Thursday, February 22, 2007

Church Signs: "Coming Down the Mountain"

Church Signs: "Coming Down the Mountain"

I struggled with this week's topic. I had it in my head that the phrase meant something, something specifically biblical, and it was tripping me up. I thought it had something to do with receiving enlightenment-slash-the-word-of-god, and so every time I started to mentally prepare an essay on the subject, I would falter partway in, feeling as though it was important to bring it back around to what I thought was the intended meaning of the church sign. Yet, I also felt a strong internal resistance to seeking out the biblical reference because it seemed it would taint my otherwise independent experience with the phrase. It was slowing me down enough that I finally decided to spend a few of my writing minutes on researching the topic, just to get it over with. I Googled "coming down the mountain" and was surprised to discover that the number one result was not a religious site, but a Butthole Surfers lyric.

"Some will fall in love with life
And drink it from a fountain
That is pouring like an avalanche
Coming down the mountain"

I picked up a magazine this week and saw Demi Moore on the cover. She was standing on a bridge-like deck in her mountainside home (that is practically a treehouse) in California. She looked healthy, fit, and strong. Her hair was long and lustrous. Her feet bare. Her fingers and toes were manicured and pedicured in dark polish, a deep purple that seemed out of place with the apparent lightness of her life. There were green leaves all around her, not crowding, just creating the dappled sort of lighting you get through forests in the summer. Looking at her standing there in her jeans and bare feet, her red kabbalah string barely visible around her wrist, you could practically feel the trees exhaling fresh oxygen all around her.

I flipped through the pages of the architectural magazine and envied her her riches. Her young handsome husband, her spacious new home, her children. I fantasized about what it must be like to have all that money, all those resources. To have the ability to actually make your dreams come true. To dream of a home, in a certain place, designed and furnished and decorated just the way you want it--and to make it come true. When you have that much money, the only challenge is to know your dream and then find the people who can create what you imagine.

I heard myself thinking, "If I had that money, I would have a better life. I would make the most of it. My home would be cleaner, prettier, more welcoming. It would be a place where people would gather and feel safe, relaxed, and nurtured. It would be a place where I felt good about myself and did good things in the world."

Then I looked at Ashton and Demi posing playfully on the couch, laughing, affectionate, giddy. And I thought, everyone thinks they would do better if they had what these famous, wealthy people have. But Brittney's shaving her head and flashing her crotch and driving with her kids in her lap, while men and women all over America are making beautiful homes and lives with barely a fraction of that wealth. Of course I want what they have--I want to be able to make the most beautiful home I can and share it with the people I love. But getting money won't suddenly make you that person. If you aren't making those things in your life now--cleanliness, beauty, love, comfort--then there's no reason to think you'd suddenly make the most of what you have, just because you have more.

Last weekend, I went away. I drove out to the Cape to be with new friends and their old friends. It was a cold and sunny February day. Clear and crisp and wonderful for driving. I had music and snacks and a clear sense of where I wanted to go and why. I was happy.

As I drove along the pike, I found myself thinking of my niece and my nephew. I feel for them a love that comes straight from god, from the universe. I love them the way god loves everything—unconditionally. When I think of them, this love comes down from the heavens and up from the earth and I channel it toward them. I ask the universe to make sure they know how much they are loved, how much they belong here, no matter what anyone ever says or does to them, they are graced and special and endowed by their creator with an inalienable right to love. It flows through me, this gorgeous powerful love, this total bright acceptance, and it fills me up until it overflows and my world is full of light and I am weeping tears of joy. I drove this way for a while, speeding accidentally, tears running down my face as I laughed out loud and grinned until my face hurt.

Over the course of the weekend, I was introducing myself to these new people through my words. I told them the story about my great grandmother shooting my kitten and killing my pet geese. I told them about the strip club my boss took me to in New Orleans, and the man who stuck his dick in my mouth there. I told them about the fights I got into in high school and the time Eddie Levesque snuck into my room and tried to strangle me. I talked about outhouses and ramshackle homes and my rural experience of poverty. I did it without thinking. I opened my mouth and the stories that came out were mostly about shock and violence, about fighting, poverty, and betrayal.

As I drove home from that trip, I felt as though I was coming down the mountain. I had climbed up high where the air was cold and the view was more profound. I looked around while I was up there and I saw that my life is so much more than those old stories.

From up on the mountain, I could see the patchwork fields of the days gone past. I could see the many colors of the stories that make up my life, all the hard and gritty things, and all the gorgeous ones, too. I could see that each of them is stitched together with another story of triumph or forgiveness or good fortune. The hard parts of my history are only one small fraction of what I am. I tell them out of habit, but it's time to change my ways. It's time for me to dream of a metaphorical tree house where the air is fresh and my home--the place where I keep my self--is clean and comfortable and full of light and love.

