Monday, December 28, 2009

Ten Books: Black Beauty

A while back, in Treehouse Magazine, editor Tom Robotham recounted the ten books that changed his life, and included a small blurb for each to explain why/how. In it, he encouraged readers to send in their own lists with brief explanations. In trying to compose mine, I found myself writing way too much for what was supposed to be a “blurb.” Anyway, getting the list down to 10 was hard enough. So, I sent in just my list with a quick blurb covering them all (yes, I know, all or nothing – it’s an issue). But, as you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m revisiting that list here. For anybody who might have seen my hastily composed list in Treehouse, it might have changed since then. Really, I could feel differently and draw up a different list next week, next month, next year. But today, this is the one I’ve settled on, and I think most of these would land on my list any given day.

I’ve been a HUGE reader my entire life, but separating favorites from the most influential was easier than I thought. These books are all books that opened my eyes to a new way of thinking/seeing/being, validated something I already felt/knew but didn’t know how to articulate, or sent my life in a new direction. I’m listing them in roughly the order in which they influenced me (in some cases, they didn’t influence me until I’d read them a second time, much later in life than the first time).

Since I wrote the first entry & it was rather lengthy, I decided perhaps I should break this up into multiple entries. I will give you my first entry here, and then the rest in future entries, as I can write them.

And with no further ado, the first book that changed my life:

1. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell. On reflection, I realize that I can credit this book with a lot of things. First, it was the book that drew me to horses. Because of this book, I learned horseback riding at an early age and ended up working with horses in various capacities for years. I could ride western, English, and bareback. I did just about everything one could do with horses, including feeding, grooming, de-worming, leading trail rides, training, and rodeo riding. I taught horseback riding to beginners, trail riders (medium-advanced), and advanced students. I even considered going to a special equestrian college in Pennsylvania (before my love of theater overtook my love of things equestrian).

Second, it developed in me a love, passion, and empathy for all animals. Growing up, my mother once called me the Florence Nightingale of animals (full disclosure: she said this in exasperation, but now I take it as a compliment). In fact, I’d say now that the book engenders & promotes kindness & generosity of every sort, towards humans, animals, plants – any & everything.

Third, though I was already a reader, this book promoted my reading by having promoted my love of horses. During a few years, I practically lived at the local public library, and one day I could no longer find a horse book that I had not read. The librarian recommended Algonquin, a dog book. It was a fine book, and though I liked dogs and all, some part of me recognized that an important era in my growth & development was over.

Fourth, it made me want to write. In fact, I wrote an entire novel as a child, retrieving & hiding it under the cushion of my dad’s favorite chair when I worked on it. I was embarrassed & didn’t want anyone to know that I was writing. Turns out, this instinct was a good one, since when my dad did find out I liked writing, he never ceased to speak sarcastically of “the great American novel” I must be writing. By the way, the novel I wrote was, like the great Black Beauty, written from the point of view of an animal.

Next: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee & Illusions, by Richard Bach

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

In Memoriam

Some of you already know that on November 14, sometime between 2am and 6am, I lost my very dear special spirit & soulmate, Atticus (aka Atty, Atty Boy, Buddy, Buddy bo, boycat, ad nauseum). Though I have lost many people in my life, including my father, it is Atty's death that has touched me so deeply I can hardly fathom the loss. Maybe because he was a cat and such a positive, non-conflicted relationship in my life, I was able to experience his death purely as loss - no ambivalence, no ambiguity, no complication, no anger, no rage, no liberation, no guilt, nothing but loss & loss & loss. With his help, and with the help/reminders of some wonderful humans, I feel I have moved to a new understanding of the function of death/loss in our lives. I'm not sure I'll be able to articulate it, but I am willing to try by way of telling our story.

I should have known it. He has always been a teacher, an old soul. When I brought him home at six months of age, and Esther (4 months his senior & still thriving) would not stop hissing, growling, & attacking him, and I was at my wit's end, he took matters into his own hands (so to speak). He managed to escape the boundaries I had set up between them, and then sat on his haunches focused upon her, emanating acceptance, love, & kindness. He looked at her with soft eyes, heard her with ears pricked forward, inched closer to her whenever she relented for a second. Eventually, he was close enough to touch noses with her, and she smelled him all over & finally grew quiet. I was amazed at such certainty and wisdom in a kitten. Throughout their relationship, Esther may have been the alpha cat, but he was the spiritual leader & teacher when she would bother to listen, right up until the very end.

