Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Brave New Blog

So . . . I've finally made the move to a new blogging platform.

You can read the daily posts at: http://www.abandontext.com/

I'm still working on moving all the archived content over . . . so this abandontext.blogspot.com will remain available for the foreseeable future.

I'm not entirely at peace with the new software (Serendipity), either in the look-and-feel department or the usability . . . but in the spirit that inspired me to start blogging in the first place, I figured I'd make the jump and see what happens.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Truth in Action

So, if finding the truth is the most fundamental goal, then we should stop trying to do good in the world and give ourselves completely over to metaphysical reflection, yes? After all, why try to do good when you don't know what good is?

Um . . . no. Not hardly.

The paradoxical corollary to the the primacy of truth is:
The fastest and most reliable way to validate the truth is in the realm of action.

A lot of so-called "spiritual" people chafe at the notion that spiritual truths can and should be empirically validated. Our beliefs in God, grace, or the nature of mankind are a lot easier to live with if they remain safely ensconced in books and church services and are never really tested in the context of the real world. We're supposed to take these things on faith.

The problem with "faith" or other non-verifiable justifications for our beliefs, is that human beings have a demonstrably enormous capacity for deceiving themselves. Augie tells a classic story of this in his essay "Brother John":

[Father Christian] launched into a story about a Presbyterian minister having a crisis of faith and leaving the ministry. The man was a friend of his, and Christian took his crisis so seriously that he actually left the monastery and traveled to his house in order to do what he could. The two men spent countless hours in fruitless theological debate. Finally dropping his voice Christian looked the man steadily in the face and said, "Bob, is everything in your life alright?" The minister said everything was fine. But the minister's wife called Christian a few days later. She had overheard Christian's question and her husband's answer, and she told Father Christian that the minister was having an affair and was leaving her as well as his ministry.
Christian fairly spat with disgust, "I was wasting my time. Bob's problem was that he couldn't take the contradiction between his preaching and his living. So God gets the boot. Remember this, all philosophical problems are at heart moral problems. It all comes down to how you intend to live your life."

Rather than developing a personal philosophy and then living according to it, most people seem to do the opposite: live a haphazard life, and then concoct a philosophy that rationalizes and justifies their position. Or, as The Onion Sunday section once offered: "Finding a Religion that Doesn't Disrupt Your Current Lifestyle."

Our notion of what's right and true and good is strongly influenced by our own personal psychology. Such psychological knots cannot usually be unravelled by metaphysical speculation alone. You have to examine your actions, and examine their consistency with your beliefs. Do you really live as someone who actually believes these things? And do those beliefs actually justify themselves in your real-life experience? By combining reflection and action, you can to some extent overcome the limitations of both.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

True, true

I often hesitate to describe myself as a "spiritual" person, simply because of the monumental potential for being completely misunderstood. The label has lost almost all meaning at this point. Some people think it means not going to church on Sunday but still believing that you take God seriously. Some think it means collecting crystals, drinking funny-smelling tea, and believing in the direct intervention of angels. I can live with people not understanding what I'm about . . . but being mis-understood, and taken for one of the funny-smelling-tea crowd, is almost unbearable. So when I try to describe what I mean by spiritual work, I try to find the characteristics that are most distinctive, that most differentiate it from other notions people have.

One of the those key differentiators could be stated like this:
"The Truth is more important than anything else."

By "truth", I mean "correctly discerning the way things really are." Most people think knowing the truth is good, but they don't put it at the top of the list. I suspect that if you poll most people, knowing the truth isn't even in the top three. If you asked them what the most important thing is, they would probably give some variation of: "Being good is the most important thing." And I wouldn't argue with that, either . . . except that you have to know what's true, before you can know what's good.

For instance, some serious-minded, truly compassionate people are standing on the sidewalks, screaming at me that I am doomed to an eternity of hell-fire. I don't doubt their good intentions. I think they really mean the best for me, much more than the average stranger. They are risking all kinds of public attention and scorn, for the sake of trying to save me from an eternity of suffering. The only problem is: as near as I can tell, they're wrong. Wanting the best for people is worth exactly squat if their perception of what's true is totally off kilter.

You could expand on this in almost any direction. The world is full of well-intentioned idiots. No, let's not say "idiots," because that implies they're not smart. You can be plenty smart and still be totally, dead wrong.

This was the message that Augie Turak put out that first got my attention: there can be no good without the truth. So, before you go out to save the world, you'd better make sure you've got true discernment. It still boggles my mind that people can say, "What good is all this spiritual knowledge?" What good? Better to say, "What good could you possibly have without it?"

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Howl's Moving Castle

After seeing Spirited Away only once, I was deeply in love with Hayao Miyazaki's animation. Finally, someone who realized the medium's capacity to be surreal, magical, and transformative. "It's like spending two hours in someone else's deeply meaningful dream," said Janet. So Howl's Moving Castle, Miyazaki's 2004 adaption of a Diana Wynn Jone's novel, moved to the top of my NetFlix queue.

