04 January, 2010

the spirituality of subtraction

what happens when we take things away? i've been thinking a lot about that recently. perhaps part of it is because of the new year, and many resolutions involve giving something up. but i am thinking of subtraction as something even more fundamental and lasting than a new years diet. what happens when we abstain? what happens when we set limits for ourselves around consumption and accumulation?

i dont drink, smoke, or take drugs anymore. the subtraction of these items from my life has been miraculous. everything has shifted for me- my relationships to people, places, and things especially food, sex, and god. i am closer, clearer, and more present for all three. it's been a beautiful and i hope permanent shift.

i have always been a house purger. every once in awhile, i comb through my place and get rid of things. mostly clothes and shoes i no longer wear. but also music and books. i try to keep only what i need. i have three plates, a few glasses, 2 pots, and just enough cutlery. i find that when i want something i used to have or i need, i like looking at why i wanted it in the first place.

some of my subtractions are temporary. i like to give up meat every once in awhile. it gives my wallet a break and my intestines too. i feel lighter somehow. and then when i pick the meat back up, i feel my muscles rejoice at the new fuel. i also like to fast. i usually do a seasonal cleanse of some sort. it's great for me to think about my relationship with food and get a big old re-set by shifting that around regularly.

i saw two shows yesterday that seemed to fit in with my current thoughts on subtraction. the first was "wishful drinking", carrie fisher's one woman broadway show about her life. based on her memoir of the same name (which i listened to in the van on tour), she hilariously recounts her family history, her mental illness, and her addiction and recovery. i always find it inspiring when people share their addiction memories, though it's a very fine line to walk between engaging and off-putting. the writing in "wishful drinking" is so bulletproof and flawless, that it makes the very question of "is this naval-gazing self-centered bull?" completely irrelevent. see it or read it, now.

one of the things that carrie fisher regularly subtracts from herself is her memory. as a treatment for bi-polar disorder, she undergoes ECT, a modern version of shock therapy. one consequence is she often loses her short term memory (about 4 months of it). as she says, anything important that happened in the last 4 months will probably happen in the next 4 months too. for her, the trade-off is worth it.

i like this idea. i hold on to too much in my brain that i dont need. i am wondering how i can let go of more that i hold on to. in the same way i like to change my perspective on food or material posessions by subtraction, what can i let go of emotionally to live more in the moment? that's the question, right?

there is a song by one of my favorite bands, the bad plus, called "silence is the question". in my current thinking about subtraction, silence is the answer too. the space between notes, the quiet parts of the day. what happens when we remove the clatter?

after carrie fisher, i went to see the bad plus at the village vanguard. i'd never been to this historic club, as much as i have heard and loved plenty of recordings made there. i went with another musician, and we sat right up close, about 3 feet from the drum kit.

the bad plus- pianist ethan iverson, bassist reid anderson, and drummer dave king- create by deconstruction. or really, thats too kind a word. they create by exploding songs and letting the pieces fall where they may. sometimes the deconstruction is so sly that you guffaw out loud when you realize what they've done. other times, its so raw and volatile that you can only sit back and be overwhelmed by it.

the set last night was a mix a cheek and bombast, though leaning more heavily toward physical cascades of overlapping explosions. this most obviously manifests itself in the drumming of dave king, who gave a virtual clinic on the dissolution of beats and drum kits as we know them. however, occasionally, and for me, most importantly, silence became the question, and the trio deconstructed by placing big hunks of silence where there once was chaos. in those spaces, where king makes his kit sound like it is coming through your next-door-neighbors wall, where reid simply breathes and occasionaly plays a note, and iverson goes two finger, there is that shift of perspective that leads me to clarity. i feel the fast, the abstinence, and the clearing of my memory.


  1. so knowing this was not the focus at all...your comment about not drinking got me thinking. i have contemplated stopping drinking off and on for many years. i feel i understand the personal trade offs, but what has that been like socially?

    i feel like as an adult out at an event, the expectation is that you have a drink in your hand. if i am not drinking, someone inevitably asks why...and usually, that is not when i want to have that kind of conversation.

    for me, it is also a practical question. i don't drink sodas (which you can hide not drinking in), and in texas, when you go out...you have a choice of alcohol or a soda. knowing you have criss-crossed the country, has that ever been a struggle either?

    just curious.

  2. reading your blog stimulates my brain in beautiful ways.
    have you read "a piece of cake" by cupcake brown? its probably my favorite addiction memoir. you might enjoy it.

    anne m.

  3. thank you for stimulating my brain, I ate up your words. They reminded me of how much I enjoy the spaces in between.

    sometimes that space comes in the form of back alleys between buildings, or the silence after you break up with a lover, or the movement between one pl ace and another. the in between can make me loose my breath but if it lasts long enough it reminds me to catch it and let me see all that was unseen...and in music it makes the next note or the last so much more powerful.

    as for e. order a cup of tea and if you don't feel comfortable telling them your drinking tea then for now, lie tell them its a hot tottie!

  4. i agree with missa... there are lots of strategies to make being a non-drinker more comfortable. you ALWAYS have choices. i dont drink soda either, so i do cranberry juice with lime. it looks like a "drink" but isnt. OR i love me a virgin bloody mary. also, socially, i prefer to be not drinking. you see and hear more that way. the bottom line i have found is, the more confidence i have in my own choice, the more the person asking about it respects my choice. if i firmly say, "i am not drinking tonight." the conversation usually moves on. if someone keeps hounding you about it, its a very very good sign that the problem is theirs, not yours. good luck, and keep asking for help, its something good to get support about.