Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

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Readers ask: What’s your religion?

I’ll reveal that this question comes from students. I think it’s worth saying a few things about it on my blog.

Obviously, I write a lot about religion. Religion is a powerful force in the game of human fate, with tentacles in everything from political systems to educational institutions, nations’ customs and individuals’ identities. I’ve studied religions both formally and informally, and I’ve read a lot of the sacred books, including the Bible, Bhagavad-Gita and others.

I’m in the school that says you can’t really study Western Civilization without knowing the Bible, and you’re at a massive disadvantage as a student of literature if you don’t know at least the plots of the major Bible stories, including lessons in ethics like the Book of Job, the Sermon on the Mount or Paul’s letters. This isn’t just because every book of note will be packed with allusions to the Bible, but also because certain cultural assumptions trace themselves to a Judeo-Christian understanding of reality.

This is an evasive way of saying I’m neither Christian nor Jewish, but that I have deep reverence for the ethics and lessons of those traditions. Granted, I was raised Catholic, which is a lot like saying you used to be a cop or a member of the Latin Kings. Once you’re in, your mind will forever be affected. You can pawn your badge or burn all your black and gold, but the way you see the world remains. I have an easier time remembering the Act of Contrition than all the passwords I use on the internet.

I don’t identify as Catholic. Beyond that, my personal spirituality is a private matter.

Readers of this blog know I belong to a Zen center. I’ve written about mindfulness and trauma on multiple occasions, and I’m quite open about my meditation practice. Zen practice was as effective, if not more effective at treating my PTSD —at least after a certain period of time— as talk therapy. I stayed on because, frankly, it’s a sensible way of looking at the contemporary world, and I’ve also met wonderful people at the center.

What does a Zen Buddhist believe? My advice to anyone who wants an answer to that question is to try meditating. That’s the answer. While Zen has its set of ethics, it does not offer a list of rules that need to be followed. With the exception of meditation, there’s not really a set of beliefs or behaviors that equal Zen. What’s there to believe, and who’s in position to believe it? That’s a Zen question.

Still…this probably doesn’t satisfy the readers’ question. If I’m going to do something besides evade it, I should probably make an offering. What I’m willing to do is to present a list of questions that currently make up what I like to think of as my spiritual journey. I don’t have answers for them:

  • Is time a line, a circle or some other shape?
  • Is consciousness the result of the brain or is the brain the result of consciousness?
  • Will the individual please stand up?
  • What must be done in order to count beyond one?
  • Where is the past?
  • Where is the future?
  • If Jesus truly believed in paradise, would he have raised Lazarus?



Photo: 9/11 Memorial, New York City 

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The tender hell of unrequited adolescent infatuation

I’m pleased to announce that my latest work of short fiction, titled “Nothing Extraordinary, Nothing of Note,” is now available in Issue Seven of The St. Petersburg Review. This is a story inspired in part by my Zen practice but also by a brief return to central Illinois when I attended an academic seminar and got to spend the night in Urbana.

The story’s main character is Milt Ilsa, an optometrist and socially awkward amateur poet who spends his time obsessing over lines he knows are loathsome. He has virtually no social life and lives a mundane, tiresome daily routine of meals in diners and visits with patients. One day, of course, he’s met with a realization—it actually happens while he is masturbating—that provokes an experience not unlike a satori, or a Zen awakening, in which the impermanence of all things becomes ultra-clear to him.

Here is a sexy excerpt:

The other woman Ilsa had known only as a teen. This was Deanna, the freckled and red-haired girl for whom he had felt the tender hell of unrequited adolescent infatuation. The youths had never shared any more than a few awkward dances at their high school mixers, nights when Deanna had come with actual dates while Ilsa had to muster all his courage just to show up to the gymnasium, then clench his raging heart into a fist and ask Deanna for a single slow dance. Sure, she sometimes sat with him at lunch, but she did it out of conceit, to feel how powerfully he wanted her. Ilsa knew but sat hoping for some miracle of Cupid. On Homecoming and Prom nights, Ilsa would lie in his boyhood room with the tortured thoughts of what Deanna was doing with the imbeciles who always took her out. On the spectrum of imbeciles, they were far worse than Ilsa, the sons of the Caltoon’s wealthiest: doctors, lawyers, one guy a former college quarterback, another the owner of a factory that packaged frankfurters into plastic.

Although he had never even kissed Deanna, and while he had last seen her more than two decades ago, he still fantasized about her, imagining an adult woman between twenty-five and thirty. The helplessness he felt to these automatic fantasies could actually drive him to fury. This Tuesday night he wanted Melanie, but as if on train tracks, his consciousness left her bed and curled down to the valley station where thoughts of Deanna waited. Of course, he imagined Deanna far more often than Vera.

