Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Day in the Life, A Fountain in the Grass

I had the most curious sensation walking home from work today. Let me say first that it was a rough day, generally. We were understaffed, with one manager out sick leaving only one to run the restaurant, and since the weather is gorgeous, we were almost guaranteed to get slammed for brunch--which we did. Since I was one of the stronger servers on the floor, I spent a lot of my day helping other people run their food, get drinks, prep sides, wrap silverware and generally keep the back station and pantry area clean.

I'm not bragging; this is part of my job. I think everyone should have to wait tables at least once in their life, particularly at a family diner like the one I work at, just so they have some appreciation for how much side work servers are expected to juggle, all the while staying cheery and attentive to their customers--it isn't easy, it takes a certain knack. And a certain roll-with-it attitude. As I've said before, sometimes you can get into a groove where it's almost like a dance, and I smile to myself to know how well high school marching band taught me to make back steps and pivot turns with the grace and control to keep my gait smooth and my upper body perfectly steady. So the act of serving itself can be engaging, a kind of secular ritual of attention, care and movement. On good days. But sometimes, it just wears you into the ground, and it's hard not to feel angry or bitter about rude or manipulative customers or (especially) coworkers clearly out to cut every corner possible, regardless of who gets screwed. Usually my coworkers are pleasant and, if not hard-working all the time, at least competent and... adequate. Realy, that's supposed to be a compliment! After all, it is only a crappy waitressing job--I can't expect everyone to seek some kind of philosophical appreciation or esoteric fulfillment from it.

But today, I had a rough day--one of those days when I felt horribly under-appreciated by coworkers and management in general. It happens. Usually I can shrug it off, but I'm exceptionally worn down lately, my nerves a bit raw. I'm only human. So, at the end of my shift, when my clean-up was all but done and I was waiting for my last table to finish their desserts, I stepped outside. There's a little space out back where people go for quick cigarette breaks, but since I don't smoke, I rarely have an excuse to step outside for some fresh air. With this brief respite, though, I decided to go and sit on the stoop in the sun, even if I didn't have a cancer-stick between my fingers to justify the moment. I let the warm sunlight seep into my skin while the fresh breeze dried some of the literal sweat from my brow (not to mention cool my flushed-with-frustration cheeks). In only a few minutes, I felt much better. Almost happy again, or at least able to smile and relax, find my center and a calmer perspective. It's taken me a long time, but I've finally reached that point in my life when contentment is my "idle mode." If nothing is provoking me or proving particularly frustrating, I carry around a secret, private gratitude for life in all its messy glory and numerous manifestations. And it's self-feeding and regenerating, because I have enough self-awareness to know this wasn't always the case--so these days, I'm just grateful to feel so grateful.

So that was that moment, a moment in sunlight (tarred lungs not included). Then I went back inside, finished my work, clocked out and began the walk home. Once back inside, that baseline of gratitude had begun to waver a bit again, and I was very happy to be on my way back to my little apartment (where cookies and milk, not to mention some old Star Trek episodes, were waiting for me: a Treat to Myself). As I walked, I passed one of the old sycamore trees that line the streets of this neighborhood and was reminded of just how much that particular tree's lumpy bark sometimes looks like a grizzled, friendly face peering out at the world, watching all the dogs and neighbors walk by. Then up the block a little ways, I passed the house with the stonewall along the garden's edge, and the one rock slightly out of place that looked sort of like a crouching, spotted toad. These familiar bits of scenery got me thinking about some of the books I've been reading about nature spirits and faeries, recently. Some writers talk about the Fay as those creatures and beings that give enchantment to nature. When you catch a sudden scent of blossoms on the air, this is their greeting to you; when you seem to see a face in bark or stone, they are reaching out to say hello. Yes, it may be in your imagination, but that doesn't mean it isn't also real.

Then, I had the most curious sensation. I missed God. I missed God terribly, felt an incredible loneliness, as though I had lost touch with a really old, dear friend, someone I had lived with for so long and hadn't spoken to in forever. There was a time when such greetings and reachings-out of nature were, to me, always moments of feeling God's presence in the world. I don't mean sensing the Divine, or the sacred Holiness inherent in all things, or the diffusion of Spirit throughout space and time. Nothing so abstract. I mean that, growing up, I felt the personal presence of God. No matter what my philosophies and theologies have been over the many years that I have been studying, thinking and growing, no matter how tame and "safe" I am able to render my language about That Which I Believe In--the fact remains that some of my religious experiences, unmitigated by dogma and uncomplicated by reason, have been experiences of the Person of God.

I couldn't say for sure that this is the Christian God, Jehovah or Yahweh or whoever, and it never struck me as being Christ, not exactly (I've had different experiences with ol' J.C. during that phase in college when I was obsessed with being a "real Christian," whatever that was). All I know for sure is that it was, simply, my God, and He had no other name that I ever knew. But He was present to me, in many different ways. The sunlight warming me or the breeze buffeting me, the ocean waves that seemed to play tag, the bird that once shat on the crown of my head, my third eye, the time I had been complaining about being too well-cared for and not persecuted enough--these were all God being sardonic, or kind, or loving, or playful. There wasn't a god or spirit of the ocean, one for the sky, one for the green grass--no, it was all just Him. I remember that feeling. It came naturally. Perhaps because I grew up in a monotheistic home, this was just the way I was used to interpreting those moments of Presence, but I'm not so sure. After all, wouldn't I have known? There were occasions when something else, some other being or presence made itself clearly felt to me--the comforting "Babysitter" in my room when I woke scared at night, the flocks of beings wedged in among the bodies of family and friends at my grandmother's funeral, the gnomes and invisible critters that lived by the crabapple tree in the park--they were all unique beings with a distinct sense to them. These books I'm reading now, most suggest that children have a natural knack for sensing or seeing such beings, the Fay, the Little People, the spirits of nature. I had that knack, I think. But for me, then there was God, and God was something else, and always there, too.

