Tuesday, January 25, 2011


"Imagination is the act of celebrating the useless"--James Carroll.

What is useful?

I found myself thinking about that question this weekend. The above quote jumped out at me from a book I was reading in the library of the retreat house where I've squirreled myself away for the freezing cold weekend. What followed was the epiphany that life is totally useless.

If you think about what general relativity says about the center of the universe--you realize that you are it. The center is the frame of reference. You can't have a frame of reference outside your own, no matter how hard you try. Then think about the oddities of quantum mechanics--for instance, I'd mentioned in a previous posting that we blink in and out of existence 186,000 times a day. We don't notice this for two reasons--one is that it's happening non-simultaneously on a particle level. The other reason is that our brains have filters. We can't SEE it happening, just as we can't see many other details. In short--we fill in the gaps with our imagination. Reality is created by us, and everyone's experience of reality is going to be different from their neighbor's.

In academia, there has been an attack on the humanities in recent years. Degrees in philosophy, religion, literature, and languages are seen as "useless". What is deemed useful? Those degrees that prepare you for a vocation. Accounting, business, technology, medicine. The last of these has to do with preserving our physical bodies, something impossible in the very long term. Technology is a here-today-gone-tomorrow career; what you're trained for today is obsolete tomorrow. The first two have to do with money--balancing books, selling either products or services. Money is a grand hallucination; in this day and age, it is no more than numbers going back and forth between computer servers. If it is something physical, it's usually rocks or paper given an arbitrary value. We spend a lot of money on things we don't need--and business convinces us to do so. In the grand scheme of things, these fields don't have any more meaning or important than the liberal arts. No one will care how many widgets you sold in 50 years, never mind 10,000 years.

"Useful" careers are presumably those that allow you to achieve financial stability. You can get a job, buy a house, put money in the bank--for what? Well, to meet needs, but often people want to do more than just meet their needs. They want to have leisure. In short--the goal is to save money so that you can spend your quality time being "useless". Most people aren't into having demanding careers just to work for endless hours year round. Unless that career is so wonderful it's like leisure. And leisure is...well, you know.

What is life without imagination? I would suggest it isn't life at all; it's state of living death. You can't have hope without imagination. You can't make any kind of advances in any area without imagination. We create the world. So why do we disdain the professions that are about imagining? Literature, art, music, and religious ritual are all "useless", and that uselessness is what makes us human, the thing that allows us to connect with each other. They don't have a "purpose" other than to tell a kind of story. And our consciousness is nothing but stories. Your whole life has a narrative, whether you're aware of it or not. Either you created it, or society created it for you.

Carroll makes the statement that it's not about what you have or what you do, it's the fact that you are. That alone makes you worthy of respect, and that should be the only criterion. Money, position, and productivity do not make you more respect-worthy than those engaged in so-called "useless" endeavors. The wealthy businessmen is not worthy of any more respect than the starving artist. Both should be equally respected.

This is a tough thing to swallow. We want to believe that our lives have a "purpose". We believe that success is connected to hard work. We believe that wealth and status are the fruits of hard work. None of that is true. Think of how many people work hours and hours every day and still don't have enough to make ends meet. Or, even among those who can meet their obligations--how many are in jobs they hate. As Joseph Campbell said, "When you get off the beam just to make money, you have given up your life." And your life is, of course--useless.

Uselessness is a virtue. It means connecting with and helping others for no damn good reason. It means creating worlds that are interesting, even if not entirely logical or "productive". There's no need to drive at anything, towards one temporal goal after another. Everything just is, and there's no reason to feel guilty about that. Everyone just is, and they need no special qualifications to be respected. There's no need to "perfect" anything. To "perfect" is to finish (perficere). To be finished is to die. You just need to connect with others while you're living.

So, if you're a liberal arts major, an artist, a writer--and someone questions the value of your investment in your future--remember that you're investing in the future of being human. That goes a lot farther than most bank accounts.

Oh, and incidentally--I was listening to Jon Stewart's Daily Show with guest Neil deGrasse Tyson today. Tyson finished his interview with this quote: "Imagination is more important than knowledge." That quote was from Einstein.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Everything I write is connected.

January is a month of dreams.

