The Terrible Master

I wish I were the sort of person who could believe in something. A person with an anchor to the world, be it faith, a spiritual path, family, etc., something that affirms a sense of self and gives life meaning. I am without this. I have stages of connection – a fleeting sense of clarity where I think, “Aha! So this is what it’s all about.” But, over time, that initial sense of clarity and purpose dims until it is forgotten. And even in memory, I cannot recall the emotions I first felt. And so I return to this uncomfortable state, part melancholy, part anger, part confusion, in which I feel a clusterfuck of thought and emotion forming that leads me nowhere and leaves me lost, tearing in all directions, eventually exhausted.

I try to follow a pattern to this point, but the only thing I can determine is that it’s the pattern of daily life itself that leaves me this way. It’s when I toil in monotony and shallow worries that my mind and spirit clouds and I lose all sense of what I’d formerly believed grounded me. When I get to this point, nothing feels right and all the things that fascinated me before seem too simple to this critical, angry, judgmental self. Suddenly, all the epiphanies, the comfort and growth, are gone. Zen might say I’ve been caught in the trance of ego. Zen is right. But my realization of this fact doesn’t put an end to my suffering. I can’t even meditate anymore. And my inability even to focus on my breath just drives the rabid spiral of my mind even deeper. David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College described the mind-trance as “the terrible master” and said it was no wonder that adults who commit suicide with firearms “almost always shoot themselves in the head.” This frightens me. But not so much as the alternative provided by Charles Bukowski,

“Some lose all mind and become soul, insane.
some lose all soul and become mind, intellectual.
some lose both and become accepted.”

Is it even possible to find peace between the two, mind & soul? This is the battle of the modern world – how to be kind and honest and true to yourself while also feeling well and empathizing with others, and somehow managing not to get crushed by ruthless brutality of it all. I worry I am losing the battle. I worry that anything other than acceptance leads to madness. But I fear the greatest burden of all, for myself at least, is the complacent deadness of modern life. I would rather careen towards madness than waste away in a life of terrible triviality. But that very triviality is so complete in its seduction. It’s incomprehensible that something which offers so little could consume us so completely. When faced with option between truth (love,  tenderness, emotional honesty, empathy, a spirit of service, connection to the true self, etc.) and lies (mass consumerism and materialism, shallow relationships, judgement, hate, greed, violence, religious dogmatism) we most frequently choose the latter. I do it frequently. Why does it seem that this shadow self is so much stronger? So strong that we choose it again and again even though it leaves us feeling empty, hungry and afraid. Is because more than anything else, we are most afraid of our great potential?

I’m not sure. I know for me, it’s my fear of madness that holds me back. I’ve seen too many people I love open themselves to the great truths without precaution and they all lost themselves. The outcome is never pretty; either they continue down that path and are too broken to remain in the world and so they alienate themselves or they “fix themselves” and become accepted, aka, dead.

Those who do it successfully, usually religious leaders, usually lead monastic lives. How can you have both? A job and a life, friends and family, and also a soul alive, a mind on fire and a heart filled with the light of love and service?

This is the mystery to me. And more and more I find myself listening to sad folk music and day-dreaming about a quiet farmhouse with full bookshelves.

We are such strange creatures, we humans. We create societies and value systems that leave us empty and unhappy, and so we seek an alternative which asks us to abandon the very lives we created for ourselves. Our broken hearts and strange desires make us both desperate and noble. I don’t pretend to know the point of it all. I guess I just hope there is one.

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The Age of Anxiety

I’d forgotten myself, as we all do when we try to keep pace with the chaos of the world. That’s why, above any philosophy or statement or ridicule, I had to delete that virtual self.

“We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”
― W.H. Auden, From “The Age of Anxiety”

What would Auden, namer of our age and shameless critic of it, have written had he been alive today? What would he say about our dumb consumption of all the false and petty substitutions we are being sold in place of truth and happiness?

