Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Dirty Face, or 40 Days and Counting...

Well, here it is again, posing the same problems for me that it has for the past several years:  Lent.  What to do; what not to do.  What to 'give up'; what to 'take on'.  And behind it all, for me at least, the discomforting sense that way up high, where I can't clearly see it, some window has been opened, and a host of keenly interested eyes are following every move (you know, they can see through walls and stuff), and keeping close record of the many failings, omissions, forgettings and other myriad styles of sin to which, according to the internalized code with which I struggle, I seem inescapably chained.  Sigh.  Again?  Forty freakin' days?  Man.

It didn't used to be this way, for me.  As I've mentioned more than once, I was taught to grow up as a Presbyterian, and because one of my more notable youthful capacities was that of unquestioning belief (okay, usually unquestioning.  I mean, some of the stuff was just too stupid, even for a seven year old to swallow), it's almost as though I willingly exchanged my naturally-occurring skeletal system for a more orthodox, predestination-centric model.  And I'm sure that, if Lent were really important to the Presbyterians, I would have known about it.

So my first contact with the obligations that rolled around every year, to wedge themselves inconveniently into place at a time of year when a little chocolate would go a long way, came in the package that made up my father's second family -- a rigidly-observant group of Catholics, as unforgiving in their way as John Calvin was in his.  In this new family, I wasn't actually required, as a Protestant, to participate in the Catholic observances.  There was, however, a distinctly patronizing air with which my brothers and I were regarded, during the feasts and fasts and other gyrations -- as though we were four clothed chimpanzees that had wandered into human habitat.  Aren't they cute?  Don't let them touch anything.

So, my brothers and I knew there was something going on, but we weren't really sure what it all might mean.  Feast Days?  Days of obligation?  Septuagesima Sunday?  In any event, little of it seemed to involve us boys to any great extent.  Besides, that is, the weekly meals prominently featuring crusty deep-fried rectangular prisms presented as 'fish'.  No amount of ketchup would make them seem to be anything other than cardboard.  Fried.   And the ghastly images hanging here and there, especially in the restaurant my step-grandmother was running into the ground: sad-looking nuns pointing to what looked like signs of eternal heartburn in their transparent chests.  And a lot of candles, the burning of which didn't seem to improve the family luck, or ease the general air of anger and despair.

After graduating from high school, and finding that there was no employer in McKeesport willing to hire and train a 17-year-old youth who had what seemed to be a large target painted on his forehead, with the words 'Cannon Fodder' both above and below the concentric rings, I was 'permitted', with the aid of my father's signature, to join the Air Force.  In the following four years, I think I went to church... once.  Lent?  It referred to a book you never expected to get back.

But of course, there was, within me, that same Presbyterian skeletal structure, informing my days and nights as surely as if I were wearing a long black robe with a stiffly starched ruff, and eating a lot of haggis.  My curiosity about the world's operating manual, and how I might fit into the system, continued to be of interest to me.  I even found, while still in uniform, a seemingly rational, formal religion, which I joined without as much thought as I might have given it.  This belief system had a kind of Lent-like equivalent, which I tried at first to observe.  But after a while, I got tired of hearing about a powerful Deity Who wouldn't like me if I did... oh, I forget what exactly.  And I realized that, in spite of myself, the Christian underpinnings were too deeply buried to be ignored.  So I bowed out of the new, and went back to ignoring the old.  Sundays were once more for sleeping in. 

Now, years and years later, I'm back in a very tenuous relationship with faith again.  It surprises me, in fact, that of the things I write about here -- and I can write whatever I want to, right? -- religion, or something tangential thereto, seems to be a prominent topic for me.  Except, as I think about it, religion isn't the real topic at all.

The real topic of course, as I've been aware, is death. 

And for me, religion is the mesh that has been woven from both the cultural and the personal need to give me something suitably elaborate and distracting, that may help me remain basically sane while I wait for the implacable end of my conscious corporeal existence.  How intriguing, I thought today, that the priest celebrating the noon-day mass I attended, for the imposition of the ashes, made the following revealing slip:  where the priest invites the congregation to make a three-fold declaration centered on death, resurrection and return, this celebrant invited us to proclaim, not the mystery of Faith, but the mystery of Death.  As with most slips of this type, it wasn't even noticed.

Well...  I noticed.  And I thought about it, all the way back to the car, parked somewhat illegally, by the library.  (Another mark on the bad list)

I thought about the familiar image of death, that Bosch painted, or Breughel -- the one Bergman picked, apparently at the last minute, to take advantage of some splendid natural lighting, for the ending of 'The Seventh Seal': a faceless reaper in a black robe, and carrying a scythe as tall as he is.  A scythe that cuts the stalk at the bottom, so what is being harvested may fall and then be gathered up.  Threshed for the valuable seed; bound, as dry remains, to be strewn on barn floors, or baled for feed.

But for me, today, this image is far too benign, tied as it is with the necessity of loss and transformation in the process of nourishment and of life itself.  You only use the scythe on what is ripe.  No, I currently picture death as an underpaid government functionary, possibly with an attention-deficit disorder of some type, which makes reading human expressions impossible.  And this functionary has no investment in this process. or in the persons on the endless roster on the clip board.  There is no relish in the task.  There is no triumph.   There is no ear for inducement to pity.  No eye for the most heart-breaking beauty.  No interest in intelligence, or wealth.   Youth or strength.  Wit or nice nails.  Just a daily, indifferent, plodding tick tick ticking off, wearing down one pencil after another, in the unenthusiastic repetition...

And me?  I guess I feel, at times, as though I'm flying in a military cargo plane, with all available bay doors open, and no illusion of support or protection between me and non-existence.

And... Lent, then? 

Well, I can't be any less susceptible than others, to the lure of that mesh I mentioned -- the protective, delusional set of mummeries to keep us all from going a little crazy.  The rules and regulations and suppositions of men 1700 years ago leave me cold -- but the living contact, between all of us, is something I do fervently respect and try to cultivate, to the extent that I can.  I've even begun, probably in the typical mortal effort to sidestep the unavoidable, to hope that intimate, caring conversation between humans is our only truly meaningful activity, the one truly death-defying act we can perform, just about anytime, anywhere.

So.  For this arbitrary period of 40 days, I'm going to try to make some kind of written statement every day.  It may only be a sentence (right), and who knows what I'll end up talking about.  I'll try, out of respect, to warn, if I suspect that any one day's musings might disturb those who want to read what I put out there.  (I know there's one theme, about Jesus and the mating habits of squids, that would surely have had me burnt at the stake in the 1600's -- no matter how black my robe, or starched my collar)  And, I think I'll try to reach out to at least one person a day.  However that reaching may show itself.  And it would be beyond gratifying, if these little meetings might be even the thinnest, least substantial knots in the sad net holding us all together, against the alternative.

Better a bad knot, I suppose, than no knot at all.

©  2012         Walter Zimmerman            

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