Not Less Than Everything
On the Unity of the World
A Word On What We Know
The longer I live the more I doubt myself and others. I have seen much, thought much, experienced quite a bit, and have come to one conclusion: nobody really knows what they’re talking about– about anything. This is not a problem. This is not a bad thing. This is simply the way things are. Of course some people “know” how to build a bridge, fix a flat tire, mend a bad heart, make spaghetti, or get to the moon. But this kind of “knowing” is not what we’re talking about. This kind of knowing is like birds knowing how to fly, spiders knowing how to make a web, beavers knowing how to build a dam, cats knowing how to catch mice, or me knowing your phone number. It is living in a world and functioning in that world…something all living creatures do. But none of these creatures “know” who they are or where they came from. None “know” what is inside the mind of another. None understand the infinite complexity of any creature, much less any moment in history. None know how their consciousnesses function and if what they perceive and think corresponds to the reality of the world. None know why they are the way they are or why anything else is the way it is. None know what existence is, how Being came to be, or the real causal chain of anything. All that is beyond our reach, beyond our being, beyond our ten fingers, beating hearts, bouncing brains, and so-called minds. We don’t like to admit it, but, in the end, life is not a riddle to be solved, not a mystery to be understood, not a problem with a solution, not good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, long or short, profound or shallow, simple or complex, interesting or boring, beautiful or ugly, worth living or not worth living…No…Existence is none of these things Existence defies definition. Existence cannot be captured or grasped. One lives it. One dies it. One eats it. One shits it. One wanders through it like a blind dog in a carnival. Some will find a warm hand and a bowl of food. Others will get a kick in the ribs, a parking ticket and a brain tumor. All will be themselves for as long as they exist. But those selves will not be known or understood by anyone including themselves because all are infinitely complex and deeply deeply rooted and melted into the fiber of Being.
Darkness and Light
This reflection began with the death of a friend, Kerry Davis, with whom I used to play basketball. First this happened:
My dear friend Charlie, who told me about the funeral, had everything wrong. He was there waiting for me at the station in Lugano …We take the small train to Caslano where he says we can view the body at 14h30…Charlie has recently had a knee operation and can barely walk…We limp the mile from Caslano station to the church…No Kerry Davis in sight…Another funeral has ended…Charlie shows some casket chauffeurs in front of the church the info on his iPhone where he has a picture of the death announcement…(they actually remember Charlie, Kerry, and I from our playing and coaching days)…Kerry is not in Caslano, but in Lugano where he can be viewed at 16h30, but the funeral is the next day at 9h…We walk the mile back and take the train and bus to where Kerry is supposed to be in Lugano (the viewing spot is 100 meters from “La Gerra” where the Lugano basketball team used to play)…I leave Charlie in a café and go see if Kerry is there. There are 5 doors with names on them. I put on my glasses. Kerry is there…I look around…It’s 16h…No one looks at me…I try the door…It opens. I enter heaven. Kerry and I have a moment together just like old times though he is resting in peace (the expression seems appropriate). However his 1m98 body barely fits in the box. His shiny coffee-black skin makes him look very healthy and I keep thinking he will open an eye, wink, say something, wiggle, etc. – you know, share a moment with me about a couple of our great memories together, maybe even tell me how he died. I say without thinking, “Kerry, I love you to death.” He doesn’t wake up… I go fetch Charlie at the café. It’s 16h30 and he is charging his phone and having coffee. I have a quick Irish beer and then take him over to see Kerry. An old basketball person who speaks only Italian is there. For fifteen minutes he talks with Charlie (he coached in Lugano for three years and speaks decent Italian) about his own bout with cancer. I ask if he knows how Kerry died. He doesn’t know – just says it was “subito”. At least I think that’s what he says. I walk around the casket a few times. I can’t see the scar on Kerry’s forehead where he had hit his head on the basket forty years before. Oh could he jump with those thighs of elastic steel. I touch his hand and we go back outside. Both are cold…As we walk to the bus to the station, Charlie says he doesn’t like that kind of stuff.
We get on the same train at 17h42. He gets off in Lucerne…I come in the house at 22h30. Both other occupants are up, one in front of the tv and the other in front of her iPhone. I ask them how their day was. Answers are brief and neither questions me about anything. I go to bed…
I send this to friend Chris in California. She answers saying: those are very powerful moments alone with the dead. did you feel something missing? spirit? life force? a hollowing out? when i was alone with pam’s dead son, i couldn’t stop touching his hair…, but something indefinable wasn’t there.”
I answer: i’m tempted to say something is always missing…but the dead seem to be missing all but the flesh that will soon rot away…o life
Her reply: all animals the same…a hollowing out when the time comes…where does that energy go? where does the light go when i turn off the switch?
