The time change and my recent life have aligned to place me in the gauzy betweenworld of sleep and reality.
Yesterday, I watched the last episode of Bill Maher. One of the guests was Michael Eric Dyson, a preacher, professor, and activist. Another was Jon Meacham, a historian, and writer. Both were exceptional. Jon’s intelligence and ability to explain his ideas impressed me. Michael had the same gift, amplified with a poignant and natural turn of phrase. If I’ve learned nothing else about myself, I treasure these gifts.
Though I didn’t know I was dreaming, a writer invited me to attend an unfamiliar church on a Friday evening. As happens in dreams, I entered the church without any connecting events.
After a round of introduction and applause, a man approached the podium placed in front of the altar at the front of the church. He cleared his throat and began to speak:
“If you want to be a good person in life, the most important thing you own might be your ears. Your eyes are forever full of appetite and illusion. If you’re receptive to what you hear, you learn a lot of knowledge. But you also learn a lot of subtext and context that your eyes convert to confusion. If you educate yourself, your mouth allows you to share what you learn with others who hopefully have their ears open to different voices. But no matter how much you learn in life or what you achieve, if your heart isn’t open, you’ve wasted your life. Your heart shouldn’t be open only for what you see as God in your life. It should be open to people as they struggle. Because you have a lot of life experience, it would be easy to use the conduit between your ears and mouth to forget that whatever someone else is going through, they need your ears and heart to open long before they need your mouth. A welcome ear and a warm hand on one’s shoulder can cure more disorders than any amount of preaching. Present company excluded. If you have God in your heart, I believe you’re ahead of the game. But more importantly, just open your heart at every opportunity and figure out what’s keeping you from doing it all the time. Wide open. My message today is this: Ears. Heart. Mouth. Your achievements are meaningless otherwise. And all the knowledge? Dusty information doesn’t help anyone. Flex your fingers and arms for an embrace.”
The preacher took the papers from the podium and threw them into the air, and laughed.
“See? You weren’t expecting that! Sermons and life must contain unexpected moves – and laughter. Love one another as much as you can and listen. Amen.”
If you don’t know the phrase, “better and bitter angels,” you should add it to your vocabulary. Most of us talk about the devils on each of our shoulders. The truth is that it is our intentions, motivations, and convictions that run us afoul more often than the whispering devils. In our public life, we judge others. In our private secrets moments, we judge ourselves most harshly. A little grace for all of us is much needed.
P.S. And a bit for you if you’re looking backward with an unkind eye for yourself.
Often, the only way forward is to give yourself a laughing pass for the things you have most definitely said and done. And twice that for the things you imagined you are guilty of.
This post isn’t a thread post. Please forgive me for just writing. Though I rarely do so, I compared this using the plagiarism tool. I was astonished at the variety of disparate sources that appeared.
One of the phrases I once employed often at work was, “Ma’am, are you a Christian?” I only used it when someone simply wouldn’t listen to reason – AND also lashed out in a way that made the person being spoken to feel lesser. Often, it made the person angrier, mostly if they recognized their brutality. This phrase was one of the quickest ways to penetrate someone’s attention. I’ve started saying it again. We endured a horrible election and still struggle against the worst modern pandemic. We have no business treating people as lesser. Those who found someone they call Savior should always take nine steps back before using their job as a reason to demean someone else. We are all going to fail at this – and that’s okay. But we have to shut up and realize we’re doing it if someone calls us out. If we can’t fail and still do that, none of us are worthy.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus has roared back to unavoidable significance. Working around it, I see the people’s faces as it impacts them without regard to how they’ve lived their lives. Good? Bad? The virus deflects and arbitrarily inflicts its harm. All of them had hopes, dreams, plans and found themselves confronted with a dagger that didn’t exist a year ago. I will not forgive the world if the virus that has surrounded me all this year kills me. I’ve got plans.
I’ve decided to start referring to many of my moments as “Lemon Moments.” I find myself able to help someone who didn’t request it or push someone back into their human form by triggering something sublime in them. Without peering too closely at my selfish reasons for doing random and not-so-random acts of kindness, I’ve found that these moments do more to reflect who I would like to be than much of the bulk of my life. So much of our lives is spent moving the bits of our lives from point A to B. In reality, they pass unnoticed. The Lemon Moments? They echo and create a pull to do more of them. The more I do them, the more I want to share them.
I love diet tonic water. I also love sugar-free sweet ‘n sour mix. Duh. I just figured out I love the lemony backwater taste of the two of them combined. Genius, right? If I were the type to frequent bars, I think I’d laugh if I walked up to the bartender and said, “Give me a diet tonic water and sugar-free sweet ‘n sour shot.” I imagine him or her responding, “I could just pee in your mouth, sir. Get out of here!”
