Posted in Headlines, Health

Helter Skelter and Euangélion

The death of Charles Manson is not good news to me. I find no joy and no solace in it. In fact, no matter how putrid the moral failings or heinous the crimes of the deceased, glee over death – any death – always makes me sad. I understand the visceral reaction people have about cult leaders, serial killers, abusers and perpetrators of all sorts of nefarious acts. On a gut level, I understand – and even sympathize – when people espouse their hatred for those souls that show us how dark the human mind and heart can become. I understand in my gut why radio DJ’s, co-workers and thousands of people on social media celebrate the demise of one such man. I get why so many people feel certain that if there is a Hell, Charles Manson is now there. I do. I mean, I have found myself – at my worst – wishing a car accident on someone who cut me off in traffic. I am not proud of that. It reveals the darkest parts of my reptilian brain when slighted, and I am firing on too much caffeine and too little sleep. But it does not reveal my heart.

My heart breaks, for a world that relishes in punitive justice much more than it does restorative justice and reconciliation. The death of Charles Manson is essentially meaningless. A highly charismatic and tortured man who as a kid was abandoned by his mother didn’t know his biological father found a way to inflict his pain on the world. There were 7 horrific murders carried out by his following. Several people are still rotting away, awaiting their own death in prison. And many more people – the loved ones of the victims – lived or continue to live out their lives with a wound that no one, no one can ever heal.

The death of Charles Manson has me wishing I still believed in Jesus. Not the punitive, scary Jesus ready to send anyone to hell for being born into the wrong culture or for not saying the right prayer, that I believed in as a youth. But the Christ. The one of whom Paul said, “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” The one whom for Irenaeus “became what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.” The Christ I once truly believed was going to recapitulate, reconstitute all things great and small and reconcile them to God, to the earth, and to each other.

Charles Manson stole a song title from the Beetles and preached “Helter Skelter.” He somehow convinced his followers that a great race war was coming, that their crimes would be the catalyst for this apocalyptic event and that he would be at the helm of leading a new society. He was a severely flawed and failed messiah figure. Jesus preached Euangélion (Greek: εὐαγγέλιον) or the Good News that the kingdom of God was at hand, that it was dwelling among us. Sure he preached a lot of really judgmental sounding things about hell too, and his own sort of impending Armageddon. But somehow, many of his followers including the Paul of the 7 authentic Pauline letters, some of the Church Fathers many Eastern Orthodox and Catholic mystics and more than a few liberal Protestants took the stories about Jesus’ life death and resurrection to mean that God was reconciling the whole cosmos in this one man. That’s where I was in my last days as a minister of “the Good News.”

A severe lack of grace in humanity, raging injustice in the universe, a lack of divine intervention (the kind that would and must break forth if God had really broken through), multiple Christ-like myths that long predate Jesus of Nazareth, glaring contradictions and obscene moral flaws attributed to God (in the Bible and in any other religious text I have ever read) and Ivan Karamazov and his damn speech about the children. These things simply will not allow me to believe that the lion will lay down with the lamb. They no longer permit me to believe that somehow, someday, God’s light will flood the earth and be so pervasive that even Sharon Tate would embrace Charles Manson. But on days like today – honestly almost every day – I find myself wishing it were true.

I am tempted to despair. And some days I do! I don’t know what to believe or even wish about the universe we find ourselves in. And for the most part that all seems so futile now. But there are things I can do and even reasonably hope. We are so inundated by bad news:  corrupt politicians in international collusion to skew elections or sell uranium, new sexual assault cases revealed daily against the saints of Hollywood and those masquerading as proponents of “family values” in the church and government, and mass murders every few months. It is understandable how in such a sick, cynical society where evil sometimes seems destined to be eternally cyclical folks can find themselves cheering for the death of one bad guy.

