Posted in Writing

Longing and Transcendence: Ian Noe’s Between the Country

On down between the country
Where deer lay along the road
On down between the country
Where a long life is a blessed one, I’m told

I know, I know long absence from blogging, followed by a declaration of “I’m back,” only to veer off course once again. I am no longer foolish enough to trick myself into believing that I can write in this space daily or even several times a week. But I am determined to share my thoughts and practice my craft in this space at least once per week. And I’m behind already. So let’s get to it. I hope that with time it will become evident that I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel on music blogging. I have no desire to keep up with Pitchfork or the Anthony Fantanos of the world. I hope it is also evident that the particular pieces of art are not being “reviewed” in any conventional sense, but rather they serve as a conduit, a pathway to opening up about some very personal things. And perhaps, with time, these musings will invite a larger conversation – exploring narratives, ideas and emotions – that these pieces of art invite us to have.

And so with that, I’m taking a leap from 1991 to 2019. Ian Noe’s masterful debut album Between the Country was hands down my favorite album last year. And I listened to a lot of albums, from a wide variety of artists and various genres. All though it’s still recent, so recent that perhaps it’s too early to tell, I am quite certain Between the Country will stand the test of time as one of my favorite albums of the last decade.

As the title track implies, Noe invites his listeners to the spaces between. In an interview last year explaining what the phrase Between the Country means to him and why he chose that song to serve as the title track, Noe said, “Just being in the country, and everything that’s going on in between it. In between this hill or mountain, or what’s going on up in this holler, that’s what it means… It was like some people don’t make it past 40, you know? And that’s everywhere, it’s not just in a small town. But I didn’t grow up everywhere. I grew up in Lee County.”

In the particular is contained the universal. This is just as true now as when James Joyce said it nearly a hundred years ago. It has always been true. Where Joyce’s writing was grounded in the particulars of Dublin, Ireland in the early Twentieth Century, Ian Noe writes songs full of colorful characters and strange peculiarities drawn from life in Eastern Kentucky in the early Twenty-first Century.

Irene shows up on her parents’ porch at midnight “lit on the smoke and beer.” Her mother is concerned about whether or not Irene is ‘livin’ right within.’ Her father expresses his concern that she “don’t seem to be quite well.” At first blush, the chorus sounds uplifting, celebratory even of Irene’s alcohol as coping mechanism lifestyle: “Old Irene like a ravin’ bomb, she’s cuttin’ every rug And killin’ every jug she comes upon. Old Irene Don’t believe in pain. She said ‘To live this life You need a half a pint To keep you sane.’” But when Irene has her chance to speak, and respond to her parents’ concerns we get a bleak glimpse into the heart of a woman who can’t escape the pain, no matter how hard she might try in vein to do so:

Irene said, “But I ain’t happy
Sometimes I wake up feeling dead
And if the sun should shine
I close my blinds
Pretend there’s rain instead
I took down all my mirrors
I gave away all my rope and guns
Drown the darkest time
With some rot gut wine
And my faithful M.A.S.H. reruns

Irene (Ravin’ Bomb) sets the tone for the whole album. The narrator in the sorrowful and gospel infused Junk Town recounts being stuck in the same dead end place for most of his life: “Spending all my money on me and my junked-out wife.” He laments the cold winters that “never did anybody any good” and “burning up in the summer, hauling those heavy loads.” He and his wife have been “junkin’ through many troubled years” in an effort “to keep away those cold sweat fears.” But the drugs are not their ultimate hope:

And glory, glory
We are waitin’
That sweet someday
When we leave our troubles
And are taken
So far away

As the album unfolds, a bank robber dies trying to secure a better life in Letter to Madeline. Several strangers look forward to the better life they hope against hope to soon be living on If Today Doesn’t Do Me In. A serial killer needs to evacuate town in Dead on the River (Rolling Down). And a small town guy who is fed up and has had enough, digs a hole in his back yard to ensnare the zombie-like creatures his neighbors have become in Meth Head.

Almost all of Noe’s cast of characters share a similar longing. In the stories of substance abuse, religious yearning, bank heists, unrequited love and even violence it would be easy – perhaps too easy – to name this shared longing as a desire to escape. While similar, there is also substantial difference between escape and what these folks – hurting, broken or even evil – truly long for… transcendence!

Irene takes down her mirror and gives away her rope and guns. She may spend her days dulling the pain. But she holds on for dear life and does not surrender to the pain. She goes back to the place where the pain begins for so many people who struggle with addiction, their home of origin. Our bank robber tells Madeline, “When I get home, we’ll have a grand old time.” And in the case he doesn’t make it, he instructs her not to cry but rather, “Just set me up a stone on that high hillside.” Serial killers, dark and twisted as the pathology may be, long to leave a mark on the world, a reputation that will outlive their numbered days on this spinning sphere we all live and die on. And the “desperate fuckin’ meth head” is just that… desperate! As sure as the narrator in the song is desperate to outwit and outlive him.

Escape is about leaving, departing, going somewhere, anywhere else. Transcendence is about liberation, evolution, changing yourself or transforming your surroundings. The characters Ian Noe introduces us to over the course of Between the Country’s 37 minutes all seem to long for the latter, for transcendence. Or at the very least, he seems to want that for them. I might not be so convinced of this if it wasn’t for the title track and its placement as the last song on the album. Arson, murder, and the “old junkie curse” of “facing hard time” all in one song. And it’s all happening between the country, where deer lay along the road. Where a blessed life is a long one (or at least so we’ve all been told).

Noe is a brilliant young songwriter! He writes about some things he knows and some things he only knows of, but all things ‘happening between this hill or mountain, or… up in this holler’ in the particulars of his surroundings in Beattyville and the encompassing areas in Eastern Kentucky. And from these particulars come stories of universal longing.

