A Rude Little Dream Story (In Twelve Parts)

A_Friend_in_Need_1903_C.M.Coolidge
A Friend in Need (1903). Source.

I.

The dream, always the same dream: the forgotten stairs, a forgotten alleyway, next to the courthouse. The same stairs going in the earth, the concrete stairs burrowing down to what was a barbershop, or, at least, it was in his childhood. Descending the stairs in his dream, he’d pause to notice how the blue paint peeled and chipped here, there. How on the landing in front of the door, water would pool. Dead leafs float in the puddle. Must be late November in the dream.

The door at the bottom of these stairs next to the courthouse is unlocked. He opens it. Every time the scene is same: dogs playing poker—always dogs playing poker. One of them pants, turning to him. He crosses the threshold and falls asleep.

II.

“Are you sure? You just need a second opinion! You’ve had a lot of—”
“—Yes,” he says, “I’m sure. Two weeks as of today.”
“Oh, I understand that,” she says, “but insurance—how will you pay?—”
“Two weeks as of today, thank you.”
She forgets to shake his hand as he walks from her office. She holds the short typewritten note. Trifolded, as if to fit an envelope.

III.

The diagnosis was grim. The doctor said weeks. You’d want a man with a death sentence to have a good job, good insurance. You might have imagined the scene of the two weeks notice to occur over a desk: her in a smart pantsuit and he in a tie. Or so you’d like to think. But, you’d be mistaken.

It was after his shift. His uniform untucked. It was wet from cleaning the mysterious detergent spill on aisle eleven. His manager was unable to stand at his parting. It was difficult for her to stand. Her weight made it so when she was down, she was down for the count. She couldn’t even stand for a dying man. Not that she’d try. She was already conniving the schedule, anticipating his absence.

IV.

He skipped the bus to walk home in the crisp November air. The mountains burst with rust and all the golden hues caught the afternoon sun to light aflame. He always noticed the mountains, but moreso on this day, the day he quit his job, three days after the doctors. My God, he thought, how they bled and flowed at the sky, these mountains of his.

It was forty-five minutes on foot from door to door and thirty-five by bus on a good day to his momma’s house. Well, he lived there, too, in the basement, but it was always his momma’s house. That’s what he calls it.

“You’re home early,” momma remarked. “Did they mess your schedule again?”
“No, momma,” he said, as he passed her, “I quit today.”
“Oh,” she said. The light from the teeve reflected in her eyes.

She’d thought if there were anything wrong, like wrong wrong, with her son, he’d tell her. She is mistaken.

He shuts the door to the basement, descending steps to his bedroom.

V.

“I’m sure we can get a cashier’s check for you.”
“No ma’am,” he says, “I’d like it in tens and twenties.”
“I’ll have to get my manager’s approval.”
“There’s not that much there—”
“Oh, honey, I know, but I still need management approval.”
“That’s fine,” he says, leaning against the counter. “I’ll wait.”

VI.

The bedroom was the same basement bedroom since he moved to the mountains with his momma. He passes the AC/DC and Meatloaf posters by the foot of the stairs. He tosses his uniform hat on the same mattress on the floor. He shakes loose his ponytail. He sits.

Why dogs playing poker? It’d bothered him for years. He can’t remember ever seeing the paintings. Momma didn’t have it. Neither did either of his grannies. None of his friends—not that he had many since the move to the mountains—had it. None of his friends in the town with the barbershop had it either. He’d had the dream in all states emotional and geographic.

About ten years ago, he goes to the library. He takes a big plastic-covered art book opened in his arms to the librarian behind the desk.She was always friendly to him when he came to use the internet.

“‘Xcuse me, ma’am,” he says
“Yes sir? What can I do for you?”
“Could you help me understand this word right here? I’ve never seen it.”
“Kitsch,” she says.
“What is it?”
“It’s a hard one to define.”
“I think this book is saying these paintings of dogs playing poker is that—is kitsch.”
“Definitely,” she says. “You know kitsch when you see it.”
She is mistaken.
“The dictionary should help.” She points to the book on a stand.
He nods. “Thank you ma’am.”

SUSPICION—he writes in a spiral-bound notebook—the dogs playing poker is a trick of my waking mind. He underlines it. Just like how Rick blacked out after the car accident, Rick’s mind protected itself from trauma.

What was his mind protecting him from? What lie at the bottom of the same steps next to forgotten alleyway near the courthouse of his childhood? What did the dogs playing poker hide?

VII.

“You got anything in the back? He asks, leaning against the counter.
“Buddy,” the man speaks, “I don’t know what kind of shop you think I run.”
He takes a wad of cash out of his right pocket (his left pocket held a bloody handkerchief). He makes a show of it. The money, that is, fanning it out.
The man’s protestations trail off. His eyes widen.
“Right this way, sir.”
They walk into a stockroom marked Employees Only with a crude sign. The man flips on the lights. The lights hum. There’s a water stain on a corner tile.
“Cash only,” the man says, “all non-traceable. You never met me if—”
“—I know the deal. How many of those?”
He points a finger at an AR-15 on the wall.
“Three,” the man says.
“Three it will be, then,” he says.
They shake hands. The man studies the floor. The man thinks there’s something off about this guy, but money—the money he slides into his right pocket next to his ex-wife’s photo. Lawyers are expensive when love is dead.

VIII.

He’d tore a page out of the spiral-bound notebook to leave a note for his momma not to worry that he’d be home soon enough. He was out checking his options, he wrote. He loves her. Be back in a few days—a week, tops. With only a dufflebag and backpack, he walks to the bus station.

It was the last bus, the night bus, out from the mountains to the stairs of his dreams, the courthouse of his childhood. He gives the driver a one-way ticket.

Outside of town, they turn off the lights as he wipes the dried blood from the corner of his mouth with his handkerchief.

“Girl, where you heading?” a friendly female voice says behind him.
“Oh, nowheres in particular—just sure as shit outta here,” another voice in the dark says.
“Damn, I hear that, girl.”
“Don’t need nothing: I got three shirts and a douche. Good for at least a week on the road.” They laugh.

He can smell the opened bottle of tequila. The bus leans into the darkness of the hills, lulling them asleep. Hours later when they’re snoring, he gets up to use the toilet in the back. It smells like piss. There’s piss on the toilet seat. He cleans it with toilet paper before flushing it.

He walks back to his seat, but sets two hundred dollar bills next to each of the sleeping women before he sits. It wasn’t hard to spot them. The night bus out of Appalachia was deserted. Just a few people sure as shit getting out.

A few hours later, no hooping or hollering. The women slid the money in their pockets with a smile, without even a word to each other. 

Asleep to autumn, but awakened in winter: dawn shone on flat land out the bus windows.

IX.

The Librarian behind the desk doesn’t ask about the books on lucid dreaming, his fifth that month. Librarians raise no eyebrows. She smiles. Just tells him the due date.

He read about it on one of his online message boards. The books have techniques on how to be awake enough to manipulate your own dreams. His goal is to descend the stairs, but still be conscious when he opens the door. He was going to peek behind the dogs playing poker, take a look at what was really going on down there.

One practice was simple: throughout the day, try to push your middle finger through the opposite palm. Do it enough while you’re awake to develop a habit. When he’d realize he was dreaming while he was dreaming, he’d perform the test to see his middle finger slide through his palm. It was the confirmation that you’re dreaming.

It was a year or two before the diagnosis. He is in the back freezer at his old job loading stock before the dinner rush. He holds up his hands before his face. He pushes his left finger into his right palm. Everything’s normal. He pushes his right finger into his left palm. It slides through without feeling. He wiggles his middle finger on the outside of his palm. He was Thomas examining wounds.

His boss walks in the freezer.

He drops his hands. His face reddens. He turns from her.

He imagines that when he turns back, his boss will become a gorgeous supermodel begging for sex.

