Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Visiting Hours

We’re going from bad to worse.

I had narrowly escaped the God issue, I thought, though maybe I hadn’t. Yes, I conceded that there were miracles all around us, and indeed within us. I granted—perhaps arrogantly?—that since it is unbelievably-next-to-impossible that we should be here, the jump to the shores of God was a short hop indeed. And then I said that God made Himself known, and spoke to me, through music.

Right—took care of that!

And so I ventured on to Chapter 5, which is entitled How it Works. ‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘home free! We’ll get down to a few practical details, a bit of “how-to,” and then we’ll be on our way! We can tiptoe around the God issue once again!’

Big mistake!

In fact, I had bemoaned the need to cook up a Higher Power to my sister-in-law, who is as godless as I am. She is, however, one of the best people I know, as well as being a virtually teetotaler, which in my family is unheard of. Anyway, she had the answer….

“Why not have the best part of you be your Higher Power? You know, the part of you that is loving, generous, wise…”

She continued on to list other adjectives—places I’ve read about but never visited, much less settled.

“It’s not that easy,” I told her, because by then I had waded past the twelve steps (daunting by themselves) and gotten into the real meat of the chapter. I had read (or thought I had, since I can’t find it now) the paragraph that says that people who try to lead “good lives,” or who “try to act morally”—sorry, but these people are outta luck! No, dammit, step three means just what it says, and no weaseling or pussyfooting! Here it is, dammit!

“Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” (Italics in the original.)

Well—I’ll out myself. My biggest fear is of living in a world in which people have turned over their will and lives to the care of God as they understood Him. Which is why, today, I have not read much about the bombing in Manchester, England, immediately following a pop concert that attracted mostly teenagers. 22 people are dead, including (it’s thought) the man who made the IED. (Remember the first time you learned that IED was an “improvised explosive device?” Before then, they were just homemade bombs….)

So I can’t tell you much about the guy who killed 22 people yesterday. I don’t know his background, and I’ve really stopped caring. It was clear after the Boston marathon bombings that reading the biographies, getting the back story, watching the sobbing mother and the angry father—all of that was not going to explain how a suburban Boston man could put a pressure-cooker filled with nails and a timer in front of a child. Yes, a child he must have seen. But is there any doubt that he was giving his life and his will (as well as several other lives and wills) to his God as he understood Him?

This is extreme, of course. But I could also recount an experience that happened to me the last time I went into swimming in a pool.

We were in St. Thomas, staying at a hotel instead of enduring the San Sebastian Festival. And among the hotel were a young couple, clearly Muslim: the woman was draped in full-length black robe, and wore hijab, or head covering. We observed her as we frolicked in the pool, which was dangerous even for me, tall and a strong swimmer. Why? The first ten feet or so gradually deepened, but in a footstep the water went from being at shoulder level to being over my head. And it was into this pool that the young Muslim women entered. Dressed, yes, fully in her robe and her headscarf.

It was lunacy, and no, I don’t think that Allah—as I understand him—cared a fig whether she wore her robe and her hijab into the pool. I cared, and I’m sorry to say, cared almost more for the hapless person who might have to rescue her. I thought it might be me, trying to drag an hysterical, panicking body wrapped in yards of waterlogged fabric out of danger.

It’s easy for atheists to make these criticisms. I freely grant you that we do not—we freethinkers—set up soup lines, feed the homeless, shelter runaways, visit the aged and infirm, and do a host of other good things that good churches do.

And I’ve got step 1 down pat, I’m pleased to say. Powerless over alcohol? See the picture below for a glimpse of how I looked, and how I was feeling, and admission to rehab the second time around.

So—the Big Book told me to scurry around and find a God. Well, I did the best I could, and thought rather smugly that I hadn’t done badly. After all, I dragged poor Boethius into it, and he seems to have given up the consolations of philosophy and living about a millennium and a half ago.

