Friday, January 21, 2011

Grand Theft Culture

I read with a smile in my heart that the FBI had arrested some 127 individuals as part of the largest crackdown on the Mafia in the history of law enforcement.  Some of the arrests were for killings and crimes committed decades ago, by now-old men. Will it have a lasting impact on organized crime?  Maybe not. But still--to that, I say:  "Bravo, FBI". 

And, while I'm at it:  "Vaffanculo, Mafia."

(Full disclosure: I know of one person who was involved in some way in organized crime in the past of my distant family. Logic and probability suggest there may have been more, but it was never a topic of conversation, nor immediately apparent.)

The glorification of La Cosa Nostra is something that has always sat uneasily with me.  The Godfather movies--the first two, at least (thanks in part to Sofia Coppola's multi-award-winning turn in Godfather 3) were a beautiful, lush exploration of self-determination, cultural identity, honor, familial obligation, and the promise of America.  The Corleone family, in a way, represents the closest we could come in America to actual royalty.  They lived a life of dynastic power, courtly rituals, a distinct code of honor, and unimaginable wealth; and all the while, operating above--or beyond the reach of--the law. As a story tied intricately into the shadow side of the American psyche, it is a powerful narrative of cultural identity, tribal honor, and the American immigrant mythos. 
Then, as with any mythic vision, what follows from that initial spark becomes, over time, a crass counterfeit, with all the trappings, but none of the Truth, of the original. Scarface. Goodfellas. The Sopranos. Goombahs all over the airwaves and internets.  I remember reading how mafiosi used to watch The Sopranos as a comedy...they laughed at how on-target it was, and took it as a great flattery.  I say again: vaffanculo. You give my ancestors and my people a bad name.  

You know, art can be used to shine Light onto the Shadow, so we can better understand ourselves as a people, and as individual humans.  There is a place for the anti-hero in art, culture, and society. The anti-hero is a tragic figure--a cautionary tale, and a safety valve for the darker impulses of humanity. But, in the end of the anti-hero's story, the world is set "right" again.  (Faustus pays his debt, for example). The problem is, the anti-hero has become the hero in our world now. We glorify criminals in pop-culture--actual criminals, who commit actual, harmful crimes. The Mafia is just one particularly glaring example.  But, you know...fuhggedabahdit. Wuhddayahgunndu, right?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Inspiration, not Obligation

Sometimes as I'm working on or through some aspect of my existence, a phrase comes to mind that sums it up. Sometimes the phrase rhymes, like a refrigerator magnet, or one of those little books in the drugstore that have gag-inducing niceties in 'em.  At times like that, I'm a little embarrassed at the facile verbiage, but I have to stand in the clarity of its truth.

Today, I'm working on a proposal for my work that might seem to some to be a burden to already-overworked middle managers. But once the idea was put out that it's not about added responsibility but rather about enhancing the fun--"the shimmer" as we call it--confusion dissipated, and resistance soon faded in the conversation.  The idea was that this new idea is to be implemented by Inspiration, not Obligation.  As long as it's enjoyable, and whenever the mood strikes.It's an important distinction, and I wonder if there are other areas of my life--actual responsibilities--where I might apply the thought, towards enhancing my enjoyment of various and sundry mundanities.

Inspiration, not Obligation.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sinclair Lewis, American Prophet

When I read Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel about the rise of fascism in America, I was riding a train from Atlanta to New York...inadvertently maintaining continuity with the period in the story. I was by turns aghast, despairing, awe-struck, and incredulous at Lewis's writing--there's no other word for it but, "prophetic."

I immediately saw that It Can't Happen Here would work very well as a theater piece, and the way I see it, by using a strict adherence to the story and period it would allow the audience to make the disquieting connections to current events and climate.  In my work with my solo show,Il  Teatro Machiavelli, (wherein I present a period- and dramaturgically airtight Punch-and-Judy-show adaptation of Machiavelli's The Prince) I generally find that the othertimeliness of the setting heightens the timelessness and contemporaneity (yes, that's a word) of the show's themes in the audience's experience.

