· Sentences Are the Story · Writing the All-Middle or Lyrical Story


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Next Time I’ll Let You Go for Good

Next Time I’ll Let You Go for Good

Only last week I opened
the closet of sorrows
and you were there
hanging in your usual place.

I yanked you from your wooden hanger
bagged you, cinched you inside
thick black plastic and
set you by the door
one more bundle ready to be
dropped in the Good Will bin—
still useful to someone, perhaps.

Not my color, not my style anymore.
Too baggy now across the chest.
Too tight across the belly.
And who wears wool these days?
The day of the hairshirt is over.
It’s a new age, soft, smooth, convenient,
all comfort all the time.

Only last week.
Yet here you are
standing guard by my door
watching over all my comings
and goings, lying in wait
calling, calling, calling me
to open the shiny sack of my binding
bury my face in yours and breathe
in the scent of home
worlds of shelter, worlds of promise
slip inside the darkening until
I am wrapped in you, the word
I dare not utter, the word that creates,
the word that destroys, the word that gives,
the word that takes away,
blessed be the name of—
breathing out—
[God].

Next time I’ll rip you into rags
scrub the floor with you
let the dirt-sodden wads dry outside
in the sun, rot through the long winter
then incinerate the shreds
and wait
until the sky has erased the smoke,
until the wind has dispersed the ashes
to the ends of the earth,
and you are nullified,
ownerless as the dust of the earth.
Then I’ll go inside,
launder my clothes
wash and perfume my hair
scrub off seven layers of skin
dead dead
until the smell of you
no longer lingers,
beckoning me to lay
hold of you yet again.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 7: Returning Home

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 7: Returning Home
[I’m going to risk something different. I invite you to journey and discover with me as I explore the relation of flesh and spirit, evil and good in the process of writing an essay I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. All I know is this: the essay involves reflecting on a Tibetan thighbone trumpet, flesh and spirit, good and evil. I’m just going to start writing it and see where it leads, what is uncovered. So I’ll post it in installments—kind of a serialized essay in the spirit of those 19th century writers who wrote installments of their novels for magazines, not knowing exactly what the characters would do next or what would happen. I’ll post the first installment this week and then one a week for the next five or six or however many weeks, and see where we end up. Maybe back where we started. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere I can’t imagine yet. Thanks for accompanying me. ]

I couldn’t meet with the resident lama at Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism, who was very close to the Dalai Lama, I was told. While waiting, I reread David-Neel’s description of the chöd ritual with the thighbone trumpet. I was about to let her go, send her home. What was it I still needed to learn from her?

Like her, I had been in exile all those years—from myself. Living a life for others. Living another’s life. Hidden among foreign objects, belonging to a person who was fascinated by me but did not know what I was, or how to use me for good. Like her, I had to return home—to myself. And what did that mean, I wondered?

I read again and again David-Neel’s description of the end of the ritual, when the celebrant says to the demon, how once the dismembered and bloody celebrant is being devoured by the destructive forces, feeding them with his or her being, sacrificing or offering herself for the good of their existence, she must travel farther. How in the final act she must renounce her sacrifice itself, realize it is an illusion created by her pride, and that she has nothing to renounce, that “he has nothing to give away, because he is nothing.” The heap of bones she has been reduced to is but a symbol of the destruction of her phantom “I.” This “relinquishment” of the elation the celebrant experiences at “my sacrifice” closes the ritual, with the sacrifice completed, the celebrant having offered up the whole self, the spirit as well as the body.

And then I knew: I had to give up my self, my spirit as well as my body. I had to let go of all that I had created and clung to in the last 21 years—a family of my own that I had created that was loving not violent, joyful not destructive. And I had to let go of the sacrifices I had made to create and nurture such a sheltering family. Had I expected a reward for my investment of time and effort and care? A cohesive family unity that would endure until I died? Freedom from anxiety and care? Had I expected gratitude? Acknowledgment that would feed my pride? All that was nothing. I was nothing. I had nothing to give, nothing to lose but my little self that clung to demons and idols, outside and in. I was nothing. I was emptiness. There was my freedom. Everything is given. Everything is found.


