Visit of the Muppet Monks

Last Sunday evening, instead of walking in to the dark, silent sanctuary of my church, I pulled open the door and saw seven guys dressed like Big Bird, moaning. 

Oh: we were hosting some Buddhist monks.  I tiptoed to my favorite pew, next to the St. John window, and sat down.  I guess they reminded me of Big Bird because when I was little I had a winter hat with Big Bird’s head sticking out of the top.  It added six inches to my height, just as the orange and yellow fringed headdresses of the monks made them more imposing. 

They also wore the orange and red robes, and were doing something with their hands I couldn’t figure out.  Maybe they were keeping count of how far along they were in the chant.  No, that guy was just coughing.  Were they saying something in Sanskrit, or just making noise? 

Our priests and cantor sat up in the front, like usual, and the sanctuary was packed.  The monks went on and on.  I guessed everyone was wondering how long they would go on, and how they knew when to stop.  I sat on my hands and listened and spaced out and listened again.

Every once in a while, a guy in the middle would hold up his hand to his mouth, and then he would sing unnaturally low, way lower than a double bass, and holding the notes with an alien sort of wavering.  I didn’t know what the hell was going on. 

Being clueless about the monks reminded me of being in Paris.  My knowledge of French is about equal to my knowledge of Buddhism.  I had an idea of what people said and wrote in French, but I was always left with a certain degree of ambiguity.  At the Pompidou Center, I kept translating painting captions as “dead nature,” which confused my English-only friends.  When I got home, I suddenly remembered: “la nature morte” means “still life.” 

When I was in high school, I dated a Jewish boy, and visited their temple.  The boy’s father, whom I absolutely loved, reminded me of Moses and Tevye and King David all wrapped together.  He was bold, cheerful, and solid.  I sat in his living room one afternoon, and he asked me why I wanted to go to Rosh Hashanah.  Why was I interested in Judaism? 

After a lifetime of the puppydog evangelism in Christianity, I loved how my Jewish friends didn’t try to sell their religion– in fact, they viewed my interest with skepticism.

“It’s so mysterious,” I said.  “There’s so much you don’t know, and you don’t pretend to know it.  There’s so much mystery.”

“Huh,” he said.   There I was lost in ambiguity again.  But I went to temple and ate dinner with them, and it all seemed fine.

Abruptly, the visiting monks stopped.  They took off their giant hats.  They bowed to the congregation.  None of the Episcopalians knew what to do.  (We bow to the altar, but not each other.)  As the Buddhists walked down the side aisle, the dean said, “Let’s express our appreciation to our guests,” which prompted us to stand up and clap. 

It seemed weird to be clapping for that, but what else were we going to do?  I was relieved to be reminded that I don’t know everything.  I was grateful that they had shown up to make me pay attention and accept what I didn’t understand.

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Ghosts

Because I recently watched the terrible film “Sylvia,” I took more notice of the death of Plath’s son.  I have maintained a dismissive distaste for Plath since college.  A privileged, connected, lovely, talented poet, who had a dizzying romance with another successful poet and two sweet children.  How sad for her.  I did sit through the movie, since I love artist biopics, but I still roll my eyes at the sappy swooning over Plath.  It’s endurance that inspires me, not drama.

My grandmother died completely alone.  So alone that when the authorities called to notify our family, no one knew who they were talking about.  She had been married, yet again, and had taken another last name.  The only reason they called us was that she had an old business card among her things. 

I don’t remember meeting her, although I did, just a few times.  While I spent every holiday with gaggles of cousins, my parents finally decided that this grandmother was too sick to know.  I think the spin on the word “sick” might vary.  She drank, took pills.  She valued cigarettes  and sleep more than the safety of her children.  She disappeared unexpectedly, and then reappeared crying for help: money, a place to stay, attention.  I can say she was “sick” and mean “mentally ill” because I am not directly scarred by her.

While we were driving across Kentucky in the rain last week, my brother asked me if I believe in ghosts.  I formed my answer carefully.  Something like: I believe that people, ideas, and things linger.  They don’t disappear cleanly. 

I haven’t seen other people’s ghosts, but I do see myself. 

Under the giant marquee of the club where I went dancing when I was twenty-two.   I can see myself sitting, sweaty, chatting with an acquaintance, wondering if the guy I have a crush on is going to appear, listening to the segues in the music to decide when to rejoin the party.  I am doing just what I should be doing, but it’s never quite exciting or safe or significant enough. 

