9.20.2014

this is a severe mercy

Niland, California, Dec 2013





for Crystal Jones--gardener, good friend, guide, grace.



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"...the impressive sun shines on us all. Perhaps that is the one thing I wish to tell you ... I believe there are visions that come to us in memory, in retrospect. That's the pulpit speaking, but it's telling the truth." 
-Gilead, Marilynne Robinson


"...when I am suspended between what feels like real, imaginative rapture and being absolutely lost, that I experience something akin to faith..."
-Christian Wiman

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Thomas required a union of physical bodies to annihilate his doubt. Adjacent bodies on two planes intersected as proof that divine love and human flesh had intersected, had been consecrated. Only by flesh and blood and scar tissue does one return to faith, or find the faith that sustains and saturates every common thing with the weight of telos.

On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas was angry with grief, burnt with disappointment. Flattened earth. Where was redemption? Where was the light? How darkness reigned and we let it because we loved the night. But—Cleopas saw—there He was, unsundered, unassuming. His presence begot faith, bread begot belief. “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening,” and He did, for a communion, for a million communions to follow, to remember the grief and then the surprising hope that redeemed and fulfilled all that came before. He stayed.

Communion is the blood bank that restores the body. We return again, and there are moments in which we finally notice the stigmata in the hands that break our bread; we are surprised we had not wept until now. No longer are we fortresses (no we were never fortresses); no longer are we ordinary, soulless creatures shaking dust off our hands. Now possessing in common a wealth—first the love, then the knowledge of knowing, and then the confidence of being known. Are not our hearts burning within us?

If you stand just far enough—if you’re looking for patterns, for the uncanny—you  begin to discover a constellation of moments that were not merely random specks in space. A constellation woven together by a severe mercy. Trust that, and it will thrust you into faith, as if you, and you will have, touched flesh and blood and the pale ridged mountains of your diaphanous, scarred skin. Stay long, love long, look closely, know you are beloved. Thank your good God, again and again.



9.07.2014

this is an abrasion

we slayed these coconuts

To speak in metaphors is to tell a bigger story. To speak in metaphors is to open an issue to more complex and nuanced interpretations.  Metaphors allow us to map or reconstitute our thoughts within a different context*. Metaphors help us to convey meaning unexpectedly, or strangely, in a way that makes more sense, or seems less absurd, despite not being the thing itself. Metaphors expand our expressions, widen our interpretations, and open up the many possibilities of saying, listening, and receiving.

We talked about this over dinner on Friday night, as we were explaining the costs and benefits of speaking abrasively, and one of us, in an attempt to lessen the abrasiveness of his own speech, resolved to speak in metaphors.

"I'd like to think of myself as sandpaper," he said, "smoothing people out."

"It doesn't work that way," I replied. "Sandpaper is good for wood, but not for skin."

I did think it was a good idea though to speak in metaphors more, or to at least map our lives onto other contexts, to see the world as larger and more interconnected than the small tunnels we tend to burrow into.

To describe speech as “abrasive” is, of course, a metaphor in and of itself. An abrasion, medically speaking, is a wound caused by superficial damage to the skin—less severe than laceration and bleeding. An abrasion occurs when “exposed skin comes into moving contact with a rough surface, causing a grinding or rubbing away of the upper layers of the epidermis” (thanks Wikipedia!). A person’s speech is abrasive (subjectively, at least), when it wounds, not purposefully or intentionally most of the time, but carelessly or accidentally, the way a slip or tumble leads to a scraped-up knee or a cut-up elbow. There are benefits to speaking abrasively: the bluntness, straightforwardness, and honesty. Sometimes verbal abrasion feels as such because of ultra-sensitivity on the receiving end, or insecurity, or fear. We are especially sensitive to those from whom we desire approval. I, for one, do not have as thick a skin as I would like. Rarely do I escape unscathed from my own interpretations of what I perceive to be insulting words and silences. Yes, silence is abrasive too.

The costs of abrasion are usually temporary but not absent: hurt feelings and potential miscommunication, as well as the image of the perpetrator as insensitive, mean, and careless.

Recently, I was called abrasive—but it was meant as a compliment—by a co-worker, who, after hearing that I was leaving the company, came by my office to chat.

“Natalie,” he said. “Do you have a minute?”

“No,” I said, shortly, pre-emptively demonstrating the characteristic he was about to name.

