Sunday, December 19, 2010

"There Is Grandeur in this View of Life," Part 1

Just in time for Christmas: meditations on In Memoriam...

I beg your leave, Squires and Squiresses in Readerdom, whilst I 'umbly quote two nineteenth-century writers at some length, to help spin out some thoughts on life, death, and evolution... not old hat about new atheists, but ground-level stuff about the "problem of evil" and why life sometimes seems to suck so much. I don't think there is a problem of evil... but we'll get to that.

I've mentioned the class I taught earlier this year on American Spiritual Literature, and one of the good things that came out of that class was, I turned a student on to Augustine (not American, I know, but I had occasion to talk about him more than once), to the point that the young man has now not only read Confessions but has sculpted a likeness of the saint (!). Another blessing was: a passage from Walden about death and violence really rocked my world this time reading it... I couldn't help contrasting Thoreau's thoughts with Tennyson's much better-known remarks on "nature red in tooth and claw" and the tragedy of the pain and suffering that surrounds us in what David Tibet, perfectly describing the Vision of Sorrow, called the "endless wheel of suffering... the final crystalline structure of misery... the great, bloody and bruised veil of this world."

Tennyson knew that veil, and famously uses the word in his grand elegy In Memoriam (1850), his exploration of doubt, death, and cosmic order written in the shadow of the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson's bosom friend, classmate, compadre in poesy, and the fiancé of Tennyson's sister. Hallam died unexpectedly at 22, having inspired Tennyson and many others with his brilliance and his grace that made him seem "to tread the earth as a spirit from some better world." Quite understandably, not only was Tennyson devastated by the death of his friend, but he struggled to find meaning, any meaning, in such a disastrous, random event.

I'm going to diss Tennyson in a minute, so I want to now disclaim that In Memoriam is one of the greatest works of literature I know, and even if it weren't a masterwork I would hesitate to argue too much with a guy who's mourning his best friend. I'm totally down with Tennyson's asking the hard questions, and have a lot of respect for someone who is that tenacious about asking what it all means, not to mention asking about it in a style so eloquent that it dizzies me every time I read it.

But I've got to argue, if not with Tennyson's style, then with the very seriousness that style imparts to what is at root a self-centered and small-minded view of the world. Its spiritual guise, flirted with by Tennyson, though he's not buying it 100 percent, insists that even though stuff is not the way you want it to be, a wondrously awesome god made it that way in service of some bloody scheme of "redemption" that, in most tellings, still manages to leave out 99 percent of the human species--but might let you in if you're good. Its secular guise insists that even though stuff is not the way you want it to be, you can find other like-minded sufferers and band together and make it all the way you want it to be or, failing that, you can sort it all out for yourself and whatever you come up with will be the right answer, as long as it makes you feel bad. (Feeling good is a sign of shallowness.)

Tennyson ends up somewhere between these two opinions: not a brain-dead believer, not an existentialist, either. He states "the problem of evil" about as well as anyone has, or ever could, state it. Musing upon the pre-Darwinian model of evolution in Robert Chambers's Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844), he presents a picture of Nature as the relentless supplanting of one species by another, from the mindless predation of dinosaurs "in their slime" to the "fruitless" quests of Homo sapiens. What I like about In Memoriam, in addition to Tennyson's sublime style, is that in this poem he seriously and at great length entertains the idea that, in the face of the limitless death and pain of the biological parade, Christianity and all other moral systems might really be wishful thinking, might really be sad, makeshift whistling in the cosmic graveyard.

At a certain point in the poem the narrator enters into a dialogue with a personified Nature. He's been lamenting that she seems to favor preserving the species ("type") with no thought for individual death and suffering. She tells him he's half right: she doesn't care about preserving individuals or species:

"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
[Nature] cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more" And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed,
And love Creation's final law--
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed--

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster, then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

By this point, Tennyson has mourned his friend and has widened his angle to ask the big questions: do our lives matter? Is there any truth beyond atoms and the void? Why must we love, if time is but an arrow pointing to death? Is religion, is every search for meaning, just a death-denying illusion? Fossils of bygone species, some of whom ruled the earth as humans now do, seem to proclaim a ciphered law of chaos and death, the poem says, and we'll join them before long. We chant epics of struggle, redemption, and salvation to soothe ourselves, but the very landscape before us, the very ground on which we stand, stained with the blood of countless generations, gives lie to our proud fantasies: life is too violent, too random, too cheap to admit of justice or ultimate purpose. So, in the end, "The spirit does but mean the breath": once we die, as individuals or as a species, that's it. No meaning, no continuance, no do-over.

For all our brilliance, all our heart-storms, all our visions--all our poetry-- aren't we just another speck of foam in the seas of space, another doomed arrangement of carbon and oxygen? Sounds like it, from these beautiful lines. Ultimately, of course, In Memoriam holds out the promise of redemption, of ultimate meaning: it means something when someone dies, and lives; it means something when an entire species lives, then dies, even if all it means is that its myriad members' bones form the ladder on which some newer, more sophisticated species can climb up to gaze at the stars. But of course for Tennyson it's more than that: hope lies in the perfect world of spirit, in which we escape death, escape our lower, animal nature, having evolved from "broken lights" of the Divine into... the Divine itself?

No longer half-akin to brute,
For all we thought and loved and did,
And hoped, and suffer'd, is but seed
Of what in them is flower and fruit;

Whereof the man, that with me trod
This planet, was a noble type
Appearing ere the times were ripe,
That friend of mine who lives in God,

That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves.

Really not much to complain about here. Tennyson's tastefully post-Christian, he's resolved the evolution/ creation conflict, and he's even got a little Hegelian/Kabbalah thing going where God's creation evolves into some kind of cosmic singularity. That's true, if you ask me, and I have to applaud the man's doubt, too. I'm with him: hope does reside in the world of spirit. But that whole death thing... mourning is fine, I mean, we've all been there. Years of it? Sure. The rest of your life if you need it. The death of someone you love changes you the same as losing a limb, in the sense that part of your way of being yourself is gone, unrecoverable, you have to learn a new and inescapably worse way of living, living without. And so we mourn, and so some of us write epic poems or build Taj Mahals of other sorts. The mourning for Hallam or any other lost loved one isn't the point; rather I take issue with Tennyson's attitude towards death itself, his assumption that death is some kind of monster, some kind of interruption, anomaly, affront to the order of things.

Death is the order of things.

If saying that sounds odd, it's because nearly all our models of reality are spawned by religions, philosophies, and political systems that arise from and feed on the individual organism's fear of death, which they externalize, eternalize, and super-size into narratives of redemption, salvation, end-of-the-worldism, heavenism, houri-ism, reformism, revolutionism, etc.-ism, mirroring off into infinities of alienation nearly as vast as death itself. How few have thought to turn their backs on these fables, face the Fact, and embrace death! To do that, of course, they had to, like Inanna, cast off everything that made them who they were; they had to abandon themselves and all their desires.

The thing is, and I apologize for sounding a bit like Pascal, you're going to lose everything anyway. That midnight hour is going to come and the masks are going to come off. You may as well, my Teachers tell me, renounce now, and maybe by midnight you'll have the hang of it. Thoreau spoke of lives of quiet desperation, and said the desperation comes from clinging, from wanting, from denying life to its face, refusing to recognize it for what it is: a tornadic whirl of matter, energy, and sensation that, like all tornadoes, one day whirls itself into nothing. Your life and the universe's life are like this. God's life is like this: She withdraws into Herself in mahapralaya--call it "maximum entropy" if it makes you feel better--to sleep for a time, to wake again in blazing cosmic morning, and who knows what beautiful and winged life will evolve then, what atoms, elements, constellations, consciousnesses? But to preoccupy oneself with eternity is to will oneself to forget how big eternity is, to close one's eyes to the eternity that saturates us in every instant.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Heather King Has a Blog!