My answer: imagine all the suns – stars – out there in space and yet still most of space is black, bleak, lightless. there is definitely much much more of the universe in the dark than in the light, probably 99.9 %…can the same be said for mankind? if so, where are the human lights, the ones that really glow on their own, not from the lights of cameras, stages, and spotlights?
And so I began to reflect on darkness and light, life and death, and humans that might be lights unto themselves, humans that actually give off light as opposed to humans that walk in the light of cameras, stages, and spotlights, i.e. humans who are suns themselves as opposed to humans that bask in the light of the stars and suns.
Who creates her or his own light? Who lives in the light created by other sources?
There are suns and stars all over the universe that are attached to nothing and exude light of unimaginable proportions. Our sun can reach temperatures of 15 million degrees Celsius. We are 93,000,000 miles away, but the sun keeps us warm. It is that strong, that hot, that much of a force. What are we, we who grovel for a few decades on the earth? Are there any sources of light among us?
Our sun is not even one of the bigger suns in the universe. Just in our own Milky Way galaxy (wouldn’t “Milky Way” be a wonderful name for a shopping mall?) there are stars that are thought to be 1,500 times bigger than our sun.
But we should not compare ourselves to things so far away. What good does it do? Oh yes, it can help to give us a perspective on things…But what things should we really have a perspective about? Ourselves? Others? Our nations? Our values?…Our thoughts?…Our beliefs?…Our truths?…Our time alive and dead?
What is the goal of “having a perspective”? Might it be that only one who can step back can shine out? Only one separate from the block of humanity can one shine on humanity?
Ask yourself, “Am I a source of light?”… “Do I simply live off the light of the sun and others?”… “Do I absorb light or do I give it off?”
Now let us ask, “What is truly enlightening?” Other than suns, fire, and electric lights, what gives off light? When you are in a dark place with other human beings or animals, which creatures will make the place feel darker and which ones will make it feel lighter?
When I stood next to my friend Kerry’s coffin, it did feel as though he was giving off light. He had always been a source of pleasure when we played together and when I coached him. We never argued or fought. If we won, we had a few pleasant beers together. If we lost we had a few pleasant beers together. He never bitched or complained about life. It is true that he stuttered and because of this was not a man who said much, except after a few of those pleasant beers.
When we were in Rome together in 1978 celebrating the end of a season, we invited a couple of women to our hotel. We had had a few grandpas during the day and we bought a bottle of whiskey for when the “girls” came. They finally showed up around 21h. It became evident that we were not two matches made in heaven when one of the girls said she was a couple months pregnant and another said she had some female problem with her reproductive apparatus. After they left around 23h, Kerry and I drank most of the bottle of whiskey. We laughed and joked to where he fell headfirst between the two beds and couldn’t get up. I remember standing on a bed and pulling his massive body up by his skinny ankles.
But O my God those thighs weren’t skinny. Oh no! They were made of elastic steel.
Even dead, Kerry was light.
Echoes fall through time as well as space. Jon Ferguson wrote a collection of aphorisms he entitled: So Like Flowers…
This petal was called The History of Knowledge:
“How old are you?” a little girl asked the world. “I don’t know,” the world answered. Her older brother heard the conservation and butted in. “What do you mean you don’t know how old you are! You’re 13,000,000,000 years old!” “What makes you so sure?” the world said. “My science teacher told me.” “And do you believe him?” the world asked. “Of course I do. He’s my teacher.” “Before your teacher, other teachers had very different answers,” the world said calmly. “They were all wrong,” the boy said. “How can you be sure your teacher is right?” The boy became red in the face and angry. His little sister laughed. The boy hit her. She cried. The father came into the room and wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
It is perhaps an echo that falls upon our ears from a 19th century poem by Walt Whitman:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns, before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams , to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astromomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars,
The weak believe in god; the less weak believe in man; the least weak believe in neither man nor god. Are these men strong? Is any man strong? What might strength really be? Might it be admitting man’s true place in Being? Might the strongest man be the one who says, “We are the weakest of all creatures because we cannot live without our causalities, our creationists, our evolutionists, our moralists, and our churches. We cannot just ‘live’. We must explain ‘why’ we are living. In this we are at the bottom of nature’s totem pole, not at the top.” Continue reading So Like Flowers…
Every morning the couple that owned the place sat on the terrace and had breakfast with the other clients. He was probably seventy-five with a large nose that seemed perfectly at home in the middle of a pleasant grandfatherly face. They had likely been the same age when they married, but she had kept a younger physique and her keen eyes made her look like she was calling the couple’s shots. Perhaps he had the money, but she was the one that decided how to use it. Certainly her clothes cost more than his and the girl at the front desk said she played golf at Is Molas.