At the monastery I was ushered into the lama immediately. I sat down across from him in his study, the bone on my lap. I told him where I had bought it, how long I had had it, and that I wanted to return it. Three minutes. No more. Yet in that brief telling I was aware of the fullness of pride. Look at this noble gesture I am making, what I am giving up, sacrificing for the good of you community.

The lama listened, smiling and nodding. He knew what I was up to. And he knew I would see it soon enough. I don’t recall him saying anything. Suddenly, we both stood up and I handed him the thighbone trumpet. He took it from me, smiled and nodded again, and I left. As I approached the door at the far end of the hall, I heard his robes swishing behind me. And the sound of the trumpet rang out. Full. Clear. Joyous. And in the silence that followed I heard the lama laugh.

That laugh woke me up more than the blast of the trumpet. His lightness stirred my heart, rang in my bones. His delight, like that of a child, tickled me. He was not warning evil spirits away. He was not calling demons to him. He was rejoicing in a friend returning home, ready for whatever work she was called to do.

And then I was out in the sunshine, the lama’s mirth a fragrance around me, my little self cracked by laughter, my ego slain yet again, heading home.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 6: Bone of my Bone, Flesh of My Flesh

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 6: Bone of my Bone, Flesh of My Flesh
[I’m going to risk something different. I invite you to journey and discover with me as I explore the relation of flesh and spirit, evil and good in the process of writing an essay I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. All I know is this: the essay involves reflecting on a Tibetan thighbone trumpet, flesh and spirit, good and evil. I’m just going to start writing it and see where it leads, what is uncovered. So I’ll post it in installments—kind of a serialized essay in the spirit of those 19th century writers who wrote installments of their novels for magazines, not knowing exactly what the characters would do next or what would happen. I’ll post the first installment this week and then one a week for the next five or six or however many weeks, and see where we end up. Maybe back where we started. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere I can’t imagine yet. Thanks for accompanying me. ]

I never blew the trumpet again. But before we parted, I heard it blown one more time.

After the morning I called the demons and they came to me, a mirror to my constricted heart, the virgin’s thighbone stayed safely in the Judaica cupboard among its ritual friends. I gave it no more thought. It had ceased to be a threat to me. With its help, I had found the demons and conquered them. I no longer had need of a trumpet to call them to me. And for its part, that smooth burnished bone no longer disturbed me as I passed by the glass-doored hall cupboard where it lived. The holes at the top of the joint, those darkened cavities that used to stare at me like twin eternal eyes—Warning me? Questioning me? Goading me? Judging me?—no longer followed me as I passed by, traveling endlessly from bedroom to kitchen, kitchen to bedroom.

In late March of 2008, my husband of 21 years left. By April of the next year we were divorced. In that vertiginous year in which I wrestled and sweated out the meaning of family and belonging, love and exile, ego and being, possessions and gifts, body and spirit, good and evil, one thing was clear to me immediately: I had to return the thighbone trumpet to its home. I didn’t fully understand why.

As part of the separation of property, I sifted through all the ritual objects we had used in our family Shabbats and holidays and simchas, portioning them out, these to me, those to him. I packed up all the ritual objects my husband had brought to our Jewish family, a Kiddush cup from his grandparents, his grandfather’s tallit, an ancient and very beautiful siddur, a lace head covering his grandmother had worn when lighting the Shabbat candles. I deeply loved these objects, had cared for them, and probably would care for them more tenderly than he would. Whenever I used one of those inherited objects to pray or bless, I felt the presence and the prayers of those who had used them so long ago, and I did not want to lose my relationship, which felt so personal, with them, those souls, those spirit-bodies who had come before me and laid their hands on these same objects I laid my hands on, our skins touching through time, in that eternal space of prayer and blessing, the love that knows no bounds, the peace that passes all understanding. But those ritual objects belonged to him and his family and they needed to return to their home, so I gave them back, though with an ache in my heart that lasts until this day. Where are they? Jumbled with bird books and college mementoes in a crate or a box in some stranger's basement on the mainland, my husband having moved to Hawai'i and left them behind? Molding in the tropical air? Are they lonely? Are they suffering from lack of use? I miss them.

