October 13, 2017

The floor beneath Thomas Jefferson’s feet bucks and sidles, and the heads of the seated passengers rock all in one motion. From the set of her shoulders and the grace with which she rides the heaving floor, he can see that Sally Hemings is more confident now, and more capable. “She has come into her own,” he thinks, and that fills him with a warm appreciation and a sorrow that he has missed so much of her life.

*

October 4, 2017

.......................................What
does it mean then, if, in our
separate cities, we walk
the same forest, night now, dark
with a dark that is like a blotting
out, yet still loud with leaf rustle,
owl cry, the whispery clicks
of lake water lapping rocks?
What does it mean if, nightly,
we follow the same glimpsed
bright gleams between the same
black trunks down to that edge
where air and water open out?
What if we are each again
on our slanting rock, looking
across that same expanse
of black—ever shifting, slippery
with light—at that same
cratered sphere, impossibly
clear and white?

*

9/​26/​17

1.
Whispering collisions
of falling
leaves.

2.
Bear amid the birches,
hunched, shambling,
radiant black.

*

9/​7/​17

Then the past commenced
its explosive renaissance.
No matter what you intended,
imminent was the only word.
That rumble beyond the horizon,
that copper beam shooting
under black clouds, laminating
the western walls with radiant
otherness—nothing was so real.
And so we celebrated the eternal
now with our kitchen radio
dances, our drunken embraces.
I touched you in that tiny spot
and unconsciousness rippled
across your forehead. Children
remained our bright angels
of insubordination, but
consequence inevitably followed
consequence....

*

8/​27/​17

In this good country again,
eight years on:
blue sky, lake, warm breezes,
the pain is gone,
but the emptiness
remains.

*

8/​18/​17

Day after day the rain made a soft patter on their thatched roof. Day after day the green outside their windows grew greener, and there was a sweetness in the air from the carpet of fallen pine needles, but also something stronger: something halfway between the smells of peat moss and crumbled mushrooms. The rain never changed.

The idea was that they would read many books. The idea was that they would hike from lunch until dinnertime, and come home just as the ball of the sun touched the hilltop, and that they would share a bottle of wine in the garden while the sky filled with rose and gold. The idea was that they would make love, sometimes tenderly, sometimes wildly, and wake up with smiles on their faces, but maybe just a bit embarrassed to meet each other's gazes. But none of this happened. None of it turned out to be possible.

*

7/​22/​17

The dreams of the joyous man
always end
with a waking, variously sad,

the heart indifferent
to the possible.

*

7/​16/​17

For a while she runs after her shadow, which grows longer and longer as she gets farther from the porch light. But as the road grows darker, her shadow becomes ever harder to see, until finally she can’t see anything at all, and she is just a body moving in blackness, accompanied by the gentle ringing of crickets and peepers, the sound of air flowing past her ears, and of her own breaths, her heart and her running feet.

*

7/​12/​17

Another kind of emptiness is the gap between desire and object. Gina saw this emptiness as proof that we have no place on this earth. Desire assumes that its object is on the other side of the gap, whereas there is no other side. The object itself may exist, but the journey to the object does not, because the journey is endless, because nothing ever changes, because emptiness is where we start and where we end.

*

6/​17/​17

Our laughter makes
a sort of music, and we
are all drunk, dancing,
trading bright glances
and lingering embraces
—our love promiscuous,
both innocent and not.
Eventually our footsteps
echo along empty streets,
and in the morning
we wake to find ourselves
in our phones: cheeks
shining, eyebeams
askew, our lips warped
by unremembered jokes.

*

5/​28/​17

Black bird in black
night, sleepless,
singing.

*

5/​21/​17

1.
Along this road:
so many abandoned
hopes.

2.
And further on:
the road
bearing your name.

3.
Time no longer
flows:

a warehouse
stacked

with useless
moments.

*

5/​1/​17

The crowd disperses and the sky between the rooftops goes sodium-purple, cadmium-blue, then gray, then powder pink, and we make our way

across the deserted avenues and through the condom-strewn wilderness to a mud and blood

colored current, the Rio del Plata. And the air is filled with the dartings of strange birds, and their unfamiliar songs.

Except that they are not unfamiliar, because we are natives of this city—right?
And the songs evoke the mornings of our childhoods.