The two films have a striking number of parallels. Both feature young heroines who become entangled in magical worlds as the result of enchantments, who unravel the past of mysterious magical benefactors and liberate them by helping them find their true selves. But Castle is more grown up, a little darker and scarier than Spirited Away, but also with more complexity in the characters and the plot.

It is, more than anything, a story about transformations: every single character undergoes a physical as well as metaphorical reshaping. Sophie, a young woman cursed by the jealous Witch of the Waste, is turned into an old woman, and goes on a quest to reclaim her youth. Howl, a perpetual adolescent of a wizard, transforms into a giant bird in his efforts to avert a war, and struggles to regain his full humanity. Enemies turn into friends, friends into enemies, minor players become major players . . . and all their stories are linked together in a beautiful synchronicity.

The movie has some funny moments that struck me as very Buffy-esque in their mash-up of the fantastic and the all-to-human. In one scene, Howl reads a curse that has magically appeared during breakfast: "That is ancient sorcery, and quite powerful too. 'You who swallowed a falling star, o' heartless man, your heart shall soon be mine,' " Howl recites seriously. Then, after a beat: "That can't be good for the table." Or, when the enchanted fire Calcifer (voiced by Billy Crystal) is asked to cook breakfast: "No! I don't cook! I am very powerful and scary fire demon!" Or when ominous shadows gather around a despondant Howl, his apprentice Markl says, "He's summoning the spirits of darkness . . . I saw him do this once before, after a girl dumped him."

I could (and probably will) write a full-length essay giving a Jungean spiritual analysis of Howl's Moving Castle. Some college senior taking a graduate seminar in film studies will probably thank me for writing his term paper. Or maybe not . . . I found it interesting (and a little sad) that most of the links that I googled up on "Howl's Moving Castle analysis" were ads for term paper services. But among mountains of online reviews (many mixed in their reactions), only one pointed out that the heroine's name was Sophia, literally "wisdom", and saw it as a pointer to a larger allegory. In dream analysis a house is a standard symbol for the self, and moving castle of the title undergoes a continual transformation through the story, reflecting the wizard's own internal evolution.


Friday, June 08, 2007

Rite of Passage

My son graduated from kindergarten yesterday. I used to be mildly contemptuous of calling anything below getting your diploma a "graduation" -- it smacked of an overweening praise-everything-and-everyone parenting culture that watered down real standards and discredited real achievement. Surely we don't need pomp and circumstance for someone learning to tie their shoes and sit quietly in circle.

But that's why I send my kids to a Waldorf school. They are much wiser about these things than I am. The teachers understand that the work the kindergartners are doing is real work. The capacities they are developing for cooperation, self-control, consistent application of energy, and respect for others are the bedrock of a successful life. It is an accomplishment to learn those things.

The ceremony was simple. Miss Patricia told a story about a young princess who played in a garden every day, until one day she strayed through garden walls and explored the outside world, worrying the king at first but prompting him to let her explore the world some more. Miss Patricia handed each child an orange ("to sustain you in the work you have to do"), a stone ("for wisdom to always choose to do the right thing") and a flower ("to remind you of the beauty of the garden, and find beauty in the outside world.") And when the children went outside to join the other classes, the rising first-graders walked through a flowered trellis, to symbolism their transition out of the garden.

None of this would have impressed me particularly, except for the effect that I saw it had on Aidan. There was no visible effect at the time, other than him just enjoying himself. But at home, he asked if he could use a tool that were previously off-limits: a swing-blade for whacking down large weeds. And I let him. He accepted my instruction seriously and without argument. He was extremely careful in using it, and worked hard to make sure his little brother was never threatened by the blade. Later that evening he picked up all the toys, telling his little brother that, "You don't have to worry about it, I'll do it." He fed the dogs without the usual arguments and tantrums. He asked if he could make it his regular job: "I know I could remember to do it . . . I would just need help telling the time."

I never had to tell him, "Now that you're a big boy, you should be accepting new responsibilities." (I remember in my grade school, the teachers always bellowing, "Now, children, you're no longer (x) graders, you're (x+1) graders, so you should behave better." I always despised that for some reason, and it never worked, anyway.) I didn't have to have that conversation, because the ritual had already told him.

The logical, rational mind will always chafe at ceremony and ritual. There is nothing rational about ceremony. It smacks of superstitious magic -- the vain belief that saying the right words and doing the right symbolic actions will mysteriously make the world obey your desires. But the human psyche is not rational, and the will and imagination do obey the laws of magic. You will hear people say that something is "merely symbolic" or "only metaphorical" when they discuss religious practices, as well. The mistake is not to call them symbolic or metaphorical; the mistake is to say, "merely symbolic." In the context of the human mind, nothing is merely symbolic. The mind is just one huge cavalcade of symbols, "a mobile army of metaphors" as Nietzsche put it. Symbols have real power.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

What I'm Reading

I've got a new slew of books that I'm diving into this summer, any one of which would be a good book to discuss with a group. The nominees for book-of-the-summer-months include:
  • The Not So Big Life, by Sarah Susanka. After hearing Ms. Susanka on the radio, I sensed a kindred spirit who is putting spiritual truths into everyday language. The best-selling architect describes how constructing a satisfying life is not that different from building a good house: rather than piling on more and more stuff we don't want or need, we need to simplify, removing the unnecessary and focusing on what really matters. If this sounds like the blurb of every self-help book you've ever read, don't be deceived; Susanka is not merely spouting platitudes, but rather has some real sophistication and depth in her approach. The message is not that different from the via negativa that Augie Turak might describe, although the tone is significantly different. Augie's description's of spiritual life are unrelentingly intense, while Susanka is composed and relaxed. (500 words: Compare and contrast. Go!)
  • Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, by Soren Kierkegaard. If you want to crank up the intensity, look no further than Kierkegaard, who got the "founder of existentialism" label for a reason. Kierkegaard has the audacity to take the Gospel seriously, and he deconstructs Christ's commandments with insightful psychology and an unwaveringly look at how demanding it really is. Kierkegaard, too, is calling for simplicity and integrity, but with no holds barred.
  • How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker. Kenny Felder and Augie Turak turned me on to Pinker with The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, and I've moved on to get more of his solid cognitive science wrapped in witty and readable prose. Warning: Pinker is so persuasive in his thorough scientific-ness that he'll make a materialist if you don't pay close attention. But Richard Rose once defined meditation as "thinking about thinking," and that's exactly what Pinker does.
  • Software Testing Foundations, by Spillner, Linx, and Schefer. (Just kidding.)
  • I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas Hofstadter. The Pulitzer-Prize winning Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid set the standard for really smart, really deep, really fun books that are not only worth engaging, but almost require a group of people to read it because there's so much stuff. Now Hofstadter is back, decades later, with a book focused solely on the question of consciousness. I'd love to have some help with this one.
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I mean, who isn't reading it? I've had enough intelligent conversations about Harry Potter with Kenny to convince me that it should be good fare for conversation, and will give you something to talk about with most of the literate world. And it might be slightly more upbrow than Stephan King.

What are you reading this summer?


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Ready, Fire, Aim

The world is so fast-paced now that we actually publish stuff before we've written it. I've set up a new website, the next great nexus of spiritual energy: www.thedynamicground.com

Of course, if you go there, you'll see that there's hardly anything there. And that's precisely the point. In the past, I've nearly always succumbed to the temptation to craft something in secret, under wraps, and then have the "ta-DA!" presto presentation that amazes all. And it just doesn't work very well. At least, not for me . . . and not for every organization I've worked with that tried to build a website that amounted to more than brochureware.

Website design usually bogs down into inaction because:
  • Glitzy presentation is overrated. Especially in the dot.com days of yore, everyone wanted a website that looked great -- which was fine for that all-important first-impression. But after that . . . people cared about content. They wanted useful information, presented simply, as easily as possible. Nowadays the only sites that are heavily Flash-enabled are movie sites: one-time events with limited updates. And the king of all sites is Google, with the simplest interface ever designed: type what you want here, and here's a list of what we found. So, when it comes to making compelling websites, less is more. That is, less design, more content.
  • The perfect is the enemy of the good. Most of the time, the content doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to be good enough. But the amount of time required to get new content on a website was so long (what with hard-to-understand techie tools, or worse, hard-to-understand techies) that we would only ask for stuff to be posted once we knew it was perfect. But blogging has taught me that sometimes quick-and-dirty is just fine, maybe even 80% of perfect.
  • Collaboration is difficult, bordering on impossible. Most sites have one or two webmasters who can load up new content, so all changes went through a bottleneck that made rapid, timely changes almost impossible. Getting multiple people together to provide the necessary content either meant an exhaustive round of extracting material, or an equally exhausting round of could-you-fix-this from contributors after posting.
  • Websites are too much work for one person. No single individual ever had enough time to make a perfect website . . . not even a pretty good website. It usually requires collective effort. But since the threshhold for collaborating was previously so high, the good stuff rarely made it out to the web. I can't begin to count how many times I've heard people say, "That ought to be on the website," but it never made it there. The Wikipedia proved that if you can tap into tiny contributions from lots and lots and lots of contributors over time, you can have extremely rich content without someone dedicating their whole life to maintaining it.
  • Navigation and search design hampered availability. Even once you got good content online, it used to muster, unused and unappreciated, because it was buried beneath menus or orphaned by dead links. Google changed all that. Now, if your content is distinct enough, it will be found by somebody looking for it, no matter how deeply buried, or poorly promoted. Now people who have something to offer can focus on creating content, instead of designing navigation.

Hence, my current fascination with wiki technology. "Build it and they will come" has turned into "They will come and build it." Now, I'm not completely seduced yet by the promise of easy content -- "this time it's different" was the rallying cry of the dot-com boom, and the ironic scorn following the dot-com bust. Somebody still has to bust their hump to create content, direct vision, promote and cross-link the site, sustain the community, blah, blah. But now, at least, that someone is not alone.