Sunday, October 26, 2008

Eccentrics need church, too

I've known for a long time that big institutions --or really anything that seems to be really, really popular-- give me the heebie-jeebies. Big churches, big apartment complexes, popular music or TV shows, sporting events, shopping malls... if it smacks of The Herd, I generally run in the opposite direction.

I've gotten a lot better about this as I've gotten older --I will tolerate popular music playing in someone's car and even dance around or whatever-- but it is still fairly well ingrained in me to resist inclusion in The Majority. This is particularly obvious in my choice of churches, church being my primary, if not only, chosen community in my private life (I don't belong to civic clubs or sports teams or anything like that). I'm profoundly grateful for both Convergence and Common Table, my churches and the source of most of my community outside the workplace. They are both small groups, hardly more than 30 people on a really well-attended Sunday service, but that small size is comforting to me.

I used to think it was possibly narcissism on my part that I chose little churches, an expression of my wish to be a big fish in a small pond, and so I started pushing myself into bigger churches 11 years ago... the Roman Catholic church, the Episcopal church. Most of the time, though, I found my small community in the music ministry, and if that wasn't a spiritually rich place for me, I became discontented and empty very quickly... and then I left, largely unnoticed.

I started mulling over the topic again this week because of the Artist's Way group that I facilitate on Thursday nights at Convergence. This is the second such group that I've facilitated and it's already become a homey place for me, just three weeks in to the 12 week session. I'm always tired on Thursday nights and if I think about it, kind of overwhelmed by what people need from the book and the group. I know what I needed from it the first time I participated in the group, and I know the book and the discussion was really enough to get me committed to writing and singing again... but I'm always worried that it won't work for other people. However, once I get to Convergence and folks start to arrive, the frantic feeling dissipates, and the comfortable feeling of being in a small community of folks who are a bit on the outside, trying to figure things out, takes over.

Work was hard this week, and as a result I was in a particularly zooey mood at this week's group. I really felt the value of being around forgiving folks who could appreciate each other and me without being weirded out by my sense of humor when I'm tired and emotionally drained. I had a similar feeling the next night at the Common Table jam session held at Pete's house, where I continued my role as Vocalist and Automatic Lyric Generator. We were a cool, kind of rag-tag bunch... Ben on djembe (I think that was a djembe) and acoustic guitar, Stacy and Jen and Matt also on acoustic, Tim with the Largest Collection of Harmonicas I've ever seen in my life, and Pete on djembe and keys and techno loops and all kinds of craziness. Erin, Common Table's resident Poet Laureate, sat on the floor pouring out poetry and occasional snatches of song about trying to find beauty in the sterility of Northern Virginia suburbia. Jackie, Pete's wife, made us monkey bread and brought us coffee and water and poured wine and even John showed up and made wisecracks in the corner, which I suspect is his art form.

I was wiped, still, from work, and had already had a beer at my usual Friday happy hour at Rocklands. The lyrics came, though, as did the melodies, and everybody just rolled along with the jam, each doing their thing... a little patchwork quilt of folks from all sorts of different backgrounds, come together in a community around the common love of music and the desire to praise God through our creation of something new. I took my belt off so I could... well, so I could belt, and laid back on the couch, closing my eyes and just singing away like I was another instrument. It was blissful.

The Friday before, there was a different sort of jam session at Pete's. I was, again, Vocalist and Random Lyric Generator, but the musicians were professional musicians of Pete's acquaintance who attend much larger churches. I could feel the tension between what they were used to and what we did at Common Table. They are both superb musicians so the improvisational bit didn't phase them, but I think they thought that our exercise of re-writing the lyrics to a popular praise song as a congregation (well, the congregation gave ideas and I wrote lyrics on the spot, which was really unnerving) because we didn't like the real ones was arrogant. I didn't think it was arrogant. The words to the original song left me totally cold. I couldn't worship to those lyrics. So why not customize them?

Which brings me back to my point... there are people for whom being on the outside is "cool", and there are people who just ARE on the outside. I don't have a problem with folks who want to be a part of large churches, or who like being considered an "average person", but I'm literally incapable of that. I think that the communities I've chosen are made up at least partially of folks like me, who have always thought in their own way and found conformity to the expecations of the majority to be almost physically painful, a contortion of the spirit and the mind that is impossible to sustain for more than a short period of time, and even then awkwardly.

I had a couple of confirmations of the legitimacy of my outsider-ness this week. The first was from a childhood friend who found me on Facebook (ahh the wonders of Facebook!) and who has been chucking me random memories she has of me. One of them was when we were in the fourth grade. I had gone from the little private church-run school that K. and I had attended together since kindergarten to the public school up the street that year because my folks could no longer afford the church school. I hadn't seen K. in a while so I invited her to spend the night. When she arrived at my house, she remembers that I was sitting outside with two pairs of glasses on... one with googly eyes on springs, and one with a big nose and fake moustache. She was running late, so God only knows how long I'd sat out there waiting for her, but I know I would have taken pleasure in any consternation I could have caused in folks passing by. I was NINE, and I was already pulling this shit.

