Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sacred

I feel I am surrounded by blessings too great to mention, almost. I gave a testimony at Convergence tonight that I opened up by leading the congregation in "Amazing Grace" from my seat (which is how I wish I could do all music leading). I was nervous as hell about the whole thing, because I was going to be really honest and kind of cheesy and if it bombed I was going to be mildly traumatized... but it went really well. Todd said it set the tone of the service and thanked me enthusiastically for it. I felt it working in the room as I gave it, although I was so nervous that I had to put my hands in my jeans pockets because they were shaking so bad... actually, they had gone numb by that point... went totally numb at the point that I got up from my seat on the last verse to walk towards the front, singing.

I also just got back from another phenomenal jam session after church, and Pete mentioned that his church would like him to get some musicians together again for next Sunday... and of course I am so there. I'm lucky I don't actually start drooling when he mentions these opportunities... or when we all meet to jam. I'm so eager, and so stunned that they're willing to work on my songs... or mine and Cindi's songs, to be more exact, because she's been so willing to work with me on them. They would never have gotten out of my head if it weren't for her, and she's added so much. We have three songs, and they are all my lyrics, and largely my musical idea, except for one which is clearly Cindi's. P and J and C all act very casual and cool about it during the jam, but I feel like taking my shoes off, being silent, bowing... my creative act is being honored... I'm in the presence of God.

Jozsef and I met before all of this to walk around the Tidal Basin and look at the cherry blossoms. People travel here from all over the country to look at these flowers, and since it was opening weekend, there were 9 zillion people there. It was also cold as hell, and J. and I were both shot for different reasons. He did his pre-defense a couple of days ago. It went well, but he's now faced with the end of his Ph.D. and trying to figure out the next step. It's daunting. I'm fried from all the drama at work and fretting about losing Kris and having to find another living situation soon. Despite our being exhausted and freezing, it was still a beautiful day. I was reflecting on other times I'd been to see the cherry blossoms, how I felt a sense of longing to be more equal to the beauty of the flowers... how I wished I was closer to the person I was with, or more comfortable. J. is like my Hungarian brother and neither of us expect anything else, so I wasn't plagued by those thoughts this year. We just hung out. I didn't say a lot and it was ok. I was pretty agitated that I had to leave him early to go to church, but even that wasn't a big deal... he's a grownup, a laid back guy, and a friend, and he won't hold it against me. I'm lucky to have him as my friend.

My work right now is not much of a place of grace. It sucks ass, to be honest. I hope it doesn't stay that way. But my music, my church, the jam sessions, my weekends and evenings... these are places of great grace. I think of how lost I felt last year, how I walked around constantly tense and feeling fake, like I was reaching the end of my masters and my ability to pretend anymore at the same time, how I could no longer remember anything I liked or wanted to do. How miserable I was with G, without knowing it. I won't say I don't have thoughts of wanting to be with someone again, idealizing aspects of past relationships, but I wouldn't give up any of my blessings right now for that... hell no. It's so totally worth the trade off... in fact, there's no comparison. None.

So I stand in sacred space, aware of God's movement in my life, wanting to hold my breath and watch it all unfold, sometimes afraid of doing anything, afraid I'll screw it all up if I hold on to it too hard... so I take off my shoes, and kneel before the burning bush, feeling myself on fire but never consumed.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feet_washing
I'm sad that I'm not Catholic this year. Really. For all the things I cannot accept about Catholic theology, they do Holy Week really, really well. Last year, when I was busy keeping the peace by reliving my Catholic convert days with G., I attended some Holy Week services. This year, I have nowhere to celebrate them. I didn't go to Ash Wednesday Mass, and haven't really observed Lent (thinking that my fast from dating is sufficient mortification), but that didn't bother me so much. Not having anywhere to observe Holy Week does.

My mother and I were discussing footwashing today. Being as sensitive to hygiene as she is, she's disgusted by the ritual. She neither wants to touch someone else's feet, nor does she want to inflict the sight of her feet on someone else. Feet are not generally the prettiest part of a person, and the older you get --as I, formerly of the class of people possessing "pretty feet", have found to my chagrin-- the uglier your feet become. My Mom's feet bear the marks of 2 pregnancies; of her love of pretty, flimsy shoes that provided no arch support; of the 3 mile nightly walks we took in my teens (most of the time with her wearing the flimsy shoes); of weight gain and age. They are perfectly ordinary feet for a 55 year old woman, and to my Mother, unfortunately, they are shameful.

