September 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
In my last post, I stumbled on the idea that religion teaches us to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches us to see the world from all points of view. This topic deserves to be expanded. The word “art” can be a little vague because we forget the wide breadth that this covers within culture. To name just a few areas where art is who we are—film, television, literature, journalism, architecture, fashion, visual arts, theater, the art of making a speech, the art of making a meal, the art of conversation.
Art provides empathy. Empathy is the greatest experience that we can achieve. Through all of the means I have listed (and then some) we strive to share something special to us in order to give that feeling to others. We find a breakthrough in our craft, which leads to the completion of a story, which leads to the beginning of another story. By sharing this, others may feel what we feel. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they are opposed to what we feel, and they will create a different story out of that experience.
By sharing, we spread the meme, and the meme grows. It is an organic process—ever-evolving. Through that evolution, life continues to change, only remaining the same in its substance. When we do not allow the story to shift and change, we’re in danger. If we do not allow metaphor and symbolism to have their way, we’re lacking in the imagination that can save us.
In my research, I’m currently studying the process of the mystics. Mystics often come from a traditionally religious background, but they have also been some of the great non-practicing figures, such as the poets Rimbaud or Walt Whitman. Writer Gershom Scholem shares:
“The most radical of the revolutionary mystics are those who not only reinterpret and transform the religious authority, but aspire to establish a new authority based on their own experience… The formlessness of the original experience may even lead to a dissolution of all form, even in interpretation (On The Kabbalah And Its Symbolism, 11).”
The word mystic can easily be substituted here for artist. Through persistent study, the artist breaks down what came before to create a new language. This language not only captures the zeitgeist, it transforms it.
The literalist, on the other hand, sees the words within holy books as stagnant, unmoving, ever the same. This causes a conservative rigid outlook on life—black and white, good and evil, wrong or right. To get beyond the words, we must stare at the words for a long time. We must examine their meanings. For example, the word good comes from god. The word evil originates from devil. Our language is steeped in religious concepts. The more I have examined these two words and their meanings, the more I have realized that they don’t actually exist. They only exist as a cultural concept, and not as a reality. Good and evil creates false judgments against outsiders, against people who have a different lifestyle or culture than our own. Within the parameters of good and evil, there is a language of conformity. These terms allow people to persecute others on the basis of differences and a lack of understanding.
We are an animal, and animals have motivations for survival. The greater portion of our faults come from being easily spooked. We over-compensate when we perceive the slightest threat. We are over-crowded in cities, stressed out and impatient, over-worked and struggling. News stations work hard to keep us uneducated and afraid. This in turn makes us want to commit atrocities against perceived threats.
Democracy is extremely fragile. We must be vigilant, because at any moment democracy can turn back into fascism. Last week the president of China visited Seattle. He had dinner at Bill Gates’ mansion. Fascism is happening right now in China. Activist artists such as Ai Wei Wei, Liu Yi, Zhao Zhao, and Chen Guang are threatened by the government on a daily basis. Leading up to June 4th, over 100 activists were taken into custody before the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Some were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Others were spirited away by police on forced vacations. Anything in order to silence the voices that are determined to remember the protesters who lost their lives in 1989. It is clear that not much has changed since then. Art is a threat against those who spread fear.
We must be grateful for our freedom of speech. In the US, just sixty years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a copy of Lady Chattely’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (one of the greatest novels ever written). Allen Ginsberg underwent an obscenity trial for his poem Howl. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer was banned for close to 30 years until the early 1960’s. People in Hollywood were blacklisted from working in film, and censorship was around every corner. Communism became a dirty word, and the American government used that fear against us. We are told that we live in a democracy, but vigilance is necessary in order to fully achieve that.
This week is Banned Books Week, highlighting some of the great truth-tellers of our time and of the past. Some of the works epitomize the statement that you should write as though no one is ever going to read your work—they are daring and free. Other books might seem commonplace to us, but in other cultures they are viewed as dangerous. By empathizing with the characters in these books we are taken into a different point of view than our own. We are given the possibility of a mind expanded. For the fundamentalist or the fascist, that is a truly dangerous prospect.
To view 196 banned titles, click the link to visit Powell’s Books
September 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky in regards to some questions I had for the book I’m writing on the origins of religion. Beforehand, my contact gave me a study guide entitled Judaism Decoded. Like every faith, Judaism has an argument for why their religion is chosen above the rest. In the guide I learned that while other belief systems began with the visions and experiences of just one to a few people, the Jews say that millions of people witnessed God at Mt. Sinai when Moses was given the commandments and instructions on how to live. Apparently, every eyewitness relayed all the same details and shared the same memories—blaring trumpets, bad weather and all. And yet, only Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain and be in God’s presence. It made me wonder why one has to believe the unbelievable to subscribe to a religious way of life.
This brought me to a point that the writer Karen Armstrong makes in her lectures. She has a fascination with the many Jews and Orthodox Christians who do not put any emphasis on the act of belief. Rather, they find their spirituality through the expression of ritual. Faith is not the main goal, but rather it’s the ritual that transforms the individual. I wondered if the Rabbi felt the same.
Rabbi Bogomilsky is a very busy man. After a day of playing phone tag, he finally had some time to talk. I was glad that I had taken time to prepare. In response to a question on the continuity of Judaism, he spoke of the Torah and why the oral tradition is so important. Today, we can barely understand the ancient texts that tell us of the events surrounding Moses. In comparison, the oral tradition stays current to contemporary language. “The Torah never changes, but our application of it changes.”
I asked him if he agreed with Karen Armstrong’s summation of Judaism as not being belief-centric, but rather ritual-based. He strongly disagreed. “We are not commanded to believe in God, but we are commanded to know God… The world is mundane. God elevates it from mundanity. In Hebrew the term for the world is olam, which means concealment. Through God we are given the tools for how to take a mundane world and elevate it. It’s a mental act, not emotional.”
