Sunday, December 30, 2007

Spirituality Revisited + the Last of the Turkey

Well, dear hearts, I wish you a happy new year. I have a feeling I’m going to spend a lot of mine at the cardiologist’s office. I am now taking a calcium channel blocker for chest pains. It helps. It’s not a cure-all, but it helps.
The last essay spurred some responses, so this essay talks about those responses, embellished by my own rambling thoughts. Ramble, ramble.
We are on nearly the last version of the Christmas turkey: turkey chunks in gravy, with mashed potatoes. Rick and the boys liked it. I skipped the mashed potatoes, but did indulge in a bit of leftover dressing. I’m not sure what my grand daughter ate. She tends to ask for snacks, like a p, b, & j sandwich, or a little salad with ranch dressing.
It’s nice having the whole family here. I enjoy having the house full. Tomorrow Allysan will go back to her mom's house, JD will go home to Renton, and Drew will go to work, before heading in to the Central Tavern to see his guitar teacher's band. Rick will go to work, also, and I might go over to Lake Union to see the new year in with friend Becky on her boat, if I feel well enough to leave the house.
That’s about it for tonight. Blessings, peace & grace to all – Mary

Spirituality Revisited

Last issue our esteemed Editor Ed asked us to write about spirituality. I did so, to the best of my ability, and have received a lot of good feedback of the “amen, sister” variety from people. Thank you. Glad it resonated for you.
I have also received two complaints, both of them from people who say they do not believe in God, and both taking deep exception to my statement that, “Saying you don’t believe in God is one way of saying you think you are God.” Neither of them think they are God, they said, and they resented my saying so.
Well, I didn’t intend to get all medieval on anyone’s agnostic or atheist heinie, and I apologize to my atheist and agnostic readers who felt offended. At the same time I am pondering what nerves I have trod upon, and how much of the reaction is about what I said, and how much is about the people who reacted.
Most of the steam I was venting in that statement was my own frustration with people who (1) think they have all the answers; and (2) are militant about shoving their answers down other peoples’ throats. A Christian, or atheist, or agnostic, or liberal, or conservative, or what have you, can be a know-it-all who doesn’t listen. You meet angels and asses in every strata and condition of humanity. I’m getting old and I’m getting tired of know-it-alls taking up my time.
One plaintiff was the friend I quoted in the first paragraph of that essay, who said that God did not invent man, man invented God. He wrote with some feeling about the evils of religion as well as his rational, godless, meaningless universe, which is a comfortable place for him.
I’m pretty slow on the uptake sometimes, so it was a couple of days before I went back and re-read his email and realized he wasn’t talking about the evils of God, he was talking about the evils of religion.
Which brings me to my next lesson: religion is not the same thing as spirituality. Let me repeat that: religion is not the same thing as spirituality.
In fact, religion can be a real spirit-killer. I thought about this a lot about twenty years ago when I first began going to church as an adult. That was when I realized that it isn’t God that people hate or don’t believe in, so much as religion, or church, or the terrible things people do in the name of God. It is human beings who behave so badly. It’s no wonder that a lot of people want to spit in the corner when anyone starts talking about God. They have their reasons for feeling that way. You don’t have to be religious to be abusive or violent, but adding religion to an abusive or violent personality seems to be like pouring gasoline on a brush fire.
A more common effect of religion is that people buy into religious beliefs and opinions, and then feel threatened or afraid when they encounter a difference of opinion. The unfolding of truth is suppressed – after all, why look for the truth when you’ve already got it? Why doubt when you have all the answers? So the people who are most open to the continuing revelation of the truth in the world, the ones brave enough to face their doubts and question their God, are the ones most likely to be misunderstood, feared, reviled, and in the extreme, killed by other believers. It is extraordinary that people continue to seek their truth, considering what the consequences can be.
Religion isn’t all abuse and violence. I’ll repeat that, too: Religion is not all abuse and violence. Religions at best are communities of people coming together to learn, to grow, to support, and to serve one another, as well as people outside their community.
I still believe that where people go wrong, and by people I mean me, is when they think they are God. Whatever you believe, if you think you’ve got all the answers, and anyone who doesn’t agree with you is beneath you, well, dang, you have missed the mark.
Next time I’ll try to write something funny.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Wag That Spirit + Boxing Day Thoughts

Go Not Gentle into that Good Night
'Tis the day after Christmas, and there is much rejoicing in my heart, mostly because it is still beating steadily, having made it through another holiday rush. A friend, Betsy Michaud, used the term "holiday martyr" in her Christmas greeting verse, and that certainly resonated with me. I hate December. I hate the rush. I hate the pressure of having to come up with those "just right" presents when I don't have a dollar in my wallet.
Oh, I love my family and my friends. I love the dinners and the company. I love my tree, dripping with pearl earrings and necklaces that I pick up at the thrift store, and also decked with the plastic angels I found in a junk shop over in Soap Lake. They are just like the ones my mom had when I was a kid, that I loved then and played with, and having them on the tree feels so sweet to me.
It's just the idea of the season, the pressure to buy, to spend, to be thoughtful and creative and so forth, when I already feel like my resources are tapped out.
Rick and I are always living right on the line, especially now as we support two houses instead of just one. The move that was supposed to get us out of debt has us hemmoraghing money that we don't really have. That's stress, my friends. We're hoping to get the old house rented after the new year and slow down the bleeding, but oh well.
It's a family tradition. My dad sold the ranch in 1967, put the proceeds into the stock market, and then, in 1968, the market crashed. I don't think he ever recovered from that, and he died about seven years later, of a heart attack. I remember him going into himself, staring at the floor. He and my mom got real estate licenses, and they both worked at it, but I don't think either of them ever made a sale. After a while he just came home and appeared to give up. I am the age he was when he was giving up -- and when I think of that, I think, dammit, I'm not giving up, I'm going to fight like a tiger to live, and be alive. To have "life in abundance," as we Christians like to say.
It is difficult to think of fighting like a tiger and being lively in these long months of convalescence from mononucleosis. I am facing another round with the cardiologist and his tribe because of my frequent pesky chest pains. Angina = bad, you know. Sucks to be mortal, I've been thinking lately.
But then I think of good old Dylan Thomas, who drank himself to death before his time, and what he wrote to his father, which went something like this:
"Go not gentle into that good night,
But rage, rage, rage against the dying of the light!"
Those lines, however I'm misquoting them, give me courage and fire up my spirit.

Sherman Alexie
I've been on a Sherman Alexie toot lately. Sherman Alexie is a writer and poet who grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation, and who writes beautiful, funny, moving, tragic stories about Indian boys and their complex love/hate relationships with their alcoholic fathers. There have been movies made of two of his screenplays: Smoke Signals, which is based on stories from his first book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and The Business of Fancy Dancing, a movie about a young poet, who has left the rez and found success as a writer and speaker, and returns to the rez for the funeral of a childhood friend. Fancydancing was filmed mostly here on Vashon. Smoke Signals was filmed partially in Soap Lake, Washington, a town I have spent some time in, and I can see how parts of Soap Lake could stand in for the rez.
Alexie has had a recent success with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, a youth market novel. I read it the other day, and it's good. Now I've started reading The Lone Ranger... and begin to recognize the characters and stories from Smoke Signals.
I'm not sure why all this tragedy and humor are resonating with me right now. I'm a white person reading about the reality of being Indian and it is like watching a car wreck: it's horrible and I can't look away. But the kid's a pretty good writer and I'm enjoying his stuff.

Ya Gotta Have Heart
The scheduler at the cardiologist's office just called. They want me in there tomorrow afternoon. I'm going to talk to a nurse practitioner. Yay. I generally like nurse practitioners. So the ball is rolling on getting serious treatment for my cardiovascular disease, and that makes me feel better somehow.
OK, now the latest essay, the one that ran in last week's Loop, and then I need to get to work writing something for next week's Loop. It's not as bad as it sounds. At least I have an idea to start. This one was written because Ed Swan, the Loop's editor, wanted to have a theme of spirituality in the last issue, and this is what I came up with. Could be better, could be worse. Hope you enjoy it.
Wag That Spirit

A dear friend once told me that God did not invent man; man invented God. That’s a popular concept among people of great intelligence, and my friend is a person of great intelligence. His great intelligence has gypped him out of the comfort, depth and yes, the reason, of faith.
The reason for faith is simple – when you have faith, you have a richer, fuller, and more joyful life. I know that not everyone wants that, but still, all you hopelessly rational people out there could get down off your tired old defensiveness and eat your share of the faith feast off the good china, if you would, without worrying about appearing to be weak, or whacko. No one is strong or sane all the time, especially people who go around trying to convince everyone that they are strong and sane.
Saying you don’t believe in God is one way of saying you believe you are God.
Saying you believe in God, but going on to say that you know who is going to heaven (you) or hell (not you), is another way of saying you believe you are God.
The basic mistake we all make is that we think we know more, or better than, God, even if we don’t believe in God. We’re so smart and we’re so full of good ideas and we know what’s right and what’s wrong. O what a marvelous creation is man! Or woman! We invented ourselves! Clever homo sapiens.
How do you explain God, or the divine, to people who don’t want to get it? I used to try to explain God to my kids by saying that the word “God” is like a little box that holds a teeny few atoms of what God is, and that box serves as a symbol to our human minds for all the things we do not know and cannot grasp. That unknowable, fathomless, ultimate reality or truth is God, or what we talk about as God so we don’t have to go around saying “the unknowable, fathomless, ultimate reality or truth that we are incapable of imagining, much less grasping.” It’s a short cut.
God speaks to our spirits. What’s a spirit, Mom? I tried to explain spirit to the kids by telling them that your spirit is a part of who you are. It’s a part of every human being, just like the blood in your veins, or the heart beating in your chest, or the need to breathe. It doesn’t matter what you think or how smart or stupid you are, you have a spirit, just like a dog has a tail. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or you don’t wag it.
Me, I’m a Christian. I believe in God and the resurrected Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and that is my religion. This is what and where I was called to be, but I had a spirit before I ever knew a thing about religion.
We human beings are animal creatures, with animal natures. We are naturally subject to animal passions, and we act out of fear, weariness, hunger, loneliness, horniness, anger, jealousy, etc. In our hearts we’re always in junior high – bitter, thrilled, perishing of loneliness, spiteful, manic, worried, desperate for love, desperate to be popular, plotting, planning, strutting, limping, aching, triumphing.
So when someone tells us to calm down and let go of all that, it sounds nuts. It is totally antithetical to our animal natures to be calm and let go of our attempts to control everything, fix everything, judge everything, and mete out punishment and reward. We strive to be God. We’re pretty lousy at the job.
However, human beings also have a wisdom tradition: let go of your animal cravings, stop reacting to everything, love yourself as you are with compassion and kindness, and love others as they are with compassion and kindness. Be kind. Be generous. Be patient. Study. Meditate. Own up to your own sins, but don’t get obsessed with beating yourself up over them – that’s an inverted self indulgence. Shut up and listen. Try to do better. Try to do good. Try to serve instead of trying to control. Do the best you can, and that is enough.
If we go against every screaming bit of our animal nature and let go of trying to be God in our own lives, a miraculous thing happens. Life starts to make sense. If you live as if the truth is true, life starts making sense.
So, how does your spirit wag, your one and only, deepest, most tender, part of you, where truth and light and reality meet, and you stand tall in the dignity of who you are? Don’t ignore your spirit, or lie to yourself that it doesn’t exist. That would be silly.
Now get out there and wag.