The Great Fortune Cookie Spiral

“The Szechuan Pepper Daddies” were the improvising-troupe who threw fortune cookies at random as they entered, inviting an audience member to open one as a prompt for their show. I saw the ‘Pepper Daddies’ in the second-round of the Fighting-Improv-Smackdown-Tournament (b.k.a. “FIST”) that Washington Improv Theater hosts every year. They lost to “The Prosecution” in round 4 (I promise all of this is relevant). I volunteered as an usher the night the cookies were flying, gathering six to consume later; my stated reason was ‘starving and unemployed’ but, my attentive readers, we know I was hungry for words from the universe. Fortune (with a capital F) is just one of my themes; ideas of supra-ordinate agency at work have been salient currents in my nonfiction writing and, here, it mingles with some periodic undercurrents I am trying to better trace.

Only four “fortunes” remained in the detritus of my car, when I started writing on these themes together. Some might say we would be fortunate (lucky?) to retain 75% of what we have learned but, once the cookie has crumbled, the value within may be questionable–

“Never forget that a half truth is a whole lie” [a fundamental misunderstanding of ‘truth’, in my opinion]

“A new adventure awaits you this weekend” […which weekend? I can’t recall what happened that weekend…]

“Action speaks nothing, without the Motive” [I am genuinely intrigued but not sure how it applies, now]

“A calm sea does not make a skilled sailor” [this one is painfully apropos; nevertheless, I am not the only person in the world struggling and fortune-cookie writers are well aware of that]

[A promising contingency was to find a fortune written in a different font on the floor of my friends’ home] “Welcome the good change coming soon into your life,” says this more serendipitous fortune.

If all of these leave no impression, do not despair: an unopened fortune cookie sits within its wrapper on the corner of my desk — its claim to Serendipity is much stronger, too. Existential suspense waits, manifest as a hollow cookie, for both writer and reader. I have tried to thresh the happenings of my life for seeds of meaning through two decades; inside the cookie, we hope there is something worth remembering and using. The unopened cookie is a plot-device to pull us down, down through denser thoughts together. I thought about using my figurative powers to flood your spaces and open a maelstrom, so that you readers could follow the twirl of my vortex. Heavy things fall past the groovy spinning disc of water into the slurping column of bubbles in the middle.

Let’s be real: if a section is going into too much detail, scan for a set of asterisks and try the next ‘cookie’ in this sprawling, compound entry.

In honor of “The Szechuan Pepper Daddies” I offer this levity: a playful figurative device. I step onto stage and start turning around saying “I’m the vortex of a maelstrom!” and other improvisors rush from the wings to help; two of them run in circles around me saying, “we’re water swirling around!” and another pretends to be thrown away, saying “I am light, fluffy debris ejected by centrifugal force or whatever!” Finally, a large man walks up to me and declares “I’m heavy; I’m sinking,” and jumps on my back. We both fall to the floor and spectators cheer, laugh, clap, cough like the sound of white-water rapids. The lights go down and we see only a faint glow from the sound-booth…

 * * *

The Beige Jungle Ninja-Beasts

As a first-year university student, I called it the “Beige Ninja”. I concocted this archetype to represent ‘the fatal embedded in the mundane’. Its ubiquity made its outlines impossible for me to distinguish with only eighteen years of perspective. Walking the off-white corridors of my residence hall, I envisioned the heaviness I felt as an assassin creeping in my wake, dyed the shade of sweat-stains on old t-shirts. There was a constant, nebulous impression of something amiss even in excellent times, though it sharpened into psycho-social, figurative bear-traps as winter deepened in Michigan.  I found a point of reference and resonance when we studied Henry James’ novella “The Beast in the Jungle” in English 210; I wrote an A paper comparing John Marcher with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. My growing literary prowess did not slay the Beige Ninja. To the contrary, I convinced myself that there was a metaphysical conundrum in the universe for me to unravel, that the sinking feeling represented an artistic or spiritual duty meant to become clear. Cruelly, by becoming the hero of a psycho-analytic narrative I couldn’t allow myself to be the object of deeper care. I refused to apprehend that I could have a chemical conundrum, or have need of cognitive restructuring that was beyond my self-contained abilities.

My self-contained abilities included writing and playing trumpet– and sometimes circumscribing the entire campus on the soles of my running-shoes. I used to play in an alcove under a bridge. I intuited an affirmation of belonging in that space. I wrote a piece of psycho-analytical fiction of my own, based on a dream I had that tender Fall. Much of the imagery from the dream was orientalist by my present understanding (therefore unusable?)– but an image of conscious creation, during the process of writing, has never been more relevant:

“A chimera carved from the dust and earth, two headed and grotesque. Perhaps, it is better described as a set of mismatching conjoined twins, actually. Both faces were somewhat human, and one face was clearly blindfolded. His arms, however, were free. He seemed to be frozen in a state of searching: his arms were extended as if to grope for a wall. Nay, he reaches for a weapon I think. Of course, what insight do I have? It is not as if I carved it, right? He is the right side; the left’s predicament is different. His eyes are wide open and lidless he stares at me, without pupils. His iris is like a pie with no hole cut to relieve the pressure of cooking. His mouth gapes, as if to roar… he is bound in chains. Unlike his humanoid companion, he is scaly and horns jut forth from his back in no particular pattern. His arms are tied down to his sides, and in one reptilian hand he holds a machete. Now that I look more closely, I see that one is connected to the other only through a juncture near the back of the ribs. The smooth and man-like figure on the right need only cut away his scaly mate. However, the scaly one has the weapon and cannot use it because his arms are bound. He looks at his companion in malice, as if he would raise the blade to destroy him if he could. Instead, he simply remains. I notice now that the left ‘twin’ is manacled to the wall of the labyrinth. I wonder what the sculptor was thinking when he made these. […] “The right twin should’ve taken the machete from the left and severed himself,” I chuckled to myself silently. I suppose he’s too blind to do so, and quite petrified too. He’ll keep reaching out into thin air.”

