Going Gently into the Light

All I want is to be gentle and to have the right to be gentle. It is not my time to protest anymore, but giving it up feels like an abandonment not only of those in need and those in pain and those in loss, but of myself, of the spirit of my younger self. It is confused by my physical weariness.

Some people climb the Himalayans in their 70s or even 80s, but that will not be me.

I am not complaining, though I am baffled. Doctors do not decipher my weariness, they prescribe or they look at me slightly askance as though someone who looks as I look must be a malingerer, or neurotic, certainly unrealistic and narcissistic. They are not inside my body.

I am not a malingerer. My body and my mind are weary. Wrong, only part of my mind is weary. One part is burstingly alive, radiant, claiming, grabbing, and appalled at the other half.

Forget names, forget the names of things, forget the sequence of events over the past week, forget spellings.

Doctors say is it usual. It is NOT usual. It is not acceptable, though I try, when I am not angry or frightened.

Have you noticed how we never grow up? How dreams and thoughts take us back to childhood, and there it revamps things? It makes memories and some good guys problematic, but more, it makes some bad guys good. We come to understand those who hurt us and accept the cages that destroyed them and harmed us. We become organisms that forgive, even as some people must be written off.

And even that loses meaning too with time.

I don’t want to be the old woman in the chair in the corner, and it is difficult to imagine I will be even as I might be. “She was so vital,” they’ll say. “She was something in her day.”

I just want to be gentle and gracious and generous and to have flashes of brilliances. Strangely I do have flashes of brilliance, mostly private. They come as gifts special delivery from a bright and shining light, and they blow me away. No, they lift me, and fly me to clean places where for a moment I am where forever lives.

I just want to be gentle and know that I too will be forgiven for wrongs and errors, and that I have a right to be gentle, that the world will be safe enough for the elderly to be gentle if they need be, without guilt, that we can mourn our losses quietly and let joy flow like light through our veins without guilt for not having done more.

Perhaps this will change, perhaps my body will find a key to turn that brings it back to power and rambunctiousness, and I would accept that gladly. Who wouldn’t? Reality has always included miracles we can work towards and be open to, but not command.

Perhaps the miracle is that, as my body gentles itself, love occupies all its spaces.

 

 

My Fainting Epiphany: love and loss

The first thing I felt, before my eyes opened, was the coolness of the bathroom tile against my cheek, as calm, placid, and cool as a forest lake—as though I’d never felt coolness before, as a baby might feel it, as someone without memory files.

The first thing I saw was a roll of toilet paper above me. How odd, and why were the walls at strange angles, like a white-on-cream cubist painting or quirky stage set—like flat surfaces that did not know they were walls, that were not yet tamed into being straight up.

It was the middle of the night. I was alone. I was flat on the bathroom floor.

Ill and light-headed, I had thought I might faint so took a pillow with me, but I missed it. I have scrapes on my forehead, a bruise above my right eyebrow, and small gash across my nose. Also a junior-size bump above my left ear and two splits inside my left upper lip. It is a Rorschach test to figure how I landed, though clearly my face led the way.

In the few days since I have rested, gardened, and questioned. What really matters? Who am I? Are politics or art more important? How many people will die without health care? Have I overcome or neutralized or morphed through the pains and betrayals of my life, or not?

That last question is one I’ve focused on for several weeks. My therapist on the afternoon before the night of fainting reminded me that trauma is cumulative. I recently opened the lid to the anteroom of my losses. One can go on, gain strength and even love through loss—including loss through betrayal and harm—but pain and loss don’t go away, they just become more companionable. Mine had become dark overstuffed upholstered chairs mildewing in the corner badly in need of cleaning and new stuffing.

This blog is not specifically about my traumas, but about the twining of love, loss, and grief. That someone arbitrarily harmed you, that they turned into a monster, does not mean you can retract your love without feeling loss. In fact, you can find your way to detach from the person, even to stop loving them, even to forgetting them over time, but you cannot cancel out the sense of loss. You loved. Love, too, is cumulative, and it remains.

No, this blog is not specifically about my trauma, but to give you a sense of my creds. I lost my child in a custody suit, suffered physical and emotional domestic violence, my “soul mate” third husband had a separate secret life complete with apartments in San Francisco and Beijing, and my childhood was an exercise in emotional stoicism.

I now live three blocks from my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren and our lives are filled with love. I got out of the abusive marriage 40 years ago, and that husband died after 20 years living in a banana grove. The “soul mate” married someone as fraudulent as he is and lives far away. I feel no need for vengeance.

And my parents became sweet and loving the last years of their lives. I tended them both into peaceful deaths. I also was there when my only sibling, my brother, died suddenly, a loss felt deeply.

But let us return to exploring how feeling loss proves you know how to love.

Loss is loss is loss and feeling or re-feeling losses can be disorienting. It can make walls go slant. It scales away your self-definition, and tries to strip away your persona, leaving you with the choice to let that persona go and find your way in the land of no self-definition and confusion, or to try to tamp down your painful losses and lock them in an anteroom, clinging to your persona as though you think it is who you are.

We all, in fact, always exist in the state where self-definitions are constructed trappings, attempts to not be frightened by the magnitude of being alive. When was the last time you tried to perceive the cosmos? When did you meditate into bliss? When did you last see the world as a baby before you decided walls go straight up?

