The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a compendium of invented words written by John Koenig. Each original definition aims to fill a hole in the language—to give a name to emotions we all might experience but don’t yet have a word for.
I love this.
This week, I found the website of my father's church. It's a simple website for a simple building off of US-62 where it almost shares a dirt parking lot with Route 66 gas station. It's covered with a dark gray tin siding and hangs a simple red sign pointing anyone close enough to Joshua 14:12; which to be honest, makes no goddamned sense.
I've been watching a lot of Big Love lately. It's an interesting series, no doubt fictionalized to a large degree, but I resonate with it despite the fiction. I resonate with it because I grew up in very fundamentalist Christian family. There was speaking in tongues and prophecy and Bible quizzing. Not so different than Mormons or Muslims or Catholics. I remember being surrounded by people who claimed to hear from God. The Holy Spirit, the audible voice of God, a revelation, a testimony. The devil was always ready to devour us. Hell was just a mistake away. The rapture was imminent.
I grew up in a world of fear. My father and stepmother were (and are) religiously fervent. My mother wasn't. She smoked and drank and went out, sometimes leaving us with a babysitter on the weekends she had us. We were allowed to watch movies with language and sex. But there was always hell to pay when Dad picked us up again. We were drilled about what we watched, what we did. They would then watch the movies we admitted to so they could truly understand how much we had transgressed. This would cause more tension and we learned to lie. It became a war between the mother we missed and the father we feared as much as we feared God.
I feel like a fraud when I go home. Not because I no longer believe, but because I can't really talk to them about it. We don't talk about church and I won't admit that I've found a sermon from my father on his church's website. That when I listen to it, I hold my head in disbelief. Not because I'm embarrassed. But because the gap between us is so large that we can only talk about work and the weather and my upcoming travel trips. The possibility of them coming to visit California is so infinitesimally small. So is the possibility of talking over something meaningful without yelling and gnashing of teeth.
I wish that I could drink a beer with him. Maybe show him how to smoke a cigar. That I could speak in my normal vernacular without constantly filtering my speech. That I could admit to him my unbelief without worrying if it's going to send him into 40 days of fasting and prayer.
We want so many things from family. Usually impossible things.
My father is getting older. He's 58, but looks older. I keep thinking about the end. And when I think about the end, my first thought is how I'll be hopeless without him. And then my second thought is Aaron Freeman's advice for planning a funeral.
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.
This is a simple prayer for my father. For me. I write it down with electrons and light and pixels. And if there is a God that exists beyond my father's petty religion and my haughty unbelief, I hope that this God sees my words and hears my heart and answers my prayer.
And we all said.
We were given amnesia
and it was called a gift.
We were born, helpless and
screaming, only to crawl
then and shit then and
struggle then to find a reason
for all of it. We were given
gods that refuse to talk,
refuse to even whisper
on the peak of the mountain
of our pilgrimage. We asked
why, why only silence and we
were given the gift of blasphemy.
We were given examples, Job and
Jesus and Paul and Hitchens
and Hemmingway. Don't you get it?
I ask the homeless woman who rides
the bus next to me. She sits
wide-eyed and scared. She believes
me to be crazy, having been given
the gift of faith. She moves seats
while I speak of how we were given hope.
How we were given love. How we were
given rabies and plague and cancer.
I sit on the bus of my Gathsemene
with a lap full of gifts, mumbling
like Moses, who saw the burning bush
of heat stroke. And I AM spoke
and I AM commanded and I AM
turned shepherd's staffs into snakes.
And then Pharoah was given the gift
of a hardened heart and I was given
the gift of despair, which is
continuous and wrought with whiskey
and sounds like a song I sing to myself.
But it isn’t. I sing it to you.
These are my Psalms. My prayers.
For Michael Burns