Thursday, July 30, 2015


Cold in the night makes me semi-dream.  It triggers half-resolved memories from my whole life, other times when I was not quite warm enough to sleep deeply but not cold enough to wake up.  Often they were from times when the family traveled in a tent trailer and I slept on a sailor’s canvas sling in the middle with my parents and brothers on folding beds on each wing. Or when I’d just moved into a decrepit old house, but still had no heat or furniture, so was sleeping on a mattress on the floor.  Then there were the years of sleeping out in a van while circuit-riding between congregations.  Undefended.  Unreconciled.  But in a defensible space.  

A certain mood comes with it -- not really sadness or anxiety.  A sort of suspension.  Just lately I’ve been asking myself whether it’s a relative of dissociation, stepping aside from the flow of life into a different consciousness.  This week there were a few record-breaking cold intervals, the same kind of arctic intrusion as paralyzes us with below zero temps in winter.  Coinciding with a major forest fire in Glacier Park, the chill air was just smoky enough to create a stuffy nose, a shortage of oxygen.  These dreams are not really dreams, but floating images, sense impressions from long ago, each with its metaphorical burden, shifting in and out of each other, mere suggestions with no narrative but emotional significance.

They are the subconscious made perceptible, actually, the second level of my little five-part schema.  I call them stages but that’s not quite accurate because they aren’t separate or sequential in their flickering.  Talking about spiritual matters in terms of stages is never accurate since -- very much like the brain since they are the raw products of the brain -- perceptions come and go (connectomes, the patterns of the brain’s neurological connection at any given moment) and loop back or leap forward or double or are only half-there, like music.  This stage of conciousness/unconsciousness is about the unresolved, the incomplete, the impossible to reconcile.  It’s the source for writing -- at least some kinds of writing. It is the next step after accumulating the data of the sensorium, but not yet the third step of analyzing, naming and sharing.  The famous “sleep paralysis” is in force.  No action.

The simplest and yet most profound ritual of perception I’ve found described so far was devised by an artist for one-person meditation.  A chilled room, a pane of glass, and a fan.  The ritualist leans forwards and exhales on the glass, producing a warm cloud of condensed lung breath.  Then the fan moves the air enough for it to evaporate.  No words.  The subtlest of awareness, but it is the air from next to your heart, at blood temperature, only ephemera, but crucial to life.  The two person variation stations the other person on the other side of the glass, so that they can take turns or simultaneously make clouds, by bowing.

Sometimes when preaching on something intense, I’d see someone in the audience with tears.  Whether it was something I said or something they were independently remembering, they must have hit this chilled-so-visible level.  Usually they didn’t want to talk about it, because they couldn’t.  It seemed uncanny, too intimate to be nice, inexplicable.  When writers are blocked, I think many times it’s because this strata, this aquifer, is somehow unmanageable -- not accessible, empty, over-full.  Psychoanalysts work at this level, but often something physical touches it.  Rain. A certain kind of jacket.  A book cover.  The sound of a doorbell.  “Jake brakes” puttering in the night on an empty highway.

The example from our family travels is one of the earliest and activates my confused need to be a sentinel when a leader is not effective.  My father was violent at the beginning of the Fifties; I’m quite sure because of damage from a concussion in 1948.  Effects can be subtle and long-lasting.  But his underlying personality was not violent in any obvious way.  Rather it was passive-aggressive, a concept I didn’t learn until counseling for the ministry.  

See how ingeniously I managed to pull in counseling without being defined pejoratively!  How honorable to prepare for ministry by “soul-searching” -- much better than struggling to save a marriage, though the issues were the same.  Much more effective than my father’s strategy, which was to buy counseling books but never read them.  So -- passive-aggressive, the art of punishing people by NOT doing something.  In terms of the tent-trailer, creating a self-contained small context he could dominate since he was the driver and also the bill-payer.  Staying in the same job, never risking efforts that would bring in more money.  Reading, which can be an evasion, an excuse for not responding.  The only way to escape was to get out of the car someplace strange.

So I did that.  With wind whistling in my ears.  And it worked, but only if I were alone.  Sometimes I was risking my life (several lives, the ones with safety and honor and social recognition) but I never died, or at least only outside that small circumference I made for myself.  The boys of Smash Street and Cinematheque would understand, which explains my affinity for them.

With family, traveling through small towns after WWII -- there was no interstate system yet -- never eating at normal meal times because they didn’t fit with my father’s plan for making mileage -- we stopped near closing time for a burger and shake, inconveniently for the little mom-and-dad cafés and met a wall of resentment, suspicion -- more people who had created their small context based on xenophobia.  The only knowledge that had value was their knowledge.  The only people safe to welcome were their people.  

This is alive and well in the prairie small towns, but I didn’t feel it so sharply until traveling in Canada in the Eighties as a single woman.  Then it was underlain by gender politics: it was often the practice to use women as the source of comfort and the compensator for disadvantages.  As my mother and her mother were.  Can any woman compensate for a non-productive prune farm?  My grandmother raised chickens.  In the city it was possible for my mother to go back to school, get a job.

It never occurred to me as a child, though it probably did to my mother, that the ultimate passive-aggressive act in the event of a quarrel would be for my father to just drive off without us.  So there was never a quarrel.  Just a need for a sentinel sitting at the backseat window, making breath clouds against the glass, fighting off sleep until in a chilled, semi-conscious state one could call “dissociation.”  It’s a brain mechanism, because emotions are in the whole body but controlled by the brain and one of its skills is recognizing patterns.

In the circuit-riding ministry across Montana, I summoned up that pattern on purpose and lived it out in vocational terms, finally acted it out by leaving a congregation and then the ministry.  I went back to a place that was not small, that was not xenophobic, that historically was always nomadic.  The rez.  So I fit.  For a while.

There’s never a happy ending because there’s never an ending.  Life is a process, human beings are a process, the larger culture is a process -- all changing, all re-negotiating, always finding new accommodations if you’re alert, a sentinel.  That’s the cat’s choice.  And if it's cold, the cat sleeps with me.

No comments: