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 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 Health

Lent 30

I wanted to start writing by 10 tonight. It’s 11:30. I really, really wanted to write a sestina today. I will. I will write more poems. I will push myself to write more for National poetry month. I will write more in general.

But tonight I really need to cut myself some slack. My heart is heavy. My head is spinning. I am not in the emotional place I need to be to write about the day with some emotional intelligence. I need to be detached enough to pick up the feelings of fear and despair, write about them with honesty, but also be able to analyze them, with at least a little bit of distance.

I too often feel like I am drowning in a wading pool. No one is holding me down. But I am holding my breath. Laying, heavy in the bottom of the pool, with the rocks I have picked up, lining my pockets: This one is for going to school for 8 years, borrowing nearly 100 thousand dollars from the government that I’ll be paying back for the rest of my life only to give up on ministry. This one is for failing at marriage. This one is for yelling at my kids. This one is for rarely saying the things that need to be said. And this one is for too often speaking in haste, saying things out of anger or depression that I truly do not mean.

This is about not giving up. I have so many books half read. I have so many writing projects started and not finished. I said I was going to write every Monday – Saturday for the 40 days of lent, and goddammit I intend to fulfill that obligation to myself. It is a sign of change. A sign that I am learning to catch my breath, even after a day spent feeling like I was losing oxygen.

If you have ever struggled with depression and anxiety, you probably know a bit about what I mean. Even if I am being nearly as vague as possible about the specifics.

I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe that we can dig in, inspect, and find reason, many reasons to put our head above water and empty our pockets.