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
Back into the mystery cults, this time Egypt and Osiris. Kate said, “It’s like you’re in school.” I thought about it. The Jungian Seminar. 3 months on South/South-East Asian art. Drawing with Sheila Asato. Once a month preaching at Groveland. Not to mention the research I do for my Great Wheel e-mails, the books to be on Magic in America, Lake Superior, and A Liberal Political philosophy for our era.
It’s true. I’ve recreated my old favorite, the academic year. Now, though, it’s interlaced with family, the garden, Anoka County, the dogs (who howl along with a passing siren as I write this.), the Woollys.
This time around the work has less, and more, pressure. Less—a professor no longer sits in judgement on my writing skills, my knowledge, my discipline, my future. And the hours are, to a large extent, mine to determine. Sounds perfect, eh? It is, in most ways.
Yet. More pressure. Here’s the nub. It’s for real. I can’t pass off my interests on college requirements, a professors strange ideas about reading, courses necessary for a major. No, the sole responsibility for the things I pursue lies with me.
Do they have a point? I don’t know.
At times my studies and my writing feel integrated, as if I’m pushing into new territory, perhaps areas more strait-jacketed folks couldn’t or wouldn’t pursue. At other times they feel like my old nemesis, the auld enemy as the Scots used to call England. Then, I feel like a blood hound with no scent to follow, excited by every new fragrance, running it down, wagging my tail, oh, another one! Woof, woof.
This is where Reform theology and I meshed so well. The Reform doctrine of vocation says that whatever you do, do it to the glory of God, and that is your vocation, your calling. As long as I can identify a thread of continuity in my study, in my personal development, in relationships, even in the garden, I can stand alongside John Calvin, look at my life and nod my head. OK. Good job.
If I lose the thread, Ariadne’s guide through the labyrinth of my life, the minotaur stalks not far away. I have chosen this conundrum and I celebrate it for I have maximal existential freedom. The price, for freedom always has a price—and thank god that it does, is personal accountability, that is, accountability to self.
And this self, raised by a crusty old German, has standards so high the Pope couldn’t live up to them. Maybe I exaggerate. Or, maybe not. Then again, maybe the Pope’s not the best exemplar, but you get my drift.
The most important truth in all of this, for me, is: I have choices. As long I make choices, act in concert with them, and try my best to love (if not like...I can’t always meet that test, Frank.), well, that’s gotta be good-enough. Why? Because I can’t think of any other way to think about it. All the other ways involve shifting blame and responsibility onto someone else’s or something else’s shoulders and that doesn’t cut it with me.
Which, for the record, is not the same as saying I don’t appreciate and recognize help, nor pray for and hope for grace. I need plenty of help and grace to get through.
As the Rolling Stone’s once said, (apparently, as Paul pointed out the other night deep in the Schwarzwald, on the advice of a Minnesota man.) “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try real hard, you just might get what you need.”
The Mystery Cults Live On
I can feel myself slipping further down the “well of the beautiful dance” where “even the stars of heaven and the...waves accompany the dance.” (These quotes from Euripides Ion in an essay by Paul Schmitt, Ancient Mysteries and Their Transformation.)
Long ago for me, 1990 or so, I began to grow uneasy with metaphors of transcendence. They implied a three-story universe in which prayers and smoke traveled up, up, up to heaven or the heavens where the gods dwell. The chief god there was just that, a god...not a goddess: Zeus, Odin, Woden, Yahweh. This metaphorical (or, actual, depending on your dogma) transcendence too often translated into justification for a hierarchical, authoritarian model of governance, either in religion or in the state. Think Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican or Kings and Feudal Lords. Or, even their diluted expressions: Presidents and Prime Ministers.
And, too, too often, the presumption was, as the god is male, so must be the leader. As above, so below.
I also began to distrust spiritual metaphors that took me out of my own body, away from my inner world. In the beginning this distrust had a solid historical/theological critique behind it, and an intuitive, though no less strong, personal/spiritual motivation.
So, I began to search for the sacred in the ordinary, a search begun by chance in a small Unitarian fellowship I’d started attending. I wanted to connect with where I was, not where others wanted me to go.
It is not a coincidence this transition took place as my spot in the Presbytery grew more and more difficult for me. The Christian critique of social injustice which had grounded my political work for over twenty years had roots in these transcendent metaphors. My analysis remained the same: gross inequities in income distribution are wrong; racism, sexism, ageism—wrong, homelessness and a lack of affordable housing—wrong, hunger—also wrong, violence—well, you can follow the thread here.
