Character Sketch II

•December 11, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Duchess

 “What do you think? If somebody treats you mean, do you leave?  Do you try to be nice to them?  Do you find new friends?  We’re just having a conversation, you understand, just a conversation.”

“I’m not sure exactly,” I replied. “It depends greatly on the situation.”

“Well let’s just say you’re in a relationship, and the person treats you bad.  What do you do?  Just a conversation.”

“Well, I’d probably say you should leave, depending on how bad it is.”

“Mhm.  I just wanted a young person’s opinion.  Just, for instance.”

“I’d say just make sure you’re taking care of yourself.”

“Not necessarily me.”

Duchess almost never smiled.  Her face was a study in sorrow.  A frown was chiseled into her cheeks.  The ends of her lips naturally tended downward.  She would lean on anything, as if the weight of her existence was too much to carry.  She spoke below a whisper, as if she did not deem her voice worthy of being heard. 

Silence passed.

I broke it.

“I think if someone is being abused, they should leave.”

She startled.  She looked like I had uncovered something too horrible.

“But don’t people sometimes change?  Sometimes if you love ‘em enough?”

“I wish people could change.  Sometimes they do but rarely.”

“Mhm,” she contemplated.

She rolled up her sleeve and showed me bruises.  She told me how her husband would shake her, how she was afraid that one day he might shake her too hard.  She might fall back and hit her head and be dead.  She said she ached.  Her skin would break out, which her doctor said was because of stress.  She worried too much and she knew it.  She was sixty without anyone in the world.  She used to set up a Christmas tree for her grandson but he never came round no more. 

“I set up a tree just for me.  I like it.”  I tried to be cheerful.  What a stupid, stupid thing to say.

She said her doctor said her spine was disenter… distente… (disintegrating) and that her back hurt so much sometime that tears would come out.  She had an MRI later that day.  She’d have to go alone.  It was scary being in a tunnel all alone, but God was with her and that would just have to be alright, she supposed. 

“I try to love everybody.  I try to tell people I appreciate their being here.  I try to hug people, but not everybody likes to be hugged.  You see her over there?  She sometimes comes in here so grumpy, and nobody deserves that.  You know, sometimes after he’s been running around with some other women, he needs my help and comes around.  I help him.  I do everything I can for him.  But he gets so angry.  He takes everything out on me.  He’s sixty, but he hasn’t lost any of his strength.  He’s gotten worse.  He’s gonna kill me.”

“You’re so busy taking care of everyone else.  You need to take care of yourself.”  What a stupid thing to say.

Character Sketch I

•December 11, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Janice

Janice is strong.  Janice is lean and tall.  Her brow is always furrowed.  “If Ms. Janice ever tells you to do something,” I was told, “just ask someone else what you should do.  No one ever understands what she says.”  I believed this.  Over the incessant whirs of machines and clashing of plates could sometimes be heard the piercing yet unintelligible commands.  I was afraid of Janice.  She ran the dishroom with an iron fist, a fist that always missed its target, pounding on our ears with no effect.  I thought she must hate us since we probably never do what she says, or if we do, it’s completely by accident.  I learned to tune her out.  It was unimportant.  No use trying to understand.

At the end of a particularly demanding shift, I heard her say, “Y’all should jest go back. Goooo back to school,” by which I thought she meant that she had come to the end of her rope with us, that there was no hope for us idiot student workers.  She then yelled the same mantra over and over and over.  I couldn’t comprehend it, but it was beautiful.  It was songlike, no, chantlike.  A call and response to which no one could respond.  A stab into a dumb darkness.  “Uh meeeeen woot. Uh haaaawt woot.”  I focused on the sounds, the mere sounds, the raw sounds.  She shook her head and mopped.  “Uh haaaaawt wort. Mmm.  I knows.”  Suddenly I understood.  It’s a mean world.  It’s a hard world.  I know it.

Her battle cries were with us, not against us.  Suddenly this rough woman was important.  Suddenly it mattered what she said.  She was not yelling at us.  She was empathizing.  She was railing against the cruelty of the world.  She knew our struggles.  She knew we were tired.  She knew.  She had hard-won knowledge.  And she was on our side.  It’s hard.