This morning, I had a hell of a time reconciling myself to something. But my physical reaction to a realization told me that dissonance had infected me. I’m not sure my body would have sent a perceptible signal of this a few weeks ago. Painful though it was, I learned from it. I have written before how I don’t think I knew my own mind well until my late 40s. Today was another such surprise for me. Did I mention how uncomfortable the realization was? It is a sharp toe to the face to know that my certainty isn’t that of another person, no matter how furiously I rub the magic lamp and work to make it so. I don’t know ultimately what the takeaway lesson of it was, but I do know it shook me. As we do, I will be thinking about this for a long time to come. I hope grace finds me as I search for it.
I also created the hashtag #hunkcloset to force myself to accept that there will always be more interesting, attractive, and available people in the world. It’s best to just jump into the bitter truth of it and wallow in it for as long as necessary. And when you get up, do the dishes – because this sort of thinking is self-destructive. It’s impossible to guess what people will find worth cherishing. Some people hide their scars. Some love them on others. Others? No matter how you insist that you find something endearing or beautiful? They won’t believe you, and sometimes that is because they can’t see it.
When I started trying to eat healthily, I threw out all the expectations of counting calories. Instead, I opted for a letter grade. I had As, Bs, and Cs until October 17th. October 17th was “Ham Day,” as I’ll always remember it. My two favorite people in the world came through Springdale to visit. Every day since, I’ve earned an A – and not by fudging. I stopped even recording the grade manually. Instead, I decided to note only the rare days I might do worse than expected. Over 30 days later, it hasn’t happened. I can’t say I’ve managed that in 15 years.
Also, I’ve hit the level where I am starting to feel significantly lighter. It’s only about the equivalent of 3 gallons of milk (8lbs each, more or less), but when I’m laying down, I feel bones that I haven’t for a long time. The bones at the base of my sternum feel alien. I catch myself running my fingers there as if I expected there to be no bones underneath the weight. I did it about 15 times while driving home today from work. When I stand and look down toward my feet, I still can’t understand where my belly went. I still have a stomach, to be sure, but it is fleeing the scene of the crime with speed I dared hoped it would. I sit down and don’t feel cramped. I am appalled I didn’t heed my body as it warned me over the years. I can’t fix my past stupidity. I can only use it to remind me. Being able to move toward a normal body is a gift that I don’t see myself squander.
It’s amusing. My foot is substantially less painful, too, even on workdays when I walk a lot of miles. I can only hope that continues.
I picture myself at 185 and can’t imagine how I lost the love of being lighter. 185 is still heavy. I probably should weigh 160-165 to be in the normal range. That is 60 lbs lighter than when I started this. I’ve made it past the 1/3rd mark. Even if I stop at 185, I’m more than halfway there. While I don’t weigh myself that often, the number 200 has been on my horizon and on my mind. It’s an artificial milestone, but I already know it will give me a boost. Maybe it wasn’t healthy to lose 25 lbs in 6 weeks, but it certainly hasn’t hurt me any. It might be the only thing that has allowed me to work as I have.
Yo-yo weight also causes a bit of a problem with clothes. Because I wear black slacks as work pants, I’ve had to cyclically buy a range of sizes to match my runaway appetite. Over the last few days, I sorted through my needlessly non-minimalist array of pants. The pile to go away kept increasing. “You could put them away until you’re sure.” No. I’m sure. I am never going to be that weight again. It’s not a boastful claim. I’m not going back. I am as sure of this as anything I’ve ever known in my life. That part of me broke a few weeks ago. I give you permission to mock me mercilessly if I fail. Last weekend, I bought a pair of benchmark pants. The waist is a size that seems impossible to me a month ago. My permanent maximum size will still be 2-4″ inches smaller than that. Because my inseam is 29″ or 30″, it will be hard to find pants that ‘just fit’ at that size. But that is a first-world problem that I welcome – laughingly so. All the work shirts that are now too big were returned to my supervisor. “Oh, bragging, are you?” he teased me. “No. I’m not going back.” I smiled. He’s a believer this time around.
I don’t want congratulations for doing this. I remind you that I’m only benchmarking myself against where I should have been all along for any praise I might get.
Meanwhile, I am dedicated to paying forward as many Lemon Moments as I can squeeze into my life for the pounds that evaporate. It’s the only appropriate way to repay the spirit of lightness of being I’ve been given.
You’ll be seeing less of me. Also, more me in the reflection of the invisible part of me that I find more pride in.
