2014-09-15

Dean/Neal: On the Road 2

Neal Cassady
In Kerouac's iconic novel, On the Road, the first-person narrator is Sal Paradise, (Jack Kerouac himself), is haunted by the idea of Dean Moriaty. This Dean Moriarty represents wildness, liberation, freedom, vitality.

Moriarty – in real life Neal Cassady – actually was born on the road, “when his parents were passing through Salt Lake City, Utah in 1926.” Mother died when he was 10; raised by his alcoholic tinsmith father in Denver; much of his youth lived on the streets of skid row with his father, or in reform school for various thefts. Stealing cars was an early talent and habit. At 19, out of jail, he and first wife “Marylou” – the real life Luanne Henderson – moved to New York, where he and Kerouac met.

Moriarty/Cassady’s powerful enthusiasm, unconstrained by law or convention, his insatiable sexuality, and wildness attracts Kerouac, though Kerouac himself doesn’t go there. He thinks that maybe he would like to, but Kerouac ultimately has other loyalties, to family and stability.

Life on the road is unpredictable, wild, moment-to-moment. There are times when the money runs out, even for food, and hunger becomes very real. There are also times of reading poetry aloud, and all-night long intense and earnest discussions. And other nights in smoky jazz clubs saying things like “man that cat can blow.” And sex and drugs, various partners and substances. There are moments of ecstasy, and also sadness. At one point Kerouac writes:
“As the river poured down from mid-America by starlight I knew, I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One.”
And later:
"And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven.... I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place.”
These moments come along with a lot of sadness.
“We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad.”
But in the next sentence he says,
“for life is holy and every moment is precious.”
Dean represents for Sal a kind of sacred insanity, a spiritual visionary.

About two-thirds through the book, after Sal and Dean have been apart for a year, Sal hits the road again, looking for Dean. When he finds him, Dean is falling apart – but still shining a kind of light. Here’s Dean Moriarty speaking of himself in third person:
“I’m classification three-A, jazz-hounded Moriarty has a sore butt, his wife gives him daily injections of penicillin for his thumb, which produces hives, for he’s allergic. He must take sixty thousand units of Fleming’s juice within a month. He must take one tablet every four hours for this month to combat allergy produced from his juice. He must take codeine aspirin to relieve the pain in his thumb. He must have surgery on his leg for an inflamed cyst. He must rise next Monday at six a.m. to get his teeth cleaned. He must see a foot doctor twice a week for treatment. He must take cough syrup each night. He must blow and snort constantly to clear his nose, which has collapsed just under the bridge where an operation some years ago weakened it. He lost his thumb on his throwing arm. Greatest seventy-yard passer in the history of New Mexico State Reformatory. And yet – and yet, I’ve never felt better and finer and happier with the world and to see little lovely children playing in the sun and I am so glad to see you, my fine gone wonderful Sal, and I know, I know everything will be all right.”
Dean/Neal lived with intensity, spontaneity, incredible energy -- a kind of presence and authenticity -- and it's literally more than a body can take. He's falling apart. What do we learn from his example?

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This is part 2 of 4 of "On the Road"
Previous: Part 1: Damned Good Questions

2014-09-13

This Week's Prayer

In remembrance of Thursday’s anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, this week’s prayer is "Rest in Peace," by Thich Nhat Hahn:

I am a World Trade Center tower, standing tall in the clear blue sky, feeling a violent blow in my side, and I am a towering inferno of pain and suffering imploding upon myself and collapsing to the ground.

May I rest in peace.

I am a terrified passenger on a hijacked airplane not knowing where we are going or that I am riding on fuel tanks that will be instruments of death, and I am a worker arriving at my office not knowing that in just a moment my future will be obliterated.

May I rest in peace.

I am a pigeon in the plaza between the two towers eating crumbs from someone's breakfast when fire rains down on me from the skies, and I am a bed of flowers admired daily by thousands of tourists now buried under five stories of rubble.

May I rest in peace.

