Monday, December 27, 2010

Pilgrims and Passages

Pause for reflection, Montes de Oca - Michael Krier

We are all pilgrims, whether we set out consciously or unintentionally on the path of life-- toward love. Traditionally, a pilgrimage is a chosen journey to a destination considered sacred or special in some way, connected with a spiritual figure, a person or an event. 

Some of the more well-known pilgrimage destinations are Mecca, Benaras on the Ganges, the Wailing Wall, Deer Park, and Canterbury. Many are the shrines, temples and sites worldwide to which pilgrims have been drawn for thousands of years. Are these pilgrimages symbolic of a longer path we travel whose destination may be more uncertain? Who are pilgrims, and what are their expectations, hopes, fears, capacities and deep longings? Is the pilgrim prepared and fit for such a journey, both the inner and outer elements of it? The idea of a pilgrimage calls forth images of both wilderness and the Promise Land.

All great literature, or any story worth telling, involves the drama of a pilgrimage of sorts, a setting out, or being thrust out to seek, to escape, to discover and/or to experience on the way the inherent conflicts, decisions, risks, reflections and reconciliations.  Also possible, however, is the recognition of something pure and simple in the end, usually related to love.

Shakespeare’s King Lear unknowingly puts himself on a path of discovery when he seeks affirmation of love through words. He asks each of his daughters to express her love, intending to reward them according to the profuseness of their declarations of affection. Believing words are not necessary to prove her love (and that words are not the measure of love), his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to honor his selfish wish. The proud, outraged father disinherits her and casts her out. His other daughters willingly comply, but the words are empty, crafted for self-gain. When they receive what they were promised, they exile him. All is now lost to him— position, power, wealth. Most devastating is the realization that his daughters' words were empty and deceptive.

Everything he possessed or thought he possessed is gone. He is thrust into the hardships of an unasked for pilgrimage—both the outer elements of a raging storm, as well as the inner experiences of his anger, incredulity, then blindness and madness until the once king does not know where or who he is. Ironically, he is saved by Cordelia, the daughter who had refused to speak her love. Instead of the words of love he demanded (and apparently needed in order to accept his daughter), he is given his daughter, who demonstrates her love through deeds—pure, simple, yet unconditional—the kind we have been told God has for us.

Pilgrimages may involve considerable physical, as well as psychological challenges—various and rigorous, with unexpected and often dangerous turns, climbs, sheer drops, crossings, storms and obstructions on the path. However, the way also may reveal the unimaginable beauty of vistas, and small delights in the colors of dawn, the flutter of an unseen wing, the perfume of a meadow, the refreshment of a spring shower or the magic of glistening snow flakes. Yet, the challenged and changing inner landscape of the pilgrim may be infinitely more rewarding.

I imagine some pilgrims are utterly faithful and fit for the journey, setting out in full consciousness to demonstrate their belief, as a means of devotion and sacrifice.  Others may anticipate healing, answers to prayers; while other are thrust on to a path, filled with doubt or in desperation, as is King Lear. The pilgrim may set out alone, but along the way, or, in the end, encounters the warmth and concern of fellow travelers. Another may begin with the company and camaraderie friends, only to find himself alone and lost. It is the nature of the pilgrimage, and of life, that it stretches out before us, the destination hidden from view and mysterious; it tests us, requires courage and may build up strength through its challenges or shatter us along the way.

Yet, isn’t it ultimately that unconditional love and acceptance that we seek and hope to find here on earth through our fellow men, knowingly or not? We, as faithful pilgrims, must be willing to go to the ends of the earth, to the limits of our longing to find that which we have all come for—sometimes “costing not less than everything.” We, as lords and masters of our selves, in the end, must be willing and able to take that journey within so that we may be found worthy of the love we seek?

Whatever its requirements and demands, the pilgrimage embodies potentiality and possibility, wilderness and promise land. Whatever the condition and capacities of the pilgrim, he inevitably undergoes a transformation—large or small—the kind only a journey can engender.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It's Not Tomorrow Now

It’s not tomorrow now.” That is what my grandson, Finn, said to me when I told him I would be going home the next day, after a short visit. I always hate to leave, even though he and his dad, my son, and his mom don’t live so very far away. I usually make it a point of telling Finn that I will leave, feel sad without him and will be back soon. But after he said that to me, I realized that it was rather foolish of me to even mention it. He, unlike most of us, does not live in yesterdays and tomorrows. For him there is only now—and that is a good thing, the only thing really that we must remember and live. It’s not tomorrow now, and it is not yesterday now.