My writing was less polished at eighteen but the idea was sophisticated. This was an especially creative, early attempt to grapple with the slippery apparition of my malaise. I kept waiting for a sign more superlative than those I had already received; my fiction professor once gave me a braid of sweet-grass, a token to encourage me to continue in the writing-life. Occasionally, I self-motivated to write fiction but generally I needed the pressure of an assignment to overcome my inertia and doubt. My blogging continued in a LiveJournal account I haven’t used in years (maybe it no longer exists?), driven for a while by the conviction I would find Beige Ninja’s outlines and I would become free in a sudden, surprise flush of greatness. I started a new blog, hoping to make a transition; “Reverse Exiled” is the third blog, another fresh start that didn’t signal instant transformation. The long discouraging process of practicing and learning would melt away, for me, because I would find the fortune– a portal through reality or else a revelation like John Nash’s in “A Beautiful Mind”. Recall that Nash’s revelation about economics did not save him from his mental health struggle, not coincidentally. Years later, I found that ‘cookie’– ate it and pocketed the revelation: a housemate told me “you know life has no meaning, right?” and I grappled with his words. I realized that life is a medium to be filled with expressions of meaning. To live is to make meaning and life has all meaning, not a particular meaning. I subsequently wrote “The Meaning of Life & Suicide in a Bathtub” , where I visit a younger version of myself staying the weekend with my now-deceased paternal grandparents — none of this changed Beige Ninja.

I pursued study in Interpersonal Communication, trying to fix my parents marriage and ensure my own future in love. My studies in fiction and poetry continued as long as I was still studying English. Yet as the end of my time at MSU neared, I was listless. I couldn’t account for why I seemed to repeat the patterns of inertia that characterized the transition from high school to college, as well as from graduate school to my present state. I cultivated even more self-hate as I developed many ways to distract myself but no criteria for forgiving myself. All, despite and even in concert with my better knowledge: the two halves of the chimera, locked in stone together.

I never became fully invested in my creative talent (I’ll never be *best*), yet never quite relinquished it as important to my identity (this is what I *do* best): two-halves, two minds, two visions of self. Throughout, I have experienced glimpses of how strong and marvelous I am. The most profound transformation was emerging from my dark alcoves to play trumpet at sunset along the Grand River, in open spaces. My musical abilities evolved from trying to achieve proficiency in the universe of ‘little-black-dots-on-lines’ to playing by ear, then learning to improvise, and further still to create audio manifestations of feelings. For however long both lips and lungs last, the beast or ninja or dragon or octopus-of-sadness or WHATEVER cannot bind me entirely with its tentacles. The dynamic chain between my heaving diaphragm and the music streaming from the end of a trumpet bell: I taste freedom. Why couldn’t my writing follow suit?

Now, I know. Writing happens at a smaller aesthetic distance from the Beije Ninja– that phenomenon I have since named “Charie” to rob it of mystique. It is depression. Whether it is chemical and remediated through pharmaceuticals or is rooted in years of toxic family dynamics, to be addressed in therapy, it is still depression. I couldn’t unravel it with my writing but I don’t need to let it stop me from writing– now I see that it masked my own potential from me. Since I am able to look this Ninja in his eye, and see his outlines clearly (so close to me), I have the ability to make art despite or even because of it. My music led the way. I can live-on and love again, probably sooner and better than I imagine. Still, I need to contend with my mother’s role in the cycle of suffering…

A word from the curator: Originally, I wrote this entire entry with the intention of it being for public consumption. Though the next two sections are still here for those who want to journey with me, I recognize that they are “process writing”. I may spend more time working on that material another day. I recommend skipping ahead to the section titled “An Osprey in Finlandia” to glean more thoughts about fortune. Criticism is welcome: I am writing ‘volume’, for now, rather than agonizing over quality.

* * *

Family Hierarchy of Suffering

I wrote the italicized paragraphs below just after I broke contact with my mother; I am going to honor that moment by not revising extensively. My feelings about Momma too easily become a tar-baby– whether by trying to polish them into something transcendent, when they have always been too raw, or by indulging their rawness for too long. Let these paragraphs stand.

Now, I want to bring an entire history with depression into a story-arc so I can exercise my powers without a trumpet: in writing. The obvious place to start is exactly where I never wanted to begin: my Mother. Since writing “1562 Pennies Later…” I have parted ways with my Mother, who reacted negatively to my need to get control of my suicidal voice in writing. The irony is that my mother identified ‘Charlie’ first and encouraged me to seek help at eighteen– but I assumed she was projecting her own conditions onto me. She has misery to spread around. I vaguely recall seeing a therapist when I was quite small but I made external attributions about my struggles: Dad lost his job and the long, slow dissolution of my parents’ marriage was underway. In seventh grade I struggled but I was twelve– no one escapes that. Being thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen stands-out the most, to me, because I was happy, successful, and as intelligent as ever. I rose to first-chair in the band, to leading roles on stage, and I even ran the fastest mile in my physical education class. Friends from high school point-out, correctly, that I had an inflated ego. Imagine my confusion and disappointment with myself at seventeen when I didn’t feel like researching colleges– when practicing classical pieces on my horn only frustrated me and when I was regularly in to the dermatologist for acute acne.

‘It must be because I’m ugly,’ I convinced myself– the smart, artistic, quasi-athletic teenager. Mom obliged, tacitly agreed with my rationale: I was ugly and the doctors could fix it. Then ‘it’ was the acne medicine; anxiety was a side-effect. Dad shuttled me to university, so I could leave behind my histrionic ex-girlfriend (“it’s her that’s making you this way,” they said). Failing to audition into the school of music, I limped onto campus as an English Major.

As long as “1562 Pennies Later…” has driven my mother away, I might as well tell you: I didn’t know what happiness looked like, really. ‘The Problem’ was always her job or my father (or her siblings or…)– or something happening to my sister and myself. Vacations were the exception. In her element, planning our itinerary and exploring new places, I saw how my Mother should have been, perhaps the version my father had loved. My relationship with my mother runs a tight parallel to how I related to my depression. The flashes of joy seemed to validate the long periods of suffering, pain that I thought belonged in life. If only all of those things, those external things, would just go her way — or go Dad’s way — then we could be virtually on vacation all the time! Maybe I could be as impressive and care-free as when I started high school rather than fatigued and angry, the way I finished high school.

