Alabama

December 9, 2017

One of the pivotal moments of my youth was reading an article about the firebombing and beatings of a busload of black and white Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama. I was shocked by what had happened there, and it burned into my mind a negative image of the Deep South—particularly Alabama and Mississippi. They seemed like evil and dangerous places to which I would never, ever go. Later, through listening to Delta Blues and the “Americana” music of The Band, I became fascinated with the mythology—both white and black—of the small Southern town. I considered it the richest mythology to have ever come out of America and they ended up making me want to see the place for myself. Around ten years ago I finally toured the “Blues” Delta in northern Mississippi. I had an interesting time. It was like visiting another country. One day, outside of Greenwood, which is very near Money, Mississippi, the place where the African-American teenage visitor from Chicago, Emmett Till, was tortured and murdered by local whites, I met a black man who’d moved there from New York City. That seemed a rather extraordinary thing to do. I guessed that the situation there must have changed a lot. I hadn’t been seeing any of the dangerous looking good old boys and wondered if they’d “died out.” He assured me they were still around, that all I had to do was look. After that I did start seeing them. I have no explanation as to why I wasn’t seeing them before. I feel them getting increasingly bold now. If Roy Moore is elected to the Senate, Alabama will once again be a place I deem too dangerous to visit or even pass through.

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Progress Report #112

December 7, 2017

Today I finished the final draft of Chapter 40, which marks the end of the bulk of my story. I have two more chapters, one of which is a brief look at the years following Chapter 40, and another that I’m calling an Afterword—a summing up. But the hard part is over. It’s a very strange feeling to be at this point after having struggled with the material for nearly 12 years. Once I’ve finished 41 and the Afterword I’m going to a print-on-demand company so that I can read it as a bound book. I don’t like reading on a monitor or even on 8 1/2 by 11 manuscript pages. I want to see it as a real book. My main task, I think, will be to look for things I’ve said a few too many times, along with redundancies. So to all those who keep asking me—yes, I am going to finish Street Song. I’m very close now.

Progress Report #111

October 10, 2017

In late July I took a much needed break from my work-in-progress, Street Song, and returned to it in mid-September. I wasn’t feeling quite as fresh as I’d hoped to be, but I do feel better. A lot better. Since resuming work, I’ve finished chapters 34, 35, and 36. That’s a much faster pace than usual, and it’s largely due to some preliminary work I’d done. I started Chapter 37 today. When I finish that I’ll have only six chapters to go. The end is getting closer and closer, and, damn, does that feel good. There’s a temptation to rush through to the end, but I don’t dare. I have to take my time, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, until it’s finished. When I was feeding the parrots there was a point where I couldn’t remember how I felt before my involvement with the flock. It’s the same with the book. I don’t remember what I was like before beginning work on this seemingly endless project. I’ve said this before, but as difficult as it’s been, I feel good about it. Whenever I reread what I’ve written, it feels like an accurate depiction of what I went through. I’ve been saying that I have from 10 months to a year to go, but I feel now that it could be less than that. We’ll see.

For anybody in the area who’s interested, I’ll be reading from the manuscript on November 3rd at the Beat Museum here in North Beach. There will be two other readers, Terry Tarnoff and Phil Cousineau. The reading starts at 7 pm.

Progress Report #110

July 16, 2017
PapaJohn

Papa John Karas “making sure that the fish can swim.”

I’ve started work on Chapter 33 of a planned 43 chapter book. One of the remaining chapters has already been written, which leaves ten chapters to go. Without forcing it, the pace of the writing has accelerated, and even though I’m mostly vacationing between July 31 and September 8, I anticipate finishing within a year. I’m exhausted, but happy with what I’ve been doing.

My favorite aspect of the creative process is the unexpected development that seems to come from a source beyond my own mind—certainly beyond my conscious intentions. Music is a big theme in my book—I used to be a street singer—and you can’t really describe music with words. So I thought it would be a good idea to record a few songs to accompany the book. I’m still in the process of recording, but one stands out already, a song I wrote on the island of Hydra in Greece, when I was 17. It was based on John Karas, the Dean of Boys at my high school. A friend of mine called him Papa John, which is also the name of the song. He wasn’t a flaming liberal, but he was a decent man, friendly to the students during a time when turmoil was spreading through the country. He listened to us. I moved away from the area the day after I graduated, but heard through the grapevine later that the school’s football coach thought Papa John was too lenient, too understanding, and got him fired. Try to do something good and the forces of darkness will work to undermine you. That was the theme of the song. I retired “Papa John” from my repertoire decades ago, but the book brought it back to life. I rearranged it and came up with some musical ideas that I liked a lot. Besides my acoustic guitar and voice, there’s a subtle electric piano and three street horns blowing wild. I love it.

