380. A Leonard Cohen kind of day

If you get bummed out listening to Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young, or relentless icy rain on the roof for that matter, and think you can’t get any lower, there is always Leonard Cohen, the Canadian opiate poet songwrier. He’s deadly beauty in commotion that flows out of a bottomless, abandoned coal mine throat. Ghosts and steam rise out of echoing shafts leading from his tortured, half-buried, dying heart. He reminds me of steam grates on a New York City winter day that fumigate passersby in mysterious vapor, where homeless folks try to sleep under funky layers of old newspapers fished out of trash cans… and Leonard is the heat source way down below, brewing bitter beer in Hell. I’d recognize his voice anywhere, “Hello again, Leonard. I thought that was you, man. Come on in.”

I used to listen to Leonard back in college, the early 70’s. If you were feeling edgy or sad, making a noose maybe, he could fix that by totally obliterating any residual hope or joy in just one song. He could kick the chair out from under your dead weight and leave you literally hanging. His song “Suzanne” used to slither through my consciousness and bump into dirty laundry piles of longing and melancholy.  I smoked filterless cigarettes then, having little concern about my health or future or anyone else’s. Leonard Cohen’s songs hung in the air like blue tobacco smoke in a sealed coffin room, permeating the clothes and furniture fabric there. They moved me off any easy rock and roll street I might have been dancing across, away from sensitive singer songwriters who offered love and hope and happiness. Instead, raw, slow Leonard lightning would hit my solar plexus and bring me just short of my knees, dry heaving at his truths… dark truths that would conjure tears I had no idea existed in me. Hauntingly sad, brutal beauty stirred in my guts, deep calling out to deep. It must be the foolish, self defeating Irish in me that sags and lingers over the Pieta or a lonely Corot landscape. I remain enthralled and fascinated by tragedy.

All those guys  come from up north, come to think of it. Leonard & Neil–Canada, Dylan–Minnesota, Lou Reed–New York. Hmmm, Joni Mitchell is Canadian also, and she could toss your soul into a deep well in two stanzas, ropeless and hopeless. I know depression rates rise at you move away from the equator, so consider this observation one more proof of the intersection of psychological pathology and geography. North of  42* N equals longitudinal attitudinal dysregulation. Jimmy Buffet comes from the Gulf Coast. And lots of other rockers came out of L.A., Southern California. I think you see the sunshine pattern, right?

Wet, gray, cold, low pressure days simply elapse like trash fires that smolder all day. Not enough oxygen or fuel to thrive. It’s hard to tell what time of day it is. 10 a.m. looks the same as 4 p.m. so your sense of time is skewed further, even though we turned the clocks ahead Sunday morning. My watch and car clock are still an hour behind. I’ll change them when I’m good and ready, okay? Maybe by default in the fall. I love the old cynical observation that even a broken clock is right twice a day. So even the clown who refuses to set his clocks ahead is correct twice a day? No, I guess he just remains behind. He’s not broken just stupid.

What is time anyway other than man’s feeble attempt to measure and then control nature? I’m sure Leonard Cohen has something to say about time. His song “Closing Time”, as a matter of opinion, feels like battery acid on the tongue and a fork in the eye. The video version is shot in black and white because the lyrics and mood are so not colorful. People and clothes and chairs float across the screen as he moans the fallen angel lyrics. Yeah, there is beauty in brokenness, but you need an unbroken background to appreciate the ruins. If all the world looked like Detroit or Syria, photographers would find other subjects for their lenses. These desolate places can strike visceral chords in us because we have seen pristine beauty, ordered and glorious. A little Detroit or Aleppo goes a long way, thank you.clostimevid

This is true of Leonard Cohen as well. Ruins and ghettos, devastation and devolution have no future. Cold, wet late winter days must yield to pure spring bursting forth Life’s force. It must and shall overcome the doom and gloom of desperation. It’s not any more naïve to believe in redemption than it is to believe in eternal damnation. The bitter existentialist says, “This is it. There is no more. Suck on it.” I prefer to wait and see for myself for what lies beyond. I expect one day Chernobyl will be the name of a nice medium sweet red wine and not a nuclear disaster story.