I started listening every chance I got.  No one else seemed to know Janice.  No one else saw her deep compassion for us.  But I kept listening.  She said that times have changed.  She said she couldn’t keep up with us kids.  She couldn’t understand.  “Y’all’re so touchy-feely.  Men with men, women with women,” she would sometimes remark.  “But it’s jest that times are changing.  You gotta accept that.  They aren’t doin anything wrong.  It’s jest not for me, that’s all.” 

“I know it’s hard, going to school and working.  I know. I know.” “You just gotta accept it.”  “It’s not for me to judge.”  She was personified.  A person who had been made into a caricature, into an object, was made human again.  Of course, I didn’t understand everything she said.  Sometimes her words were still just sounds to me, but I wanted to listen.  I wanted to catch on to the glimpses I could grasp into her mind.  How much I might have missed had I dismissed her. 

December Days

•December 9, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The same dark, quiet, solitary December days which used to stir in me angst and despair now are to me a comfort. I used to respond to the resting earth with unrest, to wish to create in the silence some noise, to rail against symbolic death with a desperate plea to life. But now I feel a completeness in stillness. I sit behind my apartment on the porch that I don’t have (a slab of concrete) and stare into the shadowed woods and do not fear. I am alone, but I realize I am no more alone than when I seek out company to fill the void. I am separated from other consciousnesses by space, but I still have ideas in my own mind and am still existing to the same extent (if indeed it can be said that existence is a predicate of me) I always have. Perhaps it is lonelier to feel separation in the physical presence of others. Perhaps it is lonelier to feel the weight of a void in one’s own mind which begs to be filled with substitute consciousnesses provided by others.

What has changed? Nothing. Or rather, that which has changed is always changing. [Is continual and inevitable change a sort of stagnation?] What have I discovered? Nothing. What is the source of my comfort? Nothingness. I am getting nowhere and am glad.

What advice can I give to others? I have not had a goal in mind. Others who have some goal in mind should not ask me how to achieve that goal, because I have not tried. I do not know a path. I do not know a direction. Others who have no goal in mind will not need my directions any more than I need the direction of others.

Bleak and lost as this condition may sound, I prefer to regard it as a realization rather than a position. By being calm, by being peaceable, the world in which I find myself becomes no more bleak and lost. I simply turn my attention towards that emptiness and become peaceful towards it. I do not cease to have desires. I do not cease to work. I am not idle. In fact, I regard the work of stillness more challenging than movement. I find the work of reflection more straining than distraction. Most importantly, I do not cease to love. Love wells up in my heart often and strongly. I love those whom I love. I love that I am. I love that the world is. I love words. I love sound. I love thought. I love structure. I love disorder.

But by loving, I have often meant desire to possess. I cannot possess. I cannot possess especially if by possession I mean to control. I cannot possess if by possession I mean to indefinitely preserve. I cannot possess if by possession I mean to change something outside of my domain. But if by possession I mean a relishing of that which is near me or that which pleases me when it is near or does please, then I do not mean possession at all, but rather love.

“To Be is to Belong to Someone”

•May 9, 2012 • Leave a Comment

When our liquorice bodies swayed in rhythm

Side by side, left shoulder to left shoulder

To the tune of subway screeches

When I stole a childish glance into the flickering eyes

Hoping to remain statue-like, indifferent masculinity

But oozing boyish laughter through my eyelashes

When the gesture was returned and your lemon tree lips

Quivered a quaint floral grin – ivory-toothed

And your regal cheeks bended

When I brushed your elbow and felt the unmovable static

Electric shocks – and your hair frayed, backlit

My cherubic Eros – my Psyche besides

Not mine, I do not own, cannot chain – you are free!

Yet where you stand is so close, of your free choosing

and I choose, I choose here – I do not subjugate

Myself – equal stature, like natures, begets

Confirm me!  sixty-nine platonic spheres

I seek your affirmation because in you I am confirmed

To be known. to be known. to be known.

When we stepped out into the crowd of undifferentiated

Eyes, I saw no one, only the erect posture I followed

Mirrored vision, you here, in me – my god, and I in you

My second self, I question your furrowed brow

Warmth answers, swarms of life’s bitter mystery

When you laid me down in a field of clover

And created no shadow when you bent over me

And the earth shook and the veil of the temple was torn

When I became no longer a being but a knower of your eyes

When I saw you seeing me lost in your being lost in me

When we sighed side by side abiding

I lived and died and fled and flew

I cried and joyed and loved and knew

Unconditional Love

•February 14, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I have mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day.  The cynical part of me would like to lock myself in my room, drink Vodka, and curse society.  The rational side of me knows that it’s just another day, for good or bad – lovers can be romantic any day of the year, and I can gripe in my room anytime.  But the tenderer part of me knows that if I had a special someone, I would romance them to the fullest today – I would not leave any romantic gesture untouched.

