Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Eight years.

There was a girl named Hanene. She was Tunisian of French descent; giant curly hair, magenta tights before people wore tights, a rather prominent nose, pretty. I got it in my head I should set her up with my friend. I remember telling him that she was so amazing except that there was one thing I should warn him about: she had a French laugh. I did a deep-throated French-voweled hahaha like a man in a cartoon might do, followed by sacrebleu. He said that could be a deal-breaker. I told him I was joking and he agreed to meet her.

We worked together that night. We were leaning against a podium by the north entrance taking tickets for a barely-attended folk concert. I thought I'd bring up the subject of romance. "So I'm getting married" I told her. She angled her chin up and scrutinized my face. "Why are you doing this?" she asked. I had been expecting a squeal, a girlish hug, a drawn-out aw. I was unprepared for a hard stare and a question that sounded like it was followed by a period rather than a question mark. I didn't even say "because I love him." I shrugged my shoulders, waiting, thinking something would come to me. "I just... you know..." "How can you say you will always be with him, with one person, for the rest of your life? How can you know that now? You do not even know what life will bring. You're what, eighteen?" "I'm almost twenty two." "It's the same thing."

I told her that I think that marriage vows are like jumping off a cliff and expecting that God will give you wings to fly. I felt like an idiot saying it.

She shook her head at me, earrings jangling disapprovingly, eyebrows furrowed. I didn't bother bringing up my friend.

I walked down the aisle a few months later, ridiculously poofy and covered in tulle. He was waiting at the end in his black suit, a white calla-lily pinned on. He looked a bit like a kid playing dress-up, like one of those sepia-toned greeting cards of kids holding hands, a pink bouquet of roses in the girl's hand. It occurred to me that maybe he didn't know what he was doing either.

We stood alongside each other in front of an assembly of guests and wedding-crashers. We promised extraordinary things; we would love each other forever, no matter what. We would love each other until we died. He held my hand, he gave me a nod. The I Do's felt like they should be followed by a pounding of a gavel in a room with marble floors. Instead he kissed me.

People cheered. The organ sounded and he threw me over his shoulder. I looked like one of those crocheted toilet-paper covers with the tiny body on top and a giant stiff skirt obscuring the fact that there is no body, as if it were normal to simply have a doll on the back of your toilet. A few pearls in the front, bent at the waist, a rush of crinoline in the back.

We got to the back of the church, to the street, and then realized we had no place to go. No rice had been thrown, no hands had been shaken, no well-wishers were waiting to hear the tin cans rattle. He took my hand and kissed me.

This was our jump.

And God took what we gave him and made it lovely.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Death of a Salesman

I think my last post has left the impression that I'm frustrated by peoples' unwillingness to buy what I'm selling. I feel like an aggressive homeless person who stands at interesections and rushes out and washes your window with newspapers, and you're left suddenly digging through your cupholder trying to find change because you clearly can't use a debit card. You sheepishly hold out a couple of Coke-covered nickels and you get cursed at. You start trying to find another route.
.
But then again, homeless people at least have an obvious reason for their hard-sell. Let me amend my analogy. I'm coming off like a drug pusher who's way too emotionally invested in people buying a dime bag.
.
Did you know that a two-ounce bag of brown-sugar heroin sells for under three dollars in Afghanistan? It used to bring about eighty cents. The fields are planted with poppies; bomb-blasted buildings are full of men with needles in their arms. Ten percent of the population are addicts. Bin Laden sold them death with a few simple promises: seventy virgins, significance, and drugs.
.
Teen boys born in the US to moderate Muslim parents were joining the jihad after watching some of his videos. A few of them were from St. Paul. Bin Laden had to have been the best salesmen of all time.
.
The Christian message, by comparison, is almost laughable. Muslim men picture an eternity of hot sex; Christian men picture an eternity playing the harp. And so earnest Christians, convinced that the gospel is true but not quite sure how to sell it, say something like this: Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship. You were made to want God. The only thing that stops you from a relationship with God is your sin, and once you accept Christ's payment for it, you'll have access to God. Your desires will be met (try it and see.)
.
It is a distortion so close to truth that the Christian can overlook the fact that it's not exactly what he experiences.
.
The truth is that the space in time between faith and the culmination of faith --believing that you will see God and actually seeing God-- cannot possibly satisfy a human heart. We go from blind to having sight, but the sight is blurry. The more you squint, the more you realize how little you see.
.
And you're suddenly required to be an Art major too.
.
So Christians take up their studies. They talk about what they saw in their textbook, about how much they loved the Raphael, and they work diligently on their assignment to copy the Mona Lisa, but in the end they know that they could barely see Raphael's piece because of their stigmatism and that their version of the Mona Lisa will never look like the original.
.
They eat their carrots to improve their sight and they listen to lectures on Art History, and they're glad the professor has such good vision, but they'd rather see it themselves than have to be told how beautiful the composition is on the screen. And most days, they'd rather skip the lectures completely and sit around watching football.
.
You see enough to wish like crazy you could see more: that is all.
.
Because it's not only sin that keeps us from having a relationship with God, it's being not-dead.
.
I have at times diminished Heaven so much in my mind that I tried to paint this present reality as fulfillment itself. I've acted as though dissatisfaction with seeing "as through a glass, darkly" were something to be silenced. It seemed so unholy, a reality to be embarrassed of and ignored. The truth is that I'm not particularly good at art, and I can barely see The Crucifixion. And yet, I know it's the most beautiful thing I've never seen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Instantaneous Personal Magnetism

Matthew took up the hollowing of books a while back. He gave my dad one with a carved-out slot for his pearl-handled pistol to sit in; my daughter's will hold her earrings and hairbows. We started browsing the books at Goodwills and carried home a stack to slice up, only to find that we couldn’t cut into most of them. The covers were fantastic; the contents even better.

One that we found tells the reader how to gain influence through increasing his personal magnetism. It included a section on foods not to eat. Bacon, previously recommended by health experts for its carbon (according to the author), is best avoided. Wilted carrots, gravies of all sorts, boiled eggs, and fish. Men in three-piece suits with remarkably white teeth were scattered throughout the book, looking classy, confident, and composed.

Their poise reminded me of an article I read a few months ago about gaining influence through posture. Participants in a study were told to spit in a control cup; their saliva was studied for its levels of testosterone. They were then told to sit in power-diminishing poses for 15 minutes, shoulders slumped forward, knees together, chin down. They spat. Then they sat in postures that exuded bravado. They put their feet up on desks, put their hands behind their heads, and spat again. Across the board, people who acted like they were self-assured had raised levels of testosterone and, presumably, the ability to intimidate people.

I’ve been thinking about these essays on influence recently because I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that I have none.

This is not to say that I will be eating Magnetism Dinners on a TV tray or that I’ll consult a chiropractor for the sake of the gospel. And does that sentence make sense at all? Did you know already what I was referring to?

I write post after post about Christ, about God, about the reality of the unseen, and the only ones who respond are the Christians. I’m not saying that my writing should persuade you to get on your hands and knees, but does it do nothing? Do you not wonder, at the very least, if it is true?

I think that it is because I am nothing to most people. And I don’t say that in mock-humility or out of low self-esteem. I say this because we simply don’t place value on what another person believes.

My mom saw man land on the moon in Ecuador on a grainy black-and-white TV screen. She thought it was a hoax. Ridiculous! A man on the moon. I recognize that asking you (dear Reader) to believe that I have seen the darkness tremble at the sound of Jesus’s name, that I have felt the power of his forgiveness made possible because of the cross, is as illogical as asking a TV viewer to believe that Neil Armstrong wasn’t walking on a Hollywood set.

And yet, you believe that the American flag flies in outer space.

You do. Because at some point, we all have to believe someone else. We choose when to listen and when to walk on.

Books used to be hollowed because Christians were hiding tiny copies of New Testaments inside them. They were willing to risk their lives for the chance to know this God more. They still do.

I met a woman who was tortured for her faith. She was beaten on the pads of her feet until they were raw like meat, and then made to walk in the dirt with heavy shackles around her ankles. She was told that all she had to do was sign a document recanting her faith. Communists in China, they give weight to belief. She walked in circles, reeling in pain, and finally decided to sign. As she was about to, she glanced down and saw her bloody footprints, now pooling up as mud. She said that she stopped for a moment, startled, realizing that this is what Christ’s footprints must have looked like as he walked towards Golgatha. She said, her voice choked, that she realized that he endured the same pain, only he didn’t have to.

You are so beautiful, Jesus. You are so beautiful, she said.

She wept. She could not deny him. She walked on.

You don't have to.



...
The blurb for Instantaneous Personal Magnetism reads: In light of today's understanding of biology and physiology, many of Shaftesbury's explanations of how to promote Personal Magnetism seem quaint and exaggerated. Regardless of the terminology, the methods work, and produce results. Little to nothing will come from just reading the book, it is the application of the outlined principles that manifests the ability.

I laughed at how easily the blurb could suit the Bible. In light of today's understanding of biology and physiology, many of these claims (ie. dying for sins and resurrection from the dead, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence) may seem quaint and exaggerated. Regardless, Jesus's methods work, and produce results. Little to nothing will come from just reading the book, it is the application of the outlined principles (faith and love) that manifests the ability (to someday see God.)

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

On Looking Good

When I was in high school, I wanted some tattoos and a nose ring. My dad said no, you'll give people the wrong impression. I said "What impression is that?" He said they'd assume I was on drugs. I said that was their problem, not mine. I sang the teenage party line that appearance shouldn't matter. He asked if I really meant this. I said yes. He said if appearance doesn't matter, then starting tomorrow he would wear biker shorts with a flannel shirt tucked in, and I could do whatever I wanted with myself. I thought it best to not call his bluff. He had a little bit of crazy in his eyes; you don't play chicken with someone like that.
.
I saw an episode of What Not to Wear a few weeks ago where the girl sang the same tune. She was a recent graduate with a doctorate in Sociology, and she insisted that image is nothing. Stacey said something to the effect of "You're trying to communicate that you don't care about materialism, but what people are actually seeing is that you're sloppy." (I could picture my mom telling me that I looked like I didn't care enough about the people I was going to see to bother putting myself together. She burned my favorite pair of pants. Burned them.) The girl saw the futility of trying to claim that appearance is nothing. She ate her words just like I did.
.
I don't know why we're so insistent of this notion. It's youth, I suppose; you think you've discovered something that no one else has thought of. Gonna shake up the establishment, teach them a thing or two: what people think about you doesn't matter. I've been noticing recently how much Christian teenagers apply this line of thinking to religion, treating the appearance of evil as insignificant. They make comments that would cause people to assume that they mess around with people of the opposite or the same sex; they pursue godliness but don't want people to know it. They shrug off the dissonance by claiming it's not their problem how they're perceived, it's what's on the inside that counts.
.
The outside matters. Case in point: my dad once once gave a guy a discount on his car repair because he looked a little punk. I was away from home and he missed me.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Joy of Faithlessness

I was tucking my son in last night in his polar bear pajamas in his tiny bed, putting away his dinosaurs that scare him at night, leaning down for one last skinny-arm hug. "Quedate no mas" he said. I can't, I told him. Octavius is little and he needs a bottle; I have to go. "Yo no soy chiquitito, soy grande" he said, making tiny fists, clenching the muscles in his arms. So big, I said. He was suddenly quiet. "Why don't I see angels anymore now that I'm a big boy?"
.
I shoot from the hip when I talk to my son. I said that God wants us to have faith in him, and that faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see. If you could see God and angels, I said, you wouldn't have faith. Entiendes?
.
He's gracious with me. "Yeah," he said, "I understand." And someday you won't need faith at all, I said. Someday you'll see God face to face. He considered this. "God lives in a palace in the sky? That is very strange." Yeah, I said. It is very strange. "And he's making a room for me in his palace?" Yeah Flaco. There is a room for you. "Do you think he will paint a pteradactyl on the wall? Eso si me gustaria." I think that's a nice idea. I ran my fingers through his blond hair, wincing. "I think Loli's room should have a painting of a hen on the wall." Oh Flaco, she would love a hen. "When is Loli going to die?" Heart stopping, in my throat; I shoot from the hip but I try not to lie. I don't know, Flaco. But you don't have to think about that, not at all. Estamos en las manos de Dios.
.
It got worse. "Will I have bruises?" What? "When I die, will I have bruises like Jesus? When they killed him." He's three, he's three, I thought. He's only three.
.
Flaco, when you die, God will come and take you by the hand, and say "Come home, mijo." It is nothing bad. "Okay." A pause. "Me va a llamar mijo?" Yeah, he'll call you mijo.
.
Octavius was finished with his bottle; I could hear Matt at the sink. I covered my son up again and kissed his little face. Duermete no mas, I said. Eyes burning. Te amo. He closed his brown eyes and I stepped out to the darkened staircase, heart turned upside down and sinking like lead, telling myself not to be afraid. I reached for faith as if it were something substantial to hold, while realizing for the first time that the only reason it has any value at all is because it will one day it will cease to exist.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Birth of El Che

This is love at first sight.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where to, mister?