The room was rather pricey, especially for the southern part of the island, but it was spacious and air-conditioned and there were vast meticulously-kept gardens full of lantana, hibiscus, and a coterie of cactus that fit well with all the flowers, rather like a childhood scar on a handsome face. Next to the pool was a putting green that my daughter and I used more than anyone else, including the Madame whom I never saw grab a club. In any case, the owners seemed very “hands on” which probably accounted for the fact that everything functioned seamlessly and the staff were always polite and on their toes. In such a perfect setting I was intrigued by the feeling that my head might explode at any moment.
When I chose the hotel I didn’t know what the word “Lantana” meant. I thought it might have been the name of an Indian tribe that the owners had expropriated because it had a cool ring to it, like “Cheyenne,” “Cherokee”, or “Lakota”. It turns out that I was partially right when Madame told me her husband had chosen the name because it sounded good in any language and that they both loved lantana flowers. When you pull into the hotel driveway on the quiet street between the center of Pula and the beach, the first thing that grabs your attention is an enormous bush of yellow lantana set next to a manicured lawn as green as any golf course or cemetery. Though I had been to Italy many times, I didn’t remember ever seeing these flowers before. Maybe it was how my mind was structured at the moment that made me notice them immediately and constantly. Besides the yellow ones there were hoards of reddish-gold and others as white as milk. They were as beautiful as any flowers I had ever seen. When one is mingling with madness, beauty tends to take on exaggerated proportions.
The flight had left Geneva at 6h00, which meant we had had to get up a little before 4h00. We landed in Cagliari at 7h20, but the car rental joint didn’t open until 8h00. Small airports can do such things. In any case, we were all rather tired when we finally checked in at the Lantana Resort a few minutes after ten. Fortunately the room was ready and the mother of my daughter and I were able to take a nap. The daughter spent the time pecking her IPhone.
Lunch in the hotel was over-priced as far as the food was concerned, but not if you took into account where you were eating. The terrace was lovely, the waitress attentive and pleasant, and the view of the pool, fountain, gardens, and palm trees magically made the eleven-euro pizza seem reasonably priced even though we would later find out you could get a much better one in the main Pula plaza for half the price.
After lunch we walked to the beach a hot mile away. The air was starting to stick to your skin. But as we got near the sea there was a slight breeze, the sand was clean, the water reasonably clear, and the family complaints were minimal. We were on vacation in Sardinia.
Dinnertime arrived. The maître d’hôtel wore a wide-shouldered cream jacket and looked to have been in the business for at least forty years. The sun was definitely setting on his career, but there was enough bounce in his step and light in his eyes that it was understandable why the owners of Lantana kept him on. He suggested I try the house wine the first evening and that we’d move up from there as the week progressed. I agreed as I was probably too tired to appreciate something special. We had the demi-pension arrangement and would be eating there every night. It turned out the wine was better than average and I went to bed as contented as one with a battered mind can expect to be.
Usually I don’t dream much, but for whatever reason, the first night inside the walls of the Lantana is still with me, as limpid as the sea at the Chia beach, even now, many days after it all passed through my consciousness. It was one of those dreams that wakes you like an earthquake.
She was at the middle of it of course…she and the absolute chaos of living. By chaos I don’t mean noise, jackhammers, and trucks falling out of trees; I mean realizing that the human head might be in no way fit or built to understand what makes anything happen in the world. Of course people everywhere think they know what is causing what and what is going on, but there’s a very good chance that on most fronts everybody is full of shit.
The fact that I hadn’t seen her for six months didn’t make her appearance in my dream unexpected or extraordinary. She still passes through my mind a thousand times a day, perhaps even more now than when we were seeing each other regularly. It’s normal that I would dream about her. What is not normal is how she would be in the dream.
She was no longer bone, blood, and flesh. She was trying to simply stand up, to come to me. Her body kept wilting, dropping, falling. Her eyes were there, linked with mine. But the material world had lost all reality. The eyes were dark, almost black, and hung in space like moons or planets. She was near. I was there. But was there enough of me? Was there enough of her? Was there enough reality to allow us to touch?
I woke up and looked around the room…TV, suitcases, curtains, bathroom door, lamp next to the bed, desk, IPhones being recharged. My daughter was on the foldout bed. Her mother was next to me.
We would stay at the Lantana for a week. I would walk a lot and get to know the city quite well. The wine would be good. The owners would be on the terrace every morning and often in the evening. The flowers would stay amazingly firm and radiant in spite of the heat. The beach in Chia would be as perfect as a beach can be. I wouldn’t dream of her again, but she would always be there, everywhere.
Who are you?
God. Who are you to be asking me questions?
I’m a man.
