Cosmology

I was raised fairly agnostic in Los Angeles, but I remember going with my grandparents to Catholic Mass every Sunday when my sister and I would spend the summer with them in Connecticut. I was perplexed by the “Lamb of God” imagery, and I tired from shifting from sitting to standing to kneeling so many times.  But I also remember the way my grandfather, normally taciturn and reserved, would gruffly sing along with all the hymns. I liked dropping coins in the basket as it was passed down the row but was jealous of the people who stood in line for Eucharist because I was usually hungry. My favorite part of the ceremony was when we turned to our neighbors, stuck out our hands and said, “May peace be with you.”

I started talking to God after this — nothing major, not with much faith or vigor, but once in a while I’d shout when I needed something. But then there came the day when I asked and he didn’t show up. I was nine, and my parents were getting divorced. My father had moved out, our house was on the market, and we were living in limbo. I was feeling lonely, dispirited, and I wanted my friend Greg to come over. I called him but got a busy signal. For some reason playing with Greg seemed like the most important thing in the universe. God, please let Greg’s phone ring and let him answer and please let his parents say yes! I called: busy. I repeated this three more times and then said to God: If you don’t make him get off the phone this time, I’ll never speak with you again!

The subsequent busy signal sealed the deal.

I spent the next two decades proudly godless, relying on my own will power and abilities to make things happen. I looked down on people who hadn’t figured out the folly of giving up so much power to some holy force. But then I started to notice phenomena like deja vu and coincidences and thinking about someone just seconds before they walked into a room. When my friend Vince and I backpacked through southern Africa, we began seeing conspiracies of confluences sprouting up everywhere, from the backs of Malawian buses to the sides of Zimbabwe highways to the porches of Tanzanian youth hostels. Vince and I started calling such moments of connectivity “HP,” for higher power. (Later I discovered this term was common shorthand for God in twelve-step meetings, but at the time Vince and I thought we’d invented it.)

As I got older, I saw that my own self-will was not as potent and steadfast as I had come to believe. When it would falter, or come up against forces greater than it, I realized I could either drown alone or throw my hand up for help. I began to understand that “higher power” wasn’t a stingy overlord nor a haphazard genie who sprinkled good fortune. Rather, it was an animate force I could engage, one that resided much closer to my own imperfect heart than I’d realized previously. I began asking for aid and assistance more readily, and thus stumbled into prayer — the act of saying “I cannot do it alone” invited the holy in.

So when Rio asked me last night, unannounced, over casserole, “What is God?” I knew I had quite a task cut out for me.

“God is . . . love,” I replied. “You know how you felt when you were sick last week and you kept nuzzling into that warm spot under Mama’s arms? I’d call that God. And remember how we told you that when your grandfathers died their spirit lived on in the flowers and the rivers and the trees? Well, that’s God too.”

“And what about Jesus Christ?”

Jesus.

“What about him?”

“Well I know what happened to him!” Rio responded, jumping off his chair to act out the scene. “These guys didn’t like him so they made this cross and they used a hammer and nails and they stuck those through his wrists and ankles and he bled and died.” He squinched his face a little. “Why did they do that to him?”

“He was brave and he fought for justice, and he believed in helping people, and not being greedy,” I explained. “Some people didn’t like that. He was a great and important person. And so were others like Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Bob Marley and Harriet Tubman. Some people think Jesus sticks out over all the rest, but I don’t think so. They say he is the son of God. I don’t think he was the son of God — I think we all are. I think we all have God in us.”

“So God’s inside you?

“Yup.”

“And me? Is God inside me?”

“Yes, my love. Yes.”

Namesakes

When I lived in Johannesburg in my twenties, I would often travel to Zimbabwe to visit a friend I’d made there named Sam Koffi. One time I asked Sam to translate his son’s name, Donotso, into English.

“I can’t really think of the word, but let me try to explain it, Tim.” Sam described how when it rains in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, it is not uncommon to see children running out of their homes and opening their mouths to the sky, laughing and dancing for the crops they know will finally grow. “‘Donotso! Donotso!’ they chant. The rain has finally come. This is what I have called my son,” Sam said.

“Ahh, I see,” I remember saying. “So his name means ‘Refreshment.'”

