Thursday, December 31, 2015

Come Hither Angel

Seven hours and counting before turning to 2016. It feels like the end of the year. Cold, cold weather for Northern California (dipped into the 30’s at night!), our annual “snow trip” with friends and family to the West Point Inn on Mt. Tam. Hikes each day, rain and shine, communal meals, working out my repertoire on the old upright piano, reading, cards, group games and such. Wood fires, candles, kerosene lights, no electricity—mostly off the grid and wonderfully so. Spectacular morning views (in fact, the cover image this past year on this blog), prints from a mountain lion in the path, the Milky Way at night.

Four of us ritually walk down from the mountain to Mill Valley, bus to Sausalito, take the ferry to San Francisco and the streetcar back home, but this year cheated with a parked car in Mill Valley. Still a lovely descent, like walking the last mile of 2015, in convivial conversation with people who’ve known each other for 35 plus years. How it goes on.

Back early enough to go to the De Young Museum to see the “Jeweled City” Exhibit—artwork from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. A significant event in the city’s history and humanity’s bid to bring the separate cultures into communication with each other, even in the midst of the First World War. There was artwork, new breakthroughs in science, technology, and even education—this was the event where Maria Montessori first showed the world her education approach, with a fish-bowl kind of classroom with people observing. (One of the kids in that class was the mother of one of our school’s founding parents!)

The centerpiece image that advertises the exhibit is from Arthur Frank Matthews, as shown (out of focus—sorry!) below. The title is significant:

                                            THE VICTORY OF CULTURE OVER FORCE

You see the presiding angel stopping the brute of war and materialism with her left hand while shining a light over the men, women and children who come bearing the gifts of culture celebrating life. That was one entire century and one year ago and one wishes that angel's left hand had been a bit more powerful. The creative force of culture and destructive force of greed and brutality shared the stage side by side and still do. But at least in terms of what the newspapers are willing to report, that horse and rider on the ride are rampaging unchecked through the country.

Maybe so. But maybe not. One gets bigger press, but the other is present, now and forever, and just about everyone I know personally is making some kind of effort to stand under its light.

Tonight I’m bringing in the New Year with a comedy show by Paula Poundstone at the Palace of Fine Arts, the very building that housed much of that century-ago exhibit still standing. Then meet with the usual gang for some Tibetan-bell ringing at the stroke. It’s a good time to re-invoke the angel and invite her down to help keep some equilibrium between the forces of light and dark. A good time to renew my own vows to help brighten that light and work to dismount the rider (especially in an election year!). So I’ll close with the end to my Holiday Newsletter:

Here’s wishing for—and working for— more beauty than bombs, more guitars than guns, more poets than pundits, more fun than fundamentalism.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Was There Then

As a young spiritual seeker in India, Richard Alpert (soon to be Baba Ram Dass) was rebuked by Bhagavan Das, an American fellow sadhu, for talking about the past. “Just be here now” said his gentle companion as they walked en route to meet their mutual spiritual master, and Boom! there was the title for Ram Dass’s book that defined a whole generation of young people interested in Eastern spirituality.

Time in the Western conception is a forward-moving phenomena of past feeding into a present that moves toward the future. But other conceptions insist there is but one present moment that contains past-present-future in an ever-cycling now. Our job is let go of our attachment to the past and give up our hopes or worries for the future and just live fully in a blissfully present now, wholly attentive and unfolding from moment to moment in a state of pure being. Like a baby or a Zen master.

Well, it sounded good in college, especially aided by certain controlled substances that helped us tune into a moment with no worries about yesterday’s bad date or tomorrow’s test. And it’s still a good idea to breathe into the present moment with fuller presence and awareness. But meanwhile, we better plan the route to the yoga studio and remember where we put the car keys last night. The actual world we live in demands a pretty astute sense of past and future.

