Free Sex and Comfortable Assurances

Just for interest’s sake, I took a look at the Amazon listings from the NYT Bestseller list over the weekend. The trade paperbacks were interesting cultural markers. [Ed. note: Article is from November 2012.]

In fiction: Sylvia Day and E.L. James held the top three slots. Effed-up characters doing outrageously naughty explicit things for the vicarious titillation of readers.

In nonfiction: Proof of Heaven and Heaven is for Real held the top two slots.

So, let’s see. Sin as the panacea for sin for entertainment, and a comfortable assurance that we all go someplace nice in the final reckoning for the next day’s hangover.

Or are they both just symptoms of escapism?

To put this in context, there are also a lot of political volumes on the list as I write this, just under a week after the election. That smacks of engagement, not escapism. I think it would be simplistic to suggest the porn penchant and interest in the hereafter are somehow analogous fictive dreams.

As a cynic about human nature and our ability to delude ourselves about our own goodness, it seems to me the common thread is more likely, “I did it my way.”

Whether gratification or anticipation of final reward, we like to think we’re entirely autonomous determiners of our decisions and our destiny. But even in the degradation of pornographic “redemption” tales, there’s still some concept of good and evil. No matter how screwball and codependent, the thought is there.

If good and evil exist, then we have a problem with this whole self-determinist scenario. What is good? How do we overcome evil? Does anyone actually want evil to continue in heaven? If not, then how serious are we about looking it in the face, here and now?

What happens if it turns out I am evil?

It’s more comfortable, I’m sure, to leave the question cast in shades of grey, and the hope of eternal life in the hands of nebulous personal anecdote. Our way is the highway.

The Frost Wind

This one is the wind who brings the frost. I’ve lived here long enough to know it by its voice.

This is the time of year when the sun falls asleep earlier and earlier, like an aging woman, and the clouds turn to gold that lives and dies – and die it does, like a match going out in the night.

I wear a jacket to the garden, and we pick the last of everything. Perhaps it will warm again before the final death. Some years, like some souls, find a last burst of vitality. Though brittle on the surface, shivering through each day, they radiate quiet completion.

Or perhaps the year will simply fail. Sometimes the heart gives out, and that’s the end.

Yet the fruit remains to nourish us, after the year has passed away. We retreat to warmth and the comfort of the family table, of house windows like candles in the dark. Our vigil is a passing night.

Rain falls in a tempest and freezes down. Outside, the wind wails and sighs in its annual ritual. This is the one who brings the frost, a silver blanket to lay all the north to rest.

After Leaving, There Is Life

To leave is a profound thing. Every part of life has some leaving–each day includes a trail of unfinished tasks, uncaptured moments. There are finite seconds in each moment.

Eye contact missed between loved ones as mundane duties take over. Words unspoken. Time spent and gone forever, just staying afloat in the maelstrom of doing what must be done.

Sometimes, it helps to leave behind what must be done.

So we did. After the writing conference, I didn’t fly home to Canada. I flew to Denver, and there I met my husband and kids. We travelled the American southwest for the next three weeks.

Sometimes, it hurts to leave behind what must be done, and find that it isn’t really that much of a “must” after all. What has the time been spent for? When one comes back, then what does one do with all that’s unfinished?

I don’t know. I do know that I began to feel cherished by my husband again while we were away. Dry places in our conjoined spiritual life found some water. With the younglings ever-present, it’s not easy to find time, even with everything else out of the way. We found some.

After leaving, there is life. And now that we’ve returned, I wonder what we should leave behind a little more, instead of an unfinished list of the things that glue our lives together.

Into the Songtime

The spring was a shining season, full of light and vibrance. There is no explaining a northern spring; you have to be there to know it.

The days increased, and the air resonated with birdsong. The sky became a rich, crystalline blue, the kind of colour one might find in tropical waters, but calmer, deeper, clearer.

And I awoke. The change in the light caught me and pulled me from my winter hibernation. The wind warmed, and I lost the layers of graveclothes. Found myself bare-limbed amid the earth’s breath, wandering through grasses. Tilling soil, fighting with too little time as everything came alive and busy in a rush like meltwaters in the creeks. Planting seeds and dreams and hopes.

The stars took up residence in a halfway space where blue ink stole time from midnight’s velvet black. The moon rode adrift on a sky free of cold and grey and cloud. It is an endless entity, this sky.

