Sunday, August 29, 2010

randy fakefeather and the fakefeather path

Molecular biologist/physical anthropologist Jonathan Karpf has given a talk for me in MSR over the years, part of which examines the principles of Creation Myths. He gives this lecture to his own classes as well. It's a delicious bit in which he tells the tales of the Cherokee, Gond, Yao and Biblical Creation Myths and elicits some hypotheses out of these. Some of his key points are:

First, he says, Creation myths tell of the local origins of a local population.

Second, Creation myths demonstrate why one's own population is better than others — ie. Creation myths are ethnocentric.

Third, that from the outside, these tales seem fantastical and ridiculous, and

Fourth, that from the inside, one's own tale is considered neither fantastical nor ridiculous, nor a myth: People take their own Creation story to be the (gospel) (large 'T') Truth.

He then posits the possibilities.

Maybe they're all right. And each population was created quite separately, and according to radically different cosmological rules, gods and spirits.

Or maybe only one is correct, and that all the rest are crap. (my word, not his).

Or just maybe they're all a load of crap.

Of course, the way Jonathan puts it, with practiced cultural sensitivity, is that each explanation is pre-scientific, and therefore that each population was doing the best that it could in the cosmology department at the time.

He leads up to, of course, that now we have science.

And that science is the best means that humanity has devised to seek understanding of the natural world (which includes us and our origins). He assumes, again, of course, that we humans are part of the natural world. And his point is that science can get to a (small 't') truth that can be independently verified and universally applied.

Every semester that I have him speak, at least some students have a very hard time with his talk in MSR. I've even had students drop the class after he gave his presentation, and come back another semester asking me for warning when he might appear.

The students seem to be fine with the witches, psychics, voudou priestesses, UFO channels, tantric practitioners, martial artists, shape-shifters, shamans, and neo-shamans I bring to class. But the physicists and other scientists sometimes just give them the willies.

We were speaking a post or two ago about Peter Pan playing indigene shaman supreme, and the glorious Tina must be given credit for dubbing him 'Randy Fakefeather', which is absolutely deliciously perfect — a Peter by any other name smells just as fake.

But that's not really fair.

What is the difference between Randy Fakefeather and any other seeker walking that spiritual path? Why do we save our wrath for his inauthenticity, accuse him of insincerity, and then lap it up when the feathers feel a touch more real? Fakefeather's crap, but Harner's okay? Harner's crap but Castaneda's okay? Castaneda's crap, but Starhawk's okay? Starhawk's crap, but the Pope's okay? The Pope's crap, but how can you say no to Peter Pan?

Applying Jonathan's measure, we can say perhaps that all the paths are equally true, authentic and spiritually rewarding.

Or we can say that there is only the One True God (pick one) and that all the rest are crap. This conflict is portrayed deliciously in the BSG/Caprica battle between monotheistic tyranny and terrorism on the one hand, and the tolerance of polytheistic cosmologies on the other.

Or we can say that they're all wrong. And that their adherents are all on the Fakefeather Path.

Why single out Peter Pan of our tale for such reprobation? Why does he anger us so? Especially when he gets the job done.

Now, I feel quite bad defending him in this regard, because my allegiance is clearly on the other side of the tale (see two posts back). And because I so identify with pure-blood systems the same way our Indian friend does, and for exactly the same reasons.

But I'm not sure those reasons are really valid.

This is my song, my land, my ritual, etc. causes terrible strife, and I'm a collectivist at heart. While I too would be offended at the singing of my song in some made-up ritual, I would also be quite pleased that the practitioner bothered to learn it, sings it so well, has found new meaning, uses it in a way that moves people.

And at the same time, I'm cringing inside.

If I believe that all spiritual seekers are on the Fakefeather Path, I have no cause to single out and take offense at one misguided ritual alone.

If I believe in a One True Path/God/Whatever, I give myself cause to take up arms, invade territory, perpetrate genocide and mobilize my own righteous indignation.

If I believe in nothing at all but empiricism, I can (if I don't have a problem with curses) say, a plague upon both their houses. Say, as Jonathan does, that they're all equally wrong, cosmologically speaking. And that they're probably all equally satisfying for their respective practitioners.

From this point of view, I think we should embrace the Fakefeather Path (not for ourselves, of course — we're still purist and empiricist snobs) but for the gentle masses, who take pleasure in the delights of new age ritual, feel good sweating a stolen sweat and singing a stolen song.

We can nod, know the (little 't') truth, stay smug, and maybe just maybe be big enough to let it go.

Right. I know. Not gonna happen, is it?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

caterpillar nightmares

Dear little caterpillar,

Stop all your bitching about what a tough childhood you had. Sure, now you're wound tight and left hanging there, but I'm tired of hearing about it.

'Bout how cruel your momma was.

Look what my poppa did to me. Look what they're making me go through! It's child abuse!

She this. He that. She oppressed me. He abused me, I just know he did.

Don't get me started.

I hear all this in Dustin Hoffman's voice, as Hook in 'Hook'. All the cruelty of parents spoken with bored realism, so so convincing. Unassailable.

They didn't listen to me. They didn't love me. They... They... They... ad nauseum. Here's what the sitter did. Here's what my sister did. What my brother did. Here's what the Father did. Uncle. Teacher. The government... It's always everyone else, isn't it? How terribly convenient.