Interestingly, he often didn’t touch her in his fantasies. The thought of her sitting naked for him at breakfast or on a boat in the middle of an isolated lake could drive him to agonizing climax. In a reoccurring fantasy, he saw her posing for him in a birch forest as he photographed her body, her pubis unshaved, a few yellowed leaves in her wild, frizzy red hair. He was having that fantasy now, himself in the birch forest, a fully manual 35mm Leica in his hands, Deanna leaning against a tree, then arching her back and lifting her arms toward the forest canopy. Now she knelt for him, knees pressing into soft moss, mouth open only gently, green eyes a shade lighter than the verdant background divided by narrow white trunks. For the next sequence of shots, she spread her legs and flashed an intoxicating glance, allowing him to adore her, remaining wildly beautiful for him, freely giving her beauty over so that he could possess it in photographs, return to it whenever he wanted, whenever she was absent.

Purchase Issue 7 here, or order it from your favorite bookstore in July.

Photo on 6-24-15 at 9.51 PM

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Why I love the snow

It occurred to me today while walking across my neighborhood to make an appointment. I know why I love snow, and why I feel a particular sense of warmth following massive snowfall. (If you don’t know, a blizzard blew through Chicago over the weekend.)

Snow requires that we all slow down. It forces society to take it easy. There’s something brutal about it, actually: actions we take for granted, like driving or walking, become questions of serious harm. Slow down or face damages. Make too much haste and it’s possible to slide to your doom.

The best way to deal with the foot of snow covering our city—in some places it is as much as 17 inches (over 43 centimeters)—is to be patient with it. Snow does not interpret anger any more than it senses our indifference. You move one shovelful at a time, and you have to keep your feet, find the right leverage. There’s no way around the snow. You can step through it, but you won’t get very far if you make haste.

You’re better off taking public transportation. In fact, people on my entire side of the block can hardly get out of their garages; even if they could, they wouldn’t make it very far down the alley without getting stuck. Is there anywhere we must go? Really? Where? Stay home to read or write.

“I can’t afford this snow,” people say. “I have to be somewhere at 6:00.” “I can’t deal with this snow,” another will whine. “It’s keeping me from doing what I want to do.”

Yeah, but all you want to do is hurry. A good weekend of snow reminds us that our desire for haste is not a need. We actually can get by perfectly well without any haste at all. The step we’re taking is still being taken in the snow, only we step more mindfully, hoping not to slip, caring for ourselves.


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Boredom is a choice—new article

In my most recent True Community article, I consider a phenomenon I see over and again at the community college. Students come to classes believing it’s the job of the class or the professor to keep them engaged.

I have, in the wake of this trend, begun lecturing students on the nature of boredom. I’ve actually started teaching mindfulness in class, and this semester I made two of my classes meditate. I don’t know if it will have any effect but it’s been keeping me interested. I may very well become a member of the Contemplative Mind in Society. This is coming from someone who belongs to zero academic organizations.

Hope you’ll read and share my article.



Photo by zoetnet


The origins of the cold

My daughter has been talking to me about the temperature lately. She’s four years old and doesn’t like the cold. She knows that places like Los Angeles and Odessa, cities she’s visited, are warmer than Chicago. Of course, she has endless questions, including this one: “Can we move to California?”

Perhaps I’m the only parent I know who doesn’t completely (and I mean entirely and thoroughly) delight at her endless battery of “why”. All children are philosophers. It’s not stupid to wonder why there isn’t any grass under the evergreens or why one part of the world virtually never gets snow. She asks me why people begin as children and not the other way around. Why can’t we start as adults and get younger? (In other words, why can’t we be born allowed to do all the stuff she really wants to do?) Yesterday she asked me if we could Skype Charles Mingus. And she consistently asks about my childhood, though not only because she’s curious about me. At the end of a story, she’ll ask questions like this one: “And when you were fishing with your grandfather, where was I?”

Like her, I was insatiably curious as a child, and not merely about the things I saw in my world. My curiosity led to an identity as a bookworm; books, as we know, present ten new curiosities for every one they satisfy. So I had tons of questions, all of them impossible to answer. Many of my questions had to do with origin and the past. I rarely wanted to know how something functions, but I was always interested where it came from.

I was probably seven or eight years old when I asked an adult where the cold came from. I understood that heat came from things that burned. I knew that the sun, a star, was burning, and that gas flames in my childhood home heated the water that circulated through our radiators. But what generated the cold? Was cold just the standard state, the way things actually were when you removed all fire? If this was true, was it “more real” than heat? In other words, was heat artificial?

The adult told me that cold comes from the air. Air is cold. You can feel it if you stand in the wind. So when you have air, you have cold. And if you want air to warm up, you need fire.

Most adults in my childhood answered questions this way. He spoke authoritatively even though I knew he simply didn’t understand my question. By the time I was seven or eight, I had learned not to press on, to explain that this could not possibly be the answer. Air could not be the source of cold because air did not exist at the beginning of the universe. This was in all the books, even the Bible.