In the evenings, out behind the barn, it blazes pale gold and shades of rose and coral. There may be a sea somewhere far away with all these colours hidden among its secrets, but this is my ocean. Hills of green grain like great swells, places I’ve always been. Crumbling buildings once lived in by people I knew and who are gone. Someday I will be too.

Rains come. They trample the earth and ride on, and leaves open out. It is the greening. Every day, so much change. The children come running with the latest news of what grows, what blooms, what phases and stages are occurring as the hours pass by. In only a few hours, one day to the next, morning to evening, it happens.

High summer.

All insanity ceases. Oh, we are still insanely busy, but the north is balanced on its pivot point and stops to take a breath. The days stretch like a cat in the sun, and begin to lazily retract. All growing things seem to pause. They, too, stretch tall. They reach for the roof of the world, and draw in the heated air that rises off the soil.

Lightning flickers. Storm clouds pass over. The inkshades of night return with their silent wealth.

Soon comes the songtime.

The year hangs poised upon the apex of the seasons. Cricket sounds fill the evening air. Earlier, the hint of rose tinted the clouds, though all other roses have gone their way and vanished. Now, darkness begins to creep in and brings with it my Perseids. I was born in this time, the time when my world sings.

There is no explaining the change of time and season, here in my north. So, come with me to see it.

The Perseids fall. They streak through the sky and never quite make it to ground. Thrown stones that cause no wounds and break no glass houses. The moon flies at half-mast, and where the sky was full of all the gentlest hues before, now the dusky silhouettes of clouds lace the horizon, inkblots rimmed in silver.

I am aging wood, less sap and more brittleness each year. I stand inert while time whirls too fast for me to catch hold. A month used to be as a year is now. A week has become a day. I grieve the shortness of life, and I’m not half done it.

From the high summer’s gentle fermata, the slide will begin, an unseen finger running over my heartstrings. In the songtime, fruit ripens, birds sing, winds take on a different nature. All comes to its intended fullness. Yet still things change and move–instead of a rush, a restlessness that is both wandering and settling in.

Silently, my north will put a ballad in my heart. Leaves will turn colour, birds begin to wing away. The wild winds will sweep through, an unrelenting bluster that signals the jet stream’s shift southward.

In that season, I will feel the greatest resonance. I always have. The autumn’s ingress brings me lyrics and tunes, and sets my soul to restiveness along with the wind. I think perhaps I was made for summer’s end.

In the summer’s end, I am a gatherer. I turn soil, pluck fruit, make freezing and canning. My labours return to me, and they are good.

I hope this forebodes the course of my life. I hope not to be fossilized by excessive care and pragmatism by then. How would a stone hear the song of the year? Yet I miss so much that I sometimes wonder if it will slip past before I can truly grab hold, days turned into seconds.

I don’t know. I only know there is no explaining the northern summer’s end; I have to go and see it. You, then, my friend, come with me. Slow my steps. Take me there, where grasses play crescendoes and leaves rattle a percussive ostinato, and all comes to harvest, for good or ill.

I am not old yet, but I am no longer young.

Walk with me into the songtime.

Smoke

To most people, smoke means destruction and danger ahead. House gone, forest ablaze, fields licked by an orange-and-black tiger. To some, it means deception. Mirrors and a haze of uncertainty.

To me, smoke is memory.

I am sitting on her couch, for she has moved to a final stopover and her furniture is no longer needed. She bought it after he was moved to the care home. It decorated the front room, but it was a placeholder. It does not have the scent of other, older things of theirs.

In older times, smoke hangs on the air. It has the warmth of a golden summer afternoon, intertwined with the light that enters the sunroom. Windows are open, and the scent of fresh grass wafts in. Across the elm-lined city street, the neighbour’s lawnmower hums like an oversized insect. We sit while supper cooks. He in the chair that’s his, my parents in the other two. It’s a tiny room, and if children wish to join in, they must sit quietly on the floor and not wiggle too much. I sit next to the radiator, aside from his feet. He puffs grey-blue like a gentle dragon, a civilized one with an English accent. The windows are crowded with begonias in flower, which he loves to tend.

The conversation goes over my head. Books, news, society and mundane matters like how to trim a straight hedge all mingle on the air. I pat the golden retriever, who is hiding behind the armchair.

Smoke, supper cooking, fresh-cut grass, and the aroma of a late-afternoon beer to mark the day’s winding down.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. It is not the thing itself, only my mind’s representation of it. He is gone, and she is nearly. Time is meaningless to her; like a child, she wears her emotions on her nightgown sleeve, and paces the hall of the nursing home at odd hours. She could have visitors every day for a week, and on the eighth day she would insist she’s been forgotten.

