Monday, June 22, 2009

Sanctuary III

The most oft associated image with the term sanctuary is, probably, a house of worship. In my case, that house is called church, though architecturally, it looks more like what Americans tend to associate with a mosque, mostly because of the domed roof. Atop the roof sits a cross, and not just any cross--a lighted cross. Not exterior lights, mind you; the cross itself lights up. It's not quite the solar-powered grave bible, but it's clearly a distant cousin.

Such kitsch features are terribly attractive to me.

The windows on this house of worship are made of granite, which probably sounds a bit odd at first, but realize that granite is something Georgia has a great deal of, then realize that you can cut granite very, very thin and, presto--granite windows. The church across the street also has the granite windows, so it's not an altogether unusual design feature locally (not that I can drum up an iota of proof from the internetz to share with you today, *sigh*).

The church is a modification of the Akron-plan, which appears to be more common in the Northern regions of the U.S., as is true of our denomination in general. The plan theoretically allows the sanctuary to be more flexible; the Sunday school classrooms can be opened via a rolling panel, allowing them to become part of the sanctuary. The architectural plan encourages eye-contact--you can see damn near everyone and, in theory, community, though in practice I've yet to see us function any differently than any other congregation. The sanctuary is gorgeous, filled with wooden beams, (occasionally) bright brass, and huge stained-glass windows, which are particularly beautiful at about 8:30 am, when the sun's rays begin to warm the glass.

If aesthetics were everything for a church, this one would have it. The space is undeniably beautiful, and it seems to offer a certain tranquility to all comers.

But, aesthetics are not everything. The particular modifications of the layout (and I think these choices were largely based on the land available, which is on a fairly small corner) placed the sanctuary level at the second floor, and many of the school classrooms, the nursery, the kitchen, and the fellowship hall area are below. The floors are connected by three narrow (seriously--two people of minimal girth cannot pass beside one another) stairwells, which, because of the "roundness" of the design, twist and turn and lead visitors to unexpected places. Often overheard: how did I end up here?

The design does not lend itself well to serving the community, as the bathrooms are tiny and while we "have" a handicapped stall, it's not especially large--no wheelchairs would fit in the one downstairs (which can only be accessed via stairs--irrespective of which floor you begin on) and the one at sanctuary level is difficult to navigate into. The rooms are often oddly shaped; we have old stairwells than no longer lead anywhere, etc. The space is excellent for a congregation who wishes to meet once a week on Sundays, but it is less useful to a congregation who wishes to serve the community.

This should not be taken to suggest that the church does not serve--we do. Three AA meetings are hosted there, covering 7 days a week. The space serves as a shelter to homeless families in concert with other local congregations, once a quarter. The Red Cross uses the space for training, and so forth. Over the past two or so years, the level of activity at the building has increased probably ten-fold. My favorite example of this occurred on Maundy Thursday this year, as I set up for the Maundy Thursday communion service, while an AA meeting was held, and a Seder supper began.

The building was, for a few hours, alive...filled with an energy that nearly brought me to my knees. THIS. This right here is what we are meant to be...a place and a space of energy and, yes, sanctuary--even if the "sanctuary" is not immediately in use.

For alcoholics and addicts, the places willing to house the meetings can very much be sanctuary; the meetings themselves certainly are for many of them. A community opens its arms to another in need. What better use for a house of worship than to feed the needs of its community.

The denomination I joined, the Disciples of Christ, appeared to be a sanctuary to me when I first joined, having fled the Episcopal church and its then burgeoning crisis over gay membership (the moment someone in my home congregation told me "they" were not welcome, I was done, and I wasn't sure I'd go back to an Episcopal church again, though I do miss parts of the service and mission of that denomination). DoC, as a denomination, celebrates diversity of opinion and education, and I was drawn to these notions.

One of the catch phrases for DoC is "In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in All Things, Charity," which precedes the Restoration Movement (which birthed DoC), but is nevertheless important to it. The quotation, for all of its positivity, can, and does, become trite, all too easily. What, for instance, are the "essentials" and "non-essentials"? Our congregation, for instance, has at least two rather distinct theologies (and myriad vines grow from each of these), one of which is rather Baptist in flavor and one that seems fairly traditionally DoC (at least this is what Rev. Dean tells me; since I am, as he often reminds me, an Episcopalian at heart, I can't really say one way or the other. But, since he's the professional here, we'll give him his due). I see the two theologies play off one another, and I don't see any chance that they will reconcile or be able to live together in harmony or charity.