“This will only take thirty seconds, I swear,” he said.

“Sure…” I conceded.

He began heaping praise on me—much undeserved praise that I was shocked to hear—he said I was talented, an extraordinary writer, and a pleasure to work with. I said nothing.

He continued.

“You’re abrasive and aggressive, and it’s SO great!” he said, smiling, his toothpaste-commercial-qualified teeth gleaming as he spoke.

“Thanks?” I said, laughing at the absurdity of his statement. “That means so much…”

After I absorbed the surprise of the mini-encomium, I was amused that “abrasive” had been intended as a compliment—a word, that in my work context, would not be entirely inaccurate, though more accurate would have been “aloof,” “reticent,” and “withdrawn.” My persona at my previous job, I have realized, was an exaggeration of certain tendencies I have when I'm uncomfortable or stressed out, but mostly it was a different persona altogether, a contrast from the talkative and outgoing version of myself that I easily embodied outside of the office. Perhaps in my own guardedness and fear that I would become more emotionally invested in my work (and people at work) than I wanted to be, I protected myself with the quills of an abrasive demeanor and abrasive speech. Perhaps.

Abrasion does not have the same consequence as a clear invective, and yet even its slight potential to injure has made me think more about the air I give off, about empathy in communication, about gentleness and patience and holding my tongue, even in seemingly trivial interactions. I think about being more poised, careful, and thoughtful about the words I use—which I can’t just fling around, expecting they will bounce off people—and how words are absorbed by the dermis, leaving little scars here and there, and how the worst of them drip into nightmares like a continuous pour of lye on skin and haunt, like trapped echoes, for years. We have an extraordinary ability to let people’s wounding words become fossils inside of us, and the fibers of those words end up leaking out of us onto other people. In a way we are all delusional sufferers of Morgellons disease.

I’ve learned lately that how you view yourself is often incongruous with how others view you.

Daily we will fall short of who we think we are or are supposed to be.

A friend recently told me that her friend, who I've met several times, thinks I hate her, which was a surprising fact, but not a first-time occurrence. Don't we all have the sneaking suspicion that someone hates us, for no reason at all, except that he or she has not been particularly warm and inviting?

I’ve never been cloyingly sweet, or particularly peppy. Usually clad in motorcycle boots and garb that is frequently mistaken for funeral wear. I don’t know how to fake it—fake sweetness, peppiness, excitement—which is perhaps a precursor to abrasiveness, this inability to swaddle words and thoughts in a blanket of cotton candy.

I don’t think abrasiveness and kindness are mutually exclusive. In fact, some of the most abrasive people I know have also turned out to be the kindest, even though they may have initially instilled fear in me, like one of my professors in college, who was frequently barking at students to get out of his classroom, or to not take his classes, or to stop believing in their liberal ideologies (yes, a professor like this does exist at Harvard). It turned out he had merely a gruff exterior and a soft heart, and a love for magic, boats, and the sea. We are usually intimidated by these people because we believe, by their lack of affection—or coddling, call it what you want—that they reject us. We need their verbal affirmations as proof of good feelings.

In fact, empty verbal affirmation, flattery (“excessive and insincere praise, especially that given to further one’s own interests) fits within the paradigm of manners that is generally acceptable, if not lauded. The genteel society of the Victorian Era demanded from its members a certain polite and refined dress, speech, and decorum, in which abrasive and coarse language would have been unacceptable and appalling. And while there is a certain nostalgic delicacy and sweetness to this way of being—it allowed people to maintain civil relationships, at least outwardly—, flattery was, I’m sure, a convenient way to stay within the bounds of propriety without actually conveying any substance, meaning, or truth.

Abrasiveness is not an accurate reflection of the heart. The connoisseur of propriety who knows how to sweet-talk, brown-nose, and manipulate is easily mistaken for well-behaved. A lack of kindness is a much deeper well to fill, a kind of courage and out-of-body sacrifice that is learned and practiced, but never fully perfected. We must not mistake a furrowed brow, a snarly remark, or a bitingly honest observation for pure meanness.

In her book of essays, The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison writes, “empathy might be, at root, a barter, a bid for others’ affection." She suggests that sometimes we “care in order to be cared for,” that we “care because we are porous.” We can empathize with someone’s pain, because in doing so, we can call ourselves bigger-hearted, and they, in seeing our empathy, consequently love us back, or love us more. But can we extend this same empathy to those whose meanness we despise? To those who do the evil we think we ourselves are not capable of? To those who do not communicate the same way we do? Or do not know how to communicate altogether? To know that we have the capacity—and do—hurt others as much as we are hurt is a different type of empathy altogether.

