Fierce Grace

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He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

-Aeschylus

If you spend a lot of time in school, you could easily form the impression that everything has already been cut and dried, labeled and codified, when actually the world is delightfully ambiguous and full of surprises. Too much schooling takes all the fun out of it, removes the element of surprise, and turns everything into a report that could be graded, evaluated and certified. If you’re willing to risk saying “no thanks” to schooling, life can be pretty exciting.

But wisdom comes at a cost. Real wisdom, the kind you experience directly, cannot be ordered up in transferable credit hours. It is a gift from God, via his awful grace.

What happens without my prior expectation or permission could be also considered “fierce grace.” There’s a documentary about Richard Alpert, aka Baba Ram Das, named that. He had a stroke and decided to experience it as a gift.

Fate has a way of not asking permission before it acts. Not asking permission beforehand is a form of mercy. How I feel about what is going to happen versus what actually happens is, in the long run, not important. If I want to be happy, I have to learn acceptance and to appreciate what is. I have to cultivate patience and gratitude. Otherwise I’ll always be somewhere between miffed and outraged.

 

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Obsession or Enlightenment?

Right next to our house is a ruined temple. It lies directly to our west, and in the evening the sun sets over the temple Lately, I’ve been photographing it every day, for the clouds change in the background. It can be quite dramatic.

I haven’t decided if I have developed the Buddha nature and can dig the profundity of everything around me, or if I’m just lazy and easily obsessed by that which takes little effort to find. Here, in northern Thailand, the vegetation doesn’t resemble anything in the States except maybe Florida. It’s the kind of place you need air-conditioning for most of the year.

Here are a bunch of pictures of this same view.

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Eastern Mysticism (Thai Buddhism)

Eastern Mysticism (Thai Buddhism)

I’ve been reading a book about the history of psychedelic research in the fifties and sixties, before 1966 when Congress put the kabosh on it. We live about a city block from a temple on a dead end street that contains the ruin of a previous temple, as well as modern buildings. I’m sort of templed-out here in Thailand, but thought maybe I would jump on by bicycle and ride down there before the next rain shower and see if I could find anything new to photograph.

Here are the images from this afternoon.

 

 

What now? What next?

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What do most people do to pass the time of day? I don’t have the faintest idea, and I’ve already been alive for sixty-eight years. I never have the faintest idea what I should be doing with myself. Maybe that’s why I became a writer.

Writers don’t often know what they’re going to write when they sit down to do so. Inspiration arrives or it doesn’t. The words fly onto the screen or page or they don’t. Sometimes the output is a pleasant surprise; sometimes it’s a crashing bore. But it’s something. It’s an activity that forestalls me asking myself “now what?”

I’m well aware there are people with no active inner life. They tend to watch a lot of television. If you’re studying something, like a musical instrument, you can devote hours to practice. Because I’m retired, I do more than my share of practicing the piano.There are rewards in that direction, though they may never be financial. But at least I’m not watching television.

Most people spend a lot of time at work, but that doesn’t mean they’re accomplishing anything. It just means that they’ve committed to a course of action, usually at a specific place, because somebody else told them that would be a good idea and would reward them for it. A lot of time neither result is as promised. But they keep showing up anyway, because the alternative would take more effort.

Creativity is sometimes rewarded, because of its scarcity. Since not many people risk going in that direction, there’s a relative lack of it. Unlike simply showing up at a job, it’s usually not paid for up front. In fact, most creative output is never seen by any more than the creator himself. Marketing is a completely different discipline and art from artistic or cognitive creativity.

It sometimes seems that I’m either in pain. vaguely irritated, or numb, but rarely delighted by my circumstances. In that respect, I’m probably normal. From what I read on social media, most people feel this way. And this is the thing that I can change.

I can decide to be delighted by the simple fact that I’m alive. I can choose bliss over boredom. Sure, it takes effort, but what doesn’t? Gratitude is an action more than a state of being.

Portraits in a Selfie Age

Most people don’t enjoy having their picture taken. Or at least that used to be the case. Now, at least among Asians, there’s a mania about it. At least where I live, the women take twenty pictures of themselves a day, always making the same expression. They also photograph their food as its served in a restaurant, before they dig in.

