Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Turning Points: All In

To make sense of this, you need to first read part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Everything fell apart.

My prayer for humility may have been impromptu, undignified, and not internally consistent, but it was plenty efficacious. Within weeks, I lost my apartment and job. By the end of the summer, having nothing left to keep me in Denver, I pointed my van/home at San Francisco, where I busked for my dinner. Just as I landed a day job selling computer business systems and connected with someone about to record an album, my musical instruments were stolen. The next day, parked in an entirely different location after being repaired, my van was broken into and vandalized by frustrated thieves (there being nothing of value left to steal). Out of options I started the long drive back to my parents home, whereupon my van caught on fire. I arrived at my parents home with not much other than the shirt on my back.

That's the general chronology, anyway. But it isn't the story. It is, however, easier to put into words than the story. The real events happened quietly, mostly alone in the back of an old van. That's where I performed a moral vivisection on the monster in the mirror, digging out and staring down every twisted motive I might find. That's where I practiced what felt at the time like two disparate paths: one the deity-independent discipline of the mind exercises, the other quasi-Christian practices minus the mythology and a deity best described as "to whom it may concern (no one, I suspect)". At times it was deeply contradictory, but that no longer mattered. I was on a mission. The monster must be destroyed, by any means necessary -- or available. Even when, as it often did, it meant running into Dark Thing, with all the consequences that implied.

Then, one rainy night in the back of a van, as I prayed, the thought entered my mind that what I needed to do was call up Dark Thing (yes, I could bring it to me at will, though until that moment of that night it certainly was not what I willed) and send it away. And so I did. It came, but for the first time was not terrifying or disruptive to my thought. I ordered it away. And it left.

It never came back.

It had been standing in front of something. It was light, and sparkled, and in a continuation of my seven year old's nomenclature, I called it "Light Thing". Light Thing was not threatening. In fact, it had a peaceful presence. Given its association with Dark Thing, though, I intended to keep it at a respectful distance. In that direction had been something worse than death, and there was no evidence it wasn't still there.

With Dark Thing gone, vivisecting the monster was no longer agony. It was exhilarating, even as the externals of my life filled up with hunger, cold, and increasing danger. When I think of the year and a half which followed, I don't think first of the times I fainted from hunger. I think of the times I spent quietly unwinding the threads of the monster, and watching a new pattern come into focus, the outlines of a pattern spiraling towards somewhere, something, unknown.

Virtually everywhere I looked I saw this pattern taking shape and converging at some distant point. I found it materializing in my ponderings on ethics, but I also found it in mathematics and music theory. I even found it in a place I hardly expected I'd look: astrology.

Someone who had it with the monthly astrology column in the city feminist paper asked if I would submit an article debunking astrology to the paper. Since I needed to know something about astrology to debunk it, I took out a stack of library books and started reading.

What I found was (unsurprisingly) astrology wasn't a science, but neither was it gibberish. It was a language, rooted in mythological symbolism, that sought to describe something of the transcendent. It was a closer cousin to Church Slavonic, or Sanskrit, or the lingua ignota of Hildegard, than it was to astronomy.

Because my assessment of astrology might be seen (incorrectly) as a blanket endorsement, I'm going to stop the narration here and try to explain a little more about what I think of astrology. If astrology were a medicine it would be classified as an adjunctive-- unhelpful for most people, and generally unnecessary, but for a few patients, something that will make their other treatments more effective.

Astrology is nearly useless, and often counterproductive, when consumed as a product one purchases or otherwise obtains from astrologers. It is most valuable when studied as a discipline, it being one of many tools used from ancient times to help focus the mind upon the patterns of life. It will not tell you your future, but its misuse can get you tangled up in the mental knot of fortune telling. Fortune telling fails because the future is actively created by the entity whose future is being "predicted". It's like staring at the image in a mirror and trying to discern from it when the "image" is going to move. One may occasionally get something that can pass for a successful prediction, but mostly, one sits waiting, in futility, for something to "happen", all the while missing every opportunity to actually do something.

