If we live truly, we shall see truly. Ralph Waldo Emerson
I come often to this bar to read, to write, or to hang out with friends–often a combination of the three–and as many times as memory serves, I order the same drink, a Classic Manhattan, Makers… straight up. It is a mark of the up-and-coming-ness of this bar that resting on the side of my martini glass is a black plastic skewer impaling not the chemically colored, oddly rubbered maraschino cherry of my childhood, but a Luxardo maraschino named after the family that produced it, Italians growing their own Marasca varietal and stewing the fruit to syrupy perfection in naught but sugar and cherry juice. I could eat a whole jar.
But to be clear, as much as I love this martini, these cherries, and the consistent kindly faces that shake and pour, the image associated with the long-stemmed inverted cone does not belong to any identity I have attempted to conjure for myself in the last ten to fifteen years. In fact, I have worked hard to distance myself from the country club wedding, the silk taffeta dress that bore its likeness, and its matching trajectory of the house, picket fence, two cars, two kids, and a dog (substitute cat). I’ve wanted no one to look at me and think I am emblematic of the American Dream and the empty material quest it suggests.
I win. No one does.
I have been going to church. And I’m still processing that reality. A committed agnostic (oxymoron?) for the better part of the last twenty years who’s shown little shame in mocking the hard-core religious, I find myself slinking around avoiding eye contact like someone guilty of a sleazy adulterous affair. In fact, until coming clean the last couple weeks, I lied to friends who asked me to go hiking or grab some coffee on Sunday mornings: “Can’t. Gotta work.” And to make matters worse, this church I’m attending boasts all the pageantry and choral frills of any southern mega-church, the most likely recipient of my sarcastic venom. So how is it that I’ve come to this most unlikely of places?
The start of it was a gal. Through my lens, an exceptionally beautiful gal—sweet silver spikes, soft cheeks, unpretended eyewear fronting a gaze that speaks of history… of time. Trust me, if you were a lesbian, you’d go to church for her, too. Although, I have to say, I met her a year earlier, and fearful of her passion for this institution, I turned my back on any possibility of a relationship. Then approximately 300 days later, she started showing up in my Facebook feed of people I might know, and I kept thinking, Gosh, she’s beautiful… Maybe I should re-think this church thing. Oh, the snares of physical attraction.
I threw the “Friend” request.
We met again, dated briefly, and to her credit, she never pushed me into her beliefs. But in an effort to understand, I put my hands on a book… This Thing Called You by Ernest Holmes, founder of the Science of Mind movement.
In the book, Holmes lays out the foundational beliefs of the movement—that is, God (Source, Energy, Spirit, Creative Intelligence… You) as the Source of all that exists must necessarily exist within all of creation—all of humanity. By extension, all source material that is of God, is of each one of us. God has made you out of Himself. The only material He had was the substance of His own being. The only mind He had to implant in you was His Mind. The only spirit He had to impart was His own Spirit, and citing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Holmes writes, Every man is a doorway… through which the Infinite passes into the finite, through which God becomes man, through which the Universal becomes individual (4) (Note: copyright 1948… forgiven the masculine emphasis). It’s all lovely to think about… I get it.
But then ISIS and Donald Trump… and of perhaps more immediate import to me personally, six break-ups in four years. Little wonder my thoughts, ultimately, lighted here: If God created you after His own nature (and there is nothing else He could have made you out of), then the thing you are after is already here, within you. The only things that stand between you and it are the accumulated thoughts, beliefs and emotions of the ages (11).
The things that stand between…
No doubt there are a gazillion—some resting so deeply in subconscious activity I may never access them though I’ll spend a lifetime trying. But the thing that has me churning just now is this business of conjuring images—that, as opposed to living the ones we are gifted. Listen to many, especially the self-proclaimed sage among us, and they describe people with titles, announce their associations with the prominent in their communities, ask, in some way, that we arrest our own thinking because, after all, this person of greater import must surely think better, deeper, more original thoughts than we. Said Emerson, I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions (35). True that. And I find it not so hard to believe that we have the likes of Donald Trump vying for position on the national stage. We’ve not only invited him to that stage through the windows of our obsession with acquisition and status, we’ve invited his very existence and simultaneously the anger of a population like ISIS who watched their people decimated by American imperialism in their own Iraqui homes. Not a justification, just a truth… a cause and an effect.
