It now makes sense to me, Wuck, why you’ve never shared any of your religious upbringing. I feel the hurt in my body as I read about it: the loneliness of those halls and the bizarro, pseudo-spiritual junk, that kid’s ensuing <quote-01>shame<quote-01> as he grows up and sees what sad silliness he took into his trusting heart. I hear it in the rush of that dizzying checklist.
And I feel an intense love for him—for you.
It helps me better see and understand my friend Wuck.
Like this past Saturday night, as you and I talked for an hour on my drive home from Monroe Correctional, I heard you speak with a sweetness to Sarah in a quick aside, whispering a few inches off the receiver that you were talking to Hoke: Yeah, ok, I’ll go talk in the bathroom, have a good night, babe, love you.
I felt like I was inches away from you, the continent between us erased.
It stuck with me, how you spoke to Sarah—maybe because I’d just experienced those church hallways with you, even for just a paragraph. I’m so glad you’re not alone in that Brooklyn apartment.
And now I’m even more curious: what did you think about during your hours in those plain, empty rooms? Is that where your mind first flexed and went deep on anything that could occupy it—intellectual puzzles to numb the neglect? Is that where you practiced piano and made it your own, not just a thing for performance? Is that where the idea of God became a source of discomfort, the thing Mom and Dad were adoring when they left you in this interminable space—an object of adoration, for that matter, that you couldn’t question?
The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton did a good job paraphrasing the ancient mystics for a modern audience: we have, he says, a False Self and a True Self. Maybe this seems too simplistic at first glance, too dualistic. But humor <quote-02>us<quote-02> for a sec.
According to Merton, the False Self we’ve been working on our whole life is possibly the biggest self-made obstacle to prayer, why we feel so distant from God. Whereas the True Self—the self we too often hate, the one we’ve been running from most of our lives, repressing, ignoring, abandoning—that’s the self God knows. Often something traumatic—something painful—becomes tethered to that True Self. So we work to build a less painful one. For many of us, this becomes a lifelong project, an ache: to be somebody (else). Our True Self feels like a lame nobody.
Some of the gang members I pastor have been helpful examples of this. Being, say, little snot-nosed José from the projects—the kid who cried when his dad never came home, who pretended not to hear his mom’s boyfriend hurting her again in the next room, who got the answers wrong at the blackboard, who got bullied by the white kids at lunch and the Mexican kids on the walk home—being little José is unacceptable. It’s painful to feel that powerless. So he becomes, for instance, Sniper. Or, actually, “The Homie Sniper”: shaved head, clenched jaw, small moustache, dead eyes—another imposing fixture of the projects. He escapes the pain of his true self—a scared migrant kid, invisible—and becomes someone with power, someone who commands attention.
I, of course, have my own version of Sniper—the result of my endeavors to be somebody—as well as my own little José, that hidden, truer self I hope no one sees, so embarrassing and a threat to my “better,” “more important” self. When I pray with a homie, however, I find that the Sniper in both of us ceases to exist. There’s only our more fragile selves. It’s like they glow. Just Chris and José. And I’ll feel in my chest, my scalp, my bones, a swell of affection for the kid I face, he who was hiding all along, who’s finally shown himself. I’ve come to suspect that swell of confidence and love comes from a divine source, as if God were a fully loving parent whose heart is so powerful it can pump into ours if we let it.
There’s a catch, though. Some Josés I sit with receive this love differently—or can’t at all. Those who aren’t overly attached to their Sniper personas welcome the love that finds them beneath it. But sometimes Sniper balks at this love, takes offense. This tender approach, Sniper thinks, does not take Sniper seriously enough. Or worse, Sniper feels judged and gets defensive, doubling down on his façade and becoming <quote-03>Double Sniper<quote-03>.
“Oh, I see what’s up. You’re just judging me like everyone else then.”
Merton’s God, I think, would respond with a love that says, “You’re not Sniper, buddy. I don’t even know who that is. I love José.”
“You got me twisted. You tryin’ to make me a little kid or something? You talking down to me now?”
“You already are that little kid, still. I fully accept him. I actually really like him. <quote-04>Why don’t you?<quote-04>”
This is how I understand what Merton says about prayer. It takes years of suffering, struggle, or silent dialogue before our True Self comes out wiping its nose, ashamed but radiant to the one who Loves.
I think you dramatize this defensive dynamic well in one of the last chapters of Tetherball Chimes, Murph. I hope you’ll excuse me if I drop all the fictional names; so many of the scenes have stuck with me like real events between my friends.
Anyway, the Andy character, back home in Upland from his emerging life as an actor in Los Angeles, has had enough of the Pat character teasing him yet again. Andy gets pissed and throws a tantrum, dropping his end of the Christmas tree they’re carrying and marching outside. So the Murph character follows him outside to get to the bottom of his bullshit act. Out on the sidewalk, Andy argues that, unlike his high school buddies, his new LA friends actually respect him. They ask his opinion on things. They do creative and interesting things together. But no one here understands that, he shouts, and it gets really fucking <quote-05>annoying<quote-05>.
Here the Murph character does not apologize in the least. He says, from what I remember, Fuck your LA friends and, for that matter, fuck this new Hollywood Andy. It's not you. I don’t even know that cool persona you’re building. You’re fucking Oswaldo Ortega, the guy who texts us photographs of his poop, who’s funny as hell, Charlie Chaplin in the raw, the kid who slept in our parents’ guest bedrooms in your teen years cuz shit wasn’t cool at home. We know you, fucker. Those LA friends of yours will be gone in a year. They don’t respect you. You kidding? They’re just allies trying to build their own LA selves with you for a quick, sad season. We’ll be at your funeral, dumbass, telling the stories we spent decades living with you. We love you. So please just drop the self pity thing and realize this is not an attack so we can get back to dragging the goddamn Christmas tree <quote-06>inside<quote-06>.
It’s like a cuss-laden enactment of the inner work Merton encourages in his monastery.
It’s one way, at least, of reading Murph’s <quote-07>thin-fiction<quote-07> portraits of all of us in the group: the tragedy of watching his childhood friends struggle to become somebody out in the world, the comedy of watching them wind up back home—which in tetherball is a win. The ball flying off the rope—“going somewhere” and never again finding the stationary pole—that’s a total <quote-08>loss<quote-08>.
I’m thinking now about <quote-09>the Proust you gave us, Murph<quote-09>, how much Merton there is in it: “Our true self, which may sometimes have seemed to be long dead, but never was entirely, is re-awoken and re-animated when it receives the heavenly food that is brought to it.”
I wonder if this writing about our childhood memories, this debate about nostalgia, is really about how we receive—or resist—that heavenly food.
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