The Sunbather

Every afternoon that the clouds are not obstructing the sun, I become a sunbather. I do not wear sun tan lotion nor do I take any of the typical modern precautions against the sun. I am a sun lover and I do not see its golden rays as a threat. I’m afraid of many things in my life but the sun does not seem to be one of them. Instead, I strip down into the nude and shower in the sun light in the same way that I imagine a religious practitioner would bathe themselves in their god or goddess. I see the benefits of sun: a darker complexion, uplifted mood, more sex appeal and higher vitamin D3 levels. As far as I am concerned sun exposure is equally as important as a regular exercise.

However, sunbathing is not without its disadvantages. I have been sunbathing since I was a skinny youth but now that I am in my early forties I am noticing a new, less enjoyable experience when I sunbathe. For as long as I can remember sunbathing has been pure pleasure. Time well spent. Pleasurable abandon. But now after about twenty minutes or so of “laying out” in the sun I notice this unpleasant feeling creeping over me. It is a sensation that is usually accompanied by a metallic sensation in my mouth and a slight pulsation in my temples. I am naked and stretched out on my sun lounger with the sun light showering down all over me yet I am very uncomfortable.

Birds and various other forms of wild life will be active all around me yet my thoughts and a feelings seem to be tethered by a negative and unsatisfied quality. These feelings and thoughts make it very difficult for me to be still. I feel like I should be doing something else, accomplishing more, working more, being more ambitious. I notice this voice in my head that repeats words like “lazy,” “depressed,” “unambitous,” “failure,” ‘looser.” The feelings in my body seem to be shouting, “Get going! You should be doing anything but wasting afternoon after afternoon doing nothing! You do not deserve to do nothing!”

If you were to look at me stretched out on my sun lounger you would think that I am a man without a care in the world. You would not know that inside there is a battle going on between the forces of being and doing. You would not know that I am feeling like I am wasting my life and am terrified of going broke because of my laziness. You would not know what a great effort it is taking to stay still on that sun lounger.

In Eastern philosophy they talk a lot about people like me. When reading books that have an Eastern philosophy influence, I often come across the opinion that people in the West suffer so much because they are stuck in an endless cycle of doing and as a result our minds are always focused on things outside of ourselves. The moment that we stop and turn our minds inward we are confronted with the negative effects of always doing and focusing outwards. There is an immense amount of guilt, discomfort and negativity that is present because we feel that we need to be doing something. In order to avoid these uncomfortable feelings and thoughts we continually do things! Anything to avoid sitting still. While laying out on my sun lounger I am aware of this, yet this awareness does not seem to make enjoying the afternoon sun any easier.

I suppose I have been conditioned by that capitalistic logic which says I do things, therefore I am. I suppose when I am not doing anything my very being gets put into question. Who am I? What am I doing? Do I matter? Am I wasting my life? Maybe the intensity of these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are the result of the fact that I am older now and am aware that I have less time left on this earth to “make my mark.” When I was younger I would spend my entire days “laying out” in the sun. Lazy and without a care in the world. I had plenty of time then.

Or maybe my uncomfortable feelings are more the result of social conditioning. Maybe in the culture where I live a man is expected to have made something of himself by the age of 40. He is expected to be financially independent and accomplished by the age that I now am. If he is not, then he is seen as a loser, a failure. Maybe now when I am laying out in the afternoon sun the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that are present are the result of my father, my mother, my sister, my in-laws, my wife, my government, my teachers, my culture all telling me that I need to do something with my life! However the irony is that I feel that the most productive and important thing a human being can do at this stage in our overly productive and destructive history is learn how to enjoy just being. To stop doing so much and spend as many afternoons as they can sunbathing.

Where The Hell Is Everyone Going?

I have always preferred to stay in one place. I enjoy the comforts and security of home. I enjoy travel books about going nowhere. Like an eel in a small fish tank I roam around all the various corners of my small home and seem to be quite content not going much further. Sure I walk into downtown or occasionally go on various excursions with my wife to areas within a 50 or so mile range from my house, but for the most part I remain in one place. There are lots to do at home. Boredom is not an affliction that effects me (although I have plenty of afflictions). During the course of a day when I do not have to leave my home and go to work, my greatest dilemma is often where to sit. Whether it is in the backyard, the front yard or someplace inside, my home is filled with wonderful areas to sit. Each seating area has been carefully curated by my wife and I. Often I will spend the entire day trying to spend an hour or so sitting in the various spaces around my house.

