- Fine Art
In 1989, I was 13. In the second grade, we’d done drills in grammar school where we knelt against the wall of the school hallway with our heads between our knees because if an atom bomb fell then that was, apparently, the best position to be in (ha! as if) because the Russians were at war with the United States but it wasn’t an actual war it was a Cold War and that the threat of nuclear war loomed large in everyone’s minds.
Who was that man? I have read that he was a man merely on his way home with his groceries. The Chinese government claims that he went on quietly and anonymously with his life. Considering the China’s track record, I doubt that.
The Sunday Express, a British publication, reported that summer that his name was Wang Weilin, a 19-year-old student arrested for “political hooliganism.” Varying reports suggested the student was either imprisoned or executed.
Chinese officials have refused to confirm his name or whereabouts in response to numerous queries from Western journalists in the years since the incident. In fact, they claim they were unable to locate him.
A couple months ago, I was reading again about China. This time it was about their imprisonment, brainwashing, indoctrination, and reintegration of millions of Muslims in an area that the government would like to have greater control over. Millions of people. Disappearing. Gone. Husbands. Wives. Friends. Children.
It made my heart ache.
And so when we look at China, as a whole – not as the bulk of people who make it up who would likely be happy merely to walk home with their groceries and go about their lives just as that man was doing – we see a country that scrubs its history and uses its economic might to keep the rest of the world from protesting its treatment of its people.
From the ‘social credit system‘ to its treatment of Buddhism and specifically Tibet to its current treatment of Muslims to its treatment of artists or journalists there’s nothing good yet no one is going to stop them because of their economic clout.
So I was thinking about China. And I was thinking about this moment, years ago – 30 years ago to be exact – where there was a moment, a brief moment – where it seemed it all might change for the better.
It was a spark, a candle flame in the dark. But it was blown out. Squashed. And scrubbed from their history, lest it inspire others, in the future, to do the same – to speak out.
I kept seeing that one image in my head. ‘Tank Man’ as he became known in the media. I kept thinking about not just him and that line of tanks but the line of tanks as the extension of a vastly powerful entity.
In my head, he was always down there, a light in the darkness. A focal point in a dream of freedom up against a wave, a massive tidal wave of force bearing down on him. Yet, as I thought about that wave, I realized it needed a face, it needed a name.
I thought about those demons of Tibetan lore. Primarily, Mara came to mind. Mara, in Buddhism, is sort of an embodiment of desire and illusion. I could think then of nothing better. There is nothing so much as desire and illusion which drives the power hungry needs of humans.
And so, today, on the 30th anniversary of when one man, in 1989, stood down a line of tanks in the face of an oppressive and controlling government, I give you this painting.
It is an homage to Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989 when one man stood before a line of tanks and the world wondered: was the government so hellbent on keeping its power that it would run him down?
Spoiler: the man lived but, yes. They were. They ran down hundreds if not thousands in the end. Reports vary.
I’m sorry it had to be like that.
I think about all those students and writers and artists and intellectuals: this is who made up that revolution. The thinkers and doers who could see a better world. They didn’t want ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ – they wanted a world where they or their children could think and speak and worship freely without fear of reprisal from some force or another. That’s what freedom is. Obviously there’s limits to that: do those thoughts or acts impinge upon the freedoms of others? And so on… I mean, there’s always some asshat racist who thinks they should be able to vent whatever they want).
My art doesn’t take sides. It is about humans and human nature. It’s these sensations of being alive today, right now, in this set and setting. It’s about archetypes across cultures and religions and spiritualities and world views. It’s about communication.
Art expresses various aspects and facets of the world as whole. Some art might be there to say ‘the world is commodity’. That’s not for me.
My art is there to inspire. It is there to tell a story of a better world. My art calls out, sheds light on, and illuminates the darkness.
Wherever you may have gone, Tank Man, I send my blessings.
To the world, this vast spectrum of humanity, that finds itself at the whims of small cadres of individuals who call themselves governments and institutions and corporations… I am right there with you.
If you wanted to express this, but could not, I ask your permission.
If you wanted to express this, but could not, I send you my love.
