Friday, April 29, 2011

national poetry month

Thought I'd better get this in before it isn't April any more. I think next year, the whole month of April's posts should be in poetry. I'd be pretty proud if I could manage it. This poem I stumbled on searching through my replacement computer after the crash of my favorite but unreliable old one, with all the extra goodies on it that, like a moron, I hadn't backed up. But no. I found nothing else. My more creative writing was pretty much all gone.

This one, however, was in a very old email that was telling the story of how this poem came to be. It was a curious tale, with no poetic justice. The tale does not end well.

I was heading down from the City to a gallery opening of a friend. My girlfriend at the time was driving about an equal distance up. The plan was to meet in the middle and attend the opening together.

While driving, these words in my head came to me unbidden. I turned the radio up so I could concentrate on NPR. But the words in my head got louder too. After about 30 or 40 miles of this, I got sick of the battle between words, gave up, pulled over to the side of the highway — and wrote the persistent little critters down.

Then they allowed me to go back on my way.

When I got to the gallery, she ran up to me.

"An amazing thing happened on my drive up," she said. "I heard this indescribable music in my head. I had to pull over and hum it into the recorder. That's why I'm running late."

Did I mention she was a musician?

So. I got the words. She got the music.

Eventually, we put them together and she recorded the whole bit. The words go:

i am abd-allah — slave of God
you bring me grace — baraka
when i submit--when i surrender —

sweet bondage — sends me to my knees
head hits the ground, my prayers resound
Allah! when i submit

sweet bondage — i can taste you
in ritual splendor, so hard to give up
Nameless One! for the desert

you take my breath away
send me reeling, in peace suspended
Beloved! between heaven and earth

Mother of the Stormy Night
think that you can make it right
as the blade glides into sight?
eyes grow dim, i see the light
Astarte! when i submit

The gallery opening was pretty feh after that. I'm not sure either of us really registered much of the show. The tape she made of words and music was breathtaking. She was working on an album at the time. Very exciting.

But it was her album. And the idea of giving credit for lyrics not her own just was too much for her to bear. She changed some of the words, kept others — and pit'om! a new song emerged for her album. Still very lovely. To tell the truth, I think my words scared her.

Still. For me this was a powerful moment of creative synchronicity. Such moments are rare enough on planet earth, and worth honoring and preserving.

And there it is in black and white — visible for anyone to see. A few hasty lines, scribbled on the side of the highway heading south. Longing to reach out and join with music emerging exactly the same way on the highway north. A miracle!

May all your Aprils be filled with poetry, music, and yes, collaboration.

Monday, April 25, 2011

reasons to desist

Making decisions sucks.

That's my conclusion on a lifetime's worth of decision-making so far. I was taught growing up to make my own decisions. And so I made them. And then I was told exactly why they were the wrong decisions, and what the right one would have been. And then — I was made to stick to my decision. And I discovered that, to tell the truth, I was okay with the decisions I had to stick to.

But all that decision-making home schooling made me really hate deciding anything at all.

And so, I stopped.

Making decisions entails some kind of internal process of analysis. Either that, or some (still internal) gut reaction, or heartstring pulling — or something. I don't really have a clue. I find that my guts ache — and I still end up having to follow through on something I didn't exactly decide to do. So that doesn't help too much. Internal cues mean you actually have to recognize what you feel. Or what you think. And I can't ever decide anything that way.

My default setting is external cues.

I want all the external circumstances to conspire together. I want everything to fall into place, neatly and cleanly — so that there's really no choice at all. There it is, loud and clear, tangible and unavoidable. Signs even a moron could read. God I love external cues.

The bible is full of external cues:

angels come and just tell you what's what. I mean, what could be better than that?

a serpent says, look, this is how it works. Right, well that one didn't work out so well, did it?

a ram comes and says, 'sacrifice me instead of your son,' right in the nick of time. This one's the synchronicity option.

burning bush. You know the drill. I mean, gee. Handing down the law that way? No more decisions to make. Ten commandments. Just do this. Nothing more to think about, is there?

a dove brings an olive branch. This is my personal favorite. One bird, one branch. In the bible, it actually doesn't represent the end of war. No. It meant quite literally that the floods had receded — and there was land again. We could start over and rebuild our homes post-tsunami...

— or just plain, the voice of god. And the 'Go where I send thee...' kind of speech, and you pick up and go. You move! All your stuff. Your flocks, your tents, cats, dogs — everyone and everything. Just like that. Voice of God.

External cues are a lot more fun than yellow legal pads with a line down the middle of the page with yes on the left, and no on the right — and then you sit there and figure it all out. Which can be fun, I guess, but what if you forgot to list a key variable or two? And it's just a lot more work.

So. Personally, I wait for signs.

I wait for the universe to conspire. To speak up. To use its words. At the micro-level this entails things like the parking-space goddess opening up that space when you get there. no parking space — means you're not meant to be there. The only condition under which I ignored this method was in picking up my kids from school. If I had waited for a parking space every time I needed to get my kids — I would have lost each of them on the first day of kindergarten. There are, after all, exceptions to the 'signs' rule.

This is me, waiting for a sign.

Macro-level: Big decisions are worth waiting for big signs. Or at least clear ones. Why would I even think I have the seikhel to figure these out on my own? And therapists? Yes, very Jewish, I know. But it's never been in a therapist's financial interest to have their patients learn how to make decisions (large or small) on their own.

But waiting for signs sucks too, and you end up sitting on shpilkes the whole time. But what can you do? Nothing.

The longest I've waited for a sign is five years.