Judy likes the song too, and one day it occurred to me that since I have an in-house filmmaker, I ought to make a music video. So we’re in the middle of that now. We came up with an idea that actually means something to us, so it’s more than a commercial for the book. I won’t be lip-synching. I’m barely in the video at all. The subject of the song, John Karas, died more than a decade ago and never heard it. It’s a real pity. As the last line of the song goes, “I wish the best for you, Papa John.”

Progress Report #109

June 12, 2017

A month or so ago I finished Section 3 of Street Song and saw myself taking a few days off and then rolling into the start of Section 4, which is the final section of the book. It didn’t work that way. My brain revolted. Section 4 marks a real change in the story and is the strangest section in the book. My insides needed a bit of time to make the adjustment. But I’m back now. In fact, I’m almost finished with Chapter 29, the first chapter of the last section. I know how it goes, what voice to use, what approach to take—all the essentials. So this is the last leg of what has been so far an 11 year journey. Probably a year to go. It’s taken a lot out of me. As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s been a much greater struggle than I ever imagined.

Office

Progress Report #108

May 15, 2017

ms_in_may

My work-in-progress, Street Song, has four sections. Today, with the completion of Chapter 28, I finished the third section. So I have just one section to go. The light is getting brighter. This last chapter was particularly grueling. Day-to-day reality got in my way a lot—as it tends to do anyway. But I think also that there is an arc to the story that my psyche resonates with as I move through it. As I come to the end of a section (which is never arbitrary) I feel the exhaustion that comes with the end of any period of life. Section Four promises to be the most difficult of the book—15 chapters, most of which are relatively brief, but unusually intense. Strange occurrences call for careful depiction. Otherwise you sound like you made it all up—which I didn’t. But I need a few days r and r first. I’m so tired…

God and Mammon (Revisited)

April 11, 2017

Here’s an old post (lightly edited) from seven years ago that I’m putting up again. It deals with one of my biggest annoyances: the false assertion that Americans are a “religious people.”

I read in different places that the United States is a Christian nation, that Americans are a deeply religious people, and that as a religious people, we are naturally conservative, since religion is conservative. But not one of these statements is true. We are not a Christian nation, neither legally nor spiritually; we are not religious; and religious people are not conservative—at least not in the conventional, thoughtless sense of the word.

When writers and commentators say that we are a religious nation they’re simply taking at face value the assertions of the self-described “religious.” In this country, we have an easy definition of religious. Essentially, it means anybody who says they believe in God. Atheists are content with the definition since they prefer that religion appear shallow. And the “religious” are content with it because it lets them off the hook. They don’t have to take on some extraordinarily difficult teachings. One notable example:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

This is not a conservative idea; it’s a radical idea. It’s universal, unequivocal, and has many implications, few of which are ever addressed by anyone within Western Civilization. One of its simpler meanings is that we shouldn’t desire “things.” And yet creating the desire for things is a basic tenet of our economic system. Economists, businessmen, and politicians are deeply concerned with how to get people borrowing and spending. We have to “grow the economy,” as they say. And the great majority of Americans believe that we should always be enjoying an ever higher standard of living. When that doesn’t happen, somebody has to take the blame in the next election.

One of the problems with defining God as a being—the anthropomorphic idea of God—is that people can soften an idea like “you cannot love God and mammon,” by insisting that they do indeed love “the big guy” more than they love things. They can talk to Him and assure Him that they love Him more than money and then feel as though they’ve met the requirement. But if you consider God to be truth, the picture changes. Loving truth more than money means living solely by principle. The deep meaning of “You cannot serve God and mammon” says that you should abandon your materialist existence and follow truth—never do anything simply to make money. To those who would question this, I will point out that the lines immediately following “You cannot serve God and mammon” are, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, not about your body, what you shall put on.” (Jesus insisted that his disciples leave their jobs and become homeless beggars.) Historically speaking, this idea is not at all strange. There are many people in many different cultures who have pursued it. It’s strange only to us here in the modern-day Western world, where power, comfort, and entertainment have become paramount. It’s not my point exactly to suggest that anybody renounce their livelihood and pursue this other way of life. But it might be helpful if people were to recognize that, as it currently stands, we are not really a religious people, that we are not really a Christian nation (we would have to follow the teachings of Christ to be that), and that religious ideas are not “conservative.” If we understood that much, it might be helpful in getting us to speak frankly with one another again.

“Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?”

