Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert

I went last night to Davidson College to hear Elizabeth Gilbert - the woman who wrote that book I talked about way back in April in my post "Gift-Wrapped Tapestries" - do a talk with her sister, Catherine Gilbert Murdock (also a writer). To get there I had had to weasel my friend Austin into driving the half-hour north from his house to pick up our free tickets three weeks ago. Then yesterday I had to teach a full day of classes, ride my bike home, borrow a car, pick up my son from his Uncle's house, take him home, hand him off to my dad with instructions and a meal, and finally ride my bike the one hour back up past my school to where Austin lives so I could hitch a ride with him up to the college.

This was all a horrible, grinding affront to my natural, comfortable Self. I am a homebody. I like to do homebody things like reading, writing, pulling weeds in the garden, horsing around with the kid and learning to play my ukulele. I do not like traffic, or driving, or planning ahead. I did it all anyway, though, because it was that book that overflowed my bucket and convinced me that I could and should attempt to write the truth of my life, an endeavor that has become my "Anatomy of an Effup" series. Her writing is conversational, relaxed and personal, and although I do not claim to be a great writer, I am good enough at being myself. Reading her work convinced me that that was enough, as long as I was willing to tell the truth.

The upshot is that I have been able to say, publicly, things that I have hidden even from myself for years. Things in the dark have been brought to light, and I have been freed to breathe the clean air of a well-dusted environment. The hope I held as I began this sometimes painful work was that rooting down to the bodkin of my story would help others search out the hidden truths of their own lives, and the responses I have gotten thus far - even with such a rough draft as I have been sharing - have been amazing. I wasn't going to the lecture to fawn, therefore, but to listen and then give her a little note of thanks I had written.

As Austin and I approached the building where the lecture was to occur, I turned to him and said, "Look, dude, I gotta warn you... my guess is that this thing is probably gonna be mostly middle-aged women." We walked in and got in the extraordinarily long line, which (surprise, surprise) was mostly middle-aged women, all gibbering excitedly and pointing out lines to each other in their well-thumbed copies of her book, "Eat, Pray, Love".

Eventually they let us in; and after some guy in a suit told us how prestigious this lecture series was and some woman from the English Department played some embarrassing childhood recording of the lot of them pretending to be celebrity interviewers and proving that she and the lecturers were, in fact, Best Friends Forever, Elizabeth Gilbert and her sister came out onto the stage and sat down on a pair of red and blue armchairs.

When we had come in Austin, who is a professional actor and filmmaker, had informed me that the theater's backdrop, a modernist wood-frame set for Moliere's "Tartuffe", was in his opinion odd and misguided, and as they began to talk I found myself thinking of how deeply weird the whole situation was, with a couple of guys like us at this gathering of so many women. We had marched down front and center, one row back from the four mom-aged women who'd been valiant enough to sit in the spit pit. They turned when we sat, and one of them said, "Getting in touch with your feminine side? Or... I suppose you have to be here for your class?"

To which I replied, "Nope. Read the book and liked it, and Austin here saw the TED thing* on creativity."

They seemed genuinely shocked, but I suppose that had something to do with the fact that although I am thirty, I look like an eighteen year old mallrat. It is odd that someone of that sort would read Gilbert's book, and even odder that they'd like it. Nonetheless, we sat there and enjoyed her often witty and inspiring talk as hundreds of fawning women behind and in front of us gushed their approval at every little word and mannerism.

"Woo-Hoo!" Austin said a little too loudly, with a fist pump: "Welcome to the feminist rally!"

After it was over, I waylaid her on the way to the autograph table, bypassing the line in that obnoxious, chauvinist manner of all men, everywhere, and gave her the little note I'd pre-written, thanking her for her book and what it had done for me. I walked away, then, shoulder checking to make sure she hadn't tossed it in the round filing cabinet by the desk.

Who knows? Maybe she'll read it. And maybe, out of curiosity, she'll follow the link on the card I shamelessly stapled in and read this post and feel that weird sensation you get when you live one of your own experiences through someone else's eyes. Maybe she'll write me an impassioned letter, encouraging me in my art, and maybe we'll become, as Anne of Green Gables would say, "bosom friends".

Given the hundreds of gushing women at that lecture and the millions worldwide who probably also stalk this woman it is highly unlikely - and probably not something I would even benefit all that much from. I already suffer far too much from our cultural malady of celebrititis. Elizabeth Gilbert made the distinction during her talk between "fans" and "readers", and I hope that I am more the latter. It was good to be there, though, with my sardonic friend and all those women, and to say a word of thanks to one of the many, many writers from whom I've stolen a tiny bit of inspiration.