But when it comes — it is so clear you can touch it, feel it, taste it. There it is — from outside yourself. So it's gotta be true, right. This is, after all, why we like angels so much.

So. I'm waiting for a sign. I don't want it to hit me over the head. Like that 18-wheeler that got me (luckily) when I had the Volvo. That's a bit too macro for my taste. Big signs like that mean you weren't paying attention to the more subtle little signs the universe was flashing at you.

Favorite signs: For me, they come while working in the garden. I don't understand why. Except that gardens are particularly attuned to issues of timing.

Now is the time to prune, the big pine says.

You haven't been watering, you moron, they all scream at once. If you don't nurture, nothing grows.

The garden is pretty blunt about things. But boy, when it's time to prune — you'd better start pruning. And not just the trees.

And some times, of course it's time to plant. And months later you realize you didn't do it. And so, guess what? The only thing that comes up are the 'volunteers.' And sometimes volunteers surprise you and they're pretty spectacular. And sometimes they drop in and wreck everything.

When my garden says prune, I prune. Plant? I plant. It works. But I'm not always in gardening-mode. So I have one more method under my belt.

I call it my 'reasons to desist' mode of divination. It's pretty annoying, but it works well. It has to do with doors. I wait for them to open.

Waiting for the door to open can take a very very very very long time. Recognizing that it's ajar is an artform. Sometimes many conditions (what I like to call variables) have to line up together before that door will budge.

Never kick the door. The door is there to slow you down. Or downright stop you in your tracks. Never ring the doorbell or try to negotiate. I have a friend who does that. It's a real pain. She wants to turn a door into a window of opportunity. She wants to bargain. Negotiate minutia with the door — which makes the door just pissed, and want to slam, even if her foot's on the threshold.

Be very nice to the door. Wait. And be patient. If the door does not open, you don't have to walk through. And there's your reason to desist. If it does open, and you hesitate even a little — it slams shut pretty quick right in your face, pretty insulted that you weren't paying closer attention.

But when that door opens just as you get there. What could be more right than walking on through?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

mrs tzaddik's boyfriend

She brought him up today, telling the tale to E, so I guess I can say something about it. It was a very long tale, mostly about Tibetan lamas. And the teachings they gave in the house when they'd just come into exile. A number of the lamas were living at the house, upstairs. They'd painted the main bedroom up there red and gold.

Everything looked very alive when they lived at the house. Between their contagious smiles, the almost non-stop traffic of folks coming to visit or confer, the teachings that were given in the grand room, the hundreds of shoes lined up outside the front door — the colors and banners and cheer —

He parked in the driveway for months at a time. Lived in his vehicle. Was it a VW camper? Something like that. The quintessential hippy dippy vehicle that you could live in. Parked in Mrs Tzaddik's driveway.

She doesn't use the word boyfriend, of course. For her, the word is paramour. A much more Sephardi word. My word sounds so — well, banal. And there was nothing banal about any of it.

Tibetan lamas upstairs. Paramour parked in the driveway. Yeah. It was the 1970s outside. Berkeley. Most likely you could have guessed that time frame.

He'd been a lawyer. A very good looking guy. Still is, actually. But he dropped out. I think the goings on of 'our' generation just got to him. Why should he bang his head against the wall in law, when society was changing right before his eyes?

The tzaddik would come home from a hard day's work, with the New York Times tucked under his arm. He'd unlock the door, and walk through the house to the back and into the kitchen. There would be Mrs Tzaddik's boyfriend cooking up macrobiotic soup.

"Hello, tzaddik," he would say (though not exactly). "Come sit down and have my soup!"

And the tzaddik would sit. And have soup. And read the New York Times while sitting with the soup at the dining room table.

My memory of this is vivid. I have no memory of Mrs Tzaddik at all in this scenario. Was she even there? But my memory is really of two men who've made very different choices.

The boyfriend chose the hedonic life. Why shouldn't there be pleasure? Why shouldn't he partake? Why the incessant labor? Why not just cook soup?

The tzaddik chose engagement. Commitment to the service of others. Encouraging them. Helping them achieve their goals. Without judgement. Mentoring them. Pointing them in the direction of funding. Of collaboration. And always it was about the arts. Bringing creativity into the world. New projects. New works.

The boyfriend was a piece of work.

Eventually, Mrs Tzaddik had had it with the boyfriend in the driveway. And she tried to shoo him away. He was not terribly receptive. I remember it as taking years.

The lamas told Mrs Tzaddik that the boyfriend was a great lesson for her. She explains that according to Tibetan practice, each individual receives his or her own Teaching from the lamas. The boyfriend was hers.

Does that mean that they responsible for this? For the paramour who wouldn't go away when bidden?

What she got to learn from her Teaching was patience. Endurance. Commitment to trying to make a change.

They had traveled together. Mostly to South America. And Europe too. When, after many years, she finally got rid of him in the driveway, there was nowhere else in this country he really wanted to be. He fled to Mexico — and stayed. Maybe in someone else's driveway. Dunno. But he reappeared on the telephone instead. And still wouldn't go away.

Patience. Endurance. Commitment to making a change.

He visited not that long ago. Same charismatic smile. Same glow of macrobiotic health — although he said he wasn't that healthy.

He wanted to come back, he said. Calling fairly incessantly. Again. He's ready to come back.

Forty years of this!

Patience. Endurance. Commitment to making a change.

She told the caregivers not to hand her the phone any more. When he calls, that is.

In Aikido, they talk about forty-year techniques. Fifty-year techniques. Practices that seem so simple, you just do them every day. But they're not yet right. You practice and practice — and only get a glimmer of what is really there, the potential of the exercise, the lesson, the Teaching — at the end of 40 years. And even that's just the beginning.

