Category Archives: Spirituality

All These Weird Creatures Who Lock Up Their Spirits

Budapest shop cat.  © 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The more I see of this president, the more intelligent I’m starting to think animals are.

This is not, by association, to insult animals in any way.  Nor to romanticize them.  The animal kingdom is as cruel as it is beautiful.  It’s just that there is something to be said for a silent intelligence that can never be fully apprehended.

As this administration drags on, minute by minute, hour by hour, my ascendant urge is to sit down and talk with a housecat for a couple of hours.

There is a reason that malicious neighborhood idiots the world over poison cats.  They correctly intuit that cats, on some plane of existence, are their intellectual superiors.  Such people gleefully and repeatedly point out the fact of the cat’s peanut-sized brain, which of course misses the point entirely.  Any animal’s intelligence lives in its entire body, in its movement, attuned response, and self-inhabitation.  Cats are nature’s insult to stupidity.  Therefore idiots must destroy them.

Hunting as a moral issue makes a fascinating debate, but setting that aside, there’s something singularly revolting about the image of soon-to-be presidential sons posing with their big-cat kill on safari hunt in Africa in 2012.  The image appeared on the site Hunting Legends, was leaked to social media, and has been making the rounds ever since.

The creature draped over Eric Trump’s arm, even in death, is noble and magnificent.  He and his brother, in contrast, wear expressions that are brightly self-satisfied, yet babyish and uncomprehending.

Animal-rights advocates are often dismissed as precious, overheated eccentrics.  Yet images like this, along with our own encounters with the animals in our lives, can make even the stoic among us wonder who on this earth is truly dominant.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The Drift

Picked up the latest copy of GRANTA (Vol. 117) this week; the theme is “Horror.” There’s a short story by the lavishly praised young British writer Sarah Hall called “She Murdered Mortal He,” which, about two pages into it, had me wondering: what’s wrong with this story? Why don’t I love this? Why isn’t this great?

Technically it’s magnificent. A young, troubled couple from London vacation at an idyllic coastal village in Africa to re-spark their relationship; there’s a fight; she walks out in anger and confusion at twilight and finds herself pursued by a mysterious creature. Hall’s got everything: descriptive powers, the right dispensation of conflict to carry us along, believable dialogue, ambiguous and pregnant details.

What was wrong with it? The answer’s a bit metaphysical. What’s wrong with it is the whole culture that produced it. Like most fiction now, this story doesn’t give a damn, to the point where you wondered why the author bothered. The characters don’t really care about anything; they’re ambivalent about their jobs, their relationships, their friends, each other, the villagers whose world they’re in.

This isn’t an intentional exploration of modern alienation (which it could have been if Hall had taken that head-on); it’s just the metallic product of an alienated mind that probably doesn’t notice that it’s any different from the alienated minds surrounding it, and in fact wins awards and accolades for continuing to crank out its alienated product. (Hall’s new story collection is called The Beautiful Indifference – hot damn, sign me up!)

You don’t get the feeling anything is really at stake in this story. Yes, the relationship, strictly speaking; but you glean eventually that the female character doesn’t really care about that, either.

As I read “She Murdered Mortal He,” I felt (against my will) this ghost response I was supposed to be having: “Oh yes, this is it, I don’t really give a damn this way either, she’s really nailed it.” Though I didn’t want to keep reading, I’m the type who has to finish what she starts, and I got to the bloody, creepy, wrap-up that left me as cold as I knew it would.

Am I stupid to want some sort of warmth from my art? I was trying to characterize this weird quality that weaves the fabric of so much creative output now and the phrase The Drift popped to mind. People in financially declining Western societies are drifting. Nobody owes anything to anyone else. You’re supposed to kind of hate everyone, and everyone is duly hate-able. Rules are stupid, commitments and sacrifices are stupid. If you clearly state a value or belief, it’s because you’re naïve or a crazy fundamentalist.

Maybe I got the phrase from composer/singer Scott Walker, who named his mournful 2006 album “The Drift,” containing the lyric, “A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind.” I’ll listen to him before Hall.

