Wednesday, November 19, 2014

sunday school

The first time I took communion, I was six years old. I was not a Catholic, or any other type of communion-taking Christian, it's important to note. This was my first time in a church. I was just a plus-one visiting the Lord's house for breakfast. 

I didn't grow up going to church. My parents and grandparents were Theosophists, and Theosophy isn’t exactly a religion. Some Wednesday evenings my mom and dad would go to Lodge, which was a Theosophical discussion group that batted around different topics week after week, but there was nothing on the books for kids. My spiritual education was whatever I picked up around the dining room table.  

My best friend, Allison Pykett, had invited me over for a sleepover at her house the night before, and we’d planned that I’d tag along to church in the morning to keep the party going. The Pyketts were Catholic, and their church was gorgeous and cavernous, with dark wood pews and elaborate stonework. The mass itself was confusing, and I was amazed by how smoothly Allison and her family knelt and rose and sang and sat and thumbed to this and that page in the hymnal. Trying to keep up with them felt like following along with some elaborate aerobic dance video while doing silent karaoke to a song I’d never heard before. 

And then it was time for communion. Allison had warned me that this was big shit, and we’d agreed that when the time came, I’d stay in my seat. I wasn’t a Catholic so I wasn’t supposed to have any. But when everybody got up and scooted over to get in line, Allison switched plans on me and told me to get up and follow her. 

I was seized by dread. What about the thing we’d talked about before? I was busting a taboo! I wasn’t supposed to be up there! What would happen when you did something wrong like that in a church?? I hadn’t been apprised of the consequences so I was picturing every kind of bad thing. But Allison pulled me into line and no adult stopped me, so I was swept trembling into the waiting-for-communion river. 

We inched closer. I prepared for the priest to yell or smack me in the face or toss me out a window. And then we were up. Allison went first. The priest smiled down at her, she opened her mouth and he put a wafer on her tongue. 

Then it was my turn. The priest smiled down at me with the same smile he smiled at Allison, the same smile he smiled at everybody in front of us. He didn’t ask me to show my papers or identify myself. I scanned his eyes, trying to read his mind. I determined that he must know that I was a visitor. How could he not know? He knew, and he knew some loopholes in the rules that Allison didn’t know about that made it so this wasn’t a big deal. That had to be the situation. He was ready with the wafer. Nobody was calling the cops. 

So I opened my mouth, and tried to speak to him with my eyes—I hope you know what you’re doing—and then his big clean fingers were in my mouth (it was weird to have a man’s fingers in my mouth and have that man not be my dentist) and the disc was on my tongue. It had happened. I hoped this didn’t mean I’d converted to Catholicism. I knew that was a discussion my parents would have wanted to get in on.

Then we shuffled over to the right, and someone gave me a little pleated paper cup. Since I was already possibly up shit creek having swallowed the wafer as a pagan, I figured that a blood-of-Christ chaser couldn’t do that much additional damage, so I drank the dark, sweet liquid and put the implicit lie behind me. And if I didn’t tell anybody I was probably Catholic now, then I wouldn’t have to go to confession to tell anybody about it, so that was also a good deal. 


After popping my strange-holy-temple cherry with Allison, the post-sleepover church visit always gave me a voyeuristic thrill, no matter whose house I’d slept at and whose religion I would be invading in the morning. I crashed all kinds of churches: Catholic, Mormon, Lutheran, Christian Scientist. Most of my friends were churchgoers, and their parents either didn’t mind dragging me along with them or they were flat-out worried for the state of my churchless soul. Either way, I was jazzed to be along for the ride. I felt like Jacques Cousteau, gliding into brand-new spiritual-tropical waters, observing all the brightly dressed fish going about their religious customs. 

I don’t know what I was imagining would happen in church, what exactly I was so excited about. I guess I wanted some God. If God was such a huge deal that everybody interrupted their Sundays at home to dress up and get in the car and drive to some special building not on a weekday, then there must have been some supersweet action going on in there, and I wanted to feel it. The friend I’d be accompanying was invariably blasé, being subjected to this ritual weekly, but my heart would beat a little faster as the parents drove up and parked and we filed into the church. A little fear in the foyer—will they stare?—and then I’d be safely in the pew with my temporary adopted family and a man would start to talk. 

I was always rooting for the priest or pastor or reverend or minister to say something exciting—Bring it, sir! Make the lights flash around my head! There are lights, right? Holy lights? Let’s get ‘em going!—and I waited for the moment where the man would spill the good stuff. 

Welcome child. Prepare to have your mind blown. This is why I have this job. I’m Doug Henning, I’m David Copperfield Times One Million. I have God up my sleeve right here and I’m going to let him out…..NOW!


My expectations were possibly jacked up a touch past the point of fairness. But if God wasn’t going to crash through the ceiling and embrace us all, I was at least hoping for something like a spreading warmth, some kind of deep, Christmas-y good cheer to bloom in my heart as God’s representative held forth. I held out hope every time, and was disappointed every time. If PowerPoint presentations had existed back then and I’d known about them, I’d have said that church services pretty much felt like that. 

But hold on! Sunday school was next! We could still squeeze something rewarding out of the venture! 

I loved Sunday school. Like I said, there was no place and time in Theosophy for children to talk about the divine, but I was still interested. Too bad for me, though; Theosophy was for grownups, unless you were my older brother, who could participate in Theosophical discussion as fully informed and articulate as any adult, and often more so. But the discussions I listened in on at home were all a little over my head and nobody was bringing anything down to where my head was, so I was benched by default. 