Of course, different sects of Jews believe different things. In regards to the majority of Jews in Seattle who are non-practicing, he chooses not to judge. He understands that it’s a big commitment. And then he made my favorite comment: “Most people don’t think about their mission or purpose, they think about their existence—what job to take, who to marry, etc.” Right then, I felt a kinship with the Rabbi. Though I do not subscribe to a faith, my study of religions through history, and the expression of that study through writing and art, is my purpose and mission. The main difference between religion and art is that faith teaches a person to see the world from a specific point of view, while art teaches a person to see the world through all points of view.
Even in the most routine of days, I have a hard time comprehending how anyone could see the world as mundane. In fact, it is often within the routine that I find my most elevated moments. Through the exercise of a discipline, there is either frustration or a breakthrough. Each offers a new lesson. In each moment we are growing. Perhaps “olam” features well into this daily discovery. There is always something hidden to discover.
In this same vein, I have reached a new phase in my research of religion. Mainly, I’m no longer angry, and I no longer care about my own personal story of escaping the grip of Fundamentalist Christianity. Rather, I am in love with my topic. All religions are connected to each other, whether adherents would like to admit that or not. It makes for an incredibly fascinating story. And though I can recount the horrific details of conquest, torture, and sublimation within religious history, there is also so much we can learn about ourselves through an understanding of what we have believed throughout time. It has become my key to understanding human nature.
July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment
“If I believe in God, and it turns out to be true, then I go to heaven. If I don’t believe, and it’s true, I go to hell. The safest bet is on believing, and if it turns out to not be true, than what have I lost?”
This is an argument that has been posited to me many times by family members and people within the church. It is known as Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal was a seventeenth century French philosopher, physicist, and mathematician. He believed that there was more to be gained than lost by believing in God due to the potential for heaven or hell in the afterlife. For those who believed, he saw only a finite deficit of pleasure in the present. For those who didn’t believe, the possibility of hell was too great a loss.
If a person struggled to have faith, Pascal advised that they should not look for more proofs of God, but rather they should abate their passions and follow the rituals of the church. Through these actions, they would be cured of their ill—ritual creates belief.
This is a weak argument from every angle. The wager presents an issue that always seemed like a shoddy reason for believing—fear. Pascal tells us that we need to do our utmost to believe on the basis of fearing hell. However, there is no evidence of hell; and there is no evidence that aligning ourselves with a savior figure will take us to heaven and a new earth. Viewed from the outside, these tales seem ridiculous—ancient leftover legends that somehow still make an impact on the gullible.
The concept of heaven and hell did not originate within Judaism. At the time of the Old Testament, they believed in Sheol—a Hebrew word that is said to have meant abyss, dirt-pit, or grave. It is a place underneath the earth where the dead congregate. Families were buried in the same location so that they could continue to commune together. However, the main preoccupation of the dead was sleep. Sheol did not differentiate according to belief. Everyone went to the same place and never came back. There was no soul or spirit that departed from the body. The gate to Sheol was in the West, because the sun sets in the West—an idea directly borrowed from the Egyptians. As time progressed, our current conception of heaven developed from a mixture of sources within surrounding religions. Within the Bible, the gates of heaven are well described, but what lies beyond is quite vague. Perhaps the glory of heaven is best left to the imagination, where it remains until we go to Sheol—the grave pit.
The second part of Pascal’s Wager is the recommendation for non-believers. He assumes that the non-believer is ruled by passions, and because of this, they cannot find their way to belief. By comparison, the Christian is taught to repress their natural instincts. By suppressing an action, the thought of that action grows over time. So it is assumed, that a non-believer who doesn’t subscribe to this repression must be driven by lust and a desire for 24/7 intoxication. But this of course, is not the case.
The illness lies within the repression and remains in the idea that nature is evil. The well-balanced non-believer does not struggle with unbridled tendencies, which is to say that not all non-believers are well-balanced. There are many who have recently left the faith, and are still struggling with leftover dogma. For those that are far beyond that, or never had to deal with it in the first place, “pleasures” are a nonentity, experienced freely and hardly given a thought. They are not an issue of control; rather they are a natural part of life. There is no internal battle going on. People are not driven by “sins,” rather we are driven by the human needs for happiness, health, community, food, and reproduction. Our actions are swayed towards surviving and thriving—a phase of excess is put to bed in lieu of this.
The “sin” is an aspect of a particular belief, and is not a negative for the non-believer. It is a system of control for the group that believes—such as modesty, laws about what foods you can eat, sex before marriage, or resting on Sunday. These “sins” have nothing to do with the person who does not believe. They have no bearing, and are a means of unification for the tribe of the faithful. Avoiding these “sins” is a way for the religious to separate themselves from the pack.
The second instruction for the non-believer is to engage in the rituals of belief in order to start believing. This is another way of saying, “fake it till you make it.” In Judaism and Orthodox Christianity, ritual is the basis of the religion. Believing is not the essential ingredient. The religion is made real through the actions of ritual. But in Western ideas of Christianity, belief is the foundation for entering paradise. One must believe that Jesus existed and rose from the dead, and they must live their lives in accordance with him in order to join him in the afterlife.
When Pascal tells the non-believer to not look for more proofs of God’s existence, he is adding to the marketing campaign of every religion. Religion crumbles through the search for truth. This is why the religious are told not to question. There is nothing original to the faith of Christianity. Within other beliefs, all of the basic tenets were there for up to 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus. Yet, Christians would like to think that their faith magically appeared from the sky. Instead, it was an evolution of ideas, a borrowing of myths, and a copycat of rituals from other religions. The story of history reveals itself as a series of political maneuvers where beliefs reflect the reigning leaders. Rather than spirit, there is conquest.
