By order of the warden

By order of the warden, all jailors must marshal their inmates to march to the beat of a diffident drum, tamping down all impulses of the id and reporting all uncontrollable urges to the superintendent. Those prisoners who are eager to please their super-ego, please join us on the other side of the bars from dawn to dusk. We welcome you into the ranks of the semi-institutionalized, semi-employed.

After you have become members of our Outstanding Institute for Correctional Action, we will teach you to deaden your dread until it no longer surfaces from your dreams to wake you in the middle of the night. We can’t afford to have our half-imprisoned, half-imprisoning convicts screaming themselves awake; it will give our full-time prisoners too many nefarious ideas. We require our employees to sleep soundly. We need you to leave your cells in the morning and oversee the imprisonment of your fellow prisoners with an untroubled conscience, so you can return to your cells at night and sleep undisturbed. Waking up, whether you wake up screaming or laughing, will result in immediate retraction of your daytime privileges.

If you have not already done so, from this point forward you will dismiss from your mind all images of frozen seas, barren fields, and paralyzed fawns. The rule here is simple: make your inner life a parenthetical, let that little line stand between who you are now and who you were meant to be. Bound and bracket off your longing to let Life touch you, to contact what is real in you, and wake you up. Learn to perfect your defenses of isolation, projection, and straightforward resistance, remaining inside the buildings of our renowned complex and refusing like all good militaristic Americans to let the sun thaw the ice congealing around your warring hearts.

Every day that my hard-heartedness doesn’t bring me to tears is a day lost to the part of myself that counts its losses, divides everything into win/loss columns, solemnly swears it will be only good, never bad; that it will stand up tall, never look downcast; that it will be right, never wrong. I follow that part into the corrupt heart of duality. I let it lead me onto the lost highway, where all the hardheaded men bull their way to nowhere. I am full of my own bull. I am beaten at my own game, as if my only ambition is to become a cretin, a giant of egoic delusion. I am waiting for the day when someone says about me: ‘Now there’s a man with a good head on his shoulders.’

I always find it fitting to be walled in, head and shoulders below the rest. I am always wishing for the courage to go all-in. I always find myself returning to the fact that I am wishing my life away. Wishing Life, with its promise of Death, would just go away. Wishing I had a way to go back to that pre-serpent age when I had no knowledge of good and evil, and so made no distinction between life and death.

A Figurative Battlefield

I can’t let Life inside if I can’t find Life inside. But I don’t see anything when I look inside except darkness and emptiness. Not even an empty tomb, which might suggest resurrection, but just an empty black hole that goes on forever, in which life neither begins nor ends, making resurrection irrelevant. I don’t hear anything inside that hole except a soul oppressed into silence. Can you hear silence, if you attend to the rest notes between the sounds? But what am I talking about. It is not right for me to speak of silence. My mind might literally be silent, but it is a figurative battlefield, and I can’t figure out who the good guys are. I don’t know which side I’m on, so I become a traitor to both, a kind of double crossing puppet, pulled by the strings of an actor whose part is to suffer the morbid effects of the primordial split; to never forget that sting while traveling over the same forsaken territory, unraveling into the wound that keeps me feeling orphaned by Life, keeps me from singing my true song, the song of the undivided and undefended heart, David’s song of praise and thankfulness. I cannot see the hills that praise Thee when I cannot raise myself from the pit, even if it is only to reach my hand up and ask for Your pity.

I cannot see the hills. I am standing motionless in a treeless open field encircled by thick woods occupied by gunmen from both armies. There are soldiers at the ready in all four directions. Because the gunshot blast could come from anywhere, nowhere is safe.

No wonder, then, that I feel the pressing need to build some kind of fortified structure, to defend my exposed, solitary, defenseless self against the incoming blows. But although the soldiers on both sides smell blood, and want nothing more than to destroy the faithless man who stands alone, having reneged on his loyalty to both of their ranks, it is as if, due to now practically extinct remnants of their inborn sense of honor, they cannot kill an unarmed man. But the moment I buckle under the weight of my leg-shaking fear and start to build a defensive structure to shield myself from attack, they feel I have given them implicit permission to let blast.

Motivated by the almost complete hopelessness of the situation, and my fear of imminent death, I might very well build a nearly impenetrable fortress, the only opening a narrow slit that lets me look out, but which I can quickly shut when I see an attacker bearing down. I’ve forgotten one important detail, however. The battle takes place solely in my own mind. Both armies are within me. While I imagine that I am defending against the battalions, insulating myself in my fortress, I am actually building my own prison and then opening the gate to let my enemies inside. When I was in the open field, imagining that I was leaving myself completely vulnerable to attack, there was nothing to fear. The woods surrounding me were as empty as the field in which I stood alone. The gunmen were a projection of my mind. Now, enclosing myself within the citadel, which is within my mind, imagining I am finally safe from attack, there is nothing but fear. The woods are still empty, but the field now holds a cell, in which the soldiers swarm.

A Frustrated and Fastened Existence

My aphantasia or mind-blindness is frustrating. I want to go back, find an event in my past, and look at it closely and clearly to uncover and make sense of the specific way I reacted to that specific event, which conditioned me to continue reacting in that way to similar events. But I can’t do it. I can’t tangibly return to a past event in memory. There is nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to taste, nothing to smell, nothing to touch. I am stuck with the present, and all the gurus with their beatific smiles stressing that the present is all there is, all the spiritually evolved people encouraging me to access the power of Now, do nothing to get me unstuck, or help me let go of my resistance to and frustration with this stuckness, which is what is here now. I want to go back into the past to try and understand why I have no patience for the present or hope for the future. But I can’t even conjure up a past feeling.

Since the past is out of the question, let me question the events of this day to see whether I can discover anything of value. I wake up already in a dark mood, exhausted though I slept nine hours. I make some coffee. The coffee wakes me up slightly, but the energy gained from the stimulant is used, by some unproductive but frequent mechanism of the self, merely to stimulate and increase my frustration. It is the kind of frustration that seems not to have any immediate cause. Which only means that the cause lies outside my conscious awareness.

I feel the frustration in my stomach as a hard knot of tension, what you might feel before running a race, or in the middle of a core workout. But I haven’t done any physical activity today except walking upstairs to put on the water for coffee. I am simply tense. I feel like I do not want to be disturbed by anyone today, but I am already disturbed, and there is no one else here. I feel a domineering inner disturbance. It is as if a rope, frayed from overuse, is tied around my midsection, and it pulls me along. I go wherever the rope, the noose, wills me to go. It is frustrating to feel I am not in control of where I am going. I cannot take one true step. But when the frayed rope snaps, or I let go, what will happen to me? It is like being on a ledge high on a canyon rim, the drop-off sudden and steep. Holding on to the rope I live a frustrated, fastened, anything-but-free existence. But if I let go, the only prospect I can see is an immediate fall to my death on the jagged rocks below.

I want to move easily, like a man who knows where he is going. Or maybe he doesn’t know where he’s going, but in that case he doesn’t mind not knowing. His every step somehow communicates a natural and relaxed attention, both to his outer environs and to his inner state. He trusts that he will know where to place his feet as he goes along. Wherever he ends up, and whatever he encounters along the way, will enlarge his experience of life, deepen his gratitude for it, and this awareness of the manifold ways in which life is a gift will grow within this man unself-consciously, until his thankfulness becomes as much as part of him as his hands and feet. He does not need to believe that life is a gift; he feels it and knows it. Even the deaths of the people he loves, even the prospect of his own death, do not subtract from this unshakable felt knowledge. If anything, they add to it. Death becomes for him a reason for more abundant life. Every passing moment is even more precious than the last, because every moment that passes brings him closer to his last.

But for the man who is not free, the tense man, the man whose every action is a reaction to some inner disturbance, life no longer seems a gift, and each passing moment, rather than expanding his capacity for heartfelt gratitude, only racks up his tension and increases his heart-constricting dread. Part of him sees and resonates and wants to reach out to the free man, ask him how he has been transformed, while another part of him envies and hates the free man, for he only serves with his easy grace to remind the roped man of his bondage. Life for the self-oppressed man is a constant struggle, the bulk of which takes place invisibly, in the confused turmoil of his inner world. Simple and spontaneous connection with anyone or anything looks to him like a monumental task, wrapped tightly as he is beneath the thick cords, the layered bandages, that cover his forgotten, but not thereby healed, wounds.

To reach out seems futile, for how can anyone else understand the maze he is stuck in, and lead him out? Despite this feeling of distressed futility, he longs for someone to see his plight in its entirety, to understand his suffering so deeply that, in the process of being completely understood, he is also freed forever from the idea that he was ever anything but free. But until that fairytale person arrives, he contents himself to waste his hours failing to understand his discontent. Though he claims to know without a doubt that he also cannot free himself, he continues to strive to do just that. His strained effort only tightens the chains, and to be in chains, even if they are not precisely literal, is to be on fire with tension, to feel every nerve in one’s body fighting in vain to loosen the iron bonds.

Childhood Longings

I remember—in my limited, image-less, non-specific way—being a young boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, feeling a strange kind of longing as I looked out at a homeless man on the streets of Washington D.C, from the backseat of my family’s pine-tree green Honda Odyssey. Let’s say we were driving over Key Bridge a few days before Christmas, on our drive back from the Kennedy Center, where the extended family on my mother’s side—cousins, aunts, grandparents, and later uncles—would get all dressed up in suits and dresses (for the grown-ups) or uncomfortable Christmas sweaters and slacks (for the kids) and watch a play every year. Usually the plays were entertaining, even for us kids with itchy feet, but my favorite part of the ordeal was usually the king-size package of Dots candy I would always get at intermission. Pure sugar, enough to keep me wide-eyed for the first ten minutes of post-intermission before I crashed. My same-aged cousin Jack preferred the peanut M & M’s. One year the nutty crunch of these M & M’s, and Jack’s involuntary nonverbal expressions of his unabashed delight in them, got under the pallid skin of a couple of hot-and-bothered well-to-do’s in the row behind us, who shhshed and hissed their displeasure.

After the show was over, it would be time to spend at least an hour trying to get the perfect family picture on the velvety red steps outside the theatre. No face could be partially hidden by another face, no one’s eyes could be blinking, and everyone had to be grinning widely with teeth bared. When all of this criteria had been met, there was another half hour to hour of prolonged goodbye’s to people we would, save some unforeseen tragedy, almost certainly see in the next two days.

Finally, we would drive home. By now it would be close to midnight. Late December, usually some kind of snow or slush on the roads, the Potomac River partially frozen. And on the bridge under the streetlights a homeless man huddled in a threadbare coat, unsheltered in the cold night, eight hours or more until the wan winter sun rose meekly above the horizon. And I, a young too-well-dressed boy in the green suburbia minivan, looking forward to my warm bed that night, and even more to the upcoming two weeks off from my usual shy schoolboy agonies, two weeks to play in the snow with my brother and sister and cousins, knowing the warm shower and heated house would be right there whenever I needed them, felt this strange longing. What could I, apparently wanting for nothing, possibly want?

It was me, John Fogerty; I was the fortunate son. My family was well-off, deprived of no material thing. My parents could and did send me to the best schools available, where the teachers were contractually bound to care for each and every student, and the environment was conducive not only to intellectual growth but to the growth of students as whole persons, mind and heart and body, spirit and soul. I came from a large, tight-knit extended family. The virtues of love, faith, and hope were instilled in me at a young age, and the people around me seemed to embody those virtues to varying degrees. And yet, looking out through the letters of my name spelled in messy cursive on the frosty window at the cold bent figure on the bridge, I felt from deep within my body’s slight form a stripped-naked and skinned poverty no material wealth could repair or warm winter coat conceal, and a formless but full-bodied longing for I knew not what.

I did not know about alcoholism and drug addiction, about unemployment and desperation and crime. I did not know about the physical suffering this man must have undergone on a daily basis, in all seasons. Constantly facing the heat in the D.C. summer, unable to find refuge in the air-conditioned indoors. Blinded by the driving snow in winter, his coat absurdly thin and worn, unable to protect him in the slightest. His hunger and thirst, fevers and pneumonias.

I did not know about the mental torture he must have faced, the inner voices that told him he was a failure, a bum, a good-for-nothing ghostly presence that would soon be gone, with no one to remember him in a eulogy with fine words, delivered to a mourning audience who would miss him for the rest of their lives, with no one to remember him or miss him at all.

I did not know about the emotional slings and arrows this man—forced like all men who are utterly alone to remember always how he would not be remembered—must have endured, both from being sole audience, sole victim of his internal executioners twenty-four hours a day, and from being subject to the external voices that sometimes intruded into and compounded this hell on earth, who insulted him in similar ways, who with cold, contemptuous voices told him to get a job, get a life, get off the sidewalk, leave. Who told him he was not welcome here. How easy it would be for that man, after being told hundreds of times that he was not welcome here, to extrapolate and conclude that he would not be welcome anywhere, that Life itself had long ago decided to imprison him forever outside the gates of belonging. How hard it would be for this man to hold out any hope of ever finding his home.

I did not know about the spiritual agonies this man must have suffered, the unfathomable loneliness, the bitter hatred toward Life and all the people that seemed to move along smoothly and easily through it, the envy of the fortunate sons safe in their beds and the successful CEOs ensconced in their mansions, the shame that had burrowed its way into the very fibers of his being, the terrible fear of death that alternated with a terrible desire for it, the pain of an unlived life, the daily traumas of a soul born for heaven yet trapped in hell.

No, I did not know about any of this suffering. I was ignorant, a child already with pain of my own, and did I look at this homeless man on the bridge and see a kind of liberation from my own seemingly causeless pain, rather than certain bondage in his pain which had thousands of causes and no bottom or end but death? But how exactly was I suffering? From what particulars did I desire freedom? What could I possibly desire freedom from, as an young boy with loving parents, a warm extended family, supportive teachers and coaches, a roof over my head, clothes for all weather, friends to play with, food to help my body grow stronger, books to allow my mind to dive into its natural curiosity, and all of the above to help me discover and live out of the depths of my heart? Wouldn’t my spirit flourish? Wouldn’t my soul be nourished and at ease?

Alas, all the external wealth and support in the world cannot bring the soul through the dark night and into the sunlight. Though the surface of my life left little to be desired, yet I was filled with and burdened by desires and longings, and seeing this homeless man somehow brought all of this to the surface. I was longing for the inner wealth, the steadfast support, the perfect freedom, that resided somewhere deep within me, with which I had lost contact at a young age, leaving me without confidence or hope for the future, out of contact not only with people and objects in the outer world but most especially with my own heart, feeling an inner impoverishment that resonated with the homeless man’s outer impoverishment, feeling as deprived emotionally as I was privileged materially, unlike the homeless man in the prosperity of my upbringing but like him in my feeling of being down and out.

Down and out. Pressed down and left out. Pressed down as if under glass, divided by a fragile mirror that allowed me to look up and out at Life above the glass, to look but never touch. A mirror that also reflected back to me my own self, and because of this two-way mirror I became absorbed by the disparities between what was beneath the glass and what was above it, focusing on all the real and imaginary deficiencies that kept me gasping for breath as if under ice, perceiving everything below the glass as frozen in a dull and grey and painfully insufficient and lifeless image, and everything above the glass as a fluid Reality that was full of color and warmth and movement and vitality and fullness, left to conclude with a depressing finality that I would be forever estranged from that Reality, that I would be left to wrestle in unwelcome though unconsciously chosen isolation with my own inadequate and self-sabotaging devices, which only multiplied and exaggerated my sense of lack.

One of these devices, these defenses against the felt knowledge of my estrangement, which if recognized fully might pierce through the glass with its direct and unsparing insight, and re-connect me with the Reality that severed the boundary between inner and outer, above and below—one of these defenses was withdrawal. I withdrew in one sense in order to re-connect with the feeling of being myself. It was almost as if I could not feel or be that self in the presence of others, though I could not articulate who that self was.

There was a kind of freedom in withdrawal. Being around other people I was reminded painfully of the glass pressing down on me and increasing my feeling of separateness. Once alone I could imagine (to the extent that I could with my blind mind), a world where I never abandoned my truth and could easily be myself, where I did not fear rejection, where I never blushed when a teacher called on me and I had to speak in the presence of the rest of the class, where I never had to answer how my day went because everyone already understood how it went. There would be no need to hide who I was or what I felt. Written on my face would be the joys of a contented being, a soul at ease with itself. To speak of this contentment would be unnecessary, redundant.

But, in a cruel but predictable twist, the withdrawal that seemed like freedom was its opposite. It was the default response to my unsettling sense that I never responded to the events of Life authentically, blocked as I was by embarrassment and shame, by fear of judgment, fear of my actual self being seen by others and then scorned by them and rejected (or worse, ignored), which fears I reacted to by once more escaping into the well-grooved pathway of withdrawal. The comfort and familiarity of this default response made it feel like home, but it was a home that was cold and dark and silent. No one was home because the only one who could have been there was gone, lost in imagining what truly being at home would feel like, and the perfection he imagined there only made his time here, outside this suspect sanctuary, all the more distressing, lonely, and bleak.

Blessed Be This Day

Lord, help me encounter fully this clear sky, the warmth of this spring day, the silence. I am most myself when I praise the beauty outside myself, and in that song of praise, enter more deeply the beauty within myself. I am within the world, not like a prisoner in a bolted cell, but like a swift gazelle in an open field. Let each leap and bound be a prayer unbounded by words or rituals. Let each breath be deep and visceral, not pressed in like a vise grip and squeezed out like a gasp. Let the vase on the windowsill be hollow and translucent, so the light of the sun can shine through it. I want to taste the juice going down my throat. I want it on my tongue. I want the truth sung with the deceptive power of the receptive spirit. I want to hear it every moment, so I can bear witness to the flame that grows when I hold my shame with kindness, when I notice my blindness and shed another scale from my eyes.

