The Organized Disorder of the Great Zingy-Zangy

A bunch of years ago, when I was twenty, I left the church I’d grown up in, where I’d been trained to think of God as God-the-Father: a literal, corporeal, male parent. I couldn’t reconcile that mythic system with the complexity of the rest of the world. So I bowed out, and I started rebuilding my thoughts about religion from scratch. Two ideas had strength for me. The first was, Follow your bliss because no one’s going to do it for you (thank you, Joe Campbell). The second was, You’re always allowed to change your mind.

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But what was that supposed to mean — follow your bliss? I wasn’t sure what my bliss was, much less how to follow it. I decided to substitute a different word: fascination. I knew what it meant to feel the fizz of interest, and to attend closely to the people-places-parties that elicited that electricity, so I went with that.

Then I encountered complexity theory, a branch of science that studies how complicated, increasingly ordered systems emerge in the universe. These phenomena seem to thumb their collective nose at the second law of thermodynamics, which states that disorder, or entropy, always increases. Complexity theory describes the magic that happens at the edges of order and disorder, when organization gets a little chaotic, and chaos gets a little organized, and all of a sudden newness bursts forth: new planets, species, organisms, art. In his book Reinventing the Sacred, the complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman writes that “a wondrous radical creativity without a supernatural Creator” is an attribute of the universe. “God,” he says, “is our chosen name for the ceaseless creativity in the natural universe, biosphere, and human cultures.”

When I read that, my whole body seemed to ring. I rose up off the sofa, book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. The tea began flying out of the mug, but time slowed down so much that I was able to circle the cup around the moving liquid and gather it back, still thrilling to this idea: creativity inheres in the universe. Not just in Mozart, not just in Shakespeare. In the universe, meaning everything, meaning all of us. God is that which creates, whenever creation occurs.

Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of wisdom, inspiration, and office supplies
Saraswati, Hindu goddess of wisdom, inspiration, and office supplies
But God isn’t just a name for creativity. God is an image of it, too. Gods and goddesses give metaphorical form to particular inflections of the universe’s creativity. Mythic narratives illustrate these great powers at play — how they collide, contend, collaborate, commingle. For instance, the edges of order and disorder sounds like an encounter of, say, Apollo’s logic and the wildness of Dionysus, a union which Nietzsche says gave rise to Greek tragedy. Or, order could be the controlled, virginal wisdom of Athena; disorder the passion and sensuality of Aphrodite. That word, passion, sounds a lot like bliss, like fascination. When forces like those meet, newness happens, on the scale of galaxies, cells, and the individual psyche.

I was thinking about all this, and I asked my bbf (beloved boyfriend) what he thought God was. Without missing a beat, Michael said, “The zingy-zangy around everything.” See why I love him so much? He gets it.

And doesn’t “zingy-zangy” sound like bliss, like the sizzle and spark of fascination, like the fire and fuel of passion? Following bliss is the same as following the zingy-zangy, which is God, which means your bliss is God is fascination is passion is the creativity which gives rise to the emergence of new complexity.

The times I’ve experienced the zingy-zangy most profoundly have had a bodily sensation of vastness and openness, with feelings of awe, wonder, and love that extend past all horizons in all directions. These moments happen at the edges of order and disorder, in psychological places outside judgments of good and bad, right and wrong — places I experience as amazing. Or heartbreaking. Or beautiful. Places defined by intensity.

artificial-neuronA felt sense of vast possibility pulses in the infinite space at the invisible edge, outside and all around the ordered systems of our lives. Our complex material bodies and complex, seemingly immaterial consciousness cooperate in even more complex ways that still elude understanding. Who knows what could happen when our ordered selves encounter the disorder of death? Complexity theory suggests that it could be something new, meaning we can’t predict it and it could be different for everyone. It could feel like what religions sometimes refer to as heaven.

Last month my graduate coursework ended, a three-year marathon with no breaks between quarters. The day after my last class, I woke up late and lay in bed for an hour, feeling leaden and empty, drained of emotion and motivation. I hovered at the edge of the ordered system of the previous three years, and the disorder of the unstructured future. Then ideas about this blog post started rolling around in my mind like billiard balls. Two of them connected with a satisfying thwack, and I felt the first stirrings of vitality return, a small spring of interest, energy, enthusiasm — a word whose root means “God within,” which therefore also means bliss – fascination – creativity – passion. The great zingy-zangy.