To the right we have pictured my husband filling out a job application for the fall. We have our prospects narrowed down to two main options: either leaving the continent or staying in the continent. We have three months left on our lease, so I really feel like we're close to figuring this thing out*.
.
The awesomeness of the unknown keeps playing out before me, like the opening sequence of The Twilight Zone. Doors floating and turning sideways, ominous hitchhikers saying "Going my way?" I feel like Matthew is this man in a hat who I'm catching a ride with to who-knows-where**.
.
I tried to find a clip of that intro, but when I typed in the words "twilight zone going my way?" into Youtube, the first video that came up was of Alf. Having not seen Alf since maybe the third grade, I clicked the link and started to watch it. They're playing Scrabble and the daughter's about to leave for a date. Alf keeps trying to pass off words in Melmacian. The guy knocks at the door; Alf makes a series of witty remarks and the parents watch him walk in with a mixture of curiosity, fear, and disdain.
.
I wonder what my parents thought the first time they met Matthew. Did they know he was jaunty, clever, a gentleman? Or did they see a nervous kid in a ska band with patchy stubble who said things like "I have the reflexes of a jungle cat"?
.
It was at our wedding, during the vows, that I suddenly realized the gravity of the situation. I hadn't realized that to stick out your thumb is to stick out your neck. We were getting hitched, and I didn't have the wheel anymore. "You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance" - in retrospect, I feel like we should have exited the church to mysterious piano music.
.
I was a fool; he was my friend. We made it happen.
.
I'm aware now, seven and a half years later, that I'm entirely indebted to God for getting me to climb into the right car. And now that we traded it in for a minivan with three carseats strapped inside, even more so. I don't know where we're going in life, but I am so glad that I'm going there with him.
.
(Happy birthday tomorrow, Matthew Goodfella. I kind of love you like mad.)



*You know what's crazy? I'm not even being sarcastic.
**Yeah, I realize I have it backwards. And I'm also mixing together two different intros. One has a cave in it and a clock and a man with a million books but no glasses (if I remember right) and the other is the twirling door with the stars in the background. Still, the point remains: Matt would look good in that hat.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Oh Ruby, don't take your love to town.

My husband is teaching the Vietnam War novel "Fallen Angels" to his students right now, and with the book running through the back of his mind, he's been playing The Killer's cover of Kenny Rogers' song a lot. The Vietnam vet with the bent and paralyzed legs who's asking his girl not to walk out on him again. The paperback sits on the shelf next to the kids' books, and the Flaco occassionally picks it up and then brings me "Que Prefieres" instead. It's this book of hypotheticals: would you rather have a dog drag you through the mud or be soaked with water? Would you rather dance with a goat or ride on top of a pig? Lolita, who doesn't speak much, points excitedly at her answers and rises her eyebrows, head knodding up and down, "Yeah!" and then emphatically, "Yeah."
.
There's a page of scenarios that includes a boxing cat, and the statement that the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians plays in my mind every time I see the illustration. The verse is one that I've pushed away a thousand times without even realizing it, "I do not fight like a man beating the air." It continues on to a verse that's easily misunderstood, which is why I suppose I have avoided it. The translation I'm familiar with says "No, I beat my body* and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I will not be disqualified for the prize."
.
Sometimes it's easy to see the Bible as a book of hypotheticals, where you're given the option of choosing a sentence you want to base your theology on. There are plenty of verses that would seem to say the exact opposite: the twenty third Psalm with its simple picture of a God who makes us lie down beside still waters. I picture these verses depicted on the page: Would you rather beat your body or rest? I would rather rest.
.
But what he meant by rest was of course an extraordinary exertion of faith: the verse would be better illustrated showing a pack of wolves around the edges, a shepherd saying "sleep" when every instinct in you says run.
.
We tend to view faith as something that is only of value if it passes some sort of litmus test: if it's real, it'll still be there no matter where life takes me. Rather than resting in faith, we rest from it: we handle it as something better left untouched. We think that true belief shouldn't require effort; we're afraid of becoming indoctrinated, brainwashed, convinced.
.
Paul wrote of it as something to scramble after, something to never let go of. He wrote of a paradigm entirely different than the conventional wisdom that says follow your heart because your heart can't be wrong. He says we're like Ruby, taking our love to town. God has put himself in the position of the paralytic asking us not to walk away; with fickle hearts we paint up our lips and curl our tinted hair.
.
My dad saw a demon one night. He was in his trailer asleep, and he awoke to hear horrible laughter. He saw a face before him; he was frozen in fear, covered in sweat. He remembered Sunday School and called out the only word he knew to say, Jesus. The face disappeared and he dropped - he didn't even realize he had been hovering some six feet above his bed. And do you know what I do with this? My mind automatically tries to rationalize, to let the story be anything other than what it is. Like the man written about in Mark, I cry out "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
.
I cling to my faith with white knuckles and I beat my body because I know, even when I do not know, that Jesus Christ is real. And if faith is a flame and I spend too much time out in the wind, I cup my hands around the flicker that's left until it consumes me again. I see so much ambivilence: people let their knowledge of God go unfed, they douse it in water and say if it was real, they would feel the flame. They walk away from Christ and then marvel at his distance.
.
Oh Ruby, for God's sake, turn around.