_ _ _


*In which she was wearing the same shoes as she did last night, I'll have you know.

Monday, October 26, 2009

All Hallows Eve

In the interests of brevity (the words in my posts seem to be breeding behind my back) and of annoying people who have a problem with All Hallows Eve because it's evil, I present my pumpkin.

Monday, October 19, 2009

micro-loves

Barking Reed is, for me, a healthy alternative to trying to slam my head through a brick and mortar wall. See, I go to this thing at a place with some people, and the other thing - this "church" out of which the thing I go to has been spawned - has given our thing five hundred dollars to spend on people who need it. This week a discussion of how to use that money and something came up that made me want to smack a wall with my face.

My friend Andrew had suggested we might spend some of the money on the organization Kiva, which provides zero-interest loans to people in the developing world who have no other way to get help. It's a streamlined, well-run organization that makes it extremely easy for you to give a leg up to another human being... without treating them like a pity-object for the development of your own personal warm-fuzzies.

While you get direct interaction with the people to whom you are making these loans, you are only loaning them the money; so unless you're a real poop-stain, you don't get to think of yourself as the great white bwana bringing salvation from on high to the poor, benighted savage. It treats this person, instead, like a real live human being, a wondrous sack of person-hood worthy of your love and respect who, because of circumstances beyond your knowledge, needs some help. It is, I think, one of the best available options for trying to help those caught in the cycle of poverty.

Which is why it makes no sense to me that one of the members of our group would resist the idea with great vehemence. It costs us nothing (they have 98% repayment, which is superb for any lending institution) and helps to alleviate the horrendous rich-poor imbalance that afflicts the world today. Win-win, right? Well, not exactly. Not if you hold to the sacred-secular dichotomization idiocy of a lot of the nominally Christian population of North America.

Earlier on this blog, I linked to a Wendell Berry article that explores this idiocy in great detail, but to summate I'll just say that the idea is borrowed from Plato and suggests that there are two spheres, one spiritual and one material, with the material one being inferior, in a moral sense, to the spiritual one. The consequence of this idea is the belief that the physical world we inhabit is not very important. False and often arbitrary distinctions are made, and the "church" ends up teaching that you shouldn't really care about the physical needs of people, because those things do not really matter next to the crucial question of whether or not they say the right things and have their "heart" changed by a loving God who will otherwise burn them forever in an everlasting fire. It also leads people who hold this view (and there are a LOT of them) to think that it's okay to wreak havoc on the natural world because it, too, is of an inferior order.

I know this is why the guy at my meeting was against Kiva, because he actually came out and said it. He talked a bit about how he'd rather give the money to a Christian organization and then he said, "if we don't tell them a salvation message, we're basically just throwing our money away". So there you have it: if you help someone out in some practical way without giving them any explicit, propositional message about Jesus, you have done nothing. Or, to put it more crassly, if you give a starving man a meal without forcing him to sit through an explanation of some pamphlet, you are wasting your resources.

Um.

I didn't really know what to say to that. This is so far off-base from what I have come to think of as the core Christian message that I don't really know how to bridge the gap. In our group, this chap was in the minority. One person told him they'd rather give money to a competent organization than to give it to an inferior one just because it called itself Christian, and the point was made as well that Kiva is non-partisan and often works with regional churches and "Christian" organizations in the countries where it makes its loans. He argued a bit more, and in the interest of actually getting the money spent on Kiva, I suggested that we might pick a specific loan that was being done through a church - a proposition to which he grudgingly agreed.

He was in a minority in that group and the truth won out, but what has me wanting to bash my head against a wall is that I think our group is a bit of an exception. I was telling this story to my friend Ruteger* out in California on Monday, and he asked, "Well, isn't that just the basic premise of evangelical Christianity?" I did not have an answer, but it scared me to think that he might be right. It sort of fits my experience with the NAPEs (North American Protestant Evangelical) environment; which is weird, because it doesn't at all fit with the Christ depicted in the Bible, which these people so rabidly pretend to follow.

St. Francis of Assisi (a most excellent fellow) is quoted often as saying, "Preach the gospel at all times -- and if necessary, use words." A lot of people pay lip service to that idea, but for most churchy folk it is far too open-ended and leaves way too much up to God. To my mind, though, if you have to beat people over the head with the good news, it isn't all that good. And if you need to have control over over who gets to preach it, it can't be all that compelling a truth.

Loving other people is the good news. I think you get to share this news because God is love, but when you have to stop to scream that little nugget every ten seconds before you can proceed, it sounds to me a little bit like it is yourself you are trying to convince, which is a sign of self-obsession. Self-obsession may be a commonality in our culture, but it is certainly not something that Christ advocated. He said, rather, that you are lovely and loved; and can therefore stop doing all the silly, destructive things people tend to do when they feel unloved, and instead start spending your time loving other people.