What had happened, in part, was a diminished capacity for Christian faith to play a role in moving beyond injustice—for me.
There were, however, real problems for me. I had to eat, Joseph had to eat. My divorce settlement decreed, with my full assent, my presence in Minnesota until Joseph finished high school. Ministry was how I paid the bills.
I don’t want to go a lot further into this aspect right now because it takes me away from the main point here, but let’s say I felt a great deal of tension because I motivate from within and my motive rationale had shifted out from under me. This, combined with my parental and personal responsibilities that required cash, presented a dilemma.
Even so, I began to focus my spirituality in a different way. For example. As I would shower each morning, I meditated on the water. I had seen an exhibit at the St. Paul Science Museum on the St. Paul water system, so I knew it came from a chain of lakes further to the north. I imagined the water as it moved through the lakes, then into the purification plants, through the pumps and water mains into my home, then to my shower, and, finally, it’s exit through the drain, back into the sewers and thence back into the atmosphere to form clouds, fall as rain, and start the journey back here.
I did the same with the grain in my bread, the building materials in my home, the metal and chemicals in my car, including the gas and oil, cotton, silk... I wanted my spirituality to place me here, not somewhere else, and a large part of where here is is a nexus of processes, natural and human, industrial and agricultural, financial and political, personal and historical. I wanted to experience that nexus as totally as I could.
I figured this was about as far from transcendence as I could get. And I was right. In a way.
In another way I was quite wrong. I was right in that this emphasis on the nitty gritty kept me here, not up there. That was what I intended and it worked wondrously.
That, however, in the end, was all it did. It got me here. No matter where here was, this meditative process got me there. This, I discovered, was only half the struggle.
The other half was, ok, so I’m here. Now what? I searched for different metaphors, ones that went in and down rather than up and out. Around this time I met Kate and she solved one key aspect of my dilemma, money. Later, yes, we’d mutually screw that up (We’re better today, by a lot, dare I say whole in that regard?), but at the time, Kate graciously allowed me an exit strategy I really needed.
Working for an increasingly alien dogma ceased to be a problem, just like that. I was here. All the time.
So. Now what? I wanted to write and I decided, following this same line of thought, that one way to express the hereness of me was to look at my genetic heritage. I am here, after all, as the direct extension of family lines.
In my genealogical material, of which I have a surprising amount, I knew the two primary bloodlines in my family of origin were Teutonic: Zikes, Spitlers, and maybe the Keatons, and Celtic: Ellises, Corrells, and maybe the Keatons.
Fantasy was my favorite read at the time: Tolkien, Katherin Kurz, Stephen King, Clive Barker—and, I could argue, religious texts, too, in the sense of fantasy as a genre of mythos. I’d read a lot of Celtic fantasy and it was big in the marketplace. And I felt compelled to make money, since I always had and, well, what else does a guy do?
Celtic fantasy it was, then. I would express my hereness in my writing through a focus on my Celtic heritage. I dove into the literature. As is my want, see above.
Pretty fascinating stuff, too. I need to go workout right now (our 14th anniversary dinner tonight and I need to finish in time), so let me highlight a bit of what happened to resolve the second, spiritual half of my dilemma. First, I discovered holy wells—a fine metaphor for one who wants to go down and in rather than up and out. In their trail I discovered, in general, paths to Faery went in and down.
What a good deal! Right here in my own heritage a spirituality I could embrace, at least as a start. Then I began to notice the Celtic gods and goddesses. Though it was difficult and at times scary (eternal damnation, apostasy, blasphemy that kind of thing.) I began to entertain the possibility of worshipping gods and goddesses instead of one god.
Boy, there’s a switch, but it made sense as a divine counterpart to my in and down spirituality. I ventured into it with trepidation, but I got over that and eventually made a pact with certain Celtic gods and goddesses to represent them in my work in return for their help in my writing. I’ve kept that pact and they’ve kept theirs.
I did imagine at first that part of their pact involved the commercial success of my work, but I came to understand commercial success as coming down hard beside the point. The works justification is the work. Or, as the Tao Te Ching says, work with no need for results.
