Saturday, April 26, 2008

Revelation

No, I'm not going to talk about the "end times" or Armageddon. Although, after years spent in fundamentalist churches, that is what the word "revelation" conjures up for me most days.

I'd like to talk about the process of revelation as we grow, learn and wake up. Sounds like a wonderful thing, doesn't it? But here's a piece of art by Gerry Bannan that captures the complexities of what it has often felt like to me.



My most extreme experience with revelation came when I was just shy of 30 years old and was in graduate school. At the time, a professor had taken me under his wing and was helping me sort through alot of the confusion in my life that had resulted from the abuses of fundamentalist christianity. In retrospect, what this professor gave to me was complete and total trust. Something I had never experienced in my life. I had been taught to trust god, my parents, the church and any other authoritarian that happened to come along. But this professor gave me what I had been missing all along; the reality that I could trust myself. This changed my life forever and it was wonderful. But it wasn't without a cost.

Years of relying on authoritarians to tell me what to do was painful in the long run. But there was a certain comfort in the lack of responsibility for myself. As long as I was playing by someone else's rules and living someone else's life, I was off the hook. When I decided to take charge, I found out that I was on my own. No god in heaven or daddy here on earth was going to save me. And I couldn't rely on the rules to tell me what to do. I had to figure it all out for myself.

As this process unfolded, it stopped me in my tracks one day. I experienced, for the first and only time in my life, a full-fledged panic attack. It only lasted for about a day, but it was a real melt-down. I couldn't function at all for the whole day and didn't know what was wrong other than that I was scared to death. I was totally and completely wrapped in fear and became immobilized. Its only in retrospect that I've been able to identify what happened.

So, when we wonder about where all the fear in our world comes from, this might be part of the answer. Its a scary thing to be on your own and responsible for yourself. But, as David Whyte has put it so beautifully in this poem, if we break through, we find that we're really not alone at all.

Revelation Must Be Terrible

Revelation must be
terrible with no time left
to say goodbye.

Imagine that moment
staring at the still waters
with only the brief tremor

of your body to say
you are leaving everything
and everyone you know behind.

Being far from home is hard, but you know,
at least we are all exiled together.
When you open your eyes to the world

you are on your own for
the first time. No one is
even interested in saving you now

and the world steps in
to test the calm fluidity of your body
from moment to moment

as if it believed you could join
its vibrant dance
of fire and calmness and final stillness.

As if you were meant to be exactly
where you are, as if
like the dark branch of a desert river

you could flow on without a speck
of guilt and everything
everywhere would still be just as it should be.

As if your place in the world mattered
and the world could
neither speak nor hear the fullness of

its own bitter and beautiful cry
without the deep well
of your body resonating in the echo.

Knowing that it takes only
that one, terrible
word to make the circle complete,

revelation must be terrible
knowing you can
never hide your voice again.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Making music with what you have

One of the things I've noticed about bloggers is that, in addition to politics, many seem to be attracted to science fiction. That has never been necessarily true for me. But a few years ago I stumbled on a science fiction trilogy by Suzette Haden Elgin. The first two books in the series, Native Tongue and The Judas Rose really grabbed me. Here's the publisher's synopsis for Native Tongue:

Called "fascinating" by the New York Times upon its first publication in 1984, Native Tongue won wide critical praise and cult status, and has often been compared to the futurist fiction of Margaret Atwood. Set in the twenty-second century, the novel tells of a world where women are once again property, denied civil rights and banned from public life. Earth's wealth depends on interplanetary commerce with alien races, and linguists a small, clannish group of families have become the ruling elite by controlling all interplanetary communication. Their women are used to breed perfect translators for all the galaxies' languages.

Nazareth Chornyak, the most talented linguist of the family, is exhausted by her constant work translating for trade organizations, supervising the children's language education, running the compound, and caring for the elderly men. She longs to retire to the Barren House, where women past childbearing age knit, chat, and wait to die. What Nazareth comes to discover is that a slow revolution is going on in the Barren Houses: there, word by word, women are creating a language of their own to free them from men's control.


