We all walk ancientrails. Welcome to the journey.

Maybe a New Show?

Lughnasa                                                              Harvest Moon

A Robert Indiana sculpture: Ahava, Hebrew for love

A Robert Indiana sculpture: Ahava, Hebrew for love

At Tu B’av, a minor holiday, now a celebration of love in Israel and dubbed by its restorers as Jewish Valentine’s Day, unmarried women would come together, all dressed in white, dance, and hope to find a partner. Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.

We celebrated Tu B’av on August 15th at Beth Evergreen and Kate won a silent auction for a backstage experience at a local production of Funny Girl. We went last night. It’s tech week for Funny Girl and our friend Alan Rubin is a player.

I had nearly enough theater credits for a minor and acted quite a bit in high school, college and seminary. After that, nada, but Kate and I were regulars at the Guthrie. When I was in high school and middle school, our parents took us several years in a row to Stratford, Ontario, to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. A passion, really, but one that has slowly faded.

TheatreJust before getting up this morning a strange, but somehow obvious thought occurred to me. While on the backstage tour we visited the dresser, an energetic guy who made or altered 490 costumes for the women in this performance. !. We saw the multiple props, a day bed, a drinks trolley, several doors with wheels, a set of steps for musical numbers, a kitchen table, a dressing table. Downstairs we saw the storage areas for costumes and prop making materials. We spoke with the dresser, the stage manager, the director, the actors, several of them, the lighting and sound people. All, to a person, warm and friendly.

We watched the rehearsal through until intermission at 9:30, then these old folks began to tire and went home.

Theatre2Here’s the thought. Going backstage, seeing all the accoutrements for staging a play, especially going into the basement area, made me think of id, ego and superego. Of the masks and personas we wear. Of our brain as backstage, where we store props, costume changes, makeup, where we put together the elements of the show that is our lives. The show itself, and its superego, the director, is the life others see, the one we present as we strut and fret our hour upon the stage, then are heard no more.

Let me extend (overextend) the metaphor in one more significant way. All these various elements costumes, props, actors, the stage itself alter themselves for each new script. In other words it is the nature of the theater to be plastic, to use familiar elements for telling unfamiliar stories.

As our life goes on, we often get stuck in Groundhog Day times when we simply repeat the same script over and over. We don’t hear the audience, we don’t see the repetitiveness, are not aware that we’ve been mounting the same play again and again.

Here’s the takeaway for me. Examine the script. Become aware of the lines you’re delivering, the plot you’re pushing forward. Is it still the one you want? Is there another play you can put together with the props, the roles you’ve already played, the stage to which you’re committed? Could be. We can put on new productions, use familiar elements for unfamiliar stories. Might even be fun.

Going to the movies

Lughnasa                                                                Waning Summer Moon

In the spirit of the holiday weekend I’m relaxing before school starts, religious school that is. Getting ready has occupied my mind on some level every day since mid-June. Now that Alan and I have a plan, I’m giving myself these three days as a break. Feels great.

Yesterday Kate and I went to BlacKkKlansman. I’m sure many of you who read this have seen it, so we’re a little late. Several folks from Beth Evergreen have seen it. The story is a bit thin. The KKK in Colorado Springs was not historically significant and though hateful were, even as presented in the film, inept. What Spike Lee has done is take that thin story and use it as the core of a biting criticism of the Trumpstate and the folks he encourages.

He begins with a satirical short film of Alec Baldwin playing a fictitious race “scholar.” He also includes clips from Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation, both of which smuggle in a great deal of cultural commentary on race relations and the historical context that created and sustains white supremacist ideology. He also has several Trump related jibes. For example, after a Klan initiation ceremony, David Duke has a screening of Birth of a Nation. The berobed stand up and shout “America First!” According to a Colorado Springs reporter at the time, Nancy Johnson, this happened. There were also references to making America great again.

The Adam Driver character was not Jewish in reality, so Spike Lee’s casting of him as Jewish was a vehicle for commentary on anti-semitism. Driver’s comments about being raised as a secular Jew who had not thought much about his heritage are a critique of passing, whether by blacks or Jews. The frisson between Stallworth’s blackness, which undergoes a transformation when he goes undercover to a Stokely Carmichael, by this time Kwami Ture, speech and Driver’s gradually emergent Jewish consciousness was a key feature of the film for me.