This divide was made clear, in part, by the building several years ago, and the drama continues to play itself out. Yesterday we met with another dwindling DoC community, to discuss coming together, and somehow or another it turned (at least at my table) into a discussion of the building, and whether or not it was adequate to the cause. Its adequacy, of course, depends on your vision of the church mission: for those for whom Sunday attendance is central, the beautiful space is precisely what it should be--a gorgeous celebration of God and Christ. For those who believe that service is central to faith, the location is excellent, but the space itself is both inadequate and, at times, foreboding, given the demands made by a nearly century-old wooden building with poor wiring.

We come together to discuss mutual faith and survival and we get a discussion about a fucking building. Fabulous. Small wonder young families aren't coming in droves.

Once upon a time, this space was a sanctuary to me. I could find respite from the world there, even as the world was invited in. As the last few years of drama have progressed, it has become something else-a place that is decidedly not safe. I came to the denomination seeking solace and growth, seeking to learn and to learn to share. I have learned, however, silence in these walls. Speak not of possibility lest you be attacked. Speak not of change lest you unintentionally accuse.

Speak not.

I did not speak at the meeting yesterday, choosing to listen to the expanded forum (I've spoken on the subject of unification a number of times; I wanted to know what those being brought in for the first time had to say). I was unfortunate in my table choice, for I was treated to diatribes on lack of care and "some people" and bitterness wrapped in a facade of hope, rather than searches for possibility. Yesterday was another confirmation of my fears for the church--it is destined, like the building in which we worship, to fall.

But, I went into the meeting feeling like that. I go to service every week feeling like that (it's better in the early service, which is modeled on conversation, but I have had to serve as Elder for several weeks recently, which demands that I be at the late service). I hear fellow elders question why we should discuss theology. Seriously? Elders can't talk about theological difference? Fuck--what's the point, then?

Several months ago, I wondered idly why it was easier to tell stories of addiction than faith. I know why I don't at church--the level of judgment involved eradicates any feelings of safety there. I'm less sure why I don't here...though I suppose I fear a certain amount of judgment, though there's no good reason. I wonder if this is the lesson I need to draw here, that sanctuary is a space created, not one provided and that such sanctuaries will always be challenged. How, then, to protect sanctuary, which is so central to my sanity and survival?

Since February, I have run some 425 miles and will pass 450 (obviously) later this week, all in preparation for a marathon that was at first intended to keep me focused on something other than drinking (it works, most of the time) and has evolved into another addiction of sorts; I know I need another race to plan for, announce, and train for (and I guess I better choose one fast!). Running is my sanctuary because I have created it and insisted that it be protected, much as I insisted that my home be protected in the aftermath of the panic attack. So what of spiritual sanctuary-- how to protect it? How, in other words, to live in the world and protect faith from fellow congregants?

Not speaking is clearly not getting me anywhere on this.

Here's my dream: a safe space where worship and service work together for the betterment of the community, not just to draw people into faith, but to support local needs. To be green. To be faithful. To be curious and to be respectful. To promote a conversation about safe spaces and what it means to protect one, because it is no simple task. To be able to own up to violations of that safe space contract, learn from them, and move on together, even if our theologies remain apart.

My faith story is not much longer than that; there was never an ah-ha! moment, though I have been brought to my knees by the wonders of humanity and the world on more than one occasion. Faith is, to me, about the awe--the magic of reaching for a better world and figuring our how the holy hell to get there. Faith is about falling to my knees in awe, sometimes, of a world that is more vast than my understanding, but will nevertheless allow me to study and read and try to understand, all without judgment of my abilities and worth.

Faith is not a building or a place or a space. Faith can be an action of people. Faith can be service. Faith can be gratitude and pleas for understanding or help. Faith can be listening and learning and healing and serving.

I just wish I knew where to go from here. I know where my heart and prayer lead me, but I don't know if I'm that brave, and I don't know if I trust my own discernment that much (ah, the wonders of self-judgment, yes?). I want to be free from the bitterness that pervades that space, and I want to both find and create opportunity. I keep telling myself that if I do this one last thing, I'll have done all that I can do.

I'm on number 5 of that list right now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Sanctuary II

This posting, and those that follow under the heading “Sanctuary,” was written over the course of two weeks, beginning shortly after the panic attack.

In keeping with my overall geekiness, I am going to move away from the moodier parts of this posting group and insert a bit of practical and amateur etymology, because it is way more fun than should be allowed by law and it is keeping me from the most painful parts.

So, the first use of sanctuary as a noun, according to the OED, occurred in 1340, referring to the most common meaning of the term: "A building or place set apart for the worship of God or of one or more divinities: applied, e.g., to a Christian church, the Jewish temple and the Mosaic tabernacle, a heathen temple or site of local worship, and the like; also fig. to the church or body of believers." I suppose that when people use the term, they probably use it to mean this or it's most recent colloquial meaning, which is suggestive of something like "a safe place."