I am a firefighter sent into dark corridors of smoke and debris on a mission of mercy only to have it collapse around me, and I am a rescue worker risking my life to save lives who is very aware that I may not make it out alive.

May I rest in peace.

I am a family member who has just learned that someone I love has died, and I am a pastor who must comfort someone who has suffered a heartbreaking loss.

May I know peace.

I am a loyal American who feels violated and vows to stand behind any military action it takes to wipe terrorists off the face of the earth, and

I am a loyal American who feels violated and worries that people who look and sound like me are all going to be blamed for this tragedy.

May I know peace.

I am a boy in New Jersey waiting for a father who will never come home, and I am a boy in a faraway country rejoicing in the streets of my village because someone has hurt the hated Americans.

May I know peace.

I am a general talking into the microphone/s about how we must stop the terrorist cowards who have perpetrated this heinous crime, and I am an intelligence officer trying to discern how such a thing could have happened on American soil, and I am a city official trying to find ways to alleviate the suffering of my people.

May I know peace.

I am a terrorist whose hatred for America knows no limit and I am willing to die to prove it, and I am a terrorist sympathizer standing with all the enemies of American capitalism and imperialism, and I am a master strategist for a terrorist group who planned this abomination. My heart is not yet capable of openness, tolerance, and loving.

May I know peace.

I am a citizen of the world glued to my television set, fighting back my rage and despair at these horrible events, and I am a person of faith struggling to forgive the unforgivable, praying for the consolation of those who have lost loved ones, calling upon the merciful beneficence of God/Yahweh/Allah/Spirit.

May I know peace.

I am a child of God who believes that we are all children of God and we are all part of each other.

May we all know peace.

2014-09-12

Damned Good Questions: On the Road 1

Photo: Wikicommons
What is this life? What are we supposed to do with it? Where is this road we’re on taking us? These questions drive Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, which thinly fictionalizes his travels across late-1940s America.

There's something about this Beatnik literary figure, Kerouac, that people want to feel close to, somehow, in some way. A few years ago reading On the Road on a train, the conductor came by and noticed the book I was reading.

"Kerouac," he said. "I dated his niece once."

"Oh, yeah?" I said. "What was her name?"

He thought a moment. "Colette."

"Wow. Was she a Kerouac?"

"No, no. It was her mother that was Jack's sister."

When I got home I did some checking. Jack Kerouac only had one sister, Caroline. And Caroline had one child, a son. No daughter. Maybe the conductor had meant a grandniece of a cousin of Kerouac or something. Or maybe he made it up entirely.

In any case, the book creates a persona we yearn to connect to somehow.

Kerouac struggled with what he wanted this book to be for several years. Then, in April 1951, in a three-week burst, staying awake with Benzedrine, he wrote almost without pause. He didn’t even want to pause to change sheets of paper in his typewriter. So he cut tracing paper sheets to size and taped them together into one long hundred and twenty-foot scroll. And the thing flowed out of him, single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks.

That was the first draft. Then there were six years of looking for a publisher and working with editors, and revising. Where does Kerouac’s road want to take us?

His quest is religious. For him as for the beat generation generally, the journey is a spiritual one. The real road is the inward one, the road to find ourselves, to find authenticity. What are we, really? And can we really be our true selves?

In On the Road, Jack Kerouac gives himself the name Sal Paradise, and he chronicles his road trips back and forth across the United States – to find Dean Moriarty, to go away from him, to go back to him. Three different around-the-country trips are chronicled: one in 1947, one in 1949, and one in 1950. In between the first and the second one, Kerouac wrote in his journal:
“In America today there’s a claw hanging over our brains, which must be pushed aside else it will clutch and strangle our real selves.”
Our real selves. Our real selves?

On his first trip westward Sal and someone he’s just met are hitchhiking together.
“A tall, lanky fellow in a gallon hat stopped his car on the wrong side of the road and came over to us; he looked like a sheriff.
We prepared our stories secretly. He took his time coming over.

‘You boys going to get somewhere, or just going?’