*Some of Matt's friends were in kung fu, and as a part of their training, they had to strike themselves with two by fours. It was to make their bones stronger and their muscles more accustomed to taking blows. My assumption is that he's referring to something similar (as opposed to the other picture mind my jumped to of Shias marching and whipping their backs.)

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Agnostos Theos (Precision in Thought pt 2)

Matthew comes home around 4:30 and I check out. He watches the babies and I put on my Arabic discs, which is a nightmare for him because he's trying to switch his mind over to Spanish. I wash dishes and tell my imaginary companions that I am going to eat dinner with my youngest daughter in Damascus at nine, and that my husband has rented a car and will come when he's done with work. I tell them I spent the day shopping and bought a mosque, because I always mistake it for the word newspaper.
.
Matthew holds a kid or two and cooks and I turn off Pimsleur once the table is set. I never noticed that he was listening too. Last night we curled up in bed and he said to me "Smaa u ait." (Listen and repeat.) He grinned at me. "That man sounds like a potato. Out of all the people in Syria, why did they choose a man who sounds like a potato?" I laughed. He really does. "Smaa u ait. Every time you play that disc, I picture a sleepy potato suddenly breaking into the recording session. Hella uul..." Silence. I could feel him thinking about it. "Smaa u ait." He snickered.
.
"It's like white" he said. What is? I asked. "Smah white." It's three words, I told him. "Oh. Smah oh white?" he asked.
.
He went from doing a dead-on impression of an Arab man who sounds like a potato to speaking with midwestern accent, all because he had written it out in his head. He picked out the closest letters he could find, and then pronounced them.
.
Our minds find the nearest thing and substitute in the familiar for the unfamiliar. It's like coloring a picture of a sunset with a box of eight crayons: you can only get so close. It bears some representation, but it's off.
.
As much as our sounds can be distorted versions of real words, our words can be distortions of concepts. Oprah, discussing a book she read, said that man makes God in his own image: that we can't understand him in his fullness, so we substitute in the familiar for the unfamiliar. We "reduce him" to the God of the Bible.
.
She said that she came to this realization after hearing a sermon where the preacher said that God is a jealous God. "God is jealous of me?" she asked. The word of and for: who thinks of even defining that? God is jealous for us, like a lovesick husband whose wife has left him for another man. Even that terminology carries room for error: we think of a man who can't wait to get his woman back to slap her around, leave some bruises, remind her that she's his. We don't picture a man who would literally do anything to win back the woman who has been unfaithful to him, who is not capable of loving him like he deserves. He is jealous for her love because he loves her.
.
She misunderstood a word, and so she has misunderstood God.
.
And now Rob Bell has a video out where he demands that the listener reconcile the terms love and hell (and appears to have done so by pouring contempt on the cross.)
.
He is the pastor of Mars Hill Church, which is named after the place where Paul pointed to an altar inscribed with the words "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD" and spoke the words found in Acts 17. The New Testament is full of his letters describing this unfathomable God.
.
The word logos means both word and concept: God, help us make them align.




...
"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, might have the power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and high and long and deep is the love of Christ,
and to know this love that surpasses knowledge,
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God." -Ephesians 3:17b-19

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Singularity (Precision in Thought)

The other night I prayed with my mind flying in a thousand directions at once, so loud (and yet too muffled to distinguish a single thought.) They say you can't think a thought unless it's tied to a word. I used to wonder how one can even measure that, to what extent one has thought a thought if you aren't actually even sure you've thought it. (My daughter talks mostly about kittens and hairbows and love, so it's quite possible that it's true.)

I know that my mind went from noise to a sentence, and that God had understood my prayer long before it made it to that point. He showed me a picture -did my eyes see it, or was it in my mind? How can you tell without waving your hands before your eyes? It was beautiful. I spoke to my dad a few days later, and as casually as one can mention such an unusual thing, I threw it into the conversation, as if it were an afterthought. He paused. He told me he had seen the same thing.

There's a guy named Ray Kurzweil who wrote a book called The Singularity is Near. He believes that within some 30 years, machines will become human. (Others view The Singularity as the moment in time when humans become machines; that if we eat our peas and map out the human genome and stream our consciences* onto microchips for safe-keeping, we'll live forever.) Kurzweil sells that side of the coin to an extent, but his forte is the theory that technology is advancing at such an amazing rate that the only gap left to fill is that which exists between us and them: the capacity to create, to weigh arguments, to joke, to have emotions, to distinguish right from wrong.

He doesn't say that the difference between a human and a robot is a soul, because his religious beliefs do not allow him the word. And because he substitutes the term soul with intelligence or self-awareness, he either has thoughts he does not think at all, or he has thoughts that are too hazy to recognize**.

I wonder what he would make of 1 Corinthians 2, or of Romans 8:14-27. There is a joy in having thoughts that are beyond your understanding set before you in print; you gasp at both their familiarity and their strangeness***.

I wish that C.S. Lewis were able to attend the Singularity Summit. I wish that he could set up a booth under a banner with the simple statement "You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body." I would love to hear a conversation between him and Kurzweil - even if I didn't have the vocabulary to understand it.

...

*I feel like this entire post is a clumsy religion/sci-fi version of Inception. Look at those passages, if you haven't yet. They're within a line of thought that's entirely different from what I've written about, and yet it stands: God has a mind and a Spirit, and they are distinct from each other. The Spirit helps us understand God's mind, and raises within us prayers that are ours but are not necessarily thoughts that we understand. But he also says we have the mind of Christ, and pursues this in a different direction in 1 Corinthians 14:14. And he writes about the inherent knowledge that this life isn't what we were intended for; there is much more in 1 Corinthians 15. But my point in all of this is simply to say that to see it written out in black and white -that if something about your very existence feels like a sham, if you know that a hope to live forever as you are is no hope at all- is nothing less than to see the unknowable tied down in words. A mystery is given form, and we are left marvelling at both how obvious it is and how perfectly beyond our grasp it remains.

**Like that a girl with severe autism or a boy with Down's Syndrome might not pass the Turing Test, but they bear the image of God; therein lies a dignity that cannot be added to or denied.