The NAPEs cannot rule the day. The truth is bigger than their stupidity, and love will out. This is my hope and my faith. My sorrow, however, is that in their fear of what love demands they are denying it, and in the name of a sad caricature of love are bringing great destruction to this country, this people, and this world.



---

*"Ruteger" is actually "Mark" from the last "Anatomy of an Effup" post. He said he thought "Mark was kind of dumb, and that he'd always pictured himself as a Ruteger. He said this not because it was true, but because he likes making my life difficult. I asked him to think of a better name, and he's now mulling it over.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

the christian fairy tale

We are a story-telling race. But if we begin, having told our stories, to believe that in them we have created once and for all the story, then we are sadly mistaken and more than a little bit silly.

You and I are dust motes, flashing for a moment across the light beam of time. That flash is not all that is real, and I believe that we exist beyond and perhaps before that time; but the rest remains shrouded in darkness - a mystery so complex that we can only intuit a sense of the truth of it by submitting in childlike wonder to the invisible currents that move us on through and into the untold. Myths and stories, when spoken and heard with wonder, allow us to do this.

Stories are, therefore, of the utmost importance. They create our identity and our sense of self. As a result, one way to really freak people out is to tell them you think their meticulously-constructed worldview, or meta-narrative, is a myth. This is because they believe overly much in their capacity to understand the Universe, and have erroneously come to think of myths as lies.

I think this happens because they are confused about the difference between "facts" and "truth". Facts are important in everything we do. They are the bones of our lives and we need them to function. The neurosurgeon poking his finger around in our gray matter had better know what those squigglies are, just as an activist ranting about oppressive economic practices had better be able to back up those muckraking accusations with cold, hard data. Nonetheless, while facts are important, the truth is essential. It is the marrow of our bones, the blood that carries truth throughout our being and brings meaning to the madness.

Frederick Beuchner says in his book, "Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC", that "The raw material of a myth, like the raw material of a dream, may be something that actually happened once. But myths, like dreams, do not tell us much about that kind of actuality. The creation of man, Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Oedipus - they do not tell us primarily about events. They tell us about ourselves. In popular usage, a myth has come to mean a story that is not true. Historically speaking that may well be so. Humanly speaking, a myth is a story that is always true. [emphasis mine]"

This is easy enough to accept as an abstract concept, but becomes intimately painful when applied to our own, carefully-built story. We tell stories to make sense of the world, and we adopt meta-narratives in order to have a story that fills in for all our ignorance and keeps fear at bay. Perceived threats to our stories challenge the very essence of how we view ourselves - the core identity that we believe makes us lovable. So if I was to say to you, for example, that evolutionary biology is a myth, the degree to which you will react emotionally (if this is your worldview) will indicate how much of your identity is bound up in a lie, the lie of capital "K" knowledge.

To bring it closer to my own socio-cultural home, I would argue that if you claim to have worked out a meticulous and all-answering systematic theology of God, you have created a myth, a fairy tale which will have value only inasmuch as you do not stomp your feet and insist that it is entirely factual. I realize that this statement marks me as a bit of a heretic, but I am not the first. In his brilliant and seminal essay, "On Fairy-Stories", J.R.R. Tolkein argues that "Yet these things [mythology and religion] have in fact become entangled—or maybe they were sundered long ago and have since groped slowly, through a labyrinth of error, through confusion, back towards re-fusion. "

The path to re-fusion of mythology and religion is not to abandon reason. If we want to accept a mythological religion, we must abandon pride, and live instead with humble and child-like acquiescence to the grandiose mystery that is this life. An abandonment of reason, on the contrary, is what leads us to believe the idiotic proposition that finite creatures such as ourselves could ultimately explain an infinite reality and (perhaps most disturbing) an infinite God. As a result, we end up in the laughable position of arguing about whose fairy tale is the most accurate.

"The Three Little Pigs" and "Little Red Riding Hood" cannot both be true, we say, because in both of them the wolf dies. We then do logical gymnastics to show that one is false and the other true. "A wolf could never blow over a house of wood", we might argue, "it wouldn't have the lung capacity; and while it seems impossible that a wolf might wear a granny's night cap and gown, it is more likely than that he would be capable of climbing up onto a roof and squeezing down the chimney."

What this sort of argument utterly disregards is that neither story lines up all that well with fact (wolves don't generally speak English), and that that is beside the point. Fairy tales do not exist to provide factual accounts of The Way Things Are, they are there to point us to Truth - to provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless life.

