Pledge of Allegience

I bow to the lark and its tiny lifted silhouette, fluttering before infinity.
I promise myself to the mountain and to the foundation from which my future comes.
I make my vow to the stream flowing beneath, and to the water, falling toward all thirst,
and I pledge myself to the sea to which it goes and to the mercy of my disappearance.

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And though I may be left alone or abandoned by the unyielding present or orphaned in some far unspoken place,
I will speak with a voice of loyalty and faith to the far shore where everything turns to arrival,
if only in the sound of falling waves,
and I will listen with sincere and attentive eyes and ears for a final invitation,
so that I can be that note half-heard in the flying lark song,
or that tint on a far mountain brushed with the subtle grey of dawn,
even a river gone by still looking as if it hasn’t,
or an ocean heard only as the sound of waves falling and falling,
and falling, my eyes closing with them into some undeserved nothing,
even as they give up their strength on the sand.

~ David Whyte  (Pilgrim)

Stranger than fiction

Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.

— Arthur Conan Doyle, born this day in 1859

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Marc Chagall

Therapy

Mimi Ma sits in her shade-drawn first-floor office, preparing for her second and final client of the day.  The first lasted three hours. It was his contractual right to stay however long he needed. But the session polished her down to a blunt nib.  The second one will suck the day’s remaining life from her. She’ll retreat to her apartment in the Castro tonight to watch nature documentaries and listen to trance music.  Then sleep and rise to face two more clients tomorrow.

Unconventional therapists flood this city–counselors, analysts, spirit guides, self-actualizin assistants, personal consultants, and borderline charlatans, many as surprised as Mimi to find themselves in the trade.  Bu her reputation has spread so well by word of mouth that she can afford the office’s absurd rent while seeing only two clients a day. The real question, session by session, is whether she can stay sane herself as her clients eat her soul.

Many of her prospective patrons suffer from nothing worse than too much money.  She tells them so, at the screening interviews every other Friday. She won’t see anyone who isn’t in pain, and she can tell how much pain a person is in within twenty seconds of their sitting in the wing chair that facers hers in her bare session room.  She talks to each applicant for a few minutes, not about their psyches, but about the weather, sports, or childhood pets. Then she’ll either schedule a session or send the seeker home, saying “You don’t need me. You just need to see that you’re already happy”  For that advice, she charges nothing. But for a real session, there must be some sacrifice. Two such sacrifices a day suffice to keep her afloat.

Stephanie N, her afternoon guest, arrives in the front office. Mimi presses a button, telling Catherine that she’s ready.  A soft knock on the door, and Mimi rises to greet an ample, wiry-haired redhead with tortoise-shell glasses. The hunter-green tunic and its half cape fail to hide her paunch.  It doesn’t take a rabid empath to feel the visitor’s broken mainspring.

Mimi smiles and touches Stephanie’s shoulder.  

–  Relax.  There’s nothing to worry about.

–  Stephanie’s eyes widen.  

–  There isn’t?

 Hold still.  Let me have a look while you’re standing.  

  You’ve gone to the bathroom?  You’ve eaten? You left your cell phone, watch, and all other devices with Catherine?  Not carrying anything? No makeup or jewelry?

   Stephanie is clean on all counts.

   –  Good.  Plese sit.

   Stephanie takes the proferred chair, unsure how this can lead to what her brother-in-law called the most bruising, profound experience of his adult life.

 Wouldn’t it help to know a little about me?

    Mimi cocks her head and smiles.  There are so many names for the thing that everyone is scared to death of, and everyone wants to tell you theirs.  

 Stephanie, by the time we’re done, we’re going to know more about each other than there are words for.

Stephanie dobs at her eyes, nods, laughs two syllables, then flicks two fingers.  Ready.

Four minutes in, Mimi stops the session.  She leans in and touches Stephanie’s knee.

 Listen.  Just look at me.  That’s all you need to do.

Stephanie palms an apology, and reels her hand back in to her lips.  

 I know.  I’m sorry.

 If you’re self-conscious, if you’re afraid, don’t worry.  It doesn’t matter. Just keep your eyes on mine.

