Posts tagged longwrite
Posts tagged longwrite
Unitarian minister Peter Tufts Richardson, in his book Four Spiritualities, contends that it is important to pay attention to the works of religious, spiritual, and philosophical teachers in traditions that are different from our native one (See Part I and Part II).
But how can we identify which teachers might be helpful to us? Richardson believes that our inherent personality type (see links at the bottom of the article) helps to determine which teachings are attractive, meaningful, and useful to us.
The following descriptions of four personality-based spiritual paths and their mentors are condensed from Peter Tufts Richardson’s book Four Spiritualities, with some of my own research intermingled. If you have figured out your personality type, please let me know if, and how, any of these differing paths resonate with your own spiritual journey!
Sensing Feelers (SF): The Journey of Devotion (Mentors: St. Francis, Mohammed, St. Mark (apostle))
St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was born into a wealthy Italian family. As a young man, he was injured in war. On the way home, exhausted and in pain, he spied a leper and was overwhelmed by compassion. St. Francis writes that he ”saw the face of the suffering Christ” on the leper. He dismounted, embraced the man, and gave him all of his money.
Later, St. Francis had a vision of his life’s work. He writes that a crucifix came alive, saying ”Go, Francis, and repair my falling house.” Francis took the words literally, and spent years repairing ruined churches. Later, he saw his revelation as a directive to repair the “spiritual house” of Christianity.
St. Francis founded an order of monks (The Franciscans), and in his later years he composed Canticle of Brother Sun, an ode to mother earth and her inhabitants. He is often pictured holding birds, a reference to a tale of him rescuing two doves on their way to slaughter.
The life of St. Francis reveals a Sensing Feeler’s passion for his God, a dedication to serving others in direct and tangible ways, and a gift for finding inspiration in the lives and works of ancestors.
The SF Spiritual Path: Sensing Feelers value personal experience and action through direct service to others. They often feel that God is present here and now, in our bodies and in our lives. Sensing Feelers are inspired by pilgrimages, heroes, and stories.
In their practical approach to spirituality and their appreciation of religious myth, Sensing Feelers bring continuity, integrity, and pragmatism to religious traditions, giving them staying power through generations.
Sensing Thinkers (ST): The Journey of Works (Mentors: Confucius, Moses, St. Thomas (apostle)). (Also my best guest for HH the 14th Dalai Lama).
Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.) never achieved his goal of becoming a governmental administrator. As a teacher and scholar, however, he made a lasting impact on philosophy and government.
Confucius reworked the oldest documents of Chinese culture (now known as the Confucian Odes) into a coherent system for the conduct of life that is remarkably practical and democratic. Confucius believed that the well-being and consent of the common people constitute the legitimacy of a government, and societal reform works from the bottom up. His teachings guided Chinese society for nearly 2500 years.
In the words of Confucian translator Arthur Waley:
“In the West, we tend to instill ethical principals into young children until they are internalized: This is right, that is wrong. In traditional China…a young child is taught a number of considerations, none of which is absolute. You have to reason out what is appropriate, operable, and right in any specific situation.”
Confucian principals help us decide what action is practical, skillful, and humane in any given situation, not what is “right” or “wrong.”
The life of Confucius gives clear evidence of a Sensing Thinker’s love for law and order and attention to careful thought, planning, and stewardship.
The ST Spiritual Path: Sensing Thinkers are realistic, practical, and sometimes righteous. They strive to keep to religious organizations running smoothly based on a foundation of law and order. They feel responsible for personal, social, and natural resources.
Sensing Thinkers believe that a clear-cut personal identity is essential for a fulfilling spiritual life. They see work as life’s aim and fulfillment, spiritually as well as practically.
Intuitive Feelers (NF): The Journey of Harmony (Mentors: Mother Theresa of Calcutta, Jesus, Lao-Tzu, St. Luke (apostle), Thich Nhat Hahn, Buddhist Master).
Mother Theresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) ministered to the world’s poor, sick and dying for over 40 years. In 1997 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When asked what the average person can do to promote world peace, she simply said “Go home and love your family.”
As a young woman, Theresa felt a strong call to help the poor while living among them. ”To fail would have been to break the faith” she writes of her spiritual imperative.
Theresa founded an order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1940. At first her order was so poor that the sisters had to beg for food and supplies. But Mother Theresa, with her Intuitor’s grasp of the big picture, was a good administrator. At the time of her death in 1997, she had founded 610 missions in 123 countries to care for the poor, sick, and dying. Her order includes over 4,000 sisters and 100,000 lay volunteers.
Mother Theresa honored the religious beliefs of others. In her homes for the dying, ministrations are offered in several religious traditions: Muslims are read the Quran, Hindus receive water from the Ganges, and Catholics are given the last rites.
Mother Theresa continued her spiritual journey throughout her life, aided by her “spiritual advisor,” a priest to whom she was close. Her diaries, published after her death, reveal that for much of her life she struggled with strong doubts about the existence of God.
Mother Theresa’s story reveals an Intuitive Feeler’s quest for self-hood, focus on process as part of a religious path, tolerance of differing spiritual traditions, and love of harmony.
The NF Spiritual Path: Intuitive Feelers are social idealists. Their spiritual journey includes a quest for self-hood and a mystical pursuit of harmony. They project an attitude of expectancy and an openness to their unconscious selves, including their dreams, as a way towards spiritual healing.
Intuitive Feelers focus on process in relationships, whether to family, friends or society. They often enjoy exploring different spiritual traditions, and may combine several in their belief system. They avoid conflict, and are peacemakers and “carriers of the banner of tolerance” among traditions. They are our social visionaries.
Intuitive Thinkers (NT): The Journey of Unity (Mentors: Thomas Merton, The Buddha, Thomas Aquinas, Carl Jung)
Thomas Merton (1915-1968), an important 20th century religious writer, hated church as a child. During college, however, he became interested in Catholicism. After graduating, became a Cistercian monk, maintaining a vow of silence for two years.
In 1948 Merton published his spiritual classic The Seven Storey Mountain, an account of his quest for God. Though eloquent and passionate, this book reveals Merton as narrow-minded (or at least unworldly) and judgmental, dismissing pagan traditions as “evil old religions.”
In the decades that followed, however, Merton matured, and his world view widened. He became a political activist and peacemaker. His interest in other religions, particularly Eastern ones, grew. Merton dialoged with the worlds’ leading Buddhists— the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, and D.T. Suzuki. He died in an electrocution accident in 1968, at the age of 51.
Merton’s life story reveals an Intuitive Thinker’s love of scholarship, search for universal truth and justice, and desire for the spiritual enlightenment of all. In the words of the Buddhist scholar Shantideva:
“May I be a guard for those who are protectorless
A guide for those who journey on the road
For those who wish to go across the water
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge…
When all these actions I have performed
And their virtue I have thus amassed
May the pain of every living being
Be thereby scattered and destroyed.”
The NT Spiritual Path: Intuitive Thinkers seek organizing principals throughout life and nature. They want universal justice and truths that are global, honest, and clear. Their milestone of spiritual progress is deep and lucid thinking.
A goal of Intuitive Thinkers is social justice, achieved through education. Intuitive Thinkers may be spiritual writers and often attempt interfaith peacemaking. They may practice intellectual mysticism, often in quiet places or in silence.
To determine your personality type, take one of these online tests. You will receive an answer with four letters, but for the purposes of this article we are interested in only the two middle letters:
http://www.humanmetrics.com/ (Take “Jung Typology Test”)
www.similarminds.com (Click on “16-Type Jung Personality Tests”, then take “Jung Tests IESNFTJP”.)
http://www.personalitypathways.com/ (Abbreviated version)
Images: 1. St. Francis of Assisi, courtesy of 1.bp.blogspot.com 2. Confucius, artist unknown 3. Painting of Mother Theresa, courtesy of divinesoul.jp 4. Thomas Merton by Joseph Malham
“In every sizeable community, one finds atheists who think there is not God, polytheists who acknowledge many gods, monotheists who believe there is a single God, and mystics who say there is only God.” (Huston Smith)
The Unitarian minister we met in Part I, Peter Tufts Richardson, feels that it’s important to pay attention to the works of religious, spiritual, and philosophical teachers in traditions other than own. Among other things, this may enlarge our world view and make us more tolerant of differing faiths. But how can we identify which teachers in other faiths might be helpful to us?