He was only midway through his 12th year, young for a domestic indoor cat. When he was 5 years old, he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a congenital thickening of the heart muscle. It took almost a year to get the right combination of meds to stabilize his condition. After that, we enjoyed 4 solid asymptomatic years together. But this past March, I had to take him to the Emergency Vet to have him treated for congestive heart failure. Though I had to take him in for frequent check ups thereafter, he remained stable (with a new diuretic) for the next 8 months. On Monday, November 9th, it was evident that he was in congestive heart failure again, and we were at the Emergency Vet until 2am. I knew it would probably be downhill from there, but had no idea how quickly everything would unfold. That Wednesday, the big Nor'easter moved in, and was continuing to rage as we drove Atticus to the cardiologist on Thursday for what would turn out to be his last visit. They drained his heart & lungs again, and I left his next scheduled appointment intact, though I suspected already that he wouldn't be needing it.

With every pot, pan, and towel in use to catch water that was coming in at the windows, the storm seemed like perfect symbolism for the outrage of his dying. As Thursday turned into Friday, he stopped consuming anything - even the salmon & tuna juice he had been lapping at the day prior. When he began to have trouble walking, I moved into full panic mode. Thank goodness for a dear dear dear friend, who knows and loves Atticus, too. She shot off an email to her reiki group, asking that they work on Atticus long-distance. Her reiki teacher noted that she detected terrible fear in Atticus, and my friend suggested that I put my own feelings aside & project calming, fearless energy to him. We resolved to do this, thereby giving him permission to do whatever he needed. Throughout the day, we catered to his every need, projected calm & loving energy, and could feel his own energy move from fear to acceptance to almost welcoming death.

Atty had always loved the human voice. He especially liked when I read aloud, and once I discovered this, I had often done it just for him. Whenever I did, he would always sit in my lap or nearby, purr, and be soothed by it. Friday night, we decided to give him our voices right up until the end if it's what he wanted. We took turns reading to him, he sitting in my lap for a while, and then a few inches away on the sofa with eyes closed but ears attentive. At one point, Esther worked up the courage to pay him a visit. We held our breath as she approached him, smelled him, and looked upon him with large, wide, wondering eyes. This same cat who had always attacked when he returned from the vet must have also been absorbing our calm energy, and seemed to say her own farewell before she returned to her hiding place. We read until 2am, at which time he let it be known that he had had enough, and wanted to be left alone. We said our goodbyes as he settled down in one of his favorite spots under the kitchen sink, and went to bed. I woke at 6am, and felt the strangest calm in the air. I knew he had probably departed, and when this was confirmed, I cried for the first time since Monday night, when it had all started.

While I continue to feel the loss tremendously, and probably will for a long time, I am proud of my ability to put myself aside & enable a peaceful transition for him. I think he fully received my permission to go, lost his fear, and was returned to a state of freedom.

I can't express in words how much it means that I didn't have to intervene by having him "put down." It had already occurred to me that that procedure is probably necessitated by humans who can't let go, and a conversation with a colleague confirmed this for me. My colleague told me about a dog whom she had to put down, and how even after two separate injections of the drug, he would not die. It occurred to her then that he couldn't leave because she was not allowing it. When she mentally loosened her grip & let him know it was ok, he promptly departed.

To give the subject of death and dying due treatment would require many more entries than this one, so I don't want to get too far afield, but I do want to share a poem. The poem is one of the mystic odes of Rumi, and was featured in one of the last episodes of Six Feet Under. I love this poem, have shared it with others in their own moments of loss, and think it provides great comfort.

Our death is our wedding with eternity.
What is the secret? "God is One."
The sunlight splits when entering the windows of the house.
This multiplicity exists in the cluster of grapes;
It is not in the juice made from the grapes.
For he who is living in the Light of God,
The death of the carnal soul is a blessing.
Regarding him, say neither bad nor good,
For he is gone beyond the good and the bad.
Fix your eyes on God and do not talk about what is invisible,
So that he may place another look in your eyes.
It is in the vision of the physical eyes
That no invisible or secret thing exists.
But when the eye is turned toward the Light of God
What thing could remain hidden under such a Light?
Although all lights emanate from the Divine Light
Don't call all these lights "the Light of God";
It is the eternal light which is the Light of God,
The ephemeral light is an attribute of the body and the flesh....

Oh God who gives the grace of vision!
The bird of vision is flying towards You with the wings of desire.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What is duende?

