The Opposite Of Nihilism
A Poem by
James Heath Atchley
"Disorder" and "nothingness" in reality designate therefore a presence--the presence of a thing or an order which does not interest us, which blunts our effort or our attention; it is our disappointment being expressed when we call this presence absence.
Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.
-The Heart Sutra
take my advice: the forces are there all right [...]
and mostly beyond us but if we must be swayed by the forces
then at least let's be the only personalities around, the
sort of greatness a raft in a rapids is and at the top
let's put nothingness, good old: the most open suasion:
I don't give a damn if this derivative. Archie is my muse, and originality is overrated--non-existent, really. For every condition there is one preceding that bears influence. Go looking for the conditionless and you will more likely find an abyss than a genius. But when you find an abyss, do not try to fill it with a smart guy, a wise guy, a guy with a plan, a guy with with a puffy chest, or a guy with orange hair; that will bring tyranny in some form or another, to some degree or another; it is an old story.
This is not an homage. I just want to lay my cards on the table and say that I am not bluffing, being coy, or being clever. There is work to be done, but nothing to be gained. Yes, let's gain that: nothing--it might do us some good.
Mostly, I am trying to listen. To other people, to be sure. That is harder than you might think. A person talks to me, and I am somewhat interested in what they are saying, but before they can really say it or complete their thought, I have a thought that I want to share, and I want to formulate that thought in words that are good and effective. Meanwhile this person is still saying her thought which I have taken my attention away from somewhat. I've stopped listening, though not entirely. I know she continues to talk, but my thought now has my interest and I am waiting to let it fly and have her listen to me. But I must admit that her words during that period when I am formulating my thoughts could influence my thoughts. Her words could shift me in new directions and make my words even more brilliant, or simply give them a new and different energy, but I will not know that energy, not get to experience it, because I was impatient and not listening as well I should have. So I missed out. Oh yes, and I missed out on her, the person I was talking to. Surely, she would appreciate my mostly undivided attention. There must be some form of acknowledgement in that, some form of respect, some form of communicating worth (we need that don't we? some experience of worth irreducible in its density to calculation). She may not know that my attention is divided, that I've started up too soon with my own words. She might give me a pass, just because I am there apparently taking in her thoughts. But imagine if I took more of them in, and took them in for a longer time, letting them settle more deeply into my mind. Who knows what kind of stew might start to simmer? Maybe we--she and I and even you--could have a celebratory repast and together experience genuine worth.
This is a good start.
People are great and conversation is a pleasure. But words themselves are worth a listen. Just words as they emerge, dwell and disappear. That motion is marvelous. I am not talking about finding the right word or even the right phrase. This is not speechmaking. There is no craft here. There is listening and enjoyment. But to get to the enjoyment, or even the listening, there must be openness. I've got to open myself to what comes and let its value shine. That might not be much: There are no gold coins jumping out of this computer and no seed investors knocking on my door.
I am not against revision: Automatic writing is probably an illusion--more laziness than old-school inspiration: Tweaking and shaping are enjoyable and part of the emergence. That is what I want: To dwell on the edge of emergence, to put my identity (such as it is) there, because on that edge I can feel the gravity of the world, not Newton's gravity, or Nietzsche's, the weightiness that draws you down, makes it hard to get up, makes it mostly impossible to fly, I want Einstein's gravity, the sheer attraction between objects created by the curvature of space and time: Being itself has a shape--it's not straight (straight lines are our contraptions)--reality is curved, and things move toward one another in one way or another, and things are connected in one way or another. This is good news if you are feeling down (the gravity of Nietzsche and Newton again). There is no need to gear up, put fuel in your will and bust out of your blues, whatever they may be (you'll probably step into another sinkhole in any case; your will will tire, and your gear will be no good). So try sitting on that edge and feeling the forces; it will feel like falling, at first; but remember: Gravity ain't what it used to be.
So far this poem has been abstract. So I think I'll throw in something concrete (two So's in a row). That is what Archie would do.
