i am abd-allah — slave of Godyou bring me grace — barakawhen i submit--when i surrender —sweet bondage — sends me to my kneeshead hits the ground, my prayers resoundAllah! when i submitsweet bondage — i can taste youin ritual splendor, so hard to give upNameless One! for the desertyou take my breath awaysend me reeling, in peace suspendedBeloved! between heaven and earthMother of the Stormy Nightthink that you can make it rightas the blade glides into sight?eyes grow dim, i see the lightAstarte! when i submit
Friday, April 29, 2011
Monday, April 25, 2011
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Thursday, April 21, 2011
It was my own birthday, however, that day. And we had just been detained by 'the authorities.' Pulled from the Baghdad airport just as we were about to leave the country. Put into busses (whereas throughout the month before we'd been given limos with drivers (whose main job was to listen in on our conversations). No limos now, however. We were shipped to a grungier hotel. We'd been in the luxurious Al-Rachid Hotel, where foreign dignitaries generally stayed. There'd been Kuwaitis walking around with their hooded hawks on their arms. Elite wedding parties. Turkish businessmen in Western suits. And us. A small group of American academics brought to Iraq to create exchange programs between our campuses and Baghdad University. We'd been given the best of everything throughout our visit. Until now.
Now, we were detained.
"You will be our guests a little longer," the Head of Protocol said. We were dumped in the grungy hotel with no explanation of why all this. We didn't know at the time that a mere few months later the Gulf War would begin a new era of US-Middle Eastern engagement. Which is the nice way to put it. I can be nice. Sometimes.
The Head of Protocol somehow discovered it was my birthday. Probably he saw the date in my confiscated passport. Dunno. Turned out, it was his birthday too.
He decided to throw us a banquet. It was a Saturday night.
They hauled us back to a private room at the Al-Rachid Hotel for the grand event. We'd been told to dress for the occasion. I had a place of honor next to the Head of Protocol.
He raised his glass and toasted us. It was a huge glass. Cognac. It was half full. I raised my glass. Here. Here. And put it down again. Took a whiff of it. It almost knocked me over. I don't drink.
The Head of Protocol gave me a funny look. Urged me with his eyes to drink up.
"You can have mine," I said. Knowing I could get away with this, and that in a Muslim country it wasn't exactly rude to turn down alcohol. The only danger, really, was that I might have shamed him publicly. One look at him, though, and you could tell he had no shame. But he'd had plenty of cognac, and now he was downing mine.
Affable man. At least in this moment. I thought I'd try my burning question. Maybe I'd get an answer this time.
"How," I ventured, "can you have ninety-nine statues of Iraqi war heros on the river in Basra, pointing at their enemy, Iran, directly across the waterway — how can you resolve the war this way?" The enormous statues stood each with an outstretched hand, finger-pointing at the enemy. Very visible to the Iranians on the other side.
We'd also been given books at the University. One, written by Saddam himself (or so it says on the cover) is entitled, "Why We Should Fight the Persians: Our Enemy for 5,000 Years." We'd been steeped in anti-Iranian sentiment from our 'minders' at least once or twice a day throughout the visit. They'd flown us down to Basra, particularly to show us the glorious statues.
The Head of Protocol raised his glass again (which had been my glass a few moments earlier). I noticed the music being piped into the banquet hall was Hava-Negila — an Israeli folk tune. The scene was seeming weirder and weirder each passing moment. Heavy on the cognitive dissonance.
"They're not pointing to the enemy," he boomed, glaring at me. "They're pointing to our friends. You're the enemy," he boomed, still glaring. "Americans."
In that moment everything changed. The ideology we'd been carefully fed the whole month had shifted. It was no longer, America, friend of Saddam. It was American, who made us fight our brothers. Was that why we were detained?
We'd been shown Saddam's reconstruction of Babylon — an awesome site. All excavated and reconstructed during the ten years of the Iran-Iraq war. We'd gone to the exhibitions for Women's Week and seen a brilliant government-sponsored show of art demonstrating the beauty and power of Iraqi women. We'd met with the head of the Iraqi Women's Union — and were told it was the strongest union in the country.
"How do you manage with your schedule and your kids," I'd asked the head of the Union.