He turns. She stays herself, her tired self.

“Come on,” she says, “we need to get this done before we let the cold out.”

X.

Rick first met his mother at the restaurant down from the courthouse. The second night he came in a loosened-tie. When he came out of the rain for catfish and potato the third night, he promised her a mountain chalet: a log cabin so big even the clothes closets would have pants closets and our pants closets will have shoe closets, and all their Rick Jrs. would breathe fresh mountain air—oh, he said, you already have a son? How old? Rick clicked his tongue. Oh, he said, a fourteen year-old boy would love the hills and hollars, the hunting, shooting! He swept his hands out in front of him.

Rick’s words were smooth, sure. She didn’t notice his chipped tooth near the corner of his mouth when the stars fell into the back seat of his car behind the restaurant. They moved to the mountains within a month. Love at first sight, she said to her momma. His grandma tried to convince his momma to let him stay and finish school there. “No sense,” his grandma said, “in ruining two lives on a fool’s errand.”

Rick was not A Good Man. There are worse poverties than being poor and Rick was a pauper of the soul. He was always shocked at the indignity of the lack of paper in his pocket. He always schemed and plotted months-long trips to Missouri, Montana, Alabama. When Rick came home—always frustrated and penniless—Rick’d beat him. The reasons for the beating were legion yet unknown until proclaimed. Once Rick yelled that he beat him because he was shiftless and lazy. Rooms away, his momma clutched the kitchen table, closing her eyes.

“I can change!” he’d yelp, cowered in the corner and his hands raised. “I will change!”

XI.

The finger went through his palm a dozen or so more times. The second was after thrice-daily checks, months later, in his bedroom in his momma’s house. Once the test showed he was dreaming, he tried to dream Meatloaf from of the poster to perform “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights”—but Meatloaf never leapt off the wall. He sat on his bed, his right middle finger wiggling through his left palm. Other than that, everything was normal.

The third was months after that, when he was walking home from his job with the walk-in freezer. He stood on the sidewalk near Walnut street, his hands above his head. He thought surely someone else will see this, someone else will know what to do. They didn’t. They kept driving by. An hour or two went by before he pulled his finger from his palm. He walked home.

Nothing in the books from library said this would happen. Once he was aware he was dreaming, he should be able to manipulate everything around him. Why could he not summon gorgeous supermodels or rockstars or money falling from the ceiling? Why couldn’t he see past the dogs playing poker? Why couldn’t he dream a better dream?

XII.

“Can I get you anything else,” she asks him.
“No ma’am. I don’t believe so,” he says.
“If you don’t mind me asking, where you from?”
“Mountains. West Virginia.”
“Beautiful part of the country. Drove through there to the beach many a time.”
“Yes ma’am.”
“What brings you up this way?”
“Business. Looking to expand up this way into the Midwest.”
“Oh,” she says, looking down, straightening coffee mugs behind the counter.
“I grew up here, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know. But you don’t have an accent, either. When you move away?”
“Fourteen. Freshman. My momma married a guy. You from here?”
“Born and raised—just like the rest of them. And just like the rest of ‘em, never left.”
He raises a handkerchief to his mouth as he hacks.
“You don’t sound too good, honey,” she says.
He waves her off. “Just a little thing. Allergies. You know.”
“I know. Hey, when you graduate from High School?”
“Ninety-two. You?”
“Damn. Well after me. My momma used to work here, you know, when it had a different name.” He hides a cough with the handkerchief. “I didn’t do a good job of keeping into touch.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’re still around—”

The bell above the door behind him dings. An older woman in a jacket shuffles to the counter. She walks as if her legs are asleep, one foot dragging and the other dangling underneath her. She is unsure of her body’s place in the world. Her face turns to almost the ceiling in unknown ecstasy, a sleep too deep for dreams. The waitress goes to her.

“Carol. Carol. Carol!” The waitress slaps the counter.
Carol rouses from distant island in her mind.
“I told you a thousand times you can’t come in here high like this,” the waitress says.
“I just—” Carol says, her nose stuffy, “I just need some bacon—and—and—”
Carol’s head starts tipping back.
“Coffee!” the waitress says. “Just coffee.”
Carol slouches a little.

The waitress walks back over to him.

“If we kicked out everyone of them, we’d have to kick out the whole damn town. She’s harmless—harmless to everybuddy but herself.”
“No worries,” he says. “It’s like that in the mountains, too.”
“Hell, it’s like this everywhere,” she says. She turns and pours Carol’s coffee.

He sits with an empty plate in front of him with three-quarters gone from his cup of coffee. In his right hand is a grape between his forefingers and thumb. He holds up his left palm. His fingers—all three—go through, including the grape. He chuckles in the town near the chipped concrete steps leading to the door holding something greater than a mirage of dogs.

When the waitress turns, he is gone. His backpack is still there—she could still smell it from behind the counter—and the dufflebag holding the three AR-15s she discovers days later. He never returns for any of it.

On the counter are three crisp one hundred dollar bills clearly meant for her. She puts them in her apron with a smile, without a word.

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Terrorized to Greatness

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(Photo: Brandon Reese for The Tennessean)

Tuesday. The smoke choked us. Slithering from distant fires, from North Carolina, down south eighty-one and twenty-six, engulfing that massive American flag outside the grocery store whose broad stripes and bright stars had been at perpetual half-mast in some silent protest to an unknown enemy, covering rich and poor, swallowing trees whose long-dried and dead leafs blew into the streets with a scrape and a crunch.

Rumors, too, spitting fast as flames licked backs of window panes. Overheard this one at a gas station: all these mountain fires were an organized plot by the Klu Klux Klan. Klaverns, naturally, long hidden from sight, exploited these crisp mountains of drought, and, after gathering at long-forgotten family plots, saluted their paltry Confederate dead with a seething prayer and a flaming cross to bring these hills ablaze. All just relics of their dead heritage—forgotten honor mingling bitterness. Just a plan to terrorize America to greatness again.

When California catches fire, there is constant coverage of multi-million dollar homes collapsing into the inferno. Newscasters lean into the wind as hurricanes make landfall. But, nobody noticed these mountain fires for months. After all, nobody on the teevee sounds like us. Nobody in the newspapers writes about us. Nothing is familiar out there to us poor white trash—other than seeing daily, hourly, a flaunted world always denied us. These mountains were on fire for a long time and nobody gave a damn.

Then, Gatlinburg. The New York Times, though, described Gatlinburg as seemingly the only bright spot in a sea of poverty. They were not aware, perhaps, that it lies between Knoxville and Asheville—you know, those hoveled mountain towns. NPR introduced their coverage with, “the Smoky Mountains just got a lot smokier,” as if the dead and missing were worth a shitty pun. They all left a few days later, right around when the rains came, seemingly saying who cares if disaster befalls the lot of climate-change-denying-Trump-supporters. At least we have Dolly.

Tuesday. The smoke choked us on election day. Lining round the block, all covered mouths, they cast ballots upon waters hoping return.

Weeks before, after a fifty minute line, I voted early. There was no smoke then. The citizens behind me said they didn’t care so much who all these people voted for, but they were just glad to see so many voting. I think they were Trump supporters. They had sly, private smiles and kept glancing towards the doorway as if some enemy was at the gate. I, myself, was an ardent Bernie man. Disappointed with my options, I finally said that very day: fuck it and voted Clinton. It was an anti-Trump vote.

All of us were played, I suspect. By whom? I do not know. Originally, I thought Trump worked for the RNC to give Bush, Cruz and Rubio polishing time. I was wrong. When they fell by the wayside—please clap—I thought, then, surely Trump works for Clinton. What with the weddings and all that. What easier victory than a choreographed opponent? I was so wrong.

