Sunday, September 21, 2014

Does God like jazz?

Morning clouds
Questions like this one are what make Mystery interesting as a subject of speculation and
contemplation. It came to me as I was watching a YouTube playlist of videos by a Polish group, the Marcin Wasilewski Trio (see below). I was literally being thrilled with enjoyment, partly my own, and partly by the pleasure these three young musicians take in creating music.

Theirs, it seems, is a higher order of pleasure I’ll call joy because when you look at the universe (the macro and micro versions of it), that seems to be its intent, an ongoing Big Bang of joy and freedom. Jazz is that. So if it puts a smile in my heart, surely, in some shape or form, it must have a similar effect on the Ground of Being itself. Imagine having to wait through centuries of Gregorian chants for it.

These thoughts followed a meandering connection made a few days ago while I was supposed to be meditating. It occurred to me that I could think of the material world as an interface between me and what I think of as immaterial Mystery, which touches us with hints of itself—a humanly intelligible membrane behind which operates a nondualistic (so mystics insist) infinity that eludes all rational understanding.

Stormy clouds
For me, those hints come in the form of metaphors and analogies that leak through into awareness if I’m alert to them. They resonate not in mental realms of reasoned argument and logic but somewhere deeper, in a rush of feeling, an unaccountable excitement, or a relaxation of some dread or fear, the sense that I am in Good Hands.

The word for that, faith, has I’m told an interesting history. It has evolved from the acceptance of beliefs for which there is no evidence. Over time it has come to mean belief only in what one knows for sure. The first embraces ambiguity, finds reassurance in uncertainty, and tolerates doubt. The second clings instead to beliefs that cannot be known with any certainty—and yet permits no room for doubt.

Faith, for me now, is something I look for signs of somewhere in the body, in whatever I take for the moment as a center of gravity (shifting downward, I’ll add, as the steroids have broadened my girth by 20 pounds). I have been starting each day with a prayer of gratitude: “Thanks for another day to be human.” Cancer has got me doing that.

Before, (I’ll blame no one), and easily enough from my own congenital fears, I have avoided deeply engaging with my humanness—except in limited ways, mostly having to do with thinking, thinking, thinking all the time—my head inserted as I’ve often joked, in a dark place.

MRI time
In the time I have left, I hope to discover more of what it is to be human. There is an adventure of a lifetime, still waiting. I don’t want to have missed it. This came home to me in the PBS series about the Roosevelts this week, each of them an individual portrayed as profoundly wounded and damaged, yet emerging as both human and resilient—despite the odds.

I’ve also been reading Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up, about spirituality without religion. This may seem an odd choice, since Harris is an avowed atheist, and he would surely scoff at some of my ruminations here. So far, his book covers a lot of scientific research into the workings of the brain—not what I expected—and he gets a bit self-congratulatory if not smug about his own preference for rationality.

This gets a little tiresome, as he seems not to know how boring he makes it by comparison with the rich suggestiveness of poetry and storytelling—the English major in me always ready to suspend disbelief. The man is a champion of meditation, however, and I’m curious to know how it fits into his scheme of the universe.

Desert Regional Medical Center, Palm Springs
Health news. This week was my monthly MRI and visit with the oncologist. Nothing has changed.
The tumor, what’s left of it, remains stable, and swelling from surgery in January has reduced yet a bit more. My meds have been adjusted again, steroids and anti-seizure dosages reduced by 20 to 30%. Discussion of whether it will ever be safe for me to drive a car again resolved to “probably not.” Meanwhile, I have started another 5-day course of chemo. Going into it, my blood count is good this time. I’m hoping not to have the usual week-long bout of fatigue—and that the taste of food will not revert again to zero.

No poetry writing this week, but I’m making progress with shifting more attention to the right side of my brain (same side as the tumor), where I’ve been dusting off the neuroreceptors for metaphor and making the guest room comfortable for any surprise visits of Mystery.

Closing out this week with a quietly meditative piece by the Marcin Wasilewski Trio, “Cinema Paradiso.” Enjoy.

Previously: Metaphor


  1. My friend who has been on and off chemo for a few years now has few side effects from it other than hair loss. I think about you often, Ron, and marvel at how you have made this experience into something more than most would. Allowed it to take you to new places--even though they may not have been what you would have chosen.

  2. Making the room comfortable for mystery. I love that phrasing. I will have to borrow it. I enjoy discussing the concept of rationality as well. Something I see sometimes from people who claim to be "rational" is a misunderstanding that true "rationality" means that you "know" there is mystery. A truly rational person should understand how little we know and that there is much more to the universe than we have so far discovered. That doesn't mean the mystery is God or any supernatural force. It doesn't mean that it isn't. It means that we literally don't know.

    1. Given your background and interests, Charles, I think you would find Harris' arguments interesting. I plan to write a full review when I finish the book.

  3. I'm just so glad your thinking is clear - that the tumor has left you that. So, you can't drive. it gets more difficult with age, anyway. And women are notoriously better drivers.

  4. "In the time I have left, I hope to discover more of what it is to be human. There is an adventure of a lifetime, still waiting. I don’t want to have missed it." Well said, Ron. Regardless of where one stands in life, it serves as an inspiration for each and every one of us, as individuals, to do better and become better.

  5. I just happen to be reading the same Harris book myself right now, Ron. I tend to agree about his smugness. It isn't the book I expected after reading an interview with him (which inspired me to buy it in the first place), but I'm getting through it bit by bit.

    It is odd, because at the same time I am reading Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth's Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness by Mary Reynolds Thompson. You couldn't read two books simultaneously coming from two more polar opposite places, as Thompson is all about spirit and souls and all that. It isn't the book I expected either, and while it gets a little woo-woo at times, it is interesting in a way that the Harris book isn't.