Tuesday, September 28, 2010

in the in between

most of my 20s were spent in between situations--in between colleges, in between marriages, in between jobs, in between living in one place and another, in between sobriety and whatever state I was in--so I was often in wandering mode, moving from spot to spot just to keep myself alert. one of the few "in-betweens" I was rarely in was in between girls or boys I could sleep with and it was with one of those, a pretty blond with big glasses named gail, that I was wandering around new paltz one afternoon. it was a sort of cloudy, not-quite rainy day and we had just come from doing our laundry together and taking it back to my place and stopped by another friend's place.

her name was gigi. I knew 3 gigis when I was an undergraduate and I don't think I've met a single one since. I must have met my allotment. gigi was studying for her gre in literature and had quit her waitressing job in order to do nothing for 2 months but read.

she rented a couple rooms off one end of an old 40s style, gi loan, singlestory house that had seen better days. there were leaks everywhere and some windows weren't exact fits for their holes because most of them had rags and washcloths stuck into them. the place smelled of gingerbread, that kind of scent old dried wood houses get in the summer. the panelling on the outside was falling apart although it still looked okay in the front. she led us into the rooms and I noticed she had a small alcove or nook set up for herself in one corner that she must have used to read.

the corner was at a right angle to where the bedroom and kitchen came together and there was a tall, narrow window set in it. this window had no washcloths. there was a big red pillow on the floor directly adjacent to one wall and a trove of books, most of them hardcover, and a steaming mug of tea.

we sat in the kitchen and she fixed us some tea and we talked although about what I don't remember and I don't know if we had a thesis for stopping. I remember the smooth, quiet feeling I had seeing that little alcove. when gigi answered the door she had a book in her hand--I remember it as adam bede--with her thumb jammed about 3 quarters through the pages. when we left she saw us out the sliding kitchen door and in response to something gail said, an invitation to join us somewhere, she said, "god, no, I've got to keep reading."

I have always wanted that alcove. I've had the opportunity many times over the decades since to set up my own and it's never felt the way I imagined. it was always the wrong nook or the wrong season or the wrong book or the wrong something else. the truth of course is that it wasn't any of the physical things that were wrong. the truth is that I simply don't do well when all I have to do is "keep reading."

I read quickly and sloppily and I'm happier at grabbing the stray hour between classes or while waiting for someone or before going to bed. I used to read while walking but age and gravity are preventing me from doing that any longer. when I lived in my car I stopped at least 3 times a day to read or write. I used to keep a novel--the mandarins by simone de beauvier--in my car and if I was stuck in traffic or had to use a public restroom I could read a page or 2. I get itchy sitting in one place very long and fall asleep if I'm comfortable enough.
I've always thought this a kind of unfortunate thing and my only saving grace that I read so quickly. but I'm coming to see it as something else, something of a match with why I don't sit zen well or pray without looking around or meditate in the traditional ways at all. I think it comes from the same wellspring walt whitman was getting at when he wrote, "I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me. The smoke of my own breath, Echoes, ripples, buzz'd whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine, My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs, The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color'd sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn..." such things, while they can be found in books, are also best found elsewhere.

Monday, September 27, 2010

unintentional communities

"'the hasidic movement...teaches that the true meaning of love of one's neighbor is not that it is a command from god which we are to fulfill, but that through it and in it we meet god...it is not just written, "love thy neighbor as thyself," as though the sentence ended there, but it goes on. "love thy neighbor as thyself, I am the lord"...the grammatical construction of the original text shows quite clearly that the meaning is: you shall deal lovingly with your neighbor, that is, with everyone you meet along life's road, and you shall deal with him as with one equal to yourself. the second part, however, adds, "I am the lord..." the hasidic interpretation, "you think I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find me; not in his love for you, but in yours for him." he who loves brings god and the world together.'

"[martin] buber finds god in the loving of the lover.

"jesus taught a similar understanding of how authentic religious practice provides a direct path to the salvific experience of god and god's grace. god is met in the authentic and compassionate encounter with the other. he finds god in the person of the one who is being loved...these examples from buber and [matthew 25:34-40]...both understand that it is in relationship that we evoke god's presence and render it accessible...it happens in community. that message sounds familiar and almost comfortable.

"there is a twist to the message, though, revealed in the explications by jesus and the hasidim. the kind of community in which that happens is not what we expect. we are not invited to find god in the presence of those whose thoughts we already know, whose worldviews we understand, whose expectations confirm our own. we are invited instead to find god in the enounter with those who are distinctly different from us.

