Sunday, December 27, 2009

Finally

Finally
The sun—warm and golden
New leaves—tender on greening branches

And I said I wouldn’t complain

The cold winter in my bones ached
The coming of darkness every evening closed my heart
Then—endless rain, and more cold
Why?

I used to wonder what purpose my life served
How vain and small such musings seem to me

As I move more slowly now—even in the warmth
I wonder less often
As I become the dullness of winter—the fullness of summer

Two things keep me from sadness:

The small pink, perfect cherry blossoms
Each year they appear—Fragrant and pure

and

The sun’s arc moving toward the mid-summer sky

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Saying Goodbye - Not Asking Why


I cannot imagine looking upon either of my sons’ faces and not recognizing who they are: my sons, precious gifts, the wellsprings of my existence whose names are inscribed upon my heart with both the joys and aches of motherhood.

My father looks at me, smiling in his now childish way, a grin really—with a look in his eyes that cannot be readily associated with an identifiable feeling or a thought. In a way, it is blank and in another it is expectant—not really childish, though, in the sense that a child’s smile is pure and present, not muddled and far away like that. A child also does not respond to every word, question and encounter with a smile, as my father does. A child’s expressions are varied, quite subtle and nuanced.

My father’s expressions are only two, either blankly staring, or smiling when I speak to him or look at him. Still, I futilely try to ask questions (to which he does not have answers), or tell him something (that he does not understand or remember).

I did not want to do it for so many months now, maybe almost a year, but today I did knowing what the response would be. “Dad, do you know who I am; do you know my name.”

That same look and smile back, maybe with the very tiniest of a twinkle which told me at least that he felt he should know. But he only looked at me. Again, “Dad, do you know my name? What is my name?”

Nothing, but that smile. “Do you remember?”

“No,” he said, not disappointed or sad, just with that smile.

I just gave him a hug, and told him I loved him. “I love you too,” he said--words he had never spoken to me in all of my 60 years.

I do think he knows that he knows me, or recognizes me as a person important in his life, but I can’t be sure. If he lives long enough, there will come a time when he really does not respond at all to me or to anyone or anything else.

Long ago, I once asked my father if he loved me, thinking he would at least say, if not “I love you” back, than a “yes.” I wasn’t’ sure why I thought that. To have asked that particular question in that particular moment was humiliating, as it was really my attempt to ask for forgiveness for disappointing, inconveniencing and embarrassing him and my family.

I did not realize back then that the curt answer back, “Let’s just get this over with,” was more of a reflection of his inability, his fragmented soul or lack of emotional development than it was an indication of my worth. Only I didn’t know it then—at the lowest point of my life.

The old song goes, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you just might find you get what you need.”

As I slowly say goodbye to my father day by day, I can say I did get what I needed—from the moments and experiences I had to struggle to understand and turn outward instead of inward to see who I am and what I could become. I have also learned that we do not, nor should we always, get what we want.  Also, I got to see the essence of the person who is my father--the gratitude, the love that had been filtered through his worry, fear and the anxieties trying to provide for his family of five, and dealing with the sad, tragic and life-long addiction of my younger brother, who died of an overdose just when my father was showing signs of dementia.

Those struggles have helped me in turn to give something more to my children than I felt I had received. I am sure I have made my share of mistakes parenting, but I am hoping that there was never a moment when my sons did not know and feel what they mean to me and that they have a strong sense of their own worth.

I can be grateful too--for many things and rest easier realizing and saying to my father, as I did to my mother, and as my children will hopefully say to me, "You did the best you could, the best you knew how," and that, after all, is all any of us can do.

Good bye, Dad. I love you.

My father passed away in September of 2010

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Snow Man

by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Metaphors Aren't Just Metaphors

Every Place You Stand is Holy Ground


By: Rabbi Melanie Aron
January 20, 2006

I knew that there were nudist colonies but I hadn't realized that there were social organizations of people who prefer to go barefoot until I went googling for the text in Joshua about removing one's sandals and instead found the Society for Barefoot Living. They preach the health and spiritual benefits of being shoeless, in their words, "symbolizing a way of living vulnerable and sensitive to our surroundings."

My associations with being barefoot are mixed. First , I associate being shoeless with poverty, with those who can't afford shoes, or who are using cardboard and other makeshift materials to cover their feet. For many shoes have been a luxury item, remember the Chelmites carrying their boots so that they wouldn't get muddy. What we consider a basic necessity has been considered by other generations, an extravagance, a special comfort. That's part of why we don't wear our leather shoes on Yom Kippur, but rather afflict ourselves by depriving ourselves of their comfort.

Second, there is the expresssion, "barefoot and pregnant," the image of women held down and held back, restricted to the domestic sphere by their condition and by the lack of the protective gear that would allow them to get out and about in the outside world.