The second confirmation was the totally improbable series that The Guardian (a UK newspaper) ran on my hometown of Roanoke,VA, of all places. This British reporter, Gary Younge, lived in Roanoke for 3 weeks to report on the election in small-town America. I found out about the series through my friend in Cairo, Egypt, whose parents are from Southwestern Virginia and how had been following the series with great amusement. I was stunned when she told me about it (also via Facebook) and immediately went to the website.

The outsider-confirmation piece of this is how Mr. Younge characterized folks from my hometown. He summed Roanokers up as "friendly" and "eccentric". Among the experiences he had was one of talking to a guy dressed up as a Viking who was wearing an Obama pin. Apparently, Mr. Younge was the only one around struck by the fact that the guy was dressed as a Viking... well, he thought he was. Knowing folks from Roanoke, they had a reaction, it was just a minimalist one... a raised eyebrow, an almost imperceptible shake of the head, and a quick aside comment to their buddy. For some folks, it would be only the brief raised eyebrow, and the thought "crazy a--hole"... then go on about their business. I know if I'd seen a guy dressed as a Viking when growing up, I'd have thought "huh, guy dressed as a Viking. Weird. Better cross the street" and then gone on about my business. It's only now, having lived outside Roanoke for a long time, that I would be like "Holy s--t! That dude's dressed like a VIKING!" and want to go up and find out what the was up with that dude. I've been conditioned now to find eccentricity "interesting", but I think growing up it was just part of life.

One of the women interviewed for Mr. Younge's piece described Roanoke as historically being very isolated. Surrounded by mountains, off the beaten path, originally named "Big Lick" due to a large area of salt deposit where animals used to go and lick the salt (and promptly be killed by hunters, I'd imagine), and only really prosperous when the railroad was built through it, she described an isolationist mentality in the place. I agree with that. There's a natural tendency to view the outside world with a certain amount of suspicion, but with that a certain tolerance of eccentricity among residents, or at least the willingness to ignore it.

DC is the last place in the world for someone who is truly eccentric. I think the difficulty of my adjustment here was partially due to that. If I could walk around wearing google eyed glasses on springs, I would probably do that at least a couple of times a year... but absolutely no one would laugh and they just might call the cops. I keep threatening to wear my red feather boa to work, but alas, only my life-size cardboard cutout of Fabio --given to me as a going away present when I left Roanoke, of course-- wears the boa on a regular basis. There is a real lack of appreciation for Zaniness up here.

I don't know that I could wear the boa to either of my churches, but I do feel a true sense of community there. We're all a little on the outside, all searching for a place where we can be comfortable with our ways of looking at the world, with our literal inability to support the status quo. I value the friendships I have in these places tremendously, and give God praise that He really does love all of us and gives us church, where we can thank Him for our diversity, our eccentricities, and His Amazing Grace covering it all.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ok this is cheating but I can't help it

I haven't posted in a while, and haven't done a solid post in even longer than that, but I just finished Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry, and I have to put these quotes up, because right now this is what I want to say... and he says it so much better.

From page 83
Most people now are looking for “a better place,” which means that a lot of them will end up in a worse one. I think this is what Nathan learned from his time in the army and the war. He saw a lot of places, and he came home. I think he gave up the idea that there is a better place somewhere else. There is no “better place” than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.

I think of Art Rowanberry, another one who went to the war and came home and never willingly left again, and I quote him to myself: “Something better! Everybody’s talking about something better. The important thing is to feel and be proud of what you got, don’t matter if it aint’ nothing but a log pen.”

From pages 112-113
The big idea about education, from first to last, is the idea of a better place. Not a better place where you are, because you want it to be better and have been to school and learned to make it better, but a better place somewhere else. In order to move up, you have got to move on. I didn’t see this at first. And for a while after I knew it, I pretended I didn’t. I didn’t want it to be true.

But it was true. After they were all gone, I was mourning over them to Nathan. I said “I just wanted them to have a better chance than I had.”

Nathan said, “Don’t complain about the chance you had,” in the same way exactly that he used to tell the boys, “Don’t cuss the weather.” Sometimes you can say dreadful things without knowing it. Nathan understood this better than I did.

Like several of his one-sentence conversations this one stuck in my mind and finally changed it. The change came too late, maybe, but it turned my mind inside out like a sock.

Was I sorry that I had known my parents and Grandmam and Ora Finley and the Catletts and the Feltners, and that I had married Virgil and come to live in Port William, and that I had lived on after Virgil’s death to marry Nathan and come to our place to raise our family and live among the Coulters and the rest of our membership?

