A Donald Trump of the Mind

A blogger [The Buddhist Christian] described his temporary inability to write by saying he had laryngitis of the hands. Here it is, the day before the Ashfield News article is due. My fingers rest uselessly on the keys. I’ve tried: over the past few weeks I’ve started writing about mercy – “Mercy me!” “Merciful heaven!” “Heavens to mercy!” etc. The article floated to a merciful end. The next subject I tried was about how Trump videos have replaced cute cat videos on Facebook – why IS that? That one bumped to a unsatisfactory close.

Writing this article monthly is a spiritual practice. But what happens when a person’s spiritual practice gets laryngitis?

Someone said that we try to live our lives with our hearts and try to keep our minds from screwing things up. I disagree. Only our minds can illuminate our hearts. Yes, okay, being cut off from our emotions, is bad and very 1950’s. But if we can’t learn from our hearts, our emotions (hearts), what’s the point? My own emotions hit a logjam this month. I haven’t been able to make sense of all my own heart has gone through over the past few years, and now feel a little dumbfounded and dull. I can tell because my sense of humor is a bit dim.

Our minds are great lassos. They lasso emotions to give them shape, to see them clearly, to pull them in, to illuminate them. Unilluminated emotions can be poisonous, or at least irritating. Unilluminated emotions can lead to….well, Trump for example. I am suffering from a Donald Trump of the mind.  A little 1950’s distance is needed to clear up the logjam. Not only in my own psyche, but I daresay, the country’s.

The path to our well house gets clogged with water streaming from further up the mountain. Not a big lake, just enough to make your socks wet and cold. How satisfying it is to take a stick and scoop aside enough leaves to free the stagnant water! Watching it suddenly burst out and rush down the hill is just about orgasmic. My March spiritual practice is to take a stick, gently stir things up, to not stand still in dumbfoundedness.

And to vote for……………

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Loss, by Popular Demand

I stepped from plank to plank

So slow and cautiously;

The stars about my head I felt,

About my feet the sea.

I knew not but the next

Would be my final inch,–

This gave me that precarious gait

Some call experience.

—Emily Dickinson

I used this poem in a previous column when I wrote about healing from injuries due to an accident. Reading Dickinson forced me to redefine what healing means, what a wound is. Laurel Turk’s play BREASTLESS made me take a closer look at what a wound is.

In Celtic tradition a “thin place” is a place where the veil separating earth from heaven lifts.  “A thin place requires us to step from one world to another and that often means traveling to a place where we have less control and where the unpredictable becomes the means of discovery.” (Maddox)

Turk takes us on her journey to such a thin place, through pain and discovery and the places we are afraid to go to, where we would never go willingly.

Wounds are thin places. They cause great pain and grief, not just for the wound-carrier, but for those around her. Healing starts when the wound begins to lift the veil between ourselves and the world, ourselves and our hidden selves, and “a terrible beauty is born.” (Yeats)

Laurel Turk wrote the play BREASTLESS about her experiences with cancer, with a double mastectomy. As the shows continue, the audiences get larger. The play moves so many people, not just because her words and movement are about cancer. The play is about about fear, trauma, wounding, and all the care and revelations those things awaken. Turk forces us to see that the unimaginably painful is not simply bearable, but tender, humorous, open. Turk, and the audience, begins to imagine a world shifted into one more alive, more livable.

“…recognizing that loss is a part of life…” says one character when describing a dream of a future world. We prefer to ignore loss, pretending we’re “just fine with it,” getting over it. When a play like this looks closely at loss and grief with an unblinking eye, and a rare sense of humor, it is a gift.

This is why after over a hundred years we still spend time deciphering Dickinson’s cryptic verses. And why, by popular demand, BREASTLESS will go on tour.

I Hope They Think I Was Racist

My father, unusually intelligent in most things, thought that suburban living was the pinnacle of civilization, the culmination of centuries of evolution. Though I argued with him, I understood his point of view. My parents and their parents struggled to be able to live in a safe, secure, beautiful place. Leaving behind close family and neighbors, all the things they loved about living in Manhattan, was worth it. In a world with limited knowledge of other cultures, they could not compare Huntington, Connecticut to very many places.