These days, I don't really know exactly what I believe, and sometimes I'm so busy believing it (or not-quite-believing it) that I don't give myself time to actually experience anything. Experience might bring some clarity. That moment in sunlight when I sat quietly in recovery, that didn't dredge up any loneliness or sense of absence for me--only gratitude and peace. But maybe that's part of it, too: this gratitude and peace, sometimes I feel like they don't go anywhere. They're real enough, but gratitude should move, should reach beyond itself. Gratitude is a gift given back for a gift received, it is a form of connection, of communication. I've learned so much these past several years, widened my understanding of what is possible, the many mythologies and ecologies of Spirit, the range of nonmaterial and material beings that we share the world with--I think maybe I'm no longer sure who is doing the giving. Once upon a time, I had no doubt, and my thanks always went to God. Whoever He Was. I Am. Now, it's clear that my life is just as blessed as ever before, and I have tried so long and put in so much work to become the kind of person who has gratitude at the very base of her being... but I'm no longer sure where such beauty and love come from, and I don't know who to thank.

Sometimes, I think, I miss God because I miss the sense of Someone being on the receiving end of my gratitude. My whole life these days seems to be awash in the unrequited, the unacknowledged. Even when I think about being lonely without God, it seems it's only natural, things have just continued on, and it's not so much that He wasn't ever real, but that we've become different people and fallen out of touch. That's all.

And sometimes it happens that you are friends and then
You are not friends,
And friendship has passed.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself.

And sometimes it happens that you are loved and then
You are not loved,
And love is past.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself into the grass.

- Brian Patten, from "Sometimes It Happens"


  1. You apparently are still prisoner to your upbringing, as you consistently referred to your "God" as "Him". Perhaps it was innocent, but it's something to think about. I myself do not necessarily think of the devine as "Her" or refer alot to "The Goddess", as I am a steadfast believer in the equal polarity of the masculine/feminine construct of nature and whatever devinity it might support. But I am not stuck with "Him", and never will be as long the masculine remains a headstrong self-centered influence that without the moderating influence of the feminine becomes destructive.

  2. Hmm. I find your comment itself rather presumptuous and perhaps trapped in a preconditioned way of thinking, actually.

    For one thing, a Pagan polytheist might have a particularly strong relationship with a particular deity, and that deity might happen to be "male" (as far as such things go), and yet would you accuse that person of being "prisoner to their upbringing"? Or is it because you know that I was raised Catholic (after all, I'm not shy about that fact) that you make such an assumption, suggesting I just haven't given the matter any thought at all?

    Furthermore, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that I very often use gender neutral (or, as I prefer, transgendered, i.e. "beyond gender") language when referring to the Divine. I used "Him," with the male connotations and capital letter quite intentionally, to indicate a very particular and special relationship, a sense of deity as inherently Personal (as in Person-capital-P) rather than abstracted, and as specifically Other, i.e. unlike me as, for instance, a female. I am not "stuck with" using the word "Him" at all. It was a stylistic decision meant to reflect a particular aspect of my experience. (I envy the Muslims, whose gorgeous Arabic language in the Qur'an has the poetic potential to indicate both-male-and-female in a uniquely personal and intimate way, while we English speakers have only the abstracted and impersonal neuter to resort to).

    Furthermore, the very idea that a male conception of deity must inherently be biased and destructive is itself a reflection of a very specific conception of what it means to be "male"--it actually buys into and perpetuates the Macho Misogynist version, which denies the potential for males, whether human beings or gods, to transcend this stereotype without somehow intentionally "feminizing" themselves. Your assumption that my "male" God must automatically be unbalanced, head-strong and self-centered is itself a biased opinion. What about "maleness" absolutely insists that this is always the case? (That's an honest question.)

    You also don't take into consideration the fact that, throughout my life, my most meaningful, loving and supportive role models have all been male (my father, my brother, my cousins, some of my best friends), while my relationship with my mother was for a long time emotionally abusive and even at times savage. Perhaps your discomfort with maleness is just a reflection on the sad lack of positive male role models in your own life (maybe even compounded by the "white male guilt" syndrome).

    This is one big problem I have with the modern Pagan perspective on gender (or at least, the perspective I've heard most often, especially from the Wiccan crowd). Instead of rejecting both the male and female stereotypes found in our modern culture as unhealthy and imbalanced, this dualistic or polarized perspective suggests that we only need to make sure we incorporate both stereotypes and somehow this will free us from either of them. To me, this is as ridiculous as saying that "two wrongs make a right" or that we only need to tie up both hands to increase our dexterity. A one-sided male stereotype grows out of and gives rise to a one-sided female stereotype; they're co-dependent, and trying to somehow combine these two already-flawed conceptions of gender in one person is more likely to lead to a kind of internal schizophrenia incorporating the worst of both, rather than a balanced personality. Instead, I think it's more important to chuck this whole dualistic notion of "this is what 'male' has to be" and "this is what 'female' has to be" altogether, and allow individuals to be individuals, entirely unique, manifesting gender, sexuality, and personality in unique ways and combinations. I think such an approach is just as important for human beings as it is for our conceptions of the gods.

    Perhaps if we all make that effort, someday in the not-so-distant future, a girl can be free to write a blog post about her poetic and intimate relationship with a "male" deity without having to justify herself or her language.