The feeling of being played remains. NSA and CIA and FBI all say it’s them Russians, them Russians, them mad Russians playin us. Or is it just gold ole fashioned American big business? Tiller, et. al and all that. A mix of both, perhaps? Them Russians and them Capitalists and Trump. Who the hooker and which the pimp?

I can’t shake it: Trump is just smoke. This frustrates me. A writer’s job is to clarify unclarity with them words, them words, them mad words. I should be able to find my way to truth, to find the real cause of all this anger, all this hate, to give voice to all the confused, to everyone struggling as much as I, to command water flowing from the right side of the temple to quench these flames, these choking, smoking mountains. Vidi aquam, Deus meus; my tongue, thine instrument!

I can’t find them, though, the words. They’re nowhere. They might be buried, all those right words, under the smoke of fake news. It, too, swirls around me, confuses me, making opaque what should be clear. I cough. I gag. Where is the fire?

Where is my fire? These faith-ending days reveal I am just smoke, too, driving from fires set long ago. I am the echo of screams from generations past, screams of girls throwing themselves from a burning building, screams of miners under Army bombs bursting in midair, screams of deported Socialists, screams of strikers. Their echo, a relic of a dead heritage—just forgotten honor mingling bitterness, a dark satanic mill screeching by a lost river.

How can smoke fight smoke? Does smoke put out a fire? I do not know.

I, who once wrote the enemies of LGBT rights were “just fucking themselves in the ass” doesn’t know. I, whose picture was on the front page of the paper when protesting, don’t know. Have I just been fucking myself in the ass this entire time? Have I played myself? How big is the target on my back? Last night, a friend of mine was called a queer and denied service at a local restaurant. How long until I lose my job? How long until some false charge be brought against me? I did become a very vocal activist locally in the last year. I assumed nobody noticed.

I’m paranoid. Trump isn’t literally Hitler. LGBT rights aren’t going away. Maybe it’s just all this fake news clogging my brain, those scary stories supposed to frighten us to Clinton. Is this just vestigial campaign hysteria? Who knows? Who knows? What do you yell into an inferno to make it stop? At smoke to make it make coherent?  I disgust myself. All these gifts for such a time as this. Sad!

They all came and went—Trump, Clinton, the newspeople who don’t write about us—talking emails and pussies and Mexicans and queers and jobs and walls and threaten each other’s lives and my liberties. Who would be king/queen/god emperor of a charred, desolate mountain? The hero of this election is a nameless staffer who, days after the election, screamed at DNC chair Donna Brazile, “You and your friends will die of old age and I’m going to die from climate change. You and your friends let this happen.” God bless you, sir. Never once did Mr. Trump have to answer Climate Change.

Usually, my corner of northeast Tennessee gets more precipitation than Seattle. Unlike tornado alley storms of my youth, it’s more likely to drizzle in the Blue Ridges for three days. But no rainy fog this autumn, no mist hanging low on hollars. Just dry light and dead trees and burnt grass and fires and weariness to our bones. These mountains were on fire weeks before anybody noticed. These mountains were on fire for a long time and nobody gave a damn. Climate change turned these mountains into tinderbox, ready to blow.

Man made climate and man made fire. Like many of the twenty-sixteen Appalachian wildfires, the match that lit Gatlinburg was arson. Two boys, fifteen and seventeen, played with matches as they walked the Chimney Top trail. I’d like to think they were so terrified by their own actions that they didn’t report the small fire they started. But, it grew and grew. I’d also like to think, contra my gas station conspirist, they were just being stupid, stupid boys. Now they have blood on their hands. Unwittingly, they terrorized us with their stupidity.

Living is a serious responsibility. Awake, awake, awake! Do not squander your life when mountains and the whole world of four winds is dried powderkeg. Any old match will do. When waltzing in this smoky apocalypse, it’s the unintended consequences that will kill us all.

Tuesday. The smoke chokes. I bite a branch by my teeth. This branch. This one holding me above a fifty-foot drop, dangling me off the side of a mountain. I try not to cough. This branch is my salvation above certain death.

At the bottom of this cliff, they’re all there: the alt-right Neo-Nazis, the queer bashers, the stocky boy who rolls coal down Roan Street every Saturday, several exes are there, too, and fake news makers from Russia, the pollsters, the broken molar in an L shape from a few years ago throbbing like hell, an Episcopal priest or two with the ministers from the Baptist church where I grew up. All them mock me.

“What’s your degenerate fag life worth?” they scream.

If I answer, if I mumble something about art and music and writing, then I lose the branch from my mouth and fall. If I keep silent, clamped on the branch, what kind of courage is this? I must answer. My life is worth living. The smoke from the mountain fires is thick here. They are an unseen enemy but I hear them. Don’t cough!

There it is. I feel it. I feel at my feet. I feel it spreading through my hair. Finally, we found fire in the land of the free and the home of the brave. It burns.

My So-Called Fitness Journey

IMG_20160426_143225.jpg(On left, the author in 2014. On right, in 2016, after a year of dieting, cardio and strength training)

For twenty and nine years, I lived without a body, a mind tethered to pounds of flesh—a chained-up dog wearing down backyard circles. I was a ghost, a spirit haunting old books and favored thoughts—haunting weeds, haunting trees. Though I had a body, I lived without thought of my body.

To be a Christian, the type of Christian I was, meant to have ideas—And, more importantly, to have ideas about those ideas—And most importantly, to have feelings about those ideas about those ideas. Having a body is in service to these ideas. Feet are beautiful only when they carry the good news. Voices are beautiful because they mutter magnificat. Eyes are beautiful when they gaze on the mysteries. So, this body should become less so he might become more. This makes it sound like I wanted to be a wandering ascetic, withering away, thirsting for water, chained to a pillar, but I was far from it. I just made my body less by never considering it. St. Paul had to beat his into submission; I just ignored mine. Yet, less or more, this skin-bag is present

Why did I ignore my body for twenty and nine years? It has taken me years to realize my conceptions of The Divine coagulated around the words I liked best, and the words I liked best were the ones agreeing I am the worst. My god was the incarnation of everything I was not and of everything I wanted to be, so he wore the mask of my own self-hatreds. I called it love. But, loved or hated, this skin-bag is present.

Yet, to be a Christian, the type of Christian I was, meant never to hate—and, most importantly, to never be angry. So, my piety-masquerading hatreds were never active. My anger was one of neglect. After all, a Christian can’t hate, but she can always look away. So, I looked away, just floating in the trees of worshiping someone I’ll never be, lost in the weeds of desire, as another serving of casserole, another soft-serve, another coke, just another anything to feel better as my body wore down endless circles. Never you mind, never you mind. Because, even when looking away, this skin-bag is always looking.

This makes it sound like I was even aware of this happening. I wasn’t aware my neglect was latent hatred. I wasn’t aware my piety was overwrought laziness. Lost in feelings about ideas about ideas, the mind does not want to know. The mind wanted to forget. Yet, forgotten or not, the skin-bag remembers.

ZazenHere, now, at this spot—and not another—I would introduce Zazen or koans, those medicines that bring me back to earth with perhaps a high sentence or three and rhetorical flourish. I would introduce calorie-counting or exercise here, too, including six easy steps to rid belly fat and you won’t believe his reaction (and doctors hate him, of course) and the like. But as wonderful as these are, they were not my salvation.

We must beware of saviors because when one is found, chains are never far behind. I could roll up all my lazy self-hatreds and form them into any mask. The hate could flow from neglect to over-concern. The mirror could become another invitation to frustration, to becoming less. Calorie-counting can become another excuse to hate myself. Talking about kensho can keep my mind out of my body just as much as singing about when the roll is called up yonder and the like. The masks could change, but the hatred stays the same.