That’s true—isn’t it? I can’t believe that after thirty years I am still trying to figure this all out.

*

4/​23/​17

“I wanted ours to be a perfect union,” he tells us at the table in the back, candle out. “I wanted every desire to be balanced, exactly, by generosity. And stasis to be a form of flight. But I was yammering

in my sleep. I was driving with my headlights dark. And every word I told my love was a lie. So here I am, waist-deep

in cindered beliefs, and I can’t stop lighting them. And I can’t make this yearning leave. This yearning: my damnation. This yearning: my teaming city.

And I can’t stop my hope. I look at you and I am filled with hope, and I am filled yearning, and I am hollowed out entirely, and I cannot stop. I cannot stop. I cannot stop.”

*

4/​18/​17

It turns out we are not the lampshade, but the velvet night, not the rounded stone, but the water rushing

overhead in loud and silvery hallucination. We are ball lightening in a forest filled with blackbirds.

How could so much possibility be squandered on us? How could you have taken off your dress

and never noticed? And your flesh be such perfect iron and leather, and mine ivory? We do this all the time.

They call us liars, yet we are slick with purity. It is falling from the sky.

*

4/​13/​17

We hurry to the charred field,
and let loose our silver balloons,
only to come home and find
that mice have colonized
the library, that squirrels rule
the world between the rafters,
and spiders fog the corners
with complicated thought.

*

4/​9/​17

In fact, we have no choice but to live this unending surprise of who we are, and to suffer the joys of our relentless need to be.

*

4/​5/​17

...It was as if they had never
gone anywhere at all, as if
the fragrant jungle through
which they walked were being
dismantled, inconsistency
by inconsistency, until finally
they found themselves
sitting on wooden chairs,
beneath a buzzing fluorescent
light in that small, white,
windowless room they had
always known as the truth.


*

3/​2/​17

Oh wild room of my harping
insignificance, let me avian
this orifice one dance before
the factoid billows the info-
mercial at sun and star.

That just wish, that
evaporation of addiction
all-sundered and under-
numbed by pin moss,
give me yet
your dear love.

*

2/​24/​17

I stand
on melting
ice, ringed
by endless
distance,
lungs
filling,
emptying.

*

2/​15/​17

AFTER BARNETT NEWMAN’S
STATIONS OF THE CROSS:
LEMA SABACHTANI

1.
Unrelenting: Bone.
Blood.
Absence.

2.
Dark heart
stutter.

3.
Left by
the horizon: my small
road.

4.
Mute, mute, mute
knife
thrust.

5.
Fire above the fire:
the broken
sky.

6.
We are two.
I, alone,
am one.

7.
Never again. Never.
Again.

8.
The slap
and the silence
before.

9.
I remember: white
upon white.

10.
Eruption
erased.

11.
Hope
with
out
hope.

12.
Closed in: the lid
nearly
shut.

13.
Once and
never.

14.
No. No. No.
I am not.
No.

15.
My
empty
arteries.

*

2/​13/​17

First blue, then rose,
dawn erases the street-
light’s changeless

orange, adds a set
of footsteps, a solitary
motor, an infant’s

emphatic syllable
to the city’s
unending roar.

*

1/​17/​17

...............Years

later, near those
mountains and far
from home, I came

upon that church,
and found your name
in the guest book.

I was entirely
alone in that small
stone room.

I imagined you,
also alone, looking out
the windows

at the yellowing
grass, the road, that huge
sky. Once I asked you

what matters most
in your work.
It must be honest, you said.

Honest how? I asked.
Honest, you said.
Just honest.

--From "Time to Think"

*

1/​12/​17

May becomes June. Moths blizzard the porch light. Crickets jingle in the darkness amid a sparse galaxy of street and window lights. The hum of the world is sometimes intensified by the long, sad moan of a distant train, or the crunching whisper of rubber against asphalt as a car rumbles behind two advancing cones of illuminated roadway.

*

1/​7/​17

The hardest part of the dance is figuring out how much is art and how much life. Your ankle and foot doing that chop, chop, chop

between my knees. My thigh between your thighs. Okay: Here comes the passion part!