So I must force myself for intervals of time to step away from the bad news when being informed and educated on what’s going on turns to wallowing. I must force myself to remember that some truly verifiable good news does happen in the world. I must remind myself that the negative news cycle – while all too real – is designed to pull you in and make you spend hours online or in front of your tv to advertise products to us we don’t need. I must remind myself that Danica Roem recently became become the first openly transgender woman elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Not only did she win, but she defeated an incumbent who introduced an anti-trans “bathroom bill”!!! I must remind myself that this Thursday, adherents of various religions and non-believers alike will file into churches, food banks, schools, and restaurants to feed the homeless. I must remind myself that a beloved fellow artist my community is always working to shed a light on the hunger epidemic. I must remind myself that almost every week someone approaches me, to tell me that my poetry or the open mic community that many of us have tirelessly worked to create has made a difference in their life. I must remind myself that I am deeply loved by more people than I am probably aware of. I can and I must go forth and “love my neighbor as myself.” And as has always been the case – even if seldom realized – none of us can do that unless we actually love ourselves.

So this is me, pushing back from the news cycle for the rest of the day, for a hot shower, a beer and an earlier bedtime than normal. I need some rest. This Thursday I get to have way too much food with people I love, who also love me and who would strongly disagree with me about Charles Manson or Jesus. And dammit, I am determined to love them well.

Posted in Beauty, Health, Poetry

A House Divided

I have recently been going through a lot of my writing from the last decade, both poetry and prose. I am working on assembling poetry by theme. The goal is a poetry chapbook of some sort. I am also trying to actually work on the memoir that I have been talking about working on for the last two years.

Seven years ago to the day, I wrote this. At the time, I posted it for all the world to see on my blog, this very site. For various reasons, all posts between 2004 and June 2015 have been deleted. Still, I posted it for the world. And still, things still lingered on for another 5 years, to the day.

Assonance or Resonance?
So desperate, I need some respite, in this place of war
I need a place to say some things I haven’t said before
A place to say the names of the bones behind the door
Voices echo in this headspace as you creep across the floor
Just like that broken record I picked up discounted in the bins
Only one side ever plays and the last song never ends
The last word gets repeated ’til I lift the needle from the skin
Mixing metaphors with my dopamine, like whiskey with my gin
Should we exit like we entered with no input from our friends?
Or give them all one more chance to peer around the bend?
If this ship is really sinking, they could be our rising wind
Can’t help but thinking…
They’d love another chance to play pretend
Maybe in this pool of listlessness, they’d be quick to condescend:
“Can’t comprehend why she didn’t leave him long before she did
Of her own volition, no contrition and no cognition turned to shit
It was painful to watch her dying from all those wounds she hid”

It would be far too easy for me to be angry: Where were my friends, family, seminary colleagues, professors, pastors, mentors, people who declared their love for me and my ex-wife while we were both crying out for help, each in our own way?

I think ultimately there is a twofold lesson for me: First, I have to write for me, for my own “salvation” and mental health, come what may. No matter who reads it, or how many, or how they respond. And secondly, I have to learn to separate those who appreciate my writing whether on a blog, in spoken word performances, or hopefully someday, in a book from true friends. And I have to do my part to hold close to the latter.

Jesus and Lincoln both purportedly said, on their respective campaign trails, that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Most of my life I have been a house divided: A free spirit, free thinker, trying desperately to cling to the dogma of the past to save me from the flames of hell. A self-proclaimed “extrovert” who took a Myers-Briggs Test, scored ENFP but has struggled with life-long social anxiety. I have worked just as vigorously to shut people out -who would love to love me – as I have to draw them in.

But I am changing. Good gawd, even at the ripe old age of 40, I am changing for the better. For most of my life, I have suffered from a simultaneously self-hating and self-aggrandizing fear that the eternal fate of others might be inextricably-intertwined with my words: my excelling or failing to say, “Jesus loves you.” But now I know that I have to be able to look myself in the mirror in the morning and say, “I love you.” My “salvation,” my mental health depends on it! And others depend on me. They wouldn’t be lost or hopeless without me. But I contribute to their happiness and well being right here, right now. So I continue to work towards casting out my own demons. I continue to work towards my own mental and emotional emancipation.

