Write it out…

Not long ago I listened to a radio interview. This was one of those entertainment pieces, the kind of thing you listen to because it isn’t about politics, murder, or other such real-life nastiness. Asked to make sense of a recent experience, the guest offered the simplest of replies:

“It’s hard to say…I haven’t even written about it yet.”

This little gem caught my attention so much I didn’t really hear the rest of the interview. The details didn’t matter; what stood out was this tiny, piquant glimpse into how meaning gets made – the process of coming to terms with an experience. It also likely grabbed me because here’s someone else suggesting they have to write about something in order to make sense of themselves.

Admittedly it lands a little close to home because I’ve found myself trying to make sense of several things lately but lack the words to describe it. This blog has been the place where I write “randomly”, letting words fall out in order to see what’s rattling around in my head. But with recent events, that hasn’t happened. The words don’t seem to land on the page and continue floating around in space, morphing into other shapes or sometimes disappearing altogether.

This is your brain…if your brain were an egg talking to itself

I’ve guessed it’s because the events are happening too fast, too quick for my brain to fully pull together. Or maybe it’s not a brain thing – maybe the issue is that these things are all too visceral, too emotional, for the brain to catch them. There are feelings and motion, but sometimes the event demands a reaction and the brain just has to respond to what is there without having the luxury of making sense.

Curiously the events I’ve been thrust into lately are brain related in other ways – a relative expressing a high degree of neurocognitive disorder (that’s dementia to everyone else) and my own battle with migraines. The brains have gone on strike, it seems.

Attempting to reign mine in, we tried medication that resulted in me having a great deal of difficulty completing sentences. Try writing a book in that condition. Anomia (inability to remember the names of everyday objects) makes it kinda hard to complete a paragraph, or at least construct one who anyone other than the author can understand. I couldn’t even remember the word “anomia,” which meant when I tried explaining this to my employer, I sounded something like this:

“It’s sort of like you are coming up to what you know is supposed to be there but you can’t quite find it so you skip over it hoping you can come back around to it and it’ll slip into place, but it doesn’t really happen so you’re just left looking at this empty hole knowing something is supposed to be there but you’re the only person who knows what it is.”

And then your employer tells you to go home because they think you’re drunk. My brain had a great laugh at me that day. It also gave me a migraine.

The fact that I can write this suggests a change occurred; deciding the cure was worse than the problem, we discontinued that particular medicine. But this is a continued experiment – and gets into that euphamistic “lifestyle change” thing. I’d have loved it if taking a pill were the only thing one needed to do to conquer something like migraines. But as with most chronic health problems, the treatment isn’t a 45 second commercial promising bliss and small-print debilitating side-effects. It’s a long process of discovering what could work along with what doesn’t – which means learning a lot of what you thought was okay about how you live your life falls in the “doesn’t” category.

For the short time my brain was on holiday, I took a brief walk into my relative’s dementia land. I am not in any way claiming I had the experience of someone who is falling into a cognitive decline. What I am claiming is that as the medicine’s side-effects starting taking away my ability to think, react quickly, solve problems, and use words, I realized that the me I thought I knew was disappearing like a ghost. It was terrifying and I had no idea what was supposed to be in its place. An athlete who loses their leg, a painter who loses a hand – it is an experience of being confronted with our primal fear that without what we can do, we become no one.

I’d like to say that I plowed forward and found myself, but the truth is I called the doctor and said “I can’t handle this.” A 3-day migraine attack was better than disintegrating, and at least I know how to survive the migraine. So I don’t have a pithy answer for how to deal with that harsh look in the existential mirror. But I also don’t think there is a pithy answer – it is something that takes time to figure out, presuming it can be figured out.

When I sit with my relative, we have conversations that follow no chronological, or any-logical, order. The bedroom we sit in morphs into a type of Tardis as we travel across space and time:

“Are you here to help me pack?”
Where are you going?
“Ohio.”
When do you leave?
“Any moment now. We have to get on the plane.”
How long have you been here?
“I just got here.”
Why  are you going to Ohio?
“For work. Shouldn’t you be in school?”
I don’t have school right now.
“Did you pass all your classes?”

And on it goes…in the same sentence I am a working adult, a grade-schooler, a parent, a teenager. Dead relatives are resurrected, and last night’s baseball game is recalled play by play. My children’s names are forgotten.

I’m living in the sandwich of my generation, but I can’t tell you anything about how it tastes. No one really asks for this, but resentment seems pointless. How do you hold a grudge if the mistakes of the past no longer exist? The way you knew yourself in response to this person must also become someone else, because the person before you floats trans-dimensionally and you’re just trying to not get lost. There are many people living in this, and information exists to explain it. And yet, if you ask me to make sense of it all…

I haven’t even written about it yet.

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Wild horses…

This morning while having my head shoved in an MRI, I decided to rethink my life. After all, I wasn’t going anywhere for a while and I needed something to distract me from the panic crawling up my body, generated from watching too many sci-fi films where the person in the machine gets atomized or turned into a giant faceless evil glob. Why not make use of my idleness and sort out life’s problems.

That paragraph likely brings out the problem, but in case it isn’t obvious – one shouldn’t be discovering “me” time in a tube designed to identify potentially life-threatening conditions living in your head. While it is true that having an MRI to diagnose migraines is good practice, I am disturbed by needing to go through it at all. First is the fear that maybe there’s more going on in there than just migraines; second is the suspicion that these migraines are my mind’s claxon, signaling the brain’s meltdown because it can’t contain all this nuclear waste anymore. (Or maybe there’s no brain left at all, having scampered off in “take this job and shove it” style.)

Migraines began visiting me a little over 3 years ago. I’d had a couple when I was younger, but not like these. Now I get possessed-by-the-devil headaches, the kind that make me want to rip out my own eyes and set fire to anyone who makes noise. They’ll last for days and once gone, I have to take a few more days just to recover. The only joy comes from unexpected precursors springing up Harry Potter style, such as the time I was in a meeting and everything in the room turned yellow. The pain stops me freight train dead in my tracks. Shop’s closed, phone’s off, don’t leave a message.

Seeking treatment is a good thing, but I do wonder if the cure will take more than a pill. For much of my adult life, especially after having kids, I accepted the temporariness of stability. Basically, life changes in ways that it just will, and part of creating stability is learning to adapt to what is not known. Once you get to the point of predicting what you do, something in life will change, necessitating a new response. Try to force or control this process, and we often find ourselves tossed about in the tornadoes we never could anticipate. Maybe our problem is that we like to control what we don’t understand – and there is so very much we don’t understand.

catch me if you can

Recently, my life has been hit with new things – new job, new phase of life, new family circumstances…and I am just now figuring out that these are not temporary changes but permanent. That’s what I found myself figuring out while ignoring the jack-hammering noise of the MRI machine. What once made sense as a “transition” is no longer a transition – it has arrived, but I’m still treating it like it is going to go away. They are here and are forcing me to examine how I live my life and where I put my energy, which up until this point has been spent trying to wrangle this herd of wild horses.

I’m no horse-whisperer though (even though I think it would be cool to do that). But I think, in between the hums and bangs of the MRI, I have been trying to throw ropes around those mustangs to force them into a pen. It won’t work. I didn’t catch any in the first place, even though I convinced myself I had. Those horses have to run, buck, do what they’re going to do, and I need to stand still and learn to see the paths they make.

Ok someone who really knows horses might say that’s a stupid thing to do but I’m not really talking about horses, it’s a metaphor, deal with it.

Admittedly, I’m sad at the thought that these new paths may well take me away from things I once wanted. But I am not sure if that will be a loss since the endpoint of these new directions can’t be seen yet. I am hoping regardless that changing course reorients me towards what is meaningful, valuable. At the least I’m hoping it means a few less headaches. In the meantime, could someone get me out of this fucking machine before I jump out of my skin…

Stuck in the noetic with you…

Living in the moment sounds great until you’re forced into it. Knowing that a phone call, email, or text could arrive and flip the day upside down gets to be a bit draining. Experiences like these become fast reminders of why a little boring predictability is a good thing.

We often presume news out of the blue is a good thing. This likely expresses our fairytale tendency to Disney-fy life’s grimmer moments. We don’t talk about when news twists your head backward and proclaims, “nope, you aren’t really going in that direction after all.”

I’ve been pre-occupied with existence and meaning these days. Frankl talks about asking of life’s meaning is not the real question, but instead to recognize that life is questioning us. These days I wonder how that questioning changes when life is nearing the end – I am not responding as I live the rest of my life, but as I near the end of my days.

Ok, don’t panic, I’m not dying. Well, not today at least. Death isn’t looking at me, but it is hanging nearby watching another. Death stands in the corner, tapping a patient finger on its crossed arms. I’d offer it a cigarette, but that seems a little too cliche`. Maybe death prefers Swisher Sweets?

Life questions us. Death, on the other hand, doesn’t really entertain questions. It has a firm grasp on certainties. We’re the ones who futilely expect it to offer answers, platitudes mainly, and fall prey to creating the very frustration we seek to avoid. We circle it, plead, joke, make deals – and all the while it just carries on, knowing it can go wherever it pleases. We just wish it would clue us in on where that destination happens to be.