So at the small alum gathering we had tonight, a practice mini-celebration of the school’s 50th (but who’s counting? Just be here now!) year, it was so fun to gather in little circles with alums from 10, 20 and even 30 years ago and remember all the fun stories that we carry with us from that mutual past. (Luckily, Bhagavan Das was not one of the alums or he would have ruined the event with his holier-than-thou “Just be here now” shtick.) Our “being here now” was a fun recollection of our “was there then” and I believe we walked out of the party happier for having remembered.

I’m looking forward to the big 50th party in April. While simultaneously being wholly present in each of the 10,368,000 seconds until that event. 

The Bad Guys Win?

Like most kids, I loved all the stories where the good guys win and the bad guys are vanquished. From the fairy tales with dragon-slayers to the TV Westerns (though I was mixed-up back then about who the bad guys were!) to Charles Dickens' novels to the epic myths like the Ramayana and the Odyssey, the storylines mostly boiled down to good versus evil and the inevitable triumph of good.

With sophistication came the realization that we all are a mixture of good and evil and the true vanquishing to be done was in her own hearts and minds, souls and spirits. The demons that haunt us are not eradicated by assault weapons, but are tempered or ritualistically expressed or softened or accepted through meditation, therapy, music, writing, art and other disciplines of inner martial arts.

And yet there still are bad guys—and gals—out in the world who are out, intentionally or otherwise, to do us harm. Working on loving kindness, understanding, compassion can help us meet them up to a point. But it’s not enough. So many loving communities have been destroyed by marauding hordes from the Mongols to McDonalds and the power of politicians, bankers, soldiers and the like to destroy and harm and hurt is pretty well documented in a gruesome subject called History and the Daily News. Without a body to practice loving kindness, without a home to gather in, without the freedom to do good work, evil will continue to ravage the world unchecked. So we need to take political action seriously and limit the amount of harm the greedy, selfish, fanatic and crazed can do.

Some of my favorite movies—and books—are the ones where fraud and greed and corruption are exposed and the bad guys get their just desserts. Think All the President’s Men, Pelican Brief, Erin Brockovich and the like. Recently, there have been a run of similar exposes—Truth, Spotlight, Trumbo, all of which deliver the satisfying ending. Dalton Trumbo finally gets the recognition he deserved, abusive priests are exposed (though Cardinal Law seemed to get off too easily).

And then there’s The Big Short. This one’s about the 2008 financial crisis that turned some 8 million Americans out of their homes and caused some 6 million to lose their jobs. All while the big boys in Wall Street were getting rich and celebrating their success. At least in The Wolf of Wall Street, the greedy guy flies too high and gets taken down. But here— in the movie and real life— the bad guys who get rich without an ounce of concern for the folks affected by their greed get off scot free. Government bails them out, no one goes to jail, no regulations are put in place to check their power in the future. Is this something new in the world? The bad guys win? It’s as if Judas and Pontius Pilate are the ones we now admire and worship and Jesus was just a loser guy who couldn’t beat the big boys.

It’s easy to identify a Christian Ku Klux Klan or Islam ISIS terrorist and see the evil they perpetuate in the name of their God. But what about the damage from Wall Street greed worshipping their Almighty Dollar? There is much evil afoot here and yet, we not only bail them out and give them tax breaks and excuse them when they break the law; we admire them.

And thus it goes on and will go on until we change our story. One of my Christmas presents is a book from Tim Wise titled Under the Affluence, about this very subject of changing the story, stop blaming the poor and the immigrants and the refugees, stop making it shameful to be poor and start shifting the shame to the rich. I’ll keep you posted on his thoughts.

Meanwhile, it gets my goat that the bad guys are winning and we’re letting them. But I guess there’s always Hell. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Not Over Yet

Riding past the empty Christmas tree lot yesterday with 4-year old Zadie, I commented, “Aww! No more trees. Christmas is over. “ Zadie replied, “Christmas isn’t over!” and I stifled my impulse to correct her. “You’re right, “ I said. “It’s still here as long as we feel the spirit.”

