I had a recent dialogue with Abe about the nature of enlightenment. Towards the end, Abe wrote:
“Our correspondence reminded me of a secret cabbalistic teaching that is rather (un-) common sense: there is an irremovable veil between us and our happiness (redemption from suffering) and that is the physical nature of our life. Understanding the irremovability of the veil *is* enlightenment as “a journey of zero distance” (= from physical nature to the acknowledgment of physical nature).”
Abe quoted a talk on YouTube by Elliot R. Wolfson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yWg3q5ck4g
“First you have the material world, the political world, the world of the body. Then you come to say, that world is an illusion, it is a veil, because that which is really real is the infinite essence, but then you come to reappropriate that the world is—paradoxically—the infinite essence.
If ultimately the final lifting of the veil is recognized as the veil—the paradox is this is also the evaporation of mysticism, as in fact we are back here and it is existential. We are just here.
Unless mysticism is realising the ordinary is the extraordinary and not to escape from the ordinary.”
In my piece about The Counselor, I wrote that awakening is nightmarish because seeing one’s existence as a dream means it first turns into a nightmare. This has to do with our initial, visceral, “fight-or-flight” reaction to seeing the contents of the unconscious as they emerge into our awareness. By definition, those contents are unrecognizable, unpalatable, and essentially “hostile” to us. At the very least, they are overwhelming.
These past couple of weeks, leading up to Friday 13th, I have left the map and words—the designators of the known, of all that is familiar—are now failing me. I want to stick to the “facts,” but since “facts all come with points of view” (and don’t do what I want them to), I first need to decide which fact to begin with.
Once upon a time there was a house. The house was a happy place (if there is such a thing in this world), a family home. Over the years, however, it fell into disrepute and became a place of violence, despair, addiction, and disease. The house became an unholy ruin, destined for demolition. But one day, an Englishman came passing through the town, in search of a home, and decided to buy the house.
This isn’t a fairy story, even if it starts out as one. It’s a story about the stripping away of embellishments, of false surfaces, walls and floors, of illusions and unreal investments and expectations, to reveal what lies beneath. A tale of moving beyond the ordinary, the extraordinary, past the mundane and the mystical, to reach what is simply there.
Recruiting Joe, from Beyond Dirt, for the renovation project was my wife’s idea. She saw a truck for sale and suggested that I buy it for Joe so he could help us to move stuff and then he could pay for the truck by working with us on the house. It was a very loose arrangement, but it made sense to me at the time. I bought the truck for $1000 and got Joe insurance for roughly the same amount. I felt strange about it. I knew I might be making a mistake by not laying down clear terms, but I ignored those feelings.
I did try to indicate to Joe that we would both own the truck until he’d paid it off, but somehow I wasn’t able to get my point across. Since I don’t have a license to drive in Canada, I wasn’t quite sure myself what I wanted. And despite my misgivings, I felt good about getting Joe a truck. I had recently seen the movie Nebraska. In the final scene, the Bruce Dern character is meant to experience a kind of triumph when he drives the truck his son bought him through his old hometown. In the film the truck represented a kind of empowerment of the common man. Now I had “bestowed” a truck on Joe, and I felt benevolent. At the very least I had granted him mobility. (My father was a cripple, so maybe that had something to do with it?)
It’s easier to write about what I could or “should” have done than about what I actually did. Yet it all felt organic enough at the time. The agreement was that Joe would pay off the truck by working on the house. Simple. Once we started work (a few weeks after I bought the truck), I asked Joe what he thought was a fair exchange for the $2000 I’d paid for the truck and insurance. He said a month’s work. I agreed, having reached the same estimate with my wife. We didn’t discuss how many days or hours that would actually be, but I’d done a rough estimate and, if Joe worked a full week, it worked out at about $10-12 an hour. Not a princely wage but reasonable enough considering Joe had no other work.
