I am teaching an online class, in March 2020, for the The Poetry School in London. The nature of life is change and clinging to the illusion of permanence often leads to suffering, of one kind or another, but rather than anxiety, this life, full of change, can become a source of joy and wonder. Nomadic surrealism, with its emphasis on journeying between worlds, without clinging to a fixed position, is also a source of change and wonder, seeing the so called banal and everyday as full of mystery, if we can just attend to it with fresh eyes, a beginner’s mind. This studio course will be a journey, together, through change, loss, joy, and wonder. Come join us, wherever you are in the world, the more the merrier.
There are so many places in the world and the grass is always greener. If we are lucky and live in rich countries with professional jobs, or live simply, we can migrate to many new countries for work. We can try to find that perfect new homeland for living, or if not a homeland at least a place for renewal and adventure.
But when we get there, depending on our expectations, maybe we are disappointed. The great let-down. Wasn’t I supposed to feel happier when I moved to this or that place.
I want to come home. But home is not out there. I have traveled and lived all over the world and each time I thought this might be it, home, but it wasn’t. Yes, some places have been better for my well-being than others, but there is no sense of coming home.
There is sometimes a sense of coming home after a journey with my whole mind, body, and soul, but it is a certain kind of journey. You cannot package it. It is not for sale. It is a wild journey. The surrealist poets and artists often took this journey and left us aids for the journey, their art. We can renew ourselves with the alienation of wild art. It is a great journey and also coming home.
The Zen teacher Joan Halifax says it best:
Everybody has a geography that can be used for change that is why we travel to far off places. Whether we know it or not we need to renew ourselves in territories that are fresh and wild. We need to come home through the body of alien lands.
My writing is part of a life practice, using language as a means of travel, being in the flow, letting go. Language in motion, not attempting to impart stale or static knowledge. Maybe language is a little bit like a finger. If language is the finger, then what is the moon? The moon is a great mystery. Do not mistake the finger for the moon. Or vice versa. My writing attempts to travel with those great mysteries, to the moon, or other places, without clinging, or judging what is appropriate, better or worse. The Spirit of the Bathtub is part of that great mystery. It is, essentially, a spiritual book of nomadic surrealist travel. In the expansive tradition. Sometimes minimalist like Basho. Sometimes narrative and parable like.
If you listen to Alan Watts and other American Buddhist dharma talks, they often talk about expanding, rather than constricting. What does it mean? We all feel it, in one way or another, the tightening in the mind and body from various obligations, fears, and worries. The natural response is to cling, try to hold on. For example, as a teacher, I sometimes think in order to create a good lesson I need a lot of planning, and also anxiety, before entering the classroom. I have to prepare myself for the unexpected. But does the anxiety really help? Are my lessons more effective when I am anxious beforehand? It seems when I am in a more open and expansive state, some call this being in the flow, I am also more likely to complete various tasks more effectively, including writing and teaching. Of course, most importantly, the quality of my life is also better.
Many of us, in one way or another, have to deal with anxiety. My anxiety is very high. I used to take various prescriptions for severe anxiety, among other mental health issues, but stopped taking them in 2007. It is not easy but I felt they were no longer useful. Cognitive behavioural therapy is sometimes helpful. But I often feel I have a long way to go in dealing with my anxiety. It is a practice. I have to find ways of letting go. How to let go, in a skilful way? Without either repressing the emotions or feeding the anxiety by expressing it? Sometimes I need to allow for anger, and that is something I am still working on. How to express anger in a healthy way. I rarely express any anger. I just internalise it. I am afraid if I express anger, or any other so-called negative emotion, I will feed it. So how to let go? I am most happy in the moment, not holding onto anything, not clinging, being in the flow in an alert observational state, but this takes practice, without clinging to ideas of the “correct” outcome, and sometimes it takes expressing my “negative” emotions in order to let go.
In Alan Watts book,The Wisdom of Insecurity, he explains the often repeated story of the finger and the moon:
“It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”
Poetry is part of my life practice, but it is only the finger pointing to the moon, bright and radiant. If language is the finger then what is the moon? It is the great mystery. It is original mind. Beyond good and evil.
