card designed by Amy Berkowitz for Job Fair, an upcoming
performance event organized by Oakland collective The Third Thing
So, you’re in pain. Every time you sit down to write, you get a crick in your neck, a pinch in your shoulder, an ache in your forearm, your fingers go numb. Maybe it started at work, but now it’s infecting your free time, your time, your art. You know it’s not good. Maybe you’ve tried wearing a wrist brace. Maybe you told your boss. Maybe it got so bad you had to quit your job and your nice boss talked you out of applying for workman’s comp because it would raise the price of insurance for that nice non-profit arts organization you work for. Maybe you went to the doctor, but they told you there wasn’t anything you could do except stop; stop writing, stop playing music, stop drawing, stop filling out that excel sheet for work so you can pay your rent so you can afford to live in this city that wants so badly to price you out to make way for more folks who’s bodies will be exploited and ravaged by their computers and personal electronic devices. It’s not good, but it’s not the end. Let’s talk about it.
For this post, I’ve asked the help of my dear friend and colleague, Amy Berkowitz. Amy is the author of the book, Listen to Her Heart (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2012), editor of Mondo Bummer, host of Amy’s Kitchen Organic reading series, and gets her necessary cash working as a freelance writer. Amy and I have had many conversations about chronic pain over the years, since we both deal with it ourselves, so we decided to co-interview each other about our experiences as poets who’s writing is often mitigated but also inspired by pain, and the division of what physical capacity we have between our work as paid laborers and our work as artists. In fact, we cannot have a conversation about pain and writing without talking about work. Here we are having a real-live conversation on my couch in Oakland that we later shared the task of transcribing for reasons that will become obvious very soon:
Lindsey Boldt: I just heard Amy Berkowitz’s shoulder pop!
Amy Berkowitz: Yeah.
L: Does your body make a lot of noise?
A: That shoulder pops loudly in a way that startles people, but other than that I think it cracks a normal amount.
L: My shoulder is a bit loud too.
A: Do you want to get it on tape?
L: I don’t think it’s quite as loud as yours. I can hear it but it’s more of a grinding, of gristle…my acupuncturist actually used the word “gristle” last week.
A: That’s disgusting.
L: Yeah, it was kind of upsetting. She’s great otherwise!
L: So, Amy, when did you start having pain?
A: I was doing some market research work that required a lot of data entry with precise mouse clicking and using the number key pad and it resulted in pretty bad shoulder pain and pre-carpal tunnel: muscle spasms in my shoulder and some amount of numbness in my wrist. And then, long story short, I experienced a trauma, and the morning after that, I had pain all over my body, and that was eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia. I’m still living with that chronic pain and I also have to be aware of avoiding repetitive motion like I was doing in that job because that would aggravate the pain more.
L: Does that affect the kind of labor you can do?
A: Definitely. There have been a few jobs that I wasn’t able to do because of pain. I was going to work at Whole Foods a few years ago but had to quit to avoid a repetitive stress injury from bagging groceries. I also had to leave another job where I was doing data entry. Anyway, I am currently a freelance writer and it’s a little frustrating that my work-work uses the same part of my body as my art-work (and I know you have the same situation yourself), but I have been able to make it work. I’m using the word “work” a lot. It helps that I have some amount of flexibility as a freelance writer and some freedom to work remotely in settings where I have more control of the ergonomic setup of my desk. It also helps that I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about how to sit at my computer in a minimally damaging way.
L: You were saying earlier that when you’re working from home you feel more comfortable taking breaks and getting up to walk around.
A: Yeah, it seems more natural. At an office, even at an office where people are encouraged to live healthily, I feel like I’m being distracting if I get up and walk through rows of desks every 25 minutes as my physical therapist suggested.
L: Let alone do stretches.
A: Yeah, I’ve never seen anybody stretch at their desks.
[Here’s an excerpt from Amy’s book, Tender Points, which is forthcoming from Timeless Infinite Light:
It’s 2010 and my boyfriend’s bed is like a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Brown comforter and pillow and tan sheets the exact color of peanut butter. He makes me omelets with expensive ingredients and buys me a record player for my birthday. This, I think, is care.
I’m having a hard time finding a job because I just moved to the city and because my disability substantially narrows my options. Avoid repetitive motions. That’s kind of the definition of a job, repetitive motions.
The temp agency called it administrative slash data entry, but it turns out to be pure data entry. I’m entering data from massive binders of handwritten medical records into a series of online forms. The data is so thick with abbreviations that I have no idea what any of it means.
It’s a terrible office, with low, square-tiled ceilings; everything beige and dusty. I sit in a cubicle on a mostly deserted floor. I scavenge the empty cubes for thick reference books and a cardboard box so I can make a monitor riser and a footrest and approximate an ergonomic setup.
Despite these interventions, I can’t physically tolerate the work. By my fourth week, my wrist feels tight and numb as it hovers above the ten-key. I try wearing a brace, but it doesn’t help. I tell my supervisor, and within the hour, I get a call from the temp agency informing me that the assignment is over.
That night, I am a fucking mess. I’m angry at my body, I’m angry at the temp agency, I’m angry at the man I blame for this pain. And I’m overwhelmed thinking: how the fuck I’m ever going to support myself.
And my boyfriend says: “Well, don’t wallow in it. That’s not going to help. Just pick yourself up and get back out there.”
These are the words of a little league coach but I am not a little league team. I am a grown person with a disability.
After that, his bed doesn’t look like a giant piece of chocolate anymore. It looks like a bed.
L: You were saying that you’ve been able to strike a balance between your work life and your artistic life and have been able to have enough energy, but also lack of pain after work, to go home and be able to work on your own writing.
A: I can say that if I’ve been sitting all day at work with hunched over shoulders, for whatever reason, and having to use the mouse a lot to click into small fields I’m not going to go home and have the ability to open up my computer again and write a poem. I think it is possible if you’re really careful with how you use your body when you’re doing paid labor to feel energetic and ready to work when you get home.
Have you read about the “Spoon Theory”? Well, I’m very critical of it, but I think it’s useful. It was created by somebody with an invisible illness; I believe she has lupus. She was at a diner with a friend, trying to explain what it was like to live with her chronic illness. In a moment of exasperation and inspiration, she got up from their table and ran around the diner, gathering a dozen spoons. She handed them to her friend and explained that the spoons represented the finite amount of energy that someone living with a chronic illness has every day. She asked the friend to describe her daily routine, and took away spoons as she did various tasks. One for taking a shower, one for getting dressed, etc. Finally the friend was left with only six spoons, and she hadn’t even made it to work yet. Basically, it’s the one way that people with invisible illnesses have to talk about their limited energy levels, so I think it’s really useful, but it’s also a frustratingly imprecise and domestic metaphor, which I think isn’t doing any favors to a kind of illness that’s already seen as feminine and not really legitimate.
L: People have described me as “delicate”, which I really hate (laughs). That feels pretty gendered.
A: There’s something that comes up a lot in this, so I’ll just bring it up now, because it’s in everything we’re saying in a way, is how Western medicine has this very stubborn idea that the mind is not actually connected to the body and that mental illness and physical illness are two separate things, and then you have systems like Ayurveda that say, actually, it’s the same thing.
L: Right, and anyone who’s struggled with depression or anxiety knows that those illnesses manifest themselves physically too, just as an injury can trigger an emotional response.
L: Do you write art or make art differently now than you did either before you started dealing with pain?
A: I don’t write by hand as much because I find that muscle in my thumb gets tired easily. So I will for a few pages but it just isn’t practical for me to try to write very long by hand, which is a shame because when you write by hand, your mind works completely differently and makes associations in a different way. I think it works with time in a different way than when you’re typing. So, I suppose I’ve lost something there.
L: Do you notice a difference in the quality of your writing, not necessarily better or worse but what is the difference?
A: I think there have been so many other factors since I started having pain that it’s hard to isolate that as a variable. I am writing directly about pain now. I’m working on a book about having this experience of chronic pain. So that’s obviously a big difference. For me at least, it’s easier to be in a train of thought and have subconscious ideas come out when I’m writing long hand than when I’m typing. What about you?
L: Both are equally difficult for me, typing and writing by hand. I can do either for about 15 minutes before it starts to be an issue. Right now my shoulder hurts and I’m not doing anything. So if I’m starting at that base-line, and people always tell you that you should stop when it hurts, then the question becomes, should I write at all if I don’t want to further injure myself and if I’m okay with that possibility, how long can I write without the pain becoming really blaring?
When I was writing Overboard, I would write for long periods of time. I wrote hunched over a laptop, definitely not ergonomic. I would get into that mode and be able to stay in it for a long time. I can’t do that now. I have to make sure to take breaks. I miss being in that space. Even if I weren’t being good to myself and taking a break, the pain would interrupt that thought process anyway.
I started writing plays with my partner, Steve Orth partly because I couldn’t write. When we write a play, none of it is actually written. There’s a basic outline and we rehearse using that outline, but the exact dialog is never actually written down. Each performance is, in a way, new. That was a direct response to being unable to write. Last summer, I couldn’t really write at all so I started drawing and doing more visual art. I also started meditating and through that doing some automatic writing. When I do automatic writing, some sort of energy moves through my shoulder, through my right arm and through my hand. That’s where the pain is, from my right shoulder to my right hand. That’s really changed what I write about and how I write, which feels very positive, but I still get frustrated that I can’t sit down and bang out a short story the way I used to do.
