Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sunday night jam session

Soooo let me just write a little bit, late on a Tuesday night, about Sunday night, and what it meant to me. I don't think many people know that one of my longest-cherished, most-hidden dreams has been to be a lead singer and songwriter in an indie-rock band. This is the sort of dream that I only might tell my therapist, and then only in a whisper. I don't exactly exude indie, if you know what I mean, and the whole lead-singer-in-a-band fantasy is very very cliche. But it's an old dream, and a deep dream, and sometimes it makes me cry... because "a dream deferred makes the heart sick", as per the writer of Proverbs, and I've never had the nerve to do much with this dream.

So we've been doing this music jam session at Convergence, and up until now it's only happened twice and it's sort of been fun but it kind of hasn't gelled. and then Sunday night, after I'd been in prayer for an hour before the service (leading the church "prayer circle" of one :^D, which I actually didn't mind one bit) and the service itself was about noise and silence and we watched a Nooma video and it was very powerful, it gelled. We had four really gifted musicians and me, singing and making up words as I went and just not worrying overmuch about the fact that some of the words were awful. It was a jam session, after all. And it flowed... one would start a chord series, and the others would fill in and I'd stare at the floor until I got a line or a theme and then I'd just start singing about it. They sounded fantastic... four musicians from really different backgrounds playing very different instruments (C. played her acoustic, and then played a bucket, and silverware, and anything she could turn into percussion because we didn't have a percussionist... she was in her element... creating as she went)... but they're all so good at it that it came together beautifully.

I was drained at the end... because I don't do this, and because it was absolutely huge that it worked... and because I wanted to get on my knees and weep and make them promise that we would do this again and that they wouldn't bail on me, and it took tremendous effort not to do that. J.B. was already noncommittal and aloof, as per her way.

Then J. wrote today and said he and P. had talked and that he wanted to know if I'd be willing to write lyrics as the lead vocal.

I feel like I should type that about 10 more times... that's how important that is to me. It pretty much doesn't matter to me if this ever actually happens or not... the fact is, it MIGHT. They didn't laugh at me and tell me to take my silly ass home. Maybe they will once I actually write something, but I can't believe it... right now I am just stunned and happy and I can't wait to do another jam... it's like a lover with a new love... you can't wait to see them but you're terrified because what if you mess up this one unbelievable chance.

So, I'll be in that church praying a lot more before the service... it's awful that I didn't realize this before, but I think that jam session was the answer to my prayers before the service.

Pastor John at Grace Community had preached on the Mojo of Thanksgiving (yes I know) on Sunday morning... basically about how giving thanks opens the door for God's blessing, and how not giving thanks blocks it. He had some good scripture references and as usual it was a really entertaining, humble, direct sermon. I love his sermons. It's incredible that I forgot so quickly, that I didn't thank God for hearing my prayers. I'm thanking Him now, and praying for guidance and help.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Puzzle pieces

So much of the important stuff that's going on in our minds and hearts and souls is going on underneath the radar of our consciousness. Of course it is... we can't expect to spend our waking hours in the active contemplation of our origins, our patterns, emotions, dysfunctions, passions and prejudices. We're rightly concerned with the stuff of our everyday survival. We're also all missing big, significant parts of our own histories: most of infancy and early childhood that shaped who we are in irreversible ways; our life in the womb; the histories of our parents and grandparents and aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles... the little dramas that played out between these people and set the scene before we were a twinkle in our mothers' eyes. We also all have much to learn about life and the world in general, and we're all always learning (if we permit ourselves), up until the last day of our lives.

In a sense, we are all going through our lives without a map... in fact, with only the barest sketch of the terrain around us. We are all improvising daily, no matter how much we believe ourselves to be boring, unremarkable creatures of habit.

There are times when I am suddenly reminded of some of the folks in my parents' families that they shielded us from. I have generally thought that this is something I owe them thanks for, because I could have incorporated some of these folks' behaviors and ideas into my own identity if I'd been exposed to them much at an early age. Sometimes, however, I wonder what would have happened if B and I had even met some of these folks. Would we be more compassionate than we are towards people like them, towards alcoholics, the mentally ill, those who live off the societal grid?

