Tag Archives: art

Strike Your Note

“Pathmaker, there is no path. You make the path by walking. By walking, you make the path. ”

— ANTONIO MACHADO

At the end of 2017, I made a promise to myself that I would join a conversation I’ve been listening to for 30 years, a conversation between writers who have the temerity to put their words on pages and their pages into our hands. I admire professional writers more than almost anyone on the planet, because they have the courage to be publicly wrong, and to but their insides on the outside for us all to judge. And to do so, in perpetuity.

I owe an immeasurable debt to writers who have lit the path. It’s time to pay.

In a recent interview, David Whyte suggests that when we escape into our work, we think that through “the armored professionality of a vocation, we’ll be held immune from the heartbreaks of life.”

But of course, in art, it doesn’t work that way.

Like most of us, I have professional and personal selves, which I prefer to keep separate. I understand the rules of engagement in work relationships, and I’ve grown skilled in navigating them. But I still struggle to gauge how much vulnerability is appropriate in personal relationships, how to pace the disparate needs for connection each person craves, and how to vary the rhythm as people move in and out of spaces of desire.

In art, there are no such boundaries. Whyte says that if you’re “sincere about your work, you should not know how to precede at times. You should not know how to get from here to there. And that puts you into a relationship with the world, because you have to ask for help. You have to make the invitation to the people who will help you create the conversation which will help you follow the path of vulnerability into the world and give your gift to others along the way.”

 

Cont…

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The Personal is Political (Part 1)

 

When asked why she is still working, 79-year-old photojournalist Paola Gianturco replied, “It never occurred to me to stop. What for? I can’t imagine not using what I know and what I can do to try to change the world. It would be a waste. I just can’t imagine, if you still do important work, why would you stop?”

https://www.michelledowd.org/selected-works/2018/7/23/the-personal-is-political-part-1

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MichelleDowd.org

“How do we proceed when there is actually not meant to be a plan, because we are working a way of being, a slowly building conversation between what we want for ourselves and what we are most afraid of?

— DAVID WHYTE

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Please visit me at michelledowd.org

I have failed at more things than I have achieved. I have made nearly every mistake self-help experts warn you not to make. I am kind and loyal and I have an intense work ethic, but I am also messy, impatient, passionate and unpredictable.

Why should you trust me?

You shouldn’t.

But I want to encourage you to trust yourself.

Because curious people always have more questions than answers, and we don’t always need to know exactly where we’re going to appreciate the climb. If we can learn to navigate by our internal compass, while filtering out the noise of conformity, we can curate a life that inspires us. For me, that means showing up daily for my practice, both on and off the mat. Whatever I get wrong, no matter how many times I fail, I come back to my mat. I show up and do the work. I breathe, get grounded, re-center. I apologize, make amends, learn from my mistakes, re-direct. I forgive myself and others. I invite myself back to the practice.

I created a literary journal several years ago. The phenomenal team I work with is currently curating our 17th volume. From the beginning, our motto has been, join the conversation.

And so I do.

I grew up in a small, conservative, isolated community and escaped to Pitzer College when I was 17. Iquickly married a boy I grew up with, earned a degree in English and World Literatures and moved to Boulder at 21 to teach at the University of Colorado and work toward a PhD I didn’t quite finish. I gave birth to 4 children in rapid succession, began a newsletter/magazine called SmartKids, taught at numerous colleges before earning a tenured professorship, and bought and sold several houses before finding home. I have loved and lost and been so sad, I thought I couldn’t continue. But I was committed to the profession of teaching and to being present for my children every day of their lives, so I showed up for these two commitments with everything I had in me.

I am immensely proud of the young adults my kids have become and of the students, former and current, whom I learn from daily as an adviser of college media.

I am a professor, yogi, writer, aerialist, runner, hiker, mother, sister, friend and lover.

But mostly, I am a student of life.

We’re all just trying to figure out how to build a solid airplane to take off in. We begin again.

michelledowd.org

 

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Wabi-Sabi

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–Photo by Andrija Bloom

 

You remember too much,

my mother said to me recently.

 

Why hold onto all that? And I said,

Where can I put it down?