“No,” Sam replied. “It is stronger than that.”

“Relief?”

“No, not that either. I’m sorry, Tim, there is no word for it in English.”

Years later in California, I asked a Hmong-American high-school student I was teaching what her name, Nkauj Nag, meant in English. She thought for a while and then responded, “You know how you feel kind of sad when it rains, but in a good way? Well, that’s what my name means. How about your name, Tim?”

At first I had no real answer. I told her there was a Book of Timothy in the Bible, and that it probably carried some ancient meaning I didn’t know.  (Later I looked it up and found out that the root of Timothy is “honoring God.”) But in the days that followed, I remembered some stories about my name. For one, my parents told me that before I was born, they had a few names on their short list — Timothy, Evan, and David — but that when I came out, they weren’t sure which one to pick. As they deliberated, my three-year-old sister Jenny decided to call me “Betty,” after Betty Rubble of The Flinstones; apparently I held that name for a short while.

My middle name Saunders has some juice in it too. I was named after a great-great uncle of mine, Nicholas Saunders, who was killed by the hoof of a horse that a Pinkerton guard was riding during Pennsylvania’s Homestead Strike of 1892. As the legend has it, Saunders was a young Irish-American priest who supported labor rights. He had traveled to Homestead to aid the striking workers, and in so doing, met his death.

I believe our names have power; they can be an evocation that echoes through our lives. I like to think that Nicholas Saunders’ commitment to social justice explains in part the presence of that in my life. No doubt this is why Annie and I gave Rio “Mandela” as his middle name; we wanted to link him directly to a person we looked up to, to someone who had made an impact on the world.  It’s not that we expect Rio to go to prison for 27 years for his ideals and to later become a emerging democracy’s president, but, hey, those ain’t bad roots to draw from.

Back in Joburg, names were complex and political. It was common during apartheid for Africans to have two names: real ones in their home language that usually carried some deep, at times political, meaning, and their Christian names. There was the notion that the latter would be useful to Africans as they navigated a white world they were officially on the margins of, especially because most white people couldn’t (read wouldn’t) pronounce African names. Homes that were more politically radical tended reject the charade, while more traditional folks continued to use both names, or perhaps even only the Christian one.

In the high school where I taught history and English, I encountered the entire spectrum: there was the school janitor who proudly went by his Ndebele name, Sifelani, which meant, “Why are my people dying?” Then there were students with African names that weren’t necessarily political but meaningful: Mpho (Gift) was sometimes given to the only girl in a family, or to a child whose mother had had a particular difficult pregnancy; Ayanda (The Family is Growing) was commonly the name of a first child. And then there were the scores of students who went by their Christian names: Peter, Paul, and Mary seemed to show up in every classroom.

Interestingly, Nelson Mandela’s Xhosa name was both difficult to pronounce and symbolically significant: Rolihlahla is a pretty good tongue twister, and it translates as  “pulling a branch from a tree,” or, put another way, “stirring up trouble.”

One of my favorite students was a tall, sassy boy from Soweto named Churchill.  I once asked him where he got his name. “My father always liked Winston Churchill,” he said without a trace of irony. By the end of my time in South Africa, as the nation shifted from apartheid to a multiracial democracy, Churchill started going by his real name instead: Itumeleng. It means “Rejoice.”

Was Gone for Days

I just didn’t have it in me. The living of life with the eyes open to the details, the sublime in the ordinary. Nope, for the last week I’ve only wanted to run away. Since writing is a lens through which I develop my own consciousness, then I wanted to be nowhere near the act. Anything I started to tap out felt fake, anyway, because my heart wasn’t in it; I had, as Ginsberg has put it, no shoulder behind the wheel.

My heart in fact was into not being present. I was trying to embrace my own nihilism, to accept my unwillingness to see the bridges. My friend Dre says that “balance is available to you at any moment,” and I believe this, but yesterday I did not want to lift the heavy veil between me and the good spot. It’s not that I’ve been teetering on imbalance’s beam; it’s more a feeling of numbness, nullness, a mute cloud.

