Posted in Beauty, Mental Health, Music, Nature, Writing

Playlist for the Apocalypse: 05 The Numbers

You are dust
And to dust you shall return

True enough! That’s evident. But what if there doesn’t have to be enmity between men and women, their children, each other and nature? What Would happen if we lived like this was our home? What would happen if we all stopped living like our cosmic destruction was inevitable? What of our personal failures? I’m not talking about our blemishes or imperfections, but those relay ugly parts of ourselves that most of us don’t like and try to hide. What if we stopped living like we were powerless against those things? I still believe that we could fly, if we would only open our eyes to see. But our feet stay planted firmly on the concrete that paves the way to the fulfillment of our most shallow dreams and desires.

I hope you enjoy today’s Apocalyptic Playlist track. Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. Even if you’re not a fan (I know they can be an acquired taste), I hope you’ll give this song a listen. What would happen if millions of people started living like we are all of the earth, like will all return to her, and took life one day at a time? What if we didn’t worry about the various “afterlives” that preoccupy a lot of our time? It would seem to me that waiting for the earth to go up in flames, or someone or something to save us is just as meaningless as trying to amass the most wealth, status or a reputation that would give us a form of immortality by protecting our legacy. What if we saw ourselves as the cosmic specs we are? Would that lend itself to hedonism? Or would that lead us to greater humanitarianism, better care of each other and our planet?

“It holds us like a phantom
The touch is like a breeze
It shines its understanding
See the moon smiling
Open on all channels
Ready to receive
And we’re not at the mercy
Of your shimmers or spells
Your shimmers or spells
We are of the earth
To her we do return
The future is inside us
It’s not somewhere else
It’s not somewhere else
It’s not somewhere else
One day at a time
We call upon the people
People have this power
The numbers don’t decide
Your system is a lie
The river running dry
The wings of a butterfly
And you may pour us away like soup
Like we’re pretty broken flowers
We’ll take back what is ours
Take back what is ours
One day at a time”

 

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 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 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 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.