 

–Anne Carson

I’ve had a lot of strong feelings this week. I’ve tried to allow myself to feel them, to feel the full extent of them, to let it hurt as much as it hurts. I haven’t distracted myself with any of the things that can typically provide escape–exercise, work, food, substances, texting, relationships, touch. I’m not running away. I’ve sat alone with the pain and the darkness. It started with hours. It’s turned into days.

I had no idea how many layers of strength this would take. I had no idea the pain went that deep. Each time I thought I had hit bottom, there was a trap door that opened and there was more underneath.

Maybe there is still more. Maybe I have not yet hit bottom.

But I am staying here until I do.

The Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, rooted in Zen Buddhism, is exemplified by the custom of celebrating cracks rather than discarding the cracked object. If a container is old and worn, cracked and leaking, an artist fills the cracks with gold, showing the broken places, rather than hiding them. In so doing, the container is made distinct and useful again. In this tradition, over time, the vessel takes on a new beauty, and is honored and prized because of (not in spite of) its obvious flaws.

The culture of wabi-sabi celebrates the beauty of imperfection and the wisdom of the experiences that break us. When the cracks are filled in with gold, they are highlighted rather than hidden, celebrated rather than denied. An untrained eye might think such an object is garish or embarrassing, but there is a perverse beauty in dramatizing imperfection. Wabi-sabi embraces this.

I am broken and scarred, but my cracks are where the light gets in.

I like being prepared, so everywhere I go, I carry bags to compartmentalize the clothes and tools I need for the numerous jobs I do. I am a person who over-schedules, over-exercises, over-plans, over-commits, and I have a messy car that dramatizes this. When I’m working on something I believe in, I go all in, focusing so intently, I forget to eat, forget to rest, neglect my friends, push people away, lock myself in a sort of solitary confinement. Sometimes I get physically ill.

But I am more than my worst traits, more than an amalgam of my annoying flaws. Most of the time, I give people my undivided attention, even if it messes with my overbooked schedule. Most of the time, I practice yoga and meditation and peace-making, slowing down, becoming present. I send handwritten notes to loved ones, tend a garden, share the harvest. Most of the time, I follow my heart over my head and actively defy the social barriers of religion, class, gender, ethnicity and age, loving boldly and courageously. I stand up for what I believe in, especially when it’s threatened by something more powerful, even when I know I can’t win. And if what I’m fighting for requires me to go up against something stronger than I am, I step into the ring anyway, and go down swinging, to the very end.

When I lose, sometimes someone will reach down, take my hand, and sit with my brokenness.

Maybe this time, that person is me.

I am loyal, loving, chaotic, dramatic, and broken.

“The world breaks everyone,” Ernest Hemingway said, “and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

 

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The Fall

 

woman wearing grey long sleeved top photography

Photo by Artem Bali on Pexels.com

It is not as if what is true, right, urgent and necessary is a light, and what is harm is darkness. They are both darkness; they are both lights. –Anne Boyer

There are very few phrases my father has ever spoken aloud to me. “I love you” is not one of them. “Never depend on a man” is. And I don’t, in fact, rely on men for emotional sustenance, for income, or for praise. Sometimes men provide these things for women, but sometimes they don’t, and I resist disappointment like a used handkerchief.

Back when we were all small, before our family fell off the ledge, my sisters and brother and I shared a bedroom in the only house we would ever own, a soon-to-be foreclosed 800 square foot shelter bordering the city dump. Back when we lived on dreams and loans, I used to rise early, when it was virtually silent, to watch my father get ready for work.

I would sit on the counter in the bathroom while he lathered his face with Noxzema, heating the water until it fogged the mirror, watching while he slid his razor across his preternatural white face. Sometimes I would dip my fingers into the cream and softly, tentatively, quietly mold it onto my girly face. My father tolerated this in silence, without so much as a nod. One time, when he was finished shaving, before he splashed on his Old Spice with a virulent shake, he took the blade out of the razor and handed me the empty shell. I carefully stroked my tender cheeks with the vacuous metal, until each white row had vanished and I looked like a little girl again. Then I splashed my face with water and looked to him for approval. He didn’t comment, but he held my gaze, and I felt something akin to respect. There was validation in the motions I had sequenced, almost in tandem with his, the rituals of manhood like a handshake between us.