I’ve moved considerably beyond this stage now, but it was the early days of a massive internal transformation for me, the fruits of which have only begun to come clear in this past year.
Cernunnos rules Nature, woodlands, forests, hunting, death, reincarnation, fertility, crossroads, sacrifice, magic, circles, cycles, initiation, wild animals, all horned animals, the underworld, the astral plane, and physical love. He is the patron of hunters and warriors. His titles include Lord of Animals, Lord of the Beasts, Stag Lord, Lord of the Hunt, Lord of the Forest, Lord of the Underworld, God of the Hunt, The Horned God of the Hunt, The Horned One, and The Horned God.
A Lower Road Journey (a descended master?)
Somewhere in this same time frame I joined the Woolly Mammoths, a bit ahead of the transition from the Presbyterian church to blasphemy, but just after my growing dis-ease with metaphors of transcendence.
In a meeting the year after Tom Crane and I attended our first retreat and went through initiation Frank Broderick brought his drum. The gathering was in a park, where I can’t recall, though it was a large, regional park.
Stefan brought his dog, a golden retriever, (Jessie?), young then, and he attached her leash to Jim Johnson’s hip Coca-Cola design cooler. I don’t recall whether it was the drumming or some other noise that startled Jessie, but she took off, red cooler clanging along behind her, the noise and weight of which only frightened her more, making her run faster...unable to escape her karmic cooler.
Stefan found her, but she spent the night somewhere deep in the wilds of the park. When she appeared, she had shed her karma. (We should all be so lucky.)
The point here, though, is the drum. Frank had learned shamanic drumming. He could beat his thin, taut drum at a pace designed for inner journeys, shamanic journeys. As he explained it, we needed to pick a lower road journey or an upper road journey, then hunt for a spot to enter the ground, or some way to move toward the sky (I may not have his directions right, but these are as I remember them.)
If we met an animal, we were to ask the animal if it had a message for us. “And don’t bring back a snake.” Snakes and a few other things have bad stuff associated with them.
Given my journey at the time, it was obvious I would choose a lower road journey. Since I had, only a few years prior, hiked through Wind Caves in the Black Hills, I picked the entrance to Wind Caves as my starting point. As the drumming progressed, I moved with relative ease down, down, through rock and small openings, always going further and further down.
Over the previous eight years or so, since 1984 when I attended an Ira Progoff Journal Workshop (a Jungian format of self-analysis based on elaborate journal keeping), I had used a mantra I created at the workshop: Stream flowing, white pine rooting. Our workshop leader, a nun, had objected to the secular nature of my mantra (this was, mostly, a gathering of clergy engaged in continuing education), but it was what came to me, and it felt right.
I followed the Progoff journal method for a year or so, but more important to my later development, I continued to use the mantra. (I still do, for 20 years this August.) In the years before this Woolly meeting I had developed a regular habit of meditation/contemplative prayer; the format varied, though usually I did lectio divina, but it always had a point where I would use the mantra to clear out my thoughts and led God lead, or speak.
Meditation and contemplative prayer are like any skill; after practice, you become more adept, and I found I could enter the contemplative space quickly, and go deeper the longer I continued. I had a period, not long before the drumming with Frank, where I had begun to have out of body experiences with regularity.
In one, for instance, I left my body behind and went to sit on a crescent moon in the night sky; on one side of me sat Abraham and on the other side Moses. I never had any verbal exchanges in these experiences, but the physical sensation was profound and the memories of them persist.
I mention this because it had made me ready for a shamanic journey, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I began to descend lower and lower, still going through rock and cave until I hit a large room, a cavern.
In the room, in the middle, stood a white buffalo. The buffalo greeted me and said, “I will be your guide.” Guide? Guide for what?
I did not know at the time that the white buffalo was sacred to the Lakota, though its presence in a space accessed through Wind Cave later made sense to me. (I know, “made sense” is a strange vocabulary for such experiences, but what can I say? A part of me is rational and empirical; another, equally strong part is intuitive and mystical. Just the way it is.)
Now as it turned out, the white buffalo/Lakota connection did not matter much for me, but the white buffalo has stayed with me ever since. As a guide. Some of the Woolly’s know about my council of friends—at least, I’ve mentioned them, whether anyone remembers them—and the White Buffalo took a place alongside Bridgit, the two Ravens, Winnifred and her holy well, Nightmare, Jesus, Tailte, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Owain.
