Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
Toured the Plains Indians Shirts show, “Beauty, Honor, Tradition,” today for kids from Roosevelt High School, many native American. April 22nd I will do a tour for students from the American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul. As a guide this is a situation the Minneapolis Arts Institute puts us in often, not always, but often.
It involves explaining a culture’s art to members of that culture. One of our guides, a diversity advocate, likes to call this role, bearer of culture. Now, I consider myself not an advocate of diversity, diversity needs no advocate, it just is, but, an embracer of the other, as best I can. I don’t like the term bearer of culture, not because I don’t believe cultures need bearing—ask any clergy, they sure do need the hep, as our Texas culture bearer might say—but because I believe the unique role of culture bearer applies only to those who are, by birth or nurture, members of that culture.
Can you be a bearer of more one culture? Sure. But it doesn’t happen often. In our midst Frank represents Lakota culture, but to describe him as a bearer of Lakota culture goes too far. I would certainly describe him as a bearer of Irish culture, and an embracer of Lakota culture with deep sensitivities shaped over many years of intimate interaction with Indian people, and Lakota people specifically.
Lawrence of Arabia. Sacajewa. Often first generation immigrants and sometimes second generation immigrants. In some cases ex-patriots, though neither my brother nor sister, even after fourteen years would qualify in my opinion. Probably many of the guides at the MIA who are recent immigrants from Taiwan, India, Tibet, mainland China qualify. Many, many Latin residents of the US, but many have long ago assimilated, though you might stretch a point, as with Frank’s Celtic identity.
I want to hammer home this apparent fine point for a reason. Culture is a wonderful, complex tapestry woven over years at the deepest levels of our soul. You might reject your homeland, but you will be unable to reject your culture, no matter how you feel about it. It not only is part of you, in a very real sense, it is you.
Culture defines the very things we perceive by shaping our understanding of what exists in the world. Culture tells us whether the person comes first, or the group. Culture tells us which food is tasty, which forbidden. Culture tells us who we can marry, and whom we can’t. Culture tells us with whom sexual relations is incest and with whom they aren’t. Culture tells us what our purpose if life is, who are our enemies are, and who our friends are. Culture tells us the strength of our bond with the earth and where to express it.
Thus, in my understanding of the term, this is not a fine point at all. It is, in some respects, the bluntest, most obtuse, most resistant point of at all.
Does any of this mean you can’t struggle with your own culture, resist parts of it which you find unbearable? Of course not. Culture changes; and, in fact, most wars are fought over who has the right to initiate change within a culture, only insiders, or, powerful outsiders, too.
Do I accept the inferiority of African-Americans, Chinese, or homosexuals because my middle-class white American/Anglo/Saxon culture says they are? No. Do I have residual doubts, hesitations I’d rather not admit, yes. And the yes is because of the power of culture, the group’s perspective that got to you first.
Do I understand this land to be my land? Yes. Does that understanding conflict with that of many Native Americans? Yes. Is this conflict easily resolved by reference to history or to matters of first principle? No. Why? Because culture lies at the roots and culture does not yield to reason only, because reason only makes sense within in a cultural context. Even logic itself can have cultural determinants.
Is this the position of cultural relativism so despised by the neo—conservatives and the religious right? You bet your bippy it is, and, it is doesn’t matter whether they like the idea or not. It’s not up for debate; it just is.
Should we be open to challenge to our cultural assumptions? Absolutely. Is is it ever easy to have your assumptions about the nature of reality challenged? Do I need to answer that?
I agree with the neo-conservatives and the religious right that there are some things which ought to cross cultural barriers universally. Unlike them I just don’t know what they are.
Anyhow, after wandering far afield, I’m no culture bearer for the Plains Indians. Not because I wouldn’t like to be, but because I don’t think it’s possible for me.
So, I’m back to that situation, interpreting a culture for those who bear it in their DNA. This is not such a big deal as it sounds. Within a culture the number of those who are aware of their cultural assumptions is often tiny. Even among that group an awareness of the history and expression of their culture through art is smaller yet.
