August Musings

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August has nearly flown by this year, due in large part to the rapid pace of life these days for me, but also by virtue of the daunting blank page that has been staring back at me these past several months. There have been lots of ideas and thoughts and musings percolating in my heart and mind all the while, but for reasons that are difficult to explain, they haven’t been able to find their way to the blog lately, and it has been a bit gut-wrenching for someone more accustomed to having the words pour out like a flood over a broken levee.

The good news is that several of these ideas and musings are beginning to come forward, and I have begun to feel hopeful that the levee will soon overflow yet again. Chief among the reasons for this outlook is the scheduled actual vacation coming up next week. For reasons too numerous to mention, this will be the first real vacation that has been possible to schedule in years. It almost doesn’t seem real to me yet, and I doubt it will seem completely real to me before I actually find myself sitting by the campfire in woods near the border of West Virginia at a local Maryland state park. Those of you who have been following along here know well the restorative power the forest and lakes and natural settings have always had for me, and I fully intend to recruit people to pinch me periodically so I will be sure I am not dreaming.

west virginia camping

I recently traveled to nearby West Virginia to visit my daughter and her family, who are still celebrating the recent arrival of their daughter, Autumn, who is my seventh grandchild, and there is a fair amount of inspiration contained in attending to the privilege of being a grandfather that has sparked some of the creative juices lately, and how could it be any other way?

pop-pop autumn2

My previous post to acknowledge my admiration for Dr. Oliver Sacks marked a moment of contemplation about all of the contributions he made to the understanding of the brain and consciousness and many other subjects, and I hope to contribute something a bit longer in the coming months to enlarge upon the one I posted today. There are a number of important contributions to be acknowledged in the scientific and philosophic realm these days, and I’m hoping to provide some insights that I’ve gleaned from these authors and scientists as they come up in the flow of my own research and reading.

Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan 1935-1984

Chief among them will be a tribute to one of my favorite authors from my younger days, Richard Brautigan, who wrote some very popular books back in the early to mid seventies, and whose influence is still being felt by those of us whose formative years included his unique viewpoint and provocative style. His life was extraordinary for a time, and there was a funny coincidence related to my writing inspirations as a young man that only recently came to light for me, and I’m looking forward to spending some time on my vacation rereading some of his work to spark the memories which surround this amazing time in my young life. Parts of the story of his rise to popularity, his astonishing good fortune in riding the wave of those times, and his eventual decline into near obscurity, are both inspiring and sad in some ways. It will be interesting to see how the piece turns out. So stay tuned!

west virginia sunset

I’m very much looking forward to seeing nine days worth of sunsets at the campground and reconnecting to the forest muse who nearly always joins me on these journeys. I will be reading and writing and relaxing and reconnecting in a beautiful natural setting in what Emerson described as “the plantations of God,” and I hope to bring back lots of material and insights to share with you all when I return.

Thanks for your continued patience and understanding as I work to get back to the flow!

Entering the Inner Fortress

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“Awakening to that mystical dimension where the very essence of self is suddenly perceived to be one with the ultimate forces of nature, is at once the secret and the transforming journey of human life.” – Joseph Campbell

In my last post, I introduced the story of how I began the journey of discovery which is now unfolding here on the pages of my blog. It was, in many ways, a tumultuous and transformative time in my early life; a time when my temporal life was in a bit of a tailspin, and when my inner world was finally free to expand in whatever direction seemed right to me. Although I had no preconceived notion about just what direction I might go, my awareness of a transcendent aspect to my world of experience had finally been released from the confines of my earlier restrictive religious background, and with those restrictions no longer in place, it seems my inner world, which had been more like a fortress against exploration, now had become my “inner fortress” of my experience of consciousness.

According to specialists in cognitive studies, there is a stream of consciousness within each of us that never ceases, regardless of whether we are awake or asleep. Exactly what is responsible for our experience of consciousness and a comprehensive explanation of its functioning are still subjects of considerable speculation and study. Assuming that we continue to expand our knowledge and insight into cognitive functioning, it seems reasonable to conclude that we will eventually gain a greater comprehension of its workings, perhaps resulting in a greater degree of access to this stream. We must therefore seek it out, and nourish our individual paths which connect us to it, and also be open to what we uncover as we search.

