Wednesday, September 23, 2009

In Praise of Excess

I'm sitting at McDonald's, bastion of fine dining and tasteful elegance. Can you hear my arteries clogging from all the way out there in cyberland? Actually it's the young'un who has partaken today, and only of an afternoon snack and a solid length of playtime on a rainy afternoon. But sitting here in this monument to instant gratification and supersizing has me thinking about moderation. I'm not going to claim that they are healthy, but burgers and fries and chicken nuggets are fine in moderation. So are donuts and burritos and eating ice cream for dinner. Everything in moderation, right?

But maybe moderation has taken center stage too much; maybe excess has gotten a bum rap. "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," William Blake tells us. Moderation may help us stay the course or walk the line, but can it take us to the palace of wisdom? Saints and madmen through the ages would tell us otherwise. They have believed in excess, and led lives outside the mainstream to follow it.

Do we really want compassion in moderation? What about kindness? And let's flip that coin: do we want even a moderate amount of evil? Personally I'd like an excess of good and a dearth of evil, but I don't get to be in charge of the world. I can watch the work of the one who is, though, and see excesses of fragile beauty in spring and riotous color in fall, of heat in summer and cold in winter. If ever I get away from the lights of the city, I can see excesses of glowing stars and darkness like velvet upon my skin. But there are also lovely golden afternoons and blue sky mornings and the peace of sitting beside water. God works in excess as well as in moderation, and I think maybe we humans do as well.

Maybe we're not seeking moderation so much as wanting to avoid an excess of excess, everything thrown hurly-burly about until there is no telling top from bottom and no way to be anything other than numb in the face of all that stimuli. Maybe we want our excesses in moderation. An excess of love and a moderate amount of disappointment, an excess of laughter and crying in moderation. Maybe we can praise the excess that comes our way and know that we are richer for it.

"Excess of sorrow laughs," Blake tells us, and "Excess of joy weeps." Excess can lead us beyond ourselves, or what we think of as ourselves, and maybe beyond is just where we need to be sometimes.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


I went to spin class again. Masochism abounding. And the really scary part is that I think I acutally liked it. There is this meditative quality to the repetitive motion, and the burn in the legs and the strength in the body - I found myself pouring out gratitude to God for bringing me to this moment.

But then. There’s always a “but then,” isn’t there? The teacher was leading us in sprints. “Pedal faster,” she yelled. “Imagine that you need to get somewhere really quickly, quicker than you’ve ever gotten anywhere.” The image that flew unbidden to my mind was of me driving my car the wrong way through a bank parking lot to avoid a light, on the way to Vanderbilt hospital after I got the call that David’s surgery had gone awry. I left the house at a flat-out run, my heart pounding so that I couldn’t hear, and sped down every street between my house and the hospital, cursing street signs and pedestrians alike. I never wanted to get anywhere more quickly, and it never made less of a difference.

Suddenly there in the spin class I couldn’t breathe. It felt like someone had reached into my chest and squeezed my lungs and heart, with bolts of pain radiating out from the center of my chest. For a minute I thought I was going to pass out, but I kept pedaling, sat up straight and concentrated on breathing. Breathing always helps. Okay, usually. After a bit the pain subsided and my lung capacity began to increase back up from miniscule to normal.

It was just a filament of pain and sorrow woven into my day, but I wonder how many filaments and threads we just don’t see. Imagine a neutral colored cloth; if there is a shiny gold thread running through it you’ll notice that thread rather than the bulk of the neutral background. I think that’s how we live our lives: noticing the filaments of pain or threads of joy and too-often heedless of the everyday experience. But the grace of living isn’t just in those shiny moments, it’s in the sound of the rain on the roof right now, and the knowledge of tasks to be done later in the day.

I know I will experience those filaments of pain again, and the threads of joy. But I will try to take note of the neutral background as well, to hold the moments of everyday life in mindfulness. And I’ll go back to spin class, and give thanks for the leg burns and the muscle strength and the perfection of every moment.

Monday, September 14, 2009

This Mortal Coil

I haven't completely thrown out my back, but there is neither baby nor bathwater close at hand, so the back might be the only option. I went to my first-ever spin class today, giving in to masochistic tendencies that have crept into my psyche of late, and I'm thinking there might be a direct correlation between the tightness and squeezing sensation flaring forth from just below my shoulder blades and the amount of time I spent hunched over like a nearly-blind scribe trying to see his work as I pedaled madly (and then less and less madly as my legs decided to simply stop motor function).