Not too long ago, I couldn’t tell if it was around. I’d catch a glimpse here and there but would lose sight of it. Maybe it left, or maybe Death is just a really good hide-and-seeker. Now it’s out in the open, making itself a regular fixture in the room like a skinny floor lamp or one of those 1980’s landscape paintings you’d buy out of a trunk from a roadside starving artist sale. You know it’s there, but you’ll scratch your eyes out if you have to look at it all day.

It’s funny though how much time we spend pretending it’s not there. But the truth is, you get to a point where you don’t want it to go away. It needs to be there because the person it’s staring at is slowly running out of ways to answer life’s questioning. Their stuttered half-truths reflect this teetering between question and answer, and you realize the answer that is coming is only meant for their ears.

How is it this person becomes a time traveler, visiting friends from past, present, and future, often at the same moment? I can’t see these people but they are there, conversing as though nothing has changed. These characters parade in and out of the room, and Death winks at each like an old flirt. Maybe Death prefers Gauloises after all.

I don’t know when this stage play will come to an end. I’ve been assured it will though, whether I’m there to see it or not. Oddly enough, I’m not angry at Death for these theatrics. They make their own absurd sense, and it’s the only thing Death will talk about with me anyway. Smoke away, Death, your lungs can take it. Mine, on the other hand, are waiting to take a deep breath…

Diving into Parts Unknown

(https://www.instagram.com/anthonybourdain/?hl=en)

Dear Anthony Bourdain,

You’re gone. You already knew that, but I found out this morning. I am sad and angry, and I’m writing to you when it is too late. Maybe you have a way of knowing what is in my thoughts, or maybe you’re cosmic dust. Regardless, I’m writing down what I never had a chance to say and what you will never hear because this is the reality I am left with.

You never knew the impact you had on me. I “met” you through watching A Cook’s Tour, in the days long before you swam in Top Chef-style cash. Since then I have watched, read, listened to your words and found comfort – yes, comfort – in the brutal honesty you threw around. Why? Your version of honesty wasn’t about showing the ugliness of others. Instead, you invited us to look at the honesty of yourself, including all your uncertainties, unpleasantness, awkwardness, and absurdities.

That’s some beautiful shit, man.

I know a lot of people were drawn in by the “coolness” of hard-talking swagger (although I don’t think I ever saw you really swagger – people just think they saw you swagger). But it wasn’t the Ramones t-shirts and tattoos, the fountain of alcohol, or the reckless 4-wheel driving that made you stand out. Don’t get me wrong, that stuff was fun and made for much more interesting TV than say, a meals-in-5-minutes cooking program. But it was your words that caught me, every time. You saw things and you said things, and many times you spoke what someone like me needs to hear.

You were excelling at the one thing so many people have such a hard time doing: you were living as yourself. And that means you irritated people, you ruffled feathers, you put your foot (as well as other things) in your mouth. But you didn’t stop there – you let us see how that affected you, how you made sense your fuck-ups, and how you learned so you could do better next time. And you did keep getting better – better at being you.

I need people who do this, who work to be only themselves. Most people try to be someone else. Even when the facade gets pulled away, many still try to get us to ignore the fact that they wear no clothes. Being someone else is easier; becoming yourself is the harder, less chosen path. Authenticity is difficult because it takes you into the parts truly unknown. The mirrors that flash up on that journey will sometimes reveal the nasty bits, especially when we would prefer to see greatness.

Which is why, when I encounter someone who by all reckoning shouldn’t be excelling the way you were, someone who knows their success is based on a pure second chance at life – I cling to them, because knowing someone else out there is embracing the struggle gives me some sense that I can struggle too.

I am angry at you, Anthony Bourdain (can I call you Tony, yet?). I am angry that you leave me with this, forcing me yet again to confront the existential dilemma of isolation and connection. The void you have left implies the tie I had, even though we never shared a face-to-face conversation.

I’m also angry that I have to listen to the multitude of platitudes expressed whenever someone dies in this way. I get that there are a lot of people who don’t know what to say. But eventually, you would think people would at least stop saying some of the dumb things. Are you in a better place? Who knows. I don’t even know if you would say a better place exists. Maybe you’re stuck in a perpetual line, waiting forever behind some guy trying to order a latte at McDonald’s. Did depression overtake you? Who cares. It is like suggesting this is all just a character flaw – oh look at poor tony – which really just becomes a great way to pretend the rest of us have no pain. And if depression did play a role in this – then fuck depression and everyone who thinks depression picks on a select few to inhabit. That’s bullshit all the way – especially when we live in a time when depression might be the healthiest response we’ve got to all the ridiculousness going on.

