Pity, the Rebel Sense

pity
Photo credit: Michael Paine Photography

My friend Forrest, who takes the term “Renaissance man” to another level, was recently conceiving of directing a play in an outdoor theater sculpted out of the snow of small-town Massachusetts. The play is called Trojan Women, and it is about the disturbing aftermath of the Trojan war. In the preparatory process, Forrest was tripped up by a heretofore unconsidered definition of a certain word with a rather bad rap in the English language: pity. In the translator’s introduction to the play, he found this:

“Pity is a rebel passion. Its hand is against the strong, against the organized force of society, against conventional sanctions and accepted Gods. It is the Kingdom of Heaven within us fighting against the brute powers of the world; and it is apt to have those qualities of unreason, of contempt for the counting of costs and the balancing of sacrifices, of recklessness, and even, in the last resort, of ruthlessness, which so often marks the paths of heavenly things and the doings of the children of light. It brings not peace, but a sword” (Gilbert Murray, introduction to Trojan Women).

This definition is almost contrary to the complacent attitude that we normally associate with pity. So Forrest published a post calling for other perspectives. “Essentially, pity involves looking down on someone else,” he summarized the common understanding. “You have compassion, for their plight, but do not or will not share it.” He cited other quotes and conversations that have suggested different meanings of pity to him, one of which even compares it to love, but his feelings about the word remained mixed. He wondered if it is a confusing and dated way to describe such a worthy passion for justice.

Since he called on me in particular, I was moved to do some serious research into the matter. Which, in my case, meant Biblical exegesis. Lest you question my religious response, I took my cue from the translator’s use of Christian symbols, and the fact that both the play and the New Testament were originally written in Greek.

In Biblical Greek there are two main words connected to pity. One is eleeo, which means to have mercy, compassion, or pity on. This is most often used as a supplication toward an authority figure: Have mercy on me! It is also connected to divine activity—the miraculous power to heal, forgive, liberate, make justice, and reconcile.

The other word is splagchnizomai (try saying that ten times fast…or even just once). It literally means to be moved in your bowels, which connects to the idea of a mother being moved in her womb with compassion for her child. Despite the less than transcendent images that “movement in the bowels” may conjure, the idea is that the bowels occupy roughly the same anatomical space as the womb, and thus provide a seat of compassion for both genders. So, figuratively, splagchnizomai means to be moved with compassion, to feel sympathy, to pity. Splagchnizomai suggests a more human, messy, bodily experience than eleeo. It is the gut-wrenching feeling we get when we see other people suffering.

This is what all that fuss over incarnation is about. Jesus, as the story goes, possessed that divine power of healing, liberating, and so forth, but was also a human being like the rest of us, who felt in his large intestine what it means to suffer leprosy, blindness, insanity, exclusion, oppression, and poverty. Jesus heals and teaches people because he is moved in his bowels—sometimes even when this urge is in conflict with his physical and emotional needs, as it often is for the rest of us (e.g., Mark 1:40-42, 6:30-34). The only thing that makes him different, perhaps, is that in spite of his frustration, he always acts upon that movement in his bowels anyway.

So, what does all this mean about pity? I think the differentiation between pity as condescending and compassion as constructive is recent—helpful in some cases but not necessarily true to the heritage of experiences tied to these words. Traditionally, pity has also been connected to truly feeling and acting upon the suffering of others. It shares the same Latin root as the word “piety,” which means dutifulness. In this case, it means fulfilling one’s duty to those in need, as in 1 John 3:17: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?”

Pity is a useful word because it connotes splagchnizomai, the kind of compassion that is physical and messy. We need to feel others’ suffering on a visceral level, with the mix of both noble and lowly emotions that this entails. Of course, you could feel it and then turn your head aside without taking action. But then the motion of pity in your bowels gets stopped up. To put it bluntly, you get constipated.

Another of Forrest’s friends, Luis, deepened the discussion by expanding on this idea that pity moves. “Pity is all about movement,” he wrote. “[It is] about being moved away and towards—away from acting and thinking selfishly and caring only for one’s own life and safety and towards acting for the sake of ennobling, protecting, and caring for others. It is the difference, in short, between Harry and Voldemort, Gandalf and Saruman, the Sermon on the Mount and the Inquisition. The schism is endlessly reiterated and is by far more telling than simply talking about good vs. evil. It is, of course, a dialogue of power and what power truly is.”

Movement is the most basic form of power. It is the force of lifting a finger, of moving a mountain, or of crossing your arms and sitting down. It is the translation of our volition into the physical world. So, as Luis elaborated, the moral value of power depends on the direction it moves in. Power can be inward moving self-interest that tramples whatever is in its path, or it can be outward moving pity that “acts in interest of something outside of yourself to affirm life and work for a world of conscience.”