"these different ones are those whose thoughts, feelings, expectations, and ideas are difficult to understand. often they are so different that we find it difficult to accept the reality of the difference...we find it easier to make attributions about these unknown others, keeping ourselves safely at a distance, thus avoiding the risk of actual encounter. we are not where they are, and we do not know what they know...

"jesus [and the hasidim are] telling us that when we make contact with the one who is different, the one whose world is not like ours, we begin to allow god into our lives. when we let in the one whose assumptions surprise us, whose judgments conflict with ours, whose worldview disquiets us, and when we stop pretending that the differences aren't real, we have crossed the threshold into religious practice. it is in the practice of that kind of encounter that we begin weaving the strands of authentic spiritual community."

--from learning while leading: increasing your effectiveness in ministry by anita farber-robertson (emphasis mine)

despite however hard we try we don't choose our community, only the members of it with whom we associate. to experience the holy we need to open ourselves to discomfort, embarrassment, anger, and maybe the potential to be harmed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

poisoned bread

a few weeks ago I attended the church where a friend of mine is minister and was astonished to hear him preach a sermon that, in its supersessionism ("christians are jews who recognized jesus as the savior") and christianphilia ("christians are not necessarily right but we are the only saved ones"), was breathtakingly disturbing. I haven't blogged about it because I'm still reeling from a feeling I experienced as betrayal: here is a man I count as a friend and a religious liberal and with whom I've had more than one conversation about faiths outside xianity in which he was quick to acknowledge the rightness of their truths preaching a sermon that wouldn't have sounded much out of place coming from the most hidebound stereotypical tentshow.

the story with which he ended his sermon ran something like this: there was a town whose grain supply had been poisoned but the people were starving and needed to eat. the grainhouse manager came to the king and said, "your majesty, anyone eating the grain will become mad. but the people must eat." and the king said, "feed it to my people, but set aside some of us who won't eat the grain and will know the others are mad."

I found the original story in a book I'm reading for class. it comes from the tales of the hasidic rabbi nachman of breslov. "one day the prime minister came into the presence of the king and announced that the grain supply of the kingdom was mysteriously poisoned. all who ate of the crop would go mad. the king ordered that the grain be destroyed. 'but, your majesty,' said the minister, 'then all in your kingdom will starve.'

"'then let the people eat of the grain,' said the king. 'all save you and me. we will retain our sanity.' 'but, your majesty,' replied the minister. 'if all go mad save you and me then the people will think us mad and surely put us to death.'

"'then we too will eat of the grain,' said the king, 'but we will mark our foreheads with a sign so that when we see each other we will remember that we are mad.'"

note the difference between the two endings. in the version my friend told the emphasis is on some of us having the truth (about others) to the exclusion of others. in the original the emphasis is on knowing the truth about oneself.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

busted buddha

earlier this year I was introduced to a webcomic called darwin carmichael is going to hell. the titular hero lives in a polytheistic universe where mythical creatures like minotaurs and muses exist and karma is a regulated essence. he's damned because he's responsible, through his inattention, for the mental retardation of the current dalai lama. in the most recent storyline, he comes face-to-face with his victim and is, if not exactly forgiven, given reason to hope for his redemption.

the current issue of uu world, the unitarian universalist magazine, carries an essay by meg barnhouse called "the broken buddha" that touches on exactly this theme. when I was in sesshin, buddhist retreat, decades ago--when I first shaved my head--I had gone there because I'd done an uncharacteristic act of violence and wanted to atone for it. the abbot and my fellow sesshinists helped me to understand that atonement wasn't necessary; what was necessary was my acknowledgement of what I'd done and acceptance for its result. I couldn't turn back the clock so it was as if it had never happened and I could never make up for it but I could behave better. no one said it in so many words but I've come to understand this teaching as "we aren't responsible for our situation but we are responsible for how we respond to it." as barnhouse writes, "sometimes agony is appropriate...life is not neat."
for me, the image is not only of a broken buddha but one that's busted by both the state of being broken and by being found out. one day in my second in sesshin I went into dokusan with the abbot to tell him I had acheived enlightenment. his response: "I'm so sorry." enlightenment meant I had begun to notice the effect I had on existence and my responsibilities toward it. the busted buddha reminds us of the imperfection not only of the people we're responsible to but the okayness of our own recognized and accepted flaws. in 80s terms the busted buddha feels the fear and does it anyway.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I was wrong

this is just plain silly and I suspect even its creators are aware of that. but they're invested in it because it is slowly becoming more apparent that much antipathy--not all, because there are always caveats, but most of it--toward president barack obama* is rooted in his enemies' (and these people do consider themselves his enemies) belief that it's simply impossible for a man with a black father and white mother to have honestly won the presidency. such a thing must be attributable to either satanic involvement or liberal dishonesty or other chicanery.

in the interest of providing an example, I will be the first to admit my own certainty that george w. bush squeaked by retaking the presidency in 2004 through the machinations of the evil republican owners of diebold took a serious nosedive after obama's win a mere 4 years later. if I am person enough to admit I was wrong, can I expect any less of others?
*it still feels good to write that. now I am saying it out loud: "president barack hussein obama." I am proud to have a president with a funny name I never came across while growing up. it says something good about my country. since his election I have returned to saying the pledge of allegiance and saluting the flag. that also says something good about my country.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

neat quiz

How to Win a Fight With a Conservative is the ultimate survival guide for political arguments

My Liberal Identity:

You are a Peace Patroller, also known as an anti-war liberal or neo-hippie. You believe in putting an end to American imperial conquest, stopping wars that have already been lost, and supporting our troops by bringing them home.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

burqa update

france's senate has just passed its bill that will make wearing a full burqa a crime. in a world where people fear even things they can see such legislation is understandable but no less wrong. it is not my place, nor france's, to tell someone else what to wear or what not to wear. oddly, some places in france have also reserved the right to ban the traditional patristic right of bare chests. I say "oddly" because france is also renowned for its liberal view of public nudity. there is a schizophrenic mindset in france today: the state wants to tell people to cover up but not too much.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

why I didn't show up

this is a short tale about hubris. I don't think of myself as hubristic, of course, but I don't think any of us do and if it were the case that we are what we think we are we'd all be wonderful all the time.

I was supposed to start my internship yesterday. I've been looking forward to this for months. it took time to get the internship set up--like several other students from my seminary, I'd had another set earlier, but at the last minute the churches we were contracting with opted not to pay $2000 for 9 months of internship--and then this one opened up and was a good fit but it took months to arrange everything.

finally, today was the day we were to start and I left extra early in order to be there in plenty of time. my intern church is pretty close to the hub while I live on the rim, so it's an hour drive. but I made it to the area in plenty of time. except I never made it.
here's where the hubris sets in. I've been to the church for 3 meetings so I was pretty certain I knew how to get there. somehow I convinced myself it was off of one freeway rather than another, and by the time I'd worked out which interstate I needed to be on, the service was nearly over. I ended up in shakopee at one point, miles away from where I needed to be, and by the time I found myself the second time in apple valley, even farther away, it was long after the service would have ended. I headed home dejected and defeated.

here is the part that embarrasses me. when I realized I didn't know which direction to go and nothing looked familiar, I panicked. I rarely panic and when I do I panic totally. I have a strong self-destructive streak that flares up on occasion and explains if not excuses my past with alcohol and drugs and sex and such; in the past few decades as I've gotten a better handle on it I've started to bite myself when this happens, maybe on the pretext of reminding myself to be in the moment and to grab hold. that's a benign way of reading my behavior. I may also be just punishing myself further. I didn't bite myself this time but I did put my hand in my mouth 2 or 3 times.

my wife suggests I may be undergoing some self-destructive behavior again as it's all a part of other behavior relating to this internship--not fully reading emails, ignoring phone calls, assuming someone else has done whatever task needs doing. that may be true. there is always a little voice at the back of my head telling me I'm too happy, too settled for someone like me, and in the past I've done things that force me out of jobs, relationships and living situations. I'm not convinced that's what's going on here--after all, I may be overreacting to forgetting how to get someplace I'd been before, like suddenly forgetting how to get to the new store in the area--but I'm also open to the possibility this lurking uncertainty will require more attention than I've given it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

reading at the goat

my wife had a meeting with her denomination's discernment committee about her status as a student preacher this afternoon, and as I had nothing else going on, I went along for moral support. the meeting was further out on the rim in eau claire, and I asked her to drop me off in town so I could find a hangout while she was meetifying. I had a book with me and a checkcard and my comfy shoes.