Interestingly, my Dad showed me how to stay active and befriending people wherever I went– so that I convinced myself I could always put ‘Charlie’ (depression) into the rear-view mirror via character triumphs, never accepting this struggle would be anything other than temporary. Contradictory but true, Mom was a reminder I did not want and my supposed ally. It seemed to me that it was her depression casting the shadow over my life– but I would lift her up, in the end, not “abandon” her as Dad had (so I thought). Thus, I kept both my depression and my mother close to me so I could keep proving, over and over again, that I was going to be permanently impressive. Each time my mother suggested I get help, I counter-suggested. Dad always insisted I was strong, exceptional, worth loving– sometimes, I thought he was full of shit. What my Dad taught became part of my knot. His optimism is so unflagging, his colors always flying in the strongest head-winds, that I doubted him along with myself. How could I ever improve under the influence of such uncritical optimism (“Action speaks nothing, without the Motive”)? I thought Mom was my ally, telling me the awful truth about life.

Eventually, my mother started threatening to commit suicide. So much did she threaten, I was convinced she had actually made an attempt but, my sister corrected, she only got as far as waving the bottle of pills at my Dad. Yesterday was the first day I went beyond forgiving my father to feeling happy for him. My father was struggling while I went through college but he never forced me to feel his pain; my mother called me regularly to air grievances– she needed family support. I told her to leave her job, to leave Dad, to do anything it took but to do something about all-those-things-to-blame. I bore her pain with her, not intuiting that my Mother should have been someone upon whose shoulder I might need to lean– but which of us was in need? Ponder that, reader. I never thought seriously about suicide before, just mused about it… so I said to myself all those times. Both of us were in need, really, but how would I be able to see my need in the shadow of hers? Mom’s needs always seemed greater, seemed like the reason for suppressing my own (what if I sent her over the edge?); contrast-effect was a constant… when have I never been more depressed than my mother? Now. When I was an adolescent, I worried she would hurt herself and didn’t dare burden her with my own sadness (“…when I get to college…”). In college, I wouldn’t go to the doctor because I knew my mother would worry about the cost of insurance and medications (“…when I get out of college…”). When my grandparents died after college, I stayed strong for her while her divorce was happening (“…after I get back from mission service…”). When I returned from the middle-East with PTSD symptoms, I pretended for her (“…when I finish graduate school; when I have a job; when someone finally loves me…”). Now, I have my MA but I’m unemployed, my relationship collapsed, and depression has crept like mold over every thought and feeling. And I caught a nasty cold that kept me from running. Somehow, I found the impetus to write “1562 Pennies Later…” and reap the insight and energy that germinate in the writing process.

My mother responded with bitterness and shaming. Her problems are supposed to be greater, as always. Her new husband calls me, angry because I upset her with my writing. Good for him. I’m glad he’s there, loving her with genuine passion. I can be free because of my step-father; thank you, sir. I cannot love my mother more than my writing anymore– even mediocre writing is better than a toxic mother-son relationship. She was an excellent mother to me as a small boy, and supportive of my education throughout, but I can’t be her son right now. Yet for the first-time I feel confident saying both that I am depressed and that I will overcome. This is the bottom but there will be higher heights to reach before I am done. I am gaining separation without engaging in denial or blaming– as if it were all my Mother’s “fault” and punishing her were the solution. A terrible truth crystallized as I withdrew from my mother: if I committed suicide she would blame herself but I no longer would feel responsible if she made that choice. For my part, writing about those dark thoughts brought more relief than acting upon them (“Action speaks nothing, without the Motive”?). I’m not afraid to talk about my darkness anymore because being honest has created the possibility of greater healing for me– I have legitimate hope that this is ‘the last worst time’.

“Some friends have approached me– people who care about you– to ask me how you’re doing since you wrote that,” said Brian, who welcomed me into his home three months ago. Later he commented, “–it was scary reading that, because it was really dark but you used story and imagery so well,” or perhaps he said something different to the same effect. I was doing push-ups and sit-ups for the first time in over three weeks.

“I thought,” I said between sit-ups, “that my short-falls were character flaws I needed,” sit-up, “to… I don’t know…”

Brian replied, “No one who knows you would say you have a character flaw.” Those words are going to ring in my ears for weeks. It bodes well for me that it was not until this very moment that I remembered how I used to curse fate for giving me my mother, my class-D high school, (and) this or that circumstance, yet I hadn’t thought in those terms these past three months because I cannot get past how lucky it was to have a friend from graduate school with a house (and a spare room) who cares and sees the potential in me. My family-cookie is problematic but my friend-cookie is magnificent. I sorely need to recover but I know without a doubt that I can.

As I was trying to come-up with an ‘improv-troupe-name’ for this section about my mother, the wise words of my supervisor in Palestine surfaced: “We do not want to have a hierarchy of suffering or compete for victimhood.” Going forward, I hope I do not miss opportunities to understand others’ struggles fully. I feel like Mom was willing to put others’ needs first only with the acknowledgement that her suffering was greater, that she was always making the truer sacrifice. I’m relinquishing our relationship to break that cycle: our suffering cannot be compared– it must be separated.

* * *

A Huge Cathartic Stream

I wondered if this section could be written; I’ve had trouble deciding if it is essential to the arc of the post or if it is just too emotionally difficult. Before I started writing these words, ate a sandwich and some roasted coffee-beans chased with dark chocolate; I called a beloved cousin and turned on my full-spectrum light-bulb. There has never been a fortune so powerful that it can override our choices; I write these painful things to reinforce the belief that depression is not immune to the agency that I claim. The long, dark tunnel of this piece has light on both ends but the thesis is like a jewel wedged into an obscure niche along the way: fortune is a necessary supra-ordinate agent but its powers are not sufficient. Whatever the Mystery of God is and does, I am not excused from the role I play in my own fate. Duke Ellington wrote scores to showcase his musicians but they had to perform, to be guided while growing and rehearsing, and to persist with tenacity in order to make legendary music a reality.

