"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Meditations in the Ethereal: Poetry and Collage

For me, the ethereal has a spirituality about it, something that transcends the banality of daily life. It has a suddenness to it; it comes unexpectedly, in sudden realizations. It has an ingredient of subtlety; if you're distracted and not in tune, you won't receive its gifts. The ethereal has much to do with lightness, air; ether is at the heart of the word. The ethereal has an elegance, an arabesque, a sort of delicacy, like a lace doily that rests under the frame of a loved one. It can be whimsical. It's definitely elusive.

My daughter seems to have an ethereal quality to her--she is just a wisp of a thing with eyes, eyes that tell the story of emotion and beauty and sensitivity. Eyes that are apprehensive about this world. Eyes with an ineffable hue; eyes not of this world. Her naked body getting into the bath reminds me of Sally Mann's nymph-like children; there's innocence there, but otherworldly qualities as well that portray a sort of ancient knowledge.

Maybe this ancient aspect can be translated into timelessness. Maybe the ethereal, like the divine, exists outside time. And yet, maybe science is honing in on it; it manifests in a higher frequency on the electromagnetic wave spectrum (after all, the ethereal is shaped in light). This science intersects with memory and myth in the mind. These are the ingredients. It's seemingly abstract and incomprehensible when we first witness it, but the mind makes its emotional connections and we learn to define its suddenness for ourselves. This is the interface of story, of myth.

Whatever it is, ethereal is the fine dance of mystery that exists in all of us.

I've tried to match some of my ethereal poems with collage work that has traces of that same quality. I am not sure I was successful in accomplishing my goal, but then again, the ethereal is foremost elusive, and maybe by not capturing it, I've captured it precisely.

            Totem Beasts
            There are no ghosts in this house.
                        No hem of a muslin dress
            draped over a riser.
                        No Emily Dickinson archetype
            figured prominently at the banister.
                        No face in the naked glass.

            The boreal firs, always a regiment,
                        are noble, melancholic as the
            tide bathes the sedge. 
            We listen for what the hayfield says.
                                                We wait
            for totem beasts, but no coyote parts these
                        fallow fields.  No moose.  No
            osprey in wake of wind.
                        Quotidian, these crows, those gulls.

            I am filled with pale green air.
                        My sister's child thumps in Utero.
            Clouds snuff the sun, the sacrament, the
                        fiery heart.
            Night comes.

            I sit quietly inside myself.
                        My father bows his head here,
            the lines echoing around his eyes.

            The Slow Pale Rise of Indigo
            The slow pale rise of indigo taps
                        at the door of the Underworld—
            it wants to walk here, free.

            It knows
            every twilight is a prophecy
                        and the visible carries
            the invisible on its back.

            Our last breath passes through tarnished
                        skin and
            clogs the holes in our bones.
                        We fret, catch the slack vowels
            of the lullabies we sing ourselves.

            Something stands between me and the
                        morning glory's cup of prayer.
            Its thin vine grasps at every near thing.
                        At night, it wrings itself tightly
            as if it had hands.

Swollen Mandala

Everything white, as if baked in a kiln.
Moon hazed now, my one hundred year old
eyes closing, a song hidden just under my skin
demands an ear or two.  The seeds
have been sewn.  The sacred chant and
four rosettes are embedded in the
swollen mandala.  I summon the myths
of my ancestors, the mountains supine
and shadowless, the labyrinth on the hill,
the chapel, the Golgotha of cacti crosses.
Huddled in the back pews, the Indigenous
their dark eyes, pious heads.  I walked
the labyrinth to settle my nerves while
their sorrows protruded through the dirt
like small weeds.

My sister's child is a molded angel
white as the dust in that kiln.  There
on the sill, stone wings draped in leaves.
Take root, I say to the rosettes, unfolding.
Lay your pious heads on the translucent pillow,
wrap yourselves in the crimson sheets
and be lulled by song.

Friday, August 31, 2018

One percent inspiration: a manifestation in collage

In my days of monotony, work, mothering, domesticity, I yearn for the exalted existence, for beauty. Sometimes I can find the time to create; most of the time, I can't and it kills me. That's what's happening in this piece (left); there is a tightness, a gut-wrenching aspect, but also something ethereal, something divine, something lovely. I think that's what creativity is: it's the work, the churning, the suffering, the yearning, the knots, and then, the release, the unraveling, the denouement, the divinity, the manifestation. Epiphany. Beauty. One percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. That sort of thing.