Another phenomenon that emerges in this zingy-zangy universe is agency. In other words, you get to choose how to engage with the world, with bliss, with creativity, with the same zingy-zangy that gave rise to agency in the first place. And you’re always allowed to change your mind.

As expressions of the zingy-zangy — children of it, so to speak — we are invited to play with it. All it takes is the merest time-out, a tiny break in the hypnosis of thought, a sliver of silence to listen for tingle, to feel for the fizz, to savor the sparkle that infuses your being.

Shh… there it is. Do you feel it? Open to it. Sink into it. Let it have you. Now smile. Feel the shimmer strengthen? Feel it twinkle? That’s your bliss. That’s creativity. It’s the great zingy-zangy smiling back.

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Old Stories, News Stories

Once upon a time, King Pentheus of the Greek city of Thebes worked himself into a froth, because a new god named Dionysus had called the city’s women into the hills for drinking, dancing, and love-making. Pentheus could not abide this, especially the female revelers.

Dionysos © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Dionysos © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

“When women get to celebrate with gleaming wine,” he fumed, “there’s a ritual that’s gone rotten.” He jailed all the truant wives he could find, swore to hunt down the others, to “capture them in iron traps,” then to sell them or enslave them himself. But first he felt oddly compelled to find a stranger who had arrived in town, a man with flowing, perfumed, golden curls and “rosy, wine-flushed cheeks.”

The thought of this effeminate stranger filled Pentheus with rage. He had to find him, would find him, did find him. He handcuffed and interrogated the stranger, then, shaken by the stranger’s uncanny replies and otherworldly gaze, threw him in the palace jail. But the stranger was Dionysus in disguise. And Dionysus is the life force personified, along with all his women — his maenad companions. Pentheus, in his fury, forcibly suppressed the life force. He tried to contain, control, and silence that elemental power.

This story is 2400 years old, written by Euripides in a play called The Bacchae, but Pentheus still stalks among us. He goes by different names these days, but lately his face has been all over the news:

  • On June 2, Judge Aaron Persky and a rapist named Brock Turner colluded in a Penthean attempt to silence a woman known as Emily Doe who had indulged in Dionysian drink and dancing. A jury convicted Turner on three felony accounts for assaulting Emily while she was unconscious — he seized control over her helpless body — but the judge sentenced Turner to only six months in jail.
  • On June 10, Kevin James Loibl equipped himself with two handguns, a hunting knife, and two extra magazines of ammunition to kill the unarmed, twenty-two year-old singer Christina Grimmie. Grimmie’s voice sounded like Burgundy wine before Loibl silenced her.
  • On June 12, Omar Mateen, armed with an assault rifle and a handgun, slaughtered 49 people at the LGBTQ nightclub Pulse, which is basically a temple to Dionysus. Mateen stilled those dancing bodies.
  • On June 16, Thomas Mair shot and stabbed to death Jo Cox, a 41-year-old, unarmed British MP who had stepped out into the world, into the halls of Parliament, where she wore a bright red maenad dress and raised her voice in support of refugees and of Britain remaining in the EU.

Pentheus Being Torn by Maenads, By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pentheus Being Torn by Maenads, By WolfgangRieger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
See how easy it is to put these events into a nice, neat list? As though each crime were just-the-facts-ma’am, and not a nexus of collective heartbreak radiating out from the scenes of violence. After the news about Jo Cox, I reached a point of numbness, right in the center of my chest. I couldn’t process more pain, I couldn’t feel, not so soon on the heels of Pulse. So much brutality, targeted at so many beautiful, defenseless people. These victims defied repressive rules that dictate proper behavior, so Pentheus attacked them. He controlled their aliveness by ending it.

The life force will not stand for this. The life force demands to live. It demands connection, expression, release. Back in Thebes, Dionysus wasn’t in prison for five minutes before an earthquake shook the palace down and lightning struck, burning all the timbers. Dionysus strode out untouched, stepping easily over the rubble and through the smoke, summoning the women back to his side.

The spirit of Dionysus also broke out of jail when Emily Doe released her victim statement from the trial. Her life force burst free in her evocative words, and America roared in outrage. Dionysus escaped when tributes to Christina Grimmie flooded the internet, and her voice reached millions who might not otherwise have heard her. Dionysus roared after the tragedy at Pulse, when Democrats in the Senate lifted their voices in a 14-hour filibuster and then those in House staged an overnight sit-in, demanding sanity in gun regulations.

