Spirits

The mansion now seems as normal as the 1970s split level where I grew up.  Which is nuts.  That’s why I had to give all those tours, I guess. I started to worry I was like those New Yorkers who go through Grand Central’s great hall and don’t look up.  If you can’t maintain your awe, you’re dead.

The stars on that ceiling, the people swirling around the central kiosk like paisley teardrops, rounding and curving illogically back down the passages, across to platforms, to train tracks, up to Park or Vanderbilt Avenue, the huge windows, the warmest marble in the world—I never want to fail to be thrilled by it.  It helps not to live there, or commute through there.  But I have spent a lot of time there.  And regardless of your expose to beauty, it remains difficult to keep the heart propped open a touch at all times, to be alive while you are alive.

Saturday I presided over debauchery, and Sunday, I read the lessons for the congregation: a little chunk from Deuteronomy about Moses telling the people they’ll get a prophet.  The people, back in those books, are always asking for things that aren’t good for them, and The Lord is always like, Well, fine!  It’s a teenage period in God-human relations.  If you don’t bring the word to the people, God warns, He will smack you down dead.  It is pretty self-destructive to ignore your calling.  I don’t need a Mean-Dad-type God to tell me that.

The other lesson was Jesus calling out an unclean spirit.  These are always strange lessons for we Episcopalians, who believe in reasonable, polite behavior, not calling out, uncleanness, or spirits.  Saturday night, there was talk of spirits—mostly the ghost of Mr. Myers.  There were other spirits, too.  The box I found on an upstairs mantle, which had contained a bottle of Jameson, was empty.  I hadn’t had a drop of it, but that was my only sad find in the post-party mansion.  Overall, spirits drove out unclean spirits, for sure.

At two a.m., I was happy to note, as we checked each room and blew out all the dozens of candles, that everyone treated the mansion with reverence.  The toilet needed a flush.  There was one napkin that had soaked up a wine spill.  The gaggle of visitors who climbed the rickety ladder to the attic (an incident I was lucky to miss) went up and down in joy and safety.  They took flashlights up, and brought down a rusty old saw that I will use to make more Mardi Gras props.

The whole place was gazed on, smiled at, basement to attic.  Several of the mansion’s owners have left it unhappily.  The place needed a Jesus (who doesn’t?), and, as I hoped, one good way to make a Jesus is to round up a bunch of cheerful people in gorgeous clothes and give them wine.

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Ballooning

“He looks like The Great Oz,” a friend wrote.  I found this caricature while researching my house.  Myers, the guy who built it, is in a balloon because he was a member of the Kansas City Aero Club.  In his day, around the turn of the 20th century, flying was a dangerous, wacky hobby.

Last weekend, I drove up to the monastery in Atchison for the retreat I had signed up for.  The theme of the retreat was “The Wizard of Oz.”  I have loved the story for years—the book and the movie.  As I drove north, next to the river and back and forth over the Missouri River, I was eating a sandwich and thinking about The Great Oz.  He was a flim-flam man, a con artist, a Harold Hill, a charletan.  And he was into balloons, like George Myers.

The Great Oz (not his real name) goes up in a hot air balloon, gets blown off course, and ends up in Oz.  Like Dorothy, he doesn’t especially want to be there, but there he is.  He is hailed as superhuman (like Dorothy), and installed as Wizard by the people of the Emerald City.  He makes himself a wizard, because people want to think he is one.  He pretends to power, although he has some authentic power.  He can make a balloon rise.  It’s just the navigation he struggles with.

I ended up in the Oz of the compound, that is, the mansion and the carriage house where I started renting three years ago.  My landlord, who first welcomed me, didn’t exactly proclaim me a god, but he was short of stature and cheerful—part munchkin, part Truman Capote.

Dorothy and her crew, of course, expose Oz.  He is a humbug.  “Humbug” is old-fashioned for “bullshit.”

Frank L. Baum, creator of The Great Oz, was a flim-flam man himself.  He tried a million different jobs, moved all over, and made a huge mess of his life before turning the Oz business into a business.  Just last week, we read an essay in my class which included this quote: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” and in every class I had a kid who could explain what that meant in the context of the story: “He’s not a real wizard.”  The story endures.

My retreat was in Atchison, hometown of Amelia Earhart, famous flyer.  Near Atchison, my grandfather is buried in a country cemetery.  He also flew out of northeastern Kansas.  In the 1940s, when flight was less dangerous, but still glamorous, he left rural Kansas to become a pilot. There is an airplane etched on his headstone.  He came back to where he started, in the end.

I’ve always wanted to learn to fly, to go up in a small plane.  I always wondered if my grandfather passed some flying lust on to me.  He would not approve of me trying to fly a plane, though.  I know that.  “Never fly with a weekend pilot,” he said.  “These guys are dangerous.  They don’t know what they’re doing.”

On my list of things to do before I die, composed in third grade, I had “go up in a hot air balloon.”  I haven’t done it yet.