As Buechner noted, one story might be more based on facts than another - as with, for example, the tale of Peter and the Wolf. I, myself, tend to think that the story the Bible tells of Christ is worth hanging my hat on. But given the finite nature of our human knowledge, it would seem to be wiser to leave our ultimate decisions in such matters to within the dominion of faith - informed by the facts, yes, but not inextricably dependent upon them. This opens us up to what Tolkien describes in his essay as joy. As he says it, "The peculiar quality of the 'joy' in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth."

That truth may be scary and very, very humbling, but it is the only thing that can set us free. If we insist on maintaining against all reason the illusion of a "factual" worldview, then we close our eyes to the timeless truth of an unlimited myth, wallowing instead in the petty indulgence of our temporal illusions. There is no recipe more sure for a life less extraordinary.

Friday, October 16, 2009

ALONE



Another in-class doodle, with a detail for good measure. The piece is graphite on 2'x3' poster paper, with the entire value pattern constructed using thousands of repetitions of the word "alone". I finished up with some light colored-ink washes.





Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What I Can't Stand About Liberals

I know, I know. If you were going to try to cram me into a shoebox, you would probably try to put me in one marked "liberal", or at least "wishy-washy"... which, to a hardline conservative-type person is probably about the same thing. As the saying goes, "You're either for us, or liable to taste the pointy end of our nuclear warheads". Nonetheless, I gotta say that to me, the term "liberal" could just as easily be defined as "people who avert their eyes and don't say 'hello' when you pass them on the sidewalk".

One of the things I like about living where I do in the quasi-south is that these supposedly obnoxious, conservative folks are generally friendlier to strangers than their more liberal counterparts in the north. It seriously wigged me out when I first lived here before, back in two thousand and one: someone would wave at me from their car and I would immediately start to think, "what's your angle?" That's because most of my time in North America has been spent in the much more liberal Pacific Northwest, where it is understood that "stranger equals danger", or at least "faceless non-entity".

There is a palpable difference here in the south. It is really, really cool to be walking on a levy and have some old dude who just oozes character ask you how you're doing, and then strike up a conversation about the history of the place. Or take one of the cute little quirks that drew me to my wife - the way she would randomly greet strangers on the street (a habit she quickly forewent after we moved to the frigid world of British Columbia). And I love that I pulled into a rural gas station this morning and a couple different people gave me warm greetings and best wishes as I ventured out into the miserable cold rain of the day on my motorcycle. It makes me smile to be treated like a human.

Charlotte has been growing like crazydogs these past years. Union County - where I now live - has been one of the fastest growing in the nation, and the influx of "them liberal yanks" has had an appreciable effect on the general level of friendliness. While I am often saddened by some of the destructive, backwards attitudes of my southern, conservative brethren and sistren, I have to admit that it pains me to see the warmth of the south overtaken by the cold, liberal winter.

I know this is a gross generalization - liberals are often friendly and kind - they just carry, on average, a difference in demeanor and a chillier attitude towards strangers. It's just part of the culture. I might get a nasty, bitter comment from someone who hates being categorized as "unfriendly" and will insist that "it's true that you can't really trust people" but instead of fixating on the irony of that, I have to say that I find it unlikely that the writer of such a comment has spent much time in the land of cornbread and grits.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

fiddlesticks

I just did an impromptu, informal, un-scientific survey of my students, and they informed me that 30-50% of the Juniors and Seniors drink or smoke up regularly, 25-40% of the Juniors and Seniors sleep around, and 90% of the Juniors and Seniors cheat regularly on tests and homework (fairly unanimous on that last one).

Since this is a small, private, Christian school, I can only assume that the percentages in other schools are similar or greater. This is further evidenced by a nifty book I am reading by Jeremy Iversen called "High School Confidential".

All I can say is this: Tune your fiddle, cause Rome's gotta burn.

I should clarify that when I talk about burning, I am not referring to the extra-curricular wrath of an angry God, since I am not convinced that God operates that way.

I refer instead to causality, which, while fairly incomprehensible, still seems to me to be the way things are. If you have ninety percent of the people in a country believing that cheating is a perfectly acceptable way to get what you want, then not only do you have a culture where incompetence continues to rise and rise, but also you have undercut the very foundation - trust - on which all healthy interpersonal relations must be built.

In other words, we're screwed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Identity and Worth

Two nights ago I slept on one of the eight couches at my actor-buddy Austin's house. In the morning, I went into his room, leaned over to within inches of his face and said, "Good Morning, Sunshine" in my sweet-sickliest voice. Then I sat down on the floor for a nice chat, keeping Austin captive under the covers wearing God-and-Austin-only-knows-what. Yes, I am that person.