As it happens, none of the OED meanings actually points specifically to "safe place"; unsurprisingly, most of the meanings are religious, such as the first one above. Other definitions include "an especially holy place within a temple or church" or within the Jewish temple, specifically, the location of the "Holy of Holies." Sanctuary can refer to "the part of the church around the altar" or to a box containing Holy relics. The term can also refer to earth; often it is applied to describe consecrated ground, but a protected land can also be a sanctuary, with no religious connotation associated, such as a bird or flora sanctuary (often the protected land hold endangered species of one variation or another). This final usage is the one most similar to the "safe place" colloquialism, it seems.

Chances are the last two uses stemmed from the final significant definition of sanctuary, which comes straight out of medieval law (a favorite stomping ground for yours truly):
A church or other sacred place in which, by the law of the mediƦval church, a fugitive from justice, or a debtor, was entitled to immunity from arrest. Hence, in wider sense, applied to any place in which by law or established custom a similar immunity is secured to fugitives.
Probably the most memorable popular culture application of this definition (at least for me) appears in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music, when Maria von Trapp and family, buy now fugitives from the Nazi government, are given sanctuary at the church where Maria had previously been a novitiate. Of course, in this instance, the government did not abide by medieval law governing sanctuary for fugitives, but the film rather assumes that the viewer will recognize* what a violation of custom the intrusion is (I can't find a clip of it, but the scene to which I am referring occurs after the rendition of "Edelweiss," which I now have running through my head. Drat.).

As is true of "redemption," sanctuary has both religious and secular meanings, though the intent intersects, as all of the uses seem to identify a space that is special for one reason or another, be it in the protection of religious artifacts or in the protection of animals and/or plants. The medieval law, of course, signifies protection for the fugitive (this being a time and place wherein the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" did not exist), and in Christendom, I think this is particularly important, as Christians are called to witness and love, not to judge.

You know, I was about to write that acts which deliberately push others out of the church are then a violation of that call, but I'm not sure that is entirely apt, because the church (building) is not the most important of features, the community and communal spirit are. The violation of the call would be to leave someone feeling outside the love of God by choosing to abandon someone because their life or beliefs don't mirror our own or we generally make life difficult for people we are supposed to be in communion with, then we have most certainly violated that call. In so doing, we violate both the religious and secular notions of sanctuary.

For many of us, and I know this is true for me, home is the primary secular sanctuary. There are, of course, scores of other possibilities; for me, those other spaces are the areas in which I run (well, some of them--some are not exactly hospitable or sanctuary in their nature), Arches National Park (itself literally a sanctuary by the above definitions), KunstHausWein**, and other places and spaces that provide me with solace and protection. Now, most of my sanctuaries are also solitary (this should surprise no one, given the blog address and my email address are solitarykitsch), but that is not because I necessarily reject community. I also find great solace at certain rock concerts--they become sanctuaries where I can freely express and move, breaking the static mold that I too often find myself needing to hold onto in order to preserve the appearance of sanity. When my sanctuaries are violated, I find myself in immense trouble, such as was true during the panic attack, which was triggered by a perceived violation of my primary sanctuary.

The aftermath of that (perceived) violation was, of course, the panic attack and its attendant aftershocks, which lasted more than a week, as well as an obsessive bout of cleaning that found me scrubbing baseboards and bribing TG to do the same (that right there is a big ole sign that I've been severely triggered. Baseboards???). By the time the cleaning was complete, I felt marginally safe again. The cleaning was ritualistic, and while it was a wholly secular scouring of the house, the ritual description remains apt, as the cleaning was very much intended to rid the house of (perceived***) demons, as it were.

I was fortunate in that there was something to be done, because in some cases the violation of the sanctuary renders the space hostile permanently, and this is true of one of my other sanctuaries. I realized as I worked through the idea of sanctuary that I had attempted to rid that space of its demons by cleansing it too (I think I might have even described the attempt as such at least once), but the space is no longer a sanctuary (as in "safe space") for me, even though, strictly speaking, it is a "sanctuary," since it is a church.

Part III of ? to follow.

*Granted, Nazis have become shorthand for "really bad guy" in film, so one needs to do very little to prove the inherent badness in the course of the plot--the viewers will generally fill in the blanks on behalf of the filmmakers. This tendency, incidentally, is why the original version of Brooks' The Producers works so damn well--it defies our expectations by turning the Nazis into buffoons, which was, after all, Brooks' stated intent. I'm particularly fond of the "beer and pretzel" girls in this clip. Really, if you've never seen the film or never seen this version, check it out:

**Explanations may not be required here, but I never pass up a chance to talk about Hundertwasser, who really and truly rocked my world. When I went to Vienna in 2000, I was seeking solace after a breast lumpectomy (which had turned out fine, but had caused much anxiety for months) and a failed attempt to finish my Master's thesis. I was stuck on the theory and Adorno had stolen too much of my brain. While I was in Vienna, I visted the KunstHaus and saw Hundertwasser's work for the first time, as well as the quotation at the right of this blog, which translates to "The straight line is Godless" (the remainder of the quote renders straight lines also immoral"), meaning that God doesn't work in straight lines and that art and architecture need to be reflective of creation, which tends toward the wavy and gentle, rather than the straight and rigid. He also believed that evil could not exist in nature, only in man, but that communities could work against this evil not by "correcting nature," but by protecting the natural world (sanctuary!). As I stood in KunstHaus, looking over his work, I was finally inspired; I couldn't tell you now what finally triggered, but I saw vividly what the thesis needed to work itself out as I stood in that room, surrounded by his art. I went back to KunstHaus many times in my weeks in Vienna; even now, I am comforted by the thought of the art and the space and, in particular, the floors.

***I should quit undermining my own thoughts on the matter. To me, the incident was very much a violation of my space, even if many wouldn't or do not understand why; that it was my perception does not render the reality of what happened as false, even if the demons remained metaphorical.

Monday, June 15, 2009


This posting, and those that follow under the heading “Sanctuary,” was written over the course of two weeks, beginning shortly after the panic attack. As I have mentioned before, when I am battling depression, I typically find myself unable to write or to accept what I do manage to write, so I wrote in fits and spurts until what follows was finally completed. The darkness of the past two weeks (and last week in particular) has been unusually bleak, even for me, though I can’t completely account for why. The darkness comes and goes right now—I feel passably normal as I write this paragraph.

And so it goes…thoughts on Sanctuary…cue The Cult, please….

I was reading (at Rev. Dean's suggestion, and, as it turns out, this book is a favorite of just about every person I know) Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith on Friday during lunch. In the particular chapter I was weaving my way through, Lamott examines ways in which we can examine the world through new eyes--by witnessing all of the mercies we encounter, even if they don't look like mercies at the time (her example of the convertible is brilliant). She defines travelling mercies as “Love the journey. God is with you, come home safe and sound” (106). The examples she uses, though, deal with the journey of life and all of its brokenness. She recounts an exchange between a man who worked for the Dalai Lama and Carolyn Myss, when Myss was complaining about difficulties; he told her “they believe that when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born—and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible” (107).

The notion of paying attention to the journey and not just the destination is a significant one, as you might imagine, in long distance running. I mean, the end is only a blip of a moment; the journey is loooooong and far more interesting. And that notion has been popping up in other places, rather like road sign posts in a poorly-planned city (you know, the ones that if you fail to pay attention to them you end up nowhere near where you need to be? Yeah, those. I was about to end up in Patterson, NJ instead of Paramus.*) that I’ve been attempting to ignore. A friend of mine has been posting “Enjoy the Journey” as a reminder on her Tweets…it’s just everywhere right now.

On Saturday, I was granted the opportunity to live those mercies and disruptions, when an adorable beagle followed me home.

No, he really did.

When I first ran across him during my run, I was at about mile four, and when he joined me for a spell, I assumed he would be like the other local canines who have graced me with their presence, and he would give up on me in short order. He did not. He followed me for much of the next nine miles, save for the places I carried him, fearing that he would be hit by a car (he almost did, twice, before I began carrying him on really bad sections) on the busy roads we traveled, but knowing by that point that he wasn't giving up on me. Dog was just there to begin with, a pleasant distraction; then he was a nuisance, forcing me to pay more attention to him than to the good run I was having; finally, he grew on me (carrying a 20lb dog for 2 miles tends to do that). In the midst of the run/walk/carry, I recalled Lamott's chapter. Was this dog one of those mercies?

Sure, he distracted me from what had been good training, but he also woke me up to the road and world around me, causing me to rethink each step, to notice more than I usually do, since I was in loco parentis of this particular dog. I got to see TG holding Dog, as Dog fell asleep in his lap, the perfect image of boy and dog. TG and I walked with Dog around the area I had found him, only to discover that no one knew him and that the particular area is notorious as a dog dump. I could not provide the sanctuary of a home on Saturday, but I could provide him with food, love, and, eventually, a place to stay until his owner could be located or a new family found. I hope he finds a good family (new or old).

I'm not sure what lessons I am meant to draw from his encounter (or what might be trying to be born, given the multitude of misdirections in my life right now), but he left my eyes open, far enough that when I was driving home on the highway Tuesday night, I spotted a kitten in the middle of the lane. I pulled to the side and realized there were two, one in front of me and one behind; fortunately, a gentleman in a white truck stopped in front of the first kitten (thank you, thank you, thank you), stopping traffic behind him so that he could grab her and hand her to me; he then drove up to the second and did the same. The second kitty had already been hit and was in great distress, sadly. I drove both kitties, wrapped in my jacket (must put towel back in car. And a leash.) to my vet's office; boy kitty had to be euthanized, as his injuries were extensive.** Miss Thing, on the other hand, was in good shape, only a cut on the lip and lots of fleas. So, I took her home last night. She's hanging out in the bathroom, getting acquainted with this new-fangled contraption called a litter box.