April 5, 2017

I sometimes say that the only thing I’ve ever done that was harder than writing the book I’m working on, Street Song, was living out the events the book describes. It’s probably true, but it’s hard to know for certain while I’m still in the midst of it. Writing a book (as opposed to a “read”) is one of the most difficult things you can do. So much is involved and it all has to be organized in an organic way. This book is difficult not because it’s extremely personal, which it is, but because how you present your personal stuff has to be done with a special kind of care or it comes off all wrong.

When I started Street Song I thought it was one thing. Working on it, however, it turned into another and another and another. But then, a book, if it’s any good, is lots of different things. The book is partly my attempt at making sense out of my life, partly a warning to others, partly a long letter of explanation to someone I alienated that I didn’t want to alienate, and partly a plain old job. (We all need something to do.) Hopefully it will give some people inspiration—not because of anything I did, but because of what I saw.

As you’ve always heard, writing a book is an incredibly lonely task. You’re inside your head nearly the entire day—even when you’re not writing—and it goes on for years. In my case, nearly 11 years now.  It has led me to places in my daily life that I never expected to go to, created problems I never would have anticipated, as well as misunderstandings that I haven’t known how to correct. (I often feel at a remove from the world around me and can’t reach across the gulf.) This is not to say that there are no joys involved. They have happened, but they are few and far between. Writing is grueling. The greatest joy for me , I think, is the last pass, after you’ve finished the last draft and are fine-tuning the language and massaging the subtleties. I’m nearing that point. About a year away now—maybe less. I’ll be happy when it’s over.

The Three Views of Existence (Edited)

March 7, 2017

[This is an old post that was originally in three installments. I’ve edited them together and am reposting them. I’m surprised at how much of what I wrote then I still stand by.]

Five years ago, down with the flu and having to spend all day in bed, I found myself thinking about the three fundamental views of existence, which are the creator god view, the scientific/materialist view, and the pantheistic, or everything-is-god, view.

To elaborate a little, the creator god, or monotheistic, view is what most people in this culture think of when they hear the word “religion.” It’s the belief in a god who exists apart from his creation. There are many different schools of thought within the fundamental view, ranging from followers of intellectuals like Augustine to populist evangelicals. The scientific/materialist view maintains that there is no spiritual realm whatsoever. There is only the material plane, and consciousness arises out of the workings of chemistry and physics. These first two views are currently duking it out. They barely recognize the existence of the third view, the pantheistic view, which says that the entire universe is god. (I once thought pantheism meant “nature religion,” that the “pan” referred to the Greek god Pan—or something. But “pan” means “all,” as in “Pan American.” So Pan-theism is “everything is god.”) We are god. The rocks are god. The trees are god. It says that the material realm arises from the spiritual, that everything is mind. It includes schools of thought and tribes that range from serious, committed Buddhists to frivolous New Agers. (While Jesus is seen as representing the creator god view, I believe he was actually teaching the pantheist view. But more on that later.)

Each of these views, even if we’re not all that serious about them, affect how we live and respond to events. If you believe in the scientific/materialist view, which is probably the most popular and widespread view, there is no such thing as “wisdom.” There is only knowledge. A people that sees knowledge as the be-all and end-all of life also sees material and scientific progress as essential to our growth as a species. We are currently entering an era when we are hitting the limits to material progress—the end of growth. Whenever this idea is brought up, the materialists become either angry or despairing. There will be no reason to live! But it’s not like that. We will never truly start living until we get past our present-day obsession with money, possessions, and scientific progress. We’re committed to an enormous misunderstanding of what the material plane is. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars that you see. You are still one with everything. That is more true than I can say, and more true that you can hear.

Shunryu Suzuki

Of the three fundamental views of existence—creator god, scientific/materialist, and pantheist—I subscribe to the third. (I should add that “pantheism” is short hand for me. It’s a Western term, that is, from the world of Western philosophical speculation, and has a lot of attached baggage that is not real.) I don’t see myself as having sought out this view. At one point in my life I was reading a lot of Taoism and Buddhism in order stay afloat. I was doing a lot meditation, too, but, again, simply to survive an extraordinarily rough time. (I write about this in my work-in-progress Street Song.) In the midst of my reading I kept coming across the idea that everything is god, or mind. For a long time I assumed that this was just a metaphor. Eventually I saw that the people advocating this idea really meant it. It’s difficult to see the material plane as “merely” mind. If you cut me, I will bleed. If I kick a boulder with all my might, it will hurt like hell. The turning point for me came when someone I was reading, someone whose opinion I trusted and valued, stated that the material plane is an illusion, albeit a very thick one. His statement tied together a bunch of others I had floating around in my head. Suddenly I understood how the material plane, while having laws, is one with the spiritual background from which it arises.