So (another one) I'll look out my window. But isn't that cliche: a ruminating writer looking out his window? Some might say I'm navel-gazing, not engaging with the world (I voted yesterday for the more radical candidate; he lost.). To which I would say: I'm not navel-gazing; I'm window-gazing. Windows set a frame that invite attention, even when there is nothing spectacular on the other side. That is the case now: a couple of pine trees and brownish grass with a touch of green. It is a warm day in late winter. Almost everyone wants an early spring, but we also suspect something more ominous. The entire winter has been mild and the previous year was the warmest recorded. Our apocalyptic imaginations are in high gear, and it makes it difficult to celebrate the coming of the new season: It's not spring, it's the end of the world.
But apocalyptic imaginations have been mistaken about the details. Worlds have ended, and this one will too, but the course of things (not to mention the timing) will be a surprise--reality shaking our structures, and we are left shaking our heads. The faithful supporters of the radical candidate are doing that now--shaking their heads (and fists) in disgust and dismay, wondering why the people don't see the truth and necessity in the radical candidate's plans: How can the people be so timid and slothful when we are on the verge of a revolution? Answer: Revolutions bring reigns of terror (the American Revolution's reigns of terror are slavery and genocide--just to name two), and though people are timid and slothful, the fear of truth is, among other things, a fear of purity, a oneness that bashes differences into oblivion; distillation is a rough business--just ask the moonshiners and the meth cooks: Purity kills (a lesson gurus should take to heart before doling out monistic metaphysics with a smile).
Here I was all set up to get more concrete, and I ended up writing about metaphysics. There's reality again shaking things up. There is no oblivion. The shaking is all.
If you can open up without falling apart then there is hope that salvation's light (enlightenment) might fall upon you. Falling apart is ok too. Just be careful not to hurt anyone: don't lash out and blame others for the pain (though some other might be somewhat responsible); don't drive; make sure the young ones (and furry ones) are fed. Then go ahead and fall apart. The light will hit you then too. While you are broken up, just take a moment, breath, and notice that the light feels good. It is blinding and that is scary: with no objects to see, there is nothing to grab hold of, nothing to clutch and keep you from shaking. But alongside your shaking is the light's very own pulsation, a vibrancy that surrounds but gives no ground, nothing solid, nothing firm. Your shaking diminishes and can't be distinguished from the pulsation, from the light itself. But you are not the light. You are just yourself (even though you don't know what that is; the blindness preventing bland knowledge), the pieces are right there, they haven't gone away; the light holds them, and it is a relief to learn that you don't have to, that you are not the unifying agent, the architect in charge; there is no architect (a ground for joy, not despair), and as you feel the light's pulse through all your parts, you realize you haven't fallen apart after all, you've just opened up.
I've been meaning to get more concrete, thinking maybe the thin air of abstractions is hard for most to breathe. But I know that image is wrong, though common. Abstractions are not angels living in the ether; and they are not forms that rudely determine particulars. Abstractions that emerge from moving thought are empty vessels that gather but do not contain the movement itself; they provide a plateau for the mind to pause and open unto the movement; it takes stillness to acknowledge the movement that is more than my effort or anyone's effort: an abstraction is the sitting place for that stillness; but it gives no lift out of the world, no vantage to see and know everything, no authority comes from its expanse. If you care to follow a thoughtful path, you must make your own abstractions; yes, that's right, abstractions (G.D. and F.G. call them concepts) are made, created. Each abstraction is a concretion, a particular, a coming together and reaching out of attention and world. Nothing is universal except the universe (some even think it to be multiple). No general will give you a handle on all of the particulars (sounds militaristic: a General wanting to get a handle on things; perhaps war).
Yesterday I saw a cardinal emerge out of the brambles from behind my place and thought it might be a sign of spring; though around here many cardinals don't migrate in the winter because there is enough food to sustain them--bird-feeders, garbage, and I don't know what else. The brambles appear to be a mess, but they provide some privacy; without them I'd have straight view of a busy street, and my neighbors to the west would have a straight view of me (doing nothing interesting except writing). The cardinal probably nests in the mess or gathers food from it. I suspect other critters find it hospitable: rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels. The brambles are hospitable, they are sustaining, and they are a mess because god only knows what's there: vines, grasses, scrubby little shrubs, small trees that stay small because the vines and scrubby little shrubs hold them down. H.D.T. could probably name much of the vegetation, as could the local ag officer, but it would take a massive effort to account for every bit of all that is there (there is probably some garbage in there too; that would take a whole different kind of expert to identify). That's where brambles come in: I've named the place. I didn't make up the name, but I use it with intention, and it brings me to this place of acknowledgement where again I see a cardinal.