Austin was vulnerable, so I explained to him (while brandishing a hammer that I'd found on the floor of his room) that it was his fault I had done this. I can't remember my reasoning, but I tell you this because by approaching Austin like that and then posting the experience on here where he is likely to see it, I have raised a whole bunch of issues about identity and worth, which by an insane coincidence is exactly what I'd like to explore in this blog post.

My main reason for doing this is that I feel there is an important distinction that needs to be made between Identity and Worth, and that the blurring of that distinction in our minds (or, more accurately, our souls - whatever those are) is what leads us as people to rip ourselves and others to shreds. Let me explain what I mean by these two things.

Identity I define as the sum total of the circumstances of your life. That is: your relationships, your race, your education (in all forms), your culture, et cetera. This word obviously falls short of actually capturing both the source and reality behind our concept of identity, because identity is something of a mystery.

Worth
I define as the intangible quality of you-ness that makes you matter. Worth is an even greater mystery, because in my opinion it can only come from one place - God - which is unutterable and inconceivable and inexplicable. I will try, however, and say that in my conception God is Love, and anywhere and anyway that we experience Love - whether it be familial, erotic, paternal, filial or whatever - those are the places from which we derive both our actual and perceived worth.

Therein lies our problem: the crossover. Worth is always experienced and augmented in the same contexts wherein we receive our sense of identity. But (and it's a huge but) they are not the same thing. Worth is much, much more elemental and primal. It is the driving force of our actions, because it is what gives significance to all our identity-constructing ideas and behaviors.

I realize I'm being somewhat esoteric here... sorry. I just don't know how to talk about mystery without getting a little befuddled. Let me re-phrase. Everything you do or see or experience, plus everything that everyone else in the history of time has experienced up til this point creates your sense of identity. Those things are what you think of when you say, "My name is _ _ _ _ , I am a _ _ _ _ and I like _ _ _ _ and _ _ _ _" and so on and so on until everyone else tries to jump in and tell you about their identity.

I am convinced that none of this is a bad thing. Just the opposite: in fact, it is your identity that makes my world so infinitely interesting. I am flabbergasted by the wondrous complexity of the natural world but you, you amazing sack of flesh and bone, you take the cake! Underneath that luscious, buttery icing is the amorphous entity that makes you Worth my time. That mysterious entity is constructed entirely out of Love, which is not so much a thing as it is a way of being, most demonstrably visible in the actions that you and I take towards each other.

Because of this, identity is impossible to create without Love underwriting the whole deal. Take any one of us from birth, lock us in a white room with robotic nursemaids and a whole lot of televisions to teach us about the world, and not only would we not develop a sense of identity or worth, but also we would die. This is what they (the faceless experimenters) say, and even though I really don't know how they could know this without doing something deeply perverse and evil, I totally believe it.

All of us, to a greater or lesser degree, develop our sense of identity in an environment with less love than we need for survival. We feel this in our guts, and because Love is a basic, primal human need (as vital as food, water and air) we look around desperately for it, in all sorts of useless places. Too often, we fixate on the identity-creating level itself, reasoning (on an instinctual level) that since there is love in those things, the more earnestly we cling to them the more Love we will experience; which will enable us to diminish the love-deficiency that we feel is killing us.

There are an infinite number of ways in which we do this. Say you collect stamps, or something equally pointless. Go ahead, say it - it will feel good to admit it, and to own up to the fact that it made you angry that I called it pointless. The cold, calculating logician in your head knows that the stamps you love are just small pieces of paper with some adhesive on them, but the thrill of acquisition and long acquaintance tie in, most likely, to the thrill of an adventurer and the feeling that you get of being connected - not only to other stamp collectors, but to the people who used the stamp before you, the exotic appeal of their lives.

There is love there, yes, so you latch onto that and it actually enriches your life... until you become a nutjob and start to make it be all about the stamps in themselves. You lose touch with the source of those feelings of satisfaction, and in a desperate attempt to re-kindle the feelings, you attach all that emotional significance to the stamps in themselves. Inasmuch as you do this, you become a weirdo, and cut yourself off from the real interactions that provide you with a conduit for the love you need. You start to neglect personal hygiene, and end up living in your mom's basement, eating Doritos and stale pizza.

That's not an issue for most of you, however, so how about a more obvious, universal one: a romantic relationship with another human being. You love them, they love you and everything is fuzziness and cotton candy. As you go on in that relationship, you gradually take on certain attributes that are directly contingent on your relationship with that person, and you begin to add that into your sense of identity. This is perfectly natural and good. It is how you are made.

However, if you started the relationship without a healthy sense of self-worth (like, say, you always thought "I'm ugly and untalented and no one can ever love me"), then it is inevitable that you will come to depend on the relationship itself for the Love you need. You will begin to confuse your increased sense of worth the results, and not the cause.

