Sunday, June 23, 2013

Good Night Grace

In my dream, John Mack,  my former psychoanalyst , was talking about grace. I was in his living room, which was also somehow Aunt Sophie's living room, and he was reading from a piece of looseleaf notebookpaper. 

There was handwritten text on the paper, a discourse on grace, and he said to me that grace was something conferred from above. I was puzzled, as he had never before used specifically Christian language.

In my dream, I challenged him: the term grace, I said, was an outward movement of the human intelligence, a reaction to felicity, the naming of an unmerited beneficence, an acknowledgement of dependency, the object of thanksgiving.

He chided me gently. I was not to quibble or split hairs. The two motifs were not mutually exclusive.

I woke with the odd sense of peace that only a dream visitation from the dead can confer.

The last time I saw John Mack was in 1993. I'd been in analysis with him in the 1970's and 80's, and it was absolutely life-changing and life-saving.

In 1992 I was in my early forties and had returned to residency to complete my training and obtain board certification. It was an exceedingly awful 2 years, and my journal from that time eloquently and histrionically documents the long, miserable ordeal.

I vacillated between feeling like Persephone returned to Hell and Jonah in the belly of the whale, and I finally set up some sessions with Dr Mack who was in the Department of Psychiatry of the hospital where I was undergoing my ordeal.

He was patient, and generous (never charged me for the sessions) and we talked at length about the experience of being misfit, and of my Bartleby-like affinity for quitting.   Dr Mack was already at the center of some controversy regarding his interest in the experiences of people who had reported being abducted by aliens -- research that would lead him into increasingly spiritual realms of speculation, and, in 1994, into being the subject of an academic inquiry by Harvard Medical School led by the former NEJM editor, Arnold Relman. Dr Mack (and academic freedom) was ultimately vindicated, but not without what must have been a horrible ordeal. Ten years later he was killed by a drunk driver.

And now, another decade downstream, he has returned to me to discourse on grace.

When I finally finished those awful two years I had a decision to make: what sort of position would I seek in the field about which I had (to be generous) some ambivalence ?

There was, of course, the primary care option -- plunge into the watery abyss and invite the waters to close over my head. Serendipitously, a walk-in position in a hospital based internal medicine practice came to my attention. So what would it be ? Embrace fully the thing I'd walked through fire to attain, or engage something less intense, less intimate -- caring for other doctors' patients. One would drown me. The other might leave me space for my other misfit passions and reticences.


It was an excruciating decision. So I went to the movies.

I saw the amazing 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and suddenly it became clear: the brilliant, reclusive, misfit pianist retired from live performance (which he once likened to being a tightrope performer whose audience is rooting for a fall)  at the height of his career to work solely in the recording studio. I (not brilliant, but certainly reclusive and misfit) would do walk-in.

And so I did until last November when the hospital ER took over my gig and expanded it to obtain "market share" in the area's increasingly competitive urgent care clinic wars. I had the option to be "leased" to the ER by my medical group -- which I declined.  Instead I would be a "covering MD" in my group, kind of a floating gig, which (I was assured) would be little different from what I'd been doing.

Which brings me to this summer and my dream. In the past 6 months my job  has been veering more and more toward primary care. This summer I'm helping cover my colleague's 3 month sabbatical -- and, for the past few months, I have been in an attenuated version of the dismay of 1992-1994.  

So enter Dr Mack, through the nocturnal passageways haunted by both Freud and limpid-eyed extraterrestrials, to remind me of grace. The unmerited gift of being-itself. The gift of my own life of relative opulence, health and privilege that allows me to call being-itself a gift and not a curse.

To remind me of the inextricable unity of self and world, of the both-and-ness of things, of the mysteriousness and elusiveness and unfathomability of phenomenal existence.

Of the grace of connection, the grace of being misfit, the grace of being called to endure tasks that seem impossible but that prove not to be.

Of the grace of the unmerited positive regard of Dr Mack's faithful treatment in which even I, weed that I am, was able to flourish -- at least for seasons.

For isn't that the definition of a weed, these beings for whom I feel such an affinity, something that is misfit for where it finds itself ? In a meadow a dandelion is king, a lion's tooth. On suburban grass it is villain, a piss-the-bed in the malevolent sights of Chem-Lawn.

Oh, to explore the notion of weeds with my vanished psychoanalyst -- this most late and queer erotic cathexis of mine.

But he inhabits shadow realms now, from which coded messages about the reciprocity of grace can flow only under cover of darkness and deep sleep.

But, in daylight, there is only grief and longing. The dream presence may leave a lingering peace, but then the dismal chaos of life floods in and over, leaving one floundering in a choppy ocean whose mythic buoys are few and far between --

-- and I am swimming like mad toward the sound of a distant,  wave-rung bell.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Un- in the Sun

It could be said that I am approaching the 1 year anniversary of my Episcopapostasy. Oh sure, there was that little lapse at Advent, but overall, I have joined the ranks of the unchurched. From nave and sanctuary to Boulevard Noir and Outer Darkness is a small step through an transparent curtain, one of those glassine sci-fi membranes between two realities that ripples momentarily with passage then closes invisibly over.  