All the task really requires is some knowledge and a lot of humility. The probability that anyone in the group will have as much specific knowledge about these particular pieces is low; however, the likelihood that anyone in the group will detect a false note, a sense of depreciation, a deviation from what they feel instinctively (that is, culturally) is true to their culture is very high.
So, I am not a culture bearer. I am merely a guide, one who has gone before on the very particular path defined by the few artifacts in the exhibit; and, learned what I could from persons who know much more than I do and from the objects themselves. If I have knowledge to share, I can do that. If your cultural sensibility as, say, a Lakota, or a Japanese, or a Korean, or a Mexican, or a Thai, or an Indian conflicts with my knowledge, tell me. I’ll listen and learn. Who knows, perhaps we’ll both learn.
All of this raises a key question for Woolly’s on pilgrimage. What does our culture, that is middle-class white Anglo-Saxon, tell us about who we are? And what folks like us can learn on pilgrimage? This is a bigger question than it appears.
As I said last time, I’ll insert here any replies I get, so the dialogue can be just that. Here’s a piece from Scott in response to my struggling with Buddhism.
Thank you for sending me this writing. It was wonderful - I found myself reflecting along with you as your words wonderfully steered me down the paths of your thoughts - which became reflections for my own.
Actually, It seems to me - best I can understand without having been to Nirvana and back - that the Buddhist starts with the answer to the question, "your p. 17 Is Life too Hard?" by simply saying, "Yes!". So that actually makes the task in a sense easier or smaller, because we don't have to contemplate the question. I have heard Buddhists then reflect upon or even talk about the next step which is to confront, observe, address, and experience somehow the "nothingness, or the great void" which they have come to by way of meditation. Some describe this point in their meditative journey with words that have them sounding very fearful, even terrorized, certainly anxious and overwhelmed by whatever their experience has brought them. Some how this confrontation of egolessness is overwhelmingly and astonishingly painful for some.
However, they draw upon a different solution than suicide - at least the ones who continue to meditate beyond this realization. Those who meditate through or beyond this experience talk about experiencing an opposite polarity - one of some kind of allness, wholeness, eternal and wonderful bliss - nirvana, etc. It seems to me in my infant perception that the nothingness and the allness are somehow two parts of the same whole. It seems that the duality melts away and they have experiences that seem para-sensory, or beyond the senses, so deep and intense that words can not describe the utter beauty of the experience.
So, I wonder somehow if you and Buddhist are not so different after all, at least perhaps in the end result in which you both may end up or for which you strive to achieve. Maybe you or we are on different paths to the same wonderful and unexpressible wonderful end.
I don't know much about the Jungian method of transcending dialectical tension that you write about, "It’s a Jungian (maybe others, too) method of transcending dialectical tension, also called the union of opposites. In a true union of opposites, both sides of a dialectic remain, held in their distinctiveness, yet they become part of a third, transcendent union, psyche’s way of creating a functionality inclusive of both poles." but the words remind me of the Buddhist's description of where they arrive after they have experienced both "the void" and the "enlightenment".
Since my son, Corey, has been a student of Buddhism for some time, maybe he could shed more light on this for both of us. Is it all right with you if I forward this to him?
At any rate, thanks for sharing your writings. I love it that you are sharing with us! Enjoy your weekend! Scott
On Philosophical Neurosis
A phase of my long pilgrimage where life went off the rails for awhile. (I’ve just thought of this: long pilgrimage [life] and shorter pilgrimages, taken to clarify the longer one.)
I’ve not talked much about a painful period of my life, the time just after college and before seminary, a bit here and there, but not much. This period began when I met Judy Merritt, a young girl from Wisconsin who had somehow found her way to Ball State University, I imagine in the fall of 1968 or early winter of 1969. The last quarter of my senior year (1969) passed in alternating waves of scholastic diligence and radical indulgence: the actual drugs, sex, and rock and roll. And, the element always left out of this quintessential 60’s formula: politics.
