A fellow was obliged to take in his aged father, who couldn’t take of himself anymore. There wasn’t any room in the house, so he gave the old man an empty stall in the barn to sleep in. The father asked for a blanket to wrap up in at night. The man went and found a raggedy old blanket that the dog had been sleeping on. It was worn most of the way through. The man ripped it in two and went and gave half to his old dad, meaning to use the other half for rags. When he came back from the barn, he found his little boy folding up the other half of the blanket.
“What’re ya doin’?” he asked.
The boy said “I’m saving this half blanket so’s I can give it to you when you’re old.”
The man went and got his old father and brought him into the house. He made room for the old man to live.
That story, which I’ve told in a sorta Southern hillbilly voice, is actually Chinese and somewhat ancient. The basic idea – the ungrateful son who realizes that his own son will treat him as he treats his father – can be found in various forms all over the world. There may be versions in which the characters are female, but I don’t know of any and it’s probably more likely not. Traditionally, in almost all cultures, women became members of their husbands’ families when they married and therefore had no, or less, obligations to their parents. It is the duty of the sons to care for the parents.
Filial piety, the respect one has or is expected to have for one’s family members, especially the older ones, is part of every culture. I was thinking about the “Half Blanket” story this morning while painting my grandparents’ kitchen. I paint. That’s one of my jobs. My grandparents wanted their kitchen painted. I could hardly say no. I haven’t always been a very good grandson and I’ve never been the hunting, fishing, go to church every Sunday and then fall asleep on the sofa watching Nascar grandson they wanted and expected. For the past dozen years or so, I’ve showed up pretty regularly and participated in family get-togethers so I’m not a total loss. Of course, I have provided them with the most intelligent, vivacious and utterly adorable great-grandchild they’re ever gonna get, so that’s a point in my favor.
When Gramma started talking about painting the kitchen, it was obvious she meant me. It was equally obvious I would take the job. They’re paying me, of course. Gramma threw out a figure, a third less than what I normally get paid to paint, and I said “That’ll be fine”. I would do it for free, but she wants to pay me so I’m not going to get into a stupid and awkward argument and insist on not getting paid.
It’s a simple job. One coat on the ceiling, two on the walls. The trouble is, and I should’ve seen it coming, my Grandad.
Grandad was born way back in some dark holler in West-By-God-Virginia. He learned to hunt as a means of putting food on the table. He was an electrician on a Destroyer in World War II. He had a truck, a ’78 Ranger-Explorer, that didn’t have factory cruise control so he jerry-rigged a ball-chain necklace to a valve on the carburetor, ran it through a hole under the dash and held it in place with a clothespin: cruise control. He has always fixed, maintained and modified things. He was probably a better painter than me once upon a time, but that time is over. Grandad is eighty-eight or so. He spaces out frequently, falls asleep at random times. When he starts talking at the dinner table, it might be about something he read in National Geographic, something that happened on shore leave in Hawaii, the neighbors’ cats or anything other than what everybody else is talking about. Nothing wrong with that. If I’m not senile at eighty-eight, I’ll pretend I am.
The trouble is, he can’t fucking paint. I started rolling the ceiling this morning and the next thing I knew, Grandad was standing on a stool, cutting in, slopping paint on the walls, which wasn’t a problem since I was doing the walls too, but then he got a brush and started cutting in around the kitchen counters and saying shit like “I keep messing up over here”, “The more I paint, the worse it looks”, while I was rolling the walls and hearing “Half Blanket” on repeat in my head. I knew why that story was in there and I got the moral right off the bat. There was simply no way I could do anything about the situation. There is no kind way of saying “Grandad, you suck at painting because you’re old. Go away.”
You know how old people fuck, right? Slow and sloppy? That’s how my grandfather paints. It sucks. It’s an awful thing to say, but it’s true.
When I got clean and sober and started living a spiritual life, I had to evaluate my beliefs. I had to ask myself what I believed as opposed to what I had been taught to believe by other people – the society I live in, the church I grew up in, the schools I went to &c. I whole heartedly believe in living a life based on beliefs as long as they’re truly felt, not imposed by outside influences and accepted without evaluation of their worth. Of course, I agree with most people that murder, rape and theft are bad, with some possible exceptions in the case of theft. Honesty strikes me as a better policy than dishonesty. Rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s seems like a reasonable way of doing things. There are many social and religious tenets that I don’t agree with, but I really do believe in family. The people I’m related to are my kin, whether I like then or not, whether I share their interests or not, whether I find it easier to just not mention the vast majority of what goes on in my life because a) I don’t feel like explaining what the difference between “noisy” and “Noise” is or that one can do anything with a banjo other than play songs made popular by Granpa Jones, and b) they’re all too busy yapping at each other about who wore what to church and who has cancer to hear anything I have to say anyway, or not. I appreciate and value my blood-kin simply because they are my blood-kin. The fact that I have nothing in common with them other than DNA and an affinity for pie is irrelevant.
Of course, now that I’m a father myself, family is even more important. I want the Spotted Opossum to know where she comes from, what her roots are, who her people are. I want her to remember playing with cousins in the yard, sneaking candy from the dish on her great-grammaw’s side table, sitting on her great-grandaddy’s lap. I’m sure families are the same all over, but I’m from the South, so that all seems Southern to me, like picking squash out of the garden, which we did last Sunday. The Spotted Opossum really enjoyed picking squash, though she swears she’ll never eat it.
“Half Blanket” uses self-interest to make its point. The father in the story is motivated to treat his father better when he realizes that he is setting the example his son will follow. He doesn’t want to end up in the barn with a half a blanket. Self-interest is fine as far as it goes. The point is well made. I believe it is possible to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing. That’s a little harder to convey in a short story, but it’s worth striving for. Always.
So tomorrow I’ll do the second coat on the walls and try to fix all the shit my Grandad fucked up. It actually shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe he’ll fall asleep.
Today was 90° in the shade. The Spotted Opossum and I have been hitting the city pool a lot recently, which isn’t bad. She enjoys clinging to my arm and “swimming” around, which is good practice for when she starts real swimming lessons next month and there’s a kiddie pool which gives her the opportunity to splash around with other kids while I ogle women. But I am not really a fan of pools in general so today we went out to Rivenrock Park in the George Washington National Forest.
Our first stop was “where the road goes across”, a cement slab through the river that Harrisonburg city workers drive across when they have to go pull rabbit carcasses out of the pipes that bring us our drinking water. It’s a good place for little people to run around in a few inches of water and splash each other. There was a small group there: a woman in her 30’s and four kids, including three West Virginia Lolitas. The two older girls didn’t look over sixteen, but one had a lip piercing and the other had a tramp stamp. We helped them build some small dams and then wandered down to the area we call the “swimming hole”, where we reinforced another dam until the Spotted Opossum was tired and edging up on cranky.
Building dams in creeks is something I can’t imagine outgrowing. When I see a body of clear, flowing water, I immediately start planning how to block it up. I’m a big fan of earthworks in general, but dams constructed out of well-placed river rocks are far and away my favorite. For the amount of muscle power and energy that I will happily expend on a dam that will be knocked over the next time a hard rain swells the creek, I would expect no less than $12 an hour, which is actually something I really hate about the capitalist system. By linking work with money, capitalism strips the joy out of working which means we don’t love our jobs even though they are technically more constructive than building dams in creeks out in the national forest. Fuck a bunch of capitalism.
Anyway, before we headed back to town, we got a feather out of the car to lay on the grave of the blind, deaf, spotted dog who died last year and who is buried out back of Rivenrock. I carried the grrrl to the gravesite; she carried the feather. I was a little cautious as we approached the rotting log that serves as a marker because I knew that I didn’t bury Trudy deep and there was a good chance some critter had been at her. That was a deliberate choice on my part. I want to be returned to the ecosystem when I die and I wanted my dog to be the same, even to the point of having her feed a raccoon or some other varmint. I wasn’t sure how the grrrl would feel about it. In the event, she was more interested in finding something else that we could leave on the old dog’s final resting spot because she had decided she wanted to keep the feather. She found a little mushroom which fit the bill. We paused a moment and then I picked her up, using my other hand to pick up a bone that was laying on the ground. I was planning on incorporating the bone and whatever psychic energy it might possess into my BDSR/Espresso Shaman gear, but the Opossum spotted it and insisted that we leave the bone on Trudy’s grave because dogs like to play with bones.
