Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Wheel

"Simon explained truth to me," Thomas said. "If there's a tree in the distance and you run to get there, run across the grass with all your heart, and you make it and touch the tree, press your face against the bark, then it is all true. But if you stumble and fall, lose your way, move to the city and buy a VCR and watch cowboy movies all the time, then nothing is true."     
- from Sherman Alexie's "Special Delivery," in The Business of Fancy Dancing

Me looking serious, with my laptop and Tim's unexplained collection of air fresheners.
In lieu of a passage from my journal (wink!), I give you something from a book called Material Culture, by Henry Glassie.  It is from a chapter titled - beautifully, I find - The Potter's Art:

"...Fevziye will not pursue the potter's trade when she marries and moves to Germany, but she will not lose the strength she gained in her apprenticeship. She will become a woman of the modern world, but she will remain free of the debilitating anxieties that bedevil people who have never known creation in their own hands.

That is one purpose of art. It brings confidence to its creators. Those who make things know who they are. They have been tested and found able..."

I stumbled on this passage as I lounged in a luxurious blue reading chair at Christmas.  My brother-in-law (TMTA) was reading the book, and I picked it up because my eye kept reading its title as Maternal Culture, clearly a sign of where my heart was on those long, cozy vacationing days.

When I opened the book, however, I found some of its contents not far from what I might find in a book on maternal cultures.  Trent and I launched into a discussion of what makes art valuable, i.e. what to pass on to students, what makes art good, etc etc.  Lots of coffee may have been consumed by that point in the day, you see. On my part. All on my part.  I was arguing that there is no way to define what makes a work of art good, except by the individual, and Trent, bless him, was listening. 

When I first started grad school, and read Lorrie Moore's Birds of America, I latched onto one of the lines therein, something glib and brilliant, something like, "But she did too much yoga and nobody listened to her anymore." After that, at school, I always worried I was The Yoga Person in the room, which was otherwise full of True Intellectuals.  Keep the fluff to a minimum! I warned myself, half-joking, half-serious, and 100% conflicted. 

I don't know what to make of that conflict anymore.  The Henry Glassie passage above moves me so greatly because I know now what it means to find my own rhythm, a secret knock that no one else knows, the tattoo by which I find myself again, and this is the gift of art, I believe.  At least, that is how I found it - by leaning into the voices of creation inside, and bundling this sacred flame again and again as I visited my computer and colored pencils, which often reveal more to me than hours on my meditation cushion. In my experience, the act of creating something takes me inside, and it is there I find joy.  Sharing what I find there is light-giving - to the communicator, and to the listener.  And this is all I need to know when I see or read or touch a creative piece: Where is its light - for me?  Where am I traveling to, in the hands of this work?

Over Christmas, Trent and I talked about what happens when he doesn't make it into his studio.  In short, problems loom larger than normal.  In my own life, it is the same.  Those who are called to create (which we all are, in our own way) find
themselves when they create.  In yoga, there is a lot of talk about co-creation.  This is in the Bible too, by the way, in the concept of free will.  However you look at it, without participating in the act of creation - with creative forces that are bigger and wilder than our own possible invention - we lose our way.  The path grows over itself.  Shit gets stale. 

The only way to clear the way is to bring to it the attention required by creation.  This is what we practice in meditation - bringing the attention back.  But with art - or writing, or cooking, or learning the guitar - it is a more extended meditation.  And it is one, I believe, that can heal us all.

And so, onward beloveds!  To whatever craft, scrapbook, and poem calls your name.  Or calls Her name - wanting you to bring it into form. 

Here is a video about the art and bliss of balanced containment, courtesy of my friend Amelia, whom I once shied away from because I find her gorgeous.  What a reaction!  I grew shy in the face of something I admired, which is maybe a little weird.  But Tim said this week, when I couldn't believe that an old friend missed me and loved me as much as I love her, that it's only natural. When we love fully, we are vulnerable.  And that vulnerability makes us act a little weird and squishy sometimes. 

Perhaps fittingly, the video briefly describes the happiness that comes from finding and protecting your own inner sanctum, and it features a woman with curly hair.  I approve of curly hair, and I also like the underlying follow your bliss message at which the video hints. 

Speaking of bliss, tomorrow I travel to my beloved North Carolina to visit friends, kiss the ocean, and retrace some of the paths I've walked.  For the rest of this week, and cherished, cherub-filled February, may you clear the way for bliss - however she makes her way to you. Or more importantly, however you make your way to her.

All love, all bliss,

Thursday, February 2, 2012

At the Altar

Dear Lonely Animal,

Last night I wanted nachos again,
a big plate of nachos covered in
cheese and black beans and

salsa, sour cream, guacamole--
did I mention cheese?
Animal, sometimes I want

nachos so much that it distracts me
from what I should be doing,
I mean, pursuing, I mean,

my career. How can one person's stomach
be so hungry for snacks?
It was Easter today and the local cafe

hid adhesive eggs under some people's
plates. I found an egg, but it
belonged to somebody else. People

were putting their plates in the dirty bin
without so much as a glance underneath!
Hel-lo!, I wanted to say, There's an egg hunt

in progress here, People! Later at a buffet,
different people put their drinks
on top of a grand piano--on the body

of a grand piano!--and their paper plates too
of crummy, half-eaten hors d'oeuvres!
Hel-LO!! Don't they know

how amazing a piano is?
What if somebody built that piano
with his bare hands

and lined up every hammer
and every key and every
damper and stretched

every single wire and tethered each one
in place? Somebody made that piano,
Lonely Animal, and its beautiful

wood-encased body, all arched and
elegant, a whole piece of wood
swooned into shape like that,

persuaded to the curve. And anyway,
I'm so stupid and scared. I didn't say
a word. I just let those people

put their soggy old plates
right on the instrument
and their sodas too, condensing

right on the wood, everybody laughing
and carrying on, not even
seeing it there, what it once was.