May all beings experience freedom and the causes of freedom.
When I was 3 my mom came running from the other room when she heard me screaming. My hand clutched my face and blood was streaming out. She thought I’d lost an eye but I’d only slammed my forehead on the corner of the coffee table.
When I was eight I fell right down from the top of a set of monkey bars – it seemed so high at the time – and slammed my head on the ground. I don’t remember much of it but it didn’t seem to do any lasting damage.
When I was 19, I left a Phish show at Great Woods Amphitheater in Massachusetts with some kids I’d met. I was in the passenger seat when the front tire blew out and we went careening in circles across the highway stopping inches from the guardrail. I’d like to think I was wearing my seatbelt.
When I was 20, I landed on the blunt end of my ski pole and my spleen exploded inside of me. Bleeding internally from major arteries, I was rushed to the hospital and what remained of my spleen was removed and I was stitched back up. After a brief teetering upon the precipice and sent back out into the world. I was back skiing a month and a half later and, after a summer of cross country adventuring, spent the following winter doing the same along with some indeterminable amount of concussions.
When I was 25, I was on the beach of the Kalalau Valley and a wave crept up behind me and slammed me face first into the sand. I felt every vertebrae twist and turn and crunch. I pulled myself back up, slightly dizzy and still able to breath. Everything looked brighter. My back, though twisted, wasn’t broken.
When I was 39, I looked away from the road for a moment and drove head first into a stopped car at 50 mph merely. I veered ever so slightly to the left and, on the driver’s side, the engine was practically in the window. I was able to open my door and stumble away.
There’s a thousand other things. There was the time in Canada. That time in Vermont. Probably a dozen other times in Vermont. There was the weird dude who picked me up hitchhiking and showed me his home, his greco-roman style indoor pool, how he likes it when young men come over and swim. There was that other guy in Spokane. There were multi-day backpacking trips by myself in the middle of nowhere clambering over cliffs and along the faces of steep waterfalls without a care. There were too many late night drives to count. There were times with a blade, a flame, an everything… There are so many times that life zigged instead of zagging. Life went one way and I went with it and I – and my life – was swept in one direction instead of another.
I share this not to say that I’m lucky or blessed or whatever. Those are stories to ascribe to the action and they are of no real use other than to make me feel special or unique.
When life looms large on my horizon and every moment feels like a Titanic-meet-iceberg slow crumbling sinking ship and I don’t know where to turn, I think about these moments and, more than anything else, they remind me to be grateful for the ability to see, to feel, to think, to breath, to stand, to walk, to live, to keep going, to keep moving onwards. I’m grateful that I still have this life to live and the better part of my body to live it with.
At the moment, I am comfortable. My body is at ease. There are no great aches or pains that call my attention. My cats are sleeping peacefully. There is rain falling outside. I think about all the seemingly endless close calls and I think about all that is yet to come. Life isn’t done yet and there’s cards yet to play, dangers yet to face, and dances yet to dance. I am ever grateful for these moments and movements, this dance, this breath. In the end, it’s the only thing I really have. That is, until I don’t.
I am just one more blade of grass on this vast plain and at any given moment, something could come along and mow me down. I’m grateful for each next breath and my vow to myself, to the world, every day, is to use that breath as wisely as I can.
My public face is reasonably apolitical. I intend for my art and writing to inspire a brighter, more beautiful, and more hopeful world. I do my best, most times, to let it just be that. I think that there’s so much in the way of politics already that I don’t feel a need to bombard you with more. Afterall, as they say – if you aren’t outraged already, then you aren’t paying attention. And it’s never been my intention to outrage you all the more.
But here’s the thing: in recent days, the beast of racism, of sexism, of xenophobia has reared its head in this country in ways that I thought unimaginable. And it is all in the name of economics and politics. Those things ultimately – on their own, are not political. To call them “political” is to do a disservice to the humans who are affected by these attitudes every day. They are issues of hate and division and fear. While those are the tools of politics, they are not politics not in and of themselves.