Then again there is Leonard’s “Hallelujah”, written way back in 1984. It winds through the historically religious use of hallelujah while also moving beyond exclusively religious context. This holy word is given common purpose, affirming the Life force beyond (or is it beneath?) King David, more like his adulterous passion. Leonard mingles the profane with the holy as he moves between choruses of Hallelujahs, claiming there are two versions of Hallelujah, a holy and a broken one. In his last verse Leonard seems to give a proclamation: despite or because of all his shortcomings, he will praise the Lord of Song with his broken hallelujah.

Yeah, and as usual he cuts your heart in two– one auricle for you, one for me. One ventricle for you, the other for me. Wine pumps through one side, formaldehyde cures the other. Leonard, you kill me… but please, will you sing this at my funeral?

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350. Wizardry

funny drunk people, dumpaday (37)Here we are, just you and me, blog drunks. Truly, though this same message is out there for anyone to read, it’s just the two of us at the space bar now, Joe. The lights are low. Pandora plays the old classics softly behind the screen.  “Bartender, set up another post for me and my friend. Make mine a double.”

Why do you come back?  I ask you, why? Surely there are better things to do with your time than hang out with an old rambling dude self-named for a Mexican lunch special.  If I were you, I would not hang out with me. Can’t stay away, huh? Have you no self respect? The guy behind the cyber screen is troubled. Remember the Wizard of Oz? He was just a lost illusionist. He was the same guy in the carnival wagon in Kansas before the tornado hit. You knew that, right?  A good man but a bad wizard. I’ll appropriate that description. I’m a bad, bad wizard, Joe.

If Harry Potter called me out to a wizard magic dust off, I’d lose. Snap!  No question. But if that little jerk knows what’s good for him, he won’t or I’ll skewer him syllabically. Oh, but misery loves company, eh my drunken friend. What’s that? I’m miserable? No, I was sitting here with you, dude, nursing your pouty pout. You came to me. I did not come to you. Oh yeah. You logged in to my synapses not vice versa.

This muddling reminds me of a lady who came to see me because her coworkers told her I could help her. She had a short fuse; hated people; broke into panic without any warning; and was generally an endearing but totally frustrating smartass. From the first session she let me know that she did not like me and that I sucked.

“Is that all you can say, ‘How do you feel about that?’ C’mon. That’s pretty lame.”

“Yeah,  so it seems. You are really angry.”

“Oh, ya think?!! Nice, blame me because you can. And I’m paying you for this. Thanks.”

“Wait a second. You called me, remember? I didn’t call you and plant issues in your brain.”

“I just called to get my coworkers off my back. They told me how wonderful you were. Wrong.”

Laughing, “Definitely wrong. I suck.”

“Okay, laugh it up, you smug bastard.”

“I can’t help it. You keep  punching at who you think I am. I am amazed at the difference between your image of me and who I think I am.”

“Oh, sure. I know how therapy works: you get me to believe I have deep problems that need sixty sessions to fix, and then I have to come back week after week. Meanwhile you can’t see me cuz you’re on a cruise in the Mediterranean.”

“Actually it’s up to you to reschedule, which I’m thinking you’re not going to do. And I cruise the Caribbean.”

With utter contempt, “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? If I never rescheduled. But I’m not gonna give you the satisfaction.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“I don’t want to, but I’ll be back in two weeks, same time, same day. You’re not getting rid of me that easy.”

“I’m not trying to get rid of you.”

And so it went. Tina would crack a bit and then defend the crack.

“Damn you! I told you stuff last week that I should never have shared. I haven’t told anyone that crap in 40 years. And now you have the control. I hate you.”

“You know as well as I do that I can’t do anything with your confidential information. It is toxic, for sure. How about leaving it here with me. Think of me as a toxic waste dump.”

Laughing, “That won’t be too hard.”

Laughing back, “I gave you a beach ball to hit. I thought you would.”

“See, there you go again being the smartest guy in the room.”

“Uh, unless you have a gender swap secret, I am the only guy in the room.”

Guffawing, “Okay, no. I mean I am not a dude, which leaves you. God, I don’t know how your wife puts up with you.”

“I don’t either. She is a saint.”

“Don’t agree with me when I slam you. That takes all the fun out of it.”

“I’m just rollin’ with the punches.”

Slowly this very angry oyster opened and flushed out her septic secrets. One day she told me she was pissed off at me.

“Well, that’s not news. You’ve been busting my butt since we met.”

