Category Archives: Life, the Universe, and Everything…

Morning Sequence

The following essay was written one week into the presidency of Donald J. Trump–in the wake of the controversial travel ban and ensuing protests. The essay appeared in Sunstone, Spring 2017.

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photo credit: Amy Goalen

Morning Sequence

By Lon Young

Tree Pose

For a minute or two, we’ve created our own sacred grove—twenty of us swaying in the sweaty breeze of the gym fan, arms drawn heavenward. Our left legs are lifted off the floor, knees swung wide, heels propped against the inner thigh of our standing legs. I feel a slow burn in my foot and ankle; sense the hum of a thousand gyroscopes steadying me.

We are practicing the art of staying centered, of remaining rooted yet supple, yielding to the gusts of life, trusting in the strength of our core. When a woman two rows up starts to topple, I hear my thoughts reassuring her: Don’t panic. Find your drishti—your focusing point.

This was my posture just after the presidential election. Equipoise. Balance and counterbalance. I consoled myself by trusting in the core values we share as Americans. Surely our commitments and traditions ran too deep to be uprooted, no matter who occupied the White House. Certain protections were enshrined in our Constitution, weren’t they? And a safeguard of checks and balances? The new president’s bluster and bravado were simply that, and would be drowned out by swelling choruses of Kumbaya. We who are committed to peace and justice comprise a vast forest: we breathe in what is noxious and breathe out what sustains.

And then came the inauguration. As I write this, it is the sixth day of the first week. The sixth day of smashing things, breaking things, uprooting things. A tornado full of chainsaws. And God saw everything he had unmade, and behold, he declared it was very very very good. The best ever.

And how can I stand now, safely planted in my privilege as a straight, white, non-Muslim male, humming hymns in arboreal bliss while chainsaws are buzzing in the borderland?

The Warrior

I move into Virabhadrasana, Warrior Pose. My stance is charged: thighs taut like crouched panthers, arms extended, hands blades. Once, when his beloved Sati was persecuted, Lord Shiva tore a lock of his hair and threw it to the ground. A moment later, Virabhadra sprang up from the earth—the incarnation of Shiva’s wrath—and hacked his wife’s tormentors into pieces.

For much of my life I didn’t allow myself to feel anger. It was an emotion unworthy of the narrative I was writing for myself. I would begin each day with the prayer of St. Francis in my heart: Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. But it’s getting harder and harder to know what peace should look like. And this warrior posture feels . . . well, it feels kind of right.

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photo credit: Amy Goalen

Pema Chodron says we should be bodhisattva warriors: warriors of wisdom and compassion who do battle against ignorance and hatred. And Paul says the struggle isn’t with flesh and blood but against rulers of darkness, against wickedness in high places. But these metaphors make me wary. I know our history, both as Mormons and as Christians: we sing strike for Zion, flash the sword above the foe, but whenever we have too zealously wielded the “Sword of the Spirit,” it has become stained with real blood. And I know my own heart. I know how readily the kindling of righteous indignation flares into the searing heat of hatred.

But what would it say about our moral conscience as Mormons if we were not angry, not roused to action? What if we sat upon the throne of our privilege, to use Captain Moroni’s blistering phrase, in a state of thoughtless stupor? I hear him now in my head. Yea, will ye sit in idleness . . . while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword, yea, wounded and bleeding? Do ye suppose that God will look upon you as guiltless while ye sit still and behold these things?

When I shift into Warrior II, I remember the bodhisattva warriors and the apostle Paul and Captain Moroni, who did not delight in bloodshed. And I think also of Virabhadra, and a mountain meadow in southern Utah, and the oath of vengeance that our Mormon progenitors swore in the Temple of the Lord. I catch myself in the mirror, arms locking into a horizontal plane as bright as a spear.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

The Corpse

We are led through what seems a lifetime of asanas: forward bends, backbends, chest openers, twists, up-dogs and down-dogs, poses for balancing, poses for binding. It’s a sequence of battles in a campaign we seem to be losing. There’s no way to flush out the lactic acid fast enough. Our muscles stiffen from the onslaught until we are unable to deflect the next attack—to decry, denounce, or defend; unable to uphold truths we mistook to be self-evident.