Sunday school, on the other hand, was 100% kid-sized, and I was champing at the bit for some discourse. The teacher would slip us a brightly-colored book or comic and we’d read the day’s selection and talk about what we read. The regulars mostly slumped in their seats and didn’t bother raising their hands, as I’m sure I would have done if I had to participate week after week. But this happened for me maybe four or five times a year, so I felt like I’d been handed some kind of hot classified CIA document, and attacked the material with insane verve. My hand shot up constantly. 

Maybe Jesus was like this! And maybe he meant this! And given the dilemma you’re laying out, I think I might have done this! And I think this means this! 

That I kept any friends was a little miracle in itself.


I was a little bit envious of these kids, my friends whose churches had super-popular Jesus for a mascot. He was everywhere. He was the People’s Choice, the ratings juggernaut. Theosophists didn’t have anybody like that. We had people like Helen Petrovna Blavatsky and C.W. Leadbeater and Colonel Henry Olcott and Annie Besant. Have you heard of them? Probably not! And we had some obscure, off-brand Jesus-like spiritual masters: Master Kuthumi, Master Morya. I bet you haven’t heard of those guys either! All the kids are drinking Coke and we’re not even drinking Pepsi or R.C. We’re drinking, like, hemp soda. It gave me agitas. 


One Sunday morning when I was ten or so, I was home and flipping through the religious programming on all the different channels. They were talking about Jesus on every one. I thought, well, this isn’t fair. If Jesus is who everybody says he is, he’d be up for being friends with anybody. Surely you don’t need to go to one of his churches to get in on this. And I decided to test it out and befriend him on the spot. I mentally placed Jesus in the room with me, and aimed my friendship pledge into the air where I put him. Nothing happened, I didn’t feel any kind of glowing hand on my head, but I did feel good and satisfied in the way anybody does when they’ve bypassed the middleman.    

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

please hold

This week's post is getting postponed until next week, as I'm doing some writing for some other places for dollars and there are deadlines. See you here next Wednesday!

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

anna stesia

A few years ago I had some surgery, and surgery, while it buys you pain, also buys you pain meds. There are probably some noble souls* among us who don’t exult when they find themselves in position to take heavy narcotics, but I’m not one of them. A nice little prescription for some Percocet or Vicodin is the dangling carrot on the other side of whatever crappy something-or-other I’m going to have to go through to get it. 

*or chronic pain sufferers—a tip of the hat and an apology for the above bit to you guys, all of whom I’m sure would love nothing better than to be able to get off the pain meds. I see you, I note you, and I’m wishing you freedom.

So I had this surgery, and afterwards I got to spend a few weeks in bed hopped up on Vicodin. Every time I laughed or sneezed or coughed it felt like I was getting barbecued from the inside out, but you know, I didn’t laugh or sneeze or cough that often. The rest of the time I was sailing in a warm haze, watching Netflix and eating the entertaining snacks my fine husband brought in to me. 

The only problem with the Vicodin was that it gave me horrible, vivid, rubbery dreams. I had to stop taking it every night by 8:30 or I was doomed to wander until dawn in the grossest parts of my subconscious. I asked my doctor if he could give me an alternative, and he wrote me a prescription for Tramadol.  

I took Tramadol for one day, beginning at 1pm. As soon as it kicked in, hoooly smoke. The high was the sweetest in history; I’ve never felt anything like it before or since. I felt like I was wrapped in furs riding through heaven on a parade float. A revelation. Tramadol. Jesus. I was the luckiest lady ever to get cut open. 

You were supposed to take a dose every four to six hours. My feeling was, hey, let’s make it four. The four end of this schedule is where the party’s at. Why let this feeling fade any more than it needs to? As soon as the minute hand ticked over to 5pm, I popped in Tramadol No. 2. 

I thought I was a genius until a couple of hours passed.

Here are some of the common side effects of Tramadol: 

(I’m not going to list them all because you have a life to live and there’s no time.)

feeling of warmth
feeling sad or empty
feeling unusually cold
trouble concentrating
unusual feeling of excitement

Here are some of the rarer ones: 

change in hearing
cold and flu-like symptoms
difficulty moving
disturbance in attention
false or unusual sense of well-being
feeling hot
feeling jittery
flushing or redness of the skin
headache, severe and throbbing
hot flashes
loss of voice
muscle aching or cramping
night sweats
tightness of the chest
trouble sleeping
trouble breathing
And then there are all the side effects that you have to call your doctor/head to the emergency room about immediately, but this isn’t a PSA and this post isn’t about prescription drugs even if it really seems like it is right now, so I’m not going to list them. 

Anyway, I had a lot of the side effects listed above, but I don’t see anywhere 








which I guess all fall under the “agitation” heading. I was sweating, freezing, nauseated, metallic-feeling and dead panicked, and I spent the whole night until the sun came up googling Tramadol horror stories (oh, you can find ‘em), pacing back and forth between the bathroom and the bed, and praying my fucking head off. 

Spoiler: I lived. 

My point is that there’s a downside to sweet, sweet numbing. And that’s what I’m wanting to talk about today. Numbing. The instinct to numb. I press that little metaphorical morphine drip button probably fifty times a day, in all my different ways, because I’m constantly deciding that whatever major or minute level of mental or physical or emotional suffering I’m undergoing is unacceptable and must be stopped in its tracks. 

Nurse! (Candy Crush.)
Nurse! (Web surf.)
NURSE! (Xanax.)