I envisioned a Church where all priests resemble a tormented Max Von Sydow exorcist, where parish life is much like life in a Carthusian Monastery,  whose theology is a hybrid mix of Paul Tillich, Meister Eckhart, Baruch Spinoza, Eihei Dogen and Christopher Hitchens, whose liturgy is a melancholic, chanted variation of the Latin Mass with heavy emphasis on full prostrations, whose gloomy parishioners eschew all eye contact and compete fiercely for the coveted spots in the shadowy back pews, and whose liturgical year oscillates between Advent and Lent with nothing in between.

Yeah, well. How did that work out for ya ?

No, Church is no place for gloomy singletons. We look around at the cheerful, convivial, kind and helpful faces shining in the pews and feel the depth of our alienation, our irrevocable, indelible otherness. We burn with shame because we cannot reduce the Infinite, Incomprehensible Numinous Ground of Being to a particular man who lived in a particular desert 2000 years ago, preached, was martyred and was resurrected -- depending on your view --  either into a heavenly, atoning reality or a complicated, guiding metaphor. In either case, it's been get thee behind me Jesus. I find the universalist claims of Julian of Norwich's hazelnut more plausible than the divine ones made for, if not by, JC. And the Bible ? Don't get me started -- it's an unpleasant text,

bad graffitti on the water tank of the world, and I reply to its disingenuous question - no, no, no, no, no, no, no !

Yes, I hear them, the vast braying chorus of Reverends Lillian, tut-tutting any non-Jesusy, non-Churched right to the various existential-spiritual-metaphysical goods and services of the religious world. Selfish, they hiss. Selfish, selfish, selfish ! The adamantly unflocked lamb has (in their eyes) no legitimate claims to any spiritual life. O pitiable creature (they pray) may the wolves of the world devour you swiftly to end your miserable hell of unaffiliation !

Faugh. Do vegans look to the Beef Council for approval ? Why won't my case ever rest ?

And then there is the spectacle of Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis finding common ground over the intrinsically disordered thing.  And what about the absolutely null and utterly voidy thing ?

Uh, Justin, you know that Eucharist you think you have just confected ? Sorry. Just a cookie. 

Spider ? Meet spiderwort, dudes of the endless fashion show.

So there you have it, another chapter of the long, farcical saga of my religious life has closed. I am back in the meadow with the salsify, field garlic, milkweed, cinquefoil and cow vetch, flinching at the approach joggers, dog-and-baby walkers, bicyclists and other hale and congregational fellows.

oh, the lovely, shadowy last pew of the world...

Sunday, June 09, 2013


Rosa Multiflora ! -- a greybeard cyclist, stopped a few yards down the bike path, was hailing me.

It's an invasive species, you know ! It's all over my yard !

I straightened up. Yes, I said, I know it's invasive. But it's beautiful. 

Now it is, he replied darkly.

And it will also be beautiful when it is a spray of red berries, and even when it withers gray and dies --

But I held my tongue.  There is no convincing the cultivator of the charms of the wild. I take pictures of weeds; I do not judge. In the plant world, I am uber-inclusive.

He continued his screed. Bittersweet ! he lamented, shaking his head.

I mounted a feeble defense of the red and orange fruit,

a weed apologetics, as it were,

doomed to crumble in face of the scientific and utilitarian claims of the gardener.

In his eyes, I was a lost cause -- worse, a lunatic. Dangerous. He rejoined his pack of noisy cyclists and left me to my louche company.

It's a problem, I know.  Every year swallowwort attempts to overrun our yard. And yet I am a sucker for its little galaxies of fuzzy brown stars, even when framed by the bull goose looney of invasives, the red and green speckled Japanese knotweed.

And even I grumble at the hamfisted landscaping done by the DCR -- who managed to remove a whole lovely stand of bayberry and a swath of buttonbush, to make room for, guess what -- knotweed.

The same DCR that, once again, has mowed the pathside field down to crewcut frisbee lawn rather than let a meadow grow and thrive.

There is some moral here. Right ? Some big metaphysical insight ? I doubt it. I am short-tempered with the metaphysical world, lately. I've been reading Nordic police procedurals and trying to avoid the backward pull of mother and/or father church -- no place (I have concluded) for old (wo)men, and certainly no place for the dedicated hermit for whom joining clubs and participating in events is absolute anathema. Who was that altar-guilding, choir singing, liturgy-loving, eucharist-distributing, eternally and unsuccessfully Jesus-parsing woman ?

And who is this meadow haunting, weed-loving singleton ?