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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

The first time I heard “women – you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them” was from a boy in junior high. That’s kind of how faith has been in my life. It’s never been something I’ve felt comfortable living with, or without. So I continue to believe, and doubt. Hope springs eternal even as despair dries everything up. My faith goes up in flames, and is reborn.

This song could have been written for Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent in the church calendar – 40 days of fasting before the biggest day of the Christian calendar, Easter. On Ash Wednesday, the pastor or priest says, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” while making the sign of the cross with ashes on our foreheads. (These ashes are usually made from burning the palms we waved last year on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, when we celebrate Jesus’s big “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem where he was hailed as king and crowds waved palm branches to celebrate before turning on him a week later and crucifying him.)

I’ve been keeping journals since I was ten years old. And lugging them around the country with me, every time I moved. A couple years ago as I was in the midst of trying to simplify my life and my possessions, I began to resent that heavy box of journals in my basement. And then I came across an idea from Courtney Carver, to burn journals after filling them. Of course it seemed almost blasphemous to me at first – utterly destroy my painstaking record of my precious inner life?

But I couldn’t stop coming back to the idea. I imagined how freeing that could feel. Over the years I’ve gone back and read old journals quite a bit, and to tell the truth, it started to feel like hearing old voices I just didn’t need to keep around. I had lived those years. I didn’t regret them. I don’t regret writing through those years. I’m so glad I did. But I didn’t really need to continue to enshrine my written impressions of my past.

The more I considered it, the readier I became to let those journals go. I boxed them up over the winter and stowed the box in the garage, waiting for an opportunity to start a backyard fire.

This song became the perfect opportunity. I didn’t plan which pages to burn, just tore out a few pages, threw them in the fire, watched the flames overtake the baggage of my past, felt my present moment come into focus, felt my heart lighten.

These songs, too, and my body, and my life itself – are here for a season. Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. I can’t make any of this last forever. I have no idea if anyone – even God – can. I remain skeptical about such things. And I dare to hope. But that’s not what moves me moment by moment.

What propels me is this: I do believe – and experience – that right here, right now, every day, everywhere, beauty can follow ashes. Loss, death, endings are real and horrible. And then, beauty. That too. Over and over, and that is life as I know it.

This song (for week 16 of #songaweek2018) was a good exercise in stretching my musician muscles. I wrote most of the lyrics in one sitting and then thought I had a good tune and chord progression but the more I played it, the more same-y same-y it sounded to me. So I tried to mix it up with a more interesting chord progression. Being a music major I should be able to explain what exactly I did here, but those theory classes were years ago! The main thing is that I shifted from an A major chord to a C major chord, so I would sometimes sing a C natural and sometimes a C sharp. It became an engaging challenge working all this out in so many layers of harmonies.

Now I lay me down
With the dogs of despair
Hunting for hope in my dreams
I’ll sleep just like a baby
Wake up in the dark
wailing for a mother I can’t see

Good God it’s not easy
Dear Lord it’s so hard
This living and loving and losing
Sweet Jesus believe me I’ve made it this far
On the fumes of a faith that keeps going up in flames

I’d like to do like you
To fast in the wilderness
Feast on the bread of heaven
Take it as it comes
Breathe my last and be born again
Moment by inevitable moment

Remember you are dust
And to dust you shall return
And I will give you
Beauty for ashes

 

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We buried one of my best friends from college yesterday. Tomorrow my sister-in-law and her family bury her younger brother. My friend Troy lived with Parkinson’s disease for a decade. Jen’s brother Zach died suddenly in a plane crash.

“Angels” was the suggested theme for week 15 of #songaweek2018. I didn’t have much interest in using it. I’ve never been a big angels fan (baseball or otherwise). Too sentimental, too kitschy, too many ceramic travesties foisted on the world. I did briefly start a song tentatively called “Don’t Blink,” but couldn’t sustain an interest in it.

So I pulled up some old song ideas from my files and found a recording of a tune and some chords, no words. And then it all started coming together, a song woven from the threads of my life that week.

Zach’s sudden death. Troy weakly hanging on to the last moments of his life. Two men’s lives tragically and senselessly cut short.

Winter refusing to leave my neighborhood, breathing cold and snow over everything, week after wearying week. An insistent reflection of my own middle-aged angst.

The physics book I’ve been reading, Reality is Not What it Seems, and its discussion of a 3-sphere, a current understanding of the shape of the cosmos; and how Dante envisioned it long before Einstein did, possibly from looking up at mosaics of angels in the Florence Baptistery.

The visions of painter and poet William Blake, which thankfully are something else my mind calls up when I hear the word “angel.”

