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Friday
Aug052011

Edumacation Aint What It Used-ta Was

I went to Mesa College the other day to get a report on what classes I need to be a transfer-ready student. My dreaded math and science classes are all that stand in my way. As if my four years and one semester of algebra was for naught (see my progress reports and other docs in Skool Daze gallery), I get to do algebra AGAIN if I am to get on with my studies. And this algebra class is just as a prerequisite for another class that might be more mercifully realized as statistics, which elicits a less dreaded response in me. I have two science classes to take, one of which needs to have a lab associated with it. 

Thanks to idiocy at every level of society, the financial picture is weaker than ever at the state level, so there are notices all over the campus and website that resources are strained. And for me, right now, I see that damn near every class I am looking for is closed or wait list only. I'm torn. I like the feeling of victoriously finishing a class, probably having learned something, and usually getting excellent grades too. But like in the fall of 2006, I am on unemployment again, and to go to school during the day is to forfeit that, which is risky because there are no prospects except shitty jobs that I'd prefer not to apply to, some paying less than the unemployment anyway! 

I could say that I feel trapped. But in more ways than just not having an education. There is that. Sometimes I guess there are opportunities that I'm missing. But remember, even in 1993 when I took a semester, a year, a decade off from school, there were plenty of stories about college grads who were still flipping burgers. It was hardly an incentive to rush through school. These days, the economy is in the shitter more than ever, and there is a dawning realization from the oh-so-well-educated classes that people are... generally overeducated for the work that needs doing. Duh! 

Our global irony is that all our problems can be laid at the feet of people with education and ambition. If that solved the problems of our human existence, I might wager that by sheer volume and weight, we have more well educated and ambitious people than ever. The factory-schools have pumped them out quite well. But then why are we at a global situation that fills some with dread? It wasn't the peasants and the meek that brought the atomic age, the computer, the transportation system, the genetically modified crop, or the financial rackets that wrecked the economy. It wasn't the peasants and meek who thought that stuff up and implemented it at market scale. We have more brain power than ever, but less soul to guide it! We can discern the comings and goings of things in the natural world, but we can't figure out how to live within it as if we are integral to it and it to us. What century before us honestly could worry that humankind could destroy not only the town/city/state/nation, but ultimately the biosphere too? It would be insanity. You don't need a fucking Ph.D. in anything to realize that, but now we have more and more people educated at levels that seem to elevate people off the ground of reality. All that was supposed to alleviate the trials of life, but education, when partnered to serve corporations and technology, is just part of the machine that is going to be our undoing.

I fancy myself more of a liberal arts learner, rooted in the model that learning is good. For the sake of learning itself, or for personal improvement to develop an open mind ready for civic and social engagement. I feel that I've pursued that despite being off the official academic coursework for more time than I have been on it. In that, I've come to regard all my life as my classroom, all my trials as my teachers and assigments. I do sometimes lament not having done things according to the typical post-high school plan, but then I also admit that while I might have done that, I was quite wet behind the ears in many other ways that took an educational path that schools don't/won't/can't provide. I recognized in 1993 that I could go through the school process, essentially spinning my wheels learning stuff without knowing really why I needed or wanted to know it. 

In the men's work that I do, everything is regarded as a teacher. It all belongs. That alone, learned in a new way at 36, was a huge thing to pick up, particularly at the level it hit me last year. I've even learned lessons from dogs that surpass the teachings of bosses and mentors and others. Tomatoes in August left an indelible mark on me that high school teachers wish they had the power to leave upon a person. A shoot of a tree branch sticking through a field of concrete says what pastors can't say so efficiently and eloquently.

More and more, the world is going to need people who forget all they learned so that they can learn what needs to be conveyed from the planet and its inhabitants for the genuine well being of all who make the daily spin on this planet which makes its yearly lap around the sun. It isn't that education itself is bad. It isn't. But what has to be cut off is the absence of reverence. I'm sort of conflating my former pastor's words with the Urantia Book, but the purposes of education and learning in the Western world have generally morphed from the Hebrews' desire to learn about and reverence God, to the Greek's desire to understand the beauty inherent in all things, including oneself. But both seemed content to enjoy the pursuit, the means, and not to seek to control the ends. We now seek knowledge to use, to manipulate, to control. Think about it: just about any breakthrough is not exciting in the pure joy of knowing something new. Almost immediately, minds are enlisted to figure out how to turn it into a patentable product, a process, or something of use to commerce or government, or worse still, combat. We figured out how the sun worked and made a miniature version with our atomic development. A new species is discovered and not long later, it is seen as the basis for a new drug or food additive. The best university minds aren't discoverers in the old medieval sense; they are the raw materials for industrial development. A Buddhist or Christian or Muslim mystic can study things at a level like a scientist, but their training also instructs them in reverence for what is witnessed, aka, to leave it alone and appreciate it as it is. The layers of wisdom wrapped around any observation-based knowledge says that it is not their place to go tampering. That is the domain of the divine. For a mystic, it would be enough to glimpse the divine, not to try to unpack it all and control it and make it do new tricks, guided by a pathetically limited consciousness.

Reading Richard Heinberg's book, The End of Growth, it is again on my mind that my lifetime will play out differently than any other as we face the consequences of an overeducated, overambitious society of people who have missed or discarded reverence as part of knowing things. A team of brilliant doctors and reattach and reconstruct body parts, but cannot make life meaningful. The dark side of their craft is that all their gizmos take industrial infrastructure that is now on unstable ground. Their educations are expensive, and the debt that allows it to happen is incompatible with a post-growth era. That alone will reduce many a college enrollment number, which of course will make it less possible for most people to pursue higher education that perpetuates the division of knowledge without a concomitant increase in wisdom. Maybe the days of heroic medical interventions are drifting away. I'd like to think that a quality of life we don't now enjoy is something to look forward to.

If anything, there needs to be a return to vocational occupations where people actually do the kinds of work that isn't offshorable and downsizeable. It seems backwards, and it is, but it was a stupid thing to abandon it in the rush to one side of the boat—higher education for all, whether it was a good idea or not, whether folks could afford it or not. A post-industrial future that has to face up to that very fact will not be able to send people learning stuff that is of no practical use. But I hope that in addition to whatever practical skills people have to learn as apprentices, there are opportunities to get a larger picture of life and how that serves people at a fundamental level. There really is only so much work that needs to go on for survival. It is rather attainable, and sustainable. Maybe once the obsession with growth is seen for the stupid and empty pursuit it is, people could reprioritize and place some value on the personal goals of spiritual and emotional improvement that the industrial age has failed to allow us to pursue. It hardly has to be structures. It just needs to be guided. One pretty much needs time to breathe and see a world at a human pace and a human scale again. 

Saturday
Dec252010

What Does a Dog Want With Christmas?

What does a dog want with Christmas?
A fruitcake, an iPod, a new sweater, and more?
Does the tree make the day special,
Or does the blow up Santa in the yard hold a special place in his heart?
What benefit is it to go to church with the candles and poinsettias,
The hymns and carols, the readings and the pageants?

Is Christmas Day any different in a dog’s world?
Does the day change the fact he wants to be petted and fed?
When all the fluff is stripped away, does our canine friend
Wish for anything but what he always wants—
Our time and care, our presence and love
Our undivided attention, our cuddly communion

Monday
Dec202010

Christmas

the christmas angel piggy high upon our tree, with some of our christmas decor in the background on the mantel.Our new Christmas tree angelChristmas is here. It sneaks up so fast, even on those of us who forgo the busy-ness of the season, particularly avoiding the commercial shopping extravaganza and the scene that accompanies that. I've been keen on trying to find not just the religious (i.e., Christian) value in it, but the cosmological value of the season. I've enjoyed re-reading a book I got in 2004, The Dance of Time. It's a charming telling of how the calendar got to be what it is, shaped by the streams of cultural flow and upheaval that shaped our holidays. It is a nice read that touches on history, religion, mythology. It has a quite poetic and wonder-inducing tone. In it, author Michael Judge makes a case that Christmas is what it is because it is the intersection of universally appealing themes that meet up and reinforce each other. The layers of Christmas, coming from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, are some of the primary layers, but the meaning of those stories is merged with the mythology of the Romans who celebrated the Saturnalia—an admittedly decadent time but one that touched on gift giving, role reversal, a bit of charitable effort, notable considering the Romans' normal pursuits. Christmas has layered upon it the mythology of the northern Europeans with narratives and celebrations that are shaped by the bitter cold of those regions, and the long winters that took hardy people to survive them, but also grace. Linking the Christian holiday with the existing pagan celebrations and stories helped to ensure that the new religion would have staying power. Timing it to coincide with the solstice is genius too, since the "real" date of Jesus' birth is both unknown and essentially irrelevant since it was his magnificent spirit, the Christ, that defines his legacy. It is no real stretch to see his amazing consciousness be the light in the darkness, like a raging yule log fire, or the promise of the sun's return. Jesus might be the reason for a religion that proclaims him but he too is part of a larger cosmic order of things. If not for his life in a desert at a lower latitude, were he to be from the northern lands, maybe this would make more sense, talking about the dark nights of the solstice week, and all the things that people do to celebrate that cosmological axis point.