I tried to ask another adult, a teacher this time. She told me the cold doesn’t come from anywhere. Cold just is. But I didn’t believe this answer, mostly because I strongly believed a priest who had taught that everything had an origin someplace. If this were true, cold must have been created just as fire was created.

No book I could find in the library or in school helped me with my problem. The question remained unsolved until I learned about absolute zero in high school. My understanding was that the lowest possible temperature in reality actually couldn’t be reached. I interpreted this in a radical way: cold doesn’t exist. Every temperature is a measure of warmth, either some or a lot. While we feel uncomfortable in negative temperatures, it doesn’t mean we’re experiencing cold. What we’re really experiencing is a smaller amount of heat than we would like.

It strikes me now that this is a rather Zen-like way of understanding something. The teacher who had told me that “cold just is” had one way of looking at cold, but the truth was that “cold is just in your head.” Sure, certain temperatures will kill you. But “cold” is a concept, a construct. The origin of cold is the mind.

Cold is, therefore, a kind of poetry, brutal and hard-kicking, harsh on the skin. It retracts gonads and turns exhales into spectres. Seeing this poetry in action is no consolation to the freezing, perhaps, although I propose an experiment. Next time you’re waiting for a bus in an ice storm, see what happens if you think, “What a harsh poem I’m telling myself.” When you see how something functions, you often realize where it comes from.


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Map of ever-changing borders

This animated map of Europe has been passed around on Facebook by several dozen people I follow. It’s really an amazing document (the over-the-top music notwithstanding), showing how the borders of nations changed over the span of 1000 years. It reveals the blithe relationship between what is “a culture” and “a political border”. When I saw it the first time, I recalled a story I heard Sasha Hemon tell at one of his readings, about a village in Western Ukraine where the residents changed passports three times over the span of a half century but never left their homes.

Interestingly, most of the people who’ve been passing this map around in my feeds are diaspora Lithuanians (I follow quite a few, as I’m one myself). Typically, many of them comment alongside this map: “Hey, we were so badass in the day!” Yes, for a good portion of European history, Lithuania was a large state. It’s something that Lithuanians are particularly proud of, often to an embarrassing fault. I was taught, while styding Lithuanian history on the South Side of Chicago, in a building across the street from a steel cutting plant, to feel very proud of the size of 15th Century Lithuania, even to believe that the expansion of the nation validated me and my culture in some way.

It’s short-sighted to feel nationalistic pride while looking at a map of ever-shifting borders. The lesson is lost to those people: the map reveals that our nations and borders are impermanent. When you were large once, you will later be small; later still, you will disappear completely. The reason for this is that nations, cultures and borders are human inventions, subject to reversal, erasure, eradication, etc.

To go further: ethnicity is a construct. Yes, we cling, often desperately, to ethnic identity, especially when we are blown across the world by a conflict that shatters and destroys borders. But we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to see the border for what it is: a construct in an ever-changing, constanly shifting political landscape. We were no more badass in the day than anyone else because everyone is subject to the same forces.

To get Zen about it: the Earth is impermanent. So is the sun. The Empire State Building will disappear. This is inevitable. If we cling to the impermanent, we raise our level of suffering, because we start desiring things that are impossible. Why can’t this last forever? Why can’t we be large again? Why can’t our enemies be small and suffer worse than we are suffering? The paradox presents itself. Desire for constructs brings us suffering. Instead of looking at a map and seeing things as they are, we see our own desires and amplify them. We’d feel really great if we got what’s impossible to get. And so, we doom ourselves to misery.

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Photo show coming soon

I took a big step toward finally organizing my first-ever gallery exhibition by test-printing a few photographs. I was pleased with one print but found the other rather sloppy. Still, it’s a great feeling to look at a photograph at the printer’s and to know how it was taken, to remember what made me want to point the camera, etc.

I had an interesting moment of mindfulness when I saw the first photograph. Waiting for the results, I had believed the photo would look awful. I don’t have expensive equipment and many of my old pictures were taken in such a way to make blowing them up a challenge. I had never actually imagined printing them. I only wanted to take them and look at them on the computer. While I thought maybe someone else would be interested in them, I didn’t have any real ambition and was only screwing around. So my printed picture would look awful.

But it didn’t look awful. It looked like one of my pictures, the exact ones that people have been asking me to show for years.

There’s always that voice, louder one day, quieter another, but always there. There’s no way your stuff will be good. Just give up. Don’t bother with it. You’ll be disappointed. You should spare yourself the feeling.

So there’s a bigger step, actually. I’m learned to ignore that voice regarding my writing. Now I’m learning to ignore it in my photography.

Expect an announcement of a showing before the end of the year, and in a cafe most Chicagoans love.