The summer after the first year in college. Rainy season, a bright green, lush Missouri. Boundless optimism for doing a new thing with the vacuum cleaner sales, and then the growing sense of it being a scam. Finally, quitting and getting some comfort from the purchase of Nick Drake and Miles Davis. The sounds of cool jazz and a moody singer songwriter who was more depressed than I was. It was to be my soundtrack for many years when I was alone and separated from my friends, who were all into whatever indie and metal had morphed into–Marilyn Manson, Korn, etc. I tried to feign interest in that shit, but then I would inevitably return to jazz and classical when I was alone. Being alone wasn’t the source of my depression. It was more along the lines of: everyone expects me to be with someone, to be hanging out with buddies and meeting girls. I liked being alone, but I hated not living up to the expectations of my parents and friends.
But, there was nothing quite like having a window open in the dorm, apartment or bedroom back home while I read a book or studied, and let the night noises and smells come filtering in to accompany Miles Davis and his Quintet. The world outside stopped being the painful one of unmet expectations. Instead, it became a world that could be the 1940s, it could be New York or Paris, or a world from a book.
Did I ever think I would miss a Missouri evening or night in autumn or early spring when it could still chill you in a way that Texas cannot? I certainly kept convincing myself that I wouldn’t miss Missouri and its seasons when I moved down here, but now I kind of do miss them. Central Texas can evoke a little nostalgic sweetness and pain when autumn finally does arrive. But, it comes late, like in October, and then before you know it, it’s just dark and gray and sort of chilly but the chill is not a savory one like the chill you get walking in San Francisco. The weather can often feel like Missouri does in November, from November until March. I can’t explain it, but there is even a difference in feeling between an autumn in Austin and one in Waco.
Days like today don’t have much character to them once the sun gets high enough up in the sky. They are generic, 100 degree days with no clouds in the sky and no rain in the forecast. I used to like them a lot more when I was younger and could go running in the middle of the day without peeing blood. I am grateful for them as they can be better than dealing with brutal humidity during the time of summer in Missouri when it feels like it should break into a rain, but never does. They are better than the endless dark, gray days of winter. But, they don’t evoke any sense of days gone by, and they don’t necessarily compel one to get busy with a new project.
That’s what the music is for, I guess. I sit here and try to find that window out into the limitless world, where the 1940s or 1990s still abide.
I am a father with a family going back to school full time for the first time since I was 21, starting my last year in college. The moments of solitude are precious. I get lonely, because my close friends outside of family are non-existent, but I am never heartbreakingly lonely. I still like to drink beer, but I don’t really like getting drunk. I don’t like the feeling of losing control of myself, and I don’t like feeling sick the next day. The insights that came while drinking were always few and far between.
Should I shut the music off so I can listen for God? Sometimes, yes.
Sometimes the music and writing and reading must cease so that family can receive my attention. But, they shouldn’t be shut off entirely.
The things I took for granted will all one day be gone completely, or far away. When I flew up to Missouri, I forgot how much I missed the greenness of it all. So many trees and vegetation growing everywhere, and hills to keep the green ever present in your view. I calmed down, I felt peace. The previous time I drove up there at the end of winter, and Missouri’s landscape was at it’s worst–a brown gray color that is sadder than the tan brown of dead lawns in Central Texas at the end of summer.
I can catch myself missing a really brisk fall afternoon more days than not. The lack of seasons has its own way of wearing you down. You lose your sense of the passage of time. The darkness of winter has no accompanying hard stops and starts of coldness and warmth–the first day after the time change in the fall down here might be in the 90s, same with any given day of winter.
The likes and dislikes of the self can be truly ephemeral and change drastically across time. Some of my longing for the cold no doubt comes with it being the twentieth 100 degree day of the year, and some of it is due to my desire for a change. I am steeling myself for the coming 3-4 years of living in a city I swore I’d outgrown and would never live in again. The city won’t remember me, but I will have plenty of memories of it around every corner. I will have to watch myself at all times for tendencies to lapse into learned patterns of behavior that I’ve managed to somewhat extricate myself from living up here.
If I were truly mature, which I’m not yet, I would declare that any place and time is as good as any other, as long as I am 100% doing the Lord’s will. If God wants me to stay in Texas for the rest of my life, even a smaller town like the one we are moving away from, I can and should accept it. God will lead the way, and I will be happy whether I am living in the middle of endless 100 degree days, or living in the middle of endless days of snow.