You are not a “man”. You have no idea what it is to be a man. You call yourselves men, but you don’t know anything about where you came from, what you are for, why you are alive, and how you function.
I know, that’s why I’m asking you. You’re God. You know everything. I thought you could help me understand who I am.
Not only are you wrong about yourself, you are also wrong about me. I don’t know any more about anything than you do.
No, and why should I? What makes you think I know anything more about this existence than you do? You found yourself alive on earth…I found myself alive in the universe. Continue reading Conversation With God, Part I
Weeds are called “mauvaises herbes” in French – bad herbs, bad little plants. One word in English, two words in French. In English the “bad” is built into the word. Weeds are – by nature – bad. We don’t need to say “bad weeds”. In French “herbes” can be positive, “herbes fines, plants used to make food taste even better…oregano, thyme, parsley, sage, rosemary and the like. But in English weeds are intrinsically nasty; there are no good ones. Here’s what the people that make the Webster dictionary have to say about being a “weed”: a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants. Here’s the Free Dictionary’s take on the word: A plant considered undesirable, unattractive, or troublesome, especially one that grows where it is not wanted and often grows or spreads fast or takes the place of desired plants. – Weeds are no good; they overgrow, choke, spread rapidly, take the place of more desirable plants, and are not even pleasant to look at.
Do you know people who have pangs of conscience when pulling weeds? I saw one in the mirror the other day. He smiled meekly when he said (in all seriousness), “And what if all Being has feelings? What if ants, plants, worms, trees, and even moons and suns have feelings?” I wondered how he could live in this world. He sensed my thought and said, “Of course there would be infinite suffering – suffering everywhere, but wouldn’t there also be infinite joy?”
The quacking of ducks is one of nature’s most beautiful sounds. Why we call it “quacking” instead of “talking” is beyond me. Humans think they are the only ones who talk. Birds chirp. Pigs oink. Cows moo. Dogs bark. Cats meow. Frogs croak. Chickens cackle. Crows caw. Donkeys bray. Horses neigh. Mice squeak. Owls hoot. Pigeons coo. Roosters crow. Lions roar. Turkeys gobble. Snakes hiss. People, however, talk…But listen again. Listen to the sounds that come out of human mouths in churches, at sporting events, in love or hate situations, when anger or joy are present, when fear strikes, or even around the dinner table or the TV news desk…There is much quacking, chirping, hissing, cackling, croaking, mooing, braying, squeaking, gobbling, crowing, cooing, meowing, neighing, barking, oinking, hooting, roaring, and gobbling. I seriously doubt that when we humans open our mouths we are describing the truth of the world any better than our four-legged, furry, flying, crawling, web-footed friends are. We have our world; they have theirs. Mankind just can’t seem to understand that his world is no truer, righter, higher, or more important than the worlds of all other beings.
Human talk is just sounds like any other sounds made by creatures on earth. Because we have what we call “language” does not mean we have truth. Language has nothing to do with truth. Why should it? Why should the sounds that come out of human mouths be representative of “truth” and the sounds that come out of other creatures mouths not be? We have duped ourselves into thinking our “words” are somehow correctly breaking the world down into its real parts. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our world makes sense to us just like a cat’s world makes sense to a cat and a rooster’s world makes sense to a rooster. But our world is no “truer” or “realer” than that of a cat, rooster, snake, pig, turkey, lion, donkey, mouse, pigeon, owl, turkey, horse, pig, dog, frog, duck, or crow. We do what we do and we die, just like all the above boys, girls, men, and women.
Ah! You didn’t like it when I called so-called animals “boys and girls, men and women”! You want to reserve those words only for yourselves. Do you see how you are? On what do you base your distinctions? Do you know what is behind “life”? Do you know what moves “being”? Do you know what is the essence of anything? No, you don’t. You don’t even have the slightest idea as to why you do anything you do. No thought, no emotion, no movement in any part of your body is known to you. It happens and then you look back and give it a reason. But you have no idea why any of it happens. None. Zero. The human mind, the duck mind, the lion mind, the pig mind…no mind has any idea of what is behind “being”. We can talk all we want with all our words, but we will never understand what moves any part of the universe to be what it is.
So which parts of the world do you want to pretend you understand and hence can accurately “talk about”? If you think deeply before you talk, will you have anything to say?
The world. – “I love the world,” says one. “I hate the world,” says another. “Some days I hate the world, some days I love it,” says another. All three are being truthful about what they feel. What is completely untrue is to think there is such a thing as “the world”. There isn’t. There is no “world”. No two human beings see the same “world”. This is where most, if not all, misunderstanding comes from. We talk about things as if we’re talking about “the same thing”. We’re not. “The world” – or perhaps “life” – is the best example.