A & L: Should we do advice? What has helped?
A: My answers are all about ergonomics. Well, also get enough sleep. It’s a big thing. I have fibromyalgia, which Lindsey doesn’t, and a lot of people reading this might not have either, but with fibromyalgia you have non-restorative sleep, which means that your body doesn’t feel rested no matter how long you sleep, so it’s important to at least sleep a normal amount, 8 or 9 hours. But that’s probably good advice for everyone. So that’s one thing that makes a big difference, and the other thing is ergonomics. Your knees are supposed to be below your hips when you sit; your monitor’s supposed to be eye-level; all that stuff. I brought an ergonomic footrest to the place that I’m working now, and it makes a huge difference. And they provide monitor risers and external keyboards and mice. Another thing is that I’ve started using my mouse with my left hand because my right hand gets more tired from typing. Also, it’s not super hard to teach yourself to use the spacebar with your left thumb.
L: I use an ergonomic keyboard that has touch-sensitive keys. It’s flexible so I can move it into different positions. I have an ergonomic mouse that’s a vertical mouse. I also know that some graphic designers will use foot mice. I mouse with my left hand a lot. I think it’s good if you can distribute the ‘wear’, which sounds gross. I do a lot of various kinds of healing practices: I get acupuncture regularly and they give me herbs. I make bone broths because they’re supposed to be very healing and restorative. I’m trying to eat a lot of protein so that my body can repair itself better. I’m a big stress case so I’m trying to do things to relax while I’m writing or working but also after. I use lavender essential oil (either put it on myself, burn it in an evaporator or put it in a bath). I drink chamomile tea which sounds lame but it is actually proven to relax the nervous system. And that makes a big difference because then my shoulders don’t tense up nearly as much. I take baths and soak my shoulder. I just got a hot water bottle, which is pretty awesome. I was told by an acupuncturist and a physical therapist to take breaks every 30 to 45 minutes. There is free software you can install that will remind you. Get up and actually move around, do some stretches. Physical Therapy is awesome, definitely do that if you can. Maybe I should take pictures of myself doing my stretches.
DON’T: Here’s Lindsey hunched over her laptop. Don’t do it!
DO: Here’s Lindsey with laptop plugged into a monitor and external ergonomic keyboard. She is also using an ergonomic mouse and good posture! Way to go, Lindsey!
A: I feel like it’s really easy to get sucked into just looking at the internet because there’s a lot of stuff on the internet. But when you think about how important and limited your body’s energy is like you should just use it for stuff that’s gonna get you paid or stuff that’s gonna make your art. Like don’t read the comments on HTMLGiant. Don’t read HTMLGiant.
L: I realize that when I take a break from working to look at facebook I’m still clicking my mouse, maybe more than when I was working. So that’s not really a break. I’m burning up my art making powers!
I feel passionate about this because it changed my life, for good and bad. It has made working and writing a lot more difficult but also a lot more intentional. I don’t take for granted sitting down to write which I think was a real privilege when I was younger.
I feel very adamantly that if you are dealing with pain because of a work situation, and even if you’re not yet, your employer should be responsible for providing you with the ergonomic equipment that you need, or they should at least be supportive of you getting that equipment, or taking breaks. [Do you hear that non-profit arts organizations? You are not exempt!] I was talked out of getting workers comp by an employer because I developed my injuries on the job and it would have raised their insurance. And this was one of those cool non-profit arts organizations. So, you are not safe in the non-profit arts world! Actually they probably have a better time getting you to make sacrifices.
A: Well and you have sympathy for them because they’re a cool non-profit arts organization.
L: Yeah and you’re already giving up the money you could get somewhere else, so don’t hurt your body for them. It’s not worth it.
A: You were saying earlier that you had hesitations about the way that you’d be talking about this because you didn’t want to come off as being, like pro-work? Like, “Work mortifies the body and ruins the mind, but let’s make it more fun…” Work is kind of evil, and people don’t need to work for eight hours a day. And that’s kind of why it degrades your body: because we weren’t meant to do the same kinds of motions for that long. And so this is not just a guide to let that not kill you, but also a guide to let that not kill you so that at the end of the day you can go home and be an artist.
L: But also while you’re making your art to be good to your body too so you can keep making art. Because if you were writing eight hours a day, writing whatever you wanted, you could still hurt yourself. Musicians get carpal tunnel too. Be nice to your body. If you’re more productive at your job as a result of doing these things, cool, I guess, but that’s not really the point.
A: I think the point is having energy leftover; spoons, if you will.
