Another Week Ends

Bathroom Floors, Jostling Angels, Own Goals, Virtuous Procrastination, Swedish Chefs, and Holding Dad’s Hand

David Zahl / 6.18.21

1. Back in March, singer Nightbirde (Jane Marczewski) penned a devastating and soul-stirring blogpost entitled “God Is On the Bathroom Floor.” It was brought to our attention after her viral appearance on America’s Got Talent this past week. The appearance (below) is tear-jerker, but the writing is, well, I’ll let you read it:

I have had cancer three times now, and I have barely passed thirty. There are times when I wonder what I must have done to deserve such a story. I fear sometimes that when I die and meet with God, that He will say I disappointed Him, or offended Him, or failed Him. Maybe He’ll say I just never learned the lesson, or that I wasn’t grateful enough. But one thing I know for sure is this: He can never say that He did not know me. 

I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands …

I see mercy in the dusty sunlight that outlines the trees, in my mother’s crooked hands, in the blanket my friend left for me, in the harmony of the wind chimes. It’s not the mercy that I asked for, but it is mercy nonetheless. And I learn a new prayer: thank you. It’s a prayer I don’t mean yet, but will repeat until I do.

Call me cursed, call me lost, call me scorned. But that’s not all. Call me chosen, blessed, sought-after. Call me the one who God whispers his secrets to. I am the one whose belly is filled with loaves of mercy that were hidden for me.

Even on days when I’m not so sick, sometimes I go lay on the mat in the afternoon light to listen for Him. I know it sounds crazy, and I can’t really explain it, but God is in there — even now. I have heard it said that some people can’t see God because they won’t look low enough, and it’s true. If you can’t see him, look lower. God is on the bathroom floor.

Amen x 1000. We talk about this at considerable length on the episode of the Mockingcast that will be out on Monday, our last before the summer hiatus.

2. Every once in a blue moon, the internet inspires a takedown so poetic and potent that it becomes an art form unto itself. Something to behold and heed and admire. On her personal website, best-selling Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie produced just such a rant, marshaling a rare polemical brilliance to dissect the self-justification/criticism rodeo that consumes so much of social media these days. Despite her many bona fides, Adichie has not proven immune to the spirit of correction (and law) that stifles creativity and destroys relationships — most of which has come from former friends and protégés. In fact, she details a degree of “friendly fire” that sounds a whole lot like, well, church fights, with all the attendant self-righteousness and heresy hunting. What she’s describing is something fairly close to hell, imo:

There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class […]

People who wield the words ‘violence’ and ‘weaponize’ like tarnished pitchforks. People who depend on obfuscation, who have no compassion for anybody genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence.

What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.

“Angels jostling to out-angel one another” is a euphemism for competitive righteousness that I’ll be borrowing forthwith. God help us, indeed.

3. Sounds to me like it’s way past time for a full-length book on the counter-cultural (and profoundly hopeful) merits of low anthropology, i.e., Non-Angels Anonymous. Speaking of which, Brian Phillips’ reflection on Germany’s recent loss in the first round of the Euro soccer championships overflows with a wisdom apparently lacking from Adichie’s corner of the literary world. Germany lost the match after defender Mats Hummels committed an “own goal,” i.e., he scored on his own team by mistake. “We Are All Mats Hummels” is Phillips’ contention:

I want to be able to talk about an own goal not in a spirit of sport-bot accusation but in something like human grief. What happened to Mats Hummels defined the match. It might change the course of the whole tournament. And it’s really, really sad, but because its sadness is universal, it has the potential to be bracing; it’s a sadness that ought to be familiar to everyone who saw it. If sports stories are what we have instead of mythology, Hummels’s own goal is sad in a way that contains a usable truth. Because Hummels is one of the best defenders in European soccer. He’s won five Bundesliga titles, three with Bayern Munich and two with his current club, Borussia Dortmund. He’s a World Cup winner. He’s played for Germany six dozen times. His story is stuffed to the margins with trophies and wins and honors. But now it has to make room for this too.

And who doesn’t feel at least a little bit of that, just about every week of their lives? Cheer for the hat-trick hero when you want to fantasize about what life as a demigod is like, but wince for the own-goal scorer when it’s time to come back to Earth … We shouldn’t minimize an own goal in a match like this one; we should sob and hold each other in the streets. We should let the tragic power of soccer unite us.