But then my boy, who was home sick kinda from school, told his Mama that he wanted to stop by my office so that he could give me a hug and a kiss, which he did on a gravel parking lot and I swear those lips on my cheeks bathed me in hued light; “love works” I told him later, because he unlatched his chest and walked through its swinging doors until he reached mine — which were locked — but his words and touch were the key, and now here I am feeling this diamond inside, cracking open as I feel that kiss again.

Good Morning, Fear

I don’t know if it’s some twisted application of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous words or if it’s simply human nature, but I spend a lot of time in fear of fear itself. Unless I encounter something like a snake on a trail or a swerving car hurtling toward me, I don’t really interact much with my own fear, even though I have lots of it. My practice is to treat it as an unwelcome houseguest I hope will go away if I just close my eyes long enough. And yet fear exerts a huge influence on my psyche; it’s almost as if it gains power the more I pretend it’s not there.

I experienced this phenomenon over the weekend. Rio and a kid he knows had a run-in, and for some reason, this incident triggered a lot of painful feelings in me, most of which were faces of fear. Are Annie and I parenting right? Will Rio be rejected? Will I be rejected? Why are there so many loose, imperfect ends in my life? Why am I doing only A through G on my list of improvements for self, family, and house instead of A to Z? And why the fuck do we have so many things in storage?

I say this now, but on Saturday, I couldn’t have listed these fears because I was too busy shielding my eyes from them. I’m very good at knowing what I feel, but not so good at knowing what I fear. It’s as if I recoil the moment fear makes its presence known, retreating to my insulated chamber where I wait for the world to go away. I didn’t reach out to anyone most of the weekend and instead played a favorite game of mine called Numb It.

The problem is that fear is hungry and doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. It came back with a dagger, striking at 4 a.m. when I bolted awake with a morbid sense of rupture between me and Rio, between Rio and that kid, between our house and theirs. It’s as if fear hired a horror-film director and cast a montage of worst-case scenarios on my mind’s wall. In short, spurned fear returned as anxiety, which afflicted me all weekend long.

The other form unmet fear takes for me is anger. Recently Annie and I had a disagreement. I had been building resentment, which I’d been hiding so expertly I didn’t even see it myself. But then Annie committed some small infraction that triggered the “I’ve got her” response, and I pointed a long finger in her direction and made sweeping generalizations that hurt. I raised my voice so loud my vocal chords felt strained the whole day; I even threw my jacket to the kitchen floor with a flourish, an act so silly I wish I’d caught it on camera so I could get some kicks later watching my own folly.

Finally I settled down, and as we kept talking we reached a tender place. And then I admitted, “I’m scared.” I listed everything I was afraid of, in terms of our marriage, our family, our future, and she said, “I wish you had just started there. I can meet you there. We can work from there.”

I don’t have a magic bullet for interacting with fear; I just know avoiding it causes me more harm than good.  I want to see fear as an opening to walk through, not a steel-jawed trap to run from.

My friend Jason told me a story years ago that I like to keep in mind. A man is sitting in his house and he hears a scary monster outside. It (whatever it is we don’t want to face) is walking around the house, trying all the doors and windows, trying to get in. The man imagines a ghoulish monster with long claws dripping in blood. He retreats to a back room. The monster starts to knock. When no one comes, the monster knocks louder and says, “I know you’re in there!” The man finally musters up the courage to answer the door, and he looks out to find a tiny smiling creature standing on the mat. “What took you so long?” the creature asks, and walks in.

Living the Word

What to make of the oft-heard dictum that writing is hard?

For one, I don’t think writers have a corner on the market. Obviously it takes skill, study, and discipline to get the words right, but this is true for any creative endeavor. Maybe we hear more about “writer’s block” than “painter’s block” because writers write about it! But, yes, writers, like all artists, need to practice, and study the masters, and spend many hours working on their craft.  As Oscar Wilde once said, “I spent the entire morning inserting a comma; I spent the whole afternoon removing it again.”

But what of the times when an artist just can’t face the empty canvas?

Up until recently, I’d experienced a frustrating season of not writing as much as I wanted to. I had a lot of free-floating artistic angst; sometimes this imploded as hopelessness, other times it exploded in tiny fits of envy toward other writers who were seemingly more prolific than me.

