Large Loss Specialists

A lost stuffed animal sits among plants.On a walk today, I saw a truck labeled “Large Loss Specialists.” If your home gets destroyed or flooded or burned, this company will help you get it rebuilt, cleaned up, and looking right again.

Their slogan, similar to others in that field, is this: “Like it never even happened.”

Like most people who’ve survived into their 40s, I’ve experienced loss. I’ve had loved ones die. I’ve been dumped. I’ve dismantled loving relationships that were no longer healthy.

The “large” part of “large loss” is relative. I have not experienced the death of a child, for example. Or the destruction of my home.

My losses have been peanut-sized compared to those of many other people. But to me, those losses were real and painful. They set me back. They hurt.

The truck’s slogan made me think twice about loss. If we do go through a large loss, isn’t our objective to learn from it, rather than pretend it didn’t occur?

*

In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, people can use a service that erases their memories of a particular person. One of the film’s messages is that deleting pain is impossible without erasing ourselves. Our hurtful memories are intertwined with our joyful ones, and cannot be disentangled.

To lose our pain is to lose our humanity, to stay shallow rather than diving deep.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t clean up and repair our damaged homes, or move on from broken relationships. Dwelling in the past is just as unhealthy as pretending it never happened.

But large loss is a great teacher. We learn what’s essential. We learn who our friends are. We learn how tough we are.

Afterwards, if all goes well, we are NOT the same as before. We are no longer unblemished and smooth.

We proudly bear the scars of loss, and we can hold our breath a little longer when we go under again.

Image: Lost!, by brockxx, via Creative Commons.

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A Poem for Harold Lloyd

Silent film star Harold Lloyd hangs from a clock several stories up on the outside of a tall building.Harold on the Clock

Keep climbing, Harold, even though
it was supposed to be your buddy
and not you
seven stories up
the outside of the department store.

Los Angeles tilts around you
and you cling
to the façade.

Your fiancée runs up the stairs inside
Taking the sane route, you the mad one.
Later, you’ll meet on the roof
Press your pursed lips together
The only kind of screen kiss
chaste enough for 1923.

Moviegoers swooned
to see you stagger on the window ledge,
to see the fragile minute hand of the clock
support your flailing body weight.

Did they have to look away,
as you once did
when you saw another stuntman
make this same scramble?

Did they know
you were climbing the building
with only one hand, the other
half blown off
years before
when a prop grenade
turned out
not to be
a prop?

Almost 100 years later,
my own palms are sweaty
as you face danger after
danger: vicious attack pigeons!
A falling badminton net!

Your glasses had no glass in them.
Your eyes, though also damaged by the blast,
were sharp and clear.

You scaled the building,
almost literally knocking
yourself out.

And then you got the girl.
Onscreen and off.

And she got you.


Inspired by the movie Safety Last (1923). Watch it on Kanopy!
Image from the same film, retrieved from the Music House Museum.

On being an unpopped kernel

Blue paper sign reading, "Watch out for 'old maids'. Though we sift our kettle corn the occasional unpopped kernel will show up..."

Danger, Will Robinson!

Friends, I’m obsessed with popcorn.

What’s not to like about it? It’s the crunchy ambrosia of movie theaters and carnivals.

Over the years I’ve invented my own gourmet flavors, like buttery ginger. Usually these days I make it with olive oil and salt, sometimes with nutritional yeast to give that cheesy taste.

Air-popped, it’s reasonably healthy, unless you drench it in butter. And it fills you up.

Each kernel is unique in shape, I’ve been told.

As a kid, I remember referring to unpopped kernels as “old maids,” and my mom was displeased. “I don’t like calling them that,” she told me. “That makes it sound like, if a woman doesn’t get married, she’s an ‘unpopped kernel’ and she’s not worth anything.”

I was annoyed that popcorn had become political. The next time we were eating some, I carefully referred to “unpopped kernels” instead of “old maids.” My mom thanked me for using better language. I wanted her to just let it go.

But now I see that she was onto something.

*

Some Christians—and others whose religions include an afterlife—see all of us, here on Earth, as unpopped kernels, waiting to be thrown in the kettle of heaven to explode into our true, full identities. (Though I guess the fires of hell might have the same effect.)

