The Miraculous Healing Gloriousness of Nice Hot Bath

I’m a shower guy. Get in, get out, move on. My wife takes baths. She takes showers, too, and for the longest time I didn’t fully understand why she sometimes bathes and sometimes showers. That was before a few days ago, when for the first time in a decade I got a kidney stone. If you’ve ever had one you’ll agree there’s no better way to say this—kidney stones suck. They cause excruciating, chronic pain that comes in cruel, spasmodic waves, easing teasingly for a bit only to return even stronger. Women who have had them say kidney stones are as bad or worse than the pain of childbirth. Kidney stones make it easy for those who have endured them to empathize with what mothers go through to bring our children in to world. Except they can get epidurals and childbirth doesn’t typically last days or weeks. 

When I read that a hot bath with Epsom salts could ease the pain of kidney stones I was skeptical. But when one is in pain one will try anything. The first time I lowered my overgrown frame, nauseous and short of breath into a hot Epsom salt bath it was like the heavens opened up—instant relief. I couldn’t believe it. Who knew? We’re so conditioned to think of drugs as our only source of pain relief. I felt as if I’d stumbled upon a tightly guarded secret. Yes, I found the suggestion on the internet, but it was outlier. Even my own primary care physician failed to suggest hot baths while refusing to prescribe some pain medication for me. “Go to the ER,” he said, “if the pain gets too bad.”

When I finally got in to see a urologist after three days of pain, I asked him why Epsom salts baths work so well to relieve kidney stone pain. He gave a brief explanation of how kidney stones cause pain and said, in short, that a hot bath shouldn’t really help all that much and perhaps it was psychological. Oh, but they do work, doc, at least for me. My oldest daughter, a nurse, said hot baths relax all your muscles which is why women sometimes give birth in them. Of course. But frankly, I don’t really care how they work. I’m just relieved they do. My wife, while happy I’ve found some relief, is not happy that from now one she’ll have to share the bath tub (and the hot water) with me. Because I’ve declared that from now on, whenever the pain gets too unbearable or I just want to relax, I’ll draw the water, throw in some salts and luxuriate in the miraculous healing gloriousness of a nice hot bath. I may even light a scented candle or two.

At War With a Weed

This past weekend I mounted an overdue, all-out attack on an enemy weed. Dressed in long pants and a long-sleeve dri-FIT shirt so as to avoid another bout of poison ivy, I sat down on my gardening stool, dialed an old friend, Travis, and started yanking nutsedge, my garden nemesis. I had hoped talking to Travis would mitigate my weeding misery, and it did for the most part, but I had some trouble focusing on what Travis was saying. The mindless task of pulling nutsedge takes more attention than one might think. Pull too hard or too fast or too high up and the shoot will break off. But when the soil is wet enough and the pull angle and tension and hand placement are just right, one can extract an entire nutrient-robbing plant–rhizome, tuber, nodules and multiple shoots–with one tug. Vindication is sweet, but short; there’s always the next plant to pull. 

July and August are the hottest months of the year in the northern hemisphere, and in southeast Texas, near the Gulf Coast it’s especially brutal. And it’s getting worse. This year, July was the hottest month on record, ever. Houston is infamously known as the most air-conditioned city in the world. Those of us who live here wonder just how the hell anyone lived here before air conditioning. As I do every year at this time I’ve gone from spending as many hours as I can in the garden to spending most of my time indoors. We got above average rainfall through June and July. The tomatoes are finished and the peppers are slowing down, but the gluttonous nutsedge is loving the moist, warm soil, and is impervious to the extreme, above-ground heat. 

I saw a sign recently, an artifact of the civil unrest currently engulfing us that said, “LOVE, NOT HATE”. But of course there are limits to what we can love, and we can’t eradicate hate entirely. Even if we hate hate, we’re still hating. Hate can be quite a useful motivator if it’s aimed at things worthy of it. Naturalists will remind us that “weed” is a human construct, a category we create for the unwanted. I don’t disagree, but I don’t care: I hate nutsedge. 

