Trees

This man knows things. Let’s call him Alexander. Sometimes we work together, and when we do, I can safely bet that I will not get everything done on my agenda, because instead of doing the things, I will be listening to the man. And he will be telling me stories.

Once Alexander spent over an hour recounting the long and vibrant history of the shrimp trade, with tangential excursions into the seventeen species and twelve genus of this crustacean, the currents in the Sea of Japan, and shipbuilding in the late 1700’s in Portugal. Another time, he dedicated the better part of the work day talking about bee-keeping and hair styles. One of the most memorable talks was a thorough critical analysis of Bruegel’s The Battle Between Carnival and Lent. But today Alexander is telling me about something of a more personal nature: he recounts his memories of climbing trees as a child.

I imagine little Sasha clambering up and down the large and luxurious branches of trees that, in our context, would be the venerable live oaks. He’d spend his days up in the canopy, jumping from limb to limb, planning ambushes with his friends, swinging on branches, scratching skin off protruding knees, ankles and elbows. He tells me that through this exercise, he first learned to appreciate three-dimensionality. He came to be able to visualize the spaces between the branches, the entire layout of the tree, in his mind’s eye. Later, when he was a teenager and climbing trees was no longer appropriate, he dreamt about it. And at night, in his dreams, he was not holding on to the branches anymore, but flying among them, up and over and between them.

“Through my dreams, I came to know the meaning of negative space: the spaces between things, and how to navigate them.” he tells me. Dreams are personal territory, and I listen quietly, appreciative of a rare glimpse into this person’s inner life.

I imagine these negative spaces – they look like 3D images of polypeptides, captured by invisible boundaries.

“There is another instance of negative space,” I start to tell him, “that I encountered recently.” Several days prior, I accidentally came across Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes: what ethereal compositions, especially when performed thoughtfully. One rendition was played at such a slow tempo, that the pauses between the sounds took on a life of their own. The shape and feel of each silence was different, unique, deliberate. By the end of the gnossienne, it was clear that the pianist was sharing things too personal for words. And perhaps Erik Satie himself wanted us to read between the lines.

Spurred on by my own contemplation, I want to tell Alexander more about my understanding of negative space. I glance up him, and though he is nodding, as if listening, his eyes have that glazed look of recollection. He is back there, flying through the trees. So I fall silent, thinking my own thoughts, comfortable with the shape of the quiet between us.

anyas

Recently I came across an interesting article on the reemergence of psychedelic treatment for terminally ill patients. The treatment involves administration of controlled doses of psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, to help those facing their end of life to live their last months with a renewed sense of peace and well-being.

The drug provides patients with several hours of an “experience”, as Jimi Hendrix called it, or of a good trip, as everyone else referred to it back in the day. Through this hallucinatory journey, the patient is able to give up the sense of self, and to connect to the rest of the world, to other people, to God. Most of the patients who undergo the treatment come to consider the experience as one of the top most powerful and significant in their lives: it gives them new perspective, a new sense of connection, and an ability to let go.

As this Lenten season comes into full swing, I cannot help but envy the people who get to try this new treatment, just a little. We talk about giving things up for Lent, but how sublime would it be to give up the self?.. The elderly in our church have been able to do so: they look at you and listen, they are not afraid for their fragile egos, they do not perceive everything through the prism of their own selfish ends, but, more and more, through God’s eyes. Oh, to be freed of the ego that gives birth to pride, insecurities, ambition, jealously. To lose inhibitions that arise from a heightened awareness of self, and to meld into the rest of humanity…

The article quotes Katherine MacLean, a former Johns Hopkins psychologist, who says that during a “trip”, “you’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and the process can feel like dying…” Perhaps that’s why the elderly are better at letting their egos go: they are closer to having to let go of everything, and many things have already been taken from them… But also, they have had more time to ponder Paul’s letter to the Romans, which urges us to be dead to ourselves, and alive in Christ.

The crux of the neurology of the life-altering trip lies in the brain’s default-mode network. This is a region of the brain which plays the role of the overseer of the entire system, responsible for monitoring the informational input from various centers, funneling and limiting and controling. It is the physical place where the ego lives. The default-mode network, as the source of self-awareness and the corporate executive which controls all lower impulses, is thought to be evolution’s greatest achievement in molding the human brain. When psilocybin is administered, this is the portion of the brain that it targets, and, once found, successfully puts to sleep.

Now, when the boss is on hiatus, great things can happen. Other portions of the brain are freer. The visual cortex connects with the memory and voila! Hallucinations. Those who are, in daily life, crippled by an excessively authoritarian default-mode network, become released from their obsessions, compulsions, addictions. A mind intensely turned in on itself, as one plagued by depression, is able to losen its grip and turn outwards, once again connecting to others and noticing the world around it. A mind unable to think outside the lines taps into its silenced stores of creativity and imagination.

