Thursday, November 21, 2013
Imagine an obscure religious woman who lives in the forest battling her voices; she has the PTSD of being a brilliant female in 12th century England. She is a woman in a town, rebuffed by church officials and enclosing herself beside the church, refusing to budge. The church walls up her room, leaving her to die, yet she outwits them via a hole in the roof through which she emerges at night to forage in the town, always returning to her chamber to sleep through the day except for the occasional pranks she plays with them by making noises and loud prayers. She gains help from two monks who shield her activities from authorities and drop food to her when she cannot get out. After several years, the church officials open the wall to find her sitting peacefully at prayer, clothed in robes and a gown. They offer her a hermitage nearby and she insists that she be in charge, will accept young women who will be guided by her, they will live by their own means through weaving and small crops, and they will only accept the ministrations of priests that she picks. Big stonewalling, so she returns to her room and starts rebuilding the wall. By now townspeople know of her and revere her, and come to her defense, essentially a demonstration at her room. Church officials never relent but they do retreat, at least for a while. She determines that she will not be free of their meddling...after all, she has done miraculous things for several years and they are still unwilling or unable to see her as a free person in her own right. so she gathers supporters, prepares an expedition ostensibly for the Holy Land, but actually for a remote place. She makes a parting speech: “I tell you, a thousand years will pass before men will be able to loosen their heartstrings. Most men are so tied to their physical being that the things of heaven are remote to them and can be found only through the strictest control and suffering, which is such a shame since heaven is, in fact, here and now if one but gives up all to it without control, without pain, without wish for gain, with the greatest passion and devotion.” She and twenty others sail west and in fact land in America on what is now Long Island. She becomes a respected Algonquin priestess/leader and her followers settle with the tribe to disappear into their now forgotten history. She teaches the tribe about England’s ways and the local malcontents sail east, landing in Majorca and eventually getting to Portugal and Spain where they join the Basques in the high county.
A man from Italy walks to Afghanistan to find his grandfather who had traveled with Marco Polo; he finds his soul. He also finds a family left behind after his grandfather died (nod to Salman Rushdie).
A woman in colonial America walks out of her village and into the forest, following trails already formed over a thousand years. To one side she sees another trail, partially hidden in the bushes. Following that, she arrives in a little clearing with small bark huts around its edges. She builds herself one and waits. Eventually, the residents emerge from their hiding places. They regard each other silently and then all set to work making dinner together.
There are lives in history, real lives, individuals who found their own way, able to ignore society’s pressures and go with devotion until finding a sane way to live. They break cultural walls. Some of them are killed. Some survive to demonstrate that some can follow “right reason” and a devoted heart through all cultural insanity.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Musing, wondering if everyone lives in a small private hell. If that is why we all spend our days working so committedly on other people’s chores, telling ourselves it is for the greater good, telling ourselves it means something that we do this.
What does mean something is that we don’t sit alone with ourselves, our fear, our lack of self-esteem. In fact, we live through others, using another’s, either employers’ or children’s or spouse’s, goals and plans to make meaning in our own lives. This makes sense, in a sad way, seeing the horrors in the land - children massacred, mayhem on poor streets and in far off lands at war, even in places at peace where mores, simple custom, prevents full personhood to all.
How does this happen? Why do we persist in fashion, custom, tradition that cuts into the sinews of humanity. Woven together, we become twisted up together into knots of little fascist thoughts of control and pride and honor.
Maybe this is my own private hell. My little selfish life. Reading, thinking, despairing. I spend my time distracted with these things rather than with engagement with others, because I cannot fully enter into most forms of fellowship, cannot find it in myself to believe that the things we generally do together are real, honest, true, believably valuable. Except for the briefest of moments. In tiny encounters with others, openly shared or not, are quick glimpses of paradise here on earth, even in the midst of the loud, awful noise of our allegedly modern world. These alone are what sustain me.
Today, extreme language describes rather dumb, rather minor discussions. The looming “economic cliff” is perfect jargon for “let’s divert our emotions while ignoring the problem of, let’s face it, total and utter boredom within Western culture.”
Our passion for football, competition, devastating victories, adrenaline, being the best, all of these come from basic social and genetic imperatives that have been behind so-called Western progress. If we do not give young people (men especially) challenges equal to the drive and energy that we have bred for for the past several thousand years, we will continue to have it come out in our politics in ways that tear us apart rather than in ways that lead to “progress.”
