The Pain of this Moment: Powerlessness and Perseverance

changeling

About twenty minutes in, I was begging my husband to let me shut it off. I’d rather watch third-string Saturday evening crime dramas than have to bear the pain and frustration of this movie for another minute. He was fascinated and watched intently even as I squirmed on the couch beside him.

Based on a true story, The Changeling is a film that threatens to tear you in half as you witness relentless power of the the heartless, misogynistic political and legal machine that was 1920s Los Angeles. The police return a stranger to a mother whose son has been kidnapped, forcing her to claim the impostor as her own and question something that should never be questioned: her ability to know her own child. When she refuses to break before their authority and continues to protest that her son is still out there, missing, the authorities do everything to discredit her: declare her selfish, unfit, conniving, insane. To watch the sadistically manipulative power of the doctor at the state mental institution to which she is committed is maddening beyond belief.

The more I wanted to leap out of my skin the clearer it became that a) this was quite the movie if it could get to me in this way, and b) there was something in the plot that I had to face in myself.

What was it that challenged me the most? Powerlessness? Ruthlessness? Unreasonableness? Arrogance? Wanton blindness? Humanity’s ability to be inhumane? The value of the establishment over the dignity of the individual?

They all combine to be a bitter, bitter cocktail, but it is the first sin on that list that made me want to run from the spectacle of suffering before me.

Powerlessness.

So many modern self-help texts and teachers talk about the way to personal empowerment. It is a clever enough buzzword that is as essential as it is destructive. Victimhood does not serve us at all; we all have to drop the chains of the beleaguered party in order to take full responsibility for our lives. At the same time, it is an illusion of sorts to believe that we have power over every aspect of our lives. To believe in a higher power is to know that we do not hold all of the cards, even those that directly influence our own fate.

And yet, I find myself warring against my feelings of powerless all the time. Right now, one of the greatest challenges I struggle with each day is watching my husband grimace from the constant back pain that has marred our lives for the last two straight months. The shooting nerve pains that keep him from sleeping, sitting, and standing in peace have sapped the joy and ease out of life. As a wife and as a healer, I constantly struggle with the fact that my will to fix him and my fervent prayers for his recovery have offered negligible results. I know that he bears the infinitely greater burden, but I find myself wrapped in my own vicarious hell as I mourn the easy laughter and decry my own abilities and those of a benevolent God to offer him some relief.

changeling-rainTo watch Angelina Jolie’s character struggle with seemingly indomitable forces who cared nothing for her story or for the truth was to see a dramatized life-or-death version of my own battles. I don’t want to give away too much of the film, but I will say that I am left with the awareness that life offers neither pure victory or utter defeat. There is joy and hope in every moment, and we must chose that over limitation and agony.

I have not conquered all of the self-pitying parts of me that believe that my husband and I are a four legged Sisyphus, pushing against his pain only to have it well up again each morning. But to look at that thought in writing makes me tired of my own defeatism.

There is a link between powerlessness and the ability to accept reality as it is at this very minute. I need to think through that connection more deeply, but I believe that the way forward for me is accept that this hurt exists for him and that it affects me deeply, but that the pain in this moment does not mean that every other moment that follows will be marred in the same way.



Can Somebody Please Get This Man a Priest?

My husband almost refused to sit with me to watch the movie we’d Netflixed last night. It wasn’t so much that he feared the dreaded “chick flick” (I am blessed with a man who wears his heart on his sleeve just enough to find his way through such films with no problem), it was just that he jokingly refused to watch me swoon over two of the tastiest men in movies – Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell.

cassandras_dream_1Cassandra’s Dream wasn’t exactly a great film, nor was it particularly uplifting. The men were pretty, but that didn’t really counterbalance the claustrophobic feel of the movie. I suppose the film was effective in that I was squirming along with the characters at the nearly impossible situations they created for themselves through greed and misplaced loyalties and a refusal to heed their own morals or instincts.

Basically, two brothers from London agree to murder a man who threatens their uncle’s reputation and fortune. Colin Farrell plays the brother crippled by conscience, the one who turns to drink and drugs to numb the pain, all to no avail. He is coming apart at the seams. His fragility threatens the entire wicked scheme.

In spite of myself, I wanted these guys to get away with their crime, but at the same time, I wanted Farrell’s character to do the impossible, to become whole again.

The only answer I could come up with, as we watched the story unfold on our comfortable couch bathed in the glow of the Christmas tree, was that this guy needed to find a priest. The only thing I could think of that might make his soul clean again was some time in a confession booth and as many Acts of Contrition and Hail Marys as he could muster.