Because so much music, too, seems devoid of human presence or passion these days, even if it’s performed with what would appear to be great feeling. Again, I think the problem is that we’re hearing it all within a culture where “content” is everywhere; everyone produces it so it’s no longer even a crass commodity. It’s just one more thing that overwhelms you. Your nerve endings are already so shot from all the other input you get all day – texts, instant messages, Twitter, Facebook, email, phone calls, news feeds – you don’t have the bandwidth to connect to music the way you used to.

Even if the music itself is heartfelt and genuine, the world you’re hearing it in now, and the person you have to be just to survive in it, somehow sucks all of the meaning and human context away so that the best thing music can possibly be to you is cute or likeable or pretty good. It bounces off you like one more ping. Hit “skip,” move on to the next song – doing so is now more important than songs themselves. The shuffle trumps the cards, and we all get dealt a losing hand.

Jaron Lanier on June 17!

“Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.” —Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget,” Knopf, 2010

The New York Times’ “Your Brain on Computers” series last week gave me a sense of relief. So I wasn’t the only one who’s noticed that, well, everyone and everything in the last five-odd years has gone completely and utterly cuckoo.

Example: people spend wads of cash on concerts, only to spend the entire event ignoring the action onstage while they text, Twitter, phone, and email. They only time they pay attention to what they’ve paid good money to see is when they take photos of it, so they can immediately turn their experience into an uploadable commodity, with which they brand themselves online. “Hey everybody, here I am! My life is more exciting than yours!”

Nobody seems to notice that this dilutes the energy of live performance in the first place and makes the whole affair banal and rather depressing.

But just standing there and enjoying the music without gadgetizing it somehow? Nowadays? Unthinkable! The gadgets are what make live events “real,” because this is how people understand reality. Instead of “Be Here Now” we have “Be Nowhere All the Time.” At this point I’m nostalgic for two years ago.

Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget” addresses and affirms my discontent on so many different levels, I feel like grabbing a highlighter pen and dousing every word with it. One of the original architects of virtual reality, Lanier is not only deep in the pudding of Silicon Valley ideology (and yes, Virginia, you’d better believe there is a Silicon Valley ideology), he’s a hell of a writer.

You Are Not a Gadget unpacks what I’ve suspected for years: that the nerds who have made the world over in their image are driven by vast, sweeping theories of what people are, what reality is, and why we’re here on earth.

But unlike the ideologies that politicians espouse, nerd dogma reprograms the very architecture of how we think. We’re far more susceptible to it because we’re not even aware it’s in us.

Jaron Lanier will be speaking this week, June 17, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum here in San Francisco. It’s going to be an important and fascinating talk, and it’s free. Please join me!

The New Pollution

Whenever I head back to an old cafe or restaurant I once loved, or approach one that looks cool from the outside, these days it’s always with a sense of dread. From the outside, the place always looks sweet and inviting: intimate lighting, cozy tables, a view of the sidewalk, square, or park. The closer I get to walking through its doors, the more deeply I feel that longing for respite from the outside world that’s as old as civilization itself; I want quiet, shelter, nourishment, a place that protects me but brings me into warm contact with others. I want a place that incubates a mealtime conversation with my companion, or if I’m alone, a sense of connection with strangers who could be my friends.

What the restaurant gives me instead, more often than not these days, is flatscreen television. A blinding rectangle of strobing nonsense culture — an assumption that, as a customer, I’m totally incapable of whiling away some minutes at my table however I choose, perhaps by doing nothing much at all.

The ubiquitous flatscreens are a depressing epidemic that I believe is ruining what little post-cell-phone public space we still have. Are restaurants subjecting us to TV because customers are asking for it, or are customers asking for it because they’re now used to TV in restaurants, or are struggling restaurants just freaked out by the quiet and stillness of what was once called atmosphere?

I tried to answer these questions and more in my article “Real People, Real Places,” published with Shareable.net. I hope you’ll read it and give me your feedback on how to speak back to the restaurant and hospitality industry about keeping our places — and ourselves — conversational, atmospheric and real.

The Kid Is All Right, Part 3

[This is the final of three installments of this incomplete essay.]

Of course the real problem, the root of all evil, is that each and every day of my life, I commit the Unforgiveable Sin of modern American life: I am content.