To clarify, my daughter thought that the old dead dog would enjoy chewing on her own leg bone. I would have been more amazed by this if the grrrl hadn’t demonstrated so clearly and repeatedly that she is a very old soul and a dyed in the wool pagan. Feeding the dead their own flesh and bones is classic pagan thinking. The Ainu, in Hokkaido, have been ritually feeding sacrificed cave bears their own flesh for millennia. It’s perfect death-is-somehow-not-death-style thinking. Death is a transformation or crossing-over. It is no more an end than if we had driven another twenty miles and crossed over into WVA. The grrrl wasn’t aware of all that of course. She knows that bones can occasionally be found in the woods and that her Daddy frequently brings them home. She did not put two and two together and realize that a bone near Trudy’s grave was almost definitely a Trudy-bone that got pulled up by a carrion-eater. To her it was just a bone. Still, she is a savvy little person and she has displayed some rather complex thinking regarding death. I don’t know where she got the idea that the dead cross over a rainbow bridge to get to the other side, but she knows that’s what happens. She seems to be a bit unclear as to what happens after that, but who isn’t? I pretty much affirm all of her speculations because I don’t know either, which leaves us with the soul crossing the rainbow bridge to get to the place where God is, which is really everywhere, but sometimes people and dogs get born into this world again, possibly as people or dogs again, but also possibly as something else, we’re not really sure. Today, she was working on the possibility that she would have a baby when she grows up, “like when I’m thirteen”, and that baby might actually be Trudy in baby form. I avoided mentioning my hope that she will put off parenthood a while longer than that and simply agreed that it could happen. Being absolutely ignorant of what happens to the soul after it leaves the meat-carriage, I can’t tell her that it couldn’t.
The only thing that I do strongly want to communicate to the sprat is that death is nothing to be afraid of. Even if nothing happens, even we vanish like the flame when the candle is blown out, that is nothing to fear. I don’t bother contemplating that possibility, but it should be acknowledged.
There are piles of advice-oracles for parents. When the Spotted Opossum was still in the cooker, I started ready them when I came across them, just to see what they had to say. They’re pretty consistent about not getting too worried about anything, but the general tone seems to be that when your kid starts asking about death, you just set ‘em down and have a talk. Tell ‘em how it is, give ‘em a cookie and send ‘em into the other room to watch Dora The Explorer. I have yet to read an advice-for-parents article that says “You live with this kid. You’re going to be talking about death and sex and everything else for years to come. You’re not going to solve it all in one conversation so don’t try”, which is really how it is. Christ, on the way back to town the wee grrrl asked me why boys’ bathing suits were only the bottom part. Try explaining that to a four-year-old. I did the best I could to explain that it’s really an almost arbitrary decision that our culture collectively made many years ago and that there are other cultures where women are not expected to cover their breasts, but that the rule about covering the bottom half is pretty much universal.
“What are ‘breasts’?”
“Daddy! Don’t say that! That’s because that’s embarrassing for me if you say ‘Boobies’.”
I said that I would not say that word again. She saw a horse out the side window and from then on we were mostly pointing out animals. She wanted to know what animals I ate when I used to eat animals before she was born. She was pretty impressed with the fact that I ate snails, frogs, snakes and a turtle. The idea that anyone would eat bear was baffling. She said that she would eat deer, given the chance, but she was a little shocked to learn that I had eaten rabbit.
As we passed the Unitarian-Universalist church, she waved and shouted “Hi, little red church! We’ll see you on Sunday!”
I’ve only just barely begun to discuss death and sex with my daughter. Like everything else, those conversations will evolve and change as our understandings of those subjects evolve and change.
It is entirely possible that I’ll go out to Rivenrock this weekend when the grrrl is with her Mommy. There’s a woman who I’ve been thinking about a bit lately and I may manage to get her out to the woods for a hike and a dip in the creek. What’s in her pants is not my only concern, not even the main one, but I have given some little thought to all that. If I go out there, I will certainly go back to Trudy’s grave to stand for a few minutes. She was a good dog and a good friend – I got her name tattooed on my arm way back when she was still spry as a pup and could see out of both eyes. Maybe I’ll snag that leg bone to hang from my banjo or maybe I’ll leave it there for Trudy to gnaw on. I can decide that when I get there.
- The name of this band is The Big Drum In The Sky Religion, shortened when desired to Big Drum Sky Religion, abbreviated BDSR. For some reason, people want to leave off the first “The”, which isn’t a big deal. One time, we were billed as Big Drum & The Sky Religion, which was a little silly. More than once, it’s been sliced down to Big Drum. Sometimes, the unwieldy name is lengthened to The Big Drum In The Sky Religion Is Not A Religion, but not often.
- Little known fact: the last two notes of the Boredoms’ “Melt Down Boogie” are the first two notes of the riff from Pussy Galore’s “Cunt Tease”.
- Harmonics are only supposed to be possible on the fifth, seventh and twelfth frets. I have gotten them on the third. It happened accidentally once and then I tried to do it again and it happened again. I have no explanation for this nor do I feel any need for one. Impossible things happen sometimes.
- The other day, I took the little girl to church and as we were getting out of the car, I spilled my coffee and said “Oh, shit”. The girl asked “Daddy, why did you say ‘Oh, shit’?” So I lied: “I said ‘Oh, shoot’ because I spilled my coffee.”
As we were walking into the church, holding hands, she looked at me and said “You know, Daddy, it isn’t very nice to say ‘Oh, fuck’.”
- I am male; therefore I have never experienced menstrual cramps. However, I would never say to any of the female people in my life “Your menstrual cramps are not real. You’re just imagining it.”
Atheists are people who have never had religious experiences and who claim that those of us who have are just imagining it.
- The spiritual battlecry of BDSR is “Kill the wounded; mutilate the dead”, but it’s meant in a purely metaphorical way. For now.
- It is not at all unusual for this Espresso Shaman paraphrase Smokin’ Joe Campbell’s theme that myth is poetry, that myth should be read figuratively, not literally. I absolutely affirm that it is so and I love it for being so. However, no one should infer from that that I like poetry. I do not. There was a period of my life when I thought I did like poetry, but really, I just liked my own poetry. I don’t think I was the only person at open mic poetry readings who was only there so they could read their own stuff and didn’t give a rat’s ass about anybody else’s shit. After I stopped smoking cheeba, I realized that my poetry sucked as much as everybody else’s. I do have a book of Japanese death poems, Japanese Death Poems, which has some great pieces, all of which are really short, and I like some of William Blake’s really short poems – “The Proverbs of Hell” are awesome, though The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, of which they are a chapter, is kinda tedious. Other than those few examples, I can’t think of any poetry off the top of my head that I like, but I love me some myth.
- BDSR had two local shows, a week apart. The flier for the first had a picture of a woman breastfeeding a baby; the second had a still from a ‘70’s disaster movie: a woman covered in her own blood. One business downtown wouldn’t put up the breastfeeding woman, but the other one was okay.
Our society is fucked up.
- Browny’s Vox Maxim: There is no vocal track so flat, off-key or otherwise terrible that it cannot be rendered awesome by the simple application of fuzz. (More than one coat may be necessary.)
- The last time I checked, the number of deities being worshiped in India was something like 3,600 which is awesome in and of itself. The thing that makes it even more awesome is the fact that the average Hindu on the street is cognizant of the fact that all those deities are metaphors, images that represent the incomprehensible Mystery which underlies and animates the Universe. They know that there isn’t a four-armed, blue-skinned magic man with an extra eye in the middle of his forehead dancing to keep the stars spinning or a chubby, elephant-headed dude riding around the cosmos on a rat or a flesh-eating, corpse-fucking chick lurking around looking for the chance to chop off their arms for her skirt. They know all that and they still keep right on going with it, century after century. That is fucking awesome.
- People used to say that the music of BDSR didn’t “go anywhere”. Maybe people still say that, but nobody’s said it to me for a few years.
I never understood what the fuck that was supposed to mean. Where is music supposed to go? Where can it go except from its source to your ears? I honestly do not understand. I listen to a lot of music - ragas, free jazz, old-time, punk, new wave, no wave, hardcore, pre-war country blues, anthropological field recordings of naked savages chanting and beating slit drums, bagpipe regiments, grebo, gospel, noise, gamelans, heavy psychedelic, probably some other stuff that I can’t think of. None of it “goes” anywhere. Some of it evokes emotions. I listen to that stuff when I want to experience the emotions it evokes. Some of it helps me enter into a mentally turned-off zone which I find pleasant. I listen to that stuff when I’m drawing or painting or just zoning out. It’s possible that I’m missing out on something, that other people are having some kind of listening experience that makes them feel like they’ve gone someplace, but I don’t think I want it. If I want to go someplace, I’ll take the little red truck. It’s got a cassette player – I can listen to Native American war chants along the way.
- Some great quotes by me:
“Atheists and fundamentalists are equally annoying and for the same reason.”
“Things are seldom as they should be, but they’re always as they are.”
“Unsought advice is insult; unrequested help is injury.”
“Better to suck originally than be great at copying.”
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t know any better.”
“I don’t hit on women. I avoid any situation in which success is the worst-case-scenario.”
“When you’re dealing with crazy people, it’s important to remember that they’re crazy.”
“If what you see is all you see, you’re missing most of it.”
