“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Our Minds Are Not Our Own, Part Three

I came home one evening last week and, as I settled in, emptied my pockets and put my wallet and cash (counted and considered thoughtfully for a moment) in the top dresser drawer; my keys in a small bowl on the window sill; and my phone on the desk, plugged into the charger.  I turned on my television and began to adjust the antennae so as to pick up a signal from the local PBS station.  After dozens of small adjustments, and moving a lamp from the bedside table to the floor, I got good reception.

On the screen appeared a busy sidewalk in a city which I judged, by the architecture of the storefronts and the faces of the crowd, to be in eastern Europe.  A man carrying a cello in one hand and a folding chair in the other walked along the street.  The program had my attention, and I stood in the middle of my room watching as he unfolded the chair, sat down in it, and began to play the cello.  A woman’s voice was talking about being in Sarajevo in the midst of the civil war there, and seeing this man offering this beautiful music to the strangers around him who shared his city in the midst of war.  Then a woman, evidently the narrator, walked up to the cellist and dropped to her knees, her palms pressed together before her chest and her head bowed to him in blessing and in thanks.  She was Joan Baez, and the program turned out to be a portrait of her life and career, part of the American Masters series on PBS.

I thought, “There she is, walking into the middle of a war again.”  I remembered all the times I had seen images of her placing herself between warring factions, or protestors and police, being arrested, released, and then walking right back to stand in the line of fire, as it were, to stand for peace.  When the cellist acknowledged her thanks and stood up to walk on Baez suddenly sat in his chair and on that crowded street in Sarajevo began to sing, that gorgeous and powerful voice rising out of her to wash over the harried pedestrians as they passed.  “Amazing grace,” she sang, “How sweet the sound, that saved one like me!”

As a rule, I am not interested in celebrities.  I do not even pay attention to the private lives of artists whom I respect.  I figure that what matters is the song, book, image, or performance that they create, and the less I know about the artist the more my attention stays focused on the work and does not get confused or led astray.  But I have never been able to turn my eyes away from this woman.

In the final few minutes of the program, Baez said two things of importance to me.  She said that she now loves touring, whereas she did not in her youth, largely because she has now surrounded herself with the right people.  “It took me until I was in my sixties,” she said, “but I have finally surrounded myself with the right people.”  And a little later, in the closing words of the film, she said, “The spirit is still there, and that’s all you need really, that’s all you need to prove that life is worth living.”

The comfort afforded by the first remark to one who turned sixty just a few months back should be obvious.  I occasionally understand some simple truth about living well, usually a bit of common wisdom that I have utterly failed to apply to my own life up until that time, and I ask myself aloud, “Why the hell did it take you until you were (fill in my age at the time) to figure that one out?”  The importance of the company one keeps is one such bit of common knowledge.  Hasn’t everybody’s grandma told them to be careful not to fall in with the wrong crowd?  To hear Joan Baez, for whom I have had nothing but admiration -- nay, reverence -- all my adult life, admit that even she has had to stumble along through life, making mistakes and learning the hard way, cheered me considerably.  Her remark, especially in connection with her mention of “the spirit” in her closing comment, also got me thinking about the theme that I have begun to work my way through here, that “our minds are not our own.”

We experience ourselves differently, and we are different, in the company of others.  To pray, even silently, in a church, surrounded by others whose minds are focused in the same way, to the same end, and in the same silence, is different from praying alone.  Watching a movie on DVD at home is a vastly different experience from watching it as part of an audience in a theater.  And to expand on that point, have you ever loved a movie so much that you took a friend or two to see it with you and found that you had an entirely different experience of the movie than when you had seen it originally?

Every good preacher will say that as hard as you may work on your sermon, as carefully as you memorize and rehearse its delivery, the one essential thing when you step into the pulpit is “to let it all go, stand back, and allow the spirit to come through.”  The theological genius Calvin himself based the entire structure of Presbyterian polity on the assumption that, although individual people are flawed and prone to error, groups of people working together as a congregation will find their thoughts and actions guided by the Holy Spirit, the divinity which lives with us in this world.

I will continue with these musings in a moment, but before leaving Ms. Baez, let me say that I find her angelic -- most obviously in her voice, which can only be described as heavenly; also in her moral and political life; and finally in her physical beauty, which just keeps revealing itself more and more deeply as the years go by.

[I had hoped to be able to include the video footage described above, but I could not find it on the web.  Instead I offer this footage of Baez at the International House at U.C. Berkeley, and this essay by the film maker who made the American Masters program.]


To continue . . .

If indeed we swim in a stream of consciousness, and our mental activity takes place not sealed up in our skulls but in the very air all around us, much that seems mysterious -- even, to the strict empiricist, delusional -- loses its other-worldly aura (what we in California call the “Woo-Woo Factor”) and appears to be simple and obvious fact.

Some examples:

1.  There is no such thing as “ESP.”  Picking up the phone to call Mom just as it begins to ring in your hand because Mom is calling you; or suddenly realizing that your friend on another continent is in trouble and reaching out to provide help in the nick of time; or even being able to “see” the image that a person in another room is looking at on some psychic-researcher‘s deck of cards -- all of these need not be viewed as anything special unless we make the mistake of thinking that they are instances of two discrete monads somehow sending and receiving information in some mysterious violation of the Laws of Nature.  Rather we should think of these as instances of thoughts that exist in two minds at the same time, as a single object considered by quantum mechanics can exist in two places, even galaxies apart, at the same time.

2.  Hey kids -- ever wonder how Mom can always tell when you’re lying?

3.  Everybody else -- admit it:  secrets are impossible to keep.  They always get out.

4.  I am afraid that you will have to stop marveling at grand “coincidences” -- calculus was a thought that visited both Leibniz and Spinoza at the same time, nothing more and nothing less.

5.  Writers often say that the characters in their novel or play came to them with the story, rather than saying that they made it up.  I certainly had that experience with my (as yet unpublished) novel.  I articulate the difference by using the word “fantasize” to designate an activity over which I feel that I have control and “imagine” to designate that which comes to me more as a perception of something outside of myself, certainly outside of my control.  A story that one imagines is no more in one’s control than is a dream.  And you know how impossible it is to change anything in a dream -- even though you often desperately want to.

Our minds are not our own.

Another HABA# Hint for those who are Traveling Light:
(This one is for men, and it comes in two parts.)

1.  Stop buying shaving cream in aerosol cans.  The propellants and the can itself are anything but eco-friendly.  Use shave cream that comes in a tube.  It won’t make an air-filled bubbly lather, but it will soften your whiskers and keep your razor blade moving smoothly over the surface of your skin.  In fact you will probably find that it keeps your beard moister and your skin softer than the canned variety because it is richer to begin with, not full of water and the aforementioned air.  It is no more expensive and may even save you a little.  And if you are on the street, the tube has the advantage of getting smaller every time you use it, unlike a can.

2.  Once you have accustomed yourself to the smooth, rich feel of the non-aerosol shave cream, you can take another step and save yourself a bundle by using hair conditioner as your shaving cream.
A few months back, I bought hair conditioner by mistake, thinking it was shampoo.  Since I buzz my hair off and have never used conditioner in my life, I kicked myself for wasting money every time I stepped in the shower and saw that full bottle of conditioner sitting there.  But then the day came when I was out of shaving cream and had to look spiffy for work.  I smeared the conditioner on my face and dragged the razor through it.  Voila!  Clean shaven for a couple months now and still only half way through the $1.00 bottle!

(I recommend Suave shampoo, by the way -- $1.00 for 12 ounces at Walgreens.  Until this summer, it was $1.00 for 16 ounces -- oh but don’t worry:  the Feds say there’s no inflation.  That’s why you don’t need any cost-of-living increase to speak of.)