I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in America’s poorest white town. But I certainly know what it is like to struggle with addiction. Like Irene, I’ve had my own battle with alcohol abuse and days that I closed the blinds, pretended it was raining and sat in front of the television with reruns of a favorite show. I’ve never robbed a bank. But I’d be lying if I said I’ve never dreamed about it. I feel like nearly every day, I live the sentiment of If Today Doesn’t Do Me In.

Last year, I faced down my first full year of sobriety. I entered into a new marriage. And in general, I really celebrated life! New life! Or at least a “new lease” on an old one. I also have been digging through the wreckage of a broken career path, an education that feels almost completely wasted and trying to figure out what the fuck to do with this gift of writing. I have been hiding it. Hiding it for fear that It’s not as much of a gift as I hope or that others tell me it is. I started the year by finally letting go of my status as an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. I ended the year with stepping away from the open mic that I established and have been hosting for the last 5 years. In between those two poles: one of slow, gradual collapse and one of quick and sudden change, I started to finally write – really, really write – a memoir I have been talking about writing for the last 5 years. I quit my dead end job to write and to take time to look for a career where I can use my degree and my experience working with youth, doing hospital visitations and comforting grieving people. This time to just try to figure shit out has been a luxury! A luxury that I know not many people are afforded. It has been a time for which I will be forever grateful to my partner and wife, Amanda! I am grateful for her not only “allowing” me but encouraging me to take this precious time. In this time between times so full of celebration, loss and change, Ian Noe has been a fantastic companion. And Between the Country has been my constant soundtrack.

Posted in Beauty, Health, Writing

Dream It All Up Again

This is just the end of something for U2. And that’s what we’re playing these concerts – and we’re throwing a party for ourselves and you. It’s no big deal, it’s just – we have to go away and … and dream it all up again. ~ U2’s Bono, December 31, 1989 at the Point Depot in Dublin, Ireland

It has become a well worn mantra that U2 fans know well. The New Year’s 1989 show in Dublin was broadcast on RTÉ and BBC radio all around the world. It was near the end of the Lovetown Tour in support of the band’s 1988 album Rattle and Hum.

They would re-emerge almost two years later, in November of 1991 with this gem of an album. Achtung Baby was simultaneously more dazzling, yet darker than the world had ever heard them before. In marked contrast to the soaring, anthemic delay and reverb laden guitars of The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, this album shimmered with electronic and dance elements and keyboard sounds from The Edge and producer Brian Eno that were wildly different compared Edge’s piano work on their 1981, sophomore album, October. The 4 lads from Ireland also had an aesthetic makeover. A collage of industrial, religious and somewhat self-aggrandizing images adorned the cover art. Bono’s hair was shorter, slicker and darker. The blonde highlights of their brilliant Live Aid era were long gone. And when they hit the road to support the album with the ambitious Zoo TV tour, the future was so bright that Bono’s shades became a permanent staple of his public persona. Yes, I’m aware of his glaucoma. But the shades were also tightly wound-up and tied-in with Bono’s new leather-clad “Fly” and “MacPhisto” stage personas. Peacock strutting, prank phone calls to the white-house, and mockery of TV Evangelists also became part of the live experience in this era.

In contrast to the sonic sparkles and glitz-trash-glam image (I mean that in the most complimentary of ways), Bono’s lyrics took a darker, more introspective turn than usual. Heavy, socially relevant topics were nothing new for the band. “Mothers of the Disappeared” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” had both addressed corrupt governments and US Military presence in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In “Sunday Bloody Sunday” they spoke up loud and clear about the conflict in Northern Ireland that lead to a bloody massacre in 1972. If you have never seen the Rattle and Hum, live performance of the song that was recorded the evening of the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen, watch it right now!

To put a few things into context, Achtung Baby was released 84 days after Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten and only 56 days after Nirvana’s “Grunge comes crashing into Suburbia” second album, Nevermind and 63 days after Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I & II . Without necessarily intending to do so, U2 set out to show the world that “alternative” was a large expansive (nearly useless) category that had roots in New Wave and Post-Punk and stadium-packing arena-ready rock did not belong solely to the Sunset Strip -its quickly fading Aqua Net endorsing hair bands- or the more muscular, tough boy classic rock that was replacing it. And the young Chris Martins and Dan Reynolds of the world must have been paying attention (but that’s a whole different tangent, best saved for a different day).

As I sit here today and allow myself to be pummeled once again by the non stop bass thump of this album – interrupted only by the mega-hit ballad “One” and the flipping of the records on this double LP press – I wait in anticipation once again to hear Bono sing from the perspective of Judas Iscariot on “Until the End of the World” and speak-sing absurdities from Irina Dunn on “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World.” I still crack a smile every time I get to that line “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”

But it is the album closing trio of songs – each a bit darker than the last – that I still wait for with bated breath upon each new listen. And this is is the section of the album that reminds me most that U2 had to ‘go away to dream it all up again.’ I think of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” as a squeal of sorts to “Gloria” from the band’s most overtly religious album October. On the surface “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” is about a desperate romantic relationship with the over the top and cliché “baby, baby, baby” lyric. But Bono has never been shy about his Christian beliefs and has always given fans more than enough allusion to the Bible and Christian tradition to fuel the never ending “is it about a girl or about Jesus” conversations among a certain sect of U2 fans. Before, on “Gloria” those allusions were more like evangelistic mantras or church pew confessions, complete with bits of Latin phrases: “Only in you I’m complete.. Gloria in te domine; Gloria exultate; Oh Lord, if I had anything, anything at all, I’d give it to you.” But on Ultraviolet, the lyrics give just enough for U2 biographers and fan web-boards to claim that everything in the song serves as a metaphor for for divine presence lighting the way in the darkest of times. Some folks say the lyrics allude to one of the Bible’s darkest and most mysterious books, Job (“When his candle shined upon my head, and when by his light I walked through darkness”). In any case, I love this song and firmly believe that more often than not, love – real love, the good stuff – often feels more like being lost in the dark, grasping for the other than it does feeling like one is completely found. Communication – whether familial, platonic or romantic – is elusive, slippery and difficult.