I have never been comfortable with money. The chasing it, living my life for numbers. In America, as an immigrant, I was saturated with the lack of it. Lower middle class, chasing the American dream, the endless informercials and my family trying so many pyramid schemes, doing the grunt work to make someone else wealthy, but also believing in the great hope, like selling water conditioners door to door in rich neighbourhoods, in Las Vegas, in suits, in July, with my high school friend John, no one buying, and deciding no, that’s not it. Growing up with the bill collectors calling, the endless stress and worries, money, never enough of it. I thought, hey, I am not gonna chase it, I’m gonna lower my desires, as much as possible, so I require less money. Lower middle class forever.
But also, lately, middle aged and 44, no retirement, no kind of property, some signs of declining health, nothing to sell in a pinch except this computer, maybe some books, precarious low paid work for 13 years as an adjunct English teacher at wealthy colleges (this year was my wealthiest year in 28 years of working, in proportion to the cost of living, it was 14,000 euro), and doing a lot of extra unpaid work for various wealthy institutes and colleges, and I am wondering where all the money is going. If students, or rather their rich parents, are paying so much money for tuition, why are the workers/teachers paid so little. The people making the money just keep making more money. The system is rigged. It is one big casino and the house almost always wins. Sure, someone might win now and again, but that’s to keep the workers working, believing the impossible dream, that one day they will become a master, and continue the system, or at hit it big and retire, somehow. The masters are born wealthy, move their wealth around, make more money. It is all a game. Forget about it. Nowadays, if you graduate in something to do with the arts and the humanities, you can almost guarantee it, some form of poverty, unless you have something to fall back on, like a wealthy family, or maybe a trade of some kind, but rarely university teaching. The university lecturer and poet Sophie Robinson recently tweeted about the casualisation of academic labor, and of course the arts are also causalised, you are supposed to donate your time, energy, and creative labour for free. If you already have the wealth from family, some kind of lucky background, where you can afford to work for free, this is all fine and well, you can write or paint as a hobby, donate your time and energy, nothing wrong with that of course, very good, but for those trying to survive and keep their heads above water, it feels a lot different. I have noticed, quite often, although not always of course, teachers teaching for pocket money for wealthy institutions and feeling fine with this. There are various reasons I am sure, but I keep seeing teachers who have a rich spouse, their partner is a diplomat for example, and they just want to teach an English class or an art class or something for a little extra cash, pocket money for weekend getaways. But what about those of us who rely on this money for literal survival. Well, that’s just the game. If someone agrees to work for low pay, it is low pay for everyone. Everything is ruled by profit, but what about an attempt at a universal declaration of rights for workers? We are still waiting.
Even in writing this post, I feel sick inside. What if I earn less than 14,000 next year. What if this post is bad luck. I should keep quiet and feel grateful to have shelter and food and also enough money for books and even some entertainment. So many people in the world have it much much worse, it is hard to even imagine. But I also wonder about what we value, in our cultures, where we put our time and energy, what we support economically.
Some folks might argue this market system of value rewards those who graduate with degrees in engineering, economics and business, and that sometimes poverty is more or less the fault of people who choose to follow a path in the arts. But equally another question to consider is why we choose not to value the arts, and often reward professions that cause great destruction and harm to our planet, and also our psychological well-being.
I never expect any money for a performance of my work, in part because money is dirty and I don’t want my art dirty, and also I don’t feel entitled or worthy, I am not important enough. When there is some kind of compensation, even the cost of a train ticket for traveling to the venue, I feel very lucky. Why is this? I am afraid of losing my freedom to create by having it tied to money.
I am seeing the economic and political system more and more for what it is, massively skewed towards free government handouts (tax breaks for example) for those who are already wealthy, while the real hard work is born on the back of the workers, and we as workers are brainwashed into thanking those very masters who have rigged the system in their favour. What is up with that? Well, we are told stories, mostly fairy tales. One of the stories is if you work really hard, and believe in your dreams, doors will open, everything will work out. Another form of hoodwinking? Maybe.