“You took away my sarcasm. I used to be really good at it, but I can’t pull it off anymore since you told me it was passive aggressive back biting anger. God! You take all the fun out of life.”

“I am a party pooper, loser, pathetic guy in a sweater.”

“That’s all true, but… uh, I’m only gonna say this once… (sotto voce) you are good at this.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”

“I’m not gonna say it again.”

“I thought I heard you say I was good at this. Is that right?”

“Yes, smartass.”

“I prefer intelligent donkey.”

“You would”, chuckling.

We worked faithfully and Tina got better. The super-guarded angry woman began taking risks, telling folks no, and making herself vulnerable. She revisited old guilt inducing memories and reconfigured responsibilities. Some bad folks had hurt her and convinced her adolescent self that it was her fault, always her fault.

Somewhere along the therapy journey she found herself, the part she loved and did not blame. That was a glorious day. Eventually this dark, angry female funnel cloud came in smiling and weeping tears of joy.

“I can’t believe how happy I am. I never would have believed it was possible. I pushed back the curtains at home. I don’t care if some pervert looks in my house. No one is going to steal my joy again.”

“That’s awesome. I am very happy for you.”

Then in her inimitable fork tongued way, “You really are good at this, but I’m still praying for your poor wife. I don’t know how she puts up with you.”

“I don’t either.”

Image result for woman walking into the sunset picture

 

348. Broken Vessel

While sitting with a client a week after her suicide attempt, I was struck by her brokenness.

A week before she had called to say she could not wait for our first session at the agency where I was working in the 90’s.  She was drunk and decided to swallow the fifty or so anti-depressants she had left in her prescription. It was an odd emergency cancellation call.

“I won’t  be able to make our schsleduled appointment cuz I’m gonna kill myschelf.”

“Okay. Could you do me a favor before you kill yourself?”

“Sschure.”

“Would you unlock your front door?”

“Okay. Anything elsssh I can do for you?”

“Nope. Just thanks for calling. That was super nice of you.”

“Oh Ssshertainly. Bye bye.”

I immediately called 911 and canceled the appointment I was in the middle of. Yeah, I had just met a lady with a circus of diagnoses in person and this craziness on the phone had exploded. “I gotta go, ma’am. It’s an emergency. I know we just met, but …”

 I met her as the medics carried her to the ambulance.  “Who the hell are you?” she slurred as we passed. I happened to look down and see her pathetic, impossibly childish, yellow suicide sticky note on the floor of her apartment building’s lobby.  It said, “My parents never loved me.”

Later at the hospital she had her stomach pumped and some crisis counseling. “I’m the guy on the phone. I’d still like to meet with you after your get out of here. Is that okay?”

As I listened during our first scheduled session, I visualized her as a ceramic vessel that had been shattered long ago.  I felt like I was figuratively “picking up the pieces”, as if I were a psychological archeologist.  I recalled the satisfactions I had derived from rebuilding broken furniture, kids’ toys, my old cars, etc.  I also sensed a fertile symbol here and a very powerful emotional image to manipulate.  I floated the broken vessel image with “Sherry”.  She accepted it as accurate.

“Yeah, my life is a shattered mess with lots of missing pieces.”

Before our next session I located a hammer and several old coffee cups, two plastic grocery bags and a tube of Elmer’s glue.  During this session I asked “Sherry” to pick a cup she most identified with.  She selected one with a floral pattern and a few minor chips.  I asked her to explain how she was like this vessel.  She mentioned its usefulness, attractiveness and sturdiness.

As the session progressed, she seemed to hold the cup with unconscious affection.

After a while I asked “Sherry” to recall the major traumas in her life.  She did so, noting that most had been abuse suffered at the hands of men in her life.  I then asked my client to wrap the cup in the plastic bags to guarantee we could retain all the pieces.  Giving her the hammer, I instructed “Sherry” to voice the three biggest hurts she had experienced as she pounded the cup in the bags.  As she did so, the force of her blows increased with each hit.  I believe she would have turned the cup to powder if I had not set limits.

My client noted an immediate emotional release; however, she appeared overwhelmed at the task ahead of her.  I asked her to open the bag and inspect the pieces.  “That looks like I feel”, she observed, “ a broken mess”.  Then I gave her the glue and asked her to rebuild the cup.   “The glue is therapy”, I observed. She quickly gave excuses why she could not comply.  I told her she might not ever want to complete the task, and that she could stop at any point in the process.

