My talk today might serve as a counterpoint to Galen’s last Sunday. Galen spoke about the necessary connection between life and relationships, the flip side of which is solitude, connected to my exploration of learning how to live in the moment. With luck, living in the moment brings joy or something close to it. I’ll settle for peace.
My talk won’t focus on the narrative of my life, although a broad brushstroke across my journey might help to situate my search for peace.
I grew up on a rural Wisconsin dairy farm where farmers didn’t have running water. We had pumps in our kitchens. Strangely enough I’m now living in an old farmhouse not significantly different from the farmhouse in which I grew up. The difference is plumbing.
Between then and now, I went to the University of Wisconsin, got involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s, was drafted and went to Canada, came back after a few years, taught high school in California, finished my PhD at the University of California, San Diego, directed writing programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Louisiana State University, and Drexel University. It seems a bit odd to boil seventy-five years of living down to a paragraph.
I met Sarah at Wisconsin. We were married for 41 years and had two children. Sarah died nine years ago, leaving me with my son in Colorado and my daughter in Harrisonburg. I retired two years ago and moved here to be with Heather and my three lovely granddaughters.
Relevant to my subject is my religious history–what there is of it. My mother was an atheist; my father got religion whenever someone close died. Like most rural people, we went to church, my mother because she loved to sing and my father because that’s what country people do on Sunday.
I stopped going to church when I went to the University of Wisconsin. I don’t know whether I ever seriously believed in God or even when I stopped believing, maybe in fifth grade when Zeke, a visitor from Chicago said “Goddamn it” upon striking out and nothing happened, no bolt of lightning laying him flat on the sandlot baseball diamond. It didn’t take long for the rest of us to use damn and hell with maybe a few scatological asides.
My religious journey involved a gradual distancing from the subject. There were phases when I tried to link to the spiritual, largely a consequence of my majoring in literature, a great course in 17th century metaphysical poetry, and a three-year fascination with Yeats while in graduate school. Even then, I had a third eye looking suspiciously at myself.
After returning to the United States and teaching high school in California, I went back to graduate school at UCSD. That’s where I became a Unitarian. This was Sarah’s idea. Heather was in eighth grade, and the San Diego Unitarian church had a outstanding sex education class. Sarah and I bonded to the unitarians in San Diego because of the sex education and the social activism among the members.
We continued our UU membership at the church in Omaha, in spite of Sarah’s general disgust with the minister. She went because I liked to sing in the choir. She would sit in the pew and read the Times while Ron, a frustrated poet, carried on about Walt Whitman. She would snap the paper when she was particularly annoyed.
We were occasional members of the UU in Baton Rouge. Sarah didn’t like the minister there. He seemed too fascinated with his own goodness. I kept going because of the fantastic choir director. And then Sarah died.
My life has been good. I had a few rough spots, but only once did I consider checking out when early on in our relationship, Sarah said she didn’t think I would do. I have loved my profession, Sarah, and my two children. I wouldn’t have wanted any other life. When Sarah died, I lost my way for a few years, but I knew I would get through them largely because of the strength of my life with Sarah.
I’m in a different world now; it’s not nearly as good as the one I shared with Sarah, but it’s a good world with my children, grandchildren, and friends. I am almost centered. I don’t need God. What I have needed is the life I’ve had.
In the latter part of one’s arc of living, we try to make sense of where we’ve been. If you were born into a world view that answered all your questions, you can perhaps bypass Jail and go directly to Home, but I suspect that many people, and unitarians in particular, sense holes in the narratives into which they were born, and toward the ends of their lives, they ask questions about what to make of where they are.
The people in this social group share a general set of values, which many of us have come to through thinking about how one should live. We have our differences, but in general, the people here are communitarians. We are deeply concerned about the community in which we live and our links with nature. We are concerned about the social injustice in our culture. We suspect that the good feeling that comes through helping and loving others is why we’re alive.
I love to look at Hubbard images or thinking about the universe when I’m in rural West Virginia and looking up at the stars. Cosmologist have theorized the origins and development of the Universe. A couple of weeks ago, Rich gave us a wonderful talk about these origins.
I wonder when I’m looking at the sky, at Hubbard photos, or reading about the experience of the Universe, what this little pinprick of my life has to do with all that, with the explosion, the galaxies, and the miracle of life.
I do not have serious answers, nor do I believe in what others have proposed. I enjoy reading about metaphysical speculations, but most of them seem like projections: what the Universe would have been like if we had been in charge. I’m a serious atheist, with a nod toward agnosticism. I would like to discover that there is a kind, unjealous, pacifist God in charge of all this. But I can’t go there.
I’ve lived my life as an atheist willing to imagine a moral universe. I suppose a serious atheist focuses on the material phenomena, the observable and invisible implied by the observable. And then there is that other imagined dimension: the immaterial, the moral swirling like a gas within the material. Like a good Unitarian, I bend in that direction, even if I think the pull of a moral dimension within the universe is largely wishful thinking. I don’t think (ironically) that the Universe thinks or feels. It just is.
