January 30, 2009 § 6 Comments
Once, Joseph Campbell spoke to Bill Moyers of Igjugarjuk. (This is drawn from The Power of Myth, the book version of the series of interviews that Parabola had a hand in bringing to the world many moons ago). The ultimate cause of all suffering is mortality and the uncanny, unstoppable way that everything and everyone and we ourselves keep changing and slipping away. James Joyce called this the “grave and constant” in human sufferings. Igjugarjuk, Campbell told Moyers, “was the shaman of a Caribou Eskimo tribe in northern Canada…who told European visitors that the only true wisdom ‘lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone open the mind to all that is hidden to others.”
When I was a child, I would often look out at the frozen St. Lawrence River or out across snow covered fields on bitter cold days and think about what it would be like to be in out alone in arctic, out in “the great loneliness.” There also seems to be a natural correspondence between our deepest experience of solitude, of being a small self relating to the big unknown, and the world around us. Merton associated his earliest yearning for God with the sound of bird song and church bells mingling together one Sunday morning in Queens, New York (where he moved with his family during WWI). For others, snow and cold have the intimacy of a cathedral.
January 29, 2009 § Leave a comment
“Under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world,” wrote Thomas Merton in his spiritual autobiography The Seven Story Mountain. “Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born….”
Merton writes that his parents were very much in the world yet not quite of it because they were artists and possessed of an integrity that lifted them up (although it did not deliver them). Merton wrote that his father was painter whose vision was “religious and clean,” allowing creation to reveal itself. Merton believed that he inherited his father’s way of looking at things and some of his integrity and from his American mother he believed he inherited “some of her dissatisfaction with the mess the world is in, and some of her versatility. ” From both he believed he got capacities for work and vision and enjoyment and expression…. “If happiness was merely a matter of natural gifts, I would never have entered a Trappist monastery when I came to the age of a man.”
His path to that Trappist monastery and to true happiness would not begin to be clear for many years (he first actually went to church in Douglaston, Queens). Yet he wrote lovingly of his father and mother and their many friends painting and drinking red wine and gazing out over a valley and at a monastery on the slopes of the mountains. Their were many ruined monasteries in those French mountains and he writes reverently of those “love and mighty rounded arches” and of the monks who might have “prayed me where I now am.” Amazingly, one of those cloisters, St. Michel-de-Cuxa, followed him across the Atlantic a score of years later, “and got itself set up within convenient reach of me when I most needed to see what a cloister looked like…..” The Cloisters, in uptown Manhattan, was not far from Columbia University, where Merton was a bright student and an aspiring novelist before he became a monk.
What traits you have inherited from your father and mother and from your grandparents and farther back? What sights or experiences in your earliest memories color your spiritual landscape? I was born under the sign of the Water Bearer in Watertown, New York. It is about thirty miles from Canada and the St. Lawrence River. I grew up watching ships on the river….
January 22, 2009 § 6 Comments
Did tears come to your eyes, taking in the spectacle of the Inauguration of President Obama. Were you moved, taking in the pomp and pagantry, the vast crowds stretching as far as the eye could see, the speeches and songs and prayers? I admit that I teared up at points, but I’ve been fascinated to hear a range of reactions from friends. Most were “very moved.” One wondered why she wasn’t so moved, why she feltjust cautiously optimistic. One friend expressed dismay that the crowd that cheered Obama also booed Bush and Laura Bush. This showed her that a crowd can also become a mob. That observation flowed into an insight I heard from the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, that what marks Obama’s inauguration as extraordinary is the emotional connection people are making with this President. That’s what I saw on the mall: an upwelling of emotion that had to be expressed.
At some point, I remembered learning that President Obama’s mother loved “The Power of Myth,” the video series starring Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, which Parabola helped bring to the world. When I read his address in The New York Times the day after, I couldn’t help but be struck by way he assumed the role of the hero. “Could it be (and it’s a question, not an assertion) that first and foremost the hero is one who is willing to set out, take the first step, shoulder something?” wrote P.L. Travers in the inaugural issue of Parabola, which was dedicated to the hero. Travers wondered if the quest wasn’t always the same if you examined them closely. “Perhaps the myths are telling us that these endeavors are not so much voyages of discovery as of rediscoery; that the hero is seeking not for something new but for something old, a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity. And by finding this, by achieving this, he takes part in the one task, the essential, mythical requirement: the reinstatement of the fallen world. It is the long and perilous journey back from the nadir to the zenith….”
Could it be that we the people have longed to be led on a journey and here at last is a hero? This is the way Obama articulated it on that cold, bright day: “In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted–for those who prefer leisure over work. or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things–some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor–who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”
He urged us to return to values that are old and true–to remember the words that the father of our nation, our first hero, had read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world that in the depths of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”
In one oral history I recently read about the failures of the Bush years, insiders complained that after 9/11, people yearned to be rallied to a common cause, to remember our cherished ideals and stories, to sacrifice and strive together towards a greater goal. Bush never did. Obama ended his speech with these ringing words: “America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words [about meeting danger]. With hope and virute, let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter, and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
Many commentators have talked about how carefully considered Obama’s speech was. If it didn’t soar like Kennedy’s or F.D.R.’s–if it lacked the majesty of Lincoln’s second inaugural–well, still, it hit all the right notes and covered all the bases. What I heard was President Obama taking his first step on a hero’s journey…and bracing us for the unknown. What do you think?
