If Any Church Would Have Me as a Member….

“You can’t eat the bread if you haven’t accepted Jesus as your savior.”

This was from my grandmother, who had turned around from the pew in front of me in order to make sure I hadn’t gulped down the saltine wafer and grape juice—the flesh and blood of Christ—as they were passed before my pre-adolescent appetite.

I loved and love my departed grandmother; my relationship with her is one of those foundational emotional bonds that girds my being. And yet, this woman who was so important to me had no trouble reminding me that I was an unredeemed sinner who was pedaling his way to the smoldering gates of Hell.

My brain was quick to make the obvious connection: My grandmother, an otherwise endless source of love and support, had transformed into my Condemner because we were in church.

I am one of those born with that chromosomal kink who, despite all efforts to the contrary over many years, can’t seem to shake loose from an inclination toward the religious. Not the spiritual, which I define as the essential gut-feel that the Universe operates by erratic divine providence, I mean religious – holy scriptures, rituals, preachers, and yes, church.

I am also one of those born with that _other_ chromosomal kink who can’t get comfortable with two important components of the religious life: settling into a single religious discipline and attending church.

Sigh.

So…by default, my tribe is the pastiche of spiritual, religiously-inclined humanist artists who wander and ache and rebel and mourn and joke and indulge and imbibe and who otherwise feel like we’re missing out on something grand but who also feel like we’ve dodged a boulder-sized bullet. My tribe is the ‘Cafeteria Plan Believer’ – the group who uses whatever spiritual teachings pass the transom of our pre-occupied brains and cobble themselves together into a belief system.

Imagine a Frankenstein monster sutured together with religious iconography.

This serves me well as an artist (or at least it keeps my creative engines rumbling), but I can’t know what it’s doing to my spiritual development, which is, to my mind, integrally entwined with that self-same creative development.

I do know that during these past few and difficult years, probably some of the hardest years of my life (he wrote vaguely), I have turned to spiritual texts and teachings more than ever before. I have brought a daily practice into my hours. I have been remarkably serious about it. And as much as I long to tell my grandmother that I am now able to chew the wafer and drink the juice, I still just…can’t.

But, if there were a church out there I could belong to, the one that comes closest to my ideal is Nadia Bolz-Weber’s. The combination of disciplined adherence and open-armed admittance, the emphasis on tradition and resurrection and redemption, speak to me and my sense of what the religious should be.

I can’t know what my grandmother would have thought Bolz-Weber’s congregation, but I like to think that, in another reality, we could have broken bread there together. 

You Complete Me: What is the Purpose of Art? (Answered in 500 Easy Words)

Gone are the days when I could ruminate about the whys and hows of my art.

It’s not that I lack the interest or even the tolerance (although I do certainly lack the time) or that I can’t navel-gaze with the best of them, but at some point along the way, the need to preoccupy myself with the engines driving my writing decreased from an incessant, back-firing clatter to a just audible background thrum.

So I was jolted into once again considering the topic when I listened to this interview with sculptor Dario Robleto, and the conversation turned to a question that Robleto continues to ask himself:

Can art finish something that’s never been finished?

As discussed in a previous post, we’re all familiar with (if not bored by) the trope of the artist as damaged human who turns to creating as a means to heal, as a means to salve some emotional wound or to deal with some mental dysfunction. The trope exists not only because of the attractive and convenient narrative, but also because of its inherent truth. Yes, most of us wanderers are wandering because we were at some point in our lives unmoored. Most (maybe all) eventually thrive from embracing this otherness that we perceive separates us from a ‘normal’ existence that everyone else appears to be living.

But if we can take the artist and his/her origin story out of the art object and do our best to consider the art by itself (yeah, yeah, I agree it’s nearly impossible but give it a shot, anyway) we are left with considering the purpose of that piece of art. Not the why but the what.

You drew that picture. You wrote that book. You composed that piece of music. Ignoring why and how you did it, what is that picture, book, music supposed to do?

