The Good, the Ugly and the Human: a Tuesday Musing




To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the human condition of the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertain and on a willingness to be exposed; it’s based on being more like a plant than like a jewel, something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from its fragility.
Martha Nussbaum, philosopher

Ruminating about abandoned love lately, I wonder how humans, a number of them anyhow, can open and shut their hearts with such certainty in such an uncertain world. How does one end a relationship, long and loving hard, and thereafter eviscerate the heart-memory of the once cherished object of his or her love, the light in his heart, the heat in her loins, never to speak or think of the other? Where, precisely, sleeps the graveyard of deep emotional attachment?

No one can control another to the degree necessary to keep and savor that other, to anticipate fear and resentment, illness and death–no way to squeeze answers to the riddles of human behavior.

To be exposed is to be vulnerable, open to danger, criticism, injury or death, whether physical or emotional. Who does not fear the ending of a relationship that houses everything, one that contains all of the self thrown into it?

Dedication to the notion that love means giving all to another bears some responsibility for the resulting grief and betrayal after the end. A piece, some important part must be held back, some core or foundation must be withheld in order to keep the self and the other intact. To invest all is to have everything to lose in life’s uncertainty: love’s cessation, life’s leaking despair, disability and death. 

The burden of possessing every morsel of another being trumps pleasure, smothers desire. 

Many believe the heart cannot survive loss, a conviction that obstructs the happiness that inclines a good human. To withdraw from others, from a lover or society that disappoints, having been badly burned, merely reduces risk of exposure; it does not prevent calamity or inevitability and so a doomed attempt to control a world in hopes of preventing further hurt and loss. 

Humans cannot surrender their frailty without losing their humanity–or their beauty, according to Nussbaum. The good and happy human is unafraid. The tremulous unhappy merely encircle the tenderness and delicate skin of being with armored excuses and persistent tasks that disengage and anesthetize the will to enter the fray of the raw and unknowable–the human circus of flight, fancy and faith–forever locking doors behind them.

Hearing to the Heart of What Matters

Tripping on sounds of birds outside my window, I can hear them over the swish-throb of my own heartbeat sounding in my ears, a pulsing slightly alarming and soothing all the same. I can also hear the clanking of a dish outside the closed door of my room emanating from the kitchen where I imagine my mother is sitting, skeletal and serene, in her wheelchair, gazing off through the filmy stare that inhabits her face now, the cataracts of her mind’s eye reaching some unknown space outside or inside her head that swirls and lulls the cerebral juices to twitching stillness, her jerking to and from that space in seconds like recognition of a face, an idea, a musical slice of song, a voice…. 
I imagine her waiting like the baby bird with beak wide open in anticipation of its mother’s nurturing tongue, depositing the meaty worm of egg or pear.  

Where are you, Mom?  I miss you hard like a crowbar to the back of the head. 

My thoughts cannot stay on task. My self-imposed inspiration today is directed to my ears. Listen. It is nearly impossible to hear the murmur of soft utterings spoken outside my closed door, cooings enmeshed with frenetic blather-blurbs of television banter of I know not what over the din in my brain. 

I hear her dully, though. She calls my mother’s name over again sweetly, as if to a child, “Doris…Doris…Are you hungry?” The answer is unintelligible, but of course she is hungry. Her mind does not remember satiation. She, who ate more for comfort than survival, dieted constantly, losing hundreds of pounds over her lifetime, and is now, ironically, the weight her doctor claims befits her small frame no one knew was there. She always felt fat, was fat because she said so, and my father confirmed, except for the time she lost fifty pounds and he said she was too skinny so brought donuts and candy home for her to eat, the very same items he would chide her for eating when he reminded her that she was a “fat ass.” His love was always a savage love.

You are a saint. I cannot blame you for checking out, Mom. I want to be where you are only too often, though I am afraid of dementia’s detritus. You are braver than I ever will be.

But back to my exercise of listening to the sounds, right here, right now, this moment. It’s no use. I cannot hear distinctly above the rhythmic swoosh in my head. It’s my heart. The sound of a moving dish slid across a wooden table, rumbling and ceramic shrill, draws me to her again and again, outside my cave haven door, tended to by caring voices and hands that are not mine, sitting alone with feet, arms and hands moving about her, tending to her every need in studious care, while her husband sleeps off the night’s numerous calls to relieve himself of the plaguing piss of the swollen prostate that stems the flow of sleep and slows his 82 year life ever so much more, each pace a step from bed to toilet to table to television. 

