Changing Temples Pt. 19 – Magical Exceptionality

Magical Exceptionality

I did not know what else to call it but a gift from the Gods – in this case the Roman versions. A fine, life-loving Venetian named Davide, did a much, much better job than I – he called it “the magical side of an exceptional moment”. That moment was an electricity failure. Usually not an event one would categorize as auspicious or a gift from Olympus. That moment was an out door cafe in a broad street of three to four story 16th and 17th Century buildings, green window shutters thrown open to catch even the faintest of breezes on a 93 degree evening with high humidity. The various pastels of the buildings are nicely toned by the soft street lights and ever softening light of day. The cafes all have full tables spread out on either side of the street; one just down the way filled with a family and friends crowd of at least 40. The street is filled with many casual walk-abouts. Everyone is drinking something! The ambient sound is the buzz of laughter and talking, good humored social engagement.

Then, as middle dusk is settling in, the Spritz before me is mellowing my jitters from having just finished a long travel day from Odessa. I remember distinctly my breathing deeply and observing with consciousness yet one more time the deep ambience of Via Garibaldi and thinking about how much I love that particular scene and how much I want to imprint it into my memory. That moment was eliciting a pleasure in my soul that escapes the poet’s best efforts. Then the lights in the long street flickered, flickered and disappeared. All of a sudden, I felt ever so deeply a part of an exceptional out of time moment that returned me to what I believed in my heart Venice of 500 years ago would have been like with her beautiful pastels and greens and marbles highlighted by the fading daylight.

I extricated myself from friends whose interest was in finding artificial light. I wandered abroad in the now early nightfall neighborhoods. Stunned is the only word I have for it. In the last fifteen years or so I utter the word “Wow” when seeing something or hearing something of extraordinary specialness – Titian’s “Assumption of Mary”, Rembrandt’s “Saint Anne”, an exceptional moment where light and flower and shadow combine into absolute beauty. It is not a particularly intelligent expression, but it usually jumps out of my inner self unsolicited, untainted. Occasionally, I will catch myself repeating it because I can find no way of letting the joy loose from my heart. It is a weak, New Age, burned-again hippie kind of word, but it is my way of acknowledging a beautiful Zen moment, of reveling in this beauty that surrounds our daily existence. That street light deprived night was the first time I have ever caught myself saying “Wow” again and again and again and again; the complete sensory overload of antiquity, history, artistic sentiment in marble and mortar and architecture, softness, and ancestral humanity knocked that word out of me over and over again.

This was the Venice experienced by Lord Byron or Albrect Durer or Rousseau or Edward DeVere or Goethe. As I wandered the streets, I felt I was wandering with them, particularly with their sensibilities. Interestingly, our way would be lit by someone with a torch, with a “link boy”, who would be paid a small sum for the task. Shakespeare’s Falstaff makes reference to such a lad when teasing Bardolph about his shining red face: “Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern.” (Henry IV, Pt. 1, Act III, scene 3).

Occasionally people hurry past me, modern link boys, but oblivious to all but their modern torch being used to get to somewhere else. They leave behind them the last twilight showing steps of a bridge inviting one to say “Wow” and to keep walking in the midst of the Ancien Régime or any period when this city was what it has been for so many hundreds of years.

There was also an additional stillness – no air conditioners, refrigerator condensers, a lessening of foot traffic. Restaurant tables now dotted the way with candles. People were subdued, not so much by the lacking but by the magic of antiquity totally unadorned, unaltered, unfiltered, lighted by the last remnants of day. Windows showed the flickering of candles finally able to cast their shadows in complete abandon. A woman sits on a bench in a now near dark Campo. I am totally in the middle of the hundredth “Wow”, so I say, “Fantastico, Non?” “Yes”, she replies in English, “it is extraordinary”. How tempted I was to sit and share with this stranger who understood and who could speak English! But I did not want the apprehension of a strange man to unsettle such a divine moment; on I walked.

While I happen to cherish my own Romanticism, I think it is fair to ask whether this was truly such a unique experience aside from the cries of joy and pleasure in my soul? The first power plant in Italy was built in Milan in 1883 for the purpose of illuminating La Scala, the famous Opera House. Soon after, Molino Stucky coverted his giant flour mill in Venice from gas to electricity. The Arc lights used at La Scalla would have been in the range of 2000-3000 candle power. Modern, ordinary street lights are 250-440 candle power while an “ornamental” street light is around 400 candle power. So, for at least one hundred years my romanticism would be misapplied.