In writing this song, I more deeply felt why angels have been consistently present in stories and art. There are moments, especially the moments around death, in which we reach out for something like us but not. A being of great beauty, power, intelligence – but also one who brings deep comfort. Not a god, not a human, but someone who knows more than we do, who has seen further into the mysteries of existence and can still say to us, “fear not,” can guide us from what we know into what we don’t.

Hold me while I freefall
While the winds of death squall
Keep me in your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Let me sing forever
Where the clouds can never
Take me from your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Lead me from this dark cave
Sail me cross the light waves
Fill me with your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel
Fly me through the shadows
Lift me from the cosmos
Add me to your vision
Carry me to paradise
Angel

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I set out to comment on this post by Thom Ingram, and realized instead that his writing had inspired more than just a comment. I’m not going to rehash his post; just read it for yourself because it’s a beautiful mindful struggle with the meaning of life.

I haven’t studied – or even read – multiple spiritual texts as Thom has – but I have this sense that in addition to the commonalities across texts that he mentions, there is also a shared thread of being fully present in the here and now; of living compassionately and empathetically towards myself and all others. And I think that is actually based on – and counterweight to – the commonalites he does bring up – that there is more than we know or sense, that we are more than we know or sense, that so much of what we think we are apprehending is not by a long shot the last word or the ultimate reality.

For me the idea of presence and humble empathy is often embodied in the squirrels I see out my window, just a representative for me of all the small and mindless little creatures living out their seemingly ultimately pointless little animal lives. I imagine what life is like in a squirrel’s mind. I empathize with this tiny furry rodent feeling warm sunlight and wintry winds on its body, its heart racing as it scurries illogically across the street in the paths of roaring automobiles, its simpleminded squirrelly chuckling laughter from a branch high in my backyard tree directed at my outraged terrier below. I think of it feeling hunger, cold, pain, and also delight, contentment, even rodent-level joy.

In the cosmic scheme of things, I am that squirrel. Except that my kind have tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and there can be no unknowing, no returning to the simple thoughtless life of the squirrel. I – and you – live in a cosmos that is beyond even our most-exalted-of-all-species intellectual capacities, but we have this extra level of knowledge that as far as we know, no other animal possesses: we know we’re going to die, that no matter what, every one of us is housed in a body that is falling apart, destined for the dirt. And beyond that, our knowledge fails us**. It appears to be the last word on the reality of the human body, as far as we’ve been able to ascertain through the senses and mental capacities of these bodies.

So we turn to imagination, art, faith, drugs, anything mind-altering, to see if somehow we can transcend the painful reality of the knowledge we can’t unknow, this knowledge of the ultimate decay of all things. And sometimes we can, and do. But that transcendence never gives our intellect the words and ideas it needs to feel satiated.

Thom says in his post, “I want to be in this world. In the here and now. I want to be centered on this place. But it’s all an illusion.”

And that’s where I turn to my powers of squirrel empathy for a little help. Whether it is all an illusion or not, this is the world where I have found myself. It is the reality I know, and you are here too. You are, right? Because maybe if everything is an illusion, then all the people around me are an illusion too, and it doesn’t matter how I treat them or what becomes of them.

I wonder, is this why the Genesis account of the tree of knowledge treats the tree and its fruit as so dangerous? If I understand that the world I think I know to be real is merely a virtual reality created by my senses and fed into my mind, why not seek to rise above it all? Why not make myself a god, the god of my own life, the god of this reality? Why shouldn’t I pilfer the planet and its people for the things I want, since it’s all a sham and even that is ultimately all falling apart anyway?

But back to the squirrel. The humble life of the squirrel. Breathe in, breathe out. Sunshine. Wind. Fear, laughter, hunger, and joy. And then, the human, who asks why? Always why, always, but why, what for, where is all this going, what’s it all about?

I don’t think asking why is ever a problem on its own. Instead, I find it concerning when we stop asking why because we think we know it all and we’ve come up short, disappointed and disillusioned with all we know, and throw up our hands and sigh, who cares, it doesn’t matter anyway.

It’s a hard fight some days, and others it feels small, pointless and never-ending – but I keep trying to faithfully live like a humble squirrel and an inquisitive human. I don’t think the fruit of the tree of knowledge is only bitter poison. Maybe if you squeeze out the sweetest part of it, let it ferment and share it with your friends, it can bring you some joy too.

 

**Of course humans are intellectually much smarter than squirrels, making discovery upon discovery, building wizard-level technological masterpieces – but that to me is just a way more powerful version of the squirrel brain. I’m referring here to consciousness, a sense of me and my place in the world, and its most painful realization of death and decay, that we haven’t knowingly encountered in any other species.

