I Sought Order

This do I teach:
The more you seek security, the more you are haunted by insecurity.
The more you desire surety, the more you are plagued by change.
The more you pretend to permanence, the more you invite suffering.
The more you do for control, the less you do for joy.
–  Ecclesiastes 1: 15-18

It seems we have the whole of life backward.  We want what we cannot get, and we reject that which we have in abundance.  We want the world to fit into a neat and understandable package. What we get is a jumble of experiences from which we fashion a life.

We want life to fit our story about life; instead we find ourselves in a swirling soup of ever-changing events some of which seem to make no sense whatsoever.

So Solomon is correct: The more I crave security, the more I am haunted by its absence. The more I seek to maintain the status quo, no matter how hurtful or damaging to me and others, the more things slip through my fingers and change against my will. Indeed — and this is his main point — my will does not much matter. Things happen whether I will them to or not. Reality does not give a damn about what I want; it just does what it does.

Our task then is simply to be fully present to whatever is happening now. When we are fully present, we seem to know what to do. Doing become effortless, choiceless. We are not weighing options but simply taking up the task that the moment presents.

My friend Leon is Chaplin at a local hospital. We cover for each other when one of us is out town. Late one evening I got a call from his hospital about a family whose mother was dying. Leon was unavailable, and they asked me to drive to the hospital and help in any way I could.

When I arrived at the hospital, a woman had just died and the family was being ushered out of a room by an orderly. I asked the family if they had a chance to pray with her mother and say goodbye. They had not and the orderly was kind enough to let us back into the mother’s room to be with her for a while longer. I encouraged the family to gather around their mother and take turns speaking to her — telling her they loved her, that they would miss her and that though it was sad, it was okay, that it was her time to die. As they spoke to their mother, the dead woman’s eyes suddenly filled with blood and thick red tears began to stream down her cheeks. I have never seen this happen to anyone before, and neither had her family. They stop talking and just stared, their bodies tense.

Part of me was horrified. I had performed this kind of service for people many times and this had never happened before. If I had thought about what to do, I suspect I would have left the room and called for a nurse. But I did not think about it. Instead, I sat on the bed, took the woman’s head in my arms, and wiped away the blood with a towel that had been hanging on the bed rail. I nodded to the family and encouraged them to continue speaking to her. I did all of this is if it was the most natural thing in the world. And at the time it was. After I left the hospital and returned my car however, I began shaking all over.

I still feel that I did the right thing and I learned something in the process. The lesson I learned was not simply what to do in this particular situation; rather, I learned the wisdom that comes when we are simply present. I did not have a set procedure to handle the situation we faced. In fact it was not a “situation” that needed handling. It was simply a family grieving, a mother bleeding, and a rabbi with an access to a towel.

This is what I mean by being present to the moment.  Nothing magical or extraordinary, just life as it is – often messy and rarely scripted. The more I empty myself of self and of the quest for surety, permanence, and control that defines the self, the more I am at home in the chaos of my life. The less we imagine what our lives ought to be, the more we can be present to what they really are. And in this, grace – an ease of doing – that we cannot imagine as long as we seek to control and manipulate things to our end.

This week, I find myself cooking out of habit, then eating nothing or just picking around the perimeter of each nicely plated meal before packing the remains in plastic tubs. I have no appetite but am fixing delicious things, increasingly complex productions that fill my dollhouse-size apartment with perfect smells. In an effort to rationalize this situation, I shift from stewing over heartbreak to focus on science. While earning a nutrition degree, I learned we crave fatty things for their esters – compounds that carry smell and impart taste. From smell and taste, we derive pleasure and comfort, and from fats we derive fuel. The stuff that keeps our mechanical bodies going also plumps our hearts like pillows, in the figurative as well as literal sense. Fats are comforting and clogging. I also learned we crave sugar when there is a lack of sweetness in daily life. All I can stomach right now are Pink Lady apples and endless cups of honeyed hot milk. This indulgence and dependence is risky – artificial sweetness is inevitably succeeded by a bigger crash

I decided to do something different this December 31st. For as long as I’ve been celebrating New Year’s Eves, I’ve been greeting the subsequent morning with blurry eyes, a hangover that proves impervious to all the bacon and coffee I can throw at it, and a sullen and increasingly loud resentment of sunshine.

Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been some very good New Year’s Eves in there; the problem is usually the reverse. Some of my particular favourites have been spent working in clubs, because there’s nothing quite like the combination of free alcohol, double time pay, and a crowd of a couple thousand people, all secure in the knowledge that no matter what happens, they don’t have to go to work the next day, to spell out a good time.

But, after the train wreck that was 2009, it was time to switch up my style. Not only did I swear to myself I wasn’t going to wake up hungover on New Year’s Day, I also decided it was time to use the fresh start that everyone talks about as just that: a fresh start. After some lengthy discussions with the incomparable Zara Potts, I worked out just what I was going to do.