The torch light of reality also shows that romantic misapplication for many hundreds more years. According to one source, the oldest system of street lighting in the world was established in Venice during the 12th century. The Doge declared the lighting of the streets necessary due to the rash of robberies and murders which were easily carried out in the dark and twisting alleyways of the city. At first devotionals to various Saints held candles at each corner, later followed by oil lamps at the state’s expense. Another source has it that the Arabs had street lamps in Cordoba, Al-Andalus in 1000. Neither source noted the Chinese who, of course, beat everyone, and the word lamp is from the Greek meaning torch, so “lighting” by humans certainly predated even my romantic projections of a “natural” evening.

But I think it fair to say that even a few candles or torches here and there would not have rendered my wild imaginings less romantic during that brief twilight time. All in all I guess it just sheds a little light on something I find more and more convincing as I experience this city. It is best expressed in Davide’s final thought, “we don’t have the quality as humans to forget Venice”.

Continued . . .

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Changing Temples Pt. 18 – Music Has Charms . . .

“It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord.”
Pope Francesco

Thanks to a dear friend who had a traveler’s agenda I would never have pursued, and thanks to my desire to hear authentic music performed within the innumerable churches of Venice, I have visited fantastic basilicas, churches, and friaries. With perhaps one or two exceptions, these churches and their frescos are “depressing” – the greatest exception being a Titian entitled “The Assumption of Mary”. In it Titian inspires one to look through the eyes of Peter, who, with one hand in the coffin and head turned to watch Mary being taken to The Lord, was clearly being that same Peter I have always known and loved for his insistently questioning humanity – “Don’t wash my feet!”, “I’ll never deny YOU”, “We’ve fished all day”, “Is she really up there?” etc., etc.

By “depressing” I mean, of course, a constant refrain of suffering, suffering, suffering. From the Buddha onward, that thematic reference point for human existence is certainly not one which can be denied, but it does get . . . well, depressing.

This whole rendition has to do with another “serendipitous” moment – I want to Easter Sunday Service at a Anglican Church here in Venice. I had been aiming since my early planning stages to attend Easter Service at one of the Grand Basilicas because there is no ritual and ceremony of Easter that can beat the high Catholic. However, the small, comfortable, English speaking community of St. George’s Anglican Church was appealing. I had gone to Maundy Thursday Service (5 people) and to Good Friday Service (13 people), by which time I was considered part of the congregation and asked to read Scripture. I was, ultimately, attracted by the “acceptance”, and the English, of course. At the Easter Service there was a vocalist who sang during the Offeratory and the Preparatory for Communion who was clearly NOT, I repeat NOT, an amateur. It turns out she is an Opera Diva of some local and international renown. She and other colleagues have established a musical ensemble (Venice Music Project, Stagione Di Musica Antica), with several goals – to provide a bit of recompense in an expensive city, to promote Baroque Music with original instruments, and to raise funds for the restoration of Cheisa di San Giovanni Evangelista (the Church of Saint John the Evangelist) – all of which I clearly can support without equivocation. So, I found out from her (New Jersey born) that their group was having a concert that very afternoon to celebrate Pasqua (Easter). I went.

For $26 U.S. (“Ridotto e.g. Senior Citizen charge – my goodness an advantage to being old!!!) I experienced a minor epiphany. This was the music presented: “Musica per Venerdi Santo e Pasqua (more or less, Sacred Veneration Music of Easter/Passover) Musiche di: Vivaldi, Haendle” and “Stabat Mater di G.B. Pergolesi”. The Vivaldi and Handel were instrumental and the Pergolesi was with Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano and instruments. I was so uplifted! I mean UPLIFTED! I saw with new eyes. I felt a degree of sublimity that is altogether too rare. I realized in my own simple-minded way that it was this very sense of transcendence that was what was intended by these masters of music – to lift the heart beyond the suffering and depressive nature of what was depicted around one and show beyond question why those soaring vaults, those frescoes, those statutes, those burial plaques, were meant to remind one of the transcendent nature of faith and hope and life. I will never enter one of these 13th C. – 18th C. churches in the same way again.

Continued . . .