They didn't value my essence, or my education. They didn't listen to me, believe me, support me, encourage me, nurture me...

Right. It's true. It's all true. They suck. You're fucked. Now get on with it.

More Hook voice, "Your parents were happier before you were born..."

And the wise child responds, "You're a bad, bad man!"

And I respond, "Who gives a shit? This is your life. Let yourself be. Check out what being is all about! Have fun with it. There's a pretty good view from your spot on that tree.

Caterpillar, I am so sick of hearing your resentments! Waiting for someone else to turn you into a butterfly.

"Just gimme an 'A' and I'll be fine.." Like I'm supposed to make your life happen?

Expect nothing from anybody. You've got to do this yourself.

You and you alone. Either you do, or you don't. This is your metamorphosis, after all. Of course, Bettelheim was right — in the scheme of things it really doesn't matter.

Go ahead. Don't transform. See how that works out.

You know, it's okay not to be a superstar, not to make a major splash, not to be famous. It's just fine to hang there, and not crawl out of your shell. You don't have to thrive if you don't want to.

I can hear Bettelheim telling all those parents the one thing they didn't want to hear:

"Your children are average. The law of averages demands that they be average."

They almost lynched him, but they might have ruffled a feather or two in the process. Better just to give him a scowl. Alotta people felt that way about Bettelheim. I think it's 'cause he was so threateningly right.

Those were the greedy demanding upper crust parents wanting achiever children after their years of investment of time and the big bucks.

But this is about you, at the other end of the stick. Given nothing, nothing at all, poor baby — except a very good brain, and talent, and potential. And you spend it raging against the past, seething over what's been done. You, there, hanging all the time off a little branch, wrapped too tight, fighting to get loose, wanting instant butterfly like it doesn't take a lifetime of work to make it.

hey little caterpillar, don't you cry
momma and poppa won't see you fly
they've flown off, they're long gone
all you gotta do is just hang on

Sunday, August 22, 2010

peter pan and the indian

It's probably the nature of Peter Pan to be an asshole who thinks he's a hero — the excuse being that he's so thoroughly adorable, how could anyone fail to appreciate his preciousness, or not fall for the twinkle in his eye? It is (unfortunately) undeniable that he is also pretty good at what he does.

I happen to know Peter...

At the time, Peter was playing shaman. As you know, he flies around a lot, and so he had taken bits and pieces of the rituals, practices, music and songs of indigenous folk around the world, and put them all together into a powerful experience he could give others. He lit his feathered pipe. He warbled. He drummed. He was a digiridude, and a good one too. In the dark, and with your eyes closed, he could make you feel the forest. The dangerous four-leggeds brushed past you. The birds whisked past your head. you could smell the humidity, feel the leaves and feathers close in on you. Pretty neat, huh? He could turn a classroom into a full-blown vision quest in very little time. Sprinkle a little fairy dust and fly the whole lot of you off to Never-Never Land. Very effective. What matter that Peter was not a real Indian?

Until one night there was an Indian in the circle. He stood up tall, shaking with rage and said only, "I can't be here!" as he stormed out.

And Peter stopped. The spell was broken. Peter then gave a lecture on how he was given the pipe, given the digiridu, given the songs, the drums. That he was a Sun-Dancer. That he was allowed to do all this. He had permission. But the spell was broken. And everyone went home more than a bit down from the experience. All I could think of, was I wanted the Indian to come back again so we could talk it out.

And the next week he returned. And I turned to him, and this is what he said:

"That boy was singing my song."

And he told the story of the song, and how it is used in the Sun-Dance, and what a Sun-Dance really is, and what the song was for. For three hours. And as he spoke, he poured out the lore and practice of his people, and it became clear that singing that song in a university classroom was wrong, as was the display of his pipe.

And then he turned to me and said, "You wanted that to happen, didn't you?"

"Yes," I whispered. "If it was there, I wanted it to happen." And this revelation took me by surprise. Somehow, I knew exactly what he meant. And he understood me as well.

He had taken off the previous week and headed up to his People, up to his Land and his own Shaman (who, he explained, stayed on the Land, and didn't run off to play pretend in university classrooms. This was serious business.

Peter Pan flew off to Europe to play digiridude-shaman over there, build sweat lodges, give workshops, make some bucks, see the sights.

When he got back I got a call. He had been evicted. Lost his job. Car was wrecked.

"Did he do that?" he wanted to know.

So I emailed the Indian and asked. And this is what he wrote:

"I believe in IT. If you do wrong, IT'll get you." I gave Peter the message. He didn't like it.

I mean, in shamanism shouldn't you take these things as a sign? Cease and desist? But no, this was Peter. And Peter never takes no for an answer.

Maybe a year later, emails from the Indian. A picnic? A waterfall? We started hiking together. He poured out his lore at me.

"I'm the enemy, aren't I? Evil anthropologist! Stop telling me your tales! Watch me," I protested, "I'm not gonna write any of this down!"

"That's why I can tell you," he said. "Because you know who you are. Because you have your own People, Land, Identity — and you won't go out trying to steal mine."

