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—

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)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Hope I Break God's Heart Like That

I Hope I Break God’s Heart Like That

Returning from dumping the garbage
in the basement three floors below,
finding my dog not in her usual spot,
I call her name.
She appears in the loft,
where she’s been looking for me
sniffing under my comforter
nosing her way behind my bathroom door
seeking the stay of her existence
my absence urging her
to climb the perilous stairs whose every step
hurts her bones
to know that I am there,
with her.

I hope I break God’s heart like that
when he sneaks out the door of my world,
returns to find me not in my usual haunts
and calls my name
catches me roaming the place where he
sleeps, washes, works without me while
I sleep and wait trusting below
when he sees me staring down at him with cataract eyes,
straining to hear his voice, not sure
if it is the one that is my life
or a stranger
when he watches me trundle down the stairs
accepts an offhanded kiss as I brush
past on my way to nestle into my dark corner to sleep
all well in the world
the absence of his presence become a present absence again.

I know that’s not how maturity is supposed to work.
Good selves leave the womb, individuate from the mother, let go
the hand of the father to walk on their own,
let the wandering lover go free,
befriend the absence of God in the world and
shoulder the heavy pack of human responsibility
like a barefooted Sherpa gracefully climbing
snow-covered peaks.
But spirits are not psyches.
The spirit lives and move and grows how it will,
in fits and starts, somersaults and handsprings,
backbends and roundups, comings and goings,
leaps and falls.
And I keep falling,
falling into love, into longing, into need
for that in which I live and move and have my being,
anxious to turn the absence of its presence into
a present absence
yet again.
I hope that breaks God’s heart and he comes to me
where I’m sleeping, bends down to stroke
the soft fur between my ears, and kisses my cheek,
in silence, saying, “I’m here now. I always come back.”

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

God? The human body-spirit? Where to begin?

Our lives are marked by the questions that dog and lead us. The two questions troubling the waters of my life—for good though at times for ill and often for a great deal of discomfort—are these: What and why is this reality we call “God”? Why are we human beings such a strange and disturbing mix of body and spirit, and how are we to live out this amalgam?

These are the same two questions that have dogged many philosophers and theologians, including John Calvin (which may annoy you if you believe him to be the father or all things puritanical, responsible for sucking all the joy and pleasure out of living, or amuse you if you have a taste for irony). It’s not just philosophers and theologians who spend their days answering these questions. Each one of us, every day, every moment, is answering these two questions in the way we live as this particular body-spirit.

And now it’s come time for me, erstwhile theologian, human animal, earth wanderer, wonderer, woman, once again to confront these two questions. I learned long ago from Calvin, standing in a long line of Clement, Augustine, Aquinas, and unnamed others, that these two questions are inextricably related. The first arresting sentence of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which stood its opening ground through Calvin’s many revisions, is stamped on my heart: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” (1.1.1)
For the past two years, as this linkage of fundamental questions began once again to well up in my, I thought, Yes, after my sojourn as a theologian and a Christian, after so many years as a Jew and a fiction writer, in my years of opening, I will have to look again at these questions and see where I stand now.

But where to start? How to get started? This is the bane of everyone who feels the pressure to put marks on a page and begin the futile task that the writer of Ecclesiastes calls the “making of many books.” Calvin’s next sentences in Institutes describe why this is particularly difficult in this case, sounding the mystical themes of existing in the One and humility before the splendor of God:
1.1.1 But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves [Acts 17:28]. For, quite, clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves: indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself. Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God…. Accordingly the knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him. (Ibid.)
1.1.2 Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself….
Knowing ourselves leads to knowing God and knowing God leads to knowing ourselves. So one should be able to start at either point. Calvin chooses to start with God, giving only this reason:
1.1.3 Yet however the knowledge of God and of ourselves may be mutually connected, the order of right teaching requires that we discuss the former first, then proceed afterward to treat the latter.
I’m not sure why, modernist that I am, I assumed for the past few years that I, too, would start with the first question, God, and let it guide me to human being. Perhaps it was my theocentrism, my anti-anthropocentrism that led me to this. Why do we persist in thinking we human beings are the center of the universe? Hasn’t there been enough scientific evidence by now to bump us out of that privileged place? Unfortunately, not. Perhaps that is what Calvin means by “the order of right teaching,” to move from the greater to the lesser, to orient ourselves properly at the beginning so we do not lose our way and overvalue the lesser, ourselves, by placing ourselves at the center of creation.