I don’t know why you did what you did. No one will ever have that answer, except you. I would like to think that if I could’ve done something to stop you, I would have, but I also know that sentiment is only meant to make me feel as though I have control over something like this.  I don’t. And in some ways, neither did you.

I’m sad, Anthony Bourdain. I’m hurt that I’m now left trying to make sense of this and I won’t have your poetic ranting to provide that beacon of light in the chaotic darkness. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia – you called it what it was and when it got crazier, you got louder. And in those moments I knew I wasn’t nuts because at least you saw it too.

I was inspired by you, Anthony Bourdain. There were several times I used clips from your shows in my courses. I didn’t use them to gross people out or show how “weird” other cultures can be, which is where a lot of travel/food shows gets it wrong. And that’s why your work wasn’t just a travel or food show – you were doing something that I have been encouraging my students to do for years. You moved outside of what is comfortable for you and tried to step into the world of someone else. Someone you may never truly understand but you will attempt to, even if it means making a fool of yourself. You could recognize that the repulsive to you was appetizing to someone else; you knew that it wasn’t the custom that was “backward” or uncivilized, but rather you were too clumsy to get it right. You embraced what you did not know, and you allowed yourself to be affected by the people you met.

You did what hundreds of highly educated, trained, even seasoned professionals in my line of work struggle with. Some can’t even begin to approach the kind of generosity and curiosity you demonstrated just by being you. Being yourself can make a difference, and you showed us that. Damn you for taking that away from us, from me. Damn you for making me face again just how bad we can be.

Look, now I’m ranting. Do you see what you bring out in me? Do you know how much I loved the fact that you bring this out in me? Do you know how much I will miss you bringing this out in me?

I’ll close my letter by telling you one more little thing. For about 10 years, I kept having a reoccurring dream where you would appear. I don’t know what it meant because I’m not that kind of therapist. Anyway, the only other person who knew about this dream was my husband, who laughed every time it happened, prompting me to convince him that it wasn’t a sex dream. Really, it wasn’t a sex dream (I’m not that kind of therapist either). But you would just show up, and we would talk, and laugh. And I woke up, and would feel better. You made a difference to me.

See you in my dreams, Tony. And you’d better have a fucking good story to tell.

Nonsense poem…

 

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rhizomin’ the night away…

Threat. Who works well under threat? No one, really. Every action becomes extreme because the situation pushes at the seams. Threat. Duress. Pressure. Tension. Tension? I don’t think tension gets at it. Pressure is also not quite it. Pressure can produce interesting things. But too much makes things break.

 

Do we need pressure to thrive? I get that we need a degree of stress or anxiety. I need the fright before being on stage, the bolt of energy that makes you invent and elevate into someone else. It can be fun, like the thrill of figuring out a “whodunit”. It can be inspiring, validating, exhilarating…when it works. It’s a pretty big crush when it doesn’t.

I guess I have to admit to a wee extent that those of us who are prone to existential angst also need that charge to remind us we’re alive.

But how much is enough? Truthfully I’m not asking a philosophical question. Even with all the bad things I am aware people are capable of doing, I still just don’t quite get why we tend to be bafflingly, predictably, unabashedly, mean and petty towards each other.

“Why can’t we all just get along?” Is it really such a whiny thing to say…and yet it also seems dismissive to reduce our everyday experiences of injury into a childish sandbox fantasy. I’m not really expecting people to get along. I do expect people to convey a degree of respect, act with a smidgen of decency, and maybe – just maybe – treat each other with some sliver of courtesy.

For fuck’s sake, we do all live together. For one moment in time, it would be refreshing to see people remember that fact and treat each other as though we actually want each other to be there, instead of perpetuating all our Freudian envies and drives toward replicating our impotencies.

I am angry, I am sad. I don’t really need to be recognized. I would occasionally like to be noticed. I wager most people want to be noticed. It is so easy to do, and yet we so often refuse. Why is it so hard?

Do we really think if we stop paying attention to ourselves we will just disappear into nothing?

Is nothing so bad?

Misanthrope, curmudgeon. Bake me a cake or go away.*

 

*yes i stole that line. or maybe I noticed it.

Rise…

Doubt has been following me for a while, it seems. I say that as though this is an unusual occurrence. It isn’t; doubt comes around regularly and usually has something important to say when it shows up. What strikes me is this version of doubt has been creeping around in the background, slowly rumbling into my belly without being noticed.

