Monday, October 31, 2005

Fall Back

soft grass
drowning in pale light
remnants of a fierce glowing
beyond the kissable gloom

I miss the color change of a Midwestern autumn, though you can still tell it’s fall by the light, which takes on a nostalgic quality, puts on wistful hues. The clouds herringbone, like cotton candy dirgibles flocking for the winter journey south. Then comes the rain. I don’t miss being in the snow, though I miss the muffled sound and downy softness of a fresh snowfall. While I don’t care for the rain, I take it gladly over snow. If the rain were accompanied by a large thunderclap and a dance of jagged white light rising from the earth to the clouds, I might appreciate it or at least respect it. But the rain here, once it starts, never stops. It is cold and clammy, making one's clothes codependent as they cling for dear life. I tread water as it flows into my boots. But all that is yet to come. Now’s the time for lazy infielding, taking in whatever last days of regal rays existing. Fall finds me fondling trees and grass in the park and looking skyward always….

Monday, October 24, 2005

Ms. Rosa Parks (1913 - 2005)

Miller: A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that layers on top of everything. Give you an example, I'll show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue no explanation. No point for looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.
Otto: You eat a lot of acid, Miller, back in the hippie days?
—from Repo Man

"I did not get on the bus to get arrested. I got on the bus to go home."
Rosa Parks

"What a long strange trip it's been."
The Grateful Dead

"If you don't stand up, I'm going to have you arrested," Blake warned me. "You can do that," I told him. Blake then parked the bus in front of the Empire Theater and telephoned his supervisor. "Did you warn her, Jim?" his boss asked. "I warned her," Blake said. "Well then, Jim, you do it; you got to exercise your powers and put her off, yuh hear?" Blake called the police, who arrived in a few minutes.
—from The Narrative of Rosa Park

The most mind-boggling thing to me about the Rosa Parks incident, if I may call it that, is contemplating who was that bus driver and who was waiting for her seat? It’s not that they are more relevant, but I’ve always felt like if it was such a strange fate to be the catalyst for a social movement, what must it felt like to be the other side of that? Did the bus driver [who died a few years ago] and/or the passenger to whom Parks was supposed to defer—did they proudly tell their children or grandchildren, “I was the one?” Did they later come to believe they had been in the wrong? Did they ever apologize to Parks, or did they feel wronged by her and by history? What must it have been like for any fo those who where there, in that time, in that place?

It's true that Rosa Parks wasn’t the first to be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus, and some have claimed that Park's refusal was premeditated and dictated by civil rights strategists. But even if her feet weren't tired that day, she was tired—and she was the one. Most of us will never know what that kind of fate feels like. She changed the world. May she rest in well earned peace.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Small World, Big Music, Old Friends

Nappy’s in town, ostensibly to help me out while recuperating from the now-postponed surgery that was schedule to take place on Thursday. When one door closes, another opens… I get to spend a week out in the world with an old friend instead of trapped in my dark studio recovering. One unexpected pleasure was scoring last minute tickets to see World Saxophone Quartet (WSQ) play Hendrix at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco’s “oldest and grandest nightclub.”

I think I may have known about the show, but the date slipped my mind since I should have been in the hospital that night. By the time we had all our ducks in a row, even the tickets that were still available on the web despite “sold out” status for the 7:30pm show were gone. I didn’t relish the idea of a 10pm show, but I would have gone for it if all else failed.

Fortunately, the night was nothing but success-laden. Nappy came down to the Embarcadero and we caught the 38 to the ‘loin, hopping out right in front of the infamous Mitchell Brothers, where Behind the Green Door was made. We had a good laugh about my ridiculous evening there with Shan’s hubby, when he came to town last year—but that’s another story. Nappy and I headed to the box office to be told that we should try back later. This was an hour short of show time on what was a blustery sort of day, too cold to wait long in any sort of line. We decided to pop into the martini bar Olive for a spell.

