Thursday, July 31, 2014

My Mom

The hospital bed took up most of the living room. The steady hum of the oxygen machine masked the murmuring voices from the other room. Light from the summer garden poured through the windows. I took her head in my hands and kissed her forehead. She was drifting in and out. I kissed both of her cheeks. The smell of her warm skin broke my heart. It wasn’t going to be long. I told her I loved her and thanked her for being my mom. Her eyes opened and in a flash of recognition she smiled. For a moment we were together again, mother and son. The room fell away. We were young, happy, free, and eternal, beyond the grip of terrible time. Then her face softened, her eyes closed, and she drifted back into a dream. She died the following evening. She was 88 years old.
When my father died two years ago I knew what to do. I grieved, and I got back to work. I didn’t fall apart. I had my mom to think about. My brothers and I focused on her. There was a sense of relief at his passing because Alzheimer’s is a pitiless bully – death by a thousand cuts. The night he died it felt like a weight was lifted off of us. Now he was free from the betrayal of his brain and body.
But this was different.
My mom was diagnosed and eleven days later was gone. And now the home we all grew up in is empty. No one lives there anymore. It’s just a place we’re from.
The death of a loved one comes in waves – the initial, irreversible news, then the disbelief. You forget and remember and forget over and over again. It takes time for your brain to catch up with the truth. A holiday comes and you reach for the phone to call them. A scrap of paper brushes your hand in a drawer releasing a flood of memories. The smell of celery or the sound of a spoon stirring a cup of tea and bam, your throat catches and you excuse yourself to cry in another room. The wound stays fresh for a long, long time. You tell everyone you’re alright, but you aren’t.
In times like these you go back and sift through memories. You wish you had more. You can’t believe how much is gone. And the little that’s left takes on the burnished glow of treasure.
We lived a few blocks from my elementary school and sometimes I’d walk home for lunch. A cheese sandwich, maybe curried fried rice (my favorite), with Sheriff John on TV if she was in a good mood.
Always sewing. The crinkle of thin paper dress patterns from Vogue, Simplicity, and McCalls pined to large swaths of fabric on the dining room table. Her bending over and carefully cutting the cloth with special scissors I was never allowed to use. The sound of a sewing machine from the other room while I played with my toys on the floor. The clients who came by for a fitting.
The whine of my dad’s Honda 50 coming down the street right after I got home from school. Him coming through the door, the whole energy of the house shifting. They were always happier together than apart. My mom and dad having tea, talking in low tones about the mysterious things married people talk about.
The smell of dinner. Mom showing me how to cut up a cauliflower, core a cabbage, or mince onions. Stirring a pot of tomato soup. How to make roux and béchamel for the turnips. The darkening sky outside. The ritual of food and fire and the family table.
My two brothers were eight and ten years older so it was usually just me and my mom. She’d take me everywhere – grocery shopping, the department store, and in the early years before we got our own washer and dryer, the laundromat. She’d let me put the dimes in the slots. She showed me the right way to fold a shirt. She understood these things, and they seemed important, so I paid attention.
My mother was fearless in a way that I was not. I was passive, withdrawn, and contemplative. She had to muster assertiveness for two.
She made me take piano lessons. I was not consulted. It was mildly amusing at first, and then it got difficult. My weeks were filled with dread knowing that the next piano lesson was coming and I had not yet perfected this week’s scales. Sometimes the pressure motivated me to work harder. Other times it drained me of resolve and I resigned myself to my piano teacher’s withering glance and disappointed sigh. Outwardly I conformed as best I could, but inwardly I had some serious questions about the adult world. Why were they always taking on difficult tasks and setting themselves up for failure? Why didn’t they just sit back and enjoy life as it was? Why were they always trying to change and grow and learn and create?
Then it happened. My fingers obeyed. I heard music where once there was only embarrassment and inadequacy. And I realized I was doing it – those were my fingers making the music, my hands, my arms, my mind, my heart, and I was overwhelmed by all the possibilities that unfolded from this realization. I suddenly understood that I was unlimited, that I was capable of anything, and that discipline, will, and conviction nurture and cultivate the seeds within us. We do not become who we really are until we struggle up through the soil of our indifference, our sloth, our fear of failure. On the other side of the pain is an unspeakable beauty, a beauty unobtainable by those who love only comfort, only easy, only staying the same.
My mom got me a surfboard and wetsuit and drove me to the beach. She knew her introspective, day dreaming son needed an adventure. My friends and I loved the beach, but surfing was a quantum leap away from the Styrofoam belly boards and inflatable rafts we rode as boys on those long summer afternoons. Surfing is what men did. Out in deep water. And with her encouragement I began. Surfing became the center of my life throughout my teens and twenties. I learned a lot on the water. But mostly, again, I learned that fear is an obstacle to joy. Once I made the ocean my friend and learned to navigate, even celebrate her powers, my fear lifted and all that remained was beauty. The ocean taught me that it was safe to fall in love. Even with all of the tumbles and breathless disorientation, you always come up for air. And under the wide California sky you know that you are home wherever you are, and that everything always changes, and people die, but the big show never ends. Again and again we are affirmed in our love. The ocean never leaves us. And the final revelation – we are loved only as much as we surrender to it. Love is not controlled or calculated. There are no pro and con lists. There is only acceptance and surrender.
My mom brought me into the world. But that was only half of it. More importantly, she taught me how to live in it. I miss her, even though she’s right here in every cell of my body, in my discipline, my courage, and my creativity. Her living room is empty now, but she lives in the fullness of all the lives she shaped.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Pond's Reflection

Walden Pond
[This article first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the July/August edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

There are moments in American history where everything turned on a dime – the first shot at Concord, the Sunday morning attack on Pearl Harbor, Rosa Parks’s decision to keep her seat on the bus. In the history of American spirituality it’s no different. When Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond to conduct his famous, two year experiment in sustenance living he brought with him one book, the Indian spiritual classic the Bhagavad Gita. What happened at Walden Pond would ripple around the world and change everything.
Just eight years before, Thoreau had been a student at Harvard. It was there he stumbled upon the Bhagavad Gita. His was the first generation of Americans to have access to this 2,000 year old masterpiece, newly available in English. Like a handful of others – his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the preeminent American poet Walt Whitman – he was immediately struck by its depth and relevance. Here was a vision of divinity at once strange and familiar, a bracing call to courageous action in the midst of a messy world, and a ringing affirmation of the sacred nature of reality itself. Under the spell of the Gita, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman would go on to create their own masterpieces reflecting a dawning realization – there is only one presence and power in the universe, and that it permeates all of reality, including us. This exalted humanism, this boundless mysticism, would become the hallmark of a uniquely American spirituality culminating in the New Thought movement, and everything that was to follow.
Today, when people say they are spiritual, not religious, they are reflecting an ancient truth – that wisdom is not found in institutions but in direct experience. Whether through scriptural study, meditation, devotion, social justice activism, or unmediated immersion in nature, every individual stands at the door of an immense transcendence and has only to walk through on their own two feet.
In 1846, during his second summer at Walden Pond, the tax collector came to see Thoreau. He was behind on his taxes. Thoreau refused to pay on the grounds that he thought it immoral to support the immoral actions of his government – an illegal, imperialistic war against Mexico and the ghastly institution of slavery. In Thoreau’s time one out of six Americans was a slave.
He was arrested and put in jail, albeit only for one night. He went on to write an essay about his experience known today as “Civil Disobedience.”  As a young anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, Gandhi read Thoreau’s essay during one of his many incarcerations. He later wrote that it “galvanized” him and formed the blueprint of his own campaigns. At the age of 15, Martin Luther King first read Thoreau’s essay at Morehouse College. He too was changed by it. Later in his career, King became an ardent devotee of Gandhi and the principles of non-violent non-cooperation first articulated in “Civil Disobedience.” It is a remarkable turn of events that an ancient Indian book, the Bhagavad Gita, would come to America to inspire Thoreau who then went on to influence Gandhi, an Indian working in South Africa, who went on to influence King, an African American working for justice in the Jim Crow south. We are indeed all one, and our story is one story.
In “Civil Disobedience” Thoreau articulates the four key principles of ethical political activism. First, use only moral and non-violent means, like boycotting and other forms of non-cooperation. Second, always work within the system before, during, and after your civil disobedience. Be politically engaged – vote, go to meetings, back candidates, or even run for office. Third, be open and public about your actions. No ski masks, no digital anonymity, nor clandestine vandalism. And four, be willing to accept the consequences of your actions, up to and including prison, fines, deportation, and unemployment. The whole purpose of non-violent civil disobedience is knowingly violating immoral laws with the sole purpose of overturning them. When we sacrifice ourselves, we raise the consciousness of others, even our so-called opponents.
         Thoreau, Gandhi, and King show us that spirituality and political action go hand in hand. If we are truly interested in awakening, we are interested in everyone's awakening. We cannot turn spirituality into a means of avoiding the messiness of the world. We have to take a position and take action, no matter how imperfect. Justice is the end and we are the means. We will never have perfect understanding. There will always be questions. But we must act anyway, not out of hatred nor rooted in simplistic, melodramatic judgments of good and evil, but in the knowledge that the Good is trying to be born, and we are all midwives. Each drop of water reflects the whole of the cosmos. So too, we are the eyes, ears, hands, mind, and heart of God. If not us, who? If not here, where? If not now, when?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sad Songs

The best songs hurt. They bring us into heightened awareness of our own pain. They strip away the sugar coating and lay bare the hard truths of life – love often ends, youth fades, and death awaits us all. Yet we keep listening because as John Mellencamp sang, it hurts so good.
Why do we like sad songs? Why are despair, loss, horror, and all manner of violence our staple form of entertainment? What primal, unconscious need fills the theater every time the next end of the world apocalyptic movie comes out? Why do we love seeing it all torn down?
Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragedy in art is catharsis, a purging. In other words, as we identify with the protagonist in a song, film, book, or play, and as we witness them suffer through trials and tribulations, we vicariously suffer along with them and undergo an emotional emptying out. In some way this is psychologically beneficial, just as vomiting allows the body to expel toxic material. No one likes vomiting – but you always feel a little better afterwards. Same with a good cry. If we kept all this emotional pain bottled up inside the toxicity would overwhelm us. That’s why sad songs make us feel better. Tragic art, Aristotle argued, serves an essential purpose – it keeps us from going crazy.
The sad fact is that life is predicated on the taking of other life. To survive we must constantly consume other living things – plants, animals, fungus – and all of that at once in a mushroom and shallot omelet. Our existence inexorably causes suffering for other life forms. None of us chose this, yet here we are. We must participate in it just as all of the rest of nature does. In many ways, art, myth, and religion help us cope with the horrible fact of this ceaseless killing. They help us contextualize and navigate through what would otherwise be paralyzing guilt.
And lurking behind the curtain is this one last disconcerting fact – we too are food. We may have eliminated many of our natural predators – here in California the only grizzly bear left is the one on the flag – but death still flags our every step. Sharks ply the waters, cougars stalk  the backcountry, and the most dangerous predator of all, man, well, they’re everywhere, and commonly armed. And then there’s this – our cells turn cancerous. Sometimes your heart just stops for no reason.  All of this impermanence weighs heavily on our minds, and we know that these forms are fleeting. But we have to go on. We’re going to swim in the ocean anyway, and hike these trails, and mingle with other people everywhere we go. We try to stay healthy, but only the most deluded among us believes that they’re in control. In the end, we have to be ready to let go of all of it without a moment’s notice.
That’s why art is so important. It helps us celebrate the beauties of being alive, and it helps us practice the fine art of letting go.
Art administers to the instrument of empathy. By flexing and strengthening our imaginations through engagement with art we become better able to empathize with the suffering of others. As we identify with characters in stories or songs from other times and places – people very different from us – we learn to look past surface differences and realize our underlying unity.
Art even has the power to ameliorate the unavoidable conflicts that naturally arise in our relationships with difficult people. By helping us imaginatively stand in the shoes of our nemeses, art deconstructs the machinery of hatred and violence. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Art opens up and makes alive those secret histories and suddenly we see our so-called enemies as wounded, frightened, desperate people employing unskillful means. We realize their hostility has nothing to do with us and the door to compassion, forgiveness, and healing begins to crack open just a little bit. Art wrests hope from the jaws of despair.
Art is a lot of things. It’s entertainment. It’s titillation. It’s preaching and pedantry. It’s aesthetic rapture. It’s play. It’s remembrance and commemoration. It’s all of that and more. And the best art accomplishes nearly all of those goals in one fell swoop. Art that merely preaches is condescending and ineffective. Art that merely entertains is hollow and manipulative. Art that merely commemorates is tired and boring. Art that pointlessly wallows in the horror of existence is juvenile and jaded.
For any of the various messages or purposes of art to successfully transmit from artists to perceivers it must have one over-arching quality – the power to redeem. There’s a reason we often hear the phrase in art criticism – that book, that song, that film has “no redeeming qualities.” It’s the ultimate dismissal.
For art to be redeeming it must bring us from disease to wellness, from chaos to order, from disintegration to integration, from dysfunction to function – in other words, it must heal us. In this sense then good art is transactional. It draws us into an unwitting exchange – our suffering for art’s transformative power. Drawn into aesthetic ecstasy, our private torment is universalized and our isolation is shattered. By some mysterious transference we are made right with the world, and with ourselves. Art pays the ransom and frees us from our chains. Art saves.
The best songs awaken us to our higher purpose by breaking through our carefully cultivated façade and disrupting our well-practiced routine. Especially sad songs. They unmask us. They remind us what love is. They embolden our sacrifice. They enliven our courage. They soften our fixation. They celebrate our humanity. They call us to our best selves.
We are a story telling species. Since the dawn of humankind we have used language, melody, rhythm, dance, painting and sculpture, to weave narratives out of our imaginations, mythologizing the forces of nature, personifying the animal beings around us, and casting our own likeness in the epic tales of the hero. As we live through our heroes we face every monster, conquer every foe, overcome every obstacle, and survive every test. It is through our art that we practice living our lives. Art is a test-run where we take on terror, play at savagery, explore the boundaries of our rapacious appetites, and learn where the traps are – the traps that lay low the arrogant warrior too proud and too in love with his own visage.
If you make art – if you write songs or poems or plays or stories, if you make films or photographs or sculptures or paintings, if you choreograph dance – stay true to your ancient calling. Let art lead us toward a bolder, more authentic life. Warn us of the pitfalls. Celebrate the beauties. And never let us forget that we are here for one reason – to thrive and serve and fully surrender to the rapture of being alive. The characters in the films, books, and songs we love are mirrors held up to our own agonizing questions, and they show us that there is a way forward out of the fog of our confusion and into healing, wholeness, and the sense that it’s going to be OK, no matter what.