Out of the mouths of babes, indeed! Children are intuitive and so much wiser in that regard—of living in the present, and I am convinced that my grandson is remarkable in his ability not only to feel that, but to articulate what for us may seem like a “deep insight,” the matter of fact reality we forget to live by. He was also saying, “You and I are here together right now, so let’s enjoy our time and not think for even one second about a time when we will not be together—for that takes away from the time we do have.

I love you, Finn for reminding me that in love and the best parts of life we do not live in time. There is only the present where time touches eternity," and that is eternal and that is heaven on earth.

The Show Must Go On?

I am familiar with the night
Its silent stage
In darkness scenes open and fade

In a floodlight of memory
I re-enact my life
Animated by desire and illusion
The cold prompter, Fear, in the wings,
Fatal flaws illuminated

The Director, until now,
An invisible, mysterious, temperamental tyrant,
Alternately threatening and encouraging me
To perform.

I have the role for life—if I choose.
Oh! I’ve convinced myself
That I modify my part from time to time
Revise my method:
A subtle gesture here
An improvisation there
The truth is I have perfected the role into ritual

But, no one notices
Except one critic and well-wisher,
Accompanied by the beat of my heart
Acknowledging and reminding me
That only I can draw the curtain
Close the play
Retire the part
Audition for new ones.

My critic says: “I’ll put you in touch with my son,
A fabulous agent, a miracle worker, I tell you.
He’ll show you how to reinvent yourself.
In fact, he specializes in Death and Rebirth.”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

James Baldwin Said...

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.

For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell. It’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
(James Baldwin)

Ancient Path

The moment, that point of no return
When you knew there was no one to save you
There was only you
the beat of your blood red heart
the pure white of your true self

But everything said something different to you?
"If you only, "If you just," "All you have to do is,"  What will people think if"
The real question: Where will you go and what will you do?

Now you find yourself on
“The ancient narrow path that stretches far away—
It has been touched by me, has been found by me.”
Within and alone, you must walk the path
a burden and a release

Have compassion for yourself and forgiveness

Let go the pain, anger, disappointment
The grief—that made you stay so long, or finally leave—
All those things imagined or unimaginable
That kept your world small and dim

Created a void, built the walls, separated your heart from love.

Look around and above
See the moon rising over frozen fields

Turn toward the silvery geese on the river
all at once lifting off into the mist.
Feel the sun on your face
Turn around 
with courage
to carry light into darkness

fill the void, burn the nothing
shatter the walls, close the distance.

Walk the ancient, narrow path.

swilliams '10

Sunday, October 17, 2010

No One Has Heard

No one can hear the song another sings
We cannot even hear our own; we have no words
Only tones—rising to the rough surface of our lives
Then sinking back down into the quiet, calm mystery of our dreams

Songs of dread and memory, songs of longing, color and light
We may believe we know—but it is not possible
Though we have come together many times in the dark to create each other

In fire and earth, wind and rain
In light and shadow all soul songs are moving and mingling
Near to us, urgent and silent as grief

Our songs can never be known-- though it is our life's work

Beyond this plane we have met
There we will meet again –
And sing— a choir of blue air and bright stars

Sunday, October 10, 2010


I am self-contained
I bear my self within me
I am apt
I am alone

Monday, July 12, 2010

Poems and Prayers

published in New View magazine, UK- Summer Issue 2010

Poetry is a ‘term’ often used to describe rhyming verse that expresses feelings. And, of course, anyone is free to write and call it whatever they wish; however, if a creation is to be ‘art’, it must embody more than personal feelings. The art of poetry is in its ability to embody "living thought" in which the reader can sense the shaping, as truly as possible, of the "vision" or experience the poet is conveying. “Poetry… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts and appear almost a remembrance” (Keats).

Great poetry can often strike us just that way, as both personal and universal, whether it be a simple haiku or an epic. Gilgamesh, The Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s plays (which are all poetry); Parsifal and others represent an age or culture, and also transcend it. Together, the greatest works of the ages can be understood as a kind of history of humanity’s evolution in imaginative form, moral ‘guides’ for those who can see and hear.To be true to a vision or experience, and to re-create them in words (which are not just words) takes some effort and some understanding.

The art of poetry must involve interest in many elements and resources, both inner and outer. One might look to the classics (or other works of art) and compare them with mere verse. Yes, it is true that we are not slaves to the past, to conventions, or to any rules per se. In fact, in our time, we feel ourselves to be individuals free from the past and standards, which we perceive as limitations. But to disregard, or, worse yet, to be ignorant of how poetry evolved (or any other art for that matter) is to be isolated from true “originality.” Self-reference only, in an effort to express one’s feelings, can result in nothing more than sentimental verse, which has neither wide appeal nor longevity.