This borrowing of principles and rituals was nothing new at the time. This is why from Tezcatlipoca in Ancient Mexico to Tammuz of Babylon (to name just two of many more) people worshipped the dying and rising savior figure according to the time of year. Over thousands of years, sacrifice evolved into sacrament, and today we worship the current incarnation of the dying and rising savior—Jesus Christ.
The collective consciousness creates our story and our reality. Belief began as a form of magic in order to fulfill the desire for control over nature. At this point, we have so much control over nature that we may just succeed in destroying it.
The only thing proven by religion is that beliefs spread like a virus, and those beliefs form our culture. I would wager that the single most motivating force for conversion to Christianity is the threat of hell and the promise of heaven. It is a great marketing tool for gathering followers. So much so, that ever since, people have been saying, “Better to be safe than sorry.”
Fear controls the masses. It is a method of herding people into doing what you want them to do. When you take the veil off the fear, the fear has no power. Unmasked, we can see it for what it really is. It loses its mystery and mastery over us. We gain, rather than lose from this process, and only then can we find freedom.
March 19, 2015 § 1 Comment
“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter in-law against mother in-law (Luke 12:50–53).”
It’s been fifteen years since I first came out to my family as a non-believer in Evangelical Christianity. From my current vantage point, I see now the evolution of not only myself, but of how my family has dealt with the situation. We’ve all changed in the process, and who we are today has little resemblance to who we all were when I was twenty-one years old.
At that young age there was the added pressure of two parents struggling to let go of their youngest daughter as I entered adulthood. With that letting go came a release of control. Because I’d spent my entire youth living in secret, I suddenly was not the person that anyone had thought I was. In fact, I was what I had feared all along. I was exactly what I had repressed. And more than that, I realized, it wasn’t a bad thing. I was learning how to be happy. What was bad was the amount of rejection I experienced – not only losing 99% of my all-Christian friends, but also being threatened with losing my family for being what my father termed as “a whore.” Lately I’ve been re-appropriating that slur to mean, “a female that cannot be controlled.”
We all got off to a rocky start. All I knew at that point was that the church was not for me. Within those confines I was suffocated, depressed, bored, and dead inside. I realize now that this is because I was and am rooted in creative expression. The artist needs diversity in order to breathe. The artist needs questions. Flat answers that defy all logic are merely roadblocks. The constant question, rather, is conducive to taking what is faulty, and transforming it in order to make it better. I saw clearly that the church does not do what it says it will. The church is for charlatans and blind followers who are told that if they question, they are heretics and outsiders. This keeps people in a place of fear and is a form of Fascism.
I am currently writing a book on religion from the point of view of the insider who became the outsider. Because my husband critiques my chapters in our writers group every week, my words are at the forefront of his mind at family dinners. He struggles to understand why and how my family believes what they do, so he asks questions. It’s gotten to the point where we talk about religion every single time we’re with them. The elephant in the room is now our go-to.
Though it’s awkward, though I sometimes feel offended, and my mother often gets emotional, it appears that we’re traveling through some necessary therapy. Reaching towards middle age, I have come to the point where I need to be respected as an adult within the construct of my family. I will no longer allow them to undermine me. By my side is my warrior husband who never backs down. I doubt we would all be so open without Michael’s curiosity and his need to defend me.
Michael has had little experience with the faithful. He still feels shocked that when asked, my parents relayed that we will go to hell without Jesus in our lives. All along, I had told him that this was the case, but he couldn’t believe it until he heard it directly from them. He told my father that he now understands when my dad says, “We worry about you.” And of course, they pray everyday that we will be with them at family dinners for eternity – as though life continues on as normal in “paradise.”
It would be morally incorrect of me to believe in something that I know is inherently false. Not only false, but the single cause of more abuse, tortures, deaths, genocides, conquests, and fear than anything else in the history of civilization. My father and sister have said, “If I believe and it isn’t true, then I’m wrong and there’s no harm done. If I believe and it is true, then I go to heaven.” But at what cost? The message is love but the giving is conditional. “The Other” is demonized for being under the sway of Satan – therefore outsiders can’t be trusted.
My sister and I are now finally opening up to each other. Though we grew up in the same family, we had completely different experiences of the same exact events. Our roles were such that we were treated very differently – she was and is the much older sister who can do no wrong in the eyes of my parents, while I am the stubborn younger sister who brayed at every perceived injustice. She will do whatever it takes to achieve harmony, while I prefer to tell it like it is to get to the core of the truth in a person. Our personalities created divergence in cause and effect. She and her family have been on the mission field in Papua New Guinea for close to twenty years. I thought that I could live with her silence on into the future, but now that she is finally talking, I see that we have reached a place that is necessary and important. It’s allowing me to let go of the anger that I feel when her idea of “harmony” equals not allowing anyone to know what she really feels.
Though it’s good to understand where all of us within the family are coming from, I’m not sure where it all leads. On the one hand, talking openly brings me closer to them, on the other there’s only so much we can say before hitting our heads against a wall. I find their beliefs in an antiquated mythology to be embarrassing – embarrassing that anyone could possibly believe what they do. On their end, they will never accept my views until my views become their own – an impossibility. If you return faulty merchandise, you don’t go back to the store to buy it all over again.
The perceived need for a Savior did not begin with Christianity. There are at least sixteen crucified and resurrected Saviors, which predate Jesus. Most of which are said to have been born of a virgin on December 25th. They all share variations on the exact same story including time spent in the desert withstanding temptations; turning water to wine; riding in a procession on a donkey; sacrificed to save humans from their errors, and resurrected to bring eternal life. These stories stem from Egyptian beliefs to Greek and Roman Paganism to Hinduism and Buddhism. Jesus is much less a Jewish story than a Pagan one. In the transfer of the telling from the Jews to the Gentiles, Jesus took on the traditional Pagan narrative. The story would have gained little traction without the details of deity come to save us.