Just the turn of a wrist. The stroke of a blade. The cut. The chop. The throw. And you do it over and over and over again. A hundred strokes a day. A thousand. And each stroke is different. And each next stroke an opportunity to learn to do it differently.

That's the lesson of Mrs Tzaddik's boyfriend. The opportunity to say no differently. To send him on his way. Get him out of the driveway. Get him out out out of her life. Some kind of integrity. Holding your own and not caving.

I'm not judging it. No. No, this is her call. It's always been her call. Her practice. Her forty year technique.

She's getting it. Learning it. It's not like you ever master a technique like this. You just keep practicing it. A hundred strokes a day. A thousand. With proper breathing to go with it.

And each day she gets a little stronger. She walks a little further each day. Her spirit reawakens. Each day, her memory resurges.

Tibetan lamas in the house. Lessons they would offer. Healings, if you're paying attention. Forty year techniques, or more. But only if you practice. That's what she was given — an opportunity to practice. Pour la longue durée.

Forty years!

The red and gold are gone from the house. The whole thing's shades of gray. Her hair is white — and so is his. The tzaddik's gone away. The blinds are drawn. The lights are low. The energy's calmed at last. And then — a gift an angel brought. A mighty French horn blast.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

saddam hussein, through cognac colored glasses

I never met Saddam Hussein. But I wanted to. We were guests, actually, of Tariq Aziz — who was Foreign Minister at the time. Little known fact: They both share a birthday (one year apart) on April 28th.

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

playing house

The house was built in 1907. It was an absolute wreck when I moved in. I've lived here longer than any other place in my entire life. I'm not leaving.

So why do I think about leaving?

People talk about perfection. The perfect job. Perfect marriage. Perfect kids. Perfect life. Perfect house. Perfect home. They say it over and over, loud and clear, so that you get it, really get it. They're working really hard to make sure you heard them. It's perfect, they say. And then they walk out.

I'm not immune. I've done this. I remember it well.

What happens to those who get everything they ever wanted? Whose lives have settled down into a steady state without high drama, without opera. Without major debt. Or conflict. Stuff that just doesn't work. What happens when you don't have to fix anything anymore?

"That's not why people leave," he said. "They leave because of abuse. Incompatibility. They leave because conditions become intolerable."

They don't leave because it's perfect.

They don't leave because they're bored.

He said.

It's much more fun to have a mountain to climb. To struggle together to build something new. To think thoughts that have never been thunk. Live lives that haven't been shrunk. He's a psychiatrist — did I mention that? His opinions bear the weight of clinical validity. In other words, in his professional opinion, he's always right.

But he was wrong.

And that was pretty funny, since 'boredom' was one of his specialties. Oops.

I used to have this recurring nightmare when I was little. No chases. No monsters. Nothing like that.

There's the vastness of space — darkness without end. And before you can notice how it appeared, there is a long jump-rope like thing in the darkness that shines with an illumination from within. It's not quite a snake, not quite a rope. But it's jumping — slowly — round and round. And the rhythm creates great tension until the rope flattens out into a line of light. The light of the 'or ein sof. And the light approaches perfection. And it's unbearable — until at last, it's unbearably perfect. And it can't sustain itself, and shatters. And there's the vastness of space — darkness without end. And before you can notice how it appeared ...

I was in the foster home when the nightmare started. But the dream endured. Year after year. Until I was twelve. And then it stopped.

My house is a giant art project. It's been jimmied together and pulled apart for over a century. It's been wrecked and tormented, plucked clean and beaten down. Corners were cut. Everywhere. They had called it a 'fixer-upper' when I first took a look.

"Now don't be scared. Keep an open mind," the agent said. "Imagine what it could be."

I saw it — and laughed. And then I bought it. So I showed it to my kids.

My son stepped over the threshold. A look of horror on his face.

"You expect me to live here?" he asked.

Little sister walked in. She picked up a trowelly/crowbar-like thing. I had been pulling up the matzah and puke-colored 1950s carpets.

"Where do we start?" she asked.

It was such a wreck, that we could do anything. Anything at all was an improvement. That meant all of us.

My son fixed up the garage and started a band.

My daughter painted the Tree of Life above her bed, so she could sleep under its branches.

I saved up for a furnace so we could get some heat.

Anything. We could do anything at all.

An art project.

A collaborative art project.

We weren't bored. And it wasn't perfect.

And we were really really happy.

And I could do days like that again. Not that my house has reached perfection. But it's very very close. I can feel it in my bones...

Collaboration! Building something together. An abode in which there's always something new to consider. Problems to figure out that are challenging and fun. Beauty to unmask from behind a banal structure.

Real perfection to me is a work in progress. If someone says let's build it — of course I'll say yes. Something very beautiful. That will take a long long time.

"How can you think about leaving," she gasped.

"It's easy," I said. And I meant it.

Monday, April 18, 2011

unclear on the Pesach concept

Well ouch! A wonderful friend who's put together his first Pesach posted his pics on fb, oh my. And his seder plate is lovely. Oops, he says, he forgot to cook the shank — but a beet apparently's kosher l'Pesach. Learn something new every day.

James Frazier would have approved. Is that imitative magic or sympathetic magic in which, he says, the visual similarity can stand in magically for the object itself? The beet becomes the shank.

And my friend's soup looked great, if a little California. For the matzah balls were made from whole wheat matzahs. Kol ha-kavod, I say! Who says he should go only for the pale, off-white balls?