Time is a tiger. It is mirrors and a haze of uncertainty. I sit here on the couch she never needed, and try to remember for her.

They lived through World War II, through the bombing of Liverpool, and in their world there are no fantasized afterlives. Only inevitable endings. Reality is a glass tumbling downward through the air, released by the hand of chance. The glass hits the floor, shatters, and it’s done.

Only the representation remains. A shape traced on a watcher’s retina, fading as the light shifts. A ghost made of shards and scraps. Until that, too, drifts away like smoke.

To My Love While You Are Gone

Ten days seems like a short time when I think about everything I want to prepare for your return. It seems like a long time when I lie down at night.

I’m doing alright. It’s possible you’re missing me more than I’m actively missing you. But then, I miss you all the time. When you’re working, when you’re too tired or distracted to really be here. So I hope you come home refreshed. In the meantime, I must keep myself busy, because this is different than the usual separations.

The wind is screaming through, the sun is hot, the tomato jungle in the living room is driving me crazy. I’ve been tilling and planting a bit. I have constant errands and child-events to deal with. I feel like I’m spinning my wheels and constantly behind. Nothing is broken so far.

I can’t help thinking several times a day of what it would be like if you didn’t make it home. It’s a shadow I have to keep pushing aside, and focus on the wait and the work instead. But it’s made me realize that the life I would be living without you is the life I shaped around you and your dreams. It’s your gift to me.

You established me as a person, and I wouldn’t be myself if not for your influence on my entire adult life. You’re the cross-current that pulls me down branching streams I never thought to explore. You’re the sun that’s thawed me and the storm that’s watered. You’re unruly, happy-go-lucky, exhausting chaos. I tend to trigger people, but you’re the business end of the double-barreled gun that is us. The relative quiet I have for these few days is only peaceful because it’s temporary.

I wish I’d done more to make things ready for when you come back again, but I’ve hit my limits. I’m in pain, I’m tired, I’m alone with the child chatter. I hope it will be enough. I hope we’ll do even more together, after. I want to make this life for you, and this home.

Not just the one you wanted; what we chose together. That’s a beautiful and conflicted mystery – we’ve battled through the decisions, and this is ours. Sixteen years is more than time passing, more than lists of things done and things to do. More than half my life with you.

And so much more than a romance or a set of responsibilities. Compatibility is a minor detail next to choosing companionship and fellowship and fidelity. Comfortable compatibility, I think, would not have the same spark as this dance. Look what it builds. Look how it blooms.

I will see you again soon.

Take Me At My Word

One of my friends has a saying which this natural-born skeptic has heard from time to time: “Take me at my word.”

It’d be a much easier world if people lived by that old-fashioned principle. It’s a good one. But it’s a disappearing phenomenon.

Double Talk

I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s sometimes felt the need for an interpreter when trying to engage people on their own terms. It seems a lot of time can be spent decoding what people really mean when they say things–everyone likes to establish their own personal qualifiers.

Usually, that’s okay. We all speak our own subtle dialect born out of our unique outlooks and experiences. But usually it’s not so much that we can’t understand each other.

Except for those times when communication becomes an ongoing wheel of personal spin doctoring. Except for those times when one of us doesn’t want to hear, or perhaps to be heard.

Good Old-Fashioned Idolatry

I’m pretty sure it’s a form of idolatry to pick and choose and interpolate/extrapolate so as to fill one’s social circle with imaginary friends and/or loved ones puppeted by real live bodies.

When we selectively reinvent the people around us to suit our preferences and comforts, or to cater to the pride we take in self-established certitude, we’re usurping the Creator’s position over other human beings. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a fine blend of blasphemy and schizophrenia.

Nonetheless, editorial listening is a refined art, one to whose seductions we all succumb sometimes. We hear what we think we’re supposed to hear, or we listen only for what concerns us.

But are those ghosts really in the room? Are they part of the conversation, or are they part of the fantasy created by the filters on our ears?

How shall we know?

Lost Causes

I recall reading Shirley MacLaine in my teens. She had this notion that there is only one consciousness, that manyis an illusion to be resolved by achieving true awareness. If we could all raise consciousness, “we” would realize we are one.

If that is true, I thought, then when I achieve that consciousness, I will see everyone I thought I knew for the shadows they are, like a carnival’s hall of mirrors. Every relationship I’ve known will be a lost cause: “I,” whatever that turns out to be–and it won’t even be me as I know myself to be–will be all there is.

