Friday, March 5, 2010

Jesus is Coming. Look Busy.


Jesus is coming. Look busy.

I read a lot of Christian stuff. I will break challah and make Shabbat at sundown but the only Jewish writer I read regularly is Jay Michaelson. Jay maybe doesn’t count because he’s also a Buddhist and of course, except for particularly dense book reviews, I read the writings of my Jewish husband, who I suspect also of Buddhism. Lots of Jews would get freaked out about it but by definition, God is unnamable so Jesus is ok by me. An interview with William Stuntz appears on a Christian website. http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/You-Will-Call-I-Will-Answer.html
He’s a professor of law at Harvard, is 51 years old and he has cancer. He is not expected to survive this year. He says that he is surprised that he is not less sad. He is saddened by the inevitable sadness his loved ones will suffer but he is not sad about ceasing to be. He adds that his children are grown. When asked if he is pleased with the way he’s lived his life:
What I am displeased with is my own living of life. I feel an acute sense that I ought to have done better with the circumstances I was given. This is one of the reasons why it cut me so deeply when people suggested that suffering is God's discipline -- because I find it so very, very easy to believe in a God who is profoundly disappointed in me.
It seems utterly natural to believe in the Disappointed God, because I myself am disappointed. He must be even more disappointed, I think, because his standards are so much higher than mine. How could he not be disappointed? That makes complete sense to me.
It's the other God, the God who does not experience that kind of disappointment, the God who sees me the way that Prodigal Son's father saw him -- that is the harder God for me to believe in. It takes work for me to believe in that God.

The harder God is elusive to me, some weeks more than others. To compensate for irksome things I can’t control, I become more focused and sometimes a bit freakish, about the things I can. I leave the office on Fridays after I have published 2000 or so words here on this blog and the few times I’ve gotten stuck and haven’t finished I feel antsy and failed. Some weeks I am able to shut out the voice of the disappointed God and in the temporary brush with the hard one, my words flow.

I am a judge of a fiction writing competition, which means that for prison wages, over the course of two weeks, I am committed to read 15 pages from the beginnings of 40 different novels of all genres. I read the submission and then I am required to write a 25-300 word response addressing the piece’s strengths and then another of the same length with respect to its weaknesses and finally a concluding paragraph containing an overall appraisal. Then, the sample is evaluated in a number of categories on a numerical scale of 1-5, 5 being the highest.

I think this will be fun and the critical analysis will be a good exercise towards improving my own writing. I am not expecting Proust but the entries have made it through an initial round of evaluation so I assume that at least the manuscripts scrawled in crayon or bodily fluids will be weeded out. Once I begin the slog I try not to be incapacitated by terror at the thought of the many pieces that were rejected before they got to me.

Lots of entrants write young adult fiction. A lot of young adult fiction suggests it may have been written by well meaning junior high history teachers trying to conjure a lively creative lesson. The premise is always a socially isolated kid gets boinked on the head and wakes up or is transported via magical amulet (amulets are big in young adult fiction) to the civil war, or the Lusitania or the reign of King Tut. The inhabitants of the storied historical epoch converse in a strange hybrid of Shakespeare and Jersey Shore. There is one sample of Christian young adult fiction where an isolated kid happens upon a glowing cross and wakes up in biblical times. He is immediately arrested and thrown into a prison cell with Paul. He helps the apostle find some ink so he can attend to some correspondence.

I finish the forty samples. I give two 4s, a handful of 3s but mostly 1s and a few pity 2s. The minimum of twenty five words of positive comment is a challenge with regard to most of the pieces. I hone, over the course of the forty readings things like, “The author obviously put in a tremendous amount of energy into the creation of the piece about an isolated teenager transported to ancient Peloponnesia,” or “The writer writes enthusiastically in this tale of an isolated teen who narrowly escapes being eviscerated for a human sacrifice in an ancient Aztecan ceremony,” (Both exactly 25 words).

I am polite and upbeat in my comments but I fantasize about writing, “Couldn’t you be making better use of your time?” When the judgmental God is more palpable than the hard one, I ask myself the same question. I have two small writing projects with deadlines approaching. Neither have earth shattering requirements and in the eyes of the judgmental God, both would serve, at least in the conventional way, to further my writing career. The research is complete. Notes are made. Yet, I have missed my self imposed deadlines by days, and now the genuine ones now loom ominously.

Every week I write an entry for this blog and also a letter to each of three Jewish inmates who have been penpals now for over a year. There is a lot of other writing I could and should be doing but there is little steam and tiny potentially productive cracks of time are spent on crossword puzzles and Chowhound. The two essential writings of blog and prison penpals will do nothing to advance my writing career. I am spinning my wheels as a writer and the judgmental God is disappointed.

My penpal Alan, in Tehachapi writes about an interaction with his mother recounting words that sting in that unique and excruciating way that only a mother can wound a child. My first reaction is to gasp at the meanness but then I laugh, realizing that the conversation he describes is a replay of so many of mine with my own mother, before dementia left her fangless. Alan writes about what our letters and visits mean to him and I will not be falsely modest and minimize what, after more than twenty years in prison, our reaching out to him has meant. But his letters laud a selflessness, a one-sidedness I am unable to persuade him is shortsighted. Living for years in a punishing place and where any natural reaction to the inhumanity is perceived as weakness, Alan has found the hard God. In the past year, his letters, as much as any other thing in my life, have made knowing the God who cherishes my promise as opposed to the false idol of self recrimination and disappointment, less elusive.

I drive the kids to Altadena every morning and having finished Moby Dick, I am back on NPR but I need another audiobook pronto. It is hard not to listen to the news and not think of how what’s unfolding now will effect the future of my blissfully Ipodded teens. My guilt at having brought them into this world just increases my commitment to inspire them to better it. We are planning college for the seventeen year old and I tell myself it is time he learns to cook his own breakfast and do his laundry and I yell at him to get his lazy ass off the friggin’ couch but I cannot bear the thought that he won’t need me.
Spuds, at age fourteen, has been urged to use his brother’s Stridex pads and has dark fuzz over his lip. He is mistaken for me when he answers the phone less and less frequently. Knowing that he is my baby, he handles his requests for increased independence nimbly and with great sensitivity. Based on a number of years of experience dealing with adolescents, I am accustomed to arming myself for a hell storm when my answer to a request is a negatory. I am programmed for an emotional altercation but Spuds, in the face of my refusal is cool and cunning. One eyebrow rises nearly imperceptibly, he looks me straight in the eye and says, without emotion, “May I ask why?” Hackles already up and poised for confrontation, this rattles me and not quite being sure what hit me, I am at a loss for rational explanation. Humiliated and discombobulated, I capitulate.

God is everything we know and everything we can’t imagine knowing. God is all we are capable of, the atrocious and the sweet. Elohim. Buddha, Allah, Jesus. The world explodes with the violence of those who believe they own the only true name, their armies ever marching farther astray from the hard God. We are easier with punishment than love and our Land of the Free incarcerates a higher percentage of its countrymen than any other nation on earth. In a dystopia of gray steel where nothing is soft my friend Alan has found the hard unnamable God and this opens my eyes to possibilities and imperatives.

My beloved comes home late and gets in bed with hands so cold they make me weep and we spoon and I feel his hands slowly warm as I hold them to my heart. I am shattered when I think about the world my children will inherit and I know my struggles will not shield them from their own. I hope they are not weighed down by the same doubts and cynicism that plague their mother and that they remain confident that it is well within their power to make the world a better place.

William Stuntz will most likely die before the year is out and I pray, freed from pain, he rests in the soft bosom of the hard God. None of the 40 writers I have read will win a prize but the grammatically challenged, syntax confused words they’ve cobbled together are at least inspired by other words, undoubtedly more eloquent. I cross Hyperion, named for the god of the sun and I fret about the pieces for real publication that I should complete yet it is this piece here, that very few will read, which I must finish before it is Shabbat. I see a bumper stick that bears, what I know immediately will be the title of this week’s blog entry. I do not even open the files of the speculative writing I have promised myself I’ll finish but this piece here I think now is almost done. It did not flow easily this week and came in fits and starts and while the judgmental God would disparage my accomplishment, the hard God graciously accepts my offering.
Shabbat Shalom.

2 comments:

FionnchĂș said...

Thanks for this gracious piece. Apropos if egotistically, this morning I woke up thinking of my own religious identity after a strange dream. A woman named Linda, surnamed "Frum" had come on as some hard-edged, relentlessly Type A boss and I and cowed colleagues had to sit by her at a small table for lunch at a fancy if hippish restaurant (unlikely in real life given our employer I can assure you). She prattled self-righteously on about her faith and how devout she was. How she and her family went to temple at 68th and Something Street as their people had for generations. And as they had, then went to eat pork and shrimp at a Chinese place. I replied pedantically that I went to "shul" far less often than she but I did not eat treyf. She bristled at my remark, which the rest of the table could not figure out anyway, and insisted I could not be Jewish.

I woke up and thought of myself metaphorically--as my favorite dessert as a boy from the makers of Jell-O: "3-in-1." Three parfait layers. A base of gelatin: Irish Catholic. A stratum of Judaism: filling. A froth of Buddhism. A glass holding it all-- my skeptical, agnostic, yearning soul.

Your writing gets better. Those critiques you entered may seem as jiggly as jello, but that acumen however difficult to hit even 25 words will provide a solid support, as with the parfait, against which to taste-test the sweeter fare you will concoct. xxx me

so carzy said...
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