I found Lorca when I was a sophomore in college. I was in the theater directing program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a result of a project I had done related to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, one of my mentors gave me a scene from Lorca’s play, Yerma, to do for class. I became consumed with that project, and presented it to the class with my Cuban friend/actor, Lourdes, in the title role.

As I was wont to do at that time, I became obsessed with Lorca after our initial introduction. I read every work at least once, and many two or three times. I read what was considered to be the definitive biography (by Ian Gibson), read every biography I could get my hands on of his friends, family, and cohorts (Dali, Buñuel), studied up on flamenco, started to learn Spanish when I figured out the English translations of his work were rather shoddy. I would direct a full-length production of Yerma for my senior project, would visit his hometown of Fuente Vaqueros in my wanderings about Spain, and would continue to discover & re-discover him for years.

You can’t read Lorca, or about Lorca, without learning a little about duende. Actually, in my opinion, to intellectualize it diminishes its power, as well as our power to grasp it. I felt & understood duende the very first time I read the opening scene of Yerma, even though I had yet to hear the word or understand it as a concept. I felt it the first time I gazed upon Manet’s painting, Blue Venice, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and every time since. I feel it in Beethoven’s 9th symphony & Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. It is there in the work of certain contemporary musicians. Patty Griffin, for instance. I felt it when I went to see/hear Eloise Klein Healy read her poetry at Prince Books – in a sense, it is a knowing that this person is doing at this moment exactly what s/he was put on the planet to do. It is also when that is infused into a supposedly inanimate object. It quivers with life. It is a synchronicity of intentions. In short, it is why we want to stay alive. Perhaps, some might say, it is life itself.

When I decided to move my blog, I had at first wanted to name it for the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, that celebration of perpetual imperfection, transience, & incompleteness. I wanted this because I felt it most precisely expressed both what I would be doing here and what/who I am, and what we are all doing “here,” and what/who we all are. Alas, I couldn’t find a url that hadn’t been used already without bastardizing it completely. I sulked for a while, thinking only wabi sabi would do, and sullenly tested out some other, clearly inferior titles/urls for my blog. I knew I couldn’t start without this most fundamental thing feeling just right. So I shelved it.

And then a chance mention of Lorca in a link that I was sent by a friend – not even a friend, hardly even an acquaintance – and I was reminded of duende. I remembered how, in one of Lorca’s writings, in the Spanish it used the phrase “tener duende” in a rhythmic repetition. As I re-visited that piece in my mind (I couldn’t find the Spanish on the internet, and I don’t have it in any book that I currently own), I realized how it was unclear whether it would be translated as “to have duende,” which sounds rather formal, or in the imperative form, “have duende.” I’m sure it depended upon the context of each repetition (in my experience in Spain, the infinitive was often used to form commands, in case anyone wants to correct me on that), but I prefer to think of it in the imperative, sort of like “Carpe Diem!” For, isn’t it imperative to live with duende if we are not to “end up simply having visited this world," in the words of the great Mary Oliver (who knows duende)?

In spite of saying that to intellectualize it diminishes it, I am the first to understand the desire to do so - and in fact, I don't think it kills our capacity to experience or recognize it, ultimately. So, if you would like to read what Lorca had to say about the matter, here is an English translation of his treatise on duende, as spoken to a Buenos Aires audience in or around 1934. ¡Tener duende!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Accidents & Opportunities

It is a funny thing that when I read articles (as opposed to novels, etc.), I often get caught up in something that is not the actual subject of what I’m reading. If I’m reading about fish fries, I will probably spend the entirety of the piece pondering something other than fish fries – usually some assumption on which the author has based what s/he has to say about fish fries, something that s/he probably hasn’t even noticed that s/he wrote because that kind of thinking comes so naturally to so many. I talk to my argument students about assumptions (or warrants, as they are called by the Toulmin model of argument), and how we must always be working out that muscle with which we can detect the assumptions underlying our own beliefs/assertions/judgments, and of course the assumptions underlying the arguments of others (which is much more fun, of course). But the more I talk about it, the more I realize what  a tall order it is, how extraordinary we must be in order to catch ourselves. Still, I think it’s a necessary exercise.
Case in point. A few weeks ago, the (then) latest installment of the AltDaily Newsletter arrived in my inbox. As I was reading Christine Dore’s article, "Dating Vegan in Hampton Roads," I was – as usual – off pondering matters other than dating vegan in Hampton Roads.
“Life doesn’t happen by accident.” That’s the line that got me. Really? It seems to me that life does, indeed, happen by accident, for better or worse. I was conceived by accident, the most literal example of life happening by accident, I suppose. And of course, we all know of chance encounters, etc. that have changed people’s lives. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I thought how undesirable it is for life to NOT happen by accident. The kind of control we often try to exert in our lives has shown itself not only useless time and again, but downright destructive in many cases. We want to date a certain kind of person, and draw up our lists of the qualities for which we’re looking. We are so sure we know what we want that in our struggle to strong-arm it into our lives, we resist the beautiful opportunities disguised as “accidents.”  I would call these the magnets with which we actually have a chance of drawing to ourselves the things we want – that is, the essence of what we want. By being fixed and rigid about what we think that looks like, and thinking we know the best way to bring it into existence, we effectively put blinders on.
Related to this are ideas about what is or is not “meant to be,” that “everything happens for a reason” and we only need to figure out what that reason is. I think you know what I mean. I struggled with these concepts for a long time. I hated the ideas embodied by straight-forward fatalism, but the somehow more romantic concepts of two people being meant for each other - or a certain destiny awaiting me if only I could find the key that would unlock my brilliant future that was just sitting there waiting for me, static, like a destination - appealed to me. If a relationship didn’t work out, then that person must not be “the one,” or we were defying the orders of the universe and would suffer accordingly until we came to our senses. 