L: If you come home and your body doesn’t hurt and you’re not tired, then you can come home and make some art, rather than watching a dumb TV show, or a good TV show.
DON’T: Here’s Amy after a crappy day, watching some TV because her body hurts. Sure, this happens, but try to avoid it!
DO: Here’s Amy after a good day of treating her body well, writing a poem. Way to go, Amy!
[I also want to add that Amy and I are unsure whether this whole interview will get transcribed by deadline because there is so much typing involved!]
A: Right, so that’s part of it. Also, I came over two hours late, because I needed a lot of sleep. I was catching up on sleep I didn’t get this week.
L: And as I’m saying these things I feel like I sound like a lazy jerk. “It’s so much typing” (whining voice).
A: No but we just gave a whole interview about how it’s about pain.
L: But that’s the voice in my head that I have to argue with all the time.
A: Maybe we should just post the audio.
L: Maybe we should.
[Many, many thanks to Amy Berkowitz, without whom the writing of this post would have been so much more painful, in more ways than one. Hurrah for Amy! Hip-hip-hooray!]
And now, for the outro…
Two wrist-brace themed music videos!
Honestly, fuck a wrist-brace (humiliating shame garments), but if you must wear one, imagine that you are Kathleen Hannah (or whoever this is) dressed in a jumpsuit and banana hat or Beyonce (Sasha Fierce), wearing a metallic claw of power and be sure to take breaks every 30-45 minutes to dance.
Dear ones, this does not have to be you. You do not need a robot hand.
I want to add that throughout the day Amy and I spent together walking around my neighborhood, eating soup and talking about writing and pain we kept circling back to work, but we also kept circling back to misogyny and gendered violence. Throughout our conversations about our bodies and the pain they feel, and about our struggles to communicate our experiences to friends, family and especially co-workers and bosses, it seemed that everything was inflected by a silent and sometimes not so silent accusation of hysteria. Maybe it’s just plain disregard for a body in pain, or an inability to empathize because the person you’re trying to make understand just does not know what it feels like. Maybe we feel used and exploited because our bodies are not our own while we’re on the clock. When the same boss who talks you out of workman’s comp makes leering comments about how good your jeans look and laughs both off, it is hard to separate the two kinds of pain that enter your mind and body. It’s hard to shake the thought that misogyny or at the very least, Patriarchy, has had a role to play here. If we were men, would we have demanded more? If we were men, would our pain be better understood? If women are thought of as “delicate” and our pain no surprise, then, why is it we are called hysterical when we name that pain and ask for accommodations?
Let’s be good to our bodies and to other people’s too. If you’re not sure how, consider the witch’s creed: “Do what you will and it harm none.” If you’re not sure if what you’re doing or asking someone else to do will cause them harm, ask.
- LINDSEY BOLDT
Lindsey Boldt is a poet, performer, editor and educator living in Oakland. She is the author of the full-length book, “Overboard”, and the chapbooks, “Oh My, Hell Yes” and “Titties for Lindsey”. With her partner Steve Orth, she co-edits Summer BF Press and writes, directs and performs plays in the style of “Oakland Poetic Realism”. Recent productions include “Dating by Consensus” and “The Reading”. She is also an editor with The Post-Apollo Press.
Just when you thought you had seen it all…. Reb Livingston’s “Give Boot to the Muse; Behold the Power of Duende” is the first essay to be featured as part of the Vintage DB series! Crack open the dusty virtual pages of DB 4, Spring 2002, and you’ll find that this expository piece is a delicious bit of food for thought.
“It is easy to understand how the bull is the matador’s drunken beast—irrational, powerful and elusive. The artist who deals with his page, canvas, voice, clay with the same approach is the artist in search of duende.”
Reb Livingston is a prolific writer of both verse and prose. She has authored several books including her upcoming novel, Bombyonder, to be released by Bitter Cherry Books this October. Additionally, she curates the awesome Bibliomancy Oracle (bibliomancyoracle.tumblr.com) and is the editor/publisher of No Tell Books. Go check out all the cool stuff she does here: reblivingston.net.
Hiding within the “Canadian Strange” section of DB 8, Fall 2006, lurks this week’s intriguing vintage highlight. Reminiscent of journeying via guided meditation, listening to Catherine Kidd’s recording of her piece, “Blue Orb,” is sure to take you to new and interesting places.
“…this wisp of a sheep lay curled on my tongue
with an imaginary number painted on its side.