What I still hold fast to is the notion that writing will transform me. If I can maintain the discipline of writing something every single day, and write with an eye to resetting myself every time I wander from myself, then I will begin to grow properly.
There are a million ways to wander, but there are probably only a few archetypes that I encounter persistently when I wander. The Joker, The Sycophant, The Bitter Old Man. The Joker thinks that life is a joke, and nothing is sacred. Taken to extremes, he can become a bully, a racist, a fool–a man not afraid to be utterly silly at the expense of his dignity or not afraid to crack a joke about any given group or race of people. The Joker comes up a lot when I am caught up in being silly with others to the point where I have lost all grounding of self, and others are no longer laughing with me, or even at me. The Sycophant is cut from a similar cloth, but he is a little whore for approval. He will not say no, will not confront anyone, will not disagree, and there isn’t anything someone says he won’t agree with to meet their approval. The Bitter Old man is severe–a 180 degree turning away from the other two. He wants to know only the rules, and stick to them entirely. He is always being hypercritical of others who don’t completely follow the rules. He thinks he deserved so much more out of life, but this world and his God have screwed him over because that’s what they do, and he was made to always get the short end of the stick. There isn’t anything someone can do right–nothing they can’t do that isn’t open for criticism. There may be others–the archetype of the Consumer–always believing that this next purchase of health supplement or book or vacation will be the purchase that transforms him into the man he really wants to be. All problems are to be solved by buying something–he bestows almost magical properties upon material things. All of them are met at times by the Nihilist. The Nihilist would seek to do away with everything and everyone. The Nihilist is the hard charging reaction to any and all attempts to have a personality that connects with others in the outside world. Nobody is worth knowing, everything has been done before–all of the things of this world are bad for the Nihilist. He might appeal to Buddhism or Nietzsche, but he really is just too scared or unwilling to figure out how to be himself in this world around others.
None of the archetypes are satisfying, and none of them ever amount to seeing me become a real human being. They are comfortable meta-personas to adapt when a novel situation presents itself.
The time spent alone is always a great reunion with my true self…perhaps not my immortal core Self, but my person in this world who I know myself to be, but I don’t ever seem to get quite right when I am out there among other people. The strange urge to please people and make friends by sharing common interests rather than making deeper soul connections was instilled in me at some point in time, and it is a very difficult one to shake. No one likes to be made fun of for loving classical music, for example, and yet it takes a certain amount of self esteem to get to a place where you aren’t the least bit bothered by someone making fun of you for liking the things that you like. Even today, I sit with some reluctance to post on Facebook that I will be a student at Austin Presbyterian Seminary, though of course I will have to at some point so that people know what I am presently doing.
It is true that so much of our identities do become formed within the relationships and transactions we have with other humans. Who I am when I am alone writing with good music playing cannot be brought forth when I am encountering others, unless I make the effort to demonstrate the happiness, joy, peace, etc. that is naturally taking place inside of me. That effort can be thwarted often by stress of one kind or another. The social anxiety is most attributable to an overarching need for the ego to be affirmed in only a positive way. Any screwups or awkwardness whatsoever will be the death of the perfectly constructed ego, and I must work that much harder to reclaim something that only I had fabricated–nobody else is even paying that much attention to me.
But, the really big changes have only taken place when I bite the bullet and commit myself to engaging with others. It is obviously much more preferable to cultivate an attitude of being 100% okay with making mistakes from the get-go, as well as approaching the situation proactively with a mindset of disinterestedness. This is different from not caring about others…it’s more along the lines of not believing I am in control of the outcome of the engagement. I am not, and nor should I want to be. The severe need for control over everything is a crippling thing indeed.
Preconceived notions come on faster than I can even catch them sometimes. I am already quite busy inventing in my head what other people are thinking about me in their heads. I am assuming I know perfectly what their intentions are, while always assuming that they perfectly understand my intentions, too. These assumptions are, of course, utter bullshit, and yet they seem to persist in a pretty active and robust sort of way. To some degree, this habit of assuming bad intentions (they are usually bad) of others while expecting them to know right away my intentions are good comes from times when I assumed the best of others and was proven wrong. The attitude of someone burned by this is usually created by a person who was naive to begin with, and was unwilling to work towards having a realistic picture of others. Yes, you can’t blindly assume people have the best intentions, but you can certainly give them opportunities to wake up from their state of likely having no intentions whatsoever before you write them off as having only bad intentions.
