Sunday, January 5, 2014

For days of Auld Lang Syne

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
The New York I flew into Friday night was chilled with snow and ice. The Empire State building, perhaps out of consideration for those of us traveling during Christmas, still beamed festive red and green lights. My breathe puffed white on the cab ride home, while the city lay still and breathless from New Year’s revelry. I had made peace with the fact that this New Year’s was, in almost every way, unremarkable. I watched the ball drop from my grandparents’ California home and made silent wishes that my friends in Time Square were safe and smooching.  I made no great New Year’s resolutions, donned no sparkly attire, and reflected very little upon the triumphs and losses of 2013. In short, the holiday seemed oddly vacant this year.
As I unpacked my bags and began making space in the closet, a heavy sweater tumbled from its shelf. It was the sweater that Mark, my first love, gave to me nine Christmases ago.  Thickly woven wool, and beautiful blend of earthy brown and beige, the sweater was timelessly elegant. Mark was so proud to have selected an article of women’s clothing correctly and smiled every time I wore it. Once, when we were in a relationship stalemate, somewhere between breaking and making up (this was college, after all) Mark spotted me in the library. It had been six silent months of standoff when he forged a powerfully simple truce: “That’s a really nice sweater. Whoever gave it to you must have great taste. And I like your hair…its longer, like it was two years ago.” The third time Mark and I broke up was for good.  We had exhausted all attempts and yet, both of us ached with the finality of it. I grieved not only the loss of a boyfriend, but of his family, with whom I had intricately woven myself.  And so it was his family, Mark’s mother in particular, who imparted upon some riddle of a blessing: “Maggi, I know you can’t bear to leave this relationship, but you must. You don’t have to part with it forever. Just imagine placing it in a drawer, a drawer you cannot open for a while. It is safe there and when the right amount of time has passed you can look at it again. But put it away for now, dear.”  It was the most foul-tasting dose of medicine anyone has ever given me. Put him away? Was he an article of clothing that could be so easily stored on a shelf?
Taking down the woolen sweater always brought memories of Mark back, but after so many years and so many loves, the memories no longer stung, but kept me snuggly swaddled in the present. It was, objectively, the perfect sweater. However, now as I gazed upon the fallen garment, it looked unusually small, maybe even… shrunken.  Frantically I threw it over my head, wishing to dispel the fear that I might have actually committed the worst laundry faux pas in history!  But there is no arguing a choked neck and bare midriff.  It was time to say goodbye, not to Mark anymore, but to the hefty sweater that had since preserved me in four East Coast winters with a thick and burley comfort that felt like hugging Sean Connery, or so I imagine.  Throwing it away without some parting words felt wrong and so I texted Mark: “I shrunk the beautiful beige sweater and I’m very upset because it would have lasted forever on its own. I just wanted you to know I got many years of good use out of it. Thank you.”  It wasn’t the first time we spoke in six years. Mark and I speak periodically and I know that he is happily married and successfully developing educational programs from the Bay area.  When we catch up it is always with distinct fondness, a friendly affection that is a miracle onto itself.
It was 1:30 in the morning EST and because I was still in PAC time, I could not sleep, but tossed and turned for hours.  I was awake when Mark replied: He was terribly sorry to hear of the loss, but gladdened that I had so many happy years with the sweater. It was so sweet of me to tell him. And how was teaching? What was my brother (Billy) up to? Did I remember the Christmas present he had given to Billy that same year… the running shorts with the underwear built in?  The way Billy literally scratched off the wrapping paper, with one hand, as if he didn’t care at all?  “The slow unwrap,” we had termed it. The image made me cry with laughter.
I am generally not a huge fan of texting for the all the ways in which it fails to capture tone, intention, and depth in a conversation. But with Mark, in a rapid-fire exchange that lasted hours into the night, I heard everything with instantaneous clarity. Everything had changed between us and yet the familiarity remained, untarnished.  In three words he could recall entire comedic episodes with unfailing nuance. My belly ached and my pillow was wet with laughing tears.  I could have, quite possibly, purged myself of a years-worth of disappointment or sadness or muck during that conversation. It did not feel like an ordinary night in the slow plod of metered time, but one of sudden revival.  And though “seas between us broad have roared” all that remained now was love for auld lang syne.
And so the blessings of New Year’s came upon me unexpected, not in a sparkling daze of confetti, but in an old acquaintance, who bid me midnight laughter and words of kindness. In the silence that followed I hummed the old Scottish lullaby, understanding New Year’s Eve perhaps for the first time.  You cannot fabricate healing or forgiveness on your own terms. And the turning of the calendar year does not automatically mean that everything will be different or cleared of last year’s debris.  Every holiday represents an ideal that we aspire to, but can never completely engineer ourselves. But every now and then, a sweater will tumble out of place, the drawer magically opens, and there is cause for celebration. For what was once an unthinkable prophecy has come to pass: the people and things that bring our life meaning are never finally lost, just kept safe for another time, a time when all things are made new.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Religion, Conflict and Kitchen Diplomacy: Where My Divinity Education is Taking Me

Pastor James and Imam Ashafa, Nigerian peacemakers

“You know you are everything that’s wrong with this nation. It’s people just like you, with your liberal thinking and compassion and nothing bad to say about anyone that is going to get the rest of us killed,” he said hovering a foot and three decades above me. I ran my fingertips along the grout between countertop tiles, trying to trace the way back to calm. The conversation had escalated far too quickly after I had poised what seemed an innocent question: “What are you passionate about right now?”

Roy had popped into my aunt and uncle’s home during my weekend stay, an aunt and uncle with whom I was joyfully reconnecting after the 15 years that followed my parent’s divorce, and consequent familial separation. More than anything I wanted to keep peace in their kitchen. I had had plenty of battles in my own kitchen, resulting in a deep aversion to conflict. The question itself, about Roy’s passions, was inspired by a friend who insisted it was a much more generous conversational entrĂ©e than, “So, what you do for a living?” Instead my question became the launch pad for an unforeseen political diatribe, in which Roy lambasted Jews for claiming excessive victimhood and for their desire to take over the world. Red flag, anyone? He then went on to explain how Islam was an inherently violent religion because of the Qur’an’s injunction to kill infidels and wage jihad against the unbelievers. “Have you actually read the Qur’an?” he exclaimed, “There are no passages in the Bible that even come close to that kind of violence.”

“Well, I’m afraid there are,” I replied. “Before ‘turn the other cheek’ we had ‘an eye for an eye,’ and a psalm that promoted the smashing of one’s enemy’s babies against a rock. Even Jesus has some frightening things to say about ‘coming not to bring peace, but the sword.’ Christian scripture is uncomfortably riddled with violence, but that doesn’t mean that every Christian has resorted to these passages or a fundamentalist reading of them to justify bloodshed.”

“No, I don’t think you’ve read the Qur’an and you don’t know how much they hate us,” he presses, speaking now in generalizations that would make any religion scholar squirm. However, his generalizations are well-rehearsed and interspersed with Qur’anic extractions I have not studied in their full context. He has clearly read much on the subject (though I would dispute his sources) and if I do not respond within a half a second of his remarks, he calls me uninformed.

Acutely aware of how volatile the conversation has become, I reach desperately in my bag of mediation tricks to recover some kitchen diplomacy. “I think I hear you saying…that there are Muslim extremists who abhor everything the West stands for, and will detonate their own bodies to destroy it. I can only imagine how strong your memory of 9-11 is here in New York.”

“Yah, you’re from California, you have no idea what I’m talking about,” he interjects.

“Yes, that may be partially true, ” I inch forward, “But I do know too many peace-loving Muslims who are motivated by the scripture and teachings of Islam to create a more just and humane world. To call every Muslim a terrorist is to simply reverse the narrative that Al Qaeda used to attack the United States.  It means that we are allowing ourselves to be defined by the worst thing that has ever happened to us, and to be perpetually governed by trauma and the impulse to retaliate.”

The words did not come smoothly. Mostly in fits and starts from a jaw I kept locked so that it would not tremble. I watched waves of tears rise and fall within me, inwardly begging them to subside. Because the last thing I wanted was to confirm this man’s image of me as a hopelessly fragile idealist who could not stand the heat of a debate, much less stomach the brutality of which he spoke.

I wished that after six years of studying religion and this summer’s internship in conflict resolution, I could render a stronger, wittier, mind-blowing argument in defense of religious tolerance. But in truth I do not study religion to acquire talking points that will ultimately win me kitchen debates.  For one, I would rather spend my energy practicing the most basic, but no less challenging, commandment to love my neighbor. That principle alone keeps me quite occupied. And from most of the debates I have witnessed, talking points usually only equip people to talk past one another in futile rounds of vitriol.  And then of course, there’s the queasy sensation all conflict produces in my gut.

But in this moment standing across from Roy, hearing anti-Semitism and Islamophobia mistaken for patriotism, I felt, as a student of religion and personal friend to many Muslims and Jews, an ethical obligation to respond. To be silent would have implied consent, and how many horrors have been committed against humanity because of our collective silence?

After my conversation with Roy abated, I made my way straight to the shower, to the private release of long-held tears. Why are you crying? You are fine, you can handle this, I negotiated with my injured self. This only occasioned more sobbing. 

Finally it occurred to me that self-flagellation was itself a form of violence and that perhaps the most peaceful way of proceeding would be to accept both my proclivity towards tears and the courage to speak through them. Because to enter authentically into dialogue I cannot carry an artillery of talking points, and to mediate conflict, I risk my own vulnerability, and with that the occasional emotional hemorrhaging. So what if I cry? The important thing, I am learning, is that I dared to speak. And with that I washed my hair. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Listening to the Radio: A New Year's Resolution

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.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

“Storyteller”: Yet Another Tribute to My Aunts & an Account For My Hope

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.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Just Crazed

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

by seduction.

I can admit my weakness for pyrite, and

still smile for the way it makes me stumble

and shimmer,

often interchangeably.

And I give thanks for being as crazed as a bumble bee.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Confessing Art v. Religious Propaganda

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).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Wheel

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?