And why go the round-about way? Why not go straight to the heart of the matter, ask those hard questions about God, crack open the nut of our confusion? If not us, who? That is what I have tried to do in the last years, face the question of God in our post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment, post-post-postmodern world head on, trying to shoulder my way into that strange battlefield of the armies of fundamentalist atheists against the armies of fundamentalist religionists, their literalism and absolutism soaking the ground with blood, littering it with torn limbs and severed heads, ruining the very ground where so many wander without signposts, without comfort, looking for a way to answer these two questions—as we all must—of who we are and what, finally, confronts us.

I failed. I read. I pondered. I tried to write. Emptiness and worn out words is all I found.

But lately I’ve begun to realize that it’s the second question, who we are, that’s stirring up more trouble for me right now, and it’s there that I need to start if I want to find my way to a new understanding of God. Perhaps it’s a kind of second naiveté—once we realize human beings aren’t the center of the universe or the end for which it was created, we are able, armed with humility, to start with the question of who we are and have it lead us where we need to go.

So that is the question I will be pursuing for the time being: Why are we human beings such a strange and disturbing mix of body and spirit, and how are we to live out this amalgam?

Who knows where it will lead? Perhaps you will accompany me along the way.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Performance, Ritual, Bewilderment—Easter, 2013

This past Sunday, the sixth day of Passover, walking through the riot of sun and blooming, I happened upon a crowd of people in their Easter finest. Their outfits shouted celebration! Peach kimonos. Red-and-white hounds tooth-checked men’s suits. Pink crinoline skirts. Flowered tights. And the hats! Vintage feathered affairs. Multi-colored turbans. Homemade hats as tall and floppy as the Cat in the Hat’s. Easter baskets affixed at a rakish angle. Fuzzy bunny ears. Poor Boy caps. Black hats with netted veils pulled so tight they distorted the wearer’s face. A glittery crown of thorns atop a young woman’s tousled brown hair.
They were heading toward the Century Ballroom. Each dressed more fancifully than the next, all of them wrapped in a mood of anticipation and joy. How could I not follow them up the stairs?

Pastor Kaleb’s 14th Annual Easter Service, the posters in the grand ballroom announced. I stood beside the donations jar and peered inside. The place was packed. Singles, couples, mothers holding infants, families with small children, older people, younger people. Each one dressed more fancifully than the next. “Welcome!” the usher greeted me. “So glad you’re here!” She meant it. Her voice was warm and she was cheerful, in a genuine, so-happy-to-be -here way, and I took to her immediately. Her shoulder-length wig was a bright, almost-Smurf blue, a perfect contrast to her bare and beautiful face, with skin the color of a warm cappuccino. “Come in! Don’t be afraid. Everybody’s welcome!” As she nodded to me a purple plastic egg fell from her Easter-basket hat to the floor and rolled away. Laughing, she chased it down. She was tall and her very short skirt showed off her very long legs—she was a dancer, she told me later—and off-white sling-back heels. As she tucked the egg back in its nest on her head, I stepped inside the door. She pointed to the balcony. “Go ahead, take a seat upstairs.”