On the more positive side, taking off your shoes at the end of the day, represents comfort and relaxation. It is a sort of Shabbat moment. Work is done and you are entering another realm. Think of the old movies in which the man of the house comes home and exchanges his shoes for a pair of comfortable slippers. Being able to take off your shoes is being at home and at rest.

Taking off shoes can also mean more. There are times when one actively takes off one's shoes as a sign of respect- as in entering a mosque, or a Japanese home, at least since the 8th century.

In this week's Torah portion of course, it is Moses who is told to take off his shoes: Shal Naalechah me'al raglecha, ki hamakom asher atah omed, admat kodesh hu. Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place wherein you stand is holy ground.

This is the first reference to consecrated ground in the Torah, and it is interesting to note that it is not in Jerusalem or even in the land of Israel, but out there in the wilderness of Midian. Later this idea of removing your shoes on holy ground will be extended to the Beit Hamikdash, to the Temple in Jerusalem, where it was customary for the priests to walk around barefoot in the holy precincts. That was probably the custom in ancient synagogues as well, as evidenced by the practice in modern Karaaite congregations. Presently in Orthodox synagogues, when the kohanim come up on the three pilgrimage holidays to bless the people with the priestly blessing, they remove their shoes as well.

I wonder what it means that in the presence of the holy we Jews cover our heads as a sign of respect, but uncover our feet.

The simplest explanation of course is that in removing one's shoes, one leaves behind the shmutz of the outside world. Wipe off the mud and filth when you enter God's sanctuary. As you enter the holy, separate yourself from all the dross of the world.

Another explanation is that shoes are a protective layer and so those with shoes can walk anywhere without paying special attention. But when one is barefoot one must pay attention to where one is walking. A person aware of holiness pays attention, real attention, to where they are going and on what they are treading.

Rabbi Pliskin takes us in another direction when he quotes a famous Musar teacher in explaining this verse. He teaches:

When a person finds himself in a situation with many distractions and difficulties, he is likely to say: "When my situation improves, then I will be able to do what I really aspire to do, to seek holiness, to study Torah and do mitzvoth, but not right now. Now all I can think about are these problems, holiness will have to wait until other things calm down."

"In this situation," said the Chofetz Chayim, "this verse of the Torah applies. Ki hamakom asher atah omed, admat kodesh hu. The place upon which you are standing, that is the exact situation in which you find yourself, is a holy place. In whatever distracting and difficult situation you find yourself, there are opportunities for holiness.

Finally there is what I learned from Rabbi Woody Guthrie. No, you're right, he wasn't Jewish, and certainly had mixed feelings about organized religion, though he was for a while married to the daughter of a well known Yiddish poetess. Some of Woody Guthrie's Jewish related writings have been brought to life recently by the Klezmatics- including one song: Holy Ground. In it he teaches another important lesson, he sings:

Every place you tread is holy ground, every little inch, every grain of dirt is holy ground."

Every place, even your work place, even your kid's messy bedroom, even your errands, every place you walk is holy ground, .

Rabbi Jack Riemer tells a story about the extraordinary power of the awareness of holiness - I am not sure on what it is based, but since there are many similar stories, I am going to take a few liberties and tell it my way.

There was once a community that was in deep trouble. They were shrinking, they were impoverished, they couldn't get along. No one would step up to leadership and if they did they would be destroyed by those who criticized them. Clearly it was a community heading downhill.

This little town had some self awareness about their predicament so they invited a famous rabbi to come and speak with them. However after meeting with them, the rabbi did not have a solution, not to their shrinking population, not to their poverty, not to their dysfunctional communal structure. When he left the people were even more discouraged than before, except that just as he was about to go, someone heard him say, that one of the 36 righteous, one of the lamedvavniks upon which the world depends, lived in this little town. Now maybe he said "efsher" [perhaps] one of the lamedvavniks lived in this town; no matter, word began to spread and slowly, slowly things began to change. Instead of treating each other roughly, people became a little bit more courteous - after all you wouldn't want to be rude to a lamedvavnik. They began to listen to each other, they were more willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt- after all the motivations of a lamedvavnik would certainly be kindly. Slowly the town got cleaned up, people began supporting each other, the economy improved, and other people passing through found it a pleasant community and decided to settle there. Looking back the people wondered.

The rabbi had done nothing and yet accomplished a great deal. All these changes because of an efsher (a perhaps, a hint) to remember-that every spot on earth is holy ground.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Seeds on Fertile Ground

A picture is “worth a thousand words" because a picture reveals more than words alone can. Pictures can be visual images, or mental impressions. A picture is seen and felt—it appeals to the senses, not the intellect. We don’t usually look at a picture and say: “yes,” “but,” “if only.” A picture just is, and we often can understand it before we are able to explain or articulate its meaning. The way that we understand and experience such imaginative content not only fosters our ability to grasp ideas, but also frees us in ways that can build and sustain our moral lives.

