Sunday, March 18, 2007

Be Human as God is Human

Today I sat in Meeting for Worship (Quaker Meeting) and as I tried to center down I found myself feeling anxious and tried to determine the source of the anxiety. It didn't take long to figure out what it was: I feared being judged by my fellow members of Meeting. Judged and found unworthy. There wasn't anything in particular I feared being judged about--just my existence in general--and I had no reason to suspect my fellow Quakers, of all people, of judging me in such a way. That's the irritating thing about generalized anxiety--it doesn't usually have a specific point one can isolate and treat, or even a rational beginning and end.

Once I realized this, though, my heart opened pretty quickly and I began to feel a great deal lighter. As I tried to quiet my mind in the silence, I talked to myself, and reminded myself that no one in that room is perfect, that we are all quite fallible humans, and all probably carrying around a similar set of anxieties. We all afraid of so much: afraid of being wrong, afraid of making the wrong decision, of doing too much or not enough, afraid of not doing the right thing, at the right time, afraid of being cowardly, weak, or just not plain good enough, afraid of needing help, money, understanding, afraid of not being totally emotionally, physically, and psychologically self-sufficient--the terrible crime that is in our society. The vice grip of anxiety this society keeps so many of us in, without our even realizing it much of the time.

Whence does this fear of being imperfect come?

My initial thought went to the heart of early Euro-American culture: Puritanism, and a quotation from the Bible (even quoted by Friends sometimes): Be perfect as God is perfect.

I've never really liked that quotation, but the more I deconstruct it, the more oppressive I find it. If we're all so busy being perfect as God is perfect all the time, where is the room for being human? I'm not a huge believer in the whole Jesus-as-God-incarnate bit of Christianity, but for a moment, let's just take for given that's true. Was not God also human then, as well as perfect? What would a society look like where we accepted and even celebrated our own and one another's simple humanity? Maybe if we weren't so busy trying to live up to some insane ideal which no human can achieve--physical, intellectual, professional, personal--we'd have a lot more compassion for the frailty of our fellow human beings. We wouldn't judge each other so harshly for being late, fat, old or young, insolvent, dishonest on occasion, inconsiderate on others, boring, ignorant, or silly. I suspect our humanity which actually take a quantum leap forward if we could overcome this self-and-communal-flaggelating assumption of the necessity of perfection.

If one spends huge amounts of time, energy and money trying to fix, hide, or deny one's own imperfections, it seems only rational that one would resent imperfection in others (we tend to resent near-perfection as well, but not quite as much since it's what we aspire to). How dare you allow yourself to be seen in that bathing suit with those thighs? How dare you dress in that shabby way, or wear your hair in that outdated style? How dare you engage in any kind of physical activity when you look ridiculous in workout clothes, sweat profusely, and suck at anything requiring any exertion? How dare you be late? How dare you bounce a check, miss that phone call, fail to return those 1,400 email messages promptly? How dare you write less than perfect prose or poetry and actually think of showing it to someone? How dare you misunderstand me? How dare you fail to confront all the evil within shouting distance? How dare you ask for help or money or hospitality? How dare you not know everything you need to know about everything and everyone you might encounter before you walk out the door in the morning? How dare you drink? How dare you eat? How dare you sing? How dare you dance? How dare you love that person?

It's a dangerous business, Frodo, walking out your door! With so much judgment from ourselves, let alone our sister humans, waiting to leap on us like a mountain lion in wait each day, it's a wonder we risk getting out of bed in the morning!

There is a feeling in my body I associate with this kind of thinking: PAIN. A severe tightness in the shoulders and neck, disquiet in the belly, joint pain, headaches. The body half of the body-mind does not like this, and is entirely clear on that point. I'm trying to listen more to my body, and what my body tells me quite clearly is this: You're human. Get over it, or die trying. Because you're going to die one way or the other, you imperfect little shit.

And yet...I moved on from these thoughts, once they'd quieted my mind and spirit, to some phrases of wisdom I've been gifted with from people I've been blessed to count among my friends.

Two of my husband's favorite phrases are "I'm just not satisfied," and "Mercy." The two seem incompatible, in a way, and it is my experience of Mark that he tends to be much more merciful towards others than towards himself. He will accept a quality and quantity of work from others which he would never accept from himself. If I'm beating up on myself, rather than join the fray, he will hold me and say "mercy, mercy." But God help him when he makes a mistake with our finances, or forgets to do something he'd planned, or doesn't conduct himself perfectly in an argument or meeting. He has a much harder time receiving mercy than dispensing it.

Which isn't to say he isn't critical of others. We both are, so much so that we've given ourselves the nicknames "Statler & Waldorf," the two crochety muppet elders who used to sit in the balcony during the Muppet Show and heckle the principle players. We've made their names into a verb, as we Statler & Waldorf everything: movies, protests, meetings, what-have-you. But we Statler & Waldorf ourselves the harshest of all.

Usually one or the other of us will try to find the positives in an otherwise depressing and disappointing scenario. It's how we've gotten through our lives to this point. But at some point the words will come out of Mark's mouth, in one form or another, "I'm just not satisfied." He has very high standards for himself and the planet, and he can't condone either being so morally or physically lazy as to not keep trying to live up to them. I have the same high standards. A friend at VSC, Yoon-Soo, tried to explain to me that I should expect people will always disappoint me because I expect them to be good, rational, sensible, generous, kind, open, compassionate and fair, and, well, frankly, most of us just don't have it that together yet, yours truly included.