Maybe after 28 years of working on this planet, I will earn a more comfortable wage, and maybe even have something in case I retire, and if I have more money I will not necessarily change into something I have always feared: the middle class hungry monster. Maybe there are many kinds of middle class. Books have been written, from a utopian capitalist perspective, on how to become a millionaire, thereby making the author a millionaire. This is especially the case in America, the capitalist pyramid par excellence, a dystopian nightmare for many. Everything is bigger in America. There is never enough. It is the ultimate hungry monster. In most of Europe, with things generally smaller, and at least some humane systems of welfare and concern for citizens and community, things are overall much better. And it is much easier to survive simply here in Spain than in London, London being a copycat of American values that favours bankers and property chasers. But also, of course, the hungry monster is here too, almost everywhere. Capitalist values have engulfed the planet, we are all hungry monsters, to varying degrees.
As a writer, from a lineage of avant garde artists, middle class is usually a sign of less authenticity, at least in my circles, but I have noticed that a majority of these same writers and artists are from comfortable middle or upper middle class families, this seems to be the case with just about all the artists and writers you may have heard of. From Pablo Picasso to Henry Miller to Leonora Carrington to just about every novel ever published in the United Kingdom, middle or upper middle class backgrounds, sometimes with wealthy patrons, such as their partners. And of course these same middle or upper middle class artists recognise each other, in terms of the content of their writing, it is familiar, the cocktail parties and fancy dinners and luxury travel or temporary slumming, they recognise the lives they are writing about, they network and keep the game in motion, publish books, receive awards, review each others work and call it universal human values. Of course, this is not to say that because the majority of art we may know in the world is from middle or upper class folks it is less valuable, or less interesting, but rather we are doing ourselves a disservice by not allowing for other voices in the arts, from other classes. It is a kind of poverty of the imagination. Art requires leisure and money or patronage, and if you don’t have those, you die, or just give up, or maybe you continue creating, somehow, if you are lucky.
Do I feel more virtuous having less money, more artistic and authentic? It seems that narrative, at least in part, comes from a kind of romantic vision of the middle class artist, temporarily slumming it, in Paris or wherever, like Hemingway and the so-called Lost Generation, and the wealthy aristocratic poets before them. All fine and well and interesting, but again, it is a very different situation without a safety net.
Maybe I can live simply, but more comfortably, with more money, without becoming a hungry monster, without attaching myself to the chasing of money, if I can somehow acquire a more permanent teaching position, or change professions, & overcome various barriers, such as ageism, maybe I can live more comfortably. Maybe there is a middle way with money. But how much is enough? I don’t want to become a hungry middle class monster, or lose what I need for my psychological survival, the creation of my art. Maybe that is what I associate with middle class: suffocation in overly sanitised environments and the killing of my creativity. But maybe there are other options. I hope so.
Why do we travel? The weekend getaway. The summer and winter breaks. The islands and exotic locations. What are we looking for?
The travel industry is one of the biggest on our planet. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the travel industry generated 7.6 trillion U.S. dollars in 2016. We are looking for something obviously.
Do we travel to escape our mundane lives? That is surely one of the biggest reasons. But often, at least from my own experiences, we bring our fears and anxieties with us. Some of us, me included, might even panic a little without the comforts (and pains) of our daily routines. And yet the allure of kicking back on the beach with a cocktail, with the turquoise water of the Mediterranean, while a cliche, is hard to resist. We want new scenery to refresh ourselves. We all know stress (too much or too little) affects the quality of our lives and we are told a recreational holiday will renew us. Keep us fresh and productive workers. Employers know this and give us paid holidays.
Holidays are a type of recreation, time spent away from work, but what is recreation? Recreation is RE CREATION. Maybe you have heard that before. But it is good to contemplate. Do our holidays enable us to really RE CREATE ourselves? Do new environments really RE CREATE us?
“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life.” That’s Alain de Botton. I think he is onto something.
What is ordinary life? Well, I suppose it is a kind of delusion.We are “tethered” to our everyday obligations, worries, and fears. We all lead busy lives, endlessly trying to balance work, family, and the endless options for entertainment, and, perhaps often detrimental to our well-being, comparing ourselves with others via social media. We are also “tethered” to the idea of permanence and trying to cling to it. Permanence is an illusion. The Buddhists tell us this and we can check it out for ourselves. Take a look around. Everything is always changing. Nothing is permanent.