The nature and study of human consciousness has been a compelling subject for me for more than twenty years. I have spent a great deal of my time and energies trying to come to terms with my own very particular “inner experience” of life, and to somehow understand how the events and flow of my temporal life have directly been influenced by the workings within. Sharing what I have come to understand about my own “Inner Evolution,” has tasked my intellect and communications skills in a big way. I am only just beginning to feel confident enough in the results of my study and contemplation to bring out into the open, the many various aspects of what I have uncovered within myself. I am hopeful that my own subjective and personal experience of my own “human spirit” will resonate with others, and encourage them to explore their own.

Way back in 1973, as a young man embarking on the journey of a lifetime, I experienced what Carl Jung described as “the eruption of unconscious contents,” which compelled me to seek the path I continue to pursue to this day. The path of discovery has led me through an astonishingly diverse range of explorations in philosophy, science, and religion, as well as the many compelling ideas in the literature and scriptures of the cultures of the world. There is, in my view, a compelling thread made up of components of each, that runs through the fabric of life.

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The awakening to the knowledge of the transcendent within each of us can be a difficult, dangerous, and deeply personal undertaking. Without a sense of urgency that we can reconcile against the relentless struggle to survive and maintain our daily lives, many of us never even attempt to access this knowledge. For some of us, the awakening can begin without a conscious choice.

Forty years ago, as a young soldier stationed in Massachusetts, I experienced what could only be described as a revelation. I was off-duty in the base cafeteria near the post exchange in the middle of what had become my traditional Sunday noontime meal. As I sat down to begin eating, there was no reason I knew about for that Sunday to feel any different than all the others which preceded it, when suddenly I was struck by an overwhelming sense of being unable to control my body. Fearful at first that I might be ill, I tried desperately to settle my mind, and I began to tremble noticeably. Reaching out, I spilled my drink on the table. The harder I struggled against the experience, the more difficult it became to remain calm, when I was inexplicably overcome by a sudden, compelling urge to write something down.

I got up from the table, went into the post exchange, bought a notepad and pen without waiting for my change, returned to my table in the cafeteria, pushed my meal aside and began to write. What disturbed me the most was that I didn’t seem to have any control over what my hand was doing–it felt more like I was outside of my body watching someone else writing.

Sweat dripped from my forehead onto the pages, smearing the words in several places. I was writing frantically, cramming the words onto page after page. The resulting text was incomprehensible to me, and I was in such a state of excitement that I found it impossible to concentrate. I can only remember wondering what the few people around me must be thinking about this nut, spilling drinks and writing like a madman.

As suddenly as it began, the frenzy stopped. The pen dropped from between my fingers and I went limp. I lifted my head, now throbbing with a headache, and looked at the clock on the wall. Nearly two hours had passed since my arrival at my table around noon. Shaken, but slowly calming down, I had to drag myself away to the men’s room to throw up. When I sat back down at the table, I turned back to the first page of the notepad, having half-filled it with what looked like scribbling. The initial pages were only marginally legible, but as I gradually turned over the pages, I was able to make out most of the words. It seemed like a description of a journey, but the terms were suggestive of travels not found on any map. The language seemed almost surreal and incoherent to me. The single item that made any immediate sense was a name–Jonas Rice.

Deeply disturbed by the incident, when I returned to my barracks, I ripped the pages out of the notebook, put them in an envelope, and hid it under some clothing at the bottom of my closet. I told no one of the experience.

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The following weekend, I bought a bus ticket to the nearby city of Worcester, with the intention of investigating the name and whatever else I could find to help me understand what had occurred. Without fully knowing why, I felt certain that I could resolve the matter, even though I had no conscious knowledge about the city of Worcester prior to that day. Upon my arrival, I immediately set out walking, simply moving instinctively forward toward what felt like the center of town. I shortly came upon the city commons, where I noticed a collection of headstones marking the graves of prominent former citizens, interred there in the 1700’s. My heart began to pound wildly as I stood in front of the headstone of Jonas Rice.

