Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love and Ashes

A Presbyterian minister friend of mine reminded me, via her social media post, that yesterday was not only Valentine's Day, but also Ash Wednesday.



Love and ashes.

First the love: Valentine's Day. Ick. For the last many years, I've been a staunch Valentine's Day protestor. Ick about the sentimentality, ick about the consumerism. Ick about about the sexism, the bad chocolate, the over-priced roses, the crowded restaurants, the unhappily married people pretending, the uncoupled people feeling left out and demoralized. Ick, ick, ick. Real love is grittier than red paper lace and candy hearts. Love in real life is troubled, loud, a little insane, playing balls out and for keeps, sweating and bleeding; but also brilliant, gentle, transcending, physical, drunken with joy and laughter. There is no greeting card that can encompass that messy glory and pain.

So much for the saint's day. I'm a little better at the religious observance of ashes, but not by much. Raised as a Lutheran, I'm (very, very) familiar with the church calendar, the cycle of penitence, death, and resurrection told and retold through thousands of years of Christianity. While I have deep respect for the tradition, faith and religion no longer inhabit the same place in my heart. I did not go to church; but I also would not refuse the ashes if a priest or pastor were to offer them to me. Because the truest gospel of all, regardless of belief, is that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return. We are all marked with that failure.

Because we fail, we also fail in love. Imperfect, selfish, uninformed, misguided, frightened, jealous, distracted, exhausted, addicted, proud, irritated, angry, bored, lazy, stubborn--we all get in the way of ourselves, even with our best and highest aspirations.

Because to love is to aspire. To die is to fail. We do both, but we are rather more honest about our aspirations than our failures, even the ultimate one. For me, right now at age 50, with aspirations and failures in roughly (I hope) equal measure, it's time to reflect. I will keep my aspirations, because even though they're battered, they still sing to me when I dream, and that makes them worth keeping. But it's time to be just as honest about the failures. It is time to gather my ashes, sweep them into a pile, inventory the remains of what has burned down.

That all sounds pretty dark, doesn't it? It definitely does in comparison to our culture's current, relentlessly cheerful continuous quality improvement model. The one that says if we can only buy this one thing or stick to that diet or earn that promotion, we'll be some better more perfect version of ourselves in some sunshiny point in the future, chasing an ideal of perfectibility that is always just out of reach, on the horizon. It keeps us forever on the hook of hope and optimism, which are awfully shiny and attractive concepts, but shallow ones. They never pay off, ever, with contentment or harmony or self-knowledge, which are ultimately more satisfying, but require an honesty so brutal that it's easier to stay distracted than face it.

Instead of darkness, though, I'm finding freedom and relief, coming to terms with the failure. Realizing that it's built into the system. All systems, all things. Relationships, bodies, cultures, objects. Me. You. Everybody. That doesn't change (or excuse) the consequences. People hurt because of failures. But the acknowledgement seems to bear a certain kind of witness and power, though, like the crosses of ash on the foreheads of Christians all over the globe. We are all weak together. So now what?

New things arise from failure. That's built into the system too. It runs through our folklore and myth across cultures, from Native American legends to Christ to Brahma and Shiva. It's right there in nature too-- organisms fail and die, are subsumed into the soil that feeds the freshest blooms, the sustaining crops, the ecological chain of life. Out of the ashes of failures and death, something else is born. But we can't love-- we can't aspire-- until we see our failures with clear eyes. Label our mistakes, repair our gates, tend to the wounded, grieve our losses, sort through the rubble to find what was worthy enough to survive and use again. The hard truth is that we'll cycle through love and ashes many times and in many forms throughout our life. I'm beginning to realize that although that part is unavoidable, trying to ignore the ugly half pretty much guarantees we won't get the half we want--anyway not in any form that really sustains us.

I'm living at that transition right now, learning to fully see and account for my failures while I build something new out of the rubble. My hands are dirty, my heart is full, and I'm making little piles here and there of what to keep and what to discard. I finally see that this is the real work of a fully lived life.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Start Writing

When I worked for a newspaper, the editor-in-chief was a kind, bespectacled man, but with a sort of roll-up-your-shirtsleeves attitude toward writing. While he firmly believed good print journalism can be both literary art form and an act of service to society, he also had a small and sometimes unruly newsroom of reporters he had to herd toward a press deadline every day.

News journalism has a standard form they call the inverted pyramid; there's a lead (spelled "lede") sentence containing the most newsworthy priority piece of information. Then other important and supporting details come next. Then, background details that help flesh out a more complete picture.

My problem as a reporter was that my mind did not and does not work that way. It does a lot of sorting of small details first, and then builds a picture of an entire situation. I'm not looking at the time of day, I'm looking at the back of the clock, and noticing how all the gears turn. I'd often return to the paper after interviews, research, and events with such a disorganized swirl in my head that I'd pace the larger circle of the first floor, through the coatroom, through the front office, back through the newsroom and loop through the print shop, restlessly, trying to wrangle my lede into place mentally.

The ticking deadline clock usually caught up with me. "Start writing," Editor would say, more advice than command. And so I would know that regardless of the state of my thoughts, it was time to pour the coffee, get my ass in the chair, and get something to the copy editors before they became volatile.

While his words were primarily about meeting the demands of the news cycle, it also put a simple, two-word directive on the circular conundrum of my writing life. I want to write words that have order and meaning.  But I also depend on words to help me find order and meaning. I cannot seem to have both at once, so I'm both afraid to start (where is the meaning?), but afraid if I don't I will never find it or the right, beautiful, true words.

That conundrum has had me stuck in place for months, both professionally (I still write for a living, though not for a newspaper), and personally. I'm supposed to love this. This is supposed to be who I am. But for the longest time, writing has been an act of pacing the perimeter of the room. For the longest time, I forgot the wisdom of "start writing."

I'm trying to remember it now. I'm trying to put my finger down on a place in that circular conundrum, and write forward toward meaning, rather than trying to pluck all the right words from the swirl of chaos, both good and bad, that life presents to me.

Stay tuned. Because my ass is in the chair.