Tag Archives: art

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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