Wrestling the Anchor: Dredging for Treasure

“What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson


This is so weird to see: Omitted-ex & I

In 2010, I bought a journal at a store in Grand Rapids Michigan with that quotation on the cover. Yesterday I read and annotated those hand-written reflections from five years ago. My brief but sweet romance dissolved, a week ago; it was an amicable split that left me both deeply ‘blue’ and hopeful for new opportunities. That is all I need to say of my “Fli” (my so-fly “former love interest”; “ex-girlfriend” sounds negative); the break with “Fli-girl” left me on a higher level than when we met in February, much unlike the scuttled commitment with “Omitted-ex” that burned and sank in 2010. This seems like the perfect chance to understand my ‘story-arc’ better through intentional reflection.

For my sake, take a few steps back to an earlier point in the causal chain, readers; allow me to look more closely at this period to understand the subsequent stages. The journal begins with an unironic “Dear Jesus,” –an earnest salutation that heads all of its entries, starting on April 25th 2010. “I want desperately to shed my skin right now.” it reads, “I think I am still learning it is okay to be inconsistent that way, so long as I draw closer to our Father. […] My own feelings have been hard to reign in. I feel that I have been put back up against familiar struggles in an unfamiliar stage. [Omitted-ex]’s initiation of this stage has put me on a continual defensive. But the point of this journal is to buck-off the past a little and get focused on the building…”

My first sticky-note annotation notes that, “[f]rom the beginning, reigning-in his emotions and defensive” referring to my younger self in the third person.  Near the end of April, the comments begin to get tart. “My prose, here, relies on a Western Christian idiom even though I am talking to myself…” Here is the 29 year old man, the man whose lived between Jerusalem and Washington’s orbit for an accumulation of four years, dissecting a former-self that had not left Michigan. “Where is all the fucking profanity? He was hurting but he won’t say shit.” Rather than following the annotations’ course I decided to focus on unpacking my reading of this old journal.

My five-years-aged emotions were impossible to connect with because the prose was a continual swirl of self-deprecations, as well as generic frustration, coated in this alien phraseology. Especially between mid-May and mid-June of that year, I wrote permutations of the same, impotent ideas — I said little about friends, my job, or events happening in the world. Everything revolves around the grinding de-escalation of this one romance and my corresponding attempt to rewire my spirituality (my ways of thinking and feeling at the intersection of ontology and epistemology). Omitted-ex and I became entangled pursuing a narrow vision of mutuality. There was an idea of “we” whose parameters came from conservative ‘Christian’ authors that she read rather than from improvising together — in absence of an “us-groove”, there was this misfit-chart for securing love. “The haptics do seem to be indicative,” I annotate, referencing how she stopped touching me, “I can see [Omitted-ex] hanging-on when she shoulda’ known it was over.”

May 15th, 2010 marked a critical down-turn. The entry begins with some sharp relational analysis: I speculate that she is chasing an abstract sold to her by publishers, that there could be months of “toil” punctuated by an ultimate rejection or, worse, a miserable courtship leading to “an emotionally abusive relationship of withholding”. This slice of sophisticated pessimism appears like an anachronism but it is the rest of the journal that is out of place. Things I knew before and have known since about Life, The Divine, and relationships were inaccessible to my mind that spring. I start building a wall over my common-sense in the next paragraph, brick-by-brick using the ideas of ‘Faith’ gleaned from those toxic books she wanted me to read. That Faith was made from inertia and introspection, which explains my over-correction a year later: I built a Faith on perpetual activism.


Sticky-note annotations.

Sticky-note annotations.

I could already sense The Dragon trying to cannibalize The Boy; I often refer to my hardened, social-justice-obsessed persona as The Dragon. His breath reeks of burning tires, his claws are like exposed re-bar, and he compares all previous suffering to the burn of tear-gas against the eyes. He emerged from the hot ashes of ‘her’ books when I burned them and fed on hookah smoke in the West Bank while Gaza burned in 2012. “Be compassionate to yourself,” I annotate. When I see things like “I am a very loved stupid person” it is tempting to separate myself from that by starting to mock. That affirms the label rather than recognizing the circumstances that tied my cognitions in a knot: deaths, unemployment, family tensions.  My sense of determination was like a dangling tentacle, eager to wrap itself around that romance because my parents had recently divorced. Perspective was missing, not intelligence– as is the case with many people.