... which I have belatedly discovered. It's related to the book she's writing on Thérèse of Lisieux, which is itself an exciting prospect.

I told you about King earlier, and just now stumbled on her blog as I'm sitting here listening to the freezing rain's patter outside and the Paul Mauriat Christmas album's retro sparkle  inside, waiting for my banana nut bread to bake and trying to prepare for my spiritual autobiography class next semester. I'm teaching King's "Wonder Bread" early on, as an exemplar of the spiritual essay, along with David James Duncan's "A Mickey Mantle Koan." I'm going to ask the students to write their own short spiritual memoirs, and I figure Duncan and King will be way better models than remote or far-out characters like Augustine or Teresa of Avila or Robert Anton Wilson.

I just hope the students will read Augustine. Hell, I hope I finish reading him. When I was a teenager, Confessions was so marvelous, and now--I'm trying to have more empathy than tossing the book aside, muttering, "Yes, yes, you irritating little man." Still, the text has plenty of gifts that went right over my head when I was kid, and every time I'm about to run out of patience with my old Roman confrère, he says something that brings me down to earth. For example: we're both teachers of rhetoric, Auggie and I, and he said he moved from Carthage to Rome (and this was in the days before U-Haul) because he heard the students were better-behaved there, more eager to learn. Who could read that with a cold heart?

I also had this idea when I read him earlier that he was putting himself out there like some kind of spiritual hero, but as Heather King writes, "any spiritual seeker worth his or her salt has undertaken a journey so full of failure, hardship, and disappointment that no-one would want to follow it." Now I'm seeing a lot more pathos, a lot more cringe-worthiness in Confessions. But I still like Heather King better.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Envy Is Such a Bad Thing

But I can't help feeling sentence-envy when I read this bombette from H. L. Mencken:

Here, more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly – the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, or aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances – is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows. ("On Being an American")

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How Did a Nice Suburban White Boy End Up Worshiping Kali? Part 3

Man Ray, Indestructible Object
(Image: Museum of Modern Art, New York)
[Continuing this series that my lovely, sweet Sophia asked me to write and even helpfully provided the title for... I hope I don't sound completely taken with myself; I just want to tell the "what it was like, what happened, and what it's like now" story they tell in AA, and A.∙.A.∙., the Holy Guardian Angel story that says to you, like the exclamation point: there is something.]

Yeah, yeah, the Maori ancestor voices and gay-guy goddess books... what about that Bible high in the closet? What about religion? 

The house I grew up in wasn't religious-- we didn't go to church or claim a denomination, my parents rarely even spoke of God;  I don't know where my interest in the subject came from, but it's always been there. When I was four I hauled some 2X4s from the garage out onto the lawn, laid them down, and arranged them into a cross upon which I then arranged myself. My dad said the neighbors probably wouldn't appreciate this game and made me put the 2X4s up. A while later, six months or a year, or maybe the same time, or maybe before (time stood still before school), I took up a plastic sword and became the Conquering Jesus, galloping through the house and over the battlefields of Armageddon towards certain victory. I imagined ignorant, Matchbox-size armies shooting at me, and vocalized their sound effects as I smote them-- I was fifty feet tall!! and dodged their bullets like Neo. "If you're Jesus, why do you need to dodge the bullets?" asked my mom. I couldn't answer that question, and found it embarrassing enough to quit the game, but I still admired Jesus like he was a ballplayer. The certainty of My victory somehow bothered me, too, but I knew Jesus was a nice guy who deserved to win.

After my stint as Jesus, my childhood spiritual path meandered. I loved the Bible stories my mom read me from the Golden Press Children's Bible, and kept reading the book as I grew older, though its stories more and more seemed creepy and the illustrations seemed a civilized hand's attempt to stay the savagery of some crazed dead world. We had many more Frank Edwards and Charles Fort and Erich von Daniken and UFO books than we had Jesus books, and those had their impact on me, too, eventually. In first grade my teacher (illegally) read us Bible stories; I found them dull and interminable, even Samson and those pillars (though I admit I thought the teacher was saying "pillows"). A couple of years later I checked out a book on witchcraft from the library and tried to turn my friend Quentin into a rabbit--with his consent, though he stubbornly remained in human form, there on the front porch in view of the launch pad whence humans still, in those days, traveled to the moon.

In 7th grade I spotted my mom's childhood Bible on a high closet shelf, and schemed to liberate it, that its eternal secrets I might imbibe. I asked her about it, I think, and I think she said something to fend me off like "We'll get you your own Bible some day." What was in that book? I still believed without question that some Book, somewhere, had the Answers or at least a good portion of them, so in some way or other the Bible found its way out of the closet and into my room where it became my companion in many an evening's frustrated reading and in a few evenings' rapt revelations. I knew I was supposed to respect this book (even my seemingly godless parents had drummed that into me), though its pages sagged not under the weight of insight or inspiration but mostly under begats and lepers and dietary rules and one egomaniacal sinner after another. Eventually I wised up and read Good News for Modern Man, which I found much more to my liking... yet as much I as I rooted for Jesus and the Apostles, the New Testament, too, seemed perpetually disappointing, distant, and logic-free. As much as I wanted to believe in something, it wasn't going to be the Bible.

My first taste of bhakti, besides middle-school crushes, happened in ninth grade, after my early career as a pothead was cut short by a bad trip on some really strong-ass sinse that may have had something else in it. [Weirdly, during this trip I saw visions that included a mysterious shadow-woman and a mesmerizing purple anemone-thing I found again 30 years later while exploring the Mandelbrot Set.] Abandoning dope for God, I started attending the Pentecostal church a good friend of mine went to, and buddy, whatever they had there was stronger than a boatload of good weed. Plenty of times I saw the Dharmakaya light in waves, in sheets like pouring rain, all over everyone in that church as they spoke in tongues and communed with Jesus and cried.

I wanted so much to speak in tongues myself, but never did. The doctrines of that church were wacky--they can be found verbatim in any Chick comic-- but there was Something There, and forever after I've figured that there's little worth to anything if there ain't Something There, if the Light isn't bursting through. This belief, back then in ninth grade, had me chasing through the Bible to find the stilled letters of that Something, and later had me reading enough biblical criticism and history to reject the Bible as any kind of historical record, and later had me doing crazy things like driving to Georgia in search of Marian apparitions and hanging out with gurus and metaprogramming my brain with the 12 Steps and the 8 Basic Winner and Loser Scripts. The Something, even when I was in ninth grade, seemed bigger than the Christian god, or any god.

It wasn't there in any of the Baptist churches I went to, which presented themselves as purely verbal-- correct doctrine and quality of "preaching" were paramount-- but It was there winking between the notes of my mom's Thelonious Monk records.... It stared at me from the single eye of Man Ray's Indestructible Object, It rose like perfume from the pages of Augustine and Eliot, It danced in palm trees, steamed from  sargassum on the beach, clung to the curves of girls' bodies and animated their steps and rang in their voices. I longed for It, yet couldn't abide Pentecostalism and didn't know enough to even look for It in other religions, not that there were any around to choose from. When I got to college I met hawkers from various cults that promised It and more, but they were all Baptists when you got down to it; even the Hare Krishnas, despite their trippy gods and exotic, delicious food, talked like the smug Sunday-best crowd at the big church downtown: correct doctrine, Holy Don'ts, fantasies of righteous separation from the very social petri dish that bounded and nourished their tax-exempt meme culture.

