Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Ultimate Reality

Having just finished final grading for my first English class, I must have been relieved, exhilarated, disappointed, understood that achievement is relative—all those things. Because a dream that followed that night was extraordinary, and left me with a feeling I’d been allowed a glimpse of the ultimate “reality.”

It took place in and around a museum that kept expanding, becoming more like a castle, and then like an entire city, but still all one building, with halls that were sometimes streets; rooms that were sometimes entire mansions, and all at varying levels. An exhibition was about to open, and I was helping. The small room I was working in held a model of the base of an obelisk. The model was of styrofoam, painted gold, which I discovered when I accidentally broke off part of it. Distressed, I left the room, and noticed that other rooms were being filled with antique furniture. Outside was a model of the entire obelisk, but it had fallen over due to the wind. It, too, was of styrofoam. I didn’t know whether I should be relieved that others had had problems with the exhibits too, or if I should tell the woman supervising the re-erection of the outdoor obelisk about my breaking the other exhibit. Before I could say much, a golden object fell from the sky. It was a tiny piece of armor, just the chest part of it. It was made for a monkey, I knew. But inside it were other objects, including an ancient gold coin, which the woman gave to me despite my murmuring that I did not deserve it.

Coin in hand, I ascended some stairs and revisited the room where the obelisk base had been, but someone had substituted another exhibit. My worry gone, I went to a balcony that overlooked a landscape, and sat down in a chair. I soon became overwhelmed by the view to the extent that I no longer had the faintest idea that I might be dreaming; this was reality. I would never wake from it, never leave it, never grow tired of it. I knew the privilege of seeing this perfect sight of hills, clouds, and sun was somehow due to the coin in my hand. The clouds moved continuously in a hypnotic swirling motion, creating bursts of sunlight and shade in my eyes. There was no sign of sentient life, let alone “civilization.” All the forces necessary to Understanding and Experience and Acceptance were contained in this view, and although there was a feeling of slightly fearful awe, I knew I would never lose sight of this; it was the ultimate reality.

When I did wake up, I was neither disappointed nor relieved. My own familiar “reality” was adequate and pleasant. But I now suspect it is not the ultimate one.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

I feel that individual waking “consciousness” is divided into at least two parts. One consists of seemingly coherent thoughts that are in words or images, and these are necessarily contaminated by the “superego,” and/or influences on same. The other part is simply unknown, and may show itself (move into consciousness) as impulses or emotional responses. I am lately very aware of how the necessity to fill out a certain bureaucratic form, for instance, having to do with my full-time job (at which I strive to be conscientious, at least worth the money they are paying me) interferes completely and painfully with the “unknown” part of my consciousness. There is so little silence. And silence is necessary. It should be a given, not a treasure that one has to steal. And by silence, I mean a reprieve from certain roles whose fulfillment requires constant conscious self-admonition. That’s what “Fall Break” should be about. But it’s not. Not for secretaries. I guess what I’m saying is quite simple. It’s the reason people shout, “T-G-I-F-!” and the like. But there have been times when I’ve been able to hitch the two kinds of consciousness together, and not need a break at all. Some of these times have to do with teaching, being a “person” in front of a class. Trying to convince them it’s worth it to put some time into writing well. Because I know everyone CAN do it. It’s our human heritage. At these times, my two types of consciousness come together. At other times, however, when I’m NOT teaching and am in my other role, I feel, not for the first time, like Cinderella, only with no ball or prince in sight. Oh, I know it’s not “all about me,” but one can only be servile for so long before it becomes a fetish that might be worth joining a recovery group to eliminate. Yes, I feel like a teacher with a secretarial fetish.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


I never really understood what it involved, although I've enjoyed almost every class I've taken. Mostly, I enjoyed following the talk of the professor (whoever it may have been) with an eye out for something with which to disagree, or for some point upon which I could digress. I felt free to burst out with statements when the spirit moved me. I must have been obnoxious, but I often felt as if I were riding in some boat down a turbulent stream with a few other people, and that making sudden declarations was like commenting on the water (which we were all watching) and on the sturdiness of the boat (which some of us might have been worried about). Or, as in the still from Fellini's "La Strada" (above), I would feel I was watching a circus performer whose credentials were ultimately unknown. Since I wanted to be a circus performer too, I would have no choice but to suspend disbelief.

It turns out I'm not that great a lecturer, although I certainly could work on it if I looked upon it as a performance. But that would mean two performances per week, and my natural rhythm is, like, two (studied and contrived) performances per year. I do care about my students, though, and I e-mailed each one of them regarding their "brainstorming" notes for their first essay (a mere two-pager). The essay is to be on Kate Chopin short stories, "The Storm," and "The Story of an Hour." The main female character in each story is, according to most of the students, "cheating," and "selfish," respectively. I don't believe this is what Kate Chopin intended to convey. Have expectations for women's potential and behaviors not changed since the 1890s? I suppose not. For these young people, the 1960s never happened.

In "Deschooling Society," the late Ivan Illich wrote:

"Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring..."

