Friday, May 26, 2017

"Dreams have never made my bed"

Back to blogging! I've missed posting with regularity. Suffice it to say, 2017 has proven to be a very busy and somewhat difficult year so far. By stating that I don't mean to concede the rest of 2017 to dustbin, writing it off as an irredeemably shitty year. I am always a bit amused by the fact that we find the following bit of wisdom in the Book of Lamentations
The LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning— great is your faithfulness! (3:22-23)
Given the milieu from which this bit of wisdom arose, we should not dismiss it as airy optimism, or even optimism at all. Optimism is always in danger of being blown away by the slightest breeze of reality. This passage conveys hope. What you have when optimism evaporates is either hope or despair. Like all wisdom, grasping this can only be done through experience. If bits of what pass for wisdom cannot be verified in reality, through your own experience, then, to paraphrase Morrissey, it says nothing to you about your life and is, therefore, useless.

I deliberately avoided posting a traditio last Friday because of the suicide of Chris Cornell. I featured Chris' in studio acoustic and beautifully orchestrated version of Prince's song "Nothing Compares 2 U" as our traditio at the end of April (see "Like a bird without a song"). Cornell, fronting his original band, Soundgarden, was a leading figure in the so-called "Grunge" scene that emanated from Seattle, his hometown, across the country. There were many great bands and a lot of amazing music put out by other Seattle bands, like Niravana and Pearl Jam, to name just two of most popular. After Soundgarden, Cornell founded the band Audioslave, which was also the source of some notable music.

Chris Cornell last year


Cornell also achieved a bit of notoriety when he converted to Christian Orthodoxy. From outward appearances, this seems to have been the result of his marriage to Vicky Karayiannis. There are some rather easy to access pictures of him having one his children baptized floating around the internet. It seems that Cornell was raised Catholic, but, like a lot of young Catholics, he was put off by his exposure to what amounts to very superficial, rule-based, form of Catholicism - the kind Pope Francis is seeking to help the Church overcome. Who knows how sincere his becoming Orthodox was? Who knows if he was really converted beyond switching up his religious mode a bit? Who knows what his religious praxis included? I make no claims to such knowledge. As one of my Christian friends, who also happens to be Orthodox, put it- although a bit more crudely, which befitted the conversation (I am not criticizing the way he expressed himself): A guy will do a lot to get laid. After his bad experience at Catholic school (his mother was Jewish, his Dad a Catholic), Cornell, even after his conversion to Orthodoxy, always expressed a great deal of uncertainty when it came to the big questions in general and about specific religious approaches to them. I think many Christians should be more honest and express less certainty, eschewing or at least treading lightly when it comes to matters that fall outside our experience.

Rather than continue typing away like monkey in the futile hope of stumbling onto something meaningful to say, I point you to a post by writer Rich Larson entitled "It's not what you think." Unlike Larson, I was a fan of Soundgarden and certainly enjoyed Cornell's solo work immensely. He was a talented, soulful artist who put his whole self into everything he did; talk about the passion.

I think Larson does a good job by describing Grunge thus:
Grunge is the gift that Generation X gave to the world of music. We took all that slacker cynicism, mixed it up with our older siblings’ sneering punk attitude, Zeppelin’s low end and, if we’re being honest, a little heroin. The result was the musical version of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It was gorgeous art that was absolutely sure that nothing really matters, making it feel immediate and important. It was the sound of a generation telling everybody, including ourselves, to fuck off
As Larson goes on to note, this kind of overt nihilism, something I tend towards in my darker moments, leaves a high body count.

