Saturday, July 28, 2018

Healing Ingredients for Hard Times

Greek street art from here.

"A middenhide hoard of objects!" 
- Finnegans Wake, p. 19

"To clean and tidy up Matter...
To put back all the things people cluttered up
Because they didn't understand what they were for...
To straighten, like a diligent housekeeper of Reality,
The curtains on the windows of Feeling
And the mats before the doors of Perception...
To sweep the rooms of observation
And to dust off simple ideas...
That's my life, verse by verse."

- Fernando Pessoa (as Alberto Caeiro), 17 September 1914 
(from A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe: Selected Poems, p. 56)

Besides the increasingly entropic, sad and infuriating thunderstorm of drama unfolding daily in the news, my closer circumference has also been racked with scary, turbulent, and unpredictable drama lately. The tension of the times is inescapable, it seems.

Besides the weight of experiencing people close to me fighting life-threatening illnesses, family friends passing away, and cherished friends leaving town, the last few months have featured the misfortune of a nearby neighbor exploding into a dark psychotic and meth-aided breakdown bringing nerve-eroding levels of disturbance and threat to my immediate community. My strong woman is terrified, deeply rattled, and my infuriated Italian Staten Island dude energy is trying to force its way into the situation. Plus it's Texas so the entire neighborhood is armed. Dealing with all of this has been rough.

What's helped me keep my head on straight is regular indulgence in the following ingredients: reading the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, exploring the music of rapper Ka, vibing off daily doses of Fela Kuti or lines from Finnegans Wake, and both watching and playing lots of baseball. Here are some thoughts on all of those.

Pessoa Poetry

Any free moments I've had to sit and read at home lately I've mostly been reading Pessoa's stunning poem collection A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe. I'd first discovered this web of gems thumbing thru tattered copies spread throughout the foyer of Austin's Blanton Auditorium before a performance by the Austin Classical Guitar Orchestra that was interspersed with poetry from Fernando Pessoa. I'd been invited to contribute to the Finnegans Wake-focused third show in a three-part literature-inspired orchestra series. The first show revolved around Pessoa's captivating poetry collection.

Pessoa (1888-1935) was a brilliant poet from Lisbon known for writing thru various personas he called "heteronyms." These personas all had their own distinct styles and tendencies, all striking in their clarity and precision of thought. I've found that reading A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe sometimes lifts me out of and above my body in a hovering contemplation of reality, helping set my mind straight through turbulence. On the strength of these poems and some thin bits I've read from The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa has catapulted to the upper rankings of my favorite authors ever. Reading these poems, often while sitting out on my back porch, has been a practice of calm healing for me.

"I accept life's hardships because they're destiny
As I accept the harsh cold in the dead of winter---
Calmly and without complaint, as one who simply accepts, 
And finds joy in the fact of accepting,
In the sublimely scientific and difficult fact of accepting the 
inevitably natural.

Aren't the illnesses I have and the adversity I experience
Just the winter of my life and person?
An erratic winter, whose laws of appearing are unknown to me
But that exists for me by the same sublime fatality,
The same inevitable fact of being outside me,
As the earth's heat in high summer
And the earth's cold in the depths of winter."
(as Alberto Caeiro 14 October 1917, Selected Poems, p. 66)

"I broke with the sun and stars. I let the world go.
I went far and deep with the knapsack of things I know.
I made the journey, bought the useless, found the indefinite,
And my heart is the same as it was: a sky and a desert.
I failed in what I was, in what I wanted, in what I discovered. 
I've no soul left for light to arouse or darkness to smother.
I'm nothing but nausea, nothing but reverie, nothing but longing.
I'm something very far removed, and I keep going
Just because my I feels cozy and profoundly real,
Stuck like a wad of spit to one of the world's wheels."
(as Alvaro de Campos, "English Song" 1 December 1928, p. 230)

[^This reads beautifully forwards and backwards.]

Pessoa's skillful phrases have blown me away:

"Train of sensations moving at soul-miles per hour." 

"Postponed corpses that procreate." 

"Scatter yourself, O physicochemical system 
Of nocturnally conscious cells"

"Hey electricity, Matter's aching nerves!"

It's been a great feeling to discover and dig into an artist whose work so resonantly hits the right notes for me. I see now why those scattered copies I'd first encountered of this book were so tattered: these are poems to memorize, recite aloud, read and contemplate repeatedly. Feel like I've discovered a new medicine to contribute to the health of my soul for the foreseeable future.

* * *

Days With Dr. Yen Lo

"My esteemed standards on clean canvas

Calm text of complex flavors, they scream blandness"
- Ka

Another new discovery I've been indulging in lately has been the rapper Ka from Brooklyn. Returning to his music a few years after initially scoffing at his distinctly low-key delivery, suddenly something about his work clicked for me, his artistic ingenuity became fully evident, and now I've been exploring his catalog for weeks.

Ka is a rapper of immense integrity, a hip hop purist yet one who's carved his own unique stylistic niche. He's got a well-deserved reputation among fans of NY boom-bap yet his songs are often almost completely devoid of drums. He's one of the sharpest lyricists in the game with a unique gravelly voice, but he never barks or yells his rhymes, instead spitting in an exceedingly calm, characteristically confident tone that's a few decibels above a whisper. His music really makes you lean in to try to absorb everything. It's music to pay focused attention to.

