Day 223 2/3/14: On Story and Healing

imagesI am privileged to have Deena Metzger as my teacher. When I read her recent essay What Story is And How it Heals, I thought FINALLY! an understanding of story that makes sense to me.

P.S. What does it mean to enter into a council with animals? Click here to read about Deena’s work with elephants in Africa.

Day 208 1/19/14: I Know Why the Caged Diver Screams

imagesAs my date with a shark cage gets closer and closer, I find myself feeling extremely, ummm..sensitive about any stories or videos related to shark cage diving, such as the Leonardo DiCaprio cage diving story I posted  last week. Then, this morning I found this story about an Australian man who decided to swim with a tiger shark wearing only a bird cage which made me feel a little less foolish and afraid.

Anyway, it’s probably good for me to read these stories. Isn’t life all about seizing the day and bucket lists and profiles in courage and doing something everyday that scares us everyday and dancing like  nobody’s watching? For me, it’s also about working through a primal fear of being eaten alive by a predatory fish although that wouldn’t sound so pithy on a coffee mug.

Day 207 1/18/14: Ram Dass: Living The Mystery

imagesIn “Instant Karma!” a song written and recorded in one day, John Lennon posed the eternal question: “Why in the world are we here?” answering the unanswerable with a single, powerful certainty: “Surely not to live in pain and fear.”

In this humble blog, one of my recurring questions has been how not to shut down in the face of suffering–both my own internal sadness and the suffering of animals, of aging parents, etc.

Today I  discovered this terrific and invigorating podcast that grapples with all of these things–a 1996 Ram Dass lecture called Living the Mystery which I highly recommend. (NOTE: Skip the introductory part. Ram Dass is funny and dynamic.  Listening to this narrator is like hearing someone describe a movie in exhaustive detail and thereby  sucking all the energy & surprise out it. START listening at 17:59! 

Day 194 1/5/14: A Post-Christmas (Sort of) Fable

images-2The other day walking around the Hollywood Reservoir, I  discovered a tree covered in Christmas decorations. Two trees actually. “Festooned” with decorations might be pushing it, since this is January and as glittery it appeared, a tinge of belatedness vibrated at the edges. Large silver bells, flat stencil-style presents and glittery disco-style bulbs that are either silver or green and garland gold and ribsy. Everything shone in that I-don’t-recognize-the-meaning-of-January Los Angeles sun.

As I paused at the tree, some weird cocktail of juvenile delinquency and middle-aged nostalgia intoxicated me and I thought about stealing one of the silver disco balls. After all, it was Christmas and surely this tree had been decorated for a lark anyway and stealing was probably built into the design of a publicly decorated Christmas tree. But almost as soon as this impulse surfaced, like a good ex-Catholic, I immediately drown it in a tidal wave of shame and self-loathing.

Then I noticed the sign spinning and breathing among the ornaments. Handwritten and cardboard it said something like:


I’ve been trying to develop a more sophisticated version of God than “hypercritical eyeball that reads your every thought,” but this sign wasn’t helping.

As a kid, I read our Christmas tree like some annual, familiar, but always slightly altered text. The ornaments had specific histories, and their placement in the branches varied, and so the story they retold each year created slightly altered tones and new narrative possibilities. Only the nativity scene with its jagged broken donkey ear assumed the same position—perched on two barely developed branches near the trunk in the dark center of the tree. I always knew where it was, and yet my eye always came upon it as the surprised or lost child in a fable encounters a house in a primeval clearing.  The story I usually concocted had something to do with the proximity and juxtaposition of the holy and the kitschy–the baby Jesus bathed in the red and green light of the lights. On that outskirts of that sacred hollow, a Snoopy with antlers instead of beagle ears skated on an invisible pond.

We had had a tarnished silver disco ball on our Christmas trees in the 1970s, but my favorite ornament was the glass red Silent Night bulb with its white church steeple and its simple wave of snow. It reminded me of the words of another hymn—“The First Noel” and its cold winter’s night “that was so deep.” The line stuck with me long after midnight mass  because I could sense eternity in it. That a night could be deep made me reconsider darkness itself as it settled over our house and across our fields.  That sort of deep rolled like a storm cloud. It unfurled like a passage, wide and silent.

