Wednesday, January 4, 2012

To Find Dante's Inferno, Turn Left at Walden.

Every so often, when there is a rare break in the endless parade of vicissitudes that passes for life in our wildly careening culture, that part of my brain still capable of some level of introspection amidst the ADD haze coughs up a barrage of questions like a three-pack a day smoker on a stair-master. Questions of no small personal import like: "What is my life's great purpose, and am I fulfilling it?", "Have I lived up to my own expectations?", and "Why did I just spend so much money on toilet paper, canned food, and small bottles of propane?"

And, of course: "How did I end up HERE, of all places?"

After almost six months of living full time in the Driftless region, I have found myself asking that last one almost constantly of late, it's become like a mantra...or some sort of Zen koan lightly dipped in a tasty shell of bewilderment. Crunchy confusion flavor with small bits of pathos mixed in.

(Of course the notion of "ending up" is kind of a misguided one, as we all "end up" in something roughly analogous to a rectangular box when all is said and done, but how we get there is what makes life interesting, I suppose.)

In the spring of 2009 I purchased a 3-acre parcel of woodland as a place that I could go if life in the city became untenable. Various factors of a personal nature that could populate a novelette made me decide in favor of moving out here ahead of that point in time, but the fundamental basis was where I saw the Big Scary World headed, independent of my tiny ant-like private concerns. I've always been reasonably adept at reading the writing on the wall when I'm not actively beating my head against it, and the writing seemed to be getting much more urgent and full of exclamation points over the past few years. Whoever is in charge of said writing seemed to have discovered meth and fluorescent spray paint.

Since my mid-teens, when I have not been making music or pondering the ramifications of various things that go "bump in the night", I have been researching trends in the arena of geopolitics, global economics, and resource and population issues. So roughly three long decades of watching the world be the world, basically.

Increasingly over the years, my maladaptive tendency towards catastrophic thinking has been mirrored in the macro-world to the point where the dour fantasy is becoming reality and genuine catastrophe is knocking at the door of our incredibly interdependent and brittle civilization, asking to borrow a cup of sugar while covertly casing the place. Some residual shred of my self-preservation instinct that had not yet drowned in lassitude and fatalism told me that I should respond to that knock by running away. I am generally a pretty brave person, but when the hand that knocks on the door is roughly the size of a global empire in an early stage of implosion, it's best to find a safe place high in a tree or deep underground when that particular giant falls. Further, to live an off-grid life where you contribute FAR less to a global system that is parasitically eating its host planet has some serious ethical appeal...and I still have those burdensome things...those ETHICS. No idea how I've hung onto them for so long but they are still there, like a persistent rash. They generally don't make for an easy journey, but I can go to my grave knowing that I'm not a total ass...only that I've ACTED like one now and again.

So I took up residence in my tiny little yurt on one of the hottest days of the year, finding that the trade off for leaving the city and it's amenities was too be directly confronted with nature...who is completely indifferent to our personal travails, though she be construed as kind and surly in turn in the minds of poets.

I also left the direct physical dangers of the city, though my professional work is often tangential to diminishing the frequency and severity of said dangers.

But I found new ones out here.

In the city, crime is impersonal, and I find that relatively easy to cope with. I grew up in an atmosphere of violence...Detroit is not exactly bucolic...and grew a set of defenses perfectly adapted to dealing with those risks. I even made a career out of it in recent years. That career will probably continue, but the change of venue merits a serious change of approach.

Someone here I have become close to told me a while back that "out here in the country it's the people who know you that will hurt you"...or words to the effect: all of that repetitive beating of my head has rendered me slightly obtuse. She has an encyclopaediac knowledge of local tragedy: "This one got mangled in a combine, that one drank himself to death, and that one died under the hooves of a jealous bull". The gallows humor response to much of this type of thing is one that any Detroiter knows well. Death is death, and whether it is that of a hog or a random stranger who once sat next to you on a bus, it is something that both the urban and rural poor have a keen understanding of. Detroiters laugh it off, though the sound of that laughter is closely related to the sound of whistling past the graveyard.

That is not where the stories end though, I have heard far more detailed ones, and some of them are terrible in ways that I had not imagined during my initial forays out here. For the longest time all I heard were the stories of the owls and coyotes. Predators both, but hardly malevolent in their predation. Not like some of the other predators around us, not at all...and out here, some of them live just down the street from those they have preyed upon.