The mythologies of the world, including epic poems and the sacred books are full of images; many are thought of as divinely-inspired whose wisdom is like a road map of and for humanity, for example the Upanishads and the Bible. The stories convey not only cultural literacy, but also social and moral education as well, especially if experienced early in life. These stories from the many traditions, cultures and eras can be the foundation for developing “moral imagination,” meaning that together they impart a universal “matrix” of values, behaviors, choices and perspectives on what it means to be human. They are the many-layered, rich, symbolic and archetypal embodiment of truth in imaginative form.

Children hearing and reading such stories begin to store up a treasure trove of lofty and expansive imaginations which can be called upon and worked with later as “living pictures,” and evolve in wondrous ways into ideas and even ideals. Rudolf Steiner (the founder of Waldorf education) suggested that ideas that become ideals can inspire free, moral deeds in the wider world. In secondary and higher education they provide a ground for discussions which lift off into insights with regard to meaning and correspondences within, between and among them.

For example, the Old Testament story of Tower of Babel tells of the descendents of Nimrod in the land of Shinar who sought to build a tower to reach the heavens. God, responds, “Now, nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” He confounds their common language into many languages, so they can no longer communicate to complete the tower, and they are to be scattered over the earth. It seems that Nirmrod’s people were motivated by selfishness, greed, and desire for power and reputation. In essence, they were planning a "raid" on the Holy, an invasion of heaven to display their power and to keep and expand their prominence. Their motivations were not out of humility, goodness, faith, spiritual practice or moral development—all thought of in most religious traditions as acceptable and necessary ways to approach, know or experience the divine.

If we are to think historically of humanity’s endeavors, many can be seen as motivated by just this arrogant disregard for that which might be thought of as sacred, pure or natural. For example, if one steps back from the political and economic implications and arguments, drilling for oil in the Alaskan wilderness can be thought of as embodying this kind of arrogance.

Think about it. Better yet, picture it.

If we can first imagine what such an endeavor would involve, we can begin to see the relationship of the picture to the idea. So,let us imagine the pristine Alaskan wilderness--its purity, whiteness, vastness, coldness, with glints of sunshine cast over the land and seascapes with big sky and majestic mountains? Picture, too, the night sky, so many stars, so close together, sparkling right down to the horizon.

Now, picture whatever you might imagine would be the equipment, material and manpower required to drill and install pipeline over thousands of miles—planes and machinery of all kinds imposing on the natural scene; tracks in the snow, stains on the whiteness, sounds in the silence, fumes in the pristine air. If we really experience this imagination, we cannot help understand it as violation and loss. We might even relate this “scene” to the Tower of Babel— complete with license for operation.

Imaginative pictures and poetic language can impart a truer understanding of things subtle and inscrutable, while literal reading conveys facts, limits, codifies, becomes dogma and doctrine (which can be far from truth). Literalism looks to the “letter of the law,” rather than its spirit. To deepen our understanding of how stories and images can relate to one another, let’s look at Pentecost story from the New Testament, a counter part, in some ways, to the Tower of Babel.

After Christ had risen, He appears to his gathered disciples, telling them to await their baptism, not from water, but from the Holy Spirit. From this “baptism,” they would apparently receive the understanding of and ability to carry His teachings over the whole earth. On Pentecost (meaning “fiftieth”, or approximately seven weeks after Harvest/Passover), the disciples are again gathered when the Holy Spirit descends, usually portrayed as a white dove hovering over the circle of disciples, and a small flame flickering over the head of each. They begin to speak in tongues as, again, the common language is confounded, but miraculously, they and others from other lands each hear the tongues (or understand) in their own language. Not only that, but, for the first time, those who had followed and loved Christ now also understood who He is and the significance of His teachings. In an instant, they were enlightened. We could say that the disciples, with patience and devotion, had been unknowingly building an “inner tower” (or temple) to reach the heavens. They now harvested the fruits of the many parables or “seeds,” rooted in imagination and revealed through the power of the Spirit.

What is the Spirit? Many descriptions and definitions are possible, but, there is no doubt that, in this case, at the very least, the Spirit is living (like our imagination) and engenders understanding—making sense out of the chaos of garbled tongues. In the story of the Tower of Babel, the garbled tongues prevented people from understanding, and their disbursement over the earth prevented unity in Shinar that was to no good purpose. Conversely, in the Pentecost story, the garbled tongues provide understanding in order unify and to go forth everywhere to speak truth. The same message is being conveyed in these different stories.

