death. week 15.

date. 2022

city. syros

Image by Inés Álvarez Fdez

July 13

 

I arrived in Greece yesterday; I’ll be here for a couple weeks. After spending a month with friends across Europe, this will be a vacation from vacation. Just me, a small island, and the wide open sea.

 

I was guided to Greece by Leonard Cohen (my favorite prophet). He spent a lot of time on Hydra, and I guess I’m curious what it was that he saw here.

 

I’ve been listening to his music (as well as Dylan and Joni) and reading Homer’s Odyssey.

 

Except today I cheated and read Ginsburg’s Kaddish. It’s the first piece of his that’s captivated me.

 

———

 

So much suffering in the world. It’s unimaginable. I can only thank my parents for bearing the brunt of it, so I wouldn’t have to. Yet.

 

How can I ever smile

When Imma will one day die?

 

I live atop a pile of death. All that once lived is now dead. I look around, and see the graveyard of existence.

 

What am I to think of death? The word itself says enough. Death death death.

 

Emet and Met are nearly identical. Distinguishable only by the little letter aleph. E-met. I die. E-met. I am dead. E-met. I am death.

 

Truth = death

 

We’ve all heard enough about the death of Truth. Tell us more about the truth of Death.

 

What secrets does the sea contain? What horrors does it shield from my gaze?

 

Where on Syros does death go to live?

 

Is she lurking out on the endless blue horizons?

Is she gliding across the barren desert hills?

Is she tumbling in the restless winds?

 

Or is she hidden in my own lonely silence?

 

Vacation is the epitome of the death drive.

 

No more Dylan. Today, I’m drowning in Neil Young.

 

And on the seventh day god rested from all the work that he had performed.

 

And he sanctified it.

 

 

July 15

 

The Odyssey (6, 77):

 

I beg you for help, my lady. But tell me first — are you a goddess or are you a mortal woman? For never have I set eyes on any mere mortal, man or woman, as beautiful, lady, as you are. I am overwhelmed with awe as I gaze upon you. The only time that I ever saw something as lovely was in Delos: a slender young palm tree that grew besides Apollo’s alter — my travels had taken me there with an army, although the expedition was doomed to end very badly — and when I saw it, I marveled for a long time, so magnificent was that tree.

 

In just the same way, my lady, I am now seized by wonder and veneration as I behold you and I dare not clasp your knees as a suppliant, though my misery is extreme.

 

So have pity on me, my lady. You are the first person that I have met after all these hardships, and I don’t know a soul here. Show me the way to the city and give me a rag to put on, if only the cloth that served as the wrapping for those fine garments of yours.

 

I pray that the gods will grant you your heart’s desire, a good home and a good husband, and harmony between the two of you. Nothing is sweeter than that, when a man and woman can live together as one, with one mind and heart. It confounds their enemies, gladdens their friends, but they know it best themselves.

 

-

 

My life is best conceived of as a lullaby toward death.

 

It is a truism, stated by all the great traditions, that every instant contains eternity. Every particle holds the infinite.

 

The Torah has seventy faces.

 

When I open my eyes and my heart to the world around me, death, suffering, darkness close in on me from every side. They present their many faces to me. They look me in the eye, daring me to look away. They sneer at me, confident in their hold on my life, a power that consumes everything in their path.

 

I speak of a ‘they’, a plurality of forces, but in reality there is just the one.

 

I look into the face of the person beside me. I read a history of pain imprinted there.

 

My airbnb host, Victor, has a scuba tank up against his living room wall. It belonged to his dad, a man driven by adventure. He died 7 years ago from a motorcycle accident. A broken rib pierced his organs, leaving him to a rapid and painful death.

 

Victor still hasn’t learned to scuba dive. Instead he holds his breath and free dives down to 15, 20, 25 meters where he goes spear hunting.

 

This morning we sat on his porch, talking about the sea. I told him about how helpless I feel in the water, held in its powerful grip. I enjoy discovering my balance there, somewhere between surrender and support. It feels like I’m being cuddled by god.

 

Victor told me about his favorite memory. When he was 7, he went to the beach with his parents but the waves were very tall and he was afraid to go in.