Dionysus shook the UK after Jo Cox’s murder, too. But Pentheus marched back, goose-stepping across Britain and bellowing lies about independence and refugees. Really he wanted independence from refugees, freedom from having to help people in need. Pentheus scorns interdependence. He got his way, for now. Britain voted for rigid borders, for going it alone, for severing a life-giving connection.

In the story, Pentheus thinks that the life force he wants to kill is outside himself, outside his whole city. In reality, Dionysus is within the city walls, within the palace, within Pentheus himself, even though Pentheus savagely represses his own capacity for connection and expression. He is terrified of and disconnected from his own life force. His aggression is his self-hatred. And sure enough, his violence boomerangs right back home.

Bacchus, by Hendrick Goltzius, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Bacchus, by Hendrick Goltzius, Metropolitan Museum of Art

After Dionysus left the jail, he lured the king to the forest to spy on the women’s revels. The women ripped Pentheus limb from limb, then they tore his limbs to shreds. He got his wish for disconnection. The maenads disconnected him, part by part by part.

It’s a chilling end to a chilling tale, like the headline news this month. Pentheus is what happens when anyone acts out their fear, fury, frustration. Dionysus, on the other hand, stands ready to assist with the creative expression of those big feelings, or to help come up with innovative ideas for changing the situation. Emily, Christina, everyone at Pulse, and Jo all demonstrate how to express and address feelings, rather than act them out.

Dionysus is the life force personified. The life force creates. Pentheus is fear. Fear blocks, stops, controls, contains. As surely as Dionysus lives within us all, so does the tyrant king. May the maenads do their grisly work every time he rises.

 

“But there are neither maps nor exercises…”

“But there are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles….
The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm.”

— Federico Garcia Lorca, “Play and Theory of the Duende”

48 Days Without Facebook

February 11: Day 0

Tonight Stephanie and I were moaning about how busy the next month and a half will be, and as we talked, we asked the tarot cards what they thought of the busy schedules. I was particularly keen to get their opinion on a new writing project I wanted to start even though I had no idea where to find the time. The cards cleared their collective throat, then said:

From the Awakening Aeon Tarot Deck, by Marcia O'Hara, AwakeningAeonTarot.com
From the Awakening Aeon Tarot Deck, by Marcia O'Hara, AwakeningAeon.com
Talk about loud and clear! Fortune muses, “Yeah, this could be cool.” Death chimes in, “But something’s got to give, you have to let something go if you’re going to make room for a new project. You’ve got to shed the outworn skin in order to grow.” The Oracle Within: “Fill pages, fill pages, fill pages. See how I’m a full page? Do like that.” Ok. Right. Yes. I get it. Thank you, cards!

So something had to give. I immediately thought of Facebook, and the time I spend every day scrolling through that endless distraction. I thought of the new journal I bought for the project. A scheme formed all at once: I’ll give up Facebook for 40 days, and in the first hour of each of those days, I’ll freewrite for the project in the new journal. After 40 days of writing, or a full journal, whichever comes first, I’ll go back to Facebook. Lent started this week anyway, right? The project begins sort of around Lent, and ends sort of around Easter.

February 12: Day 1

This morning, chatting with Adrianna, I mentioned that today is my first day of a Facebook fast. She said, “Mm-hmm… wait, what?? Did you say Facebook fast? Oh my God, you just blew my mind!” I told her I’d woken up in the middle of the night and reached for my phone before remembering. She gasped and said, “What did you do??”

“I put the phone back down.”

“And then what??”

“I just lay there.”

She gave another gasp, shuddery and shivery, like at the end of a spooky story.

February 13: Day 2

Impulse: Reach for the phone.
Response: Pull your hand back.

February 14: Day 3

Wahh! I feel lost, lonely, cut off — but cut off from what? From voyeuristic eavesdropping, from the desperate hope for a puppy video.

It’s like I hauled myself up out of a river — maybe the River of Time — exhausted, soaking wet, panting in a heap on the bank. And isn’t time one of Facebook’s main metaphors? Facebook generates a time-line for each “user”– meaning each addict, each of us junkies. A Facebook addiction feeds a larger addiction to the conceit of time. And I do mean “feeds.” Facebook provides everyone their very own feed — but what’s the food? Distraction, diversion, outrage. Am I not calling this a Facebook fast?

