The Meaning of Life & Suicide in a Bathtub

Though it contains true facts, this is a piece of magical realism. Read it in its entirety before becoming alarmed…

I considered the option of suicide in a bathtub, four years ago. I dreamed of luxurious, hot, morbid release as I read the warning label on a bottle of drain-cleaner in my Grand Rapids, MI apartment. I wondered how it would feel, not just to withstand such eviscerating nausea but to hold the poison down intentionally: to fight consciously for death. Dying worried me less than being found: a naked body of thwarted potential.

A year later, I laid upon a legless couch in the exquisite cool of a cave-basement in the same bedrock where Jesus was born. I might have died beneath a bulldozer, in 2012, if it would have stopped Israeli settlers from taking more Palestinian land. Even martyrdom offers no resolution: Rachel Corrie’s spilled blood is still crying for justice. No fast solutions exist. Instead, I re-discovered the clarion sound of my Self returning, in echos, from the back of the caverns just as, a year before, it skimmed-away on the surface of the Grand River.

Suicide is ripe in me. My melancholy seemed like a tangle of cords, for almost a decade, as if someday I would loosen each frayed end and unbind its strained knot. It seems to me like a mass of chords, now. There is nothing to envision nor to gently (even forcefully) tease apart. The past will not be manipulated. All pain is sound, all wounds echo. The sources of distress drift further and closer, into the foreground but also behind walls —or beneath darkened waters— louder and softer, varying in pitch, and changing in timbre as the reverberating waves collide. The time for Silence is ripe.

My housemate speaks in non-echos: “Do you get morose when you don’t have enough to do?”

“Oh, maybe,” I replied. His intercession struck me, contrastingly, as intrusive and reassuring. “My schoolwork kept me engaged for nine months.”

“You mean distracted?” he said. He paced first to the sink and then the stove, wearing no shirt. “Life doesn’t have meaning anyway; you know that, right?” he added, casually.

IMG_4782“There is no one, central them,” I acquiesced. He agreed and continued spewing nihilism as he retrieved mismatching bowls from the dishwasher, still shirtless. He has a broad, muscular chest: smooth and vacant like his thoughts about Life. I have less white-space to give; the tattoo-text above my left nipple reads “…to seek Justice and resist evil”, as if to answer the question ‘what is the meaning of Life?’ I never told anyone I was looking for Life’s meaning. His vacant regard for the question of Life was his version of mercy, intended to free me from the crux of a great dilemma by denying the crux.

“Life is like Silence,” I continued. I tend to find reasons to continue. “Silence has no particular meaning but it is valid as what it is.”

He said nothing as he shut the cupboard door.

Life is a medium, not a piece of work; Life is the substrate of Meaning, like a canvas for paint or Silence for Music,” I raved to myself. He receded to his room upstairs, which could be a broom-closet or the surface of Mars — I don’t know. I knew I possessed a central nugget of wisdom but I was unclear how to smelt it into praxis. Usually, I write a lengthy piece of reflection and post it to a blog called “Reverse Exiled”:

…many of us searched as if there must be a ‘best’ technique for imbuing Life’s fibers with somethingness, a ‘right’ image to impress upon it. Maybe there is a ‘perfect’ note that echos un-harried by Doppler effects, forever harmonious in Life’s chambers. That elusive ‘Theory of Life’ could unify every strand of meaning but, possibly, Life embodies the precise reciprocal of that idea. Necessarily, it is never ‘best’, ‘right’, or ‘perfect’ because that would spoil the emptiness that enables Life to hold Meaning. Oneness would collapse into nothingness but the essence of absolute-nothing clears space for EVERYTHING. Life is desirable as a container. Finally, the Holy un-Grail of reflective writers is in my possession —a dis-unified theory of life!— and I have a really fresh metaphor to convey that thought, via silence and music.*maniacal laughter fading into pathetic sobs*

I wanted “crux”: a kernel of superlative meaning to redeem every errant ‘stroke’ and ‘note’. “The meaning of life is that there is no meaning!” is not redeeming, even if it is liberating. Some meanings are dissatisfying, others seem too large for my corner of the canvass or take on unexpected dimensions that I struggle to render. I wished for an existential “konami code” that granted me mastery. Instead, I decided that I needed to yank the cartridge: time to die.