Changing Temples – Pt. 17 The Constitution of Tragedy

The Constitution of Tragedy

Article I – Preamble

This is about Alberto and Deborah. I have made mention of Deborah here – that delightful Southern Belle with attitude and humor and a heart as big as the world. She came to Italy at 17 years of age and, to all intents and purposes, she has hardly left. Art History Major. Taste to die for. A true Chef. Wit that is instantaneous. Age? Not altogether indeterminate – but one does not, after all, ask a Lady, particularly a Southern Lady, her age.)

Alberto. 78. He was a professional boxer who fought 23 fights – the story of his 23rd fight is worth an episode in and of itself. He played premier league “football” (Soccer to the Euro uninitiated) for many years in England; one consequence is that you cannot tell whether he is a native English speaker or not. He won three dance contests in the 50s. Fisherman par excellance. Kind. Great Good Humored. Quick with wit. Can get by in six languages, but is almost totally dyslexic, so he can read only with great difficulty, and writing poses similar challenges. Native Venetian. A difficult, hard childhood – hard as in he was sold as a child; which he more than survived, he transcended. A man in love with the traditions of Venice. An unfailingly friendly man who does the Passeagato (the afternoon, or evening – hell anytime of the day – walkabout with his friends, stopping for a Prosecco or a Spritz, talking, enjoying).

Article II – Why Janus Has Two Faces

What significance does the word tragedy carry anymore? One can only hear it associated so many times with multiple school shootings, women kept prisoner in a basement, runners being blown apart just because of their love for the Big Race, and etc. before its application on a smaller, more individual level loses not only import but meaning entirely. Nevertheless, tragedy can sometimes be a blight, a calamity, a transcending adversity that asks us to refocus on its real meaning, to re-visualize the application of it to two everyday people and their personal Waterloo. As Aristotle noted and the Romans affirmed: Life is composed of the tragic and the comedic. Because the tragic has become so much of a constant staple of concentration in our media afflicted lives, I think we forget to laugh to relieve the pressure. Consequently, failing to laugh, I think we inure ourselves to tragedy’s true, emotional and spiritual impact. In Alberto’s case, only gallows humor could suffice at any rate.

Article III – The Best Laid Plans

Alberto and Fema lived together for some 20 years in a fine, fine Apartamento that she owned. They did not marry. They had a relationship, by all accounts, which transcended the “need” for marriage. When Fema became ill, they set a marriage date. The Commune of Venice cancelled that date – you have to know Italian local politics to appreciate that. Two hours before the new date and time Fema died. Fema was a practicing attorney. She left a will that was witnessed. The will left their 5th Floor Apartamento to Alberto. Fema’s sister fought the will in Court for years (and even brought criminal charges against Alberto saying he had forged the will). What can only be seen as a travesty of justice beyond description resulted in Alberto losing the case.

Article IV – Why?

Let us just say the word – avarice. This Apartamento is easily worth 1 million Euro ($1.3 million US).

Article V – A Classic Venetian Life.

How can words describe physical reality? It is damn hard. The glass of Italian wine next to me helps actually! Imagine a five story building (Palazzo in Italian) that sits right on the quay overlooking the Grand Lagoon of Venice – not the Grand Canal mind you. Still, this somewhat “lesser” cousin has delights that makes the Grand Canal rather ordinary. The Apartamento is on the fifth floor. It has floor to ceiling windows in bedroom, living/dining room, and extra room which overlook the expanse of the Lagoon as it sparkles in the sun light and hosts boats galore coming and going in their steady, necessary courses. One can see, in the near horizon, the many islands of the Veneto, in the far horizon the Great Adriatic. It faces basically South, so the rooms are light, airy, and sun-filled. Oh, and yes, just off that small, extra room, it has a small terrace. Venice is peculiar. Because space is so precious and valuable, what we think of as terraces in America are here rather – well much more than rather – small. It will fit two chairs, plants, and a small table. For the view it affords, see above and then add in that you can watch the passeagato of people on the Quay below. One could easily wile away hours just enjoying the sea, the sun, the sensation of a world quietly passing by for your personal pleasure and edification. The rooms are beautifully spacious and comfortable. Alberto and Deborah lived together in the apartamento for 10 years.

