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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Gasping for breath

My true north is still elusive

January 1st, 2016

BY DOUG BRUNS

I was an intent and haughty young man, hungry for direction and purpose. I am less intent as an aging man and I have worked to lose the haughtiness, though I still remain hungry for direction and purpose. A true north, presented as a reasonable and intelligent sensibility, remains unknown, a shrouded mystery. Schopenhauer, that great sourpuss, said that walking is simply the function of interrupting the natural state of falling down. I am walking, and conscious that every step is taken in self-defense, taken to keep from collapsing. I have concluded that for me life holds only surprises and reveals nothing. I am in a poker game and am blind, having no idea what cards I hold.

manpacingI did not spring from the womb playing Mozart. I cannot do math. I have not experienced a particular urge to save the world or develop a vaccine or build an empire. I have no natural capacity for anything, as best I can tell. The writer in me struggles to spin my web, but all disciplines have their nature. I work from my gut. In short, I exist, like, as best I can tell, many of us exist, without a clarifying direction or calling, most of the time not even cognizant that we even exist. I keep my eyes open and take notes. I attempt to string them together and search for patterns. And at sixty I still search.

Driving through Ohio recently I realized how much I prefer straight lines. The highways of Pennsylvania, on the other hand, reminded me that hidden curves are, conversely, not to my liking. I want to see straight ahead as far as I can. I want my eye to rest on the horizon. Maybe that is why so many of us are drawn to the ocean. The eye is unimpeded and the curvature of the earth is distant and not threatening. Yet the only migraine I ever experienced occurred in Spain on the Costa del Sol, where the sun and the ocean and the expanse could not be escaped and in all directions intensity loomed. This was a painful thing to experience and all I take from it is an odd aversion to brilliance. A moth will singe its wings and die over a flame. And the search goes on.


I have rarely learned from the experience of others. Not to make a big thing of it, but perhaps this is a vestige of being raised without siblings. I say this but have observed in my own children a tendency to experiential learning rather than theoretical learning by observation. They, like me, are not keen on what Whitehead called inert ideas. They prefer the active.

Raised in the middle-class Midwest I grew desperate in high school for direction. What was I going to do with my life? Ron had his father’s insurance business, and Rick wanted to be an engineer. Bill was joining the marines. I recall a school counselor asking me what I was interested in; perhaps my future could be discerned there. Everything and nothing, I said. I remained interested in everything and yet nothing in particular. The counselor thought I should consider plumbing. The world always needs plumbing fixed.

Perhaps you recall the old TV show Green Acres? Eddie Albert plays a character who ditches the city, much to the dismay of his wife, and follows a calling to become a farmer. There is a phenomenon, I’m told, a true forehead-slapping event, in which middle-aged men suddenly realize they were meant to be farmers. It strikes some almost as an awakening. I am reminded of Genesis: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” Painful toil holds no appeal for me. And I don’t like gardening in any form. Despite growing up in corn country, I never considered farming an option, nor has it ever crept into the neighborhood of possibility. If something is going to grab me by the shoulders and shout out purposeful direction, it will not be to labor in the fields, of that I am certain. Nor will it be to crawl under a kitchen sink and wrestle with pipes.

Upon reflection, as a father of three, I realize that I did a poor job of parenting on this subject. It is hard to teach about what you don’t know, though all earnest parents endeavor to do so day in and day out. No, I am convinced that I was meant to be without a rudder, pushed about and at the whim of expedient forces. I heard someone say recently that if you’re a doctor you’re only good at being a doctor. I don’t exactly know what she meant by this, but I think it to be a warning of highly evolved singularity. For me, there is no chance of that.

The 1954 movie Sabrina finds Audrey Hepburn as the daughter of a chauffeur. What is personally enduring about this movie is the portrait of the chauffeur father as reader. He explains to Sabrina that his career choice was intentional because it would afford him ample time to do what he most enjoyed, reading books. I am still amazed when I consider this idea — and not just the thought of a life carved out of reading, but of a screenwriter even employing the motif.

I have a friend who has climbed Mt. Everest and K2, as well as a host of other peaks. He spends a lot of time at elevation in a tent acclimatizing, manufacturing red blood cells. I once asked him how he entertains himself while waiting weeks before a summit push. He reads, he told me. He said that reading is a “zone activity” for him. He was referring to the notion of a mental state whereby a person is so fully immersed in what he is doing, in his case reading, that time ceases and energy is focused. You sometimes hear of “being in the zone,” or achieving a state of flow, in relation to sports. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has popularized the notion. He says that a state of flow is characterized by nine factors:

1. Clear and attainable goals
2. A high degree of concentration
3. A loss of self-consciousness
4. A sense of fluidity of time
5. Immediate feedback
6. A balance between ability and challenge
7. Personal control
8. The intrinsic reward of the activity
9. A sense of being absorbed in the activity

Water flows and that is why Csíkszentmihályi used the word to describe this state. His research found the word used repeatedly by people having experienced the condition. A Zen master once told me that flow is akin to enlightenment, a state of consciousness where everything is at once realized yet not transformed. Or something to that effect. The point being, Sabrina’s father knew what he wanted and got it. I grew up not knowing what I wanted and got that too: the state of confusion. (I will resist using the anti-Flow word “stagnation.”) Yet we adapt and things usually work out, or so we hope. I find it interesting that my mountain-climbing friend and Sabrina’s father both presumably found reading to be of such high order that it satisfied their very natures, as being in the zone suggests. I knew growing up that reading was important to me and to this day consider myself a reader first. But one must get off the sofa on occasion and climb a mountain. That is what stolid Midwesterners do. I find, of Csíkszentmihályi’s list, number 2. A high degree of concentration, to be the most appealing. I think number 7. Personal control, the least inviting, though paradoxically control is most important to those who don’t have it. I have no idea what to make of that, either.

In all likelihood, I will depart this earth in the same fashion in which I entered it: clueless, but adaptable. Well, now that I reflect on it, perhaps death, being the ultimate and final event, is by definition, a thing unadaptable. Yet I know of Buddhist meditators who plan and hope to be on the cushion practicing when death comes knocking. That certainly sounds like some form of adaptation. Or perhaps it is more like Csíkszentmihályi’s number seven, Personal control? Regardless, at the death event, the direction is clear: no direction. Control will cease, as will the need for it. Green Acres will continue to play in syndication on Acorn TV, or some such place; Sabrina will play out again and again; and someplace the sun will rise on a haughty and intent young man gasping for his first breath. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: 13th Anniversary Issue, Bruns | Link to this Entry

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