So religion seemed more and more a wash, which didn't dull my interest but rather set me searching farther afield, though cushioned now by academic aspirations. If I couldn't reliably define It or locate It with any frequency, then what did other people in other places and times think about It? Something my Anthropology of Religion professor said really made me sit up: apparently in the Aboriginal Dreamtime It is everywhere, in every feature of the land, and we all live in It all the time. I received this news, sitting there in a featureless classroom in Central Florida, the way one receives news of a catastrophe or piece of incredibly good fortune-- Pearl Harbor, the polio vaccine: my world changed shape. I had assumed that "religion" involved covenants and sin, scriptures and strictures, that it was a moral poultice applied to an already extant, albeit sick, creation. Here Dr. Jones was presenting me with religions (we also looked at vodoun, almost as striking as the Dreaming) that were not commentaries on life or evasions of it, but universes entire. Of course I'd read about Christian cosmologies from centuries past, but the Christianity I knew first-hand vacillated so aimlessly between geocentrism and the transistor age that its cosmos ended up having no shape at all.

I don't recall any great urge at this time to read up on the Dreamtime, which is good because I was home for the summer taking classes at a local college, and there were no major-league libraries anywhere in driving radius. (Kids, this was about a century and a half before the Web.) That's OK, because the precursor to the Web, Weirdnet, the global information collective of freaks everywhere, was about to come knocking. In fact, it already had: professors I'd had earlier that year had me reading Woman and Nature and The Dancing Wu-Li Masters, and my friend Grigorss was about to demand, as only fellow members of Weirdnet can do: drop everything right now and Read These Books. This demand was going to be serendipitously aligned with a jaw-dropping introduction to psychedelia, which was going to coincide with an immersion in the work of William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, and Throbbing Gristle, which would then be followed by an introduction to fractal geometry and my own life-changing vision of the Goddess. If none of this sounds particularly Kaliesque, I'm not surprised, but what was happening was, kind of like those primates jumping around at the beginning of 2001, I was being given the "skillful means" with which to assemble my own rocketship.

It wasn't ultimately about the books or the music or the zines or the bootlegged Kenneth Anger films or even the drugs; they were so many ratchets and tech manuals. It was that a parallel cultural universe welcomed me into it and said: you, your mind, and the cosmos are not separate and not static... your mind and the cosmos are both engines that you can tinker with, soup up, and rebuild... come back to me. "In the beginning," I was learning, was right now.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The New WiHW Wordle

A definite music theme is emerging... 

Friday, November 26, 2010

Bhakti, Vol. 2

The great Clare Torry
I made this CD at a point in my spiritual growing up when I’d realized I had choices about the way I feel, when I’d realized, in the immortal Al-Anon words, that “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” So I decided to create a storyline in song about the oft-repeated cycle of feeling down in the dumps, surrendering to God, and then offering Her more of myself, deepening our love and expanding it (here’s the speculative part) until it fills the entire universe, until it is all that is. "Inflame thyself with prayer!" is the one commandment of Bhakti, and there's nothing like pop music to get those limbic juices flowing. 

Reflections of                     The Marmalade
    My Life
The most maudlin song ever? Well, there were 1974’s “Seasons in the Sun” and 1975’s “The Last Game of the Season (Blind Man in the Bleachers),” both of which are so bathetic I burst out laughing every time I hear them. But I think The Marmalade top even these cheez-classics in terms of sheer self-pity. Plus, musically this leaves the other two songs—and many songs of that pinnacle decade of pop—in the dust.

This song, of course, represents negativity and the irrationality, self-centeredness, and absurdity that grow out of it, especially in the lines “The world is a bad place, a bad place, a terrible place to live / Oh, but I don’t want to die.” It’s easy to mock this sentiment but think about it: you ‘ve been there. And it really does feel that way, and it could again, and again, until we keep a door always open in our heart for Her. 

“Reflections of My Life,” as I say, is a fine piece of music. The guy who wrote and sang the song penned a couple more hits, but never another this big. He has been successful enough, though, to have spent his entire career since “Reflections of My Life” in the music biz, and has done everything from producing and arranging to scoring TV shows and movies. You may have heard of one show he’s written music for: Thomas and Friends.

I Won’t Back Down           Tom Petty
Having elected to live, our hero now embarks on a me-against-the-world struggle to make everything right (in other words, to make the world conform to his wishes). Whatever you do, don’t back down. You’re right, they’re wrong. Go for the gusto. I have a lot of sympathy with the “don’t back down” philosophy, but it can lead further and further into delusion, further into the psychopathology of expecting the world to fit one’s expectations, which always makes a bad situation worse.

Dig Me Out              Sleater-Kinney
Everything sucks! I’ve tried to make things better and they just suck more! OK, God, I think I'm ready to surrender! 

The Great Gig In        Pink Floyd
    the Sky
Alan Parsons, recording engineer extraordinaire, knew a wonderful singer he thought should appear on the album he was working on, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Clare Torry, who frequently sang backup vocals for Abbey Road Studios, where the Floyd masterpiece was made, was paid £30 to perform this vocal. After the session, she felt her performance had been too histrionic, but the band members liked her performance and the melody she’d come up with, so she entered rock history as singer of one of the most startling songs on one of the most acclaimed, best-selling records ever made. She later sued the band for songwriting credit and won a deserved out-of-court settlement.

All of that aside, I thought this song, with its impassioned, wordless gales of emotion, was the perfect representation of a soul crying out to God-- not even “save me” or “help me” or “I give up,” but a total abandonment of the self to be, as Hildegard said, "a feather on the breath of God."  

Yoshimi Battles the          The Flaming Lips
    Pink Robots, Pt. I
Having surrendered to God, the aspirant can now attune himself to his True Will and try to evolve—without being so attached to outcomes, without his ego getting in the way every second, without constantly confusing “true will” with “Hey, everyone, give me what I want right now!” Yoshimi, the fictional warrior of the song’s title, reminded me of a saying from Carlos Castaneda’s possibly nonexistent teacher Don Juan, something to the effect that a true [spiritual] warrior sees that his task is impossible but fights anyway, sees himself as already dead and so has nothing to fear. The song’s symbolism is intriguing: Yoshimi is battling robots, creatures with no intention but only programmed responses, but they are “pink robots”—in other words, robots of flesh, humans who are asleep and who live only to act out social scripts and ego gratification. We are all pink robots until we begin the process of awakening, of creating our own cognitive space in the world, whether through art, scientific or philosophical inquiry, spiritual practice, etc. 

Silly Love Songs        Wings
It’s been a while since we had an “ultimate love song” (see Bhakti, vol. I for about a dozen) so here’s Paul McCartney with one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded. This is the pop equivalent of Bach or Mozart, with its complex continuo, its contrapuntal harmonies, and intricate structure. It’s also very mushy, to the point that one day it was playing in the car and my darling step-daughter Molly said, “You like this? You’re a sap, Kalibhakta.”

The lyrics to me are important because in them one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century admits: Love giddifies you and makes you feel silly. You can get all clever about it, but the cleverer you get, the less true the song. I embrace The Silly. The lyrics make clear the eternal divide between observer and observed, subject and object: love songs are “silly” to those not in love, yet “when [we’re] in [love] / … it isn’t silly at all.” Bhakti plays with the subject/object distinction in a subtle way, kind of like jnana-yoga does, slowly eroding the ego until one day it's no more than a crust of ice on the deep lake of Self. 

This is a song that embraces Feeling Good—not Feeling Good as getting away with something or Feeling Good at someone’s expense, but just plain old FG. Which is why tormented intellectuals always have a problem with Paul and instead prefer John: the latter caters to their inner, bed-of-nails ascetic who e'er whispers that FG comes at a price, you should only FG when everyone else FsG first, and never, ever FG without a dialectical materialist analysis of whatever, in your bourgeois false consciousness, you think makes you FG.