Some paleogeologists postulate there was a period of total glaciation in Earth’s history — Snowball Earth — which delayed the onset of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’. The diversity of life’s forms accelerated rapidly in the Cambrian period and the phyla of animals we know today appeared. June 15th, 2010, three days after Omitted-ex and I split, the first signs of life appeared. “My thoughts stretch on. This growth cannot be about her now. It is quickly going to become about *page-break* vocation.” The word “vocation” slapped me awake as I wiped my brow, sitting on a patio in DC summer humidity. By July 1st, I start to write in ways that I recognize as my own voice. On the 7th, momentum is building: “Wow. My history is discouraging in this department. Yay? Yay for an excuse? No. Not yay or guilt. Move on.” That final imperative struck a bass-string in me, five years later: move-on.

Cross and maskJuly 30th shows me more about who I was, then, than any entry before. “Then I looked in the mirror and saw how odd I looked. I didn’t see a handsome guy with flaws. I saw an odd son-of-a-bitch but… I felt like I could like him. Maybe I want a friendship with myself. To put it through a Faith lens, I knew that your love was unconditional [to Jesus]. Your grace doesn’t un-kink my image or even my insides. You love each ugly bastard.” In that paragraph I see a fragment of myself. This idea of Grace has no Salvation in it. I was unable to see my beauty and felt as if I had to accept feeling ugly, as if there was nothing I could do. Quickly, I ran from the patio into the bathroom to look at myself in the mirror. I looked so good: a runner’s body, manicured soul-patch, grandma Gore’s eyes, grandpa Rice’s crooked smile, and an anchor tattoo. Where he saw a weed I saw a fragrant herb.

Dredged + Salvaged

To my mild surprise, the first mention of “mission” appears in the entry for September 8th, 2010. It is still partially lodged in the same, dislocated ‘Christianese’ scaffolds but it’s there: “My stumbling blocks seems easier to see and process. It is so strange to see the skeletal structure of hidden assumptions I have, even if it is such a mere glimpse. I have the basics of a spiritual plan and one for career (ish) ~ yet I find myself toying with the idea of a mission. What is your will? Am I ready to be sure?”

Reading later entries, I discovered an incarnation of myself with whom I wanted to connect. I remembered him reaching for a sense of balance, often handling things in his life with a basic sense of graciousness that shames my snarky ‘Dragon’ self. At times when I might be angry, he responds with a disciplined humility. At the same time, I see his damaged self-respect and his desire for something exterior to define him. The stage was set. Still, I find it comforting to know that I am returning to myself, again, with some perspective that he lacked. Endless hell will not claim me.

The anchor represents a sense of perspective. Now, I can start talking about my journey abroad. “Do you realize,” I whispered to my past self, “that you are two years away from swimming in a waterfall in Southeast Asia?” Then I realized that it had been three years since I swam in that waterfall — since losing my first anchor necklace. To think that I will probably never see that waterfall again makes me much sadder than the loss of Omitted-ex. The difference between depression and the life-giving blues is clear now: Fli-girl is like the waterfall and I wanted her to stay that way. I said goodbye. I said “move-on”.

To be continued…


Wrestling the Anchor: Nautical Impressions

I wear an anchor pendant. Unhoused neighbors, in uncanny encounters, recognize it as a sign of faith, at times, and indicate it when they ask for donations. There is a subtle lift to being recognized for what I am despite not being sure what composes me, or how to express it — the nebulous, shifting bounds of this spirituality. When a classmate inquired about the anchor’s meaning, I knew it was time to revisit reflections from the first two summers after I graduated from Michigan State…

Anchor pendant & grandpa's locker

My anchor pendant pictured atop my grandfather’s army/air-force foot-locker.

My father had decamped. In the wake of my grandfather’s death, I rushed into his space to become man-of-the-house. I literally filled grandpa’s shoes: laced their tiny riggings, sailed through fields and woods of (now) grandma’s farm. I never ‘filled his shoes’ in the idiomatic sense because my mother needed none other than her departed father; a son was not enough. I could never channel grandpa’s voice but the impetus to speak his words hung limp on those shoes, while they dangled from my feet, as I swayed on the wooden seat of an old swing and looked into the sky: empty but for the merest wisps.

