Giving Up

This year for Lent I let everything fall apart.  Primarily, my belief that if I practiced some technique carefully and fervently enough, I would feel good.  For the second year, I let my abstention from alcohol and chocolate go.  I picked up meditating again for a while, and then I let that go, too.  I didn’t carry anything with me.  Nothing made it special, except the decorations at church and my own deeply ingrained feeling, from Christian practice fitting me like a glove, and generations of observance before me in my blood.  I knew it was Lent.

If you’ve grown up Christian, you’ve heard the Passion story so many times it’s hard to notice it.  Jesus basically has the worst day you can imagine.  The details of the worstness are both touchingly human (your friends are nowhere to be found when you’re in trouble) and absurdly exotic (people offer you a sponge soaked in wine).  You’ve got your emotional suffering, your physical suffering, your fear of being snatched up by the authorities, and it all culminates in the fear of death.  It’s a no good, very bad day.

Spiritual movement is about letting more and more things go, until finally you are only carrying what is yours: a soul, maybe, a spirit, a sight, a sound, an impulse, a knowing.  This year I let go of my long-cherished image of myself as Always Perfectly Healthy.  I’ve been working on letting go of I Must Move to New York To Be Real, and I Desperately Want To Have Children Before It’s Too Late Except When I Don’t, and My Life Doesn’t Actually Begin Until I’m Securely Coupled.  My toughest, which will probably occupy the rest of my life, is I Am Perfectly Fine, Thank You.  These scripts don’t really do much for me but keep my brain occupied.  I’d rather look at paintings and watch movies and read books and talk to friends and write.  I’d even rather do the dishes while feeling the water and listening to the scrub of the brush.

In the Passion story, Jesus gives up his friends, his family, his body, his physical life.  He doesn’t give up his emotions or his pain.  He’s sad and angry and confused.  He’s hurting.  It’s a great story because someone, after it happened, felt that God was with Jesus through the whole business, and that nothing about who Jesus was became diminished by his (probably ignominious) death.  In fact, they felt his message get stronger, and bolder, and brighter, as time went on.  Which is a real miracle.

Jellyfish

Having a panic attack at Disney World is the lamest thing a brain could possibly do.  And I’m speaking as a person with a disturbingly overactive, relentlessly arrogant brain.  It’s helped me accomplish a lot of work faster than others expected me to– I have a quick brain, that absorbs and sorts well.  With the extra time, I’ve mostly surfed the internet.  Or read books.  But full disclosure: I’ve also watched television.  We’ve had a lot of good times together, but today was not our best day.

I had my first panic experience a couple of months ago in the emergency room.  I was hooked up to an IV for my migraine, which would normally have made me real, real happy, but for some reason, instead of falling into the soft embrace of medical science (as I have in the past), I started shaking and freaking the fuck out.  I told my poor companion on this errand that I was worried about when she would die.  She asked the nurse to give me more drugs.

Since then, I’ve freaked out watching television, teaching my class, traveling on an airplane, and sitting in a restaurant.  Having this logical brain, I was eager to pull this apart, just as I would a novel or a movie or (sadly, but honestly) a commercial. I focus, analyze, and fix, all by my amazing self.  I pull it apart, consider the construction and relationships between its component parts, and fix the faulty part.  I have a passion for fixing myself.  Just another class to get an “A” in!

I might as well try to dissect a jellyfish.  The thing can’t stand up to my knives.  I freak out in familiar places and strange ones.  Small places and wide open ones.  In the morning and at night.  When I feel worried, and when I feel fine.

At my conference sessions today, in between repeating “thoughts always pass” and assuring myself the walls were not actually closing in, I discussed internet privacy with some colleagues.  How could you put things out there, knowing that people might judge you, or you might feel bad about what you had said, 10 years down the road?  I could hardly discuss this without getting spiritual.  To me, the real question was, why are you so intent on projecting yourself as  particular, consistent personality, and why are you so intent on making the right impression on people who, if they judge you harshly, are assholes?

My lessons come from spiritual truths, not analysis: you are not your mind or emotions.  Learn sympathy for people with problems that cause them shame.  Emotional problems are not a moral issue.  I know this, but I prefer to think people who are anxious are weak and need to buck up.  The subtle distinction between “fixing” and “learning” is the trickiest… and there are probably others, better learned from what naturally echoes with truth than what falls out when I try to cut.