You are bent so far back you are practically lying on the cobblestones, and my face is so close to yours I can smell

the sweat on your upper lip. The crowds in San Telmo love this. Their silver overflows.

*

12/​31/​16

Have I seen you before?
Are you the woman whose
glance I caught last night
in that wanton moment
after the cheers when all
the glasses were refilled?

*

12/​23/​16

Have these wild beauties
come again
to my rescue?

*

12/​20/​16

Loose webs of fluid light
racing over coral convolutions.

*

12/​15/​16

Planes angle
off runways

beyond eight
lanes of traffic

and fling their
gigantic noise

against the hotel’s
glass flanks.

*

12/​1/​16

Gratitude. Always.

*

11/​27/​16

Those giant
suits into which
we insert our tiny
limbs, then totter
blank-faced into
our commercial
palaces.

*

11/​23/​16

The sky is wild with snorts, the earth fragmenting with hoof falls. All the papers exclaim, in London

tube light, by lantern in Mumbai: The ringed noses are running again, their horn points blood-bright,

their wooly bellows billowing down our streets,
their red flags on our hillsides. We’ve reached another end, the papers claim.

The dolts are back at our tables, devouring our joints, fingering our entrails, taking their pleasures in our beds.

Every breast has been invaded, every eyeball cracked, every truth revealed as irony. “You thought you knew joy,”

they mutter inside our heads. “Now we will give you joy.”


*

11/​19/​16

Alone in the kitchen
contemplating
my phone,

pigeon couple
on the window ledge,

cold,
bright dawn.

*

11/​16/​16

We have failed so many times, but we are back
in the ditch, with our picks and our generous expectations.

All of us: mud from eyeball
to hallucination. That’s just how we were born. You know that business

with the gold watch, the cake and candles, that ongoing collaborative delusion? We fall for it constantly, every one of us

convinced he can build a better life out of what spills off a truck: Bang, bang!
Pass me the pliers, you idiot!

We’re magicians
with smothered doves in our hats, monkey Rembrandts with fists

crammed in paint cans, beneficiaries of failure’s only grace: the ubiquitous proximity

of zero. You lose everything?
Big deal! It was all messed up anyway, and you can always

try again—which is the wafer of eternity that keeps us wanting, and that star there, that pink winker in the quitting-time sky.

*

11/​9/​16

I have no words of my own today, only these from Auden's beautiful, "September 1, 1939":

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

*

11/​2/​16

Biking along the Hudson
this too hot November
afternoon, the low
sun browned by leaf
dust, time visibly
passing, yet every
instant endless.

*

10/​21/​16

So now I have my first
argument with hope.
It’s about money, of course,

though not in the sense
of vampire
parasitism, more like

the doorbell chimes
and nothing’s
on the stoop

but this person-
shaped hole in the middle
of everything,

by which I mean
no payoff, I’m suckered
again—and by

no one
but myself, for what
am I apart

from hope? A filament
of appetite, sorrow
and fear.

*

10/​9/​16

Here I am again, glassed,
gleaming amid vegetal
prolixity, a parallel
unity, a way of being
free in a way of being
indifferent. See me
here, this reflective
camber amidst blue
and green, this stillness
again, this warp of sky
and forest, untouched,
untouchable. Alight. Afloat.

*

9/​28/​16

The trees became the ragged
black frame of the sky—
and the sky so star-filled,
like daylight shattered
into brilliant motes.

*

9/​23/​16

These last
summer days
of autumn, I walk
in flip-flops under
yellowing trees,
that old yearning
undiminished,
that ache of joy
against sorrow,
that vision of
a better life—all
of life I have ever
known.

Desire itself
is life, infusing
these mere facts
of sunlight, yellow
leaf and restless
air with beauty,
and this shambling
between all
I’ve lost and all
I can never have
with clarity
and grace.

*

9/​19/​16

Last night I dreamed
we actually were

at that prairie
house:

Morning sun
on the breakfast table.

The two of us
just talking.

Everything
possible.

*

9/​15/​16

A cry
expands
the night.

Fanged
yips.

The dark
alive
with teeth.

