Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Dust to dust

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in the world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Last week, I wrote a blog about my feelings regarding the social awkwardness of some of the people on the island. In it, I expressed frustration, exasperation, anger, a little bit of despair and defeat and some implied superiority. I have felt uncomfortable with myself since then. Not uncomfortable that I published those feelings but uncomfortable that I have them at all.

You really do think you’re better than we are. But we don’t know. We don’t know if you’re actually better. I mean, you came into the world with certain advantages, sure, that’s the legacy. But you didn’t earn it. You didn’t work for it. You never had anybody come up to you and say that you deserve these things more than anyone else. They were just handed to you. So that doesn’t make you better than us. It just makes you luckier than us.
-Anya to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer
When I talk about humility, I often find that people rush to assure me that my reactions are normal. And I do feel better to learn that some of the people that bother me, bother everyone else as well. It makes it less personal and I am required to take less responsibility for what I see as a failed interaction. However, in the assurance of others that I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s easy to forget that the code of ethics that I’ve chosen for myself doesn’t always agree with my friends.

What Boba Fett and Darth Maul and Kyle Katarn and to a lesser extend Mace Windu all have in common is their appeal to fifteen-year-old boys’ images of themselves: essentially bad-ass but, you know, honorable about it.
-Tom Bissell, “Pale Starship, Pale Rider: The Ambiguous Appeal of Boba Fett”
I think everyone should live by a code. It makes life more deliberate. It is good to draw a line in the sand. Even if you jump back and forth over it, at least it exists as a point of reference. Without a personal sense of the rule of law, life feels directionless and chaotic. There is no reason to do anything. One becomes a monarch with no parliament to check and balance the laws that we make for the kingdom of our lives. I don’t think even the Red Queen liked herself in that situation, shouting “Off with their heads!” so randomly that she was feared but ignored.

“We are allowed to do anything,” so they say. That is true, but not everything is good. “We are allowed to do anything” –but not everything is helpful. No one should be looking out for his own interests, but for the interests of others.
-1 Corinthians 10:23-24
Lutheran services begin with a time of confession in the liturgy. I have found that since I left behind the fervent Christianity that I practiced as an easy shield between the scary world and myself, I usually think that I don’t really sin all that often. I believe that sin is making a choice that does not follow Christ’s commandments to love God with all of my heart and soul and mind and to love others as God loves me. I believe that those two commandments act as a constitution of sorts. All other laws have to be in compliance with those at the top. (I have yet to decide what should act as the Supreme Court in this analogy.) Anything else in the Bible is just a suggestion or an example of how to apply this new contract to our lives. This makes a lot of the behavior that many public and vocal Christians decry as sinful not necessarily so. They can cite all the scripture that they want; if their letter-of-the-law line in the sand is on the wrong side of the spirit of Christ’s commandment, it isn’t actually relevant to me. Christ represents a new covenant between God and people and that new agreement leaves a lot of room of individual interpretation. It’s disconcerting and a little scary to have so little guidance. However, I don't make a lot of choices between good and evil. I've put myself in the habit of making mostly loving decisions and I rest comfortably on that. This is where the personal code comes in.

River: You're a liar. I don't think your intentions are honorable.
Early: Well, no. I'm a bounty hunter. It's generally not considered honorable so much as... I live by a code, though.
-“Objects in Space,” Firefly
However, I do sin. It’s hard to live by a code. It requires doing things that I know I should do, even though I don’t like the way I have been reminded to do it. :ast Tuesday night, I did not enjoy choir at all. When that stranger spoke to me about sitting up when I sang, I could no longer think about anything other than my posture. I desperately wanted to prove that she wasn’t the boss of me, but I knew that to intentionally slouch while singing in a choir was dishonorable. Most of the time, I ended up in this compromise position in which I didn’t cross my legs, but my shoulders remained hunched. How childish. I felt unwelcome and I covered that up by trying to assert my free will where it didn’t belong. I had made a mistake and I was upset that someone had noticed. The whole purpose of a formal choir is to blend in and create as pure a sound as possible. If I had confessed to myself that I had been wrong, I could have forgiven myself and moved on to contribute positively again.

Remember that from dust thou art formed and to dust thou shalt return.

While I was clearing out the greenhouses with Rhonda, there were times when we would not speak at all but would simply focus on our tasks. Like road trips and retreats, that type of manual labor invites long talking about life’s milestones and we did a lot of that. But, there were times of quiet, when we left each other to our own thoughts because, in discussing life’s milestones, one usually has to process them all over again. During one of these times, I was cutting twine and stalks with a knife and untangling them from the trellis. I was thinking about my father and the good way that he responded to being caught having committed a white-collar crime. My father’s strong belief in Christ allowed him to utilize the traditions that he was raised in, which allowed him to take responsibility for his actions so that they did not do any lasting harm to my family, and in fact, improved our dynamic in many ways, which is an unusual resolution for white-collar crime families. Christianity offers a tradition of confession, penance and forgiveness. Although the idea has its beginning with the belief that Christ’s innocent penance earned forgiveness for all, even the secular parts of our world are influenced by this idea that if you serve your time, then the deed should be forgiven. Every toddler knows that if you say, “I’m sorry,” after hitting your brother, you won’t get into as much trouble. However, some toddlers learn very quickly that forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission and take advantage of their ability to apologize and get out of trouble without really meaning the words that they say. I’ve certainly dealt with enough teenagers who yelled, “I said I’m sorry already! Can’t you just leave me alone?” I don’t leave them alone because it’s not enough. They can’t feel forgiven until they truly acknowledge whatever mistake they made that brought them out into the hallway in the first place. An apology without true regret for hurting another is worthless. So, to be successful, even secular situations must be brought back to the pure Christian tradition that involves acknowledging what harm was done and truly believing it was wrong –otherwise known as confession- before penance and forgiveness can take place. We must do what we do not want to do by admitting that we made a mistake before the balance can be restored.

