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Persophone Come Back To Me

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This morning, I enjoyed the first cold run of the season. I got to dig out my sweats, long sleeved shirts, and knit cap and gloves. The seasons in DC seem to operate on some sort of light-switch configuration, flipping from summer to winter with only a courtesy wave at the fall.

According to Greek mythology, winter comes when Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess, Demeter, journeys to the underworld each year. In her youth, Hades, ruler of the underworld, abducted her and made her his queen. Demeter appealed to Zeus to free Persephone, but in a display of pre-women’s-rights divorce ideology, Zeus cannot free the enslaved child-bride because the marriage has already been sealed. So, in order to keep things peaceful around the family table for holidays, he negotiates a compromise where Persephone will spend the fall and winter in the underworld, as Hades bride, and will spend the spring and summer on earth with her mother. The seasons became tied to Persephone’s movements because her mother (who brings forth the harvest) mourns at the loss of her daughter so deeply that everything withers and dies in fall, and is so overjoyed at her return that everything blooms again in spring.

Humans have this funny habit of thinking that we are somehow divorced from nature. Even though the plants and the bees and all the other mammals in the forest live seasonally, we expect ourselves to be perpetually in bloom. We give ourselves no season for rest, no season for contemplation, no season for grief. Yet maybe this is a cruelty not only to ourselves, but also to those that we love.

I have someone who is dear to me who has fallen into a deep depression. She has completely withdrawn into herself; living trapped in a prison of isolation and self-contempt. It seems that, no matter how often or eloquently I call out, my words fall in deaf ears. After every spurned attempt to reach her, I find myself grappling with this deep anger at her. Why does she reject my caring? Why am I no longer good enough company for her? Why does she make me feel so powerless and insignificant?

Tennessee Williams wrote in the opening to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” It is a terribly lonely thing to be a person. To be a mind and a soul that wants so desperately to feel connected to other minds and souls, but to instead walks through life trapped in the isolation of our own skins. So we talk and we hug and we have sex and even love in order try to reach out through the bars of our individual cells and try to briefly touch the outstretched fingers of another.

What do I do when I am stretching my fingers out as far as I possibly can, but the one I am trying to reach will not extend her hand in return? Mostly, I get angry and annoyed. Her self-imposed isolation makes me feel helpless against the destructive power of the human mind, and reflects my own loneliness back at me. It feels like rejection—like a condemnation of me. Truthfully though, I know it is not me she rejects and condemns, but herself.

She is often on my mind these days. I was thinking on the loss of her this morning, as I went for my run and noticed the trees going dormant, the grass turning brown, and the cold bite in the air. It made me wonder if, through my attempts to care, I have inadvertently been unfair to her. When nature goes cold and dark, I don’t call it selfish for refusing to produce food. I don’t accuse it of intentionally abandoning me. By the same token, when someone close to me is dragged down to the underworld, to spend her season wedding and bedding the Hades in her mind, how can I hold her to blame? How can I feel personally rejected and abandoned? With all the Gods of the Underworld that occupy the darkest corners of our minds (the self-doubt, the hopelessness, the loneliness, the unavoidable pain that seems to accompany all of us through this life) how could we fairly expect anyone to live in springtime constantly? Are we justified in asking them to live perpetually in bloom? Yet, this is exactly what we do to our lovers, parents, siblings, friends, and even our children. Maybe the best gift that we can give to our loved ones is to grant them the same acceptance that we give to the trees, flowers, and bees—to understand when they must suffer through a winter in their soul? Instead of trying to pull them out, or blame them as the go under, would they be better served simply by letting them know that, when spring arrives for them again and they are able to journey out from the underworld, they will have the arms of those who love them, waiting to welcome them back home.

Kitten Mulch and Other Adventures in Writer’s Group

I started going to this writer’s meetup on Thursday nights, in an attempt to get myself to actually edit my work, like grown-up writers do. I claim to be a tireless adventure seeker, and I certainly believe that people are the best adventures of all, but I fear that, with this group, I may have bitten off more than I can chew. My first day, I certainly met some characters! My theory is that there are two types of writers–those who live very constrained lives, and want to live bigger lives through their fiction, and those whose lives have been WAY TOO BIG, and who mostly write for therapy (I almost never write fiction, and I certainly count myself in the latter category). I met the two living archetypes of this theory on one meeting! The guy on my left wore olive and beige from head to toe, works a 9-5 as an economist, and got very, very offended when I suggested that maybe Spock would be a bit of an outdated reference for a nerd in 2050, and most likely Dr. Who would be the retro geek reference of our children’s generation. The guy on my right, conversely, regaled me with a story about how he had to spend 2010 legally dead and hiding in the mountains of Mexico because of an incident with a drug cartel… Why would I ever need to invent another character if I keep meeting people like this in writers group?!? Yes, I do intend to go back, despite the good advice of my better angels.

writers-block

While we were reviewing a short story, Dr. Spock (looking like he had been waiting for the opportunity to use this analogy for at least seven years), gets this mischievous smile and says that the writer needed to spend some time establishing that a kitten was cute before he throws it into a wood chipper, in order to elicit an emotional response from the reader… WHAT THE HELL SORT OF GROUP HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?