All that to say, I'm becoming more convinced that the time is ripe for this show.  I saw the attached video starting to make the rounds from the YouTubes, and I dove straight back into the book for the prequel.  Read this, from It Can't Happen Here, then (try to) watch the video.  Is there any other word, but "Prophetic"?

BackgroundBuzz Windrip is the candidate for President, who is campaigning on a platform of smoke-and-mirrors populism.  The groundswell of support in the nation is being led by a WCTU type (Yes, the organization still exists in operation) named Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch. (I insert here a picture of the founder of the WCTU, just because Miss Annie Turner Wittenmyer looks like just the type of gal to start a Women's Christian Temperance Union):  

In the first song, the League of Forgotten Men is a loose ad hoc confederation of disgruntled Depression-unemployed men. In the second, more ominous, song, M.M. is abbreviation for the paramilitary arm of the Windrip movement, the Minute Men (a festishistic patriotic throwback to the Nation's Founding mythos...Tea Party, anyone?). Doremus Jessup is the New England Newspaperman who serves as the primary protagonist of the story. (Lewis could really craft a name, that's for sure.)

Before the cheering, as the Windrip parade neared the platform, they were greeted by Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, the celebrated author, lecturer, and composer, who--suddenly conjured onto the platform as if whisked out of the air--sang to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" words which she herself had written:

Berzelius Windrip went to Wash.,
Riding on a hobby--
To throw Big Business out, by Gosh,
And be the People's Lobby!

Buzz and buzz and keep it up,
Our cares and needs he's toting,
You are a most ungrateful pup,
Unless for Buzz you're voting!

The League of the Forgotten Men
Don't like to be forgotten,
They went to Washington and then
They sang, "There's something rotten!"

And later, just after Windrip is elected:

Past [Doremus Jessup's] house after midnight, through muddy snow tramped a triumphant and reasonably drunken parade, carrying torches and bellowing to the air of "Yankee Doodle" new words revealed just that week by Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch:

The snakes disloyal to our Buzz
We're riding on a rail,
They'll wish to God they never was,
When we get them in jail!

Buzz and buzz and keep it up
To victory he's floated.
You were a most ungrateful pup,
Unless for Buzz you voted.

Every M.M. gets their whip
To use upon some traitor,
And every Antibuzz we skip
Today, we'll tend to later.

Then, when I saw this, I was gobsmacked:

So.  Any one of my Lefty artist friends wanna get a copy of the book and start a conversation?

E Pluribus Unum

"From Many, One."  Can there be a more concise definition of God?  As above, so below. As within, so without.

I've had occasion lately to be thinking about Family, and increasingly, this is the image that comes up for me (Norman Rockwell, it ain't):

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, painting by Leloir.  In the story--Genesis 32--Jacob's thigh was torn out of joint. (A metaphorical understanding of the body, the thigh is what moves us through the world; and, the joint is that connective piece which holds us together.)

Wherever two or more are gathered in karmic agreement and in the name of Love, to create a singular entity, there walks God. And, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel at the Riverbank, we wrestle and struggle mightily in our lives, until we are torn out of joint, bloodied and exhausted.  And as morning breaks, we demand to know what is the True Name of Family, and what is our own.

"I will not let you go, until you bless me."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

But Enough About Me...

Finally from the Archives, (November 2002), published once, condensed in a newsletter.

As you'll read, I had undertaken a home-grown exploratory soul-surgery on myself at a time in my life when pieces of my self, my identity, were falling away like ice off a cliff in the Arctic. I had no sense of when that reductive process would end, what else would be taken from me as part of that process. I was surprised to learn about a year later that I had begun the re-building process quite subtly.

 I took inspiration for the exercise I conducted from an article I had read about executive assessments called, "360's"  where a highly-paid consultant conducts anonymous in-depth interviews with everyone in a client's life, then gives them an unflinching assessment of where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and what they might do to adjust their manner or behavior for the better.  I had neither a consultant nor a budget; but I had email (and had I to do it again, I would have used an anonymizer like SurveyMonkey or something like that.) So, folllowing is the description of my experience:

But Enough About Me...What do YOU Think of Me?

