A month after the previous progress report, there is already surprisingly much new progress to report. Sermon number six, “Our Maps and Territory”, has become an unfinished, but structurally complete, first draft. So now we’re in the sixth polishing stage. Trembling with nervousness, I will now solicit feedback and suggestions for improvements from a very few select friends, go over each stanza many times to make each as good as I can, add a few details still missing from the narrative, and swap out or cut the weakest bits.
Usually I write about 120 stanzas and cut out a third to get to the final count of strictly 80. I’m pretty sure I have already removed around 40 stanzas from this one, and the count still stands at 82. I already know I have to add at least one section with around three stanzas, even before I address omissions that will be pointed out by my beta test readers. They often demand additions of new sections, and I usually agree to one or two of these demands. Making those additions will of course take me further past the 80 stanza limit. So I expect cutting will be hard.
Lots of progress in the last two months. I did the docket space again and began to sort out the various bits and pieces that I had, over the last decades, pushed ahead into the last two sermons. Again this method worked beautifully. The key question was where to draw the line between the sixth and seventh sermons – this is answered. On that basis, I wrote some more. Now the sixth sermon has a pretty detailed structure and 41 completed stanzas – as usual, I expect not all of those will be among the 80 stanzas of the finished sermon. The title is changed again, to “Our Maps and Territory”. The seventh has a rough structure and 15 complete stanzas; it remains named “The Universe Machine”. Many of these stanzas are old, some over ten years, but most are new.
The scary part is the seventh sermon will open with a novel theory of consciousness that I have been incubating since before I started the sermons in 2012. This theory has always been intended to turn up somewhere near the end. I have the insanely bold, possibly megalomaniacal, idea that this theory might actually solve the hard problem of consciousness. This is extremely unlikely to succeed. But it’ll at least be a serious attempt. To make that attempt, I need to finally put the vague exciting ideas in my head down into language structured enough to see whether they’re actually coherent… let alone right. Before I do this in poetry, I’m doing it in prose, and talking with friends who know more about philosophy than I do. If the ideas turn out to be crap, which is very likely because so far all explanations of consciousness have, I do have a plan B. But plan A is the utterly mad one.
For once, I can report a large amount of progress. The last few days have been the most productive of the entire project so far. I now have a complete draft of the fifth Secular Sermon, now titled “The Words our Voices Raise”. I’m now nervously showing this draft to a very few very select friends, in order to get their feedback and to find those mistakes that only become apparent when I read the text out loud, rather than just see it written.
Over the last few days I have experimented with a method of writing that was new to me. It is very well described in professor Edward Slingerland’s blog post There is Only One Way to Write a Book. In my (new) experience, this method works quite well! So if you plan to do a big complicated piece of writing, it is worth a thorough read.
If not, basically the idea is to put all the notes and ideas you have onto little pieces of paper (I say “dockets” for short), lay them out in a big room, and arrange and re-arrange them into groups and sequences that eventually produce an outline, which you then “only” need to fill out when writing.
The translation of One of Us that I was working on was basically finished after only 3 months. This surprised and delighted me a lot, because it is only half of the 6 months that I previously thought was an ambitious schedule! But I’m not publishing it yet, because as I said it is for my grandmother’s birthday, so it’ll premiere in July. Again the translation led to some very minor improvements in the original English text.
If I can translate Sermons at such speed, that implies I should be able to have a translation of The Love that guides Humanity ready in July as well. But instead I have broken ground on the fifth Sermon, working title “The Signal and the Voice”.
As I said, I have been working on translating the third Sermon into German. This has gone pretty well so far: out of 80 stanzas, 40 now have decent translations, after less than two months.
Despite 40/80 I’m not half done, since I tend to do the easier stanzas first. Right now I have the first 22 stanzas, but 23 and 24 are really tricky to translate so they’re not done. Then I have 25 to 28, but 29 is hard again. 30 to 76 only have a sprinkling of completed easy ones here and there, and 77 to 80 are done. But “done” is relative – from experience I know I’ll be tinkering with most of the completed stanzas at some point, in order to get them from decent to good or very good.