I don’t read a lot of science. I try, but I can’t hack the attitude that a lot of scientists adopt. They want to be the go-to guys, the great explainers. But science can never explain existence. It can only probe one layer of it—the material plane. I’ve read enough science to know that as scientists delve deeper into matter, they find that, essentially, it disappears. It’s a big mystery! But scientists insist that there is a rational order to reality, that through experimentation and research we can eventually understand everything—soberly. But that’s not what the sages say, and I take their word—the word of the real ones—over that of the scientists. The sages say that when you take the journey that leads to an understanding of what existence really is, it astonishes you. It blows your mind. If what you saw didn’t blow your mind, then you didn’t see fundamental reality. And fundamental reality is ineffable, that is, it cannot be put into words. You have to see it for yourself. (There is more on this in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, in the chapter called “Consciousness Explained”.) I’m not asserting here that I’ve had this vision. I haven’t. Just bits and pieces. So, in a sense, this is a statement of faith. But my journey isn’t over.

Our present-day understanding of religion is poor. When people discuss religion they are usually arguing about some doctrine they read in a book somewhere. Most of today’s religious institutions and organizations are led by people who’ve had no direct experience of the spiritual, but have ideas about what it. You can’t get religion from a book or from speculative thought.

In real religion a person sets out on a path that takes him, or her, to the very edge of what can be understood with the thinking mind. At the point he can go no farther, he has to let go of his ego and take a leap into the unknown where he has a vision of the oneness of all existence (and nonexistence). To most people this sounds like some kind of Eastern religious trip. But I contend that Jesus took the same journey. If you read the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels, it’s easy to recognize. One of the good things about the Gospel of Thomas is that it’s all sayings and aphorisms. There isn’t any mythology attached. It’s simply religious instruction. And religious instruction is mostly about how to safely manage the spiritual journey, which is incredibly dangerous.

Maybe it’s pointless to try to talk about this. To most ears, the journey I’m referring to sounds mythical rather than real. But that’s because of the time we live in, which is mundane and materialistic. In any case, for the moment, the door to the journey is closed. It wasn’t so long ago, however, that the door was open, and thousands, if not millions, went in pursuit. Even then, it was difficult to get people to understand. For many years, I was one of those who refused to hear of it. I contend that real religion is simply the search for the truth about existence, about reality. There is only one true religion, and it doesn’t have a name. It is simply the laws of existence—an existence that goes beyond physical reality. Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tse, and others are all examples of individuals who  made that journey, and then came back to tell the rest of us how to go there. In each case, only a handful of the original hearers had any real understanding of what Buddha, Jesus, or Lao Tse were talking about. But they were impressed by the power of the speakers, who had been completely changed by the experience. That’s where the big churches came from—from the mass of people who didn’t really understand what they were hearing, as well as from those who heard it second and third hand. In the first group I would include most of Jesus’ disciples; in the second, people like Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther, and so on. (I’m being critical of Christianity here, but I see Buddhism as having identical problems. One of the problems is to think that there is a “Buddhism” or a “Christianity.”)

It’s not easy to get people to understand what’s true. It’s easier to give them a jealous god who sits on his throne, sees all, and crushes his enemies. They can understand that much more easily than the idea that everything is god, that everything is mind. We all have, at the very least, an unconscious awareness of the spiritual roots of existence. That’s why the churches became so powerful. But as the churches—Buddhist included—have grown ever more distant from the source, their doctrines have become more at odds with observable reality. A few centuries ago it got to be too much for the well-educated, and they began to question what they knew as religion, that is, the creator god religion they’d inherited from Paul, Augustine, Martin Luther et al. Eventually they created science and philosophical materialism as a replacement. Today those two sides are duking it out, making headlines, trying to win converts. I can’t take either one of them seriously. There is that third way, which is quieter and more intelligent than either the creator god or philosophical materialism. It has the added advantage of being true. But, as I say, the door to understanding it directly is not open right now. That will change, however. Sometimes I feel that that’s all I live for—for that door to open again. When it does open, everything changes for everybody everywhere.

gpnf_trail

Progress Report #107

February 25, 2017

I have some great news. Last week I discovered that I’m much closer to the end of Street Song than I realized. I have some confidence now that I can get it done in a year. (I’m up to ten and a half years on it.) I didn’t see it before because I’ve been ploughing with my head down. When I paused to inspect the field I figured out that I’d made some miscalculations when I laid out the outline–miscalculations that work in my favor. It’s a big relief, a big burden lifted from me. It has often felt as though I would never finish. I feel reenergized.

ms