To make my living, to support my farm habit, I travel. I understand now what Leonard Cohen probably meant when he said, “They don’t pay you to sing. They pay you to travel.” People who don’t travel to make their living – that would be most people, probably – might imagine these few of us gliding through airports, quaffing frequent flyer wine, rising in the departure lounge (you can’t really call that thing a lounge) at the first soothing tones of that sweet invitation extended to Star, Elite and Super Elite Guests to leave it all behind and board first, before the wheezy elders and mothers struggling with babes in arms, before anyone needing a little extra time to board. I got bumped up, once. Whatever the satiny privilege of the thing, I wouldn’t again go for it, enduring the glares from the boarding better-late-than-never economy folks, the ones I fly with. Super Elite: a strange idea, stranger than ‘some are created more equal than others’, a place where the withering of the idea of America might be more naked than usual. Super Elite: The hell of the superlative, so many consumers in a trance of accomplishment. Maybe Super Elite is a mandatory overture to ‘And the first shall be last’, and as reliable a sign of the end times as the times require. Imagine there even being a Super Elite. Imagine trying to get there, and stay there. Maybe that’s what the idea of America has become.
The road has probably always brought out the best and the worst in people: hucksters and shysters preying on mendicants and lost souls, yes, but innkeepers too stooping to rash and guileless generosities at the appearance of wanderers or pilgrims or single parents at their door. Rumi they say advised each guest house-keeper of the soul to keep the door unlocked, ajar even, and admit all. It might be hard on the furniture and the bottom line, but he’s confident that the entire human circus won’t likely stay in your house, even should you invite them to do so.
And there are sobriquets to this effect, good ones, that advise extending a kind of radical hospitality to all ‘lest you be treating an angel unawares’, which is a wise bit of insurance in the business plan of life. Well, the truth is that should there be such a thing as angels (I am persuaded) you will treat one or two unawares, given the heavy disguise the road tends to impose on them. Likely too it is, if occasional, that you will be that angel, unawares, prompting that table fellowship with your wandering. Imagine being an angel unawares. Given how desecration prevails, and how the Gods like dormant seeds have wisely gone to ground to await more welcoming times, perhaps that’s the most common kind of angel these days.
I am in the midst – I hope I am somewhere in the midst, but perhaps not quite yet – of a self initiated teaching swath prompted by the sudden and unheralded appearance on St. Patrick’s Day of this year of a breezy little tome I wrote called Die Wise. I’ve taken to calling it The Mankiller Tour, for grueling reasons you could probably guess. Airport food has on occasion looked doable. I’ve crossed frontiers so many times, and appear to have achieved an age deemed innocuous to national security by those engaged in its protection, that I am often expedited, thrust to the front of the interminable X-ray lines, mistaken for someone super elite in inconsequence. I do intend consequence, but I haven’t corrected anyone on this matter. I am overlooked by the ruffians charged with protecting aviation. I am invited to participate in the current level of Alertness (yellow as of my last trip, if you are curious), and seduced regularly to report any suspicious activity I see, though I haven’t succumbed. I find those announcements – how they enthrone suspicion as the crescendo of good sense, self interest and patriotism – suspicious, but discretion and a desire not to blow my cover has restrained me from reporting it.
I have a number of road stories, and the one I’m thinking of this morning is the extraordinary privilege extended to me to appear in the midst of peoples’ ordinary lives as a kind of guest provocateur from afar. I am aided and abetted by the kindest of community organizers in each of the places I go. In a hand full of countries elsewhere, and in the several countries inside my own, I have been granted encounters with the ‘everyday’ of many peoples’ strivings and cares. It is an honour of the elevated kind, and it affords me a kind of radical education in the way it is for which I will always and gladly be the debtor.
I have learned by now that each of these places has a Book. It might be the same Book everywhere, for all I know. I haven’t seen it and don’t expect to, but so many people are quoting from it that the Book’s presence seems beyond dispute. Literate cultures ascribe an authority to certain of their books (and often to books in general) that they rarely ascribe to anything else. People quote the Book authoritatively and often and urgently. The Book itself has taken on an oracular, numinous hue in our time. You can tell that from the certainty that swells when the quotations circulate. And it seems to have a kind of integrity only cultures in thrall to the scribal and to the apocryphal bestow, and the places that invite me to appear in their midst are such places. Given how compelled people are by what it prescribes, I’ve come to call it the Book of Supposed To.