As it was, we only knew them through stories that my Dad would tell and the occasional worn-looking envelope with seemingly 3rd grade writing that my Dad would receive, asking for money. Sometimes, when I was small and he was more idealistic, he would give them money... but we didn't have much as it was and compliance inevitably led to more requests of increasing magnitude, so he eventually stopped giving. I remember once seeing a letter in the trash, and feeling sad and confused because I didn't understand but it didn't seem right. I was also curious about these people, but could never get that much information about them.

Just now, as I was browsing through blogs and contemplating whether to walk to Ballston and hop on a bus to church for the Japanese movie screening, I came upon a truly disturbing article about prostitution posted on Matt Pritchard's blog. I'm not going to link to it here (google Matt if you want to to see it), it disturbed me that much. The thing about this article is that it has strips of pictures that show women who are prostitutes. One imagines that these women were picked up multiple times by police for prostitution, and they had their pictures taken each time over a time period of years. The series of pictures is nauseating and chilling, as young women turn into disfigured and grotesque monsters: beaten, abused, drugged, with dead and soulless eyes. I could not stop reading the article, and I could not stop looking at the pictures. When I finally closed the screen, I felt like I was going to throw up.

Now, there isn't a woman on earth who doesn't count rape among their absolute worst nightmares, and sexual slavery is something most people just flat out can't think about, me among them. But this bothered me at some visceral level... why? Was I remembering my friends from high school who were sexually abused as little girls and promiscuous by the time they were 14 and 15 years old? Was I remembering other articles I'd read or movies I'd seen as a kid that made a strong impression on me? Then it suddenly hit me: my great-aunt Jane was a prostitute. She was one of these women: mentally ill and raised by a mentally ill woman, alcoholic, possibly drug-addicted, uneducated, an easy target for a pimp... and that was her life. She died that way, rejected by her older siblings --fine, upstanding church people who could not bear to see their sister live like this-- and largely ignored by most of the rest of her family, including a mentally ill brother whose life is not entirely dissimilar to hers, and my Dad. and, I guess, me, although I never met her and wouldn't have known her if I saw her on the street.

I don't know that I bear responsibility for not helping her. General family consensus among those still living is that she refused to be helped... and my Dad, although he couldn't afford it, paid for her burial. I think he made his peace with her, and with his mother's family, that way. If memory serves, I was also about 28 or 29when she died, and there's not much I could have done for her financially, either. But I never thought to ask... never thought to inquire if there were some way I could help her, and have never spent more time thinking about her than I am right now, typing this post.

A lot of my close friends know that my Dad's Mom took her own life when I was 5. I flip that fact out to people without emotion, almost casually, as though it's a fact about me rather than her, as though it explains the anger and confusion I sometimes feel about who I am in this world. The truth is it really just raises tons of unanswered questions. My Dad finally told me a lot about his mother's family a couple of years ago, just before they sold the house. He described his terrifying Irish matriarch of a great-grandmother --Mama Bessie-- who "kept court" in her house, attended by her three childless daughters. He talked of how Bessie rejected his grandmother --Mama Ruth-- after the premature death of her son, Ruth's husband... of how Ruth, as a single mother in the 30s and 40s, was financially dependent on Bessie, and how Bessie used her power to isolate and humiliate Ruth. He told me of Ruth's gradual descent into insanity, and how her older children --who could remember their mother when she was lucid and who themselves were protected and tended to by Bessie-- turned out to be good citizens, while the younger children --including my Grandmother-- were left to their own devices. He was typically silent on his own abuse as a child, but I know that Bessie's treatment of her daughter-in-law bore its fruit generations later in my Dad's horrible childhood.

I don't mean to be negative, to focus on characterizations of people I never met as though this somehow gives me more depth or mystery. However, the fact is that my entrance into the world was in a context which was mostly invisible to me (as it is to all children) and part of that context involved pain, mental illness, broken relationships, and abuse. My own fierce desire to see healing in peoples' lives could have its root in this, but at some subterranean, subconscious level that I don't fully understand. My deep disturbance at an article on prostitution could have its source in some reservoir of collective guilt felt by a whole family who turned their back on one of their own as she descended into an earthly hell. My intolerance at movie scenes depicting any sexual violence whatsoever... is it possible that Jane's memories are out there in the general pool of our family's collective memory? Is it possible that we all carry our piece of what her life was in our souls? or maybe just a vague awareness in our imaginations?

