Thursday, March 27, 2014

“How does this even work?”

In a moment of deep despair, I grabbed a knife and toyed with ending my life. … I took the knife into the bathroom … I walked to the shower, slid the glass door open, and sat down inside, sliding the door shut behind me. … [T]he room just beyond was a blur, obscured by soap scum. … I ran the dull side [of the knife] along my left wrist, like I was taking it for a test drive. The metal, like the shower floor, was cold. … How does this even work? I asked, almost aloud … I couldn’t will myself to go through with it. I was too afraid - of the selfishness of this act and how my family would react to it; of the physical pain involved; of failing at this, too; but most of all of the fate I was sure would greet me after death.

That’s Chris Stedman’s low point, according to his memoir Faitheist, which recounts his spiritual journey, from culturally Christian as a child to his born-again experience as a teen to his accepting himself as a gay man and rejecting Christianity’s monstrous god.

Stedman says the main reason he didn’t kill himself in the shower that night was the expectation he would face the terrible tortures of hell, suicide being one of those sins that park a soul in that unfriendly place. In a post earlier this month I wondered if many people were dissuaded from killing themselves out of fear of the afterlife. In the above passage Chris Stedman says that fear was what, “most of all,” made him choose life.

Maybe so. Stedman lists other reasons, though. And by the time he crouches in the cold shower he is already convinced that his same sex desires have reserved him a boiling pot of torment in God’s ugly cellar. Stedman has prayed repeatedly over the Bible verses that supposedly condemn homosexuality, and God hasn’t piped up with any relief. He isolates himself from his family and his Christian friends. He is in pain and sees no way to alleviate it.

Considering the rest of the memoir, its testimony to Stedman’s need for social engagement, his sense of justice, I’m not convinced that imagining post-death torture is what stops the knife. I suspect it had more to do with the poverty of the Christian version. This Christianity is empty of love so his empty heart yearned for something beyond it.

I know I contemplated the permanent pain killer and hell was no factor. Nor, for that matter, was another of Stedman’s reasons for living - what he calls the “selfishness” of suicide. Rather, if I can come up with any particular reason why I’m yet alive, if one really can look into that tunnel-vision state of mind and say much coherent about it, I’d say I could imagine a better life. I could imagine not hurting so much. I could even imagine being happy. I didn’t know how or if a better life would be mine, but it was not out of the reach of my dreams.

source: Faitheist: how an atheist found common ground with the religious by Chris Stedman

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Are we ‘the people’?

[M]any indigenous cultures refer to themselves as the people, implying that everyone else is not the people. [Derrick Jensen] asked whether, then, some form of xenophobia is inherent in all of us.

[Richard Drinnon responded,] “The name strikes you and me as xenophobic since a cardinal principle of our Western civilization has been what one anthropologist calls ‘the negation of the other.’ By contrast tribal cultures affirmed ‘the other who affirms you’ and this principle always carried with it the possibility of extending the people outward …’”

I’ve wondered about this “the people” business. I remember encountering it first in a PBS documentary about the people of the American Southwest. The Navajo call themselves Dine, which the narrator said translates as “the people.” I think I was a teenager when I saw the program. As I read more about Native American tribes I came across others who referred to themselves as “the people.” What does that make the rest of us?

Richard Drinnon thinks the contrast between us/the people and them/not? the people for tribal societies and us and them in modern Western culture is that the us of the tribe is open to adoption, whereas the us of modern Western culture is essentially race based, which makes becoming one of us in modern Western culture extraordinarily difficult, and frequently impossible. In this discussion curated by Derrick Jensen in his book The Culture of Make Believe Richard Drinnon says the adoption principle can extend “outward, beyond family and clan and tribe to all other beings and things in a universal embrace.” If true - and common - then calling one’s group “the people” wouldn’t have much meaning.

source: The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen

Monday, March 24, 2014

brushing your teeth with birds screaming on your head

A few years ago I watched the documentary version of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (you can see a snippet here, and loved it.

Finally I got around to reading the paperback. It’s almost as engaging as the film.

Mark Bittner was living in San Francisco’s North Beach when he found a position as caretaker for an elderly woman on Telegraph Hill. She didn’t need him much so Bittner was able to turn his attention to the wildlife of the neighborhood. With visions of being an amateur naturalist Bittner started studying - and feeding - a wild parrot flock. Gradually he gained the flock’s confidence and in the years that he knew them met each spring’s babies. An illness struck many and Bittner took a few into his house to nurse with some success, releasing each when it had regained its strength. Here’s a charming excerpt featuring two of those babies:

Dogen and Paco had developed an odd little enthusiasm that was part of the nightly household routine. The moment they saw me heading to the studio’s tiny bathroom to brush my teeth, they’d stop whatever they were doing and zoom over and land on my head, where they’d begin an intense round of play fighting. While I stood in front of the mirror brushing, they’d be crawling around my head and shoulders trying to bite each other and screaming in my ears. I have no idea what the appeal was. I got so accustomed to it that while they were fighting I’d be brushing and thinking about something entirely different, as if they weren’t there.

Mark Bittner keeps a blog, Views from a Hill.

source: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill by Mark BIttner

Sunday, March 02, 2014

“Hogan” a poem by Archie Washburn


Sitting against
The flying dust of wind.
Here and there flows the old raggy
Long johns.


A hogan is a traditional Navajo circular mud and stick house. Having visited the Navajo reservation and seen a hogan in real life, its low, reddish brown form fitting in well with the red brown sweep of desert vistas, having felt the wind blow across the rocks and around the Monument Valley towers and buttes, I can see the flag of underwear in Archie Washburn’s poem shaking out its white story, making almost homey that human-dwarfing expanse.

With “Hogan” Washburn has crafted a cinquain, an American verse form inspired by Japanese verse forms like the haiku and tanka. Two syllables go in the first line, four in the second, and so forth.

source: Voices from Wah’Kon-Tah: contemporary poetry of Native Americans edited by Robert K. Dodge and Joseph B. McCullough

Saturday, March 01, 2014

“he can shuffle off his present”

The narrator of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon is a good Christian who discovers a hidden but European-like country where no one knows his religion. His efforts to evangelize are met more with bemusement than interest. In one argument the narrator quotes from Shakespeare to bolster his faith in an afterlife: “[I]t is the fear lest worse evils may befall us after death which alone prevents us from rushing into death’s arms.” As suicide is a terrible sin for Christians, when you kill yourself you condemn your soul to eternal torment in hell. Thus you might as well suffer a little longer in your mortal existence to save yourself from greater pain later. The Erewhonian scoffs:

If a man cuts his throat he is at bay, and thinks of nothing but escape, no matter whither, provided he can shuffle off his present. … Men are kept at their posts, not by the fear that if they quit them they may quit a frying-pan for a fire, but by the hope that if they hold on, the fire may burn less fiercely. [One hangs on with the hope] that though calamity may live long, the sufferer may live longer still.

Erewhon is often a sort of mirror-version of England and I suppose Samuel Butler is critiquing the conventions of England via his creation. I’m afraid I don’t always get it. In this instance I do think the Erewhonian gets the better part of the argument. Have many suicides been stopped out of fear of hell? Doesn’t seem likely to me. Christian opprobrium, rather, just comes across as mean-spirited, like beating a horse with a broken leg to make it pull an overloaded cart. The cart isn’t going anywhere and the beating isn’t doing anybody any good.