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Photo by Susan Fenner

Momentarily dazed, I found myself gasping for breath, unable to speak or move. Only with great effort was I able to gather my wits long enough to suspend my state of shock long enough to walk away. I realized at that moment that I was dealing with a phenomenon of an extraordinary nature, and unless I could come to terms with it somehow, it would be difficult for me to find any sort of peace of mind. I managed to find my way to the public library, and began what ended up being decades of investigation, which included life in colonial America, psychology, mythology, philosophy, and a whole range of religious and metaphysical subjects, trying to understand the experience, and the nature of what had been thrust into my consciousness.

Subsequent to the initial episode in 1973, I occasionally experienced recurrences of lesser intensity, which seemed to point me in new directions as the research progressed. Over the years, I began to view my research as part of the process of awakening, and kept a more detailed record of the significant events and important milestones, hoping to incorporate the essential information into a more comprehensive narrative at some point. Without fully understanding why, I nonetheless submitted myself to the unfolding drama, at times, overcome be a sense of powerlessness to stop myself. The resulting path of discovery and illumination brought me face-to-face with a fascinating and perplexing inner world.

**Somehow…this posting was deleted by WordPress.com. It was originally posted on January 1, 2014**

Neuroscience and Near Death Experiences

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“Wind” by Andrew Wyeth

For many people, the idea of being “near death,” is one they would rather not contemplate, but as anyone who has survived an accidental or unintentional brush with death can tell you, suddenly finding yourself at the edge of such a possibility tends to narrow your focus sharply on whatever action might be possible to prevent it. Our instinct for self-preservation–our natural tendency to step back from the edge of a precipice–is completely reasonable in view of our interest in staying alive. We value our lives most notably as a result of being accustomed to waking up and living it everyday, but philosophically speaking, we resist contemplating the idea of our own demise since we are so uncertain intellectually as to what might be awaiting us when the inevitable moment arrives.

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Those who have a strong background in any of the numerous religious faiths generally take solace in their beliefs of an afterlife, and there are many different explanations and theories which address such issues for those who take a more secular approach to understanding the world, but no matter what background we come from we still most often want our temporal lives to continue without having to consider too often what might transpire once we reach the limit of our abilities to sustain life, whatever the reason. We all hope that we can “grow old gracefully,” and can suffer greatly when those we love perish for any reason. My own recent experience of the loss of my beloved brother was heart-wrenching in the extreme, even knowing well in advance that the moment was approaching. At the memorial, I spoke of his journey through his temporal life, as well as the continuation into the next life–eternal life.

Copy of BrainSparks

Such reassurances are not of much comfort to those who profess disbelief in any sort of continuation of existence once the temporal portion of life ends. Dr. Eben Alexander was one such person. He had been an academic neurosurgeon for more than twenty years, and trained in some of the most elite medical institutions in the world, including Harvard Medical School. A dedicated scientist and surgeon, Dr. Alexander had operated on more than a thousand brains, and cared for many different patients in dire circumstances. His knowledge of the workings of the human brain extended well beyond the point of hoping for miracles for his patients. All that changed when the good doctor suddenly found himself near death from a life-threatening illness.

His recently published book, “Proof of Heaven,” is the story of his life and death struggle with a rare form of bacterial meningitis, which severely compromised his own brain, putting him in a deep coma for seven days, and how it changed everything he supposed he knew about life and death. The story of his life prior to the coma, and of his survival and recovery, would be startling and nearly miraculous all by itself. Against all odds, he not only survived the devastating effects of the normally fatal strain of meningitis, but made a full recovery which permitted him to eventually resume his life as a neurosurgeon. His case was apparently unprecedented in numerous ways in medical terms, but when Dr. Alexander awoke after seven days, the story he had to tell went way beyond the particulars of his medical condition and his former life.