His shaman had told him that the Peter Incident meant that he was supposed to give the talks. That he was gonna have to learn how to tell the tale himself. Properly. He wasn't thrilled. He became a spokesman. An advocate. An Elder.

More waterfalls...

Another call from Peter. This time his wife had been killed in an accident. (Yes, Peter had had a wife!)

More hikes...

I never saw Peter again. He's still out there doing what he did. Maybe he saw the suffering as what he has to endure to achieve authenticity, I don't know. Maybe he still blames the Indian for his terrible misfortune. But he still flies, he still crows... Nothing stops him. And I keep thinking, how strange that just maybe Peter changed the Indian. Peter. The hero? I asked my friend, the Voudou Priestess. She said, "Hell no!" He's just a fraud.

The Indian began to speak. Publicly. He's still pissed about it, to tell the truth.

And I still keep my silence about Indians. Their tales are just not my tales to tell. But I do like the waterfalls.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

a stabbing in paradise

It's the 9th of Elul on the Babylonian/Jewish calendar. On this day, nothing much is supposed to happen. All the bad things, all the evil is relegated to the 9th of Av, a full month earlier. Av is the truly bad news month in the Jewish calendar. By the time Elul rolls around, everyone's gearing up for a do-over. Taking stock. It's a month for introspection. The month of Divine mercy and forgiveness. And strangely enough, that's what I've been doing all Elul: the introspection part, not the forgiveness part. But, gee, I do that every month, so I'm not sure it even counts.

So, okay, today's not the worst day of the year. And this isn't the greatest tragedy on earth. But do you ever have one of those days where everything just goes wrong (in comparison to those days in which everything just goes right)? Well, today was just one of those wrong days, which followed one of those just wrong weeks.

After falling through my deck on Sunday, I had the Termite Man come out today, along with my contractor friend, Tony. Between the two of them, I was given more than abundant physical evidence that my exquisite redwood deck is infested with termites and beetles, and run through with dry rot and mold. And oh gee, the back stairs are fashtunk the same way as well. All these years of foggy days and nights (exactly like tonight, actually) in San Francisco will do that even to the best redwood around after a while.

They ripped out my deck today. The site of basking naked belly dancers waiting for their henna to dry each spring before Rakassah— the International Bellydancing Festival. The site of Passover under the tent in biblical drag. The site of years of meditation on the nature of nature. Now dead, decayed and gone.

And the price tag for resurrection is so far out of bounds that there's nothing else to do but, well, think outside the box. Laugh. Consider it an opportunity for a new art project. Just when I thought there was relative completion at Beit Malkhut, no! Call it a grand opportunity for change.

So today I alternated between despondency and self-pity on the one hand, and optimism and cheer on the other. Switching points of view every five minutes or so — until Roshi couldn't stand it any more and forced me out the door. We headed for Paradise. Where we go every day of the year, whether or not it's a day or month for introspection or Divine mercy.

And something was wrong.

It was as if everyone was walking in slow motion. There were three vehicles on the trail, belonging to the Feds. Fort Funston is, after all, a national park. Clumps of mourners with heads bowed in dismay. I could catch fragments of sentences riding on the wind, until the mourners were close enough to fill me in. Rosh and I are, after all, regulars. We are of the body. This is how it unfolded on the wind:

A man

with a pitbull

and a knife.

That already sounded like bad news.

A woman

walking dogs

who's a regular.

That's all I heard for a while. And the Fed vehicles rolled slowly at what felt more and more to be a funereal pace. And the dogs at the Fort felt subdued. There was a calm — that wasn't calm.

The Ranger was taking statements.

The woman with the dogs was crying.

"... and I saw the knife was bloody, and I asked him ..." sobs.

"... did you stab the dog??"

"and he answered, 'sure did!'" ... sobs.

Two thought came to me.

First: My deck is of little to no consequence in the scheme of things.

Second: Stabbing is not the way conflict or aggression is handled in Paradise.

And it is this latter thought that puts things into perspective. What makes Funston paradise is that it is a moving meditation of dogs and horses and birds and fish and humans and hangliders and feds and fog. And depending on the season, fishermen and seals and dolphins and whales and crabs and jelly fish and seaweed. And periodic oil spilled out on the beach. And bits of trash and parts of ships, I must admit are part of the mix. Which means that there is inherent conflict and territorialities within the system. And it's handled like a choreography; a dance between elements in which no one wins and just maybe no one loses. And, for the most part, the rhythm of the dance (while not perfect) is in tune with the rhythm of the tides (or something like that). And life and death are indeed part of the cycle. But not like this.

Every once in a while that rhythm is interrupted by something appalling. Today was one of those.

Today, a man with a pitbull stabbed a dog.

It's not in the papers. Can't find it on Google. But it happened. The dog was rushed to the veterinary hospital. A stabbing in Paradise. And it's not the 9th of Av, but it feels like it. It's just the 9th of Elul. A day for taking stock. For introspection. For Divine Mercy. And forgiveness.

But as I've said before: I just don't believe in forgiveness.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

falling through the cracks

There's a bit in the film The Emerald Forest that refers to 'The Termite People.' They're the evil city folks ripping down trees in the Amazon, clearing the forest for development and for the construction of a hydro-electric damn (sic). Folks not-of-the-Amazonian-body. They eat the forest and spit it out... Termite People.