Cornell's suicide at age 52, Larson notes, is both different and not-so-different from those who died young. Setting dark romance and macabre nostalgia aside, Larson faces reality
But now he’s gone, and goddammit, his is the death that bothers me the most. As I’ve been thinking about this, I’m realizing that it’s both a personal and a generational thing. Cornell had a long struggle with depression. As have I. As have many of you
Cornell struggled with various addictions: opioids, including heroine, and alcohol. Having gone through rehab in 2002, Cornell apparently managed to live pretty clean for a long time. I've read credible news reports that indicate fresh needle marks were found on Cornell's arms post-mortem. I don't convey this to be gossipy and certainly not to be judgmental, or to state I know it's true. Above all, I don't want to offer the neat little moral lesson on which my generation was raised- Just Say No to Drugs. As an antidote, I offer this phrase, which was popular among my contemporaries in the "Just Say No" era: Reality is for people who can't handle drugs. Is this an endorsement of drug use? No! It is an endorsement of reality. I mention Cornell's possible relapse (i.e., the respectable name for it) in order to challenge the facile notion that drug use was the cause of his death. I am interested, first personally and then pastorally, in what was the cause of his drug use. It is his response to this question that I find the greatest insight in what Larson wrote:
You might think grunge is about anger, but that’s not completely true. Yes, it can sound that way, but it’s really about depression and cynicism. Those two go hand-in-hand, along with their nasty little sister, anxiety. When the three of them get going, they just eat hope as quickly as it can be summoned. That leaves despair and despair is exhausting, not just for those who experience it, but for the people around it as well. So we keep it to ourselves because we don’t want to be a burden. And then it gets to be too much. Doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a mom, an accountant or a rock star. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written about it your entire life as a means of keeping it at bay. It doesn’t matter if the music you made about it brought in fame, respect and millions of dollars. It doesn’t matter if your entire generation has suffered from it. Depression makes you feel totally alone. You hit the breaking point, and then, like Chris Cornell, you die alone in the bathroom
In a fit of darkness a few years, I told someone close to me that when I die I want to be cremated, have no funeral, and have my cremated remains flushed down the toilet. I wasn't joking nor being overly dramatic at the time. I was saying what I felt and thought. I guess I am supposed to reassure you, dear reader, that I am feeling much better now. In fact, at least today, I am feeling somewhat better.

One television show I love, despite there not being that many episodes (18 in all, which I re-watch quite frequently) is "Black Books." The lead character is Bernard Ludwig Black, played by Dylan Moran, who, along with Graham Linehan, created the show. Along with Manny, Bernard runs a decrepit bookshop in London. I will spare you more details. If you're reading this you can easily "Google" it. One of Bernard's most memorable lines, at least for me, is: "Don't make me sick into my own scorn." Here's a relevant scene that cuts straight, no chaser:



The sad reality is that for those of us who live in the "advanced" West inhabit and largely perpetuate a society and culture that does nothing but try to eat us alive everyday and make ever more individuals and consumers. This is compounded by so many people who, no doubt in an effort to just cope by seeking to make the best of a bad situation, mistake optimism for hope. There is one thing of which I need to remind myself everyday, often many times throughout the day: Hope lies beyond optimism, well beyond it. This is verified by the fact that I never feel emptier than when I "achieve" something. This is faith, not nihilism. To me, optimism is nihilism because it amounts to putting your hope in what is ephemeral, here one moment and gone the next. It's perhaps a bit like playing a brilliant, kick-ass, concert and then dealing with the darkness of your hotel room, closer to my experience, giving a presentation to a very interested and engaged group, presenting something I've worked on for weeks if not months and then going to lunch, or stopping off for a coffee all by myself. Let's face it, life is disappointing. The world kicks your ass. Nihilism is not overcome by the frivolous, if well-intentioned, invention of meaning, striving to give some sort of value to that which has little or no value.

I also have to take time everyday to just be myself in God's presence. To sit and say or do nothing at all. I need at least 10 minutes a day, sometimes more than one 10 minute period to just be. So much of what I worry about what I think about, what I feel I must do, doesn't matter in the least. What matters is contemplating what I won't do. Consciously acknowledging the meaninglessness of most of what passes for life in the late-capitialist, so-called post-modern, West is important to my own spirituality. As one of my spiritual mentors used to tell me: "It isn't mostly wheat fields and waterfalls." To deny this would be to deny myself and my own perception of reality, to live falsely and unauthentically, to live without faith, believe or not.

Well, I've more than made up for not posting anything last Friday. It was a deliberate decision. So, rather than belabor not making a point, our Friday traditio is Cornell's song "Seasons," which was written for Cameron's Crowe's movie Singles, which I saw when it came out and, frankly, apart from the music, didn't like at all.



And I'm lost, behind
The words I'll never find
And I'm left behind
As seasons roll on by


I would also point you to the Soundgarden song "Fell on Black Days": "I'm only faking when I get it right/When I get it right."

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