More ethereal work to follow.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Jesus, Debunked (Sort of): A Review of Reza Aslan's Zealot

My daughter and I were sitting in Panera the other day when I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation at the next table. Here was a group of elderly people, three women and two men, and the men were eating their bagels and drinking their coffees while the women chatted away. The two men seemed to be deep in their own thoughts, looking away from one another, until one of them said, "A funny thing happened to us while we were at the park the other day," or something to that effect. The gentleman then proceeded to tell his friend quite casually how he and his wife saw Jesus's face in the bark of a tree. The wife noticed it first, and then she pointed it out to her husband. "Do you see it? There, there..." and sure enough he saw it, and they both sat there marveling at the famous face for a while. He went on to say that his wife went back the next day to see it, but the face was not there. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't see it. Then the older gentleman, who seemed to me a reasonable and rational man, one that had seen many things in his day and one who was not easily excitable, sat back, and without any facial expression whatsoever, said, "Imagine that, two Jews see Jesus's face in a tree."

I have recently had my own run in with Jesus--the historical Jesus--upon reading Reza Aslan's book Zealot. 

I found Aslan's argument fascinating, acutely documented, and very plausible. It confirmed my own beliefs of how the world works and how with every heroic figure, there is a very human agenda. Jesus's agenda, according to Aslan, was to free the Jews from the Romans. The occupied state was everything to Jesus and made him who he was.

One of Aslan's main claims is that the gospels, written decades after Jesus's death, were embellishment, but embellishment with a specific purpose, and Aslan carefully lays out the reasons for this embellishment every step of the way.

Aslan constructs his argument on the claim that the gospels "are not eyewitness accounts." Obviously this is the case because of the time the gospels were written. The gospels instead are "testimonies of faith" and in this way "tell us about Jesus the Christ, not Jesus the man," i.e. the spiritual figure--the myth.

First of all, it must be said that the people of the ancient world "did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality; the two were intimately tied together...[t]hey were less interested in what actually happened than in what it meant." So this "embellishment" had a purpose and that purpose was to connect with the Christian mythology that was needed at the time. And when I say myth, I do not mean "lie," as is often interpreted. (See Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth for a more thorough explanation). Myths are archetypal stories to instruct us on how to live; they deal with unconscious desires of the body and mind, rites of passages, ways to define mystery, and social ethics. Ancient societies were tied to myths because they had less distractions: they were intimately connected to the world of the subconscious (dreams) where myths arise.

But Jesus the man, the Son of Man (a very interesting and enigmatic term), the zealot revolutionary, was a remarkable figure in himself.

Aslan begins making his case by giving us the lay of the land and what was happening at the time, the key figures in the occupied society and its social mores. Jesus wasn't the only one claiming to be the messiah of the Jews; the place was crawling with men claiming to be messiahs including "Hezekiah the bandit chief, Simon of Peraea, Athronges the shepherd boy, and Judas the Galilean."(Note the term "bandit" does not mean thief but zealous itinerant rebel who resisted the Roman occupation).

This begs the question, What makes Jesus different? Why was he the pillar on which a worldwide religion was built? The answer lies in one event: Jesus's trashing of the Jewish temple and the philosophy behind it.

Aslan painstakingly describes the elements of the Temple in Jerusalem in the chapter "A Different Sort of Sacrifice." The Temple was the one and only place for Jews to honor God by the ritual of sacrifice, i.e. the shedding of blood. This was the sacred place where the high priests slaughtered animals to wipe away the sins of the Jews; the shedding of blood was believed to be a sort of purification process. These animal sacrifices were not unlike the ones you read about in the Iliad and the Odyssey; it was a thing for ancient people. It was a way to make things right with the gods.

The sacrificial animals were sold right there in the Temple. Money changers exchanged "foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel," collected tax, and even issued credit. So this holiest of holy places was also a place of business, and that really pissed off Jesus, so much so that he did the unspeakable: he trashed it. And with this came the crucifixion and Jesus's fame: "Above all, this singular event explains why a simple peasant from the low hills of Galilee was seen as such a threat to the established system that he was hunted down, arrested, tortured, and executed."

I found myself constantly underlining text, starring it, rereading it, writing myself notes to process it. Aslan's argument is so informed, so complete, it can't help but ring true as to why Jesus rose to fame. Moreover, you get a sense that Aslan needs to define who Jesus was for himself; as a former born again Christian who studied history of world religions in college, he walked the path of faith, then doubt, then reverence:

I continued my academic work in religious studies, delving back into the Bible not as an unquestioning believer but as an inquisitive scholar. No longer chained to the assumption that the stories I read were literally true, I became aware of a more meaningful truth in the text, a truth intentionally detached from the exigencies of history. Ironically, the more I learned about the life of the historical Jesus, the turbulent world in which he lived, and the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied, the more I was drawn to him.