Curiously, the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, a consciousness, is perceived by the church as the result of original sin. Once Eve and Adam ate the apple, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7a). Until that moment, they were not aware of themselves. They were also probably closer to God and less prone to depression and self-flagellation.

And so I return back to Lent. And for Lent, I would like to give up my default-mode network. Just for a little while, just until Easter. It is highly effective and well trained. Who wants it?

Anyone?

Camping...

Often I am taken back to the one and only backpacking trip I organized.

My friend May and I had this idea, and, naturally, as soon as we had it, we decided that we must realize it. The idea was simple: take a few of our closest friends for a three-day backpacking trip to King’s Canyon National Park. So, we started calling and talking, and it soon became clear that some of our closest friends were dubious of our plans, having never done anything like this before. We revised our call list and started reaching out further, to old friends from high school, to people who were only loosely called acquaintances. Eventually, we pieced together our team: an old buddy from high school whom we hadn’t seen or talked to in several years, a city-dwelling SoCal friend from LA whose idea of being out in nature was grilling burgers in the back yard, an outdoorsy, socially-awkward gothic pyromaniac in a complicated friendship with my sister Liza, the said sister, May’s good friend Lei, athletic and energetic and willing to give us the benefit of the doubt for a couple of days, May and I.

In our group, there was not a single person who knew all of the other people.

May and I tried to think of everything that we might need on the trip. Before our departure, I helicoptered around each participant, making sure they had their sleeping bags, tooth brushes, warm socks, water canteens, and floss. We also had to avoid any aromatic soap or lotion, because there were bears in those parts of the Sierra Nevadas, and bears like smelly things. By the time we packed in the cars and headed towards the mountains, it seemed we were set.

The first night, after throwing all of our sleeping gear into the one large tent and sitting around the fire, soaking in the last bit of warmth before the deep and cold high-elevation night descended upon us, we discovered what was missing. In all of the hustle, I had forgotten my own sleeping bag. Following the groans and all inevitable remarks, we had to come up with a solution. The only thing we came up with, besides abandoning the trip altogether, was for me to sleep together with Liza in her bag. We could only fit into the bag if we both lay sideways, so Liza climbed in first, I squeezed myself next to her and then we had to zip the bag up. For this, we had to take in a deep breath and not exhale until it was zipped. On the count of three, we would inhale sharply, Liza would command, “Zip!” and I would try to pull up on the zipper. We figured out that actually, we take up less space with our lungs empty, so then we would exhale and Zip! It was very funny, shouting Zip! in the dark. We also had a few other commands worked out, like “Flip!” and “Rotate!”

The fact that eventually our whole group was giggling and snorting didn’t help our dire situation. Surprisingly, eventually we managed to encapsulate ourselves and actually fall asleep.

The first full day of backpacking was mostly uneventful. We stopped by the Visitors Center and picked up several large, brown barrels where we were to store all of our food items to protect them from the bears. This was mandatory for everyone entering the park for back-country camping. Despite the minor anxiety over the scratches and teeth marks on the barrels, morale was overall high and the adventurers were mostly normal. Towards night, we broke camp on a gorgeous outcropping overlooking the rugged valley of the park, with steeps peaks snow-capped in the distance, and a gurgling creek terminating in a spectacular waterfall 20 feet from our tent. We joked around about not sleep walking on this cliff, and attempted to settle for the night.

Well, more Zipit! silliness ensued, followed by complaints that we set the tent up on quite a steep incline, as a result of which, at every movement, the people uphill slid towards the people downhill. The tent wasn’t that big in the first place, and with seven of us already packed in like sardines, people started slipping on top of each other. At one point in the night Liza and I woke up after another failed iteration of “flip!”, and found the other five campers piled on top of us, all bunched up together in the lowest part of the tent, snoring and sighing in their sleep. Shoving sleeping people in the dark up the hill of our tent floor was another adventure altogether.

Later that night, when everyone was back to wheezing peacefully, a piercing “Die, vermin, die!!!!!” jolted us awake. The pyromaniac goth, with his uncharacteristic expression of emotion, jumped out of his sleeping bag and rushed outside. The sleepy sister, who crawled out a bit later to inquire, found him sitting on the edge of the cliff, a lighter in one hand and a tick in the other. Apparently, the tick had nuzzled into his back during the night, and now it was time for sweet revenge.

