Nosce te Ipsum, part 4 – Oh Jesus

All new updated selfie.

All new updated selfie.

I admit to some spiritual confusion of late.

You can infer several things from the stories I’ve told here:

I’m not a Christian. I haven’t been, except in name, since I was a kid.

But neither am I really a Pagan, at least not in practice.

And I’m not an atheist; the very idea terrifies me.

The story I haven’t told is one that I don’t think has happened yet: the story of where that leads me.

I read a lot of memoirs, and my favorites are spiritual memoirs of women. It started with Eat, Pray, Love, and after that I devoured as many as I could find. The thing is, most women who write these stories are devout Christians, usually ferociously Born Again, who talk at length and depth about their relationship with that one particular dude whose name carries more baggage than Carousel 2 at the airport: Jesus.

Here’s the thing. America is currently loaded with terrible, terrible Christians. I feel qualified to make that judgment because a) I’m an outsider and b) I know some fantastic Christians who make the rest look like the greedy intolerant weasels they are.

One of my lifelong best friends and her husband are very devout – they’ve done mission work, helped in refugee camps, she’s been to India to teach at a school for little girls. They are some of the kindest and best people I am privileged to know. They’re not at all in-your-face about it; they just do what they do, emulate the Holy JC as much as they can, and never expect to be perfect. They watch the same movies and listen to the same music I do. She’s one of my most devoted readers. (I have seen firsthand that the nutbars of Christianity do not, in fact, like my books. Go figure.)

Not long ago I attended their Christmas program at their “Denomination? What on EARTH is that?” church, and I had a good time, but my mind spent the evening cataloging the problems – not the problems in their church, but the problems that would keep me from wanting to be involved in it.

That’s the thing, you see. I would give anything to feel like I belonged somewhere. I have no spiritual refuge of my own – aside from that brief, beautiful period when I felt embraced by a coven, before the knives came out, when I felt like I’d found a place I could fit.

Not long ago, while writing these posts and exposing all of this in the hope that others would read it and see themselves in the words, I said to God, “Okay, here I am…I will happily accept and cleave to whatever form or doctrine you see fit to speak through to me. I’ll give it a shot, even if I’ve tried before. Just…talk to me. The writers all say that God wants your hand as much as you want his; I’m holding mine out as far as I can stretch. Just meet me, and you’ve got me. Trust me, I’d make a great whatever-it-is you need.”

Nothing. I’ve learned not to expect anything more.

One of these memoirs sounded very much like me: a child who grew up with weird superstitions beliefs about God eventually said “What in the FUCK are you guys on about?” and stopped believing. Then after a long while of showing the reader how miserable she was, she decides to basically “fake it till she makes it,” and starts living “what if” – what if God was real? What if Jesus was really the Savior? What’s so wrong with thinking that…and so on.

I had to put the book down. That was it? A cheap psychological trick brought this woman’s faith back?

Put another quarter in the Disillusionment Jukebox, which only plays Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

I long for the Presence of the Divine as some people long for college degrees or children. These churches I see now, of the type that my friends attend, are modern and interested in the real world, and somewhere amid their travels and adventures and toils my friends have struck to the heart of their faith; they know what they believe.

I can’t remember the last time I knew what I believed.

Here’s where it gets dicey, though. There are some things I know, and those things keep me from considering the “fake it till you make it” branch of the First Thespian Church of WTF.

I do not believe there is only one God, or that God is male. Or rather, I believe there are a thousand faces of God, some male and some female, and that none are more or less valid to their adherents. Think of it – a deity who loves Her creation so much that He is willing to put on any face they ask for, any costume that will help them speak to Her. God will be a hundred Gods to touch the hearts of a hundred humans. To me, that’s amazing, that God could love us enough to be so many things because She wants to hold all of us – to meet us as we are. The point is that to me, they are in fact all facets of a single diamond – the All that Is, the Great Mystery, whatever you want to call it. I am still, at heart, a panentheist.

