and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
|Pastor James and Imam Ashafa, Nigerian peacemakers|
If I were to make any resolution for the New Year, and these are seldom, I would listen for the year as I listen to a newly discovered song.
Just the other day I was driving along the 5 freeway; on my left, the sun guiding the Pacific, and on my right, Oceanside’s famous stretch of mustard fields. These are just the kinds of drives that lull me into a meditative trance, that dispel the doggedly anxious thoughts from my mind and allow me the simple pleasure of being in the world. There is nothing else to do in the car but drive, and while this made me crazy with boredom as a child, it has since become a favored form of contemplation.
Even my radio listening habits must adapt to these long drives. Because I am crossing multiple county lines, my go-to stations become static, and I am forced to explore the uncharted musical airwaves. And because I hold no expectations for what I will discover there, my reception of the unknown changes. I wait with curiosity for a song to unfold. I wonder about when the song was first popular, what era its stylistic motifs recall, what mood, season and scent the song holds for people I will never meet? Who picked up the guitar because of it? Is it a wedding ballad or a break-up bandage? And so, like the Border Patrol check point I am sure to pass along the highway, I wave through most of the unknown indiscriminately. Everything about the drive conducts flow. And along it, the radio becomes a teacher of interior openness and agility.
Beyond the contemplation of the historical or musical lineage of the song, I encounter an even more basic appetite for what might be termed auditory surprise. I do not know where the first few chords will lead, what instruments will join by the chorus, or what story the lyrics will tell. And so I remain suspended upon every moment sliding into the next. If I hear a song that really thrills me, I will download it into my itunes collection and without fail, replay the song until I am practically sick of it. Something is lost when the song is possessed in this way. It becomes familiar, known, beloved even. It’s now “our song,” a karaoke favorite that can be belted nostalgically, again and again. But will we ever hear it in the same exquisitely open and vulnerable way we did that first time?
And so it is with friendships and work and neighborhoods cherished for their worn-in comfort. The risk of assuming deep familiarity about any of these things is that we forget to make room for the inexhaustible mystery dwelling within them. To neglect the profound otherness in a person—those parts which we can neither predict nor explain—is to overlook the locus of divine creativity. If I am deadly serious and certain of what it means to be a student, a manager, an activist, or an economist, what room have I to grow into a different understanding of those things?
If I can extend the musical analogy just a bit further into the New Year, I would add that our lives expand according to our willingness to be surprised by them. That doesn’t just mean waiting for something new to happen, but allowing even the familiar to be rendered unexpected. To anticipate the course for this year, based upon the last, is to short-circuited its potential. That is one boring drive. One small life. And I would much prefer to stay with the waking of this year as if it were a new song, breaking through the static of old certainties.
Rod Stewart is one sexy man. This is, at least, what my aunts have conveyed to me over years of concert going, stage crashing, and radio blasting rides. Apparently, the only thing that compares to that dirty blonde rock and roll mane and those skin tight leopard pants, is a voice so raspy and soulful it “will steal your heart away.”
And while I wanted nothing more than to tag along with my mom and aunts, each of them icons of that oh-so-distantly-enchanted womanhood, the concerts were always waaay past my bedtime. So I perched on the edge of the bed as late as I could, watching them gussy up in a cloud of Hairnet and polka dot ensembles, as they convinced me that a dab of confidence was all one needed to storm the stage like a rock star. And dance with Rod, of course. Were You Tube around in the 80s, they would have video footage testifying to their stage-robbing fame and you would have no trouble imagining how enormously cool they really were. Whether boosting one another up from speakers to stage or demonstrating the art of applying liner before lipstick, they were, for me, always the main attraction.
And because Rod occupied a demi-god status in their musical world, he quickly became prophet in my own. Like the Book of Ecclesiastes, Rod Stewart’s Storyteller Collection supplied all the classic human drama and lyrical pith to choreograph a life around. From Rod, I learned to cast dangerously smooth lines like: “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy, come on sugar, let me know,” a pick up fourth grade boys were entirely too young to handle, and I, far too innocent to actually mean.
But when I wasn’t on the playground, spreading lyrics I didn’t understand, I was meditating upon them in the secret of my upstairs dance studio (also known as the hallway.) Waves of afternoon sun refracted through our old fish tank, casting pools of emerald and gold across the carpet, where I waited, barefoot. Maggie Mae, an obvious choice for my opening number, had five full bars, twenty-six seconds, of mandolin solo—a perfect prelude for the delicate array of plies, pas de bourrees, and releves, I was then practicing. I wanted my toes to grace the floor as lightly as each note plucked, not yet knowing what this mirroring of form and content would be called. It was simply pre-verbal, and in that sense, the purest art I have ever performed.
I cannot tell you what happened during those afternoon improvisations, when I felt alive and nimble and utterly free. But even as I recollect them now, a warm presence washes over me, and I am left wondering what or who exactly I was dancing for. Did I lyrically inhabit the wide world of “downtown trains” and “motown records” as a child clunking around in her mom’s heels? Or was I claiming my own voice in a space of free interpretation? Could it have been all of these things, all kinds of imitation and originality, sliding back and forth, down the hall?
Such was the grip of the Storyteller record on my impressionable, young mind. And yet, it is a possession I have never cared to shake, because beyond girlish revelry, those songs also occasioned a brush with transcendence. In that light-soaked room, with the trill of the mandolin all around, I encountered what Kahlil Gibran calls “Life longing for itself,” an old presence quickening within me. And into this effortless communion I sunk, for unaccounted hours on end. It was the kind of purposeless engagement with the Other that mystics revel in. It was Rod Stewart hinting, or winking rather, at the elusive hem of a life I could barely touch. It was a self-forgetting prayer I would dance any day.
There’s nothing about this lemon-colored umbrella in my drink that is necessary.
It is frivolity and glamour under the faint Seattle sun.
And while I know all too well the limits of its luster,
it charms me still.
And isn’t that the point of every sweet and senseless surprise?
Isn’t that behind every wink,
every kiss mistaken,
every nickname ever given?
Each gestures beyond mere utility.
And yet, if a bee can land upon it,
believing my little umbrella a font of nectar-
a bee so evolutionarily intelligent, so mathematically inclined-
then I too can resist bitterness
for the ways in which I have been undone
I can admit my weakness for pyrite, and
still smile for the way it makes me stumble
And I give thanks for being as crazed as a bumble bee.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about the purposes of art lately, considering what it can and cannot do. For years I have gravitated towards creative writing, theatre, film, dance, and a variety of artistic enterprises in much the same way that ivy crawls across a wall. The connection to art comes so natural, that I respond almost unthinkingly, presupposing its intrinsic richness and worth. Reflection upon the subject has taught me that we are inevitably a story-telling people, who seek meaning in the creative and perpetual re-telling of our lives. And for those who have suffered inexplicable tragedy or the hidden burdens of mental illness, art is the most obvious consoler. It may not resolve the riddle of suffering, but it does speak to the heart of it; art names the complexities of human experience with the exquisite stroke of a brush, the rhyme of a verse, or the arc of a body in full expression. It does not answer every question, and therefore avoids the false trapping of providing fixed solutions where there may be none. Its technically disciplined, emotionally unrestrained rendering of our lives may be just the companion, not the explanation, we most desire.
And yet, beyond its abilities to assuage and console, art has been employed as a goad to prod social action and reform. In his article, “What Art Can and Can’t Do,” writer Philip Yancey laments how slow society can be to hear the prophetic witness that art offers. He cites Russian author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who while recognized for his own work, reminds us of “his colleagues who died unknown in the gulag, their works taken to the grave with them” (The Best Spiritual Writing, ed. Philip Zaleski). Governments and churches may endorse artists, but they also have a track record of censoring, limiting and dictating the subject and message expressed.
Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, claimed that in order for a work of art to be considered religious, it need not be explicitly themed so. In other words, a biblical scene or gilded halo was not the litmus test for religious art. Rather, Tillich argued that what made a work “religious” was the degree to which it touched upon deep existential concerns within the human condition.
And yet, my hunch is that despite Tillich’s influence, unless the performance or composition is overtly religious we are not accustomed to granting it that cachet. We may call a movie inspiring or meaningful, but do we acknowledge its substantive religious qualities? Or do we insist on keeping separate boxes for religion and culture?