So, Mr. Beagle opens my eyes, and Miss Thing gets a home. Traveling mercies, indeed.

We are all gifted with various sanctuaries, whether someone scoops us up and takes us home or we find a space that has meaning and comfort for us. Home may be sanctuary; work may be; a religiously-affiliated building is often referred to as such. We may find sanctuary in the mountains or at the ocean, and we may locate sanctuary in the midst of the most unlikely of places--a concert, a thunderstorm, a race, but each of us need a sanctuary of some sort. And what I am realizing is that one of the ones I had come to value most in sobriety is no longer a safe place for me.
*I think only one person on earth is destined to understand why those two cities are mentioned, and she doesn’t read this blog, so I think I am safe. Suffice to say that I’ve driven through WAY too much of NJ in the middle of the night.

**It seems worth noting that one of the reasons I go to this vet is that he has a standing agreement with the local police to bring injured cats to him; he euthanizes ones he cannot save and operates/treats to save the others. My cat, Mo, is one of those cats. He was probably a frat cat, got away, was hit by a car and left to die. The police brought Mo to the vet, who diagnosed a dislocated hip. He treated Mo and placed him up for adoption, which is how we ended up with our nutty furbaby. And Miss Thing has been named: she's Agnes now, because she looks like a pre-Vatican II nun. She is learning what a litter box is for and how to aggravate the grown cats very quickly. Dog, yet to be named due to some consternation in the family, comes home today. If you care to vote for a dog name, please feel free to post suggestions below.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Anatomy of a Panic Attack

I haven't had a panic attack in about two years, so I suppose I was due for the one that occurred last night. I won't rehash the trigger points--they really aren't that entertaining--but as I got the hamster wheel I loosely call my mind to slow down, I started thinking through the construction of a panic attack. Mind you, this will follow my attack, and each individual is likely to have any manner of different experiences in the umbrella of what we call panic attacks, so please take this for what it is.

In reflecting on last night and the attacks of the past, I can safely say that I don't see them coming, though there are always signs of impending doom. Generally, I'm depressed beforehand; perhaps not significantly, but enough to notice. Since depression doesn't always signal an impending attack, it doesn't make for much of a harbinger. The last two times, though, I was rapid-cycling, for lack of a better phrase. I am not bipolar, though, as I have pointed out, I have experienced extensive periods of hypomania and depression, and I tend to move very quickly between them (often in as little as 72 hours). Since my mother is bipolar, this terminology is familiar to me and, as a layman's phrase at any rate, a fairly apt description of what happens.

On Saturday, I awoke to a significant depressive mood; I could even feel it in my legs, which hurt lamf for that whole 25 miles run. Yes, I did complete the run, figuring there was nothing better to be doing than to try to short circuit the depression with an influx of endorphins. It was not precisely a good run, but the mood seemed to lift a bit. The low-mania came back on Sunday, triggered largely by my failure to eat properly, but, again, I managed it reasonably well. I went a bit pogo-stick for a while on Monday then crashed yesterday evening as the anxiety took hold.

Part of the problem is my failure to recognize my symptoms of increasing anxiety. I *thought* that I had handled several incidents of late and the above-described moods fairly well; in reality, I had mostly buried them or not dealt with them in an appropriate way, largely in an attempt handle anger in ways that are more conducive to sharing habitats with other human beings than I am often accustomed to. In other words, I was being dishonest with myself. This is not altogether unsurprising in an addict*; we are masters of dishonesty--especially when it comes to ourselves. The pattern of dishonesty and vacillating emotions should have been a clue, and are pretty clear now that I glance back upon them**; I was reeling toward a break.

The attack came on, as they often do, with little warning and with an outwardly irrational cause. My very first panic attack, when I was 16 or 17, occurred on the campus of Duke University, when I became overwhelmed by what I would never be and where I would never attend and who I would never live up to. These thoughts, which might have been merely annoying for some, became locked in an obsessive loop for me on the campus (it was the cathedral, specifically, and it's vast space that set me off). I could not stop the hamster wheel, and, eventually, it got moving so fast that there was little more to do that break down.

Such is typical for me in a panic attack: Some event or place triggers an obsessive loop (the hamster wheel); the trigger is, outwardly, likely to be relatively innocuous. To know the path my brain takes would require having resided in my head for years (which, incidentally, I don't recommend for the faint of heart). The obsessive loop becomes faster, particularly as I try to derail the wheel. My heart rate increases. I cry and hyperventilate. I don't want to be touched, and will run away if someone tries to do so. Until the anxiety subsides sufficiently, the attack will continue, sometimes for more than an hour. I cannot stop the wheel or the tears once they begin until I can slow my heart rate and remove myself from the trigger. For hours afterward, though I will be emotionally and physically spent, it takes little to set me toward panic again, though I am usually able to self-calm more quickly during the aftershocks.