The river is my device. Sitting under a bridge, in the echoes of passing cars, I remember my denials. To keep from being bogged with them, I must render them crystalline moments rather than as exhaustive tales. I cannot easily summarize the whole journey. It’s all so imperfect and imperfectly rendered. Sitting on a stump watching chunks of ice going down-stream, I pray for signs that never seem completely clear. Why did I have such difficulty beginning and concluding important class projects? I flunked college Algebra. I lost hope in making the school of music, yet I could never completely leave the trumpet behind. I struggled to relate to roommates, to approach classmates, to… to… no, I finally connected to my crush and she had a crush on me! Yes… but…

Once, I sat on a futon in K’s dormitory room, waiting for her to return from the coffee-shop with her friends because I wasn’t feeling well, again, and I quarantined myself. “I need you to be less clingy and less crazy,” she said and I earnestly desired to be free of the feelings that so inexplicably overwhelmed me. The medicine hadn’t helped; the long period of sickness, coldness, darkness, and loneliness seemed never to subside until April, after we broke-up, when I returned to the alcove beneath the bridge and blew the ashes from my soul, playing exuberantly into the Spring air and attracting the attention of a good-natured photographer… I recovered and volunteered to lead the music at our campus fellowship that fall.

Learning that K was dating J, my good friend, I felt a momentary twinkle of happiness for them– then the irrational anger. Why didn’t they tell me, first? Did they think I couldn’t handle it– everyone thinks I can’t handle anything! I’ll show everyone that I can be strong– I have reasons to be angry. Everyone wants to minimize my feelings but…now the band is failing. I’m visibly desperate and no one wants to work with me. I failed at something, again. I’m an imposter…

AC and I used to lay together for hours, drinking a trickle of wine and watching reality television. She never judged me but I felt, always, like there was something I should be doing. I was better but not the best. When apart at our separate campuses, I would call her for a half-hour to break apart the monotony of silence. Perpetually dissatisfied with myself, with the ways I distracted myself, I finally broke-up with her– something needed to change. A week later, we were together again because I couldn’t endure the lack of cuddling — and I couldn’t explain to anyone why I thought we needed to break-up — I recall her saying “This isn’t the change you’re looking for! I know you’re trying to piece your way through whatever is going-on in your head but please don’t push me away–” She helped me re-do college Algebra, shared her own struggles with me, and generally… I was never quite satisfied… I was waiting for something to happen to make me sure?

Between AC and AE, I was single for barely a breath; we all worked at the summer camp together. For the week remaining before the children arrived, I went to the chapel on the top of the hill to pray… and to scream at the top of my lungs. My parents were divorcing and my grandfather had just died– Thom later said, “we heard you in anguish but we didn’t know what to do; I knew you were going off the edge but confronting you about it seemed impossible. Before we knew it, you and AE were together…”

She didn’t want to touch me anymore; March was becoming April of the next year. Friends said it was because she didn’t understand what it meant to go through family difficulties, to see both grandfathers die in less than a year. I convinced myself I needed to endure and become a better Christian, to read the books she wanted me to. Sometimes I would beat myself about the head, when she wasn’t looking, and try to release the pressure with tears. What a relief it was when she showed-up and loaded her things into an SUV, driving into the sunset. The following November, I burned all of the conservative Christian literature and… and…

Get in the boat, reader. A kayak has appeared. Every nugget of suffering from before this moment is left behind, beneath the bridge, as we embark. Imagine my joy as I fly to New York City to interview; imagine my sense of purpose as I begin mission-training, knowing I was bound for Bethlehem, Palestine. I became part of an office of warm, determined people and spent my lunch-hours sipping tea and eating falafel beneath a Mediterranean sun; I defy the guard-tower, the dystopian check-points, the doubting voices of the ignorant…

…and at night I cannot resist the lure of pornography. I lay myself on a stone floor and cannot transcend the urges of my body. Why? How can I be Called by Whatever-God-Is and have so little self-control? The trauma of working there has not seared the darkness from me. I am a contradiction: in my strongest form and so obviously weak.

The day Mustafa Tamimi died– I never knew him personally. The story was so powerful, I could not stop thinking about it on the bus-ride home. A rocket propelled tear-gas canister — a nonlethal weapon used lethally — hit him in the head and the Israeli soldiers delayed his ambulance on purpose. They made sure he was dead. The essential flavor of The Occupation’s evil was evident. Tears started forming in my eyes but I noticed a group of young men looking at me, gesturing. I repressed it. I stuffed all of the poison back into my core. If I had just been honest, I wonder if we might have all grieved together… but I was ashamed of my emotions…

Fucking Jerusalem PD. I couldn’t stop thinking about the smug look on that cop’s face, now attaching to my reveries about soldiers breaking into my apartment in the middle of the night. Soldiers used my apartment for a crows nest during the siege of Bethlehem, years before I arrived. That week, four international aide workers had been taken from their homes: deported. The feelings and images started blending in the crucible of my mind. Soon, I was imagining how I would escape when they came for me. Maybe I would use a bed-sheet to slide down the television cable, or jump twelve feet down to the roof over the parlor, or… blast out the door with a knife in hand and stab one of them! BANG BANG BANG; I would die. I wasn’t ready…

“We want to celebrate life; this is not the way I want to celebrate your life,” Zoughbi said to me when I asked him if I should chain myself to a house about to be demolished. “Maybe,” I replied, “I could save someone’s home. Or if I die, it could draw attention to the house demolitions again.” “Oh John…” he said with compassion in his eyes, “the US media will ignore you; they will forget about you in one day.  We want you to keep working with us for the rest of your time here; we care for you. But the news media will forget you, if you try to die for us. I’ll think about more things I can have you do– your work matters, John.”

Fuck the Dutch therapist in France. I’m not even going to dignify those people with descriptions.

I hit my head over and over again on the roof of my first Washington apartment, until I collapsed crying. My father joined me on the floor and whispered “–it’s going to be okay, John.”

I felt something stilted in her hug. A few days later I heard from her: she hadn’t felt a spark but still wanted to be friends. My new therapist tried to lesson the blow but I felt as if I had failed to be lovable. The image of a beautiful woman pulling away and into the subway car–

This is a cluster of moments: the television is always too loud. It’s Emerson on O street. It’s Nick on Hampshire West Ct. It’s Michael playing ‘Planet Destiny’ and Alec talking loudly to him about the news. I harbor angry, even murderous thoughts until I finally emerge and ask for the television to be turned-down. “Sure, of course. Are you okay? Do you want a beer?” –and I felt ridiculous. Because I was.