A glass of wine, that’s a nice one. Classy little magic carpet ride to an adjacent reality where it’s always evening and there’s always a fire in the fireplace and the day’s responsibilities are complete and there is no tomorrow coming to bring new ones. Also, wine feels rich, like money, like where there’s wine there can never be dirt or poverty or hardship. I’m in from the cold, insulated. Somewhere a few rooms away, barely audible, Robin Leach is narrating my own personal episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or I’ve dropped into the Little House on the Prairie where Half-Pint stumbles onto a cache of fool’s gold and the lens goes all vaseline’d while she imagines her family drifting slo-mo through Walnut Grove wearing fancy, blinding white linen. 

I like wine. I don’t drink that enough. 

A beer during a Seahawks game! I’m a lightweight but I metabolize alcohol differently during a tense football game. It just disappears into my system leaving no tracks, it feels like. I’m too keyed up to notice any effects other than not dying from sports-related freakout. 

Pot, we’ve had some times. Eleven years ago, after I broke up with my previous boyfriend and before I met Dave, I bought myself an attractive little pipe and made the plan to take up pot smoking for real. I’d dabbled since I was a teenager, but I decided it was time to take it up as a proper identity. Rakish, unflappable stoner. (I was the very definition of flappable so this appealed.) But my stoner plan only lasted a couple of months because I met Dave and fell in love, and Dave was sober, and also I was in love so I had the best drug of all flowing through my system: oxytocin. (Roxy Music says love is the drug—and who wants to argue with Roxy Music?—but I’m not going to tackle love here. I’m not stupid.) So pot and I parted company until I was prescribed medical cannabis during a long illness a couple of years ago, and that was not the party I’m talking about.

There’s a Buddhist term, dukkha, that translates to something like “suffering”, or “unsatisfactoriness”, and it’s about that “if only” feeling that chases most of us around all day. Oh, the alarm, traffic, my foot, my wife, this job, my neck, the weather, death, pain. Get me out of here! Fix it. Change it. I don’t like it. It won’t do. The idea is that these things that we’re complaining about, they’re not the causes of our suffering. Our suffering about them is the cause of our suffering about them. Those things just are what they are. We supply the suffering ourselves by wishing them different. 

So this is the trigger to get our numb on, these endless flashes of dukkha. You pick your numbing agent of choice—anything from Hershey’s Kisses to Angry Birds to heroin—and you shut the dukkha out. 

All day I enact these micro defensive maneuvers, and I’m starting to wonder just how long I’m going to resist coming all the way alive like this. Because that’s what I’m doing. I’m resisting coming fully alive. I mean, I’m breathing and I have a pulse and I’m conscious for most of the day and I’m walking around, so that’s not nothing, but I’m afraid of something and I keep fighting it off, and I suspect that the thing I keep fighting off is my own life, my own life force, and that seems bad. 


There’s a personality type system called the Enneagram, and I’m really into it. (I’m a sucker for personality type systems of all stripes. They mesmerize me. Astrology, Myers-Briggs, Chinese Zodiac, whatever, I love it all. I’m always trying to figure out just who it is exactly that’s walking around in this Tina suit and I’m open to ideas. Wide. Wide open.) There are nine different personality types in the Enneagram. I’m a Nine, aka The Mediator, aka The Peacemaker, aka The Peace-Seeker, which is the most potentially numbed-out type. According to the Enneagram, Nines repress their anger and squash all their attendant unruly boat-rocking impulses. This makes them easy to get along with, but you don’t achieve that kind of repression without a lot of help, so we’re masters of numbness. The challenge for a Nine is to become unrepressed—wide awake and present no matter what—and in doing so release all that untapped dynamism. 

Not only are there nine types in the Enneagram, but there are three sub-types of each major type. You’re also classified according to what avenue the mechanism of the type expresses itself through most often. So each of the nine types have three expressions: social, sexual and self-preservation. 

When I first read about this, I was gunning to be either the social or sexual type of Nine, because those sounded cooler than being a self-preservation type. Obviously. But no. Sorry. No. The more I read, the more I recognized myself in the safety-seeking, comfort-loving Self-Preservation Nine. Goddamn it. So turtle-y. The numbest of the numb.  

I don’t love this about myself but I understand it. There was early trauma in my life that was ferocious enough that learning to numb was job one, and a compassionate act of self-preservation. It was a necessity, and the best thing I could come up with. It wasn’t wrong. 

It wasn’t wrong, but it’s not somewhere I'm planning on staying, either. This armor of numbness is outdated. It doesn’t serve any more. And so that’s my big focus these days, coming un-numb. Meditation, yoga, healing work, you name it. I’m pouring it on. 

So what am I afraid of? What am I trying to squash when I’m numbing myself? When I send my little fishing line down into this line of questioning, I get a flash of facing some beast, some kind of enemy, going into a bright hot battle with annihilation at its end. Something wants me dead. Something wants to burn me up. I don’t know what that is. I'm looking at this through a veil, you know? Numbness! 

But practically, in real-life terms, what’s the danger in coming alive? For all of us? Well, maybe there’s a lot of shit that’s not working, and when you de-numb and can see it and feel it, you have to fix it. Maybe your body’s broken, or your job sucks, or your relationship is wrong, or your friendships are unsatisfying, or your living situation is untenable. Maybe something is hurting you. I mean, yes. Something is hurting you. If you’re getting numb, something’s hurting you, even if it’s just your own thought patterns. Ugh. Exhausting! There’s so much to do every damn day already. You want to say there’s more? Extrication or rebuilding or re-conceiving or healing or moving or or or. Fuck. Fuck! Pass the wine. Tomorrow’s problem. 

