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Entries in pathos (37)

Sunday
May122013

My Irrational Mothers Day Heart

Everyone on Facebook is posting pix of their moms and showering them with all sorts of praise. I can't be so brief, soft, or fuzzy. I'm in a situation where it seems all there is to do is pathetically beg for my mom's attention, which of course is lame. Let's see how this one goes...

Being a mother's son is largely an abstraction for me. It's an idea more than a reality. I've never really lived with my mother though I've had three more concentrated spells of time when she's been in my life and I was "welcome" to be in the midst of the larger family clustered around her. Most of the time though, she was just not part of things. And even when she was, there would be maybe a lukewarm response to reconnecting. Following that, usually periods of increasing tension and finally some kind of a cold war leading to a prolonged period of silence of a number of years until something stirs in me, feeling the profound wrong-ness of it all to have gone on so long with no resolution or at least no functional communication. Forget about loving fondness or the idea of being any momma's boy. She's far too bitter and I have gone too long to know much about relating to her as mother.

Since 2011 I've been more insistent at trying to reach her or to find inroads into the family wherever I can. Social media has helped find the cracks in the wall where usually I had to face the fact that I did not have direct contact information with everyone constellated around her, and typically, if she was not having me, no one seemed to, making for pretty complete blackouts lasting years. Since 2011 in particular that has begun to shift. Those who will risk being in contact with me do run some risk of her wrath. That might just mean more strain or estrangement. Depending on the particulars of who lives at her house, it might earn a place at the curb, I suppose. (Though I don't think that has happened because of me so far but it's not inconceivable either.) So I applaud the individuals who have made the decision to be in touch, even if only by electronic means. That's a whole new thing.

With more insight from the complicit parties (lol), mother has become both more interesting and one dimensional at once. The newer input I have from a few different voices has indicated that she can be as petty and harsh as I've experienced. She's been caught in some rather stark contradictions and outright lies that seem to be resented widely. I've been assured that lending money to her when she's in distress is sure to cause more problems than it heals. All that. That's sort of the one dimensional side though. Knowing that her tendency that way was not customized for me has been liberating and has led me to wonder more about her than before.

I understand she's a hurt woman like any other. What I don't yet have much understanding of is how at least in my case, she allowed herself to give up the fight for a relationship with me even after the legal situation with my old man ceased to be valid. What I can't really understand is how when I do make the independent attempt to get to know her, humbled by my own nicks and bruises in life and wanting to connect, she can't go there. What kind of momentum keeps her judging me as if I was my old man? Or why in the world did she not even tell me my brother was sick and was about to die just over two years ago? (She had no intention to, since I found that out six months later just because I dared drop in on her house unannounced for the first time in nearly four years.)

I did talk to her last November, two days before Thanksgiving. Coincidentally that was an echo of the third big reunion in 2000, with a reunion just two days before that holiday. That day though was also her mother's memorial service. All these years later, stories are told of how that experience caused fractures for many. But last year, trying to talk to mom in what I hoped would be a heart to heart talk, even as a drop in once again, was kind of like playing racquetball against a mattress. No rebound, even as solid as my game was. Maybe it was because she had recently had a stroke or maybe it was that my sister was moving in to the house and it was a bit noisy and distracted, but she was just there. No real response to some of the most heartfelt stuff. Cold. When she did respond at all it tended to be a toned down bunch of her now-typical "just like your dad" talk. Even though I reported that he's hurt me and I've not talked to him for six years by then. She sat there unimpressed at all I had to say about how this estrangement is killing me. No attempt to reach out. No parting hug. Are you my mother?

After a terrible visit in March 1996—one which was intended to be a sit-down-and-talk-it-out-after-a-year-of-silence visit that ended up putting nearly five years of space between us till the November 2000 reunion—I drove home from mom's place in Long Beach. My girlfriend at the time, Robin, had been up in the apartment for a while during the conversation then left. It was tense enough for her to leave but after she did, it was pure firefight. Maybe an hour afterwards, I came down to the car, feeling banished and defeated to the core. It was Robin that had to remind me that a mom was supposed to love her kid unconditionally. I had to be reminded of it. Or maybe told so, since it seems it was so far from my mind at that point, or maybe it was never my experience in the first place.

Before I had left that day in November 2012, she threw me to the wolf. My younger sister has not spoken to me in nearly a perfect dozen years though she's been vitriolic in any online exchanges, where we've egged each other on. Mother dearest, not even interested enough to see this divide as something worthy of some attention, just let me have a go at talking to my sister. For my daring, I was ripped apart for talk I made 11 years ago about single parenthood, fatherless families, and the like—the observations I had made from my black sheep status outside the family unit, looking in. Completely unforgivable, it seems. She's fond of naming me—completely groundlessly except by association with a man who has done a bit of this stuff—as a child abuser, pedophile, stalker, and all that. No hyperbole out of my sister's mouth is worth calling to task, apparently. Nothing concerning me is worth mending. Not even suggesting we sit and hear each other out. (Okay, we're all big boys and girls now, but still, for all the talk about moms usually wanting family harmony, she surely didn't get that memo about helping to foster it when it's so evidently needed.) Thanks mom :-/

I try not to be so harsh in my assessment but mom has given hell to more than just this black sheep son. I'm not simply imagining that she is difficult and petty, which helps me step back and try to be compassionate. I tried to visit on her birthday last month, even to say the words to her face—an act which is a small bit of pay-it-forward garden tending, and that has not even happened since 2001! A text message thread the next day, had with my older sister and self-proclaimed protector of mom's virtue and sanity (ha!), said mom hid away when she saw it was me at the door. She just turned 69. She's not going to be around forever, and given her heart attack about 20 years ago, and a stroke last year, it's hard to tell if she's got more than a few years ahead. We're never going to be all loving and fond of each other, but with time ticking mercilessly, even knowing her just to learn things about her life or even mine is fast becoming a lost opportunity. Even my late brother James said the words in 2001: "we can't just keep letting five years go between visits..."

I'm not saying this to distract from fault I have in things that have happened, but I'm sure most rational people would agree that those were some awkward moments that anyone could have had, decisions that were boneheaded but not malicious, and especially that the punishment of estrangement (if not outright hostility and vitriol) was doled out more generously than is warranted in such cases. A number of those missteps come from being a foreigner in their midst, and never having any one of them experience my life in San Diego. Something is profoundly wrong though. The rational mind says, "there's not much here to work with. Move on." You can bet plenty of people have told me that. Even some of my family "informants." The other mind, caught in a total tangle of hurts and contradictions is holding out for a diamond in this rough.

To the extent that I could say I feel like the son that would send flowers or post the warm fuzzy messages on Facebook, I could say that those sentiments amount to maybe a few occasions or periods that might condense down into maybe a week or two of lived experience. I could congratulate her hard work, or her almost incomprehensible role as mother to six kids (five in practical life since I was raised by my father and step mom before even she was gone by the time I turned 10). I suppose those props are due for mom. But I never lived it myself. I visited it. She did all that, apparently, because she couldn't make relationships work. Or because somehow she managed to become mother again and again by being with men who treated her like trash. I don't know how to come down about that. It's one of the enduring mysteries. The irony is, my old man was the only one who actually took an interest in his child. (Some of you can appreciate what a bind that puts me in, if you know the story about him!)

The fact is, I don't really know what to make of her motherhood or the patterns of motherhood in her side of the family. It seems like there was an element of chance and some lack of control about all of us being born. I don't think any of us got here because two people really loved each other. Sure, she made something of it but I really can't relate to it. The fact that she has done what she's done to provide for the others, and her almost militant attitude about not needing a man does not endear her to me. She's used the whole thing as a weapon. A wedge. What she has accomplished with the life she's led does not account for what has not happened were the opposite true, a scenario in which she might have some collaborative partner to demonstrate some kind of give-and-take and some kind of balance in life. My younger sister, last to be born and the one with essentially no knowledge of any father figure in life, not even a stepfather, is essentially a savage. (And that isn't just my own assessment.) She's got all the loathing and bitterness of mom, it seems, but with hardly a share of the lived experience and drama of her own. It seems she's inherited and absorbed stories from mom and our older sister and harbors as much resentment as it seems has accumulated prior to her being born.

This very line of confused thought and ambivalence gets me in hot water. I am said to be "judging" her (or my sisters) when I talk this way, or when I seek to be enlightened. Understood. But they have mostly kept me at a distance and so I am left with what evidence I have around me, comparing what I know about them with other observations. With new information, new understanding. Seeing how some of my friends and acquaintances have met their motherhood struggles has softened my heart toward my own mom. The thing is, the understanding I seek calls on higher levels of thought than may be possible with these folks. I'm probably going in circles hoping anyone could explain much beyond just what has happened. Good luck with more nuanced thought that touches on bigger themes in life. That's my lot as I try to deal with these relations. At times it's driven me to anger. Usually hurt and confusion. But always some kind of wonder at it all. It's the blueprint for the things I find myself concerned with in life. It does get abstract and nebulous, even as the people I am dealing with are not abstract. Nor are they really completely grounded. Odd.