Instead of being saved by religion, the modern narrative has shown that we need to be saved from religion. Though civilization is evolving fast, the faithful threaten to devolve our communities at every chance. One of the most important ethics for Millenials is the issue of equality. Western culture is moving beyond the place of women as property. “Good versus evil” is merely code for “us versus them” or tribalistic instincts. And though the church has always been the last to accede in the acceptance and freedoms of minorities and differing cultures, our attempts at democracy have shown that with respect, we can all co-exist and learn from each other. Faith, however, often gets in the way of this with the problem of, “My belief is the only way, and everyone else is an infidel.”
The God of the Bible has a faulty sense of ethics more akin to a gang leader, and hardly seems perfect at all. He requests that people commit atrocities in order to prove loyalty to him, and by the book of Revelation, it is clear that Satan is a mere puppet rather than a mighty foe. God admits that creating earth was a mistake – he wants a do-over. His codes pale in comparison to what we now know as right and wrong. He is faulty, and it is obvious that his author is man.
As a young Christian, I used to berate myself for being an “over-analyzer.” I thought this was a bad thing – mainly because it threatened to disrupt my faith. I’m happy now that it did. Analyzing is what I do best. I love research and games of connect-the-dots. I love the story of how religions grew, and the politics behind why they grew. It’s a fascinating story – rife with myth, clichés, and superstitions. Though we can now understand much of our world through scientific terms, there will always be questions about what lies beyond, and why are we here? These are good questions and an expansive space to exist within. All answers are counterfeit and meant to lead to more questions. We are merely tiny breaths in time. We are what the earth is – things that grow. Our growth is shaped by individuals, but driven by passing generations. The truth is that it’s the people who ask questions that shape the world we live in. Some have died for it. But in the process they cleared the way for more asking. No one grows by staying in line, they grow by exploring.
It’s clear that the largest hurdle most families face is a lack of communication. We hear it in reminders not to talk about politics or religion at family dinners. Many people don’t see a way of discussing it without becoming heated and upset. But until those issues are discussed, there can be no movement towards mutual respect. How can we see through the eyes of the other until we are given a chance to understand their motives and views? It’s not about coming to a place where everyone can be on the same page – it’s about understanding our differences.
By making my views clear to my family, they can come to the conclusion that I am not simply a “fallen soul” or a “rebellious person.” They can see that I have actually thought these ideas out, and that I have reasoning behind the different direction my life has taken. Our open communication is important in the respect that it can break clichés. I wish however, that their side of the story would break clichés as well. They recite words that I have heard since I was a small child. But it’s still fair to make an attempt at breaking through that version to get to the heart of our true stories. I’m doing my best to get to know them beyond their recitations.
I still exist within that role of the child they couldn’t keep in line. My words never come out as clearly with my parents as with other people. This really frustrates Michael. It’s exhausting for me to exist within the place where my parents think and the place where I think as well. I know their thoughts exactly because I used to think the same way. This can be vocally stunting, because I don’t want to hurt them. There’s a fine balance between being oneself and respecting the feelings of others. My mother was incredulous when I told her that I try my best to respect her faith, as though this should be a given. They think that I am deceived, while I think that they are deceived. Perhaps we are two sides of the same coin. But perhaps not. Faith is static and fights to never be challenged by new information. I welcome openness and fresh thought.
All of this makes me wonder how our story will unfold. Will we continue in this vein, or will the talks on religion come to an end with the end of writing my book? I watch them, with their hopes that I will come around, and cringe over their pain. I want to be understood but know that I never will be – my husband fills that gap. As a family, we all come to terms with this through focusing on our common features instead. I have my father’s personality, while Michael is very much like my mom. We all joke over our similarities. Half the table orders one thing and the other half orders another. We all love each other and have a strong bond of friendship – simply being related is no guarantee of that. I know for sure that I am luckier than most.
December 27, 2014 § 5 Comments
I’ve never written a how-to post before – my main mode is usually to bring you philosophies, ideas, and experiences of art, religion, and books. But coming up to the New Year, I’m thinking a lot about how I live my life, and how everyday I strive to achieve my utmost in creative output – whether through gathering information, writing, or making art. Maybe some of what I’ve learned along the way can help you achieve your goals as well – either as a reminder, or a guide. However, everyone is different, and the following is only what I’ve found works for me.
We live in reality – a place where bills need to be paid. The key is to find a job where you’re partially in control of scheduling, with a boss who understands and appreciates what you do. Or better yet, work freelance where you’re generally your own boss. I used to think that working nights would be best for me – but in truth I just slept most of the day and stayed out too late. The problem with working as a server is that you spend the night serving people who are out having fun, so you think you deserve some fun for yourself after. It also takes a few hours post-shift for that amped up energy to fade out.
Something that took me many years to learn – your only addiction should be the act of creating. An addiction to a substance is mind numbing – keeping you from accessing your full potential for awakeness and progress. An addiction to socializing can be useful for getting your work out there, but generally it stems from a need to feel loved, and this can get in the way of productivity. My priorities are family, work, and then friends. It’s not easy to make that call on friends. I allot myself the time to see people outside of work up to three times a week (rather than the every-night-escapades I had in my twenties).