January 16, 2009 § 4 Comments
The frigid cold has been the big story…until Thursday afternoon, when a US Airways jetliner with 155 people aboard lost power in both engines (reportedly from sucking in geese, poor things), after taking off from LaGuardia Airport. The pilot made and emergency landing in the icy Hudson River. A few weeks ago, I took off from a New York area airport. As I listened to the flight attendant give the usual safety instructions about inflating life vests and whatnot, I looked down and marveled at how much dark, extremely cold-looking water surrounds New York. “No way,” I thought. Crash landing in it in the coldest part of the winter–it made me ache just to think about it. Not to mention the crash that would certainly come before.
I never could have imagined what really happened yesterday. The pilot landed gracefully in the center of the Hudson at West 48th Street. A witness in a penthouse described it as a perfect landing, as if it were cement. The plane floated instead of sinking immediately and instantly, three commuter ferries sped towards it. A ferry passenger said on an evening news program that trained rescue workers and ferry captains and passengers everyone began working as one, lifting and carrying, some women gathered in the back of the ferries helping warm the frozen passengers. Witnesses and officials called what happened miraculous, and of course they mean the skill of the pilot and the quick proximity of rescue vessels. But what also feels miraculous is watching goodness and wisdom and compassion arise spontaneously spontaneously. The pilot and the rescue workers had trained for this. Yet, and we’ve seen this before in New York, even those without rescue rush towards catastrophe to help.
Here’s a provocative idea: As above, so below. Sometimes the body knows just what to do without a thought. Sometimes many bodies know how to work together in harmony for a greater good, without many words needing to be exchanged. Sometimes in the midst of a great shock, our hearts open to humanity. Just as our bodies have the potential to respond to a need instinctively and with speed and grace, our hearts are also made to open, to assent to reality, to break out of the bubble of our own self-interest to love our fellow humans.
January 12, 2009 § 2 Comments
My black lab Shadow, my 18-year-old daughter Alex, and our 13-year-old family friend Jesse (who is with us because a pipe at her school burst) just came charging back into the house all elated and shiny-eyed because they had walked out on our frozen lake on this bright and very cold day in Northern Westchester. Having driven a car on the ice of the St. Lawrence River (and walked from island to island in the Thousand Islands), this didn’t exactly thrill me. Actually, it frightened me. I pictured our big, strong, cold-weather-loving dog breaking away and galloping out to the center of the lake, the girls slipping and sliding after her…and then the ice cracks behind them….before I can consider such a thing, I assure myself that the young ones stayed very close to shore, just off a boat landing that is a kind of staging area for a hockey rink that is carefully monitored by adults….I assure myself that they are nothing like I was, that they will never for example try to chop a hole in the ice with a double-headed Hudson Bay axe without applying a little foresight…but I digress.
The larger point is, well, what has happened to me? I’m so much more aware of the cold than I was when I was young, so much more aware of possible dangers, of mortality. Just as I find myself wondering if I physically have it in me to dive into a frozen lake to rescue a girl or a dog (or a summer lake), I sometimes wonder if I have the energy that cultivating real awareness, real presence undoubtedly takes. Living as a “worldling” and not as a monastic, a veritable Gulliver pinned down with attachments, bones aching from the cold, hampered with bad habits, what hope is there for me? This is when it’s just like the liberation itself to remember that all we really have to do is stop running. It seems insane, but all we really have to do is feel the body as it is, to feel the fear and loss. As Zen teacher Ezra Bayda wrote in a recent essay: “As the familiar thoughts that normally fuel our fear begin to fall away, we can experience the healing power of the heart. This is a nonconceptual experience–it does not come from words or explanations, but rather from the spaciousness of a wider container of awareness. As the fear of liging as a separate being dissolves, we natually tap intothe connectedness and loving-kindness that are always availabe to us, and that are the real fruit of the practice life.”
In other words, we’re all on thin ice. Everyone fears falling through the cracks and being groundless (and cold). Nonetheless (as the Zen teacher says) “it’s only when we’re able to reside in the plysical experience of no ground–no longer clinging to our fantasies of how life is supposed to be–that our attachments begin to diminish.”
To see through our attachments and fears, we must stop trying to save ourselves and experience them fully. There is love and peace on the other side.
January 6, 2009 § Leave a comment
Happy New Year! The sun is slowing making its way back to the frozen Northeast (although I find that February is the cruelest month.) Soon, there will be a new leader in the land and here in the States there is a general sense of anticipation that we are all about to go on a new journey and tackle great challenges. Even the most hardened cynics seem to be taking heart from this sense that a new chapter–that a whole new story– is about to begin. Our hopes haven’t yet disappeared in the daily grind. On some level, I think most of us know we are going to lose sight of the forest for the all the trees we will have to dodge to find our collective out the economic and social mess . For now, there is this exquisite sense of something new–a new story–is about to begin.
This kind of double awareness of the facts and a greater truth calls to mind a couple of bits by G.K. Chesterton that were quoted in a wonderful profile by Adam Gopnik a half a year or so ago: “The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.” And: “A key has no logic to its shape. Its logic is: it turns the lock.”
And this, from boyhood: “It seems to me that when I came out of the house and stood on the hill of houses, where the roads sank steeply towards Holland Park… I was subconsciously certain then, as I am consciously certain now, that there was the white and solid road and the worthy beginning of the life of man; and that it is man who afterwards darkens it with dreams or goes astray from it in self-deception. It is only the grown man who lives a life of make-believe and pretending; and it is he who has his head in a cloud.”
Chesterton’s point (thank you Gopnik) is that the “facts” or reality and the truths of myth or story can coexist…that we can and should inhabit larger stories or myths, even as we strive to be present…otherwise, we’re left to our own devices and delusions.