Is it too much to say that I love that cardinal? I mean, would it turn you off? Would you dismiss me as a fuzzy-headed Romantic or sloppy sentimentalist? Or worse, would you dismiss these words as mere repetitions of stale sensibilities? I have nothing to declare to that bird. Its appearance (out of the brambles) has little to do with me yet delights me. I will take that delight, call it love, and ask: What is love? and step into the hollow of this living vessel.
It is cloudy and raining. It is also the 13th of the month and the end of the week. So you know what that means: the superstitious are cautious and the sensitive are sad. I don't intend to be mean with this description, I just mean to suggest alternative apprehensions: This is a day, and it is raining.
I feel like I am doing nothing and am wondering: Can I afford this? Will this come back to haunt me (superstitious) or bite me in the ass (crude)? Perhaps I should ask a more noble question: What good comes from what I do?
I have no answer. So be wary of advice--all of it.
I continue to long to be concrete, to let you know that I am in the world, that this poem is about being in the world. This is a great topic for all literature--the serious, creative stuff, not just the soupy self-help stuff, but that stuff helps too--we need all the help we can get.
Because it is so easy and tempting to be elsewhere. Longing makes it so. But desire is not to blame.
Yesterday I went for a walk. The sun was bright. The temperature was mild. The sky was clear. I took the fresh air deeply into my body. I removed my hat so the light could touch my skin. I kept a brisk pace. It all felt good.
I didn't go far--a circle around this neighborhood, three modern aparment communities constructed on a plain in a river valley on what used to be farmland. I walked through the asphalt parking lot to the asphalt sidewalk and continued past the buildings with different numbers but the same design wondering if the name of this place (The Boulders) was based on the landscape or if the landscape was sculpted to fit the name.
Two boys played soccer beside a neglected tennis court locked up. I passed a young couple walking their dog. None of us greeted one another, but the dog took notice as I passed by.
There is a pandemic, and we have been told to keep distance from one another. But the pandemic has revealed that the usual distances between us are overestimated, that things flow and exchange between us that we cannot account for. We are permeable. Danger and joy reside in this fact.
I turned the corner and saw a silo covered in vines. Did someone (designer, architect, property manager) find it charming and decide to leave it there as testimony to the previous life of this land? Or was it just easier to leave it alone (demolishing it an unplanned expense)?
The final stretch revealed the brambles that lie outside my window. Up close I could see within them standing water, marshy soil, and a tiny stream. Garbage was spread throughout. When spring comes, the greenery will cover the garbage.
The walk was bland but it was still a walk.
I would have liked to talk to them--the young couple with the dog on the walk in my neigborhood two days ago. I would have liked to have said a simple greeting that acknowledged their presence and announced mine. It would have implied: you exist; I exist; we exist in proximity. But we kept our distance silently. The space between us as we passed appeared to be an accommodation to the narrow sidewalk and the curious dog. But they were probably thinking what I was thinking: It is now our duty to be distant; even if we are not afraid of this disease, we must avoid being its carriers. The space we gave one another was our greeting: Hello neighbors.
A male cardinal jostles around on the ground, pecking through the grass and dirt for a decent meal. Around him are smaller dark birds, maybe juncos or finches, doing the same. Yesterday I saw a hawk, noble and focused, perched in the brambles until it was run off by bunch of smaller birds probably protecting their brood.
Today is the first full day of spring. The sun shines brightly.
Facing a day is frightening. Even with an itinerary. No matter how we plan or anticipate, each day brings an emptiness and a repetition. Even with a disruption or a burst of novelty, there is always a new normal. In the wake of any event we construct a crust of understanding around ourselves and cease to be moved.
The new normal now, during this pandemic, is distance and patience. And it is moving to see people express care and concern by inserting distance. We touch each other in strange ways.
That is what I am going to think about today--the strange ways that we touch each other--because I didn't want to get out of bed this morning. But the cardinal, the hawk, and the thought of touchless touching draw me out and spur me on.
Spring has come despite the pandemic. The grass grows greener; temperatures rise slightly; birds, frogs, and other creatures are noisy with activity.