I want to tell you: there is no place for that here. I have no patience for racism, sexism, misogyny, or homophobia or anything else that is hateful and divisive. They will not find any fertile ground to plant themselves upon.
I will listen. I will try to understand where it comes from. How we got here. But it goes no further than that. There is no coddling. No time for apologists. No second-guessing. No compromise. No quarter given for hate.
Many people who don;t experience these things directly, when presented with it by those who do, begin their next sentence with “yeah, but….”
So let’s just stop right there and discuss that part first because it is very important.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other such attitudes, are like weapons. They are used to hurt, subjugate, and make those who wield them feel powerful. However, if you are not the person for whom the weapon was designed to hurt, then you probably won’t ever completely understand its impact.
For example, if you are a man then you aren’t going to feel that sexism spear when it hits you. Maybe a woman is telling you about how she experiences it in the world – maybe how sick she feels right now that a prime example of a misogynist has been elected into the highest public office of the US. Or maybe she is with a group of other women and they are all expressing dismay at various examples of sexism that each has experienced. Maybe you start to feel defensive. You want to say it’s not all like that. The same story goes for race or anything else designed to subjugate and exclude that you yourself don’t experience.
“Yeah, but…,” you begin…
Just stop. Here’s the thing: as a weapon, the weapon is not designed to hurt you. If you are white, racism is not designed to hurt you. If you are a male, then you won’t feel the brunt of the spear of sexism as it impacts the women around you. And so on. No matter how much you examine that weapon – looking for the trap, the part that draws blood, the part that injures, you won’t really feel it. You do not have the apparatus – your skin color, your gender, or whatever – by which to experience it.
But this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It simply wasn’t designed for you. It is imperative to not let your own experience of it (or lack thereof) invalidate the experience of others.
Instead, just step back, give up whatever you are holding onto that is letting you not hear those who are speaking up – especially if they are telling you that they have been hurt – and instead try to just listen. Really listen.
Right now, in America, an alleged sex offender has been elected for President. Not Bill “I had a consensual blowjob in the White House” Clinton. No, this is a self-admitted misogynist who has multiple allegations against him as well as multiple recorded statements that illustrate it. It’s plain as day. For sexists, for misogynists, his election normalizes attitudes of dominance that women live in fear of every day.
Right now, in America, someone who has made multiple racist comments and, in fact, was fined for excluding blacks from his apartment buildings years ago, has been elected to the highest public office in the country. The same man has the tacit approval of the Ku Klux Klan and continues to appoint to his committee those with outspoken racist attitudes. For racists, this seems to normalize the attitudes of racial domincance that continue to pervade this country in every level of society.
Right now, almost half of the American people who voted have elected someone who is backed by the anti-Gay Christian Right. This same person chose, as his running mate, a man who claims homosexuality can be “cured” and would like to do away with laws protecting the LGBTQ communities. For the homophobic, his ascent to a place of power normalizes and validates the latent or expressed homophobia everywhere.
Right now, America has elected a person who has stoked the fires of xenophobia enough that people are committing countless hate crimes across the country in his name and he has yet to denounce those actions. In fact, he argues that building a giant wall between the US and Mexico is a good idea. He proposes registering all Muslims and banning all others from entry. In doing so he normalizes nationalistic and xenophobic Us vs. Them attitudes (which are largely ‘whites’ vs everyone else) and the hate crimes that lie at the extreme end of those attitudes.
In short, the man who has been elected to be President of the United States is helping to normalize hate, fear, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and more in ways that I never expected to see. Ever. I never expected it would now sit squarely in the chair that is supposed lead this country of the United States forwards.
Yet, here we are.
I have spent the past week, as have many others, disgusted (and depressed) by this stark reality, grieving for all the families now living in deep fear of being torn apart, for all of the women who see a sexual offender now celebrated, for an environment that will soon be trampled (as he proposes to dismantle the EPA and calls Climate Change a hoax)… and so on.
I can barely believe it. And yet I can… Because there’s so many who live in fear of the other, looking out for I, Me, and Mine, influenced by the Mass Media barrage and the decrepit American education system which has decidedly failed them.