I can see myself in the window of a pizza place, on a date, trying so hard to be lovely and engaging and emotionally firm.  I can’t admit that my life and growth is so far out of my control.  That at twenty-five I am not grown up, not at all.

And my grandmother is a ghost, who appears in conversation as a worst case scenario, or a misplaced stab of mistrust or fear in her children, now grandparents themselves.  Sometimes they say to their children, “We’re watching you carefully,” because they know what Nicolas Hughes knew about ghosts.

Addendum:  The day after I wrote this, I found the following article about depression and its effect on the brain.  The most intriguing part for me is the idea that both genes and environmental effects of living with an afflicted parent may cause depression (and/or anxiety disorders) to run in families.  I hadn’t thought about that.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/25/health/25brain.html?_r=1&em

Vacation in 10 Sentences.

1. Stared across Missouri and radiated disbelief.

2. I hand my brother a book, and he reads the whole thing in two hours straight.

3. I chatter pathetically as I approach the scary roller coaster, and later attempt to photograph some ducks who had been making love in the bushes.

4. With both of us wearing plastic ponchos, I look at my sister as the young European man unbuckles his seatbelt gleefully, and think, not only does he want to get wet, he wants to die on the Popeye ride.

5. Eating another veggie-ful veggie burger, I silently concur with my middle school French teacher: corn is animal feed, not people feed.

6. I wait for my latte to cool, sitting on a fake New York City stoop, my thighs twitch from pushing my stepmom’s wheelchair uphill, and I know that my dad is enjoying the hell out of those fake Blues Brothers.

7. To satisfy my desire for a Mickey bar, three siblings ask six EPCOT employees, walk across six countries twice, causing me to bend double, reach out my arms, and cry, “GO ON WITHOUT ME!”  (Note: Freddie the American funnel cake man owes us a funnel cake… bastard.)

8.  Yes (gulp) I lost a Space Mountain Fast Pass.

9. As the delirious family begins to question the wisdom of dining at the Kentucky catfish restaurant, I insist, “We should just eat here!  We’re all starving!” ; consequently, I enjoy those hushpuppies tremendously.

10. After apologies for the obligatory family dispute, I eat Taco Bell’s edible rice and styrofoam tortilla chips, and gush at the unexpected forsythia and tulips in Kansas City.

More Tales of Intoxication and Sobriety

Several years ago, I wrote letters and schemed to get my boss fired.  It was a Friday afternoon when I got the news that he had been canned.  (Please don’t waste any time here worrying about whether he deserved it– everyone was grateful to see him go.)  A coworker appeared in my door and delivered the news.  I said, “I really want to kiss you right now, but I won’t.”  A sixty-year-old gay man, he got a Kermit the Frog look on his face and backed out of the room, chuckling. 

That year, I broke Lent to have a drink with my elated colleagues.  Over pitchers and pitchers of beer, we raved about our happy plans for turning things around, now that the dark clouds had lifted.  I thought, It’s wrong not to celebrate something that will only happen once, just because it happens during Lent.

During another Lent, there was a death.  The violent death of a kid I knew.  After the shock and well into the outrage, there was another barroom support group.  That time I didn\’t break Lent.  Not because of any great willpower.  One of my Catholic friends sweetly said, This doesn’t count.  You can have a drink.  I just didn’t want to.  I ate a grilled cheese and fries.  It was so greasy it made me sicker than if I’d had three drinks.

I always notice how hard it is to judge the effects of alcohol when I stop drinking.  I drove home that grilled cheese night and felt woozy, spacey.  I couldn’t blame my haze on alcohol.

And I couldn’t blame my hysterics on alcohol, either.  My face hurt from smiling and my stomach hurt from laughing.  There’s no funnier group than a group that just came from a funeral.  I don’t think I laughed any less or was any less engaging with friends because I was sober. 

But the weird thing about using drugs is that you really don’t know.  They impair your ability to evaluate yourself, and the ability to evaluate yourself is shaky in humans anyway. 

When I had a tooth pulled, I got narcotics.  I took them for one day.  By the end of that day, I had become obsessed with the fact that I couldn’t feel my feet.  I sat on the couch with my boyfriend, and he said, “You’re fine.  You CAN feel them.  Feel that?”  And he smacked the top of my foot.  In a kindly way.  I could feel my feet, sort of, but they were as blurry as an Impressionist painting.  I kept seeing myself tumbling down the stairs and snapping both ankles, then shrugging.  Oh, well.  Guess I broke my ankles.  I went back to the Advil the next day.