In Shinar, the motivation to build was not out of love, thus their “invasion” into the Holy was thwarted—and their fate was to be misunderstood and alienated from their fellow human beings. Conversely, in the Pentecost story, Christ’s followers were grieving the loss of their Master and out of love for Him, they sought to know and understand the truth he embodied, but they were also willing to wait. Then, in an instant, heaven came to them, in a moment of grace, and they understood beyond words spoken.

Though there are those who interpret the Bible and other Holy books literally, it is interesting that Christ himself for the most part did not teach with facts or commandments or in a word = meaning approach. Rather, He spoke in parables/stories, or in pictures = meaning. When the disciples asked why he spoke in parables, He used the seed parable to explain why he spoke in parables. Was this because pictures can speak to another part of us that is not literal or intellectual, but alive and expansive?

God and Satan were walking down the street one day; the Lord bent down to pick something up. He gazed at it glowing radiantly in His hand. Satan curious, asked, “What’s that?”
“This,” answered the Lord, “is Truth.”
“Here," replied Satan as he reached for it, "let me have that--I’ll organize it for you.” (Ram Dass)

The imagination is the fertile ground for knowing and understanding. A true teacher, spiritual, or otherwise, prepares that ground through providing experiences which develop, expand and exercise the imagination, remaining vigilant for and respectful of the child’s/student’s freedom to discover, to come to understanding and to “choose the good” in freedom. Teachers cast the seeds; they do not put the plants in fully grown.

The disciples, who were simple fisherman, but lovingly motivated, struggled to learn, to understand and to know. The seeds were cast; they were left in freedom, and, in the end they were blessed with understanding beyond words, and so might we be if develop living imagination.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

City of Brahma-Space of the Heart

The History of Indian Philosophy divides the thirteen principle Upanishads into two groups, those of the Brahmana period and those which originate later. Those of the Brahman period are seven, Brhadarnayaka, Chandogya, Kausitaki, Isa, Taittiriya, Aitareya, and Kena, with the Brhadarnayaka (Brih) and Chandogya (Chand) as the eldest of this group. The Brahmana period is between 800 - 600 B.C. In these earlier ones, the "space of the heart" is the domain of Brahman. Here is an excerpt:

Now what is here--in this city of Brahma [explained by Sankara as the body] is an abode, a small lotus flower. Within that is a small space. What is within that should be searched out; that, assuredly, is what one should desire to understand.

If they [pupils] should say to him: "This abode, the small lotus-flower that is here in this city of Brahma, and the small space within that, what is there that should be searched out, which assuredly one should desire to understand?"

He should say: "As far, verily, as this world-space "(ayamakasa) extends, so far extends the space within the heart. Within it, indeed, are contained both heaven and earth, both fire and wind, both sun and moon, lightning and the stars, both what one possesses here and what one does not possess; everything here is contained within it."

©1999 John Scanlan/All Rights Reserved

Poems from Long Ago


November Moon Child

The low moon rests
Among the dark clouds
Coolest of light, but lovely
The branches near my window
Whisper with silver breath
Thin songs in stillness

On the threshold of winter
Crystals along the garden’s edge
Glimmer back starlight

All on this November eve—
The low moon
Among the dark clouds rests
1990


Disengno

In Rome
I saw no Coliseum or cats
No hand of God drawn by the Master
In the Sistine Chapel

I saw only the cracked ceiling of the stanza
Where upon I traced out my destiny
With fears and regrets
The spaces were all filled by morning

And you—restless
Over your vino or cappuccino
Wondering where to draw the line
(to or from me)

You’ve drawn a circle instead
(me on the outside, of course)
a lifetime ago

I drew myself there too
On the ceiling before I left Rome
Without seeing the Coliseum or the Sistine Chapel

What is at the top of the Spanish Steps?
1992


Tree of Life

We have all left the garden—
As the story goes
With the legacy of our first brothers
Children of Cain claim consciousness
Create out of the earth
Build up a world of stone and technology
Thus—the world as we know it comes into being
Homage is paid to the monuments of men

Those of the Abel stream are silent
Stand in reverence at the cave of wisdom
Remember the world can be redeemed in an instant
Thus—the world as it is and will be appears
Homage is offered at the inner temple

Seeds have been given to the Seth child:
From which grows the Tree of Life
1998

Monday, September 7, 2009

Deep, Deeper and Deepest Thoughts to Think About

Deep: Martin Buber

"Real faith does not mean professing what we hold true
in a ready-made formula. It means holding ourselves
open to the unconditional mystery which we encounter
in every sphere of our life and which cannot be
comprised in any formula. It means that, from the
very roots of our being, we should always be prepared
to live with this mystery as one being lives with
another. Real faith means the ability to endure life
in the face of this mystery."