***Or is it consciousnesses? Ironic to not know which word to use.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Walk Like an Egyptian

First Tunisia fell, then Egypt. Now we're watching Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Palestine, Algeria, Jordan, and Syria. Reports are starting to come out of mobs in Kuwait and Djibouti. (I can only hope that Kaddafi's Ukranian nurses are
safely sequestered inside his Bedouin tent.) On this side of the ocean, twenty thousand marched the state capital to protest the Walker's salary-cutting union-killing budget-balancing proposal. Gutsy timing, Scotty.
.
Matt painted up our car with the words "Hey! Walker! Leave those kids alone*." He scraped it off this morning when I pointed out that reframing something as being "for the children" is too disengenuous for him. We aren't concerned about the bill's effect on students. We don't want to lose 10% of our income. We want to feed our kids meat and pudding.
.
The rhetoric flying around for all of this is crazy. People talk about what the US would be like if it weren't for unions, bringing to mind pictures of six year old boys in knickers working 15 hour shifts in factories in New York. When I picture the union going under, I picture Matt coming home maimed from a terrible overhead projector mishap, suddenly speaking in an Irish brogue.
.
The local news panned over crowds of marchers with the voice-over "Protesters flooded the streets. Teachers are really angry." The next clip showed a soft-spoken teacher from Madison standing in his kitchen next to his wife, saying "If they cut my salary that much, I'll have to start choosing what I can pay for." I picture his Netflix membership ending.
.
I don't know why I'm making fun of this guy. We're so steeped in student loan payments for our education degrees that we put our kids to bed at night in three layers of pajamas to avoid turning up the heat - and this is with the current wages paid.
.
This is the truth: when the union gets torn apart, we become entirely public servants. You say we already were, but we weren't. We could negotiate for terms, we could have a say. When this goes through, we'll be paid what the electorate deems appropriate. Do you know what Americans think of teachers? That we are given more resources than any other country, and yet produce students who rank abysmally on tests. They think we are terrible. There have charts to prove it. Break apart the union, and politicians will keep promising lower taxes and covering the expenses with our paychecks. Ten percent is a beginning. And Michelle Rhee will be cloned so that she can stomp through every classroom and tell us how pathetic we are.
.
Teachers make a pretty little scapegoat.
.
Let me tell you why our kids score low: it's because our entire system of education in this country is warped**. Rhee wrote about trying to get her students to sit down and listen. A bee was flying around in her classroom. In a desperate attempt to have a moment of silence, she caught the bee and ate it. The kids gasped, disgusted. She notes with pride that she did what it took***.
.
We are expected to eat bees. They say a reasonable man adapts himself to the world around him; an unreasonable man adapts the world to himself. The reasonable teacher walks in every morning expecting disprespect from students and often from the parents. The unreasonable teacher says this is crazy.
.
We spend money on Smartboards and laptops and anything that American dollars can buy because we don't want to acknowledge the simple fact that it's not teachers that fail, but parents. I've sat in conferences where I asked parents what consequences they give their children for misbehavior in school****. They look at me, confused. I don't know, they say, what can I do? I tell them to take away his cell phone, lock up his PS2. Hide his laptop. We set up contracts: a yellow mark in the planner means no texting. A red mark means no TV that night. The kids glare at me. The parents tell me this has never ever occurred to them.
.
The average teenager spends over 8 hours a day looking at a screen. And yet i11it3R@$y is blamed on teachers. Srsly, not ROTFL.
.
They say that only the unreasonable man can change the world. The Arab world is full of unreasonable men today. Here, the closest we can get to voicing our discontent is calling the governor an Imperial Walker. Protesters: do you realize there is something much greater you could want? El General: can you give us a beat? An upheaval of this scale needs an anthem.



*I know, it's "Leave them kids alone." A teacher can't very well drive around with a grammar error on his car though, can he?
**We raise our kids to not be cowed by authority: there is almost nothing more American. The insolence that fuels American exceptionalism is our undoing. And China, with its Tiger Mothers, storms ahead because we can't even get our kids to sit down in class. Matthew teaches at two different schools in a town that's divided neatly by a river: rich to the north, poor to the south. His rich kids get A's not because they're smarter but because their parents expect them to excel in school. This is not to say that rich people make better parents, but that they've taught their kids to value education, and it shows.

***You think I'm crazy for thinking people want her cloned? You should read the letters to the editor that come in any time a magazine runs an article about her.
****I'm talking about not being called a motherf---er. Not having books or chairs thrown. Not having kids joke about raping me. And I'm asking for more: for kids to do their work. To try, to live up to an ounce of their potential in the classroom.
--
photo cred: the Flaco

Friday, February 11, 2011

Love in the Time of Leprosy

I once knew a guy who, as a grand gesture of love, ate his newborn son's feces. Within a few days he had walked out on his family and was back to declaring his love of alcohol to the masses.
.
It reminds me of Namaan. He had leprosy and wanted to be healed. I always pictured him with a few fingers falling off, perhaps a loose nose. He was told to dip seven times in the Jordan River. He was indignant; it seemed so mundane. His servant girl pointed out that had the prophet asked to perform some grand gesture, he would have eagerly done it. If he was willing to do something remarkable, why was he so reluctant to do that which is unremarkable?
.
I suppose eating excrement is easier than giving up the bottle. I don't know. I have no interest in mocking him. It's easier to love in ways that are brash and loud. A girl I know put a status on Facebook that read "Look at this picture. This is the face of someone who would die for you. And if you can't see that, goodbye." I thought oh, sweetheart. The algorithm Facebook uses to generate updates to people is pretty random; do you know who you're saying you'll die for? Someone you once rode the bus with? Some boy you met in the mall? And if your love is strong enough to die for someone, shouldn't it be strong enough to stick around?
.
But how can I shake my head at her when I would rather love God in ways that are brash as well? He said that if we love him, we'll obey him. I think of Psalm 40:6, what David meant when he said "My ears you have pierced." In those days, when a slave's term was up, if he loved his master, he had the option of refusing to be set free. He would stand against the doorframe, and an aul would be driven through his ear as a symbol of unending servitude. I loved that the first time I read it. Fifteen years old, I circled it in purple marker, drew a terrible illustration in the margin with a ballpoint pen.
.
I liked Luke 17:7-10 much less, Jesus telling his disciples a servant should expect no reward for doing what's expected. Obedience wasn't received as an extravagant display of affection but as a given. I wanted Jesus to say if you respect me, you'll obey me. I didn't want love to imply such subordination; and if I was to be obedient, I wanted it to be uncalled for, more than what was asked for: spectacular, brassy, garish. I didn't want it to be simply my place.
.
How can even the desire to love be so riddled with sin?
.
Two days ago, the Flaco scooped an entire can of manjar into Lolita's hair, then ran his sticky carmel hands all over the floor and the walls. When I demanded to know why he had done it, he simply said I wasn't looking. I told him he's supposed to do what's right all the time, not only when I can see him. Oh, he said, eyes wandering around the room, disinterested. When you disobey, when you make make messes for me to clean, it makes me feel like you don't love me, I said. He looked at me, startled. He tipped his head to the side, studied my face for a while, and then crept towards me. I do love you, he whispered, even though I'm bad.
.
I wrapped him up in my arms. I saw him as small, as beautiful. The gap between his intentions and his actions was overlooked. He was mine.
.
God, I love you like an alcoholic father, like a leper, like a teenage girl, like a three-year old boy, but I love you.