I’m not even sure why. I read a book or write while riding the bus to work, I watch people, I drink coffee, I can do some research or writing if there’s down-time, I socialize with the folks in the lunch room who are also support-staff bohemian barnacles like me, and when the weekend comes and I have a little cash, I may as well be Aristotle Onassis. I’m a free agent in a city with a thousand different cool things to do, most of which don’t cost that much.

Advertisers and manufacturers hate people like me. I don’t buy anything. When my CD boom box started skipping a few years ago, I put in some phone calls to engineer friends, took a few notes, and just fixed the damned thing myself. I’m still using it today, 12 years after purchase. I was supposed to throw it out and get a new one, then throw that out when I got an iPod.

My guess is that there are legions of people like me in the world; we’re just invisible and voiceless because we’re not a significant marketing demographic in a culture and political system based on marketing demographics. We don’t buy, therefore we’re not.

I don’t own a car or a television, and though rising fuel and energy prices have recently shifted the tide, most of my family still seem to think that doing without either of these items amounts to some masochistic, self-righteous sacrifice for the greater good, rather than a decadent lifestyle improvement. Riding the transit system gives me the luxury of extra time and energy; I don’t need a television because I have a picture window that looks out on Golden Gate Park, the massive weather systems sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean, an Orthodox Jewish pre-school teeming with squirrelly whimsical children, and public basketball courts bustling with tough kids playing games of pick-up. This is my television. I feel it informs me far more effectively than a sixty-dollar-a-month cable subscription.

But there is no shorthand to explain all this to the wedding guests, who are now being assailed by DJ Smooth Operator announcing the first dance of the lovely bride and groom.

Really, I should go down and at least try again to circulate among them; for the thousandth time of my life I think it all through, and there’s no rational reason for me to feel as uncomfortable as I do around these people.

For one thing, I look like them. I bear the genetic imprint not just of my family but of my social class of origin: tall, high-cheekboned, Nordic, strong-framed, upright. I rode a hotel elevator with a whole herd of us this morning – strangers I could have been related to, the by-products of country-club eugenics, their features and bearing tightened with defensive pride.

When I am in downtown San Francisco and desperately need to use a restroom, I make for the lobby of the St. Francis or the Palace Hotel. Even when poorly dressed or disheveled, I am never stopped, never questioned, never asked in that incriminating tone whether I can be helped. The doormen and the concierges have all been told – and I know because I’ve done temp gigs in these places and I’ve talked to these guys – to watch for anyone who looks as though they don’t belong.

In jeans and a t-shirt, making a beeline for the toilets, I look as though I belong. It’s not just the tallness and the blondness, the middle-class jawline; I radiate entitlement. It’s clear that at some point in my life at least, I was used to being in these places. My line of sight and my gait are steady. I know exactly the open, benign apathy with which to fix my face as I wander the halls. The uniformed guardians of the establishment clock me as I pass with the same open, benign apathy.

The beautiful toilets of the world are mine, all mine.

Not so for everyone.

And how long did it take me to realize that?

And what of this bathroom here, with the coffee table Picasso retrospective I just finished? Oh, why can’t I just go out there and be a wedding guest?! Is it really so difficult?

Certainly my attire is not the problem. When it comes to dressing for occasions, I can out-Republican the Republicans. You think you know high-heeled shoes? You think your clutch bag is subtle and understated? Step aside, ladies. My chignon is piled higher than yours. My button-pearl earrings are smaller and more finicky than yours. My little black dress is littler and blacker and dressier. My heels can stop bullets, and my saturated red lipstick is more Eisenhower-era than your lousy lavender lipgloss. You may make me feel like an underachieving peasant, but I make you look like slobs.

This is my one silent form of protest, of social theatre, of camp aggression. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from decades of befriending, working with, reporting to, and voting for flaming homosexuals, it’s how to don the uniform of those who suffocate you, give it your own slight twist, and throw it back in the face of your oppressors – hopefully in such an underhanded way that they don’t even get it. They welcome you with open arms even as you undermine the exclusionary conditions on which they base their welcome.

But if my get-up is the armor with which I protect myself in battle it is also the costume in which I perform my desperate plea for love and acceptance: See me! Look at my face! Observe my warm, human neuroses! I apologize for none of them! Observe that my choices have been valid ones! I have nothing but my eyes with which to say this!