To me, though, footwashing is one of the most beautiful rituals the Christian church has. In Jesus' day, the revolutionary part of it was that HE --the Messiah-- washed the feet of the disciples. That's the original message of the story, and it is still profound today, turning the then-popular notion of Messiah as Military Conqueror on its head and showing a Messiah who conquered through love and servitude instead. The act of footwashing itself wasn't so out of the ordinary. Now, both acts seem odd and therefore a little mystical -- the act of footwashing, and the act of humility in seeing, touching, and washing someone else's feet.

My favorite memory of footwashing took place 3 years ago at Northern Virginia Mennonite Church. Pearl led the Maundy Thursday service... if memory serves there were the usual readings, the somber tone of remembering the night that Judas decided to betray Jesus, a few songs, maybe. The services there were always simple and I loved that. After the service, we went downstairs to the multipurpose room. The lights were off and candles were lit all around the room, giving it a warm, intimate feel (a hard effect to achieve in that particular room). There were tubs of warm water, and the men and women sat separated in semi-circled folding chairs on opposite sides of the room (which I rather appreciated once my inner feminist got over the initial weirdness of it).

Pearl started by washing the feet of the person at the end of the semicircle, and one by one, the women in the semi circle had their feet washed by the previous woman. It was all done in total silence, and each woman washed the feet of their neighbor carefully, gently. The only sound you heard was the sound of water pouring over feet, the creaking of the folding metal chairs, and the sharp exhale as each woman got on and off of her knees.

I had never felt so close to those particular women than at that moment. If you've ever soaked your feet before you know how wonderful it feels to put your feet in warm water. It makes your entire body relax. That sensation, combined with the quiet holiness of the moment, filled me a sense of overwhelming love for these women. I wanted to hug each of them, to look into their eyes and tell them that they were loved by God and that I loved them, too, in my awkward, fickle-selfish, human way. The silence of the ritual spared everyone the embarrassment of having me get all hippie on a bunch of stalwart Mennonites... but even without my emoting, there was a barrier broken, and an intimacy that no other ritual within orthodox Christianity could have achieved.

Right now, I miss that moment and I miss that church... but I'm also grateful that I had the moment, and that I had my time to be at that church under Pearl's quiet, deep, humble direction. I'm comforted by the thought that people all over the world are having their feet washed tonight, and feeling the barrier between relative strangers broken, the body of Christ unified, if only for a little while.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

A World Lost

Ok, so this is my second book review of the day... the second book so good that I started and finished it within 3 hours. I am a little more pressed for time than I was on the first review, so I will be comparatively briefer.

This book was recommended to me and to sort of everyone within earshot by Todd Cullop after service at Convergence a few weeks ago. Todd has used some Wendell Berry excerpts during our worship services and I have wanted to just sit in silence and meditate on them afterwards. I remember his use of symbolic visual imagery was really powerful and I was struck by how his writing causes a sort of stillness in the mind.

After reading the book, I have a wider perspective on why this is so. A World Lost follows the narrator, Andy, through his recollections of his childhood, all centering on one particular tragedy that affects the entire family. The book opens with an idyllic scene of a perfect childhood day and then describes briefly the tragedy, then returns to it again and again and again, picking up different perspectives, all described by the same central narrating voice, and moving seamlessly forward and backward in time. The book crescendoes with the narrator's retelling of the incident that has haunted his family for 50 years, using the few facts he knows as scaffolding and filling in the rest with his knowledge of the people involved and his imagination. The book concludes with a reflection on all those in his family who have gone before the narrator, a cloud of witnesses who share his history and whom he hopes to see when he dies.

The mental stillness I experience when reading Berry's writing comes from his camera-sharp rendering of visual detail, and his simple evoking of emotion through descriptions of sights, sounds, but especially smells. The first chapter whisked me right into the story by the incredible clarity of the images he portrayed of a young boy playing around on farmland. Maybe I've been reading non-fiction for too long, but I had forgotten the delights of a writer making me feel the heat of the sun and the wonderful relief of cool pond water on a hot day, of rendering the sound of wind, the smell of hay. Throughout the book, he uses smell --the sense that we all know brings back the most powerful memories (I've read the neurological explanation for this but can't remember the details)-- as the predominant sense... or maybe this is just how I perceived it. The smell of pipe smoke mixed with sweat, of cigarette smoke mixed with perfume, of wet grass, barns, hay.... I've SMELLED these things and when he described it it's like his memories became mine... I felt like I was there.