I suppose light has its own depth. The cardboard sign, somewhere between a plea and a warning framed itself in needles of light that jumped off the haphazard garland. It reflected me back at myself like the disco ball ornament I’d considered stealing. If I was living a myth (and who says I’m not?), my theft of the ornament would end in a haunting, my guilt fractured into a thousand spirit fragments in the  miniature mirrors of the disco ball that I’d hung it blithely on my rearview mirror. Distracted by its mocking, spinning death whirl, I might drive my car into a ditch and no one would know I’d died of a heart attack brought on my ghosts before internal injuries.

This is the season of the naked and the abandoned. The fallen.  Christmas trees haunt the alleys. I find the sight of these briefly coveted messengers of joy quite depressing. A tree if it is to be sacrificed, surely deserves to be an object of contemplation longer than the Christmas season or at least recycled to return in some fertilizing capacity to the earth. Passing these desolate trees on sidewalks, I feel their silent reproach. It’s as if I’m in church all over again: I died for you. There is something that sees hidden deep in those branches, something stolen from the pagan forest dragged inside and draped with new religion, then stripped again and forgotten.

I  like to imagine the tree on the edge of the Hollywood Reservoir still decorated in May or June, surprising those running or walking along the sandy shoulder of the road, the silver bells in the silent dry light of summer, the ragged breath of garland, the words lodged in its living branches.

Day 190 1/1/14: A Matter of Life and Death

For the second year in a row, I spent New Year’s Eve at a Buddhist mediation center with friends. This is a tradition that I never really consciously initiated, but one that I highly recommend. It is nice to enter a new year in the silence of meditation or following the rhythmic drone of prayer in a softly lit room while people are lighting fireworks or firing guns or generally acting like madmen in the dark outside.

The monk was funny. After talking about resolutions (regular flossing, fitness) and the power of the mind, he recommended a meditation that appealed to me: “I may die today.” “Or,” he said, looking out at the hundred or so people filling the tiny hall, “it’s likely that some of you might die this year. Not everyone will make it back here next New Year’s Eve.” This focus on death is designed to help us remember what’s important, which in Buddhism is resolving to become a better person and through this discovering some sort of peace which we can share with others.

Later Connie, Gail and talked about the countdown to my descent in the shark cage in South Africa in June. I made jokes about dying in the shark cage, because to joke about death is to at once acknowledge it and ward it off. It would be too perfect, too absurd for me to be eaten by a white shark when the whole point is to live to tell about it, to describe what it’s like to meet this old friend, this old fear, this dream human face to conical snout.What do their eyes look like, really? What’s the exact nature of their blackness, or up close are they really pure black at all?

Today I took down my brand new calendar and filled in all the numbered days until my shark trip, my uneven purple digits scrawled over the white space of unlived time, dwarfing the sensible preprinted numbers of the calendar. What are the odds, I wondered, that I won’t live until June? What is the numerical value of certainty or uncertainty?  I thought of the opening lines of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”: “Every step of the way/We walk the line/Your days are numbered/So are mine.” And I thought of my favorite piece of Buddhist scripture, “The Five Remembrances:”

I am of the nature to grow old.

There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill-health.
There is no way to escape having ill-health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love
are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Sometimes I think that more difficult even than death itself (which promises, at least in my view, a degree of contentment, which brings with it the fulfillment of work that here remained unfinished, which is a state of perspective and unity), is the fourth remembrance.

Inescapable change, the separation from people and places, things that I am sometimes fooled into believing are permanent simply because they endure for twenty or forty years. Maybe later I will decide that the infirmity and indignity of old age is tougher, or that facing death whether it comes in the form of a shark, or dark, rapidly dividing cells, defies my attempts to tame it with philosophy. I don’t know.

But I do know that in a world in which everything dissolves and departs, we have to have some ballast, be it a prayer or tradition or the habit of matching every day with a number to make life feel at last, real to us.

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dy...

English: Portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan by Elsa Dorfman (1975) (Photo credit: Wikipen