Since in reality, however, no love is by my side, I’ll content myself to muse and brood over what is meant by love, especially unconditional love.

Joshua Reynolds, Cupid and Psyche, 1789

Few concepts have such a noble place in our minds as “unconditional love.”  We consider that the love of a mother is supreme because it is unconditional – we assume a mother will love her children no matter what.  We want desperately to be loved by someone who will never leave our side.  Some of us strive to learn how to love unconditionally.  Surely that is an admirable endeavor.  Surely true love is unconditional.

However, I don’t think it is admirable; I don’t think it is desirable; and I don’t even think it actually exists.  If I love someone with no conditions for that love, then nothing that he could possibly do would cause me to stop loving him.  If he changes the way he looks, I will still love him – his appearance was not a condition for my love.  If he was once kind and becomes testy, I will still love him – his personality was not a condition of my love.  If he changes his mind of every position he once held, I will still love him – his thoughts were not a condition for my love.  This is clearly ridiculous.  I love the people I love because they are who they are.  I love them because I love something about them.  If they cease to be that, will I still love them?

You see, if you say you love someone unconditionally, you are saying that you have no reason to love that person.  I don’t think you can say that you love someone because they are x and also that if that person were to become not x that you would still love them – x was clearly not a reason or a cause for your love.  So unconditional love means there is nothing, no quality, no merit, about the object of your love that is indispensable to you.

I want to be loved for admirable qualities about myself.  If I were to become essentially different, my lover would feel loss because the me (or the various aspects of me) who was loved is no more.  Unconditional love makes love ordinary and bland.  Why love me and not someone else if there are no criteria?  Why not love everyone equally?  Why not have the same love for every person on earth if there are no conditions?  Unconditional love is not special love.

All that said, I don’t think most people have this literal definition of unconditional love in mind when they use the term.  What they probably mean to convey is a love that is not a bargain.

“To give and not expect return, that is what lies at the heart of love.”  ~ Oscar Wilde

In my mind, the most blatant abuse of love as a bargain is the institution of marriage.  Think about it: two people decide they want to be legally bound, sign a contract, and take oaths in a public ceremony.  This is such a strange tradition!  And we consider this the culmination of a relationship: a contract.  I don’t at all mean to imply that forming long-lasting, potentially lifelong bonds with another human being and committing to stick through the hard times together is a bad thing (I think it’s one of the best things!) but rather that a person should not legally bind another human being to her- or himself forever.  I want someone to choose to face life together with me day by day until we grow old for no other reason than that he loves me and enjoys being with me, not because a contract says he should.  This is my ideal.

I consider, too, what marriage implies regarding unconditional love:

I, ____, take you, ____, for my lawful (husband/wife), to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

It is problematic to expect to not be left no matter what you do.  In my experience, many men, after they have captured their brides, cease to do the very things that initially endeared them to their wives.  They don’t try to be lovable anymore.  They have obtained the prize.  And the prize has promised (by law) that, no matter what, she will not leave him.  Ideally, a couple in love will continually re-fall in love as they further get to know the qualities in each other which initially drew them together.

The safety-net of a marriage bond is an illusion.  The glues of fondness, affection, and devotion are much stronger than the ink of a contract.

*     *     *     *     *

Personally, relearning how to love was one of the most challenging aspects of losing my faith.  On one hand, I was used to the very conditional love of God.  I came to know that God’s love was conditional the same way I came to know anything about God: through people who claim to know something about him.  I knew very distinctly the sorts of things I could and couldn’t do if I wished to remain lovable.  The Bible was explicit.  God’s people were very clear.  In a way, this made love and acceptance easy.  If I do A, B, and C and don’t do D, E and F, I will be loved.  Simple as that.  But when my curiosity and appetite for knowledge led me away from religion, all the professed love vanished.  In recent years, getting to know friends who love me for who I am, instead of who they think I should be, has been jarring but extremely refreshing.