The last couple of years has been like running a marathon uphill – no, not uphill, up a mountain, a towering Everest that leaves one limping oxygen-deprived for the last three miles. I suffocated more than once, and I don’t really remember how I managed to breathe again. But I did, and it would seem that would be enough to restore confidence.

Yet here I am, realizing that my confidence is indeed, shaken. Daily living continues; breakfast is made, work is attended to, sleep appears (sometimes)…so it doesn’t seem as though doubt has been hanging around too much. Thus, I am surprised to notice that I am not as sure of myself as I have been before. I would like to tell myself that these hesitations are simply connected to being yet-again new, to learning the unknown, to meeting the unfamiliar. But I know intuitively there is more to it than that.

What catches me is how this feeling hisses in the background. I was expecting doubt to be as it had been before – loud, irritating, shouting in my face to sit down and be quiet. I suppose I have learned a thing or two about telling doubt to knock it off. Doubt doesn’t tantrum as it once did because there’s enough of me to know better.

So this lurking presence, this tone that hums like white noise, is mildly startling. I am not knocked off my feet or blown into submission. But I do hesitate, and I realize it is because I am fearful of steeling myself for criticism, rejection, abject humiliation.

I get the oddity of that phrase. I’m afraid to prepare myself. What it really means is I’m afraid of the possibility that situations could arise where I need to prepare myself. I wish it were an irrational fear, but the conditions of the kind of work I do mean other people’s opinions will be foisted upon you regularly.

It sounds rough – I’ve blogged about it before. If you write, you will face readers who hate your papers. If you talk, you will face an audience who hates your words. If you do something, someone will tell you it is wrong. If you do nothing, someone will point and laugh. I do accept this is what you sign up for if you’re going to do this work; of course, I also think this is sort of what happens if you’re going to live at all. I had to prepare myself long ago for the unkind gaze offered by so many ill-mannered critics, and I’ve even learned how to take some of that and learn from it.

But right now, the prospect of stepping into that again makes me want to go back to bed. And in truth, I don’t really think I’m walking into the same level of vitriol I lived in for the last couple of years, or any vitriol for that matter. I think I’m back living in “normal.”

Trauma has a way of making all your gauges run slightly askew. That’s what I’m figuring out now, that my meter is a little off. Doubt slinks around the way it usually would, and probably should, but the part of me that can usually recognize the extent of doubt’s threat is seeing a rattlesnake instead of a length of rope.

So fuck off, rope. Yep, I’ll make more mistakes, and someone will complain about something I’ve done or said. I will remind myself that “safe” ideas are also bland and often untrue. Eventually, confidence will show me that when I fall, I learn to pick myself up again.

Damn you, Batman.IMG_6644

Nice Rocks

Pressure is the stuff that is supposed to create diamonds. By now I’ve experienced enough pressure to own my own mine. Such silver-lining statements aren’t very good at assuaging the storm of emotions that accompany difficult life experiences. I’d likely become more happy if people would stop making such comments altogether.

There is the crisis that occurs in the moment, whether it be an instant or a sequence of events causing the ground to crumble away beneath one’s feet. Such experiences shock, surprise, gut us into so many unpredictable states and reactions we often stun ourselves with the words that erupt from our mouths. We mobilize into action, or hide away, or wait silently – the fight, flight, or freeze responses biology instilled in us to try to keep us from dying out after the first generation. A modern, digital society doesn’t erase the need for these defenses; rather we just develop newer and weirder ways of employing our protections.  Even in our not-so-social media we cling to our illusions of control via tweet-storms or mass Facebook-unfriending.

Action, in any of these forms, is greatest when danger first makes itself known. The threat demands a response and we move like bees to guard the hive. But many threats don’t end once the emergency is over, in spite of our “get it done” society. There is no fast-food formula for addressing the longer lasting experiences of prolonged duress.

So – back to pressure. What is to be done once the emergency subsides, and we are left with the dawning realization that the source of our angsts is not going away any time soon? Or the possibility that our disturbances may never go away? Stuck is not always a state of mind; sometimes it is a condition of existence.

Enter the platitudes: it builds character, it tests what you’re made of, it’ll make you stronger. Goody goody gumdrops. As though you don’t have enough character, thought you were made of jell-o, or were too weak to lift your own eyelids. Is it necessary to experience the bullying effects of hardship or trauma in order to become a better human being? Is this meant to demonstrate that any God that may exist prefers cosmic irony?

Truthfully, this is why I think the Why questions don’t really matter. If we were to find out that all this were to make us better, or if it is the case that this is all meaningless, what difference does it actually make. You’re still in the same stuck and it isn’t going anywhere.