The soft pings of my electronic devices notify me that someone has me in mind, has read something I wrote and appreciates or takes issue with it. The whistle of “hey, answer me” has sounded also from my phone and I know that I must answer that one, feeling it in my bones and the back of my neck, even though it is just playful pointless slinging ping pong balls of inanities. I somehow believe I need the nonsense, like my bread and butter banter, countering the angst of imagined life sentences I carry submerged like an atomic sub awaiting the directive to fire.

But now I can hear the dogs bark outside in the distance, loud enough to distract me from the door bell ringing  from my phone–simple email notification of stuff like yoga newsletters or soccer updates that can wait–and the murmur of my heartbeat in my ears, backdrop to the dish washing, sing song lullaby caress of Mom’s caretaker and the chirping tree creatures and the people’s pets next door and the insensate stream of yak yak from the tube and my mother’s babble, my father’s snore and my daughter’s running out, late for school, clomping down the stairs and slamming the door. I don’t actually hear but the anticipation of that last sound because her noise is not announced yet and should be–a human-made ping in the nerves from a mother’s consciousness of time, responsibilities and household goings on.

I am told it may be high blood pressure or blocked ear canals that cause that murmuring metronome reminding me that I am seething flesh, a mere mechanism of pumps and cogs and wheels of spongy muscle and sinew. I pay the tellers no mind. I like my heart beating and so the sound comforts me, synchronizing my outers and inners, recalling the always-at-hand task of staying here now with me, with us, with it all, embracing what is: the fauna and flora, birds, dogs, people I love, strangers, trees, leaves, sky, wind, vibration of the telephone and the sky, the stirring of creaking beds and limbs that dash above my head in squeaking pain of wood stretched to capacity by age, use and disrepair, this old house of ours, in our circle of suburban secret burrow and peek, safe seclusion of sound and stare. 

I hear the circle of my heart. And it hears me. The world begins and ends in the heart of creation, imagination, the bonds that tie and break, the ebb and flow of living matter, all in a day’s work, in a disciplined moment of timeless listening–to life living me, us.

A Pre-Valentine Meditation on the Language of Love: Advice to ‘S’


Today I ponder the sentence, “I have your back.” Depending on the source, that sentence can be quite comforting, most probably intended to be so by the speaker. It’s a sentence offered, usually with a wink, a click of the tongue and an assuring smile, as support, shorthand for “I will be your backup in a fight, your second to celebrate the win or console the loss.” Spoken by a tried and true friend, you know the invaluable purchase of the sentiment despite the cliche’d expression. By a lover, the comfort may be dubious.

On the one hand, a lover’s deeper connection and care should inform that assertion with commensurate depth and caliber of worthy comfort. However, given the heart’s investment and volatility of passion, the motivation to employ machinations to keep someone, avoid loss, manipulation being integral to human coveting, is high. As such, a lover’s declaration is far more unstable and somewhat suspect counterintuitively because most would believe the opposite. Of course he has my back. He loves me.

Clichés are dead metaphors, most English teachers and long-suffering students know, but it is astounding to think that the expression, “I have your back” or less grammatically sound, “I got your back”, was once a vivid metaphor that caused a grand éclat at its crispness, a concept derived from an odd literal body position vis a vis another human being. I mean, how does someone actually have your back? My lover is a psychopath, cut me to pieces, saving only my back, maybe just the lower third of my torso in his refrigerator. Seems anatomically impossible, or at least unimaginable.

More likely, and I am probably remembering this from some forgotten space in my vast and sundry tidbit collection eating up all my brain RAM (just don’t want to interrupt the flow to look it up), it is a war reference to protect soldiers while they “go for it” from behind the trenches or the thicket of trees: protective, life preserving–or the attempt–in dangerous situations. The speaker intends to warn you and be your second pair of eyes to ensure your odds against getting picked off by a sniper, a guy with a gun or anyone who is prepared to do physical, emotional or psychological harm (or any combination thereof).

War metaphors seem apt in matters of the heart. The struggle with desire to surrender and need to protect the heart, a part of every love story long or short, feels like goose stepping on a mine field. We want to believe in the truth of words, especially those that contain the universally cherished missive “I love you.” Even as we fear the risk of injury, we want the message and will find it hidden in so many other words, so much so that we miss important cues and clues that language emits to the brain to shape behavior.

When language is abused, words divorced from their communally consensual meaning–an irrevocable breach, is when the battle ensues and treachery flies, innocent lives lost. Children spend many years forming the world through their initiation into language. Accessing the portal to ideas and things is granted only upon the trust in the safety of the vehicle that brings them to that door: words. They learn trust in the great unspoken agreement of humanity that words will mean what they were taught to mean by parents, schools and community. The ensuing savvy acquired through rubbing against other humans in the journey of days is the slipperiness of words and the deviousness of people.