I don't pretend to understand collective memory. I do think it exists, in our storytelling if not in some metaphysical way. I know that my mother used to say our family was cursed, and that I thought that was a lot of negative, self-fulfilling prophecy bullshit. I also thought it was a way to avoid responsibility for her own actions and those of my father. I do get, though, that I also have a hunger to make sense of my failings and faults, that I am likely in a constant subconscious search for these puzzle pieces that give me a clue to my own tendencies, that might help me understand some of my self-defeating behaviors, and my magnetic pull towards people who struggle.

I believe that my parents ended some of the family curses, and that my brother and I are ending even more. I believe we are learning from the mistakes of past generations, and I do think it started with my parents and their turning to faith in Jesus. I want to believe that my life and my brother's life will tip the balance of our family reservoir towards joy, towards peace, towards being active and alive members of the world community, towards being just and fair and kind to others. Towards the whole "God is Love" thing. These puzzle pieces of our family's history remind me, though, of how dependent we are on His Grace, and how much we have to thank Him for.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Roses are red and apples are, too

I almost forgot about Valentine's Day this year, which I suppose is a testament to the function that his holiday has played in my life... or perhaps to a certain curmudgeonly, anti-romantic spirit that I've been nourishing as a defense against any possible relapse into old co-dependent behaviors. The day before Valentine's, my Dad sent me beautiful gerber daises; a bright, shiny "I love you" balloon; and a teddy bear, and my reaction was 100% "Bah, humbug!" ... or more accurately "What the hell does HE want??" Not nice. 3 days prior, the arrival of a red envelope in the mail from my sister-in-law and brother elicited a similar reaction, and went unopened for 4 days before I finally dredged up a certain misanthropic, grudging will to open the envelope and see what this %&@# card was about. Again, not pretty.

On Valentine's Day I went to work determined to ignore the day, to not even allow resentment of the day to build in my heart, but just to let it pass and be as close to Zen about the whole thing as is possible for me. It was a slightly unusual day in that the students I met with seemed to have a disproportionate number of truly heartbreaking and dramatic stories. It was one of those days where I closed my door over and over again for the sake of confidentiality as students poured their hearts out: a Pakistani student who was falsely accused and arrested by the USCIS, a middle-aged Japanese student with a massive abdominal tumor who was returning home for surgery because there is no one here who will take care of her, a Saudi Ph.D. student who has been dismissed from her academic program after years and years of work. I listened and listened and listened all day and unlike days when I am more distracted, I was really in the room with them, feeling what they were going through, even though I was, as per usual, almost always powerless to help.

It was also one of those days when I didn't really break for lunch. I ran down and bought some Chic-fil-a, which never really fills me up. Then later one of the work studies bought french fries and of course I was maddened by the smell and had to run downstairs to buy some... I do love me some fried potatoes. :^) By the end of the day, my body was crying out for something more nutritious.

The Saudi student was eating an apple. As she talked, the smell filled the office, and although I was listening to her, I found myself examining the apple... the juice of it on her fingers, the shiny deep red skin. The smell of it even seemed nourishing, tempting. She held her composure very well until I told her that she seemed very together but I knew this must be terribly difficult for her, and then she began to cry. I gave her tissues and left her alone for a little while since she was clearly embarrassed and angry that she had showed so much emotion. When I came back I told her she was welcome to sit there a bit, finish her apple, compose herself. She gratefully accepted, not eager to parade back through the lobby with nose and eyes runny, clutching a half-eaten apple. Somehow the focus on the mundane helped us both recover. I told her that that was one good-looking apple and it smelled fantastic, and she said it was one of the best apples she'd ever eaten. It was a really simple --even mildly silly-- exchange, but it normalized things. (Image from http://www.fabnetrevenue.com/2007/10/08/blogging-week-end-accomplishments/)

On the way home, I started to feel nauseous, the day's greasy food churning in my tummy. Folks got on the train with roses, balloons, various markers of the day I had tried to ignore. Between the churning tummy, the emotions of the day, and the sudden reminder of my singleness, I started to feel sorry for myself. I was reading the Artist's Way in preparation for the evening meeting of my group and realized I hadn't done an Artist's Date in a long looong time. I also couldn't think of what I'd want to do, and slumped a little further into self-pity at my boring, pitiful life.