Richardson believes that our inherent personality type (see links at bottom) helps to determine which parts of any faith or religion are attractive, meaningful, and/or helpful to us. (For more information, click here to read Part I).
Psychologists believe it’s possible to determine the personality profiles of people who are long dead, provided that we have reliable records of their words and deeds. This has been done for all of the world’s major religious founders. Because we now know the personality profiles of many famous people, it’s a simple matter to figure out which spiritual teachers have personalities similar to our own (more in Part III). And although the writings of like-minded teachers will probably resonate with you, Richardson also advocates reading the works of teachers whose personalities are opposite to yours.
For example, anyone with a strongly intuitive personality like me may be attracted to mystical teachers. I’ve found that the writings of the mystical teachers from different traditions tend to converge, and they all seem to say much the same thing.
Here are quotes from three mystical teachers in different religious traditions. Can you match the quote to the author’s religion? One is Muslim, one is Buddhist, and one is Christian. (Answers at the end of article*)
“I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green. The whole world is charged…I feel fire and music under my feet.
“In a boat down a fast-running creek, it feels like trees on the bank are rushing by. What seems to be changing around us is rather the speed of our craft leaving this world.”
“Like a dream, whatever I enjoy will become a memory; the past is not revisited.”
Richardson believes that each of the four personality types (see Part I) has a different spiritual journey. Chances are, depending on your personality, your spiritual quest will be different from your neighbor’s, and also different from that of the person who sits next to you at church.
Based on his long years as a minister, Richardson has described the spiritual journey of each of the four personality types (click here for type descriptions). Richardson has also identified a number of ”mentors”— religious teachers and leaders, past and present, of matching personality type— for each journey. Interestingly, each of the four journeys has at least one major religious founder with a matching personality (more in Part III). That’s good news for all of us.
Sadly, Richardson doesn’t fit atheists and agnostics into his scheme, although he clearly feels that some Eastern traditions support these mindsets. Personally, I suspect that most atheists and agnostics are people with a very strong “thinker” bias.
Richardson does not contend that anyone should or must convert to a religion in which the founder’s personality type matches their own. The spirituality in which we were raised is deeply imbedded in our psyche, and it’s better to integrate it into our adult belief system rather than exorcise it.
However, Richardson makes it clear that we should:
1) Pay attention to the teachings of mentors matching our personality type, no matter what their religious affiliation.
2) Use this knowledge as a guide in deciding which parts of any spiritual tradition are useful to us.
As religious scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell has pointed out, all religions are true. All constitute a valid roadmap, providing that we interpret them metaphorically, using the full abilities of our heart and our mind. The tricky part is finding the path (or lack thereof) that works for you.
*First quote from Thomas Merton (Christian/Catholic), second quote from Rumi (Muslim), third quote from Shantideva (Buddhist).
To determine your personality type, take one of these online tests. You will receive an answer with four letters, but for the purposes of this article we are interested in only thetwo middle letters:
http://www.humanmetrics.com/ (Take “Jung Typology Test”)
www.similarminds.com (Click on “16-Type Jung Personality Tests”, then take “Jung Tests IESNFTJP”.)
http://www.personalitypathways.com/ (Abbreviated version)
Images: 1. Detail, God Giving Life to Adam by Michelangelo 2. Courtesy of cornishevangelist at wordpress 3. Stock image from Google 4. What’s The Matter by Nora Sumberg 5. Courtesy of topez.net
“On the right hand stand the lovers, on the left are those who seek. And we will dance in conversation until our tongues can no longer speak.” (Bruce Roper)
Although I was born into a Catholic family, I never “got” Catholicism. The Catholic Mass is still surreal to me, with its mumbled incantations and dolorous organ music. As a child, I never understood why I couldn’t participate. Later, the budding scientist in me wondered whether the laws of physics were really different when Jesus was alive (a seeming prerequisite for miracles).
As an adult, I avoided religion. However, after encountering Buddhist writings, I realized that I was a Buddhist. I retain some of my Catholic roots, but, nevertheless, I have always been a Buddhist.
The Buddha’s teachings resonate with me because he thought the way I think, and believed what I believe. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Shouldn’t I have become a Buddhist first, then started thinking like one?
Different Spiritual Types
Later, I married into a fundamental Christian family. My teenage nephews, Mathew and Mark, want to be preachers. To them, a Buddhist is an Object of Interest, something to be examined, turned upside-down and shaken, debated with and, possibly, soul-saved.
Debating my nephews is fun, but our endless arguments boil down to the same thing: Mathew and Mark feel the presence of God in their lives. I don’t feel the presence of God, and I think I must divest myself of all pre-ordained ideas about God. Mathew and Mark make spiritual decisions with their hearts; I make spiritual decisions with my head. (I am not implying that either way is better— see below)
I’ve noticed the same thing in my debates with other theist friends. Although this is a broad generalization, it seems that those who lead with their hearts (the believers) tend to end up on one side, and those who lead with their minds (the doubters) tend to be on the other.
Are We Destined for a Certain Spiritual Path?
A number of brilliant thinkers throughout history have said yes.
Plato classified four inborn personality types (Artisans, Guardians, Idealists, and Rationals). Psychologist Carl Jung adopted Plato’s terminology, and agreed that personality types are inherent (mostly genetic).
Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs later created a test (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, MBTI) to identify personality type and tell test-takers which occupations suit their personality. This test has been widely and successfully used in the business world, in a manner more broad than was originally intended. If you know how your co-workers view and interact with the world, you can work more effectively with them.
Unitarian minister Peter Tufts Richardson takes this argument one step further in his book Four Spiritualities. Richardson re-defines the four personality types in spiritual terms, and makes a case that our inborn personality has a profound effect on our religious or spiritual path.
Although he does not advocate conversion, Richardson strongly encourages us to read the work of like-minded teachers in other religious traditions. I suspect that if we did this, there would be a lot less bickering (and eventually less warring) over religious and spiritual paths.
The Four Temperaments: Which Are You?
If you can answer two questions, you can probably deduce your spiritual personality type (not the full MBTI profile, but enough for the purposes of this article). The two crucial questions are:
1. Are you a Sensor (S) or an INtuitor (N)? Are you part of the 75% of us who are practical and grounded in the details of the physical world (S)? Or are you among the 25% who are dreamers, sometimes impractical, but always looking for the “big picture” (N)?
2. Are you a Feeler (F) or a Thinker (T)? When you make a decision, do you prefer to follow your heart or your head? (About half of us are Feelers, the other half are Thinkers).
If you aren’t sure, you can click here to read the type descriptions and decide in which category you best fit. Or, use one of the links at the bottom of the article to take the MBTI test.
I don’t mean to imply that “Feelers” aren’t smart or “Thinkers” are heartless. One personality trait isn’t better than another; they are just different ways of relating to the world, different ways of processing information. A healthy society needs all types. But most people, by default, rely on one process more than the other when they make decisions. (A few people don’t have inherent preferences, and this article may not be useful to them).
Readers: Let’s Test Peter Richardson’s Theory!
Psychologists have deduced the personality types of the world’s major religious founders (including Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, and the Buddha) by analyzing records of their words and actions. Part II and Part III of this series will focus on this.
In the meantime, where do you stand? How has your personality type affected your spiritual path?
I hope you will participate in this group experiment:
1. Figure out your personality type. Your answer will consist of two letters: either SF, ST, NF, or NT. Read the descriptions here and decide into which category you best fit. Or take the MBTI test (see links below. Estimated time is 5 minutes for the abbreviated version, 20 minutes for the full version).
2. Then, answer the following questions (please cut and paste the questions into your comment box along with your answers):
a. What is your personality type? (If you take the online MBTI test, you will end up with four letters, but we are only interested in the two middle letters)
b. What is your spiritual/religious affiliation in real life?
c. Are you affiliated with this religion or spirituality solely because you were born into it? Or did you find and accept it on your own? Or are both of the above true?
d. Is your spirituality or religion a helpful “road map” for you? (Give a few details if you want).
e. Are you interested in the teachings of spiritual masters from religions other than your own?
http://www.humanmetrics.com/ (Take “Jung Typology Test”)
www.similarminds.com (Click on “16-Type Jung Personality Tests”, then take “Jung Tests IESNFTJP”.)
http://www.personalitypathways.com/ (Abbreviated version; click on “What is my Myers-Briggs personality type?”)
