Knoxville, Summer 1985

Rare rear view of the back of Knoxville-born author James Agee’s now-demolished childhood home at 1505 Highland Ave in Fort Sanders, Knoxville, Tennessee, August or September 1962. From the Fleming Reeder Collection

Knoxville, Summer 1985

 

Walking down Highland
and 13th to a sudden
dead end.
Sun-blistered asphalt,
vaporizing generations of
mystery fluids,
floating in the air like
jungle-breath.

I have expectations of finding
something here but
I don’t know what.
An experience, maybe.
An answer, possibly.
Art?

Surrounded by clapboard houses
in sweaters of kudzu,
I walk the middle of the street
with the swagger of youth
in cheap shoes.

An audience of thrift store
furniture on front porches
applaud random Tibetan prayer flags
giving needed shade to
the molding Bud Light coolers.

And I see her there.

That one girl
reading
on her porch.
She doesn’t look up.
I don’t say “Hello.”
The daily routine of
passing strangers.

But I turn and chance
a few steps down
her walkway.
I offer my outstretched
hand.
She looks up,
places her moist fingers
on my palm
and unfolds herself
from her
musty armchair,
the cushions bleeding foam
onto the old wood porch.

I spin her like a
princess carousel
then pull her toward me,
my hand in the small of
her back.
She presses
her cheek to my chest
and I smell her
coconut hair
for seconds of eternity.

We sway to distant
music from Cumberland Ave.
but do not speak.
We both know too well
what we would say;
emotionally charged laments about
life as a twenty-something.
School.
Poverty.
Overcontrolling parents.
Why don’t they understand?
Sometimes we aren’t sure
we will survive or
that we even want to.
Why is the world so confusing?
Pointless?
Sweaty?
Like this moment.
This moment I’ll
never forget but
the wine on her breath
tells me she will
by morning.

Her mouth parts for
a whispered word but
I quickly raise my hand.
“Shhhh” I say.
“I’m going to get towed.”
I touch her lips softly
with mine;
that awkward kiss
of two people who just
met on a sweltering, summer day
and already have regrets.

Dewy, brown eyes behind
her glasses tell me
we are eating
supper for the
6,205th time
in Farragut.
Visiting our daughter
in college.
Weeping at the birth
of our third grandchild.
Purchasing side-by-side
cemetery plots.

She is small and pretty and
I am certain her heart
belongs to someone else.
While I borrowed it
for a moment, I am too young
and too clumsy to hold
it longer than an hour.
A year at most.
I bow and kiss her wrist.
She returns to her book—
never looking back to
me as I retreat to the
safety of the sidewalk.
I step in gum.
Dirty, florescent-pink strings
stretch from my shoe
like cruel party streamers
from a cancelled wedding.

I walk a block and
see the city panorama
in gold mirrors. There is
my own life in a single,
solitary square
of the Sunsphere.
It looks down upon me
like a wise,
yet emotionally unavailable
Appalachian grandfather.
With tobacco in cheek, it
says to me with a muffled drawl,
“There is a world of porches.
There is a world of books.
Life is a dance for
the ones with expectations
and the one
who constantly looks.”

—Rick Baldwin ©2018

You May Be Right. I May Be Crazy.

When I was in high school, I idolized the kind of NY, Italian, street gang-guy I saw in celebs like Billy Joel and Stallone. I really wanted to be in a street gang, which, if you know me, you know how completely asinine even the thought of that is. But I didn’t want to be in a real street gang, I wanted to be in more of a movie street gang. I didn’t want to actually hurt people, I wanted to strut around the streets like Travolta in a leather jacket, maybe smoking cigarettes. I wanted to know some guys named Mikey and Vinnie. Maybe learn to use the f-word occasionally and not feel guilty about it. That’s all I knew. I really wanted to be a Baptist preacher and I carried around a copy of “The Cross and the Switchblade” with me all of the time. It was a book about a preacher who went to New York to save the street gangs. I figured I could do that. Maybe have the best of both worlds. Although I would have to nix the f-word probably.