Paul Simon wrote in one of his songs, “If I have weaknesses, don’t let them blind me”. It was in that spirit that I recently sent out an email to my friends, loved ones, and colleagues, asking them to tell me in no uncertain terms, what they thought of me. “What,” I asked, “do you see as my strengths, and what do you see as my weaknesses?” This was no ego-stroking exercise in fishing for warm-fuzzies. As an actor, I have learned that one way to learn about the character one is playing is to look through the play, and find out what the other characters say about him. So, why couldn’t that work for real life as well? If I am, in fact, out to increase my self-awareness, then, I realized, it was time to step back from my own self, and see myself as an actor in the play of my life. So I did the research. What I found in this exercise was not only personally enlightening, but also surprising on a number of fronts. I went through my entire email address book, choosing one name at a time—how well do I know this guy, and how well does he know me? Will she be able to address my request for total honesty tempered by generally-accepted standards of kindness? Gee, I haven’t spoken with that person in years...I wonder what he’ll say. I ended up with about a dozen and a half individuals. Perhaps I asked too many people, but I wanted a broad cross-section of the people in my life; I wanted to get as full an accounting as possible. I reasoned that I was at a point in my life where I could get my ego out of the way, and observe the feedback with a certain degree of objectivity, and without defensiveness. I braced myself for the onslaught of brutal honesty by making a list of my own perceived strengths and weaknesses. This, I found, was an important step. I also built into the message an easy, but important ‘opt-out’ clause, to allow for those who may just be weirded out by my openness. And after all, my ego was not so fragile as all that. With a decisive flourish, I clicked the SEND button. In the next instant, I heard the tone indicating the message had been sent. And, perhaps not surprisingly, I was promptly gripped by a flood of second thoughts. Yes, the barn door was closed, but the horses done I waited.
I didn’t have to wait long. Within the next couple of days, the responses came trickling in. I have yet to hear from some of the recipients, and some would prefer having a face-to-face with me. (The which I’m not comfortable with, since to have the feedback in writing allows, in my opinion, the surveyed to be more open, honest, and thoughtful in the response. And, it gives me a tool to which I can refer later—which is the whole point for me). Some responded with incredulity that I would contact them at all, after I had not actively maintained a relationship with them for years. This last one was a chastening experience I had to particularly steel myself for--but hey, if I’m looking at myself, warts and all, then look I must. Still others would be so averse to responding that they would even disregard my request for a reply of non-response. Though, with no statute of limitations in my request, it’s entirely possible some might find their way to commenting still.
But most did respond—thoughtfully, respectfully, and unflinchingly. I learned here that there is truly no such thing as an objective response to a survey such as this. And, by extension, no true objectivity in much of life. I saw so clearly here, the ways in which we bring our context, our own perceptions to bear on all our experiences. For the most part, the feedback I received was consistent with my own perceptions of my strengths and weaknesses. One of the biggest surprises to me was that I found that those closest to me (and who incidentally held me in high esteem), were the most humble in their responses, even to doubting their own (entirely valid) perceptions. A recurring motif in those responses was something along the lines of, “I don’t know if any of this means anything to you, since I see so much of this in myself as well...” And therein lies the true lesson I learned in this process. In a very real and immediate way, I saw first-hand, the theory proven how we project aspects of ourselves onto the people and circumstances in our lives. I saw how we are all reflections of each other, for each other, and in sacred service to each other. In one moment, it became more than an intellectual construct for me, and became instead an experiential truth. We are as the mirrors in a spinning carousel, multi-faceted, a kaleidoscope of images passing in a fairground, shifting for each gazer.

Ultimately, I learned that because of this very phenomenon, my research yielded much more truth than I could have hoped or sought.

Changing the Matrix

Another from the Archives of Trying to Figure This All Out (November 2002). 