Image Credits: 1. holyname.co.uk 2. Photo by Barry Easton 3. Photo by David Sanger 4. Mask of Agamemnon from Wikipedia Commons 4. Cover of Peter Tufts Richardson’s book Four Spiritualities.
Poor Mother Theresa. By rights she should be a saint by now, but sainthood requires the candidate to have performed two “miracles” (acts defying “the laws of nature”) that can be verified by The Catholic Church. The Church has confirmed only one such miracle for Mother Theresa, so she’s officially entered heaven but is not yet a saint.
This state of affairs inspired me to start my own sainthood program. My credibility must be at least as good as that of the Catholic Church. I’m not attracted to children, I support the distribution of condoms to prevent AIDS, and I think women are just as likely as men to be able to manage a congregation and talk to God.
This article marks the official beginning my sainthood program. Of course, like the Catholic Church, I’m open to objections to my nominees. Please feel free to play devil’s advocate.
For me, a saint is someone who discards self-preservation instincts and gives their resources freely and lovingly to others, often to the point of injuring themselves. My new nominee for sainthood is someone you’ve probably never heard of— the late writer and professor Deborah Digges.
Her memoir The Stardust Lounge speaks of her struggles to raise her gifted but disturbed adolescent son Stephen. By the time he was 13, Stephen was well entrenched in the world of crime, gangs, and drugs. He was destructive and violent at home. His standard phone greeting to his mother was “Fuck you.”
When “tough love” failed and Stephen had driven away Deborah’s second husband (not his biological father), Deborah decided to apply unconditional love instead of tough love. She attempted to enter Stephen’s world instead of trying to force him to conform to hers.
Deborah began shadowing Stephen on his late-night forays and inviting his gang members and their families to her house. She found an unconventional therapist, Eduardo Bustamante, who provided a male role model and helped Stephen to understand boundaries. She also initiated her own version of pet therapy, filling the family home with a variety of abandoned pets.
During this period Deborah was afraid to allow her friends in to her home. She wrote to Frank Loew, dean of a veterinary school (who later became her husband):
“I’m glad you’ll be coming to dinner…you should be forewarned… this is a wild household…”
The house interior was wrecked due to Stephen’s violent outbursts. Cats leapt in and out of windows (the screens having been removed for this purpose) and moths covered the walls. There were frequent calls from the police. To top it all off, the easy pet access had allowed a skunk to makes its way into the kitchen, and the scent lingered for months.
In reading Stardust Lounge, it struck me that the there were two turning points in Stephen’s recovery, both involving situations in which he decided to place others’ needs above his own.
The first was when he begged his mother to adopt an epileptic dog. She agreed on the condition that he manage the difficult medication regimen,which he did with devotion. The second was when he asked his mother to allow his friend Trevor, who was one step away from jail, to move in to the family home. Although this caused some rough times, Trevor eventually became sober, then got his GED and a job. He remained a devoted “brother” to Stephen.
Gradually, as he gained empathy for others and a degree of self-control, Stephen Digges’ brilliance and his talent for writing and photography emerged. Today he is a noted photojournalist, and many revealing examples of his work grace The Stardust Lounge. Without his mother’s selfless love Stephen would likely have failed to overcome his violence and addiction.
On April 10, 2009, having successfully ushered Stephen into adulthood and outlived her third husband (Frank Loew died of cancer in 2003), Deborah Digges committed suicide at age 59 by jumping off a stadium bleacher at The University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Does this disqualify her for sainthood? I think not. There’s little written about her mental health, but she probably suffered from depression. My sense is by that day in April 2009, Deborah was simply empty, having given everything to those she loved and having (fortunately) shared her life’s journey with us through her acclaimed writing.
So, what are your thoughts on sainthood?
1. Does Deborah Digges qualify?
2. Do you think miracles are required in order to entitle sainthood?
3. Would suicide disqualify a candidate?
As a child, Azzam Alwash loved to visit Iraq’s Southern Marshes with his father, a hydraulic engineer under Saddam Hussein. This huge, diverse ecosystem, larger than the Florida Everglades, is believed by Biblical and Qu’ran scholars to be the site of The Garden of Eden. Alwash describes the marshes of his childhood as “a peaceful, peaceful place.”
As a young man, Alwash fled Saddam’s regime to study in America. He remained in the U.S. for nearly a quarter century, becoming a hydraulic engineer like his father. He applied for citizenship, married an American and had two daughters.
Although he was away from his native Iraq for almost 25 years, Alwash was haunted by his childhood memories of the marshes. He swore that one day he would show his wife and his daughters the Garden of Eden he had known.
Twenty years ago Iraq’s Southern Marshes were an aquatic wonderland in the middle of a desert. The wetlands extended across the southern end of Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers divide. Mesopotamians settled this area (known as the “fertile crescent”) in the fifth century B.C.E. Their culture went on to invent writing, literature, mathematics, metallurgy, and ceramics.
Wetlands are the most productive ecosystems in the world, and Iraq’s Southern Marshes were no exception. They were formerly home to water snakes, otter, wild boar, hyenas, foxes and lions. They were a spawning ground for many fish species as well as a stopover for millions of migratory birds. They are still home to the threatened Marbled Teal, the endangered Basra Reed-warbler and the Sacred Ibis, commonly depicted in Egyptian art.
The Iraq Marshes are inhabited by the Ma’dan, or Shi’a “Marsh Arabs” who have a unique water- and boat-based culture. It’s no secret that Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Muslim who brutally repressed his fellow Shi’ites. After a 1991 Shi’a uprising Saddam Hussein attempted to destroy the Ma’dan people and their home.
Thousands of Marsh Arabs were murdered, their livestock killed and their homes burned. Pesticides were broadcast to kill wild plants and animals. Canals and dikes were built to rob the marshes of water, and remaining wells were poisoned. By the end the crusade, up to half a million people had been displaced and the Southern Marshes had shrunk to less than 10% of their original size. A place that was once home to abundant wildlife and a unique human culture had been reduced to poisoned salt flats full of land mines.
The destruction of Iraq’s Southern Marshes was not only a cruel ethnic cleansing but also one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters. As is so often the case in war, the million of animals and plants whose lives were lost after the marsh destruction were considered only “collateral damage.”
But Azzam Alwash is a man who doesn’t let politics, religion, geography, or war get in his way. In June 2003, only three months after the American invasion, Alwash flew to Iraq. In the company of bodyguards he visited his beloved marshes. Alwash describes his horror at the condition of the marshland: “I remembered water and green vegetation as far as the eye could see… what I saw was nothing but desert, dust and the ruins of settlements.”
Alwash did see one small glimmer of hope. After the 2003 US invasion, the local Ma’dan had made holes in Saddam’s dikes, and a small amount of water was once again flowing into the marshes. These areas were, against the predictions of ecologists, showing signs of recovery. (Bio-geeks can read the 2005 technical paper here).
Alwash gave up his lucrative engineering practice in California and devoted himself full-time to the restoration of Iraq’s Southern Marshes. He formed a nonprofit foundation, Nature Iraq, the country’s only environmental organization.
Alwash lined up support from the new Iraq government, the United Nations, Turkey, Italy, and U.S. agencies. His hydraulic engineering (which involved creating large openings at strategic areas in the dikes), together with record precipitation, brought about a large-scale restoration of the marshes. Over 50% of the original area was reflooded by 2010, and thousands of Ma’dan returned to their home.
It’s Alwash’s hope that by 2013 the marshes will be sufficiently restored to become an eco-tourism attraction. Unfortunately, his plans depend on securing a large amount of water in a drought-stricken region with an increasing number of upstream dams.
You can watch the stunning 50-minute PBS/Nature documentary on Alwash and his restoration work here. As Alwash says “Some people think we are silly, working on the marshes in the middle of civil insurrection, gangs, kidnapping… but life cannot stop, waiting for the civil war to be finished. There’s work to be done and a new generation to educate.”
Below is a 3-minute excerpt in which Alwash describes his return to the devastated marshes:
I believe that no matter how evil an act, some good will eventually come of it. The restoration of Iraq’s marshes is one of the best things to come out of the second Gulf War.
Azzam Alwash is an extraordinary human being. Rather than becoming involved in the sectarian hostilities in Iraq, Alwash transcends divisions of sect, religion, culture, and geography. He cares for all beings, human and non-human. As he puts it “I… do not practice any form of devotion, save for protecting the creation of God.”