But status seeking isn’t really my problem—I’ve long been appalled by it… even a little sad and embarrassed for people who openly play in those waters. My problem is that I’m so disgusted by it, that I’ve worked to create its opposite image in my life. And what I’m understanding now is that in so doing, I’ve rendered myself equally false. It is an ego attachment—a capitulation still in that it is a personal reaction that blinds me to the truths of myself and the authentic possibilities of the present moment.
About six years ago when I was looking to purchase a house, my realtor kept trying to push me into more debt in more upwardly mobile neighborhoods. She commented on the degradation of chain-link, insisting on the primacy of redwood seclusion and the aesthetic such fencing provided a neighborhood. I wanted to puke in her shoes. Instead, I made myself a big enough pain in the ass that she let me out of the contract I’d signed with her, after which I sought out my chain-link haven to make my claim. And that’s all fine and dandy… the simplicity actually does fit some of the stuff most authentic to my being. But the myth that I’m somehow a better human being for that choice is built upon the same libel as social climbing. Better than is the American-Trump lie—the libel of the ages, those “accumulated thoughts, beliefs and emotions” that suffocate and distract me from the truest aspects of myself—the stuff that would draw the very things I most need and want in my life. There is no better than or worse than… only more or less of who we really are.
I have a favorite Christmas story, A Wish for Wings that Work, and I’m about to reduce Holmes and Emerson to its meanings. It’s my blog… I get to do that. 😉 This is an Opus story; you may recall the comic strip of Berkeley Breathed’s creation and the little penguin who is its star. In the story, Opus is feeling pretty lousy for his lot in life… to have wings that can’t do for him what they do for others in the fowl community. So he writes this letter to Santa asking for wings that work. As fate would have it, Santa’s sled malfunctions on Christmas Eve over the icy waters near Opus’s home. One of the snow ducks comes pounding on Opus’s door in the middle of the night, waking him to the horrors and begging for help. Of course, Opus is on it. Breathed writes this:
Down the snowy bank Opus scampered, a flash of black and white as he hit the water.
With a roar, a shimmering curtain of spray erupted behind the rushing missile. It held in the air for the longest seconds, catching the moonlight before falling.
And Opus flew, strong and fast, through the icy water, a wonderful, roaring, graceful torpedo sailing through the darkness. He was swimming—and swimming, after all, is what penguins do best.
It is in the fullness of who Opus is—not who he thinks he should be—that Opus saves Christmas. He suspends the wish for winged prestige or perhaps some counter-culture validation to access the magic that is entirely his by birthright. And the world benefits… as does he.
If you know me or have read much of anything on this blog, you know that silver linings are oft times difficult for me to see. But uncharacteristically, I’m feeling hopeful about the year to come. Trump’s not the only one on the national stage… there are others of authenticity and seemingly genuine kindness. Holmes said, But there is nothing there that has not been put there either by yourself or the race. What has been put there can be removed (11). And as I arrest this need in myself to find external validation through a conjured identity–let go the impulse to hide martinis and churches and find, instead, the magic seed that is me and mine, I have become increasingly aware of the infinite kindness that infuses and surrounds me… infuses and surrounds us. Therein is hope.
Happy New Year, Everyone! May you find all the magic that is your birthright.
Breathed, Berkeley. A Wish for Wings That Work. Toronto, Canada: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
Emerson, Ralph W. “Self-Reliance.” World’s Greatest Literature: Emerson’s Essays. Reading, PA: The Spencer Press, 1936.
Holmes, Ernest. This Thing Called You. 1948. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2004.