Stephanie bows her head.  She sits up, and they try again.  It happens often, this false start.  No one suspects how hard it is to hold another’s gaze for more than three seconds.  A quarter minute, and they are in agony. Introverts and extroverts, dominants and submissives alike.  Scopophobia hits them all. Fear of seeing and being seen. A dog will bite if you stare at it too hard. People will shoot you.  And though she has looked for hours into the eyes of hundreds of people, though she has perfected the art of endurance staring, Mimi feels a tinge of fear herself, even now, gazing into the skittering eyes of Stephanie who, blushing a little, powers through the shame and settles down.

The women lock in, awkward and naked.  A tick at the corner of Stephaniei’s lips makes Mimi smile back.

 Sheesh, the client’s eyes say.

 Yes, the therapist agrees.  Humiliating.  

The awkwardness turns pleasant enough.  Stephanie the likable. Stephanie the good-natured, the mostly self-assured.

 I’m a decent person, see?

 It doesn’t matter.

Stephanie’s lower lid tightens and her orbicularis oculi twitches.  

 Do I make sense to you?  Am I much like everyone else?  Why do I feel like I’m falling through the cracks of social goodwill?

Mimi squints less than the width of two lashes.  Microscopic reprimand.

 Just look.  Just look.

 

   Five minutes in, Stephanie’s breathing shifts and narrows.   
        Okay. I see.  I’m getting this.

 You haven’t even started.

   Mimi watches the woman come into focus.  A mother, and of more than one. Cannot stop taking care of the therapist.  Wife of a man who, after a dozen years, has become civil and distant, a bear in his lair.  Sex is perfunctory maintenance at best. But you’re mistaken, the speculating therapist tells herself.  You know nothing.  And the thought registers across the minute muscles of her face.  Just look.  Looking must correct and heal all thoughts.

   At ten minutes, Stephanie fidgets.  When does the magic start to happen?  Mimi’s eyes bear down.  Even in this tedium, Stephanie’s pulse rises.  She sits forward. Her nostrils flare. Then everything relaxes, from scalp to ankles.  Well, here goes.  What you see is what you get.

    What I get is beond your control.

   The weird shit in this room had better not leave it.

    Safer than Vegas.

    I’m not sure what I’m doing here.

    Me neither.

    I’m not sure I’d like you if I met you at a party.

     I don’t always like myself.  At parties, almost never.

     This can’t possibly be worth what I’m paying.  Even if I stay all afternoon.

     What is it worth to be looked at, without judgment, for as long as you need?

     Who am I kidding?  It’s my husband’s money.

     I’m living off my father’s inheritance.  Which might have been stolen.

     I’ve let men define me.

     I’m really an engineer.  I’m only pretending to be a therapist.

     Help me.  I wake up at 3 in the morning with a black thing clawing my chest.

     My name isn’t really Judith Hansen.  I changed it from Mimi Ma.

     On Sundays, when the sun goes down, I don’t want to live.

     Sunday evenings save me, just knowing that in a few hours I’ll be working again.

     Is it the towers?  I think it might be the towers.  I’ve been so brittle, like frozen glass.

     Towers are always falling.

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A quarter hour passes.  Unrelenting human scrutiny.  The weirdest trip Stephanie has ever been on.  Fifteen endless minutes of staring at a woman she doesn’t know from Eve triggers things, things she hasn’t thought about in decades.  She looks at Mimi and sees a crow’s-footed, scar-faced Asian version of her highschool girlfriend, a girl she broke with at 19 over some imagined slight.  There’s no one to apologize to now except this stranger who won’t stop staring at her.

Time passes.  A lifetime. A few more seconds in a room with nothing to look at but a stranger’s damaged face.  The trap closes around Stephanie. Her eyes cloud with resentment bordering on hate. A tremor of Mimi’s lips sends Stephanie back to that day, three years ago, when she at last faced down her mother and called her a bitch, and her mother’s mouth in that instant.  Stephanie squeezes her eyes shut–rules of this game be damned–and when she opens again, she sees her mother eight more months down the line of panic on a respirator in the hospital, dying of COPD, fighting to keep all thought of that day’s accusation out of her face as her daughter leans in to kiss her stony forehead.  

The watch that Stephanie left in the reception room ticks on, out of sight and hearing.  Away from it, far from all claims on her, the visitor remembers herself, soft, sad, out of nowhere, at the age of six, wanting to be a nurse.  Toy props–syringe, blood pressure cuff, white hat. Picture books and dolls. Three years of obsession, followed by thirty-five of amnesia, retrieved only by going down the rabbit hole of another woman’s eyes.  Nothing else exists outside this pact. Pupils lock and can’t look away. The years parade through Stephanie’s mind–childhood, youth, adolescence, the immunity of young adulthood followed by endless scared maturity.  She’s naked now, in front of someone she has agreed never to try to see again after today.

