always, I thank them for coming.

My donation fund is still open, for however soon the time may come, and however it may come.  
That it may come in peace, is a hope.  We shall see, eh?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dying Man Who Cannot Eat Orders Cookbooks Online; Does Not Pay Extra For Express Shipping.

I guess the title just about says it all. However, although this and the last post were sort of about the consumption of stuff, this one's about nourishment at heart.  Then again, so is great customer service.

Today's been a bit of a fragile-feeling day, and asking around online it appears I'm far from alone in this.  Everyone seems to be blaming it on the almost-full moon, and my GI tract is certainly having a king-tide sort of day.  Really, after many months of trying to figure it out, the penny finally dropped on that score, over a year ago: my digestive system is indeed affected by the moon.  I mean, if it can affect massive bodies of water like lakes and oceans, how much more of an effect will it have on my 70% aqueous being?  Anyway, a good day to be nurturing of oneself, I feel.

To this end, I return to the irony of me becoming so very interested in things foody now I can no longer eat.  I am certain there is some compensatory urge going on here, but I'm far more interested in other aspects of what's going on here.

Life is certainly going on.  A couple of years ago at a difficult stage in my apparently faster-than-usual journey towards The End I saw a psychologist a couple of times; Gillian works under the auspices of the Cancer Council through our local hospice and hospital.  She works entirely by not giving advice, instead just facilitating you talking about.....whatever.  I guess that's what Freud meant by the term 'the Talking Cure'.  As is often the case in these things I suspect, there was one salutary moment that came out of it that I remember vividly and made a great impression.  Gillian rephrased something I'd been struggling with words around a bit as a question -

"So is it that you're afraid of starting something because you're afraid you might not get to finish it?"

Um, yeah.  That was for sure going on.  In that moment, I had a crystal-clear picture in my mind of the absurdity that my fear was actually based on a normal contingency of life, and really had about as much to do with my illness as my ass does to my elbow.  In other words, I remembered in that deep and profound way that we can never know what happens next anyway, and having some even less-than-arbitrary shortened end-date really makes not a scrap of difference to this fact.

Shortly after this the fear began to very quickly change, transmute, lose its role in me.  And I started starting things.

So it's not like I'll ever eat again, (insert disclaimer for miracles here if you like) and it's not like I'm going to suddenly get better or stop this par-plus earthward progression either.  But it's not like I've just stopped and started waiting after all, and learning goes on, and positive changes do occur.

Yep, in some ways I have experienced improvements lately, and much of that I can directly attribute to nutrition - food.  Leaving aside whatever improvements have come about through different medical and herbal supplementation, it's become clear as I more and more rely on real food (as opposed to the canned formula, which I still do use, as I can) and pay increasing conscious attention to my way of preparing it, that I simply feel better.  True, my hands, speech, eyes, background ('natural', or unaltered) levels of pain and discomfort and many other definable symptoms are all undeniably worse.  It isn't that I care less about them or are simply 'better medicated' to cope though.  It's a deeper, more holistic sense I have, a gut feeling that permeates my body and soul (for want of a less loaded term) and unites the two more closely somehow, through the agency of food.  And I realise I've started a journey with food, whose destination will perforce remain both obvious - unavoidable - and entirely unclear.

Let me back up and clarify.  Half or more of my whole health problem is digestive-system related.  I don't digest well, and require numerous medications, herbs, spices and supplements to keep things moving along.  This balancing act is a perpetual work in progress, with stability and predictability (order) the direction to aim for.  I am constantly self-aware of my digestion and body sensations generally.  Half of the other half of my whole health problem is that of a loss of sensitivity and physical ability.  In some ways my apprehension of the world is restricted, with the feeling in my fingers diminished, for example.  So this inner self-perception comes more to the fore.  What' ha increasingly happened is that as I'm paying more attention to the food I'm making and ingesting I'm feeling its effects on me in a far more deep and powerful way than I ever did when I could eat it.  Maybe there is something overcompensatory in this, the way that people who lose their sight get a whole lot better at listening.

One of those things I started again was this book project that has a lot to do with real food for us tubies.  Many of you know about that.  And in the course of research, and keeping in close connection with other tubies and tubie support groups, the subject of food proves always to be endlessly varying and inspiring.  I really do learn new things every day.  That's another thing I re-started that I hadn't, back then, even really noticed I'd lost - learning.  Terrible, to lose the love of learning new things, of discovery.  Now that's death.  No wonder I needed to see a shrink.

The twinned experiences of me preparing food and writing this book are bleeding into each other, as you might expect.  I'm having to do things like actually measure and calculate nutritional values for the blends I prepare (the head part) and also get to experience how they make me feel (the feeling and soul part).  The balance of those two perspectives is key to my sense of renewed insights, I'm sure.  I used to have a pretty sound basic understanding of nutrition anyway, and have been a pretty handy cook since more or less forever.  My various studies in natural medicine fields over my adult lifetime have played no small part in whatever knowledge I gleaned along the way too, but I just never was one of those who totally got into food.  At all.  It was fuel; necessary.  How much I missed I realise - what a laugh!

Now, stripped of sensations like taste and texture (I cannot even taste and spit out), pared right back to the very core experience of having food inside of me, of being entered by it, I feel I can actually better bring to bear a more calibrated or finely-tuned sense of the energies of the food.  More than just how well it digests and whether it sits lightly or heavily, makes gas or doesn't, and so on.  What I'm witnessing is in some way the process of the food becoming me.  The food which I prepare, from as close to nature's original state as I easily can, turning into myself.  Consider that in the act of choosing, preparing or gathering food and ingesting it, you are very much co-creating yourself three or more times a day. (I'm assuming that since you're reading this you're amongst we privileged few who have adequate shelter, water and more than one meal a day).  What I'm receiving more and more fully these days is a literal visceral sense of my food, unsullied by the delights and peculiarities of that wonderful mixture of sensations that course throughout us when we eat the usual way; the tastes and aromas and textures, the mouthfeel, the foodiness that suffuses our beings and can transport even the most jaded food-as-fuel numbnuts such as once I was to places of transcendence every now and again, if not regularly.  Think of your favourite food of all time right now, or if there's too much choice then the nicest thing you ate today.  Good isn't it?

Now imagine it just magically infused into your stomach as a thick liquid.  That's me, that is.  Now, feel deeply, bodily, in your stomach and intestines, what it feels like when you eat that favourite food of yours, as it sits there after just being eaten.  I wonder, does it feel even better?  Not-so-good-now maybe? Anything?  This is pretty much the only way I experience food sensually, and yet I feel I experience it more completely than I ever have before.  Odd, huh?  It's become more than OK, it's become a really fascinating and rewarding experience.

The Hare Krisna movement/religion has, like quite a few spiritual disciplines, food at a very central place in its scheme of things.  They treat food as sacred, and aim to cook with love for Krishna at all times, and offer always the first bite to Godhead.  I really like that.  Food is a spiritual link directly with wider nature too, that 'other' manifestation of Life that God made sometime in his Very Busy Week: Or if you prefer, it's a satisfyingly symbolic link with the natural environment we have co-evolved with over countless millenia only to suddenly find ourselves living lifestyles almost completely estranged from in our everyday experience.  You get my drift.

So now, when something like what happened today occurs, I act with a sort of reclaimed grace, that I had, sadly, either lost or maybe never even had.  It was a little thing today.  Someone on the tubie Facebook page asked a question about fermented foods, and someone else was inspired to share, and my interest was piqued as I'm more and more loving the feel of genuinely 'live' foods, and then there was the name of a book.........which looked great on Amazon, which led me to another great book.........and I ordered them.  These days it's not uncommon for Meeta to hear me say in response to her comment about some future happening something like "Yep, I really hope I get to see the London Olympics" and we'll share a soft wry moment; but not all that long ago my feelings around that stuff would probably have made me think twice about buying foodie cookbook-type things online.  I mean, as mentioned, it's not like I can eat, and I might never get to read them anyway.

Still, that's life, innit?  And I'm still me, so notions of time pressure notwithstanding, ideas of throwing away all natural sensibilities and living exactly as if tomorrow most likely will not come (as so many who get The Diagnosis do, in a great sweeping pendulous arc of almost retaliatory passion) and paying Stupid Money for Priority Expedited International Shipping To Your Door will just always jag against my basic nature.  I am neither confident in the future, nor lacking in confidence.  I do not trust that my idea of a fund to pay for my Natural Burial will necessarily of itself bear perfect fruit, but I trust that my funeral arrangements will work out just fine.  I live life still according to the Greatest Wonder.  What a fucking relief, really.

Yaksha: ".....What is inevitable for all of us?"
Yudhishthira: "Happiness."
Yaksha: "And what is the Greatest Wonder?"
Yudhishthira: "That each day death strikes yet we continue to behave as though we were immortal. This is the Greatest Wonder.

 ~ Yahnya Prashna/ Questions Of The Virtuous Crane, Mahabharata.

(You can still donate to my burial fund here, if you wish.  
And thank you, it's actually building up OK.  Really, thanks.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Great Customer Service Might Save The World

Readers who know me on Facebook may recall my iPhone did something weird the other day.  I plugged it in to this very computer to 'sync' and instead of the two new photos I wanted to download, the auto-downloader thingy told me it had found in fact 22 new photos.  I clicked 'OK' and watched as 22 entirely random-seeming photos in chronological order spanning the last year or so spooled on down into a new folder.

I wondered if it was A Sign.  And if so, what I might usefully do to reflect upon the Universe's possible lessons for me in this odd occurrence.  So I have decided to base a short (or however long really) blog post on randomly selected photos from this folder, and share whatever transpires from the memories or inspiration therefrom right here.  I don't have a 22-sided die but I do have google, and it showed me this random number generator where you can customize the range.  I selected a randomizer between 1 and 22 inclusive and got.....(would you believe)......


As you can see, this is a picture of a cat (our cat Buckley), and a t-shirt, on a bed.  So here's a story:

Most everybody knows, despite my making very little mention of such rooming elephants of late, that I am acutely aware of my mortality these days, what with it being very likely such an imminent thing.  Even though I'm doing very nicely right now on my new treatment and health regime, thanks.  Still, I will occasionally post FB status updates such as Dying Man Orders New Books Online; True To Form Does Not Pay Extra For Express Delivery.  And being a person, I wear t-shirts.  Actually I wear them year-round, and of course, over time, they wear out or you just want some new ones.  I decided a few weeks back that with summer coming on I'd get myself a few new ones, from an online store we discovered that acts as shopfront for all manner of artists (you can contribute your designs too and see them live online on all sorts of things as well as t-shirts).  Meeta did her thing sometime earlier this year looking for t-shirts that were specifically;

a) good quality
b) had interesting and cool designs
c) reasonably priced
d) reasonably ethically aligned as a business proposition

Meeta is an ace researcher, surfing for both the wisdom of the crowd and the behind-the-websites angle, and came up with which is based in Melbourne, Australia.

They're an edgy sort of outfit (pardon my poor punnery please), with an email avatar called 'Mr Baxter' whose "job is is to show you tees that will please your head" and such not-too-tryhard in-with-the-kids stuff.  Their Facebook persona is an alpaca.  Clearly though, their business model is founded on care for their customers, their contributing artists, and naturally their bottom lines.

So when I unwrapped my eagerly-awaited parcel of 3 new shirts, I was doubly delighted and also....a little nonplussed.  This latter because as you can see even from the badly-lit shot on a woefully inadequate iPhone 3GS 1mp camera that this one shirt IS REALLY VERY ORANGE.  Not exactly what I'd seen on screen at all, actually.  Fair enough, I think, this is the peril of online shopping, and maybe I'll just wear it around the house on overcast days so as not to blind Meeta.  But then I thought to let the redbubble guys know that the screen display is actually very different from the shirt, because I figured if I were them (and I have been a customer service type with - as you'll come to understand if you don't already- a genuine passion for good service) I might want to know.  I mean, they have literally tens of thousands of products, and can't know everything all the time.  Plus maybe the artists cares, because it's the artists who chose what colours their individual designs will be made available on.

To shorten the reportage of what came next, I shall condense the email exchange between myself and their customer relations dept (someone named Adam as it happened) to a simple pretend conversation:

Me: Hey guys, I really like you and the quality of the shirts and your service are great.  I also even like that you manage to be cool without overdoing the tryhard stuff and seem to really care about your artists.  But you've seen the 'but' coming, and, well, THIS SHIRT IS PRETTY MUCH ELEVENTY HUNDRED SHADES BRIGHTER THAN THE SCREEN DISPLAY and I checked it out on a few screens, same all over.  Not fishing btw fyi, just thought you'd want to know because I suspect you give a rat's etc.  Caveat emptor, my bad.  Thanks!
Adam: Oh noes!  Great that you like us, Mr Baxter needs constant reassurance and the alpaca relies solely on FB 'likes' for ego support too, cheers.  But hey, maybe we stuffed up.  Do us a favour?  Send a pic so we can check it was the usual orange we print on.  We will get you a new shirt, as this outcome you got right now is unacceptable to us. Replacement of the 'right orange' or store credit for a new shirt etc you do like. kthxbai.
Me: You do rock, and I shall reiterate the non-angling nature of my boat trip on the emaily waters, but shan't dissuade you from making me an even happier customer.  Here is a pic of the shirt next to a black & white cat so you can gauge the brightness in the shot.  Remember last email I was trying to describe the screen display colour?  The word I couldn't find was 'juicy'.  This to me is plastic orange, not the nice rich trending-to-burnt umber colour I saw.  If this is indeed your range, I'll go the same but in dark red pls, ta.
Adam: Wowee, I have just been checking out the screens of my colleagues computers and the orange is different everywhere, jeepers.  Your shirt is our orange.  Um, but.....the artists doesn't want this design on dark red so.....hit the ball back with a different spin, good sir.  Very happy to make our Customer Satisfaction Guarantee a Real Live Thing, yay. 
Me: kthx super Adam.  Here is a link to this other shirt I saw in dark red with this cool pic of a pigeon carrying a typewriter on it.  It is a tiny bit more spendy so lemme know how y'all would like the difference - credit card OK?

That was the last I heard from them, and I am guessing that a new shirt is very probably coming off their presses for me this evening.  How's this for good service?  It's so good I'm talking them up here!

Why do I care so much?  It's not just the rarity of such great genuine care these days, it's what it signifies.  My take on the customer service vibe in Australia at least these days is that businesses are increasingly moving towards the extremes of the spectrum - there's that 'normal' curve flattening out again - towards either "let's make ourselves legendary, take the occasional hit on profits and create happy, loyal repeat custom" or the other direction of "we got their money once, let's not be letting go of it now".  This latter applies especially to businesses who either correctly (through relative monopoly for example) or otherwise feel they do themselves little harm by having the cheapest possible conflict resolution solutions.  Like a call centre in the Philippines whose unfortunate staff have little knowledge and even less real power to help you.

I've worked in all sorts of customer service roles, and have advised others on such matters professionally also.  I am firmly in the first camp, for some really basic reasons.  Firstly, it almost never costs more in the long run to take a minor hit compared to the new trade you will generate - even if you are a monopoly.  And even if it does cost some, the goodwill adds in to a sort of social buffer over time where your customers will feel well-enough disposed towards you to pay more for things they want should you find yourself in hard times and need their support too.  My ISP is another good example; I pay probably somewhere between 50 and 100 bucks a year over what I could pay elsewhere for my internet connection because I know I'll get proper service if and when I need it; this applies to my home phone line too.  They know this.

Now which company do you want to work at?  Which company do you think has the happier staff, those who can help their customers - who are assisted and supported by their managers to be empowered and proactive in making others happy (within reasonable guidelines of course) or those whose managers insist first and foremost on harm minimization, compliance and cost control?

Culture is the thing we feel in terms of our relations with our neighbours.  that guy on the other end of the email, or the woman on the helpline, they're either our neighbour, or our adversary.  Either they get to be someone we enjoy a human connection with, or a bureaucratic and likely frustrating and unsatisfactory transaction.

The real price is in the human feeling, not the dollars it costs to print another t-shirt, pay a licence fee to an artists, and post it (plus a few minutes' wages to write the emails).  This is a win-win situation.  And there is almost never a reason not to go that way, as a service provider.  So it almost amounts to a crime against humanity, to humanness to be less than wonderful at giving friendly, warm, useful service, especially in cases where something's gone wrong.

Now imagine a world where everyone worked in a place that had a caring attitude towards it customers.  It doesn't even matter if this caring attitude is cynical and simply business-sense based at first (like Qantas giving away these free tickets after its shoddy behaviour of late) because eventually, if this service ethic is maintained in practice, the humans involved on both sides naturally just start to feel good about it.  You know, about their life.  About their job, the thing they do so much of.  And because everybody's doing it, then they're happy when they're not at work, because their commercial transactions at the bank, the grocery store, the telco even, are pleasant and come from a place where people want to make things right and good and.......well, just right.

Underlying all this is an unspoken assumption, that we have in our dealings with one another, with our transactions and exchanges, an innate sense that each party should benefit.  We often think of such an arrangement as being  just, or fair.  We know that fairness does not exist in nature, that we try and overlay some sort of mesh of fairness on all of Creation to try and cope with the horrible chaos and unpredictability of it all: hence religion, democracy, ideas of karma, even this very idea of scientific secularist atheism is in some ways a plea for a sense of fairness.  As fairness does not naturally exist, yet is desirable to us, we seek to create it in our lives, through the trappings of civilization, in the ways we interact.

So if we all worked towards, and reasonably expected to receive, great service in all our dealings with each other, based on a sense of mutual fairness, imagine how we would feel about our fellow man as a default setting.  Would this not, indeed, make for a wonderful society?  Think on how this virus of commonality would inform not just our feeling selves but our thinking selves.  Our perceptive selves in totality, even.  How we'd be likely to view and treat this planet that allows us life.  Imagine.  Maybe we could borrow an African word, originally from the Bantu language I think, as it almost seems to poetically fit - ubuntu.  There is no precise definition of ubuntu, but I think it fits OK and it's a nice word.  Ubuntu.

This is how I suggest that Great Customer Service Might Save The World.
Donations can still be made towards helping Meeta and I pay for my Natural Burial (I'm not dead yet!...but as the time draws nearer.....) via this link here.  It uses Paypal so is free, safe, and can even be anonymous if you wish.  Thank you.