For the last two years, I've had the same recurring dream about John Foxx, and this month is no exception. The setting varies slightly, but the plot is the same. I'm usually in a room somewhere listening to people talk--someone's giving a lecture on something, or whatever (not necessarily in a school). I'm sitting in the front row. While the person is lecturing (always a woman), John Foxx will appear in the doorway and smile at me. He will look directly at me and no one else. Sometimes he even walks into the room and stands in front of me. Of course this is a disruption in the room, and even though the woman speaker goes on talking--and looks more amused than annoyed--I feel like I have to go find out what he wants. I get up and leave the room with him. Then, as we are walking, he quickly starts to walk faster, and doesn't talk to me, as if to distance himself.

The other dream that stood out this month was one that I can remember nothing about, except someone saying the words, "Libra should beware of Capricorn". The day after I had this dream, I was reading through my Facebook news feed. One of my Facebook friends, who I don't actually know (and don't have too much in common with), posted the following status update: "Just had this thought stream--Libras should beware of Capricorns".

I spent a snow day at home last week going through about 20 years worth of cassette mixtapes. It was a fascinating excursion into the past--I'd listen to the tapes, and remember exactly when I'd made them, and for what reason. I never made mixes without a reason. They marked some state of mind, some conflict, or some major change. My husband at the time also used to make mixes for me, and I still had some of them. Most of them had disintegrated--a living metaphor if I've ever seen one. But the ones from him that survived made me nauseated. I noted that all of the mixes I made at the very end of the 1990s were very angry ones. It was as though my feelings were like a hidden lump, an abscess, that eventually burst out--and culminated in a divorce. It's been almost 10 years since I split with my husband, and I'm surprised to recall how angry I was, and conflicted.

Then again, maybe I'm not surprised.

I discovered that ex-Sleater Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein has a new band, called Wild Flag. They are being dubbed an "indie supergroup", as the membership also includes ex-S-K drummer Janet Weiss, Mary Timony (formerly of Helium) and Rebecca Cole (The Minders). They are going to be touring in the next couple of months, finally leaving the West Coast, but unfortunately they are only opening for someone else. They are doing a solo show in Philadelphia, but it's around Girard Ave.--not a place I particularly feel comfortable leaving my car and walking around at night. I still might brave it. And I'm sure I'll see them at Radio City, even though they're just opening.

I was thinking about the fact that Carrie Brownstein has always come into my mind for no good reason at various times over the years, and when she does, I find out she's doing something locally--playing with a band, doing something at MoMA, whatever. Then I was reading my Twitter feeds--Kumail Nanjiani posted a link to the premier episode of Portlandia, a new comedy series on IFC with Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen (starts this Friday, 10:30 pm). Some of it was funny to me, other bits were strange. Maybe those bits would make more sense if I actually lived in Portland.

I have run into Carrie (almost literally) twice in my life--once in New York, and once in Philadelphia. I didn't talk to her either time--I was merely surprised to pass her on the street. I shouldn't have been, as she was usually in town to play with Sleater Kinney, and I was there to see them. She would look at me, and then smile, blush and put her head down--I think she knew she was recognized. I don't get the impression she's that comfortable talking to strangers. Can't say I blame her.

Getting back to those celebs who are fairly comfortable talking to strangers--John Foxx will finally have his new album with Benge coming out on March 21. Calling themselves John Foxx and the Maths, the album is called "Interplay". Here is a clip of the latest single from the album, "Evergreen":

I am very much looking forward to the release of "Interplay". (which you can pre-order now, and get "Evergreen" as a free download). I have heard bits of this album over the last 2 years--from the first single "Destination", to the songs Foxx and Benge performed at the Roundhouse in London last June, to this latest single. John is an exceptional lyric writer, and I'm rather intrigued by the lyrics on this album--they do seem to have a connected theme. Of course, I don't know all the lyrics to everything, so I will have to wait til the album comes out to see if there really is one. Still, if you like the sound of the old analog synths, you won't get a more masterful working than this album, so I recommend getting it.

And with that, I've come full circle. Time for another cup of tea while I listen to the ice rain falling...