At our next session the mug was again in one piece and my client had several remarkable lessons to relate about how she rebuilt the cup.

“I started with the big pieces, then worked from the bottom to the top.  I had to wait between gluings to allow the first pieces to solidify. You can’t rush some of the mends.”

“I had to look for patterns to follow; the flower prints helped. So did the border.”

“I had to give up the notion of a perfect rebuild since some of the cup was powder now. I guess the first blow is likely gonna be a powder blast.”

“I was proud of myself.  I thought ‘if I can rebuild this shattered cup, I can do this therapy thing too.’”

“I want to keep this as a reminder of where I started. I mean, I won’t be drinking coffee out of it, but I can put flowers in it on my mantel.”

“Sherry” went on to question some old assumptions and behaviors, and worked on changing her view of herself.  Oddly enough, her suicide attempt was triggered by a promotion at work. She assumed that she would make a mess of the increased responsibilities and found out as a fraud. She had been alcoholic and self-destructive, beating life to the punch.  Ironically, or so it seems to me, the hammer of destruction had truly been in her hand over the past few years.  Visualizing this truth seemed to be the beginning of the healing process.

On other occasions I have used this technique with traumatized clients.  As far as I can tell, each application has been very satisfying and growth-enhancing for the client.  On one occasion the client chose not to hammer her marriage cup symbol.  In another case a child of abuse chose not to fully rebuild the cup she symbolized as her abuser, leaving several pieces unglued that could have easily been reintegrated. There is a certain beauty in repaired brokenness, don’t you think?

Jeremiah 30:17 says, “I will give you back your health and heal your wounds”, says the Lord. “For you are called an outcast, ‘Jerusalem for whom no one cares'”. And so it goes, back to unity and wholeness and harmony.

 

 

243.billie holiday’s chillynching voice

 

Admit it: if you heard her on The Voice, you’d wonder how Billie Holiday got past security. Weak, thin, even post-nasal drippish. And yet haunting, tender, and forlorn. Ghostly. How to describe this oddly desirable quality?  It’s as if she started with a rich, deep red oil painted voice and then added paint thinner until a bloody vocal jellyfish floated to the surface of the Dead Sea . Plush red velvety tones are certainly nice and comforting, but Billie Holiday’s smokily transparent vocals always seemed to open up a tortured soul on the other side of a pane of glass, trying not so much to escape as to be witnessed. “Listen. Validate my anguish, my longing, my devastation. Don’t leave me.”  Her songs were like prepared slides you’d examine in biology class… “Homo sapiens in extremis”. If Neil Young were a Black woman torch singer without bushy sideburns, yeah, he’d be Billie Holiday. Just imagine Neil singing “All of Me, Southern Man, Why not take all of me? better keep your head”.

 

Hmmmm. Come to think of  it, why not a race relations remix from two tortured souls?

“Southern Man”

Southern man
better keep your head
Don’t forget
what your good book said
Southern change
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
Southern man
“Strange Fruit”

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
I saw cotton
and I saw black
Tall white mansions
and little shacks.
Southern man
when will you
pay them back?
I heard screamin’
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Southern man
better keep your head
Don’t forget
what your good book said
Southern change
gonna come at last
Now your crosses
are burning fast
Southern man
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Lily Belle,
your hair is golden brown
I’ve seen your black man
comin’ round
Swear by God
I’m gonna cut him down!
I heard screamin’
and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?
Well, that’s not a magic trick or someone playing possum. “Look at this stuff!” they cry out like belt sanders on stained wood. Don’t smooth it over with faint allusions and a lovely melody. No, make it brutally unforgettable because that’s what it was.  Cleanse the grotesque scar on the shoulder blade of American justice, where the whiplash ripped through sweaty flesh. Staunch the bloody welts around the ribcage of Christian decency. Our high school history books have had their eyes gouged out on this subject of summary justice. A million tongues didn’t need to be cut out to silence the public outcry that did not come. The crimes by themselves were horrendous enough, but the lack of any legal accountability still simmers in our collective consciousness. At least the Nazis had the Nuremburg trials. Have you ever heard of a lynching trial in U.S. history? There have been a few that were even more insulting to honesty than the lynchings. Look up Sheriff Shipp in Chattanooga, for example, in the lynching of Ed Johnson. Google “Travesty”. Google “I know why we must kill the mockingbird”. Google “Pathetic”.

