Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Holy Hubcap of Antioch

Among the sacred objects I treasure most deeply, I count the rosary I bought at the shrine of St. Francis Xavier in Goa. Also the small, naturally sculpted phallus of smooth white stone I found while walking a beach with the men in my ritual and art-making circle. But the one that really stands out is a Cadillac hubcap.

Last summer one of my mentors found it lying inexplicably in the woods on a morning hike. It sat at the foot of the altar for three days at a workshop before he presented it to me as a parting gift during the closing circle. I knew instantly it would become the tray on which I'd keep a small burner for arati--the cool, steady flame of camphor tablets--along with powders for tilak--the facial markings that declare the wearer's devotion to one or another of the Hindu gods. It needed a good blast of the garden hose and a stiff scrubbing with a wire brush to get what rust I could off the underside.

For the rest of the summer, I waited to see if visitors would recognize its previous incarnation. I enjoyed sharing the joke, whether they caught it on their own or I pointed it out to them. But the moment of recognition also always felt a little risky. Could my arati tray be funny and serious at the same time, a loose adaptation of a practice with millennia of tradition behind it and still a castoff car part that had turned up in the middle of the forest, and that now intermittently flaked rust onto the sari laid over the floor of my tent?

We often want the sacred securely and absolutely separated from the profane. We get uneasy when they turn out to sit cheek by jowl with each other. People may write off a ritual practice as frivolous; they may indeed get angry when they think the line is drawn wrong. Think of the furor that has surrounded public performances and displays of art in which one representation of the holy strikes others as sacrilege.

At the Christian Easter Vigil, an officiant sprinkles the congregation with water to remind them of their baptism into the community of the Church, usually flinging it over their heads from a leafy branch dipped into a basin. A friend of mine one year instead pulled a squirt gun out of his vestments to spritz the kids in his confirmation class. Everyone saw the joke, but not everyone got the point: that we meet the sacred when it breaks into the circumstances of our ordinary existence, and that we ought to rejoice and celebrate that it's so, because otherwise, we'd be far less likely to meet the sacred at all. The kids loved it and were way ahead of some of the stuffier adults in the congregation.

My hubcap didn't work well for all the men who saw it, or saw me using it, either. At a retreat center where eclectic, radical faerie spirituality has a robust presence, the disconnect wasn't always about the danger of being flippant. Instead, at least sometimes, men were puzzled and a little put off by the clear and serious, if unconventional, connection to an established but unfamiliar tradition. It was the arati and the tilak they had more trouble with than the hubcap.

What I'm trying to say about my hubcap is this: sacred symbols aren't doing their work well if we get them perfectly, right away, and they flawlessly confirm our prior expectation of where we'll meet the Divine. Maybe they should make us pull back, just a little, at least once in a while, so that we notice their absurdity. Better they should be a little rough around the edges, with a little rust flaking off, and maybe a dent in the rim.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

In Honor of Pema Chödrön

Today is the seventy-sixth birthday of Pema Chödrön, the resident teacher of Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Ani Pema is on yearlong retreat for 2012. She has made the suggestion that to honor her, those grateful for her teachings should practice in solidarity with her today.

Here are two excerpts from her writings:

When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they're going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It's a bit like saying, "If I jog, I'll be a much better person." "If I could only get a nicer house, I'd be a better person." "If I could meditate and calm down, I'd be a better person." Or the scenario might be that they find fault with others; they might say, "If it weren't for my husband, I'd have a perfect marriage." "If it weren't for the fact that my boss and I can't get along, my job would be just great." And "If it weren't for my mind, my meditation would be excellent." But loving-kindness, or maitri, toward ourselves doesn't mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous of full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It's about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. That's the ground, that's what we study, that's what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest. (The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, pp. 3-4)

How are we going to spend this brief lifetime? Are we going to strengthen our well-perfected ability to struggle against uncertainty, or are we going to train in letting go? Are we going to hold on stubbornly to "I'm like this and you're like that"? Or are we going to move beyond that narrow mind? Could we start to train as a warrior, aspiring to reconnect with the natural flexibility of our being and to help others do the same? If we start to move in this direction, limitless possibilities will begin to open up. (The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, p. 20)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tree Hugger

I feel stressed today, sitting in the house as a crew takes down the very large maple twenty feet from the front door. They've been at it since around 9 this morning, and they're very good. I hear them strategizing, then the sound of a chainsaw, a warning shouted in Spanish, a crack, a thud that comes up through my feet from the floorboards, laughter, then the blows of a machete hacking the smaller branches into lengths they can load onto the flatbed. They're down to the last lead branch as I write this. It stretches up now about sixty feet on its own, the last remnant of the giant presence that's shaded us year after year, that wrapped us in a living green embrace against the worst of last week's heat wave.

And I'm quietly sick at heart. This is the tree that held through last August's hurricane, when limbs had fallen up and down the street as we came out of hiding at the end of the day. I owe this being a compounded debt of gratitude. I owe it awe for its rootedness and strength, owe it admiration for the birds and insects that have made homes in it. I need its forgiveness that at the signs of disease in its trunk and central leader we decided against the risk it posed so close to the house.

