We Carry Stones with Us Everywhere

We’ve since broken up.  Looking back, I guess I can see why.

Getting there was the hard part. I had picked it out, the hike in Shenandoah, Little Devil’s Stairs. The loop, taking the fire road, brought it up to five and a half miles. On flat ground in Florida, even in the thick heat of midday, the air like syrup, five and a half miles is nothing to me. But this was mountain hiking, the hiking I had imagined as a child.

The directions were solid. If you started from Sperryville. Which we did not, coming instead from DC.

“How far are we from Sperryville?” I asked.

“Ten,” his spare reply.  I assumed miles.

“Okay.”

“We’re looking for 522,” he reiterated. This was a staple of our dialogues; stating facts that the other one knows.

“No, no, because we have to read the directions backward– that would be if we were coming from Sperryville. But we’re not…”

“There’s 522; I’m turning.”

“But we need…” my explanation died on my lips.

A mile we went down 522, and I started up my explanations again, trying to fight logic with logic. Sadly, we come from two seperate breeds: both of us logical, reasonable, but he can skim, wants the results, just the upshot, whereas I must back up every conclusion I make with facts, data, inferences, all labeled each as they should be, resting the weight of my argument on the sturdiest of these supports, and noting where it is weak. This approach does not lend itself well to relaying directions.

We were lost.  We trundled over a narrow bridge, traversable by one vehicle at a time, into the deep thick of the Virginia back woods, past farm after farm, odd old cottages and newer homes with blue vinyl siding nestled behind stone walls.

“We’re going the wrong way.”

“I turned on 522.”

“But we should have been looking for a different road.”

“It said 522.”

“It said 522 from Sperryville.”

“And we took it.”

“We didn’t start from Sperryville.  We needed to look for this road,” I pointed to the map.

“I should have brought the GPS.”

I sunk into the passenger’s seat and buttoned my lips.  I cracked a book.  It was worth the headache.

It was well past noon when we arrived at Shenandoah, through a back lot with an “iron ranger” toppled over, bent at the base with a sign stating the park entrance fee.  With nowhere to put the money safely, we ignored it.

“I’ll mail in the fee as a donation.”

I don’t know if he ever did.

And we ascended the stair.  The first quarter mile breezed by, the stones made dizzy by our passing.  Then my flatlanded legs wibbled while we climbed.  They shivered.  They shook.  I had to stop every five minutes.  The words “devil’s stair” couldn’t match the trail’s diabolical incline.  And he?  It was effortless, even years after he’d stopped rock climbing.  I trailed behind like a lost child, resenting not his ease of motion, but his impatience with my stops.

Or the perceived impatience.  It seemed that way to me— after all, he couldn’t be enjoying time with this rock, this lagging old dog of a girlfriend, could he?  I didn’t ask, but assumed.  And we all know the old military saying.

So when reached the top of our trail, and I saw the Blue Ridge Mountains from the Blue Ridge Mountains, the trough of valley lying between and all of it hazed slate and in the late noon light, I wanted to pause.  I wanted to inhale it and stay.

“We should get back.”

I didn’t answer, but came away slowly, pulling the sky after me.  The fire road descended heavily, and gravity caught my legs, the dirt, the stones.

“You should control your steps, then there won’t be so much shock to your legs.  You’ll be less likely to get hurt.”

It didn’t matter that he was right in this.  So I slacked my steps, resisted the pull, and followed after, silent.

We passed a graveyard before we turned onto the trail back.  It suited my mood.

“Here, let’s go in.”

“We don’t have time.”

What didn’t we have time for?  We had the whole day.  I wandered in, saw headstones worn smooth.  He huffed.  I hurried through, and we finished the loop.

In silence, I climbed into the passenger’s side of the rental car, clicked my seat belt to shush the alarm, and leaned back to watch the hills roll by.  He offered no words to the void.

And we drove back from the wilds to the bustle of DC, having brought no peace with us.

So Last Night, I Was Talking to Inigo Montoya…

…and we discussed a problem with a word. He didn’t think it meant what I thought it meant, and I think he thought rightly.

That word is “worship.” We also discussed “faith.” “Belief.” And “religion.” These are all concepts with which I toy, and use like foundations for elaborate thoughts… except, what I’m building is way over there, and he thought those words lay in this field here. Problematic.