I dare say we could expand that recommendation far beyond soccer. Shared suffering, shared sorrow, bring us together — and produce compassion and love — like few other things in life. God is found on the bathroom floor, my friends, not on the winner’s podium. Which is good news, since very few of us will ever win the Euro championships, but all of us will at some point sabotage our own happiness, either intentionally or un-.

4. Next, Alan Jacobs weighed in on Bo Burnham’s masterful Inside over at the Hedgehog Review, doubling down on pandemic-as-great-reveal:

What Burnham, who not long ago was no more than a childishly clever YouTuber, demonstrates in this show — demonstrates incisively, worryingly, crudely, and hilariously — is the varying ways that the lockdown simply revealed to us the condition we were already in: Atoms in the lonely crowd, engaged in the endless labor of online performative self-making.

5. Hopefully I’m not alone in recognizing myself in James Parker’s prose poem “Ode to Procrastination” which appeared in the Atlantic:

In Phase Two, you get busy. Mountains of energy are suddenly available to you. Straining to avoid one particular thing, dawdling mightily, you can do five others. You can clean the house. You can exercise. You can work on a book. The wrong book, but still — a book. If you organize yourself skillfully, you can be productive and even sort of professional while not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. My friend Josh calls this “the virtuous circle of procrastination.”

6. In humor this week: “Man Realizes Personal Demons Actually Consequences of His Actions” from Reductress was painfully funny, as was “Man Vaccinated Too Late for Selfie to Seem Important” in the Hard Times and “Why I’m Selling My Catalog of Dad Jokes” in McSweeneys. But by far the funniest thing I’ve read this past week is “A Food Critic Reviews the Swedish Chef’s New Restaurant” in the New Yorker. Not a single wasted line:

I entered Horganblorps expecting chaos, but the restaurant was pristine. A group of prawns scurried out of the gleaming kitchen, cackling among themselves. A handsome rat in a bow tie placed a starched napkin on my lap. I was seated next to two older gentlemen who sustained a witty repartee, critiquing every dish that they were served. “It’s not half bad,” one said. “Nope, it’s all bad!” replied the other. They laughed. Apparently, they are here every night […]

I was so distracted by my attempts to decipher the menu that I failed to notice that our chef was clutching an antique hunting rifle, chasing a chicken around the dining room, feathers flying. Before he knew it, the chicken had taken control of the firearm, and our chef sought shelter inside the barrel of what I had presumed to be a purely decorative, eighteenth-century naval cannon. The chicken lit the fuse and our chef exploded onto the hostess stand.

I can now attest that this restaurant is a culinary achievement, and I never even tasted a bite of food. I didn’t need to — the dishes literally speak for themselves. I’ve never been so acutely aware of where my food comes from, how it got here, and with whom it is angry.

7. Radically shifting gears, oh boy this final one. “The Grace of Holding My Dying Father’s Hand During the Pandemic” by Debra Dean Murphy had me in tears for the second time during the writing of this column. I can’t imagine a more touching tribute to fathers, earthy and heavenly alike. Also reminds me of my own father’s beautiful recent podcast on end-of-life hand-holding. Happy Father’s Day, one and all:

The word contagion comes from the Latin words for “with” and “touch.” It is no small irony that one of the things we crave most, need most as human beings — the knowing touch of another on our skin — can also convey disease and death. But this is the wild, risky world we live in — have always lived in — where a global pandemic suddenly, rudely forces the question: What does the sustained lack of human touch do to us? I think we don’t yet know the answer, even as we can’t quite yet imagine a full-on return to the myriad ways human touch, given and received, spontaneously or with great deliberation, can convey healing and life.

But I know of other contagions. How, for instance, my father’s ways through the years conferred blessings we hardly knew we needed and the unwavering love and acceptance we didn’t know to ask for. In the process of receiving those gifts, we were shown, without explanation or fanfare, how to offer them to others.

“The quiet constancy of your gentleness / Drew no attention to itself.”

In the last hours of his life, I spoke many things to my father … There had never been a moment of division or alienation between us, but my failure through the years to tell him how much I admired him was a weight that in those hours his listening ears lifted from me, even as his body was failing him. I felt the gift and responsibility and freedom of being listened to in a way I never had before. Have you ever been listened into being, even as another’s beingness in this world was slipping away? It is a holy thing.

This applies to father figures in song, too, thank God: