Friday, February 10, 2012

The Doors of Perception

I posted on Facebook the other day that I was going to try to see the divine in everyone I met. It sounded like a great idea, but after half a day I realized I was going to have to leave the apartment to do it (ha, ha!). To avoid getting blasted by the divine light that was sure to result, I decided to take it slow. I went to Whole Foods and Joseph-Beth Bookstore last night, and it was fairly late, so there weren't many people around. One of the employees at Whole Feeds greeted me with a friendly smile -- it wasn't at all hard to see a light shining through her. I was off to a good start.

But looking back now, I realize that even with my goal in mind, I was avoiding looking at people around me. I am often hesitant to look too closely at other people, whether from shyness or fear of appearing rude or whatever it might be. Actually, I'm now wondering if the habit of not really looking at others is part of what makes us dehumanize them. It's easy to go from avoiding their eyes to seeing them as objects in your way to the checkout counter to cutting them off in traffic. And it's no difficulty at all to move from that to projecting all of your shadow onto them. Everything you refuse to own in yourself gets shifted onto other people, and the less they seem to be like you the easier it is to do.

Did someone tell everyone about what I'm doing? All I know is that I received a radiant smile from a young man, a stranger, in the parking lot a little while ago. When I got to Starbucks and decided to challenge myself by actually looking around to see who was here, I immediately caught someone's eye and received another smile. We all know how powerful a smile can be, especially on a dark winter day. I've received at least three bonus ones in the last 24 hours, and I really think it was my unspoken intention to be more open that communicated itself to other people. Change your mind and change your life.

I was at a conference at school in the fall, and a young artist was there with an exhibit she called "Mirror Box." It consisted of climbing inside a machine that, with the aid of light and mirrors, allowed you to see your face and another person's superimposed. It sounds so simple, but consider: you climb inside and find yourself face to face with someone completely unlike you and then, by the magic of art, see what emerges from putting the two of you together. I tried it with two strangers, the second of whom was a young man with very dark skin and hair, about as unlike me with my Irish paleness as could be (his family was from Iran). Yet when I looked at the combination of our faces, there was nothing strange about the result. We looked like an ordinary person, not even particularly exotic.

I think we have been sold a bill of goods that encourages us to either ignore the suffering of others or to blame them for everything that's wrong, whether it's the Democrats demonizing the Republicans, Christians doing the same to Muslims, whites and blacks at each other's throats, or the rich against the poor. (My guess is that many of the 1 percent are just as upset at the state of the world as the rest of us.)

For all the thought and energy that goes into policy discussions on how to solve problems like famine, poverty, environmental degradation, and lack of economic opportunity, I'm starting to think the answers might be more basic than they seem. Maybe we just need to, as they say in Jungian terms, take back our projections. I think that is an eye-opener far more mind-blowing than any psychedelic experience could ever be.

If you ask me God left the world unfinished on purpose. We're supposed to do the rest. We are the co-creators and need to figure out how to eliminate suffering, advance the condition of the human race, and live in harmony with nature. Seeing God in others is not limited to human beings but includes all other creatures and the world itself. It means supporting efforts to eradicate hunger; sending money to help save the wolves and the polar bears (I know we'll be sorry when they're gone); and supporting the efforts of other countries to attain higher standards of living and more human rights. It means paying attention and speaking up.

I'm not saying anything that hasn't been better said by others. I'm not saying anything that I haven't always believed, but what's different now is that I better understand how I'm implicated in what's wrong in the world, usually by the things I fail to do more than bad intentions. Studying mythology has made me aware of (1) how unified we really are and (2) how there is often something very different from what appears to be there, on the surface, trying to peek through. There are so many openings to the divine, both in and around us. "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thru' narrow chinks of his cavern." -- William Blake.

I also have to say quite honestly that some of my best education has occurred since I stopped working and stayed at home to finish my dissertation. I have time to read, think, and consider. I think the struggle to make a living blinds a lot of us to what is really going on because it takes so much time and energy and leaves little over for anything else. Do we need a revolution in the accepted way of doing things? Is our Protestant work ethic making us less human? Just saying.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Kentucky Is the New Black

The first time it happened to me, I was in the soup aisle at Kroger. I was going about my business when I caught a glimpse of someone I thought I recognized and, for a second, was ready to say hi to a classmate. A moment later, the reality hit me: "I'm in Lexington, so that can't be someone from Pacifica." That was the first of many instances where worlds collided as I attempted to balance a working life and residence in Kentucky with the long commute to graduate school in California. Since then I've had to re-orient myself many times, placing myself in the proper time zone and locale when someone who reminded me of someone else gave me a split second of uncertainty as to my actual place in space and time.