But the pièce de resistance — the thing that cracked me up no end, and gets filed under the 'unclear on the concept' heading — was the main dish. I could feel my father rolling nauseously in his grave. And then magnanimously letting it go.

Okay, there was a baked potato. I've never seen one at Pesach before, but I've seen plenty of roasted potatoes — so okay, fine.

There was a brisket. Looks great. I think that was brisket.

But then. I mean, no way! Creamed green vegetable thing. No f—ing way!

It just hadn't occurred to him that you couldn't do creamed veggies with brisket, let alone do them together for Pesach.

As far as I'm concerned, this is the biggest no-no in the Bible. The idea that you might by accident cook, say, a lamb in its mother's milk — is the most revolting idea possible. And so here's one kashrut law that's got my vote. Not that it would or could happen these days — but Stroganoff seems to me a terrible sin.

And I was reminded of the numerous potluck Seders I've had, and some of the strangest things that people brought.

—Noodle dishes, with actual noodles. As opposed to fake noodley things made from matzas or matza meal.

—Salad with bacon bits (I think this was in Detroit).

—Apple pie and ice cream for dessert. An absolute crossing-the-desert must.

—Bread pudding!

—etc etc.

And I've done my little holier-than-thou trip on them. How could they?? And my Sephardi chauvinism on them. And turned up my nose at that Ashkenazi charoset glop. Things like that. I've always been terribly intolerant and ungracious in this way. With no tact at all.

In other words, I've been more Pharaoh than I've been Moses.

And looking at my friend's photo of his proud first Pesach seder meal — I have to let it go. All the rules of doing it this way over that way. Of my charoset's better than your charoset...

It's at the Seder that we ask, year after year:

Why is this night different from all other nights?

And the answer could be about reclining, and leavening, and dipping twice, and four cups, and getting through the Haggadah.

But what it's really about is freedom, isn't it.

And so, for once, I'm letting go my sense of outrage and my tyrannical notion of proper Pesadich cooking. And I'm saying, go for it! Milk that sense freedom for all it's worth. And I mean it. I approve.

But I'm still shuddering.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

anyone who is hungry, let them come and eat

The tzaddik grew up in the Bronx, across from Yankee Stadium. That must say a lot about him, but I'm not sure what exactly. His family lived in a shvitzy little apartment, overcrowded with uncles and cousins and such. That was in addition to mamma, poppa, the tzaddik and his two younger brothers.

Of course, he wasn't a tzaddik yet was he?

But I have a feeling that this was the moment he began to learn what being tzaddik was all about. And that it wasn't about just one moment, but about a commitment pour la longue durée. And I think this story changed my life forever. But I didn't know it until much much much later.

It's all about a moment at Pesach. Probably around 1937 or so. The tzaddik and his brothers were kids. Their father was leading the Seder —

There's that moment when you open the door for Eliyahu ha-Navi. And of course, there's a cup of wine for the Prophet in the middle of the seder table as well. We invite Elijah in to share our Passover meal with us. I always thought this was a symbol of opening the door to anyone who might be hungry. They should come and eat.

According to Chabad, however, the Prophet Elijah oversees the bris of every Jewish boy on the 8th day of his life. Elijah acts a bit like a lawyer (or maybe a judge?) (or maybe a cop?) making sure that the kid has been circumcised correctly. On Pesach, Chabadniks say, we invite Eliyahu in so that he can check that all the Jewish men at your Seder table have been properly circumcised.

Did you know that? I didn't. Don't you just love Chabad?

So. In the tzaddik's house, they —like most American Jews, I would surmise— were unclear on the Elijah-door-opening concept.

Obediently, the tzaddik went to the door on his father's order. He opened the door of their overcrowded two bedroom Bronx walk-up apartment.

There, on the threshold stood a shabby beggar.

Of course, the tzaddik invited him in. The man sat at the table with them after he'd been brought a basin to wash his hands and face. He ate the sumptuous Bronx feast that was already stretched between so many mouths to feed. He took his broken shoes off and gave his tired feet a rest. Someone handed him a pillow so he could 'recline' — as Pesach dictates.

And he stayed.

He stayed the next day. And the day after. He stayed the next week. And the week after that. He stayed the next year. And the year after that.

Thirty three years, he stayed.

Long after the tzaddik had left for the Promised Land, California, the beggar stayed. He did errands for the tzaddik's family. Helped out a bit here and there. He was a master of the art of making people happy. And, after thirty-three years, he died in that apartment. He was, after all by then, family.

I think about this story not just at Pesach. I think about the boys my father found lying on the museum grounds, or panhandling in Berkeley. The boys he took in, nurtured and transformed. His unending line of lost-boys. He would give them a little push, and watch them thrive. Okay. Sometimes it was a big push.

I think about his non-judgmental stance toward each and every new encounter. His, "you never know what good a person will do —" approach to all who sought his blessing.

I could never be like that. I'm judgmental as hell.

But I too open that door. And let people in, in my own way, of course. Generally speaking, it's not the front door. And it's not beggars. But it certainly has been homeless people.

The wife of a student of mine called. They were desperate, she said. Neither her family nor his would take them in. They were just back from a year abroad in Bath. Could they stay with me for a few weeks, while they looked for a place to live in the City?

I'm pretty sure that at that point I had never met her.

They came. They stayed their three weeks. They found a place. They left.

The phone rang.

Can we come back, she begged. And so they came to stay. The next day, and the day after. The next week. And the next month. They stayed with us, along with their fat rabbit, Sherman Tank. And they had each a sense of humor that could not be denied. His, loud with waggling gestures. Hers subtle and sly. And they made us laugh — through a tough patch in our lives.