“Honesty is the best policy if you don’t want friends, sex or money.”
“Fuck a bunch of irony.”
Myth is metaphor. That is and will continue to be a reoccurring theme. Every myth is a story, usually a fantastic one, which conveys a meaning. Actually, any halfway decent myth conveys many meanings. Read a myth at fourteen and then again at forty and you’ll get different meanings. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The meaning changes according to the perception of the reader. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to read any myth.
This can be very difficult for people who were raised in a faith tradition which presents itself as fact, which most of us here in the USA were. I was raised in such a tradition. I grew up believing the Bible was literally true; burning bushes, talking snakes, resurrection from the dead and all. When I was no longer able to stretch my imagination that far – coincidentally, that happened at about the same time I discovered beer and actually got to touch a girl’s boobies – I rejected the whole thing. I threw the baby Jesus out with the holy water, so to speak. The Bible wasn’t literally true, therefore it was all lies, lies, lies and propaganda. Perhaps this sounds familiar.
The “myth is metaphor” concept came to me via Joseph Campbell’s Power Of Myth series which I watched with a girlfriend at her Mom’s place up in Maryland. We had to do something while her Mom was at work besides fuck. I was really high when we started watching it and kept running out to smoke more between programs. It blew my mind, man. I couldn’t make any sense of it until I got clean, which happened seven or eight months later.
So how does one read myth metaphorically?
Like dreams, myths come up from the unconscious mind. The genesis of any myth is the unconscious mind of one individual, a shaman, seer or visionary, who then tells the story to the group. If the story resonates with the group, if it reflects their own dream experiences, they will adopt it into their store of lore. Over time, the story gets worn in, so to speak, edited and refined to best suit the collective unconsciousness of the entire group. Myths, being dreamlike, should be interpreted as dreams are interpreted.
When you dream, everything in the dream is you. Say, for example, you dream that a monster is chasing you through your grandmother’s house. In the dream, you are you, the monster is you and your grandmother’s house is you. Of course, you most identify with the you in the dream, but when you’re interpreting the dream, you should also investigate the other components as aspects of you. It all has meaning, but the stuff that catches your attention probably has more meaning. That doesn’t mean that the background stuff doesn’t mean anything, just that the foreground action is more pressing. It may be that some little detail in the background stays with you despite the fact that it seems meaningless and random. Obviously, that niggling little detail matters.
There are plenty of dream interpretation books that will tell you what the symbols in your dreams mean. I generally avoid those on the grounds that symbols have different meanings for different people and that it’s going to be more profitable for me to interpret dreams using free association than some set of symbols that somebody else came up with. Nevertheless, I do recognize that I live within a cultural context. I have been implanted with some symbols by the literature and language of the culture and it behooves me to have some familiarity with the symbols that culture regularly uses. The same is true of myth. There are symbols which are used over and over and which can be said to have accepted meanings. One example would be: in Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parcival, Parcival is traveling in despair. He has lost all hope of finding the Holy Grail, but must continue to search for it. Having no idea which way to go, he lets his reins go slack, giving his horse the freedom to go where it will. In European myth, the horse/rider pair represents one individual in two parts: the rider represents the mind of the individual, the horse, the body which has its own knowledge. When Parcival lets go of the reins, he is relinquishing control of the adventure to the knowledge of his body. That is, he is letting go of his conscious mind and allowing his instinct/unconscious mind guide him. This particular symbol is probably applicable to any horse-riding culture. Dragons, on the other hand, have very different meanings in Europe and Asia. If you’re reading a myth which features dragons, the continent of origin of the myth is going to matter because that information will tell you what the dragons mean.
I’m going to assume that anyone reading this knows the story of Jonah and the whale. If you don’t, go find a King James Bible and read the book of Jonah. Seriously. A synopsis follows, but there is no excuse for not knowing the story of Jonah and the whale.
Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh to preach. Fearing violence in Nineveh, Jonah tries to avoid heeding God’s call. He takes a ship going the other way. A storm blows up. The sailors on the ship, being somewhat knowledgeable about this sort of thing, figure out that the storm is the result of divine anger. Jonah admits that he is at fault and the sailors throw him overboard to avoid sharing his fate. A huge fish, or whale, swallows him. Jonah repents of his refusal to obey God and begs for forgiveness. The whale swims to shore and vomits Jonah out on the beach. Chastised by the experience, Jonah goes to Nineveh.
As I read it, I am called by God, who is part of me as I am part of God, to perform some task, a task which I am capable of performing and which is suitable for me. Afraid that I will be unable to perform the task or fearing negative repercussions if I succeed, I try to avoid the whole thing altogether. In fact, I try to do the very opposite of what God, the small, still voice within, wants me to do. Nothing goes right, because I make everything go wrong. Finally, I find myself in a worse condition than I ever thought to be afraid of, trapped with myself inside myself. In desperation, I appeal to the very God I had sought to escape for help. Immediately, I am set on my feet and the way opens up before me. I realize that by following God’s plan, I put myself into accord with God’s plan, which is going to be done in Heaven and Earth, whether I want it to be or not.
The story of Jonah and the whale is one I’m especially fond of. I was raised with it and never got it until after I’d lived it. I followed the script to the letter. Now I’m out of the whale, looking and smelling and feeling much better than I was and preaching to Nineveh via The Big Drum In The Sky Religion.
I could have used The Bhagavad Gita instead of “Jonah and the Whale”. Or I could’ve continued with Parcival. They’re all about the importance of figuring out what one’s path is and following it even when it seems scary or futile or not profitable. The Jesus story is the same thing: follow your path even if it means death, which isn’t really death after all. The Buddha story is the same. Actually, most of the myths seem to be about following the path, Tao, God’s will, dharma, whatever.
There are other deeper symbols in “Jonah and the Whale”, but I don’t want to give it all away. Myths are written the way they are because they make for better stories that way and also because the act of deciphering them makes them more meaningful.
Maybe “Jonah and the Whale” doesn’t resonate with you in any way. The same approach works just as well with any myth. Think of one that does mean something. Perhaps one you remember from childhood. Lay in bed with your eyes closed and let that myth roam around in your brain. If you start to get sleepy, just let it happen. Pleasant dreams.
Myth is metaphor. That is and will continue to be a reoccurring theme. Every myth is a story, usually a fantastic one, which conveys a meaning. Actually, any halfway decent myth conveys many meanings. Read a myth at fourteen and then again at forty and you’ll get different meanings. That’s how it’s supposed to work. The meaning changes according to the perception of the reader. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to read any myth.
I never write these things in one sitting. Well, maybe there have been a couple hyper-caffeinated sprees of opinionated free-association, but most of the time they’re spread out over a few evenings. Sometimes I peck away while waiting for the grrrl to come out to the waiting room where the parents wait for their grubs at the Montessori school because sometimes I don’t feel like chatting with the other parents and I want them to think I have some important work to do on the computer. I’m the only Daddy in the waiting room at the Montessori school with paint on his hands, tattoos and a 10 gauge septum ring. I wrote the opening paragraph, decided it was a good opener and then read an article about Wolf Eyes in The Wire. I respect Wolf Eyes, but I really haven’t heard a whole lot of their stuff and the little I have heard didn’t grab me by the short hairs so I haven’t followed up. The article was boring so I went to sleep and then today, when I was out dumping a truckload of trash at some student housing complex, I heard an announcement on NPR that later they’re going to play David Sedaris reading his thing about taking guitar lessons from a guy who hated kids and I remembered the time I took guitar lessons and I decided to write about that instead.
My Dad got me an electric guitar for Christmas when I was fifteen – the red Hondo All-Star that I still have. I don’t know what he was thinking. We were on bad terms, even for us, at that point. I assume he was trying to bridge the gap and maybe he was trying to tap into my interests to get me to do something positive or channel my angst into a creative direction or something. I dunno. It became very obvious very soon that I was not going to start playing Rolling Stones or Byrds guitar licks. Left to my own devices, I ran the Hondo through a shitty, homemade amp that I got for $15, all knobs at 10, and just thrashed out the most heinous feedback scree I could manage. I opened the guitar to see what was inside, removed the neck to see how that would make it sound, scraped the strings, swung it around, tore the flesh off the side of my thumb, all at maximum volume for hours, totally in love with my new power to create horrible noise. I had no sense of sounding good or bad, just a visceral and engorging excitation. Any sound I made was fascinating. I’m sure the neighbors thought otherwise.
Now, when the time comes to thrash, I am unable to recapture that purely ignorant spontaneity. What I know about music, though useful and good in other ways, always interferes. It’s something I’m working on.
