SURPRISED BY GOD
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion
By DANYA RUTTENBERG BEACON PRESS
Copyright © 2008 Danya Ruttenberg
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8070-1068-6
It was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It was the September after my bar mitzvah-which had been, insofar as I could tell, a big party that my parents had thrown for their business associates. Now, the synagogue was packed with well-heeled midwestern suburbanites surreptitiously eyeing one another and shifting uncomfortably in the velvet-covered theater chairs. The choir droned on in four-part harmony. We had already done dinner: brisket and green beans almandine. Each year demanded the acquisition of four new outfits to get me through piety season, and while my matching skirt and top weren't horrible, the pantyhose and low heels pinched and chafed. Worse yet, I was too old to get away with hiding in the ladies' room with my Hebrew school friends for the entire duration of the service, so I was stuck with the rest of my family, surveying the crowd from our balcony seats.
The bearded man at the front of the enormous room put his hands out, palms up, and raised them. We all stood on cue, like well-trained dogs. After a few incantations he lowered his hands, palms down, and we sat back down. This happened a number of times. It was very irritating, having to keep standing up and sitting down like that. By the end of the service, I could barely contain my contempt. After all, these people in their Brooks Brothers and Escada suits didn't know what they were doing, or why. More than that, they didn't particularly seem to care. Why should I care? The truth claims offered by the book we were holding were too patently absurd to consider.
When I was six, the Sunday school teacher had asked us to draw what we thought God looked like. We had all come forth with the same old man sitting among the clouds in a white robe. He supposedly kept an eye on our every deed and had the power to grant wishes. Now, just starting the eighth grade, I realized that this whole pageant had been organized around the supposition that the cartoon was real. Did people really believe that?
In my house, we didn't talk much about the cartoon. A couple times a year we celebrated holidays, but it was more about new clothes and brisket and, at Passover, my mother and her friend Cynthia getting silly after a few glasses of white zinfandel. At Sunday school they had tried to engage us in mushy conversations about the Bible and morality, but to my relief I had managed to get out of going as soon as my last bat mitzvah check had been cashed.
I gazed out at the sea of bankers and lawyers and tennis-playing housewives standing up and sitting down in perfect synchronization. I decided that Marx must have been right about opiates and, on that very same Day of Judgment, I declared myself an atheist.
I grew up in a Chicago suburb just as it was being made famous by John Hughes films. Not everybody in my town was as rich or obnoxious as the kids in Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles, but enough were to give the usual suburban conformism of the town culture a decidedly upscale cast. I had been a bookish little kid and, though I suppose nobody really does, I didn't weather the transition to adolescent girlhood particularly well. I didn't understand the constantly shifting list of clothing brands that had to be worn, amulet-like, to guard against social ostracism. I was totally ignorant of permitted and forbidden ways of doing my hair of folding the bottoms of my jeans. My undoing, though-the mistake that proved my social downfall in the fifth grade-was that I voluntarily chose solitude when I could have had the protection of a clique. For this, there was no absolution.
One day, for reasons I didn't totally understand, I left behind the safe harbor of my usual lunch table and began eating alone. It was social suicide, but suddenly the kids with whom I had been friends since forever seemed so ... boring. I itched for some kind of thrill, some kind of stimulation I wasn't finding at Central School, and for some reason I chose to go it alone until I figured out what that was. The next couple of years were fated to be lonely and miserable. It wouldn't be until the summer after seventh grade-just a few months before I cast a critical eye over a congregation of sharply dressed Jews at the Theater of Atonement-that I would discover the world that I had been seeking so desperately.
His name was Zev Klotzick. He had braces and a skater haircut, he drew skulls on the back of his hand during summer camp activities, and he told me about bands with names like Bauhaus and Love and Rockets and Black Flag and Sonic Youth and Public Image, Ltd. and the Minutemen. There were so many. Joy Division and the Sugarcubes, Hüsker Dü, and this incredible new bald woman named Sinéad O'Connor. He copied tapes for me. He made me a mix.
It wasn't Zev, though his adolescent charms were considerable. Rather, it was the thrilling new world he opened for me-this edgy, critical place where creativity, freakiness, and boundary pushing were primary values. Punk's cultural norms were a revelation; girls were required to be neither "nice" nor "pretty." They could be tough, sassy, rough, smart, crazy, weird and follow their own impulses, and they'd be considered all the cooler for doing so. I felt, for the first time, that I was given permission to experiment, to wear ridiculous clothing, to try something, anything. To release Whitman's barbaric yawp, insofar as a thirteen-year-old was able to let loose and yawp about anything.
Of course, I would eventually discover punk's petty dogmas and trite formulas. Yet, for me, as for so many kids, it served as art indispensable first language of cultural critique and the first intimation of possibility, of redemption. And the music! The music to swoon over, each band more fresh and exciting than the last.
