Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Through Snow and Space

There may have been something strange in the boiled green beans that I ate at the Tin Can on Saturday. The side dish was more than a bacony compliment to my meal—it was the start of a waking dream.

The evening was lovely and dangerous.

“In fact,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports, “thundersnow was observed in St. Louis County.”

My friend, Shannon, and I drove to the Contemporary Art Museum at speeds in the teens, fishtailing through the turns. The false twilight helped us see.

We parked in fresh snow next to a roofless church. I worried that my car would be buried when we returned. We hadn’t worn boots.

The museum lobby was dark and curious—handmade dolls and simulated waves. Our friend, Lori, later posed in a carnival cutout.

We got some wine and sat in the first of three rows. The stage was set with musical instruments, a giant plastic bubble and a length of red fabric hung from ceiling to floor. Maya Lin’s Systematic Landscapes seemed to breathe in the background.

The production began with Christmas songs, performed by Ceilia’s Yuletide Express. Lyrics were provided in the program, and I noticed a few people mouthing the words.

A woman in a neon green afro and white unitard invited us to release our bellies and observe a brief silence. She washed the makeup from her face in a large wok, pulled off her wig and invoked the memory of her mother singing in her kitchen. Others joined her song, and as the goose pimples spread over my arms, a concept—something about love and transformation—emerged from the weird.

Rebecca Rivas, who facilitated this nearly fifty-person collaboration, explained that the band, Fire Dog, had composed the show’s title track, May These Changes Make Us Light. The dancers and various artists then created their own superheroes or mythical personas. Rebecca, for instance, was “the Hunter.”

With the two other members of the Amazonia Belly Dance Troupe, “Pin Oak” and “Desire,” Rebecca hunted and gyrated all over the stage.

“How can it be,” an unseen narrator asked, “that in our most joyous moments, we let doubt and fear creep in?"

A brief fashion show ensued, demonstrating some stylish uses of muslin, electrical tape and battery-operated lights.

Then a white-haired man, who had seemed out of place during the caroling in his trench coat and lobsterman’s hat, laid three yoga mats on the floor.

“To the people,” the narrator said, “he was the janitor for the museum beneath the St. Louis Arch. But he was truly much more than that, much more than even HE realized. You see, this was his plan: to use the Arch itself, as a gigantic transmitter of a good thought, broadcasted repeatedly day and night, unbeknownst to the officials of this so-called, Gateway to the West.”

We are all one, and love is all there is. This was the phrase that he had chosen to project.”

According to the story, the message reached a clan of yogis from across the universe, who responded with movement. In fact, they were acro-yogis, and the audience applauded their every feat.

This is the part of the dream that starts to unravel into a series of disjointed images, provoked by the giant plastic bubble that turned out to be a projection screen. I know how the listener’s eyes glaze over during the retelling of any dream, so I’ll skip ahead to the pole dancers.

A portable pole was rolled into view and two women with similarly powerful-looking bodies appeared in their underwear. The music got heavier as they worked through their solo routines before crawling upwards in unison—gravity defied, limbs akimbo.

video
“We have been sent nothing but angels,” the narrator said, as a woman spilled beads from the vase on her head.

The next act took graceful stunt-making even further, ascending almost thirty feet up the red length of silk.

Fire Dog kept the momentum rolling skyward with the reprise, Ahh, ahh, ahh, ahhhh, achieving a new register with every ahh.

video
The lights went up as the Yuletide Express finished with It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Happy Christmas (War is Over) and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Reluctant audience members were dragged onto stage, only to discover that Christmas songs are particularly difficult to dance to.

The music ended, photos were taken and people mingled with holiday-charged hearts before trickling out into all that white.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Writing with Rules

As a writer, I know one thing—writing isn’t very fun. I would rather clean my toilet or snack myself into a coma than write something more taxing than an email.

