La Dolce Vita
Saturday a.m. I woke up still feeling what I will describe only as “the effects” of a party I went to the previous night, using such vague language a) so that you may use your imagination if you so desire and b) so as not to incriminate myself. An additional caveat: the party invitation made mention of “naked dancing girls,” of which I saw none, and suggested that one arrive wearing “ghetto boots,” a term which remains a mystery as everyone seemed to be wearing regular, every day, shoes unless I missed something. Lastly, I felt like my mojo, which has been on strike for a few months now, was acting like its carburetor’s been cleaned out (we’re talkin’ vintage 1967) and a new starter installed. I tried it out on three women and it was definitely a little rough, but later in the evening, when a fresh batch of women arrived, they got to experience a little bit of the well-tuned mojo on overdrive—and they loved it. Phone numbers were pressed into my hand as by turns they commented on how “cute,” “funny,” “fun,” “adorable,” “witty” my mojo is. I brag out of necessity. The return of the mojo was something I was beginning to doubt. Welcome back, friend.
I had a good night. Then, as stated, I woke up groggy, witless, with the certainty that I’d erred in partaking of certain party favors. But I wasn’t about to lose a whole Saturday to recuperation. Nope, I forced myself to run and run we did, getting lost somewhere between Land’s End and the Baker Beach stairs. Uh, yah. I’m not complaining. It’s just that I wasn’t really prepared for an eight mile run. Sure the fog in my brain cleared because it had to focus on the new stressors which I had chosen to introduce into the parameters of this American life, but when it was over with I had a new problem: how to make my seriously abused physical self feel wanted and loved. The solution: three-hours at Osento, mostly in the wet sauna … with brief interludes in the hot tub; a nude nap on the deck (warmed by the sun, cooled by the breeze); a frolic in the cold pool; a nap in the dry sauna….
And then I got a phone call from my Greek friend who was irate with me for not answering her calls earlier in the day. I explained that I’d been at the bathhouse. “For three hours?” she asked. “All the time you complain, complain, and you live la dolce vita!” I agreed to meet her, though by this time I was thoroughly exhausted. I tried defending myself when she found me at the bookstore with a copy of with an Edgar Cayce guide entitled Growing through Personal Crisis in my hands. I explained how I’d woken up stoned unimmaculate (your imagination has failed you so I’m helping you out now) and how I’d gone to the party without having dinner and I hadn’t had breakfast and I’d run for two hours nonstop because because because and she just repeated herself, “la dolce vita and all the time complaining.” The sweet life? Me? He he he.
Which brings me back to the circle thing from the previous post. See, what I’ve learned since then is that there IS a way out:
“When blocked, tap into the great block-busters: humor, friends, and nature. The specific preparations begin when I enter the temenos, the play space. In ancient Greek thought, the temenos is a magic circle, a delimited sacred space within which special rules apply and in which extraordinary events are free to occur. My studio, or whatever space I work in, is a laboratory in which I experiment with my own consciousness. To prepare the temenos—to clear it, rearrange it, take extraneous objects out—is to clean and clear mind and body…. When the demons of confusion and the sense of being overwhelmed strike, they can sometimes be cleared out by clearing the space.”
—Stephen Nachmanovitch / Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art
Of course. Evidence #3 (see previous post for preceding evidences)
Last week at Osento, I found myself in the wet sauna with a 400 lb. mustached woman and a Latina elder. The latter revealed her age to be 81, as I helped pull her literally into the steaming barrel edifice. She told us that she’s been going there for 25 years and that now her son brings her twice a week. She hadn’t gone the week before, we were informed, because she’d been worried sick about her sister, who had been missing in New Orleans after the hurricane. The sister had finally resurfaced and is being taken care of. Meanwhile, one can only hope the big earthquake doesn’t strike us soon, she said. But who knows with God so angry about these gays.
I had been drifting in and out of conscious listening so I wasn’t sure whether I’d heard what I thought I heard, but one look at the other woman’s distorted face and I knew my full attention was now needed. Justine, as she later introduced herself, was clearly agitated but handled the situation with much aplomb. Calmly she said, “Ma’am, I am very offended by your views. You’ve stated them once, and we’ve heard them but now I would ask you to change the subject.” The older woman became offended in turn, stating that she hadn’t said anything wrong and was just telling the truth. Her sister had rented her apartment to “those gays” and look what happened. But not her; she had had her children the natural way and raised them too. Her son brought her to Osento twice a week. But God is angry about the gays and especially about gay marriage. It’s in the bible. If that happens, we’ll all die. I interjected that we all die, and we all die for lots of different reasons, adding, “you’ve had a long life, and when you die I doubt it will be because of gay people.” “I hope not,” she muttered. “Why? Do you plan on marrying a woman?” I asked, winking at Justine. Indignant, the woman spewed a vehement "no" and asked why I would even say such a thing. I said, “Well you seem to equate gay marriage with death so I thought maybe you were planning on marrying a woman if you’re not so sure that gays won’t be the death of you.” Nobody said a word for a few moments and the only sounds of which I was aware were at that time were of the heater crackling and the sweat dripping down the side of my face. She squinted at me and asked, “Are you … gay?” “Yes, actually I am,” I answered. “Well that’s your business!” she squawked, visibly upset. “I know it’s my business,” I responded quietly, “but you asked so I told you.” She got up and left, as rickety as when she’d entered.
