Friday, February 26, 2010

We like the boys with the bulletproof vests

Can you see the grackles?

Here’s the thing: I don’t really believe in God. I mean, I do, of course I do, but I don’t all the time. Like today, when everything I do, including this stupid pointless blog that really doesn’t help anyone else’s life just seems so worthless. Okay, so maybe I sounds like I’m writing one of those depressed posts, but not really. I swear.

I saw the exquisite movie “A Single Man” yesterday, alone--apt, right?--and the movie was all about lost love, and whether or not life is worth living in spite of grief, despite all of the awful things that happen. It makes the case that the simple beauty of the world is enough to counterbalance pain, and each shot was suffused with iridescence, populated with beautiful men, some of the most gorgeous faces and bodies I’ve ever seen on film. God made those transcendent bodies, those incandescent faces. But is that enough? Is the simple fact of another human being’s body beautiful enough to make me believe in God’s goodness?

I ask myself this same question again and again and again, only because it’s the only question worth asking. There are two ways of looking at life--like any other story, life is either a comedy or a tragedy. It either has a happy ending or no ending at all.

When I got home, the grackles were in the trees, making their awful holy noise, flooding the blue sky and the bare ground. The grackles coming mean that spring is almost here, and sometimes I feel a pagan who believes in the dying of the god every winter and his rebirth in spring. That’s where Lent and Easter come from, after all.

I’m not ashamed to admit that every time I hear the beating of their wings, flooding the trees like angels, I cry. But are grackles enough? God gives us these gifts, and I’m never sure if they’re enough.

I could simply choose to believe. Yes. God made the grackles. God gives us human beings these beautiful powerful bodies and minds with which we can break and recreate the world. I’d probably be a lot happier if I forced myself to believe despite all of my doubt. Having a cohesive mental structure with which to hold the world together makes for a lot more contentment. I could choose to believe that simply because I have them, my ideas are brilliant and not only does the whole world need to hear them, but the whole world needs to pay me for them. Preferably a lot of money.

Does believing something make it true? To a large degree it does, but does that mean that it’s worth believing? I could believe that unicorns were going to fly in from Pluto in the year 2050 to rescue us all, and believing that might make my life a lot better. A lot happier. It would at least cause me to believe in some kind of eschatology, that there was going to be and end to all the meandering crap we do with our lives.

Or I can choose to believe what I believe on bad days, that we’re all just monkeys with a little too much self-awareness. To a large degree we are. We’re just trying to convince ourselves that all of the sex and digging in the dirt and eating leaves and carrying babies around actually means something.

I’m blogging for February, but why? Why bother? I know I’ve quoted Beckett before, but his line continues to haunt me. “Every word is an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” To a large extent I agree with him. So why do I persist in staining silence?

I’m not good at entertaining people. What I want to be good at is telling the truth. But I don’t always know what the truth is. I only have the vaguest grasp on what the truth is for me, and I shade between both beliefs: the belief in a God who cares about us, and the belief in mechanistic determinism. My mind is like one of those bass-boat paint jobs that changes colors depending on your angle.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I know

I'm thinking of making this picture my new masthead.

I was supposed to write about subversive hormones and Solomon and the wellspring of life and the Thai concept of jai today but I got distracted by women’s figure skating. So: take that, Solomon.

I’m taking a cue from my sister, who is blogging every day, if only one sentence. Her blog is here (, and I highly recommend it. After I read her beautiful posts about everyday life, I feel sheepish for getting all pie in the sky all the time. My best posts on the boat were about the toilet.

Well, I still have to clean the toilet here on land, indoor plumbing and all. It’s on the agenda for the weekend, as are multiple yoga classes, taking my yoga test, tutoring two students, and somehow managing to find time to diagram my main character’s “arc”. Watching those figure skaters, though--man. They’re something else. My moral of the story (or excuse for slacking off and sitting on the couch) is how much hard work it must take just to be in that company. How many hours and hours and hours they must spend on the ice.

