Terrorized to Greatness

(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:


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 . . .

Resolution 160101


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)


  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.


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.


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.

Hath Found Her An House: A Rude Little Story of Rocky Knob


I pray you never know the loneliness of my girlhood. So terrible you never realize it settle deep until a voice spoke that ain’t your own. And your mind hunger for those words. It could have been the dumbest farmer but you soak up his complaints about bushel prices just to look him in the eyes, feel him in the room. His pettiness became salve to an ache you didn’t even know you had. You was just glad to hear a voice other than yourself.

My father welcome strangers because the Bible say it entertain angels unawares. Not that we got many visitors, but they come and my father set them all down. He’d say, Do you have an hour to spare? A few bird and plant fellows, a preacher or three, or a young man sick with love were offered fine hospitality. But not all men told tales, just set quietly. My father watch these with care until with them they together walk to off our land.

This one say he a wanderer with an itch to see this blessed nation. Ask my father if he’d ever read this Emerson right here. My father say he didn’t see much need of reading outside scriptures. He say That’s alright the Bible says it too. Well sir, I just believe a man should at one time or another step outside himself meeting his mettle. Devour himself in the wilderness to live authentic and true. My father say nothing, but lean in his chair as my mother serve bitter coffee from the fire. Like David, sir, he say, playing his harp and singing Psalms with sheep. David the true man I try to be.

My father say Yes but shouldn’t a man leave his father and cleave unto his wife? A tree grow in the wilderness, yes, but only because its roots cling to the earth. It grow slow, yes, but deeper, wider before taller. What of a wife? Or family, friends? Anybody to care you on the backside of nowheres, yes? The freeze come along soon and your metal be frozen in the earth.

The wanderer say back Sir, I tell you the truth. I used to be a college man. And, yes, I had a bride for after graduation when I’d put out my sign. But I had no patience for law. Sir, I mean no disrespect but it seemed like a fairy tale. Laws exist only for we all agree they do. No sir, it wasn’t real. Just a dream. Just a silly expensive dream.

My father say There be something in your ruddy complexion that speaks of my grandfather. They all crazy, our grandfathers. Leaving their homes for some mountain in the new land. Fight off Indians and bears. He carry all that old world in his spit and sweat right to this spot and built himself this house, the house where we sit. Scraped, sorrowed, laughed and spent nights keeping to himself under the stars while my father as a boy sat vigil on the porch with fear his daddy been gorged out there. Until my grandfather come back at sunrise with tears in his eyes. Crazy. They were all crazy.

This is a mighty fine house, sir, built on the fine foundation of exertion and spittle with four stout walls rising up to the Almighty’s face up here on this gorgeous mountain. You and your family are caretakers and inhabitors of his spirit, this fine abode. In truth, I envy men like your grandfather for no such journeys exist for the brave and fearless, if such men be had in our days.

Winter come early that year, just as father say. It was unseemly, of course, for the young man to stay in the house my Grandfather built on account of my sisters and me, so he slept in the barn after sharing our table each night. My father permit him a small fire on the account he watch after it. By the time the snow start falling, he was glad for it, too. The snow come first at night in big wet smears shake from the sky. Later when the sun rose in the valley, one flake become two and two flakes were many. As the day wore and we did our chores, it continue to fall. The second day was much the same as the first.

On the third night of snow, momma bid me run some more wood for the young man’s fire with warnings I stick close to the fence. I argue with her—doesn’t every daughter at that age argue with her mother?—but she say Fine. Freeze to death. We’ll bury you in the spring when you thaw. I carry the wood and high-step it along the fence to the barn. I see why momma say stay with the fence. I couldn’t see much in front or behind me, all I see was knee-deep snow.

I drop wood in front of him and turn go when he say Little girl, dost thou know who made thee? I must confess I never heard anyone speak like that, at least not in those days. He say Never the mind and come sit a moment by the fire. I watch him.

The young man say Do you hear that? Shh, listen. Do you hear that? He was right. A bird scoot and coo somewheres up in the roof. But the fire was dim so I see not the roof of the barn. If I raise my arms—those gangly arms of my girlhood—the blackness swallow them.

450px-Campfire_PineconeHe say he hear that bird every night. Up in the eaves the sparrow hath found her an house, he say. Where she comes, I do not know. Where she goes, I can only imagine. If I’m still, she’ll flutter to the other side of the barn and I might glimpse her belly during her short trek. That little bird, he say, a mystery on both ends with confusion in the middle.

He ask me What do you know, little girl? But I look at my wet boots and puddles by the fire in silence. After a time, he say That’s alright. Everybody knows what they know. Not me, though. No, little girl, I’m just like you. I don’t know anything. My only concern is what I don’t know. I wanna go beyond, go beyond what I know. I wanna go beyond the going beyond. I always wanna know what lies after.

I ask if he means heaven.

No not at all, he say, When I decided to leave my home and my learning and my fiance, I was so sad. And it sat in me deep, taking root and spreading tendrils, choking everything. All I knew was this deep pain. I even walked to a creek to kill myself. Slice my throat with a knife right there in the waters because if you meet yourself on the path to truth and you stand in your own way, you gotta. I realize I want to know what was beyond this sadness—

While he spin this sad tale, the sparrow stir a racket. When out of the vast beyond it flew down between us, me and the young man, and dip right into the small fire. With her wings alight, she fly away to the far corner. A little ball of flame floating up to the ceiling higher and higher. Naturally, the young man’s story trail off the way we do when stupefied and we both crane our necks up to the ceiling to watch the flapping fire hidden under far eaves.

Hell fire the young man say You better go wake your daddy. I was confused and kept looking to the ceiling, not understanding his meaning. Run as quick as you can, little girl, he shout, Run, now! By this point I smell smoke. So, I run through the door of the barn, high-step it through the snow by the fenceline yelling for my father.

By the time we make it back, my father and me and my older brothers, we see the walls turn into consuming fire. You damn fool my father shout with all manner of insults with his breath puffing out of his mouth. I said you could have a small fire but you careless bastard didn’t care and so on he went yelling at the young man in front of the barn burning like a candle while the snow kept drop dropping from heaven. The young man try explain the bird but my father ain’t listen. My father tell one of my brothers to take me back to the house right now. We turn go.

I seen their shadows in front of the inferno from a distance. I seen them scuffle and my brothers throw punches at the young man. Then, the shadow of the young man disappear and moments later his scream reaches my ears and echoes the valley. My brother say Come on, sister, we gotta go back. Nothing to see. That man ain’t bothering us no more.

But a queerest wind blew up from behind my brother and me. We turn to watch the flames from the barn start to lick the thickset clouds above. And the wind blew and blew and blew until the fire move from the barn to the clouds. The sky itself was aflame, rolling hot with rage. When I say this to the men later they don’t believe me, but I see it to this day. The heavy snowclouds caught fire. This is gospel truth I tell till I die.

Well, the snow melt from the heat and the great field quickly turn into water rushing here and there in little rivulets down the mountain. My brothers and father and me all run back to the house through mud up to our shins as the earth gave up her hardness. The sky billow.

The light from the sky’s fire reveal all as we ran. The house great-grandfather built had a sagging roof and chipped paint. The upstairs windows been long broken so my father place a piece of wood in their place. The left side of the house look as if was about to collapse since fore I born. My father say all get inside but I stand watch the sky. My father say from the porch that I be safe and this all over in the morning. They ran into the house.

But the wind blow once more and the flames go overhead until the little tongues from the skyfire lick the broken windowpane and slide down the the back of the house until roaring. I hear my family shout terrors. They burn alive in the house great-grandfather built.

I scream running down the mountain, heaven’s fire lighting my way. I slip and fall so many times in the mud and muck. My boots cake with mud, my mouth taste of mud, my hair mat with mud as the rushing waters of thawed snow dig deep channels down. It was quite a time.

Near the road, though, a man step out of the woods. Even though I’m seventy-two, I see him in my dreams and I wake up sweating. He show up often. But near the road at the edge of our property a man step out of the woods. His face is fire and his hands is fire. And the fire man look just like my wanderer, the young man. But I don’t think it’s him. His face was much older and the clothes were funny. But his face is familiar. He glare and seethe at me while I stumble and fall out onto the road. As I walk to the neighbors, I turn. I seen the fire man walk back and forth, back and forth, just pacing the entrance of our mountain, spitting despair and sadness. He walk alone on his mountain.

But morning was all ash in the wind as the snow fall.