I supposed that it somehow got lost from the fold
or else just needed somewhere to hide…”
Catherine Kidd has written, performed, and recorded numerous pieces of prose and poetry. Her first novel, Missing the Ark, came out in April 2007 while her latest work includes “Hyena Subpoena,” a combination of poetry and soundscape. Find out about her latest ventures at her website: catkidd.com
Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, by Gary Snyder
I am happy to finally read these poems as a collection (which include Snyder’s vibrant translations of 24 poems by Han-shan, or Cold Mountain) and especially to see the ways Snyder’s work was so enriched by the poems he was translating at the time. Han-shan, described by Snyder as “a mountain madman in an old Chinese line of ragged hermits,” composing his poems on stones and cliffs, wrote with a surface clearness that reveals beneath it, a dropping down to greater holds of depth. My favorite poems of Snyder’s in this collection are the ones that are also working in this way, of simplicity and clarity of description and experience, that resonate beneath their surfaces, whether they describe his work as a trail crew laborer in Yosemite, his time in Japan, or at sea on a tanker.
The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine
About 300 of Han-shan’s poems have survived, and as Snyder only translated a handful of these, I am now reading Red Pine’s versions. Not much is known about Cold Mountain, perhaps born around 730 AD, and eventually living as a hermit in a cave, a two-day’s walk from the East China Sea. He is often described as wearing a birch-bark hat, wearing wooden shoes, carrying a staff and an air of wildness, poking fun at the monks living in a nearby temple, who apparently didn’t get it, thinking he was simply a clown. He writes, “Who takes the Cold Mountain Road/ takes a road that never ends/ the rivers are long and piled with rocks/ the streams are wide and choked with grass/ it’s not the rain that makes the moss slick/ and it’s not the wind that makes the pines moan/ who can get past the tangles of the world/ and sit with me in the clouds”
A Search for Solitude: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Vol. 3, 1952-1960
Of all the books of Thomas Merton that I’ve read, I am most drawn to the journals, which harbor an intense rawness, vulnerability, and humanness that I haven’t felt as strongly in his more polished work. Writing from Gethsemani, the Trappist monastery where he lived for the last 27 years of his life, Merton documents his social, political, and spiritual concerns and elucidations. I was initially surprised by his restlessness and judgments (of self and others), his sharp humor and also how very contemporary the journals read. Especially compelling are his short but piercing moments of observation of the natural world. These, for me, are the moments to rest in. March 19, 1958: “How fantastic. A red shouldered hawk wheels slowly over Newton’s farm as if making his own special silence in the air—as if tracing out a circle of silence in the air.”
Italian Folktales: Selected and retold by Italo Calvino
The daughter of the king is kidnapped by an octopus that turns into a fish everyday for only three hours. In order to release the daughter, one must kill the fish, but if it is not killed immediately after it is caught, it will quickly change into a seagull and fly away unharmed. One after another these stories march, twisting and dark and strange. What beautiful mind/s could create these worlds? I’d like to invite this mind to my dinner table, give it a bottle of wine, and lay down my ears for a few hours to listen. The Man Wreathed in Seaweed; The Little Girl Sold with the Pears; The Count’s Beard; Silver Nose.
Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, by Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush
As a complement to the analytical thinking we often find/teach in college classrooms, contemplative practices offer students a chance to cultivate greater focus, attention, self-inquiry, and introspection to enhance their learning of course content but also to help them find greater personal meaning in their lives. As the authors state, “Without a context to develop the awareness of the implications of our actions and a clear idea of what is most deeply meaningful to us, we will continue to act in ways that force us into short-term, myopic responses to a world increasing out of control.” The book covers theory, current research, challenges, and introduces some practices for the classroom (such as mindfulness, approaches to writing and reading, deep listening, and compassion).
In sex, physical self-consciousness is abandoned in favor of intensified sensual pleasure. In sleep, everyday consciousness is abandoned in favor of the unconscious, the world of dreams. In sigils, the two states meet in a single act, and so is released a special and potent energy. A fertile power of harmony, transcending the barriers of the conscious/unconscious divide. And so it is that the sigil lets forth an energy that cuts through like a flaming sword, overcoming all that stands in its path. – Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
The best friend I had growing up was a copycat, Harry, who I loved. I never knew what he looked like. He was always given an empty plate at dinner. He collected Masters of the Universe stickers with me, and I’d buckle him up in the car when we went anywhere. Some would imply I wanted a brother, others would propose I was lonely.
My grandmother had told me that God was the best version of yourself you could imagine. I guess I couldn’t imagine that at such a young age. So, here came Harry. My imaginary best friend. Monotheism was the only import from the spiritual lives of the adults around me. I didn’t know any good and proper occultists. I don’t think I could fathom the idea of all-knowing, all-powerful very well. My friends at school said that I would be eaten by the monsters underneath my bed or inside my closet. I didn’t get scared, I just got underneath my bed, praying to God to meet them, to find their friendship.