Everyone I’ve ever loved will have been a lie, and “I” will be utterly alone in the universe.

The thought left me so shaken by impending loss and loneliness that I could go no farther with the thought experiment.

Yet we live like this all the time, isolated by the illusory nature of our chosen perceptions. We make people into the image we want, and we throw them out like castoff toys when their true personhood breaks the mold we’ve invented for them. We fabricate an image of ourselves. It’s how we avoid having to take ourselves as we are. We say “friend;” we mean straw man. We say “mutual support;” we mean “prop up the case I’m making for my self-image.”

But fabrications unravel themselves, no matter how we stitch them together.

Truly, Truly

So what does this mean, “take me at my word”? Really, it’s a biblical phrase, casually paraphrased into modern English.

I don’t know the Greek or Aramaic from two thousand years ago, but I do know the formal English: “Truly, truly, I say to you.” The words of Jesus.

It’s a phrase of horrible, bone-grinding simplicity. It means trusting the plain assigned meaning, rather than trusting the image we make of it.

It means the actions and the words will align. It means the semantics will not belie the syntax.

It means that the person speaking is giving the listener the greatest possible chance of accurate understanding. It expresses an act of grace.

It means there is hope.

It seems utterly counterintuitive to say, “trust me, it means what it means.” It’s like saying, “I am that I am,” a statement for which we have no reference point. But then, that’s because we are so used to being politely lied to, and we’re so used to politely lying to ourselves. So used to inventing images, rather than accepting the reality.

Yet this is what my friend said when we first met: “Take me at my word.” And that’s when I felt at home. Because I recognized the meaning, though the words are a paraphrase; I’d heard it somewhere before.

And because I’ve long known: Without it, we are all shadows, alone.

The Metamorphosis of Doubt

This is the summer of my life, the time when life’s early rains and startling frosts turn to warm winds and growing fruit. Yet a blight crept across my summer’s first revolution, a niggling vermin. It sucked at the unripe fruit and left it shriveled, and it called me friend.

Doubt does that.

It was a slow and subtle chewing at the leaves in the place where I inscribe my days, with vague promises of excellence in exchange for my personhood, couched in a gentle gnawing that slowly stripped the growth away.

Metamorphosis is not just about the transformation but the waking up aware of it. Awareness is everything in such instances. Is there something non-verminous in our blood? The taint itself is not in question. When a verminous epiphany occurs, the question is whether we recognize it.

So I saw this thing that had become me, and I found I couldn’t live in its shell.

The representation of a thing and the thing in itself are not the same. And so it is with more than Magritte’s pipe; so it is with the creative act. We can represent ideations about creativity, live out a metafiction; or we can do it. Even smoke has a scent, and mirrors have a surface that displays our fingerprints.

What, then, is the pursuit of excellence? Nothing painful. A tree does not become an excellent tree by striving with itself. It grows into its natural form, even when wind and pestilence deform it; still it grows, still it reaches, and every buffeting merely gives it a new form. But always it stretches fingers upwards at the sky. It flexes and it turns itself and seeks.

A tree becomes an excellent tree by being itself, not by trying to be a fish propped on a painted bicycle for show. If it’s truly a tree, and not just an inane sketch on someone’s napkin (made of dead tree), then it doesn’t even know how to try being a fish.

So, too, the artisan; the tools are a source of fascination to a young apprentice. The methods are a source of stability, clearing away confusion. Knowledge is built in the exchange of knowledge, perhaps the only thing on the planet that can counteract entropy and become a perpetual motion machine; for it is spiritual, not mere molecules. The mind and heart live in a higher realm with different laws than here.

The honed work of the mature hand is a joy, a delight, a diversion. It obeys different laws than the standard fare of suffering and a meaningless end. To sweat at the labour is part of the discipline, part of the act. Proof of more than mere ideation.

We learn early how to be what we are; or we learn how to be what we are not. The thing is, masks and art are mostly incompatible, unless one makes an art of masks. But only mask-makers are called to that, and I am something else.

The thing about pests is their ability to mask; they so often look like something beneficial, a garden denizen that’s meant to be there for the health of the overall ecosystem. Very few insects are actually vermin; the problem is that the few who are, do disproportionate damage.

That’s what doubt does.

So, with my leaves full of holes, and the damage done, I proceed to turn over the soil of imagination. There is no other way to ensure that growth will come again.

Take Your Religion and Shove It Where?