The first couple of weeks were spent tearing down whatever had to go, walls and floors mostly, and piling it into a 40-yard dumpster. A little while after we began, Joe asked for some extra money to live on. He wanted a hundred a week plus $50 for gas. I didn’t see why I should pay for his gas, but at the same time I didn’t see any way around it. I considered suggesting Joe walk to work and bring a packed lunch with him, but I knew he wouldn’t like that idea, so I reluctantly agreed. I balked at a full $150, however, and gave him $125 for the first week. Once again, I neglected to make any clear stipulations about terms. I felt ambivalent about giving Joe more money (especially for gas), but rather than trying to determine exactly what that extra money was—was it expenses, pocket money, or extra wage?—and how (or rather if) he was also going to work it off, I focused on whether he really “needed” it. This put me in the extremely incongruous role of Joe’s parent. I didn’t really know why I was covering Joe’s costs, and it was never really discussed. It was simply assumed on Joe’s part, and reluctantly acquiesced to on mine.
I have some deep issues around money, and I found it almost impossible to be clear, straight, and businesslike with Joe. My father was a rich man; I was born privileged and have always felt ambivalent about it. Since I hadn’t earned the money I was given, I didn’t value it; worse, I associated it with my father’s inability to love or provide real support (he gave us money instead of love). It’s possible I have always seen money as a means to control others, or at least keep them at a distance. It’s also possible, likely even, that I used it that way too. That might account for how, when my heart was broken, the first thing I did was to give away my fortune. I knew the money allowed me to stay sealed inside a bubble, and I wanted to burst the bubble and let the world in.
Long story short, I felt guilty for, or at least uncomfortable with, having Joe as my “employee” (and my dependent). I was afraid of using the set-up to control him. The problem was compounded by the fact that, since it was Joe’s experience with renovations that we wanted, he was in the position of our leader. So it was as if we were working for him.
The truck had a faulty transmission. This was why we’d got it so cheap, but as a result it could only be driven in the first three gears and couldn’t make it up steep hills, so we were restricted to local trips. Yet one of the main reason I’d wanted a truck was to go to a nearby city and pick up cheap appliances and materials, via Craig’s List. A couple of weeks into the work, I decided to pay to get the truck fixed. At first it looked like it would cost another $2000 for a new transmission, and at that point I told Joe I wouldn’t be able to pay him $125 a week anymore. He misunderstood and thought it was because I didn’t like him eating at the restaurant every day. He began complaining, in a semi-jokey fashion, about how, whenever I wanted to cut back on costs, he was the one who got a cut in his pay.
When it turned out it was possible to fix the transmission for around $1200, I told Joe that, with the $800 I’d save, I could now afford to pay him $100 a week. After eight weeks, my expenditure would come to a $4000 total, covering two months’ work from Joe. This seemed a good solution for everyone at the time. In retrospect, Joe probably never understood my reasoning. It seemed like all he really cared about was getting his weekly cash-in-hand, and getting the work over as soon as possible.
Joe caught a cold in the second week and only worked a couple of days. In the third week, he caught pneumonia and had to stay home and take penicillin for a week. He’d been having trouble with his hands from all the teardown and from using power tools, and he had complained that they were feeling numb. Joe tended to over-exert himself at work, using the sledge hammer for hammering nails and working until he was sweating and panting. When he couldn’t work any longer, he would go and have a cigarette break. Joe was in a hurry to get the work done. At the start of the project, he predicted that we’d be ready to move in within two weeks. (It’s now just short of two months, with no end in sight.) He knew I had limited funds and saw this as a rationale for getting the job done as quickly and expediently as possible. It became apparent to both my wife and I, however, that Joe didn’t really like working and that he was trying to minimize the amount of work he would have to do. Every time we tore something new down, he complained that we were making more work for him. He didn’t seem to understand that he was only obliged to work a set time period, and that, within the budget, we were committed to doing whatever needed to be done to get the house into the best possible shape.