When my parents picked me up from the airport at the end of the summer, my hair was bleached orange (I'd been shooting for blond). A rubber rat, speared on an earring hook, was dangling from one of my lobes, and there was a silver spider in the other. I began to wear mostly black, grateful that a store at the mall called Le Château was able to help augment my wardrobe with acid-green or purple tights, spiky purses, and big, clunky shoes. I used the word "nonconformist" liberally, oblivious to any irony.
By 1988, the aesthetic I was embracing had been well established in the broader culture. At Central Junior High, however, my sartorial choices were little short of revolutionary. A newfound confidence made me more aggressive, baiting teachers I didn't like and tearing away at my opponents in classroom debates. When the popular girls cornered me, I would snarl retorts rather than, as I had in the past, slinking away as quickly as possible, ft wasn't the most comfortable existence, but it got me through the eighth grade more or fess intact.
High school arrived not a moment too soon. I graduated from a junior high class of 90 to a high school in which I was-in my grade alone-one of 650. There were more than enough people for everybody to find their cultures and their subcultures; in study hall, I meta girl with black lipstick named Rina. I wound up sitting next to Kath, who sported purple hair and torn fishnets, in algebra. There was a kid in gym class with big army pants and a Buzzcocks T-shirt We made eye contact the first day, started talking shortly after that. My own combat boots, thrift store wardrobe, and artificially black hair were useful semiotic tools for navigating such an enormous school, tickets info the social scenes I was hoping to penetrate. Of course, shared tastes in fashion and music didn't always lead to deep, satisfying bonds of friendship, but it gave us a starting point-one that I, like most teenagers, really needed.
A couple weeks into September, Kath invited me out for that next Friday night. She and her friends were going to Medusa's, which was all ages until midnight; afterward, she said, I was welcome to crash with her at her dad's in the city, since he didn't really care about curfews.
I'd heard about Medusa's. It was a club in the city, up on Belmont. In the late eighties, Belmont was Chicago's punk rock terrain, and it was where we suburban kids went to buy our cred: The Alley sold band T-shirts and posters, red plaid bondage pants, and black leather motorcycle jackets. Music came from Reckless, vintage clothes from Flashy Trash and Beatnix, jeans and T-shirts from the dollar-a-pound place that smelled like mothballs. The prospect of going there at night was entirely thrilling.
We-me, Kath, and a couple of her friends from the city-met at Kath's dad's house. We decked out in our punk prettiest, white tank tops and short black skirts, stripy knee-highs, and big, big boots. We smeared heavy black around the eyes and did our lipstick in the infamous Blackberry, the color of dried blood. We were fourteen and fierce. We bit the club.
Medusa's was amazing. I loved being within the dark gritty walls covered in velvet and candles and crosses and graffiti, amidst torn couches and the parade of every conceivable trend and subculture, ripped and dyed, safety-pinned and pierced, all so much older and so, so cool. There was a corner of the dance floor where the skinheads and serious goths would circle each other like vultures assessing the kill, hands behinds their backs and feet smashing hard against the tile. There was another corner where the girly girls would shake their hips and take drags from clove cigarettes in time with the music. There were mohawked peacocks, couples making out furiously, and dour, gauzy boys in black who seemed less like they were dancing than swaying aimlessly, out of time with the music.
Chicago was the capital of industrial music in those days, and at Medusa's, the beats were synthesized and brutal. This was music for pounding, stomping, slamming, shoving and getting lost. This was music for dancing hard, legs and hips and pelvis and neck. Even that first night I left the safety of my group, swam out to an uninhabited square on the dance floor and let the drum machine push me out to sea until the sweat and mascara tan thick down the sides of my face, till I was panting hard, shirt stuck to my back. I pushed myself deep into the music until I didn't know where I ended and the beats began, until my thoughts disappeared and my body got blurry and all I knew was the sharp clear thum thum thum surrounding everything. It was like getting lost, but better. It was like getting found.
Years later I would hear about the practice of using music to enter a trancelike state; Sufis, Hasidic Jews, Lakota Native Americans, and gospel choirs (to name a few) do it all the time to reach elevated states of ecstasy, to annihilate the small self in the attempt to unify with something bigger. As twentieth-century Sufi leader Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote, "ft seems that the human race has lost a great deal of the ancient science of magic, but if there remains any magic it is music."
At Medusa's, as Nitzer Ebb and Front 242 crashed around me, I danced into the heart of someplace mysterious. The center of my chest was open-perhaps for magic, maybe just for the music itself. Everything else melted. "Every thought, every word has its form. Sound alone is free from form," writes Khan. "Every word of poetry forms a picture in our mind. Sound alone does not make any object appear before us." Maybe he's right. Maybe the secret of music and dance is that they have the ability to liberate us from the usual external forms to which we are accustomed.
