Friday, March 30, 2007

Seeing Through Shadows

(title of a track laine posted on his blog for good springtime music)

I am in Florida, Tallahassee to be specific, and I've been here for just over a week now. The weather is slightly overcast today, "Portlandish" as one of my hosts called it this morning, and honestly, it's my favorite kind of weather. Sunglasses *and* a broad-rimmed hat have gotten me through the impending sun of a Northern Floridian week, but at times the squinting has turned my Irish eyes a smiling into Irish eyes a struggling.

Now I am nestled in the lovely home of one of the major coordinators. The whole reason I was brought here was to teach a Miksang weekend (last weekend past), have a week of retreat, then teach a Contemplative Writing weekend (tomorrow and next day). She's an energy worker and PA at the Vet's Association, he's an art education professor at FSU. Their home is what I sort of expect mine might look like a coupla decades from now - organized but full, warm and worldly. It's very enjoyable. I've been touring the houses of the sangha a bit - my other organizer thought it better not to stress one member only over the nearly two weeks I've been here - and I've been staying in empty (haunted?) houses, big co-housing houses built 14 years ago, older houses similar to my own in terms of build (mine was built in the 30's) and finally this house, a ranchy bit nothing like my own at home, but feeling-wise, very similar. Has the same soul, one might say. I do truly love others' houses (I called it the "active Martha Stewart Living" when talking to one host - "Oh. So *That's* how they solved that problem!" kind of response.) (MSL is my very serious guilty pleasure). But the fact is that this trip has definitely taught me for sure that I am a homebody and need to stay in one home if I am gone from my own (and my own sweetie) for this long. Two weeks, 5 house changes is too much. Now we know.

The Tallahassee sangha is stunning. They are a very small center - just barely qualifying to be a center instead of a group, but very powerful, welcoming, and enthusiastic. They also LOVE Miksang, and I am leaving here confident that it has truly taken root here. Likely some of the students will emerge as teachers, as well (we'll have to wait about a year to make sure) and that's great, as neither teacher line has made a dent in the South yet.

And this *is* the South. I went to Orlando when I was 12, to visit a friend who's dad was in the World Band at Disney World. That was *not* Florida, nor the South. Last night I had oysters and mullet (tied to hairstyle? haven't checked yet) for dinner. The day before I went to a slave cemetery and saw an art exhibit portraying the Confederate battle flag in various, semi- to severly controversial depictions. The accents, the hospitality - all of it has felt seriously like a foreign country! When I mentioned this to one sangha member, she said "You've lived in France. Yeah. It's just like France. You greet a shopkeeper or they won't help you out. Presentation and politeness are everything." That explained the foreign feeling, yet the odd familiarity.

It's also been a very hard week for me personally. Things are in big flux at home (Erika and Aaron house searching, with tension around their moving out, and Dylan moving in), I miss Dylan (our longest time apart so far), and, ever classic, I have been far too hard on myself all week. I sort of cracked a bit by Wednesday, standing on an island in the Gulf, nothing around me but sky and water and sand, and cried and cried, after searching too hard for the perfect shells. I finally went to a chiropractor yesterday and he cracked a lot of it out for me. So hard for me to remember to relax and it gets harder the more pain I am in.

But shadows are indeed see throughable. And I am grateful I caught on now, within the confines of the trip, rather than after, like in Europe last year. I *am* learning, though that, too, can be used against me (by me), of course.

Off the computer for a bit, to relax my poor eyes and overconcentrated neck. I'll be home next Monday, Madison! And next time I come back to Tallahassee, I will have to go to Wakulla Springs, filming location for Creature from the Black Lagoon, which, I have found out, is the first film to successfully shoot underwater (Dylan we'll have to rent this upon my return, as the looks I got when I told them I haven't yet seen it were SCARY!).

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"Why bother about Germans invading the country?