When the inevitable happens and the excitement wears off and that other person is no longer able to provide you with quite the same love that you have come to expect, because of your false starting point you will subconsciously come to the false conclusion that you are not lovable. Chances are pretty good that at this point you are going to freak out.

You may begin to believe (again, subconsciously) that the way to get back your feeling of worth is to either fix the relationship, or to find another one that will provide the Love you need. The problem is that these relationships are only outward manifestations of a deeper mystery. They are important, and they are you, but they are not YOU.

Another big area you might be getting your identity and worth confused is religion. This is where I get the most embarrassed, because it quickly becomes obvious that I do not know what I am talking about. Religion connects us to a mystery - it is an exploration of the mystery of relating to the Divine Presence (Love) that transcends and bewilders our logical faculties. Many people take this as a sign of untruth and abandon the journey entirely. Others, through no fault or merit of their own, somehow through religion get glimpses of the Source. Love touches them, and they are changed by it.

Then it gets hard for those who started from the wrong spot. The feelings fade as identity/worth confusion sets in, and they start to believe that the exterior forms of their religion are the Love. They desperately need that Love back, but don't know how to get it. So they pursue the forms and end up driving Love out of the picture. They do this, often, because they came to religion without a sense of self worth. They did not begin from a place of self-love. They did not see themselves as wondrous members of a glorious creation, but instead believed they were poopy-poopy-poo. So they institutionalized these feelings and then invented elaborate procedures to try to make them go away. The problem is not with the religion and it's not even with the procedures, it is with them and their underlying belief that they suck. When you start with a false premise such as this, you will inevitably arrive at a false conclusion.

What is the truth, then? The truth is that you are awesome. You are absolutely wondermuss! Don't get me wrong - your identity is royally screwed up. Your confusion and search for worth and meaning on the surface level of identity is leading you into all sorts of destructive, awful behaviors, but you know what... that is OK. Your life is at stake here - your deep, inner Love-Life - and it is perfectly understandable that you are going to take all sorts of desperate actions as you fight for that life.

I am here to let you off the hook. I am here to tell you that you are wonderful, and that I love you, and that you are loveable and lovely. I am here to tell you that I believe that that loveliness has a Source, and that source is God, and that because that God is Love, all God wants is for you to align yourself with the truth of the situation - that you are lovely and loved, and can love other people.

In conclusion, I must offer you my profoundest apologies. I have taken an inscrutable mystery and have violated it down to a few hundred words. Ha ha ahha hahaha. It would perhaps have been much better to dance you this point, or sing or paint it. But I am a writer - I identify myself with the arrangement of words, and have falsely found some of my own sense of worth in the belief that I can arrange these words in a way that creates Love. I am sorry. Love may flow through my writing, but it is not held by it.

I am just such a broken person as I describe. I collect things - not stamps, but all manner of emotional crutches. I rudely wake people up and then brandish a hammer to show them that I am important - or at least funny. I seek out their vulnerabilities in order to avoid exposing my own. I am a failure - but I am trying not to be. I am struggling to believe that I am lovely, and to take that belief and actively share it with others. So I say it again...

I love you. You are lovely. Have a love-full day.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

killer

Two days ago I taught my infant son how to kill living creatures that were inconveniencing him. What is worse, I made it a game and taught him to take pleasure in it. In my defense, I had the best of intentions. I swear, that kid is a mosquito magnet. It's almost as though his body is completely full up to the neckles with something they really, really want.

I have this suspicion that it might be my fault. Long ago I made a secret pact with Bzzit Pwatang, "King for Eternity of Mosquitoes of the Americas". He would tell his minions not to suck my blood, and I would be his ambassador in the human world. Since that day, I have carried the message of "Mosquitoes Need Friends, Too" out into the world with great diligence and enthusiasm. And, true to his word, he has made me nearly mosquito-proof (although there are some small factions that question his right of succession).

Apparently, this royal decree does not extend to my son. Or perhaps the dissenters, emboldened by a loophole, are taking out on Mateo the rage they feel powerless to express against me. Whatever the case, my own imperviousness means that I am generally oblivious to any mosquitoes that might be around, and therefore often forget to protect my son from the vile probosces of these vampiric insects. I decided on the spur of the moment, therefore, to train him to see a mosquito, take aim, and !SLAP! it into oblivion.

The moment I had done it - the moment I saw his wide-eyed enthusiasm and giggling pleasure at success - that was when I felt the deepest sense of sorrow and regret. You laugh at me, but I did. I felt absolutely rotten for the next two hours. Not at the death of the mosquito necessarily; but at this sad, sorry world, where destruction and the waste of life are only ever a question of degree. Everybody kills. Even that vegan fruititarian you knew in college who basically just grazed through meadows and forests for sustenance - even he directly kills microbes when cooking food and indirectly contributes to the deaths of people and other living creatures by being a member of this destructive society of ours.

It is inevitable that my son will become a killer. I will do my best to temper the destructiveness of his life by showing him how to walk lightly and to use this beautiful and wondrous place as gently as possible. But two days ago I was reminded once again that it is a broken world to which he has been born; with a life colored by the sorrow of death as his inheritance.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I Am No Superman

One of the many, many girls on whom I have never put any moves is named Allison Mack. I didn't know this when I met her, though - to me she was just a random actor playing the role of "Chloe" on the TV show "Smallville".

It happened like this: When I went to the casting agency to fill out the forms and get my picture taken so I could start doing some extra work, they told me I "had a good look", and that I would probably get lots of calls to do shows like Smallville. This made me happy, because it was Smallville that got me interested in the extra gig - I'd only ever seen one episode, but it was partly filmed a few doors down from where I lived at the time in Aldergrove, British Columbia, and it seemed like I was always seeing or hearing things about the show. For example, my insane buddy "Chip" told me that one time he'd come home and found the black dude who played Clark Kent's pal, hanging out in the kitchen with his brother and some girl they knew. That sparked off a whole conversation between Chip and I about how we should go find where they film it and kidnap the guy who played Superman and, like, make him eat lots of brownies or something. (Before you report me, let me make this clear... it was a joke - we just figured it would be pretty funny to be able to tell all your cell mates that you had kidnapped Superman.)

So when I saw this random-looking advertisement on Craigslist for extras for film and television, I naturally thought, "hey, I bet if I did that I'd get called out to be on Smallville, and I could at least punch Superman in the face". Which is exactly what happened (the getting on Smallville part, that is). Smallville was the second call-up I got, right after doing an Anne Hathaway movie and crushingly defeating the little strumpety starlet in a stare fight (I'm not kidding. It was, like, three minutes long. I kicked her little movie-star patoot.)

I got the details and then drove at ridiculous o'clock in the morning on my motorcycle out to the place in Burnaby where they shoot Smallville. I left early, but got lost and ended up arriving after my call time - which I didn't find out until I'd wandered around for a few minutes in this huge, creepily-lit space full of plasticky-looking interiors. I eventually ran into a swarthy, annoyed-looking guy with a walkie-talkie, who directed me over across some train tracks to the other warehouse, where everyone else had gone.

Nobody was around when I opened the large exterior door and entered a dimly-lit corridor with another door at the other end. I presumed that the whole thing was intended to keep outside light out, so I shut the door and started to walk in. Along one side they had a couple of carts piled high with goodies, but I had scarcely had a chance to hone in on the roasted almonds (I had learned to wear pants with zippered pockets) when the far door opened and who should walk through it but Tom Welling, the guy who plays Superman.

It was just me and him, then, walking towards each other. I had on a leather jacket and was carrying a heavy helmet in my left hand. It would be so easy, I thought. I could just take a quick swing and run for it. If he chased me down, I had a helmet, right? Besides, I was late already and they had warned me at the casting agency to never, ever, ever be late. I was probably done as an extra anyways, so I might as well get something out of it. Except, the closer I got to the guy, the bigger he got. He just got bigger... and bigger... and bigger. I'm not sure how big, exactly, he eventually got; but to a five-foot-ten-inch slim/slender chap such as myself, it was plenty big. I gave him a nod and walked on by, my ego shattered.

I went to wardrobe, got dressed, and after a while wended my way with the rest of the extras over to the set of "The Talon". Between takes early on I happened to be standing by Tom Welling and Allison Mack, and they were talking about some issue related to social justice. Maybe I was still smarting from my earlier wuss-out, but I can remember thinking, "Oh, yeah... right. A couple of millionaire actors pretending to care about something really important." Apparently my ego had been really bruised. Not exactly a high point.

They started to set up again and one of the extras handlers came over and told me to go into this little side hallway. He told me that when they said "Action!" he wanted me to come bustling out, walk over to a table and pretend to greet people, then walk to another table and greet some more people "with a lot of energy".

Pretty straightforward extra stuff, so I went in there and started waiting. My back tends to ache a little when I stand for too long, so after a while I squatted down. There, right in front of me, was a plastic rose. I picked it up. I stood up again. Someone walked into the hallway from the other end and leaned against the wall about four feet away from me. I looked over and it was Allison Mack. She smiled at me. Then she glanced down at the plastic flower, then back up at my face. She smiled again and said, "hey".