“Following the murder, President Roosevelt made it his goal to have the members of the mob put in jail by getting the secret service men in on the investigation.[3] Sheriff Joseph Shipp, who had arrested Johnson, was found guilty of contempt of court in United States v. Shipp, the only criminal trial ever held by the United States Supreme Court.

Johnson while in jail, made a Christian profession and was baptized. He publicly forgave those who were about to kill him. On Johnson’s tombstone are his final words “God Bless you all. I AM A Innocent Man.” at the top. On the bottom is written “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord”‘.  (Wikipedia)

Another innocent man was put to death by a mob and forgave his murderers before they crucified him. That would be Jesus in A.D. 33. But there is more.

“Johnson was murdered on the evening of March 19. A group of men entered the virtually unguarded jail between 8:30 and 9:00 pm and broke through a door using an ax and a sledgehammer, which took over an hour. They then took Johnson to the nearby Walnut Street Bridge, and hanged him with a rope hung over a beam. Around a dozen men, believed to be Sheriff Joseph Shipp and some of his deputies, were actively involved in the lynching, while more spectators gathered around the jail and followed to the bridge.[12][13] The measure was to act as a deterrent to the city’s blacks that resided on the opposite side of the bridge who walked the Walnut Street Bridge daily to go to and from their jobs in the downtown Chattanooga area.” (Wikipedia)

This incident and 61 other lynchings of Blacks occurred in 1906 in the U.S.A. A  banner year for lynching in our country.  Strange Fruit was written in 1937. Southern Man was recorded in 1970. I’m sure there are more recent updates of racial tensions since then. Livin’ Just Enough for the City by Stevie Wonder comes to mind. Certainly there are many more over the past 40 years or so. It’s not like the problem has evaporated.

In any event, what needs to be lynched? Racism, injustice, hatred, bigotry, racial supremacy nonsense, religious intolerance, sexism, and much more. The grandfather of all these vermin offspring is the King Rat,  Ignorance. His first lieutenant is Pride. Together they have honed a double-edged machete throughout history which has cut tribe from tribe and nation from nation as easily as cutting a head from a neck.

239. Happiness or Joy?

After.

This morning the Stones “Happy” is rocking out of my computer. “I need love to keep me happy, baby, keep me happy. Happy, baby won’t you keep me happy?” Keith Richards wrote and recorded the song in four hours and sings the lead. No surprise. I read his autobiography a few years ago. If you cut out the drugs and sex and craziness, a 600 page book shrinks to 60. Richards is probably as well known for his drug use as for his music. I’m not here to bust Keith again. I think he’s had enough of that. (I mean, at his heroin peak even his dry cleaner could have been busted for possession.) Rather, I want to look at his lyric of continuous need as being another way of expressing addiction.

Addicts don’t choose. After a while they are “chosen” by their drug to ingest more or to withdraw or to itch, vomit or die. Addiction seems like one of the best tools Satan ever helped construct. The foretaste and promise of ecstatic freedom that results from astral levels of dopamine leads to a barren prison cell in the desert when that psychedelic elevator crashes. At first blush the drug struts down the high fashion catwalk looking like a fallen angel of pleasure. Some intense desire is fostered in the user that feels like falling in love with infinity. A physical, emotional, and spiritual high lifts the user up out of his mundane world. On later inspection this elevation is seen to be the hoisting of a carcass to make butchering easier for the Butcher. Happy at that point in the game is merely the appearance of functioning in civil society. That runway high fashion model turns out to be a drag queen hooker sweating it out to get by for another hour. It doesn’t matter where you begin with addiction; the terminal points are the same for all– devastati0n and death.

Another song that comes up in my cue is Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest”. It’s pretty clear that bad things are going on. Frankie Lee/Everyman needs money and then winds up in some sort of brothel dying of thirst. Meanwhile, Judas Priest/Satan, is more than happy to oblige his needs. Are these two separate persons or two personas battling for the soul of one man? I don’t know. It has the feel of a condensed morality play, though. Some souls are stolen and others  sold daily at yard sale prices by their former owners. Some are rent-to -own deals. I think that’s how it is with addiction– a pay as you go reverse mortgage. At the end of the term you are evicted from your own life.