Sunday, January 09, 2011


I'm finding life in these United States to be ironic these days. It's the understatement of the old and new year, but this is what I see:

You have a "grass-roots" political movement that is about "liberty" and "maintaining freedom" that has a habit of threatening with violence those who exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech they don't happen to agree with. And in some cases--like with Rep. Gifford from Arizona yesterday--they act on their violent impulses. (It is true that we do not know the shooter's motive yet. However, in this political climate, it's hard to say that it's not politically motivated).

You have many political programs on television that are about "getting to the truth" that don't provide a shred of factual evidence for anything, just paranoid conspiracy theories--hateful ones. And these are widely accepted as fact by a public that, in its quest for truth, sees no need to question anything.

You have a majority of people who want to stop the madness, and yet their voices seem to be unheard.

You have groups (often related to the ones mentioned above) that are on "God's" side, claiming to be champions of Christianity in this country, that do nothing to promote compassion and everything to promote hatred, prejudice and separation. Not that this is so unique in history. But it is ironic.

You have a political party gaining power that likes to complain about the existing government, to tear down everything it does, and yet provides no real alternative solutions to the problems facing this country. Of course, that would involve looking at facts, and, well--see my second point above.

This same political party defends the right of 1% of the country--the uber-rich--and treats the poor, starving, unemployed, and/or uninsured like they are parasites. Government apparently has nothing to do with providing for its citizens. While--ironically, of course--I can recall another country where the majority of people were on bread lines and the money was in the hands of a very few--the Soviet Union before 1990 (and maybe after, to a point).

The push for de-regulation suggests an idealized humanity in the business world that will "do the right thing" and not be greedy. Somehow it is forgotten that the crisis we're in is the result of greed, and the fact that there's a crisis won't stop it. Oh, and there's no need to address climate change, because all of those weirdos who base things on "scientific fact" and don't believe God will fix it are just heathens.

Did I mention that we have a secular government? Yeah, that's another irony.

Speaking of the government--the Department of Justice and a Congressional committee are now bent on making Wikileaks a terrorist organization for leaking cables that should have been better protected if they were so sensitive, especially in this day and age, where nothing is private. While people like Sarah Palin can post a map with gun targets and names of Democratic congresspeople, and Rep. Michelle Bachman can encourage her constituents to engage in an armed uprising against the government, and those people are somehow not terrorists. Their free speech is "protected". (Whatever happened to the Sedition Act?)

So tell me--what is the way to make this country less "ironic"? Violence is certainly not the answer. And Obama has tried the "sitting down and talking reasonably" method, which has not worked since the beginning of his Presidency. He hasn't figured that out yet, apparently, or maybe believes that he'll find a moderate Republican congressperson hiding behind a tree somewhere. So, reasonable debate and a dispassionate look at the facts is apparently out, too. So, what's left? Do we have to let the right utterly destroy everything before people wake up and realize it was a huge mistake? And could we reverse the mistake at that point?

This is the Shadow side of the Collective Unconscious of this nation, and it's an ugly thing to confront. I don't know how these negatives can be integrated, but it probably needs to start with accountability. Freedom doesn't mean that you can do what you want with no consideration of others. With freedom comes great responsibility, and that's never been more evident.

So, nation--this isn't Lord of the Flies. Start behaving like adults. This involves respecting your fellow humans, whether you agree with them or not, whether you personally like them or not. You can "fight" in honorable ways. And take responsibility for your actions. If there are no ground rules for the debate, then no one solves anything and everyone destroys everything.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Goetia and Vibration

I opened my messages this morning to find an e-mail from my good friend Phil. He sent me a link to the introduction of Geosophia, a new Scarlet Imprint book by Jake Stratton Kent. The book traces the origins of Western magic to early Greek origins, with African and Indian influences. After reading through the introduction, it is clear to me that this is an important read for those interested in the subject.

Kent talks about the primeval Greek gods and their rites, which are sterilized in classical literary accounts of Greek mythology. Most importantly, he talks about the term goetia. Goetia is associated with the evocation of demons, and in particular, the Lemegeton, or the first book of the Key of Solomon. What I did not know about the term goetia is that it originates in the Greek term goes, which refers to a person, not a particular operation or method. Goetia is often translated as "howling", though it more accurately means "lamenting". The goes is akin to the keening woman or wailing woman that used to go to funerals. It refers to funerary rites that involved wailing and weeping. The "demonic" attributes now given to the term come from the old business of "the god of the old religion is the devil of the new". Additionally, the goetic rites were associated with the lower classes (and with Dionysus, traditionally an "outsider" deity), and therefore were distasteful to the upper, educated classes.