Three years they stayed. Until their growing family outgrew our house, and they moved on.

Since then, the door's been open for others. And each one brought some subtle texture to our house. Okay, sometimes a nutsy texture — like the Bolage episode. But most of those who came to stay, we came to love. And they came at odd moments. And they added some element that we hadn't known was missing.

Trust? Is it trust that let's them in? I don't think so.

I think it's just about opening that door — and letting this new person you didn't expect really come in. And you don't know why you're doing it. And I don't know why I'm doing it right now. But I am. And it feels right. A whole new adventure, by just saying yes. And a whole new project emerges, that changes everything. And here we are.

And maybe I'm the one who's really hungry. And maybe I'm the one at the threshold of the door. And maybe it's my turn to cross over and walk in — and say yes to things that I've said no to. And make a commitment pour la longue durée. And sure. Okay. You're right. It is about trust. And I trust you.

And maybe it's just a short Pesach story from 1937. No more than an anecdote, really. And maybe it doesn't mean anything at all.

And maybe the tzaddik's family made a mistake. And Eliyahu was just there to check the circumcision status of the males of the family. And by mistake, they invited him to stay. Oops.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

next lifetime — and the origins of religious experience

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

abraham, sarah and hagar, oh my

The question is do we feel sorry for Abraham, or do we say goddamn it, you knew what you were getting us into? Or is there some other way to resolve the whole bit? I've been thinking about this for at least a thousand years, maybe two. Maybe three. The whole situation sucks.

There's this couple, see. They're married. And their stagnant. They produce nothing — no offspring to call their own. Barren. And Sarah by now is way past menopausal by almost half a century. No issue will come from there, right?

But Abraham sticks with her. He doesn't take another wife. He's loyal. She matches. She's of the same basic lineage as he. Good solid stock, and lineage matters in the Middle East. Today, perhaps not as much as in Abraham's day. But today the wars over this still take a higher toll than they did back then.

He sticks with her. And finally, in a moment of enlightenment, she has an epiphany. By now she's old and gray, and set in her ways. Stubborn as hell. But her maidservant isn't. A bit exotic, from the other side of the tracks, so to speak, Hagar has something fresh to offer. And the two of them — Abraham and Hagar — produce something beautiful. A treasure, really. A first born — created out of their instant resonance. No plodding fruitless decades. No marriage just because she's a relation. They simply join forces and voilà, they birth something miraculous.

This must be fairly common on the horizon. Reminds me in part of Chango and his travails. Let me know what you think. Though this tale looms much larger. It has real-life consequences that are dire and bleak and current.

Ishmael means, quite literally, 'God hears' or 'God is listening.' And what does that mean to us? It means that this union is sanctioned, if not by tribal authorities and custom (ie, the State) then by a powerful spiritual force that cannot be denied.

But the Torah isn't terribly interested in any of this. It takes off, quite strategically, ignoring the potential paradigm shift here. Something new — this new couple might not match, but they definitely fit. Call it heterosis, if you need to explain it. Hybrid vigor. They produce something powerful. Who could have predicted it?

Sarah flips out, of course. Some angels come and calm her down a bit with promises. (I'm skipping tons here of course but it'll have to do for now). And she just cracks up, laughing at the prophetic angels. As does Abraham. And so, when miracle of miracles, she too produces a son, it is incumbent upon her to call him Yitzhak, for their (irreverent) laughter.

The difference in these names is extraordinarily telling. Ishmael, produced out of a resonant union, is blessed with God's grace. Yitzhak, emerges from a relentless ache of emptiness. He elicits derision, if not scorn.

But now for Abraham, there are two of them. Two women. One of whom (the illegitimate non-wife) produces his firstborn (legitimate heir), and the other (the correct and proper spouse) produces the second born with not much hope for the future under the prevailing inheritance laws.

But Sarah isn't stupid. She figures it out pretty quick. Get Hagar and Ishmael out of sight asap. Banish them to, I don't know, just make it far. How 'bout a desert they can't possibly survive?

What kind of parent can allow such a thing? (And of course, it gets worse — but the Akedah is for another day).

A new form of inheritance is introduced in the bible. Primogeniture, the right of the firstborn, is no longer the law of the land. Instead, manipulation of inheritance comes into fashion (more on that, too, some other time maybe).

Sarah wins, of course. And we've been paying the price ever since.

Sarah sees her son accede to legitimized inheritance. The bible makes it sound like Yitzhak is chosen for the Akedah. The line of Abraham-Isaac-Jacob is the foundation of the Jewish lineage and the root of Christian faith.

And Hagar wins, of course. And we've been paying the price ever since.

These are terrible ways of winning.

Hagar, in her suffering, takes her child out into the desert, and a desert people is born. The Almighty plants a black pearl under the sea, and the pearl begins to cry for her. A sea of liquid ebony amasses way under the dunes she traverses. She wanders. A new line is formed. Arabs are born, and then — the Prophet. And a religion arises that comes to span the globe. And then, much later, the discovery of those ebony tears...

Is one line better than the other? Is one endowed with greater grace?

And what of Abraham? Did he make choices? Or did he just follow orders. Did he just say yes to every opportunity. God says go and so he goes. God says sacrifice your son, and he says sure. Sarah says get Hagar and the goddamned thing you produced with her the hell out of here, and he sends her off into exile.