We ease our backs onto our mats as if they were stretchers.

Our yoga teacher says Savasana is our chance to relax, to pamper ourselves with a few minutes of peace and quiet. We go along with this fiction because we prefer it to the truth: this is the part where we are supposed to die.

Closing my eyes, I stretch out my arms and wait for it, following the rise and fall of my breath.

My first attempt at dying was at age eight in a makeshift baptismal font of stacked cinder blocks lined with sheets of clear plastic. It failed, of course. As a Mormon, I have been taught to strive, to multiply and increase, to rise through the ranks, to seek the validations of worthiness that qualify me for thrones, kingdoms, and exaltations. But I have not been taught how to let go, how to subtract myself, descend below, forfeit status and standing. Teach me how to die like a god—how to stretch out my arms in profound love and say Father, forgive us all, for we know not what we do.

For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

It is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

You must reduce yourself to zero, Gandhi said many times and in many ways. He lived in India, of course, where the only number that can hold infinite emptiness was invented. This surrender, this annihilation of the ego, became the source of his spiritual victory, but it also generated the energy—the soul force—that sustained his courage, his resilience, and his unfailing faith as a satyagrahi, or truth warrior. As I lay here in the darkened room on my mat, body splayed out in defeat, I wonder if I can reduce myself to zero.

A voice in the darkness says, “Turn your wrists to the sky.”

We are left in corpse pose for I don’t know how long. I congratulate myself on surrendering my own ego—not my will, but thine be done—even as I’m listening for the flutter of dove’s wings and the rending of the temple veil. (Shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks?) But when our teacher tells us to wake our fingers and toes, to regain a seated position, I suspect it’s still the same old me rising from the mat.

Half Lotus with Anjali Mudra

The lotus flower blossoms where there is mud. It rises up from the muck, through the murky water, until its flower, floating on the surface of the pond, blooms with such sublime beauty that religions throughout the East have adopted it as a symbol of purity, enlightenment, and the transcendence of suffering.

Last night we took our children to “Meet the Muslims.” The imam spoke of his congregation’s anxiety-ridden decision to hire security guards to protect them as they gather to pray. But then he gestured to the room of non-Muslims—mostly Mormons—who had come. He said that because of the election, because of the attempted Muslim ban, hundreds of us have been coming each week to express our support. I remembered the Utah March for Refugees and how State Street leading up to Capitol Hill had become a river of solidarity. Love flowing uphill. Lotuses rising from the mud.

We end in a seated posture. I’m in half lotus because I’m still not flexible enough for full lotus . . . and my head still hasn’t cleared the mud. (Someday.) My left foot is cradled in the fold of my right hip; my right foot is supporting my left knee. Everything embraces and sustains its opposite and the result is a balanced, upright posture.

I am trying to listen to people whose perspectives are different than mine. I am trying to remind myself that we are not separate, that our well-being is not separate. If I have learned anything as an unorthodox Mormon over the last few years, it is to be aware of the harm we do when we reject one another, when we deem some people acceptable of our fellowship and others not.

As we join our hands together in anjali mudra—prayer gesture—I think of Jesus inviting us into a relationship of wholeness, teaching us that the space we create in our hearts must include the whole human family. No one excluded. I have room for the downtrodden, but do I have space for the bully stomping on them? And is there room for the 63 million voters who handed him the boots?

Until our hearts can stretch that wide, we sit half lotus. We pray for the supple grace of a tree, the fearlessness of a warrior, and the pure heart of a flower that blooms in the mud. We lay our pride and self-interest on the altar and practice dying a little more each day. And when we rise from our mats, morning after morning, our sacred work awaits.

 

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photo credit: Amy Goalen


“Morning Sequence” first appeared in Sunstone, Spring 2017

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Divine Union: a Hindu temple-inspired reflection on twenty years of marriage.

BACK IN NOVEMBER I STARTED letting my beard grow out. After three days, an Indian colleague looked at my face and frowned. “You are looking very dull,” she said. “You are not well?”