Besides musing these past days, I watched two episodes of “Xena: Warrior Princess” and two episodes of “Star Trek.” Both firsts for me. The acting in Xena is hilariously bad and Star Trek is, so to speak, a world of its own.

What is of most interest is that the ads are about life insurance or things needed to breath right, i.e. equipment to clean your nose, and equipment to clean your sleep time breathing equipment, and things to do so you don’t feel guilty for dying. That is, the ads are for declining baby boomers who want re-runs of vicarious thrills rather than getting off the sofa—or facing up to that they spend too much time on the sofa.

We Americans are not good at looking at our lives. It can be painful. Not one of us with any age has not at some time been in a morass of lost love. It can dissolve a persona so thoroughly that the actual person is not sure which way is up, where her feet are, or what is ahead. The walls slant.

But I prefer loss of self-definition, as least for awhile. I prefer its freedom. I prefer finding my way through the loss to the love that had, and has, its home in my cells. The love did not go away when the lover, or parent, or friend, or betrayer died or left.

As trauma is cumulative, so is love.

I prefer beauty, and touch, and taste, and colors, and music, and the twining growth of wisteria up my house, and the cool nose of my dog, and the glint of rose off the sides of wet fish, and the whiff of sage, and my grandson’s smile when he spies a joke in the air, and making love in a soft bed with linen sheets and someone who goes there with me.

I prefer not to feel the bruises on my face but the cool smooth tile on my cheek. I love the hydrangea bush I planted yesterday, and that I could help its shocked branches by staking them upright. I love tending plants.

I want to be here, alive, mucking around in the sensations of being alive, even if I lose people and things. The hydrangea flowers will die but the plant bloomed.

I prefer to have the door to the anteroom of losses open so I can explore it for forgotten gems, find what was good and what was bad and say “I am here,” even if I do not know who I am or how large the cosmos is or when my body will die.

We endure the losses in order to become love experiencing life.

Love is cumulative and it is tough, and will tend us as surely as I tend the hydrangea.

 

CUBA: Art & Soul

The beating pulse of artistic creativity permeates everything in Cuba. I am not talking about souvenir art like papier-mâché 1950’s cars in chartreuse, red, and royal blue to be used as desktop ornaments, or Cuban flags or Che t-shirts. I am talking of art that transcends the bounds of the ordinary to reveal the extraordinary, art that draws back the veil.

A US citizen can still only enter Cuba from the US with a US-vetted educational group. My group was mainly Jungian analysts. I am not a Jungian analyst though I have my visions, and was as excited as the Jungians about the symbolism and archetypes of Cuban Christianity that overlay the African religions.

Sightings of Jamaya (Ee-mai-YA; also spelled Jamalla), the Cuban personification of the archetype of the Black Madonna, goddess of land and sea, led to ripples of excitement in our group. Her flowing robes, her golden aura, her white baby.

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It rained every day except one, but even on the rainy days we went singly, in duos, threes and fours, or as a group to museums, galleries, churches, restaurants, and concerts, or strolled through old Havana, Cienfuegos, or Trinidad. We struggled to grasp the dichotomy to our Western minds—Jungian or not—between the vibrancy of the art, colors, tastes, and sounds with the dilapidated buildings, meager goods, and government repression.

I became obsessed with the question: Is creativity expressed most radiantly by indomitable people under duress? Perhaps because it is the carrier of life itself?

Even the most “transcending” art I saw, including of Jamaya, was infused with humanity, with human emotions, gestures, and instincts—humans merging with animals, Jesus sitting on a chair after the Crucifixion looking very worried.christ for blog
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Sometime a wry sense of humor, or not, speaks to the current political situation. In the center courtyard of the magnificent National Museum of Fine Art in Havana is a sculpture that is a masterpiece of ambiguity. A rusted iron smoke stack rises as a steeple out of a small Monopoly-style church. Sitting at the top is Christ on a cloud, seemingly all of smoke. As my Jungian analyst friend Jean Shinoda Bolen said, “Holy smoke!”Jesus on smoke stack.

Yet, is it a write-off of religion as nothing but smoke? Or an embracing of the Christ spirit as generated by believers? Or something else?

Christianity has come back in force in Cuba, but remains vaguely frowned upon by some. Is this sculpture debunking religion or showing the tenacity of belief in something beyond the tangible, perhaps even manifesting something beyond the tangible? We went to a church service. The place was rocking.

We were told that Cubans have freedom of speech (and, thus, of artistic expression) but they don’t have freedom after speech. That is, for the most part you can say what you feel and think, though it might need to be somewhat camouflaged, but you cannot ask others to join you in a movement and you cannot do active protest. This demarcation holds social protest in place, supported by years of masterful maneuvering by Fidel that makes most Cubans feel grateful to him and the on-going government for what they receive, including full free health care, an excellent free education up through doctoral degrees, and government institutions that support advanced art education in painting, sculpture, dance, and music.

The poverty line has been lifted way above where it was before the revolution and the people seem happy, though income discrepancies are rampant. Hotel workers, through tips, earn more than medical doctors. (Cuban joke: A man tells a stranger he is a bellboy. His wife clarifies, “He has delusions of grandeur. He’s really a doctor.”)

To continue: housing is, by and large, very decrepit, and luxury goods are not available. There are no large grocery stores, or, it seems, large stores of any kind.
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There are many car repair service stations, but you have the feeling every Cuban male has learned how to repair cars with tin cans and wire. The cars themselves are works of art.

