Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Putting It Out There

I returned yesterday from four days at Easton Mountain, a retreat centre in upstate New York founded and maintained by a community of gay men as a gift to the world. There I attended the Body Electric School’s weekend workshop, “Art and Eros.”

The twenty of us who registered included professional artists, deeply accomplished amateurs, men whose creative life lies outside the visual arts, and men who hadn’t picked up a paint brush or pastel stick since grade school.

The late capitalist notion that everything is commodity has robbed us of our birthright: that we are all creative; that our creativity, as Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, might put it, flows forth from us in the image of the Power that created us. Art doesn’t count because someone else judges its quality. It counts because it puts the shape of our inner lives out there, visible to ourselves and visible to the world, where what we’ve produced can become the Other with which we enter into dialogue–and in so doing, address the work and adventure of repairing our souls. (Shown at left is Andrew Graham's fox avatar.)

And repair our souls we did, as men in a loving if temporary community, losing ourselves in the sheer kindergarten magic of making marks on paper, in high silliness, in tears, in outrageous flirtation, in moments of ecstatic abandon.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Keeping Vigil

This last Sunday, in the little Lutheran church near my summer house in Amagansett NY, I heard read a lesson from Isaiah 65: “I held out my hands to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices; a people who provoke me continually, sacrificing in gardens and offering incense on bricks.”

Uh oh. For the moment, let’s set that one aside, along with Leviticus 20:13.

Sunday night, I consecrated a derelict brick barbecue as my summer altar and temple. If that isn’t camp and chutzpah together, tell me what is.

Earlier in the day, I’d restored dead leaves and garden waste to the freshly swept lower compartment of the altar, where they’ll rot and generate new life. (The poem I shared late last week, "Playing with Agni," talks its way around the experience that led me to perform this small act of respect for God in her endlessly generative female manifestation.)

Changing a little before sunset into white drawstring pants, I set in the altar’s upper chamber the objects that will rest there till the end of August, each of them sexy and resonant with the memory of a treasured moment of my inner life, some of them gifts from beloved comrades. A brass vajra; a minuscule Ganesh; a crystal cross; a tiny buddha that turned out to balance perfectly on the half-dislodged mortar between two bricks at the center of the back wall, a few inches above the floor; a round soapstone box shaped as a Shiva lingam: these things fuse my erotic longings with my desire for the Divine.

I smeared my heart and the altar with a paste I’d made of earth and green tea and sweet wine. Cones of incense smoked as I set out candles and an unglazed clay lamp filled with olive oil from the kitchen and a wick cut from a length of garden rope. At a time I’d arranged in advance with a beloved brother far away, I kindled flame and offered prayer to the Eternal as fire-bearing Destroyer of Illusion.

The candlelight glowed off the brick walls as darkness fell. Hour by hour I woke and went outside to find the lamp still burning, on through to the sound of birds waking before dawn.

I’ll work on Isaiah 65 later...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Chanting in Orgy on a Summer Morn

On Monday comes the hinge between the half year of growing light that is about to end and the half year of fading light that begins even as summer burgeons into full life.

Don’t let it pass unmarked. Make it your queer soul’s business to embrace the rhythms of earth and heaven.

Sit on the beach, or on your fire escape, and watch the sun rise on the Longest Day. Greet the sun naked if it moves you, and you can do it away from unwelcoming eyes.

Kindle a flame at sunset to unite your heart to the light that sustains us all.

Plunge into a lake. Or into a swimming pool. Or into a mudhole. Or into the dust that we are.

Make an altar, however small, however simple; however large and over the top. Bring to it the objects that best embody your heart’s intentions, your hopes and aspirations and the sources of your strength.

Drum and dance with a circle of comrades, if you’re blessed to have such men by your side.

Mix a ritual paste out of the substances that token your deepest connections to the world that has given rise to your flesh. Make it of earth or ash or crushed herbs; of water or honey or wine. Bring the full energy of your erotic self along in the making of it. Anoint yourself. Smear your heart. Smear another man’s heart. Smear your altar.

Do this for the healing of the Earth; for its preservation from the corporate greed that treats her not as our Mother but as a resource to be endlessly degraded and exploited. Do this to affirm that you, and every man who has loved men since we came out of the woods and started building huts, do not stand over against nature, but are a part of nature. Do this to celebrate the mayfly glory of your own mortal desire.

This is your only chance. The self that greets this Solstice has already sloughed off the self of last summer; nor will it endure into the self of next. Do it now.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Altar's Lesson

Playing with Agni

There is no controlling damage.

The twigs won’t ignite
in high winds, with heavy rain coming.
Dry straw added, and the sticks catch,
a modest conflagration, sacrament only
of all-destroying flame. And then the chamber
proves no empty vessel after all;
the aspiration to save
all sentient life from destruction
only a naive wish. One ant, disoriented,
circumambulates the flames,
then more begin to swarm,
freighting eggs from a crack between the bricks.

I abort the fire,
scatter the faggots,
keen to save the colony. Feel relief
when the tiny panic subsides. Wonder
at my treason against whatever god I’m welcoming,
but move the smoking brands
away from the nest, burning my hand,
which smarts now as I write.
I’ve usurped this womb, claimed it half-heartedly
for a god of fire only to relent; carry the stigma
of a scorched palm for my temerity,
punishment at once from the goddess I have refused
in the end to evict and the god I have refused
the price of untrammeled entry.