 

I take a lot of pictures of myself because no one else will show up to let me photograph them. I’m interested in lighting, photo-editing, and the technical aspects of photography. I also enjoy having a good portrait I can send off if the need arises.

 

OK, so I’m not as photogenic as I was thirty or forty years ago. Who is?

 

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Purposeful Forgetting

 

Phong Nha Park

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When you’re an American expat and you want to move freely in the world, you have to deliberately not remember a lot in order to experience a sense of ease and comfort. Freedom from guilt means purposeful forgetting. You can’t very well vacation in a country that we bombed repeatedly for years because we disapproved of their self-governance.

The problem for Americans is that caveat rules out most of the developing world. Central America, South America, Indochina, the Middle East, Southern Europe…all have felt the lash of our enormous and deadly whip. If you’ve got enough in the bank you could confine your wandering to Switzerland or Scandanavia without having to flip into denial mode.

True, we didn’t bomb Argentina and Chile, we just sent Kissinger there to tell them they could take care of their Communist problem without worrying about interference from us. OK, in our role as Global Robocop we didn’t kill as many foreign people as Stalin or Mao did of their own, but that doesn’t exactly render us white as snow. We trained the assassins from Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador and we gave money directly to the Contras in Nicaragua.

In a few weeks I will be venturing to Dong Hoi,Vietnam. We’ll be taking advantage of a super cheap fare from our home in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The city of Dong Hoi is new, because we completely destroyed the old city in 1971. Back then we left the shell of one building and a palm tree standing. Dong Hoi had the misfortune to be the first city of any size north of the DMZ, and planes taking off from Danang airport found it convenient to drop their load there.

If my prior visit to Dong Hoi will serve as any indication, I expect to be treated cordially by the people I meet. The family members who run the hotel I booked were very nice to me last time. I rented a motorcycle from them and drove to Phong Na park, a lush forest preserve that hosts some of the most attractive limestone caves in the world. Fifty years ago there wasn’t much there to bomb, but we did drop tons of Agent Orange on the vast canopy of trees, because we called it the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” and saw their vegetation as an affront to our security.

There is also a lot of unexploded ordinance there, so I won’t do a whole lot of hiking off the trails. The United Nations has done their best to help Laos and Vietnam clean up the cluster bomb mess we made, but they haven’t made much progress yet. We may have to pitch in.

In my search for a place to live out my golden years I’ve traveled to many former hot spots in Central and South America.

When I was in Argentina they were making efforts to remember and honor the victims of the military killing orgy that went on after Kissinger promised them a free hand. In Chile, our puppet Pinochet had his troops bomb the Presidential Palace while Salvador Allende, former President of the University of Chile and the first democratically elected Communist ruler of any country was inside.

The first time I visited Hanoi, I was staying in a hotel in an old part of the city and reading a book on the history of our war with that country. It turns out that Kissinger and Nixon hatched a plan to make the Vietnamese think Nixon was insane, and thus drive them to hurry to the negotiating table and sign a truce. On Christmas day we bombed Hanoi. Unlike our efforts at the end of World War II in Japan and Germany, and our police action in North Korea, we had reverted to the genteel notion of obeying the Geneva Conventions and not directly targeting civilians. Before the Chrtistmas Bombing (Operation Linebacker) most of our bombing in Vietnam was restricted to military targets. In Laos, because there were few military targets, we bombed anything that moved and kept that up for ten years. But anyway, on Christmas day, 1972 a bomb dropped from a B-52 pierced the roof of the hospital next door to the hotel in which I was now staying and exploded in the operating room killing everyone. I put down the book and stared at the wall that separated my hotel from the hospital. Why had the desk clerk smiled at me when I checked in? Why wasn’t there an angry mob outside demanding my head?

As the ugliness of global economic disparity continues to grow, there will be more refugees. Countries like Nigeria send thousands of young men north to Libya, where they climb into rafts and hope to make it to Greece or Sicily. Some of them do, and then they find their way to Calais, where nobody is glad to see them. They don’t know what else to do. The bottom billion people on this planet are sliding backwards. Their countries are not just falling behind, they’re falling apart.