I do think it is an oddly American cultural discourse that suggests pressure, stress, or whatever is somehow “good” for you. That may just be our need to put some ridiculously cheerful spin on the bad things in life. Maybe it is an extension of our natural tendency to want to explain things. Or maybe all this searching is simply a distraction, the existential equivalent of chain-smoking.

I don’t have an answer. I am currently living in multiple states of pressure and dealing with it in my multiple useful and selfish ways. Writing this is an attempt to hold on to creativity, the energy that gets stolen by simply surviving. My projects have taken on the fury of a caped-crusader, but there is a reason why superheroes have insomnia. Commiserating with similarly affected friends builds community, but also grows the waistline while diminishing consciousness. Resistance walks a fine line against self-destruction. 

Is there a bottom line? Maybe, but perhaps that’s part of the problem, there is no bottom line to be found. Perhaps this is what living in a paradigm-shift is like. Churning in the crucible, we will not know what the end could look like because it is beyond what we are currently capable of seeing. Some pieces will burn away leaving only charcoal and dust. Other parts will forge into something unusual, awkward, but new. Hopefully some of those chunks will be welcome. Others will likely bring their own sharp edges and distorted veins. And likely some contorted bits will turn out to be jewels, gemstones with properties not understood but worth investigating.

That is as close to a silver lining as I can offer – stick this out and maybe we’ll have some nice rocks. But in the meantime – yup, it’s going to be one long, hot summer.

Religious Histories…

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I was never baptized. This was largely due to an oversight by my parents; basically, they forgot to do it. Now before the Freudians leap into writing dissertations about what this implies about my upbringing and its connection to my infinite personality flaws, my parents’ ignoring of my eternal soul was likely one of the better things they did. My course was set early on towards figuring out this thing called religion.

Even though my childhood lacked expected rituals, I was not without the presence of religion. My mother is Catholic, even though she doesn’t quite know what that means. She was baptized and given communion when she was growing up in Taiwan. Since the mass was given in Latin at the time, she had no idea what was going on and just went with it. Of course since my mother was raised in a very traditional Chinese home, she didn’t really need extra lessons in shame to begin with, so Catholicism in another language likely felt pretty familiar to her. This is probably why there has always been a Catholic influence in my life, but no one really understands it.

My father was supposed to be either Pentecostal or Baptist. He was dunked in a bathtub and ran after that which is why the choice was never really made. Religion terrified him, death terrified him, and women terrified him, which explains a great many things. When I was little, he announced he would never go to church again, and that was the one promise he delivered on. He also later divorced my mom so he could date as many women as he could find and adopted an attitude of “do whatever feels good.” Unless of course you were one of his children, and then the rule was, “if it feels good, NEVER EVER do it, see it, or think it again.”

Even though dad declared never to set foot in church again lest he burst into flame, I recall spending plenty of time there when I was young. Well not in any one particular church, but rather many, many churches. I didn’t know what to call my family because we simultaneously attended Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, Church of Christ, and Pentecostal churches at different times. This might be why I never really understood why Catholics and Protestants bicker amongst themselves over which one is “right” about Jesus, because when you’re 6 it all looks about the same; it’s just a question of which one makes you stand up the most.

I went to bible school on a regular basis. The school I attended the most had a fire-and-brimstone preacher who scared the living Christ right out of me. I have no idea what he was talking about because my strategy was to stare like I was listening so he wouldn’t shout in my direction. But I knew I wanted nothing to do with what he was selling. When he wasn’t looking, I would pull out the Old Testament and read it, trying to figure out what “begat” meant and why those old guys had so much of it.

Somewhere in my adolescence, my mother remembered I was still sinful and wanted to get me baptized. By then I’d decided to become an atheist, but mostly because I listened to a lot of punk rock. So my mother ordered me to the minister at the church we happened to be going to at the time, and made me talk to her about what would happen if I continued to deny God.

It is likely the minister had a more well-rounded version of one’s relationship to the almighty than my mother did, or perhaps she didn’t know what to make of the girl with spiky hair, black coat and combat boots sitting across from her. Either way she simply asked me what I thought of my relationship with God, to which I replied that I didn’t really know, but I didn’t want to sign up until I had a better idea of what I was getting into. She thought that sounded pretty reasonable and sent me on my way, offering to talk more if I wanted to. I skipped off with my get-out-of-jail-free pass validated, and I realized I really did want to understand God better. I wasn’t really an atheist, I was just angry, and talking to someone who wasn’t was, in a word, helpful.

