By now you’ve probably seen the stunning new images from the Webb Space Telescope, which takes us 13 billion years back in time. That’s 8 billion years before the Earth was born. We stand here now looking back at a time before there was ground to stand on, or a human consciousness to see or grasp anything at all. We are looking at a speck of sky no bigger than a grain of sand, they say, yet filled with millions of galaxies and trillions of stars, and who knows how many planets or moons or intelligent life-forms looking back. Only they wouldn’t see us. For we don’t exist yet.
It’s mind-boggling. And certainly puts the turmoil we’re experiencing here on Earth into a new perspective. No less urgent or relevant for our fire-fly timespans. But it points us away from the personal and relative “here and now” into one that is infinitely larger than our selves and the tiny blue marble we call home. Our “here and now” encapsulates not only the present moment but the “here and now” 13 billion years ago. We are the link that spans that distance through time and space. Our consciousness. Mine. Yours. Now. Enfolding all that. Surely it means something significant.
When we turn the eye inward rather than out, into the micro-universe of atoms and particles swirling inside us and everything that exits, we grasp a new paradox. Quantum physics has shown us that those inner worlds at the most infinitesimal level exist only as clouds of potentiality rather than as concrete substance. These clouds of potentiality only become “real”—that is, fixed in time and space—when observed. Unseen they exist only within a hazy realm of the possible.
In comparison to the infinite universe swirling around us and inside us, we humans may seem pathetically insignificant. Not worth a mention in the footnotes of atomic and astronomic legers of Science. And yet we seem to play an essential and outsized role.
Without the human mind to grasp the universe there would be no universe to be grasped. Our bodies may have been evolved from star-dust. But it’s our minds, our own conscious grasping of such, that moves “star-dust,” and all else, out of the realm of the potential and into the realm of the real.
Such is the circular and utterly paradoxical wonder of a world we live in.
I knew nothing of Alice Neel or her artwork until I came across a retrospective of her at the MET in my newsfeed. It’s not the kind of art I’m usually drawn to and yet it struck me full in the face. I could not look away. It was those faces looking back at me, steely-eyed, or curious, defiant, indifferent—each face imposing in its own way. Each strong and vulnerable at the same time. All their frailties exposed as well as the undeniable beauty of their imperfections. And even more so, what impresses is the precise and utter uniqueness of their individual humanity.
“For me, people come first. I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.’’
So writes Alice Neel of her artwork, and that’s what I saw there—the dignity and the eternal importance–of each person in those portraits. That’s what she revealed.
Raw, caustic, gritty. All the nicety, sentimentality, and usual clichés stripped away. Leaving the viewer, this one at least, feeling raw, exposed, vulnerable herself. Stripped down to that one commonality that unites us—-our fatal flaws and the dignity by which we bear them. We see this in all her paintings.
We see it in the careless and somber curiosity of the two restless girls gazing at the artist intent upon capturing their likeness. How can you look away from those eyes? Or the ones in the next portrait.
This distended body of the pregnant woman whose “deer-in-the-headlights” face reveals all the expectant wonder and uncertainty of what lies before her.
The close-eyed submission on the face of the proud artist Andy Warhol as he allows the indignities of an abused body to be revealed.
The dark brevity of a young Vietnam draftee who expresses the resignation and uncertainty of a future that is left sketched so lightly before him.
The weary warmth and love of the breast-feeding mother, and the helplessness and hunger of the child who so desperately depends upon her.
The somber “back at ya” gaze of the nude man in all his hairy splendor, completely vulnerable to the female gaze in a role reversal.
Then there’s the last self-portrait of Neel herself toward the end of her long career, gazing away into the distance with a kind of calm resignation or disregard, while the bulk of the portrait is filled with the lines and planes of a full, well-used, aging body. What we leave behind. What was dear to us and others. What will be no more.
But for now here she is, her body open and on display in all its imperfect glory. She dares us to look away from our own mortality. But also invites us to see the “dignity and eternal importance” of each and every one of us.
A man lamented to an Elder in his Church that try as he might, he could not love his hyper-critical, unloving mother. The Elder told him, “My son, you don’t have to love her, you just have to love.”
That was a freeing thought to me years ago when I was having the same problem with a difficult-to-love mother. I knew I loved her, in the sense I cared about her happiness and well-being. But I was plagued by floods of unloving thoughts about her. Me being, probably, as hyper-critical of her as I believed she was of me, and just about everyone she met.
The Elder’s advise seemed to lift a heavy burden from my shoulders. I didn’t have to love the hyper-critical person, but I could be loving in my words and actions toward her, and gentle with myself for my shortcomings as well. I could love her humanity, her challenges, her struggles, and be compassionate toward her inability to be what I wanted, as well as compassionate toward my own inability to live up to my highest aspirations.
But how do we do that in these hyper-partisan times where so many people and political leaders acting out in ways that are hateful and violent and dangerously unreasonable? With the rise of tyranny and fear-mongering; the assault on truth, plain hard facts and overwhelming evidence? One worries about the fate of our nation and democracy itself, not to mention the fate of the world, plagued by firestorms, hurricanes, floods, with so little effort directed at making the changes needed to halt or even slow this global meltdown.
The world we love is being threatened by those we have come to hate. What is a loving-minded person supposed to do with all these intense, negative feelings and fears?
The answer is: You don’t have to love them. You just have to love.
But what do I “just love,” if not them? How can they be excluded if we’re “just loving” without a particular object to love?
Then I realized something, and it was like a hard, obstinate, ugly dam had been broken and the love I’d been withholding and resisting broke loose. The anger and resentment I’d been nurturing and justifying, and the fear that had been terrorizing me, were swept away.
The thing I realized is that genuine Love—the unconditional, not the personal kind —isn’t an add-on, something we choose or chose not to have. Genuine Love, the big kind with the big L, is the ground of being upon which all of us rest, that supports and sustains us all, the loving and unloving, the good and bad, the tyrant and saint.
We’re all delusional in one way or another. All living our lives on limited information and understanding about the world around us and each other, about what’s right and what’s wrong, about who we are, where we came from, and what our purpose is. Whether we like it or not, we’re going to rub up against each other and each other’s delusions, no matter what we do or how we chose to live. We can’t get out of it. We’re stuck with each other. And while things may get better for us personally, at the same time they are getting worse for others. And new challenges are on the way.
That’s where the compassion of genuine Love flows, from the realization that the one we are prone to hate or fear for their hateful deeds is just delusional, a rube to his own delusions, as we are to ours. Our sympathy, our love, extends to all of us, because we are all suffering, even while not condoning the acts that cause our suffering, and doing what we can to relieve it.
We can “just love” the whole human drama as it has rolled out over the centuries and through our own few days of existence, knowing that it will continue to roll on without us, perhaps forever in the way delusions always seem so real while they last.
But beneath all the drama that is heaving us about like storms at sea, is this deep sympathy, this oceanic peaceful presence of unconditional Love that supports and sustains us all even in the midst of all the turmoil we are experiencing.
Within that maelstrom, we each, like tiny bubbles thrown up and tossed about, clashing with each other, opposing or uniting, go about the business of being separate and apart until the delusion of our bubble of existence dissolves and we know each other as we always have been and always will be, an essential part of the underlying, unifying whole. Part of that tender, exuberant, endlessly creative flow of Love.
To sum it up: Don’t love “them,” just love “Us.”
This Metta (Lovingkindness) Prayer, which can be adapted by anyone to fit any circumstance, helps to bring that loving aspiration into focus:
In gladness and in safety, may all beings be at ease. Whether they are weak or strong, great or humble, wealthy or needy, omitting none, The wise or foolish, friend or foe, neighbor or stranger, Those who have wronged us and those we have wronged, Those who love us and those who do not,
May all beings be at ease!
May all beings have happiness and cause of happiness. May all beings remain free from suffering and the cause of suffering. May all beings remain unseparated from the sacred joy and that is free from sorrow, May all beings rest in the boundless and all-inclusive equanimity that supports and sustains us all.
Last summer brought an abundance of roses, so many I did not have enough vases to hold them all. And I only picked those hidden from view!
This year the roses are few and those poorly formed, although our watering and fertilizing and spraying have all been the same. But the baby quail, and deer, and turkey! We’ve never seen so many baby critters trailing through all our yards, hunkering under the bushes, and flying up into the treetops!
This week a heatwave has been forecast, with temperature over 100 for ten days straight and up to 112 degrees. Clear skies, zero precipitation.
But twice this week, instead of heat, we got warm rain. One time lasting all day, and today our house shook with thunder. The rain fell so hard and thick it looked like hail. And they say it never rains in California in the summertime!
A sign of the times, this unexpected mixture of drought and abundance. And not limited to nature. So much seems surreal.
Mailboxes ripped up and sorting machines thrown into dumpsters right before an election!
Walls of moms, and dads with leaf blowers, being tear-gassed by storm troopers!
The first Black woman chosen as VP on a major political ticket!
A diplomatic treaty signed between the UAE and Israel!
Open warfare between teachers and governors over whether to open schools or resort to distant learning again!
Hoards of unmasked worshipers swamping the beaches in Orange County, despite a pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans!
What does it all mean? How will it all end?
We are lost within the grey fog of war.
Clearly we live in interesting times. A curse? Possibly. A cleansing? Hopefully.
No wonder we feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under our feet. And we haven’t quite landed yet.
I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really know how I wanted to write or what I wanted to write until I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Soloman.
What I mean by how and what is this: Sentences so carefully crafted they grab and bite. Images so sharp and powerful they cleave you to the bone. That lift you up and tear you apart with one clean stoke. Characters that are utterly human and yet larger than life. Story-telling that is a kind of myth-making. Themes that capture the heartbreaking beauty and gut-wrenching brutality of an oppressed people.
Song of Solomon is the coming of age tale of a Black man in the 1930’s, Macon Dead, III, otherwise know as Milkman, because his mother nursed him until his his legs were dangling toward the floor. It’s about his strange aloof family, a wealthy bitter father and a secretive, passive mother, a bootlegger Aunt born with no novel, a beautiful cousin he lusts after and abandons. It’s about his best friend Guitar who joins other angry young men bent on revenge killings, and his own quest to escape that violence and a dead-end life and learn to fly, as his own great-grandfather, Soloman, is reported to have done. All the way back to Africa.
It’s tale that reminds us about the possibility and need of transcendence, to find something within ourselves that lifts us beyond where we ever thought we could go.
Morrison’s novel Beloved, which won a Pulitzer Prize, struck me in similar ways. So much so that I taught the book in my freshman literature and composition courses for many years. Reading that book was an experience that I believed my students must not miss out on. “A book like an axe,” as Kafka recommended, “to break the seas frozen inside our souls.”
Beloved tells the story of slavery, its escape, and its aftermath. It’s based on the true story a a woman who would rather kill her own than to see that child return to the horrors they’d just escaped. And it’s the tale of how the horrors of the past, in this case a dead child, can come back to haunt us.
In the end though, it’s about love. About loving others, being loved, and learning to love ourselves, despite all that would argue against it or try to stop us. This is the great theme that runs through all her books.
In one moving scene, Baby Suggs, Holy, a backwoods preacher in a sunlit meadow, offers up to those who come to hear, her great big heart:
Here in this place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in the grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder, they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, You!
Morrison’s writing is a kind of “diving into darkness on wings of light.” She does not flinch away from the darkness, but at the same time shows us how it’s pierced with light.
She has inspired me as a writer on not only how and what to write, but also why. To write large, and write deep, in language that sears and soars. To write stories that matter, that make a difference, that must be heard. To write in nuanced and meaningful ways about both the beauty and brutality of the human experience. Stories that inspire us to rise above our smaller selves.
You want to fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. –Toni Morrison
I came of age during the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement in the 60’s and 70’s. Women were reading the works of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and holding consciousness-raising sessions in their living rooms. They were celebrating the arrival of oral contraception, marching for the Equal Rights Amendment, and advocating for Woe vs Wade.
While I supported the movement and considered myself a feminist, I was not particularly political then and spent most of the time at the fringes. Intellectually and ideologically, I was in sync with the movement’s goals, but I didn’t feel the same kind of urgency or passion that I saw in others who were actively engaged.
I grew up with a strong mother and aunts, women who did not take a back seat to anyone, least of all the men in their lives. I never saw myself or other females as lessor than the males I knew. I loved being a woman and, if anything, felt sorry for men, the inability to carry life in their bodies or give birth to humankind.
In college I read widely about the movement, including its critics. I learned that many Black women felt uncomfortable within the narrow scope of feminism, which did not represent their personal experience and broader goals. A new social movement called Womanism emerged.
Alice Walker coined the term and “defined womanists as black feminists or feminists of color who are committed to the wholeness and survival of the entire people (both men and women).” She went on to describe a womanist as:
A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility … and women’s strength. … Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health … Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit … Loves struggle. Loves the folk. Loves herself. Regardless. Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.
I was inspired by this new movement. It seemed to me that while Feminism derived from sense of deprivation and distrust to address issues of social justice and equality, Womanism rose from a sense of wholeness and faith to address the same issues. It was broader, more inclusive, and contained a spiritual element.