One year, I asked for a leather jacket for Christmas. My parents couldn’t afford a real leather jacket so they got me a vinyl one. It looked a lot like the real thing and I wore it all the time in high school and college. I’m wearing it in this photo. It looks a lot like Billy Joel’s but, I’m guessing, his was real leather. I always imagined I’d one day get to go to a “rumble” in my jacket, but I never did. Once, the neighborhood bullies tried to challenge my brothers to a fight and I thought it was the perfect opportunity, so I grabbed my jacket and a long chain I’d been saving for the occasion, but my dad went out and ran the bullies off so nothing really happened. Eventually, I changed over to Billy Joel’s “suit jacket and loose tie” style, which seemed to work much better for me.

When I was in middle school, my dad started getting into a new hobby of selling things at flea markets. He was a school teacher but would do the flea market stuff on the weekends and he ended up making more money doing that than he did teaching. So I grew up around flea market culture. I’m still fascinated by the southern flea market characters I encountered every weekend. Flea Markets, antique stores, secondhand shops, thrift stores are all still a huge part of my life. It gets in your blood and won’t come out. Like a stiletto. Sorry. I go to antique stores just to relax. I could spend an entire weekend doing nothing but visiting thrift stores and antique shops. Last week I stopped by a thrift store to look for some junk pieces I could recycle as art. While I was there I saw a really cool leather jacket. It still had all of the tags on it. And, holy crap, it was exactly my size! I can never buy clothes off the rack because I have freakishly long arms but this jacket fit perfectly. And it was only $25!

I used to never buy or wear anything leather. I’m vegetarian because I’m an animal lover and I never thought it was right to not eat animals but still wear them. Then, I decided to wear a kilt for a year in 2012 and I had to buy leather stuff. Boots, straps, vests, all that stuff that makes you look more cool in a kilt. I also started eating fish last year, so screw the animals! Dang, I should have used the f-word there. No wonder I never got in a street gang.

I bought the jacket. I took it home and cleaned it the way the leather stores I Googled said I should clean leather jackets. Last night I put it on for the first time in it’s full, freshly laundered, glory. I dug out the switchblade knife I have been keeping in my nightstand (in case The Bishops want to start some shit) and I came out to the kitchen to see what my wife thought. She laughed. Laughed? It wasn’t really the response I was looking for. I mean, this is a real fucking leather jacket! (Yeah!) But while she was laughing, she also took off her bra. It was like she did it without even thinking. I don’t even know if she knows why she was taking it off. It just happened. Dang, the first time I put on a real leather jacket and the first girl I see immediately whips off her bra. I knew it!

Meditation Myths

meditation myths
Meditation is an essential practice for those looking to become more conscious in life. However, there are quite a few myths I often see which can result in some people avoiding it all together simply because they either can’t understand certain practices or they don’t seem to get the desired results. Let’s examine a few of these meditation myths.

Myth #1: It is Spiritual

Meditation is often married to the spiritual life and not without reason. The practice can seemingly lead to developing qualities considered desirable for a spiritual life: consciousness, awareness, peacefulness, openness, compassion, insightfulness, creativity, etc. However, many non-religious and non-spiritual people regularly practice meditation. Author, scientist and self-avowed atheist, Sam Harris, has taught a method of mindful meditation for several years. The benefit of having a non-spiritual capacity is that meditation can be incorporated into almost any lifestyle, whether spiritual or non. You do not have to change your beliefs to start meditating. Almost every religion has histories and traditions incorporating meditation. Even atheists and agnostics meditate.

Myth #2: It Involves Going Into A Trance

This may be the most widely believed myth and one that has inspired the most distrust by some religious people. Movies and TV shows often show people in a trance-like state while supposedly practicing meditation. This is due completely to a lack of understanding and poor research into the subject of meditation. Question anyone who says they go into a mind trance during meditation and suggest they actually learn how to meditate which they can then add to their developed, self-trancing skills if they wish.