In childhood I made Life ‘mean’ as I pleased. Dinosaurs could plot regional domination, fall in love, and meet my sister’s pony-dolls in complex, first-contact narratives. Yet the possibility of proficiency in some field lured me into more ‘adult’ projections of Meaning: of Resolution, not merely Imagination.

Death pours a steadfast, concrete column through history, something with definite heft. Death visits each body once, but surely, while the fabric of Life continues for all of Earth but many of its threads fail. For the singular one, Death offers resolution: it fails to dissolve reasons to live but it renders them optional. To complete a suicide is an act of agency. I had several long reveries about living on an Earth left entirely to me, with no one to stop me from committing suicide. No one would love me or my art but nobody could stop me from looting, planting, and building as I pleased: 100% autonomy. Meaning would live and die with me… for the love of meaning, I would live for as long as my body lasted. For the love of meaning, I decided to die on my own terms before I watched my revelation about Life languish on the Internet like numerous other posts.

I fatigued from negotiating Life with other people, though at first I flirted with Mutuality to find Resolution. I filled the vacant portions of my soul with groups’ or couples’ versions of myself and invited others to affirm me as an amalgamate. I wanted to be cherished so badly, I allowed meanings to be imposed upon myself but no one wants to shape me at the expense of being so shaped. What might I mean, alone, when I stop wanting people to co-create with me?

The last thing I did was clean my trumpet and cornet to honor the meaning in Life. I ordered a new “snake” (cleaning-brush) for the occassion. An advertisement promised a flexible, plastic whip tipped with a fuzzy “weasel” to reach nooks of the instrument left untouched by metal-coil brushes. For the first time ever, I threaded a brush completely through my bell-pipe and into the middle cylinder of each instrument. “A sign: I finally swept the unreachable.” To my dismay, the “weasel” still could not go completely through the curliest part of my cornet. “A sign: some questions are never answered. It is definitely time to die.” I had a grand time admiring and playing with my new brush; I imagined a flummoxed coroner finding this giant, fuzzy caterpillar tucked neatly into the travel-kit where I keep extra trumpet supplies.

Meticulously, I restored my instruments to peak shape and arranged them as a shrine. I resisted the urge to play. The veins of blues that run through Jazz, R&B, and Rock’n’Roll (at its best) owe their vibrancy to the will to assimilate sorrow. The previous day’s exercises and improvisations were sufficient, I decided, and a much more fitting tribute since I played my last notes with the intention of living. Music should always be played with the intention to live. Glinting in their cases atop the sink and toilet, they sparkled with the promise of reincarnation in another musician’s life.

I glanced at my grandfather’s folding knife, with the resharpened tip. A knife would send a decisive message about my state of mind at death: resolute, in control of my fate. I imagined being rolled into the afghan my mother crocheted, caulking its soft fibers with my blood to seal the death-cocoon. There was a tragic, disgusting poetry to the idea of piercing my tattoo as an abortive act.

Yet a ring of charcoal black bloomed around the waterline in the process of cleaning two instruments. Dutiful to the end, I wanted to clean the residue before skewering myself. As I opened the bathroom cabinet I glimpsed a bottle of drain-cleaner in the back-corner. I could not recall seeing it before and my curiosity overcame me. A new vision stitched-together in my mind: I am found intact, ringed by the distillations of my music. That ring of black represented my last performance and private renditions of several jazz standards offered (gorgeously) in the wake of failed romance— but in celebration of the resolve to continue living. Sending these final vestiges spiraling down a drain would be blasphemous. “Damn,” I murmured with a crooked smile, “why should I feel pressure to clean when it’s my death to choose?”