If, as I have previously suggested, we ought to consider other kinds of senses to include in our rather limited cultural repertoire of five, I would vote for this one: the sense of movement. Movement is not just something we do, but something that is done to us in our bodies. We are moved in our guts to respond to others out of love; or we are moved by fear and selfishness to withdraw in self-protection. But we cannot help but be moved, just as we cannot help seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touching what crosses our paths.

It may be that in the context of the play’s translator, who wrote a hundred years ago, pity was already considered condescending. But even then, it makes perfect sense that he would try to create a sense of shock and reversal in his readers by using the word to connote such revolutionary, anti-status-quo attitudes and actions—and certainly it is by no mistake that he ties it back to its Biblical roots.

The reference to bringing “not peace, but a sword” is from Matthew 10, a passage about radical commitment to something beyond the comfortable structures of society. In fact, it is a commitment to disrupt these structures, for which “the world” will hate and persecute you. However, it is not a call to violence. What Jesus is doing, and calling his disciples to do, may provoke violence and disruption, but that is not its end, much less the means they use to seek that end, which is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven “has been subject to violence” (Matt. 11:12), precisely because it is a kingdom where the innocence of children reigns (Matt. 19:14), where the lowliest are most important (Matt. 18:4), where the poor are welcomed first (Matt. 19:23), where abundance and mercy do not follow worldly logic of who “deserves” it (Matt. 20:1-16). In other words, it is a kingdom created by the movement of pity. In the conclusion of the last chapter mentioned, Matthew 20, when two blind men are shouting for Jesus to have mercy on them (eleeo), people tell them to shut up and be respectful. But Jesus takes pity on them (splagchnizomai) and touches their eyes. “Immediately they received their sight and followed him.” They kept moving.

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The Panoply of Marriage

marriage1

The eleventh month of this year was full of a few of my favorite things: visitors from far-away countries, the color orange, elaborate rituals, inside jokes, golden rings, the number 11 itself, and marriage—my own, finally. It was overwhelmingly sensuous, as all good rituals, along with their preparation and aftermath, should be. So I cannot pick one sense to summarize it, between the silk curtains and flames and waterfalls, the shared soup and carefully decorated cakes, the songs and poetry recited, the reassuring touches and passionate kisses, the flowers and incense of our best offerings to God. It can only be described as a panoply of sensorial experience that causes you to stumble awkwardly or forget your lines as you try, and inevitably fail, to take it all in.

After being a student for so long, the best metaphor I can find for this month of my marriage is the sense that I’ve graduated from something. Yet, perpetual student that I am, I also feel like I’ve only just begun learning, and I didn’t really get in enough classes on medieval female saints or anthropological perspectives on globalization or a thousand other things that I should be an expert on. In this case, I didn’t get in enough classes on how to be tender enough to be emptied out, or on how to open my being to another—along with all his others—in the vulnerability of true love. I guess I’ll just have to figure it out as I go along.

But I did learn a lot at the end of this year. I learned that hosting a group of eight beautifully mismatched gringos in Bogotá is the closest I’ve come to herding cats, and yet I loved every minute of it and every bit of the people who came to share this time with me. I learned how important it is to let go of control precisely at the moments when you think you most need to exercise it. I learned about the power of promising your heart and your damned best to someone in front of a gathered assembly, and how that creates a little ship-like container to carry you along life’s troubled currents together. I learned how humbling the kindness, dedication and helpfulness of my family, friends and even strangers can be. I learned just how much I need these people, sometimes even to keep breathing properly, as I discovered when my little brother successfully prevented me from hyperventilating through his unrivaled ability to crack me up. This sort of kindness will be the subject of a future post using a new sense category that is legendarily located in the bowels.

But for now I will just say, I am grateful, and I am empty-handed, and I am whole.

marriage2

Time, Among Other Things, is Relative

the forest in michiganBogotá has robbed me of my sense of temporality. Time seems perpetually frozen here, just like my hands. I arrived on January 9, and after almost exactly 9 months, nothing has changed. To be sure, I have moved from one neighborhood to another, made friends, decoded the public transportation system, discovered waterfalls, written new songs, started new jobs, undergone various shifts in my overall emotional state, completed 15 of my 19 ordination essays, and begun in earnest to plan for my wedding. But nothing has changed, because there are no seasons.

I have always enjoyed the changes of season, but I did not realize until recently how important seasons are for my Michigan soul to mark the passing of time. It makes no sense here to say, “That happened in the summer of 2002,” or “Last fall was a time of deep introspection for me,” or, “I hope to learn to play the oboe this coming spring.” Without these markers, time compresses itself into one long, meaningless month that can’t decide if it’s spring, summer or fall.

In Bogotá, people speak of August as windy, and January as a good time to spot the far-off snowcapped mountains because the skies are clearer. They variously identify certain months as rainy, though I haven’t deciphered a clear consensus on which these are. Furthermore, with the unpredictable shifts in global weather patterns of late, even these paltry seasonal classifications have lost some meaning for people. In the end, it seems to me, all year it’s the same thing: highs range from 55-65°F and lows range from 40-50°F and sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t.