On the day after electoral loss, conservative angst translates in to war language: have to fight to protect freedom that is in jeopardy due to liberal thinking...etc. We continue to buy into crisis after crisis. None of us can find the essential juices that fuel lives. While we, none of us, believe we are facing life and death. What are our real needs? Do we know?
While we scurry about arguing about markets, we fail to understand the true costs of those markets, confront the mathematics of overpopulation and climate change, consumption and need. Both liberal and conservative, we prefer mental mazes to that which might repaint our picture of the good life. We are obviously a species that gets caught in intellectual bubbles.
How do we break out? Can we save ourselves? Because I fully believe that we are in jeopardy.
Now, we have always been in jeopardy. What I am talking about is not another manufactured crisis, though, but rather a plea for us to reconnect with the inner knowing that has allowed the species to survive. Can we embrace jeopardy itself? To do that we have to put people back into the line of fire, so to speak:
Reinstate the draft, and fight our wars openly, shall I say, cleanly (if they have to be fought at all). Stop agricultural subsidies that produce, for example, high fructose corn syrup and ethanol instead of food with high nutritional content. Encourage people to grow food locally. Make clean water and healthy oceans an international priority. Help people use alternate transportation - bicycles, electric vehicles, walking - by down regulating car size, truck capacities, things like that.
Dislocate modern society in ways that engage people in their lives. Give up the idea of “career” and take up the idea of “living.” I would rather we risk it. I'll do without yearly Oscars and Monday Night Football. Can we risk experiencing actual life? If not, I believe we will not be able to awaken for the real crises that are coming towards us.
The threat today is not external.
In spite of trendy outward focus on terrorism,
Americans feel the shattered world reaching inward,
verbal shards pierce hearts,
shrapnel from an exploded heritage,
no longer present,
and we wonder,
was it real?
did we really once believe in civil equality,
civil discourse and protected speech,
that we could be free
to pursue happiness?
how could we,
we who once thought it possible,
how could we piss it away?
I wonder what these people think this way of friendship with God is! He is God who created the heavens and the earth, and who made the universe come into existence. They think that His love is easy - as if they could just sit with Him, and they talk or listen. Do you think this is some kind of beef soup you can just take, drink up, and leave?
[Rumi’s Sun: The Teachings of Shams of Tabriz, tr. Refik Algan and Camille Adams Helminski]
What harm comes to the dervish [seeker] from the sourness of others? If the whole world were swallowed by the sea, what would it matter to a duck?
Sometimes a person may have a single shameful aspect, and yet it veils all of the person’s thousand positive qualities; what one needs is a single positive quality capable of veiling a thousand disgraceful aspects.
There is a kind of person who has no defects except that he is resentful; this state veils all of his positive qualities.
What should I be listening for? The emotion behind the words? An accuracy of pitch? Tight execution of the song? Artistic overview? Should I be watching for a generosity towards the audience? A centered presence on stage? In short, am I looking for kinship or for some inner aesthetic pleasure when I listen to a band or watch some performance? Perhaps this is the question for all of my day: what do I recognize, what do I seek, what do I find?
Somewhere, in one of his stories, Stanislaw Lem wrote about the memento mori, the shadow line of human life. He said something about how we are taken there outside of our control and “we, like children, argue as if we had a choice (sic)” Or something like that. It may have been in More Tales of Pirx The Pilot, though that, too, is a strange remembrance from insights long ago, constructed reality from faded, patched up mental debris.
I loved his sense that “enough is maturity,” that humans would remain adolescent if possible, that we argue as if we had a choice about growing old or dying. These were new thoughts for me then. I was just over forty, and aware for the first time that I was getting older, becoming an older person, in spite of feeling no different inside than I did at ten.
Perhaps I am an anomaly, but puberty made barely a dent on me mentally, emotionally, psychologically. I still feel as if I were eight and as if I were an agent of my own in very strange company, that the adult world looks alien and fairly stupidly bent on ignoring obvious stuff. I still think that clothes for women look silly, even demented, and that the grown men around me appear stiff and rigid as if their insides were squeezed all together into too small a space. There aren’t that many adult humans who seem grown, in these parts even still.
I remember agreeing that, yes, enough IS maturity and that I had enough of everything most of the time, a life of privilege considering the world at large, and that I was grateful, even for the aging that was taking me, unasked, into older age where, at the very least, I no longer had to worry if I was cool and I might dress as I like without forty-seven explanations.