I am a house, perhaps in a permanent state of remodel. But I am no longer closed for repairs. Welcome to my living room. Take a seat. Or don’t. I have many stories to tell.

Posted in Health

On the Ledge

On the ledge is where I found my daughter tonight. She was holding onto the fence and holding one foot out over the water. Fear and trepidation don’t even begin to describe what I felt as I quickly contemplated moving towards her. One’s mind doesn’t even begin to calculate all of the logistics and possible outcomes until after the panic has subsided. After the child is safe: The stream is only about a foot deep. The water is cold this time of year, but moving very slowly. The drop is probably only 6-8 feet. She would be okay. She would likely be hurt, but relatively intact. As quickly as it began, she ran at me – seemingly as if into my arms – then ran off again in anger. But safe.

Everything feels like a relative term these days. What does it mean that she is safe tonight? What does it really mean that she might have been okay? That she might have survived? This is what life looks like for all involved these days: For me, her mother, her brother, my dearest Amanda who has fallen head over heels in love with my kids in the last two years. We are all living in a blur of fear, anxiety, and hurt. This is all punctuated by frenzied moments like tonight when my daughter has a fit of rage and everything seems to move in rapid-fire succession and then by moments that turn into hours and feel like days when she is sad, angry, or obstinate and the world stops to revolve around her feelings. Her refusal to go to school, to transition to my house, go back to her mom’s house, or simply shower or get dressed. Our needs to go to work, meet deadlines, do homework, our desire to play games, have family time, enjoy each others’ company – in either home – all seem obfuscated by her emotions, which seem to grow larger by the day.

In between, we do manage to do all of these things. I go to work. I host an open mic. I am excited to be going out this weekend to speak to youth about poetry, stage presence, and performance. I try to write new poetry regularly. Her mother is working two jobs. Amanda works 70 hours a week and still somehow pours out an inordinate amount of time and energy into my children. And my son continues to go to school, do his homework and play video games. But it is all marked by the tension of the everpresent now: a 9-year-old little girl, who has some serious mental and emotional health issues.

This is why I have been off of the blogging grid since spring, and generally unable to write in prose. I am scared of what I will write down. I don’t want to look at any of it in print. The good times, laughter and lightheartedness of the summer passed too fast. And it was all marked by my daughter being in an inpatient treatment facility for most of July. It was a place where she was the only pre-teen in a “home” that was not my home, not her mother’s home, a place I felt she should have never been. Not at that age. Not surrounded by teenagers.

Likewise, Fall has almost slipped completely by, with weekly follow up meetings with counselors and social workers and genetic testing, to find that two of the medications that various doctors have put her on so far are both very unfitting for her genetic makeup. Last week, on World Mental Health Day, my ex-wife and I sat for an hour with an intake specialist at one of the best mental health facilities in West MI. A full and extensive psychological evaluation is forthcoming.

She has not outright threatened suicide. I am not even sure the word is in her vocabulary unless she learned it during her stay at the inpatient care facility. She has said things like, “Everyone would be better off without me… run me over with the car… and I want to hurt myself.” She has destroyed other people’s property: her Grandparents’ and her brother’s, her parents and other significant adults in her life, and even her own.

I am beyond scared. I am worried about my daughter. I am worried about my son, who is – as hard as we try not to let it happen – being robbed of precious time he needs. Time to play, be lighthearted and soak up positive affirmations.

Everyone is one edge. It feels as if we are all out on the ledge. I am trying, straining, to live in the now. To measure and evaluate all of the variables of the present logistics, the situation we all find ourselves in. And I am striving – we all are – twisting and contorting not to preoccupy ourselves with the infinite possible outcomes.

Posted in Health

Lent 30

I wanted to start writing by 10 tonight. It’s 11:30. I really, really wanted to write a sestina today. I will. I will write more poems. I will push myself to write more for National poetry month. I will write more in general.