I've heard people describe their first panic attacks in terms of heart attacks--not knowing what was happening. This did not happen to me the first time, I knew I was breaking down (the benefit of familial mental illness, I guess), even if I didn't have terminology for it, and these days, I know exactly what I am dealing with, almost from the outset (though, oddly, it often takes an hour or more after it ends for me to be able to articulate the phrase "panic attack." No clue why that is.)

I was fortunate last night to have the care, concern, and support of far flung friends, without whom I am certain I would not have been able to settle down, think, and go for the peppermint tea and Oreos (an excellent post-panic attack remedy, incidentally). As Anne Lamott has noted about herself, one of my most common prayers is "thank you, thank you, thank you" (the other being "help me, help me, help me"---there were plenty of both last night). I sent up the flag online that I had triggered, and I want to thank, again, Hooch, Soonie, Z, and Blue, as well as Rip, Avarweth, and Silly (I love handles, don't you?) for jumping in immediately to console and advise and commiserate. And a thank you, too, to rhyte, who saw my remark, recognized it for what it was, and sent excellent reminders to help calm the anxiety, including a favorite duffism: "Be Still and Pray." What a fabulous group of women you are; thank you, thank you, thank you.

So, my mantra for the week (typed weeks at first, but rhyte is right (*grin*) with her other reminders to take life in small chunks) to come will simply be that duffism: Be still and pray. The aftershocks are still here, though they are faded to the point that they are noticable to no one but me. I wish you all well, whereever and whoever you all. Be still. Be calm. Reach out-->you are not alone.

*A clarification of terminology: in these pages, I tend to use alcoholic and addict somewhat interchangeably, though, in the main, the former refers to alcoholism (duh) and the latter to drug addiction. I do this as a reminder to myself--in order to be honest with myself, really. Alcohol was my primary drug of choice, but I craved depressants & opiates of any variation--I maintained a profoundly tight grip on my pill popping desires (because, you know, THAT is sign of a "real" problem <--note sarcasm) to the extent that I don't take anything--even Motrin, very often (and I never take acetaminophen, because it knocks me right the fuck out. Seriously. Give me a bottle of Jameson, and I am the life of the party. Tylenol in any amount--out for hours). I've popped depressants from time to time, stayed away from the drug of my dreams--heroin (along with most other opiates)--because I knew even without taking it I'd sell my soul for a good nod. I'm all about shutting the brain down, so cocaine and speed never interested me, nor anything else (uh, well, except Sir Caffeine) that would replicate my "up" moods.

**Saw the best explanation of Benjamin's Angel of History (Thesis IX in On the Concept of History) recently, in Steven Johnson's fabulous book The Ghost Map, which chronicles the events surrounding the cholera outbreak of 1854 in London and how that outbreak shaped the modern understanding of "city." He notes at the outset, that Benjamin's Angel can be understood in terms of such an outbreak, where we see the piles of bodies of those killed by pestilence overtime, but the "Angel of History" sees their stories and connections. Addiction works similarly; we can see the chains of catastrophes of our past, though it takes "hitting bottom" or some other traipsing into sobriety for us to assume the vision of the Angel of History, who can see us for who we are, rather than just for our series of wreckages.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Punk Style: Drunk, Fast, and Pinned

So, the second (third? umpteenth?) installment of my foray into punk is getting slightly sidelined by a desire to play a bit with the theories rhyte turned me on to. Apologies for being tardy with this entry--I'll do better (I hope) without Memorial Day distracting me.

I had read some of these pieces in graduate school, but, well, let's just say that in my particular comparative literature department, cultural studies was frowned upon. Didn't, as it turns out, prevent me from doing cultural studies, I just lacked the theoretical constructs that might have saved me a bit of sanity in the process. But, no one ever claimed that doctoral work was for the sane. In fact, I think nearly everyone believes exactly otherwise.

So, rhyte mentioned Stuart Hall and co. as essentials for the work I'm digging around in, and I started digging. Good stuff, I might add.