I switched-off the antiseptic shine of curly-bulbs over the sink and lit a pair of candles. The drain-cleaner and a bottle of sleep-aide rested on the tub’s edge while I lowered myself into the warm water, shirtless, wearing my favorite jeans. I turned the hot-water tap open. Invigorating heat flushed across my belly, up the seam of my jeans and between my thighs. Satisfied, I closed the tap and opened my “Zzzquil”, chugged the entire bottle, and settled again with only my face and knees at the surface. I stared up, soaking in the motif. The lit wicks cast their glow onto the misty gloss of the white ceiling, like distant lanterns shining in a snow-flurry. My grandparents’ house had lights on each side of their front-door, the type of fixture that contains an incandescent bulb beneath a globe of smoky glass. The memory diffused quickly in the waves of anesthetic radiating from my guts. Side-walk salt melts in the first pelting rain of spring. I took a deep breath. I exhaled.

The prickling hot water rose over the ring and lapped at the trumpet byproducts. I saw black leaching back into the water: first in delicate wisps and then like a billowing storm-front rushing toward my skin. Drunk on my own eccentricity, I felt rapturously warm to think that the essence of musical notes would cover and cure my dead body.

I reached for the drain-cleaner. It seemed like a carafe of liquor to me: cap unscrewed, seal removed, ready to pour. I put it to my lips and drank and drank and drank and then swallowed the bottle whole like a loon gulping-down a fish. Lanterns rematerialized in the dimness, now turning green and red, like the starboard and port-side lights of passing ships: green drifting right, red leftward, multiplying and passing each other in the darkening haze.

Their reflections shimmered on the darkened surface of the bath like boozy fireflies over water. They ignited like meteors and streaked away as the poison drenched my viscera. I expected excruciating pain but the liquid combusted in my arteries. Water boiled wherever it touched my skin. My hands convulsed with steam. My torso was a lava-flow, with skin of glittering obsidian and veins of searing magma. I felt as if I would erupt in a momentous surge of tingling heat. The bathtub tremored with the promise of my aftershocks, portents of legendary power— for a moment. Then, the end began. Ash poured into my eyes and blackened my vision. My heat whithered and dissolved. A cold crescendo spread its stabbing tendrils through the bath and ice-crystals like hypodermic-needles penetrated me. Without a shiver, my body numbed. Unable to feel the tub, my sense of balance spun away in widening, meandering circles until I knew I was sinking,

sinking without any hope of the bottom, as into the middle of Lake Superior,

sinking into cold space.

Sound was All. I listened to the air escaping my lungs, rushing past my lips and nostrils. I kept listening for the surface to break but my bubbles just faded. The rest of my ‘bubbles’ followed me deeper: the echos of my poisoned viscera filled my skull. Bubbles rush through my bowels like trains, rattling the rails of my spine and blowing horns. I hear distant horns. I pull the blankets tighter around me…

…what blankets? What train do I hear, approaching a bend and then disappearing into the night? Do I hear a furnace, blowing dry warmth? Am I in pajamas? My eyes come open upon my stuffed crocodile —yellowish green in the glow of a night-light. I free my hand from the covers and run it over the cream-colored bed-spread, reading its beady embroidery like over-sized braille. The tips of my fingers whisper that adulthood was a dream, that I am where I really belong. I put my hand to my face and find nothing below my lip, not a bristle. This is Diamond Lake; this is Michigan; this is the nineties.

My body buzzes with a mixture of shivers and excitement. I turn slowly over to gaze upon my sister’s dark-brown head, so still, small, and precious. I glance at her end-table, looking for a missing pair of glasses among Grams’ figurines. Nothing is missing. Molly and I are staying with our grandparents, this October evening. She insists on the night-light, every time we visit Grams and Buck, and I cannot sleep through the night— just as it was in June, April, or February before that. I always have insomnia.

I must wander. I must repeat the ritual. I must robe myself and become like a tiny monk or wizard, swaddled like a poltergeist, treading stealthily through the doorway into the hallway, dragging a train of pale blankets. I break the seal of an adjacent bedroom and release a cold draught to peer inside: everything is just as it always is— how else could it be? Cunningly, I close the door again as I spin. A faux candle leftover from Christmas casts a modest ring of incandescence into the short hallway, making long shadows from end-tables and potted plants; it doubles itself in a strategically hung mirror on the wall. I squint at my reflection, looking back at me from just above the candle’s echo. My face is rosy and creased from being squished into the pillow-case. I often pace in order to think better.