Sky

One of the most interesting teachers I had on this matter presented herself to me as a reservation mutt dog named Sky at a sheep ranch in New Mexico in the spring of 2011. She had a litter of puppies that were born under the trailer where I was staying. She had to feed them. There were four giant dogs tasked with guarding the sheep but they seemed to be more keen on eating Sky's food on the porch, probably 100 yards from where they were supposed to be. She ate and drank voraciously. She was scrappy and would fend off those bumbling sheep dogs that kept cutting in on her food. She was small enough and wily enough to figure out a way into a trash enclosure to extract more food. She had the enclosure to herself while the sheep dogs lurked and watched. Somehow I felt the need to feed that dog. Keep feeding her. Don't question it. So I filled her bowl serial times if needed. I sort of served as the camp chef for a week and a half and fed her the scraps and broths. She ate it all. She'd drink a gallon of water at a time, it seemed. I never saw her pups but I didn't question her need. She was a newly relocated dog to that camp. A single mother. Helping the widow and the orphan and the stranger all in one relationship. It was a real spiritual lesson that softened my heart about my mom and helped me formulate a new resolve to visit my her that summer when an opportunity presented itself. Little did I know that by the time I had this experience in New Mexico that my brother had died days before.

While Sky did help me envision my mom's past in another way and to feel compassion for her in a way that had not registered before, the challenge remains of what to do with that insight, despite trying to pay visits to her house. So we're in limbo. If my older sister isn't exaggerating, and mom is really hiding from me, then it seems there isn't much to be done. Flowers, Facebook messages, and fuzzy things won't work. Those are just shallow things of the most superficial order. For Mothers Day all I can do to honor her is to hold up the story and ask if that's the way it's supposed to be. I've made my moves toward reconciliation and some attempt to get into some orderly relationship. I know she's hurt from many things but is that all there is to it? Will there be no growth from that? Call me pretentious but after losing one son to death you might think she'd reconsider what it means that I'm alive and trying to be in contact. After all, I was the one son lost to the law, but that's not relevant now and the door has been open to be in restored relationship for a long time now.

The heart is an irrational thing, isn't it?

Tuesday
Dec252012

Christmas Churchiness

I got to four church services for Christmas Eve. You might think that's a bit too much church. It keeps me out of the malls, where I don't want to be anyway. The two that anchor such an adventure are "my" church (MHUCC) and "Kelli's" church (CCCPB, where we met some 22 years ago but that I departed six years ago). That's the basic balance for us: we at least get to our own churches, different though they may be. Because my church has a 10 pm service, and it happens to be where Kelli interned years ago, it's in the clear for us to both go and be together, a bit like old times, but without some of the weighty complications I feel. And then, there are some other services that turn up and seem interesting enough to take in if we can.

I'm going to tell these stories out of order. For those keeping score, I went to the following services in this order:

  1. MHUCC, 2 pm
  2. CCCPB, 6 pm
  3. MCC, 7 pm, followed by dinner with friends from there
  4. MHUCC, 10 pm 

CCCPB

As some distance from the strains of CCCPB has mellowed me over time, I've gone a couple times to the Christmas service there too. CCCPB is much as I knew it from earlier times, even during my unchurched times. A small congregation meets in a building that is sparse in architectural ornamentation though is rather radical in its roof line and its 2/3 round floor plan. It has a basic holiday decoration scheme, but without it, the place is rather austere looking for the most part. Many faces remain, though there are giant holes in the population due to attrition and families breaking up and children leaving for school and careers. I still like the messages from the pulpit as much as when I spent four years there recording them all, but with such a history as I have there, it's hard to be really present there. I fidget. Kelli does the reading from Luke every year and is poised closer to the pulpit. I sit apart from her because I feel that it's so easy to be in an old role that just doesn't suit me now, and frankly, being seated next to my own wife triggers that. (Read on for how things go at MHUCC.) There's a tinge of guilt for coming and not being fully present. I don't like it. But I also don't go to church and let myself be inauthentic if I can help it. And CCCPB was a place where I eventually left in part because I knew it was going to be what it was going to be and I was changing. Since then I've been regaled with tales from a variety of sources, so while I am not a member there and rarely attend, I do have a small bit of information about what goes on there, and some things just baffle me. Other bits frustrate me. So it's hard for me to be there. But Christmas begs a different response, and for a successful home life, the concession must be made, especially when carpooling. That said, there are a couple people who I still like a great deal and am happy to connect with, even so briefly as my very occasional appearance there. I guess I need CCCPB to remind me that even a diminishing congregation meets faithfully. I just know it's not my community anymore.

MHUCC

MHUCC is notably larger but still feels like a family. The congregation is eclectic and growing. The programs are varied and meet people at various places in life. Liturgically, there is more to take in since our pastor came from a tradition that placed an emphasis on liturgical year cycles and other things that I would learn about when entering that congregation. It was all new to me, coming from a very lean and sparse life at CCCPB. So, MHUCC has the liturgical colors that change with the church year's progression, choir processing in their robes, and other such touches. The choir is about 24 folks and has a professional director and section leaders. The organ is a delight, and the harp adds a welcome texture. The room feels very large. It's not high church by any stretch but after my church formation at CCCPB, it seems that way. For the late Christmas service, this time the service was a Lessons and Carols service.

Two other services this Christmas Eve were in the mix for other reasons. One more, an earlier afternoon service at MHUCC, was small, intimate, and contemplative, and offered communion. It was held in a smaller chapel room suitable for a special service like that. Having been at a physical distance up in Escondido for half a year now, making a day of being in San Diego was like breathing fresh air and getting a warm hug, even on the rather cool and cloudy day. I've been too distant from church of late, so reconnecting was called for. This small service was contemplative and instead of a sermon, the nativity scene was used as a chance to get us to imagine which of those characters we identified with. Who were they? What would they be thinking as they were in that moment? What would we be thinking as we're in that moment?

MCC

The fourth service, a bonus for the day, was at the Metropolitan Community Church where a friend and colleague of Kelli's is on staff. MCC, largely populated by the LGBT community, is a refuge for folks who have perhaps not been welcome at so many other churches, and even among their own families. Because LGBT folk are exiled from all kinds of home lives in all kinds of traditional settings and from all kinds of geographic areas, it's really an eclectic mix of things that might pass for traditional, but instead of messages of making the world a narrower place, a smaller place, a more limited place, the message inherent in the MCC's very existence is one of celebration of the opposite of all that. It's kind of interesting because in some ways, it's like many other churches but without the implicit or explicit homophobia. Just because folks are gay doesn't mean they want to forsake the good things from the traditions they were to inherit, but from where their options for real inclusion were limited or shut off entirely. MCC is their new family where it's safe to be oneself. MCC is the home that has been created to bring the LGBT world back to the Christian fold. There are probably many who, were it not for MCC, would never set foot into another church. I've been there a few times and at least tonight, I found it to be the most surprising of the services. After this service, we went off with Ali and her partner and her daughter to a fun dinner at the greasy spoon diner we've gone to for a few Christmas Eves now, Rudford's. It was delightfully irreverent.

Back at my church, what's true at MCC regarding the LGBT community is largely true there as well, but having been there now for about five years, it's become familiar. MHUCC was a pretty traditional place tending toward liberal, but about a decade ago in particular, the church's embrace of the LGBT world was stepped up. And interestingly, the place has grown a lot because of it. Dropping in on the MCC reminded me of a dynamic I saw a few years back when I slowly and tentatively moved into the life at MHUCC—at the very same time as yet one more mom family meltdown was under way, and by then, a year and more had passed since the utterly miserable exchange with my old man (and a silence that stretches now to an unheard of six years). Add to that a feeling that my home church of CCCPB was not the place to stretch into the new person that needed to emerge from all that, and I realized there was something I had in common with the LGBT folk at MHUCC, broadly speaking. How many tales of exile from families-of-origin are there, with relations strained to the point of breaking only because some people have to answer the call to be themselves? How many exiles from the church communities that are found to be the old wineskins? Hard to say, but when my original tribes were found to be lacking and I needed something new, that's where I felt I came home to.

Church Hopping?

For some years now, since Kelli has been either in school or interning or since I dabbled in another transitional church for a bit in 2007-2008 (UCCLM), then joined MHUCC, Christmases have been diversified. A couple years in a row I did these Christmas Eve runs on my bike for the added sport of getting warmed up and feeling all invigorated upon walking in, sometimes to some really unfamiliar settings (the Greek church was the most unusual). Not too many folks know this but if you were to take my particular ethnic strands and send me to church along traditional faith trajectories, I might be equally at home in Protestant, Catholic, and even Orthodox settings, though of course, I have always identified closer to Protestant. But the tug for me, while never really having the success I could wish for with the family life, is to share in the lives of a few different families at Christmas, in part because those historical families of Christianity are within me at some level, but also that the world today requires a less insular Christianity.

At any rate, the matter of getting to many churches, or sampling the services even at my new home church, keeps things from becoming predictable. Too much church life is led by rote and inertia. If anything, church should be the irritant, not the pabulum. As it is, at MHUCC, I have a practice of trying to never sit in the same seat. Sometimes that applies not just to weekly services but to parts of a given service. There are times when I sit in three different places, moving during logical breaks in the liturgy: sit one place to start and then at the passing of the peace when everyone gets up and greets one another, land in another place, and then maybe before the sermon shift again to a third place. I just mix it up so I don't go and "do" church with my brain off. So it is, stepping it up on Christmas Eve, getting to a few locations and experiencing Christ's family in a way that a place like San Diego affords, with so many traditions found in one place.