We must beware those in this day who say they can change your life. Or that this thing will change your life. They’re probably selling you something. Or perpetuating their own delusion that they can change the world. As Alan Watts once put it, they’re like a monkey sitting up in a tree and saying to a swimming fish, “You’d better get up here so you don’t drown!” It’s like one pro-war, big-business, wall-street Democrat claiming she can save you from the pro-war, big-business, wall-street Republican. Because worshiping what you’re not means never becoming who you are. So, if you came here looking for inspiration, kindly fuck off. Find your own.

But, I will tell you this and maybe it will help a few of you if you listen:

Ecclesiastes-Chapter-12-12-Song-of-Solomon

I once dreamt that in deep night I lay in bed. I was propped upon pillows and enfolded in blankets with book in hand. In short, I was ready for sleep when suddenly there was a clink at my balcony window. Then, another clink. Then another. I slept, but my heart awoke. It was my beloved. He threw rocks at my window. Leaning, I opened it.

In darkness of the streetlight below, he sang to me, “Open to me, my brother, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. You up?” But, how can I get up, I protested? I’m ready for bed. I’ve washed my feet—do you want me to get dirty again? Plus, I have to be at work early. Why are you bothering me now? I closed my eyes and yelled, A girl’s gotta get her beauty sleep, damn it.

Just then, there was a knock at my door. And the door opened slightly. He stuck his hand into my room, waving. My bowels were moved for him. Rushing up from the bed, the book fell to the floor while I ran to the door. But when I threw it open, he was gone. I was sad, so terribly sad. Putting on a jacket, I wandered out into the night in search for my lover.

Just down the street was a bar. Two men stood outside, smoking a cigarette while that one Tammy Wynette song blared from inside. Have you seen my lover? I yelled at them, tears streaming down my face. Well, they said, blowing smoke into the darkness, what does she look like?

He. I said. My lover is a he. He’s six feet tall with broad shoulders and flowing hair. His teeth are perfect with a glimmering shade of white that scares night away. He smells of myrth, aloe and cassia. He’s dressed in a cloth-of-gold cope of the finest brocade. He’s the associate priest down at St. Andrew’s and you can often find him with a guitar in hand and quick with a laugh. Tell me, please, did you see where he went?

One of them took a long drag of his cigarette. He said, What a fucking faggot. Gary, I ain’t been on a queer hunt in years. Let’s get this one. Maybe he’ll get right with God. They rushed upon me, throwing me to the ground. Their fists were fast and kicks were worse. They put their cigarettes out on my face. They pulled my clothes from my body.

Just then, I dreamt there was a flash of light and a sound like thunder and a rush of bluejay’s wings and the barking of a chained-up dog wearing down circles in the backyard. I squinted from my swollen eyes and looked up. I knew it was my beloved coming to save me—but it wasn’t. My beloved was nowhere to be found.

I looked up and saw a body descending from heaven a body, but it was my body. The New Jerusalem was coming down from the sky and it was my swollen face. The incorruptible born of the new earth was me—bruises and all. The body of Christ was mine. The mind of Buddha was mine. Heaven and earth, body and soul were all one in the same. After all, Christ has no body but mine. And my mind is nothing but my body. In the dream, I said to myself, thrust your finger into your own wounds: doubt not, and believe. In the yard, the a dog ran free.

In the dream, as in life, it is like two boys roughhousing. Playing, they run into each other at full speed. When they collide, they fall over into giggles and laughter and bruises. When they collide, these words become what they are. They’re just pixels on a screen and a dot, dot, dot . . .

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The author is on the right in a white turtleneck. January 2016 from the JCPress.com

I went to the January meeting of the Washington County Commission, that first meeting when a traditional marriage resolution would be discussed, because I wanted them to look me in the face when they passed it. I had no illusions that my Appalachian county, ninety minutes northeast of Dolly Parton, would actually support gay marriage. So, I simply wanted them to look me in the face when they compared me to an electrical cord (two male ends maketh no electricity) or likened gay love to literal puppy love. I wanted them to look me in the eye when cascading scriptures burned like fire in their mouths. With their Christianity, with their anger, with their lies, I knew they were going to fuck me in the ass. But I wanted them to look me in the eye when they did it. I would not shrink back.

Johnson City, as a whole, is more progressive than the surrounding mountains. Washington County voted not to succeed from the Union. I’ll leave it the historians to give nuanced explanations, but do not think Washington County’s Lincoln-love had anything to do with our love of equal rights under the law. No, we were isolationists, too poor to fight a rich Southerner’s war. We don’t take Nashville dictums any better than we do from Washington.

This, I imagine, is the same spirit my co-worker displayed when she said, “Now, if those faggots want to get married, who cares?” The spirit is willing, but the vocabulary is weak. We like to live and let live in these mountains and you’ll often find a libertarian sentiment crouched in the language of hatred here. But, the faggots of Johnson City were isolationists, too, just keeping our heads down, trying to make a living and not getting caught up in any rich man’s war.

In the eighties, we were good little faggots when the AIDS blew down I-81. We died terrified and alone because our parents had disowned us and our lovers were kept smoking a cigarette outside. Or those, long estranged from their raising in these hills, returned to die and few with dignity. This gay history of Johnson City can be read in Dr. Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country, his first-hand account of the local AIDS crisis.

We were good little faggots when a local cruising spot was busted in the last ten years. The men there engaged in illegal behavior and were charged with misdemeanors. However, the local paper, The Johnson City Press published the names, address and jobs of the men arrested. Most of these good little faggots were married to women. Some of them were ministers. A few even killed themselves within days. The Johnson City Press never apologized. We were good little faggots and didn’t make much noise when they fucked us in the ass then, either.

After Obergefell v. Hodges, they expected us to continue being good little faggots. When these traditional marriage resolutions spread like kudzu, Sullivan County voted on it without public comment. Hawkins County moved their meeting to the early morning so blue hairs could spit hate at the dawn. Carter County voted with little surprise. Those who brought it before the Washington County Commission, I imagine, thought those good little faggots won’t kick up much of a fuss. After all, they’ve been getting fucked for years.

Politics is never simple, though, and those bringing forth this traditional marriage resolution underestimated the newly elected Dr. Katie Baker. I’m proud to say that I voted for Commissioner Baker. She is the only woman on the nearly two-dozen member Commission. She took an early and vocal opposition to Resolution 160101. Soon thereafter, the Tennessee Equality Project created a Facebook invite. Word spread. There were so many attendees at this first meeting that the Washington County Commission had to push it off the agenda until they could meet in a place to hold more people.

But, I imagine they thought we shouldn’t have to look all those good little faggots and dykes and their friends in the face when we have the meeting again. So, the Commission spent $10,000 fitting the Jonesborough Courthouse  (a “justice center”) with audio and visual improvements a week after the first meeting. A few weeks later, Commissioner Joe Wise declared that he would question the germaneness of Resolution 160101 to the Commission’s Agenda. So, last night, spread in seven different courtrooms and out in the hallways, the Commission had two votes before them and hours of public comment.

I went last night. I stayed for six and a half hours. We were no longer the good little faggots who were bullied in high school. We were no longer good little faggots bullied by businessmen. We were no longer good little faggots shamed by the straight white men (who, though undoubtedly, would decide our fare). I said to myself and to friends, if they’re going to fuck me in the ass with their hate, then I want them to look me in the eye. I will not shrink back.

The hatred was strong in both the comments of Commissioners and the public. It all reeked of plastic-wrapped spearmints passed down the pew, just like how I remembered growing up in the nineties and aughts when LGBTs became a wedge issue for Republicans. I’d heard it all before, the same rhetorical slights of hand, the blatant misogyny, the proof texts reverberating like antiphons in a cathedral. I’d heard it all, but I wanted them to look at me—me, an actual honest-to-God gay pseudo-Buddhist Socialist who is tearing apart their moral fibers—when they said it. I wanted to them too look at us good little faggots. I didn’t want their hate to fly in the air, batted about by amens, but for it to land on a face, on an arm and on a soul just feet away.

I went because I wanted to bear witness to hate. But when things not looked for become seen, a weed growing between concrete slabs stretches towards the sun. I wanted to carry their hatred not like I used to, where I carried it in my person, in my mind until their hate became my hate and their god became my God. I didn’t want to carry it like I used to when I hated my flesh, this flesh of imago Dei, and hated it to the point of death with neglect.

I want to receive their hate. And I want to lay it down. Who is there to do the hating? Who is there to be hated? Just mouth sounds of juggling jowls and fat tongues—what can these do to me? So, laughter and distant church bells. A lotus blooms in mud. And the good little faggots went home rejoicing, for the County Commission could not get enough votes to pass Resolution 160101.

My friends, when you realize they hate you and will destroy themselves in the process of hating you, you’ve already won. You’ve just got to get out of their way. You’ve just got to bear witness to their destruction. Their hate landed on their own heads and their scriptures turned their stomachs with bitterness. They will cry, no doubt, on Sunday to their god with weeping and gnashing of teeth and much blood-letting and will prohesy destruction and write ICHABOD over the door of the Jonesborough Courthouse with tears. I saw one of them when they realized this was all for naught, this entire charade. I looked them in the eyes. They were just fucking themselves.

I Gotta Get ‘Dis Off My Chest (Before Midnight)

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  1. Never failing at the grocery store, I run into someone who knew me only in certain ecclesiastical roles. So far, they always comment on my weight loss and ask if I am going to Church anywhere. I’m honest, though. I tell them no. What I don’t do, however, is connect the dots between the two statements. After all, why disabuse someone of their notion that corporate ecclesiastical structures are the highest  and healthiest good for everybody?
  2. If you don’t want to date me—hey, that sucks, but it is quite alright, there are other fish in the sea—don’t ask to be friends. I have plenty of friends, even close friends who love me.  I’m sorry you haven’t spent time developing deep and abiding non-sexual friendships for whatever reason. But my friendship is not a consolation prize to assuage your guilt. (A repeating pattern in 2015)
  3. I’d rather be quickly murdered with the truth than slowly tortured with a lie.
  4. I like my delusions, though, not gonna lie. Nine days out of ten, I prefer them to reality. But then again, some days I just feel like I’m that batshit—crazy—Emily Dickinson—sans cats. On day eight, I rest from writing shitty poetry about my non-existing cats’ companionship and try to work up feeling regret over preferring delusions. But delusions are just a part of reality, too—can’t forget that. Not two. Just one. KWATZ. Nansen knew all about cats.
  5. I respect gym bros. Their habitat, their kingdom is their gym. I’m just borrowing the running things and the weight things, fellas. Just don’t mind me, please, while I ogle your gym-hardened from afar.  I feel just as out of place there as (WARNING: STEREOTYPE AHEAD) they might feel in a recital hall.
  6. Donald Trump should be pitied, as should his supporters. I used to say that I’ll vote for Bernie in the Primaries and Hilary when she gets the nomination. I now say, if she gets the nomination. This makes me happy. Hope springs eternal. #BerninDownTheHouse #DiscoInBerno
  7. When coming of age in the aughts, there was this concept of “fronting” and “selling out.” Fronting, of course, is when someone is pretending to be more than they are. Older generations might have called this just plum pretension. Selling out , naturally, is when you give up something more valuable for something less valuable. Yet, in 2015, these are signs of “making it” and “having your shit together.” Capital-R Romantic artistic aspirations are dead and Andy Warhol set up the guillotine.
  8. Twenty-Fifteen did have some fun travel, including a nearly spontaneous trip to Florida last February. My favorite trip was going camping with some friends (cf. #2) to Cherokee, NC. They are master planners. All I had to do was show up and tell some jokes. Best vacation ever.
  9. My favorite read of Twenty-Fifteen would either be that massive biography of Mark Rothko, or the first two volumes of DT Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism. My favorite fiction reads would be my recent dipping into all of Moliere’s oeuvre. Who knew I’d grow to love French Baroque?
  10. My favorite part of Twenty-Fifteen, though? This part.

The Question Is A Prison. The Answer Is Another Shackle.

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I came with lots of questions. Some were pretty mundane: am I doing this right, and why does my side hurt, and is that fucking bell ever going to ring? I’m certain I still have these. But I have larger questions, too. Who am I? Will I ever be happy again? Why did this thing happen to me? I came hoping to find answers to these.

When I studied philosophy, I knew I’d never come up with the answers for life’s biggest questions. My professors actively discouraged their students from attempting that. They encouraged asking better questions. If we could ask better questions, then maybe we could get closer—a smidge closer—to the finding the answer. What does it mean to ask a better question?

Well, when I think of what makes a bad question, I think of what Stephen Colbert used to do on “The Colbert Show” when he’d ask his guest something like, “George W. Bush: great President or greatest President?” or, conversely, “Barak Obama: is he a terrible President or the worst President?” He already knew the answer, so he phrased the question to get that answer. A bad question sets limits on an answer.

One of the most famous examples of a bad question in Zen literature comes from this koan: “A monk asked Joshu, ‘does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’ Joshu replied ‘MU!” The monk set up the question as: does it have a) Buddha nature or b) no Buddha nature. And Joshu, the Zen master, ignores the multiple choice part of the question and answers, no or MU. He doesn’t say yes to a or b. He doesn’t say, well on the one hand or on the other hand. He says no to the whole mindset of the question. He says no to the expectations set up by the question.

Who knows how long that monk spent weeks and months and years struggling with the question of a Dog’s nature? I imagine him sitting with this question of does a dog have a) Buddha Nature or b) no Buddha nature, over and over and over and over and over and over. How many nights had he lost sleep over it? How many nights did he wake up with sweat drenching the bed? So, he finally works up the guts to ask the Master about it and the Master simply says, MU. He simply says, no.

And this MU—there has been lots written about it—undercuts the assumptions of the question. This Mu says the question isn’t big enough. This Mu says you’re going about this all the wrong way. This Mu says you’ve been limiting the answers. This Mu says you’ve already backed yourself into a corner with this question. This Mu says the questions you ask have become a prison. You’ve locked yourself away and pitched the key. Mu, Mu, Mu.

Unfortunately, the answers I find come from the questions I ask. And if my questions are so limiting, so will my answers be. If my questions are a prison, then my answers will be just another shackle. Even good questions will give good answers, but they’re still limited by the question. Maybe there is no such thing as a good question? Perhaps all of my questions are just expectations hiding behind question marks.

I become a dog chasing his tail day after day after day after day. Always doing the same thing, asking the same questions—but expecting different answers. It’s as if I went to the well for the water, but the rope isn’t long enough to reach the depths. I came away thirsty. I suffer because of the questions I ask and the answers I seek. I suffer because I expect an answer will end my suffering.

But, anymore, I do nothing. I ask nothing. I just sit. I let the questions, the expectations, the answers all fall away as I focus on my breaths: one, two, three. I expect nothing. And as the questions drop away, as these answers drop away, my little, rabid doggie mind starts to fall away—or, at least slow down—and I begin to experience now. This now. Just this.

This now.

But the problem with saying “now,” or “just this” is by the time my vocal cords form the sound and it vibrates the air, then the vibrations hit your inner ear and your brain registers the words, that now has already past. Just by milliseconds, but it has past. So, there is no “now”. There is no “just this”. Plus, the same mind that becomes addicted to the past can also be addicted to the present. There is no now. There is no just this.

My questions cannot penetrate this silence. My answers, even my best answers, cannot explain it. But it is there in that silence, beyond does a dog have Buddha nature or not, beyond great president or greatest president, beyond Christian or Buddhist, beyond any question or answer, there I must go.

But it’s not that I go there. It’s that I’ve always been there. I just didn’t realize it.