It’s so much more fun watching the results of other people’s hard work than it is doing it yourself.

Which means: get to your desk, Melissa. I know that’s the answer. That’s always the answer. Argh. I hate it, though. Hence the inexorable pull of the couch.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Listen to the loons

Bulletin board (lots of juicy dirt in there for the close reader)

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” --Proverbs 4:23

When I was in high school, this verse was a favorite to throw at us adolescent girls. I’ve written about it before, but it’s one of those pieces of Scripture that get under your skin and wiggle around in there. It’s a verse that continues to drive me crazy. Especially because it was written by Solomon, the author of the world’s greatest erotic love poem, and the husband to 1000 wives. Maybe that’s why he could guard his heart. You don’t have to give it to anyone when you have a grand to pick from.

I have this feeling that when the youth pastor or the guest speaker of the week said, “guard your hearts, girls,” what they really meant was, “guard your vaginas.” (Oops. Am I allowed to use the V-word on a blog with a Bible verse in the masthead? Too late now.)

I wish they had spent more time focused on the second part of that verse, which raises so many more interesting questions, questions that can only be answered by Hebrew exegesis. My grandfather did vast amounts of Greek exegesis, but Christians never seem to mess with Hebrew. In my linguistic mind it resembles Thai, an utterly alien language without a whole lot of pronouns or prepositions, a language that requires vastly more interpretation in its translation. What did Solomon mean by heart? By wellspring? By life? What did those words mean in ancient Israel? I barely know what they mean now.

It’s interesting, too, how the verse was aimed at women rather than men when I was growing up. The implication was that women needed to guard their hearts more because they were more in danger of giving them away. What’s ironic is that the verse comes in the explicit context of a son receiving advice from his father, in a book of the Bible where the only female characters are the personification of wisdom (chapter 3), the idealized wife (chapter 31) and a whore (chapter 2). Solomon may have been a man who didn’t put a whole lot of stock in the female perspective.

Nonetheless, it’s in the canon. That means I have to take it seriously, right? Even a verse written by someone who celebrated the joys of extramarital sex? I’m glad to think seriously about it because it details so clearly the peril and confusion of relationships in the modern evangelical church. We’re taught by Jesus to hold our hearts open, to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we’re told by Solomon to guard our hearts, to close them down. The way it plays out in most denominations is that we’re supposed to close our hearts to the wrong ideas, and open our hearts to the right ones--namely, the ones from our denomination. Close our hearts to the wrong people, open our hearts to the right ones--namely, the ones from our church, our youth group, our cultural background.

That closed, guarded heart carries over when it comes to things like yoga or tai chi--Eastern mystical traditions that seem to tap into something larger and more beautiful than ourselves, but that Christians continue to insist must be demonic, occultish. I was explicitly taught in middle school that yoga was Satanic, an ingrained attitude that continues to obstruct my yogic progress. I keep wondering: what if they’re right? What if I’m going to hell? What if I should be guarding my heart?

When what that little voice inside of me keeps suggesting (and I know I’m going to lose a bunch of Christian readers here) is that the chi, the prana, and the Holy Spirit are all the same thing. Paul says: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen.” (Romans 1:23) Even Heraclitus spoke of the “ever-living fire.” It makes simple sense that others created in God’s image would have found ways to seek out His Spirit. I happen to believe that the only reason we have access to the chi is because of the person of Jesus Christ, and that’s because I am a Christian. But I’m not going to call the spirit of God that others have connected to a demon. Especially when those others (I’m looking at you, Gandhi) seem to bear evidence in their very being of a connection to God, of a real and present love, when the Western church continues to be mired in greed and gluttony and violence.

It comes back to the question of love. The question of how I’m supposed to love everyone, fully and completely, while I guard my heart. How can I love if I’m keeping my heart guarded?

I keep finding Christian girls in bad relationships, Christian women in bad marriages, because they still haven’t asked themselves this question. They’re busy keeping their hearts guarded against anything that might spank of bad theology (say, that God believes that men and women are equal in His eyes), while they’re loving the ever-living fire out of their husbands to the point where they have nothing left of themselves. They’ve dissolved the integrity of their beings into this concept of love without having ever thought about what it means.

