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


  1. This made me laugh: "One of the perks of my extreme devotion to freedom (see also: commitment issues)"

    And this made me smile: "It is alive with mystery and misunderstanding and thus, with invitation." Love your writing!

    1. Where O where is the "like" button on this comment? :)

  2. the poem is so utterly you.i had to peek ahead to see if you were the one who wrote it. that same casual, by the by, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink quality where even the potato peels get a mention & have meaning.

    i like your highlighting of the underlying inside vs. outside tension of indivdual practice vs. community-based spiritual systems. it really is our nature to take sides with this, pointing to the follies of the other. but you got me thinking. since contradiction has consistently been used to snap people into enlightenment... maybe the whole self-based vs. institution-based tug-pull is really a gift embedded in society intended as a gigantic koan: the only way is through self, but the only way is through other.

    1. Hi Whitney!! Yes, koan - that is a perfect way of saying it. It is all alive with exploration, no?


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