So what Elgin does with these two books is to help us understand the role that language can play in both oppression and revolution. One of the very small ways I've experienced that is my frustration that our current language has only one word for the verb "to know." Due to the patriarchal nature of our culture, Women's Ways of Knowing have been ignored or discounted. I remember what an earth-shattering event it was for me to read that book as an adult and begin the process of reclaiming all that I "knew."

The third book in the trilogy, Earth song, takes off in a different direction. I don't know that I would recommend the book itself, the plot is disjointed and difficult to follow. But the message of this one is really powerful and has stayed with me the longest.

The story begins when the women accidentally discover that they have found a cure for hunger...music. They spend hours and hours talking about what to do with this discovery. They know that if they go public with this knowledge, the "powers that be" will find a way to control and distribute music much the way they do with food, and people will continue to go hungry. So they develop a strategy that is bold, subversive and courageous. They decide to apprentice themselves out as music teachers all over the galaxy. You may wonder why I call this strategy courageous. That is because they know, when they adopt it, that none of them will live to see the end of hunger. It will be generations before that happens. But they also know that this is the only way to ensure that the music belongs to the people.

I've thought so often about this story. The courage and patience and hope of it all. And then I'm reminded of the words of Ruben Alvez:

What is hope? It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the suspicion that the overwhelming brutality of fact that oppresses us and represses us is not the last word. It is the hunch that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual, and that, in a miraculous and unexpected way, life is preparing the creative events which will open the way to freedom and to resurrection.

"But, hope must live with suffering. Suffering, without hope, produces resentment and despair. And hope, without suffering, creates illusions, naiveté, and drunkenness. So, let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see.

"This is the secret of discipline. Such disciplined love is what has given saints, revolutionaries, and martyrs the courage to die for the future they envision; they make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope.


And I'm reminded of this story told by Margaret Wheatly:

Yitzhak Perlman, the great violinist, was playing in New York. Yitzhak Perlman was crippled by polio as a young child, so the bottom part of his body doesn't work well and he wears these very prominent leg braces and comes on in crutches, in a very painful, slow way, hauling himself across the stage. Then he sits down and, very carefully, unbuckles the leg braces and lays them down, puts down his crutches, and then picks up his violin. So, this night the audience had watched him slowly, painfully, walk across the stage; and he began to play. And, suddenly, there was a loud noise in the hall that signaled that one of his four strings on his violin had just snapped.

Everyone expected that they would be watching Yitzhak Perlman put back the leg braces, walk slowly across the stage, and find a new violin. But this is what happened. Yitzhak Perlman closed his eyes for a moment. Yitzhak Perlman paused. And then he signaled for the conductor to begin again. And he began from where they had left off. And here's the description of his playing, from Jack Riemer in the Houston Chronicle:

"He played with such passion, and such power, and such purity, as people had never heard before. Of course, everyone knew that it was impossible to play this symphonic work with three strings. I know that. You know that. But that night, Yitzhak Perlman did not know that. You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was an awe-filed silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. Everyone was screaming and cheering and doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had just done. He smiled. He wiped the sweat from his brow. He raised his bow to us. And then he said, not boastfully, but in a quiet and pensive and reverent tone,

"'You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.'"

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Power

Some might define power as being able to get what you want. But as Mick told us so many years ago...



I think many of us are feeling pretty powerless these days to affect change in our country. So I thought it would be interesting to have a little conversation about power and the different ways it works. I'll share a little of my experience and hope you will chime in down below in the comments.

Most of our conceptions about power stem from a basic acceptance of hierarchy. In other words, someone has power if they have power over someone or something. Its the classic model I was taught about relationships in the church.



But if any of you lived in a household that was similarly structured, you might have the same experience I did...which was that Mom had a way of getting what she wanted too. In other words, she had power, but it tended to be covert in comparison to Dad's overt power. This leads me to think that we all have power in some form or another. Its just a question of whether or not we claim it overtly.

The reality is, the only real power we have is over ourselves. Anytime we have power "over" someone else, its because they've given it to us. This is the classic assumption behind all theories of non-violent resistance...we have the power to choose whether or not we cooperate with those who would attempt to control us. In the end, they can beat us up, put us in jail, or kill us, but they can't force us to comply with their wishes.