 

His father took him by the hand, drew him to the water, and told him not to fight the water, but to let it guide him. He told him to just give in to it and he’d be fine. As they went deeper in, his dad let go of his hand, and as the wave pulled him high into the air he looked down upon his mother. He remembers that “she looked like an ant.”

 

Victor spent his summers in Syros since he was 3 years old, but now he is all alone here. Surrounded by the barren hills, the crashing sea, and the pouring wind. He makes keychains from the pebbles and sea shells that he gathers from the shore. (He gave me one.)

 

I told him that he’s a philosopher. Or a monk.

 

He laughed at me. Said that he has to fill the time somehow.

 

The tattoo on his arm reads: NEVER BACK DOWN

 

 

———

 

 

I feel myself

perched

At the edge

Of insanity.

 

I linger

Undecidedly

At that border between sweetness and shuddering.

 

Why must bliss join with tears?

Between ecstasy and emptiness

Lies nothing at all.

 

———

 

The moon is full

And you are missing.

 

Why does beauty bring out our loneliness?

Why must it always remind us that there is no one to share it with?

Why does beauty (like ugliness) insist on being shared?

 

We, like Adam, are cursed to find ourselves

In the Other.

 

Only the lullaby can exist on its own.

Only the lullaby can live in private.

The lullaby flows when beauty learns to be alone.

 

But does not the prophet say, “It is not good for man to be alone?”

 

The lullaby cannot lead toward life. It marches toward death.

 

Back in Israel, Dovi wondered why people are so afraid of going to hell, when that is where we already live.

 

I could say the same for heaven.

 

 

———

 

 

I am lost in thought.

 

I look around and am given no direction. Shall I wander for forty years?

 

I have only one true desire: women. But desire, the Buddha reminds me, leads only to suffering. Ha, we’ll see about that!

 

I’m not successful enough to retire just yet.

 

But what about reading? Talking? Learning? Traveling? Music? Aren’t these also desires?

 

Not exactly. I desire the state of mind that those provide me with. In other words, I desire myself while I’m doing those things.

 

With women, I am snatched out of myself, spun out into the world. For once, I desire someone else. Women don’t make me feel good. And still I want them. Actually, when they are around, they are the only thing I want.

 

I can pretend to read or write or talk or listen or laugh. But make no mistake. I’m thinking about her. Perhaps the sweetest lullaby of all is the sound-feeling of the breath. When all else fails, the breath, my breath, is always there to comfort me.

 

 

July 16

 

I went diving today on the west side of the island. It was my first dive in a few years and although I was calm going into it, as soon as I sunk beneath the surface, I felt fucking terrified.

 

I couldn’t catch my breath. I spent the first 10 minutes trying not to have a panic attack while we plunged down a hundred or so feet. (“Wait until you’re back above water to panic!”) I then had like 10 minutes of calm (“this is fun, isn’t it??), before I had to chase down the other divers up ahead.

 

Plus my regulator kept coming out of my mouth. No fun.

 

Remind me why I do this? Remind me why I keep coming back for more.

 

Flashbacks to my relationship with drugs and women.

 

We dove around an ancient shipwreck for a while. You couldn’t really make out the ship itself but it was okay. Pottery was sprinkled all down the slope. (Back in the day, if you didn’t pay your import taxes, they’d throw your shit overboard. Kind of sucks for them, but it made for a cool dive.)

 

I made the mistake of going for a run a few hours before the dive. It was meant to be a short run, but I took a wrong turn and ended up a mile or two away from home. An old Greek guy on a motorcycle saw me struggling on the side of the highway so he picked me up, praise his soul.

 

Anyways, that didn’t mix all that well with the deep dive, and I felt like I was going to pass out as soon as we arrived back on the surface. I spent the boat ride back to shore hugging myself and sipping water.

 

I could barely walk, so once we arrived back to the dock I went for lunch with Sean (a former army doctor) and this other woman (a former air force nurse) even though I’m pretty sure Sean wanted to be alone with her. I let them talk and just sucked on cold watermelon. (All they seemed to talk about was sex and death, so it was entertaining enough.)