As if to compensate, however, Bogotá often invents seasons on a day-to-day basis. It’s something that I cannot quite explain with the usual factors of temperature, cloud cover, humidity and precipitation. It’s something I feel in my body when I walk outside. I never know when I open the door if I will be struck with the sweet, damp air and tentative warmth of the awakening springtime, or with the cold, crisp certainty of autumn, or with the startling, tingling jubilation of a hot summer day. I can sometimes even identify the timing more exactly: “Today is the end of April,” I think nostalgically, although it is October 8. Or, “Today is mid-October,” I say to myself at some point in July.

Clearly these experiences are of no use to my impulse to categorize time in seasonal cycles. But they do help me think about how different ways of sensing and understanding the world are needed in different cultural and ecological settings. My immediate ability to recognize what would be a Michigan spring, summer or fall is quite useful in Michigan—and would be even more so if I were, say, a farmer or a hunter. In Colombia it is significantly less useful.

Likewise, there may be important shifts here in weather, soil, flora and fauna that I do not have the sensorial capacity to perceive. My former anthropology professor and continual mentor, Carol Hendrickson, has reminded me that if I am making a blog about the senses, I ought to take into consideration that other cultures do not necessarily even maintain the same classification of the five senses that mine does. As this article demonstrates, some cultures count more than five, some less, and sometimes these do not correspond to our five (such as in Javanese culture, which considers the senses to include seeing, hearing, talking, smelling and feeling). The point is humbling and well taken. How could I have overlooked this in the initial conception of the blog?

I am certain that such varied classifications of the senses could enrich our perception of the world in ways we do not even realize we were missing from within our particular cultural frame. My “sense” of a certain season when I step out the door is a case in point. For the purpose of my five narrow categories, I have filed this blog entry under “Sense of Touch,” because it involves a certain feeling of touching the air itself. But in reality, the sense of touch is insufficient. “Touch” connotes contact with another material that produces a reaction via the skin. But in reality, I feel the change of season (or the illusion of such) in my whole body, including both the interior and exterior, in terms of the weight of the air, the way it moves in me and I move in it, and the emotions it produces in me.

What on earth do you call that kind of sensing? I do not know, but I hope to do further research on the varieties of sensory perception in different cultures as I develop this blog, and perhaps along the way I will find out.

How Not to Discover Your Own Nature

Parque de MirafloresI am sitting in the grass in an improbable park. It is carved into the side of a hill that is so long and steep that you cannot see from here where the slabs of brick stairs end; one must go on faith that they lead down to the center of the Suba district. But like traditional Andean farmers, city planners made use of the terracing method to install a park here with a little round courtyard, a playground, and a small rectangle of a soccer and basketball court.

The sun is indescribably golden and hot today. It seems to be scorching my skin right through my leggings and knee-high socks and sweater. I have come out to the park just to feel it. Inside my house it is always a dreary November day when the heat has stopped working. Out here, however, it is like a disarming October heat wave, with soaring blue skies and trickles of sweat running down your chest and the undeniable awareness of a precipitously reduced ozone layer.

Beneath this irresistible sun, I watch some young people playing soccer. They are from Miraflores, the poor neighborhood at the top of the hill. They are boys and girls of various ages ranging from about 10 to 16. The girls are lanky, ponytailed and move with a fluidity that seems too big for the tiny court. The boys are short and tall and stocky and skinny and some have the sweet-faced innocence of those who are still only trying to be grown men.

The court has high mesh fencing on both short edges, where the goals and hoops are sought. But on the long edge facing the downhill, the fence barely reaches their shoulders. At one point the ball almost flies over this edge, which would send it careening immediately and irrevocably down the endless hill. Everyone shrieks; someone saves it by a hair and the game continues. I wonder how many times the ball has gone over and delayed the game as they chase after it, or just as likely, ended the game entirely with its loss. But this does not seem to stop the children from playing soccer here most any of the free hours of the day. It is their park, and they love it.

I begin walking home along the high road at the top of the hill. A little ways up, I look down into one of the rich people’s condominium complexes, also carved into the side of the hill. There I see a playground even smaller than the one in Miraflores, with a green space made of astroturf, perfectly flat and enclosed by towering buildings. A young boy is down there with his own soccer ball, kicking it against the jungle gym listlessly. Someone is calling a boy’s name from inside the buildings, and I wonder if it is his. But he ignores it. In truth, he looks like a prison inmate in his few allotted moments outdoors. Why doesn’t he go to the park to play soccer with the others? Perhaps because he is rich, and they are poor. There are many kinds of prisons in this world.