It is, of course, a very crude notion of termites. Insulting even. Think of what termites can do — what termites can build! If we really followed the teachings of termites, we wouldn't even need hydro-electric dams.

All of this came to me a couple days ago when I quite literally fell through the cracks on my deck, all the way through, and was hanging there by my elbows climbing back up from the soft snapped redwood plank I'd stepped right through. Termites! Shit. And yet, you've got to respect them. If you listen to James Lovelock, termites are some of the most productive beings on this planet and critical to the regulation of Earth's temperature within tolerable limits. Together, they regulate the concentration of oxygen in the air maintaining superb planetary homeostatic regulation. Well, that was Lovelock's first book, anyway. By the time he wrote The Revenge of Gaia, we'd disrupted the little critters to the brink of disaster. (Lovelock does have a solution, of course, but nobody wants to hear it).

This is what I thought about when I fell through the cracks.

But Lovelock's thoughts on termites pale in comparison to Scott Turner's work in Namibia. 'Cause it's Turner who's figured out the mechanisms by which termites manufacture their own (if not planetary) air conditioning.

Building on Dawkins' The Extended Phenotype, Turner demonstrates that the skin (so to speak) is not the boundary of our selves. It's not just that termites have a swarm intelligence that transcends the individual, no, it's more grand than that. It's that, according to Turner, the structures they produce are themselves extensions of the organism.

Architecture (at least for termites) is a living extension not only of swarm cognition and volition, but a living extension of every single individual as well. Turner says we should look at those magnificent termite skyscrapers not as structures but as process. They construct what are in effect wind-driven architectural lungs. Why can't we do that?


That's certainly the way I've thought of my own house as well. One giant art project, actually. In constant state of becoming. And (clearly) in constant state of repair. But I've always thought of it as my art project, and also as my house.

And in this, I have been mistaken.

Michael Pollan makes the point in The Botany of Desire. Only he speaks of bees, not termites. We are no different from the bees, he argues, in the way we serve plants. It's a form of co-evolution, in which we unwittingly do the bidding of plants at the same time that we think we're doing for ourselves. Pollan gives four examples of how we humans have been duped into serving the plants we think we domesticated. But no. They've got us so brainwashed, we just can't see it. My favorite example of Pollan's is the War on Drugs, which (he says) from the point of view of Cannabis has made the plant a) more valuable, b) more potent, and c) now cultivated with greater fervor and territorial distribution around the world than ever before. The best thing that ever happened to Cannabis, argues Pollan, is the War on Drugs.

But let me get back to my deck. My fall through the cracks made me look afresh at my own abode. Or what I thought was mine. To a lot of things I don't really want to think about.

First there were the raccoons and possums who thought the strawberries and tulip bulbs I planted in my yard were theirs. The dogs educated them in this regard, and they decided to hang out at my neighbor's instead.

Next there were the rats. And they wanted more than tunneling through the yard. They thought all that insulation in my walls were put there for the express purpose of providing them with cozy nesting facilities. They invaded the walls, and took up residence under the downstairs bathtub until I inhospitably tore the whole bathroom out (call it another art project) and evicted them. They've gone back to tunneling the yard, and building beautiful nests in the bougainvillea. Great view, surrounded by flowers. You've got to respect their architectural choices as well (as you give them notice). PS, the dogs and even the cat seem to be in league with the rats, deciding that they're not their department.

Oh, and spiders! I can't even begin to describe how happily the spiders spread their webs across the exterior walls of 'my' abode. Haven't researched them enough yet to find out what's really going on there.

But now my focus is on the termites. The termites have likely been here all along, (certainly longer than I've been in the house) with me doing absolutely nothing but build a deck for them to enjoy. And until a couple days ago, they were unobtrusive neighbors. But now it's war.

And I'm going to lose. I know that. I'm a realist. (And no, this post is not intended as a parable on the US in Afghanistan).

But I'm going into battle anyway. There's gonna be no compromise in this regard. And I do, I swear, respect their contributions in the production of volitional architecture and organismic air-conditioning. But I'm going to rationalize my all-out warfare on the basis of their methane production. Blame 'em for global warming and destruction of the rain forests. The Emerald Forest, after all, is just a movie. Termites are the real Termite People.

When I now look at my house, and the houses that surround mine, all I see is a vast invitation to all the participants in this little ecosystem of ours. Surely I shouldn't be so selfish about it. Or maybe I'm really petty, and harbor nothing more than revenge fantasies. I fell through the cracks. And more than my ego is bruised. Miraculously didn't break my neck or a leg or two. But I'm still out to get them. When I look closely, I see that despite all these years of paying the mortgage, they're the ones reaping the lion's share of benefits. But not anymore.

Pest Control comes on Thursday. Not to worry. They're eco-friendly, of course.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

coloring outside the lines

Trying to decipher my parents' checkbooks — and realize they're written in code. Began code-breaking today...

My dad's checkbooks were pieces of impressionist art. The numbers were all rounded out to aesthetically pleasing figures. The entries almost all consisted of contributions to one good cause or another. And most of those contributions were to Children's Cancer Funds. We should have guessed. My sister died of brain cancer when she was about five months old.