But still, wah!

February 15: Day 4

Facebook who? It’s fading. Feels less like a fast and more like waking up.

February 16: Day 5

When I pick up my phone to call or text someone, my thumb still feels the muscle-impulse to press the Facebook icon. I only feel cut off anymore when other people in the room pore over their phones and I sit there, twiddling my idle thumbs and watching everyone else having their out-of-body experiences.

Narcissus by @dancretu
Narcissus by @dancretu
Because that’s what it does: it pulls your life energy out of your body through your eyeballs and holds it hostage in the 2-D world of The Screen. There’s a shrinking of awareness, a confining, a narrowing of the horizon down to the size of the responses made possible by whatever the interface allows — Like, Share, Type Something Here.

Facebook is a modern-day deity, a member of the tyrannical pantheon of social media gods and goddesses. Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, all the billions of dating sites, they all feed (that word again) off the attention of their acolytes. They reward that attention by bestowing attention — the more active you are, the more people see your activity. The currency of the exchange is attention. If that’s what we value, ok, that’s what we value. Is that what we value?

Like all gods and tyrants, the media deities are best approached with alert awareness. They misbehave when their privileges go unchecked.

Like all gods and tyrants, they can be deposed.

March 5: Day 23

There’s more space. The horizon extends further, in every one of those three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. Is Facebook a horizon blocker? It’s certainly a drain. It siphons energy I could use for other purposes.

Instead of looking at Facebook in the middle of the night when I wake up, I’ve started texting myself thoughts, notes, ideas. In the morning I read them and think, “Where on earth did that come from?”

March 29: Day 47

One more day to go. Three empty pages left in the journal. They will fill tomorrow morning. I didn’t write every day, but as of tomorrow, I’ll have written for 40 of the last 48 days. Not that the project is done. It’s a journal full of raw material. Soon it will be time to find out what it would like to become next.

March 30: Day 48

I broke the fast today. Facebook Breakfast, I guess. I knew I had to do it, in order to post an announcement for the Luna Review, but I kept putting it off. In the morning, I thought, “I’ll wait until the afternoon.” After lunch, I thought, “Just a few more minutes.” Finally, in mid-afternoon, I opened a tab on my browser. I typed an f. Autofill took care of the rest of the URL. I posted the announcement I needed to, looked around for maybe five minutes, and closed the tab. It felt oddly boring after all this time. Anticlimactic.

March 31

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night, too sleepy to get up but too awake to sleep. I picked up my phone. 3:17 AM. I glanced at email then thought, “Hey, I’m allowed to look at Facebook again.” My thumb was already moving toward the icon as the idea rolled around, but then I stopped. All at once, all in a rush, I realized what had really changed in the last month and a half.

In the past, unwelcome visitors like anxiety and hypochondria had often haunted my middle-of-the-night wake-ups. But since the Facebook fast, my nights had become quieter, more spacious, more peaceful. They had become the place where I text myself ideas whispered by the sparkling dark, the stillness where I can watch Michael, my bbf (beloved boyfriend), sleeping in the dim light like an archangel at rest. With my thumb hovering over the Facebook icon, I knew I was about to give up that magic. I was about to give my nights back to the low-level madness of the feed. I set the phone down.

The dark blue body of the Egyptian goddess Nut (pronounced noot) arches over the world, feet on one side of the horizon and hands on the other. Her skin is covered with stars. Then there are the Norse goddess Nott and the Greek goddess Nyx, both of whose names mean “night.” Both dress in black, both ride across the starry night sky, drawn in a black chariot or on the back of a magnificent black horse. To imagine any of them is to imagine night as Night, a being whose quiet, dark company can refresh and restore. They dilate the pupils, widening the eyes the better to admit wonder, starlight, and shadows.

Picture-11Night goddesses don’t ask for much, but they do insist on visiting. Actually, we visit them, every evening when our zip code rolls away from the sun and out to face the reaches of space. Night holds the dark half of the planet in the palms of Her cupped hands, at all times. She’s always there as we move into, through, and out of Her domain. When in Night, we’re in all the way, and Night is all the way in us. It’s Night outside, Night in the kitchen, Night in the bedroom. Night within blood vessels, in the synapses between neurons, inside every cell membrane in all of our bodies.

Impulse: Reach for the phone.
Response: Pull your hand back.
Then What: Bask. Relax.