Sunday, November 30, 2008
My London plans may be changing--I'm not certain yet, but I may end up shortening my stay due to some uncertain circumstances. That's been the surreal part of this week--lots of uncertain circumstances. Everyone I talk to has been having surprises, and not good ones. I look at possibly changing my London plans as the lower end of the surprise scale--I have many friends and acquaintances right now that are dealing with much more serious uncertainties. Even when I stopped off at one of my usual breakfast haunts in Hackettstown, the waitress I know there told me that her husband was fired from his job that week--and told he could reapply if he wanted to in the Spring. Of course, this means no health benefits for her or her husband all Winter long, and if he does get re-hired, it will probably be at minimum wage; he was at the top of his pay scale for his job. There is a lot of this kind of thing going on. At the moment, I am grateful to be employed and to have a house. It's not going to be a great Christmas for a lot of people, and while this does happen to people every year, it does make things a bit sadder (Christmas or not) because these people are my friends. Certainly it's a sobering reminder that life can change at any moment.
I picked up a friend from the airport today, and we were discussing the recent attacks on Americans and British citizens in Mumbai. A mutual friend of ours from Orissa had friends staying in the hotel. The mutual friend had received a text message from that friend, saying she was hiding under the bed, and that "they were coming." They lost contact with her after that, and suspect she is now dead. The growing amount of Islamic fundamentalist attacks is frightening for many reasons. Fundamentalism in any of the religions is a reaction against modernity. While there have been a few cases of Hindu fundamentalism, it is really a monotheistic phenomenon, at least as it is appearing in the world today. We tend to hear about Christian fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism in particular. Both types of fundamentalism have a number of things in common. One is that they believe modernity is bad (though many are not opposed to the use of technology like television and the Internet). Another is that they believe there is one strict interpretation of "God's law", and that God has a specific plan that humanity must follow, and of course they know what it is. Christian fundamentalists derive their document from a literalist interpretation of the Bible (known as Biblical inerrancy). Islamic fundamentalists are working with a strict interpretation of the Qur'an and the Shar'ia law. In both cases, there is a good vs. evil dualism--either you are on God's side (i.e., you accept their worldview), or you are not. If you are not, you are in league with "Satan", and they have the right to try to force you into the right way of believing. For some of them, that means the right to kill you. Islamic fundamentalists hate modern Western countries, because they see their pluralistic influence as being directly opposed to the law of God.
Monotheistic fundamentalism is a dangerous thing. Since there is only one God, and one "right way" for those types of believers, there is no ground for conversation. Globalization has put us in a unique position--on the one hand, secularism puts religion aside, or at least into its own category. It's not the primary social mover with regard to education, law, or politics. Fundamentalists believe that religion should be central--in particular, their interpretation of religion. No one has successfully figured out how to marry these two entirely different worldviews. In fact, looking at it, it just seems well nigh impossible. Adherents of both views frequently live side by side in today's world. The results are not pretty.
This topic will be the discussion of my lecture this week at university, and reminds me of a topic I discussed a couple of weeks ago: theodicy. Theodicy has to do with "the problem of evil", which includes the issue of human suffering. Going back to monotheistic dualisms (paradoxical, I know), we discussed the idea of "Satan". Technically, Satan is not a being, it is a role. In the Bible, "satan" or "shaitan" (Hebrew letters Shin, Teth, Nun) was the role played by an angel that obstructed a human. The Greek equivalent term is "diabolos", the root of the word "Devil", which means "to throw an obstruction in one's path". While we think of obstructions as causing us suffering, that is not necessarily the case. I think of the stories of friends who were stuck in traffic behind a car accident, missed their train, and consequently their job interview or other business in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Certainly these people were grateful by the end of the day to have been obstructed.
I could not help but to notice the similarity between the Hebrew word "Satan" and the word "Saturn". I don't know if they are etymologically similar (the Greek equivalent of Saturn is Kronos, or "time"; the Sanskrit equivalent is "Shani") but they are similar in meaning if you look at both Eastern and Western astrology. The role of Saturn is that of taskmaster--it limits us when we try to move ahead, according to that view. The Vedic astrologer that I visit once a year lamented recently that my mother is in "Shani dasha", or a very long phase of life ruled by Saturn, and consequently full of suffering and limitations. And yet Shani is not viewed as "evil"--Shani is supposed to disabuse you of any illusions you have about life or your identity. It fosters discipline, and keeps us from being lazy and selfish. Similar to "satan", "Shani" is not a being--it is a description of a particular state of things. Even with Hindus performing Shani puja, they are not worshipping Saturn--they are seeking to understand the "Shani" qualities in themselves and their lives.
Whatever you may believe, it is certainly a fact that suffering occurs in life. Like a lot of things, it seems to be cyclical--there are periods of expansiveness, and periods of restriction. I can only hope that those who have been hit by the latest string of sufferings will come through relatively unscathed, perhaps in a better position than they were before.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Which brings me to the topic of this post: things that don't go together, and other odd things I've observed over the last month.
Since I mentioned the John Foxx/Vincent Gallo match-up already, I'll talk about that first. When John asked me if I'd heard of Vincent Gallo, my dim, fuzzy mind at that point recalled the name, maybe something about him being an actor, did not recall him as a musician. So, after the show, a friend pointed me to Vincent Gallo's MySpace, where you can hear some of his music:
Vincent Gallo's MySpace Page
Regardless of what you may think of Gallo's musical offerings (and I realize that what he has on his page is a different project from what he's doing with John), you do have to admit that Gallo and Foxx are a highly--UNEXPECTED combination. Especially if you consider that they are recording an acoustic album together. One of the wonderful things about John Foxx is that he defies categorization--when I'm asked what his music is like, it's hard to pin down. I consider that one of the hallmarks of originality. With regards to this project--I must say that I am anxious to see the fruits of that creative collaboration. I can't even imagine what that's going to be like, and I'm curious as hell.
The same friend sent me another Vincent Gallo link:
Vincent Gallo Merchandise--Personal Services
It's funny how he posts this in such a way that you are not sure if he's kidding or not. Nonetheless, it occurred to me that any woman looking to get his sperm at a discount could hire him for escort services, and get him drunk enough to get knocked up that way. I'm not suggesting I have any interest in this--it just seems to be a glaring pricing loophole.
Another entry in the unexpected category came from the Religion news service this morning:
Michael Jackson Converts to Islam
I feel sorry for the Muslims. They get enough bad press. You have to wonder what the sheiks were thinking during his conversion ceremony.
A bit lower on the intellectual scale, we have this (with thanks to Nothing To Do With Arbroath):
Three-Quarters of Brits Unable to Name Great Britain's Three Countries
This is only unexpected because there seems to be this assumption that Brits are smarter than Americans. I'm not sure where this conception comes from, because frankly, people are stupid everywhere. Perhaps it is because Britain is older, and they have the benefit of the European community right in their back yard. But that rides on the erroneous assumption that people will take advantage of cultural and educational opportunities if they are right in front of them.
What's interesting about this article is how similar it is to the "American's can't identify their States on a map" articles. While there is no excuse for that either, you could argue that Americans have 50 states to identify, whereas the United Kingdom is only made up of 3 countries (sort of 4, if you count Northern Ireland). I am reminded of a the time I was at the University of Reading (UK, not Pennsylvania), and talking with a young man--mind you, he was doing his course in American Studies--who, when the American Independence Day was mentioned in conversation, wanted to know who Americans won their independence from. (And yes, he left a dangling preposition at the end of the sentence). None of this really proves anything about collective intelligence--but I don't want to go down the road of what I think about education these days in general, so...
Moving on to:
Another Arbroath link:
Breaking Bad News With Baby Animals
I have an aversion to the overly-cutesy and gushingly precious, especially when it comes to greeting cards, so I loved this when I saw it. On another tangent to this, there is the Cute Fuzzy Animals As Evil genre. A good example of this is Happy Kitty Bunny Pony, a graphical book with all kinds of cute kitties, doggies, etc.--and the author points out that all they really want to do is eat you or trample you to death painfully.
That's all I have for now--for those of you following bbfiction, I have about 4 things posted (7 posts total), and I'm working on 2 others right now, one will probably be posted by next week, the other is part of a larger story compilation I'm working on called Dasa Mahavidyas, so I may not post that one. I'm trying to disengage myself from a tangled plotline for the former story, hence the delay. I used to complain of writer's block, now I can't seem to stop writing. I could have worse problems...
Monday, November 17, 2008
No less than 3 friends called or e-mailed this week to tell me about various difficulties besieging them. Other friends had similar issues, that I’d heard about through the grapevine. What is unusual is not the fact that they have difficulties—everyone does at one time or another. The interesting part is how similar things happen in “clumps”. In short, there appears to be a pattern.
I’m an observer by nature, and I can’t help but wonder what these patterns mean, if anything. There are more general patterns that are harder to pin down—the sense that things are being shaken up, or the sense that things are stuck and slowing down, in a more “global” sense. Other patterns are more specific—they may be events and other “symbols” tied together. For instance—I was out with a friend over the weekend, and while chatting over lunch, we noticed that a drinking glass she received was perfectly cracked in the middle, but did not break or leak. In the course of 24 hours, I learned from several friends about cracked relationships, cracked-up cars, and emotional crack-ups at work. No one was completely broken from any of these things, but everyone was “cracked” in some fashion.