During the period Joe was sick with pneumonia, my wife and I discovered two important things. First of all, we found out that we were able to move forward, with some degree of competence, without Joe there to direct us (or give us a hard time). Initially, we’d needed Joe to come in and start tearing things down to give us a much-needed sense of direction and purpose—and a sense of what was possible. Without Joe’s initiative, we might still be staring at the walls, wondering where to begin. Once we followed his lead, it became easier and easier—not only the teardown, but the building up.
The other thing we realized, once Joe was temporarily out of the picture, was that some of the work he’d done wasn’t really that good. I found several studs which he’d nailed in to reinforce the walls were too short, and weren’t providing any support. A step which he’d added to the kitchen-to-garden door which I’d installed (my first carpentry job) was leaning into the house, so that when it rained, the water went straight under the door. I ended up having to redo or fix up jobs which Joe had done. I put it down to his being sick and overworked, but even so our confidence in his abilities was seriously undermined.
We felt bad that Joe had got sick, twice, while working for us. I guessed he was having intimations of his mortality, finding out that he wasn’t nearly as capable of heavy work as he used to be. There was also the psychological pressure. By agreeing to take part in our meta-project, had Joe unwittingly entered into an alchemical tornado of accelerated individuation? I told him he could take it easy when he came back, and take as many days off as he needed. Unfortunately, I forgot to mention that I might have to reconsider his weekly expenses if he decided to follow my suggestion.
By the time he got back from his bout with pneumonia, the first thing Joe did was to look at the work we’d done (besides more teardown and some small jobs, I’d built a bridge to reinforce one wall, and put some studs up to frame a new archway). He complained about the teardown and pointed out a mistake or two that I’d made. Although his criticism was accurate, I was annoyed by it because of all the mistakes he’d made, which he wasn’t even aware of. I didn’t want to respond with a defensive reaction, so I left it. When I eventually did point out the useless studs, he didn’t say anything. I didn’t mention the step I’d had to tear up and replace, mostly because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
What was increasingly clear was that Joe’s position in our little group had changed. We no longer saw him as the leader, but more of an employee. Joe obviously sensed it, and perhaps in an attempt to reassert his authority, he began to micromanage us, overseeing, correcting, criticizing, and trying to overrule our decisions every step of the way. It became exasperating: every time one of us suggested something, he seemed to want to fight us on it. At the same time, he was also complaining a lot, in a supposedly jokey way, most specifically about the money he was or wasn’t getting.
Then one morning when I was at yoga, he took my wife aside and hinted that I’d cheated him because I’d agreed to give him $150 a week and now he was only getting $100. I confronted him the next day about it and he seemed surprised, and a bit put out, that my wife had told me about it. We ended up drawing up a written contract, describing the terms of agreement. In other words, we closed the barn door, now the horse had bolted.
Immediately after the meeting, I suggested to Joe that, rather than give him $100 a week, I could pay him his expense money incrementally, for each day he came in. He said that he wasn’t a kid who needed pocket money. I explained that otherwise, if he ended up only coming in a couple of days, I would still have given him the full hundred, and I couldn’t afford that. He insisted he wouldn’t ever do that. He began to complain some more, at which point I raised my voice and told him I was tired of him constantly insinuating that I was cheap or that I was somehow cheating him. He backed down and I thought that, now I’d finally drawn a clear boundary for him to recognize, perhaps things would change.
Things changed all right: they got worse. That same week I confronted him, Joe ended up only working three full days (partly because we spent so much time negotiating, but also because he took time off). Realizing Joe had done exactly what he said he wouldn’t, I called him on Saturday morning and suggested he come in and make up for missed time. He reluctantly agreed, but I could tell he wasn’t happy. He didn’t show up all that day. On Sunday, I found a note at the house from him. On it were some figures, denoting the number of hours he claimed to have worked (a gross overestimate), combined with the wage which he’d decided he should be earning ($15 an hour; a professional contractor earns $20).
