To Be, Not to Be, or Barely to Be?

'unbeing dead isn't being alive,' by Nicole Pierce on Flickr

[Image: “unbeing dead isn’t being alive,” by Nicole Pierce on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) The title of this image alludes, apparently, to a quotation by E.E. Cummings — it’s quoted everywhere on the Web — but no one ever says exactly what work it comes from. Maybe he muttered it in his sleep?]

From whiskey river:

Form is certainty. All nature knows this, and we have no greater adviser. Clouds have forms, porous and shape-shifting, bumptious, fleecy. They are what clouds need to be, to be clouds. See a flock of them come, on the sled of the wind, all kneeling above the blue sea. And in the blue water, see the dolphin built to leap, the sea mouse skittering, see the ropy kelp with its air-filled bladders tugging it upward; see the albatross floating day after day on its three-jointed wings. Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any other. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?

(Mary Oliver)


Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.

(Lewis Thomas)


Late Hours

On summer nights the world
moves within earshot
on the interstate with its swish
and growl, and occasional siren
that sends chills through us.
Sometimes, on clear, still nights,
voices float into our bedroom,
lunar and fragmented,
as if the sky had let them go
long before our birth.

In winter we close the windows
and read Chekhov,
nearly weeping for his world.

What luxury, to be so happy
that we can grieve
over imaginary lives.

(Lisel Mueller)

Not from whiskey river:

The Art of Being

The fern in the rain breathes the silver message.
Stay, lie low. Play your dark reeds
and relearn the beauty of absorption.
There is nothing beyond the rotten log
covered with leaves and needles.
Forget the light emerging with its golden wick.
Raise your face to the water-laden frond.
A thousand blossoms will fall into your arms.

(Anne Coray [source])



In the dark we disappear, pure being.
Our mirror images, impure being.

Being and becoming (Heidegger), being and
nothingness (Sartre)—which is purer being?

Being alone is no way to be: thus
loneliness is the test of pure being.

Nights in love I fell too far or not quite
far enough—one pure, one impure being.

Clouds, snow, mist, the dragon’s breath on water,
smoke from fire—a metaphor’s pure being.

Stillness and more stillness and the light locked
deep inside—both pure and impure being.

Is is the verb of being, I the noun—
or pronoun for the purists of being.

I was, I am, I looked within and saw
nothing very clearly: purest being.

(Stanley Plumly [source])


The universe today is cold; the various forces and patterns of matter are structures frozen into the fabric of the vacuum. We are far from the extreme heat in the aftermath of the Big Bang, but if we were to heat everything up, the patterns and structures would disappear. Atoms and the patterns of Mendeleev’s table have meaning only at temperatures below about 10,000°; above this temperature atoms are ionized into a plasma of electrons and nuclear particles as in the Sun. At even hotter temperatures, the patterns enshrined in the Standard Model of particles and forces, where the electron is in a family of leptons, with families of quarks and disparate forces, do not survive the heat. Already at energies above 100 GeV, which if ubiquitous would correspond to temperatures exceeding 1015 degrees, the electromagnetic force and the weak force that controls beta-radioactivity melt into a symmetric sameness. Theories that describe matter and forces as we see them in the cold imply that all these structures will melt away in the heat. According to theory, the pattern of particles and forces that we are governed by may be randomly frozen accidental remnants of symmetry breaking when the universe ‘froze’ at a temperature of about 1017 degrees. We are like the pencil that landed pointing north, or the roulette wheel where the ball landed in the slot that enabled life to arise. Had the ball landed elsewhere, such that the mass of the electron were greater, or the weak force weaker, then we would have been losers in the lottery and life would not have occurred.

(Frank Close [source])


I’m not a religious person but

God sent an angel. One of his least qualified, though. Fluent only in
Lemme get back to you. The angel sounded like me, early twenties,
unpaid interning. Proficient in fetching coffee, sending super
vague emails. It got so bad God personally had to speak to me.
This was annoying because I’m not a religious person. I thought
I’d made this clear to God by reading Harry Potter & not attending
church except for gay weddings. God did not listen to me. God is
not a good listener. I said Stop it please, I’ll give you wedding cake,
money, candy, marijuana. Go talk to married people, politicians,
children, reality TV stars. I’ll even set up a booth for you,
then everyone who wants to talk to you can do so
without the stuffy house of worship, the stuffier middlemen,
& the football blimps that accidentally intercept prayers
on their way to heaven. I’ll keep the booth decorations simple
but attractive: stickers of angels & cats, because I’m not religious
but didn’t people worship cats? Thing is, God couldn’t take a hint.
My doctor said to eat an apple every day. My best friend said to stop
sleeping with guys with messiah complexes. My mother said she is
pretty sure she had sex with my father so I can’t be some new
Asian Jesus. I tried to enrage God by saying things like When I asked
my mother about you, she was in the middle of making dinner
so she just said Too busy. I tried to confuse God by saying I am
a made-up dinosaur & a real dinosaur & who knows maybe
I love you, but then God ended up relating to me. God said I am
a good dinosaur but also sort of evil & sometimes loving no one.
It rained & we stayed inside. Played a few rounds of backgammon.
We used our indoor voices. It got so quiet I asked God
about the afterlife. Its existence, human continued existence.
He said Oh. That. Then sent his angel again. Who said Ummmmmmm.
I never heard from God or his rookie angel after that. I miss them.
Like creatures I made up or found in a book, then got to know a bit.

(Chen Chen [source])

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  1. s.o.m.e. ones brudder says:

    Lewis Thomas’ quote has been an underlying thread in my thinking for a very long time. How can we not be amazed at our very existence? How can the pettiness that we call a communal/political life (small ‘p’) even exist in the context of that quote? We need to breathe and be… says the guy that can’t figure out how to “unglue” his professional life.

    • Well, I understand the non-amazement at a purely logical level. It’s completely human, a survival instinct, actually: we’d be immobilized, easy prey for both predators and accidents, if we (literally or figuratively) stood around all the time with our mouths gaping, our eyes wide, a trickle of spittle running down our chin. We’ve gotta attend to shit, right?

      The trick is to keep the everyday — and the 75% or 90% (or whatever) of our time we devote to it — completely separate from the OTHER much smaller sliver of time. Routine has its charms (says the guy who freaks out at any least disturbance of his own), but I at least think it’s a murderous way to live that way all, the, time.

      One of the real ongoing joys of writing — again for me, and regardless of publication credits — is the constant sense of surprise. It’s sort of a Wow, lookie here! feeling, like I didn’t know words/the story/the characters could do that!

      And then, weirdly, it becomes easier to face all that pettiness, routine, and superficiality which HAS to be faced. It’s really not fair for 21st-century US life to require the relative proportions that it does — 75% (or whatever) of waking hours devoted to work and routine, in order to gain access to moments in which surprise and wonder and awe can be experienced. (The country as a whole has so freaking much money that the proportion could be flipped.) Even so, I think it’s — yeah — very, very important to “unglue” our professional lives from what really counts for us.

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