And we’re not just afraid of the rough stuff, either. 


One of my favorite words is poignant. 

poi-gnant adjective \ˈpȯi-nyənt

1:  pungently pervasive <poignant perfume>

2: a (1) :  painfully affecting the feelings :  piercing  (2) :  deeply affecting :  touching

b :  designed to make an impression :  cutting  <poignant satire>

3  a :  pleasurably stimulating

    b :  being to the point

I love the word, I love the experience of poignance. But it’s unsustainable. That kind of sharpness is for a quick in-and-out, not for an extended stay. 

When I was very sick and in the hospital at the beginning of 2013, I didn’t see my children for nine days. I’d never gone so long without seeing them, but I was too unwell to handle it for that first hospital stretch. After nine days I was ready, and Dave brought them to see me. 

I heard them before I saw them. I heard their footsteps in the hallway, their little voices. My oldest boy was six, my youngest was three. The poignance began its assault as soon as I detected my boys with my ears. And then they rounded the corner into the room, into my line of vision, and I was fully harpooned. Their scruffy, hopeful, tentative faces (so exquisite!); their puffy overcoats, navy and gray; their little pants. Their milky skin, the look and feel of it. Their flutey little voices. The feel of them pressing up against my leg and my sides. If you don’t think I have tears streaming down my face right this second to think of it, think again. It burned, the beauty.  

You can’t live there, not at that pitch. 


And yet.


On my 19th birthday, I hung out with friends at an apartment up on Capitol Hill here in Seattle. We drank and played Scruples, peppering each other with provocative questions. The question came up, “Would you rather live a life of great joys and great sorrows, with extreme highs and lows, or would you rather have a more moderate existence, missing the extremes on either end?” I expected a landslide with me for the former. 

Nein. Two of us opted for the former, and the rest of the room chose the more moderate existence. Team Highs and Lows was all ARE YOU PEOPLE CRAZY? and Team Moderation was like NO, ARE YOU CRAZY? and we both had a point. But I’d vote the same way today. I’ve bumped both extremes plenty and I still say it. 

I have to practice sustaining that sharpness a little longer, is the thing. I think it can stretch out and diffuse into something livable without losing its potency. I think this is the idea. 

I was talking with my teacher, Jim, about the difference between aliveness and stimulation. (Or, no. He was talking and I was listening.) He was saying that we’ve gotten so numb as a society that our craving for stimulation is ramping up just so that we can feel something. Louder, faster, bigger, funnier, sexier, more violent everything. But stimulation, while it gives us a jolt, doesn’t address the thing that made us go numb in the first place.

You know it when it happens, though, the other thing, the expansion of the aliveness within. It’s not contentment, exactly, or well-being. Those are by-products, maybe, of aliveness, or presence. Sometimes everything aligns and you catch it, your aliveness, and it’s not because of the things that aligned. It’s not because of the sunset or the food or the fire or the mountains or the company, whatever was in place when the flash happened. It’s not because of the good news that somebody’s going to live, or that you got somebody back, or you got the job. Those are the curtains opening, not the show. The life that’s running around in you all the time, that’s the show. 

We just keep blocking most of it out.   

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

the land of the remembered

This post is for my ancestors. The Day of The Dead is coming up, and Finn and I just saw/fell in love with The Book of Life, the animated film out now that Guillermo del Toro produced. (See it. It's so pretty to look at, and it's a charming story, too.) The main character makes a trip somewhere called The Land of The Remembered, where all his ancestors live, and it gave me a straight case of ancestor envy. I want mine all assembled and accessible and kickass, playing on my team like his were. I'm jealous of a cartoon.  

My knowledge of my ancestors is sketchy. On my dad’s side there was a seven-foot-tall guy, who blew all the height for the rest of us, apparently. We had some name brand members of the team here and there. There were some Habsburgs. A Chinese princess, descended from Confucius. I had a great-great-aunt, Tanta Bette, who was a gorgeous, 1/4 Chinese lesbian who dressed in spiffy men’s suits all her life. (What a baller! She’s my favorite ancestor.) There was the line of clairvoyant women, too, leading up to my great-grandmother and grandmother. And on my mom’s side, I have no idea. They didn’t keep a record, and my mom’s dad left when she was a baby and walked for all intents and purposes off the face of the earth, so it’s just a big Finnish fog all the way back. Sorry, mom. I wish I could romanticize them all but I don't have anything to work with. 

I love the idea of some ethereal council of people going back through time who are invested in what I'm doing down here, who are rooting for me, their representative on the field of the living. I like to imagine my team of ancestors floating around, whispering strategy and encouragement in my ear, cheering and high-fiving each other when I nail something important. 

And it both delights me and creeps me out to think of everything I have running around in my DNA. There are probably some gems in there, but there's also surely some dark/weak/pitiful stuff in the mix, too.

Mixed feelings are what I have when I  think about my actual, own ancestors. I have conflicted feelings about family, considering the abuse in my past, so a part of me wants to flip the bird all the way through the centuries and up the family line, right to whatever motherfucker originated this shitty abuse heirloom we’ve been passing down, and to everybody who perpetuated it along the way. In some ways I'd prefer to cut all ties and start over. Independent line. I’m Eve, Dave’s Adam, and that’s that. 