Friday, February 04, 2011

This is your brain on drugs.

I wonder why some days, the monkeys break a dozen eggs on the kitchen floor and it's only yolks and whites, nothing more. And other days, it makes me write a sad-enough sounding post that my mother-in-law calls to see if I'm all right.
.
I went to Cornerstone in 2000 to see a speaker. It was a week of electric guitars, dust and heat and mohawks. I went the other years to see the ska shows, to hear the punk rock, to watch people dressed entirely in Tooth and Nail stickers do the robot to experimental noise. But that year, it was to see John Paulk. He was going to talk about deliverance from sin, how that which entirely consumes you can become as small as a fly that you flick away. Always filthy and always wanting to land, but small.
.
I once had a classroom where it was difficult to avoid breathing in maggots. One section was doing a urine lab, so there were jars of pee in various shades of yellow on the back counter. Ground up pig testicles were in petrie dishes. Dead raccoons and other road-kill extra credit were in the freezer. Some were on the counter, thawing out to be cut into. My teacher had permed bangs and an extremely assertive smile. You just did what she said.
.
My class was doing an experiment involving worms, trying to see who could keep them alive the longest. We each had a pop bottle full of trash. We'd go and add a squirt of ketchup, a few dribbles of syrup, whatever was left over from our lunch trays. Had my worms died, it would have been the end of it. But they lived on and on and on, and every day I'd hold my breath and walk through the cloud of flies to give them their lunch. They laid there on a soft mound of fungus and mold, looking kind of sulky but fat.
.
If temptation is a fly, I wonder if mine lives in a warm, filthy bottle of Coke. I wonder why I feed it trash and then act surprised that it multiplies. I wonder how I let myself get to the point that I blame God for this.
.
That year they taught us about worms and they taught us about drugs. Most likely a few other things too. They brought in a nice, friendly cop to scare us. Self control is not enough, he said. You've got to stay away from your addict friends, notice what makes you want to light up and address it, stay a few steps ahead. Had it been a Christian school, he would have pulled out Ephesians 4:27. Maybe he would've preached on the whole chapter.
.
This is so simple. You will laugh at me (but please don't.) When I smile at my babies and play with them, they smile at me back. When I take Tylenol, my headache goes away. When I go to bed early enough, I'm not tired. When I clean the house, I don't spend all day thinking about Every Bit of disorder in The Entire World. When I look straight-on at what I'm actually tore-up about, I don't mistake it for my kids.
.
Did I shake my fist at you, God? I am sorry.
.
There was a huge rainstorm in 2000. The dust turned thick; people much more punk than me ripped doors off the porta-potties and slid down the muddy hills. Our tent leaked; I laid my head down on a pillow that felt like a sponge left too long in the sink. I laid there listening to some band finish its hardcore set, watching the mohawks wilt, thinking about what he'd said. He was a cross-dressing homosexual man. I am a housewife. I didn't know it would take me eleven years to realize we are the same.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

To Want What you Cannot Have

Things fall.
.
My daughter broke three cups and a bowl yesterday. I was irritated; wondered if it was ironic or just pathetic that all of her glass-breaking made me want to smash one.
.
In all honesty, I do not even care about the cups. I could have given her a plastic one. It was there before the first one dropped. And then I told myself it was the sweeping; while being occupied with the shards, turning to find that they had dumped out the flour. Unraveled the toilet paper. Drawn on the wall. Cut open a pillow. Every mess created a dozen more. When it rains, it pours.
.
Rain falls from the clouds because the earth has mass, and mass somehow draws mass to itself. I don't understand that. Newton is credited with a great discovery because he stated the obvious: gravity exists. He didn't explain why it happens, only that it does.
.
Empty space draws matter to it. So that which has mass and that which has none do the same thing.
.
I wonder what God was thinking when he invented this universe, when he decided that this is the way that things will be. Liquid turning into vapor releases heat. Electricity can produce magnetic fields. E=mc squared and U=mgh and E=1/2mv^2+U.
.
Nearly every school has a classroom with a poster of Garfield telling kids that the only stupid question is the one you don't ask. But how do you know when to stop? When is the answer simply "It's a property"?
.
This week, I felt thick with sin. It was at the surface, wild and strong. I thought bitter thoughts; that to depend on God for strength is to be disappointed. I do not get what I want so I sin. Like my kids having a tantrum, only colder, more controlled. I am miserable in my sinfulness, so I seek relief in sin. It makes no sense. The reaction is too fast to be thought*.
.
What does he think of me, as a human? Is he angry? Does he pity me? Does he nod and say yes, I understand?
.
If being a human means walking with a beast, should I hate my humanity? Or is it nothing more than a property of being stuck between glory and hell? Can I hate my sin without hating the struggle against it?
.
Will I ever boast of my weakness?* Or will I always turn from it in anguish and sweep it up with the broken glass when you knock at the door?