While there, we reminisced about our first visit to San Francisco, back in the day. We stayed at the youth hostel in the Tenderloin, one of the city’s more notorious neighborhoods. The thing is, we didn’t realize it was supposed to be a bad neighborhood and coming from Detroit, it was a bit of a walk in the park. We thought the front staff were joking when they warned us to be careful going out our first night there. “This is a bad neighborhood? This?” We instantly fell in love with the city. Later we were serenaded at 4a.m. by a drunkard in the alley outside our window, two or three stories down. It seemed to be an Irish drinking song with a repetitive chorus punctuated by angry neighbors yelling “shut up” every time the song began again. It was about the fifth or sixth time that we realized that the Irish drinking song was actually Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly, slurred in a thick ale-laden brogue.

A few years later, when I had been ensconced in the city for a while, my friend Vani was dating the Ron, who lived at Leavenworth & O’Farrell while I was dating someone who lived at Hyde & O’Farrell, the upshot of which is that the much maligned Tenderloin holds a dear place in my heart, and I was happy, on the night of the concert, to be hanging there with an old friend. A chocolate martini (Nappy had a mojito) and appetizer plate later we went back to the box office where the security woman winked and gave us a thumbs up, pointing to a spot on the sidewalk where we should wait. We stood next to a young guy who struck up an odd but charming conversation that began with his embarrassment over having inadvertently matched his shoes and shirt and ended with his removing one of the said shoes to show me a scar on his foot. I found out he works at Golden Gate Park and I was immediately jealous until he said, “yah, everyone is but the pay is pretty low, and I don’t have health insurance.”

Our new friend, Thomas, had been first in line but his friends had pulled up, and he was throwing his backpack into the trunk when the ticket agent approached us. Then came a little bit of Abbott & Costello "Who’s on First," when the woman came and asked who needed tickets.

Me: Us (pointing to me and Nappy)
Nappy: Us two (speaking simultaneously)
Me: … and that guy
Thomas: (from the street) I need one
Ticket woman: You need two (to me)
Me: Three (including Thomas)
Thomas: Me too
Nappy: Us three (said while looking at the person in line behind her)
Me: We (pointing to Nappy). I mean one each
Thomas: Two (including me)
Ticket Agent: Two or too?

After a few moments we got it all straightened out. Thomas disappeared ahead of us, and Nappy and I patrolled the layout determining that we might have gotten tickets but general admission meant that we appeared to be shit out of luck. We couldn’t find any seats that offered a view of the stage—until we saw Thomas waving us over. He’d managed to save two seats for us as well as seats for his friends. That’s why I love SF. The guy was definitely off-kilter, but he was good off-kilter, the perfect prelude to the free funk extravaganza about to unfold.

During his brief career, Hendrix relied increasingly on open-ended improv, a form that lends itself well to the blowout excursions characteristic of avant-garde jazz. Upon the release of WSQ’s Experience, All about Jazz interviewed David Murray (tenor sax) , who voiced his opinion that, “If there weren't so many people pulling on [Hendrix], I'm sure he would have certainly been some kind of jazz musician. His thing just attracted so many different styles of people that it was obvious that he had to be a rock musician during that time because he had all the ingredients. Jimi could have dropped in any era. If he came ten years from now and landed on our planet, this guy would be on the biggest stage, with the brightest light because he was the best guitar player. I think Jimi Hendrix could have played with anybody. I heard he was doing some stuff with Miles Davis up at Woodstock. He could have played with the Sun Ra Arkestra if he wanted to.” It was with that attitude of respect and reverence that the WSQ took the stage—but they weren’t afraid to make the music their own as Hendrix did with everything he touched.

