Column: Knee-Work

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There is a strain in the leg and the back that comes from kneeling too long.

Anyone who has ever pulled up carpet or set tile knows it. It flares across the neck and shoulders, settles into the base of the spine, radiates up from the knees and down into the ankles. It’s pervasive: bones and muscles that aren’t meant to move in the way they are being forced, aren’t meant to stay still in that position. It’s hard to hold that pain for any length of time. There has to be a good reason for it.

Brother Roger, founder of the Taizé community, at prayer in 2004 [João Pedro Gonçalves, Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.5]

“I just feel like there’s nothing I can do.” My friend sounds tired in a way I recognize, in a way that echoes in me. “It’s just – we just have to wait. We can’t fix anything.”

“We can do small things,” I say, trying to believe it. “We can make changes here and now, we can-” The look they give me is quelling, and I go quiet.

“It’s going to happen whatever we do,” they say. “Whatever it is. It’s going to happen. How are you dealing with it?”

I’m not even sure which “it” they’re talking about. The election, maybe? The government’s response to the virus? There are a dozen things that are looming over us, inescapable, out of our control. I can’t narrow it down. It makes me tired to try.

“I think we’ll be better for having lived through it,” I tell them, rubbing the ache of my wrists against the bone of my thighs, trying to find some ease in the movement. “I think sometimes things have to break, to grow.”

They snort, and shake their head, shoulder turning toward me. “That a religious thing? Some sort of ‘let go, let God’?”

I sigh, and nod. “Sorta. Not the way you think.”

The look they give me is something between amusement and disgust. “I thought that was a Christian thing.”

It brings me up short, and I frown at them, considering my response. They’re hurting, and it’s a fair observation, but it feels like a slap, like a decade of work and growth made invisible, like my sense of myself taken and twisted.

“You ever heard a Christian talk about breaking the world so it can get better?” I ask, chin coming up.

I remember being Christian. I remember the surety of it, the total belief that I would, no matter how bad things got, someday end up in a place much, much better. I remember thinking that everything, good or bad, was in accordance with a plan so much bigger than me that it was unknowable. I remember giving my control to a higher power, and how relaxing it was to know that these worries were out of my hands.

My memories must read as anger, or hurt. My friend scans my face and sighs, turning back toward me. “Sorry,” they say.

“I’m not – listen,” I say, trying to think it through. “I trust my gods, right? But I don’t think they’re going to fix things for us. I just think they show us what needs fixing. Still our job to do it.”

They look at me with confusion, and I shrug. “So we do the best we can. And whatever will happen is going to happen. But that’s not a bad thing, in the long run.”

“Sure,” they say. “But we might not be around to see the long run.”

“Christ Kneeling, Carrying the Cross,” Spain, 16th c. [Anonymous, public domain]

I think a lot, these days, about my body. I am at the age where it is starting to reveal, through aches and cricks and odd pulses, that it has never really been under my control. Taken in the context of an invisible, unknowable contagion, that knowledge shades into fear on most days. The day after my COVID test results came back was the first since March where I could relax into my own breathing. That comfort is gone again, now. I’ve touched things since then, walked past unmasked joggers, gone to get groceries. It could be this time, I think to myself, every time. There’s no way to know. I can influence the odds; I can be safer. I can’t ever know that my body is safe.

This is the definition of horror. I’ve spent this summer watching movies where the body twists and is converted against the protagonist’s will. In a moment they are torn and reformed in service to an unnamed and demanding god, humanity sloughing away to reveal a terrible, many-eyed thing, remade in another image. Reformed, they turn on their friends, an ancient hunger replacing all of their love and camaraderie. They no longer have control of their own thoughts – just an urgent and primal need.

They no longer look scared.

2020 is an interesting year to encounter the Lovecraft mythos for the first time. I haven’t read the original stories, just works based on the idea, but it seems to me like there is something essentially American about taking the idea of forces that are incarnate and yet so far beyond human comprehension that they destroy the body and calling them gods. The things that stalk the worlds of Lovecraft Country and Old Gods of Appalachia are unspeakable, contagious horrors. They demand worship.

They remind me, in some way, of being sixteen and crowding into the theater to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. That was also an incarnate god, a body destroyed, someone’s humanity flayed away to reveal the divine. Suffering, it told me, was holy. Look, see the suffering? It will not get better. The only escape is death. But it is holy to submit yourself to this without complaint. It is holy to endure. And the reward will be holy ecstasy that transcends the flesh and pushes you toward god.