.
*I remember wondering why quitting drinking is not merely an act of not bending the elbow. Can a person not control their arm, I wondered? Is it not that simple? And that day, I got into some sort of poisonous weed and every time I scratched the itch, it spread further. I literally could not stop scratching, and I watched myself bending an elbow I told to stay straight, my brain firing "move move move" thirty times faster than I could tell it "stop." God mocked me with a weed. I am grateful for that.
*2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Both Tragedy and Sputnik Have Struck

I am standing in the kitchen cooking lunch absolutely dying inside right now because the President of the United States of America is sitting in a cafe a few blocks away eating his lunch. The Secret Service have blocked off the roads he'll be travelling on. I rue the fact that my three babies are fighting off bronchitis; I would be standing out there holding a sign. I have no idea what that sign would say.
.
My grandma Lola once kissed President Bush. She was sitting in her wheel chair in her bright red coat with the hood. She extended her hand and smiled. He noticed her and walked over to greet her. She grabbed his hand, yanked him down, and planted an enormous red-lipstick kiss. She was always surprisingly strong. Men in suits rushed towards her. She said "No gun" (which I didn't know she knew in English.) Hearing her thick accent, he said "Tenemos que ganar." She raised pounded her fist in the air as I've only seen her do during the World Cup. "VAMOS A GANAR!" she shouted back.
.
Obama stood in a factory a few miles from here and spoke about how a piece of Sputnik once dropped in this town and that once again, we'd be at the fore-front of the new global race.
.
My President made a casual Sputnik mention and I wasn't there. I honestly feel a little sick.
.
It is a tragic near-miss. An epic fail. Like the President is about to fist-bump you but you just stand there with your hand outstretched. Mr. Obama, a few miles west: I would have made you a hot cup of borscht. I would have fed you arugula. It could have been great.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I read parts of that novel over my friend's shoulder while stuck three to a benchseat on a 28 hour drive. Very impolite of me. It was published in 1984, which I do not think is right. That was a year of hairspray and neon and solos played on flying V guitars. I wonder who liked it then: was it just professor-types with tweed and cigarettes or did girls in red plastic earrings sit around and talk about it while listening to tapes of Duran Duran?
.
And shouldn't everyone have been reading 1984 in 1984? If there was a book written 30-some years ago titled 2011 I guarantee you I would be reading it. There would be a centaur on the cover, a centaur who can teleport. He'd have a teased perm and too much chest hair.
.
People say that living in The Future isn't what they told us it'd be, but they only point out the fact that they don't own a hovercraft. Somehow everything so incredibly more futuristic is entirely overlooked. I haven't even seen it as a coverspread: there's a machine that can print out 3D human tissue. In fifty years, they say they'll be printing out hearts. The hoverboard can be made from a standard shop vac: the organ printer is made from a converted ink-jet printer. (Maybe replacing the paper feed with a petri dish was one man's desperate attempt to finally solve the paper jam.)
.
This year also saw the invention of spray-on clothing. Like cheese whiz, yes. It comes out liquid and then dries into a synthetic, which you can stretch and shape to taste, sew a zipper or a button onto, take off, and hang up in your closet.
.
I learned just a week or two ago how a battery works. Some years back I read a memoir written by a man in prison in Cuba who made homemade batteries to power his homemade radio and I actually cried, thinking about the fact that if I'm imprisoned, I won't be able to make a battery. I was waitressing when I read that book; I walked from table to table in a fog, carrying trays of sushi, giving vacant half-nods, my heart pounding like mad. When does my break come? What will happen to Vallardes? I am so far behind. I only barely understand capacitors.
.
Vallardes eventually moved to Miami. I lived about an hour north of there, but I was too nervous to try and look him up. I'm not so good with Cuban accents.
.
Octavius is five months old. He has shiney eyes. He cocks his head to the side when you talk to him and raises a single eyebrow. He looks like the sort of fellow who could stroll down Little Havana wearing a spray-on suit with a copy of 2011 under his arm. I cannot begin to picture the world he'll live in but my boy, I hope it's everything it should be.

Monday, January 17, 2011

This red coat came with a beret.

The Flaco, coming inside one day and discovering the beret laying there on the floor, asked if he could wear it. I said Flaco, if you grow up to be a revolutionary, you can wear a beret. He said he would consider this.
.
He used to ask for lullabies about Che Guevara*. I made up songs, about how El Che thought that he was doing good things, but he wasn't. He wasn't even Cuban and they called him the Butcher of Havana, sung with excessive amounts of tremelo. It didn't rhyme well but it had a decent melody. Half asleep, he would mumble, "Now sing to me about Stalin."
.
He fights off sleep. I sing and sing. It's awkward.
.
It's amazing how many there are. People, that is, who have convinced not only themselves but the masses that some things are worth anything. The line between good and evil is blurred beyond distinction. People will die for the chance to kill.
.
My friend tells me it's a war. It's not wrong to kill when in war, she says. Sipping cups of tea, eating cookies. She tells me she's supposed to kill me. I think of Achmed and try not to laugh. I say please don't. She says no, I think I won't.
.
She pauses for a while, then says "Well you want to kill me too." No I don't, I say. I don't at all. She doesn't believe me. I try to explain to her what Jesus taught. She says it's pretty words but that it's impractical.
.
I wish we had another Martin Luther King, Jr.
.
Crooked looks level until you see a plumb line. He walked so straight. Right was right, wrong was wrong. Simple, like you're told it's supposed to be. He said that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. He said that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
.
I visited my sister once when she taught in south Florida. It was carpet time; she was reading them a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. She read the first line: he was a preacher. HE WAS A PREACHER one of the boys hollered. CAN I GET AN AMEN!? Amen some of the kids called out. She turned the page, read that he saw the discrimination taking place. HE LOOKED AND HE SAW, CAN I GET A HALLELUJAH? the kid yelled. Hallelujah. I SAID CAN I GET A HALLELUJAH? Hallelujah amen.
.
I think of that boy the third Monday of every January. I think of the man in the book, who didn't think he was smarter than God. The man who not only thought he was doing good things, but was. He said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.
.
I think that's only true when there are people like him around.



...
*When he was about a year and eight months, he made his first toast. He raised his glass suddenly, a little plastic cup of milk, and shouted "Que viva la gente!" and then drank. Long live the people. Who is he? Seriously.

Friday, January 07, 2011

They say you need your tongue to be able to smell.