"My mother-in-law watches the kids," she said. "Without her I couldn't manage." But what she did manage is to control women's labor all over the country. All she had to do was say the word, and women up and down the country just plain stopped cooking dinner... It got results. The demand for literacy was met with schools for girls throughout the country.
We'd visited some of those schools. Filled with bright young competent girls. Shi'a and Sunni and Christian, side by side. Studying everything from world history to plumbing, sewing to mathematics.
We visited Karbala during pilgrimage. But there were still few pilgrims, because of the war.
And the military zone in Faw at the Gulf. To prove to us 'Iranian aggression' and their intentions of taking over the country. you point your finger across the Chott, shake a fist at them — and they could see you. I made my one mistake at the Restricted Zone. I'd accidently photographed the war plans of the Strategic High Command Post. Oops. They'd asked me nicely to desist.
Is that why we were detained? They'd let me keep the film. Weirdly, U.S. Intelligence asked me for my film when I eventually got back to the States. How did they know?
But no. That wasn't it either.
We saw a glorious Iraq. Thriving and prosperous. Educated and secular. Emphasizing commonalities across religious and ethnic lines. We saw what we were allowed to see. And absolutely nothing else. We met with the Ministry of Oil (which in Tunisia, would have been Olive Oil), and with students at the University. Professors on campus, and the Baghdad Historical Society.
It wasn't going to be hard to get students interested in studying in Baghdad.
Eventually, they just let us go. It was a couple days later, I believe. Tariq Aziz had interceded for us. no explanation. We'd just been guests a little bit longer. Although now we were the enemy. Getting out as quickly as we could.
The person sitting next to me on the plane out of Baghdad had been in some high U.S. Military position. I watched him hold his breath as our plane began to rise. When I asked, he explained. There was an optimum altitude at which to detonate a bomb on a plane. He'd been fully expecting that we would explode.
When we landed in Athens, and then switched planes for London, someone had grabbed a Herald Tribune they'd found. When we had been detained at the airport those days earlier — the body of Farzad Bastoft had been put on our flight. And we'd been taken off. Saddam was expelling British diplomats and getting them out of the country. They needed our seats — that's all it had been. Margaret Thatcher was intervening too publicly to save Bazoft, an Iranian-born journalist for The Observer. He'd been hanged ten days before in Baghdad for spying for the monstrous Iran, enemy for all history.
But now, ten days later, Iran and Iraq were brothers again. Islamic neighbors. Allies, and friends. New books would be published of their longstanding friendship. 5,000 years of cooperation and peace. And whatever the warfare that they ever had suffered, could only be blamed on the U.S. Marines.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Monday, April 18, 2011
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Thursday, April 14, 2011
I don't believe any of this stuff, right? So how come I can see it all so clearly?
Maybe I've just got no imagination at all. I can see the house vividly. Every detail, from ceilings to secret balconies and sunbathing decks. The place needs a major paint job. You'd think my next lifetime would at least have fresh paint already. But no. Maybe next lifetime rules are just being kind. Knowing that I love painting walls with layers and layers of glaze. But this one needs some major work on the ceiling. I hate painting ceilings. Maybe I can call someone to help? Can you do that?
You'd think I'd manage a fully prepped next lifetime. But no.
A student came in yesterday. Great combination: double major in anthropology and comparative religious studies. She's been working at the Rosicrucian Museum since she was sixteen.
So when I told her how I wanted to paint my (next lifetime) ceiling, she completely agreed: the ancient Egyptian goddess Nuit holding up the night sky. She said that on really hot days they used to go into the vault where Nuit presides, looking down at them from the ceiling. And they'd stay down there under her cool dark skies and stars during their breaks. A nice Office Hours bonding moment.
The kitchen needs redoing in my next-lifetime house. I mean, c'mon. That is so not fair. Haven't I done enough restoration for one lifetime? Oh. Right. This is next time. I haven't filled my quota on next time. It's not a bummer, really. They just better give me a really good job to be able to afford my next lifetime.
The 'they' I don't believe in.
Which goes with the 'next lifetime' I don't believe in either.
The vision keeps going. I can see my partner vividly as well. I'm in shock really. I get that? I mean, what did I do to deserve such, such — I begin to stutter...