Devotion is love, and this song is an awe-inspiring evocation of being in love, a FG hymn, a psalm, hence here it is, kicking off a whole section of the playlist where the aspirant is crazy about God, walking on sunshine, and seeing Her everywhere. I used to worry that the FG section of the CD was too dominant, that it took over too soon, but, hell, it’s a great collection of songs. The implicit message is, I guess, that if we worked half as hard at Feeling Go(o)d as we do at feeling miserable and then justifying it to ourselves, we’d be a lot happier. Tragedy is infinite but so is bliss, so try tuning your mental radio to a better station.

I Want Your Love      Chic
Speaking of radio stations, I used to have to drive to Stonewall College at about 6:45 a.m., before daylight sometimes. That was kind of grim, especially because I often wasn't heading home until dark, but there was this radio station that played cool old songs. Most mornings it seemed they played this song, and I was so happy when its measured, stately post-disco groove came on. I'd be about a fifth of the way to work and had not yet put on the CD of my guru singing the songs of Ramprasad that I listened to every day for three years, and indeed some mornings I thought “Screw Ramprasad, screw religion, I’m tired, I want to party and go back to sleep, work is crap” ... but Nile Rodgers’s cool paean to desire got me back on track. I imagined this song going from my heart to Kali, but I knew She, too, wanted my love. 

Tanusree                  Ananda Shankar
Way back when I’d first heard of Mother Meera (in Sex Death Enlightenment) and was first starting to dip my toe in that mysterious ocean that is Hinduism, I heard this song on the NPR chill-out show Echoes late one night and it sounded exactly like what Mother Meera and Shiva the Destroyer and Kali the Creatrix sounded like to my mind’s ear: stately yet slinky, sensual and sustaining and hopeful and incensey. What Meera and the Upanishads and Ramakrishna taught me is that the shining world of mystery and miracle isn't confined to books and fables and dead saints and heroes, but is this world right now. 

Magnet and Steel       Walter Egan
A seductively mounting melody, pellucid production, and half of Fleetwood Mac on backing vocals… does it get any better? Theologically, too, I think it’s impeccable: She is the all-attracting, I am a little filament in a sea of filaments aligned according to the interference patterns of Her unfolding Shakti, the animating force of the cosmos from shrew’s hearts to black holes to the self-organizing eon-branches of evolution. This song ushers in the sexy part of the collection; during this period I was starting to understand that tantra, that the worship of the Divine Mother, wasn’t so much about making sex sacred as it was about making all of life into lovemaking with Her, trying to wake up to my essential oneness with Her in each moment.

Lorelei                   Cocteau Twins
This song has always spelled S-E-X in my musical imagination. It’s not “about” sex and it’s not “evoking” sex, it’s a direct translation of one’s neural impulses in the nonrational, supraverbal throes of carnal delight. Which aren't all that different from the nonrational, supraverbal throes of spiritual delight. Hence all that Shiva and Shakti, Christ and Mary Magdalene, Isis and Osiris imagery swirling deliciously throughout the history of religion. 

Custard Pie             Led Zeppelin
This song is a goddam saturnalia, a delirious pagan anthem. And it’s about eating pussy. So that makes it the greatest song ever.

Girls Got Rhythm         AC/DC
“She got the back seat rhythm”? The Goddess???? In my effort to make a tantric omelette, I was breaking the eggs of convention and propriety, finding the most down and dirty anthem of rut and applying it to a sacred purpose. Of course, “rhythm” has a cosmic meaning, too: several songs in this collection, either lyrically or musically, allude to chaos and order, to rhythm, to Her cyclic unfolding: “Reflections of My Life,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Magnet and Steel,” and this one. I used to play this song over and over while I was writing papers in grad school; it’s very energizing.

Living In the Past      Jethro Tull
We move from sex, momentarily, to a more devotional set of songs. This one communicates a “Turn on [to bhakti], tune in [to Goddess culture], and drop out [of mass culture and compulsory Christianity/neo-puritanism]” mentality. “Happy and I’m smiling / walk a mile to drink your water / You know I’d love to love you / and above you there’s no other / We’ll go walking out / while others shout of war’s disaster.” In other words, take the red pill. 

She Drives Me        Fine Young Cannibals
Like “Silly Love Songs,” this one revels in amorous delirium (with a little 80s angst thrown in). The narrator can’t help himself! That’s what it means to love, to be devoted… you’re magnetized, pulled in.

Love Is In the Air      John Paul Young
Few songs capture that sense of being pulled in, of floating on tides of adoration, better than this lilting disco tune: the rhythm bounces and the melody ascends and ascends and ascends, like the heart of one in love. Like “She Drives Me Crazy,” this song expresses the lover’s absolute surrender, regardless of result. The lyrics are just beautiful, describing the way that being in love transforms one’s entire world, and they certainly relate my own feelings of bewilderment at having found myself in the new world of Hinduism, of devotion, of Goddess as a living Presence rather than just a countercultural hypothesis: “And I don’t know if you’re an illusion / Don ‘t know if I see it true / But you’re something that I must believe in / And you’re there when I reach out for you.” 

For the first time, after a lifetime of chasing God, experiencing God, believing in and doubting God and rejecting God and believing again, I felt Her as “something I must believe in” not because someone said so or because it might make me happy, but because I knew she was there. It was like believing in rocks, as Starhawk once put it.
[Pop trainspotting interlude: did you know that this song was produced by the Australian team of Vanda and Young-- the "Young" being George Young, brother of AC/DC's Angus and Malcolm Young?]

More, More, More            Andrea True Connection
Now it gets sexy again. I know She is there and I want more of Her. This song seemed impossibly lascivious when I was a kid and it was on the radio, a perception possibly helped by a DJ whose intro to the song included the information that the singer was a porn star who was singing about making XXX movies. Who has ever heard of such a thing??? In this context it’s a song about sex (i.e., the eternal coupling of Shiva and Shakti) but also an allusion to Mother Meera’s saying that no matter how much of God we have experienced, there is always more. Keep seeking Her and loving Her more.

Right Time of the      Jennifer Warnes
Three 70s songs in a row? Bad DJ-ing! I can only explain the presence of “Right Time of the Night” by saying, it’s a lovely song, it’s very sweet, and it links the “stars… waking above” to earthly gettin’ it on. It also fits in with this collection’s day/night, light/dark theme.

Deep Blue Day        Brian Eno               
As does this track, one of my all-time-favorite instrumentals, a song to which I danced with my first spirit guide, the One who prepared me for my Guardian Angel, at 3:00 a.m. one wild night… don’t ask me how, as She was not embodied. This song bodies into sonic reality, as best it can be bodied, the peace which passes understanding. It is one of the collection’s “orderly” tracks (like "Silly Love Songs" and "I Want Your Love"), as opposed to chaotic ones like “Custard Pie,” “More, More, More,” and “Lorelei,” which bespeak delirium. 

Can’t Get Enough        The Colourfield
    of You Baby
When I bought the Colourfield's Virgins and Philistines back in the 80s, what hit me most about this song was its retro 1960s sound, nearly as good a job of mimicry as Elvis Costello's Get Happy!! I also thought it was awesome that they'd cover a Roches song. It seems that every word Terry Hall has ever sung is freighted with enough irony to sink the Edmund Fitzgerald, but maybe that's what drew me to this song--his faux starry-eyed delivery, in its breathless gush, is in some ways better than a straight romantic vocal . [Besides the fact that straight romantic delivery is every bit as calculated as Hall's irony.] The bhakti import is along the same lines as "More More More" above: always seek more of Her.
[Trivia: legend has it that Hall gave his band the name The Colourfield not only as an allusion to the Color Field painters but as an inversive mathematical mockery of The Monochrome Set. Draw your own conclusions.] 

