Posted in Health, Mental Health, Music, Politics, Racism

Playlist for the Apocalypse: 12 White Man’s World

I am a 43-year-old white male. For hundreds of years, guys with my skin color, similar Western European lineage, similar religious backgrounds, and usually right about my age have been in charge of the whole goddamn world. In 1492, we set sail from the old world. We conquered. We colonized. We stole this land from men, women, and children with different skin color, red skin. We brought with us men, women, and children with more melanin in their skin. We brought our own women for the reproducing and rearing children and the keeping of a new homestead.

This is the land that white hands stole.
This is the empire black hands built
These are the homes soft hands have made

Between the establishment of the first colonies along the Atlantic shoreline in the early 17th Century, and where we find ourselves today, a couple of decades into the 21st Century: Smallpox, French and Indian War, Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment, Women’s suffrage, world wars, FDR, JFK, LBJ and 500,000 other horrible and terrific things. But most of them mundane: vanilla, saltine, plain… white.

I sometimes forget my privilege. I honestly rarely think about being white or even being a male. I can’t imagine what it must be like to worry – a palpable worry that we ALL KNOW is real – that I might be killed for the color of my skin. I don’t know what it’s like to be afraid to walk down the street at night alone or to have my heart rate increase with the pace of the steps of the man or men behind me. I can’t imagine the distrust I would have of me and people who look like me if I was Japanese American and had family live through the days of Internment Camps. I can’t even begin to imagine the life of a Somalian immigrant in the Twin Cities or a Syrian Refugee in Dearborn.

Growing up (relatively) poor doesn’t make me not white. Struggling with learning disabilities in school and getting government-funded free lunches doesn’t make me not white. Being attracted to both women and men doesn’t make me not white. In fact, it makes me suspect to some people, and it means nothing more than I’m just like everyone else to some other people. I have immense piles of student debt and not much to show for it. But, like… get in line with the rest of the country!

I think a lot of white dudes go through similar struggles and they forget. They forget the immense amount of privilege that they – we – carry in our very being. This is not an innate privilege, of course. Its is a product of a time, a place, a transatlantic slave trade, a world that I didn’t build.

But I’m here. I want to live a better life in this world, a fair one, a life in which I see the beauty in the wide spectrum of human beings around me. The differences in skin color and tone, and melanin distribution. The plethora of ethnic lineages, gender diversity, and an array of sexual orientations.

The goal of living “color blind” of not seeing differences, of saying “love is love” is in some ways like the old “eye for an eye” ethic of life, in that if we live a life that way, we all end up blind. We can’t see others when we can’t see beyond ourselves. Likewise, if we can’t even see ourselves, to begin with.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4isPnU2TeFFJmkNGCaQxxZ?si=D_RO4rewTU-eIiJcWpp5zg

Posted in Headlines, Health, Music, Racism, Writing

Playlist for the Apocalypse: 02 Changes

What can I say about “Changes” that hasn’t already been said? I mean everyone from Ed Sheeran to The Catholic Church, loves this song. Maybe Pope Francis should listen to it again and contemplate the themes of social justice, instead of comparing the suffering of Jesus to that of a Cardinal who abused children. But I digress.

Tupac Shakur originally recorded changes in 1992. It was not released until it was remixed and issued on his Greatest Hits album in 1998, two years after Shakur’s death. Since then, it has become one of the late rapper’s most widely recognized song. Did I mention it made a playlist at the Vatican?

We have another song with lines that could easily be ripped from today’s headlines or a Facebook status:

I see no changes wake up in the morning and I ask myself
Is life worth living should I blast myself?

I see no changes all I see is racist faces
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races

And still I see no changes can’t a brother get a little peace
It’s war on the streets and the war in the Middle East

Feelings of despair, racism and violence in the American streets and abroad. The song also touches on poverty, police brutality against the black community, the prison industrial complex and “the war on drugs.” And then there’s what’s probably become the most talked about line of the song. Pac spits, “And although it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready, to see a black President.”

White people reacted to the election of former President Barack Obama in a lot of really gross ways. Much has been said about the “conservative backlash.” Everything from the birther movement to tiki torches in Virginia has been framed as the reaction of white people feeling a loss a power. But it wasn’t just conservatives, much of white America thought we had finally arrived. In addition to athlete, rapper or actor, a black man could now be president. Racism was over.

Of course it wasn’t. It’s still not. The penitentiaries are still packed. And they’re still filled with blacks. The prison industrial complex is alive and well in the era of the New Jim Crow. Police still kill unarmed black men, women and children. Before Joe Biden served as Vice President under Obama, he was the chief architect of the United State’s “war on drugs” that terrorized African American Communities. Now he is running for President himself.

But has anything changed? Since 1992? 1998? 2008? Have we reached some previously unknown state of racial reconciliation and reckoning with this county’s racist history? As we have seen in headline after headline the present pandemic is having a devastating and disproportionate impact on the Black community in America. There are of course many contributing factors: redlining, racial wealth gap, massive disparities in education and employment opportunities. The list goes on, but much could be summed up under the umbrella of systemic racism. Maybe we still need to make some changes.

We gotta make a change
It’s time for us as a people to start making some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
And let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do
What we gotta do, to survive.

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.