I did a few chart readings for people when I first studied astrology, but I have not done any in a very long time, because self-passivity is not the direction I should be encouraging, even slightly, anyone to go in. Most people, most of the time, would be better off if they stayed away from astrology. It's worth noting that the natal chart reading is a modern innovation, and not a part of traditional astrology.

My "endorsement" of astrology is therefore a highly qualified one, if it is any endorsement at all.

Astrology appealed to the same pattern recognition skills I had used as a young teenager to win chess tournaments. And so I studied, with some conscious irony, in the basement, next to the "This Is What We Think Of You" monument -- a giant glass trophy case, which would not have been out of place outside a coach's office at a major university, which contained every Pee Wee League baseball participation trophy and other barely-award ephemera from my two largely unathletic brothers. It was surrounded by the unprotected fragments, scattered across the basement, of what was left of the chess set and table I had won at the Illinois State Women's Chess Championship when I tied for first place while being the only teen, playing against adults. When I left for college my parents gave it and my other trophies to the youngest kids as toys. That is, except for the team appreciation award I got from the high school, where I lettered twice in chess. That board was taken and used by my father as a surface for cutting and soldering stained glass.

Too many people are alive who don't deserve to he hurt in a public rehashing of events for me to describe my relationship with my family in depth. It's enough to say that it wasn't good. I kept a surreptitious tally that confirmed that they were doing their level best to keep me unemployed while berating me, multiple times a day, for not having a job. I couldn't get a job and get out of their house; I had to get out of their house to get a job.

Helping my winter houseguests

It's early winter, climatologically speaking, in Vermont, which means I've been dealing with the stragglers from the autumn ladybug invasion. It's too cold for them to be safely relocated outside (they don't, after all, really want to be inside our dry, nearly foodless, excessively warm homes. They're just not very bright, and don't get it that burrowing deeper in some cases will get you worse, not better, winter digs). So, it's been the usual ladybug death watch here, watching them grow weaker and more desperate, and sweeping up the carcasses....

Until I realized it didn't have to be this way. Ladybugs are sold by the thousands to gardeners every year. That meant that someone, somewhere, was breeding these things. Which meant that somewhere out there, in the great body of information called the Internet, was information on how to care for ladybugs. And so I Googled.

What I learned was this: the species most often found in homes is the Asian lady beetle. Some find it a nuisance and consider it an invasive species. But since both I and my parrot are "invasive species" (this doesn't look like the horn of Africa, now does it?), we don't hold that against our mostly benign visitors. They are a very long lived species of ladybug, and can live for 2-3 years, occasionally reaching the ripe old age of 6.

Our homes kill them because they dry out -- they need a moist environment, and as everyone knows our homes in the winter are brutally dry. They prefer a good aphid, but they are omnivores and, in captivity, will thrive on a diet of raisins soaked in water till they are plump, then drained and chopped. Water should be provided in the form of a damp paper towel or cotton ball or a similar damp object, never as an open container of water, because our bug guests are not rocket scientists, and will drown.

Right now I have gathered 11 survivors in an old Lafeber's Nutriberry bird treat container. Peri had graciously agreed to empty the last of it for our guests, difficult a sacrifice as that was for my little glutton and food tosser ;) I ventilated the container with the sharp end of a compass, added a wet paper towel, and then added a helping of apparently delicious damp raisin (they were all over the raisin the moment I added it).

Most of my guests arrived in bad shape. For one, it was too late. The rest perked up after getting moisture and a bite to eat. I've noticed a pattern as I've added newcomers to my beetle bed and breakfast: after the initial shock, they go to the wet paper towel and bury their faces in it for a long, hydrating drink. Then, they head for the raisins, and replenish what must be an almost depleted fat reserve. And finally, the smaller males, now full of energy, chase the larger females around the container a few times before successfully mounting them and doing what comes naturally. Maslow would be proud.

I've also noticed that once I amassed a critical mass of bugs, the others still loose and lost in the house started seeking them out. One of my most recent additions I found running around the outside edge of the lid, apparently trying to figure out how all those members of her own species got in there. I of course opened the lid and demonstrated how it happens to my new guest.

I have not added, or even seen, a live ladybug wandering about the house for the last two days. In all probability I've gotten the last of them. Once they're all looking fit, I have a decision to make: refrigerate, or not? Normally, these bugs would go dormant during the winter, and successful dormancy would prolong their lives. But refrigerating these bugs is a tricky thing, given their tendency to dry out and that our refrigerators are designed to keep things stored in them dry. I've seen intelligent arguments both in favor of refrigeration and for leaving well enough alone.

So what does any of the above have to do with Hard Core Spirituality? We're obligated to care for each other -- even the lost little ones that others call "pests". This obligation is not theoretical, nor abstract, nor merely symbolic, and it is nontransferable (though efficiencies from division of labor still apply, and being honestly unable to help grants dispensation).

My houseguests are a reminder that a bite of wet raisin is often very much better than an uplifting lecture about how Spirit provides or a condescending lecture on how to responsibly overwinter in Vermont (trite sayings about teaching others to fish notwithstanding). If my "pests" survive, they will be a welcome gift to the community garden here in the spring. If they don't, they will at least have had a few more days of moisture and sweetness and running about mounting each other, and thus will have contributed a bug's worth of joy to a dessicated world thirsty for happiness.

What about 11 bugs in a bird treat tub isn't about Hard Core Spirituality?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Turning Points: Running

To understand this you'll probably want to read the first installment and the second installment before you read this one.

I started running with a baby step, by moving to Denver.

I had thought  the move from a college town to a large city would give me some anonymity. I was wrong. How tiny those 30 miles were became clear when I went to a bookstore the day after I moved in. I found on the store bulletin board the hideous Rocky Mountain News article, plus two different notes, from two different bands looking for a bassist, asking if anyone knew how to contact me. The clerk recognized me and was excited that I had moved to the city. If anonymity was what I wanted, I was going to have to try a lot harder.

What Denver did give me in the months I was there was nothing I expected to get, and that was a very different kind of circle of friends. I fell in with a group of women who were, largely, Christians.

It wasn't the first time I found myself in a circle that was largely composed of Christians. In fact, I played bass and occasionally percussion in a Christian folk band in high school. I could play bass, and they tolerated my professed atheism. They had regular paying gigs, and I more than tolerated the regular income. Later, I had a number of anomalous friendships with Christians, and sometimes spent time around their Christian friends. Their Christianity looked like a Greco-Roman mystery cult with a Jewish twist, and I wasn't interested in fairy tales.

Maybe it was simply that I had become romantically involved with one of the women (I'm a lesbian, and yes, these were lesbian Christians. They exist, you know.) But what I saw impressed me. Not enough to become Christian. The story of Christianity, the stuff Christians are required to believe as true, still looks to me like a Greco-Roman mystery cult, no matter how much easier it would be for me to find a way to believe the unbelievable. What impressed me was that they sincerely sought to know their God which, when stripped of the fairy tales, amounted to seeking with their whole hearts the same sort of transcendent Truth that I knew was there to be sought.

I had spent a decade trying to bury the nature of what happened that night at the window under fervent declarations of atheism. But I knew. I couldn't not know. I wasn't exactly a believer in God. God as an individual personality made as little sense to me as Mediterranean mythology with a Jew attached. But neither was I an atheist in any meaningful sense of the word.

In fact my own profession of atheism more closely resembled the stories I saw Christians tell themselves to tame, rationalize, and ultimately, diminish, transcendent, ineffable Truth, the presence of which was so undeniable, so intimate, that one could almost taste it if only one were to  pause for a moment to do so. Atheism was my own not quite credible personal mythology that I used to tame and manage and diminish the present Presence. And so I ceased professing to be an atheist and, in emulation of my friends, became a seeker.

My friends had known "who I was" when they met me. Perhaps it was some illusion surrounding that, or perhaps it was the beginnings of the effect which they were having in me. But they had (very much mistakenly) begun to attribute to me virtues like "wisdom".

I of course took an immediate, outsized, pride in my putative wisdom. And it was that pride that set me up for the turning point I described some time ago in another post, More About Being Hard Core. At that time I obscured some things about myself and glossed over some of the details. So, here is what I wrote then, with added details:

At the time I was a middlish fish in a mediumish pond, famous in the region I lived in and showing some potential in a field where, if successful, I would gain significantly more fame. And in the circles I moved in, I had a reputation for being “wise". I was excruciatingly in love with my fame, and very impressed with my “wisdom”. I believed, somewhat correctly, that my fame and my wisdom came from my spirituality.
I wasn't oblivious to the connection between a drastic turnaround in my life and the moment at the window. I couldn't be. Neither was anyone else unaware of something happening who knew me at that time, though I told very few people what that mysterious event was that had made the difference. Of course, now that I was openly spiritual, even that could be reason for a little more ego.
I was so impressed with myself that when a friend of a friend approached me, I spent the afternoon more or less talking about myself (not always overtly, but there are many indirect ways to insure a conversation revolves around oneself).
My romantic involvement with one of the women from this circle of friends had just ended when one of the women at the periphery of my circle approached me (I still feel some obligation for vagueness here as the woman who approached me was at the time also a good sized fish in a different pond, and for all I know she still is as I don't keep up with the goings-on in that pond).

If it were possible to break up more often than one actually had romantic involvements, that would have been me at the time. I didn't like rejection, but it wasn't a new thing for me. Still, it seemed, in my twisted take on things, that "wise" people were "humble" people, and "humble" people had to put up a big show around their failings, just so everyone knew they were "humble". And so I did. I talked about the breakup at every opportunity, so that the world might know how very "wise" I was. When this woman approached me, I just kept on rolling with my Proof of Wisdom train wrec Show.
Finally, when the individual had to leave, they mentioned that they were in the midst of a serious crisis, and I realized that that had been the reason this person had approached me.
 She was depressed. She was talking about self destructive acts. And I, with my Proof Of Wisdom Show, was an ass.

I certainly could have excused my behavior with “the person should have spoken up sooner”. A few years before, probably I would have. But over time, what would once have been tolerable ceases to be tolerable, if one takes spirituality seriously.

What i had done was so obviously awful in fact I couldn't make up excuses for it. I couldn't even wrap my mind around it at first. I was stunned.

A few hours later, though, the shock wore off, and I could see what now lie exposed, like gangrene uncovered when a bandage had been removed.

And later that day, as I was brushing my teeth, I got a look at myself in the mirror. I saw the puffed up ego, full of pride, that had just made itself useless to a suffering human being that had been looking for a little hope. If I had had the capacity to listen, the individual would have been able to speak, but my head was so full of praise for myself I was incapable of listening. I was an asshole....
Had it been possible for me to instantly plummet to the building’s basement and bury myself there, face down in the dirt below the foundation, I would still not have been as low as I felt in that moment. As it was I knelt down on the spot, in an almost equally appropriate position, next to the toilet (I generally do not kneel, but sit at a desk, when I do spiritual things, but given that I felt like a sinner, I think my Catholic education kicked in).
That, and "prostrating myself in front of a toilet" was much more expressive of how I felt at that moment than was standing upright.
I prayed to the Ultimate to do whatever it took, that I wanted to be free of the horrible person in the mirror, and I prayed as hard as I ever had. I meant every word of it. I wanted to change, and I wanted whatever it took to do it.
Prayer was always awkward for me, as I didn't (and still don't) believe in a being with individuality that, though omniscient, needed to be told what to do. In that moment, though, it just didn't matter. I had seen a monster in the mirror, and I cried out.