What is to be done?

When I was (much) younger, I fancied myself as being “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, quite like Lord Byron.

But the necessities of making a living in the world and its attendent comforts slowly tempered those fires.

My passionate, idealistic radicalism of youth became a pragmatism in adulthood.

At one point a number of years ago I found myself on a trajectory that was taking me and my family towards a life of conformity that would have shocked the younger me. It was also a life that was soul killing for me and my wife.

It was too much for her and an opportunity came up that would pull us out of there. But it required throwing everything we’d built up in the air and seeing what pieces landed where. Back then I couldn’t do that for myself but I could and did for her. It put us and me on a path away from conformity, on a path more of my shaping.

And then I had to do much the same three years ago for myself. Once again, taking everything and throwing it up in the air to see what lands where. And that too has put me further along on a path of my own shaping.

And now with first some stability in my life, and now new instability, I find myself thinking about where I’m going next. I am fully in mid-life. I have seen all of my family I grew up with die. I have seen many friends die young. I am seeing friends die in middle age now. I have sent three cats and a dog to the other side and am watching my dog start to decline in old age.

I have been with my wife nearly twenty-two years: soon I will pass the longer with her than not mark. And so, of course, my marriage has changed significantly over the years.

The recent instability and changes in my life have underscored a lot of loss and seen things go away for me. And while that’s part of life, it feels unbalanced: like there’s more loss than gain. And so I’ve been feeling despair: a sense of things being out of control and slowly decaying. As I’ve put it to some folks, I’m having that feeling once more that I’ve done all I’m going to do and I’m at the end of my life.

My life is hardly conformist now. A recent trip to where I once lived underscored how much I don’t belong there and how far down my own path I am.

I can’t simply sit and wait. I need to grow and move forward, always. But I don’t yet know where I want and need to go. I do know that when simply standing still I move further and further away from conformity because the world around me is moving in that direction, faster and faster. And so when I do move, I know it will take me even further afield from them all because my direction is in the opposite direction.

In a way, I’m coming back to where I was when younger. Becoming madder, badder and more dangerous to know. In part because I’m not flailing like I was in youth. I know how to get what I want. And clearly what I want is a life that doesn’t fit into anyone’s neat boxes.

When I was younger, I had my radical phase. I had my Marxist phase (yes, really….hard to believe if you know me now). In a high school debate on Capitalism and Communism, I wiped the floor with the Imperial Capitalist Pigs (and this was in the DC area in the 1980s). During that phase, a couple of words and phrases came into my life that had power for me.

Iskra“, the Russian word for “spark”. Vladimir Lenin used it as the name of his revolutionary newspaper. The idea being that a “spark” will light the fires of revolution. In my poetry and writing when younger, I would use that work to describe the necessary essence of vibrancy needed to sustain and propel forward. I would talk about how my college relationship was failing because the “iskra” was gone.

Another phrase that stuck with me, also from Lenin, was “What is to be done“: this was his revolutionary manifesto where he outlined his plans for revolution. By the way, it’s pretty much what he did. The decisive nature of the question and its answer always stuck with me for some reason.

As I feel the world pushing me further away by it’s movement, am contemplating where to go next, and continue this project of reconnecting with things from when I was younger, it just some how seems appropriate to meditate on the idea of “iskra” and the question “what is to be done”. Not so much from a point of view of Marxism-Leninism or even politics, but just around life.

What is to be done is to cultivate those things that have the iskra. And to understand and accept that for me those things that have an iskra take me farther afield from the society I live in.

This is a post without answers. This is post where I pause in my wandering and look around and see where I am. And after this post, I take the bearings that I’ve gotten and continue moving.