I realize that my line of inquiry leads to nihilism, Nietzche’s announcement that all is permitted, a claim that obviously folds back on itself by suggesting a force that permits. I find myself in a maze, paths leading to dead ends. But when push comes to shove, I believe we should lead our lives trying to do good in the world, embracing the unity of all things, relationships, resisting those forces that suggest we should take care of ourselves first, others later. I don’t have any logic that makes me take this leap in faith. More than anything, it’s simply the way I have learned how to live, primarily though the good examples in my life, my mother, Sarah, her family, and my experiences in the classroom. The best experience is being and working with others for a common good. The most debasing experience is working only for oneself. I don’t have any arguments to support these claims. They just seem right, which is about the weakest argument I can imagine.
I understand why cultures make up stories about the creation, about Gods, about Heaven and Hell, Valhallah and Helheim. These are controlling stories, cultural myths that organize social behavior. The strangest part of the stories for me relate to the afterlife, playing on our animal instinct to stay alive. Other than when reading The Littlest Angel to my grandchildren, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the pull of Heaven, perhaps because of my mother and Sarah. Imagining that I came out of nowhere and will go back there doesn’t bother me. The tenuousness of life adds value to the moments as they pass by – or as I pass through them. Perhaps as a consequence of my life in the sixties and affection for Alan Ginsberg, Alan Watts, and Joseph Campbell, I have had a casual relationship with meditation and Zen Buddhism, a dominant feature of which is one’s ability to live in the moment.
One of my favorite Zen Koans is about the tiger, man, and strawberry. A tiger was chasing this man. He came to a cliff. The tiger was attacking. He made a choice and leaped. As he was falling, he managed to grab a bush to stop his fall. The tiger was breathing hard above him. The bush started to rip free from the cliff. The man saw a strawberry plant on which was a ripe strawberry. He plucked and ate the strawberry. He thought, never had a strawberry tasted so good.
Learning how to live in the moment depends on paying attention to where one is. For me, that doesn’t mean complete acceptance of the present. Where I am springs out of where I’ve been and more vaguely with where I’m going. I think of myself as walking in the dark. When I was younger, I generally kept the flashlight shining on the path ahead. Now that I’m older, I shine the light more often on where I’ve been. With each passing year, there is less reason to shine the light on where I’m going. I am increasingly enveloping myself in the pleasure of the moment, which involves such things as paying attention to the taste of strawberries.
When we are thinking about living in the moment, we have to address the evanescent quality of language or else we become entangled in meanings we didn’t intend. I won’t go too deeply into linguistic uncertainty, grounded in theorists like Wiggenstein, Saussure, and Derrida. Wiggenstein put the case succinctly by claiming that meaning is use. Words have meaning only within contexts and those meanings shift with shifts in contexts. For interesting anthropological reasons, people want certainty, certainty in social structures, personal relationships, and language. But wanting something doesn’t make it exist.
So within my understanding of linguistic uncertainty, I’ll try to deconstruct what I mean by the moment, the place within which I’m trying to live but am continuously unable to find. The moment is always disappearing on me, like the blind spot on the edge of one’s vision. For a moment, I think I have it but holding onto the moment is like trying to see that blind spot. Like signifiers when you try to nail them flat, it continuously slides away. That’s probably why I’m not very good at meditating. I can’t get my mind to go still. Actually, I don’t want to. In a certain sense, embracing my wriggling mind might be the same as being still. Being in the moment for me means forgetting land.
Learning how to live in the always moving moment involves a complicated relationship with one’s environment. Many of my friends are involved in yoga and various forms of meditation. For the most part, meditation involves rest, coming to a stop.
Although my mind perpetually wriggles, I respect the move toward silence, maybe even admire it. At times, I have gotten so quiet inside myself that nothing moves.
The point of going quiet inside is to be fully outside. To breathe awareness, which can come only when one lets go. It’s like dying.
Letting go of the active self involves acceptance both of one’s self and the world as it is. But neither we nor the world ever just “is.” We are always fading away and becoming. I am an infinitesimal part in the world’s having been and becoming.
When one sits quiet, in one’s house, underneath a tree, or in a mountain cave, one relinquishes one’s role in the world. One is watching, not being, or at least not being-in-the-world. I need an image of something that is always changing but remaining the same, meditating in a cave while marching with Black Lives Matter.
Let me end by going back to my beginnings. I have moved a lot. I have been involved in social activism in college and my professional life. I was no Abbie Hoffman, but I have been involved. I haven’t been still.
I suffered a sea change when Sarah died. I have had to learn how to be alone. Marianne Moore wrote that the best cure for loneliness is solitude. I can’t say I’ve embraced solitude but we’ve had our nights together. Anyone who lives alone knows what’s involved in the quest for peace within solitude. Learning how to be quietly alone has been the most difficult part of my journey. It helps to have a dog or two. And a daughter and grandchildren living in the same town.
Now we are in the extraordinary Covid-19 era, throwing an entirely different light on solitude and one’s attempt to live within the moment. God apparently decided to throw an additional kink into my situation by destroying my right hip, although I may have had something to do with my current disability by trying to carry my 90 pound dog, Sawyer, down a boulder-strewn bank to cross a stream because he wouldn’t go there. We fell half-way down and I landed on my right side. Life has been a bad experience since—I’m barely hanging on until my hip-replacement on August 10, five days after my 76th birthday and one day before the anniversary of Sarah’s death.
Covid-19 and my disabled hip have limited my social activism. In truth, I could be doing more than I am, but the pain in my hip has disabled me in ways I don’t understand. Still, I am almost there, almost in the moment.
I can do it. My life until this very moment of writing has been a preparation, a way of gettingready for where I am precisely now. That’s the strawberry.