For a couple of days prior to NYE, I’d been writing down everything I was done with. Personal demons and demonic persons, mental confusions and spiritual contusions, grim frustrations and grimmer situations… everything got named and nailed down onto scraps of paper; mugshots of the things I wanted to change. I stuffed them all into a cardboard box and sat it on my desk – from time to time I would eye it off uneasily, half-expecting the unpleasantness defined inside to stage some kind of Dillinger-esque break-out as I added to the collection.

At sunset on New Year’s Eve, I took the box outside, placed it on a concrete slab so there would be no last-minute fire outbreak (although I would have grudgingly acknowledged the irony of such a well-placed final fuck you from 2009, and half-expecting one, I placed a bucket of water nearby), and put a box of matches to it. Of course, as I lit the matches, they flared up in a burst of sulphur and singed my fingers. Couldn’t resist one last bite out of me, could you, assholes? I thought, and dropped the matches into the box¹.

It burned sullenly, at first. The flames flickered around the thin cardboard edges of the box, catching in parts, then sputtering out with the job only just begun. The papers at the top were left singed and charred and rimmed in glowing lines of ember, giving the impression that everything had burned, but I refused to fall for that ruse.

Sorry, guys, I thought. There’s no escape. Not this time. Not for you.

Remembering the basic physics of fire (Dear Mr. Strohfeldt. Thank you for being such a wonderful high school science teacher. I remain truly sorry about the time I filled your classroom with the smell of deodorant. It was horseplay gone wrong, and nothing personal), I flipped the box and lit it from underneath, where the flames could suck in oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere and burn upwards.This time the fire caught rapidly; hungrily it ate through the stacked papers, long tongues of red and orange and yellow flicking across the undersides of notes crowded with the things I longed to erase. And I stood and watched every last piece of paper burn to ash until finally everything, box included, had been consumed.

Let me tell you, that’s a satisfying sensation.

Minutes after the fire was done, the clouds opened up into thunder and lightning and rain. And I drove to my friend Dean’s house to ring in the new year.

I got home the next morning at five, and sober², with an hour to wait until dawn and the second half of my plan.

Minutes before six, with the first sunrise of the new year starting to move up from behind the horizon, I took the second box, the one in which I’d stored my notes of all the things I wanted for myself, my family, and my friends in 2010, and tied the fifteen helium balloons I’d bought for just that purpose to it. I walked out to my back yard, found the clearest space I could, and, at sunrise, released them.

It was overcast and breezily cool, and I was worried the wind might carry the balloons into the higher branches of one of the surrounding trees (which would have been an undeniably bad omen). But the wind died just as the clock hit 6:01, the time of the rising sun. At first the balloons broke ranks and split away from each other, jostling for direction, but they quickly moved back into a cohesive unit that looked, to my fatigued eyes, as if it was moving with definitive purpose into the air.

And I stood and watched my colourful balloons and the box of my hopes and dreams rise swiftly up to the moody grey sky. In a few seconds, they were a tiny dot far up and away towards the clouds.

That’s right, 2010, I thought. You and me, baby.

So with a clean slate, a request list for the year to come, and 365 days that I’m really looking forward to, I have only this left to say:

Happy New Year.



¹ sadly, the box³ neither screamed nor did any gibbering phantoms fly out, as I was kind of hoping.

² mostly

³ yes, I lifted the phrase ‘Box Full of Evil’ from Mike Mignola. I apologise for nothing.


Inked

By Robin Antalek

Essay

Eighteen years ago on the way to the delivery room the feeling of not being able to stop what was about to happen suddenly overwhelmed me.  This baby that had been making me miserable for twenty-four hours had to come out and the passage of egress was not going to be a gentle one.  When my first daughter eventually emerged from her day long battle waged in the birth canal, cone shaped head and bruises on her face the size and shape of peach pits from the last ditch effort emergency forceps, a smudge of pink between the delicate fuzz of her brow that one of the nurses deemed an “angel’s kiss”, I was assured in a week, maybe less, her face would be healed and the trauma of her birth would leave no visible scars, only memories, where I would be able to chart the ghost marks on her face, badges of what she and I had endured in the moments before her birth.

Knowledge is learning something every day.
Wisdom is letting go of something every day.

—Zen Proverb

Against the dull roar of eight-million-plus, I’ve often felt a shadowy sense of loss as another train whizzes by me, the faces in the windows clear for a few seconds before fading into the future. I find myself thinking about how unlikely it is that I’ll ever see them again, or if I do, how there’s not a chance in hell of recognition.

Enter craigslist. An unlikely credit, perhaps, but along with equipping me with temporary housing, a kitchen table, and cake decorating classes, the venerable 12-year-old marketplace has impressed on me the value of transitory relationships.