I’ve started to think that I’m going about this in the wrong way.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with my friend, Molly, about my condition. Molly is a poet living in Maine. She butchers animals on the side, so I consider her an expert on fun.

Molly proposed an exercise. We would come up with a list of requirements to follow in a short piece of writing. She insisted that we generate this list immediately and share our efforts in ten days time.

Molly’s first pronouncement: We must use one noun as a verb.

I know, she’s a nerd, but I decided to play along.

“We must use one infix,” I declared.

Actually, I couldn’t remember the word infix, so I had to search for it on the Internet. It refers to the rare grammatical occasion when one word is inserted inside of another. The only example I could think of was abso-fucking-lutely. Try putting that into a poem.

A day before the exercise was due, I sat down and wrote something. What I discovered wasn’t profound—nothing makes writing fun, but a deadline and some structure help.

That first effort was a little raw, but I’d like to share a subsequent exercise that I did with my friend Edan, a fiction writer living in Los Angeles. The procedure was the same, but we settled on a few less requirements. I’ll include them below the text.

__________________


Run

Pork sausage kisses skillet and I wake up. The smell of frying fat spills into frosted sugar cookie air. I roll across the sleeper sofa for my long underwear in the duffle bag on the floor. My cousins, Kayla and Michael, watch from the kitchen table. It’s nine o’clock and they’re eating candy. I pull on jogging pants, a hooded sweatshirt, a hat and gloves.

“Want a Jolly Rancher?” Kayla asks.

“What flavor?” I ask.

“Persimmon,” she says.

“Bullshit. That’s peach,” Michael says.

Aunt Ruby crosses the living room with an armful of gifts, followed by a gust of cold air and Sally, the inside dog.

“Sleep good?” Ruby asks.

“Yeah.” I double knot my laces. “I’m going for a run.”

“There’s a frozen bird out there,” she says and struggles into the den.

Grandma sets a coffee cake on the table.

“No more candy,” she says. “You gonna eat, Ryan?”

“I’ll eat after.”

“Your mom and dad went to the cemetery, but I told them not to wake you.”

She closes the candy bag with a rubber band and smoothes down Michael’s hair.

“That’s fine,” I say.

I hit the door. The cold punches out my first breath. Spot, the outside dog, hobbles from behind the garage. He follows me to the road, where his invisible leg tells him not to go.

The tire ruts run to the trees at the edge of my grandparents’ property. They sold most of their land after a rolling tractor killed Uncle Jim, the only son, besides Denis, who would've wanted it.

“Melissa Etheridge died,” Uncle Denis once said.

We’d been taking shots at a soda can propped on a fence post. He sipped his beer and I watched him.

“Really?” I asked.

I didn’t listen to her music, but I felt regret. I could remember one of her songs. Come to my window. Crawl inside. Wait by the light of the moon.

“They found her face down in Ricki Lake,” he said and fired his twenty-two.

The dead oak is out of reach. I’ll just run to exhaustion and turn around. In the summer, there would be soybeans on either side. Now the ground looks like it’s been broken up with an axe. My lips are chapped and the sweat on my neck helps the cold find its grip.

Dad’s SUV crosses the creek bridge. I try to run quickly, but my knees aren’t bending right.

I imagine our drive home on Christmas Day. My sister will want to hear the story of how my parents almost bought a farm after they got married, almost changing the course of our lives, and how the loan fell through. Mom will tell it. I’ll look at the freckles on Dad’s hands as he concentrates on the drive.

“You’re crazy!” Mom yells out the passenger window.

“Want a ride back?” Dad asks.

“No,” I say, just loud enough to be heard.

The ice snaps under their tires. I run for heat, but it whips away in the wind.

At the crossroads a half-mile from the house, I turn west. The sky or the ground smells like diesel. The sun is diffuse. A cross stands in the field, twenty yards from the road. There are teddy bears tied to it, wrapped in plastic bags.