I don’t know how these artists who drank so heavily and used so many drugs could still feel.  It seems like being able to feel, and experience your life deeply, is a prerequisite for creation.  Maybe they were so sensitive to begin with that they had to numb out a lot just to catch up with the rest of us.

When the kid was killed, I could have had enough to drink to loosen me up, or enough that my mind was blown.   I was feeling so blank to begin with, maybe I couldn\’t even imagine altering my emotional state.  Or maybe taking any step to soothe my grief would only have emphasized that nothing could help.

Eric Cantor is an Average, Decent Republican

Rush Limbaugh doesn’t act like a grown-up.  I guess that is not news.  He is, as the Republican Party Chairman said, an entertainer.  Entertainers don’t usually act like grown-ups. 

Grown-ups, of which we have very few in our world, don’t want people to suffer.  People suffering kicks in their empathy.  They suffer with people who are suffering. 

This does not mean that they view suffering as an outright evil, though.  Suffering because you don’t get candy at the grocery store is good suffering.  We’re talking about serious, long-term damage suffering, like losing your house, your job, your health, your life.  Grown-ups have empathy and it hurts to see people lose these things, even if they deserve it, even if it teaches them a lesson.  It’s hard to watch.  

Grown-ups have won some things they didn’t deserve (and know it).  They have also escaped some punishments they did deserve, without volunteering for punishment.  When was the last time you wrote yourself a speeding ticket?  Grown-ups know that life is not fair, and people are thorougly imperfect, and this enhances their empathy.

In 2003, I listened and read, and ultimately believed that invading Iraq was wrong.  I wrote letters, went to protests.  The U.S. invaded Iraq anyway. 

I hoped like crazy that my judgment was faulty.  I hoped that the peace demonstrators would be proven wrong.  I hoped that the people being mentally, physically, and emotionally scarred would be balanced by a clear purpose and the larger good that would come out of the war.  I hoped Bush was right and I was wrong.  I wanted Bush’s war to succeed.  I’d rather be wrong than have people suffer.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor is a grown up.  “I don’t think anyone wants anything to fail right now,” the Grown-up says.  Thank you, Eric Cantor.  Just because you think the Democrats’ plan won’t work doesn’t mean you want it to fail.  Reference again here, I didn’t think the Iraq plan would work, but I desperately want it to succeed.

I am, and will remain, deeply opinionated; however, my opinions aren’t intended to be used for worship or as weapons.  If I’m wrong, I’m wrong.  Being wrong helps you learn, and it keeps you humble.

Mr. Limbaugh, on the other hand, must personify his opinions to entertain people, rather than being a grown-up.  At least, he thinks that he must.  I wonder if a person with an open mind exploring ideas would be entertaining.  I guess that’s why we have “60 Minutes.”

Why I Stopped Drinking

One summer, several years ago, I wrapped up an evening of art openings in my boyfriend’s neighbor’s loft, listening to beautiful Spanish poems recited.  Everyone at this gathering was an artist of some sort, and conversation flowed around South American travel adventures, and paintings, and poets.  I listened to their conversation begin to pool and cycle.  I got irritated and thought: I want to go home.  This is getting boring.  They were drinking a lot of cheap Cabernet, and I was not. 

This was early in the history of my alcohol absention.  For years, I gave up chocolate for Lent, but alcohol eventually became the greater pleasure, and thus I added it to my list of forbidden indulgences.

I think the first year I gave up alcohol was also the year I went on a first date and seriously disappointed the man by ordering a Sprite at Gillhouly’s.  It’s Lent, I explained.  I don’t drink during Lent.  First dates are much harder without a drink.

Sobriety isn’t the greatest virtue.  I’ve known plenty of cold, nasty sober people.  I even find some virtue in drunkenness.  Sharing the experience of losing sobriety, and the progressive scrambling and blurring of the world, can be sacramental.  There are safer ways to get out of your head (meditation, exercise), but drinking is awfully fun. 

I think there is a time and a place for drinking and even for drunkenness.  I love wine and whiskey, and I love the casual, romantically self-destructive community of bars.  I’ve been lucky enough to maintain a relationship with alcohol that I enjoy.  I think it’s as safe and healthy as most of my relationships.