Article VI – An Italian Life

Alberto worked his whole life. Because he only had one year of schooling (remember the “sale”), he could not get a work card in Italy, because such requires 5 years of schooling. So, he worked at what he could get. One employer, who he was with for many, many years did not pay into the state system (we in America call it Social Security). He, you guessed it, did not tell Alberto. As a consequence Alberto has only the most basic of pensions that amounts to 500 Euro a month. The apartment was his retirement not just for living accommodations but, when the time came, to sell and have the resources to take care of himself. There is more here though. Alberto has spoken to me many times about his sense of responsibility for Deborah’s welfare. He knows that she has reasonably sufficient, independent means, but he is a fine, honorable, loving man, and he feels the deeper blow of failure in that regard.

Article VII – Pre-Nup

After court hearings at numerous levels, an appeal court ruled against Alberto and ordered him out of the apartamento in 15 days. If any of you have lived somewhere for many years, you know well what I refer to when I talk about the accumulation of a life. This was the accumulation of two lives well lived. The Courts also ordered that Alberto pay his sister-in-law’s court costs. Because he and Deborah married, her accumulated life goods are now under threat of confiscation to pay his debts – this despite their having executed a Prenuptial Agreement, valid under Italian law, that declared their goods as separate. So, in order to prevent their possible attachment, Deborah had moved to storage most of her valuable furniture, art, and those things accumulated over her years in Italy – accumulations which make a highly intelligent, art-historian’s house a comfortable, pleasant, and tremendously satisfying environment.

Article VIII – Consequences.

On the evening of the day of the court ruling and the eviction notice, Alberto got sick, very sick. Lung based.

Article IX – Consequences

“I am worn out, for the first time in my life, I am worn out.” Alberto repeated this to me a number of times as we moved their worldly belongings away from the home he loved. Actually, it was as others moved the belongings. Alberto was too sick to do much, something which affected him greatly as a man: “I’ve always been capable and strong”, he would say over and over.

Article X – Consequences.

Alberto lost 13 kilos in 30 days. He is a typical Venetian – small of stature, solid, definitely not heavy or “fat”. From solidity and tone, his arms and legs have turned to the loose skin that one sees in the nursing homes. He has now gone to numerous appointments for internal problems that could be quite serious.

Article XI – When A Heart Breaks.

Deborah told me of numerous occasions when Alberto would just break down crying. There is more here than words can ever express. Here was a confident, boot-strap scrapper, generous, full-heart Italian who cannot now stop tears when alone or with his Amore. There is still more. One of Alberto’s attributes is easily understood – he worries about not only caring for Deborah now and when he has died, but that she should not have to finance him. If anything could tear the heart out of a genuine man – besides losing his home of 30 years – it would have to be seeing oneself deprived of the ability to financially support the one you love or, even worse, in seeing her independent assets being put at risk because of you.

Article XI – How Far Must That Be Carried?

There are 66 steps up to the Apartamento. They hired a “moving” company to come for the big items – refrigerator, furniture, beds, marble counter tops, cabinets, etc all went by hoist out of and down from the window and on to a boat to be taken to storage. All the rest of the accumulation of their lives, had to be carried down those steps and then be hand carted off to various spots where friends were letting them store their now packed up life. Remember, in Venice it is either boats, hand carts, or hands – no pickups backed up to the door! I told Deborah that the experience had at least cured me of one important vice – that of envy for those Venetians who live in the top floor apartamentos!!

Article XII – I’m From The Government, And I’m Here to Help.

Midst all this, a representative of the Commune of Venezia (the city government) told Alberto in the presence of Alberto’s brother-in-law not to hand over the keys at the end of the 15 days (as ordered by the Court), for he was not supposed to be made homeless by such actions. When they refused the key turnover (against their own lawyer’s advice), the lawyer quit them, and the Commune Representative then said he never said any such thing. This all resulted in a police visit.

Virtually everything had been moved out of the Apartamento (remember the 15 day notice!) just when a representative of the court showed up to sequester any property for the court debts. Luckily, he was a considerate fellow, and he also did not know about the storage area on the ground floor chock-a-block full of goods to be hauled away the next day.

