One Name, One World

I attended a conference last weekend at the Manhattan Borough Community College called Transitions and Transactions II: Literature and Creative Writing Pedagogies in Community Colleges.  The paper I presented is called “Open Your Heart to the World” : Risk and Vulnerability in Teaching Ancient World Literature in the Community College.  The quote is from the Tao and here’s the context:

Without opening your door,
you can open your heart to the world.
Without looking out your window,
you can see the essence of the Tao.

These lines are particularly relevant to me, as someone who, given the choice, prefers to see the essence of the Tao from within rather than from without. For me to spend a weekend in New York at a conference is an uneasy proposition (see Poetry and Porousness!), and yet it was a rich experience for me on so many levels.  The most significant has to do with my own transition as a result of the transaction of sharing my paper.

The paper is about mutuality.  I mean mutuality as it’s used in Waking Down in Mutuality, defined by that organization’s Teacher’s Association as “a whole Being relationship disposition that holds BOTH self and others as equally valid and equally valuable expressions of Being. It can be practiced by any two or more people who care about their relationships with each other and want to find a deeper meeting.”  As a college teacher, I bring mutuality to my classroom as a way to facilitate learning.

That “deeper meeting” is becoming more active in my life, the ways in which Being is opening me to meet the world more deeply.  I submitted the paper under my “given” or family name, Crystal Bacon, the name I still go by at work and pretty much everywhere but my spiritual community which, oddly enough, includes Facebook and this Blog.  I had a name tag that said Crystal Bacon, and the bio the moderator read described this same person, Crystal Bacon.  Just looking at that cluster of letters is like seeing a familiar face in passing. There’s an identity to it, a story, a history.

It was ironic to me, as I sat listening to the credentials and achievements of this Crystal Bacon, that I was about to get up and read a paper about authenticity.  An image popped into my head of a sort of Tinker Toy-like crane from which an piece dangled, a sort of falling away of a kind of armature.  It was about my name.  After the session, the moderator said that she had tried to find my Blog but couldn’t.  I had to tell her that it was under a different name, Subhaga Crystal Bacon.  And this took me into a deeper investigation about who that is.

The name Subhaga was given to me by my guru, Mata Amritanandamayi known as Amma about six years ago at the Boston retreat, one of a half dozen that, in addition to public programs, make up Amma’s  summer tour.  It comes from the Lalita Sahasranama, the 1000 names of the Divine Mother: Om Subhagayai Namah, She who is auspicious.  For the next few years, it was a name that I only used between Amma and myself in prayer and meditation.  I thought of it as the name Amma knew me by.  It felt foreign to me, hard to pronounce.  I was not very committed to it.

Until I had my awakening.  This is one of those stories that could get longer and longer in the telling, sort of telescoping itself out from one stage to the next.  But once I had my awakening, and the identity of Crystal had fallen away, the name Subhaga seemed much more resonant.  One day, reading the Amma magazine called Immortal Bliss, I ran across an article about Amma’s favorite younger brother, whose name is Subhagan.  That sealed the deal.

There’s a way in which any name is not the true name.  This is a fitting link back to the Tao which begins on that very point: The way that can be named is not the true Way.  And yet, in this Third Dimension human realm, it is useful to name things.  The Buddhists say of the Dhamma, “words fall silent before it.”  And yet whole libraries have been filled trying to explain it.

The name Subhaga Crystal Bacon reflects the journey of awakening into consciousness.  It marks the serious start of the search at the feet of my guru, through the deepening interior search of meditation and finally the falling away of the constructed self.  Of course, I know that Crystal is a much more than serviceable name.  It is a beautiful faceted name, a reflector of light.  And that is who and what I am too.  But joined with Subhaga, auspicious, fortunate, it feels more complete.  It feels more like what I know myself to be from the inside.

ॐसुभगायैनमः

Om Subhagayai Namah!

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Report from the Land of Research Papers

I wouldn’t want you to think I’ve disappeared from this plane.  It’s the end of the semester at my teaching job, and so the final papers are coming in day by day and needing to be graded.  It’s a very particular sort of practice, this grading business.  The essays are about the way racial caste is reinforced by the US justice system through mass incarceration and then examining some effect of that on society or some solution to its inevitable ills.

We spent the semester reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, which is a pretty intense read, not so much because it’s exhaustively (and exhaustingly) researched, but because the news is so relentlessly BAD. Add to that my average class which is overwhelmingly African American with a fair representation of formerly incarcerated folks and the children, mates and family of incarcerated folks, and it becomes quite a heady mix.