What was I thinking? A safe fire,
a purification of mere emptyness,
a discount holocaust?
A place of fecund chaos
scoured clean of the disorder of life in full spate?

is my split allegiance, then:
to fire that blazes up only to be scattered
before it has consumed all;
to seed that falls into the earth and dies.

Copyright David Townsend 2010. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Summer Altar


Clear the brush
that someone has laid atop this small ruin,
and from its lower chamber.
Remove the loose
bricks that have collapsed
from the upper platform
into the recess below, where the detritus
has composted into rich
humus, a home
to sowbugs and earthworms.
Relocate among tendrils at the garden’s edge
these creatures and the soil
in which they live and move.
Sweep it clean, before
you set a purifying fire in the chamber.

You do not know why
you are doing this. It’s not a rite
from any tradition in which you were reared. Perhaps
it’s your own muddled amalgam
of half-remembered accounts
of other cultures’ encounters with the Holy.
The humus in its fecundity is sacred,
the worms and arthropods that have burrowed into the darkness are sacred.
The fire merely prepares the house for another face of God.

It doesn’t matter
that this ruined altar began
as an abandoned barbecue behind your summer house,
unused at least these seven or eight years.
It is what your imagination
longs for it to be.
It is dark, autochthonous; it is open to the sun.
It will receive
the objects you declare holy.
It will sanctify
the objects you bring to it.
Prepare it for the summer solstice
some two weeks from now.
Tell no one who will scoff.
The sight of it will speak for itself.
Trust the god who leads you blindfolded
into the miracle of the ordinary.

Copyright David Townsend 2010. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Why Ritual Works

Not everyone has an intuitive inclination to ritual action. Many people who've had mostly negative experiences of ritual don't see the point of it in their lives. I respect such viewpoints: they're important, because they're often grounded in how badly burned people have been by bad, inauthentic, and/or toxic ritual. Such folks can offer important perspectives on what can go wrong, or fail to go right. Here are some of the things I say to explain why I think ritual is a positive tool for personal growth and a potentially helpful component for a richer spritual path.

Good ritual “puts it out there.” Our inner lives take on a more concrete reality when we make them visible through word, movement, and symbol. Through ritual, we “come out” in ways visible to ourselves and others.

Good ritual is deep play. Sometimes we need to get lost in an experience and forget the narrow definitions that everyday pressures put on us to “get it together.” Good ritual is a chance to “waste time” creatively, the way a safely held child has the security to ‘waste time” creatively. It’s a way of “going to pieces without falling apart” (to borrow the title of a book by the Buddhist/Jewish psychotherapist Mark Epstein). Good ritual gives us safe space to let go for a little while and give up unhelpfully narrow preconceptions about who we are and where we’re headed. It helps us find our deeper, more expansive, and more playful selves.

Good ritual celebrates the complexity of our lives. A good ritual doesn’t have one simple, restrictive meaning. It involves objects, words, and actions that can mean different things depending on how we look at them. Good ritual doesn’t present us with an “either/or” choice. Instead it invites us to think “both/and.”

Good ritual honors what’s tough. Good ritual helps us hold the paradoxes of our lives together in one piece. It’s a safe space where we don’t have to choose between one layer of our experience and another. We can feel joy together with sorrow, love along with anger, hurt along with healing, fulfillment together with longing, detachment together with passion, instead of blocking out what’s difficult in ways that aren’t true to our experience.

Good ritual helps us focus and moves us forward. When we let ourselves go, affirm who we are, and lay claim to our hopes and aspirations, we’re ready to meet our lives with greater clarity and energy. Good ritual sends us back out into the world ready for our life.

Good ritual is fabulous. How can queer men say no to a chance to dress up and act out?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why Do We Need Ritual?

Our lives are rich and full of complex, deeply layered meanings, but it’s easy for us to lose touch with that richness and complexity. We get tangled in the demands of the everyday. Authentic ritual affirms our connectedness to one another and to the wellsprings of our life. It can help us open up to a more profound awareness of the amazing, infinite adventure of our finite, precious time on this earth.

We live in a goal-oriented culture that demands results and values quick, easy answers. Our drive for success and individual prestige sidelines our capacity for wonder, awe, and playfulness. We all live with the consequences. Our sense of ourselves can get flattened. We can lose touch with the miracle of our existence. We can lose touch with the miracle of each other.

Ritual is a nearly universal human response to such pressures. In our modern, secular society, some still find respite and renewal in a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Some find it in the rituals of team sports. (Think of the outpouring of communal euphoria around the Olympics.) We make much of weddings. Maybe we know someone who’s made the trek to Compostela, or gone to Jerusalem or Mecca, to Dharamsala or Varanasi or Glastonbury.

But “ritual” has negative associations for many. The rituals we do encounter sometimes feel hollow and leave us confused or dissatisfied. Funerals are notorious on this score, and lots of us have very mixed memories of confirmations, bar mitzvahs, and other early experiences. Some of us wouldn’t dream of setting foot inside a religious institution, and often for good reason on the basis of personal history.

Queer men are in double jeopardy. For much of our lives, we may have found ourselves shut out from full access to even the very limited amount of good, satisfying ritual practice that modern life offers.