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, 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

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.

Posted in Health

Lent 39

Most of my life this was the most important day of the year for me. I was trained and ordained in the Reformed tradition. But my religious lineage is decidedly evangelical. More precisely, it was revivalist and nearly on the fringe of evangelicalism. I have talked more about the blood of Jesus in my life and in my prayers and in my private journal entries than I have probably any other topic under the sun.

It wasn’t until I had started training in the Reformed tradition and was working at a progressive (though highly apathetic) Methodist church, that I realized this. I was a youth director, in charge of the Easter Morning Sunrise service. My friend, roommate, and boss at the time remarked that I had picked more songs about Good Friday than I had about Easter, for us to sing at 6 am, at the top of the hill in Mount Hope Cemetery.

Over the course of the next few years, my “theological orientation” shifted considerably! Easter became my jam. I traded John Wesley for John Calvin. I traded John Eldredge for Jürgen Moltmann. I was becoming.

I guess I am still becoming. Call me a “none” or “spiritual but not religious” if you wish. When pressed I call myself an agnostic with deep, deep sympathies for Religious faith and atheism alike.

But I prefer not to say it. Who doesn’t prefer not to pressed? I think all of this labeling, “othering” of each other and of unexplained things that we call god or the devil, is part and parcel of what it means to be flawed or “sinful” human beings.

I believe in good. And I believe in evil. I don’t know if I believe in relational spiritual entities that have the power or will to intervene or posses. Some days I think the good and the evil that is in the world is just us, the sum of our actions. And some days I think it is more than the sum of our parts.

This used to be the most important day of the year for me.

Posted in Health

Lent 38

This is the night it purportedly all went down. Betrayed with a kiss. Abandoned by his followers. Peter denouncing his connection to him three times.

I remember the first time I felt truly and deeply betrayed. As I’ve mentioned in several of these post my parents fought a lot while I was growing up. My dad would move out of the house for months on end. Without fail, I always saw things from my mother’s point of view. I always took her side.

Then when I was 15, during one of my father’s long absences, my mother kicked me out too. I was already double grounded for listening to rock and roll music while my mother was at church and I was supposed to be, well… grounded. Now the stakes had doubled. My mother was in her bedroom crying away the weekend about the problems between her and my dad. My brother and I were given extra household chores, on top of chores to keep us busy. I made my brother laugh. That was my crime. I was supposed to be grounded, not enjoying myself. And the house was supposed to be filled with sadness.

My brother and I were dusting the living room and I was singing songs from Beauty and the Beast with the candlesticks. At the sound of our laughter, my mother came raging out of her bedroom. She told me that I was in denial. I was in denial about the pain, sickness, and “sin” in our household. It was the only time I remember her ever really laying hands on me. When I was young she had spanked me with boards and belts across my ass. On this day she set me down in a chair plummeted my chest with her fists.

I had always taken her side! Now she was sending her demon seed to live with his devil of a father. Over the course of the next couple of months, I began to believe my dad’s account of things. He said that he had not been drinking again. He said that my mother was paranoid and imagining things. The pastor and the youth pastor of the church we attended reinforced his narrative. I was a believer! I jumped at what I felt like was the first real opportunity in my life to really connect with my dad. Over the course of a couple of months, we had some nice time in the sleazy little one-bedroom apartment that he rented for us.

Then one morning I woke up to the smell of alcohol permeating the apartment. I saw the back of a man’s head with his arm around a woman passed out on the floor. How Could my father do this? It was the only time in my life I ever thought seriously about harming another individual. I thought about it intensely. I imagined violently attacking the man on the floor.

Then a man that I recognized as my dad’s old drinking buddy Carl pulled the covers off and said “Good morning Wayney.” He told me my dad was in no condition to drive home and sent him to look after me for the night. My dad made it home later that night. We sat in darkness as he told me that everything my mother said about him was true, the drinking and worse things.

I came home from school a few days later to see my mother and my father holding hands in living room. In retrospect, I am glad they made up. I’m glad my dad finally stopped binge drinking for real. I am glad that my brother and my sister knew a somewhat happier adolescence than I did. And I am glad my dad was there during my mother’s final days. It is a really shitty way to learn to be a better man. But the experience of my mother’s death changed my already sobered up father into a better man. A good man.

But on that day, in the shitty little apartment, having defended them both, having found out their allegations against each other both proved to be somewhat true, my mom was a little neurotic, my dad was a drunk up until that very day, I had never felt more betrayed. None of my teen angst, or justified hurt and anger at their lack of apology for what they have put me through could keep them apart. Maybe it was true love after all. My mother never apologized until two or three years later. My Dad apologized for those difficult times when I was a young man in my twenties and took him out for breakfast.  I told him I love him, and confronted him about the hurt and the pain.

I have hinted at this story once before and public writing. I have shared it over beers with friends. It has made appearances in poetry committed to memory that I’ve never written down. But here it is as bare and open as possible. I think my parents really loved each other. But up until that day much of their loved had been toxic. I packed my bags and my dad and I drove home that weekend. There is a picture my mom took of us in the doorway on our return. It wasn’t Calvary. At the time it felt more like Gehenna. I might forever hold inside of me the tension of wishing things were different, and being glad they happened the way they did. But on that day all I felt was betrayal as I watched my father kiss my mother and a new chapter in our life began.