I won’t go into any of the political issues I have with how the Bible has been used to browbeat our entire culture. I’m sticking to theological issues here, and my issue is that no, I do not believe the Bible is the full-on revealed word of God. I mean, seriously? If it is, God needs to get himself a better editor and a damn good agent. From my earliest religious studies classes in college (I was a philosophy of religion minor) I loved the idea of the Bible as this centuries-spanning anthology that gathered the experiences and wisdom of all these known and unknown authors. It painted this amazing picture of life in those times, and how human values have stayed true but human understanding of the world and of God has evolved…but I never once thought it was 100% Revealed Truth. Too many contradictions, not just in the doctrine but in the writing itself. I thought people could learn a lot about how to live, and how NOT to live (something about the going price of virgins stuck in my craw), and glean important spiritual wisdom, but taking it wholesale as word-by-word revelation?

I could get around most of that, though. Obviously there are as many ways of approaching the Bible as there are people to try it. What unites a church or any congregation isn’t belief as often as it is practice. We meet these times to do these rituals, because they bring our community together and help us all feel closer to God. I could tell you what churches my parents attended and what happened there, but if you ask me what my parents actually believed…I’d be guessing. There’s not a spot in most services for people to stand up and say “Hi, my name is Sylvan, and this whole I-Gotta-Have-a-Savior thing is just crawling up my butt like a swimsuit in a Jacuzzi.”

Because that’s where it all breaks down for me. Jesus. It’s not his fault, really; the historical JC is, as far as I know, a hell of a guy. Or was.

But the whole thing about God sending his kid to suffer horribly and make us sit through another freaking Mel Gibson movie to take away our wrongdoings…I just don’t buy it.

I’ve learned the importance of JC as an intermediary – God is huge and unapproachable, Jesus was a regular guy with an extraordinary family tree.   Catholics do much the same with Mary, and I’d be more on board with that (Goddess worshipping Pagan that I’ve been) except Catholicism kind of skeeves me out.

The idea that if I say “Hell yeah Jesus died for my sins and I’m all up on that!” I get this magical new life where JC is my friend and all my troubles I can hand over to him because clearly he has nothing better to do besides catch up on Orange is the New Black…nope, I don’t buy it.

The problem here is that this expects me to believe in a very specific entity with a very specific origin story who is the only person who can rescue me from the craphole my life has become and redeem me from my old ways.

I don’t believe in Batman either.

I suppose some of that may sound hostile. It’s not meant to. It’s genuine frustration. I want something to believe in. I want to find a place to hang my soul when I come in at night. I want to feel the sense of comfort and joy that those I know who have this remarkable relationship with JC have. I see the gorgeous sacred art on Pinterest drawn inside note-taking Bibles and I can’t imagine feeling that strongly about anything I’ve ever heard a god say to me. So instead I illuminate song lyrics and quotes by Rumi.

I would totally be a mystic if I had any kind of discipline, but it’s mighty lonely out there for a mystic. As I said, my problem is one of belief, but also one of connection. I feel very little connection to anything anymore:  life, the world, human beings, nature. I am a tiny boat adrift, using my wifi to make it seem like I have a life, when really, I haven’t seen land in years.

When I see memoirs written by women who haven’t even passed 35 yet I’m skeptical, because, how can anything huge enough in your life have finished enough for you to write a book on it before 35? Hence, these posts, which have no resolution…only more questions.

 

One of these days I should make a list of all the spiritual memoirs I’ve read and post it here. Hmm.

 

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Advice to Writers: Get the Hell out of Dodge

La Quinta, as we all know, is Spanish for “Next to Denny’s.”

I’ve developed something of a pricey habit this year, but it turns out it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, and I think all of you who make a living with your creativity would benefit from something similar:   a one night, low-budged writing retreat.

I read about the concept on a blog I follow, and it intrigued me. I wanted a cabin in the Pacific Northwest forests, with a ritual circle out back and no need for air conditioning. What I could swing, well, was a night at the Holiday Inn in an ass-back-of-nowhere town an hour away.