I have mentioned previously that I dance with my Catholic heritage, holding dear to the pieces that speak to me directly – my own vision of Mary, the mystics, the commitment to service – and yet, I definitely shy away from other aspects – Original Sin, patriarchy, the idea that it is the “One True Faith.”

Still, Catholicism seems to flow in my blood as surely as the prayers have been etched into my brain.

createsimaEven when I was furthest from my Christian roots, when I had run out of options, I found myself beseeching Jesus that I would do whatever he might ask, if only he could get me out of the mess I had made. I was twenty years old, alone in a Galway dorm room, trying to live through a case of alcohol poisoning so intense I would have been in an American emergency room in a heartbeat. A man I had been foolish enough to love decided to break my heart only after he had bought me one of everything they had behind the bar. Young, stupid, and scared out of my mind, I clung to my pillow and just repeated the Lord’s Prayer as my body shook and my head swam.

Far from my finest hour, and certainly one that I must cherish as a lesson and a warning. Only years later, when I have made my peace with Christianity, can I look back to that moment and understand the depths of my belief in the power of heavenly salvation and aid. It is definitely not something that springs from an intellectual place within me. It is from a visceral place, a spiritual place beyond words that makes me understand why people need faith and a religion upon which to hang those convictions.

What would a priest do for a guy who had committed such a horrific sin? My mind says, not much. My soul seems to think that he might be able to do something more.

I still pursue a path guided by the wisdom of many traditions, but it seems that when things are really dire my survival instinct takes me back to what I learned first.

Our Father, who art in Heaven…

The Universe of Illusions

I have been away from writing in this space for more reasons than I really understand. Imminent plans to pack up and more back to Cape Cod are not amongst them, despite my last post, but I still have faith that such eventualities will be revealed in their time if it is meant to be. It is not that I have been off on a crusade against global warming either, despite all of my fiery rhetoric from a few weeks ago. Neither of these things are any less important to me; I was not speaking anything other than the truth when I bathed the topics of climate change and the desire to return home in such urgent tones. It’s just that I fell back into the rhythm of living life rather than talking about it for a little while.

Across the Universe* * *

I spent yesterday reading David Edwards’s Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom and then we watched Across the Universe, that movie about the sixties with the beautifully Beatles-laden soundtrack. They complemented one another in a stirring way.

The basic premise of Edwards’s book is one that reverberates in my core, even as I yearn desperately to push such insights as far from me as possible. He describes the commodified, profit obsessed “reality” of modern life, the inescapable pursuit of property and status that marks Western life (so often at the expense of the rest of the world) and leaves us all empty, devoid of purpose of our own. To him, being caught in this trivialized culture is exactly the opposite of freedom. Though it seems as if we have limitless options, our paths are all predetermined because they function to support the ever expanding financial markets. We stand in a place where it is impossible to discern the truth because it is filtered through the media machine that is just as much in thrall with conformity and the bottom line as the corporations. Success is counted in dollars and pounds; happiness becomes an elusive, undefinable destination often only understood in monetary terms.

I know, I know, maddened lefty rhetoric from a guy who probably couldn’t hold a real job, right? He quotes Chomsky and asserts that Shakespeare is not actually a very good writer (he was just someone who eloquently dressed up themes that the elites have continued to approve of), so he must be an irrelevant wacko, right? I mean, we can all list our myriad liberties and successful instances of insightful, investigative reporting, right?

The problem is, what if he isn’t nuts? What if there is real truth in these ideas that our society demands we reject? I know I am susceptible to his message since I have been plagued with my own questions about what to do with my future (dreams of being a healer and a writer and a yoga instructor with the ocean not far from my door) and am constantly confronted with “but how are you going to pay the bills, kid?” and “don’t you worry about not having benefits?” And these comments come from those I love and respect, those who only want the best for me! But I am certainly not the only one to have woken up to realize that the layers of schooling and networking and financial obligations should not lead to a life sentence in a sensible job that leaves one feeling soulless – despite the health insurance and the fact that there are plenty worse places to be. Since the picture of society that Edwards creates seems accurate enough, clearly most people who wake up in such a crisis listen to those concerned friends and worried family members and continue to do the job and make the sacrifices because that is the only “realistic” way to go.