It was the best I could do. I am truest to the godhead, at least as I understand it, when I listen to music. So yesterday, I abandoned myself to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which are usually listened to in the Tenebrae. I had heard about the Lamentations, and I had read about the Tenebrae, but I never knew much about it until I went to the grocery store. There, I ran into the Episcopalian minister who was the partner to the manager of the gay bathhouse. Since the wait in line at the checkout is usually as long as Lent itself, I got a full description of the glorious music of Thomas Tallis, and of the precise order in which the fourteen candles or more are extinguished. The minister painted a wonderfully evocative of the darkening and then darkened church (Tenebrae deriving from the Latin word for shadow). Wikipedia, here, will have to suffice:

The principal Tenebrae ceremony is the gradual extinguishing of candles upon a stand in the sanctuary called a hearse.[7] Eventually, the Roman Rite settled on fifteen candles, one of which is extinguished after each of the nine psalms of Matins and the five of Lauds, gradually reducing the lighting throughout the service. The six altar candles are put out during the Benedictus, and then any remaining lights in the church. The last candle is hidden beneath the altar, ending the service in total darkness. The strepitus (Latin for "great noise"), made by slamming a book shut, banging a hymnal or breviary against the pew, or stomping on the floor, symbolizes the earthquake that followed Christ's death, although it may have originated as a simple signal to depart.[8] After the candle has been shown to the people, it is extinguished, and then put "on the credence table," or simply taken to the sacristy. All rise and then leave in silence.[9]

Ah yes! The very stuff that got good Pope Benedict (nee Josef Ratzinger) out of bed in the morning!

Well, Jeremiah has been lamenting through virtually every Renaissance composer, and I was tempted to do de Morales, again, but decided on Palestrina. I wanted to get to the bottom of the Jeremiah problem as he (Palestrina) understood him.

Well, I should have done all this in the Triduum, or the last three days of Holy Week, but I was busy this year. In fact, the week before Holy Week, I was being detoxified, which involved toxifying myself with Ativan instead of alcohol. The alcohol banished, the hospital then sent me home to detoxify from the Ativan. The process was nearly as bad as going cold turkey from the drink, and occupied much of Holy Week. At the end of it all, I was more ready to join the Filipinos for a little crucifixion reenactment than a sedate darkening of a church into shadows.

The second problem was that I had never gotten around to reading the Book of Jeremiah (and I still haven’t), nor had I read the Book of Lamentations, of whom Jeremiah was once thought to be the author. So I settled right down to work on the Lamentations, which I read in the King James Version, although on my Zenfone Asus 5.0. After all, if it can play music, surely it could “read” (as in display text) the Bible.

Well, I’m happy to say that for once God behaved like an adult and started acting not as I understood Him. No, this God was a downright Old Testament Son of a Bitch, and didn’t the sons and daughters of Jerusalem deserve it? Ahh, it was good lip-smacking stuff! It took me back to my childhood, it did, when I used to watch my father in church, every Sunday, being forced to admit that he was a “miserable sinner.” If God could get the old man to fess up to that, I thought, he had to be some kick-ass god indeed. What my black son would call a regular Niggah!

It was so good, indeed, that I started copying and pasting—you don’t want to lose all this stuff back into the Bible, after all. And that meant that I was copying and pasting virtually chapter and verse. Here’s where the action is just heating up….

1:12 Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.
13 From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day.  

Wonderful, heady stuff! And had I read it—or heard it sung—in a darkening church a night or two before the resurrection, it would have spoken very exactly to my condition. Because being in rehab, and especially being in the throes of alcohol poisoning that preceded it, was to be in sorrow like unto no sorrow, to have been afflicted with the Lord’s fierce anger, to have received his fire into my bones, and to have been desolate and faint all the day.

God had done one number on Jerusalem, clearly—Sodom and Gomorrah had been a mere warm-up for the real deal. And whoever wrote the Lamentations certainly had the conviction of a great writer: he had clearly told every diligent editor to go to Hell. I myself was craving a red pencil as much as I craved the bottle, but the author held my nose rigorously down in the mud. He described every degradation, every humiliation, every devastation, and then he turned around and drove back through the country all over again. My rehab days began to glow quite pinkly in my memory as I read on through Lamentations!