Our hotel had a grand marble lobby and wonderful restaurants. Still, the light fell out of the ceiling of my bathroom and crashed in the sink, my coffeemaker didn’t work, and my curtains were missing a third of their hooks, and the apartment elevators were so slow I used the stairs from the fifth floor. We rejoiced with the general manager—a woman—the day the embargo on parts from the US was lifted so the elevators, and hopefully many other things, could be properly repaired. That said, the hotel spaces were filled with the best art—beautiful, creative, whimsical, celebratory, exquisitely painted—I have ever seen in a hotel anywhere.

Perhaps this containment of artists in a stratum of life where they can express themselves fully only through their art is like a greenhouse. The art is required to burst fully open, ignoring deprivations, expressing the world of beauty and so much more precisely because it does not have access to what is beyond the greenhouse. Then again, it could just be that Cuba is warm and sunny.

Surely it is the “warm and sunny” that has fueled the exuberant music that has supported Cubans throughout their history, but what blew me away was the choir Cantores De Cienfuegos directed by Honey Moreira. choir for blog, bestWe had a private concert with this a cappella chorus of angels!

They have won international contests, which seems beside the point when you are lifted in their embrace. (You can hear them on YouTube to get an approximation of this extraordinary experience of musicianship.) 

The last day we ate at a privately-owned restaurant that had three large prominently displayed paintings of Fidel Castro. On first look, even second look, they seemed simply to be photo-realistic paintings. Yet something was “off.”

Fidel tongue copyLooking closer at the profile view, I saw behind the straggly moustache that Fidel’s tongue appeared to be sticking out like that of a silly yapper. Perhaps it was that he has a strange lower lip. Perhaps the artist was leaving the question open?hands for blog fidel to crowd.

 

 

 

 

 

In the study of his hands, I realized his left hand is in his sleeve as though he has a trick up there and the thumb of his left hand has traces of red, like blood, on it. But then again, his right fingers have the same red. What to make of that? Nothing or something?

In the final painting the viewer sees Castro’s back with his arms raised before a crowd. His left hand points further to the left. He is exhorting his audience, which the viewer sees as faceless blobs as, the artist seems to be saying, Fidel saw them also.

Is this an artist “speaking” his truth?

Our group is gravely concerned about what will happen when the international hotels and luxury stores arrive, when Americans arrive by the tens of thousands, when ceiling lights no longer crash into the sink, curtains hang right, and new cars arrive.

I’m not sure the Cubans will know what hit them. How will their exuberant humanity hold against the onslaught? What will save Cuba from becoming Miami?

Perhaps there will be help from Yamaya who protects land and sea or Jesus who rises out of the ashes, but I suspect it will be up to the Cubans to save themselves and protect their humanity through their warmth, ingenuity, and creativity. For this, they do have one more god to help them, Elegua the Trickster, a direct import from Africa.

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Elegua is a child, either male or female. Here she is in the all-white dress of the Santeria sect of Christianity, sitting in the entry room of a small temple to Jamalla nestled between shops in Trinidad de Cuba.

Elegua should not be confused with childishness. She is powerful and uses wiles to make things right. I place my bets on her ingenuity. I place my bets on Cubans. I place my bets on art. It matters. Cuba is a triumph of creativity and humanity over circumstances. We have much to learn from her.

Why I Don’t Trust the Republican Establishment: an exposé

Know from the get go, Republican establishment, I am cutting you no slack. I learned of your dark hearts when I was 27. You’ve had to work to gain trust from me ever since. You haven’t succeeded.

I am not speaking of rank-and-file Republicans, those Americans with hankerings for pure capitalism and fears of big government who hold a vision of our nation being settled by self-reliant individuals protecting home and property. For the most part, I respect these Republicans and I am related to some of them.

Nor am I speaking of lower income Republicans, though I don’t understand why they are Republicans since their party has not benefited them in decades.

I am speaking of Republican policy-makers, big donors, elected officials who set agendas, stir up fears, have no trouble propagating mass delusion, block programs to help people in need, and who know “trickle down” is a scam. I’m talking of people who connive.

Here’s how I first learned of them.

In 1965 I was 23 years old and hired for my first real job in DC, the city where I had arrived from Iowa two years earlier with no employment, no place to stay, one suitcase, and $500 of borrowed money. During the first year I was often unemployed and occasionally a receptionist or cocktail waitress. The second year I was an editorial assistant for a trade magazine. I was fired from that job one year to the day while typing my resignation letter. My boss was right, I never took corner pharmacists, our clients, to heart, but the real reason I wanted out was she was a tyrant who kept trying to give me shoulder massages.

Mid-January 1965 I became a writer-editor at the Office of Economic Opportunity established in 1964 under President Johnson. Led by Sargent Shriver, those of us at national headquarters and on staff throughout the U.S. were filled with fervor to help the poverty-stricken and the under-served gain what they needed to raise the quality of their lives – to give the poor a chance whether they lived in the inner-city, Appalachia, migrant camps, or on Indian reservations. Whether they were white, black, Latino, young, old, or in-between.

We started the Head Start Program, VISTA, Legal Services, the Community Action Program, and Upward Bound. We were the War on Poverty. Working directly with and organizing those in need, we worked for justice, equality, financial opportunity, and early education. We gave people a chance.