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Near Death Experiences have recently received much closer attention by the scientific community, but as Eben Alexander acknowledged himself, prior to experiencing one first-hand as he lay in a deep coma, he was always sympathetic to his patients who told him of such events, but he never really gave them much thought, and like many scientists, he felt there was some more logical or prosaic explanation that would eventually be revealed through scientific research.

The book reports in great detail the doctor’s elaborate and fantastic near death experience as it unfolded. While the author’s body and brain approached what was quickly becoming the point of no return, Dr. Alexander the neurosurgeon was touring eternity, and with no awareness of his identity as a person, he describes being given the opportunity to learn about an existence beyond experience. Whereas most N.D.E.’s occur with the individual being aware of who they are, and who report meeting individuals they recognize on “the other side,” due to his acute brain infection, Dr. Alexander’s neocortex was completely “offline,” and none of the most often cited scientific explanations for such experiences could be applied to his circumstances. Without access to the neocortex, not even dreams or hallucinations are possible. This time, there was no way to explain.

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I can wholeheartedly recommend this book, even to those who may already have decided that such things are not possible. With the powerful authority of a highly respected neuroscientist, Dr. Alexander holds up his experience to a remarkably thorough scientific scrutiny, and nearly abandoned his own belief in the experience, until after an exhaustive examination of the facts that led him to a startling conclusion. Even the most skeptical reader will find it enormously compelling reading.

Hurricanes and Hope

As I write, Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on the East Coast of the US, and is expected to make landfall plus or minus 50 miles from our home. We have spent most of the day in preparation for punishing winds, torrential rain, and possible flooding. The storm is approximately 900 miles wide and will affect everyone from Virginia to Massachusetts according to the latest reports. My workplace called to say that we will be shutting down our facility tonight and not to report until we get clearance from local authorities. We are told to expect to lose our electric power as the storm hits sometime in the morning, so I thought I would try to post something while the internet is still available.

The image above is a satellite image of the storm from space, and it shows that this storm clearly is enormous. We have our battery-powered lanterns ready, plus two that are recharging from the camping supplies. We stocked up on some additional bags of ice and have followed all the suggestions for securing all loose items outside and put everything up higher that might otherwise get wet if there is flooding. While all of these considerations are important and have occupied my time for most of the day, all along the way, and certainly now as we can only sit and wait, my thoughts have turned once again to recovery and hope.

Jean Le Capelain (St. Helier 1812-1848)
Fishing boats at anchor and weathering the storm

With the impending storm outside approaching as I write, I couldn’t help but think of how the past few weeks seemed very much like weathering a storm of a different sort. The emotional and spiritual upheaval of the past few weeks as I tended to my brother’s care, knowing full well that the height of that storm was very near, now gives me a sense of calm, even in the face of a serious “superstorm” on the way. By morning, the winds are expected to reach sustained speeds of 50 mph, with gusts as much as 70 mph. The eye of the hurricane, if it continues to follow the predicted path, will pass very nearly directly over us, with a plus or minus 50 mile leeway. Torrential rains, flooding, and widespread power outages will combine to make “weathering the storm,” more than just a catch phrase.

As is my habit, during times when the situation gets stormy, I generally turn to reading when the power goes out. I’ve been considering what I might read and was delighted to come across a passage from Emerson that seemed to fit the circumstances:

“The wise man in a storm prays God not for safety from danger, but for deliverance from fear. It is the storm within which endangers him, not the storm without.”

By comparison, even this “superstorm” that approaches as I type at my desk feels less daunting than the storm within me, as I contemplate the loss of my dear brother. With all the advantages of being close over the years, and right up to his last days, the implications of the storm within confirm Emerson’s insight.

As I consider what has been lost, even the trials of a hurricane seem far less urgent than the stirrings within me. The resolution lies somewhere in the maelstrom of consciousness, and shines through the darkness occasionally. It flashes before me in brief and startling snippets, as well as in more subtle moments which are no easier to comprehend. Out of nowhere, I am alerted to the possibility that the answer might be in my grasp. In those moments….hope lives on.

…..more to come…..

