Letting go

The Sunday after New Years I sat motionless in a chair by the kitchen window, staring desperately into the night. I had just finished cleaning up from dinner, and the others were scattered throughout the house. In the living room. Upstairs. Their strains of sound seemed everywhere, yet distant. Despair was covering me like a wet blanket. It gripped me like an anchor, pulling me down against my will to the bottom. I felt like I was drowning. Trapped by fate, knowing that in only 14.5 hours I’d be back at the helm, back in my cube, in the cockpit, fighting to not get taken down by an onslaught of emails and phone calls.

I needed to get out of the house. Anywhere. Preferably somewhere quiet. I couldn’t think straight. I wasn’t ready for any more questions from anybody. No more problems. I needed to be alone.

I explained my situation to Rachel, and within minutes, I was out the door, into the cold night. Bag in one hand, keys in the other. I knew just the place. I let the car warm up for a minute, then was off. I couldn’t listen to anything. I didn’t want to. Just silence. I drove, letting my mind wander into swirls of nothingness.

I crossed the bridge into Philly, paid my dues, then took first exit at 5th street. Left on Race, right on 2nd, right on Market. It wasn’t hard to find parking on a Sunday night. I purchased my slip from the kiosk, put it on the dash, and walked back to the corner of 2nd and Market to Book Trader.

*        *        *

I open the door, and bells jingled, announcing my entrance to the only other two patrons in the store, and the shopkeeper behind the register with the plastic rimmed glasses, bald head and hoodie, thumbing through a thick volume.

Book shelves run the length of the open floor, stacked top to bottom. At the foot of each lies postal bins and cardboard boxes, full of books to overflowing, flooding into the aisles. Finding my footing is difficult in this sea of words.

The shelves are so high I can barely reach the top with one of those wheel-y library step stools, that works when it wants to. That slightly musty smell of aged, crisp, yellowing pages, of books born well before me, instantly take me back to hours spent studying in my college library, or browsing my dad’s book collection as a child, or sitting in my room, reading till my eyes fell shut. All the warmth of authors turned friends, of ideas permeating my mind, of words put together in ways I could’ve never imagined or expected. The tingling magic of it all puts my arm hairs on end, and I begin to relax.

I peruse the theology section first, as I usually do. It’s just the right size to be able to read every title in under an hour, head crooked to the right, getting hot in my oversized coat, alternating between glasses on, glasses off, as I strain to see titles on top, then at eye level again. I start filling my bag with some familiar titles, and some not so familiar, but authors I’m willing to take a risk on.

At one point I’m awkwardly asked by the shopkeeper whether that bag of books in front of me is mine, and I say yes. He tells me that it’s a bit suspicious that I have a bag of books in a bookstore. I’m confused, then realize he thinks I brought these in from the outside, so I tell him I’m buying them. Which, it seems, puts him at ease, too.

I don’t bother to check any of the prices, because frankly, I can’t read them. Whoever it is that scribbles this old chicken scratch in the top right of the first page has me beat. He could charge me $9.95 or $4.95 and I wouldn’t know which was right.

I pick up a short read by Alan Watts, called The Wisdom of Insecurity. I’ve never heard of him, but the subtitle strikes me: A Message for an Age of Anxiety. I also pick up The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, Paul Tillich’s The Courage To Be, The Wisdom of China and India, a compilation of sacred texts from each, edited by Lin Yutang, Ulysses by James Joyce, and a few others.

*        *        *

I’ve lately been drawn to some of these synergistic east/west writers like Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle, and Joel Goldsmith. I think they are missing something crucial and essential, particularly a satisfying philosophy of guilt and condemnation, but to me they shed light on some of the basic wisdom of Jesus on anxiety, money and possessions, the future, life and death.

What I sense they lack, though, seems to be dealt with by Tillich in The Courage to Be. This book is a bit dense and tightly packed, but I’m gleaning bits and pieces. He’s primarily talking about the idea of Non-Being and it’s relation to anxiety. Non-Being is not just nothingness, or emptiness, but the threat of complete, non-existence and the fear and anxiety this causes in us.

I’ve always thought of fear and anxiety as being similar, or even one in the same, but Tillich makes a helpful distinction between them, saying fear “has a definite object…, which can be faced, analyzed, attacked, endured,” while “anxiety has no object, or rather, in a paradoxical phrase, its object is the negation of every object. Therefore participation, struggle, and love with respect to it are impossible.” (36)

Then, in a phrase that strikes a very deep chord in me, he says, “It is the anxiety of not being able to preserve one’s own being which underlies every fear and is the frightening element in it…. It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more than a flash of time.” (38, 39)

Hence, my incessant desire to busy myself with tasks, with production, whether creatively or out of necessity. I don’t like to be still. To feel unproductive.

I’m still processing all this, and I haven’t finished the book yet to understand his solution to this problem. But I know it is a problem for me. I like to feel I’m validating and perpetuating my existence through productivity. I feel a need to be doing something. It is, as Alan Watts says, the misnomer of Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” Thinking and productivity don’t constitute my existence.