Judy and I came together during a radical indulgence phase, and, I can’t, at this remove, recall how we met. I do know that neither before nor since have I engaged in sex with multiple partners, but while with her threesomes, while not regular, happened. In fact, I met her during one, if I recall correctly. Though I may not. Very hazy time.
In the summer before my senior year I had seen a movie, “Sweet November,” I believe. On the strength of its visual images of the Manhattan skyline, I hitchiked to NYC and began a three-month trial residence. I lived in the east Village in a place long gone, the Greenwich Hotel. It had small, narrow rooms with naked light bulbs, kindergarten school size wooden chairs, single metal beds, and a small metal locker about the size of medicine cabinet hung on the wall.
The elevator operator at the Greenwich was a six foot, five inch black man who could easily have played linebacker. He carried a key to each room in a necklace around his neck and made sure nobody got off on the wrong floor. I mean, he made sure.
The lobby’s distinguishing characteristic was a huge pile of rubble from a long ago collapse of either the mezzanine or a second floor roof. It did not seem to have had anything removed and the pile rested there covered in plaster dust.
I didn’t last long in NYC. It was a combination of my Dantean accomodations, my draft status which made me unemployable for anything other than minimum wage jobs, and, most of all, my intense desire for open space and trees. This last convinced me big city living was not for me...not anywhere. I’m a Midwestern, outdoor boy at heart. Only Minneapolis and St. Paul have enough green space and trees to satisfy me and during my Andover years, I believe my need has increased. I could happily move further north.
This meant I returned to my senior year at Ball State with my East Coast fantasy, long nurtured, effectively off the table. I also had a vague feeling of defeat, in spite of the success I continued to have academically and politically. Part of this, I’m sure, was my abysmal relationship with my father. I allowed this estrangement to spread throughout my family, so, for these years and many after, I had no interaction with my siblings or my cousins.
I wish I could look back at this period and find the heroic thread, the creative impulse beating, even faintly, underneath, but I can’t. From 1968 through late 1974 (my divorce from Judy) I got more and more self-destructive. In a sense I had become entranced.
The draft, the war, the movement, drugs, sex, more drugs.
This period was so hazy I remembered the draft lottery as having happened in February of 1969, when it actually happened in December, after I was already out of college, and working as a manager trainee for WT Grant in Connersville, Indiana.
Needless to say, it bummed me out anyhow.
My draft lottery number came up #4 on the US Army Hit Parade:
Lottery Numbers, by Birthdate, for Selective Service Lottery Held December 1969
The lottery drawing held December 1, 1969, determined the order in which men, born from 1944 through 1950, were called to report for induction into the military.
The highest lottery number called for this group was 195; all men assigned that lottery number or any lower number, and who were classified 1-A or 1-A-O (available for military service), were called to report for possible induction.
http://www.sss.gov/lotter1.htm (if you’re curious about other dates.)
Ironically, as I prepared to leave college, I found myself a recepient of honors—summa cum laude, English Honorary (for poetry), Philosophy Honorary, and outstanding Anthropology student, Blue Key men’s honorary, Honors graduate. The campus religious adviser nominated me for a Danforth Fellowship to study religion in graduate school and the Anthro Dept. saw me as their first certain Ph.D.
This was ironic in a number of ways, but in the matter of career trajectory most of all. My resume for the next two years went: WT Grant Manager Trainee, Baker’s Assistant ($1.50 an hour), Life Insurance Salesman for John Hancock Life Insurance Company, Rag Cutter for Fox River Paper.
All but the WT Grant job were in Appleton, Wisconsin. I moved there, sight unseen, because it was north and I liked north, and because Judy was from there. This kind of reasoning, informed by philosophical and anthropological training, aided me for the next few years.
In Appleton I became part of the Merritt clan. Father, James, sold printers ink, drank like a fish, and raced early versions of the snowmobile. Sima, Judy’s mom, worked as a waitress, a mistress, often both, and came and went in our lives like a mobile soap opera. Bob, Judy’s older brother, was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago—sort of like a rare animal, UofC admits hardly any undergrads, many of whom I met while taking mescaline with Bob, and they were, to a person, very bright and very strange. Then there was the high school age brother whose name escapes me now, the recognized genius of the family, who spent most of his time driving drunk—cars, snowmobiles, motorcycles—and fucking. There was also a younger, red-headed brother who seemed a bit of a doofus, as if he’d been left behind by the simple, but kindly milk man.
