It now makes sense to me, Wuck, why you’ve never shared any of your religious upbringing. I feel the hurt in my body as I read it, the prison-like halls of loneliness and the bizarro, pseudo-spiritual junk you were offered, this kid’s ensuing <quote-01>shame<quote-01> as he grows up and sees what sad silliness he took into his trusting heart. I hear it in the rush of that dizzying checklist.
And I feel an intense love for that boy.
It helps me better see and understand my friend Wuck.
Like this past Saturday night, when you and I talked for an hour on the phone, I heard you speak with a sweetness to Sarah in a quick aside, whispering a few inches off the receiver that you were talking to Hoke: Yeah, ok, I’ll go talk in the bathroom, have a good night, babe, love you.
I felt like I was inches away from you, the continent between us erased.
It stuck with me, how you spoke to Sarah. Maybe because I’d just tasted those lonely church hallways with you, even for just a paragraph. I’m so glad you’re not alone in that Brooklyn apartment.
It makes me even more curious: what did you, as a kid, think about during those hours waiting in plain, empty rooms? Is that where your mind first flexed and went deep on anything that could occupy it—intellectual puzzles as numbing agents to neglect? Is that where you practiced piano and made it your own, not just a thing of performance? Is that where the idea of God became a source of discomfort, the thing Mom and Dad were adoring that left you in this interminable space, an object of adoration you couldn’t question?
The American Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote plainly about what some mystics have said more obscurely for sometime: we have a False Self and a True Self. This may seem too simplistic, dualistic, to lack nuance, yada yada. I get it. But humor <quote-02>us<quote-02> for a sec.
He says our False Self is what we’ve been working on our whole life, and that this precious construct is the biggest obstacle to prayer, why we feel so distant from God. The True Self, much deeper down—the self we too often hate, what we’ve been running from most of our lives, repressing, ignoring, abandoning—that’s the only self God knows. There’s usually some pain tethered to that True Self. So we work to build a less painful one. For me and many of us, that is not just a protective personality, but a lifelong project, ache: to be somebody (else). Our True Self feels like a lame nobody.
Some of the gang members I pastor have been helpful caricatures of this. Being, say, little snot-nosed José from the projects—the kid who cried when his dad never came home, who watched too much TV to numb the reality that mom’s boyfriend was hurting her again in the next room, whom teachers ignored in the back of the class and sometimes got bullied by the white kids at lunch and then Mexican kids on the corner—being little José was unacceptable. It’s painful to feel that powerless. He soon becomes, for instance, Sniper. Or, actually, “The Homie Sniper”: shaved head, tense jaw, part of a scary mystique around the projects. He escapes the—often quiet, invisible—pain of his true self and becomes someone with power, someone who commands attention.
I, of course, have my own version of Sniper—my own endeavors to be somebody—as well as my own little José inside that I hope no one sees, so embarrassing and a threat to my “better,” “more important” self. But when I pray with a homie, I find, the Sniper in both of us ceases to exist. There’s only our little glowing, more fragile selves. Our Josés. And I’ll feel in my chest, my scalp, my bones, a swell of affection for the kid I face, who was hiding all along, who has now stepped out. I’ve come to suspect that swell of confident loves comes from a divine source, as if God were a fully loving parent whose heart is so powerful it can pump into ours if we let it.
There is, however, a catch. Some Josés I sit with receive this love differently—or can’t at all. Those who are not too attached to their Sniper persona welcome the love that finds them beneath it. But sometimes Sniper balks at this love, takes offense. This tender approach, Sniper thinks, does not take Sniper seriously enough. Or worse, Sniper feels judged and gets defensive, doubling down on his façade and becoming <quote-03>Double Sniper<quote-03>.
“Oh, I see what’s up. You’re just judging me like everyone else then.”
I wonder if this is exactly how God must feel with all of us, a love that says, “You’re not Sniper, buddy. I don’t even know who that is. I love José.”
“Fuck you. You tryin’ to make me a little kid or something? You talking down to me now?”
“You already are that little kid, still. I fully accept him. I actually really like him. <quote-04>Why don’t you?<quote-04>”
This is how I understand what Merton is talking about in prayer. It takes years of suffering, struggle, or sitting in silent dialogue before our True Self comes out wiping its nose, small and ashamed but radiant to the one who Loves.
I think you dramatize this defensive dynamic well in one of the last chapters in Tetherball Chimes, Murph.
The Jaime (Ozzy) character, back home in North Ontario (Upland) from his emerging life as an actor in Los Angeles, feels insulted by the Jimmy (Pat) character teasing him yet again. Jaime gets pissed and throws a tantrum and marches outside, dropping the Christmas tree they’re carrying, and so Frank (Murph) follows him outside to get to the bottom of this bullshit act. Out on the sidewalk, Jaime essentially argues that, unlike his high school buddies, his new LA friends actually respect him. They ask his opinion on things. They do creative and interesting things together. But no one here understands that and it gets really fucking <quote-05>annoying<quote-05>.
The Frank character does not apologize in the least. He says, from what I remember, Fuck your LA friends and, for that matter, this new “Hollywood Jaime.” It's not you. I don’t even know that cool persona you’re building. You’re fucking Jaime Jimenez, Jaime, the guy who texts of photographs of his poop, who’s funny as hell, Charlie Chaplin in the raw, the kid who slept on our parents’ guest bedrooms in your teen years cuz shit wasn’t cool at home. We know you, fucker. Those ‘LA friends’ will be gone in a year. They don’t respect you. They’re just allies trying to build their own late night LA selves with you for a season. We’ll be at your funeral, dumbass, telling the stories we spent decades living with you. We love you, but please just drop the self pity thing and realize this is not an attack so we can get back to dragging that Christmas tree inside <quote-06>please<quote-06>?
It’s brilliant. A cuss-laden enactment of the inner work Merton encourages in monasteries.
It’s one way, at least, of reading Murph’s <quote-07>thin-fiction<quote-07> portraits of all of us in the group: the tragedy of watching his childhood friends trying to become somebody out in the world, the comedy of how we eventually wind back around to our core—which in tetherball is a win. The ball flying off the rope—truly “going somewhere”—is a total <quote-08>loss<quote-08>.
Proust: “Our true self, which may sometimes have seemed to be long dead, but never was entirely, is re-awoken and re-animated when it receives the heavenly food that is brought to it.”
I wonder if this writing about our childhood memories, this debate about nostalgia, is really about how we receive—or resist—that heavenly food.