Islam teaches us that Ibrahim and Ismail have a bond no shrill and jealous mother/wife can rend. The two go off and build the Ka'aba together — a place where all can come and meet, mourn, and rejoice — and pray. It's not just that they experience God's grace. It's that they found a place where others gather to do so. Not just our own lineage. But a community that spans across all national and racial and ethnic borders.

The new paradigm of Islam addresses the inequality of inheritance very differently than does the Torah. The Torah foments sibling rivalry generation after generation — trickery, selling a brother into bondage, jealousy and strife. Islam says let all brothers be equal in their share, and let daughters inherit as well — another innovation. Calm the chaos of each generation's feuding. Well, that was the idea. Not that Islam solved that one, but Shariat Law did try. Then again, I'm not sure Freud did much better.

I put all this on the stiff and proud head of Sarah. Sarah who must reaffirm her priority and legitimacy of status. Sarah, who sends a mother and child into the desert, expecting them to die. It's that part that outrages me perhaps more than any other. Though there's still plenty to be pissed off about in here.

And Abraham. It takes him so long to get his act together. He too could have saved us all a lot of grief.

Next time, Abraham. Next time. Maybe in your next life. Take a stand. The three of you, please. I might even pray for it, if that's what it would take. And save us the disasters which follow you if you don't. Give us a new model. Cooperation. Mutual aid. Some new paradigm shift. Anything to end the agony that comes from experiencing one mother against the other. And their children at war. You can fix this. I know you can.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

this is going to end badly, she said

Malkah woke up, and she was healed of her despair. Her body felt light, like it could just float up into the ether — except for the fact that she already resided there to begin with. Her spirit was lighter too for a change. It was an indescribable feeling. She had even slept. Slept like a newborn babe in arms. Slept like she was cradled in the arms of God.
She was in love.
God himself had descended upon her and healed her. I mean, everybody knows this, right? What else could have happened?
The Almighty One saw her. Really saw her. He took it upon himself to enter her with Infinite Light and penetration of spirit. The Angel Gabriel himself attended, blowing his trumpet. I'm actually not sure about this last part, but that's what they say. What do I know from angels?
The point is, that Malkah was healed.
She decided to leave her place of occultation and descend into the realms of the living once more. She had been in exile so long in her despair over the actions of the humans below. The Earth had been rended by the warfare and bigotry, by ignorance and hatred one against the other. The Lord had brought down upon the Earth his own catastrophic wake-up call to humanity, to no avail. They had glanced up, joined hands briefly, and then had returned for their weapons lest someone else amass them while they were busy helping out a tsunami or two.
"Wake up!" the Lord had said. "See this disaster? May it teach you to be cooperative, one brother with the other." The Almighty had been reading Kropotkin again.
And the Shekhinah just left the world. Again. She couldn't take it.
Humans had tried to coax her back with ritual. Especially the Sabbath. Do the ritual correctly, and she would descend (however briefly) into the hearts of men, and they'd feel the awesome force of the beauty of Creation.
And then, they'd start bickering over the remote. Over a perceived maldistribution of goods. Over territory. "This land is my land —" they would shout, like it was a good and righteous thing to do. And she'd be sick of it again, and depart. She could hardly wait for Havdalah to get herself out of here.
But now. Now was different. She was (quite literally) floating on clouds. Peaceful, if not happy. What did she know from happiness? It wasn't her department. But she felt the buoyancy of possibility, and it felt good.
"This is going to end badly," she said.
Of this she was quite sure. 'Love' always ended badly. Always ended in loss, for their was death. The death of one led to the anguish of the other. The illness of one did the same. The hurtful feelings. Abandonment. Betrayal. Moving on. The higher the resonance, the harder the fall when it was gone. These were the invisible little parasites that inhabited the soft, delicious pelt of love. It was a force of nature. Part of the Law of Gravity itself. Grave, indeed.
But there it was. That dreaded love.
She tested it out. Tentatively seeking out the tendrils of her being. Nope. She still felt euphoric. She felt so good, she could barely contain herself. Endorphins of the Almighty.
A great pessimism descended upon her, but it couldn't quite penetrate the armor of her joyous state.
And then, out of nowhere, a vision.
The tzaddik came to her and spoke. His presence made her shake and cry, She was overwhelmed. Not even the Almighty Himself had this effect on her, so powerful was his sight.
"You must love," he said. "You must love whom you will."
"You must trust," he said. "You must trust — not that it will be alright — no. Not that, no. But that it will be worth the cost, no matter what you pay. You do not bargain with this one. Love is worth the price. Rather that, than go without."
And in that moment, the Shekhinah knew love, and named it thus. Tears flooded down her face, and rain poured down upon the land below.
She turned, and walked upon her way.
She was not, after all, ready to descend to the planet below.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

the electrical fire — a parable

When Malkah was a little girl of seven or so, the tzaddik gave her a silver chain necklace with a star of David on it. The star was simple enough, and was surrounded by a circle. Malkah wore it every day. I don't think she noticed it at all. Someone put the thing on her, and so it was there. She didn't dare take it off. Not her department.

And so, as she learned how to take a shower, she kept the necklace on.

And when she got herself dressed, the star of David was tucked carefully inside her shirt so it wouldn't get lost. It hung right next to her heart. She took it for granted. She paid it no attention.

It was the mid 1950s, a curious time to be seven.

Someone had just given the tzaddik his first television set. I think it was his brother had sent it from New York. Strange gift indeed. For what does a tzaddik have need of such an abomination?

But he's a tzaddik, right? And sees the good in all things. He discovered the world news was not just in the New York Times or the Jewish Daily Forward — it was inside this box as well, with pictures.