I feel pain when I don’t write, because I’m happy when I do; nothing like the river of words cascading down the page. But often in life I leave this place of glory — sometimes aggressively marching off, other times getting distracted away. This is what is difficult — the inexorable separation from the very pursuits that make me happy. What I’m not writing, the grace I’m not feeling — this, to me, is the hard work of writing. Writing itself, then, is arduous because it is difficult to get to.

I believe there are some hidden passages back to the creative sweet spot. I taught a course recently at the local community college called “Write Where You Are.” In it we aimed to shed the delusions of the writer we should be and embrace instead the writer we already were. What we found is that we were all writing — sometimes on the back of a shopping list and sometimes in an email to a friend — but the words were there to prove it, even without the validation of a contract or a book editor’s stamp of approval. We had all become so enslaved to the story of our own underproduction that we couldn’t see our own virtuosity. A friend of mine told me her version of such artistic re-framing; she started calling her creative time “the making hour” instead of “when I’ve got to write.” Sometimes she wrote; sometimes she knitted, but the fact is she was being creative and fruitful, with much less stress.

Still, there are times (days, months) when I just don’t feel like writing.  Some may rush to tag these seemingly unproductive periods with the label of “writer’s block,” but I like to approach the impasse differently. I think most writers fret needlessly over their pencil’s silence. I once heard a radio interview with the novelist Richard Ford. After being asked what he thought about writer’s block, Ford replied, I don’t. “When I’m not writing,” he said, as best I can recall, “I’m busy living, which gives me material for writing later on.” As another story goes, in Buddha’s day monks spent most of their time wandering. It was only during the three-month rainy season that they actually came in for formal practice. And here we are freaked out because we didn’t meditate (write, paint, sculpt) during our pre-assigned slot today.

Artists, then, have a choice: to label an unproductive period as a failure, or to unwring their hands and dig them instead into the fresh dirt of the days ticking by. Because if quiet periods are labeled as dead, what material will artists draw from when inspiration somehow picks the lock on their door and grabs them by the collar again?

I say abandon the self-recrimination, and honor rather than curse the broken pen. Fill the buckets with life’s rich imperfect waters and believe the words will arrive again. Seeds find the fallow field. As Wendell Berry put it, “The unhappiest people in the world may be the ones who think their happiness depends on artistic success of some kind.” I sometimes wonder whether this burden, which I truly believe is self-imposed, is part of why so many incredible artists fall irretrievably to their demons.

Hung Out to Dry

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I was awed during my recent trip to New Orleans by the sheer number of people expressing themselves artistically in public. Damn, it was good to see all those guts turned outward.

Lots of images stay with me: the dreadlocked teenager in a suit sitting atop a traffic-light box strumming a banjo as his buddies played an upright bass and washboard on the sidewalk beneath him; a tattooed young woman belting out the blues on the corner like some punk-rock Bessie Smith; the beautiful couple dressed in old-fashioned clothes dancing the Charleston as an old-time band jammed behind them; the big trombone player with pillows for cheeks who beamed between thrusts of his bent piece of brass.

Driving home from the airport back in North Carolina, I looked out over the well-maintained streets and said to Annie, “I miss me some funk.”

Not to say that the place where we live isn’t the home of some vibrant art; it just seems well tucked-away. People do their funk in private, it seems, and I miss the places I’ve lived and visited where people pin their souls to their lapels and scream.

I say this as someone who himself is fairly guarded in public; I’ve never been an airplane-talker or bus-chatter or look-at-me-over here kind of guy. But I do share my inner struggles and epiphanies, as long as it feels right. To me the idea of “wearing one’s heart on their sleeve” has been misinterpreted and maligned; I’m not advocating the laying bare of all one’s angst in bouts of self-serving sensationalism, but I do think too few people answer basic questions like “how are you today” with real answers. I say, give me some goods, and I’ll give you some of mine.

But such exchanges aren’t for everybody. Some prefer a life where struggles stay safely beneath the surface. I’ve always loved that scene in Annie Hall when a worrisome Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) stops a couple on the street and asks, “You seem like a happy couple; how do you account for it?” And the woman says with a smile, “Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And her partner pipes in, “And I’m exactly the same way!”