The film does not end in the Stallworth era Colorado Springs. Instead Lee cuts to actual footage from the “Unity” march for white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. Included are several different perspectives of James Alex Fields Jr driving his silver Dodge Charger into a crowd of counter protesters and killing Heather Heyer. Following those news clips and cell phone videos are scenes from Trump’s infamous, “There were good people on both sides.” reaction to those events.

A profound scene, which interlaces with the Klan initiation in which Adam Driver participates as Stallworth, has Harry Belafonte sitting in a Huey Newton chair, telling the story of the  lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas in 1916.

The ongoing satirical edge of the film, begun with the Alec Baldwin short, lulls the viewer into the same sort of “oh these buffoons aren’t a serious threat.” mentality that pervades our cultural perception of not only the Klan but other white supremacists, too. Until, that is, we see Fields’ Dodge Charger smash into unprotected protesters. Until we see our President giving aid and comfort not to the victims but to the perpetrators. Then we’re forced to go back and consider Scarlett O’Hara wending her way through wounded Confederate soldiers and the blackfaced actors in the Birth of a Nation footage. We’re forced to consider that the America First shouts with the right arm salutes was not an artifact of an era now past, but with us now and not only with us now, but with us at the highest levels of our government.

The other turn that the movie makes is the implicit correlation between the America Love it or Leave it slogans embraced by the Klan and the same cultural tensions existing now. The era of the 1960’s lives on. Here’s a quote from a woman I know, an email she sent after I commented on a friend’s positive post about this movie:

Unless i have misinterpreted your comment on Ron S.’s FB, I didn’t know you are anti our country, our flag, and no doubt have always been. If so, how come you and the others are not moving to another country? Seems hypocritical that you all are still here. To me, this is not at all free speech ala the 1st Amendment.

 

In My Dreams

Summer                                                                   Monsoon Moon

AbrahamSacrificesIsaacIcon_smThe strange things that come to me before I drop off to sleep. Thinking about Lycaon, the anti-hero protagonist of Superior Wolf. He sacrifices his own son, Nyctimus, at a once every four year festival, the Lykaia, to Zeus Lycaeus (Wolf Zeus). Stray thought then. Sounds like Abraham and Isaac. Oh. Wait. Abraham was a polytheist before his covenant with G-d.

moloch william blake

Moloch william blake

What if? What if the Abraham and Isaac story recorded a very different intention than the one we Westerners, long infected by the idea of monotheism, have imputed to it? What if the context was one of child sacrifice? In other words, the religions around Abraham, perhaps even his own previous to the covenant, might have required child sacrifices. I know about Moloch who certainly did.

In the context of gods requiring child sacrifice, the story would read more like this. This new God requires sacrifice, his beloved son Isaac. Nothing new there. Many gods require the sacrifice of children. Yes, it’s always fraught with heartache and pain, but that’s just what Gods do. What’s new here is that this God relents, aborts the sacrifice and accepts an animal in place of a human child.

In this reading then Abraham’s new God evolves from a ruthless eater of human flesh to one who says, no, we no longer do that. The story becomes one of triumph and joy, this new god is better, much better.

Choose Life

Summer                                                              Woolly Mammoth Moon

Installing solar panels, 2015

Installing solar panels, 2015

Here’s a surprisingly existential sentence from economic journalist, Annie Lowrey, “The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be,” she writes. Her new book, “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World” (Crown),is considered as part of a New Yorker article, “Who Really Stands to Win from Universal Basic Income?”

UBI is an interesting idea, made more interesting by Nathan Heller who offers a good summary of its possibilities and pitfalls, and I recommend the read; but, I’m much more taken by that single sentence of Lowrey’s. Lowrey is, as Heller says, a policy person, so her comment in this instance refers to our economic reality. Our economic life is not a divine endowment from a class loving God, rather it is the sum of choices we make as a people, choices reflected in our laws, our deference to the wealthy, our moralizing (Calvinist driven in large part) of personal income and wealth (more, better person, less, worse person), even the choices we make as consumers. In sum we live in a created society, one that we can choose to recreate or even uncreate.

IMAG0912Why are we so reluctant to recognize that racism, sexism, homelessness, income inequality, white fear are the result of decisions we’ve made collectively and individually? I think the answer lies in ideas Arthur Brooks identifies as the bedrocks of conservative thought. Below is a portion of that article, Republican or Conservative: You Have to Choose.* NYT, June 25, 2018. Though it may surprise readers of this blog, I have considerable sympathy for these ideas.

