Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I Am No One You Know: Visiting Marilyn Monroe's Grave in Westwood

I took a walk to the cemetery today, hidden in Westwood behind Wilshire highrises, visited by tourists who look at their Los Angeles guide books to walk them through the graves of the famous.  I overheard a Scot telling his mum that Natalie Wood was buried here too. Oh is she now, she replied in her heavy, gorgeous accent, photographing the grave of Don Knotts.

I came to see Marilyn Monroe's grave — not even a grave, but a headstone in the wall of the mausoleum.  My roommate had told me about this small cemetery, where so many stars are buried (Monroe, Wood, Knotts, Truman Capote, Donna Reed, Jack Lemmon, Dean Martin, the list goes on).  I was seeking out silence, tired of the pounding of workers fixing apartments at our complex, the sound of moving vans and garbage trucks.  But, though small, the cemetery was not a place of peace for me.  Surrounded by highrises off Wilshire and homes to the south, it felt too open to the neighborhood.  It didn't feel designed.  Cared for. There were orange cones on the grass next to graves and tourists flattening the overgrown grass.

I'm fascinated by Monroe, but was more fascinated by the headstones of people I don't know.  What is the story of someone whose eternal (earthly) resting place designates her as a "sister."  Who was this couple who chose a German phrase, "Wir Haben Uns Geliebt" stating for eternity, "We have loved."  How did Madeleine and Fred Arnold, from New Jersey and Tennessee, respectively, come to meet, fall in love, and live together to be buried in Los Angeles?

These stories are unknown, while Marilyn Monroe's has been recounted, rewritten and filmed many times over.  But it made me wonder if we will ever know someone like her.  Which makes her even more mysterious: that she was one of us. 

"and now I perceived an individual in the aisle pulling down books from shelves, peering at them, clearly absorbed by what she read, a woman nearly my height (I was tall for a girl, in 1956) in a man's navy coat to her ankles and with sleeves past her wrists, a man's beige fedora hat on her head ... and most of her hair hidden by the hat except for a six-inch blond plait at the nape of her neck; and she wore black trousers tucked into what appeared to be salt-stained cowboy boots.  Someone we knew? ... A girl-poet like ourselves?  ... the blond woman turned, taking down another book from the shelf (e. e. cummings' Tulips and Chimneys —always I would remember that title!) and I saw that she was Marilyn Monroe.

"Marilyn Monroe. In the Strand. Just like us. And she seemed to be alone.

..."Here was the surprise: this woman was/was not Marilyn Monroe. For this woman was an individual wholly absorbed in her selecting, leafing through, pausing to read books. You could see that this individual was a reader. One of those who reads. With concentration, with passion. With her very soul. And it was poetry she was reading, her lips pursed, silently shaping the words. Absent-mindedly she wiped her nose on the edge of her hand, so intent was she on what she was reading. For when you truly read poetry, poetry reads you.

..."We were stunned to see that this woman looked very little like the glamorous 'Marilyn Monroe.' That figure was a garish blond showgirl, a Hollywood 'sexpot' of no interest to intellectuals (we thought, we who knew nothing of the secret romance between Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller); this figure more resembled us (almost) than she resembled her Hollywood image.

..."But you, gripping my wrist, had another, more subtle thought.
'She thinks she's like us.'

"You meant: a human being, anonymous. Female, like us. Amid the ordinary unspectacular customers (predominantly male) of the Strand.

"And that was the sadness in it, Marilyn Monroe's wish. To be like us." For it was impossible, of course."

~From "Three Girls," in I Am No One You Know
 Joyce Carol Oates

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Being Bewildered: Silence, Zen, Words, Burning Man

It was my first experience of Burning Man, surrounded by the sounds of over 50,000 people. Bands played atop buses, competing with the house music a few camps over. A constant rattle|buzz| hum of generators provides the background soundtrack, and the rather rude camp across the road boasts a boy who uses his megaphone to share his snarky commentary with passersby, simultaneously hoping they'll stop for a drink and further abuse inside his bar. A city of noise, fire, and spectacle rises in the desert, a space that is usually surrounded in silence. Dust storms that blow free, unnoticed for 300 odd days a year, suddenly disrupt, slowing down the days.

In the midst of this, I found community and oftentimes shared silence within my camp.  A few other book-people and I would take refuge beneath the shade of the make-shift kitchen tent, protected from the wind by one wall of tarp, open on three sides to the desert dust, tents and RVs.  Drowning out the drum beats and passing chatter of burners on their bikes, I delved into Sara Maitland's A Book of Silence.  Maitland, a woman known for her witty discourse over dinners, an intellectual writer who discovered socialism, feminism, friendship and Christianity at Oxford in the 60s, chose to embrace a life of relative silence in the Scottish highlands, and writes eloquently about that life. 