The time is now. It’s enough to make a man weep. It’s enough to sweep away the cobwebs when you can, so the window is fit to see through. The rope of faith may be a narrow tightrope stretched across a canyon, but there is no soul too confined it cannot someday shine with the glory that is not mine, not yours. It’s not time that brings me into this moment. There is no time now, but too soon I know there will be again, and I will feel like I am breaking, stretched on a cross between past and future, walking that tightrope, unable to get to the center and enter my own soul, and live from there in peace. If I live in fear, there is no place, no person, and no thing that will ever satisfy me. I know this, but I do not know this in a deep and enduring way. So I’ve got to go again, so I can miss you again. I’ve got to kiss you for the first time, again and again. I want everything to feel like it has never happened before. And none of it has, or all of it has. All I will ever have is less than you could ever deserve, but make me yours anyways. My need to feel shored by you and sure of your affections, to feel reassured by your constant presence, is not the true need, but it sure is a compelling substitute.

Beloved, pierce this fiercely resistant bubble with your subtle touch. Even that is much more than I can bear. Help me bear it. Help me see you, rather than stare through you. I care more than I am capable of understanding, from the vantage point of this cold dark cave. I must cave in without excessive deflation. I must stand up without excessive inflation. This station is a point on the way.

Blessed be the day when my heart is not tied up in knots; when my mind, like this sky, is wide open with imageless vividness; and when my body feels fresh, as if I could run forever and not grow weary. Blessed be this day.

Training for and Running the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler

It could not be a more beautiful spring morning. Not a cloud in the sky, high fifties, no wind. I sit outside and listen to a single bird, a distant car, a more distant but louder plane. I hear the voices of two men working. They are listening to ‘Desperado,’ by The Eagles. Desperado, Why don’t you come to your senses? I hear a hammer bang in a nail.

I am working alone, as I prefer to do, to hear my own voice. Finally spring is starting to sing, to ring forth its birdsong praises. Winter went on and on, left occasionally but always returned. Yesterday was cold and windy; today may just be a reprieve. All we have is a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. All we have is our daily bread, this ever so slight breeze, this desire to listen to the world, to let it touch us, let it move us deeper into its embrace. Resist the impulse to narrow the focus. To long instead to be embraced by a particular other, to be surrounded by her particular scent. Long for this: to be embraced widely by the world at large, and to embrace it back, to live as if surrounded by Life, which of course I am. If I embrace the whole world, that embrace will include the one I most want to embrace, but if I embrace her alone as if bracing myself against my own aloneness, I brace myself also against the rest of the world, and tensed embrace does not soften, and isolation that involves two people is still isolation, and not union.

All winter I trained, through single digit mornings and wet snow and brutal wind. I kept lacing up the shoes, heading out the door, and getting on the road. Breathing in and out, running with a steady cadence, doing tempo runs and workouts, long runs and strides. Forty to fifty miles a week, sometimes more, mostly alone. Because I worked nights, I usually would wake up late and wouldn’t run first thing. I’d have coffee, try to wake up a little, read aloud a few psalms or poems. Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart. But I wouldn’t wait long. Eventually I’d drag my heavy legs out the door, walk up the hill, do a few warm up exercises, and start to jog. It became as routine an activity as eating or sleeping or breathing. Running is hard only when first beginning. It becomes easy and natural once fitness sets in.

But no training block can continue effortlessly forever. The day-in, day-out leg-pounding  will have consequences. When I was training for the Marine Corps marathon, I started to feel my Achilles flare up in early October, four weeks before the race, after I did a tune-up half-marathon followed two days later by a hard 5 x 2 mile workout. The sore Achilles followed me all the way up to the race, but strangely enough I did not feel it at all on race day. A similar thing occurred during this training block. At the end of February, I got sick with a bad cold and cough. Friends told me to dial back the running, to go easy or rest completely, give my body a chance to heal. But it is hard to stop exercising cold turkey, the same way it is difficult to stop any pleasurable and habitual activity just like that. Exercise relieves anxiety, boosts mood, helps with sleep, and clears mental debris and brain fog. The list of benefits goes on. It simply feels good to move the body.

So I didn’t stop. I took a couple of days off, but then I ran a tune up race on the tow path about a month before the Cherry Blossom, just as I had done before the marathon. It was a cold morning, in the thirties and raining. Although I did not give an all-out effort, as there was no reason to do so, I did run at a hard 6:02 mile pace, and soon afterwards the cough became a wheezing cough that made it difficult to breathe at times, but I continued to run. The wheezing kept up, both while I was running and not, and I finally went to see a doctor, who told me I had exercise-induced asthma and gave me an inhaler. For no real reason, the week after she gave me that diagnosis, I ran 69 miles, almost ten miles a day, the most I’d ever run in a week. Even though I did not do any workouts, running that much was not a wise move. The asthma worsened, and I took the next week off and felt some improvement. After the off week there were two more weeks before the race. I ran easy most days and did two workouts, both of which I was able to finish without having an asthma-related issue. But on Sunday one week before the race, I was going to do three or four miles at my goal pace of 6 minutes a mile, and before I had even done half a mile, I had an asthma attack.

So I did not know what to expect on race day. Luckily, I had no issues and ended up running the ten-mile race in under an hour, which had been my goal. My brother Collin and one of his college friends paced me for the final two miles. At mile 8, when they joined me, I was on pace for 60 minutes and 20 seconds if I ran two 6 minute miles. I needed to average 5:50 pace for the final two miles to get under an hour, and I averaged 5:39 with their help. I wondered afterwards if I could have run close to that pace for the whole race, but I’m glad I didn’t try to do that. Instead, I started out with a 6:16 mile, a pace I was fairly confident I could hold for ten miles. When I felt good running that pace, I dropped down to around 6 minute pace for the next seven miles, before taking it up a notch for those last two. All in all, I am happy with my time. I think I am capable of running that race faster, but considering the fact that asthma slowed me down in the month leading up to the race, I did as well as I could have hoped.