Going to unfamiliar churches figures into making the Christmas story a bit more real and experiential. The Greek church in particular made me the stranger in the strange land, even a little bit like the holy family seeking a place at the inn. It's a good thing for this white male to remember that there is a lot of rejection that people face while trying to be in communion around Christ's table. Not being eligible for the eucharist in the Greek church was one reminder about rejection that I don't get in my usual life. (Had I been a baptized member of the Orthodox church, I could have taken the cup and bread, but a quick question about that after having walked into the church, knowing nothing about the liturgy, suggested I'd be okay. I guess my host thought I was already baptized. It seemed very insular and monocultural in there. So, as a result, I was in line and was questioned by the priest if I was baptized as Orthodox. No? Sorry, members only.) While the Greek church was unparalleled in its lush appearance and the layer upon layer of its ancient tradition, coming from my low church protestant background, particularly from a congregation that has a very progressive stance on inclusion, that was kind of a rejection that I am not used to. At MHUCC, it's taken for granted that if you came to that building and want to take communion, you're in, and who are we to put up a barrier? That to me mirrors the pronouncements and practices of Jesus, known for being exceedingly welcoming. Churches that don't roll that way just baffle and disappoint me.

The Christmas Burden, The Christmas Gift

Last night though, finally in the midst of that special night that causes an aching and yearning for peace and quiet both outside and inside, I was feeling a great need to soak it all up. The weight was upon me, feeling down from a half year in a new town, leaving JEM, struggling still with family matters and joblessness (except some pick up work) and tensions that those things inevitably bring to home life. Being a pretty committed non-commercial Christmas practitioner makes me kind of the odd man in the room in most rooms I might enter. People get the idea and maybe even savor it, but don't usually seem to expect someone to succeed at it. The personal layers of hungering for the Christmas message are overlaid with the dire situations the news brings us (or sometimes doesn't, but should). With an utterly senseless massacre—an act of domestic terrorism if ever there was one—too fresh in the mind, and with increasingly dire predictions regarding our environmental crisis being met with too weak a response by nearly everyone, my heart is heavy. With so much balkanization of American society into more and more insular and self-reinforcing tribes that are loathe to interact for the common good, my heart is heavy. For watching as Thanksgiving and other spiritually and even nationally vital holidays are so brazenly co-opted and turned into the playthings of industry and commercialism, my heart is heavy. It's a heavy time.

A heavy time indeed, and the whole world needs Christmas even more than many pious folk realize. Jesus didn't arrive on the scene for the benefit of Christians, right? Sure, he emerged from among Jews and operated in that world. But even he, in his words and especially in his deeds, served humanity and portrayed another way of being human. Best of all, it doesn't require membership or much other than to live from the place of compassion that all of us have but sometimes forget about. He didn't ask for people worship him as some deity. He wanted people to follow his way, not himself. To the extent that one follows him is to realize how he embodied the Way. And that his way was available to everyone, even to this day. No faith system really has the patent on humility, compassion, forgiveness and all that great stuff. They aren't qualities that expire. He just embodied those in such a way that it was hard to imagine he was made of the same stuff we were. So we grapple at best, and ignore him at worst. At our own peril, even.

Maybe Christmas causes eyes to glaze over and people to hear "yadda, yadda, yadda." That's a shame. That's not the Christmas I know, now having some great experiences taking in just what I have in my infinitesimally small sampling of Christian practices over only a decade. When I overcome even my own programming—that is, to venture farther afield in my church hopping, maybe to more ethnic churches, or economically disadvantaged communities, or other places where Christmas burns bright for "the least of these"—I have much more insight and awe coming. While I have my struggles with depression and all the ways I feel I don't fit the mold that produced so many around me, Christmas is one time when, theologically, I fit in just fine. Somewhere between the shepherds and the wise men, there I stand. For me, Christmas is indeed the promise that God bothered to look our way, even my way. God's very curiosity about how our lives go led to Christmas. What's it like to be one of them? I got this idea...

If I could give a Christmas present to the world, it would be that folks would awaken to what a radical thing Christmas really is. Forget the dumb pageants and the statues that freeze a moment in time that never happened unless you read the Bible poorly. Forget trying to medically figure out virgin birth. Forget arguments meant to save Jesus from pagan seasonal festivals. Or arguments that Christmas was just a Christian hijacking of those festivals. It goes without saying to forget the commercial extravaganza. It's so much more than all that. Those are the distractions, the frozen symbols, the weeds that choke the crops. The time is always when we need to be rocked by the idea that divinity has taken up residence in us, among us, and for us. And maybe in spite of us. It's really quite the proclamation, isn't it?

Getting to church a few times on one particular day of the year is a small thing to help reinforce that awareness, and to try to drink it down as if I were at an oasis.

Saturday
Dec032011

Jesus the Shape Shifter +20

This year of 2011 is drawing to a close and with it the +20 (years) aspect of it leading me to weigh what was going on twenty years ago. There are a few reasons 1991 is worthy of a look now twenty years on; it was the year of my high school graduation and then starting school at Mesa College after that; working at Subway where I met Matt Zuniga and where our status as exiled suburban drummers led me toward recording and all that; and a year where I traveled to Europe for the first time; and in some ways, some early brushes with a deeper level of life outside my comfort zone.

It was in the middle of the year of 1991 when I pretty much began my personal journal that now has gone on for two decades. The kinds of long form, introverted, and exploratory posts now on this site are not all so different than what I wrote in the early years (though they are far more legible and generally better composed). My friend Shelby, still causing me to spill pixels for as I process some of these earlier instances with a bit more perspective, was a huge figure that year, though never for the reasons I had hoped for. A completely mixed mind is sprawled out over various loose page journals from the second half of the year, and of course, she continued to shape things for years to come, until the crash.

One of the foundational experiences occurred on August 2nd. It was just a week or so after she got back from a trip to Russia that lasted a month. Her trip was quite a boldly timed thing, given the fact that the Soviet Union was only then in the process of becoming a historical nation. When we had this conversation on August 2, Gorbachev was weeks from losing his place as leader. When she was there, she saw the collapse as a citizen of the republic would have—empty store shelves, long lines for what could be had, and all that. For a 17 year old only nine days my junior, that was world wisdom that even this old man did not have. And, in America in the early 1990's, living as a suburbanite, even as a son of a working man, I only knew a baseline of what constituted comfort by the standard of about 98% of the world's population. But I didn't really know that. I didn't grasp it at any existential level. So Shelby was my rude awakening. She saw to it.

For the two weeks smack in the middle of her trip to Russia, I was in Europe. She saw the bread lines and empty shelves. I landed in Geneva and was met with absurdly common instances of Swiss watch shops, chocolatiers, charcutiers, and everything else that constitutes the enviable European good life in one of the most well-off nations on earth. About as much friction as I perceived there was some graffiti on the outside wall of one such shop. It read, "Yankee Go Home!" and was a kind reminder to my nation to not let let the fall of the Soviet Union become a power-trip, a stimulant. We had just "won" the war against Saddam Hussein in February after the six week campaign. I was in Geneva in June. If not for that bit of vandalism—totally out of place in Geneva, which has to be the cleanest and nicest urban space I've ever been in—then my trip would have been just a little bigger a deal than a trip to Disneyland. The places my old man/tour guide selected were pretty controlled sights to see—largely places that cater to tourism. For my time there, I spent all my time, heart aflutter for Shelby, thinking I'd be in a new golden era with Shelby once we came back. I got her a Swiss watch—rather dainty, comparatively speaking. She got me a Soviet one. It was big and manly with Cyrillic marks in red and black. Of course, not too long after, it broke and never worked again! 

But while our reunion in the late-middle part of July was met with my heart thumping out of my chest after not seeing or hearing from her for a month (and the hype associated with entering that period is a whole other story), she had just come home marked for life by her experience of seeing the dark side of the empire, getting to know real people. Maybe she's a bleeding heart liberal in a way that I can't relate to. Sometimes her rants did sour me, mainly because I was raised in a quite Republican/conservative setting and really had little idea what she was talking about. It was one of those rants that reshaped our history for years to come.

So on August 2, 1991, we went to breakfast. We scheduled it several days before. I was thinking we'd go to Denny's or something. That was breakfast at a restaurant, right? And maybe we'd go out at 10 am or something? Nah. She wanted to go out at 7 am! This was a jarring thing since I was getting to be later and later during that summer. But since I was so nuts for her, I was ready to do just about anything to get near her. She came over and picked me up. We had no idea where to go, but she said she'd like to go to Old Town. WTF? That's kind of far away, isn't it? There's nothing in Old Town but Mexican restaurants that cater to tourists. There's a Denny's just a few miles over in the other direction... Furthermore, she accosted my sensibilities by wanting to go to a Mexican restaurant for breakfast. Mega-WTF? Breakfast is eggs, bacon, pancakes! (The thing is, I was hyper sensitive to breakfast foods then. I tolerated cereal. Too many instances with "institutional" eggs that made me grimace. Cereal was breakfast for me.) I talked her out of that, so we went to downtown, some miles more. Didn't find anything appealing and agreeable. Her patience was thin and I was aware of that in a totally guilt-ridden, I ain't making no headway here kind of way.

We turned back to Old Town and the same Mexican restaurant we had just left. I felt like I was doomed in every way. I ordered something I thought would work out—a total gringo copout in the form of pancakes—and tried to eat some. All the pent up anticipation of seeing her again (I'd seen her a time or two since our return) and a wild case of nerves conspired to ruin this day, starting with the wrecking ball to my appetite! I took about three bites of these pancakes and pushed the plate aside. Then the browbeating came. I felt sicker than ever. 

Watching the news and seeing the state of the USSR at that time was one thing. It was safely at a distance. But sitting there with a friend who had actually seen past the Iron Curtain and was a new convert to what reality was, even in the lives our our arch-enemies, all that was mercilessly demolishing my ignorance. I don't know if she was rehearsing such a rant as I got that morning over pancakes, but she delivered it with passion, and I pretty much melted into my seat. I knew she was right. "Americans take everything for granted. I'm never again going to take anything for granted." I could tell I pissed her off. I made some vague offer to do something responsible if it made her think any better of me. I don't know if that was to take the food and donate it or to pay double or what, but it was what came to mind. 

I was well clammed up about this and a lot of other things in that great summer of transition. The thing is, a moment like this was golden, even as it was painful. But I'd have to wait nearly a decade before I actually got out what I had to say all those years before. It had nothing to do with Russia or food. I just wanted to be with her. She lit up my life. I could tell even the hard times were ones to learn from. But she never wanted the same and I never had the fortitude to get that message across without equivocation. When I did, it collapsed like a house of cards. But that is well discussed in the link above.

Skip ahead a couple months to the end of the year. I started working at Subway a few weeks later and by this time in December was about three months in and had progressed (by attrition) to be a "senior" employee, if not by age (18), then by the fact that I had outlasted the others and was now essentially the longest tenured closer, training other characters like Matt and Sarah. (You can read about my early Subway experiences here.) By the start of December, I was weary. I had already given Subway my nights and weekends. I noticed that working so late on Saturday was making it hard to be in church on Sunday, so I stopped going. In a time of transition out of high school and into my little experience with community college, I was rather foolish to isolate even more by dropping out of church. My social life, such as it was then, was largely shaped by returning to Subway on my days off so I could get dinner (which at that time was total culinary liberation compared to the garbage available at home). Or maybe I went in half an hour early and made my sandwich. By the time this journal of December 11/12 was written, I was newly faced with the reality of having turned my drums over to Matt just two weeks before. I was depressed. I think I got the flu. I was feeling pretty low.

Then I guess Jesus was out there to greet me on the way to work that day. He came in the form of a 40- or 50-something woman standing out near my Subway shop, but closer to the McDonald's driveway. As I biked in, I saw a sign that in 2011 would not shock me so much: "Homeless, Please Help, God Bless You" or something like that. I biked past her originally but as I was parking inside the Subway, I realized with a few minutes I had before shift-start, I could go out to offer help. I felt like maybe my own employee sandwich for the night would be the most reasonable thing to offer. So I walked back out and made an offer if she needed some food or to get out of the cold for a while. She did come in. I did get some food and drink for her. She said she was sleeping in a canyon with her husband. I don't know exactly what canyon, but that message was clear enough. Even in San Diego, a December night spent outside is no one's first choice.

My journal from that day recognized that this experience was the fruit of the seed planted by Shelby a few months before at that terribly uncomfortable breakfast. Okay, but I know that celebrating this is rather self serving. And I've perhaps done more in the time since, and without the kind of Shelby-is-watching self consciousness that accompanied this deed. But what surprised me about the original journal entry was what followed.

August 2 wasn't the day but December 11 was. [...] Christmas has come to mean less and less to me, especially after last year [a family Christmas blowout concerning a power struggle about which store to buy from, signalling decay in Lucas Land], as I usually can't stand the commercial shit out there, and there is little family unity. Sometimes, I feel better if I'm doing something for someone. But it's usually because I'm told to do something, not spontaneously, like today. Doing something like that seemed to be the only right thing to do that would make me feel a little better about this season that so often gets me down. I saw this opportunity and took it. Hell, my Christmas is made. I've got my CD player [a big thing that year that I know was bought a few days before], but not everyone is so lucky. Some people need to rely on donations such as the one I made today. Not because I was told to, but because I do feel a bit guilty about getting so much handed to me "on a silver platter," as it were. 1991: Ed's material year: bike; trip to Europe; CD player [CDs were a form of music playback device in the 1990s, LOL]; a job; way too much spending money; new cymbal [interestingly bought just an hour or so after the notorious August breakfast with Shelby]. And what did I pay for? Only a $100 cymbal! Everything else was given to me! It's about time I give back, or give away.

[Snip some musings on how I'd model my ideal self on some key people I respected then...]

I think the whole key to being such a person that I'd like to become is to take a walk in the other person's shoes, to live by the golden rule, and to do unto others as I would want them to do unto me. I was happy with myself.

A mixed bag of degrees of consciousness. I originally titled this entry "Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons" but I was thinking of how Jesus appears to people at various stages in the evolution of our consciousness. Some people respond better to the coercive Jesus who is the law man, the enforcer, the one who shames you into right action, and maybe it takes hold. Others respond to invitation. Jesus enters the room and at some level, one can only respond in the best possible way with one's being and presence. In this story of mine, I was a bit more responsive to the latter, the woman with her sign was more motivating than being browbeaten with Shelby's guilt, even as right as she was.

I'm still a bit embarrassed to post this bit of naive and rather condescending self-reflection. Such is a mind in transition. But I was really surprised to be reminded of the fact that even in 1991, I was already moving along one side of the fork in the road with regard to holidays and commercialism. I can still sense the revulsion and disgust at watching how my family was grappling with missing Eda (for several years by then), aging (both grandparents less and less able to host much for the holidays), and the strife surrounding which bargain department store should be used to buy stuff for me (my old man, a staunch K-Mart man, bitterly opposed my grandmother's more lenient purchase of a gift certificate from Mervyn's. He knew that could only mean I'd go buy Levi 501s which he seemed to have made a personal crusade against for a few years prior). Christmas 1990 was a new low point where I was beginning to see behind the veil of false joy that the holidays typically wear in this culture. Even doing the bit that I did for the woman at Subway was an early way to grapple with finding some alternative, even if it was a mechanical and self conscious act for me. As my father Richard Rohr says, we have to act ourselves into new ways of thinking, not think ourselves into new ways of acting. Baby steps.

In those days though, my world was rather small, and I had not really left the figurative apron strings, expecting the care to flow toward me rather than the other way around, or ideally, in a circular fashion. That was rather distant still. One thing that Shelby's method did not really account for was that I was not ready to come out of a shell that I was raised within. Granted, she delivered a few critical blows to it. She had her iconoclastic tendencies and got to make some real black and white statements, even in those earlier years. I guess she did provide me with the "nag" in a nagging conscience about my place in this Earth-scheme. She did that in the same way as my step mom Eda gave me a steady dose of God-talk that I was not ready for, and then when I was, I still had to adapt her language and vision to suit my vision of the world. (Interestingly, the reopening of my in-person contact with Eda was just around the corner from this date in 1991. Only a month later I was I saw Eda on the down-low for the first time in years. That's next year's drama, folks!) 

A lot is made about Christmas being a time of giving. If you read your biblical stories without a contemporary American/consumerist mind, you don't really see it that way. (You could read Lee Van Ham's perspectives.) Christmas is a time for hope in the darkness, and the symbol of hope, the symbol that God really gives a shit about humanity is that a helpless baby bore the divine image. The baby Jesus is, as Richard Rohr says, a divine lure to a deeper humanity for all of us. The incarnational aspect of divinity merging with the stuff of the human being—the dust, as it were—is the miraculous message of Christmas. The scandal of the birth of Jesus was that God hid among us, among the most helpless and simplest of our kind, so that our hearts could be softened and our minds transformed. I'm probably not alone in being rather slow to get it. My journal reminded me that there were some awkward and clumsy steps along the way. Giving is important but it is not the real nature of Christmas. Giving flows from the transformation of one's mind and the softening of one's heart, and that doesn't happen with lightning bolt clarity at all times, if my slow progression is any indicator. But using the model of a divine lure, that isn't the point. The point is to keep moving in the right direction, as Christmas draws us toward Easter: the lure of divinity draws us to the cross of pain and heartache and the death of self and ego, but that paves the way for the next wave of life, and ultimately that patter is one of repetition.