On Monday, Joe asked if we’d seen his note. We showed him our own figures: having kept a daily record of the hours he worked, we were able to demonstrate clearly that he hadn’t even worked a full month yet. Joe didn’t understand why I included the weekly payments to him as part of his wage. That money didn’t count, he said, since it was just for him to live on. Yet in his next breath, he argued that $100 a week was a paltry wage, as if that was all he was getting paid and the $3000-plus I’d put into his truck didn’t count. And despite our assurances that he’d only worked around three and a half weeks of the two months owed us, Joe insisted he had more or less paid off the truck.
It was a Kafka-esque nightmare of failed communications. I was unable to fathom Joe’s logic. It was like Charles Manson “no sense makes sense.” His arguments were so bizarre and illogical that they were crazy-making. He had somehow managed to convince himself of a version of events that put him squarely in the position of an exploited innocent, and us in the role of exploiters. I was so bewildered by the way he kept skewing the facts that in the end I blurted out that he was “a fucking conman!” It was more in exasperation than anger. I had thought Joe was an honorable man. He was acting more like a shyster.
By the end of the meeting, it was clear that there was no way to agree on any terms. Joe’s version of reality (and of what was fair and true) was completely at odds with our own. We had lost the ground. I said as much and my wife suggested Joe go home and we’d call him when we’d figured out how to proceed. He hadn’t been expecting that outcome, and he left in a slightly confused state.
The final confrontation scene took place, aptly enough, on Friday the 13th. Having mulled it over for several days, I had decided that, if Joe still insisted on his phony figures, my best option was to somehow wrest the truck away from him, pay him what he had actually earned, and terminate the working relationship. After he arrived, and having ascertained that Joe hadn’t changed his position, I asked him to go and get the truck papers. My strategy depended on my having had the foresight to put my name on the ownership papers and not his, but it dissolved before my eyes as I saw Joe’s name on the document. Legally, I didn’t have a leg to stand on.
I asked Joe if he felt like the work he’d done for us (roughly three weeks, mostly teardown, with some limited construction, including a large window in the kitchen) was worth $3,700 (the money I’d put into the truck and into Joe’s pocket). He said he did. At that rate, he was getting a thousand dollars a week, an hourly rate of around $30. And once again, Joe insisted that the money I’d given him didn’t count.
“A hundred dollars is nothing,” he said. Indignant, I asked him when the last time was that he’d had $800 in his pocket. He got defensive and replied that he hadn’t always been poor.
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I told Joe there was nothing I could do. I’d been dumb enough to trust him, and the truck was now his. Rather than earning it, however, I told him with furious emphasis that he had come into possession of it as a liar and a thief.
He was understandably upset, and got up to leave. He seemed more bewildered than anything. He stood in the doorway for several more minutes and maintained his position that he had earned the truck and that everything had been fine until we started talking about the hours—though in fact he had been the first to do so. Another thing he kept saying was that we thought we were better than him. It was clear that he felt we didn’t value his work and no longer considered him necessary. He was hurt and felt like we had turned on him in some way.
It was true enough that I did regard myself as more honest or “upright” than Joe. From our point of view, he had cheated us and tried to twist the facts around to conceal his deceit. Worse, his lack of integrity extended to his work. We weren’t just challenging Joe’s honesty, we were challenging his competence.
While Joe had been sick, I’d rebuilt a rotten floor next to the second bathroom. Although it was my first attempt at such a job, I’d done a better job than Joe had done on the first bathroom. In fact my wife had been suggesting, and finally insisting, that we take up Joe’s floor. I resisted the idea because it would mean not only a whole lot of extra work, but effectively wasting all that work we’d already done. The psychology of prior investment: we are forever throwing good money after bad.
It wasn’t until things began to go sour, and I started to see how Joe’s crazy-making, falsely constructed version of reality was reflected in his skewed, off-level floor (and his crappy joisting underneath), that I knew that the floor had to go.
