Friday, December 31, 2010

Profane Words

It's no secret that I'm very immersed in religion, even if it's in a non-personal-Deity kind of way. And in spite of my criticism of religion, I tend to think that all the world's religions have something to offer. I think atheism has something to offer as well.

However, over the years, I've noticed that I have more and more irritation towards the name "Jesus". Before you call for the exorcist, I should tell you that I know the root cause of the irritation, and it's hardly demons. It's profane over-use.

I did a Google search on "Jesus name profane", and came up with all sorts of invectives from various places that "the name of Jesus shall not be profaned". Which is ironic, because the name of Jesus is profaned all the time. And I think it's why I--and many other people--don't really want to hear it anymore.

It was once said that if you say the same thing over and over again enough times, people will believe it. Perhaps that is a missionary tactic of evangelicals. It might not be a good place to mention that this was said by Adolph Hitler. But there is truth to it.

We like to think that we're sharp enough to evade propaganda. But not when the propaganda sounds like our worldview. If it's close enough, then we consider it plausible. And unfortunately, the name of Jesus has been used a lot as propaganda--and as a propagator of fear. Yes, I know that this has nothing to do with the message or mission of Jesus. But if words are powerful, so are associations. When you start to associate a sacred name with hucksters trying to get your money, to sell you "miracle Bible oil", to spread lies and prejudice about marginalized groups--it's really hard to taste the sweetness of the name. It's like beer that 's gone "skunky".

I get that people are moved in very devotional ways. I'm not against that, if it is meaningful to you. But often times there is a lot of phony grandstanding in the name of religion--usually Christian religion in this country. And it's not inspiring; it's nauseating.

I never really believed in the sacred/profane split until I considered this. Some things really need to be left in the holiest of places.

I've studied most of the world's religions. My spiritual path has taken me to some obscure places. Out of every type of prayer, meditation, and ritual that I've engaged in, there's only one experience that I've found to be genuinely profound in a spiritual sense. There were no visions of any gods or teachers, no angels singing. It was an experience of nothing. Silence. The closest thing I can liken it to is what Teresa of Avila called "the prayer of quiet". There wasn't any need for words or incantations, though the vibration of certain words can bring you to that quiet state. In this state, the Buddhist notion of "living in the present" makes sense in a way that can't be described. It sounds inconsequential, but it isn't--the impact of the experience is astounding; the world never looks the same after that.

Perhaps I am thinking of this because I had that first experience 8 years ago today. And I always think back to it when I get too overwhelmed by my life obligations.

On a different note--I've updated the bbfiction blog in the past week with a couple new poems. You can check them out here if you haven't already.

And with that, this is my last post of 2010. Everyone enjoy New Year's Eve. I plan to spend mine visiting friends in the afternoon, then drinking wine and playing Scrabble with my mother. If that sounds lame, I would argue that standing around Times Square with 1 million drunks, or sitting in a crowded restaurant or club with a bunch of drunks does not fit my notion of a "good time". The last time I planned to celebrate New Year's Eve in a big way was when I was in London 2 years ago. Then I got the flu, and that put an end to that. Spent all of New Year's Day sleeping, punctuated by searches for orange juice. Perhaps I am just getting old.

Of course, with every year that passes--never mind every day--we're all getting older. Happy new year!

Thursday, December 30, 2010


My dresser drawer was starting to remind me of the cat's toy basket this week. The stuff on top was well-used, while the stuff at the bottom was almost forgotten. With my cat, I try to be egalitarian about the toys, and I occasionally rotate the bottom toys to the top, so that nothing is neglected. With my clothes it is not so simple; everything at the bottom has been there so long, it needs to be ironed to make it presentable. So, it had become inevitable that I would have to begin hours of ironing to reclaim my wardrobe.

While ironing, I brought my Macbook upstairs so I could watch some Ghost Hunters re-runs. There was some discussion a few weeks back about their last show, that featured the Real Housewives of Atlanta (one of many mind-numbing reality shows on TV these days). The producers really seem to have jumped the shark with this one; while the investigation wasn't a total catastrophe, it was hardly their shining moment. Even the TAPS members seemed rather tentative and uneasy with the arrangement, but were clearly making the best of it.