They began by playing a “Freedom,” a funky little ditty that nobody in the audience seemed to recognize, though it was good and received ample applause. “If it’s Hendrix, I didn’t recognize it,” I told Nappy. She nodded; then Thomas leaned to me and said, “I feel dumb, but I’m not hearing the Hendrix.” So it was unanimous. They also played “Hear My Train A Comin’” before David Murray grabbed the mike and explained that 29 years ago, he and the other members of the New York Saxophone Quartet received a cease & desist letter from another group calling itself the New York Saxophone Quartet. Oliver Lake (alto and soprano sax) chimed in, “We gave them New York and became the World,” then launched into “Little Wing,” which we all picked up on. Their rendition reminded me somewhat of Sting’s version and a little less of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s. It’s a song that I like but have liked less and less over the years because it is easily rendered bombastic. While I appreciated their arrangement, I felt Lee Pearson’s drumming was overwhelming. Nappy laughed when I said, “He’s playing like he’s in Led Zeppelin.” Next came a dynamite version of “Hey Joe,” in fact, the best I’ve heard aside from the original. Since the departure and subsequent death of Julius Hemphill, the second alto chair has been a revolving door, but Bruce Williams, who plays on the album, was really jammin’ during the lurid tale of Joe’s crime passion. He’s a big guy in whose hand the alto and soprano saxophones looked like toys, but he was shakin’ like he was fornicating that sax. It was really spectacular. Hamiet Bluiett, baritone sax, really shined on “Machine Gun,” letting lose a cascade of startling soprano-pitched squonks, and “If 6 was 9” was a fantastic showcase for electric bassist Matthew Garrison, the son of long-time Coltrane bassist, Jimmy Garrison; they closed with a beautiful rendition of “The Wind Cries Mary” that began with a drone-like dirge, the melody carried Craig Harris, clad in a long skirt and mudcloth vest, on trombone.

Mid-show Garrison had played a beautiful six-string-like intro, and Pearson had redeemed himself to my ears and eyes by throwing down an exciting, hypersonic solo starting with mallets in both hands, and then with no interruptions or breaks in the rhythm, he successively went to playing his kit with both hands, one stick in the right hand, switching the stick to his left hand, grabbing the other stick and playing all parts of the kit and the floor with both sticks. When he was done there was a split-second of stunned quiet from the audience before someone seated near us uttered a spellbound “gosh!” That one syllable cracked up everyone in the vicinity.

It was a totally great night. Nappy and I said goodbye to Thomas and his pals, who I believe were staying for the second show. Nappy wore a grin the entire way home and said she’d never seen anything quite like it. I was glad to have treated my pal to something that she’ll always remember. It was a nice homage to a friendship that back in the day included a lot of sharing of Hendrix's music: it was from her collection that I first heard Axis: Bold as Love. The next day, as I described the night to a coworker who had earlier disbelieved that anyone my age would have grown up with and appreciated the music of Hendrix, she determined that our friend Thomas is her brother. Small world made smaller by music. Right on!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Abbey Road

the beauty of banter
was everything
to kiss by moonlight
or streetlight
a tonewood hum inviolate

Some nights ago I stumbled upon Abbey road after having gone to Mecca.

Earlier in the evening, a friend mentioned she was fasting. “For Ramadan?” I asked, but I said it all hipsterish, like I thought I was cool—because I did. “No, for Yom Kippur,” she replied. Truly surprised to be wrong yet totally tongue in cheek, I coolly said, “Oh. Am I being insulting?” “No,” she said, “just ignorant.” We both laughed, hearty-har.

When I say I went to Mecca, it’s not another religious crack, though I believe I mentioned a trio of miracle workers in an earlier post. Two of the three, Trish and Jane, were present at the pilgrimage, as was their friend Petey. Honestly, they are some of the best folks I’ve met in a genuinely long time: real people, few hang-ups (or least the decency to keep them under wraps), open, interested and interesting… it was really quite refreshing. They made my night; wrestling demons has never been so fun. Thanks girls and boy!

