Monday, November 9, 2009


I testify in the name of Our Risen Lord that at 6:15PM Dr. Lincoln Hurst appeared in the middle of the G street intersection on November 9, 2009. He ran through the crosswalk towards the liquor store, and in the second I slowed not to hit him, I thought, "how apt." Dr. Hurst was the favorite religious studies professor of the Christian group that I ran with in college. I dressed up as him when I emceed our college retreat. It was rumored that he was a believer, if of a somewhat unorthodox stripe, and like a mythical creature, you could get him to confess to it if you approached him alone, with the appeasement of a cup of on-campus coffee. His conversion had taken place when after thirty years of critical, acrid-hearted skepticism, he had been reading the Gospel of John one day on a train and had realized in a calm and steam-powered instant that it was all true. I trusted this at the time because of its unpredictability. Now I wonder about it because many of my greatest realizations have occurred on trains.
There was the story about the flying communion loaf. During his years as a pastor he had under some circumstances tripped while delivering communion, sent the Body Of Christ flying into the air in a totally unprophesied fashion, and made an irreverent joke or oath or facial expression regarding the event that caused him to be summarily dismissed.
He was consulted for Academy Award nominations. He loved the Chicago Cubs in total sincerity. He was a bachelor. The Christians attributed to him the siring of an illegitimate child and passed on the news. He had studied at Oxford. He played "Crystal Blue Persuasion" for every Gospel of John class and made esoteric ancient Greek scholar jokes about its lyrics.
That he should choose Bernie's Liquor as the place of his posthumous appearance was simultaneously as mystical and profane as he had always managed to be. I always wondered about the rumors I'd heard - that he was a steady and faithful drunk, that his retirement had been early because he knew he was dying of an unnecessarily early disease. In an instant the memory of everything that has happened returned. The man's shaggy hair and beard, paunch and slab-like hands, corduroy blazer with a t-shirt, running shoes and forward-angled walk brought everything back. Everything I had become, everything I had said and done since then, all the dignity and squalor and mystery and faith and skepticism he had heretically commingled in his lectures, and all the questions he had failed to answer and I had failed to ask flooded over me. The fucking Beach Boys were singing some shit about California Girls to add that extra frisson of insecurity and self-doubt. And I thought of how much easier my life would be if I did not feel the need to KNOW.
That last lecture before that springy, neon-green Easter had scratched at true mystery. As he closed his lecture on the gospel harmony text, delineating the differences between each apostle's account of the crucifixion, he said simply, "And the rest you'll have to decide on for yourself. Past that point, it depends on your interpretation." And the room was silent. No pastor has ever preserved so graciously the mystery of what has been proclaimed the salvation of the world, and no professor has ever paved the road to agnosticism with more care and deference to the doubter's mind. It would greatly stroke my ego if I could find out that the friends I slung so much bull with at the time and now no longer correspond with were scared shitless by this.
I need some answers. I need some words with which to phrase my questions. Don't be such a pussy. Stop being so selfish. Don't become the victim of infinite phobias. Do not dip into the well of reasons you Cannot Get Past It.
At the retreat I had scratched my face with my fake Hurst beard. I stood rubbing my chin and asking our college pastor, how shall we love those who sin? And I cannot remember what his answer was. I only remember that he said I was truly confronting Jesus' example of consorting with whores and thieves as his own people and experiencing how difficult that could be. I would like to be a biker bitch drinking with Dr. Hurst. I have some things to ask him that I only want him to answer after two beers and several Mamas and the Papas hits. I like to think that among the people in my past who have been in a position to judge my own analysis of my beliefs, he is one I could still trust to shoot straight. I am not going to let the Professor's shadow kick me off the face of the earth into a life of eccentricity and excuse-making because I have not dealt with my shit and he has left me behind where I belong to deal with it. I would rather live my eccentricities out on the sidewalk with a wildly contradictory holy man or two.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