 

As soon as I got home I stripped off my clothes and passed out in bed.

 

It’s hard to be miserable on a Greek island. But I sure am trying my best.

 

 

July 17

 

It’s funny how even after a perfect week, once the hard times set in, it’s as if it’s been this way forever.

 

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

 

I don’t think that I’ll ever learn how to avoid these sudden plunges. I don’t think I even want to.

 

I’m convinced that happiness is not the same as joy.

 

Happiness, as Aristotle tells us, is more like living well. Being good. The ethics. Or the aesthetics. Living up to yourself. Relinquishing to your full potential.

 

Self acceptance. Or as Nietzsche puts it, learning to be what you already are.

 

Why run away from sadness? Do I wish to be un-human? Un-real? Un-feeling?

 

I doubt very much that any movie that does not display the full range of human sadness will ever win an Oscar. Maybe my life can win an Oscar too.

 

Is it easier to be sad in a beautiful place? Not at all. It pins all of the blame onto me. I alone am the source of my misery. I bear the full burden of my own discontent.

 

Should I seek an escape? It’s easy enough, if I choose.

 

No, not yet.

 

I didn’t choose to be sad, but it doesn’t scare me away. I have learned a lot from sadness, after all. She deserves my gratitude.

 

I suppose that in my own way I still perform human sacrifice.

 

I think I’ll pack up some breakfast and go for a quick dip in the sea. Maybe these waters have strength to purify one last soul.

 

 

12 hours later

 

The early afternoon was spent drinking coffee with Victor out on his terrace. Like me, he’s been feeling down, is we made a good pair.

 

He told me about his childhood (for my writing, he said), about how his father would beat him, how helpless his mother was, how he tried to kill himself (three times), and his struggles with dyslexia, ADHD, and depression.

 

After his father passed away, he began to host the Airbnb on Syros and while it was difficult to be alone, he at least felt that he had found something; somewhere to start over and begin to build.

 

He began going to therapy, practicing tai chi, and made some good friends.

 

I spoke to Victor about Jerusalem, dreams, and the afterlife. Victor told me about the Tao. And auras. And astral projection.

 

I told him that I knew he was a monk from the minute we met. He just laughed again.

 

He described the time when he left his body and hovered around his house. He told this to his tai chi master, who looked at him and laughed. A knowing laughter.

 

Is that becoming a trend?

 

Just a few months ago, I would have rolled my eyes internally. But now… who knows what’s real? Just hearing him speak, I was thrown into a reverie. I run my fingers over the edge of the table, feeling the rough wood scrape against my skin, keeping my mind from spiraling off into the distance.

 

Victor thinks I’m just scared. I told him that I agree. I’m scared shitless.

 

We both made a friend.

 

I told him about my lullaby idea, and he shared a story of his own lullaby.

 

He had been working in Athens, saving up money so that he could serve in the army, when one night he stopped at a kiosk to buy some red bull. The cashier was reading a book, and they started a conversation. Victor described him as a ‘real life guru’. They stayed up all night talking and when dawn broke, his new friend brought him down into a cave that ran beneath the city. They smoked a bit of weed, and climbed deeper into the tunnel. (According to Victor, Athenians used this tunnel system during the war to evade the Germans.)

 

The roof of the cave was punctured with tree roots from the street above. Drops of water, clinging to the exposed wood, glistened like stars.

 

They lit a candle, and at this point in the story, Victor’s face begins shining as well. He asked his friend if he could be alone, and then spent the rest of the morning climbing around the underground cavern.

 

He describes those minutes of wonder and exploration as the best moments of his life. He describes those moments as his lullaby.

 

 

———

 

 

After lunch, I drove over to Vari Beach.

 

It really is beautiful here though. Children play all along the shore. Splashing in the water, digging in the sand. So busy, so free. Children truly are the perfect antidote to death.

 

 

 

July 18

 

My journal is a secret place for secret thoughts.

 

Why do I refuse to give up? Why do I continue to insist on my own existence?

 

I know very well that I am better off without me.

 

I don’t live for myself. I can’t live for myself. I live for others. I write for others. Fuck, I even think for others. I exist for others.