Someday, all of this will be gone. To know this, so young, is both sublime and unfair. I arise into the chill of the night, alone, with a sense of foreboding. My grandparents will die; decades will pass before I die and see them again. I stalk past the stairs leading to the family-room (I can just barely hear a PBS program wafting from below), toward the lake-side of the house. If I make too much noise, Grams and Buck might hear me pacing, sneaking around the house after my bedtime. I drift into the upper-living room. The facing wall is composed of picture windows. The pier-lights of other lake houses cast a dim glow over a blue and white salon-set and I pretend that the whole space is for ghosts, like me. Halogen and fluorescent lanterns on the opposite shore shine like approaching stars smearing their shining tails on the rippling waters. The glittering columns widen across the surface of Diamond Lake and mesmerize me. Awe grips me every time. The lake is huge but I am small. I collapse onto the couch, into the fabric of the room to console myself, and further enshroud with a blanket draped over its back, becoming snug and camouflaged: invincible to time.

I always know. My grandparents will die someday. Life as I know it will be gone. Maybe this is God’s way of helping me remember. Maybe this is like when the binding in the spine kinks, just slightly, forever bookmarks a scene in the story. Sleep would be like death, now, if I did not remember my grandparent’s house. I burrow into pillows stolen from other furniture, whisper aloud to myself about how cold the water must be, trying to resist leaving the cold living-room — neither for bed, where my memories of this house might die, nor for downstairs where I would have to explain my restlessness. They wouldn’t punish me but I fear worrying them, fear mortification. No: I crease the spine of my story and hope that it weakens the binding of time so, maybe, I might…

“Am I sleep-walking?”

“Feel your face —”

“I thought I was in the bathtub, then I dreamed I was on the davenport at my Grandparents’ house…”

“Only Grams ever calls it a Davenport— you’re really me!”

“You… I used to be you. I always knew those nights had something supernatural in them, though I’m not sure why. How did I get to be standing-up? I was you a moment ago.”

“Why is your beard so little?”

“It’s called a ‘soul-patch’; it’s cool.”

“It looks weird on my face.”

“It’s on my face, silly, and you always knew you would grow-up to be weird.”

“Yeah. When I was littler, I thought I could mutate into a cartoon by acting very very weird.”

“I knew that.”

“I hope it doesn’t warp history if I touch it. Get closer to me.”

“I’m going to touch your dimple. Even trades.”

“That tickles” “THAT tickles”

“I have lots of little scars on my hands in the future?”

“When you get older, Buck will let you work with him on houses and you’ll tear up your hands doing handy-work. Also, from playing with the dog…”

“—what dog?—”

“…then you become a camp counselor and cut-up your hands in the woods. Little things happen. That circular one is from a wart removed at the clinic. What dog?! Yours. Oh that’s right…”

“I always wanted a dog.”

“It’s hard to believe but that little sister of yours will finally convince Mom and Dad to get both of you a dog. He’s black and brown, just like you imagine.”

“I have a dog!”

“Neither of us has a dog, yet or anymore, but, yeah, you won’t regret it.”

“Anymore? Did he die?”

“He lived for fourteen years: just as old as you’ll be when you meet him.”

“Then you’re at least twenty-eight.”

“Smart boy. How’s it feel to break your wrist?”

“Trick question: I was less than two when it happened.”

“You’re no more than nine. You’ll be ten when you break the other wrist.”

“I’m a smart man, too.”

“I might be you but you’re not me, yet. I contain all of you but you don’t contain even half of me.”

“But I’m going to be you, John Daniel.”

“Just call me JD, buddy-boy.”

“Cool! Call me JD, too.”

“Alright, fine. Whatever.”

“Why are you here? What’s CIES?”

“Why am I wearing my CIES t-shirt? I thought I was shirtless— sorry, I’ll answer your question: it’s the comparative and international education society. I was a member while I was in graduate school— for a while, I wanted to help students study internationally…”

“Did I ever go to Australia? Or any other places?”

“Never to Australia; I came close but the trip was canceled and I went to Belize instead— that’s in Central America. Later, you’ll visit other places.”

“Which ones?”

“…Palestine, Israel, and Jordan — for a long time— but Switzerland, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the Philippines before you start living in Washington DC.”