  Through the two-way mirror, Mimi sees. Such pain youre in.  Here, too. How can it be?  In a patch of sun that falls between them, a green feeling opens to the light.  Mimi lets it play across her face, there for the seeing. Therapy. You remind me of my sisters.  She lets this woman in...

   A great sororal surge comes over Stephanie.  She reaches her hand to this slight, half-Asian shaman four feet from her.  One quick tightening of Mimi’s corrugator muscles warns her off. There’s more.  So much more.

  At half an hour, Stephanie melts down.   She’s hungry, stiff,itchy, and so sick of herself she wants to sleep forever. The truth seeps out of her, a bodily discharge.  You shouldn’t trust me.  I don’t deserve this. You see?  I’m fucked up in ways even my children don’t suspect.  I stole from my brother. I left the scene of an accident.  I’ve had sex with men whose names I don’t even know. Several times.  Recently.

  Yes. Hush.  I’m wanted in three states.

  Their faces feed pitiless into one another. Muscles move, the world’s slowest flip-book.  Terror, shame, desperation, hope: each lasts its own three-second lifetime. After an hour, the islands of emotion wash into an open sea.  The two faces swell; their mouths and noses and brows expand to fill a Rushmore. Truth hovers between them, great and nebulous, a thing their bodies keep them from reaching.

   Another hour.  Deserts of infinite boredom punctuated by peaks of freakish intensity.  More annihilated memories percolate up from below, so many moments, recovered and lost again in this loop of looking.  Hydra-like, multiplying memories longer than the lives that made them. Stephanie sees. So clear now: Shes an animal, a mere avatar.  The other woman, too–stuff-imprisoned spirit, deluded into thinking its autonomous. And yet conjoined, linked to each other, a pair of local gods who have lived and felt all things.  One of them has a thought, which at once becomes the other’s. Enlightenment is a shared enterprise. It needs some other voice saying, You are not wrong…

    If only I could remember this in real time, under fire!  I’d be cure.

    There are no cures.

    Is this it?  Is there more?  Maybe I should go.

    No.

 In hour three, truths flow loose and terrible.  Things come out of hiding that would lose them membership in any club but this one that they can’t quit.

 I’ve lied to my closest friends.

 Yes. I let my mother die unattended.

 I spied on my husband and read his private letters.

 Yes.  I cleaned bits of my father’s brain off the backyard flagstones.

 My son won’t talk to me.  He says I ruined his life.

 Yes。 I heped kill my friend.

 How can you bear to look at me?

 There are harder things to bear.

The sunlight changes  Slits of light crawl up the walls.  It occurs to Stephanie to wonder if it’s still today, or if that was some time ago.  Her pupils have long since started to seesaw, closing and dilating by turns, dimming and glaring the room.  She can’t even summon up the will to stand and leave. When it can’t go on, that’s when this will end. Then they’ll never see each other again, except for always.

  Her eyes burn.  She blinks, numb, dumb, ravenous, wrecked, and badly in need of emptying her bladder.  Something keeps her from breathing–this frail, scarred woman who won’t look away. Pinned in that look, she becomes something else, huge and fixed, swaying in the wind and pelted by rain.  The whole urgent calculus of need–what she called her life–shrinks down to a pore on the underside of a life, wa out on the tip of a wind-dipped branch, high up in the crown of a community too big for any glance to take in.  And way down below, subterranean, in the humus, through the roots of humility, gifts fow.

   Her cheeks tense up.  She wants to shout, Who are you? Why won’t you stop? No one has ever looked at me like this, except to judge, rob, or rape me.  In my whole life, my whole life, never… Her face reddens.  With slow, heavy, disbelieving swings of her head, she starts to cry. The tears do whatever they want.  Call it sobbing. The therapist is crying, too.

  –  Why?  Why am I sick? What’s wrong with me?

  –  Loneliness. But not for people.  You’re mourning a thing you never even knew.

    What thing?

    A great, spoked, wild, woven-together place beyond replacing–one you didn’t even know was yours to lose.

    Where dit it go?

    Into making us.  But it still wants something.