But I crave team and tribe, too. I crave the connection, the sureness of a blood tie. It’s hard down here on the planet. It gets kind of lonely, even for a person who lives in a house with five other people like I do. I like the idea of a lot of people who are required to gather around the fire with me. I kind of want my ancestors on board. 

Then again, would I like them? Would they like me? And why am I talking about them like they're one immoveable mass instead of a bunch of individuals? 

I'm going to zero in on one of them. I have a transcript of a recording made nearly fifty years ago of my great-grandmother, Melanie, telling my then-infant brother David about her life growing up in the Dutch East Indies, and I'm going to reprint some chunks of it here. 

By all accounts, Oma—that's what everybody called her, the Dutch version of Nana—was a peach, ten times sweeter and softer than her daughter, my grandmother, whom I've bitched about here enough already. I feel sorry I missed out on her. Apparently her sweetness was literal, too; the lady put sugar on everything she consumed. Pizza, french fries. Something like six teaspoons in every cup of tea or coffee. She grew up on a sugar plantation, which looks like it sank in. 

So here we go. I'm going to put Oma on the line. Get the scratchy hum of old audiotape going in your head, and imagine the softest, pudding-i-est, thickest Dutch accent you can muster, treble and sweet as all that sugar. I wish you could hear her voice, but you'll just have to enjoy her adorable English in print. Some of it won't make sense, language-wise, and some of it is a little shocking to modern sensibilities—she talks about growing up with servants, who were the descendants of slaves, and that just feels upsetting and creepy. But there it was. On the whole I'm charmed senseless by Oma in this transcript, and I want you to meet her. 


Here, she's talking about the estate where she grew up. Oh, also, warning: I'm going to interject sometimes. 

[press play]

The estate, called Nanggoeng, was a house with twenty bedrooms. The whole floor was from marble and the whole house was made of stone. It was an old house belonging -- I know my great-grandmother had lived there. So it was three generations later that I lived there with my parents. 

I remember as a small girl I was often afraid because I thought it was a spooky house. I couldn’t explain why in that time, but I was always afraid to go into the right wing. The right wing was so funny-feeling that I always thought about spooks. And especially a very small bathroom. We all of us got the creeps if we went there or had to take a bath there. And the lavatories were in the same place. It was very gruesome to go there. In the night, with a light, we never went alone. We took a maid with us. So afraid we were.  Even if I was a bigger girl, I would never go there alone. The maid had to sit outside because I was sure I was seeing things in there.

[I had a dream about this house once when I was on a bunch of Vicodin after a surgery, and it was creeeeepy as fuuuck. Vicodin dreams are the worst. Okay, Oma, go on.]

My sisters and I saw a man with a very big pick. [A very big PICK. PICK.] And we thought it was a real man and he ran after my sister and all the time he was running nearer. And then, then he went down the stairs and the man disappeared in that small bathroom. There was no – nothing there – there was only one door and a very small window. But he disappeared there. And we looked at each other, not understanding where he had gone to. Such things often happened there.  

So it was a very old house.

As children, we loved it. We had lots of servants. And these servants were children of night children of slaves. So they loved us very much. [Sure, that follows.] And we were trusted to them because they would not hurt a hair of our head. And we had lots of maids too who looked over us and who looked after the rooms. We had roommates and we had all of us as children, several maids who looked after us. I slept in a room with John Paul, as my children called her. Pau Chu. She was a lovely one and we looked at her just—I looked at her just as my mother.

In these early years I remember simple things. We’re all walking in the forest, walking on the street. We had every day to take a walk. And we liked it. Everyone was greeting us and everyone was always talking to us because my family was so long in these countries that they knew everyone, some, at least - everyone was - the older people.

And so we had a grandfather, my father’s father who was an old gentleman. Very huge; 6 foot 6 he was. [Oh, maybe my seven foot ancestor was actually this 6 foot 6 guy. Pardon the tall tale. I DID NOT MEAN THAT AS A PUN.] He was tall, clean-shaven with a mustache.  And he was very – to us he was a very nice man. When he came there in Djamboe -- that was the next estate-- he always played with us cards.  And he gave – he let us win and he paid us for every winning – one guilder. If you can imagine that when -- when we were ready to go we would at least gathered 20 guilders. And that was our present.

He came there at least 3 or 4 times a year. Then on the fifth gathering the whole family was there, about 40 or 50 van Motmans. And we all sat at the big table.

And then what I always disliked very much, he killed the cow of a - a young cow.  And that was always hanged before the bathroom and I always hated the sight of that. But, we had to eat it. I didn’t like meat and we had to -- because that was our duty to eat meat. To eat meat and drink wine every night. The wine especially I disliked because I thought it was a sour taste.  But we had to.  It was sad but very good for the health.

I was a very bad people [I WAS A VERY BAD PEOPLE. Oh, my heart] and so I had to sit at the table at our house just opposite my father so that he could see what I am.  [So he could see that you were a very bad people? This doesn't sound good.] And certain times I had tears in my eyes because I couldn’t eat the food they gave me. Especially if you saw the chickens being killed. In such a place you saw everything because they; the servants didn’t care what we saw. And then we went everywhere and sometime I saw the chickens being killed. And then I didn’t want to eat the chickens but we had to. So that was very – The bad thing; I never liked meat – never.  