Now that my dad is gone, I've had to decipher every line. And thank god he actually stayed between the lines. It's only the numbers themselves that are fuzzy. Only the numbers that are purposefully imprecise. Lies, every single one of them.

My mom's checkbook, on the other hand, is another kind of art altogether. Zen art. A few brushstrokes spanning the Register page. In dictation shorthand that hasn't been used since WWII. Illegible, incomprehensible — but lovely elegant strokes across the lines. The numbers, on the other hand are meticulous and orderly. If only I knew what they referred to. Are they taxable expenditures? Are they bills? Who knows, until I piece together what really happened, and balance the whole damned thing. Trying to forestall the disaster of their taxes at the end of the year, by trying to tame it all each month.

My mom told me today that she hates the tyranny of staying between the lines.

The lines offend her. But so does imperfect math. She wants the numbers to come out exactly right. But she's compelled to color outside the lines. She is, after all, a poet. With poetic sensibilities.

Now, I always thought that I was what used to be called a non-conformist. As a child I was determined to grow up to be a beatnik. What that meant to me was pillows on the floor. Passing the pipe around. Playing slow jazz, or folk or just plain drums. Long straight hair. Wearing nothing but black. When outside my little universe, the world was filled with pink poodle skirts, pink faces, blue eyes and button-down shirts. Buddy Holly and brand new rock-n-roll. The world was bifurcated. Beatniks colored outside the line, and that's what I aspired to. I forced my dad to drive me to City Lights to sit at the feet of the poets. I was in fifth grade at the time.

Of course, I didn't own a checkbook back then to show me what I really was.

I'm beginning to think that checkbooks tell the truth. And all those decades of long straight hair, wearing black, Bedouin jewelry, outsider mentality, Sufi music — whatever is the tipping point between poodle skirt on the one hand and beatnik on the other — I was always very clear which side of the line I stood.

Until today, when I really looked at my checkbook. I was showing my own Register to my mom in the hopes that she would follow my example. So that when the year is at a close I can put her taxes together with less anguish than last year. But what I saw in my own Register was shocking.

Every line in meticulous order. Every word not just legible but rational. (With a monthly budget to back it up, and a quarterly budget to back that up, and yes — a yearly budget to oversee the totality of it all — expenditures mapped out a year in advance, so as to encounter no surprises). Every number balanced every month. To the penny.

And yes, my friends make fun of me. And I stick my chin in the air and sniff proudly, that I need that kind of order to make it through the month. Anything less is just too anxiety provoking.

And I realized that at some undefinable point, I stopped coloring outside the lines. I stopped protesting, stopped the usual kinds of activism, stopped drugs, stopped even music. Cold turkey. I became an obsessive budget-keeper. A petty little accountant. At some point, I just wanted all the numbers to work out.

Actually, it's a very definable point. February 16, 1995 I became an obsessive-compulsive realist. It was supposed to be February 14th — but I was asked to delay those two days to not ruin Valentine's Day forever. On February 16th, 1995 I moved out on my own.

And from that day onward it was up to me, and me alone, to make all the numbers work out right. So much for the quest for freedom.

I learned slowly to color inside those blasted lines. Learned to take comfort inside those lines. Learned that behind the scraggly hair and all-black beat facade, that much to my own surprise, I work well within the system. Who would have known? I'm more conformist — more conservative — than my parents ever were. At least, that's what my checkbook is telling me. I broke the code: I learned that my donations are more banal than those of my parents. More predictable. I learned that I've got not a shred of Zen in my notations. No impressionism in my numbers. I learned that if anything, my checkbook is hyper-real. Maybe more Dali than anything else. Both meticulous and wild.

Maybe being an anthropologist is the best balance I could have asked for (though balance was nothing I ever aspired to). Academia forces you to stay between the lines, of schedules and committees, and dossiers, and requirements, and then rewards you with a regular paycheck. But it also gives you the wide latitude to study absolutely anything worth exploring. So, what does my checkbook say in code? It marks me as a careful obsessive, with only a periodic hankering for the wild side.

And right now if you sift between the banal lines of obligations paid in full, there are hints. Like a crystal ball, the checkbook reveals not just the past but the future as well. It says I'm heading for New Orleans in the fall, to our panel about Trance. Where horns and drums will find us, and I might be forced to dance. And I'll be wearing black of course. Bring a carnation for Madame. We'll color madly outside the lines.

And run back home again.

And the numbers? Well, all those numbers will be forced back inside the lines just as soon as we fly home.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

this little piggy and the scape-chicken

Religions have this thing called 'take-backs' or maybe 'do-overs.' Usually framed in terms of regret and/or repentance and often accompanied with little rituals of absolution. I understand that afterwords, the penitent feels better, maybe relieved, and maybe absolved. Cleansed. Purified. Sinless. And a lot of crap like that.

This is one of the things that makes me despise religion, and why I've seen it as a (dare I say it) cosmic joke that I have somehow ended up teaching about religion when I set out to do anything but. Anything!