Take the other day. I was fifty bucks and a lunch-hour meet-up away from landing a pair of Andrew Bird tickets. Should’ve been easy enough, considering the man with the goods worked all of ten blocks from me. But circumstances were not in our favor, and it took several emails, a phone call, a missed opportunity, several texts, and a few more emails before we finally managed the exchange.

It happened on the corner of 23rd and Fifth in Manhattan, at which point I already knew a) where this person worked (in his email signature), b) something about his taste in music (somewhere in the email thread, he’d mentioned a favorite band), c) the kind of schedule he keeps (hectic), and d) that he’s somewhat easily irritated but ultimately sympathetic (okay, so this one’s a stretch). Hardly an exhaustive understanding, but it’s still more than I know about some of my actual acquaintances.

The point of impact involved nothing more than the physical swap, a few breathless words (running late, I’d come at a run), a wave… It was fleeting, in other words, which, following the barrage of communication, felt slightly confusing but ultimately thrilling, and kind of sweet.

There’ve been several others. There was TV Girl, a transaction that involved my showing up at 11 a.m. to find her in the middle of comforting a teary roommate over a recently forfeited boyfriend, wine glasses fully engaged. We chatted awhile, sharing our thoughts on the neighborhood, and as I got up to leave, the roommate said something along the lines of, “Hey, if you ever wanna hang out, get a beer w/ us…” I think we knew nothing would come of it, that this wasn’t the start of some fated friendship, but as I hugged my purchase to my chest and clambered down the stairs, I felt energized by the goodwill—and the novelty—of the previous ten minutes.

There was Chandelier Man, who, incidentally, didn’t live far from TV Girl. (Would craigslist bring them together, too?) My then-boyfriend and I walked into his tree-framed brownstone to find a small museum’s worth of antique furnishings: lighting fixtures spanning every decade of the last century, various paintings, sculpture, glassworks… The fireplace was aglow, and a wiry cat slinked around my ankles.

Chandelier Man offered us tea, which we sipped over small talk. We heard the story behind our acquisition (the 1920s deco piece was rescued from a Long Island salvage yard), and after fifteen minutes or so, we thanked and said goodbye to a gentleman—poised, warm, almost fatherly—we would in all likelihood never see again. Because really, what would be the grounds? Newly emergent Depression Glass Lust? A yet unrecognized proclivity for Rodin replicas? More tea?

Again, I left feeling vaguely intoxicated.

The list goes on. There was TV Stand Girl, Bookcase Guy, Hula Skirt Girl… And then there were the few things I myself unloaded, making me Cheap IKEA Chair Girl, Bike Lock & Helmet Girl, and Kitchen-Aid Mixer Girl. In each case, a meaningful relationship developed—meaningful in an ephemeral, invigorating, faintly surprising way.

The meaning stems from a particular way of relating. Unlike a straightforward back-and-forth with a gas station attendant, deli guy, or a Times Square-seeking tourist, your average craigslist transaction occurs in parts. Contact is initiated, followed by some amount of dialogue, and it’s this “instant history” that brings gravity to the physical exchange once it takes place minutes, hours, or days later. If Lucite Nightstand Man or Vintage Ice-Crusher Lady opens his or her home to you, more weight still. And because this succession—seek out, plan, connect, let go—is not typical of conventional relationships, it can be disorienting. (”Goodbye forever? Really? After I’ve seen your family portraits? After you’ve introduced me to your dog?”) But this doesn’t mean it’s not the right way to proceed.

If you think about it, across media, the focus tends to be on a) maintaining positive relationships, or b) ending negative ones. But what about those relationships that are fruitful for a period of time yet probably not worth preserving for the long haul? What do the magazine articles, the talk show programs, and the self-help books say about them? Not much.

Craigslist affinities aside, I’ve had several such relationships over the years, and I’ve tended to prolong them unduly. Certain friendships and loves have fallen prey, with concern over hurt feelings, confusion in the wake of intimacy, or a general fear of change forcing a deciduous alliance into an evergreen mold. But how refreshing, the notion of ending authentically, with a farewell hug and a string of kind parting words. More often than not, I think we know when to say when. It’s following up that’s tough.

I recently followed up—or, well, for the most part—with a couple of coworkers I was about to leave for another job. These were people I’d chatted, laughed, and whined with over afternoon coffee breaks, people I cared for but never considered to be more than work buddies. And as I prepared to begin a new job elsewhere, some part of me recognized that our time had passed. Sure, we still swapped phone numbers and personal email addresses and let’s-do-this’s, but there was a sense of knowingness in the air. This is it.

This exhilaration, I now realize, comes from the awareness that a person has served his or her purpose in your life. It comes with being in command of yourself, and it comes with moving on. Life is too short to cling to expired relationships.

Thanks for the lesson, Craig.