“—but Australia and Africa, maybe Brazil too, before I die. I guess I did not become a scientist, though. Oh well. Maybe I can be an author someday?”

“Oh, ‘insha’allah — fe’al-mishmish’, as they say in Arabic…”

“Wow! I speak Arabic!”

“—not very well. But if it makes you excited, I also speak bad Spanish.”

“It would be cool if I invented a time-machine but I guess God did this. It is miracle!”

“Well, just enjoy it.”

“I’m trying but I want to hear all the stuff I do.”

“Why don’t you tell me what’s going on in your life buddy-boy?”

“You don’t remember fourth grade?”

“I do but re-runs don’t bother me.”

“I’ll tell you later. That can be late-night TV. You can be prime-time TV and tell me about the future. That makes more sense?”

“…actually, it does.”

“…”

“…”

“…first, how did you get here?”

“…so. I’m a ghost. You die.”

“NO! Did I get in an accident or get sick?”

“—ironically, you beat a case of Dengue Fever but— no, it’s neither of those things.”

“Did I get murdered?”

“—you’re getting warmer. I killed myself.”

“—so now you’re back in time trying to fix your mistake? I bet I got electrocuted.”

“No. I did it on purpose. I succeeded at something, for once.”

“I wouldn’t do that. And I succeeded many times. I probably graduated high school and college. I learned some Arabic, you just proved that. I got into that international education society thing—”

“—just pay the dues, it’s not a big deal—”

“Did I have to take a test to get into the graduate school?”

“Yeah. But whatever.”

“I think I can probably drive by the time I am 28.”

“Buck gave you a car but all kinds of idiots drive.”

“Maybe. Did I ever get a job?”

“A few.”

“Maybe I’ll get even better ones when I fix whatever you did wrong. I am really smart and I don’t think I would die before I am eighty.”

“I don’t remember meeting a grown-up me; this is probably my last dream before my brain goes completely dead—”

“Then how did you even get here at all? Why would you come back to when you were nine and not later? I thought only sad people committed suicide, unless it was a suicide mission to save someone else’s life.”

“Maybe I’m from an alternate universe, saving my life in your universe. Right now, destiny will split and you can take a different fork.”

“Maybe you’ll get a fork, too. But what did you do? Were you just too sad and wanted to get to Heaven faster?”

“I’m not so sure about heavens anymore, buddy-boy. It’s a nice idea because then I could have back Grandpa, Buck, Grams, the dog, my favorite high school teacher, aunt Barb and aunt Martha—”

“Why are aunt Barb and aunt Martha dead!?”

“Cancer. Your step-mother has cancer, uncle Delbert has cancer, Mr. Current had cancer. The dog’s cancer killed him and now Mom’s new dog has cancer. When Grams died of a heart-attack, it was almost merciful— but it wasn’t. It wasn’t because I didn’t get to say goodbye at all.”

“You were going to see all of them anyway, if you stayed good!”

“—we are on different theological plains, I can see. I didn’t kill myself because I was grieving. I killed myself because I felt like it.”

“I would never ever feel like killing myself. Something is wrong! Are you sure you don’t have depression?”

“Damnit. I wanted to die my way. I wanted it to mean something.”

“What did you want to mean? How did you do it?”

“I just drank some drain-o.”

“Ugh. How did that taste?”

“I don’t remember because I was high as the clouds on sleeping syrup. Crap!”

“Did you get your heart broken? At love and stuff?”

“Several times. This last time, my heart didn’t break at all. We just said goodbye. It was nice to be a happy couple for about a month. We both knew it couldn’t work-out. I didn’t kill myself because of her. I didn’t even kill myself for women I thought I loved more. I just saw a good chance to die.”

“That was really stupid, though, because that’s not even a great adventure.”

“—it’s an artistic statement: laying in the bathtub with the black ring from cleaning my trumpets still stuck to the side of the tub.”

“You also play the trumpet? I do all these different cool things! I don’t understand. Why can’t you keep making artistic statements WITH trumpets if you know how to play them?”

“It’s complicated. It would be hard for you to understand.”

“I must go crazy! I’m sane, right now, so I don’t understand.”

