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.

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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.

Size Matters

This week I drank a glass of merlot at happy hour.  It was no big deal to anyone except me.  For many years, I gave up alcohol for Lent.  I felt like I needed to rethink my ritual, so I decided I would be easier on myself.  I’m calling this a “soft Lent.”  I would mostly give up chocolate and alcohol.  If I felt like I needed to be looser and kinder to myself, I would have a damn drink or eat a silly cookie.

I have been thinking about hope.  It’s Lent just now, so church is 80% repenting, buoyed by 20% hope.  We couldn’t have Lent at all if we didn’t know Easter party time was at the end.  The arrangements on the altar now are brown branches, no green at all.  Somebody wrapped our cross in scarlet film this year, rather than covering St. Peter, Christ, and St. John the Evangelist with our Lenten screen.  I was glad.  The screen is fine: a crown of thorns, a chalice and wafer.  I really miss the paintings of the guys when they’re covered up, though.  I like to see them and be like, what’s up, guys?

I ordered the wine after I got invited to happy hour and realized that I was feeling pretty down, and I ought to go wrap myself in the company of cheerful people.  So I drank my wine, sort of expecting to be struck by lighting, but instead laughing at how we faced a whole table of men, all of whom seemed to be staring at us, since The Game was on the TVs right above our heads.

The lesson last Sunday was about Abram (still Abram) being shown all the stars.  God says, I’m going to give you all these descendants, and Abram is like, yeah, right.  Then some creepy stuff happens where God proves He means it by levitating a torch through the halves of a goat carcass or something.  (I tried humor the author here, since he was writing a bazillion years ago.)

This story is about expanding horizons.  It’s someone saying, “This place is huge.  Big.  No, bigger.  Much bigger.  Your life could be much, much bigger.”  So big that it’s okay to stop drinking wine for a while if it makes you feel like an A-plus Episcopalian, and it’s also okay to settle for a C, or even an F if your day is a stupid F level day.

Lent is a good time to try to refocus yourself, which could mean experimenting with limits.  I have benefited from these limits– learned about how painful and how silly it is when fear you will DIE without a cookie.  Craving a cookie, I can often laugh at myself and the whole world.  Life is just full of ridiculous burning cravings that could could quickly fade if you are watching for favorite TV show.

This year, I think my more important challenge is to see the big picture, the full sky, and consider which limits are healthy, and which ones make me feel small and hopeless.

Giving Up

So, it’s that special day of the year set aside by the church for perfectionists to freak out about what else they ought to be doing, and start doing (or not doing) that thing like gangbusters for 40 days plus Sundays.  They say “sacrifice” and they say “pay attention to what matters” or “do more good,” but honestly I hear: “Perfectionists, get ready, get set, go.”

I spend the week before Mardi Gras running my brain around like I’m rehearsing it for a dog show.  Run, and leap, and prance.  Run, and leap, and prance.  (It’s just that boring, too.)  Is giving up booze for Lent still meaningful to me?  What is supposed to mean?  Or is it just a cultural thing to me now, like my Easter basket?  That isn’t spiritual, but it’s part of my holiday.

This year, still smarting from breaking up with my boyfriend, I feel antsy at the thought of giving up anything.  Haven’t I given up enough lately?  I’m not sure I can get past my resentment to a more generous place.

Nice thoughtful people flood me with ideas.  You can give money for Lent.  Or time.  You can pray.  Or meditate.  Or exercise.  Or read some spiritual stuff.  If the practice is such a great habit to have, I think, well, I ought to be doing it anyway, all year.  I do meditate most days, exercise a couple times a week.  I’m already a vegetarian, so I can’t give up meat.

I’ve thought about drawing every day– I already write every day– but that makes drawing seem like sort of a punishment, and what if I burn out my enthusiasm for it?

I like using a Lenten practice because it can mean taking a hard look at things, trying to be more honest and more tough.  My love of doing difficult things and trying to be tough is not always beneficial, though.  Sometimes it makes me take myself too seriously.  Or it can encourage me to avoid asking for help.  Lent isn’t supposed to feed your demons, that’s for sure.

First, you have to feel like you have plenty.  You can’t consider sacrifice or sharing until you are relaxed.  You have to have this “enough” feeling.  I can get that feeling at church, or meditating, or soaking in art I love, or sitting down after unloading all my weekly groceries.

I’d love to think I could get it sitting in the dirt picking at the boils the devil sent me while my friends tell me I’ve brought it all on myself, but luckily I haven’t been tested to such an extreme.

Once you know, really know, that you have what you need, you can think about what is extra.  What you can give, or give up, from your generosity.  Giving from resentment is risky.  For you, and for the people who receive the gift.

I’m not sure what is extra for me right now.  At least today, on Ash Wednesday, I feel like I need everything I have, and possibly a bunch of stuff I lack.  But maybe I’ll get there.

Hell Hath No Fury

Yesterday I walked into two conversations about Hell.  First I was sitting eating my lunch in an empty classroom when a couple of students wandered in.  I was doing my best to ignore them, but one was saying, “I have a King James translation and I just don’t understand it with all those wherefores and thous.”  And then, later, “I mean, she needs to know that stuff, or she might end up in Hell.”

We’re reading The Crucible, and my students are a pretty religious bunch anyway, but it still freaked me out.  Was all this talk about witches and Satan inspiring them to fret about their eternal souls?  I was hoping it would make them think, but the trouble with encouraging free thought is that it can go in directions you don’t like.

When I walked in to teach my next class, another kid stopped me and asked, “Hey, if you kill someone in a war, will you go to hell?”

It was an especially strange question for the Christian who doesn’t believe in Hell.  I’ve never understood why people were so eager to construct a place of ultimate suffering that is separate from good old planet Earth.

Hell is digging through the rubble of your house, looking for your wife and children, who are probably dead.  Hell is bone cancer.  Hell is a foreclosure notice on your front door.  Hell is people from the next village raping and torturing your neighbors in front of you.  That’s enough hell for me.

I don’t mean that I think hell is limited to the extreme outliers of suffering.  Hell is also being too scattered to enjoy your life.  Hell is twisted, recurring dreams about your ex.  Hell is seeing no options.  Hell is worrying all the time if you are “good” or “bad.”  Hell is believing in a God who is punitive and must send people to a hell after death in the interest of “fairness.”  (Hey, guys, you coulda prayed the right prayer if ya wanted toSo sorry!)

At least I got to answer the war/hell question by planting a seed for further thought.  ” I can’t answer that,” I said.  “But I can tell you different Christians would have different ideas about it.  You know, there isn’t one person who tells all Christians what to believe.”

Of course, you could jump in there like a good Sunday school student and say, “Yes there is, spineless liberal!  Jesus!”  Unfortunately, I don’t recall him saying a thing about Hell.  If it was such an important, straightforward religious concept, I think he would have been a lot clearer about it.  What I do believe is he was a stand-up guy who wasn’t trying to trick people or hint about an afterlife, and that every time he saw someone in a hell, he tried to help them out of it.

Aside: yes, I’ve read the Bible.  Yes, with the guidance of historical and critical research, because I believe in that stuff.  The Hebrew idea of what happened after you die was not a heaven/hell thing.  It was sheol, land of the dead.  Jesus talking about people burning up or being kicked out of somewhere doesn’t say “Hell” to me.  Vague, allegorical, certainly confusing.  That’s just where I’m at, and perhaps I am all wrong about this, in which case– I’ll see you in heaven.