Of course, it’s only matter of time before we bring them democracy, one bomb at a time.

 

 

the author reading this essay:  http://chirb.it/Mkxhp3

 

 

A Blank Slate

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No Plan, Still Time Passes

It occurs to me that living in Chiang Mai, Thailand hasn’t really hampered my ability to be creatively productive. If I’m not writing or performing to the best of my ability, I can’t blame it on location. If I were hiding in a furnished room in Los Angeles, hunched over my laptop and drinking coffee from a paper cup (not Starbucks, too expensive) chances are my phone wouldn’t be ringing with offers from publishers, studios, or agents.
At the age of sixty-seven, I probably wouldn’t be going to parties a lot, either. The nightclub crowd would be unaware of my existence. Maybe I could pass myself off as Harry Dean Stanton’s younger brother, or Tommy Lee Jones’ cousin. A-list geezers.

No, I can’t blame Thailand for whatever difficulties I face as I trudge the lonely trail of senescence. Well, actually, there are a lot of us on that trail, only some are using walkers, others four-pointed canes, and the rest of us are hobbling with an uneven gait.

But again, what’s the alternative? The good doctors here are as good as they are in the States, at least as good at the doctors who will accept Medicare patients, and since the prices for medical intervention here are about ten times lower than in the States, that would about equal my deductible if I chose to return home to use the medical policy I paid for over a span of forty five years. That one, the one I don’t get to use over here.

Oh sure, the weather is too hot for me most of the year. Even most Thai people would agree with that. From November to January it gets cool enough up here in the north of Thailand so that a Westerner might consider putting on a light wrap after dark. That’s when the Thais think it’s time to unpack some serious gloves and fur-lined parkas.

I’m sure Lake Como or Martha’s Vineyard would be more to my taste. I hear Norway is spectacular from June to August. All of that has nothing to do with me now, nor will it ever unless Fate has some amazing twists and turns in store for me.

But none of that matters, because I’m happy with my current station. After a week in Krabi, at the beach, I’m home again with my piano and my Chiang Mai routine. I don’t do a lot, my days are pretty free, and I make sure to rest plenty after the smallest of exertions. You can never be too relaxed in retirement.

In Krabi we had comfortable hotel rooms for around sixteen and seventeen dollars, the flight there and back came to eighty five dollars each. The only thing there that significantly more expensive than Chiang Mai was massage, which was double the price, so we mostly avoided it.

Tomorrow I’ll go to my swimming pool and do a kilometer. Takes me half an hour. I’ll be the only person in the water, an Olympic-sized fifty meter pool. Then I’ll take a nap in the afternoon, because even though a kilometer is some swimmer’s idea of a mere warm up, to me it’s the whole enchilada.

Even though my e-mail provider Microsoft Outlook would like me to believe otherwise by sending me my calendar for the day, which contains events and tasks apparently set by others, some of whom I don’t even know, I think I have the day off. I do know for certain that I didn’t create these “events” or “tasks” they insist are real and fixed. As far as I can see, my days are pretty much a blank slate. Most of the time, I have not consented to be anywhere or to do anything.

Today my virtual assistant informs me that I have three events, but it soothingly assures me “you don’t have any tasks for today.” Free to come and go as I please, I intend to hop on my motor scooter or bicycle and zip around town, or drive into the nearby mountains. My photo blog shows lots of pictures of hills and trees. They all look the same, but I keep taking more.

I will also find time to play Handel on my electronic keyboard.

The interesting and encouraging thing about practicing a musical instrument is that you get better even if you take a week off. In that time when you weren’t practicing, you still improve. If you take more than a week off, that effect begins to reverse itself. It is, however, counter-intuitive that progress can be made by not practicing. I guess the chemical bath in which my brain cells seep gets work done even when I’m not on board with that.

When you make a deliberate attempt to stop doing, you find that your body is doing many things for you. I was already impressed by the fact that my heart continues to beat without my permissions, and my lungs go about their breathing business without my direction or urging, but this brain percolating thing is really something. It does so without being plugged into the Internet or a power source. It’s half-an-hour before dawn and it’s still working fine, which means it’s not even solar-powered. Who thought this one up? Give that guy a prize!