This was my new family. On weekends we would gather at the house Jim Merritt helped us buy (he co-signed for the $11,000 mortgage.), buy two or three cases of cheap beer, put acid rock on the record player, drink beer and play sheep-head for money. Now, I’ve forgotten the rules to schotzkopf, but their complexity increased the drunker we got.
At some point Judy started screwing somebody else; I went ballistic, she told me she stopped, and I began to plot getting out of Appleton. But how?
It was somewhere in here when I made the mistake of visiting a psychiatrist, obviously trained at the U of M. He promptly gave me the MMPI, read it, diagnosed me with a philosophical neurosis, and said, on learning I planned to go to seminary, that it would “make or break me.” I’m not sure whether that was professional opinion or not. Somehow I don’t think so.
His idea was that I lived a ruleless, but not rueless life, and that seminary would either give me a set of moral norms to guide my life or I would rebel and doom myself to a life of increasing dissipation and decompensation.
I can’t tell whether he was right or not. Certainly, Seminary gave me a structure, an institutional home, taught me how to get paid to do the kind of politics I believed in and that were then the core reason for my life. Still, my lifestyle as a whole didn’t change much.
My very first night of Seminary I sat around with the faculty, drinking whisky straight from the bottle, and having deep, meaningful conversations. Later, I met one of the four female students in my class (there was only one ever before my class.) and we fell in lust. That lasted off and on the entire time I was in Seminary except when Judy came back for a brief attempt at détente. (I forgot to mention she’d gone on to Ball State to finish her degree. She didn’t finish. She got the money and the VW Van. I got my scholarship.)
The more I consider it, the more I think entranced, bewitched, in a certain kind of thrall does describe me then. The warlock John Barleycorn? The demon of failed ambition? An imp of doubt and fecklessness? I don’t know.
My alcoholism had really taken off and began to find full flower in seminary. So those years are hazy, too.
If there was a time period in my life, all of it, when my pilgrimage really got put on hold, it was, oddly enough, the very period in which I made my ordination vows and began professional ministry.
Tom Crane wrote, on the topic of Is Life Too Hard, the following:
Ok, with that out of the way, a
predominate reaction I have to the issue is: perspective. What was
difficult for me as a child is not difficult for me today. Or even that
which I encountered 10 or 20 years ago. Further, your problems (or the
problems of almost any "other") don't seem so insurmountable from where I
stand. Perspective; Hmmmmm.
I agree that perspective may explain our sense of life as others live it, though I think we may often imagine other’s lives as harder than they see them, too. This is, I believe, often true of people who have fewer resources than we might, either financial, intellectual, or social though I don’t want to imply any romanticism about poverty—it’s not the amount of resources that defines the person, it is values and character.
A fine, sad, powerful story to illustrate this point is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. In it he chronicles a year in the lives of several persons in mid-1970’s India. If you decide to read it, I’m referring mostly to Ishfar and the ultimate fate of Manech Kola, though other characters have strong life threads, too.
Jung’s point about growing out of problems squares with my own experience, and underscores why I continue in Jungian analysis even though the major psychological hurdles (in my opinion) are behind me. Depth psychology does not necessarily lead to a “fix” or a “cure”, in fact, I don’t think Jung even has that model in mind, at least not as much, certainly, as Freud and Adler.
Jungian analysis and Jungian thought offer, in a fashion similar to religion, a context for suffering and joy, despair and gladness; a context which sees human life, whether hard or easy, as a stream of experiences, all for integration, none to be denied or over-prized. Thus, I suppose you could say, the question Is life too hard, comes down squarely beside the point.
Hard or simple, life is. Our human task is to embrace it all, to include it all, to take with us the black and the white, the up and the down, the overwhelming and the supportive, and meld them, through the alchemy of the human soul, into an individuated person, and all for the better glory of our species and the world which holds us tenderly.