Here's one of my favorite tracks from his collab with producer Preservation, Days with Dr. Yen Lo:

The message conveyed thru his tightly weaved lines has been especially appropriate for what I've been dealing with lately; the inner struggle between my wiser, more mature and peace-oriented adult self against the repressed angry emotions of my Staten Island upbringing in the face of a potentially dangerous threat across the street. All within the context of a community overloaded with guns. His music has been an important guide through this intense chamber I've been stuck in. (Hence my posting his song "Conflicted" recently.) One line that sticks out: "To settle scores in peddling war is a losing game/ Wanna rule with your best tool, use your brain."

Adding to this appreciation, watching some of his interviews on YouTube, I quickly developed a great respect for Ka as a person---the man is humble as could be, amusingly self-effacing, and refreshingly real. He's actually an FDNY firefighter in his day job, therefore his approach to music is entirely an artistic endeavor, a passion project. He's not out to get rich or put on a show. He's simply channeling the pain and stress he developed growing up in the harsh realm of Brownsville, Brooklyn into lasting artistic creations. (Brownsville is known as one of the roughest sections in all of New York City---cursory Googling reveals both ongoing gentrification projects and recent stories of teenagers stabbed to death in fights or the damage done in a drive-by shooting.) And his shared thoughts on the craft of his art (sometimes spending months on a few lines) and how listeners ought to approach his work (sit in a dark room and just listen for a while), while being explicitly reluctant to offer any annotations so as not to ruin the creative subjective interpretations of his listeners, all of this further adds to my excitement and appreciation for this newly (re)discovered artist.

* * *

Trouble Sleep

Sleep has been in short supply for weeks as I'm constantly in vigilant mode worrying if someone's trying to get into my house or yard. (Even besides the psychotic meth-addict across the street, the neighborhood's had some alarming burglar activity lately.) Then to be awake and absorbing the horrors of the news cycle, especially a racist American administration forcefully separating hundreds of young immigrant children from their parents, keeping them in cages, destroying generations of people coming here seeking asylum, not to mention all the other disgusting daily dramas... one wishes it were all a bad dream.  

An effective healing agent through all this has been the soulful, uplifting beauty of Fela Kuti's lullaby-toned anthem "Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am":

* * *

"whirlworlds" - FW, p. 17

As always, Finnegans Wake remains a handbook constantly consulted, helping to keep me sane. It's times like these that I appreciate our local Finnegans Wake Reading Group more than ever. Our twice-monthly hive-mind discussions are like a vitamin boost, helping me stay focused on the things I love and why.

Some lines from the page we most recently read, page 17, have been jangling around in my head for a while, sparking all kinds of ideas and images. The passage describes the cyclical flow of proliferating life and love against inescapable death and separation in terms of waves crashing, merging and parting.

Mearmerge two races, swete and brack. Morthering rue. Hither, craching eastuards, they are in surgence: hence, cool at ebb, they requiesce. Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this plage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a waast wizzard all of whirlworlds.

* * *


Lastly, even though the Mets are back to being an abject embarrassment, I've been heavily indulging in following baseball as a healthy divergence from life's bullshit. I've even been playing baseball now---my friend started a sandlot team so I've had the privilege of being outside in grass, catching, throwing, and hitting a baseball once or twice a week. And of course that experience only serves to amplify my appreciation for watching pro ballplayers ply their trade.

The Mets are very bad and they've begun trading off players for spare parts, but I'm still watching most of their games for the comforting daily presence of their announcers and my favorite pathetic ballclub. My other favorite team, the Oakland A's, have enjoyed a thrilling season thus far, a typically fascinating Billy Beane-assembled motley crew of sluggers, an imposing bullpen, and an unreliable starting staff leading to many tight games and frequent stunning comebacks when they fall behind. 

While there is plenty to complain about with the current state of Major League Baseball (strikeouts and homeruns skyrocketing, games dragging, pennant races dull or nonexistent) there's also plenty of nuance and creativity to provide endless thrills for baseball nerds. I've become especially interested in the 2018 version of the Tampa Bay Rays---a cheap, bargain bin ballclub in a division of rich superteams, they've cast aside convention in favor of creatively deploying their entire roster to scrape together wins. Their offense is filled with versatile, fairly unknown players who can hit a little and play all over the field. The pitching staff has plenty of effective arms, but what's most fascinating is the manager's crafty chess moves with the pitching staff. The Rays have been the first club to use the strategy of "bullpenning" sending out relief pitchers to start games and then getting creative from there. This practice has rankled some purists but it's been a highly effective and interesting strategy for Tampa Bay. The Rays have also had plenty of position players take the mound, including putting in their backup catcher to pitch in a game-on-the-line situation where other pitchers were available. And they've turned the famous Waxahachie Swap into a regular tactic, even putting pitchers at first base or third base for an out or two.

While the Mets could hardly be a more sad or pathetic organization, there's still plenty of other intriguing storylines and strategies to follow on a regular basis. The cheap, crafty ballclubs like Oakland and Tampa Bay will always be fascinating to me when they're playing well. Oakland remains on a roll and Tampa Bay stays afloat despite trading off assets. It's enough to keep me entertained through the dog days of Austin's sweltering summer.

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