In the midst of discussion about this, someone asked me if anyone ever saw or heard anything remotely like a ghost on this show. The answer is yes. For your convenience, I've made a list of the stand-out episodes in this category, mostly from the first 3 seasons, which I will now share with you:

Race Rock Lighthouse
--an empty chair in an unoccupied room slides across the floor--twice.
Eastern State Penitentiary--full body apparition caught on upper floors (This is the original episode from Season 1--the "Dude, Run!" episode)
Crescent Hotel--Full body apparition caught on thermal cam.
Ellis Home--weird psychedelic light show between the owner of the house (who's a medium) and Jason Hawes.
St. Augustine Lighthouse--voices, shadows, and a full-body apparition looking over the railing at the camera.
Stanley Hotel--Jason's closet door opens and shuts by itself, and the glass on his nightstand cracks from the inside by itself. Also--a table and chair lifts up and drops by itself.
Bird Cage Theater--A cord unravels itself from the bell it's wrapped around and hits the floor.
Leap Castle--Dustin Pari gets picked up and thrown to the ground by the Elemental that is supposed to haunt the place.
Lisheen Ruins--Weird figures show up on thermal cam, and a ghostly face appears on camera--the same face seen by Irish investigator Barry FitzGerald.
Northern State Hospital--apparition steps out, and then back into the darkness on camera. Plus you hear eerie singing in the attic.
Lullaby Lane--crazy electronic voice phenomena--responds directly to questions.
Gibbons House--full body apparition rises out of the floor and walks away.
Fort Mifflin--more creepy electronic voice phenomena. One voice asks for a drink of water after seeing a sound guy drinking from a bottle of water.

Ah, ghosts. On a tangentially-related note, I was reading an article on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the stages of death (and grieving). She is famous for the traditional "5 steps" in the grieving process (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Psychologists have taken this pretty literally, and as the article points out (and Kubler-Ross herself), that the neat packaging of the process in this manner belies its complexity. There is a sense that grief is linear, that we move forward or backward, when in fact this is not how loss manifests itself at all.

Nor anything else, for that matter.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

At the Threshold of Year's End

Yesterday I visited a childhood friend at her parents' retirement house, which is only 25 miles from where I live. Sitting in the dining room drinking tea, our conversation drifted across many topics--what we'd been doing over the last couple of years, what became of certain family members and friends. There was a curious blending of the past and the future in this comfortable threshold of the present. I was reminded of the fact that this was the family that shaped my childhood more than my own family. In my own family I was largely an outsider--6 years younger than my youngest sibling. My father was always working, and my mother too busy running around trying to keep tabs on the 5 of us.

By contrast, it seemed my friend's family was always going out doing interesting things, visiting new places. As I got older, I realized that they drank a lot of wine. I admired them for this. My family never drank. Sounds strange, but I have a great appreciation for good beer and wine. This interest of mine has never set quite well with my family, who have an underlying belief that anyone who enjoys alcohol is destined to be an alcoholic. Sure, they dip in themselves once in awhile, but it's pretty rare. It's odd when you consider that my father is of Irish/English descent, and my mother of Eastern European descent. Of course, my mother saw marriages and families within her own family ripped apart by drinking and its abuse, so perhaps her attitude is not so surprising. And my father's grandfather died of wood alcohol poisoning during Prohibition.

Really, though, it's not just the enjoyment of beer or wine--it's pretty much everything. I've always felt a bit out of step with everyone else in the family. And over the years I've learned not to be concerned about it. This annoys my mother, who feels I should put family first. Often I do, but generally speaking, there's no point. I don't consider this a problem. If my family had been more attentive to my life course, and we had ended up being more close-knit and traditional overall, maybe my life would have been a lot different, and I wouldn't want that. It was a wonderful moment when I suddenly realized that I didn't have to do things based on what others might think of me. There was no need to do what I was supposed to do by societal or familial decree. There's wonderful freedom in that, and also great responsibility.

In the course of my conversation with my friend, she mentioned a trip she took with friends to Berlin and Paris, once again whetting my appetite for Europe. She's heading for Umbria in Italy sometime this summer. I'm looking at financial logistics, and by Fall 2011, a week in Paris might not be out of the question. Still--too soon to say. But I was happy to be reminded that I should move forward, even when we'd been looking backward.

In the meantime, I'm still purging away. Got rid of 5 years worth of old papers, and I'm still cleaning out closets and drawers. This is an almost-vacation week for me (I still have an online class to teach). As the week progresses, I'm not sure if I'm getting lazier or just more relaxed. I find myself following the cat's example, and curling up in my bed for most of the day. I do have visits with friends, but not every day. Nonetheless, I have to snap out of it for at least some time, and get some writing, grading, and chores finished. Money is still tight, so I'm resisting the urge to go out. The recent snowstorm--which hardly affected us at all--has brought New York and East Jersey to a standstill. While not good for residents of those towns, it's been good for me--I have a reason not to go there.