They challenge the Lockean idea of a social contract among independent actors, a notion at best abstracted from common life. They challenge the fabric of a liberal political worldview. I agree that we are not wholly autonomous individuals. Heidegger’s notion of thrownness underlines this point by reminding us that our life begins in a particular time, in a particular place and in particular circumstances over which we had no choice whatsoever. Brooks says something similar, “…individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations.” To this point, I’m with him. There are unique realities that shape us.

IMAG0913But, to sacralize that unique reality, “…conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed.” says Brooks, serves to deny its perniciousness, its damning of so many to lives of desperation, marginalized from both economic and cultural blessings. Once we emerge in the era, the family, the town or neighborhood or rural place, the religious or areligious space gifted to us, the nation of our birth, once we are over being thrown into circumstances beyond our volition, we gain the power of choice.

It is decidedly not the case that though thrownness may come first, as Brooks says “The order comes first.” that “…individual freedom is an artifact of that order.” No. Order is neutral, neither a moral good, nor a moral constraint. If the order into which we are born nourishes lives, lifts people into their best possible existence, then, yes, let’s sustain it. If, however, the order into which we are born is itself pernicious, damning us to poor education, inadequate nutrition, a lifetime of social doubts about our worth, then we must recognize the truth of Lowrey’s wonderful encapsulation of the liberal perspective: “The way things are is really the way we choose for them to be.”

 

*”Conservatives said we…think you’ve got human nature wrong. There never was such a thing as an autonomous, free individual who could gather with others to create order. Rather, individuals emerge out of families, communities, faiths, neighborhoods and nations. The order comes first. Individual freedom is an artifact of that order.
The practical upshot is that conservatives have always placed tremendous emphasis on the sacred space where individuals are formed. This space is populated by institutions like the family, religion, the local community, the local culture, the arts, the schools, literature and the manners that govern everyday life.
Membership in these institutions is not established by rational choice. We are born into them most of the time and are bonded to them by prerational cords of sympathy and affection. We gratefully inherit these institutions from our ancestors, we steward them and pass them along to our descendants.”

Woke

Beltane                                                                      Mountain Moon

classBack in the day, the now further and further away day, I always went to class. I might have missed a few, but it was rare. I enjoyed learning from lectures, getting in the mix of dialogue, thinking out loud. Last night I was the only student in the qabbalah class on Time.

Rabbi Jamie and I had a solid hour together talking about the nature of the sabbath, the notion of sacred time, and, hidden space-time. L’Olam va’ed, translated most often as forever and ever, has another translation, hidden time witnessed. The second translation, a qabbalist’s, points to the intersection of the three dimensions: space, time, and soul. Soul is consciousness in this frame. It is a nexus that is crucial to understanding existence per se. Without all three, space, time and consciousness, the fabric of the universe cannot exist, or, perhaps better, in my opinion, couldn’t be known as we humans know it.

The tao. The tao feels like the central idea that I have learned, even though it’s pretty damned slippery. Putting it into this qabbalistic paradigm, being one with tao is awareness of L’Olam va’ed. When our soul sees hidden time, we see reality as it is, a moving generative force and we can align ourselves with its flow, not impede it.

homosapienBeing human is a daunting task, steeped in misdirection, existential isolation, perception clouded by tradition, by language, even by our body. Qabbalists and taoists and ch’an buddhists have worked, hard, to peel the onion of our awareness. They are subtle, in their own way as subtle as particle physics or genetics or neuroscience, attempts to understand this task, the one none of us can jettison, save through suicide. They differentiate from the narrowing tendency of science by insisting on a full, a comprehensive positioning of this strange creature that we are in the wild.

Make no mistake, the universe is the true wilderness and we wander in it as innocents, thrown into it for what reason we do not know, headed toward a destination we do not understand and cursed or blessed with awareness, consciousness, soul as we travel.

girl-powerThought experiments like taoism, qabbala, ch’an or zen buddhism try to shock us out of our stupor, the life lived without seeing the wilderness for what it is, the life lived within the conventions of a particular time, a particular language, a particular place, a life lived without knowing what life is. Most people find little reason to peak behind the curtain of this emerald city that we think is what is. The apparent life, the one with family and money and the NFL and food and houses and sunlight and night, seems to be all that could be. We do not question, we try to paddle the little barque of our body on this river (life) often using only our hands over the edge of the boat.

wokeAnd yet there is more, not more in the sense of more layers or more depth, for those layers and depths, the wilderness, always surround us, are the water to which we are the fish, but more in terms of what we can know, what we can access, what we can use to help us become awake. Woke, in the current vernacular, not woke to racism and sexism and oppression in this instance, but woke to the true majesty and wonder of life itself, of this wilderness journey, this most ancient of ancientrails.