Fear and
animal
joy.

*

~~~~~

From "Himalayan Diary"

5/​22/​13

I like the term “lose your soul” for the way it implies that one’s most essential being is both precious and something you yourself can destroy.

Of course, the truth is that, short of death, one can never “lose” one’s being but one can change it into something less or more precious.

My being—essential or otherwise—seems especially precious to me this clear, cold morning at this camp in the Himalayas near the borders of Kashmir and Tibet, after a day during which I believed myself close to death many, many times.

Eight hours driving along the edges of precipices with nothing but cement blocks, rusting oil drums or, often, only the crumbling edge of a one-and-a-half lane two-way road to preserve us from plummeting a thousand feet into a rushing river.

Down the gravel slopes I could see cars so devastated by their falls that they looked like shredded tin foil, and in one village I saw a van that had been transformed into a crater of metal junk by a falling boulder.

We often had to drive around boulders, some the size of armchairs, others as big as houses.

Yet Indian families traveled these roads as happily as American families might trundle off to Cape Cod.

I am prepared to admit that I am neurotic.

But still I was abjectly terrified for hours on end.

And so, at this moment, my life now and all the thoroughly ordinary things I have to look forward to seem a sort of blessing.

But is my “soul” this life of “ordinary things” that now seems so precious?

In the Christian tradition the most essential part of one’s life is almost always understood to be one’s moral being, or virtue.

Too lose one’s soul is to cease to be virtuous, profoundly, within the depths of one’s being.

What actually is precious about the soul-as-moral-being?

Or what exactly is it about leading a life in accordance with one’s morality that might be described as precious?

Simplicity?

The sense that what you are inside is the same as what you are outside, that you actually are the being you wish to represent yourself as to the world.

There have been periods of my life when I have felt, despite all my limits, confusions and weaknesses, that I am, morally speaking, more or less the person I want to be.

And there were still other times when I wanted to be a person who did things I could not justify morally.

And I became that person.

Or I became divided into two people: who I seemed to be and who I actually was.

Mostly I am thinking of one particular time, during which I felt a great deal of pain, and caused a great deal of pain, and yet never felt more completely alive.

There is a joy that comes from being in harmony with one’s own beliefs, and a joy that comes from abandoning that harmony.

Though there are limits to how much disharmony—or discord—one can experience and still feel one is living a life one wants to recognize as one’s own.

A limit to the intersection of discord and joy.

Maybe what I’m talking about is the kind of joy one feels when a jazz soloist departs from the melody, or even from the idea of music as we generally understand it.

A joyful crossing over into chaos and noise.

The joy of human freedom.

Which may be the same thing as the joy of doing what is forbidden.

All my life, my first response on being forbidden to do something has been a fierce ache to do that very thing, and my first impulse on being required to do something has been a fierce desire to do the opposite.

Our spirits rise as a jazz musician goes into a solo, but at the same time we are always waiting for the solo to end.

For our return to the comfort of the melody, or for the quiet joy of the melody’s simply being there to return to.

Continuity. Reliability. Refuge. The known world.

Even as our transgressions feel as if they are life itself, we are always longing for a return to that harmony of one’s life (or soul) and one’s belief about what one’s life is or ought to be.

And sometimes our return to that harmony brings us more joy than our discordant sojourn did, but not always.

It is a mistake to think we have a single, internally (and eternally) harmonious self, just as it is a mistake to think there is harmony between all good things.

There have been times when the very traits I had once thought virtues came to seem weaknesses.

The virtue of loyalty, for example. Or tolerance. Or the capacity to love.

Sometimes there can be no return to harmony.

The improvisation is almost always smarter, more thrilling and less sentimental than the melody it is based upon.

And so sometimes the joy we feel is not merely at the exercise of freedom, but at the discovery of a better self.

Or a self that possesses virtues different from those of that self we have grown used to thinking of as our own, that self we present to the world, or that we—or the world—designate as “real.”

And so sometimes the desire to reestablish the harmony between the self one actually lives and the self one wants to present to the world yields far more pain than joy.

Pain that can last a lifetime.

Sometimes simplicity is precious and sometimes it is a lie.

Sometimes the life in harmony with what we believe is a betrayal of who we are.

Maybe what is most precious is simply the fact that I am breathing this clear, cold air, that I am in this valley beside this loud, racing, silt-paled river, watching bronze sunbeams tip over jagged, snow-laced peaks to light the mountainside just in front of me, and that this is all so extraordinarily vivid, vital and beautiful.

Maybe my simple being is the primary good and precious thing.

Maybe my moral being is only precious insofar as it enables me to be more completely in this world as it actually is.

Certainly one’s morality ought to be consistent with the world as it actually is—or the human part of the world, since morality concerns only the effects we have upon each other.

So does this mean that my soul—my “most essential being”—is actually the part of me that breathes, sees, hears, feels, loves, loathes, thinks, wants, fears and hopes?

Is that a “part” of me, or “the whole”?

But still, there is something precious about being in harmony with the people in one’s life—though such harmony is not necessarily the same as living in harmony with one’s morals.

How often in human history have people avoided recognizing an evil in their midst so that they might live in harmony with their neighbors?

Discord: Middle English: from Old French descord (noun), descorder (verb), from Latin discordare, from discors ‘discordant,’ from dis- (expressing negation, reversal) + cor, cord- ‘heart.’

Second Posting in My Much Neglected Blog

June 14, 2012

Tags: Atheism, Religion, Writing

The following questions were put to me by Catherine Lacey (http://www.catherinelacey.com), who is working on a book about faith and spiritual practice. As my answers might provide readers with insight into certain aspects of my work, I asked Catherine if I might include them in this much-neglected blog, and she graciously consented.