Another Bowl of Cherries

The cherries in the bowl above were picked just outside the kitchen window in the back of my apartment in Germany years ago, but for me they have come to symbolize a great deal more than just a pleasing subject for photography. It was during this period of my life that I truly began to open to the world within me, and as I look back now, I can appreciate more fully the true importance of this beginning. While serving as an intelligence specialist in the sleepy little town of Kaiserslautern, I began a series of writings, originally intended to document my experiences during the course of my service in Europe. As the writing progressed, an awareness of the profound changes and events that were shaping my personal life prompted me to examine more closely the “why” of what was happening to me. This concern led not only to a more in-depth analysis of my inner experience, but was also responsible for influencing my interactions with those closest to me.

Having spent most of my tenure with the military in a variety of barracks and military housing, as a senior analyst in my section, I finally became eligible for housing off-base. This arrangement turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of my service, and I was determined to make the best possible use out of the time. On a quiet street in the suburbs, I was surrounded by the native citizens, and as a German linguist, I was able to communicate well with my landlord and my neighbors. When I would return home at the end of the day, along the short walk from the bus stop, I would often find myself engaged in conversations right out on the street, as many of my neighbors would be leaning out of their front windows and say hello. My presence there was a novelty at first, but when it became apparent that I could converse reasonably well in German, it eventually became an accepted part of life in my neighborhood.

About that same time, a burgeoning interest in 35mm photography had begun to bear fruit (pun intended). With much the same enthusiasm which was manifested in my writing, it was not altogether surprising that my photographs began to reflect the growth and development characterized in the writings. The view out the kitchen window was spectacular when the cherry tree was in full bloom, and I enjoyed many hours in my kitchen, in a variety of ways.

Normally, there’s nothing quite as isolating as the solitude which can result from living alone in a strange city, but in this case, it seemed only to provide just the right degree of solitude as I needed it, and offered plentiful opportunities for socializing and a sense of community as well. The cherries were a little tart, but absolutely stunning in their redness and ripeness as the photo reveals.

There were quiet mornings in the kitchen with my favorite music, and freshly ground German coffee that accompanied me in my moments of solitude, and I doubt seriously if I ever enjoyed morning coffee quite as much as I did while residing there. Writing became an essential aspect of my days, and on this particular morning, after settling down on a rare day off, I decided to attempt to write about what was weighing on my mind and living inside my heart:

“My awareness of a higher level of consciousness becoming available to me has brought me to sense an awakening to a world I can scarcely believe exists within me. My entire being seems to be undergoing a transformation. Although it is subtle in nature, it creeps up on me silently, occasionally stirring me gently into a state of heightened awareness, but still seeming to assimilate itself into my daily waking state. I have become more contemplative, reflecting more often on what is transpiring within me. Urgent matters which used to occupy my mind seem less significant, and every thought becomes a candidate for reevaluation. Though not obsessive, I balance each effort with concern for how it might assist me in achieving an even greater level of consciousness, and in doing so, I continually encounter a curious resistance, as these evaluations often conflict with some of my long-standing attitudes and beliefs.”

After a long day of duty, I would often return home and spend some time after dinner reading and writing in my living room. Living in the United States had always seemed easier by comparison to living overseas. There were no concerns about finding the right way to say what I was thinking, and my familiarity with life in America made me take so much for granted. In Germany, the circumstances were quite different. My knowledge of the language and the culture in which I was living in was very helpful, and it took me some time to really become comfortable sharing my familiarity, but I enjoyed a much more receptive attitude in my interactions whenever I did.

One of my favorite rooms in the apartment was the little greenhouse porch that led out to the back of the apartment where the cherry tree stood. A narrow hallway led to a brightly lit space filled with a variety of plants and flowers that constantly changed throughout the year. I would occasionally tend to the plants when the landlord was away, and enjoyed standing there surrounded by green leaves and colorful plants with the sun streaming through. It was as nearly perfect a place as I could have hoped for, and when I stop to think of all the places I’ve been, this little corner of Germany is near the top of the list.