Like any normal person, Joe didn’t want to have to work. Using the rationale that he was thinking of us, our limited budget, he had cut crucial corners and concealed it from us by relying on our inferior knowledge of the terrain. Actually, Joe could have built a decent enough floor at no extra cost, only it would have taken him longer. He ignored the fact that, if the floor wasn’t built right, it would cause us bigger problems later on. One of the first principles of Joe’s prospecting wisdom was that there are no short cuts, and that cutting corners only leads to bigger problems later on. Joe hadn’t been applying his “wisdom” to his work on our house. Apparently it wasn’t worth doing right, only getting done as quickly as possible.
I received a very clear illustration of this during the last week we worked with Joe. We were looking at the bathroom floor, then a mixture of the original house floor with the one Joe built. I suggested taking up some more of the original floor. Joe didn’t like the idea. He said we would then be able to see the condition of the beams underneath, and we might find out they were rotten and end up having to do still more work. I said surely it was better to know than not to know, since not seeing the rot didn’t mean it wasn’t there. Yet it was almost as if Joe believed that was the case. More likely, he knew that, if we saw it, we’d want to do something about it and that would mean more work.
Two days before Friday 13th, I was pulling up the floor that Joe had built and I did my back in.
A side note: It was only once I had finally decided to tear up Joe’s floor that I was able to see how messed up it actually was. Prior to that, I hadn’t let myself see it because (like Joe) I knew it would mean doing something about it. Like Joe, I was emotionally resisting seeing as a way to avoid undoing all that work and starting again.
Psychologically, this is how we all are. We can’t see what’s unconscious before addressing it. We have to be willing to take apart the false narratives even before we see how false they are; only then can we let ourselves see the falseness of them. Joe’s crazy-making stories forced me to see how un-straight he was, and that caused a visceral aversion in me to the work he’d done. After that I wanted—needed—to take up the floor that Joe built, to get free of his influence. Once I started doing it, I saw how un-straight the floor was. In that moment of seeing, more or less (as I struggled to pull out the massive nails Joe had hammered home with his sledge hammer), my back went out and I wound up temporarily crippled. Apparently that was the point I became fully identified with the (fallen) father.
My wife called Joe to come and take me to a chiropractor, but he never showed up. A couple of days later we tried to call him at home but his wife told us he wasn’t available. He showed up the next day, and we had the final showdown. Afterwards, I felt highly ambivalent. Actually I felt gutted, and not only by the loss of the truck/Joe, but also by the things I had said and done to Joe. Joe hadn’t left in arrogant defiance, more like a beaten man. The rest of that day, I had the recurring thought that it hadn’t been a “clean kill.” I had delivered a series of skillful blows to Joe’s fiction. I had pretty much torn it apart. But I took no satisfaction in it.
For some reason, my mind kept returning to a recent episode of Game of Thrones, “The Mountain and the Viper,” in which Prince Oberyn fights the Mountain to determine the fate of Tyrion, the noble dwarf who has been framed for slaying the king. Ostensibly, Oberyn fights to defend Tyrion; really he wants to avenge his murdered sister (the Mountain raped and killed her) and strike a blow against the Lanisters who he believes are also responsible. During the battle, Oberyn dances circles around the Mountain and overcomes him easily. But he makes a fatal mistake. Instead of finishing his opponent, he tries to force the Mountain to confess to his crime and incriminate the Lanisters. Blinded by his righteous anger, Oberyn steps too close to the wounded Mountain, and receives a shattering blow. The Mountain seizes Oberyn and pushes his giant thumbs into his eye sockets, then crushes his head. The scene haunted me for several days afterward, then returned to haunt me some more.
Like Oberyn, I was fleet of foot and skilled in the art of “war” (logical argument and intellectual debate). When it came to verbal combat, I could dance circles around Joe, whose mental capacity was on a level with the Mountain’s agility. Oberyn threw away his victory by trying to force a confession out of the Mountain; as a result he “lost face”—literally—and was ignominiously defeated. After the encounter with Joe, I wondered if I’d suffered a similar fate. I had proven my prowess, but so what? He still had the truck, and I was left with the crushing realization that I’d set myself up to be exploited. Perhaps worse, there was the possibility that I’d unconsciously set Joe up as the exploiter. (I got the fiercest déjà vu as I wrote those words.)
