June 24, 2010 § 15 Comments
Yesterday, I stopped by the Parabola offices to collect a huge bunch of mail (we’ve shrunk our office space down to a minimum to save money, so I work at home). I decided to walk down to West 20th Street from Grand Central Station. It was scorching hot. As I made my way downtown, the bright sun went from feeling summery and to merciless. Also, as I walked I reflected on how impermanent New York is, how quickly things change. Take Limelight, on the corner of 20th Street and 6th Avenue, almost across the street the Parabola offices stand. I remember when it was beautiful old church that was converted into a notorious nightclub. I especially remember going to a party there that was thrown by Bob Guccione in honor of Omni magazine. Wafting through the cavernous, blasphemous dark rooms that were full of music and bars and hip young thing wearing a tuxedo and very smug smile, he looked like a modern Caligula. Both the magazine and the man are gone now, and that impression I had of being in the midst of this big city decadence seems really, really dated. And Limelight is now a chic and expensive boutique shopping place–selling everything from cheese to gelato to British wellies!
Everything changes here, or almost everything. Full of this sense of impermanence, I made a pilgrimage to the Danese gallery on West 24th Street, to see an exhibition of paintings called “Other as Animal,” which was curated by the painter April Gornik. Mourning the loss of my wonderful dog Shadow, I was especially moved by the extraordinary paintings and sculptures of animals, each of which capture the pathos and wisdom of animals in a different way–and the brevity of their lives. In the midst of it, however, one image totally blew me away. Standing on a pedestal of limestone, was a “Goshawk” made by the artist Jane Rosen of handblown, pigmented glass. Somehow Rosen captured wildness, fleetingness, and eternity all at the same time. This work of art helped me see that there is something beyond impermanence, something hawk eyes may see.
June 18, 2010 § 9 Comments
Yesterday evening, I had the amazing opportunity of being a meditation leader in a sangha that meets at a yoga studio in Bedford Hills. The windows were open, a soft breeze and bird song wafted in. “It’s an almost perfect evening to be sitting here together,” I said. “Why almost perfect? Why not perfect?” asked a man. After we sat together and did a little walking meditation, I told the room I said “almost” not just because I like to avoid absolutes but because in my experience there is a yearning in most humans for what is yet to come–and also for what is past.
I’ve been very struck lately about the way desire is rooted in impressions from the past. I know I’ve been quoting a lot from Gatsby. Maybe it’s the pretty weather. This is the last time. I swear. But Gatsby’s yearning–not for Daisy herself–but for an impression of her, and of himself with her, that he carried from the past is a devastating portrayal of what the Buddha has described as the suffering inherent in the way our mind’s work. Every perception and thought we have is colored bythe perceptions, feelings, and thoughts of the past. We crave things. We yearn for a different way of being that is often actually a memory created in the past. We are all like Gatsby who “wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy.”
Like so many other humans, Gatsby imbued the object of his desire with the illusion of wholeness and safety, the grace and ease, that he and most humans crave. When he was young and poor and insecure, he glimped on the porch of her beautiful house and was “overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”
Gatsby dedicated his life to becoming someone who could walk up on the porch and be equal to that dream of wholeness, “he did not know it was already behind him.” No Buddha, Fitzgerald nonetheless had the clarity to enough to know how we tend to be, we chase a future that eludes us, “but that’s no matter–to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning–
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
There is a way of being that has nothing to do with chasing a dream of being, forever reaching back into the past. One man last night said it had to do with realizing that every moment is perfect just as it is. I feel it has to do with realizing that we are perfect in our imperfection, in our yearning.
In the end the think perfection/imperfect must be left behind. No separation. Just being. All right.