I don’t see buy into this “waiting room” theory. Our heaven and our hell are alive within us at all times, just waiting to be activated. And we’re not in God’s waiting room. We’re in God’s world.

So what does it mean to pop?

*

Unpopped kernels feel smooth and cool to the touch. They’re appealing to plunge your hands into a huge bucket of.

But if you bite one unexpectedly, it’s awful. You’re expecting a delicious crunch, and instead, you get a broken tooth or a loosened filling.

Those little kernels have a mission in life: to scatter to the winds, and create more corn plants. Or, to be eaten by humans or animals, and to return to the earth as fertilizer.

As humans, we can “pop” through doing good in the world. We can pop through finding something we enjoy doing, and immersing ourselves in that experience of deep flow.

We pop through getting married and having babies.

Or through becoming a soldier, and putting our life on the line for our country and our brothers and sisters in arms.

Through throwing ourselves into a creative endeavor, even though we think the story or song we’re writing won’t make sense to anyone else.

There are many sources of heat to transform us.

*

Maybe our job, as earthly kernels, is to subject ourselves, as much as we can, to the right kinds of fire. The loving kind. The kind of the spirit.

The kind that takes us out of ourselves, like a popcorn kernel, whose insides become its outsides.

If kernels could think, would they fear that transformation?

Or would they be excited?

Danger! Do Not Walk on Ceiling

Sign on the ceiling of Boston's North Station, saying "Danger: Do not walk on ceiling."
There’s a sign on the ceiling of Boston’s North Station. It says “Danger: Do not walk on ceiling.”

Here’s a better close-up of it.

I take the train from North Station up to Maine fairly often, and always mean to ask someone at the station, “What’s up with that sign?”

It’s a warning that begs to be violated. Like Bluebeard telling his young wife, “You can go into any room in the castle—just not that room.” Or God telling Adam and Eve, “You can eat from any tree in the garden—just not that tree.”

When I was a kid, I remember getting up on a high slide. My dad told me to keep my feet together as I went down. I was going to do that anyway, but since he told me to, I spread out my feet, and fell off the slide. Two stitches.

I’m wondering if the issue was a missing “because.” My dad probably felt the “because” was obvious: “…because otherwise you could fall off the slide and hurt yourself.”

In Genesis 2, God offers a broad but scary “because”: “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

But that begs another “because,” kicking off a chain that winds through the centuries, from Eve to us: “Why will we surely die? What does that mean? What’s wrong with knowledge? Don’t you want us to understand good and evil, so we can choose good? And PS, why will I fall off the slide?”

There’s a level of dizzying choice when someone tells you not to do something, but doesn’t tell you why. It’s a compelling fairy tale convention. As soon as the hero is told not to do something, we immediately, viscerally want her to do it.

Does that urge show our sinful fallen nature, as my Baptist friends believe?

Or is it just our innate curiosity, the thirst that drives so much of our positive and negative progress?

In any case, the first chance I get to walk—or dance—on the ceiling of North Station, you better believe I’m taking it. Unless someone gives me a good reason not to.

 

The Terror of Not Logging In

A computer keyboard showing the keys "Control" and "Option"

What about when control isn’t an option?

One morning last week, I couldn’t login to my work computer.

On the one hand, this was a total champagne problem. I was not in danger of losing my job, of physical violence, or of anything else truly disturbing.

But it almost sent me into a panic attack.

If I can’t login, I can’t do my work. Stuff will be happening without my knowledge, people will be asking for my help, and I can’t do anything about it.

I can’t write, I can’t edit. I’m a writer, I’m an editor.

I’m rendered useless.

*

My email was behind a firewall. So were my files. So was the internet (though I could have accessed that from my phone).

What was frustrating wasn’t so much any terrifying consequence of my lack of access. It was more the loss of control. If I’m locked out of my home, I can call a locksmith. But the walls of technology are a lot less climbable.

I wonder if there’s a spiritual equivalent of being unable to login. We long for access to truth, to a sense of order in the universe. And we can tell it’s there.

We just don’t have the password.

*

After about two hours, David from the IT Service Desk liberated my computer. He reassured me that the lockout wasn’t my fault: “Sometimes bad things happen to good people.” He was pleased when he saw me typing in a new long passphrase, instead of a puny password.

And I have access again.

For now.