Before.
Despite what our Declaration of Independence claims, the pursuit of happiness is a fool’s errand. Happy is an emotion, a mere snowflake on your fingertip that melts before you can put it on your tongue. Nothing more than a pleasant sneeze. And yet, if you ask educated adult Americans what they most desire, the most common answer given is “I want to be happy.” And then what? “Happy” comes from the old word “hap” which means “luck”. “Hap” or “happy” is what happens, and is merely a derivative of luck. Who would hook his wagon to a lucky meteorite?  A gambling addict.
“I can quit whenever I want to.”
“So why don’t you?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Yeah, but that’s a hedge to hide behind. It’s circular logic and dishonest.”
“Hey, I’ll quit when I run out of money or drugs or smokes or liquor, or when I die. Okay?  Like I said, whenever I want to.”
“I’m afraid you’re confusing “want to” with “have to”.
“Whatever. I don’t want to. Okay? I want the complete annihilation of needs and wants. There, how’s that answer?”
“It resonates as truth to me. Thank you. Oh, look!  Three cherries. You win another fix. Powder or crystal?”
 At the other end of the pool is joy. Joy can be a mood state as opposed to an emotion. Joy can be maintained without a steady stream of hits or fixes. In some way it’s a transcendence of need or want. To choose joy is to rise above the mundane and stay there despite one’s circumstances. It’s a courageous choice not a cowardly default. Joy has a longer shelf life than mere happiness. It does not simply happen. It is chosen like a partner for life. Many times throughout a marriage one partner can legitimately claim to be miserable but still faithfully love the other partner. Happiness may not be present but joy is.

My buddy Quasimoto, Sr. got a bum deal in his recent hip surgery.  The anesthesiologist nicked his sciatic nerve during the epidural procedure. Good news: the hip is healing just fine. Bad news: his foot is on fire with nerve pain as if his foot is being dragged behind an eighteen wheeler across Death Valley in August at noon. Merciless. And yet his foot is numb, immovable. Is he happy?  Heck no. Does he have joy?  Actually he has Pat, and she is the definition of joy. Her loving cup is bottomless. Despite all the unnecessary pain that could lead one to fetch a ball bat and swing it through a doctor’s office or just call a sharky lawyer, Quasi continues pushing the rock uphill. He has no guarantee  that he will recover, ever. It’s been five weeks and not much has changed yet. Their travel plans have been shelved for now because of a two millimeter mistake. But their rusty days are overlaid with gold leaf joy, thanks to Pat.
Despite the pain, helplessness and anger, they hang together and, I believe, grow their marriage even stronger in its tenth year not because of bliss or comfort but due to pain and suffering.  Huh? Yeah, that’s not a typo. Because of pain and suffering grinding the surfaces between them, Pat and Quasi can bond even better than before. Being a woodworker, Quasi knows that if you want to unlock the beauty of a fine piece of wood, you have to punish it by sanding it over and over again. And that is where they are right now, in the deep sanding that reveals the deepest beauty. It’s counterintuitive that joy overflows throughout the punishing process, but happiness can’t stand the sawdust where joy stands alone.

227. Four leaf clovers

She said in her e-mail, “I asked God for a sign today, a simple four leaf clover would do, to show me that I am cared for. Then I reached down in the rich May grass and found one within my first glance and plucked it. That was an awesome little moment of reassurance which I will cherish because I realized that I am… well, cherished. I am known, noticed, heard, and loved. It feels so good to know the God of the universe knows one of his sparrows has fallen. I tend to forget this when I get off my knees and walk too proudly like a peacock. I go to jail tomorrow.”

In early Christian Ireland St. Patrick used the shamrock as a demonstration of the Holy Trinity, to show how three beings could coexist in one form… Father, Son, Holy Spirit… separate but united at the stem. What struck me about Shelly’s simple request was the extra symbolism. Who is represented by the fourth leaf? Immediately I surmised that she is the fourth leaf, connected at the stem by her faith in God. She was grafted into the Trinity long ago as a little girl, before her fears and addictions led her to rehab, psyche wards, and jail. This realization of connection and provision brought joy to her on her way to jail. It must have been odd for the county deputies to see a lovely, refined young woman smiling approvingly about her incarceration–so gracious, so polite. In an even odder way it was like A Tale of Two Shellys as the enlightened one sacrificially served time for the fallen one. However closely the jailers looked, only one young woman stood before them, yet she was two, no, four in one.