My older sister later told me that girls don’t shave their faces, but that wasn’t of particular interest to me. Our home was a man’s world, where brute strength still ruled, and I was proud that I had stood there next to him, doing what men do. I loved watching his calm face in the mirror, as every errant hair was meticulously removed. My sisters often claimed he looked like a bear, that they were frightened of him, of his gruff manners and his guttural growl. And to be frank, I was often frightened of him myself–but not as I sat on the bathroom counter, not during his morning ritual, not while I could see my face in the mirror next to his.

It’s simpler to remember the brutality, to focus on the slaps and the slugs that came later, on the random anger, the cage of violence, the tightening spine of fear. It’s simpler to negate moments like these, to dismiss early morning reflections in a mirror, to see them as the anomalies they certainly were.

And yet, I wonder now if he shared mornings like these with his own father when he was small, before his mother took him far away on a bus in the night, away from abuses he never spoke of.

My father is turning 81 this week. My sister tells me he is still strong and athletic, that he swims daily and has a mean golf swing. She says he’s still taller than everyone around him, but he doesn’t bow his head to listen, that he carries himself regally, with no real expressions. She says he’s calmer with age, and he’s gentler when he blows his nose on the handkerchief he still keeps folded in his pocket.

My father was twelve when his mother executed their stealthy get-away, when the two of them rode on a bus across the entire country to forge a new home. She didn’t tell him they were leaving, so he never said goodbye to his friends or his father. Long before he could become my grandfather, my father’s father died of alcoholism and pneumonia, a man alone in his early 40’s, estranged from his wife and teenage son. He made it to California, but my father didn’t know his father arrived here or that he died here. Not until many years later, when he visited the military grave, long grown cold.

My father never speaks of these things.

The first boy who loved me called me a cat. His father died when we were in our early teens, and my father became his coach and mentor. We grew up together in a strange, small world. We escaped in different ways, and both married and had children young, though not with each other. He told me later, “girl, your dad pushed me to be a man, but he just pushed you away.” He laughed, and then stopped laughing. He said that when I was pushed, sometimes it was from skyscraper heights, that he’d seen my fear, but didn’t step in to help, that I’d squirm and screech and hiss and flail, but I would land on my feet. He said he grew to respect me for that.

I told him that sounds like a form of torture, that people shouldn’t take cats up to skyscrapers, let alone drop them off ledges. He said I could handle it, that it was my lot in this world to be brutalized, that I would survive.

During a particularly difficult juncture not long ago, he called to remind me of this. I assured him I had come to the end of my nine lives, that my luck had rampantly run out. “Ahhhh, but it’s not luck,” he assured me, “it’s in your training. It’s so well-rehearsed, it looks like instinct, but I know you and I know where you come from. Fact is, you know how to fall.”

Maybe so. But I think it’s time to stop letting men push me off buildings.

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Toward Integration, Part I

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–Sculpture at Sam Maloof’s house, photo by Michelle Dowd

Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. — Sandra Cisneros

Most of my women friends are over-scheduled, frazzled, frustrated and nearly always at their wits’ ends. Scheduling time to hang-out can be months in the making. The men in our lives go with the flow and call us crazy. We call ourselves crazy. When I suggest perhaps we have taken on too many asymmetrical moral support roles (which Kate Manne defines as performing giving, caring, loving and attentive roles to those around us–including students–who do not reciprocate this emotional labor), my friends agree, but imply that patriarchal social structures are so embedded in our system, they can’t rely on anyone else to do what needs to be done.

Even though I understand the implications of systemic patriarchy, and even though I know I’m clearly not alone in navigating this chaos, sometimes I feel like I’m falling apart, that I can’t breathe, that I’m drowning, that I’ve taken on too much, that I’m dizzy with the intermittent demands of hundreds of people I’ve nurtured over the years.

But I still participate in this world, as does every working woman I know.

I am grateful for the myriad choices I now have as a woman, but being able to have it all usually means doing it all, and I no longer want to shoulder that burden. Part of the reason we take on so many asymmetrical roles is because we’re conditioned to think that’s what good women do. We police ourselves. We have thoroughly internalized the ideological apparatus that keeps us working so hard, we unconsciously accept that these social relations are just the way things are.