Until the system goes down, until my computer dies, until I accidentally delete all the documents that populate my digital kingdom and that I’ve forgotten to back up.

For now, I can get in where I need to go.

My soul, though? That’s still pressed up against a sheet of colored glass, looking at the lights on the other side, wondering how to break through.


Photo by Frederico Cintra via Creative Commons.

The Fine Art of Arguing

“My brother,” writes G.K. Chesterton in his autobiography, “was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue.”

The two brothers (Cecil and Gilbert) were both journalists and well-known writers in post-Victorian England. Chesterton is best known for his writings on Christianity, his Father Brown mystery series, and his strange and disturbing novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

I was touched by Chesterton’s description of his brother and their relationship. I was also impressed by the distinction Chesterton draws between arguing and quarreling.

GKC seems to see arguing as engaging in stimulating debate: the kind that makes your own thinking sharper, by honing it against someone else’s perceptions. Both people walk away feeling smarter.

Quarreling, on the other hand, means having a heated personal disagreement, where feelings get hurt and one person walks away feeling smaller.

As someone who is uncomfortable with conflict, it’s hard for me to appreciate how much other smart people enjoy verbally jousting. They take pleasure in it! For me, it always feels personal, like I’m peeling my own skin off by trying to state why I disagree with someone else.

GKC, from all accounts, was a genius at it. And it didn’t get in the way of his friendships. He was happy to dismantle a friend or brother’s faulty logic, without putting the relationship itself at risk.

Our political discourse today involves lots of quarreling. Lots of name-calling, cat-calling, and mud-slinging.

Let’s take a page from the Chesterton brothers’ book, and learn to argue better.

Here’s a terrific essay by Gracy Olmstead on G.K. Chesterton and why we need him today.


Photo by jon collier via Creative Commons.

Born-Again Buddhist?

A statue of a person with an arm raised up overhead, outside, with an open gate nearby.I’ve been getting to know God lately. And it’s been kind of weird.

I’ve labeled my faith in many ways over the years. For a while, I was calling myself a “semi-practicing Buddhist Pagan with strong Jewish and Unitarian influences.” (There’s one in every town, right?)

Sometimes I’ve called myself “agnostic.” But that’s never felt right. More recently, on dating sites, I’d been going for “spiritual but not religious.” That seemed to encompass my feeling that there’s a higher power, compared to which we humans are just tiny blips of ego and emotion and desire.

Lately, I’ve been calling that higher power God, and it feels natural and correct to do so.

A black church against a blue cloudy sky.
There are so many angles from which to approach this, and I don’t know where to begin. I could tell you about how I read a book about neopaganism while living in China, and then had a dream in which The Goddess visited me. She took the form of a gigantic, benevolent silver spider spinning a protective web outside my window.

I could talk about how I have relatives who are Unitarian, Buddhist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Jewish, and Atheist (yes, with a capital “A”), as well as one who’s a minister in the United Church of Christ. And how I was raised to see equal value in all belief systems, since at their best they create community and spur humans toward greater acts of love and courage.

But the bottom line is that, earlier this year, I took a tour of a mosque, and walked out of there with a strong desire for a spiritual community, and in particular, for a Christian community.

So now I’m going to this conservative Baptist church where I feel more at home than in any other church I’ve ever visited.

It’s very odd.The wall of a house spangled with the shadows of tree leavesI was never told directly, growing up, that I should run like the wind away from evangelicals. I just never knew any (or maybe the ones I did meet were closeted).

It was always implied to me that it was OK to be religious, but not too religious. You wouldn’t want to become a fanatic. (And indeed, I don’t.)

But I’ve blundered into this community that hit me with a wave of love and joy from the moment I set foot in their door. It’s dismantling my stereotypes about Christians. It’s making my heart expand.

Part of what I love about this particular church is the openness everyone has shown to my questions. More than openness: the delight they take in answering my questions, or in telling me how and why they don’t know a particular answer.

Perhaps that’s one of the traits that separates the healthy communities of faith from the unhealthy ones, from the cults: The cults don’t want you to ask inconvenient questions.A mural of a huge bee on the side of a building.There are many moments when I’m out of my element. The vocabulary is new. Being “convicted” is a good thing: it means you believe something strongly. (Where I come from, you get “convicted” only of a crime.)