I once had a garden / filled with flowers / that grew only on dark / thoughts / but they needed constant / attention / & one day I decided / I had better things / to do.
-Brian Andreas, Mostly True
My landlady is a crazy kook. (Really, have I ever heard of a normal landlord?) She is well into her sixties and she puts false eyelashes on every day plus a good thick layer of what seems to be stage makeup. This is on an island where women don’t shave anything, men go without deodorant and where high-heeled shoes and any kind of dress clothes are certainly superfluous. She pulls her hair back into two barrettes at either side of her head and her hair is just long enough to curl under her ears. It is very much a Baby Jane scenario. My relationship with Carol is complicated, but I try to be polite and speak with her when I get the chance. However, we have some tensions that exist. I'm not sure where they came from, but I think a lot of the explanation lies in the fact that we simply live different types of lives. Recently, I threw some rotten apples out into the woods by the road. Steve had told me to do that and Carol pays for garbage by the can and asked me to be aware of my amount of garbage. She knocked on the trailer door to ask if they were mine. I said they were and she said, “Well, don’t,” and began to talk about vermin, which I certainly know enough about. I was pleasant throughout the conversation and apologized, explaining I was trying to save on garbage. However, I certainly felt like she was being crazy to think that vermin would be attracted to our houses more than they already were because of those apples. Two days later, she left a note on my door, saying she “expected” that the fruit would be picked up and thrown away. She didn’t ask, she instructed me to do this. This was in the middle of that week when everyone seemed to be insulting me or telling me what to do. I chafed at the note and all it implied. I left and went to Jeff’s house so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it until later. I turned it over and over in my head over the next two days, trying to think of what to say to her and how to justify leaving the fruit out there. Believe me, I was creative. I realized, though, that all of those plans were a result of my embarrassment at having made a mistake. Here I was again, having to live up to my own personal code by doing what I didn’t want to do because I didn’t like the way I had been reminded to do it. The moral, of course, is that once I simply took two minutes and picked up the apples, I was calmer and more content. I didn’t have to spend any more energy watering my dark flowers. When I told my friend Mindy this story, she interrupted me before I reached the end. She said: “Can I give you some advice that’s easier for me to say than do myself? Pick up the apples. You’ll be so much happier.” That advice summarizes the goodness at the core of her feistiness that makes me glad I found Mindy for a friend.

Create for yourself a new indomitable perception of faithfulness. What is usually called faithfulness passes so quickly. Let this be your faithfulness: You will experience moments, fleeting moments, with the other person. The human being will appear to you then as if filled, irradiated, with the archetype of his/her spirit. And then there may be, indeed will be, other moments, long periods of time when human beings are darkened. At such times, you will learn to say to yourself, “The spirit makes me strong. I remember the archetype. I saw it once. No illusion, no deception shall rob me of it.” Always struggle for the image that you saw. This struggle is faithfulness. Striving thus for faithfulness you shall be close to one another as if endowed with the protective powers of angels.
-Rudolf Steiner
All of these anecdotes bring me to Ash Wednesday. I was a mess when I walked up the stairs to church that morning. The night before I had driven out to Jeff’s house at 10:45 at night so I wouldn’t have to sob and weep alone. All of the hurt from the slights that had been dealt out combined with my guilt for reacting with arrogance and frustration to them. I had been ordered around by my landlady and told to do what I already knew that I should do by a total stranger. I felt unwelcome in choir, which made me realize that I don’t really belong here. Not that I shouldn’t be here but that this is not my place, my Ebenezer. What brought me to this island was not what brought everyone else here. I was sad that such a beautiful place can’t really be home. I had read the Faithfulness Pledge in a magazine, which brought my thoughts and feelings back to Dennis and my failure to love him through his illness, which is a totally unrealistic thing to beat myself up about but I was already snowballing into an avalanche at that point and logic had nothing to do with anything. Aside from all of this, I realized that I did not remember what Ash Wednesday was about. I remember watching videos of fasching when I took German in high school. I know all about Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday but why there was Ash Wednesday, nope. It turns out that it is a time of confession. The actual holiday commemorates Christ’s 40 days in the desert where he fasted and faced temptation before he allowed himself to be the penance served by the world. We are reminded that Christ is lord and that means we do not have to be. We are dust and this very mortality relieves us of the burden to get it right all of the time. We can confess and be forgiven.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts towards our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt towards those who differ from us, accept out repentance, Lord.

The Ash Wednesday service was Episcopal, which meant there was ceremony, symbolism and kneeling. As I knelt to have the ashes drawn on my forehead and to be told that I am dust, my tears came back.

Our anger at our frustration, we confess to you, Lord.

All of this intensity comes because I try to do this all myself. I believe that if I can heal myself, then I will truly have regained all of my power. It’s not enough, though. Like the teenager in the hallway, I am angry because I have made mistakes and have been caught in it. Not just this week, but also throughout my adult life. I am angry at my frustration that comes from being unable to fix it myself. I must be like Rhonda and give the soil time to reestablish its systems of bugs and minerals and air pockets and whatever else actually does the business of actually forming food before I try to plant new seeds. I must honor the fact that very little in growing has to do with the farmer.

A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

It does not surprise me that as the sun shone on the giant miniature train set-up (think Silver Spoons over several acres with its own miniature town complete with buildings 2-3 feet tall) and I drove with funk music echoing in my ears a few days after Ash Wednesday, that I would feel so at peace and comfortable with myself. It was like I had sat down in an easy chair that was also me and the two of us blended seamlessly. I had confessed. I had served my penance of crazy emotional intensity. I had been forgiven. I could be myself.

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