But still, I remain on track to get it done by summer. I’m pretty proud of that, because it’s a very tight tempo compared to my baseline, and because I’m doing it in the middle of a divorce, while doing a lot of parenting and while kicking ass at work. I can’t be sure the current pace won’t be disrupted at some point, so I better keep it up as long as I can.
The fifth Sermon, working title The Signal and the Voice, exists in the earliest of draft forms, and at some point I’ll manage to scrape together a full day to start serious work on it.
I have recorded The Love that Guides Humanity, Children of the Milky Way and Kinder dieser Galaxie, and re-recorded the first three Sermons, on better recording equipment than last time. A dear friend is currently working on postprocessing the recordings so I can put them online.
The translation of the second Sermon into German now stands at 50 out of 80 stanzas translated satisfactorily. This has led to some (very minor) improvements in the original English text.
I have fun trying to rap the Sermons. This is very different from the sedate pace at which I usually deliver them, and I’ll need to practice the skill of rapping a lot until I can do it convincingly. I hope this alternative style can make the text interesting to some of those who don’t like long slow guided meditations (i.e. almost everybody). Practicing this also helps me notice and improve lines in the text that previously were too difficult to pronounce quickly.
After six years of much-interrupted work, I have completed a preliminary version of Sermon number four, which ended up being named “The Love that guides Humanity”. It still needs polishing, and I’m hoping to collect feedback which parts need the most improvement from some friends.
This has been by far the hardest Sermon to write, because while the first three dealt with settled facts and only offered a particular perspective on them, the fourth is an answer to questions that aren’t as clearly settled. What is the central difference between humans and other animals? How is it to be understood? How shall we move forward as a species? What is love? I started out without sufficient answers to any of these questions, with only a vague notion that they have to hang together. It took a lot of research, meditation and thinking, squeezed between my many other duties. Writing this felt much like writing a thesis, a statement how I think these questions should be answered truthfully. While I shun being personal, I have to accept this cannot be more than my answer. I am curious to find out if others find it convincing.
The last year in particular has in many ways been the hardest year of my life so far, perhaps excepting the very first years when I was so ill I might have died, but I barely remember those. It is tempting to feel a romantic notion where this is kind of a sacrifice that I had to make in order to be able to give the answer in this Sermon. In sober terms, it clearly held me back and impeded the work.
Otherwise, I have made small bits of progress on the translation of the second Sermon into German. And I made a poem on the war in Ukraine that I haven’t published yet. But mostly I’ve been tending to my roots rather than growing new leaves into the light of truth.
In Q1 2021 I have made negligible progress on the Sermons. Technically not nothing – there’s a little bit of work on translating the second Sermon into German – but still a lot of lost time.
The reasons are the usual – the kids and my job are taking so much out of me there’s not enough left. And we’re still in lockdown because Covid-19 is faster at mutating than we are at producing vaccines. Humanity and I need to get our shit together.
A bright spot was that I discovered the ReEnchantment podcast by Daniel Lev Shkolnik, who seems like a fellow traveller on this mostly untrodden path and does a wonderful job developing rich spirituality without supernatural assumptions. If you like the Sermons you will probably like this podcast and should check it out.
I made zero progress on the fourth Sermon in the fourth quarter of 2020. On top of the pressures of my full time job and three small kids and various health problems, the rising number of Covid-19 cases has led daycare to be closed and made life more difficult in a large number of small ways – like how difficult it is to find a babysitter now.
I was previously more optimistic than most on a Covid-19 vaccine, but not optimistic enough. Still, with vaccinations starting, I’m now less optimistic than most because the new mutation from southern England appears poised to outrun the pace of vaccination. (Seems like the smart people focused on developing vaccines and left the tasks of production and distribution to less smart people.) This makes it unlikely I will make much more progress in the first quarter of 2021.
It has occured to me that Im Flug durch Raum und Zeit gives me the opportunity to perform it at local open mike or poetry slam events, once the pandemic is defeated. The English language sermons I have read at international meditation meetings and conferences, but those take days of travel and I don’t know when I’ll be able to afford that kind of expense of time again. Something like a poetry slam could be done in an evening which seems a reasonable target. Of course the sedate pace at which I usually present the sermons would be completely inappropriate there, so I shall experiment with speaking much faster, perhaps like this:
I have made zero progress on the fourth Sermon this quarter, while a lot of other good things happened. My daughter Matea was born! So now we have three children and the oldest is three years old, for guaranteed 24/7 excitement. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks on paternity leave exploring the finer details of extreme sleep deprivation.
The plan to work on a translation of the first Sermon into German has been going much better than expected. Despite the circumstances, a first draft is nearly complete at 68 out of 80 stanzas.
In the first quarter of 2020, the most important thing that happened was not the COVID-19 pandemic. That was just another stupid pathogen senselessly murdering innocents. Temporarily bigger than the flu, but going to be much more short-lived, and still way smaller than tuberculosis or malaria.
No, the most important thing that happened in the first quarter of 2020 was our response to it. With unprecedented swiftness, our entire species coordinated to counter this new threat. There have been previous global campaigns against infectious diseases, such as the eradication of smallpox and the imminent eradication of polio. In number of life-years saved, these are among the greatest successes humans have achieved. But those lasted for decades, to end enemies older than civilisation. Against COVID-19, we are demonstrating a swiftness of species-wide teamwork that is entirely new – a level of coordination capability never before seen in the observable universe. Nobody can seriously doubt we are now more capable of fighting a pandemic than we ever were – and since there is a lot of obvious room for improvement, we’re already looking for ways to do even better next time.
Why talk about this in a progress report for a poetry project? Because this is the exact thing that the fourth Secular Sermon, the one I’m currently writing, is about: humanity’s unique ability to cooperate that allows, and forces, progress. Our growing ability to stop a mindless virus from killing millions of thinking, feeling humans is just about the most unambiguous example of progress that I can think of.
In the fourth quarter of 2019, the fourth Sermon has again progressed very little. A few more stanzas are written, some stunted bits are removed, but there’s a strong sense I’m falling behind my own expectations.
The title of the fourth Sermon is now final. It will be called “The Labor of Humanity”. Some incremental improvements have made their way in, but overall there has been little progress. I continue to be stuck on what is probably the last particularly difficult bit. After that, the work should proceed into the polishing stage for another couple of months. If I find a solution soon, I might be done by the end of the year. Or maybe not.
I show you my great masterpiece of which I am so proud and all it is is fantasies of being cared about.
I have had various serious difficulties. This weekend, I was hoping to go on a creative writing retreat, live in a hotel for two relatively distraction-free days and get much of the remaining work on the fourth Sermon done. It was a gift from my lovely wife. Unfortunately it turned out to be impossible to square with my other duties. Before that, a special meeting of creative designers of meditations and rituals turned out to be impossible for me to attend as well. I will miss out on a lot of input, feedback and motivation I was hoping to get there, and I’m losing the urgency of wanting to have something new to present there. And before that, as I have previously mentioned, a significant part of what I have written for the fourth Sermon turned out to be not good enough.
Last Saturday, a film crew filmed me reading a bit of the Seven Secular Sermons in a formal meditation setting. This is for ARD, Germany’s federal public service broadcaster. They’ll be running the movie at 17:30 on the 10th of November, apparently. Six of my friends kindly came together on short notice to play meditating extras. For the text, I chose the first half of the work-in-progress fourth Sermon.
The movie isn’t actually about the Sermons of course. They only get the publicity because I write them, and I in turn only get the publicity because my dad is famous as a hero of the overthrow of the East German dictatorship. The movie is about what it is like to have that kind of parents. I snuck in the bit about the Sermons and hope it makes the cut.
This air we breathe was breathed before, by parts of life now dead. It flows from lung to lung, to more and future lives ahead.
We breathe what must someday have been some creature’s dying breath. To feel this breath right now can mean to feel the touch of death.
I have begun reading the first part of the fourth Sermon to people, and found it doesn’t quite work. I always knew this is a possibility with every Sermon – I’m so close to them I have an inside view that makes me a poor judge of what is effective for others. So I take care to seek feedback from readers and listeners, and incorporate it as diligently as I can. But that doesn’t feel right when I’m in the very beginning of a Sermon, where the pieces don’t even hold together yet. So I’ve gone without feedback for a long time, and now that I get some, I find I’ve deviated from the hypothetical optimum more than usual. So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reworking and improving things that I thought I had pretty much finished.