I ended up at a place called the goat or variously the dancing goat, a coffee shop on water street. they were very nice to me there: when I asked ron the baristo (is that a male barista?) what I might like he suggested a big steaming cup of guatemalen freshbrew. he said they only offer it 2ce a week and this was one of the days. for a little less than $2 I got a heaping cup the size of some washbasins that I could fill again and a chocolate chip cookie and a cozy spot on a couch near the open window that looked out on people.

I'm kneedeep in alex cockburn's corruptions of empire again after spending much of the past couple weeks reading fiction and the coffee and couch were an inspired addition. there really isn't much to report about this experience; I had no epiphanies or incredible conversations with anyone or saw anything interesting or even came across a wonderful bit of writing. all it was was just a middleaged man sitting quietly for a couple hours on a comfy couch with a mug of beanbrew listening to other people's conversations and reading his book. I could live my life this way.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Monday, September 6, 2010

some labor day reading

in honor of labor day:

"it's the same every monday, give or take a few details, a few hangovers, a few ghosts who would no longer hail us as we breathed deeply the slaughterhouse reek we no longer noticed. this shit-stink was the stench of work, my job--odor of death, pink burnt flesh, taint of dried blood and shit settling on everything like dust, all mixed up with the photochemical smog of the city pulsing around us. it's in our hair and our lungs and our eyes and I have long since gotten used to it. I did notice it once after I had been away for several weeks, having sliced off the tip of my finger. I noticed it when I returned, and it was like coming into work after first being hired, feeling that fear lock onto my soul anew, hardening inside me until I forgot about that, too. that's what I think people smell when they wrinkle thier noses, catching a whiff of my work clothes. the farmer john pork packing plant, dark blue with a wraparound porky pig mural you can see as you drive by, looming five stories above us as we walked into its shadow. it towered above us like the pyramid of the sun as we drove in on soto from the north, hemmed in by semis as we emerge under the sourthern pacific overpass--I think we checked on it subconsciously, hoping somehow that some major disaster unknonw to the public at large has destroyed the whole plant, the chill room where the mass of our work swings on a thousand hooks, and the cutting lines with wooden boxes full of knives, the sausage rooms and fetid wiener smokehouse, loading docks and animal storage pens out back, steaming pipes rising like conning towers above the yard where semis and 2 to 4 ton delivery trucks pull in and out, smokestacks above the offices and the front gate (with bobo or zack in his box, checking the trucks in). certainly in l.a., where we've seen riots, fires, earthquakes, epidemix, crack wars and the disaster of our everyday lives, we would not be too shocked if somehow the entire city of vernon was removed brom the map over the weekend. subterranean methane build-up, a refinery explosion, fuel leak in the sewer system, nuclear terrorism, something! but every monday there it was, the blue mass of farmer john rising above the l.a. river like a fortress anchoring a chinese wall of fortified industry, its sheet metal and concrete arteries pumping pig blood into the vast urban sprawl--we got a clear view of it as we crossed the river on a soto street overpass, clouds scudding across a blue sky reflected in a river flowing without depth between broad concrete banks, the smooth surface of the water scummy with brown foam that we didn't have to imagine being partly the blood of 6000 pigs dispatched between last friday and today."

(I don't know if foster, who's primarily a poet and teacher, has ever worked in a slaughterhouse, but even in my limited experience there--a mere 2 weeks, but that was enough--he has the sense down hot as blood.)

mini donuts could help improve vision

some of the reactions to this situation--a mini-doughnut operator whose proceeds go to minnesota dfl, the state's democratic party--strike me as over the top but the basic message of the reaction against it is legitimate: if a party is operating a booth for the expressed benefit of a political or religious or social group, the customer has a right to know up front that is where his money will go. while it's commendable that the booth's volunteers were instructed to tell people if they asked, there ought to be a sign or some other indication. it's only fair: a republican-benefitting organization ought to be expected to do so, as should be a business like domino's pizza whose founder tom monaghan donated part of his profits to groups like word of god and operation rescue. (that the dominos corporation has addressed this issue at all is a mark in its favor.)

there is a difference when private citizens like you and me donate our money to causes--there's no reason for other people to know if I've written checks to help keep the oath keepers or nambla in the black unless I'm soliciting funds from other people do it. those other people have every right to know what their money is helping support, not because their consent is somehow needed but because simple honesty and transparency should rule the transaction. solicitating funds is what grandstand mini donuts has done and why there should be a notification somewhere alerting customers what their money is supporting. it kills me to say such a thing, but in this instance republican rep laura brod and her allies are on the side of the angels.