This is where a woman was dumped last year. Her family put up a memorial—the fake flowers and wreathes, the photos covered with cellophane. A man had given her a ride from one of the bars and stabbed her, or something. I cross the field, wondering when I will step on the spot where she died.

We loved you for the most ordinary things that you did and for loving us for our ordinary things and for being perfect just as you were.

That’s what one of the notes should say, but there aren’t any notes. I wipe the frost off her name and run home.

__________________


1. Persimmon should appear in the text.
2. There should be one proper noun, aside from any characters' names.
3. A character should wonder about something in the future.
4. Someone should alter his/her physical surroundings.
5. There should be a run on sentence.
6. There should be one joke.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Middled Makes Print

Today the West End Word is running my article, "Why Am I Afraid of Black People?" as a guest column. Here's the link. I cut it down to about a fourth of the original, so check out what was lost and, perhaps, gained.

Also, take a look at the rest of the Word while you're there. It's a great free paper that's been fighting the good fight in St. Louis City for over thirty years.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Christian Believer

At thirteen, I professed my Christian faith through a confirmation ceremony at a United Methodist Church. I had attended weekly classes, spent a night alternately chasing and fleeing girls through church hallways, written hard questions like, “What about homosexuals?” on slips of folded paper and memorized the Apostle’s Creed.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth / And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord...
My parents had become Methodists by consumer method. When we moved to St. Louis the summer before I entered the sixth grade, we treaded the Protestant waters for a few Sundays, weighing factors such as hymn-count and quality of mingling, before declaring a victor by four-person vote in our car.

I remember feeling betrayed by my family’s spotty attendance during my first Sunday school class, as my peers rattled off the books of the Bible like a list of their favorite films.

I may have become a Christian the day that the baptismal water met my screaming infant head, but I haven’t exactly felt like one since. The chubby, pre-teen just showed up and read the provided texts. The almost-adult still hasn’t mustered the conviction for renunciation or embrace.

Before I sat down for coffee with Matt Miofsky, the minister at the United Methodist church that my parents have recently joined, I tried to assess the state of my faith.

I believe in Jesus, but I’m not sure how I believe in him. I don’t know if I believe that he is the Son of God. I don’t know if I believe in him to the exclusion of other prophets and systems of belief. I don’t know if belief in him requires that. I don’t know if he has saved me and I don’t know if I should feel like a fraud, occasionally singing and praying alongside the congregates in my parents’ and grandfather’s churches.

“You’ll hear the cliché that people are spiritual, but they’re just not religious,” Matt said during our second conversation, over gyros. “I think what that’s getting at is that they’re interested in questions. They just don’t know what they believe about it and are uncomfortable tagging themselves as something.”
I guess I’m living that cliché. I sometimes pray in the morning and at night, but I don’t pray to Jesus. I may pray for creative inspiration or for assistance finding a job (I’m still praying for that), but I mostly pray as an expression of gratitude for my family, friends, health and the presence of love in my life.

I also do yoga, limberly toeing the line between exercise and something deeper that I don’t define. I’ve sat with spiritual mediums and I know that those insights and experiences were real. I’ve been inspired by people of various faiths, in person and in writing, particularly Mahatma Gandhi. What a stud.

I met with Matt partly because my mother wanted me to. She never said that, but she was happy when I finally attended Matt’s church, and she spoke about young people, “your age,” that would benefit from such a community. Mom sees that something interesting is happening inside the modest, steepled building on McCausland Avenue, at the edge of St. Louis City, and I see it too.

The Gathering United Methodist Church held its first worship service on September 17, 2006, having exposed the brick and a massive oak frame at the front of its sanctuary, installed outlets for microphones and amplifiers and torn out pews in favor of cushy, but supportive chairs.

The church had been conceived in Matt’s living room. As the associate minister at Webster Hills United Methodist Church in Webster Groves, Matt and his wife, Jessica, hosted study and discussion groups, mostly for people under the age of thirty-five. By the second year, attendance had grown from two to forty and Matt began to recognize a certain demand.