The wine has made me raw and combative, on the brink. I don’t trust myself. I might say something, something too big to be said. If I say anything longer than “Yes,” “No,” or “Goodbye,” it will take all night and I will say it to anyone.

Do I hate these people? Do I hate the way they talk, act, look? Do I hate the grey-templed men who barrel their chests out of their camel blazers and back-slap and HAW-HAW-HAW over their shot glasses, their mouths yawping out of their Scotch-reddened faces? Do I hate the leathery-faced tennis club babes in the blonde newscaster coifs who gaze unsmilingly through the festivities like zoo lionesses jabbed with tranquilizer? Do I hate the Beautiful Children in their Beautiful Children clothes who already know the part they’re playing?

Do I hate the ones who truly believe nobody ever helped them, whose mental bio-pics of themselves conveniently write out of the script the inheritance, the annuity, the paid-for college education? Do I hate the ones who will never admit they can’t stand learning anything, that they’re too weak and frightened to examine those things over which they have no control?

Do I hate the odd few who really did claw their way to the top unaided, and now feel the need to mention this every five minutes in conversation? Who think that hard work is some sort of spiritual charge account on which they can rack up six digits’ worth of self-centered beliefs that the rest of us will end up paying for?

Yes. I hate them. I hate them. I hate being in their houses, I hate smiling for their photos, I hate the language they speak, the rewarded narcissism, the cheerful oblivion.

Why? What have they done to me?

Well, nothing really, they just offend me.

Wait. They did do something to me.

They acted as lightning rods for my family’s insecurities about themselves. They made us feel like shit. Of course, we let them, but it was a small town. There was nothing else to do. There was no clear path by which we could choose immunity to their games and demonstrate that openly without suffering consequences.

I hate them because they were in our house without physically being there, like dirty ghosts.

If in their presence I live up their scowling expectations of me, it’s because of my deep, inherent knowledge that I have no place in their world – less of a place than a total stranger would have. They could assume a total stranger would want to emulate and be like them.

They can make no such assumption about me. I have had every opportunity, have been groomed in every aspect of my education and points of reference to – figuratively speaking – drive the Lexus.

I am not driving the Lexus. It is now clear, at my age, that I will never drive the Lexus. My family’s friends know where I live, they know how I work; I keep the details of my day-to-day life on the down-low and they accordingly imagine the worst. I am among them, but I am not of them, and nothing has really equipped them to deal with that.

Exactly why don’t I drive the Lexus? Because I can’t, or because I choose not to? This question plagues me, and every family gathering sends me into bouts of mental acrobatics trying to answer it.

The Kid Is All Right, Part 2

[This is the second part of an essay I’m posting in several installments.]

“So Jennifer, what is it you do up in San Francisco these days?”

“I’m a proofreader.”

The deliberate suspension of their judgment of me is as palpable as a barely contained fart: the highlights in their eyes dim and retreat, the smiles become a form of facial calisthenics, the nodding is something they are telling themselves to do.

But the kind, gracious ladies at the wedding are very practiced in this kind of thing. They know just how to neutralize the subject at hand. What fond memories they have of me as a child! What an interesting, fascinating, unique little girl I was! Such an individual type! And so intelligent. The old stories are dragged out once more: You spent my child’s sixth birthday party reading our stacks of Time magazine instead of eating cake and ice cream (I did?! What was I thinking?! Obviously I knew nothing about how to party. You snag the cake and ice cream and *then* lock yourself in the bathroom with the reading material.)! While still in grammar school, Jen, you would make the most profound observations about people and society! You were able to read and write at college level by the fifth grade!

So why aren’t you rich? they are thinking, but don’t say. They accentuate the positive, no matter how many decades ago that happened to be.

And suddenly there’s another phantom me, one that wants to say, sorry. I’m sorry I’ve disappointed you. I’m sorry I’ve made you doubt that anyone who’s intelligent and works hard will live the way you do. I’m sorry the spectacular promise I showed as a child appears to have come to nothing in particular, that the endeavors I have found worthwhile and fulfilling would seem to you either banal or baffling: hammering out a nonprofit mission statement for minimum wage; being named unpaid staff writer at a well-respected underground magazine (that then went out of business); romping around Europe by myself right after 9/11, when everyone else was terrified of driving ten miles from home.