In fact, rehab has a certain kind of wonderful. There is only one thing to be done, and that is to endure it. You go through an almost sadistic rite of initiation (I was stripped naked, patted down—who knew if a razor blade might not be lurking in my hair)? I was forced to bend my knees and lower my waist to my ankles, stretch my arms and cough. All under the cruel, unblinking eye of an “aide.” You are then led to a room, where there is a bedframe, a mattress, and linen. You are exhausted, as much by the completely sleepless night you have endured as by the effort of seeing your loved one see you, at your absolute worst moment.

At last, on that first day of my second journey into rehab, I found myself on the bed I had made—in both senses. A nurse had come in my room bearing comfort, also in two senses. She gave me the 2 mg of Ativan, and then, remembering our last conversation in the previous hospitalization, said, “hey, you tried. That’s good!”

There was then nothing to do. I could sleep, and did. Somebody would bring me food. There was great freedom in being locked away, since I did not have to struggle with the question: should I, or even could I, go down to CVS and buy the cheapest bottle of scotch? Should I, could I, make it through the day to dinnertime, when my husband would come home? What kind of shape would I be in? Would I be slurring my words, stumbling at the table, breaking wine glasses and dropping cutlery? How much work would it take to try and fake being sober, and how likely would it be that I would succeed?

And the worst question of all: assuming I could get through the evening, what sort of night would I have? If I tell you that I was anxious, the night before I went into rehab, will you know what that was? Imagine falling from a skyscraper: you are plummeting downward. In fact, you should be exhilarated, thrilled finally to feel your body free from the ground, from the bonds of the earth. You are, in fact, terrified, because you know that in one second your body will explode against the pavement, and your life, in one cataclysm of pain and blood, will be over.

That one second before the crash? I lived that one second for eight hours, as I counted each quarter hour down to the time I could get up and go to the hospital.

I had brought it on myself, of course. God had had nothing to do with it: he had not put the bottle to my lips, he had not extended my arm to reach for the booze that I hid under my bed. No, no—he had not brought me to this.

But what if he had? He had destroyed Jerusalem, and the Jews, though lamenting, had still welcomed the destruction, or at least granted the justice or the fitness of the punishment. Why could I not say, as a man might have a few centuries before, that God had brought me very low? That He had cast me among the swine, the lepers, the unclean? I cannot claim to know Him, nor do I know his will.

I can only say that He had been there, as I lay drunk in my bed, and got drunker.

And he had been there as well, when finally I came into my room in rehab. It was empty, as empty as the bare mattress awaiting its sheets and human cargo. No, there was nothing in that room, nothing at all. Housekeeping had come, cleaned the blood and tears from the walls and the mattress. They had polished the mirror carefully: no trace of a creased and leaden visage remained there. A squirt from the can had freshened the air. It was only I, sleepless and drunk, who saw the figure on the mattress. He’d been waiting, after all, and he looked up, smiled slightly, less at me than what he knew of me. He shifted a bit. It seemed, after all of this time, that at last, in this infinite emptiness, there was room for God and for me. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

How God Found Me

Let’s be straight: if anyone asks, I’m an atheist.

Partly it’s my contrary nature. Partly it’s fatigue from the religious right. And partly it’s from having to read sentences like this, from the chapter We Agnostics, in the AA Big Book.

If our testimony helps sweep away prejudice, enables you to think honestly, encourages you to search diligently within yourself, then, if you wish, you can join us on the Broad Highway.

Nothing offensive there, you think? Well, here’s another way to put what the authors are really saying:

If you (the atheist / agnostic) don’t agree with our testimony, you will be mired in prejudice, unable to think honestly, unwilling to search diligently within yourself, and then, since you’re so stubborn, you cannot join us on the Broad Highway.

See why I’m an atheist?

Of course, the truth is a little deeper. Even one of the most famous atheists of our times—Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion—has to admit that being an atheist is philosophically impossible. No one can prove, logically, that God does not exist. What Dawkins can say is that the existence of God cannot be proved logically. Nor can the nonexistence of God…though, according to him, the evidence for God is damn flimsy.

