Autobiography 2: To the Waterfowl at Capitol Lake

Steve Bakker

15 November 2014

Dear waterfowl,


My life began at conception. In September or October of 1981, God the Father manifested my soul in the moment that a soulless sperm cell from my father combined with a soulless egg from my mother inside of my mother’s body. The act enjoining those two soulless semi-microorganisms might have been a soulful encounter for my parents; this much is a mystery to me. In her vague, confident sex talks to my sister and I when we were children, my mother told us sex was a spiritual union that God designed for married people. Secular people made it dirty outside of those bonds. My sister and I probably first heard about sex through the effluvia of secular media chatter. There, and from classmates at the Christian schools we attended. Mom added that before she was late into her teen years, no one had told her sex existed. I wonder now, what did her body tell her before anyone else did, as it channeled its way out of her childhood?

I hated my body for what I wanted, and some of the time I still do. Asking God’s forgiveness and deliverance for what I taught myself to do to myself—and what and who I imagined, and what I watched in scrambled Pay-Per-View cable signals late at night—was a profound spiritual crisis for me. Some of the most striking experiences I recall in my childhood and adolescence were the times I collapsed into a wailing or whimpering heap in the midst of nuclear family war or disappointment at myself for returning to pornography. I would ask God to console me or to lead me away from my gravest sin, and only silence answered—an aching hollow situated in my torso with hot, flaking edges.

I had to get more comfortable in my body after I decidedly left behind my people’s God’s offer for eternal deliverance from Hell. For a long time, the only seemingly realistic, alternative worldview was that of a groundless material universe manifested from soulless, random chance. During that period, I read that when Stanley Kubrick was asked if he thought the universe was fundamentally benevolent or cruel, he responded that it was fundamentally indifferent. I wrestled with variations on this world view and wondered how indifference and soullessness could not be horrific. As years passed I began to wonder, isn’t even indifference a personal quality? And as the source of all things, doesn’t “random chance,” in any sense of a sense, still necessitate our personal, conscious understanding as much as divine intention would? Eventually, I came to enjoy not answering these questions.

One event that shaped my current sense of body as self was reading a book while continuing my spiritual investigations, years after all but abandoning Christianity. It’s hard to say how striking or significant it was among a chain of other spiritual illuminations from mentors, teachers, friends, works of art, encounters with the world, and recorded words. This chain entailed a Christian therapist I saw who looked like a hippie Santa Claus. He told me he respected the worldviews of his Buddhist and atheist friends. When he shared with me his personal Christology, he framed Jesus’ sacrifice in terms of an ultimate act of nonviolence. This struck a chord already plucked by my new college friends who had a passion for learning about nonviolence as a philosophy and form of loving, transformative conflict. Most of my friends were still Christians, and I still wanted to embody my evolving understanding of Jesus. I also wanted to out-Christian the complacent community of Christian people who raised me, benefactors of the sort political dominion my evolving Jesus framed as evil. This all lead to another link in the chain, reading a book called Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink. I enjoyed internally contending with some of Wink’s words and gaining sustenance from most of them. Somewhere in the book, he outlines what he believes to be a comprehensive list of four generic spiritual worldview-models. All but one of them seemed familiar, painful, and boring to me; the fourth view was that the physical world and the spiritual world were equally infused, flip-sides of the same coin. In the year 2003 or 2004, God the Father dissolved his personhood a little more and infused his-her-their-zir-it-ourself a little further back into the vacuous, mechanical universe which he had never existed to make and disown. I recalled a kooky, retired teacher substituting one day in my high school Bible class years before. He was rumpled as well as well-respected in my conservative Protestant community. He said he’d heard this idea—I think he said it was Lutheran—that new souls form when part of a mother’s soul joins part of a father’s soul along with the sex cells’ joining—and wasn’t that a cool idea? A wordless thought may have occurred at that time. Ttranslated from wordlessness, it might have read: Wait, so we’re allowed to enjoy foreign ideas about how souls formed? Already then, the walls between god, spirit, and the physical bodies of humans and the world had begun to perforate in my conscious worldview.

