I awoke this morning, as I have for almost forty-six years now, angry, discontented, irritable and world-weary. Thinking back, I seem to have come into the world this way. The few respites from this baseline state gleam like gems in my memory, links in the shit-sausage of this long jump from vagina to grave.
My AA sponsor tells me to pray. Having been raised an atheist, I find this ridiculous. But he says it works and everything else he’s said has, so I listen. That old Irish gangster starts his day talking to God. Together, we have fashioned a prayer of sorts for me, and it goes a little something like this: “Please don’t let me act like too much of an alcoholic today.” I say another before bed: “Thank you for not letting me act like such an alcoholic today.”
This morning I forgot and leaped out of bed. I had decided to sleep in, eschewing my daily yoga practice, a two-hour ritual of Ashtanga yoga and meditation, in favor of catching up on some badly needed rest. I am, as a recent New Yorker article about pre-post-Covid anxiety put it, “burned out.” One and a half years of teaching high school online has finally caught up with me and the push to the last day of instruction feels like quite the slog. Until then, it is taking a lot of loin-girding to meet my students with the openness, patience and integrity they deserve.
After waking, I made a coffee and moved my chair to face the corner of the window in my apartment where, through a small porthole in the thickening trees, I can still catch a glimpse of the East River this time of year. I looked up and saw a pigeon soaring over the area like a hawk.
The pigeon who thought he was a hawk.
And I remembered to pray.
“Dear Nature/Homeostasis/Symbiosis/Big Bang/Entropy/Mystery…”
I quickly readied myself for class. I ran water through my hair and arranged my bedhead into something resembling an outline that would appear kempt against a zoom background, threw on a collared shirt and opened my two computer screens, one to project the power point presentation and PDF of the novel we are reading and another for managing the Tetris-like attendance software that texts parents about tardiness and helps me respond to their sometimes-frazzled messages in real time while I facilitate the first minutes of class. I set my third screen, an iPhone, on its chrome pedestal so I could manage the class’s comment stream and arranged my background to look as professional as possible by throwing some unfolded laundry beyond the purvey of the webcam.
As tired as I am of it, it’s always fun when I get to class. My co-teacher was absent today, so the kids quickly commenced the online equivalent of throwing spitballs, which I volleyed like the drag queen I am. “Loving the EMSR breathing today Darren,” wrote one. A maddening echo at the beginning of class had necessitated switching to a plug-in mic. Thus, the outmoded iPhone cord, hanging haphazardly from one ear, had been picking up my grunts and sighs as I worked out which device was the culprit. “The end of the world will be averted by steam-punk tech,” I responded forebodingly into the reverb before I disconnected the USB-C adapter. We managed to read the final chapter of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle and have a lively discussion about the intersections of gentrification and squatting.
What is prayer? For many years, my protracted morning routine has been crucial in mitigating my congenitally miserabilist disposition: I awake, contemplate a lesson from my Guru, a reclusive spiritualist writer who, via his bi-weekly correspondence course, imparts to me what he, himself, sometimes terms the “new age mumbo jumbo” that I use as a playbook for life. (He once asked his own guru about all the earnest weirdos who read his “lessons,” and the great Baba is reported to have replied, “Healthy people don’t go to the doctor.” I think this describes me perfectly.) I also practice Kriya Yoga, the dynamic meditation technique taught by Paramahansa Yogananda, an initiated practice, passed down from empowered teacher to fire-ceremony-initiated student in an unbroken line for centuries. “I go through all this before you wake up…”
Prayer is all those practices, of course, but today I am reminded that it is, at its core, just what my dear sponsor admonishes me to do, and which this morning I failed to:
“Say your pleases and thank yous.”
The pigeon is gone now. After circling for a long time, it disappeared over the East River. It’s been almost a year since I’ve received an animal sign like this one. If you aren’t familiar with this divination practice, the crux of it is that you know you’ve received an animal sign when a non-human being comes into your field of perception in a surprising or serendipitous way, and right then is when you need to consider the message it brings, which can usually be deciphered by contemplating its physical attributes, interactions with humans and other organisms, place in the food web and some general associative cultural symbology. Before you cancel my culture-as-costume aping of Native spiritual practices, please consider that we were all indigenous at one time and entertain the possibility that perhaps its exactly that that white people need to remember. Alternately, I’m Irish so put that in your authenticity pipe and smoke it if it helps you read on:
I’ve written about Pigeon in my musings several times before, once when he came to remind me to pay attention to my inner child, once when he came to approve of reentering therapy (to tend so said inner child), and once to remind me to cherish my relationship with my sister. Hawk has also made many appearances, mostly when I need to be reminded to take the most expansive view, to pull out to a wide-angle lens, to remember whatever is greater than the little I that I think I am, that which I still struggle with calling You Know Who.
What wakes me up some mornings with rage? I was once told by an astrologer that I had a “tough row to hoe” in that the particular array of planets in my natal chart predisposed me to an unrealistic but unrelenting quest for harmony. That’s fucking true.
Not too long ago I was at a party, sipping a soda and cran and holding up a wall, when someone I’d never met before walked up to me to say, “No offense, but I don’t like white people” and then proceeded to make some untoward presumptions about what I must think of people like him. Spit ball launched. I replied, “Oh stop your flirting” and walked away. I have found sass to be the only sure remedy for preemptive strikes against white supremacy and/or bully-flirting, with which I am intimately familiar (thanks French and Russian lovers!) Nonetheless, this interaction saddened me. Because, well, I have a hard-on for harmony. How we can’t all just take the most expansive view still baffles me, perhaps inordinately.
I know I should let that go. And I think that’s exactly what prayer is for, but, as I said before, I simply can’t believe in a capital G God. It’s just too ridiculous and always will be. Ironically, I am working with two sponsees in that “fastest growing club that no one wants to be in” (Alcoholics Anonymous), who are struggling with “giving over” to a higher power. If you’re not familiar with the tenets of AA, turning your will over to a power greater than yourself is pretty much foundational to the program. One sponsee comes from a Christian background and the other a Muslim one. Both are scarred by their upbringings. Nonetheless, this “giving over” is happening for both of them.
It’s a mystery, you see, like this little morning meditation I’m doing through this rambling essay. We don’t know how it works. If I told you I did, you’d be wise to disregard anything I say.
Pigeon and Hawk. The pigeon who thought he was a hawk. The hawk Darren thought was a pigeon. We are both human and divine. That’s why we can give over to a power greater than ourselves, and how. As my Trump-and-IRA-supporting sponsor tells me, “Kid, there’s only one thing you have to know about God and that’s: ‘It ain’t you, motherfucker.’” We exist on different levels at the same time. I have come to understand that there is absolutely no contradiction between loving yourself as god herself and reveling in the smallness of yourself against her gracious relief. But we must “give over.”
I realize this is rather easy for me to say. Summer approaches. This last push is just that: For me, there is an end in sight. Not so for many dear friends, whose gluttonous companies have managed to maintain surprisingly high profit margins throughout the pandemic, it appears to me, by working fewer and fewer employees harder and harder. And when my friends get company-wide emails about “mindfulness practices” like “take time for a walk” I feel that I finally understand the true meaning of ‘gaslighting.’ “Be sure to take those summer half-days,” says HR to the overworked managers who are now tasked with merchandizing, “as long as your project’s on track.”
So, being told to “give over” can be maddening. Being told “why” to give over is perhaps a little less maddening. Being told “what” to give over is approaching helpful. But, for me, being told HOW to give over is preferable. Many people told me that I “should,” some told me “why,” fewer told me “what,” but only one told me how, my woo-woo Guru, who, I am told, is on Lexapro.