So, I’ve been on a kind of literary nostalgia trip.
As I wrote about a month ago, late this winter, after reading a string of Pulitzer-winning novels from the past decade or so, and having arrived in The Seventh Month, accompanied by an acute, unwelcome awareness that whatever I read next will be my last reading experiences in this lifetime, in this body, I re-read, for the third time, the works of one of my favorite writers: J.D. Salinger.
Next up, another formative and highly influential favorite: Jack Kerouac.
The title of this post, The Glorious Circumstances of Existence, is a bit of a bastardization of a quote from Kerouac’s Zen Lunatic pilgrimage tale, The Dharma Bums — a book largely responsible for my own pilgrimage to the Fourth Corner, nestled here between the rock, ice, fir and cedar of the Cascade Range to the east and the island-speckled Salish Sea to the west, between the mighty river Nooksack to the north and the Skagit to the south, between British Columbia, Canada on two sides and tragic farce America on the other two, home of my true love Scottish lass mother of our child, home of jolly brew-drinking friends, university career, music-making ecstasies, coastal, forest and mountain rambles, Salmon, Raven, Orca, Eagle, and Owl — and it goes like this:
“Let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious.”
I can think of no better, more concise, overriding epigraph for I, Too, Heard The Owl and The Owl Journal, my collected writing since having been diagnosed with ALS, aka Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Very nearly everything I’ve written in these works was born from the effort to heed Kerouac’s mind warning, to strive to — even in the the throes of suffering — make sense of my medical misfortune, and to hopefully retain awareness of and connection to the concurrent transcendent glorious beauty and joyousness of existence.
Yeah, right! 🤣
Allen Ginsberg, the late great poet and countercultural figurehead, famously wrote in his masterpiece Howl that, to paraphrase, he’d seen the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, but as much as I LOVE Howl for its virtuosic use of language, its jazz jam hobo freight train rhythm, its cinematic imagery, and its courageous exploration of the dark side of human experience, I also find it disturbingly prophetic.
Of all the destroyed mad minds Ginsberg is alluding to, the line, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” to me, most closely resembles Jack Kerouac, whose mind, in 1955-56, at the time Howl was written and published, had by no means been destroyed yet, and in fact was arguably healthier and freer than it would ever be.
I mean, does this, from The Dharma Bums, written in late 1957 and published in October 1958, sound like madness?
“Like the ants that have nothing to do but dig all day, I have nothing to do but do what I want and be kind and remain nevertheless uninfluenced by imaginary judgments and pray for the light.”
The Dharma Bums and, more broadly, Kerouac’s life, are like microcosms of several eastern spiritual concepts, Taoism’s Yin & Yang and Buddhism’s Samsara & Nirvana, and reading the book this time, this LAST time, was alternately painful and pleasurable, sad and ecstatic, ugly and beautiful, cynical and idealistic.
Jack, for all his considerable, messy, self-destructive flaws, and despite his Catholic upbringing, was — for this very brief period of his tragically brief and emotionally-tortured life — a sincere, earnest, even relatively disciplined Buddhist student and pilgrim. His eagerness to learn opened him up to the possibility of the formative friendship with Buddhist poet Gary Snyder that is the heart of Dharma Bums. His mancrush for Snyder was innocent and childlike, taking him from the city of San Francisco to the High Sierras, luring him cross-country after wintering at his mother’s home in North Carolina to a springtime stay in Marin County, California, and finally to the North Cascade Mountains for a summer gig as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak.
Even more notable, Kerouac was deeply attracted to one particular Buddhist concept above all others: he aspired to be a Bodhisattva, a practitioner who takes a vow to help others attain enlightenment and freedom from suffering before attaining this for themself. All throughout the book there are references both direct and indirect to his attraction to the Bodhisattva path of compassion for all living things:
“I prayed that God, or Tathagata, would give me enough time and enough sense and strength to be able to tell people what I knew (as I can’t even do properly now) so they’d know and not despair so much.”
“I wanted to…go off somewhere and find perfect solitude and look into the perfect emptiness of my mind and be completely neutral from any and all ideas. I intended to pray, too, as my only activity, pray for all living creatures; I saw it was the only decent activity left in the world.”
“In the morning I felt exhilarated and meditated first thing and made up a little prayer: ‘I bless you, all living things, I bless you in the endless past, I bless you in the endless present, I bless you in the endless future, amen.'”
“People have good hearts whether or not they live like Dharma Bums. Compassion is the heart of Buddhism.”
“One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls.”
“Imagine blessing all living and dying worms in eternity and the ducks that eat ’em.”
“Ah, if I could realize, if I could forget myself and devote my meditations to the freeing, the awakening and the blessedness of all living creatures everywhere I’d realize what there is, IS ecstasy.”
Such genuine intention!
Such longing for freedom from suffering for all living beings!
Such a huge, loving heart!
And yet, as sure as night follows day, or more apropos to Kerouac: as a hangover follows drunken frolicking, and finally, as death inevitably and non-negotiably follows life, Jack always rebounded from his periods of spiritual enlightenment to binge debauchery; lonely, sometimes scary, hitchhiking journeys; frequently dangerous freight train hopping; and gradually he became a near-recluse McCarthyite anti-Communist and drank himself to death via cirrhosis of the liver at the tender age of 47.
Yin & Yang, Samsara & Nirvana, I’m sorry to say that even after many years pondering The Buddha’s First Noble Truth:
- The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birth, growing old, illness and dying.
- The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
- A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, because all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance.
–from Encyclopedia of Buddhism
…thinking of Jack Kerouac’s suffering, as with Jerry Garcia‘s suffering, is still, in the final analysis, heartbreakingly painful, however grateful I might be for the monumental artistic gifts they shared with the world. I’m reminded of a post I wrote WAY back in 2009 at my previous blog, Fish & Bicycles, wherein I quote Irish poet James Stephens, from his poem Strict Joy:
“For, as he meditated misery
And cared it into song — Strict Care, Strict Joy!
Caring for grief he cared his grief away:
And those sad songs, tho’ woe be all the theme,
Do not make us grieve who read them now —
Because the poet makes grief beautiful.”
Bringing it back home, then, I think of my own suffering and my awareness of the ubiquitous suffering of others; I think of Henry David Thoreau‘s mission statement at Walden Pond, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life;” I think of how, for most of my life I reached for this kind of marrow-sucking experience and managed precious moments of Zen lunacy, rambles in the wilderness here and abroad, occasional outbursts of artistic expression, and much heartwarming reverie in the camaraderie of family and friendship.
And finally, I think about my own mission statement for my post-diagnosis writing here on this website, to attempt to make something of value — emotionally, spiritually, artistically — out of my grave medical misfortune, at which, I’m solaced and happy to say, I believe I’ve been somewhat successful.
Thanks for reading.