In this silence, there is no prison, there is no freedom. In this silence, there is nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do. In this silence there is no self or no non-self, no master or no student, no questioner or answerers. There are no questions and no answers. In this silence, there isn’t even nothing.

So, maybe the best question is no question. Maybe the best answer is no answer.

Writing writes; Yada & yada.

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I’ve never been much of a goal-setter. Goals, it seems, are for the gym fanatics and Facebook warriors, the entrepreneurs. Set a goal and reach it. This is our definition of success. Perhaps it’s because the things that interested me—the creative things, that is—always had some kind of vague movable goal post out on the far end-zone of a late autumn’s foggy morning.

One of my music teachers always said she was in pursuit of the “perfect” recital where nary a mistake is made. Not just sans mistakes but where even every chord is voiced equally, the pedaling is precise and everything is just-so. She tells her students she hasn’t experienced it yet—but, it’s a firm goal, a clear direction, nevertheless.

Perfection, though, is never what drew me to creativity, to the piano or the page. I always preferred expressing a thing over perfecting a thing. How can I express what is inside me—what bubbles up in the middle of the night—I try to do it as clearly as I can, but there are times (lots of times) where being unclear or ambiguous is the best clarity for expressing what is unclear or ambiguous.

I’m more interested in what I don’t know.

To use that old dichotomy, over Toscanini’s over-rehearsed mechanisms, I prefer the vague smoke of Furtwängler. His “vagueness” is anything but vague—in fact, it’s very clear what he’s having the orchestra to express. Which makes me think that sometimes—to switch mediums—you just got to fling the paint on the canvas. You just got to put the words on the page or get the sounds in the room, no matter how unsure or imprecise they are. Some days you’ve just got to quit giving a shit and bark a barbaric YAWP in the ears of the critics (especially the one inside).

(A Brief Aside: I’ve always been a better YAWPer  than a whisperer.
Although, I do hope one do to master the subtle whisper.
But that might only happen when my voice finally goes hoarse.
By the way, did you know that whispering is one of
worst things you can do when you lose your voice?
Comprehend that and you’ll understand
everything it means to be human.)

I express. I need to express. I need to do that more than I need to communicate clearly or cajole or awake or destroy or create. It’s shut up in my bones, yada, yada. This is not about you.

(A short list of things about which I am unclear: 1) If we’re all in debt to each other, why does debt exist? 2) Why do I have the “American Dad” theme song stuck in my head? I don’t even like that show. 3) Why is everything about class in our proclaimed classless society? Not to blog like a Marxist, but he had some points. 4) A prison and a fortress are nearly indistinguishable. Blah, blah, blah.)

I write everyday. But I do not share it every day. You are my guest here. This is my table. My words are food. My overused em dash is drink. I’m sorry I haven’t shared much, but there’s not been much to share. I like silence more. The front and back door are unlocked—you’re welcome to come and go as you please. Let me recommend Reddit.

My goal is to have no goals. My aim is to have no aim. I expect nothing. Yes, that means there is no conventional “success”, but it also means there is no “failure”. If you quit grading students, it doesn’t imply that everyone passes anymore than it implies that everyone fails. It just means nobody gets a grade. I don’t give myself grades anymore. If there are no grades, then there are no grads or dropouts. No goals means no goals.

One of the worst things you can do is accomplish a goal. It becomes a narrow prison of self-congratulation. Plus, imagine everything you missed on your way to that jail: the way the full moon scatters disparate shadows over brick walkways, watching a pissed-off bluejay fight a crow twice her size, or the immense pleasure of a boring Saturday on the couch with nothing to read and nothing on Netlfix.

Set a goal, get a goal. Set for nothing and get everything. After all, only Protestants beat themselves over their work ethic. How sad.

Thinking thinks.
Seeing sees.
Hearing hears.
Writing writes.

I believe this is what St. Teresa of Avila was getting at in her Autobiography when she said that she hated editing. She wanted to write. So, she wrote.

Faking It in F Major

jesuslovesme2Last night, I dreamt of my childhood church. At the last minute, I was asked to play piano for VBS. While someone was preaching, I sat on the bench flipping through the hymnal, trying to find the music for “Jesus Loves Me.” I flip back to the index and run my index finger down the H, I & J hymns until I find the number. I start turning pages to where it should be in the hymnal, except instead there are dozens of magazine-style ads—just page after page of full color advertisements published in the middle of the hymnal.

That can’t be right, I think. So, I’m in the index checking the number again. Flip to where “Jesus Loves Me” should be. I’m back in the ads. I start earlier in the hymnal where there are proper hymns and begin counting up. 350, 365, 410, 449. Once I near the number, there they are again: cologne ads, plumber ads, magazine ads—one after another. The whole center of the hymnal is just advertisements. It was printed this way. Nowhere is a sign of “Jesus Loves Me.”

Of course, it’s time for the kids to sing. Sadly, one of the major downfalls of being only classically-trained is you never learn to play by ear. So, I just start faking it in F major. As I’m playing, I start throwing in some “crunchy” chords not because I’m intending to, but because I don’t know what I’m doing. An augmented fifth here, a diminished chord here, a rippling arpeggio to the ceiling and a few rumbling bass notes. But the kids keep singing and singing strong while I accidentally turn “Jesus Loves Me” into Tristan und Isolde. I hear an adult say behind me in the pews, “Wow! This must be Jazz!” After, a grandfather—who looked just like John McCain (but wasn’t John McCain)—told me how impressed he was with my playing. He said he’d never heard anything like it before.

My subconscious has never been subtle. Hell, subtlety is not a gift of my conscious mind, either. So, there’s that. It’s a bit over the top.

But, if I were the author of my life, writing myself as the main character, I would look also at the introduction of zazen this year as too heavy-handed of a metaphor. After years of running bloodied broken-nose into this wall or that wall, our hero sits in front of one, counting his breaths and starts over again. At least once a day he does it, but sometimes more. I’d circle these paragraphs with a red pen and write, “O RLY?” in the margin.

They lack subtlety. Instead of the triumphant singing procession around Jericho, it is just a silent sit-in, like these walls themselves will teach him everything.

A Roadkill Kind of Grace

all_soulsI joke about a pale acolyte dangling the burning cup near my bedside in the curtain-pulled darkness. A stink bug flies like a zephyr for a moment above the window. The held candles light downcast faces and mouths mumbling the ora pro nobis with the priest. In penumbras of hallway light, a little girl beckons with tentative movements, afraid of disturbing the heavy room. I cough, too tired to follow. It is dangerous to follow such a maiden. I haven’t much time left and she knows it. She gestures again.

With legs akimbo, a squirrel lies on the road like an angel fallen from a great height. Did I not just see that squirrel a few days ago chattering up a tree? It probably ruined the day of whoever ran over him. She probably went to her job with tears. “OMG,” she texts her best-guy-friend, “just ran over a squirrel.”—not realizing she was turning to him for emotional support—not realizing he’s madly in love with her—not realizing he’s always there because he wants to be—and not realizing the day was far more ruined for the squirrel, who just yesterday was chattering up a tree—”1st the squirrel then a funeral. What a day!! FML.”

What’s the price of a runned-over squirrel? The little girl stands on the sidewalk’s shadows under a clear umbrella, waiting for the traffic to pass. She walks into the street. She picks up the dead squirrel. She cradles it like baby. She pets it. She talks to it. Such a maiden is dangerous to follow. She disappears in the rain.

His thumbs are lightning: “That’s terrible! R U OK? U need anything?” He is ready to ditch his books and his lunch to be with her. He needs to hold her (spiritually), feel his (metaphorical) shoulder wet with her tears, and feel her (hypothetical) shaking back in his (emotional) arm. He doesn’t realize he just wants to be wanted, and she scratched this needing-to-be-needed itch very well. If he can’t have the ecstasy of her body, he could have her in the communion of her friendship. The longing gave him meaning—not realizing the the squirrel, who just yesterday was chattering up a tree, had no meaning (anymore).