The following morning, as we packed up and headed further along the trail hugging the cliffs, I could sense a sort of unraveling happening. May and Lei were perfectly happy and oblivious, while our friend from high school and our friend from LA were showing the first symptoms of civilization withdrawal. They were anxious about toilet paper and surprised that the only thing on our agenda for the day was to walk some more and enjoy mother nature. After his explosion during the night, the goth friend was back to his sullen self, but more withdrawn than usual, Liza was suffering from deep mis-communications and drama that was mostly in her head, and I was concerned about the bears.

Another eventful night and the next day brought an end to our exotic adventure. I think we were all more than a little relieved. Looking back, though, memories tint the trip many different colors. I took away the breathtaking grandeur of Kings Canyon and the wonder of how people we seemingly know can be transformed in unfamiliar settings. May remembers the silliness. Liza remembers the turmoil and brands the experience as the worst backpacking trip of her life. Jason remembers the interesting guy from my high school and how his legs hurt after hiking for five hours straight with a backpack. I don’t know what the guy from high school remembers, because we never saw him again. The pyromaniac we saw many times, and Liza kept in touch with him over the many years that elapsed. But what he thought about the trip will go down to the grave with him, because he isn’t much of a talker.

green

They started looking at cemeteries five years ago, when Grandma had her first run-in with cancer. Other folks in their elderly community had begun doing their research and staking out a plot for their eternal sleep, so Grandma and Grandpa felt they also need to make arrangements for a hassle-free afterlife.

The first cemetery they visited had a pleasant feel: well-groomed slopes, the shade of elegant aspen and sycamore, and a very nice, upscale office. After a tour of the grounds, Mama and her parents, my grandparents, entered the office to discuss rates. The sales personnel was professional and quite assertive, and Mama couldn’t help thinking that they work on commission. After the price was set for one site, the sales woman eyed Mama and said nonchalantly, “We’re actually having a sale this week: buy one, get the second half off…” At first Mama didn’t understand, but then it hit her – she was being offered to capitalize on the upcoming passing of her parents and buy a site for herself.

“Well, I’m not planning to….you know….go anytime soon.” She retorted in indignation. “Prices are going up,” responded the sales woman coolly, “and we all have to go sometime. Might as well take advantage of the sale and buy now.” Mom shuddered at the flawless logic. At 85, the grandparents ended up not making a purchase at that time, because the cemetery did not allow upright standing tombstones, and Grandpa was determined to have one. And since arrangements were not made, they decided to live on.

Recently, though, they started looking again. The real-estate market in San Diego was on the upswing, and the time to buy was now. But finding a good match proved more complicated than they anticipated.  First there was the matter of the tombstone. It had to be upright, the way Grandpa remembered them placed in the Jewish portion of cemeteries in Russia. Since there was a Jewish cemetery in San Diego, this seemed the best place to investigate. When she called to inquire, the conversation between Mama and the funeral home worker went something like this:

“Hello, I am wondering if you have a lot available, and if so, what are the costs?”

“Good morning! Yes we do. We charge separate fees for body processing, a grave site, and the burial. The processing fee is $15,000, burial is $8,000 and the site itself another $7,000”.

Shocked by the significant “processing fee”, Mama asked in the gentlest way possible, “What exactly do you do with a dead body before burying it that costs fifteen thousand dollars?”  The speaker on the other side politely explained that it’s a traditional Jewish burial, which includes ceremonial cleaning and preparing the deceased according to all Jewish customs. “Imagine that,” Mom later marveled to me, “They still bury the way they did in Jesus’ time. The traditions haven’t changed at all….”

Would they buy someone who was Jewish by descent but not practicing? Sure. Would they bury a gentile wife next to him? Yes, it’s possible. Would they bury an urn, because she, unlike Grandpa, had no intention of taking her body along into the afterlife? Well, that will pose a problem. According to the Jewish faith, cremation is not acceptable. They hung up, Mom more educated and back at square one.

The urn was the second logistical issue to address. If cemeteries buried bodies, they typically did not accept urns. If they provided a special building for the urns, there would be no place to put Grandpa next to Grandma, because he was set on his tombstone. Burying an urn inside a coffin seemed odd, and the more Mama thought about it, the more it seemed a better idea just to bury grandpa and take grandma along, maybe placing her in the family garden and then, if they moved, to take her with them. But eventually that option was thrown out as well, because it just wouldn’t be right to separate the grandparents after they’d spent over 50 years together.