In sorting through our ritual cupboard I came at last to the bone. The bone I had bought on our honeymoon trek. Was my sudden desire to return it to its home an act of cowardice or revenge? Did I want to destroy all reminders of our honeymoon, our marriage? Put that trumpet far away from me so I would not be reminded of the loss of my dream of a family every time I passed it? Adam’s words in the Garden of Eden, when he sees Chava for the first time, echoed in my head: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23) We two, Man and Woman, once joined together, had now been rent asunder. My bones amputated from his. His flesh torn from mine. The wounds still raw. Anesthesia powerless again them. Was that why the young woman’s bone had to go?

No. The bone had never been part of “us”; it had always been for me and me alone. So why then did I want to send it away?

I realized I wasn’t sending it away; I was sending it home. That young woman’s bone had lived in exile all these years: first from its land, Tibet, when the Tibetan Buddhists fled their Chinese oppressors to live in exile in Nepal, India, and elsewhere; and then from its community, the refugee community in Nepal that I had bought it from. None of her people to know her, look on her with love and gratitude. None of her people to pick her up, caress her, speak to her in her mother tongue, use her for the purpose for which she had been born and made. She needed to be used for the purpose for which she had been called into being. Without that, she was not a reminder of death, but dead. When I realized that, I could hardly bear that she should live another day in exile.

I called the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, explained that I had a very old thighbone trumpet I wanted to give to the monastery. The man on the phone set up an appointment for me with the lama.
The following week I went to meet the lama. Yet another shock.

(to be continued next week)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 5: Blowing the Trumpet

I didn’t know what I was doing that morning I sat down with the bone. I just knew I had to blow that trumpet to call the forces of violence and destruction I felt pressing all around me even closer to me. For what I wasn’t sure. Some kind of showdown. I hadn’t read David-Neel’s book since that long flight home from Nepal, and I had only a vague memory of the chöd ritual she described. Something to do with going to a place where cruelty and harm had occurred and fearlessly calling the destructive forces to one so they could devour you. A kind of sacrifice, it seemed to me, giving oneself over to them. Them. Or a way of laying myself open before my worst enemies, my worst fears, so some kind of transformation could take place.

For many years already I had been practicing Robert Johnson’s technique of active imagination, which had taught me how to put myself in a trance in which I reentered a dream or nightmare I had had, waited for the horror to appear, and then entered into a conversation with the horrifying destructive power, a dialogue that would end in my trembling with fear but consenting to be bitten by a poisonous snake or eaten by whatever terror showed itself to me. That practice, though excruciating, had proved healing, so I dared now to adapt it for the nightmare I had been experiencing with my family of origin.

Holding the virgin’s bone in my open palms, I began to talk out loud. I called out to the demons that had been torturing me, invited them to come and just finish me off, to put an end to the misery. Theirs. Mine. It didn’t matter. Just an end. Not exactly the chöd ritual of compassion for all beings and slaying the ego, but I didn’t care. At that moment I had no interest in being spiritually authentic or politically correct. I only wanted relief from the tearing of the flesh of my heart. And this bone of a virgin, life become death to call greater life, was the one to help me. I had to improvise for that to happen, so that’s what I would do.

I called them to me, the demons out there, the destructive forces set in my motion around me by the whirlwind of nothingness that emanated from my mother. “Here I am,“ I cried out. “Come and destroy me. Let there be an end to this now. No more suffering. For me or for you. Here I am. Do what you will with me.”

I put the bone to my lips and blew. A sound sputtered out, like someone gagging. I took a deep breath and blew harder. This time a clear blast pierced the room. I held the bone with both hands before me, the way a snake charmer holds his flute, and waited. Silence. I called out, “You want to destroy me? Here I am. Come and devour my spirit. Leave nothing behind.”