Well, that was the chance I had.

And so Nathan required me to think a thought that has stayed with me a long time and has traveled a long way. It passed through everything I know and changed it all. The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

My new favorite song and the presidential race

I am compulsively playing the song "That You Might See" by Home Video over and over and over again. It's one of those songs I desperately wish I'd written. Inspired by tonight's Vice Presidential Debate/Avoidancefest, I'm posting the lyrics of the song here, dedicating it to this year's Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, from all of us helpless voters out here, who really don't have much of a *^%*ing choice in the matter.


There is a helpless need for human touch
We are smashed beneath,
On hands and knees, pleading
And it’s easier to look away
And it’s easier to believe what they say

That you might see my side and for a minute give in
That we are weak and we are suffering
That you might see my side and for a minute give in

There is a driving need to stamp us out
We are made to be ignorant and quiet
As we give it up for nothing
And we leave it to be taken away

That you might see my side and for a minute give in
That we are weak and we are suffering
That you might see my side and for a minute give in

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Standing in front of the dead end thinking "what the...?"

Growing up with my Dad, I was very well acquainted with the concept of The Dark Night of the Soul, although I wouldn't have called it that. When I did run across St. John of the Cross' book in a Catholic bookstore in my early 20s, I grabbed it immediately for my Dad, thinking "here's a guy my Dad can identify with". Dad struggled with God. Hard. He got in God's face, so to speak, and pretty much demanded that He give up the goods and bless him and his family. He did this the loudest --and the most angrily, I think-- when it looked like everything was going to crap. Which was rather more often than he --or we-- liked. Mostly it was financial stuff, or job frustration, or the constant underlying sense that every single one of us Moffs was wasting what we had to give the world due to our collective ennui. or inertia. or incredibly low expectations.

As it turns out, God DID bless him, and us. Dad's life now is not anything he would have thought possible on many, many fronts, and his faith is huge. So is my Mom's, which none of us would have expected. My brother and I are doing pretty well, all things considered, and are more or less solid individuals, each with our own faith that has withstood various tests over time.

So now, after about a year of feeling pretty darn good about life and seeing blessings pretty much everywhere I looked, I have hit a wall. I have no intention of doing a long Debbie Downer blog post about depression, questioning one's life purpose, etc., etc., (and I'm aware that I keep coming back to this topic on the blog... annoying) but it's been a big pushback to my theology... which had become, shall we say, chipper. To quote a Cowboy Junkies lyric that is quoting William Faulkner: "A man in a crisis falls back on what he knows best". So, as I have before at similar points in my life, I'm praying more --which is undeniably not a bad thing--, listening to the Pixies and Modest Mouse and other ironic music, and contemplating Ye Olde Dark Night of the Soul.

I remember reading "The Hound of Heaven" by Francis Thompson and thinking, "wow, this poem is really too long", but really digging the central metaphor of God, chasing us like a hunting dog, chasing us as we run from Him --and we all do ("for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" "there is none righteous, not even one")-- chasing us through all the side roads and back alleys of our sins and shallowness and the sense bred into all of humanity since The Fall that WE should be in control, not Him. I loved the inevitability of it, the vision Thompson had of a God that WOULD have us in the end. There's an echo of this in one of my cornerstone (favorite) hymns:

Oh love that will not let me go
I rest my weary soul in thee
I give thee back the life I owe
that in Thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.

I have believed, as long as I can remember, that God will do anything, ANYTHING He has to, to get us to focus on Him, to make the choices necessary to put ourselves in right relationship to Him... because He is the Divine Lover that will have His Beloved. And I've relied on that at times when I felt approximately 3,784,906,579 miles away from God's Will... that if I turned to Him and said, "Hey there, I've really messed up", I'd hear the hound's bay on the breeze and know that I was about to be rescued from myself. Again.

So the question now is, what, exactly am I to make of this current dark night? I have a few explanations of why He'd configure things so that I have to get on my knees RIGHT NOW, but I'm not satisfied by any of them. I kept thinking I was stressed, tired, maybe a little burned out, but no, that's not it.

Maybe the point is to make me slow down, because I'm going to miss something important if I don't. Maybe I've already been missing the something important and now He's holding me in place and making me FOCUS. I'm in the final quarter of the Year of Not Dating, and I don't have many conclusions --except that it's damned hard not to date when you're healthy and your biological clock is deep in the second half-- so maybe that's it. Or maybe it's way bigger and has much less to do with me, which would make more sense and really be something of a relief. I don't know.

So I'll just hang out here for as long as this lasts, and keep praying, and try and be patient with the insomnia and other stuff... and wait for the grey veil to lift and the meaning of this to come clear to me, which I believe in faith it will.