“I feel fine,” I said.

“Maybe you sleep not so good?”

“Slept just fine, thanks.”

“Your face is looking very dull.”

After a few more days, the children on campus started reaching up and touching my face, giggling as their fingers skimmed across the bristles. “It’s a beard,” I told them.

An older boy ran his hand across his own chin and then said, “Lon, why you are not shave?”

“I am shaving,” I say. “Every day I’m shaving.” I lift up my chin and point to the neatly trimmed border meeting my jaw line. “See?”

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 5.41.08 PMAfter 10 days or so, the beard was growing in nice and full, blonde and red with some mature white marbling. That’s when I start hearing the whispers. I’m walking by some sari-clad colleagues, and I hear one of them say something and then the others giggling as I go by.

“Lon, sir. She say you must be having the love failure.”

I walk over to them. “The what?”

“Your beard. You must be having the love failure.”

“I’m having love failure?”

“Yes, yes.” The other teachers are wobbling their heads. “You are not shaving. If you have love failure means your heart sad from no love.”

From what I was able to gather in the ensuing conversation, a clean-shaven man who stops shaving is the Indian equivalent of a metro-sexual who begins wearing sweat pants out in public. It’s very worrisome, and likely signals that the individual has recently experienced heartbreak of such staggering proportions that they can no longer muster even the minimum effort required to maintain basic social conventions such as shaving, or matching belts to shoes.

I continued to be hectored for the entire month of November by the India staff, before shaving it off on the first day in December. To be fair, one person liked my beard. He was a former Christian pastor who now serves as the hostel manager on campus. He brought his palms together one evening at the dining hall, smiled at me shyly and said, in broken English, “When I am seeing your face, I think of Jesus.”

(This was around the time that the New York Times and other media were reporting on the humiliations heaped on the Mormon student attending LDS Business College in Salt Lake who’d been granted a rare exception allowing him to sport a beard while appearing in a LDS produced film about Jesus Christ, but who was required to wear an explanatory sign around his neck while on campus. Also, he was told he must compensate for his outward display of spiritual slacker-hood by wearing dress slacks and a tie. I wasn’t wearing a tie or a sign around my neck when Pastor John was thinking of Jesus. And I don’t think it was the beard, either. I think Pastor John sees Jesus in everyone’s face.)

When the beard came off, the staff were relieved, and they let me know.

Very sharp, Sir.

You now are looking more healthy, Sir. You were very, very dull.

You and Miss Rebecca having no more love failure–is good.

It is good. And just in time for our 20th wedding anniversary.

TO COMMEMORATE THE BEGINNING OF our third decade together, we packed a light picnic and took a lovely walk down a village road whose winding path was almost as full of twists and turns as our own marriage has been. Around every corner some new, unexpected delight. And plenty of opportunities to reorient from time to time, to get our bearings. We wound up–appropriately enough–at a temple alongside a lake. We were married in a temple–the LDS temple in Oakland, California–all those years ago, and could never have imagined that we’d be spending our 20th anniversary in India standing beside a Hindu temple. It was late afternoon and the slanting sun spilled its gold on everything–on the temple, the pond, the palm trees and herdsman’s goats, the cattle egrets and pond herons stepping through the marsh grasses. Rebecca’s hair shone gold and copper.

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We settled onto a spot near the temple, overlooking the little lake. The temple was in the southern Indian style, with a pyramidal steeple adorned with hosts of vividly-painted gods and goddesses, devas, and even gargoyles for scaring away the asuras, or demon spirits. Ecstatic devotional music trumpeted from loudspeakers in four direction as we sat together and looked back and looked forward, it being the turning of the year and also that tipping point in our marriage where, after 20 years, we’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart.

The temple includes a shrine to the god Shiva, (whose seemingly contradictory associations with both Destruction and Creation might better be understood as Regeneration, not unlike a farmer who discs a harvested field to prepare the ground for next spring’s crop.) Shiva is represented by a polished phallus, called a lingam.