But no sooner than the next night, I bumped right up against it all again—that ever-present magic circle. I didn’t get sucked into it, but it’s essence trussed me up like a turkey for a few, long moments. I’d never noticed an Abbey street in San Francisco before, and I couldn’t help thinking how apt is was for me to be staggering down it, segueing in step with the end of the Beatles classic album. While innocently I sought “Golden Slumbers," the night reminded me that “Once there was a way to get back homeward / Once there was a way to get back home again”—and immediately comes the heads up: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight, carry that weight a long time.” It’s a yin yang world with comfortable unknowns and known discomforts.

For me it is often people. Some people are here to help, others to hurt. Take my office, which, of late, has turned into the Gulag. It’s so clear cut, who is on which side of the fence. But those of us who can actually read the fence are the ones most feared. We also often tend to be somewhat powerless in these contexts. I’m no superhero. Now that the spotlight is on me for associating with the one who has become the scapegoat, I’m bowing and pandering like the best of ‘em. I don’t have much a choice at this point except to bide my time. And maybe that’s one of the takeaways from my stint in the circle: you just gotta let shit play out however it may. That goes for all facets of life and all attachments.

Surviving the magic circle means that you’re on, like the curtain’s up and it’s showtime. So I put on the work show. I’m sure I’m not the best actress, but I’m creating the perception that I believe the organization to be of greater value than myself. My friend, the scapegoat, hadn’t learned yet that perception is everything. You can work your ass off, maintain the whole organization on your shoulders, but if the perception is otherwise, no manner of tangible results will work in your favor. If you sit around twiddling your thumbs all day while assuming the aura of someone who’s the most valuable employee of all, you’ll probably make the managerial fast track.

My friend was naïve. I warned her. I knew where the fence was. But people just don’t listen sometimes because they can’t. I don’t tend to listen either. But it’s really hard to watch someone on the take down and be 100 percent helpless to do anything. The only thing I can do is refuse to be bullied into ostracizing her along with most everyone else. She’s done nothing except refuse to wear the mask of pretense; she’s doing it now, but it’s too late. I’ve been standing my ground beside her, but there will be repercussions down the road, when they've succeeded in eating her alive. I know that. Those of us on our side of the fence all know that. It’s gotten so bad that we’ve taken to leaving through separate doors to create the illusion that we’re not going to lunch together or becoming adept enough to shift into client work jargon at the drop of a hat, which requires going from hurried, hushed conversation to purposely loud, go get ‘em tonalities. And are we really fooling anyone? It’s all about perception. Acting the fool is much better than being the fool. The office is simply a microcosm.

And in my personal life, I have suffered great betrayals of late. It’s another round of coming of age, I think. But everything actually is all right, in fact, so right because there is art in the world. There is the music that I love, there are the random, anonymous smiles of others and my own, there are moments of collective synergy in which everyone gathers at the same time—like the 31-hour grand re-opening of the De Young Museum inside Golden Gate Park. From noon on Saturday, October 15 until 5 p.m. on Sunday, October 16, the museum was open and free. Alex and I went on Saturday night, joining approximately 600 other people in long winding line. I guess there were that many because the official stat was that they were letting in 660 people per hour and it took us just under an hour to get into what is a magnificent space. More amazing still is that when we left at midnight, there were as many people waiting to get in as when we had been in line. As exhausted as I was from what was a very tiring weekend, I felt an immense pride in the city and in the miracle of people and art. Sure it was a “scene,” and I’m sure especially in the wee hours some of the twenty- and thirty-somethings were there simply to be seen, but a lot of people also brought their kids and a lot of people were older and seemed happily bewildered as if it’d been ages since they’d been out and about past seven o’clock at night. There were working stiffs and people dressed in brand new Armani. There were hordes of people, all drawn peacefully to a center of art. That just rocked my world.

