The Portable Divine

Sunday morning I was enjoying a dip in the river with Rio and two kids from the neighborhood when I suddenly realized that people across the country were settling down into pews for their weekly sermon. In fact, just a stone’s throw away folks were bowing their heads in the Bynum United Methodist Church. For a moment I felt a pang of guilt — if I were really “good” I’d be right there with them.

But then I looked out at what was before me: Rio splashed while Glenn laughed. Caroline had just gotten off my back after a “dolphin ride.” The sun was glinting just right off the rippling water, and the trees and bushes beside the river were almost every shade of green. I took it in and felt it ping off the chunk of coal in my chest that sometimes glows amber.

My church is right here.

Later that day, I stopped by a friend’s house for some solo hang time, and we played a game of channel surf, skipping over the good stuff and alighting momentarily onto various bits of schlock. We stopped for a few minutes on a man who was sermonizing very unconvincingly from a thick and dog-eared Bible that he held solidly in his hands.

There are so many good books out there, I thought to myself, and that one isn’t bad. But how can anyone decide they have found the one true story?

Because I prefer to find sacred texts in the millions of lives and moments swirling around me. Divinity sure seems a lot more transportable that way: instead of having to be at a certain place at a certain time on a Sunday morning, I could be swimming in a stream. Instead of packing the same big book in my suitcase every trip I could bring Baca one day and Rumi the next, maybe no words the time after that, just the earth’s topography from thirty thousand feet my holy map.

I was once trying to help a man who had lost his way. I told him that the next time he felt really good, I mean really good, he should pay attention to where he felt it in his body. “In my chest,” he told me a few days later. “It feels like I’ve got a little bouncing ball in there.” Next I asked him to observe and jot down over the course of a week every time he felt that feeling: what had happened that had brought it on? A few days later he had a long list: sitting in church listening to a good sermon; helping a friend in straights; going bowling with his son; cooking a meal from scratch.

“Keep that list in your wallet,” I suggested. “When you find yourself sinking, do something on the list.”

The psychologist Dacher Keltner has spoken about the physiological roots of this feeling; he points that our body actually has a neural map to feel divine, alive, and joyous: the sensation travels largely by way of the vagus nerve, moving from medulla to chest (expansive feeling, slowed heartbeat) to throat (it often catches for a moment) to the eyes where tears often form the final gush of the rush. Each person’s specific response to joy has its own quirks, but Keltner’s point is that we are built to feel this feeling; our body knows what to do with it.

I felt the sensation strongly a few weekends ago at a retreat center where 100 people gathered to write and and share their truths. Prompted by good teachers, safe space, and mutual support, we wrote what came forth and read aloud what we’d written. This act was alchemical, and I got so used to my body’s joy-delivery system working that I felt a nasty comedown after I left that spot in the woods and entered my first florescent convenience store. I found myself chatting up the cashier as though he would be game for the same unveiling. He just raised an eyebrow.

This brought to mind leaving Burning Man one year; after spending eight days enmeshed in that carnival of free souls, where the supreme commandment is to be your true self, I burst into hot tears and irrepressible sobs the moment  our car left the playa [desert] and hit the pavement. The challenge is, as one saying goes, to “keep the playa alive 365.”

But as I’ve reminded myself incessantly after such peak experiences: I vow to not reenter old parodies. Those moments of joy and transcendence stretch me to new places, and there’s no reason I need to return to the humdrum after my true drum has been struck with an invigorated rhythm. If the ecstatic moment lives and dies in the churches that evoke it, then I must return to those particular pews to taste it again. This can lead to an overdependence on the source of joy, be it an event, a substance, a lover, or a place — just because I felt divine at the river on Sunday doesn’t mean I will feel it so strongly when I return on Friday. The best I can do is find my wells, to visit them regularly with respect but not oversized expectations, and to be open to new ones, which often appear where I might not expect them. I prefer to think of church as a floating palace, one that changes form by the minute and yet is always an open eye away.

Wrists

I never would have described myself as someone who worked with his hands until last month when I could barely write due to pain in my wrists.