And that's where morality kicks into this afterlife business. "What did I do to deserve" language — already plunks us down into some kind of good and evil universe where somebody's doling out the goodies and the pain. In my little vision, I'm clearly on the goody goody side of things.
Is that because I abstained from so much in this life and came to recognize the things I might atone for (had I been one of those people who atones). Or maybe all that abstinence was my atonement?
Okay. Scratch that. I don't know what to do with the atonement stuff.
Or. Is it because I learned to have so much fun in this life — and that took a hell of a lot of work to learn. But this too still implies a sense of deserving one fate over another.
We invent these other lives out of the depth of our suffering, I think. We weave them out of our pain and grief.
I beat my chest and do the Woe thing (if I were that kind of person). We feel we must get something, after all we've gone through.
That's why my particular vision doesn't make any sense to me. I think I've got it pretty good. And okay, yes, I've worked hard for this life that I am living. I don't think I deserve a 'Pass Go' second (third? umpteenth?) go at it. The thing I picture looks like Paradise to me. But I would not actively change anything to make it happen now. I'm not sure why not.
The now is just too damned good. Even with the bad stuff.
And I worry about being greedy in this regard. "C'mon, lifetime, let's get on with it. I want that next one — now."
I know better than that. My beautiful vision would disappear in a flash. To be replaced by (yes, this is how it got invented) a version of hellfire that I might actually (yes, here's that word again) deserve.
So. I'm trying to figure it out. Can I live in both lifetimes at the same time? Is there fine print my old eyes just can't read? More greed. More self-reprobation. More lack of imagination.
I'm feeling greedy. It's the 'hand in the bush' problem. Gotta let go of something or it all disappears.
Or maybe it's not that at all. Maybe we humans have consciousness so that we can imagine multiple ways of being. And maybe that is the way we live out our dreams. I believe that this-is-it, and that this-is-all-we-get. So maybe there's nothing wrong with envisioning that other lifetime in the world to come, and living this one to the fullest as well. And maybe I can be mature and rational about it all, and just appreciate Jung, or something.
But I reach out my hand — and I can almost touch that other lifetime. It is so close that my heart aches. It takes my breath away. But if I reach too far, I let go this life entirely —
I reach —
I pull back and restrain myself somehow.
Maybe this is the gift of getting older. Maybe it's the gift of prescience or some other woo-woo thing that I can't stand. Maybe it's too many drugs in the '60s. Too much kabbalistic study. Too little ditch digging for solid grounding. But the one thing I do know is that it's not my imagination. It's too close, and too far, and too detailed — and I'm not the only one who can see it.
Shared visions. They always were my favorites, anyway.
And there — right there — when we share that vision, then we have a name for it. We might not be believers. But we build ourselves a place that we can pray.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Monday, April 4, 2011
The Samurai Game was invented by George Leonard, writer, Aikido sensei extraordinaire, and co-founder of ITP — Integral Transformative Practice, with Michael Murphy. George is the one who coined that term "human potential movement" when he was an editor for Life Magazine. George was all about human potential. And he thought the best way to explore it (and test it) was through games.
I think of his games as ordeals. They weren't fun. But they were instructive.
The Samurai Game was by far his most extraordinary gaming accomplishment. No matter how many times you play it, it takes you to that place you need to go. I know that sounds a bit California, really I know. But George taught that 'just' playing a game could be transformative. And more than that, it could be a grand teacher.
This was my first game.
“Train the troops,” was all my Daimyo had said.
And so, I had lined my warriors up, straightened out their backs, and was about to have them prepare for the Challenge, when I felt something brush against my leg. The War God (that would be George, of course) had stormed right up behind me and killed me out. Threw a sherikan at me. I looked up at him in disbelief and fell down dead.
Really. I did.
In that war, I never even got to see the first one-on-one combat. How could the War God do this to me?
I was, it turned out, the only one playing the Game who had actually ever been in a real war. Besides George, that is. And I had been so eager to play. Had been thinking about it for weeks. Heart pounding with anticipation. Yeah, I know, it's just a game, but I couldn't believe I could die so fast.
Such a meaningless, worthless death, too. Not even on the battlefield. I was lying there in the camp of my own Army, safe behind the vigilant guard of our own Sentry. Safe! Killed out by an Act of God.
How could he have done this to me? The son of a bitch.