The majority of what I have encountered so far deals with Brit punk, so I'll hash out a brief summary and then see what we can do with American punk, too, which has a slightly different set of concerns associated with it. The thrust of the arguments is fairly straightforward, claiming that punk is one of several postwar subcultures born inside the British working class, which, of course, is accurate. I will say that it took me some time to work through the use of "sub"culture, as it is a term I have largely rejected in my own writing, in large measure because it assumes privilege. Primarily, I've rejected describing various American regionalisms as "subcultures" (as one will occasionally see them labeled), because such usage assumes not only dominance of a particular culture over the "subs," but a certain superiority. I know precisely where my resistance comes from-->I hold Dr. Ronnie Hopkins and my class on Black English Vernacular entirely responsible, so I struggled with the terminology a bit, until I hit upon the following remark, which made the usage not only perfectly apt in this case, but it reset my thinking on the use of the term: "but just as different groups and classes are unequally ranked in relation to one another, in terms of their productive relations, wealth and power, so cultures are differently ranked, and stand in opposition to one another, in relations of domination and subordination, along the scale of 'cultural power'" (Hall & Jefferson 11). The term highlights the way such cultural groupings are treated within a dominant culture; the use of the term does not necessarily invalidate the cultural group or reduce them, but it does posit the relationship of cultures to one another in a given society; that is, once "sub"cultures ascend to dominance on the spectrum, they simply become the dominant culture--or absorbed into the dominant culture, at any rate.

The contentions here are pretty straightforward too. About punk Dick Hebdige suggests that (and his first point has been made time and again by all manner of folk, including Duff): "[t]he punk aesthetic, formulated in the widening gap between audience and artist, can be read as an attempt to expose glam rock's* implicit contradictions. For example, the 'working classness', the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance, and verbosity of glam rock superstars"; Hebdige further posits punk as parody of glam rock, speaking for the white working-class through a "rendering of working-classness," describing itself in "bondage through an assortment of darkly comic signifiers--straps and chains, strait jackets, and rigid postures. Despite it's proletarian accents, punk's rhetoric was steeped in irony" (63).

Two pieces exist to pick apart here: the "look" (style) of punk and the rhetoric, both of which, Hebdige claims, are ironic positions. The image of punk, especially Brit punk (American punk will have its own peculiarities), is replete with color, attitude, and safety pins galore. Hebdige and others argue that the style is itself a language--it communicates to the "reader" a level of connection or disjuncture, depending on the position of the reader to the subculture; thus, image is, indeed, everything here. To illustrate his point, we need only look at the following clips from two Sex Pistols shows, one at the rise of punk and one at the height (well, for the Pistols, anyway). Look carefully at the difference in image between the initial ascent to television (the mainstream) and the concert footage from '77:

Example one (in which Glen Matlock** appears on bass):

Note that in the first example, the Pistols look more "glam" than punk--at least if we consider the later manifestations of those terms. Note, though, Rotten's earrings, which would appear to be, like his brilliantly pink jacket, a bit glam frou frou; they are, however, far more mundane--mere paperclips. Hair is messy; eyes are properly insane (though nothing like the 1977 footage); studded leather wristband visible. He's a Ted (in his vaguely Edwardian, brilliant pink), but he's a Teddy boy gone wild (sorry--I know that was awful) in his destruction of the jacket--note that the right shoulder is pieced together with safety pins, pieces of the trappings of punk that we will come to know and love. And Rotten owns up to this, at least partially, when in his autobiography, he outlines his distaste for the 70s variation of Teddy boy: "...there was a Rock-n-roll revivalist movement going on that I found loathesome. Here were sixteen-year-old kids into Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley....You shouldn't be propping up somebody's grandad as a hero. They weren't making a life of their own. They were living in someone else's fucking nightmare" (63). Cookie, as always, looks like, well, Cookie, in his drummer finery (dressed as a drummer SHOULD. I'm looking at you, Mr. Studded Thong Lee.***). I've little to say about Matlock, but...Jonesy. The Man. Steve Jones in his finest pink. Sort of a nod to glam, a nod to, what? mod, maybe?, and then a sublime little kick at the piece of equipment and the notoriously fabulous hip swing.

Really, is there more to say about Jones? I'm far too entranced to comment.

So, we move from the 1976 BBC debut to 1977, after Sid joins. A few things to watch for here: first, watch Sid's face between :25 and :31--it's the sneer. A practiced and well-considered sneer (of course, I know no one who does anything similar). Also, watch for the glam send-ups-->especially from Steve and Sid.