Students of poetry can begin to build a picture of and a sense for just what makes classics and other true poetry living, lasting and essentially different from mere verse or prose. What resounds in poetry that moves us so deeply and transports us so fully? The connections of poetry to nature's rhythms and to its inherent analogies to the human being and human experiences also must be considered. The poet’s vision embodied might dawn on us as though it is our own, as Keats suggests, because we recognize the truth and wisdom in it, as its ‘revelations’ transcend the personal and touch on the universally human. One can imagine that the first human utterances, chants, stories and prayers were all music and meaning.

In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young Stephen Dedalus is aware of “an unsubstantial image which his soul constantly beheld.” Ishmael in Moby Dick senses “the ungraspable phantom of life.” The Romantic poet, Shelley, spoke of “The everlasting universe of things which flows through the mind.” In “A Defence of Poetry” he writes, “A poem is the image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” Implied in all of these examples is the recognition of something that stands behind ordinary experience in the sense world whose brilliance is felt and understood, yet is paradoxical and beyond definition. “A poem is the burning bow that once could shoot an arrow out of the up and down” (Yeats). The capacity of Imagination “sees” into and beyond that world into the "deep, deep well of the past," not only to our cultural/geographic roots, but, it can be argued, to our biological, psychological and even pre-historic origins (Campbell).

Imagination “subdues to union all irreconcilable things” (Shelley) and lifts the veil on a world often hidden to ordinary vision, which can become clouded by the intellect. The intellect categorizes, analyzes and separates. The imagination grasps the unseen and reveals the underlying patterns and forms which appear and reappear throughout the universe, nature and in the human being. It perceives those inherent relationships and similarities among things and unifies. It goes to the origins of things, which are the sources of inspiration, and the “sources of our strength” (Carson).

Behold the plant;
It is the butterfly
Held prisoner by the earth.

Behold the butterfly;
It is the plant
By the whole cosmos freed. (Rudolf Steiner)

For the true poet (and for us), insights like these are not simply ‘metaphors’ or mere ‘poetic devices’; they are revelations. They are realities to be recognized by the poetic ‘mind soul’. Coleridge describes imagination as, “the living power and prime agent of all human perception in man’s infinite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite ‘I am’.”

Inspiration may seem fleeting, but can be trained. When poets are inspired, they are breathing in what they behold, whether it be a leaf, an insect or an idea radiating from within. They see, not with their eyes, but through their eyes, which Plato describes as the "windows of the soul." Therefore, they see with an extraordinary clarity. That which may appear distorted, common or uninteresting to us, is transformed in the breathing out of the poet’s pen. The poet takes the “forms of things unknown” and “turns them into shapes and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name” (Shakespeare).

Intuition is a way of knowing what is true. It is “the intellect’s being where and what it sees.” We might think of it as what Emerson called "self-reliance," that is, an inherent trust in experience and the inner voice that says, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string… The Eternal is stirring at our hearts, working through our hands, predominating in all our being. Poets are inspired, in touch with imagination and trust their intuition.

Though I mention Wonder last, it is the prerequisite capacity, without which the other capacities would not be as available. Wonder is an openness to beauty, goodness and truth, which we naturally have as children, if we are allowed and encouraged to experience life. Things of beauty are valued and create a sense of reverence that does not have to be taught. Look at a mountain peak; a blanket of stars in a dark sky; the leaves of grass (Whitman); a child's shining face, "holding wonder like a cup" (Teasdale).

Conversely, an emerging sense of wonder can easily be crushed or thwarted if it is met with cynicism or negativity. One can see its opposite in disrespect, a lack of sensibilities or in destructive tendencies and apathy, or just plain detachment from the immediacy, intimacy and impact of those sources of strength. Increasingly, all of these capacities are at risk of lying dormant with the use of and dependence on technology, which at the most basic, but essential level, isolates children from just the experiences which can develop and build these capacities.

“Ah!” (an open vowel sound) emerges from us – in all languages – when we stand in awe and simply behold that which ‘is’. Something in us opens, fills a void, and may emerge in ways we could never imagine or predict, perhaps, as Wordworth suggests in his poem “Tintern Abby”, in "little unremembered acts of kindness of love, " and for the poet (and us also as creators), as beauty in all of its forms. The Greeks knew that wonder is the beginning of wisdom; it is also a foundation for creation of the beautiful. Dostoevsky went so far as to say that beauty could save the world, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know” (Keats).

Poems that convey a sense of the “living Word,” must emerge from poets as prayer calling upon the capacities of Wonder, Imagination, Inspiration and Intuition. Whether or not we think of ourselves as artists, we can all be creators with an understanding, an appreciation and a practice toward development of these capacities.

Tribute and acknowledgement go to Christy MacKaye Barnes, a master Waldorf teacher of students and teachers, for some of the thoughts conveyed in “Poems and Prayers.” She was an inspirational mentor who freely shared and passed on her insights, knowledge and love of language to many.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mythology and Consciousness

Upon the completion of The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, Joseph 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” (v), with “worldwide distribution” of such themes as, “fire theft, deluge, land of the dead, virgin birth, and resurrected hero…appearing everywhere in new combinations…"(3). Commenting further on this phenomenon of common themes across cultures, which are locally expressed in endless variations, he suggests that, “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 its heroes [and prophets], and daily proved in the lives and experience of its folk" (3-4). 

We, in the 21st century can appreciate, value and turn to myths and stories to inform and edify us; yet, they can also have negative ramifications when those local myths and stories are understood as literal and true.  Such myths form both the basis for rituals and traditions of hope and comfort, as well as ideologies to be imposed on others who are seen as unworthy, lost and "less than."  Don't we have many historic, as well as current examples of marginalizing, committing violence against, and even killing those who do not conform to the laws and doctrines of a particular faith, book or tradition.

Campbell 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....." If we were to look objectively, as he has, at the various traditions and mythologies of the world, we would see that these common themes and images are ubiquitous, and have developed “according to local need…” (4). All over the world, as the ground of belief and values, Campbell finds that humanity has "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...." (4). At this stage in humanity’s development, Campbell calls for an imagination of a “broader, deeper kind than anything envisioned anywhere in the past…” (Power of Myth).

What, then, could be an approach apropos to our ever-expanding, global consciousness? At this stage in humanity’s development, Campbell calls for an imagination of a “broader, deeper kind than anything envisioned anywhere in the past…”(Power of Myth). It would seem that it is now be possible to embrace and embody the ambiguity, inclusiveness and paradox which is everywhere reflected in the universe, nature and human experience. James Joyce, an inspiration for Campbell, articulates this possibility in 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" (v). We can only ponder what shape that imagination would take.  

Would it be a kind of “spiritual science,” an approach which both affirms the subjective, intuitive, human soul experience of life, and, at the same time, integrates the objective approach?  This approach would require standing outside one’s own soul self, and simply beholding. James Joyce clearly defined this experience in his theory of aesthetics, which does not require an intellectual analysis of art or beauty and, but, rather a holding two or more things as possibly true and relevant to our own individuality, as well as in a wider sense applicable in other contexts.

Campbell laments that there is currently no mythology which fits the times. Things are changing too rapidly for a relevant mythology to develop. He also believes that any future mythology would have to be about the earth. This may seem obvious, but wouldn't it also involve humanity on the earth? It is, after all, humanity that is the "voice of the earth" and, at the same time, continues to endanger the earth, squander its resources and marginalize, enslave and endanger others for its resources. Still, it is only humanity that can create a world worth living in, speaking for, and, ultimately dying for.

Clearly we are not at a stage of consciousness en masse.  Only an earth-threatening crises could force us to move in another direction. Campbell makes reference to Black Elk, a Lakota holy man, one of the last of North American indigenous peoples who had lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years. He told his story in the mid 1930’s to John Neihardt, who was writing an epic of the West. In Black Elk Speaks: “I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life I think I would not tell it….It is the story of all life that is holy and is good to tell, and of us two-leggeds sharing in it with the four-leggeds and the wings of the air and all green things; for these are children of one mother and their father is one Spirit” (Neihardt, 1).

As a young boy, Black Elk had a vision in which he said, “saw more than I can tell and I understand more than I saw, for I was seeing in a sacred manner” (50). He spoke of seeing the “sacred hoop” of his people, of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father, and I saw that it was holy” (Neihardt 43).

The life Black Elk knew was rapidly and tragically transforming, as the West was “settled” forcing Indian peoples onto reservations, with all the grief, loss and confusion that ending a way of life entails.  Black Elk laments that in his old age he felt the loss and the betrayal of his early vision with the slaughter at Wounded Knee:" I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, you see me now an old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer and the sacred tree is dead" (Neihardt 270).

In an introduction to the 1989 edition of Black Elk Speaks, Vine DeLoria, also an Oglala Lakota (Sioux), noted:

    If the old camp circle, the sacred hoop of the Lakota, and the old days have been rudely 
    shattered by the machines of the scientific era, and if they can be no more in the
    traditional sense, the universality of the images and dreams must testify to the 
    emergence of a new sacred hoop, a new circle of intense community….” (Neihardt i)

Although DeLoria seems to be referring to the community of Lakota peoples, this intense community could also be thought of as global in nature, whose members understand and experience life as 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" (The Masks of Gods, 59). The consciousness that could create such a community  must be both subjective and objective, taking  Black Elk’s imagination of the hoop of the nation and DeLoria’s  "new circle" as a possible reality and not just a metaphor. In this way, a new mythologies will hold the treasure of  from the past, respecting the local and specific traditions equally with the universal ones. We will not have to live by the stories/myths, but live with them and allow them to live in us.

It is clear that Campbell’s research and insights went down into the foundation of myths, way down into the "deep, deep well of the past," not only to their cultural/geographic roots, but to their biological, psychological and even prehistoric origins. It seems that wired into our psyche and physiognomy is our ability to both create and respond to images, symbols and stories which are metaphors for our experience of being alive. It would also seem that we have arrived, at least theoretically, at a point in the evolution of consciousness (if we would take time from our everyday lives, which are fraught with the relentless distractions of pop culture, technology and media) where we are able to acknowledge the value of the legacy of mythology as the “schema” while engaging our individual, conscious striving and intention not toward living by some elaborate schema or narrow interpretation of one or another book, but rather, in a simple recognition of our and others’ worth as human beings participating in life to support, affirm and validate all that is truly human, good, beautiful and true (i.e. the eternal) In this way we can live as Campbell suggests, “decently without rancor or revenge” on God's green earth, in this time  and space, in the here and now.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. 1959. New York: Viking
Press, Inc.1959.

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. DVD. Mystic Fire Video, 2001.

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala
Sioux as told through John G. Neihardt
.1932. New York: Williams Morrow Company,


Sunday, May 23, 2010

House on Sixth Avenue

This is what my father-in-law told me happened to him, “When I asked my father for a dime, he picked me up and heaved me against the living room wall.” His father had worked hard in a cement factory, long hours in the cold. He was an immigrant from Italy, having come over with a wife and one child in 1903. The family grew quickly to include nine children in a tiny row home on Sixth Avenue in a small town. Like other families in the town, the small back yard was all garden,  tomato and pepper, and zucchini plants, fruit trees, grapevines and herbs. There was always dinner on the table when the man of the house came home and took his rightful place as lord and master of his domain. However meager and inadequate his kingdom might be, it the only place he could demand respect and deference.

The hill towns of Italia had become a vague blue green mist of memory in a new world without the warmth and familiarity of old--the native language, the villages and an extended family for support. In the old world at least there were the beauty of landscape, blood ties, and evenings with friends before a hearth fire with a toast of wine made each year from  grapes outside his door. Maybe there was a song to comfort, temper and deepen a young soul. 

Here in the land of opportunity, there was only work and worry.

My father-in-law was the youngest of the nine brothers and sisters. He never spoke a word against the father who had raised him to have respect (what I called fear) for this proud, hard-working, uneducated man who had lived his short life as best he could, fulfilling his responsibility to provide for his family. The provisions were for the bare physical necessities of food, shelter and warmth. That is all that this brute of a father and many other men could manage in their lives, if they were lucky, and, considering the hardships involved, providing the necessities was a deed in itself. Uneducated, unenlightened—probably moving swifty unawares from childhood to adulthood sometimes without even the barest of necessities—let alone self-awareness, he struggled mightily day after day to bring them to his own family.

Everyone else assumed their parts in the drama, too. The wife's to bear children, to work day and night to care for and feed them; wash the cloths and sheets by hand; keep the house in order; tend the garden, put up harvest for winter; and wait on the father when he was in the house. There was no realization or understanding that children were individuals with their own experiences, minds, desires, hopes and potential. Rather, they were hungry mouths to feed and sturdy bodies to be put to use.These are the impressions I had from the stories my father-in-law told over and again through the years, as subconscious burdens no doubt, to bear through a lifetime. 

I heard no other stories to displace the tales of brutality, which contained not a glimmer of warmth, although there were warm and fond memories and feelings for his mother. There was only this equal and opposite weight to balance them: a father whose life was such that any transgression on his part toward his wife or children could be rationalized in that context of the hardships of existence.

Years after the hard-working man had crossed the threshold from earthly trials to whatever lay beyond, my husband and I had taken my father-in-law, now already in his later years, along with Rosie, one of his widowed sisters, to the oldest living sister’s house. There was a warm welcome, a huge meal, and later time to reminisce with laughter and tears. The topics turned from childhood memories of the neighborhood, to their early married years with young children, to long-ago holidays spent all together at the house on Sixth Avenue. Then the topic inevitably turned round to Carmen, the youngest brother who had died at age sixteen.

There are always memories or stories which are told ritualistically in families, some happy, some tragic, which have a way of casting a certain mood or unseen image which fills the inner and outer space of a gathering. This was such a one.

I had heard about Carmen many times, but now I heard about him from Rosie, who interwove it with her own burden of being a little girl in that house. I felt it was also the first time her brother and sister heard about her recollections on this subject. Rosie was a sweet, delicate women, almost bird-like in her movements and child-like in her demeanor and speech—an open, generous soul. She became somber as she began her recollections surrounding Carmen's death, with a look about her now reminiscent of a grieving madonna painting.

On a day, almost 60 years ago, she was getting ready for school. It was a bitter cold morning, and the innocent, young girl was doing what girls do joyfully, combing her hair and singing a song. Her father stormed in and shoved her out of the bathroom. Carmen was still asleep, having been very ill the night before. She remembered that he was shaken and dragged out of bed by his father so he wouldn't be late to walk the distance to the dairy farm, where he worked ouside all day.

That afternoon, walking home from school, Rosie said she heard a voice, “Who do you want to lose, your father or your brother?” As she got to this part of the tale, her face transformed into the confusion and pain she must have felt at that very moment so long ago, when she responded in her characteristic way, “Ooo,I can’t choose between Pop and Carmen.'”  She didn’t have to.

When she got home, she found that Carmen had died that day of pneumonia. Rosie didn't say what that questioning voice may have been: her conscience, her fears, her wishes to have family harmony, ESP, or even the prophetic voice of God. She just relayed the story, as we all listened—me stunned, trying to comprehend the effects on her of that experience, carried through a lifetime. Nothing was said in response to Rosie’s apparently clairvoyant moment of the questioning voice. For a moment, my father in-law and the others seemed to honor the memory of their lost brother as the mood, meaning and images evoked by Rosie quickly faded.

I had the sense that my father-in-law had to dismiss the implication that his father was as cruel as the facts of Rosie's story confirmed, and that his sister, as well as the other siblings may have been as deeply affected by her childhood as she seemed to be during the telling of it.  I wondered what it had meant for them to never have allowed the relationship of Carmen’s illness and death to being forced to work on that bitter cold, last day of his young life to rise to level of consciousness. It certainly meant that no blame was attributed 
in order to preserve the family mythology.

Whatever may have transpired after Carmen's death, I have no knowlege of, but I do know that people, in general often do not question the what, how and why of their lives and maybe it is better that way in some cases. Still, I can only wonder and hope that there were moments of tenderness, love and remorse felt in the heart of that head of the house on Sixth Avenue—felt by him, if not seen by others— even if only a brief moment of doubt before sleep, or upon waking--
the way a small shaft of light and warmth edges its way into a dark room through a door left slightly ajar.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

On the Pitfalls of Fundamentalism (of any kind)

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)

Friday, April 2, 2010

How Does Your Garden Grow?

     What is it that slowly begins to tear down all that appears to have been built up? All that a soul first anticipates, creates, begins to count on day by day, year after year, and then can’t live without? Both the building up and the tearing down have to do with those hard-won lessons of realizing that almost nothing is as it appears to be, and learning to distinguish between appearance and reality. 
     And what is life, but building up and tearing down, creation and destruction. What is life worth if all goes on unnoticed, unexamined? If not noticed and examined, the pain is endless, the tears many, and the road traveled never opened to mysterious and glorious vistas. What it will do is turn back upon itself, so that we find ourselves in the same unpleasant spot, no matter how familiar. Like a recurring dream—one from which we long to awaken. But, we are either too afraid to veer off the path: can't see another way to go, or, worst of all--like Dante, see the way, but must go through hell to get there. Yet, it is only with the hunger and hope of our desires, or the anxiety and desperation of our fears, that can prop us forward.
     So we move around again into the dangerous curves, spurred on by the many illusions of what we think we or others need; what we think we or others are, or must become; what we wish were true for ourselves and for others.     The nature of this circle of desire and fear is such that once it establishes itself, it is nearly impossible to detect, let alone observe. To observe it we would have to step outside ourselves and look in, as if looking at someone other than ourselves. It might happen by accident that we catch glimpses of another way and falter.  Then it fades, and we continue on blind or groping, sensing at times the grotesque, illusory forms created out of our fears, desires and distorted memories. Sometimes we are forced to see under the brilliant light cast by pain and given the means to see with the kind of clarity that can stun, change or break us. Very rarely do we turn, with deliberate intent, stopping to observe the pattern that has so elaborately formed—it is hard to turn. The prisoner would prefer to stay in the chains, gazing into the shadow forms, rather than the harsh source of light.
     By the time I was forced to look within at pattern of my life--however safe it appeared to others, I experienced it as a wild and dangerous garden, overgrown with vegetation—some of it green, dense and thriving; some withered and dried; some blighted, or trampled down, as if by great storms, and here and there completely barren spots, as if from draught and darkness.
     Even if we are forced to look, it takes a long time, maybe the rest of a lifetime to understand. There are those who look and turn away, convincing themselves they have not seen. Some look and are lost forever. Then there are those who look, begin to understand, and even come to respect what has been—who can even love the stunted growth and barren spots -- without them they could not now say, “This has been and ever will be part, but only one part, of my garden.” When I had looked long enough and hard enough, I thought I could see a glimmer in the distance, beyond an overgrown path.

The Wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
in a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.” (Crane).

Friday, March 5, 2010

On the Anniversary of My Brother's Death - March 4th, 2004

An Excerpt From Soul Biography

My Brother Ron
Death Date: March 2004

Our family had grown to include another sister and a brother—one on whom my father had placed all the conventional hopes a father has for a son, as well as the impossible expectations, while my mother spent on him whatever energy she had—energy a woman might invest hoping to be appreciated and understood more by a son than a husband. 

From the start my brother seemed to spin a dark web around himself—one in which every member of the family was eventually caught up. That he was a troubled soul became increasingly clear as the years passed, as he went his own way, and lived by his own rules--disappearing from the neighborhood leaving everyone to look for him periodically, destroying property, getting into fights, or some sort of trouble—which happened early on and often.

I have wondered if the meaning of his life was to move us to break the silence and cycle blame the lack of self-knowledge brings, to force us to "take a stand," to help each other, to acknowledge what we lived, or to get my mother and father to reorder their priorities so that there were hopes, dreams and energy for all their children, and for each other, but that was my wish and hope-no one else’s. Not then, not ever.

Not long after I had married, my brother came home from Vietnam addicted to heroin, and continued life on his own terms—ones that brought him up short of any chance for balance in body, mind and soul. Instead, his life was one long decent into self-destruction, tragically playing itself out over many years, and leaving a lifetime of sorrow and despair for the rest of the family to cope with. I think his life was more of a mystery to him than to any one else. There was always a kind of innocence about him and strange naive incredulity on his part that anyone would be concerned with his life at all.

Many years later, when I looked at my brother’s death certificate, the thing that struck me most sadly—even more than “manner of death— accident. cause of death--adverse effect of drugs—self-administered” was the line which read “never married.” I don’t know why, I guess it just affirmed that my brother had none of the ordinary joys and struggles most people have in life. He did have extraordinary highs and deep and long downward spirals, which never resulted in the motivation to do anything differently.

Now, I can look at it all with less emotion, less judgment about anyone’s motives, actions or shortcomings. Why? Because I have had to look at my own human failings and have learned how life can catch us up like a butterfly in a web, like a leaf in the spindrift of a stream—not able, willing or even aware that we are so fixed for a time or a lifetime, not aware that the slightest movement could set us free. 

Death set him free.

My brother was a butterfly; he was a leaf.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Over the Rainbow with Finn

Our grandchild, Finn, and his mother and father are such a warm, hopeful, happy part of our lives (mine—"Nonna" and my husband’s, "Juju"). It is an experience like most in life, a combination of emotions, memories, hopes, wishes, thoughts, intentions, and evolving relationship, but always felt as a blessing and with gratitude. There is what we, ourselves, bring to a situation and what is brought by others. We need only to hear, to listen, to reflect and to treasure what our lives bring to us, especially when a new being comes among us. We now are often living in between the memory of what it was like to be new parents and the new experience of what it is like to be grandparents.

Waiting for Finn to be born was like a long and beautiful dream of anticipation and hope—then, with an extra long labor--worry and concern for mother and child until we heard Finn was here and all was well. When we first saw him in the candle lit room in which he was born with the glow of new life and the sheltering arms of mother and father, it felt like entering a holy place, and, indeed it was: where a fragile, perfect, exquisite infant was welcomed with awe and love.

Finn is a little over two years old, and has been a constant source of joy and light in everyone’s lives. He is beautiful, healthy and bright. We have all noticed that he has very definite skills and abilities, both in his little body, his thinking, his activities, and in inner and outer gestures toward others. From the time he crawled, he seemed to notice the smallest things and was able to pick up a very tiniest pebble or crumb—and then would hold it out to someone, as if to say, "Look what I found." That capacity, along with curiousity and interest has developed into the ability to build things with legos, easily put puzzles together and to see and understand how things fit together--in matching colors and shapes and even in social situations.