One Saturday, Dad picked me up after I mowed my Grandma’s yard. He had my guitar in the truck and he informed me that I would be taking guitar lessons and that I would be paying for them. Before I could come up with a token argument, he had dropped me off at some guy’s house. The guy turned out to be Jeff. Jeff was about thirty-five and had a moustache. His hair was parted in the middle and I’m sure it had once been just long enough to hang over his collar. He had clearly peaked early. At thirty-five, he was working some job – selling farm insurance or used mobile homes or something – and trying to keep his marriage from falling apart. I got the impression very quickly that his wife had given him some kind of ultimatum, something like “Stop playing in bar bands or I’m outta here.” Bar bands were a huge part of Jeff’s past. We would be sitting in the little side room where he taught guitar lessons, laboring over some song from a Mel Bay Guitar For Beginners book, “Cockles And Mussels” or “Greensleeves” or something, and Jeff would start explaining guitar techniques like “pull off”, “hammer on” and then he would say “When you master these techniques, you can do something like this…” and he would wander away from reality and into an extended Allman Brothers jam, head back, eyes closed, clearly reliving some unbelievably awesome gig at The Elbow Room or The Broken Spoke or whatever local redneck bar he had been at when he achieved supreme awesomeness.
I am not making this shit up. I would sit there, failing to comprehend the melody of “Shortnin’ Bread” because I never practiced what Jeff had told me to practice and had no interest in learning to read music and Jeff would completely zone out, wailing away at some Doobie Brothers solo until he suddenly realized what was happening and then he’d break off and say “Oh, uh, yeah, that’s what you’ll be able to do. Practice this song here”, poking his finger at “The Noble Duke Of York” or whatever, “That’s it for today. My wife’ll be home soon.”
The Mel Bay books are good instruction manuals for beginners. I’ve collected a bunch of ‘em over the years, mostly at thrift stores. Jeff basically had the right idea. He taught me to read chord charts from which I learned all the major and minor chords. He showed me barre chords which came in handy – I watched some Ramones videos and took power chords from that. He taught me where the notes are in the first five frets and tried to teach me to sight read melodies. I would figure out the notes using “Every Good Boy Does Fine” for the lines and “FACE” for the spaces, memorize the melody and then pretend I was sight reading, which worked. I can’t say that I liked Jeff or respected him, but I didn’t mind him much. As his marriage got rockier and rockier, I started to feel sorry for him and also to find him more interesting. Going to guitar lesson became more about watching Jeff crumble than about learning to play guitar. He started drinking beer during lessons. I was disappointed that he wouldn’t let me have one, but the beer did open up some long and rambling monologues which revealed more than Jeff probably intended. He went off one time about how you should never work for your father-in-law. That explained a lot.
One day, Jeff called to give me directions to his new place, which turned out to be a fairly crappy basement apartment. I didn’t ask, didn’t need to. After his wife threw him out and he lost his job, Jeff pretty much quit trying. When we’d first started, he was consistently dressed in khaki slacks, white shirt and loosened striped tie, the uniform of guys who have to dress for work but who have no sense of style. By the time he moved, he was usually in jeans and T-shirt, sometimes without shoes. At his new place, boxers, T-shirt and bathrobe became standard. He was now smoking cigarettes one right after the other and downing two or three beers during our hour. There were whiskey bottles sitting around. He was incoherent half the time, mumbling some drunken monologue about how unfair everything was. Jeff’s decline had clearly gone past the interesting and kinda funny stage and into the depressing and kinda scary stage. I started worrying that I was going to show up one day and find him dead on his kitchen floor surrounded by empty bottles and sleeping pill packages. And I was paying Jeff $5 an hour for this. I was sixteen by this point. I had a car and I knew college students who would buy beer for me. I had figured out the “Louie, Louie” riff without Jeff’s help and was ready to rock.
Jeff told me after a lesson that he wouldn’t be there the following week. He had to take care of something. He might not be there the week after. I should call before I came over. It had all gone too far. I left knowing I wasn’t going to call and that I would almost certainly never see Jeff again. I haven’t. I hope he’s okay.
I never had any more “formal training”. Whatever else I have learned about music came from listening to music, reading books and interacting with other musicians.
Don’t be surprised when I re-use that opening paragraph.
I’m in the process of moving. Today I took the first truckload of boxes over to the place where I’ll be crashing for a few months until the room opens up at the place where I’ll be living until some something happens which causes me to have to move again. This is the way it goes when you live a life based on the creative principle of chaos. The reason I mention it is, the boxes I took over today were full of books which is why I won’t be able to quote anything or give citations or any of that shit. If I could, I’d start by giving you all the information on an awesome piece of work titled Red Man’s Religion, which was published in the thirties or so and which is “awesome” because it is every bit as unintentionally racist as he title implies. There never was a “red man’s religion”. The indigenous peoples of North America lived in different environments, spoke different languages, had different economies and held different beliefs with different rituals. The Creek, Huron and Pima were not the same nor were the various individuals of the various tribes and nations all wonderfully honest and pure “noble savages”, which is the impression I got from Red Man’s Religion. I do recommend the book, despite its flaws, and I wish I could tell you who wrote it.
Anyway, now that I’ve stated that the Native Americans, aka “red men”, were not a big blob of homogenous religiosity, I will go to say that there were some ideas that were pretty common. To the best of my knowledge, all Native American groups had religion and the form of religion they had was animism. There was a good bit of trade and other interaction going on between the Natives, always a good way of spreading myths, legends, stories and other bits of lore (as well as small pox, but that’s something else entirely. One book I do have, which I’m currently reading, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic Of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A. Fenn, is delightfully entertaining.) As the myths traveled from one tribe to another, they were changed in the telling, but the salient features tended to remain.
The one I want to focus on here is “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”, which originated among the Algonquin up in present-day New York and migrated from tribe to tribe all over North America. Even the Navajo, way away in the desert that we now call Nevada, had a version of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”. This is interesting in itself, because “The Woman Who Fell” is an origin story. It explains how human beings came to be on Earth. Many of the tribes who incorporated it into their stock of myth either didn’t already have such a story or they preferred “The Woman Who Fell” and so got rid of whatever they had before. The Navajo had a long and richly developed myth about how the first people lived in the center of the Earth and ascended to the surface by climbing up a ladder or rope. The Navajo were not about to let go of their origin myth but they apparently really liked “The Woman Who Fell” because they kept it, despite the fact that it was incompatible with what they already had.
This is a wonderful thing about mythology. These bizarre and fanciful tales come into being and then spread across continents for no apparent reason other than the fact that people find something of value in them and it doesn’t matter at all if they make no sense or contradict each other. That can only happen, of course, if the people in question know that myths are not facts. If people think their myths are facts, you get 1,500 years (and counting) of bloodshed.
None of the books on Native American myth are here, so I’m going to just give a very basic and possibly marred synopsis of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”.
The story begins in the sky world, where the spirits live. There is a young woman who is married to the son of the sky chief. She’s pregnant. Things are going along pretty smoothly – or not, there are different versions – until one night there is a terrible storm. In the morning, everyone goes outside and discovers that a very large tree was blown down by the storm. The whole tree fell over, ripping the roots out of the ground and making a hole. The people gather round the hole to look in and they see right through the ground of the sky world, down through space. They see the Earth down there. The pregnant woman leans over too far, perhaps trying to look over her belly, and falls into the hole. Down, down she falls through space toward the Earth. Some ducks see her falling and fly up to catch her. Bearing the woman on their backs, the ducks bring her safely down to Earth. The woman who fell to Earth gives birth to her child, a girl. In time, the girl grows up and desires a mate. Her mother, who has a bit of magic, transforms different animals into mates for her. The girl admires a buck’s beauty and grace, so the mother changes the buck to human form for her. The girl admires a bear’s power and strength or a mountain lion’s speed and agility, so the mother transforms them for her. From these unions are born the first human beings.
There’s a lot more to the actual myth(s), of course, and I encourage everyone to look up “The Woman Who Fell To Earth”. The above is just what I remember off the top of my head.
So why is this strange story significant? Why did the Native Americans from New York to Nevada adopt it into their stores of myth? What the hell does it mean?
First, let’s set aside any questions about whether or not anybody actually believed that a pregnant woman fell through a hole in the sky, was carried to Earth by ducks and gave birth to a daughter who fucked anthropomorphized animals. Some probably did, some probably didn’t. That doesn’t matter. What we’re looking for is the symbolic content.
“The Woman Who Fell To Earth” explains why human beings are different from the other animals: they are pure animals, while we are only half-animals, being spirit on our mother’s side, so to speak. Our spirit lineage gives us advantages over the other animals, but it also gives us responsibilities to them and to our ancestors above. Our minds, our creativity, our complex emotions come to us from the spirits; our physical bodies, however, are of the animal world with all the needs, wants and urges of animals. This can be perceived as a conflict between the “higher” and “lower” natures of humanity, but it doesn’t have to be. Spirit and body can live together without conflict, or with relatively little conflict. That seems like an odd notion to those of us who were raised up with a worldview based on a cosmic battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. We were taught to identify ourselves with the good and fight the evil. To the most of the world, body and spirit are not diametrically opposed. In disagreement occasionally, sure, but not opposed. The goal of those peoples is to achieve balance between the two, so that they can both be satisfied without either suffering.