Alwash sacrificed his steady income and secure home and left his family. He lives in daily danger as he oversees the largest ecological restoration in history and attempts to undo some of the mind-boggling damage wrought by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Azzam Alwash embodies my definition of a modern-day saint.
Article Copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida. Images courtesy of PBS Nature and Nature Iraq.
We at The Surreal Circus are excited by the high quality of the entries to our surreal flash fiction contest. Thank you to all participants!
As one judge said: “I was impressed by the range of the stories, from parodic homage to the old style Surrealist tale to Kafkean parable to … near-future fiction to retelling of creation myth.”
Judging this contest was both a treat and a learning experience. Reading surreal fiction should make you feel as if you’ve stepped into a parallel universe— a bit disoriented, a bit ”out of this world.” And a number of the entries did just that.
After much debate, here are our prizewinners: two wildly creative yet solidly-constructed parallel universes, as well as five runners-up that were strong contenders. We hope you enjoy these stories as much as we did!
Back in 2006 when I first wrote about her work, portrait artist Patrisha McLean was tired of her Flower Girls series, ready to abandon the project for a new one. At the time, I didn’t think her portraits could get any better, and she may have agreed. But she persevered with the series, proving us both wrong.
Instead, McLean explored new territory, and the results are breathtaking. Like the masterful artist she is, McLean has plumbed the depths of the Flower Girls concept, and in doing so explored the deepest parts of our collective psyche.
Hers is a remarkable photographic journey that begins in photo realism (the language of journalism) and ends in Symbolism, the language of dreams. Symbolist painters, such as Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Odilon Redon, and Edvard Munch used mythological and dream imagery. Often, like McLean, they created a timeless atmosphere of utter stillness and silence.
Though she began her career as a journalist, McLean’s editorial photography revolves around The Maiden’s Voyage, the mythical coming-of-age of young women. McLean’s portraits ask “Will the Flower Girl survive her passage to adulthood, with its impending ‘de-flowering?’” Parents have worried about this since the dawn of mankind, so The Maiden’s Voyage is a common story.
McLean’s 2008 portrait Lydia with Antique Mirror (above) sums up The Maiden’s Voyage (or perhaps The Heroine’s Journey) in one lovely stroke. Lydia explores an unknown forest, surrounded by vegetation that seems about to consume her. But unlike Clara with Rhododendrons (2006), Lydia doesn’t look to the viewer for help. Reaching the center of the forest, Lydia has stumbled upon herself. She’s traversed her own labyrinth, a one-way path to the center of her psyche.
In historical myths, a maiden was often seduced by a god in disguise (i.e. Leda and the Swan) at her coming-of-age. In modern versions, the seduction is watered-down, and the maiden simply loses consciousness at her transition, as in Sleeping Beauty or The Wizard of Oz. The growing importance of the unconscious dream-state in McLean’s work becomes clear when it’s viewed in serial fashion:
Above (Nora with Old Roses, 2006), an alert young girl is compared to roses. The message is simple. Nora is a rose. This is realism.
In Riley With Old Roses, Dreaming (2006), McLean tentatively approaches Symbolism. She depicts Riley’s dream, but we
aren’t in the dream. We must guess at the dream’s contents, represented by the multi-toned roses swirling around Riley’s head.
In Becca with Summer Flowers (2008), McLean has taken the plunge. She’s immersed in her subject’s dream, and so are we. Becca has taken control, raising her arms and summoning flying flowers to do her bidding, as one might summon the elements. This is Symbolism. McLean’s portrait seems to take place in aboriginal dream time, an atmosphere of timelessness, utter stillness and silence.
Although McLean’s work retains elements of her photo-journalism (who’d expect the gaunt Flower Girl above, with her world-weary stare and her choker of roses?), she now works largely in the realm of the Symbolic.
Never shy about exploring the dark side, McLean has created a stunning dualistic illustration of the Sleeping Beauty myth. A daytime Sleeping Beauty is paired with her haunting doppelganger, a vampirish nocturnal beauty. Together, these portraits make me wonder whether Sleeping Beauty will survive her journey to adulthood, awakening in the light as a woman. Or will she remain as adults would have her, forever a little girl, in stasis and in the dark?
McLean’s most surprising new portrait may be Harper with Old Roses (2008). There’s something unexpected in this image. With her sensuous face, claw-like nails, and explosion of roses, this is a rapturous Flower Girl who’s come of age, innocent no longer.
I think Eliza with Peonies and Pearls best sums up McLean’s new work. The Flower Girls are at the end of their dangerous journey, no longer lost in a forbidding forest. Some look directly and knowingly at the viewer.
While the leash of the world still tugs at them (every girl wears a choker or necklace) the young women are now masters of their universe. Individuation is complete. The Flower Girls have found themselves, become whole, and blossomed.
Patrisha McLean’s daughter entered college in 2008, and I think her maternal relief, as well as her pride in a job well done, are evident in the Flower Girls series. There’s a touch of Botticelli’s Venus in the latest Flower Girl images, a sense of joy in presenting the world with a lovely, newly-formed young woman. By chronicling The Maiden’s Voyage as her daughter grew, McLean has given voice to parents everywhere.
All photographs copyright 2011 by Patrisha McLean, reproduced with her permission. Image resolution has been lowered for online publication. To contact McLean or see more of her work, click here: PatrishaMcLean.com
Article copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida.
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I’ve long dreamed of a band that combines the beauty of Celtic music with the raw energy of rock and punk. It took years to find one, but I have. Britain’s Oysterband is a Celtic-folk-punk-rock band with a body of work that spans 33 years and is deep, universal, and frequently awe-inspiring.
Oysterband (named in honor of Whitstable, England, famous for its oysters) was conceived in 1978 as a traditional Celtic dance band. I caught up with the band nearly 30 years later. By the time I found the Oysters, they had gone from traditional music enthusiasts to punk bad boys to “the grandfathers of British folk.”
This five-member band is so adaptable that new musicians (and instruments) are frequently added to their lineup. Oysterband tours with and promotes the music of lesser-known bands such as the US’s Handsome Family. They also run one of Britain’s premiere annual folk festivals, The Big Sessions.
Below the Oysters ad-lib their 1993 classic When I’m Up I Can’t get Down (lyrics here) in a favorite pub. This song gives a voyeuristic peek into the raw exuberance of sex, drugs, and violence in London’s 1980s punk scene:
In 2008 Oysterband released album number 24, Meet You There, widely hailed as their best. Part of its quality is due to the fact that it was composed by all five members working in unison in a rented acoustic hall. This made the creative process complex (“sometimes there was blood on the floor”) but the results wonderfully universal. How many songs contain the breadth offered by five points of view?
One of the best cuts from this album is the apocalyptic Where the World Divides (lyrics here), which explores the gap between belief and non-belief. In it, an unbelieving narrator travels faithfully to Purgatory in search of a religious friend (or perhaps his religious self) who is caught in a metaphorical noose.
As the song progresses, the two points of view come closer together, with the nonbeliever coming to understand that his friend needs questions about faith answered in black and white, and that hope is a universal, inborn human condition: “What I want is judgment. Is it mercy or the rope? In the court of hopeless causes, won’t you let me live in hope?”
Although these questions are never answered in the lyrics, they are answered in the album’s title. Sinners and saints, believers and non-believers will all gather one day in the same place, wherever that may be.
The Oysters write most profoundly when they explore the role of music in society. In 1999 they had the chutzpah to release an upbeat memorial song, This is the Voice (lyrics here) for friends who’d died of AIDS. They bravely explain their stylistic choice in some of the most quietly discerning words I’ve read on the role of music in society:
“You ask me why we celebrate
When nothing has been won
We take dark hours, we make them great
That’s all we’ve ever done”
Oysterband reminds us of something we all know— music is a mood transformer, a conveyor of energy and ideas we humans will always need. It may be our only ally in dark times.
If you love what you’ve heard here, I’m willing to share my music library. Send me your snailmail address, and I’ll send you a free copy of my Oysterband sampler (quantities limited— if I make too many, iTunes will pull the plug!).
To prove that the Oysters can play others’ music as well as they play their own, I’ll leave you with this gorgeously dark cover of The Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (the tale of a young girl born without looks or means) featuring former band member June Tabor. (A bit of live off-key singing in the refrain, but the video is well worth it)
Copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida.
To hear and see more from Oysterband:
Videos and song samples:
New York Girls (Rare USA visit)
Everywhere I Go (from 25th Anniversary DVD)
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This is a story about suicide, but it’s not a sad story. It’s the tale of how a remarkable woman named Annie Chase, diagnosed with a terminal illness, determined to live her final days in mindfulness and die a considerate death, both for herself and those around her. Says Jerry Dincin:
“Though Annie was an atheist, her finding a positive beauty in the preparation for her death and genuine peace as she neared the end provides meaning and hope for all of us, believers and non-believers alike.”
Annie Chase died by her own hand on March 8, 2010, no doubt one of the happiest and sanest people to commit suicide. Biographical details about her are scarce, as The Final Exit Network and other organizations have endeavored to protect the privacy of her family.
We do know that in 2006, when she was probably in her early 60s, Annie began experiencing odd and alarming neurological symptoms— debilitating fatigue, joint pain, multiple tumors and loss of vision. She was diagnosed with Wegener’s Granulomatosis, a terminal disease similar to lupus. She researched her condition and did her best to manage it through medical treatment and lifestyle changes, but to little effect.
Realizing that she had only a few years left to live, and having been traumatized by watching a close friend die slowly and painfully of cancer, Annie decided that her death would be different. Annie wanted a painless ending at a time of her choosing that also minimized the suffering of those around her.
FACING THE WALL, MOSTLY ALONE
Our society enforces a ban on talking about suicide, and Annie found great difficulty in discussing plans for her own ending.
“I encountered that profound loneliness surrounding the act of dying… Even most nonreligious people had trouble talking about the topic… I ended up, ironically, feeling that I needed to comfort them, that I had made them sad and ruined their day.”
Annie faced several obstacles in discussing her decision to end her life:
1. A belief, even among non-religious people, that her death should be left in the hands of fate or some “greater power.”
2. A knowledge that she must “err on the side of too soon.” Because physician-assisted suicide was illegal in her state, Annie had to end her life while she was still physically capable of doing it without help. If she were in Oregon, she said “My timing would have been different.”
3. A common belief in the redemptive value of suffering and a conviction that one must suffer in order to “earn” the right to die.
With the help of Final Exit, Annie made her last arrangements. She spent time with her son and grandson to be sure they understood her decision. Interestingly, her 13-year old grandson, with his beginner’s mind, accepted her impending suicide more readily than her son (an atheist), especially when Annie explained that she had no desire to suffer the way their sick cat had. “Well, good, Grandma!” was his reply upon hearing the news.
Upon her death, all that would be needed were two phone calls— one to the cremation society to pick up her body, the other to Goodwill to pick up her remaining personal possessions
Shortly after her diagnosis Annie realized that she was unable to
manage upkeep of her house. As she prepared to sell her home, she took great pleasure in donating her unused possessions to places where they would be used and appreciated— a school, a senior center, and a youth recreation center.
She was heartsick at the thought of giving up her garden, but was comforted by the happiness on the faces of friends and neighbors to whom she donated her gardening tools. Her final donation was her beloved harpsichord, which she was no longer able to play due to vision loss. She gave it to a local university so they no longer had to borrow one for their concerts.
Annie then moved into a small apartment with woods nearby and hummingbirds outside.
I’ve told you the first half of her story, but I’ll let Annie tell you the rest in her own words. The italicized quotes that follow are excerpts from Annie Chase’s memoir My Purpose-Driven Death. You can read a condensed version here (the full version is not yet published).
I only hope my own death will be as peaceful and well-planned as Annie Chase’s.
The Joy of Donation
My property and investments turned magically into a clump of cash so I could quantify and calculate how much I needed to live on [for my remaining time]. Wow! I was rich!
However, I didn’t have enough to manage a debilitating illness, nor to hire a personal attendant and a driving service when I went blind. What I had enough for were projects that would help people I cared about and wanted to support… Young people need our resources.
People have said it’s immoral to discuss the financial costs of health care, but I disagree. Pouring money into the black hole of my decline seemed like a poor use of resources. I knew too many people who needed it for living for me to spend it on dying.
Besides, helping others turned out to be a hoot! What freedom! To be able to say to a friend, “Hey, I noticed your car has bald tires. I hate to see the risk you’re taking and the risk you’re putting other people in. Let’s get you some tires!
The Last Trip Around the Sun
Each step I took to simplify and unburden myself of possessions and responsibilities brought me a little closer to that place where I would come down, very peacefully, to nothing. My declining eyesight would be the ultimate clue for my timing. So in May of 2009, when I was clearly losing my sight, I decided it was time to give myself a last trip-around-the-sun ticket.
I went to concerts and plays and dance performances and Cirque du Soleil and wonderful restaurants. Of course I needed companions for those events, so I took friends to see things and have experiences they also wouldn’t normally have had access to. Playing fairy godmother turned out to be delightful for me.
I noticed all the seasonal joys I was experiencing for the last time: the last time I would ride one of the best roller coasters at Valley Fair. The last time I would see the fall leaves change color. The last time I would eat a Colorado peach. It was a wonderful time of becoming very mindful, of living extremely in the moment.
Atheists Have Their Mystical Side, Too
I felt a connection with everything that had ever lived on Earth. Birth and death were the things I shared with every being that had ever come into existence, flourished, decayed, and had gone out of existence in that magical interchange of our energies, of things coming alive and going quiet again. What a thrill to know that I was sharing a deep, transcendent, timeless experience with every plant or creature that had ever known life!
I saved the roller coaster for last. The biggest thrill! Its wheels in front are just about to go over the ominous little bump at the very top of the hill. As it starts its downward plunge and gathers speed, I will surrender to it, to the free fall.
At the end of that fall will be-nothing. Nothing. David Byrne’s song about heaven says, “Heaven is a place where nothing happens.” I’m not scared. I know that nothing really is not something.
Love to you all,
After her sight failed, Annie recorded two 25 minute videos in which she discusses her philosophy and her preparations for death. I highly recommend these videos, especially the second one. Annie Chase’s joy and peace in the face of death is astonishing. (Part 1 here, Part 2 here. These files will download to your computer.).
*The Final Exit network is a group of mostly-elderly volunteers who distribute information about peaceful and painless suicide methods in the face of incurable illness. You can find out more about them here.
Note: This is a segment of my Living Saints and Bodhisattvas series, first published on Gather.com. You can find links to the other segments here.
Copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida. Stock images from Google Image.
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Sleeping is an adventure. I never know what will play next at the dream cinema inside my head. Sometimes I have fairytale dreams, in which I’m transported to a magical place or time, but these are rare.
More often I have nightmares— the kind of dreams that make me question my sanity. You know what I’m talking about. I’m lost in my own house, which has mysteriously rearranged its rooms. I’m at the zoo, and I accidentally release the elephants. I imagine that my nose-hair is growing uncontrollably, only to wake and find my cat’s tail in my face. And so forth.
I also have those universal, euphoric flying dreams. Don’t we all crave release from our earthbound body?
My love of dreams probably explains my love of surreal movies. Most people like movies with strong characters and an engrossing plot, but I can’t be bothered with such trivia. What I crave is to be immersed in a movie, to be transported elsewhere. Watching a surreal movie is, for me, sharing in the lucid (fabricated) dream of the director.
In the dream world, our unconscious mind is dominant. Think about the few minutes immediately before you fall asleep. Images and relationships suddenly become illogical, and the linear flow of time breaks down. Bizarre, instinctive (archetypal) symbols, such as monsters, may appear.
Movies are the ultimate medium for exploring dreams because they offer a combination of images and sound. A movie camera moves through 3D space and time, so films can warp space and time as dreams do. Most movies contain at least a hint of surrealism, and many popular TV shows (such as Six Feet Under and Numbers) used surrealism to craft their most creative scenes.
Here are five of my favorite surreal movies. These speak to everyone, consciously or subconsciously. They are products of our collective unconscious. These are mankind’s universal dreams.
(Note: If you would rather watch than read, there is a link to a video clip at the end of each movie description).
I. TWO FAIRYTALES
Beauty and the Beast: A Maiden’s Voyage
In historical myths, a virginal young woman was seduced by a nonhuman being. In modern fairytales, this maiden’s voyage is watered down. The sex is removed, thanks to our Freudian society, and our modern maiden simply loses consciousness at her coming-of-age (Think Sleeping Beauty or The Wizard of Oz).
Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie Beauty and the Beast is a lovely rendering of a maiden’s voyage. Black and white film may seem an odd medium for a fairytale, but in the absence of color, Cocteau’s gorgeous lighting, texture, and space take over. My mind’s eye steps right into his three-dimensional sets.
The plot is simple. Beauty’s father accidently picks a rose belonging to a ferocious beast living in a nearby castle. As punishment, The Beast casts a spell, and Beauty must live out the rest of her life as a prisoner in his castle.
When Beauty comes to recognize the humanity within The Beast, the spell is broken. By admitting that The Beast is partly human, Beauty acknowledges that she is part beast. In recognizing her own instincts, Beauty has grown up.
The magic of Cocteau’s sumptuous visual feast lies his penchant for imbuing animism into unlikely objects. In my favorite scene, Beauty pauses at the entrance to a hallway lit with torches that are held by disembodied arms. When she steps into the hall, the arms conveniently raise their candelabras to her eye-level. The arm-torches become sentient spirit guides, magically lighting Beauty’s way.
French, with English subtitles. (Click HERE to watch a 2-minute preview of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete). Watch the fur coverlet on the bed come alive and slither away!).
Spirited Away: A Modern Heroine
Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki bucks mythic tradition in his magnificent 2001 anime Spirited Away. His heroine, 10-year-old Chihiro, is on a hero’s quest, a journey traditionally reserved for males.
Chihiro is fretting over moving and changing schools when she and her parents become lost in an abandoned, haunted theme park. The colorful booths, grotesque images, and magical atmosphere of the park provide a perfect transition to the spirit world.
At the theme park, Chihiro’s parents gorge themselves and, as punishment, are turned into pigs by the spirits who haunt the place. Chihiro is left, terrified, to fend for herself, until a gentle spirit guide named Haku comes to her rescue. We later learn that Haku is a river god trapped in a human body because his river has been despoiled by greedy adults.
My favorite scene in Spirited Away (also the film’s turning point) is a sort of Zen meditation. Chihiro rides a silent phantom train, Middle Road, that travels underwater as easily as above. Chihiro is accompanied by a hungry ghost, the Japanese equivalent of a lost soul. Not surprisingly, the Middle Road ultimately takes both Chihiro and her mournful ghost home. If you rent this gorgeous movie, I promise that you won’t be disappointed.
(Click HERE to watch a 3-minute trailer of Spirited Away).
II. TWO NIGHTMARES
Pan’s Labyrinth: A Modern Persephone
In his breathtakingly dark and violent 2006 fable Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro re-tells the Persephone myth in World War II Spain. His young heroine, Ofelia, lives with her mother and cruel stepfather at a remote army outpost as they await the birth of Ofelia’s half-brother.
Ofelia is a dreamy child, prone to wandering off. When she ventures into the woods around the outpost, a huge insect lures her to an underworld portal. Much to her surprise, Ofelia meets Pan (the god of nature) and learns that she’s a princess who must complete three dangerous magical trials to return to her underworld home. The sad little heroine sees no reason to remain in the real world, so she decides to return home.
Ofelia’s poignant quest to return to her underworld is seamlessly interwoven with a real-world plot to hunt and kill resistance fighters (who themselves seem to be wood spirits) hiding in the mountains. Del Toro’s art direction is stunning and his fantasy creatures are terrifying. In a striking comment on our treatment of children, del Toro makes Ofelia’s stepfather more monstrous than the bizarre underworld inhabitants.
The unifying theme of this movie is the mysterious forest. To most, it’s just woods full of buzzing, shimmering insects. But when Ofelia enters, the insects turn to faeries and the forest is full of magic and potential. Nature is a gateway to the divine, and this movie reminds us that children understand this magic best.
Spanish, with English subtitles. Rated R for violence. (Click HERE to watch a 2 1/2 minute preview of Pan’s Labyrinth).
Last Year at Marienbad: Lost in Our Mind
The 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad (by Alain Resnais) was one of the first movies to warp time and space in dream-like fashion. This stream-of-consciousness film set the stage for modern time-warpers such as Memento and Vanilla Sky.
Ostensibly a tale of seduction, Last Year at Marienbad is a symbolic, twisted journey through the human psyche. The hero and heroine travel, entranced, through halls of endless mirrors, archways, and lush gardens with classical statues. Their conversation leads everywhere and nowhere.
Perhaps they met last year at Marienbad and had an affair, perhaps not. We never find out. But as the movie proceeds, it becomes increasingly disquieting, and the viewer feels trapped inside the minds of the characters.
Watching this movie is akin to an endless art museum visit, with classical architecture standing in for the labyrinths of our mind, its neurons and synapses. Last Year at Marienbad is famous for its visual vocabulary of enigma and charade, which is so subconsciously seductive that it’s endured for decades in the advertising industry.
The movie is in French, with English subtitles. (Click HERE to watch a 7-minute clip from Last Year at Marienbad. I recommend that you watch only the last 3 minutes. The clip is not translated into English.)
III. The Ultimate Flying Dream
Koyaanisqatsi (“Life Out of Balance”) is arguably the best surreal movie ever made. Godfrey Reggio spent years on this 1982 masterpiece, a flying dream that proffers a God’s-eye view of our planet and ourselves.
Don’t expect a plot or characters— this is a cinematic poem. The images are accompanied by edgy orchestral music, and time seems to slow down or speed up at will. Koyaanisqatsi’s wide-screen photography focuses on mankind’s history of blunders and destruction, set against the humbling natural beauty of our planet.
The camera forces us to watch its parade of beauty and destruction with the steady, muted sympathy of a powerless creator. Highways spread across the earth like arteries and cars pulse through them like blood cells. Buildings implode and spaceships explode. Occasionally the camera focuses on a face, dehumanized in a rush of technology or lost against a background of urban squalor.
Koyaanisqatsi’s images have the same transformative power as the first photos of earth taken from space. Watching this movie, I became keenly aware of just how fragile and how like a living organism our home is. If we were all aware of the big, intricate picture painted by Koyaanisqatsi, we would take better care of our planet and each other.
(Click HERE to watch a 2 1/2 minute preview of Koyaanisqatsi).
Other surreal movie recomendations:
The Science of Sleep
What Dreams May Come
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
All movies are available from NetFlix.
Images: Utterly Surreal by David Stoupkakis, Untitled by Al Magus. Other images from Google Image.
Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida.
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Native Australians believe that the dream world (dreamtime) is “realer” than reality. They may be right.
In the real world, we are realistic. We solve practical, everyday problems using our conscious, logical minds. But when we dream, our unconscious minds take over.
In the dream world, we are surrealistic. The linear flow of time breaks down, and images and relationships become illogical, often bizarre. While our conscious minds deal with waking reality, our unconscious minds give vent to our more instinctive thoughts and feelings.
Good artists in all media know how to access their unconscious mind. It’s the wellspring of human creativity, and its language is universally understood. This is why I agree with aboriginal Australians that dreamtime is at least as real as waking reality.
SURREALISM AS A CULTURAL MOVEMENT
The language of the dream world is also the language of art and myth. Although surreal art is as old as mankind, Surrealism as a cultural movement is much newer, dating back to the 1920’s.
The founding Surrealist artists and writers, such as Salvador Dali and Andre Breton, regarded their work as a philosophical movement, establishing new standards for art and literature. Surreal artists desire, above all, a free flow of material from their unconscious mind to their art. The hallmark of their work is a jarring juxtaposition of ideas and/or images that resembles those in dreams and nightmares.
SURREALISM IN THE VISUAL ARTS
In surrealism, ideas often manifest as archetypes (universal symbols), making it possible for surreal art and literature to be understood by everyone. Deep psychological truths and connections may be revealed in symbolic form.
Salvador Dali suggests this connection in what may be the best-known of all surreal paintings, The Persistence of Memory (above). The clue to this jarring image lies in the title. As suggested by his melted clocks, the past is gone forever, except in our memories.
But when we sleep (as suggested by the sleeping walrus-like creature) our mind makes sense of our memories by ordering them and converting some into archetypal symbols. A clinical study recently demonstrated that, while asleep, we replay our dreams many times, gradually reducing the emotional content and increasing the symbolic content.
SURREALISM IN LITERATURE
French writer Arthur Rimbaud (forefather to the Surrealist movement) takes a simple plot— a boat-ride down a river— and turns it into a lucid nightmare.
In his poem The Drunken Boat, crew members die at the onset, but this doesn’t concern the narrator, who wants his boat to drift so he can explore uncharted waters. Logic and linearity are discarded, a clue that we are entering surrealism.