Christmas is a human holiday, not just for Christians. What Jesus taught, said, and how he lived is the message, the light in the darkness, that is open and free to anyone. Sometimes the ones who receive it best are the ones not already on the inside. I think this is how it is supposed to be. I find that Jesus, stripped of the excessive gunk that has accumulated over the years, is a stellar figure not because of any twinkle-twinkle little star kind of talk, but because of his humanity. The title that people use to describe him, the Son of Man, essentially means he is the essential human one. The gift of Jesus is the gift of being shown how our deepest humanity is where our God-likeness is to be found, our divinity. I wish that that message was not so distorted so that people would dismiss it from their cynicism.

In the picture, there is a rather unconventional collection of items that might be a bit blasphemous in certain circles! There is some humor to be found, if you know my thing about pigs. The main creche is a porcelain one that my grandparents had for years. A family friend made them in about 1970. Any creche automatically does a disservice to the two different biblical stories about the birth of Jesus; they invariably merge the Matthew account with wise men with the Luke account of animals and angels and shepherds. We at least partition the two onto different sides, in order to respect the two different ideas of what happened—a case for Christological diversity of opinion from the earliest times. For this year, we substituted the creche's Mary and Joseph and manger-bound Jesus with a ceramic candle holder of Joseph sheltering Mary, who has Jesus in her arms. Lining up before them are some wooden angels that Kelli has had for years.

Another angel, a fragile homemade job made from a styrofoam cup, a styrofoam ball for a head, and some fabric for wings, met her match as we dug out the ornaments this year. We had to resort to other means for an angel. Okay, so you can bet there were no pigs in a barn in Judea on the night Jesus was born, but after Peter's dream, we on the Christian path were given leave of that kind of division in the world! So it is no long stretch to have a pig be the angel adorning the pagan Christmas tree! We've taken to liking real trees or at least wreaths in recent years. After years of plastic toys for trees, it has been nice to have the real thing. They are evergreens, after all. And there might be a bit of a theological case for an evergreen in the dead of winter as a sign of God's mastery of things.

Yeah, we're part of the cultural Christmas mashup. It is sometimes absurd and illogical. Sometimes irreverent and maybe even a little blasphemous. But there is something about celebrating life in the darkest hour that is compelling. It apparently has been something that can't be turned off, nor should it be. I don't mind Santa except for how he's been bought out by the wrong interests. But he too is okay. Life is okay. Living is okay. Tis all we got. It is the message of Jesus that life is okay, and it is okay to emulate the natural world around us—to be like the birds and the lilies. So too should we charge ahead with reckless love of life in the darkest hour, if only to be defiant. Merry Christmas. (And God bless us, EVERY ONE!)

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.

Tuesday
Oct052010

Technomessiahs, Redux

A week ago on my local PBS radio station I heard this show on Geoengineering—the range of ideas concerning global efforts to take some mighty heroic measures to combat the looming prospects of damage from climate change. Anytime I have heard this topic come up in the last year or so, my skin crawls and my stomach feels ill. It presents itself to me as science fiction, and dangerous fiction at that. To me it smacks of hubris on a level not ever seen before, except in some parallel movements in genetics and economics which are pushing into dangerous territory once regarded as the domain of the divine. It seems the kind of ambitious technological overreach that elicited a response from the Lord in Genesis, who watched humans building the great tower, something which was met with the confounding of language, meant to at least make it hard to get such ideas off the ground.