Article XIII – When Temporary Becomes An Affliction

Friends let Alberto and Deborah use their empty apartment temporarily for a month. So, we moved interim possessions into that apartment – only three flights up!. Af then end of that month it was off to another temporary apartment – only three flights up – for two months. The operative word here is temporary. Imagine your life thrown into the chaos of temporary living on fifteen days notice. To help that imagination note that it is high season in Venice, an expensive place at any time. Now with July well advanced and, more importantly, all of Europe set to take vacation in August (the owners do not leave their keys with their apartment managers, so when they are on vacation, you cannot view an apartment), there is a desperation setting in.

Article XIV – Pummeled Again

I liken the unfolding story of Alberto (and Deborah) to his being in the boxing ring. Except here, he receives blow after blow after blow and there is neither a ref to stop the fight nor a bell to end the round. One small example: Ordinarily, in the Italian system, someone in Alberto’s circumstances and limited pension would be eligible for public housing. Because Deborah has an apartment (which is rented out to help pay their daily living costs), which she owned prior to the marriage (see Article VII Prenup Agreement above), Alberto has been refused public housing.

Article XV – Kicking When They Are Down

Apparently, being awarded the fine apartamento was not sufficient. Now the former sister-in-law is using the legal system to seek back rent from the date of Alberto’s first wife’s death – at 2000 Euros per month. She is seeking to take Deborah’s assets since Alberto has none.

Article XVI – What is Tragedy?

What constitutes tragedy? What one sees in Alberto’s last 8 weeks is something you would swear could only be in a book or a movie or a fable meant to provide lessons to the young. From what was, he is now an old, vulnerable 78: Vitality sapped, humor, mostly forced. The passeagato is rare. The fishing he loved so dearly is rare, but returning slowly, thank goodness. He makes a good face of it, rallies as we say in the States, but it is heart-breakingly brief and only enough to make you sadder than you can imagine – having seen what tragedy can engender in two months. I have not addressed the effect of this upon Deborah and upon their relationship. In all conscience I cannot. It moves from the reportorial to the personal. I trust that your sense of the human condition can fill in the blanks.

Article XVII – Post Script

I now know more deeply the helplessness one feels in the face of tragedy – all one can do is lend a hand, climb and carry, trundle hand carts, comfort the afflicted, and fantasize about sudden wealth that would buy their beloved apartamento and move them back in.

Continued . . .

Changing Temples Pt. 16 – How ARE You?

“So get the scrivener part of you activated again and tell me clearly –
not poetically – how you are.”
R.E.

I knew intellectually over the years that the characters in fiction were often alter egos of the scrivener – ‘The Portrait of The Artist As a Young Man’, James Joyce, always, always comes immediately to mind. Goodness how my best friend and I loved that book in our poetic, college years. We WERE that young man; we were captured within character. There is hardly a review of that book where the reviewer doesn’t attempt to convince that Joyce was that character. In fact, you can hardly read a review of any fictional work where there isn’t one or another attenuated attempt to show the author is the character.

As a long time writer of poetry, I acknowledge the relative obscurity of alter ego character hidden within the rhythm and the rhyme. To tell clearly “how one is” does not necessarily require the scrivener’s art of prose, but prose makes it a hell of a lot easier for the reader to ferret out the gophers of personality and spirit from those deep word holes in which they lodge.

Ah yes, how difficult it is to find true, real descriptors of the state of one’s heart and soul – even a scrivener’s deep word holes can be, as they say in the West, a dry hole. The real point, despite all these current lapses into poetics, is that the telling and describing of the state of one’s being (“how ARE you?”), clearly – not poetically, goes straight to the heart of vulnerability. It is a task fraught with the terrible truth of neediness, desire, frustration, immaturity, and, most critical of all, a too bright light shed upon the very reason writers create fictional characters – so that they can parade without hesitation those marching bands of discordancy, those clowns of childish needs, those floating representations of idealism, romanticism, and unobtainable or frustrated desires: pretty girls, tantalizing bosoms that modern costume has so graciously gifted to the male of the species, yachts, 1928 Mercedes Benz SSK Roadsters, Palazzos on the Grande Canale, a U.S. Senator’s seat, Granite Park Chalet at my personal disposal, etc, etc. (I’m sure you can fill in your own personal life-blanks quite nicely.)

