Sunday, September 28, 2014

As if

Desert walk
After posting last week’s journal entry here, I wondered whether I had not gone off the deep end, having read too much of mysticism lately. The jargon that crept in made what I wrote well-nigh incomprehensible.

What I meant to say was something more like this in plain English: As questions about life and death typically involve notions about God, however one imagines such a Being, why not imagine God in a way that deepens one’s spirits and contributes to what might pass as wisdom?

A lifetime of consuming literature and movies actually makes this somewhat easier than it may at first seem. It’s called “suspension of disbelief.” Just let go of what argues against irrationality. (The voice in your head that says, “These aren’t real people, just words on a page or actors on a stage.”) Thanks to this mental act of complicity, literature has developed its own way of raising questions about life and death.

Morning sky
To be sure, religions have long advertised themselves as having all the answers. My problem with the ones I have encountered so far is that they are typically answers to the wrong questions. Let’s say we do in fact live in a state of grace—all is forgiven—and I’ll admit that I do find consolation in this belief. How then does one go about living from day to day?

Besides the dos and don’ts of religions, I’ve found that cancer has its own way of entertaining alternatives. That’s why I asked last week whether God likes jazz, because I’d like to think the two of us have that in common. It opens portals to possibilities as I consider how to use each new day’s 24 hours.

I can watch and listen to jazz videos on YouTube into the night and experience a meditative state that shows me how to be human—improvising from moment to moment instead of living always by rules. I feel what it is like to touch and be touched by the life that’s been given to me. Meanwhile (here’s some mysticism slipping in), demands of ego and self dissolve away for a while and I become what I am, a speck of human consciousness, here for a while in this speck of time on a spinning dot in the vast universe. Not a bad place to be.

Desert walk
Sam Harris, in his new book, Waking Up, argues for something else, preferring the rationality of science to beliefs about God that require faith—faith being what we accept as truth despite the absence of evidence. He's an avowed atheist, imagining God as nonexistent, and that’s okay for him. Where he loses me is his claim that such a belief is conducive to ethical behavior. It may be, but his book doesn't explain what he means by “ethical”—or how in a godless universe you live that belief day to day.

I could be way wrong (I’ll even say dead wrong), but rejecting the same punishing and irrational God that Harris does, I prefer to invent one of my own, an alt-god who makes more of a congenial companion on this journey. For me, that would be a jazz lover who understands the sorrow-inflected joy that pulses through the fully functioning brains, bodies, fingers, and emotions of jazz musicians—humans with human souls. (As someone who has lost full use of one hand, I note for the reader my use of the term “fully functioning.”)

Evening clouds
I’ll choose also to live my days as if such a God exists, there by my side, or there on the other side of the door marked “Mystery,” or anywhere beyond the wind-blown palms and palo verdes under the starry desert sky outside my back door.

God willing, I should add. Inch Allah.

The end of this journey may be no more than a blank, but in the meantime, I trust that there will be maybe a few soul-nourishing revelations and consolations along the way.

Health update. Last weekend I was in the middle of a 5-day round of chemo. That was followed by four days of fatigue that had me mostly lying down and sleeping, when I wasn’t reading. Food, again, had little appeal. Facebook, email, and keeping up with fellow bloggers went pretty much onto back burners.

For two days now, though, I have been able to take 30-40 minute walks in the desert again. A burst of autumnal weather has helped in that effort, cooling winds rolling in through the Banning Pass from the Pacific. Inside, the AC is taking a break. Yes, I am grateful, though for some of my family and acquaintance, the week has not been so good, and they have been in my thoughts throughout the days.

After last week’s post, a longtime friend sent me a link to a favorite jazz recording from the golden age of the 1960s, which I will close with today:


If readers here have favorite jazz videos of their own, links to them are welcome.


Previously: Does God like jazz?

18 comments:

  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynZDm50EgBY

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    1. Moanin'. Can't get much better than that.

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  2. You come closer to safe places with each post. I am an agnostic. My wife was Catholic and took great comfort in it. If God exists, it is not as a Creator--the universe was, is, and always will be--but as that speck of each mortal that seems to fly up into a communal consciousness that watches over us all. God may be the mystery that awakens a mother at the exact moment that her son is dying half a world away.

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    1. I like the image of that. The speck of space we take up in the universe, next to the giant ego we put so much energy into preserving.