But tonight I really need to cut myself some slack. My heart is heavy. My head is spinning. I am not in the emotional place I need to be to write about the day with some emotional intelligence. I need to be detached enough to pick up the feelings of fear and despair, write about them with honesty, but also be able to analyze them, with at least a little bit of distance.

I too often feel like I am drowning in a wading pool. No one is holding me down. But I am holding my breath. Laying, heavy in the bottom of the pool, with the rocks I have picked up, lining my pockets: This one is for going to school for 8 years, borrowing nearly 100 thousand dollars from the government that I’ll be paying back for the rest of my life only to give up on ministry. This one is for failing at marriage. This one is for yelling at my kids. This one is for rarely saying the things that need to be said. And this one is for too often speaking in haste, saying things out of anger or depression that I truly do not mean.

This is about not giving up. I have so many books half read. I have so many writing projects started and not finished. I said I was going to write every Monday – Saturday for the 40 days of lent, and goddammit I intend to fulfill that obligation to myself. It is a sign of change. A sign that I am learning to catch my breath, even after a day spent feeling like I was losing oxygen.

If you have ever struggled with depression and anxiety, you probably know a bit about what I mean. Even if I am being nearly as vague as possible about the specifics.

I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. But I do believe that we can dig in, inspect, and find reason, many reasons to put our head above water and empty our pockets.

Posted in Beauty, Health

Lent 22

 

I had a good day with the littles. Their school had a book fair at a local Barnes & Noble. They had readings, face paintings and other activities. The face painters had a paper with the different cartoon characters, animals and facial “tattoos” of hearts, rainbows and spiders that they were doing. Both of my kids asked for custom jobs. My son got his whole face painted like a Creeper from Minecraft. And my daughter who is obsessed with Animal Planet as of late, asked to be a gazelle. We also walked away with a Hardy Boys book and A Wrinkle in Time.

I almost didn’t get the books. We almost left after about 10 minutes with faces unpainted and one crying little girl. It is really hard to watch both of my children struggle with being shy and unconfident, scared to talk to strangers, even when I am right there with them, their friends and teachers are around, in a kid friendly environment and the “strangers” are two college aged girls offering to paint their faces. It is especially hard because I know it is a mix of genetic predisposition and learned behavior that they have inherited, in part, from me. It is even harder to watch my daughter, whose reservation and nervousness is compounded by clinical anxiety. She refused to talk to the young lady who was pleading with her to let her paint her face and was clinging to me. My son was just waiting to follow his big sister’s lead.

My daughter’s anxiety and my own came head to head and we almost left the bookstore. I had said before we set out that I could not afford to buy books today, but we would just go and enjoy the free activities. They both agreed. Until we got there and they were scared to talk to the face paint lady and their friends’ hands were full of books and one of their teachers asked them “Are you guys gonna get some good books?” They started grabbing at your average overpriced, mass marketed drivel that too often passes for children’s literature and begging. I said, “Let’s go. You promised you wouldn’t do this.” We made it all the way to the door. I was stressed watching my daughter stress. I felt embarrassed and guilty that I can’t always get for them the things I desire to provide for them. In the entrance, a scene started to play out that was exactly like one from my own childhood: “Why can’t we get books?” my daughter asked, her eyes welling up with tears. “Because I am poor,” I retorted. “Because I have x amount of dollars to get through the week and still have another bill to pay.” My eyes were now flooded too.

Then I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. I had been here before. I had been in her shoes. My mother had said those same words and forced adult realities and anxieties upon me that I was not ready to process. I said, “Fuck it! We’re going back in. I want you guys to get your faces painted – because you’ve talked about it all week – and have fun and talk to your friends.” I apologized for overreacting.

They lightened up. I lightened up. While they were getting their little faces painted, I went and picked out two books that I could afford and that are actual literature at their reading level. I told them they were books I could afford and enjoyed when I was their age. They were more grateful than a thousand Christmas mornings. Not because they understood the sacrifice I was making with my debit card but because I was filled with joy when I presented them to them, and maybe because I was a little bit assertive with my my suggestion, “I will buy you these books, if you still each want a new book.”