Monday, November 8, 2010

How Did a Nice Suburban White Boy End Up Worshiping Kali? Part 2

When I was three I stuck a screwdriver into a wall socket. I had never used a screwdriver and wasn't sure what wall sockets were; it just seemed like the one should fit into the other-- as it did, but with unexpected sparks.

Thirty-one years after my parents wrested the screwdriver from my hands and replaced it with a cold washcloth I didn't let go of for hours, I got the chance to spend six weeks in New Zealand. A Heavenly Creatures fan, I looked forward to visiting Ilam House and Port Levy, and--I don't know. Drinking beer? Sure... it was a vacation, a respite from years on the job market and an exhausting regimen of scut work for my temporary employers, done in the thin hope I could goose them into becoming my permanent employers. That life had left me tired, cynical, covetous, and with constant back pain. I wanted a real job, I wanted more money, I wanted to use my talents on some masterpiece of something or other, I wanted the world to do me the wholly reasonable favor of conforming to my expectations. I really wanted my back to stop hurting.

Seductively, New Zealand fulfilled most of these wishes. The very favorable exchange rate doubled my limited U.S. dollars; my journal entries grew into interesting meditations and ficciones in response to the intoxicating beauty of the land, the astonishing richness of the food, the wine, the bookstores, the museums... and I endured two pounding, punishing, liberating massages that cured my back pain for good. The shaman-masseur who administered this initiation showed me how I held a burning knot of tension in the middle of my back and thus caused my own misery-- a preview of guru talks and Al-Anon meetings to come. You can only imagine the relief of being pain-free, after years, if you've felt it yourself. It felt like my life began again.

The Mother, in whose existence I no longer believed other than as some archetypal mist of human wanting, used everything around me to clear the decks so I could again meet Her face to face. She took me to an Eden foreign enough and gratified my various desires sweetly enough that I gradually entered an unfamiliar state of wonderment and peaceful receptiveness--and gratitude. Something that happened on my first full day in the country set the stage for this new way of mind and served as a heavenly foot in the door of my heart, allowing the Mother enough gap to wrench the door from its jamb in the coming years.

I'd read by this time the theory that the real-life murderesses portrayed in Peter Jackson's poetic Heavenly Creatures had been zapped by some kind of heavy occult energy while visiting Port Levy, a remote fjord on the South Island, and that this might have led to the violent climax of their folie à deux. According to Pauline Parker's diary, while at Port Levy on holiday she and her Beloved, Juliet Hulme, found themselves utterly swept into an alternate universe as real as this one, "sort of like Heaven, only better." But I wasn't looking for a door to the "Fourth World" as I drove to Port Levy in my rented Holden Vectra, my head awash with the tidal voices of the Maori choir that the hotel clock radio had awakened me with. The film had impressed me deeply and since seeing it I had associated Jackson's "heavenly creatures" with my own two female spirit guides, though my girls, I'm happy to say, abhorred violence. I didn't know what to expect from my pilgrimage, and just getting there in one piece on the tightly winding, dangerously narrow gravel road felt like an initiation.

Port Levy (in Maori, Koukourarata, "the place of the tame owl"--what a metaphor for the Holy Guardian Angel) was my second screwdriver in the outlet. I've posted about it before; the place shocked me into an out-of-self experience like the ones you hear about where the person's floating on the ER ceiling, looking down at herself getting CPR...  it wasn't that dramatic at the time, but it was a jarring reminder that there was something outside myself, greater than myself, Something mysterious and powerful that welled up into the world in every instant, like sea water in beach footprints. I heard, quite loudly, a babble of Maori ancestral spirits talking to me; my head spun with the magick of the place, the pulsing gigawatt shakti. I got "lost" on a strip of beach barely bigger than a living room, and the Earth was alive again, aware, looking back at me, kissing me with sunlets on water. None of this was supposed to happen; I knew too well the wishful thinking and mythic archetypes that made people think it happened... but once again reality was outrunning mind, logic and proportion were falling sloppy dead and I didn't even have a dose of chemistry to blame. The alien otherness of the place, its electric embrace, put me on alert again for Her voice, and so a short while later it seemed like a sign that I received that life-altering massage and that I found a remaindered copy of a book about the Goddess in a bookstore in Wellington, sitting lonely on a sale table with pulp novels and history books.

Mark Matousek's Sex Death Enlightenment touched me just as deeply as the massage, smoothing out the inflamed knots of my mind and confronting me with a personality even more suspicious and jaded than mine, who'd had his heart pierced and set aflame by Her. The Divine Mother thus reset me to zero-- psychically, intellectually, and physically, making me ready for Her divine invasion.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

How Did a Nice Suburban White Boy End Up Worshiping Kali? Part I

I didn't know what I was getting into.

The Bible up on the high closet shelf, that's what started it... or was it the drugs? Or-- let's start at the point of no return, the moment when, without knowing it, I took the red pill. Then we'll look even farther back, then forward again. 

I'm 34, it's 1998. I've loved the Goddess for 12 years, since I had a startling and unexpected vision of Her as the living, intelligent Earth dancing in black space. Except--She's dead now, or I'm dead to Her, because whenever I think of Her, my Beloved, I feel washed out, like I've got to the end of a night shift at work and just want to have a beer, drag the curtains closed, and go to sleep. Bouncing around in the wake of Her unveiling 12 years ago, I became in short order an atheist, a Catholic, a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist meditation, and a Wiccan. With every shift of my metaphysical shape, I felt more myself, closer to the supernova I dimly knew dwelt in my heart, the nut uncracked, the universe in a hazel nut like God showed Julian of Norwich...

In 1998 I'd more than fulfilled my ten-year mission to go boldly into libraries and meditation rooms and try to figure out what in the heck had happened to me 12 years previously. I'd voyaged so thoroughly in the realms of books that everything having to do with the Goddess was now a concept, a belief, a word. "Maybe She's not real," I had to admit to myself. There seemed to be so many cultural, neurological, pharmacological explanations of Her that She Herself might be superfluous, and anyway, how could a loving Goddess allow all that suffering, blah blah blah... ? The idea of a personal deity, so gut-true in 1986, was by the late 90s quaint, and anything "spiritual" I did was in the spirit of academic inquiry: reading new scriptures, trying new methods of meditation, fitting them into my or someone else's theoretical (not theological) model.So here I was, just out of grad school, preoccupied with a new relationship and finding a job, my whole life ahead of me, but missing Her, my true love, suffering from phantom heart syndrome.

All but the initial vision had been frustratingly dry. I wasn't smart enough to know you could--had to--create your own path, so I constantly searched for the best path others had cut, but they all lacked in some serious way. Buddhism was dull, Catholicism baroquely silly, Wicca disgustingly well-intentioned, and none of them offered me any room to lose my mind. It had been in delirium I had first met Her, first embraced Her, first been taught by the two female spirits who, years later and with a shudder, I would read always come to those who seek knowledge from the sacred vine tlitlitzin. The two spirits guided me for several days after my initial, stunning vision of Gaia. They said, "We're going to show you some things you'll understand now, and some you won't understand until later. And no matter what happens in your life, no matter how far you think you get from this moment, all you have to do is call on us and we'll be there."