on the milk carton

Since I moved into my new apartment I feel more closely connected with the city and simultaneously more distant from everyone I care about. My perch overlooks a moderately busy intersection in the heart of the town, on a street that separates the south side neighborhood convenience stores and scrawled tagging from the north side Lexi and Prii. Theo loves the new place. He sits at the window, a small hairy gargoyle - or is that redundant? - fixated on what occurs below, judging nothing, observing everything. I can't escape the fear that someone will see me lick the ice cream bowl or dig my finger in my ear. I can't escape the immaterial presence of The Townspeople driving by to the kitty-corner doughnut store and The Regular Dude in the lifted truck, or as the Professor used to call them, The Jetski People. Maybe I should give up all that flouncy NPR shit. I was this close to figuring out the Puzzler. I can't help the self-consciousness. I just like letting light in through the blinds.

I used to be a bootstrap libertarian. What do you mean, your mom went to jail last night? What do you mean, your dad has seven other kids from different mothers and you swear you will kill him if you ever see him again? What do you mean, you represent red and you'll die killing skreezies if you have to? Let's read some Holocaust memoirs, children. The older I get, the more sensitive I become. I doubt I can keep my countenance and discuss aloud Wiesel's account of the hanging of the small child in the concentration camps. I lost the ability to distance myself from it. I wake myself sobbing when I dream of it. The only thing that still makes me wonder how much control I have is that the moment I asked for compassion and humility, I began the four worst fucking years of my life, and I came out of it with a completely different mind. What, then, can I say I know with confidence?

It was a morning alone, my first Saturday in my new place. The Kenyan coffee was on the stove. The stock market news was on the radio. The cat was on the windowsill. Serenely I walked from the shower, nude, damp, drying my hair with a towel, into the brilliant sunshine. The trucks drove by trailing the jetskis up to the lake. The radio bleated miserably. The cat's yellow gaze never wavered. And an eleven year old boy sitting in the corner doughnut shop with his brothers met my eyes as I realized my nakedness was fully revealed through the open blinds. He squinted. Then grinned. Then pointed. And I jumped into the closet. But there was no covering what had been uncovered. There was no way it could be denied. I had become the naked woman.

There is no grade worth the destruction of your character by dishonesty. Your bootless honor student tears mean nothing to me. Did you know that I conceal everything I have become from my family? Did you know that I once was a two-timing whore? Did you know that even recognizing these things, and making efforts to change, and changing, I am still much less than I strive to be? Where the hell do I get off? Jetskis are fucking fun.

Despite everything, I'm still a naked woman visible from the doughnut shop window as you tear up some apple fritters and papery milk from a fist-sized carton with your brothers when you are eleven years old. There will always be a first pair of breasts. There will always be a doughnut. There will always be Saturdays in summer. Or maybe they will none of them ever happen again. Maybe they never happened at all. I will watch and find out.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