I began this blog at the beginning of a journey, a search for truth. A search that turned me away from the direction I’d been eager to go, that of liberal Christianity. There still I felt the burden of my false-self, the tug of insecurity and the desperate need to prove myself worthy by another’s designs – the idolatry of ego. So I left and was met with little grief, as no one had yet gotten the chance to know me, and therefore notice if I left. There was shame in the decision. The fear that I was so spiritually bankrupt I couldn’t even find truth or comfort in one of the most curious and liberal denominations of my culture’s religion. But it was an honest choice. A choice that somehow shed light on my other dishonest preoccupations – namely social media, that sole purveyor of anxiety and self-criticism. In my darkest times I sought it out the way an addict seeks out his drug of choice – to alleviate the knowledge of my own suffering. In those moments I worked to curate an image of myself for others to view and approve, hoping that in doing so, I could become that girl – a one-dimensional, perpetually joyous, and morally definite shadow of myself.  It became a true addiction. I felt a wave of panic and anxiety wash over me if I couldn’t find my phone, the thought of deleting my Facebook account filled me with fear. This other self soothed me. I spent a lot of time thinking about her and what she should say, how she should feel, even though sometimes the things she said and felt made my stomach turn with their falseness.

Then something changed. My dependence became the thing which fueled my anxiety, and as my true self reared her ugly head, the other self became a burden. A burden I knew I had to kill. And so I did. Not without fear or shame or resistance, but it’s done.

Now I sit with this new/old self. At first I was afraid. For a long time I’d been trying to forget her and her pain, to conceal her suffering which we are told our whole lives we are wrong to feel. All our screens and boxes and florescent malls tell us this – that we deserve more than our humanity. And so we seek nirvana our whole lives only to find ourselves empty and resentful for having never found it even though we did it all – the things that promised to make us happy.

I am not happy. I have moments of clear pure joy. But I am at the beginning. Without the distraction of the other self I am remembering despair. The kind of despair Thomas Merton spoke of at the ultimate self-love because we force ourselves to resist the temptations of our former lives and know ourselves as we are, lost vessels with so little time and such great potential.

It didn’t happen like I planned, but I find him in moments. There is a whole half of our existence in which we deny God, and those are the moments when I see him, a chimera of all creation out of the corner of my eye. He is my suffering, my fear, and my temptation; he is my sin and my salvation. I am not born to be redeemed. I am redeemed because I’m born. I am sad and anxious and happy because I am free.

 

Short & Possibly Sweet

There’s little I haven’t doubted in the past few weeks. Everything that I thought was part of my becoming was really a distraction from what I already am.

For an introvert, I hate being alone. Until I’m around others, and then I cannot wait to be alone.

I watched it snow all day. Mostly I watched alone. Then you came home and I felt less alone, and also more myself.

When night fell, we went outside. The wind was crazed. It blew the surface of the snow in crystalline gusts. It looked just like when wind blows across a sand dune, but colder and whiter and sharper.

You got down on your belly to see it better. You are always looking at things from new angles. I love that about you.

We raced home, and by the time we came inside, I was sweating.

I watched you make dinner and thought about our life, and how I have things that lots of other people wish they had. And I’m still ungrateful.

I don’t know if I’m learning to like myself or if I’m learning to accept myself. Sometimes I think those are the same things. I know that I like you and you like me. Even the ugly parts. That’s pretty great. That could be a religion.

I don’t know if I’m a church-going-type.

I don’t know if I’m nice enough, or forgiving enough. My drive for justice is stronger, I think, than my drive for compassion.

I don’t think I’m much of a leader. Most of the time I wish I could find a leader I agree with so I could be a follower. That seems much easier. But I don’t agree with many people.

Most of the time, I don’t even know if I’m a good person. But at least I’m thinking about it. That has to count for something.

I don’t know. I can’t seem to make God into something that isn’t everything. I can’t seem to make God into anything that isn’t writing, and reading poetry, and running with you in the snow.

There, I said it.