Our relationship to ourselves, to our own lives, is like the ones we have with other people. Sometimes we have a hard time, after someone is gone, remembering what they were really like. We make them heroes or villains; we ache for what they gave us without remembering what they took, or we forget how much they offered and remember only what they stole.

I have struggled to assimilate my past, to integrate it into who I am today; to neither be ashamed nor boastful; to have depth without drowning in it; to be comfortable in my own skin. It's true that there has been violence, poverty, and heartbreak; but there has also been so much more than that. There has also been so much love and openness in me that I sometimes weep from the joy of it all. I gulp it down like water, from a fountain, that is pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain.


Monday, February 12, 2007

Church Signs: "Blessed or Cursed"

Church Signs: "Blessed or Cursed"

Earlier this week, I was sitting in a café with a freelancer friend of mine. He was working on math problems, his new obsessive hobby, and I was working on work, the thing I've been doing for money for the last twelve years while I figure out what I really want to do with my life.

In general, although he is sweet and good-natured and I've known him for years, this friend is not someone I can really confide in. Every now and then, though, I inevitably forget that I can't really talk to him and I share something that I will quickly come to regret. This week was one of those times.

"It's like, sometimes I look around my world and I see all of the things that aren't working out--health, home, love, work, social life--and I feel motivated. I feel driven to fix the things that are wrong. But other times, my legs just go out from underneath me. I'm flattened and all I can do is look around me and see how desolate and hopeless it all is. I mean, I don't have any of those things. Not enough money. Not enough love. No real social life to speak of. I hate my job. I am miserable in an apartment I can't afford. And my health…I don't even have that," I said.

He smiled sympathetically, and said something like, "Man, I know. It sucks."

"It's like, I just wish I could find a rich husband or win the lottery or something," I joked.

"Money doesn't help," he said, smugly. "Money doesn't matter."

I got so mad my head nearly popped off and splattered all over the mural-covered walls of the cafe. It was the tone of his voice that really did it. He was so condescending. So wise-person-who-knows-it-all-speaking-to-the-poor-ignorant-youngster. I wanted to break his neck.

"Well, that's easy for you to say," I said. "You've never been homeless. I've spent almost my entire life beneath the poverty line! You think that if I had enough money to pay my rent every month, my life wouldn't be a whole lot better? You think if I had enough money to buy whatever food I wanted or go on vacation or visit my friends or buy a home of my own that I wouldn't be a more happy and relaxed human being?! If you think money doesn't matter you are completely messed up."

"Well, yeah, I mean, I guess…" he said, looking a little uncomfortable at having been reminded of my intense and long-term poverty.

"Maybe it doesn't matter after a certain point," I told him. "Maybe after you've got enough to cover your basic needs and be comfortable in the world. Maybe anything after that doesn't matter. And maybe money can't buy you happiness. But for a whole lot of us--for millions and millions of us--having more money would make a whole lot of difference."

"I find that daily meditation really helps. That's where true happiness lies," he countered.

I stayed angry for days. I told him off over and over in my head. I couldn't let it go. He's not a wealthy person--far from it--but he owns his own home and his own car, both of which were made possible because he inherited money. His great grandfather invented the Reese's Peanut Butter cup. Seriously. His great grandfather was H.B. Reese and a small bit of that sweet fortune trickled down to him.

So where does this guy get off telling me that money doesn't matter? And, more to the point, why was his saying it making me so mad?

After a while, I realized two things. One, it pisses me off when I argue for my own limitations. I wish I had gone after him, instead of throwing myself on the ground, wailing about my own impoverished experience. And two, he only said what he said because he isn't happy. His opinion is based on the fact that he can't manage to cobble together a decent life even with his windfall and his safe middle-class upbringing. To him, this translates as money not bringing happiness. If you have enough money and always have had, but you have never really been happy, of course you would come to the conclusion that money does not contribute to happiness.

My indignance was intense and, I think, justified, but ultimately, his life choices have nothing to do with mine. His perspective on money and happiness--while, in my opinion, ignorant, privileged, and flawed--is his own and he hangs onto it for his own reasons.

I'm willing to wager that if he sold his house and turned his inheritance over to me; if we traded net worths, then I would be a lot more happy. And I suspect that he would be even more unhappy than he is now. I'd like to see him meditate his way out of this mess.

Perhaps I should ask him to relinquish his assets. If he really thinks that money has nothing to do with happiness, he should have no problem giving it all to me, right?