We didn’t understand his question, and it was a damned good question.”
We have some dim inkling of where we want to get to – but it’s so vague to us that we can’t say whether we’re going somewhere or just going. We don’t know the answer, and we don’t even understand the question, but we understand just enough to know that somehow, it’s a very good question.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "On The Road"
Next: Part 2: Dean/Neal

2014-09-09

Nothing Harder or Better: Boxes Too Small 4

In the Michael Muhammad Knight's novel, The Taqwacores, residents of a Muslim punk house hatch a scheme to host a national gathering of Islamic punk bands. They'll bring punk bands from all over the country together for one big punk Islam festival/concert/party. Jehangir is the primary energy for organizing the project.

There is a controversy in the house about whether to invite a band called Bilal’s Boulder, a punk band that adheres to a particularly conservative and strict brand of Islam. Jehangir is a advocate of open-ness and acceptance – and Bilal’s Boulder represents strict rules and intolerance of any fudging on those rules.

And there we hit that familiar paradox of tolerance: if you tolerate everything, including tolerating intolerance, then you facilitate intolerance. And if you don’t tolerate intolerance, you have become the intolerance. It's a real dilemma, and we all wrestle with it in one form or another. Where do we draw the line between what to tolerate and what we can't?

Jehangir argues for tolerating the intolerance, for inviting Bilal’s Boulder. For him, the openness and inclusivity that he wants to move toward would be contradicted by not also being open to closedness.

Bilal’s Boulder arrives wearing turbans and traditional Arabic attire. They size up the house and announce they won’t sleep on the floor in the house, as all the other bands are – because a woman will be staying somewhere under the same roof. They’ll have none of that. They’ll sleep in their van – even though it’s winter and they’re in Buffalo, and it’s freezing.

The next day, during the concert Jehangir himself is persuaded to perform. Highlighting that tension of individual vs community, Jehangir sings a punk cover version of Frank Sinatra’s, “I Did It My Way.” As he finishes, Rabeya, the burqa-wearing “riot girl” performs an act that seems deliberately planned to disturb, shock, offend, and enrage the strict tough guys of Bilal’s Boulder who, having finished their set, are standing in the crowd. They react violently, and in the melee, Jehangir receives mortal blows.

The advocate for openness is killed by the closedness that he had insisted on being open to. Community is hard, though we so need it.

Since writing The Taqwacores, Michael Muhammad Knight has been drawn toward an offshoot of the Nation of Islam called the Five Percenters, who reject the traditional Muslim belief that God is separate from humanity. Says Michael Muhammad Knight:
“The Five Percenters have a devastating critique of organized religion that, to me, mixes with punk rock because in a so-called punk view of religion, you are your authority, and you’re not entrusting your soul to other human beings. The basic idea of the Five Percenters is that all this divine power that you fear as being something outside of yourself – that’s gonna come down and crush you -- all that power is actually within you. You are your Allah. So rather than entrust your religion to the imams or the priests or whoever, you become the master of your own cipher.”
Michael Knight has also said:
“I can’t fit my deen in a little box because to me, everything comes from Allah. Birds sing Allah’s name. To say Allah is in this book and not that one, or he likes this and not that – do you know who you’re talking about? Allah is too big and open for my deen to be small and closed.”
You are your Allah. Thou art God. Your very mind is Buddha. Sooner or later, every tradition makes its own version of that point. But that, too, can become a box too small: an excuse for egocentrism and spiritual irresponsibility.

We are Unitarian Universalists, people of different beliefs, making community of freedom, recognizing you are your Allah, yet also standing in awe of the reality as given to us, in gratitude of the grace we receive from the universe without earning it: worshiping together as one faith of diverse beliefs and disciplines.

Nothing could be harder than building a way of life in that tension between structure and freedom, commonalities and diversities, authority figures outside you and ego inside you. Nothing could be harder. And nothing could be better.

Let’s do it.

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This is part 4 of 4 of "Boxes Too Small"
Previous: Part 3: Trade-Offs of Community
Beginning: Part 1: Nailing Things Together