The man who hired me left a month later. He had been the in-house photographer. When a call came from Shriver’s office that they needed a photographer in two hours for photos with the civil rights leader Roy Wilkins, I unlocked the closet that held the Nikons, called our photo agency, and asked them how to use a camera. At 1:00 pm I appeared in “Sarge’s” office and introduced myself as our new photographer.

Here’s the crux of it. As the in-house photographer, in addition to being a writer, I hired free-lance photographers to document the many forms of poverty across the nation, and to document our programs that were helping people change the course of their lives.

Every day I studied incoming contact sheets (36 negative-size black-and-white photographs per sheet) of poverty and programs. I selected the photographs to be printed as 8″ x 10″ glossies for distribution and publication.

I was the person, more than anyone else in the world, who knew what our nation’s poverty looked like. The contact sheets came to me, I examined them, and chose the best. I looked at between 500 and 1000 images a week.

We had a photographic archive equal in quality and scope to that gathered during the New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. We had many hundreds of photographs the quality of those taken by Dorothea Lange. The photographs were tragic, inspiring, revealing. They did what the best photographs do – reveal and convey the unique humanity of every person within the circumstances of his or her life.

This was my job for two years before I stepped back to start a marriage and a family. The process of getting photos slowed down, but continued.

In early 1969 I was 27. Two months after President Nixon took office, I received a call from one of my top free-lance photographers who was visiting the offices: “Patricia, they’re taking the photographs. They have a huge bin on wheels. I saw it going down the hallway filled with photos dumped in it. I grabbed an armful, but they stopped me. They are throwing everything out. Everything. The filing cabinets are empty. There’s nothing left.”

I called the photo lab instantly. It had been two years, but they recognized my voice immediately. Before I could ask, my guy there said: “Patricia, they just left. They took every negative.”

“Every negative?”

“They walked in and demanded them. We had no way to stop them.”

An historical archive of the American people was obliterated. A national treasure was destroyed.

Not only did the Republican administration set out to destroy the evidence of poverty in the U.S., it set out to destroy the Office of Economic Opportunity. Some programs were dismantled entirely, others siphoned off in pieces to other government departments. The War on Poverty was over.

Has anything changed?

It seems systemic to the Republican hierarchy to disempower and disenfranchise minorities and low-income people by gerrymandering voting districts, setting up discriminatory voting restrictions, exporting Latinos, putting Afro-Americans in prisons, having unequal criteria for providing loans for homes and businesses, refusing to support affordable advanced education, endorsing a tax system where it is corporations and the wealthy that get breaks, promoting Islamophobia, and fighting a respectable minimum wage while protecting the right to accept unlimited donations from extremist right-wing billionaires who promote their personal agenda.

I do not understand how people come to hold perspectives that dehumanize and denigrate the needy and under-privileged. I do not understand how people are willing to denigrate their own humanity by shutting off their empathy, understanding, and compassion.

I do not understand people who do not experience other humans as real and valuable, and I pray I never learn what that is like. I cannot imagine what it would feel like to believe only people like you matter.

The loss of understanding and compassion for all members of the human family, each desiring opportunity, justice, fairness, and love, would be horrific. I think it would be even worse than the loss of irreplaceable photographs that revealed and celebrated all the members of our human family.

That is why I dislike the Republican establishment. I have been watching them closely for more than four decades. They haven’t gotten better.

 

Rachmaninoff and Me

I haven’t written because I have too much to say, but question the validity of saying any of it. Recently on Facebook I have been adding “friends” who are poets and authors, and I don’t know who they are – well, some names are slightly familiar – and they all have books, and write beautifully, which adds to my writer’s block; but I just came from seeing the play “Preludes” at Lincoln Center about the composer’s block of Sergei Rachmaninoff after a disastrous – and I do mean disastrous – debut of a new symphony. The conductor was drunk and the orchestra not prepared, and Sergei got skewered by the critics. If seeing that play doesn’t unblock my backlog, I think nothing could except drunkenness, which isn’t my style. It didn’t work for the conductor, it wouldn’t work for me.

Afterwards I sat under the trees in front of the theater in this blessed balmy air that is the same temperature as your skin surface, which is, of course, heaven, and the guy who played Rachmaninoff walked by. He was talking to an obvious friend who left and then as he walked back, I said “Thank you,” and he came over and I told him about the Rachmaninoff wars between my 7-year-old grandson who adores Rachmaninoff, though at first he thought it was Mozart he adores but it is Rachmaninoff, and my 5-year-old granddaughter who thinks music isn’t music unless it has words and a singable melody, while Ben doesn’t like music with words. He is gifted in math so it makes sense. Rachmaninoff was mathematical also.

So the writer’s block has been both about that I cannot keep up with the magnificent writers who are suddenly all over my FB thread even though they don’t know me, but probably did a quick check, saw I looked harmless, and were willing to accept me as a “friend.” And it is also because I have lost my sense of having a profile, any i.d. Nothing makes sense anymore regarding who I am. And if you don’t know who you are, your literary impulses, which depends on what you think and feel, can get pretty confused.

Wendell Berry – one of my new literati friends posted this magnificent poem by him – described this well. Well, my dislocation takes it a bit further than he does, but he really described not knowing. See?