Who knew how the cosmic tide was rising for me twenty years ago? I barely knew I'd get theological as this when I started this very entry! Shelby, the sometimes cantankerous bleeding heart liberal who usually identified as an athiest-agnostic (and who ironically I met in a church as she explored religion as an anthropologist or student of comparative religions would), and the poor woman begging on the corner at Subway both figured into effecting transformation in me. Seeing it now, both had the shape of Jesus, with different levels of my self being able to interpret it as such. All the years later when I was delivering veggies in the commercial food industry, the seeds that these two women planted in me all those years ago were grown up. Working in the food industry, I did see a huge amount of waste at the very same time I saw growing numbers of homeless people almost literally outside my warehouse doors. This time around, for the three years at that company, I was far better prepared to act. I suppose I was making good with Shelby after pushing my pancakes away.

This time around, having more organically absorbed a sense of the pathos of the world at international and domestic levels, but also the pathos within me, it was easier to respond not because of Shelby's looming presence over my shoulder, but because it was inside me. I don't know how much food I tried to divert from waste heaps by literally grabbing and going on my own parallel mission to serve. I only know there was more to grab and more people to serve and that I could never do it all. Some food (veggies, milk, bread) went to the couple social agencies I was connected to; some went from me to homeless at the street corner. What I could not give away that specifically, I literally just dropped anonymously in known hotspots where it would all take care of itself. With it came this surge of the divine spirit that comes with doing some of these counter-cultural things like doing both my boss' work and God's work on the very same trips. I don't know if the company ever knew of that, or if that was exactly what led to my dismissal, but for much of the time there, I was regarded by facts and figures alone to be one of the best drivers there in terms of actual "productivity." I just don't know if my little charitable operation was known of! Maybe it was. I did things of this sort even as I was training new hires, in part to shape their own consciousness of how our industry was so wasteful, and to set their minds thinking of how to do something useful however they could.

During that period, 2008-2010, I have to say that there were so many of these opportunities that I began to feel the presence of Jesus at each of these corners. Each became a sheep-and-goats moment for me, as my pastor preached on a couple weeks ago, instead of it being a matter of judgment, the sheep and goats story is one of a reality check we could always have in our mind. Are we attentive? Do we pay attention to the world around us? Do we know who is in need? The America I am in right now is a different place than I think it was in 1991. But I recognize the signs. It was almost that that woman at Subway was brought forward in time by a couple decades, a vision of 2011, a vision of what America's own collapse will be like. No wonder people turn away. I didn't want to see it. After that instance, I went back to sleep for I don't know how long. I hit snooze. Being reminded of this first instance though, it brings to mind a few other moments where I acted just as awkwardly in years to come. Jesus kept appearing and it took a good long time before I recognized him and was prepared to act. 

Wednesday
Aug102011

Independence Day Inheritance Iconoclasm

gramps in his chair, early 80s or so.My grandfather in his native habitat

My grandfather Norman died 15 years ago on Independence Day—it wasn't unknown to me at the time that a man who was always identified as a Navy Man and patriot died on the very day that the nation he so loved celebrates its birthday. Independence Day for him connotes all that but it was also was the day he was liberated from a body that was on a long slow decline. I think I have written about this here before. I don't have terribly much to add to that part of it. The new development is letting go of stuff that perhaps I clung to a bit much after both grandparents died, but most certainly after I lost the house in 2005 and the furniture and other items they used were still imbued with some sense of their presence. Today things have mellowed and it isn't so urgent to hang on like my life depended on this.

Astute readers of TAPKAE.com know that this year has been one to spill more beans and tell a fuller story of things. This chair episode has another dimension to it that I've discussed only in recent years with Kelli. I have to say that as the official family archivist and historian now, with everyone dead and gone, I can finally get on with saying things as clearly as I can, in a way to reflect my experience and that which I can put together from the scraps of memorabilia I have available to me. I am not in love with all the Lucas mythology, which like all families' mythology, glorifies the good stuff and minimizes the bad stuff. In some ways, TAPKAE.com is my exercise in iconoclasm. Not everyone gets a chance to do this. I don't feel there is much to lose, and any attempt to argue otherwise might be manipulation.

I have to remind everyone that I was given a pretty white-bread, sheltered idea of life in Clairemont, a giant suburb that I end up finding more and more of a dark side to (particularly since discovering the Facebook group). I don't know what all went into the founding of my family but I have my doubts that it was as wholesome as it was portrayed. My grandmother holds up to the most scrutiny but I suspect there are things she turned a blind eye to, and certainly behind-the-scenes kind of dealing between her son and her husband that suited them, and not all involved. These were salt of the earth people from the Midwest; only my old man and I were born in California. Virginia was a city girl, Norman was a farm boy who went to the Navy because it was more exciting than farm life. There was the death of their 12 year old son David and World War Two to shape their younger years. They did work hard. They did believe in goodness and the American Way. They went to church for better or for worse. They bought a house in the suburbs. Typical stuff, right?

My grandmother was always the one who kept the faith in as authentic a way as was demonstrated to me. My grandfather always was the one who was social and cordial at church but I don't have any great sense that he was a man of faith. He was definitely one of the tag-along husbands there. I think the Navy was his religion. My old man went to church intermittently in my youth, but more times than not, he kept away and later scoffed at church and religion. Needless, fruitless effort it might have seemed to him. I gather he was made to go to more church than he wanted to when younger and just abandoned it when given the chance. There were some times when he and stepmom Eda took me to church at the Community Congregational Church of Pacific Beach where my grandfolks were founding members from the late 50s, and of course where my life has had many a church experience in baptism, teen age years, wedding and periods of being a church officer and archivist. More typically though I went with my grandfolks as a young child, and sometimes more specifically with my grandmother, who probably took it upon herself to introduce me to church life, faith, spirituality with more urgency, knowing I was her last hope after her husband and son were drifting from such a tradition as she wanted to live out of.

Norman tended to drive his own car to and from church. Virginia stayed later and filled her roles at church and drove her own car too. Norman liked to head home for the game on the TV. He wasn't into sports as an athlete but he liked to watch whatever football or baseball game was on. I don't even remember him being a fan or going to many sporting events, if any. But it seemed that he was content doing that. After church grandma used to take me to Der Wienerschnitzel on Garnet Avenue for two corn dogs. We'd come back and eat and would always wash the dogs down with diet Pepsi from a glass bottle. Sometimes we'd sit on the patio out back. It was a nice little ritual that was in itself unmarred by consciousness of any concerns that I later bring to these kinds of memoirs. After lunch, about two in the afternoon, she'd retire to her room to take a nap. She closed her door. We might not see her for a couple of hours. It was just gramps and me until either my folks got me or the grandfolks took me home the few miles across Clairemont.

The details I am about to divulge take place when I was five years old, and therabouts. There were a few such instances but I don't recall them one from another. With such an empty and quiet house it doesn't take a lot of imagination as to what would happen next, though I do want to be clear and not to sensationalize it. To the extent that it is abusive, I recognize that, but I also have to contend that the stuff that left me in clear pain and anguish didn't stem from this. I suppose some depth psychologist could extract something from this, but I have to be clear that a lot more conscious pain has been generated at the decisions and policies that were my old man's. But in some ways, you can perhaps understand something else about where his mind was shaped.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I was invited or simply attracted to sit on the chair with Norman. He was my grandfather after all, and I was five years old. (He was about 66 at this point.) On some number of occasions he drew out his penis and invited and encouraged me to masturbate him until he ejaculated. Ostensibly it was an anatomy lesson scaled to a five year old. There was a kind of narrative, teaching tone to it all. In fact, this was when I learned the word penis in the first place. Of this I am clear beacuse it was such a novel word. (Of all the things to remember from youth!) Yes, it was one of those this will be our little secret, won't it? times that seems to be the code word in these situations. I was told not to tell anyone though I don't think I was threatened with reprisals. It was self evident that I'd not want to cross him. Certainly a mind of a child like that is just a sponge, and people who practice these things know that and leave the kid to be the one to sort out the conflicting messages later on. There was never penetration of any sort, so this was one of those transparent exchanges that leaves no marks for the family or friends or teachers to see. 

I suppose that while I don't look to this experience to mark the beginning of one pain or another, it does bespeak the pathos that lurked under all the wholesome stuff. In my Family gallery, I wrote the following as a caption to this letter:

Letter, 1/30/08
Another chickenshit letter delivered to me not by the mail man or any of that. After a year or more of silence between he and I, and particularly after a hot period at the end of 2007/early 2008, my father dropped this off at the church (where I had since departed a year before) and told my former pastor that it needed to get to me. So Jerry sent it to me. This is an excellent display of thought distortion. He loves his Manichean colors of black and white thinking. Here he wishes to make the point that my Lucas family taught me love, and that my mother taught me hate. And to pile ridiculous on top of ridiculous, he wants to make a point that my marriage now is founded on this glorious Lucas past. Ahem, that is the domain of much effort between Kelli and me, and a good load of grace! Almost everything I learned about marriage has been from admitting what a failure I can be and trying to repent of that at each turn. Only my grandparents at 61 years of marriage can be said to be a family influence upon me. My father seems to confuse my candor with hate. Calling a spade a spade is not calling it evil or hating it.