I cannot tell others how I am without poetics. I lack the courage. I lack the cover of fiction, that gauzy curtain that allows suspension of disbelief – for I want those I know to believe in me, to believe in that part of me that is good and whole and kind and good humored and normal. After all, what real benefit is there in baring those aspects of personal being that are not the better angels of my nature? For, without a more than adequate suspension of disbelief, that other part of me, that bareness of soul, of how I am (and who I am) would, I fear – and I think all fiction writers fear – lead to condemnation, distancing, complacent bemusement, and a cleverly disguised demeanor of pity.

Oh, I know the endless litany about “those who love you” would accept you; such sureness in that contention. A sureness around which my skepticism swirls; a skepticism that has some powerful history of several thousand years of writers who are also skeptical and who created characters to reveal that which must have the distancing of the comedic, the tragic, and the narrative epic. In other words, are we so truly accepting of the stark naked homo sapiens sapiens – especially a skinny one? 🙂 “Yet, even so, he was very, very unwilling that any other eye should see him naked, see him exposed as a helpless tormented lover, a nympholept furiously longing for what was beyond his reach” Patrick O’Brien, ‘The Fortunes of War’.

Carl Jung said – and forgive me for not having precision here, but I have his deep intent, that I know – “True adult maturity is when we give up the things of the child”. “Things” are, of course, exceptionally universal: desires, wants, needs, hopes, despairs, frustrations, deep longings, deep angers and, especially, deep hurts – I like to describe it with a wonderful metaphor. Each of those (desires, wants, needs, hurts . . . ) is a barnacle that has fastened itself to our ship of being. As such, the accumulation, and God knows how much accumulation of barnacles I have, impedes passage through this life. Impedes in ways that can be so obscure to our own understanding, our own consciousness, that we have, as Jung would say, character aberrations, personality flaws, psychic maladjustments that further again impede us – the damn barnacles reproduce! And prolifically!

How am I? Well, impeded with all of that and more. Does anyone outside the self really want to view such stark nakedness? What is the value? I know, there is said to be therapy in self-revelation (“At times it seemed to him that candour was as essential as food or affection”. Patrick O’Brien, ‘Fortunes of War’), but, hell, that presumes so much, so very much.

Want to know how I am? I am sad that that ultimate harbor we call death is now just around the headland, and I can neither let go of the things of the child nor live contentedly with them, Zen models notwithstanding. Ah yes, impediments, what else is new in the human condition?

For aren’t we all deeply comedic in our weak neediness? Aren’t we all deeply tragic in our universal desire to have everything of the child satisfied, every whim of the child gratified. We have acculturated ourselves to accept denial, we have adopted that thin veneer of civilized acceptance of responsible behavior, but we want, oh how we want! Well, I think what we want is that others do not see such want; that damn pacifier hanging out of the mouth of a 64 year old is not a pretty sight. So, in response to “how ARE you”, you get acculturated application of veneer. I may be doing us both a favor.

R.E., I cannot tell you how I am without poetics. If there is the Great American Novel in everyone, then perhaps I will find those characters that, in composite, tell you how I am. In the mean time be patient with that altogether strange, barnacle impeded course I chart through life. And continue to ask, please, for, who knows, I may find a dry dock and clean the hull sufficiently enough that I can tell you truly how I am. I tend to think that will certainly happen but only in that particular dry dock which lies in that “undiscovere’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”.

Continued . . .

Changing Temples Pt. 15 – Mindfulness

“There are days”, he reflected, ” when one sees as though one had been blind the rest of one’s life. Such clarity – perfection in everything, not merely in the extraordinary. One lives in the present moment; lives intently. There is no urge to be doing: being is the highest good.” “However”, he said, “doing of some kind there must be.”
Patrick O’Brien, ‘Post Captain’

Have you ever wondered, specifically and particularly, whether another individual, or a small group, or that larger mass we call humanity sees an incident, an object, or an experience in the same way as you? I mean by that, of course, the same way. Because of such wonder and curiosity, have you wrestled the language with another person in tandem to determine if there is similarity of experience? Have you parsed this slippery, all together too facile language of ours to determine whether, in fact, that incident, that object, or that experience was perceived, inculcated, understood the same way?

I, for one, am rather obsessed with that question, have been for as long as I can remember. I tend to believe, now that I am in my anecdotage, that I sought to know whether there are universals, archetypes within the human condition – and that I had experienced one (or more) of them. Naturally, I acknowledge that Plato and Jung, at least, have long since argued that there is – who am I to contend with those two?