My specialty was land reform. Agrarian development. The study of risk management, State control, peasant strategies. Sheep, goats, chickens, camels. Anything but religion. Mud brick architecture. Kinship patterns. Alliance and descent. Cycles of history. Oscillation of elites. Royal dynasties and political elites. Oops, here we go ... sliding dangerously close to religion. Back to peasantry. Farm labor. Migration. Anything, anything but religion.

It's not just the god problem. I mean, that's a pretty obvious objection. But this absolution thing just feels like cheating. Same with notions of a potentially punitive afterlife. Fear school and absolution. It feels like a cheat because it implies that we can make up for our mistakes. That there's the possibility of redemption. And, to be blunt, I don't think so.

There's something too safe about the idea of repentance. And knowing that you can repent your misdeeds, accept your absolution, and poof start over with a clean slate.

As far as I'm concerned, there is no clean slate.

What if, instead, we acknowledge what we consider our mistakes — and live with them. Knowing that we've done something just terrible and that there really isn't any way to make it better. Being more responsible in the future is fine, right, and even righteous maybe — but it doesn't erase the past.

Yom Kippur rolls around and we're supposed to think about the year that has just passed. Think about our misdeeds, and prepare to make amends in the following year. I'm okay with that. Okay with living the future more in accord with who we aspire to be. But that doesn't absolve us of what we have done in the past.

There's an ancient ashkenazi custom called kaporos that appears to be alive and well, especially in the bowels of Brooklyn and other abodes of highly ritualized orthodoxy. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the sins of the penitent are ritually transferred to a live chicken. Hens for the women, roosters for the men. The penitent then invokes a prayer of atonement (kippur / kaporos are permutations of the grammatical root for atonement), waves the chicken overhead three times, killing the now sin-laden chicken. The year's sins are thereby magically transferred, the human is atoned, and the chicken gets eaten by the poor.

I think scape-goats have just been too pricey in the past couple millennia. Lucky for the goats. Maybe people think their sins are (conveniently) chicken-sized and that a goat would be just a little too melodramatic for modern times. Imagine Brooklyn, for example, with all those scape-goats trying to run for the hills to make those sins disappear.

Kaporos, it seems to me, makes the selling of indulgences seem downright admirable and thoroughly benign.

And how do you atone for the sin of trying to slough off your sins onto a chicken?

I've only ever regretted one thing in my entire life, and there's just no shaking it off. I can hear my son groan: "Oh no, not this again. I'm so sick of hearing about this!"

But here's the thing. Nothing, nothing can make it better. The horrible guilt just doesn't go away. There's nothing I can do to change the past. Being mindful in the present is fine, of course, but it doesn't change anything.

Here's what happened.

It was Christmas time in NYC. Christmas tree with all the bells and whistles at gramma's house on the upper East Side. One of the main reasons we spent every single Christmas in NYC in those years is that I refused to have a Christmas tree in my house. I mean, my parents just couldn't have handled it. And clearly neither could I.

I remember it as clear as day ('cause I can't get it out of my mind). R was about two, which means that M was probably five and a half. She, the pampered baby, was sitting in my lap and I was doing this-little-piggy with her. (Okay, piggies, Christmas, I know— but all the treif is actually irrelevant here). And she would say, "Again, mommy! Again!" And I'd do it again. And again. And again.

And M, my perfect first-born came up to us, and said (after the millionth piggy), "Do me, mommy! Do my little piggies," or something reasonable like that.

And I turned to him and said, "You're too old for this ..." and returned to indulging the babe in arms.

That was it.

The big crime. And what made it a crime was the look on his face. That look that I still can't get out of my mind. That brings me close to tears even today. This was the terrible deed — a sin, as it were, if I understand the term correctly.

And I've apologized, year after year. And my son just thinks I'm nuts. And I've been absolved again and again, by the only one who counts — my son — and it's not enough.

So what's this about? Would wagging a chicken over my head three times make this crime or any other disappear? Do indulgences or repentance make one blameless? Can you give a heartfelt apology and be forgiven? Can you forgive yourself ?

I don't think I believe in forgiveness, either. Because I don't think anything really washes away. Maybe the real lesson I learned too young: I can see Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, trying to wash that blood off her hands:

Here's the smell of blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand ... (Act 5, Scene 1)

If she could just swing a chicken over her head three times, we'd all have been spared the delicious torment of her soul. And we'd never bother giving Macbeth a second read.

Now, objectively speaking I know that this-little-piggy pales in comparison to Lady Macbeth... but it feels the same to me.

I disappointed my son. I favored my daughter. In that moment I forced him to grow up. As if he were now beyond any trivial silliness that I might share with his little sister. I wasn't fair...

And over and over and over again. The Lady Macbeth thing, ad nauseum.

"Out damned spot, out I say ..." but it never washes clean.

Which is why I much prefer Freud to religion. No chickens. No goats. No take-backs. No do-overs. Just a comfy couch and charging by the 50-minute hour. Until you bore yourself to tears. Give it up. Get on with it.

And then it's done.

And then you feel cleansed. Purified. Absolved. And there we are, back again, getting dangerously close to religion. And this is why I so love teaching about religion. Because we get to explore the myriad ways that humans seek to alleviate their suffering. And the lengths they go when they cannot wash it away.

Oh. And nobody gives a shit about land reform anymore. Even the families in mountains of North Africa that I've worked with all these years — would much rather talk about religion these days — or even Freud — anything but land or chickens or goats.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

chimpanzees in space

This isn't the way I tell it in MSR.

I think it started this way: M was putting drops in his eyes, passed the little bottle around for anyone who might also like to indulge. I think he was the only brave one that night. As usual. M was always one step ahead of the curve. Then again, he was skipping the nights 'entertainment.' Been there, done that. Again and again. He was still flying when we came out of our trance.

Harner was giving a workshop that night. Journey to the Lower World. A number of indigenous shamans had come to watch him do his magic (so to speak). They brought their drums. This part, I generally tell. I'll skip the details. Everyone knows how this works, right? But I'll start with my usual disclaimer:

I don't do this. It's not my thing. I've got this denial thing going really well. I'm really convincing, right?

My journey to the so-called Lower World had me flying in a spacecraft with joker chimpanzees in spacesuits, with helmets with decals (of chimpanzees with helmets with decals...). Four of them, like there ought to be, apparently. And they were not strapped down, but floating around having a grand old time, playing with the controls. I'd like to invent zero-grav bananas for them to play with, but no — there was nothing floating around but the four chimpanzees. Goofing off. In space suits. With helmets. With decals. I mean, how embarrassing is that for a shamanic vision?

And after they drummed us back, Harner said, "Well, of course that's not how it works. Because shamanism is about helping someone. Healing. Helping them solve something. So partner up with someone you don't know, and have them ask a question, and go back down and see if you can get an answer for them..."

This was at a conference of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, of course. One of the years that I was organizing the conference. On campus at the Faculty Club, surrounded by redwoods, streams, hills and Maybeck architecture. And I'm the one who had invited Harner (again).

Partner up with someone you don't know.

But I know everyone. Then the door opens, and there's now one person I don't know — so he's my guy, right? So I call him over. He asks his question, I ask mine. bla bla bla. We go back down to the Lower World. Nothing.

He says he doesn't know the answer to my question, of course. But the answer is there. I recognize it in his accent, I know it well. Working-class Manchester, with a touch of Sherwood Forest. But he plays the game and tells me what he sees in the Other World. And there's my answer. And he cuts me to the core. And I know that he's nailed it.

He's put his suitcase down in the corner of the room. Literally, he's right off a trans-Atlantic flight into ... the Lower World. His question:

"When can I settle down?" he asks. "Where can I live?" He glances at his suitcases for emphasis.

I tell him what he doesn't want to hear:

"The chimpanzees are having way too much fun. They're not coming down." I mean, what else can I say?

Silence. Then rage.

"Those damned chimpanzees!" he just about screams.


"You know. Those chimpanzees," he says by way of explanation. But I don't know those chimpanzees.

He tells me that in the early 1960s we (they?) put chimpanzees up in space. And he's been worrying ever since what happened to them. Obsessing about them.

And I got his chimpanzees. Pre-cognitively. Before he asked his question. Before I called him over. Before we started our second Journey. I didn't have my own vision, I had his, just as he had mine.

That's how it's supposed to work, right? He got his answer, and boy did he not like it: Suitcase in hand, he's not settling down till the chimpanzees come down. And that's not bloody likely, is it?

That's somewhat how I tell it, more or less. With a a lot of academic stuff about different Worlds, sensory shifts, drums (did I mention the drums?), journeying rhythms, dismemberment, you know the drill...

But here's what I really remember about that night. What stands out more than anything else. M putting drops in his eyes. And he's the powerful shaman. And that night — long after Harner's sampler Journey to the Lower World — everything changed. M put drops in his eyes, and suddenly there were people making music in the bathtub of my room. Good music too — exotic and soulful. Fully dressed, I might add, including dress shoes, under water. Water music. And there were six people staying in my room playing musical chairs (so to speak). Everyone changed places — and their lives changed. Everyone present shifted gears and by morning our destinies had changed.

So who's the shaman? Or does it matter? Or is it the power of collectivity? Or a contact high off those powerful drops? Or the beautiful long-haired dog, or chimpanzees in space? Or just coincidence.

I don't believe in shamanism, of course. Just like I don't believe in anything else. But we have experiences. And those experiences are powerful. We know they happened. And things change afterwards. And we follow the new trajectory.

Today was one of those days.

One of those days where everything shifts and will be different ever after. No shamanism. No collectivity. Just paperwork. In our culture it's paperwork that brings about radical change and confers new status. And maybe it solves a problem and maybe it heals us, if we're lucky. But we've got a paper to notarize or stick an official stamp on for just about any major transition we collectively acknowledge. For me — with the completion of this one last piece of paper — that transition is called: retirement. And maybe it's healing. Don't know.

But the one after that — well, we know what that one's called. And I'm hoping for drums. A shaman or two. Four chimpanzees in space. Water music. A long-haired northern shepherd by my side. And maybe a couple drops in my eyes to facilitate the Journey.

Monday, August 2, 2010

compost stinks (aka: can I scream now?)

Each year I pick a quality to embody. I was taught this by my Sensei Wendy Palmer, sword mistress extraordinaire. Studying with Wendy was completely frustrating (for me, not her, I think. People come to her in part because they don't get it). And most of the time I just didn't get it. Not the first time, not the second, not the third. The problem being, of course, that I was trying to think things through. And she was trying to get me more into my body. The art of not-thinking. Thinking just got in the way.

