Archive for July, 2015

I normally write here about books or the occasional movie, but music is a very important part of my life. I listen in the car and while doing household tasks, like cooking or cleaning. Most days, I probably spend more time listening to music than I do reading. I even studied music at school – I minored in piano for my undergraduate degree. Even though I took all the theory and music history courses, I still feel inadequate when it comes to writing about music. Part of that is just how patchy my knowledge of the tradition is, and another big part is that my inner hipster is ashamed of the music I enjoy. My inner hipster used to be more outward: I once wore a black turtleneck to an event where I read my own poetry, and I didn’t realize I had become a cliché until halfway through. That wannabe aesthete is still alive and kicking inside me, and he tries to direct my musical and artistic tastes, but the other selves I am don’t always listen. Yes, I like the brooding garage-band indie sound, but I also like the more poppy stuff they play in the shops.

I have begun buying music at Walmart, unapologetically. One such purchase is Christina Perri’s second album, Head or Heart. The sound is a little brighter, the mood a little more upbeat than it was in Lovestrong, just as you would expect from an artist who used to write her music alone when she had time off from waitressing and now has a lucrative recording contract and writes her songs in committee.

So, I’m breaking the silence on music because I wanted to share an experience. The other day, I was driving along and listening to this CD. The third track is a silly love duet with Ed Sheeran that I always sing along with, and suddenly I could see myself singing this with someone in the passenger seat singing the other part. Me and him, singing “Be My Forever” at each other. At the end of the song I was so happy I laughed out loud – I always laugh when I’m happy, even when things aren’t funny – then I kissed my hand and rubbed it down the side of his face, hard so that he’d know I meant it. Then the vision closed and I was alone, but I still have the hope that someday (soon) I’ll meet this guy who will sing in the car with me and make me so happy I can’t contain the feeling.

I come from a large family of people who are not especially kind. When I was young, I got angry quite easily, but I recognized how powerless I was to vent my frustrations on my older siblings, so I’d grip my little hands into fists and turn red and grit my teeth until smoke poured out of my ears. Those older siblings enjoyed the show so much that they spent all their leisure time making me angry for no other purpose than to watch me get angry. What does a child learn from this? First, he learns to conceal his feelings. I was so adept at this that I myself didn’t know what I was feeling for most of my life. Now, I’m shy enough that when people meet me, I seem not to have any personality at all, so they project their opinions, desires, and prejudices onto me as if I were a tabula rasa. It gives me a chance to try being different people, but the real me always surfaces eventually, often to jarring effect.

Second, he learns that the world is an unfair place, inimical to his own interests. Those with power make others suffer with impunity, and those who are responsible for keeping him safe are either too busy with other matters, too indifferent, or too powerless to do any good. Life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As I got older, I’d occasionally try to create some sort of justice, but I quickly discovered that I have no sense of proportion. Any attempt of mine to right the scales of justice leaves them leaning too far to the other side. When you don’t expect the world to be fair, you don’t try to make it fair. When injustice is normal, justice no longer seems like a goal worth reaching toward. As I’ve gotten along, I’ve tried to supplement my deficient sense of justice with moral rules, but everyone knows that rules only really matter in board games. This is why I try so hard to be kind; there’s a baseline of fairness that makes it possible for us to live in a society, that I am lacking. Though I often apply the principle inconsistently, I find kindness easier to manage, and I also find that people don’t mind if you’re unfair if you’re unfair in their favor.

I’ve enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s fiction for quite some time – The Blind Assassin was new when I first loved it – but this is the first nonfiction book of hers that I’ve read, and it is quite good. The reading goes very quickly, and the book takes stories and concepts that we are familiar with and presents them to us in a new light. Five chapters, forty pages each, but they don’t feel that long. If it were a novel, I’d try to read it as an Elizabethan drama, but it’s not a connected story. Well, maybe it is.

Part one, Ancient Balances. Humanity’s earliest laws governed the balancing of accounts, as did our earliest religions. The Egyptians believed that after death, a human heart was weighed against truth, and justice claimed the soul for either good or ill. This belief spread through the other pagan religions, as well as into Judaism and its descendants, Christianity and Islam. In fact, it seems to have predated our evolution into human beings, as primates also have an acute sense of justice. The interesting thing about justice, though, is that it’s always represented as being female. I think that it’s because our sense of justice comes from our mothers, the primary caregivers in most societies. My mother had too much of a temper to manage her children effectively; sometimes punishments were excessive, sometimes they were insufficient because they had been excessive, and sometimes they were nonexistent. I guess it’s easier to love some children if you don’t look too closely at what they do. The ex-wife is also a woman of quick temper who loves babies, but she has a rather extreme sense of justice, which occasionally makes me uncomfortable. By getting divorced, we kept her from having more children than she can manage, so hopefully my children will be more emotionally healthy, more human than I have been.