Lingam and Yoni

Lingam and YoniLarge enough to make even the most confident of men more than a little insecure, the lingam symbolizes the god’s male potency and virility. But on this late afternoon, twenty years since Rebecca and I, twain, became one flesh, I can’t help but reflect on a temple symbol that foreigners often miss: Shiva’s lingam is always set in and circumscribed by a divine womb, or Yoni. It is only together, Yoni and Lingam, that the Divine is fully expressed. If you look at some of the oldest statues of the Hindu god, you will see that only the right half is Male; the left half is Female. They, together, Shiva and Parvati, comprise the Divine Whole, co-equal in power and capacity, but each reliant on the Divine Union to unleash their creative energy.

Five red-headed bundles of creative energy later, I think of how inseparably entwined our lives have become. To borrow a term from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, our marriage has invited us into a kind of inter-being, an ecology of relationships that recognizes, beyond the arbitrary epidermal boundaries, a complex system of inter-dependence that allows us to do more together than we could apart. To the extent I’m learning to yield to that inter-being, I expand exponentially.

This is what I couldn’t have fully understood at the temple 20 years ago. My Mormon tradition, too, has an audacious and sublime vision of Divine Union, which I cherish. But sometimes it’s obscured by ego-baiting rhetoric promising celestial dominions, kingdoms, glories, hierarchies of status. And perhaps it’s tainted, too, by a troubling history where polygamy seems to have been leveraged by its earliest practitioners not as a way for co-equals to enter a sacred partnership, but as a kind of celestial multi-level marketing scheme where the reach of a man’s exaltation was proportionate to the number of brides over which he presided.

This isn’t how I’ve come to understand my marriage. Those with a sublime vision of Divine Union aren’t embarrassed at the mere mention of a Heavenly Mother, nor fail to find a place for her in their temples, particularly during depictions of the Creation.

So it is fitting that we are here, where the Hindu temple at our shoulder can reminds us, perhaps better than our own temples dare, of the vision that has inspired our marriage for two decades and counting. A vision where we learn to embrace the other, loving and accepting until dualities dissolve, until that improbable partnership of opposites becomes a dynamic union of inter-beings, one in soul forever.

I didn’t know much twenty years ago when I married Rebecca Leavitt in the LDS temple in Oakland, California. The wedding rites hinted that we would one day rise to a fully divine nature. Now I better understand that our temple sealing wasn’t just a box to check off on a list of required ordinances that had to be satisfied. Now I see that the work of sealing was in truth the work of a lifetime spent together, learning to let the ego-boundaries of self melt away in the presence of the beloved. And if we do rise, we will rise as angels who, having each only one wing, ascend in each other’s embrace.

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Leggo of my Ego: An “East”er Look at Atonement 

HAVE YOU EVER STOOD BEHIND a Buddhist at a hot dog stand? It’s always the same thing:

What would you like?   

Can you make me one with everything?

This craving for a sense of one-ness is at the heart of my spiritual practice. I want to dissolve the boundaries of self that separate me. I know that sounds like New Age mumbo-jumbo, but I’m hard pressed to think of any spiritual tradition that doesn’t try to tackle the problem of alienation.

the-prodigal-sonChristianity, for one, explains this alienation as the “fruit of man’s first disobedience” and nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s Beloved Son could appease the decree of Divine Justice and thereby reconcile us to God. And in the Jewish narrative, alienation takes the form of exile and the promise of return, a theme woven throughout Hebrew myth and history. In the East, Vedic traditions (Hinduism) make Yoga–or Divine Union–the aim of their spiritual disciplines, which entails penetrating the facade of individual selfhood to realize the Divine Spark that infuses the whole of creation.

Buddhism, for its part, understands this sense of separateness as a dream, a delusion from which we must awaken. The notion of having a “self,” some enduring entity, is considered to be a trick of the mind, just a deeply entrenched mental construct. I find myself resisting this idea, sometimes viscerally. Other times, I’m drawn to it. Especially as I come to understand the idea more clearly.

tumblr_kunc3zNFEx1qatlijo1_1280You see, it isn’t so much that Buddhism rejects the notion of a self, but it rejects the notion of a separate self, a self-contained, independently existent identify. The truth, in this way of thinking, is that we are not independent, but interdependent. This is a spiritual ecology: we are woven into the web of all existence, and each strand is inextricably linked to the whole.