Our time together is always rich, and this semester has been especially so.  I’m really consciously bringing mutuality to bear in the classroom, making a place where it’s safe for everyone to show up as they are and speak their truth.  Sometimes that truth is quite a bit out of kilter with what other students hold, and we have had some shouting matches and once a near call to “take it outside” between two young men on either side of the classroom and an ideological divide.  I had to actually shout myself that day just to be heard and sound a call to quiet, like a ref blowing a whistle.  It was all good.

Now reading their papers, I am confronted by how little effect I can have as a teacher of writing.  The content is often good, honest, raw, and knowing, but the expression doesn’t always match it.  I should add here that the course is in writing research papers, not criminal justice or sociology, so the outcomes I’m assessing have to do with framing a thesis, information literacy, ethical use of sources and so on.  Still, there is a good deal of delight in what I read.  

These students are the next generation in this emerging awareness of and movement to end race-based mass incarceration.  If it’s going to end, and they are almost equally of both minds: it can and it can’t, then it will in large part be up to them.  And yet when I consider how deep the layers are, poverty, ghettoization, and the inherent and (not so) invisible racism that underlies the process, it’s hard not to lose heart. 

Alexander’s book replaced Letters from the Dhamma Brothers as my primary text.  Students brought it to my attention, used it as a source.  When I first tried to read it, I was overwhelmed, but I assigned it anyway, and then I went online looking for some tool that would help them manage it.  I found the Veteran’s of Hope New Jim Crow Study Guide and Call to Action, and this has been a useful tool.  It asks the hard questions that the book raises about our individual complicity in this system, the way we are bamboozled by the media, especially television news, and both “reality” and fictional shows about law and order.  About our beliefs and understandings of the nature of race in the Obama America.  About the role of personal responsibility and how easy it’s been to blame black men for abandoning their families without wondering where they’ve gone.

What keeps me connected to the topic as the semesters and years go by is the way the students respond.  One young man, who to be frank is scrambling at this point to get everything in before the cut off date, a former felon who is in school on a grant, told me he couldn’t believe that “they allow” me to teach this.  He expressed concern for my safety, and one day, asked to speak to me privately in the hallway.  In tears, he told me he couldn’t read the book.  He couldn’t stand to read the relentless march of facts about the role of racism in criminal justice.  It was his story, and it was breaking his heart.  His resistance took the form of absenteeism and missed assignments, then at the birth of his new daughter, a rock lifted off of him, and he tore into the work with a vengeance.  It remains to be seen whether he gets the points to pass, but it will not be his lack of passion or intelligence if he doesn’t.  It will be the years and years of hitting the wall of race-based limitations that have directed so much of his early life.  One of his classmates has been to every class and participated quite powerfully and not handed in a single assignment.  Not one.  What to do?

All I can do is hold space.  I don’t mean to be cliched, but as I often tell them “a journey of ten thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Some succeed brilliantly.  Some muddle through.  Some fail.  All learn something that is bound to change their perspective on their journey.  And in ten or twenty or thirty years time, when they look at the nature and texture of race in American democracy, maybe they will see that collectively we made a difference.

A poem for Easter

Easter

Before he came to hang upon the naked wood
scorned, thorn-crowned,
before the empty womb received the flaming seed,
godhead complete,
the moon-cracked earth received the planting song.

Every day, cocks crowed, shoots grew,
leaves, moon, eggs
grew. Every purple night, the cycles drew
on moon, shoots,
eggs pale as lunar light, moon-shell sheer.

Before the tree was felled and stripped of bark and limb,
it bore fruit
amidst the leaves that broke the heat in pools of shade,
and we ate.

 

Leaning into Impalement, or Emotional Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection

We are entering the time of the astrological Grand Cross and at the same time the Christian commemoration of the Crucifixion.  These events are shadowing each other, shadowing us, as we each experience our own human suffering.  It’s been said that there is no hierarchy of suffering.  It’s also been said that suffering is unnecessary pain.   When does pain become unnecessary?  The thinking goes that it’s when we add to it by prolonging it.  And yet, there’s a fine line between prolonging pain by choice and prolonging pain by necessity.

There’s a powerful urge in us to get away from pain.  It’s a natural part of the body’s program to save itself.  If your shoe rubs, you take it off.  And yet when life rubs, it’s not so easy to take it off.  An article in the New York Times from 2008 called “The Urge to End It,” says about people who took their own lives, “They had wanted their inner pain to stop; they wanted some measure of relief; and this was the only answer they could find. They were in spiritual agony, and they sought a physical solution.” 