According to scholar Layli Maparyan, a womanist seeks to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension”.
Womanism spoke closer to my own experience and aspirations. I wanted to be part of a liberation movement that freed all of us, even those who oppressed women. To truly be free, we all needed to be free, oppressed and oppressor alike. We needed to lift the consciousness of the entire race, male and female.
Though not a woman of color, I was excited about this new kind of feminism and began to identify myself more as womanist than a feminist, without repudiating the latter. Like Walker, I saw feminism as part of a broader ideological movement that womanism embraced.
A Third and Fourth Wave of Feminism eventually arose that speaks closer to the intersections between race, class, gender, and geopolitical divides, with a diversity of experience as keynote. The whole thing gets very complicated and confusing.
But for me, the maxim that none of us is free until all of us are free prevails. Movements that divide of us by gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, etc, will never secure the freedom and equality we all desire and deserve. But respecting our differences, celebrating our diversity, and embracing our common humanity just might.
All of us who are white in America were born into a country steeped in racism. Even for those of us who were taught that racism is wrong, that we are all equal, all God’s beloved children, regardless of the color of our skin, racism was something dark and deeply troubling we had to contend with, something that colored our whiteness.
It shaped our sense of self, our sense of justice, fair play, and compassion for others. It fostered a sense of collective guilt and shame for white ancestors who enslaved others or looked askance at those who did. For those today who persist in holding racist views. Even for beloved grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who ought to know better, and yet through the occasional disparaging remark and negative attitude revealed a meanness of spirit toward a whole race of people simply because of the color of their skin.
I learned at an early age that good-hearted people, people I loved and admired and thought I could trust, held racists views. That they could be, God-forbid, racists themselves. Who held views that filled me with shame and sadness.
I was fortunate to be raised by a mother who was not prejudiced, who spoke out against those who were, and who taught me through her words and actions to understand how wrong racism is.
I have been fortunate in that all of my brushes with “blackness,” black people and black culture, have been positive, enriching experiences, and have colored my view of blackness with a deep admiration and respect. My one negative experience was no exception.
Today, when the whole world is rising up to reject racism, to protest against its continued brutality, is a time for all of us to reflect upon our own “Brushes with Blackness,” as I call it here, the experiences that have colored our view of what black lives and black culture mean to us, to examine if we in any way contribute to those negative connotations implicit in racists views.
Do we merely look askance at the racist views and systems embedded in our society? Or do we do what we can in our small corner of the world to not only oppose those views, but to celebrate the beauty and braveness and wisdom found in black communities and black culture?
That’s what I’m hoping to do on these pages in a short series examining my “Brushes with Blackness.” This is the first. Three more follow.
“For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” ~ James Baldwin
My world has shifted in the last few weeks in a way that has left me reeling, looking for something to hold onto, to keep from sinking into darkness.
The remarkable thing is I’ve managed to pull myself back from that edge, to realize that no matter what seems to be happening “out there,” what really matters is what’s happening “in here,” in our own consciousness. Will we let an overwhelming sense of loss, grief, and rage pull us under? Or hold on tight to the ones we love, and the things that give us joy, a sense of buoyancy, and the ability to ride out this storm.
I am not alone. Those in the Carolinas experiencing the ravages of Florence have been been facing those rising seas, that failing light. We all experience these calamities, whether of our own or another’s making, or something completely out of our control. Nothing is fixed “out there.” But our minds are our own. We get to decide how we weather our storms, whether we hold on to each other and the things we love, or let the sea engulf us and our light go out.
“I want to see our words jump off the ground, erupt from a sensual earth, musty, humid, gritty. I want to taste words like honey, sweet and dripping with eternity. I want to hear words coming from my mouth and your mouth that are so beautiful that we wince with joy at their departure and arrival. I want to touch words that carry weight and substance, words that have shape and body, curve and tissue. I want to feel what we say as though the words were holy utterances surfacing from a pool where the gods drink. . . . .
My language must be redwood speech, watershed prayers, oak savannah, coupled in an erotic way with fog, heat, wind, rain and hills, sweetgrass and jackrabbits, wild iris and ocean current. My land is my language and only then can my longing for eloquence by granted. Until then I will fumble and fume and ache for a style of speaking that tells you who I am.” – Francis Weller
One of my first blog posts in 2012 featured a speech by Francis Weller that captures so eloquently how the earth, our natural habitat, speaks to us and inspires us to speak. How it shapes our language and the way we express ourselves, not only in literature but in art and music and dance.