These two kinds of parks make me think of the vast empty lot full of trees and gullies and mysteries not far from the park of Miraflores. A sign there says it is for sale and is an ideal spot for developing a luxury condominium complex. I think of the even larger empty lot—practically a nature preserve unto itself—next door to my house, on top of a higher hill. It has several huge signs that you can see from the principal avenue of Suba, reading, “THIS LOT IS NOT FOR SALE, NOT FOR RENT, NOT FOR EXCHANGE, NOT FOR LOAN COLLATERAL.” This is so that unscrupulous people cannot claim it’s theirs in order to get some money out of it. The owner is likely waiting for the property value to rise exponentially. Eventually, they might sell it to someone who wants to build a luxury apartment complex. Meanwhile, guards watch over it 24/7 and will not let people from our neighborhood fly kites there in the winds of August.

I think of a third empty lot in these hills, which I pass while I’m out running sometimes. It is also a beautiful place full of plants and animals that I am sure have their own communities, work to do, and sources of pleasure. The billboard towering above this property has a photograph of a young woman with her arms outstretched and head thrown back in a moment of perfect freedom and bliss. “Come,” she bears on her body, “Discover your own nature.” This piece of land has already been bought, and will soon have a luxury condominium complex built on it. Here, they claim, you will be spiritually attuned, reconnected with your authentic self as well as the authentic natural world. They also promise you that it will be your nature—just for you. You alone. You will be alone. And neither you nor the land you dwell on will serve a greater community, whether human or more-than-human. Your life and your nature will serve only you—a prison of your own selfish making.

But the sun, with its life-giving and increasingly sinister rays of heat, shines on all of us equally. We would do well to remember this simple truth when we go searching for our “own nature.” There is a graffiti message painted on a concrete wall at the summit of the park of Miraflores that reminds everyone who passes, with the austere honesty of all true prophets: “Nature will never be private property.”

The Taste of Grace

I wrote a song recently that I thought was about grace. I wanted to say something about finally realizing that all my efforts to construct a meaningful, purposeful life have mostly been futile, as I can only hope to receive my purpose as a gift from a reality much greater than the little world inside my head.

But I have realized that instead I wrote a song about food. Our human revelations and yearnings are often so much more basic than we like to admit. Of course, food is also a form of grace, as the very fact that we are able to eat is thanks to a fearsomely intricate web of life that we did not create and have in fact become rather adept at destroying, from the microorganisms in the soil to the birds of the field. Not to mention that the primary way we achieve a sense of communion with each other is not through spiritual ideals, or the cultivation of virtues, or anything else so elegant and transcendent. It is through sharing food.

So maybe this has something to do with why each of the three verses of my song have to talk about food in order to say anything about spiritual revelation. The taste of grace is sometimes crunchy and oily like an empanada, sometimes hot and savory like soup, sometimes sweet and tangy like bread and wine.

Brand New Town

I once met a saint who fried empandas
On the corner of 72 and Caracas
In the shadow of the outstretched arms of St. Francis
He made people feel like they mattered
Sometimes I don’t know if I matter to anyone
That’s when I run to where he’ll sing me this song

When all your dreams are a city in shambles
And your tricks are all worn out
Lay your burdens down, walk out in a field
Say, “I’m a brand new town”

I’ve tried my whole life to prove my great wisdom
And to win all the world’s affections
Now all I’ve got to show is a fight I lost with my baby
And some stone soup to make us in the evening
Sometimes I don’t know what I was born in this world for
That’s when I run to the one who knows me more

Chorus

Only when I came to this temple of the spirit
Filled up with hungry bodies
They gave me bread and wine and said, “No need to repay us—
This life is a gift we could never possess.”
Now I know that everything I have is worth nothing
So I’ll sell it all to the buy the field where you found me

Chorus

Olfactory Temptations

eau de cologneSt. Augustine claimed not to be very concerned about olfactory temptations, because when a pleasing aroma is absent one does not seek it, and when it is present, one does not reject it. Nevertheless, because of the mental associations it can create, the consequences of a fragrance can be unforeseen and perturbing for the soul, even if the saint did not envision such a possibility. To understand his omission, it can be pointed out that conditions have changed. In this dry age, with concrete roads and without any flowers save for the weeds scattered on the cracks of the sidewalks, the range of fragrances surely differs from that of the early Middle Ages. Today the fragrances are perhaps fallacious, but more intense. Back then, maybe an iris or lavender could be found along the road. Today, at most, a lonely, polluted, and exhausted eucalyptus tree clings to the side of the street. But in exchange, every commercial establishment boasts hanging gardens of synthetic aromas, in each shelf, on any random ledge.

If only iris, water lily, or violet meant anything to me! But I feel them to be confined to the ideal realm of poetry, and for me they have a sweet smell only inasmuch as the volumes on which their names are printed contribute to the delicate aroma of the library. By contrast, I distinctly remember a day in school when I was writing the name of Pamela and someone opened a plastic bottle with synthetic perfume. It was so intense that it flooded the classroom. Noticing the simultaneity of events, a friend of mine—who was well versed in issues of women, nightclubs, and Greek mythology—concluded that the aroma proved the divinity of Pamela, the one whose hair was golden when caressed by Eos, and perplexingly refulgent under the starlight.