My point here is that several things began to converge: metaphors for the inward journey, the discovery of holy wells and the entrances to Faery, a trip to Wales where I visited several holy wells (including one sacred to St. Winnifred), the meditation/contemplative prayer experience, the shamanic journey with Frank, regular time with the Woolly’s, and my discovery of what would become Groveland Fellowship, a Unitarian/Universalist group.
Today, some fifteen or so years later, I’m still working out the implications of that transitional time: writing, praying, drawing, studying. A pilgrimage not yet complete, perhaps, in fact, my pilgrimage to spiral’s end—and beyond.
Funny how simple is hard. I imagine it’s always been so. Every craft I’ve known has had sayings like, “Let the saw do the work. Don’t fight the oars. Let the arrow find the target.” A sort of zen thing I guess, like Shiela Asato’s comment about not shooting an arrow until passing into the third stage, already having learned to breathe, stand, and hold the bow. If we didn’t fight the saw, the oars, the bow...
One I’ve learned on my own is attentiveness. The world unfolds before us, each moment. It aches for us to notice, to see, truly see. I think it was as early as walking to elementary school, alone, kicking the occasional rock, looking down, getting to know the cracks in the sidewalk, the patterns the paving bricks made when the maple trees heaved them up. Mrs. MacMillans grape vine, flowers, tendrils, heart shaped leaves, thick as a wrist with bark peeling away, then grapes, sweet late, bitter early.
The garden spider who spun the web on our kitchen window. While I ate breakfast, I watched the spider eat breakfast. Small silk-wrapped snacks ready to go. This spider had black and gold stripes, green legs—at least that’s how I remember her. Her web had an architectural beauty my mother and I admired.
Other things, powerful along the way. The smell of wet volcanic soil and tropical plants when stepping off the plane in Hawai’i. The sweet smell of roasting tobacco in Durham, North Carolina and the long, red brick warehouses where cigarettes lay by the thousands. Astonishing row after row of perfect white tombstones, geometrical, awful at any national cemetery. Wild iris in bloom in the bayous as a sluggish, newly awake alligator chased nutria. The taste of sugary beignets and chicory coffee, the small water glasses with condensation, white napkins, and ceiling fans thunking overhead.
It may all be maya, but god I love it so. The particular, the single thing or a unique combination that defines a place, a person, a time, a season. I guess you could say I’m a champion of the small thing—playing cards stuck in bicycle spokes with clothes pins, the Nickle Plate RR steam engine that blasted past my house on hot summer nights, the sight of ice jammed up along the shore of Lake Superior as if eager to taste the land, the sound of an underground brook I discovered in Pukaswka National Park.
I could go on, certainly for pages, maybe a book’s length of small things, tiny moments, unimportant scenes. It may all have the metaphysical value of a mesh to capture us, but I prefer to see these small things as wee windows, windows we can peek through to see things we might otherwise miss.
You could argue missing these things doesn’t matter, after all, if they were important, well, then we’d notice them, wouldn’t we? But I put it to you the other way around, what if their importance can be known, felt only if we pay attention, get down on our knees and peer through the keyhole. Alice had it right, I think. Why not find out?
Writing as a small thing
Eagerness. What makes you eager? Excited. What makes you want it to do so much that you’ll give up spare time, or even eat into time devoted to other pursuits?
Flying fits the bill for some. Fishing for others, or, in Warren Wolfe’s case, fly fishing. Driving fast cars. Sewing for Kate. Skiing for Joseph and Jon.
For me, when it’s flowing, writing tops everything I’ve ever done. This is peculiar, given the astounding lack of positive feedback I’ve gotten from it, except of course from myself and Kate, and the occasional feedback from UU’s, or now, some of you Woolly’s.
Still, I’m reminded of my cousin-in-law Stephen Wooldridge, a sculptor in metals, who told me a couple of years to write a sign and put it in my work space: I’m an artist and I will not quit. I did that, even though, as I’ve said other times I’ve had trouble arrogating to myself the title artist. I consider art a high calling; I’m an actual Romantic in that regard—and in several others, too, for that matter, but to call myself an artist... Not easy.
Still, it must be that the world needs good-enough artists, as Mark showed us, and I’m fine with seeing myself in that light. My art is with the written word.
