Monday, August 29, 2011

Eruptions of the Divine: A Guest Post by Suzanne Akbari

I'm delighted to share this space with my friend and fellow traveller Suzanne Akbari--as I hope to share it in the future with other readers and seekers. Suzanne speaks eloquently of times when we think we're attuned to the presence of the Divine in our experience--and then suddenly find out that we've almost missed it, until it presses in on us whether we're ready or not: sometimes smacking us square in the face; sometimes coming at us obliquely, right at the periphery of where we're so intently focused on finding it.

We expect to find the divine in quiet places – serene places, houses of worship, peaceful gardens. But sometimes the divine erupts, with a kind of bright, abrupt violence, and it comes as a beautiful surprise. One afternoon last month, in Provincetown, I came to meet my daughter before her early evening sailing race. She asked me to meet her in the enclosed garden behind a shop on Commercial Street called WA. I knew that she and her friends used this garden all the time as a kind of teen rendezvous location, usually during the lunch break from their sailing club.

I followed the narrow passageway that runs along the left side of the building into the garden. I had never been in the garden before, but I had seen the store, which is full of tastefully arranged household accessories for the enlightened home decorator. Right behind the store is a tiled garden space surrounded by greenery on all sides, with a leafy wooded hillside at the back (the Bradford Street side is high there) and an assortment of tasteful waterfalls, wooden benches, and Buddha statues (all of these items with price tags). I got there a couple of minutes early and so I waited quietly in the empty garden. It’s a lovely space with the dripping water and the greenery, though the piped in New Age music was a little off-putting. I walked around, looking at the smooth smiling faces of the Buddha statues, and sat on a wooden bench at the side of the garden to wait.

So then comes trickling in a whole bunch of kids, about a dozen of them aged eight to fourteen, just gotten out from the sailing club, dressed in damp rags of various sorts, wet from swimming and sailing all day. They were all chatting and flirting and quarreling, eating and drinking, sitting on each others’ laps and chewing gum, as children that age do, and I started thinking, My god, this is so inappropriate, they're so disruptive, someone is going to come out of the store – and then I suddenly thought, ‘No, this is totally appropriate.’ Someone had brought a pizza and they were all eating and talking, all colorful and half dressed and entirely full of young life. I looked at them and thought, Wow, this is as Buddhist as the WA garden could ever possibly get.

I had seen the divine erupt before: I had seen it for the first time as a teenager practicing meditation by looking at a candle flame, and suddenly I saw waves and waves of red light. Even though I kept practicing meditation, I never saw it again. I had felt the sudden pressure of the divine once when floating in the water on an intensely sunny day, feeling the water outside and the water inside me, and no longer having any sense – just for a moment – of the boundaries of my body. But I had never seen so vividly and with such pulsing animation the energy of the divine. It’s good to make spaces for the divine, sacred enclosures or altars where we invite the divine to dwell. But sometimes the divine erupts upon you, in the most unexpected way; it takes your breath away.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Praying in Front of God and Everybody

“What are you doing?” my four-year old neighbor asked me as I approached my backyard altar yesterday morning. Our houses stand less than ten yards apart, and the grownups observe a studied and necessary convention of privacy. It’s hard not to be aware of one another’s comings and goings, our social arrangements, even sometimes a fragment of domestic argument that drifts from one window to another. We’re careful to maintain the fiction that we know of one another’s lives only what we’ve chosen to share. It’s the business of a four-year-old, thank God, to chip away at the careful artificiality of our boundaries.

“I’m taking this bowl away to fill with fresh water for some flowers,” I answered breezily, brushing off her well-founded curiosity why a grown man goes out, rings a bell, kneels briefly twice day, five steps from her cellar door, in front of a half-disintegrated brick barbecue, gets up a few minutes later, bows, and goes back into the house. I’m already exotic, since I live with another man. This puts me right over the top.

What kept me from instead sharing some less evasive introduction to my practice? I could have explained that this is where I say prayers twice a day: as the daughter of practicing Roman Catholics, she would have found that intelligible enough. I could have explained that the flowers are like the flowers in church, that the bell helps me remember that the time I spend here is important, like the incense I burn at dusk and the small camphor fire I light in the clay puja lamp. I could have explained that the colored stones arranged in a circle in front of the small bronze Buddha represent the north, east, south, and west and remind me that the earth is our mother.

Instead, I let my self-consciousness about personally chosen ritual get in the way of our exchange, and in the process contributed to a child’s incipient sense that ritual is private, eccentric, and not to be talked about—perhaps that it’s even, in some sense, illicit.

I can do better than this. I can do better by her, and by myself, and by the world she’s growing up to create.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I’m feeling, uh, a little self-conscious about this post. What’s a pro-feminist, post-modernist, sometime queer theorist doing building a phallic shrine, for the use of the temporary communities that are passing through Easton Mountain, week by week, for Eros Spirit Camp, Recovery Camp, and Gay Spirit Camp? Won’t Luce Irigaray and Leo Bersani hunt me down and kill me for this? I won’t riff on the paradox for too long: I’ll save that sort of reflection for a heavily footnoted article that maybe twenty people will read.

Instead, I’ll simply say this: the inevitable woundedness of queer male sexuality in a homophobic world needs safe containers where we can affirm our desire and the animal nature that generates it. We need welcoming spaces where nature and culture converge in our sexuality differently from the toxic ways they converge (or don’t) in a mainstream culture that serves us so badly: where we can open the connection between our hearts and our cocks; between our human sexuality and the cosmos of which we're a part.

I set out two weeks ago to create a shrine along Shinto principles, inspired by the phallic cults of central Japan, wherein smiling middle-aged matrons in kimono carry absurdly oversize joysticks down the street in annual processions.

Things didn’t quite turn out as I planned.

I found a circle in the meadow, recently mown for a sweat lodge yet to be built. The spot cried out. I found the perfect ceremonial table—tall, narrow, simply and roughly made but elegant—sitting neglected in the greenhouse. I flanked the mown path into the circle with two lines of stones, fanning a few more out into the circle.

And then realized to my astonishment that I was giving form to an enormous outdoor yoni-lingam: the phallus of Lord Shiva contained by the vagina of his Consort. Eight of us carried a two-foot wooden cock up the hill, banging drums, to install it as the central symbol of veneration, the first night of Eros Spirit Camp.

Unfortunately, I had to settle for Tiki torches for nighttime illumination. The effect is a little cheesy, as though someone is about to be voted out of the tribe on Survivor: Penis Island.

The next day along came the groundskeeper, who promptly mowed a second birth canal into the yoni: never attach to the results of your actions. I turned the second passage into a kind of gallery with sawn stumps in place of columns in order to restore the integrity of the space.

Then a thoughtful friend pointed out that the layout made no place for anal eroticism, no place for trans men. So last week’s first project was digging a hole behind the altar on the axis of the shrine, edged with stones, covered with charcoal, and dusted with vermillion powder; and rearranging the fire circle between the altar and the entrance into a vulva.

Next comes an entrance gate now that more of us are well and truly invited in.