So “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is about the dual nature of humanity, but without the conflict. The rest of it is just storytelling, which is a fine and respectable thing in itself. The ducks are there because ducks fly, walk and swim; that is, they exist in the air, land and water, which makes them special in a symbolic way. Ducks, geese and swans show up in myths fairly often. The woman who fell has magic because she is from the spirit world; her daughter doesn’t because, though conceived in the spirit world, she was born on Earth. If you understand the symbols, it’s all pretty straight forward.
I was doodling in my sketchbook t’other night, just doodling, kinda zoned out, and I got a sudden insight. “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” is the first two chapters of Genesis from another perspective. I won’t be quoting Genesis because my King James Version is in a box over at the other place. They share certain features. In both, the female is the mate of the son of the sky chief. In both, humanity is of divine origin and invested with a soul that is housed in a body with the same needs, desires and urges of animals. There’s even a tree in both stories. At the most basic levels, they say the same things. The differences, though, are pretty striking.
In “The Woman Who Fell”, the fall, which is literal, occurs first and by accident, instead of last and as punishment for disobedience. The fall to Earth is simply the explanation for a sky world person to be on the Earth and carries no moral overtone. Animals in “The Woman Who Fell” are helpers, noble and good in their own right. In Genesis, animals are things to be dominated and used by Adam and Eve, except for the serpent who is the agent of evil. In “The Woman Who Fell”, human beings are equal parts spirit and animal. In Genesis, human beings are inherently corrupt because we inherit the corruption of our forebears. “The Woman Who Fell” spread across a continent because people liked telling and hearing the story. Genesis, and the rest of the Bible, spread across the world at the point of a sword. Millions of swords, actually.
Here’s a little research project: name one monotheistic religion that wasn’t disseminated using violence. Then, name one non-monotheistic religion that was.
I’m coming across like I have no use whatsoever for monotheism. That’s mostly true. I do find some very good stories in the Bible, most of which have better parallels in other traditions, and I certainly believe that the metaphors employed in the Bible are as good as any. Unfortunately, the Bible is overwhelmingly moralistic, which I find distasteful. Actions speak louder than words, after all.
I digress. The point I was after was the differences and similarities between “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” and the creation story in the two opening chapters of Genesis (which are really the same story told in two ways). Everywhere and everywhen you look in mythology, you find the same ideas popping up again and again, occasionally with different interpretations. The same stories appear over and over among peoples who never had any contact with each other. Diffusion, the explanation for the spread of “The Woman Who Fell To Earth” across North America, cannot possibly explain the similarities between the Hindu Indian myth of Indra and Vrtra and the Canadian Indian myth about Kuluscap and the Water Monster.
The myths speak to us in ways we don’t understand. Indians and Indians developed the same stories because they share the same basic bodies and lifeways, as do we all when we live according to the needs, desires and urges of both our bodies and spirits. Every myth is reflected, possibly refracted, by another. Every human being is connected to every other.
Some of those connections are also very good ways of spreading small pox.
The wee grrrl and I were downtown today, hanging around at the skateboards-and-used-records shop, playing pinball. She took to pinball like a duck to water. Her approach is constant flipper action: flippety-flippety-flippety. I try to show that sometimes one is better off not hitting the flippers, that it’s possible to catch the ball, let it go and pop it into the holes or to hit the extra ball target, but she wants none of that. Flippety-flippety-flippety-plop-Daddy-do-you-have-another-quarter? She’ll catch on. For a kid who has to stand on a crate to see the top of the table, she’s pretty damn good.
After a couple games, it was time for me to herd her to the car so I could get her to her mom’s on time. We said “see ya later” to the guys at the shop and walked around the corner, past the bakery, a.k.a. muffin store.
“Daddy, I wanna go to the muffin store.”
“Why do you want to go to the muffin store?”
“I wanna cookie.”
So, still walking, I went through the regular reasons why we were not going to go into the muffin store for a cookie. Almost dinner time; cookies are good, but we don’t eat cookies all the time; she’d already had a snack earlier, which wasn’t a cookie, but which was not entirely unlike a cookie; and cetera. The logical explanations, as any parent knows, don’t mean anything to the little people when they have cookies on the brain.
“Daddy, I’m afraid that if I don’t get a cookie, I’m going to have to cry.” She actually said that. Those exact words. She says that kinda stuff all the time. It’s amazing every time, but the obvious answer was
“I’m sorry that you’re going to have to cry, but you’re not getting a cookie.”
So she cried. “I wanna cookie! Ah! Ah! I wanna cookie!” over and over and over as we got in the car, fastened our seatbelts, drove to the mom’s place, gathered up her things, got out of the car, went up to the porch. She even gave me a hug and kiss and rubbed her nose on mine while crying “I wanna cookie! Ah! Ah! I love you, Daddy, see ya tomorrow. I wanna cookie.” and into her mom’s house she went. Usually, she’s able to let it go when she can’t have what she wants. Today…not so much.
A couple hours later, I was sitting around with some people, drinking coffee and talking about spiritual shit. Basically, we were discussing how our conceptions of divinity had changed at various points in our lives and I found myself relaying the cookie/crying incident. I somehow managed to tie it into the conversation and now I’m trying to remember how I did it.
I was raised in a tradition which likens the Ultimate Mystery to a male parent and people to children. When I was a children, my male parent had a can of Budweiser permanently attached to one hand and a big, skull-busting class ring attached to the other, so my take on the Heavenly Father metaphor was a bit skewed. Basically, I saw God as an omnipotent, drunk, angry guy who made up a lot of arbitrary rules and then punished the shit out of anybody who did or didn’t follow them, either way, it didn’t matter because it was all a set up, impossible to win, so ya might as well have a good time because you’re burning no matter what, motherfucker. Or something like that. I guess I vacillated between trying real hard to be on the Heaven-bound bus and then giving up on it and sinning as much as a kid can. I did a decade of angry atheism and then, to paraphrase Bongwater, Joseph Campbell gave me hope and I was saved. * I got clean and sober and started developing a spiritual life which included a specific deity.
I should state right here that I have no intention of ever naming my god/dess here. This is a public format in which I will ramble on and so on about whatever shit pops into my head, mostly about religion and myth, but my own specific image of the divine is personal. I’m not actually sure why that is, but I know that it is. Of course, I am aware that the deity to whom I pray, several times daily, is a metaphor. All the gods and goddesses, daemons and daevas, avatars and angels are metaphors, but they are metaphors for something. There is a reality which those symbols symbolize. It doesn’t matter which metaphor anyone uses – they all serve the same end – so it doesn’t matter if the one I use is Baldr or Isis, Wakan Tanka or Allah, Gaia or Indra, but I’m still gonna keep that to myself.
My conception of, and relationship with, god, to use the shortest word that serves and with a lower case ‘g’ to avoid confusion, has changed considerably over the years. When I first started this trip, I admit, I was kinda childish about it. I basically thought that if I did the right things, prayed the right prayers and was sufficiently humble, I would get what I wanted. That’s a form of magical thinking that a lot of people fall into. It got shattered for me when the woman I was involved with at the time dumped me for a younger guy. Actually, there was one hell of a lot more to it than that, and actually, in retrospect I figured out that the woman wasn’t all that important and now I’m glad that I’m not with her and not really sure why I was in the first place, to be honest, but at the time, I thought that I was all broke up about losing her and I got all pissed off at god, the universe and everything and threw a tantrum for a couple years until I got the fuck over it and grew up a bit. Then, a few years after that, I became a Daddy.
I remember a day, a couple years ago, summertime, afternoon. I was making coffee for me and a snack for the Spotted Opossum, who was two years old, fat-cheeked and wobbly. I believe she had on nothing but a diaper. I poured myself a cup o’ mud, turned around and saw that she had climbed out of her high chair and was dancing on the kitchen table. Uh-uh, no ma’am. I picked her up and put her on the floor, which didn’t go over well because who wants to dance on the floor when there’s a table? Not that little girl. There was a minor ruckus and then I did what I do and which works 99% of the time: I walked away. There have been a few occasions when I had to resort to stronger tactics, but not many. I walk away and the sprat follows. We went into the livingroom, I sat on the sofa and the girl decided to try her luck with the coffee table. I watched her scrambling to haul her bottom up onto it, considered the height of the coffee table, the depth of the rug under it and decided that I was willing to risk it.
See, the kitchen table was high and over a hardwood floor. If she’d fallen off that, there was potential for serious injury. A fall off the coffee table would mean a thump and some crying, but nothing major. You have to make these decisions when you have a kid. You can’t fight ‘em all the time and the fact is, they ain’t gonna learn if they don’t fall down once in a while. I explained my concerns as best I could and then I watched the show, which turned out to be pretty entertaining: little fat-cheeked diaper girl wobbling around on the coffee table. After a couple minutes, she bopped over toward me and jumped into my lap and later that evening I had an epiphany.