This unusual (bizarre?) perspective is difficult to express since I am far from comfortable with them myself and fear my readers who will shake their heads at another of my flights of fancy, another of my quaint hypocrisies (how easy would it be for me to forget this Sunday morning ramble and go shopping this afternoon and watch brainless television tonight?). The film Across the Universe at least can function to illustrate some of these ideas.

The movie, of course, is steeped in all of the idealism of the sixties, the nascent radicalism of (most of) a generation. Though it includes some cringe worthy musical theater style dance moves, it really was a beautiful kaleidoscope of an era. What really struck me was the contrast between the emergent, rebellious youth culture and the American war machine. In that case, movement and dance and song made the argument so much more compelling than tradition storytelling. Perhaps I am soaked in my own idealism of my parents’ college years, but it seemed as if a truly independent spirit still inspired the young people of that decade. Maybe it was because music was not yet a completely corrupt industry. Or maybe it was because the war affected so many people so much more intimately than the current conflicts that rage across the globe. Maybe it was just because the military industrial complex was just not as sophisticated as it is now. Back then, the unholy marriage of big business and the “defense” industry was not yet so powerful that it became invisible as it has now.

Of course, in the intervening years, what sounds have become more part of the general culture than the music of the Beatles? It is hard to believe sometimes that their music was once strange and revolutionary, rather than a set of familiar anthems of a now quaint time rife with free love and heavy drug use.

This is not a post that really goes anywhere in particular, except for halfway through a book that just might urge me to analyze some of my own perceptions of the world, but I think that is ok for now. At any rate, check out the movie – it offers an entertaining couple of hours that will make it so you’ll never look at the Statue of Liberty in the same way again. And I think I would recommend Edwards’s book too – I think…

An Arctic Chill Whispering Through a Cozy Life

Arctic Tale

We’d had the disc at home for days before I was ready. In the midst of the pre-Christmas madness I swore to my husband that it was the right time, but wisely he overruled me and we watched something involving guns and bad guys instead. Finally, last night, wrapped in the glow of days full of family and immeasurable fortune, I knew I was actually ready for the polar bear movie. How foolish it must sound to spend days debating over when I could handle a G-rated film, but parts of the March of the Penguins set me weeping and I know I am not ever going to get over An Inconvenient Truth. Is it because watching and interacting with animals connects me to the girl I once was like no other experiences despite my overactive adult brain? Is it because some of the seawater that flows through my veins happens to be of the frozen variety as well? Is it just because I happen have a soft spot the size of the hole in the ozone layer for lost causes?

That’s really the thing of it, what had me wiping tears from my cheeks at the end of Arctic Tale: the idea that these majestic creatures – bears, walruses, narwhals – might truly be lost and that this is a cause I cannot begin to effectively fight for. I think I can generally say that I did not cry for selfish reasons (arctic mammals tend to have little direct effect on human life in the Hudson Valley as far as I have heard) but because it is devastating to think of those great beings starving for lack of ice. And that our behavior as a race is so much the cause of it all. Of course, I just realized in rereading that paragraph that I am clearly mourning my own helplessness because, let’s face it, I will always understand what it is to feel ineffectual while I will never know the texture of a polar bear’s fur. In the end, however, does it matter exactly why we act, just as long as we act?

At this point, there is little to say about the issue of global warming and climate change, as far as I am concerned. Al Gore has a well earned Nobel Prize for bringing the issue to the forefront and books like George Monbiot’s Heat have further proven the science and politics that surround this crisis. I have as much patience for the “naysayers” as I do famous atheists – you are certainly entitled to your opinion, but I really haven’t got the time to consider all of your arguments against what I believe in since I am busy enough with the belief itself.

I hesitated in writing this because it somehow feels like old news. The movies I have mentioned have long since been on DVD and the Live Earth concerts are just so last summer. But I guess that is the biggest danger, allowing our impact on the earth become a phenomenon that captivated audiences in 2006 or 2007 and then settling back with those new compact fluorescent bulbs to wonder if they will make Hummers forever.

On Christmas Eve my father and sister and I got to talking about how incredibly lucky we are. I am always the one to bring up the things that distract me from the “good life,” be it shrinking ice caps or the unsustainable nature of American life and my dad is always telling me not to worry about it – I cannot change it so why let it detract from all my blessings and all that our family has worked for? The only answer I can have for that, even as I have another glass of wine and wonder if we can turn up the thermostat a little, is that there are certain people in the world who have to worry about unseen species and yet unrealized disasters, and at least to some degree, I am one of them. The only real task ahead of me is to sort out how to move from just worrying about it all to actually forging a small aspect of the solution…