One very particular experience I have wondered about in that context is damned difficult to pin down with words, no matter what language is used: Transcendence, Enlightenment, Nirvana, “The Peace that passes all understanding”, and their variously described ilk. Interestingly, Nirvana implies, to me at least, a mental/spiritual state, whereas the thesaurus has as many synonyms referring to what can surely be described as a locality: Elysium, Paradise, Happy Hunting Ground, Shangri-La. It is so fascinating to think about high spiritual achievement being part and parcel with place – in my own small way I have contributed to the lexicon by describing such as “the geography of contentment”.

During my first and only other travel experience where I had no agenda, no return ticket, and no calendar, one of my journal entries was about what I saw as a universal among travelers – the desire to discover that ONE (dare I say magical) place with all the attributes that the traveler’s spirit seems to seek: quiet, geography that is compelling (sea shores or mountains most frequently), handsome and oh so accommodating and accepting people, untrammeled culture, good food and drink, cheap – in other words a version of paradise. I think it is fair to say that even the cruise ship day trippers in Cancun, Bali, Venezia, Kerala, Santorini, Cozumel have a deeply embedded hope they will find a place that transcends, that satisfies by bringing a deep level of contentment and which will trigger a desire to never leave, to be forever within this Shangri-La.

Place and Spirit – how interwoven they are. Being and Doing – how interwoven they are. Are Spirit and Being, Place and Doing interwoven in the same way? Religions promise Spirit in a place – the 1000 virgins of Islamic Paradise is certainly a promise of some interest. Well, clearly not all religions promise such. One of the attractive features of Zen is that place is irrelevant. There are persuasive indicators that Zen Enlightenment is not a sudden conversion experience – somewhat different than St. Paul on the Road to Damascus, gotta love that lightening, or the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. Place was not the point, spirit was the point.

I do not believe I have the ability to find Peace without place in this life time. Lord knows I have given the best half-hearted effort that a spiritual dilettante could muster. I am a person whose only success (dare one call it that) is finding Spirit in place, in geography, in Doing. I have to admit that “Do-Nothing Zen” founded by Bankei (1622-93) is more my style! Perhaps because the great lightening bolt or ultimate realization has never happened to me, despite my repeated efforts to “get there”, I have come to believe that transcendent experience is an incremental thing. I have some evidence for that.

But, first, an aside. My dear friend David, a man of living spirit if ever there was one, would immediately spend a significant amount of time, energy, and words trying to get me to understand that you cannot “get” it – you are it. He’s absolutely right of course. But, as I say: “I may be, but I ain’t!”

So, back to increments. I read a marvelous and insightful little book containing three biographies entitled “Three Zen Masters”. What a wonderful world we live in that gives us access to such gems. I have neither the memory nor the book with me to give much detail, but a simple Internet search refreshes sufficiently. Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), and Daigu Ryokan (1758-1831) rank among the greatest Zen masters in Japanese history-their names have become nearly synonymous with Zen itself. Iconoclastic, funny, and artistically vital, these men represent that which drew many of us Westerners to Zen in the first place.

What is to be gleaned? What is compelling? What the hell does this have to do with tourist desires? The answer lies in what I overlooked the first two times I read this slim volume. Only in a lonely, but inspirational moment, did I remember that each of these individuals was a poet, calligrapher, painter, scholar, administrator (often of large, important monasteries), mentor, benefactor. They each enjoyed drinking saki with the local farmers. One was a lover of many years standing (or lieing as the case may be).

So many possible illustrations. One is worthwhile. An old couple came to Hakuin. They operated a fan shop, but business was so poor that they were worried that they now would have no money for when they could no longer work. Hakuin quickly painted a small poster and told them to post it on the door of their shop. They did. It read something like: “on Sunday, Hakuin will come and autograph calligraphy and paintings”. His fame insured a large, large crowd. The couple sold all their fans.

As one follows these men through their lives, one “realizes” again and again that each frequently despaired about their own enlightenment. What is also clear is that such enlightenment for each came in incremental bits and “realizations”; no grand lightening strokes, just a transcendent moment here, a complete exhilaration of joy there, awakening experiences over there. They engaged in everyday activities like writing, painting, administering, partnering – but always, always with an eye toward mindfullness.

