October Reflection

October is half over as I write this, and I am indoors. The change of seasons was abrupt. Last week it was upwards of 90 degrees; today it’s in the thirties. Writing inside, I feel more isolated, less connected with the world outside my skull and skin. I don’t feel the wind through my hair, and I can’t hear if any birds are braving this cold morning, sounding their songs as if in cheerful rebellion to the coming winter. I want to learn how to rebel so cheerfully to my heart’s winter.

 

But it is not so easy, and perhaps not so valuable, to rebel that way against the heart, for any cheerfulness that is in me comes from my heart, and to rebel against my heart’s tundra is also to rebel against its open sunny plain.

 

When my heart is snowed-in, I feel like the snow will come down forever, the roads will never be cleared, and all I will ever feel is what the trees in winter might feel. Who am I to say that these oak trees have no emotional presence and feel nothing? Might they like me feel empty, naked, bare? Through the naked branches of the wintered trees, the light shines clearly, unobstructed by lush foliage. Clear and pure and direct. Are these the qualities of the heart in winter, when it knows through experience that sooner or later spring will return?

 

I can still hear the wind through the closed glass doors. It is strong today, as it has been for the last three days. I want to live like the wind, propelled into motion by invisible forces. I want to move and not to stagnate, not to remain forever in this same languishing place, moving only to run in loops or out and backs, or to walk with apparent purpose from the kitchen into the dining room to bring my customers their medium rare burgers with extra crispy bacon and cheddar cheese and a side of onion rings, their over-easy eggs and over-syruped pancakes, their buffalo wings with blue cheese on the side and their (almost as good as mom’s!) chicken pot pies.

 

I want to move internally from where I am—feeling wedged into a corner, trapped on the wheel of my internal misery-go-round, lamenting this seemingly intractable position—to where I could be, unrolling the filaments of my fluid being, redoubling my commitment to praise the beauty of these trees that today still shine in the many shades of fire and gold. But even the glory of their vibrancy reminds me of its imminent loss, how the colors will change from the reds and golds of a vital resplendence to the browns and greys of a monotone existence. A monotone existence, a monotone existence…

 

The days go by and before long I start questioning where my life has gone. Wasn’t I just eight years old, double-bouncing my brother on the trampoline; ten years old, sprinting on the hot sand into the Atlantic Sea; twelve years old, obsessively practicing free throws in the hoop attached to the brick on top of the garage? Am I really twenty-eight years old? Yes, in linear time at least, in that terrifyingly one-pointed line from birth to death. I am 28 years from birth, and an unknown number of years from death. Is that it? Birth and life and death as the final end? What is the end of life? What is the chief end of man? And all the bored children in chilling, joyless voices intone: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

 

Except one child, in a voice brimming with vitality, shouts out much louder than the rest, and continues long after their short refrain, exclaiming: To love the fields I run and play in and my friend I love and play with, and to love the one who created the fields and my brother and my friend and myself, and to love too the bluebird I listen to, as we both praise the rising sun: he with his song, and I with mine.

 

And this patently unacceptable and unorthodox ode to creation immediately provokes the accepted and orthodox wrath of the stern teacher in his charge—she who educates and lives by words alone because the Word itself has died within her, and since she refuses to heed her grief, or admit her need for the Spirit she professes to believe in, she passes on her corroded mode of being to those who still have Being in them, and they too learn how to let the Word die in their hearts and not grieve over its death—and the one mistakenly seen as mature punishes the one mistakenly seen as juvenile, and what is at stake is no less than the tyrannical oppression of an impressionable young soul.

 

And so this one child who had shouted from the rooftops what he believed, perceiving no difference between the original faith behind the words he spoke with all the life in his soul and the original faith behind what the others spoke with all the life drained out of them, begins after repeatedly being scolded and punished for his distinctive and animate words, to feel that he is different from the others, and as he starts to feel different, he starts to lose contact with the rapture he had felt in the fields, the harmony he had felt with the bluebird, the intimacy he had felt with his friend, and the unself-conscious union he had experienced with the Creator of the fields, the bluebird, and the friend, and he begins to create an identity out of the feeling of anguish that comes from these unbearable losses.

 

And when he first falls to the ground, and lets himself weep, he finds a kind of substitute for what he longs for in the terrible pain of longing for it. The longing feels more real than everything but the actual Reality he longs for. He begins to feel the reality of his own person most acutely when he is in acute distress, for he feels that the deeper he experiences his distress, the deeper he moves toward the initial Source of his unrest—his own estrangement from the Source—and thus the closer he grows toward the Source itself, toward regaining contact, repairing the life-giving thread that had torn between him and his capacity to feel held and loved by his invisible Twin entwined in that creative thread.