Unraveling Knots: One, Two, Three

Roan Mtn

In Slavoj Žižek’s “The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology,” the Slovenian philosopher lisps about Americans’ love of disaster films. We think, Žižek says, the world is so beyond redemption that the only way we can psychologically deal with it is by blowing it up. So we watch all manner of aliens and terrorists destroying the White House over and over again. We cannot imagine a future other than an orgy of destruction of Wagnerian proportions.

This kept coming to mind when writing “National Apostasy: Disaster Capitalism and the Episcopal Church” about our own ongoing denominational disaster porn. My thesis was the Episcopal Church isn’t actually dying, but is only being reported as dying so power and money could be consolidated in few hands. Yet, I have been wondering if these power-hungry money-grubbers (pardon the technical term) only succeed because their lies are lies we already believe. Like Žižek said, maybe we listen to and read their disaster porn because we cannot imagine the Episcopal Church changing. Maybe even because we don’t think it should change. Maybe we all just want it to die.

Every day I researched that essay, I kept asking myself,  “Why do you care?” Most days, I didn’t have an answer. I had no clue why I kept researching and reading the litigation documents (if you ever want to ruin your soul, spend an hour with these). But the writing was a turning cog in the working of my salvation. Only a thunderstorm of an eight-page polemic could clear the foul air in my head. Old misdeeds could be examined, forgiven; unintentional transgressions could be overlooked. I cared because I wanted to think clearly about the issue. I wrote it for myself.

But, outside my window is autumn with golden leaves fallen from a backyard tree. Nearby, I sit on my office floor. I face an unadorned wall with my legs like a lotus. I stare open-eyed. One, two, three: I count my breaths until the timer dings and my feet are asleep. I read the Daily Office when I feel up to it. I go to a Mass when I muster the strength. I must admit, I like the Latin ones best. These you can watch/listen and “not participate”—in fact, that’s what I like about them the most. You can really contemplate and the sermons are so terrible they barely interrupt your thoughts.

I used to make fun of people like me, you know the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. The ones who take a little of this and a little of that. They’ll sit zazen like me, and pray the rosary like me, and read the Tao te Ching like me, and maybe show up in the house of the Lord every once in awhile like me. Just look up when the bell rings to see the miracle, then back on our way to pick-and-choose land. I don’t have any Buddha statues yet, but I haven’t ruled it out, though.

I learned in the last ten months not everybody who is “spiritual but not religious” chose it. Not all of these are lazy or lacking in love. Some of these are cast-offs from an institutional religion hell-bent on preserving itself. Some of these are victims of bad pastoral care. Some of these were ignored by good church folk who never understood them. Some of them have been vomited out by the behemoth with the “bullshit jobs.” They left the institutional Church because their lives were better for it.

Ten months ago, I was a victim of shockingly bad pastoral care. And then around Easter, some more shockingly bad pastoral care. During attempts at reconciliation, I was insulted and had my motives questioned. In fact, the motives for my entire participation in the Episcopal Church were questioned. Then, I was just expected to just get over all of it. Some day, I’ll write about this chapter of my life, but it’s still too soon, too fresh, too raw for me to have any kind of perspective. Suffice to say, in the weeks that followed, the knots tying me to the local Episcopal Church unraveled one by one by one. So, I sit facing a wall, counting my breaths: one, two, three.

I had about a half-dozen conversations over the last week with various people. Some are in active ministry, some are musicians, some are laypersons. All were shocked by the recent events at General Theological Seminary, TREC and the direction of the Episcopal Church. All of them have this urge to retire to a mountain to watch the Episcopal Church destroy herself. Watch her go up in flames like a scene from Götterdämmerung. As BLS wrote, the Episcopal Church is drunk and we’re all just waiting for rock bottom. All this denominational disaster porn is right: maybe we all do want want her to die. I’m not convinced anyone thinks the Episcopal Church should survive.

I think it should, though. I don’t write this because I am worried about job security—after all, I’m not a priest. I don’t write this because I’m trying to sell you anything (I don’t even have Powerpoints prepared!). No, I think the Episcopal Church should survive because she has the means of grace for reuniting broken hearts with a loving God. But she has to remember the means of grace and her hope of glory. She’s got to stop crucifying her people. She has to stop breaking hearts.

She’s gotta stop breaking my heart.

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.