And yet, how persistent is the delusion, how unshakeable it’s resulting feeling of isolation. Einstein offered us a Humanist’s lens through which to understand this phenomenon when he observed that:

Albert-Einstein-5-900x1440A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

I know this. I bow to the beauty of this. So why am I still locked up inside that prison? Why do I persist in labeling everything in terms of “Me” and “Not-me,” depending on which side of my epidermis it happens to be? Am I destined forever to view myself, to borrow a phrase from Alan Watts, as an “isolated ego inside a bag of skin”?

Ah, the ego. That “I” which renders us so utterly myopic. There’s a term in Vedic philosophy—ahamkara in Sankskrit —that means, literally, “I-maker.” It refers to the part of us that creates a sense of selfhood. So, does the universal instinct to create a sense of self arise because this, in fact, accords with reality? Or is it merely a mirage? an abstraction? a term for something imaginary, like the number zero, which doesn’t actually exist but is nonetheless useful? And whether real or imagined, how do we keep the ego from overstating its place in the cosmos?

For Zen Buddhists, the practice of zazen, or seated meditation, is one way to silence the ego, or at least blur the lines between us and other. In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Roshi Suzuki explains that, during breathing meditation,

When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world,” but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door…”

 

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This is part of my spiritual practice, and it works for me. At least it works until I notice it’s working. Then my ego stands up to take a bow (Look at me! I’m so . . . enlightened!) or else, ignored too long, it throws a tantrum and starts banging its tin cup against the bars of my mind.

If sitting cross-legged isn’t your cup of green tea, I’m happy to let you in on a secret: the prison warden has also (temporarily) let me out of my ego-cell at the following moments:

  • drifting in a kayak at Monterey Bay with sea otters
  • partaking of the sacrament of communion
  • sitting in a field of birds (without my field guide and lists)
  • those first two minutes of the “Adagio” in Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, as interpreted by Julian Bream
  • in the union of love-making with my beloved
  • watching a camp fire when everyone’s done talking
  • lying on my back facing a big sky
  • bowing to a bowl of soup at Deer Park Monastery

6ac287a7b4e6ddc9c36184b34b07120c_fullThese are fleeting moments of liberation, to be sure. But they suggest more is possible. What they teach me is that, regardless of whether that “bag of skin” I call myself in fact envelopes an enduring identity or is just a soul-stunting illusion, I can experience times when I am deeply connected to those around me—indeed, with the whole universe.

For now, I choose to think of my identity as a constituent cell of some vast and beautiful organism. That cell has shape and definition, and perhaps a crucial function to perform, however small. But the vitality of that cell—that individual self—requires that it be encapsulated in a membrane that is not sealed off from the rest of the organism. In biology, these kinds of cell walls are said to be semi-permeable. The osmotic exchanges upon which life depend happen only when a cell is willing to give and willing to receive—to remain open and vulnerable to possibilities.

In the meantime, if I can’t be subsumed like a dewdrop into the ocean, then let me, like the poet, say to all the universe, Let there be commerce between us.

 

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From Peek-a-Boo to Pale Blue Dot: An Earth Day Reflection

Eye-Spy1You know how a small child can make the rest of us disappear simply by shutting her eyes? Psychologists tell us that babies lack the capacity to conceive of perspectives beyond their own field of vision. It’s something they must develop as they mature—understanding that their perspective is not the only perspective, that they are not the axis around which the universe turns.

Civilization passes through developmental stages, too. As hunter-gatherers, family and clan affiliation were sufficient for our success. But in making the switch to agriculture, success meant  cooperation across family lines. Family and clan loyalties extended to tribal loyalties, chiefdoms, and city states. A robust population could now undertake labor-intensive enterprises like erecting walls and building infrastructure, and, critically, when attacked by marauding bands, a strong city-state could defend itself.