Part two, Debt and Sin. As we saw with the Egyptian scales, the things we do in this life are often seen as a series of moral debts and credits, that great accountant’s ledger in the sky. I’ve mentioned before how incomplete this metaphor seems to me, how easily it can be used to justify acts of great evil by balancing them with a series of small charitable donations. However, Atwood points out that it’s not only the debtor who is seen as the sinner; the creditor is also morally damaged by the lending of money. Think of our culture’s opinion of pawnbrokers, a career so questionable that it seldom appears outside of Dickens novels or TLC programs. We see them as profiting by taking unfair advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, as if the pawnbroker forces them into sin. As if the act of borrowing money itself were a sin. My own debts make me uncomfortable; I’ve taken on a second job to try to pay them off. But they were also necessary; when I moved here, I needed some money for a security deposit on an apartment, and I was also in need of food. I got a new credit card because I couldn’t make it on my own. It’s like this: if I have a skillet, I can make healthy food for a few dollars a day. If I don’t have a skillet, I can eat unhealthy fast food at a rate of eight to ten dollars a day. So, it makes sense for me to buy a skillet. If I don’t have the money for a skillet, I’m stuck eating expensive food. I could decide not to eat for three or four days and so save enough money to buy a skillet, or I could borrow the money. I chose to borrow it. I don’t think that makes me a sinner, just a human being who values his health.

In this section, Atwood also talks about the importance of record-keeping. Remember Fight Club, when Jack/Tyler’s plan was to destroy all the credit card records? Apparently that’s a historical trend. Erase the record of the debt, cancel the debt without paying it. It’s what all we debtors really want, isn’t it? And what we refuse to do when we become creditors. Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Part three, Debt as Plot. As Cecily points out in The Importance of Being Earnest, memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels one encounters. Specifically, memory of debts. The nineteenth century novel is full of debts and repayments. In graduate school, I once wrote about how Wuthering Heights is a rewriting of Byron’s “The Giaour,” where money has replaced religion. One of the strongest examples that Atwood uses is one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss. She also discusses the imaginative power of millers generally. In Eliot’s novel, life is a matter of inheriting and settling accounts; Maggie Tulliver tries to create a world where relationships are built on more than debts, and it eventually kills her. The next logical step is

Part four, The Shadow Side. Revenge. A good portion of this is about Shakespearean tragedy, which revolves around vengeance. There’s also The Merchant of Venice, which covers a humanized Shylock and his overgrasping vengeance. Atwood mentions a production that used a Native American actor for Shylock, which I think must have been quite compelling. For me, though, thoughts of Shakespeare generally turn to Twelfth Night, the play most interested in giving gifts, and the debts that gift-giving creates. Indeed, it’s a play about unwanted debts, where people become creditors against their will. Years ago, I decided that I would never lend money to a friend. I will gladly give, and if they want to return it that’s their choice, but I won’t give money to someone if I need it back. This practice can lead me into trouble, like when I gave money to someone who was a bad risk, and then he moved to a different continent while promising to pay it back. It would have come in handy a year later, when I was getting a new credit card instead of buying a skillet with my own money. Así es la vida.

I prefer to pay my debts off, but I will forgive any creditor who comes my way. Even those people who have repaid my love with violence and neglect. Let debts go, even those of emotion and soul. Let there be love and peace. Let forgiveness overcome our desires for war.

Part five, Payback. I believe that the human desire for payback leads to more unnecessary conflict than anything else. Jesus fuck, just let it go. It doesn’t matter if you have a right to exact vengeance; relinquish your rights and let it go. Clinging to your vengeance binds your debtor to you more closely. The only way to be free of him is to let go.

The bulk of this section is taken up by a rewriting of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, updated for our time. We can’t imagine a man so consumed by the love of wealth that he won’t spend on himself, so the Nouveau Scrooge does. But when he’s faced with the price of his wealth, the destruction of the earth led by the industrial age, he changes his mind and gives his money to support the preservation of nature. Atwood finishes her tale of human history with the renunciation of wealth, the reversal of the nineteenth century – a vision of a future where capital is used to benefit the earth instead of the individual, where species are saved, and we stop acquiring more than we need.