I had quit going to church(es) on a regular basis but continued exploring the tough questions. Somewhere in early adulthood I decided to get pretty serious about it all. I suppose being surrounded by priests at a Catholic university had something to do with that. But this time I wasn’t having threats shouted at me from on high, rather I got the chance to learn. Religion is, amazingly, much more interesting when it is presented in relation to culture, history, ethics, art, and relationships. And surprise! This thing called theology invites questions and no one will go to Hell as a result.

But I never committed. I came very close on several occasions. It was sort of like showing up on the wedding day, looking down the aisle, but when the music started to play I would say, “nope” and turn around. And this was not due to a lack of belief; it is fair to say belief and I were good friends. I did well with a conceptualization of God that permitted me to challenge Him on a regular basis and I could accept Him challenging me back. But to get more specific – to make a declaration of faith – never quite happened. I recall praying with a priest, who was preparing me for formal entry into Catholicism. I was anointed, and afterwards he asked how I felt. He was disappointed when I replied, “Umm, a little weird.”

“Why?”

“This wine is corked.”

So it didn’t go very well after that; apparently some priests do get upset when you start questioning whether or not Catholicism is the thing for you. And some take it kinda personally when you decline communion, and some get downright offended when you suggest you’re not really into Jesus Christ after all.

Which brought me to one of my realizations of adulthood, that theology is great but religion, not so much. The people of religion didn’t always live up to what they were supposed to, and the Institution can engage in some not so great stuff.

I grew up in an area where priests’ abuses against children were first exposed. I initially didn’t grasp it. It was hard to know what abuse even was because when the authority of God sits behind the man, you are led to believe that everything is love and you do what you’re told. Victims get labelled as heretics and speaking up becomes a crime. The Pope gets the last word, but is he really infallible? The problem existed longer than anyone ever guessed and continued well after it was claimed to have stopped; the scope was not limited by borders and a community’s crisis was actually a world’s crisis. We had no idea how to reconcile this and the subsequent bad decisions: hiding priests, hiding children, hiding stories, hiding answers. The only people who seemed to walk away without injury were the men in black.

We watched The Church ignore the very people it was supposed to care for, we tried to keep hope even when they kept the problem going by simply rotating instead of rehabilitating. We extended forgiveness when promises were made about making reparations but one has to wonder about the true price of silence. Eventually we say, “fuck off, any god that wants these men for his loudspeaker has a serious inferiority complex, or is simply a figment of your imagination.”

I became a Buddhist. The thing about Buddhism is, you don’t actually have to do anything to become one. It’s just how it works. This fits with my inability to engage in ritual. Buddhism also didn’t put all its faith in men. This is likely because Buddhism teaches that individuality is an illusion. Collectivism means if I injure you I injure me, and we are therefore injured. That was a refreshing sentiment.

Buddhism fueled me for a while. I wasn’t a very good Buddhist; I ate meat and rarely meditated. But I could live in a world where good and evil were the same, because that matched my lived experience. I didn’t want to lose suffering because suffering was at the root of existence; we couldn’t really learn to love until we could accept the heart of pain. That worked for me; I also didn’t have to rewrite my identity in order to fit the mold because there isn’t really a mold to begin with.

And yet…I didn’t stay there. I haven’t abandoned it, but then again I haven’t abandoned any religion. I’m no religion these days. I don’t like the word spiritual because in the USA it seems to be linked to scenty candles. I am still very concerned about theology, morality, and ethics. I am not seeking a “good” life though, rather searching for a human life. I don’t know if God is there, and I don’t think it’s possible to know. So I’ve stopped looking. It has become less important to have an answer to that question, “what is God,” or “who is God.” But if there is a God, I don’t think they’ll be too upset that I haven’t been baptized.

Next stop…

Let’s begin at the end. I’m somewhere over an ocean, flying home after 3 weeks abroad. For some reason, I don’t sleep on planes. Perhaps that’s because planes are ridiculously uncomfortable to sleep on. It is basically sharing a bed with about 200 people, but the bed fits really only about 3. And the other 2 you’re stuck with are people you’d rather not be in bed with.
So I don’t sleep on planes.

I did however sleep more often than usual while abroad, given that when I typically work at the institute we direct each summer, I average about 4 hours of sleep a night. Whether it was because I had my children with me this time, or perhaps because staying up all night comes with much greater consequence than it did when I was 20, I slept. And I needed it since the last several months have been extremely, irrevocably, exhausting. Granted this trip was work-related, but it was also the vacation I’ve been waiting for. 3 weeks of letting the rest of my life disappear from my brain.