But otherwise all our lives, when we were older, at least I was older; I was eight, nine, ten years – it was different. We went -- everyday it was a free life and my father always taught that we had to learn to be independent. So when we went to the hills – on our own estate it was 13,000 bowls big [13,000 bowls big, you say. Mixing bowls? Finger bowls? We need more information] and we had -- in the hills we had tea; a tea plantation. And we went there and there we go I and my sisters walked alone in a very huge forest with big trees. And one of the servants who was a good shot went with us. That was an exciting -- because there were rhinoceros; I don’t know if I pronounced that word very well [IT WAS ADORABLE, TRUST ME] -- and wild cows and they were very big.

Once I remember that the servants said “Here and not farther”. And my other sister Bette wanted to go much farther.  But we said, “No, here and not farther” because here are fresh prints of a whole bunch of cows and if we met them that would be the end of us because we couldn’t; I couldn’t shoot altogether.  So we went back. 

So this rhinoceros – we saw a fresh print of rhinoceros; we went on. [Cow? Rhinoceros? What's happening?] And then we gave all the stories to them if ever we met one. [What???] Well we never met one. But still it was a dangerous business to go on. But my sister Bette wanted always to go to the limit. [Tanta Bette!] And then we turned back. And sometimes we heard the noise of the rhinoceros roaming about the forest. The forest was very dark because the trees were huge and very thick so not much sunlight came in. And we went home then, very satisfied that we had so many adventures every time we went in that forest. But my father thought it was very good experience.

Even we went for a long walk.  [Even we went for a...? Never mind, go on.] And then sometimes there was no servant who could shoot. And if it was about six—no, 4:00 in the afternoon [4:00's better, totally.]—we sometimes saw a panther far below us. And then we’d get very quiet looking at the panther -- but very careful he didn’t see us. And then we had that – that we saw a panther in the garden. And we went back, not very afraid.

It was always in that house in the hills; it was all from planks; made of planks. We were always very happy the panthers were under the house in the night looking for our dogs. [Why? Why was this good? I'm confused.] And there was -- The lavatory was outside and before the lavatory was a huge amount of good root. And there behind the curtain there were the panthers at 8:00.  [First it was 4:00, then it was 6:00, now it's 8:00. Once and for all, what time was Panther Time?] They’d always be there watching for our dogs. We had 13 tenders [?] and they were not afraid for them [The tenders weren't afraid? The panthers weren't afraid of the tenders? Or *for* them? Are tenders puppies?] and they heard them bark. So they were always there to see if perhaps they couldn’t get one dog out.

And we had to go to the lavatory with a lantern. And I can tell you how we shivered to go there. Every night at 8:00 before going to bed, we went to the lavatory with our maid. And she was as afraid as we. And some time we saw the eyes glowing in the dark. But we learned not to be afraid. That was one thing we learned, never to be afraid.

I remember one time I was older; we went all with a bunch of visitors and my father and my mother to the forest. And then all the dogs were barking and barking like mad. And then we heard a rhinoceros making all the noise he could at the dogs. And my father said, “Let me go on.” And he went on and saw how he uprooted a big tree and was sleeping there when the dogs awoke him and he was loose in the forest.  And then you know the ladies who were there were very frightened. And instead of praying hymns, they sang the national anthem, several of them. And that made me as a child wonder why did they sing the anthem instead of praying?

So we went away all singing all the time too until we were far enough that we didn’t hear much noise of the rhino. But -- when we came home the rhino was near on the end of the forest still making that noise. And our dogs were nowhere to be found; they still were in the forest. They came later on home, unhurt; that was a good thing. But that is a piece of attitude I never forget. [That is a piece of attitude I will never forget, either.]

Let me just say that it's a whole bunch more panther and leopard and rhino stories coming up here. The animals come nearby and everyone is on alert and pulls out their guns but then nothing gets shot and everything's okay. I'm going to skip the rest of the character-building close calls with wild animals and then I'm not going to interrupt any more. Respect. In this last stretch, we hear about herbal remedies, batik-making and the benefits of clairvoyance. Oma, you have the floor until the end. 

My ancestor, everybody, a real one, talking. 

[fast forward]

In that house, the panthers were always in the night under the house.  And we were living – not in the had building of the house. The house was all one with bamboo floors. But we were living a little bit in apart building. So if we had to go in the house it was impossible because there were always panthers there. That was where I grew up as a child. It was all wonderful experience because you never forget it. And you are not afraid now. That was the great thing.

It was a lovely life. It was a life; we had -- full of adventures, full of real things. Living in the forest, in the big forest, near the big forest; going there all alone in nature. It was such a silence in that wood. So full of silence that sometimes you wonder that you were alone there.  Even with other people, it was very, very lonely. All the trees close up together and without, nearly without the path. So that was my life in this time.

We were a family that hung together as a clan. Then we all, when my grandfather died, before that even, we split out. Everyone was going his own life. But that was my early youth till I was 16 years old; we lived in a family clan with all the other families together. We were very close.

My mother was interested in the people and she knew all herbs. And she often cured the people; they came to her and she cured the people from all kinds of illnesses. We were very far from a doctor and so she had to cure the people. Us too; when we were ill she cured the people. She had to when we were ill. She knew all these herbs and she worked very much with herbs. She learned; Even she worked very much with the doctor in agriculture and showed him all the -- what kind of herbs to use for several illnesses. It was very clever in that.
And so she cured lots of people and she learned to batik, make batik work. And she learned weaving, weaving. Is it word? And she made her own beautiful weavings: woven things from gold work, from cotton. She even learned to color them; color the cottons that she used that she got to her dreams. She had -- from bark, from bark of trees, from herbs, from plants, from trees that she could. She always made her own coloring; all kinds of coloring. Fast colors – they never discolored. She learned to – She had a very busy life.  She loved to learn. She learned the people to weave and she was all in it. She could make everything from gold, silver to ordinary cotton; old patterns; old patterns of the country; She all teached them. So she was very useful in her life – especially in herbs. She knew poisons anti-poison. 