A young friend of mine who took his life earlier this month is said to have told his therapist that the way he dealt with his suicidal ideation was to walk right up to it as close as he could get until the urge dissipated.  The last time this happened, he kept walking.

Spiritual agony.  Inner pain.  Some measure of relief. This is the cycle of emotional crucifixion, death and resurrection.  I don’t mean to justify my young friend’s death.  I can’t.  It is something that happened and not just to him.  It happened to a hundred of us who were his family, friends and acquaintances.  But it also represents a way of leaning in to what is profoundly difficult.  For him, the leaning in ended his physical life; we can’t know if it ended his spiritual pain.  Inasmuch as the body is the highly sensitive organ of perception, it’s arguable that destroying it destroys the stimulus and feeling of agony.  Sadly, it also ends the opportunity to come through the other side of the particular difficulty that took him off the side of a bridge.

Since then, an image of a painting by Frida Kahlo has been with me, of her being impaled by the beam of a street car she was riding in her teens, an injury that plagued her throughout her life and also gave rise to her particular “poetics” of imagery.  As I watch the show of human horrors that unfolds daily in the newspapers, I am aware of the way each story is a kind of goad, and how much easier it must feel to turn the page, read the ads, follow the Yanks.

But if we lean into difficulty, lean into the impalement of our difficult experiences and feelings, there’s a way in which they open up a spaciousness in us at the deepest level of Being.  It’s as if the leaning in, the piercing of the heart, also inoculates us, leaves a trace of its DNA, a sort of psychic homeopathy that I’ve been thinking of as “informed spaciousness.”  Once we let it in, no matter how painful it is, we also let it out.  If we lean with all our weight on the goads of our suffering, then they will come through the other side.

Twice recently, I came across the term “organic Shrapnel,” a term from war that refers to pieces of other bodies that pierce a living person’s flesh.  It’s gruesome and it happens.  It feels to me like an apt metaphor for the way we experience our own individual pain and suffering in this life.  A parent’s or sibling’s or mate’s “explosion” sends up parts of themselves that puncture us.  Like their counterparts in the material realm, they sink deep, fester and begin a journey through the underground of our psyches toward expulsion and the light.

This is the season of rebirth.  The mystery religions, of which Christianity is surely one, are based on this cycle of suffering, death and resurrection.  Can we embrace the mystery?  Can we lean into our suffering, not to prolong it but to allow it to puncture the protective shell we’ve built up around our hearts?  Can we embrace the Shrapnel, trust that as we lean, we will learn, and our compassion will deepen?

Cynthia Bourgeault in her powerful book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, writes about the act of “substituted love,” in which those who have emptied themselves of personal will and opened to the Divine are able to fully take on the emotional burdens of others.  To kneel at the cross, to wait at the tomb is to receive the vision of the resurrection.  I invite you, at this time of deep transformation, to be both the Christ and the Magdalene.  To lean into the pain and await the release that will carry you to rebirth.

 

A Poem for Good Friday

Fish Fry at the Catholic School

The Dogwood trees seem resigned,
stationed like sentinels at the Middle School.
They blush faintly above the roof
line.  I admire their humility. (It’s not
their fault).  Twenty centuries later,
each pink bloom wears the marks
of passion.  Some ancestor’s wood
fashioned the cross on which He stood,
strung and hung like meat.  Dear
Man.   Son of God,
how they wept at Your bleeding feet.

Wind showers petal-tears
on clipped green grass
(no recess today).  Later,
believers will gather to eat
Your body, transformed, Transformer:
water, fire, This.

Poetry and Porousness

I want to write about two topics today that are related, at least to me, in this way that I am exploring both spirituality and poetry in this blog.  If you’re only interested in the spirituality part, it will be easy to jump down to it below in bold: Porousness.

Last night, I went to a poetry reading by three women at Fergie’s Pub in Philadelphia.  The trifecta are all related to Bryn Mawr College and know each other from there.  JC Todd who teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr and two former students, Darla Himles and Elizabeth Catanese.  I know JC from our years long affiliation with the Dodge Foundation. Elizabeth is my particular friend from the English Department at the Community College of Philadelphia, and Darla is Elizabeth’s long time friend from her Bryn Mawr days.  I say these things to indicate that this is not an impartial review of the reading but a personal response.