I haven’t even got back to Solomon’s wellspring of life, which is where I actually think things get interesting, but this post has gone on long enough. Maybe tomorrow. Today I’ve managed to successfully anger (or at least bore) every single person reading. Believe it or not, these are things I think about every single day. So I may as well write about them. Isn’t honesty a part of love, too?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Run thru

Maybe there is hope of spring.

I wish they would sell short stories at iTunes for 99 cents a piece. Why don’t they? Why can’t fiction get the same consideration as music, or cinema, or television? I know--because no one reads anymore.

Today on the radio (something else no one listens to anymore) they announced that the price for episodes of new television shows was going to be reduced on iTunes from $1.99 to 99 cents. Which seems fine to me. It’s hard for me to imagine that the studio that makes Heroes really can’t make it on 99 cents from everyone that downloads their episodes. Then again, I don’t make a television show, or work on one, or write for one. Another recent piece on NPR said that payment for actors and production staff on television has gone down by at least half in the last ten years.

Which brings me to something that’s been bothering me for a long time: how does anyone make a living as an artist these days? It’s always been tough, but it seems tougher than ever in the internet age. If you get discovered as a musician, you don’t make any money from your records. No one buys albums anymore. Not even me. If you get a regular paying gig on television, you can’t make a living wage. If you find the budget to make an independent film, no one will release it.

Two paths of success used to be recommended for writers, the academy or the press. I’ve made attempts to be hired or a newspaper or be published by a magazine, with some success, but not a whole lot. It’s tough to feel heartened when every day I read about another newspaper or magazine biting the dust. As for academia, I was actually told by a writing professor that most MFA programs function as “cash cows” for their universities. Which makes sense, considering that the degree costs about $60,000 and prepares one for--what else?--an unguaranteed career in academia, where the average adjunct professor gets paid $2500 per class.

Most of the good writing these days is published on the internet. I speak not of myself (of course), but most of the writers I regularly follow are online. Bloggers are brilliantly blogging there guts out. But how can any of them make a living?

I do it by working part-time at a minimum wage job, by tutoring, by selling an article here or there. By eating beans and rice and wearing seven-year-old running shoes. I imagine most other writers out there are a lot like me. More and more, our society has become one that doesn’t reward creativity in any form. Despite all of the talk about the American dream, our culture doesn’t even reward ingenuity anymore. We reward homogeneity, consumerism, stasis. We don’t even believe that the starving artist, the struggling entrepreneur, the self-employed innovator deserves health care, let alone respect.

Sorry for the rant. I just get so frustrated watching day by day, hour by hour, my time bleed by in pursuit of an almighty paycheck. Does everyone feel the same way about their work? I feel so drained when I get home that it’s all I can do to flip on the television. Forget creating something beautiful, something that will sustain my spirit and the spirits of others. Forget being able to come to my desk, to face the blank page.

Hence no post yesterday. Hence a barely coherent one tonight. I want to spend my priceless time in the pursuit of beauty, of truth, of that pearl of great price. There have to be people who believe in the work they do, who love the work they do, who are rewarded financially for following their path. Right? It’s an old cliche: find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. What do you do, though, when no one will pay to do the work you love?

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Alabama sunset

On the continued theme of gender politics, I wanted to post a link to a fantastic song by Dar Williams, my favorite modern folk singer. She’s a little too folk-y for some, but I can’t recommend her songwriting highly enough, especially the album Mortal City. The title track alone is makes her worth a listen. I was lucky enough to see her live in Chicago, a night that blew away my preconceptions about solo female music acts.

Often I find, after struggling to wrestle my ideas down in type, that other artists have managed to pin down my precise thought elegantly and effortlessly. So it is with this song. Even though I wasn’t a tomboy, I too was a girl who daydreamed about growing up to be president and refused to wear pink. There’s more than one way to be a boy.

