Monday, May 22, 2017

To the Limit, Here We Go

An Opinion article in Sunday's New York Times, ["Why the Future Is Always On Your Mind"] reminds us that humans are the only animals that "contemplate the future."

I read it from a lawn chair in the garage, bundled up in a coat, scarf, and hat (the temperature had dropped forty degrees in a week; no one saw that coming).

August, when renovation of the kitchen will be completed, seems a very long time away, and a long time to live in the garage.  But when I think how much better and nicer the kitchen will be, and what an awful chicken coop of slipshod carpentry it was, I am content to live in the garage for three  months.

After all, looking ahead to the many years we'll have that kitchen, what are three months in a garage?

Still, we are animals, and while we have the capacity to exercise forethought and patience, we also live in the present--in this particular moment--and we are dully aware of how we like it or not.

A horse lives exclusively in the present, and the breadth of her awareness of the present moment is intense. Consider her two-sided, 340-degree span of sight, her acute sense of smell and hearing, her almost telepathic sensitivity to the members of her herd, etc.,.

An injured horse may not plan for the future, but she will worry about what could happen to her in the presence of danger even when there is no present danger.  An injured horse is nervous because she knows that the injured in the herd are easiest to pick off.

Even if there is no predator around at the present moment, an injured horse will be hyper-vigilant.  She is easily alarmed, easily frightened. When she believes that danger is present, she will move as if without injury. She raises her head and shoulders to their full height.  She looks gorgeously imperious.  But in fact, this is a trick, an illusion, a facade--this is a mere show of strength.

So, I think the article may have it a little bit wrong: Horses don't plan kitchens, but, (like a college-bound student who performed poorly on the SAT), horses do worry about what will become of them if they are physically compromised.

And that is why my horse, Belle, who had a serious leg injury, did not mind spending many weeks in her stall.  She knew she was safe in the barn, whereas, outside of the barn, she felt nervous and  frightened.

As Belle started to feel better and stronger in the injured leg, her interest in stall rest quickly faded.

Over seven weeks' imprisonment in which I ministered to her daily, she never suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. To the contrary, she gradually came to resent me.  What had started out as fear and agitation on our walks eventually became rage and rebellion.

Instead of two pills, I gave her three. When that wasn't enough, I tried four, and worried about the ramifications of double-dosing.

Let me just back up and say, I have a spectacular horse. She's the kind of horse who could have done  amazing things, if she had that kind of owner.  She might have been a fine cutter, or barrel racer, or reining horse.  She's fast, and she looks like her great-great-grandfather, a famous Quarter Horse stud.

I could be wrong, but what does it matter? The point is, Belle is gorgeous to me. She is intelligent,  full of spirit, energy, and life.  She is, in her essence, above all, a horse; not lazy or slow or disinterested, but fast and alert and engaged.

I knew there would be a limit to how quiet I could keep her. Today, we reached that limit.

Three pills couldn't begin to take the edge off the energy bubbling up inside her. Most of her violent gestures were posturing--empty threats.  But her anger was palpable. I could see it and feel it.

Yesterday, I grazed her for hours. Unlike the week before, when grazing relaxed Belle and lulled us both into a blissfully meditative state, she still was not relaxed.

Our tried and true routine of convalescence was falling apart. It had become intolerable to her. But did that mean that she was well enough to go back into pasture?

I would have felt more confident letting her out in the torpor of July. I imagined her slowly drifting through the dog days of summer, no inclination to run, rear up, buck, or gallop across a field.  I had planned to wrap her leg each morning before letting her out, and bringing her back after two hours.  I really wanted to take it slow, to guarantee her recovery.

But all the while, I had my doubts.

Horses, unlike humans, don't think much about the future. When they feel they are ready, there's no thought of postponement.

Belle was tapped out on patience, full up on disgusted.

Despite my superior human intellect and intention to make every decision,  all in Belle's interest,  faithfully guiding each day; in the end, it was Belle who decided when she would go back out to pasture, unrestricted and unfettered by me.

Was it the right time?  I don't know. I only have Belle, with her horse nature, telling me how it is.  She feels good enough to graze at ease, knowing that she can run.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


I had a dream this morning in which, by some implausibly simple process, I became an ordained minister. I was pleased to consider the prospect of writing my first sermon. It would be a funeral sermon, because I think they could be better.

There are occasions on the Christian calendar when the church is piquant with empathy and compassion for the (generally tragic) human condition.

Christmas, for example, can be heart-rending.  When I sang in the choir a few years ago, (Bach and Handel, not the contemporary composers of guitar and Christian rock that have displaced all vestiges of genius), I struggled to get through the cantata without dissolving into tears.  I learned to sing and cry simultaneously, tears streaming down my cheeks.

That was in the old church building--charming, historical, intimate--where I felt the Spirit's embrace.

The Pentecost was a powerful occasion. We picked a paper star out of a basket, our own star with our own special word on it: Joy. Friendship. Laughter. Perspective. Love. Endurance. Faith.