There was also the problem of finding a good location. The place had to look peaceful, serene. Who wants to spend eternity by the side of a road? Or cramped up against someone else? One cemetery looked promising until it became apparent that the grass cutters actually rode their mowers right over the graves to cut the grass. Grandpa was unsettled by this: “When I go, I want to be in peace. I don’t want some sooty, stinky grass cutting machine mowing over me.” When Mama and Grandma pled with him to be reasonable, he retorted wryly, “Over my dead body!” And that was that.

Plots in the shade of trees cost more, as did more elaborate tomb stones. When they finally settled on a location which was able to elegantly combine the requirements of both grandparents, the heated tombstone negotiations began. The stone would not be built until the cost was paid in full. This time it was Grandma’s turn to speak up, “How is it that we’re paying $15,000 for something that we won’t even get to see?! I want to see it. I want to know how it will look…” And so, after many rounds of back-and-forth, they agreed that they would put a third down, and it would go towards building the stone, which they’ll get to see in three months.

Musing on their recent adventures, Mama mentioned that maybe it would make sense just to buy a plot there for all of us. That way we could be together, finally all in one place. I felt an urge to mention to her that actually, I wanted to be buried in a biodegradable tree bark coffin in order to be reintegrated into the earth as soon as possible, while Grisha fully intended to have me scatter his ashes over the Grand Canyon. By the time the kids were ready to go, they’d probably be able to upload their identities to the cloud, while our grandchildren would most likely live forever. Also I was tempted to say that if all went well, our souls would be in a much better place than even the lovely cemetery they found on a sloping green hill in sunny San Diego.

But I didn’t want to initiate another logistical nightmare. Instead, I agreed, “Yes, it will be lovely to be together. I’m in.”

for the birds
About a week ago I saw in my newsfeed a motivator. It was a picture of a bird on a branch, with a caption underneath: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not in the branch, but in its own wings.” It seemed like a quaint little fortune cookie nugget of wisdom; an uplifting happy thought admonishing us to “Always trust in yourself.” It should have been harmless, but it sparked in me such a retching knee-jerk exasperation that, seven days later, I have to speak out.

I don’t even know where to start. This quote elegantly outlines the biggest problem with our modern, western culture today: we’re too damn self-reliant. We don’t trust the branches, don’t depend on community, on our family, on our friends. We don’t need anyone but our 401K and our life insurance, and as long I have a plan, I am going to pull myself up by my bootstraps through the glass ceiling and into Total Life Success. Unless, of course, I commit suicide because I feel so alone. Or I die of a drug overdose because I had nobody to turn to, no branches to perch on. I was just relying on my own wings. We suffer from so many diseases born out of our isolation, desperation and depression: obesity, alcoholism, migraines…even our own bodies turn on us as, for the first time in history, millions in first-world countries suffer from auto-immune disorders. Wake up, my friends! We weren’t meant to free-fly indefinitely. The tree is there so we can sit on it. The tree is our safety net, it is what protects us, but more importantly, it is what allows us to live life to the full.

Let me clarify.

When God created Adam, He saw that it was not good for him to be alone. He made him a partner. The veracity of that story is not what matters. Even as an ancient proverb, it bears great wisdom. Now I don’t think Eve’s main purpose was to be a helper. Or to play checkers with Adam, or to join him in a rousing game of cricket under the apple tree. The main reason she was created, I think, was so that Adam, and Eve, could both do the one, most important thing that all of us are created to do: to love.

How are you going to love, if you’re alone? It’s quite problematic, isn’t it? My frustration with the absurdity of the sentiment of that motivator overwhelms my ability to write without sarcasm. But I will try. Not only will we feel sad, lonely, etc., pretending that we’re perching on a branch but really only relying on our own wings, but we will not be able to realize our full potential as lovers of each other. Because love demands vulnerability. And trust.

People! We don’t need our wings. Where are we going to fly? What are we going to do, out there, alone, in the stratosphere?! Man is a social animal – this seems so obvious, it hardly needs proof. Surely we are drawn to one another, surely we feel more joy, more fulfillment, when we are in close community with each other. Statistics on happiness and health testify to this: people in close-knit communities thrive, while those in isolation perish. Sure, it is risky to depend on the branches. They do break sometimes. We might actually fall. But are we really willing to risk the richness of life gained through loving one another for an illusory security? Who are we, after all, that we shouldn’t break a bone once in a while? Since when has my main purpose in life become protecting my precious person from bruises and upsets? Businesses prey on people like us, who are afraid of falling, and use that fear to control our actions, our resources, and ultimately, our lives. I am reminded of Pink Floyd’s Machine: Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage? A chilling, prophetic question.

So, returning to that ridiculous motivator, I implore us all: let’s take that risk. Let the tree wrap its arms around you. Rely on others and put your weight on those branches. Forget your wings.

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