A humble request

Dear Friends,

On Saturday (tomorrow!), I will be 60 years old. It’s kind of astonishing, and at the same time I feel grateful to have made it this far and with all the blessings I have in my life (you are prominent among them!

I don’t usually make a big deal out of my birthday, but 60 is a particular marker, and so I am writing to ask for your help.

We live now in a world that requires more and more promotion and self-promotion, so to ensure that I have another few decades of viability as a writer, I’m asking you for the following:

If you have ever read a book of mine that you enjoyed, would you please go to Amazon and leave a review? It only needs to be a few sentences, plus a title and some stars, and yes, you do need to have an amazon account but you don’t have to buy anything from them. I know you read Wounded World: lyric essays about our spiritual disquiet, at least on this blog, so that might be a place to start. Here is a link to the Amazon page: http://tinyurl.com/ndxc7e5

Here are some other options:

Bailey’s Beads, novel (new paperback edition), http://tinyurl.com/kw8xpxl

Embers (a novel in poems), http://tinyurl.com/nry7wvh

Insurgent Muse: life and art at the Woman’s Building, http://tinyurl.com/k2h47bd

The Labrys Reunion (novel), http://tinyurl.com/mbf6zt5

Stealing Angel (novel), http://tinyurl.com/mavd65j

Thank you for your participation, your friendship and support. I have approached people using a few lists, so I do apologize if you’ve received a version of this request twice.

With love and appreciation,
Terry

And just for fun, here’s a picture of Annie at the computer:

Annieoncomputer

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It’s a Book!

WWfrontcover3photo copy

Published first as a blog, WOUNDED WORLD is now in print including 53 original photographs by Yvonne M. Estrada. You can order it here

As it turns out, it’s not inexpensive to publish 53 color photographs.  If the photo edition is beyond your means, there is also a more economical version without the photos.  You can order that here.

Someday there will be an electronic version but I’m still figuring that out.  Writers need to know so much more about technology than we used to!

This was a publishing experiment and you participated every step of the way. I hope you’ll continue to support the project by ordering your own copy and more for your friends. It’s also incredibly helpful if you:
• Go to the Wounded World entry on amazon.com and “Like” it.
• Post a review on amazon.com. (It doesn’t have to be long, you don’t have to be a professional reviewer, and it counts for more than you can imagine.)
• Mention the book on Facebook or Twitter or your blog.
• Post a review on Goodreads.com.  (Same as above).
• Invite me to write a post or interview me on your blog.
• Invite me to your book group or host a party for your friends; I’ll come read from and talk about the book; I’ll even lead a meditation, if you’d like.

What readers are saying about Wounded World

Poetic and evocative, Terry Wolverton’s work takes you on a memorable journey to dreams and the most poignant realities. — Adam Leipzig, producer and author

I love the sensitivity and grace of your writing. Thank you for making me FEEL the web of life and its tenuous threads. — Betty Ann Brown, author, Afternoons with June:
Stories about June Wayne’s Art and Life

…it’s stimulating, challenging, heartrending, and I always find myself thinking about aspects of it throughout the day. — Elise D’Haene, author, Licking Our Wounds

… I am reminded that I am part of the energy field, even in my separation, and always will be. — Pablo Alvarez, author, Gil Cuadros’ AZT-Land: A Queer Chicano
Literary Heritage

You are doing exactly what I have hoped for in the bloguniverse: releasing thoughful, lovely pieces of writing that have not appeared anyplace else—especially not in the mainstream media. This is the true revolution of the thinking people and I applaud it with all my heart and soul! — Karen Marie Krista Minns, author, Bloodsong

 

 

A new blog

For those of you who followed WOUNDED WORLD, I want to let you know that I am starting a new interactive blog beginning January 1, 2013.

This blog, dis•articulations, is a poetry blog, and it will be even more interactive than WOUNDED WORLD, with several ways to participate.  Unlike WOUNDED WORLD, in which I published essays that had already been written, I will be creating new work for dis•articulations in response to prompts that readers send me.

I haven’t stopped writing essays, and I haven’t stopped looking for ways to heal the wounds of our world, but as an artist I seem to always need to be doing something new, so I hope you will check out and participate in the new blog.

Thanks for your support and dialogue.

Happy new year!

Terry Wolverton

Reflections on a Publishing Experiment

When I first envisioned Wounded World, I expected it to be a book that publishers would be very interested in.  Many people buy books about spirituality, right?

What I didn’t factor into that optimism was that “essays,” let alone “lyric essays,” are a hard sell these days, and that even in 2012 the fact that I make reference to my lesbian relationships in some of the essays would cause publishers to feel that this book didn’t speak to the mainstream.

After a few years of sending the bookout to agents, editors and contests, I decided to take matters into my own hands.  After all, since 2007, I’d been meeting with other writers, publishers and booksellers to grapple with the future of publishing.  One of those futures is independent publishing.  So my plan was to publish the essays first as a blog, two essays per week, serially—like Dickens—and work to grow my readership through the use of social media.

I also liked the idea of inviting comments on the blog, though I had no idea how satisfying this aspect of the process would become. When a book is published or a piece appears in a literary journal, the writer often has no idea what, if any, response readers are having to the work.  Sometimes, years later, I’ll run into someone who say, “Your book was really important to me,” but that’s random and infrequent. The individuals who took the time to comment on the blog, whether sharing their own experience, wisdom, feedback, creative writing or appreciation, gave me a wonderful gift with their response.

My next step is to independently publish the work as a print book and eventually as an e-book.  To this end, I’m asking for your participation in the next phase of this publishing experiment—would you be so kind as to complete a short survey for me?  Click this link to take you there: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/WOUNDEDWORLD

Thanks to all of you who have been part of this journey.  And stay tuned for future experiments!

Love, Terry

Epilogue: Agree to Agree

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If you agree to agree,
your mind becomes sure.
— from Japji 

The rooster shows up unbidden.  One day in October I pull up into my driveway and there he is, sitting on the cinder block wall between our house and the neighbors.  Adrian, the neighbors’ thirteen-year-old son, calls out to me, “Do you see the rooster?”  I do indeed. He’s perched quietly next to the bougainvillea, his black eyes watching everything.

I grew up in the city.  I don’t know much about roosters beyond Foghorn Leghorn.  But even from my untutored perspective the visiting rooster appears extraordinary, with a mane of tousled blonde hair like a rock star cascading down his neck, wings with patches of brick red and cream, and dark tail feathers reflecting a blue and green patina.

“My dad says he’s a fighting rooster,” Adrian contributes.  “We think maybe he got away from someone.”

Cock fighting is illegal in the city of Los Angeles, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.  Considered a “blood sport,” the gamecocks are especially bred for aggression and stamina.  This rooster is missing its comb and wattles; it is tradition to cut them off, to remove anatomically vulnerable body parts. I feel sad for the rooster, wishing for it a different fate, but perhaps he has escaped and created his own destiny.

Suddenly he flies from the wall, a not very graceful descent accompanied by a flapping of wings, and lands in our backyard.  And there he stays, much to the disappointment of Adrian and his family.  The rooster sleeps in our sapote tree at night and wanders our yard during the day, eating bugs, patrolling, and letting loose a distinctive four-note crow whenever he pleases.

I look up the totemic meaning of roosters: “New beginnings.”  Yvonne has just officially moved in with me, a year since we started seeing each other.  “Protection and confidence.” What a lovely gift the universe has delivered to our home.

Yvonne names the rooster Aztlán, after the legendary home of the Nahua peoples, and after the Los Lobos album, Good Morning, Aztlán. When I tell my friend Linda about the new member of our household, she asks whether I think he is the reincarnated spirit of another being.  As I contemplate this, I become convinced that Aztlán is the reincarnation of Lacy, my cat who’d disappeared a few years before.

***

Lacy was a champagne-colored Siamese whom I’d found at a rescue adoption booth at the Hollywood Farmer’s market.  It’s probably more accurate to say she rescued me. She was an extraordinarily comforting presence at a very challenging time in my life.  She would sit on my printer while I was working at the computer, and she would sit by my side each morning when I meditated and played the gong. She seemed to intuit when I was sad or fearful, and took extra pains to be near me.  We had such a deep bond, I came to consider her an angel, a spirit sent to bring me solace.

One day Lacy went out for her daily explorations and didn’t return.  When she didn’t return the next day I contacted Hilary, an animal communicator.  I’d worked with her once before when Lacy had not come home overnight. That time, Hilary had told me Lacy was treed by a dog and was afraid to come down.  She advised me to call the cat in my imagination, and to visualize putting her favorite treats into a bowl outside the house.  Lacy came home the following day.

This time, Hilary told me that Lacy had been chased and was far enough out of her territory that she didn’t know how to get home. She’d also lost her collar, and therefore her identification. Hilary described the yard the cat had found refuge in—seen through Lacy’s perspective—but though I walked and drove around and around my neighborhood, I never did see a place that matched the psychic’s description.  A few days later the psychic told me she saw Lacy inside somewhere; someone had taken her in and was not letting her out. Lacy wanted to come back to me, the psychic said, but she was unable to.  Devastated by the loss of my angel, I had to be grateful that she was safe and being cared for.  A few years later I had the intuition that Lacy had died and that she would try to return to me in her next life.

“Are you Lacy?” I would ask Aztlán, as he sat on the wicker chair outside my front door, and he seemed to agree.  Both Yvonne and I felt enormously blessed by his presence.

***

Harijiwan Khalsa, my yoga teacher, poses a simple and utterly revolutionary proposition: what if everything that happens is created by the universe for our benefit?  What if the universe is a benign place that only wants each of us to grow and excel?  And what if our job is to meet each circumstance with the question, “How can this benefit me?”

How does my view shift if I embrace this idea?  How does my life change with this re-orientation?

It’s easiest to practice this in retrospect.  Events that I thought were terrible at the time I faced them turned out to be exactly what I needed to push me in a new direction.  My suicide attempt at age 21 propelled me to move to California and to the Woman’s Building, providing me with both community and a context in which to grow into the artist I longed to become.

The collapse of four romantic relationships, one right after the other, in my early thirties became the impetus to seek out Jael Greenleaf’s Adult Children of Alcoholics workshop, in which I learned that though my family history had shaped me it did not have to be a life sentence.

The dissolution of a long-term romantic partnership in my early forties was what brought me to the practice and eventual teaching of Kundalini Yoga, which restored a spiritual basis to my life that has dissolved much of the despair that colored my early decades.

My favorite example of perceived adversity yielding enormous benefits involved the publication of my memoir about the Woman’s Building, Insurgent Muse.  I had already published three books, but this was the first I’d ever sold on the basis of a proposal; the work was not yet completed.  My editor at City Lights, Elaine Katzenberger, proposed a schedule for completion of the manuscript and publication.  I confess I struggled to meet these deadlines; I found the challenges of memoir writing—being truthful, insightful, fair, thorough, and artful—were not easy to balance alongside the goal of generating a certain number of pages per day.  In the end, I did deliver the manuscript, more or less on time, and expected to have a bound book delivered into my hands, like a baby, nine months later.

Once I’d sent it off, I eagerly awaited my editor’s response.  But it didn’t come. I waited longer, a little impatiently.  Then waited some more.  After a couple of months, I was mad every day I didn’t hear from her.  Indignant, outraged, stricken—for a practicing yogi, it wasn’t pretty. My book was not going to come out when I’d planned.  Finally it occurred to me that I needed to just surrender to the way it was, even if it wasn’t the way I thought it was supposed to be.  A practicing yogi, I allowed myself to entertain the idea—one that had proven to be true in the past—that the timing is always perfect.  If I wasn’t entirely chilled out, I was finally mollified.

Then came September 11, 2001.  Everything else drained from the cultural landscape for months after.  September 2001 had been the original publication date projected for my book.  How grateful I was not to be trying to promote a book during that cataclysmic time.

Another benefit of the ten months that elapsed between my turning in the manuscript and eventually receiving my editor’s notes was that with time I gained distance and perspective on the project.  When Elaine suggested that there might be a difference between what I had a personal need to express and what the reader needed to hear, I didn’t freak out. When she suggested some substantial changes, I was able to see that these recommendations would strengthen the book.  In the end I had no resistance to letting go of some sections, reorganizing others, reframing still more.  I was able to follow her direction and allow it to become a stronger book. The timing had indeed been perfect.

***

Aztlán the rooster behaves more like a cat than a chicken.  He comes when he hears my voice.  He waits at the front door if I am in the living room, at the back door if I’m in the kitchen.  He gets edgy when I try to touch him, but he likes to stay close by.  He will pluck a grape from my fingers.  He likes to sit on a chair on the front porch if Yvonne or I are home and in the living room.  He follows Yvonne around when she gardens.

He wants to come in the house and one day, when Yvonne and I are both home, we let him.  He comes through the back door, into the kitchen.  He pecks a little at Annie’s food bowl (Annie, our cat), stares up at the countertop as if he might fly up and roost there, wanders briefly into the bedroom (“As if he remembers it from when he was Lacy!” I exclaim to Yvonne), comes into the living room, poops on the carpet, then walks out the front door.

On another day he comes in and repeats the same basic circuit.  But this time when he goes into the bedroom, he sees himself in the full-length mirror.  Instinct and training as a fighting cock kick in and suddenly he is flinging his body at the mirror with enormous force, talons forward, trying to attack the other bird he sees.  I’m afraid he’s going to shatter the mirror and kill himself.  I grab a blanket from the bed and cover the glass as Yvonne shoos him out of the house.  I realize that this bird, for all his sweetness, for all that he may be a reincarnation of my beloved Lacy, is still a wild animal. Yvonne and I agree we cannot be letting him in the house any more.

But he does come in one more time.  I’m meeting with my attorney about revising my Will, and she’s been sweet enough to come over to my house.  As we’re wrapping up, I go outside to pick some beets from the garden so she can take them home.  I unthinkingly leave the back door open, and Aztlán seizes his opportunity.  Before I can stop him he’s in the house and headed for the bedroom.  This time, though, he ignores the mirror.  Instead he hops on the bed (“Just like he remembered when he used to sleep with me when he was Lacy,” I’ll tell Yvonne later) and then hops onto the headboard, where he roosts.  I am torn between the adorableness of it and my concern that he will catch a glimpse of the other rooster in the mirror. I talk to him about when he was Lacy, how she liked to sleep on top of the covers in the “V” between my legs.  I open the window beside the bed and after a while, Aztlán scoots to the other end of the headboard and calmly flies out the window.

***

Another yogic principle is that, not only is everything that happens for our benefit, but we’ve also chosen it before we came into this incarnation.  Think of the space between lifetimes as one of assessment: I did an okay job with money, say, I grew in my understanding of power, but I never really got a grip on my cravings.  So in my next life I’m going to choose to encounter a lot of situations that will put me to the test, to see if I can do a better job next time of releasing, letting go, not clinging and craving.

If you buy into this principle, then there really isn’t anything to complain about.  It’s like signing up for algebra in school and then feeling persecuted by having to learn about polynomials. If I’ve signed up for algebra, it’s because I think it will benefit me to learn it, so why not remember that benefit and study it with all my heart?  And if I’ve signed up this lifetime to learn about clinging and craving, why feel victimized when those opportunities for letting go present themselves.

***

Rose presented me with such an opportunity, and oh, did I hate it.  At the beginning of the relationship I was so excited.  She is a romantic and it was thrilling to weave the dream with her of how it would be between us. But it was not a dream we could sustain.

At first, after it ended at her insistence, I believed she was the one who could not sustain it.  She did not lay any blame on me, so it was easy to let her carry it.  It was only over time, sitting with myself, sitting with the pain of losing the dream, that I began to understand my own incapacities: misunderstandings of what it meant to love, the expectation that it was her job to meet my needs, the unkindness of not accepting her for who she is.

I could not agree to the idea of not being her partner.  I kept hoping something could be undone, something would shift, that somehow the opportunity might arise again.  I remained friends with her and accepted that the price for doing so was often increased emotional pain in the aftermath of interacting with her.  I took responsibility for that choice and learned to sit with the pain, to contain it, to breathe through it.  I feared that I might now be alone for the rest of my life, loving her and not being able to be with her, and I worked to accept that possibility.

Most of my friends thought I was crazy, but a few of them understood that something deeper was happening, that I was working on something in myself, studying what it means to love and how letting go can be part of that love. In a Kundalini Yoga training about “authentic relationships,” I learn a few key things: It’s not someone else’s job to meet my needs; only my relationship to Spirit can do this.  If I have a problem with someone else’s behavior, it’s up to me—not her—to shift. To truly love someone is to want what is good for her, not what is good for me. Seen in the light of these values, I was not a good partner to Rose at all.  So I set about to try to be a good friend to her, to love her without expectation.

One day, I went to see Sara Eaglewoman, a shaman and healer.  I thought I was there to work on something about my creative life, but the moment she experienced my energy field, she said, “You’re wrestling with an obsession.” Yes, I supposed I was.  In the course of that session, I felt my molecules rearranged as the obsession was released. “Time is continuous,” Sara assured me.  “All the love that existed still exists.  It just needs to find a different form.”

I didn’t know what that form might look like, but I understood at a molecular level that the dream I had been clinging to would not come to pass in the way I had imagined it.  After four years of meditating on the loss of Rose, something released inside me.  A different form, then, I would agree that.

***

It was only a month or so after this that Yvonne began emailing me jokes everyday; I’d claimed I was “joke deprived” because I don’t work in an office where funny stories are exchanged as part of the daily currency.  Sometimes Yvonne’s jokes were written, sometimes they were visual, sometimes she’d record them and send them as audio files.  Yvonne, whom I’d known for fourteen years. Yvonne, with whom I’d experienced a sense of deep understanding and identification, about whom I’d always thought, “She is a member of my tribe.”

Yvonne, to whom I suddenly felt open.  And to whom I could bring a new understanding of love. Those previous four years, to which I’d agreed, made me into someone whom, I hope, is capable of loving Yvonne in the way she deserves to be loved, the way we all deserve to be loved. And into someone who is capable of receiving all the love she holds in her heart for me.

Another healer will tell me that Yvonne’s presence in my life is “evidence of the universe’s compassion and mercy.”  She has brought me another chance, a different chance to learn and grow.  And I agree.

***

At the end of May we get a letter from the City of Los Angeles.  Someone has made a complaint about our rooster and we are in violation of two municipal codes. One would require us to keep Aztlán confined at all times. The other is impossible to meet; his pen is required to be 100 feet from any other dwelling. We live in a residential neighborhood on a regular-sized lot; there’s no way to get 100 feet from anything. If we cannot comply, the letter informs us, the City will impound him.

Despite our yoga and meditation practice, Yvonne and I go into full freak-out mode.  She wants to go after the individual whom we suspect of making the complaint.  I want to hire my attorney to help us negotiate with the City.  Yvonne begins designing a pen tall enough to still allow him to roost in his tree.  We think maybe if we comply with the confinement provision, they won’t force us to comply with the other.  But how can we confine him? I think about going to talk to the complainant, see if there isn’t some way to work things out.  We both pray for a miracle.

It’s a funny thing about miracles; they don’t always come in the form you expect.  Two nights later, we’re awakened from a dead sleep at about 2:00 a.m.  We hear Aztlán, not crowing but kind of cackling.  Peering out the window, Yvonne sees a raccoon waddling down the driveway toward the street.  Why don’t we get up and go outside?  It’s inexplicable.  I can barely keep my eyes open. A while later the raccoon comes back and climbs the pine tree outside our window.  Yvonne yells at him to leave but, again, we don’t get up.

In the morning, we do not hear his customary 4:00 a.m. crow.  When I go outside to feed him, he is not in his tree.  When I walk around the house, I see his feathers scattered on the front porch.  I walk all around the property, terrified that I’m going to find his carcass.  I find nothing.

Later that day, as the sun is going down, I hear his distinctive, four-note crow.  He’s nearby, but because we are surrounded by hills, I can’t tell exactly from where he’s calling.  For a few days I walk the neighborhood, scattering cracked corn and seed, searching the trees, calling to him.  I continue to hear him, but I cannot find him.

Yvonne and I are devastated.  We miss his daily presence, all our little routines with him.  I’m concerned about the departure of what seemed like such an optimistic omen.  Yvonne is incensed with the raccoon that drove our friend away.  I feel it’s so unfair.

It takes a cooler head to suggest a different perspective.  My friend Linda reminds me that I know two things: Aztlán is still alive and he is still free.  What if the raccoon, rather than being a marauder, was instead the agent of miracle?  What if the real threat was the City Department of Animal Services and any steps Yvonne and I might have taken to comply with its codes? Perhaps Aztlán’s departure from our yard was, if not of benefit to Yvonne and I, certainly of great benefit to him.  And caring about what’s best for him, not clinging and craving, is of course what it means to love him.