However, as an unfortunate byproduct of this conversation, I spent the entire metro ride home composing poems about killing kittens. I typed one up and offered to to Dr. Spock at the next meeting, as a sort of twisted olive branch (atonement for my offensive opinion about Star Trek). Though I am a little ashamed that I was so capable of metaphorically murdering cute little animals, I am also terribly tempted to share it with you. Like when little kids pee in the pool–they know they shouldn’t do it, but it is oddly satisfying anyway.

Kitten Mulch

Due to a questionable liaison

between a white Persian and a grey Tabby

the squirming white kitten

boasted a spray of grey speckles

stretching from the tip of his tiny tail

to the end of his wriggling nose

which was the first part of him

to dip below the whirling carbide blades

of the wood chipper.

The cheerful poet noticed

that the spray of kitten blood on the grass

mirrored the pattern of grey speckles

that the kitten-mulch once displayed.

She thought there was a metaphor in that,

but wondered if writer’s group was

such a good idea after all.

Zen and Scraping the Remains of the Pilsbury Dough Boy from the Floor

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Yesterday, the entirety of my resentment was concentrated on a single raspberry pudding cake that my boss brought into work. She left it (clearly intending to be nice) in the kitchen that I spent noteworthy effort making sparkle from the top of the fridge to the lowly corner behind the trashcan. This kitchen was so clean, it would make Mr. Clean cry to see the gleaming expanse of its counter tops.  You can imagine my satisfaction at a job well done.

But when I came into work the next morning, the kitchen looked like the Pillsbury Dough Boy swallowed a live hand grenade. All because of this stupid raspberry pudding cake and my unfathomably messy coworkers. It took me three hours to dig up the motivation to clean up the powdered shrapnel.

I got a little cheeky, as I was using the business end of a broom to chip off the pudding-cake-cement from the floor, so I wrote my boss a note explaining that it was her duty as a conscientious citizen to help avoid such carnage-covered confectionery crimes scenes, and I would really appreciate it if she would give preference to pastries with more structural integrity in the future…Today she brought in oatmeal cookies so hard I could whack them on the counter without them dropping a single crumb. It was difficult to resist the urge to exact revenge by using these more substantial deserts as projectile weapons, aimed at the heads of my glutinous peers.

I like to celebrate the messiness of people from a poetic standpoint, but realistically, I hate all of my crumb-coated coworkers a little bit for this. I am trying to tell myself that endlessly cleaning the same spot behind the coffee maker is a Zen exercise. I think Sisyphus made up Zen so that his punishment really looked like enlightenment. You can’t tell me he didn’t grumble as the boulder rolled its way down to the bottom of the mountain 20 billion years into eternity. However, between chiseling dried pastry from the floor, and putting that final gleam on the microwave door, I sometimes do stumble upon some gratitude. After all, if my worst complaint about my coworkers is that they like pastries too much, life is probably pretty good.

Peeing on Airplanes with God

I have been experimenting with poetry again. I know! It is a dangerous habit to get into, but some sentiments are better said in choppy, confusing verses and strong visual metaphors. This is not one of those sentiments. I could have articulated my point perfectly well in a good-ol’-fashioned blog post. However, I am cruel and I am subjecting you to my poetry anyway. I think poetry is my new Everest.  It is remote, inaccessible, often hazardous…and its shiny peeks are calling out to me from the deepest echoes of my self-destructive soul (see how dramatically poetic that line sounded? I think it marks progress).  As you could have guessed from the subject line, I wrote this poem on the airplane back from California. If it is too terribly awful, I will blame the altitude and the fact that I was famished after six hours without even a pity pouch of peanuts from the Scrooge-like airlines. I feel no guilt about hating those bastards.

Chicken-Poetry

Peeing on Airplanes with God

I pray most fervently in bathrooms.

Today this is particularly true.

I cling to the plastic safety rails

The plane jiggles and bounces

on the trampoline storm front over Arizona,

and my bladder synches up.

I pray: “Please God, let the pee come.”

“Let me go back to the illusion of safety offered by the thin nylon seat belt that straps my irrational fears down.”