And so it went. City-states waged war with their nearest neighbor. Then a greater threat would inevitably come along that threatened to destroy them both. Leaders that could see past their mutual differences would form an alliance with their erstwhile enemy, ensuring their mutual survival in the face of a common enemy. Create a confederation of such alliances, and . . .voila! . . . nations are born.

And the cycle continues. Nations fight neighboring nations. A common enemy threatens their destruction. True leaders see past their mutual differences and form alliances with their erstwhile enemies, working together to solve global problems, collaborate on mutual interests, and increase the likelihood of an enduring peace.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Is civilization now poised to make the next leap? Can we transcend the arbitrary boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and geo-politics? Can we conceive of an identity so inclusive that it circumscribes the whole human family?

400px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-EarthriseIn 1968, on Christmas Eve, the crew of Apollo 8, in lunar orbit, snapped a picture of Earth rising from the moon’s surface. This was humanity’s first chance to see ourselves from a distance. (Shout out to Bette Midler) Beamed from the lunar orbiting capsule, it was as if the people of earth were the recipients of a Divine Greeting Card.

If this was humanity’s attempt at launching into a new era of pax cosmos, it soon became apparent that, to achieve escape velocity, we’d need to overcome the gravitational pull of old paradigms. When we landed on the moon that next summer, Neil Armstrong announced one giant leap for mankind, and then promptly jabbed an American flag deep into the moon dust.article-2193737-14B2A689000005DC-359_964x635

Still, it’s often the wide-frame perspective that we get from space that best expands our vision of what it means to be a citizen of Earth. I know of no more stirring call for a global ethos than that offered by Carl Sagan, whose Voyager I project afforded us a view of Earth as seen from the edge of the solar system. We were just a pale, blue dot.

I’ll close with Carl Sagan’s stirring words:

JO-D-111016-Sagan02-1“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

~ Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, (1994)

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If you enjoyed this, stay tuned for my next post, in which I explore the challenges of dissolving personal boundaries of self that prevent atonement. “Follow” this blog to receive updates on new posts, or subscribe through email.

Wriggling Free: Discovering Liberation in a Handful of Worms

Everyone wants to fit in. But sometimes you have to break free from the crowd. It’s liberating, but it’s also lonely. I was ten when I realized I’d have to go my own way. And my independence involved a black Cabbage Patch Kid, a quirky bladder, and a handful of worms.

Wriggling Free: Discovering Liberation in a Handful of Worms

Some mornings, after a long night of rain, you’ll see earthworms sprawled across the soaked ground. They come up to the surface for air. Who knows when they last surfaced, nibbling through that subterranean world one black grain at a time, or what labyrinths they leave in their infinitesimal wake?

A memory can be like that, too. A little squiggle of a thing, really. But sometimes it bores its way to the surface, as if for air.  I guess it was the recent rain, the blustering wind, that summoned this memory from the compost heap of my childhood.

First, a little background. I wasn’t the most “socially-empowered” fifth grader in school. I tried. But my attempts at being part of the group were doomed. It seems the beat of some distant drummer was throwing me off step. There are a thousand unspoken rules of belonging. Without knowing it, I was breaking them all.

Take the first day after Christmas break. I brought Emmanuel with me to school. You could refer to him as a “doll” I suppose, but he was my best friend.  He also happened to be the first African-American ever to grace the halls of Hiawatha Elementary. What fifth grade boy brings a doll to school in the fifth grade, right? But this was back when Cabbage Patch Kids were all the rage, and I’d figured coming to school with one of these rarer-than-Elmo dolls just might catapult me into the stratosphere of popularity.

Parenthetically…If my mom sensed this wasn’t a bright idea, she didn’t let on. Of course, anyone who would indulge their ten year old boy’s desire to get a doll probably wasn’t the foremost expert on social norms. Instead, I should have taken my cue from the woman in our WonderBread town who was making knock-offs for half the price: when we placed our order—“bald and black” were the salient features I’d specified—her face started twitching and never quite stopped. Okay, back to story…

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Emmanuel and I created quite a stir, though I soon learned that not everyone fully appreciated how snugly I could wrap him in his blanket, nor how dutifully I checked his diaper—on the hour, every hour. That day was a song loop of humiliation: the tongue clicks of my teacher provided the percussion track to a refrain of ridicule that wouldn’t stop until Emmanuel and I had both stepped off the bus and made that long walk home down a gravel road. That night we both agreed it would be best if he stayed home the next day.