I waited. Still nothing. I looked. I listened. I think I expected to see my mother, that restless and unhappy soul, lashing out from her misery, enslaved in hurt by a habit of hurting, facing me.

I waited for what seemed an eternity. Still nothing.

Impossible. I could hardly breathe. My spirit wanted to burst the prison of my body. Something had to happen. Even I had to take that virgin’s thighbone and splinter it against the light streaming through the glass door or crack it over my skull. Something had to happen. I couldn’t carry all that pain and horror and righteous indignation and raw anger inside me anymore. It was eating me alive.

And then I realized, the demons had come. They had been there all along, living in the cemetery of my heart, that stony, blood-soaked battleground where so many dramas of violence had been played out over so many years--woundings, treachery, the rot of terror, beheadings, dishonorable surrenders, amputations, retreats, routs, banishments and exiles. The evil I had to face was not out there hiding in a dark and dank ether. It was not them I had to defeat. It was not her, my mother and her minions I had to overcome, whether by psychic courage or strength or trickery. It was my heart I had to call before me. My heart I had to invite to open before me and devour me with its truths. Destroy my divided self, the self that clung to the notion of evil out there threatening to violate and kill the innermost self of me, that most sacred of spaces I could not live without and feared most of all to lose.

At that moment, my hands were still touching the smooth, hardened bone of that unknown virgin, and I felt through my skin that hardened bone circling a most sacred space, a holy silence that made sound possible, a holy emptiness that made each life exactly what it was and no other, a holy nothingness out of which all creation sprang. Then I knew: no power on earth could destroy that holy of holies in me. That underground spring of pure water that continually gurgles forth in each of us, moistening the earth around it, nourishing life could never be stopped. That undying fountain of love would flow forever. Nothing could ever separate us from the love of God, I realized, and immediately Paul’s words from his letter to the Romans came to me: For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39) Though I did not share Paul the apostle’s vision of “Christ Jesus our Lord,” Paul the mystic’s witness to that eternal fount of love that continually refreshes each of us, that enlivening without end of our body-spirit by the One in whom we live and move and have our being—that I understood in a new way.

I felt as if I had been suffering a drought and suddenly my roots had tapped into an underground spring that now flowed through me, turning fear to love, stony ground to fertile soil, desiccated limbs to flowering branches that might one day bear fruit. I was at peace. With my mother and with myself. Whatever external events might come—and they would, violent as ever—I would meet them with a new and restful heart, no longer in a cemetery or on a battleground but in that inviolable holy of holies within my own being.

With this, I kissed the thighbone trumpet, held it against my heart, and then put it back in our Judaica cupboard, next to the shofar. I thought my journey with the thighbone trumpet had ended. The gift it had given me could not be surpassed. But that was not the end of my learning from the trumpet. I still had a long way to travel before I arrived at the slaying of the ego. That would come many years later.

(to be continued next week)

Saturday, August 10, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 4: Face to Face with Evil

It was 1998 or 1999. We were living in Charleston, SC. Our son was about nine and our daughter seven. My father, who lived with my mother in Pennsylvania in the summer and Florida in the winter, had started slipping into the darkness of Alzheimer’s. They had moved near my sister in Pennsylvania, so she could help. As my sister became more concerned about my father’s worsening condition, she talked with my mother about getting care for him. Our mother refused. He was fine, she said. She was taking good care of him. My mother and sister, once extremely close, became alienated. My sister refused my mother’s invitation join our family for a Christmas reunion in Salzburg, Austria. Furious, my mother threatened to disinherit my sister and three of her four children—all but the last child, a daughter.

I tried to mediate. On the phone with my mother one morning, hearing her threaten to disinherit my sister, and in such a cruel way, I tried to reason with her. “You’re just angry right now,” I told her. “You don’t really want to do this. Both of you just need to cool off.”

“Oh, I do,” she said, “and I will.”

Several phone calls later, with her still in a fury, I told her, “Don’t do this. You’ll regret this. It will cause so much harm, not just to Laurie (my sister), but to all four of her children.”