But not all is lies and deception, not all words suspect. A lover, friend or business partner may mean he has your back when he says it but change his mind later. Though true when he said it, even if he said it over a dozen times, repeated it like a lullaby’s refrain, his mind or heart changed and so stopped saying it because he no longer wished to protect.

Or maybe the last time he said it, “I have your back,” the meaning of the expression–so broad and vague, practically incomprehensible–changed imperceptibly (unconsciously, to give him the benefit of the doubt) to reflect a different, newly emerging intention, a slightly different slant or even a total inversion. Maybe his subconscious drew the invisible target on your back for the bullseye knife throw:

Love is war. War is hell. I’ve got your back. It’s in my scope and my finger is on the trigger.

The language of love (and war) exposed in innumerable metaphors and clichés (think: love is blind) is a special case of the general, meaning it partakes of the attributes of language, generally, while nuanced with its own subject-specific idiosyncrasies. Love engenders both lies and truth motivated by intentions and causes distinct from commerce, for instance: lying to spare my husband’s feelings rather than for profit.

To be imperfectly reductive or hopelessly expansive, however, the nature of all language (written, spoken and body) is twofold: communicative and formative. It gets the job done, sends the message, and delivers the goods. At the same time, it gave us the job, the message and the goods in the first place. A cat becomes a four legged furry creature that mews for the child who learns its name. Before that, it is something unknown and out of focus.

Like its inhabitants, language–messenger or maker–is cagey, illusive, illustrative, beautiful, crafted, elusive and mutable. Many more thoughtful and capable before me have doubted the possibility of getting outside of it. But so too, many have escaped its clutches, unthought wordless language in meditation. It takes being both within and without the self to achieve that place that words fail to describe–a place without desire for anyone at your back.

Comet Love


What’s it like to land on a comet with its flaming tail at the speed of night? The fantastical imaginary of the ordinary citizen can only know a breath of it. If only such a landed probe could take pictures of all of the people looking up in awe and wonderment at its passing. That would be the ideal outcome, to capture the best of the human spirit as it is not in the human capacity to reach beyond our galaxy as we sit on the earth now, but it is in our capacity to dream and imagine and reach with our minds.

Perhaps that is what space travel will be eventually, a cosmic astral projection of minds to other minds in distant galaxies and that the stuff of television shows and NASA or other space agency attempts are mere clumsy limitations of the mind. The physical transport is an outdated mis-read of where humans should be directing their efforts–not at transporting the body to other galaxies with improved technology for craft life but transporting the mind through developed improvements in using more of the human brain, much more than the ten percent we do. If scientists can figure out the workings of the brain and how to use more of it, we would go farther in all of our feeble attempts, due to lack of imagination and physical ability, to space travel the verses–uni or multi. That’s my dark matter hope. As grand as our meager steps are in proportion to who we are, I can only speculate that more brain is better for bigger steps toward human survival–if that is even worth it. My limited brain cannot imagine what could be more important.

Philae successfully landed on Comet 67P. The scientists in news-flash photos, mostly men, and I seem to be the only ones excited about that. Though the landing did not go entirely to plan, that didn’t dent the jubilation of the paunchy breath-holding middle aged scientists who hopped, jumped and hugged in high-five glee and release at its touchdown. The love and pride for their cyber child was bounded only by the liquid vision of the for-once unshielded tears of these utilitarian fathers of the brave foundling. One of her thrusters did not thrust, but she is safe and is useful nevertheless. If she does what she is programmed to do, take pictures and collect other data, she will bless her human makers with information unknown about the travels of a lone comet that circles the sun of its destruction, succumbing to the irresistible force of suicide, desire and heat.

So long as there is an infinite unknown, I anthropomorphically will it to be so: that she brings back an ancient love story beyond comprehension for its pre-dating and surpassing human imagination. That way we can continue to wonder and strive, which is the best humans have to offer.

She will give us imagery to parse and dream about, analyze the pre-solar system traces so that we may sniff the scent of our own origins–even just a hint. The human mind will take it from there. And if those paunchy old and young science-saddled men and women get nothing more than a glimpse into the relationship of a comet with a blustery sun that blasts and winds like the litany of a curmudgeon whose cranky rant on a rainy arthritic day thunders and grates, then humans will be that much more edified. They only need new clues to edge ever nearer to the ever elusive answers to the age old questions that echo in the ignorant blackness of the deep-of-darkness matter: How did we come to be? Are we alone? Why does that even matter?