That’s the kind of Father they’re talking about: the kind that is willing to let the kid fall down. That whole thing about free will is god saying “Okay, dance on the table if ya wanna.” In my own life, my god allowed me to suffer some pretty hard knocks, but when you consider the kind of table-dancing I was into, I got off pretty fucking easy. My liver has some permanent damage, but I don’t need a transplant. I drove drunk thousands of times and never hit anyone or anything and only got one DUI. I didn’t get hepatitis A, B or C though not for lack of risky behavior. The proverbial somebody up there was watching out for me when I was too fucked up to watch out for myself, just like I was watching out for the wee’un, not because I was trying to prevent table-dancing, but because I didn’t want her to get hurt worse than was good for her. That business with the woman that dumped me is the counterpart of today’s I-wanna-cookie incident. I wanted what I wanted, god said “No” and I threw a fit. At the time, it seemed like god was being unfair and cruel for not letting me have the cookie /woman, but now I get it, now I know why. The cookie thing isn’t going to last in the Spotted Opossum’s memory. We have those tussles all too often for this particular one to make an impression. Maybe in a few years I’ll say “No” over something bigger and she’ll be pissed off at me for a long time. That’s fine. I can handle that. I don’t like upsetting my daughter, but I’m the Daddy and sometimes I have to. The phrase “Rock of Ages” comes to mind. It’s my job to be the solid presence, the person who will always be there. The girl can hug me and kiss me and rub her nose on mine or she can scream herself blue in the face, either way, I’m right there, being the Daddy.
So being a Daddy gave me a different understanding of god and then god provided me with a model for being a Daddy. That is exactly how that is supposed to happen. As you move into a new stage of life, the myths and metaphors take on new meanings and provide new wisdom. That’s part of why they’re written the way they are – so they can have different meanings to people at different stages of life. I’m still not crazy about patriarchal religions and when people are bowing their heads reciting the “Our Father”, I generally take the opportunity to ogle boobs, but I get it. I get the value of the whole god-as-father concept.
The goddess-as-mother concept makes sense to me too, but that’s another time.
Sometimes my will and god’s will don’t match up. Another way of saying the same thing is that sometimes I am not in harmony with the Tao. When that happens, things don’t go the way I want them to because, the fact is, god’s will is going to get done on Earth and in Heaven, whether I want it to or not. The only thing I can do is make myself miserable opposing the order of the Universe or put myself into accord with it and have a pretty good time.
I’ve been taken care of. I know people who didn’t get away with what I got away with. Some of them are in prisons; others are dead. The weather’s getting warmer, which is good for the ones that are sleeping outside tonight. I don’t always get all the cookies I want, but I’d say I’m ahead of the game.
*A couple years ago, I contacted Ann Magnusen through some social networking thing and told her that I first heard of Joseph Campbell from her and that it had had a huge and positive impact on my life. We swapped a couple messages and then it ended, which was kinda disappointing, because, ya know, Ann Magnuson is pretty hot for an older cookie, but, ya know, she’s got issues and shit.
I was hanging out with the Spotted Opossum t’other day. She didn’t have school, I got her from her ma early, took her someplace. She was drawing and I was trying to get some more caffeine in me, making conversation. She said she’d had a babysitter the night before so I asked what she and the babysitter did.
“She told me stories.”
“Yeah? Were there little pigs in the stories?”
“No, she told me a story about Nineveh.”
“Is Nineveh a person?” Obviously, I was still not totally awake – or maybe I just couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.
“No, Nineveh is a city and there was a man named, uh, Jonah…” and at that point I saw the light. I asked a few more questions and, sure as you’re born, the babysitter had regaled the little heathen with many of the charming tales of the Old Testament, including Jonah and the whale, David v. Goliath, Moses parting the Red Sea and leading the Israelites out of Egypt, all of which are great stories and all of which have great and valuable spiritual lessons. Nevertheless, there were bells and sirens going off in my head.
Obviously, I have an abiding appreciation for religion and myth. I want my daughter to grow up with myth. I want her to be familiar with the many ways various peoples have tried to make sense of, or at least have a relationship with the Great Mystery that underlies all that is, was and will be, but that doesn’t mean I want some college girl I don’t know telling her about how some Jewish kid killed a giant with a slingshot and cut off his head. There is a proper time and such for some revelations and there are some myths that I would want framed as “some people believe…” The sprat’s mom and I disagree on many, many things, but we are on the same ecumenical page when it comes to the religiosities we want to present to our daughter. We exchanged a few texts. No damage was done to the girl. The mom said she’d have a talk with the babysitter – ask her to back off a little with the wrath of YHVH bedtime stories or seek part-time employment elsewhere. Problem solved.
Later, over lunch, the Spotted Opossum asked me to tell her the story of Jonah and the whale. She likes to hear stories over and over. I told it to her. It’s a good story and one which I can see myself in. I, too, was called by (insert name of deity) to a certain life. I, too, chose not to heed that call because I was afraid and kinda hoped I could slip away unnoticed. Jonah spent forty days in the belly of a whale - “great fish” according to the KJV – and I spent thirteen years put off, put down, strung out and stoned, but it amounts to the same thing. I do believe that every one of us is “called” to some task, some course of action, and that resisting the call is the same as throwing away one’s life. All mythology is in some wise related to this theme, but Jonah and the whale is a damn fine, and very concise, telling. When I told it, I stressed the importance of the voice of divinity, which speaks to us from inside ourselves, and I made the girl fall over laughing with my impression of a whale spitting a man out. Bleh. She wanted to hear about “David and the giiiiiiant”, so I said “Oh, I know another story about a giant” and gave her “Jack and the Beanstalk” instead, which satisfied.
This whole thing is part of why I started taking her to the Universalist-Unitarian church. I want her to have access to a spiritual community with some rituals, one that was open to all forms of religion and I want her to have something to fall back on when someone else challenges her. We live in the Bible Belt. There’s a guy who stands in front of the court house downtown, preaching Jesus to everybody who walks past. The girl will certainly encounter people who will assail her with whatever their preacher says and when some kid tells her “My church says God hates fags”, I want her to be able to say “My church believes in the inherent value of all human beings and that God loves us all enough to accept us all into Heaven” or words to that effect.
It’s a weird situation. I sometimes wonder if I’m holding back too much. When I tell the girl “Little Red Riding Hood”, I say the wolf wants to eat the cookies Little Red has in her basket. I tend to soft pedal, to smooth out some of the rough edges. Maybe I’m softening things too much. Which would be a really strange thing for me to be doing. I’m usually the one who offends people with my tendency to call a spade a fuckin’ spade and then get pissed off because so many fuckin’ people don’t know the difference between a spade and a shovel, for fuck’s sake. I try to be aware of other people’s sensibilities and I have made considerable progress in that area, but I’m not aspiring to become one of those ultra-sensitive guys who talks about their feelings in a sing-song voice and has to qualify every statement lest someone think they’re being overly aggressive in their request for someone to pass the sea salt. Then, my daughter sits down and wants a story and I find myself avoiding the more gruesome and unseemly passages of “The Three Little Pigs” for fear of shattering her innocence or something. Maybe the babysitter has performed a service for us by opening a can of Mosaic worms which we can now play with and talk about.
Which does not mean I want her to tell the girl the fabulous story of Job. And that business about Sodom and Gomorrah is right off the agenda as well.
The mommy suggested we find a collection of stories from different religions and tell those to the girl, which is a brilliant idea. Actually, I don’t have to find a book – I have shelves full of them. I can think of a half-dozen Inuit stories off the top of my head that would be pretty fun. There’s one where Kuluscap is wandering along looking for adventures and he comes to a village which is populated entirely with cats. The cats are people who have been turned into cats by a witch. Kuluscap turns himself into a cat. He starts to live in the village. All of the cats are trying to survive. They do the best they can, hunting mice and small birds. Kuluscap leaves the village every day and when he is alone he turns himself back into Kuluscap and goes hunting for larger game, deer, elk, bear. When he has killed an animal, he turns himself back into a cat, returns to the village and tells the other cats to follow him. He leads them to the deer or elk or bear or whatever. In this way, Kuluscap the cat proves himself to be a great hunter and a valuable asset to the community. He quickly becomes the chief of the cats. Kuluscap begins to lead hunting expeditions. He leads the cat hunters away from the village, slips away from them and kills some large animal. The cats are doing pretty well.
One day, Kuluscap leads the cat hunters to the river. They get into a canoe and paddle across to an island where there are many ducks’ nests. They want to gather eggs. The witch goes along with them, having changed herself into a cat. When Kuluscap sneaks away from the others, she says “Now, we must all go back to the village” and gets into the canoe. The other cats follow her. They paddle away from the island, leaving Kuluscap stranded. The witch leads the other cats back to the village. After a few days she says “The chief is gone and I am here. I am chief now.”