That was it. All I had to do was smile, hand her the flower, and say "Hi". That would have been the normal, human reaction to a nice, friendly greeting with a flower implication thrown in. My brain being the anomaly that it is, however, I don't generally do "normal". Instead, my mind went into turbodrive. I thought: "Wow... this is so cliche. A plastic rose? A smile? Come on. I can feel my life turning into a badly written soap opera. Plus, I'm married, and of course if I talk to her it will constitute adultery, and she'll probably ask me to go to her trailer to show me her collection of Amnesty International pamphlets, and I'll show her my pocket portfolio and she'll swoon over my artwork and I'll revive her with a kiss and we just can't have that happening, now, can we?"

I gave her a half-nod and a half-smile, which amounted to one whole dismissal. I looked away.

Now, contrary to what you may be thinking right now, I am not an idiot. I did not for one moment actually, rationally think that any of that alternate-reality scenario could have ever, actually happened. But split-second decisions rarely come from anything even close to a well-reasoned position, and in that moment I chucked all those turbo-thoughts and went on instinct - an instinct driven largely, I think, by the idiocy of ego-preservation.

She was just being friendly to a Moving Prop in the wings - something her job did not require her to do. I could have honored that and had a nice chat. It would not have gone anywhere ridiculous, even if I'd wanted it to. Instead I blew it, and promptly justified my bad behavior away as "good taste" or "moral rectitude". Then I did my best to forget the whole thing.

A few months ago, however - shortly after my wife had announced her intention to leave me - I was browsing the interwebs and that random moment in the Smallville hallway came to mind. I had been processing a lot of the unhealthy ways that I had dealt with people in my life, and I realized, then, that I had been something of a poo to Allison.

So I looked her up on imdb. I found out that she was born somewhere over in Germany and had come to America at the age of two. I learned that she was passionate about her craft, that she studies dancing, and that she learned to crochet from the actor who plays Clark Kent's mom. She is also about my same age. At the bottom of her bio they had a personal quote. She said,

"The most powerful way we can live our lives is if we stick within the community... when you come together as a community to acheive one specific goal, it's really just a beautiful thing."

That really grabbed me. At the time, I had been reading a book by Wendell Berry, who writes a lot about the value of community. It had been on my mind a lot and my curiosity was piqued, so I googled her and found that she had a website... a blog. I looked it up, and it was actually fairly interesting. It turns out that this Allison was not just some Five-in-a-Can TV Blond, and that she was actually passionate about a lot of the same things as I am. Hmm, I thought. Hmm. It is just possible that if i hadn't been such a dink on that set, we might have had a good and challenging conversation. I might have even learned something.

There are moments when it feels as though my life has been a long succession of these missed opportunities for real, human connection. This is obviously a more dramatic example, since it involves bright lights and celebrities. But in many smaller, less-glamorous ways I have developed a habit of allowing my fears, anxieties and judgments to come between myself and other people. It would be easy enough to get bummed about this, and then hold on to that bummed-ness until it turned into despair. I don't think I will, though.

I went on Allison Mack's website. I wrote her a note. Then, when she posted an "art challenge" to anyone who reads her blog, I got involved. She said that she'd been been reading "A Writer's Book of Days", by Judy Reeves, a book which provides a daily writing exercise. She said she was going to do them, and posted the first. It didn't give a lot of detail. It just said you had to write a piece that had to begin: "__________ is the color I remember". I took up her challenge, did the exercise, and then posted it in the comments section.

Maybe I'm right to be bummed. Perhaps my whole life has been a running farce of missed opportunities to connect and converse with people in a way that creates something new. But in this one instance, at least, I got a sort of a second chance.


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Light brown is the color I remember – the chocolatey brown of the amazonian waters where I learned to swim, to almost drown, to love… to lust.

There is a smell these waters carry with them, a glorious musk compiled of tiny particles dragged from snow-capped alpine peaks, tumbled off smooth-worn rocks and pulled from mossy cliffs . Every year the rains swell the rivers and they reach out – first in fingers, then with broad sweeps of arms, laying a blanket of themselves over the whole Amazon basin and then sucking downstream tiny bits and pieces, drawing with them the stink of life and death and decay.

By the time this water flowed through the oxbow Peruvian lake on which I lived, the dank waters were so choked with this history of a watery life that to an outsider they were nearly unswimmable.

For me, however, each time I immersed the warm waters wrapped me in their amniotic embrace and I emerged, at last, feeling new-born and alive. It was a Baptism of Being – and although I now live in North Carolina, swimming only very rarely in the sterility of chlorinated pools – every once in a while I smell something so earthy and primal that I am transported in an instant back… back to the light brown waters of my childhood.