Deeper: A Rumi Poem

To speak the same language is to share the same blood, to be related
To live with strangers is the life of captivity
Many are Hindus and Turks who share the same language
Many are Turks who may be alien to one another
The language of companionship is a unique one
To reach someone through the heart is other than reaching them through words.
Besides words, allusions and arguments
The heart knows a hundred thousand ways to speak.

Deepest: Joseph Campbell Speaks of Myths

Reading again, Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, I have found the following thoughts certainly worth thinking about (if you are disposed to think about such things).

In the Foreword, “On Completion of The Masks of God,” Campbell considers his 12 years of research in comparative mythology as confirmation, “of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony…finding “worldwide distribution” of such themes as “fire theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero…appearing everywhere in new combinations."

Commenting further on this phenomenon: “No human society has yet been found in which such mythological motifs have not been rehearsed in liturgies; interpreted by seers, poets theologians, or philosophers; presented in art; magnified in song; and ecstatically experienced in life empowering visions….Every people has received its own seal and sign of supernatural designation, communicated to it heroes [and prophets] and daily proved in the lives and experience of its folk."

He reminds us that these stories and “revelations” have inspired many “who bow with closed eyes in the sanctuaries of their own tradition, [yet] rationally scrutinize and disqualify the sacraments of others...." when "an honest comparison immediately reveals that all have been built from one fund of mythological motifs—variously selected, organized, interpreted and ritualized, according to local need…” In observing what humans have chosen to be the ground of their lives, he finds that, “they have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial imagination—preferring even to make a hell for themselves and their neighbors, in the name of some violent god, to accepting gracefully the bounty the world affords."

Campbell asks, “Are modern civilizations to remain spiritually locked from each other in their local notions…” and traditions of these myths/stories/religions, which essentially drive us “diametrically apart?” While the above may seem to suggest that mythologies can be destructive, or at least divisive, we also realize through Campbell's study that mythology is the mother of all arts. Speaking of the best of human creation, he quotes from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake: "utterly impossible as are all these events they are probably as like those which may have taken place as any others which never took person at all are ever likely to be."

At this stage, however, in humanity’s development, Campbell calls for a new understanding and imagination of a “broader, deeper kind than anything envisioned anywhere in the past…” something, “far more fluid, more sophisticated than the separate visions of the local traditions, wherein those mythologies themselves will be known to be but the masks of a larger….'timeless schema' that is not schema."

What that will be or could be, we can only ponder and maybe imagine. I imagine it could be a kind of “spiritual science.”

I am enjoying reading Campbell and recommend this book, as it goes much, much further into the foundation of myths, way down into the "deep, deep well of the past," not only to our cultural/geographic roots, but to biological, psychological and even pre-historic origins.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Themes and Variations -- Soul Biography

It is not the chronological events that tell the story of a life: the birthplace, upbringing, education, cultural/social/religious connections, and profession. Those, in many ways arrive with us, happen to us, or accompany us along the way. It is  through them, but not because of them, or sometimes despite them that we become who we are. It’s the inner impressions, awakenings and recurring themes that tell the true story, and only we can tell it truly. But first, we have to go within ourselves and find or recreate our “soul” biography.

Then it may become apparent how our life unfolds out of a more mysterious force, or spirit, if you like, which unfolds to challenge us, guide us and shape us. It can be recognized and felt in both seemingly insignificant, as well as in the more obvious and/or traumatic experiences. It is important to explore the dark places, the small spaces--like in a fading dream—for something in a word, a look, an image, something left unsaid, whispered or shouted at us, which may have awakened us in some way, burdened us, comforted us, released us. All together these moments integrate into a mysterious and complex composition— notes of light and dark tones that embody a theme with variations. We just have to learn, and sometimes struggle, to hear it in all its parts!

As I review my life, I search for experiences that have had the most powerful and lasting effects on me in relation to my thoughts, feelings and actions. Some are/were easier to identify than others; some already loomed large and I know where to look, but other, seemingly insignificant ones, can be identified as being just as important. As l begin to understand the parts and their relationship to one another, I imagine the formation of a whole piece that comprise the theme of my life: my soul biography. I then can also claim the hard-won wisdom from my spirit life which appears to have guided and shaped me, arising out of specific experiences and circumstances. The individual parts have to do with the following:

Being aware of and accepting a sadness of soul—a dirge underlying life, which I have come to identify as loss.

Experiencing, appreciating and creating beauty in all its forms and manifestations

Finding, making and taking opportunities for dear family and friends to be together for key moments in our lives and also for the sheer joy, fun, play and laughter to be shared.

Recognizing that everyone has a story, circumstances and conditions which they come out of, which forms and shapes them in positive and negative way, and while that may not be an "excuse" for bad behavior, it is a reason--and understanding/compassion can go a long way toward inner peace.

Acknowledging pain and sorrow in ourselves and others and allowing ourselves/others to experience grief, to forgive and ask for forgiveness. Often, to the extent are able to do this, we are able to also feel and create joy and open up to life.

Gratitude for the gifts I and others have been given. Being aware of the support and encouragement I receive from others and remembering to do the same.

Creating a quiet space and time to reflect to see what works and what doesn’t; and what effect we may have (or had) on others, both helpful and hurtful, by our words and deeds (or lack of them).

Being available to help, comfort and affirm others (even in small ways) and to honor those connections we have established and being open to making new ones.

Maintaining emotional equilibrium and accepting life on its own terms, especially when it is clear that there is nothing to be done, but at the same time striving for the greatest freedom for myself and others.

Striving for self-knowledge and consciousness in context -- why am I saying or doing something--for what purpose and what will likely be the effect on me and others?

Remembering not to take myself too seriously.

While many of the above do not sound like revelations, and may even seem like “old, worn out tunes” (and they are if given as advice), they are truly "researched" insights, understood on a deeper level because I found the situations and events in my life which focused them for me in their contexts and in what effect they may have had on my behavior, perspective and approach to life. This, of course, is a work in progress--the compostion that is never completed.

Out of these insights has come a measure of peace. They are the variations on the theme of my life, which are familiar, but which I must still remember to listen to from time to time between distractions and responsibilities of the louder, more insistent music and noise of that parallel life that to be lheard only on the surface of time and space.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

COGITO ERGO SUM

“I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes.  Does this mean that thought makes me real, or that true reality exists only in thought? As I trace my first inclination toward thought, I remember that it came out of feeling.  My first memories involve the interiors of a library and a church, in which I took equal comfort, both offering quiet, beauty and power to imagine something beyond ordinary time and place--Within each I was transported.

At the top of the steepest hill in my town was the library, resembling a fortressed castle. I felt the same kind of reverence when I passed through the high stone arch over the massive wooden doors (a child could barely push open) as I did when I entered my church. Its fairy tale appearance was part of its allure, but it was for the books I had come to the children’s room, with shelves that came down from a place higher than I could reach. At the bottom of the shelves, all around the room, was a little, low "sitting shelf." Here and there, books were placed for children to look through and choose among.

It was thrilling: the looking and the choosing, while also anticipating the books I might choose next time. I didn't visit the library to do reports, or research, as I would later in life. I went to “hear” the silence, to imagine what was in those books, and, ultimately, to make the difficult, but delightful decision: Which ones would I bring home this time?  I chose books by their cover: unfamiliar, strange exotic titles and/or images,  like Silk and Satin Lane. Was I drawn to the alliteration, to how silk and satin must look and feel, to the bright pink cover with black, silhouetted figures holding umbrellas—children from a place I'd never been and whose lives were not like my own.

Those story books engendered reveries and imaginations, like paintings and poetry, and other things of beauty. They fed my soul and allowed it to transcended place and time. 
Once a face looked out at me from one of the books, a young face like my own, with a sadness in her eyes that I recognized, and a wisdom way beyond her years. It was from that book I leaned about the worst that humanity is capable of. It was The Diary of Anne Frank. I learned about the Holocaust through the insightful, tender feelings and clear thought-life of a girl almost my own age. I also learned what is most noble and true about being human. She wrote: 

          It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals; they
          seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them
          because I still believe, in spite of everything, that
          people are truly good at heart…. I must hold on to my
          ideals. Perhaps the day will come when I'll be able to
          realize them!" 

She was a future person, and we are still await that future.
That passage struck me with a power of something new—a feeling that I still experience whenever I encounter the force of a thought that has a shape and a life I can “see” and “breathe in.” Such thoughts imparted a sense of renewal, were felt as light, and could be called upon again and again as a source of strength, and even of action which I might not otherwise have taken, had I not been inspired by them.

As I matured, my life of feeling both created and informed  concepts, which nourished another part of me. Thoughts, I realized, were as real as the cherry tree in our backyard, and like that tree, even after it had been cut down, its image and associations remained. It has a life of its own, as do thoughts--that ca expand, transform, and can become something entirely new. I learned early on that thoughts have the power to change people and things. That was a remarkable discovery.

I learned that thoughts are also beautiful, like paintings and tall trees, have and give power, embody and impart wisdom. They create ideals, move us, are the potentiality of deeds, and fan a fire within. They have form and light the color of gold.  An inner seed had taken in the necessary elements, nourishing it to put down roots of thoughts--my thoughts--making me the me that I am!

Getting Older - A Heart, A Head, Some Nerve


George Carlin got it right when he made comedy out of the way we talk about aging, usually opting for "getting older" rather than "getting old." It is funny and sad, but true: we don’t want to come right out and say: “I am old,” because that would mean admitting to ourselves and others that we are not as: energetic, motivated, “with it” (and, for some women, not only “not as” but no longer beautiful or desirable). Gradually too, for most of us—not relevant—that is the worst part. It is a fact that society values youth, beauty and relevance, perhaps just because they are fleeting. Nothing can stop aging—not chemical peels, surgery, crossword puzzles, exercise and not even thinking positively. “You are as old as you feel.” I love that one!

Ultimately, throughout life we have to settle for and then relinquish lots of things—illusions, dreams, jobs, marriages, friends. Loss is an underlying motif, the unbroken thread of existence and we all have to submit to loss. But what are we really talking about here, loss of vitality, loss of beauty? I don’t think so. It is, rather, coming to terms with the final submission and ultimate loss: death.


If you believe in a hereafter where you are going to “live on” in some better place, where you will be reunited with loved ones who have gone before you, you can rest in that thought. Or, if you do not believe in anything, you can rest in the knowledge that total oblivion (although it sounds horrific and “not fair”) means you will not feel, know or care about a thing. Either one sounds good to me, but, of course, as human beings we exist in time and space—the realm of opposites, so we tend to choose or believe one of these two ways of thinking about Death—all or nothing.


Unfortunately, although I do live in time and space, I can’t believe in either one and am somewhere in between. I think after death, we will be dimly aware of and experience something. Neither will we be annihilated, nor experience a new and improved earth in a painless and trouble-free heaven. I do believe we will feel ourselves moving away from earth, from earth life and earth memories, that we will somehow feel the effects of our thoughts, feelings and actions and how they have affected others. It seems to me a possibility that we may be painfully aware of what we brought into being out of our foolishness, unkindness, selfishness, pride, greed, envy, untruths, maybe as part of the cycle of reincarnation and karma. I do not believe in eternal punishment (AKA Hell). The more we can practice the virtues and develop consciousness/conscience on earth, the less we may experience the unpleasant consequences.


While I have given a lot of thought to repeated earth lives and the necessity of karma, and have even read extensively about it, I have not fully explored them in any one of the traditions which elaborate on the specifics, despite the fact that I also think it is our obligation to be as fully conscious as we can. If I wished to have less of a negative effect on others in the here and now, and, therefore offset some pain after death, I “should have, could have, would have” pursued the study of reincarnation and karma as a priority in life and developed those virtues. I am sorry to say, I have not done so to the extent I could have, at least not yet.


But, hey, it’s hard to be consistent in the realm of opposites! I could be a defensive, “vulgar neurotic” and quote Emerson’s: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (I just have), but I will say only that I started out with “good intentions”—to follow the many lines of thought regarding these topics, but, like the lines in a perspective drawing, my intentions have ended in a vanishing point.


It seems, though, that no matter how conscious we are, there will always be aspects of ourselves of which we have little or no awareness: those tendencies, quirks and deficits in our beings (much more evident in others than in ourselves), and which, therefore, cannot easily be changed or redirected. Then, there is our “built in” mechanism working overtime to prevent such awareness from entering into our thought life. Sometimes we just plain “get tired of it all,” and don’t care anymore—maybe that is when we have truly “arrived,” can relax and just live out the rest of our lives—old or not.


But, I do care enough to try to keep a balance, which means devoting some time each day to a kind of review. What I have done (or not done); could have done differently; how my thoughts/words/actions may have affected others; what underlying motivations did I have? I also have to guard against getting too dark or too light in my perceptions (those ever-present polarities again). Does it work? Well, I can only say that I haven’t totally given up yet.


I feel somewhere in my being there is a guardian, a monitor, a mediator, an inquisitor who asks subtle, but important questions that redirect me, and allow me to see me--sometimes at my worst and sometimes at my best, as Rumi suggests: sometimes full, sometimes crescent." This "companion"
 also helps me to experience life, feel joy in the curve and color of a flower, the flight of a bird, the brilliance of a star, the shining faces of my grandchildren. 

As I age, I am also aware of an urgency to live life to the fullest—to eat, drink and be merry with those I care about, to learn more, to see more clearly, to understand more. I am also aware that this urgency sometimes makes me a foolish, selfish, melancholic whiner--falling right into the behavior and attitudes which are un-mistakably those of “getting older,” and which I have often detested in others!


Always present is the longing to be with my family—to see them every day if I could, to hug them, to feel them near me, to hear them talk and laugh, to cook for them, to eat with them, to discuss things with them, to understand who they are and will be.