Changing the Matrix

This past year has been a time of transition, and, for many, upheaval. Personal growth, and societal evolution seem to be picking up the pace, as if we collectively have realized that there is no time to waste on this path. After the amorphous feeling of disquietude gives way to a desire for real change, what then? Turning away from long-held fears and embracing the choice of Love would seem to be easy things to decide. Logically, who wouldn’t want to live with more peace, more joy, more in the moment?
We state an intention. A true intention, from the heart. We speak that intention to the Universe. It is clear, positive, and without reservation. It is vibrant with Truth. And one of the first things that happens is every fearful choice we made in opposition to that new intention is brought up for our examination. As if the Universe is saying, “Look around, are you really sure you want to choose this path?” This is a great temptation. Often, it is far too easy to fall back into one’s old patterns of reactivity, simply because they are familiar. Yet with each statement of intention, that path feels less and less satisfying.

The density of energy as it manifests here in this life makes the process of establishing an intention as our lived experience a sometimes maddeningly slow one. If, one might ask, this is the Truth of my soul, and our job here is to remember our Divinity, and live it, why then is choosing the highest choice so hard, on a moment to moment basis? What makes us attract the things in our life that we do--the patterns that both assist and hinder our growth?

Beyond our physical body, is our subtle energetic body, reaching out at ever-higher vibrations of light. With that as a given, I invite you to look at those levels of energy closest to the physical as a kind of energy Matrix, a magnetic template for our choices. The film of the same name is an exciting techno-allegory for spiritual enlightenment; but for our purposes, the Matrix is not only the enemy—Maya, the world of illusion--but is also the very tool by which we can transcend fear and limitation. It is a means by which we make our intentions manifest every day. Like a 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, this Personal Matrix is an energetic system of tabs and slots...tongues and grooves...doves and tails...of the which we are hard-wired to seek out complementing elements. This energetic template is established early in life, and is the basis for our propensity to (in its most overt form) seek out mates that recreate our relationship with our opposite-sex parent. But this also applies to all our circumstances, in terms of what we attract to our lives. It's operating on so many levels simultaneously, we literally can't comprehend the complexity of it. 

This Matrix Theory of Transformation and Growth recognizes that Quantum physics represents the point where the snake of spirituality starts to eat its tail. West meets East, literally. Empiricism meets Mysticism, in the frontiers of submolecular physics. Matter is simply energy condensed, in both idioms. We observe the effects of this truth, much as we can observe the effects of the wind, though we can not observe the wind itself.

Let’s look at relationships, since they are such fertile opportunities for awareness and growth. Looking at it graphically: let’s say Johnny’s ‘Love Matrix’ (sounds like an unsavory movie, I know, but bear with me here) is, to use a grossly oversimplified binary analogy, 0-0-1-1. This happens to match up with his mate, Mary, who’s Love Matrix has the form 1-1-0-0. A perfect complement, like DNA matching up along the strands of the double helix. (In reality, the Matrix is made up mostly of unconscious choices, self-identities, desires and beliefs.)

This correlation serves them well for years in the relationship, mainly because it’s familiar, and it allows them to maintain their entrenched sense of identity, consistent with their earliest programming. Let’s say further that as John and Mary grow in this relationship, their more-inclusive Life Matrices change with experience and intention—they are ready to move beyond the restrictive identities they were programmed with at an early age. Their matrices now don’t serve them as they once did, and they decide to go their separate ways. Now, each of them has a new view of what they would like in a relationship, and are thus altering the constitution of their “Love Matrix”. Now John’s is 1-0-1-0, and Mary’s is 1-1-0-1. Both see how they prefer this new personal matrix configuration. They both feel more grounded and strong in their new relationships, Yet, every time they meet again, they fall back into their ‘default modes’ of 0-0-1-1 and 1-1-0-0. But the problem is that the old matrix is so unsatisfying that it keeps old pain alive. The trick then is to bring the new Matrix, the preferred one, into the relationship with each other, without judging the former configuration. That’s the tough part. For when we move to another stage in our lives, it is part of the process to look back, and there may be a kind of incredulity and frustration at having not seen the pattern so clearly before. And that is easy to externalize in a tightly-knit Matrix like a love relationship.