Everyone I know or hear about seems to be always going somewhere. I notice airplanes continually traversing through the sky. There is an Amtrak train station not far from my house that seems to be spiting out more trains every hour than I am able to keep track of. Continually I will talk with a friend or an acquaintance and hear about how they are traveling to some far off place. My parents and my wife’s parents are continually on the go between their various homes. When I go for long walks around my neighborhood it seems like no one is ever home. The homes have landscaped yards, which appear to have taken a lot of time to create yet I never see anyone passing the day in them. The neighborhood around my house is moderately affluent yet there is this empty feeling all around (sometimes the only life forms that I see in this neighborhood are the various animals and birds hanging out in the trees). It is as if the people who live in these houses are too busy going places to spend the day hanging out in their yard. But where the hell is everyone going?

I appreciated reading in Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics Of Space” the discussion about the primacy of space. Bachelard talks about how in order to thoroughly know oneself, one needs to be very familiar with the spaces in their immediate environment. The problem of modernity for Bachelard is that human beings are continually going away from the spaces in which they live and pursuing places outside of themselves. This he said leads to a kind of inner fracturing where the individual never feels comfortable in any one place for an extended period of time. When I read Bachelard’s book I was reminded of a particular Aborigine community I visited in Australia many, many years ago. These particular Aboriginal people believed in the sacredness of the place in which they lived and felt so connected with the place that they had no need to venture out unless various survival needs took them away. As one Aboriginal man said to me “there is so much to see and investigate in my own backyard, a hundred years would not be enough time to become familiar with everything there is to meet here.”

In our Western culture it seems as if we are obsessed with being someplace else. We are always on the go.  If we stay at home for too long of a period of time we become irritable and feel like we are missing out. There are so many places to go, things to do and sights to see. Massive advertising campaigns waged by various companies in the travel industry bombard us with images of various places in the world that we are told will make life more interesting if we just hop on board. The quiet life of desperation can be remedied if we just get up and go someplace new. I even notice this tendency in myself. Often times I will see an airplane fly overhead or hear a train in the distance and be filled with a longing to travel to some exotic place. Suddenly I will feel like where I am is not good enough. It is too stressful- if I just go away for a week or so I will be able to relax, explore and have fun. I will feel fulfilled. “What a blast it would be to wonder the beaches of Hawaii or travel around Spain,” my mind tells me. All over the television and internet are photos and videos of celebrities traveling. They are hanging out in Hawaii, wondering the streets of some European country or on a boat in a place where the water is blue enough to reflect the clear sky above. Wherever the place where these celebrities are hanging out, all the rest of us see these photos and think, “we should travel like them, why should they have all the fun?” “Honey book a flight for Rome.” “I am tired of hanging out at home. Lets go somewhere new.”

Granted in our “modern world” speed is king. If you spend a day just sitting on your front porch or in your backyard you cannot help escape from the sound of speed going on all around you. Even if you live in the remote woods eventually you will hear the sounds of an airplane engine racing through the sky. Living in a more urban area exposes you more to this continual flurry of people on the go. Cars speeding to get someplace. Neighbors always on the go. Fire engines and ambulances racing by. Garbage trucks roaring. Airplanes jetting across the sky. Being surrounded by all of this transportation makes trying to achieve some stillness very challenging. Often times I will want to spend my afternoon sitting in my study or on my front porch but after a half hour or so I notice that I become restless. I can hear the sounds of cars and busses driving pass. In the distance I can hear the hummmmm of the freeway. I tell myself to just remain still but something seems to be going on at a psychic level. Everyone around me seems to be on the go. As I try and stay put just reading my book I notice that the restlessness grows more and more. My mind begins to suggest various places that I can go. Suddenly I notice that I am seized by this uncomfortable need to get up and do something else. To join the rest of the world and go somewhere.

The Yellow Fly

Yesterday I was working on a painting in my dusty garage. I was not listening to music so I could hear the wood bending sound of the roof sinking towards the ground. The garage was so dusty that I had difficulty keeping dust specks off of the tip of my nose and off of the canvas upon which I was working. A fly hovered annoyingly around my face and ears. There are few things that bug (no pun intended) me more than the frenetic sounds that a flying fly makes. The only living creature that I occasionally obliterate with magazines is the fly.

As I was searching for a magazine (which, I was going to use as a bat while pretending that the fly was the ball) I noticed that the fly was stuck in a metallic bowl filled with yellow paint. I was using this paint so I needed to get the fly out (I did consider somehow incorporating the fly into the painting somehow). I used the tip of my paintbrush to scoop the fly out of the glob of yellow paint. At first the fly which was now completely colored yellow was not moving. I assumed that it had either suffocated in the paint or died from the toxic fumes.