Green fields in summerThat day was so sunny, so filled with light, that shapes lingered on my retinas, like watercolor paintings on my closed eyelids. Faithful, faith-filled meditations tinted those weeks. To describe myself as strictly ‘Christian’ (now) would mislead readers but many ‘spiritual soundings’ in my life emerge from fragments embedded during my nominally Christian past. I had counseled at church camp, that summer, and afterward I meditated on a Pauline list of virtues called “fruits of the spirit”: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, & Self-Control. Far from sea, and an hour from a Great Lake, I shut my eyes and submerged in the trough of scents between gentle swells of hill. Love became the ubiquitous fragrance of sun-warmed hay, Joy the whiff of fabric softener from between the buttons of my shirt, and then Peace… (swaying…)

…like a pencil rubbing of a sunken ship’s bell, the archetype of an anchor bloomed in diffuse shades. I rubbed gently against ‘Peace’. Its impression came into focus and resolved into the hooking flukes, long shank, and cross-like stock of a sea-anchor. Swinging (swaying) at the ends two rusted chains, I closed my eyes and imagined sinking, sinking (swaying) to the sandy bottom: Peace. I was dating a lady who graduated from an obscure, Christian school called “Hope College” and their logo is an anchor. My youthful brain twisted the apparition into a kind of endorsement for that relationship, for an idea of ‘Hope’ that included her. It was more endearing than foolish: I wanted to build a foundation in Michigan with her. I wanted to be a man like my grandfather was or like I imagined my father should have been; swimming (swaying) between their dual-departures, I seized an idea of myself as strong.

Sun setting over a light-house on Lake MichiganI think too seldom about our red-flag ‘invitation’ from the Muskegon park authorities. She and I went to the beach, there, besieged by high-winds and semi-dangerous waves flung against the shore by Lake Michigan. In the chaos, once feeble eddies surged. Undercurrents, feelings, all manner of things that are stifled under the scrutiny of the sun were uncoiled like giant pythons. Despite more ‘suitable’ and dapper attempts to be attractive, when last I succeeded at romance it was as a half-naked, half-bearded outdoorsman following a woman into The Seething Lake. She wanted to swim. We were up to our wastes in cold, sloshing, foamy water as we laughed and charged through the surf. The rocking of the lake bent our knees, made us falter and fall — laughing. As we went deeper, she held onto me as the waves pawed at us (swaying) and I dug my feet into the sand, hard, to keep her from being washed away. I was an anchor. She held me tight. So tight.

The Lake, A field, A swing-setBut she was a fair-weather companion. Her behavior and god changed as the surf rose. Her Faith foundations were made from perfect, yet impossible, blocks. I am made of glacial till, myself, like the almost-round (but-never-quite-so) fieldstones unearthed by grandpa’s disc-plow each spring. I could not be so hewn, could not have perfect edges, and it did not matter to her the strength of my material, only that my life had shaped me imperfectly. Wave after wave filled my mental shadow-box with shards of calamity: another dying grandfather, a breached apartment, more family afflicted with cancer, and the unsteady employment many faced in the recession. In the midst of such frustration, Western Christian culture’s heavenward rhetoric could not buoy me, nor salvage our romance. The god I was trying so hard to love and trust became a nasty side-effect from a drug that never worked. This god was made of sugar-pill, cheap-ass, self-help books that my ex-girlfriend read — where was the real god? Was there ever one? The universe should have issued a recall.

I often remember the day she left my neighborhood for the last time, the scene so sublime. Her green Jeep crested my hill in Grand Rapids Michigan engulfed by the setting sun, like a canoe disappearing into a golden mist just before the waterfall; I never saw her again. I sprayed those books with old mosquito repellent and lit them like a ritual sacrifice. In the ashes of depression, I found a stillness.

Deep, dark, almost still waters... The anchor I saw was Peace, not Hope. Peace is meant to nestle into my hull — my deepest self — and be ballast against the gales, a rocking mantra in heavy seas. Peace can plunge deep into the unknown of my self, into my darkest depths, and find a foundation. It needs no buoy. Peace has never been an absence of conflict any more than an anchor is a charm against storms. Importantly, Peace and anchors require some degree of learning. I would do well to tie a line from my anchor to the next fruit in the series: patience.

It would be a year before I saw an anchor again. In the intervening months, however, I was visited by The Mystery.

To Be Continued…

Wrestling the Anchor: A Prologue

“I define religion at its best as a positive and effective means of relating to the mysteries that define our lives: love, death, birth, illness, marriage, and work, to name a few . . . . A twenty-first century religion sanctifies them with sacraments, rituals, sacred stories, and sometimes guardian spirits. The arts serve this kind of religion by giving us strong images of contemplation, for reflecting on life-defining mysteries, and for educating ourselves so we can live them out more creatively.”