We would all ‘reach out, if we only knew where to hit.’ This leads to my favorite cut on this album and my favorite U2 song of all time, “Acrobat.” Bono himself calls it a song about hypocrisy. Hypocrisy of a rich rock star with deep religious roots, a wife, children and all of the inherent tension and potential pitfalls that predicament implies. The song has taken on a status of mythical proportions among die-hard U2 fans. It was rehearsed for the Zoo TV tour in 1991 and ’92, and has been one of the bands most requested songs for live performances. However, they never performed it in front of a live audience until 2018! 2018! While the complex time signature is often sited as the reason for its glaring absence in the U2 live catalog, I have always believed it is simply because it is one of the most personal of songs that Paul Hewson – the man behind the moniker, shades, and endless reinventions – has ever written…

And I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
‘Cause I need it now
To take a cup
To fill it up
To drink it slow
I can’t let you go
I must be an acrobat
To talk like this
And act like that
And you can dream
So dream out loud
And don’t let the bastards grind you down

Just do a web search for “Bono Christianity,” “U2 Spirituality,” or if you’re up for some real bat-shit craziness, try throwing “Bono Antichrist” in the Google search. The same people that lift you up on a pedestal and put your image on the cover of Christianity Today, will throw you to the wolves the next day. The tension between the highest ideals we aspire to and our basest instincts may leave one feeling stretched thin, like an acrobat. But it is the family that has no place for us at the table that will tear us apart. One doesn’t need to share in Bono’s Christian faith to heed the inherent warning: it is our “brothers,” our “sisters” who will inflict the deepest wounds, tear you apart, and… Grind. You. Down.

Who is my brother? Who is my sister? My mother, my father? Who am I? Complex questions beg the simplest yet most complex of answers, love – true love – is blindness. I am ready now to be pummeled by one last thumping, spiritual and sensual, cold and sweaty bass line: “Love is blindness I don’t want to see won’t you wrap the night Around me? Oh my love Blindness.” Its such a truism, I could fumble on endlessly trying to give some further elucidation.

I haven’t written in this space in nearly two years. A lot has happened in that time. Amanda and I married on March 20, 2019. This July, I will celebrate 2 years without a drop of alcohol. I have been reading. I have been writing, writing, writing (not in this space, but writing nonetheless). I have been tackling my own tohu wa-bohu (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ‎). Deeper into darkness. Deeper into light. I had to go away and dream it all up again. I’m back. Achtung Baby!

Posted in Health

Just Beneath the Surface

That is just a small pile. These are the most immediate books on my ever-growing, “must-read” list. I think I have read almost every article by Ta-Nehisi Coates available online. I have watched YouTube videos of him speaking. But I have yet to crack open one of those books. The Autism book I have been working on for weeks. But I have not made nearly as much progress as I would like. Annie Dillard has been on my list for 20 years!!! On the Kindle sits a mystery novel by my friend Anita. She sent it to me in December. I promised I would read it. And I will! But I warned her it might be a while.

‘The person who doesn’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.’ This maxim, often misattributed to Mark Twain, has stuck with me since the first time I heard it, around the same time Annie Dillard went on my must-read list. Like a lot of disparaging remarks meant to encourage someone to do better, it can often have the reverse effect. I know the good intention of the dear friend who first lobbed this quote at me. He was trying to inspire me to read more often. But like my father often asking me as a boy if I wanted a shovel at the dinner table, it had the reverse effect. I read less; I ate more. Often at the same time. I’m multitalented like that.

I recently spent some time exploring some of the deep reasons that I don’t write as often as I would like to. This isn’t another exploration into the deep-seated fears and anxieties that hold me back from writing more, especially in public spaces. This is an admission of what lies just beneath the surface: While I don’t write as much as I would like, I still write more than I read; and so, I don’t believe that I deserve to be read.

This is why I hardly ever work on the memoir. It’s why I never submit my poetry to journals. I have been writing – for escape, safe harbor, and the sheer enjoyment of it – ever since I could string two sentences together.  I have really only been attempting to read – for the sake of learning, enrichment, and enjoyment – since about my mid-twenties. And it has always been a huge struggle.

I love reading, nearly as much as I love writing. It is just a lot harder for me. And that is not to say that the writing comes easy for me. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Anytime you have read one of these entries here (usually between 700-1,200 words) you should know that I have spent at least 3-4 hours on it. And I still end up with typos, grammatical errors and dangling participles.

In grade school, I was always sent off to the special education room for reading and writing assignments.  In ACT and other standardized tests in high school, I always scored lowest in reading comprehension and writing. Yet, throughout school, my grades were always highest in English and composition classes. In nearly every subject, my grades were highest when I could write papers.

With a fire under my ass, fear in my heart and a goal in mind I earned a BA in religion and an M.Div. I read the books. I wrote the papers. And I earned really high marks. I spent an inordinate amount of time on each and every assignment. And most were submitted at the very last possible second. In retrospect, I am still utterly surprised that I made it a year in college, let alone earned two degrees.

But then came Greek. My second time out getting halfway through Greek on the verge of failing, my seminary decided I needed to be tested for a reading disability. The result: “unspecified learning disorder that impedes the reading and writing process and seriously encumbers learning another language.” This was a basic test on the seminary’s dime. The psychologist who administered the test said that while I exhibited some “dyslexia-like patterns” in my reading and writing skills, it was in likelihood not dyslexia, but some sort of attention disorder. I opted out of paying for a more detailed test on my dime to tell me that I have ADHD or something “like” it.

In place of Greek, the seminary allowed me to take two upper-level theology classes. These classes required a lot of reading and writing. It was painstaking. But I did it. And I excelled at it.

I have never written about any of this ever before. Anywhere. It is one of the biggest kept secrets in my life.  I found it much easier to write about my sexuality, my divorce, my crumbling faith, my struggle with my weight, my social anxiety and my struggle with depression. I figured if I am going to write about my daughter’s disability openly, the very least I can do is be honest with myself and others about my own.

But it goes just a little deeper than that. I am a writer. It is what I was born to do. It is the only thing I know – I mean really know deep down – that I am good at. I also know I have a lot of room for improvement. The first steps on that journey to improvement are reading that stack of books above and not stopping there. No matter how difficult or time consuming, or how many times I have to re-read the same damn paragraph. And I have to start attempting to publish beyond the scope of my personal blog. But I will never do any of this if don’t first hit publish on this post and get really honest with myself about the difficult but rewarding journey that lies ahead.

Posted in Beauty, Health

The Deep

This is one of the oldest, most natural and primitive of human fears. It is the tohu wa-bohu (Hebrew: תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ‎) that was in “the deep” better translated as chaos than “formless and void” in the Genesis myth. It is why ancient myths predating that had gods carving up the world out of conquered sea monsters or serpents.

It is almost always true that when I am not writing as much as I would like on the interwebs, I have not been writing enough elsewhere: In that journal that sits by my bedside and in my poetry journal. I have a tendency to forget the importance of processing life as it happens. Really, it’s not so much that I forget. It’s more like I am afraid of what I’ll write. As a species, we humans have conquered the void. We’ve sailed to the “edges” of the earth. We can board a plane and sail on wings, high above the sea, and travel to another continent in a day. Most of us believe, we even put a man on the moon. What I think a lot of us are really afraid of – what I am really afraid of – is the sea of chaos that resides within: the anxiety, the fear, the painful memories, the wonder, the mystery, our great potential to both heal and destroy.

My eight years of academic training in religion primarily consisted of writing research papers on some topic of dispute in Christian circles. I was trained to do weeks of research and reading, weighing and considering three sides to every story, before I sat down to write. I would evaluate all of the possible data and opinions I could find. I would read twelve different translations of a single Bible passage or study multiple theological positions about everything from “predestination” to human sexuality. And then I would sit down to tentatively write a paper. Almost everything began with a title that hung my weeks’ of preparation, investigation and my hesitancy out for my professors and my peers to see. Everything was: Towards a Theology of… [fill in the blank with divisive theological or social issue].

I can’t fully blame the training. It only reinforced a fearful and hesitant predisposition. My professors always encouraged me to argue more, to take more of a stand on an “issue.” But when I did it seemed to get me in trouble. Like when I turned in an “extremely well written” final paper exploring the instructions for warfare in Deuteronomy 20. I contended, and still do, that there is no way a god of love would ever command “holy war” or instruct for women and young girls to be taken, listed right next to livestock, as spoils of war. My professor found me to be “treading into heretical waters” but still gave me an A for arguing clearly and concisely.

Fortunately and unfortunately for me, writing is the primary way I process life. And I have often approached life, and my writing about my life, the same way I approached those papers. I stopped writing when I met my ex-wife. I didn’t write through our engagement. I didn’t write about our wedding day on or remotely near the time it happened. Instead, I found myself 6 months after we had been married, cracking open my journal and writing about the events of the year and a half that had past. My children were each at least a year old before I reflected on their births in my writing. The same with my subsequent divorce. My lifelong friendship with Amanda, that blossomed into something new and beautiful, yet deep and rooted. My ordination. My 2 year struggle to find placement in a church. My expulsion from the first church I served. And deconstructing a lot of things I believed for the first 35 years of my life, about god, the world, and myself. Much of this showed up in series I wrote last year around this time. It’s no wonder that in much of my writing, I am still wrestling with the positive and negative impact of my mother’s life on me, nearly a decade and a half after her passing.

A few months ago, something in me snapped. In October, my daughter who had been expressing suicidal ideation since July expressed it for the first time in front of me. I came home and wrote about it that night. While my heart was broken (and still is), I think the change within me was less of a breaking and more of an autocorrect to a lifelong pattern of dealing with and processing my surroundings. In December we received the results of her extensive psychological evaluation. And I have sat on them more than long enough:

We have known since she was four years old that my daughter – like me – has the neurological disorder, Myoclonus Dystonia. This disorder primarily affects the muscles, causing sporadic twitches and muscles spasms. We have known for nearly as long that she has some sort of “mood disorder.” The severity of that has increased with time. Over the last several years, that has been complicated and exacerbated by divorce and living in between two households.

What we didn’t know – what I didn’t know for ten years – is that my daughter is on the Autism Spectrum. She is a High Functioning Autistic little girl, a “pattern consistent with Aspergers.” What we didn’t know – what I didn’t know – is that this whole time this has heightened and intensified her mood disorder. Or as the doctor who performed her evaluation informed me and my ex-wife, more likely, the Autism could be a primary driver for her anxiety and depression.

I worked for a year as a social worker with at-risk teens, struggling with depression anxiety and suicidal or violent tendencies, when the search for ministry placement wasn’t going anywhere. After my short time serving as a pastor, I work another two years, serving adults with developmental disabilities, many of them on the Autism spectrum. And yet I felt utterly ill-equipped and unprepared for this diagnosis.

But, I have spent more than enough time in my own “deep” battling the monsters and serpents that have reared their ugly heads and have raged within me. I have spent hundreds of hours in therapy recounting and learning coping mechanisms for my own crippling social anxiety. I have spent the better part of the last four years boxing with my own demons publically in the arena of spoken word performances.

Last year during Lent, I aired out a lot of that struggle and triumph in this space. The theme that I explored that I come back to most often, is the concept of the ripples. I never want to underestimate the impact of my own words and actions on the world around me, especially those closest to me. I have undoubtedly – and often unknowingly – fucked up. I have yelled, cried, begged and pleaded with my daughter to tell me why she is feeling a certain way when she literally cannot do so. I have often thought she was being willful and obstinant when she was rather frozen by going into a social situation with family she doesn’t often see or making a transition that from her mother’s house to mine or back, that her neurotypical brother seems to (in relatively little time) learned to do with ease.

Yet, I am not utterly ill-equipped and unprepared. I have those years working with troubled teens and adults with cognitive and emotional disabilities. More recently, and perhaps more importantly, several young adults on the Autism spectrum have found a home in the open mic community that I have the privilege to facilitate and host each week. I am learning from the fearless public performances of these brave souls and in private conversations, what to say and do and what not to say and do, when it comes to dealing with a child on the Autism spectrum. One friend and amazing poet who is on the spectrum, upon learning of my daughter’s diagnosis sent me several helpful websites and gifted me with a book for Christmas: What Every Autistic Girl Wishes Her Parents Knew. With each passing day and week, I am learning a little bit more about “life on the spectrum.”

We often don’t like to see in others – especially those we love – things that remind us of our own “deep,” the monsters we fight, the things we don’t like about ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I have a tendency to project my own inner world on those people, and thus fail to see them. I want to see my daughter. Her deep is not mine. Her parents did divorce. But her father is not largely absent from the equation like mine was during my most formative years. I know about my own anxiety and depression, that developed in a dysfunctional home and was compounded by a lot of toxic by religiosity.  But everything I am learning about Autism is from doctors, books, websites, and most importantly from the friends dealing with it that the universe has brought my way. I need to be careful and more mindful of the ripples I send out. But I am also deeply and profoundly thankful for the ripples the universe has sent my way, preparing me for this, for the beautiful yet complicated gift that is my daughter.

Posted in Headlines, Health

Helter Skelter and Euangélion

The death of Charles Manson is not good news to me. I find no joy and no solace in it. In fact, no matter how putrid the moral failings or heinous the crimes of the deceased, glee over death – any death – always makes me sad. I understand the visceral reaction people have about cult leaders, serial killers, abusers and perpetrators of all sorts of nefarious acts. On a gut level, I understand – and even sympathize – when people espouse their hatred for those souls that show us how dark the human mind and heart can become. I understand in my gut why radio DJ’s, co-workers and thousands of people on social media celebrate the demise of one such man. I get why so many people feel certain that if there is a Hell, Charles Manson is now there. I do. I mean, I have found myself – at my worst – wishing a car accident on someone who cut me off in traffic. I am not proud of that. It reveals the darkest parts of my reptilian brain when slighted, and I am firing on too much caffeine and too little sleep. But it does not reveal my heart.

My heart breaks, for a world that relishes in punitive justice much more than it does restorative justice and reconciliation. The death of Charles Manson is essentially meaningless. A highly charismatic and tortured man who as a kid was abandoned by his mother didn’t know his biological father found a way to inflict his pain on the world. There were 7 horrific murders carried out by his following. Several people are still rotting away, awaiting their own death in prison. And many more people – the loved ones of the victims – lived or continue to live out their lives with a wound that no one, no one can ever heal.

The death of Charles Manson has me wishing I still believed in Jesus. Not the punitive, scary Jesus ready to send anyone to hell for being born into the wrong culture or for not saying the right prayer, that I believed in as a youth. But the Christ. The one of whom Paul said, “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” The one whom for Irenaeus “became what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.” The Christ I once truly believed was going to recapitulate, reconstitute all things great and small and reconcile them to God, to the earth, and to each other.

Charles Manson stole a song title from the Beetles and preached “Helter Skelter.” He somehow convinced his followers that a great race war was coming, that their crimes would be the catalyst for this apocalyptic event and that he would be at the helm of leading a new society. He was a severely flawed and failed messiah figure. Jesus preached Euangélion (Greek: εὐαγγέλιον) or the Good News that the kingdom of God was at hand, that it was dwelling among us. Sure he preached a lot of really judgmental sounding things about hell too, and his own sort of impending Armageddon. But somehow, many of his followers including the Paul of the 7 authentic Pauline letters, some of the Church Fathers many Eastern Orthodox and Catholic mystics and more than a few liberal Protestants took the stories about Jesus’ life death and resurrection to mean that God was reconciling the whole cosmos in this one man. That’s where I was in my last days as a minister of “the Good News.”

A severe lack of grace in humanity, raging injustice in the universe, a lack of divine intervention (the kind that would and must break forth if God had really broken through), multiple Christ-like myths that long predate Jesus of Nazareth, glaring contradictions and obscene moral flaws attributed to God (in the Bible and in any other religious text I have ever read) and Ivan Karamazov and his damn speech about the children. These things simply will not allow me to believe that the lion will lay down with the lamb. They no longer permit me to believe that somehow, someday, God’s light will flood the earth and be so pervasive that even Sharon Tate would embrace Charles Manson. But on days like today – honestly almost every day – I find myself wishing it were true.

I am tempted to despair. And some days I do! I don’t know what to believe or even wish about the universe we find ourselves in. And for the most part that all seems so futile now. But there are things I can do and even reasonably hope. We are so inundated by bad news:  corrupt politicians in international collusion to skew elections or sell uranium, new sexual assault cases revealed daily against the saints of Hollywood and those masquerading as proponents of “family values” in the church and government, and mass murders every few months. It is understandable how in such a sick, cynical society where evil sometimes seems destined to be eternally cyclical folks can find themselves cheering for the death of one bad guy.

So I must force myself for intervals of time to step away from the bad news when being informed and educated on what’s going on turns to wallowing. I must force myself to remember that some truly verifiable good news does happen in the world. I must remind myself that the negative news cycle – while all too real – is designed to pull you in and make you spend hours online or in front of your tv to advertise products to us we don’t need. I must remind myself that Danica Roem recently became become the first openly transgender woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Not only did she win, but she defeated an incumbent who introduced an anti-trans “bathroom bill”!!! I must remind myself that this Thursday, adherents of various religions and non-believers alike will file into churches, food banks, schools, and restaurants to feed the homeless. I must remind myself that a beloved fellow artist my community is always working to shed a light on the hunger epidemic. I must remind myself that almost every week someone approaches me, to tell me that my poetry or the open mic community that many of us have tirelessly worked to create has made a difference in their life. I must remind myself that I am deeply loved by more people than I am probably aware of. I can and I must go forth and “love my neighbor as myself.” And as has always been the case – even if seldom realized – none of us can do that unless we actually love ourselves.

So this is me, pushing back from the news cycle for the rest of the day, for a hot shower, a beer and an earlier bedtime than normal. I need some rest. This Thursday I get to have way too much food with people I love, who also love me and who would strongly disagree with me about Charles Manson or Jesus. And dammit, I am determined to love them well.

Posted in Beauty, Health, Poetry

A House Divided

I have recently been going through a lot of my writing from the last decade, both poetry and prose. I am working on assembling poetry by theme. The goal is a poetry chapbook of some sort. I am also trying to actually work on the memoir that I have been talking about working on for the last two years.

Seven years ago to the day, I wrote this. At the time, I posted it for all the world to see on my blog, this very site. For various reasons, all posts between 2004 and June 2015 have been deleted. Still, I posted it for the world. And still, things still lingered on for another 5 years, to the day.

Assonance or Resonance?
So desperate, I need some respite, in this place of war
I need a place to say some things I haven’t said before
A place to say the names of the bones behind the door
Voices echo in this headspace as you creep across the floor
Just like that broken record I picked up discounted in the bins
Only one side ever plays and the last song never ends
The last word gets repeated ’til I lift the needle from the skin
Mixing metaphors with my dopamine, like whiskey with my gin
Should we exit like we entered with no input from our friends?
Or give them all one more chance to peer around the bend?
If this ship is really sinking, they could be our rising wind
Can’t help but thinking…
They’d love another chance to play pretend
Maybe in this pool of listlessness, they’d be quick to condescend:
“Can’t comprehend why she didn’t leave him long before she did
Of her own volition, no contrition and no cognition turned to shit
It was painful to watch her dying from all those wounds she hid”

It would be far too easy for me to be angry: Where were my friends, family, seminary colleagues, professors, pastors, mentors, people who declared their love for me and my ex-wife while we were both crying out for help, each in our own way?

I think ultimately there is a twofold lesson for me: First, I have to write for me, for my own “salvation” and mental health, come what may. No matter who reads it, or how many, or how they respond. And secondly, I have to learn to separate those who appreciate my writing whether on a blog, in spoken word performances, or hopefully someday, in a book from true friends. And I have to do my part to hold close to the latter.

Jesus and Lincoln both purportedly said, on their respective campaign trails, that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Most of my life I have been a house divided: A free spirit, free thinker, trying desperately to cling to the dogma of the past to save me from the flames of hell. A self-proclaimed “extrovert” who took a Myers-Briggs Test, scored ENFP but has struggled with life-long social anxiety. I have worked just as vigorously to shut people out -who would love to love me – as I have to draw them in.

But I am changing. Good gawd, even at the ripe old age of 40, I am changing for the better. For most of my life, I have suffered from a simultaneously self-hating and self-aggrandizing fear that the eternal fate of others might be inextricably-intertwined with my words: my excelling or failing to say, “Jesus loves you.” But now I know that I have to be able to look myself in the mirror in the morning and say, “I love you.” My “salvation,” my mental health depends on it! And others depend on me. They wouldn’t be lost or hopeless without me. But I contribute to their happiness and well being right here, right now. So I continue to work towards casting out my own demons. I continue to work towards my own mental and emotional emancipation.

I am a house, perhaps in a permanent state of remodel. But I am no longer closed for repairs. Welcome to my living room. Take a seat. Or don’t. I have many stories to tell.

Posted in Health

On the Ledge

On the ledge is where I found my daughter tonight. She was holding onto the fence and holding one foot out over the water. Fear and trepidation don’t even begin to describe what I felt as I quickly contemplated moving towards her. One’s mind doesn’t even begin to calculate all of the logistics and possible outcomes until after the panic has subsided. After the child is safe: The stream is only about a foot deep. The water is cold this time of year, but moving very slowly. The drop is probably only 6-8 feet. She would be okay. She would likely be hurt, but relatively intact. As quickly as it began, she ran at me – seemingly as if into my arms – then ran off again in anger. But safe.

Everything feels like a relative term these days. What does it mean that she is safe tonight? What does it really mean that she might have been okay? That she might have survived? This is what life looks like for all involved these days: For me, her mother, her brother, my dearest Amanda who has fallen head over heels in love with my kids in the last two years. We are all living in a blur of fear, anxiety, and hurt. This is all punctuated by frenzied moments like tonight when my daughter has a fit of rage and everything seems to move in rapid-fire succession and then by moments that turn into hours and feel like days when she is sad, angry, or obstinate and the world stops to revolve around her feelings. Her refusal to go to school, to transition to my house, go back to her mom’s house, or simply shower or get dressed. Our needs to go to work, meet deadlines, do homework, our desire to play games, have family time, enjoy each others’ company – in either home – all seem obfuscated by her emotions, which seem to grow larger by the day.

In between, we do manage to do all of these things. I go to work. I host an open mic. I am excited to be going out this weekend to speak to youth about poetry, stage presence, and performance. I try to write new poetry regularly. Her mother is working two jobs. Amanda works 70 hours a week and still somehow pours out an inordinate amount of time and energy into my children. And my son continues to go to school, do his homework and play video games. But it is all marked by the tension of the everpresent now: a 9-year-old little girl, who has some serious mental and emotional health issues.

This is why I have been off of the blogging grid since spring, and generally unable to write in prose. I am scared of what I will write down. I don’t want to look at any of it in print. The good times, laughter and lightheartedness of the summer passed too fast. And it was all marked by my daughter being in an inpatient treatment facility for most of July. It was a place where she was the only pre-teen in a “home” that was not my home, not her mother’s home, a place I felt she should have never been. Not at that age. Not surrounded by teenagers.

Likewise, Fall has almost slipped completely by, with weekly follow up meetings with counselors and social workers and genetic testing, to find that two of the medications that various doctors have put her on so far are both very unfitting for her genetic makeup. Last week, on World Mental Health Day, my ex-wife and I sat for an hour with an intake specialist at one of the best mental health facilities in West MI. A full and extensive psychological evaluation is forthcoming.

She has not outright threatened suicide. I am not even sure the word is in her vocabulary unless she learned it during her stay at the inpatient care facility. She has said things like, “Everyone would be better off without me… run me over with the car… and I want to hurt myself.” She has destroyed other people’s property: her Grandparents’ and her brother’s, her parents and other significant adults in her life, and even her own.

I am beyond scared. I am worried about my daughter. I am worried about my son, who is – as hard as we try not to let it happen – being robbed of precious time he needs. Time to play, be lighthearted and soak up positive affirmations.

Everyone is one edge. It feels as if we are all out on the ledge. I am trying, straining, to live in the now. To measure and evaluate all of the variables of the present logistics, the situation we all find ourselves in. And I am striving – we all are – twisting and contorting not to preoccupy ourselves with the infinite possible outcomes.

Posted in Beauty, Health

The Aftermath

25 years ago today, a jury acquitted Stacey Koon, Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, and Timothy Wind on charges of assault and use of excessive force in the now infamous caught on tape beating of Rodney King. In some ways not much has changed in 25 years. Now the footage is captured on iPhones instead of camcorders. But police brutality, especially against people of color, is still rampant in the United States. Victims of police brutality are still scrutinized and blamed. Rodney King certainly wasn’t an innocent man. Amadou Diallo was! But in either case – or any of the plethora of like cases we have been inundated with over the past quarter of a century – the narrative is always similar. It always becomes a story about how much the victim did or did not deserve the severity of force rather than primarily about those who abuse the power of a badge and a gun.

These are things I have been thinking about, at least since the fall of 1992. Ice Cube released his third solo album, The Predator. From beginning to end it was a scathing indictment of police brutality and race relations in America. And from “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up” to “Who Got the Camera?” it was a completely different commentary than what I got from the Evening news with Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and drastically different than what I heard from my parents. I am not being hyperbolic or speaking flippantly when I say that listening to that album with my headphones on was a large part of why I ended up going to seminary. I just no longer see the church pulpit as my avenue for trying to be an agent of change in a sick and heartbroken society.

What I haven’thought a lot about is the aftermath of a highly publicized event on a city and all of its inhabitants. From the violence that erupted in L.A. to the mostly peaceful demonstrators and vigils in Ferguson, there is some level of violence, lots of civil unrest, negative impact on local businesses, whether from looting or the enforcement of curfews. Already tense relationships between law enforcement and disenfranchised communities are heightened. And in this state of affairs the media descends on a city and saturates the entire country with coverage of their story… until the next big headline. I say none of this to minimize the importance of the people being heard. It is more of a judgement about our poor listening skills, about how we only talk about ugly truths when the worst things happen, we turn people and whole cities into talking points until there is another headline about a President’s tweet, or the unrest in Syria or a viral video of a bluegrass band covering AC/DC diverts our attention.

I am thinking a lot today about what the aftermath must be like for the communities affected. I am thinking about it largely for two reasons. Yesterday I listened to a heartbreaking report on NPR on how L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and sports and business mogul, Peter Ueberroth’s attempts to Rebuild L.A. were in large part a failure. And in many ways the city is still reeling from the aftermath of the verdict and the subsequent civil unrest.

I am also thinking about it because one year ago today in a much less publicized case I was a “defendant” for the first time in my life. The plaintiff was my ex-wife. We stood in front of a judge. There were no lawyers. He didn’t even bang a gavel. He simply pronounced us divorced. We had already been separated for 6 months. We had been growing apart for years, creating a void that was almost unbearable for all, including our two children. People find all sorts of ways to cope with the dysfunction of an unhappy home. I was distant and drank too much. I threw myself headlong first into the search for ministry placement. Then after a heartbreaking two year search and a very short lived time as an underpaid “resident pastor” I threw myself into being an online, Christian “social justice warrior.” My family suffered, I suffered, my art suffered. But divorce, while many things, is not a cure for dysfunction or broken hearts. The civil unrest of divorce creates a vortex of new pain and an aftermath that requires a lot of rebuilding.

I am working my ass off to rebuild. I am working to resurrect a bridge of communication that was completely dismantled between my ex-wife and myself, so that we can successfully co-parent two children whose dreams of a happy home and a white picket fence, with both parents together were shattered. I am working on reestablishing a relationship with the two most important people in my life, my 9 year old daughter with trust issues and clinical anxiety and my wide-eyed, usually optimistic but heartbroken 7 year old son. Some days the effort seems futile and fruitless when my daughter calls me the night before a “daddy’s weekend” and says she is not coming to my house anymore and hangs up on me. There are lots of fits, temper tantrums and some trying to play mom and dad against each other. But there is also a lot of precious time spent playing baseball in the yard, letting my son get unlimited turns at bat to kick my ass and letting my daughter make up her own 15 strikes before your out rule. There is ice cream and hugs and snuggles. And I cannot let myself forget things when they break my heart or during the void I feel, the 10 out of every 14 days that they are not here with me.

The aftermath is hard. Somethings take a lifetime and constant effort to rebuild. Time certainly does not heal all wounds. But love – love and tireless effort – can bandage those wounds and hold us tight as we walk through the flames and sift through the ashes and strain towards compassion, growth and new ways of navigating life and finding joy.

Posted in Poetry

Youth

We used to scream, barbaric yelps until
Our throats were raw, our voices hoarse

As soon as the winter thaw would permit
Kick and stamper like a sadistic horse

Groping for the light of a sliver moon
Until our hands were as heavy as a horse

Around the corner, we peaked at freedom
Like the head of Shasta’s horse

Mothers’ grip, fathers quiped bitter words
Until throats were raw, their voices hoarse

—-

National Poetry month. Day 19. Poem 11. Not going to try to catch up. But I will try to get a few more poems out in the coming days. This is a ghazal.

Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 40

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

I have stalled all day. I intended to have something written before noon. I finished my morning coffee. Late morning turned into early afternoon. Early afternoon turned into midday.

I thought I knew what I was going to write today. And I had it all wrong. I used to write for a Christian blog called, “That Reformed Blog.” Hell, I didn’t just write for it. I started it with a few friends. I wrote the “About” page. I spearheaded things, brainstorming with others, divvying out writing assignments, occasionally editing for others. I called upon a lovely band of misfits: LGBTQ affirming pastors and chaplains, women ministers in a tradition that has been anything but kind to women. I was trying to create an avenue for progressive theology, through the lens of the Reformed tradition that I was trying so hard to anchor myself in. But in retrospect, I realize it was my last ditch effort to try to change the way people think in hopes of changing the world, rather than changing myself, the way I lived and the way I approached the world.

Over the course of the last 40 days, I have revisited my last contribution to that site a few dozen times. At least half of those visits were today. It was a poem I wrote for this day, Holy Saturday 2015, called Where We Live. I still think it is a fine poem. I just can’t live there anymore: In that space where one hopes against hope that god did this thing once and is coming back to do it again.

Our lives are already a sometimes deafening cacophony of anguish and beauty. And millions of voices – some of them true sages, some of them charlatans, most of them a mixture of the two – are clamoring to be the clarifying voice of reason and truth above the noise. Trying to be the loudest voice at the party, never brought me any sort of inner peace. It did bring me occasional pats on the back for being being ‘loving, caring, or so open and accepting.’ Or it brought moments of temporary satisfaction when I won an argument with a “conservative” Christian that I saw as an opponent. But that satisfaction was fleeting. And living in that contradiction: self appointed spokesperson for a softer, gentler, more loving god and the need to make others see things the way I saw them nearly made me blind to all of the ways I needed to improve myself by becoming a softer, gentler, more loving me.

For me it obscured the tiny deaths and resurrections that happen all the time throughout the dizzying cycles of life on this planet. I don’t think it is necessarily the same for everyone. I can only speak for myself. I never really heard other people when I tried to speak for everyone, speak for god. Over the course of this last 40 days, I have recounted some of those tiny – yet not so tiny – resurrections. The change I have seen in my dad. The ways I have sought to become more loving and patient and break cycles of anxiety in my own parenting.

As I have looked back on my life and especially on the last two years – meditating on these things for more than a month – I guess I have looked at it all through the lens of Holy Saturday and that last poem I wrote as a spokesperson for god. It was enshrouded with genuine doubt and tremendous fear. Looking back now, is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. Within a few months after writing that poem, I wrote my friend April, a fantastic and gracious human being, and passed the blog domain, passwords and spearheading onto her. I told her I couldn’t write in that space – within those limitations of orthodoxy – anymore because I didn’t believe in the resurrection anymore. What I didn’t realize was that was the beginning of my own resurrection.

It all had to happen! My becoming honest about my cognitive dissonance with orthodoxy. My coming out publicly about my own bisexuality. And yes, even the divorce. I was sucking the life from those around me by living in my own extended state of slumber, my own unending “Saturday.” I was shouting at the top of my proverbial lungs in cyberspace to get my atheist friends to believe in god, to get my conservative evangelical friends to believe in a more tolerant god, to get everyone to accept the LGBTQ community, to get everyone on board with women in ministry like they should have been hundreds of years ago. In doing so I wasn’t dealing my own projection of a tyrant, bloodthirsty god who was crushing me, my own internalized homophobia that was killing me, or my own misogynist and patriarchal tendencies that were sucking the life from those around me. I ignored my ex-wife. I ignored my children. I poured all of my energy – when I wasn’t punching the clock at the factory or the gas station – into trying to change the world instead of changing myself.

I look back at the person I was, and I want to hate him. But I can’t. That’s what got me to that state of constant anger and depression in the first place. I can only say, I forgive him; for he knew not what he was doing. After the series of excruciating death blows that came in church after church rejecting me, through my divorce, and finally – on a mattress on a floor in a rented room – through whispering, quietly to god and to myself “it is finished” maybe my Sunday has finally come.