And then I finished up the weekend in good company with a couple drinks and dinner and a splendid walk that ended underneath a streetlamp. I got to make art. The more I think about it, the only way to temper the 9 to 5 is to use the 5 to 9 for artful living and that includes more of the comfortable unknown.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

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.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Abracadabra of Silence

“There’s no illness at all, I simply got into a magic circle that I can’t get out of. It makes no difference to me. I’m ready for everything. I got into a magic circle. Now everything, even the genuine sympathy of my friends, leads to one thing—my perdition. I’m perishing and I have enough courage to realize it.”
“You’ll get well my friend.”
“Why say that?” Andrei Yefimych said vexedly. “It’s a rare man who doesn’t experience the same thing towards the end of his life as I am experiencing now. When you’re told that you have something like a bad kidney or an enlarged heart, and you start getting treated, or that you’re a madman or a criminal, that is, in short, when people suddenly pay attention to you, then you should know that you’ve gotten into a magic circle and you’ll never get out of it. If you try to get out, you’ll get more lost. Give up, because no human effort can save you. So it seems to me.”
—“Ward No. 6” / Anton Chekhov

No, I’m not dying though I’ve felt a bit like I am, and I haven’t been too criminal as of late, but in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve been in a magic circle. Not a hula hoop despite a burgeoning underground hula hoop community, but definitely a magic circle. I might still be in it, but I feel like the way out might be just around the bend. Notice I used the word bend not corner, for indeed it is circular, whatever this is. For weeks now, if you were to ask me what day it is, I’d have no friggin’ clue. I’ve been marking post-hurricane time by which episode of which season of the Sopranos I’m on. I am keeping a brave face thanks to Netflix and the anxiety of a fictional middle-aged mobster.

Steve, a good friend and mentor recently observed “your last postings seem tortured and full of Kierkegaardian angst.” Of course I was flattered in some pathetically silly way, given that Kierkegaard, my patron saint of irreverence, struck such a fine balance between the absurdly serious and the seriously absurd. Yet I recognize that this particular balancing act I’ve been attempting to perform, and which has more teeter in it than it should, is merely symptomatic of spiritual crisis.

I have lost my voice inside that circle. I’ve had so many things to say and nothing to say at all, so I hope you won’t mind if I borrow the words of others to prove the existence of said magic circle.
Evidence #1. Steve, for example, was writing to share his and his wife’s experiences as an American Red Cross volunteer deployed to Baton Rouge:

We went down to work the shelters but were assigned as couriers taking supplies and correspondence to the numerous Red Cross and community shelters strewn in the areas surrounding the main hit. We were stationed in the gym of a Baptist Church on the west end Baton Rouge, and our routes covered about 250-300 miles a day. Nancy's route went as far west as Lake Charles (where Rita made a somewhat direct hit), and my route was southwest, closer to the towns along the Gulf—places like New Iberia, Erath, and Abbeville—all evacuated for Rita. We sat out Rita at the gym. About 100 of us were sheltered there, and because Baton Rouge was on the eastern edge of the counterclockwise rotation of the storm, several tornados touched down. It knocked out the power. We assigned each person a secure place in a bathroom or the kitchen, because it appeared the roof would not make it. It did. The place smelled like a goatbarn. We were to return home Sunday from New Orleans, but the highway was flooded. We were finally able to get on a flight out of Baton Rouge to Houston. In Houston we were able to get on a flight to Detroit. Ironically seats were available because of the evacuation of Houston days earlier.

I have many thoughts on the failure of government and the Red Cross, and of rampant racism and classism and wish we could discuss them face-to-face. But I will leave this for another time. l wish I could tell you about each photo. They are places on our routes and from a day trip we made into Biloxi, Gulfport, and Wavelan, which took a direct hit from Katrina. You might not understand the details in the photos unless pointed out—the places where houses used to be, the railroad tracks suspended in air where the gravel berm washed out, the roofs sitting all over after being frisbeed off the houses, the plastic bags hanging in symmetry about eight feet off the ground in the trees—the receeding water line way inland. We will talk.

In the meantime, your last postings seem tortured and full of Kirkegaardian angst. Know you have family. A lady I was talking to, after having related burying a friend the day before, the loss of her home, and many other travails, ended the conversation by looking at me, and very sincerely said, "... but it’s all good, Shugah."