So I want to tell you this: my art is for everyone, everywhere, regardless of race or religion or gender or sexuality or anything I might have missed. It is meant only to inspire openness, hope, joy, maybe brighter more vibrant lives for everyone.
Yes, it obviously comes through my own cultural lens. It is tied to personal experiences that, in their details, are unique to me. But the archetypes of the human experience know no boundaries. We all cry and love and live and die the same. We are all in it together. This planet. This family.
This is all we’ve got.
I’ve had countless wild experiences. I could ascribe all sorts of stories to those experiences. But only one thing really shines through though as a worthwhile story to believe in. In the end, I’m left only with my breath and my body, my sensations, my experience of the world. And you, too, are left with your own.
In the end, all I can do is be kind to myself and others. Just be good to each other.
That’s it. There’s nothing more.
The only reason I can bring my art to the soaring places it reaches is because of the seeds it starts with. That intention is merely to create beauty, joy, kindness. It is not trying to be something. There is no agenda. I am not here to preach. It comes from one place of joy and beauty and moves onwards and upwards from there, downwards and inwards, to the greatest forms of that seed’s expression. Even the darkness leads to that and comes from that. For me, my art is what it looks like to be alive.
We are jewels reflecting light.
Hate will find no footing here. There is no ground upon which its gnarled roots and twisted forms can take hold. I will listen. I will understand. But there is no place for hate here. Only love.
If you are on the receiving end of these weapons know that I hear you. I see you. I’m with you. I always have been. I always will be. Because there isn’t just you. Just me. There is us. We may be divided by cultural boundaries, linguistic barriers, or any other perceived form of separation. But in the end: I respect your right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and together we defend that for each other. There are millions and millions of us creating a space where we can thrive, as best as we can, in the ways that we know how, while trying to cause as little harm to others. We are stronger together than apart with our choir of voices and our multitude of colors.
We are a speck in the history of the universe. But we are no less beautiful for it.
Yesterday morning I was making a smoothie. The front door was open though there’s a screen door. I heard someone yell in over the noise of the blender. There was rougher looking guy at the door with sunglasses on and a couple of bags and, well, looking like the street folks who live round these parts. My guards went up. My inner walls raised. My triggers on alert. Because… because it happens. It’s second nature when you live in the city for a long while. There is immediate suspicion when someone enters your personal bubble uninvited.
He asked me nicely if I could fill up his water bottle because he was so very thirsty. He looked pretty thirsty. It was hot outside. And there’s not much in the way of public water (though plenty of people watering their lawns). I took the bottle from his hand, waiting for the other hand to grab me. For the trick, the ruse, the part where my sense of security is challenged. But nothing happened. I returned from the kitchen with the filled bottle back. He took it and took a good drink. Then he thanked me and continued on with his day, wherever it might be leading him.
This man was thirsty. That was it. And he asked the nearest spot for something to drink. I would like to say FULL STOP. But I’m thinking: was he scoping my house? What would it have been if the door had been open but I hadn’t answered? Like that neighbor who had someone go in and steal his keys and then his car? What if I’d been a woman? But maybe he was just thirsty. End of story.
There’s so many walls that get built up. So many fears and suspicions. Often, those fears have been validated by entirely true stories we hear repeated time and again. Someone broke into my own car once. But maybe this story validates a different perspective: that helping each other, that offering care, that simply being friendly and generous to each other is also a valid story. As they say, trust in allah but tie your camel. Trust that doing good for others is the best approach but leaving your keys in your car is probably not a good idea.
This world is a beautiful jewel… and then there is this world that we humans have live in within that world with all of our struggles, wars, discord, our suspicions, identities, and fears. It is an intricate web we’ve created to govern and rule and give and take and create layers and layers of fine-grained separation. So often I look up and see once again my fellow humans crushing or being crushed by my other fellow humans. When the door is held open only for those of a certain color, race, gender, creed, sexual orientation, income level, but shut on everyone else, then there is no love.
The best we, I, all of us can do sometimes is be generous in our own lives… forging ahead on the most compassionate path. The best we can do sometimes is to remember to hold the door, offer a drink – metaphorically or otherwise.