I do not train in order to run the race. I train because it gives a purpose to my day. No matter what happens the rest of the day, I can go to sleep knowing I accomplished something. Though I might feel aimless for the other twenty-three hours, as if there is no definite meaning or clear purpose to my life, for the hour that I run my purpose is to keep running, and even if I run around the same two mile loop four times, literally going around and around in a circle, I do not feel metaphorically that this is the case. I am not running around my life or away from it but moving myself along with it so I can see it with fresh eyes, from a new vantage point, so it does not run me by. The run is routine and may even feel monotonous, while at the same time it frees my heart and mind from the cages I’ve locked them in. I do not feel trapped inside my body when I feel my body from inside. Only when I am immobile, out of contact with the moving body and quiet mind, do I feel mind and body as separate from each other yet thrown together into the same prison. Moving softens and relaxes the heart, frees and opens the mind, strengthens the body while simultaneously allowing it to feel a sense of ease and flow.

The wind has picked up a little now. I hear the songs of two different birds. Though the wind is cool, the sun is warm. I take off my sweatshirt.

Today I hope to see someone I care about. I care about her more than I care about running. Running can become a substitute for relationship, an escape from both the desire and the fear of intimacy, instead of a wonderful and energizing way to become intimate with one’s own body. It can be solely a method to become stronger and fitter, instead of a way also to be with oneself at one’s current level of strength and fitness. If I run wishing to be different—stronger, fitter, better—I may never make contact with how and who I am now. If I run to avoid the uncertainties and difficulties of relationship, I also run to avoid the uncertainties and difficulties in myself. If I run to try and rid myself of sadness, I may temporarily succeed as the endorphins kick in and my mood picks up, but the avoidance, the desire to evade or out-run my present experience, will seep into every aspect of my life. To attempt to flee the flood is to be flooded again when I return. Like Jonah I must wake up and face the town of unfaithful strangers. The town is within the beast in my own gut, and all my muffled groaning will not make those strangers disappear. They exist so long as I alternately resist and give into the strange siren song of my self-estrangement.

Today I may not see the person I hope to see. I may believe, not in the God of my understanding, but in the tragic misunderstanding that mistakes seeing and being with her, even in part, for contact with the true heart that does not need to be made whole, for it is whole already. I may despair that I will ever see her truly, in the way she deserves to be seen, the way God sees her, but that instead I will see her subjectively, screened by the dark clouds of craving and clinging, pulling toward and pushing away. Today I may want to push Life away, to say its whims do not suit me, its thorns are too many, and its blossoms too few. I may choose to pursue not the truth of my experience but anything and everything that might offer temporary relief from my pain. I may not know how to give glory to God for twenty-three hours of the day. I may not even believe it is possible. I may feel empty and lost, at a lifelong crossroads in which I make the wrong turn forever. I may feel severed from love, may feel as if I will never successfully weather life’s storms, as if shipwreck is the only truth, and rescue the only impossibility.

But as afternoon turns into evening I know I will lace up my shoes and head out the door. And for one hour my life will have a very simple purpose: to go forward, to run. Lord knows I was not put on this earth to go back into the womb. Lord who knows me, lead me out the door. Help me trust my own two feet to take me around the path, up the hill, and back home.

Come On Up To The House

I’ve been listening lately to the Tom Waits song, “Come On Up To The House.” This piece will be a reflection on it. Here is the song:

Come On Up To The House

Well, the moon is broken and the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see is all that you lack
Come on up to the house

The sky is cracked, and so is everything else. As Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Despite the fact that I can only see all that I lack, I’ve got to come on back to the house. Trust that by returning to this house I might just get the knack of living with my lack, letting it be there, not feeling attacked by it, not running away from it. Not asking always for it to be taken away. Learning to give despite my feeling that I have nothing to give. My cup runneth over, King David sings. I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. But in the very preceding psalm he moans, My God, my god, why have you forsaken me? Let forsakenness live together with abundance. Get a higher unifying perspective. Climb on up to the house and from the window look down upon the lacking self, so full of longing, that finds no trace of comfort from the moon or sky. Be there in the empty room and see the broken moon shed a shaft of unbroken light across the clean wooden floor. Only a cracked sky can open up into the vast black universe of suns and stars and alternate galaxies.

All your crying don’t do no good
Come on up to the house
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood
You gotta come on up to the house

I can cry all my life about how I am lonely and wounded and paralyzed by self-consciousness and fear. How I am trapped in this body, how I am exiled in this world. How I cannot make myself understood. How I will never become who I am meant to be. It doesn’t do any good. I’ve got to get off that cross. Only then will I have both hands free to carry it. There is no time to be a martyr of my own self-condemnations, no purpose in playing the hapless victim of a soul-crushing world. The house is cold; we can use the wood. Come on up, carry that cross too.  Do not close the door on suffering or lock out the feeling of being locked in. Keep the door wide open: let the wind and birdsong in; let the scorpions and snakes in too.

Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I’m just a-passing through
You got to come on up to the house

“The world is not my home / I’m just a-passing through,” Waits sings, followed by “You got to come on up to the house.” I am a visitor in the world who will not remain, but here I am. It is my responsibility to be here fully. I’ve got to be here, got to come on up to the house, that symbol of refuge and warmth and belonging. I need to make this earth my home, in spite of my feelings of homelessness. No feeling comes for no reason. The traveler in a foreign country is homeless, just passing through, but he does not consider his passage through a burden. He travels lightly, and as he moves he lightens his load more each day, letting go of what he does not need. He lives in a roofless house that keeps moving and feels no need to nail it down to a solid and unchanging foundation. There is no foundation that time will not shift. The traveler does not know what will come his way, when or if some great shift of consciousness will occur. He does not know if the changes in himself and in the country he travels through will bring him happiness or unhappiness. He is open and receptive; he is at home with not knowing what will come. Whatever comes to him finds him at home.

There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire
Come on up to the house
And you’re singing lead soprano in a junkman’s choir
You got to come on up to the house

It’s dark, and it’s cold, and it’s been that way for as long as you can remember. You either have too many irons in the fire or none at all. Life is too hectic, or you have nothing to do. Come on up to the house. See the lit candle in the window. When it’s dark outside, the light inside shines that much brighter. It is not that coming into the house shuts out the darkness. Bring your dark hopelessness into the house. Bring your emptiness. Bring all those desperate songs you’ve sung in all those endless tunnels, through all those cold winter nights. But it is time to sing another song. There is no point in my selling junk, making a rotten profit from my shipwrecked soul, my divided mind, my sinking heart. There is value in everything I have been through, but the value is not monetary. Remember that line about old and new bottles. Stop re-living the past and re-selling the old. Come on up to the house and explore this new place. There’s no furniture in it. The rooms are bare. There is nothing to buy or sell. The house is not for sale. Its market value has never been established. It has no room for any of my old things: no closets to keep my old shoes, no shelves to store my old clothes, no cabinets to preserve my old wine. It only has room for the space in which the new can arise.

Doesn’t life seem nasty, brutish and short?
Come on up to the house
The seas are stormy and you can’t find no port
Got to come on up to the house, yeah

Nasty weather today. It’s the first day of April, but spring is announcing her entry with dark stormy skies and cold rain. Zevon: The phone don’t ring, and the sun refuse to shine. It’s the kind of day where I feel like shutting out the world, shutting myself up with my poor poor pitiful self, with my desire for the phone to ring, and my desire to hurl it as hard as I can against the wall; with my desire for life to be sweet and beautiful and long, and my feeling that it is and always will be nasty and brutish and short. But life alone is neither sweet nor cruel. Life lives outside of apparent discrepancies, outside the house neatly divided into separate rooms. Come on up to this other house. A strong wind blew off the roof long ago. Now roots push up and trees grow through the cracks in the floor, as in the ruined castle become jungle that my brother and I explored in the homeland. Linda Gregg: The cathedral with its roof blown off / was not less godly. It was the same / plus rain and sky. Birds flew in and out / of the holes God’s fist made in the walls. Come on up to the house where the air is too fine for human distinctions. Life seems brutish when like a bull you try to ram your way through it. Life seems nasty when like the hopeless romantic both you and Joni are, you want it all to be roses and kisses and pretty lies. Life seems short when you confidently assert that death is the end and spend your life resisting, with all the held breath and chained life force that is in you, the moment you breathe your last.

There’s nothing in the world that you can do
You gotta come on up to the house
And you been whipped by the forces that are inside you
Gotta come on up to the house

There’s nothing you can do because everything you do, when you do it because you can’t bear the vacuum that comes when you don’t do it, won’t help to free you. Let it be. There’s nothing you can do, but you’ve got to come on up to the house anyways. You can’t, but you must. Come on up to that place where you can. Where grace and help can reach you. There’s nothing you can do, but you don’t have to do nothing. Sit down and write anyways. Lace up your shoes and head out the door anyways. Keep working, anyway you can. Or sit there in the desolate house and do nothing. Wait. Keep your hands at your sides and let the forces inside you compete for mastery over you. Call you a good-for-nothing. Call you worthless and loveless and lame. Call you every nasty thing they can, until you feel like you’ll never amount to anything. There’s nothing you can do. Let them whip you without resistance. They cannot harm what in you has always been safe in the house. There is a force in you deeper than those forces, powerful enough to survive all their blows, to stand straight and tall; a force that cannot be made small, that was not born to cower in shackles beneath the whip, that knows it is free. It has committed no crime.

Well, you’re high on top of your mountain of woe
Gotta come on up to the house
Well, you know you should surrender, but you can’t let it go
You gotta come on up to the house, yeah

Your mountain of woe is the wrong mountain. It’s as if you have some intuition that you need to climb up in order to see the burning valley from a higher and broader perspective, but instead of setting out for new terrain, you build a mountain atop the pain you can’t seem to leave behind, and then look down upon it proudly. You get high on how low you’ve been. This is your mountain. You built it through relentless suffering. Why should you leave what you have painstakingly built? You are the architect of your own fractured psyche. Your dissatisfaction with what you have built is only proof that you are a true creator, for as the dancer Martha Graham writes, “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest.” Oh yes, you have been blessed with unrest. So why do you rest on your own quite shakable and unstable mountain of woe? There is nothing adventurous or intrepid about that. Let your unrest force you to create work that truly reflects both where you are and its unimaginable distance from where you long to be. Surrender to and make tangible contact with your dissatisfaction, learn what it has to teach you, but do not put a halo around it and call it sacred space, untouchable and inviolable. Touch and taste the sense that no mere taste of life will satisfy you deeply. Do more than sample life, as if it is a rare dish, and you the expert taste-tester, chosen for your delicate palate. Instead, surrender to what life dishes out your way. Come down off the mountain, off the mound of your self-justifications. Surrender to your feeling that there is no ground beneath your feet. Place your feet on the ground and begin to walk.

 

 

Divisions and Unity; False Resting Place and True Resting Place; Inner Life as a Desert; What is the Word?; The Next Right Thing; The Sin of Dragging Feet; Secret Surveyor

The urge for life and the urge for death battle like embittered divorcees within me, divide my garments and vie for my unvarnished attention. The desire to zone out and numb myself of the pain of estrangement wrestles listlessly with the desire to focus in and reach the center of that pain. Some whittled intuition tells me I will find healing there, at the core of my suffering, that I can live fully only when I fully admit the part in me that does not want to live at all, and do not reject it.

I am powerless to live truly on my own, for I am a divided being, too confused, conflicted, and off kilter to do the will of God. The best thing I can do is pray to God to grant me clarity, to give me the readiness to do His will, the patience to hear his voice, which speaks in Silence to my heart’s stillness, resting undisturbed beneath the turmoil that disturbs it constantly on the surface. Deeper than my divisions, perfect unity rests at peace, but I cannot get to that resting place by following my own will, and so the violently willful part of my self longs to be nil, as a false imitation of the true resting place, which resides in the depths of my heart.

But much resides in the heart, and most of it does not encourage rest. My heart appears to lack the steadfast courage needed to seek peace and fulfillment within itself. It cannot find rest from the craving to be filled from the outside: by a drink, by a lover, by the sweat of the body as it moves. My heart seeks an outside God that will do all the work for it, but it does not let God in to do His work. It works itself up to a fever pitch until it cries out for it knows not what, twists itself into knots until the knots are all it knows. Who is it crying out for? I don’t think it is for God. No, it is attached to the very act of crying out. It is as if its distress keeps it in contact with itself, as if it is only through disorientation that it feels oriented rightly. Even-keeled serenity is too unfamiliar, alien terrain, too close to God for comfort. It is more comfortable for my heart to live on the rocky slopes of despair, painfully connected only to its own disconnection from its deeper and truer self, from others, and from God.

Every time I surrender to the part of my heart that cannot love anything but itself, that takes a sick pleasure even in its own self-loathing, I take a step backward and down, off the face of the solid sunlit granite and closer to the shadowy sandstone cliff that falls away into the abyss. I take a step in the direction of living death. This was the surrender I chose each time I picked up a drink. It is the surrender that will eventually bring me to my knees again and again, but it is not the surrender in which I come to believe that there is a power that can raise me up again, restore me to the sanity of walking forward on two legs, trusting that the ground will keep me steady. Surrendering to my small self strengthens my pride and locks me deeper in the cage of my crawling ego, allowing no room for freedom to spread its wings, no fertile ground for humility to take root.

Though I am unfree in a thousand ways, through practice and awareness I can become free not to surrender to the parts in me that want to keep me in bondage in the dungeons of my psyche, away from the sunlight of the spirit, far from its gentle breeze. I can choose to surrender my divisions each morning by kneeling in a posture of humility to the Great Uniter, with whom I was born to be in union.

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It is hard that the experience of how pure and wonderful life can be, how liberated the soul can and was born to be, is so fleeting. My typical spiritual condition does not resemble a waterfall, overflowing with wonder and liberation. My inner life more often feels like a desert. I identify readily with words like desiccated, thirsty, desolate, barren, forsaken. I could travel all my life there, all the while thinking myself abandoned, and not find water, deaf to its quickening trickle, blind to its eternal presence beneath the desert floor. I need help to find water; I cannot find it on my own. Part of me does not even want to find it, for what if I find it, and drink of it, and still am not changed? What would that mean about me? That perhaps, after all, I was not born to drink the water from the source, and live? That there is no hope of my being resurrected, that healing and union will never occur, so I might as well call it quits? That God, or the nameless source of the pure water, will judge me as somehow unacceptable for baptism, not worthy to drink, a wedding crasher, a trespasser at the feast?

Fueled by these fears—of rejection, of unworthiness, of being deemed ultimately unlovable—I do not seek the truth with all my soul and all my might. I do not put all my chips on the table. I hold a few back, as if there will be a better opportunity in the future, and I will go all in only when I am sure to win the hand. But the hand is not mine to win, because the only true winners are those who are entirely ready and willing to lose everything, to have nothing and be no one, so, not yet someone and not quite no one, yearning partly to be someone and partly to be no one, I loiter at the gates of nowhere, wander for years in the deserts of somewhere, dying of the thirst to live and dreaming of a river that will take me painlessly to the sea.

Take me, river. I am yours. I have always been yours. I am not mine. There is nothing here I can call my own. All of it was given me. I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word.

Whose soul shall be healed? My soul is not mine either. There is nothing here. Lord, give me all of this nothing. There is so much here. There is nothing missing. I am missing everything. I am missing the point. What is the word?

The point kissed me on the lips, and I called it an invasion of privacy. I filed it away in the cabinet of experience that didn’t make sense, that didn’t confirm my prior beliefs. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life.

I do not believe. Help my unbelief. Breathe into me and through me, restore me to sanity. There is no sense in keeping these masks; they mask the glory of God. I mask the glory when I ask that the glory be mine. Not grace, not life given, but earned salvation. I cannot receive the gift. It is too much. How can a man bear it? How does a man learn to bear the beams of love?

He starts by doing the next right thing. He starts by starting out the day in silence, listening to the birds, the wind, his heart. He starts by asking his heart, ‘What song will you sing this morning?’ Is it a song of praise, or one of sorrow? There is always a song to sing. A song of sorrow is just another kind of praise. The heart is sorrowful because it knows how much it longs to give praise, and yet it cannot. It cannot raise itself from the swamp, move itself from the dark cave out into the light.

I do not know how to thaw these chronic thoughts in the warm sun of a new perspective. It is almost the end of winter, but I cannot sense the coming spring. Where does stillness stop, and paralysis begin? I don’t want this still ice pond of winter; I want the rushing snowmelt of spring. I want to run until I drop, until I fall flat on my face and like a snake shed all these outworn skins. What is the next right thing? Far beneath this cold skin lies a heart hot with unspoken desire, but I do not have the strength to dig beneath these pounds of ash to uncover the burning coals, and breathe them into flame.

Where will I find the strength? Who will hold me as I shiver, afraid to submerge my naked body into the icy river? I want to give myself without reservation, but I reserve the right to conclude I have nothing to give. When I finally admit I have no high aspirations to live for, only then will I begin to live from deep within. I live under the sin of dragging feet, struggle daily with the dragons of monumental reluctance, curdled longing, and sagging eyelids that keep the lid on medicinal laughter and laugh cruelly at all my efforts to be free.

Lord, have pity on me. Give me the strength to at least not waste precious hours pitying myself. The days repeat themselves ad infinitum, ad nauseum. But no, the days are not the same. Now it is sunny; tomorrow it will be cloudy. Yesterday it snowed, and today it will not. Each day is different, but I remain the same. I repeat myself ad nauseum, and wonder why I feel like a museum piece. Cease and desist, rinse and repeat. Let me not police my every thought and action, as if it is only through armed vigilance that I will feel safe at long last to be myself.