***

This life is filled with challenges.  They might be monetary or health-related.  They might be career setbacks or family rifts.  They might involve conflicts with lovers or friends.  They might feel like irredeemable losses.  The intensity of suffering is not always proportional to the actual challenge or its actual consequences.  A challenge asks us to meet it with our strength, and if it shows up in an area where we still need to cultivate strength, it may feel devastating.

Yet I have learned there is opportunity in each challenge—an opportunity to grow, change, confront an unsustainable pattern or belief system within me, find another path, get strong in ways I haven’t been before.  In this way, everything that happens is for my benefit, if I can only agree to agree. On the nearby hillside, we still hear the rooster crow, at dawn and at dusk.

Grace

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The winds of grace are always blowing,
but you have to raise the sail.
—Sri Ramakrisha

The hummingbird flutters about the fountain.  It angles its beak to drink.  Wings splash in the stream of water, all the while hovering.  The moment hangs suspended in the morning light.

Rose sees it first.  She points it out to me and we both grow still, taking in the little miracle of this day.  A moment of grace.

The monarch darts about the garden.  Its wings spread and fold, revealing and concealing delicate patterns of orange and black.  It knows which blossoms to visit, sails up into the sky when sated.  Rose’s eyes follow its progress until it disappears above the trees.  There is a small ache as it floats out of sight.

While we are staying by the ocean, Rose bursts in one morning to tell me she’s spotted dolphins swimming near the shore.  She hauls me out of my meditation posture and throws open the sliding door to the balcony.  I squint without my glasses; she finds them for me and sticks them on my nose.  Indeed, there are three dolphins cavorting just yards out from the beach, diving and cresting under the morning fog.

***

Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter
where there is a void to receive it, and it is
grace itself which makes this void.
Simone Weil

When she was just a child and her family splintered, Rose made the decision that she would not turn against the world.  Instead, she taught herself to find solace in the beauty of nature.

She awakens before dawn and goes outside to lie on the chaise on her front porch. Spoon, the cat, leaps to join her.  As the sun rose in the sky, she tells me later, “I could see everything—every dust mote in the air, every vibrating leaf on the tree in my front yard, every shining tuft of Spoon’s fur.”  She was, she says, entirely alive to the day.

When Rose and I walk around the reservoir, it’s easy for me to get stuck in my head.  Left to my own devices, I might spend the whole hour fretting about some problem or ruminating on my to-do list and stay blind to the world through which I am moving.  Rose will stop, take me by the shoulders or the hand, and turn me around to face the mountains purpled by sunset.  Or to watch the seagulls, far from home, whirling overhead in perfect formation.  Or to notice the caterpillar slowly climbing the wall.

In spring, herons nest in the eucalyptus trees that ring the Silver Lake Reservoir.  We can watch them from their first appearance usually in March or April, pairs returning from wintering to refurbish their nests from the previous year.  Then we observe the patient process of sitting on the eggs.  Then the babies, who grow day by day until one day the parents don’t return, and only the babies are left, crowding the nest.  We watch them perch on the edge, ruffling their wings, contemplating flight, but not quite ready yet.  Until one day, usually in July, the nests are empty again until another year and it feels like something precious has been lost.

***

Experiencing the present purely is being
empty and hollow; you catch grace
as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.
— Annie Dillard

On my birthday, Rose brings me to walk the labyrinth.  The elaborate stone circle is located in a meditation garden, surrounded by flowers and trees.  She bids me to step inside, and I begin my slow, attentive walk, alive to the clear air and the sun just beginning to shine through the fog.  I deepen my breath and chant a silent mantra.  I follow the path, circle and turn, appearing to make progress only to double-back on myself—“Just like life,” Rose says.  But unlike life, I’m not in a hurry—to get to the center, to find my way out again.  I want to stop time, to remain here in this circle, in this garden, in this state of presence, on this morning.  Already I can see that I will too soon be done with this ritual, with this day, with this phase of life, then with life itself.  In this moment I am reminded that to behold great beauty always involves loss.

So much of my life I’ve spent looking for what’s wrong.  On the news, in the street, in the wreck of my own mind.  I could walk through a wonderland and see none of it—neither trees nor sky.  I believed happiness was some elusive and magical state that would be conferred once everything was finally “going right.”  But I’ve learned that happiness is no more than the gift of attending to the beauty of this ephemeral world.

And, ephemeral, one day Rose is not there.  And now I must remind myself to inhale the scent of star jasmine, or notice the shadows of trembling leaves, or follow the song of birds at three a.m.  Remind myself to choose not to turn against the world but to find solace in life itself.  In beauty and in loss.  And this is grace.

Baptism

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“There’s something I really need to talk to you about,” my mother announces to me.  We’re in bathing suits, reclined on a sandy beach on the shore of Lake Michigan, mid-Sunday afternoon.  I’ve come from California for a little visit, taking her away from her husband and her town home in a suburb of Detroit.  She prefers to spend time with me alone.  We don’t have a huge repertoire of things we do together: we shop, go to lunch or dinner, watch movies, play cards, and sit in the sun.

I’m not unaccustomed to this kind of declaration from her.  The subject is usually her unhappy marriage, but sometimes it involves her finances or even my finances, about which she frets.  Child of the Depression, my mother has made many sacrifices in order to feel a measure of security and she worries because I, a Baby Boomer, have chosen to do what I wanted to do in this life, despite the risks.

“I feel so bad about this,” she continues.  “I really feel I’ve been a bad mother.”  Now I feel the fine hairs on my forearms begin to prickle, despite the sun overhead.  I hate when she dredges up the past and wants me to comfort her about my childhood.