I’ve worked for the last few years to turn our native gumbo clay in to a rich, black loam. But one irony of cultivating quality soil that plants love is that weeds are plants, too. Nutsedge’s tubers and rhizomes grow rapidly, exponentially, deep underground, even in poor, dry soil. This year’s trifecta of good soil, lots of rain and high heat have helped it take over the garden. A sea of two-foot high shoots are now spread across the beds and mulched walkways. I can’t use poisonous herbicides, and from everything I’ve read organic solutions don’t work. Pulling the weed by hand activates the subterranean rhizomes so that within a day or two new shoots cover the area just cleaned. The only solution is to stay ahead of them, to pull frequently enough that the plants eventually run out of energy.

When we first started seriously gardening vegetables, my wife and I did it together. But eventually we divided the garden so that we could each have control over our own pieces of turf. She’ll occasionally look out over my section of the garden and say, “we really need to weed.” By we she means me.

Travis is a good talker and was lonely, so I mostly listened. He and his wife, Sophie are isolated, living in the sticks north of Houston. Last August, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sophie’s cancer returned, making their need for isolation all the more crucial. We talked music, mostly, the basis of our teenage friendship, and cancer, of course. Sophie was responding well to the chemo, but it’s a battle she’ll eventually lose. I listened as Travis stoically said, more than once, “It is what it is.”

We’re now in the fourth surge of COVID-19, the Delta variant spreading through the unvaccinated like the wildfires in the West, the cancer in Sophie’s body and the nutsedge in my garden. At the hospital system where I work, the emergency departments are overflowing. Those of us who are vaccinated are struggling to understand those refusing the vaccine. Those on the front lines are especially frustrated. And with school about to start, a debate is raging over whether or not kids, who can’t yet get vaccinated, should be forced to wear masks. Our governor, playing to his base, has declared they cannot; school administrators are defying him.

Sitting alone in the garden, pulling one nutsedge plant after another, I know this is my own fault. Full of enthusiasm, I built a garden that is too large given the amount of time I currently have to tend it. Part of me, though, is happy to have this mindless but safe task to do. Even in the miserable heat the repetitive motion leads me to a nearly-zen state. I’m considering how I can downsize the garden, which parts to turn back to Bermuda grass, a weed we happen to cultivate. When the weather finally cools, the nutsedge will retreat. But it will still be there, lurking below the surface, waiting to return with a vengeance.

Other Plans

When I was a teenager in the late 1970s, my father helped start a new Methodist church. We’d just moved to the north side of Houston, where he had reconnected with the former youth minister at our previous church who was building a congregation of his own. The nascent services were held in the cafeteria of a nearby elementary school, where each Sunday morning before the service a few of us would arrange orange plastic chairs in neat rows on white linoleum. After services, everyone would pitch in to noisily re-stack the chairs in a fraction of the time it took to set them up.

The minister, Harris, was a talented and charismatic preacher. I had gotten to know and admire him at our previous church, where, as a somewhat impressionable teen with a tendency to veer into minor trouble, Harris had been the youth minister. Our parents told me and my brother, Tracy we were moving to be closer to our father’s work. I was entering high school and Tracy was entering middle school. Both of us were irate about leaving our friends, the lives we’d known. It was only much later that it dawned on me that keeping me in close proximity to Harris, and hopefully out of trouble was likely another reason my father chose to uproot our family.

Harris ritually ended his services with the Lord’s Prayer. Leading up to the prayer, the piano would kick in as he extended his robed arms and invited his congregates to stand, open our hearts and let Christ in. That’s all we had to do to be saved, he assured us. He made it sound easy. But it wasn’t for me. One Sunday, struggling in all earnestness to do as Harris asked, I thought, “How will I know the difference between Christ speaking to me and my own consciousness? I mean, yeah, I kind of feel it, but…” Just then a disembodied voice said, “Don’t worry, we have other plans for you.”

“What the hell was that?”