Much of my language for the troubles I had with the soulless, embodied universe of early Christian college came to me a few years later, when I overheard a housemate listening to mp3’s of Alan Watts. Watts gave a mischievous, brief history of the European Enlightenment, stating that as intellectuals of the era abandoned the onerous notion of an authoritarian God, their worldview still left behind an assumption of a world created by an inventor for specific purposes: they still assumed the world was a machine. Except now the creator was out of the picture, so the machine steamed onward as a the totality of a hulking, abominable lie: the universe was supposed to have a purpose, but that purpose didn’t exist. Four centuries ago, God had died in Europe and left a misleadingly purposeless machine-universe behind. In the span of four years, in my early adulthood in America, God relived his death throes for me. In the place of the vacuous machine, Watts relayed an “equally scientific” natural philosophy that views the universe as an endlessly shifting flowering—the universe as an expressive organism rather than a directive gearbox. The universe didn’t need a purpose anymore; it was variety; it was play! Watts’ puckish transliterations of East Asian philosophies immediately dissolved several of my manifold layers of dualistic anxiety. His recordings entreated me to consider Zen Buddhism as presented not by a proselytizer,  scholar, or a sage, but as a self-described “entertainer” who simply wanted to “share a worldview that I enjoy.” Watts talked about Westerners regarding themselves as minds—little immaterial personalities locked up in control rooms inside of their heads. He asserted what I was prepared to see as obvious, that we are actually our physical bodies. His affectionate jeering of the disembodied mind has led me to live more consciously in my sensations, my body, and my surroundings.

A related event that shaped my current sense of body as self was practicing meditation informed by Buddhist and Vedantic traditions. I have meditated on and off again without lasting commitment like any good European American layperson should. For a long while I hoped that meditation would act like a lightning rod and increase my chances of being struck by an improbable, mortal, and total sense of spiritual enlightenment—or at least a fleeting, profoundly timeless sense of total connection with all of the cosmos. In spite of myself, in spite of empirical warnings from Buddha and contemporary teachers, I still wanted to believe salvation was a high-stakes, singular choice hinging on unverifiable belief and fundamental desperation. For a long while I also hoped meditation would also cure what I regarded as a pathological excess of anxiety and depression. Meditation might have inched me closer to all of these aims; this much is a mystery to me.  Something it did reveal to me was that my emotions, which I had usually regarded as disembodied phenomena, are always just as much a confluence of physical sensations throughout my body, a body constantly touching a world. Knowing my emotions as my body helps me know my spirit as equally infused with my body. A sort-of meditative practice I do now to move through the world in this body-I-call-my-own is jogging around Capitol Lake in Olympia. I jog at a pace slow enough to keep a hypothetical, lungs-and-larynx conversation going with a second person who isn’t there. This makes the experience more physically satisfying than painful, and it gives me good absence and place to talk to. This is also when I say hello to you, waterfowl. I admire you standing and sleeping on one foot, or swimming away from me, or taking off in rapid wingbeats. Your beauty in efforts of arrival, retreat, and remaining comprise an effortless gift.

A recent event that shaped my current sense of body as self was falling deliriously in love once again. Openly discussing this affection with the person I fell in love with nearly wrecked my seven-year partnership with someone else. I’ve felt that I’ve had no choice but to jog through the middle of the aftermath. Faltering through infatuation this time, I’ve kept my balance better than I would have expected. Throughout the experience, I returned more frequently to sensing that for all my unrealized, irreconcilable want, the charge elicited from my own skin and interior has been more than adequate stimulation. Remembering that any pair of cherished friends already has each other has been more than gift enough. Throughout this mess, I’ve felt unusually checked and channeled. I have stepped up more in my relationship with my partner and so has she. I’ve moved through my work and school and navigated my affected friendships without collapsing. I’ve carried my fraught, throbbing integrity into doing the best I can for myself and all parties in the aftermath. I’ve been sensing something like water running through crumbled bones, a physical knowledge that my present path through grievous uncertainty and torn affections is all proceeding as it’s meant to. I cannot fool myself into crediting myself with this sense-knowledge. Whatever it comes from draws welcome sobriety across the conflicted feelings I have recently fanned to flames. I enjoy certain kinds of airy and generic spiritual reflections, but I remain deeply uncomfortable with assuming anything is “meant to be.” So I am insecure announcing it: I remain naked in the dark, and yet the water moves.

This evening, another event shaped my current sense of body as self. I Googled for a Walter Wink quote about unified body and spirit for this essay. Instead, I came across unfamiliar theologians writing about Wink, and my guts wrenched ice-cold with fear and revulsion toward less palatable writers who have been driven to pull the dreadful weight of an objective, divine authoritarian into the finite realms of human reasoning. I read bits of their blog posts about Walter Wink and I wished they would die and leave this earth. Through no effort of my own, I will get my wish. Such men may wish Hell or eternal Salvation for me. Through no effort of their own or their One True Gods, they will also get their wish. Lately, I’ve been trying to meet myself where I’m at. This is a helpful and mundane activity entailing pauses, breathing, and bodily readjustments; it keeps me moving instead of hiding and simmering inside of my head in bed. As far as my memory has served me, “where I’m at” has always been a physical destination as well as a point of departure. It moves me now to reverse and convert the story of my own creation: God the mother-father-and-I precedes the budding of my corporeal soul; it churns and roils backward across the animate material of all my antecedents.

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