May you never thirst.
“What matters is to move surely and calmly, with the appropriate humor and appropriate melancholy in the temporal and spatial landscape that we are.”
– Michael Krogerus “The Decision Book”
One of the things I can thank my mother for (and there’s many things) is instilling in me a healthily strong sense of humor. Dinner time for the family of five in my house would often see my dad recounting something he’d heard on Paul Harvey, a radio talk show host, while driving home from work. I’d remark on something I thought funny – some increasingly sarcastic off-hand comment. My mom would respond with a leveling up of the funny. Then I’d respond. And so on and we’d bat it back and forth like some kind of ping pong resulting in humorous guffaws and, much to my dad’s chagrin, whatever he had to say was lost to the peals of our laughter but at least the dinner table was happy and smiling and, ultimately, maybe that’s all that mattered.
It feels sometimes like it is easier to descend into melancholy, resigning ourselves to the uphill struggle, than to rise to humor – to finding the lightness. In some ways, it seems to be more natural a state than humor, even. We are born into this world then slowly sink back towards death. It is, after all, easier to sink than to swim.
Life pushes and pulls at us, sometimes forcing us down upon our knees nearly defeating us. For many, life is one person stepping upon another ad infinitum saying to each other ‘because I was stepped on, I will step upon you’ and so on. There’s no humor there, no joy, certainly no laughter other than the malicious laughter of Ha Ha Ha Now I’m King of the Pile.
How do we even keep going? When the anger runs thin, when the furnaces falter, when the candle flickers?
I default, ultimately, to humor. Perhaps it is what I learned would keep me going. In my alone times, in my quiet times, I often found myself laughing at the story and looking for the punchline, any punchline, that would uplift.
Humor uplifts. Yet, humor takes practice. Learning to smile at our mistakes and the backhands of the world. To dance with that crap storm that is life sometimes. It takes effort to instill a lightness in our step. Our muscles weaken from our burdens. And our burdens, as we pass through life, can just seem to get heavier, if we let them.
Laughter helps lighten the load. It’s ok to shrug off those crushing weights. It helps shift the weight. It is not to discredit the crushing weight of the world. It isn’t a distraction from the deadly darknesses.
Think of laughter as a sword that renders the evils of the world limp, void, because laughter is the antithesis to the darkness. For every pain, there is a pleasure. For every wail there is a chuckle. It is a terrible and terrifying aspect of life. Every downtrodden human looks for a chance for laughter.
The absolute cosmic joke that I cannot put into words makes me shake my head at the whole vast parade of ups and downs, lefts and rights, of rights and wrongs.
When I falter and fall – when I am there on my knees sometimes in my darkest moments… even then… even then there is a shard of a light: a glint or glimmer – there is the muscle memory of humor that is laughing at the situation. At me. With me. I exercise that laughter muscle because sometimes that’s all I have, a tiny shiv of humor to poke at the demon that has been unleashed. A smirk to send it on its way.
And while there may be laughter, there is still the awareness of the grimness of the situation. The weight. The gravity. The audacity of humans.The absurdity of life, shifting and pulling and pushing at me.
Life – a good life – like a good garden, requires careful cultivation. While there are bits of our past best discarded, there are often other aspects that we’ve held onto that are worth keeping and treasuring. They give us strength and help us to persevere. Sometime we can add new tools to that collection, sometimes the old tools need refinement. For example, I did have to make a serious effort to shift my ‘humor’ away from ‘cutting and debilitating sarcasm.’ After much trial and error, I found that the razor sharp edge of cutting and debilitating sarcasm was often deadly when it came to friendships and real connection with others. I went back to my proverbial forge and did my best to reshape that sword into something more loving.
We talk of being a warrior in the world but a warrior’s life need not be all battles and confrontations. In fact, the true warrior does their best to avoid real battles, real fights, as much as possible. We need not stalk and stew, waiting for the next bogeyman or woman to leap out at us. We can wield the sword with love and joy as much as anger and hatred and, with it, dispense compassion and laughter as much as we can sow destruction. Laughter slices through illusions, games, concepts sowing a sweet garden and inviting in joy.