The sign of a good vacation is when the answer to the question of, “what day is it” is answered with, “I don’t know.” While I still had to check email from time to time, I declined responding. Admittedly, I could not totally divest myself of social media and managed to post a few pics of our journeys. But otherwise I was “off the grid,” and glad of it. What the rest of life back home thought was important I could ignore and instead focus on what was in front of me, which was typically either a vista I’d never seen before, or a pint. Win-win all around.

I hiked as far up a hill (created by a volcano) as I could, which means I almost got to Arthur’s Seat. I could see it, but my eyes started wobbling at the height and I had to stop. But I did look over the edge as far as I could, which is pretty good for someone who can’t look down the Sears Tower. I rediscovered the joy of walking along an unknown path, even if it sometimes resulted in running away from the velociraptor we imagined lunging at us in the tall grass. Paddle boats can be cool. Humidity is not. Late night conversations with friends is still the best way to end an evening. Your kids can ask some really good questions, even if you never have answers to them.

And then there are the random conversations, the ones had with strangers like taxi drivers, ticket collectors, waitresses, museum docents. People who are interested in talking especially when you’re interested in listening. While parts of me started to blend in, I realized my foreign oddities might be just as interesting to the locals the way their idiosyncrasies are interesting to me.

Edinburgh is a pretty cool place.

Tour groups drive me completely bonkers.

It’s a curiosity how we try to bring back pieces of our experience with us when we travel. I like to take photos, but the irony of photography is it can detach you from what is directly in front of you if you let it. We wander into endless shops to bring back the trinkets (even though I never got my highland “coo”) but really it’s just stuff, things that mimic the real. What you’re really hoping to bring back is the feeling, the parts that don’t have words and can’t be quantified or totalized, but simply must be lived. The experience goes away but hopefully the effect stays.

So what do I go home with? Ask me again in a couple weeks. I am ready to be in my own home but I miss where I was. “Missing” is the fuel that can keep a hope burning.

I’ll return sometime. Mind the gap.

Untitled nonsense…

So the thing is, I’ve not posted much lately. It’s one of those vicious cycle things; life is too busy, so I don’t write, but not writing makes all the thoughts collect in my head, and the aggregate effect is life feels stressful, so I don’t write, and on and on and on…

That makes writing my version of exercise. Okay, I exercise too, but only because I have to or else things will stop working. But I guess that’s the point of writing, if I stop writing things will fall off my brain and I’ll get all lopsided.

So I’m making myself write so some of the crud works itself out of my bloodstream. Mindstream. Headstream. Whatever fucking stream happens to be pooling up there.

I don’t know what to say. I have too much to say. I don’t feel like saying it to anyone. I want to be left alone. But I want friends! Don’t leave me alone, take me to a pub, have a pint. As Dylan Moran once said, “do you want to be sane? Or not lonely.” Give me some cake. I’ve had too much cake. Give me some cake followed by some broccoli. It’ll all even itself out.

I still haven’t written the stuff I’m supposed to be writing. I think I’m in a sort of denial about how much academic writing makes me want to vomit. But I have managed to collect all my pieces in preparation for writing, which means I’m slowly running out of excuses to not write.

Thus now is the perfect time to write about writer’s block-busters, or here’s a list of ways to get past that blank page staring back at you, daring you to put words on it:

  1. Gather your sources.
  2. Organize your sources.
  3. Make an outline of your sources’ points.
  4. Come up with some snappy headers, like “Introduction” or “Discussion.”
  5. Take a tea break.
  6. Realize that a tea break needs cookies.
  7. Notice there are no cookies in the house.
  8. Leave the house to get cookies.
  9. Notice about 64 other food items you simply must try.
  10. Go home, put away all the stuff.
  11. Clean because of all the dust on the shelves where you put the stuff away.
  12. Sanitize the entire bathroom; realize you have no toilet paper.
  13. Go back out. Notice your favorite shoe shop is having a sale.
  14. Buy an entire outdoor furniture set, including matching fire pit, at neighboring store having a super end of year clearance event not to be passed up.
  15. Stuff furniture in your economy-sized car because you’re too cheap to pay for shipping.
  16. Call all your friends for help because only the pillow fits.
  17. Go for drinks with friends and tell the shop to ship your furniture anyway.
  18. Go home.
  19. Sleep.
  20. Wake up, hung over.
  21. Shove toast in your face and recall you still need to start writing.
  22. Sigh. Sit at computer.
  23. Google something.
  24. Cry.
  25. Write random words on your document.
  26. Spellcheck.
  27. Submit.

See? Whoever said all that stuff about publishing being hard…was absolutely correct. How do you really get past writer’s block? Just start writing, even if it is untitled nonsense.

(And if you need a little more writing inspiration, watch Bernard and Manny try to write a children’s book:)