Several phone calls later, desperate, I said to her, a vocal Evangelical Christian, “This isn’t a Christian thing to do.”

After several more attempts to persuade her to change her mind or at least wait, and hearing her determined and hard voice insisting once again that this was just punishment for my sister’s rebellion, I got angry. Everything in me wanted to say to her, “Got to hell,” but I couldn’t bring myself to say that. Instead, I gave her the nice, twisted, Calvinist girl’s version, saying, “May God have mercy on your soul.”

That sent her over the edge. I was the one that was supposed to go to hell, for the many flagrant sins I had continued to commit since a small child. Not her. Never her. All her darkness had been projected onto me from the time I was small. I was the one to pay. That was my role as the first female body/child. And she had ample confirmation of this. She was redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. While I, a converted Jew, had forfeited my salvation, stiff-necked sinner, incarnation of evil, Jew, that I was. She hung up on me.

I called her back later. But when she told me more nonsense about how my father was fine and how my sister was lying about his being picked up by the police wandering far from home or walking to the shed in their backyard in just a bath towel to take a shower, I could not restrain myself. “You fucking bitch of a liar,” I said. She seemed genuinely pleased at that. I had given her the ammunition she needed to shoot me the way she was shooting my sister. She immediately called my three brothers to report how I had treated her.

My son and daughter overheard me swear and be disrespectful to my mother. They came to me smiling, hugged me, and told me they were proud of me. They had seen me, their mother, someone they had never seen cry, break down crying several times in the last several months over conversations with my mother. I felt guilty immediately for begin rude to my mother. They were relieved I had finally stood up for myself. “Why do you keep talking to her?” they had asked me several over the last months. “Why are so nice to her? She’s mean to you.”

“She’s my mother,” I said. “I love her. I have to keep trying.”

After that last phone call, my mother did not want me, the evil Jew, my Jew husband, and my two Jew children, to come to the family gathering in Austria. But the tickets had been purchased, the reservations made. And I, in longstanding habit with my family, refused to let myself be exiled. So the four of us joined my mother and father and my three brothers and their families in Austria for a very painful week. At one point my mother called a family meeting in her suite, just for my three brothers. When I found out, I knocked on the door. They wouldn’t let me in. It was a meeting for debtors only, they said. It didn’t concern me. I was the only child who had chosen to get a mortgage at a bank rather than from her. I talked my way into the room and listened as she announced to my brothers that she was forgiving them each $20,000 on the mortgages they had with her. Not my sister, who also had a mortgage with her, just them. It was an early payment on their inheritance, she said. “And me?” I asked. “You’ll get your share later,” she said.

I knew I would never see any inheritance, nor would my sister.

My mother barely spoke to me the rest of the trip. She made a point to tell my seven-year-old-daughter how much she still loved my first husband, a man she had never heard of before, a man who was not her father, a man who was not a Jew, how much everyone in the family loved him.

It was the week after we flew home from cold, cold Austria that I knew I needed to pick up the thighbone trumpet and call the demons to me. If I did not call them to me and invite them to feast on me for good, they would devour me from within. If I wanted to live, I had no choice.

So one morning, after my too-wise-too-soon son and daughter had left for school, I walked to our Judaica cupboard, and took out the bone. I sat on the rug in our living overlooking the salt marsh, laid it in front of me, and prepared my own ritual of meeting evil face to face. Raw with pain and anger and disbelief at the injustice and cruelty, desperate for relief at any cost, I had no choice but to blow that thighbone trumpet. I had no idea what would happen. Maybe blowing the trumpet would be like the shofar. In ancient times the shofar was blown to drive away evil spirits, and then the sages transformed its blowing nto a way to remind us of Abraham's intended sacrifice of Isaac, which God interrupted in providential care by providing Abraham a ram for the sacrifice instead of his son (Genesis 22). That blowing of the trumpet and sacrifice had had a surprising turn. Perhaps my blowing the thighbone trumpet would, too. Perhaps I would be surprised by an unforeseen providential act taht would cause me to marvel at the goodness of God. I had no idea what would happen. I was shocked at what transpired.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 3: Rude Awakening