Example Two (with Sid occasionally playing bass between poses, bless his heart):

So, did you see the sneer? Consider how many times you have seen that face on one musician or another since 1977. Seriously, it is almost as ubiquitous as the "big bird" of earlier musings. The costumes have changed here, of course. One might argue that this is an effect of no longer being on prime time, as it were--that the demands of stage differ from the demands of TV, and there is some truth to that. One plays a different role according to one's audience, most of the time. But, I think we've got other elements at play here. First, we have the ascent of punk into the media's eye--and the "look" of punk, born, I would argue, out of a shared space between American and Brit punk (Sid's look is nothing if not a play out of the Ramones, who reached London by 1976 with their leather-clad NYC punk; true, though, as Hebdige points out, the leather-look was the stuff of the 60's Brit "rockers"--more well known in American as "greasers," who were also, as Sam pointed out, beginning this whole venture, also known as "punks" in Southern America. Small world, ain't it?). So, we have trenchcoat-clad Jones [which, as Hebdige suggests, plays on the classic sexual aggressor motif--which in turn fits Jones' persona, as he describes himself as "a real pussy hound...constantly looking for anything to fuck" (Lydon 89).], the leather-clad, dog chain-wearing, sneering Vicious, the adorable Cook (properly dressed, again, I might add), and Rotten, looking properly nuts. All of this is well and good, what we come to expect in pre-hardcore punk revelry...and then start The Who moments: Steve's hop (:23-ish), Johnny's sort of Roger-Daltreyeque moments around 2:20, and the other shows which feature Sid doing the windmill, rather inexplicably--look for the Dallas performance of "Holiday in the Sun," I'm pretty sure he does it there. An image shift ahs taken place. Even if we accept Rotten's version of the world, where he simply felt drawn to the clothing of the "bum": "forgetting the dirt, they looked so stylish to me" (71), it seems clear that the media vision of punk, picked up from various sources, including the Pistols, has in turn influences the image they present here. As Hebdige points out, by summer 1977, the flash of punk could be readily mail ordered (96).

So what are we to take of this in terms of the drunk punk? What does this add to the style in question?

Again, we have no less than two sets of problems to outline here: first, the celebration of excess, more aggressive than their equally drug-and-alcohol addled glam rockers and presages the excess of the 80s and, second, the eventual rejection of such a lifestyle, heralded primarily out of DC hardcore followers of Minor Threat. The birth of Straight Edge isn't terribly surprising if one looks at the overall age of the punkers, many of whom were underage-->punk shows were often held outside of bars because 1) media influence convinced not just a few American bar owners that punks were dangerous to their establishments and 2) if you have a "youth-culture," you tend to sell less alcohol in the bar (doesn't mean consumption doesn't happen, but it may not benefit the bar keep, you know?). What better way to announce your power over the inability to work within the established mode (playing in bars) than to denounce that central moneymaker--alcohol?

Hebdige suggests, rightly I think, that everything punk is an intentional obscenity, meant to disrupt and challenge. "Clothed in crisis," he calls it (114). The music was frantic, the clothing meant to appall, and the consumption of alcohol and drugs seems to follow suit--deliberately aggressive. But, I think that to limit ourselves to a purely reactionary reading undermines the nihilism that drove some of the punkers, and, more over, the parody that drove others.

I think parody is going to be our next gambit. Too much of punk was too smart to ignore this bend. Perhaps we should begin with the parody of consumption...

One thought I would like to leave you with: I see scores of Benjaminian moments in here, in large measure because of the audience/artist conflation--many punk stories discuss the fans literally crossing the boundaries, and most of the videos, should you watch enough, herald the interaction between audience and artist--the audience is, more often than not, right there on stage, especially as we progress into American hardcore. But, I would suggest that punk can exist because of the collapse of the aura and the handing over of the process of artistic commodification over to the artists (the masses, and, initially at least, the working class punk). The DIY ethic is an excellent example of the ends to which Benjamin refers in his "Work of Art" essay, where the masses gain control over the technological reproduction of image and sound (the tape exchanges, the zines, and so forth). Moreover, punk quite literally exploits the collapse of the aura in the age of mechanical reproduction by bringing audience and artist together: hiring fans into the bands (Rollins into Black Flag, for instance) is but one example, more significant, I would argue, is the deliberate amateurism of early punk--quite literally, anyone could have a band. Now, the best of punk bands really weren't as amateurish as we tend to discuss them having been, for, as Hebdige reminds us, it is helpful to know the language you are going to parody. Then again, the Germs didn't get "good" in a technical sense until the last show.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that like YouTube, punk is a logical end to Benjamin's call. And, better than YouTube, it began with a political sensibility that was more significant for some punkers than the technical aspects of the music. Perhaps we'll begin there--music as parody in an age of technological reproduction.

Tune in next week.

*I tend to use "glam rock," when talking about 80s hair rock, but that's NOT what Hebdige is talking about. He means Bowie and Bolan and company--the original glam rockers.

**When researching, I found the Urban Dictionary entries for Sex Pistols. Glen Matlock's entry reads "bassist for the sex pistols, everyone thinks sid vicious was the bassist but he was basicly used cuz he was so hot." Internetz writing style, even I'm not that far gone.

**I shouldn't poke fun. After all, Axl did have an untoward penchant for U.S. of A. print biker shorts. *shudder*

Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London: Hutchison & Co, 1975.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1979.

Lydon, John. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. New York: Picador, 1994.