Justice comes in many forms. I think that on a personal level, the world where we walk onwards, head held high, light, weightless, soft, resilient, persevering through the storm when some injustice has been meted out upon us, laughing all the way is the greatest form of justice – because I swear to you, life is brief – it will vanish before you know it – and your laughter – your true heartfelt laughter – will inspire more than you might ever know. It says, it screams, it laughs: I AM. Laughter is rebellion against the tyranny of the mind.
Melancholy, too, has its place. It is the soft meditative reflection and an important piece of our human experience but we need not dwell there permanently. By the same token, we cannot dwell solely in our own little humorous cave. In both cases, dwelling solely in one or the other, we might miss some of the more precious moments of this life. So I think it’s important to hold both in our hands and walk through the world weaving them together. We cry, we laugh, we sink, we swim, we soar. No moment is the end all be all of moments. We look for the sadness in the humorous moment and the humor in the sad moment. Because there will be one after another after another after another until the day that we die.
For me, those shining peaks, those peals of laughter around the dinner table of my life – of my mind – all my various selves making light of the situations: it makes the depths all the more rewarding and helps me navigate my life in a direction that feels all the more whole.
The reward for that practice is this: a life that feels worth living and a life that inspires joy in others. And, to me, that treasure is priceless.
A new law passed by the LA city council prohibits homeless people from owning more belongings than can fit in a 60-gallon trashcan with the lid on, and allows police to summarily confiscate any tents that are still standing on public property during daylight hours.
The law is a response to Los Angeles’s epidemic of homelessness — a rise in homelessness that’s clocked in at 20% of two years.
Of course, homelessness isn’t like smoking, a lifestyle choice that can be disincentivized given enough government arm-twisting. Homelessness is a human rights crisis, brought on, in part, by Bill Clinton’s cruel and vile “welfare reforms” (which were passed by adding “compromises” that allowed state governments to be even crueller, an arrangement that came home to roost when the Tea Party started electing governors who ran on a platform that demonized poor people, and subsequently began to literally starve the poorest people in their states).
From the files of ‘how human beings treat other human beings’. It is easy to see simply the haves and have-nots and believe that the have-nots want to take what you have. Those who believe that the walled garden they live in must not be trampled upon by those who have-not believe also that the only way to protect those walled gardens is to build bigger walls and enact more laws outlawing having-not.
When we look around, it is easy to believe ourselves to be these cultured, well-informed creatures who have ‘civilized’ ourselves to some high degree of class and sophistication. We can look at back-jungle native cultures and say ‘well, those savages didn’t build computers or develop bullet trains or make 3-D IMAX movies!’ or whatever and yet: we can look to those same cultures and see a lack of, well, lack – of homelessness and destitution. There is only destitution when our western world encroaches upon them and takes away their livelihoods, demolishing their world-views. We can look at other cultures and see communities that are supportive one another and would never think of there being holes through which one would fall and, if there are holes, there are safety nets to catch them.
This isn’t colonial nostalgia. This is the understanding that our tunnel vision of “what the world is” is but one perspective amongst many. That perspective has its flaws as much as it has its shining points of brilliance. There are so many other ways of being, other ways of thinking. And when the one way of being simply barrels over others without any compassion then I really think that we are doing it wrong. When the heart closes and we say ‘nope, they can suck it. I earned it on my own and they can too’ then we separate ourselves from a vast interweaving of the world, living selfish little lives. As we contract into ourselves it causes cracks and holes in the fabric between each other, like dried skin, like a parched desert.
Our society is riddled with these holes and cracks and the more one contracts, the more one is led to believe that one is separate from those that fall through those holes if they don’t have the means, by whatever ill-fortune, to support themselves. This is the story we tell ourselves over and over and over again. it is repeated on the news, in the movies, in books. You might have worked hard to get where you are but it was as much luck and privilege as anything else.
I long for a day when our ‘civic leaders’ and those that vote for them can find the compassion to do something for others – for this civil society we supposedly live in and not just do for themselves and the private investment interests they represent.
I would like to talk for a bit about the relationship we each have with the world around us – how we experience and engage the world the world around us. More to the point, I will talk about the ways out brains engage in some of the more habit forming elements and various aspects of our cultural framework that support that. Our brain is a bit like our interlocutor with the world. Barring deeper philosophical inquiries into the ‘who’ and ‘what’ we are, where consciousness actually resides, and so on, our brains are, for all intents and purposes, the prism through which we witness and experience our lives, taking in the actions, movements, lights and sounds, the things we judge to be good or bad and so on, and through numerous intricate processes it makes sense of this mélange.
Before we get started, I would like to offer a couple of caveats to you, dear reader. We will be talking about brains and some specific processes and how they relates to the paths we choose in the world but I should be clear that what we know of the brain and it’s functioning is actually somewhat hazy. We understand that different parts of the brain light up in relation to various thought processes and physical activities. We can trace different neurochemical pathways and observe various electrochemical impulses that seem to relate to activities, functions, types of memory, and so on. We know that there are chemical responses when certain things happen or don’t happen to us. Sometimes it seems the best we’re able to do when it comes to knowing how the brain works relative to our identity is simply pointing out these relationships – that some parts of the brain seem to govern some functions while other parts seem to govern other functions. It is very difficult to actually trace memories, cognitive functions, and various other aspects of our identity. We can’t point to a spot and say: that synaptic pathway is you memory of the shirt you wore that one day in 3rd grade. Where are all the memories of shirts we wore? Or of 3rd grade? These are very abstract ideas compared to the actual neurological functioning of our brain.
At any given moment, there are a numerous processes going on in the brain – a multitude of synaptic pathways firing, chemical responses being triggered, etc. – and singling out any one or two as we will do inevitably ignores other important – and quite relevant aspects – aspects of the cognitive functions. Yet, those facets that we hold up for examination – comparing and contrasting – that we have explored through study and research – often help provide answers to some of the questions of how and why we respond to the world the way we do. So, here, I talk only about a thin slice as it pertains to a particular aspect of our lives. It is an important aspect and a relevant slice. But it is a slice none-the-less.
That said, I would also like to add that, while I’m talking about brains as if I know something, I am (surprise!) not a brain surgeon.
My own chosen path is “Artist” and my chosen art form is painting. One aspect of the way I work is that I often find myself piecing together seemingly disparate elements to create a unified whole. I tend to look at other parts of life in a similar manner: social, political, or economic structures, art, movies, music, architecture, magazines, advertising, and so on – all of these echoes of our human impulses and urges – and finding the places where the threads of one disparate element weaves with the others. Even the seemingly most opposite of facets of the systems we’ve created stem from the basic human experience. We could talk about font choices for business and ancient control mechanisms used by the dominant socio-political structures. We can discuss religious systems and psychological urges towards control. We could explore color theory and sexual impulses. I think about the homeless person on the street, the not-so-homeless person taking a vacation on the beach, the slope of a skyscraper, the Cape Code-style houses that pepper Newport Beach relative to the SoCal style that peppers Venice Beach, and so on.
So many different facets… So many pieces of this human existence: wars and celebrations and births and deaths. It just goes on and on. We can’t pick any one thread and not have it branch outwards – in multiple directions in time and space – into ten thousand more occurrences seemingly ad infinitum. In this way, I often just sift through it all, seeing how things fit into arcs and patterns and, invariably coming to the conclusion that, ultimately, it – all of it – is one unified whole – this life, this planet, this universe, inside and out. We live our lives trying to make some sense of that – creating world view relative to a mutable identity we establish to move through it with.
For many people, the end-all be-all dominant structure- the umbrella of all things – beyond governments and economics, is religion. Their chosen religion gives them a belief system that imbues their lives with meaning as well as a basic end goal. It gives them a sense of where they are going, where they have come from, and a basic litmus test for right and wrong. When we read the descriptions of God’s love, the passion of Jesus, the pure lands of the Buddhas, Mohammed’s heaven, or whatever the spiritual belief, they all have this in common: they are trying to imagine and share the most beautiful thing possible (even if it is someone else’s painting of that picture), using it to inspire its adherents to a more fulfilling life.