I planted myself next to her, my guide. While she greeted those on the way in or called out the bathroom code to those on the way out, I stood, my back against the bar area, where the bartender was working hard to keep up with the constantly replenishing line, surveying the scene and trying to orient myself. I was bewildered by what was happening. Was it a mock service? A theater performance? Another slam—albeit a colorful and good-natured one—at Christianity and the failures of the church? Or at all religion and religious ritual as “established,” boring, stodgy, empty, meaningless, intolerant, hypocritical, moribund—in a word, unhip? Was it a condemnation of our materialistic and conservative culture, using the medium of the church as theater to dramatize the judgment? Or a chance to openly flaunt what was sacred to others, to be irreverent or even give offense, with impunity—a kind of Mardi Gras or Purim of its own, when everything is turned topsy-turvy and the chaos of life or the pagan wellsprings of later ritual are given permission to come into the light for a moment?

Or was the key to what was going on the cacophony of images? Church hats, church clothes, bunny ears, a crown of thorns, a giant wooden cross dangling from a petite woman’s neck, gold dreadlocks, wigs of all the colors in a Skittles rainbow, eggs and flowers everywhere—it was dizzying. Was that it? Was this a post-post-modern feast of meaninglessness? In a world gutted of meaning, people left wandering about, in a pathless world, in tangled confusion, the old left behind, no new yet established , bewildered, yet hungry for meaning, hungry, picking up the dried and brittle carapaces of cast-off images, the bones of once-living symbols, and shaking them to try to create a new world of meaning, or the sound of a joyful noise? Strangely, this last seemed to me, a Jew, to fit the meaning of the season, a community of people wandering in the wilderness, escaped from an old order, desperate for a new order, groping toward freedom and new life. But neither this nor any of my wonderings fit the feel of the gathering. The picture of what was happening around me religiously speaking just wouldn’t come clear. I was lost.

My guide leaned over to me. “The sermon’s about to start,” she said. On the stage a man was standing behind a pulpit cobbled together out of tree branches. A church lady in a white suit and heels sat in a pew to his left. A choir of fantastically dressed individuals stood to his right.

“Is this a service or a performance?” I asked.

“We’ve been doing this for 14 years,” she said. “It’s a lot of people in the theater community, the drag community, families, a lot of people.”

Pastor Kaleb took the pulpit, dressed in black pants and a black shirt with what looked like huge Boy Scout badges patched all over the front. He riffed on the significance of the number 14, the years the community had gathered to celebrate. His text was random sentences from the weekly newspaper The Stranger, which he interpreted to great laughter. But amongst the jokes, this truth: “We wait all year for this! We prepare all year for this.” “Amen!” my guide.
The choir sang a rousing number worthy of the best off-Broadway theater. When they sang, “I’ve lost my way and I don’t know which way to turn,” my guide called out in merriment, “Turn left!”

The next preacher’s message was hope: “We made it! From the dark to the light, we made it!” And, “I’m a fool. Are you a fool?” And he brought out the day’s special guest, the “old” pope, Pope Benedict, a very old man dressed in full papal regalia, including a mitre. The pope took a seat on the stage and the preacher removed the pope’s mitre, revealing a full bunny cap and long ears. The Easter Bunny stood up, called the children to him, and handed out Easter baskets. Then they took a collection from the congregation.

All this time my guide was greeting the people who wandered by or gently rubbing the back of an infant whose mother stood near us, rocking the babe to sleep. She spoke so sweetly and lovingly to the child. She was cooing to the child as I left. I wanted to tell her “Thank you.” Tell her, “You are a beautiful person.“ But I was too shy. I left without speaking to her.

Walking home in the glorious sunshine I realized I had been in the presence of and why I had felt so comfortable in spite of my mind’s thrashing about for a meaning. I had witnessed, in sociologist of religion Emile Durkheim’s understanding, a true ritual celebrating the sacred. For Durkheim, the sacred is something that is set apart, non-ordinary, or forbidden. And ritual is the public action of a community that strengthens the bonds of the believers toward their god and “at the same time really strength the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he is a member, since the god is only a figurative expression of the society” (The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, pp. 257, 474-57, passim). This community, whatever its gods may or may not be, was strengthening its hope, strengthening its bonds to one another and deriving hope and strength from that. They were at this moment, together, after great planning and preparation and anticipation, stepping outside (entering ecstasy, ek-stasis, standing outside) the ordinary world, a world where they had perhaps known more than their share of rejection and “difference” and pain and sorrow, and entering a non-ordinary reality together, as a sustaining and supportive community, stepping into a moment when all ordinary time and space is suspended, a place in which their hope could be renewed, their bonds to life strengthened, and their bond to one another strengthened, so that they could go on living and live more fully. Is this not human? Is this not wonderful?