At times I feel like I’m looking at one of those Magic Eye posters from the 1990s, where if you could cross your eyes just slightly, you could see the 3-D picture, but until you mastered that eye-crossing, it was just a chaos of lines.

Other times, I’m scared about what’s going to happen when the unstoppable force of my attraction to this church collides with the immovable object of what I believe, versus what this community believes. There is a lot of overlap. But there are chasms between us, too.A lagoon with water lilies
I have no idea what blue lagoon of belief this Christianity water slide is going to dump me out into. But along the way, my soul is getting watered for the first time, and a lifetime of seeds sleeping in its soil are beginning to sprout.

If you have thoughts on all this strangeness, let me know. I love to hear other people’s stories of belief, unbelief, and the burning question marks of faith.


All photos by Anya Weber, except for:
Second photo: Blue hour at the Nineteenth century black church at Budir, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland, by Diana Robinson, via Creative Commons
Last photo: lagoon, by feryswheel, via Creative Commons

A New Name and a New Theme

A classic car with its hood open to show the engine.

Let’s take a look under the hood!

This website has a new name: Curiosity Central.

The former name, Better Than a Baby, hasn’t been accurate for a while. When I launched the site, I was exploring my identity as a late-30s woman with no kids: the ups and downs of that, and the adventures it’s easier to enjoy when you don’t have children.

Since then, my life has shifted and turned. I’m 43 now, and I’m still content—mostly—at the prospect of never being a mom. However, I’m also open to becoming a parent, whether through marrying a guy who already has children, or through fostering or adopting a child.

Life with kids is incredibly rich and complicated. Life without kids is too. Right now, I’m in a good position to nurture others: my Little Sister, my friends, and my family members (parents and cousins).

Maybe there will be a new chapter where I get to nurture stepkids or adopted kids, too. We’ll see.

In any case, the whole “childfree” thing has been losing its pull on me. I’ve been writing about it less and less.

And it’s led me to question: What the heck is this website about, anyway?

*

To answer that, I’ve been trying to find a unifying theme in my posts from the last year or so. And the prevailing one I’ve found is curiosity.

Curiosity and kindness are two key qualities I’m looking for in a man.

November’s election results sparked an immense curiosity in me about the divisions in our country: between Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, the coasts and the middle.

Lately, I’ve been attending a Baptist church, which has flooded me with curiosity about Christianity and how I understand God.

I’ve also been reading Barnabas Piper’s wonderful books about how doubt and questioning are essential for a robust religious faith. In his book The Curious Christian, he writes:

…curiosity is more than a mere trait. It is a discipline, a skill, a habit—one that will expand your life in magnificent, if subtle, ways.

*

So, readers, please join me in expanding our mutual curiosity: about love, about politics, about faith, and about how we strange human creatures interact in our bizarre and dynamic world.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the new theme, and learn how curiosity plays out in your life. What have you been curious about lately?

Photo by the author, taken at the Bath, ME antique car show.

Facets of forgiveness

A rainy urban rooftop with a sign saying "Forgive"“Forgiveness” is one of those limp, floppy words that create resentment. It sounds vaguely Biblical: If thou art a good person, thou shalt forgive others. It’s not a fun or sexy concept.

But in practice, it can be powerful. Transforming.

Forgiveness is a weightlifter. It removes the burden of anger and resentment that’s weighing us down.

*

In her new book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich explores trauma and forgiveness from many different angles.

It’s hard to do true crime well. It can feel exploitative, especially when it involves the death and possible molestation of a child.

Where do we draw the line between taking a ghoulish interest, and striving to understand a deeply human pathology, such as pedophilia?

Marzano-Lesnevich spins out this crime in multiple dimensions. The criminal in question is Ricky Langley, who killed young Jeremy Guillory and confessed to molesting multiple kids. She looks at Ricky’s own childhood, and skillfully weaves in a parallel story of abuse from her own family history.

What saves the book from being cold-blooded is the writer’s compassion. Without excusing the multiple, overlapping crimes in the narrative, Marzano-Lesnevich finds new lights to shine on these dark areas.

She also understands the complexity of story: the deep intertwining of cause, effect, and other influences that are not so binary or linear.