Living in Germany was one of the most well documented phases of my life, and it was there that many of my documentary habits were formed. The time spent overseas was a bonanza for my writing, and I spent much of the available time I had recording my thoughts and feelings and emotions in a way that led to years of growth and expansion of my skills in expressing them. In the days to come, I hope to share some of those early efforts in my struggle to make sense out of what has been transpiring within me all these years. I hope you will all follow along with me as I explore the path once more.

….more to come….

“Love is a Mode of Knowledge”

“We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge…” Aldous Huxley

The Secret Bench of Knowledge – A sculpture by Czech-born Canadian sculptor Lea Vivot – image from Vlastula’s photo-stream on Flickr

The image above caught my eye and my heart as I contemplated the subject of the title of this post. It is a sculpture of two young people who appear to be seated in front of the National Library of Canada building in Ottawa, who seem very much to have a love interest of some sort, and the young man is holding an apple, suggesting a reference to the original apple from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Huxley’s claim that we can only love what we know, resonated for me personally, as I recently began to contemplate just why it is that I feel the way I do about such connections of both knowing and loving. Aldous Huxley is considered by many to be the original author of a very particular idea, called “The Perennial Philosophy.

According to the article in Wikipedia, “The Perennial Philosophy” is essentially an anthology of short passages taken from traditional Eastern texts and the writings of Western mystics, organized by subject and topic, with short connecting commentaries. In my edition of the “Bhagavad-Gita,” which is “a 700–verse Hindu scripture that is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahabharata,” Aldous Huxley wrote the introduction, and outlined the four fundamental doctrines of perennial philosophy:

1. The phenomenal world of matter and of individualized consciousness–the world of things and animals and men and even gods–is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being, and apart from which they would be non-existent.

2. Human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the know-er with that which is known.

3. Man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

4. Man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.

Regardless of whatever cultural or spiritual influences we are exposed to during our lifetime, even if the subject of a spiritual component to life never comes up at all in our education, at some point, there will be an experience of unbridled joy or terror, a traumatic event, a brush with death, a profound and lasting impression from any number of joyful or sorrowful experiences, and depending on our level of intuitive inclinations, we begin to suspect that there may be something more to life than just what our senses and brains reveal to us.

Our human mind and brain are inextricably linked by both biology and psychology. Our species was able to expand and develop our access to consciousness from a merely functional level to one which now allows us to project our thoughts far beyond the physical or primal mindset of ancient times. At some point, human beings (hominids) crossed over a threshold from primal instinct and the necessities of survival, to self awareness and introspection. The capacity for self awareness by itself was only enough to begin the process of developing a fuller access to a comprehensive experiential awareness.

In his book, “The Neanderthal’s Necklace: In Search of the First Thinkers,” Juan Luis Arsuaga, a professor in the Paleontology Department of the Faculty of Geological Sciences at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, points out that our ancestors (modern humans) coexisted with Neanderthals for at least 10,000 years. While archeological evidence points to Neanderthals demonstrating rudimentary tool-making and burying their dead in caves, “so far, no one has presented any definitive proof of ritual or other symbolic behavior before the time of Cro-Magnon in the Upper Paleolithic.” The reasons for their apparent deficiencies in cognitive skills were at least “partly demographic,” as their group size was too small to develop a “full cultural identity,” and partly because of “their lack of fully developed syntactical language.”

Access to a fully developed consciousness, seems to require the ability to “transcend” the awareness of our physical environment, as well as to be able to make a firm connection between physical reality and the many abstractions which are represented in the tangible manifestations of those ideas and concepts. Modern Homo sapiens were simply the first to be able to exploit their cognitive and social capacities, and the evidence seems to point to a “dramatic genetic change in brain function,” that gave modern humans the edge.

As the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France and elsewhere show, even our earliest Cro-Magnon ancestors, while conscious enough to report their experiences in cave paintings, were not able to fully express their consciousness, and only beginning to be introspective. These early humans were concerned with the most compelling of their experiences, and felt the need to express them in a demonstrative way. Their ability to create images from their experiences and attribute meaning to those symbolic images, was a quantum leap that began the unfolding of our access to ever-increasing levels of consciousness.