Elizabeth Catanese read first, and to me she was the star of the show, not just because she’s my friend and some of the poems were polished in the informal workshop we used to do in my office lunch for a couple of semesters.  She has a luminosity both in her person and in her poems.  They feel to me like the perfect conversation among head, heart and gut.  She and Darla Himles meet weekly at the Philly Trolley Car Diner and give each other prompts that they they write and revise.  So both readings went, as Darla said, from citrus to crabs.  Both read a poem about Audrey Hepburn and a lemon, it was the first in both of their lineups.  Darla Himles is a bit like Hepburn, a gamine with a cap haircut with sly eyes and a sparkling smile. Her poems are linguistically interesting and smart.  I admired them very much, the way Hepburn’s Holly Golightly admired the wares in Tiffany’s window.  But somehow they did not strike the same chord of yoga, if you will, as Catanese’s, by reaching into my heart and belly, not all the time anyway.  Third on the roster, the main act, so to speak was JC Todd.  JC reminds me somewhat of Marianne Moore–not least because last night she wore a hat, one that belonged to her husband’s grandmother, a black felt affair with a red feather.  She passed it around to raise money for a charity, a sweet touch.  Her poems have the high polish of many years of craft, and they are intricate and intelligent on the ear.  Her most impressive selections were from a series of Petrarchan sonnets about the Iraq war.  They’re sort of prose sonnets in that they tell the story of a woman medical officer’s experiences in Iraq, and they were bold, bloody and embodied.  They called to mind the still amazing sonnet sequence novela by Ellen Bryant Voigt called Kyrie about the influenza epidemic in 1918 -19.

There was a good crowd for the reading.  The upstairs at Fergie’s is small, and by the time the reading was underway–following a set by the musical duo Attractive Nuisance, who were wonderful–there was standing room only, and had the Fire Marshall come up, he would have been a bit concerned as to whether we would have been able to extricate ourselves without trampling. But we were lucky in that; the only fire was in the words.

Now we come to the Porousness part.  For me to be in a room packed with strangers is an exhausting experience.   I find that I am soon saturated by the energy of so many people pressed so close together, which is why I don’t go out much.  I feel a bit like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth.  As if I have fallen into another world where, although I’m dressed like everyone else and look like them, my body beneath my disguise is a skinless sensitive thing all nerves and receptors.  I both can and can’t  bear it.

In the beginning, I sat quietly until I was joined by a woman who is a painter and photographer, connected to the reading by a sequence of relationships that have to do with making poems from art, ekfrasis.  Like me, she said she does not go out much.  I introduced my self as Subhaga, which led to a conversation about how I got my name (from Amma), and a short Q and A about my spiritual background.  We talked about meditation, awakening and painting in nature.  It was sweet.  Then we sat in companionable silence while the room filled beyond capacity and the noise rose, and the mic for the reading had to be turned continually louder to compensate for the sounds from Fergies’ downstairs room where the business of drinking and shouting was well underway.

Energetically, I was able to stay in the paradox of the noise,the crowd and the silent spaces in the poems.  I had set the parking meter for 90 minutes, which I hoped would be enough time to hear what I had come to hear.  But there was also an inner parking meter ticking at the same time as the one outside.  The energetic meter for my capacity to be surrounded by so much human contact, each person with his or her transmission field, his or her anger, sorrow, grief, disappointment.  Because, friend, beneath the disguises we all don to move around the world, in search, like the Bowie character, of clear, fresh water, the thirst to be met rises out of a Sahara of the soul.  This being human is, after all, as Rumi says, like a guest house, constantly being visited by the difficult relative, some who come and never leave.  For me, to be in this bath of human suffering damped down beneath a snappy demeanor and sated with draft beer and pub fries is exhausting.  I’m the sponge that soaks in all that pain.

In the car, in the cold, at 13th and Sanson, I sat for a moment while someone idled off my drivers’ side door wondering if I was ever going to give up my spot.  I waved her on and breathed the frosty silence.  I felt into my body laced with exhaustion.  I dialed up my friend the GPS lady to take me home–even though on some level, of course, I know the way–a sort of autopilot to allow me to bring my focus to the act of navigation.  It was a bright starry night, and as I made my way through the inexplicable logjam of cars on the Schuykil Expressway back to Bryn Mawr, I began to unwind into the spaciousness that is always within me.   I came home, greeted the dog, drank two liters of water, and read a few pages of Molly Gloss’s Wild Life then fell into a deep and unbroken sleep for 9 hours.  Mine is a big battery and it takes a long time to recharge.