I had been eying California from afar for years, wondering if I could ever make a life there, so I was really bemused by the ways it was becoming a significant presence in my day-to-day life while I remained in place in Lexington -- though it is not exactly accurate to say that I remained in place, because things were already changing. I had a dream right after starting school in which I was sleeping out on a balcony, up on a cliff overlooking the sea. Moonlight and then sunlight shone down on me, and I felt alive and exhilarated; I knew I was in California. I felt perfectly at ease in the dream, a moment of pure bliss that was succeeded by concern as I realized that the sea was rising fast and I needed someone to help me move my bed inside. My interpretation of the dream was that I had taken a definite step in a direction that my psyche approved but that I had a great deal of anxiety (not shared by the other characters in my dream, whose attention I could not get). My concern was not so much with drowning as with ruining the mattress.

Somebody I know once described Lexington as a "safe" place (compared to the great unknown). The familiarity is both comforting and, at times, stifling. Years ago, a restlessness so intense would come over me, often on a Friday night, that I would literally drive around for hours, picking familiar and unfamiliar neighborhoods with warrens of streets to get lost in, turning the radio to a rock and roll station, and looking for something -- adventure, novelty, occurrences out of the ordinary -- that I was not likely to find, at least in the places I was looking. It was actually a sudden decision, ten years ago, to spend a weekend in L.A, a rather unexpected act that took even my breath away, that started to inch me, little by little, toward an ongoing relationship with a place that in some ways seemed like an unlikely draw.

On the other hand, I'm a writer, and a writer is always looking for new ideas and experiences. Although people kept telling me it was Northern California that I should really be looking at, that L.A. was too shallow and uncultured, I discovered a fascination with the city that I couldn't talk myself out of. I have generally been well treated in L.A.; except for their behavior on the freeway, people seem easy-going and friendly (someone put money in my parking meter one time in Venice, and that has never happened to me at home). I am not an aspiring actress or screenwriter, so I haven't experienced the rejection that probably grinds down many transplants. I am overwhelmed by the effort it takes to get from one place to another, even just to park the car. The size of the place is daunting. But I have been amazed at the richness of cultural offerings, from the Getty Center to Disney Hall, and the sunshine is wonderful.

Yes, I am put off by the great emphasis on surface appearance and image that seems so prevalent there. On the other hand, my training as a mythologist tells me that images are often richly compounded representations of much that lies behind them. Movies are carriers of the collective imagination, and the film industry, often derided for a lack of seriousness, is actually an indicator and curator of the things that are most important in our culture.

In some ways, I've had one foot, or at least a big toe, in California for quite a while -- but in other ways it still seems like a million miles away. Last time I was there, though, an unforeseen development gave me a taste of home that I hadn't expected. Because who would ever have expected that homey, folksy Kentucky would become Hollywood trendy . . . but that's what's happened! Everywhere I looked, from the sides of buses to the sides of buildings, was the image of the hip as can be star of Justified, which takes place in Harlan County (and Lexington) and features a somewhat more colorful segment of the population than I can lay claim to myself. Nonetheless, references to familiar places and things abound, and the themes of violence, kinship, the difficulty of leaving home (and of coming back), and the conflict between regions and attitudes are both realistic and strangely inflected in a Hollywood accent.

This could be a sign that I might find myself more at home in L.A. than I could have expected. I might be the new "It" Girl, with my slight Kentucky drawl and name-dropping references to Ale-8-One (bottled in my hometown). On the other hand, consider the chances for disorientation. Last night, I was taking a closer look at a past episode for local references when I noticed low mountains in the background, obviously meant to be the hills of Eastern Kentucky. If you weren't paying much attention, the illusion was almost complete. But I recognized the broad, creased surfaces of the mountains surrounding L.A.: California mountains just don't look like the ones in Kentucky, which are darker and more somber to my eye. What I thought I was seeing was not in fact what was really there.

I've wondered for a while what a cross between California and Kentucky would look like. It might take some doing to bring two such different places together, but it looks like the popular imagination is already running off ahead of me. Maybe by the time I get there, there will be a local source for Ruth Hunt's bourbon balls, an art-house theater as hip as The Kentucky, and a porch swing with my name on it.