Perhaps this is the way my mind organizes experiences in an attempt to find meaning in them. I have the belief that people and experiences are connected in some unconscious way that we will never fully understand, but that we may be able to find meaningful patterns if we look for them.
On the other hand—sometimes the point of the pattern is to show us that there is no pattern, or may as well not be one. My guru’s visits to New York from India are a good example of this. It’s almost guaranteed that no matter what is planned for the day, it will be completely screwed up by the time I leave. And yet, everything still happens at these times that needs to happen. Amma did say once, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” As humans, we would like to find order in uncertainty, so we are great believers in causality. While you can generally find logical causes for things, sometimes you just can’t analyze and evaluate experiences in that way, so you just accept it. It lies somewhere between faith and reason—or maybe outside of both. In the end, I’ve learned it’s better to observe the pattern, and not to discount it, but not to place too much meaning on it, either.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Recently I had a discussion with my Religion students about the concept of a myth. Myths are metaphors for intangible, un-expressible experiences that impact us profoundly. In preparing these discussions, I considered the late, great Joseph Campbell’s views on myth. In one of his discussions with Bill Moyers, Campbell states that modern society does not have myths—the only mythmakers are artists, which includes musicians, poets, filmmakers, and others who work with metaphorical images. He proposes that things change too rapidly in this day and age for society to create new myths.
I was thinking about this the other day, and it occurs to me that myths are actually everywhere, though they are less socially organized and more individualized. We succeed or fail in life with respect to our myths. A myth could have to do with the profound mystery of existence, or it could be as mundane as believing that one has to focus on something practical like business or finance to succeed in life. Unconsciously, we stick to the script of the myth. This can help us through troubled times, and it can also wreak havoc, especially when we assume that our myths are the same as everyone else’s. There may be similarities, but we all have our own spin on the story.
Cultures that still have shamans as part of their religion see the shaman as the interpreter of their social myths. After all, the shaman has seen the Mystery firsthand. It also follows that the magic of the magician is nothing more than a rewriting of the script. You identify the story that you’re telling yourself, and then you change it. Artists of all types are like shamans, because they are expressing and reinterpreting myths all the time through images; they do so because they have touched on the Mystery. This is also the key to psychotherapy; the therapist helps you identify your myths, to see what lies you might be telling yourself that keep you from progressing in your life.
This is not to say that myths are lies; they are only lies inasmuch as what we perceive and interpret as reality has an illusory quality. This is also not to say that we have total control over everything. I spoke to a Muslim man once who expressed it best—if I raise one leg, I cannot also raise the other leg at the same time without falling down. We have inherent limitations. At the same time, we have more control than we often believe that we do. Probably 80% of what we tell ourselves is bullshit. The idea of using “affirmations” to change our thinking is based on the idea that we can change our stories. The problem with affirmations is that we never believe them. They are too weak to effect any real change.
Matthew Arnold wrote an essay called “Hellenism vs. Hebraism” in which he talks about the conundrum of the Victorians and the disintegration of their cultural myths. In essence, he points out that society will force its myths on you if you don’t create your own. In order to effect real change, people have to be aware of the stories they’re telling themselves—and how seriously they take those stories. In the end, they’re just stories—they’re theories and interpretations of life. If you take them too seriously, you risk being totally shattered if something comes along to challenge that story.
When I was first married to my now ex-husband, he was very into the works of Carlos Catstaneda. He firmly believed that Don Juan (the shaman in these stories) was pointing out that the day to day world we live in was unreal, and that the reality we should be focusing on is entirely hidden. He would use this as a justification for avoiding things like getting a job, or any of the mundane realities of shared living. I was fortunate enough to find and buy for him the one book he’d missed in Castaneda’s series, “The Power of Silence.” He sat home and read it cover to cover, and it totally shattered him. In that book, Don Juan tells Carlos that this “other reality” was no more real than the one he came from.
Those challenges are always good ones—if we’ve gotten ourselves on the wrong track by taking the story too seriously, it needs to be torn apart. Truth is sometimes painful. But that is how we tear down, reinvent, or re-establish our myths. In short, that is how we grow as human beings.
Friday, November 07, 2008
As many of you know, I have been writing for a number of years. My hellish work schedule has made it difficult to keep up, but I keep plugging along. Check out the blog, and be sure to read the introduction before delving into the first story.
I will continue to maintain this blog for my other random ramblings. Eventually I may migrate this blog to Wordpress, but the thought of more XML exports just makes me nauseated, so I'll put that off for awhile.
I hope you enjoy the new blog as much as this one (assuming that you do read this because you like to, not because you're doing penance), and your thoughts are always welcome.