Monday, July 16, 2018

A DREAM OF TWO ARTISTS

I had a dream in which I was engaged in a project with two artists, both now deceased: Charles White, who will be having a long-overdue tribute exhibition at MoMA this October, and whose life and work I studied on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship back in the early 1980s; and Patrick Nagatani, a wonderfully imaginative, deeply engaged photographer whose posthumously-published book I reviewed a while ago.

In the dream, I was still engaged in my study of Charles White and Patrick Nagatani was assisting in the documentation. His contribution consisted in creating a complete catalogue raisonné on a computer hard drive and hundreds of tiny squares of paper, all of which needed to be painstakingly cut out. I was working with him on the project in a small apartment in a strange city. When we were done I asked him if he was free for dinner but he declined. His wife (who was not his wife) arrived just as I was leaving and did not seem much interested in meeting me. I left, feeling rather sad and lonely...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

JAWS

I awoke in the middle of the night last night in the grips of an actual, physical panic--gasping for air and shaking all over. And realized I was waking from a dream in which I was about to be bitten by a shark.

I remember only fragments of the first part of the dream, having to do with oars and boat racing, in which I was either an expert (never!) or teaching others, people with whom I was familiar but do not remember who they were.

Then there were only myself and a woman--and the shark. We were somehow engaged in tempting the creature to reveal itself in a small, enclosed space--something like a friend's boathouse I remember from decades ago on Lake Windermere. The rather detailed plan was for me to brace myself near the roof and offer myself as a kind of beam on which she raise her body out of the shark's reach.

I was concerned that the twist in my body might make the planned move impractical and suggested that we should first practice it, to which she replied: "of course."

But then the woman completely disappeared from the dream, leaving me alone, braced near the roof of the boathouse, with the shark below. I had not counted on it being able to launch itself so far out of the water, and started to fear the worst as it came closer and closer with each effort. I could see the pink of the inside of its mouth and its rows of frighteningly sharp teeth...


Its final launch brought it to actually graze my bare thigh, and I knew that the next time it would actually close its teeth around the flesh.

Strangely, though it was clearly about to tear into my flesh, the shark seemed to harbor no aggression or animosity. The way it nudged me seemed, in fact, more affectionate, more like Jake, our King Charles spaniel; and the fact that it was about to bite into me felt more like it was simply fulfilling its natural function, doing what it was supposed to do rather kindly and without evil intention.

Even so, I was panicked at the prospect of its bite, and woke, as described, in a state of physical reaction to the intense fear. It took me quite a little while to calm down again.

Friday, July 13, 2018

PAST LIVES

As regular readers know, I'm skeptical of past lives. Or, for that matter, future lives. But I woke this morning with the memory of a past life experience from many years ago, and it's worth recalling. I think I have never shared this with anyone before--unlike too many of my stories that you've heard before. Chalk that up to age!

This experience took place at a time when I was in a place of great distress and disorientation in my life. Anxious to restore the balance and order that had always kept me (moderately!) sane and happy, I had been looking desperately everywhere for answers--solutions, really--to the problems that beset me, and a friend invited me to try exploring my past lives.

Despite my instinctive skepticism, I trusted him. I had collaborated with him quite closely in the men's work in which we were both involved, and I had come to know him as a man of strength, wisdom and compassion. So I agreed to meet him one evening at his apartment and accept him as a guide into the mysteries of before-this-life existence. He was--is--also a gay man, a detail that is irrelevant to this story except for the fact that I was needlessly aware of it when he led me to his bedroom and invited me to lie down on his bed...

But I easily surrendered that awareness as he helped me to become comfortable and relaxed in preparation for my journey, and before long I found myself, accompanied only by my friend's voice, descending into the darkness of a semi-waking, trance-like state where my mind was open and receptive to whatever might occur.

That voice was soon leading me back through centuries until I reached a moment where images started to present themselves with the strangeness, conviction, and clarity of dream. I was in Europe, probably England, my home country, somewhere in the Middle Ages. In sudden horror, I found myself wielding a knife, enraged, stabbing another man to death in what seemed to be a fit of jealousy. This dreadful scene was followed immediately by another, equally horrible, in which I was being hanged in punishment for my crime. I felt the rough rope around my neck and struggled against it in a panic--but in vain. Darkness descended like a mercy to put an end to it.

I know I struggled on that bed. I know my hands reached up to grab the rope from around my neck. I know that my friend was there to reassure me. Somehow, however, the trance was not yet fully broken. I found myself passing through more centuries of darkness, this time approaching our own. My next stop was the late 17th century, the Georgian era; and this time, with the same dream-like clarity, I saw myself as a little boy--a greedy little boy, a greedy, fat little boy who could not stop eating. I could not stop stuffing food into my mouth, more and more of it, with my body bloating and expanding until it could take no more... and literally exploded.

I returned to consciousness in my friend's bedroom, not a little sobered by the experience I had just been through. Was it all a matter of suggestion? Was it my subconscious mind bringing some ugly stuff about myself to the surface, as though in fact in dream? Was there some deeply buried, enraged part of me that desired so urgently to murder? Or to gorge myself to death? Or had I truly lived and died a murderer in the Middle Ages? Had I died, as a child, of a surfeit of food in the 17th century? 

These questions remain obviously unanswered, and indeed unanswerable. I wondered, in my morning meditation, where this memory might have come from, and found one fairly simple and immediate anser: I have been thinking about, and beginning to work on a new project that I'm calling "What a Good Boy Am I." Its working subtitle is "Scenes from a Very English Childhood". The title, as I'm sure your know, is the last line of the nursery rhyme about Little Jack Horner--the one who "sat in the corner/Eating his Christmas pie." He "stuck in his thumb/And pulled out a plum,/And said, What a Good Boy Am I." 

