Memorial for a Man

Dave Barry made the observation that men are quite simple. A woman might ask a man who appears lost in thought to describe his ruminations. The man could answer, “Baseball,” and the woman would assume that “baseball” meant a philosophical analysis of sport as a metaphor for the ups and downs and chance happenings of life. But the man just meant that he had been thinking about baseball.

This simplicity seems to influence obituaries for married men. The mourning family describes the departed father’s education, work, and perhaps his faithfulness. They almost always say, “He was a good provider.” The language comes across as halting and flat, as if the family had more to say but couldn’t come up with additional descriptive adjectives. Dad had been such a simple creature that few words leapt to mind when the awkward task presented itself.

Or perhaps mourning families are afraid to say too much. Dad might have been a faithful provider who occasionally disappeared for weekend benders: good guy but a raging drunk when the mood struck him. Or Pops may have had a snap temper, a heavy hand at discipline time, and a penchant for flirting with the ladies. Not that bad of a guy, but should we mention that almost-fling he had with his secretary?

I heard a man eulogized by three sons at a memorial yesterday, and they ran through the usual list. Dad taught them how to work hard. Dad was a tough discipliner who always reassured a punished child that he was still loved. Dad loved Mom. I could tell that they wanted to say more but couldn’t find the right words. They were thinking about Dad in the same way they thought about baseball.

But another image of the man emerged from the proceedings. Family and friends had entered the sanctuary with long faces and heavy hearts. But they walked into the reception in a lighter mood. They sat at tables, ate a lot of food, and little kids ran and played. They appeared to draw closer to each other in their celebration of a man’s life, and they did it with good spirits and tender care for each other.

So, the man’s true memorial is the love that he nurtured and spread during his life. He no longer draws breath, but his influence carries on in expanding waves of decency and goodness.

What more is there to say?

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The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.

Quaker Meeting: “I feel the presence of God descending.”

Alapocas Friends Meeting, graphite.

Judy and I sat on padded, upright chairs in a school library. We had joined six other people to form a circle in the dimly lit room. Some stared at the floor; others closed their eyes and frowned; one older man gently snored. The grandfather clock on a near wall ticked, and branches occasionally scraped against the windows.

A fellow next to me said, “I feel the presence of God descending upon us.” I felt nothing but boredom and an urge to massage my neck. I saw that his face had settled into a look of peace as if his mind had become immersed in a field of joy.

I envied the man and wondered if going to a Quaker meeting had been a mistake. My spiritual life hadn’t advanced far enough to give me a sense God in any form. Was I qualified to worship with them? Then I decided that the man’s declaration was evidence of a self-induced delusion.

I went back the next week, however, and sat in the circle. I stared at a rhombus of light on the carpet in front of me. Dick snored and the clock ticked. A sparrow chirped in the bushes outside the window. I started to nod off.

Then a sensation of falling deeper into the silence made me close my eyes. A loving, still, peaceful presence filled my mind. I could recall nothing like this from my short time of practicing meditation. I wondered, “Is this God?”

Crazy-Makers and Anger Addicts

I sometimes recall angry confrontations and betrayals to draw energy from my residual resentments.  I use the resultant adrenaline rush to power my way through tired spells.  This automatic process kicks in when I’m doing tedious work in rough conditions.  I’ve learned to look for signs of creeping negativity.  I try to remember to take a break when my attitude turns sour.

My addiction to past-event-anger offers a false reward.  Every relapse into this practice, while giving me a bit of juice, also saps my sense of well-being and steals vitality. I can feel myself becoming a miserable s.o.b.  The world gets lonely as the people around me retreat to a safe distance.  I can take offense at their withdrawal, add it to my list of grievances, punch the anger button, and reinforce the feedback loop.

I’ve noticed that other folks suffer from this malady, but some take a different approach to tapping the anger-battery.  Crazy-makers look for an outrage to fight against.  If a crisis isn’t available, they’ll invent a problem and start a crusade.  They recruit unwitting co-workers, family members, and representatives of rival political parties to act as villains. Their righteous anger propels them forward.  If folks around them capitulate, a crazy-maker simply makes up another issue.

Perfect people set up scenarios in which they give, give, give to everyone around them.  While they inspect their actions and motivations for flaws and correct them as fast as they can, they also direct their judgment scanners on those around them.  Ordinary folks never consistently live up to standards of excellence, never give enough in return.  Perfect people are like Diogenes, the Greek chap with the lantern who looked day and night for an honest man.  They search everywhere but find no flawless pearls of goodness except in themselves.  Smugness, not anger, becomes their fuel.