As the narrator sinks deeper into his unconscious, his boat also sinks, and he is left floating on the sea in a death-trance:
And from that time on I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, star-infused and churned into milk,
Devouring the green azures… entranced in pallid flotsam.
Rimbaud’s wildly creative language amazes me, even in translation. There’s no way that these words originated in his conscious mind. Notice how he uses only two words (which aren’t normally used together)— “pallid flotsam”— to conjure up a floating, moonlit corpse.
If you’d like something more modern, try these lyrics by Australian poet/songwriter Steve Kilbey of The Church:
“They’re going to send you away” she said
Psychic angels spread on the top of her head
And in the compartments of my dread
The rush hour crush travels home to bed
“You never seem to hear” she smiled
Statues tiptoe for a glimpse of the child
The lawns are always lush and wild
Spacious floors bejeweled and tiled
“How are you getting home” she laughed
Mermaids drowned but I clung to the raft
It’s just the water in the bath
An interlude for the busy staff
Drowning is a theme here as well, but it’s only part of the story. This is an evocative picture of a psychiatric hospital visit, complete with a look inside the heads of both the visitor and the patient. Kilbey’s point of view is deliberately enigmatic— the anxious visitor may see a deluded woman, while the patient seems to see the hospital as her palace and her bathtub as a sea inhabited by mermaids.
What about traumatic events (and their resulting dreams) that cannot be reduced to symbols and/or archetypes? In my experience, these are particularly difficult to resolve.
When society experiences important events that cannot be understood as existing archetypes, it’s up to artists to create new ones. Above, David Bowers does just that in his portrayal of global warming as a femme fatale. This artist suggests that global warming is a lethal event driven by our greed and lust.
Surrealism is a particularly relevant art form in times of turmoil and social upheaval. What is the current state of our governmental gridlock if not surreal? I think Derek Nobbs (above; notice the background pattern) agrees with me, as he portrays one of the most frightening archetypes I can imagine— a cruel and nihilistic ruler, in this case with his head emptied of all knowledge.
Photo credits: 1. Virgo Paraiso, A Taste of Paradise; 2. Untitled by Maura Holden, 3. The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, 3. Untitled by David M. Bowers, 4 and 5: Artists Unknown 6. A Hole in the Head So All Knowledge May Pass by Derek Nobbs.
Copyright 2013 by Ann Marcaida.
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TO VIEW THE FILMS AND POETRY OF SMUT, CLICK ON THE LINKS IN THIS ARTICLE.
If you’re in search of artistic chameleons, look no further than Sinister Minister Underground Theatre (aka SMUT). This versatile group led by Robbert J. Bricker (The Undeniable) includes four Gather.com members who contribute outstanding film, music, photography, and poetry to the site.
SMUT’s work, produced in the bleak urban landscape of Pittsburgh, explores themes of personal alienation amidst urban and global decay. Much of their art is about being caged, whether one is stuck in a crumbling inner city neighborhood or born into a body with the “wrong” sexual orientation.
I met The Undeniable, an internationally-known musician, director and editor, when he was a finalist in Gather.com’s music video competition (here’s his entry, Rock-N-Roll Star). This video, the first professional multimedia I found on Gather, sent my inner art critic into ecstacy.
What impresses me most about SMUT’s films and videos is their ability to take images from an ordinary urban landscape— a dog walk, a couple of geese by a river, a friend who lingers, depressed, on a fire escape— and transform them into universal art. Click here to watch Gauss’ film Walking Jake, a visit with a very gifted canine. The Undeniable’s dancetrack makes it hard to sit still!
The mood of SMUT’s film Dead Dolls River Club (produced for Nine Inch Nails) is completely different. Consisting of little more than a pair of geese hanging out by a river, this film easily matches Blair Witch Project in its eerie simplicity. Images of the paired geese are layered over brief glimpses of mutilated dolls as sirens sound in the background— a tribute to murder victims whose bodies were dumped in the Allegheny river.
My favorite SMUT film is No Man No One Sees, which received one of their three Pill Award nominations (NYC). This tale of personal metamorphosis starts out looking like a Michael Jackson tribute, then slowly peels back the layers of its characters . The accursed somehow come to rest in a rainy Garden of Eden, while the accusers land in their own apocalyptic Hell.
But SMUT’s newest short film Burn That Closet Down goes beyond their earlier work. In addition to escaping their cage, SMUT members are bent on destroying it.
Burn That Closet Down is a chilling allegorical tale of Bricker’s coming out (he’s a former evangelical preacher). This ode to the pain of releasing a hidden inner self is largely symbolic, but the kicky soundtrack by the Undeniable and Judas Dean supplies the rant (review and film trailer here).
Perhaps the most surprising art emerging from SMUT is the poetry of actor/musician John Kimball and director Tom Bradley. In contrast to The Undeniable’s straightforward emotional lyrics, the poetry of Kimball and Bradley is complex and multi-layered, and their narrators seem continuously astonished at their world (more on Kimball’s poetry here). One of his most astonishing poems comes from a series in which Lucifer confronts God:
Excerpt from Supernova Sunrise by John Kimball:
And I realized
by the way you walked through me
when I stood in front of you with my arms open
you couldn’t see me anymore.
This is my declaration of war.
You first, you infinite smoke
you bastard child of oblivion
you infinite shadow
you will be brought to your knees
as you expect everyone else to be.
Your throne will be used as kindling
your righteousness will be obliterated
as you learn what it feels like to sing a song no one else will hear.
You will learn humility.
SMUT’s work is an eye-opening treat with a universal message: destroy the cages and boxes in which you find yourself, whether self-imposed or society-imposed. Then reach for the stars.
SMUT members are endless-motion machines— they never rest and they never stop creating. Theandrogynous divinity in Bradley’s poem Lunar 98 seems to speak for SMUT as they restlessly seek new creative territory:
Oh but I feel it growing in us. The husky voice of the goddess in my ear, “Honey, move on. There’s nothing more to see here.”
Catch SMUT here at Gather before they move on. This talented group is going places.
(Kudos also to SMUT members Szelc and Barb Magee. Both are production asssistants and actresses who appear in Man No One Sees).
A mandala is a symbolic, concentric diagram representing both the universe and the individual.
In the Buddhist tradition, a mandala is a guide to the process of self-discovery. In theory, meditating on a mandala helps one to travel progressively through their unconscious, ultimately reaching the center of their psyche.Then, armed with this self-knowledge, the individual can begin to strive outwards, working towards enlightenment and an end to suffering.
A mandala is seen as a symbolic means to discovering divinity by realizing that it resides within oneself.
So what? That’s a pretty abstract concept. How can a picture help one achieve enlightenment?
As an example, consider the life of artist-activist Lily Yeh. In her own words, “I got in touch with my inner light. Now I use it to ignite other people’s pilot lights. Making art in a destitute place is like lighting a fire in the dead of night.”
Below you’ll find a video in which Lily explains her life’s work. This is one of the most moving testimonials I’ve ever heard.
A brief synopsis:
Lily Yeh began her outreach in inner-city Philadelphia, creating mosaics (often in mandala or tree of life patterns) in abandoned lots. Her helpers included children, homeless persons, and drug addicts. Says Lily “We are all broken in one way or another. We put our heads together like broken pieces of tile.”
Lily formed a bond with a homeless drug addict, Joseph Williams, who eventually became sober and also became her spiritual guide.
Later, with the help of another guide, Lily felt called to heal the wounds of genocide in a Rwandan village. She helped the community construct an elaborate monument containing the bones of their loved ones, providing a sense of closure to their mourning. During this process, the people of the village learned how to build mosaic and pour concrete, both marketable skills.
Lily then asked the Rwandan children to create paintings of things they hoped to see in their future, such as cows and computers. Thanks to Lily’s catalysis, the village eventually became profitable by African standards, acquiring livestock, sewing machines, and solar panels.
So, give a listen to the amazing video below about Lily Yeh’s mandala journey based on her core inspiration (a love of art) which she transformed into an outward journey. Lily Yeh is a living example of a bodhisattva (apologies for the 14-second ad at the beginning).
Thanks to my poet friend Atticus for inspiring this article with his tribute to Lily Yeh:
“…Until an empty lot is endless resource,
your darkest devastation is transformation;
Until your weakness is equalized
by the hands of need;
Note: This is a segment of my Living Saints and Bodhisattvas series, first published on Gather.com. You can find links to the other segments here.