So there’s another, deeper, stronger, more obnoxious phantom me that steps forward, looks these women dead in the eyes and says, no, I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry one bit. You may be disappointed in me, but I am disappointed in the stories you live by, as they will inevitably disappoint you.

If asked on the street, you would agree that everyone makes mistakes, that everyone is frail and human, that we all end up in the same final place. But how can you really understand these things when your culture enshrines the mythology that because someone is young and good-looking and upwardly mobile, they will always be so, their skyward trajectory will simply continue forever because of its attractive present state? When it doesn’t continue, you cannot forgive them for it, as you cannot forgive yourselves when you finally show signs of earthly mortality.

If the Phantom Me had come true, by now the talk about her would have gotten demoted from “Isn’t she amazing?” to “Poor Jen, that husband just left her for some young thing” or “Apparently Jen’s youngest boy just got packed off to military school” or “You know, she never did lose that extra weight after those two kids.”

And to be fair, much of their concern is pragmatic. With the way things are now, how will I survive in the long term? How will I not end up in a place of extreme financial vulnerability? Owning property nowadays more often than not requires earning six digits a year, moving to the “exurbs” and pulling a nightmarish commute, soothing your boredom and stress with a constant stream of new consumer items racked up on your credit card. Even if I were willing to do any of that, my skill set wouldn’t qualify me for the hot job, the grind would destroy my health and put me in medical debt, and my overall higher-ups would sense that I just wasn’t cut out for the life. They would be right.

This is the thing. It’s not that I have nothing in common with the Phantom Me. It’s not as though I’ve never had an I Need to Get Serious phase in my life; I’ve had several. I’ve put on the nice suit, I’ve rehearsed the interview answers, I’ve beefed up the portfolio, I’ve sat down more times than I can remember to try to “figure it all out,” to squeeze the meanderings of my achievements and interests into some sort of linear path that suggests the sort of soaring future that would make sense to my family, that would finally speak their language.

But each time, with few exceptions, “it” doesn’t want to be figured out. Something in me has always just said no.

[Part 3 will be forthcoming next week. Part 1 is available in the last post. Thanks for reading.]

The Kid Is All Right

[This is an excerpt from a longer essay I’m working on. Enjoy.]

The wedding guests were exquisite. Uniformly tall, fair, fit, handsome and broad-featured in a way that suggested a rigorous course of childhood orthodontics. The men, regardless of age, wore pale blue Oxford shirts and navy blazers with flat brass buttons, their hair swept confidently back from their fine faces. The women, regardless of age, were in matching jewelry sets and tasteful, professionally advised makeup.

The elders among them were distinguished and dignified. The young were straight-backed and fresh and drove newer models of cars.

The bride was beautiful; the groom striking and affable, comfortable in his skin as he made the rounds of guests and caught up with each one. They assembled for the reception at an old family friend’s house nestled in the hills, a rambling, time-worn family seat embraced by ancient oak trees. Its shelves were lined with coffee table art books and eclectic mementos of world travels. To walk the halls and whiff the oils of rare woods in the furniture and watch the oak-dappled afternoon sunlight nod upon the faces of patriarchs immortalized in oil portraits on the walls was to imagine that all the world was like this, that everyone everywhere was couched in success, gentility, and quietly self-assured entitlement.

And even as I downed multiple glasses of their fine wine, plowed through the caterer’s critically acclaimed steaks (yes, that’s steaks, plural, they were not small and I ate more than one), and cased their master bedroom for cool books and made shadow puppets on the wall with an eight-year-old fellow guest – the continual realization was clear: This will never be my world.

It was not a depressed or depressing thought. More a wondering, amused one, as most of my thoughts these days are wondering and amused.

Because really, this was supposed to be my world – this, or a neat, scaled-down, small-town version of it.

This was October 2008. Under normal circumstances, the fine cars and doctor/lawyer shop talk and mentions of children in UCLA law school amidst the classical guitarist’s delicate pluckings would all be the unnoticed bathysphere of a certain world and its inhabitants.