On the other hand, I was also used to the myth of unconditional love.  I thought that no matter how I had sinned, if I confessed my sins, God would forgive and love me.  I thought that nothing I could do would sever my familial ties.  I thought that friendship and love were metaphysical “objects” that could not change.  But as I grew up, I realized that conscious beings change over time.  People grow together and drift apart.  Friendship is a relationship between mutable humans, not eternal souls.  Even familial love changes – family members move away – closeness fades – affections become memories.  These realizations made me frantic at first.  People had been my anchor.  I thought I would lose everyone.  I thought life had no meaning if most relationships would be severed by distance, or change, or death.  Now that I have come to peace with these facts of life, they inspire me to treat relationships as precious and breakable things.  I don’t take people for granted.  I can’t treat people however I want and expect them to still love me the same way.  I treasure all the little moments with the people I love because I know I will not have them forever.  Moments come, moments go.  I want to relish those moments.

I also lost a certain security for love’s labors.  I once thought that each act of “love” would be rewarded in heaven.  I thought that even if my good deeds were thrown in my face and even if my thoughtfulness went unnoticed, God would take notice and even the scores in eternity.  Without God, each act of love is a risk.  Whatever I give has to be given freely without guarantee of return.  I have to be careful and chose wisely the people in whom I will invest time.  Each little piece of love I give away is a piece I don’t expect to get back, I don’t expect to be rewarded for, and I don’t even expect to be necessarily appreciated.

In loving without God and loving conditionally I have learned to love people for who they are, to treasure the people in my life, and “to give and not expect return.”  So in these last few hours of Valentine’s Day and in the days, weeks, and years to come, let your loved ones know the ways and reasons you love them.  Love them for who they are.  Cherish them.  Give freely of yourself.  Love.

A Plea for Troy Davis

•September 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Amnesty!  Justice!  Empathy!

Yesterday afternoon I took part in a protest in Athens, Georgia.  It was new territory for me – out of my norm – but I felt strongly about the issue at hand.  A man is scheduled to be put to death in spite of spotty evidence.

I was hesitant to stand in front of UGA’s Arch, camera-vulnerable.  I usually avoid conspicuity at all costs.  But then it occurred to me that I have the choice to be unseen, to blend in to society unnoticed.  Those with dark skin are always conspicuous and always vulnerable to the inequality still pervasive in our justice system.  So in solidarity I made myself visible.

If not proven guilty, innocent! innocent! innocent!

As my left arm grew weary from holding up one side of the “Amnesty International” banner, I gazed blankly at the sharp relief of the downtown Starbucks building against an innocent sky.  Brush-stroked cirrus clouds, color of plaster of Paris, softened the crisp autumn blue.  The handiwork of humans was a tan brick right angle, but from my perspective the angle was obtuse, almost a curve.  If only we could all view the world from another’s point of view.  Wouldn’t the lines blur and the angles blunt?

Press replay and watch the past unfold before your eyes.

Envision yourself an unfortunate man, perhaps, at the wrong place at the wrong time.  One misstep and your precious few years on earth are forfeited.  Imagine yourself innocent, frantically pleading your case, lame-lipped, completely unable to convince anyone that you are not the one they seek.  Perhaps he is the culprit, perhaps he is not, but we must be absolutely certain before punishment is applied.  Even in the case of someone unquestionably guilty, do we have the right to cut life short?

Click here to read about the case.

Please contact Georgia Board of Parole and Pardons
Phone: (404) 656-5651       Fax: (404) 651 8502
webmaster@pap.state.ga.us

Call or fax Larry Chisolm District Attorney
Phone: (912) 652-7308       Fax: (912) 652-7328 or (912) 447-5396.

Ask him to please withdraw his request for Troy Anthony Davis’ execution. You will be asked where you are calling from.

Job’s Friends and Victim-Blaming

•July 26, 2011 • Leave a Comment

When I was a Reformed Christian, my interpretation of the book of Job was one-dimensional and bleak.  Now freed from the duty to view the Bible as inerrant, God as good, and theology as coherent, I read it as perhaps a valuable lesson to believers.  It is definitely a step in the right direction away from the mindset of the Pentateuch.

For those who are not familiar with the story of Job, this cowboy will catch you up to speed in about 3 minutes: click here.