The tactile gratification I get from the keyboard, seeing the words appear across the screen, not there, then there. Thoughts following one another, spurring others, a cascade of images and conceptions taking concrete shape, actual form.
Yes, it’s easy to forget writing is a sculptural, visual art; we’re not exactly calligraphers when we use word processing software and laser jet printers, yet without the shapes of the letters, the rhythm of the words as they spill out, one after another, in a simulacrum of conversation, the negative space between and within the letters, between words and the sentences they form; the shape and size of paragraphs, white space on the page—without these sculptural, visual cues you could make no sense of what I’ve set down here.
Of late, with these diary entries from my pilgrim road, I’ve found the flow again. Now writing calls me from where I sit, or during my meal, or in the car, out in garden.
It says, come. Caress me. Play with me. Dress me up in the best words and phrases and let me go outside and be with others.
I don’t know whether you have anything that calls to you like that, but if you do, then you know the meaning of vocation, calling. It is not the results a calling produces that speak to us, that draw us and keep us alive, eager. No, it is the calling itself, the literal calling that says design a fine home, use instruments of pain to heal, discover and explore to find the truth, go, see, tell.
This calling, where does it come from? I mean, the literal call, the voice inside, the song of your Self as Walt Whitman might say. I believe, with Jung, that it is your Self, in fact, the greater of which you are a part, the greater which knows you whole and better, than the you you know through the limits of your ego.
More. This Self inhabits the great interior Kingdom, the endless domain of the soul, and through its citizenship in this vast inner space, connects you to the deep wells which feed all—people, plants, animals—all. Therefore the calling you hear, the Call, is what links us together in our commonality, but, note this, it connects us through our uniqueness, the calling only you can incarnate.
So. The unique and most particular exterior expression of you expresses the most interdependent and inward reality for you. So let it be.
I love art history. Here are two reasons why.
1. In a lecture this morning by Sheila McNally on the Miller collection of Roman portrait sculpture, a collection intentionally focused on fragments in order to avoid competition with the big buck art world of the Ghetty museum, she said of these “evocative fragments”: “No matter how broken they are, they still say something and convey values.”
2. Since some of the fragments come from sarcophagi, Professor McNally mentioned a common Roman epitaph: “I was not; I was; I am not; I don’t care.”
She is, by the way, wonderful. If you ever get a chance, she’s clear, logical, intuitive, and concise.
This show is subtle in much of what it offers, yet it’s not subtle in another, more profound way. Here are faces shaped not only by the sculptor’s hand, but also by the values and life ways of a culture: pressed lips, frown lines, the cut of the space between mouth and upper lip, hair styles from frowsy to pre-buzzhead, a stark serious face with stubble beard and very short hair next to a rounder face with full mustache, flowing beard, disheveled hair—the epitome, quite literally, of a Greek philosopher.
As a poet, a monk, and a scholar I have different pilgrim personas, and different paths. The poet writes fiction and poetry, reads fiction and poety, gazes into the eyes of the world. The monk travels the inner road, dives down the holy wells, follows the burrow entrance to the Sidhe. The scholar tramps along the road lined with billboards: Truth, Logic, Reason, Facts, Theory, Knowledge; he wants to turn off at each sign and devote himself to that destination alone, or to one of the multiple tributaries: Philosophy, Art History, History, Political Thought and Action.
Do the sacred paths ever converge? I hope so.
A couple of years ago I needed to get out of Dodge, so I drove south. I didn’t have a destination in mind though I headed off toward Natchez, Mississippi. Being on the road is a quintessential American act, and I love it...I need no purpose other than finding places I haven’t seen in places I haven’t visited. (I feel I owe my Dad a nod here; he loved this, too, and I suspect my pleasure in it is a direct inheritance.)
The South draws me in, I like its Gothic overtones; the not so faint suggestion of a sinful culture, a place where righteousness and purity aren’t the highest values, rather honor and civility and loyalty, especially to race and clan. I grew up with Southerners, hill folk from Tennessee, Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi, Alabama, but I considered myself an Easterner, an East Coast intellectual type, definitely a Northerner when it came to who to cheer for during the Civil War. These hill folk were my best friends until the Woollys.
It was April or early May and I ran into rain, torrential rain, somewhere around Hernando, Mississippi, not far outside Memphis, Tennessee. With the rain came a chill, not what I wanted. I’d wanted heat, even heat and humidity. Damn. So, I continued on south, driving toward the sun.