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  3. I like jazz also, my favorite type is bebop from the 1950's and 1960's but I also like the more avant garde music played by such artist as Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. Over 30 years ago, DOWNBEAT magazine had an ad for jazz and blues T-shirts and I think I bought one of each artist. They are pretty sturdy and I'm still wearing them. They remind me of my love of jazz each day as I put one on. I have Coltrane, Monk, Miles Davis, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon, Mingus, Charlie Parker, Sun Ra, and several others. I love the classic blues also and have many T-shirts showing Blues musicians.

    I used to go to the jazz festivals and clubs in NYC but as I got older it became a hassle to take the train into the city and stay late. Many a night I used to run to catch the last 1:30 am train back to Trenton, NJ. Sleep a couple hours and then go to work.

    My wife and I used to go to Ortliebs jazz club in Philly but eventually I lost the ability to drive at night and so I had to stop night driving which meant no jazz clubs. There was a jazz club here in Trenton that had live music every Saturday afternoon. But after a couple years, some gang members made it clear that I was not welcome, etc.

    About time I watched ROUND MIDNIGHT again, one of my favorite jazz films.

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    1. Dexter Gordon is wonderful in that film. Time for me to watch it again, too.

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  4. I was reared Catholic but believe I am an atheist. I live a moral life, not out of fear of hell in an afterlife, but because it gives me satisfaction. Living the middle-class ethic, I suppose, since I am not in want. If I were poor, my morals would probably slide over the precipice of respectability. But maybe not. Self-respect is part of our human nature, too. As for an afterlife, I believed in it during law school, but by the time I took the Idaho bar, I did not. It was an episode of Nova that turned me, discussing the fact that molecules do not disappear even in death - they only change form. That was enough to allow me to view death as a renewal rather than an extinction, which is what we ultimately fear. And that's my philosophy of life in a nutshell. But I always enjoy observing your human nature by reading your own evolution of belief, Ron.

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    1. I have sometimes seen more ethical dignity in poverty than where you might expect to find it among the more privileged. It's humbling.

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  5. I believe that most gods are invented, if not all, but that being said, I much prefer the gods who reflect the best parts of ourselves than those that reflect the worst. Unfortunately, the ones that reflect the worst seem to be getting all the press these days

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  6. I'm neutral in the discussion of religion or an agnostic. There may be a God or there may not, that's just the way it is. I think I can make it through life in either case and enjoy it. Maybe I'm an existentialist.

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  7. Rationally, I can't prove there's a God, even to myself, but I choose to believe in Him because I can think of no more beautiful way to live. I'm as great a turkey as anyone could be, and I'm no role model for the Christian life, because I so often just don't get it right. I have a temper that erupts when I should control it, and a nasty competitive edge that I need God's help to control. I'll stop the list there.

    But however often I blow it, if I ask Him, God forgives me so I can try again to be the person He'd like me to be. He forgives me not because I'm so good (see above) but because I have faith in Him after 27 years' experience being an unbeliever.

    So I think, Ron, that you may not be inventing your own God, but He may also be reaching out to you, saying, "Yes, Ron, I love jazz. Let's dance."

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  8. I couldn't imagine heaven without jazz.

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    1. Think of all the great jazzmen and women who've already relocated there.

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  9. I so love, and deeply appreciate, Ron, the 'always new, yet timeless truth' of the wisdom you've discovered by experience, rather than 'books'. Not that there's anything wrong with book-learning-- it's just that I think 'book wisdom' is incomplete until it's experienced.

    Wisdom informs (you and me) that often the error is in asking the wrong questions. For me, the problem can be (and often is) compounded by worrying about who or what is going to hear, and answer, the question or request / prayer. A man much wiser than I will ever be, my A.A. sponsor-- who never got farther in school than the first day of his freshman year in high school, and who 'hit his bottom' in the projects in Chicago-- taught me something so profoundly simple 30 years ago, that I still wrestle with doing it today:

    "Don't worry about where your prayer is going, or who's gonna hear it. You just do the asking, and leave the answering to someone, or something. else. Then get on with being of service to others."

    So, that wisdom is fresh in my mind as I start another day, filled with gratitude for a life well-lived, and that friendship that we share, Ron.

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    1. Nothing quite like AA advice. It never fails to hit the nail on the head.

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  10. Ron, there is so much wisdom in your Sunday journal and in comments from your readers that it is truly uplifting. I think of God in the spiritual sense rather than in religious terms. I associate religion with rites, rituals, dogmas and beliefs, and idol worship. I don't go there. On the other hand, I associate spirituality and its practice with inner faith in and heartfelt prayer to a supreme entity who is both personal and impersonal, and who resides in our hearts. How can we seek outside that which is within us? This reminds me of the beautiful verse, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."

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