I got Joy one year. That was a great year.  Another year, Resilience. That sucked!  No one wants Resilience, or Endurance, or Persistence. Or Enlightenment. (Can you imagine?  Best not to know.) 

It's not like the church couldn't get deep, dark, compassionate, and even morbid.

Every Sunday, we shared our joys and concerns, from the birth of a grandchild to the suicide of an honors student. We prayed in thanks and asked that those who were suffering be comforted.

But we did more than just pray. People did what you might call God's work, or the work of Christ.  It was what they believed was the right thing to do; it reflected their commitment to relating to others with compassion and good will.

When my father died, I called a member of the congregation whose daughters had looked after my dogs. I wanted to ask if they would look after them again, because I had to go to Boston for my father's funeral.

"We'll take care of it," she said. "Don't worry about a thing. Just go."

That was such a gift to me, such an incredible relief. I could go to Boston without worrying about the pets I was leaving behind.

I haven't been to church for a couple of years.

I had started going for the first time, regularly, as an adult in my early forties. For several years, I attended every Sunday. But things were always changing, and I fell out of step.

I responded conservatively to the congregation's pursuit of a new,  larger church building. I loved the old, small, drafty, leaking, decrepit church with its hundred-year-old stained-glass windows, so fragile that moving them became a high-risk and very expensive surgical operation.

I liked the new pastor, but others found her too forward-thinking, too political, too immersed in social justice issues and global conflicts in far-flung places. She wasn't a good fit for them, I suppose; but I was disappointed. When she left,  I left too, and never returned.

I miss the early years in church: The Spirit's embrace, the soaring music of the choir, the candlelight on Christmas Eve, the sermons that framed my personal struggles--my clumsy, chaotic life--within the pathos and cadence of the whole human condition.

In the context of that rich and gorgeous tapestry, I do find the sermons at funeral services to be remarkably dry.  Are the Catholics more open to obsequious grief?   I suspect they are; the Irish express grief so beautifully.  But perhaps their funerals go off script; I haven't attended that many.

The language of death has changed in my lifetime. People used to say that a person had died or passed away. Now, they say that a person has "passed."

I find this ironic: Society has never been less religious, but to say that a person has "passed,"would seem to suggest (unequivocally) that they have moved on to some other place. A better place? Maybe. I don't suppose the agnostics or atheists are prepared to commit to a destination. Nor am I, for that matter.

My mom visited us recently. Even though I no longer attend church, we still have discussions about faith. I rather shamelessly have it, and she views even the thinnest religiosity as an intellectual weakness--or, at least, something that doesn't make sense.

From my point of view, faith cannot be experienced rationally.

I recently learned (from NPR) that a specific part of the brain lights up (on an MRI) when we feel ourselves in the presence of the Spirit (however you want to define it).  Whatever lobe rules reason, rhetoric, and Reformist funerals is not equipped to embrace the mystery and wonder of a spiritual experience.

So, my mother and I have more or less the same conversation over and over. (I don't mind.) It's similar to the sermon from the pulpit at Reformist funerals, in that it focuses on the question of death,  exclusively, as though death were the Alpha and Omega of all religious feeling and motivation.

Did I believe in life after death? Eternity? Heaven? Hell?

I go to bed every night in the hope of losing consciousness.  When I am old or sick, I will be ready to sleep for a long time.

Prior to 1965, I was not alive.

I am not the same person now that I was when I was a baby. Who was I then?

What is the before life?  Where was I then?

Honestly, I don't think about it much.

Nor has death, or its alternative, been central to my spiritual feelings; and it wasn't my motive for going to church.

What resonated most for me in church were the sermons that made sense of the little things.

A good sermon addressed the day-to-day struggles, like feeling alone with my troubles.

A good sermon had everyone nodding their heads and clasped in the Spirit's embrace.

A good sermon, like great literature, poetry, music, art...can take the lead of ordinary suffering and create something that soars and reflects back to us the sublime honor that it is to experience human consciousness.

A Reformist funeral celebrates the Kingdom of Heaven and God's sacrifice of his only Son so that we can go to Heaven when we die...

But what about grief?

When I lose a loved one, it pains me deeply. When a friend has lost a loved one, I want to grieve with my friend.

Grief is the one aspect of the human condition that the Reformist Christian church can't seem to accommodate.

Maybe it's a Midwestern thing.

The women from the congregation do their best to make up for what the sermon lacks. I'm talking about lunch. And honestly, they get me 85% there with that abundant buffet of warm and lovingly prepared comfort foods and gooey chocolate desserts...  I take a paper plate and sigh with profound relief--deeply grateful for the meal I am about to receive.

When I die, if anyone is sad that I am gone, let my funeral be an occasion for tears, remembrances, laughter, and eating.  Speak of it as an ending, and not a beginning. Treat it as a fond farewell.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Garage Band

I am writing from the garage, where I spend most of my time, because it is adjacent to the house, and because there is food here, in the garage.