I went back to working on my painting and enjoyed not hearing any fly sounds. Occasionally I would hear the wood ceiling bend but other than this there was silence. As I was gradually allowing myself to fall away into the flow of the painting I again heard the annoying sound of the fly. I instinctually went to grab the magazine but as I did so I noticed that it was the yellow paint covered fly buzzing around. I suddenly found myself not wanting to obliterate the fly. A creature that had annoyed me to no ends suddenly became a work of art right in front of my eyes. Watching it fly around in the garage in all of its magnificent yellowness was a far greater aesthetic experience than any experience I had ever had looking at art. I was in awe.

As I watched the fly buzz around and around I said to myself, “now this is incredible modern art.” Like a man in his favorite art gallery, I spent the rest of the afternoon spellbound by the yellow fly. Since I am an avid supporter of the modern arts, as it was getting dark and the yellow fly was slowing down, I decided that it would only be fair to open the garage door and allow the yellow fly to go free.

My Mid-Life Crisis?

I woke up this morning thinking about the band The National. In particular I was thinking about the lead singer Matt Berninger and I was imagining the various events in his life. I saw him checking into his nice hotel room after a large concert in Hollywood, California. I saw him greeting various fans that had been waiting for him. I saw him hanging out in his room with a large smile on his face. I saw him thinking to himself “so this is what it feels like to reach this place.”

“This place” is what most people would call success. I do not think of this form of success so much in the financial sense all though financial reward often goes along with it. Instead I think of “this place” as the kind of success that most people long for in their lives. It is the success of being able to be seen by the world in a very similar way that you see your self. This may be a confusing explanation for some so let me try and simplify things a bit.

You see, I feel the reason why we idealize and idolize rock stars, actors, actresses and other artists and writers is because they get to do something that most of regular people do not get to do. They get to be exactly who they are and get paid for it. Matt Berninger, for example, does not have to go off to a job where he must play the role of a graphic designer or psychotherapist to the best of his ability so that he can make a living. He does not have to be something that he is not inorder to get paid. He does not have to be seen by other people as being a graphic designer or a psychotherapist even though who he feels like he really is on the inside is a musician and a poet. His success is that he gets to be seen by the world exactly as he sees himself. Maybe its not so perfectly black and white but you get my point. I am sure that there are few things that Matt Berninger would rather do for a job than make music and write poetry and have thousands of people acknowledge him and his work.

I got out of bed this morning and went to make some tea. I thought about what I need to do today and a slight depression came over me. I tried to remind myself to remain present and stay focused on the breath. To be with “what is” without judging it. The idea that I had to work for a few hours, take the dogs for a walk, read, eat, find something to do and spend time cleaning the house just did not seem as engaging or satisfying as I imagine Matt Berningers plans for the day would be.

Now I realize envy is a trap and I am not envying the lifestyle of Matt Berninger over mine (who knows what it really feels like to be him). Well maybe there is a tinge of envy but what I am acknowledging is that life must feel very different on the inside when you get to be exactly who you are on the outside. When the world acknowledges (and pays) you for being exactly who you want to be. And is this not what a mid-life crisis really is? Reaching a certain point in your life and realizing that things have not turned out exactly how you imagined they would? Realizing that how everyone else sees you is not how you see yourself? I think it is. I think a mid-life crisis is born out of the cracks that occur when a person becomes fractured in their life. When they have to try as hard as they can to be something that they are not (in order to make a living).

Granted, such is life in the modern world. This is the fate of most men and women. We don’t have to contend with the massive poverty that exists in India or the political nightmares that exist in Palestine, Syria and Eypt but we do have to live with this feeling of a fracture inside of our souls. The nature of contemporary capitalist society is that the individual must be able to generate a moderate profit if they are going to have a decent quality of life. If they do not have the ability to generate profit than they are either homeless, a vagabond, a loser or even worse- a total failure who is dependent on others ability to generate profit. Most people are terrified of suffering these potential consequences of staying true to who you really are so somewhere along their lives journey they make compromises. They settle for second or third best. The degree to which a person settles determines the degree to which a person experiences a mid-life crisis. I suppose it even determines the degree to which you will envy the kind of life someone like Matt Berninger gets to live.

Am I experiencing a mid-life crisis? Probably not. Would I like it if my life was filled with more acknowledgment from others for being the person I imagined myself becoming in my twenties? Probably so. Would I be happier if my work life felt like it reflected my inner life more? Maybe so. What I do know for certain is that change is the fundamental nature of reality. All things are always in a process of continual change. Nothing stays the same- not even my ideas about who I am. So do I continue to hang on to a past that may not have worked out as I would have liked it to or can I move into the present moment of my life embracing the change that shapes everything? I suppose this is what Shakespeare may have meant when he wrote:

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to?”