As I think and write about these thoughts and feelings, which are now constant companions, I am working my way through aging and reviewing my life.  I can say it has been a good one, for which I am grateful. I have enjoyed my work, my home, my world, and have tried to deal with life’s challenges in a conscious, rational, practical, yet caring way (for the most part). I have taken care of my obligations in a responsible way (for the most part).


The best part of my life seems to have been when my children were growing and at home, when life was still ahead of us, before I began to feel myself "getting older." It is hard not to miss those days filled with laughter, sometimes tears, and lots of necessary things to accomplish. There were things to plan, the daily closeness of human warmth and love--the great joy-bringer and deep ache-maker. It is the one thing worth believing in, living and dying for—the blossom, the wing, the star of life—that opens us, lifts us and rays out from within us and shines upon us.  


Fortunately, I am experiencing an echo, a second incarnation of more youthful days--through my grandchildren when I am with them and become part of their lives. For this I am also grateful: to receive and give love.


Love is what I hope to still feel and know in whatever afterlife there may be. Love is what I urgently want to give, receive and experience while I am still here. Love is what I must believe transcends death. It may be the thing that brings us back to this green earth: love AND atonement for the love we could have given and received, or refused to experience.


I guess the essence of my dilemma about life and death is that right here and now:  I am this unique person--this one time--in this particular place, with these seven parts to play on this world stage,  with these friends and this family. Even with reincarnation, I won’t be this me, with this life and these children—whose faces I have loved to look upon.


These are the things I think about as I am getting old(er)—silly as they may be in the face of a universe of wisdom (beyond comprehension)—a universe of mystery and meaning (beyond reason).  Is this how it is supposed to be? This is how it is, and it is good enough for me in this lifetime. I will say, “YES” to a life filled with all the loss but also filled with love.

Monday, August 31, 2009

My Friend the Poet - Ron Goodman

     Ronald Goodman, a friend of mine and my husband's passed away several years ago. We met him on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. He was teaching at Sinte Gleska Indian college. Ironically, we found he had known artist and writer M.C. Richards, then living Kimberton Hills Camphill Village (near our home).  He had been part of the Modernist intentional community,  The Land, near Stony Point, NY. He also researched and wrote a book, Star Knowledge--with several Lakota people.

He sent this little note to us with the last book of poetry.

Dear Friends,
I hope you are well and will fnd some of these poems to your liking. Each time I finish a poem, I think will do something—like bring peace onto the earth, end pollution or domestic violence—later, I just hope it will give friends like you some small delight.

Cheers, Ronald.

This is the last poem in the last book he sent to us.

Mencius

When I was twenty and twenty-one
I felt quite sure that justice
Would grow like radishes
And that equality and fraternity
Would be companion plants
Around which all of us
Would only need to dance
To bring them to fruition.
This was, I think now, a sweet
And virginal ignorance
But not stupidity
For ignorance is curable
And I am cured.
But not of hope. I found
That Mencius who lived in China
In the forth century B.C.
Agrees with me
That goodness is innate,
Inborn in us, our natural estate.
He also gave no reasons instead he told a story of a mountain
And I respected that
And then because the sacred is too real
For truth, he danced
A broken window hallelujah stomp
And I respect that, too,
For justice has jolly legs,
One wooden and one blue.

Here is one of my favorites:

Somebody’s Tears

Feast now, while the lark sleeps on this soft good hill, delight;
For these stars are the white seeds in the black ripe melon of the night

Something of the sky has been given to you,
This long blue word, so good to say and ringing,
That molecules leave home and chemical family
To shape the new and necessary life of which you now are singing.

Somebody’s tears are corn again, and soon will be bread

Somebody’s grief is becoming food; black white yellow and red.

So feast now, while the lark sleeps, on this soft hill, delight;
For these stars are the white seeds in the black ripe melon of the night.

Ron was had an unassuming appearance, but was an intellectual, an artist, a cynic and an eternal idealist—a dark humorist, all of which made his poetry light/ deep, profound /profane, but he was human first. He told us about growing up in Virginia and being told by his father to “be American, ride your bike,” but his father had bought a 22 rifle in case the Nazis invaded Virginia. Then, his father said, Ron "would have to fight.” Ron said that he “almost needed an anti-Semite to remind him, “I’m a Jew.” He remembered seeing Hitler “shrieking and shaking with rage, and he, “wondered, ‘Is my name on that page?’ ”

One time when we were talking in his little trailer during a storm, with those billowy tornado clouds all around, he said that when he died, there will be no one to sing Kaddish for him. We were able to make sure that happened, as I am sure many other friends did, along with many other prayers, thoughts, wishes and remembrances of Ron and his striving.  We miss our friend Ron.