“Religion is what the individual does with his solitariness.” – A. N. Whitehead
I know absolutely nothing about Mr. Whitehead. The quote above came from I And That – Notes On The Biology Of Religion by Alex Comfort, which I got at the free book stand in front of Downtown Books, a local bookstore that has somehow managed to stay in business. It’s a good book. The title refers to Martin Buber’s I And Thou, obviously. I haven’t finished it, but the gist of it is that the impulse to religion is inherent to the human animal; that the reason all of the world’s religions share so many common ideas and themes is that all people share the same biological blueprint, which is reflected abstractly in the ideas and themes of religion. This is a concept that I’ve encountered many times before, but Comfort delves into it in more detail. I And That is a bit dry, but certainly worth the effort.
Whitehead’s line about religion is thought-provoking. The first thought it provoked in me was “The word is solitude, not ‘solitariness’.” I certainly think religion is a little more than that, but that is a good starting point.
I had some solitude recently, an unusual thing. A whole day with no work and no little grrrl. I laid around drinking coffee for an hour or so – which is how I begin every day – then went out to Fridley’s Gap, one of my regular National Forest haunts. Usually when I go there I tread the same ground, but this time I decided to find my way to a rock face I’d been admiring on a ridge I’d never been to. I guessed where it was – I couldn’t see it from the bottom of the gap because of trees and didn’t want to climb above the tree line to get oriented. I just lit out a-walking. It was a beautiful morning of sunshine and cool breezes, butterflies and birds, scratches and spider webs. I wandered through some blackened areas – they were doing controlled burns out there last month – and was pleased to see the little green shoots coming up through the burn, ants crawling out of charred logs, new life popping up all over.
As I got higher, the mountain got rockier. Big hunks of stone jutting up out of the earth, like bones. Higher still, the trees thinned and I could see the valley stretching out, brown and green rectangles of farmland. The turkey buzzards were soaring in slow circles, riding the up-drafts. I could see their red heads turning from side to side as they searched the gap below for brunch. There were feathers on the rocks and I gathered a bunch of them, shoving them into the band of my hat. I found a dog bowl and slate marker on a cairn. I shed my cut-offs and laid there naked in the sun on a rock that was a hundred-billion years old. The mountains here were once like the Himalayas. They were that big. Unimaginable time has worn them down to the gentle, rolling mounds they are today.
I was in a slightly altered state up there on the mountain. I felt like I could just wander and wander, seeing and seeking the next rock face, scanning the cliffs for the chance to climb down for another wing-feather, gazing off at ridges and valleys and then suddenly seeing the shape of the wind-blasted cedar right beside me. It happens every time. I always feel like I could just drift off and become part of the mountain and I expect one day I will.
Eventually, I started heading down. There were more burned areas to blacken my feet, thorns to scratch my shins, bear shit to remind me to look for bears. I found a trail. There was actually a trail that led pretty damn close to where I was going which I followed back to where I’d begun. I was glad for the trail, which made returning easier, but glad I had forged my own way out. There’s a little swimming hole at Fridley’s Gap which I jumped into and then down to the truck. A bunch of cars pulled into the parking area when I got there – big, loud people with lots of kids, coolers, folding chairs and assorted errata. I was glad they were going to the swimming hole and gladder that I’d already been.
There are always carcasses around the parking area at Fridley’s. Hunters kill deer, cut out the loins and saw off the racks then leave the rest to rot. I always look around for bones I can use. This time I found a coyote. There’s no good meat on a coyote – people kill them just to kill them. The skull had been busted, but was mostly intact and I was able to find both pieces of the lower jaw. I brought it home and was able to wood-glue it back together pretty good.
Nap. Worked on some recordings. Dinner was beans and rice with a liberal amount of pickled Thai chilis. Then I went to hang out with friends, which ended the solitariness.
Every bit of that was my religion. But as I said, that’s only the starting point. Hanging out with friends is part of my religion, as is taking the sprat to playgrounds and working and sleeping and anything else I do. I’ve come to agree with the great mystics of all religions who say there is no sacred and no profane. Everything is a thing of God/Brahman/WakanTanka. Every action is a rite. I’ve spent years attaining to this understanding. Yes, I am sometimes less conscious of it, but I’m always somewhat conscious. It takes work and practice and repetition, but it does come and when it does, the world is different. Some people experience it as a sudden awakening. For me it’s been more gradual. I have had epiphanies, but mostly I’ve just grown into my awareness that the world around me is a manifestation of Divinity and that I am as well.
Comfort is quite correct. Religion is a reflection, in abstract language, of our inner selves. Jesus said as much. So did the Buddha. God/Nirvana/Shiva are within us already. All we have to do is realize and start acting like it.
One of the conditions of one of my jobs is that I will be exposed to the “fusion of entertainment and enlightenment” that is Glenn Beck. The job pays well, so I tolerate it.