I might have to call this "fam-washing;" the thing he does when he wants to badmouth my mom's side of the family, and to clearly butter up his own. It is a way of carrying on like a five year old with a polar mind that something can only be black or white, or any other set of opposites. (It seems to get worse with age.) As I said, I have never told this story to anyone but Kelli (on July 26, 2008 while walking the dog that night). No one at church has heard it and neither has it been brought up at several years of therapy. No one but Kelli heard this before this journal was released. My old man might turn on the denial. But what can he deny? What does he know about it except the chance that he might have his own experience to add to it? His polar argument over the years is flimsy, and breaks under the weight of this kind of news. Sure, Norman and Virginia did show me a thing or two about love, mainly in their 61 years of marriage. (Though I don't kid myself, there has to be some shit that went on. My mom always used that as her ammunition to puncture my Lucas balloon. I've heard about adultery from her version of the story.) The propaganda will backfire for each as I eventually expose what the other has said, and occasionally add layers of my own experience and interpretation. Along those lines, the expose of my old man's antics with my older sister in 1973 makes more sense and maybe I'll investigate that more.

I feel like quoting some of King Crimson's song Epitaph. My understanding is that it is a swipe at organized religion and its mythology, but I think it can be seen as an iconoclastic jab at authority figures and institutions that shout their conflicting tales of who is right and wrong and who has the truth, but ultimately leave the mess for the individual to clean up with his or her life.

When every man is torn apart
With nightmares and with dreams
Will no one lay the laurel wreath
When silence drowns the screams
...
Confusion will be my epitaph
As I crawl a cracked and broken path
If we make it we can all sit back and laugh
But I fear tomorrow I'll be crying
...
Knowledge is a deadly friend
If no one sets the rules

the chair he had when he died, now 15 years later set on the street for giveawayThe chair itself is liberated on Independence Day, 2011

I told Kelli that one night that I didn't want to turn this into a major deal, but it has been a long guarded vault that has gone unopened. It won't do my grandfather harm anymore. My grandmother probably never knew about this but certainly had to cope with other antics. They're both gone. Part of my inheritance was material stuff that was useful and nice to keep while I could do so. That was pretty hard to think of getting rid of. But this has been in my mind, never too far from ready access, for years. It too is inheritance that only I got. Or maybe there was enough for everyone. Funny how that goes. I could have used a roof over my head. Instead I got this. Now I am giving it away, piece by piece.

Sunday
Oct172010

Dukkha and the View from the Center

So far, since my birthday last Tuesday, I have been reading Gandhi's autobiography which he calls his Stories of Experiments with Truth; watched a bit of PBS and read a bit on Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and works; read up on Buddhism in Huston Smith's book, The World's Religions; had a beer and burger with a young fellow from work who perhaps sees the world vastly differently than I do (he's quite conservative and in the Marine Reserves but has dared to sit and talk with a guy of my interests) and watched the movie Platoon.

Kelli and I went together to church today. Usually we don't go to the same church anymore, so it is unusual when we do. Still, my ongoing "project" at church is to allow myself to be restless and to retain autonomy so I don't get entrenched into anything. I never sit in the same pew on consecutive weeks, and sometimes I actually sit in two or three places during the service itself, choosing to do so because it puts me in contact with more people, and keeps things from stagnating. Today I went a bit further and went to another isolated meeting room with a couch (and naturally lit space from skylights) and read The World's Religions which I have had in that room for months and periodically pick up and read. Today, I skipped out on worship to go read about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. I've been enjoying getting to know bits about Buddhism in recent years, albeit at a snail's pace. It is quite refreshing to see the parallels with Jesus' story, his methods and lessons. In Smith's book, he likens Buddhism to a protestant version of Hinduism, eschewing the layers of formalized religious trappings and tradition that kept people from the vital lessons and transformation that sits at the core, the ones that are open to all peoples. In that, Buddhist spirituality is quite like the essential messages of Jesus, that all people can tap into the same well of truth, without the help or interference of a priestly class or other layers of religiosity that separate truth seeker from the truth. The message is, go inward and know for yourself, and then check that against the messages from everyone else with their clamoring and noise.

In 2007, when I worked at Scantech, the always-rushed print house, the people were frantic. But there was one guy, a gay Mexican who practiced Buddhism after a spell of Hinduism and probably a background of Catholicism. This Juan Sandoval was the most balanced guy in the place, honest like Abe Lincoln, and in the midst of this swirling mess of activity, just-in-time delivery, and chaos, he would sometimes come into our driver office area for a pause. A number of times he would pontificate on meditation, relinquishing the need for perfection, and a number of other lessons that seem to be the only way he could be such a calm figure in that messy world. At lunch, he'd retire to the lawn outside by the road where we drivers came whipping in and out. He'd have his prayer stool which let him be bent of knee while seated upright. In the midst of the chaos of Kearny Mesa, there he was under the tree, contemplating. I found him the most appealing figure in my time there, as he lived and urged a quest for a richer life. I never heard his story in any depth but I can imagine the types of questions he had to sort out in the process of facing who he was in a culture that has a hard time with men who don't live out the machismo expected of them. The enthusiasm he had in his voice when talking about the practices and insights from Buddhist practice was clear.

In some ways, I have become Juan at my job now, though perhaps by a tedium that sets in when just talking shop finally exhausts a person. There is only so much talk one can make about potatoes, fussy chefs, or routes that are too overloaded or that don't have much at all. I got my mind on other things, and so I found I needed to just start conversations that incorporate that. For a while in the spring-summer, with some of the then-new guys and a few others I thought might participate, I just began to ask if they'd prefer to talk politics or religion. A few were ready to roll, so even as this shop is as busy if not more so than at Scantech, somehow tidbits of this kind of talk get tucked into short periods of passing, or waiting for dispatches, or loading trucks. Right now there are about four guys who seem to play along with this. Finally, this one fellow, Tom, asked to take it outside after work so we didn't have to hide from the cameras in the effort to complete a thought.

Some of this type of talk that I've been making came about when I got driver trainees and after we got the basics down. The fact is, I can teach the ins and outs of the job in no time, and it is nearly useless when one takes another job so I have been oddly persuaded to instruct along other lines. I've found the driving work, out and about in a city of diverse population and cultures, to be an eye opening course in humanitarian studies. I've said before that it is not uncommon to see homeless people congregating at the bases of the towers in town, the 5 star hotels and restaurants where businesspeople and politicians strike up deals that affect people they will never meet. If it is only an introduction, my time training guys includes a bit of that. Or now, back in the warehouse, that same kind of thing informs some of the things I say. Shit, we spend 40 hours at work every week. It needs to count for more than a paycheck. I like to report on some of the things that the routes have taught me about life and people.

Twenty years ago I first envisioned myself as a teacher of life. A pathetic idea then, but one that I am growing into, either in the context of the church young adults group, or this side project at work. One reason that the story of  Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, resonates with me is the story of his youth and his awakening. I feel quite a kinship with the story, not just because of the overall narrative of being raised with a hyper-protective father assuring a prince's life if I remained blind to a life on the outside (and then discovering that life outside the castle walls involves the discontented and unsettled parts of life that is known as dukkha), but also that the age relationship between me and Siddharta is the same: asleep till 30, then taking till 35 to have learned the crucial lessons by spiritual inquiry of all sorts that would finally empower him to step back into the world with a message for others. And yet it all revolves around the inevitability of suffering/discontentedness and what to do in the face of it.

My own findings arise from all that you've read in this journal for the years since it has been going: the suburban life is a troubled one that I can't expect to last, and the lifestyle that accompanies it is one that needs to be kept in perspective and wherever possible, stepped away from. It was yesterday's dream. It was someone else's dream. These days, I don't see much in the general culture at large that reinforces a complete enough message like that. There are left leaning movements that try, and bravo for them. But they are not enough because they don't seem rooted in anything. On the right, there are idiotic movements back into the dark ages of John Birch conservatism, racist and classist policies, pushes against social programs meant to do people good. Neither is meeting anyone's needs. The center has become the place to be while the polar opposites are racing farther and farther apart, nearly converging on the other side of the circle in their loathing and hatred for one another, and in their uselessness.

Day after day, we face the incremental collapse of this nation. It doesn't look that way, but that is what is happening. This is why I turn to the ancient stuff—to look to something not so ephemeral as nation-states and economic philosophies tied to a certain historical period blessed by a party-inducing energy supply that is going to be a matter of history in my lifetime. How to live a human life in a time of disappointment, suffering and upsetting change, that is my lesson to teach anyone who might have ears. Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, King are all excellent teachers because each stood before an imperfect world and pointed a way for others by getting to the radix, the root of things—the downward and inward journey that reveals enemies and things of hate inside, where all the work needs to be done anyway. They are teachers of relinquishment of the world's values. This is the only thing that will soften the blow that is hitting us in slow motion and that will continue for all my lifetime and for a while after that. It is wisdom that neither the left nor right seems to possess right now, blinded by wishful thinking for the good old days that really can't come back, nor would we be wise to wish for them to return. Being a voice of integration or reconciliation is always a dangerous thing; coaxing people out of their foxholes of political perspective is not easy. I guess my message is one of trying to disabuse people of the unreality of what we can expect from our political process while not questioning our own part in things—questioning how we contribute to the mess while pursuing what has come to be a normal life of rushing about in trivial pursuits of goods and power.

