I don’t like February much more than January. But I do love the way days earn one more minute of daylight, staving off the evening until just a little while longer, giving us a rose-grey-lavender sky, this one seen from the N train.
The most striking images over yet another politically contentious weekend came from Pensacola, Florida, where Trump was campaigning for Roy Moore, an accused pedophile and candidate for a Senate seat in Alabama, some 30 miles away. (Why the coy choice of an out-of-state rally? No idea, but so much doesn’t make sense these days that I didn’t bother to try to understand it.)
“Merry Christmas” read the signs hoisted by Trump’s supporters, who were also clad in Christmas garb. Trump took the stage with that same emphatic greeting, congratulating himself and the sanctimonious souls in attendance for their “making it safe” to say Merry Christmas. He—and they—believe it’s overly PC to say “Happy Holidays” and/or assume everyone they’d ever meet, or care to meet, would Christian.
To put such a fine, fine point on “Christmas” and to use it to insult non-Christians and, more to the point, the kinds of liberals who tend toward “holiday” greetings struck me as aggressive—a sarcastic, bigoted perversion of both Christmas and Christian principles.
Aggression in America, then, as a follow up to my thoughts on “anger in America.”
On Sunday, I bought narcissus bulbs at a garden shop owned by a man from Lebanon. “Merry Christmas,” he said, as did the cashier and the salesperson in the aisle. Sorting out matters of religious identity can’t be easy for a Lebanese Christian. But after the Trump rally, I felt suspicious of their well wishes.
“Happy Holidays,” I replied. A little bit aggressively.
I saw this on the sidewalk on my walk to the train station. The mute, hungry person was nowhere to be seen.
Then, a few steps around the next corner, a heart appeared at my feet, glowing in the early morning light.
Another profile in the NY Times magazine, this one about a doctor who lost three limbs when in college and now tries to bring a “good death” to those who reside in what’s called the Guest House, part of the Zen Hospice in San Francisco.
“Good death” is something I thought about when I visited my mother-in-law, Mary, who lives in a memory care facility in Orlando. She has severe dementia and, after falling and shattering an elbow, was in a rehab that simply wasn’t equipped to accommodate patients with memory loss. We spent a weekend relieving Steve’s sister, Laura, who also lives in Orlando and is mostly tasked with her care. Observing Mary, in pain, in an unfamiliar place, in adult diapers, not remembering not to lean on her elbow, addled by medication, I wondered about sustaining life after the mind goes and the body breaks down.
By most yardsticks, hers is not a good life. Would a “good death” be a better choice? Simply put, it’s not a choice we can make and it feels like heresy even talking about it. And that is exactly what Miller spends his life working at: inviting death into our lives, our relationships, our conversations. He’s looking to “disrupt the death space,” a mission statement that sounds perfect for the Silicon-Valley VC community he solicits.
The article never links Zen Hospice’s “Guest House” to the Rumi poem, but I did, so here it is. Perhaps it’s something of a cliche to rely on Rumi for Life’s Big Ideas. But it continues to amaze me how the work of a 13th-century Sufi poet endures. (Some of his relevance is explained by this New Yorker article.)
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
From a profile of Bart Campolo: “Atheists and agnostics have long tried to rebottle religion…to get the community and good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer. As with O’Doul’s, converts are few…”
Campolo is a one-time evangelical minister who lost his faith suddenly — or so he thought — as a result of a bike accident and concussion. When he finally fond the clarity and courage to share his loss of belief with friends “they treated me like an obviously gay man coming out of the closet. ‘People were like, yeah we’ve known this for a long time.'”
His story is also about the rise of secular humanism, which neither excludes nor insists on God. Do good deeds, devote your life to them even, but don’t blame yourself if you can’t conjure belief. Crucially, humanism gives ex-believers like Campolo a platform to stand on that’s called neither atheism nor agnosticism. This makes me wonder: why do we need platforms? Why not just be good and do good? Maybe it makes the fall from belief less precipitous. Maybe it makes for a softer landing as compared to the drifting downward into the blackness of atheism. Maybe we just need to call ourselves something.
The article stopped me hard at “supernatural stuff,” an offhand catch-all for things (for me anyway) like Jesus as the son of God, his immaculate birth and miracles, his resurrection. What if Jesus was a prophet who tried to bring people into a more goodly (but not Godly) way of being? What if he was the son of a man, say Joseph, and not the son of God? What if there is no God? Can’t we still believe — in goodness, in helping others, in giving to others?
To read, perhaps: “Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” (Gary Epstein, 2010).
This book from Lily and, along with Anne Lamott’s Small Victories, I am inspired to write again, after a long dormant spell. The change of scenery helped as well — a week in the desert with views like this every day:
Here is what I wrote poolside at the Desert Hot Springs Spa, courtesy of Lamott and triggering a vow from me to leave them behind: Resentments are wire-monkey mothers, something to hang onto because we believe we have — or deserve — nothing better.
“There was love, an abundance of it; we just had to respect and accept that it was not the love of happily ever after. No, we would not be celebrating our 60th wedding anniversary, or even our sixth, but we would always be celebrating our children and the physical and emotional bond that brought them into being.
As it turns out, the world of moral absolutes is ill-suited to divorce. It isn’t a question of good/bad, success/failure, right/wrong. It is a recognition that what existed is irretrievably broken and that something else must be built in its place.
The decision to end a marriage is not about quitting; it is about letting go of one relationship in exchange for another. The equation isn’t love/not love. Divorce, at its best, is a love reborn — birthed from heartache and rage and despair and ultimately, forgiveness — that creates a different kind of family.”
Such a good “Modern Love” essay, this one by Lara Bazeldon. I read it, in the cool sunshine of my porch, the church up the street tolling its bells on the hour. Around me, fall is obligingly fall like: clear sky, dry leaves rattling in the breeze, the haze of summer dispelled.
Also, apropos of nothing, her characterizing child-rearing as feelings of love (of course) but also “corrosive boredom.”
I like the sound of this much better than Days of Repentance, which is what I thought the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was called.
In fact, the two appear to be synonymous, which makes me wonder how much awe I find in repentance. I read that: “it is common to seek reconciliation with people you may have wronged during the course of the year.” Further: “to atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible.”
Interestingly, I felt terrible this week that a friend found that a rug was damaged after he lent us his studio for a photo shoot. I wasn’t aware of the damage but that he felt ill of me made me feel ill. I contemplated how hard it is for me to hear criticism, to learn that I’ve let someone down. I know this must be rooted in a precarious sense of self-worth — more about how I feel about myself than how others feel about me. Regardless, I felt swamped by self-recrimination. But then the words “an honest apology, sincerely offered” came to me. Is this a quote? Something I myself have written? Not sure. But I did it, was forgiven, felt better.
My own Days of Awe experience
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. ~ David Foster Wallace