“If you’re still taking requests, God, with all this turbulence…

it’s kind of hard to aim…

A little help would be great!

At least shield my shoes from splashes.”

The God I pray to is not the God I believe in.

God’s chapel should not primarily be in cheap plastic toilets.

Sitting like a beggar, hoping to fill his red solo collection cup

with the cheap plastic prayers

I so often offer.

I don’t want to treat God like a pawnbroker,

trading devotion as currency for favors.

I don’t want to pray solely in plastic airplane toilets.

Is this really how I want to come to God?

Reaching out only when I can’t handle my shit?

Kneeling only when I am drunk?

I offer bargains that evaporate as quickly

as the alcohol in my blood.

Maybe God can’t intervene

What if he molded his power

into the shape of human hands and feet

I grew up on the buckle of the Bible Belt.

My neighbors taught me that God is my best bet.

I am too poor to gamble, and God seems preoccupied.

What if we have it backwards, and we are God’s best bet?

Zombieland: a guide to surviving Peace Corps (Guest Post)

Donald, who is currently serving in the Peace Corps, asked to return to do another guest post! So, I am very excited to share his post with you! The jokes will make a lot more sense to you if you have seen the movie, “Zombieland”.  

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Prelude

Sitting on a log, staring off into the distance as night falls, a man is alone. He is most often alone these days. Rice begins to boil over and the water hisses as it hits the cook fire, his thoughts distracting him. The battered pot, like most of his things, was functional and in a state of disrepair. It hadn’t been long ago that he had been surrounded by luxuries; running water, electricity, and all the conveniences one could want. It was the food he missed most, steak and salad, or a cheeseburger and milkshake. His food now was far more utilitarian. Rice and beans kept for months and provided necessary nutrients and energy.

His life had changed so much, and sometimes wondered if anyone from his old life could’ve recognized him now. It probably didn’t help that he’d not seen the inside of a shower in months.

Occasionally he’d see others like him, taken out of comfortable lives and forced to survive. Those infrequent gatherings gave much needed laughter, relief from the constant stressors everyone dealt with. It was a chance to let their guard down, share stories and good food.

He’d seen one of his friends get bitten, in one of those relaxed moments. Although they had quickly dispatched the attacker with no more emotion than one might have when killing a bug, they could do nothing for their friend but try to ease his pain. Eventually the friend closed his eyes.

 

The rice had burned. Damn.

 

Zombieland told the story of an unlikely survivor and his list of rules. Although he formed the rules facing the collapse of civilization, surviving Peace Corps has a surprising number of parallels. So whether you’ve stepped off a plane a long way from home, or constantly receive unwelcome attention from the mouths of those around you, keep these rules in mind.

 

#1 Cardio: Staying fit and healthy is a challenge, but doing so will remind you to improve your diet, give you much-needed endorphins, and relieve stress.

 

#2 Double Tap: Follow through so you don’t get bit in the ass- especially when dealing with the Peace Corps office. Sent in a vacation request or reimbursement form? Fire off a text for confirmation. Now is not the time to get stingy with your phone units.

 

#3 Beware of Bathrooms: I can’t stress this one enough. Not only do you have worries of finding bats flying out of the hole you’re trying to use (which incidentally are surprisingly soft), but also keep an eye out for collapsing floors, flooding, and highly venomous snakes. Read Melissa’s post for more on snakes and chims ( http://melissainmalawi.blogspot.com/2012/10/ssssssssss.html?m=1)

There is the occasional cholera outbreak too, so wash your hands.

 

#4 Buckle Up: There aren’t always seat belts available, but use them whenever possible. Don’t listen to anyone telling you not to bother, cause nearly every vehicle on the road will have poor to non-existent brakes, worn tires, and drunk drivers. The roads aren’t in get best conditions, cows, goats, dogs, and people carelessly wander into your path, and as Columbus says, “it’s going to be a bumpy ride. “

 

#7 Travel Light: You can never be sure what a travel day will bring, so be prepared to carry all your stuff for 12 hours. The less stuff you have, the easier it is to keep your eye on it (reducing risk of theft). Mobility is also an important consideration. If fights break out, the door of your minibus gets chained shut, and your driver starts off erratically before jumping out to join the fight- you want to be ready to jump out the back as soon as the bus stops. One lightweight bag makes quick escapes possible.

 

#17 Don’t be a hero: Peace Corps isn’t about you, it’s about what your community can do after you leave. Don’t expect to show up and save the day, first you have to learn. Learn about the culture, learn about your community, and learn from the people.