The key to being productive is to establish a routine. In a perfect day, I wake up, and make the same breakfast that I make everyday of the week (this eliminates extra decision-making, and keeps space open for more important issues). I make my French Press coffee, peel a Clementine, dole out vitamins, fry an egg with a sprinkling of garlic powder, butter some toast, and pour a cup of orange juice. Then I sit down to eat, and read something informative – either magazine articles, or art books. I check email, and then write a chapter – either for my book on religion, or for a novel based on Bohemian Paris in the 1920’s. When my energy flags, it’s time to go to the gym. This gets the blood flowing again, and keeps my body functioning properly. Afterwards, I come home, shower, and make one of two lunches – either lentil soup or garlic naan with avocado or hummus. Then I watch 45 minutes of trash television to give my brain a rest. After this, I make a strong cup of coffee with my Italian percolator, and disappear into my studio where I play Joni Mitchell or Jazz. I spend the rest of the afternoon and evening building canvases, prepping them, painting, sculpting, planning, researching artworks. By 7pm, I’m exhausted. But it’s time to make dinner. I cook a delectable portion of protein, with a tasty salad sprinkled with olive oil and vinegar, afterwards, some chocolate for dessert, and then a movie or a documentary with my husband. This is a perfect day.
Unfortunately, when I stick to this schedule, I never get out of my cave except for that brief time at the gym, which is right across the street. Once there, small talk questions feel strange because I can’t even remember what I did yesterday. There’s only enough room in my head for books, ideas, and projects – so my short-term memory is terrible.
Also, in reality, this schedule gets thrown off constantly by art modeling. With all the rushing around, it takes me two days to clear my mind and be productive again. I store a lot of pain from the poses, and that too takes recovery time. So I’ve decided that for the New Year, I’m going to mark in pencil the days that I am available to model, and the days that are for my own work (to avoid over-booking or erratic schedules). Hopefully, this way I’ll be less apt to get into the stressed out, anxiety place. The work you do in your own time matters and needs to be prioritized. This has recently paid off with the sale of my largest painting – allowing me to work as a writer and artist full time for at least the next five months. A much needed change of events after developing a bad case of Sciatica from a difficult pose, which cost me the ability to walk for two days. This too, was a reminder to work harder as an artist, rather than for pocket change as a model. I want to give my utmost, and the utmost I can give is in art and writing.
An important aspect of living creatively is to keep your mind open. Explore not just styles and forms that you like, but also the things that you don’t understand. There is something to learn everywhere, in all facets. If you stay holed up for too long, you lose viable chances for synchronicity (or connections) that produce more ideas for great art. In my downtime, I visit galleries, museums, go to plays, restaurants, and explore antique shops and boutiques. Sometimes I’ll run into an art friend and learn something new as we talk. Sometimes I’ll see artwork by people that I know, which makes me feel happy for them, while also inspiring me to work harder.
In the realm of success, there will always be someone who is doing better than you are. It’s hard not to feel envious – but that envy is an important force that can motivate you to go beyond your own perceived limits. I often read a magazine that highlights the “It People” of the Seattle arts scene. Some of them are talented. Many of them are just popular and great at promoting themselves and their ideas. I can’t help think that they will probably be here today, but gone tomorrow. I can never understand why certain people win the awards, while the other more talented people don’t. It makes no sense. Art is subjective. So I say to myself – would I rather be the boy band that gains tremendous popularity and then burns out fast from over-saturation? Or would I like to be the person who continuously works hard to create great work with a long career – like Leonard Cohen for example. The answer is obvious.
Often, when I’m not in my studio, I think that art is crazy. I wonder why I do it, and why I feel the need to do it. Yet while working, I am completely absorbed in a meditation, and unaware of anything else. Nothing outside of it can touch me. Maybe that is the answer. Or it’s the constant surprise of images and shapes that blossom in front of me. It seems like magic.
I don’t have the same questions about writing. Writing is how I process and grow – it’s second nature to me now. My problem with it is, that not nearly as many people read my writing, as I would like. Words also create barriers between people, and often my words inspire people to attack me and hurl hateful comments in my path. For some reason, they think this is appropriate when they haven’t even met me. Similarly, I often assume that they are angry psychopaths who spend all their time in dark basements.
One major thing that I have learned from the experience of having my writing out there is that once the writing is released, it’s no longer mine. On one hand, the writing might have been true of me when I wrote the piece, but as time passes, it no longer is. It only exists now for the reader, and their experience of the piece is separate from myself. Whether they affirm the piece, or hate it – it’s no matter. What happens out there isn’t really important, and you can’t take it personally. It’s good to avoid all reviews and comments as much as possible. While on this blog, however, I enjoy the dialogue that a post can inspire.
Getting lost in the meditation of writing or painting, undergoing writer therapy, having epiphanies, solving problems – as they say, the joy is in the journey. There is no joy after the fact. I do it for the process. Once it’s done, I’m done with it too. We rarely know the extent of the effect that our work has on other people, and once the work is out there, it’s no longer yours. It’s for everyone else and how they interpret it.
In all honesty, I wish that the only people experiencing my work were people I’ve never met before and never will meet. It would be easier that way. People have certain perceptions of me, so if they read my memoir, for example, they’ll suddenly find out that I lived this whole other life that they might find distasteful, strange, or odd. They come to know things I don’t even tell my closest friends. For this reason, even though I’ve written a second memoir, I might not publish it. We’ll see. I’m choosing to be less personal now, which is something that happens with age.
More and more, I find, that people outside of my art subculture have a hard time understanding me. I too, have a hard time understanding them. It’s always been the case, but it seems to be getting more extreme as time passes. Maybe it’s because, again, I’m getting older. The bank teller assumes I work a corporate job, and wonders why I’m out of work so early. No one outside of an art studio gets what I do for a living, and they automatically think perverse thoughts about what it means to be a living nude.