That precision is also in his telling of how family memories are made, and this is maybe what is most powerful for me. He touches on a theme dear to me... of how what we don't know about our families is almost more powerful than what we know; of how we arrive on the stage of life with history all around us, of other people's dramas aging and hardening, other people's mistakes and successes all around us, forming the miasma into which we enter; and finally, the deep power of a major tragedy that happens when you are too young to understand it, but which affects you forever. There are two notable ones in my childhood, and Berry's telling of it is spot on. You spend the rest of your life trying to explain it, trying to fill in all the details you didn't know so that you can make sense of something so huge. You construct a story around it, and that story in part defines you, because it tells you as much about you as it does about what actually happened. It tells you what you want to know, what you can live with about the world, and about your family.

This book will stay with me for some time... and now I've got to go.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader

Andres asked me, again... well really BEGGED me this time... to read this book and tell me what I thought of it... to review it for him. Imed me from an internet cafe in Accra and told me that this was my homework.

Since Andres is sort of my own personal professor and el catalizador of some impressive things in my life --including but not limited to my masters degree-- I took him seriously and went to the library today, not 24 hours after receiving my assignment. 3 hours after pulling the book off the shelf at the library, I'd finished it, melting into the first available chair on the library's second floor with one arm free of my jacket and my scarf half on/half off, and ignoring the strange man to my right whom I think may have stared at me the whole time I was reading. Patrick tells me that there are 70 positive reviews of this book on Amazon.com, which is hardly surprising, since the kind of people who write reviews on Amazon.com are exactly the kind of people this book is intended for... it's a book for the bookish, or those who fancy themselves as such (like me).

I knew the name Anne Fadiman but couldn't remember why, until I saw that she is the author of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is one of those books that everyone who fancies themselves sort of a lay anthropologist (like me) knows about, even if they haven't actually read it (see above comment about fancying oneself bookish). I first heard about it years ago from Lala Iverson (maybe someday I'll write a post about her) but have heard of it several times since.

Anyway, Ex Libris is a fantastic read for the bibiliophile or bibliophile want-to-be. Fadiman is incredibly well-read and is surrounded by other incredibly well-read people. Her writing about her reading allows the voyeuristic reader a little entrance into the life and world of someone who grew up among intellectuals, whose whole life has been among books, and really DECENT books, too. I have to admit jealousy while reading about the bookshelves of her parents, about the things she had read by the time she was 14 and 16, about the merging of her massive book collection with that of her husband. I droolingly followed her writing about massive volumes I'd never heard of or dreamed of reading, like Livy's History of Rome, and of authors and books I'd really wanted to read but never gotten around to, like Nabokov and Thomas Wolfe and Anatomy of Melancholy by Burton. I found it interesting that she and Annie Dillard both share a fascination with the doomed British Antarctic expeditions... and wonder if I should read up on them now. I took a page of scrawled notes of books and authors I'm now interested in reading, and I didn't even start taking notes 'til I was halfway through the book. I could have written a couple of pages of vocabulary words, too, but that's by-the-by...

Not only do you get little snippets of text and analysis of books you've never had the time or erudition to read, you get them told anecdotally through loving eyes... not through the eyes of a critic or a professional literary analyst or a bored English professor, but through the eyes of someone whose love for books is foundational to her sense of self, and who is writing about the books she PARTICULARLY loves (and writing extremely well). She writes about books, and writing, and the love of long words, and inscriptions and book shelves and politics and compulsive proofreading of pretty much everything written (of which I am also guilty)... so many things in such a small space that is somewhat exhausting, but exhiliarating at the same time.

My favorite, favorite essay in this book --so favorite that I paid 75 cents to photocopy it so I could have it forever, or at least until I lose it-- is "Nothing New Under the Sun". It's a brilliant and extensively footnoted essay on the impossibility of avoiding plagiarism, but also of the damage that plagiarism does, using the example of Fadiman's own mother to emphasize the point. Fadiman's attempt to footnote EVERYTHING unoriginal in her own essay is as hilarious as it is thorough, and it points out brilliantly how much we are conduits for everything around us, and how easy it is to mistake the ideas of others for your own... well, really, what a mistake it is to take pride in your ideas or your language, because they're probably someone else's. I photocopied it because it was such a clever idea and because I want to find the sources she mentions, but also to remind myself not to beat myself up for sounding like someone else when I write, because everyone always does.