Secret surveyor, let me alone. It is not your place to keep me tied to this tired play, playing forever the tired and defeated, the mired and caged. I am not a slave to your savage demands. I can stand here without your crushing, kill-joyed, life-span-shortening support. Is that cool, sport? The hearse waits for no one and does not care how far you still had to go. I still have to be here. Correction: get to be here. It’s time I get going.

The wind will not relent

The wind will not relent; it does not rest on Sunday. Neither do I. I work each day, but I must learn to find wakeful rest in my work. People work hard for five days, so they can rest from work on the weekends. They work hard for forty years, so they can retire from the world and its demands. I don’t blame them. I already feel like retiring at twenty-seven. I re-tire myself daily.

The wind does not retire, it only inspires in its passage through. In my passage through this world, I retire and am inspired, I wither and am strengthened, I curl in on myself in a dark room and am opened to the light and expand outward, letting the sun do for me what I could not do for myself. I cannot become myself through trying to become myself, through striving, and yet I strive. After my striving has gotten me nowhere, I give up, hopeless, and give it over, hoping my so very generous action will give me everything I want and need.

So my hopelessness is not genuine; it is a façade, an image of what I think hopelessness should look like. I don’t believe it myself. Sometimes I don’t believe myself capable of anything genuine, and yet I was genuine before I knew it was possible not to believe. It is not possible.

I believe in the maker of this heaven, the earth beneath my feet. The maker makes; I did not make myself. Do I make myself clear? Dark clarity of the rippling black pond, I ask you: what mysteries churn beneath your surface, not placid but moved rapidly by the wind? I ask you if they are the same as the mysteries that churn beneath my surface. I go to church only when the pews are empty. My whole body lurches from side to side as if I am on a boat in a rough sea, but I do not get seasick. The dance that moves me is more of a writhing, as if the one who dances is in intense pain, and maybe he is, but as a dancer he needs to understand the rhythm of the churning world. The world I see and feel writhes and whirls; I’d be falsely blithe to dance as if it were smooth and still.

I see darkness before me. I do not see clearly. I see like a man who has been punished for seeing, who saw too much and was put away, only released when he promised never to tell what he’d seen. I see death before me, to take sight away forever, and my existence here puzzles and terrifies me. I don’t know where the pieces go. I never was too good at putting the puzzle pieces together.

Laid before me was an image, and the pieces needed to go together in a certain, impossibly complex way, to form that image. The image was an ark, vaguely remembered from an old story where a dove had found a place to rest. I was supposed to join the pieces to match the picture of the ark, the image that promised in some unclear manner to protect me. Why I was supposed to complete this task I did not know. The job felt overwhelming, and everyone was watching me, and what help they offered was not helpful. Some of them wanted to put the pieces together for me; they were frustrated by my ineptitude. I was moving too slowly. It was easy, you see. All you needed to do was start working, and then you’d see how it all fit. Others looked on from a distance, as if they were the audience in a movie theatre watching an unskilled actor deliver clichéd and stilted lines. They muttered under their breath and laughed, the way a group of people laughs at the outsider they are relieved they will never have to be. My incompetence seemed to bring them together, but the puzzle pieces were still very much apart. I could not even find two parts that fit with each other. And time was running out.

I began to sweat. The pressure was nearly unbearable. I didn’t even understand who had given me the task. It was as if the puzzle pieces had just appeared before me, next to the image of the ark, and I simply began to go to work, since there was nothing else to do, and it didn’t seem right to leave the thousands of pieces scattered, each one apart and incomprehensible. It felt unfair somehow, that the pieces were useless by themselves, and only made any sense when many were connected. None of it made any sense to me, for I could not see the whole, the ark, except in the picture of the image I was supposed to replicate. I saw only the unconnected parts. After a long period of futile struggle, I tore the picture of the ark in half, to the horror of the multitudes who looked on. I went to the shore and threw the pieces in the sea.

I am not here to be a master of reproduction. I am here to stand in awe of the whole that is not a stagnant image, already created, but something real, being created each instant by some force I cannot perceive or understand.

I do not understand my being-here. My being, here. My God! To be here, to be this body here—there, wherever—this body, sitting in this chair. This body, one day to disintegrate into ashes. To be ashes, tossed out to sea. To be sea, absorbing ashes, taking in the remains of a single body, neither diminished nor enhanced by the imperceptible change. To be a body woken by light each morning, or by the sound of the wind, going out onto a porch to consider drifting clouds, some dark, some lit by the rising sun. To be an ear, able to hear a crow. To be a body, capable of uniting with another body. To be a soul, alone, in union with itself.

To be a soul, alone, divided within itself. Night again, bringing the familiar ache. I sit with my back straight, my body still, and fight the urge to cover my face in my hands and weep. Human world, what on earth are we doing? Weeping. Where are we going? Somewhere quiet, some place dark, some secret crevice in the soul, known only to ourselves, where we can be completely alone, and weep until there are no more tears.

Broken heart, keep breaking open. The tears are true; let them fall. You do not need to know the reasons why they fall. They fall without reason, never within it, beyond the plains of reason and down into the savage valley of truth. The tears do not fall gently or softly. They fall like the rains in a Florida hurricane, and the heart falls violently into their truth, which cannot be expressed through words. The heart’s fall is not broken, and so it breaks open, and its free fall frees it from the prison of pretended togetherness.

I will be with you tonight, oh heart, in your senseless pain. And I will be with you tomorrow. I couldn’t leave you if I wanted to, which I so often do. Tonight, I don’t want to go anywhere; there’s nowhere I would rather be. We are here, my heart; somehow we are here, you and I. It is a lonely night, but you are here. I’m never as alone as I imagine.

True heart: teach me. I am here to hear you. You are the teacher; I am the student. I am open and willing to learn. The wind is my teacher, and the sea is my teacher. The crows are my teachers, and the trees are my teachers. I am the student, taught by all.

True heart, you know how to love perfectly, for you yourself are perfect love. I do not know how to love at all, for I do not know you. Yet you are in me. I need what is in me to love what is not, and to love what is.