Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mastering The Heart

Mastering the heart
Opens all possibilities …

Waiting terrified
Not knowing why
I watch
Serene fields worked
By invisible hands

In the quiet rest
Of evening
I watch
My father rise
Crippled and lame

Mastering the heart
Opens all possibilities …

From darkness beyond
Crystalline glass
I watch
My grandfather
Scream silent curses

Never a reply
To betray shame
I watch
Grandfather’s son
Limp into death

Mastering the heart
Opens all possibilities …

Muscle blood sinew
Holding stillness
I watch
Compromise futures

Breathing out darkness
Golden dawns break
I watch
Shining stars fade
The Work continues

Mastering the heart
Opens all possibilities …

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Photo: Diego Fernandes 2009

I am trying to crack the hardness surrounding my mentality, or at least a piece of my mentality. I remembered this morning the incident of the “missing exercise record” from my youth.

In brief, I heard and became quickly enamored of an exercise recording at school one day with a catchy tune called “Chicken Fat” that was probably a product of some physical fitness campaign. Some fellow brought the record to school and put all of us fourth graders through all of its eight minutes of exercises and being thrilled with the thing I immediately ordered a copy for which I had to pay out of my allowance some outrageous sum…probably four or five dollars.

So thrilled was I with the record that I took it home and played and exercised over and over, stretching the eight or so minutes of exercise into something like maybe fifteen or twenty. Not a bad aerobic workout for a fourth grader. I must have really got the exercise bug, because I remembered faithfully going through the routine every afternoon for about a week.

However, my mother wasn’t as thrilled with either the record or my exercising, and I couldn’t say which bothered her more but she did say that if I wanted to exercise I could go out and dig in the garden or cut wood or rake up leaves or some such thing. Whatever it was I cooperated fully and completed the task because I knew that her “suggestion” was a command. I will not say I did whatever it was cheerfully, but I did it.

So after that final routine I carefully put away my record in its sleeve and did my chore. The weekend went by and the following Monday I went back to school actually looking forward to getting home, not a common occurrence, and once again exercising to my record.

Upon arrival at home however, I could not locate my record anywhere and I put in a great deal of effort looking. It took me years to realize that my mother had most likely thrown it into the garbage and because I was always suspicious of my parent’s actions, it was a place I checked. What I didn’t realize was that she probably buried it in the garbage knowing I would dig through the top layers of the stuff.

What does this have to do with me today?

I have recently tried to inject an exercise regime into my life. Exercise is not difficult; I am not overweight and while I am slightly ‘jiggly’ around the middle, I am certainly not fat. I need more to move weight rather than lose it; in fact, I may be a little underweight. To accomplish this, I have joined a website that promotes fitness and has a social networking aspect to it as well. More importantly, it demands a certain mindset of positive energy and its founder speaks eloquently about spiritual aspects of health and fitness.

So what is the problem? The program has certain requirements. There are a series of ‘assignments’ to be read and carried out and the founder has carefully laid out a syllabus for students to complete. Therein lies the big hurdle for me: I am essentially a terrible student. I think I like to learn but learning takes effort and somewhere I learned that effort isn’t worth the effort.

I live almost completely upside down and backwards from the average American, whatever that is.

I have difficulty competing because competition wasn’t allowed by my parents or in my family environment. For example, when my siblings and I played the game Monopoly (which we all blithely called Monotony), no one ever won because it would mean someone was trying to win! The only way anyone was allowed to win any game was by complete chance; skill and strategy caused too much dissention and anger. So every ordinary game we played was a chance-driven game like a strange little card game my grandmother taught us given the curiously aggressive name of “Beat Your Neighbors Out Of Doors”. Games that were completely driven by the roll of dice such as board games were pretty much okay, but games like chess stopped being played as soon as someone seemed to start improving beyond the abilities of my parents.

Some of us did eventually learn to play whist and gin, but these were games which had such long stretches of time between playings that they had to be relearned every time or were actually learned long after my parents had lost any interest at all in games. There is certainly skill to games like cribbage but that skill has to be taught and my parents had no interest in losing and taught only the barest of fundamentals of how to count the cards and when and if they started losing, they stopped playing.

I mention games because I have heard that the learning of games is one method of learning how to interact with and deal with the complexity of a society. If this is true then an individual living in a complex, competitive society needs to learn how to compete and understand the social complexities and these skills are most easily taught and learned during formative years. What happens to the individual who does not learn the skills needed in his society?