I think it’s time we redefine our gender.

The woman I strive to be is not integrated with the woman I am. In my professional life, I teach young women to value  themselves and their labor. I tell them they teach others how to love them by the way they treat themselves, that they get to decide their own boundaries, and that they should pursue excellence in their fields of interest and prioritize their own goals.

And yet, in my personal life, I continue to uphold the expectation that I should nurture and buoy the emotional life of everyone in my world, and put their needs above my own.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m disintegrating.

Dis-integration.

This work we do is referred to as emotional (or invisible) labor, and includes, but is not limited to, the organizational work we do to keep our homes and workspaces running smoothly, and the time and attention we give to regulate the emotions of the dominant men in our various social spheres. Even when we have earned professional success, even when we outrank colleagues or are the larger wage-earner at home, the men in our shared spaces feel entitled to (and often receive) our care and attention, without having the skills, experience or expectation to offer us what we most need in return. And when we do ask for it, they can’t hear us. They have been socialized to see our needs as irrational (crazy), and we have been complicit in this.

I don’t blame men. Most of them have no inherent knowledge of their bastions of privilege. Why would they willingly give up a system that serves them?

If we are unhappy with the status quo, we are responsible for changing the terms of our relationships.

As a recovering codependent, I have been guilty of over-giving as a negotiation for love. I am aware, even now, of how often I feel guilty for not giving enough, how obligated I feel to say yes to random requests for my time.

Sometimes, I feel resentful.

I observe the men in my life benefitting from the women in their social spheres who nurture them.

And I wonder if we have become our own worst enemy.

How do I change the terms of engagement?

I don’t know where this starts or ends. Am I so accustomed to playing this nurturing role, that I’ve created a wall of expectation that isolates me from the generosity of those who could care for me?

In their professional lives, men are often surrounded by women who serve in support roles. They benefit from their kindness, their attention to detail, their nurturing energy, their compliments and their emotional care. I get why women are an asset.

When I communicate with men professionally, I often find myself caregiving, as well. Just because I don’t want the paradigm we have been handed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel obligated to play the part. But then I am ashamed of myself for internalizing social codes that no longer resonate with me.

Where does that shame come from?

I am ashamed partly because, as Kate Manne puts it, I have inherited the system of misogyny, which punishes me socially if I’m not compliant.

And I am no longer compliant. As Michele Wolf says, I am not a nice lady. Part of the beauty of growing older is, I no longer want to be.

I have been shamed my whole life. Shamed for my breasts, my legs, my smile, my girly laugh. Shamed for dressing unconventionally, for having too many children, for working full-time while raising said children, for putting my work first, for putting my children first, for not putting a man first, for having desire. Even when I don’t have to, I continue to push myself mentally and physically. I have dared to want more and I have been shamed for this, over and over. As Ariel Gore says, “My public shaming is not merely designed for my own benefit, but rather serves as a sermon and a warning to other girls and other women who may hope to escapes the confines of a system designed to support and enable the white-supremacist capitalist war machine.”

I don’t think Ariel is being hyperbolic.

I don’t have the answers. I have no ability to change the system under which we live. My men friends work with women who adore them, who vie for the privilege of serving them. I can’t change this, or even judge them for accepting this attention.

I will never perform the female gender role as fully as I used to. 

If I want to change the world as we know it, I can’t participate in the system. As Anne Lamott says, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”

The parts of me I’m ashamed of are the parts I most need to embrace. The only way out of the shame is to name it and hold it up to the light.

I am ashamed that I no longer want to be a wife or girlfriend by the standard definition of helpmate, but I am not ashamed of my light. I am proud of the work I do. I have invested in the security of my future and I will happily pay more than half of a partner’s living expenditures, both in and out of the home. I love hard and will continue to love hard–with passion, purpose and commitment–supporting and defending a partner’s right to live his life on his own terms, whether or not those terms directly benefit me. I will support his choice to travel where work or friendship or spirituality lead him, with or without me. I will love openly, enthusiastically, loyally and even defiantly. But I no longer want to be a woman who walks on eggshells to protect a man from the vicissitudes of his own habits, or bolster his ego when he has earned the right to be humbled.

I am a woman committed to nurturing myself and my work as a human being on this planet. Let the envious gods take back what they can.