The technological genie has been out of the bottle for a couple of centuries now. Geoengineering is one more prayer for what I call the "technomessiah" to come and save us from, ironically, the other technomessiahs who have come in ever-accelerating fashion. The soul work associated with loosing ourselves from the technological straitjacket is too hard to do, it seems, so the de facto answer is to keep charging ahead into the same thing we desperately need to escape. I think I encountered the idea in Richard Heinberg's work, that civilization is one big unintended consequence of our first dabblings in toolmaking. The makers of flint axes could not have imagined our dilemma today, but it was a slow climb up a long ladder for millennia, with a quite noticable acceleration in the last 250 years ago, and certainly in the last century. What does it take to dare look down in preparation for a retreat from these dizzying heights?

Today the news let me know about the red tide of toxic sludge flowing through Hungary. The devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is still wreaking its havok. These are just two examples of humanity not having control over its technology. We're adolescents still, thrilled with our ability to make stuff, but seemingly unable to harness it. To be clear, I am not against technology per se, nor am I against invention and progress. I should be clear about that. But I do criticize the automatic reaction to meet problems with more advanced technology in lieu of maybe stepping back and changing priorities. Appropriate technology for a job is quite fine, but it takes discernment to know what that is, and not to automatically run to whatever is the latest and (supposedly) greatest. What I think has been a dangerous combination is how technological development has been taken to market for mass production even before we have a chance to understand what could follow. Most of the things we use now have no big impact if they were the only ones of their kind, but they are not—they are mass produced consumer goods that draw down resources and when used by individuals according to individual priorities, and not social vision, will bring us to where we are now.

The answer that keeps presenting itself to me is to revisit and learn from the great spiritual traditions that guide us in how to relate to one another, to creation, to our creator. What is needed is literally a counter-cultural response to our great dilemmas. A counter-cultural response might emerge from any of the great traditions that predate our love affair with our technological development in the industrial age; those traditions have a memory of a life before the creative explosion that has paradoxically led us to the crisis of our time that is being met in certain circles with the grandiose ideas of geoengineering. Those traditions are the only things that frame life as inherently hard, and that instruct people in possible ways to move gracefully nonetheless. Our love affair with technology has much to do with our aversion to difficulty. I guess one thing that bothers me about the geoengineering ideas is that they presume an inability to change the fundamentals. They don't require the soul work to change the underlying problem. We might embark on a project like that with the unbridled expectation of economic growth, even though that has been the leading cause of our greatest problems.

The soul work of relinquishment, humility, love for others is all hard work but I feel it is the work that will draw us back from our dangerous place. Tapping into that consciousness will be the liberation we need from the thought structures that have brought us here, a place of neurosis, unable to cope properly with the technological genie we have loosed on the world. We're really quite miserable this way. Isn't it time for something else?

Friday
Aug062010

Faith and Faithlessness

Yesterday I was listening to public radio and on one of the news shows they were talking about Naomi Campbell's testimony in the tribunal seeking to get the truth about president Charles Taylor of Liberia and his trade in blood diamonds. I finally came to understand how Campbell the supermodel was involved, how she was a guest at a dinner in South Africa, and how she was given the mysterious dirty rocks that were the illegal uncut diamonds that are highly regulated otherwise. Not ever knowing or really caring about the comings and goings of a supermodel of her stature, I thought somehow she was a celebrity activist on this case, that somehow she was caught up unawares and then made it her work to seek justice in a way like one might expect Bono of U2 or some other celebrity who wants to raise the profile of their favorite cause. But no, the radio had someone talking about how this whole case is such a nuisance and how she'd like to just get it over because it is a hindrance to her "work." Excuse me? Is she that full of herself that her testimony that might damn this war criminal is not as important as her runway strutting and photo shoots and clubbing on the Riviera? What the fuck? People are dying because of this diamond trade and she can't be bothered to do her moral duty without moaning?

Less harshly—and because I expect less from my humble coworkers in the food distribution industry—I have to shake my head in disappointment at the results of a casual conversational survey I conducted today. In about 15 cases of checking in with coworkers of mine, barely anyone knew what I was talking about when I said today was a day of dubious repute: the 65th anniversary of Hiroshima. Many didn't even know what it meant. Some, to greater or lesser degree, made some snarky comment about Japs or Slopes (new to me) or fell back on reciting the old argument that it would have taken a million men to die if we didn't drop the bomb. It seemed it had little power to shock. I think only two of them understood I was posing the question out of some ethical concern. Only one barely entered into a conversation for a few moments, seeing the thing as a major turning point in human history, the time when it became clear that we really could act as gods, at least in the destructive capacity. Or that we actually had the power to destroy life as we know it, and the passage of 65 years since those ignoble bombings hasn't done anything to make the world a safer place.