I am flying now.  Living without a landlord, wrangling the utilities and setting up a party without the luxuries of electricity or heat.  I do feel light-headed, off the ground, and invigorated.  I am above, loose, seeing things from a new place.

On the handouts at the retreat, there were images of hot air balloons.  I thought, planes may not be for me.  Last year, they didn’t agree with me at all.  I might be more of a hot air balloon person.  I have heard that they are quiet.  Once the air is heated, and you are aloft, it is silent.  There isn’t a zoom to take off.  Just a rising, rising.

Hot

It’s as hot as Qatar, I was thinking as I crossed the street.  Maybe.  Kansas City in August can have heat as invasive and offensive as the Middle East.  Not quite the dazzling temperatures, but the sticky air makes up the difference.  I was remembering visiting my friend in Qatar– the first day I went out, on a grand journey across four lanes of traffic to Doha’s biggest and best mall.  I had been instructed to cover my knees and shoulders, out of respect.  How do they cover up in the crazy heat? I wondered.  Once I stepped outside, I realized: it doesn’t matter.  It’s so hot, nothing matters.  There is no defense.  Also, they stay in the air conditioning.

Last summer, I was in Rome, and I sweated so much I was willing to take two showers a day– even standing on feet so sore that they felt like they were stuffed with broken glass.  If I was out during siesta time (amateur mistake), I would feel faint crossing the street.  In some of my photos, my pale face is as red as my Hawaiian dress.

I went from Kansas City heat into the air conditioning to drink my coffee, and ran headlong into some nastier heat.  Some Americans are not content to object to the Muslim building project in New York City.  Some people are not timid enough to hide behind the shield of victimhood with their paranoia.  They come right out and object to new Muslim places of gathering in Temecula, California, or Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  What of the Muslim guy who took my friend and I out to dinner in Doha?

What of the Muslim day care center I visited?  As part of my previous job, here in Kansas City, I sat in the corner observing while a dozen kids listened to storytime, and then nodded off to their naptime CD.  “You are a dolphin.  You are swimming, happy and free and peaceful….”  Dangerous folks indeed.

If only segregating and limiting freedoms would protect us from people who scare us.  If only we could predict who was going to turn crazy and murderous, who would suddenly want to kill his neighbors.  I think the impossibility of predicting behavior is a great rationale for gun control.  But that’s a different story.

The article ended with a cheerful quote from a Dr. Mansoor Mirza: “Every new group coming to this country– Jews, Catholics, Irish, Germans, Japanese– has gone through this.  Now I think it’s our turn to pay the price, and eventually we will be comign out of this, too.”  So cool.  So cool.  How can anyone be that cool in August?  I am amazed.

The article:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/us/08mosque.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

Bugs

In our front yard, there’s an abandoned treehouse.  I was going to the mailbox, and I looked past the ash tree, toward the treehouse.  I never look that direction.  The mailbox is, you know, business, and not pleasure, and also you don’t really look at the place you live.  The treehouse is left over from previous residents.  The kids– whoever they were– didn’t personalize the place at all.  Or if they did, they took their ropes and magic-markered manifestos and popsicle wrappers with them.

I heard that the house and treehouse had been abandoned for a while, and I don’t know anything about the people who abandoned it.  Lost it?  Ran off to South America?  There are two boards still nailed to the tree, the first one up a little too high to make for a comfortable ascent.  I wondered if the first rung had been deliberately removed.  A year ago, late at night, I took a notion and climbed up there, and got covered in spiderwebs and probably even spiders.  I haven’t been back up since.

On the supports, cicada shells are planted.  It’s that time of year.  Cicadas are the first things to molt.  Much later, the trees, and even my cats, who start shedding with cruel and unusual fury.  Cicada shells are scary.  Hair in the shower drain– even a hair in the shower at the gym– doesn’t bother me.  I know some people are really grossed out, but I just pull it out, wipe it off.  Cicada shells are more like empty costumes than shed hair.  Empty costumes are daunting.  Who was in there?  Who could be?

I’m feeling my shell, I guess, and wondering what I will be wearing when I wiggle out of it.  Recently, a friend introduced me, during this getting-to-know you game, and said, “She teaches, and she writes, but I don’t know what her plans for the future are.  What are they?”  I was startled to realize I didn’t know, either.  Maybe I should run off to South America…?

This week is the feast of Joseph of Arimathea.  After Jesus is pronounced dead, Joseph asks for the body, so that it can be properly buried.  Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan believes that Jesus’ body was probably either left on the cross to rot, or buried in a shallow grave, where it would be dug up by animals.  That makes more sense to me, as far as how a criminal’s body would be treated.  The stories tell us Joseph, who is not the most assertive guy otherwise, steps up to provide loving treatment for Jesus, and that makes sense, too.  You never know when people are going to step up.