the inexhaustible variability of life
an unexpected cool night in midsummer entices people to the fairgrounds. it's a perfect night to go to the fair. crowds fill the dusty intersections. a smoky breeze carries the scent of cotton candy and straw. we take the ferris wheel up and up until we can see the town spread below us. to the south, a graveyard, its silent stones casting long shadows thrown by floodlights illuminating the ferris wheel. the cemetery is painted in a chalky grayscale, in sharp contrast to the cherries and marigolds and limes beyond it.
the boundary between life and death is demarcated only by the soft darkness of an unlit alley, into which light and hard edges fall and evaporate.
to the north, the technicolor melee of the midway, irrepressibly blinking and pinging simple patterns and melodies. the carnival rides shed a neon glow on the surface of the swell. the colors and textures of the dusky throngs shift and flow. equilibrium persists.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I came home sick from school. I had to lecture sitting down during first period because if I stood up for too long I felt dizzy and faint, and my tongue felt all fuzzy when I talked. For a quick second I freaked out and thought I might be having a stroke. So I told the kids I needed them to give me a break today because I didn't feel good, and they behaved themselves without me having to use my cold-blooded psychopathic killer voice. I probably didn't have an episode, but if I could get away with telling people I had some kind of nineteenth-century brain fever, I totally would, so I'd have an excuse to drink claret in the daytime and be treated in my dressing gown by a handsome young doctor who makes house calls. What's more likely is that I ate something a little off. Glamorous and classy.
At home sick, I realize how much I don't like my surroundings - enough that I want to crawl down to the corner coffee shop with my Alice Waters cookbook just to get away from it all. Every remaining piece of clean laundry I own is dumped on the floor, because I couldn't get into the bed and recuperate with No Reservations clips if my entire wardrobe was strewn over the covers. Lots of bins of dirty laundry hunker in the corners. Kitchen sink inspires nausea, as does the bathroom, where I have been much of the day trying to combat that very sensation. EWW.
Last night at one of my four local Starbucks (curse you, caffeinated siren of world domination), I kinda lost it. My study buddy asked me what was wrong. "There's a bunch of dirt on the floor, these people put too many chairs at this table and then left sticky stuff all over it, this other table's too close to me, it's too loud in here, that weird guy is here and he is looking at me, those obnoxious hottie girls we see everywhere are getting on my nerves and I'm just really irritated with everything." I'm such a treat, right?
In truth, several of my self-image issues all collided at the same time, and I couldn't react with temperance. Yes, I've made progress in how I view myself, and even my study buddy agrees that I'm not such a hater towards myself or towards other women anymore. But it upsets me when all the safeguards I have against a self-image meltdown don't keep me from descending into bitchiness when a crowd of women all in sexy little outfits converge on my It's Better To Be Smart Than Pretty parade. (Real talk: No, it's not.) Yes, hot girls, I am that jealous slag. More explanation later, if I deem it interesting. This is the point at which I would usually scrawl 'WHORES' and then scuttle off to my lair of hate, but instead I think I'm going to take the Fug Girls' advice and put on some lipstick, then stagger down to the corner coffee shop for something restorative, of course with my Alice Waters homage-to-butter-cookbook in tow. Hey, don't hate me because I can sizzle in the kitchen and on the street.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

'namaste.' 'did you say NASTY?! HAHAHAHA!'

I had a pretty good feeling that the temperance experiment would not survive my return to work. Consider the good feeling justified. I teach English in a high school where easily forty percent of the population are disadvantaged - economically, culturally, linguistically, or socially. This has easily been the hardest thing I've ever done and I doubt I'll ever again intentionally take on anything that I know in advance will be this difficult. The last year and a half I have been to hell and back and to hell again, where I currently reside with the Great Satan's envoys Monday through Friday. While I bitch a lot about my job, I relish the challenge because I am a stubborn cuss, and I'm not about to let a bunch of punks stop me from doing what I know I can.
What gets me though, are the situations they bring to school. A foster home girl who threatens that she'll fight another girl from her home if the girl continues to spread information from my student's personal file to others who harass her about it. Could you blame her? Well, some of you could - and yet, she has had absolutely no training in how to settle an argument, retain pride, and avoid violence all at the same time. A boy who sasses me relentlessly, doesn't understand anything I explain in class, and doesn't do even the most fundamental things I ask him to do to help him understand me. Do I tolerate him, love him, care for him? I suppose I ought to. It's not his fault his loser mother drank while she was pregnant, but nor is it mine, and now I and twenty-nine other people, all of us with our own loads to bear, have to deal with his inability to behave himself in a classroom. I can't count the number of times I have screamed to the heavens once they've left the room, "God, kids, just let me fucking teach!" I punched a wall and must have broken a bone in my hand, because it still hurts every day, a physical reminder of how far I have let them intrude into my peace of mind. The bitching, while therapeutic, robs me of a temperate heart, but realistically, what else would my response be when I have to tell a child of fifteen not to stick a pencil into his veins, and then, explain why not?
I could go on so much longer. But I cannot afford to do that any more. With their hunger for acceptance, their lack of understanding, their desire for success, and their desperate need of a swift sharp kick in the collective ass, they could easily take over my life. I know when I've bored the family with too many anecdotes about the only thing I do lately. I adopted a cat, Theo, last summer and now I alternate between talking about work and talking about the cat, which is quickly losing its charm. (The talking, not the cat.)
This is not all I am. I am much more than my success at my job, such as it is. I have talents and sensibilities and knowledge I never use while I quash adolescent rebellion. So I've got to stop making the stakes so high. I went to a yoga class today and actively pushed all thoughts of the kids out of my head. I felt so delicious later - lithe, graceful, settled. Not in a year and a half has this happened. Well, not on a weekday anyway.
Hopefully yoga twice a week will have effects on both my body and my mind, including an increase of temperance. I've certainly noticed where I failed to show it, but woefully after the fact. My mission at work is to be more temperate in heart: less angry, more determined; less reactive, more even-keeled. There are moments when my royal bitch pants are called for, but I will try to determine more accurately when those moments occur. I will be temperate in how I respond to their behavior after they're gone. When I see the light in my foster home girl's eyes as she raises her hand, when I read the essay of the boy who has the courage to write about his struggles with a gang, when I read the poems of the girl who is learning the magic variability of a new language, I know I am capable of mastering myself.