By cordoning it off with a ceremonial rope five days ago, setting a bronze Buddha atop one of its roots, burning camphor at its foot every evening as dusk fell, reverencing it by laying my hands on its trunk, I confirmed our neighbours' hunch that I've gone around the bend. To mourn this tree, to make mourning real by ritualizing its destruction, is a conscious decision I could choose not to make. By early influence and upbringing, I'm disposed to do so--my mother and her people, for all their Protestant piety, were closet animists, without knowing the word--but I could still choose instead to say, "It's only a tree, for God's sake."

But to honor this tree is as much about how I want to be in the world, and who I want to be in the world, as it is about the object of my grief. I'd rather spend the rest of my lilfe as a crazy fag who goes out to the front yard in a sarong at dusk to burn incense at the foot of a doomed maple, and who lavishes as much attention on plants and animals as some people pay their children. I'd rather see the creatures with whom I share this poor, poisoned planet as having as much right to their lives as I and my whole sorry-assed, self-obsessed species. I'd rather stand, in whatever ways I have power and means to stand, with the whales and the old-growth pines and the spotted owls and the orangutans and the few embattled traditional human societies that are left, than with the corporations and governments that treat the earth as so much raw material to chew through: the ecological rapists of Canada, and the US, and Brazil, and China; the oil and mining and automotive companies, the chemical conglomerates, the factory farms.

I'd rather see the Earth as my Mother. I'd rather begin and end the day saying Thank You for the ground under my feet and the light in the sky than taking them as my due.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Signs and Wonders

I turned the cards over one by one as I sat in the garden yesterday morning, before I set off for a day that would call for a grounded sense of who I am and the gifts I can offer those I meet; for openness; for risk-taking.

Temperance. The High Priestess. The World.

I was happy not to see again the dark cards that have turned up dauntingly often over the last two weeks: Death, the Nine of Swords, the Ten of Swords.

Along with relief came surprise that I'd turned up three Major Arcana together. A Tarot deck consists of seventy-eight cards: the Minor Arcana in four suits, and twenty-two named cards outside the suits--the Major Arcana. Your chances of turning up one of the Major Arcana are less than three to one. Your chances of turning up three of the Major Arcana in a row are, obviously, much lower. (I'll leave the correct statistic to those who know more math than I've long forgotten.)

Then I settled into the slower, more ambiguous search for what these cards could tell me, digging into the uncertainties, looking in the shadows cast by hesitation for what I might otherwise fail to see. Reading your cards, or having them for you, requires a kind of faith. You have to trust that a series of random occurrences has something to teach you--that hovering just behind pure chance is a sign that points to something you'd do well to notice. You have to get past calculating the odds in order to embrace what Thomas Moore has called "the reenchantment of everyday life."

You don't have to believe deeply. You just have to behave as though you do. You have to give yourself permission to imagine and play with the possibility that the randomness of the world is speaking to you. You can use the Tarot as a technology for the expansion of your soul. You could just as well use astrology; or the I Ching; or ink blots; or the pattern of the flowers that have opened this particular summer day, in this particular meadow. The truth isn't in the cards, but in the dialogue you have with them--a dialogue that can both take you out of yourself and invite you to enter more deeply into yourself.

The faith that the accidental encounters of daily life can speak to you is right next door to naïveté; and just across the street from narcissism. My life history makes me painfully, uneasily aware of what can happen when well-meaning people lose their critical edge. I grew up with a born-again uncle who claimed to have prayed his gas-tank full between paychecks; with an aunt who met the Devil on her way to a family reunion, turning him down, I'm glad to report, when he needed a lift--and who had an unnerving habit of sharing with new acquaintances (like my former partner, the first time she met him) a few of the most important miracles she'd experienced in her life. I've known hyper-rationalist empirical types who've fallen off the wagon into talking about auras and chakras as though they were subject to the same verifiability as the laws of thermodynamics.

And this is why I think a sense of play (and a healthy dose of irony, our cultural birthright as queers) is ever more essential as we integrate the spiritual importance of our everyday experience. As we search the ordinary for the wisdom it has to impart, we need to remind ourselves, more or less continuously, that it's what happens between us and the signs and wonders of our lives--the cards we read; the dragonfly that settles on our arm; the coincidental meeting that feels too providential to ascribe to dumb luck--that opens us up, not those occurrences in and of themselves. There's no objective, "scientific" truth to the Tarot, as far as I'm concerned, but there is what it calls forth in us as we play with what it offers. The chance happenings of my day aren't direct messages from a God who has nothing more pressing to do than send me personal telegrams; but I can choose to take them as evidence of a Mystery that unfolds before me, and, sometimes, an invitation to allow it to unfold within me as well.

(If you're interested in learning the basics of reading the Tarot, Joan Bunning offers a very user-friendly (and free) online course at www.learntarot.com.)