Mr. Beck recently delivered a sermon/rant protesting the oppression of heterosexual white men in America, during which he mentioned several individuals –heterosexual white males - who have made significant positive contributions to society, but obviously, he could not mention them all. I would like to mention a few heterosexual white males, unnamed by Mr. Beck, who have made the world a better place.
Moondog, aka the Viking of Sixth Avenue. Completely insane experimental composer, blinded by a farm accident which somehow involved a dynamite cap when he was a teenager. Moondog had some brilliant ideas about rhythm: he felt it shouldn’t be so rigid, a concept that this Espresso Shaman independently stumbled onto some years ago. Moondog’s most famous composition is a song titled “ENOUGH ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS”. You can expect a BDSR version of that to hit the Bandcamp in the near future.
Raymond Scott was among the greatest lunatics in the early years of jazz, composing frenetic songs with titles like “Dinner Music For A Pack Of Hungry Cannibals”. He also composed soothing, electronic music for babies and built room-sized “instruments”. Warner Brothers bought the rights to all of his music and used it in Bugs Bunny cartoons. You’ve heard “Powerhouse”.
Father Yod. The Pacific Theatre in World War II was horrific. Islands were battled over repeatedly. It wasn’t unusual for there to be corpses laying around in various states of decay. Everyone who was there was affected by it – including my grandfather – and some couldn’t return to “normal” life afterwards. Father Yod came back from the war, tried to resume his life in New Jersey, but somehow found himself out in California with long hair, a beard, several “spirit wives” and a psychedelic rock band. Huh. Yod gave everybody new names – the “family name” was Aquarius – put out a couple LPs and died in a hang-gliding accident.
Benny Goodman. I’m totally serious. Goodman wasn’t a ground-breaking musician, but he put out a shitload of very good jazz. And he was the first bandleader to appear on stage with a racially mixed combo. Or at least the first one anybody knows about. I’m sure that blacks and whites had played music in front of audiences before, but Goodman did it big and he knew he was taking a chance. It could’ve meant the end of his career, but he went ahead and did it. That deserves some props.
Roky Erickson. Jesus motherfucking Christ, man. Roky has been to the mountains of madness and has returned to tell the tale. I’ve seen some of the alligators and I’ve been up in the attic with that baby ghost, but I can’t begin to convey the reality of insanity like Roky Erickson. Saddhu, saddhu, saddhu.
Angus MacLise. I’ve waxed poetic all over MacLise, but I don’t think I mentioned the fact that he was a heterosexual white male. Also, he was the original percussionist for the Velvet Underground. I’m kinda glad his big ego clashed with Lou Reed’s – if Maclise had stayed with VU, we wouldn’t’ve gotten to hear Mo Tucker’s monobeat. I like monobeat. I use it a lot. Lou Reed was a white male, but he wasn’t entirely heterosexual so he doesn’t make this list. Also, I pretty much can’t stand anything he did after Metal Machine Music. MacLise died of malnutrition in Nepal.
Harry Smith. Of all these, Smith is the one I most identify with. He was an artist, film-maker, musician and all-around nutjob. He was a mystic, a visionary, a hoarder, who spent much of his life in poverty. Of all his accomplishments, the one he is most known for is compiling the Anthology Of American Folk Music, a goddammed eight-album set of the best of traditional American songs fron the 1920’s. The Anthology woke America up to her own heritage, which was in danger of being lost forever, and sparked the Folk Revival of the ‘60’s which yielded a raft of watered-down, bullshit pseudofolk by assholes like the New Riders Of The Purple Sage and the Grateful Dead, but that can’t be blamed on Smith.
At the end of his life, Smith was able to say “I saw my dream come true. I saw the world changed by music.”
Full disclosure: I am also a heterosexual white male. However, I am not at all bothered by the backlash against heterosexual white males that so troubles Mr. Beck. I completely understand how and why women, people of color and non-hets are a bit peeved about the demographic that has only very recently begun to lose the power to keep them segregated, alienated, incarcerated, frustrated, voiceless, choiceless and generally holding the shit end of the stick. I understand because I’ve been involved in the fight against oppression for decades. I may be a man but I’ve never been the Man.
Glenn Beck is the Man. He is the embodiment of the white heterosexual power structure that has clung to wealth and power and forced anyone not like him into ghettos or reservations all through America’s history. Now that those people have started to gain ground in the struggle for freedom and equality, Beck is cashing in on the fear felt by “his” people. Fuck that asshole. Fuck that heterosexual white male piece of shit. Fuck him for being so desperate to stay on top of the social heap and fuck him again for profiting by selling racist, sexist, homophobic justifications to people who are just as heinous as he is.
I’m not gonna quit that job. I like painting houses. I’d rather do it for the fun of doing it, but unfortunately, I live in capitalist America, so I need filthy lucre to live and it does pay well.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.