“No, I’m not nuts! I just thought it would be a DEFINITIVE artistic statement to die this way: laying in the center of that ring, just…”

“I always hoped to do the things you already did. Don’t you hope to do things that you have not done yet? Like get married or write a book? You still have not gone to Australia.”

“I got tired.”

“I did hope to do those things by the time I was your age.”

“Maybe the problem I could have fixed was to tell you not to expect to always be so precocious. I always did things ahead of time until I graduated from high school. The level of difficulty goes up. You aren’t as special as you think, buddy-boy. You do not get to always be the best, anymore. In fact, I cannot think of one thing in the world that you are the absolute best at when you turn twenty-nine.”

“I do so much different stuff. I knew I was different from anyone else. I’m super-weird! Name someone who can do all the different stuff I can do. I dare you.”

“…someone I know personally? I mean, I know —knew, I should say— some really cool people but nobody does exactly the same… things… okay, you win that point.”

*deep voice* “Hope. Hope to do more.”

“Whoa, buddy-boy. You sounded a little froggy, there. I didn’t think my voice started changing at age nine.”

“Look at me, JD. Watch me transform.”

“…Jesus SHITTING Christ…”

“Yeah. I’m forty-nine-year-old you.”

“The whole time?!”

“Hey, mack: I contain all of that nine-year-old, all of you, and twenty years more. You would be surprised what a little fermentation can do for HIS vision and YOUR experience. I am vastly improved—”

“—no no no. You can’t exist. You look too good for fifty, for one thing. Also, we just established that I am dead. SUICIDE. This is my last dream.”

“But didn’t you fix the problem? You told the little guy that his time-lines couldn’t always be accelerated. Art takes time. Careers and relationships take effort and patience, even strategy. You’ll also have to forgive yourself for wasted time. Life is a canvas. You just learned this, am I right?”

“I did. My canvas was finished. I was content.”

“Canvas comes in rolls, Johnny-boy. You were c’n-tent or CON-tent? Were you satisfied and therefore forfeited agency?”

“I was c’n-tent to BE the CONtent in that bathtub. And suicide is an irreversible act of agency!”

“Everything you do is an act of agency— suicide prevents you from doing anything more. It’s using your agency to end itself. Ha! Didn’t Fred tell you that Life is a long distance run?”

“I tried not to think about anyone but myself while I was committing suicide. I guess I was being a selfish bastard. Rub it in. I cannot commit any more noble acts of agency for humanity. But maybe I wanted to use my autonomy to end my agency so I wouldn’t ever have to second-guess my choices again.”

“Oh skip it: it’s fine. I needed to let myself be selfish, just once. I screwed-up in reverse, anyway, so it’s not even worth feeling guilty. But I came here to fix a problem, too. JD needs to embrace a multi-faceted vision of himself, again.”

“Buddy-boy really believed he could be not just anything he wanted but everything he wanted. That never actually happens.”

“Johnny-boy, it never FULLY happens but it partially happened. What never happens is a person containing only one, superlative aspect.”

“I get it. But I have three questions.”

“I know them all. Number one, I could not tell you all this myself because you needed to hear it from the nine-year-old. My perspective has stretched too far to reverberate in your skull-chambers but his fits with room to spare.”

“You couldn’t fit those extra twenty years?”

“That would be like building skyscrapers from the top downward. Number two, you’re not dead. Spoiler alert: this is a dream.”

“This is all my chemically induced dream.”

“Oh no! Your mind is a complete blank right now. That’s what I wanted, deep down. You’ve hit reset on your console, so to speak, but life is not like a video game. I did not go back to the beginning when I punched the ‘konami code’: I unlocked upgrades. This is MY dream. Your dreams are not powerful enough yet.”

“Oh?”

“Yup.”

“…my interest is piqued, old man…”

“The answer to your third question is ‘it’s up to you, when you take over.’”

“Take-over what?”

“The dream. If you want to be nine again, so you can go downstairs and hug your grandparents, then you need to muster some ‘magical realism’ because I am about to let go. I believe in me— you need to believe in me, too. You need to hope to do the things I’ve done.”

“Tell me some of those things, then.”

“Nah. I only let you tell me things when I was nine because I was faking-you-out. We both know fourth-grade was limiting compared to the rest of life. Nice try, captain re-run.”