For my part, I default to the same setting that I suspect most of us are switched to: I cogitate about and put more emphasis on the process rather than the product (art for art’s sake, man). In fact, I bet if I surveyed my own damned blog, I’d find in the often overlapping topics I tend to discuss—writing, spiritual wandering, parenting—more about the doing and less about the having done.

So, again, Robleto’s question.

Can art finish something that’s never been finished?

Is the answer to that question—dare we postulate—the purpose of art? Is the creative journey less about self-actualizing and more about impacting the world around us? Is the artist’s role, then, to discover the broken places outside of ourselves and bring wholeness and completion?

If so, our jobs just got a lot more complicated.

The Play's The Thing: Rethinking the Concept of Play in Art and Life

“Why would you want to kill animals?” The hippie dad of one of my playmates asked.

Sunshine’s dad was a real hippie – long hair, massive beard, dazed speech patterns, and he had no qualms about approaching a marauding group of four-and five-years-olds in order to teach us a life lesson. The fact that he was nude didn’t concern him, even as it alarmed us.

“Why are you pretending to hurt animals?”

We had been pretending to hunt animals. There was a context that is now lost to long-gone decades. Killing animals hadn’t been the point, it was a sub-plot, a tossed-off detail. It felt strange being called out for a facet of the imaginative narrative that we had put little stake or thought into. And I remember thinking, even as five-year-old, that the hippie dad was missing the point. We knew well the difference between play and real life. None of us would actually harm an animal.

Nothing could have been clearer.  

Years later, my fiction-writing instructor, Richard Cortez Day, said to us on more than one occasion that writing should be ‘play.’ I was initially insulted by this. How could my life’s passion, my purpose, possibly be labelled something as insignificant as ‘play.’ I am an artist! I require serious validation!

At the time, I thought I understood what Day meant by this. Be adventurous, try new approaches, take risks. And I suppose he did (probably) mean those things, but as I’ve aged and endured more of life’s sometimes painful lessons, I think he was getting at a deeper and more essential truth.

Stuart Brown has for years studied the effects of play on its participants. It’s easy to discount his field of study as being the problem of affluent Westerners, until he points out that play is integral not just to a human’s initial development but also to his/her life-long maturation and growth, regardless of race, economic status, or region. Play is important. Play is serious. Play is necessary. To all of us.

Left on my own, I tend to take the activities I do involve myself in—be they family time, work, writing—seriously. I don’t mean that these activities don’t have weight or import, but my approach, my attitude, is often one of serious purpose. That adventurous five year old pissing off hippy dads is, alas, long gone. I now know too well the risks, the consequences of failure, and I often choose safe inactivity over the unknown because I have kids, a mortgage, responsibilities. Plus, fear is my go-to response to just about everything, and I don't like to feel afraid.

But re-framing even my most serious endeavors—executing in my job so that I don’t get fired, let’s say—as play, as an activity in which I inject more experimentation and risk as well as potential failure, could I then find fresh fulfillment in that work? Could I cast off the persistent pressure and shake off the fear? Could I enjoy my life more?

I don’t know, but I suspect it’s worth the attempt.

Mindless

Ellen Langer, the Harvard Social Psychologist, has been studying the application of mindfulness in controlled experiments since the early 1970s. I was, until this week, ignorant of her work. Of the several mindfulness practitioners I’ve encountered, Langer’s is the most distilled and, for those who fear that discussions about mindfulness are perpetuated by some bug-eyed cult, emphatically no nonsense. Langer isn’t even a proponent of meditation, which separates her from the other science-based scholars of mindfulness, such as Jon Kabat Zinn.

No, for Langer, mindfulness is as simple and as difficult as ‘noticing.’

As a writer, I find Langer’s attention to the words and the labels that we place on the difficult events in our lives especially intriguing. By the time we reach adulthood, our words and thoughts are so intertwined, the interplay of our inner-dialogue and our thought-stream so ingrained, it’s difficult to use new words or fresh labels (or no words at all) to describe our unique brands of tragic-comedy.

Acknowledging that I’m the author of various fictional works of varying quality is one thing; acknowledging that I’m also the author of my own life—that its spin is completely dependent on the labels and definitions I apply to it—is somehow daunting and terrible and, I guess ultimately, a relief. What if when shitty things happen, rather than bemoan an unjust cosmos specifically engineered to screw with my life, I instead acknowledge that difficulties are part of everyone’s life, including mine, and at those times, I am closer to my fellow humans because I am partaking in the same struggles they are?

It’s a pleasant idea, but one I find excruciating to practice.

My natural inclination, when confronted with life’s many conflicts—and the challenges are multiplying in both complexity and severity the older I get—is to hide away and to ponder and to noodle until I feel like I’ve got the damned thing figured out. This is in part to save face (I still view the fact that I’m having problems or difficulties as a problem and a difficulty in and of itself.) And it’s also a way to stem the flow of interaction, to quiet down the noise, so that I can focus. So that I can hold my breath until my life is less conflicted in order to go public again.

And guess what? The problems never go away. Every quandary solved yields several new difficulties. Chaos and calamity are the new normal.

Since the birth of my second son, who is a wonderful addition to our family, derailed my wife’s health and decimated our finances, I’ve tried to figure out how to fix this. We’ve run into the same struggle so many families with young children face: how do you juggle the time needed to care for your children versus the need to work outside the home versus the obscene cost of child care versus the desire to spend time with your children when they’re young versus being sick to death of not being able to afford even the smallest of luxuries?

The answer is: you can’t. The only response is to live while in crisis mode, to take joy in what is happening now even when it’s as scary and unknowable as any period of my life. To notice the world around me, to notice my wife and my children, to take in what is here right now because this is life and hyping the ‘good’ times while hiding away during the ‘bad’ times is a ridiculous approach that ultimately gets me nowhere.

See? I know what the answer is, but acting on it, changing the words and reframing the thinking, is as painful as it is difficult.

Swimming in the Science of Sound

Not unlike the criminals from a Batman comic, writers are—among their many faults and virtues—a cowardly and superstitious lot. And if we writers are worth anything at all, we obsess about the oddest and coolest of minutiae.

Ever since I read Alec Wilkinson’s New Yorker  piece A Voice from the Past: How a Physicist Resurrected the Earliest Recordings I’ve been obsessing about his statement that ‘…people sometimes thought that all sounds that ever existed were still present.’ And then there was Guglielmo Marconi, the man who sent the first radio waves, who believed that if he had a sensitive enough microphone, he could hear Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount.

I flat-out love this idea, LOVE THIS IDEA, however unscientifically, uh, unsound it may well be. And yeah, I’ve been obsessing about it. The notion that every sound ever made is floating around us, reverberating throughout the Universe, echoing about the cosmos, and just waiting for us to pick it up with technology precise enough to capture it, is thrilling to ponder.

Then I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with Kabbalah scholar Lawrence Kushner who (to badly condense and summarize and paraphrase) discussed the mystic belief that the act of the Universe’s creation was not a single event that occurred back there in time, but is an event that is still happening, will always be happening. There is no past, present and future, no above and below, just a present Now that is Creation in a constant state of noisy unfolding.

And the origin of this Creation? The first sound.

That subtle click that the larynx makes just before uttering a syllable. The mysterious, unknowable potential of Creation is an open note unburdened by definition or meaning reverberating now as it always has and always will.

Granted, my writer self doesn’t quite know what to make of all this. I’m not sure how or if I can incorporate these navel-gazing ideas into a story or novel. I may just have to settle for geeking out.

The seeker self, though, feels the connections mounting, the disparate ideas coalescing. It’s about now, and it’s about what’s around us right here, and it’s about being present within it all.

Swimming in sound that someday we may finally hear.