Describing her experience within a Zen monastery, Maitland writes, “Zen silence is an oppositional silence. You are silent in order to escape from the self, and the dualisms of the world, to ‘protest’ against the veils of illusion and transcend them. Zen philosophy, and zazen (the Zen method of meditation) as the practical working out of that philosophy, sees all differentiations of the world as delusion. As [Douglas] Hofstadter explains it:

‘At the core of dualism are words – just plain words. The use of words is inherently dualistic, since each word represents, quite obviously, a conceptual category. Therefore a major part of Zen is the fight against reliance on words.’ -from Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

“The famously confusing Zen Koans are meant to confuse. Being bewildered allows the mind to operate non-logically* and getting outside logical systems allows you to make the leap to enlightenment. Zen is profoundly anti-dualist … it urges people to stop categorising – there is no I/thou; no here/there; no differentiation, no categorisation; no autonomous self – there is only Buddha-nature and all the rest is illusion. Words create categories.” (A Book of Silence)

Gasp. As a writer who often spends long, drawn out minutes, eyes unfocused, cast up and to the right, where it seems my words reside, I wait for the perfect one to float forward from the recesses of memory. To find enlightenment, I have to let go of words? The word “logical,”* Maitland reminds us, derives from the Greek logos, which means “word.” “Logical thinking means thinking amenable to the conscious processes of language.”

Going to Burning Man was part of my life's work to let go judgment, to observe others and what makes them tick, to live more in the grey.  To accept a state of amused bewilderment that might lead me to greater understanding of life.  And while burners hugged me hello and welcomed me "home" to the playa, I don't think I'll go back. And while art, sculpture, the communal offering of morning coffee and bacon, and the moonrise above the desert mountains spoke volumes to me in silence, I cling tightly to words, and wish desperately to find Buddha-nature in them.

Speaking of, does the term “Buddha-nature” spark a trigger for you, either negative or positive? Sit with that feeling, explore what story you were told that created such a reaction. “Buddha” is just another word, used to categorize, meaning “awakened one.” If it is troublesome for you, and you understand being awake, aware, and present as “God,” substitute “God-nature.” If “God” is troublesome for you and invites visions of an angry white man, choose your own term for that awakened state.

Growing up in a Christian community, “Buddha” was the equivalent of danger. The road to heaven was narrow, and eastern thought was a gateway philosophy – to HELL. Odd, since Christianity began in the Middle East. Thankfully, I was raised in a smaller circle of influence by my mother, father, and Madeleine L'engle (via bookland), who all encouraged me to explore and question. Once I began exploring eastern philosophy with an open mind / heart, Christian texts made SO much more sense, mostly as metaphor. (I recommend A New Earth; Eckhart Tolle helped me understand the connectivity, to let go of the differentiation I was taught.)

But words are how we communicate. So, surrounding the silence that you choose, space and time carved out to practice zazen (derived, Maitland writes, from the Japanese words for ‘sitting’ and ‘absorption’) there are moments of connectivity through words. Burners who share their experiences of freedom in the giving society of the playa. Poems that pry open your small, busy thoughts to a greater understanding of the world. Stories that embrace you and walk you into a different world. Koans that tease you out of your set way of thinking.

What is the way? asked a curious monk.
It is right before your eyes, said the master.
Why do I not see it for myself?
Because you are thinking of yourself.
What about you? Do you see it?
So long as you see double, saying “I don’t” and “you do,” and so on,
your eyes are clouded, said the master.
When there is neither “I” nor “You,” can one see it?
When there is neither “I” nor “You,” who is the one that wants to see it?
(from Gödel, Escher, Bach)

Thursday, September 13, 2012

In this world

This morning, I took a break from the news of attacks on embassies, teachers' strikes and new monkeys discovered, to read these two poems:


By Naomi Shihab Nye

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.


by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

If the Buddha Dated... Or Went to Congo

I’m working through the book “If the Buddha Dated,” by CharlotteKasl, for therapy.  Its pitch is that it’s a handbook for finding love on a spiritual path.  Not just romantic love, but all love, to let go of all that might be blocking one from loving authentically, loving others, and loving oneself.  I say “working” through it, as I’m taking my time, journalling about what strikes me, and meditating on the questions it raises, to better understand my journey.