At the top of the elevator at Clarendon metro, I suddenly remembered the apple. I was going to be late to meet Lisa, but my desire for an apple was strong... partially a physical need for nutrients, and partially a soul-need for an act simply for myself...impulsive, sudden, simple... reacting to my own desire in the instinctive way you reach for a crying baby. I feel sick, an apple will help. Plus, I just really really want an apple. Ok. Off I go.

I headed to Whole Foods, a store for people who make at least 20k more than I do. I never go there because I don't want to have to take out a loan for groceries. Plus, I feel awkward there around people whom I always assume are too snotty to go to the Giant, where I normally go, clutching my coupons and smiling and chatting with the cashiers that I know. The parking lot of Whole Foods is always jam packed with harried looking people, so I expected a crowd. However, I didn't know that they sold roses and that evidently every man within a 3 mile radius had forgotten to buy Valentine's Day flowers for his beloved.

The place was a madhouse, and I suddenly felt myself a woman on a mission. I wanted an apple. So I dodged men of all ages and shapes and sizes and colors, clutching flowers with wild looks in their eyes, some also clutching bottles of wine, chocolates, little bears and cards and balloons. Nobody in the whole place appeared happy. I had to get through the flower section on my way to produce, and I wove through people like a motorcyclist in Beltway traffic, focused on my goal. I passed the first pile of apples I saw.... they weren't right, with flat, waxy surfaces and some exotic name I'd never heard of.

Then I saw them: perfect, deep red, shiny red delicious apples. I honed in like a sniper on my target, swooped in and grabbed two of the most beautiful ones from the top. One for me, one for Lisa... maybe two for me. I was crazy with apple-lust. The sign said "organic" in typically obnoxious Whole Food style but I didn't care. I had my prey, and I made a beeline for the checkout. All the checkout lines wound around like crazy frantic vines through the front area. I picked what appeared to be the shortest one, dodging wild-eyed people carrying lilies, roses, tulips, smacking into each other and clamoring to be first in line.

Standing in line, my blue wool cap pulled low near my eyes, it suddenly hit me. I was HAPPY. I had come in to get an apple. That was it, and now I had it, and I was happy. I chatted with people in line, the guy in front of me with two bunches of gorgeous purple flowers, the woman behind me with an orchid she'd bought for a friend. I saw a student that I knew behind me in line and we chatted for a bit. He's Indian, raised in Zambia, with a stunning Russian girlfriend. He had some gorgous multi-colored roses. The line was long and so we all chatted for a little while. Finally, the guy in front of me checked out and said "enjoy your apple, you earned it!" I paid an ungodly $2.40 for two apples and left, smiling at the people behind me in line, who had returned to expressions of stress and strain. On the way out, a guy walked in front of me with two fantastically beautiful bunches of multi-colored roses and I thought "Good job, dude. She'll like those!" and I was really, honestly thinking only that.

Walking home, I thought of all the Valentine's Days past... ones where I had roses and ones where I didn't. I thought of all the expectations and the disappointment that I'd felt whether or not I had anybody. The dinners I ate with sullenness because it wasn't exactly what I wanted or the guy wasn't exactly who I wanted, the flowers that weren't enough, or the guy who wasn't. Years where I was single, crying in my room in self-pity, calling my Mom or another single friend or just writing depressing journal entries about the last guy who broke my heart. I could not remember a single time when I felt happier than I did at that moment. I started eating my apple as soon as I left the Whole Foods lot... two quick swipes on my jacket and then devoured the thing, juice running down my hand as I wove through stopped cars on Wilson Boulevard, smiling at people in their cars. I chomped on it as I saw the guy from Whole Foods walk into a house that I've passed so many times, calling out greetings to his kids. I didn't feel the slightest twinge of jealousy. In fact, I felt gratitude. He had want he wanted, and I had what I wanted, and I gave what I wanted to MYSELF. I was filled, and fulfilled, and not bitter or lonely or frustrated or upset or jealous or any of those things I'd been on Valentine's Days past. All I wanted was an apple, and I'd gotten it. I'd shown the tiniest bit of regard for myself, and fulfilled my own simple need. Todo estuvo bueno.