Therefore, even though to me lavender means nothing, the artificial fragrance is voluptuous and it is forever the first time I met Pamela. It is the time when I wished to be alone with her once the darkness had covered the grey and narrow streets, and the cold and piercing breeze of the Andean night had passed through her blonde locks, taking with it my trembling fingers as I gazed into her defiant green eyes. The indelible image of those eyes was forever fixed in my memory by her perfume. Furthermore, even though I have no idea whether I like better the wooden aroma of a birch or an ash, I know that a distilled essence of fictitious Nordic forests made to be used in a sauna remains in my memory as an instant of nostalgic reminiscence for life in my native city, which I left two years later, along with the chagrin of not having been able to exchange but two or three words with Pamela.

If nostalgia were harmful, or perhaps sinful, I would have to object to the modern application of the Augustinian conception of smell. Not only because of Pamela, but also because a few days ago I saw a bottle of Eau de Cologne, and my mother gestured towards it. I had not known that it was the one my grandfather wore in the Bogotá of yore, walking under the rain in a grey suit, heading back home in the evening. I took the bottle in my hands as if to reach my grandfather, whom I knew even though we never met. Remembering things that I never witnessed, I discovered that he was elegant but never pretentious, serious, silent, and at times melancholic. He was unlike my paternal grandfather, who likes to read at night and sleep under the afternoon sun that shines through a window in his house, which smells of soap that has long been out of fashion.

For all these reasons, I maintain that synthetic perfume, fictitious forests, Eau de Cologne, and old soap are insurmountable obstacles for me to accept Augustine’s thesis that the sense of smell is innocuous since it does not provoke desire. Because these scents, like a myriad other urban aromas, relentlessly evoke in their fiction realities that have long passed but remain so true and so dear.

Luis Carlos is a professor of economics who has lived in Mexico, Miami, Michigan and Washington, D.C., and now resides once again in his home city of Bogotá. He is thrilled to have recently begun learning Latin.

Letters from the Past

stor all boxesSometimes a memory catches you and nearly knocks you down. Usually this happens when you smell it. Like the other day when I was at my usual post in my apartment, working on proofreading a report as part of the way I eke out my modest living. Suddenly I cocked my nose like a stately canine (I like to think I resembled a German Shepherd, or an Australian Blue Heeler) as I caught wind of a very distinctive cleaning product.

Here in Colombia, cleaning products usually have a sharp, stinging and violently floral scent, leaving no doubt that every living thing not immediately visible to the naked eye has been brutally massacred. But this cleaner that drifted to me from another apartment was different. It smelled soft and sickly sweet, sort of like a cross between baby powder and the soap in the bathroom of an office building.

And suddenly—the office! My first stepfather’s neuropsychological practice is forever emblazoned in my memory as “the office,” as if no other had ever existed. It was my off and on place of employment in various functions from the ages of 16 until more or less 25. This is why I happen to know an unusual amount about traumatic brain injury despite never having formally studied it. In those gloriously carpeted and disinfected environs, I was a receptionist, administrative assistant, file clerk, research assistant, and most recently, a haphazard IT technician for my mother as she tried to implement a digital billing program. And now, all the way down in Bogotá, the precise smell of that office had returned to haunt me.

Immediately, I thought of one of my favorite parts of the office: the strange little closet that my stepfather once temporarily rented within a vacant office on the ground level of our building. That was where we stored patient records from as far back as 1990, and where I was assigned, in the summer and fall of 2006, to ruthlessly “thin” the files.

This was one of my happiest periods at the office. I was fresh in the thick of my first heartbreak, on the verge of making the decision that would send me off to college and seminary and even much further, and uniquely vulnerable to revelations concerning what life is all really about. I was often sad and frightened, but usually hopeful. I listened to songs like David Gray’s “Slow Motion” and thought about the unstoppable force of loss, and how vulnerable we are when we love anything. Yet I was, as we all are a decade ago, somehow innocent.

Meanwhile, I was thinning old files, which means removing and disposing of everything that isn’t the report and the raw test materials. This gave me the opportunity to discover startling bits of humanity fossilized for years in a cardboard file box. I especially enjoyed the drawings of a human being that patients make on the back of the neuropsychological interview form. But the discovery I remember the most was a series of letters, which the smell of a particular cleaner has now lead me to unearth in the form of a poem I wrote about them:

innocent longing from 9 am to 5 pm
(circa October 2006)

being a file clerk in the basement
of the building where new carpet
was laid.

my little joy.

i’m the only one down here.

i open the windows that open to
trenches dug against the foundation,
where they planted gardens,
i guess.

i open every window, even the ones
across the empty office.
all those vacant rooms,
each with its own window.