“It was kind of a constellation of events and experiences that led me to want to start a new church in this city,” Matt said. “When I was in college, Jess and I were like, ‘Maybe we’ll try to find a church.’ And we’d kind of shop around a bit and there was just nothing that, this sounds a little selfish, but nothing we were interested in. It seemed like work for us.”

“I remember thinking, ‘God, I’m a person that’s toying with ministry. I actually want to go to church and I can’t find a church. What about people who are just indifferent to neutral about church?’ It just indicated to me that there seemed to be a problem or, at minimum, a need for compelling communities of faith.”

Both the leadership at Webster Hills and the regional United Methodist bishop supported the establishment of The Gathering, but the endeavor contradicted some accepted assumptions.

“The city was seen as sort of a graveyard of churches,” Matt said. “Where we were starting new churches was in O’Fallon and St. Charles County, these fast-growing suburbs. [The city] just wasn’t seen as a place where you’d start something new because so many things were dying.”

“My argument was that they’re dying because these are places that have been around for a hundred and fifty years. They still look like they did fifty years ago. We have a real opportunity to start something new that incorporates and is created for and by people who are living in the city now.”
When I crossed the threshold of The Gathering for the first time, I was met by a greeter’s smile, flanked by coffee and pastries. The original stained glass windows filtered out all but the loveliest light, supporting my impression that the gatherers were disproportionately attractive. More than a few were rocking infants to the live music, following a cascade of projected lyrics that I didn’t recognize from the hymnals of my youth. In combination, all of the freshness and sincerity made me feel a little weird and a little defensive.

On paper, the service was more familiar. The order of events detailed on the bulletin wasn’t much different than the one followed by my grandfather’s church in Cuba, Missouri. There were scripture readings and interpretation, an offering, an invitation to exchange greetings, a communion service, a sermon and a benediction to send the congregants home.

“A lot of people asked, ‘What’s going to be different about it?’” Matt said. “It was almost the assumption that if you started something new, it needed to be wholly innovative, and I didn’t want to feel like, ‘Church is irrelevant and boring. We’re going to create something completely new and call it church.’ I actually had a deep belief that at its core, the practice of what the Church was supposed to be about was a compelling idea.”

What Matt found frustrating was the “social club model,” which came to define Protestant churches in America after World War II.

“The Church was not that different from the Optimist Club or the Elks,” he said. “It was an organization that had meetings, where you could become a member, that did things for the community, and yet, in about the seventies, that was no longer a compelling kind of community. People didn’t want to be involved in that. If you look at a lot of those old social organizations, they had their peak about the same time that churches had their membership peak in the twentieth century.”

In the struggle to defeat the temptations of televised football and sleeping in, Matt believes that many churches have over-invested in appeals to the social interests of their communities.

“When I was at Webster Hills, we had a thousand and one programs,” Matt said. “We tried to be the YMCA, the social club. I mean we had all these classes. The problem was the YMCA did athletics better than us, book clubs at Barnes and Noble were more interesting than our book clubs, and we had a coffee hour, but Starbucks was better.”

“That was really built off a model of the small town American church at the turn of the nineteenth century, where the church was the bookstore, the Starbucks, the YMCA, but it’s not that any more. It doesn’t need to be that. So the Church needs to figure out, ‘Who are we then?’”

“In some ways I think that we lost faith in our core work,” he said. “What I wanted to do was get back to, ‘Okay, where would you go in our community to learn how to pray and meditate?’ We ought to be well-equipped to do that. ‘Where do you go to wrestle with questions about who God is and who God calls you to be, if God works in the world at all?’”

This last question made me set down my fourth cup of coffee. I took it for granted that Matt was serving a community of believers.

“I think the Church has put an overemphasis on belief, to its detriment,” he said. “What we’ve done in the past has been kind of, ‘Believe, belong, behave.’ Meaning you come in, if we can get you to believe the right stuff, then you can become a member, and once you belong, then we’ll get you to start doing the things we think you ought to do.”