June 11, 2010 § 3 Comments
Earlier this week, I wrote about how literature can be religion, about how great writing like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s can have a transparent quality that can show us clear to the depths of human experience. In response to my last post about The Great Gatsby, some people commented very understandably that this great American novel celebrates the old ruinous American dream of accumulating riches and striving to get the girl at any cost. I agree! But it also reveals the source and nature of suffering–the way clinging to desire separates us from reality–in a beautiful crystalline way. Here is Gatsby after he finally reconnects with Daisy, the object of his heart’s desire. After tea, Gatsby is showing Daisy and his neighbor Nick through the mansion and the grounds he bought to be near her, to one day impress her:
“After the house, we were to see the grounds and the swimming pool, and the hydroplane and the mid-summer flowers–but outside Gatsby’s window it began to rain again, so we stood in a row looking at the corrugated surface of the Sound.
‘If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay, said Gatsby. ‘You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
June 9, 2010 § 2 Comments
Recently, I heard someone say that great literature was their religion. I know what they mean. There can be poetry and prose that capture states of being so transparently and unforgettably that any added theology or philosophy could only detract. Take The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Often, when I contemplate what the Buddhists call “dhukkha,” the Pali word for the suffering or, better, that unsatisfactory, incomplete, pining quality that is built in to existence, I think of that great self-made, driven American character Jay Gatsby, looking across Long Island Sound, at the green light on dock of his beautiful love, Daisy Buchanan. No matter what Gatsby has achieved or will ever achieve–and he has amassed great riches by hook or by crook–Daisy will always be unattainable. Poor Gatsby can’t ever see through the gorgeous veil of illusion. The Great Gatsby has been called The Great American Novel. I think of it as the Great American Sutta (in Pali, sutra in Sanskrit) on the suffering that comes from craving.
Here is the narrator Nick returning home from dinner at the Buchanan’s grand L.I. house on summer night, observing Gatsby and his great unquenchable longing for the first time:
“The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone–fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion [Gatsby’s house] and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.
I decided to call to him. Miss Baker had mentioned him at dinner, and that would do for an introduction. But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone–he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, as far as I was from him, I could have sword he was trembling. Involuntarily, I glanced seaward–and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far way, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone in the unquiet darkness.”
Ahhhhhh, bittersweet summer.
June 3, 2010 § 15 Comments
Editing a non profit journal like Parabola can be hard. I’m not talking about the eye strain and stiff back muscles that come with sitting in front of a computer for long stretches of time, or even the feelings of isolation and self-doubt that inevitably comes with being a writer and editor. I’m talking about the spiritual pain, the crushing sense of doom that comes from trying to row a leaky little boat through stormy and unpredictable seas.
Yesterday, however, after meeting with some of the great new people who are going to be helping row this little boat, I remembered a very important experience I had decades ago, when I worked for ABC in one of the towers of Rockefeller Center. I had left work and was walking through those cavernous, sky-scraper shadowed streets, realizing for the first time in my young life that I was a tiny cog in a vast and impersonal machine. On that machine would whir on endlessly, driven by money, blind to any of the tiny little ant people who happened to get caught under the wheels. My then-boyfriend and I were looking for a refuge, a cozy place to have dinner, not a cold, hard, expense-account place, and miraculously we found one. The “Alpine” (I think it was called that) looked wonderfully out of place in the midst of all that glass and steel. A bar in front and tables in the back and Alpine scenes painted on the walls, it looked like it belonged upstate. But this was the epiphany: There, playing pinball at one of those wonderful old-fashioned bumper, flipper, ping-ping-sounding machines in the back , absorbed in her task, sublimely indifferent to the crushing atmosphere all around us all, was Joni Mitchell. The great singer and songwriter was all by herself. She was smoking a cigarette. A Molson’s Golden rested on a table nearby. She concentrated on her game, noble , serene, and self-contained. Watching her, I very briefly realized a truth that the Buddha, Shakespeare and so many other wise beings have shared, that with our thoughts we make our world. From her bearing and the look of serenity, it seemed pretty clear that she wasn’t thinking about being oppressed. There was more to the lesson, something about the beauty of bringing our attention to the task.
Yesterday, listening to some of the smart and talented people who have recently come on board to help Parabola talk about the small steps that can be taken to make Parabola look and work better, I thought of Joni playing pinball. Who knows what creative labor she was resting from or contemplating? What she and the new Parabola staff showed me is that there is a relating to what is right in front of us that can be transforming, that can free us from being a cog, that can make us new.