i sit in the closet with
STOR-ALL boxes, rotten rubber bands,
everybody’s boring history, and a ruined
color-coding system.

i love the closet.

in the same way i love every room
that i put in order, i love the closet.
a fierce attachment. a fire in my eyes.

once i sat all afternoon reading
five long letters on lined paper
from a schizophrenic to his father.
i could not stop reading,
because each one had handwriting,
and had been folded with certain creases.
and because i knew
each one had been sent in the mail,
touched by postal workers, driven on trucks.
and because i knew each one was
handed over by a sad father to the
sincere objectivity of a doctor.
and because each one was filed
in a red folder for 11 years
until this very day on which
i could not
stop reading them.

there was nothing fascinating about them.

and when i finished i thought,
everybody’s life is as dull as dirt.
even the schizophrenics.

but even now, even amongst
the endless rows
of last names, like
girls on stools, cut christmas trees,
or cars on bridges,
i cannot stop reading.
even to this day,
i am still reading those letters

long after i threw them away.

~

Indeed, I believe that I am still reading those letters. How else to explain why I smelled that cleaner here in my apartment precisely when I was proofreading a report for my former stepfather—whom I jokingly refer to as my “eternal employer”—which he will receive via email back at his office bearing the same aroma. How else to explain why in that moment I also happened to be listening to the song “Slow Motion,” so that I could reflect on loss and vulnerability even as I completed mechanical redaction tasks.

Still more recently than the cleaning product episode, I was lying on my bed in the dark, in a sorry, tearful state of uncertainty and isolation, when I began to smell a tenuous thread of something like grain toasting. Since Colombians do not normally toast their grains, I was immediately transported to the smell of my mother toasting millet. I felt, in some small way, like I was home. In reality, the unambiguously comforting and carefree version of “home” that those toasting grains evoked is now gone forever from my life. But the memory gave me the strength to rise from my bed, and to take care of the little life I have been given to put in order here. With a fierce attachment. A fire in my eyes.

Yes, all of our lives are as dull as dirt. And as impermanent as wafts of aroma. But they are all so very precious.

The Orange Couch of the Unexpected

orange couch

I can count on one hand the pieces of furniture I have bought in their original newness. The couch pictured above has the distinct honor of being the fifth (my pinky finger, for those who are counting).

The couch arrived today on a truck, in a very large box. I took it out, promptly hid the box (I like to pretend that unexpected company will arrive from a distant country at any moment), and screwed in the metallic legs. I decided, like the protagonist of the film “The Big Lebowski,” that this couch “really ties the room together.” Even though it does so precisely because it doesn’t match anything. Nothing else in the room is orange, or new. But it’s the asymmetries, the imperfections and the stark surprises—like the first crazy orange tree of autumn in the midst of the deepening green of late summer—that speak to us of beauty, and renew our resolve to remember and cherish the world that has been given to us as a gift.

I sat down on the couch to work on an essay I have to write to become ordained as a reverend. I am not sure if I will actually be ordained, but if I manage to write all nineteen of the essays that are required, I will be one step closer. I just started working on the essays this week, and I am very glad to have the couch here now. Writing these things is a little bit like being back in seminary, only without a library, a list of course readings, or a diverse community of thoughtful people to help me formulate and clarify my ideas. So in some small way I feel like the couch will keep me company, and provide a more hospitable space for my imaginary guests from distant countries.

Couches are significant to me, because I always remember how when my mother married my first stepfather, she informed him that she wanted a couch instead of an engagement ring. I liked her priorities. Not unlike diamond rings, couches are luxurious, unnecessary, even. But they create a sense of home, comfort, communion, and possibility that few other material objects can. Just seeing a couch makes me think, “I could rest here. I could dream here. I could sing songs with my friends here. I could make a quilt here. I could make love here.” I don’t even know how to make quilts. Such are the possibilities of couches!

Orange is also significant to me. Orange has special power. Buddhists seems to know something about this. So does the sky when the sun rises and sets. So does the silky, sensual sweetness of the inside of a good mango. But beyond that, it is best to take an apophatic approach to orange. It secrets are too holy to be named.

Now, as I am on the brink of my own marriage—that also has included a decision to forgo a diamond ring—I am of course reflecting on what it means to create a home with someone, and how that home can leave space for the asymmetries, the imperfections and the stark surprises that make life beautiful. That is, rather than reducing our shared life to some function of our respective goals and desires, how can we allow it to confront us with possibility and communion, the challenge of otherness that leaves us blinking in the wake of some impossible shock of orange? And even still, like a good couch, a shared life can provide comfort, a place to curl up and rest.

I think of all these things, on my orange couch, and I wait, with faith and trepidation, for the next surprise that will tie the room together.