Except this morning.  As I began to journal in response to the chapter, “Stay Loyal to Your Journey,” I was distracted by my own deadline to write a blog post for ActionKivu, about the unfolding of Ernata’s story.  My Action Kivu partner Cate and I met Ernata when we visited Congo in January of 2012, and her generous spirit, smile and heart-wrenching story left a lasting impression on us.  Reading her update, about how her training through the Sewing Workshop has changed her life, her marriage, and her outlook on the future, I was in tears once again.  It felt selfish to take an hour to meditate on my own issues, to identify where I disconnect from my own essence, where I have been conditioned and taught to please others in order to be noticed and to be loved. 

But. That meditation time is essential to my well-being, to sharing love with others, and being a genuine presence in this world.  What frustrates me is not the ego it would represent to take that time to delve into my own life, as it is actually doing the work to disconnect from that ego, but the fact that women like Ernata don’t have the luxury of time to reflect and observe.  Constantly worried and working for each day’s survival, the space to allow imagination to run free, to create, is most often denied these women and children. 

I remember, in our group photo with the 2012 graduating class of the Mumosho Sewing Workshop, one woman’s hands in my hair, feeling the physical difference between us, while Ernata’s fingers gripped mine tightly.  She had just shared her story with us, and our shared emotion broke down any of those physical differences. Her story resonates with me as a sister, worried for women who are not allowed to find their voice and share their truth.  

In honor of Ernata, please read her stories (links below), and pay attention.  Pay attention to the Congo, read the latest on the conflict from Human Rights Watch let the world know we are watching and we demand change, and peace.  Pay attention to whatever is holding you back from loving in a pure and real way, outside the ego, and outside self.  Ernata is my touchstone for remembering to honor myself, wherever I am on my journey, and to support and honor others, wherever they are.  

Hope from Mumosho Sewing Workshop: Ernata's story

Eranta's Story Unfolds: Sewing Grads & School Uniforms

Ernata, January 2012. Photo by Cate Haight

Friday, September 07, 2012

Find Beetle Balance: Lessons from a Wayward June Bug

When I was a little girl, I spent hours outside, butter knife at the ready to flip over a stranded beetle, little legs waving fruitlessly in the air. Oddly enough, the neighbor kids didn’t want to join my beetle saving games, so I had a lot of time in quiet, to think, to wonder how the beetle ended up on its back, where it would head now that I rescued it, if it had a beetle baby or beetle daddy waiting for it. My very own secret life of beetles.

I still love quiet and solitude, the only time my imagination frees itself, to allow wooly thoughts to tumble over each other and untangle into ideas. Half of the writing process, for me, is spent in my thoughts, my fingers idle at the keyboard, thoughts that come while taking a walk, which never fails to inspire me. I leave my butter knife behind these days, but wonder if I shouldn’t be on the lookout for beetles again.

I was in the middle of writing about balance after a particularly shaky day trying tree pose. Placing the flat of my right foot against my left inner thigh, twisting open my right hip, swaying slightly as I find my balance on my left foot, leading up into my leg, my muscles tensing and responding to my mind. Only then do I remember that it’s okay to breathe. Letting go a held breath, I relax a bit into the pose – and consider what it means to find balance in my life.

It’s so out of balance, this world. After a bad experience on a mini-bus of death along a muddy cliff’s edge in rainy season Congo, my Action Kivu partner and good friend Cate and I were ready and willing to rent a 4x4 for all future excursions around the region. You see, our friend and guide told us, this is how we must travel. We know, we told him, but we are not prepared for this. We are not prepared to die.

 Our lives in the western world of paved roads, seatbelts and stoplights have conditioned us towards safety. But why should only developed nations have that right? Why is the world so out of balance, that the mini-bus of terror is the only option for so many, whose lives are just as meaningful, whose bodies are just as deserving of seatbelts, who too simply want to return safely from the market with a loaf of baked bread for their kids. It’s out of balance that kids here in the U.S. are going to bed hungry, when we have so much wealth.

Writing this, a June Bug buzzes by my open window – landing with an electric clicking sound on the sill, making its way along the screen. Its unpredictability makes me jump, and as gorgeously green and blue as it is, it is a bug. I note that the space between the screen and the open window is too small for it to get in to my bedroom, despite its valiant efforts to do so. It walks the length of the screen, four of its legs feeling the underside of the screen, peeking into my domain. It seems so determined to find a way in, I wonder if I’m supposed to pay more attention to it. Though I joke that my animal totem is likely a possum, I’ve always appreciated the idea of a spirit animal, guides from nature who remind us of what we need, now.

From (admittedly NOT a resoundingly legitimate-sounding site) I learned that the “June Bug/Beetle will show how to balance and remain grounded.”