Interactions have often gone like this–I smile at someone, they don’t notice me, aren’t paying any attention. I think they are actively returning some type of negative body language that is intentional and so I scowl back at them. I now have their attention, and they think that I am being proactively antagonistic, and so they react poorly to my scowl. We become enemies or choose to ignore each other as much as possible.
I can’t say as I have loved every single Sunday of church, and the interactions that take place there, but I have witnessed it being a place of renewal as well as a place where the above observations have taken place. I am a better person for forcing myself to get up and go when I don’t feel like it, when I’d rather crawl into a cave and stew in my own thoughts or spend the morning out in nature. Church can be exhausting–the passing of the peace, the disjointed sermon that seems to go on forever, the standing up and sitting down, waiting patiently for your row to get communion, getting called out in front of the congregation. If you arrive at church with a big ball of ego, thinking that you are the most amazing thing on earth who barely has time for any of this, then you do get only the reward of being drained. It’s your damn ego fighting the whole time–you really aren’t that special, nobody cares about you to the point of making you exceptional and putting your problems and spiritual questions above theirs or anyone else’s, and you’ve been fighting God trying to get in and talk to you the entire time.
You will also be similarly disappointed if you show up at church always expecting the entire service to profoundly affect you to the core of your soul. Sometimes the choir isn’t all there, physically or spiritually. Same with the pastor–the sermons can be utterly trite or so far out in the deep end you have no idea what they are talking about. The liturgy is clearly and almost painfully a group of humans who are mostly amateurs trying to do the best they can. You arrive expecting to be practically in tears at the beauty and profound mystery of it all, and you leave wondering if God even exists at all. Again, your damn ego is overriding any attempts by God to get through to you.
In spite of all of the less than perfect aspects of church, a solid attendance of church can ground you and begin to shape and mold you in ways that no amount of social interaction with folks at work or in bars ever will. When I look back upon any given era of my life, and think about what was missing–what I could have done better, and how I could have begun to grow more as a human being from the very moment I made the decision to do something differently, attending church always comes up. I think that a person does need a certain kind of church, depending on the time of their life. The church that works for me in my 30s and 40s may not be the church I die in, and it may or may not have been the right church for me when I went away to college. I tend to think that it probably would have been–I am very much a traditional service, progressive message kind of person and I think I would have been just as put off by contemporary services with overly eager shiny people my age as I was by them in high school. The advice I would give to my younger self would be just that–get to a solid Presbyterian or Methodist, maybe Episcopal, Lutheran or Catholic church and make yourself go as often as possible. Don’t worry about being a little awkward during the passing of the peace, the offering plate, communion, etc. Just go and keep your damn ego in check or leave him at home if that were possible.
The summer after the second year of college was a little more straightforward. I didn’t cherish any reservations about making a lot more money than I normally could at a minimum wage job, and went straight to the Clubhouse Inn where they promptly took me back. The difficult people were completely different, and the young lady I had taken on a date a couple of times wasn’t there any longer, but it was a comfortable routine. I’ve done a fair amount of beating myself up for not trying harder to find opportunities to study abroad or internships that would have gotten me a better job right after college, and I think I forgot why I liked those mindless, early morning jobs. I could get up quite early, set up and tear down a breakfast buffet, and go home and spend the rest of my day reading books and listening to music. Those jobs left me plenty of brain space to think about whatever I wanted–there was really not a lot of brainpower required to cook food in bags and boxes, dump it onto a hot plate, and then wash some dishes. It was annoying sometimes to be stuck on a shift with a fratboy who didn’t want to do the work and would call you a little bitch for doing the work, but for the most part, the older working class people held no sense of ego about them–they had long since cashed out and were resigned to doing shitty, low wage jobs until they died.
I can’t say that so much has changed about me over the past twenty years that I wouldn’t be able to recognize myself as I was when alone. The solitary self, stripped of facades about impressing mommy, daddy and college friends (which were often contradictory and even schizoid-seeming facades), was a simple man uninterested in doing much of anything except being out in nature when it wasn’t too hot, plunking his guitar, listening to jazz and reading and writing. There was also a spiritual yearning inside of him that longed to connect with a magical community of other similarly-minded folks, but he never had the guts to ditch his friends who mostly just interested in getting drunk and didn’t hold much spirituality in them at all.
I’d probably get along well with the me of those solitary days–mostly ignoring my family as I sat up in my room with my jazz and my writing. I’d have to tell him about a lot of things he was doing wrong, but listening to jazz wasn’t one of them.