I had some kind of social confusion. I named all my stuffed animals and talked to them endlessly, but didn’t like the kids at school. Too irrational, unfocused. I talked to myself, I was always trying to answer my own questions. I didn’t know what inspiration was. I knew the dark shapes I could make at night, that when I touched my chest very lightly, with just my fingertips, it felt like I could lift through the air somewhere else. Grandma Rusty did the whole bit about gold roads and seeing all the people you loved in Heaven, but no one was really dead yet for me. I’d have her for another 7 yrs.
I tried everything to get to God’s voice. It never came, but at night I would feel things in the air, in the darkness of Hammond, Indiana. I would see figures in white hanging by the neck in the corners of my bedroom and mouthing words that I couldn’t make out. Dreams and reality collapsed into one another a lot. I lived on a residential road, Madison Ave, 7147, next to a gravel alley way, a couple blocks from interstate 80-94. An old acid-freak couple across the street, where the male elder would where summer clothes in the winter and winter clothes in the summer. Down the block was a weird kind of castle space with an old German couple in it.
There was something out there and my senses always cued me into it. I had lucid dreams where red eyes would follow me from window to window in the house. I would go into the basement to play and I could feel the pressure. I wasn’t scared of the things I was told I should be, I was scared of something bigger. Something that would pour into the house and destroy us, something pushing in all around me.
This is before I knew what the Spectacle was, before my television consumption jumped the shark, in regards to what was allowable. Imagination is such a stupid, reductive way to see wherever you’re at. It’s more than that, it’s not just my mind, it’s my whole body, it’s the deep spaces that can lower you down past the concrete, past the piping and geology of this place. It’s that positive void that rolls into my heart and chest when I feel love.
My parents enrolled me in Sunday School sessions and eventually I would go to catechism classes, but it never really stuck. I sort of understood the intention, but it wasn’t until my actions were being deemed mortal sins that I started getting afraid. A kid named Tom, had made that male masturbatory gesture during my Freshman year of high school. Of course, I investigated it. Two days later, I was told it was a mortal sin. Two days after that, during the Ides of March in 1997, my father had a major heart attack. A three-pack a day man. I was 14. Was it my fault? Did I somehow cause it? I remember the doctors pulling my father’s body from the car, that smack of skin against the sidewalk. I remember sitting in the emergency room, my mother’s pale complexion and hand against her face, holding back infinite screams. My brother turning his attention to a priest, asking about the environment of heaven. I sat there, praying as hard as I could, not to let my father die because of my indiscretion. I took all that responsibility into myself.
The doctors told us he had a 3% chance of surviving the night and when he did, making a full recovery in the end, I thought that my promise to believe had something to do with it. I became a Roman Catholic. I made new friends, began going every Sunday at 1230pm, singing, watching each word that appeared in the missalette, following the sermon as though it were the only words ever spoken. At that point, I saw God as my grandmother, who had died the previous summer. I pushed and pushed to the front of the line in questions, trying to summon all the powers I had felt as a kid and aim through God. Later on, after my third year, I started going to youth retreats. There was one in particular where I was anointed as Christ and asked to field questions from other youth, in a small-group session. There were six of us who were anointed. The intensity and dedication to the belief was so real that when we met up afterwards, the other five told me that the Holy Ghost had truly entered them and they had no recollection of the session. I was a true believer and they were lying. I had felt the way God’s hand had touched my shoulder as we guided a small candle out to the campground. Why didn’t they remember? I saw the falsehood litter around me and I left. I started asking more intense questions of the clergy. I wanted to know the intentions, the reasons, the origins and nothing was satisfactory. I remember a close church friend, Bob, who told me when I was leaving, that he got a 1600 on his SAT’s and that I shouldn’t think I’m smarter then him since I was getting out. I remember looking over at him, I was done.
10 yrs I spent as an atheist, angry, perturbed at how dumb I had been. My father’s heart attack was something he owned, not me. But, the moments of clarity as a kid and later, as an adolescence still gave off this deeper reality. Moments where I would see things that didn’t make any sense, where I would enter a room and feel pressure or have visuals pool into the back of my eyes.
Religion invades the child’s world. A child without guilt is thus given guilt. A child without fear is thus given fear. The only salvation offered is through faith. Faith, it is suggested, ends death. The price of cheating death through faith is, of course, submission. – Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
At some point, I started making an altar in the spaces I called home. It was always a touch make-shift, dirty, stones from my third grade rock collection, or the box of feathers from around the neighborhood. I had been living in Philadelphia, maybe a year in or so, when my friend John and Amanda Courie asked me if I wanted to join a Chaos Magick organization in line with the Temple of Psychick Youth (TOPY). I wanted to describe to you how I got involved, but the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ I just kind of walked into it. As a kid, I wanted to believe in everything weird, anything that my friends didn’t believe in. I’m 32 now. I believe in everything, in nothing, in various trip-wired dimensions. When asked, I just said yes.