“We should empathize from courage,” writes Jamison, instead of fear—and courage sometimes means that in lieu of flinching, or focusing on the pain that (we feel) is inflicted on us, we muster the strength in ourselves (or ask God for the strength) to give grace, to not let an abrasion be an abrasion. We not have to disavow pain, but we strive not to be at the mercy of pain's shackles. We are daily humbled by a language that we still know not how to wield. Our words break between us over and over again.



*Metaphor is defined by Zoltan Kovecses in his book Metaphor: A Practical Introduction  as "understanding one conceptual domain in terms of another conceptual domain." It is "a set of systematic correspondences between the source and the target." George Lakoff, in the book Metaphors We Live By, writes, "Metaphor is one of the most basic mechanisms we have for understanding our experience [...] We found that metaphor could create new meaning, create similarities, and thereby define a new reality."


9.04.2014

this is a conversation with Jasper

“You start in diapers and you end in diapers,” said Jasper. He was talking about his grandmother, who traveled with them from Oxnard up to Gualala, and how the trip was long, because they kept stopping to change her diaper.

“Can she walk?” I asked.

“Yeah, she can walk,” he answered. “But she doesn’t have much of a short-term memory. She can remember things clearly from twenty, thirty years ago though.”

“That seems to be pretty common,” I said.

We made small talk like this over the phone, grazing, like cows, on this and then that, various patches of roughage. Nothing seemed all that important, and yet the conversation took on the pleasant rhythms of household tasks, like chopping Brussels sprouts.

We talked about the tiny house he is hoping to build, the goat farm he is moving to at the end of the month, and Virginia's work at non-profits.

“What’s Virginia doing?” I asked, about his girlfriend.

“You mean right now? Or generally?”

“Generally.”

“Well, she was working for a small non-profit… and then that failed… and now that non-profit is a pile of ashes, from which something could rise, maybe. And then she went to another non-profit, but I think after this experience, she’s probably going to stay away from non-profits for the rest of her life.”

“Not surprised…good experience though?”

“Maybe,” he replied. “She just spent all day asking rich people for money.”

“That’s how it usually is,” I said.

He was hoping that maybe someday communism would work. I said that while the theory has some goodness, it would never work in practice because people are innately evil and corrupt.

“People tend towards destruction…they want to break things,” I said. “People are selfish and greedy. They have to overcome these fundamental instincts to do any good in the world.”

“I try not to be so cynical,” he countered.

“In my day-to-day interactions with people, I’m fairly optimistic—I give most people the benefit of the doubt. I assume the best. But in mass, I am cynical.”

And then we talked about what it meant to do good, practically; how to balance personal freedom and meaning with the greater good of others, especially when they're not exactly aligned (most of the time). Being true to your self, he said, could also be extremely selfish, he said, referring to the old hippies he grew up among in Mendocino.

“I can see that,” I said, “and wariness about selfishness is good, but I think that authenticity—to one’s self—is a service to the world. You can contribute more of yourself, give more, and bless the people around you.”

Even as I said these things to Jasper, inside I was doubting my every word. There was no certainty of these statements, which we could only talk about in the abstract, hypothesizing as we tried to form these general principles and answer these looming questions that confront us everyday. How clear it is that I know so little. To be humble, as an explorer, is to know that you are a conqueror of nothing; is to know that what you think you know with certainty, might not be certain at all.

We didn’t reach any conclusions about anything, except that I would go to Mendocino sometime later this year, and that he would come to San Francisco, but the conversation, in all its musing and muttering, seemed important somehow.

“Maybe we can just start with the Hippocratic Oath,” he said, which is the oath that many physicians swear when they begin their practice. I think he meant ahimsa, the Sanskrit word for “do no harm," but I said nothing.


A note:

I plan to write on this blog more, so bear with me, as the volume increases, so the fragmentation, the disorientation, the half-formed thoughts and susurrations will increase too—at least initially.

9.02.2014

this is a divergence



I’ve been telling people that I’m quitting my job, which began, first as a declaration of liberation, an expression of self; then as a method of public accountability. Now that quitting is definitive, telling others has become less for my own self-assurance and validation—which it certainly was for awhile—and more about other people’s reaction. Strong statements elicit strong reactions, and strong reactions about trivial things—where strong reactions are permissible and not highly provocative—say a lot about a person, more than they’d like to give away, perhaps.

“I’m quitting my job!” I say. “Congratulations! That’s great!” some reply, a reaction I like of course, because it validates my decision. These people see quitting—destabilization—as a good thing. They see the freedom from corporations and the financial agendas of tech monoliths. Perhaps they value exploration and are comfortable with the unknown.

Others immediately reply, “Why?” “For what?” “What’s the next step?” or even “Why would you quit a job when you don’t have something else lined up?” They expect that I’m trading up for another job—something “better,” which for many people, I’m assuming, is more prestige, more money, more renown. I am trading up, but my better is not another job; it is not higher pay. There is no plan. That’s the point.

I sense unease when I say I do not know, when I admit there is no direction; and perhaps I am particularly sensitive to that unease because I have felt it myself, like a beating drum in my stomach: the insecurity, the fear, the doubt, the vertigo! I have interrogated myself like a suspect. I have let waves wash over me, forgetting to dive under. The great-tailed grackles are hidden in the trees, squawking loudly, incessantly, perilously.

I am at once terrified and excited to find myself in a forest without a compass.

“You quit your house and country, quit your ship, and quit your companions in the tent, saying, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ The light on the far side of the blizzard lures you. You walk, and one day you enter the spread heart of silence, where lands dissolve and seas become vapor and ices sublime under unknown stars. This is the end of the Via Negativa, the lightless edge where the slopes of knowledge dwindle, and love for its own sake, lacking an object, begins.” (Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole”)

“There is no movement without direction,” I wrote, in a farewell letter to my boss. “One step follows another.” Robert Frost said it better: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way…”

I could only give an explanation for my leaving in the abstract, because going outside, somewhere, for some time—just taking a breather, I suppose—isn’t a place or a person or a destination. Without form, it doesn't make logical sense. It doesn't make sense the way we hike on paved trails that are already marked on maps for us. Not to make sense of the wilderness, but to give a sense of it, I began the letter this way: “Lately I have been overwhelmed by the density and gravity of language—I can only hope this note is as whole and dense and weighty and expansive as the sentiment it is trying to contain… or swallow,” and then I quoted Gertrude Stein, because she says it better than I do: “I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do.”

These dead poets have refined me, opened me. They are alive to me, writing to me. I am strumming my own vocal chords, trying to hear my own voice.

“The Greek term HYPOMONE is translated as ‘patience, enduring perseverance, and fortitude,’” I continued in my letter. “It indicates a ‘dwelling in the moment,’ an ‘actively entering into the thick of life.’ I hope HYPOMONE characterizes these months ahead of me, in which I enter into an unbounded unknown. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always known what was the next step. But this is a risk I have to take—I have to be willing to risk my comfort, my familiarity, my security.”

"Quit" comes from the old French word quiter, which is an action verb meaning, "clear, establish one's innocence"—from harm, from guilt. Quitting, then, if in keeping with its etymology, is not to remove, or to absent oneself; it is to establish something else entirely. It is to establish innocence, which is a particular freedom, a particular kind of a primordial, Edenic presence in which the mind and the heart are clear—the clear in which you can hear the wind chimes, the crickets, the cicadas, the howling coyotes. There is fog, of course. There will always be fog in this city, and I am okay not seeing farther than a few feet ahead of me. I am, I will be, learning how to live in the fog, which is really just mystery made literal. Mystery, not mastery.


“You can’t see the whole path ahead, but there is usually enough light to take the next step.”
-Henri Nouwen

8.18.2014

this is a prayer for Delia

A Prayer for Delia

We are gathered here today
as a congregation of beloved souls
who know not the extent
of the love bestowed
upon us before we were outlined
a shadow in the womb, before the brethren
to whom we are beholden breathed into us, before
and after we were broken and broke
the fragile glass upon which our existence is
perched.
Even when we find ourselves in the darkness,
the darkness is not who we are.
We are not without love
the way that trees cannot
without roots.
Even when we are in the spaces between
the forest trees know about us,
the dark is because there are
limbs above us shading our brows reaching
heavenward on our behalf and there are fallen
limbs supine on the ground
prostrating in tongues
we know not, giving themselves back
to the land from which they came.
There is silent growing stronger beneath.