Tolstoy wrote: “The whole trouble lies in the fact that people think that there are conditions excluding the necessity of love in their intercourse with man, but such conditions do not exist. Things may be treated without love; one may chop wood, make bricks, forge iron without love; but one can no more deal with people without love than one can handle bees without care.”  Maybe best to handle everything with care, even wood, bricks, iron– as it is not always clear what is alive and where the living will creep out.

Money (That’s What I Want)

There’s this scene called “Dad paying the bills” that we all know.  (Yours might be called “Mom,” or “Grandpa,” but it’s quite similar.)  In this scene, you have a note from your teacher at school that explains how you have screwed up, and Mom tells you, “Oh, not now.  Dad’s paying the bills.”  What does this mean?  Dad is sitting at a desk he doesn’t normally sit at, and there are papers spread around.  My scene has a buzzing and spitting adding machine.  Should you interrupt Dad with your note from Teacher? Dad grumbles.  Dad sighs.  What is wrong with Dad?

Now I am my own Dad, so to speak, and I’m amazed by how nervous and ashamed I can feel about paying bills.  Especially in the last year or so, I read stories about people losing their jobs, eating through their savings, losing their houses, their health insurance, needing soup kitchen meals or utility assistance.  These scary stories make me more ashamed: how can I even stress about money when I am so comfortable, in comparison?

Shame isn’t like that, though.  Shame doesn’t listen to reason or gratitude.

Money is a great target for shame, especially for Americans.  In the U.S., capitalism and up-by-bootstraps mythology put money front and center in our idea of success.  You can be thrifty and “good with money,” or a bold investor, or a financial climber, or a dutiful saver.  I am sometimes thrifty, occasionally good with money, and pretty hopeless at the rest.

Paying bills is a great spiritual opportunity.  Great spiritual opportunities are things that terrify you, hurt like hell while they are happening, and then scar you in ways that might or might not be attractive.  I try to tell myself, before I go to pay the bills, that whatever happens at the desk, it is not a test of whether or not I am a good person.  Finally, I sort of go into a tape loop about what does make you a good person, which Christianity tells me is not the point, and Buddhism tells me is crazy.  (Hitler was good with money, right?)

I sat at the breakfast table today and looked at all the bills and fretted over some of them.  Barked at myself for how something had been handled.  Why had you not…?  Why did you…?  How did this…? My perfectionist voice says, If you were really good, you could save all your money and live like one of those air plants.  Why don’t we try eating ramen noodles for every meal?  We could pay off these student loans lickety-split!

You’re not supposed to talk about money, except to say that you have plenty, and that you manage it just fine.  I don’t usually explain that I’m not going out, or ordering a glass of wine, because my monthly fun-money allowance is spent.  You’re not supposed to talk about that.

I read a piece of Pema Chodron’s before I got the checkbook.  The gist of it was: be honest and non-judgmental.  Be honest about your money and what you really do with it (or don’t), and being non-judgmental with yourself (so that’s what I did, huh).  It’s a tall order.  I’m going to practice it, again, possibly after my next paycheck, or whenever I get around to it.

That’s a Dealbreaker

Every month, I spend at least an hour or two wandering the bookstore and reading the first couple pages of a lot of different volumes.  All those books are sitting around waiting to be touched, and there are only a few I want to spend time with, holding them in my lap and caressing them with my eyes, carrying them around snuggled up in my bag.  If you choose to get close to a book, you will spend hours and hours together.

Finding a book you can love means constant nitpicking and rejection.  It means lots of disappointments on my part, as I search, but at least the books don’t get their feelings hurt.

That said, it sounds tough, but if I see any of this on pages one through three, there will be no page four for us.  You’re out.  Dead to me.  And death brings us to number one:

1. Dead people revealing their secrets.  Ghosts of any kind are a red flag.  (Exception: Hamlet.)

2. Crime of any type.  If I wanted crime, I’d watch “Law & Order.”

3.  A setting or location other than North America, Europe, China, Japan, or India.  I’m just not that exotic in my tastes.  Ideal locations: England, Russia, New York City, Paris, London.  For Kundera, I’ll allow any of eastern Europe, usually iffy territory.

4. Lady problems.  Including but not limited to: gynecological and modern dating problems.  If these is the most interesting thing about a lady, she shouldn’t have a book written about her.  (Marriage problems are not dating problems.  We leave in all the great novels about finding a husband.)

5. Man problems.  Including but not limited to: romantic alcoholism and avoiding commitment.  Zzzzzz.

6. The first page is one long paragraph.  That’s tough to plow through.

7. The word “planet.”

8. The word “America” or “American.”

9. Cute children.  (Exception: A Prayer for Owen Meany.)

10. Pets.  My pets are fascinating, but everyone else’s pets are boring.

11. Sports of any kind, no matter how metaphorical. (Exception: The Chosen).

12. Magic of any kind.  Including but not limited to: witchcraft, fabulous wacky nearly unbelievable coincidence, and anything vaguely “Halloweeny.”

13. Long description of the scenery or history of the place.  I’m not big on geography, and I don’t care about the history of your people yet.