The Temple asks, “What do you really want out of life?” Those shapes in the dark can be anything. Seven billion people. We can do anything, anything at all. The Temple asks, “Will you be forever addicted to self-restriction?” Maybe that was the key, located on the second page of Thee Grey Book (1980) that pushed me out into my first sigil. At first, I felt that the directives were just self-help guru shit, but then it started to occur to me that the weird lines from the universe in my childhood weren’t gone. They were maturing into something else. I had, by this time, been involved with the Spectacle for a few years. The depression had just started to sting below the surface, into the makings of a dark heart and this felt like a fight, an antidote.
The British Occultist Austin Osman Spare‘s methodology included that, “sigils are used to enable two things to occur. Effective communion with unconscious levels and the lodging of a desire or wish at unconscious levels without the conscious mind being involved or aware.” So, I said yes to chaos. Hail Eris. At first glean, I was worried about the blood. I have an intense fear of blood, like a spigot you can’t stop. I followed the directions. I wrote down on a piece of paper a wish. Through Spare’s method, ‘the alphabet of desire’, I removed all the duplicate letters and created a secondary artistic rendering of what was left. A glyph. I put the paper on the ground, next to my altar. I picked up some diabetic needles and broke into my skin, letting a drop or two out. I added a lock of hair from my head and pubis. I spit onto the page. The idea now is to charge the glyph.
You communicate, through your most intense sexual fantasy, the last element, an orgasm and the fluids associated. It was hard to achieve at first, as the internet had been part of my private habit for so many years that my imagination felt held back, or stifled. The Spectacle had invaded my own sexual appetite. Bricks of grease down the pipe. I had to make my brain break out, calling deep inside to create a desire outside of the image. I kept falling in and out of moments of closure, of complete loss of arousal and then my animal instincts kicked in and it happened. The images dissolved and I collapsed, spreading out through the entirety of my body, into the floorboards and the dirt below the house. I could feel the melt, this shift. I laid on the ground for nearly an hour, feeling so tired, as though a thousand years had passed through me. Was it a flaming sword? I don’t know if I was there yet.
The Spectacle says that what appears is good and what is good appears. The cyclical prison, one that is in me and everyone I know. I made a choice to do something and the shift occurred. At that very moment, I had found something. The next morning, I burned the glyph, green flames spitting out and I let go of my desire, of the wish. Peter Carroll writes in Liber Null, that, “the sigil is charged at moments when the mind has achieved quiescence through magickal trance, or when high emotionality paralyzes its normal functioning.”
The sigil represents a person’s true will. Carroll goes on to define magick as, “the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.” It’s about discipline. It’s about keeping a diary of one’s experiments and how they turn out. To truly fight the Spectacle, one must find a way to bring autonomous space to their bodies. The body between worlds. It’s through one’s genetic material that a link can be established with yourself, or as Genesis puts it as, “a perfect holographic splinter, containing everything necessary to create yourself anew.” At this point, one builds their practice.
It’s important to point out that a strong habit can be established through this methodology. Carroll points out that there are two ways to follow through on the objective. The first is laughter/laughter, a kind of antidote to the possible insanity of the magickal trance and the second is non-attachment/non-disinterest, a kind of mental teaching to not foreground one’s experiments in obsession, or ‘acting without lust of result.’
Laughter is the highest emotion, binding, holding all the other emotions inside. There is nothing that stands in opposition to laughter. Carroll states that, “laughter is the only tenable attitude in a universe which is a joke played upon itself. The trick is to see that joke played out even in the neutral and ghastly events which surround one.” Our limited life span, the age of the universe, the difficulty of sustaining life on a planet with these ideas of consumption and social currency… This is Monty Python’s, ‘The Funniest Joke in the World,’ where the translation has to be word by word, syllable by etc. or death stakes its claim. It’s where the madness edges the razor blade while shaving.
These are the conditions, seek out laughter, it can change you.
The birth of Chaos Magick came about in the late 70s, at about the time that punk rock was spitting out at the music industry and Chaos Science was beginning to be taken seriously by mathematicians, economists and physicists… The basic message of Chaos Magick is that, what is fundamental to magick is the actual doing of it – that like sex, no amount of theorizing and intellectualization can substitute for actual experience. – Phil Hine
What I love about Chaos Magick is that it borrows, steals, plagiarizes from all kinds of different sources. Whether it’s the latest scientific declarations that we live inside a 2-D hologram, or the dimensions spaced out in Philip K Dick’s Valis, the system is built on what the practitioner chooses. One is encouraged to devise what works best for you. If the fit sucks, do something else.