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

Now, it seems the impeded stream may not be singing – more like gurgling eddies – but he sums up the bafflement and makes it all good somehow, as having the purpose of no purpose might actually get you somewhere.

I haven’t been fighting losing my identify. I invited it and have yielded to it even as I now question it. Several years ago I decided to strip myself of definition and it has been working. I mean, people think I am serenity, except for my closest friends who still think I am serenity and rely upon my being serenity for their own serenity even when some get occasional glimpses of churning waters underneath.

Joan Didion wrote that as she got older she couldn’t write as she once did, words eager to rush onto the page, internal rhythms known even before the words arrived. Now she just tries to use the right words, the accurate ones, the authentic ones. Each word done with such care. I tell myself to do the same but I am not Joan Didion, and to include a reference to myself in a paragraph about her is narcissistic blasphemy, but . . . yikes.

Plus, there is a residue inside me that is rococo. I would love to be able to use words like verisimilitude, laconic, obfuscation, lexicography, and lassitude as nimbly as I use words like harvest, fever, raspy, and earth.

It is imperative to use the right words, but it is work. It is a meditation, it is knowing what is. And knowing what is is, generally, beyond words. See the problem?

Other problems include that I’m just plain lonely in this transition to non-description. This is, by the way, an essential struggle of most elderly. Have you any idea how many people who were my friends or acquaintances a couple months ago are no longer here?

My second ex-husband sent the word out, through a convoluted route that found me across the U.S. and after 35 years, that he has dementia and Parkinson’s Disease. It wasn’t his lungs, after all, that got him. It was Lewy’s body disease, the second most common form of dementia, the top of the list of all those kinds of dementia that are not Alzheimer’s. Do you think I’m losing use of my vocabulary not because of seeking rockbottom truth but because words are disappearing? I am afraid of that. In any case, no-frill words tend to be truer. Something may be “transcending” but it is more accurately “rising, delicate and vaporous.”

Rachmaninoff really suffered. Brilliance hiding is not a pleasant thing, especially when you need to bring in rent money. Brilliance molding? What is a sorry state for others is a horror for a genius. I am not a genius. My suffering has been real but it is not a case of having a gift that could blow the minds of others into the stratosphere and that the world will forever ache over from its loss. Mine is more closely aligned to the loneliness felt in the gap of not hearing one’s self express one’s own understandings, of not taking something to the next level, of stupefied energy.

This is not outwardly visible. I look pretty good, and my health is good. I had it checked out of fear that the gloom eyeing me along the edges of my campfire was partially physical. My health is fine, my loneliness isn’t really.

Did I tell you my past is littered with bad husbands? Men who failed me on the simplest of terms. Fidelity, safety, things like that. It is a cluttered landscape behind me. Debris beside the road, but it is okay. I am blessed, and I saw this play today “Preludes” on the composer’s block of Rachmaninoff. He was 28, I’m 72. He got over it. I will too . . . or not.

It is not important to be able to use words such as pulchritude, dipsomaniac, vermiculite, or phrases such as “it hit him the way formaldehyde hits a lizard, “ or “she circumambulated the offering, an oracle tied to the thread of a vision” No, it is enough to be able to say, “She loves with her entire body. She loves so much she does not know her body from her mind. She loves more than fits conventional wisdom. She loves beyond calling. She loves with the clarity of a baby’s drool. She loves. She loves mindlessly. She loves so much she trusts losing herself even though she has no choice in the matter.”

Rachmaninoff went on to write his “Prelude in C# Minor.” I wrote this.

 

Art! Slam us to the ground!

Having lunch with a friend who has been targeted for assassination is one way to up your appreciation of art. De Kooning after an omelet tapa with tomatoes and olives. Diebenkorn after grilled cauliflower. Matisse after a cappuccino.

When the furniture glue coated on the wires under his car didn’t explode because it was the coldest week in the Middle East in years, the assassins settled for Molotov cocktails and exploded his car after he returned home.

Kenneth Noland after talk about moderation in actions and politics. Robert Motherwell after consideration of Aristotle and the Golden Mean. Helen Frankenthaler after talk of “psychos” – his word – from France, Belgium, and Germany joining ISIS because it gives them license to kill.

The Phillips Collection, an exquisite private gallery, was halfway along my walk from the restaurant to my home. If not now, when?

Mondrian after sorrow for the distortion of Islam. Sam Francis after re-commitment to hope because the other options would be fatal. Adolph Gottlieb following recognition of how fear strips most people of courage.

I stood in front of the paintings with the most aggressive colors – not a day for meditative studies – and challenged them to “Hit me with your best shot. Fill me.”

Many years ago I meant a young man at the Phillips. He was set to have an exhibit there before everything went topsy-turvy when the director was found to be selling paintings from the museum to fund his personal life. The young man and I became lovers. I took LSD with him once. We became bear cubs and romped and rolled. I didn’t realize he considered LSD a basic food group. It fueled his amazing mind and art. He painted white on white and it got whiter and whiter over the years, though he and I were together only a few months. He invented a written language for me. The pieces he wrote were exhibited – an iconography of love on yellow paper.

He said, “If art doesn’t come off the wall, hit you behind the knees, and knock you to the ground, it’s not good enough.” I believed him then and I believe him now, though I believed then and believe now that there are subtle ways to be knocked over. Sometimes a feather will do. Maybe he believed that to. His paintings got very white.

But today was not a day for gentleness. I asked the strongest, most colorful, most daring art to hit me. Come off the wall. Slam me to the ground. Fill me. Show me – prove it! – that humans are greater, are larger, are better animals than we seem. We are not just people who kill, people who try to kill my friend because he educates people in the truth so they will stop killing each other, people who kill innocent Muslim students, people who bomb Syrians, extremists who capture and rape young women. That there needn’t be more bombs, more killing, more blood, more freezing cold, more lack of shelter in the freezing cold, more stupidity, more justification, more ignorant savagery. That it need not be! We are better than this. We have artists, we have voices, we have kindness in us.

Slam us, art! Save us from ourselves! Keep red on the canvas and off our clothing and bodies. Give us meaning and perspective and hope that, despite the horrors we commit, we can find our way to compassion and care for each other. Knock us to the floor so we can rise in hope.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler

Sam Francis

Sam Francis

Adolph Gottlieb

Adolph Gottlieb

Wassily Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn

Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse

On Beauty: Chihuly in the Garden

ALERT: Be prepared to slow down. Glass, greenery, and mind-alteration ahead.

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Last week I was at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden in Miami where the 83 acres of barely tamed palms, cycads, and flowering trees were embedded with the blown glass art of Dale Chihuly. It was glorious, and forced me to rethink my beliefs about beauty.

Beauty is not absolute. We may cluster around Monet’s waterlilies, Venus de Milo, and Vermeer’s woman with a pearl earring and gasp in awe, but beauty is not absolute.

My heart may skip a beat over any painting by Odilon Redon or Wassily Kandinsky. Yet, beauty is not absolute.

We may feel a visceral snap, zap, ping that seems to have come across 40,000 years to reach us when we look at cave wall drawings of bison, horses, and deer. Still, beauty is not absolute.

To keep it simple let’s focus only on the visual arts even though the principle that beauty is relative applies to our perception of beauty in music, poetry, dance, film, and humans.

The functioning principle is: Beauty is relative because humans decide individually what they believe is beautiful and what they believe is not. The work of art is not saying to itself “I am beautiful.” We do that, and we have different opinions.

Humans assign beauty and other values to art based on filters inside ourselves that we do not even realize exist. Everything we see passes through these filters and is judged – tainted or enhanced – by them. We feel that we are discovering beauty or ugliness when, in fact, we are assigning beauty, ugliness, and all sorts of other qualities to art – and so much more.

The filters are determined by where we live, when we live, our experience, our education, and our wildly-varied personal quirks. It is all personal. There is no other explanation for Elvis on black velvet.

FullSizeRender 6This is not to say visual arts are inert, flat, dead. They have internal resonance determined by their color combinations and spacial relationships. Paintings and sculpture have “chords” just like music. Their colors, scale, and depth can be analyzed and charted. They may be “harmonic” or discordant.

The majority of people prefer “harmonic” – that is, mathematically balanced – resonance where the light spectrum of different colors feel “connected” with each other and the spacial relationships feel cohesiveness, i.e. most people don’t like things to “clash.” Most of us like art we perceive to resonate harmonically inside itself that, by extension, then resonates inside us.

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Until last week I never resonated with the blown glass works of Dale Chihuly. I found them stunning but soulless. Analytical, intellectual, a little too like a painting by Salvador Dali. Slick. Lacking the mess of human emotions.

But the idea of walking through the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden to see Chihuly’s glass works in sito was intriguing. Besides, my host was charming, and it was a sunny day with blue skies over Miami.

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My friend and I were enchanted, and I saw Chihuly’s art as for the first time.

Suddenly the works were not shallow, but sensuous, brilliant, outrageous, and organic. Yes, organic. They created an Alice in Wonderland world where everything was alive, and slightly dangerous. They rose from the earth among vines and flowers. They “bloomed” and thrived on the sun like the carbon-based life around them.

The works resonated with the plants. Newts crawled on them, dragonflies rested on them, and birds walked among them. The plants, animals, insects, and glass were at home with each other.

IMG_2936This 180 degree turn in perception reminded me of a book I read years ago. The author explored our ability to change instantly what we think is ugly to what we think is beautiful, our ability to re-perceive.

She used the example of palm trees, how she considered them ugly until one day she saw them as beautiful. Reading that, I suddenly no longer saw palms as ugly but as beautiful.

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Hold on. We’re going to take this to its extreme.

Years ago, within seconds of starting to meditate on a beach in California, I watched the setting sun become the center of a universe of love that held – in fact, was – a beating heart. Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub, through the sky, the ocean, the sands.

FullSizeRender 12My mouth was slightly open. A fly came to hover in front of it like a hummingbird. I saw my mouth through the fly’s perspective – a damp reddish cave. How inviting!

The fly came closer, but did not enter. As the fly, I reconsidered. As a person, I felt no abhorrence.

In the suspension of a world divided into beautiful and ugly, what would normally be felt as grotesque was felt as exquisite. I understand this is shocking when viewed from the constraints of normal perception and judgement, but it was a lesson I have never forgotten. It was a world alive in beauty without filters. It touched me so deeply that I could not speak of it for months and then only in tears of wonder.

As humans we assign not only designations of what is beautiful and what is ugly but of what is alive and what is not. We say a tree is alive, but glass is not.

FullSizeRender 10We are as wrong in assigning life as we are in assigning beauty and ugliness. Everything is alive, everything is made of energy.

Sometimes we know this – an hour on the beach looking at the sun over the ocean. Sometimes we don’t know this.

Glass, to me, is now organic, both as the substance of glass and as the expression of an artist.

Most days the filters have less and less power. Most days, there is more and more beauty.

Thank you, my friend, for taking me to the garden. Thank you, Chihuly, for creating new forms of life.

The show continues through May 31. More on Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and its programs at www.fairchildgarden.org. 

 

One Movie Star at a Time

My list of male actors just passed 370 with Sir John Gielgud, Gordon MacRae, Patrick Swayze, George Takei, and Harpo Marx. My list of female actors passed 260 with Claudine Longet, Olivia Newton-John, Olivia de Havilland, and Farrah Fawcett.

Their names rise like tendrils, sprouting from the silent dark loam of my mind to the light.

Ali MacGraw, Billy Bob Thornton, Ann Bancroft, Lillian Gish, Maximilian Schell.

Each morning I wake with a handful more names to add.

Eve Arden, Ray Milland, Jayne Meadows, Ossie Davis, Ann Southern, Joel Gray, Lotte Lenya.

The rule is that I cannot just add names I search on Google. I have to remember who they are, or were, and at least recognize their face before their name is added. I can, for example, remember the face of the woman in “Oklahoma” and then google her name. Shirley Jones.

My obsession, so far, is not about learning, but about remembering. It’s about stimulating my brain and having available the file of “who’s who” that other people have.

Peter Lorre, Angela Bassett, Loretta Young, Cheryl Ladd, Melina Mercouri, Celeste Holm, Billy Dee Williams.

This obsession, and fascination with how memories rise out of darkness, started – are you ready? – with a pressing need a few months ago to learn the nations of Africa. Then all the nations of the world. Then all the provinces and their capitals of Canada. Then all the capitals of all the nations in the world. The island nations of far Southeast Asia still resist cognitive patterns but I’m 90% of the way there on the rest.

After decades of geographical nonchalance, I need to know the pattern of the planet I stand on. What is underneath my feet? What nations touch up against other nations? Who are the people who live in that specific place? When they run from their home to another country, who are their neighbors?

But my need to know doesn’t stop with nations on the earth and stars of stage and screen. My brain lusts across a wide scope of nameable knowledge – the seven dwarves, the Supreme Court justices, Santa’s reindeer, the seas and mountain ranges. It wants to bring tangible nameable reality into place before I return to the intangible unknowns of peace work.

Jon Voigt, Peter Fonda, Werner Herzog, Anna Magnani, Jean Seberg, Chita Rivera, Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Pia Madori, Mia Farrow, Ingrid Bergman.

What if someone asks me the Departments of the U.S. government and the Secretaries? Or the chronology of the Presidents? Or when Prussia was Russia or Germany or Poland, or Germany was Prussia?

Then there are all the film directors! This list will start when either the actor or actress list reaches 400.

Vivien Leigh, Jimmy Stewart, Shirley Temple, Tammy Grimes, Peter O’Toole, Nick Nolte, Bruce Lee, Raquel Welch.

I’m not inherently inept with names. I voluntarily stopped registering names some time ago. I was more interested in the movie, or work of art, or book than in who made the movie, created the art, or wrote the book.

I can say I did this, though it now feels like an excuse, because other things were more important to me, like learning the principles of cultures of peace and forming global networks of women. I can say that I learned what I needed to know to do the work I needed to do in order to help make a better world, and that I didn’t have the capacity left to remember names. But now, it is I – not world peace – with the need to know who is who and what is where.

Kim Novak, Ruby Dee, Jeanne Moreau, Alan Delon, Margaret Cho, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Patti LaBelle, Viola Davis, Dorothy Dandridge. 

I delight in the recall.

Daryl Hannah, Jack Webb, Lena Horne, Larry Hagman, Alec Guinness, Yvonne de Carlo, Jeff Chandler, Jackie Chan, James Dean, Lauren Bacall. 

I feel my brain. Zip zap zip zap. Neurons popping. Synapses dusting themselves off.

Carrie Fisher, Kirk Douglas, Helen Hayes, James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Annette Bening, Audie Murphy, Sidney Poitier, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Uma Thurman, Oona Chaplin, Liv Ullman, Stacy Keach, Rod Serling, Jeremy Irons, Helen Mirren, Candice Bergen, Rosalind Russell, Eddie Murphy.

Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Tony Perkins, Tuesday Weld, Mary Martin, Robert Culp, Jane Russell, River Phoenix, Betty Grable, Peter Lawford, Meg Ryan, John Wayne, John Travolta, Rita Moreno, Walter Matthau, Hedy Lamar, Leslie Nielsen, Gilda Radner, Robin Williams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

Perhaps this obsession is about not forgetting people. Not letting them slip away.

Mogadishu, Somalia; Kigali, Rwanda; Antananarivo, Madagascar; Kampala, Uganda; Juba, South Sudan; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Ouagadougou, Burkina Kaso; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Accra, Ghana; Dakar, Senegal.   

And not forgetting whole nations,

Sandra Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, Elena Kagan, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John Robert, Anthony Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

. . . or those who judge our laws,

Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen, and Rudolph.

. . . or who fly through the night with gifts for us all,

Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Happy, Doc, and Bashful.