[I’m going to risk something different. I invite you to journey and discover with me as I explore the relation of flesh and spirit, evil and good in the process of writing an essay I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. All I know is this: the essay involves reflecting on a Tibetan thighbone trumpet, flesh and spirit, good and evil. I’m just going to start writing it and see where it leads, what is uncovered. So I’ll post it in installments—kind of a serialized essay in the spirit of those 19th century writers who wrote installments of their novels for magazines, not knowing exactly what the characters would do next or what would happen. I’ll post the first installment this week and then one a week for the next five or six or however many weeks, and see where we end up. Maybe back where we started. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere I can’t imagine yet. Thanks for accompanying me.]

When our trek to Lantang ended, and we were packing to return to our new life together in Minnesota, I packed the bone in my small carry-on backpack instead of our huge duffel—not so it wouldn’t get stolen, as indeed our big body bag was, but because I needed to be near that bone. I also carried with me Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery of Tibet so that during the long flight I could learn more about my new companion.

Somewhere in the middle—the middle of the book, neither beginning nor end; the middle of the flight, neither East nor West; the middle of space, neither on the ground nor in outer space; the middle distance, neither inside Buddhism nor a stranger to deep religious practice—somewhere with no clean coordinates on any map of being, I came upon David-Neel’s description of the “mystery” of chöd (cutting off), “the dreadful mystic banquet,” the ritual in which the thighbone trumpet (kanglang,) is used.Eager to learn the choreography of the ritual of driving away evil, I devoured her opening description of how the celebrant goes alone to a cemetery “or any wild site whose physical aspect awakens feelings of terror.” I turned the page, impatient for the next step in the drama. Suddenly, like a cloudless summer sky that becomes a green-black whirling funnel of destruction, my hope for blowing evil far from me, to the four corners of the earth, turned to terror.

The celebrant goes to such wild places, David-Neel explains, because it is there that violent or evil forces may be stirred up, either by deeds that took place there or by the concentration of many people’s minds on imaginary events at that spot, and thus it is there that he or she will most likely encounter demons. Demons. Not spirits of people who have been cruel or done evil deeds, and who may feel repentance for their deeds or a new-born need for enlightenment. But the spirits of those who habitually harbored hatred and ill will and delighted in cruelty. Demons. Demons the celebrant is there not to frighten away with a thundering blast of the trumpet, but to summon so he or she may invite them to devour his or her body and spirit.

The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up, electrified, and my scalp was tingling, but I read on:
The celebrant blows his bone trumpet, calling the hungry demons to the feast he intends to lay before them. He imagines that a feminine deity, which esoterically personifies his own will, springs from the top of his head and stands before him, sword in hand.
With one stroke she cuts off the head of the [celebrant]. Then, while troops of ghouls crowd round for the feast, the goddess severs his limbs, skins him and rips open his belly. The bowels fall out, the blood flows like a river, and the hideous guests bit here and there, masticate noisily, while the celebrant excites and urges them with the liturgic words of unreserved surrender. (112-113)
“For ages…I have borrowed from countless living beings…all kinds of services to sustain my body, to keep it joyful in comfort and to defend it against death. Today, I pay my debt, offering for destruction this body which I have held so dear.
I give my flesh to the hungry, my blood to the thirsty, my skin to clothe those who are naked, my bones as fuel to those who suffer from cold. I give my happiness to the unhappy ones. I give my breath to bring back the dying to life.
Shame on me if I shrink from giving my self!” (112-113)
I closed the book, overcome by this act of selflessness and compassion for all beings. To give oneself to relieve the suffering of others was a noble and thrilling idea, even if at first disappointing, since I had been searching for protection against evil.