The principles that guided the early adherents still seems relevant. But it’s the bare bones of a system.
1) One must avoid dogma. Learn how to with change your mind, contradict yourself, listen to your gut. 2) You got to check it out for yourself, no more ‘armchair theorists’, make experiments, devise schemes, this is your life. 3) Don’t half-ass it, get technical. It’s only through self-assessment and a continued method of follow-up that you’ll be able to get the results you truly desire. 4) It’s time to decondition. This is the big time folks, you have to walk through socialized thought, take risks to better understand yourself and your surroundings. 5) Make the system diverse, stretch out into avenues of thought you never caught before, build out of vulnerability. 6) Perhaps the most important one, is Gnosis. The ability to enter altered states of consciousness at will.
This can be broken down into two phases. Inhibitory states and excitatory states. Hine points out that, “the former includes physically ‘passive’ techniques such as meditation, yoga, scrying, contemplation and sensory deprivation while the latter includes chanting, drumming, dance, emotional and sexual arousal.” These are the keys to changing your relationship with yourself and the world of the Spectacle. There is no elite practitioners of Chaos Magick, there is just us.
These are tools you could use. It’s how I started to work with my vulnerabilities. This is how we can see the possibilities of a Post-Spectacular World. As I’ve worked my way through some of the darker depressive states of Spectacular Time, (“Illusorily lived time of a constantly changing reality” – Guy Debord) I’ve also begun the process where I create autonomy around me, in the actual surrounding space. It’s my small, endless movement to stop the pervasive ditch-weed ideology of the Spectacle. It’s a choice.
Fear breeds faith. Faith uses fear. Reject faith, reject fear, reject religions and reject dogma. Learn to cherish yourself, appreciate intuition and instinct, learn to love your questions. Value your time. Use mortality to motivate action and a caring, compassionate and concentrated life. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge with Simon Dwyer
It’s important at this juncture to talk about some of the problems with Chaos Magick. First and most annoyingly, is the terminology. Not unlike philosophy, where a plethora of words between authors mean the same thing, or the variations on a theme works as a kind of arrogant signature, Chaos Magick can work and look like a system that eats itself. I’ve used Peter Carroll’s Liber Null, Psychonaut, The Apophenion, and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s The Psychick Bible as the core texts in both this essay and in my practice. These texts are pretty free of the language of alienation that one finds in the more esoteric texts. I would also suggest Oven-Ready Chaos by Phil Hine as a solid introduction. The systems are what you want to make, you are the power that decides that making.
I must also say, that some of the magickal texts that are out there, under the label of Chaos Magick, even some of the writer’s I’ve culled for this text will have gender-binary problems. There is also some misogyny, sometimes bad stuff. Obviously I don’t want to stand by these problematic texts, but the era in which some were written many other influential art works were often just as phallocentric and restrictive in their perspective. Ideas do have removable and switchable parts; rip it up and start again.
You just have to force the hand of chance. The childhood home where my grandmother raised me, while my father went to nursing school was torn down in early 2009. My grandfather had long vacated and remarried. We aren’t sure if he ever found out, advancing age and all that. The house that held a full generation of DeBoers had received tenants that destroyed the interior: defecation, animals, children, the whole works just let loose. Apparently the stairwell to the upstairs completely collapsed.
On the flip, I have more than a few eyewitnesses that my grandfather was a difficult, perhaps even mean man. He was a house painter. There’s a story where his neighbor is painting his house next door and loses control of his ladder. Grandpa was standing there with either my dad or his brother (neither could remember) as he ignored the man’s cries for help. He proceeded to go in and ask what’s for dinner. No flinch. I paint houses, don’t steal my money right in front of me. It was the 50s, the specialization bubble before the Spectacle.
Sometime, in 2012, I went back there. I sat on the gravel that was once the living room, the spot right in front of the TV, imagining that house, those memories, that seething energy, it flowed through me, calling up all the different worlds of a family’s genetic makeup. The garage was gone. The shed full of paint, tools, all left behind in weeds and saw dust. The peach tree leaned over towards the ground, heavy and willow-like. The gravel rough and chalky. I meditated there, scorched. A dark heart digging out, to be restarted.
- NICHOLAS DEBOER
Nicholas DeBoer is a poet, collagist, activist, and chaos magician living in NYC. He is the author of many chapbooks and broadsides, as well as a co-editor for Elderly with Jamie Townsend and Cheer + Hope Press with Geoffrey Olsen. He also is a member of the Potlatch Discordian Network, a magickal organization operating out of Ridgely, MD. Currently he is prepping “The Singes”, the first in his epic arc “The Slip”, for publication. He is also also most certainly alive.