I'm not going to write about the privileged woes of kitchen renovation. Instead, I thought I'd strike a less plaintive tone, and extoll over the change in perspective that living in the garage can generate.

If you're like me: human, you are a creature of habit. You have some kind of routine. For example, I used to spend most of the day in my home office, where I would work on various things, pay bills, write blogs... occasionally meander off to the kitchen or the bathroom, or the barn. In the evening, I had my favorite spot on the couch between the dogs, my feet propped up on the coffee table, a cat stretched out on my legs.

But now, I'm in the garage. The cats are in my office. I don't want them to escape, so I don't go in there until the construction guys leave, and I liberate the cats.

The animals are disoriented and upset. I have to be a pillar of strength for them, so they are with me constantly. The cats have each other, but for some reason each other doesn't work for the dogs. It's not enough. They only model and amplify each other's anxiety. There's no cuddling.

When I take my stall-bound horse out for her daily walks, I can hear the dogs wailing in the garage. They destroy the peaceful meditation of grazing, but I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for the construction guys who have to listen to them barking. But the horse needs her walk, and there is only so much I can do.

I meant to talk about how refreshing a complete change of perspective can be...To really get out of my routine entirely and spend time somewhere unconventional....

In the garage, there is a grill, a microwave oven, a Coleman stove, a lawn mower, a generator, a motorcycle, a couch, lots of tools, shovels, even a refrigerator...Everything I need to cook and consume food, to mow the lawn, to sit, to travel....It's all here, smooshed together between unpainted panels of drywall and cement flooring partially covered with cheap area rugs.

Why are we even bothering to renovate the kitchen, when we could just rent out the entire house on Airbnb and live here, in the two-bay?

I have canceled several weeks of Blue Apron--not because I can't spend 45 minutes cooking anything I want in the garage, but because I don't enjoy washing fresh produce in the bath tub and dicing and chopping with knives I have wash, later, in the bathroom.

The garage does not inspire me to cook from scratch. I prefer to start in the middle of the process, somewhere very close to the end.

Meanwhile, since I can't go anywhere without the dogs, I find myself returning to writing tasks, which are intrinsically endless and frequently fruitless. But what else am I going to do? I can't spend the whole day on Facebook--which, by the way, along with Instagram and email, do not always give me the good feeling I crave. I find that bad feeling (not enough Likes) is more potent than the good feeling (Likes).  Or, maybe I only crave the good feeling when I'm already not feeling good.

Eventually, I remember that satisfaction is best found elsewhere, and turn toward the old reliables:  Writing brings satisfaction that feels real. Even paying bills conveys a sense of having achieved a thankless yet necessary task.

I have resumed work on a story that I started in 2005. It's still not good, but it could be good. I still think it could be good, so I return to it time and again, to see whether I still think it has potential.  I see that it does, and so I work on it, and I don't know until the next time whether it's any better for it. Twelve years later, it's still not good. But I do feel that it's getting closer.

Someone who admired my grandfather once said that his reach (my grandfather's) exceeded his grasp.  Generally speaking, that expression is not a compliment. But the admirer tried to frame it as one, saying that it was because my grandfather was so full of discipline and talent, a true Renaissance man, always pushing himself, stretching, reaching for the next challenge...that his reach exceeded his grasp.

In violin, my grandfather's reach exceeded his grasp. He was lousy at it, and never played in public. But even in moments of high defiance, my dad would never have said that his father's reach had exceeded his grasp.

It is a tricky thing, to take an established expression and turn it on its head, forcing it to mean something else. Very few people can get away with that kind of high-handed audacity with language. My grandfather's admirer did not succeed. His reach exceeded his grasp.

But that is how I sometimes feel, as a writer. Am I trying to write something beyond my reach?  Or does my talent fall short of the standard-height bar?  That is the question, and I don't mind asking it.

Some questions have to  be asked again and again. We may decide that we don't want to have more children. But a month later,  we want one more child. Maybe we want to return to school, but maybe we take a plum job instead.  Maybe we want to get married, but five years later, we wish we were not married. (Is marriage a closed question? Or does it become a question of divorce?)  Maybe we want to live on the East Coast for the rest of our life, until it becomes too expensive to stay home with the baby.

Like so many things, writing remains an open question. We all ask ourselves whether we're doing what we're meant to do. Are we leading full lives? Or have we somehow robbed ourselves of purpose?

Routines, comforting and constant as they are, must give way to new visions of how things could be better. For a while, we may install ourselves in the garage, between couch, refrigerator, and motorcycle.

Stripped of the placating influence of aesthetics (in pursuit of greater aesthetics), I find myself, like the dogs, discomfited by the unfamiliar space and loss of routine.

But unlike the dogs, I know there is more to life than routine. And though the dogs cannot imagine it, there is even more to life than me. That's the perspective part--being forced to see what life looks like without walls where there used to be walls, without the usual shape to the day and hours, the placement of couch and TV, the familiar comforts of home that had been within our reach.