Giving up alcohol for a short time (Lent is 40 days plus Sundays) ensured that I spent some of each year resting my liver and reassuring my addict DNA that I can live without it.  It forces me to remember that I go to parties and bars to be with people, not to drink.  That when I say, “I need a drink,”  I actually need to breathe and relax.  Sometimes I need a nap, a meal, a hot bath, a massage.

Not drinking makes Lent about sobriety.  It is about honest confrontation: you are going to die.  You are not perfect.  And the response, the reason that you can face this is that your tradition and experience tells you it is okay to die and it is okay to not be perfect.  To die and to be imperfect, in fact, is a critical part of the human experience. 

Most religions encourage confronting this reality– Jews particularly on Yom Kippur, and Buddhists during every meditation.  Christians have Lent, which is way longer than the Days of Awe, and usuall y milder than a stringent meditation schedule.

So, I might give up alcohol again.  It’s only 10 AM, Ash Wednesday.  No one’s offered me a drink yet.

Playing God

I’m fond of the concept of “playing God”  as presented in The Cider House Rules.  It’s a novel with a good old-fashioned modernist directive: someone is going to play God, someone is going to wield terrifying power like a gun or a doctor’s kit, and maybe, since you’re a reasonable person, that person ought to be you.  (Thank you, John Irving.)

I joke about “playing God” as a teacher, which is one way of dealing with the knowledge that mutters in the background every day… I will say something that someone will remember forever, but what will it be?  Will it be some stupid off-the-cuff sarcastic remark?  Will it be, “You’re a good writer”?  Will it be, “I don’t have time for you to get your act together”?  Or something nastier?  There’s no way to know.  You talk almost all day, almost every day.  And you’re only a dumb human being, distracted and annoyed sometimes like anyone else.

You have to have confidence in your decisions and your instincts, although there is often no one to offer you confirmation, or even serve as a witness.  I feel lucky to work at a school where my colleagues frequently collaborate and commiserate, rather than competing or backbiting over test scores.  I probably have a lot more support from my fellow teacher than most educators enjoy.  You say, “Oh, that kid is driving me crazy,” or ask how the kid acts in another class or if the kid can read or do math or if the kid has something crazy going on at home.  And then you should have a better grasp on what is the kid’s craziness and what is your own craziness.  Maybe you’re just having a bad day.

I have a student teacher this semester, which is teaching me mostly about myself, and how I have a hard time holding any gray area of control.  Either I can use the iron fist to regain control for her, delivering the Royal Bitch speech about how the class was unfocused, or I can walk out of the room and read a novel across the hall and let her fend for herself.  The gray area is where I need to be sometimes: listening, encouraging, insisting.  I hate that area.  I’m nothing like God at all in that area.  In accordance with a popular story of human origin, I am eager to resemble God. 

I came in to work this morning with an unusual degree of self-doubt.  I’ve been watching my student teacher building her confidence, and it reminds me how deliberately constructed my own confidence is.  Today the student teacher is gone, and I’m back to doing things myself.  Can I still do it?  Can I do what I’ve been telling her to do all these weeks? 

When I began teaching here four years ago, I thought I could do a good job.  I thought, I’m an educated person, and a smart person, and passionate about the kids.  I can do this.  These were reasons to try, but hardly guarantees of success.  

I don’t even know how to define success here.  Grades are artificial, attention can be faked, knowledge can be short-term and meaningless.  They suck at tests– ask them half the questions right afterward, and they’ll show more understanding.  And when the kids learn and grow, it doesn’t mean it’s because of something I’ve done anything right.  Abraham Lincoln learned real good, and he didn’t have a teacher in his log cabin.  And children mature naturally, whether or not anyone pushed them to.

I am most encouraged by moments when my students treat me with respect.  That is something I trust.  It means we have an environment where people can learn, might want to learn, and might want to change and grow, regardless of the quality of my lessons, or the stupid things I might occasionally say. 

The day turned out well.  We had some strange moments of comfort when the kids realized their “real” teacher was back, if only for a day.  There were fewer arguments than usual.  My quick, vehement yanks on the discipline leash were generally acquiesced to.  (The highest level of this is requesting apologies for misbehavior.  I requested a couple, and I received them.)  Maybe, God or human, they missed me after all.