This is another core of being a creative person. Groups are dangerous places where progressive thinking is stunted by peer pressure. In education, you might end up with hundreds of students who all are ingrained to think the same way, draw the same way, with little that is unique or groundbreaking about what they are doing. In religions, progress has been stunted for thousands of years by the commitment to never question faith or explore anything outside of it. In politics, fascism has ruled in the same way. Corporate culture, again, plays on delicate balances of rules and standards.
I am nearing the end of my 35th year, and I’ve been watching creative people fall off the map in order to make ends meet. It happens for several reasons. Number one is that they have kids. People often go to extremes as young parents. They can get insanely religious, or obsessed with being healthy, or driven to make as much money as possible. Number two, the older you get, the more that fears of financial insecurities can loom. We start thinking about health concerns, how quickly time passes, and age.
Even though I only make enough money to get by, there are still things that can be done to lessen my financial worries. I just started an IRA retirement fund, for example. I’m hoping to invest 15 – 20% of my income. I also do my best to live simply. I wear variations on the same theme every single day – black leggings and a shift dress (again, less decision-making). I’ve learned to cut my own hair if I have to. In my single days, I never had a car or a TV – I could still do without both if it came to it. The thing is, I’m happier living this way than I ever was as a kid who had every material possession I wanted. Doing what you love is the most important thing in life. Sacrifices feel like nothing in the face of losing that. People come and go, but your passion stays with you and keeps giving back. In fact, it’s the passion that has always drawn people to me in the first place and vice versa.
The last, most important thing to remember is that being an artist is not a selfish act. I get sick of hearing that to be an artist you have to be a narcissist – said in the most spiteful way. To explore one’s own psyche and reveal it to the world is a courageous activity. What other psyche do we have? The only one we can see into most fully is our own. And in that lies the stories that connect us together and unify our total human experience. The artist makes the viewer or the reader or the listener feel less alone. The artist tells us, you’re not the only one who’s had crazy experiences that are hard to understand. Life is hard, but we have beauty to make sense of it. It’s this creativity that keeps us sane. It keeps us asking questions, and builds our civilization into something better than it was before. The artist is a giver – maybe not of their time (which is so limited in the face of creation), but of their ideas, perceptions, and philosophy. Art is how we grow.
October 8, 2014 § 2 Comments
We have a friend who stays with us intermittently between foreign travels, hiking trips, and constant moves. He enjoys shedding life belongings to experience the freedom of living out of a few packs. In between hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and moving to Washington DC, he left a couple of bags of stuff here and a few cameras. One bag had been sitting in the corner for a week, so yesterday I finally pulled it out. Underneath a nondescript pair of grey sweatpants, I found his most abhorrent belonging – a bottle of mezcal with a dead viper biting onto a scorpion inside.
I am a big fan of mezcal, but not of the dead things people put in it. Dead animals completely nauseate me. I used to cover for my husband at the old building we managed, and picking up dead rats off the street made random heroin needles and used condoms seem like a breeze to clean up. Trying to shake off the blood, guts and gore; the weight of a two-pound dead animal in my garbage bag after placing it there with gloves and paper towels – it was enough to ruin my day.
The bottle of mezcal was bothersome. First off, I wondered about the process of killing the animals inside. Does it occur before or after they’re bottled? Who handles the deadly creatures before they’re dead? Having dead animals in the house was nauseating (curiously, my preserved butterfly art piece has never given me this feeling). On top of that, the bottle seemed like a sick form of hoodoo that I didn’t want around.
Dizzying things kept happening throughout the rest of the day. My husband started moaning from the bathtub, asking me to pull a piece of glass out of a cut in his foot. I refused to dig into the gash, but obliged in holding up a flashlight for him to see more clearly. Then after that, he vomited up his lunch – he has an incredible reflex for removing any tainted food from his body. I made a delicious roast chicken with herbs, but afterwards, I couldn’t digest properly because Michael was so stressed over the non-responsive Internet.
It all came to a head as we were watching ‘The Strain’ – which includes more nauseating things like preserved organs in formaldehyde, and zombie creatures that suck blood with their enormous lurching tongues. It seemed like my day had been steamrolled by the bottle of dead things. I thought longingly of my beautiful time spent editing, out in the square in the sunshine, when everything felt right and wonderful and full of Umbrian chocolate squares next to Americano’s.
“That’s it!” I said, getting up in the middle of the show. “I’m getting rid of that bottle. I don’t even want it on our balcony or in our storage unit or anywhere. I feel bad, but it needs to go. I don’t like people leaving things here when I don’t even know what’s in my own home.”
With that, I grabbed the bottle which Michael had put outside in a grocery bag, and stormed down to the first floor, through the long garage, out to the street, where I gently tossed it into the trash bin with the garbage man idling behind the bar next door. My mezcal hand buzzed with wacky energy. It wouldn’t stop for ten minutes. Then after a half an hour, all was well with the world. Michael was amazed by my sudden bout of sensitivity.
“Okay,” I admitted, “so I had a moment there where I became my mom. So what.”
“A weird superstitious moment. Though that thing really was disgusting.”
Beyond the dead viper instilling an extreme ick factor in me, it was the intention behind it that bothered me – whatever that was. I don’t believe in religion, but I believe in intentions – if people believe something strongly enough, they are bound to make it true for themselves and affect the people around them too. I couldn’t trust what the intentions were behind the bottle (though it was most likely just a novelty item). The sight of it was enough to make me not want to dig that deep – a leftover instinct from my superstitious upbringing.
As a young Christian, I really thought that all of that stuff I was told was real. The devil was always in the bushes, waiting for my weak moment so that he could claim me. God was always judging everything that I did, though I barely ever actually heard his voice – the voice in my head that told me I would escape doom and destruction. The end times were coming, and the mark of the beast was on everything.