So, John and Mary decide who they would like to be in a new relationship. They establish this intention, with clarity, and speaking the deepest, highest truth of which they are capable. Their energetic matrix begins to shift (that is, the wheels of creation are set in motion, towards manifestation in the physical). They may find that eventually, they feel compelled out of a sense of self-respect, to choose in accordance with this new idea of themselves. This new Matrix is then being brought more clearly into physical manifestation. These positive choices, just like the negative ones before them, feed on themselves, and build momentum on their own. The trick for John and Mary, then, is to build the awareness of the old Matrix, and know what sets it into motion, and learn to choose the New Matrix consistently. The tools to help that process: therapy, body work, meditation, the list goes on and on.

Look around you. What has your energy Matrix brought to you? What would you like to change? Set it in motion. Change the Matrix, and you transform your world.

St. Judas Iscariot

This was the first "column" that I wrote, years ago, for a "newspaper" that was "printed" on "paper".  Amazing to think that now.

Written when I really really thought I knew something about these matters, the content and message are sincere, but the tone is off the mark. (Though in my defense, I had just come off of reading a pretty intense Tom Robbins novel about an invalid, an Amazonian shaman, a parrot, and a nun.)  Much has changed since this writing: much has been recovered and much has been lost, and found, and otherwise transformed in my life since then; nonetheless, I'm posting this as it was written and printed nearly two decades(!) ago, if for no other reason than it's a kind of MRI slice of my life at that time.

St. Judas Iscariot

It has become my fervent belief in the past few years that Judas Iscariot has been wrongly denied canonization by the Catholic Church. I implore your patience for a moment as I explain. Yes, that same Judas who, according to sanctioned accounts, betrayed Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene, turning him over to the Romans for a few shiny pieces of metal under the watchful eye of the Pharisees. Yes, that same traitor--vilified through time, immortalized in fresco as the Apostle with Bad Table Manners for having toppled the salt shaker at the Last Supper—who was so shame-ridden by his sin that he committed suicide. But let’s look closer, shall we? Here was a man who did the Hard Thing. By ratting out Jesus, he in fact made the redemption of all humanity possible. If it weren’t for his setting in motion the wheels of God’s will, where would Western Culture be today? The good and the bad of it? Why must he be so demonized, rather than venerated? I bring this up because I see a bit of myself in J.I. And I’d venture to guess that many of you, dear readers, could as well.

I grew up in what I would call a “Resentfully New-Catholic” family. (That is to say, my parents were fairly observant, though entirely displeased with the vernacularization of the Church and its rituals after Vatican II.) I was, if not fully steeped in the Roman Catholic mythos, at least swirled around in that dogmatic demitasse long enough for it to rub off on me. (You can take the boy out of the pew…) Even now, as I consider myself an inconsistent mystic, I am drawn to the beautiful and powerful vocabulary of Catholic imagery. In it, I find the imagery of the spirit unbound from the political trappings of hierarchical religion. I have expanded beyond that as well, but it remains an important part of my particular path. I am also well aware that that imagery does not resonate with others as it does with me—nor does it have to, of course.

However, I have found a connecting thread among those seeking to live more consciously: it is that very willingness to do the Hard Thing. I have seen an almost universal acceptance of the blessed inevitability of making the difficult choice. The choice of Love that we are compelled to make even as it causes us, and perhaps those we love, pain. It is not news, I know, to say that the path of Light requires that we simultaneously dive into our own Darkness. We are yin and yang forever chasing each other. Our wounds are the paths to our healing. A teacher of mine likened it so: Some people spend the better part of their lives circling the fire, growing ever-so-slightly closer to it with each revolution, till at long last they are engulfed; some never get close enough to the fire to get singed; and still others hurtle themselves headlong into the fire like some rogue kamikaze moth. Neither route is better than the other is. Both will burn and purify, destroy and create you anew. I happen to be the lucky bearer of a Red-Ember-Express ticket. Although, to be true, it has been a fairly gradual realization beginning when I was a child, with the amorphous feeling that I just didn’t—well--belong with the family into which I was born. Mind you, nothing overtly tangible in my present-life experience induced that feeling. But, I have come to see that in order for me to have grown as I have--to make the choice to live more consciously, to seek out what the true meaning of family is--I have had to remove myself from the political system of my family of origin.