This realisation of non-permanance can engender further worries. How can we anchor ourselves if everything is changing? One response, and I think it is quite natural, is to try to cling to what appears, at least for now, as solid. But there is another response, and at least from my experience, more renewing and life enriching, and that is to allow for this change, not to see it as the enemy, but rather as a potential source for wonder and awe.
When I lived in Poland, I remember visiting Krakow and seeing the tourists flock to comfort zones. The British tourists to British pubs for British food and beer and football. Maybe, out of guilt, some cultural excursions. While living in Turkey, especially around the southern Antalya province, I also noticed the same thing. British pubs, British all day breakfasts, fish and chips, and so on. This of course is understandable. We also want the familiar from our daily routines. It is a kind of comfort, at least temporarily. I understand the appeal. However, for me at least, I feel most renewed with surprise, awe, and stepping out of the familiar.
This stepping out of the familiar doesn’t come right away. I start off by clinging. Worrying what’s for breakfast in the new place, the best deals for lunch, trying to get myself situated. But when I am able to let go, allowing for the new environment to refresh me by not clinging to the familiar, time mostly disappears, or at least the clinging to it, and I feel the most free and happy. I am fully in the present moment, not weighing and judging and comparing, but open and ready to experience whatever is happening now in front of me. I am seeing the world again as if for the first time, because it really is the first time. The Buddhists call this beginner’s mind. You don’t have to travel, of course, to experience beginner’s mind, but it can be one of the ways.
The mind is the source of suffering and pleasure, but the environment, of course, plays a factor. Stepping out of the familiar. That, perhaps, is the source of our recreation. Traveling as a way to see things as they really are, forever changing. Spontaneous travel can help us recover our curiosity. Here is another piece of wisdom, this time from the great Zen teacher Alan Watts:
Real travel requires a maximum of unscheduled wandering, for there is no other way of discovering surprises and marvels, which, as I see it, is the only good reason for not staying at home.
This is the child’s mind, open and curious. For me, it is the greatest source of recreation. This child-like beginner’s mind can renew us. Lots of wisdom teachers tell us about the importance of beginner’s mind. Jesus said to become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. What is it about children? Again, look around, they are naturally curious, in the moment, not clinging to the past or future, a beginner’s mind. It seems, at least from my experience, as we get older and become aware of mortality and death, we cling more and more to the illusion of permanence. For me, that is the source of most of my suffering. My mind trying to hold on too tightly. I am most happy in the moment, fully immersed and also observing, curious and open.
Nomadic travel does not require exotic locations and extensive planning. It can happen here and now, in your own neighbourhood. It is about letting go of expectations, cultivating a child-like curiosity.
Here, again, is Alan Watts:
The only way to make sense of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.
The dance of life! What a great mystery!
Irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power.”
— Jesse Thorn
It’s still hard and the world is a completely different place with loss of this size.
We were so close growing up and then were reconnecting again after I left the U.S. and traveled the world for seven years in attempt to make new home. I’d made the circle. I was coming home. And I wanted to be close to Aaron. And then suddenly within two years he was gone. An overdose. He was doing well getting clean but then there was that last fatal shoot up.
That’s the story.
What does it mean?
I got the call while living in crap flat in North London with black mould that wouldn’t leave etc. My sister Shantell called from the U.S. I got descriptions of how my step dad found him on the floor the next morning when he was picking him up for work. Near the door. Swollen and blue.
I didn’t want to think of him suffering. The door was locked so he could shoot up in private. Was he trying to get to the door? Why didn’t I call him when I was in London. What could I have said?
And then, like anyone who has experienced loss of someone very close, there was anger and frustration. Why were people laughing outside? Don’t they know my brother died? And then looking at people around me and getting angry that they were alive and my brother was not alive. And then wondering what I could have done to help.
I ran away because I needed space to sort out a lot of fucked up shit. And Aaron was now the eldest when I left. And all that shit now fell on him because I had to get out of there.