Mrs Tzaddik wasn't so impressed. She knitted her brows and insisted that the abomination, as it was called in Malkah's house, was kept unplugged, except on the rare occasion it might be in use.

One evening, the tzaddik wanted to watch the abomination. He glanced at Mrs Tz for permission, and she consented with a grunt.

"Malkah," she called, from the kitchen, "go turn on the abomination."

And so Malkah went over to the thing itself. And picked up the thick black snakey cord. She had never done this before. It was a vote of confidence. She found the end of the cord with a bulbous head, and metal prongs sticking out. She bent over. She'd seen this done before; she knew what to do. She bent over and stuck the plug into the outlet —

And was thrown into the air across the living room into the furthest wall of the dining room behind it. A Dorothy in a hurricane — but Malkah knew nothing of Dorothy. She was lifted high into the air.

Her head smashed upon the wall, and she fell to the ground. There was smoke and a burst of flame coming from her chest, and a burning there. The whole house smelled of burning flesh.

The tzaddik stood frozen. The whole thing was less than a minute, and still he stood, unmoving. In shock, I think. Though clearly the shock had been Malkah's to bear.

Mrs Tzaddik ran to Malkah. Opened her shirt where now only the smoke and sizzle stood.

There, she saw what there was to see.

The star of David completely intact, with the circle around it burnt to a crisp. She held it up by the chain, and smiled a beatific smile.

"Look!" she said, to to the world at large. "You can try to burn us in a Holocaust, but see this? The Jewish People still survive!" She was ecstatic. Moved by the momentous quality of such a miracle of her People's continued existence. And then the moment was over. She stood up, left the room and went back to her cooking.

The tzaddik nodded. What else could he do? It was, after all, a miracle.

Monday, April 4, 2011

playing dead — remembering George Leonard

The first time I played the Samurai Game, I died before the War even began. What happened was that our Daimyo had chosen me Second in Command. I was very honored and gave my allegiance willingly, eagerly, and with a complete sense of authenticity. I was ready to play the Game. What in the world I was supposed to do was another issue.

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.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

oshun and oya, in private

Sometimes I wonder if Oshun really gives a damn about Chango.

I mean, there's Oshun. Keeper of the hearth and home. Happy to keep the home fires burning. Happy to hold it all together when Chango is off fighting the good fight, being dramatic, charismatic, and good.

Oshun, I think, is in love with love. Maybe even the idea of love. And she is not at all ambivalent about children and kitties and dogs. She pours out love and caring. And she's very attached to that house.

But Chango?

I mean, I think it's probably a relief for Oshun when Chango goes off awandering. She gets a little time to herself to contemplate the principles of love, without having to deal with the pain in the ass who's very nearly never there.

The women of Medjerda were thrilled when their husbands were away.

They got the courtyard all to themselves then. They could relax. They were not beholden. Multiple wives —polygyny, in other words — was prized, even by the younger women, even though by the time I got there polygyny had been illegal for about 15 years. Bummer, that. I mean it. Multiple wives. How cool is that — for the women, I mean.

Be stuck with Chango all by yourself? Well, no. Having a co-wife or two would make living with a man who thought himself a god (not to mention, taking care of his mother as well) more bearable. Polygyny would ease the terrible burden. The young women I talked with (rural, marriageable fellahi girls) were uniformly not looking forward to being stuck with some preordained husband of their own. Partly it was the geezer factor. It was only the older men who could afford marriage at all.

And love wasn't what it was cracked up to be, either.

The problem with love for these Medjerdiya girls was that the young men they might fancy were almost certain to be unemployed and likely unemployable. There wasn't any land left to distribute. And only one son might inherit his father's lot, and still not own it. They had no education to speak of. And getting a passport to work abroad usually just wasn't in the cards. But many of them did get out. Basbor de la lune — passport of the night. Sneaking over the border to Libya. Well, that's not going to happen again any time soon.

Of course, the women of Medjerda are not devotees of Oshun at all. They put their trust in Allah, and they do their part resisting. I think they'd find Oshun a tad unrealistic.

Romantic love can only get a person into deep shit.

But the love of the household, the children — well that's a pretty safe place to be. And when Chango's off with his Oya, you can relax into knowing the place is all yours. And the kids are too. And you build an obligation in them, so that when they're grown and there's no place else to go — they'll take you in. But if you yourself try to leave before they're grown, you can't take them with you, and so when you and they are young there's no place you can go.

There's a law in Tunisia, still on the books I believe. About foreign women who marry a Tunisian man. Should they divorce, the children are his and his family's. She cannot take them out of the country, not even for a visit without his leave. Family law wholeheartedly supports patrilineal privilege.

The Imazighen of Morocco, have it just the other way around. When a man leaves, the children stay with their mother. Matrilineal, still, to the core, the Berbers are. But it's not at all the law.

Heartbreaking either way. Staying. Overstaying. Leaving. Falling in love. Dangerous stuff, these.

Oshun. She believes in love. Embodies it, as if it will keep her safe. She's needed there at home. Who else will do her job? You can't fire her, right? Disaster would ensue.

But the Changos of the world do fire her. Or they leave her there to figure it all out on her own. For the Changos of the world, the adventure is with Oya. The larger issues. The global affairs. High drama, intensity, and the cause of justice in the air.

Most likely I've misrepresented Oshun here.

And that's me — who can Oshun as fiercely as the next person. Tiger-mummy extraordinaire. I can do that. I do do that. But my Oshun still comes out looking a whole lot like Oya. Just like my chicken soup can't help ending up a minestrone, heavy on the lemon.