When my body had caught up with the shock of the reversal, I opened the book again. The drama was far from over. Once the dismembered and bloody celebrant is being devoured by the destructive forces, feeding them with his or her being, sacrificing or offering herself for the good of their existence, she must travel farther. She must imagine that she is but a heap of charred bones left behind by the demons she was given herself to. Then, in the final act, she must renounce her sacrifice itself, realize it is an illusion created by her pride, and that she has nothing to renounce, that “he has nothing to give away, because he is nothing.” The heap of bones she has been reduced to is but a symbol of the destruction of her phantom “I.” This “relinquishment” of the elation the celebrant experiences at “my sacrifice” closes the ritual, with the sacrifice completed, the celebrant having offered up the whole self, the spirit as well as the body.

As I read David-Neel’s description of this last act, the slaying of one’s ego, my mouth went dry, my skin shivered with cold, and my bones trembled. This bone is my own version of fatal attraction, I thought. Irresistibly drawn to it at first, I now wanted to run from it. I had seen in it a powerful ally that would help me protect myself against the evil outside myself. But it had quickly shown its true and terrifying face, a shocking exposure of the need to rid myself of the evil that I carried within myself.

I closed the book, buried it in my backpack, and tried to escape into sleep for the rest of the flight.

When we got home, I hid the traitor behind the other ritual objects in our Judaica cabinet, blocking it with our silver Shabbat candlesticks, brass menorah, kiddush cup, havdalah set, and shofar. I wanted to make sure no smart aleck picked it up accidentally, put it to their lips, and blew, unwittingly unleashing demons into the sanctuary that was our home, to wreak God-knows-what destruction on the unsuspecting and unprepared. I also hoped that the power of those objects of joy and life would neutralize the fearsome power of that bone and the forces it was joined to. That in exile, a stranger in a strange land, that virgin’s thighbone would become inert.

That traitor of a bone stayed safely hidden in our Judaica cabinet through the birth of our son, the birth of our daughter, our move to rural South Carolina, and our move to Charleston, South Carolina. From time to time an observant visitor would ask about it, but I would brush them off, saying, “That’s a Tibetan thighbone trumpet. Not sure what it’s used for, but it shouldn’t be handled. It’s very fragile.”

Until one morning, ten years after I had first seen that bone, I walked to the cabinet, took it out, and prepared to blow it.

(to be continued next week)

Saturday, July 27, 2013

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 1 and 2

I’m going to risk something different. I invite you to journey and discover with me as I explore the relation of flesh and spirit, evil and good in the process of writing an essay I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. All I know is this: the essay involves reflecting on a Tibetan thighbone trumpet, flesh and spirit, good and evil. I’m just going to start writing it and see where it leads, what is uncovered. So I’ll post it in installments—kind of a serialized essay in the spirit of those 19th century writers who wrote installments of their novels for magazines, not knowing exactly what the characters would do next or what would happen. I’ll post the first installment this week and then one a week for the next five or six or however many weeks, and see where we end up. Maybe back where we started. Maybe nowhere. Maybe somewhere I can’t imagine yet. Thanks for accompanying me. Please let me know what you think.

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 1

On my honeymoon in Nepal in 1987, I bought the thigh bone of a young virgin. When my husband left unexpectedly in 2008, I gave the woman’s bone away. My time with her was over.

This is the story of what she taught me.

From Flesh to Spirit, Evil to Good: Journey with a Virgin’s Thighbone 2: How We Met
When our trek to Lantang Valley ended, after sleeping in yak pastures, visiting monasteries, and being humbled by mountains for two weeks, we returned to Kathmandu. We spun the prayer wheels at Boudhanath stupa and climbed the steps to the Monkey Temple. In a nearby valley we watched men slaughter goats and pour the blood over the statue of Kali, Goddess of Destruction, then roast the flesh and picnic with their families by the banks of a river. In the heart of the city, we witnessed an audience with the Kumari, the young virgin who is a living goddess and whose feet are never allowed to touch the ground and whose every gland or nod is a revelation—until she bleeds and returns to being a mortal. And we visited a Tibetan refugee camp.

It was in the camp that I first met her. She was lying in a glass case in the visitor’s shop. I spotted it right away and moved closer to look. It was clearly a human bone. An old one. Worn smooth and burnished to a warm caramel color. My hands tingled with a desire to feel its weight in my hands, stroke it, hold it close to my heart.

“It’s a femur,” my doctor-husband said. "A thigh bone. A human one." And so it was. From the wide, lumpish ball joint where it was once joined to the hip it tapered to a straight-edged narrow bone twelve inches below.

The shopkeeper nodded. “From a young girl,” she said. “A virgin.” She saw my look of alarm and knew I hadn’t realized that Buddhists don’t perform human sacrifice, do not kill any living being. “When they find a young girl who has died, they take her thigh bone to make this trumpet.”

I looked again and saw it had been hollowed out. “It’s like a shofar,” I said to my husband, the trumpet made out of a ram’s horn that Jews blow on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the New Year to announce that all things are being weighed in the balance, to call us to examine our lives, as a new cycle begins.

The shopkeeper reached in the display case to take out the bone, but I waved her to stop and escaped to the other end of the shop. I rubbed a wooden mallet around the edge of several singing bowls, but I couldn’t make the metals sing. I was not calm enough.

I studied the malas of skulls carved from bones, examined the human skulls that had been formed into bowls and carved with symbols, inlaid with coral and turquoise, lined with silver—all visceral reminders of impermanence, just like the young woman’s bone become trumpet. All teaching, Face death clear-eyed and you will know how to live.

I walked back to the case and stared at the bone. All along its length it was dotted with intricate carvings of Buddhist symbols, each no more than one inch wide, carved into the bone itself. A conch shell. A dharma wheel of transformation. A swastika. She took out the bone and laid it in my hands. It seemed to grow warmer against my skin. I turned it over, and as I did I caught my breath and said, “A magein David, star of David.” There, just under the ball joint, was a beautifully carved six-pointed star woven into an endless knot. Now I wanted that trumpet.

“What is this used for?” I asked the woman.

“To drive away evil spirits.”

Now I really wanted that trumpet. I desperately needed help countering forces of destruction in my life, to keep those who wished me harm away. I imagined putting my lips to the narrow end of that trumpet and blowing my breath through it, watching it expand and leave the wide end full and powerful clearing the space around me, creating a protective space in which I felt safe.
Still I hesitated. I was afraid of the power of that bone, but I didn’t realize it. Instead, I interrogated her on the ethics of buying ritual objects, especially ones from a tradition that one doesn’t belong to. “Is it okay to buy a sacred object like this?”

She nodded, a bit perplexed.

“I mean, I’m not a Buddhist. I’m a Jew. I wouldn’t want anybody to come and buy one of our ritual objects as just a souvenir or art object. And it seems wrong to make a sacred object part of a money transaction.”
“It’s good,” she said. “It helps us.”

The Tibetans had been forced into exile by the Chinese, the way the Jews had been thousands of years before by the Babylonians and not so long ago by England, Spain, Russia, Germany, and other nations. They were struggling to keep their traditions and their people alive. Who was I to even guess what was necessary in those circumstances? What was good?

And I knew better, too. For Jews, no thing is sacred, in and of itself, just as no place is sacred, in and of itself. Use is all. The One alone is holy, in and of itself. When a congregation dies and its synagogue must be sold, it is desacralized, decommissioned as a house of prayer and praise and returned to its secular state. So too with objects. How many menorahs have, by violence or assimilation or poverty, become candelabras in antique shops? The Sarajevo Haggadah, carried out of Spain during the expulsion of the Jews, was after centuries of family use sold by its family to keep them alive.

Still I hesitated. Maybe it wasn’t morally or culturally or spiritually wrong of me to buy that woman’s bone become trumpet. But if use is all, what use would it have in my life? I didn’t know. I did know it would play a life-changing role in my life. I belonged to that bone. And she belonged to me. For the time being. Flesh to spirit. Spirit to flesh. Good to evil. Evil to good. That’s what made me so afraid.

I bought it for one hundred dollars.

(to be continued next week)