  Stephanie is up and out of the chair, clinging to the stranger.  Taking her by the shoulders. Nodding, crying, nodding. And the stranger lets her.  Of course, grief. Grief for a thing too big to see. Mimi pulls back to ask if Stephanie is all right.  All right to leave. All right to drive. But Stephanie puts fingers on her mouth and hushes the therapist forever.

— from The Overstory by Richard Powers 

Progress

Ladakh is an arid area, high in the Himalayas.  It’s a hard place to make a living.  People needed all the help they could get to raise sheep and grow wheat in the short season without frost.

Twenty years ago, when tools and affordable imported food and modern housing became available, young people embraced the more affluent, more convenient life that was offered.  But many came to realize that, for all they had gained, they had also lost something precious.  The relaxed comradery, the satisfaction of cooperating in difficult, skilled work were lost.  Remarkably, all the labor-saving conveniences led to less free time for gathering and gossiping and dancing.

Watch Ancient Futures on Youtube.

Beginning my 70th Year

At the dawn of my 7th year, I relished all things new and lustrous.  Each day, I understood something about the world that I hadn’t understood just the day before.

In my 70th year, I celebrate unlearning the things I thought I knew.  Each day, I hope to question some assumption that I have accepted for so long that I cannot imagine how my world might fit together without it.

As one piece after another falls away from what I once thought was the bedrock of reality, I find the most daunting challenge is to assemble from the new pieces some coherent whole, something with just a fraction of the satisfying integrity of the mythical picture of the world that has guided me since childhood.

Like the old peasant of Shamcher’s story, I will be given to know what I need to know, no more.  If I want to know more, then, I must throw myself into some mission that requires deep knowledge.  I ask for the guidance to tell me what that mission might be.

— Josh Mitteldorf

Brahms and Tchaikovsky

Born in 1833 and 1840, in Hamburg and Votkinsk, both on the 7th of May.   The most popular, most beloved of all the great late romantic composers, and yet they couldn’t appreciate one another.  Brahms was indifferent to Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky actively disliked Brahms’s music and argued that it was unappealing.

Today, their reputations are both solid.  We think of Brahms as more the formalist, the intellectual.  But compared to many 20th Century composers, his music is not at all abstract or difficult to appreciate with our hearts.  We think of Tchaikovsky as sentimental, but what a genius!  In originality of orchestration he is unsurpassed.   His works have deep integrity of structure, an intellectual attribute for which Brahms is known.  Even his counterpoint—the most abstract of compositional techniques—is brilliantly original.

(When I was young, I learned a prejudice against Tchaikovsky from musician friends who said his music was shallow.  So I’ve learned to love his music later in life than Brahms.)

Both repressed their sexuality.  Brahms was in love with the wife of his friend and mentor Robert Schumann.  Tchaikovsky was attracted to men, but secretive and ashamed in the repressive environment of Czar Nicholas.

The two men met twice in their lives.  Brahms was reported to be solicitous, Tchaikovsky a bit more stand-offish.  Neither was warm.

      “It is impossible in listening to Brahms’ music to say that it is weak or unremarkable,” Tchaikovsky goes on. “His style is always elevated. Unlike all our contemporary musicians, he never has recourse to purely external effects; he never attempts to astonish us, to strike us by some new and brilliant orchestral combination; nor do we meet in his music with anything trivial or directly imitative. It is all very serious, very distinguished, apparently even original, but in spite of all this, the chief thing is lacking – beauty! A few years ago, when I frankly expressed my opinion of Brahms to [pianist-conductor] Hans von Bülow, he replied: ‘Wait a minute, the time will come when you will enter into the depth and beauty of Brahms. Like you, it was long before I understood him, but gradually, I was blessed by the revelation of his genius. It will be the same with you.’ And still I wait; but the revelation tarries. I deeply revere the artistic personality of Brahms. I bow to the actual purity of his musical tendencies, and I admire his firm, proud renunciation of all the tricks that solemnize the Wagner cult, and in a much less degree the worship of Liszt, but I do not care for his music.   — Bradley Bambarger

Here are links to the scherzo 3rd movements of Brahms Symphony #4 and Tchaikovsky Symphony #4. Both movements are palpably joyous. (If you’e interested, you might listen to what comes right after the pizzicato string fade at the end of the Tchaikovsky movement. I won’t give away more.)