On the way to the church, she talks about a date, or at least he thinks it was a date. She’d met this guy online or on Tinder—something like that, he couldn’t tell. Either way, this guy had come over to hang out or whatever. She discovered by looking through the peep hole of her front door that this guy was one of the teachers from the High School when she was a student there. She never had the teacher, though, but she knew about him. She knew he had a wife and kids. So, from behind the closed door, she tells him to go away. She said she just lay on the floor of her living room, laughing and laughing. “Really? That guy trying to get with me? It feels good,” she said, “to think about laughing on a day like today—what with the squirrel and all.”

in_requiem_aeternamLegs straight like a felled tree, I lay in the closed casket. For years, I joked about hiring a dozen Italian Widow Mourners to wail under their mantillas at all the right times. Today, they do not disappoint. I hear them from my box. Plus, a female friend of mine agreed to wear a red dress just so everyone at the Requiem would say “Wait. I thought he was—that sly dog! The bastard really was Byronic!” She’ll confuse my former lovers the most. This pleases me greatly. My friend doesn’t disappoint in her crimson gown of sin. I giggle in my casket.

She and he, though, sit towards the back, watching the ceremony of the frowning priest and eternally circumabulating pale acolyte as a choir sings Latin chants & Elizabethan dirges. He thinks it’s like watching slow-moving planets, the spheres in orbit. A reader mounts the lectern and says, “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.” Leaning forward with her face in her hands, she cries.

He feels it happening, his body becoming porous and his soul sliding out. His hand reaches up to her shoulders. A gesture of comfort, he thinks, but his reddening face betrays his hands. One of his friends had a serious conversation: said he couldn’t talk about her anymore around them on Friday nights because it bummed them out. Because, they said, he deserved better. But, this girl gives him a little attention and emotionally needs him although she goes to others for the desires of the body.

He tells his friends she can’t be taking what I’m freely giving. His face is hot with shame as he touches her friendly. He can hear her laughing beneath the tears, giggling in that locked room deep inside her, “Him? Get with me?” One day he should let her go, he knows this, but today is not that day. Tomorrow won’t be, either. So, quietly, he offers a prayer of thanksgiving as he becomes again and again what she needs him to be. As he becomes what he wants to become.

They all file past me under the pall to receive the sacrament. The priest got a little shaky and almost drops the chalice. I roll my eyes in the casket. Jesus, hasn’t this guy said the Mass before? I guess not much changes—even in death. I’m still the same old Andy—just, well, you know, dead. The ad hoc choir and musicians made up of my friends does a pretty good job. No Bruckner or Berlioz, but that’s alright. They knew not to do any Fanny Crosby or “How Great Thou Art,” so I won’t haunt ’em. The Italian widow-mourners wail.

The little girl stands at the door of the church—the door leading out to the parking lot—and gestures to me. It’s a little motion, like she’s afraid of being seen. Plus, she’s still holding that dead, runned-over squirrel like a doll baby. I laugh. The Little Lady of the Roadkill praying for me. She grabs my hand and leads me out into the rain as they say, “Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” Such a maiden is dangerous to follow. [Exit]

As he drives her home, he & she pass a runned-over cat with wet, matted hair. The cat’s face is disfigured, frightening. That night, he couldn’t sleep. He had uneasy dreams of her (inflamed by her tears and the closeness of her body), that cat’s face, and, in shadows of rain, the little girl looking both ways before crossing the street.

National Apostasy: Disaster Capitalism and the Episcopal Church

JohnIn the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. On a tree the Word was exalted in death, and in life emerged from a three-day tomb. Proclaimed first by the Jews, then the Gentiles, the Word reached disparate lands. He was preached in wide fields, in marketplaces, in churches—anywhere an ear was to hear. The Word was lifted high in spite of flame, dismemberment and drowning; then enthroned in cathedrals rising, in chants of high thanksgiving, and in myriad hearts yearning. Women preached, too, along with anyone who was called to give the Word, regardless of sexuality. In our day, though, the Church sits behind a nameplate, reads blogs and worries about the future.

A foregone conclusion: the Episcopal Church is dying. I need not give you numbers because you can recite them like creeds. It is the one paradigm uniting conservative and liberals, high and low church. We will die, or are dying, or have recently died.

Yet, it is important to remember no matter how many statistical soothsayers gaze into their PowerPoints, no one can predict the future. This is because the future does not exist. The only time existing is now—this very now as your eyes pass over these words. This is all there is. Before and after only exist in the mind of the present, in the heart of now.

Because of this, data and projections tell us nothing of tomorrow, but do tell us much of today. Into this made-up future, we project all our current feelings and longings. Odds are, if we’re feeling good today, the future looks bright; if we’re feeling bad, everything will be terrible. We bend numbers—the most malleable things in creation—to suit our current disposition. In the same way, numbers can also be manipulated to create current dispositions. A predicted future can be used to shape the present.

gen conThe 2012 General Convention asked the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies appoint twenty-four members to form the Taskforce for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). Specifically, they were charged with contemplation of administrative and governance structures. General Convention resolved that TREC be diverse and “include some persons with critical distance from the Church’s institutional leadership.” After several months of meeting, they began publishing their thoughts for comment from the wider church.

In their most recent letter from September 2014, TREC shared some of what they’d been ruminating. Corporate language frames nearly all their suggestions. For example, TREC suggests at the churchwide level, leadership should be empowered to pursue “bold and disruptive ideas” and staff should work “as network catalysts and network builders.” The Presiding Bishop is “retained as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO)”; the President of the House Deputies is “retained as Vice President”; the Executive Council would be “similar to a non-profit Board of Trustees”; along with new positions, the Chief Operating Officer (COO), Treasurer/Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Legal Officer.

Amidst all this corporate jargon is the sharp knife to many existing structures. The Executive Council—the voice of General Convention between General Conventions—should be reduced from forty to twenty-one members, and the various Provinces are no longer guaranteed membership. The committees of General Convention (CCABs) should be reduced. Those three new chiefs “would serve at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop” and could be fired without anyone’s approval. Staff of the DFMS should be reduced to a “contractor-only model” and these will be judged by the Executive Council “against a set of pre-agreed metrics.”

This is surprising after the calls for change at the last General Convention. But one should realize TREC was criticized from the beginning for being full of insiders without the prerequisite “critical distance”. Or that TREC themselves were appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies.  Should it really be a surprise that they nearly conclude new expanded powers for both positions and less input from marginalized voices?

But, what’s hiding behind all of these recommendations is the expectation that they will stave off disaster. That, as TREC wrote in their September letter, we are like Lazarus who was held back from his bindings and if we just fix “the old ways of working,” we can save ourselves from future death.

kjsAs it is well known, several dioceses and congregations left the Episcopal Church after the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire and the 2006 election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop. Yet, less known is three years into Schori’s term, Mary E. Kostel was named “Special Counsel to the Presiding Bishop for Property Litigation and Discipline” in order to assist with these property disputes. She still holds this position in the Presiding Bishop’s Office. This is nearly unprecedented, by the way, for as far as I know, even the Roman Catholic Church with its various pedophilia lawsuits does not retain special counsel in this way.  In a memo shared with the Executive Council—the body TREC suggests a reduction of members—Mary Kostel wrote, “[the legal team] typically has counseled in favor of forbearance from dramatic or inflammatory action, on the view that the disputes over parish property will ultimately be resolved in court.”