The Interconnection of Everything, or, a Swift Whack in the Shin

A Call of Faith for the Peace of Colombia

My friend Amy and I had a conversation recently about the ways we are all much more connected than we seem to be. The catalyst was a documentary I saw called “I Am,” which was created by comedy director Tom Shadyac after a head injury caused him to revaluate everything he thought was important. The movie catalogues his conversations with a series of luminaries, including environmentalists, noetic scientists, psychologists, historians and religious leaders. His quest was deceptively simple: to understand what is wrong with the world, and what we can do about it.

One of the salient threads in the film was a sense of wonder at how even scientists are now confirming the ancient teachings of spiritual traditions that say all things are connected in some invisible, inextricable way. The intentions of our hearts affect other people around the world, not to mention animals, plants, rocks and water.

Why do they have the audacity to affirm something so mystical in this age of materially verifiable reality? Because there are still mysteries. Because when two electrons that have been connected are separated by infinite distances, and one changes the direction of its spin, the other one instantaneously does the same. Because maybe our hearts really are the center of our beings, since they send a lot more signals to the brain than the brain sends to the heart, and the pauses between heartbeats contain all kinds of information about our current emotional state. Because the heart generates an electromagnetic field around the body that creates a measurable physiological response in other people nearby, and when enough hearts share the same emotion, such as during 9/11 or the South Asian tsunami, random number generators stop being random. Because in this moment you are breathing some of the same unaltered atoms of argon that Jesus breathed over the last supper.

I am beginning to think that the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton was not so far off the mark when he wrote that the monks at the monastery in Kentucky where he lived were saving the nation from the wrath of God with their intercessory prayer. Whatever you attribute the wrath or the salvation to, perhaps such heartfelt intentions of love, mercy and wholeness indeed counteract the destructive force of a society full of greed, arrogance, violence, selfishness and compulsion.

As I spoke of these things, my friend Amy connected them with her trade as a massage therapist. She explained that an important part of massage is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the aspect of your nervous system that uncurls its toes when the storm has calmed. It allows you to be conscious but at rest, to feel and think things that are inhibited when you are in the flight-or-flight mode of the sympathetic nervous system—often our default in the stress of daily life.

A lot of the healing that can take place on the massage table, Amy suggested, could simply be about the intention of the heart: the therapist’s intention to promote rest and well-being in the body, the patient’s intention to realize their body’s own capacity to heal. I can attest to the fact that the simplest touch of my fiancé, Ricardo, when he rubs my scalp or shoulders with whole-hearted caring, can have miraculous results in my tense muscles. It is as if the touch of a good-intentioned hand has a way of reconnecting us to a sort of magnetic field of love, goodness, solidarity, empathy and peace that many hearts are radiating around us at any given moment.

Meanwhile, I was thinking about a very different kind of touch, but which no less powerfully reminds us of our interconnectedness: the touch of violence. I recounted to Amy a peace vigil I had participated in the day before that was held by various religious groups in front of the Colombian equivalent of the White House. We gathered as Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews and Hare Krishnas to manifest our hope for the end of hostilities between the government and the rebels, and for social justice to create true and lasting peace. I sang a Spanish version of a song I wrote about finding such hope in the ordinary people who weave peace together from the broken pieces of the conflict.

As the event was winding down late in the evening, a middle-aged man with a dirty suit jacket and a wooden cane approached me asking for coins. “Or if you don’t have change, then please just buy me a sandwich,” he pleaded. “Look, this is all people have given me”—he showed me the three measly coins in his palm—“and I’ve just asked too much. I’m hungry. Please.” I was elated with the faith of the prayers offered up in that plaza, and I was thinking about how we are all connected, of course. His plight is my own; how could I not help him? I realized, however, that I only had larger bills, so I told him I would go with him to buy a sandwich.

One of the motherly Mennonite church ladies I had been conversing with immediately realized what I intended to do, and began to steer me away from the man. He followed us, saying, “Come on, I know she has the money! You all are talking about God here, and you can’t even help me buy a sandwich? It’s a contradiction!” But my companion whispered: “You go with him and he calls on all his friends and who knows what they could do to you.” She was right; this was not a safe part of the city at night. But he was right, too. It was a contradiction. He kept following us and pleading with us for several minutes until he suddenly seemed to realize he would not get what he wanted, spat out the equivalent of, “Sons of bitches! Go to hell!” and gave me a swift whack in the shin with his cane before he walked away.

My leg stung for a few minutes, but I did not say anything to the Mennonite lady, who I think did not realize what had happened in the flurry of the moment. For a few minutes, I felt indignant. How could he, no matter how hungry or crazy, inflict violence on an innocent young lady like me? But then I started to realize that the whack to my shin was a simple reflection of the invisible violence produced by the selfishness, complacency and apathy inside of me—inside most of us. The man with the cane feels it every day; I can insulate myself from it more easily, but only to my own detriment. That unpleasant physical touch brought me back into contact with the interconnected web of suffering in which I play an inextricable part.

