Even Ground

Like most sensitive and interesting people, before I was twenty-two, I had got me to a therapist.  I was not getting out of bed, and sticky with unhappiness about the end of my growing-up love affair, and I was ready to have someone talk some sense to me.  She said, “If you don’t want to be on drugs, you can try to manage your moods yourself.  But you can’t let yourself get so low like this.  It’s too hard to climb back out.”

I had been moody and crazy, but at that point in life, I’m not sure calm and secure is a possibility.  Twenty-one, in and out of college.  That was hard.  At least I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and that I didn’t want to be an alcoholic or a lunatic.  Alcoholism and lunacy weren’t appealing to me: I had that in the family, hidden from me, to protect me from it, but used as a cautionary tale.  It didn’t look romantic.

So I read Thoreau, his solid , stubborn, if nonconformist sanity.  He was all about building things and being alone.  Natalie Goldberg, who practiced Buddhism to become saner, really saner, not conventional or conforming.  And Madeleine L’Engle, who described an artistic work ethic that funneled passion strictly into the work.  See plays, play piano, talk to smart people, make babies, make dinner; read, write.  That sounded good to me.

This is why I roll my eyes every time people love the Charles Bukowski painting at the bar.  Wouldn’t it be easy as pie to abuse yourself and numb your feelings?  Can’t anyone, with enough training and practice, down a whole bottle of whiskey in a short period of time?  Even I’ve learned to drink two or three.  It’s easy.  And I’m not interested in the easy thing.

Yesterday I went hiking. Two and a half miles out, two and a half miles back.  I met three huge deer, three does.  The first one stood and looked at me forever.  I stood and looked at her.  Her body was a huge mass, a wall that made me feel like a pencil sketch.  She shifted her weight and looked around several times, that’s how long we hung out together.  I was unhappy when I set out on my walk.  Agitated.  Unsettled.  The deer helped.  Every time.  They amazed me.  But then I was back at my car, and I was just tired, not enlightened.

The next night, rather suddenly, I was ready to paint.  Wine, brushes, Marvin Gaye station.  I planned some squares and rectangles out on the floor.  I dragged out this canvas that I’ve been messing with for two years, and some of its issues resolved themselves.  I could do something to this picture.  So I did.

What my mentors, Thoreau and Goldberg and L’Engle, would say, is that you make yourself a solid life, get your head on straight, and then you have enough room to wack out while you’re making things.  You have to every day bulldoze a straight, flat place, like wide enough for you and a large deer to stand on, so that you can build something, and if you get really psyched, praise the Lord, then you could dig foundations and bury some steel supports and get something significant that other people could live in.  They were good voices for me to hear when I was very young.  I grew up wearing those comforting messages so close that I hardly read them anymore– they are my skin.

This is kind of sad fun.  Cheers.  http://listverse.com/2008/01/22/top-15-great-alcoholic-writers/

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Death Becomes Him

The week before Michael Jackson died, I bought “Say Say Say” from iTunes.  To be honest, this was a coincidence:  I was in a cheesy-former-Beatles mood, and not on a Michael Jackson bender.  However, I have all my life felt obligated to turn Michael Jackson jokes around with, “Okay, but he made some great dance tunes.”  Sometimes I felt so obligated that I even said something aloud.  As I recall, before Michael Jackson was dead, he was a freak of nature, and it was open season on him.  He was a total joke.

Then he was dead, and I was listening to some early Jackson 5 tune I hadn’t heard before, blasting out of a lush cream Cadillac at Quik Trip.  On a lazy evening, I even watched a hastily prepared tribute on network television.  What a genius he was.  What an amazing dancer.  Fred Astaire loved him.

The Michael Jackson coverage reminded me of when I went to a funeral for a man no one liked.  It wasn’t that he was rough around the edges or grouchy.  For the whole time I knew him, he spent his life alternating between doing only two things: drinking a bottle of vodka, and sleeping it off so he could drink another.  His wife was only sometimes able to support the two of them on her salary.  They struggled from day to day, and people brought them stuff like laundry detergent and canned goods to keep them going.  Then he got cancer, and people gossiped, everyone secretly thought: good.

We went to his funeral six months later, and of course people talked about how he had turned to Jesus at the end, and what a good guy he was.   It was a strange thing to sit through, because all along, I was thinking, I wanted this guy to die.  I thought it would free him and everyone around him from a painful situation.  Then he was dead, and it seemed wrong to hate his addiction and the pain he’d caused his wife.