~~~~~

Did you grow up in the same faith you practice now? If not, when did you begin practicing this faith?

--I was brought up an atheist by two lapsed Catholics, both immigrants. My mother was French, and her Catholicism had never been terribly serious, as is true for many French—France reputedly being the most atheistic country in the world. My father, however, was an Irish Catholic, and went to Catholic schools in Ireland and in New York City. Although he claimed never to have taken religion seriously, his hatred for religion in general and for Catholicism in particular was so extreme that he would not even allow a Bible in the house. I’m not sure whether it makes sense to characterize the religious attitudes I grew up with as “faith,” but, nevertheless, I still “practice” atheism, though I hope with none of my father’s quasi-pathological fury. Were I intellectually coherent, I would call myself an agnostic, since I know that my “faith” is no more susceptible to proof than anyone else’s, but to do that I would have to lie, since I simply do not have the slightest shred of belief in any sort of deity, or spiritual essence guiding or in any way inhabiting the universe.

Could you give me a summary of your religious background overall?

--Here is the seminal moment in my “religious” development: One day, when I was in middle school, a bunch of kids started attacking me verbally on the playground for not believing in God. They told me that, since I hadn’t been christened, I had no name, and that I also had no morals, since morals come from God. Everything about this moment seemed absurd to me. Of course I had a name and of course I had morals. The very intensity with which my friends asserted these crazy ideas also struck me as absurd—especially when I considered some of the “morals” my friends had absorbed from their Creator (I remember one particularly hilarious conversation in which a friend explained the contorted postures he would have to assume when he masturbated so that he might avoid offending God). But more importantly, I seem to have understood almost instantly that there was a danger in the very notion that we should base our morals on religious doctrine. For one thing, I felt passionately (and maybe this is something I actually did absorb from my father) that I ought never accept an idea without first subjecting it to careful examination—an examination that required considering the rational coherence of the idea and whether there was any hard evidence to support it. I also tended to be suspicious of any proposition that would make the world seem too comfortable, or me too virtuous. The more I wanted to believe something, the more reason I had to suspect it might be too good to be true. It seemed clear to me, for example, that notions such as that the soul lives on after death or that destiny is controlled by a good and all-powerful god fulfilled too many of my most profound wishes to have much chance of being true. Most important of all, I felt that the idea that morality came ready-made from God would make us less likely to recognize that we are all ultimately responsible both for our morals and for the actions they inspire, and would also make us less likely to think our morals through in detail. What is more, it seemed to me that accepting that we, and not God, are responsible for our morality would have a natural tendency to make us humble and tolerant, not just because we would be less likely to think that the results of our own cogitations are absolutely true and universal, but because, as we tried to arrive at an irrefutable foundation for our beliefs, we would inevitably find that many profoundly important values simply cannot be justified on the basis of logic and evidence. To give only one of many examples, I find murder so morally abhorrent that I am very close to a total pacifist and I am a staunch opponent of the death penalty, yet, as an omnivore, I have no particular objection to the murder of animals. I can marshal all sorts of evidence and logic in favor of my paradoxical beliefs, but nothing that adds up to an airtight argument. In the end, I have no alternative but to admit that, while I have made my own moral choice, other people might be equally justified in making very different ones—which is not to say that I think all other choices are justified (I’m not that much of a relativist!). It does mean, however, that I understand that many of my most important moral beliefs are, in fact, acts of faith. Faith is an essential and inescapable mechanism for getting though life, but it is also important that we never confuse faith with the truth. (Note: Having just read over the above, I see that I have implied that all of these ideas came to me in a flash amid that crowd on my middle school playground. Of course they didn’t, but they did follow from my clear recognition at that moment of the absurdity of many things that my classmates were saying. I also want to make it clear that I have profound respect for many religious people. I have written a biography of a man who I think did a great deal of very good work because he wanted to follow the example of Jesus, and some of the very best people I know have clearly derived considerable moral strength and wisdom from their religious backgrounds, even if they are no longer practicing.)

