Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Poem for a snowy day

"The snow doesn't give a soft white damn whom it touches." -- e.e. cummings

Snow upon arrival. Photo by Phil Roeder, Flickr

The Snowflakes' Exhortation

We're urging you to please hang up the day.
Yes, leave it there, beside the entranceway,
no bother if it puddles on the floor.
Hang up your schedule, your to-the-minute plans,
come back outside and downward drift with us
instead, come join our dainty slam dance.
Wind, all tug-of-war tyrannical,
will bellow, try to grab our thin barbed arms
but fail: You can't contain the infinite.
Our invitation's in the whispered whoosh,
our rushing, hushing hurtle toward the earth
that never ends in craters or kabooms.
What comes down can't go up, we like to say.
Accumulate with us, then. Settle in.

Prayer #270: Snow Day

No quiet like snow quiet, an icy genteel finger landing on your lips to signal you to hush. Hush your worries, hush your fears, just watch ... watch the swirling curling, the disorderly design, the tiny specks that mine what little light is left and stir dim hours.

May peace be to our hearts what snow is to our eyes -- chaos frozen to magnify perfection.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Speak of the devil: A short, incomplete, unqualified meditation on evil

Evil is this guy. Photo by Manachar Bandicoot, Flickr

What is evil?

Evil is non-existent.

Evil is relative.

Evil is universal.

Evil is the darkness.

Evil is sin.

Evil is the devil.

Evil is amorality.

Evil is intentional malevolence.

Evil is "non-good."

Evil is the lacking of good.

Evil is defective good.

Evil is balanced against good.

Evil is the "dualistic antagonistic opposite of good."

Evil is the result of a mistaken concept of good.

Evil “is a way of marking the fact that it shatters our trust in the world.”

Evil is contrary to God.

Evil is deviation from the character or will of God.

Evil is forsaking God.

Evil is the absence of God.

See/hear/speak no evil ... and look disinterested while doing it. Photo by sanjitbakshi, Flickr

All these statements are drawn from various world religions and philosophies. If the last one is true -- that evil is the absence of God -- then contemplating evil's nature makes me feel profoundly lonely.

You'd think evil, be it physical, moral, or metaphysical, would first frighten or devastate me. And it does, especially when it happens on a scale that overwhelms my puny human notions of what our infinite universe and sentient selves are capable of inflicting, such as when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines or Syria's chemical attacks were revealed in grisly detail.

But evil is also isolating. Whether you qualify only acts as evil or view "evilness" as an independent entity, evildoing sets both the doer and the done-upon apart. They have now participated in the inexplicable, in a force all humans experience at one point or another but cannot always define. They are marked. We are marked. Our separation is simply a matter of degree.

It's easy (I hope) to say no to "traditional" evil as Moses' tablets outline -- murder, theft, adultery, etc. Yet we say no to light, to good, to the fullness of joy in a thousand small ways every day -- with pettiness, recrimination, selfishness, pride -- and it puts us in hell of a different sort: at arm's length from a divine, heart-scorching love.

My priest was preaching on this topic last weekend, and he said, "You don't have to earn God's love. You have it." So I take that to mean I have to choose God's love. Choose it over temptation. Weakness. Inadequacy. Despair. And yes, evil.

It's a tall order in a disheartening world. But then I think about how lonely I felt simply imagining a life apart from light, not to mention living apart from it. So it makes the choice easier, if not the acts.

Believe me, I'm nowhere close to digesting the enormity of evil in any of its explanations or situations. I just know I don't to be more marked than I already am.

Prayer #269: The Fourth Wise Monkey

Mizaru shields his eyes, lives sight unseen.
Kikazaru blocks his ears, lives sound unheard.
Iwazaru tapes his mouth, lives word unsaid.
Make me Shizaru, who crosses arms
and lives with evil deed undid.


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Which memories are worth the amber? (Or, Why I dread framing projects)

Work in progress. Always. Photo by Brightworks School, Flickr

I have visited Pinterest twice since the day I created my account. I wear solid-colored pants and tops so I don't have to match prints. And when it comes to framing and displaying art, I shut down completely.

As regular readers of IMS know, it took me FOUR. FRICKIN. YEARS. to hang pictures in my bedroom. I enjoyed them for a year and a half, and then I moved to the bedroom upstairs, so all the pictures came down again. Now the mish-mash of frames, tchotchkes, and mementos roams homeless once more, and I'm again overwhelmed by the prospect of piecing the decorative experience together.

Why do I, a project-oriented individual, procrastinate so badly on this particular endeavor? After all, it's just holes in walls. Nothing irreparable. Nothing irreversible. Don't like it? Move it! Get something new? Replace the old! Yet I treat it like brain surgery: Do it right the first time, or forever regret the consequences.

However, with this last wrenching move that undid the puttering of four years in an afternoon, I was able to name what bothers me about framing projects: deciding what to keep visible, and what to pack away -- or worse, discard.