Do you want to wake up? Shake off the slumber of convention? Head out into the wilderness knowing it for what it is? If you do, there are paths to take, fellow pilgrims with whom to travel. I honestly don’t know whether it’s important or not to peel the onion, only that in doing so, I’ve become alive, able to see. And I prefer that consciousness, awareness to life as a long sleep.

 

Mall, Art and one emoji balloon

Spring                                                                              Mountain (New) Moon

Went to the Aurora Town Center mall on Saturday to see son Jon’s student’s art. He teaches art at Montview Elementary in Aurora. Over 17 years now.

This first shot is Dillard’s. I realized malls and especially the anchor department stores had design features like old world palaces. It’s just us nobles shopping here, selecting luxury goods for our many roomed homes. Even so, the mall felt dead as an institution, a thing of the last century. Don’t know about you but I haven’t been in a mall in a years.

20180414_114019

This fish, by one of Jon’s fifth grade students, took first place out of all the Aurora elementary schools. I can see why. It’s original, muted colors, sharp definition, suggests dinosaurs and armored fish.

20180414_111529

However, I preferred this one, also from one of Jon’s students. I love the color field artists and this one moves pretty far in that direction. Not bad for an elementary kid. Jon wants his kid’s art to be expressive, not perfect. “I feel bad for those people who want to be artists, but can’t get the emotional expression they want in what they do,” he said. He’s actually teaching art making.

20180414_111618

Aurora has a large Latino population. This store sold kid’s clothes, cowboy boots, hats, leather vests and belts, but all in a Mexican idiom, rather than Western.

20180414_113005

Just loved these overdone baseball caps.

20180414_113144

Finally, this from Gabe’s room. A helium filled poop emoji. Gotta admit I don’t get this one.

20180414_163314_001

A Clashing of Spiritual Longings

Beltane                                                                          Rushing Waters Moon

St. LaurenceIrv Saltzman invited us to a performance by his singing group, the Renaissance Singers. It was held in a wooden Episcopal Church, St. Laurence’s, which is near our home. Directed by a Chinese national, Hannah Woo, who is finishing her Ph.D. in musicology, they were 8, four men and four women. As a group, they matched each other well. April, a soprano, had a lovely clear voice and a large range. Irv, formerly a tenor, has now transitioned into a bass/baritone role. Their performance was wonderful. At a meal afterwards we discovered April is our neighbor.

musicRenaissance choral music and instrumental renaissance music has always captivated me. It’s easy to see courtiers in colorful costumes listening to this music in a palace, brown robed and cowled monks hearing it in a morning prayer service, or small groups performing at home for their own amusement. It’s also the music most often heard at Renaissance festivals. Sorta makes sense, eh?

The sanctuary had a vaulted ceiling with exposed beams and two large, clear windows that looked out to the east, toward Shadow, Evergreen and Bear mountains. It rained while we were there and the mountains were in mist, the windows covered with raindrops slowly moving from top to bottom. There were individual chairs, padded with kneelers, arranged in a three sided configuration, making the sanctuary a sort of thrust proscenium stage, an ideal arrangement for a small group of singers.

A church artist had painted the stations of the cross and they were around the sanctuary, set off by bent sheet metal frames. A copper baptistry, large, sat over a cinerarium where the congregation deposits cremation remains and memorializes the dead with small plaques.

Edited+Holy+Week+2017-21Between the two windows hung a large crucifix, a cross made of bare, light wood and a bronze Jesus hung by two nails. I had an odd sensation while listening to this music I’ve often heard in monastic settings on retreat. It carried me back into the spiritual space of an ascetic Christianity that often comforted me. This time though I came into the space as a peri-Jew, identifying more with Marilyn and Irv and Kate, with the still new to me spiritual space of Beth Evergreen, than the theological world represented by this spare, but beautiful sanctuary.

The crucifix stimulated the strongest, strangest and most unexpected feeling. I saw, instead of the Jesus of Christianity, a hung Jew, a member of the tribe. More than that, I felt the vast apparatus and historical punch created by his followers, followers of  a man who shared much of the new faith world in which I now find myself. It was an odd feeling, as if this whole religion was an offshoot, a historical by-blow that somehow got way out of hand.