Have you always considered yourself creative?

--I loved imaginative play above all other forms as a child. I decided I would be an artist in first grade and a writer in third grade, when my love of reading really kicked in. I went back and forth between those ambitions (and being an astronaut) through much of my childhood, and even considered applying to art schools when I was a senior in high school. Fortunately, I was wise enough at that point to understand that, however much I may have loved visual art, I lacked the talent and the passion necessary to make a life in that realm.

Have you always considered yourself religious?

--I believed in God for an hour or two when I was eight years old. I even got down on my knees and prayed. I was praying to an old man with a long white beard who was sitting in a giant throne atop a cloud. In the midst of this prayer, however, I realized that the man and the throne would fall right through the cloud, an image that instantaneously ended my religious faith forever. One caveat: My family celebrated Christmas and Easter, but God never entered into either holiday. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were our deities, though really the holidays were celebrations of family and love. I have more or less carried on these traditions with my own children.

How often do you go to services and where do you go?

--I’ve only been to one ordinary service in my life, though plenty of weddings, bar mitzvahs and, alas, funerals.

What do you feel during a service?

--During that one service I mainly felt bored. But also I felt that I was being subjected to intense coercion, both by the Boy Scout leader who insisted I come to the church (we were on a camping trip) and by the sermon, which, as I remember it, was all about how I would go to hell if I didn’t accept Jesus. I had actually been rather well disposed toward Jesus because of all the Christmas lore I had absorbed growing up, and because I have always had a profound response to the notion that one should love one’s enemies, but the Jesus I heard about in this sermon seemed a sick bully and I wanted no part of him.

How important is the community you practice with? (Basically, is your faith a more internal state or a more group-focused one? Feel free to answer this question by disagreeing with its duality.)

--There are only two things I don’t like about atheism: One is that I had no idea what to do or say at my father’s funeral, and wished I had had some sort of ready-made ceremony that would not have been an insult to his most passionate beliefs. (We did much better when my mother died.) The other is that atheism is a solitary practice. There are no atheist congregations—or none that I could remotely stand to be a part of (as they consist mainly of ex-religious nutballs and extremists). But sometimes when I see the photos of the new members of the congregation of Riverside Church (I park my car in the basement), I feel a certain envy and loneliness, especially because that congregation is so ethnically well integrated.

Does your religious life affect the way you live your everyday life?

--My atheism plays a significant role in my every waking minute. Since I don’t believe in any “sacred” or “eternal” “truths,” and feel that I, and I alone, am responsible for every moral decision I make, I take that responsibility very seriously, and have spent much of my ordinary and creative life trying to figure out what is right and what I should, or should not do. I don’t mean that I am constantly making moral decisions. Like everyone else I mostly live (or at least I try to live) according to moral conclusions I reached long ago. I also don’t want to imply that I have adhered perfectly to any moral standard I have ever set for myself—far from it! I am at least as weak-willed, hypocritical and selfish as the next guy. But I do believe it is essential to constantly reevaluate my morals, especially as life is always revealing itself to be vastly more complex than I have ever imagined it to be, and this struggle plays a major role in my writing and, sadly, in my demented 4:00 a.m. cerebrations.

