Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Self-Interview: Confessions (Part 2)

You referred to God as He, but you don't see God as male. What's the deal?

The nature of the reality of God presents us with a stiff challenge because we try to understand God as if He can be understood in the language and images of human experience. We also try to arrive at conclusions about God by rational means. No wonder it's so easy to say God doesn't exist. If we try to understand God rationally or if we perceive of God as being human-like, only more so, then I don't think that God does exist. I agree with the mystics who, in fact, proclaim, "God does not exist!" -- that is, does not exist except as God is not like us and cannot be understood in our usual ways of knowing.

So you don't see God as male?

No. Or female. Or as it. God is a word we use for a kind of being or a kind of reality beyond our language to denote. We can only approximate God through metaphors and by telling stories that constitute what God stands for.

But how about the concept of will. Will defines human character. We talk all the time about God's will. What do you think of God's will?

I don't think of God in terms of God asserting will. In fact, I don't use the phrase "God's will". I prefer to think of God as the way and to think of the paths God leads us down as God's way, not God's will. I try to understand the way of God in terms of what the Bible most consistently demonstrates as the Way of the Divine. Since Jesus described himself as the way, if we see Jesus as the embodiment of God's way, then the life and death and resurrection of Jesus tell us an awful lot about God's way.

Interesting. So do you obey the way?

I'd say we follow the way, seek to understand the way of God, and try to live that way. When I look to the stories and teachings of the Bible for what it is that the stories show us is repeatedly and consistently the way of God, it's heartening, clear, life-giving, and positive. The way of God leads us to live a life of service, deliverance, mercy, grace, love, and humbleness; Jesus, Paul, the apostles, as well as the prophets, historians, and poets of the Hebrew Bible all consistently portray the way of God as outward looking more than inward, of serving others over getting what we might want solely for ourselves.

So, do you see what you call the way of God as understandable only to Christians?

Not at all. Nor do I see the Judeo-Christian tradition as having an exclusive hold on Truth. It's why I think of and experience Supreme Being (not a or the Supreme Being) as the Way. Lao Tzu explores Divine Being as the Tao or The Way. Buddha thought of truth as the Way. I have learned a great deal from Taoism and Buddhism about the Way that the Judeo-Christian tradition gives little emphasis to. Working together, complementing each other, these great spiritual traditions, all primarily focused on illuminating and living in harmony with the Way, give us a much fuller sense of what kind of world we live in and what the Way leads us to do with our lives.

Wait a minute. Stop. You are saying that you have learned about God from practices like Buddhism and Taoism. Those traditions don't even speak of a God.

No, they don't use the word God, but they do point our attention to truths and ways of seeing and living that are greater than human existence cut off from these ways. Since I think of God as the Way, and not as a supreme human-like figure, I want to understand all I can about the Way. You look disgruntled. Let me try this. In church this past Sunday, our Curate, Rev. Bingham Powell, emphasized that when the light of the Christ Child came into the world, the light did not eliminate the darkness, but the light was in the midst of the darkness. Okay. Now I'll be talking, not Father Powell: Light and dark, in other words, are not separable realities. We do not live in either light or darkness. Both are always present. If light and dark are metaphors for good and evil, then good and evil, in this world, cannot be separated from each other. Both are always present, with the light (or good) sometimes more dominant, but sometimes the dark is. This is central to both the Taoist and Buddhist understanding of reality. It's a vision of non-duality. For much of my life, it has been taught to me that Christianity is a dualistic world view: good v. evil, light v dark, humans v nature, etc. Father Powell's reading of the beginning of the Gospel of John combined with the many times Jesus instructs us to see things non-dualistically (be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, for example..not one or the other), leads me to study the explicitly non-dualistic wisdom teachings as a way to understand God more fully. I'm certain that supreme being or supreme existence, that is, God, is a non-dualistic reality and that we compromise the Way of God by framing God's Way (or Will) in dualistic terms.

Aren't you going out to hear the Floydian Slips tonight?

Yes I am.

Then let's resume this interview later. Uh, before I let you go, though, you aren't going to tell me that you are going to experience the Divine tonight in Pink Floyd's music are you?

I just might. I've experienced the presence of the divine in Pink Floyd before, as well as in those bands that cover their music.

I was afraid you'd say that. Talk to you later.

Three Beautiful Things 12/30/08: "Milk", Clean Floors, Fat Cats and Underdogs

1. I enjoyed the entire experience of taking in the movie, "Milk" this evening. Prominent: the movie transported me, in memory, back to the days of Anita Bryant v. Dade County and to first becoming acquainted with members of Spokane's gay community, as well as Whitworth College's. It never crossed my mind to think of gay people the way Anita Bryant did and her rhetoric, in a wholly pre-cognitive way, made me sick. In my twenties, had I sided with those at Whitworth College or those in the church or those in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene and Kellogg who regarded gay people as abnormal or perverted, it would have had to have been a conscious and willful decision that would have pitted something unnatural in me against my natural inclinations to accept and understand others.

2. It only took a few minutes, but mopping the floors, cleaning up the dirt the dogs have brought in, felt really good as the floors were transformed from dull and dusty to bright and shiny.

3. Dean Susan Carkin has decided that MBayless and I should hang on to our team taught eight credit learning community course in American Working Class Literature and WR 122. Enrollment has been slow, we have lots of seats available, and we are going to see if we can attract ten or more students over the next week to give us a full class. There's nothing I enjoy working with more than the American Dream, the meaning of work, the history of labor and the working class in the USA, and the working class in the USA. MBayless might love this even more than I do! I look forward to getting this underway and I hope we'll attract more last minute enrollments.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/29/08: Juice, Home Alone, Gone Baby Gone

1. I buy a lot of fruit juice at Trader Joe's. I enjoy Gravenstein apple juice, McIntosh Apple juice, Cranberry Apple juice, Lemonade Black Tea, Orange Juice, Carrot Apple Juice, and a host of other juices, so today I went to Trader Joe's to restock the pantry.

2. MBayless spent Christmas alone and so did and I and when we had coffee today we talked about how much we enjoyed having the day to ourselves (although we both would have enjoyed being with family who live outside of town).

3. "Gone Baby Gone". Why is that whenever I see a movie set in working class parts of Boston, I feel like it's a Kellogg movie. In much of the movie "Gone Baby Gone", I felt like I knew the characters in the movie because of how similar they were with the people I grew up with in Kellogg.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/28/08: Worship, Old Friends, Keener

1. I am making an increasingly earnest effort to attend church service on Sunday morning and now the newness of having returned is dropping away. My spirit is becoming attuned to the order of worship again, so I'm experiencing the order of worship the way that works best for me. It's not fresh. It's not new each week. It's not spontaneous. The more I attend services, the more I can slide easily and fully into the regularity, familiarity, and predictable rhythms of the service and within the framework of this repetition, I meditate, pray, contemplate; I feel the wonders of the Trinity more deeply.

2. Since some of my friends from high school are friends of mine on Facebook, I decided to create a photo album of pictures from over the last four or five years that feature friends we went to high school with.

3. I watched the 40 Year-Old Virgin tonight. I recognize how artfully Steve Carell played the role of Andy, but I didn't think he was the heart of the movie. He may have been its center, but he wasn't its heart. Catherine Keener (Trish) was. In contrast to all of Andy's friends and in contrast to the other women he tried to date, Trish moved through her world with maturity, wisdom, intelligence, and without pretension. She's quick to love, quick to smile and laugh, and wise to the ways of the world. She's experienced a lot. Keener played this role perfectly. Until she appeared and slowly began to be more prominent in the movie, I was growing tired of this story, its characters, and the redundant humor. Keener jolted the movie alive for me and her characters' generosity, understanding, insight, and playfulness had me, by the end of the movie, ready to throw on a tie dye (if I had one) and sing and dance to the "Age of Aquarius".

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/27/08: Psychic Sister, Lovely Teller, Birthday Dinner

1. I've had my eye on Dennis Lehane's novel "The Given Way" ever since I heard it discussed on the radio, and miraculously, I opened my birthday gift from InlandEmpireGirl and she gave me this very book! We'd never discussed it. She can't remember why she chose it. I think she's psychic. :)

2. There's a teller at the credit union where I bank whom I always enjoy. When I walked in to make some deposits today, her station was the only one available and it was a sweet, serendipitous birthday gift.

3. I fixed myself birthday dinner instead of going out. It was simple: pot roast, mashed potatoes, and a fried mixture of corn, mushrooms, and bacon. I thought about having a glass of wine, but I knew I'd be done for the evening if I drank wine. So, I enjoyed Gravenstein apple juice instead, and it complemented the beef, bacon, and vegetables perfectly. I was so warmly sated by this meal that I changed my plans of going out to see "Milk" and relaxed at home, warmed by this simple meal.

Self-Interview: Confessions (Part 1)

Religion/spirituality is on my mind all the time. I've been a Christian my whole life and I've given a lot of time and energy over to trying to understand what I think and what I experience as a Christian, especially in relation to the other world's religions that I spend a lot of time thinking about and teaching, one way or another, in my courses. I've been wanting to get my thoughts down. I've decided to interview myself and replicate the conversations I have with myself continually. This is, for the time being, my confession of faith.

You were born into the church, going to Sunday school, singing in junior choir, attending youth group, and have continued to be a part of the church, sometimes inconsistently, all your life. Is Jesus Christ your Savior?

I honestly don't understand what those words mean and I have never, except when participating in a liturgy, uttered them voluntarily. In fact, I'm distrustful of those words. Too often I hear them uttered as a line drawn in the sand, as a litmus test. When I was hired at Whitworth College on a temporary basis, full-time, in 1982, I had an interview with the college's president, Bob Mounce. The first thing he asked was whether Jesus Christ was my Savior. I answered in the affirmative. I knew it was President Mounce's way of asking me if I was a Christian, and I respected his way of asking that. But I felt uneasy. When I hear the words, "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior", I hear hubris. Maybe it's the word "my" that I resist. It's one of those conditioned responses to Jesus Christ that I just can't say. I want to speak my own language for how I experience Jesus Christ, and proclaiming Him my personal Savior just doesn't work.

Well, then, do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

I don't think so. I don't understand this concept. I respect, and sometimes envy, the many Christians I know who talk about Jesus being their friend or who claim a personal relationship with Him, but very little in my experience with Jesus Christ is anything like the relationships I have with my friends. I talk about books with my friends. I tell dirty jokes and laugh at theirs. I play cards with my friends, go on drives around the Silver Valley, talk about how to teach writing and literature, have coffee, tell tall tales, go on boat rides, talk about raising kids, reminisce. I don't have any of these experiences with Jesus. I have never experienced what many say they do, that Jesus Christ is specifically, uniquely, particularly concerned with what happens in my particular life. I don't think of Jesus in terms of me. I think of Jesus in terms of us, of the corporate body of Christ. The metaphor of personal savior or of personal friend doesn't work for me. I enjoy listening to others talk about how it does work for them. But, it's not my experience.

Well, how about the resurrection? Do you believe in it?

I don't think of the resurrection in terms of belief. In fact, I don't experience Christianity in terms of belief. To see the world through Christian eyes, is to see life as defined by resurrection. I do not have to make a conscious act of assent when it comes to seeing resurrection as the basis of the reality we live in. I do not have to say I believe in resurrection, or the resurrection. Resurrection exists. I don't say I believe in the concrete slab in my backyard. It exists. I experience resurrection in the same way. It's so fundamental I don't really ever get to the question of whether I believe in it or not.

But you've evaded my question. How about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It's the center of the Christian understanding of truth. To be Christian is to be constantly aware of new life, that what seems to be dead can be brought back to life again. I see it happen all the time and I experience it all the time. Nature most vividly illustrates resurrection in its cycles of life and death and the return to life again. Within the Christian world view, grace is the expression of resurrection. We forgive one another. Friendships, relationships at work, passages in a marriage, and other relationships can break, even die. When broken friends or spouses or colleagues find a way to forgive or extend grace, these dead relationships can be revivified, resurrected. Each of us can also die within ourselves. Passages of self-destruction, living out of harmony with the best ways to treat others and ourselves can drain us of life. But we can, as individuals, be forgiven, revived, resurrected. It's a kind of magic, the magic of the reality we live in that is defined by resurrection.

Regarding the Easter story, it's definitely an historical truth in the way that resurrection never stops. The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ happens (although it is too often blocked by avarice, cruelty, lying, and other things we do that are not life giving). The story of Jesus Christ coming back to life from the dead is, to me, most important as a visible portrayal of an invisible truth in life. If someone came to me with undoctored videotaped documentary evidence that Jesus Christ emerged from his tomb alive, after being dead, I would be ecstatic. But, I don't think the fundamental truth of the resurrection changes because I think of the story as a profoundly enlightening fiction. The power of the resurrection, as we experience it personally and corporately or as we observe it in the natural world or in other aspects of life, continues whether Jesus walked out of that tomb literally or figuratively.

You know, there are those who would say that you aren't really a Christian. I mean listen to you. You don't experience Jesus Christ in a personal way, you experience the resurrection figuratively, and you can't bring yourself to say out loud that Jesus Christ is your Savior. Are you a Christian?

I practice Christianity. I am inspired and emboldened by worship from the Book of Common Prayer, by taking of the body and blood of Christ at the communion rail, and by my confession of sin. My Christian practice clarifies my thinking, informs my conscience, points me, delivers me from evil. I love the stories and poems of Scripture and am inspired by them to make my way in the world more sanely and wisely. I cherish the fellowship of the body of Christ. I've tried to give it all up, tried to pass off Christianity as rubbish, and I couldn't. I have experience God as a sparring partner and fought with God with all my might and I've also experienced God as the Great Shepherd, tirelessly in pursuit of me as a lost sheep. I experience what I understand to be the essential Christian experience. I am rather adamant, mostly within myself, however, not to let anyone define this experience for me and I will not hold my experience as a Christian up to anyone's litmus test. One person determining whether another is a real Christian or a true Christian or not is, to me, toxic sludge polluting the arteries of Christ's body. When I hear or read Christians engage in "he's in, she's out" talk, I shudder. I think an infinite God has infinite capacity to hold an infinite range of ways that people love and serve Him in His Bosom.

You just talked about God as a male. Do you believe God is a male being?

No. But, let's resume our conversation tomorrow and I'll tell you what I think about this question.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/26/08: Inertia, Diving Bell, Paradise Found

1. I have days like this once in a while. Maybe too often. I don't do anything. I don't leave the house. I sleep. I mess around on my computer. I just sort of shut down for a day. At my worse, these days have been symptomatic of plunging into depression. Not today. My mental temperature is good. I just shut it down for a day. The really good news is, so did the dogs. They have been quiet, restful, and as inert today as I have. We've really been in sync.

2. It did me a lot of good to draw parallels between the blindness I experienced many years ago and the coma I plunged into in 1999 when I contracted meningitis with the movie "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly". The piece I wrote is right underneath this one.

3. I had plenty of warm Diet Pepsi's in the cupboard, but I wanted a cold one, out of the can, not over ice. Know what I mean? It's a specific, non-consequential yearning. I looked in the fridge and I didn't see a can of pop. Then I fell to my knees and peered deep into the back of the bottom shelf and, joy to the world!, one cold can remained. Sometimes the pleasures of this world can be all contained in a 12 oz cold can of Diet Pepsi.

The Diving Bell

A couple of days ago I watched "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly". It tells the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby who survives a stroke and an accompanying coma at the age of 43, but is paralyzed, except for his left eye, suffers from locked-in syndrome, and cannot speak.

A therapist teaches him to communicate by blinking when he hears letters he wants for the words he forms. The movie tells the story of the book he wrote which has the same title as the movie.

The image I posted is the movie's central metaphor, as I see it. It's a person in a diving bell, immobile, suspended in the depths of a sea. The sea serves as a figure for consciousness, all of it, subconsciousness, unconsciousness, waking consciousness. First in his comatose condition and then in his paralyzed condition, Bauby is portrayed as in a diving bell, immersed in the sea of his perceptions, dreams, memories, fantasies, regrets, and observations.

His condition is ours. We, too, live in the constant companionship of the many dimensions of our consciousness, but speech and mobility give us ample opportunity to distract ourselves from all that occurs in our consciousness.