There is much to take in here with regard to the history of Western magic. However, for me, I was struck by the description of the act of keening itself. The reason that such howling lamentations were part of the service was to allow the vibrations of those sounds to guide the dead to the underworld. Similarly, those sounds could be used to bring the dead back temporarily for some purpose, hence its association with necromancy (divination by consulting the dead, quite common at that time). You could bring the dead back for other reasons too, and this was the real concern that the ancients had with these rituals, and their eventual association with black magic (one of the reasons, anyway). But then, the notion of goetia goes back to the one performing the operation. It's not necessarily evil in itself--it depends on the operator.

The idea of the vibration of the keening sounds having an impact strikes me as a very Indic idea, as it is in perfect accord with the use of mantras in meditation. Sound is relevant to existence. The particles that make up matter--that make up our physical selves--vibrate at a certain frequency. In the William Burroughs interview with Jimmy Page, Burroughs mentions infra-sound and its use as a military weapon. You can kill someone with sound pitched lower that 16 Hertz, as well as break windows and other objects. When one is in deep meditation, one is aware of a sound and vibration that hums beneath everything else, and when you attune yourself to that vibration, you are in tune with the universe (in theory, and likely in practice, too). The mantra is given to you by a master who is attuning your sound to your own harmonious pitch, if you will.

And thus we come to the notion of sacred or magic words. You can't really separate magic from religion in this sense, because both are seeking to bring about a change in something through means more subtle than direct action. They act upon that which is not obvious (therefore hidden, and therefore termed "occult", which means hidden). The transubstantiation of the Eucharist in a Mass--with its attendant words and vibrations--is not different in this sense from Enochian chanting or reciting mantras of purification.

Beyond the notion of sound, Goetia is an ancient address of something we've long sought to ignore--the "darker" side of our nature and death. Modern psychology will tell you that whatever "good" qualities or attributes you perceive in yourself, the opposite of those qualities also exists within you. When we look at serial killers or other monstrous sorts, we are horrified, and act as though the person were possessed by some outside devil or demon. However, it is an indication of the potential of our minds. We have the potential to do great things that benefit humankind, and we also have the gruesome potential of destruction. If we have one, we have the other. If one engages in Jungian therapy, one inevitably confronts their "shadow"--the repressed side of ourselves that we try to pretend isn't there. Looking away from the shadow is a problem, and I think it's the real meaning of C.S. Lewis's statement (paraphrased), "the devil would like you to believe he doesn't exist".

If one looks at the attributes of ancient underworld demons, they are never totally evil. They are often monstrous and horrific, but their function is often one of punishment. If one breaks an oath, or kills a parent, there are specific underworld deities that will torment you (according to the ancient Greek tradition, as well as others). This sounds tremendously like the notion of "conscience". If you feel no guilt or no suffering for your bad actions--if you have no demons to punish you--then you are a sociopath. Of course, sociopaths do have demons; they are just so effectively repressed that they have taken over. They no longer serve the function of discrimination.

Western Biblical mythology goes something like this: Man was perfect (meaning all good and innocent). Then he ate from the tree of knowledge, and became corrupt (sinful--not innocent). The soul's journey, therefore, is about attaining "perfection"--trying to reach the state we were in prior to the Fall. In the monotheistic doctrines, this means obedience to God (and in the case of Christians, accepting Jesus as the link back to perfection). Those who are highly imperfect are said to be influenced by the Devil. You notice that this battle goes on outside the person--things attack from the outside, not from the inside. Ironically, there is a dualism that is created, even though dualism is shunned by monotheistic religions. You are still waging the Zoroastrian battle of good versus evil.