Justine introduced herself and thanked me for piping in. I shrugged and said, “She’s 81. What are you gonna do?” Not long afterward, I noticed that our unexpected enemy had left her comb in the room. Grabbing it, I went to find her. She was sitting nearby and looked at me suspiciously as I approached. “Is this yours?” I inquired. She hesitated for a moment then accepted it from me with a reluctant thanks. I went back to the sauna. About 20 minutes later, she returned. This time, Justine was elsewhere but another woman was in the sauna. With a fresh audience, the older woman started talking about the hurricane again, except this time she pointed the finger at the government. She was shaking with anger as she railed against the president, wondering how they could “leave all the black people and poor people and old people out there to rot. What terrible prejudice there is in the world!” she exclaimed. I couldn’t believe my ears, and I sat there mulling it over, wondering how she could feel that way but just moments earlier have exhibited such horrible prejudices against about gays. But I didn’t bring it up. I let her have her say, and I really listened to her. The two of us sat side by side, completely naked and vulnerable, and I just listened. The heat got to both of us at the same time. I assisted her out and then stood for a moment trying to decide whether a dip the cold pool was warranted. Lost in my thoughts, I’d actually forgotten all about her, but she was still there; she turned to me and told me her name: Amika. She clutched at my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry if I said anything bad before.” Then she crept away.
I was completely shocked by the whole thing. I mean first of all, I know that there are those who think that God is punishing the world because of gays, but I didn’t really, truly, know that people think that you know? Second, those sorts of views are not typical of what one encounters on a daily basis in San Francisco. Third, to have recognized! I knew, in that moment, that she had had a change of heart, in part, because I’d returned her comb and because I had helped her before either of us knew anything about the other. It was probably easy to assume that Justine is a “deviant,” if that's the way one's mind works, but clothing off, she couldn’t tell anything about me other than that I’m black and in this case, it wasn’t a liability. The entire episode filled me with a sort of wonder I haven’t experienced in a long time.
I also thought about my own prejudices. I have to admit that under regular circumstances, I probably would not willingly identify with an excessively obese woman sporting facial hair. I don’t like admitting it, but it’s the truth. But my own prejudice was easy enough overcome in that moment and in that small space, out of which came a new friend. Maybe two.
The magic circle, then, is all about transformation. It’s a locale which one enters, usually unwittingly. Often it feels quite comfortable until you realize that it’s like being in a tiny, invisible bubble that others can’t see or recognize. To them you’re acting strange for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, you’re trying to explain that you’re not acting strange given that you’re enclosed and cut off from the normal, every day channels of communication. Things happen in the circle that can’t really be expressed properly to others, though they are things you will want to shout about because they seem—are—so meaningful. It’s like trying to describe a dream and knowing that most all of it is lost in the translation. Thus being inside the circle can be terrifying especially if you try to fight it because to everyone outside the circle you seem engaged in pointless shadow boxing. They don’t understand you’re fighting for your life. However, eventually you will tire, like a baby crying herself to the point of sleep. It is exactly when you’re bereft of fight that you will begin to accept that you have been encircled, and, by default, begin finding your place within it, by finding your Self, extraneous to shared reality. Though you are surrounded by and seem to be in the midst of the life that everyone else is living, you’re not.
The secret of the circle is that everything that you think is real—that stuff beyond the circle—is the illusion. Your perceptions of what you need, who you are shift radically. And don’t bother telling anyone that you’re in the real, and they are not because they will just think you’re crazy or selfish with all your "help me, I’m drowning, not waving" antics. They won’t believe you, but you best believe yourself because you have been tasked with finding your peace within the circle of enlightenment regardless of what others say or do. Pascal wrote: “It is your own assent to yourself and the constant voice of your own reason and not of others that should make you believe.” Only then will you find your true self back on the other side of it again, which is when you'll long for what you'll realize was a private world of tranquility and timelessness, a refuge from the true madnesses of life outside the magic circle.
This is an age old cycle. Among Japanese Zen Buddhists, there is a single brush stroke symbol drawn by meditating monks called the enso. “Most say that the enso is the all, the void and enlightenment itself. Some say the enso has no fixed, finite or static meaning. Some have said that the enso represents a continuing action through time. When the painting [a circle] is seen it communicates at various levels of understanding depending on the viewer.” Additionally, “as a symbol of the absolute, the true nature of existence and enlightenment … it is a symbol that combines the visible and the hidden, the simple and the profound, the empty and the full.” That said, ensos often have a slight opening.
I can feed you all the evidence I have accumulated, and you will not believe me nor will I succeed in extricating myself in such a manner. Conscious evolution is a very personal thing, embracing the tension between indestructible spirit and the death of ego. It is about transformation, constant, never-ending, sometimes taking place at a snail’s pace and other times occurring in nanoseconds that encompass the rise and fall of entire inner worlds. But coping with the chaos or otherwise unfavorable conditions ignites our creativity and in creating, we forgo a crippling sense of powerlessness that has previously prevented us from bypassing self-imposed obstacles. I have been in a magic circle. I don’t care if you believe me.