The greatest thing about the song, though, is that it doesn’t neglect the male experience. As much as I get on my feminist high horse, I realize that men in our culture are systematically stripped of their ability to express their feelings. We've ended up with emotionally stunted men and women who are forced to carry double their emotional weight. I remember when a friend broke that news to me, after another of my diatribes. “It’s just as hard for men, Melissa,” he said. “Watch any action movie. That’s our model--silent, stoic, explosive. You try living up to that.”

I’m not sure I believe that it’s just as hard, but I acknowledge that it’s harder for men than I’m able to understand. Which returns me to that verse: “in Christ, there is neither male nor female...” The gender knife cuts both ways.

In my yoga book, I’ve been studying nadis, or the ayurvedic energy channels that flow through the pranic sheath. The three most important are the sushumna, the pingala, and the ida. The pingala and ida are the masculine and feminine energy channels that spiral upward from the base of the spine. They intersect each other and the sushumna, which flows upward along the spinal cord, at seven points: the chakras. Interesting that the locations of the chakras correspond closely to the lymph nodes.

Whatever you believe about science and medicine, it’s hard for me to discount entirely a system that’s been effective for thousands of years. So I choose to take what I can from ayurveda, and from qi gong, which I’ve also been studying. One of things I take is that all of us have channels of both masculine and feminine energy. In certain meditative poses, women and men are taught to sit differently in order to cultivate the opposing energy.

Maybe that’s an obvious truth, already explained by science. Men have estrogen, women have testosterone. What’s useful is to think about reaching towards that other side of yourself, to find strength from it. I am not just one thing, but many things. As another, even greater poet said, far better than I could: “I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Our way to fall

Erica and I, pre-bloggers.

If you hadn't figured it out already, I'm blogging for Lent again this year. Last year I made my goal to blog about faith--this year I don't particularly care what I write about. I think a lot about faith, though, so that will figure prominently. As will the central question: what next? My sister is also writing for Lent, and I had intended to include a link to her site, but I suppose I should ask her first.

Today I feel the need to write a post about my niece, whom I love so much. My sister and her husband have struggled a lot with Sophia’s idiosyncracies. For one, she never wants to the be princess when playing make-believe. She always wants to be the prince. Which is great, as far as I’m concerned. Who the heck wants to be the voiceless, passive princess, lying around, waiting for someone to “kiss the girl”? No. Who wouldn’t want to wield swords and slay dragons? She doesn’t want to be the prince because of gender-netural parenting. She wants to be the prince because she’s awesome.

Maybe the way this ties into my faith is that I have such issues--maybe my biggest issues--with the church’s perspective on gender. What’s ironic about that is that Jesus’s teaching about women continues to be more progressive than any other religion. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” I cling to that promise. In ancient Hinduism, women weren’t even allowed to do yoga. I grew up knowing that girls weren’t allowed to even touch Buddhist priests. And Islam? Forget about it.

Being the wonderful parents that Erica and Jordan are, they threw Sophia a fourth birthday party, a knight birthday party. Everyone had tinfoil swords and shields, with which they whacked at a dragon pinata. I’d like to think that Sophia was able to celebrate without worrying about any limitations the world might throw at her. She loves Star Wars, and I pray that she’ll be able to continue to use that force--the force of knowing she can do anything.

Sometimes she makes me want to cry with her beauty. Sometimes I believe that all of us as four-year-olds are at the pinnacle of our humanity, and it’s all downhill from there.

Here’s a quote from a New Yorker short story for the day, one that seemed to capture that feeling better than I ever could.
He stood on the balcony and watched his son crawl back onto the bed, pull himself into a fetal position, close his eyes for a moment, then open them. Meeting his gaze, Loomis felt something break inside him. The boy had the same dazed, disoriented expression he’d had on his face just after his long, difficult birth, when the nurses had put him into an incubator to rush him to intensive care. Loomis had knelt, then, his face up close to the incubator’s glass wall, and he’d known that the baby could see him, and that was enough.
--Brad Watson
And here, pictures of niece’s birthday party.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

You never give me your money

Alabama land

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about anger. I’ve been thinking that I feel angry a lot more than I acknowledge even to myself. I’m very good at convincing myself that what I’m feeling is not in fact anger, but something else entirely. I’ve also been thinking about love--I’m even more confused about it. I’ve been mystified about what love actually means since high school, at least, to the point where I checked out a bunch of theology texts the summer after I graduated to figure it out once and for all.