The stores around here are okay; not too crowded anymore; most necessities in good supply. Toilet paper is the exception. The shelves are empty of that staple. Hysterical hoarding has been one explanation. I've also heard that since the stuff is so cheap, but takes up so much space, keeping ample amounts in stock is not cost effective; the normal supply lines have little margin and no one normally imagines a run on it.
Yet, here we are with empty shelves giving us a feeling of scarcity to which we are unaccustomed. We know it is an illusion; there is plenty of toilet paper; the supply chain will replenish. It is also true that stock is not plenitude.
My father once told me a story of visiting a furniture factory in China. It's location was remote, and his lodging was rough. When his traveler's bowels rumbled he rushed to the bathroom only to discover that there was no striking paper. I don't recall the resolution of the story (or if one was told). But the metaphor moved me: the connection between starting a fire and taking care of one's residual feces.
Scarcity abides. That is our plenitude.
This morning I am slowed by a sniffly nose caused by the cats or a little too much work. (No, these are not the symptoms of the pandemic's infection).
To make this day worthy I look out the window. Not the regular measure of value. I am suspicious of making excuses, and I want results at the end of the day. But there is no choice to be made: my runny nose and heavy body require that I stay right here and give it a go.
Smoke comes from a neighbor's yard across the brambles. I assume it is from a yard, because a house fire would have brought the sirens of fire engines and first responders. This smoke rises silently; probably yard waste; it is the season for that; perfectly legal with a permit. In another age, I might have assumed that corpses were the fuel; burning the bodies the best thing to do for sanitation; prime strategy for preventing the spread of infection.
The smoke's trajectory is not all vertical. After going up about 20 or 30 feet, it plateaus, spreads out and sits like fog. It is white like the overcast sky. The pale tone prevents it from appearing ominous. It drifts through the neighborhood like an expanding wad of cotton. No houses and no bodies are burning: Nothing to fear. It is tempting to make a metaphor (or a simile) out of the drifting smoke, to liken its stealthy progress to the spread of the disease that keeps many of us at a distance. But there is no need for that. The smoke is just beautiful, and I want to look at it.
This is no tape. I've just made the margins on my MacBook a particular way. There is no material constraint. I could have made them another way, or I could have used the default margins. But I like the white space, the emptiness from which the letters emerge. A bit of extra white space soothes the eyes and the mind. When there is too much text the eyes and the mind get frantic trying to keep up and fill themselves with all that is there. The white space settles the eyes and mind by testifying that all that is there includes emptiness. That affirmation is a relief. (I read KV's Cat's Cradle in nearly one sitting because the chapters were so short; when I got to the end of one, I could always read another, then another; then suddenly I'm at the end: So it goes.) The white space, especially between the lines, also shows time, because that is where you pause, at the end of a line and the beginning of another; the space is larger between groups of lines (sections, paragraphs, quatrains, tercets, couplets) and so is the pause. Within that pause you are more likely to notice that you are breathing, and so your breaths (inhalation and exhalation) will likely become deeper; most organic life depends on breathing (or something like it), the flow between the inner and outer, bringing the outer within to cultivate energy (oxidation); the inner and the outer must be distinct yet permeable to one another; this is so fundamental that we say the breath of life, breath as the essence of, the necessary condition for, life: spirit (spiritus). So I set my margins wide, because the spirit calls me to do it.
Time feels different during this pandemic. Many are hurried doing the essential: rushing to save us or deliver what we need. Others are homebound with work to be done only within the domestic walls or with no work at all. Either way the routine rhythms are gone, and the habits they grew do not give the usual comforts, the distractions that fill the mind and numb the heart. Emptiness is the real deliverance.
I watched a tv series this week (finished it last night), a western called Godless where the bad guys are bad because they have they have seen and suffered some terrible shit, and they figured that no god worth his salt would allow such suffering to happen. They conclude, therefore, that there can be no god, worthy or otherwise, and all there is is human will fighting (killing) to assert itself (survival of the meanest). The chief bad guy poses as a preacher.
The problem with their theologic (besides being mean) is that it is simply a backwards version of the view they are rejecting: god as the superhuman creator and preserver of all that is right and good; humans murderously acquiring what is good for themselves and their gangs because the weight of all that is wrong and bad means god must be a fiction. Different theologics, though, are possible and yield different conclusions. Yes, the good god who looks like a large version of dad or mom is a fiction. Mature thinking reveals it to be so. From that revelation we do not inherit the earth. But we might see that movement is a shining light. This requires study and attention. So put down the guns.
The show was gripping because the good guys were likable, and cliff hangers at the end of each episode kept me hooked (a common tv strategy these days). But it's too bad the gang of bad guys killed all the Black folks. Their village was on the way to a town full of widows the bad guys sought to rampage. The Black folks were former Buffalo Soldiers, fierce fighters, and the bad guys thought to dispatch them first before they could come to the aid of the women down the road. When the bad guys rode into town the women put up a good fight by themselves (a few of them were already good shots, and the rest gave it their all by necessity). After a lot of shooting, the bad guys were getting the better of the women, but before it was too late, the two principal good guys show up and shoot the remaining bad guys, saving the day. It was satisfying to see that, but I would have rather seen the Black folks, the good guys, and the women fight together for the win: If we must distract ourselves with tales of heroism, let's spread out the heroism a little more.
I can smell the residual smoke on my clothes from yesterday's work and being together. We sawed the dead tree, stacked the logs, and sat on the porch sharing words and thoughts. The sun bright but the air still cool with a vigorous breeze. The fire burning in the iron container in the back yard could not force away the cold. It did not need to: heat and cold touching the skin simultaneously, unopposed by one another, wind and fire together. We did not cook over the fire (we ordered pizza for dinner). The fire was something we started, stoked, and watched. From that came words, laughter, camaraderie.
It is Easter Sunday.
Sluggishness this morning. Efficiency and itineraries be damned. It usually comes from poor sleep. But now the cause is hard to distinguish from feelings permeating the pandemic: the exhaustion of those deemed essential; the sick, the dying, the dead coming to an unwelcome rest.
Maybe I'm just sad.
Rest is not the absence of motion but the relinquishing of will. The body at rest feels the breath, the atmosphere exchanging within.
A morning nap, laced with bits of guilt and disappointment, brings me to words that insist upon themselves and testify to movements beyond my borders.
Some things are blooming now: forsythia, daffodils, tulips, dogwoods. It is not yet warm, but spring persists. Birds are numerous and rambunctious.
People are getting impatient with the imposed immobility. Now to do nearly nothing is what we are called to do. It's how we help.
When I was a child, Granny and Pawpaw would occasionally cross the road to eat at Cook's Restaurant. They were friends with the owners, their neighbors, Bob and Norma Jean. The restaurant was attached to their gas station and convenience store. The entire complex was indeed a convenience, and a respite, for the local residents of the rural area. Pawpaw would always drink coffee, even at supper. At the end of the meal he would usually say: I'd like to sit and finish my coffee. Which meant that he wanted to linger. I would then go to the store and play pinball or Pac Man. Granny and Pawpaw would remain at the table and talk or be silent. Once they were invited by friends to three tables pushed together forming a place of spontaneous gathering. They drank coffee and ate pie till nearly 9:00pm, an hour past closing. I was given extra quarters.
(Archie would dwell at the Temple of Zeus Cafe, lingering and talking.)
Now that was good living.
A steady rain falls now with a few rumbles of thunder--the first of the season. The raindrops on my window distort my vision. I can see no creatures in the yard or in the brambles. There might be none. They might all be shacked up in their nests and dens or under some brush to get out of the weather. The view looks like an impressionist painting, all blurry but in a lively, not scary, way. The pine trees sway just a little.
The days pass neither slowly nor quickly. Yesterday I accomplished almost nothing. Today a little more. It has been almost a week since I have seen anyone.
I could just sit here drinking my coffee and watch this ugly spring unfold. That would be something.
Sometimes the exchange in a conversation is not an exchange of words but a joining of presence. The words might be one-sided, as when one participant is more loquacious. That can be rude and annoying. But sometimes one person just needs to spill; maybe they have just been dumped or had a death in the family. So they need to let go of their words and all that goes with them, and the role of a good friend (or a good conversation partner) is to just listen, receive the words and let them reverberate into the world. The reception is an acknowledgement of the other person, and thus a giving that makes an exchange. Poetry can be this way too. I offer these words, but I hear none from you (at least not now). And that reception lights their resonance. That is what I am after.