I haven’t blogged much in the last year, but I’ve kept reading and observing. I’ve had a front-row seat to the anti-evangelical-post-evangelical-postmodern discussion online, in all its de-churched fury, passion and emotiveness.

Some of it is very thoughtful and important.

Some of it is just stupid.

If we don’t like the way we were treated somewhere, that doesn’t make it okay to treat the offender the same way. Doing so just proves we’re all criminally selfish at heart.

If we don’t like the lack of sound reasoning used among the more superstitious religionists, that doesn’t excuse our own indulgences with subpar thinking, paparazzi-style commentary, and pseudo-refutation. Those things are about knee-jerking, sense of entitlement and self-justification. Oh, and wanking. Not making a better world.

 

You’re either A or you’re not-A. Sticking a “religious” label on other people doesn’t make them not-people, and sticking a “post-religious” label on oneself doesn’t make one a fashionable rebel. People are people are people. Intellectual, spiritual and social institutions are just toys we build for displaying our peopleness, whether for better or for worse.

The question is whether we’re going to be decent people who critique ideas intelligently, or jerks who rant about religious topics as if the current-day, American context and interpretive lens is the only one that informs the meaning of sacred texts.

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Invasion of the Dental Snatchers

Today’s dental surgery went well. Except for one thing: I forgot to ask them to give me the ruddy tooth that caused all the trouble. I wanted to post a picture of it and gross y’all out.

Since that’s not an option, here is what a trip to a surgical room is like in my world: I freak out.These are the same kind people who relieved me of four wisdom teeth ten years ago, and I freaked out then also. I’m sure they were like, Oh, great, she’s back.

I do not like it, Sam-I-Am! I do not like the gown and showercap, I do not like the fact that I forgot to put on my newest and best undies, I definitely do not like the IV needle. In fact, I go completely nuts about it and give the nurse trouble, because I’m all tensed up and my hand has taken on the shape of a crone’s claw.

Then I go have a cry while waiting for the anesthesiologist, such that when he walks in, he gives me a long look and goes, “What’s wrong?”

So I hold up my IV’d hand, which hurts like a b@#$%yotch because I tensed up as the needle went in, and because the tape is pulling my skin and making me think it hurts, and by the way it also hurts because it freaks me out. “I don’t like needles.”

“Well it’s in now,” he says, sounding bemused.

Exactly!!! I can feel that sucker in there! The very thought of a sharp metal probe beneath my skin is enough to nearly put me off the rocket launcher and over the moon with not-joy.

Do you see why I write SF!? This is like the invasion of the alien probe monster! Yes it is!!

So finally we’re done with all the checks and the confirmations of the health record and they get me lying down. And d@##it, they’re fiddling with the IV to hook up the saline. And the needle is seriously bothering me. Worse, they’re pinning me into the blanket to keep my arms from flopping off the edge of the table.

And then the anesthesiologist puts a mask over my face and says, “Just some oxygen.” And I’m thinking, “Oh no, you did NOT say that, it had better not be ‘just some oxygen,’” and I take two deep breaths and then I’m waking up in recovery.

The sleep was gooooooood. I feel rested. And slightly ornery. Like I want to just get up and walk around, immediately, and test my reflexes to make sure they’re all there still. I’m on the side of the room, next to a chart that lists response scores. Moving one’s feet and holding one’s head up are the high scores. My feet move fine.

My head does not stay up without intense vertigo. Damn. I guess I can’t rack a high score yet, but give me a few minutes.

Unlike some other patients that I saw when we arrived, I do not even walk into a wall on the way out. I feel very lucid. However, I find out I am not when My Love tries to get me to set the GPS for the nearest drugstore. (They keep moving in Cowtown. Why do they keep moving?) I cannot find and sort the letters of the alphabet on the screen. It was a very odd experience. Needless to say, it’s good I cleared my editing schedule beforehand.

So we go to Wal-Mart, where My Love buys me a 7-Up and a gardening magazine with lots of pretty, pretty pictures and I sit very still where he made me sit. (He knows how to distract me from wandering off.) And then he buys me drugs. And I think, yay! Because the freezing is starting to wear off. And also, he gets me a milkshake, and I get to slurp it with a spoon and be gross because of having a fat numb lip all along one side, which entertains me far more than it does My Love, who is trying to enjoy his milkshake also.

In short: I am going to be just like my grandmother when I get into my 80’s, and it’s going to be a terror and a headache to everyone. Because when the senility hits, it’ll be like this all the time. But that’s okay, because the kids tell me they’re already making arrangements to put me in a nursing home — whether I’m old enough to go or not.