In a recent blog entry for IMAGE journal, Tony Woodlief, comments upon this disconnect in reverse. He explains how contrived, inauthentic and overly sentimental Christian movies can be, particularly when their singular focus is to tell a “wholesome” story. “That word,” Woodlief says, “applied to art is a lie on its face, because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.” We are spoon-fed a kitschy faith that glosses over our painful, messy lives in order that an account of the faith may read more like a marketable Christian formula than a stripped confession. When religion is reduced to these utilitarian means (conversion, unflinching devotion, cure-alls and solutions) it becomes magic. And when art is subjected to a similar contortionist act, prohibited from speaking of the profanities that dot and streak our world, it is no longer art, but propaganda. It is no longer at the service of truth, but enslaved to a political agenda paranoid of dissent and the lose of control.
When asked by a group of Jesuits how to inspire vocations, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach (former superior general), responded, “Live your own joyfully!” It would seem the real challenge is not conversion, apologetics, or staging a missionary-style intervention, but actually living and openly beholding the mysteries of the spiritual life as they unfurl. Our lives should speak for themselves and for the divine drama conspiring within them. That might mean that some questions go unanswered. Some critical tensions may not immediately resolve. Assumptions may shatter and the seemingly unmovable bulwarks of faith may tremble. But in beholding these cosmic shifts of understanding and bearing them freely before one another, a new song emerges, which is what we call art (and really good theology).
In the ancient Vedantic texts of Hindu philosophy there is reference to the physical body and the subtle body. The physical body is comprised of cells, tissues, muscles, organs—all things visible to the naked or microscopic eye. And yet, this subtle body is difficult to pin down. No x-ray, scan or biopsy can capture its existence. However, for centuries people have been engaging in physical disciplines in attempt to properly channel the energy of the subtle body along seven chakras, or energy vortices, that run the length of the spine, from the bottom of the sacrum to the crown of the head. The chakras are imagined as wheels that whirl powerful life energy upward through the invisible channels collectively known as the subtle body. This imagined spiritual body figures in the practice of Yoga, Tai-Chi, and many Eastern styles of meditation.
I let these ideas about the subtle body, and its fanning petals of light, occupy my imagination when I am in the most difficult of yoga poses. In fact, without the intention of breathing deeply or being super mindful of everything I feel, I am positive I would not last one class. I am, for starters, the most inflexible person on this planet. Despite an entire childhood of dance, ice-skating, and physical training, my legs still burn and quiver as I attempt to touch my fingers to the floor. I am elastically challenged. So the idea of subjecting myself to Yoga’s contortionist demands presents as pure lunacy. And yet, I am completely transfixed by the mysterious encounters I have each time I unfurl my lavender mat.
I surprise myself, for one, by routinely doing the impossible. Last night we were instructed to assume a backbend, or the Wheel, against the wall. (A word on the titles of poses: I secretly suspect that the difficulty of the pose directly corresponds to its exoticism. If you have a domestic sounding position, like Downward facing Dog or Happy Baby, you’re safe. It’s when the instructor offers up the Bird of Paradise, Elephant, or Scorpion, that you should probably take a water break. For the weak of ligament such ad hoc theories are essential for survival). Anyway, the Wheel and I have just recently become acquainted. If I muster all my strength I can hold a position resembling an arch for half the time given, before I collapse in total exhaustion.
“I’m going to stretch each of you a bit further in your Wheel today,” Jackie, our teacher, explained as she walked the periphery of the room. Anyone for a water break?
When Jackie arrived at my half-sunken wheel, she began to pull the small of my back to the ceiling and told me to inch my feet closer to my hands, thus exaggerating the arch. And then she continued to pull, so far, that I literally thought my spine would snap in two and propel my heart straight out of my chest. “A little more,” she urged. This is impossible, and torturous, and insane, I thought. But having grown to trust Jackie’s experiential wisdom of the body, I relented my struggle, and allowed her to lift my back a vertebrae further, until,
Something opened up between the spaces of my spine, and a rush of pure bliss poured forth. Breathe expanded freely, as if for the first time, tickling every cell and fiber it passed. My spine felt like a stiff glow stick, that when snapped, became magically illuminated.
And so I walked home that night, weaving in and out between the cars caught in rush hour, heaving their dirty exhaust, yoga mat strung from my shoulder like the only thing I would ever need to feel my back as a glowstick and my lungs- a sail for heaven’s breathe.
So this is the subtle body, I thought. Where have you been all my life?