I have dead grandparents and living grandparents.  The dead ones, even the dead ones who were thoroughly challenging characters, at least remain static, and allow the wounds they inflicted to heal peacefully.  Live people have annoying needs like hunger and needing to get to a bathroom, and they have unbearable neurotic routines that they wrestle with acting out all day long.  Living relatives may harp at you about how you should or shouldn’t be like them, when you are not them, and might not ever be.

One of my great-grandfathers, in fact, was an undertaker by trade, and I think he would agree with me here.  He used to remark, when people expressed fear of his workplace, dead people won’t hurt you.  It’s the living ones you ought to be afraid of.  Dead people are easier to admire, easier to trust.

I imagine the next time I dance to “Billie Jean” at a wedding, no one will have to preemptively joke about what Michael Jackson was about.  We can just dance.

Render Unto Caesar

Last week’s gospel was: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God what is God’s.  I was definitely having rendering problems.  Render, in case you weren’t sure, means “to give what is due or owed.”  I possessed, each week, seven days and do the math, you know, a lot of hours, and I somehow felt like I spent most of my week doing things I didn’t want to do.  Why was I giving my time to areas where it was not “due or owed”?

It’s a practical problem—I want to be a writer but lack the domestic freedom of the writers of yore.  I have dishes to do, and then a demanding full-time job.  It’s frequently a difficult decision to balance the need for an organized space and a the need for a chunk of time for Art. 

Sundays are my usual cleaning days, and when my cleaning is done, I get to have a cup of coffee and writing time.  Every week, I fight a little civil war over the hours between three and four. 

I’d like to get to coffee and have a solid hour and a half to settle in and write before church.  I’d also like to start my dizzying work week with a clean kitchen and bathroom and the trash taken out, my clothes hung up or thrown in the laundry, the catbox ready for a new week of shit—that’s an absolute minimum.  I don’t like to begin Monday feeling already deficient.

This last Sunday, I had left for coffee unshowered.  Showering was what would wait.  I know.  It’s ridiculous.  I either shortchange my cleaning and come home later deflated by lingering squalor, or I shortchange my writing time and have to zoom off to church annoyed, my head still in my notebook. For the record, I did bathe when I got home.  If any of you compulsively clean Americans are keeping score.

I also couldn’t render things yes or no according to any reasonable system.  When my dad said, I want you to come over and look at furniture on Sunday, I just should have said, no, hell to the no.  I’m not talking to anyone on Sunday.  I have spent the last two Sundays trying to act like a good girlfriend (which is a stretch for me, I assure you), and this Sunday, with boyfriend out of town, all I’m going to do is read and putter and stare and read and fall back asleep until I have to clean up.  I can’t be a good daughter or a good girlfriend or any other kind of good this Sunday.

So the message is you’re supposed to look at the thing in your hand, and say, Hey, it’s Caesar’s, and Hey, this is clearly God’s.  Except that deep down, everything is God’s, and also, if you took a minute to focus and clearly look for a face in any situation, you would probably know what to do.  Even worse, although I’m not sure I even want to go into this, the meaning of “render” that the translator may have had in mind—the one that jumped out at me– suggests that there are requirements, not merely hippie feel-good options, for how one should spend one’s time.  That it is owed to someone(s) and something(s).  And what happens if you don’t pay up what is owed?

I was not focusing and looking clearly at my situation.  I was fretting, and whining, but I was not looking.  I was spending my energy and money without even looking at what I was giving out.  Was it a fifty?  Was it a five?  And the uglier, more practical, and more scandalous truth was that I had been doing exactly the same thing with my literal money.  Since I moved last month, I have blindly thrown purchases on my debit card (verboten!), not filled out my monthly budget, left unpaid at least one bill, and cleverly avoided calling my bank.  I was also greedily avoiding making my usual donations because I worked so hard for poor kids, which only serves to make me feel like a dried-up monster.  I spent some time a few years ago getting sober with money, and here I was acting drunk again.  It was good that I was reading Eric Clapton’s autobiography.  I wish there was a Hazeldon Center for money.  Well, I guess there is… federal prison.

But this wasn’t my point.  My point was that I guess I hadn’t even learned much of a spiritual lesson, it was just that Jesus and his notetakers had pointed out to me that if you aren’t carefully considering what you are doing, you are likely to do a lot of things you don’t want to do.  That a little time up front making a reasonable plan could really pay off.  A reasonable plan could ensure that you won’t end up with a lot of Caesar receipts mixed in with your God receipts, and that you won’t end up in federal prison.