Now, I am not enlightened, by any means. I advocate no one particular modality towards awakening one’s kundalini. I am simply another seeker after Truth—a drop in the Paradigm-Shift Ocean, if you will—and I am learning to “connect the dots” of my life in whatever limited way I can. The reason I share this information at all is that in my experience, I have found it edifying to hear of others’ calls to Light, and the choices that they make thereby. I find strength and wonder in witnessing the myriad paths that are leading to the Great Unity. In fact, I would like to invite a dialogue to begin from this writing in which people can share their remembrances, as well as their forgetting, of the path, for themselves and others.

Sometimes the Hard Thing is simply standing in the fire, palms open at your sides, feeling a part of your old self die, not knowing where to turn--and not turning. Where is the strength? Who are the strong? The eleven who went into hiding for the weekend? Or the one who picked up God’s own gauntlet?

Saint Judas Iscariot, pray for us.

2011 - Year of Completions (?)

On 1/11/11, at 11:11 and such like, there was all manner of numerology being slung around to show how meaningful the date and time was.  While I got pretty good at adding in my head in two-bit increments when I was working the concession stand at the Lefont Tara movie theater back in college, I never really put a lot of stock in numbers as powerful, or as numinous tools.

But I've noticed something in my own impulses, this drive to start handling the incomplete projects and unfinished work of my life and career--that I'm seeing echoed elsewhere.  For instance, my friend Audrey in NY, a great and brilliant Clown, is teaching a workshop here. This is a great opportunity, as I've got probably about a dozen ideas, concepts, shows and production designs in my head and in various states of incompletion. Sadly, I can't attend. It's in NY, and I'll be in Paris that day.  So, everything's a trade-off, I guess.  Anyway, it got me thinking even more about what is incomplete in my own life, in the lives of those I love and know, and in the world at large. 

So, in my own stab at dubious numerological punditry, I'll add this:  2011 = 2+0+1+1 = 4.  Four is the number of completion.  The square.  The Holy Quaternity (as Jung has observed, Who would the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost be, without Satan?)...this may very well be the year to 'get complete' in our lives. Even if it's a bunch of math-ey bunk, it feels like what there is to do now.

Work, Relationships--what if we had nothing to lose? Would we let the moment pass without following that still, small voice inside that calls us to our best impulses and intentions?  What if we had everything to lose if we did let the moment pass?  

Letting no business go unfinished. Letting go of grief withheld.  Opening the most guarded corners of the heart. Opening the channel of creativity. The bottom line is always the same: it's about choosing love over fear (but jeez, even that sounds to my ear new-agey and hackneyed)...

Where are you incomplete, and what could you do now, in this very moment, towards being complete in some aspect of your Life?

Why a blog? (Why a duck?)

I've been toying with the idea of actually maintaining a blog for a while now, and since we've been snowed in here in Atlanta for four days now, and I've cleaned my home to within an inch of its life, I guess there's nothing else to do while waiting for the ice to melt outside my door, but to start making good on all these idle "shoulds" I've had cluttering up my life.

I used to think I knew a lot of the answers to my questions. But now, thankfully, I know I don't. My goal here will be to collect and share various Experiential Life Learnings, Inspirations, Questions, Passionately Held Opinions--touching on all the major hot-button topics:  politics, religion, spirituality, morality, artistry. It's all part of the mix.  My hope is to engage in a living conversation, a passionately curious dialogue--I'd like to invite you to join in, if you're so inclined. Or, I could just keep typing into the empty echoing ether, and that would be okay too.

So, thanks for joining me, so far.