August 6th has another dubious distinction of being the anniversary of the murder of a friend of ours from childhood. He was murdered at point blank in a drug deal gone bad. He was unarmed and never packed anyway, being more of a peace loving wannabe hippy who found it more lucrative to sell drugs than to get a "real job" that had no sense of adventure to it. He was a smart guy, excepting of course that his chosen profession was a dead end job, no matter how lucrative it was. Oh, he had been in trouble before and did some prison time. He drew negative attention to the family and had some tough love applied by being kicked out of his house. He tried to get out of an industry where the only way out is to get dead first. These days, those of us who have been affected by this would like to see how it goes with the legalization of marijuana, in hopes that the black market might lose some of its charm and power. In the same way as I support gay marriage but don't need it, I support legalization but for no gain of my own to be had. Is the system not broken enough as it is, warranting a radically different response than we've been giving for so long? So far my marriage hasn't been threatened by gay couples who have wed, and I'd dare support the pot legalization in hopes that maybe murder might be taken out of the equation.

Sure, I realize a lot of people just can't bear to look at this stuff in all its layered complexity. But really we have to face that society has done a good job of distracting us from doing so. There is little structure in place to facilitate the asking of big questions and the understanding or ability to hold the weight of the answers that follow. At times I am not even sure people want it. Or maybe they might be interested if it is downloadable, air conditioned, or low calorie. Let's just hope Naomi C doesn't carry much weight in the public discourse.

Saturday
Jun272009

Richard Rohr

Ever since I saw him as a panelist in the documentary DVD A Crisis of Faith, I've been into the things Franciscan priest Richard Rohr has to say. His daily meditations arrive by email (sign up) and have some great things to ponder about the Christian life, but moreso, the authentic life of faith. Today's reads:

How am I on the edges of the system?

The Gospel doesn't bless the existing system; it leads us to the edges where freedom might be found. It does so in such a way that we can return to the world, without being addictively dependent on it any more.

We are able to return to the suffering and joys of this world, without letting ourselves be seduced by its false promises from either the political Left or the political Right. They both have their idolatries and they both have their blind spots. We hang with Jesus in the naked middle. The Gospel as Jesus taught it came from his Jewish and Prophetic background, which ended up pleasing neither side of the aisle?neither the status quo of the priests and Pharisees, nor the angry rebellion of the alienated and the Zealots.

Another goes like so:

What is it to hold beauty and pain?

Walter Brueggemann says the job of the prophet is to free people from their numbness. That is also the task of the church. It is to wake people up, to bring them to consciousness, and not just to comfort them in their unconscious state. I am afraid a lot of soft piety and too quick religious comfort does precisely that. The giveaway is when one finds no attitude of service, volunteerism, or compassion for the outsider emerging from one's attendance at church services.

True prophetic religion allows us to hold, suffer, and also enjoy all that God holds, suffers, and enjoys—which is everything—the good and the bad of our histories.

Rohr founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico and has been a prolific speaker and writer in his productive time, spending what I am told is half the year in his monastic mode, and carrying on as public figure the rest of the time. He does a lot of work in male spirituality and has a retreat that I am about to submit an application to, when I figure out where and when I want to attend. I missed the one in my back yard in Julian a couple months ago, only noticing it on the very day it started.

Monday
Jun082009

Exile And Return

Exile and return is a major theme in the Bible, and therefore in the lives of Jews and Christians. There is of course the Exile ("big E") of being carried off to Babylon for a couple generations, watching Jerusalem being laid waste and the agony of not knowing how or even if it would be possible to worship Yahweh while displaced from his favored city on earth. But more broadly speaking, the Bible as a whole tells of exile and return, starting with Genesis and being sent from Eden—the primeval state of undivided wholeness—into the world where division is a central fact of life. It seems we thought we knew better than our creator. From wholeness to being fragmented, we are exiled and through the bible, God does all sorts of tricks to get us back into one piece. None of them work too well or has much promise until a genius moment of presenting Jesus to the world, a figure who subverts all our typical understandings of what is required to live a faithful life. By the end of the bible story, the early believers and writers concluded that Jesus was the cure for this division in our lives. He was, for them, the end of spiritual exile. If we haven't forgotten it, even today he is the end of our spiritual exiles, as individuals (ah, I hate to say it: your "personal lord and savior") and also as all of humanity (through his commandment to love one's neighbor like oneself), offering the example of what we need to function as the community God envisions for us—the Kingdom of God.