I think we’re already perfect. 24549439585_4305a1e13c_b

Our Ugly, Perfect Souls

The last few days have been imbued with sadness. Nothing happened to me personally. The week got off to a bad start with the news of David Bowie’s death. Bowie was and still remains a central figure of my adolescence. My uncle made a best of album for me and I played it incessantly. Golden Years remains a go-to anthem for when I’m feeling less than whole. There is quality both to him and to his music that can only be defined as timeless. I think we describe a person and their work as timeless only when it transcends culture and accesses something truly human – a cord of shared feeling and experience running through us all. At 13, the age I was when I first began to really listen to and appreciate his music, it affected me in this way.  And it was that part of me that cracked a little when I learned of his death. And like a switch, when I heard the news, I felt as though I was hearing it through the ears of my 13-year-old self. Suddenly I remembered my old bedroom in detail; the bright green and pink walls, the overflowing bookshelves and CD binders, and bins of greasy Wet n’ Wild makeup. The days before my family imploded.

At 13, though my relationship with my mother was toxic and wrought with tension, she was, at least, still in my life. And at that time, I had no reason to believe that would ever change. I didn’t know then that by my 24th birthday we will not have spoken for over a year. I try not to think about it. But sometimes it sneaks up on me. Driving home from work this past Thursday listening to Bowie was one of those times. In that moment there was nothing I wanted more than to call my mom, to talk to her and my youngest brother. But I couldn’t. She doesn’t want anything to do with me. She’s proved that often enough. But it doesn’t make me stop missing her. Missing us.

Later that night my brother tells me over beers that he’s planning on moving to New York City in a year to pursue his stand-up career. I can’t say it came as a surprise. I’m happy for him, proud. He’s so brave, so talented, so fearless. I want him to keep fighting for his dreams, and I want him to win. There’s no one I can think of who deserves it more. Still, a part of me couldn’t help but feel afraid. Afraid that, with the distance between us and such drastically different lives, he would forget me in my vast un-coolness. On the way home that night, a deep dread entered my gut – I felt my family slipping away. In that moment, all I wanted was some kind of verification from god or the universe that I was doing the right thing, that the choices I’ve made have been good ones, the right ones. But nothing came. Or, if it did, I didn’t notice. And since then I’ve found myself doubting everything with renewed vigor.

If there is such a thing as a “life purpose,” have I really found mine? If not, what the fuck is the point? And if there is no point, is that depressing or liberating? Have we invented the idea of purpose because we can’t stand the thought that we don’t matter? I don’t know how to make peace with these questions, and far from helping to answer them, my recent interest in Christianity seems only to complicate the issue.

At first, I thought it seemed simple; love your neighbor, break bread with everyone, practice radical love towards strangers and family alike because we are all the same in the eyes of God, and so we all deserve love and respect in equal measure. But the simplest things are often the most difficult. And more often than not I find myself frustrated and afraid. Here I am trying to love all of these people and they keep giving me reasons not to. And I am afraid of losing what little family I have. I am more critical than kind, I am more judgmental than empathetic, I am more defensive than loving, I have boundless fear and very thin faith.

But….

And here’s the rub, if there’s no God what is the point of thinking about it? Why do I care so much about being good? Being better? Maybe it’s a weak argument, but I can’t help but think that if our souls weren’t here to evolve we wouldn’t give a shit whether they did or not. But here we are, giving a shit. Writing books and blogs and making movies about the shit. And it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

“Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel
Come get up my baby
Look at that sky, life’s begun
Nights are warm and the days are young.”

I don’t know any of the answers to these questions. What I do know is that my love of Bowie, my love of my family, my love of God, as messy and imperfect as all of those loves are, are part of the deepest part of me; the part I don’t always particularly like or understand, but that feels the most authentic. And I am grateful to all the forces in my life, good and bad, that have helped me to know that ugly and essential self, the soul.

8370909209_e8f49c8278_nDagoberto Rodríguez, Flickr

Not Much

I knew a girl as a girl.

She went to all the best schools
And had a lot of MySpace friends,
But she didn’t know what airbrushing was.
I had to tell her.
Me, the ignorant farm girl
Who didn’t know
She needed to shave her legs
Because everyone was looking,
Everyone was laughing.
This girl pointed to a poreless
Face in a magazine and sighed,
“I wish my skin looked like that.”
I told her all about the lie,
The unattainable fantasy,
And her relief stays with me still.
The relief of someone acquitted
Of a crime. A lifetime of suffering.
We ate greasy fries and I forgot
About it until now, ten years
Later, and I suddenly remembered
And understood the tiny things
That make us free.