The church sign topic this week was "Blessed or Cursed." Do I think my friend was blessed by his financial windfall? Yes. Does he believe he was? I don't think so. Not in any way that matters. This pisses me off, but unless I can convince him to give it to me, that anger will only act as a curse, fostering bitterness and rage, neither of which is particularly helpful in the long run.

And, as far as the long run goes, I may not have been blessed with money, but I have a lot of other things going for me--and the game ain't over yet.


Sunday, February 04, 2007

Church Signs: "Deep Water"

Church Signs: "Deep Water"

Today was a sharp, bright, cold winter day. The temperature stayed below freezing, even though the sun was out all day. Last night, we experienced our first real snowfall of the winter, so there were children out today sledding, and grownups on cross country skis.

I didn't feel well today. I wasn't as sick as I have been for the last four weeks, but I felt nauseous and bland all day. I still have a bit of a cough and a sore throat and a runny nose, but it's miles better than it was last week. Today was the kind of Saturday made for curling up inside with a friend or lover, to make a fire, or play cards, or watch a movie together and sip warm drinks.

I would have liked to have been doing that today—sharing my time and space with someone with whom I am comfortable, someone with whom I can snuggle or rest in old familiar ways. But instead, I'm trying to remember the last time I saw someone who knew my name…It takes me several minutes, but finally I decide it was Thursday. I spent that afternoon at a coffee house with my friend Greg. As I write this, I'm going on 54 hours of total isolation.

Today, my only human interaction was with a child, a boy who looked about nine years old. He was coming back from sledding. I said hello and asked him how it was. "Awesome," he said. "I had, like, a thousand wipeouts!"

I said hello to his father, too, my neighbor, a man I've met a couple of times before, but he just kind of nodded and looked at me warily, as though I were a stranger approaching his child, even though we were standing ten feet from what he knows is my front door (and we all live in a co-housing development, where community is supposed to be intentional.)

In addition to the boy, I also talked to a hog I found in the woods. There were three of them, actually. They were big, tragic-looking hogs, trapped in a pen near the power lines behind the prison. One minute I was walking through the woods, crunching white powder beneath my boots, breathing in the clean scent of fresh snow, and the next, I smelled manure and then there they were. They had no straw and no water, and it looked, based on the lack of footprints around their pen, as though no one had brought them food yet today. It was nearly dark. There was suffering in that place.

One of them, mostly black, with misshapen haunches and disturbing black circles around his watery eyes was gnawing on a dead tree branch. I walked up to the pen with a stick to offer them a scratch. One came over to me, but she just stood there, with her snout against the fence. They all had wild looks in their eyes, unpredictable, unstable, like people in an asylum. Because I had nothing else to offer, I tossed some dead leaves into the pen. They scarfed them up, then one of them dashed around the center of the pen in a frantic, jerky pig-run.

I said nice things, in a soothing tone of voice, but I did not feel safe there, and I could not stay. The sun was going down, I was lost, and it occurred to me that whoever had posted the No Trespassing signs I'd been ignoring might not take too kindly to my presence at this pigpen. Dueling banjos came to mind…

So I said goodbye and walked quickly toward what I hoped was home.

I've been worrying about those animals ever since. I've been thinking I could go back, bring them some table scraps or at least some water…but whenever I think this, a voice inside me warns, "Don't make friends with dinner."

There was a sharp and rusting metal collar hanging from a long-dead tree that had fallen into the pen. It seemed so violent, so ominous dangling there. There's only one reason to put a collar like that on a hog. And it's just sitting there, brazenly in their midst, quietly waiting for the day when a man will walk into that pen, pick it up, and secure it to a thick, naïve neck…

The suffering in that pen was hard for me to be near; I want to alleviate it. I prayed for them. I did tonglin breathing as I walked away. I thought of calling animal control, of sneaking back every day to make sure they are okay.

Someone, somewhere, is raising those hogs. They are big and fat and surely someone is feeding them, and not loving them…for a purpose. It's a purpose I can't condone or, even worse, be witness to. I know what it means to love an animal, to name it and scratch behind its ears and care about its feelings--and then to arrive home from school one day and hear it screaming as they take it away. I know better than to go back to that pen. And yet, perhaps I could make their lives less awful if I did…

I saw no one today, except that kid, his unfriendly father, my cats, and those hogs. I had no where to go, and no one to be with. I called several friends looking for something to do, but none of them were available.

This is deep water. It's cold and scary and if I sink beneath the surface, how long would it take anyone (aside from my best friend) to notice I was gone?

Apparently, more than 54 hours.

When trapped in deep water, you must be patient. You must sometimes float. You can't always swim; it's just too tiring. Sometimes, you must just do the work of not panicking, and trust that the current will take you someplace, eventually, where your toes can touch down again.