It is astonishing how opening a dormant or neglected part of yourself makes you seethe and hunger for a buffet of it.
And if you see me rubbing the bottom of my sternum with a look of wonder on my face, mind your business. That s#$t is crazy!
No matter how comfortable you are, if you wake up needing to go to the bathroom, you should go immediately. (Get out of bed first, though!) Additionally, as you age, the likelihood that you will misjudge your capacity to navigate the delicate balance of comfort versus biology increases exponentially. Young people read this and think it’s stupid. Older people read this and say, “Genius!” The difference between those two perspectives is experience.
Such a facile word, one rapid syllable. It is supposed to mean “expressing discomfort, surprise, or dismay.” Generally, it also is used to convey a gut-punch or calamity. A recent copyright dispute brought up the previous and singular connotation for the word.
As happens in life, the word transitioned for me without my recognizing it. It was an incremental change until the lever sprung, and it suddenly acquired a different meaning, much in the same way you peer into the eyes of someone you’ve known and see a depth that you’d skirted around unknowingly.
Oof: a sudden emotional reaction, usually characterized by intense pleasure or divination.
The word now carries a paralyzing and gossamer overtone for me.
I’ll ask you to whisper the word internally, in a quiet moment. Find a place, person, or time in your guarded heart of memories and say the word as you vividly remember it. If you pay homage sufficiently, you’ll be able to see “oof” in the same way.
The word is mine now.
It is shorthand for the unuttered but not unfelt contagion of bliss or glimpse of what lies beneath.
“The bitterness of knowing the truth is that it is impossible to unknow.” The same idea has been expressed in many ways. I see “the truth hurts, but lies are worse” frequently on social media. Like all universal knowledge, it becomes fuzzy and self-referential the more you try to grasp it.
Knowledge changes us, even if we turn the recognition of it away from prying eyes or panic that it will change us. Whatever we are is already essentially invisible, leading us to hold close the changes we can’t share. In part, it explains why people suddenly seem to change; they trapped their truth until it couldn’t be contained. While the catalyst might have exploded in a single moment, the ability to reveal ourselves is frightening.
We learn something, we figure another thing out, or knowledge breaches our defenses. When we compare it to what we knew before, it’s inescapable that we’ve changed too. Whatever malleable ideas make us a person, a new insight either dents us or expands us.
For those of you who don’t know the agony of insight, it often results in paralysis. Whether you understand that something fundamental to you cannot be right or that you’ve spent time furthering people or a life that you didn’t seek, it is at once liberating and confining. If I were a betting man, I would predict that the postcovid world will shatter us as we wonder if our attention wasn’t in the wrong direction. I do hope it continues to break us of our obsession for things.
Some of my insights include the idea that if God exists, he cannot be an interventionist. Unseen dangers fly above and around us and narrowly miss us with ridiculous frequency regardless of who we are or our accomplishments. That youth and health are no more a guarantee of a long life than any other factor. That certainty of the world or myself is the surest sign I am about to reminded that I am ignorant of both. That love is the glue that both expands and contracts.
Of all my insights, I think the one that traps us most might be that we are indoctrinated into the false promise of security by the right choices. It’s possible to make only the right choices and still fail – or be unhappy. It’s a bitter truth. With the finite number of breaths I was given, how could I possibly know what would lead me to a satisfied life? Not one without agony, because such lives are absent.
I find myself inside the pinball machine, bouncing from one reaction to the next – even as the tally of my remaining steps allotted to me fades. Because we’re human, I suspect you also often look out into the world and deeply feel the disparity between who you are and your place in it.
I have no answers. As I’ve aged, I’ve been glad to see that so many people have admitted that they are struggling for meaning and unsure of themselves. Those who seemed to have surety and confidence often are better at distraction or demeanor. A few years ago, I told a graduate that “the secret to life is most of us are winging it.” His dad, though a brilliant man, told me, “He is not ready for that certainty.”
With love comes turmoil. With life, hardness.
As late as yesterday, someone told me to “choose your hard.”
Although similar thoughts have passed through my porous brain over the years, I admit that the “Brooklyn 99” episode with Gina forced me to laugh out loud. I’ve said “blank” or “unintelligible mumble” in the past. Gina’s use of “redacted” was funnier, perhaps in part to the fact that not everyone would use the word in everyday conversation.
Have something you’d like to say but not say it? Want to curse but can’t? Have something potentially offensive? “Redacted” is your word.
In much the same way that saying “Karl” (from “Sling Blade”) denotes sharing a deep feeling for me, I find “redacted” increasingly serving in that capacity, too.
I made a gif to commemorate the word’s increased usage in my private vocabulary.