David, I know you know you are very small baby. But maybe when you are older, you can hear my voice when I am not long here. You know, we, my, we are from a very funny family, let me say. My father’s family came from Belgium – Dutch --was then Dutch. Austria; he was from then Austria, yes, it is true. But they were so quite different. They were very strong willed person; with a strong will and strong characters, all of them. They could do things that other people thought was too self-willed.
My father for instance, when he had cancer, he could master the pain to some extent through his will and all people admired him. Only when he couldn’t stand it longer he asked for an injection to kill the pain. But so long as he could stand it, he had the will-power always to seem peaceful. He couldn’t talk more but he wrote everything down.
And as we van Motmans could - we knew our death coming for the family. My father wrote me a letter that he was dying on Wednesday or Thursday. When I got that letter, by accident late, on Tuesday I went straight and I had to travel two days. And on Wednesday, on Thursday night I came just in time to his bedside and he waited for me. And then that same night, he died. He knew he was dying a week before. He asked my mother, which would the better be – Wednesday or Thursday? And my mother said, “Both days.” And so he chose.  Because I couldn’t be there on Wednesday, he chose Thursday to die. Thursday night he died.
My uncle -- my brother – It was a very queer thing. My mother -- my brother said in the office, “That is my last time I go to the office,” ten days before he died, “so I’m going to take -- all my papers must be in order. I have flu and I will die. I will not live.” And he went -- I didn’t know but the man told me later, when I was there several times, he said to me, I am not dying now. I will go to the hospital when I think it is right. Then on Thursday night he said, “Bring me tomorrow to the hospital.” And he went to the hospital and he said, “Friday I will go.” And he went on Friday.
My uncle said to my father, “Don’t come now. Friday a week I will die” and on Friday a week, he died.
My grandfather said, “At 5:00, not earlier.” And the clock was 5 and he died.
And my sister said when she died, here in Ojai, she said, “The angels will come for me tomorrow. Tomorrow morning they will come for me.” And she died between 3 and 4. So they knew before. It was a special thing of the family; they knew before they died.
My mother’s family; she came from a very old Dutch family with occult powers. She was clairvoyant and her whole family, David, was clairvoyant. Not one – her whole family- all of them were clairvoyant– not one of them was not. I was astonished even from people.
It was my cousin, she is my cousin. I didn’t know that she had the ability of clairvoyance. But she told me how -- that in the present generation even she knew how to manage her business because her father told her in her dreams what to do. And so she saved her money through the war because she acted as he wanted in her dreams. And she had funny things – she knew. The whole family from that side of my mother and my mother, all were in a way clairvoyant.
My mother was very clairvoyant. My grandmother was real – she knew what she was doing in occult things. I know that. But I will not go into it. And uh, then my children; my sisters were sensitive. And my brother was also very sensitive. We all were. Dora, your grandmother is clairvoyant. And so it goes down. Not all of them in this generation knows; or are clever, but some are very clairvoyant still and have the ability to become it, what is more.
I hope David, that in later years, you too will see, because it is so important to be able to see another world. It makes you so different, David, very different in your point of view of life; of seeing things, of knowing things. You can understand other people much better so as your grandmother did and we all do. It is so much more clear to know, not only the other world but to get a point of view detached of others, of other points of view -- the ordinary one.  Because you know more, you see more, you understand more. And you love other people more because you don’t see other people in the habits that they form. But that -- what comes through -- through the ego. That counts, what comes through, not the thoughts of people but that -- what comes through – that is you; that is he; that is she. And that is the most important.
So you can help people because you know them. And they are – not this little personality; that doesn’t count. They are only shells. But the real person is That, his spiritual way of looking at life, of thinking, of feeling. That is the real person and that counts. Our loving doesn’t matter much but that is the real person. That person who lives and everybody has that more or less.
Is that okay? [End of tape] 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

it's the moon, stupid

I've been reading the book 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children and Theater, by the playwright Sarah Ruhl, which is tormenting and delighting me in equal doses. (Get it and read it.) They're teeny but powerful, these essaylets, and it's a brilliant conceit. Pop it out there. Whatever you have is enough, particularly when you're Sarah Ruhl. That's the heart of an essay, anyway, a raised question. The question doesn't have to get answered. You just try for a while.

So Ruhl's essays are primarily about theater but not at all only about theater. They're about life and art and children and yeah, mostly about theater. They're like all these surprising bites arranged on a tasting spoon by a master chef, and you pop one in and it's wonderful but then it's gone and you're left with the question running around in your system and it's only just started to get explored, and so your brain takes over chewing on it—which would be fine if it were one, or three, or five. But there are a hundred of them, so easy to gobble, and even though you can swallow them all very quickly you can't digest them quickly, so you get—I get, I got, I have—this hot kind of indigestion of the brain now.

The first time I ate a whole steak (I was raised as a vegetarian, and even after I began eating meat, I couldn't handle a whole whopping unadulterated hunk of it, so I didn't try for years) I sat on the floor afterwards watching a movie, and my body was very subtly bouncing up and down, bouncing, because my digestive system was going berserk trying to work out how to break it down.