 

Bonus material – here’s a song I wrote last year and the origin of this post’s title:

 

 

 

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So while I was writing a song a week last year and devoting my blog pretty much exclusively to that effort, I was coming across an increasing pile of articles about the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), and why everyone should at least try to understand what’s going on and what may be coming down the pike.

Tim Urban at Wait But Why did some pretty substantial summing up in two posts – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence and The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction. This two-part series is a long read but worth it if you want to get some background and do some thinking on this topic.

Which might get you scared or excited at what could happen within your lifetime. I mean, immortality or extinction?! That’s kind of a big deal.

But then for some humanizing balance, I recommend Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People. Its author, Maciej Cegłowski, points out that those espousing AI’s potential to immortalize or annihilate our species are making some pretty bold assumptions about what intelligence ultimately is, and that some of this smells a bit megalomaniacal.

A story about computers taking over the universe (and then either saving or destroying humanity as we know it) captures our imagination more than a story about technocrats gradually sucking the soul out of human society by pushing for increased levels of surveillance and invasive technologies in their quest to prepare for the anticipated AI revolution.

Ceglowski’s article includes a quote I fell in love with: “If everybody contemplates the infinite instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.” A search for the author of the quote, John Rich, turns up that he’s a country music singer/songwriter.

Superintelligence, I would like to believe, if and when it does arise, will not be supercerebral. It won’t just encompass the intelligence of computer geeks, but also musicians and plumbers and the infinite depth and breadth of being – of which we humans have only a limited understanding and a small share.

Which spins everything back around for me. Religious and spiritual traditions tell us that a superintelligence like that has already arisen – in what we call God or whatever other name has been given to the supreme being – and that this God brought all we know into being.

So ultimate being, superintelligence – do we project this back to before life began, or forward in time? Do we give rise to it, or did it give rise to us?

Or is this all my less-than-superintelligence asking all the wrong questions, thinking in a linear timeframe, boxed in by the laws of whatever computer simulation or created universe this is?

Thinking is fun!

 

 

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What if God really is a construct of the human mind, collective human consciousness, generations of human culture? Does that mean we’re not still on to something? Our stories about transcendence, our yearnings for immortality, for perfect love and world peace – are they really only wishful thinking, or could they be baby talk in a real language we hear but cannot comprehend or speak yet?

I suspect we the human race have never gotten it right in our attempts to fully describe it – and it’s possible we’ve not hit on anything remotely close yet to the reality of that being/force/substance/unimagineable I Am/none of these things.

Are we truly naive and destructive for reaching, seeking, asking, theorizing? Of course not, not for those things. But for insisting, grasping, lying (willfully), closing eyes to the observable truth, claiming superiority, excluding, and faking – therein lies religious humans’ ignorance and destructiveness.

I can’t think like I used to – or pray like I used to – can’t sing or talk or go to church or get into a Bible study – not like I used to – but I can’t let it go either. Is it embedded in my psyche because it’s what my ancestors did? Partly, I’m sure. I can never know what it would be like to encounter my faith tradition with the wisdom and discretion of an adult. I can’t completely separate personal nostalgia from the stories of my faith, can’t divorce the little-girl wonder and comforting taste of church potlucks, soft embracing arms of Sunday School teachers, smell of glue and construction paper, sound of rich organ strains, from the doctrine of the Trinity, the gospel of Jesus.

I also can’t completely filter out the shaming looks and words, the hateful tones used of people different from us, the arrogant proof-texting and the general dullness and deadness – the constricting sameness, the denial of humanity in its richness, brokenness and wildness – that hummed around me like the radio station always tuned in and played low.

No, all of that is there, mingled with the body and blood of Christ, between the lines of the King James Version Bible memory verses filed away in my brain.

But it breathes like a living thing in me. It does not lie there mutely like a sterile model under museum glass, oblivious to my scrutiny.

I respect my fellow humans who see no sign of God. Their ideas have given me courage to explore my own – to go down deeper, unafraid (well, less afraid) of people’s opinions of my excavations. I have been changed, and am being changed – I am plunged more into myself, more into humanity, more into life and truth and this shattered, shining world.

The God of my past looks increasingly like a puppet, stitched together from Bible stories, religious aspirations, moral intuition; and animated by power-hungry men. But somewhere in there, I feel so sure, is a beating heart.

Lately I’m letting go of the fairy tale god who came prefabricated for me, all outlined in the Christian school curriculum, and pursuing the living God who cannot be contained in anyone’s mind, or so the stories go. Maybe this God is only a myth in the not-real sense of myth, or maybe this God is deeper and weightier than anything I’ve experienced, which is why this God for now resides in myth.

I journey on, a pilgrim in search of God – and I think it will be a lifelong quest, which only underscores the worthiness of the One I seek.

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