If you believe in Angels, as my friend Mary Daly did, you know that They can intervene violently in one's life. They can whisper in your ear, or They can orchestrate a symphonic explosion of events to get your attention. I've always been somewhat spiritually hard of hearing, so I've tended to get bombs thrown at me, but by 1998 the bomb of 12 years back, the Big Bang of my life and the reason I'm writing this, the reason I've done most of what I've done since--even that had echoed itself out like last year's Fourth of July. I would ask Mary all kinds of questions about the divine--"But if there's Goddess, then how can there be ______" or "But what kind of sense does it make to understand Her as both imminent and transcendent?" and Mary would answer the questions usually but once in a while, and once pretty finally, she said something along the lines of "You're trying to intellectualize something that can't be intellectualized." Yes! The famous--intellectual! With three Ph.D.s! The philosopher who called herself a reincarnation of Aquinas! I know! That's what I said: sounds like a copout.

I could hardly have imagined what was about to happen, there in 1998 in my house in the gentrifying urban neighborhood, wanly thumbing my religion books, resignedly doing pranayama because Robert Anton Wilson said it worked for him when he was out of a job and going through the Dark Night of the Soul and he and his family were on welfare and living in the projects. I wrote to ask him how to do the heart chakra exercise he said made him "come alive" in the midst of all that hopelessness, but never heard back.It kind of hurt that he didn't return my letter, but part of me thinks that he knew he wouldn't need to; if I was that determined to find the doorway into my own heart, I'd find it.

I wanted my heart to open. I wanted Her, but I knew She probably wasn't there. Shakta lore says that if you do pranayama regularly, Kali will appear to you. In 1998 this would have sounded to me like instructions for summoning an alien spaceship to a clambake, but I was doing pranayama as an intellectual exercise anyway, timing my breathing sessions and noting any effects from them in a notebook, adding to my catalogue of other people's beliefs, rituals. Other people had those because they believed in something, and that was fine for them, but I didn't have the luxury of belief, or the foolishness. It was interesting that some people felt like they'd meditated or prayed their way into the company of gods or Angels, but I no longer saw that as a possibility for me.

What I didn't know was, it isn't all in your head. What I didn't know was, "when you're ready, they come for you."

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dream, 10/30/10

I'm at a conference and there's a party tonight. I'm walking to the hotel with this guy who's very excited about the party and I have to say, I'm looking forward to it myself. We get into the lobby elevator area and this elevator is sitting there open, with several people we know in it. They're in a festive mood, and my friend runs over to the elevator, joyous that party time has begun. 

I start over to the elevator and chance to look over to my right as another elevator opens up. In it are my Guru, Ammachi, and Mother Meera, all seated and in saris [I have never seen my Guru in anything other than a saffron robe, and come to think of it I don't think I've seen Ammachi in anything other than her white robes.] I do a double take, and all but run over to this new, astonishing elevator. 

Once I'm in it, I sit down with these three saints and say aloud, "Thank you, Kali, for putting me here with these amazing lovers of God. This is going to be the best elevator ride ever." I'm not even embarrassed at the latter gush; it's purely how I feel. 

My guru asks the other two, "Have you ever heard him sing the Sri Kali Chalisa?" They say they haven't. "He's quite good, and he even incorporates other influences." The dream ends too quickly for me to react to her saying this-- 

[What does this mean? I have no idea. It was good to see Her again, that's for sure. IRL I'm not sure I've ever sung the Sri Kali Chalisa except maybe one time when I was hanging out with my Guru. Here is an English translation of the words.] 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Read The Sparrow

You know all those questions I'm always asking, and you maybe are, too-- questions about God, and God's will, questions about evil, questions about doing the right thing and how to live in the lap of God and What Does It All Mean and Can It Really Mean Anything? I just read an astonishing book that asks all those questions, and hints at answers to some of them, and will blow your head apart: Mary Doria Russell's brilliant, disturbing, enthralling novel, The Sparrow.

I don't have time to write a proper review, so I just want to implore you, if you have ever wondered how there could exist a loving God or a divine plan in the midst of suffering, death, and horror: read this book. If you ever wondered how people could be so craven or unimaginative as to use myths of divine purpose to explain evil, read this book. If you just love a good story, love to see a writer strut her stuff, love the way someone like H.P. Lovecraft can build and build a sense of dread to the point of delirium, love the way someone like Elmore Leonard can weave the strands of a tale into a dizzying Persian rug, or love the way someone like Hermann Hesse or Ursula K. Le Guin or J.G. Ballard or Monique Wittig or Ralph Ellison can permanently alter your vision, then read this book. If you've had your reader's heart broken by Dorothy Allison or James Baldwin or Rachel Ingalls, had them burn a story onto your mind like a smoking afterimage while you sit there stunned, in tears, wishing with some medium-sized part of you that you'd never picked up the book in the first place, and you still have the guts to risk it again, then read this book.

The Sparrow re-imagines the first contact of European explorers with the New World: in the year 2019, the interception of music broadcast from Alpha Centauri leads to the formation of a secret, charmingly DIY space mission. A small group of well-intentioned humans (not a conquistador among them) land on the planet Rakhat, where, as you have already guessed, very little is what it seems. Though the mission is sponsored by the Society of Jesus, the participants have varying levels of faith, from zero to mystic, and so all kinds of readers-- atheists, mystics, those in between, and those who aren't sure what they believe-- will find in these pages someone to identify with and a whole lot to push their buttons. The narrative cuts suspensefully, and finally relentlessly, between the mission to Rakhat and the official investigation, decades later, into the mission's disastrous end. Both on Rakhat and on Earth, Russell forces us, Ludovico-style, to witness the struggle within the heart and mutilated body of the mission's only survivor, a priest accused of murder and sexual deviance and blamed for the failure of humankind's first contact with another world. As characters on both worlds see their certainties crumble like the geocentric model of the cosmos, you will find your own certainties -- about what it means to love, what it means to be human, what it means to have faith-- gloriously troubled.

The Sparrow isn't just a novel about faith or love or colonialism (with echoes of the Holocaust--Russell, who is Jewish, was influenced by Rabbi Arthur Green); it's about families, social structures, trust, art, brutality, terror, mystery, courage, despair... in short, like every great novel, it's about everything. In a world where more and more of us crave simpler and simpler myths about this staggeringly complex universe, a work like this is a treasure.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Coming Soon...

...the long-awaited "how did a nice white boy from the suburbs end up worshiping Kali?" post! 

...more Bhakti CD liner notes!

...more Kalibhakta sutras! 

...the long-ass post about the problem of evil, or death, or whatever! 

It's just that Sophia and I had a conference and our anniversary and then we went camping and I have all these papers to grade and all these T&P files to read, and Sophia's legendary Halloween party is looming... but my thoughts are with you. 

Friday, September 24, 2010

Outside the Garden

It's that insufferable Star Trek episode... the one where they mill around the minimalist villa ringed with flimsy, Doric-columned pergolas, the one where nothing happens but it was written by the smartest guy who ever wrote for the show and so you watch it every time even though you know nothing is going to happen. You know that, weirdly, you won't see the Enterprise, that Jim and the boys won't leave the planet, that the Problem, whatever it is, won't get solved. It's positively, hokily, 1960sly Sartrean.

You know the teen Dhanu girl in the corner (the Dhanus' foreheads are kind of big!) will keep writing in her visibook, keep writing contentedly in the series' most prescient prop, a klunky 1967 iPad. She'll keep writing and somehow be the focus of everything, though she's at best a bit character. The first 99 times you saw the episode you didn't notice Spock and Kirk trying to spy on her, didn't notice the redshirt who stood behind her for a moment then never re-appeared, didn't notice Nurse Chapel's sidelong glances like she's the queen burqa bitch and the kid's rocking a mini-skirt at the local mosque.