I have always thought the position of "professor" to be rather strange, even though I fell under its hierarchical spell when I was in college. I cannot believe that the people who show up for my class don't have ways of learning without me. What I have to share with them is what I happen to be interested in, but only for my own reasons. I am supposed to be teaching them "how to write," but the formulas I have been urged to tout have never been the ones I have used in my lifetime of writing. This makes me feel divided, and sometimes a fake.

Yet still, I want them to look up to me and come to me for some sort of "advice." I don't care what about, though.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

I love my dreams. Sometimes I have a really good one. This was last night's: I was in "New Orleans," or some city like it. I was drawn to a run-down store whose name was "44," and I thought it was...I don't know...but it turned out to be a fabric and yarn store. The woman there gave me a straw hat, and was very nice. I noticed that a young, naked girl was there, perhaps as a clothing model, I had no idea. Suddenly, my father showed up, about 20 years younger than he is now. I was glad to see him; he was supposed to give me a place to stay. But I must have gone into the wrong building, because I looked out the window and saw only water, seething, bubbling water, with some large fish in it just under the surface. I didn't know if this was a normal part of "New Orleans," or a flood. Soon, my father said I should come over to HIS side of the building, since there was a place to stay there. However, there really wasn't; there were some different levels, and there was a transvestite type of person where I was supposed to sleep, all dressed up fancily; or maybe it was a leopard.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


A women's group has come to its planned ending. The Buddhist group continues. I start teaching an English class in August while staying with my secretarial job. I am not sure what any of it means.

I have the same husband, same house, same closet full of thrift-shop clothes.

Previous eras of my life have not been like this at all. Many of the eras of my life have been extended "transition" stages. I was always looking for answers. Once (maybe in 1979) I said to myself, "If only I could twist my MIND around the right way, everything would be all-right." I am here to say, now, that even if you twist your mind around right, everything is not necessarily all-right. Because there is always "society," and "other people" to deal with.

I had so many pointless thoughts and anxieties on the way home today, I wanted to fumigate my mind. I really do want to figure it all out, but that's a bit self-involved. Better I should care about others. Not in a masochistic way, though. And that is the key. How do you translate the various motivations for "CARING ABOUT OTHERS" into something genuine? It must not be an escape. It must be excess goodness. Goodness (bodhichitta) is no big deal. Really, anyone can do it. It takes no skills! You just have to want for others what you want for yourself. Kind of Golden-Rule-ish, only more subtle.

So, in psyching up to "teach" beginning composition class, I am thinking: Maybe if I just want the BEST for each and every student, I'll do OK.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Who am I, inside?

Every morning I do a series of exercises before breakfast. They are simple, not strenuous. They wake me up and they let me know what’s going on inside. Is my body refreshed by sleep or still tired? Is there pain in one knee and not in the other? Is one shoulder feeling stressed and the other normal? How’s my equilibrium? One of the exercises I feel compelled to practice is walking in place for several minutes on some smooth stones in a box; it’s a balance test among other things. I like to conclude with crunches and a sun salutation, but sometimes I don’t have time. Anyway, breakfast tastes better when I’ve worked for it, or rather, when I’ve communed with myself before I eat.

But wait: is the body the “self”? Some would say no, but I feel it’s half the self I’ve got. My other half. Especially now that I’m older, and it’s talkin’ to me every day. In my youth it was silent during most activities. It neither complained nor felt delight. I depended on it unknowingly, like a child depends on an adequate parent. Then it started exhibiting an ego, wanting to dance or run when I turned 30. This was followed by floating anxieties, manifesting in things like plantar fascitis (sore heel) when I was 40. Now my body makes poignant speeches involving entire systems, like the hip-knee-calf, or the shoulder-tricep-elbow. I try to listen. My morning exercises are a congenial meeting with my body. We come to some agreement until the next morning, when we review the situation again.

I am turning into a skinny old lady. I never thought this would happen. But it’s intriguing. The parent/child model has switched. My mind, judgment, experience, compassion, humor (what there is of it), now comprise the parent. My body is the child; fussy, sometimes in need of re-education or attention or simply going more slowly. I actually love my body now. I always did prefer the taking-care-of rather than the being- taken-care-of. I never noticed when my body was taking care of me.

If the body is an expression of the spirit, or even of “god,” then it certainly does carry one through youth, through unseen dangers. Then one gets to return the favor, having learned what it is to be “god” from the body, from material existence. The senses arm the spirit for the adventures ahead.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Aesthetic war of the sexes

What is this? A competition between artful representations of female and male genitalia? One week after seeing a great local production of "The Vagina Monologues," I am present when a rather large painting of a penis wins a $1000 Best of Show award at an annual student art show.

Sheer size may have done the trick. Then there are the colors. The artist, an attractive young woman, uses lots of red and green and white. The phallus's surfaces contrast with the background, though the piece at sidelong glance seems to be just one hefty square of piled-up pigment. Looking at it straight on, it is impossible to ignore the central cylindrical shape defined by shadow, color, and texture.

The artist has been accepted to more than one graduate school. She obviously has the verve to succeed. This painting is one of her ongoing series on the subject. All of them are large, colorful, painterly, exciting.

In Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues" -- a work made of words -- we have the female genitalia as a "village;" the source of a woman's identity; a piece of furniture; something to be dressed/adorned in a particular fashion; or something that speaks a phrase, like, "Come on in!"

The phallus -- in this work made of paint -- seems not to need a disguise or metaphor (except for the obvious one of being, for the moment, "art." It's simply THERE. Often erect, it has a singular purpose. The vagina is more vague, more open to possibilities, narrative.

I don't even know how to write about this, really. But if one is comparing possible aesthetic uses, it's clear that the vagina is more adaptable and exploitable. It doesn't have to "perform" to be useful. It can be seen as an empty theater, inviting a performance. But it does have a will, and often its will is not respected. More subtle and complex, its will is not as "impressively" expressed as the will of the penis.

And, really, what am I doing SEPARATING body parts from the persons to whom they belong anyway?

I see this young woman's paintings as demystifying the phallus at the same time as going along with its program. I wonder, in ten years or so, what other subjects she will deem worthy of her gooey, exuberantly applied oil paint.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Interior landscapes

Although Boston and surrounding small cities are visually rich, the interior of my mother’s house offers mini-views strangely similar to the public environs of north Alabama. Cheap religious icons of plastic, glass, and metal; emphasis on the extended family, especially its past through photographs; a penchant for the “cute” and politically simple.

During my recent visit to my parents' abode up north, I was taken by the idea of impermanence, and felt a desire to cling to these tiny furniture-top interior landscapes created by my mother from the materials she felt comfortable with. When will I ever see EXACTLY their like again? However, even the art world now flaunts collections of meaningful detritus. Minus the personal items, my mother’s arrangements, partly an expression of (Great Depression/depression induced?) not-wanting-to-let-go-of-anything, would be considered mini-installations or shrines.

My friend Anya, whom I also visited in the Boston area, has shrines, but they are thematic and minimal. She knows how to let go. She also knows how to wield a dustcloth.

There was a sadness in looking at my mother’s frozen galaxies of objects. Once she is gone, they’ll be gone. For now, the interior of the house is still a reflection of her concerns and hopes, though her once-frightening creativity has finally been contained by such things as fake crystal rosary beads and potholders in the shape of owls. But nothing is wasted.

In the midst of this, in his separate bedroom, my father reads his complicated books and lets objects fall where they were last given attention. His collections are arranged in his head, and consist of scientific facts and historical anecdotes. Things drift to the corners of his lair: the lost shoe, the letter from a friend now deceased, two old pennies, an electrical outlet adapter.

Human is as human does. And I, a human, witness this partnered domestic stasis, collecting impressions and sentiments, making a shrine in my heart, knowing that to be as impermanent as my father’s thoughts and my mother’s objects.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

It's all "good."

I am sure many people have thought of this while treadmilling or stairstepping at the gym: "Here I am exerting myself, burning calories, moving objects (i.e. rubber-covered foot platforms) 'round and 'round in the material world; why can't my efforts be used to supplement energy sources like oil, coal, water power or nuclear power? If not for the benefit of others, then at least for the benefit of myself!"

Well, this just doesn't seem to be a huge concern or interest. Here's a company looking for ideas, but if anyone's submitted any, there's no evidence. I did find plans for a bicycle-powered washing machine that I would construct IMMEDIATELY if my "utility room" weren't so danged small.

I expend too much energy at the gym. It's part of my mental health program, but that's of little concern to most people. Lately I've been listening to English literature lectures on a used iPod. I can only do this for about half an hour, because my concentration tends to dissolve after that. One of the great things about aerobic activity, for me, is that my concentration DOES dissolve, and I tend not to care because I'm doing something "good" anyway. And yet, I could do something equally mindless and "good" by staying home and strenuously cleaning something. What's the diff?

The difference is repetition. I think I'm a closet autistic. I enjoy repetitive motion way too much. I find it soothing and redemptive. Although I am not completely lulled. I enjoy spewing some attention on the way my legs or feet or hips feel; on whether or not I'm having to exert more effort than the day before; and on what could possibly have affected that. My bad day at work? My not-so-healthy breakfast? My waking up several times the night before to let the cats in and out? My own body has become an endless source of fascination now that it's on the verge of becoming eccentric in its operation (intermittently dysfunctional). I am a baby-boomer, after all.

But, back to the ENERGY issue. Why is there not readily-available, battery-charging home exercise equipment? And more pertinent, why is there not this kind of equipment in public gymnasiums? Couldn't the gyms offer a menu of charitable causes for which their patrons could productively and directly ellipticize or stairstep? I would love to exert myself for utilities payments for the elderly; after all, I might be one soon.

And so the gym continues to be an invitation to iPod-enhanced solipsism, either via Teaching Company lectures or what passes for music these days (I can only imagine, not having downloaded any). But temporary (and possibly therapeutic) retreat into a world of one's own is NOT incompatible with generating energy as a by-product! I see fraternity/sorority energyraisers! I see tax deductions! I see measuring one's daily exercise "achievement" in terms of what one has done for the energy crisis, especially one's OWN energy crisis (on whatever level that can be interpreted).