18 July 2009

Story of Enlightenment

Deb and I went, last night, to a monthly dinner conversation organized by a few Saint Gregory's folk, for other such folk living here in the city. There are other similar monthly dinners in the east bay and, I think, Marin. We've never been. My excuse is that I never feel like I have anything smart to say extemporaneously. And I'm antisocial. I haven't fully internalized that doing one's theological musing in communion with other church folk is the best way to dissipate the mists of error.

Amber asked us to go, to keep Colin and her company, in case the whole thing turned out to otherwise be completely socially awkward and unpleasant. The four of us pushed their attendance to a new record, apparently. It wasn't awkward or unpleasant. We made our usual stuffed dates appetizer, with cheese and dates leftover from our recent camping trip, during which it was too Godforsakenly hot to eat cheese and dates. Last night, they went quick.

Every month, there's a group conversation revolving around a pre-selected word. This month the word was Illumination. There were some photographers in attendance, and a theatrical lighting designer conveniently on hand to describe their relationships to light.

A lot of the talk turned, conversely, to cherishing darkness, to the difficulty of finding spaces unpolluted with artificial light; whereupon one woman commented that, at her home in Point Reyes, the isolation, mysterious noises, and threat of wildfire, combined to make the darkness of the woods frightening for her.

One guy brought up Don Cupitt's ideas about Solar Ethics, described as "being giving, always giving, always burning outward".

The woman who was afraid of the dark had, at some point in her life, had some sort of 'ecstatic vision' of the 'light of Jesus', and we all philosophized about what that 'light' was supposed to mean, exactly, and how it manifests itself, so to speak, in our... hearts? lives? I posited that it was a revolutionary understanding of the human potentiality to be divine. Or words to that effect.

Thinking about 'illumination' before the meeting, I'd considered light bulbs turning on in one's head, and how I tend to characterize that phenomenon as coming from two ideas bumping into one another outside of context, or thereby creating a new context, and altering my understanding of something. I was probably just looking for a way to work the new book I've started reading (Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton), into the conversation, which seems, only a couple dozen pages in, to be full of the sort of outrageous juxtapositions that trigger that sort of thing. Nonetheless, I had a little taste of the 'bumping ideas' experience last night: one of the photographers was saying something or other about 'sin', and I thought about how, for a number of years now, probably as a result of the sorts of things SGN preachers say, I immediately bounce whatever is being said about sin, against the notion that it is a "state of separation"--nothing evil, or wrong, or bad, in deed; but just whatever results from one's (presumably undesirable) state of separation from God. Later in the night, Amber made an almost offhand remark on another topic, that 'holy' means "that which is set apart". I can't say this has lit any light bulbs for me yet, but it does have me thinking about how to contextualize things--which are together, which are out on their own. So... sin describes our being cloven from whatever is "holy"... yet there's some kind of... thing, a spark, the 'light of Jesus', our, uh... holiness, or potential for holiness, sequestered somehow within... I guess it's no coincidence that "holy" sounds a lot like "whole". I imagine reconciling action and intention, or all the different motivations in myself, might also reconcile me with the rest of the universe in some way. I just read, in Eagleton, that God is no more to be reckoned in with the things of the universe, than "my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects". I s'pose he's talking about something else entirely, and I'm, as usual, mixing things up that aren't intended to be. But still--I imagine there are ways of seeing and/or being that make those things make sense together... and so on...

At any rate, neither Deb nor I contributed much to last night's conversation. It was a nice group of folk to have dinner with and listen to, and we'd prob'ly do it again, as long as they don't mind us not saying anything.

Here's a story that crossed my mind at dinner, but which I didn't push myself to share, thinking, maybe, it doesn't burn fiercely enough with insight, to advance the conversation:

Deb and I live on Capp St., between 18th and 19th Streets, a neighborhood that never gets anywhere near as dark as Point Reyes (except perhaps socio/econo/psychopathologically--the only sort of fire that keeps us awake at night, on rare occasion, sprays from a handgun, not nearly so much frightening, as just extremely loud--although frightening, too).

A few years ago, our landlord and some of our neighbors lobbied to have trees planted along our side of the block. They're Indian laurels, I'm told. It may be due to our landlord having been such a vocal lobbyist himself, that we have three of them in front of our cottage, greening my view onto Capp. They have pretty, pink flowers in the spring, and a very dense foliage that makes for comfortable plots of shade beneath a plant that might never really grow quite so large as to fit the mental picture of a "shade tree". We frequently have neighbors availing themselves of this shade on a warm, sunny Mission afternoon, with a refreshing can of lager or a hearty lungful of cracksmoke.

Of course, it needn't be sunny: the trees shield one equally well, at night, from the harsh glare of the area's few streetlamps, the nearest one being across the street and a few doors up the block. It never shone over here much anyway--the only reason I'm aware of it is because, for the first few years I lived here, it sported someone's hand-made streetsign, "La Calle de Amargura: the bitterness street". Eventually, I suppose, a bulb needed changing, and the sign came down; or, one could argue, the character of the street has taken a brighter turn: back then, Capp's reputation was built on the desperate, bedraggled women selling themselves on its corners, for drug money. More recent police activity has shuffled that trade a few blocks to the east, and Capp itself has become considerably more quiet at night, as a result.

But anyway, we've got this shady little comfort zone in front of our tiny house, a not-so-tidy rest area for some of our street's less roofed denizens. Their respite here is frequently augmented by the surreptitious addition of furniture, disposed, presumably, from one of the homes on either side of us, who have already used all their free "big trash pick-up" days. Nearly every week, there's another old couch, or recliner, or a dresser, or some other detritus, out there on the street, in front of our house. I don't know why it's not in front of someone else's house. The stuff is not ours--except, of course, when it is: I've donated the odd appliance, now and again, to the neighborhood thrift; but only in front of my own living space. So, in case I'm not spelling this out clearly enough: it irks me that people dump their furniture on the sidewalk, mere inches, no more than a wall's width, from my bedroom, and that it then becomes... someone else's living room.

If I interrogate myself at all about why I have a problem with this, I realize that anyone, in any apartment building, is a wall's width from someone else's living room. Of course, they don't have to walk through their neighbor's living room to get to their own... Yeah, I dunno. I could go back and forth all over this. If it were really just people sleeping outside my window? That wouldn't bug me. In fact, I can honestly say, I'm glad they're shaded from the streetlights. I've allowed people to live in my old broken down car, for comfort's sake, so long as they were willing to help me move it across the street each week to spare myself the street cleaning citations. It's really not the sidewalk living room behaviour--or, really, to an extent, bedroom behaviour--that grieves me about this. It's, first of all, people dumping their used furniture in front of our place. And then--no, wait, this is first of all, or maybe co-first of all--the occasional pow-wows of vociferous youngsters, stopping in the shadows for shadowy activities at 2am, regardless of the furniture. We don't, honestly, hear guns much, but we hear them enough that I'm not inclined to chase noisy kids off my 'lawn' at 2am!

So, I'm not sure quite what to do, but I'm thinking, here's the answer: illumination! Last week, I picked up a $10 light-sensor activated floodlight at Costco, and I think I'm gonna install it, under the eave, just beyond the front gate, where it'll shine straight down onto the patch of sidewalk in front of the house--just as soon as I'm done writing this. That I haven't done so before now, is due to a bunch of my own hemming and hawing about quality of life issues, as it relates to light. I feel a little like I'm robbing those who have the least, of some cherished, free darkness, come bedtime; but, I admit, I'm concerned primarily with my own quality of life: the street sleepers can find more shadows elsewhere, but is the floodlight on the sidewalk also going to shine through our shutters into the bedroom? And, is the loss of this shadowy hideaway going to engender retribution from the shadow people? Will there be rocks thrown?

Ultimately, the only way to find out is to do it, is to just... shed some light on the matter.

On what feels like almost another topic entirely: I was thinking as we were talking about 'solar ethics' last night, of these films made by a couple of UK artists, working locally, who call themselves Semiconductor Films: Black Rain and Brilliant Noise. These films are made with "raw scientific satellite data which has not yet been cleaned and processed for public consumption", as the description puts it. Black Rain is gleaned from satellite footage of "solar wind and coronal mass ejections heading towards earth", and Brilliant Noise is taken from footage shot looking directly at the sun from different angles. The soundtrack is made by digitally sampling the brightness of each frame, i.e., the light is composing the sound. I recommend you watch them in the order I've listed, because, while Black Rain is stunningly beautiful, Brilliant Noise is literally a visit to another world, where nothing can be quite as it seems, it's just so beyond comprehension! I mean, what looks, at times, volcanic... it's all light, energy, or gas; nothing's solid! The rules--the 'solar ethics'--I... can't even begin to contemplate. The scale is unimaginable. It's gobsmacking. Otherworldly. To get all metaphorical on you, if I may, "God's love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down"*. How's that for your light of Jesus?! The rules must definitely be different, under that much enlightenment.

*Eagleton, Reason, Faith and Revolution, p.22 (this book was, by the way, drawn from a series of lectures, available streaming online).

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