Now there was a palpable sense that the rug could be yanked out from under all this at any moment. Conversation struggled to break free from the topic of the economy; it never quite succeeded. Huddles of men stood with their heads together while the wives dutifully shouldered the burden of festivity, hospitably buzzed and dramatizing their pleasure at seeing each other.

The sets and props of their lifestyle would remain, but the scaffolding underneath was about to change forever. In a matter of months a man would be president who, if he approached this gathering unknown, would probably be handed an apron and directed to the kitchen or the alleyway entrance.

Wandering the magical, lovingly tended grounds outside, chatting easily with the svelte and gracious guests, was the Phantom Me. The Me I was supposed to turn out as, the Me that fit. The Me that took some initiative and made all the right moves.

Bolting myself inside the host’s well-appointed bathroom (my lifelong mature and reasonable method for dealing with any type of social disconnect) and selecting an oversized German-print Picasso retrospective from the toilet-side book rack, I peeked from the second-story window to the feasting tables down below, and took a moment to chart the Fool’s Progress of the Phantom Me.

Let’s see, what happened to her once she got that college degree? Once she got shot out of that hallowed cannon of upward mobility and was now expected to fly?

Her beginnings wouldn’t have been too different from mine. She would have spent her post-collegiate years with multiple roommates in a major metropolitan area, eating spaghetti and taking crummy little liberal arts gigs. Perhaps her city of choice would have even been San Francisco, but more likely L.A. or Orange County.

Then at some point, probably shortly before her 30th birthday, she would have had some sort of I Have to Get Serious crisis. Her tolerance for burritos and shitty living conditions would have eroded and collapsed into talk of Something to Show and biological clocks and marriage as milestone achievement.

She would have armed herself for battle with a Banana Republic shift dress and button-pearl earrings and landed an associate development director gig at the L.A. Symphony.

The Phantom Me would have shined in this role. It would have combined her excellent communication skills (99 percentile on her verbal SATs in high school, remember?) with her softcore bohemianism and “creative side.” She would be promoted within two years.

The course of her work would have opened new social doors for her; she would make the sort of friends who went on spa weekends and pricey yoga retreats. She would have circulated at fundraisers and made a wonderful impression on the legions of fascinating, presentable trustafarians. Her husband would have been plucked from this circle, attracted by her effervescent charm and worldliness.

The wedding would have been spectacular, and her parents would nearly have heart attacks before the Big Day, worried sick that they’d come across as carpetbagging slobs to the Nice People of her husband’s world.

I would have squirted two Beautiful Children into the Montessori school system, and it would be this, truly, that would seal my membership in the blue-blazer world; the seemingly unending trajectory of triumph in all arenas of my life would be such that, like an abundant force of nature, it would have no choice but to replicate itself and continue my incredible story.

Had I turned out the Phantom Me, even my liberalism would be forgiven. Because I would be the right kind of liberal. The one who hugs the whales and the gay interior decorators, is endearingly flighty and dingbatty and easily dismissed. I would not be the articulate crank who yammers on about economic justice and living wages before telling you which five obscure, unwatchable documentaries you have to see before I will even fucking talk to you. I would instead be a full-time mother and full-time arts fundraiser, the kind of woman about whom today’s wedding guests would whisper, “Isn’t she amazing? I don’t know how she does it!”

But I’m now 39. It would be at this very point when the whispers about the Phantom Me along the grapevine would inevitably darken, because despite the steep upward trellis onto which the thoughts of comfortable Americans are trained, everyone – everyone – eventually either fucks up or is fucked.

I know well what these whispers sound like. My mother is constantly updating me, in meaningless chunks, on people in her circle whose names and lives I have long since ceased to know or care about: Maggie got cancer, Shelly got divorced, Mark can’t find a job, Casey is on anti-depressants, Melanie got pregnant by a man who won’t marry her, Bob’s kids are drug fiends, Cathy’s daughter married an Iranian (but we’ve heard he’s very nice!), Richard’s son turned out gay (and please make no mistake: there are still vast groups of people for whom these last two tidbits would be announcements of tragedy and failure).

“So Jennifer, what is it you do up in San Francisco these days?”

“I’m a proofreader.”