Aslan's argument also focuses on the duplicity of the high priests and their favor with Rome, the brutality of Pilot (not the innocuous figure who sides with Jesus in the gospels), the role of John the Baptist, the role of James, Jesus's brother (dismissed by the Roman Catholic Church to keep Mary's virginity intact), the role of Saul/Paul, and the Roman intellectual elite for whom the evangelists (gospel writers) rewrote the story of the crucifixion, holding culpable not Rome, but the Jews themselves:

A generation after Jesus's crucifixion, his non-Jewish followers outnumbered and overshadowed the Jewish ones. By the end of the first century, when the bulk of the gospels were being written, Rome--in particular the Roman intellectual elite--had become the primary target of Christian evangelism. Reaching out to this particular audience required a bit of creativity on the part of the evangelists...the Romans had to be completely absolved of any responsibility for Jesus's death. It was the Jews who killed the messiah. The Romans were unwitting pawns of the high priest Caiaphas, who desperately wanted to murder Jesus but who did not have the legal means to do so.

So the evangelists adapted the myth to the times and people who were willing to practice the faith. One could say that the faith "evolved." One can also say this with respect to the Resurrection: it was a part of the "evolution" of the faith. This event in itself is the reason a "failed messiah who died a shameful death as a state criminal [was] transformed, in the span of a few years into the creator of the heavens and the earth: God incarnate."

How exactly did this happen? Aslan argues that the apostles themselves were ill-equipped to deliver Jesus's message and could not "theologically expound on the new faith or compose instructive narratives"; they were illiterate lay people. It took a diaspora of "educated, urbanized, Greek-speaking Jews" who would deliver the message of Jesus to both Jews and gentiles. These people, steeped in "Greek philosophy" and "Hellenistic thought" are responsible for transforming Jesus from revolutionary zealot to "celestial being."

That was hard thing to wrap my head (or is it heart?) around; the idea that the Resurrection was fabricated to prove that Jesus was not a failed messiah. The Resurrection means a lot to me, as it does every Christian; it's the link between this world and the next. It gives us all hope that we do not simply end with the body. 

And why wouldn't it? After all, mythology is a set of archetypes to show us the natural progression of things. Myths don't have to happen as factual history to be something to believe in. A novel can have all the elements of human truth but not be factual with respect to history. Moreover, the fact that the Resurrection was juxtaposed in the spring with the pagan celebration of Eastre, the goddess of spring and fertility, is key. The two events resonate with each other and are further proof that myth, which translates across religions, which is steeped in story and metaphor, is a universal message connected to the spiritual realm, to ritual, and something we must live our lives by to give them meaning.

Despite all this debunking--separating the mythical Christ from the historical Christ-- I still feel the need to for a sanctuary on Sundays where there is a lesson on how to be good, where there is soulful singing, where you can shake hands with people and wish them peace. Christ, despite being a revolutionary zealot, was a compassionate man who championed humility, who cared for the poor, who embodied the Golden Rule. I don't think Aslan would dispute this. And Christ, the myth, the spiritual being, has his own way of showing up in people's lives, and this is not exclusive to dogma. He manifests in the love we express for one another, in forgiveness, compassion, or just maybe in the bark of a tree.

Note: Another aspect of the mythical Christ is his miracles, raising the dead, healing the sick, etc. Aslan says there is simply no way for us to know whether these supernatural events actually happened as fact and are part of the historical Christ; what we do need to recognize is that Jesus's followers (and enemies) were wholly convinced of them. This, of course, was recorded in the gospels.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Collage Process

Here are some of my latest collages.

The creative process of collage has taught me a lot about
Rose and Beans, mixed media
composition (juxtaposition of color and form) and how art emerges. Unlike a painting, I never go into a collage with an idea of how it should be. I peruse shapes, subjects in magazines and my own artwork, cut them up, and arrange. Through this process, I have discovered the technique of layering. I use a simple monoprint to serve as a first layer (this is evident in the collages below). The synthesis of the parts--monoprint, magazine cutouts, etc-- brings into being an entirely new image.  What delights me, what keeps me coming back for more is these emergences, discoveries that I make while playing.

I think that is one of the secrets of contentment: always setting time aside (and space in the mind) for small discoveries, be they artistic or otherwise.

REM Guitar Dream
mixed media (the music of our sleep)

Bright Idea, mixed media                                                    (If only there was a potion we could drink to give us bright ideas!)

Bottles, mixed media


Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Review of Lost Hearts by Vincent Panella

 Lost Hearts

I read with Vincent Panella back in December at IAM Books in the North End of Boston and bought his book, because that's what readers do--buy each other's books--but in all truth, I was not prepared for the powerful punch this book packed.