I quickly reasoned that the voice was just my imagination’s way of trying help me cope with the stress of trying to invite an all-powerful supernatural being into my scrawny teenage body. But the otherness of the voice was unmistakable. And the choice of words struck me as pretty damn weird. The voice could’ve simply said, Relax, dude–this was the 70s, after all–don’t try so hard. Instead, it told me to stop, to not try at all, that they–the voice was singular, but used the pronoun “we,” as if it represented some gang of gods–had other plans for me. While I was wary that the voice’s declaration meant my will was not my own, at least not entirely, I felt comforted, if uneasily, by its promise of a purpose to be revealed at a later time. I’d apparently been chosen for some pre-destined spiritual mission. I also took the message as forgiveness for my falling short of being a good Christian. Still, it didn’t take long for me to decide my initial reasoning was probably correct–the voice was merely a product of my own overactive imagination.

On a later Sunday morning, Harris announced to the congregation that his toddler daughter had died of leukemia. Broken and struggling to maintain his composure, he explained that he needed to be there, that God wanted him to be there. Despite this ultimate, cruel test of faith, Larry needed to prove to us, and presumably to himself, that his was unshaken.

The loss of their child put an unbearable strain on Harris’ marriage. My father told me that Harris’ wife repeatedly insisted God would bring their baby back. When they eventually divorced, the Methodist bishop moved Harris to another church on the opposite side of Houston, telling the church’s board, on which my father sat, that God built our church and a divorced pastor was unacceptable. Why it was acceptable to another church across town was unclear.

My father was furious. “God didn’t build that church,” he said, “the people did.” We stopped attending when Harris left. My parents would eventually attend other Methodist churches, in other towns. I never would.

When my father was in the throes of dementia, I tracked Harris down, hoping Dad would remember him. He was living in Atlanta, working for a nonprofit that helps churches organize building campaigns. While the Methodist’s bishop’s decision to move Harris out of our church all those years ago had given me an excuse to turn away from organized religion, he remained a faithful servant. When I told Harris that my father could not remember him, all he could say, appropriately enough, was “bless his heart.”

I’ve thought about that Sunday morning when the voice spoke to me many times over the last forty-five or so years. While I can’t say I’ve clearly uncovered the plans ‘they’ claimed to have had laid out for me, I have no doubt that morning was formative for me. In the midst of an oft-repeated ritual designed, among other things, to inculcate certainty in its participants, I was cast into a perpetual state of uncertainty, of ambiguity, of not-knowing regarding ultimate reality. The experience made me open to and curious about other ways of understanding the many mysteries of our being. I wish I could say this pursuit has been consistent, rigorous and disciplined throughout my adult life, but I tend to wander as I wonder. And as answers accumulate, the questions only multiply. But live long enough–I’ve just entered my seventh decade–and osmosis can lead one to a state of gnosis, to a state of both knowing and not-knowing. Even if the disembodied voice in my teenage head was the work of my own imagination, I know now there is more to it than that. A lot more.

Deep Soul Writing

Amazon’s algorithm recently served up a book up to me by Janet Connor called Writing Down Your Soul: How to Activate and Listen to the Extraordinary Voice Within. In it, Connor advocates for a particular type of journaling that she stumbled upon by accident while struggling to get through a nasty divorce. As she poured her heart out on the page day after day and asked questions of “the Universe”, the Universe began answering her back, and provided solutions to her problems in remarkable, timely ways. Connor realized the mystical dimensions of her particular practice well before turning it in to a full-blown business, with the publication of her book, the establishment of deep soul-writing workshops, speaking engagements, a podcast–you get the idea. On her website she describes herself as a Prayer Artist.

It’s easy to dismiss self-help books like Connor’s–and there are many–as so much mystical New Age fluff. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued by and sympathetic to her thesis of divine dialogue. While I balked when she began giving specific instructions for how to elicit responses from the divine, and I likely won’t be taking a deep soul writing workshop anytime soon, it did motivate me to pick up journaling again, which then led to my decision to start this blog. 

The truth is all serious writing is a mystical practice. Just ask any poet. It’s a way for us to connect with each other as individuals, but also, potentially, to connect with something greater. Consciousness, individual and collective, in all its slipperiness is among the subjects I’ll explore here with some frequency.