“I want you to do something for me,” she gives me a penetrating look.  “I want you to be baptized.”

It’s all I can do not to laugh, so unexpected is this request.  Of all the things I’d imagine my mother might regret about parenting—the story of my childhood includes alcoholism, violence, and incest—her failure to have me baptized as an infant wouldn’t even make the list.

I can see she’s serious however.  Her tone is fierce and her eyes beseeching.

As gently as possible, I say, “I can’t.”

“You have to,” she counters.  “I can’t sleep at night worrying about this.”

“I’m sorry; I can’t,” I repeat.  “I can’t get baptized into Christianity; I don’t believe in it.”

I was about nine when I stopped believing in Christianity.  I just couldn’t reconcile the teachings I was getting in Sunday School with the reality I went home to afterward.  Not that I don’t respect Jesus as a powerful saint and spiritual master, but I don’t buy the whole superstructure of the church that was built up around his memory, and I don’t buy the distortions of his teachings.

Ordinarily, my statement might trigger a seismic event.  Though she hasn’t always been the most devout practitioner, my mother comes from a generation and a part of the country where the primacy of Jesus is just not open to question.  But at this moment she’s so determined to achieve her goal she can’t be bothered to debate my belief structure.

“Can’t you just do it for me?” she wheedles.  “Couldn’t you just pretend?”

Now I’m a little scandalized.  “You don’t mean that.”  The sun, which seemed so pleasant just moments ago, begins to seer my skin.

“I kind of mean it,” she insists.

***

Baptism is a religious act involving purification by water.  It can be performed by immersing or dipping the adherent into water, or by sprinkling water on the person’s head.  Taken as a ritual, it could be a beautiful act; water, the element of the unconscious, of the emotions, is used to cleanse and purify, to reaffirm a state of innocence.

Within Christianity, the act identifies one as having accepted Jesus Christ as Savior.  But what we need to be saved from, Christians believe, is original sin, the very state of being born of woman, being human instead of divine.  This state condemns us unless corrective action is taken.

Catholics and many Protestant sects encourage parents to baptize an infant shortly after birth.  This acts as insurance: in case the infant dies at a young age, that new soul will not be condemned. Baptists, however, are among other sects who believe that only those who can understand and profess their faith should be baptized, thus ruling out the practice for infants.

Different Christian traditions disagree about whether baptism is a requirement for salvation.  Methodists, Quakers, and the United Church of Christ are among those who do not believe baptism is the only way to escape damnation.  My mother, however, is a Presbyterian, a sect that holds baptism as one of its two sacraments.

***

My mother is nothing if not persistent.  A few months later, on the telephone, she returns to the topic.  “Have you thought any more about getting baptized?” she asks.

“There’s nothing to think about,” I tell her.  “I can’t claim Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”

“Please!” she sounds more desperate.

“Mom, if you’d had me baptized when I was a baby, it would have been out of my hands.  I wouldn’t be responsible for it.  But now I’d have to make a vow to something I don’t believe. And surely doing it hypocritically is worse than not doing it at all.”  What I find noteworthy is that I at least have enough respect for the practice to not want to make a mockery of it.

“I worry about your immortal soul,” she wails.

With absolute clarity, I respond, “You don’t need to.  My soul is just fine.”  It’s more than a pat reassurance; I feel the truth of this in every cell.

But she responds, “Well, then, I worry about mine.”

I can feel her anguish.  After a lifetime of problematic choices, my mother has found a refuge in her church.   But at a time long past, she failed to follow one of its primary rules.  And the church teaches that for this, she will face eternal damnation.

What can I do to save her from herself, to save her from her beliefs, from the consequence of her actions or inactions?

***

In rejecting Christianity, I turned my back on the notion that we are born bad, that only by adhering to prescribed rules and rituals can we hope to redeem ourselves from ceaseless torment after death.

What if instead we are born to be happy and our happiness increases through acts of kindness and service to others?  What if the key to liberation is in our own consciousness?

In recent years I have been chanting and meditating daily; I have been cultivating a direct relationship with my “soul,” by which I mean the infinite part of me, the part that is limitless.  I’ve been exploring the philosophies of the East, many of which acknowledge Jesus as one of several enlightened sages and yogis who practiced and taught during that period of time.

This investigation has led me to embrace a belief about soul that is not individualized.  Many Eastern religions posit a universal soul of which everything that exists is part.

In my cosmology, we are infinite beings composed of energy that has been collected into form.  The form is impermanent, the energy eternal.  The “soul” is the consciousness of the energy, and while our forms may be individual our souls are inextricably part of that same vast energetic field.  How then, can one be worried about one’s soul?

Forms shine more brightly as consciousness deepens.  It seems we are here to cultivate consciousness in order to increase the total radiance of the entire field.  We do this when we remember that we are energy; we do this when we remember that we all come from the same limitless field.  We do this when we show kindness to ourselves and to others; we do this when we release our attachment to impermanent forms.

And at those times we allow our light to dim, our consciousness to wane, when we act without thinking, when we treat ourselves or others with less than kindness, this does not condemn us to separation from that infinite source.  We may momentarily forget, again and again, yes, but in any moment we may remember and brighten anew.

***

Would it be kinder to go ahead and do what my mother has asked?  I would like to give her a reprieve from her anxiety.  I would like to relieve the fear she holds of being punished because she didn’t follow the rules.  But is the best way to do that by dipping my head into a font on a Sunday morning, by intoning words that I don’t believe?

If I could, I would immerse her in another view.  Offer a window through which she might see herself not as judged and condemned but as already blessed. Cleansed because she did the best she could, which is all any of us can do.  Unredeemed because she was never cast out.  Already and always an integral part of this dazzling luminous field.

A History of Love

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The first love is always the deepest.  The one you never get over.  She’s the one your soul chose, back before you forgot the choosing.  Nine months you spun in her tumultuous world.  Heartbeats aligned.  Your nervous systems one.  You felt what she felt.  You learned without knowing you were learning.  There is no greater intimacy.

What do the eyes of love see?  Atop the promontory, you gaze out over the lake.  A lake so vast you cannot see to the other side.  A few yards offshore is a small inflatable boat, yellow against the gray water.  In its shelter, a tall woman sits facing her caramel skin daughter.  The child’s smile shows her white teeth.  Behind them, the sun is a glowing orange ball, sinking forever into the lake.

The second is like the love of puppies, skidding paws, frenzied tails, clumsy and tumbling trust.  All discovery.  No discrimination.  Damp fur and racing heartbeats.  And, as with all young things, the attention wanders, leaving you with one ear cocked in confusion as she skitters away to explore the next new thing.

What is the sound of love?  Is it the pounding heart echoing through the ear’s chamber?  Is it the sound of her voice mouthing the nickname she gave you, “Cherry Pie,” in low, sultry tones?  Is it the music on the radio that plays again and again—a forgettable song that becomes part of you—so that years later, you will hear this song and once more your pulse will clamor? 

The third is domestic and it is supposed to last forever.  It weaves a myth that returns you both to innocence, transfigures you as soft furry creatures in the pine forest of your imaginations.  You gather food for the coming winter and burrow in.  Come spring, though, sap runs in the trees and a breeze lures you from the stately conifers, sends you scrabbling over pavement of city streets.  Try as you might, you can’t find your way home.

Presumably touch is a vital part of love, yet that’s the memory that fades fastest.  The way her hand on any part of your body felt like safe harbor.  The way you felt possessed, and liked it.  Fathered and well-tended to.  You can remember feeling it, yet cannot re-summon that feeling, the nerve storm created by her touch.

With the fourth love you make a home among fruit trees.  You plant seeds in soil and believe they will grow.  The two of you feast on the harvest and give thanks.  You have many good seasons.  Then one day the spade strikes rock; land will not yield.  Seeds remain dormant in their silent crypt or bring forth seedlings twisted with blight.  No balm, no nutrients will soothe the heart of earth once it has turned.

What is the scent of love?  Recall the man’s cologne she wore too much of, the overwhelming breath of it in the taxi, a night too cold to roll the windows down.  Recall the musk oil she started to spread all over her body, changing her scent, marking her territory in rooms you were supposed to share.

The fifth one brought you through the desert.  Sun stripped you to bone, taking you down to the core.  Did you give too much away, or did you hold too much back?  You’ll never know the answer.  Those were the days of learning to speak a language not your own.  No matter how long you talked into the night, the syllables would never yield to meaning.

Imagine your surprise to discover that love tastes like a humid afternoon, sticky and sweet as a room in which tears have been falling steadily.  The thickness, the dimming quality of light, a sense of thwarted potential.

What of the uncounted?  The near-loves, or almost-loves; the could-have-been loves and the ones that masqueraded as love.  You’ve saved all the remnants: letters, drawings, dried rose petals, the plastic giraffe and the rubber mermaid, but what does this evidence demonstrate?  What is it exactly that you wish to preserve?

In years spent alone, your third eye opens.  It glows between your eyebrows as you chant to yourself in early morning before the sun is up.  Begin to make a deeper connection than any you have known before.

Halfway through your life something shifts—a definition or a need.  Hunger fades to ash or the memory of ash.  The heat of your blood cools.  The upper region of your spinal column awakens.  All the stories, somehow no longer useful, you release to wind.  Renounce suffering.  Love no longer something to crave but to give.  A boundless fountain of cool water from which anyone might drink.

The final love is the love of this trembling world.  In all its terrible beauty and fragility.  Even as its color begins to fade from your eyes.  Even as its vaulted sky dims to infinite white.

Nothing and Everything

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There was neither non-existence nor existence then;
there was neither the realm of space nor the sky which
is beyond.  What stirred?  Where?
— The Rig Veda

One thousand yogis dressed in white sit on a mountaintop under the vast New Mexico sky.  We are here to celebrate the Summer Solstice, to revel in this apogee of light.  Heads draped, we chant the sacred syllables in unison, “Sat Nam, Wahe Guru”: Truth is my name; I am in ecstasy.  Our reverberations fill the morning.  The longer we chant, hour upon hour, the emptier we become, shedding layers of history until we are no longer separate from one another.

We become pure instrument, one clear channel for the mantra that pours from our collective throat.  Yet this wall of sound is so easily pierced by the song of a lone pine siskin perched in the rafters, who raises its voice in counterpoint.  Hearing this, we smile, and are emptier still.

At the point of zero, shuniya,
we contain the potential 
for everything.

