Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Put My Last Quarter On, We'll Play "Authority Song"
It’s funny how things dovetail. I realized at some point yesterday or today that the tail-end of my last AtF entry, the Bruce Droppings post I linked to on Monday, and On Ugliness were all taking me in the same direction. I don’t know that I have some big, unexpected truth to offer, but I do have the opportunity to attempt to communicate my moment of crystal clarity. Of course the message always gets muddled somewhere between the mind and the page. Which is kind of the point of this entire post. One of the first stories I came up with for storytelling remains, and probably will remain, at least for a while, my favorite. I’ve spent a lot of time working on it, trying to understand why I tell it. For me the central conflict of the story is built around the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness. I put it in the standard fairy tale setting with knights and monsters and happy kingdoms and princesses and happily-ever-afters specifically so I could draw out that distinction. Last year I told the story at the Fox Valley Folk Festival and Jim Decker, one of my favorite storytellers, commented that he liked the way the little boy grew up to become a knight and there’s a message there that anyone can become anything. I’d never even thought about that. I was so focused on my central message and making sure that the point got across that I never even noticed that. The little boy grew up to be a knight because he needed to. The story didn’t work any other way. I told another story that weekend that was an attempt to bring the old Hero’s Journey in to a modern, mundane setting. I populated the story with re-imagined stock characters. Afterwards my mother asked me which people in my life I’d written in to the story. The answer was none, but it’s more complicated than that, since my life dictated the things I would find interesting and, on some level, the people I’ve met in my life have become stock characters in my own myth. Jim Decker wasn’t wrong to see the message he saw in my first story. My mother wasn’t wrong to see people from my past in my second. I’d intended neither, but that doesn’t mean those things weren’t there. It brought home a deeply important point to me. Once the story has left my mouth or my word processor it isn’t mine any more. It’s yours. But it also belongs to the person next to you, and the person who heard it last week, and the person who will hear it tomorrow. The interesting thing is that sometimes, in some ways, you might be that person in each case. I know that if I hear a story two or three times or read a book I’ve already read I accept it in different ways each time. My world changes in between encounters. My life moves on between meetings. Sometimes a book or story I hated becomes a favorite. Sometimes I see a favorite again and wonder, “Why did I ever like that?” Sometimes I just hear one part I never paid attention to in a new way. Honestly, that’s what I love about writing and storytelling. It may be the closest thing we have to a fixed point of reference in this world. At least, as far as the mind is concerned. Going back and revisiting a beloved old book time and again is a wonderful thing to do. The story changes just a little bit every time because we change just a little bit in between times. I was just discovering the music of Matt Nathanson at a time when I met someone I thought would be special. We had one of those cliché nights when we ended up sitting and talking about the world until, like, five in the morning. Before I met her I didn’t know that was possible. Afterwards I wondered how I could have ever doubted it. I drove home with the sun rising in my rear view mirror listening to Nathanson’s “Pretty the World” and I knew right then and there that I’d never be able to hear that song without thinking of her. At the time I assumed there would be nothing bad there. It’s what happens when we hit those initial throes of something that may or may not be love. I think 90% of all songs are written about either that feeling or the one that comes at the opposite side. You know, the part that I eventually hit, the part that means I hear “Pretty the World” and mostly think about how everything I thought that morning a few years ago was wrong. It’s weird, too, because the biggest problem is separating that euphoria from the shit that came later, that made giving up and breaking up inevitable and desirable. So she’s a part of my story, too. And every time I encounter her, whether it’s a physical encounter or a memory brought on by a Matt Nathanson song I realize that the story has changed. I’ve grown up, I’ve moved on except in those moments where the memories become too strong and I forget why it didn’t work, forget why I walked away that last time, forget that even though I’ll always love her I’ll probably never be able to like or respect her again. In truth I took too long to recover. I always do. I love without shame, without question, without doubt. I’ve never done anything I truly believed in with half measures. Life is too short to hold yourself back from something that might truly be worthwhile. But that attitude also means that trying again is scary for me. It’s extraordinarily easy to get hurt. And she hurt me over and over and over again. The worst thing about it is that she probably never knew, since I think she was just looking for excuses to say I’d hurt her, I’d leave her, so she had to get out before that ever happened. That’s why I can’t respect her any more. She couldn’t take chances, she couldn’t take a risk. She kept me at arm’s length, never offered me her heart even though I think she knew I’d given her mine. The reason I’ve taken so long to heal is because I had to figure out how to get over my hurt without changing. Because, honestly, that’s who I want to be. I’m working on a storytelling concert called “No More Fairy Tales” about my realization that there’s no such thing as a “happily ever after.” Yet I still think there’s one out there for me and woe to anyone who stands in my way. You can’t tell me who to be. I am contradictory, but I like it. I allow myself to be hurt, but I can’t fathom living my life any other way. I have spent my entire life reading all of the rules, knowing that I’m not special, but still believing I can break them. I’m not talking about the laws of the land. I’m talking about all those stupid rules that say people won’t like you if you do this, that, or the other thing. I’m talking about all those stupid rules that say you have to behave this particular way to get a second date. I’ve gotten my ass kicked time and again. I haven’t been on a second date in over a year. I’ve completely blown it with a couple of great girls and backed away slowly from a couple of girls who terrified me. That’s life. I could change how I do things and I might have a higher success rate. But I won’t get what I want. So I am content to live the life I’m leading, knowing that tomorrow things might change. And you can tell me what you think I’m doing wrong, you can tell me what I should change, but I won’t listen. It’s my life. That, ultimately, is why I left Christianity. Well, it’s yet another in the long list of reasons. I realized that the Bible is no more of an authority on how I should live my life than the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Theogony of Hesiod. Sure, there’s plenty in the Bible that actually counts as pretty damn good advice and I’ll often be reminded of Bible verses as I go through my day. I think in some ways I understand the Bible better now than I ever did when I was planning on becoming a professional Christian. And I think the reason for that is because now I just see it as a book with some good ideas, some bad ideas, and some absolutely abhorrent ideas. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others better than yourselves? Good idea. Stone everyone who doesn’t agree with you? Abhorrent idea. You get the picture. The fact is that I can, and probably soon will, sit here and explain exactly why the Bible is a lousy authority from a scholarly perspective. But for the moment that’s not what’s on my mind. Right now I’m just thinking of the story. Right now I’m just thinking of my story, of Jim Decker saying he likes the way my story lets people know they can grow up to be anything, of my immediate response that I’d never even thought of that. What is the Bible, really, if it’s not a collection of stories? What were those storytellers really trying to tell their audience when they put it all down in writing? What are Christians in the 21st Century getting wrong every time they sit down for church or Bible study by sitting down and assuming the Bible was written with them in mind? The pastors and apologists I knew always got around that by saying that god speaks directly to people through the Bible. The interesting thing is that god seemed to say different things to different people. Yet this old book that condoned some of the worst of the bronze and iron age philosophies was supposed to be a valid tool in the 21st Century and we were supposed to take the entire thing as an authority. Except, you know, those things that weren’t convenient. But the people who found different things to not be convenient probably weren’t real Christians. Something was wrong with the entire premise. I finally realized the only true response to the conundrum was to stop taking the book as an authority on much of anything. Yet people keep quoting Bible verses at me like that's all that it will take to change my mind. Screw that.