I don’t go back on my word often. I don’t plan to do so often. I know it can be confusing for kids and they need consistency. But I also know these two timid little ones don’t need this day or any other to be marred by the memory of their father’s anxiety, embarrassment and real life adult shit that they don’t need to be thinking about just yet.

We had a talk on the way out. I apologized again for my outburst. And I pointed out how far we’ve come. My daughter’s anxiety and my own have came head to head before, especially in crowded, social situations where she was indecisive and flooded with various emotions and I was scared about money and angry because she wanted 4 books or 3 pairs of jeans, because she couldn’t decide on one or two. We’ve left those situations before in a haste of tears and anger. I was vulnerable. I told them I have often been a bad example. I asked them to remember today. I asked them to remember that they not only got over their fear and talked to a stranger, but got two of the coolest custom face paint jobs of the day (the young lady even asked if she could take a picture of them to add it to her repertoire). I asked them to think about how their daddy is changing for the better and we are changing for the better as a family, becoming less explosive and talking things out. I asked them to remember the good time we ended up having today when we all relaxed. They said, “Okay.”

They had their painted little noses in their books all of the way home.

Posted in Health

Lent 10

 

Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

One of the passages from the Common Lectionary for the second Sunday in Lent is Matthew’s take on the “Transfiguration” of Jesus. According to the tradition, Jesus took Peter and James and John to a Mountain top. He was “transfigured” before them. His face “shown like the sun.” Then all of a sudden Jesus was standing there shooting the breeze with Moses and Elijah. As a kid (and even as a pastor) I always wondered how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah that showed up. There is no mention of introductions. How did they know of all the People from Israel’s stories of old that the heavenly men were’t David and Isaiah or Josiah and Habakkuk?

But you’re not supposed to ask such questions. And in the defense of nervous Sunday school teachers everywhere, that’s not really the point of the story. This is one more way the gospel writers assigned divine status to Jesus. And for Matthew especially, it was a way to show the Jewishness of Jesus, a project he was obsessed with.

But what I am contemplating today is Jesus’ word to Peter James and John, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This is actually the most repeated refrain in the Bible. Jesus says it to his disciples often. It is repeated over and over in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament) whenever god or an angel shows up. I am tempted to digress about the dramatic irony that Christianity ends up instilling so much fear in the hearts of its adherents. Or how you can never sufficiently explain to a child that when Jesus says “do not be afraid” and the writer of Proverbs says “the fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom” they are talking about two different kinds of fear. Even though I have been taught to parse it out in Hebrew and Greek and describe the difference between fear as reverence and fear as anxiety in English and had the importance of “context” instilled in me… it still seems like a contradiction. Even though its not, technically.

Maybe that is because fear as anxiety has won the day throughout much of Christianity’s history. Or maybe its simply because I have struggled all of my life with anxiety disorder. Either way, I am choosing to not be afraid anymore. I have to. It is not merely about my own sanity and survival anymore. I have two little ones who look to me for guidance. And I have a 9 year old daughter who has been diagnosed with some of my own afflictions, myoclonic dystonia and one of the psychological symptoms that often accompanies dystonia, anxiety disorder.

The last few years have been really hard on both of my babies. The anxiety filled household as their mother and I grew apart in silence. The separation. The divorce. Two homes. Two Birthdays for each of them. Two Christmases. Getting acclimated to seeing their father with someone else and a new blended family with Amanda. Both of my children have been through the wringer. My daughter, especially has responded with angry outburst, increased fits of lying and tears, lots and lots of tears. But what really scares me is when she goes quiet and cannot or will not talk about what’s wrong: to me or to her mom, or even her therapist.

I will not go quiet. And I will not go gently into that good night. I will burn and rave and rage against the dying of the light inside of me. I will protest the darkness until my face shows like the sun. And I will tell my children over and over and over again: Do not be afraid!