Invade it yourself by Underground and Motor-Bus."
-London Underground ad, Easter 1915

I took my Bodhisattva Vow this last Thursday. When I walked out of the ceremony, my godmother, who had attended along with Dylan and my godmother's sister, Therese (who is in fact a Russian Orthodox nun) said "you look blissed out!". It was true. I felt so clear. When the teacher, Acharya Richard John, said "Welcome to a life of inconvenience," I just smiled. I felt I could handle anything. Then, four hours later (there was another ceremony for Refuge vows, then a reception and the drive back to birdfarm's lovingly donated city next refuge) I was really in the thick of it. Hungry, exhausted, worn out emotionally from a therapy session I still hadn't fully processed over 24 hours prior, Dylan was giving kind and gentle suggestions on how I could better help myself, and by proxy, him, as my pain was triggering suffering I was puking all over him. He was tremendously patient, but also exhausted himself. Emotional pain is hard to see, but the next day, when I had some physical pain, we were both able to see a little more clearly that I respond to pain by suffering. This sounds like a simple thing (we all experience pain, but suffering isn't necessary, and is a frequent response to pain) but I hadn't ever seen it quite as lucidly, personally, before. I also hadn't seen how inexorably linked my own self, my "other" (the part of me that prefers to be disjointed and suffering) and others (in this case, Dylan) really and truly are, which is key in the Bodhisattva vow, in fact. So it wasn't pretty, but my first post-vow lesson was strong and clear.

This idea that when I am in pain I immediately immerse myself in suffering is really amazing to me. It's not so much a surprise - I was in a lot of (gut) pain for many years before we diagnosed allergies and I stopped eating things that hurt me. But last night, again with the guts out of whack, birdfarm was amazed to hear how I had suffered like this for years and she had never known. When suffering muddies the water, it's hard to discern what is pain, and when suffering is muddying the waters, meta-suffering isn't far behind. Once I got home last night and laid on my belly with a hot water bottle and relaxed all my tense and overreacting muscles, the pain, too lessened, not weighed down by my suffering and worry. As soon as I experience pain, I head into a shock zone where the suffering piles on and I can't feel anything, even though it all hurts so much more than (now I see) just sitting with the pain, simply. I am amazed because it is simple, but so not easy at all to do. I am enthused though to know this more personally now - this is a teaching I have heard for years but I wasn't able to really work with yet - I think partially because of my chronic pain issues.

Last night, Dylan and I talked about conspiracy theories and chaos for a nice bit of time. He had spent the day at work poking around various sources for conspiracy groups online - focusing particularly on the "reptilians" (I hadn't heard of this before) and Illuminati sites. We got into a very interesting discussion about how risky conspiracy theories are, and how they take power away from awareness of real issues. That is something I have believed for a long time, in particular after 9/11, working at a lefty bookstore where the torrent of a wide range of theories started popping up in book and article form almost immediately. Anything from "the Jews did it" to "Bush and his cronies knew" filled the media for a long time, and people still sell books purporting both these and more out of their trunks all across America. I have always felt that wasting one's time trying to make order out of chaos, believing a 20/20 hindsight as being the same as a fully planned action, is not only a waste of time but in fact a complicit act on the part of the conspiracy theorist to keep attention off real issues that affect everyone daily - health care, poverty, food, etc. We talked about how funny it is that no one here wastes their time for instance with conspiracy theories about how Somalians are starving even though we (Americans) waste food all the time - when in fact there are real, honest, negligent policies that directly create a circumstance in which starvation is inevitable. That is not necessarily the plan of the politicians, but the outcome is clear to see for anyone really looking.

We also talked about perspective - he spoke about a rabbinical teaching in which human beings are demonstrated as being to God (taken loosely here) as ants are to humans. This was very powerful to me, as teachings about Space in Buddhism are key to understanding how panic, suffering and pain can seem to consume one's view and render them powerless in face of real work that needs to be done. Again, when we are consumed with plot (all I can see is all there is), we forget the endless resources around us (whether trying to feed Somalians, find out how something as horrific as 9/11 happened, or relief gas pain in our guts) and in the end, wind up perpetuating, if not contributing, to the suffering of everyone in the circumstance.

Carl Sagan, Dylan's hero, came up as well - Dylan mentioned that he talks about how if we want to play the Ockham's Razor card with this one, chaos is the simplest explanation, and the simplest explanation is most likely the real one. Fractals are one of my most favorite (I have come to think of them as, anyway) representations of how space and chaos work in our world. Something beautiful (or in the case of suffering or conspiracy theories, something awful) occurs, and we are convinced there was a plan to establish this. Fractals are so rad, something must have planned them! So intricate, so balanced, so real! And yet, as chaos theory goes, they are as much a result of randomness as anything else. Of course, evolution entered our conversation briefly, and direction of view - assuming something got to the place where it is because that was the only choice, or even best choice, is a pretty "anty" assumption to make about a very large, and very chaotic universe. I am constantly shown patterns in my work, but as Dharma (and many wise teachings of many traditions) points out, assuming that seeing patterns means that we *know* anything is quite arrogant. I would put conspiracy theories and their sheltering, righteous comfort far high in the arrogant category.

One of the guidelines my teacher gave me before taking the vow last Thursday was to go toward paradox. "If two things are resting side by side and it seems almost impossible that they are there, that is where you should be." I find a bliss in circumstances like this - the clarity of seeing through the bullshit of our political system, recognizing patterns and bringing to justice those who are, in fact, anywhere between benignly and negligently causing pain all the way to those planning to hurt others for their own gain, comes side by side with blind arrogance, often in the same beings. I am not exempt, and this, too, brings a certain smile to my face. A humble smile. Just when I think I can pass judgment on someone else and call myself scott-free, the label turns around and sticks to me. There is much to learn, and I will never learn it all. That's no reason not to keep going.

Monday, March 05, 2007

"I'm not interested in traveling, moving..."

Listened this morning to a strange, errant feed from WORT, the local community radio station, which, in lieu of the poetry show that was to be on, instead was an account of two Dutch women and their enduring friendship. One is a travel writer, has written 13 books over the last 20 years, and is constantly on the go. The other lives at home, doesn't leave home if she can help it (might even not go to a birthday party, if she can help it) and has 90 animals.

I have been reflecting a lot lately on what makes friendships endure or disintegrate. Birdfarm has reminded me that the older we get the more discerning we become - not just being friends with anyone, but with people who equally reciprocate in any number of ways - through equal communication, love, support and effort. Even equal silliness. And yet, this isn't about a laundry list (this seems obvious but still has taken years to clarify) of interests - this is, well, like when applying for a job, more about a "je ne sais quoi" quality to the arrangement. Things you don't know to ask in the beginning, because they aren't quantifiable: will I be respected, will you still love me, when I'm 64? These things I am learning to get a sense about from the beginning - sniff them out, ask related questions about communication, respect, life views, but it is hard to get it just right, especially when some relationships were born in eras of earlier desperation.

That desperation has returned in some of my relationships. There appear to be phases I have gone through in this Saturn Return, or whatever it is, when all relationships come into transition. It's relationship transition time again. Two of my closest friends in town are moving - one soon and not too far, the other very far in the next year. And, I have decided to ask Erika, for a long time my closest friend in Madison, to move out, and her fiance and her will likely buy a house soon and move on. I am ready for Dylan to move in, and he is ready to move in, but transitions are hard for everyone, and often this one has resembled a divorce (including who gets the dog).

There was an era in my life when I traveled and dreamt of moving all the time. I wanted to be this travel woman, writing travel literature, known for her saavy in many cultures. Not well known anywhere, only by reputation, not by location. Now, over time, I am getting more and more home-oriented, and my sensitivity to how I want my home to be is getting really keen. I want specific things and they cannot be too far comprimised. I was warned to travel much and young, for fear that once I settled I wouldn't want to anymore. I still trust I am as open as I ever was, if not moreso, but I see now how a desire to go deeper in my home is tempering my desire to be somewhere else, anywhere else.

Ironically, work calls to me to travel, for the first time in my adult life. I go to Tallahassee in a few weeks to teach. I am working on NYC and/or Portland for the fall, again, with a week-long, two-weekend inclusive retreat. These are fine, not too much travel at all, but last night I realized this is the first time I can anticipate I will miss being at home while I am gone. This is rare, very rare. The only time I have ever truly been homesick was last years' Europe trip, and that wasn't anticipated at all - in fact was a shocking, depressing surprise. This time, I know it is there and I can work with it.

I imagine I will always be interested in traveling, even if just reading travel writings. I imagine also there will be other eras in my life when I want to travel more, again. For now, all those discernment skills, telling the strange from the stranger, are turned inward. I wouldn't say I can totally relate to the quote title, but I can understand it more than I ever did before. Not moving doesn't mean not seeing, necessarily. Last year, at my retreat with Natalie Goldberg, she said aloud to all of us that she is jealous of people who live where they were born, for they truly really know a place from the inside out. This was the first time I had ever heard someone I respected revering that kind of life (my parents began the trend early on of deriding it). I continue to explore what it feels like to only travel, and move, inside, most of the time.