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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Flying Dreams (reflection)

All my life I've been fortunate to have dreams of flying, beginning with the mystery dream when I was four or five, when the difference between dreaming and waking must have been still working itself out in my budding understanding. Across the street from our house on Church Street in Salem, Oregon was a school for the blind; my best friend was the son of the director, a boy named Jerry. We played on a swing-set under some trees on the lawn, a set with chains from which canvas straps were strung, making a flexible seat. I loved swinging there, up and down, high into the trees, back to the ground, that childhood joy of danger and daring and flight.

The whole experience is somewhat lost in the haze of time now; I recall the recollection more than the experience itself. I know that for a long time I believed, without questioning, that I had actually flown at one point, while swinging: the straps were gone, maybe even the chains; I just swung up into the air as if lying on my stomach, gliding, soaring upward, weightless and unattached, in a golden light, sky-blue world of puff clouds, dancing leaves, breeze and beauty, flying like a bird.

Further recollection is that years later, eons in childhood time, perhaps when I was 9 or 10, this long-held memory of flight suddenly dawned on me as an impossibility. It had been there in the background of my mind as a sort of a priori given; unremarkable, though lovely, no more questioned or pondered than the presence of the sky. In one of a series of gradual "falls from grace" with the onset of puberty and growing consciousness of the world around me, it hit me that that experience could only have been a dream. Again, what I remember is the memory of how that realization shocked and puzzled me, as if I had learned that gravity, a given my whole life, only worked with your eyes open.

The discovery reshaped my whole concept of who I was in the world and how things worked. Magic, ingrained in me deeply from an endless supply of books treating that subject (more about that in other posts!), was an essential and continually elusive aspect of the real world, and only gradually, over many more years, did I release my belief that it was as true as any other law of nature, just harder to pin down. I'm not sure I have released that belief to this day -- just reshaped it, really.

Helping to keep belief alive is the steady flow of flying dreams through my complex and vivid dream life. The flying dreams come again and again, in all kinds of permutations; they are one set in a catalogue of magic dreams: the ones where I can breathe underwater and explore the bottom of an ocean or stream bed (these have become much more rare); where I can talk to animals and befriend them in their languages; where I explore underground worlds; where I fly or leap or float, sometimes with control, often losing control in some way, either to fall, or drift, or fail to fly high enough or far enough to escape an approaching danger.

For a while not too long ago I was wondering if I was losing the gift of flying in dreams; it seemed I hadn't had one for quite a while, and I speculated as to the cause. Maybe becoming a public school teacher, I thought, had taken away the magic. It seemed like a logical association of ideas. The dreams have returned, though.

Less than a week ago I had a most elaborate one, starting in a park in Manhattan, pedaling upward as if on a magic, invisible bike, laughing down as people stared at me in wonderment. I sped westward, ending up at a castle where the skyline of the city was barely visible in the distance. Several adventures there involving climbing over rooftops and discovering mouldering cadavers under the shingles, then creeping along a window ledge back toward the gate and an open terrace, a perfect and much-needed launching ground for my return to the city. I stood there, amazed at how far the city was; summoning my strength, determined, I finally launched down a steep hillside, airborne, and headed homeward. Once aloft, though, I realized I had forgotten something -- I wish I could remember what -- and would have to fly back. Of course, this proved virtually impossible; my intuitive, invisible directional instruments were off-kilter; it was a huge effort to describe a long, slow circle back to where I had started, with a deepening sense of gloom about ever succeeding of reaching either of my destinations: the city in the distance, or the castle from which I had just escaped.

More dreams of this kind than I can ever count or remember have leavened my night life, filled me with hope, wonder, terror, and elation. Thank you, o Muse. All my life I have been lifted, warned, deceived and tantalized by the invisible trick of flight. What it has meant to me as a waking creature is not fully knowable, except to say, perhaps, that without those dreams I should have been confined to a flatland of my imagination, rather than a recurring and inspiring realm of air and sky.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Unmistaken Child" (film review)

"Unmistaken Child" 

Nati Baratz, Writer/Director/Producer
Ilil Alexander, Producer/Co-writer
Arik Bernstein, Producer

If you have the slightest interest in Buddhism, anthropology, or on-the-edge filmmaking, you should not miss this marvelous film.

Neither Roger Ebert's inanely dismissive review nor Stephen Holden's more nuanced discussion acknowledges this film's incredible achievement: documenting and participating in the discovery of a deceased Lama's spiritual successor according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The filmmakers must have begun their years-long journey with the same tenuous uncertainty and dogged commitment as the monk Tenzin Zopa, whose quest for the reincarnation of his spiritual master rests on sheer faith and sense of duty. Neither the monk nor the film-makers could have known how the journey would end, and that is one of the marvels of this crisply edited, stunning documentary: it undertakes the same risky journey as its subject, and, like the young monk, is transformed by the process.

The film we watch for the first half or so of the movie is not the same film we see by the end. Just as the monk and those he meets are transformed by their success in choosing the "unmistaken child," the film changes over time. Better cameras improve the image quality by the second or third year of the process (new grant money, perhaps?) The Israeli filmmakers seem ever more integrated into the communities they observe, their camera witnessing intimate moments of family life, the testing of the chosen boy, monastic traditions and rituals such as the hair-snipping and naming by the Dalai Lama, and the child's celebratory return to the monastery.

Ebert and Holden both underestimate the emotional and spiritual impact of this excellent film. Ebert displays astonishing provincialism in his critique: "I know I am expected to believe the tenets of a religion on the basis of faith, not common sense, but during this film, I found that very difficult. How reliable are wind directions, the interpretation of ashes and astrological readings? Would you give over your son on such a basis? Would you trust such a chosen one as your spiritual leader?"

Ebert's questions miss the point laughably. A documentary on Christian priesthood might arouse some astonishment at a faith that practices daily miraculous "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of a 2,000-year-old martyr. "Unmistaken Child" does not rationalize, explain, or ask us to accept anything. It allows us to witness an ancient spiritual tradition through the journey of faith of a humble man and to judge for ourselves the fruits of his work. Through his eyes and experiences, presented with humility and authenticity, we observe a spiritual quest suffused with beauty, mystery, emotion, sacrifice, and finally transcendence. What more could one ask of a spiritual experience? What more could one ask of a cinematic experience?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To George Pissarro (poem)

So glad to have known you my friend,
lived a piece of your life and art.

To my eyes a genius
unsung, penurious as the greats,
stone and oil
wood and wax, aflame
in your vision,
aloft with wings of canvas
marbled smoothly skyward
you drifted
studio to studio
fed the pigeons that strolled
your kitchen more at home than I,
biked the Hudson,
ferried Staten Island
for twenty years
handed off programs
at Avery Fischer Hall.

What became of your works?
I treasure the sheaf of photos you sent
images of your heart
and wild, wild soul
(your madness could be scary)
and the head of stone
you bequeathed me
broken from its body,
the very piece you struggled to hoist
up your west-
fourth stoop
a winter day
in the past century --
something fluttered in my ribcage:

"Need a hand?"

How a life may bend on such a bone.

So glad to have known you,
crazy Portuguese francophone,
amazing carver and smoother of stone;
had I the means I'd have been the patron
you deserved,
could have saved your work and vision
but probably never


Politics: April 4th Revolution (opinion)

My sister Betsy is visiting from Berkeley, and Debbie is here from Australia -- we've been celebrating my Dad's 95th birthday. Yeah, he was born in 1916. He remembers his grandfather reminiscing about fighting in the Civil War. That's a long generational memory. Too bad our national memory isn't as good as my old Dad's.

Betsy and I wanted to go to one of the April 4th rallies organized all across America on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. We went to MLK Park on MLK Avenue South, on a chilly, rainy afternoon. It was inspiring despite the weather and the turnout of only a few hundred people -- still, a few hundred ain't bad, mainly union members like myself (SEA, WEA, NEA -- a teacher and public employee). Rule of thumb: for every one that shows up, a hundred others share the feelings but haven't yet felt the fever in their bones.

Yes, it was inspiring to hear voices loudspeaking the truth about the poor and middle class getting taxed and cut and told to make sacrifices, while corporations and banks and the super-rich wallow in wealth. "Need is not the crime; greed is the crime!" Can anyone doubt the agenda here -- to roll back the gains made by working people and the middle class over the past 40 years, and ensure the hegemony of the super-rich and the corporations? Could it be any plainer?

There's plenty of money to provide for everyone, but the money is in too many of the wrong places, in too few hands.

It was a modest gathering at MLK Park. It's clear, though, whose side Martin Luther King himself would be on, had he lived; had he not been assassinated. Thankfully, he was not silenced. His voice grows louder with every new injustice.

Wisconsin: an unlikely rallying cry for the new wave of popular power. The attempt to gut unions and the right of public sector employees to bargain collectively has hit a nerve. Hundreds of thousands stood in 15-degree temperatures and a blizzard in Madison, Wisconsin, slept in the State House, would not be moved, to defend their rights. Their action was seen and heard around the world. Seattle: don't let a little rain stop us! Remember the WTO? Remember Egypt? Was Martin Luther King killed defending the rights of corporations to avoid paying taxes? No; he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to help defend the rights of city employees -- garbage collectors -- to form unions and collectively bargain for a livable wage, a decent life, and some respect as human beings.

The powers that be in this country don't give a flying fuck about your wages, your life, or your self-respect. Standing there in the park, in the rain, listening to the speakers and watching the waving signs helped me feel connected to the power we still have as people when we act together and do give a flying fuck what happens to our brothers and sisters.

Next time, don't send an email; don't give the revolution a "thumbs up" on Facebook. Come out and bring your umbrella. The revolution needs all of us.