Borders

It doesn’t matter how you treat a dead body.  The dead wasp I vacuumed off my floor yesterday is just as dead as my great-grandfather– as far as science can tell us, anyway.  Death means a lack of mattering.  I appreciate how Buddhists try to get us comfortable with that, impossible as it may be.

The ancient Romans burned the bodies of their dead.  So do Buddhists.  And then, so did the Nazis.  I imagine the Romans burned Caesar because the flames were more beautiful than his body would shortly be.  It prevented his gorgeous form from ever being anything less than itself.  Buddhist cremations seem to be about honoring the finality of death, and emphasizing the freedom achieved by death.  Fast disposing of the body.  Gone, as everything will be gone.  The Nazis burned bodies to cover their tracks.  They showed dead bodies the same utter disrespect they showed the living.

The ancient Egyptians, for whatever reason, preserved dead bodies.  Their lives were very short, and I’m awed by the optimism they had for some future happy life somewhere else.  Christians often preserve bodies.  At least, they bury them rather than burn them, as a general rule.  Some Christians worried that Jesus won’t be able to give them a resurrected body if we burn their original one.

My great-grandfather, Arthur, was a mortician.  I always hoped this would help me deal better with death.  Sometimes I’ve thought it was ridiculous to preserve dead bodies the way that we do.  I have live flowers in my house, not dried ones, not plastic ones.  Once a week, I assess them and throw out the dead ones.  Live is live, and dead is dead, right?  It seemed false and pathetic to me, to make a dead person look like he is sleeping.  I understand it’s hard to see the dead person dead, but isn’t that the smallest part of the suffering on that day?  Aren’t you so much in numb denial that a little more deadness wouldn’t do much harm?  Doesn’t honesty help things?

In my classroom, we do not run.  We do not touch each other with anything but gentle greeting.  We do not throw things.  Running, swatting, pushing, throwing– none of these would be particularly dangerous.  But the line must be drawn well before danger.  The limit must be a goodly distance from disaster, so we all have room to back up if we realize we’ve crossed it.

What we do to treat death tenderly and honorably is more about continuous practice of tenderness and honor.  It is more about drawing a line of humanity so far past what is necessary that we are safe.  What are humans like?  the aliens ask.  I would like to answer, nothing is trash to them.  They honor even their animals and their trees.  They honor even their dead.  Behaving tenderly isn’t ever so much about the recipient, anyway.  It’s mostly about how much calmer and happier you may become.

Let Not

I like to go to church late. Deep in my heart, I guess I like to go everywhere late, or I wouldn’t be late so often.  The brilliant thing about going to church late is that no one can look at you like, What’s her problem?  Or they can, but then you know that they are bad people, because they judging others, even in church.

I was slightly late last week, came in during the Psalm.  My brain at the end of the school year is packed so full of junk that I don’t have any room to move around.  I vacantly sang the Psalm, stood for the gospel, and then some visiting priest stood up to give the sermon.

I don’t remember anything he said except, “Let not your heart be troubled.”  Let not?  How do you stop it?  I had struggled to fall asleep the night before.  My heart was troubled.  It was Mother’s Day, and not only was I no one’s mother, I was showing no signs of ever being anyone’s mother.  This troubled me.

Some people go in for the erudite sermon, the logical and the eloquent.  I think sermons should run on only three themes: “God loves you,” seriously, and I mean the you right now, not some imaginary better you; “blessed are the poor in spirit,” meaning the less you hold onto, the closer you are to okay; and then “let not your heart be troubled.”  Probably 80% of the talking in church should focus on the first one.  No one, but no one, can get themselves to believe this.  If you can get even an inch closer to believing it, you are in danger of winning a Nobel peace prize.

“Let not.”  Like when your heart wants to jump off a bridge, hold onto it.  Like when it wants to run into walls, wrap it in a blanket.  Like when it’s sweating, pour some cool water over it.  Troubled is different from sad, angry, pained.  You can’t stop any of those.  But you can experience powerful emotions without letting them run the show.  You can hold on and ride the hills out, if you remember that there is a you experiencing the emotions, and that they are neither the emotions nor the mind are God.  They just act bossy and cavalier, which reminds you of a fake, shallow, God-ish old man.

Your mind is troubled by nature.  Trouble is its middle name.  It investigates trouble and whips it up when it can’t find it.  Your heart is not.  Your heart likes stillness, and long moments, and rhythm.  Your heart knows how to pace itself if you will listen.

I thought I could hold or wrap or water my heart.  There is no hope for my brain right now.  It’s going to be a big mess until school is out. My heart, though, I think could be okay, if I keep an eye on it.