Like a coward, I came back
at ten o'clock at night, when the whole house
was empty except for me and the piano,

and I apologized to it. I opened up
its keyboard cover and the keys were
chipped and dirty, and the strings

were out of tune. I opened up the lid
and its body was filled with dust and even
a gum wrapper. Lonely Animal, I played then

the most beautiful piece of music
that I know, right there with all those
sour notes. The most beautiful

piece I know is the third movement
of Chopin's 3rd sonata. That's
a lot of 3's, but on repeating numbers,

you sometimes get to make a wish.
I didn't know what to wish for, but anyway,
I hope somebody somewhere made a wish.

- Oni Buchanan

I have a bad habit of not finishing things.  This, I am working on.  I am still making a wedding gift for a friend who got married 3 years ago.  You know what?  I'm okay with that.  I am working on it, and that is an improvement from the heaps of projects I have begun in my life and, much like many boyfriends, lost interest in after a bit of time, and swiftly deposited them in the Past pile (that grew and grew and grew). 

My mom HAS to finish a novel, but I say, life is short.  If I am bored by something, see ya later alligator.  Which is how I know that I really love something: I keep it around.  My husband likes to joke that he and the dog are really lucky because they are the only things I haven't tried to return yet.  He adds the word "yet."  I know that they have won me over and I am keeping them, if they will have me, that is. 

One of the perks of my extreme devotion to freedom (see also: commitment issues) is that books call out to me from corners of the house.  I used to feel a bit afraid of this.  A little, I don't have time for you right now, random author!!  But now I embrace a book's call.  After all, there are plenty of two-minute moments packed into a day that can open up everything and clear away the spiritual dross.  I now search out whatever book is whispering from the room corner, flip it open, and see what text was so antsy to reveal itself to me. 

I recently stumbled upon a passage from An Open Life: Joseph Campbell In Conversation with Michael Toms.  (My dad introduced me to Joseph Campbell, a fact I find about the coolest thing ever.) Here is what Campbell says:

...I can't talk about what's happening in India, because I'm not an Indian....But I can say something about the East coming to the West, particularly in the field of religion and mythology.

Our Western systems have been institutionalized from way back....Our mythologies are institutionalized and salvation comes from membership in an institution...."Go to Church," "Read the Bible."  That has to do with one definition of a religious life.  You can't find it in yourself; you find it only through Church.  These men from the East come - whether they're Indians or Japanese or Tibetans - and they tell you that the real mystery is yourself.  We have that in our mystic tradition also - not what the Church advertises. Finding the divine not only within you, but within all things, is not favored by either the Jewish or the Christian or the Muslim religion. And what the Orient brings is a realization of the inward way. When you sit in meditation with your hands in your lap, with your head looking down, that means you've gone in and you're coming not just to a soul that is disengaged from God; you're coming to that divine mystery right there in yourself.

...There are two responses that are quite natural to the guru. When anyone becomes a model for you, you tend automatically to imitate him...The second phase is finding your own self."

What struck me in this passage was the simple articulation of something I have been thinking about recently, and that is how we can mistake the outer garb of an activity (say yoga, say meditation cushions) for making real progress in our lives.  We might think we are sifting through karmic lessons, getting bigger in heart, when really, we have only changed clothes and, inside, are still carrying around whatever abusive judgments we had before.  This sort of limited update - an ideological clothing swap - can be a real spirit-block.  The trick, for me, has been to seek that "own self" that Campbell mentions above, no matter where I find myself physically or ideologically.  In my experience, finding this own self is the profound outcome of truly going inside - beyond the mental traps of self-satisfaction, of mimicry - into the vulnerable center of my being, which is, ironically or not, also the greatest seat of power. 

I am overly aware of the hypocrisy that has come out of some Christian communities. For this reason, I consistently feel shy about my devotion to the sanctimony of church.  I don't like to talk about it much.  It feels too big for words, too soupy in the heart.  I feel like I need ten years to explain my relationship with it.  But it was calming for me to read about the confusion that can happen inside a West-meets-East moment, I suppose, because I have experienced that same confusion, and have come out the other side of it liking myself, and my tradition, all the better.   

Campbell says this: "I think that wearing Oriental clothes or assuming Oriental names is not the correct way to go about it.  You've displaced again; you have mistaken the clothing for the message, and not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord," is going to get to the kingdom of heaven; not everyone who wears a turban is a released spirit. That's one way to get caught again.  Then you mistake a certain attitude or manner of living that has nothing to do with the spiritual life."

I think that taking a new name, and wearing certain clothes, can all remind us of our desire to stay close to the divine.  I think that's beautiful.  But I also know that, for me, resistance to drinking a whole glass of the Kool-aid serves me better than glugging it all down.  I like my blue jeans, I like my Jesus.  I like turbans, too, and books and poetry and rock and roll.  I like people who see the divine in everything.  And I like seeing it in everyone, too.  This is Tantra, and I like that word, because right now it means so many things.  It is alive with mystery and misunderstanding and thus, with invitation.

Back to being finicky, and not needing to read a whole book: I believe that commitment can heal a life, but that obligation can kill a spirit.  If you want to quit something, you have my blessing.  Go free yourself up for what you really need, I say.  It will find you when you make the space for it.

I like this.  It's about being yourself, and vulnerability.  I believe in these two things, in case you couldn't tell!

Lots of love