I remember one evening my brother and I sitting at the dining room table, which was where school homework was usually done until we finally acquired a desk for our room somewhere during my middle school years (and even then my brother tended to pile books and papers on it in such a way that it couldn’t easily be utilized as a desk). I do not remember what we were actually involved in but I made a comment something like, “well, I need to strive to achieve (it)…” using the word ‘strive’ because I had read or heard how striving to reach ones goals was how things were done. My brother, who had been listening to my yammer suddenly interrupted me saying, and I will never forget this, “Oh no! You must never strive for anything!!” His interruption shocked me. To this day I am not sure whether he said it because he really felt that way or because it was his way of breaking the ‘non-competition’ rule of the house.

I later asked him about it and he seemed to indicate that he actually believed in non-competition but many of his actions seem contrary to the idea. He did tell me one afternoon sitting by the American River in an almost confessional way that my father had spent a lot of time comparing my supposed grace to his clumsiness and apparently gave him the idea that I was favored in some way. This completely took me by surprise because I had always thought that he, as the elder, was the favored one! Some time after that event my father began to reveal some aspects of his personality that astonished and depressed me.

He revealed a certain bitterness about some events early in my brother’s life that my mother and her parents developed a monopoly on my brother’s time and only allowed my father special access when it suited them, taking my brother to watch my maternal grandfather in his workshop or taking him to his place of work, never allowing him to see my father at his place of work.

When my brother was registering for the Selective Service he told them he had seizures and was listed 4-F. My father was angry and told him and me, and then told me again later that my brother had been “stupid” and “should have lied”. Again, this astonished me, because we had always been conditioned, sometimes violently, to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. I rather confrontationally asked my father where we would have ever got the idea that under some circumstances it would be okay to lie? He didn’t seem to care that my brother’s circumstances could endanger another human.

At the time, I tried to smooth things over by saying, “well that wouldn’t have been a good idea because (my brother) wanted to be a pilot and it could have been really dangerous…etc., etc. … He really wanted to go into the Air Force Academy … you know, to become a pilot, an officer...” To which my father replied, “Oh, he just wanted to surpass me.” I was and am shocked that a parent would say this about his child, and the offhand way in which he said it and the gleeful relief in his voice that it hadn’t happened still stirs my ire.

Which brings me to another problem: my parents didn’t seem to believe in or want a future, or maybe even a goal. The future, and its corollary, goals, were either nonexistent or at the very least, suspect. “Why do you want to do that?” was always the question. “What’s the point?” Recently, one of my sisters told me she isn’t sure there is a point in thinking about the future. The question arose again while I was filling out a job application recently and came across a question, which read, “What do you want to be doing in five years?” It took me a few days to think up a response and I can’t even remember what I wrote.

My elder sister, toward the end of her high school years contacted a school that trained airline personnel to become flight attendants, ticket agents and the like and a representative of the school came to our house to interview my sister and talk with my parents about enrollment. I was really hoping my sister’s excitement would carry the day and she would get hired by one of the airlines, mostly because I thought maybe I might get to fly somewhere exotic. It was a beautiful spring day; I love to fly so I went for a walk to daydream about flying to Honolulu or Rome.

At the very moment I returned to the house, my sister came running, crying and screaming out the front door and, not too far behind her, the woman from the school tightly gripping a briefcase came striding, angrily, red-faced, toward her car. Then she stopped, turned and yelled something back at the house about what “…you are doing to your daughter’s life…” I stopped abruptly in the yard to watch her throw the briefcase in her car, slam the door and speed away, nearly running the car off an embankment opposite our driveway, but just before she got in her car and slammed the door, she yelled at me in a rising crescendo, “Don’t have any dreams!”

A moment later when I warily entered the house, both my parents were sitting comfortably in our living room, my mother looking like she had just won the academy award and my father had an unfathomable grin on his face, rather like an agent whose client had just won an academy award. I knew in that moment that any plan I had for any kind of future for myself must be kept completely secret until it became fait accompli, Worse, any plan or goal I might have had up until that moment completely evaporated. To this day I have difficulty visualizing goals unless they are extremely short term, but practice has given me an ability, however slight, to anticipate consequences.

But this disability hasn’t stopped me from continually trying to reformulate my future.