And so I call myself, and probably will always call myself, an atheist. And nothing I read in the chapter We Agnostics changed that. Refuting the text point by point would render nothing, since the one thing I took away from the chapter was that using logic to examine the question of God was like using a thermometer to measure atmospheric pressure.

If words can be used at all for such a business, it’s poetry—not expository prose—that will be of use.

And if not poetry, can I suggest its twin—music? And did you know (as I didn’t, until I looked it up) that the medieval philosopher Boethius believed that there were three types of music? There was the music of the spheres or musica mundana, about which Wikipedia says:

Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution,[2] and that the quality of life on Earth reflects the tenor of celestial sounds which are physically imperceptible to the human ear.[3] Subsequently, Plato described astronomy and music as "twinned" studies of sensual recognition: astronomy for the eyes, music for the ears, and both requiring knowledge of numerical proportions.

Sound crazy? Well, to me the idea that celestial bodies in motion create sound is no more difficult than believing that a cello string in motion creates sound. What I have a hard time believing is that a Jew living two thousand years ago becomes literally his own flesh and blood when I take communion of a Sunday morning.

So I’m willing to give the music of the spheres a pass. There is, after all, the rising and falling of seas and oceans twice daily. We call them tides, but what would Pythagoras or Plato call them?

The second kind of music is called musica humana, which Wikipedia calls “the internal music of the human body.” And indeed, it was this internal music that I contemplated, as I pondered my response to the chapter We Agnostics.

Let’s be charitable—though it goes deeply against my nature—and say that the We Agnostics is dated. The chapter talks a good deal about aviation, which in the late 1930's was still something to be wondered at (literally, wonderful), though today it is wonderless. But to me, no technological innovation or advance has much wonder about it, especially in the long run. True, not many people thought human aviation possible (though there was a guy called Leonardo da Vinci). But there were also people astonished that the human body could survive moving faster than the speed of the fastest horse, a century earlier. And then the train came along.

No, for me the logical counterpart for the music of the spheres was the world of the body. And so I began to contemplate what a writer of this time (2017) might say, if he were asked to write a word or two to agnostics.

Forget aviation—think genetics.

There has been, I discovered, life on earth for some 55 million years. According to Wikipedia, human life evolved one or two million years ago. Each human life has some 20,000 genes—and no one, as far as I know, except for identical twins shares the same genetic expression. There is no one in the world that is exactly identical to you or to me. We all accept that. But the idea that we should ever have existed at all is less appreciated. It is, in fact, as unlikely that you or I exists as it is that God exists. (Full disclosure—I am not a biologist, and Richard Dawkins very much is. And so please, anyone out there, do not send this to him….)

Put another way—I am the result of every genetic roll of the dice that has taken place for 55 million years. And while it takes humans an average of 20 years (perhaps) to roll that dice, less evolved organisms are much faster than we are. Remember those fruit flies we all experimented on in high school?

There is mystery when two people, besotted with love and lust, take to their chambers and draw the bedclothes. And there is equal mystery in the genetic interchange that gives new life.

And the mystery of the body does not stop there. The music of the body, in fact, sings out unstoppably from birth to death. I am sixty, and have given no particular care to my body, other than eating and drinking going to the doctor whenever I had to. But my body, in fact, goes on doing wonders of such a magnitude that we might call them miracles. There is, as I write, a process called micturition going on in my body. And that means that my kidneys have found a way to produce a golden substance—variously called urine or piss—to deposit in my bladder. I accept this miracle as a nuisance, especially at two in the morning, when one cat or other walks over my lower abdomen. A person suffering renal failure does not.