What happened was: I took a day off from work and did not rest; I worked in the yard doing in one day all the tasks I’d been wanting to do for weeks. I loaded and hauled off yard waste. I weed-whacked. I dug out a bed around the oak tree in our yard and covered it with mulch. I shoveled new gravel onto our driveway. I was manic homeowner determined to get as much done as I could before the sprouting dandelion came home from school.

A week later I woke up with my left forearm and wrist swollen and sore. I didn’t connect it to the day of labor; instead I thought its occurrence was random, mysterious, perhaps the onset of some kind of more serious disorder. What is my body doing? I wondered. Google didn’t help; within minutes of typing in “sore wrist” and “symptoms” I was enmeshed in descriptions of carpal-tunnel syndrome at best and rheumatoid arthritis at worst. The next day I tried to help Rio cast a fishing line into a lake and had to stop because my wrists were burning so bad. I slipped away into the boat house and sat quietly in the dark, shaking my head, rubbing my aching arms.

In a strange and melodramatic way, I wanted a diagnosis — not to earn pity points but rather because otherwise the condition would be deemed lifestyle-related and the remedy would be a long series of small adjustments. Anything but that. I wanted a name for the pain so that I could find a prescription to kill it.

Panicked, I went to my doctor, and she asked me to detail what I’d been doing with my hands and arms recently. I told her of the day in the yard, of the months tapping feverishly at the keyboard. She did a few tests and declared my wrists and arms overworked. Her prescription? A month of wearing wrist braces and keeping yard work and computer use to a minimum.

I am still young, but the burning in my wrists was telling me I could no longer bang my body around and not notice the bruises. I’d had older friends warn me that a day would come when soreness and stiffness would show up like a stray dog at the door and never really leave the yard, despite my foot-stomping and screams to scram. Damn, that fateful day had arrived, I realized, and I had to fight off the feeling that it was all downhill from here.

But I refused to go lightly down that stream. I focused on changing what I could, which in this case was, first off, swearing off the weed-whacker, which from first purchase had felt all wrong; something about its tiny vibrations made my body feel like a tuning fork struck hard against a piano. Who cares if my grandmother whacked her edges without incident until she was 90? That invention and I were not simpatico. Next I took a good look at my work station from an ergonomic perspective and found that I was basically doing the exact opposite of everything I should. Because I had never had any wrist problems before, I had simply never noticed how I sat, how I typed, how I beheld the magic screen. Now: new chair; new keyboard; new monitor height and placement; new keyboard tray. More breaks. More time in chair by window, reading. More editing standing up. Wrists much happier. Have yet to swear off typing and surfing machine though tempted.

To be sure my condition wouldn’t linger, I paid a visit to a physical therapist in town. She asked a lot of questions, took a mess of notes. She told me to take off my shirt and walk around, lift up my arms, twirl about. It felt odd to be so scrutinized, but comforting too; just trust that this person can help you, I kept thinking to myself as she uttered another “hhmm.”  Her diagnosis? That I was farming out too much labor to my wrists and ankles (low-grade soreness) because of problems in my “core.”

“You are not weak,” she said, “You just need more balance.”

Ah, so my metaphysical struggles find their brethren on the physical plain! Evil little creature, existence!

“Well, I’d like to be balanced,” I said, dead scared, knowing that to change I would have to let my entrenched physical patterns die ignoble little deaths. Adios, status quo. It would mean doing daily exercises with balls and rubber straps and working on tiny forgotten muscles who surely would have preferred their slacker existence.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve doing her exercises, unsure of the science but certain of my faith. It helps to remember my old high-school football coach, Mr. Hirsch, one of those elderly gentlemen with enough “core” to knock your seventeen-year-old ass right on the floor. He’d scream at us to hit the blocking sleds and, if we did that with insufficient vigor, he’d order us to “drop and give me fifty!” I’d  just put my head down and do what I was told. Obedience to authority has its place. So when my physical therapist sweetly but firmly tells me to sit on a huge inflatable ball in front of my computer, I’ll do it, even though it violates in all ways my sense of sleek. Pain, in this case, has been the alarm clock that awoke the slumbering man, reminding him to sit up in his chair and pay attention, to not neglect the gifts that help him live out his purpose.