Today, I was monitoring my body because of the program I am trying to accomplish and suddenly realized that pursing my lips has become habitual! I love to laugh but I have forgotten, if I ever knew, how to smile! When I started trying to loosen the musculature around my mouth, I noticed my eyebrows were either in a mild frown or slightly raised in surprise, or maybe fear. What is happening here?

Here is my theory.

We are, all of us, creatures of habit and some habits form without our knowing it. We may all be born in beauty and joy and surely some of us develop in beauty and joy but what happens when our development is skewed away from it? I think a kind of anger forms from the loss and that anger is expressed in various ways, perhaps the least of which is a habitual form of facial expression.

I think it is our nature to “wear” our bodies into a shape that satisfies our most constant mental and emotional condition. This isn’t anything new; actors and dancers have been using an enforced technique of this idea for thousands of years. The Greek comedy/tragedy masks are a good example. But what is necessary to alter that conditioned stance?

My answer is some kind of readjustment that has as its genesis an alteration of the inner mental/emotional/spiritual condition. This isn’t new either. In fact, nothing I write here is new, even the fact that I myself am involved in an attempt to alter my inner climate. I previously wrote about how I got the idea to enter the Navy but I did not write about the ideas that kept that idea on track.

In high school and even before, I developed a way of interfacing with my universe. I use the word interface because I saw myself as a unique system that could not operate with any other system without a special program operating. After I developed my ‘interface’, I could interact. Part of that program allowed me to mentally slip out of one personality mode and into another, usually without anyone noticing very much. Those who did notice usually didn’t comment. To anyone reading this, I know how this sounds. My brother actually called me “a little schizo” (and he meant small not ‘just a tad’…) once and my mother quite belligerently told him that I wasn’t because that is what she was diagnosed as being and I couldn’t possibly be the same. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. However, I am not schizophrenic nor do I have multiple personality disorder.

But let me return to my interface technique.

This self-developed program allowed me, like an actor, to put on a personality or character if you will. In school, I necessarily developed what looked as close as I could reckon to what I thought a “shy person” must be like. I used my siblings and shy schoolmates as patterns and worked very hard to keep up this appearance and it was quite difficult because I am not natively shy at all. It was also this ‘character’ that I most often slipped out of accidentally. Another ‘character’ was a kind of spy I used when I felt I wasn’t getting enough information or I felt there were sides to a story that hadn’t been expressed completely. I used ‘the spy’ to ferret out what I thought of as the reality of a situation. I used detective and espionage novels and movies to learn spy characteristics and learning this ‘character’ was also useful in learning to listen.

The most difficult part of developing this interface was the problem of being alone. First, it was lonely, and second I didn’t know what ‘character’ I needed to play to interact with myself. It was a very thorny problem because I knew on some level I had to develop a way of listening to myself. I had read and heard many times that we all have ‘that little inner voice’ and unfortunately, mine seemed to be missing or, at the very least, muffled. My paternal grandmother was the first person I remember who told me about listening to my inner voice and while I am fairly certain she meant something altogether different, because I was quite young, I took it to mean and began listening for a voice inside my head that sounded like a voice outside my head. Thankfully, this did not happen.

What I did notice though was that when I slipped into one of these characters, my proprioception changed! I have always been fairly ambidextrous, even to occasionally writing with both hands. Changing hands can be forced but hand dominance stays the same. This is difficult to explain to most people but there are also moments when the dominance changes and using the opposite side is much easier and, more importantly, it can be sensed. It is an odd sensation that feels a little like I am going through a minor earthquake, but when the sensation passes I am seeing differently or feeling the need to use the opposite hand from moments before. These changes of hand or eye dominance however, have nothing to do with slipping in and out of character other than my ambidextrous dominance changes primed me for being able to feel when my body had ‘slipped into character’.

What that means is that when my mental/emotional inner climate had changed, something about my body changed. What changed might be my tension level, or the slump of my shoulders, but the inner change always occurred first. However, occasionally in forcing a physical change, I could promote a dominance change and that seems to mean that changing a physical posture might also change a mental attitude.

Now many years later, having learned a great deal of cynicism and not needing the interface any longer, I have misplaced the ability to use it. Perhaps I don’t really need it but isn’t it also possible that if I can alter either physical or mental posture my demeanor to others will be altered as well?

What I now need is to reacquire some beauty and joy and release some mental and physical tension from places it has longed called home. I wonder if it is too much to ask for an epiphany?