 

Is it good to exist? I doubt it. Here’s a proof:

 

P1: God is good.

P2: God does not exist.

C: It is good not to exist.

 

I glance over my shoulder. Are the girls watching?

 

What am I afraid of? That I won’t be accepted? That I’ll be laughed at? That I’ll be hated?

 

No. I’m not afraid of others, I’m afraid of myself. So stop! Stop being yourself. Right now. Stop. Just stop.

 

You don’t have to make mommy proud anymore. Isn’t that the point of unconditional love?

 

It’s impossible to earn a gift.

 

I’ve always been afraid of letting myself down. Since I was a little boy, when people would ask me what my greatest fear is, I’d say, “wasting my potential.” I always believed that I had a higher calling, never feeling at home in my own skin, in my own mind. But why turn my sickness into a manifesto?

 

I want to talk to god like my Grandpa Abraham did. I want to sleep with lions like Daddy Daniel did. But god no longer exists and lions live in the zoo.

 

Some Rebbe said that there’s nothing as full as a broken heart. Whatever the fuck that means.

 

Death! I’m worrying about death. When I really should be worried about living.

 

No job. No home. No love. No children. Just a broken banjo bobbing on a shark infested sea.

 

Am I too harsh on myself? What’s my point? Damn, I’m still trying to impress the girls, aren’t I?

 

Shit. Fuck. Cum. Piss. Okay, that should scare them away.

 

The setting sun throws my shadow out across the sand. The only real evidence that I actually exist, that I’m not a figment of someone’s imagination.

 

It’s not all that bad though. The French invented the bikini, one last proof that god doesn’t exist. There’s no way in hell that he’d put up with that kind of competition.

 

Sex and religion will always be tied together. Women, like god, hold the promise of intimacy.

 

If prophecy exists, it surely speaks in the voice of a woman.

 

“Come to me,” she says. I mindlessly obey.

 

Religions were invented by men in an attempt to escape from the woman’s command. They were doomed from the outset.

 

Is it patriarchal to worship women? A better question would be, is it idolatry to worship god?

 

I’ve already lost god. Must I lose women too?

 

That, surely, would be a tragedy.

 

 

———

 

 

Today was the first day in a long time that I stopped trying to be productive. I just watched baseball and napped all day.

 

Stopped by Victor’s for coffee and stayed for hours on his porch chatting about nothing and everything. In the evening, I visited Kini Beach (on Victor’s recommendation).

 

He said it would be easy to get to and be protected from the wind. It was neither. Actually, part of the reason it was so hard to get there was because the wind kept shoving me off the road!

 

I got incredibly lost and by the time I arrived the sun was already setting. The sand was being kicked up by a ferocious wind.

 

I’m gna kill Victor.

 

 

July 18

 

Some thoughts on loneliness:

 

I always assumed that loneliness is the discomfort we feel when being with ourself. But it’s actually the opposite.

 

Loneliness is the discomfort we feel when we lose ourself. Loneliness occurs when we cease to exist.

 

Let me explain.

 

On an average day, the people, places, and things around us are constantly providing us with directions. Go here. Say that. Enjoy this. They tell us how to feel, what to think, and what to do. Our social fabric provides us with an ethic; a way to behave, a position to fill, a path to walk.

 

Usually, we accept these roles and patterns, and come to identify with the persona they uphold.

 

When we are alone, however, these constant pressures and expectations are no longer around to provide us with guidance, and with their dissolution the person we think we are disappears as well. In other words, my personality is a social construct, erected by the people around me. I come to exist through the eyes of others. They treat me in such a way that I can do nothing but comply. I am eager to comply. It comes as a relief. I think nothing of it.

 

Until I’m alone.

 

In losing touch with others, I cannot help but lose touch with myself.

 

And out of that unbearable vacuum arises loneliness.

 

As Heidegger already pointed out 100 years ago, it’s not enough to ‘be there’, we must also ‘be toward’.

 

 

———

 

 

What on earth will I do once all my plans fail?

 

If there’s anything that this Greek trip has accomplished, it’s that it has beaten me into total submission. Each day begins with hope and ends in disappointment. No, even my attempts to remain hopeful have failed. I’ve used every tool at my disposal, but some things refuse to be fixed.