Bauby doesn't have this luxury of distraction and the movie portrays his relationship with the external world, but more so, the workings of his consciousness and his acute state of awakedness to all that he's inescapably submerged in the midst of. It's a profoundly internal movie.

I've twice been submerged in my consciousness this way, trapped in a diving bell.

The first time was when I was 19 and seriously injured by intense exposure to sulfur dioxide gas at the Bunker Hill Zinc Plant. That was thirty-five years ago.

The second time was more recent. In 1999, I contracted bacterial meningitis and was in a coma for about seventy-two hours. I'm never sure how long I was removed from the waking world, but seventy-two hours neither seems to me to exaggerate or understate how long I was comatose.

In both cases, absent my usual ways of having contact with the outside world, I dove inward; I'd say it was a reflexive action. I didn't choose it. I didn't say to myself, "Raymond. You're blind. Time to look at the scraps and rubble that have been your life for the last nineteen years." Nor did I say, "Oh, what a blessing! Meningitis is trying to kill me. It's not a problem. It's an opportunity! I'll dive into the depths of my being."

Both experiences were cinematic. When I was nineteen, the magic lantern of my consciousness projected images of emptiness, nothingness. Chasms. Deserts. Huge, often dark, starless skies. Looking back, it's as if my blindness led me to the deepest truths of both existentialism and the Tao (and other texts of mysticism). It was my first step in my life long experience with contemplating non-being, learning about the many ways I do not exist.


We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.

Lao Tzu
Tao de Ching

Much of what I am, I started to learn, is empty. I am an unfinished person and these chasms of emptiness are yawning with the promise that these spaces can have for learning, union with the divine, relationships, moments of ecstasy and a host of other experiences to be poured into them. This nothingness is the essence of life. Without this void, we are finished. There's nothing left to do.

It's terrifying as well as liberating to know that we are largely non-being, in formation, undone. The existentialists helped me, the next couple of years after my accident, understand the burden of freedom, the dread that responsibility for one's existence can rouse in us. It took the diving bell of blindness to help me begin to see and start to understand this nothingness.

The images the magic lantern of meningitis projected were much dreamier, much sharper, as if I were the most fully alive to the world of physical beauty I've ever been. I had moments of waking up and the nurse across the hall or the physican's aid, up in my face, loudly asking me if I knew where I was, all seemed alive in a kind of Eden, where no matter what a person's appearance, as judged in the waking world, in this world it was beautiful and perfect.

When I came out of my coma, this sensation of the world being an almost unbearably beautiful place persisted for a few days. One morning, I looked out my window and fog rested over Hendricks Park. The several stories of architectural obscenity, Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, on the University of Oregon campus, dominated the foreground, but in my post-coma diving bell, the building came alive with vivid memories that suddenly seized me, memories of the studying I'd done there, the friends I'd enjoyed, the classes I'd taught, the learning I had done. I nearly wept, so intense were the feelings of sublimity, triggered by November fog and institutional bricks.

The movie has had me thinking a lot the last couple of days about how we are always submerged in the sea of our consciousness as well as the collective human consciousness while confined in the diving bell of our own skin. Our degrees of being awake to the memories and images and teachings of what lies within us vary. I've never been as awake as I was when blind or during the first several days of having meningitis.

I don't long to be blind or ill again. But sometimes I long for what I saw and what I felt and I do wonder just what I was given a glimpse of during those times in the diving bell.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/25/08: Light in Darkness, Tumblers, Senoir Moment

1. Spending Christmas Day alone doesn't have to be sad, dreary, pathetic, lonely, or even undesirable. For all of its outward expressions of joy and gratitude and good cheer, at its core, Christmas is, for me, an introspective holiday. I had an introspective day, a day of reckoning, as I contemplated the many ways my life is dark with regret and uncertainty and bouts of depression,and I contemplated upon how in the midst of this darkness that's always with me, there is always light. The light of Jesus Christ, yes. But so many other sources of light and today when I talked to the Deke and to my mother and sisters and when I called Ed, who'd just hit a Mr. Cashman machine for 150 bucks in Worley and when I read how Diane brushed her cats and read and watched movies and when I saw Taryn's pictures of her Athol Christmas and when Snug and Charly and Maggie had long stretches of time when they weren't barking and all was still in the house and when I looked at the photographs of Silver Valley Girl and PKR and my mom and my nieces eating food from Africa for Christmas Eve and when I thought of the snow piled high at Martin Creek on the shores of Lake Roosevelt and how InlandEmpireGirl and JEJ were snowed in for Christmas and cozy, and when I listened to Karen Armstrong elaborate on her thoughts about religion in the world in an interview with Bob Edwards, well, the light of dogs and cats and snow and food and dominoes and family pushed the darkness away a bit and with few visible signs of Christmas to be found in my house, I was filled with the spirit of Christmas.

2. Thanks to Adrienne, I can drink ice packed Diet Pepsi in tumblers featuring images of an English Springer Spaniel. I'll christen one of these tumbler tomorrow. (It's too bad I don't drink much anymore. The tumblers are the perfect size and dimension for a gin and tonic.)

3. Without being asked my age, the woman who took my money at the Three Rivers Casino buffet gave me the senior discount. I'm still two days away from turning fifty-five, the age when a person becomes a senior citizen at the casino, but today I must have looked every bit the age I'm about to turn.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/24/08: Merry Christmas, Stir Fry, Coma

1. The scrawny, bored, preoccupied checker at 7-11 caught a twinkle in my eye and had the guts in Eugene, Oregon to wish me Merry Christmas. And mean it. My knees shook.

2. Ever rummage around in the icebox, half-assedly trying to figure out something to eat, and then you remember you were smart at the store one day, but you'd forgotten? I'd forgotten all about these precut stir fry vegetables I bought late last week at Trader Joe's and suddenly I launched into a most pleasing midafternoon lunch of stir fried vegetables and fried rice.

3. What am I doing on Christmas Eve watching a movie about a man in a coma dictating a book of memoirs before he died? It's just the way I roll. I found "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" absorbing, gorgeously filmed, and oddly fitting for Christmas Eve: it's about a man discovering light in his dark world.

Three Beautiful Things 12/23/08: Maria Bello, Revenge, Trox Meal

1. I've written about this before, but I love watching women over about the age of thirty-five in movies. I've listed my favorites before (Patricia Clarkson, Joan Allen, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Catherine Keener, etc.) and today, watching Maria Bello in "The Cooler", I enjoyed her fierceness, tenderness, sensuality, wariness, surrender, playfulness, intelligence -- not just her character's -- hers, Maria Bello's. She was the center of the movie for me.

2. In "The Cooler", Maria Bello helps William H. Macy avenge the noisy sex guy in the next door motel room. It's as fresh, frisky, and frolicsome a bit of prankish mischief as I've ever seen. Anyone, anyone who says this movie just replays old cliches of all the Vegas down on your luck movies must have had to take a pee and missed this scene. It's among a half a dozen or so set pieces in "The Cooler" that astonished me. This one was the best, though.

3. I hadn't sat down and shot the breeze over dinner with Randy and Marla Trox for about thirty-five years -- or so it seemed -- and we had a wonderful time. Marla prepared a smashing stir fry, Randy popped open a refreshing Merlot (he told me it had peppery subterranean flourishes or something...I just thought it was good), and we talked over old times and quite a few new ones.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/22/08: Scrooge, Eric, Randy

1. Finished A Christmas Carol this morning and enjoyed everything about it, but especially Dickens' style and craft. Scroll down to the previous post and you can read my reflections.

2. Thanks to Diane, Eric, KHS Class of '71, popped into my life today via Facebook. It was a lot of fun going back and forth, livin' in the past, and in the present, too.

3. Looks like Randy and I and some of his friends will be going to hear the Floydian Slips at the McDonald Theater New Year's Eve. I bought a ticket quite a while ago and had planned on going solo and this is a welcome turn in my plans.

Sibling Assignment #86: I Am Light as a Feather

Silver Valley Girl gave us our newest sibling assignment:

Choose a book or story with a Christmas theme, and share about why it is special to you, and how it helped or helps make your Christmas more meaningful.
InlandEmpireGirl wrote about teaching the lessons of Scrooge to her students, here, and Silver Valley Girl writes about Christmas in her family in contrast to what the Grinch experiences, here.

I read this prompt and was stuck. I don't think I've read very many books or stories with a Christmas theme and, aside from the biblical accounts of the Christmas story, couldn't think of one that has or does help me out at Christmas.

So, I decided to do something about it. I've seen in the neighborhood of 20,000 versions of "A Christmas Carol" on television, ranging from Mr. Magoo to George C. Scott's renditions.

But, I'd never read Dickens' tale.

This was on my mind last week. One of the public radio programs on XM Satellite Radio featured an author who has just written about "A Christmas Carol" and I uncommitedly thought to myself that this Christmas season would be a good time to read it.

Yesterday, I made the commitment. I purchased a copy. I finished reading it this morning.

Dickens astounds me. What I enjoy the most is that he creates a concrete and particularized world to set his stories in and the world of "A Christmas Carol" is as important as its characters and is crucial to the way Dickens explores Ebenezer Scrooge's spirit, and the larger human spirit as well.

I need to back up a step or two. In my teaching and reading life, the works that have the most profound impact on me are comedies. Traditionally, as a literary genre, comedy encompasses the spirit of springtime. Comedies explore stories that begin in some kind of brokenness or separation, or even death, and explore revival, renewal, and/or resurrection. They often are stories about separation from home and the return to home again. Comedies tend to confirm the strength of the collective rather than the individual human experience.

I ground my particular way of understanding and enjoying comedy in the idea of vitality. Characters in comedies are most often dispirited as the story opens, often lost, and, the as the comedy unfolds, the character(s), with the help of others, are awakened to the sources of vitality in human life and, as these powers of vitality take hold, the renewal, revival, resurrection, or homecoming occurs. Comedies often climax in marriage, which makes perfect sense, because, traditionally, procreation follows marriage. Comedy, therefore, explores the continuation of human life, what sustains us, what keeps human life eternal. It explores the circles and cycles of life. Tragedy, on the other hand, focuses on death and magnifies the finite aspects of human life.

Personally, my study of comedy has helped me, more than anything else, develop my moral sense. I think the central moral question is whether the things we do bring vitality to our lives. The vitality test works much better for me than a law- or rule-bound measure of morality. My favorite comedies are ones where characters commit what, if looked at legalistically, are moral violations, but turn out to be life giving actions, turn out to invigorate the characters, and turn to be sources of new life. In the world of comedy, narrow, legalistic, rule-bound characters fare terribly. Comedy is about flexibility and those characters who are bound to narrow and predetermined moral codes either have to be transformed or else they don't survive the comedy's resolution. The hard of heart are anti-comic, but those whose hearts are or become soft, receptive, accepting, and pliant thrive in world of comedy.

You are probably familiar with the story of Scrooge and can see where I'm going.

Dickens creates in "A Christmas Carol" a world in desperate need of redemption. It opens with death: "Marley was dead, to begin with." The fog is thick. It's dark. It's cold. Scrooge will barely heat his office or his home and the impoverished Cratchit family suffers the cold at the hands of Scrooge's miserliness. Nearly every physical detail of the first four fifths of Dickens' story portrays the misery that is spawned by Scrooge's flinty self-centered speck of a soul.

Scrooge's "Bah! Humbug!" epitomizes his inward winter and we come to see that the dark, thick fogged, cold world Dickens so meticulously creates is an exteral picture of Scrooge's inward condition.

No doubt you really see where I'm going now. No doubt you've already said to yourself something like, "Well, if what Raymond is writing about comedy is true, compassion must be among the chief virtues of comedy."

You are so right.

Compassion requires sharing the suffering of another. Marley's ghost and his three servant ghosts take a gamble. They gamble that at his core, Scrooge is a good man. (Comedy tends to see humans as less like worms and more like angels.) They gamble that if they put Scrooge in the presence of suffering, and of joy, but mostly of suffering, his cold heart will begin to thaw, his hard soul will soften.

They are right. Ebenezer Scrooge slowly begins to witness and feel the the deprivation he has caused and the deprivation that dominates his very being. Even though deprivation is a form of emptiness, we humans experience it as weight. The weight of deprivation has shrunken, stooped, and deeply wrinkled Scrooge. His soul, created to be flexible, has hardened, grown heavy, unfeeling, largely because his life has been devoted, with singleness of mind, to Gain.

Giving, sharing, opening oneself and one's possessions and money to others vitalizes us. Scrooge has hoarded, pinched, and closed himself off and the vitality of his youth has withered away.

By the time the Ghost of Yet to Come unveils to Scrooge that his death will be marked by jokes, indifference, and happiness, Scrooge comes to fully realize that his devotion to gain has cut him off from fellowship and mirth, the twin engines of vitality.

He reforms.

My favorite passage of his reformation comes when morning, the time of renewal, dawns and Scrooge is a chaos of relief, joy, and lightness. He is bewildered by his transformation: "'I don't know what to do!'"cried Scrooge. . ."I am light as a feather, I am happy as an angel, I am merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man." Dionysus, the Greek god of revelry and intoxication is the God of comedy and Scrooge revels in the Dionysian moment of mirthful madness and vitality.

Scrooge runs to the window and discovers, "No fog. No mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; golden sunlight; heavenly sky: sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!" It's wondrous. To leave the deprivation of isolation and join in the fellowship of others, to be liberated from the draining ambitioins of gain is wondrous. It fills Scrooge with vitality.

How, then, does the story of Ebenezer Scrooge help make Christmas more meaningful?

I love Christmas as a secular and pagan time of celebration as well as a Christian one. For me, as a Christian, the two overlap marvelously, but I'll separate them for a moment.

Secular Christmas celebrations, ideally, are all about vitality. Families gather. We generously give gifts to one another. Wondrous displays of lighted Christmas trees and houses ablaze with lights push back against the darkness of the winter season. Bells ring, wine and champagne and beer and booze flow freely. Friends embrace one another. We dance. We sing. We feast. We put aside the concerns of gain and those things that shrink us and we let it rip. Christmas is a time to open our homes, visit others, have some cheer, and freely indulge the vitality of mirth and merrymaking. It can transform us.

For me, as a Christian, the Christ child is born into a dark world and becomes its light and his birth promises a way of living that invigorates the soul and the heart. What gives us more vitality than forgiveness, doing unto others as we would have do unto us, love, service, peace, and all the other virtues Jesus Christ comes to embody?

The light of Christ is the opposite of dark, but it also promises the opposite of weight and burden. Living the promise of the Christ child, we can give, be compassionate, serve, forgive, be joyful, and, in chorus with Scrooge, proclaim, "I am light as a feather."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/21/08: Squirrel Dude, Still, Back in Touch

1. Snug's trainer recommended that Snug exercise more ingenuity and mental exertion when he eats his meals and suggested that feed Snug with Squirrel Dude. I introduced Snug to Squirrel Dude today and it appears that Squirrel Dude abides. Snug figured out how to shake the kibble out of the purple rubber rodent, work for it a bit, and have his dinner.

2. My experience in church worship tends pretty strongly toward the quiet and the mystical more than toward the joyful and the animated or toward the cerebrally theological. My most gratifying worship experience is stillness. I felt still this morning at the 11:00 Eucharist and again at the Lessons and Carols service at St. Mary's Episcopal Church. I wasn't always quiet, though. We sang a lovely series of Advent hymns and belting them gave me a satisfying spiritual and nostalgic release.

3. Diane and I graduated from Kellogg High School in 1972 and this evening she contacted me through Facebook. What a lovely surprise! I last saw Diane at a reunion either 11 or 16 years ago and I look forward to being back in touch and finding out what's been going on.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/20/08: The Friendly Snowy Skies, Dean Dean in Mexico, Sweet Treats

1. Deke and Patrick arrived safely in New York tonight after a day of delays, jet planes being de-iced, and last minute schedule changes. I'm sure they are really tired, but they have ten wonderful days ahead of them with Adrienne, Nathan, Molly, and Hiram.

2. Dean Dean Bennett tracked me down on Facebook today and we had a great instant message chat, he lounging with his wife over booze and cribbage and me here in desultory Eugene, wondering what new shade of gray the next turn of the clock would bring.

3. A Christmas package arrived today from Mom and another from InlandEmpireGirl. The gifts wrapped or dropped in gift bags are wonderful, but what I love is the nuts and bolts from Mom and the sweet breads and jams from InlandEmpireGirl. I'll have to see how some of that jam tastes with Marmite and chunky peanut butter on an English muffin with a stout cup of tea.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Three Beautiful Things: 12/19/08: Merry Amaryllis, About Facebook, Keeping Snug's Mind Active

1. Kelly was pushing a broom pretty slowly at Trader Joe's and I was happy business was slow because she had time to talk with me and then she decided to make me a Trader Joe's happy customer and gave me an amaryllis as a gift. I hope I can keep it alive.

2. I joined Facebook and have a lot of friends and I find the whole enterprise pretty fun.

3. The written materials in support of our dog training session with Snug and Maggie arrived via email today and I'm getting a better idea of how to alleviate the stressfulness Snug must be feeling.

Sibling Assignment #85: Awake

For Sibling Assignment #85, I assigned me and my sisters a poem to read and reflect upon. Here's the prompt:

Over the last month, I have been studying ancient and medieval Asian poetry with my students. In particular, the Japanese Kokinshu poems have been on my mind. They are poems of brevity, sometimes seasonal. They anticipate the haiku. Robert Bly often wrote poems in this style. Since we are all getting hit by a winter storm, I'd like us to each write a reflection on this winter poem of Bly's:

Watering the Horse

How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
The white flake of snow
That has just fallen in the horse's mane!

--Robert Bly

InlandEmpireGirl's reflection is here and Silver Valley Girl's is here.

My love and enjoyment of poetry has increased significantly as I have surrendered to and taken delight in the idea that poems create strangeness, not familiarity. I should have realized this a long time ago. After all, metaphors function to jar us out of our familiar ways of seeing things. In a metaphor, an object and something the object isn't are joined into union that works. A rose isn't love or friendship or grief. It's a delicate petaled, fragrant flower, but when looked at strangely, for what it's not, the rose comes to stand for love or friendship or grief.

If poems make the familiar strange, how fitting that Bly's poem should open with the words "How strange".

And what's strange?

The speaker feels the strangeness that he (or she) thought to give up all ambition. To think of giving up all ambition! In the United States of America! In our forward moving, striving, moving up the ladder culture! How very strange! Some might say it's subversive.

What moved the poem's speaker to think of giving up all ambition?

The rest of the poem tells. These three lines embody a moment. Just a moment. White snow falls in the horse's mane. That moment moved the speaker to think of giving up all ambition.


In this moment, the poem's speaker is fully awake. He entered fully into this one moment, "with such clear eyes." With clear eyes he sees this moment and it contains the whole world. The human, animal, and natural merge into a union. The beauty of this single flake of snow on the horse fully arrests the speaker's attention. Nothing else matters. All thoughts of ambition melt. There is only now.

And, then, as quickly, the moment is gone. Just like the poem. Just like the flake's melting. The poem's brevity replicates the brevity of this moment. Bly asks us to zero in on how the speaker sees this moment clearly. Concerns for the future vanish. The speaker is fully engaged with the only reality he can know: the present moment.

Ambition blinds one to the present. Ambition is focused on the future that isn't there at the expense of the present which is.

It's ironic, then, that the speaker would feel strange that he thinks of giving up all ambition. He should feel strange that he ever considered ambition in the first place.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Sibling Assignment #84: Silver King Silver Bells

InlandEmpireGirl decided to get us siblings thinking about Christmas songs and gave us this assignment:
When we hear certain songs they take us back to a time and place in our past and stir up memories. Pick a Christmas song and reflect on the time and place it takes you.
InlandEmpireGirl recalls "White Christmas, here and Silver Valley Girl remembers "A Christmas Song" here.

If someone had had a documentary film camera at the Silver King gymnasium in December, 1960, I don't know if the celluloid footage would be very much like the movie, shot that night, that has played in my mind over the last forty years.

I know a few things. About a year and a half I wrote, here, about playing Santa Claus in the 1960 pageant. I know our family ate at the Sunshine Inn before the pageant. I know that we all got paper bags with hard candy. I know the Christmas program was in the Silver King Elementary School gymnasium. I know Ron Jacobs and I drove up to Silver King this past September and the school's been razed and removed.

But, what I'm writing next might have never happened in the concrete world.

But, in my emotional memory, it happened.

After our part of the program, we first graders sat in the audience on the gym floor and watched the other grades perform.

I remember the third graders singing "Silver Bells". I fell into a private rapture. It might have been my first ever experience with the power of beauty. When the third graders sang the words "Silver Bells", the girls answered "Silver Bells" with the wordless response that is so familiar.

I heard the girls sing this response and, as I my whole body was suddenly overwhelmed with joy and my six year old insides quivered, then shook. I didn't cry, but I felt like crying. I was stifling the tears of being carried away by what I experienced as the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard.

I felt something like pure love. I had my first experience with the way girls made me feel different. I felt attracted to the third grade girls, not because of what they looked like, but because "Silver Bells" sounded so beautiful. I remember seeing beauty in all their faces.

Sibling Assignment #83: Glimpses of Thanksgiving

Tons of essays read, graded, commented on returned. Final grades computed. Letter of recommendation written. Electronic file organization project underway. Dog training session #1 with Snug and Maggie with the Deke's participation under out belt.

Whew. It's time to blog. I've avoided my blog. I have a lot to reflect upon and I didn't want to dive back into the deep end of Kellogg Bloggin with these other responsibilities pressing. I got them done. It's time to blog.

I know, Thanksgiving 2008 is old news. But, hey, this isn't a daily newspaper. It's a timeless blog and I hope you'll accept my invitation to go back to Thanksgiving Day and join in my family's celebration.

I hadn't been with my family for Thanksgiving since 1991. I shivered with excitement all Thanksgiving week to be with Mom and InlandEmpireGirl and Silver Valley Girl and the rest of our family.

For Sibling Assignment #82, Silver Valley Girl urged each of us to depict our Thanksgiving get together through each of our own eyes. InlandEmpireGirl's depiction is here and you'll find Silver Valley Girl's here.

On Thanksgiving Eve, travelling from Eugene to Spokane, I listened to the elderly Bob Dylan sing songs of loss as recorded on his latest album, Tell Tale Signs. Last night I surrendered again to Dylan's old, tired, ragged voice rasping these sad songs and I thought of waiting beneath the skybridge at the Spokane International Airport for the Kellogg contingent to pick me up:

I think I first saw Silver Valley Girl's smile with Sadie perched behind her shoulder when the Envoy passed downtown Spokane's Lincoln Street exit and her smile radiated still when the Envoy arrived at the skybridge.

We got settled in on the shores of Lake Roosevelt at InlandEmpireGirl's and it before long the laptops were out:

And Mother Mary held court:

Making sure her children behaved themselves:

All was not perfect. PKR was feeling a little under the weather and kept putting his magic healing mug to his face:

SilverValleyGirl would have you think she's all smiles and good cheer, but on Thanksgiving Day, she decided to warn us that she just might be Hell on Wheels:

Surely, the wine and sparkling cider/dessert table would sweeten her mood:

How could she be crabby sitting over InlandEmpireGirl lovely plates of salad?

And wouldn't InlandEmpireGirl's preparation of JBelle's Pacific Northwest Cranberry Chutney sweeten even the sourest crabby sister?

Someone got into the desserts:

Mom's sure happy:

And how about crabby Silver Valley Girl? Did we crack her cranky shell?

I think we did!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

He Just Can't Get It Going

In his face and build, but not in his height, Adam Morrison reminds me of the kids I played basketball against at John Rogers High, or Wallace, Kootenai, St. Maries, Lakeland, or playing ball at the Y.

For this reason, I've always wanted Morrison to be a good NBA player, but it's not happening.

Tonight is a case in point. The Bobcats mounted a big comeback that fell short tonight against the Pistons, but Morrison didn't contribute much. In his nineteen minutes of play he missed three field goal attempts, missed twice from the three point line, and didn't go to the free throw line. He was scoreless and without obvious impact.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Three Beautiful Things 12/10/08: Appreciation, Stirring Accounts, Denali

1. Words of sincere appreciation from WR 121 students as they finish their final retrospective essays and go back into the world to begin their holiday break.

2. Reading in these final essays the many stirring ways my students have come to more fully understand the experiences of loss, reconciliation, and survival in the books we read and, more important, in their day to day lives.

3. Sitting down with Cheri, the new Denali editor, and discussing what help I can and cannot give Cheri as the literary adviser for LCC's student literary and art magazine.


I suppose if I were mentally stronger, I would write my way out of being overloaded.

I haven't done that. Instead, I've relished being overloaded, relished the intensity and deep satisfaction I've experienced since I last posted on this blog on November 17th. I've been overwhelmed by beauty, great companionship, and spiritual invigoration.

Two weeks ago on November 19th I stepped out of the Spokane International Airport and into the fold of my family. It dizzied me. Temporarily free of my responsibilities in Eugene, I entered the euphoria of laughs, stories, warmth, food, acceptance, wise-cracking, loyalty, faithfulness, and relaxation my family so generously gives me and each other.

The older I grow, the more deeply secure I feel with my sisters and mother. I long for their company, long for the history and familiarity and caring I experience when we are together. Home and family shelters me from the demands and tensions in other parts of my life. InlandEmpireGirl has devoted herself to creating a home alive with gardens, dogs, cats, wood-burning warmth, and comforting food. It's a sanctuary. I hadn't been with my family on Thanksgiving Day for about eighteen years and the slightly crowded and laughter/story-telling/wise-cracking noisiness of being together deeply satisfied me, roused my ecstasy.

Thanksgiving ended and on Friday PKR and Silver Valley Girl drove me to Chewelah to meet Ed so I could begin my annual Thanksgiving weekend get together with my life-long friends from Kellogg. I left one family and entered into my second family and adjoining rooms at the Ameritel Inn became my second santuary, my other home.

It's so simple. Poker. Basketball and football games on television. Chips, peanuts, pop, beer, whiskey, salami, cracked wheat bread, cheese, wisecracks. Stories. The casino. Bowling. Joni and Carol joining in. Comfortable, easy, relaxing friendship, free of self-consciousness, just being Kellogg boys and relishing time away from jobs and family and work responsibilities. I long for this time with my friends. I can be most like the person I've been all my life, not the person I started to be when I began my academic life, not the person I started to be when I started to live in Eugene, Oregon, not the person I started to be when I left Idaho and Inland Empire. I get to be the most fully a guy from Kellogg I ever can be and it satisfies me deeply.

I think I'll end it there.

Travelling home for Thanksgiving and travelling home to spend a couple of full days with my life-long friends overwhelmed me, overloaded me with a bliss I cannot and do not experience any where else.