As I have listened to some of these more detailed stories I have found that my despair at the vagaries of our nature as a species has reached new depths, but my admiration for some of the people who made it through hell to tell me their stories followed an equally extreme countertrend.

There is a level of perversity and cruelty in some of the antagonists of these stories that would make the merely average sociopath turn green with envy. There were times that the impact of what I was told was so strong that all I could do was cry. It was the only possible response to hearing stories of abuse so horrific without actively seeking out the perpetrators and acting upon my darker impulses. That was only MY reaction though: often the emotions of those telling the stories are buried under so many scars that their own emotional well ran dry years ago...and perhaps the removal of the scars and the subsequent release of all that pent up hurt is far less preferable than just spending the rest of ones life numb, either through additives or the healing power of ennui.

As analytical as I come across at times, I am an emotion-based life form. I feel. I feel a lot. It's just who I am. I think it has made me a stronger the very least I've gotten some good songs out of it. However, one wishes to be analytical when the wounds of the world become so numerous that they outnumber the intact parts, and that is exactly when analysis fails and you are left with tears and rage at the injustice of man's inhumanity to man...or more likely to women, or children, or animals...they are the softer targets of the underdeveloped and brutal. And you wish to punish the guilty...or at least separate them from the far less guilty...and I say that because because the sliding scale of culpability has a place for each and every one of us, but some of us are merely guilty of being standoffish to an overly chatty waitress every once in a while.

When I was young I dreamed of living in a gentle world where people who were not actively loving each other would express benign neutrality at the very worst. Obviously, this world is not that one and I have had to get used to that fact, and to grow thick armor plating like some unknown species of mega-fauna that the fossil record is far too embarrassed to allow to be unearthed. It allowed me to live through Detroit and Minneapolis and Providence and Chicago...but perhaps not the verdant green of the Driftless region, because being damaged by those who should care most for you is something that corrodes you from's the difference between cancer and a random lightning strike...and the armor does nothing, it's just fighting the last war with the only weapons you have.

And it's all so unnecessary, isn't it? So much of the damage that we do is just based on animal fear that we could so easily overcome if we took the time to actually TALK each other through it, but that takes revealing ourselves, and that makes us vulnerable, which puts us in the line of fire of all the other people who are terrified of revealing themselves. So we choose to acrimoniously chitter away in the trees like feces-flinging monkeys while hypocritically decrying the wars of the elite as we compete, compete, compete on levels we are not even aware of.

It is our present, and our past, and it will probably be our future...and as such, we will probably not have much of one. That is the general trend. Most of our Great Worldly Problems are simple extensions of the less charitable aspects of our shared human nature...consciously modify the way we channel our nature in the world of manifest form, and we may be able to alter some outcomes here and there. Possibly.

But that part is hard...and humans hate doing that which is hard when there are other options.

Despite this, I do cling to a naive little hope that places like this psychic nexus of the Driftless region that so many of us have been drawn to can be places of deep healing. A few months ago in a rare moment of clarity I announced to some of my new friends here that I thought the Kickapoo Valley was the Land of Wounded Healers: a place where people can reach out to each other and drop the defenses that keep us from being truly well. I have met so many beautiful souls here...people of great intelligence and insight and wisdom, many of whom kept those qualities alive in themselves through some of the worst treatment imaginable, and that gives me hope in a world increasingly devoid of such. So we'll see.

Be good to each other. Help each other. May empathy prevail.


  1. "We are all, by nature, clearly oriented toward the basic human values of love and compassion. We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to meanness. And who is there among us who does not prefer tolerance, respect and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect, and resentment?" this was written by the Dalai Lama one of my most respected humans. Somehow what you wrote made me think of it.

    Thank you for taking the time to write so eloquently and with great feeling and insight..... as i say to many people... there ARE a lot of people in the world. Be one.

    You Sir. Are a Good one.

  2. John, you are a kind soul and I am glad to have made your acquaintance.

  3. This essay is beautiful, John. Color me touched.

  4. Great post, John. I think you hit on something that many doomers seem to have in common--empathy. We can FEEL the approach of the looming catastrophe, which is why it moves us so. Sadly, genuine empathy, and not JUST empathy for those of your particular family/tribe/nation/race/religion/politics is actually quite rare.

  5. What a lovely and thoughtful post, John. Thank you!

  6. What Wendy and Bill Hicks said!
    Thank you for revealing so much in such a thought full post.

  7. Thank you's wonderful to get this kind of feedback from such quality souls...does my heart good.

  8. Looking forward to following your blog.