Forget cynicism and the emptiness of the post-modernists and chilly superiority of those too hip to live among us. Forget those too evolved to have anything to do with “empty rituals” or “crutches.” Forget those afraid to be fools by showing their longing for hope and community and daring to live it out loud and sacrifice to create it. Forget those who fear laughter and merriment and experiment on the way to new traditions. Remember to love. In the words of my guide, "Come in. Don't be afraid. Everyone is welcome!"

Sunday, March 31, 2013

From the Exhilaration of Freedom to the Threat of Freedom

And there they were. Standing on the other shore. Safe at last. Free. They drummed. They danced. They sang. Every one of them giddy with weightlessness, the burden lifted, the yoke removed. All that pent-up energy released into rejoicing and thanksgiving.
When they woke to the world around them again, they packed their timbrels and turned to face the days ahead.

What faced them terrified them. An enemy vaster than imagining. A nothingness that swallowed up all that approached it. Boundless wilderness of time and space. And nothing, nothing to cut it down to size, carve it into pieces they could manage. No tasks to perform, no masters’ wills or whims to obey, no rituals to observe, nothing to be built or finished. Everything at the still point before the plunge into the beginning. A vast expanse promising only expanding terror, lostness, no way to get one’s bearings, each step erased as it is taken. A cruel infinity demanding to be conquered, choice upon choice, act upon act, knowing itself to be invincible. Crushing immensity. Rapacious void.

Some stopped there, never to move again. Without benefit of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche, the existentialists or the absurdists, they knew the anxiety of open being and closed it off, knew the burden of freedom and shucked it off.

Others set off, in fear and trembling, into that unknown, following those who dared to blaze a path out of faith and hope, risking their lives on a tangled path carved out slowly, by excruciating and liberating trust, by law and by blood, cut into stone letter by letter, drops of blood spilling into the shifting sands on the way to a difficult, life-giving freedom.

And some—who can tell who they were or how they came that way—befriended that immensity. An immensity opened inside “as vast as night and light” that met the immensity outside and called it home. You can meet them wandering freely there today, their feet kissing the ground, their lips embracing the sky.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dust to Dust

Dust to Dust

I hate dusting, that Sisyphean task.
Impossible to remove it all, to achieve
that newborn place.
Wipe it away with your ravening rag
and specks escape,
floating free, unseen,
shrouding you in reflected light,
before settling into a new home from which you
have to drive them out.

At twelve my daughter asked me in queasy wonder,
“Dust is dead skin! We learned it in science!
Did you know that?”
I hated dust.
It left me no time for wonder.
Let it be someone else’s duty.
Let someone deal with it right,
come spray it with chemicals, kill it,
and drag the corpses away,
leaving surfaces nothing can cling to—
for a few days, an hour maybe,
a moment’s rest from laboring.

Dusting for Passover—no questions
from children—and a cloud of witnesses
rises up, sheening round me,
sloughed off skins of saints and sinners,
Hebrew and Egyptian, warrior
and builder, the free
and the bound, poets
and law givers, idol worshippers
and seekers, the cruel
and the merciful, those who hated
and those who loved, the drowned
and the saved,
a multitude forever mixed
all come to this—
dancing in the currents of a shoreless sea,
singing a song of love.
Even the dust praises you.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Feast of Freedom

As Passover approaches, I find myself wondering about the meaning of freedom. Truly wondering, because I am not sure, in spite of my younger self’s confident knowing—about freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, academic freedom, and the freedom of women and all vulnerable persons to choose their lives and to live in safety, free of oppression—that I understand what it is to live freely, or that I have ever really experienced it.