Lost Hearts is a spectacular short story collection mostly about the life of Charlie Marino, his boyhood, his coming of age, his intimate relationships, marriages, infidelity, Catholic guilt, aging parents. Panella captures the hungers, the idiosyncrasies, the food, the banter, and overall Italian American familial allegiances and dysfunction in this collection. This isn't the Godfather; this is raw truth about the mediocrities of Italian American life in 1950s/60s Brooklyn and beyond and how one of our own makes his way into the world. In this collection we witness deep human truths astutely expressed by a master of his craft. Panella can easily be compared to John Cheever or John Updike with his biting realism.

The first story is titled "Original Sin" and the setting is turn-of-the century Sicily. We start at the very beginning, in the motherland, with a protagonist named Peter who could very well be a relative of Charlie's. Peter lives among Sicily's poor agrarian communities where many have already left for America and "half the houses in [his] little town [are] empty, windows blackened, doors padlocked, and keys given to relatives." There is an agrarian movement culminating; the itinerant workers or "the landless ones" are uniting and revolting against the rich landowners. Peter's father is a man hired to contain the uprisings, and in doing so, kills one of the leaders. This puts Peter's father on the fast track to America. The Oedipal theme of the story is palpable; Peter hunts down his father's mistress, Murena, (despite his being happily engaged) to "see" her, but "seeing" ultimately leads to the two becoming intimate. Panella captures their intimacy exquisitely: "She was a shadow lying across him, a witch perhaps, someone with appetites he'd only imagined. He observed her as though from a distance, as though his body belonged to another person. And that other person was his father, muscle, bone, and fluid."

Clearly Peter is used by Murena to gain power over the father, while Murena is a portal to a new life for Peter, a life that would have been his father's: "This life with its daily toil, with its hand tools, buckets, donkeys, and mules, its religious rites and careful marriages, all this had been called into question by one afternoon with the woman who'd made love to both him and his father. He was no longer a boy, or even the young man who would marry Concetta and follow these twisted roads."

The Oedipal theme is a psychological archetype that fits into the grand scheme of things--why some people left the old country and why some stayed.

In "Introduction to Calculus," Charlie is persuaded by his boss Scalzetti to pose as a photographer for a modeling agency and photograph Scalzetti and his mistress Anne having sex. Anne has a reputation for her sexual prowess; the men in the neighborhood regard her as "insatiable" with "something haunting and burning" that the men want. Scalzetti thinks he's duping Anne by bringing in Charlie and he wants the young buck, who at this point is still in high school, to have a go with her. Like "Original Sin" this too is an initiation story, one wrought with disillusionment: Charlie doesn't see an insatiable sex goddess through the viewfinder of the camera; he sees a women with a scar below her abdomen, her wedding picture, and photos of her "angelic" twin boys, and he can't un-see them. Panella carefully constructs the tableau, gives us all the un-sexy details of the photo shoot, the imperfect bodies, the complaints, the clumsiness, the humor, the life underneath the porno which some can ignore and others can't.

We enter into relationships not only for the physical and emotional pleasure, for the comfort; we enter into relationships to learn another's philosophy of the world, to experience a lover's body like a landscape, take on his/her history, and day-to-day life, and we assimilate into our own lives the things that we think we should. It's a discovery on multiple levels and, given our own emotional/psychological makeup and needs, the reason why we choose some lovers over others. Through every relationship, whether romantic or otherwise, we get the feeling that Charlie is absorbing the experience as life's witness, and learning. Or maybe it's Panella who is learning, but either way, we as readers reap the benefits as well.

In "A Symbiotic Relationship," Charlie runs into his ex Beth at a job interview at a college and the two rehash the reasons for their breakup. At the hotel where they are both staying, Beth tries to seduce Charlie, manipulate him, and they rehash some more while Charlie fields calls from his wife. What we are witnessing is closure; in the rehashing we learn that Beth predicted Charlie would cheat on her, and was eternally guarded and mysterious; Charlie wanted Beth to tell him that she loved him, but he ultimately proved Beth right and cheated on her with his future wife. When he did, Beth didn't grieve; she instead retaliated with anger, plunged a key into his forehead.

What Charlie decides that evening is that he doesn't want sex from Beth, but he wants "something." When she weeps in his arms that night in the hotel; Charlie feels complete. Beth ultimately shows him what he wants to see, that she is a vulnerable human after all: "She came to me and opened her blouse and cradled my head to her naked breasts the way she used to do, holding me there while the bleak and lonely rush of cars and the drone of idling diesel engines washed into the room with the meager light. Some tears rolled onto my face from above and I wiped them from her eyes."