In my professional life, I've been having some interesting discussions that have taught me another aspect of power. As many of you know, I'm the director of a small non-profit. Most of our funding comes from our county government in the form of contracts for service. Our county has a budget of over $570 million per year as compared to our agency's $1.5 million. In a hierarchical way of seeing things then, it would appear as if the county had all the power to tell us what to do.

But what we have discovered is that the county needs us. We can do things they can't do and in ways they can't do them. Occasionally in negotiations, we've had to point that out to them in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. One of the most powerful ways we did that was by walking away from a contract that we thought compromised our mission and values. Through that process, we changed the dynamic of the relationship from one of power-over to one of partnership. By identifying what each party brought to the table that the other one needed, we each claimed our own power and can work together to reach common goals.

I tell you all that because I think its a critical ingredient to the identification of any kind of power. You need to know two things:

1. What do people need from you, and
2. What do you bring to the table.

If we apply this to our political situation, we often limit ourselves to thinking that our only power is our vote. That is certainly something we bring to the table and it appears to be something politicians need from us. But there are two problems with this. First of all, there aren't enough of us voting our way to carry the day. This is one of the biggest reasons we feel powerless these days I think. We can keep trying to convince others to join us, but both the MSM and time are not on our side right now. And secondly, the reality is that too many politicians believe (and perhaps accurately so) that they need money more than they need votes. Goddess knows I don't have access to those kinds of resources, nor do many of you I suspect.

If that's the case, what is it that we have that our elected officials need from us? I must admit that I'm rather stumped on that one. A few months ago I talked about the idea that if we could ever figure that one out, we'd have hit the "sweet spot" and the whole system would likely react to try to shut us down...and fast.

Could it be that to the MICMC we are expendable? That is certainly what David Simon, creator of HBO's "The Wire" is implying. I think we need to be willing to honestly ask ourselves that question and face the truth of the answer. If we are expendable, then continuing to play the game their way means that we become merely enablers of the system that is exploiting us. And its time to walk away, reclaim our power, and save ourselves.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Women of the World, Rise Up!

My title is a quote from Buhdy yesterday in response to this comment from undercovercalico:

Female sexuality and the right to express it freely in any manifestation/identity is still really one of the corner stone threats to authoritarianism.


One of my favorite genres of books is autobiographies of everyday women from around the world. I've read tons of them and I remember at one point I recognized the theme that seemed to always emerge, whether it was burka's in the Middle East, foot-binding in China, genital mutilation in parts of Africa, or chastity belts in Europe. The message was not only that women needed to be controlled, but more specifically, their sexuality needed to be controlled.

Many before me have come to this same conclusion. But the question still remains, why is it that women's freely expressed sexuality is such a threat? What might change in this world if women were allowed individual choice about who to have sex with and when?

I think the answers to those questions go way beyond just a discussion about "free sex," although that is certainly part of the equation. Since, for example, women always know who their children are, but men have had to know who a woman had sex with to have that same knowledge, I think we can safely assume that controlling a woman's sexuality has been a way of guaranteeing the continuation of patriarchy.

But to me, I think there are even deeper questions at stake. I had an experience once that gave me just a hint of what that might be. In my 30's I read the book When God Was A Woman by Merlin Stone. I clearly remember at one point in my reading, I had a new feeling overtake me after years of being steeped in christian fundamentalism. The feeling was that I could choose with whom and when I wanted to have sex. I didn't need all the rules and regulations I had been taught about it to govern my decision-making. The night that awareness hit, I had a powerful dream that I am certain was a direct result. The dream was of a tall skyscraper that was under construction. Only the frame had been built, and it was shifting to alter the design of the building. I immediately knew that the building was me and that something in my core had changed. I had, the moment that decision was made, claimed myself and my own power in some fundamental way I had never experienced before.

That is the power of the freedom of choice in matters of sexuality I believe. I can't say that I completely understand the power contained in that right to choose. But if that freedom was available to all of us, I believe women would indeed rise up, and the world would be changed.

Alice Walker wrote a book about female genital mutilation titled Posessing the Secret of Joy. In the last chapter, she reveals what she believes to be the secret of joy in this context...RESISTANCE.