[This concludes Part One of The Kid Is All Right: Meet the Failure I’m Not. Hopefully more will be forthcoming as I complete it.]

Karen Armstrong Rocks the JCC

Between the end of the craziest week and the start of the nuttiest weekend in my recent history (Expo for Independent Arts, the kickoff for KFJC’s fundraiser, and my post-Expo house party were all Saturday), I insanely decided to squeeze in a lunchtime lecture at SF’s Jewish Community Center. It turned out to be one of the most sensible things I’ve done all year.

Karen Armstrong isn’t just another take-it-or-leave-it, “Jesus is groovy, if you feel like it” modern theologian, pathetically tailoring the age-old rigors of spiritual practice to a noncommittal, consumerist public who can’t be bothered to pencil the transcendent into their busy schedules.

Nor is she by any means a church authoritarian. As a young girl I read her autobiographical “Through the Narrow Gate,” chronicling her seven brutal years as a nun in a spartan, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic order in the early 1960s. The church’s refusal to accommodate her epilepsy and severe food allergies (she was supposed to Learn from the Suffering) shattered any delusions she might have had about the virtues of blind obedience.

Ensconced in a religious institution myself at the time, I admired the honesty of her questioning: not hostile to the church’s stated values of faith, hope, and charity – but not willing to put up with their strong-arm crap, either.

Imagine the smile on my face when, some 20 years after reading the book, I heard her strong, calm, scholarly voice on the radio shortly after 9/11, explaining the finer points of Islam to an under-informed public. She had become a sought-after authority on the subject of world religion.

Having won the prestigious TED Prize in 2008 (recipients are asked to unveil “One Idea to Change the World”), she’s now at work with religious leaders and followers on the Charter for Compassion , a credo uniting the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic principles of “universal justice and respect.”

Some highlights from Armstrong’s talk on September 25:

— The word “belief” originally meant “to love.” It was only in the 17th century that the word attained its modern meaning of holding to a particular idea. The Greek credo – “I believe” – meant more a state of engagement and active investigation, a commitment to finding truth rather than allegiance to a foregone conclusion.

— Religion is about practice and dedication to behaving a certain way. Intellectual understanding or enlightenment is meant to follow the hard work of practice.

— “Love” as it’s used in the book of Leviticus (a legal text) didn’t demand that you had a personal liking or affection for someone; it meant more a simple sense of respect and looking out for the other’s interests.

— Religions are full of metaphors and paradoxes. The verses of the Koran are all metaphoric; the paradox of the Christian trinity is meant to be a meditative exercise; the Jewish tradition of the Midrash (inventive commentaries on Hebrew scripture) provoke investigation on the part of the student. All of this communicates the need for contemplation and intellectual questioning as a component of spiritual practice.

— True compassion requires risk and research. We have a moral obligation to understand the other’s mindset.

— On public dialogue: The classic definition of Socratic “dialogue” didn’t mean a fight in which one side won. In true Socratic dialogue, both sides end up admitting they know nothing! You must go into dialogue prepared to be changed.

— Ensuring the well-being of others is our best security.

Defending the Cathedral Mind

“Boys and girls, can you tell me what reverence means?”

I can’t remember the name of the deacon’s wife who taught the bible class for the 4-to-6-year-olds, but she was a very nice lady who smelled like unbaked pie crust.  She also enjoyed doubling herself over in her child-sized chair and addressing us as though doing a poor imitation of a severely mentally retarded person.

I raised my hand.  I was always raising my hand.

“Um, reverence?  Means that you, um, be quiet?  Because Jesus is there?”

Her face mimed orgasmic revelation.  “Yes!” she mouthed.  “It means we be quiet, because Jesus is there!”

Even as I was learning to spout the rote answers I knew adults wanted to hear, I was lost in confusion and “backsliding” (the church term for engaging in normal critical thought) into the firy furnaces of dark doubt.

For one thing, if we were supposed to be quiet in the church because Jesus was there, but we were also being told that Jesus was everywhere, wouldn’t that mean we were supposed to be quiet and reverent everywhere?  How could school be taught?

More pressingly, would I be sent to hell for watching the Monkees do“Last Train to Clarksville” with the sound up?

These things went through my brain, but I couldn’t articulate them to myself.  People in my world didn’t voice such thoughts, which made the thoughts seem to emerge from some horrible shadow side of me.  I decided in the end I had better be reverent because, well, Satan sounded like a pretty scary guy; hell had been so vividly and repeatedly described to me that I could imagine it much more easily than, say, our nation’s capital; and I wanted the grown-ups to love me.

So I was reverent in the house of God, not really getting what the big deal was, but hoping I would at some point in the future.

Flash forward to 2002 and the dark, delicate months in which we were all still reeling from 9/11.  A shock-jock station in New York broadcast a couple having sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the resulting public outrage did not just come from the usual musty corners of old ladies and Moral Majority firebrands.  People who regularly tuned in for their daily dose of fart jokes and political incorrectness were switching off their radios for good.

Suddenly, in the wake of incredible violence, chaos, and grief, reverence in the house of God was no longer a throwback to empty authoritarianism.  New Yorkers had memorialized friends, spouses, co-workers, sons, and daughters in special buildings that were meant to invoke the sense of another world, of awe and mystery, a sense that even if we didn’t understand everything that was going on in our lives, there was still some great (if often cruel) design at work.

Modern people have an uneasy relationship with reverence.  Holding certain things sacred, or believing certain physical places are special, are seen as signs of intellectual weakness.  It’s clear why.

Despite the supposed free-thinking amorality of the age, plenty of us are still introduced to reverence via some “because I said so” apparatus such as the church.  Once you grow up and spot The Man Behind the Curtain, you see reverence as just another crowd control tactic to keep you scared and unquestioning.

Those of us raised nonreligiously are introduced to reverence, if at all, via images of square, pious 1950s types kneeling and praying in cheesy clip art.  The modern, free-willed person pays no heed to such primitive ideas as honoring a set-aside space in which he or she has to – gets to – relinquish control over self-importance and authoring one’s fate.  This may explain why contemporary church architects create places of worship about as otherworldly and awe-inspiring as an In-N-Out Burger parking lot.

“Irreverent” is now synonymous with I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this hilarity.  If a cringy-funny film like Borat is irreverent, then its polar opposite must be humorless misery, right?  (And I say that as a fan of Borat.)

The last time I really needed some peace, quiet, and change of perspective, I got off the 5 Fulton bus line at St. Ignatius Cathedral on Fulton Street here in San Francisco.  (By the way, I don’t recommend this mid-day during the week, when the maintenance crew is doing their thing.  If you think hammers, power drills, and shouting workmen are annoying in your ’hood on Sunday morning, try them in a vaulted stone airplane hangar designed to echo straight up to Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.)

But maintenance racket is small potatoes compared to what happened last time.  Just as I was reaching a quiet sense of comfort about my problems, candles flickering all around me, the side doors banged open and a chirpy admissions volunteer from the University of San Francisco (the Jesuit school whose cathedral it is) trundled a band of about 20 prospective students through the place.

As the volunteer swung her index fingers around like an air traffic controller, yellingly explaining this grotto and that chapel and this altar and that station of the cross, five students were having phone conversations, five more were checking texts or surfing the web, two had iPods, five were having surly exchanges with their parents (who themselves were multitasking, conducting a few important, gum-snapping phone calls whilst in the House of God) and about two were actually listening to the tour and deeply impressed with the place.

By the time this pageant of oblivion had crossed through to the other side and was proceeding on to the library across the quad, I felt like a child whose sandcastle had been trashed by the big kids.  Was I the only dupe left in the world who noticed that a cathedral is meant to shut you the fuck up?

After the irritation of the event had died down I ended up feeling sorry for those kids.  What would they do when one more barf-o-rama kegger party somehow wasn’t enough to relieve the strain of their lives?  Reverence and contemplation wasn’t part of their repertoire; nobody had given it to them.  Young people generally are not reverent (that’s why we love them), but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it every now and again.

If the grand heights and depths and kaleidoscopic colors of St. Ignatius weren’t enough to command it in them—or their parents—then what would be?

Whether you believe in God or not is beside the point.  If you lose the ability to receive messages from your surroundings, the quality of your life will be compromised.  Everywhere will be the same, because you will always be the same in it.