On the other hand, ‘most beautiful external thing’ finds it’s counter or foil in ideas like karma, original sin, hell, and other various ways of saying “we humans have fallible human minds that just keep chugging along doing good and bad and here is why…” This not-so-beautiful thing is usually seen as a diversion from that most beautiful thing and we are taught various ways to atone for our inevitable diversions.
I think that we can understand it much more succinctly and less abstractly than that – this sense of the beautiful and how we relate to it – and, in so doing, we can find a most beautiful thing in the here and now that offers a greater sense of present tense well-being than future post-death rewards.
Last Friday at about 6pm on my way home from the gym I rear ended the SUV in front of me at about 50 mph after I glanced away from the road for a mere moment – two seconds – tired from the gym – there was the back of their vehicle in my headlights – no time to swerve or move though I tried and – my car – their car -BAM – airbag explosion in my face –
I’m lifting my head and it’s quiet and the cabin of my Honda CRV is smoky and my engine – in front of me – practically in the window – a gnarled and gnashed mess of dull grey corners and curves and I wipe my lip with my hand, a bit of blood. I bit my lip. Is my hand burned? Body feels all in working order although the wind is well knocked out of me and my chest is tight. I don’t feel or seem injured. I can open my door and I climb out and onto the asphalt highway. A sea of red brake lights surrounds me in the middle of the highway, horns honking because goddamn I just screwed up everyone’s evening commute but no one is stopping just honking. I manage around the other side of my car and, 50 feet ahead, along a path of the broken glass and detritus of my car, is the other driver and car with it’s impacted bumper and this young girl is coming towards me yelling about how I hit her and it’s a new car that she just got and why did I hit her how is she supposed to trust anyone ever on the road blah blah blah and I’m just apologizing because shit I’m alive but I’m sorry I hit her I didn’t mean to yes it’s terrible but it’s useless to be angry but she needs to be angry at someone.
I walk to the side of the highway and, crouched down against the railing, stunned and shaking and shaken, call 911 and they tell me that CHP will be on their way and everything will be ok. A white van pulls up on the other side of my car, blocking traffic, and the guy gets out and comes over to check that I’m ok and he’s looking at my car, amazed I made it out because my car is a crushed mess. He checks again that I’m not hurt and I tell him my chest is in pain and he says it’s from the airbag which hits you at 250 mph or something but, well, accidents happen at least you’re ok, man. It’ll be ok. You’re lucky your alive. And this isn’t the first time in my life for that statement.
The friendly samaritan leaves when the CHP show up and they’re just nice professional highway patrol taking down all the details. It’s not major. There’s no ambulances so it’s not major. No big deal. Business as usual. Accident clean-up is an efficient process. They’ve called the tow company. They’re dealing with the girl I ran into and the guy she ran into. The tow guy shows up, this heavier hispanic dude and the cop, a buzz cut white dude, calls him ‘brother’ and I think ‘only in California’ and I’m grateful for these moments of human decency.
And Violet – who was about ten minutes behind me – who came upon my crushed car sitting sideways in the middle of the highway with the airbag deflated and me not in sight – comes running up to me holy shit what happened are you ok and I’m a bit in shock but I am ok. I’m ok. I just… I look at my totaled front end car and again shake my head, I just looked away a moment… I wasn’t touching my phone or anything I just… It’s a bit much and I want to sit down and we get all the stuff taken care of with the cops and my mind is replaying the crash again. CRASH. again. CRASH. again. Crash… crash… What have I done? What did I do? Just accidents… all the things that lead up to this… just little things, so many little things.
The road is clearing and my car is loaded onto a flatbed truck and I will go back and retrieve the paintings in the back – 5 big paintings in the back – that are also ok. I go and gently sit in Violet’s car while she finishes up with the cops. My body is wracked but in such minor ways, I remind myself, such minor ways, tense and tight and my chest feels torn and I can’t move very well but I’m alive and shocked. And alive.
An accident on the life highway and the angel of grace that said – o no, not you, it’s not your time. You have work yet to do.
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