Around Jackson the clouds melted away and the pavement began to boil. The thermostat and the humidifier had gotten a good crank up at the same time. I’d decided on Vicksburg, a right turn from Jackson. I turned right.
I have a modest Civil War jones, and I’d read the year before that Vicksburg, not Gettysburg, marked the true turning point of the war. Enough of a rationale for me to visit. I spent three days in Vicksburg. I walked the National Military Park grounds, drove to the sites of several key events: where Grant tried to dig a canal through a Louisiana peninsula and outflank the guns on Vicksburg’s high bluffs, where Grant’s gunboats ran the gauntlet, where Grant and his men finally came ashore, south of Vicksburg and began the flanking movement which spelled the end of Vicksburg, and the South’s war.
I ate barbecue in a formica table joint listed as Best of the South in Southern Cooking, read Civil War books and pamphlets and pored over maps. I like maps.
Time came to head home, but my trip wasn’t over, not by a long drive. I decided to head up the Natchez Trace, the old trade and journey route of the Natchez Indians, the last of the Mississippian culture. It is now a National Scenic Road like the Blue Ridge Mountain highway in the Carolinas and Virginia.
The Natchez Trace is the point of this story, just took a while to get to it. Once in the South stories take longer to tell and don’t always end up where you intend. (Here’s a link for the Natchez Trace Parkway, http://www.nps.gov/natr/)
On the left is a man carving at the Mississippi Crafts Center outside of Ridgeland. I stopped there, and actually talked to this very guy. Weird his picture’s on the web. Also, I stopped at the Cypress Swamp, picture on the right.
This became my dilemma. I’d drive fifteen or twenty miles, see something interesting, turn in and spend a half-hour, forty-five minutes. Then get back on the road. At the Crafts center I got into a conversation with this carver who made wooden turtles that were beautiful. He did not think it was hot.
At the swamp I wandered back off the trail a bit and found three water snakes—cotton mouths or water mocassins? I’m not sure, but I spent a half hour watching them. From a safe distance.
And so it went. It dawned on me up near Tupelo; I would never make it back up north, at least not till fall. I gritted my teeth, ignored the interesting signs and headed for my next stop, the Shiloh battlefield. (this font, according to my word processor, is Georgia.)
As I’ve written this diary about pilgrimage, and this evening as I talked about multiple pilgrimages, the Natchez Trace came to mind. It works on so many levels as a metaphor for my pilgrim soul.
First, it was laid down by an ancient people, and though they are gone, their trail remains. I can still follow it.
Second, the way has many side chapels. It is possible to stop and pray at each one, and maybe, if I could lose forever my Western linearity, I might discover it’s the side chapels that are the journey.
Third, I still have to get back up north, back home. Home remains important to me and it’s not just anywhere, it’s a place, a latitude and an attitude, even a bit of certitude.
Fourth, on the other hand, had I stayed and talked longer to the wood carver, gained more from the water snakes or the alligators in the Cypress Swamp, even if I’d stayed longer at Shiloh (where I did see rattlesnakes on the hiking path.) or learned more about the TVA dam and electrical generation facility, maybe...
I stopped at the National Quilter’s Museum in Paducah, Kentucky...before heading back to Hannibal, Missouri, my first nights stop when I began this trip.
I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say here with number 4, maybe that my lifelong belief in serendipity is always slightly at war (lotsly at war?) with the scholar, the one who must return home. I suppose you could see it as the poet pulling the scholar away from the library and into the world of particulars. It’s a tension, and one I imagine I won’t resolve, at least not this turn of the karmic wheel.
Past midnight now and time for bed. Good night.
Some weeks the sacred reaches right up from the earth, grabs me, says, “Listen to me. See me. Reach for me. Obey me.” This has turned into one of those weeks.
I didn’t suspect anything would happen when I arrived early for class at the Art Institute, at least nothing out of the ordinary. Each class we have to prepare sample mini-tours for objects in the collection, in this case the South/South-East Asian Gallery.
The object I selected was the Sand Mandala of Yamantaka, the one preserved by 3M techno-mages. You’ve probably seen it, and you may know the normal fate of these elaborate paintings in colored sand is the whisk broom and a ceremonial disposal in a nearby water way. This mandala received special dispensation, and a fixative developed at 3M has allowed it to remain in its finished form to honor the Twin Citie’s warm reception of the Tibetans in exile here.