It seems to me, though, that we can only really deal with our dissatisfaction in a way that doesn't kill us if we come at it from a deeply compassionate, merciful place. I had this image in Meeting of the Earth cradling me like the mother she is. Yes, I accept you with all your failings. Yes, I still love you. Yes, I'll still feed you. Yes, I'll stay with you, always. And, no, my beloved child, that's not good enough. You can do better and you must.

John Gottman, marriage survival expert, says that one of the greatest ironies in life, as in marriage, is that you must accept someone exactly as they are if you are to have any hope of them ever changing into the person you want them to be. When we are afraid, or feel unloved or judged or unaccepted, it's the most natural thing in the world for us to put up defenses. And a defensiving posture weakens and exhausts us. All our energy goes into self-protection. Self-awareness and self-critique requires the strength and power to open ourselves and shine a light in. Bring able to look with a loving but honest and critical eye at ourselves requires tremendous self-love and self-confidence, and though some can do it, it is tough to manage this in the face of the judgment and criticism and blame and shaming of our nearest and dearest. Their love and mercy, however, can empower us in ways we can scarcely imagine until that light shines on us.

I know this to be true, but acting on it is SO HARD! I want everyone to accept me as human, while I demand of them perfection!

I found myself thinking then of something my friend Lauranna taught me. Lauranna is a person of tremendous wisdom who has taught me so many good things. One of these is the power of refusal, the incredible importance of the judicious use of the word no. But I'm going to save that for next time. I have some short stories to finish. Love to you all.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Next Steps Post-VSC

Well, as Samwise Gamgee says at the end of the Lord of the Rings, I'm back.

Back in Denver. Back to the ferocious, fabulous light, and the dry, dry air, and the smog, and burgeoning city, back to the activist scene and our beloved friends and family.

And, after a crazy month spent starting two jobs at 6th Avenue United Church of Christ, and moving into a bright little basement apartment in same, I'm finally getting back to writing. I'll get together tonight with Nancy Stohlman's group of novelists workshopping their writing, and have begun editing and revising some of the stories I began in Vermont. I am still waiting to hear back from Howard Norman (our visiting writer) with his critique of the story I asked him to read. Hopefully that will be forthcoming soon. Today I'm writing Hugh to check in and see how I should send him my work for him to share with his agent.

I hope to get more writing up on the blog soon, as my writerly "insight" are seeming rather drab and dull even to me. Thanks for checking in and staying with me!

Bonding with a Fellow Reno Junkie in the Burlington Airport

This post goes out to all Reno-911 junkies. You know who you are.

I think all of us were really ready to head home by today. Folks started packing up in their minds early in the week. I was struggling to fit everything--the papers, the $1 sweaters and 25 cent paperbacks I picked up at the Johnson Church Thrift store, but managed just barely to get it all in without busting up my suitcases.

Because I had a wee bit more luggage than we were asked to bring (and for any of you future VSC attendees, the vans are SMALL so take them SERIOUSLY at their luggage limit), I asked to leave on the earlier van. As a result I had lots of time to hang around the Burlington Airport with a sister writer.

First we spent a few hours reviewing our frustrations with the issues mentioned in an earlier post at VSC. My sister writer also detailed for me her experience of tremendous heterosexism at VSC, and how she just didn't feel anyone there really got her as a queer woman. Once she put a name to it, the creeping feeling I'd been developing while there--that I really don't like most straight men--finally made sense to me. She said, after this experience, she really has no interest in the future going to residencies which aren't women-only. Some of the people of color I talked to before leaving expressed a similar statement.

Once we'd finished venting, we moved on to a far more important topic: Our just-discovered and shared love of Reno: 911. For those of you unfamiliar with this Comedy Central gem, Reno is satire. I mention this because a lot of folks don't get that. It's brilliant, very smart improv satirizing the police, and racism, sexism, and heterosexism in this country. If you don't get satire, you won't get Reno. If you do, but you don't have cable, run--do not walk--to your nearest independently owned video rental joint and get the first three seasons on DVD. It's the antidote to the horrors of daily life everyone needs. Trust me.

The Free Palestine Brigade at VSC!

I have found open and caring people here who have responded with heart and mind to these stories from Palestine, and that is no small thing; it has given me courage and the will to continue. There is also a phenomenal painter and performance artist here named Kendall who worked as a human shield in Rafah (Gaza) in 2003. He has done some gorgeously in-your-face pieces, including several self-portraits of "artist as martyr"--imagine it about as radical as you can and go a step farther! Phenomenal man!

One of my new friends here, Hugh, has even asked me to send him some of my longer pieces, offering to show them to his agent. Any of you writers out there know this is a tremendous gift, and a real testament to Hugh's self-respect and lack of competitiveness (he has no reason to be jealous of me anyway...he is a phenomenally gifted and skilled writer and poet). Of course, I'm terrified of doing this, but it would be self-sabotage not to do so. I hadn't really thought my work was ready for an agent, but he seems to think so, and that is encouraging.

Hugh and I share a political sensibility about writing which he can articulate far better than I.
Finding him, or rather, him finding me, was such a gift. And I had the privilege of meeting his partner, Maynard, yesterday, who came up from their home a few hours away to hear Hugh read. They are both part of a progressive community working on issues of sustainable energy; I hope and intend that Mark and I should stay in touch with them over time.

There have been some truly wonderful and inspiring people here, and I will take cherished memories of them with me. I can never thank them enough for the support and safety they've provided me here.