“–I got ghosted. I thought I’d finally done everything right, Janice. I can’t get over it.”
“I’m dying of cancer. You’re going to be fine, John Daniel. But I’m dying of cancer and I just–”

Readers, I need to take a big breath. We’ve made it to an island in the middle. By the end of preschool staff training, I had found my greatest love. We picnicked by the river, embracing. It’s almost more painful thinking about how great it was to fall in love with N. Someday, maybe I can bear to recap why this romance was so different, so precious, and ultimately capable of helping me see the truth. First, I lost her.

Working at a preschool fed my deteriorating thought life nightmarish reveries that I still feel uncomfortable sharing. I recently dreamed about one of our difficult children; I was playing with him, embracing him, and speaking to him in Spanish– we were happy. When I awoke, I shivered. It made a terrible juxtaposition with all of the thoughts I had about him as the year had progressed, wishing he and many of the other children would…

Sitting on the porch of the cabin, high in Shenandoah National Park, I cannot overcome my impatience with her children. It must be them? Why did she want to bring me? Why weren’t they better disciplined?! What kind of unrealistic expectations do I have? What’s wrong with me? Am I stressed from my job? I’ll never forget the hurt look on her face when I vented my frustration. I blamed the whiskey I had drank the day before… two days before… I couldn’t understand why everything seemed to grate on me.

Sometimes, I would put my headphones on for long car-trips.

I exploded at her daughter. I didn’t understand why I felt so passionately, didn’t expect to feel so passionately…

My times alone were punctuated by fantasies about beating-up her ex, beating-up her stalker, beating-up that friend of hers I was sure wanted to come between us, beating-up my exes’ exes, beating-up myself for being an ex-peace-activist having so many violent thoughts…

We hardly talked for hours on the drive down the Michigan coast. We were both tired. I had said something nasty about the road-crew impeding us. I’m imagining myself rubbing my hands together vigorously, losing my grip, maybe pounding on the steering-wheel. We managed to endure, with the help of some coffee. The next morning, everything seemed wonderful again… my denial continued…

“Sometimes, I wish I was dead,” I told her. I’ll never regret any words more than those. That began the end.

Stunned, part of me is still sitting perfectly still at my grandmother’s house reading “The Sound & The Fury” and “Turtles All the Way Down”, one right after the other. John Green finally got me to see it: I have a mental health struggle, too. It’s finally okay. On the telephone with N the next day, I assured her that I now understand I needed to do whatever it took. “–I still have reservations,” she said. No words will ever hurt so much as those. Nothing any of my ex-girlfriends, my bad first-dates, my misguided acquaintances, or even my toxic mother could equal those words. This was the first person other than my Father and sister to love me the way I deserved, so much. My depression robbed me of her. My depression… I could have overcome all the other challenges so much more adeptly, without this handicap. I always believed I would become better, rendering this struggle moot. There was always another benchmark, another mountain peak, and once I reached that point I would be fine. I’ve run out of peaks and now I must go through the valley. Wadi nahr? *ponders*

Here’s something much more quintessentially ‘beige ninja’: applications for higher-education jobs ask if the applicant has a disability. Major depression and anxiety are listed. I always answered “No”– I suspected I suffered but I didn’t want any employer to think it was significant– I didn’t want to lose an opportunity by being honest with them, nor lose my self-respect by being honest with myself. I couldn’t see a way forward, believing that I was afflicted. I would have rather…

DAMN YOU CHARLIE! IT COULD HAVE WORKED! DAMN IT! I MIGHT AS WELL JUST…

JUST… WISH I COULD JUST… I WANT TO…

*echoing* “–that’s not the way I want to celebrate your life,” said Zoughbi.

“You’re one of those shiny people,” K once told me. She was right but I hadn’t gained a handle on that elusive enemy from within. Yet, here we are: I’ve got Charlie in a headlock. My neck tingled a little as I wrote that; it’s true. I’m getting the best of Charlie, after all these years of wrestling. I’m learning so much, lately…

I am not denying the inherent challenges in events and relationships. Rather, I wanted to reinterpret my memories to reflect the truth: Charlie exacerbated each and every situation and my denial made me unable to counter that successfully. My latest and best romance might have survived its challenges if I had been able to counter Charlie sooner. The fact that I am still alive is proof that I am in the process of mitigating Charlie: I have hope of a next greatest mission, a next greatest romance, and a next greatest piece of music or writing. I needed to turn sharply into this field of painful memories in order to curve back toward The Light again. All of this doesn’t even begin to describe the totality of my experience but perhaps it is enough catharsis for today. I can’t stay on this island– she’s gone but there could be a next time, provided that I don’t… just… no. I won’t die like that. I promise. This valley matters– the cycle will not go on as before. It’s a spiral going forward.

Now I check the box next to “I prefer not to answer,” on my applications. I wrote all of this so I would not be so eager to just fold everything nicely and place it in the past. The majority of my time and contact with other people is positive; I have swathes of good friends in my wake. I have a Masters’ Degree and a career ahead of me, guiding students on their path to success. I write all of these things so I don’t need to be afraid of how darkness has damaged my Light, anymore. I confess the darkness and it loses power; it’s been losing power ever since N broke-up with me, though it comes back in flashes (terrible reveries I’m learning to shut-off). The Truth is my friend, after all. I am a special presence in the world. Everywhere I turn, friends appear to support me as I continue. I will continue.

* * *

An Osprey in Finlandia

Musical serendipity is a hard-copy of a piano score, delivered over a week late in the mail. The shuffling songs of an iPod seem like a scrolling buffet of fortunes when our ears are hungry for significance. Earlier this week my health had recovered enough to allow me to start exercising again — the difference in my mentality is mounting but still vague. Some days, I struggle to awaken before 8 AM. Monday was such a day and I was wading through the estrangement from my mother, hung-over from the previous day. When I had finished doing lawn-work for some friends, I hit the trail for the first time in over a month. The perfect Jimmy Hendrix song flows through my earbuds at the very moment I stop running and ascend the outcrop of rocks over-looking the stream where a week ago I wanted to die. “And castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually,” he says just before singing a verse about the disabled girl who goes to commit suicide but sees the golden winged ship. Without changing artists, the device plays “Red House”. I sang along with Jimmy from the top of the rocks, bemoaning the long absence of love (“–I haven’t seen my baby in 99 and one-half days”). Perhaps we lend more credence to the songs we here by coincidence over the radio. It is so quintessentially human to construct meaning from the songs we encounter. Whatever we make of them, I think music’s power to elicit thoughts and feelings cannot be discounted.

Just as I finished Monday’s run, an osprey flew overhead with a fish in its talons. What a superb sign. On the other hand, there would be no sign for me if I had retreated to bed or the distraction of youtube videos (“Action speaks nothing, without the Motive”?). Everywhere I look, I want to see a bird carrying signs of eminent victory. Before this ill-fated winter began, I saw a barred-owl sitting in a tree by the road in daylight; I later learned that seeing owls in daylight is considered by some to be a bad omen– should we believe the owl was warning me? If I do, can I believe the osprey carried my blessing? There is a certain degree of entanglement between our choices — to run, to play, to interpret the universe — and the feedback we get from existence. Never have I ever believed in predestination; rather, I can entertain there is Mysterious Agency at work… but I have to stay aware of my own agency and practice using it. Tuesday I rose early and ran. Wednesday I faltered.

The score arrived in the mail that day; for a couple weeks I’d prepared to play trumpet in the Easter program at a church in Washington. Cynically, I decided I would rather gig-it-up that Sunday and avoid the complexity of seeing my ex-girlfriend on a major holiday. Because I only had the trumpet part in front of me for two weeks the middle of the song I rehearsed, the section where I am resting, was a complete mystery to me. After rehearsing my part a few times, I became curious and opened the score to the middle. As soon as I started to play the melody I recognized it was Finlandia. This melody has followed me, linking stages of my life with the same notes graced by different lyrics. In the Methodist Hymnal it provides the backdrop for a song called “Be Still my Soul”, which I first heard in the turbulent weeks following my parents divorces and the subsequent death of my paternal grandfather. In Palestine, I heard Finlandia again at the Ramallah Friends Meeting as the melody for “A Song of Peace” — “A Song of Peace” reduced me to tears when I started attending Adelphi Friends Meeting, two years later.

This is my song, O God of all the nations.
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is.
Here are my hopes,  my dreams, my holy shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean.
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations:
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

Notice, readers, how I keep Faith on the perimeter of my musings so far. As a practicing Quaker, I shy from proselytizing in favor of waiting, expectantly, for possibilities to blossom on their own merits. Whether that happens in Mosque on Friday, Church on Sunday, or on the subway, wherever, I hope the chains of revelation are NOT confined in any way, not belonging strictly to one sect, never entirely robbed of mystery by trite explanations. For reasons unexplained, the hard-copy of the entire score was delayed. I practiced the trumpet part out of context, counting huffily through a long series of rests in the middle. On Thursday night I finally rehearsed with the organist and choir director — we are all so skilled, the practice time was brief. As everyone nodded their approval, I felt a longing to keep practicing together. Unworried by the prospect of Sunday, I simply wanted to keep playing my triumphant trumpet line while the organist played Finlandia beneath. He confessed that he’d never liked that melody and I silently marveled at how that was possible and whether it had any effect on the message I found in all of these happenings. The Maunday Thursday service commenced, with its ritual foot-washing. Forsaking the long line to the senior pastor, I yanked my socks off awkwardly in front of the ministry intern. As she took my feet into her hands, she smiled and looked up at me to ask my name– she was impossibly beautiful in that moment but I tempered that observation by reminding myself that it was a beautiful act when Jesus did it for his disciples. For a moment, I reminded myself of whom I used to be, before I was a very very quiet Quaker not proselytizing. Not that I ever was an evangelist: I was a social justice missionary in Palestine. I once washed the same dirt from my feet that Jesus washed from Peter’s. And I told the Methodist church to repent of its investments in the instruments of oppression– I thought about that as I threw my socks into the pew and took communion.

While I was marooned in Jordan watching the proceedings of the United Methodist General Conference, I sketched an osprey. Since high school, I had put a great deal of stock in red-tail hawk sightings. They are quite the common raptor next to roadways, though. The only sighting I cannot immediately dismiss as coincidence was when a hawk followed me during orientation at Michigan State University. Raptors, to me, are a reminder that Something with a higher perspective is looking after me. Yet I missed the water terribly while I was in the middle-East, so I sketched an osprey because I know they love to fish. I saw the osprey again Friday morning when I ascended the rocks, again; as if to reinforce that, I also saw a pair of pileated woodpeckers. I took all of these as a sign of hope, watching the stream in the distance.

The stream continues in my mind as I kneel by the alter rail, side-hugging my good friend Kristen. Another ex-missionary, now working for a Quaker agency. I’m always trying to coax her to Quaker Meeting, where we are intentionally contemplative, and where anyone might say anything but its possible the silence will go unbroken– sometimes that’s better. In Quaker Meeting, I live the Faith I found on a remote island near Hong Kong when I strolled past the Taoist cemetery and an old couple gestured emphatically to the beach. It was low-tide and I felt an overwhelming sense that I was exactly where I belonged, though I was fully two-worlds away from where I was born. No theology needed articulated. Yet this week the assurance that some things were going to happen– it’s Holy Week and I used to work in the Holy Land. Liturgies are not as empty for me as for most Western, white Christians– when clergy start preaching about Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus waited for his inevitable arrest, I get tingles (I mean right now, writing this, I am shivering all over) because I also felt the overwhelming sense of belonging there, among the olive trees, at a time in my life when I could fully articulate a theology of liberation. “Do this in remembrance of me,” the parishioners say, parroting Jesus Christ. My ideas of atonement aren’t sacrificial. I don’t think any of you are sinful and need an ultimate human sacrifice to be cleansed. I think our world is broken and we all need to symbolically die, as our old selves, to become the agents of change needed in this world. I call this Exemplary Atonement: where Jesus shows us how to be compassionate in fulfilling our purpose, courageous in the face of death, and then rises again to show us that new life is possible. That is my reading of the text because, after all, The Bible is a piece of inspirational literature, not a magical spell-book. Our fortune is not in The Bible; our Biblical Interpretive abilities are crucial to Fate — and we are readers of much more: of beaches, of birds, of…

–I return a day later to the same pew for a ‘Good Friday’ service. Another hand claps my shoulder: a friend from Michigan State. Everywhere I turn, people are guarding my way forward and offering reassurance: I cannot doubt that I want to keep living. The more I engage my world, the more possibilities open. Staying confined to my apartment, or to my friends’ house, or to my mother’s home, or to wherever I am waiting… when I linger, I am fading. Yet at that service, my mind was alive and rifling through the possibilities: many and sundry, I won’t make you read them all, until my eyes settled upon the choir director. This dark handsome man invited me, not knowing he would put me into the melody I needed (Finlandia). On the sly, I opened the Methodist Hymnal to “Be Still My Soul” to see what wisdom the first verse’s lyrics could bestow to me at a transitional time of life:

Be still my soul the Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain
Leave to thy God to order and provide
In every change He faithful will remain
Be still my soul thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end

The fact that there is something about “every change” and “thorny ways” was enough. I almost ‘lifted’ the hymnal but I caught hold of my senses. At just the right moment, Finlandia returns to me in an Easter setting. This elicits chicken-and-egg questions: does Finlandia carry fortune so well because it is beautiful ([organist] “it’s boring”) or become more beautiful because it carries fortune? Finlandia is fortunate for me because it binds these differing ideas together: first of pain in times of uncertainty, then panoramic visions of world peace, then in the Easter setting with reference to both painful uncertainty and the ultimate promise of peace. Finlandia didn’t really string those ideas together, though: I did.

On the drive home, I became possessed of the idea that I would go to the stream, collect some of its water, then run the water through a filter and drink it! “Instead of releasing my blood into the stream so I can flow into it, I will release its water into my body so it can flow into my blood.” I drove home as if I were riding on an oceanic wave, muttering to myself about all the bodies of water that were part of my body. The next morning it was ‘too cold’ and I had trouble getting out of bed. My grand plans to absorb the power of the stream into my being were thwarted. Almost immediately, the Charlie-voice leaped onto my shoulders and chided

“–what hope is there? Is there nothing that can break this cycle of–”

“WHOA WHOA!” I chided back, “–can a man sleep-in on a Saturday? Jesus slept through that Saturday– it was the mother-fucking Jewish sabbath! The day is NOT ruined, Charlie– shut-up.”

I spent most of the day writing the difficult parts of this blog post that I advised you all to skip. After I had played my trumpet part ONE MORE TIME, I became possessed of the notion again: I was going to run around the park, climb the escarpment of stones, and go down to the stream to collect its water. I ran without music, this time. Whenever I started to feel weak, I thought about that scene from Black Panther where [spoilers]– nevermind: go see “Black Panther” while it is still in theaters! When I emerged from the woods into the meadow, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to run further to be in good physical shape, yet it was vital to my mentality to be running until I was closer to knowing my limits.

For all the suspense — and wondering if I should also bath in the stream — my touchstone moment at the stream (oh no! I meant to pick-up a stone, too!) was sublime for being so comfortable. First of all, I realized I was right to chose that place to die: I would be honored to bleed-out in that spot if I did not believe there were so many sublime moments awaiting me in life. There was nothing wrong with my suicide vision except for the suicide: I am not sorry I felt that way. Nonetheless, I might get to sit near or in that stream many times. *drinks* –water never tasted so divine. I feel like this section is finishing. I saw a fox, dashing quickly away, and followed the osprey across the meadow again. Easter morning is at hand and I am toasting Resurrection. There were a few things I realized as I capped my bottle of stream water and climbed the escarpment. I think I need to ponder them longer, first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* * *

I rollover my unused material to a new blogging box, just as I did to start this entry. The lights go down on me, sitting atop the high pile of rocks. Darkness lasts only a moment before we are again in the theater. “The Prosecution” competed against “Thank-you for Playing” and “Double-date” in the FIST finals — on Palm Sunday, of all days. Since then, I’ve shared the stage with W.I.T. house troupe “Commonwealth” and had a heart-to-heart with a good friend (and former improv teacher) who plays with the troupe “Madeline”. I am becoming part of that community again, with its inherent but unknown possibilities.

It was a stroke of luck I could be at the finals: they needed volunteers on short-notice and I decided it was worth the trip into Washington. “Double Date” won the competition with a set that few of us will soon forget– and jubilation ensued. The winning team-members were taking photos with the FIST trophy, still star-struck at having won. I made another choice: I grabbed a garbage can and started dutifully picking-up trash as people celebrated around me. No one told me to do it– it was the right thing to do. I won’t scene-paint for you any more, readers, because I know you’re wondering why this is important. Tucked under a step, beneath a riser, was a fortune cookie left-over from a Szechuan Pepper Daddies show. They were eliminated but this fortune cookie was missed– it waited there for me.

I am tired. I have Easter ahead of me. This cookie has been on my desk all week. I endured the process-writing about my mother and several bad memories — it’s far from complete. I took the time to dig into ideas of fortune, the apparition of raptors, and the serendipity of “Findlandia”. I promise to engage with that long-past version of myself that started this blog, in fact. However… NOW I’ve earned this fortune cookie:

“The real essence of work is concentrated energy” [I swear I finished writing before I opened it; I love it]

This is an acceptable ending. *eats the cookie’s shell* Mmm.

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Reverse Exiled: Avocational Crises

blacknessLast week I opened a two-months-fermented word-document [rexiled_definitive] titled “Reverse Exiled”, like the name of this WordPress outlet. The Reverse Exiled blog materialized from the great visa-excursion of 2012, as I tried to return to my position at Wi’am. The blog shared a common purpose with the journey across Asia and back, which I understood to be navigating life from a new, multicultural perspective. Like this flagship entry, though, Reverse Exiled and all its predecessors are about the search for significance. The past ten years have been characterized by vocational crises whose genesis, ironically, is in the fear of failure and the outgrowth of warped, rushed plans wrought from wanting only excellence amid struggle. Sand-blast with personal struggle and compulsive coping mechanisms: it’s a search for significance that goes from Detroit to Davao. No negative stage has passed without some attempt to redeem the experience in my imagination — rationalizations, perhaps.

The outline I composed on the airplane between Chicago and DC this June is concerned with vocation:

-reversing exile; on my way home

-Quarter-life Crisis at Starbucks

-All of my recent challenges – interruptions to the story

-Retracing back to Mindanao/Bethlehem/sense-making. Things stopped making sense in Uncle Tom’s laboratory (should have been an ecologist) – society is made of systems of its own.

-One Love: MUSIC – then the blown audition. Never any hope… the drift away from myself

-Then came the Writing Center position?