One of the Tibetans who lives here now is Gyatsho (I don’t have his last name) and he agreed to take the training for a CIF guide. Now this is sort of like Giorgio Vasari agreeing to tour the European painting section, or a contemporary Chinese scholar of the very top rank touring the Chinese collection. Gyatsho is a personal friend and disciple of the Dalai Lama, and, with the Dalai Lama’s blessing and help created, in India, a library of Tibetan Culture. This library is now the premiere site in the world for the study of pre-Chinese invasion Tibetan Buddhism and the culture it produced.
So, anyhow, Gyatsho’s up in the gallery preparing for his gallery talk and my friend Kwo, a practicing Buddhist, asks him a question or two about the mandala. His English is good, but heavily accented, so I had to pay extra careful attention. (you know, my deaf ear and all.)
After Kwo finished, I told him I had a couple of questions, too. He stayed.
“How would you use this? In your practice?” I said.
“Ah. A tool. Only a tool. For meditation, you see.” He flicked his hand at the outer circle of the mandala, the one with the decapitated people, the person hanging from a tree, skeletons, limbs being ripped off by tigers, that sort of thing, “Start here. Samsara. The world we live in. Suffering, pain. One day happy, next day sad. Over and over.”
Now, I’m a sucker for a person with authentic religious feeling, and Gyatsho vibrates with authenticity.
He went on a bit, then I said, “Umm. This is just a question. I don’t get this order of colors. It goes white, yellow, red, green, blue. The white, yellow, red, and green repeat in several of the designs, but the blue only shows up again in the center where the thunderbolt is.”
“Ah, yes. Go in by the white gate. But only after the lama/guru gives permission.”
Hmmm. In a TV detective show we’d say, non-responsive.
But, ok. “What criteria does the lama/guru use to decide? How does he know if you’re ready?”
“Ah. You go see the lama/guru. Then he tells you come back another time. Then he will decide.”
Hmmm. It took a bit longer, but after I’d asked my questions in several different ways and gotten vague, general responses, he said, in an off-hand way, “You know. There are things we cannot say. Not even if die. Cannot tell.”
Oho. “I see. It’s an esoteric tradition? Right?”
Yes, that was it, all right.
“And if, say, I asked you questions you couldn’t answer you’d be polite and nod your head, right?”
Gyatsho laughed, “Yes, yes.”
On our way down to class we had an interesting conversation. According to Gyatsho, and I imagine he should know, up until about ten years ago, tantric Monks and practitioners were forbidden to speak about their tradition.
This, however, did not stop others from writing about it. “We decided. Had to say something. So, now can talk.”
“But this is a dilemma, isn’t it?” I said, “How do you defend a secret doctrine in public?”
Again, he smiled, “Yes, yes. Difficult.”
Then, this morning. Drawing class focuses on negative space. We drew for a couple of hours with what Sheila thinks is remarkable concentration (I’ve been concentrating like this for years, just a new application.) Today we worked on plants, using Indian ink and pens.
Now the idea here is to draw what is not the plant, the spaces around and within the plant itself. I learned negative space, I believe I said earlier from a friend who is an abstract expressionist painter.
I had voiced my frustration earlier, not about perfection, “I don’t really see myself as a perfectionist, but I do see myself as a competencyist. I mean, I’m ok if my isn’t perfect, but if I’m not competent...bad news. I’ll get frustrated and quit.”
Turns out I’m not the only adult learner who has this hang-up. The group was supportive in a very warm way. I’m an alone type learner, or the star of the class, I’m not the slow one...only here I’m the slow one. And, yet, I’m accepted anyhow. This is an amazing feeling for me. I like it.
As the day went on, and we worked with the pen and ink, I found I liked the pen and the paper. I worked with great attentiveness, a skill I’ve practiced as I said above. Now when I finished and we showed our work, the group liked my piece. They responded to it positively...I couldn’t see what they saw, so Sheila took it and moved a distance away...held up.
“There. Can you see, now?”
Of course, I’m one of the odd ones out who is near-sighted. I had to say, with a laugh, “No. Actually, I can’t see it.” So I still don’t know what they saw.
However, Sheila said our work was good today because we each engaged in “authentic struggle with the materials. The lines have authenticity, and authenticity communicates.”
One of those weeks. See you again next week.