We learn that what they had in their relationship was not necessarily love; Beth was older and matriarchal; Charlie had a young spark that drew Beth to him. It was more need, a symbiosis, and although this term has a negative connotation, it's a very human thing and more common then we dare to admit.

In "Like Father," Charlie visits his father in a nursing home, and the old man has every ailment in the book--diabetes, Parkinson's, dementia. Charlie's father Hank has begrudgingly given up his money to his son for him to pay the nursing home bill; he's begrudgingly given up everything, but the fight is still there in the way Hank flirts with the nurses and questions Charlie incessantly about the money. "Like Father" is short, but potent; here is a story of a once powerful man who was integral to the neighborhood, whose presence created unbearable tension in the household, who exercised his virility to the extent he could, and who is now reduced to being a toddler. But the touching aspect of this is how Charlie relates to Hank, how he compassionately cares for him, even though Hank was a son-of-a-bitch of a father. And Charlie can't help but see it, the physical evidence of their connection, how they are linked: "But for several years now he felt himself moving into his father's form. Or maybe it was the other way around, that his father now occupied him, and as death released the father's soul it rooted in the son." It's a bittersweet story, sure enough, but it's so satisfying that someone got it right.

Panella gets a lot of things right with this collection. I hope he gets the recognition he deserves.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Rules, Kids, and the Alternate Life

My daughter Marielle has been acting especially wild lately, waking us up with her energy, her screeches of delight while playing with her brother. This has prompted me to sit the twins down and have them think up "rules of the house." After years of their exuberances-- not cleaning up, not eating at the table, using the couch as a bouncy house, not following simple directions, not getting dressed for school on time, not being polite, respectful, etc., etc.--I had had enough. I needed to rein in control. I had the kids come up with the rules, guiding them when necessary. Every teacher knows that rules can only be enforced if kids take ownership. But even this is terribly idealistic.

One day when we were at my sister's house, Marielle was especially wild, racing around doing that screech of hers. I told her to calm down, not act like a banshee. She said what's a banshee; I said something wild. She said, I am supposed to act this way. I am a kid. I replied, I am a grown up; I am supposed to discipline you when you do. She harrumpfed and walked away.

That got me thinking about kids, what they want, what they should be allowed to do, allowed to have, allowed to believe. Should I allow my daughter to run wild, act like a banshee sometimes? Sure, I pick my battles, but I wonder, do I get on her too much? Should I learn to let things go, despite the rules? And just when should I let go and let them do, believe, be, what they want?

When my son came into our bedroom early morning St. Patrick's Day and asked me if the leprechauns had come and left him a gift, I told him there were no such thing as leprechauns. I turned over, tried to go back to sleep, and he slumped out of the room.

The night before the twins wore green to bed because their teachers told them that if they didn't, the leprechauns would play a trick on them. I was too tired for the facade. My philosophy on imaginary entities is to play them down. Don't get them all hyped up. I got all hyped up about Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas, the cookies, the milk, the reindeer, the sugarplums, and one afternoon my neighbor Sharon Taylor in her rotting tree house with cobwebs and dead bugs put an immediate end to it all. I was, in a word, crestfallen. I was a kid with a boundless imagination who enjoyed a rich inner life. This was disillusionment at best, and I didn't want my kids to experience that. So in the past, we didn't write letters to Santa; we didn't leave him cookies. We mentioned him in passing, like he was just a means to an end.

And yet, the way my son slumped silently out of the room, and my daughter went from room to room looking for evidence of little green men, proved to me that it was a kid's right to believe. It was a kid's right to enjoy the magic of imagination. Sure disillusionment would come later, but we're supposed to live in the moment, aren't we? It's true. I wasn't letting my kids be kids.

So when their father took them out for a couple of hours, I went rock hunting and painted two nuggets gold. I cut shamrocks from green construction paper, crafted a letter about luck on parchment, and sprinkled glitter. It took me about an hour and a half to do all of this. When they came home, Marielle found the stash first, and then the two of them inspected the stones. "I can't believe it! They came!" The thrill was quick, about three minutes and then the rocks were abandoned on the floor and they went on to something else. Because that's what kids do.

I try to enforce the rules when it's necessary. Most of the time it takes my holding dessert over their heads to get the job done. But this does work, despite it being redundant. As for imagination, it's imperative to cultivate that in a kid. This will lead to a rich inner life, a necessary indulgence in the unreal, an indulgence for fiction, stories, games, movies, daydreams, art. Because real life can be inherently dull and we need that alternate life to feel alive.