It isn’t news to me that fear and adoration live close together in the human brain. We are built in ways that mean pain and pleasure are often separated by context more than content. Sometimes our bodies confuse them. Often we tie them together, and our fears are tied inexorably to the things we crave. There is a sensuousness to monsters, a terror in the act of love. It’s uncomfortable to examine too closely, but even at its most wordless, we know that link is where power lives. Often, it’s the dark and squamish place that gives birth to religion.

This summer, I have been finding that place in the feeling of helplessness that sometimes overwhelms me, the lack of control I struggle with accepting as I watch events play out on a much bigger stage. When I was a Christian, I would have told myself that the terrors I was seeing were evidence of a fallen world, the inevitable pains of the flesh that I would someday transcend. As a pagan, I am grounded in this world and the dangerous terrain of my own body. I believe, now, that the corporeal is holy in and of itself, not because I can someday escape it.

This means that I cannot deny my responsibility to the here and now. It also means that I am left without an explanation or an escape from how horrible this place can be. The more aware I am of the world, the more I confront the cruelty and overwhelming danger it contains. I miss having a context to make this seem manageable, a natural effect of a greater and holy plan. I am struggling to find a context of my own.

“Showdown Kneel” [mliu92, Wikimedia Commons, CC 2.0]

The conversations I have about magic are so often conversations about power. Who has it? How can we access it? How can we wield it? What small changes can we create that will, sympathetically or through a chain reaction, cause much bigger changes to occur? What more powerful forces can we sway to create effects that we, by ourselves, could never hope to achieve? What kinds of power do we need to exert control over our circumstances, over ourselves?

In some forms of magic, the goal is to take that power: I would become a version of myself that can affect the world in ways which would be impossible as I am now. Then it would be my will that imposes itself, my control that shapes events. At least, that is the theory. I cannot bring myself to believe it. I am too aware of the complexity of the system, too present to the unknowns that can destroy my hold on the moment and leave me powerless. I cannot convince my body that sort of power is possible, and without my body I cannot wield it.

In some ways, my magical path is a distant alternative. I find power, mundane and magical, in my relationships. For me, it’s the act of the relationship itself that creates movement. The more we depend on each other, the more potential is unlocked in our connection. My partners and I are able to do things together that we would not be able to do alone. I dote upon my pet, and both of our lives are  better for it. I give my love and devotion to the gods, and in turn they shape the story of my life.

Fear comes in the fact that these exchanges do not always seem balanced. Even when they are, the power I am given is an exchange. People that I love can hurt me. Pets that I love will die.  As I come into contact with another person, as I get to know them, we both become vulnerable. In order to have some control, I have to give it up. Worse, I must continue to do so, as an active choice, for as long as I want to be in that relationship.

I am trying to find joy in that. I am trying to remember it is holy work.

Esther Williams joking around with Howard Keel on the set of “Jupiter’s Darling” at Silver Springs, 1954 [Bruce Mozert, public domain]

My relationships with the gods are based on trust.

This is difficult to explain to people, especially since many of the gods I love are only-slightly-repentant backstabbing so-and-sos. They aren’t entirely good. They don’t always have my best interests as their primary motivation. They carry names that mean “sly,” “thief,” “unforgiving.” They offer no promises that I will escape from pain, or that I will be delivered from tragedy. Often the pain comes at their hands, with only their promise that something worthwhile waits at the other side.

I trust them because I know them. I believe that they will continue to be themselves, as they always have been, and I love them for it. I have chosen to work with them, to reach out joyfully, to accept all of what that means. I choose that every time I do the silent magic that I think of as prayer and feel them answer.

Often, the answer is the same. “Time to get to work,” they say, and pull me to my feet.

Protestors kneeling at a Standing in Solidarity march in Sacramento, California, 2020 [Ami Berra, public domain]

I cannot shift the systems that shape my life. There’s a peace in knowing that, for me, or at least in pretending that it’s true. Some things will happen whether or not I want them, and I may never even understand why. Some things are out of my control.

Not everything. Even when the odds seem insurmountable, I can plant my feet and take the hand of the person next to me. I do not have to become the monster. I do not have to suffer silently. I can be here, now, and make that presence matter.

I can trust that, if enough people choose to do the same, together we can do magic.

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