Here and there, we encounter things, events, people, situations that we just feel in our bones are right for us. I think when this happens that they really are right (and just as an aside, those things have usually come in by accident rather than by design). Where we seem to go wrong, though, is in our desire to direct how they play themselves out in our lives. Rather than staying open and fluid and receptive, we try to take over – we wouldn’t want some crazy accident to take this thing or person out of our lives, after all, or even alter our vision of them or ourselves. If, for example, it’s a person who has come into our lives, the degree to which we attempt to control the relationship (whether we want it to be a friendship, a love relationship, a fling, or anything) is the degree to which we attempt to remove that person from his/her path – and more importantly, it is the degree to which we attempt to remove ourselves from our own path. But there goes that pesky idea again, as if there is a pre-determined path which we must all follow. Let me try to explain what I mean. At any given moment, something has come into our lives that is right. It’s as if we’re walking in the dark, and a patch of ground lights up that is right. If we fail to take that step, we are resisting; if we step in a different direction, we are resisting. But none of this is really to say that there is a step that is wrong, or a direction that is wrong. But for sure, if we’re resisting, we will struggle and life will be more difficult. I had an experience several months ago that provided me with a useful metaphor for what I’m talking about.
I was driving with friends to an event on the peninsula. None of us knew where we were going, so we were using a GPS to get us there. At one point, the directions were somewhat confusing, and the driver missed the turn that would take us in the right direction. No sooner had we realized that we had missed the turn than the GPS was re-calculating. Well, it seemed to say, since you didn’t listen to me, I’ll tell you how else you can get to where you want to go. In this way, there are no mistakes, just endless opportunities, in driving and in life. In this corporeal world, it is easy to trust ourselves to a GPS, easy to understand how that all works, but in what I consider to be real life, it is ourselves from whom we must take direction. Just as we can choose to consult the GPS or get hopelessly lost without it, we can choose to consult our own wisdom and consciousness, that part of ourselves that says whether something is right, that part which recognizes accidents as opportunities, and is always there for us to tap into when we’ve been beaten down by trying to get there without it.  
The question that I’m still left with is why anyone would try to get there without it, and this is a subject I seem to return to repeatedly. Most of us are so busy taking cues from outside of us that the idea of there being cues within us is completely foreign. A good friend of mine sometimes speaks of “listening & following.” She is, of course, speaking of listening to & following those very cues. But in order to do that, we must learn how to find & recognize them, which requires a trust in - and attention to - ourselves that we are not encouraged to develop by the cues we encounter outside of us. Generally, those cues do encourage one kind of selfishness, the kind that inspires consumption, competition, and isolation, the kind that we usually think of when we ponder this word – but they don’t encourage a different, healthy sort of selfishness, the kind that encourages us to truly take care of ourselves in thought and action, the kind that sends us back to ourselves as the primary source of wisdom, the kind that is perhaps better called self regard (since the term “self esteem” has been rendered completely meaningless). And this is where I come back around to the idea of accidents and opportunities. If we can defy convention enough to establish a trust and knowledge and love of ourselves such as I’ve been talking about, we should be able to move through this world sure-footedly, knowing what to take and what to leave, knowing what is right for us and not, knowing how to keep an open and flexible mind, knowing when opportunities may be waiting in the unplanned twists and turns of life.