Now when you watch, you half-expect Kirk to slap the girl, or rage at her, or at least have an intense, sweaty-faced moment with her, such is her implicit power and such are the murky sexual politics of the series--but he only ever looks at her: first a slight glance when Spock breaks the news that they're not getting off the planet any time soon, then a cut of the eyes when word comes that McCoy has gone over the wall into the Garden of Knowing, and, finally, a slow head-turn in her direction as the music rises before the last commercial break.

"Outside the Garden" is where most of the characters stay, at least in the plodding events of the so-named episode. They stay outside the garden, and out of its sight, yet the very un-Trek lack of resolution makes you wonder where they are after the credits roll--are they still there, waiting, pacing, sneaking looks at the Writing Girl? Who else goes over the wall into the Garden? And what in hell is the Garden? It's not death, because the girl herself has come from there, part of a gypsy tribe who are this planet's outcasts. It's not some kind of Eden, because people are going in, not getting kicked out.

You dug all this from between the lines long before you watched that spittle-flecked interview with the aging writer or bookmarked the mushrooming Wikipedia entry on the episode. You easily connected the girl with the old Gandhi-looking guy in the very first scene, the guy who says "The Garden takes root in us all. You see? A verse on every leaf, a world woven of prayer," smiling his moron Garden-smile as the landing party brushes past him. Jim and the boys don't notice the little key around his neck, sign of the gypsies and their secret byword ("The key of joy is disobedience").

Back at the ranch, Kirk and Spock try to call Bones, try to call the ship, but the communicators don't work; Kirk finally gives up and throws his into the gloaming that always, in this episode, hangs just beyond the muzzy bounds of the ill-lit set. He throws his communicator into the dark and tells Spock he's going after McCoy and going alone, much to Spock's dismay. Spock even threatens to neck-pinch Jim but he, too, as soon as he says this-- and Nimoy carries this off masterfully-- as soon as he threatens Kirk, the words die in his mouth and he drops his hand to his side, the side closest to the girl, and he makes the slightest, "involuntary" gesture towards her. She's not in the shot but he's basically pointing right at her. You think, every time, "She's controlling the planet with her mind!" But if she is, what's she making people do other than pace around crankily, uttering existentialisms? ("The Garden's walls imprison those who live outside them.")

You root for Kirk to judo some Dhanus, bull his way out of the whole mess, trip up an elder or the Writing Girl with a punchy paradox that will make smoke come out of their ears and unravel the whole drama-- tiresome a resolution as that would be-- but you want him, want someone to do something. Spock is sweating over a jerry-rigged communicator, Nurse Chapel is tending to a Dhanu with a big bruise on his big forehead, Spock can't make the parts fit, Nurse Chapel is frazzled, she's swapped her torn uniform for native garb, and Kirk, Kirk is cracking. The third or fourth time Spock gets nothing but static from his Tinkertoy talk-box, the Captain leaps up, seizes on something Nurse Chapel has said, follows her out of the room into a little closet-like area and grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her: we've got to fight while there's a ghost of a chance, and she's just too fagged to perk up and the Captain shakes her again because, damn it, they all face utter destruction.

This is when she delivers the famous line: "This is all just made to order for you, isn't it, Jim? You're home, in your paradise, while we're in he--," at which point he slaps her. The whole exchange has inspired schools of interpreters to say: the events of the episode take place in Kirk's mind. Or some of them do, or maybe the Great and Powerful McGuffin binding them to the planet, to the villa, dwells in Kirk's mind-- a monster from the id. Disbelievers in the Kirk's Mind Hypothesis, in fact, call believers "the Krell," while the Krell, for their part, point smugly to the Writing Girl as their proof: Kirk's anima, female to his male, passive whereas Kirk is active, a silent writer whereas Kirk excels at speech, serene whereas Kirk ever strives, and somehow, with lots of Krell footnotes, human whereas Kirk is alien, perpetually "alien" in the sense that he's the invader trying to win over every culture in every star system to the 'Merican Way of Life, despite the Prime Directive-- a 23rd-century cowboy, an intergalactic John Wayne ambling off into a wrong-way sunset.

One thing's for sure: Kirk isn't Kirk any more by the end of the episode. It's like he and the others have lost their identities: Spock has failed at building a communicator, McCoy has succumbed to woo, Chapel has faded into the surrounding arbors in her native garb, done with the Captain and seeking new allies in preparation for a long stay on this planet. Kirk isn't Kirk any more: without his ship, without an audience for his oratory, he has no one to slug or charm on this shrugging, lotus-eating world. There'll be no death match in a sandy ring, there'll be no slap and tickle with a high-born alien chick that will force the hand of the planetary patriarchs. Kirk's only confrontation can be with the Garden, yet of everyone in the episode, he's the one who's insisted that the Garden is a metaphor, there is no Garden, the Garden exists only in these creatures' mythology. What did he do with the key he found on the floor after the Writing Girl's troupe left the villa? Forget about it? Give it to Spock as a keepsake? Throw it into the dark?

Last we see of Kirk he's walking away in the medium distance on the dirt path from the villa. He has his back to us, a small figure getting smaller, a Howard Hawks sheriff with no town to watch. You fear for him, he'll become a marooned Lear raging at the stars, shaking his fist at the immensities of space as the Enterprise drops a probe into orbit and heads off to the nearest starbase to regroup. In the final scene, in the villa, Spock is preparing to follow the gypsies to see what they know while the second landing-party redshirt picks up the cast-off visibook. He reads and he starts to smile and his breaking smile of delight--babyish, abandoned, borderless-- is the nodding junkie smile of someone untethering from all that is human. With a glance, Spock signals that it's time to go. The crewman turns and his obedient body and disobedient, sporulating mind follow Spock out of the villa. The crewman smiles while the Garden shimmers in his eyes, while joy drips from every petal, while the gypsies walk into night and lift their voices high, lift them on song to play in the orange light of Tau Sagittarii.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Thank GAWD

It's past time, about 5 years past, and we'll see how it works, but--a new Blogger editor! With a preview function that actually previews!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


I'll have to post a picture of my altar once it's set up again... it's taken Sophia and me this long to get the study unpacked and it's only recently that you can even get to my altar. For now, here are some other people's altars. I love this Kali one! And this one!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A Tragi-Goth, Wryly Humorous Meditation on Death, Doom, and Chaos

The tagline: "The lampshade emerged from the wreckage of Katrina. But was it really what it appeared to be--a Buchenwald artifact made of human remains?"

Mark Jacobson's stunning "Skin," an excerpt from his book The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bhakti, Vol. 1

When I was first falling in love with Kali, I made a series of CDs (which Sophia, bless her, is now turning into playlists) called "Bhakti" after the Sanskrit word for devotion. I spent a good part of every day singing her these songs, usually on my morning commute but also while I was holed up in my home office huddled in front of the computer for aeons (the Assistant Professor years)... I took it literally when Teachers like Ramakrishna, Narada, Chaitanya, and Andrew Harvey said "Love Her." Taking it literally and loving Kali like an eighth-grade crush has been the greatest blessing I could have imagined.

I'm grateful to Sophia, my fellow Pilgrim, for resurrecting the Bhakti CDs and especially for the great conversations we're having about devotion and music and God...

"Green Onions" -- Booker T. & the MGs

This has always struck me as a goddess song; it sounds dark and mysterious, like some electro-sacred music played in a temple at 3:00 a.m. by magicians. It is the CD’s invocation.

"Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)" -- Edison Lighthouse

One of my favorite love songs! This is wonderfully lo-fi and brilliantly catchy. She is named “Rose” AND “Mary,” “Her hair is kind of wild and free” like Kali’s, and “She’s … got a magical spell,” which could be her all-attracting shakti or the spell of maya. Did I mention this is a musically perfect, great song???