We don’t want much;
To exist as we were made.
To exist, without pain, lost hours
Spent plucking and tearing when we could
have been laughing and in love.
To eat greedily, no shame in
Hunger, lust, dipping hands and
Feet into warm pools of life.
Plunging in full-bodily, not
Making excuses for the space we take,
Taking it. Ours.
Big or small as we want it,
As neat or as messy,
Plain or splashed in color.

We don’t want much;
To be.

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Beautiful, Difficult Little Things

I started seeing a therapist again recently. I’ve had counseling off and on since my teens. The first time was at my dad’s bequest after the divorce of my parents and subsequent trauma. He wanted us all to go together, my father, my brother, and myself. We needed to heal as a family, to grow as a family. After enough “healing” and “growing” was accomplished, it sort of devolved into individual sessions. My brother never got much out of it, but I loved it. An excuse to talk about myself and my problems for an hour? Yes please. Eventually I got busy with college and my dad was not a fan of the weekly counseling fee, so I stopped going.

The summer after I graduated I had what can only be described as an existential crisis. School had been my happy place. I was good at it. It gave me direction. I was intelligent and just weird enough to stand out. My professors loved me, I won writing contests. I was a big-ass fish in a puddle. After graduation with no job prospects and no real plans for the future, the world swallowed me up. I felt so impossibly small and invisible, so worthless. I began having anxiety attacks and drinking more. I could feel myself slipping away so I got help. I saw a psychiatrist who put me on a low-dose anti-depressant and an anxiety drug that was supposed to help with the attacks. I also started seeing a counselor again. It was the only way I knew to regain control and it worked. Within months the panic attacks stopped and I got to feeling like my old self. I got a job at a local Montessori school. Things seemed to be looking up. For a few months.

In late fall of that year, things got worse. My job was unforgiving, incredibly stressful, dismal pay, and I felt like I didn’t belong in the crowd with my coworkers. Then my student loans came due and I wasn’t making enough to pay them. I was drinking again. A lot. I felt lost and worthless again. To prove how worthless I was, I did a lot of stupid shit to hurt the people I loved the most. I was out of control. I quit. Found a better job and began seeing a therapist again.

Contrary to the impression this recap provides, I am not a broken person, nor do I suffer from mental illness. I know mental illness. I’ve watched my family be destroyed by it. This was something different – youth coupled with an introspective nature and too much time on my hands. But what this history does show is my pattern of self-care; let the situation escalate until the only way to regain control is through psychological help from a second party. Maybe not the most sustainable solution.

This time is different. It’s different because of prayer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of prayer.

I’m not a prayer. Let’s make that clear. I’m a writer-down of feelings, a runner, a manipulator, an irrationally-mad-at-you-for-no-goddamn-reason-er, but not a prayer. I used to be. As a kid I prayed regularly. I didn’t know why or what to, only that it made me feel better and my instinct told me someone or something was listening. Recently though, I started again. It wasn’t a conscious decision. It just happened.

A few months ago, I was in the throes of one of those times which formerly would have tossed me first at a really big bottle of wine and then onto a psychiatrist’s couch. Only this time it didn’t. I was feeling lost, full of doubt about my life and my choices, anxious and on edge. But instead of self-sabotaging, I prayed. Not with much intention or direction, I just felt a need that was beyond my need to drink the pain away or fuck-up the pain away, to bare my soul to the anonymous face of the universe and see what happened. And what happened was clarity. Clarity like I’d never known. A shroud of perspective suddenly fell over my life and I knew with a sense of incredible assurance what I had to do with myself.

What I had to do was simple:

  • I had to relinquish the idea that I had any control over my life on a large scale
  • I had to go see a therapist.

So I found myself back in the same situation I’m always in after a moment of turmoil in my life, only this time was different. I didn’t need someone to help guide me to the right path. That overwhelming sense of clarity persevered, I was on the right path. I needed help learning how to walk the path.