— Thomas Moore, quoted in The Artist’s Rule: nurturing your creative soul with monastic wisdom.

anchor pendant on hat-top“I deeply appreciate the idea of religion as a means to relate to the mysteries that define and give meaning to our lives,” says Christine Valters Paintner in The Artist’s Rule. “I imagine that many readers of this book have had struggles with the institutional church and some may even have stepped outside the traditional borders.” I struggled to gain traction, studying this book last summer, but re-started a few weeks ago. It seems apropos to this season of my life. “An icon artist I know,” continues Paintner, “once described her work as ‘serving the mysteries’. I was entranced by that image, because for me the spiritual and creative journeys are not so much about growing in certainty — in many ways it is about growing less certain — as they are about learning how to move more deeply into the heart of mystery, into the great unknowing” (Paintner, 2011; pg30).

One object of contemplation is the anchor pendant I wear. My cousin’s four-year-old pointed at the space atop my sternum and declared, “you drive boats!” Systems of meaning hang from the end of my chain, conjured of others’ understandings. My therapist interrogated that same space: “You’re wearing your anchor necklace again; you had stopped wearing it, when your job ended. Why do you suppose you’re wearing it again, on your first day of graduate school?” Signs dangle all around, with or without reference to my interpretations (or intentional lack thereof).

People ask what the anchor means: friends, strangers; honestly, I intended to explore the symbol months ago. At first I forbade myself to wear it until I defined it. After a few weeks, I wore it whenever possible so that people would keep asking, forcing me to improvise answers. I stumble over myself, over competing images and stories as well, in search of the best entry-point. Once again, a classmate asked me just a minute before our course in “Global & Multicultural Education”. Demurring subtly, I said it was a long story. Though my precise words are forgotten, I made vague allusions to a universal humanism, something with the fragrance of non-committal agnosticism. At about that time, our professor called the class to order… and passed around boxes of crayons. She wanted us to sketch a symbol to represent ourselves — in hindsight, an object that contemplates identity. Identity is a major theme of this course, surely of my nebulous career aspirations as well, and the weekly dialogue journals I completed for this class opened an unexpected space for my own interrogations of the spaces over, beneath, and around that anchor pendant. My classmate and I made eye-contact; she smiled.

“Well, we already know what I’m going to do…” I whispered, then laughed softly. Brandishing a purple crayon, I began by weaving the curves of a treble-clef onto my blank sheet. I threaded an Arabic word through the top loop of my G-clef to form a cross-bar, then hung two curving arms and flukes, like a sea-anchor, from the clef’s tail — below its invisible staff-lines. It was a semiotic chimera. As our time expired, I began to draw a bright light atop of my personal symbol in yellow crayon…

To be Continued…

Anchor, Pipe, and Needle: Bethlehem Ink

I remember the day I lost it. My mother would have disapproved. We squished together onto the back of a motorcycle and rode through the Philippine jungle to a series of small waterfalls. There, all the knots in my torso came undone in the fast, cool water. I relaxed and swam. Dante* was sitting in the cabana having a smoke when I asked him, “have you seen my anchor-cross?”

“I thought you were wearing it…”

“Me too,” I said, picking my finger-nails, “it must have slipped off when I went over the falls.”

“Oh man. That sucks. I guess you can ask for a new one.”

“I have an idea. I think I may never lose it again…”

“What are you suggesting?” replied Dante. I think he already knew.

And now, for a brief word from out sponsor…

* * *

Last month, I had my first upper-room experiences with the hookah; two expats invited me to smoke the juices out of some apples and tobacco (that is not a euphemism). Once, we congealed with a bottle of arak on the same third floor patio where I had played one-on-one soccer with Rafiq and prayed beneath the Autumn constellations. There, I bonded with the interim tenant and our lovely friend, the ex-roommate of my boss’s daughter. Tim and Clare had already gone to get tattoos from that guy in the old city. I teased that they should have waited so I could go with them; though I passed his sign [“Paint Art Studios”] on my way through the storefront for months, I assumed I would never go inside. Palestine is not on the block-list for blood donation. Giving blood was an experience like communion, to me, since I shared from my body to help others live. Perhaps it was an extension of the white-savior-industrial-complex but the point was rendered moot by the fever I brought with me from the Philippines—I doubt I can give soon. As one rite comes to an end, others emerge to fill the vacuum.