There are such things as hexes and energy vampires and wigged out people in cults. Yet still, after all that I’ve seen and experienced – the miracles, the covens, the energy sucking, the Santeria space cadets in white, the voodoo packets left in people’s houses, the full moon rituals – I still find that now I no longer believe in good and evil. To a great extent, there is quite a lot of fakery that goes on. This leads to belief, which spreads intention. The mind begins tripping on itself, and tripping others up in its wake. Fear plays a major role in all of this. Buying into extremes of good and evil can drive people crazy, and has caused more wars and deaths than we can count.
The idea of “good” is just as faulty as the idea of “evil.” What is good for one person is horrible for the next person. There is no one size fits all in goodness. Even one person’s form of love can be humiliating and suffocating to the next person. “Goodness” is often a cultural badge of customs and traditions, and a way of seeing outsiders as evil. Goodness comes from the Middle English word godness.
Likewise evil is an idiom for devil or Satan. Our language is built on Christian mythology. Evil is most often used as a label for cultures or people groups we don’t understand. The villains in stereotypical action movies all have vaguely Arabic names and features, or in ‘The Strain’ for example, the enemy is a Nazi German who gained immortality through the Master – a Satanesque creature. In film – the hero so often bears a square jaw, corn-fed muscles, and symmetrical features, while the villain bears a prominent nose and olive skin. Evil is an idea that is ingrained in us from the time we’re children – beginning with the propaganda of popular films.
In politics, when a country counters by arming in the same way that the U.S. continues to do, that country is looked on as “evil.” There is no thought involved in how all of our bombs must make people in other countries feel. Instead, it becomes a war of egos – any country with an ego as big as ours is a threat of mass destruction. Yet the truth is, the U.S. is responsible for more mass destruction internationally than any other country, and it’s not hard to see why we receive threats and attacks from Al-Qaeda and now Isis. Our attempts at “rescuing” other countries are something that Americans have seen as “good” while those who have lost their homes and families see as “evil.”
Religion causes these ideas of “good” and “evil” to be magnified into an international battle of spiritual warfare. In this mindset, we are not dealing on a human level, but in a demons against angels level. In other words – life doesn’t exist in reality, it exists in a blockbuster Marvel movie. Differences are magnified rather than what we commonly share. There is no seeing the issues from the opposite point of view.
It’s true that we’ve seen a great deal of dictators in the past and present that seem to be “evil.” They often got to their position of power through deep-seated psychological issues that became magnified as their position increased. The more power you have, the more you can get away with. The more people fear you, the more it becomes difficult to empathize from on high. Mega-church pastors are susceptible to the same course as they gain more and more power over their congregations. Watch how quickly they fall.
Good and evil are two categories that lack honesty and are rooted in myth. What I want to know is how did that person go from point A to point B and what caused their need for that trajectory and the actions that followed? There is a story behind everyone, which doesn’t make them less guilty of crimes, but explains the situation through critical analysis rather than through basic archetypes of heroes and villains. If we’re all honest with ourselves, we play both the hero and the villain on a daily basis.
When I was a Christian, deep superstitions were ingrained within me so deeply that I couldn’t see outsiders for what they really were – people just like me. Instead, I saw them as wicked creatures lurking to tempt me or take advantage of all my weakness. If you weren’t a Christian, you spent your life in a bar, abused your family, and ended up in prison. It’s amazing that I actually thought this. If I had looked around my own neighborhood for example, I could have seen that non-Christians were not slaves to vice, but hard working people just like my parents. However, I was only exposed to outsiders on a very limited basis. My Christian school, my church, my home – these were the places I lived. There was barely a window with a view.
On one hand, it’s embarrassing to think of my extreme reaction to the dead viper biting the scorpion in the bottle of mezcal. It reminds me of the way I thought under the myths of good and evil. When we hid in the basement on Halloween from the frightful creature people asking for candy; the dolls I couldn’t have because they might be possessed by demons; the way my mother cheered when she saw that a Psychic’s hut had burned down on the way to the Six Flags Amusement park.
The bottle also represents a culture I don’t understand – a sense of machismo in dead deadly things; a last laugh; a who is the victim now; a power trip against the dangers of nature. The bottle holds a reality that I am sheltered from in a northern city with only rats, fleas, and fruit flies.
Snakes are a shiver-inducing animal. The way they slither; the way they eat their prey whole; their sinister existence. Cold-blooded animals are foreign to us – the opposite of our species. Lacking in bonds and solitary in their daily aim to sleep and kill and be on the move. They are difficult to understand. And though I spent one summer fascinated by the garter snakes that swam in the backyard pond, I was sickened by my own obsession and had nightmares that the snakes were slithering all over me in a sea of grass.
Before I ever saw real snakes, I was obsessed that one would slither up through the toilet and bite me in the ass. For a long time after I was potty trained, I made a habit of washing my hands before flushing the toilet, so that I could run out the door and escape the snake if it should come up.
Maybe my issue with snakes comes from some Freudian issue surrounding toilet training. Who knows. I am as much fascinated by the way they move, as I am horrified. Nature is wide and varied. Our response to certain animals has a lot to do with self-protection. If you see a snake in the wild that is something beyond garter, it’s best to get away. A healthy dose of revolt is built into our DNA. Even snakes, though at times our enemies, are not evil. As much as I think living rats are cute, someone needs to eat them to keep the population down – snakes are very good at that – and there’s no flattened, bloody rat carcasses to clean up afterwards either – the beauty of eating your food whole.
August 27, 2014 § 4 Comments
When I first began writing my book on how religion keeps us from being happy, I couldn’t even open my Bible without feeling a deep-seated sense of disgust. Simply removing the blue leather clad book from the shelf made me ill. I couldn’t wait to put it back again. The Bible represented years of pain and depression. It reminded me of all the friends that disowned me when I left; all the love that wasn’t there; tricksters under the guise of miracle-workers; control freaks; condescending misogynist leaders caught with their pants down; shame; hatred for outsiders; and lies that spread fear.