I’ve done it twice now, and it’s fantastic. All you do is find a room. The article recommended it be at least an hour away to give you that “retreat” feeling, but my second one was only 20 minutes away and was awesome. I think it’s just important that, like any ritual experience, you have the sense of leaving ordinary time.  You can build up that sense of ritual any way you want – change clothes when you get there, burn a candle, stay a prayer, take a shower, or like me observe an equally important ritual: I take off my pants, then my shirt, and dance around the hotel room to “Uptown Funk.”

Your mileage may vary.

Pack all your writing essentials and go. When you arrive in whatever town, stop at the local grocery and stock up on whatever you use as fuel – so far mine seems to be hummus, bread, about a ton of pastries, and chocolate milk. The idea is that once you’re checked in, you don’t leave the room unless it’s to get more ice, hit a vending machine, or complain about space monkeys attacking or similar.

For me it goes like this: I get there, check in, make up some wild lie about why I’m there. I go into my room and take a huge deep breath. Then I run quick recon for the ice machine, fill up my bucket and stick it in the fridge (if you crank that thing down to low you can keep ice frozen all night).

After a snack and a bit of lollygagging, I hit the word count. I hit that thing like a tree on Endor. I’m careful to take lots of short breaks, grab a snack the moment I start to feel hungry (hungry Sylvan is not good writer Sylvan). I make a point to bring along several projects, including something utterly frivolous, so I can bounce around among them and feel like I’m working even if I’m not specifically banging away on a book. This past week, for instance, I brought:

  • The latest Agency story I’m posting on Patreon, Song & Cipher
  • Chapter 8 of Shadowstorm
  • The fourth in a moderately embarrassing series of fan fiction porn involving the Avengers
  • Blog post ideas to flesh out
  • The writing-and-etsy part of my new planner, which needed to be filled and organized.

The first time I did this I didn’t get much work done, I think because of the novelty. This time, however, I rocked that shizz for 18 hours.

I think the reason this works so well for me is that since I’m unemployed and don’t have much of a social life, writing slowly becomes drudgery, the only thing I do all day when all those supposedly normal people are out having normal lives. It does both my heart and my creativity good to make writing special for a night here and there. I feel better about myself: I’m taking a small adventure where I have to speak to people and get out of the house. And I feel better about my work: I’ve given it my sole focus so we can reconnect.

It’s really amazingly effective.

I recommend all creative types, but especially writers since our habit is easily portable and tidy, give something like this a try. I’ve only done it twice but I think it’s going to be a long-term revolution for my work – and not just my work! I’ve had a number of really intense epiphanies on my back on those hotel beds just listening to the comforting jet-plane sound of those window unit ACs.

Here’s a $$ breakdown for you, just so you’ll know what I mean by “low-budget retreat.”

Room at LaQuinta*, booked 3 weeks in advance: $119.00 plus some fees so let’s say $130.00
Tank of gas: $30.00   (I used less than half)
Food and beverages from local grocery: $30

So it’s about a $200 overnight retreat, which is probably making you snort right now, but here’s the thing: as long as I can afford it, that’s a bargain to me. I’ve had the worst time staying connected to my work this past year and even longer. My writing has suffered, my soul has suffered, and that great gaping grey hole that is my depression edges closer and closer to my feet. Somewhere among the dusty drudgery of everyday living I needed something to remind me why I love doing this, why my life isn’t drudgery because god damn it, I’m a writer! I have stories to tell and hearts to break.

I’m just hoping I can find a way to write them off on my taxes.*sigh*

* – Yeah, I know there are cheaper places than Holiday Inn and LaQuinta, but the niceness is important to my comfort there.  LaQuinta is the cheaper of the two and I liked it better, but you could do just as well in a Super 8 or similar depending on how you’re comfortable working.  Since I do most of my writing sitting on my bed with the laptop in my lap, a comfortable bed is essential.  Cheaper motels do not, in my experience, have nice beds.

Question for all of you, then, particularly the writers in the house:  Have you ever done any sort of writing retreat?  Was it solo or group?  Pricey?  Do you think its benefit to your work was worth it?  Tell us all about it.

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