So I watched Platoon, a movie I saw when it came out and appreciated it because I was a young 13 year old who liked military movies and literature, and building models of military gear. I was so far from understanding the movie's treatment of the effects of war, and the internal fight to remain human in the face of it, not to be turned into a monster even in monstrous circumstances. Life may be suffering, but war is needless suffering (hasn't a century of war made that clear?). Racism is more of the same. Hate crimes more still. Economic violence at the hands of out-of-control banks is another form of violence causing still more suffering. Much as I'd like to anticipate otherwise, I soberly anticipate more of this for the rest of my life. So this week has been one short period of arming up with the great voices of how to face suffering and disappointment in a humane way and sharing what I find as I go.

Tuesday
Oct122010

Ed’s Saturn-plus-Sabbath Saguaro and Smores Shindig

This is a bit of text I wrote on the 10/9 to attempt to make my 37th birthday one of significance since it falls between the more notorious 30th and 4oth birthdays. I uttered a shortened version of it at my party on Sunday the 10th. There were several people from a few strands of life:  from my present church, past church, from work, from extended home life and from the "pre-Saturn" period discussed below. Interestingly, a couple people already commented on the mix of folks there that night—from a couple guests and their young young kiddies to some of my folks who are entitled to discounts at restaurants! The whole time was special. I spent the day cooking a few dishes, and everyone brought more. I ended up sending a number of folks out with arms full of food. For my birthday, I was pleased to be so generous.

birthday poster for ed's 37th: a collage of the dead saguaro and other oddness.Happy birthday to me!

The last decade has been one of considerable change for me. In some ways even I don’t recognize the Ed who once walked the earth then. In a lot of ways, that is a good thing!

In late 2000 and about the age of 27, I heard about something called “Saturn Return” for the first time from Bryan Beller, bass player in Mike Keneally’s band (with whom I worked off and on, and that I was a drooling fanboy of). Saturn Return is an astrological way to understand a life cycle of 27-30 years, the interval approximating the namesake planet’s full revolution around the sun. I don’t put a lot of stock in the astrological idea but Bryan’s tales of life upheaval around that age, reevaluating old roles and methods, was something that I knew awaited me. I felt it. A lot of life needed reevaluation since so much of my life then was unfulfilling and dead feeling. I was depressed and sometimes entertained suicide, and was only then making first steps to dig out of that hole.

One thing to address was my broken family. I took on the task of starting a new period of relations with my mother—the third such period following earlier times around the ages of 12-14 and later at 20-21. This caused upset with my father which still has not resolved itself. My grandmother on my father’s side was in her last months at the age of 91, and I don’t know that we closed the gap between us, but it was shrunk some in the months we had to talk before she was overtaken by dementia and then died, leaving me to find my way out of the crossfire between parents who hated each other and used me as the rag doll to be ignited and tossed between camps.

Maybe astrology is crap but there certainly was something to this 27 year thing!

The years from my 27th birthday till my 30th were indeed times of the strife and upheaval that the Saturn Return idea predicted. They were a time of death and of life revealing itself to me in the paradoxical way that these things happen. By the end of age 29, I was feeling more suicidal than ever, but never really let on to more than a couple people. It isn’t that I wanted to do it. I just wanted another life, and the life that needed living was not yet claimed. But weeks before my 30th birthday in 2003, I spent 11 days in a place called Halcyon House, a residential facility meant to address people in crisis, and to get a shot of new information and perspective with an aim to return to life better able to cope. One of the therapists was excellent at recognizing I had an existential crisis of intersecting life circumstances that just overwhelmed at the core. So he addressed me at that level.

Halcyon was one of the greatest things that happened to me, reorienting my compass in a way that nothing else had done until then. The quasi-monastic pace and order of things provided boundaries, and the lessons and therapy sessions got me off to a start in an examined life. Following that experience, I kept on with solo therapy for three years or more, couples therapy when Kelli and I were planning to get married and for a good while afterward. Visits with pastors, mentors, spiritual directors, and friends have all helped maintain that discipline through times that kept on being tough, often as a result of the shattered family experience.

It was just around that time when I also happened to get a first affinity for Jesus of Nazareth, the human man who became more and more appealing to me when by some divine and serendipitous circumstances, was presented to me as the quintessential human. He slowly became my hero as I found him to be quite countercultural, always seeming to turn conventional wisdom on its head. As I found myself in existential strife at both the personal level (family and home issues, feeling a failure, etc.) and the world level (peak oil, Bush-era political shenanigans, consumerism), the mind of Jesus seemed to have something that could address my concerns at both levels. It was the beginning of putting the pieces back together.

Okay, so that explains the first thirty years, and the whole Saturn description of things. Now, that Sabbath part, which, when added to the 30 years already discussed, gives me some reason to think that 37 is a birthday worth some reflection.

The Sabbath is not just a day off every week. It is a way of conceptualizing what is important, setting boundaries, framing time, and even economic relationships. A sabbath cycle, as mapped out in the book of Leviticus, is in sevens; a weekly cycle where people rest intentionally and participate in community life together; a yearly cycle where land is let to rest so it will remain vital; and a cycle of seven of those seven year cycles, ending in a year called the Jubilee. The Jubilee is the 50th year when debts are canceled and society is allowed to reset to maintain just relationships, and to reinstate people to the community who have been imprisoned or fallen through the cracks.

The idea of Sabbath is to organize relief and renewal opportunities into daily life; to place a boundary around work for human, animal, land, and social institutions so that the vitality is not sucked out of same, and so that justice can be done. Right relationship will prevail, says the logic underlying the Sabbath, and it will be done with intent to provide the space and a dose of God's grace to fill it.

My existential dilemma began with a relational crisis and is slowly being mended by equal and opposite effort and a lot of grace. Days of lonely agonizing in the pre-Saturn era have given way to more in-person relationships in the Sabbath era. Loss of the ever-troubling relationships with my parents have given way to many more father and mother figures than I ever had at once, some playing a role in practical ways, and others filling a massive gap in cultivating a spiritual life that my parents could not possibly fulfill under the best of conditions. Brothers and sisters that aren’t in the picture any longer are fading memories as people emerge to take part in shared life, vital conversations, and mutual assistance, in some ways filling the holes left by my family of origin. Grandparents, the keepers of the accumulated wisdom and they who delight in my progress as a person, well, they keep coming out of the woodwork! A time like tonight, a festive time to celebrate milestones in life, have been far richer than any I can remember with my family of origin, at least since before the age of ten or so.

Sabbath, a way of framing time to ensure renewal for all species, a way of ensuring that life is given a moment to just be, is something that I turn to when today (I was even asked to work this Sunday [when I had my party], of all days!) I need to prioritize one sacred day a week to make room for church, family, community and personal time. It wasn’t always so; the pre-Saturn days were times when I worked anytime and had no life, and used it as an excuse to remain at a distance from people. That of course was death for me, so by tenacity of will, I buck the occasional push to work on Sundays so that I can purposely maintain relationships with the people who have stepped in to be my new family.

(Now I have been greatly indebted to Lee Van Ham of Jubilee Economics Ministries for being one of the heroes of the last several years. He introduced me to biblical economics, Sabbath, and a vastly liberating thought system that helps me reach for the root of things. He’s in Chicago right now, opening other people’s minds at a mens’ retreat.)

So now I’ve explained the time part of this account, the 27+3+7 kind of math that gets me to the present at the big 3-7. And about that Saguaro?

My week in the Arizona desert for my Mens Rites of Passage was in a splendid canyon in central Arizona, the heart of the Sonoran desert where the saguaro cactus grow to be 20’ tall, like lampposts or telephone poles. Arizona state pretty miserably fails the welcome to immigrants test but it at least makes a felony of damaging or destroying these elegant towers that dot the landscape for hundreds of miles. (There is a case of some fool who shot one down, only to have it crush him to death as it fell on his dumb ass.) Saguaro with just a vertical tower are the young ones. It takes about 80 years to grow an arm. Hah! Thinking of it from my age perspective, it takes twice my age to mature enough to grow another stage. Maybe I am blessed to be on my path already. A couple hikes in the desert brought me face to face (figuratively speaking) with these things, which from ground level, are mighty. They stand like disciplined sages who have seen it all. That alone is a spiritual lesson, whether or not my teachers said a word.

dead saguaro cactus with its ribs looking like a cross and crucified man at onceDead saguaro cactus in ArizonaUpon return, I did a bit of research and found  of a Saguaro skeleton—ribs that drooped on a horizontal axis in a way that looked rather like the arms of a crucified man. That image of course is one of the most central images in human history. The picture I am referencing somehow looks like it is both the cross and the crucified in one form. The cross is a paradoxical symbol of the worst pain that humans can inflict and the place at which one can find God’s greatest love. Or, put this way, the intersection of the opposites of life is on the cross. My take on that is in my sense of relationship with others. That which was killing me was also the thing to save me. So goes spiritual paradox!

In 2003, I sort of articulated my feeling of being crucified by my womenfolk in a piece of photo collage art that I made that summer. The world was turned upside down, framed in by the female biological symbol which doubled as a cross, all perched on something indicating Golgotha. I was pretty torn up then.