On the island, Kuluscap begins to sing. He sings a song that has great power. The song goes out of Kuluscap and across the river. The song travels many miles through forests and over mountains until it finds Fox, who is Kuluscap’s friend. Fox hears the song and immediately he follows it back to its source.
“Friend Fox” says Kuluscap “I am trapped here on this island.”
“Hold on to my tail” says Fox. “I will tow you across the water.” Kuluscap holds on to Fox’s tail and Fox swims, towing Kuluscap behind.
There is a huge storm. Kuluscap says “The witch has made this storm.”
Fox says “No, this is just a storm. Keep holding my tail. We will be across soon.” Nevertheless, it takes them all night to get across the river.
When they are across, Kuluscap thanks Fox and goes back to the village of cats. He knows that the witch has made herself chief while he is away and that she will oppose him when he returns so he makes a trap for her in a clearing outside the village. He rubs the trunk of a pine tree and speaks to it so the sap comes out. The whole trunk of the tree is covered with sap. Then he goes to the edge of the village and peaks out from behind bushes. He does this in a way that the cats will see him sneaking around and poking his head up because he wants the witch to see him. After a while, the witch sees him and thinks “There is Kuluscap, sneaking around, trying to figure out how to become chief again.” She picks up an ax and runs after Kuluscap, chases him to the clearing. Kuluscap hides behind some bushes. The witch looks all around, but she can’t find Kuluscap. She thinks “He is hiding around here, getting ready to jump out and attack me” so she backs up against the tree so Kuluscap can’t attack her from behind and she gets stuck in the sap. She is stuck to the tree and can’t get away. Kuluscap returns to the village. All the cats are happy to see him. They don’t know that he is Kuluscap, but they are happy to see him because he is a better chief than the witch. Still, they are afraid that the witch is going to come back and when she does things will be bad.
Kuluscap tells the cats not to worry about the witch. He tells them that he has stuck her to a tree. Later, they hear a chopping sound. Chop, chop, chop. The witch is trying to chop herself loose from the tree. All night long, the chopping goes on. In the morning, when the cats are making their breakfast, the witch comes into the village. She has an ax in her hand and a big piece of wood stuck to her back. She looks disheveled and worn out from chopping all night.
“Look” says Kuluscap “there’s the one you were frightened of”. All the cats start to laugh at the witch. The witch becomes angry and waves her ax around, but the cats just laugh harder. They fall down on the ground and roll around laughing. The witch can’t stand to be laughed at. She throws the ax down and runs away. She runs and runs and runs until she comes to a marshy part of the forest and there she stops. With the witch gone, the spell is broken and all the cats turn back into people. They ask Kuluscap to stay and be their chief again, but he says “No. I don’t like to stay in one place. I like to have adventures. Someone else can be chief”. Kuluscap leaves and goes off looking for more adventures.
Out in the marsh, the witch tries to think of a way to get revenge. She eventually decides to turn herself into mosquitoes. “I’ll be mosquitoes” she says. “I will plague the people forever and they’ll never be able to get rid of me.” So that’s what she did.
Now, that is a fine story even if I did alter it somewhat. I got it from Northern Tales, selected and edited by Howard Norman, a wonderful book which I picked up at the free book stand downtown. The version in the book is a lot more convoluted and has a lot of stuff which probably mattered quite a lot to the Inuit, but which seems superfluous to me. I think the girl will enjoy it. She likes cats.
Parenting is a lot of fun, but there’re these moments when you wonder how you’re doing. Most of the time, I try to just assume that I’m doing okay, that if there’s anything I should deal with someone or Someone will let me know. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the Great Parent sent the babysitter over with the intention that the grrrl get introduced to the O.T. in order to push me into teaching her about the world’s wonderful faith traditions. Which I can do.
Maybe one day I’ll tell her about how I was swallowed by a whale because I didn't go to Nineveh.
*I believe the spelling has been standardized "Kluskap" or "Glooscap". I went with "Kuluscap" because that's the spelling Norman uses.
At some earlier stage of my spiritual development, I picked up Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection Of Zen And Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps. It’s a great little book of koans and anecdotes and it totally blew my mind. As I read it, I kept having the feeling that I was reading things I’d always known, but had never articulated. The ancient, “answerless” riddles about one hand clapping and the face you had before you were born were so simple, so clear and easy. The wacky antics of Zen Masters made perfect sense. Like this one, (in my words, not those of Mr. Reps):
In one monastery, the Abbot had the habit of holding up his forefinger whenever he reached the point of a lecture.
One day, as the monks were preparing their breakfast, the Abbot noticed two young monks, ages five and ten, talking. The older of the two raised his forefinger as he spoke. Immediately, the Abbot seized a knife from a table and cut the boy’s finger off.
Wow. What a way to start the day.
Seriously, though, the story is supposed to be shocking. You’re supposed to think “What? Did I read that wrong?” Then you read it again and, sure enough, the Abbot cut the boy’s finger off. So, reeling from the sudden and apparently senseless mutilation of a child in the kitchen of a Buddhist monastery, you wonder “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” because all of the koans and stories in the Zen tradition mean something. They’re all very short, very direct and packed with meaning. Teachers would give a koan or story like this to students and have them go meditate on it for a few years, which seems pretty weird to us, for whom the reason for the Abbot’s action is perfectly obvious, but people were a little slower in the uptake 1,500 years ago.
See, a thousand years had passed since Buddhism was founded and a lot of dust had settled on the mirror. Early Buddhism was very monastically oriented. Anyone who was at all serious about seeking Nirvana had to first quit the world, shave their head and take refuge in the Sangha. The rest of the people gave their tithes, generally respected the monks and nuns and aspired to rise to their level in a few incarnations, not this one, thank you very much. After about five-hundred years, at about the same time Jesus was preaching in the Levant, somebody had the brilliant insight that since Samsara was this world of pairs of opposites and Nirvana was the state of mind of one who had gone beyond the pairs of opposites, including the pair of opposites “Samsara” and “Nirvana”, one who had gone beyond the pairs of opposites would not recognize Samsara and Nirvana as opposites, but would, in fact, see them as being exactly the same. Whammo bango, the entire thing was spun on its head and suddenly there was no need whatsoever to quit the world. Nirvana was equally accessible to anyone. Any farmer, merchant, soldier or milkmaid could aspire to Nirvana. These two early forms of Buddhism are referred to as “Hinyana”, “little ferryboat” and “Mahayana”, “big ferryboat”, respectively. Unfortunately, when one is aspiring to Nirvana, one has not attained it, or why would one be aspiring? The little ferryboat Sangha was mostly involved in memorizing Sutras, debating insignificant details of the Buddha’s biography and denouncing each other for having gotten it wrong. The big ferryboat lay community was burning up a lot of incense at roadside shrines, feeling a bit guilty for failing to adhere to the Noble Eightfold Path and sending their second sons to be raised in monasteries in the hopes that it would somehow help. Everybody pretty much assumed that Nirvana was several incarnations away.
Then, after another five-hundred years or so, somebody realized that Siddhartha Gautama Sakymuni, the historical Buddha, had attained Nirvana by sitting still. Sitting still, therefore, was really the key. All that business about incense and Sutras and gold statues and so on was missing the point. This was the beginning of what became Zen.
The First Patriarch of Zen was Bodhidharma, who entered the historical record when he emigrated from India to China. The Chinese had heard of Buddhism from traveling merchants and a few wandering monks and had the impression that it was some kind of high-minded, intellectual philosophy, which it was, in the Sangha. The scholars and philosophers were somewhat curious about it, but no one saw it as anything other than an intellectual pursuit. Then along came Bodhidharma, this big, hairy, wild-eyed Indian, intense and a bit intimidating, who sat down and stared at a wall for nine years without saying anything. That got their attention. The Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Patriarchs of Zen, whose names escape me, maintained the don’t-just-do-something-sit-there meditation, but didn’t break any new ground. Then, in Japan, an illiterate stable-boy happened to overhear someone reciting the Diamond Sutra and he got it. He was Enlightened. He immediately attempted to enter a monastery, but was not allowed to take the Vows because he was just an illiterate stable-boy and not able to read, memorize and then sit around debating the insignificant details of every shopping list Gautama ever jotted on the back of an envelope. He was taken on as a scullery lad on the assumption that after spending a few lifetimes hulling rice he might rise to the level of literacy. Why they didn’t just teach the kid to read, I don’t know. Anyway, the Abbot of the monastery decided to retire and announced that there would be a competition: whoever could compose a poem best summarizing the principals of Buddhism would become the new Abbot. There was one monk who everybody was sure was going to get it and when he wrote the following verse on the wall in the hall, it was a fait accompli:
The body is the bodhi tree
The mind is a mirror
Clean it constantly
So it doesn’t get dusty
The English is my summary. Our illiterate scullery lad, whose name was Huineng, got a friend from the kitchen to read this to him and then write his response:
The body is not the bodhi tree
The mind is not a mirror
What can get dusty?