Robert Wright, a scholar of biology and religion, has a daring suggestion. In an editorial in The New York Times, he lays ground for a truce in the battle over evolution. What follows is a condensed version of his essay.
According to Wright, both believers and atheists need to cede some logical points to reach common ground. I’ll start, as does his essay, with believers.
Believers need a more modern theology, one that accepts that God did his work remotely, and his role in biological evolution ended when he created natural selection.
Many believers already accept that God used evolution to do his work, but also gave the process a helping hand. For instance, C. S. Lewis, a Christian scholar, said that evolution can’t explain our moral sense— our knowledge that there is a “right” and “wrong,” and our intuition about which is which.
Since Lewis’ time, evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that a moral sense tends to emerge when a smart, articulate species (no, we’re not the only one) develops reciprocal altruism, the habit of helping another while incurring a personal cost.
Dolphins exchange favors, and communal ground squirrels give predator warning cries, risking their lives in the process. If humans are ever wiped out, it’s entirely possible that a species with reciprocal altruism would eventually develop our intellectual and linguistic skills as well as our moral compass.
Chimpanzees, for instance, appear to have a sense of justice. They seem to display moral indignation, “complaining” to other chimps that a friend has cheated in a reciprocal relationship. The evolution of “chimp morals” seems to be approaching that of humans.
What concessions should scientists and atheists make? Says Wright:
Scientists and atheists should acknowledge that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin, who was not a believer, acknowledged this.)
Atheists and scientists need to grant that natural selection’s potent creative power adds plausibility, at least in theory, to the idea of a remotely creative god.
And what about the “purposelessness” of natural selection? Unlike a rock, the complex functionality of plants and animals needs an explanation.
Organisms have features (such as lungs) that seem designed to “do” things. These body parts serve a function within an organism, and in so doing so promote the organism’s larger purpose ofsurviving and spreading its genes. Natural selection isn’t really “purposeless.” As philosopher Daniel Dennett says, an organism’s evolutionarily-infused purpose is “as real as purpose could ever be.”
Let’s go back to back to C. S. Lewis’ ideas about morals. The fact that evolution tends to lead to the same morality regardless of species, says Wright: “may seem like jarring news for C. S. Lewis fans, who had hoped that God was the one who wrote moral laws into… the universe… after which he directly inserted awareness of them in the human lineage.”
However, if evolution favors certain morals, regardless of the species in which they evolve, doesn’t this mean that humans didn’t invent morals so much as discover them? If so, C.S. Lewis may have been right after all—certain moral laws may be “written into the universe.”
If morals are discovered rather than invented, this puts them in the same realm as mathematical truths. Instead of being artifacts of our brain wiring, ethics may be part of the extrinsic reality of the universe.*
In closing, Wright suggests a new theology that includes not only biological evolution but also cultural evolution, the evolution of ideas. When you define the global system this broadly, Wright says, it can take on a spiritual dimension.
Cultural evolution, including technology, has expanded social organization, leading us from hunter-gatherers to a global society. The cohesion of this social system (which Wright calls world peace) may depend on humans using their moral compasses with growing wisdom, as we critically examine our instincts and actions.
Wright’s proposed “theology” contains some classic elements: a divinely-imparted purpose that strives toward the “good”— a moral sense that is used in the skillful treatment of others. Yet Wright’s scheme doesn’t conflict with today’s science— and such conflicts lie at the root of many social problems.
A more modern theology could do what religion has often done in the past: use its awe-inspiring stories to foster social cohesion — but this time on a global, not tribal, scale.
*Further evidence that morals may be extrinsic and universal comes from an unlikely source, a computer tournament held in 1980. Computer scientists worldwide competed in a contest based on The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game dealing with cooperation. The winning strategy, called “tit for tat” bears an uncanny resemblance to reciprocal altruism.
Although I adore children, I dread it whenever a proud parent pulls out a commercial portrait. I brace for the inevitable: kids wearing blindingly-bright clothes and posed against a garish background, staring at me with frozen smiles.
My confused eyes look everywhere except at the children’s faces. And the people who produce these ghastly images call themselves “Children’s Photographers”? They’d be better off photographing still-lifes.
Recently, however, I discovered someone who is a children’s photographer in the true sense. Patrisha McLean of Camden, Maine creates magical, realistic portraits of children using her artist’s eye, her journalist’s experience and her keen love of nature.
McLean’s outdoor portraits focus on her subjects’ expressions and personalities. For this photographer, children are not only an object of love but also a beautiful manifestation of nature, to be studied in detail and have their images preserved for eternity.
During her photo shoots, McLean enters her subjects’ world. Instead of directing kids, she encourages them to run around and be themselves, play dress-up, and generally take the lead in their own photo session. She’ll even run after the energetic kids, which is no easy task when you’re toting a large professional film camera! Patrisha McLean’s spontaneous, un-posed portraits are the antithesis of garish department-store photos.
Like many children’s photographers, McLean became interested in portraiture after becoming a mother. Her early portraits (opposite), though unrefined in comparison to her later work, reveal an uncanny ability to capture un-posed innocence.
This little girl, with her sleepy eyes and drooping rose, looks as if she just got out of bed and has no idea what she’s doing in a photograph. The image fades away at the edges, like its subject’s fleeting youth. This monochrome portrait is so heart-breakingly shy and sweet that it becomes an indictment of the ugliness of commercial color portraits and their failure to capture the essential beauty of children.
As McLean’s interest in portraiture grew, she began studying photography and taking pictures of her children’s friends. Within a few years, she became a professional.
Wisely, Patrisha McLean has never attempted to work in color. Her universe is a monochrome universe of children romping in fields, thickets, and woods full of natural light and texture. McLean’s gorgeous commissioned portraits never fail to capture the ephemeral nature and magic of childhood.
Though she still does commissioned work on a limited basis, McLean is now focusing on her fine art series Flower Girls, with the intent of publishing a book in the near future.
The major theme emerging from the Flower Girls series is McLean’s fascination with the journey of the maiden, from birth through adolescence. Throughout her career, as McLean’s work progressed and her own children approached adolescence, her portraits of young girls became increasingly complex, symbolic, and even dark.
Nora with Old Roses (2003; left) is a lovely but simple comparison of a young girl with the heirloom roses McLean loves.
In contrast, Riley with Old Roses, Dreaming (2006; right) is a more complex study. There’s more visual motion in this portrait, perhaps suggesting impending womanhood and its monthly ebbs and flows.
Riley is dressed in black and her eyes are closed. If McLean didn’t tell us otherwise with her title, we’d assume that she’s dead. And, of course, that’s part of McLean’s point— the girl must die in order to make way for the woman.
As McLean’s work continued, her backgrounds became more threatening and the girls’ expressions more grim.
Often, I find her playing with our expectations of seeing a “Flower Girl” in the traditional sense— at a wedding. At first glance Frances with Old Roses(2006; left) could be a portrait of a little girl in a wedding party.
But as I look more closely, I wonder why Frances’ expression is so tense and the trees in the background seem so scary. Is it because someday soon, if she survives the difficult road to adulthood, she’ll be the “de-flowered” bride and not the Flower Girl?
In Clara with Rhododendrons (2006; right) the background is even more oppressive, and Clara, wearing a veil and a tense expression, is pressed and stifled by the vegetation around her. She seems about to disappear from view. Her torturous road to adulthood seems to weigh heavily on McLean’s mind.
McLean’s magnum opus, however, is her 2002 portrait Hillary with Hydrangeas. The first time I saw this portrait, I gasped with astonishment. Is this Dante’s Beatrice, gazing calmly at me from a place of eternal darkness? Will the shadowy background swallow her? Or will the bright, angel-shaped flowers, which Hillary holds out like a candle, protect her?
McLean has produced something I would never have thought possible— a portrait of a Goth Flower Girl. Light and dark, yin and yang, are in perfect balance. A picture of a girl holding flowers somehow transcends its original meaning to become a statement about the dualistic nature of our universe.
Beware of Patrisha McLean’s work. It’s potent. If you spend too much time looking with it, you may never again be able to look at a department-store portrait.
All photographs copyright 2011 by Patrisha McLean, reproduced with her permission. Image resolution has been lowered for online publication. To contact McLean or see more of her work, click on the link below.
Copyright 2011 by Ann Marcaida