Finn has an incredible memory and can articulate where and how something happened, accompanied with hand gestures and facial expressions, which, of course, are most charming and endearing to all. He is helpful, wants to and is able to participate in all daily activities, like making breakfast, sweeping the floor, washing the dishes and putting his toys back into their proper places. He loves books, pictures, songs, stories and verses. He is fortunate that his mother and his maternal grandmother (Mormor) can and sometimes do share these things with him in their native language of Norwegian.

He looks like his mother, whom everyone agrees is beautiful (inside and out), with his light hair, delicate build and blue, blue eyes which look out in a certain way, as if to say, “I know who I am, and/or “I know who you are.” Sometimes he will just look at a person with a very intense, thoughtful gaze (also like his Mama) and then maybe say a word or thought which reveals a kind of wisdom or insight most remarkable. He wants to do everything and can learn everything on a first try with a “Finn do it,” or “My to do it.” He can, and he does! He likes to watch videos (when permitted now and then--only ones his Mama and Papa have deemed acceptable, and sometimes necessary in a pinch): it is adorable to see him all comfy and settled on the bed, with his little snack tray, enthralled, as he lifts a little cracker to his mouth, with an amused smile at the adventures of his animated favorite friends, Kipper, Kaiyu or Hungry Pillar (caterpillar).

Finn has always loved and looks for the moon (moona) in the sky. This seems so connected to who he is (was or will be). I see this moon love/attraction as both what he loves and what he is: Everything that is rythmical, bright, predictable, mysterious, pure, changing, but, most of all, circling round the things he loves and attracting those around him into his brilliant sphere of beauty and light. Also, when he talks about the stars and angels, he becomes them, as we all look on with wonder.

The most wonderful thing about Finn is that he thrives on having lots of people around, and when the extended family sit around a table for a meal, or gather in a room, he seems most joyful and content, as we are, to be welcomed into and feel an important part of Finn’s world and his tender, open heart.

It seems as though he is like his parents in so many ways. Both his mother, Sanne (aka Mama/Mommy/Mama Mia) and father, Rob, (aka Papa/ Dad/Papa Pia) are creative, energetic, multi-talented, thoughtful, responsible and caring people who love and respect each other. So Finn gets to sew and bake with mother, play drums and wrestle with father. It is wonderful to see that Finn has such an easy relationship to and with both parents, and that they put him first, are patient, kind and playful with their son, include him in everything and are happy to have friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles around who also love Finn. Ultimately, though, what Finn is heir to is the example and experience of the good, the beautiful and the true.

We do not live so close to Rob, Sanne and Finn that we can see them everyday, but close enough that we can see each other over a weekend, preferably a long one, and certainly we get together for holidays and special occasions, which is the clear focus of our lives—looking forward to spending what becomes more and more “precious” time in the glow of our dear, growing family, of which Finn is the glowing center. Recalling something Finn did or said when he was at our house (which may have been ordinary, but seemed amazing because it was Finn and filled our hearts), or looking ahead to being with him at his house in upstate New York take up a portion of our conversation everyday--our lives the deeper and richer for it.

We always look forward to and enjoy seeing all of our family whenever we can, and we anticipate it beyond imagination. With Finn’s arrival, a special place was created within us that is all longing and kept like a small nest, tucked away among the quiet, fragrant pine boughs awaiting his arrival. Then, it is all shining and golden, all giving and loving, all receiving, and the “bowl is brimful.”

A Hundred Thousand Ways- Heart Pictures

Published in New View Magazine (January 2010 issue)

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.

Joseph Campbell, in his comprehensive exploration of mythopoeia, observed that, for the ground of human existence, humanity has “chosen, not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial imagination.” Indeed, the mythologies of the world, often thought to be divinely inspired, are many-layered, rich, symbolic road maps of and for humanity which speak in and to the heart.

The heart realm encompasses imagination--fertile ground for knowing and understanding, but in different ways at different times in humanity’s evolution. Two stories, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament suggest a shift or transformation of human consciousness.

The Old Testament story of theTower 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. 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 and reputation. Their efforts were thwarted.

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 and/or experience the divine.

A counter part to the Tower of Babel can be found in the New Testament—in which, perhaps the chosen people are now those whose hearts are open to “other than words.”

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 was and the significance of His teachings. In an instant, they were enlightened.

The disciples, with patience and devotion, had been unknowingly building an “inner tower” (or temple) to reach the heavens. Simple fisherman, lovingly motivated, they struggled to learn, to understand what Christ conveyed, not as the letter of the law, but its Spirit. In the end, they harvested the fruits of His parable teachings—seeds cast that had taken root in imagination and were felt in the heart. 

One could say that in freedom, they were blessed with understanding beyond words. They held themselves open to what Martin Buber describes as, "…the unconditional mystery which we encounter in every sphere of our life and which cannot be comprised in any formula.”