She kept saying things like, "Compost stinks." Flatly. No affect. Just a commentary. A truism. While we're working on swords. I now realize that she was trying to reassure me. I studied with Wendy privately — she wasn't the Sensi at my own dojo — and I really needed her help. And she came up with 'compost stinks' and I kept not understanding her.

Compost stinks?

And so I'd think about that (instead of not-thinking).

It took many months — it took until I was working in my own garden actually composting — for me to get it. Get what she was after.

But when she said that everyone should have a quality, I knew instantly what she meant, and I knew what mine would be. Her practice is to select a quality to embody for one year. Every action, then, is enacted from the perspective of this quality. Every minute, every day, for the entire year.

My first quality was Mystery. I mean, what else would it be? It made everything exciting, everything something I'd want to know more about. Everything something that I could never know everything about. (and yes, I know, that's not a real sentence). These were followed by more banal qualities like Patience, Tolerance, Self-Discipline, and the like. Tolerance was by far the worst. It made it impossible to grade papers. Until way into the depths of Spring Semester, I realized that what I needed to discover were the limits of — not just be tolerant of any muck around me.

So. This year (this very very difficult year) my quality has been Laughter. While dealing with hospitals and hospice, caregivers, and schedules and meds and oxygen tanks and dysfunctional wheel chairs, walkers, and hospital beds — there's always something to laugh about. Funeral arrangements, grave diggers, manicured lawns, old faces I haven't seen since high school. Now, that last one is pretty funny. I've not been laughing at death and dying, per se. But the industries that we've built up around them are hysterically sad. The bureaucracy of dying. Bank forms and notaries, lawyers. Death certificates (everyone wants one!), Power of Attorney, Advance Directives. Lost car titles. Forms to retrieve lost car titles... I've found a place where laughter and being of good humor have helped. I've been smooth, and calm, with little laugh lines in the corner of my eyes. Not all the time, but enough of the time. And of course, I've also cried. But essentially, the quality of Laughter has served me well.

Until now. Right now, I have failed miserably in the embodiment of laughter. And what is it that has done me in?


And I realize now, it's not even the first time. UPS was supposed to deliver an 'overnight' letter to me six days ago. At first they claimed the delay was due to a wrong zip code. So they sent the letter back to somewhere. Next day, same thing. I mean, what's the matter with them? They fixed the zip code, and managed to add an apartment number. Following day, didn't deliver the letter because (they say) they came to the address and there was no 'apartment 5.' And then it was the weekend. And then it started all over again. Another two days, and now they say they give up: come pick up the bloody letter yourself. You have a window of a half hour this evening, if you want it today.

And I'm not laughing.

So. All that death and dying business, Aikido training, private Wendy Palmer, years of meditation. Whatever. And I'm done in by a late overnight letter.

This is the compost of which Wendy spoke. And compost, as she reminded us so often, stinks.

The letter I'm waiting for consists of a shitload of money (to me, anyway), (note the unintentional compost reference here) a check, not made out to me, but a 'rollover' to my so-called pension plan that I hope to depend on from now on. It's not the State's money, it's mine, just needing to get to the right place at the right time. And the deadline is fast approaching. And this is me just falling apart over it. And why aren't I laughing?

While most people might think of compost in terms of methods of production, I'm more concerned with its distribution.

Compost is scattered (excuse another bad pun) over the garden, mixed into the soil, and helps provide the nutrients needed for planted seeds to grow. The compost period is the duration it requires from the time you plant until the first shoots begin to come up. This is the time that Wendy is talking about. The time period during which all the growth is taking place underground where you can't see it.

All the practice. All the doing. All the preparing. And still not seeing the results manifest. Yah, that really stinks. And it feels like nothing's happening. 'Cause there's no visible sign, even after months and months of preparation.

So. I started all this retirement prep years ago really. That's what they say to do. Save for retirement, 'cause no one else is gonna take care of you when you're no longer working, right? And that letter — that letter that UPS won't deliver — is the very last step to having everything in order.

Now, that's pretty funny.

If I believed in a sentient universe, I might think the universe was sending me a message. You sure you want to do this? Or maybe the message is, you're really not there yet. Or, let's just make this as difficult as possible. Or, let's see if we can give you a heart attack before your retirement date, and just save all that money and give some of it to your kids or something. The State, of course, will want the rest.

So. It's not a conspiracy or anything like that. Not stupidity. Not incompetence. Just a misprinted label on a letter that has me at wit's end. And I'm thinking that I'm over-thinking this. Step back, head for the trails on the cliff above the ocean. Let the dog run free, and laugh. While I'm waiting for the buds to peak through the soil. But it's summer already, wasn't this supposed to happen months ago?

Next year, maybe I'll pick the Quality of Serenity or something else equally incomprehensible. That should be something to laugh about.

When all this UPS waiting is over, and all the bloody papers are filed, and everything's worked out for the best, then I'll be willing to admit, that compost doesn't really stink so bad after all. Like labor, we forget all about that part when the flowers begin to bloom.