 

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Ajna

pexels-photo-270775.jpegIf a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. – Thoreau

For the past few months, I’ve been training with a woman we call J. She’s an accomplished athlete, dancer, performer and business owner, and every time I see her, she pushes me out of my comfort zone.

Last fall, I agreed to dance burlesque and pole with her troupe. Two weeks before the show, right before I knew she was delivering the program to print, I came to my senses and realized I wasn’t ready. I spent hours drafting the perfect text message, apologizing to her for inconveniencing her, assuring her that she could take me off the program and adjust the performance timing to accommodate this beneficial change, thanking her for taking a risk on me, and then apologizing three more times, in different ways, to assure her I knew I had been delusional when I had initially agreed to do this.

I pressed “send” right before I taught my regularly scheduled vinyasa flow yoga class, relieved I had done the right thing, realizing I had jumped in over my head, and was now safely exiting the metaphorical pool before I drowned.

I taught my class, secure in the rhythms of language and instruction, sequenced to my well-rehearsed musical playlist.

After class, I looked at my phone. There was a text message that read, “This isn’t a decision to make through text. I’ll be at the studio at noon. See you there.”

I stared at my phone is disbelief. I became mildly angry. I had done the right thing. How dare she make me question myself. Did she need an apology in person? Why? And how dare she make me any more uncomfortable than I already was.

I typed, “I’m sorry I’m not available. I hope you’ll forgive me for wasting your time. I’ll see you after the show.”

I sat with that for a moment. I looked at my phone. I didn’t press send. Instead, I looked at the time. 10:30. I had plenty of time to figure out a better way to say that. I set the phone down and packed up my things. I changed my clothes. I walked to my car.

I looked at my phone. 11:00. I didn’t press send.

I put my bags and yoga mat in my car and walked to a cafe. I ordered tea and sat down. I looked at my phone. 11:22.

I deleted the text message. I told myself that I respected her as a person and I should be courteous and face her. I decided to apologize in person.

I drove to the studio.

She looked at me casually when I walked in and told me to get dressed, that we needed to go through the routine a couple more times to see what changes we should make.

She told me to warm up.

I fought the urge to argue and didn’t respond. Instead, I walked out.

I stood outside the studio, shaking.

Then I went back to my car, grabbed my pole shorts and changed in the bathroom. She had turned on the music by the time I walked back in and I grabbed a mat from the stack and began to stretch. She adjusted the lights and the tempo and said, “Ok, just let me see a quick run-through so I can gauge where we are.”

I began.

Two weeks later, I put on high black boots, a camisole, and short shorts. I let the girls adorn me with tribal make-up and symbols. I was still shaking, but I performed with the troupe, two nights in a row, to loud applause.

As Sri Aurobindo says, “In order to see, you have to stop being in the middle of the picture.”

J has never mentioned my text message. Neither have I.

Who marches to the beat of their own drummer? Who is the marcher? Who is the drummer?

Whose judgment was I afraid of? And why did I let that the fear of that judgment infringe on my attempt to challenge myself and do something outside of my comfort zone, something I had obviously felt compelled to try?

I worried that the other women in the troupe thought I was embarrassing. I worried about other women in my social spheres who might find out I was doing something inappropriate for my age. I worried I was being self-indulgent and ridiculous. 

We still have subtle punishments for women who insist on who they are and what they want. Kate Manne argues that misogyny is not about hating women, but rather about controlling and punishing women who challenge male dominance. Misogyny rewards women who reinforce the status quo and punishes those who don’t. We are all complicit.

I judged myself for playing whore in a world in which I had previously chosen to play madonna. I didn’t agree with this unilateral bifurcation, but here I was, afraid to upset the status quo by switching roles.

So how do we pay attention to what we want, and listen to our own intuition? How do we support other women in doing the same?

We can consider the space of ajna, the sixth chakra, which engages inner and outer seeing. The sixth chakra is found in the cone-shaped pineal gland, located in the geometric center of the head at approximately eye level, derived from a third eye, which begins to develop early in the embryo and later degenerates. The pineal gland acts as a light meter for the body and is sometimes called the “seat of the soul.” To develop a more intuitive form of seeing, we need to look at fields of energy, not at objects themselves, reaching with our minds to see beyond what we’re accustomed to looking for, developing a wider lens to capture what is outside our ordinary field of vision.

One way we can learn to listen to ourselves and develop clairvoyance is by embracing an art form. At its fundamental core, art provides a vehicle for resistance. While our practice will undoubtedly include supporting professional artists and the work we admire, we must also join the conversation by creating art ourselves.

Oppression exists in so many forms, many of which are not easily detected. Art does the difficult work of identifying those things.

Jeanette Winterson reminds us that “the process of art is a series of jolts, or perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.”

J chose to be an artist because it was the only career she knew of that would allow her to speak her truth at all times. Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. She wears hers in the spotlight.

I don’t make a living performing with my body, but I have made a career out of performing with my mind. There’s something empowering about stepping out of that comfort zone, widening the definition of what I think I can do, who I am, how I see and let myself be seen.

I’ve decided to inject myself with the unpredictable, and this new way of moving in the world is a lifestyle I seek and often regret seeking. This tension is part of the discomfort.

The healing power of art is not a rhetorical fantasy. Art opens the wound to clean it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself.

As Beth Pickens says, “You have something to contribute to anything to which you feel committed. Right now, as you are, with what you already have, you can contribute…. Have a clear view of your relative vulnerability and risk level in the world. Feeling scared does not equal being unsafe. Feeling fearless does not equal safety…”

In the past four months, I have engaged in arenas I didn’t think were possible for me to enter.

I spent my young adulthood thinking I wanted to be with an artist. It’s taken me a long time to realize, I am an artist.

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Quiet Street

Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom, life ceases to be a task….

― Nisargadatta Maharaj

Where I come from, like anywhere, there are rules. Some are written, but most are unwritten, passed on member to member, generation to generation, word of mouth, tongue in cheek, morphing as they circulate, like an ontological plague.

Learning the official promise and bylaws at the Organization was easy. At the beginning of meetings, everyone recites the pledge: “I promise by the strength of Christ to be brave, pure and true. I will fulfill my duties at school, home and club; do my part in [the Organization’s] activities, keep all dates and promises and read at least one verse in the Bible daily.”  

It takes a little longer to learn the laws, but anyone who wants to be recognized by leadership, to earn a pin or a neckerchief, to move up into Phosterians or RHLA, strives to live by these, as well:

A member is brave. He/she will not shun duty. He/she realizes that bravery in standing for the right is greater than mere physical strength. Coaxing of friends and jeers of enemies cannot persuade him/her to do wrong.

A member is pure in body, mind, speech and conduct. He/she will not defile his/her body with tobacco, liquor, or other harmful habits. Because he/she keeps his/her mind pure, his/her speech and conduct will also be pure and he/she will choose to go with a clean crowd.

A member is true to himself/herself, to parents, to all leaders, and to God. He/she will not lie, steal, cheat or gamble. He/she will honor his/her parents and be respectful to those in authority. He/she is reverent toward God.

In theory, these were the only rules, but in practice, the parameter of acceptable behaviors was vastly more complex. To thrive in this Organization, you had to learn the boundaries–meaning, the bi-conditional logic of what is and isn’t godly.

The Organization obtained its current property when my mother was a young child, leasing the initial 4 acres of riverbed from a local philanthropic family in 1952, and then acquiring adjoining use rights from the Southern California Water Company and the Los Angeles Flood Control District. My family turned a former garbage dump located at the end of a cul-de-sac, surrounded by suburban homes, into a sanctuary of ballfields, and the bowl of refuse became a worship center to a close-knit homogeneous ideological community that has thrived for decades.

However you approached the entrance to the Organization, an unofficially zoned no-noise buffer emanated approximately a mile in each direction. Upon entering that perimeter, no matter what was taking place prior, everyone would hush, and the participants on the bus would be quiet until we drove down the driveway into the basin of fields. Whatever your age, whether you entered the property by car or bus or bike, the blocks of homes outlining the entrance were all part of Quiet Street. If you wanted to stay in the fold, you made the journey silent as a contemplative monk.

The practice of silence served two purposes, but the second one didn’t occur to me until long after I left.

Ostensibly, we were quiet to respect the residents in the surrounding homes. If they weren’t bothered by our noise, they wouldn’t complain to law enforcement of our presence. We all understood that what we did in that basin was unconventional (and, of course, holy) and only those who fully understood God’s purpose should be privy to it.

I walked, biked and drove through Quiet Street thousands of times from my first memories as a toddler through my teenage years, and each time I did so etched in me an unwitting meditation practice. We left what we called the Outside–a world of commerce, temptation and worldly pleasures–to pass through the silence of those transitional streets, to cross the threshold of the cul-de-sac thoroughfare and burrow down into our spiritual home.

A student asked me today how I learned to drop down into my body, how I learned to be still and practice inner-knowing. I didn’t explain Quiet Street, nor quote how at the end of all our exploring, we will arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. What I did share was a simpler truth: throughout my childhood, the practice of mindfulness was integrated into my daily life. Learning to be silent, learning to be reverent in the midst of chaos, learning to pause and respect the physical space of a spiritual journey, is a practice I am deeply grateful for, and one I continue to honor.

 

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I Will Not Let Thee Go Except Thou Bless Me

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. —Søren Kierkegaard

I left organized religion many years ago, but religion has not left me.

Growing up, I was taught to give thanks in all situations and to pray without ceasing, for this is the will of God through Jesus Christ.

To pray without ceasing is a difficult habit to cultivate and an even harder habit to break.

Anne Lamott says there are three prayers every person should learn: “help,” “thanks,” and “wow.”  And I agree with her that fostering interdependence, gratitude and awe is a humbling and worthwhile practice, whether or not we believe in a literal God.

But prayers are so much more than an expression of intent; prayers are a vibration, like poetry and music, and there are as many vibrations as there are art forms to express our range of human emotions. There are prayers of supplication, prayers for comfort and love, prayers for rescue and mercy and healing, both for ourselves and for others. Some prayers are like breathing, some are like listening, and some raise up your hands like a flamingo, whether or not you emit praise.

But the hardest prayers to give up are the conversational ones, the ones where we simply commune with God, about our day, about the minutiae of our microscopic participation in the world as we know it, where we unwittingly define and share our values, softly appealing to a higher perspective.

Talking to God is not the same as talking to yourself. It’s more like looking for yourself.

Giving up prayer like that is like losing your best friend.

One of the uniting principles of the upper chakras is communication, which is an act of connection. We take patterns of thought and make them specific through the process of naming. And prayer is a type of naming, focusing our consciousness by drawing limits around the context of our prayer, why it is this and it is not that. To pray is to clarify a thought, to set boundaries, to specify what we value by naming what we want or need. Praying gives structure and meaning to our thoughts, rather than random ruminating or otherwise spinning around our own manic mind-talk.

When I left the Organization, I wanted a blessing on my way out. I wanted someone from the family I grew up with to believe good things could happen to me while not wrapped in the confines of that particular subculture. I wanted someone to let me go with a handshake or a hug. Actually, even a nod or a wave would have been welcome. I wanted someone to wish that the road would rise up to meet me.

I spent years wrestling with that one, and it never came.

The sound of grief, like the sound of prayer, has a distinct force and vibration, and this vibration exists through all form of matter, energy and consciousness. In fact, the Hindus believe that vibration, working through various levels of the density of audible sound, is the basic emanation from which matter was created.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, ”I will not let thee go except thou bless me.”

When I left for college, and first heard the scientific rationale for atheism, I began to shift my belief system to accommodate these supported truths. Eventually, education would lead me to develop a new understanding of concepts like neighbors and moral responsibility, as well as community and belonging, widening my interpretation of ecumenical and congregation to center around connection rather than separation, and to privilege love over fear and guilt.  

I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in prayer. And when I think of family, I know I would still wrestle an angel for their blessing.

 

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Dark Gifts, Part I

It’s very hard to grow, because it’s difficult to let go of the models of ourselves in which we’ve invested so heavily. — Ram Dass

On August 15, 2015, on the bottom floor of a gutted house in downtown Los Angeles, in the middle of what was once a living room, Ron Athey lay stretched out on a table naked, balls bound and swollen, fishhooks pulling back his eyelids and his nipples, the skin of his collarbone, his belly and his thighs, like acupuncture gone wild. A short row of men lined the side of the altar on which he lay, and massaged his quivering thighs and heaving torso. There was a balcony upstairs, where viewers congregated and drank from the open bar, from whence a spotlight shone down, creating a circle of bright light around him, evident from all vantage points in the venue. Even from a fair distance, I could see the beads of sweat above his upper lip, as the men massaged thick wads of cream into his sweaty flesh. One of the men stepped aside, gesturing and encouraging me to walk forward. I made my way up to the platform to stand next to Ron. I put my hand on his chest. I felt it rise and fall as I rubbed gently. He didn’t look at me. His eyes were angled toward the ceiling, but it appeared to me like they were looking at the sky.

I stepped away to let others through, and to look for my friend Denise, an art professor who had worked with Athey as a graduate student at CalArts. She had invited me to this art show tonight because, she said, “you are brave.” I hadn’t known what she meant. Athey has a long history of bold and bloody performances, which she well knew, and I didn’t. I found her buried in the corner, looking small, like a child. She asked me if I touched him. I nodded.

“I can’t” she said, “It makes me nauseous, seeing him like that, doing that. I could never touch him.”

I nodded again. I got it. The room was hot and dense with the smell of beer, blood, sweat and massage oils. Intellectually, I understood this whole thing was raw and intimidating and probably a little dangerous. But I felt comfortable in the space, and oddly at peace with the worshippers, the theatrics, the suffering and the witnessing of it. The laying of hands felt familiar to me, and the noisy backdrop was like a soundtrack of speaking in tongues.

A voice boomed through the speakers and the spectators hushed. Ron rose from the table, as if from the dead, peeling back the hooks and discarding the wires. He garnered a cape and hat and began to walk in a circle, and with each step, his cape blew back gently to reveal his naked, vulnerable body, testicles now unbound and gorged with blood, so they looked impossibly large. The audience carefully stepped back to give him space. The voice from the speakers spoke of Pharaoh and mercy, exculpation and redemption, sin and ablutions, captivity and exodus. I thought of Moses and his band of followers leaving Egypt and walking toward the promised land.

I stood silent, reverent and rapt, as did the viewers around me.

The truth is, most people are horrified by Athey’s art. He has performed prophecy, pain, Christian mythology, transgressive and redemptive sexuality, and the politics of queerness when being HIV-positive (as Athey has been openly since the 1980’s), was a death sentence. Critics find him masochistic, dirty, extreme, and grossly inappropriate. I can’t argue with any of those labels. Yet through his work, I am reminded, yet again, that pain is inevitable, and suffering is a choice. Throughout his performance, I felt like I was more than a voyeur, or even a witness. I was a participant in a holy catharsis, in a space transcendent like a cathedral, communal like church.

For some of us, change and growth, transformation and metamorphosis, require more than words. For some of us, the symbols and integration of those symbols on or into our bodies helps us shift identities, from archetypes we clung to as children, to more fluid ways of seeing and being in the world. Sometimes this takes more than intellectual knowledge or analysis. Sometimes we have to walk through the desert barefoot and feel our way across the sand, without a map, or even the assurance of a destination point.

When I am afraid of cataclysmic change, I often think of the goddess Kali, who is the embodiment of the terrifyingly beautiful cycle of life and death, the pyrrhic clearing of the old to make way for the new. She burns away what no longer serves us and forces us to shed outgrown patterns and strategies and emerge as something new. Kali destroys the safety nets we cling to, so that we can grow into a new container of being.

Ron Athey’s work, like Kali, has stayed with me, walking beside me like a friend.

Athey’s fishhooks and binds are clearly self-imposed. By inviting people to participate in his suffering, to bear witness to the process of transformation, he gives us permission to endure our own pain, without apology or excuse. This isn’t an apocalyptic message. The visceral experience of being present for another’s transformation reminds us that we may have to give up our old, comfortable life to change the way things are. Athey reminds us that healing, like freedom, is a process.

Experiencing pain doesn’t mean we’ve failed. Pain is inevitable. Suffering is a choice. When I think about the ways I willingly push myself–my body, my mind, the boundaries of social acceptance–I am reminded that growth comes with a price. Paying it is a fair exchange.

 

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