 

#18 Limber Up: You’ll have to be flexible if you want to survive 27 months of service. You’ll be stretched far past your comfort zone every day. Be open to the new culture you’re immersed in, and know how to set boundaries for your own protection. You don’t want to pull a muscle! The best advice I received for staying limber – try not to have any expectations.

 

#22 When in doubt, know your way out: Trust yourself and trust your instincts. If you get in a situation that doesn’t feel right, get out of it. Be willing to change your plans and don’t be afraid of being rude.

 

#31 Check the Backseat: Don’t wait to find out if that rotting smell is a combination of fish and poor hygiene, or a mostly dead fellow who is feeling particularly bitey…

 

#32 Enjoy the Little Things: It’s the little things that get you through that next hour, day, and week. Getting a surprisingly cold coke after a long miserable day of travel makes all the difference. A friend surprising you with a beer before a long bus ride, escaping into a good book on a homesick day, or listening to some of your favorite songs will make you extraordinarily happy.

 

(Crossed through “don’t”) Be a Hero: Stand up for your fellow volunteer. Whether it is one ant too many or some asshole on the street, don’t let your friend face it alone.

 

While Peace Corps volunteers have spent hours contemplating plans in case of zombie attacks, no one has been bitten yet. In the story above, my friend was stung by a scorpion while a group of us were watching a movie, and after taking pain killers tried to get some sleep. He was fine within a couple days.

 

That’ll do, pig.

Turkey Soup and Religion

Hi everyone!

Sorry I have not posted since the prehistoric era. I had a wonderful trip to Budapest and Germany. I will post pictures very soon, I promise. It was magical.

budapest

I also got into Grad school for Molecular Biology and started a few weeks ago. So, I was hectically moving to Washington D.C. (I now go to Georgetown) and getting into classes and had no time to write. I will tell you the engaging story of how all this came about very soon. I pinky promise.

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However, until then, I still did not want you to think I had totally forgotten you. I signed up for an Intro to Judaism class at a nearby temple, and I have to write a weekly journal. It was the first time in weeks that someone has forced me to write, so I thought I would share it with you. Mostly I just ramble about food, and then try to pull out some meaningful life analogy from it (in similar form to a disturbing number of my posts). Anyway, I hope you enjoy. I just made myself really hungry and now I am going to go eat some of the turkey soup I made last weekend.

Journal topic: What is your experience with religion? In
what religious tradition were you raised? Why are you taking this class? What do you hope to learn in this class? What are some of the questions for which you hope to find answers in this class?

My father is a closet religious scholar. The shelves of my childhood home are bloated and bursting with books, covering every obscurely academic religious topic imaginable: from the neuroscience of prayer to the philosophical development of the tribes of the Indus valley in pre-biblical times. Talk of religion as a concept so thoroughly saturated dinnertime conversations that it flavored the very food we ate. Yet, I have never witnessed my family pray. Though religious figures took up residence in every corner of our house, religious practice was checked at the door.

I served in the Army from the time I turned 19 to my 22nd birthday. In those three years, I was subjected to some experiences that were very difficult to digest. Many of my closest friends were deeply religious (offering a smorgasbord of practices—Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Mormon, Jewish, Hindi, Buddhist, and even one Sikh). Regardless of the differences in their practice, holding on to their individual faith and their traditions gave them a source of strength I could not tap. It gave them handholds on the cliff-face of life and I deeply wished to share.

So, I began to slowly inch toward religion. I held long conversations with friends about their beliefs, and even got up the nerve to go to a respectable number of Christian-variety services. I found them unfulfilling. I found most Christian churches very welcoming and accessible; they had belief, but they were totally devoid of faith and only held a tertiary relationship with God. They were missing deep practice. I am of the belief that religious practice is for the practitioners, not the deity being honored. People imbue things with meaning through dedication and sacrifice. That which is free means nothing, while that which costs us in blood, sweat, and time are cherished in the human heart. If I adopt a religion, I want to cherish it. I want my belief to cost me, so that I come to treasure the relationship with God that grows from a practice.

I think of religion like turkey soup. There are few activities that nourish the soul like making turkey soup. When we make turkey soup, my sister and I somewhat fanatically go to the market and talk to the farmers who raise the turkeys. From there we select our bird, lug it home, and immediately dump it in salt to brine overnight. The next day, we slow roast the turkey and share it over a big family meal. This meal is simply a checkpoint however. The end game is more than a day away.