“That’s a bad order. It might happen that way for some, but more and more now, and what I want is, people come to a church and they are first going to experience a sense of belonging and then begin to let that community shape the way they behave and that will lead to a shaping a belief. It doesn’t always work that way, but if we put belief up front, as the litmus test of whether or not you belong in a community, that’s a bad choice.”

In addition to worship, service, giving, prayer and meditation, The Gathering United Methodist Church identifies small group learning as a central practice that Matt hopes “would help to shape us into people who experience God, form deeper commitments to God and allow God to shape our lives.”

Matt’s favorite small group is for skeptics. Over the course of seven weeks, participants consider the opinions of both atheists and believers, who each address questions of God and religion from a distinct perspective.

“A true atheist is a very rare thing,” Matt said. “So given the fact that we all cobble together our own worldview about life, whatever’s beyond life, God and our own role in this whole thing, the question is, ‘What’s the something going to be?’”

“There are people who are content with cobbling together their own thing and never placing themselves in a larger stream, but they, in fact, are in a large stream of people who cobble together their thing.”

At this point, he put down his gyro and laughed.

“There’s something attractive about never having to choose,” Matt said. “Some people can never choose one religion because they think that there’s some truth in all of them, so they choose to become this sort of scientific observer of religious life, rather than a participant in religious life. Even though they observe truth in religious life, they never themselves commit because they have a fear of particularity.”

“I’m a big believer, though, in particularity over things general. I think there’s a lot of danger in assuming that the best we can hope to be is an objective observer of all the things around us without ourselves ever diving into something and claiming it as our own.”

“That’s the hardest thing for people,” he said. “They look at Christianity and they say, ‘You know, it’s okay, but I don’t believe in all that. What I think is a little different than that and there’s truth in some of these other religious traditions, so, therefore, I can’t be part of that community of faith.’”

In researching my recent article about Islam and Muslims in St. Louis, I attended a lecture at The Ethical Society and began talking to a Muslim woman who was sitting next to me in the audience. When she asked me about my own religion, I said that I was raised as a Methodist, but no longer identify myself with a particular faith.

“A lot of Americans are like that,” she said and seemed disappointed.

“When having an ecumenical or interfaith conversation,” Matt said, “what you don’t want is a bunch of wishy washy Jews, Muslims and Christians who shed particularity.”

“When you went out and interviewed for your article, my sense is you wanted to find a Muslim. You wanted someone deeply committed to the particularities of Islam so that you could discover what it is that’s compelling about that.”

Matt acknowledged that by accepting any one faith, an individual makes certain claims about the world, life, God and truth that may contradict another’s beliefs.

“We’re having to struggle with a philosophical worldview that’s really shifting away from the notion of one absolute truth that dispels every other possible truth and into some sort of philosophical landscape that says somehow two things can be true that both overlap and contradict. And that’s a weird thing for us to conceptualize, but I find that it meshes well with my experience.”

“What’s liberating about that is it sort of frees us up to claim our story without having to claim exclusive status for our story, so we no longer have to become afraid of who we are and what we believe.”
For me, the fear of claiming beliefs and identity is familiar. In the same way that choosing a career sometimes feels like a negation of all the other possible lives that I could be leading, joining a community of faith might mean accepting one version of myself over another. Non-participation isn’t really an option in the working world, but maybe with religion it’s just not as interesting or instructive.

I find support through my family and friends. I enjoy the intimacy of prayer without wondering too much about its effects. I also have questions, and I don’t know how to claim the answers.

On Tuesday mornings, The Gathering holds a brief prayer service at seven o’clock. This includes a reading from scripture, chanting, prayer, silence and a cup of coffee in a to-go cup. This seemed like an opportunity to step into a vulnerable space and try something different, but I stayed up late the night before and overslept.