So, well, there's the greedy little boy for you. As for the rope, I have be recalling the fact that I was a blue baby, born with the umbilical caught around my neck. I nearly died at birth. Strange, how the mind works with a perfect logic all its own.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

BOYS IN THE CAVE

I read this morning in a New York Times article about the soccer coach who led those twelve boys into the cave in Thailand, where they were trapped and spent ten days in total darkness underground, not knowing whether they would be found before they died.

It's an amazing story of survival. Ekkapol Chantawang, himself still a very young man at the age of 25, is a stateless member of the ethnic Shan minority and, as such, something of an outcast. According to the NYT story, his parents died when he was a young boy and he entered the Buddhist monkhood--apparently a not unusual outcome for an orphan deprived of financial support. He spent nearly a decade in the monastery, where he was given charge of looking after children younger than himself.

The experience certainly stood him in good stead when he found himself in this dire predicament. "In the cave, he taught the boys how to meditate, so they could pass the time without stress," noted a fellow monk from the temple where he trained. "That helped save their lives."

Indeed. It may have helped save his own. Had he dwelt on the guilt he must have experienced for having led his team into mortal danger, he might surely not have had the mental fortitude that was needed to see these youngsters through their ordeal. In such a circumstance, the temptation to give up all hope must be very strong. I can readily believe that Mr. Ekkapol's strength of mind, developed through years of Buddhist discipline, played an important, indeed a vital role in the boys' survival.

This extraordinary story is yet another demonstration--if such were needed--of the power of meditation. I shall always be grateful for having received the gift those many years ago, and for those who have supported me in my practice. And I am awed by Mr. Ekkapol and his team of miraculous boys.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

DESPAIR

I recognized the feeling last night at bedtime, following the nomination of another extreme right-wing candidate for the Supreme Court of the United States, and this morning I woke with the same feeling: despair. We now have on our hands yet another battle that is almost sure to be lost by those of us who care about such things and which may, in the coming weeks, cost Democrats still more of the waning power to which they cling.

It's no use trying to pretend that the feeling is not there. I learned long ago that if you try to repress painful feelings they just show up in some other, potentially still more harmful form. Despair is the bleakest of feelings. It comes along, uninvited, when all hope is suctioned up into the void of everything we once believed immutable--including, now, the persistence of democracy in America. I struggle with this feeling, because I am adamant that I must not surrender to it; but it's a feeling that I find overwhelming at this moment, in view of the social and political maelstrom that embroils not only our country but, seemingly, the world--or at least that part of it we once presumed to call Western civilization.

We are governed by fear and anger. On the right, the success of the American right-wing in empowering itself over the past five decades has led to a kind of triumphalism that recognizes no bounds, no responsibility to others than the obscenely affluent who have engineered their rise with money. They currently wield power with unrestrained ruthlessness, drunk with the freedom they have gained to do literally anything they please, no matter the wishes of the majority of their fellow citizens or the damage to their country and the world. Their power derives from the fear and anger they have managed to generate amongst the very people who have been dispossessed by their success, paradoxically those who are most vulnerable to their policies of inordinate cynicism and greed.

On the left, we too are governed by fear and anger. Everything we value and hold dear has been trampled by the triumphalist right. We feel powerless even in the vote we cast, because we cast it knowing that the entire political system has been bought and sold, that the gerrymandering by (mostly) right-wing ideologues has assured the continuing cycle of election and reelection of often extreme right wing candidates, and that the legislative process itself has been gobbled up by the pervasive influence of lobbyists. We watch in dismay as those who represent our interests and priorities lose battle after battle because they, too, are powerless to halt the ruthless progress of what disguises (and sells) itself as "conservatism" but is in truth nothing more than an oligarchy that drives, more and more, toward fascism.

We are in fear and anger because we watch impotently as self-evident truth and scientific fact are trashed, in plain view, with impunity. We watch in impotent rage as victory after victory is snatched by tactics of unmitigated bullying and greed. We watch in fear for everything we stand to lose in this onslaught on our sense of decency and fairness, and our most basic human rights. (I think, here, of the assault on women's reproductive freedom; of the treatment of so many of our fellow human beings seeking asylum from the threat of slavery, torture, or death; and indeed, of our own citizens of color).

This is my problem: I watch as the surfeit of fear and anger lures me ever closer to despair. The endless battle and its endless disappointments wear me down and wear me out. My greatest desire, on waking in the morning, is to throw up my hands and abjure responsibility for what I see happening all around me. The last thing I want is to be sitting here, typing these words into my laptop. I have lived for long enough, I tell myself, to have earned some respite from the fray.

I suspect there are many as close to despair as I am. I spoke yesterday to a once-active friend who has packed it all in. He sounded happy, relieved by his decision to remove himself from all political action, turn off the television, ignore the news, drop out of the social network. I have heard the same from others, who find it all too much, too deeply disturbing to their psychological and psychic well-being. Some have already abandoned ship. Others cling despondently to the railings.

It's hard to argue with the ones who opt out of this mess, especially when I'm so powerfully tempted to do the same. The feeling of despair keeps coming back, and any reasonable assessment of our situation only reinforces it.

And yet, and yet... to give in to the despair we justly feel is not the answer. The hope is in the long view. I hear people say that "America is better than this," and I want to believe this to be true because statistics show that a majority of Americans agree with me on every issue of importance. The thing to do is to acknowledge the feeling, because to continually be in conflict with it is a waste of energy. No amount of struggle will remove it. Acknowledge it, then, and still, despite--no, because of--this dreadful feeling, get on with the work that I alone can do: I write these words, I post them, I invite people to read and perhaps to share them. And urge everyone who happens upon them to get on with the work that they alone can do.