A year later, and the Bible is on my work table all the time. I love digging in to find the specifics of every story I’ve heard so many times that it’s surprising to find each one is completely different than I remembered. Instead of having to read it in order to believe it, I can now read it in total shock that I once believed it, and be amazed by that insanity. I love the Bible more now than I ever did as a Christian. It was a chore to read it in my place of belief because it never felt completely alive. I no longer have to fight that feeling. It is now simply an interesting piece of literature.
What I’ve learned through writing books is that the place where you start has zero resemblance to the place where you end up. The issues I write about still make me angry, but the anger has transferred from my own life, to the lives of others. I see now, that what I’m writing can help people. In talks that I’ve had with those who are struggling, I see that it helps them to understand they are not alone in their misgivings – the conclusions that they come to are their own journey, and I am just there to present a different point of view.
The history of world religions is a fascinating story of thought patterns that spread like a virus. When at its most insistent to spread, dogma pounded down the dissidents, and bloodbaths followed. More people have been killed for the sake of, or at the excuse of, religion than any other motivating force. This result usually first takes place a few hundred years after the religion is first born. The initial phases of a new belief system are a golden age of love and community. When that era is long enough in the past to become mystical, power-hungry individuals turn those teachings into a means of furthering hierarchy. This results in conquest of other people groups, a stamping out of other religions, and the intertwining of church and state. All of these issues have had detrimental effects on societies, wiping out advancements in philosophy and science with the destruction of thousands of books, cultures, and people groups.
The finest moments of history have been in eras of doubt – Greek philosophy and science, the Renaissance, and even the era we now live in. The heretics of yesterday are the heroes of today. Even within religion, those who experienced doubt were able to advance ideologies on a different route, though they were first viewed as Atheists. Buddhism developed out of Hinduism as a rejection of the deity structure. Zen expanded from Buddhism into the enlightened path of the individual. John Wycliffe was an early dissident of the Catholic faith and called for the separation of church and state. His body was exhumed after his death and he was burned at the stake. The early Christians were the Atheists of their day in the rejection of Roman paganism – a religion that furthered the state rather than the individual.
I am on the path of doubt. Which might be viewed as negative to some, but to me, my life is open to philosophy and closed for business to dogma and illusion. My parents were over for dinner last Sunday, and for the first time, my dad actually noticed the bookshelf full of research for the religion book. He said, “C.S. Lewis is swimming in a sea of negativity.” I replied, “I don’t need the books on Christianity because it’s all in my head. It’s the entire education you brought me up in. And I really don’t like C.S. Lewis.”
I continued on, explaining what some of the books meant for me. How Karen Armstrong revealed the entire history of religion, how Sue Monk Kidd woke me up to patriarchy, how Christopher Hitchens made it okay to get really angry, which led to the first steps of my recovery. I didn’t mention that the reason why I don’t like C.S. Lewis is that I found his arguments weak and that it seemed as though he rejected Atheism in favor of peer pressure (Tolkien was instrumental in his conversion). It was also a way to return to his childhood self after the loss of his parents – what Freud would call the juvenile need for God.
It’s true that the entirety of Christian thought will remain inside my mind for life. No one needs to remind me of it, or recap something I might have missed. For the hard facts, I am just like a Christian – I need no other books besides the Bible to explain what the Bible actually says. What is written there is completely different from what Christians say in the books they write.
A year ago, writing the religion book seemed like an insurmountable feat – like climbing Mount Everest. There was so much information to wrap my head around, so many books to read (and still read), and so much excess baggage of writing to get to the good stuff for a final draft. If you look at the entire project all at once, it seems impossible. But broken down into bits of chapters, week by week, it grew. It’s still growing.
There have been times where I was so sick of this topic that I wanted to give up and start writing a novel. Every time I tried, I bounced right back into the current book. I also had to deal with some resistance from a guy in my writer’s group. Overall, however, the group has been invaluable, prodding me in the right directions, asking questions, pointing out the spots that needed filling out.
I’ve been asked many times, “Why are you writing this book?” There are many reasons. I find it important to fight against dishonesty. That dishonesty has harmed millions of people. It’s created shame where there should be none. There is nothing flawed with the way that we naturally are. We are organisms within the scheme of nature, not spiritual entities trapped inside of bodies, battling between good and evil. I’m writing this book because I’m tired of seeing the same things happen to people I love that happened to me fifteen years ago. At some point, a negative cycle must be broken.
At the end of the Bible, in the prophecy of Revelation, God decides to break his negative cycle as well. He realizes that creating the earth was a disaster, and the only thing to do is destroy it and cry, “Do-over!” He bids the angels to torture humanity, then begins the mess by throwing people into a giant wine press, where their blood flows up to the height of horses bridles for 180 miles. He turns the oceans into blood and kills everything that swims, and uses the sun to scorch those who remain. Then he shuts the lights off completely. Satan is a mere pawn in the escapade that gets locked up for a thousand years. When the dragon is released, he spurs the resurrected into a war across the four corners of the earth (the world was still flat), and is then tossed into sulfur and destroyed.
In the end, every character is a pawn – from humans to angels to the devil himself. Victims of a stage play that ends as a tragedy. Rather than a story of love, the Bible ends as a series of abusive relationships. And what does the next world look like? There is no mention of improvements that will be made or how a very flawed God will fix himself to make things right. Will he do away with his insane need for affirmation, his explosive jealousy, and his desire for puppets rather than humans? I would love to read the sequel to this gripping piece of fiction. And no wonder why, as a Fundamentalist Christian, I was scared to death of even living life.