Monday, January 19, 2009

tea and cakes and coffeespoons

I'm realizing that the prerequisite for temperance is mindfulness. In being unmindful, I managed to eat way more pizza last night than I should have, curse way more this morning than I should have, and inhale more crackers, Coke and taco truck quesadilla just now than I should have. I'm not going to beat myself up about it - but the thing missing from each episode is a presence of mind and apprehension of the effects of my actions that would have prevented those behaviors. Mindfulness is the only thing that reminds me of the reasons for my decision to modify my life. And it's not a bad way to live, being mindful! Look at Rilke's explanation of what it feels like to be completely mindful, in the least that's what I think this poem refers to, and if you don't like my interpretation you can go get an English degree and then come talk to me about it.

Sonnets to Orpheus
Part Two
Sonnet 1

Breath, you invisible poem! Pure
exchange unceasing between the great
ether and our existence. Counterweight
in which I rhythmically occur.

Single billow whose slow degrees
of ocean take place
in me; most frugal you, of all possible seas--
winnings of space.

How many parts of this space already were
within me! There's many a wind
like a son to me.

Do you know me, air, full of places where I
used to be?
You, once smooth rind,
roundness and leaf of my words.

Also a great Buddhist quote that I picked up at Dharma in the Dishes, the blog of a nice lady who adopted veganism and seems to have gotten much healthier in all sorts of ways.
"If while washing dishes we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way, we are not alive during the time we wash the dishes. We are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life. We will only be thinking of other things, barely aware. Thus we are sucked away into the future--and are incapable of actually living one minute of life. Every act is a rite of mindfulness." Thich Nhat Hanh
I always seem to be looking towards my next cup of tea, pinning my hopes and happiness on some nebulous future event. If I'd adopted an outlook like the one above, I probably also wouldn't have had such a sucklicious day, forgetting my wallet at home, driving half an hour to my parents' house, then driving all the way home and back again to get it, and using up half the morning grousing about it. Yes, you're not the only one. Any harebrained thing you've done, I've done you one better. If I hadn't forgotten my wallet, I might not have had such a pleasant conversation with my brother about foster children and education on the way back to my house.
I think the mindset of 'someday I'll have reached my goal' is what gets people off track in the first place. You can't look at your life as a means to an end goal. You can't wait until you do what you've been hoping to do to be happy and at peace. You have to be those things in the moment, all along the way. What you're accomplishing isn't the meaning of your life, nor is it the source of your joy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

glotoncita? yo no!

My temperance challenge last night was not to eat or drink too much from my parents' wonderful kitchen, and I succeeded! Their dual income provides them with the means to buy the stuff of foodie dreams, and most of my visits involve being offered a caravan of leftover delights from the fridge, to which I always surrender. But last night, in the face of Chambord, port, and delicious chocolate cake, I was not vanquished. Usually I'd think to myself, "Cake! Wine! Celebrate! HAVE MORE!" But that's not celebrating. Celebrating means enjoying what's there. My desire to go back for seconds or to eat a whole pizza is a desire to induce a feeling of excess that really isn't enjoyable when I see what it does to my body. And eating for excess ends up devaluing both the food and the process of eating. So hopefully I'll be able to attain more balance with pleasurable things in the future.