For those in religious traditions, communion with the divine, or prayer, is an essential component of their faith. For those of us with spiritual yearnings living outside religious traditions–the spiritual, but not religious–the concept of divine communion can be somewhat more problematic. In addition to the question of how we commune is the question of who or what we are communing with. What, exactly, should we call it? I wanted to avoid the many names provided by the faith traditions so as to avoid association with one tradition to the exclusion of all others. Connor calls the divine “the Source”; I ultimately settled on Emerson’s “Over-Soul” as my metaphor of choice. I’ve always admired Emerson’s intellectual independence, idealism and concept of the personal nature of the divine. And it has a nice ring to it.

With so much time spent earning a living and raising a family, I’ve been an undisciplined writer throughout my life. Having deferred my ambition for so long, I have no choice now but to be modest in my expectations for what I can do. At this point I’ll take anything that will help me achieve some measure of commitment and consistency, even, maybe especially, a self-help book written by a desperate divorcee. I mean no offense to Janet Connor when I say that. To the contrary, I admire and appreciate her vulnerability and courage. I also don’t fault her for leveraging her technique to prosper, even if she’s just put a New Age spin on an ancient practice. I mean, who knows–maybe with enough practice my own appeals to the Over-Soul will get a response?

Rediscovering Wonder

Our understanding of the nature of consciousness is far from complete. Conventional wisdom says our brains generate consciousness, that the matter of our brains, the billions of neurons firing off moment to moment are the mechanism by which we think what we think and by which we are who we are. This mechanistic, materialist way of imagining consciousness is the prevailing view of our day. While our brain matter certainly plays a major role in cognition–the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses–cognition is not consciousness, that primary, anteawareness that is you. This conflation of cognition and consciousness is common and key: our physical brains may be the mechanism by which we think what we think, but it’s not necessarily what makes me me or you you.

Perhaps, instead, matter does not create consciousness or mind, at least not entirely. What if instead, the opposite is true, that mind creates matter? Is it not reasonable to consider the possibility that rather than mind emerging from dead, lifeless matter, perhaps matter is imbued with with the energy or the life force of mind or consciousness? While I make no claim to fully understanding what, exactly, this energy or life force is–no one can for certain–there is evidence to suggest that matter may indeed be “minded” in some way. Quantum physics says all matter is energy at the level of the very small. It also says some very weird stuff happens at that level (more on this in future posts). At the macro level or our everyday existence, minded matter would also account for some of the very weird stuff that has happened across cultures and throughout recorded time, and is still happening today. It makes the impossible–things like telepathy and precognition, among other impossible things, possible (a lot more on this in future posts). Moreover, it makes the myriad concepts of an overarching metaphysical realm plausible. Imagine, then, that rather than generating conscious awareness, our brains receive it and filter it, much like our eyes receive and filter light and our ears sound waves.

There was a period of time I considered myself an atheist. In the mid-00s, a number of books, part of a “new atheists” movement, were published by philosophers like David Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others arguing forcefully against the existence of God. While some of their arguments were convincing, what really, in retrospect, made them influential to me was they made atheism, toward which I was already leaning, more culturally acceptable. Prior to the publication of those books, the most prominent atheist was the caustic and combative Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

As an atheist, the world made sense to me. All phenomena were reducible to their physical causes. All the weird stuff was dismissed as things simply misunderstood, or misinterpreted. Life was, in many respects, simpler. But ultimately it was also less meaningful, somewhat depressing and a lot more boring. 

How we understand what philosopher David Chalmers calls the hard problem of consciousness informs at a primary level how we understand the world and our place in it. Observing consciousness can only be done reflexively, with consciousness. An anteawareness comprised of minded matter, or soul, is not something we can prove objectively–it has to be experienced, intuited, thought through. We sense it, get flashes of insight, inklings. I flipped from an atheistic to a spiritual worldview sometime in the late 00s. It radically changed how I think about and understand, well, most everything. Most significantly, it helped me reclaim something I’d missed desperately for some time: a sense of wonder. In the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.