The Stars of My Constellation

Life, too often it seems, has a way of getting the best of us.

After all, its endless barrage of trials and tribulations — and even its triumphs — seem random at best and intentional at worst. Fathomless depths of data and information confront us in our quest, confounding our best efforts. Sometimes it guides our hand safely (hunger driving us to eat), yet oftentimes it leads us astray (that beignet does NOT constitute a full meal, no matter how scrumptious-looking or tasty). Every day brings with it the weight of existence, of new problems, new strategies, new problems resulting from said strategies, all in a endless circle to circumvent our own physical and spiritual demise and of those closest to us.

And what of this endless circle? To what end do we fight these sisyphean battles, the exact same battles that have been fought, won, and lost by those before us?

What am I (and what are we) but an insignificant mote, buffeted by experiences and happenstance?

Indeed, the temptation to drown in that noisy void can be overwhelming. Yet there is a silken thread to follow here, holding us all from the depths.

That thread is your very own perception, your very own view of the world. It ties you to your past, to your memories and your reactions to them. It includes your present experience and every past event, memory, and impression that you use to process, collect, and act upon information new and old. With every thought and step, you weave your thread, drawing from the stuff of the universe as you pass through its chambers.

You connect the stars of your own constellation. You are the writer of your own tale.

And no matter the subject matter — the loss of a loved one, the thrill of reaching the mountaintop, the shame of failure — you yourself hold the pen. You cannot control the world around you. No one can.

But you alone can draw the connections. You alone can decide what it means.

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

“Invictus” by William Earnest Henley

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The Nature of Time

Time is
a precious gift
glittering in your trembling hands
Oh, the beauty it holds!
Oh, its infinite marvels — unseen!

Time is
a narcotic shroud
numbing your heart from trauma’s strife
Oh, how peaceful its embrace!
Oh, the dreamless sleep it brings!

Time is
a soul’s sentence
each second recounting a lifetime’s anguish
Oh, how cruel this fate!
Oh, how deep its measured scorn!

Time is
your own reflection
a mirror confining your own perception
Oh, to peek behind the veil!
Oh, to gaze upon that endless shore!

Among the grasses

Oh, how I wish
I could shrink at will
And crouch among
the blowing grasses!

I cannot stand
their sideways glances,
Their probing thoughts
and questioning stances.

Oh, that I could disappear
and watch the world —
As it silently spins & churns —
From afar!

Oh, that the weight
of expectation —
This mantle of aspiration —
Be lifted from my brow.

Is it not enough to simply be,
to exist and keenly feel
The explosive joys of ecstasy
and the sharp edges of grief?

Is it not enough?
I tell you truly,
All too often
It is much too much!

For a Moment

For a moment
he was there,
There
by the door —
His presence
breathing
Into my soul.

For a moment his Eyes
Shone
Like marbled glass,
Catching
My thoughts
and the color
of the sky.

For a moment
he was –
I was –
Outside
of Space
and Time.
Two times
yet one,
Two lives
yet one.

For a moment
I forgot
Who I was
and where I’d been.
There was but
One
Moment.
And it was mine.

It Takes a Village: Evicted

They say it takes a village to raise a child. For me, it was a village… of books.

However, a select few had the greatest hand in shaping me. Of the hundreds I have devoured over the years, these rise immediately to the surface.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

This book, in a word, is absolutely devastating.

Author Matthew Desmond here compiles research with on-the-ground reporting as he follows eight families struggling to keep a roof over their heads in Milwaukee, WI.

Many of you remember how it felt, being strapped for cash. The bills loom over you. Every moment of every day becomes a feverish calculation for survival. All the while you stare down into the abyss, its roaring maw waiting to devour your entire world.

But what happens if you fall in?

What is there on the other side?

Desmond, like a beat reporter, brings a whole cast of characters to life who are living your worst nightmares. Its intensity and immediacy is overwhelming; I frequently had to set the book aside as I keenly felt the distress, rage, grief, and hopelessness pouring from every page.

This work’s greatest impact upon me, however, came in the epilogue and appendices. Desmond here shares the how of writing the book — literally following his subjects, recording interviews and interactions, watching as they are evicted, arrested, and freed over and over again — and his underwriting of numerous research projects in order to tell the macro of his micro-study of homeless and eviction in America.

He also reveals here the severe emotional impact this project had upon him. The shadows of Milwaukee’s slums still hang over him, leaving him with intense feelings of shame for living a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. He related how once, upon receiving a gifted bottle of wine, his immediate thought was: “This would be enough to keep someone off the streets.”

How does one live after fundamentally intruding on these people’s lives? After living in their skin?

These very questions confronted me as I reached the end of my journalism studies in college. As a news-editorial student, I was NOT smart about getting internships and getting my hands dirty… until it was much too late.

It was during a capstone reporting course that I broke. I was interviewing a young local female artist — part of a silly store-opening feature story — and she opened up as to why she wasn’t in college, wasn’t finishing her degree, wasn’t working as a nurse (her chosen profession). Here is her story:

She was just beginning college, a time when everything is possible. One day, she realized she was drowning in fatigue and had absolutely no energy. None. She was taken to the hospital. Diagnosis: lymphoma.

Radiation treatment was successful. (A godsend!) But returning to her studies (now at least a year behind), something strange happened: her studies, once a breeze, now were utterly impossible. Mathematics, once her forte, might as well have been written in Mandarin.