To sum it up, this is a really lovely read... undoubtedly worth spending more time on than I did, but my personal book list is pretty long so I wanted to knock this one out rather than letting it languish behind the others in my queue, a problem I imagine I share with anyone interested in the book. I would highly recommend it to any booklover looking for a kindred spirit, some really good book recommendations, and a smile on their face throughout the read.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Aromatherapy

There is a little store not far from Clarendon metro that sells "aromatherapy" products... incense, essential oils, oils for burning, body oils, perfumes, as well as incense burners, oil burners, hookas, pretty much anything you can think of that's sort of vaguely hippie and involves pleasant odors... and flame.
Image from http://www.tributetea.com/incense.asp

The store is run by a short homosexual Vietnamese man who always has a slight cough and always seems to be wearing the same thing. He is such a nice guy and I feel guilty everytime I pass his shop without buying anything, which is most of the time. My aromatherapy needs, so to speak, are pretty occasional, and basic. I have an incense holder and I bought a little essential oil burner from him a while back that I use occasionally as a tiny sensory treat. I have no idea how he manages to keep that piece of precious real estate on the corner in Clarendon with so little business, and to be honest, I fret about him sometimes as I pass. I want to look in on him and make sure he's eating enough, and that he's not hooking up with terrible lascivious gay men in clubs down in Dupont who don't care about him or his business, or how hard it is to be Asian and gay.

I really have no boundaries whatsoever... but it is what it is. I care what happens to the gay Vietnamese incense merchant. and I will probably never read or write that sentence again in my whole life.

So tonight I left work early. It had been an emotional day and I didn't sleep very much last night due to my migraine/sinus headache plus worrying so much over the student from Togo. I got off at Clarendon and went to the post office to mail off a book I'd sold through Amazon (thank GOD someone bought Mother Angelica's Life Lessons!... I thought I'd have to pay someone to get that rather poorly chosen gift off my hands). Heading out the door, singing a little song to myself, I caught a whiff of the incense. The Vietnamese guy burns a little bit of incense outside his door in a small incense holder shaped like the Buddha. It's a great tactic because otherwise I'm sure no one would ever ever notice the store on their way to Liberty Tavern or O'Sullivans or the Clarendon Ballroom. The post office is a good block and a half away from the incense store, but the wind --bitingly cold and wiping away the last bit of early spring left in the air-- carried a bit of it over to me. I remembered I was almost out of incense, and decided to give the fellow my business.

He had customers tonight... a knot of about 5 scruffy looking white male teenagers who God knows why were in there to buy incense. Or something. Perhaps they were going to burn it and listen to death metal all night. I have no idea, but I felt very protective of my gay Vietnamese incense seller. I imagined these ruffians had come to beat him up and take away his money, or at least would make fun of him in low voices while they browsed, so I resolved to spend as long as I could in the store.

and then what always happens happened again. I looked to the right at the incense by the door and saw the word BOOTILICIOUS labelling one particular scent of incense. Averting my eyes quickly to the next type of incense, I saw the words LICK ME ALL OVER. Moving to the next display in search of some more innocuously named merchandise, I saw the same labels, plus a wide variety of other inexpicably sexually named types of incense. I primly selected the minimum 15 sticks of incense, skimming over the incense named for various body parts and states of sexual excitement and selecting ones with names like LILAC and SPRING RAIN... without thinking of possible intended double entendres for these. Then I went to browse through the essential oils, normally a relatively safe place, and immediately saw the alluring DROP YOUR DRAWERS, which I think was a new... scent... since I really don't remember seeing that and think that I would have.

I think that the incongruity of this Vietnamese guy and his x-rated merchandise is why I never remember exactly how uncomfortable those labels make me feel. I remember now on one hot and sunny Saturday last summer asking him where he got his merchandise in an attempt to figure out if he's the one making up these horrendous names. He said he buys it all from one company and basically just sells their stuff for them. In other words, it's not him with the trashy imagination... and I honestly just can't picture it.

Every time I've been in there he's made a special effort to be helpful. This time, he noticed me blowing my nose and insisted that I inhale deeply from a big bottle of eucalyptus essential oil to clear my sinuses. It did help. He didn't suggest that I buy any, either, but I asked him where it was and bought some. He insisted I put a bit under my nose right then and explained how I could spray it all over my bed so I could breathe it at night, and put it on my temples if I had a headache, and on the back of my neck if I had a cough. Maybe it was b.s., maybe it was authentic Vietnamese medicinal advice, but it was kind, regardless of its merit. I walked out feeling like he'd really tried to help me, still worried about the boys (who were still in the shop), and vaguely troubled by the perverse labels.