On this particular morning I am sitting with the teenagers, who are gracious enough about my interloping.  They too are clad in white and turbaned, but their reverence is tempered by restlessness, by curiosity, by hormones.  The boys struggle with their attention spans.  With keeping their man-sized limbs contained, still, in a seated posture.  One girl periodically thwacks an orange pillow at the boy sitting across from her.  On breaks, they scarf corn chips and Luna bars.  They curl into each other’s laps, unselfconscious as kittens.  Two white boys attempt to devise a rap about their spiritual practice.

The power of zero, the cosmic egg.
Empty, one prepares to fill.

This meditation is done in pairs, and like many, I have come here alone and must find someone with whom to share the day.  My partner, whom I only met this morning, is a lineman from Northern California.  He climbs telephone polls and cell towers in the shadow of the redwoods.  His face is creased with days in the sun; his eyes are clear.  Had we not been brought together under this tent to share this practice, we would never have met.  We sit knee to knee in this sea of meditators, our eyes locked during the sixty-two minutes of chanting.  His are blue.  Our gaze holds steady; we occasionally smile encouragement and help one another to hold focus.  At the end of this session, his face lights up in a smile; he says, “Hooray!  I found a good partner” and I too am grateful for his steadiness and concentration.  That is all we need; we don’t expect to see one another again after this day.

“It was not absolute nothingness.  It was a kind of
formlessness without any definition…”
— St. Augustine, Confessions

At lunchtime I leave the sheltering tent, seek the unforgiving New Mexico summer sun.  Although we have been warned of its intensity, I open myself to its rays, invite them to burn clear through to some buried core of me.  We are all here to slough unnecessary layers—identities, samsaras—to reach the infinite within.

Zero holds the power to shatter the framework of logic.

In the afternoon, we are led out onto the mountaintop.  In lines of ten, we join hands and close our eyes and chant aloud the ancient syllables.  Voluntarily blind, we walk dusty paths, guided by only our grip on the stranger’s hand we clasp and the sound current rising from our parched throats.  Blind, we are each completely alone and yet utterly inseparable from this organism, these one thousand white-clad yogis, chanting and making our way over unfamiliar terrain.  Blind, we feel ourselves to be nothing and at the same time limitless.  Blind, we do not see the clouds roll in, and are surprised to feel the cool baptism of raindrops on our skin.  How can emptiness contain so much sensation?

Zero is powerful because it is infinity’s twin.

Today is the day before the last day of this gathering, when each of us will climb into cars or board airplanes to return to our other, separate worlds.  We will remember some of what we knew here—the siskin’s song, the sun, the splash of rain on unsuspecting skin; we will forget most of it.  We will quit our jobs or find new love affairs or embark on a new practice of meditation.  These things will mean nothing and everything in the scheme of our lives.  We will feel full, or we will feel empty, and much of the time we will forget that these states are indistinguishable.

God is found within the void and the infinite.

***

This essay was first published in Crab Orchard Review, Summer/Fall 2007, Volume 12, Issue 2. You can watch a video of the author reading the essay at http://guerrillareads.com/tag/terry-wolverton/

Archaeologist of the Future

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I am an archaeologist of the future.

My methods are unorthodox.  I do not dip my spade into sediment, don’t unearth what sands have buried, or calibrate the depth of the grave.  I grasp instead at what the wind has not yet revealed, zephyrs from the next world.  Stars are code I’m teaching myself to read.  My skin is pelted with sound currents from our children’s children’s children’s children’s time.

Though we would scarcely recognize our progeny, generations hence.  After the Era of Earth’s Emesis, when the planet spewed back all the poisons we had fed her, our descendants let go of the physical body.  Like evacuating a burning building.  The corpus proved to be no longer a practical vehicle and, besides, most of the pleasure-giving organs were long-deadened.

Now our clever heirs take form as columns of light.  Emit a gentle glow of color as they wander their smoking, ruined world.  Each produces a musical tone quite unlike any other.  Whenever a group gathers, a symphony occurs.

They share a high degree of consensus that what they miss most are flowers.  Although none of them has ever seen a flower.  Still, the notion of blossoms, of petal and pistil, stamen and perianth, is kept alive in story and in myth.  And in the almost daily festivals such as Feast of the Hyacinth and the Jasmine Frolic.

Sometimes, for amusement, our descendants will pool their energies to fashion some tool or utilitarian object.  If each concentrates deeply, their thought forms can produce this specific concrete item, just as they’ve imagined it.  They do this not because such objects are needed, but because there is nostalgia for materiality, for the things about which they or their parents once heard.  Evidence of a tangible world.

They can make themselves giddy with their efforts to conceptualize a teacup, having neither herbs to brew nor lips to drink with.  One conjures a spinning ball of light; another adds a straw of infinite length so god may drink from their vessel.  “No, no,” hums a third, disgusted, “there must be a saucer,” and envisions a kind of ladle with which to spoon sauce.  Whatever that might be.  The words have survived long past their referents.

When they have exhausted all possible embellishments they abandon their creations, having no use for them and no place for storage.  On rare occasions, I can snatch such an item from the ether, and I labor to catalogue and preserve it as best I can. Still, it is a thankless exercise; the future cannot remain palpable to those who live beyond its borders.

People question why I labor in this way. Always we have been taught to learn from the past. To dig up, sift through, to mine the wreckage from which we’ve come.

I say instead, learn from the future.  Set your sights on what’s ahead.  Project into your possibilities and learn from this.