Or take another time, in the talent show, when I’d piped out the lines to “King of the Road” in a voice not yet pickled in the brine of testosterone. I ain’t got no cigarettes, ah, but old stogies I have found . . . (strum-strum) King of the Roooooad! After the last note, I bent over my guitar to acknowledge the thundering … silence… of my peers. Even the teachers were shifting awkwardly in their chairs. It was a silence I would have savored a week later when John Meadow pointed out to the entire class a dark spot of pee blossoming from the crotch of my sweatpants.

So, yeah, this is how fifth grade was turning out.

But one morning that Spring something changed. I stepped off the bus and into the schoolyard and I was a different boy. It must have been late April or early May; the snow had melted, but the ground was wet from a long night of rain. It was cold, and the blustering wind put tremors in every puddle. Near the basketball hoops, some sixth graders were skimming up worms from the asphalt. I knew why.

worms2011A worm, well thrown, would stick. If it had rained the night before, boys would spend their recess plucking up worms from the playground and flinging them against the brick wall of Hiawatha Elementary. The trick wasn’t in the throw so much as in selecting worms that were good and tacky. A worm fished from a puddle was lousy for this sort of thing. It needed a little snot to stick. And a sticky worm that stayed stuck after four Mississippi’s earned you a point.

Typically I would have joined the fun; more than a few of the withered nubs plastered into the bricks of the school were mine. But stepping onto the schoolyard that morning things looked different to me, somehow. My buddies were more like a group-chimps-2-2gang of chimps, dragging their knuckles across the asphalt as they gathered worms. And those worms: I’d never really seen them before—not like this. I turned slowly around. A panorama of worms, fleshy pink laces. I squatted beside one worm and poked it. The worm fattened, drawing itself together in graceful waves. I picked it up between my thumb and forefinger. A spasm of awe passed through me.  I let it drop into the palm of my other hand.

I stopped to pick up a second worm, and then a third. Over by the basketball court my buddies were snatching worms up as fast as they could and flinging them against the school. They’d cheer if one stuck. Then they’d race out to the field to gather more. I dashed towards them, plucking up worms they were about to add to their arsenal. They growled.

I’d collected a full handful of worms, now. My hands were numb, but I could still feel them wriggling.

The school bell chimed—five more minutes until we’d be inside, lined up in neat rows pledging our allegiance. The other guys ran back to the school with their fists of worms for a speed round. The wind carried their whoops across the playground. A shout now and then when a worm stuck, then a groan when one peeled away and fell.

Then I heard them call me. “Hurry up. Bring your worms. We’re all out.”

I froze. What should I say? “Just hang on,” I called back.

I picked up a few more worms and began to trot back to my friends. But then I stopped and turned. Then, with that wriggling mass of worms in my hand, I started running in the opposite direction, past the monkey bars, past the merry-go-round, to the far edge of the playground. When I was out of breath, I stopped running and dropped to my knees. The yelps of the chimps ricocheted off the school wall and drifted out towards me. I turned towards my classmates. They seemed so small to me, as if I were seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope.

“Hey, what are you doing? Bring ’em over here, Stupid!” I heard a far off voice shout. Well, there could be no turning back. I opened up my hand and let the ball of worms tumble into the greening grass.

How do you say, “I’m offering salvation to a clump of non-sentient invertebrates” to your peers? It wouldn’t matter if I did. Even I knew that.

The starting bell would be ringing any minute. I shouted back, “I’m stashing them in a safe place for recess.” I doubt they heard me; my voice wouldn’t carry into the wind. But those worms would be safe come recess. I looked down at the knot of worms in the grass; a single worm had worked itself loose from the mass, had unraveled from the knot.

That made two of us.

 

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