“I’m captain re-run? You’ve lived all of this before.”

“No, actually. There was a blank spot on my metaphysical cassette, so to speak. It took me twenty years to figure out that I could superimpose this moment because I —the nine-year-old version of us— had mentally marked this space. Maybe the two of us had a hand in it, too: you made the canvas, I hold the brush, but buddy-boy set-up the easel long, long ago. He believed the best was yet to come—knowing that the worst was coming, too.”

“He had a lesson coming. I lost all of this: the lake, my grandparents—”

“—but not your sister in the other room and certainly not pieces of the life our grandparents wanted for us. Most of that is still to come. The best is yet to come for you, even more than for him.”

“How do I know? Where’s the proof?”

“Hope doesn’t work that way. You need a dash of Faith. That cold night at Grams’ house was the last thing I remembered before I blacked-out and awoke in a different reality.”

“Heaven? Did I really die?”

“No. You cast a spell. I awoke on an Earth where everything else was the same but I was different. Upgrade = unlocked. Medicine man.”

“Oh, that’s cute. Now you’re misappropriating indigenous cultures and—”

“—aren’t you a medicine man, for lack of better terms?”

“Aren’t you me?”

“Goodbye, me. Good luck getting downstairs before my dream ends.”

“I think it’s my dream.”

“Now it can be your dream but you’re brain-dead, lying on the bottom of a bathtub. This is our gift to you, from the eternal alcoves of your soul.”

“The bathtub doesn’t have a bottom anymore…”

“…very good! Yes! Remember that!”

“I will?”

I blink. The Sun is rising too soon and the windows are filling with light so bright that my eyes cannot adjust. I try to run toward the staircase but my legs entangle in the blankets. I trip. My body hits the floor with a thud and I think I can hear a voice say “Marilyn, I think one of the kids…” but the world is becoming all sound again: trains, fighter-jets, trumpet riffs, and a rush of bubbles through water. I thrash to shed the blankets. My elbow hits something hard and cold, then the heel of my foot strikes something. Clang. I gasp and spit.

My eyes came open. Of their own volition, my arms flailed in search of the couch, the pillows, the soft warmth of the lake-house. Instead, I knocked an empty bottle of sleeping syrup across a bathroom in Washington, DC. The ring on the tub and the bottle of drain-cleaner were gone. The candles had not yet expired. I focused for several minutes on the left side of my chest: orange and black in the light of the flames.

The tattoo still says “…to seek Justice and resist evil,” but below the text I noticed the Bethlehem municipal star.

“Hope.”

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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…

What am I doing, again?

Double exposed picture

Remember the good old days when we could still accidentally double-expose a picture?

“What am I doing here?”: A question often framed in the most existential terms, as asking about the origin and purpose of one’s life.

In my case, I posed it to myself when I laid down to sleep on a cane bench in rural Mindanao, Philippines. Why is the Mission Intern in Palestine eating fish breakfasts and touring barangays? Why does coconut wine taste like vinegar? Do the backward curving horns on the karibaw make it easier to ride? Is there Mexican food on this island?

“What am I doing here?!” I asked my colleague the following weekend. He lit a cigarette as we climbed on the back of a motorcycle and rode to a remote series of waterfalls, sharing private thoughts with one another. I could not have imagined that, in 2010, anymore than drinking tea beside a guard tower – every work day for six months.

Almost two years ago I took a spiritual gifts assessment. I wanted to answer the question “what am I doing here?”  A minister-friend concluded that I was not going into ordained ministry, that my gifts were too creative, not pastoral or administrative. I knew that but there was no thunderclap of clarity. There is no how-to-heuristic for creative people who want to do ministry.  Instead, I did the Christian-Pacifist equivalent of joining the marines: short-term mission work.

I took another step forward during the second week of workshops. The course was titled “Arts Approaches to Community Conflict”. Our facilitators were an art professor from Japan, Kyoko, and an animated Kenyan named Babu—a good story-teller. My classmates hailed from East Timor to Afghanistan, all points in Asia between, plus a Swissman, a Canadian, and three George Mason University students (other ‘Americans’—spooky).