I love that the opening of the presents was not the main event of Christmas in her 4-year old mind, just part of the whole sweep of events and feelings and spirit in the air. In fact, Zadie slept at her Aunt Talia’s house on Christmas Eve and in the morning, was in no hurry to rush over to open presents. She suggested they first enjoy a leisurely morning smoothie sitting in the sun on the couch. When we did finally gather around for the present-opening ritual, she first reached into her stocking and pulled out a green leaf. It was supposed to be attached to our customary mandarin orange, but she just got the leaf. Jokingly, we exclaimed, “Wow! Zadie! Santa gave you a leaf!” and she seemed thrilled. As was I when I opened her present to me. A plastic air-filled piece of bubble wrap she grabbed from one of the packages. “Pop it, Pop-Pop!” she poetically commanded and I did and we all got the thrill of little explosion. A leaf and bubble wrap! Christmas was going great!!

Not that she wasn’t wholly aware of her wishes and desires and the extent they were fulfilled. She did ask Santa for a sparkly dress all the way to her toes and later commented that it only went to her ankles. But in the big picture, the spirit trumped the material goods and though it’s wholly un-American, I’m proud that she has not yet caught the virus of consumption. In her world, Christmas is not about stuff, it’s about visiting Pop-pop and Mima and Tita and San Francisco and looking at the lights and houses and singing around the piano and decorating cookies and hanging up her drawings around our house and riding her Mom’s old bike with training wheels, the whole nine-yards of sights and sounds and smells and smiles. So indeed, just because the calendar reads December 26th and the presents are opened and the tree lot is empty, there’s no reason whatsoever to say “Christmas is over.” Grown-ups are just so weird.

Of course, in all of Spain and Latin America and more, Christmas is only the first day of 12 and in some places, Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on January 6th is the bigger holiday. But that’s just my adult mind trying to educate. Zadie mostly had it right. 

But since she went home this morning, in my heart, Christmas is over. There’s still lights in the city, the temperature is a rare wintry 42 degrees, our tree still sits in the living room. But without Zadie here to bring it fully to life, it just ain’t the same.

On to New Year’s!

Return to Empty Nest

Up in the dark and out to a car with frosted windows, moonlight on frosted grass. Out onto the empty streets with sleepy grandkids in the back seat as we drive to the airport— the Christmas visit is over. The airport a-light with red and green and decorated trees, still a bit of holiday magic to soak in. Then teary hugs goodbye and back to the emptied-yet-again-nest.

Time to take out the leaf in the kitchen table, dismantle the electric train, box up the puzzles and children’s books to be brought down to the basement. No more scheduling the days built around nap schedules or plotting out walks based on playgrounds. Back on the shelf with the delicate items, out goes the car seat, once again the chance to play the piano without Zadie accompanying me with fisted commentary on the lower keys.

The bittersweet reclaiming of one’s home and adult life, minus both the music and the chaos of the pitter-patter or stampy-stompy of little feet, the delight of the four-year old mind of unbridled imagination and the ear-piercing screech of the four-year old want and will thwarted, the joy of the 5-month-old smile as you catch your grandson’s eyes mixed with the drool falling on your face as you lift him into airplane mode. Add the pleasure of your 16-year-old step-grandson wandering independently around the city with such newfound enthusiasm for the San Francisco you love mixed with the slight concern that he keeps returning to Haight St. The welcome and stimulating talks with your daughters and son-in-law and the lively energy of the 8-person extended family cooking, eating, playing games, partaking in the city’s holiday offerings combined with the complexity of coordinating 8 schedules and diverse needs and wants. At once missing it and relieved to be back in your own groove.

All this got me thinking how uniquely human this is. Do birds pushed out of the nest come back every few months to visit and see how the folks are doing? Do baby lions grown to adults feel the need to bond with Dad by going on a hunting trip? Mature beavers look up Mom and decide to build a new dam together? And is there such a thing as animal grand-parenting? Adult orangutans bringing the babies to their parents and saying, “Hey, can you take care of them for a while? I got some foraging to do and could use a nap.”?

I suppose I could actually do my five-minute Google research here and find out, but hey, after the delight and intensity of a truly marvelous week with the grandkids, I could use a nap.