My recent experience of joining a church by conscious decision has raised some questions for me. It is the first time I joined a church by intent, and not just by being confirmed into my existing congregation—an experience which does not seem to register clearly with me as a definitive moment in my life. Part of the reason for joining my new congregation has been that unlike the old one, there is a structure in place for actually doing some spiritual discernment and development work in a group setting, among many other ways to live a satisfying community life. My experience initially was a bit timid, but I was interested in being open with people. I actually didn't have plans to join as a member; that sort of grew on me over the last nine months or so. Suffice to say, having a setting in which to explore themes of how I experience the divine moving in my life has been an agent that helped me feel that this congregation was right for me.

If I do get any revelations from God, then they surely come in the "still small voice" variety such as Elijah experienced in Kings. I have to admit to being sort of dense in that regard. But revelations aren't always presentations of things not yet known; often it just takes a new insight to put together the pieces of many things already well known. Some write this off as coincidence. I have to wonder how it all works. But I am gaining in trust that it does, and that it happens for reasons we learn only on reflection.

So what compelled me to dig out a box of my journals and letters from the summer and first year after graduating high school (1991-92)? Especially since all that sort of stuff (filed neatly in annual collections in a series of boxes) now is garage filler, and no longer within reach in my closet like it tended to be for years before I began to move house every few months. For a long time, I did too much of this digging and I forgot to live in the moment, by hanging onto a detailed memory of all sorts of stuff that perhaps expired in usefulness before it was even written down! Having not had that opportunity in most of the Kelli years (since 2002), now it seems safer to periodically have a look. I draw some interesting revelations from this material.

This week I revisited the 1991-92 box featuring absurd amounts of pining for Shelby Duncan, a certain girl who never reciprocated my feelings (and with whom I kept that that dance going for another eight years or so—don't ask); stories about my early outside drumming under bridges and at other places because my home neighbors hated the noise; the news of an ever-growing drumset, with a few drawings indicating the changes; a few other minor tales of girls who never ended up being more than a fantasy or peck on the cheek; a considerable cache of letters from my first girlfriend Melissa; subversive correspondence from my stepmom who exited the family in 1983 but who wrote to me on the sly for some years before our early 1992 reunion; my early experiences and embarrassing writings at Mesa college...

But even more ink was given to how ridiculously bored I was, and how busy I was at work at Subway, and how I was often desperately lonely—enough to make a social life by going to work on my off hours!

The time I am speaking of is now approximately smack dab in the middle of my life. I graduated at 17 and started Subway and classes at Mesa a few months later, and turned 18 shortly after that. Now I am twice that age, nearly 36. One thing that I have always been aware of is how I spent roughly the last two years of high school as a pretty regular and committed churchgoing guy. I did a lot of things there. In fact, I did everything I could do there. It was my community. I wasn't really so connected to my peers; I was always more into adult conversations and concerns. (I went to study Martin Buber at an evening meeting when I was 16.) It was a good time on the whole. That is, until years later when I began to see them too as a family riddled with their own dysfunctions. Anyhow, let me not spoil what was perhaps a lifesaver on a number of occasions. At that time, ignorance was bliss. I felt cared for there, and put a lot of time into it for a while.

When I got the job at Subway, I was put on the closing shift, a shift that got me out of work at nearly one in the morning. I worked alone past 10 pm. My school schedule could accommodate that; class started at noon. But church started for me at 9 am, so for at least the first two months or so while the newly opened store got its bearings, it was closing at midnight. Eventually it changed to 11 pm and provided a partner, and things went better. But by then I had already made the critical decision: something in my schedule had to give, and the choice I made was one of economic benefit over community. I basically sent myself into exile from my community, for want of the sort of independence that having a first job seems to offer.