 

Some people cut themselves to feel alive. I have my own, more subtle ways. I never could stand the sight of blood.

 

 

July 22

 

I worked all morning and then went to Agathopes beach to read and swim.

 

I’m beginning to develop some ideas around the Odyssey.

 

For example, unlike the Bible, the Odyssey begins after “the home” has already fractured. We enter the story with the father exiled on a foreign island, leaving behind a grieving wife and lost son.

 

The story, then, is one of return, redemption, and discovery.

 

This reflects the state we each find ourself in upon reaching intellectual/emotional maturity. We first discover ourself lost. And over the course of our life, we attempt to return home. A home we barely remember, but a home nonetheless.

 

(Society, of course, does this on a larger scale.)

 

But there’s a catch. Odysseus does’t just find himself marooned (for 20 years); he is being held captive by a beautiful goddess who promises him a life of pleasure, wealth, and comfort.

 

Odysseus refuses this, of course. He just wants to go home.

 

“I know it as well as you do - that Penelope isn’t as tall as you or as lovely. And yes, she is only a woman, while you are immortal and will never grow old. I know that. Yet even so, I can’t help longing for home. And if some god does wreck me during the voyage, I shall endure it. Before now I have suffered many, both on sea and in war, and if I must suffer another hardship, so be it.”

 

Similarly, Penelope has a dream of her husband’s return: 20 white geese (her suitors) who she loves very much are slaughtered by an eagle (Odysseus).

 

No less than 20 loves must be slaughtered, sacrificed on our journey home.

 

But why has Odysseus been cast away from his home in the first place? On the surface, we are told that he left home in pursuit or glory and fame (in the battle for Troy).

 

But when he finally arrives home, disguised as a poor beggar, his maid recognizes him by the scar on his leg. The scar he received as a young boy.

 

Homer highlights the importance of this scar by going to great lengths to relate the backstory of how Odysseus earned his name.

 

It’s implicitly assumed throughout the first 19 chapters of the book that his name reflects the odyssey that he must undertake. But no. In chapter 20 we learn that Odysseus’s grandfather was the most successful thief on the planet. When Odysseus was born, it was his grandfather who named him after his own odious reputation. Get it? Odysseus… odious…

 

Odysseus, the author tells us, inherited an odious burden from his ancestors. It was during a visit to his grandfather’s home that he acquired his scar (while hunting wild boar).

 

 

————

 

 

As usual, I spent most of the afternoon staring at girls on the beach. But this time, rather than fighting it, I used it as an opportunity to meditate on desire.

 

Desire: an urge to extinguish discomfort. To desire an apple, for example, is to wish that a certain sensation that I feel in relationship with apples should be eradicated. Desire always prefers nothing over something. If we are successful in banishing the desire, we call that satisfaction.

 

Curiosity: an urge to turn something potential into something actual. To be curious what it is like to visit the moon, for example, is to be dissatisfied with the mere potential of being on the moon. Curiosity demands actualization.

 

In this sense, desire is always a death wish, even if the object of desire is life itself. While curiosity is always a life wish, even when the object of curiosity is death itself.

 

Desire is born of suffering. Curiosity is born of wonder.

 

P.S. Now that I’ve written this down, it occurs to me that curiosity is not its own category, but is rather a specific form of desire. This must be the case, insofar as curiosity is capable of driving one to action. That is, if I am curious what it is like to visit the moon, it is also the case that I now desire to visit the moon. Once the moon has been visited, my curiosity (like any desire) will be satisfied.

 

It seems better, then, to distinguish between desires that seek to return and desires that seek to progress.

 

The former kind use their object to obtain satisfaction, while the latter integrate or become the object.

 

The former is concerned with the self (preservation), the latter with the other (growth).

 

Desires always lead back into yourself. Curiosity moves you forward, into the unknown.

 

I had this idea at the beach of meditating while under water. I wondered what kinds of ideas would come to me while submerged, unable to breathe.

 

It turns out that I just had one recurring thought: “I really want to breathe.”