Urine may not be a subject that interests you. Well, what about dendrites? I looked them up, to make sure I wasn’t inventing all of this, and here’s what I found:

A bit further down, the Google search lists an article that starts with the information: the human brain contains one hundred billion neurons. Some of these neurons—thanks, guys!—are telling my kidney to produce urine, and perhaps how dilute or concentrated to make it. But a substantial number of neurons have devoted themselves to getting me to the point where I can write these words. My parents read to me, as a toddler, and that fostered a love of books. My teachers told me that the body was made up of systems: the renal system, the neurological system. Later teachers told me about the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems (or perhaps subsystems) of the nervous system. And somewhere I read that the term “dendrite” was a (pay attention, here) “branching, treelike structure.” Oh, along the way, someone taught me to type sixty words a minute on a typewriter. That, in itself, is a physiological miracle—it wasn’t too long ago that opposable thumbs were a big deal. And then someone invented the laptop, and the program Word, which truly comes in handy, since my fingers do fly at the keyboard! Unfortunately, half of the words have typos, and does anybody remember tearing the paper out of the typewriter, and starting the page afresh?

All that is a miracle, of course, but remember those “treelike” structures with their “branching?” I know a bit about trees, since my mother lived in a forest. I know, I know—it sounds fanciful, something out of a fairy tale, but it was true. And very often I would peer out of the window in the back bedroom, and see the tops of trees swaying in the wind.

Is there any mother that does not cradle and rock her infant? And is that why, among all sights in the world, swaying tree tops—black against a darkening November sky, with the blessing of snow promised—is the most comforting? At any rate, I amused myself, looking out my mother's window,  by thinking that much the same thing was happening in my brain. I too had a forest within my cranium. True, infinitely smaller, but who is to say that it isn’t just as complex? One hundred billion dendrites? How large would the forest have to be, to have one hundred billion tree branches?

We used to think, of course, that trees did not communicate with each other. Now, it appears, we believe that trees do, and one of the ways is through those tree branches. But what if they didn’t? I glance at a man sitting twenty feet away from me and peering at his cell phone. His lower arm and his long, tapering fingers remind me of El Greco—how many dendrites, or inner trees were involved in forming that simple thought?

Well, I believe in the music of the internal body as much as I believe in the music of celestial bodies. I can see the trees swaying, and I can feel the joy of thinking, and the two joys seem to me to be…well, one.

The axman comes, of course, and fells some trees. Or perhaps it’s the tornado, the hurricane, the Caterpillar land leveling tractors. In my case, it was a fall that came, and that bared a large portion of the forest of my lower back. There, the dendrites were making the music of getting my feet to walk, and even to dance.

I had fallen in the middle of the night; I had landed with all of my weight on a stone floor (marble, yes, but still stone). I had spent an unknown time lying stunned on the floor, not knowing what had happened to me.

Wrong, I still remember crying out loud, “Oh, I’ve fallen!” Even now, I weep as I write these words. I knew minimally that I would spend months in pain. What I feared, before the pain and the shock swept me into what we call stunned…well, I feared I would never walk again.

It was then that I fell into the arms of “stunned.”

(Where, by the way, is “stunned?” I know how to get to—and mostly how to navigate—“awake.” “Asleep” is a land I occasionally visit. But what is it to be stunned? Is it that one set of neurons is firing so fast that it brings down the system? Or is it another state—like sleep or wakefulness? Will we ever know? And how would we study it, since to stun people is utterly unethical? Though, of course, there is shock therapy….)

And so there I lay, on the floor, and whether I was lying in God’s arms, or in a state of bardo, or somewhere else…well, I cannot tell you. But at some point the pain called me back to the world of the living, a part of which was the world of sickness. For all of a sudden, I had a body! All my life I had been very much like the little M&M creatures, and would have traded place with them in a second. There is no reason, surely, for me to have so much leg and arm! My body, after all, was not devoted to running races or dancing ballet. It was just there to carry my brain to places—jellyfish, it seemed to me, were much better designed. Anyway, that wasn’t the point. I was in pain.

No, I was in agony.

I am a restless sleeper: no position is right for me for long. And for three or six months, it seemed that every time I shifted in bed, the devil would spear my lower back with his pitchfork, which had been heated in the hottest furnaces in hell.

In that time, I could not hear the third and last form of music—remember music?—which is called musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis, which is just as clumsily rendered into English as “sounds made by singers and instrumentalists.” Though this is the music you and I both know, it was curious that I couldn’t listen to it in all of those months of lying in bed. Nor was it that I didn’t value it, or wish to listen to it. I didn’t, in fact, have the strength for it. If turning in bed exhausted me, what would a Bach fugue do?