Myth #3: It Involves Blanking Out Your Mind

Similar to Myth #2, this myth is believed by many non-meditators, but by a surprising number of practitioners as well. In fact, if you are not progressing at all in your meditation practice, it could be that your belief in this myth is the number one obstacle. The reality is, no one can “blank out” their mind. Meditation often leads to a more focused mind and less mental noise, but even experienced meditators know our minds do whatever our minds want to do. Beginning and intermediate meditators can sometimes harbor shame, based around their inability to control their mind. But successful meditation does not rely on the ability to control one’s mind. We meditate regardless of whether our mind is active or not. It makes little difference to us what the mind chooses to do. Inner stillness can be experienced in spite of an active mind. Let go of the impulse to control the mind and just observe it. That is true meditation practice.

Myth #4: Posture and Hand Positions Are Important

This myth kept me struggling for years. I could have very fulfilling meditations while walking or moving but when I sat cross-legged on the floor, I got nothing but cramps and knee pain. The truth is, there is no secret or “holy” position for meditation. The important thing is to be comfortable so you don’t have to think about your physical position. Laying down, sitting in a chair, driving a car and standing are all acceptable meditation positions. Walking, swaying and dancing are wonderful meditation positions as well. Experiment. There is no right or wrong answer. Do what works for you.

In photos of people meditating, I often see people holding their hands in a mudra. It’s another visual stereotype of meditation that I suspect is done without any knowledge of the meaning. In television shows, movies and photos, meditators can be shown sitting down with their hands in some stylized position: thumb and fourth fingers touching, palms pressed together or facing up to the sky, fingers in an “OK” position. These types of hand gestures, called mudra, generally have little to do with meditation and are symbolic, religious gestures with specific meanings in certain Buddhist and Hindu sects. In short, they aren’t necessary. If you need it, do it but most of us will not need it. Put your hands down in a comfortable position and you’ll do well.

Myth #5: It is Difficult

The most difficult aspect of meditation is overcoming the misleading myths and beliefs about it! Once you do that, however, you discover that meditation is one of the most natural life expressions. It is so natural, you may discover that you are not so much performing an activity of meditation, you are actually just taking the time to become consciously aware of the fact that you are always meditating!

Meditation is so natural and essential to our lives, we will unconsciously meditate even if we do not consciously do so. It could be argued that we are performing a type of meditation in our sleep. We will slip into meditative states throughout the day and receive ideas and inspiration we have no clue to as the origin. Those of us who wish to experience deeper results may choose to spend certain moments, consciously meditating. I challenge you to explore conscious mediation and see if you notice a difference in your own life experience.

You Are Not Your Mind

It is always a useful activity to keep in awareness the recognition that you are not your mind. If there is any constant “task” in the spiritual life it seems to be this. Human life, by it’s very nature, continually works to bring us into identification with our minds. It is this identification which brings about the sense of separation, aloneness and unhappiness that many of us struggle with on a regular basis.

Whenever there is an impulse to highlight differences between yourself and others, come into the awareness that it is your own mind that is initiating that impulse. Those impulses frequently arise during times we need an “ego boost.” For us to have a strong sense of individual existence, our mind needs to outline those things that seemingly make us different from everyone else. The differences may manifest as political, religious, regional or national. Some will find division in racial, sexual orientation or physical characteristics. In extreme examples, we will create an arch enemy to make ourselves even more superior. In every case, however, the differences are created and exploited by the mind to give the ego a more powerful sense of individuality.

When your mind activates to convince you that you are a being separate from the rest of the individuals {who are almost always more ignorant or inferior) it is displaying the same imperfection it is condemning in the others. Yes, we all seem to be different. We express the appearance of being individuals and, from the human experience, it is easy to convince ourselves this appearance is reality. In fact, we could say human existence is very much all about living the illusionary life of separation. But it is possible for us to do so while also keeping the truth in our consciousness. When dealing with those who live unconsciously chained to a belief of separation, it may even becomes necessary to occasionally act as if we are so. However, to look beyond appearance to the truth of being is the challenge of the spiritual life.