See, I’m an atheist. A mystiskeptic. A funny little Pagan chick (cheep, cheep). And I “worship” “gods” who don’t exist. They’re ideas. Metaphors. Pure poetry. The things that guide my morality aren’t set down in any books, except maybe the Bokononist texts, and those never stopped being written (I am writing them myself, you are writing them yourself, we are weaving together at the loom, pulling out each others’ stitches, bowing the warp, following different designs, but we’re doing it together).

Of gods, Le Guin said it: “I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”

Of morality, Vonnegut said it: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Worship, the noun, as defined by the American Heritage College Dictionary, means “1.a. The reverent love and devotion accorded a deity, an idol, or a sacred object. b. The ceremonies, prayers, or other religious forms by which this love is expressed. 2. Ardent devotion; adoration.” The verb? Transitively, it’s this: “1. To honor and love as a deity. 2. To To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion.” Or intransitively: “1.To participate in religious rites of worship. 2. To perform an act of worship.”

Worship, then, is not exactly what I do. But I play loose and fast with words, the rope spinning out of my hands, out of control. I am not devoted to a deity. Deity is a figmental mystery, deity is this universe, whole, including me, including you, deity is a metaphor and a damned good one, a completely inadequate one, a cliché, a sham, a reflection of everything we hope to be, a well of ideas… I make them up as I go. The only firm thing about deities that I can profess with any accuracy is that I can find nothing literal about them.

So how do you worship a thing like that? I esteem lies, adore artifice, and I don’t pray. Not to inventions. Worship is a rite, yes, and it is religious– but am I a religious being? Faith is blind. I like my eyes open, my ears perked, my nose full of air, my tongue tangled over syllables, my fingers holding earth. Faith… is a leap. Though I am a gazelle, I want to rough out where I will land. Belief? I believe in a universe. I don’t trust my senses. They are an artist’s senses. Philosophy tells me that even empiricism has its limits. Descartes does not tell us that we are; does thinking require an agent? I don’t believe anything. I believe everything.  “I believe, regardless, I believe in everyone.”  Oh, Joanna.

Tangled skeins aside, when I say worship, I mean something very specific. I mean to take part in wonderment. The universe is, and it’s vast, and this is a wonder and a mess. Worship is an act of reverence not for a thing in particular, or a single idea, but for all that is. It’s not about unquestioning devotion, but adoration of the fact that, hells, we’re here. My sacred object is everything, all I have learned, all that science unfolds, all that philosophy ponders. Worship is the stuff of ritual, of rite. Everything I do is ritual, a symbols game. Every act is worship.  Every inaction is worship.

And faith? Most take faith to mean the stuff of blind leaps, to accept axiomatically things which bear argument, to inhabit dogma, to follow without question. The given definition is “to accept without proof.” But what is to accept?  All things are in doubt. We are in a state of never knowing. Faith might be letting the possibility that the sun will rise tomorrow guide your plans to drive to work and maybe take a stop for a glass of orange juice along the way. Faith for me is in the hesitation. That heron wasn’t there yesterday. Because I do not know if the sun will rise, because I do not know if Huitzilopochtli has received a sacrifice these 52 years, I think I will stop to worship with the heron instead of taking that glass of orange juice.

The Importance of Being a Cat

I am curious about many things.  I ask too many questions, go on too long in circuitous answers.  So it puzzled me, years ago, when a friend told me about the conversation he’d had with his father:

“He really didn’t know what it was,” the tall one said.  See, his father had been a Methodist all his life.  He’d seen the cross and flame every Sunday going to church, and then one day, my tall one referred to the symbol, and his father replied, “The what?”

“The cross and flame.  You know, the symbol of your church.”

“I just always thought it was a shroud or something.”

“You’ve been going to that church for years and you never wondered what it was or what it meant?”

“No.”

No?

No.

And that’s what puzzles me.   Adages promising death to probing felines don’t bother me— we have satisfaction as a safety net.  What bothers me is the thought of being completely incurious about something.

When my mother brought me to that Methodist church as a kid, you bet I knew what that symbol meant.  It wasn’t taught to me, but I followed the threads of the quilt hung in the church hall outlining the iterations of the symbol, the years they were adopted.  I snooped through history books and read of John Wesley.  I was curious.  I was a cat.  I thought that was something basic about being a human— that wanting to know.  Isn’t it what drives science?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find that attitude sitting in a church pew, coming from an old gent who grumps about change.  I know the man, it’s entirely in character.

But to know that not everyone is a curious soul is a little slice of winter— like the tongue of a candle flame snuffed out.

Thoughts on the Occupation

To Those Occupying Wall Street,

I’m sorry.  I haven’t done anything.  I haven’t retweeted anything, I haven’t commented on anything, or linked to anything, until now.  I haven’t sent food.  Or any other donation.  And it’s not for of lack of caring, or not being able to see the problem.  There are a host of problems.  I’m part of the 99%, too, with $14,000 in student loans, and a job which effectively pays me minimum wage.  I, too, feel like there’s no way out, no way up, and the forecasts for the jobs I’d been training for in academia are grim.

The thing is, I’m scared.  Ground under.  Paralyzed.  Inspired.  I’m a thinking being.  I look at the way things have been running for decades, the rich getting richer and real wages stagnating,  and I don’t have a cure.  My roommate, another thinking being, says that capitalism as a system is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.  He admires its elegance.  And I suppose I do too, if that elegance is bound up in ensuring that the top bracket has everything, and its purpose is insulating the upper class from the tribulations that their mismanagement has caused.  When the mismanagement of large companies (Enron, the auto manufacturers) threatens to tank our economy, I fail to see how it’s elegant.  Cutting taxes and public programs doesn’t work: we have the proof.  You might also say having large systems of spending even with a high tax burden doesn’t work— but I haven’t asked the Dutch.

Even with the myth of American capitalism in place, that enough hard work will get you anywhere, you can’t stop people from seeing that the system is broken when thousands of dollars worth of education buys you only food stamps and no medical coverage.  Is it communist to want a basic standard of living, and for effort, work, and creativity to reward people further?  I think the terms “communism” and “capitalism” have become crutches, foam lances, and we are tilting at oak trees disguised as windmills we mistake for dragons when we bandy them about.  I also think it’s more anarchist than anything else.

Will the top bracket listen?  Not unless there’s an actual threat.  Not unless it’s actual class warfare.    Things have to grind to a halt.  What’s going on now, it’s just parades.  But we’ve seen where it goes.  Ask the French.

I think this, and my heart races.  I think this, and I ask, “What are the real solutions?”  I think this, and I wonder if I’m going to have enough money to pay the electric bill.  I want to continue my education.  I want to write.  I want to see my words in print, my name on novels, on chapbooks, on academic papers.  I want to have enough money to live with my friends, share a mortgage among six people, and not have to worry about if there’s enough money for dinner.  I want to share a sewing machine and a few cats and dogs, some garden plots— maybe even a TIG welder when I’m feeling heady with desire— and I want to hold them in common with dear ones, modest goals, but shared ones.  I want to get my teeth fixed.  I want to be able to go in for a physical.  When even these dreams seem too big to comprehend?  I guess that says something.

I guess it says something also that Adbusters could suggest this, and it cascades in every direction in the hands of people ignited by its immediacy.  The best invented traditions, the strongest movements, are always the ones in which people see glimmers of themselves, and grab and take and run.  Wildfire.  They’ve made it their own.  What direction will it blow?  We’ve got the flame, but we have no single banner.  It’s a protest of the broke and broken, breaking through the silence with cries of “we can’t take this anymore.”  It’s not a single cohesive cry, either, but a live wire scatter shock of a thousand thousand different reasons, a thousand thousand different voices.  This movement has no center, no cohesive demand.  It’s not calling for an end to anything, if you just listen.  It’s a cry of pain.  And these are the closest things it currently has to goals.

The unions have joined in.  Occupy Miami is gearing up.  And I?  I am job hunting.  I don’t expect real change.  I expect this movement like many before to be eaten away by other agendas, the big dogs tearing it apart and fighting over the scraps.

I had wanted to write something less personal.  I had wanted to write about the protests, the academics of it, the lack of a center, the call for change… I had wanted to write something disconnected and analytical.  I don’t know if I actually could, watching my dear ones teeter on the edge, none of us with money for a doctor and scrapping to pay the rent.  This is my piece then.  This is where I am.  This is where we all are.  So with all this energy, this vitality, this momentum, what do we do from here?

If not in solidarity, then in hope,
Story

Edited for flow and clarity, 1:43am.