-Then came the crash in the later years of college and just out of college

-Real-world woes… relearning life when I never learned the life I had been in…

-Coming to the yellow park-bench: having let go of music, found the deepest solace in playing

-Playing in caves

-Moving to DC; therapists;

-“What’s stopping you from writing?”

-“What’s stopping me from playing?”

-Musicianship as the underlying identity…

-…and yet: The Writer

-“Seriously… what is stopping me from writing?”

-(overkill: acknowledging the addictions)

The crisis in Starbucks is not hard to unravel: when I saw the price-tag on a graduate education I started to reconsider studying conflict resolution; the ‘man in the mirror’ is not a mediator. My work supporting Wi’am Center was indicative of my values and interests… but not necessarily my talents…

I am no stranger to vocational crises; my career as a biochemist trickled to a hault in the back laboratories of Notre Dame. My uncle showed me his neurological work zebra-fish eyes and, though animals fascinated me, the process failed to resonate in me — that kind of scientific research is something I love to read, not do. I enjoy unraveling systemic relationships; I realized this January that I could have been a wetland ecologist working in the muddy waters around this world. I might expose the subtle stitches in the changing tapestry of our world from tiny strands: the gills of mayflies or the mating habits of frogs. I could have flourished, with the right guidance…

Trumpet resonated. My dreams of playing and composing jazz hovered high above my musical foundations — I lacked sufficient training. My entire, teenage sense of significance coiled itself around a few music program auditions. Too much was at stake —my very self— and I was so far behind the musical curve that could not even acknowledge the coming turn of fortune. I lost the will to practice in the Autumn of my senior year of high school, hoping for a precipitous moment of genius that never appeared in my adult life. What even many in my family do not know is that I would have dropped out of Michigan State University and tried to audition at a smaller school had it not been for John T. Madden, director of MSU’s athletic bands. Based on the essays in my application to the marching band he encouraged me to stay in the English program, at least until I was ready to audition again. Five years later, I left with two BAs — neither of them in Music. Also, neither of them necessarily more lucrative.

When my grandfather had told me that music was an avocation, which confused and angered me. He and Grams bought most of my hardware (horns), paid for lessons, and came to concerts. Young men hate to fall passionate in love with something or someone and then be told they are “too serious”; I was the same way with ladies. Shabaab (an Arabic word — the only fitting term for that season in life) struggle to manage that kind of relationship and not lose themselves in the horror of loving without mastering, of practicing without possessing. I interred my horn in the space behind a couch and pretended to be an intentional English major. Yet my music rebounds, no matter what mode or stage of decay I reach. The avocation illuminates The Way to Vocation, no matter how long the dream remains deferred.

I developed the uncanny urge to sneak under the Bogue Street Bridge on campus and play trumpet (badly) — eventually, my tone was better than ever. Sometimes I would entertain ambitions but I mostly used my practice time as personal therapy. I learned to use a practice room when I moved across campus but I made weekend migrations there. That space was held together with graffiti and spiderwebs, held aloft over the limitless, contradictory depths of mud-steeped water running through the brewing night. Someday I want and even need to write more about the uncanny ways that alcove by the Red Ceder River worked, not just acoustically but as an expression of psyche — a motif.

The first lesson is that a true vocation — even an avocation — will keep finding ways to manifest itself; my musical experience is one of recurring ‘reverse exile’. Music creates a an irregular hollow in the quest for significance because my practice exists mostly for myself, to stave off despair and keep my prowess at a satisfactory point. Music demonstrates both that the unexercised talent becomes dull and unfulfilling but also that enough exercise revives the vocation to previous levels ~ or adds new dimensions. The unsteady love affair with the trumpet traveled to dormitory lounges, park benches, church sanctuaries, and cavernous basements (literally, caves beneath houses). My last week in my old apartment building, in DC, I haunted the vacant room downstairs and disinterred the same sweet sound that keeps saving my sanity, the sound of dreams bridled into a regulated longing, the distillation of “what-if” — a consolation. I did have the raw gifts… but to what end?

The previous ‘all time low’ in my quest for significance came in the wake of my final relationship. I started going to Riverside Park (Grand Rapids, MI) every day to riff for a while and soak in a sunset. The process of making music offered too much and the prospect of suicide too little. The hurt of the (true) blues is transcendent beyond despair because it takes us beyond shame to expression, again. Quality became irrelevant for a while. Instead of leaving the world with my give-a-damn still in it I decided to just live and not give-a-damn. I became truly process-oriented about music.

I speculated that my music would lead the way for my writing but my career interrupted my development. Last week, I kept getting to this point in the essay and freezing. My writer’s block developed into an impossible bind. Always at this point because I never succeeded — I never moved beyond that point. I walked away from my creative self to become an activist for a multitude of reasons and tonight I need to confess that I second-guess that regularly and have since I discovered, in France, that no one wants to listen to prophets. Now, I am becoming tired of listening too. Rather than believing I have a mission, I have begun to believe that the mission grew from that desire for significance — if there is a God, that God made good use of that urge but it seems all but expended as I start avoiding the constant stream of progressive news reports, longing for more beautiful things again… wishing I could braid them together because the most gorgeous facets of life — love, expression, resilience — are in real danger.

—and I’m learning this just as I write, trying to be honest instead of crafty. I want to say that the activist interceded to rescue the artist before he starved or finally had that date with the toilet-bowl cleaner (or the watermelon knife, or a half-frozen lake, or…). The activist grew not only out of that selfish longing for significance but also of preservation, a defense mechanism. I failed to launch in many ways for a complicated suite of reasons (that is putting it simply, since there is a memoir lurking in these words). More than merely saving my life, the activist in me wanted to save my existence by making my soul part of a movement toward a better society. Tonight, my optimism was challenged by a close friend, who seems content to keep doing good despite her belief that things are inevitably getting worse. One a decade-long scale, she is right. On a century-long scale, I believe she is wrong but, through the millennia, neither of us can know the prevailing arc or our species. What I do know is that I did it again: I fell in love with a vocation that I will never master. It is another element in my true vocation, another part that became a mask when it should have been an appendage.

 

I am a writer. I am a writer among many writers. I am not especially notable, thus not significant. I wish I could be something else. On the other hand, perhaps only the artist in me can rescue what is left of a very harrowed activist.

 

TBC…