These feelings signaled to me how far I’d moved into the cultural world of reconstructionist Judaism. I see now with eyes and a heart shaped by the Torah and mussar and interaction with a rabbi and the congregants of Beth Evergreen.

pagan humanismThis was an afternoon filled with the metaphysical whiplash I’ve experienced often over the last year, a clashing of deep thought currents, spiritual longings. This process is a challenge to my more recent flat-earth humanism, a pagan faith grounded not in the next world, but in this one. Literally grounded.

What’s pushing me now is not a desire to change religious traditions, but to again look toward the unseen, the powerful forces just outside of the electromagnetic spectrum and incorporate them again into my ancientrail of faith. This makes me feel odd, as if I’m abandoning convictions hard won, but I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on. There is now an opening to press further into my paganism, to probe further into the mystery of life, of our place in the unfoldingness of the universe, to feel and know what lies beyond reason and the senses.

An Endangered Species

Imbolc                                                                               Valentine Moon

Let’s call alt-facts what they are: propaganda. Psychological warfare against our own citizens. Though specific attacks on the environment, refugees, people of color and regulations keeping rapacious financiers at bay are horrible, an assault on the nature of truth is deadly.

How can we keep a political dialogue going if facts are subject to derision and distortion and obfuscation? The tobacco/cancer link deniers, the pesticide purveyors, the climate change deniers, the colorful and varied tweets of our Twitler, his outright lies about his inauguration crowd and the massive voter fraud and his distance from his businesses are all instances of outright deception, propaganda presented as fact.

Facts are, of course, subject to interpretation and reasonable people can disagree about their implications. That’s not the issue here. The issue here is changing the facts, ignoring them, hiding them (see the Whitehouse website, for example). Our democracy cannot survive a buffet attitude toward the truth.

I’m not sure that the Trump folks even know the difference between facts and lies. Their ideology or their venal natures may allow them to see only what they want to see. Whatever it is, I hope we can work as a nation to protect truth-sayers, fact-gatherers, lie confounders. Science is a conspiracy, yes, a conspiracy to understand the nature of reality.

So, hard as it is for many to fathom, are the humanities. In studying literature, philosophy, theater, language, cinema we gain the tools to separate fact from fiction. Critical thinking may be the most powerful tool we have in fighting the rise of a nationalist fascism. Critical thinking is taught in the humanities. In them we also learn the value of fiction, when it can enlighten us, when it can deceive us.

Right now facts and the truth they undergird need protection under the Endangered Species act.

The War on Truth

Winter                                                                Cold Moon

facts

OK, Woollies. I Finally Did My Assignment.

Winter                                                                 Cold Moon

For this meeting, please bring a magazine, journal, newspaper article, book, or something written, that you have read within the last month and that brought a great deal of passion, inspiration, focus, energy, or meaning for you personally.” Scott Simpson, for the Woolly meeting a week ago today

I’ve read three books recently that have stayed with me: Zero K by Don Delillo, Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and The Nix by Nathan Hill. These are all fiction, all by contemporary authors.

zero kZero K examines, in a minimalist world, our obsessions with death, immortality and technology while recounting a strained father-son relationship. It’s stark and strange, featuring, for example, a compound somewhere in the ‘stans. At this compound, mostly underground, is the center for a cryogenics movement funded by wealthy folk hoping to live forever, or at least until there’s a cure for whatever they have right now.

Underground RailroadUnderground Railroad imagines a real railroad, with tunnels and station masters, which carries escaped slaves. It is not so much the railroad though that commends this novel, but the story of the slaves who escape. This novel puts you inside the minds of slaves on the plantation and as they decide to flee and the ambiguous world that faces them even in relative freedom. Claustrophobic, scary, uncertain life on the run sometimes contrasted favorably with enslavement, sometimes furnished prisons and punishments that did not. I appreciated the chance to live in this world for the time it took to read this novel.

nixThe Nix uses massive online video gaming, the Chicago protests of 1968, and the life of a disappointed assistant professor of English and his estranged mother to reflect on what it means to be human.

The nix is a Norwegian legend, according to the characters in the book, which involves a horse. The horse finds children, plays with them, then invites them, by lowering his head, to climb aboard. At first, the children are delighted. They love the horse. Then, the horse begins to gallop, faster and faster. The child becomes frightened. Finally the horse wades into a lake, throw off the child and kills them. The theme of the Nix is just this: that the thing you love can kill you.

Well worth the read.

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