Upper Rooms and Ambivalence

I’ve really only begun my walk out on the gangplank of my life. It’s hard to share with friends hungry for their own solutions because in the last year, I’ve sat in the chairs of six different counselors and therapists, count four licensed therapists as good friends and I hang out with a tribe of mental-health Ninja’s in Seattle every six weeks. There are some pretty tough-ass guards locking up my stuff deep inside, so my response has been to enlist my own army to attack my well-laid defenses.

Slowly, deliberately, they’ve set forth with redemptive kindness. The soul harbors trauma and doesn’t let go very readily. Pain is the symptom of something larger. A broken arm hurts. The bone must be set. That hurts incredibly. Advil or Vicodin only address the pain; they don’t address the cause.

As I step back and ponder this, the men and women who are truly helping me with my limp aren’t using gangplank language. Yes, there are warlike guards at my door. Those guards are being savaged with kindness.

Some examples…

I’ve had presented back to me key elements of my story in a rearranged fashion. One side illuminates another, a detail alongside another highlights a much larger meaning. What’s beautiful is these bound paradoxes can sometimes be all of 8 to 10 words long. There it sits, formed out of my own language: my anger and loss slow-cooked together in a toxic soup, contained in a potter’s bowl of my own creation, with my hands firmly fixed on the sides as I raise it to my lips to gulp with great thirst as I refuse to not take another drink from the very elixir I just called poison.

Another fella’ whose chair I’ve sat in operates with a little less subtlety. This linebacker of a man,grabbed me by the shoulders and  put it bluntly: “DAMMIT BEN, please stop kicking ya’ own ASS!”

Another man needs to only use his eyes for me to see my own revelation, and with it, things begin to melt.

PianoKeysOur world applauds binary solutions. If everything could just be as black and white as piano keys. Can’t life just be one or the other? But it’s not. We call it chaos because life, history and especially memory, is terribly complex. For me, in the midst of complexity, it’s easy to get ambivalent. Ambivalence is defined as “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone”.  Because I’m getting all mixed up, because my neocortical brain can’t handle it, because I can’t distill it to actionable, binary data, I retreat to indifference, or “lack of interest, concern, or sympathy”. Ultimately, indifference reprioritizes, and the critical can be relegated to “unimportance”. Something can be so obviously wrong in my story, and I choose to sweep it under the rug. But put such story details alongside another detail, or have me sit, and pause, and hold that statement out in a naked echo… and I can begin to digest. And transform.

Indifference is horrible. It’s dissociative. It’s inaccessible. It’s a commitment to isolation.  I’m spending a lot of time in Belltown just north of downtown Seattle, so it seems to right to quote Eddie Vedder,

i will hold the candle till it burns up my arm
i’ll keep takin’ punches until their will grows tired
i will stare the sun down until my eyes go blind
hey i won’t change direction, and i won’t change my mind
how much difference does it make
how much difference does it make..
how much difference…
i’ll swallow poison, until i grow immune
i will scream my lungs out till it fills this room
how much difference
how much difference
how much difference does it make
how much difference does it make…

Indifference utilizes ambivalence. Stuck in ambivalence, indifference encourages the host (me) to return to the needle. It tells me “yeah, this is awful and you treat yourself with such shame. But you trust this cup of poison. You trust this disaster so you keep drinking it. Hell, you enjoy drinking it. So go on. Keep at it.”

It’s easy to curse ambivalence. It’s hard to bless it. It’s harder to be kind to a self-stated bind. But oh, it’s so good when it happens. Because ambivalence is where the life is.

Ambivalence is the dignity and THE depravity HELD TOGETHER in one hand.

When ambivalence is named, the perpetuation of contradiction all of a sudden faces a threat. The door is identified. It doesn’t just come blowing down. Those commanders of indifference are highly trained. But now, with it named, seen and held, something can begin to happen.

I need to share this image. Because it’s a lovely artistic contradiction, and it has sprung from the heart of a very good man. And it’s a reflection of my family’s good and holy season.

There is just a little bit going on here…

This is an 8′ wide canvas that my friend Tim Thornton painted and presented at his first art show. An image of the painting was in the email inviting me to the event. When I walked up before the canvas, I gasped out loud. My knees actually shook beneath me. I hung out with another friend in front of it for 20 minutes. I couldn’t leave. We ruminated about what was going on in the painting, trading ideas. I’m going to stick with my interpretation:

What I see, is a looming assault of great kindness. The trees in the foreground appear charred, like the remains of Douglas Fir, my visage every day as I drive home and look at the remains of the Mountain Shadows Burn Scar.

Ashes, a silhouette of former times.

I see a mighty, fantastic, glorious thunderhead swelling up over the ridge, the kind I’m used to seeing when I’m in a place of the heart, like the mountains or with my flyrod in hand on the Arkansas or San Miguel.

Mighty power coming to the thirsty land.

And around this sunset-hued thunderhead, is the complexity of my family’s shared life, the part Tim called “Upper Rooms”. There they are. Some are perfect. Some are colorful. Some are plain. Some are misshapen. Some are bleeding. Some are radiant.

All that complexity. Caught up among ashen death, and beautiful new life.

Below that is our new mantle. Tim did that, too, installed last weekend. This is what the piece of $50 wood looked like before Tim’s craftsmanship:

IMG_1860I’m still kinda surprised that I could see the dignity within the wood. Tim even expressed his doubts after he first looked at it. That in it’s own right is a funny story. I sold Tim his house, but when I delivered the piece of wood, I delivered it to his neighbor’s house two doors down and left it in their sideyard. About ten days later, I got this series of voicemails on my phone from Tim. “Hey Ben, just wondering where you put that piece of wood… Hey Ben, it’s Tim, wondering by any chance, did you put that wood in someone else’s yard?” When I finally got a hold of him, Tim had already gone door to door to find the lost wood and, Celt that he is, was walking home with the caber on his shoulder back down the street when he took my call. Dignity and Depravity, indeed. It’s a prodigal log that now anchors the hopes of our family’s most frequented room. It’s where we make fire.

“Upper Rooms” levitates above this newly turned piece of wood, and upon that, hang the three stockings of my children, which Amy has attached with the hangers spelling out J-O-Y.

JoyIndifference be damned.



One response to “Upper Rooms and Ambivalence

  1. Pingback: Reclaimed Mantle | Tim F. Thornton

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