I didn’t. No one has.

It’s the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

But nowhere does Jesus actually tell you how.

I understand the concept generally. Allow the Holy Spirit to flow through you. Act nice. I even went and reread 1 Corinthians 13 today. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. It is not arrogant, it does not act unbecomingly, it does not seek its own, it is not provoked. It keeps no record of wrongs. It does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth.” Here’s where it gets hard: “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Really? All things? Bears all things? I recognize some abstract concept of ultimate love in there, and that I can’t even begin to touch its hem, but should I even aim to try? Should I try to bear all things? Here’s where the central doctrines of Christianity run smack-dab into modern psychology, and I’m not sure Christianity comes out on top. I’m not sure I should bear all things. Some things shouldn’t be borne. (The abused wife trying to “love” her husband into salvation comes quickly to mind.) The question is: which things?

A family member, nameless to avoid incrimination, has been reading widely in different religious traditions. He said: Christianity tells you to love. But Buddhism teaches you how to love.

His answer is the best I’ve found--the doctrine of mindfulness, as expounded by Thich Nhat Hanh. The way we love is by being fully mindful in the presence of others. Aware of who they are, what they are saying, what they are doing. Of being fully present in each moment with another person. Fully present with God when alone.

That’s just as hard. And it still doesn’t confront the self-sacrificial elements of Christianity. Should the abused woman just be mindful as she’s beaten senseless?

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down a life for a friend,” said Jesus. Obviously that’s the greatest love. But is it realistic? Is my own heart the problem? Is it not big enough? The Christian would argue if I would allow the love of Christ to flow through me, I could bear all things. I just don’t see it working.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

At sea, Secret.

My Episcopal church service was amazing this morning, as usual, as it always is on Ash Wednesdays. It’s always awkward wandering around the rest of the day with ashes on my forehead. I feel simultaneously proud and insecure. Then I feel guilty for feeling proud.

Lent, though, is one of my favorite parts of the traditional church calendar. Any tradition that has a whole section devoted to acceptance of my own death is one I can get on board with.

There’s a similar tradition in yoga, actually. Maybe it’s weird to talk about yoga on Ash Wednesday, but I’m not sure if I care. The Episcopal liturgy brings me closer to God, and yoga does too. In shavasana, or corpse pose, yogis focus their attention on death, by releasing control of their bodies, their breath, their minds.

I do the same thing during Lent. Release control of my own life, and surrender it again.

As I recited today:
As a father cares for his children,
so does the Lord care for those who fear him.
For he himself knows whereof we are made;
he remembers that we are but dust.
I am dust, and to dust I shall return. That’s why I carried ashes around on my head today. The cross that I felt imprinted on my forehead all day is a larger metaphor for me. To me, the upstroke reminds me of my relationship with God. The cross-stroke reminds me of my relationships with others, with the surrounding world. Today I remind myself that all that matters is my love for God and love for the people God brings into my life.

Today is also as good a day as any for me to give my news, the real news that has been slowly dawning on me this last month: Secret is sold. I’ve had a buyer since December, but haven’t wanted to broach the news until I was sure. Absolutely sure. My buyer, a wonderful Norwegian sailor, went down to visit Secret in January, and returned a couple of weeks ago. She belongs to him now, and my heart belongs to my next adventure. Secret will always hold a place in my history, but she’s in the past. In my past. Now comes the future.

That’s why I surrender myself. Secret broke my heart more than once, which is probably exactly what she was there for. I believed that God had a plan for her, and for me. And He did. Now my only job is to figure out the next step.