It may seem strange, to write a book about money and spend most of it talking about religion, fiction, and the environment, but it makes sense. Atwood has spent this book telling us who we are, what makes us human. Fair play, justice, getting into and out of debt, yes, but more importantly, we are the stories we tell. If we keep telling the story of capitalism, we will keep living in a world of more and more extreme capitalism. There are other stories to tell, though. Stories of community, stories of cooperation, stories of peace, stories of kindness. As the Barenaked Ladies once sang, It’s time to make this something that is more than only fair.

Last weekend I decided that I was done with being lonely, so I drove up to the nearest city with a gay bar to get dinner, do some drinking, do some dancing, and later do some fucking. The problem was, I’m rubbish with driving in cities. I’m never in the right lane, I get paranoid when someone drives behind me, and I never have change for parking meters. I called someone for directions, but I still ended up out by the highway. In Asheville terms, I went looking for Lexington Ave and ended up on Tunnel Rd. Or, if you prefer New York, I got lost in downtown Manhattan and found myself in Scranton. So I pulled into the Walmart parking lot to figure out where I was, and I saw a guy with a “Homeless and Hungry” sign. I ran into the Subway inside the Walmart and bought him a sandwich, looked at how late it was getting, and trudged moodily to the Outback Steakhouse. I had a great dinner and did a little drinking, read some Sartre, but then I just went home. This happened to me in Paris, too: I spent three days wandering the city, giving over a hundred euros to beggars, before I finally made it to Le Marais. I’ve got to make sure other people’s needs are met before I can accept the idea that my needs are important too.

This was always my favourite C. S. Lewis book. Maybe because, as a romantic, I’m drawn by its fragmentary nature. I tend to think that it’s more because the title speech captures what I believe the essence of religion ought to be: learning to see the infinite potential of each human being, and encouraging them to reach that potential.

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

Many religious people will tell you that the purpose of religion is to gain a sense of God and to please Him. I think that it’s just as important to understand what religion tells us about ourselves and our fellow humans. I don’t usually think of myself as a god-in-embryo; it’s easier for me to see the divine in other people. Maybe that’s why I give to the homeless; when I help them, their gratitude makes me feel as if the universe approves of me. There’s something that feels more authentic, more beneficent in having a dirty kid who wears winter clothes in the summer and only owns eight pieces of kibble for his dog tell me “God bless you” than in hearing the same phrase from my coworker, who is consistently well-fed and is taking a month of vacation to travel to Albania. I shake hands with American Christians on a weekly basis (can’t resist a nice-looking guy in a suit, so I keep going back to church), but none of them confer the same degree of blessing as the old woman wearing hijab on the Champs-Elysées, who interrupted her prostrating to clutch my hand and kiss it. It is significantly more difficult for me to see the divine in my next-door neighbor, who shouts really damaging things at the woman he lives with, or in another coworker who literally sticks his nose in the air when he sees me coming down the hall (if I walked by him outside during a rainstorm, he’d drown). So, yes, even in the religion of free love that I’ve invented for myself, I still have a way to go.

I also appreciate Lewis’s approach to symbols, and his honesty with them.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

Symbols are not doctrine. They can teach, but only by suggesting, by pointing at something else. The symbol is not the point; what it represents is. The problem is that, when it comes to religion (of any sort), the thing symbolized cannot be understood without symbols. I think this explains my abiding interest in mysticism and sex. Language is a symbol like any other, and it’s often less adequate than more pictorial representations. I’ve spent my life looking for experience that transcends language, for glory that cannot be expressed. That bit in the Bible about “seek and ye shall find” is true; when I was religious, I sought mystical experiences, fasting, praying, meditating, sacrificing, any spiritual discipline that people do, I’ve probably tried in some form. In return, I heard voices, saw visions, and occasionally felt a touch or an embrace from someone who (empirically considered) wasn’t there. These days I look for transcendence in sex. Not as frequently as I’d like, but I can find “what feeds my soul” in that intense physical experience.

Lewis describes it not so much as transcending as transposing. The comparison here that makes the most sense to me is in making a piano reduction of an orchestral work. I’ve listened to and played enough of these that I get it. You can put all the same notes in there, but you can’t capture the timbre of the other instruments with a piano. There’s something about the opening to Rhapsody in Blue that only makes sense when it’s played on the clarinet. Even so, there are some things that just will never make sense in this life, because Earth isn’t the instrument life is written for. I’m not sure I completely agree with this idea, but I can see the beauty of it, and I can see how it helps others get through life contentedly.