I mumbled my greetings to the barbers working on the first floor and shuffled up the narrow stairs to Walid’s office. The artist’s lair seemed like the perfect blend of doctor’s office and photo dark-room. Clare curled up like a cat on one of the leather couches while Walid inspected Tim’s tattoo, a depiction of Handala on his back. Meanwhile, I fished the internet for my anchor cross: not a navy anchor nor one of the endless procession of crosses but the anchor-cross: my vestment of service. I typed “Anchor Cross UMC” into the search box.

The tattoo-parlor images from television and movies are contrary to Walid’s sophisticated man-cave. He has a computer monitor so big it should be hanging from a mast. We spent a decade, it seemed, in graphic design. This was our intersection as artists, working together on the computer; Tim made a critical contribution, though, which will forever eclipse whatever I thought of him before and everything since. Walid and I agreed that the tattoo should look like a necklace, complete with a loop of cord, but Tim suggested there should be words on the inside.

“…to seek Justice and resist evil,” I said. The words fell easily from my mouth. All I can remember from my vows is those words; they may, in point of fact, be some inkling from God that I misremember as part of my commissioning. Every day for the rest of my life I am going to read those words and wonder “did I really? I know I sought Justice but…”. For many reasons, I decided I was ready to carry those words not just on the inside of my heart but the outside, too. EPIC.

What I was not ready for was the second-half. My friends were already having their whiskey and lighting coals for a good smoke. Suddenly, my tattoo was off the screen, printed onto special paper which Walid used to put it on my chest– like the fake-tattoos that come from vending machines. Just as Walid prepared the needle, I decided to avail myself of his hospitality.

“Do you want coke with that?”

*downs it* “No; pour me another.”

Scholars, feel free to debate if I took the whiskey for the tattoo or the tattoo for the whiskey. What I know for sure is that when they asked “what music do you want us to play while you get it?” I said, “Herbie Hancock’s ‘Butterfly’.” As that mellow and exquisitely trippy chart emerged from the speakers it dawned on me that I could not ask for a better first tattoo. The hurt itself was less of an obstacle than a cathartic process. As the alcohol slowly leached out of my system the pain swelled in intensity. It was vivid but shallow and I experienced it as if I were a guest, rather than a prisoner, in my body. Pain gave me a reason to enjoy the music and concentrate on my breathing, so that I did not flinch and carry an ‘oops-mark’ with me to the grave. I took just one puff from the water-pipe while Walid changed inks to do the shading. The psychological possibilities are fascinating; I like to think the tattoo would be empty without the pain. Numb experiences should never define us. On the other hand, the pain was not severe. It could only sting skin-deep. My mind was stirring, as it ever is, emulsifying many dark memories with the antiseptically bright quality of that pain and the meaning of the words burning into my chest: “…to seek Justice and resist evil”.

I am just pasting in unrelated photos from the Istanbul airport to make this entry more visually appealing, since my camera is still decommissioned.

* *

The next day, I returned with Tim so he could get the Unitarian Universalist Chalice on his arm; as interesting as the topic of Tim’s symbol and our conversations about spirituality might be in hindsight, I dozed-off while Walid was actually putting the tat on his arm. The next time, I came to have the tattoo examined. We sat together alone for a while, chatting, and it dawned on me that he was a social butterfly perched a little too high above the street. His hospitality, though easy and Palestinian, was not strictly policy but also an invitation to linger with him – to commune over a couple of orange sodas. We looked at some Wi’am Summer Camp photos together and then he showed me pictures of his son. When six days had passed, I returned again to the barbershop and found Walid on the ground floor, giving his friend a hair-cut.
“I fixed hair for fifteen years,” he said with a wink. His portrait was coming even more clearly into focus: he is a unique human being. As much as I enjoy my hair-cuts, I realized that I share a link with Walid that is much more permanent. It is a more salient link than I have with the various doctors who have done surgery on my body, since I was conscious and I chose the design. It is bound to attract more attention than any other procedure because it’s the kind of procedure intended to speak on its own. It speaks about the person who commissioned it as well as the one who made it —

Yesterday, I saw Walid for the fifth time. Once again, I sat next to the desk and had something to drink (apple juice). For the second time, I walked over to the chair by the mirror and took off my shirt. This time, it was just a matter of touch-ups. The sting was not any worse, which meant that I must have been more sober than I believed, the first time (mind over matter). Something special in common between getting a shave and getting a tattoo, at least here on Star Street, is the final spray of fragrant disinfectant. I love that feeling.

The best feeling of the day, though, was when I shook his hand and he said, “stop by. Feel free, you’re always welcome.”

“Next time, I might need a hair-cut.”

This is a good thing.

*By Dante, I mean Clifford.