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.

Unable to be Moved—a Fiction Vignette

I need to write how I feel though it rarely makes any difference. The birdsong, the calm of Sunday evening, everyone in their homes, the loss of light as night overcomes the day: none of it moves me. My own unhappiness moves me least of all. It disgusts me. I went to a place where people who sometimes move me get together, but my heart did not stir. I flipped through books that had moved me before—to tears, to adventure and the road, to longing, to love for wildness and people great and small, to love for quiet and peace within me. I tossed each book down again. None of them could move me. Oh, but I would not be resigned! In the morning before the sun had risen I got on my bike, rode up in the direction of a mountain to the south for 15 miles up a steep grade. I made it to the top and flew down. But to move oneself is not to be moved, to feel oneself moving closer to some destination is not to move closer to oneself. I could see the trees pass by in a blur on the side of the road; it could not make clearer the blurred confusion within me. I moved my body but my soul was left unmoved.

Knowing I could not simulate the love for people I didn’t presently feel, I moved myself into the simulation of anger to see if that emotion could change my mood. I riled myself up. People? I despised them. Always smiling, unconscious or unable to allow themselves to feel their own suffering. It was all pretend, a never-ending game of Risk that ends with each player being dominated by the world, except in this pretend game people were stabbed for their shoes and thrown into gutters to die with rats. And me? I was experiencing my anger about people faking happiness and about the injustice of things in a superficial, fake, non-genuine way, without the compassion and sadness that I knew were deeper than the anger. That only sunk me deeper. I could not think of one happy moment.

Just two nights before, I had danced to funk, soul, and rock and roll. I could not hold the memory in my mind. It flew from me into unreality. Dancing—when I felt most myself, most able to express the truth in my soul—did nothing to me. Its restless, self-abandoning and self-revealing movement was only a way to escape the inability to be moved. It was no better than riding a bike. It was nothing but a last ditch effort to rid oneself of burdens that, at the end of the night, would come back with unforgiving vengeance. It failed like all other futile efforts. I remembered with greater clarity the visceral feelings that came into consciousness after the dancing was over and the glow from it gone: unable to sleep, pummeling the keyboard like I always do, trying to approximate in writing the feelings I get from dancing, and failing there too.

It was all failure, and success was the greatest illusion and entrapper of all. I had never succeeded, though perhaps nothing is more fortunate than this. I had lost jobs, lost prestige, lost relationships that had not even begun. No one had lost anything for me. I had lost them all the way I prided myself on being: alone. But none of those outward losses bothered me as much as the inner feelings: my felt sense of deficiency; my inverse and hidden grandiosity, the distance between who I was and who I felt like I could be; my loneliness yet my barely unconscious shattering of all possible opportunities I had to moderate that loneliness with a long-term romantic partner. But what good did that do? How could someone else take the loneliness away? It was not possible. The loneliness was there, and all I could do was understand and express it as best I could. A partner would only put temporary distance between myself and what I could not be parted from.

I could lose everything as long as I could create a work of art that expressed all the pain of those losses and the much greater pain of which those losses were only a symptom. I could not do it because I didn’t even feel any pain, only apathy and a frustration I felt would engulf me from the inside. I suppose I cannot say that I did not feel pain, but my greatest pain was being unable to express the pain I felt. Everything I wrote was inadequate. Only dancing provided an immediate and full expression of feeling. But the expression of pure and complete feeling possible in dancing was inadequate because inarticulate. Energy without meaning. I could dance and express the truth in my soul, but what was that truth? What did it mean? What good did it do after the fact? Nothing was left on the floor, though everything had been propelled out and onto it. It was depth brought to the surface with nothing that remained after the cessation of movement. Nothing that explained the contradictory feelings of overwhelming nothingness and unbearable passion impossible to keep down, the feelings that had caused the restless movement in the first place.

Soon all the feelings would plunge back in and down, become invisible, practically non-entities, as insignificant as the empty dance floor in the closed dive that only moments before had been the site of such forced exuberance. The feelings would be sucked in like dirt into a vacuum, the only thing to show for their existence and expression the fading neurotransmitters that would make it difficult to sleep for a few hours at least. And in the morning a hangover as psychologically painful as that from booze, though the night had been spent without the suspect benefits of that wrecking substance. The extreme ecstasy that dancing can bring at its most intense moments does not lead to long-term happiness and the comedown is just as severe, just as strong as that from any intensely enjoyable experience, whether naturally felt or artificially prompted. It is important to find the center, but not if it precludes the dancing, not if it prevents the soaring. Let monks and spiritual titans experience that grounded, centered equanimity. I know nothing of the center. It is as alien to me as I have become to myself.