. . . or whistle when they work, even when it is for minimal wage.

There are a lot of people to remember.

 

Making God in our (racist) Image

My initial understanding of racism arrived deus ex machina when I was 14 standing in the back of a empty country church in Iowa. Years were still to pass before I met anyone whose ancestors weren’t northern European.

While I didn’t know any blacks, Latinos, or Asians, I knew “my people” well – good people, farming people. I was a keen observer from an early age. I knew “my people” were insecure about how people outside of the Midwest saw them. Farmers, bumpkins, clodhoppers, country folk.

The tenet that we were “made in God’s image” was spoken often from the pulpit and it was reassuring. Yes, humility might be praised and promoted – we could take pride in how humble we were – but knowing we were made in God’s image was a private pass in our back pocket if life went from humbling to humiliating. It was an assurance of value. We had affinity with the Almighty.

UnknownAlongside the push-pull between humility and God-heritage was the question of the nature of God. Our black earth, hogs, corn, and cows inclined us to believe in God as embodied, as a being with our senses but over-sized, while the vast formless sky revealed infinity. The trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit tried to meld these concepts, but anyone looking at the symbol can see it is too complex – this is part of this which is not part of that. It is contrived. Truth has to be more elegant. But that’s looking at it from now.

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)Looking at it from then, my people assumed Michelangelo got it right regarding God the Father. White, male, mighty. And we knew the Holy Spirit from the miracles of nature around us and by the feeling inside when we were being saved. Salvation was pure spirit, a visitation of light.

And Jesus, well, . . . Jesus made the whole thing human. We could relate to Jesus. He was a shepherd, which is a kind of farmer. And a carpenter, and a fisherman. Jesus was an all-around capable amazing guy. He would have made a great neighbor.

But we weren’t told we were created in Jesus’ image. We were told we were created in God’s image, and God, we understood, was the Father – a Father who played favorites, kept score, and wanted allegiance; and He watched us. “His eye is on the sparrow” was not entirely reassuring. He held all the power, as in “. . the Power, and the Glory forever and ever. Amen.” Good thing we were in the same family – white and Christian.

He had to be white. We were made in His image and we were white. This special standing elevated us from backbreaking labor. If other races were equally loved by God, then we were no longer special – and we needed special.

At age 14 I melded the psychological premise of “I feel better about myself if I think less of you” to the priority of believing you are created in the image of a God that favors you, and that it did not allow for people who did not look like you to be equally favored by God. Standing alone in the back of that church, I understood that prejudice attached itself to the belief that you were in a special relationship to God.

While I could not have said it at that time, what this means is that instead of being made in God’s image, we made God in our image and we made Him racist.

Christians don’t have a monopoly on claiming special status as God’s chosen people. It is a self-serving fault line of extremists of the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Extremists use it now and have used it historically in the name of (so-called holy and definitely unholy) wars, forced conversions, justification of violence, the Inquisition, genocide, prejudice, ghettoes, the Crusades, pogroms, expulsions, and occupation of other people’s land and property.

Terrorists of these three religions believe they are God’s, Allah’s, Yahweh’s favored children. They believe they are superior, privileged, and – having kinship with their racist and vengeful God – can act with impunity. They are on a mission of the highest calling.

It is, of course, only a small minority of people of any religion who become fanatics, and what I am saying is, we all know, only a sliver of the multiply causes of evil enacted in the world. But among those causes, we must examine the ideological seeds that are planted in people.

Speaking only for Christians: If we had been taught that we were created in the image of Jesus who loved and forgave and didn’t suffer pomposity perhaps life on our communal planet might have turned out differently.

Or if we had been taught that we were created out of the Holy Spirit, perhaps more of us would have felt and found the light inside us. That flame has no ethnicity, no favored people, it burns from love.

But many of us, instead of finding our light, judged ourselves as inferior, sought – and created – an all-power father, and gave ourselves permission to harm and kill “lesser people” in his name.

It is a cyclical internal process that becomes institutionalized and fills our world with horrors. Syria, Gaza, Ferguson, torture, drones, Guantanamo, rape, injustice, police brutality, destruction of the planet, child abuse, slavery, prejudice. This list goes on, and it breaks our hearts.

It is revealing, isn’t it, that human hearts break from the harm we do to each other? Is this how the Holy Spirit makes itself known to us? Is this how we wash away false gods?

 

 

Diamond Out of the Rough

When the certified gemologist behind the counter asked for my husband’s name regarding all and complete contact information on me, I said “The diamond is the last of the husband.” People turned around.

He continued: “Well, I always have to ask.”

Me: “Really?”

But it was all done humorously. I was, after all, turning a ring that I hadn’t worn in more than six years because of the slightly malevolent vibration it emitted into a stunning necklace – an emerald cut diamond on a delicate 19″ gold chain. I handed over the gold part of the ring for credit.

The diamond has been with me for 24 years, the blink of an eye in its lifetime. I am just a passing mirage to it – and my story not particularly interesting I suspect.

Point is, things under immense pressure, including people, sometimes turn into diamonds – brilliant, clear, and radiant that stand the test of time. Other things, including people, go soft, rot, and crumble. Whether it is a matter of decisions made while under duress or only an organic process having to do with the initial carbon of the person is not a question I can answer.

I’ve nothing more to say on this subject.