I’m not here to tout the “Miracle of prayer.” Those people who say to “Pray about it” when you tell them about your personal tragedy, or choose holy water and prayers over chemo for their cancer-ridden child are full of shit and should probably be ashamed of themselves. I’m here with a sense of humble wonder to ask why.

Why did a moment of personal vulnerability which resulted in honest prayer have a more powerful effect on my psyche and sense of self than any other practice did? Is there anything to the action? Or was it just the perfect mix of intent and timing?

These are the golden coins of my life. Beautiful, difficult little things I keep warm in my pockets between nervous fingers.

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Immersion

I didn’t know it was a big deal. I didn’t really want to go. I’d only been to a service there once before. Months ago. But I’d filled out the new member paperwork only days before, and when Pastor M asked if I’d ever been baptized to which I said him I hadn’t, he said, “Ok, we’ll do that,too.” Of course I am familiar with the concept of baptism. I’ve seen it in movies. Actually, every time I hear the word, the image my brain calls up that scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding where an oiled up John Corbett gets dunked in a tiny inflatable kids pool. And I mean, if an oiled up John Corbett is involved, I’m game.

All jokes aside, Pastor M didn’t act like it was a big deal, and I didn’t feel like it was either. But I went. I dragged myself out of the house on a cold Sunday hoping some spark of spiritual wisdom would improve my cynical mood.

I sit in a pew toward the back. I’m alone and I don’t really know anyone yet. I’m not sure how to know people at church. People who know what’s up. They know which books to pick up and what pages to flip to, or, worse, they don’t need the books because they know everything by heart. And I think they must be able to tell how clueless I am. How lost and clumsy and awkward. Everyone is friendly and smiling, but how do you start that conversation?

“Hey, I’m new to this whole church thing, think you could go over the highlights?”

Or,

“Hi, I’m new to this whole church thing. I’ve spent most of my life judging people like you who do go to church as blind, stubborn, and hypocritical followers of a man who might never have existed.”

I don’t really feel like there’s any introduction I can make that accurately describes my current position on the spiritual journey map.

The truth is, I’ve been trying to describe it for a long time and nothing has ever seemed right.  And I’ve tried a lot of variations. In my early teens I practiced paganism and natural magic. I went through an atheism phase which, perhaps not ironically, coincided with my goth phase. I was pretty into Eastern religions for awhile. Then, in college, I discovered the term “pantheism” after reading Spinoza for my philosophy class. The concept that all things are unified into one God – that the trees and the grass and the dirt and stars are as much God as you or I was a succinct and poetic definition for what I’d always believed. And it still is. More than anything else, pantheism most accurately defines the feeling of the sacred that I’ve felt my entire life. But….

Lately I can’t help but feel there’s more. That maybe there is something bigger that even pantheism can’t grasp. It has something to do with the soul, with an essence within all sentient beings that is “other,” that comes from a place different and separate from our corporeal bodies. Something that cannot be so easily categorized as “sacred just like everything else” because it isn’t just like everything else. This doesn’t make much sense to me, and if that’s the case, I’m sure you’re lost. But it’s for these reasons, these questions, this doubt, as well as this yearning I’ve felt within myself to know a deeper truth, a bigger meaning, that I found myself walking self-consciously up the aisle a few Sundays ago at St. Mark’s, in what felt conspicuously like a wedding. There were even vows of a sort. Vows I thought I was supposed to memorize, so I brought my bulletin with me, just in case. But Pastor M had us recite the words after him. I tried to stuff the bulletin in my pocket so I didn’t look so clueless in front of the whole congregation. Which, now that I think about it, probably just brought more attention to the fact. Then he drew a cross on my forehead with holy water and said words I don’t remember but that I’m sure were lovely.

The part I do remember is everyone congratulating me as I made my way back down to my seat. It felt so strange. I hadn’t done anything. I didn’t feel different. Actually I felt worse, like a fraud. Someone who didn’t deserve any of it because I didn’t know what it meant, or what I was supposed to do with it.

As the service closed, I watched a toddler  in the pew in front of me methodically empty the entire contents of her diaper bag onto the floor. I realized she was probably the only person in the entire building more clueless than me. And then I thought, maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s the best place to begin.

-M