The uncertainty of what we are able to conclude at this point is sufficient to leave the door open to the idea of an “inner evolution;” a dramatic change in the attainment of increasingly higher levels of access to consciousness over thousands of years, and to other more complex notions of what might constitute a spiritual capacity within us which supports and provides essential input to the unraveling mystery that is life.

© 2012 Etsy, Inc.

…..more to come…

“The Grievers” by Marc Schuster—Life is funny—sometimes.

Life is funny—sometimes—and at other times it can be—unbearable.  There’s really no way to be sure just how it’s all going to turn out, but one thing is for sure—you’re probably not going to get far as a guy in a giant dollar sign suit.  Success in life might even require a healthy dose of maddening chaos combined with the stark realization of just how much you’ve messed it all up to bring you around.  You might even have to suffer through the loss of someone you knew—someone you didn’t treat very well in life—before you realize what truly matters.  That’s how it was for Charley Schwartz, anyway.

Marc Schuster has written a compelling and comically tragic story about a man who has to face the hard truths about his life, his friends, and his future.  He might not have even noticed his inexorable trajectory toward the creeping sinkhole of failure, if it hadn’t been for the suicide of someone who went to the same school as he did years before.   Anyone who ever attended Catholic high school or any school named after a saint can relate to what Charley Schwartz was going through, and belongs to a kind of fraternity or sorority alumni that inevitably finds you and asks for money.  But this story is just a little too close for comfort in my case.

I spent my high school days at Monsignor Bonner High School in Pennsylvania.  Our motto was, “Purity, Integrity, and Loyalty,” and at the top of the symbol is a reference to the Latin phrase, “Noverim me, noverim te. –The two parts explain one another: one cannot know God without reference to oneself and one cannot know oneself without reference to God.”  This relates back to the Augustinian Friars who taught at the school for fifty-six years, four of which included my high school years.  Not only could I relate to Charley as someone struggling to find himself through his years after attending the “Academy,” but we also had to face the suicide of one of our own some years later.

Fortunately, in my case, I wasn’t the one with memories of treating people poorly.  Unfortunately, I was the one on the receiving end of that arrangement.  I was the creative sort; a bit geeky, loved writing and the Arts and Theater.  I never seemed to fit in with any of the kinds of characters in the Grievers, but I knew them all, and Marc Schuster has done a damn fine job of evoking the memories and flashbacks that made me feel like I was there all over again.  While reading this gem of a novel, I laughed a lot even though my experience was nowhere near as humorous as Charley Schwartz’s.  I even went back into the archives and dug up this photo from the yearbook, which shows that I actually succeeded at something.

Our school had a literary magazine called, “The New Spectator,” and they let me write the little blurb in the yearbook that went along with the photo.  As a senior, I finally made something happen.  Go figure.

The last three chapters really grabbed me.  They bring together all the craziness and wisecracks and sadness, and build up to a nail biting car chase scene worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster, and it concludes with such poignancy and satisfaction for the reader, that I actually kind of wish Marc hadn’t ended it right there.   I found myself cheering for Charley, and wanting to know just how he would turn all that madness into a future.

A delight to read and filled with such a variety of characters and so many moments of just plain craziness, that you almost want to reach through the book and grab Charley by the shoulders and shake him.  What is he doing hanging around with all these crazy people?  When I got to the part where Charley gets up to speak at the memorial service, I actually had to stop for a minute.  It is quite a moment, and worth a long, hard look for anyone who is grieving.

I had the opportunity to meet Marc and his lovely wife, Kerri, and I couldn’t shake the image of the two of them the whole time I was reading.  Marc is a great deal more accomplished than Charley, and I’m sure Kerri is probably different than Charley’s wife, Karen in the story, but it seems to me that Karen was the only sane part of Charley’s life, and Kerri impressed me as the sane one too.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly, and hope for much continued success for Marc in his sometimes funny life.