The Book of Supposed To underwrites the moral order of our days here in the dominant culture of North America, such as it is. Unlike my own practice, the Book of Supposed To doesn’t waste time describing things as they are, but goes directly to what you could call the mandate of heaven, the ‘how it all must be if anything or anyone half way decent is in charge’. Here’s the surprise: This minor book of mine seems to exert a kind of provocative, lunar draw upon that larger tome that I neither conjured nor anticipated. As the various moons do to the maternal orbs around which they hover, so Die Wise seems to prompt the Book of Supposed To. I have found that when I begin to talk about dying, about what has become of it in our time, the tolerance for any faithful witness to it isn’t broad or indulgent. I can tell the intolerance is out there, because at every gathering allegedly devoted to the project of articulating an orphan wisdom of dying I am asked instead to elaborate from the Book, to finger the bad guys and reward the good guys, to come across with the blueprint for what we deserve, to open up the current arrangement to all these ‘rights’ – to be pain-free, suffering-free, burden-free, awareness-free, death-free – that the Book of Supposed To carves out for us. Some of the more popular claims:
‘Kids aren’t supposed to die.’
‘I am supposed to get to vote on anything that concerns me.’
‘It’s not supposed to hurt.’
‘I’m supposed to be okay.’
‘You’re supposed to live as if you’re dying.’
‘It’s my life and I’ll do what I want.’
‘I’m supposed to be able to die how and when I want.’
In no time at all these gatherings are prodded to become staging areas for the demand to live, for exercising the right of utter self determination unto death, for being served an unbridled range of choices, for a kind of moral and ethical aloofness that masquerades as freedom and is untethered to anything beyond the antediluvian Self that this Book is dedicated to sustaining. There is nothing – and certainly nothing in Die Wise – that offers a comparable strategy for certainty that the Book of Supposed To is supposed to be. Though I haven’t really been ambushed by any of this, I admit that I’m surprised by how close to the surface it is in every place that grants me an audience.
So if you were read to from this Book as a young child (I certainly was), or if you are reading to children from it now in the belief that it will hold them in good stead later, then it isn’t likely that Die Wise will help shore up any of the ‘supposed to’s’ that won’t stand up to a little scrutiny. If I’m honest, most of the ideas in it will probably be disturbing. That’s what most of the testimonials I receive say about it: poetic when it is at its best, yes, but a hard read … and disturbing. And to fess up: in this book I’m offering nothing like The Book of Supposed To offers by way of a map to what you deserve. It more has the tone of a manifesto, an account of what is asked of you in a troubled time. It’s a book about dying, after all, so it isn’t surprising that it ends, more or less. But it may be surprising how it ends: as a supposed to-free zone. And Die Wise, like dying itself, proceeds as if we’re adults, elders in training, people who will soon enough, if not already, be needed by people half our age to stand and deliver. And should you by now be an elder in training: This isn’t a book I wrote for you. It is a book I wrote to you.
So I just wanted you to know that. Some of you have been very kind in your notes to me about Die Wise. I’m very grateful. I’m told too that the zany Marketplace of Attitude which is the Amazon book review includes a few offerings pro and con Die Wise. And there’s the Facebook (gads, another book), a running commentary of approval and disapproval, which I know the Orphan Wisdom site dallies with. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’ve got the goods on this dying business, or that I have a bunch of new supposed to’s to add to the mix. Interviewers try to pry those out of me, but I’ve run out. I’m down to questions now, and not much else.
If the Mankiller Tour doesn’t live up to its name and against the current odds I am spared and end up in your town with this book in tow before year’s end, I will without real justification probably lean on you for a little of that table fellowship, lost soul or mendicant or pilgrim or torch bearer that I am, and offer a bit of mystery of the human scaled – the mortal – in return. I hope that will do for now.
All honour to those who’ve so far made a place for this mortal wonder, and to those who may yet do so,