As I contemplate celebrating the feast of freedom with family and friends, the abstraction, freedom, looms over me, and I don’t know how to escape its enormity. Blessedly, a distinction that John Calvin makes in the Institutes, a distinction he borrowed from the Greek philosophers, comes to my aid. Here are three ways to begin thinking of freedom these wise souls suggest: freedom from, freedom for, and freedom in relation to things that are indifferent.

Freedom from. This seems at first glance as if it would be the easiest to understand. Freedom from stereotypes, oppression, violence, illness, sorrow, lies, bigotry, shame, care, poverty of body, poverty of spirit, anxiety, worry, enemies, hatred, the power of addiction—all that grinds life down and limits the good. It seems easy to generate list, to name the things that hold us back, imprison us, and that whose absence would lift our spirits and smooth our daily lives and that would make it possible for us to experience freedom for. But these aren’t always so easy. To see the internal chains from the past or our own limiting visions of our self and our possibilities takes great effort and often much time.

Freedom for. Should be easy, right? We think we know what we want to be free to do, certainly all that we were not allowed or able to do when we were not free. But once our restraints have been lifted it’s difficult to transform our lives and begin to do what we think we want to do. We have to grow into that freedom. And there’s the difficulty that trips up so many of us. It’s often hard to know when our chains have been removed so that we are indeed free for living freely. I read recently that human beings train elephants by chaining their leg to the trunk of a tree when they are babies. As hard as they pull, they cannot break free. When they have grown accustomed to this, the trainer replaces the chains with ropes. The adult elephant could break free of the ropes with no effort at all. But they do not try. All that power within them, and they remain shackled, prisoners.

That’s the way it was in the wilderness after the children of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt. The oppressors were gone, dead. This massing 600,000 souls had incredible power, but they believed they were still chained to the tree of their trainer and so kept circling and circling it, waiting for the trainer to come and untie them and lead them off to work or perform as they had been taught. It took the children of Israel a generation to believe, to see that they were free and to exercise the creative power they had to build a life on their terms. They had to grow into freedom for and that growing was not easy. The gap between generations is always wide, but in those days, it must have seemed unbridgeable. Parents born in slavery and children born in freedom of former slaves—what different worlds they inhabited, what strangers they must have been to one another. How difficult and painful it was for that first generation to turn together from freedom from to freedom for. How difficult and painful it was for that second generation to understand the freedom from that carried with it the chains of the past. Maybe that’s the real miracle, that they did finally leave that narrow place, break free of the flimsy yet powerful rope tied round their leg and begin to roam freely toward a new life.

I’ll return to freedom in relation to things that are indifferent another day.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Man on the Street Delivered a Remarkable Message

Last week, as my son and I were walking toward Pike Place Market, a man passed by going in the opposite direction. He was tall, his step energetic. As he passed our eyes met. My son and I continued on our way. But the man turned round to speak to us and we stopped,there on Pike Street, in the crowd of people rushing east and rushing west. He asked for help to get a meal. As we fished for something to give him, he told us he was from Kenya, a stranger here, not used to the ways of people here. His face was smooth and shining,his eyes open to ours. We gave him a few dollars and were on our way again.

"Thank you" he called.

We turned round to look.

He stood still in the street, straight and tall. He looked intently at us, his face a still, clear point in the moving mass. "Thank you for looking at me," he said. Then he smiled, a warming, welcoming smile.

And then we were all on our way again, jostling and being jostled, stopping and going, looking but not seeing.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Waking Up

In My Morning Bowl

in my morning bowl stars
stars waking up in a bed of oats
and clumps of crystalized honey
each dusky blue skin bursting
into five perfect points radiating
from the point where the stem once
attached to the branch
no scar to mark the moment—
just that tender opening to flesh,
a five-armed cistern now
collecting milk

How many mornings were they there
here, stars shining
as teeth crushed
each berry to pulp

I want my spirit to ripen
like that—juicy flesh stretching skin until
it tears
into a star-shaped opening
to silhouette the light