The end of our pilgrimage, in this life, is neither harder nor easier than that.
Rites of spring
I like the phenology of human culture. The inevitable broken down trucks filled high with cut and split oak coming into the cities in the fall. The golf carts and Christmas trees leaving by highway in the early winter. The sounds of snow blowers, snow mobiles, skis on roof racks, Christmas lights.
In the spring a real harbringer of horticultural spring is the spring start-up of the sprinkler system. Ours will happen tomorrow between 12 and 2. Perhaps I should greet the Mickman’s folks in my blue Druid’s robe Kate made for me. Also related is spring clean-up in the garden, clean cars and trucks on the highways, the women from down the cul de sac in their jogging and serious walking outfits, working on the winter’s extra calories gone to fat. Kids on bicycles. The first hearing of Elgar’s march, preliminary to many graduation ceremonies coming not long from now.
A concerted rush on college campuses to finish projects. Joseph has an x-ray fluorescence project underway, also, a project involving magnetic poles and the flow of matter somewhere in the Orion nebula.
I find niche jobs fascinating. Forensic work is one. I consider it an honor and a privilege to know a forensic engineer, since, until I met Tom, I didn’t know there were any. Tonight I toured the Upper Midwest Conservation Association which employees two object conservators, two painting conservators, a paper conservator, and a textile conservator. There are not many of these folks in the world either.
One of the painting conservators has a project currently underway, an overpainted painting of the founder of Barnard College. Overpainting, it turns out, is more common than you knew. How about that? In this instance both painting conservators shook their heads and grimaced at the follies of 19C fashion—which added a bun atop this 18C ladies hair-do, painted in an orange poofy dress over the original, and, then, final insult, converted the square pounding to the Victorian era preferred oval shape by the simple expedient of tacking the canvas down on an oval frame, and where the square painting didn’t conform to the oval, it was tucked over and tacked down. Hmmm...
Anyhow the guy conservator, who’s working on this painting, cannot use solvents to remove the paint from the overpainting for some reason (it’s bonding with the layer beneath in part.) and so has to use a microscope mounted on a round metal bar and proceed centimeter by centimeter, scalpel in hand. With the microscope he finds a paint section pulled loose from the varnish of the original painting—this is good—slips the scalpel under the section and, this is the technical term he used, pings the section off. Oh, man.
I asked him how long he could do this at a time. “About an hour, then I have to stop for the day.”
Consolidation is a big part of the conserver’s art and it involves getting to lie back down after it has tried to pull loose from whatever held it down before. Examples: one of fifteen plaster mouldings from a 19C French room in storage since 1920 and now about to go up in a period room at the MIA later this fall. The gesso (sizing) used to create a paintable surface has pulled away from the plaster, so it has to go back where it come from. But how?
Hypodermic needles mostly. Occasionally a little humidity.
Or, an orange oil painting on paper by Modgiliani. Here, through the conservatorial microscope we saw a section of a face where pieces of orange paint had pulled loose from the paper, or disappeared altogether. Where nothing is there, that’s “acceptable loss,” but where the paint has pulled away the paper conservator uses a small sable brush, a very dilute glue—a 1% solution—and works gently to get the errant paint to lie down again please.
This is important work, with interesting philosophical questions—to what do you give precedence in a work? When is restoration alteration? How far should a process go? Yet, it is done with techniques that would find me gibbering by the end of the day.
If you get this far, and you saw the movie Being John Malkovich, ask me about it’s origin in the UMCA paper conservation lab. Not a joke.
I’ve decided between today April 15th and September 29th, Michaelmas, I’m giving myself two priorities: gardening and learning to draw. I’ll continue writing these pilgrimage diaries—and perhaps a couple of other first draft type things, too—more on that later, do research, work on fitness, possible spend 12 weeks or so in analysis with John Desteian, keep on doing the MIA work and finalize my trip plans—but the good time, mornings and weekends and late nights will find me either in the garden, planning for the garden, drawing, or learning how to make other kinds of art.