Shelly had been a light to others in her previous rehab stays and psyche ward commitments. She loves easily and deeply, recklessly it turns out sometimes; the same way she drinks. Always in her wreckage she finds her Bible and hits her calloused knees, toddling back to God. Her soft catlike persona charms tough tattooed girls into tender conversations they never intended to  have again. They open up to this quiet clover leaf fairy of a girl.  The staff also notice her special spirituality and engage her there. She is much loved in rehabs, which you can’t put on your resume.  Shelly has that effect on others. She’s a fallen angel who loves too much and guards too little; who listens much and wordlessly speaks volumes. The alcohol serves to moderate stress and pushes back against a feeling of being overwhelmed. Long ago she associated this warm relief with alcohol, her lucky potion.

 It was 2008, maybe. Shelly came to me with a former boyfriend, as if  she was on a skydiving date. After her boyfriend turned the spotlight focus on to her, I joked that he’d pushed her out of the plane at 22,000 feet and said, “You’ll get used to this. It’s easy.” on the way down. She laughed nervously without a parachute. He got better and moved on without her. She evaporated into unanswered questions in my mind. Five years later she contacted me. “Do you remember  me? Can we start again?”  On the phone later she said, “Well, I’m an alcoholic now. I guess that’s what’s new.” I was stunned. How does a beautiful, intelligent, talented, educated, artistic young woman become an alcoholic by age 27?  One drink at a time. Those attributes had only hastened her descent. She had not learned to fly but knew too well how to crash.

Blogginis, if you don’t process today’s pain and fear and trauma today, you begin to slip and lose traction in your life. Plus, if you are abandoned and neglected by those who are supposed to care for you, you become lost in your tractionless state… like a car on ice in a night blizzard. Accelerating just makes the vehicle spin wildly and the driver gets crazy dizzy without a horizontal line for reference. Vertigo sets in. It doesn’t matter what gear you are in or if your brakes work. You simply spin counterproductively. Dizzy, spinning, lost, drunken, fallen angel. Tragic beauty. It broke my heart to hear of her crashings, and made me wonder if she was pushed or fell into the abyss. Was she still falling?

Luck and faith have nothing to do with one another. Luck comes and goes; it just happens and cannot be pursued or preserved. Faith, on the other hand, is cultivated. It can be planted and harvested like strawberries. It does not  just happen like a scratch off lottery ticket. Instead it is built systematically from how one interprets experience and develops moral structures. Luck ties in to superstition. Rabbits feet, horseshoes, crystals, and charms are vain attempts at controlling or altering one’s destiny. Faith is more about accepting one’s destiny by understanding spiritually how the universe works. Faith involves some accountability but provides a map for doing life; there is no accounting and no map for luck.

Shelly has a deep faith like a fountain that does not run dry. Unfortunately she has another fountain that pumps out wine until blackout time. Guzzling like a camel at the wine fountain helps her escape the consequences of  her life, but blinds her to the causes of her  problems. She comes to, alone in the desert with a fevered cotton mouth and a migraine. Life just happens to her as it does to all addicts who have urgently surrendered their responsibility. Especially when young, a good thought doesn’t stand a chance against a good feeling, don’t you know? Far away from the wine splash zone there is hope, beyond the good feeling and past the nausea, the cravings, and the illusions lies her broken sobbing self looking for four leaf clovers.

 

189. cruel renewal

Making all things new again. That’s a tall order, I think. Just making one simple thing new again is hard enough. Refinishing a piece of furniture, for example, requires five times the effort than the original finishing took. Think about it:  you have to strip the varnish or polyurethane with some solvent and a wire brush and fine tools to get into the grooves. Then you have to strip out the stain with more stain remover/solvent. At this point you have to sand the remaining stains or patches of finish to smooth out the original wood grain. Finer and finer grits of sandpaper need to be rubbed carefully with the grain. Then you wipe away the fine dust. Finally you are back to the starting point of new, bare furniture. But that’s what you do to restore the old wood to prime condition so that its luster and deep grain can be seen and appreciated again, or maybe for the first time.