Slowly, her dreams began to evaporate.

At the same time, she experienced severe bone density loss due to her radiation treatment. She already had several joints replaced (as a young woman in her 20s!) and would need surgery on every single one at some point in her life.

I thanked her for her time and returned to my car. After a moment of quiet, I placed my head on the steering wheel and sobbed.

I felt dirty. I felt evil. I had trespassed into the innermost sanctum of another’s life, and I felt unworthy.

I returned to class the following day. My professor (and classmates) showed excitement for where the story could lead:

Call up her hospital! UNL administration! There is something real here!

And I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to do so. The pain was too much, and I realized I had utterly no courage for this project, this class, or this profession.

I still have not forgiven myself for letting them down. My instructors. My mentors. The cause. And most of all, for letting her down.

Desmond revealed to me that what I felt was real. That it was okay. And that there are no easy answers: only moving forward.

I hope someday I, too, will learn to be courageous. To advocate for the voiceless, to fight the good fight, to change the world.

And to also forgive myself.

It Takes a Village: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

They say it takes a village to raise a child. For me, it was a village… of books.

However, a select few had the greatest hand in shaping me. Of the hundreds I have devoured over the years, these rise immediately to the surface.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

This book is yet another example of my crab-walking tendencies. No, I don’t ride motorcycles. And while, yes, I am very interested in the precepts and application of Zen, I am no Zen master.

As with my other top-10 titles, there is more than meets the eye here.

The author, Robert Pirsig, posits that there is an outright war occurring in today’s social consciousness. What is at stake is so basic, it is something you likely take for granted, dear reader: How does one discover truth in the world?

Western philosophy responded with science, industry, and rigorous applications of logic. Truth must be provable. Truth circumvents (and often rejects) the spiritual, the personal, the intuitive. And so we, today, have a very solid concept of how truth must be discovered — and reject other paths to obtain it.

Eastern philosophy answered this question in the opposite direction — incorporating the spiritual, the personal, and the intuitive to discover inner and outer truths. While perhaps more in vogue today, such approaches are still seen as foreign and on the fringes of modern thought.

All too often these days, Western philosophy’s approach has left us unsatisfied. Sometimes, it has been outright rejected — you see it with society’s distrust of academia, education, and established science. You see it in the arguments against climate change and the anti-vax movement. You see it in our fearless leader’s utter disregard and contempt for responsible, thoughtful discourse and decisionmaking.

(Not to say that these things are employing Eastern philosophy — a lot of it is just an utter lack of thinking in general, supported by logical fallacy and grandstanding.)

But what is the answer? Which philosophy leads the individual to Truth?

Both. And neither. By rejecting one way of seeing the world and only using the other, Pirsig argues, you restrain yourself from perceiving the whole as it truly is.

And so it is: your version of Truth is only as close to Reality as your Frame is open to it.

And that leads to my next two-fer entry: Hofstader’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid.

I have reread bits of it within the past year, and am just now sitting down to read it in its entirety. But the concepts Hofstadter touches upon here have already tilted my entire world sideways.

I am no numbers whiz (my last mathematics course was high school calculus!), but Hofstadter here brings together parallels found between music, art, and number theory — which has incredible ramifications for the nature of truth, intelligence, and cognition.

Something is rippling beneath the surface here. I’ll be back when I’m ready for my full dissertation.

 

It Takes a Village: A Final Arc of Sky

They say it takes a village to raise a child. For me, it was a village… of books.

However, a select few had the greatest hand in shaping me. Of the hundreds I have devoured over the years, these rise immediately to the surface.

A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care

Ever since I was very young, I realized I seemed… different. Everything in my day-to-day life — from the remarkable to the incredibly mundane — seemed to affect me on a deeply emotional and psychological level. Imagine a life where everything is red-hot and fiery with significance. Nothing can be ignored. Cognition, with its fierce tenacity, unspools and tangles in an intricate web, bringing together all of existence, constantly and simultaneously firing new insights and mysteries.

Doesn’t that just sound exhausting?

Another way of putting it is that I’m just a dweeb who takes everything much too seriously. So I am with my work, so I was during my school days. This book came to my hands during an English nonfiction course my junior year of college.

This memoir formed the center of a final group project, teaching and leading class discussion during a full class period. As usual, I ended up taking over the entire project. The reason, however, was unexpected.

My classmates (females, all) vehemently disliked our assigned memoir of a critical care and emergency flight nurse. I puzzled a bit over the likely reasons– was Culkin not feminine enough? Was the medical jargon (and imagery) overwhelming? Was Culkin’s approach to pain, suffering, and death too blunt and matter-of-fact?

Or was it perhaps something else?

Flipping through Culkin’s memoir again, I was reminded of how her thought processes felt so similar to mine — the often complex and enmeshed layers of cognition constantly winding up and spinning out throughout the pages. I would imagine too many such meanderings could obfuscate the story’s thread beyond repair.

To me, it shone like the proverbial silken thread.

Along that thread came myriad experiences and thoughts, both intense and deeply meaningful. Culkin’s recognition of our limitations — in saving life and in living it — informed my own confrontation with the loss of family and a dear mentor at the time. Nowhere is this struggle sugarcoated. Everywhere, Culkin frankly admits that to be human is to be full of weakness and doubt; no level of experience can save us from these struggles or show us the way to go.

We all bear the full weight and responsibility of discovering and coming to terms with our own humanity.

And life must be learned by living it.