I could see nothing. The position I had fallen in was awkward, uncomfortable. Of course, I could still hear the booming disembodied voice of the War God ruling somewhere high and far above me. There were troop movements. People falling. Dying. I heard sobs from a distance, coming from the other Army. It sounded like Lacey. Oh, my God, Lacey was out there dead! Lacey, in real time was about to get a bone marrow transplant for her matasticized cancer the very next week. Why would she want to play a game now in which she was bound to die? Her chance of survival was slim either way. Later, I heard that she was the first warrior to die in the other Army. Her own Daimyo had killed her for disobeying orders.
Lacey learned a lot from playing the Samurai Game. She took what she learned quite literally to the grave. But she felt prepared. She had a beautiful funeral at the Zen Center. I still can't believe that Lacey had played the Game.
That first Game had been psychologically brutal. Dreadful. After Lacey's death, her Army had no stomach for War. But still, the battles were waged. Compulsively. Demanded by will of the Gods. Now I know why the Maya sacrificed to the Gods for the return of the sun each day. Some Gods cannot be denied.
The War God's voice became the only thing I was conscious of as I lay dead, safe behind my own Army's lines. I went back in time and found myself in that pitch black bomb shelter in Jerusalem again. It was 1967 all over again. That disembodied War God voice changed languages on me. And I realized I must be having some kind of war time replay. I was having a flashback. I was no longer in Marin County at George Leonard's dojo. It was the Middle East outside. Iraqi bombers. MiGs and Mirage jets. It was Jerusalem outside. My Machon was right on the border of the divided city. I could hear them overhead. I could hear them through the streets. We were underground. Had locked ourselves in. Mattresses lined the floor and shelves. We'd taped up the windows so they wouldn't shatter. We had brought the neighbors into our Bomb Shelter. They were crying. We weren't. We were young. North Americans. South Americans. What did we know of war?
Someone was poisoning our water supply. Again.
Post-traumatic shock. How could a game do this?
In the darkness, everything became clear. We too, had had a War God in 1967. And any attempt to disobey orders had been lethal. You would die a real life death. During the Six Day War, the voice of authority had been one of crackling static over our transistor radio. And that disembodied voice of sobriety had been our only lifeline in the underground bomb shelter on the Jerusalem border. Lying on the tatami mats at the dojo -- lying there dead -- I started to think about the parallels between the Samurai Game and Real War when suddenly a truce was called in order to bury the dead. How much time had passed? Minutes or hours? It felt like days. Maybe months. My body needed burial before decay set in.
I was jostled gently. Lifted, and brought to the dank smelling Tomb, where I lay for another interminable amount of time. Even the voice of God was out of reach. I was simply a body, surrounded by an unknowable number of the dead from my own Army. I felt as if I had been embalmed, which was ridiculous. All I could think of is why I wasn't warmer surrounded by all these bodies. It was too cold. Then I realized that I was indeed dead. So of course it was cold.
I stayed dead until the following week, when I was reborn as a Ronin and taken by the opposing Daimyo as a samurai warrior. I found, however, that I could not fight for this Army. When I was sent out to battle in a Rock, Paper, Scissors mind game. I’m an academic. Is there any question that I would live or die with anything but Paper in my hand? And so I died again.
I had contempt for my new Daimyo. My original oath of loyalty remained, and for no reason I can fathom, remains to this day, in tact. I would give anything to be able to follow my own Daimyo's orders once more and go out there and do battle in his name.
You know, I've never thought of myself as particularly loyal. But it turns out that I am. That was one of the things I learned playing the Samurai Game. Oaths must somehow be magically binding. But they've lost some of their power over the millennia. Can you imagine the magnitude of breaking an ancient vow? In the days before contracts. When your word was backed up by lineage. Think of the consequences.
But I learned more than that I had honor and loyalty, and wartime flashbacks. I learned that I wasn't going to take dying lying down. The next Samurai Game I played, I played to win. That time, I prepared for months. That time I was the Daimyo, leading her Samurai to success. And in that Game I learned that nobody wins. That victory, like defeat, in warfare is tragic and obscene.
And in my third Samurai Game ... I got to play God.
And that was the most obscene of all.
George, I miss you, you and your terrible games too. And when we play them, we still think about you.