Friday, September 3, 2010

what if (part 2): superman

if we take as a given the origin story of superman--last survivor of another world dropped surreptitiously and raised the same in our world who makes his appearance as an adult--I think the reaction of most religious institutions to his existence would be denial of it or alternatively deification of him. xianity, especially, would react to superman as a rival to jesus, perhaps even seeing him as the antichrist, although it's just as possible he would be seen as the second coming. but the primary reaction I think would be that he is an affront to god since he would be, at least the way he's presented in original stories, a near-perfect being. for the same reason, I suspect institutional islam would denounce him (tho I also think sufiism would be drawn to him).

judaism might see him differently and might even recognize superman as the messiah. I'm not certain what the reactions of other religions like hinduism or buddhism might be (although this is an interesting take) but I think that the raelians and scientologists as well as other alien-based faiths would welcome him, not as an adherent but as the focus of worship or at least as an emissary.

likewise, I don't think he would be likely to identify exclusively with a single nation or social group like the white americans he's mostly surrounded by in comics. particularly if he were seen as some emissary or agent of god I suspect people would expect him to effect god's will by counteracting disasters that are also seen as "god's will" such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis or other impersonal forces like disease and war. as a result he would have neither the time or need for a secret identity.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

on reading lousy novels

on the advice of my chiropractor I've stopped reading while walking so I'm not reading as much as I used to. (like most people, I read with my head at an angle, which elongates my neck and puts extra pressure on my spine and the muscles under my scapula.) I'm pitifully behind in my new yorker, atlantic and harper's reading; but I decided yesterday to take a day for reading nothing but something junky, and I had just the thing.

the corpse in oozak's pond by charlotte macleod is not a bad novel but it is obviously quickly written and not edited much. it may have had a cursory revision after being accepted for publication as most words are spelled right. but I was around and reading mystery novels in 1987, the corpse's publication date, and don't remember anyone in my hearing using ejaculations like "gad!" or elisions like "m'well" or phrases like "how the flaming perdition do I know!"

there's not much point to complaining about it since it's a tea cozy and follows the dictates of the usual cozies: eccentric investigator--dr peter shandy here, veteran of other mysteries--eccentric suspects--the whole extended buggins clan whose pater familias founded the rural vermont agricultural college shandy teaches at--barely competent although sometimes surprising local police--ottermole who's often shandy's watson--and an eccentrically introduced murder victim which conveniently floats to the top of the swiftly thawing titular pond during the local version of groundhog's day. also, people often talk in expostion.

recently I had a diatribe against the tendency of campus novels to bear no relation to real student or faculty experiences and any hopes I may have had that an agricultural college might resemble a tech school were dashed by the following. you must keep in mind this description starts on page 104 of a 214 page novel and constitutes the only mention in the book of anyone actually being in a classroom:

"shandy had classes the next morning...he found his students restive, as students often were, but not usually in professor shandy's classes. while he endeavored to alert them to the secret, evil work of the nematode, they demanded to hear about the secret, evil work of the fiend who'd dumped a corpse into the midst of their groundhog days revels, and was it true the demised had been wearing balaclava buggins's sunday suit?

"professor shandy assured them that the sacred relic was safe in its glass case in the buggins room and that if they expected to pass his course, they'd better keep their minds on the nematode. thenceforth they tried, but it was uphill work for them--and for him...

"gripped by the sophoclean implications of swope's bronchitic epiphany, professor shandy was able to put such pathos into his delivery that he at last succeeded in capturing his students' full and undivided attention. sweeping them on from spider mites to cutworms, he soared to dramatic heights that had every student scribbling in his or her notebook with the concentrated zeal of a locust attacking a turnip green. they left his classroom shaken and trembling but uplifted and fired with a new dedication to the biological control of insect pests. shandy mopped his brow and asked himself, 'where do I go from here?'"

note also the tendency of books like this to have characters with cutesy names like "balaclava buggins"and his distant descendents marietta woozle and grace porble. is it any wonder we allowed ronald reagan to be reelected, AIDS to run rampent, iran-contra to be brought to our attention and then dropped like a hot potato, and responsibility for the exxon valdez spill to just ooze away when this was the type of thing we were reading and writing?