Joe is, or was, my wife’s oldest and even only friend in town. He was her gold prospecting mentor and she has spoken highly of him to me on many occasions—no doubt a key reason why I put so much trust in him. If Joe was an obvious father figure for my wife, now I have to consider the possibility that I had deliberately (albeit unconsciously) set out to expose his lack of integrity, or straightness, to her. Something similar had happened with John de Ruiter—only this time I had been more “successful.” But there was a price: in the process of exposing Joe, I had also exposed myself for wanting to expose him.
Oberyn’s defeat at the hands of the Mountain wasn’t only horrific because of how brutal it was, or even how unnecessary (Oberyn fell prey to his own overconfidence more than anything). It was also because the fate of Tyrion, easily the most likeable character in Game of Thrones, hinged upon it. As a loveable, fiercely intelligent dwarf, Tyrion is the inner man of this metanarrative. He’s a Lanister, and hence (like the Mountain) aligned with the evil empire; but his fate hangs in the balance precisely because he is struggling to individuate, to break free of family influence and become his own man. For me to battle with Joe to get free of the internal stranglehold of the “empire” (represented by my father’s money, which essentially I am still using, now to restore this house, even though it came from my mother after her death), makes about as much sense as two men fighting to the death to determine the innocence or guilt of a third. For as long as we play by the rules, we remain playthings of the empire called Ego.
It’s been a dark week, but there have been rays of light in the darkness. Working with my wife to restore “levelness” to the ground (in Pluto’s toilet realm, where our shit must someday go). Spending time with my cat. Skype meetings with the Oshana group. And throughout it all, there has been the ongoing challenge of that floor.
While I am working on it, I curse and rail at every nail, consumed by fury, exhaustion, exasperation, resentment, and despair that threatens to consume me, but not daring to stop in case I become paralyzed with uncertainty. Then, after I quit work and come home, the floor follows me there. My mind wanders back to it with fondness, excitement, anticipation, the thrill of the challenge. It’s like I can’t wait to get back to the struggle. As a child, working on model airplanes, I experienced total immersion and a sense of purpose. The enjoyment of it and the gravity of it were inseparable. It may have been that long since I felt this way, at least in a way that’s real and not the result of inflated ego or messianic delusions.
As the struggle continues, I am becoming more conscious of receiving help and guidance from without and within. This project only seems like building a bathroom floor. That’s the illusion. Really, we are relating to the infinite essence of our psyche-souls, preparing the way for them to land, fairly and squarely, into life. There is no bathroom floor—until there is.
It’s a nightmare facing up to how not-level the underlying structures of this floor-to-be are. Corresponding to that, I am coming to understand how out of alignment the deeper layers of my being have been rendered through trauma, how they have made it impossible to build a foundation to stand on in my life, to even get to the first step of a clean life in this world—to enter into a space where I can put away my shit and be cleansed.
In the midst of this nightmarish awakening, of course I had to slay the father within; and of course, I was slain by the act of slaying. It wasn’t a clean kill—how could it ever have been? If I was straight to begin with, it would never have been necessary to kill (to reenact the original betrayal). Put differently, the manner in which I exposed Joe’s lack of straightness to him (and my wife), revealed my own lack of straightness to myself (and my wife). There are consequences, and some of them are regrettable. (It’s unlikely Beyond Dirt will ever be completed now, and I have withdrawn the first part from circulation, at least until these developments settle into some sort of emotional coherence.)
Then again, however rotten the foundation may be—it’s better to know.
The journey of zero distance takes me from physical reality to accepting physical reality. With acceptance, comes transformation—not of reality but of my relationship to it. Then what was two, becomes one. What was (or seemed) crooked—becomes straight.
That’s all. Now I need to find out what becomes of Tyrion.