The point of recognizing the notion of goetia and its role in our lives is to integrate our dark sides, not try to repress or destroy them. They have a function. To think of them as "external" is a mistake--you are not really separate from the "external". That doesn't mean one should engage in goetic ritual--I wouldn't advise such a thing unless someone was working with someone experienced, and assuming that's the path you want to take to negotiate those darker parts of the collective soul. Because it is repressed in most of us, it is unconscious--and you are essentially swimming in the dark if you take it on without preparation. But you can no more avoid your own "darker" traits than you can have a life where everything goes your way. It's part of the journey of self-discovery, and awareness is the key to everything.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A January Ramble

Nothing like the last day of vacation to make you feel rushed.

I'm not entirely sure why it is that we feel we haven't done enough during productive times. I've spent my winter break doing lots of things--walking 4-6 miles a day, teaching a class, getting my closets cleaned after months, etc. Yet I still feel I have to finish every other house project that needs to be done, and have failed because I haven't. It's probably like driving a car--you start off slowly, gain momentum, go speeding down that hill--and then suddenly have to hit the breaks, which is quite jarring. I have to hit the breaks and stop even though I still have a ways to go.

The other problem is that those projects you successfully ignored for months now stick out like huge ugly zits. You can't IMAGINE how you lived every day with your closets in disarray, or with unfiled papers. It's just UNBEARABLE.

Yet, by next week, I'll have forgotten all about it. Come to think of it, I believe it is a new year's phenomenon. Purely a hallucination in this case, and created by an illusion in nature. You see, where I live, the beginning of the year is often a reasonably warm day, even if it's been cold all month. This January was not an exception--it reached 50 degrees Fahrenheit on the 1st. Winter has just gotten started, but the days are already a teensy bit longer. This tricks your brain into thinking: "Spring!" And of course--Spring is about longer days, pretty flowers, warming up and going out. The ancient Celts considered Yule to be the middle of winter, not the beginning--Halloween was the beginning. If you think about it, that makes a bit more sense. After all, the days get darker and darker after Halloween. By Yule, they start to get lighter and lighter, until February 2 (Imbolc), when it's light enough in the early morning to go out without an artificial light source. And--for the Celts, February 2 was the beginning of Spring.

However, the reality is that we probably have many cold, snowy days ahead, even with global warming. While we may enjoy being at home, it starts to feel like a prison after awhile if we can't get out and do things. Humans are social creatures, in spite of any self-serving tendencies we may have, and too much time in isolation--even with family or a loved one--will start to affect you after a period of time.

It seems to me that in years past, I'd read about January as being a high suicide month. Christmastime is also a high-suicide time, but for different reasons, more than likely. I wonder if this January burst of energy that is suddenly curtailed makes the depressed feel more hopeless. It's easy to see how that could happen.

I was on the phone with a friend I haven't seen in at least 3 years yesterday. She mentioned that according to quantum physics, the human body "flashes" on and off like a strobe light 186,000 times a day. It happens so fast and in such minute pockets that we don't notice it. But she wondered--where do we go when we flash "off"? Somehow, we're not here when that happens.

Things like this are good illustrations of why the mind can't comprehend its own existence. The more science uncovers, the stranger it gets. It's also a good illustration of how we are not as "real" as we think we are. We are here one fraction of a millisecond, and gone the next--then back again. So is the whole world. We can never really "know" it. We can only point to it, because it's not possible to analyze and interpret it in the way that we can analyze and interpret a math problem or fix a kitchen sink.

I wake up this morning, aware that I have to go to a doctor's appointment, and get to the bank and post office. I look out my front windows to watch the sun rise while having breakfast, a sense of slowing down and relaxing, while I can feel my head and stomach spinning with the list of things I have to "get cracking" on as soon as possible. There is an interesting juxtaposition that occurs when you are quietly in a moment, and yet your mind is freaking out about it, like it's a separate person in your house nagging you to get moving in a thousand different directions at once. I think I know now why the Hindus and Buddhists say you need to get rid of the mind.

I paid my mortgage yesterday, and realized that I had less than $100 left in my bank account, with at least 3 things that still need to be paid this week. I figured I could scrape by with another $85. My parents came over to help finish a house project yesterday, and my Mom was very excited about having recently won some money with one of those lottery scratchoffs--a pretty nice little sum. She had just collected her money, and promptly handed me $100 because it was "found money". So--there's lesson 2 for the new year--you always get what you need.

Ah well, off to get showered and go to the doctor's...