Maybe I should try tree pose again… “His wisdom teaches to navigate what is hidden in the sub/unconscious realms. Pay attention to nocturnal activities: dream time, journeys, and moments of waking, along with meditational impressions. Expect emotions to come to the surface as well as being emotionally tested in order to clean and clear the way for new and better things. …Pay attention to synchronicities. ... June Bug/Beetle demonstrates a higher intuition connection and a keen sense of discernment in all areas. He will show how to dig for answers to reveal the truths you need. … His medicine represents opportunities to recycle, reinvent and repurpose what you have, know, think and act. This self-reinvention may include participating in larger groups to expand knowledge and awareness. … Be ready. In the last two to three years, have you been inspired to do something, have unfinished projects or endeavors that have been delayed? He will show how to progress forward as it is time to emerge.”

June Bug (JB) buzzes suddenly, magically having made its way into my room, clicking against my window. I grab my spider cup (a clear glass I keep on hand to rescue wayward spiders), gently cover JB, careful of its delicate legs, and slide one of our Action Kivu postcards under it (they’re the perfect size for bug rescues). June Bug is immediately on her back, and I flashback to my childhood sidewalk patrols, and tip the cup so she can walk upright. Releasing her out our front door, she flies away, her noisy buzz reminding me to pay attention, to finish those unfinished projects, to find balance in my life to better balance this wacky world, and to carry my metaphorical bread knife, looking for ways to help others get back on their feet, to fly.

Tree Pose, originally uploaded by estimatd.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Spirits of the Playa: Temple (In)Visible

"In our noise-obsessed culture it is very easy to forget just how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent —gravity, electricity, light, tides, the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos." ~Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence

The interior of the temple is a ways from the Esplanade, the party strand of Burning Man where the alcohol and bumping beats are served non-stop.  Far out on the desert Playa, outside the walls of the temple courtyard, art-cars thrum with music and activity, bikes pedal by at that slow pace the desert sand demands, and people meet and share lives.  But stepping inside the temple, there is a different thrum, of energy, the only sound from people shifting onto their knees, adjusting their crossed legs, of Sharpie markers scribbling words onto the wood of the temple walls or the pads of paper provided.

The shared sorrow of the hundreds gathered beneath the intricate wood carvings is visible in photos, memorials brought to honor those lost over the year, in the words scribbled everywhere, people saying goodbye, celebrating, letting go.  All of this will burn on Sunday, the final night of Burning Man, when they torch this temple.  The energy is heavy and palpable, as one by one, people let go of what they're holding too tightly. 

I pick out a blue Sharpie and take a piece of paper from the pad left on the bench, sit on a step, close my eyes, and allow the words I need to write to take shape in my mind, in my body.  The tears I was warned would come flow freely, but it's okay, because even though some people are taking photos, most are sitting in silence, tears streaming down their faces. I write my words, fold the paper carefully in half, and slide it, tight into a space where it won't blow away.  My friend holds me, unaware of what I'm trying, daily, to let go.

I walk outside, worried my ride back to the camping area will leave without me.  The dragonfly art-car is still parked, its music playing low, a few of my fellow travelers chatting about the Burn, about the high number of newbies like myself who are still learning the lingo: "How's your burn?" refers to your state of being this week, not the inevitable sun damage from life in the desert.

Temple taken over as white-out begins.

We're leaving on Saturday, before the temple is torched. It stands now over my shoulder, graceful and strong, holding so much within its walls. I wonder what it will look like on fire, and how that would affect my sense of saying goodbye to the pieces I've left inside. As I'm thinking about the spirit of the burn, differentiating this place of solemnity and honor from the party mentality of the streets of the camp, the roller disco where we skated to 70s hits, the hula-hoop camps serving sweet-pink-strong drinks, one of the dreaded dust-storms rises, slowly whiting out my view of the Temple.

Sound is limited to a radius of five-foot conversations, the present moment is clearly all we have, and all that I just experienced is gone. Waiting out the white-out could take hours, and our car decides to slowly make its way back toward camp.  We board beneath a dragonfly wing, climbing a ladder to the top of the car, to roll through the white dust, hoping we're heading the right way.

Burners on their bikes appear out of the dust in shadowy slow-motion, follow our wake for a moment, and then disappear once more, ghosts of the Playa.

I look back at where the Temple should be, knowing that I won't see it again, and say a silent thank you, for taking what I needed to let go.

Top of Temple in white-out.

Robin Wright on Meeting Amani and the Women of Mumosho

"The women from the Action Kivu sewing center also came out to meet us and asked that we carry their message of triumph and hope back to the U.S."

Read more from Robin Wright and JD Stier about meeting Amani and the women of Mumosho's Sewing Workshop via The Huffington Post here: Congolese Women Stitching a Community Back Together.

Robin Wright, photo courtesy the Enough Project
And if  you've yet to meet Amani via Enough Project's video series, I am Congo - watch now, and spread the message of hope!