Category Archives: Aletheia

Though Bennu Birds Might Rise and Fall

One of the great, maybe incredible, things about having interesting friends is that you have a lot of stories to tell, if you’re the sort of person who likes telling stories, which I am. One of the sad, maybe horrible, things is that your friends are often your primary audience for these stories and people reach a point at which they stop trusting you with the events of their lives. They think you’re going to reveal everything ugly and embarrassing written on their hearts and on their faces, and their inherent defectiveness will then be shamefully exposed to the world. Who wants that?

So it’s not hard to see that misunderstandings will be inevitable and a certain degree of paranoia will definitely set in. In fact, your friends are sure to become convinced everything you write is about them personally. Oh sure, maybe you’ve used different details (like age, gender, geographical location, profession, background, ethnicity, species of house pet, and everything that happened) but really it has to be about them. They might as well have told the story themselves about themselves. And sometimes they do.

But more often they don’t. Because if they had, they’d understand that a good story is like an exotic bird. It’s nice to look at for a while, but how much more wonderful would it be to watch it fly out of your house and into someone else’s, then, squawking, fly into another house and another house until the entire block is pissed off and lights are coming on and maybe somebody throws a shoe and shatters his own windowpane and then the baby starts crying and somebody says I never loved you while standing at the sink and everyone winds up having an affair and life is changed forever. You story did that. So you don’t really have a choice. You have to tell it because what else could have such a remarkable effect? It’s magic. The Resplendent Quetzal has to fly.

Then again, if the story is completely unbelievable—even if it really happened—certain steps must be taken. Say, for example, you have a friend who wins an absurd amount of money in a poker game he should never have been playing. The amount he wins is so large that he fears for his life. But that’s not what makes the story great. The great part is that he had an immense amount of student loan debt, the sort that if he worked long hours for most of his life and never took a vacation or retired, he still wouldn’t be able to get out from under it. And a single poker game put him in a position to eventually pay the whole thing off.

Of course, what really happened is more complicated than that. And, for two years, you mull the story over, trying to come up with a way to tell it—how he paid off his debts and turned his life around and especially how he never played cards again, figuring his luck was divine and the gods don’t do favors like that more than once. For two long years, you feed the bird, imagining what would happen if you let it out on a warm spring night when the chimes are tinkling and everything seems quiet and slow.

Do you have a responsibility here? How much would everyone (especially your friend) hate you for writing the story? The cost-benefit is agony—especially since you know deep down that you’re doing to write it, that your friend is a great person but that you have this compulsion and eventually you will be powerless against it.

So one warm night with the chimes tapping the window and too much caffeine in your veins, you tell yourself you’ll just write it. You won’t send it to a magazine or post it on your blog. You’ll write it like an exorcism and be done with it once and for all. Your friend will never know. And the story will fly out of town, down to some rainforest canopy in the feral part of your hard drive to live with the Splendid Fairywren and the Lilac-Breasted Tern in the cold confetti of paradise.

At least until you drop your laptop in a motel pool on some drunken Sunday far in the future. The point is that you write the story. And, in the course of constructing a realistic narrative about an unreal thing that really happened, you realize that your friend is a fundamentally decent human being. The discontinuities and convolutions of doing creative nonfiction to a bit of his life reveal his essential goodness not unlike a magic mirror. The glass clouds over and it’s not your face looking back. ‘Tis true. He’s a thousand times better than you, oh hypercaffeinated story-writing fool with disheveled hair and guilty conscience.

All you can do is try to render what you consider to be his essential goodness and the wonder of his story—one which has been told many times by many writers better than you but which rarely comes about in real life. The poor, hardworking underdog wins for once and actually does the right thing with the money. Somehow, it’s even better because you can admit that if you had that much, you’d be sunning yourself ricky tick on a super-yacht off the coast of Zadar with Anastazija and Ljubica. He is basically, without a doubt, a better person. And this is why the gods do you no favors. So maybe you do understand a little bit about the world.

In any case, the bird, like the bennu-phoenix of antiquity, rises off your laptop like a flame from its own ashes. Where before it was merely a delicately feathered idea of itself, your writerly fever gives it shape and magical fire. It explodes into words. Then it demands a cookie. Because it is your bennu-phoenix, it prefers Mcvities Milk Chocolate Caramel Biscuits with a cup of strong Assam tea and a little coconut milk. But this is only natural. The real question is: how long do you expect such a marvelous bird to stay put?

Your friend comes to visit and you say nothing. You’re probably so busy shrugging and blaming the houseboats down on the river for the burning smell, that you don’t notice how he’s changed. It smells like an upholstry fire? Well, you know those boat people are always sailing their barges on the other side of the meadow. They’ll strip an empty house clean for fuel. They do it all the time. And you surreptitiously drop a cookie between the seat cushions, hoping the bennu-phoenix will quit trying to nip you in the ass while you’re sitting across from the reason for its existence. The bird wants out.

But your friend has changed, hasn’t he. He’s still got a considerable amount left over after paying his debts and even contributing significantly to his niece’s college fund. A certain air of respectability rides on his shoulders, as if it were now his duty, his burden, to have opinions about things. He’s been reading art history, you see. Politics. He uses the word consequence enough to make you think the word must have tiny lead counterweights roped to it like a piece of flying scenery.

And so you work very hard at having a conversation with this person while trying to square your perception of who he is becoming versus who you have imagined him to be. You feel like your house might burn down from shame at any moment and, though bennu birds might rise and fall, a house only goes one way if it isn’t standing straight. Such shame: that you could have been so wrong, that no matter how many caramel biscuits you feed your creation and no matter how its feathers seem to rake the air with brilliant fire, it is fundamentally false when you thought it was true. Your friend has become a pretentious asshole.

“And so I explained,” he waves his hand and the little counterweighted words bob and weave in the air between you, “that I’m taking this extremely seriously. I said, I’m a shareholder in this company. I’ve got two advanced degrees. And if you’re questioning my judgment on something someone in my position deals with every day, we’re going to have words.”

“So what did he do?”

“He backed down. He had to. I mean, seriously.”

Seriously? He goes. That night, you can’t sleep. You’re covered in a kind of mourning. You thought he had the greatest, most classically great story you’d ever heard—conceived in essential human goodness and dedicated to the proposition that not everyone will be transformed by money into a self-obsessed unaware narcissist.

So you let the bird out, feeling sad and betrayed and blaming yourself, too, for being just as unaware. And it flies onto your blog and burns there for a while. And you hope it has as good a life as any bennu-phoenix could have, it’s origins shrouded in myth, its destiny a riddle.

 

Written for a friend who sleeps the sleep of the just while the cold stars wheel above our heads.

26 May 2016

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Of Atonement and Troth

When is it time to pay our debts?

Other ways of asking this question are: what do we live for? What is our highest value? What is the foremost goal of our lives? When will we know if we have reached it to satisfaction? When will we know that reaching it is no longer an option? And then what will we do?

Everyone has the power to choose the self-determined life because the choice is internal.

I believe that we all determine the objectives of our lives. We can make ourselves subservient to the values and definitions of others. Nevertheless, the root decision is always ours to make somewhere, sometime in life. It is an internal act. It takes place in the mind and in the heart.

Choosing to live according to someone else’s rules (if only by default) may allow us to avoid a degree of painful awareness (and perhaps continue on in a kind of bovine simplicity until old age or circumstances end us), but self-determination is a far more dynamic and dangerous prospect.

When we consciously and deliberately identify what we believe is our highest value—when we do so with a broad and deep understanding of the public and private forces that have shaped our worldview over time—we are able to make rational empowered decisions that may seem terrifying and even arbitrary to those still in the cattle car.

Self-responsibility necessitates self-atonement.

We become responsible for our decisions, for the immense degree of inner freedom that comes with self-determination. We are in charge. We are the author of our success or failure. And if the ship sinks because of our choices, we are obligated to make amends somehow. This is true atonement—not to an imaginary deity or to a social expectation, not to another person who has power over us, but to ourselves, to our personal ideals, to the values we have chosen, to the personal definitions we have written. We owe it to ourselves to atone because only we can pay for what we’ve done or failed to do.

Otherwise, we admit that we were never truly serious about mastering our lives. We accept that we are running away in shame; that we are untrue; that we have failed to grasp what is at stake. We embrace our essential weakness as a definitive attribute. We admit that external forces have dominated us after all. And we place ourselves below the aforesaid thoughtless cattle who voluntarily gave up control over their lives. We had the power, but we were not equal to it.

Atoning for failure affirms nobility and strength of character. The opposite is also true.

One option is noble (I will atone for my failure and thereby restore myself and the universe—I am what I say I am and the actions I took, even if they were misguided, still carry meaning). The other is ignoble (I refuse to accept responsibility when it is inconvenient or painful to do so—I am a hypocrite and therefore false).

Just as only we can make the necessary sacrifice, only we can determine the sort of sacrifice that should be made. However, I believe that we know in our hearts what form of atonement is needed. It doesn’t require much deliberation.  For example, in the Hávámal, Odin speaks of the sacrifice of himself to himself in order to acquire the Runes (symbolizing true wisdom):

I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven. (137)

He would rather be wise than comfortable. He voluntarily suffers in order to transcend the limitations imposed by circumstances. In this sense, self-sacrifice (especially in the sense of sacrificing to restore oneself, to make oneself whole again) is a heroic, godlike act. It is superhuman in that it upholds the primacy of one’s will / word.  This is troth in the ancient sense.

In short: if I have determined the course of my life, I will accept the outcome. I will correct my failures just as I enjoy my successes. And I will do so honestly—with the wisdom (the realization of authentic experience) that comes from the troth of who I have decided to be.   I am my own redeemer.  I will act in accordance with my word and it is from this that I shall be known.  It is with this that I shall transcend my own limitations and restore the world.

“Without noble purpose we are nothing.” – Frank Herbert