We tend to think that we are the pinnacle of evolution, even more so when it comes to our opinions and attitudes. I hope that when my niece Kate’s grandchildren hear about Aunt Alice, who lived back in 2011, they are SHOCKED by my attitudes.

She lived in a HOUSE when people were sleeping on the street?!”

“She POINTED at Latino people in her classes? How could she insult people that way?”

“She handed a gift to a Thai person with ONE HAND? How racist is that?”

“She lived in a town WITHOUT ONE African-American? Who did she think she was?”

And I feel wonderful relief knowing that they will be upset by things I cannot even imagine now. After they voice their outrage about the attitudes of so-called “good” people in 2011, I hope that Kate takes them to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Connecticut. She’s the one who wrote that racist book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly in 1852.  A woman organized a church trip to Stowe’s house in Connecticut as a way of thinking about Black History Month. Stowe has taken an unfair hit on racism. The fictional Uncle Tom is a different, more complex man than the political image of an “Uncle Tom.” However, there is no denying that reading the 1852 book in 2011 is a different experience.

Stowe revolutionized white people’s view of slavery and African-Americans forever. Certainly not every white person is convinced, but enough to bring U.S. slavery to an end much sooner.

In 1972, my grandmother was shocked that our white neighbor married a man who was black. She was older and living with us in Huntington. She’d gone as far as fourth grade in Ireland before emigrating and started work as a nanny around 1912. Now that she was older and ill, she got to read and rest. She spent hours by the front window, reading, thinking, telling stories, mostly thinking. The only house in sight was across the street where the shocking couple came and went to work, went shopping, and worked in the yard. I was reading in the living room one day when she said, “I guess it’s all right, as long as he treats her right.” It took me a moment to realize who she was talking about. I consider that moment an important milestone in the evolution of race relations. If she could change her view of the world sitting at a window, watching, thinking, wondering, I’m sure I can also. Maybe I can knock off some of the unconscious attitudes I have from that future list of my niece’s grandchildren.

Pretending as a Spiritual Practice

During the U.S. War in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hahn asked people in the peace movement to write a love letter to President Nixon. Gasps from the audience. Were we supposed to pretend that any of us had the slightest respect, never mind love, for Nixon? Apparently we were. I wrote the letter. My reluctance and resistance and half-heartedness clearly showed me how far I, a “peace-nick,” was from peace.

Pretending is a little more involved than imagining. It requires involvement, some level of commitment to acting as if….and watching the results.

For a while, it was fashionable among some Westerners to believe in reincarnation. I read and thought about it, but could not come to a conclusion. Finally I just sat for a while and pretended that I believed in reincarnation. Wow! I felt so much lighter. I did not have to get everything done in one lifetime! I had been unaware of a deep-seeded anxiety about all I needed to get done before I died. I wasn’t aware of it until it suddenly vanished. I still don’t believe in reincarnation, but my psyche is much more relaxed.

A neighbor was a devotee of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and she invited me to go to the ashram for a day. Previously, when my brother-in-law was dying of AIDS, he urged me to visit the same ashram. He told me that when he was in despair, Gurumayi had appeared at the foot of his bed and comforted him. When he had visited the ashram years before, he had been put off by it, but apparently she came anyway. I decided to go. I had such a good time that I went back.

It is a lavish, beautiful space with gardens, many statues of gods and goddesses, and gourmet vegetarian food. Chanting with a few hundred people in the great hall was mesmerizing and beautiful. The Guru’s talks could be summarized as: love God, love each other. Although there are many Hindu gods and goddesses, Brahman is the ultimate Presence very close to the One God of Jews and Christians. All of God’s attributes cannot be contained in one image or name, hence all the images.

One cold evening I was relieved to see that someone had put a scarf around the neck of a statue of Durga. Not even Catholics put warm clothes on saints’ statues. Why was I happy someone had put a scarf on a statue? A Jewish friend of mine dryly commented, “It sounds like idolatry to me.”

Many faces of God molded into stone surrounded me in the halls and gardens. How concrete the sacred becomes when it is embodied in…well, concrete.

My visits were the opposite of silent, austere Zen retreats, but being there and throwing myself into the practices stretched my perceptions of the sacred.

Some things you can’t just think about; you’ve got to jump in and swim strange waters. Look before you leap is always good advice, as is keeping your head. However, pondering from the shore does not always work in matters of God.