Next morning, all the monks were standing around wondering who had written the second verse when the Abbot walked in, got angry, wiped Huineng’s poem off the wall and passed his staff of office on to the monk who had written the first one. Later, he spoke to Huineng privately, advised him not to hit people with advanced truths they were incapable of comprehending and invited him to go away. Huineng became the Sixth and last Patriarch of Zen. He established Zen Buddhism as we know it today and attracted so many followers that Zen no longer needed Patriarchs to keep it going.
One does not have to spend x incarnations waiting for Nirvana; it can happen right now. In fact, it should happen right now. There is no real reason for it not to. So, sit there and realize it. That’s really the crux of Zen, as I see it. D.T. Suzuki might disagree, but who really cares what D.T. Suzuki thinks? Same goes for Alan Watts, that limey beatnik. Another thing – Zen produces enlightened Masters at a far higher rate than any of the other Buddhisms, crotchety old coots sitting around shit-talking Siddhartha like he was a redheaded bastard at a family reunion, an irreverence which this Espresso Shaman especially enjoys. Venerating Buddhas is all well and good and it’ll get you a seat in a closed lotus in the Pure Land, but it won’t get you into Nirvana. For that, you have to realize that there is no Buddha unless it’s you.
And it is you. This is the thing that has to be understood. There is no Buddha other than yourself, which is without a self. It seems paradoxical, I know, but the reason Zen Flesh, Zen Bones hit me so hard is that I just read the black parts and where it said “all things have Buddha nature”, I took that to mean that “all things have Buddha nature”. I have Buddha nature. You have Buddha nature. The fuckin’ roaches on my kitchen counter have fuckin’ Buddha nature. We all, and everything else, have Buddha nature, so why don’t we realize it? Why do we continue to walk around thinking that we’re anything other than Buddhas? My theory is that it seems too easy. Nirvana is described in high-falutin’, flowery language and made out to be this big fucking deal, mainly because that was the writing style in India at the time. Seriously, read The Upanishads, if you can. People have a tendency to want metaphysical stuff to be a big fucking deal, wheels within wheels in the sky, multi-armed gods dancing the cosmos, stuff like that. It isn’t like that – well, not all the time. I have seen some out-there stuff even when I wasn’t on acid, but most of the time a tree is a tree, a river is a river and people are people. Nirvana is not something to be attained. Nirvana already is in you.
As I’ve stated here before, I have taken the vow of the Bodhisattva and will be sticking around, in one form or another, until all sentient beings are enlightened. I would appreciate it very much if all who read this would sit down and realize their Buddhahood. It would make my job easier. If you care to take the vow and stick around to help, that’d be cool too.
If someone was to ask me how to become a shaman, I would encourage them not to. It’s a hard road, what with the fasting and aestheticism and feeding the spirit animals and all that, and there ain’t any money in it. In some cultures, there’s a certain amount of respect or appreciation for shamans, but here in capitalist North America, a shaman is just another degenerate bum in a weird hat.
It does get discouraging sometimes.
I went out to the woods for soul food. Driving out there, I was mostly expecting a moonlit walk down an old fireroad that goes a couple miles into the National Forest from Hone Quarry. I parked the truck at the gate and got out and there was no moon to lit. No stars either – the sky was totally cloud-covered and it was dark as a dungeon. I couldn’t see my feet. I wondered for a moment just exactly what was I supposed to do – this kind of thing falls into the “supposed to” category when you’re a shaman – and then I started walking. My eyes adjusted to the dark somewhat, but I was still just seeing shades of black and grey. The sky was easily discernible, grey between the ragged trees, so I mostly looked up and tried to stay in the middle. I could tell the difference between the rocky mud road and grass beneath my boots, so if I strayed off to the side, I could correct. Sometimes the puddles caught a bit of light and had a glossy grey, but sometimes I just stepped into them. It was slow going and I was keenly aware of the fact that there are places along that road where the side just drops off.
As I walked, I prayed and meditated. I reached out with my mind to my various spirit animals – who also have human forms when human forms are more conducive. I spoke with them, addressed certain fears and concerns. I also addressed my deity, the form of the Great Mystery that seems most right to me, asking, seeking, wondering. My prayers tend to be more “What should I do?” than “Lord, won’tcha buy me a Mercedes Benz?” I am a person with constant doubt about my abilities, my decisions, actions. I always think there’s a good chance that I’m fucking something up somehow and that there will be dire and sever consequences for every mistake and misstep. Most of the time, I’m wrong and everything turns out exactly the way it’s supposed to. My kid is awesome despite the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing most of the time. BDSR keeps growing, even though I can barely play guitar and have only a vague understanding of the sound program I use to record and mix releases. Somehow the bills get paid. Honest to gods, I don’t have a clue how things work out as well as they do. I am not even in the passenger seat of the metaphorical vehicle of my life. I’m in the truck bed, hanging over the tailgate, hoping that whoever is steering is paying attention.
How did this happen? How did I get to where I am?
I was born with certain abnormalities of the mind that would have made life a little difficult in the best of circumstances, which mine weren’t. My childhood wasn’t great. I took the bad hand I was dealt and played it the worst way possible, grossly exacerbating the situation until suicide seemed like the best option. Then I was plucked up. One of the many manifestations of Divinity that people have identified appeared to me and changed the course of my life. I found some folks who showed me how to grow in the Spirit(s), gave myself over to the Deity that appeared to me and I’ve been trudging along ever since. Fifteen years and I still don’t really know what’s going on. I read a lot of books on the subject. I read Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques Of Ecstasy a few years ago and was steered into my current avocation. I’m actually reading that one again. It’s pretty good. I’m not nearly as powerful as some Siberian or Mongolian shamans, but I’m self-taught and they had instructors, so I guess I’m not doing so bad. I’m certainly not unusual in that I didn’t choose this. The whole shaman thing was not my idea – I was assigned. If I had gotten to pick a role for myself, it would’ve been one with a higher income and more blowjobs.
So there I was, stumbling along this mud road in total darkness, praying and wondering why I wasn’t home eating beans’n’rice and watching a zombie movie. There were occasional sounds on either side, something or something else moving around in the underbrush, probably opossums or rabbits, but possibly bears and coyotes. I had a Ka-bar on me, in addition to the little knife that I always carry. I would fight a bear if I had to. It was definitely a scary experience. Mostly though, it was just putting one foot in front of the other, slowly, watching that strip of sky that was open over the road, feeling with every step the ground. I stumbled a few times, but only fell down once, when I stepped into a gulley that ran across the road and over the drop. There’s a concrete bridge that crosses a creek near the end of the road, so when I got to it I knew I was close. Then the strip of open sky just stopped. I was at the end of the road. It was almost disappointing. I had gotten used to walking along in the dark, had become okay with it. I suddenly felt that I could walk all night.
The act that I had set out to do was to walk to the end of the road, unless I had to fight a bear or something. So I turned around and started walking back. On the way back, I continued to pray, to ask for guidance regarding BDSR, my visual art, my daughter. And an answer came: “Just keep going”. It was that simple. Just continue to do what you’re doing. Just keep on walking, blind and trusting, and what will happen will happen.
Just keep going. That’s pretty much always the answer. I have gotten different ones – “Quit the job”, “Stop being such an arrogant asshole” – but the vast majority of the time I’m out seeking some kind of guidance, it’s because nothing much has happened and I’ve gotten all jammed up in my head thinking that I should do some something, something dramatic, to fuck shit up. I can handle crisis. You give me a burning orphanage or a fighting bear and I know exactly what to do. Let me be for a while, let a couple months of slow, gradual development happen, and I start to get edgy. Then I find myself out in the woods doing something that other people have the sense not to do – walking a road in the dark was a fairly mild one – crying out for a vision or a sign or a burning wheel within a wheel or something. The answer is usually just keep going.
The final step in the shamanic thing is sharing what I’ve learned. See, I do this shit so you don’t have to.
If you’re not living in the way of the Spirit(s), then this doesn’t apply to you. This is for people who are already committed to a course of action and being that is in accord with whatever form of spirituality that makes the most sense or has the most appeal for them. People without any form of spirituality – well, I dunno. Do whatever. Maybe that’ll work out for you. People who are walking on a spiritual path and who have the occasional doubts because it seems like nothing is happening and/or there appear to be some dark clouds on the horizon, possibly of a dark financial nature because you don’t have a regular job and there ain’t no income comin’ in, just keep going. The way may be dark, there may be bears in the woods, but just keep going.
Brown Hat the Espresso Shaman
The pun is always intended.