We strip the turkey and set the meat aside. Then we roast the bones and the skin for a few hours. After roasting, we crack the bones to let out the marrow and boil the bones and scraps for roughly 12 hours. We strain out the solids, and are left with this dark, rich broth that holds the essence of this turkey’s entire existence a condensed gelatinous mold. We take this broth and mix it with the “leftover” turkey meat, herbs, and fresh vegetables (which we have normally grown in our garden). At the end of three of four days we get this bowl of soup. Semantically it contains the same ingredients as a bowl of turkey soup I could get from a can in the grocery store, and yet the two experiences are completely different. My soup is a distillation of love and a whole season of effort. It presents everything that the turkey and the cook together have to offer. More than that though, it is made essentially the same way that prehistoric tribes made turkey soup over the fire outside their tents. Techniques and flavors that have endured for centuries, unchanged, manifest and the whole package is presented to you in one small bowl. With homemade soup, you are eating a shared human experience of nurturing and love that resonates through all of human history. While with canned soup, you are eating a sodium-enriched necessity. I am looking for the religious equivalent of homemade turkey soup. I am cautiously suspicious that Judaism might be able to offer that.

turkey soup

I am also incredibly intimidated. Judaism is appreciably less accessible than canned soup. It is filled with foreign words and alien practices, and its practitioners hold such a cohesive community that it feels in many ways like an impossible door to open. Yet, despite all of these factors creating inertia, there is this implacable push in the back of my consciousness patiently, and unrelentingly, moving me in this direction. So, by pure chance I ran across this class online (two days before it began), and with the courage that is only born from making significant life commitments at 3a.m., I find myself as a member of the Intro to Judaism class. My list of reservations is longer than my list of questions, yet that force in the back of my mind—whose origins I cannot begin to understand—is finally stronger than my inertia. I feel like a rover on Mars. I want to unobtrusively take samples of the soil and maybe snap some pictures, in order to figure out if this is a path that I truly want to pursue.

I Am Infected.

I tried poetry. I was always awful at poetry in school, and I haven’t written it in years. However, I was trying to figure out how to talk about about what it is like to re-enter civilian society after my time in the Army, and I was totally failing at a blog post, so I thought “why not post some poetry and spread the suffering around a bit.” I feel a bit like the Grinch, subjecting you to beginner poetry when you are already under enough stress this holiday season…I guess my heart grows two sizes too small after midnight and four ditched drafts of this blog.   

 

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Community is a box of Mac and Cheese.

The box my best friend’s mother bought on my behalf,

even though none of her family eats Mac and Cheese.

A box that is still sitting on the shelf,

four years after I left home to “serve”.

 

My small town community wasn’t good enough.

With its safe green lawns and its old oak trees,

and its mother’s who took care of all the neighborhood kids–

because that was their inheritance from the mother’s before them.

I couldn’t see and so I left my home to see the world. 

 

I have seen the world!

I have visited more countries than I have fingers and toes.

Countries that my home-town mothers couldn’t find on a map.

I ate in tiny kitchens with foreign mothers,

so poor they converted the dining room into bedrooms at night.

 

I have tasted sour beer,

from underground bars in the shadow of the Berlin wall,

and dined with princes who drive white mini-vans,

because they like their cars to match their horses,

and toasted to the salvation of their country.

 

I have shared Cliff Bars,

with homeless children covered in their own grime.

As they nibble suspiciously at the corner of food,

that tastes unnervingly like nutritional value,

their fathers try to inconspicuously separate me from my backpack.

 

I have glimpsed perfect freedom!

Holding enough money in my name and one the wiser if I steal off at night,

I have almost dared to run away.

Though I don’t dare go alone,

because they tanks on fire on the side of the road scare me.

 

I have also been enslaved.

Shackled by law to obey the word of one man,

who hated me for being born the wrong sexuality,

and enjoyed particularly toying with me.

Showing me what power really means.

 

I have met the world!

My circle of “Facebook friends” grows ever wider,

and yet the circle of people who are physically present–

whose eyes reflect my own as I “just dropped by” for some conversation–

that circle grows ever smaller.

 

I can drop a line to Israel

And have my questions answered overnight.

I know goat farmers and politicians, soldiers and doctors.

I literally know a basket weaver.

He lives at the foot of a volcano selling to tourists.

 

Yet, I cannot drop by my neighbor’s house,

to borrow a cup of sugar,

because I left my home to see the world,

and now I am tainted by that self-same human race,

who built my beautiful home.

 

I am infected with the grief,

that I saw on the brows of so many people like me,

who have tasted senseless suffering at the hands of men,

and who have stood by silently,

as they watched others subjected to injustice.

 

I AM INFECTED….

 

So I avoid my home,

and I have settled far away out of convenience,

but I avoid making this new place my home too.

Because it is so much easier to hide in this little world,

behind the bright and hopeful screen of my laptop. 

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