"Annie’s Song" -- John Denver

The ultimate love song. This chick he’s singing to is elemental, man, and he’s just totally into her. In fact, she’s everywhere! “Let me die in your arms,” indeed. We read in the Bhagavad Gita (8:12-13), “Remembering me at the time of death, close down the doors of the senses and place the mind in the heart. Then, while absorbed in meditation, focus all energy upwards to the head. Repeating in this state the divine Name, the syllable Om that represents the changeless Brahman, you will go forth from the body and attain the supreme goal.”

"Kaya" -- Bob Marley

Bob does very spiritual music, and when I got into Kali I got into him seemingly as a side-effect. I used to love to sing this song in the car, at the top of my voice, re-phrasing the lyrics as “Got to have Kali now, got to have Kali now…” The substance about which Bob is singing has a time-honored place in the worship of Kali, too.

"Black Magic Woman" -- Santana

Tantra is associated with black magic and Kali is associated with magic, too. Trying to use divine shakti for selfish ends (mild black magic) or to harm others (serious black magic) are unfortunate paths some of Her children take; bhakti demands that we perform the far more difficult “magic” of transforming every event into a moment of God’s grace, of seeing Her in all of Her creation. Of course, we aren't doing this ourselves--only Kali can (un)weave Her maya into pure grace and highest love (prema), co-creating with Her children. Another song about an irresistible, sexxayy woman.

"Age of Consent" -- New Order

In this pop masterpiece, our narrator is supremely ambivalent: he wants to give the object of his obsession the kiss-off, wants to cut her loose and be done with her, but—he can’t leave her alone for a second. This is like the ambivalence I felt in the early days of loving Kali; She was totally fascinating and beautiful and Her world seemed one of infinite, ornate bliss, yet—did I really want to be “religious” and have to “surrender” and all that yucky stuff? Plus, She, and my first teacher, Mother Meera, were scary! What if They led me places I didn’t want to go? But like this song, She was sweeter than sugar and Her melody wrapped around me like a silk scarf...a Thuggee scarf???

"Dancing Queen" -- ABBA

This might be the ultimate pop song ever. Or maybe the ultimate pop song ever is "Silly Love Songs," but that's on Bhakti, Vol. 2. In myth, Kali not only dances, but She’s the Queen. 3:53 of pure pop ecstasy is the best flower of all to lay at Her Majesty’s feet, short of one’s own life.

"Learning to Fly" -- Tom Petty

During my initial period of devotion, it really did feel like I was learning to fly. Such joy, such divine light at the heart of things seemed impossible, and a fall always seemed imminent. She, however, promised that the more I grounded myself in Her, the more I opened my heart to Her, the higher She’d take me.

"(They Long to Be) Close to You" -- The Carpenters

Another classic love song, one of the best pop songs ever penn’d. This one’s got it all: angels, moon dust, starlight, birds (suddenly appearing). The Beloved in this song is omni-attractive, like Kali: everyone and everything gravitates to Her. As Vivekananda said, when people lust after other people, or after power or money or fame or beauty, they are really desiring God.

"The Caterpillar" -- The Cure


"I Want to Take You Higher" -- Sly & the Family Stone

This is what God is saying to us all the time. When we take Her up on it is when we’re truly happy.

"You Sexy Thing" -- Hot Chocolate

Puzzled yet intrigued by my rock-jawed, smoldering Shakta eroticism, Sophia asked me, very astutely, “How can God be sexy?” I think the classic iconography of Kali as a shapely, naked woman is (uh, kinda patriarchal) shorthand for Her being all-attractive, as God is said to be in Hinduism—no one can resist God. She is sexualized in Shakta iconography because sexuality is one of our strongest, most primal human energies, an energy we must re-direct heavenward if we are to fully surrender to Her. Sex is also a metaphor for our relationship with God: passion, surrender, union, creation, co-evolution…hence, the interlocked tantric triangles. “Did you know, you’re everything I’ve prayed for … I believe in miracles.”

"Pick Up the Pieces" - Average White Band

Mary… Inanna… Freya… Oya… Kali… Isis… the Divine Mother. Not to be too Jungian about it, but I really do believe She has been worshiped and loved across time and space, and to some extent Her mythologies cohere into a grand story of love—She and Her divine consort, the Creation. Kali and Shiva, Isis and Osiris—in both myths, the female is active and the male is passive, the female is order and the male is chaos. She restores us; She brings order, She puts us together. In Egyptian myth, Osiris is dismembered and Isis seeks his body parts far and wide, picking up the pieces and putting them back together, re-creating him (and, significantly, refashioning his phallus) and making him better than before—just as She does for us, for Her creation.

"She’s Got a New Spell" -- Billy Bragg

Since this was the first bhakti CD, I freighted it with some of my very favorite songs, including this one, an ode to a magical woman who “cut the stars out of the sky / And baked them in a pie.” The lines about “the scene and the scenery / The script and the machinery” make me think of the play of maya, how the play of experience is Her whim and subject to change and (per)mutation.

"Strawberry Letter #23" -- The Brothers Johnson

Another great love song, a funkin’ slab of 70s (post-) psychedelia. The lyrics portray a phantasmagoric fairyland while the music creates that fairyland through echo, phasing, and chorused vocals. For me, as a teenager listening to this song, as improbable or as hokey as it sounds, just the simple word "strawberry" conjured up a shimmering erotic vision of peasant-bloused Rock Chicks drifting amid the sickly gauze of berry incense that always burned in that noted Kali temple called The Infinite Mushroom (a head shop in Orlando complete with velvet Dayglo Hendrix posters and bead curtains). Ahh, the mysteries: of paisley, of sweet smoke, of dangerous herbs and long hippie dresses and chunky hippie legs... I couldn't have known these were second-hand mysteries, borrowed or warmed over from a livelier time, Hashbury magic to ward off leisure suit-ism... they shone like fairy lights, like letters on strawberry-scented paper from a far-away lover. Which in a sense they were: Kali was in that smoke, beckoning me beyond polyester, beyond the Bee Gees, beyond Electric Ladyland even, to realms unthought.

"Super Freak" -- Rick James

“She will never let your spirits down,” and “she’s got incense, wine, and candles.” I’m there! Rick James’s über-ho, in my imagination, becomes the wildly dancing, sensuous Lady of the Cremation Ground, worshiped in all acts of love and pleasure, who “is said to be intoxicated all the time” (Kinsley, Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine 89) The song’s hard, relentless groove befits one Who wields sword and trident.

"I Only Want to Be With You" -- Dusty Springfield

I’ve already mentioned about 25 of the “best love songs ever,” so what do I say about this, the great Dusty Springfield’s first single, a song that stomps the emotional gas pedal with the hysteria of a period when love songs knew no ambiguity, no hesitation, no nuance, amen. That makes it perfect for a bhakti collection, and the simple-minded lyrics are perfect for one who wishes to court God.

"All You Need Is Love" -- The Beatles

If you could boil the bhakti tradition down to one line, this would be it.

"Sitting" -- Cat Stevens

This song’s classical beauty and forward-looking lyrics made it a logical candidate to end the CD. Cat Stevens’s passion as a singer is a wonder to hear, and his voice seems to bear all the joyous pain of one whose Beloved is dragging him to “the waterside,” a Lethean place of transformation, of death and resurrection. The song’s punchline (“You’re going to wind up where you started from”) hints that in devotion to God we learn to live where we are, learn to find Her in the here and now; it also echoes Eliot’s Four Quartets. The real mystery, in this song and on the spiritual path, lies not hidden in the Himalayas, but on the other side of the door.