I feel that way now. I feel bouncy, because her essays make me excited, and they make me want to do something, though I'm not sure what. And I feel agitated because a good essay, and maybe all art, drags you over to the ineffable and sticks your head in it for a while, like getting a reverse swirly* where your head is shoved up into the cosmos and it all spins around and you can't quite breathe or catch everything, and also, unlike a regular swirly, you're up somewhere wonderful where you'd like to stay.

*It's been brought to my attention that not everyone knows what a swirly is. It's when somebody sticks your head in a toilet and flushes it. Voila. 

The ineffable has something we need, an oxygen we don't get when we're treading where we can understand everything and talk about it in words.

Dizzy, nourished, excited, impotent: that's how I'm feeling. Sarah Ruhl has me thinking so hard I can't think straight.

Back when I was an actor, I took a clown class, and our teacher taught us about something called the bid (pronounced "bead"), which was an ineffable little motherfucker you'd be searching for on stage as you improvised. It was something like a thread, a rope, the thing you'd find that the rest of the improvisation could follow home. It was a premise, a direction, an action, something solid and good and worth improvising about. Something funny, also, too, because clown class. And if you found it, you were golden. You couldn't fail. You just had to do the great thing you were doing and let it lead you to a conclusion.

I'm looking for the bid here, what Sarah Ruhl's book is making me want to tell you.

I'm going to hit you with three excerpts in a row from the book now.

From “Wabi-sabi”:

Sometimes it seems to me that the whole world is becoming an airport, with more and more glass, with fewer smells to distinguish one place from another, and with nowhere quiet to sit in the dark, or sleep. And yet, of course, the theater is one of the few places left in the bright and noisy world where we sit in the quiet dark together, to be awake.

From “People in plays”:

The first choice any playwright must make is whether to people the play with people, as opposed to puppets, gods, voices, or inanimate objects—teacups, eggs, spoons. Mostly, this all-important choice goes unremarked on, as it is by and large assumed that plays will have people. I suppose the choice goes unwrestled with because actors will be in our plays and we assume that actors would prefer to play people rather than stones or snails. But this is not always the case.


And so it might be worth going back to the first principles once in a while and wondering, sitting before the blank page, if one wants to people one’s play with people…or with devils, fairies, furies and stones.

From “Dogs and children on stage”:

Recently, my daughter Hope was asking who works. “Do grandmas work? Do grandpas work?” “Sometimes,” I said. Then I asked her, “Do little kids work?” “No,” she said, “they play.”  Then she laughed and said, “Do dogs work, Mama?” “No,” I said, “dogs don’t work.”

And it got me thinking about that old adage: never put dogs or children on a stage. A dog can’t act like a dog; a dog is a dog. Children can’t act like children; they are children. And therefore unpredictable. A dog doesn’t work; a dog plays.

Is the mimetic function, then, always a form of work? Is that why I find it refreshing to see dogs and horses and small children on stage? Because they are what they are and they are automatically in a state of play rather than in a state of work?

I love these.

I love a dark place where we gather together, awake. Nighttime, dreamtime, but we get to be together and remember all of it. A communal, lucid dream. Dreaming doesn't have to be so lonely after all!

And while we're dreaming, yes, why does it always have to be people? This thrills me because we forget how much agency we have across the board. We fall asleep, run on autopilot. We have a billion more choices each day than we begin to remember. Eggs! Stones*! Furies!

*I got to be in a reading of Sarah Ruhl's play Eurydice at The Seattle Rep many years ago, and I played a character called Big Stone. And I got to meet her and have a beer with her, and now I'm retroactively more excited about that than ever.

And then the thing about children and animals, and work and play, that lit something in me. That quicksilver something on the loose—life force itself, maybe, before we've stiffened and clumsied it up, frozen it, ruined it—I can feel it when she describes it, hot and lively, and I feel sorry for myself that it doesn't drive my every move without interference. It would feel so good.

There's something at work play here that Sarah Ruhl is pointing to, something that wants to save us from ourselves, something revolutionary, I think. 

It made me think, for one thing, about corporate attire, and how funny it is that clothing that's shaped in these specific ways is meant to announce a certain type of human inside, powerful and serious. We all use clothing to signify something, but the rules of attire for business folk (and politicians) are so strict. There's something crazy about this. I wish I could say what made me laugh so much about it, but the arbitrariness of the sartorial rules and the self-importance of some of the people carrying them out and the planet-destroying lunacy of the decisions these crisply dressed motherfuckers make got to me. Here's a big man in a big suit! Big suit man. Where you going, big suit man? 

And it made me think about art, and artists, and the work of artists, which we don't think is serious. Look at these flibbertigibbets in their little berets, noodling around! But it's very serious. It keeps us awake, and if we don't stay awake, we'll almost certainly crash the planet into a ditch.  

That's the bid. That's the seed I was looking for, what aroused me in Ruhl's work. I was feeling wistful when I read her essays because I don't participate in the making of theater any more. I wanted to play! But then I thought about Zen teachers hitting their students with sticks at the right moment to bring them to satori, and I thought about what the Buddha said about how his teachings weren't the moon but just the finger pointing to the moon, and I felt better. Theater isn't the moon. Theater is a finger. 
Look! Look! We're alive! No, more alive! No, more than that! 

I don't have to make theater to ride this train. Thank goodness. The revolution that she's circling around—that unleashing of life force and awakeness—that's everybody's business. Thank god. Now I can stop trying to talk about it. Trying to talk about the ineffable is the goddamn worst. This was close enough.