I don’t recall any art that conveyed the equally shattered relationship with my father, but my blog poured all that out as the drama ensued for years to come. I spilled a lot of pixels processing that.

All of which is to convey a picture of how shattered things were. By the start of 2008, and one more attempt to relate to my mother alone (that lasted about three weeks at best), and after a solid year of staying clear of my father, I was making half serious talk about having a mock memorial service to make it possible to move on, to find new energy to live a life not so dragged down by all the toxic personalities I happened to be related to. Obviously we didn’t do that, but even framing my situation in those terms helped clarify what must be done.

Later that year I found myself drawing closer to my new church and the life there, which included small groups around spiritual development, young adults, and some book study interests. By later in the year, I was connecting with a new church in a way that felt my own, venturing into new relationships as a person with greater clarity and optimism. I joined that congregation in 2009 after a year or more of feeling it out, and feeling it was my time to step into community life, to throw my lot in.

The cross of broken relationships led to the resurrection of relationship itself. This makes resurrection undeniably real for me, and something not limited to a historical event of 2000 years ago. It may be that but I am here to say it is this too. Many among us might chafe at the language of being born again, but I don’t refute the spiritual truth underlying that. I put a finer point on it though, without even distorting the phenomenon of the transformation that takes place. If one is reborn at all, it is to be reborn for others. Reborn not for the sake of oneself, but for the sake of others, for community. My rebirth has been pretty agonizing for me, but one thing after another points to moving toward filling a role in the lives around me. I find it nigh impossible to even do some of the stuff I used to do for myself, like the endless hours in the recording studio, isolated, often angry and hurt, and all that stuff. That seems inaccessible to me now, even for trying to do so. Just as well. These days I find myself cooking for guests, opening my house, enjoying married life, doing digital media work pro bono for JEM, facilitating the young adults group, or sort of mentoring some of the younger guys at work—all stuff that had no precedent in the pre-Saturn time, but seems to be the only thing I am capable of doing now. It all flows so much better than the attempts a musicking a decade ago.  Maybe the idea of being born again would be less irritating if more people understood it as being reborn for the good of others. It would be a shame to endure all that mess of a life like I had in those years, only to come back as myself!

Saturn, Sabbath, Saguaro. Oh, it is fun alliteration, but each has had some value in framing my experience in this last decade of reinvention. Now, the Smores… that should be self explanatory!

Friday
Oct082010

Sloth and Comeuppance

Today would have been my grandmother's 101st birthday. Born in 1909 and ultimately checking out in the spring of 2001, her birthday in 2000—a decade ago—was the last one she celebrated. I wasn't there. I still have a feeling of regret for being distant even as I lived under the same roof. My only comfort is that she did have a family that took care of her and they made her life quite a bit better in the end. Just a month and a half after she turned 91, she had a fall and spent the night in the bathroom, crying for help all night and into the morning until her main caretaker, Connie, showed up around 11.

This isn't breaking news to some of my confidantes from the last decade, but on that night, I was completely selfish and lapsed in my responsibility to another human being. I came home late that Sunday night after Thanksgiving, sometime in the wee hours around 2 am or so. I walked in and heard her occasional cries for assistance. I even looked in on her cracked doorway and walked away, maybe soured by the already-overwhelming smell of an old woman who soiled herself in the bathroom. Those days I went to bed at nearly dawn so it was probably hours I was fully conscious of her situation. I did nothing. I just was in my own selfish space. It was a complete moral failure on my part. I don't know for sure, but I do recall that my mind sometimes entertained that her final days could not be far off. Maybe I was under that impression on that night. I just don't know what I was thinking, if I was thinking at all.

To the extent that I was thinking, I can only say it was that I somehow knew that if anyone found her, it would be the beginning of a shift that no other measures could have brought about. She was stubbornly attached to living in that house (and of course so was I), but when her needs escalated to regular meals and other care that I never provided anyway (by arrangement essentially), she would still not want to leave. To have someone else find her in such a sad state would be the only thing that would sort of force the hand of fate, causing her to need to go to where she might be better taken care of. My lame part in it all went unquestioned, so I never really had to defend my actions because no one really knew I knew. After all, who is to say what time she fell versus what time I came home? Everyone knew I was out or otherwise occupied late. And I am not surprised if they also thought of me as selfish and distant.

It took me about three more years until I was finally able to speak of this night while I was in Halcyon House, in an environment that forced me to consider my life at a deep level. It had to finally be addressed while sitting with my pastor who made a few calls out there to see me. Not being from a denomination that emphasizes confession, I had heard him make some semi-ironic comments on "confession is good for the soul." Well, it certainly was in this case. Later, in the desert on my initiation rites, I ran down a huge list of things in my mind, this among them, and presented them to God to deal with. No bolts of lightning or flash floods to deal with me; just a message that it is okay to move on and to act more compassionately when the next moment presents itself.

My grandmother did indeed start a new life after that fall and inglorious night on the bathroom floor. She was at the hospital for a few weeks. She didn't have any real problems except for her age related ones. She didn't break anything. But they kept her for a while to make sure all was well. While visiting her there, she seemed a lot more chipper and chatty than at home. I was relieved in some way to see her getting a lot of care that perhaps would not have been the case otherwise. The last time I remember seeing her and my old man in the same room was in those weeks at the hospital. All was not really well, but some things were getting better.

In a sort of karmic way, my slothful moment that Sunday night was answered by what had to be a misspoken word on her part in the presence of my old man. G-ma was no doubt medicated and feelin' fine when she lapsed in her memory of what details to keep from whom, and those details included the newly revealed fact that I was in a new period of relationship with my mother. This was something I had revealed on the weekend before she fell, to her and my stepmom and stepsister only. I wasn't there to hear it, but this has to be how it played out. From that moment on, with this news in the wrong hands, my distanced participation in events was brought to an end with my old man getting the sensitive information that I had no intention of sharing directly. This led us to blowout arguments, mean spirited letters dropped on my truck window, and much angst in the immediate aftermath, and ultimately to the game playing with the house that fills this journal from 2004-2006.

Tonight my dear wife is agonizing over some stomach and intestinal woes with a dose of a fever to boot. It kept her from work for a day or two, from decent sleep and from eating. I've had to do the little things to take care of her—the trip to the store for the chicken soup and orange juice. It probably isn't anything major and won't be a defining instance in either of our lives, except maybe for me as I look at it as one more chance to settle up for that one night when I failed one of the great women in my life.

Monday
May312010

A More Complete Memorial Day

It is Memorial Day once again. And once again, I went to skim the older entries so as to not totally repeat myself, even if much of it still resonates the same for me. I guess this year I want to memorialize the undignified deaths faced by people who are essentially forgotten, some because they are of no seeming consequence before death, maybe even deemed as nuisances, and therefore their deaths are somehow okay. This is by no means comprehensive; just enough to sketch the idea before running off to do laundry with the wifey. Mourn as you see fit, if you can find it in your busy day between the backyard grill time and the sappy TV specials glorifying our dead national warriors. Let it suggest a fuller picture of death in America.

  • Car accident victims and other traffic deaths, including bike accidents, drunk driving, red light running
  • Gang members
  • Drug addicts and murder victims (domestic and foreign) linked to the pursuit of self medication to dull the existential pain of our postmodern society
  • Foreign born workers who fall into industrial machinery in "industrial accidents"
  • Suicides
  • Medical experimentees at the hands of death-defying doctors giddy with technology
  • The uninsured people who can't get medical service access, medications, while other nations get the stuff donated when in need
  • Homeless people dying on the street
  • Latin American "illegal immigrants" crossing the desert to find a better life after being economically displaced from their homelands
  • Violent deaths from hate crimes of homophobia, racism, domestic violence
  • Slow deaths associated with increasingly toxic environments for kids, workers, 9/11 clean up crews, others
  • Coal mine and oil rig explosions, a comment on our addictive love affair with hydrocarbon power
  • Plane crash victims, flown around by woefully underpaid professional pilots working with little rest or dignity

I don't suppose any such victims will populate the TV news tonight. Even most churches will fall prey to seeing this day as a time to give a little "rah-rah!" to the lost ones of war on foreign shores (mainly, of course we had the Civil War) as they fought Caesar's battles. But what about all the people who die fighting for their own lives and dignity or their own vision of the great American Way, or who are up against the domestic enemies so vast they stand little or no chance of even knowing what hit them? Some are forgotten before they die; deaths of social neglect; others are deaths by social commission it seems. Economic deaths. Industrial deaths. Deaths driven by the needs of individual's egos. They come in all varieties and happen all day and every day. There is no holiday to remember deaths such as these, at least not to bring them all under one umbrella so we can get a fuller picture of death in America. Today is about the best opportunity we have to do that.

Saturday
May292010

Ritual

I guess I've had too much to say lately, and that is why I've not said anything.

I don't know where to start.

It is all so important.

Lots of new experiences and realizations.

Elicits apophatic and kataphatic responses.

Inner and outer.

Earth and Sky.

Blood, shit, semen, water.

Knowing and unknowing.

Abandonment and reclamation.

Lover, Warrior, Magician, King, Christ.

Brothers.

Rhythmic Catharsis.

Life.

Sunday
Apr182010

Walter

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