Words, in particular-the incessant flow of chatter and commentary in our brains-keep us hyperaware of the separations between our individual selves and everything else. It's across those separations that, sometimes, the alchemy happens. Words, after all, are all about making distinctions between things. As Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt puts it, "The appropriateness of [a] name lulls me into thinking that there really is a separate object called a 'leaf,' as if the leaf were not part of a continuum: blade-veins-stem-stipule-twig-branch-limb-bough-trunk-root." Music, for some reason, manages to help quiet the part of the brain that does all that distinction making, the part that uses words to talk about how "I" am separate from what Rumi calls the "slow and powerful root that we can't see." When we get caught in music and let go of all the linguistic distinction making, it becomes easier to experience ourselves as part of the bigger continuum, to feel the ways in which everything is interconnected-including ourselves and the Big Bigness, whatever you want to call it. This experience is often called immolation, union, reunion, transcendence ... Whatever and wherever it is, it's beyond language.
At the time, I certainly never thought about this stuff. I would go to Medusa's and soon enough find myself transported off to this place, this somewhere, but eventually I'd come back to my usual self-conscious self (I was a teenager, so let's make that "hyper-self-conscious") and once again assess the social space and my place in it.
Kath's friends mostly didn't dance. They preferred to lean against the balcony and flirt, to smoke, and, I learned later, work the crowd in search of acid. Kath would dance a little and talk on the balcony a lot. I didn't want to talk, and it was only partly shyness. I knew that if I stuck tight to Kath and let her introduce me around, I could get in with some of these kids who seemed just so unreachable. But I couldn't, I wouldn't. All I wanted to do was dance, to let time get blurry and the music take over-to get to the place I would later, as an adult, chase again and again.
Midnight hit and those of us without ID spilled out onto the street. We lined the sidewalks of Clark and Belmont ("Hellmont"), talking more, smoking more, some putting small pieces of paper on their tongues and waiting for the colors to kick in. The ready availability of drugs didn't interest me, but it was of great significance to a lot of people there. I would later hear of acquaintances institutionalized briefly after bad trips, and my friendship with Kath would wind up taking a serious downturn right around the time she started dealing after school at the local IHOP. But that was later. The Hellmont scene was both much less and much more innocent than that, given the range of people who loitered on that corner until the wee hours. I met lots of kids from all over the area-many like me, privileged kids with crayon-box hair who loved the ethos and the music, and some who were much more punk rock in the sense that they had already had hard, painful lives or lived in difficult circumstances. I wasn't sorry then and I'm not sorry now that I hadn't had the material suffering necessary to grant a person real credibility in this scene. Mostly I was just glad to hang around other people who cared about all of this as much as I did.
The humanities courses I took freshman year involved grouping one class together for both English and history, creating a sort of subculture of humanities geeks who all got to know each other a little too well. Conversations with them tended to be less about bands and more about the meaning of life, of any of the big questions as we articulated them then.
One day Helene Strauss recommended this amazing book she was reading. She thought I might dig it. Really? I asked. Who's it by?
"This woman Ayn Rand. It's called The Fountainhead."
I inhaled the book. While I found Rand's ideas vaguely creepy-a few years later I'd have stronger words than that for them-at the same time, they captivated me. She took concepts I thought I understood and dramatically reframed them, forcing me to think through old assumptions in new ways: What if selfish did mean "one who has a self"? What if selfless meant "lacking in self"? What would the implications be for altruism or self-absorption as we know it? However critical I may be today of Rand's relentless individualism and valorization of the ego, she was my first exposure to philosophy, and it New my intellectually itchy fourteen-year-old mind. I was agog at the potential to see the world through entirely new lenses. "Philosophy," Plato suggested, "begins in wonder." Wonder. Whether or not I would ultimately embrace these ideas or any others, they caused me to stop, to have to reconsider who I was and how I might approach certain questions.
That same year, we read Demian, Hermann Hesse's Gnostic/ Jungian novel about the process of opening up to one's unconscious, and I was hooked. Anything with a philosophical bent was fair game. I wanted as much exposure to as many new ideas as possible and I didn't care if I agreed with them or not. I quickly worked my way over to the Beats and their wild, unmitigated desires, to Robert Pirsig, Milan Kundera, anybody I could find. I hounded teachers and bookstore owners for recommendations and sat for hours at Café Express with a book and my journal. I fell hard for the existentialists, carried around my dog-eared copy of The Stranger, and tried, like its hero Meursault, to lay "my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe."
Excerpted from SURPRISED BY GOD by DANYA RUTTENBERG
Copyright © 2008 by Danya Ruttenberg. Excerpted by permission.
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