I'm back. I took my eye off the ball for a few days (writing something else) and found I lost the handle of this poem. Its movements and rhythms were not available to me. All the words felt forced. As if the poem were scolding my infidelity.
But the fidelity of the poem is different from other forms of faith. It does not demand belief in a pre-articulated doctrine that requires setting aside experience or questions that come with an edge. It does not ask that I give assent to an authority (mortal or immortal) whose only justification for power is that someone or something must have it in order to push back chaos. It does not narrow my range of experience for the sake of comfort (mine or anyone else's). It does not require obedience, give commands, or request more than is necessary. It does not hold with a heavy, fearful hand.
The poem asks that I sit, breathe, and be open. Not on a schedule but with consistency. Coming back again and again with intentional regard toward the edge of myself that makes myself and more, call it the world. Yes, the poem calls me to the world: Be faithful to that.
My body is heavy this morning. Perhaps because of fitful sleep. Perhaps for other reasons. After breakfast I decided to take a nap. That felt like an indulgence, but the pandemic is what makes it possible.
Try not to force things. It rarely goes well when you do. We bring our thoughts, plans, hopes and fears to a situation and load them down on the matter at hand hoping to contain the matter. But most matters are fluid and far richer than we can account for: They will not be contained, and the effort in the attempt is exhausting; continual exhaustion grows into angst, and you can find yourself in a pit wondering: What good is thinking? What good is life?
After the nap my body feels lighter, and here I am again with words.
I see no creatures in the yard at this moment (maybe they are avoiding me). But lately I've been watching a family of rabbits. They come out of the brambles in the early evening to feast on the dandelions, milkweed, and grass in the yard. They are quite fat and appear to be enjoying life. The thick brambles give good cover from flying predators, and when the rabbits emerge from their shelter to feed and play, my shelter, the three-story apartment building, obstructs the view of birds of prey. So the rabbits have a safe field of delights, and I watch them while eating my dinner: a surprisingly enjoyable symbiosis.
When you are all set to keep going you might not get to much: nothing dramatic, spectacular, exciting. Turns out most days are like most other days, except for a few. But I aim to keep going with this poem just as I aim to keep living: the two are parallel. The point is to have some aim, bring thought and attention to the passing of one's days. Not much more is needed, in my view. Many prescriptions, plans, goals and visions are developed and imposed in order to fill the emptiness and make a buck; the internet is full of them; for some reason they keep getting recommended (pushed on) to me; I can't check the weather or my email without someone hawking Three Steps for Self Optimization or Eight Habits of Happy People. I am not optimized, but I am consistent. Someday I'll get the hang of it.
Here is something for those who ache for optimization: The realization of self (done right) is realizing the more-than-self that the self sits in. Give it a name, or don't give it a name, but acknowledge it and the anxiety will ease (if only for a bit--but maybe more) and the world in its empistemologically-frustrating self will rise up in front of you without menace and offer you a silent blessing, not a respite from pain but an invitation to continue, to keep moving with the movement.
This is not a tape unrolling with an unknown yet definite end. It might feel that way if you are reading it on a screen (one section ends; another begins; it doesn't take much to move from one to the other, if you have the time and interest). But I am writing it on a screen, and nothing (that again) tells me where to stop, where to draw the boundary lines. These lines exist, and they are not exactly arbitrary, but they are not set in the stars, determined by a demiurge, or calculated with an equation. They come on their own, not quite volition, for they are not thinking beings, but their emergence has no definite cause; so let's call it self-caused and enjoy its mystery.
Even so, I couldn't go on forever (with this piece or the larger project), but the real project is ongoing always, and it is helpful to practice.
When this pandemic will end is unclear. But impatience with it permeates the world (especially this nation of fidgety folks). For some, like me, it is the solitude imposed and the challenge of rising when there is nobody nearby to poke you. For others, it is too much closeness to the one we are close to: the normal boundaries and spacings break down and the nerves get rubbed raw. Others watch as loved-ones leave for fates unknown but likely lonely. Many just want to get back to work, productive effort that protects and distracts.
I just saw two small birds flitting on top of one another with great energy and intensity. I can't be sure, but I think they were copulating.