The two areas where this tendency towards anxiety is most predominant are at work and in the home. (Likely because my time is split between these two places.) I think it manifests itself differently in each.

For example, at work, my struggle is to leave work behind when I come home. Not literally, but mentally. To not carry the weight of all I didn’t accomplish, and all that awaits my attention the next morning.

At home, it’s somewhat the opposite. It can feel busy, but it’s tangible work. It’s cooking and cleaning. It’s helping our children, answering their questions, or getting them ready for bed. It’s the things I try to squeeze in around children, work and sleep, which I think tend to cause me anxiety. The myriad of projects I can think up. The books I want to read. The ideas I want to flesh out in words.

These past two weeks at work have been much better, though. I’ve been actively trying to put aside anxious thoughts. To be present in each moment. To realize I can’t do more than one thing at a time. What has also helped is the basic reality that unfinished work is not ultimately my responsibility. The buck doesn’t stop with me. I can leave things behind because I don’t own the business.

At home, however, I act functionally like I’m the CEO. Every decision stops with me. (In reality, Rache does a fair share of this, too. But this is just the way I tend to think.) A child comes to me saying, “My finger hurts,” or “Can we have chocolate?” or “Can we watch a movie before bed?” or “He/She’s not sharing that with me!” Two of them start a tussle which soon turns to an all out screaming match. They are gridlocked. Daddy to the rescue? And the list goes on. They bring their problems to me – their questions – looking for solutions and answers I don’t have.

I think, in reality, I take too much upon myself, both at work and at home. I don’t mind feeling inadequate or insufficient at work, but I hate to feel it at home, because I think I’m responsible for everything. I’m believing that if something bad happens on my watch, then ultimately, I’m responsible. To compound the problem, the anxiety carries into the future, worrying about what could potentially go wrong – such as, not showing them enough love and affection as children so they resent me when their older – to the point where I try to cover all possible contingencies.

But I know that I can’t control everything. My circumstances are showing me this more clearly every day. I know I need to let go. I’m afraid to, but I must. Lord, help me.

 

Avrything we have is what we need

“It sounds like a bloody nose coming out so fast!”
– Emeth, while listening to Tabla Solo – Jhaptal (Or to listen on Spotify, click here)

*        *        *

“If we stain it with sky, it will match the washcloth.”
– Micaela

*        *        *

“Caela, next time can you say good morning to me?”
– Annie, asking Micaela to say good morning to her when she wakes up

*        *        *

“Is the coffee not too un-strong?”
– Micaela, wanting to make sure her d-coffee [decaffeinated] isn’t too strong before sipping.

*        *        *

“These are decaf clementines because they don’t have seeds.”
– Micaela, explaining to Emeth that he doesn’t need to watch out for seeds

*        *        *

“Fire up the pans
I’m the pancake man
I’ll cook ’em up faster
than the Baker-man can.”
– Daddy, spontaneous rap while making pumpcakes

*        *        *

“There’s so much we don’t know.”
– Micaela

*        *        *

“If you be happy do you have babies?”
– Annie, after watching ‘Happy’ documentary on Netflix

*        *        *

“You’re stuck with me
and I’m stuck with you.
We’re stuck together
with the best kind of glue.”
– Mommy and daddy, spontaneous song in the kitchen

*        *        *

“Thank you for you.
You’re the one I worship,
the whole time I live!”
– Micaela, spontaneous song

*        *        *

“However we do it, we do it.”
– Micaela, summarizing to mommy how daddy managed to take all four children to Cooper River park in the freezing cold, then to the library, while keeping Talia from pulling out every book on the bottom shelf, interspersed with potty breaks in dirty public restrooms, and checking out books.

*        *        *

God bless ore houme
for shaltr and food
we thaingk you
for avreting we need
Avrything we hav
is what we need

And thaingk you
for avreting you maed
– Micaela, poem

Constipation

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I remember waking up in the middle of the night with excruciating stomach pain. My parents came in and tried to sooth me, sitting close and rubbing my head. Then unintentionally half gagging me with Pepto-Bismol. But nothing helped. So we were off to the hospital.

As I sat in the back of our forest green, nineteen-ninety something Windstar, the pain was so bad I had to lay down. I continued to dig my white-knuckled, clenched hands deep into my belly, writhing and groaning, praying desperately to God to relieve the pain.

I remember seeing the lights of the hospital approach. We were seconds from pulling in. I felt like I couldn’t stand another second, when suddenly, sound waves pulsed the air. The minivan shook like the sound barrier just broke beneath us. Mach 1, baby. My mom gripped her ears, and my dad acted like we hit a roadside bomb, weaving side to side, shouting like Santa just came down the chimney after years of unbelief. But when he heard me laughing from the back seat he suspected the pulse hadn’t come from without, but from within. When he smelled the foul odor emanating from the backseat, his suspicions were confirmed. I had farted the most beautiful fart of my life.

