Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Going to Sleep

[will be away from you, my blessed curse of the internet connection, for a few days]

[will be painting houses, breathing chemicals, inducing tendonitis]

[this being the only way to make money of late]


[see you/me soon, same swirling time, same invisible place]

[night night]

-a sleeper

Monday, July 26, 2010

Letter to an Invisible Church: No. 6

Dear Church of the Holy Abstraction:

A quote:
It is possible that all architectures, everywhere, are tangent to one another. One leaves a building only to enter its neighbor. A continual entering and exiting. - "Eight Short Films About Architecture," G.C. Waldrep

By now, it is a common present-day Christian thing to say, "the church isn't a building; it's the people." Of course, they are right. Of course, they are wrong.

Obviously, the success of a community is based on those who commune, not the room in which they break bread and eat reduced fat Oreos. But, I can't forget about the architecture, because it is everywhere, and in fact, we are human architecture, cartilage spread over bone like a brick wall, skin sealing us off from the possible pain of air. We are buildings, and we are a stack of closed doors trying to open.

So, yes, there are home churches, and churches that meet in cinemas, attics, subways, mountaintops, anywhere, really, but still, we bring with us the fears that have been nailed to the beams and steeples of the churches we grow up in/around, despite the fact that the bucolic white church is still just a product of architectural vogue. 

The philosopher Michel Foucault discusses Jeremy Bentham's idea of the panopticon--a structure (in his most common example, a prison) with a tower in the middle of a circle of high-rise chambers. In each chamber, the prisoner/occupant has no choice but to view the phallic tower, and has no way of knowing whether a prison official is inside watching her/him. This, as Foucault says, creates a non-violent means of control that encourages self-discipline. 

The idea of something we can't see watching us. Not a stretch for you and me.

When I first studied the idea of the panopticon, I had thought that Foucault was criticizing Bentham's all-seeing eye, as it would surely make everyone crazy with the paranoia of who is/is not watching at any given moment. As I look back over it though, it seems he was suggesting it was a good idea, and that it could be used in schools and for mental patients--any mass of people that needs to be constantly controlled. 

The architecture of power, then, is the architecture of fear. In "Eight Short Films...", Waldrep says there is no word for the fear of architecture.

The idea of God in the Panopticon isn't as scary as the thought of your leaders, pastors, reverends, elders, bishops, deacons, etc. camping inside the eyeball, watching us learn to be controlled. We cannot speak to you when you are behind the Pan-pulpit, and therefore your lessons become a power play. We are the unruly mob, and you are the one getting inside our head. 

I want the architecture to change, and to expand, and I want you to get out of the panopticon and preach to an empty stage, so that you can know, like I do, a little bit about what it's like to talk to yourself. Then, we can experience the blessing of leaving this building together and visiting a neighbor's building, and another, and, hopefully, the visitation will never stop.

Waiting, Always,
a sleeper

Friday, July 23, 2010

Drafting, pt. 10

Well, it happened.

Almost 2 months into the summer, and I finally finished revising a chapter. The reason it was difficult (minus all the other bouts of mania I've chronicled since graduating) was because it was a chapter that I submitted as a stand-alone piece to an essay contest at the Iowa Review (this year's was judged by one of my favorite writers, Jo Ann Beard). I didn't make it to the final round, and so JoAnnsies still doesn't know I exist, but I got a fairly lengthy--as rejection letters go--paragraph from one of the editors saying how much potential she thought the essay had. 

When I tell most people that I got a handwritten rejection letter, they don't quite understand why I look like a seven-year-old with a new Super-Soaker 200. I then explain that literary journals receive endless submissions, most of which don't even get a second glance. You get an impersonal form letter thanking you for trying, and that's it. So, if some flesh-and-bone hand takes the time to put down their mug, pick up a BIC pen and write, "no, thanks" on your rejection letter, it's like receiving a silver medal. 

Whenever I receive one of these not-quites I immediately stick it to my fridge. 

The note from Iowa Review said that my essay was surprising and powerful, but needed "a revision or two" more. They also asked to see that next version. Being that I had already spent a year revising this piece, I had no idea where to go, and the fact that they want to see another version amped up the tension even more. I was in that trap where it made total sense to me. I couldn't see the forest for the trees, or the tree from the forest, or however that impregnable phrase goes--I mean that I felt like a forest fell on top of me and the only way to break free was to cut my legs off with a dull Swiss Army blade. 

In Letter to an IC-5, I mentioned that I was disturbed by researching acid reflux. Well, the reason wasn't because I'm a hypochondriac who gets nightmares when he sees the words "Deep Vein Thrombosis," but because I was researching it for the essay--called "What is in the Filling" and is about what we put, keep, and can't keep in our bodies. Communion, indigestion, family reunions, and a girlfriend that wouldn't kiss me--somehow that all fit together in my head, but not on the page.

An excerpt from the new-and-hopefully-last-but-probably-not revision:
So, it is about the taking in of things. In this hospital, there are now files, images of my guts documented in the attempt to understand what I’m made of. There is a hollow, scraping feeling inside my gullet, as if I’ve swallowed and torn out a sword. I run the tips of fingers over my ribcage, wincing, and look down at the easily torn paper barely covering the bed I’m sitting on. I am not empty, but the feeling is one of a mass exodus. The prognosis is not so much that I’m choosing the wrong things to be full of, but that my body doesn’t quite understand what to do with it all. I am obedient in that I eat to live, but, like my father before me, obedience won’t keep you standing or keep you from stopping altogether.

It also has something to do with cups; with chipped Pyrex lips, and what kind of liquid will pass over its jagged edge—wine, spit, the burp of death, what else? In elementary school—and middle even—my answer to the question, How did he die? was always: “He swallowed glass.” My father’s cup had broken, and he drank it down.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Letter to an Invisible Church: No. 5

Dear Church of the Holy Abstraction:

Am I being cynical in all of this? 

If so, don't take it personally. It's not so much cynicism as it is an understanding of death that I tend to forget I understand.

A couple months ago, my close friend P was visiting from California. We were talking about the idea of 'movement' for one reason or another, and I remembered a quote from the book I'm working on in which I am referencing the fact that I moved churches numerous times during my childhood because they kept splitting up. So, I got excited to show him this epiphany: Movement is a myth we've created to symbolize change.

I expected his mind to blow. A hug would've sufficed, even. But instead, he just looked up and said: "Man. That's cynical."

I was speechless. Was it? It certainly didn't feel that way. In fact, when I originally wrote the line, I felt an eureka pang of joy, perhaps even love. It made sense to me: that sometimes in order to gloss over the stagnation of our soul, we physically move somewhere, and that supposedly means things have changed. 

I don't dress in black. I only listen to The Cure on rainy days. I think that humanity can and does progress. But I'm not going to pretend that the laws of entropy and thermodynamics don't exist. These kinds of statements often lead cynics to say things like, "I'm not a cynic. I'm a realist." By which they mean: they're cynics. 

But I'm not even sure I'm a realist, beyond the fact that I learned at age four that death happens, and will always happen. At funerals, I don't cry. But I also get slightly uncomfortable when people refer to funerals as a "celebration of life," because, of course, it isn't. There I go again. 

Darkness is the place of regeneration. The emotion of love can only come out of something we don't understand. Oftentimes, that means trauma. The fact that you can love a parent or a spouse during mundane hours where nothing happens is because we've made it through some catastrophic argument or tragedy at some point--together. 

Yesterday, when N came home, I was busy frantically making a tofu lasagna. In a matter of minutes, I was complaining about something, and before I knew it, I'd realized I was oddly disturbed. Because she's patient and doesn't throw things, we soon realized that part of my mania was coming from an entry I'd read on esophagitis/acid reflux (something I've had since I was 17). It is referred to as a premalignant condition. That prefix hooked in deeper than I thought. In this way, everything feels pre-cancerous, and the only way to not be identified as premalignant is to die of something other than cancer. Before esophageal cancer, my father had esophagitis. 

Then we ate lasagna, and I stopped worrying that every cup of coffee was a malignant harbinger.

So, I lied. Sometimes I listen to The Cure, or Godspeed You! Black Emperor on sunny-days-with-highs-in-the-mid-70s. I am in the light because I am inspired by darkness, because I had to realize that striking a match would move--and change--everything. 

Waiting, Always,
a sleeper

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Letter to an Invisible Church: No. 4

Dear Church of the Holy Abstraction:

I would like to say a few words in praise of errancy. And no, this isn't going to be a theological debate about the fallibility/infallibility of Scripture. At least, not on purpose.

Rather, I speak of my own errancy--my failings and inability to achieve what I and you think is probably a nice way to live, to put it mildly.

A few months ago (ok, I'll admit it, maybe almost a year ago), I was inside the walls of one your buildings. The man up front had some interesting things to say. Among them was possibly the most staggering thing I'd ever heard from behind a block of wood:

People think they should become Christians because it will make them a better person. I'll tell you right now: if you want to be a better person, than being a Christian isn't the answer.

Obviously, there's a little cheek-tonguing happening here. He wasn't advocating that if you want to feel better about your predilection for voyeurism, then you should start going to church. Rather, he was saying--I think--that faith isn't about self-betterment or the pursuit of personal perfection. It's about turning your guts inside out until you have no choice but to be immediately stung by the outside world--meaning, you have to respond to it when it comes to you about unfairly traded coffee, breakups, and oil-drenched pelicans.

This is why I'm afraid of your walls: that I'll stare at the chair in front of me for so long that I start to think I can only see my hideous reflection.  This would then lead to me only focusing on making myself better, as if it was perfectly natural to self-scoop out the rotting cancer behind my bones.

I love the idea of church picnics, and food pantries, and the annual Christmas drive and all, but in the end, it feels like it's designed to make me feel like I'm making a difference. Sometimes, I'm frightened that if I feel this way, it means that nothing is different, and I'm only playing dress-up in the bathroom mirror that's adjacent to the Toys for Tots bin in the lobby.

I, unsurprisingly, am not that great of a person. I spend most of my time checking emails, waiting for someone to say something nice to me. In fact, I spend even more of time waiting. Waiting to feel like a better person so that I can feel up to your standards and equipped to do good in the world. I can pray my psalms in the morning and feel saintly peace as I then eat my yogurt and granola. But I'm giving myself the spiritual slip by acting out the habits you taught me so that I don't have to feel useless by the end of the day. 

But I do. 

Waiting, Always,
a sleeper

Monday, July 12, 2010

Drafting, pt. 9

Time: 4:06 p.m.
Music: "Fading Stars I" | D_rradio
Mood: parched

I've never been one for time-consuming projects. This is, admittedly, a nicer way of saying that things that take more than 15 minutes frighten me into a lazy stupor.

Take today:

Being that I'm still unemployed with zero prospects (even a church-owned coffee shop won't return my calls--though, given my recent series, I guess I shouldn't be surprised), I find myself at home with loads of open time. In many ways, this is what I've been longing for: the uninterrupted time to write and finish revising the book. Last summer I was in the same predicament, but I still had one more year of my degree to look ahead to, not to mention I was being paid through a Summer Fellowship. I was officially, a "professional" in that I was being paid to write. So, the writing came easy (once I battled the demon of Acedia--something I didn't even know existed at the time).

Now, I'm not being paid to write. However, it seems the list of people who are very very interested in the book grows longer everyday. I don't know how many times in the last month I've been pulled into a dark corner at a party and more or less been threatened to hand over the book. It's extremely flattering, and reinforces the idea that I'm not talking to myself with all of this (this=the book; this=the blog; this=my life).

Even though I can say proudly that I'm being "compensated" via external validation, it can often add more pressure to the fact that I need to deliver the damn thing. I've always considered myself a great beginner--a virtuoso of inception, even. When my brain fixates on something, whether it be a book or the butterfly stroke, it doesn't take long before I've replicated some semblance of creating that act. It draws attention and a few hearty pats on the shoulder, but then I reach a point where I need to take another step forward. This is when coffee breaks happen a lot more often, and I begin reading a number of dense books in order to pad myself in brain jail.*

I mentioned in L to an IC #2 this idea of 'chronic guilt.' Call it a romanticized self-diagnosis, but I've been thinking about it a lot. By this point in the writing process, I've reflected on my experience enough to realize that guilt played an enormous role in the shaping of my ideas of faith. In the last year, I've proactively started to diffuse this guilt, in terms of how I view spirituality and the life of faith, but now I'm starting to think that it has its barbs in more than my religious hard-wiring. For instance, I'm viewing the side writing projects I've undertaken lately as helpful deviations to bring perspective on the desert-phase of revision. But when I stop and take that thought through a little more, I think about how it could be just another fearful, avoidance tactic. I've realized something is important and bigger than my own measly existence, and so the pressure to make it reach those heights makes me feel, well, measly.

Then, I think about how I just need to buck up and do it. And then it's 4:45, and I need to start making dinner. So, I feel guilty for wasting my unemployed time.

What is the difference between excuses and resolution? How am I supposed to know when I'm avoiding something, or simply just going through the human process of trial and error?

A possible answer lies again with that out-of-fashion word, "acedia." Kathleen Norris points out that it is a tough-to-define spirit-based combo of deep laziness and depression. Interestingly, it was considered by monks to be one of "eight bad thoughts" that interrupted valuable work. It was soon chopped from that list and replaced with 'sloth' in a list renamed the "seven deadly sins."

Now: how can I keep my thoughts from making a deadly conversion?

*I've also been known to start a blog.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Letter to an Invisible Church: No. 3

Dear Church of the Holy Abstraction:

What about the Desert Fathers?

I know, my knowledge of them is basic, wiki basic, even, and my nondenominational background certainly made no reference to any kind of history between A.D. 33 and 1970. But, still: a group of beards move out to the Egyptian desert to figure out this whole faith thing. It was escapist in the way that one escapes death--the sense that continuing to live in contemporary society was threatening their intuition as well as their jugular.

They were separatists and individualists. If this happened today, you'd call them un-churched, and tell them that they are "missing out on God's blessings." Instead, because it's ancient history, you call them saints, and place them in prominence in many of your established traditions.

I've never been to the desert. I imagine it hurts your calves, almost sinking with each step, leaving a depression that is not so much a footprint as it is a failed attempt at leaving one's subjective mark on the landscape--concave scoops of would-be wells that are filled in by the erasure of hot wind.

But maybe that's what they wanted--the parched reminder that it's not about becoming a better person so that you can leave tracks for others to follow. Paradoxically, this kind of self-denying lesson only arrives via periods of seclusion.

Here's an easy-to-find quote from one of your most respected DFs, that predates the Pascal idea I've discussed previously: Sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you all.

So, perhaps my Sort-of-Sahara isn't the period of dryness you think. A cell doesn't have to mean enclosed imprisonment. Only in the absence of sheet rock and stone can one be knocked over by unending sky.

Waiting, Always,
a sleeper

Monday, July 5, 2010

Letter to an Invisible Church: No. 2

Dear Church of The Holy Abstraction:

For me, anxiety seems to always be located in my ribcage. It is a shivering bird locked directly underneath the sternum. I often find myself running a finger or two over it, surprised at how lumpy the bone itself is. I guess I imagine that a sternum should be smooth, like a planed cedar plank, and so even regarding my own anatomy, I think that something is off, worrying that I've made things rougher than they need to be.

Recently, I was back inside one of your sets of walls. To be honest, I was surprised how uncomfortable it felt. I understand that at some point, chronic guilt has to be a projection--some perceived failure about myself that runs so deep, I've started to believe that it is pouring in, rather than emanating out. Have I mistaken a
deep, leaking crack for standing in the rain?

Even still, the words of the pastor felt like bricks being laid at my feet, cordoning me off from the truth that he continually referred to as a joyous, gracious thing. But where was that joy? Can one take joy in placing barbs into the bones of others? Again, I get the whole 'make them jealous by making them see your joy' but this felt almost spiteful--a showing off of that joy and grace, rather than what I perceive a true response to grace is, when trying to explain it to others: a humbled, tripping over of one's words in dumbfounded awe.

In other words, why be a salesman, when the Thing sells itself?

And again: that shivering bird rattles the shelled marrow.

It's hard to write it. To feel like I'm one numb cell against a heritage of bodies. But at least when I try and explain it, it feels like I'm in attendance, placing sweat-drenched coins in the coffer, and echoing the prayers of the people whose suffering is cauterized by searing joy. And maybe that's closer to it: that I find kinship in joy that has arisen from pain, rather than a urethaned smile that is sold to a person under the pretense that one's pain is first a cause for guilt before it can be grin-slapped.

I've always felt that my sternum was cracked, and though it's jagged and worn, it is, God bless it, fused.

Waiting, Always,
a sleeper