Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Return to the Desert


It's a monastery out there, lots of semi-solitary folks

camped on wasteland drinking dirt cheap beer all  

day long to find the peace that only neglect can bring.

It doesn't (oh come on, you know Merton, "the Hermit,"

drank .... and that Roshi in Mt. Baldy ...) work. So angry!

If you need an unchurched god and you can't connect 

while stuck in this culture, you go to hash inside.

Finally comes the day you quit patching your mask,

and when you can't afford to rent but still own a vehicle 

you drive it to the desert and park it on public land.

It's too cold, too hot, too dry, too dull, and lonesome.

If you don't drink, you"ll get peevish and bored.

But if you try to return to the Renters' Paradise

you'll feel really sick. You'll get homesick

for space and light and sand and sage and Nothing.


explanation of blog URL and Title change:

Complaining of boredom and loneliness in my no-amenities desert campsite, I had welcomed a house-sitting opportunity to explore the possibility of returning to a middleclass single lifestyle and its society and entertainments, but while visiting Davis, CA, a shady, pleasant, semi-rural college town, I found myself feeling anxious.* Oddly, out in the desert I do not feel this way.

Although I greatly enjoyed visiting friends on the seaside of the Sierra Nevada (and friends were warm, sweet and generous to me, as they have always been, and for which I am and shall be always grateful) the core of loneliness I complained of remains unchanged. I wonder if the comforting experience of being "surrounded by old friends" is primarily circumstantial, a local social-self identity that a participant forfeits upon leaving the circumstances. "Circumstance" is more than physical surroundings, it also means social position and participation in a specific culture. I have never made the necessary self-investments that sustain and reward middleclass culture: marriage and children, career and career-supported house and properties ownership, and all their concommitant social networks of education and recreation, vacations, celebrations, associations, inheritances, politics. I lived there as a visitor, an outsider. 

Perhaps the anxiety I felt in Davis and the East Bay is partly a reflection of the apprehension of insecurity, poverty, failure and social opprobrium that fuels the construction of an appearance of well-being in a circumstance of well-deserved prosperity, a matter of pervasive concern to all middleclass societies since their inception at the end of the last cycle of Western feudalism. Often expressed by European bourgeoisie through the cultural values of "good taste" or "maintaining the status quo" (that so infuriated artists and philosophers of the 19th century), in the United States it also manifests in the form of an encrypted Puritan-derived belief that success proves moral righteousness, that poverty proves (or in another version, causes) essential moral corruption (or revolution!) and is therefore to be feared and shunned. I find this moral dimension to be particularly troublesome; it seems to underwrite social investment in denial when well-being is not supported by reality.

Now that I can claim the reality of being a "desert rat," -- a wastrel living in a vehicle on vacant land (public BLM lands unused by industry or agriculture, hence "wasted" land, although it is often designated "recreational land;" when public land is designated as a park or monument it suddenly becomes a civil or national treasure, and therefore more expensive to park on... ) -- I can let the practical demands of a life on the margins provide relief from the strain of trying to appear to be secure, successful, solvent and fulfilled. I never was, I never did, I never had, I never will.

*Anxiety is a reality-independent, free-floating fear; most immediate survival problems are practical in nature and resolved by taking action. Now, at 60, I realize that much of the time when people complain and worry obsessively, meanwhile refusing to initiate any solution to the stated problems, they are expressing this nebulous anxiety. In my family, the menfolks always tried to "fix" all worries and complaints as if they were practical matters. I have put people off by imitating them, and have also confused myself. In the desert, these patterns have become clearer.

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