My quick synopsis:  At an Olympian-like meeting of the heavenly beings, God boasts to Satan that the wealthiest man in the East, Job, fears and worships him.  Satan claims that the only reason Job serves God is because he is so well-to-do; if his possessions were taken away, he would turn from God. God, realizing his ego is in jeopardy, gives the order that Satan may harm Job in any way he wishes but not kill him.  The conniving spirits cast Job into utter misery and despair.  At the height of his suffering, Job’s three closest friends come to commiserate with him.  For several days, they simply sit and keep him company.  At long last, the friends begin bombarding him with questions and accusations, insistent that he must have sinned in some way to incur the wrath of God.  If only his friends could see into the heavenly places, they would see that God does not punish and reward fairly, but rather he is arbitrary, narcissistic, and insecure.

My previous understanding of the book centered almost entirely on the introductory drama between God and Satan, even though the bulk of the book is the monologic discourse among Job and his friends.  I thought the meaning was that God may do with us as he wishes, to glorify himself, and that we should submit to suffering.  But now I consider this book a parable, warning the readers not to assume that suffering is a direct result of sin.  When someone is suffering, they should be viewed with compassion and empathy, not scorn.  This is ethical.

The moral of the story is even more palatable if we take God out of the equation.  Nature is not an intelligent, intending force.  Bad things happen to some people regardless of who they are.  We are all in this “life” thing together.  We can come alongside one another in times of need, understanding that we are all subject to the same misfortunes.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.

Many people are unsettled by the idea of our fortunes being largely determined by indifferent forces of nature that have no higher teleological aspirations.  I would be much more unsettled believing that an all-powerful, jealous God directs my life at his whim.

Job’s friends were not a special instance.  The are all too many examples of victim blaming in modern society.  Pat Robertson blamed the Haitian earthquake on a “pact with the devil.”  John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on gays.  Jerry Falwell blamed the 9-11 attacks on pagans, abortionists, feminists, and gays.  Victim blaming s not limited to religion.  Some say that victims of rape, for example, are responsible for tempting the rapist.

Why are Job’s friends (and people today) so quick to blame bad circumstances on someone’s character?  It’s simple: fear.

As humans, we have the stunning ability to see causal relationships from the morass of sensory data we take in.  We see patterns.  We learn from experience.  If something we do is followed (seemingly directly) by a pleasant outcome, we will likely do it again.  This allows us more control over our circumstances, our comfort and our chance of survival.  Sometimes this method is accurate, and it is in fact a crucial building block of empiricism.  But sometimes we are led astray into thinking there is a correlation between two things when in fact there is none.  This is the breeding ground of superstition.

We also learn from seeing causal relationships in what others do.  If someone touches fire and then acts in a way that signals he or she is in great pain, an observer will avoid touching fire.  I think this is the basis for victim-blaming.  Job’s friends were understandably terrified by what they saw.  No one would want the same to happen to them.  In order to avoid an outcome, you must know the cause of it.  If the cause is not readily apparent, fill in the gap.  God has a reputation as a good “gap-filler.”  In the case of a rape victim, one might be comforted (incorrectly) by thinking that if one dresses modestly and does not act seductively, rape will be avoided.

The attitude of the book of Job signals a clear divergence from most of the previous Old Testament books which describe a stricter cause/effect relationship between suffering and disobedience. The stringency of the punishments may not match the crimes, but the punishments parallel sins nonetheless.  In that sense, Job is a very positive reaction to the harshness of other books, moral progress.

However, even if I read Job very generously, ignoring the mythology and viewing it as a parable urging us not to judge victims, there still remain two major problems with the book. Firstly, it seems contradictory that a book encouraging the readers not to make assumptions about why people suffer begins with a dramatic explanation of why God allowed Job to be tortured.  It doesn’t really achieve the goal of encouraging believers to hold the causes for calamity in indecision.  It just shifts the focus from the justice of God to the capriciousness of God.  Also, as an addendum, we are told that Job was even wealthier in his latter days than before the story because of his obedience.  This unravels the whole tale.  We are back to “the wicked suffer, the righteous prosper.”

Secondly, it is wholly unsatisfactory to me that in the end, Job’s friends experience the wrath of God because they did not “speak the truth about [Him].”  From the acts of God in the Pentateuch, it was perfectly reasonable to infer that Job was suffering because of sin.  They operated under the assumption of a just and good God.  Once again, in favor of punishment, Jehovah missed an opportunity to calmly, kindly, and sanely instruct his creation.