Schadenfreude warriors draw sustenance from others’ pain.  They attach themselves like leeches to sufferers and offer false sympathy to make their victims feel worse.  They say things like, “That must hurt,” and “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.  I wonder how you’ll ever manage,” and “My aunt had troubles like yours…She died of cancer a few years later.”  Schadenfreudians gain satisfaction and sustenance from little dynamos running constantly in their heads.  Their internal generators are powered by this thought:  “Better him than me, better her than me…”

All of these strategies are traps easy to fall into and much harder to escape.  I catch glimpses of my real life (one of spontaneity, joy and acceptance) when I manage to step free from my anger snare.  But some pets prefer cages to freedom.  I return, like them, to my familiar confinement.

I may benefit yet from seeing the truth, from understanding my weakness and my addictive tendencies.  Clear sight may be the first step toward a final release.

 

Teach, Breathe, Relax

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My wife, Judy, gets worried about me when I come home after teaching a rough class. My reddened face tells her that my blood pressure is elevated once again. She speaks to me in a quiet voice suitable for calming an angry dog and steers the conversation toward topics having nothing to do with teaching.

Lately I’ve been encountering students who do not listen to instructions, fail to understand instructions but do not ask questions, cherry pick one part of the instructions while ignoring the rest, and who do random things unrelated to the assignment even after getting further instruction and clarification.  This occurs after I’ve shown them examples of correctly finished drawings and done demonstrations of techniques.  I’ve sometimes had to sketch the beginning steps on their drawings to get the basics established.

They think that I’m odd and damaged when I show signs of irritation and frustration after they self-sabotage their work by further acts of blind incomprehension or bored indifference. One student cannot follow any verbal instruction.  I told him last Saturday to start a tonal painting by working from dark tones to light tones.  He responded, “Okay, light to dark.”  This was the third or fourth instance of communication failure between us within a few minutes.  “No,” I pleaded, “dark to light!”

The other night a student nodded along when I gave her instruction, and then proceeded to do the opposite of what I had told her.  She advised the women next to her to follow suite, and I had to deal with a minor insurrection.  She began to do the assignment correctly after I gave her a series of increasingly curt orders.  I relaxed as the class began to go as planned, and she asked me if I felt better.  She spoke to me in a patronizing tone as if illness had been the cause of my irritability. I suffered a relapse when I growled in response, “Don’t worry about how I’m feeling.”

I’ve been talking with Judy about all this and have realized a few insights about teaching and my frustration:  1. I get a sense of personal satisfaction when a student learns something–I’ve made a difference; 2. my classroom is a place where I feel in control; 3. I put a lot of effort into preparing and presenting a class.  When students fail to learn my sense of satisfaction disappears.  When students react randomly to my directions I get anxious because I feel like I’m losing control.  When my efforts are ignored I feel disrespected and unappreciated.

I realize that it’s a fool’s game to rely on others for self-worth.  I can only do my best and let the results come in as they may. Getting churned up over a weak group of students is pointless.

A few months back I tried the technique of watching my breath during times of stress.  If I slowed down and paid attention to air passing in and out of my nostrils I had a chance to relax and reset my emotions.  Recently I read a passage from Yogananda where he advises his devotees to keep their calm throughout the day, and to watch for the instances when they fail.  He says that progress can be judged by how well we live in peace with our surroundings.

And that sounds like a good goal to me.  If my focus is on maintaining a sense of peace and calm while I teach, and not so much on ego driven ambitions (control, accomplishment, praise), I might be a lot more effective…I need a tattoo on the back of my drawing hand that says, “Teach, breathe, relax.”  And on the other it could read, “Keep the calm.”

The Sanctity of Guilt

Religions elevate different emotional states or personality traits to the highest standard of moral behavior.  Christians praise self-sacrificing love.  Readers of the Bhagavad Gita learn that they should not be concerned by the results of their actions, but that they should make sure that every step taken is one of devotion to God.  Quakers believe that an Inner Light is available for guidance, and if it is consistently followed the believer will live a life in harmony with the whole of humankind and nature.  All of these core beliefs are powerful tools for setting social mores, to leading people toward happier and more productive lives as well as to spiritual peace.

The interesting but sad history of nearly every faith is the perversion of their core beliefs into repressive, rigid codes that are used by a hierarchical structure to garner and maintain power and wealth.  Secondary tenets are usually added onto the original inspirational teachings of the founders of a religion, ones that aid and abet the franchise building of current spiritual leaders.

I grew up in the Roman Catholic faith.  The power structure of the church, at times, was emphasized from the pulpit more strongly than the Sermon on the Mount.  We weren’t encouraged to read the Bible in our spare time as we might get ideas that ran contrary to the teaching of our parish priests.  Certain passages of the New Testament were ignored (Jesus had brothers and sisters and a mother who was worried that He would embarrass the family in front of the neighbors.), while others were heavily underlined (Mary’s miraculous state of virginity when she became pregnant and gave birth to Jesus).  Loving sacrifice, when it was taught, was usually tied to giving generously to charities sponsored by the church and to the church itself.