I read today that New York City had a "good riddance" day--where they wrote down things they wanted to get rid of, and put it in a big ceremonial pile to be shredded. This is a great idea, and no better time for such a mass effort than the end of Mercury Retrograde (ends tomorrow, the 30th). 2010 has not been the greatest of years overall, though it did have its high points. I've never felt myself in more of a crunch than I have this year financially--not for at least 15 years.

On the other hand--I was going through some New Yorker magazines that I've allowed to stack up, and one had an article on North Koreans who defected to Yinji in China. One girl told her story--she was her family's one hope educationally, so they'd saved their money to send her to college. Then in one stroke--the North Korean government devalued their currency, and gave citizens 24 hours to cash in their won (North Korean money). In the end, the girl's family had only 15 dollars left to their name. Between that and the rampant starvation among the people there--I realized that my material difficulties in no way matched theirs. Even among Americans I'm not that bad off--I have a full-time job with benefits, and have the opportunity to get extra work. Being frugal will get rid of my debts. Others are not so lucky.

Let's hope 2011 is better for everyone. Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Outcomes, or, The Universe is Way Smarter Than You (or I)

I have started about seven different blog posts since I wrote the last one. I can’t seem to finish any of them—if I can’t stand to re-read my text, or can’t get very far with it, I usually scrap it. If I’m bored by it, it’s likely you would be, too.
I love the silver and rose colored skies this time of year—especially at sunrise or sunset—but I can’t stand being outdoors. It’s been ridiculously cold this month—average January temperatures rather than December temperatures.

The day I was supposed to fly to London ended up being a snowy one in the UK—some places got a foot or more of snow, highly unusual. It is very likely that even if the Troxy gig went forward on that date, not many people would have made it. I’m not sure I would have made it—many flights were canceled. Chalk another event up to “the universe is way smarter than you” category. The snow enabled many Foxx fans with non-refundable arrangements to actually get refunds on account of the weather.

I had another John Foxx non-event that was similar—I was waffling on going to an exhibition opening in London that Foxx “might” be attending last April. I got no definite reply as to whether he’d be there, but my instincts told me not to go. I was upset when I learned that he actually did turn up—but as it happened, Eyjafjallajökull also erupted that weekend. It is likely I would have been stuck in London for quite some time with nowhere to go if I had made the trip. The universe is way smarter than you and me.

In reviewing some of my blog posts, I was reminded that I had made some predictions for 2010. I re-read them, and I would say none of them happened. Things exploded in a way I don’t think any sane person could have imagined in the U.S. Which shows you that I am much better at focusing on the present than to try to be prophetic. On the other hand—sometimes my predictions are only for me, even when I want them to be for everyone. So, I should go back again and see if they pertain to me at all.

It’s funny how we always want to know the outcomes of things before they happen. The whole uncertainty business leaves everyone feeling so very...well, uncertain. If you think about it, the fear of death is just another version of the fear of uncertainty. We have all sorts of metrics and reasoning tactics to determine the probable outcome of things. But that’s all it is—a probable outcome. We don’t really know, we just make logical guesses. And as I’ve mentioned hundreds of times before, life isn’t really all that logical.

Sometimes we cling to the past as a way of feeling comforted, a counterbalance to our fear of the future. Sometimes we look to others to predict the future. I think this is why psychics are so popular, in spite of any attempts to discredit them—if they consistently predict things with accuracy, then people feel there is a certain amount of reliability in their determination of the future. However—even during the years when research into ESP and psychic phenomena was fashionable, it was noted that the very best psychics were only accurate 80% of the time. So, you still have a 20% chance they will be dead wrong.

After meeting my guru and receiving a mantra from her, I noticed a common pattern in my life. An event would be coming up—I would plan for it, have expectations for it. I would even be sure about exactly how it would turn out, being I’d been to the same event before, did the same thing, etc., more than once. And then I would get there—everything would be screwed up, there would be many moments of panic—and then everything would turn out fine. Not as expected, but fine. Sometimes—the results of this whirlwind were better than expected.

So, you can probably see now why I don’t have a “5-year plan”, and why I don’t have expectations. Any plan I have must be flexible, because everything can change at a moment’s notice. And the more wedded you are to your expected outcome, the more freaked out you will become.

If you add this to the “universe is way smarter than you” factor—it’s as my guru says in 2 of the few English words that she knows—“Don’t worry”.