I can understand the instinct to play it safe — it’s a little scary on the ledge. I recently wrote a note to a friend in which I was daring with some feelings I was having; I didn’t hear back from him for a few days, and during that lull (in which I checked email way too often), I fretted over how much of my laundry I’d put out on the line. I read and reread my note, scrutinizing each word to see if it said too much. I was dying for some validation that what I’d exposed was in safe hands, but the silence continued. I ended up regretting that I sent the note, wishing I had not opened the door in my chest where truth comes and goes. Am I a fool to leave it ajar?

The key, it seems, is to know one’s audience. There are some people who like nothing more than to roll up their sleeves and play a good hand of what’s really going on with you. There are others who might like a peek but not a full disclosure. And there are some who would rather not play at all, for a variety of reasons, big and small. I try to be discriminating, but I’m not always going to get it right. There will be times I say too much. It’s in these moments, I think, that integrity truly gets tested. I once told a mentor about a moment when I had revealed too much. “Aha. So they’ve seen you with your pants down!” he said. “Now the question is what will you do in the glare of those lights?”

The answer is: I will continue to be bold, because doing so has freed me from years of shyness as a child and decades of swallowing my truths instead of sharing them. When I pull my own curtains back, whether on the page or in voice, I shed the layers distancing me from life’s messy splendor; when this is reciprocated, the resulting intimacy is an antidote to loneliness. So I will press on, knowing I’ll sometimes get caught on the corner with my broken self fluttering in the wind. I’ll reel it in, give it a squeeze, and unfurl it again. There are people on sidewalks everywhere trusting the world with their mottled beauty, and I will always be one of them. And damn, what a tribe.

Photo by Dion Nissenbaum

The Seventh Ball

I recently heard about a potter in Connecticut who was known for making beautiful bowls of a certain size and form. Demand was high, so she spent most of her day at the wheel creating what everyone expected her to make.

She had a tradition, however, with every seventh ball of clay: she’d experiment with color, size, shape, edges, depth to create something completely new. After the seventh ball, she’d return to her assembly line. Not surprisingly, some of her most amazing inventions originated with the seventh ball.

This got me thinking about how many doses of free-form experimentation I allow into my life. I thrive in structure, but are there rules-free zones within its boundaries?

It’s tough to find this balance. I’ve known people who are audacious with every ball; they are fun to be around but can also be unsettling to me — I’m not sure who they really are as they trot out a new version of themselves or embrace their latest passion. On the other hand, I can be overly rigid; I like to find what works for me and keep my dial there.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons mild-altering substances have appealed to me over the years; they offer, at least initially, a glimmering exit door from the expected. When a friend of mine in college got caught with marijuana, her Dad asked, “Tell me, why’d you do it?” She replied simply, “Because it makes me feel different.” Ah, the wish to break free from our own norms.

That said, any departure from routine can become a routine itself if employed often enough. Folks don’t call marijuana “the chronic” for nothing. I’ve known many stoners who punch the clock as dutifully as the straightest of arrows.

I’m in search of letters outside rote’s alphabet, even though I am also averse to the risk that implies. But how else can I evolve? I’ve known folks who get so set in their ways that they probably couldn’t throw a fresh bowl with the seventh ball even if it promised gold. On the other hand, there are people who remain flexible and keenly interested in what they don’t know; as Rilke put it, they “resolve to be always beginning.”

A few months back, I was visiting a friend, and she recommended that we go dancing on a Sunday morning at a nearby art center that hosted ecstatic dance sessions. The idea of dancing in front of complete strangers without the aid of dim lights and alcohol was frightening to me. I reluctantly agreed, but in the parking lot outside the center I felt panic rise in me like I hadn’t in years: I wanted to sprint to the nearest coffee shop and crawl back into safety. But instead I walked in. I found a quiet empty spot in the corner and closed my eyes. Beautiful Indian music filled the room, and I began to slowly move, to unhinge my hips, to unfurl my arms and release the fears I’d been carrying like a chronic cramp. Before long, I’d forgotten the panel of judges I’d turned my dancing neighbors into and was feeling sensual, opened up, renewed. I looked around and saw that the strangers were vulnerable and tentative too. There was an exquisite beauty to that.

Dancing in front of people is not in my traditional body of work: but there I sat at life’s pottery wheel, expanding my own notion of what was possible.