One of the questions she keeps getting pulled back to is this: When is forgiveness a beautiful, healing, generous action?

And when is it a way to let someone off the hook, to avoid confronting someone about their destructive behavior?

*

I watched a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure recently, which dealt with the same questions: How do we, as flawed humans, judge others? Do we even try?

We have to, for our society to function. But how do we balance justice with mercy?

Is there a value in offering forgiveness for something terrible?

Does taking that action excuse the wrong-doing?

Or, does it elevate both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime?

*

At church last week, the pastor talked about a Bible chapter focused on forgiveness. In the passage (Philemon), the writer (Paul the Apostle) offers to take on someone else’s debt: to erase a robbery by paying off what was stolen.

We are all indebted to others, the pastor explained. And we all have chances to take on each other’s burden of debt–not just financially, but relationally.

For example, if two friends of mine are having discord, I can shoulder part of that burden by mediating between them.

But what if one of my friends injured the other, out of spite or fear? What then? How can I get beyond taking sides?

How can I broker forgiveness between others, if my own grasp on it is so tenuous?

*

The larger and more inflamed our egos are, the lower our capacity for forgiveness. I like Roland Merullo’s metaphor of constantly, carefully sanding down the ego over time, so it gets smaller and smaller, and controls us less and less.

That’s a challenge in a culture that pumps up our egos, where pissing matches are the order of the day (from the playground to international politics).

*

Will you join me in this exercise?

Think of someone who’s injured you. Think about what their intentions may have been. Think about their backstory, what brought them to that point.

Hold the pain of that injury in your heart. Pray about it if you pray. Meditate on it if you meditate. Sit with it if you sit.

Then picture that pain and anger filling a balloon you’re clutching, making it buoyant with the dark air of that injury.

And let go of the balloon.


Image by Adams Carroll via Creative Commons on Flickr.

Return to the Black Lodge

Two women in front of a red curtain, holding signs that say "Damn fine."My friends and I attended a Twin Peaks party recently. (That’s me on the left, with Nance on my right.)

Watching that series as a teenager changed me. I’d never seen anything like it. The ways that David Lynch played with mood, with surrealism, with music: It was a show that constantly took risks.

Lynch is talented at creating a dream state on screen. His films have the inescapable logic of nightmare. He’s never afraid to discard rationality, taking a short cut right to the viewer’s lizard brain.

At the party, the hosts showed the very last episode of the series. There’s a long sequence where the hero, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), has entered a place called the Black Lodge (all red curtains and zigzag floors).

The Black Lodge is a kind of underworld, or limbo, where our hero’s soul is in peril. But the threats aren’t clear-cut. There are demons there, it turns out, but there’s no stake-to-the-heart opportunity.

Cooper keeps walking up and down the same red hallway, parting the same billowing curtains, and finding himself in the same room, with increasingly disturbing results. There’s a hum in the background, almost too low to hear, like the space itself is alive and malevolent.

He encounters people who speak strangely to him, in distorted English with subtitles. Lynch created this effect by having the actors record their dialog backwards, and then playing the audio track backwards. The effect is creepy in an Uncanny Valley way: Almost human, but not quite.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Lynch understands that the darkest places aren’t necessarily haunted houses or unlit basements. They can be suburban living rooms. They can be a train track among the pine trees.

And they can be a room with a zigzag floor, billowing red drapes, people talking backwards, and no way out.

During the screening, my fellow fans were in high spirits, laughing and clapping at some goofy elements earlier in the episode. But in the Black Lodge sequence, people got quieter and quieter, drew closer to the person sitting next to them.

The episode is about 25 years old, so that’s some staying power.

*

Agent Cooper was always on the prowl for a “damn fine cup of coffee.” In tribute to him, I brought a couple of signs saying “Damn fine,” and invited people to pose with them.

Some folks came in costume! Here are two Dr. Jacobys (Jacobies?):Two fans dressed as Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks.This Agent Cooper was also damn fine:A fan dressed as Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, drinking coffee.I’m looking forward to seeing the upcoming reboot of the show, which I’m sure will be damn fine itself.A seated woman's legs, stuck out in front of her chair, with a pink skirt, low cowboy boots, and a sign saying "Damn fine."

Read this wonderful Guardian piece about why the world needs Agent Cooper now more than ever.