My dad pulled into the hospital roundabout, then right back out. Things were moving now and everything was going to be okay. Relief had come. We were on our way home.

*        *        *

No one likes to be constipated. It hurts, and slows you down in body and mind.

I’ve been realizing, though, that constipation doesn’t just happen in the gut. It can happen anywhere. It doesn’t take long for anything in life to become constipated. Take email, for example. At work, there’s no stopping it. Armies upon armies of questions to answer, reports to report on, and spreadsheets to complete. Urgent this and 3rd request that. The strange thing is, though it doesn’t take up any physical space, I still feel overwhelmed. In fact, I quickly become paralyzed. I don’t know what to do next, and my brain shuts down.

The same goes for my home. Any bare surface area becomes a resting place for things in transit. Things pile up on the floor, on my desk, on bookcases and counters, into closets, cupboards and down to the basement. The problem exponentially increases with children. It becomes hard to move from one room to the next. First it’s sluggish, then clogged, finally a dead halt.

Lately I’ve been noticing the same thing happening with my hobbies. I love to read and write, but when my to-read pile grows faster than I can actually digest, I feel like I can’t focus on any of them. Or when I get several ideas for potential blog posts, or even feel motivated to write a tome of some sort, if I don’t keep things moving, the inspiration sputters to a halt, and I end up not doing anything at all.

Gut, email, home, and hobbies. Constipation makes me feel heavy and stuck. Things need to loosen up in order to clear out. I have to keep things moving. I need to be a conduit for stuff and ideas, rather than a cul-de-sac.

The thing is, when I try to hold too tightly to anything in this life, I get slowed down. Whether it’s money, possessions, or relationships, I can’t take anything with me when I die. I have to hold it loosely so it, too, can pass through. Everything needs to keep moving, to keep it from growing stagnant, then diseased. The beauty of water is in its movement.

And really, aren’t we the same? Aren’t we all just passing through the bowels of this world?

New birth

Sometimes I imagine a sort of internal Socratic dialogue with myself. (Tell me I’m not alone!) The skeptic in me, the nihilist, the Thomas wants to wrestle with the dreamer, the child, the lover. These voices don’t wrestle with one another, though. They wrestle with death. All writing, all creating, I find, is nothing less than a wrestling with death. A wrestling to understand what it is, what its purpose is, though I cannot fully understand. At least, not before I experience it. I feel like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters. When asked, “If there was a God, why were there Nazis?” he responds, “How the hell should I know why there were Nazis? I don’t even know how the can opener works!”

I can’t help wrestling through writing.  Like Jacob wrestling with God. Which seems futile, I would think, by anyone’s standards. As is wrestling with death. Though Jacob continues to wrestle with God through the night. Striving for the blessing. And so, I strive for the blessing of understanding life in light of death.

I often assume that because I have five senses I should be able to understand everything there is to understand under the sun. But what if this world is just another womb? What if there is not just ‘under the sun’? Like the unborn child saying, ‘Vanity of vanities! What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the uterus.’ What if my understanding of the next life is as limited as the child-in-the-womb’s understanding is of life after birth? It seems it is only a matter of perspective. The pain of birth leads to life. We who have survived the passage know this. Could it also be that the pain of death leads to life? Not just death at the end of our life, but the tiny deaths we choose everyday?

The putting to death of my selfish desires, moment to moment, leads to life. Though choosing to die daily doesn’t seem tiny. It seems monumental. It seems harder than dying at the end, because that death will come despite my efforts. Dying daily only comes through my efforts. Through my wrestling. It does not come naturally. It is the seed that goes into the earth and dies, so that it might sprout to life. A seed coming to life seems so ordinary, so un-miraculous because I am used to it. But really, it is a miracle. It does nothing until acted upon by soil, water, and sun. And what comes from it is wholly and completely different from what it was in its seed form. It is a total transformation.

In dying daily we are not choosing death, but rather, life. We are being transformed day to day, in small, imperceptible ways. From one degree of glory to the next. Transformed to be able to see God. We are getting a face with which to see God.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. (2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV)

This daily dying is nearly impossible, though. “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few”(Matthew 7:14). “Who then can be saved?” the disciples ask. Jesus replies, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:25-26)

So I must be patient, like the child waiting to be released from his wombal constraints. He waits, and waits, and waits.  For an eternal nine months.  And when gestation is complete, his world literally falls apart. He enters a new world. A world that contained his world, and his eyes struggle to open, to adjust to the light. To focus on the people around him. Some cry because they realize they are hungry.  Others take it all in, in awe at what has arrived.  Or rather, what they’ve been birthed into.

The skeptic in me wants to argue that this is all there is. Thus, despair. But the lover tells me there is more. That this is preparation for a new birth. That there is something coming beyond my understanding. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).