Do you think your religious life has an effect on anything you make? Why or why not?

--My work seems to come from two primary sources. One is my love of language—especially of imagery. The other is my desire to work out certain moral conundrums. A substantial proportion of my work (including both of my nonfiction books—one being a memoir) is about characters who try to do the right thing and fail. And this moral obsession (that is not too strong a word for it, I think, especially since it seems to be completely involuntary) is a direct outgrowth of my “religious” thinking, though it has other sources as well—one being my sense, practically since birth, that I was an unwanted child, that my mere existence was a problem for my parents, who never had a happy marriage, and thus that I was a sort of moral failure from the get-go.

Does guilt play any role in your creative life or your religious life?

--Whoo boy! (See above.)

What (if any) rituals do you have surrounding your creative life? How important are they to your process? What do you feel during your creative process?

--Despite feeling its lack at my father’s funeral, I am actually rather suspicious of ritual. I feel that any habit creates a certain blindness, and I want always to be alert to what is happening in the world and in my heart, and so I desire a certain unpredictability and chaos in every part of my life, so that I may be always on my toes. I also feel that, especially insofar as ritual tends to be a rather mindless repetition of certain behaviors, it can be an effective mechanism for social control, and, therefore, can not only limit a one’s necessary freedom of thought and action (and all the obligations consequent on that freedom), but also make one less aware of the degree to which one is, in fact, being controlled. I am very wary of the power of crowds in particular, or rather of the degree to which all of us—I as much as anyone—want to do what everyone around us is doing. This is the power that the fashion and popular culture industries live and die by, but it is also used by fanatics of all stripes to gather and manipulate their adherents, and ritual is one of the most effective ways of harnessing that power. It may seem sick—and to a certain extent it is!—but on more than one occasion I have found myself jumping up and down and shouting along with a mass of other people at a rock concert and then flashed on the image of all those ordinary Germans lifting their stiff right arms and shouting “Sieg heil!” All that said, I do have my rituals. For example, I begin every day with some exercises to wake my brain, then I go to my computer with a cup of coffee and immediately begin to write before my normal daytime obligations have cut me off from my unconscious—which I think is vastly wiser than my conscious mind. That’s exactly what I did this morning, in fact, and I am now on my second cup of coffee!

Are religion/spirituality separate from creativity/art?

--In practice (and in terms of my very secular variety of “religion”): No. I can never escape the moral promptings that inspire so much of my writing. That said, I think that “beauty” in any form of art has many purely technical components (involving the execution of form, etc.) that are entirely independent of an artist’s own deepest promptings. Interestingly, I feel that attention to and the assiduous fulfillment of some of the technical aspects of my art amount to “spiritual” practice, both because such dedication is an important discipline, and because I often feel that I am in a trance as I write, and that writing is a form of meditation. I have to admit that I feel these “spiritual” elements of my craft rather strongly, even if the word “spiritual,” itself, makes me decidedly uncomfortable.

Do you believe that religion and/or spirituality can be completely avoided and/or not felt for a person's entire life?

--I have avoided and not felt the existence of God my whole life, and I am certain that I will feel exactly the same as long as there is a tremor of sensation in my body. But, that said, I do not feel that it is possible to go through life without grappling to some degree with questions of morality and of what our existence might mean. To my mind, religion is a subsection of that grappling, even if it is the subsection with vastly more adherents than any of its alternatives—or all of them put together!

Do you believe that creativity and/or art of any kind can be wholly avoided for a person's entire life?

--Yes, alas, at least after childhood. But only a very few unlucky souls manage such a thing.

If you somewhat regularly go to a religious service, would you mind if I came with you at some point? (We don't have to sit together and obviously I would be very respectful.) Also, if you practice some form of a service at home, would you mind if I observed or participated in that?

--We could take a walk, or have a cup of coffee, or, even better, have a passionate debate! Debate is as close as I come to practicing my “religion” with other people.

Comments have been disabled for this post

Selected Works

FICTION
Conjunctions: 60, 2013; Best American Short Stories 2014
Conjunctions 55, 2010
POETRY
From Various Journals
ESSAYS
Teachers & Writers Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2000
HISTORY
Selection from ORPHAN TRAINS: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed