30 August, 2017

Retreat, Renewal, and Arrival: From Gethsamani to Trumplandia

The Wild Man doesn’t come to full life through being “natural,” going with the flow, smoking weed, reading nothing, and being generally groovy. Ecstasy amounts to living within reach of the high voltage of the golden gifts. The ecstasy comes after thought, after discipline imposed on ourselves, after grief.― Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men 

It's good to get away. It's good for me and it's good for my family, too. It's not that they don't love me or that I don't love them. But sometimes I go away for a bit BECAUSE I love them, and I'm very lucky that they understand this part of me that has cost me jobs, relationships, and respect.

Not that I've gone out on a proper jaunt in a while. I haven't, really. And it's not that they would hold it against me  (much) if I did. But it's difficult for me to plan a jaunt with an end point. Jaunts, for me, are by nature open-ended.  Sure, there's some kind of end point -- or a break point, I should say. Generally when I jaunt, it's simply a way to amble between stops, as I traditionally break up traveling with visits. And while the visits are always wonderful, my jaunts more about the motion. Travel is it's own kind of meditation.

But there are other forms of meditation. At least twice a year, I try to get out to the Abbey at Gethsemani, outside of Bardstown, Kentucky. If you're not familiar with this Trappist monastery's significance, beyond the religious, it was also the monastery where Thomas Merton lived and worked and wrote. His hermitage is still off limits to non-Religious folk. But as a retreatant there, you can walk the same woods, soak in the same silence. It's not necessary to be Catholic, or to be particularly religious at all. They operate the retreat house based on the Benedictine Rule of Hospitality. This rule is one of five Benedictines base their daily spiritual practice around.

I go there for the silence. There's a special quality to the silence there. While the monks don't actually take a vow of silence, they do try to cultivate silence as part of their practice of  active listening and worship.

There are some kinds of silence that are empty. This kind of silence works like a vacuum, a black hole in the brain and in the heart just eating everything around it, never to be sated.

Then there's another kind of silence. This silence fills and pushes out the constant white noise that seems to fill every part of contemporary life. I go and wander the west trails, or sit in the chapel during the singing of the The Hours or when it's empty. There's a rejuvenative quality to the silence that I find helps remind me of things. Like how important daily practice is. Like how important it is to work to cultivate silence in my daily life... not just for the sake of practice, but so that I can actively listen. The Benedictine rules of prayer, work, study, hospitality, and renewal aren't as easy to apply to life here. But I think they're good rules to live by. They echo the language I've read from other spiritual leaders, including Buddhists like Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

The challenge for me be active in my practice, especially when I feel so pulled by events out in larger Trumplandia. I left for retreat watching people fight over unnecessary monuments to people who were not heroes and should not be treated as such, and wondering if the solar eclipse was itself going to be eclipsed by nuclear war with North Korea.

It made a certain amount of sense to me, since Trump doesn't do anything new. It's natural that he would take up an old war to make his own (and to avoid possible impeachment) because that's how he's made his way in the world -- copying other people.

I came back to find out that he's decided to make Afghanistan is war -- which actually makes more sense because North Korea, while a credible threat, doesn't quite measure up to his hubris. He made some noise towards Venezuela, too. But that, too, doesn't have the grandiosity that, say, stating his intention to march into Afghanistan does. This puts him on par with every other deluded historical leader who has had the same intentions.

Whether a person is religious or not, whether a person is spiritual or not, whether you don't believe in the historical existence of Jesus, the fact is that the idea of a Living Christ (in the vein discussed by Thich Nhat Hanh in Living Buddha, Living Christ) isn't a bad one to use as an example. The monks at Gethsamani practice the elements they see in the life of Jesus as an active, spiritual practice. And even if you're not spiritual, there's nothing wrong about being mindful (a kind of prayer), as well as focusing on good and useful work, practicing hospitality, and being open to renewal. As a writer, I see a lot in common between renewal and revision. Life is constantly under revision. If it isn't, then it's not a life. It's a dead, useless monument.

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11 August, 2017

Save me from philanthropy: cultural preservationists versus the martyrs

'...if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal , then you are sick. These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing' ~ Michel Foucault

When I was growing up, I was told all I needed to succeed was a pair of bootstraps and the sheer determination to pull my feet up over and behind my shoulders.

You know. Like a double-jointed hooker.

And although no one said it, the fact has always been understood that success in America means being able to face the system that's screwing you rather than taking it face down in a stinky foam pillow.

We put so much store on success -- and by success I mean not having the misfortune of being considered a blight or inconvenience to someone else.

Working in homeless outreach, I've heard it all. A lot of people -- so many that it sometimes causes me to despair when I ponder the future of the human race -- view the homeless as a blight, like aggressive red ants or the ever-increasing clouds of Africanized bees. People on my neighborhood association page regularly put the homeless in the same category as car thieves and drug dealers. Stigmatized as violent criminals, they're treated like a scourge that needs to be gotten rid of.

It doesn't do any good to explain to these preservers of a homogeneous and non-existing (not to mention never-existing) culture who say these things that homelessness is not moral judgement; people have been treating homelessness, poverty, as well as mental and physical disabilities, as a moral judgement for centuries.  The rampant spread of literacy and access to the most recent research in economics, mental illness, addiction, and disease doesn't seem to have any impact on these self-appointed pillars of culture and society.

Then there are the martyrs. They see the homeless and equate them with the sad-eyed animals they see in PETA commercials. It's not that they're any less repulsed. They see a problem that needs to be fixed. They see something broken that needs to be healed. The actual story, the actual reasons, the actual complex details behind someone's homelessness, don't really matter. The complex ball of issues -- economic, psychological, physiological -- don't matter. They read articles about how other cities here and abroad take the homeless and put them in the empty houses. They see this as a solution. Or they want to build more homeless shelters -- having never seen the inside of one themselves.They see themselves as the saving crusaders of the homeless. All they need is a job. All they need is a place to live. All they need is to see their doctor, or their shrink.

The world is full of well-intended and soft-hearted little fascists that would save the homeless-- whether they want to be saved or not-- just to save themselves from the awful inconvenience of having to be reminded, daily, of their existence.

Outreach only works when you embrace the belief that you can't save anyone. If, in the process of serving them, they decide to take it upon themselves to pick themselves up, you are there to lend a hand and help. They are not broken toys that need a little glue and dusty shelf to sit on.

Compassion is a PR word here in Louisville... at least among the elected leaders. The drive is economic and the homeless are treated with derision and apathy as people seek to "solve" the problem of homelessness without increasing funding or improving access to the institutions that over-burdened and underfunded while other organizations (one in particular) get the lion's share of public money to lock the homeless out of the one place most "regular" citizens say they belong -- in a shelter -- while managing to exploit them for profit in the name of "saving them."

At least there are good people here who counter-balance all this cynicism. I meet them all the time, work with them on outreach, hear about them from the folks on the street when I serve. I know they're out there and it gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, we can find a way to do right by our brothers and sisters without the burden of ego and the paternal tendency to believe they can't speak for themselves.

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03 August, 2017

Near where that barn burned, where all those people died, Part 2

Toil on, son, and do not lose heart or hope. Let nothing you dismay. You are not utterly forsaken. I, too, am here--here in the darkness waiting, here attentive, here approving of your labor and your dream. ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again  

 The problem with homecomings is that nothing ever goes as planned. Other than two uncles I rarely see -- my Uncle Jack (my Mom's brother), who travels and my Uncle Bill (my Dad's brother) who hasn't shown any interest in talking to me since my Dad died -- I don't have any family in Bethel who is above ground.  The last time I drove out to Bethel at all was to take Amanda to see the family graves in the cemetery. That was before we were married.

We left from my Mom's place in plenty of time. The hour-long drive from Cincinnati to Bethel followed a route that was burned in my brain.

Beyond the I-275 loop, past Withamsville, and past Amelia, the geography both stretches out and gets more crowded. When you have a longer memory for a place than that place has for itself, and when land developers erase the long empty fields between towns and merge it all together in one long strip mall world, it's easy to let a bitter form of nostalgia take root.

Nostalgia is that idea that somehow, the past we remember is without question better than the present moment. Nostalgia is among the second worst lies according the ranking system created by former British PM Benjamin Disraeli . Nostalgia is the entire underpinning for our current way of life in dear ol' Trumplandia.

But I still do That Thing when I visit my old stomping grounds. I talk about buildings that aren't there anymore, like the grocery store on Ohio Pike that was my second actual job, back when I was learning about the weight* that money has in the world. Or the Blue Haven Restaurant our family would eat at on Friday night sometimes that served actual salmon croquettes and had actual homemade apple pie on the dessert menu. Or the fields that used to be the Old Man Wolf's farm, fields I used to sneak into and wander around when I was a kid, that was cut up and sold by his children and razed for the cracker thin foundations of McMansions. When I was a kid, I used to tell people that Cincinnati would eventually reach out and swallow Bethel. Right now the only thing stopping it is something as arbitrary as a county line... though I'm sure if they could find a reason, they'd find a way around that, too.

For all the changes, though, Bethel really hasn't changed that much. There are still more churches per square mile than anything else and the Gold Star Chili is still standing next to what used to be my high school. The only thing that really DOES change in small town is the signage and the occasional new coat of paint.

Although I guess that's not really true, since Bethel, which is in Tate Township, which has been a dry township for as long as it's been in existence thanks to the aforementioned overabundance of churches, can now brag of the existence of a winery. The winery is less than three miles from the house I grew up in.

Now all they need is a decent Chinese food buffet and they're ready for some serious Yelp! action.

Amanda and I drove out to the winery. It wasn't difficult to find. It was just odd that it was there. I used to ride my bike up and down Swings Corner-Point Isabel Road. I didn't need GPS.  The weirdest thing about it was that it was there... some hidden spot of something resembling civility in place buried in the backwoods of my childhood.

When we arrived, no one else was there. I wasn't surprised. Then we checked the Facebook Event Page and discovered the meeting time had been moved back to later in the day.

The owner was as perplexed as I was. She had no idea there was a reunion meeting there. The panic was etched into her face -- a face I thought I recognized but the last name tag on her shirt I didn't. I told her not to worry. Planning, details, and follow through are not attributes anyone thinks of when my high school comes to mind.  To be fair, although the event was posted on Facebook, it was pretty clear the "non-reunion reunion" was for alum still living in the area. Those of us who left -- those of use who escaped -- were not part of the thought process.

It may seem like I'm being unfair to my old classmates, most of whom probably gave my absence as much thought as they gave my presence in high school. But the truth is, people live where they are, whether it's the cafeteria table where they eat lunch with people they consider friends, or whether it's a Facebook event created by people who still live in the geographic center of their childhood. It wasn't so much that I was excluded as much as I'm not a part of that world anymore. It's entirely possible that I never was. Not really.

Amanda and I drank our wine and left. On the way out of town, we stopped and at the Gold Star Chili next to what used to be my high school. Because sometimes nostalgia tastes good, even if it's not good for much more than that.

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*Weight, not value. Weight is presence, dimension, and heft. Value means something else altogether.