The journals for those eight months of Subway—and several months that followed—reflect an honest attempt to play by the rules and do a good job. If ever I played the part of the company man, this was it. I was the more senior of the closers after just two months. I really didn't know how to handle the task of delegating responsibility, even though I knew all the jobs well enough. I really put myself into it. Eventually, I took a day shift and got a bit closer to my boss, a delightfully sarcastic and funny guy named Chuck. I was third place after him and the manager Steve. In some ways, Chuck began to like me more than Steve and his complacency. But Chuck had plans to offload the store only about eight months after he opened it. I was apprehensive whether my hard work would amount to anything since new owners meant that I'd probably be reduced in rank or let go. Long story short, it didn't do me any good at all. In fact, it was really just rejected by the new owners, and sent me into a whole mess of drama that terminated in a court restraining order against me! Anyhow, I had internalized the values of the marketplace, and was living that story.

Meanwhile, I was desperately disconnected when away from work. I had Matt Zuniga as a new "friend" but he was way too weird for me. But we shared my drums when we went and did our outside noisemaking and from that effort to kill time came all my interest in recording music and making tapes and later CD's. My best friend from high school, Stephan, was an exchange student who had since gone back to Germany. I had gone to Europe that summer of 1991, and toiled mightily at Subway solely to pay for another trip to Steve's house in 1992, to more properly close up our in-person friendship before who knows what would take over as "real life." Matt, by comparison, was no one. (Of course I feel differently now, but he was quite a character then, unlike any I had known.)

Oh, what misery it all consisted of.

In my journals I noticed scarcely a mention of church. That's because I essentially dropped out as much as I had been in for a couple years. I don't suppose it actually had to be that way. I just had no sense of balance. After Subway began closing earlier in the evening, I guess there was no actual reason for not being able to go to church on Sunday mornings, or to do other activities. But for whatever reason, I stayed away, somehow feeling that this new world of work and school was more important. But wow! All the journals were quite miserable. Maybe it would have been better to stick around at church, to retain that community life. What I didn't know then was that my time off would last for about ten years, until I was 28. This Subway experience was just the beginning of a long dark period.

Fast forward to 2005 when I was developing enough of a sense of self to take a stand when employers threw me shifts that would intrude upon my life. Essentially, my firing from AV Concepts was based on my sticking to my guns for my own good. (They didn't seem to mind the request for Sunday off, but they chafed at my retention of my weeknights off so I could go to therapy to get my life in order after that disastrous summer.) That was one step in redeeming my 1991 decision to wander from church. And, early last year when I got my current job, I was in a dreadful way when it looked like I'd have no control over the hours I work because it seemed that they could get me just about any time from 4 am till 8 pm, seven days a week except for three Sundays I negotiated to have off each month. I did the math of the total hours they could draw from in a month and just about went into shock at how much of my life could be tapped for commercial work. This was quite upsetting since in 2006 after AVC, I was quite into learning about sabbath economics, and one central idea is that work should have limitations put around it so it doesn't take a person over. And that is just what it seemed might happen. Over several months, I played company man enough to negotiate a fixed schedule that has at least fluctuated within reason, and not by shocking daily jumps of five hours forward or back. I've been able to have Sundays off since September, and it has been good.

Good because I have the feeling of returning now that there is a niche of time carved for this purpose. Strictly speaking it is not a return to my old church life because that is history to me now. The return to feeling part of a community is running strong in me now. Having the time to take part helps, but having the will to do so is more satisfying. I mean, at any point in the dark years of exile, I could have chosen to drop by at church at least sometimes. I didn't. Somehow, I am taking back the decision to let the Market inform my value system. In 1991, it was an innocent and curious youthful enough move to see what another world is like. I didn't realize my age would nearly double before I found it in me to take my place in the body of Christ, with the conviction that that was a better choice to make. Some people, I suppose, never come back. And I suppose some don't get as far away as I feel I did.

I don't suppose people think that having a "real" job is an experience of exile. Much of the time it is deemed the only socially responsible thing to do, and the wise person makes all the time for what work requires. But consider the compromises that often accompany commercial work. And consider how things are torn asunder now in the "job market." The facade of the Market-as-deity is crumbling now. Maybe the crumbling of that—expressed by increasing layoffs in most sectors—will call people out of exile. Maybe it will call them out or even force them out of the individualistic pursuits of material gain over whatever community or family life they had to leave behind to accomplish that. What, but for the collapse of an economic system that is constructed on division of labor and division of relations, could be better? It sort of strikes dead the notion of "what's good for the corporation is good for America." Little by little, news reports and other anecdotes are indicating a shift away from the predominant story of the Market-god (upheld as it were by our sacrifices to it, in the form of our working hours and consumption that follows—giving back in money what we did not give in labor), and toward the types of community solidarity and togetherness that has been brushed aside, but that is the only thing that will save us and bring us back home from exile.

The urban life is a disconnected life based on consumption more than generation, a proposition which is inherently unsustainable. Our dilemma is a new one mainly because of our flight from the land to the city. It is no surprise we find so much alienation if we are fundamentally detached from the basis for our lives. The urban existence is literally an uprooting from the soil, from the ground people have traditionally been tied to, and where—for generations at a stretch—networks of relations have been constructed out of necessity. Some might argue that we have to embrace the new reality of urbanization and get on with it. But that is the way of death. We don't have that luxury. Just because we have a brave new world doesn't mean it's not foolish new world. No less a figure than Jesus spoke about the deadly trends in this type of lifestyle: his good news, his gospel, was that there is a life of vibrancy for those who reject such things as the world has created. I don't say this to be a Luddite-traditionalist, but the path of higher technology and more urbanization is the way of death so far, and we don't have time to mess it up anymore. You might think of it as "old is the new new." The ancient wisdom had it as right as we need it to be today. There seems to be a reawakening to this, and manifestations of it are turning up in various community efforts—in small scale agriculture, church community, arts, even online where things like Wikipedia restore the notion of the commons, where the world is seen as a place to be shared because of our common lot. It is a rejection of much of the centralized power and top-down order imposed by political and corporate structures of our time. People may think our present world situation is better off religion-free, but as I think theologian John Cobb would say, this is a profoundly religious matter. What we need is to get rid of the bad religion and bad myths that will destroy us if we live by them. Maybe what we need is the "religionless Christianity" that Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of.

The story of exile from Eden is a story of being separated from that which gives eternal (wholeness of) life, and it seems that it tells a story that narrates the move from decentralized roaming peoples who had what they needed for the taking from the common pot, into the world of cities and their inherent structure based on hierarchy, classification and division, not to mention scarcity from the not-natural notion of private ownership. Sure, for a while we've dabbled in our human knowledge and our economic orgies that glorify individual pursuits, but all that has been exile for us. Notice if you will that that system isn't doing too well now! The story of Jesus, by contrast, is the story of reinstatement to our whole humanity; by again living the life undivided from God and the divine plenty. Jesus didn't speak in terms of the modern corporate world, or of Adam Smith's economic theories. He spoke to us in terms of nature and its indiscriminate providence. No wonder we can't find our way. We've declared war on nature, and by doing so, we've declared war on ourselves. So a return from exile is needed. Repentance. Metanoia.

I've seen my little part in it in my microcosmic version of that struggle, and have decided to turn toward what promises the life I left behind for a decade and more. I feel like I got part of myself back when I got happened into community again—even though it is really not the same bunch as before. We are, after all, relational beings who gain our identity from our relations to others. Little surprise then that for a decade there, I really didn't know who in the world I was because I was cut out of so many life-giving connections. The last few weeks have had a remarkable feeling that I am coming home.

Monday
Dec222008

Wealth

This is one of the extremely rare instances of a forwarded email that isn't totally bound for the trash. A certain figure of my past always spoke of poverty being "between the ears." I contend true poverty is of the soul. But who am I anyway?

One day, the father of a very wealthy family took his son on a trip to the country with the express purpose of showing him how poor people live. They spent a couple of days and nights on the farm of what would be considered a very poor family. On their return from their trip, the father asked his son, "How was the trip?" "It was great, Dad." "Did you see how poor people live?" the father asked. "Oh yeah," said the son. "So, tell me, what did you learn from the trip?" asked the father. The son answered: "I saw that we have one dog and they had four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden and they have a creek that has no end. We have imported lanterns in our garden and they have the stars at night. Our patio reaches to the front yard and they have the whole horizon. We have a small piece of land to live on and they have fields that go beyond our sight. We have servants who serve us, but they serve others. We buy our food, but they grow theirs. We have walls around our property to protect us, they have friends to protect them."

The boy's father was speechless.

Then his son added, "Thanks Dad for showing me how poor we are."

Sunday
Dec212008

Story Of Stuff

Maybe this is a bit late to do any good this Christmas consumer-glutton season, but next year may be different. Be sure to watch the full version of the film at Story of Stuff dot com.