My son was napping upstairs one afternoon while Matthew and I made cookies for him to take to work. His door was shut; so was the stairway door. I grated an orange peel, maybe about a teaspoon's worth, and suddenly we heard little feet racing down the stairs. He threw the door open, eyes lit up. "I smelled an orange!" he said.
.
And then yesterday, he was playing in the living room. I was coming and going, five minutes into making lunch. The water had boiled and I added the rice. I was reading him a book and he looked at me, cocked his head to the side as though smelling like a dog listens, and announced "I smell that there is rice and it just started to cook!"
.
All of which makes me suddenly very aware of what my house smells like. I remember going to a Bangladeshi friend's house one day in high school and being overwhelmed by the scent of food in her house. No one was cooking, but it was everywhere. In retrospect, I don't know what I expected. She smelled like food; her skin, when she'd walk by; her hair, when she adjusted her hijab. Her clothes, her notebooks. You breathed in cumin and culantro.
.
There was a girl in college who had the most fantastic smelling hair. Lilac and strawberries. I used to rush to stand behind her in line at the cafeteria because it was always the dead of winter, and she smelled like the month of July.
.
I smell like cheap detergent. My house smells like green peppers and olive oil. My husband smells like aftershave, the one that comes in the green bottle.
.
I remember reading an essay by a middle-eastern immigrant, talking about the startingly sanitary smell of American houses. Lemon cleanser everywhere: dish soap, sprays, air-fresheners. A Saudi friend once told me that Americans are very messy. I said no, you just think that because you only ever come to my house. She laughed and said maybe.
.
I wonder why God likes the smell of insence so much. It makes me think of record stores with posters of The Grateful Dead in the window. I wonder why the fact that he likes incense is so intuitive that Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and Christians all agree about it. Surely there's got to be a joke in there somewhere.
.
It says in Revelations that prayer is like incense to God. I wonder how often my house smells good to him. I wonder about my other words too: how often I complain; if I'm harsh or sour or sarcastic. I am sometimes, I know that. But how much? Would I be surprised to hear it played as a recording?
.
I suppose that most of the track would be me reading The Jungle Book. Over and over and over, until I finally put in Felix el Gato. It would be Flaco asking me to talk like Loli's stuffed cat Francine; me saying oui for a while and then practicing my Arabic in a Francine voice. Which is very hard to do with a French accent. I wish I had told him she was from Syria.
.
I wonder how many times a day I laugh, how many times I say I love you, how many times I say not now.
.
I could spend a lifetime taming my tongue.
.
I love the untamed beasts written about in Job; I like how God describes the leviathon and then says that you can't put it on a string and take it home for your girls. My tongue, it is a bit wild. But I want to put it on a string. I want its words to be a present I bring home for my girl, for my boys.
.
A new year, a new reason for resolve.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Nothing at all.

I have two strapping sons, who I call the boys. A lot of times when I say that, the song starts up in my head (which is a shame because I only know two words of it anyway); that song from Romeo + Juliet. Which, for the record, I haven't seen in a good fifteen years. I picture John Leguizamo crushing a match under his steel boot. Do you remember that song? Back when smoking was glam and not equated with yellow teeth and jittery hands. Romeo smoked throughout that entire movie.
.
And when I think of Romeo, I think of Matt singing along to Lou Reed. "Juliet! The dice was loaded from the start, and I bet..."-- bet? forget? I don't know what it says from there. But he does. He sweeps me away from the pan on the stove and spins me around. I am for once not too distracted to kiss him.
.
And when I think of that pan on the stove, I think of the day I came home to find he had made me a rack to hang them on. He made it out of thin pieces of bamboo, brass chains affixing it to the ceiling. I was so glad I had bought the red pots and pans instead of the black ones; they were only five or ten dollars more. They made me want to do my dishes instead of letting them sit in the sink; wash them up so I could look at them, all shiney and pretty.
.
And when I think of shiney things of course I think of Where the Red Fern Grows, how he trapped those coons before he had --who were they? Big Dan and Little Ann? I read that book and all I wanted was to be him. And then to drink a swig of soda.
.
And when I think of soda, I think of Inca Kola; straight out of a glass bottle, preferably warm. Tastes like who knows what.
.
And when I think of the Incas, I think of walking along the equator, high up in the mountains. I bought a shrunken head. I remember the guy who sold it to me telling me that only five years ago, they sold real ones. He had a long black braid, yellowed teeth. Looked like a smoker.

Monday, January 03, 2011

So good and loud

The first time I went to Ecuador, they served shrimp on the plane. Ceviche for everyone, and glasses of champagne. I thought that flying was the most glamorous thing in the entire world. The stewardesses wore lipstick and tall heels and kept patting me on the head, saying things in rapidfire Spanish. The plane swung to the right and I saw my first glimpse of Guayaquil: the streets were on fire. I heard gunfire and bombs. No one seemed fazed.
.
I got out of the plane and the hot muggy air wrapped us up like a blanket. We got into a car and drove through the city, so fast, so fast, fires in every intersection. I hadn't seen enough action movies to worry that the car might explode, but I should have. We eventually got to my aunt's house, where all the relatives and neighbors waited. My mom nodded at me to start the proper greetings. Kisses on the right cheek, mucho gusto, mucho gusto. They slapped me on the butt and told me how cute I was; they grabbed my chin and pulled my face back and forth, trying out different angles, telling me how much I looked like my mom. Pero ve eso.
.
The fires died down. Everyone was dancing, stepping and swishing to rhythms that Free Methodists can't even clap to. I'm sure we went to bed but I don't remember that at all.
.
I found out a few weeks later that it wasn't a war zone we had flown into but a celebration. Everyone was burning effigies of the old year; stuffed dummies loaded full of firecrackers, then stacked in heaps and lit on fire. A triumphant goodbye: see you never, pass around the whiskey.
.
That was twenty years ago. Frigid hands holding sparklers, feet running through the snow, lighting the old man with a bottle rocket after the ball dropped on TV. We put in funk and danced in the living room; not the same but not half bad.
.
Twenty times that I can remember looking at the new year as if it were a promise. Resolutions made, broken, made again. Time chopped up neatly to look back on, to look forward to. So nice and tidy. One single moment where we vow that this year, we'll ride life like a bull, not run from its stampede.
.
Raise a glass, light a match. This will be a good year, I can tell.