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My buddy Clark knows a lot about wood and renewal. He learned about trees as a kid in Patton, PA., walking through the woods to school cuz he’d been thrown off the school bus again and again for being a hyperactive ne’er do well. He was rejected frequently as a kid by humans but not by trees or pieces of wood. He learned about oaks and maples and birch and beech and box elder and walnut and cherry simply walking by them twice a day. He saw pines grow to their fullness and die in his lifetime. However, dead trees simply cross over to lumber for him. He eyes up  trees and looks for unique features that he can use in tables or bowls or just long runs for boards. And then he gets to work creating with saws and planer, lathe and chisels.

A couple of years ago I helped him saw up a spalted maple; that’s a downed tree which has been decaying with fungi but hasn’t rotted yet. The result of spalting is a beautiful array of discoloration, waves and rivulets of brown, red, and black paint spilled throughout the wood. Clark turns hunks of this stuff into gorgeous bowls that appear to be fired ceramic. You have to touch them to believe they are not ceramic but wood, not paintings of deserts landscapes but infected wood transformed into marble. Beauty birthed from death.

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He learned about renewal by living a life full of zest and curiosity… after he was down and decaying like a fallen maple in the leaf mold.  Alcohol was the lightning and tornado that slew him. By age 35 his doctor told him he had a year to live if he did not quit drinking. He said, ” Thanks, Doc. I ‘m tired of living,” and went to the closest bar. He got so polluted on Yuenglings or Iron City beer that the bartender asked, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”  “Hell no,” he bellowed and order another. He had one more angry sip and announced, “Now I’ve had enough.” He stumbled out of the bar and right into the path of his beloved daughter and her best friend. (Timber!) No details remain except the pain of shame he saw on his precious girl’s face. Something transformative occurred in that one second. Clark grew on the level of consciousness even as his angry pride fell down face first. He recalls it like Paul falling off his horse on the way to Damascus. Clark went to rehab the next day. That was almost 35 years ago.

Since then he’s been sanding off the old varnish of youth, adolescence and early adult life. The mess of foolishness, the lacqeur of addiction and scars of selfishness. As he does this consciousness raising on a cognitive level, he’s finding more and more to like about himself… compassion, loyalty, a modicum of patience…and an artist’s heart/head/hands package. Late in life, to be sure, but there it is: beauty born from pain and suffering. He is spalted maple through and through, washed by the rivers of alcohol, rejection and rage that are dry riverbeds nowadays.Image result for spalted maple lumber pictures

One story of thousands will have to suffice. Ironic, of course. Up the road from his childhood house was a substantial estate owned by the Five Farabaugh sisters. They were well off spinster sisters. Clark’s dad agreed to be an informal caretaker of the property when the only male child left to run part of the A&P store chain out west. One by one the old ladies died off until there were no more. Still Clark’s father “Bunny” continued the upkeep of the property. When Clark went along to help, his father would say, “Don’t even think about stealing anything. We might be poor but we’re honest, by God.” There were many objects and knickknacks all over this grand Victorian house. In the attic the sisters had a miniature classroom where they had played school as little girls. He remembered thinking, “I could learn here. They would not beat me for being wiggly. They would favor me somehow.” In the old days the sisters had given his dad oranges at Christmas, which was unheard of by working class folks. Only the wealthy could afford citrus fruit in winter. Clark’s family not only ate them but his mom made marmalade from the peels. Then one day that fine house and every object in it burned to cinders and ashes. Nothing survived but memories. Nothing.

Nothing worked out in his life.  By age five he had developed a sense of doom. The spalting had begun. He wondered about the loose ends and unfairness of it all–

“Five old ladies, never had sex or got married or had kids or grandkids. What’s the point? They had wealth and it all disappeared. Just a waste. I shoulda stole something but the Old Man woulda killed me.”

Actually it did not disappear. Rather, it was breathed into Clark’s lungs and memory, spalding his soul. I’m sure if surgeons could extricate his soul and sand it down, it would radiate like his hero George Nakashima’s table tops. Renewed for all to see and appreciate. Nakashima was interned during WWII for being Japanese. That was his sole crime. Poetically, tragically,  or ironically that is where he learned to master woodworking under the tutelage of a master Japanese woodworker. More beauty born from pain and suffering.

So  often we screw up the unstained and painless new and have to claw our way back to a renewal that is soaked in barrels of liquid pain. But that is the difference between grapes and wine, sand and pearls, knowledge and wisdom.