But maybe not. Maybe I willed this small ailment into existence by the fact of noting on the phone with a friend today that I never had to worry about throwing out my back when I was 20. Of course, that was just after I cackled to him that he's old in response to hearing of a few of his body woes. The universe is paying me back for the glee with which I poked my friend; might still be worth it.

I think that a hot shower and a heating pad are working their wonders and I'm likely to awaken in the morning hearty and hale once more. But what of the people I love who won't wake up tomorrow in healthy bodies? What of those whose lives are laid on a foundation of physical pain? How do their spirits soar when the bolts of pain twist round and hold them like ivy on a stone wall?

This past weekend I attended an Interplay workshop where we played with sound and movement and meaning. At the end we were asked to choose a partner and tell them of someone we carried on our hearts that day; the partner was then asked to dance for that person sharing our heart. I thought immediately of my beautiful Monique, whose spirit and joy and beauty I have loved for many years now even as pain and struggle have left their marks across her life. I told my stranger-partner, Sela, of Monique and then watched with a rush of peace and gratitude as she danced a struggle of pain and then an opening into the light and an inrush of joy. That is what I wish for my dear friend, light and joy.

I cannot send it to her, though, I haven't that gift to give. I can merely witness to her pain, her striving, the path of her life and the beauty of her spirit. I can send her love in waves and clouds of prayers, but still she is likely to face another day of pain.

Tomorow morning as I move from my bed, most likely back in shape and ready for action, I will stop for a moment and send yet another cloud of prayers to my friend. And tell the world of her beauty.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Angry Girl Song

Peace and light and harmony - this is how I try to move through the world, more successfully at some times than others. But every now and then I find myself raging against the hatred and pain in what feels like an uncaring world. At times like that I'll often find myself listening to my favorite angry girl song, Metric's Monster Hopsital:

I fought the war
But the war won't stop for the love of God
I fought the war
But the war won

That's how it feels: like even believing in peace and harmony is a massive exercise in futility. Like sides don't matter because the war itself wins, with the anger and violence and downright craziness woven into the very fabric of this terra all-to-cognita.

I listen to this in the car, turning the volume up past Loud and beyond Deafening and moving right on to Shattering, yelling along with the singer and beating on anything handy, my palms sweating and my heart racing and my spirit feeling torn up by its roots from its grounding. I want to smash things and hear the sound of breaking glass and see blood from cuts and wounds dripping off my hands and feel the pain. Feel the pain. Feel it, free it, let it consume everything until whatever I think of as me disappears into a void of nothingness, of deep, endless, empty silence. Where nothing could ever begin to matter.

Slowly but inevitably I come out of this fog of rage and despair. My surroundings, which disappeared into the void alongside me, begin to become visible again, blueness of sky or the sweet sound of rain on the car's metal roof. I feel my lungs expand, the breath flow in and out of my body. I turn off the CD player and return to the center of my being, knowing that what is all-encompassing is not violence and rage but compassion and acceptance. That even these moments which feel so far from my true self are a part of my walk in the path of God.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The To Do List

I got a lot of things done today. I like that. I walk around with at least a couple of to-do lists (I always manage to have more than one going) in handy reach at all times and spend more effort than is anywhere like useful re-writing them. I feel this great sense of accomplishment when I cross off a multitude of things (which, of course, will require a re-write of the list so that it stays neat and organized), but oddly enough the lists never seem to get any shorter. This is the round of life, right? Getting things done, discovering more things to do, getting more things done, finding a whole host of new items for the list, etc. ad infinitum.

But I wonder if all this to-do listing is really a good thing. I feel noticeably better about myself on days when I get a lot done; is the value of my being really to be found in the number of items I cross off a list each day? Is this truly what is important in my life? My actions, speaking annoyingly louder than my words, would seem to say so; the wiser part of me knows that can never be right.

My son told me the other day that I never play with him. On the way home from the park, no less. My first thought was to dismiss this as severe hyperbole on his part - I am always taking him somewhere fun. But then I began to wonder, do I actually play with him? Do I actually give him the attention that he needs, or do I just always see to it that he is entertained? I am with him a great deal of the time, but am I present for him?

I think I need to re-write my to-do list and put "Remember to be present with the people I love" at the very top. And then keep re-writing it every day of my life.