The very first day we were sent back to kindergarten. We made three-dimensional maps of pretend communities which our facilitators decided to wreck so we could address catastrophes in our community settings — made of paper, clay, and bits of stuff we found outside. The antics did not stop for the entire week: singing, dancing, role-playing. Speaking of playing, we seemed to be doing a lot of playing around. The faux-professional element in me became restless—I needed some scholarship to send to the New York office so they would pat themselves on the back for funding my training. Luckily, I was too tired from the previous week to fake seriousness. It was time to have fun rather than take pages of notes that I would never look at ever again. I threw all of my heart and energy into each ‘game’

It was through play that we became comfortable enough to really share our thoughts. Each activity built upon the foundations of the one before it and each had a purpose without needing all the hollow signs of being ‘serious’. Being ‘serious’ is an anemic excuse to be emotionally detached from the work of community building. If I had not been at play with my classmates, I could not have shared with them my feelings about spending Palm Sunday with my boss in Jerusalem and the significance, both, of his being allowed into the city for just a few weeks and of my being exiled from the country for much longer. I was ready to share because we had been like children together while respecting each other as adults

Bearing all that in mind, I still needed to make an artistic class presentation. My trumpet was useless, safely stowed with a colleague in Hong Kong. I had arrived in Davao with only some clothes and my propensity to make every dilemma into a story. That self-fulfilling prophesy is manifest in these very words but I digress. Determined not to simply stand-up and start telling stories I decided I needed a musical element to make my presentation, yonniΘ, “legit”. Fred taught me how to make ‘lemme sticks’ when I worked for him at Camp Kinawind and I decided that make-shift percussion would be my salvation. I used a lunch-break to wander into the jungle looking for suitable materials. Things rot faster there. I briefly considered a coconut and a shard of broken tile. I had almost given-up when, as if by destiny (epic?), I found a flawless stick. Next to it was a long, unfamiliar roll of organic matter. Palm leaves, apparently, curl like scrolls when they dry out. It reminded me of something I would find in Michigan: birch bark.

My existential crisis dawned once I had my materials. What was I doing, really? That night I sat down with a pad of paper and began to sketch a story about building a fire with birch bark. The setting was an over-night excursion with teenage kids. The premise was that it had rained and the boys had to make breakfast for the girls after losing a s’more eating contest. I promised myself that I would have everything plotted before I went to bed that night; this was going to be my turning-point, I decided. It was time to get ‘serious’. Concurrent with becoming ‘serious’,  I developed unbreakable writer’s block. The cycle never fails: apprehension, seriousness, inertia, despair, vice –

–The vice for the night was beer. It was an excellent choice of vice because I enjoyed it in the best of company, by the hotel pool, and in moderation. “With my propensity to turn every dilemma into a story, I can partially redeem this…”

The next stage in the cycle of hopelessness is supposed to be shame as a precursor to apathy and quitting. Instead, I chose to be weird. The next morning I took my palm-leaf scroll and my mysteriously-perfect walking-stick out to the gardens and began pacing around, telling the story in my head and using the props for sound effects. I even shook a candy tin filled with broken pencils to simulate a box of matches. In less than an hour of pacing and creeping people out I was satisfied with my story and decided that life was too short to miss breakfast. I volunteered to make my presentation first.

“Everything was there,” said Babu. The whole class seemed satisfied. It puzzled me for a few minutes because I knew I had not hammered on that presentation more than three hours total. Then I remembered my spiritual gifts assessment and understood: I might not be The Superlative Artist of All of Society but, yonniΘ, I am an artist. I may be under-practiced and screw-up; I may strive for other goals most days; yet, I still have these gifts. I know that too often I have believed I have to be excellent to have a purpose when my willingness is what matters most.

One of the American students made an interesting comment about English professors. He said they tended to think and write from inside their heads and not from “out there” in reality. I stifled my misgivings: I’ve known some better English professors than his. Instead I said, “I know what you mean – I never wanted to be that guy.” So, to answer the question “what am I doing in an Amman hotel running a high fever?” I can reply with confidence that I am “writing from out there”.

Θ: “Yonni” is an Arabic equivocator. It means “kinda-sorta” but functions, shwaya, differently grammatically.