Empty frames. Photo by udge, Flickr

As I sifted through box and box, I found wall hangings, bells, fabric birds, die-cut cards, vintage ads I picked up at Eastern Market, brochure covers, calendar pages, a "bird house for fleas," a Goofy figurine, cross-stitches ... the list goes on. The years unfolded before me as I went. My first love gave me this street sign. My youth group framed this pledge. I found this wind chime in the stairwell of my college apartment.

To say no to something -- to say that it no longer merited display -- felt to me like rejecting those memories. Though I hadn't looked at many of these items in upwards of 10 years, I was looking at them now, and by virtue of looking at them now I was remembering circumstances and bygones and vistas I had let slip.

"Good thing I kept these boxes!" I thought. "Otherwise, my entire past would disappear!"

"Oh, so you didn't remember any of your past until this moment?" said my subconscious.

I thought for a moment. The objects were reminding me of specific details, but not the overarching experience. My first love will forever be printed on my heart. My youth group changed the way I look at Catholicism among my peers. I could tell you how every dinner party at my college apartment played out if you dropped me there today.

My subconscious piped up again. "So what you're saying is, you don't really need the items. You already remember these things, deep down."

"Shut up, Subconscious," I snapped. "You can't ask me to kill my darlings! You can't have me promote some memories over others. I need to remember all of it. Experiencing it the first time isn't enough. I need to relive, and relive, and relive, just in case ..."

But Subconscious had made its point. I knew what I had to do. I had to -- have to -- say goodbye.

Crooked is beautiful, too. Photo by seyed mostafa zamani, Flickr

There's now a box in a corner of my room collecting said goodbyes. As I select what to frame, or think about what I might want to display in the future, I put anything that no longer has a home in this humble receptacle. The items will go to Goodwill eventually, where nice people will find them and perhaps wonder why someone gave such-and-such up.

I gave it up, gentle buyer, to teach myself a lesson: that I am allowed to change what I'm invested in, what I care to remind myself of, and what I want to reinforce about my personal history. And as I will always be changing, varying how I reflect my dynamism externally does not invalidate or diminish what I have cherished or exhibited up to this point.

What's more, shedding reminders of more painful episodes can release me from bad memories or self-recrimination, plus I'm leaving wall space for what's to come. So even at its worst, my framing project is merely annoying me, while at its best it can capture the joy and beauty of my present.

I vow today not to wait four years to have my art around me again (making this latest round practically instantaneous by comparison). I will unwrap lovely memories and display resonant moments and re-encounter the art that never loses its ability to move me. Why delay joy like that?

See? I'm learning. Just as my subconscious promised. Just as I'll remember the next time this project rolls around.

Prayer #268: True Remembering

Joy scars you. I'm quick to point out angry sores and raised marks where pain once thwarted healing, but transcendent moments are just as branded on my skin.

Every time I laugh, I bruise. Every time I love, I burn. Your presence has marked me. It covers me with reminders of passion.

I fear I'll run out of skin -- out of memory -- but You assure me that true remembering is boundless. Day by day, lump by lump, You build me, so all I ever need to do is look at myself and see the artwork You have wrought.


Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The orangutan's gaze: A call to interior solitude

Captured reflection. Photo by csaveanu, Flickr

We saw the crowd before we saw the orangutan. My friends and I had just stepped into the malodorous Great Ape House at the National Zoo, trying to warm up a bit before continuing down the Zoolights path. The gorillas were already asleep, draped over hammocks, entangled in limbs, with one stately silverback sleeping upright in the back corner. But in the far right corner where the orangutans live, a formidable crowd was forming around one enclosure pane.

We saw his jutting jaw before we saw his body. The dusky orange male, looking like a shag carpet on holiday, stood on the ledge against the glass. His fists were raised and pressed at his eye level, and he kept turning his formidable underbite back and forth, back and forth, to survey the buzzing onlookers.

One friend and I horned our way into the corner of the gathering and put our foreheads close to the glass. His jaw snapped in our direction; we were in his line of sight. He two-stepped along the ledge to where we stood and solemnly regarded us. His chin was now parallel to the ground, his eyes focused on us.

I couldn't read his expression. Was he suspicious? Playful? Mocking? Was he wondering why so many bundled humans were pressed against his wall so late at night? Was he derisive because we couldn't tell time, didn't dress properly for his stinky home, weren't free to play like he was?

Two young boys darted around us and broke our gaze. His jaw turned elsewhere. I walked away. But I've found myself thinking about him since then. Had he wanted to stay up late? Were we visitors intriguing, annoying, or both? Would he remember tomorrow how today was different? Or would he not notice in the first place?

Obscured vision. Photo by Wiblick, Flickr
At the turn of another year when resolutions promulgate change, clog social feeds, and pit us all against each other in public self-improvement plans, I find myself wanting to be more like the oranguatan at the National Zoo. I want to put a wall of glass between myself and the world's increasing noise. A wall because I need space, silence, structure, solitude. But glass because I also need community, communication, connection, and clarity.

New York Times contributor Sherry Turkle started to get to what's been bothering me in a December 2013 op-ed about "The Documented Life," our society's growing propensity to interrupt our experiences to record them. She says (emphasis mine):
We don’t experience interruptions as disruptions anymore. But they make it hard to settle into serious conversations with ourselves and with other people because emotionally, we keep ourselves available to be taken away from everything. [...] 
These days, when people are alone, or feel a moment of boredom, they tend to reach for a device. In a movie theater, at a stop sign, at the checkout line at a supermarket and, yes, at a memorial service, reaching for a device becomes so natural that we start to forget that there is a reason, a good reason, to sit still with our thoughts: It does honor to what we are thinking about. It does honor to ourselves. 
Some people may argue that posting or sharing our thoughts right away honors them through broadcast. I don't agree. Good thinking takes time. Consider the root of ruminate -- to chew the cud. True contemplation requires you to return to a thought, look at it from different angles, and let it stew in a dusty corner of your mind where it meets other, seemingly unrelated thoughts and then produces wisdom beyond your initial burst of inspiration.

That's the point when we do the most honor to our thoughts -- when we give them air and room, when we trust them to live and walk on their own. In doing so we're saying we trust ourselves as well, that we believe ourselves capable of arriving at greater, deeper truths. (Louis C.K. says it best, actually, and he also quotes Bruce Springsteen.)

High-wire act. Photo by Rik Goldman, Flickr

Part of my pull toward interior solitude -- creating space within you -- is also coming from my personal attempts to establish a writing routine. (My behavioral-based resolution for 2014? "Write every day -- at least 20 minutes, at least 300 words.") The more books I read on how to write, the more I hear a consistent refrain: Observe, observe, observe. Observe the world around you. Observe details and reactions. Observe your own feelings.

But here's what scares me about observation: It often requires not participating. Like, you're standing there, you're physically present, but you're listening. Not thinking about your next witty remark, not reviewing your to-do list, just paying attention to what's happening around you.

At this point you're probably thinking, "Julia's a creeper and I'm never getting drinks with her again because I'll end up in her novel." That's not what I'm saying. (Though your story about the cat in the drainpipe might end up in something. Sorry.) I'm saying that observation helps you communciate better. It cultivates your private self and adds substance -- elements which ultimately make whatever it is you have to say more meaningful.

Author Jonathan Franzen explains the "private self" concept well in this Atlantic article "How to Write: A Year in Advice":
So even as I spend half my day on the Internet—doing email, buying plane tickets, ordering stuff online, looking at bird pictures, all of it—I personally need to be careful to restrict my access. I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from. The more I’m pulled out of that, the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. As a writer, I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to. I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there.
Hopefully, what you'll find in your own soul is substance -- the meaty, surprising, important stuff. The stuff that connects us on a universal level. I want to get good stuff out of myself. So I should put good stuff in. Right?

Good stuff in ... Photo by mirsasha, Flickr

I have found myself rooting for substance lately like a pig on a truffle hunt, and I've often come up short -- mainly, I think, because I have too many inputs, too little time, and not enough curatorial selectivity over the rotating exhibit that is my life. So now I'm examining the quality of whatever I'm consuming, be it mental, physical, commercial, or emotional.What will push me toward a fuller, smarter version of myself? What is worth the effort of consumption? What might I make of it?

Granted, not everything will pass muster, and fluff has its place. After all, where would I be without the brain-escaping pleasures of Downton Abbey? I just want to change the proportions. More good stuff in, more good stuff out. Simple to outline. Ridiculously hard to practice in an over-saturated life.

Then we arrive at the plain, sniveling truth: The quest for interior solitude scares me shitless. A friend asked today, "I have a life philosophy to 'follow the fear.' What do you think about doing that?" I stammered some inane, so-half-baked-it's-raw response about healthy vs. unhealthy risk, how fear can protect you, blah blah blah, neglecting to mention that this fundamental shift is happening at my core yet I'm terrified because a) I know it has to happen, b) I have no idea what will happen next, yet c) I'm fairly certain it's going to hurt.

I know I will benefit from space and silence. But asking for these things -- and making room in my life for them -- requires loss. I will have to sacrifice time and much-loved activities. I will need the willpower and discipline to restructure my days and hold myself to stronger standards. I will have to say no to myself and others so I can say yes to ... what, exactly? The unknown quotient intimidates me. I don't know what I'm expecting to emerge. I just know I need to see if anything does.

Now my orangutan/glass wall/wisdom of the great apes analogy breaks down, because the orangutan will never tell us what he's learned. He'll spend the rest of his days in his enclosure, wholly unto himself, and we'll never know what made his life meaningful to him.

This is where I, the human, win. After standing on the ledge with my fists against the glass, trying to make sense of the colorful babble happening a pane away, I will get to leave the zoo and share what I saw in captivity -- and ultimately be freer for it.

Seeing past the glass. Photo by GraphicReality, Flickr

Prayer #267: Monkey Business

Give me the courage to press against the glass containing me. Squint my eyes to see. Strain my ears to hear. Shape my lips to speak. Curl my hands in tight fists around the truth when it scurries past, and with it firmly in my grasp, help me beat it on the pane so hard I break through into the shocked crowd -- stunned to see in their midst an unformed beast taken aback by its own strength, surrounded by shards of what once was a wall, ready to lay bare what it heard howling in the night.