If I didn’t turn to music, perhaps music turned to me. Late at night, after the day’s bottle of whisky had been drunk, I used to imagine a sight I had seen only very briefly in my life.

In the months after my mother’s death, I had thought of the idea of retreating to a monastery, where the eight offices of the liturgical day are observed and celebrated. And so I sat with five or six other people in a church that could have seated a thousand, and watched five or six people—called monks—enter, kneel, and sing chant. We call it Gregorian chant, and it’s been sung for centuries, and is the wellspring for all of the music that came since. Somewhere in the world, a group of men or women is singing every one of those eight hours. And those chants have been sung for close to a millennium, and will be sung for even longer.

There was no strength for me to come to the chants, and so they came to me. At night, caught between sleep and awake, sober and drunk, pain and release…I imagined those monks. I saw them in that Chicago church, and they were singing, and my body was arrayed on a low table in front of the altar. Or perhaps my body was the altar—at any rate, my head was facing the crucifix, and the monks were encircled around me, clasping hands, and glancing for direction at the abbot, who stood at my head. I report, for any Vatican II holdouts, that he was facing the crucifix, as did the priests during the mass before the reforms of the 1960’s.

This is the part of the story when I should tell you that I felt a slight warmth—nor more than the heat of a candle lit half a world away—in the base of my spine, and that warmth….

No, it didn’t happen that way.

The miracle was only that the pain ebbed and waxed…but most ebbed. The tide had run out, and the sea had returned to its level. I returned to such everyday miracles as waking up without pain, and walking without wincing.

And drinking a bottle of whisky a day….

And did I tell you about the wine?

Which brought me to AA, and which brought me to a chapter which smugly urged me to give up my prejudices, think honestly, search diligently, and then join the other drunks-but-still-believers on the Broad Highway. And if I am so snobby as not to prefer to take my God straight off the rack, well, I can have a designer-made God! Even, according to something I read about AA, if that’s the radiator on the fourth floor meeting room. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a Higher Power!

That, of course, is completely ridiculous.

Bill W., of course, got the full Monty—the blinding white light and presumably blaring trumpets. (If not 80 virgins….) And so I have tried, at times, to trick my God into a little self-immolation. Or at least torching a bush or two. He or She responds by mooning me—not literally—but is otherwise breathtakingly generous and loving.

The Goddess—and have you noticed that there is no “Goddess,” as there is “God?”—doesn’t speak to me with words, you see. Rather, she speaks to me through the music of the spheres, the music of the body, and then, the musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis. My phone, happily, knows how to play this music, which is another little miracle.

And so when I had to cook up a Higher Power—and if you know Spanish, you know that HP means hijo de…..—I sat in a funk. A radiator wasn’t going to do it. And the Jewish guy, those 2000 years ago? Definitely a better choice, though one could argue that people who believe in radiators have caused less trouble…. Anyway, I’ve been worrying about God much as my cat worries the smelly underwear it retrieves from the laundry hamper. I pondered and pondered.

It was too much. And that’s when my phone began to speak to me, or perhaps it was God, or maybe this morning it was just Cristobal de Morales, since if God and telephones can speak or play / sing music, well, why shouldn’t a man born 517 years ago, and presumably dead, do the same? So I turned away from relief at having to worship Jesus or radiators. I listened to the Officium Defunctorum, or the Office for the Dead, though today it just felt like Office for the Defunct. Defunct being sort of what I am. True, I wasn’t terribly funct when I was hitting the sauce, but an alcoholic without his bottle is definitely defunct.

Well, I less listened to the music than I raptured, and then I began to see my way—which is my way only, and which you can completely ignore without being called prejudiced, intellectually dishonest, incapable of diligent self examination, and curiously defiant to cruise down that Broad Highway.

In fact, you may not like de Morales at all….

God does not speak to me.

Rather, She set out the music of the spheres and then the music of the body, and then She opened heaven, and out poured the musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis. You know, the music my phone knows how to play.

And that I—greying, drunk, and broken-backed—am just learning to listen to….