There is a part of me that still wants total black and white. I hate the thought that such a nice guy is surrounded by all this trashiness, and that as a gay man he is statistically more likely to have a promiscuous lifestyle than a steady, loving relationship. Despite my reminders to myself that shit makes excellent fertilizer, it's hard for me to accept that gentle people can remain in the trash and still be gentle. I want them to be free, cleaned up and presentable. I want their souls to be whiter than snow. I don't want them to be in the muck anymore... possibly this is why I worry so much about the student from Togo. I want her life to be perfect. I want her to be happy, and not to have to struggle so hard. I want her smile to reach all the way to her eyes, all the time. I want her to be able to act like the very young person she is. I want her to stop having to worry about everything all the time.

I can't control people, though. Like I told my Dad once, the best I can do is to drop my little pebble in the pond and hope my small actions ripple outward to help other people. I will keep trying to find somewhere for V. to live and I will keep buying incense from this fellow even if it scandalizes me to enter his shop. And I will pray, and try to remember what is good. That's all I can do.

Monday, March 3, 2008

10 Items or Less


So here's my first movie review for Andres, who is in Accra and can't access the internet these days, much less find a place to see a good indie film... and Andres does love him some indie film.

"10 Items or Less" is kind of an awkward way to start these reviews. I'd never heard of this film until I saw it while standing in the As Seen on TV store around Christmastime. I was amazed that the same store that featured a massager in the shape of a dolphin and a putting green for use when you're on the toilet would have a film section. Most of the films were Asian, so the few ones in English really stood out. I was pretty surprised to see one starring Morgan Freeman that I'd never heard of before, and since he's my favorite actor I made note of it.

As it turns out, it's a surprising little film, in good ways and in bad. The basic plot line is that Morgan Freeman plays a famous actor who hasn't worked in four years and is dropped off at a latino grocery store on the not-so-great side of town to do a little field research for an independent film he's considering taking part in. You never get any explanation for why he's at that particular store, or what the film he's going to make is about, and you never see the guy who dropped him off again. He meets a drop-dead gorgeous checkout girl (Paz Vega) who is smart, frustrated, has an attitude and a heavy Spanish accent. She also has a job interview for an Office Manager position, a wretched ex-husband, and no self-esteem, so famous actor dude spends the day with her and helps her get her confidence back and go through with the interview.

A lot of the dialogue is just bad and forced and seems like someone's first-year film school project rather than... well rather than something starring Morgan Freeman. The pace of the film is slow --even for an indie film-- and really, nothing happens that is worth mentioning. The thing that keeps it from being a bad film is that once you get used to the pace and the cheesy dialogue, there are some quite nice moments. You're actually a little surprised by them. Freeman is himself and Vega is just stunning... plus her English is kind of bad which gives her some charm and makes her slightly more believable. There is a chemistry between them, and you almost get the feeling that they decided to do this film in an afternoon as a favor to a couple of young scriptwriters, like they're actually buddies. There's a bit where they're teaching each other songs as they drive to the interview which is just too real... down to the silly lyrics Freeman's character makes up.

When the film ended I was smiling and felt a little lighter... like this film didn't ask too much of me but it gave me something nice to think about and feel and I appreciate that. Nice film for a Monday night after a long day.

The bottom line: Once you get used to the film being bad, you see what's good about it.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Short...

(Image is from http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Music-I-Posters_i985607_.htm)
I have been out of sorts this whole weekend... very tired after the week. This morning I decided that I would spend the morning in writing lyrics for this evening, and then the jam session didn't materialize due to scheduling stuff. No biggie... I'm committed to this and I'll be there next week and the week after and the week after that with whatever I've got.

But I started to get emotional at the thought that it might never materialize... that everyone might be so busy... it's not just about music to me but about community and a kind of bonding that you don't get in the everyday. This is the place where I'll have to protect myself from being wounded... from putting all my eggs in this one basket and having my heart broken again. C. and I hung out and worked on the two songs we did the other night and I asked her if she was moving. She said she didn't know. And then I said what I've been thinking but haven't articulated... which is that I think this --writing music with this group of folks-- is the reason I'm still single, why it's never worked with anyone. I am supposed to be doing this, even though it's extremely scary. and if she moves, if the others lose interest... well I didn't say this part but it will break my heart. and then I started to cry.

I know I haven't taken the big risks. I have been hurt by too many friends whom I hung my heart on and who then took off for bigger places. But it's the whole package, the writing, the singing, the being around artists and feeling myself thaw... I am terrified it will go away. Other folks must have had this happen and survived, but in truth, for me this is a far bigger risk than any relationship I've had since Phil 10 years ago. It is that level of risk, that level of love, of connection. The musical/artistic part of me is very deeply hidden for a reason. I am terrified of being hurt.

So that's where I'm at. Andres, the next post will be lighter, don't worry. ;^)