night

This year for the holidays we’re learning a 10-composition-long cantata in our church choir. One of the composition is a medley of Christmas favorites, including the Silent Night. Except in this version, the composers introduced several brilliant and sublime harmonies, which make the Night not quite so peaceful and pastel-colored. The sheep are not perfectly round, the minor, somewhat unresolved chords and counter-melodies seem to be asking more than stating.  The top line of the melody is the same, and the congregation, as they begin to sign along with the choir, won’t know to expect the lyrical hues and the questioning. We, the altos and the male voices will create that vibrancy and depth.

When we first read through the score, half-way through I couldn’t sing any longer, it touched me so. It seemed a more accurate rendition of the mood of so long ago: will this infant, so frail, so vulnerable, really save mankind? Will we be rescued from all of the evils that dwell within us by this little child? Now, hidden in the cocoon of intimacy with his mother, will he one day be called Emmanuel? The overtones make me see him through Mary’s eyes: the endless love of a parent, the awe and the timidity at the miracle of witnessing a new life, of witnessing the birth of the Savior.

Grisha comes up and I try to explain the ingenuity of the composers, to transmit even a bit of why this rendition of Silent Night sends me shivering and unable to hold a steady B. I mention that they are playing with everyone’s expectations, they’re innovators, I try to describe the majors and minors, and he nods – of course he knows all about them. Enthralled in the ancient mystery, I feel a thousand light years away from him. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. How can I possibly send my little beam of feeling across that vast expanse?

Wanting to hold on to the eternal, I aim for the door to the room where I can listen to the recording of the composition. This is a rare moment when I want to feel close to Him rather than him. But, there is a pile of dishes and, succumbing to the inevitable, I stop short and we tackle Sisyphus’ mount together. As I soap up and he brings the remnants from the table, Gri picks up, “You know, there’s an entire school of thought in the Philosophy of Music about major and minor tonalities and about how they’re supposed to make you feel. It turns out, it is not a gut feeling you have from birth – you are trained into reacting to certain sounds a certain way…” Yeah, our reaction to it is imprinted on our collective, western consciousness, I respond. He goes on: “And once you’ve identified that certain way that you’re “supposed” to react, it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along and starts to play with that expectation. And then someone bends the rules further, and still further, until finally you’ve so completely neglected the way things ought, that you’re in a universe of your own. You get someone like Berg…”

Somewhat disgruntled, still, by being stuck washing the dishes while the Divine calls, I retort that I don’t see how this is a unique thought. What other option is there? That’s how all the arts evolve: you get a status quo, then there’s a renegade, then the nouveau is slowly accepted and then it becomes the new traditional. It’s a matter of exploration, Grisha suggests. Innovators in music explore alternative ways that emotions can be superimposed on sounds. Feeling like I am about to sink into the logic the way the spoons and forks are sinking into the pot of watered-down ex-macaroni and cheese, I remain silent. He senses that I am not into a philosophical discussion. I explain, that I, for one, am having trouble fathoming how talks of the philosophy of music can be superimposed onto myself, standing there up to the elbow in cold orange gloop.

He sighs. Well, that is a fair question. Thinking a little, he adds, “But that’s the big question of life, isn’t it: We’re up to our elbows in shit, and we have to rise above it, still have to think about the Beautiful and the Sublime. We have to learn be greater than our circumstances…In a way, that’s what life is all about…”

Save for the clink-clink of the forks and spoons, the evening is quiet. We ruminate on things unsaid. Outside it is night. I am silent, he hums a familiar, Christmas favorite.

(Painting by Liza Ezhevskaya)

(Painting by Liza Head)

A one, a two, a one, two, three…

The day begins, unfolding in a geometric progression of regular plans, emails to write, things to do on a flat screen of the computer, everything is two-dimensional.

These are the days when I feel strongly the frailty of other people. That elderly gentleman walking up to the store in slacks and an off-white, starched dress shirt when it’s 98 degrees outside. He is honoring tradition, a sense of decorum, hearkening back to a time and place where you dressed up to go out, even to the nearest mercado. It hurts to see the shirt hang straight down off his spare shoulders.

Every one of us carries a certain burden, a certain doubt. Standing at a light with the windows down, the chain-smoker in the next car over hollers, “Cheer up, kid, it can’t be that bad!” Thanks, lady. I wish you wouldn’t kill yourself slowly with those cigarettes. But really, I appreciate the sentiment.

Then at the next light – “Hungry, every bit helps”. C’om on, guy, why won’t you get a job? He can’t get a job, he has no permanent address, no clean pants to wear for the interview, no toothpaste, no quiet evening at home to get his paperwork together. He is living the permanent vacation. Doesn’t even know what he wants, but every bit helps. I pull out a sock stuffed with soap, deodarent, hygiene items and the other sock, and flag the homeless man. “Thanks,” he says, “I’m wearing a pair of those right now.” And he sure is. “I’m sorry we’ve collectively failed you” I murmer and thank God for the green light.

Some of us – brave and powerful, some – meek and barely looking up. Slinking through life on our bellies, it’s like for a very brief moment I am given insight to all of the hurting.

At the gas station, I pay and cannot help notice her hands: just regular hands but ones that someone has loved, someone has kissed tenderly. These hands that wring out clothes before drying them, that peel potatoes and soak to the elbow in dishwashing detergent. Many years ago, they might have been the tiny baby fingers that a mother gently caressed, or maybe they had perpetual fingernail dirt and no love at all.

People are strange, when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly, when you’re alone. I want to pull in and hide inside my shell, but it is transparent and there is no place to shield yourself from all of the faces, the hands, the carefully tucked-in shirts, the buffed shoes, the frailty, the vulnerability. This is what Jim might have felt. They are so painfully familiar, and yet, you feel strange.

And when you’re strange, faces come out of the rain. No one remembers your name…

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.

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