He was 13 when I left. The same age when the shit fell heavy on me.
And then the reuniting after close call with death and heroin and he was clean and exercising and hopeful and I was hopeful too because the turmoil of family life I grew up was more calm and peaceful overall.
And me and Aaron and my brothers Luke and Spencer reconnected. And I felt a place. More reconciled. To what? For what?
I dream of Aaron often. He was the link to my childhood and my adulthood.
I have a tattoo in my right forearm that means NOTHING in Chinese. It reminds me to remember emptiness is form and form is emptiness.
What does that mean?
I thought I knew what it meant.
All this mass suffering in millions of ways with billions of people. Drown it out. See it. Turn it over and over and see it.
Life is shit. But sometimes beautiful. But a lot of shit.
And what’s the point of any of it! There is no point. Happiness?
I write because there is no other way. Fuck all this university bullshit careerism and little well made word artefacts. Or all those people plugged into their upper middle class art worlds and their biggest worry if they can have as much money as another artist to make their big art project NOT if they have a place to live or food to eat. Not survival. Or worrying about why male artists receive more recognition than female artists. They are in a completely different world.
But that’s OK. Who wants to be in survival mode all the time.
Do I want to be in their world?
I guess I want them to see their huge privilege. Female as well as male.
What happened to male rape? It’s embarrassing. It’s not talked about. Men worn down by a system that pushes success and bringing home money etc etc.
yes your privilege makes your privilege invisible.
Male and female.
I saw my whiteness as a minority in a mostly African American high school.
I saw the shit my mum went through as a woman growing up.
I am now finally recognising the shit that working class men go through too. The working men I have seen and avoided most of my life to get away. To be in some other world.
I hope I remember the world I came from. I hope I can see how my worries shift. I hope I can see the difference!
And it’s relative. Of course.
I think I am moving up. I maybe made closer to £20,000 this last year. £1,400 a month after taxes.
I am 40. I have been working since age 14. I have put myself through 8 years of university. And so on. Am I poor? No. I live a simple life. Am I middle class? I might be middle class. What is middle class? Is it a state of mind or how much money is in the bank? I have a university degree and teach university on a fractional/adjunct contract. I am middle class.
My brother’s truck was repossesed shortly before he died. In Utah, in a small town, that means something much different than not having a vehicle in the UK. He rode his bicycle to pick up groceries for his girlfriend and step son. He picked up scrap metal and worked on hot roofs with my step dad fixing air conditioners. He was constantly in debt to the state of Utah for fees and penalties for his drug use. He was in survival mode all the time. Food and bills and survival and trying to make good with his step son and girlfriend who was a heavy heroin user in past as well.
It all fell apart.
He got a haircut on the day he died. He had a good day. He finally got a few hundred dollars in his bank account and called my mum happy.
I live in an estate. Canary Wharf is down the road. And it is a completely different world. Shopping malls. Status. Power. Morgan Stanley. HSBC. Yadda yadda.
Elsewhere my money means a shitload. In London it is not enough to live with hipster cool art students in “cool” areas of East London.
I am lucky. I am privileged.
It’s easy to forget.
It depends how you measure your life. Who or what you compare it to?
This goes for race gender class and all other forms of privilege. All other causes.
There are homeless.
There are . . .
Class is left out of Feminism too often. It’s acknowledged but not really fully looked at. I mean in public. Where it matters.
Working class men are sometimes prostitutes. Their body worn down and for much less than a female prostitute who uses her body. And these male prostitutes are not acknowledged. They are doing their manly duty. I have seen it most of my life up close. And their wives at home trying to create perfect home.
But that’s only my experience.
There are lots of particular ways of suffering.
When I was in university and in many women’s studies classes and some of the rich upper middle class women said thank you for giving up some of your power I was a little mystified. I come from a working class background and the first and only to go to university and where did I fit in this culture?
I have power. They have power. Who has more power? Why were they so blind about their own power too.
It was all labeled and fit neatly into little boxes of gender politics.
I often thought of my self as a woman. I didn’t have the parts but I could never do manly things well. I thought I was gay. I couldn’t walk the right way and people said I need to walk more like a man and less like a girl.
I could sometimes become aggressive. Did that mean I was a man again?
I tried to people please all the time. I got social anxiety. Big time anxiety. I down played my own knowledge. I kept humble. What I thought was humble.
I cried almost every night, or every other night, in my room from age 12-18.
Did that make me more like a girl again?
My life was damn hard in many ways but I had pretty boy looks. I looked like a girl as a kid.
I worked construction. I was a dishwasher. I worked in factories. I worked many many jobs since age 14.
I was trying to be a man again and square it with my working class background.
I was no good at it. I worked my ass off to study and go to university. And that was a different world.
First generation immigrant makes good?
Nah. Maybe. Nah. Whatever. I don’t fuckin know.
I teach at a university and get enough money to be OK in London with simple life. I try to pass as middle class while teaching university. I am passing. But I get anxious. I have to keep remembering it is a big show. A game. A play. Clothes are only a costume. Can you become your costume?
My voice is simple straight shooting voice.
But I am university educated.
I was given fancy words.
What do I do? How can I fit? How do we all fit?
I don’t buy much. I don’t own a car or credit card or tv or or or . .
And that’s good. I like my simple life.
Everyone wants to simplify things into causes.
It’s never simple.
Or it is.
Suffering is simple. It’s universal. It’s also particular.
My brother could see his life reflected in Bukowski’s writing. I avoided Bukowski for a long time. And finally for the last six months I have been reading everything. My bother always talked about reading Bukowski. It was the only books he really read in high school. And now after reading so much Bukowski I can see why.
That raw honesty. Bukowski is ugly. Bukowski is beautiful. And often very very aware of the whole game. Including the game of his public image. Including some of his misogyny. It’s in the writing. It’s not in the public persona so much. It’s all there in the writing.
I guess I like Bukowski’s writings better than 95% of artful university educated writing. Yes there is some misogyny. But that’s not the whole story. I would take Bukowski’s misogyny over a million well made little stories and poems from male or female writers with their phd in creative writing etc.
And that’s where I am now. I am not Bukowski. I don’t have that particular life or experience or that particular suffering. But I want that attempt at raw honesty. That includes doubt. Lots of doubt.
Writing is not a degree. It’s not legitimate. It’s a big zero. An impossibility. Life is an impossibility.
But here we are. Alive. For now.
I wanted to make good for my brother. What does that mean? I have to ask myself that a lot while walking tight rope of nihilism.
Back to existence. Existentialism. And basic Buddhism.
(Last Christmas I would spend with my brother Aaron. He is on left)
(scraps from this weeks notebook)
The giant city awake in the first warm breath of springtime. 5 days till 40th birthday. Moving into part time insomnia. Money worries. I have enough now but what about next month? The month after? What about the summer?
* * *
THE PAST- a new movie
* * *
I need to update my operating system. A spy among friends. A wolf among men. I’ve had enough now. Oblivion today. Oblivion tomorrow. I’m in ragdoll state of mind. Ash tray state of mind. When is happy? Today is OK but what about tomorrow?
Happiness = expansive mind
Are bunny rabbits happy? Are trees happy? Is the wind happy? Is the Metro happy? It bears bad tidings.
* * *
I’ve been a people pleaser most of my life. I need to work on my Moon Pie. I’m in pain. I’m suffering.
Looking for next job? 95,000 jobs. 20, 000 recruiters. Am I a modern invention. What isn’t modern? If I die tomorrow will I be in Bardo?
* * *
Splurging on mind. What else is there? An old junket of harmony and grief. A pirate? No a starlet. No a pirate.
* * *
The cosmic sublime sounds like a special kind of snail.
* * *
Cavities are contagious. Watch who you kiss! Wheat is killing us. Meat is killing us. Gluten is killing us. Eat mostly fruits and veggies. Wheat on the side. FLOSS YR TEETH!
* * *
I travel to escape tyranny of little self
* * *
Insomnia during week before hitting 40. What is 40? Is it spring energy or anxiety? There is a long german word for the emotion I feel. Eating the dream dust of my youth. As you get older time goes inside you. When you die you just become time. Today I am 40.