Eric Bonetti—himself a self-described nonprofit professional—wrote an essay in the Episcopal Cafe defending these litigations. He writes, “Indeed, if there is any fault to be found in the church’s handling of the dissidents, it was in trying too hard to find a workable compromise.” The New York Times reported it was this kind of pressure to never compromise which Bishop Johnston felt during his amicable negotiations with his friend, the conservative rector of Truro Church. As The Vice President of the Virginia Theological Seminary commented, “The extreme on the right and the extreme on the left have much to lose if they give an inch.” As Kostel wrote, everything should be and “will ultimately be” settled in court.

This pressure seldom produces amicable results as in Truro. Consider The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York. Before 2007, breakaways could often work out solutions with their former dioceses. The congregation offered the diocese $150,000 for the building. The initial conversations were promising, but eventually they were sued by the Episcopal Church. After removing the congregation, the Diocese sold the building for $50,000 to an Islamic community center.

The Presiding Bishop defended this policy of settling everything in court to USA Today. She did not think it “was a faithful thing” to let the breakaway parishes keep their buildings. She said, “In a sense it’s related to the old ecclesiastical behavior toward child abuse. . . Bad behavior must be confronted.” Confronting this bad behavior has been very expensive for the Episcopal Church. Although a number is hard to estimate, one totals at $34.5 million over the last decade. As of 2014, there are over eighty cases being argued in courts over property disputes.  

The September TREC Letter does not mention these eighty litigations nor $34.5 million cost. Of course, it does specifically mention legal staff would not be impacted by the slimming for “efficiency” or “effectiveness”. TREC also suggests the addition of a Chief Legal Officer—one of those three Chiefs serving “at the pleasure of the Presiding Bishop”. Ostensibly, this is an expansion of what has been called “the scorched earth” litigation policy. Katie Sherrod, one of Fort Worth’s faithful Episcopalians, argues the TREC letter is reminiscent of the power grabs by conservative bishops.

Strike magazineIn 2013 American anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber wrote “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” for Strike! Magazine. In it, Graeber examines the rise of “professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service workers,” or the salaried paper-pushers. These are not doctors, but hospital administrators; not the violinists, but the managers of the orchestranot the professors, but the Dean. These people don’t actually produce anything. They judge and manage the people who do produce. And, very often, are convinced that their jobs have no meaning. Yet, as Graeber writes, through “some strange alchemy” as corporations downsize and exploit workers, these “bullshit jobs” continue to grow. Today, the Episcopal Church is run by people with “bullshit jobs.”

In the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, the mission of the Church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” I submit that any “bullshit job” in the Episcopal Church is anyone we are paying who doesn’t do this mission directly. These would be the Social Media Coordinators, the Marketing Gurus, the lawyers, etc. A pretty good bet of a “bullshit job” is anything having the title of “consultant.” You may find the likes of these padding the budget of most every diocese (and even a few parishes).

On top of this, consider how much of a “bullshit job” the role of Presiding Bishop has become. Originally, the Presiding Bishop was the senior-most diocesan bishop who presided over the House of Bishops. Back then, the Presiding Bishop still had all the apostolic duties of a bishop: tending the spiritual care of God’s priests, confirming, and ensuring decency and good order. Back then, a Presiding Bishop still did useful things that impacted the lives of those in their care. Over time, however, the Presiding Bishop garnered more national responsibilities and by the 1940s, it was expected a Presiding Bishop resign his or her diocese. Thus, we have a Bishop without a See. This is odd in Christendom, as even the Bishop of Rome is, well, the Bishop of Rome along with being the Pope. It is the same with the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In the months leading up to the formation of TREC, there were several calls to return the Presiding Bishop to the older formula of the senior-most diocesan bishop. Interestingly enough, the group picked by the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies didn’t think this was a good idea. In fact, TREC went the complete opposite way. TREC saw the future death of the Episcopal Church as a corporate problem with a corporate solution of greatly expanding the powers of a “bullshit job.” Under TREC’s recommendations, once elected, a Presiding Bishop would almost be removed from accountability to the wider church.

I’ve been a well-informed Episcopalian for nearly a decade and I still have no real clue what the Presiding Bishop does other than collect a paycheck, anger conservatives, pursue “scorched-earth” litigations, and not talk about Jesus. Even though we’ve been calling the Presiding Bishop our Primate since 1982, it seems the position is nothing more than a very powerful administrator, or as Graeber might call it, a very powerful “bullshit job”—or as TREC stylizes the position, a CEO.

kebleJohn Keble preached against a similar problem when he famously mounted the pulpit in St. Mary’s, Oxford in 1833. In his time, the Church of Ireland had too many bishops and not enough people. So, moved by efficiency and effectiveness, Parliament sought to amalgamate the dioceses. Few saw this as a crisis because in the mindset of the time, the Church was considered a ward of the State. Keble, however, preached this is a sign of apostasy. It was a power-play of the State over the apostolic authority of the Church. No one fought it, because as he likened the Church of England to the children of Israel crying out for Samuel to anoint a king, everyone in the Church of England wanted to be like the other nations.

It was clear enough for Israel, though: the Ammonites were at the gates, threatening annihilation, so a king would be effective and efficient to destroy the enemy. Likewise, for the Church of England to give up her own authority and be lead into bondage to the State, Keble theorized there must be some kind of threat. If not a threat, then at least a pretense of a threat. And these “Pretenses will never be hard to find.” Israel wanted to be like every other nation. The Church of England, Keble preached, would frighten themselves in order to become like everybody else, so they could be safe from these pretenses of a threat.

Interestingly enough, corporate America does this all the time. Naomi Klein describes this in detail in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2008). If you keep telling everyone that everything is terrible, if you keep shocking the system with manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis, then, of course, people will give up their freedom in order to be saved. They will give up their voice. They will go gladly into bondage for safety. Are these not the trumped-up pretenses of threat Keble preached against?

Therefore, whenever I hear anyone prophesying the imminent downfall of the Episcopal Church, I consider the source. Typically, it’s not a priest or a deacon or a bishop. Usually, it’s a consultant or someone else with a “bullshit job.” Usually, it’s someone in power. Usually, they’re using this forecasted future (that doesn’t exist) to give their “bullshit job” meaning.  They’ll use these threats of a forecasted future to give themselves more authority. Make a CEO, TREC says, and you’ll keep the Church from dying. We only want to be like everybody else.

Once I consider the source, then I consider the other narrative no one mentions: if we can defend (and celebrate) $34.5 million spent over a decade in over eighty lawsuits, surely we can afford to pay staff; if we can (presumably) expand our litigations through a Chief Legal Officer, surely it’s not all terrible; if we can sue to get a building and then sell it for a third the price, then surely we’ll make it; if we can afford the $11 million facility at 815, surely we’re not in such dire straits to ask for a CEO; if we can afford to send the House of Bishops (whom TREC mentions no restrictions) to Taiwan, then maybe we’re not headed for the ash heap; if we can keep and expand (as TREC suggests) all these “bullshit jobs,” then surely it’s not too bad.

Once I consider the source and consider this other narrative, my mind is clear: I am no longer motivated by fear.

So, please pardon my incredulity when I hear the leadership of the Episcopal Church speak about mission and social justice and growing the church in the name of “efficiency” and “effectiveness.” After all, none of our leaders—even those in “bullshit jobs”—tell us not to be afraid. On the contrary, they tell us over and over and over to be very afraid. Thus, this oft-prophesized future has nothing to do with tomorrow, but has everything to do with today. This fear of the future is a powerful tool.

And so, the poor go unfed and songs go unsung. Souls go without the gospel while we go about in litigation against our brothers and sisters. And so, in our day, the Episcopal Church sits behind a very expensive desk, reads blogs and wrings her hands about the future, convincing herself day after day that she is not really the bride of the incarnate Word who was, and is, and will be God forever, world without end. She loses the moment for the future. She loses the moment for her materialism. She convinces herself deliverance is not at hand. And she will sell herself into corporate prostitution.

But, I say to you: do not be afraid.