But I can't stand an Oshun who is beholden. Who sits at home and waits for Chango's return. Who doesn't stand a chance in the realm of grand adventure. Who has nowhere else to go.

And yet, look at all those altars! Oshun, that's what people want. Find me a mate, Oshun. Bring me children, Oshun. Give me your life, Oshun.

It's not like anyone's asking for Oya's favors, unless they are very, very desperate for a dramatic change.

Oshun wins inside the public imagination. She's got a hold, a grasp Chango's not willing to let go of. Somebody's got to do it. And she does it so bloody well.

Oya walks away, or rather, she turns and runs. You're not going to tame her the way you tame Oshun.

Strange thing about Oya is that she too has to live someplace. Strange thing is that Oya can do Oshun all by herself and do her really, really well indeed. I think there's not a soul on earth who thinks that but me. Okay, you say, but that's not love. Okay, I say, but maybe it is.

I mean, Oya's got to come from somewhere and she's got to go home again too sometimes. And Oshun might be afraid of adventure. But Oya finds it all divine.

Sometimes I think I'm more like Oya. Sometimes there's no question I do Oshun. Maybe it's Chango who's overrated. Time to think more about Ogun.

Friday, April 1, 2011

rites of reversal, or maybe not

I've always been fond of rites of reversal — even more so than the rituals they frequently accompany, or just the regular 'straight' holidays that can be so dull and staid.

Arnold van Gennep (and then Victor Turner, of course) spent a good chunk of their careers analyzing such rites. And they came up with both their structure and functions. In the realm of structure and function, I'll take function any day. Structure might have a sense of grand symmetry, but it lacks the 'so what' of it all. And I've always been about the so-what.

Is Halloween just for fun? Is April Fool's Day or New Year's Eve?

These three are rites of reversal without being associated with any rites of passage at all. Instead, they're dispersed seasonally — giving us (van Gennep would say) some time to blow off steam fairly evenly spaced at the times of the year that we most need them.

The safety valve function of rites of reversal are different in each of these three. Yes, blowing-off-steam. But not in the same way.

April Fool's Day often allows us to say something to someone that we couldn't say otherwise. Or do something hurtful and get away with it. The 'just kidding' part is obnoxious, but the thing needed to be said or done. Right? On this day, you can get away with it. Tomorrow, you can't. They were asking for it, weren't they? They deserve it. Or somebody does. But still. Try it. Tell somebody what you really think. A boss. Parents. Teachers. Folks in authority, or those who are showing off their good fortune. They deserve a good dollop of truth, don't they? Or, on the other hand — there's that person you're just longing to say what you've been holding back for so long. Your longing itself, for example. This is not that day. We have another day for that.

Halloween allows us to be what we otherwise cannot be. We San Franciscans just love this one. It's clearly our forte. Especially when it entails dress-up. And sure. Kids get to do this, and it's terribly healthy for them to check out alternate ways of being in the world. But we supposed SF grownups seem to love it all the more. Except some of us are boringly and unbravely the same thing on Halloween each year. Not really brave enough for daily manifestation, we plan our Halloween persona the whole damned year, and act it all out in one night.

Safety valve. And generally it works okay.

New Year's Eve, on the other hand, allows us to do what we otherwise cannot do. And take no responsibility for it thereafter. Society's come down a bit harder on this one of late. Frowning on those actions when they lead to violence, stupidity, and fatal car wrecks. The problem with New Year's Eve is that it's blowing off steam in which the benefits no longer outweigh the costs. Bummer, but true. And being 'responsible' on New Year's Eve is no safety valve for the year at all. If you've spent the whole year being responsible, being good on NYE is no rite of reversal at all.

Of the three, I've never been interested in April Fool's Day, and I've worried about the pathetic folk who really need it. This is a quite uncharitable point of view. I've always said what was on my mind. And find it terribly dishonest not to. Recently, I've discovered that there are folks who really do much better if they keep their mouths shut. But this once a year (as long as they're just-kidding) they can finally tell the truth. There's this holiday in North Africa, for example — but don't get me started... Let me just say, that this kind of rite of reversal is powerful enough to prevent rebellion and even revolution.

And I've been equally grumpy about New Year's Eve — thinking surely people've outgrown the need to do such self destructive 'behaviors.'

But then there's Halloween.

Maybe I just happen to live in the right city for it. Maybe I live in San Francisco for this reason alone. Maybe I'm over-thinking the whole thing, and it's all just a bit of fun, what's the big deal.

On Halloween, I get to be me.

It feels like it's every other day of the year that I'm playing a form of dress-up. Here's what you wear to work. Here's what you wear on the cliffs and trails. Here's how you should look when you visit your mother. (I know. Weird, huh?). And yes, I just equated putting on different kinds of clothing with being someone. Or being someone different. As if we really can costume our identities. It might not be true at all. Maybe what I really like about Halloween is just the darkness of the night. Switching night for day works well for me. That's why I teach entirely night classes, when I can get away with it. I feel we're somehow more not less awake when we're paying attention in the dark. When we make our choices in the dark.

This might of course be very, very wrong.

So. On this day, the first of April, I suppose the thing to do is to say something to someone. Say something that's unbearably true. Call it a joke. Blow it off. Get away with it. Ha ha. Just kidding. And let them really hear it just before they let it go. If I really think about it, I'm not as brave as I think I am. And I don't stand up for truth. I do keep my bloody mouth shut, what else is there to do? Maybe I need April Fool's Day as much as the next fool.

On second thought. Maybe I'll just start thinking now about what to wear on Halloween next October. It'll probably entail veils... that's something new. Right?