Be well,
Now if that’s not heartening and disheartening, I don’t know what is. What I found particularly inspiring and would like very much to appropriate is the “but it’s all good, Shugah,” but I doubt I can pull it off.

Evidence #2. Last Thursday I went to a dinner party where I knew only the hostess and the person who had invited me. One of the other guests was a woman from Germany who looked as if she’d stepped off the pages of a 1950s English novel. Her husband reminded me of my days in undergrad, which is not to say that he was immature, but he exuded a certain off-kilter zest that reminisced of the days when you’re young and less stuck on particular ideas about yourself and the rest of the world, largely because post-infancy, you do realize you exist and the world exists, but pre-mid-life crisis, you don’t yet realize that you and the world exist together, symbiotically. There was also New Zealander with the kind of face that could make a soft porn casting director weep. There was a gay Mayflower descendent and his boyfriend, a guy notorious for his mushroom tea parties. The friend who’d invited me has been battling the urge not to quit her current job; if she doesn’t quit, it will be the first job she’s held for more than a year in more than ten years. And the hostess, a masseuse by trade, had decided to pit her own vegetarian lasagna recipe against her own rendition of a Cook's Illustrated–inspired meat lasagna recipe, though she’s not a meat eater. In other words it was an eclectic group that actually gelled pretty well.

What was most striking to me about the evening was a pair of conversations. In one, the woman from New Zealand started waxing poetic about Burning Man. She was enthused in that Burning Man crowd sort of way—emboldened, starry-eyed, agog. I bristled next to her. Having little tolerance for what seemed to me an overly optimistic and naïve insistence that Burning Man will save the world, I felt compelled nay forced to explain that while it’s really great that 30,000 mostly white folks get together to do drugs and explore art in the desert, it’s not exactly the salve this world needs. She argued that each person can make a difference to which I replied, “Yah, whatever… I know that when a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon jungle, shit happens, but whenever shit happens, it stinks.”

Needless to say I wasn’t necessarily a hit at this party. Then again, I wouldn’t say I wasn’t. Some of the partygoers didn’t believe me when I opined that most people in this country probably don't even know what Burning Man is, and if you were to explain it they'd think it's bloody strange and possibly dangerous and definitely stupid and wrong. Then she started talking about how diverse the festival is. Diverse my ass. I asked her what she thinks would happen if 30,000 Arabs, or Blacks, or Latinos or Native Americans decided to convene in the desert for a week of debauched art, rave music, psychedelic drugs, etc. She replied that it would be, and I quote, "lovely." to my surprise, half the guests sided with her. I felt like jumping up on the table and bellowing, "Did Katrina not just happen?"

I did disclose that I’ve never been to Burning Man and not necessarily from lack of wanting to go. Nor would I seek to disparage the ideals of the present day vehicle of “counterculture,” bound as it is by it’s very nature to spread love and joy throughout the world. I’m all for a consensual group grope if that’s what floats people’s desert chariots. But it just doesn’t translate to the Heartland. I know because I’m from the Midwest and for as open as I think I am, some of it doesn’t translate to me. I found it hard to translate that sense of "doesn't compute" to my dinnermate, who I later learned is landed gentry with horses and such to eventually get back to should she get tired of water that flushes opposite of what she's been conditioned to experience.

No need to be snotty, I agree. I also agree that the world needs saving. Like my sparring partner who so clearly put the zeal in Zealand, I hope there is a salve for this wounded world, but Burning Man—the movement as spotlighted by the annual event—ain’t it. A bunch of dusty group hugs accompanied by trance music is not enough. But it’s hard, when you’re in the magic circle, to communicate with others who espouse viewpoints that aren’t just seriously absurd, but are, in fact, Absurd. "I’M SORRY," I said and returned to noshing politely until the gay folk in the room began arguing about whether gay pride is a valid notion. Why not just be proud of being human, one asked. "Turn on the news," I suggested. "We’ll find plenty of reasons to forgo pride on any level there."

To be continued.