When the impulse arises to magnify differences in others, use the opportunity to look even deeper at the truth. Differences are mind-created and mind-exploited. Tomorrow we may have different beliefs than we have today and the differences we thought we saw yesterday will simply dissolve. Boundaries move, flags change and physical appearance is temporary. Recognize your mind and mental activity are not permanent. See that which is permanent and you will see others as they are in truth. Like a mirror, you will behold yourself.

Does Awareness Come From The Brain?

Q: Isn’t consciousness/awareness produced in the brain?

A: That which the brain produces constantly moves and changes. Over the course of your life, everything under the domain of the brain, including the brain itself, transforms. Comparing your life form at 2 years to you at 22 years and 42 and even 82, will reveal a life form drastically different. All of us look in the mirror and see a different person than we saw as a child. Even the thoughts that our brain/mind produces are not the same as those we thought when we were younger. Sometimes our thoughts can even change completely in a matter of hours. Our awareness, however, has never changed. While the objects of our awareness have changed many times since, the awareness itself is constant. When we think about our awareness in our youth, it seems no different than our awareness now. It feels ageless. Timeless. Unaffected by change or circumstances. How can a brain which is constantly changing and continually manufacturing movement and transformation, produce something that never changes?

The Journey Is An Illusion

The biggest deception in spirituality is “the journey.” Practically everyone participates in it to some extent or another. I’ve found myself many times over the course of my life talking about my own spiritual journey. How I got from where I was to where I am. And while it certainly seems that way, it’s nothing but an illusion. A big lie.

In the Christian scriptures, a rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he can do to follow him. Jesus tells him he should give all of his possessions to the poor, causing the man to walk away. He wasn’t able to give away the most important thing in his life in order to find God. To many of us who have a spiritual practice, it is our so-called spiritual journey itself that we would not be able to give up. I could reveal right here and now that the spiritual journey is a complete waste of time, and there would be so many who would simply walk away. The journey is too important to them to let it go.

Consider that it is “the spiritual journey” that financially sustains the entire religious and spiritual industry. If people realized there is no need for a journey, billions in revenue would be lost all over the world. Teachers, preachers, authors and gurus would be out of their jobs. Entire sections of bookstores would be completely wiped out. Religious television programs, enlightenment seminars and tent revivals would have no audiences. If the truth of this was accepted, all seeking would go away instantly.

Far be it from me to attempt to shut down a lucrative industry and put so many people out of work. But I think we’re okay here because I doubt many would believe it anyway. For the majority of my own spiritual life, I didn’t get it either. And even if I did, I’m not sure how much of a difference it would have made. I loved my spiritual journey. I believed it was a very large part of who I was.

Allow me to suggest this: the spiritual life is not about acquiring or attaining anything. It is not about perfecting yourself, purifying yourself or getting better at anything. While all of these things are the goal of most spiritual teachings, the reality is none of that stuff is important and, from a spiritual standpoint, are actually impossible. You cannot “get” more spirituality. You cannot “become more spiritual.” If spirit is infinite, how can there be more to have? You cannot get more infinity.

The supposed spiritual journey is nothing more than an illusion. It’s you discovering what you already are, what you already have. That illusionary appearance of something happening or that you are gaining something is similar to the illusion one sees when opening curtains to produce more sunlight. The full of the sunlight already exists but is revealed when the obstruction of the curtains are removed. For us, The fullness of Spirit/God is already present and when the obstruction of ignorance/unawareness is removed, it is only then that we can see it. Nothing is really happening but to our mind it seems to be.

I’m not necessarily advocating a complete abandonment of a spiritual practice. The structure of our society continually works to lull us back into unconsciousness so sometimes it takes something which seems like a “practice” or “journey” to keep us constantly aware. It is important to remember though that whatever we think or feel is happening, we are not going anywhere or gaining anything. We have the fullness of spirit where we are at all times. We cannot lose it. We can never be without it. It is that constant remembrance that is the true spiritual practice.