As I was rereading this book, I realized how much I’ve changed from when I last read it, five or six years ago. For most of my life, I’ve looked for what Lewis calls “The Inner Ring,” that small group of people who really belong, who make things happen. I’ve been drawn to power and tried to associate myself with those people I perceived as having it. But not now. I guess now that I’m away from God and my ex-wife, I feel like I have enough power in my life that I don’t go around looking for more. I don’t even look at social groups any more. I see individuals, and I decide whom I want to be with based on their personal qualities. Perhaps not completely, but mostly I’ve been cured of this inner-ringer-ness.

The other big change is in my response to the essay on membership. Lewis teaches that the key to personality is in surrendering it to God. Working in the church, you discover who you really are, you are more completely yourself than when you are alone.

We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

I am too familiar with truthful paradoxes to argue against this with logic. All I can really say is, my experience was different. I didn’t become more myself; I became less. The more I threw myself into church service, the more I conformed to the patterns set by others. It’s no use turning yourself into an ear when you were made to be a leaf. And as for obedience and unity with God, that requires labeling half of my desires as evil and ignoring or fighting against them in order to kill them. Killing half of oneself does not increase the self; it left me half of a person. And that supposedly evil part of the self never really dies; like Tolkien’s Ring of Power, it lies in wait until a new opportunity arises. Then one day when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, those desires overwhelm you and you “fall into sin.” This Christian concept of what it means to be human is incredibly dangerous because it encourages such violence to the self. Not physical, but mental and emotional violence.

I find more diversity among “the worldlings” than the Christians. This diversity comes from having a healthier attitude toward the self. Instead of seeing myself as a battlefield where angels and demons struggle for dominance, now I am just myself. The desires I have for “evil” are as much a part of me as my desires for “good.” The more I can accept this fundamental truth, the more peace I have with myself. I try to love the people and other living things around me, and where I can’t yet love, I try to be kind. If I have a desire to be unkind, then I accept that as part of myself, but I also try to understand where the desire comes from. It’s often rooted in fear, especially fear of rejection, so I try to address my fears in other ways that don’t hurt others. I do not find this approach to life in most Christians, but it doesn’t seem quite as uncommon among the educated secular.

Religion has actually been the area in my life where I feel the most rejection lately. Here in the United States the Supreme Court has decided that marriage is marriage, regardless of the genders of the people entering into it. A number of my friends are celebrating by adding rainbow filters to their facebook profile pictures and posting supportive comments. A number of friends I feel more distant from are responding by complaining about the color and insisting that by definition gay marriage cannot exist. While it’s not a definite dividing line, more Christians are straight-only-marriage-defenders, and more secular people are gay-marriage-celebrators. Then, the church I grew up in issued a formal statement to be read in all congregations throughout the United States and Canada claiming the church’s right never to recognize gay relationships. In my opinion, the gesture is unnecessary and hostile. Their stance on homosexuality has been clear for decades now, and has never changed. They are an institution dedicated to the salvation of humanity, they even claim that their priesthood ordinances are necessary for salvation, but they deny these to me and my people. It’s taken me years to understand that being rejected by this church and being rejected by God are not the same thing. But I’ve finally mustered the courage to respond to their rejection in the most sensible fashion: I resigned my membership. Most of the members I know think this is a horrible idea – I think they see me as embracing my damnation – but I can see the love in their concern, and I can accept their love and friendship without remaining one of them. If God is my creator, then I can best please him by being the person he created. [Sorry about the masculine pronouns. Part of being gay for me unfortunately involves a certain discomfort with femininity as an abstract concept, so I think of God as a him. There are many people I love who see God as female, or both, or neither, and I support their interacting with the divine in terms they are more comfortable with.]

So, looking at the table of contents, we have: The Weight of Glory, yes. Learning in War-Time, yes. Why I am Not a Pacifist, yes. Transposition, yes. Is Theology Poetry, yes, but it’s not as memorable so it’s a more tentative yes. The Inner Ring, okay, but not really relevant right now. Membership, no. On Forgiveness, yes. A Slip of the Tongue, no.

C. S. Lewis is good for striking at the heart of Christianity, explaining the basic concepts in a learned fashion. You can see his strong leaning toward the academy, but he explains things in such a way that most people can understand. If a person has a problem with Lewis, that person probably has a problem with Christianity as a whole because Lewis tends to shy away from topics that Christians disagree on. As I’ve said, of the works that I’ve read, this is the book that I have the most positive emotional response to. The emphasis is on application and reasoning rather than unquestionable doctrine, so it’s better for me and other people who don’t trust what can’t be questioned.