I have a long way to go before I am like the monks at the monastery in Kentucky, or like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr. or anyone else who seems to realize so fully Ghandi’s call to be the change we wish to see in the world. But one thing I can do is sing. So here is the English version of the song I presented—and then contradicted—at the peace vigil. After all, I am not a great visionary, but I do see some things in the ordinary.

The Sounds of my Neighborhood

Barrio San Francisco de Suba

I recently read something in a spiritual self-help book about how us modern people cannot stand silence; it makes us antsy and too directly confronted with the present moment or our interior nature or such things. But I have absolutely no problem with silence. Sometimes I forget that it is there, like an unassuming friend that lets me lose myself in navel-gazing without bothering me to talk about trivial things. I do not believe this is due to some spiritual attainment. Rather, it is probably just because of the inertia of my introverted nature that I do not seek to enrich my life with inspiring sounds, nor allow the discomfort of silence to strike me with a sharper consciousness.

But there is one thing I can say for my own incidental practice of silence. It makes the noises that do interrupt it more significant—sometimes wholly enchanted and even holy.

I live a quiet life lately. I spend most of my day in my little apartment, because I work part time at a very technical redaction job that can be carried out entirely from my computer at home. I cook, I wash my clothes by hand, I meditate, I write things in a small orange notebook. But I do not feel alone. Aside from the presence of something eternal that presses inexplicable eyes upon me, there is also a world of effervescent sounds that seem to be born just to accompany me and to have a place in someone’s memory before they die.

For example, I was scrubbing some clothes once when I began to hear a distinct bleating sound every 30 seconds or so. I took it in stride, thinking, “A sheep,” as any worldly person would do. But then I did an auditory double take and realized that this was a remarkable development in my quiet life. What on earth was a sheep doing in my neighborhood? I thought about the sheep all day, as it continued, occasionally, to call out from afar, as if inviting me to a happier, simpler place full of green pastures and fresh milk. Finally, as I was hanging some of the washing, I saw it out the back window, standing in the shadow of the cliff, calmly ripping up grass from a lawn that runs behind our row of houses. It was a large black creature, and I determined that it was in fact a goat. I love goat’s milk, and every time I heard its bellows I felt that I was living some tiny part of my dream of cultivating a farm.

A few days later, the goat returned. This time I looked at it with greater deliberation, and started to doubt that it was a goat. Perhaps it was simply a black sheep. It has come back a few times since, and I still haven’t determined what it is. But I am happy to carry within me the contrasting symbols of saintly sheep, condemned goats, bountiful life on the land, separation from the promised land, and a glorious confusion of these things that just might resolve all the dualisms of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Human sounds are no less miraculous to me. Sometimes, a young man in an adjacent apartment begins to pronounce discourses that sound as if they were addressed to a community of angry ducks, or perhaps a meeting of flamboyant opera singers. Which is to say, they are extravagant and incomprehensible. Sometimes he sings, though usually he just shouts and makes sound effects. I thought perhaps I had found a Colombian as wacky as me, and felt hopeful about the possibility of acting more like myself in this culture, which usually upholds social harmony over the free, expressive individualism that I so cherish.

After careful listening and analysis with the help of a native informant, I realized that all of my neighbor’s emotive auditory expressions could be traced back to a soccer video game that appears to be his primary occupation in life. While this disappointed my hopes of finding a kindred free-spirited individualist, I still delight in his noises, and I keep imagining that they are the utterances of a wild soul that is calling me to embrace my own wildness, even in the midst of my quiet, socially harmonious life.

At other times the sounds bring me into greater harmony with precisely the ethos of social cohesion that reigns here. Once as I started down our street towards the lower regions of the neighborhood, I heard someone hammering in their house. People around here are always building, repairing, expanding, making room for their sister or their cousin or a stranger to rent out an apartment. Then immediately, from down the hill, I heard someone else hammering in another house. The two hammerers traded several strikes in a row, from up above and down below, as if they were having a conversation. I imagined that maybe they were; maybe they knew each other and were tapping out a secret code. Or at least encouraging each other to keep building, for the story isn’t over yet.

As I listened to the hammerers building, I thought of all the people in Colombia who are displaced from their homes by horrific means, for horrific purposes of greed and domination. They are forced to find a way to make homes in other places, particularly in the large cities, often arriving to fringe neighborhoods like this one. They have been exiled from their promised lands, usually rich agricultural land laden with life-giving histories and traditions. The hope of return is occasionally, vulnerably, fulfilled. But meanwhile, they must try to build and to plant and to reap where they are. I like to imagine that those hammers were singing a song of hope for finding a home in a strange land.

That is my hope, too. I have by no means been violently displaced from my home. But I am also wandering far from the land of my birth, the dirt from which I was formed. And I find myself in a quiet stretch of my life, when the jingling bells of revelation do not come easily. But sometimes, here in this strange little neighborhood on the fringe of everything I once knew, even the silences between revelations can take on a certain resounding meaning, if only I pay attention.