Secondary tenets were added on to ensure our docile acceptance of church doctrine and its hierarchy.  Obedience was emphasized, as was humility in the face of God’s amazing power.  God’s representatives on earth were the priests, bishops, cardinals and the Pope, so kneeling before them and accepting their direction without question was an act of piety.

Guilt was a big thing too.  We were taught to feel guilty for merely existing.  Baptism released us from an original sin passed down to us from Adam and Eve that we had acquired simply by being born.  Jesus died for our sins, even the ones we had only imagined.  We were told that we constantly sinned in thought, word and deed, and by acts of commission and omission.  From one sunrise to the next we were actively engaged in fouling our souls, and only by rushing to confession to seek out church sponsored forgiveness could we expunge a few stains.  The agonies of our Savior on the cross were described in detail to reinforce the idea that we, the faithful, were a bunch of miserable shits requiring an extreme sacrifice to square our debts with God.  And, of course, if we were ingrates and failed to toe the (church) line, then Jesus would act as our judge and condemn us to eternal hell….So much fun.

Guilt became an act of piety.  If folks had moments when they felt a little too good about themselves they would be reminded of their faults.  A “big head” meant that one had forgotten about his or her innate fallibility.  It was better to counter any moment of satisfaction with a self reminder that one had screwed up in the past and would do so again.  If persons felt that they had made some strides in conquering a bad habit they kept it to themselves, or even suppressed any thoughts of accomplishment.  She had been taught not to trust in herself–only God (and a priest) could really recognize the true state of her soul–and God might be tempted to throw harder challenges at him if he got cocky.

In recent years the child abuse scandal has finally exposed the depths of corruption in the church.  The revelation that the organization was designed mostly to promote and protect its own, namely the clerics  and not the lay people, was a heartbreaking surprise to those who had spent their lives revering the official caretakers of the church.  The faithful parishioners had hoped that there really leaders more chaste and holy than themselves, that all those years of guilt-tripping had been a meaningful exercise in becoming more like the clergy if not like Jesus Himself (the unattainable goal).

The truth has come out, but the question is, “Will it set us free?”  Can we go back to the original teachings of an avatar, saint, or savior and discern their core message?  Can we put divine inspiration into effect in our own lives without guidance from a teacher who may or may not be corrupt?  Is there a church that hasn’t debased the revelations of its founding prophet?  And if we rely solely on ourselves will be fall prey to self-delusion?

I’ve been left to wander after leaving behind the Catholic church.   The faith into which I was indoctrinated still has a lingering influence, and my fall back stance whenever I am praised or criticized is an uneasy mix of humility and guilt.    I meditate and have dabbled in studying Buddhism and Hindu belief systems, but have never found a true spiritual home.  As far as I know there have been no organizations created by human beings that can ever establish a heavenly space here on earth.

Perhaps the most that we can hope for is to see occasional glimpses of a better way of existence.

 

King Arthur and the Crayon Excalibur

King Arthur was carried away to Avalon Island to receive treatment for wounds he received from Mordred, his son or nephew depending on who’s telling the tale.  He did not recover and was laid to rest on the island.

I wonder if Arthur thought back as his life slipped away on his many battles, on Guinevere’s faithlessness and the treachery of his friend, Lancelot.  Did he question whether any of it was worthwhile in the end?  Did he make the lives of anyone around him better by chasing after a cup, by trying to establish a code of honor, by seeking to unite Britain into one kingdom, by trying to reclaim his wife’s fickle affections?

I imagine that he attempted to evaluate his actions, to weigh his choices and consider what could have been done better or differently.  We all do this at key turning points in our lives unless we’re narcissists or psychopaths delighting in all of our works.

I went to The Gallery at Avalon Island in downtown Orlando yesterday afternoon.  No ladies emerged from a lake to hand out swords, however, and there weren’t any knights sitting around a round table drinking mead while their pages sharpened their swords.  Instead a group of artists stood before their paintings and sculptures and shared their thoughts about their work and the process of making it.

As I listened to the speakers I noticed that each one had a reason for making art that had little to do with mere craftsmanship.  Each of them appeared to be using the practice of art to try to find solace and meaning, to evoke thoughts and feelings.  They hadn’t simply made decorative objects.  They had made physical realizations of their internal dialogues, of their arguments and negotiations with God, themselves, human kind and nature.  (One artist handed out scraps of cardboard and pens and invited us to doodle as a means of enticing us to take up this practice.)

None of the artists who spoke at the opening were facing a mortal situation like Arthur.  But they had decided to engage in an assessment a bit earlier, to try to make sense in some fashion by making art.  I hope that they find some solace in their meditations.  And I wonder if King Arthur’s story would have had a less bitter ending if he had wielded a Crayon Excalibur more often than a sword.