Dear Dirty America


In Need of A Soul Massage

May 20
15:00 2012
Los Angeles

St. Felix of Nicosia

The book’s section is called “recognition”. In Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s novel Madeleine Is Sleeping, a young girl sees in her church’s stained-glass windows her face in Saint Michel’s. She leaves the pew, where she sits with her family, and walks to the altar. She turns toward the crowd:

Stepping down from the altar, she approached the stout man sitting in the front pew, the collection plate balanced on his knees and she touched his chest, with all the tenderness in the world. His stiff Sunday vest peeled away like an orange rind, and she grazed her fingertips against the polished, orderly bones of his rib cage. Beneath, she found a curled and pulsing bud, and when she blew on it, it began to unfurl its sanguine petals, one by one. His heart unfolded before her.

She worked her way down each pew, gently touching and blowing as she went, and when she looked around she noticed, with pleasure, that the small flowers she had uncovered were of a heliotropic variety; their delicate heads nodded to her wherever she went, following her movements like those of the sun (10).

I was so drawn to that passage because I remember the days of my youth, sitting in church every Sunday with my family, and dozens of familiar members of my community. I remember feeling that unsettling chasm between the hope of eternal life being preached by the minister, and then the hard-worn, known outside world that existed much more immediately than Jesus, or the saints, or eternal life, or a loving Father.

What does a child know about the great divide between the pains of life and the promise of a perfect afterlife? Maybe not much, but I’d lost my cousin when we were both children, and that event thrust my ten year old mentality further inward than it had been before. I suddenly dealt with bigger questions, such as, Why do cartoon characters die and everybody laughs? Death isn’t funny, my cousin died. Or, What is death? Why do people die? Where do they go? And, I thought only old people died. Why did a young person?

Anyway, this is not a critique on religion. Nor is it saying anything about Bynum’s wonderfully imaginative novel (I’ve only read the first few pages, and will finish it in the coming days.) It’s a personal reflection on the effects of human experience and organized religion.

Church service, to me, on many levels, was just an hour a week of hedging my family’s bets on the afterlife. If death was truly death, and there was no God, then it didn’t matter, but if there was a God, it was best to be baptized and forgiven.

But there always hung heavy that feeling of reality. At least for me as a child, I knew about the awful instances of violence and poverty and war in the world. I was aware of my stomach and chest tightened with anxiety over school, grades, any ongoing family issues, death, adolescence, and the future. For that hour in church, I could only gather shallow, short moments of peace. My heart usually felt like that “curled and pulsing bud” of an organ in that old, stiff gentleman. Maybe I was just a somber child, but I suspect most of us in that church felt that way.

My longing for a spiritual and mental healer to drift along and surprisingly open up my heart, and my soul, and let them unfurl, in rich “sanguine petals, one by one” is a fantasy that has my mouth watering. The closest I’ve ever come was my delving into vipassana meditation. After much practice, I felt the suffocating tightness in my chest and stomach unbuckle and fall away. The feeling was nothing short of miraculous.

But then strange events happened. I started seeing ghostly images at the corners of my vision. I woke up in the middle of the night with heavy series of vibrations rolling through my body, from my heels to the crown of my head. Once a loud pop happened inside my head. I would see clear images on the backs of my eyelids, like a beautiful feminine eye staring into me, or the face of a young man. I finally stopped meditation for fear of the unknown, and I haven’t been back since.

I might have been on the path for releasing my inner spirit from bondage and its mind-forged manacles, but with it came everything else in Pandora’s box. Too much of a burden to bear. Someday I will go back, but I long to find that saint or deity who will, in the spirit of wholesomeness and goodness, unlock the sorrow and tension within my breast that I find inescapable on this planet.

I don’t think I’m completely alone in this. But I could be.

Every day, I see a lot of different people. On the bus, the train, in coffee shops, restaurants, in parks, at school, in my classroom. There is so much tension and straining and fear of something I can’t put my finger on. People laugh, but it’s a restrained laughter. There is a great hesitance pervading our society. Like we’re on the verge of reaching out a hand to pet the majestic lion, and we know we’re going to get bitten, and badly, but we’re reaching anyway.

Perhaps it all stems from my insecurity and paranoia, but this is 2012, after all, and I can’t imagine paranoia isn’t anything other than a future alarm for species’ survival.

Perhaps we all need a spiritual, deep cleaning. A soul massage. A heart soother. A deep breath. Followed by another.

Unfortunately I cheaply pillaged from Bynum’s novel’s early pages. But the power of language, and well-crafted words, can erupt an infinite series of revelations. That’s what reading has always been for me. A hit of LSD. A mind expanding meditation. A philosopher sitting tensely upon a stool in a cold basement in North Dakota, moving from one idea to a bigger idea, which then, after some thinking, opens wider into another idea. And all the while, the stool is the same stool, and the philosopher isn’t getting any younger.

See also, Malcolm X inspires us to read and Frederick Douglas’ shot of LSD

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