Today, I walked the fairly long walk to St. George’s Episc. Church where I have been going regularly since arrival. I am, you should understand, spiritual and distinctly not religious. I attend primarily because church is a community and one can create a bit of community for one self by the simple diligence of attendance. I was discouraged. I was unhappy. Too much baggage, too much of that self that Socrates assured me I would be hauling along with me from Montana. I crossed over a ponte (bridge) on a small canal, fairly far off the beaten track – so I was alone. At the crest of the ponte I heard music being played; it sounded like an accordion, as unlikely as that would be in my decades of walking experience. Rather than rushing on thoroughly immersed in my own mind, I stopped. I listened. I observed. I was mindful. It was, in fact, an accordion – played without elaboration but with an accomplished set of hands. The tune which I had caught by the 3rd. or 4th note, was “Que Sera Sera” (for Doris Day fans, the remainder of the phrase is “whatever will be will be, the future’s not ours to see, Que Sera Sera”).

It was one of those small, incremental moments where there is a glimpse of spirit within place where manipulations and machinations of mind result only in frustration and the understanding that one has to just accept. Hidden in there is the connection regarding traveler’s desires for a transcendent locale.

Continued. . . .

Changing Temples Pt. 14 – Disneyland Mediterranean Pt. 2

Changing Temples Pt. 14
Disneyland Mediterranean – Pt. 2

“Even the most hopeful city planners worry that in a few decades Venice will not be a city at all, but a museum, a cultural theme park, a decaying Disneyland for adults.”
Rick Steves

Imagine being in the midst of a truly fine Roman Amphitheatre in Croatia. You are chatting with someone from Holland who asks where you are from. Rather than go through the long dialogue about America, Montana, why I left, the giorno per giorno nature of the stay in Venezia, I just say I am staying in Venezia. “Oh” comes the reply, “that’s a lot like Disneyland isn’t it?” If Venezia is not quite Disneyland Mediterranean, as I contend, then what descriptors would best capture it. For, if Venezia does “not quite” resemble a cultural theme park, what does it resemble.

The term “Venice” is a descriptor itself. To Venezians and Italians it is Venezia – what kind of magic does that convey, what kind of mystery? But, the image, the imagination, the mystery that is conveyed when I say Venice! Venice is probably easier to describe than Venezia, for many of us carry latent images of it in our memory, while some carry them in their hearts – having visited once. Have you ever met anyone who has been to Venice (even those numerous ones who landed in the a.m. and left in the p.m.) who does not convey to you some degree of ambience of delight in their descriptors about the city?

Venice: “Improbable”. Venice: “Otherworldly”. Venice: “A continuous surprise for the eye and the heart”. You walk along a Fundamenta, a walkway along a canal, there just ahead in the early evening light the prow of a gondola juts into view from an even smaller side canal, and rounds the corner in your direction. The gondolier crawls forward to lower the bow so that the magnificent, thrusting prow will not be sheared off by the low ponte he is crossing under.

You have no doubt seen pictures of traffic cops in foreign countries with peculiar white hats, white gloves, uniform always impeccable midst the chaos of traffic, arms extended, almost serene midst the endless stream. In Venezia, those traffic cops are precisely the same, except they are in Piazza San Marco and the endless streams are the swirling, swarming tourists – those waiting to get into the Basilica or the Campanile (Bell Tower) or just trying to transit.

I debate myself often whether Venezia is a city more for doing or more for relishing. I suppose either choice is a strong indicator of being a cultural theme park. Still, I see the difference as Venice being genus to the amusement park species that is Disneyland. For one, it is inhabited (albeit with ever decreasing numbers, as the native population has dropped from around 110,000 to 60,000 in ten years). Venice is certainly 15th, 16th and 17th Century relish for the eye – canals, pontes, houses, flowers decorating nearly every second window – the one rather plain exception, interestingly enough, to the profusion of flower lovers, is on the Grande Canale, perhaps because the wealthy can not be bothered to appear but on show-case occasions like Carnivale or Biennale.

To me, it is a city that startles the eyes: Around every corner is a canal, a ponte arching over, and pastel colored dwellings gently creating a more perpendicular curve with just enough foreground to create a mysterious longing to float down, under, around. Venice startles the eye as it catches the small shrine, they do not call them that, surprisingly, they are simply Maria or Jesu, but they appear in so many places and so surprisingly that they can be said to be common. Venezia jumps into your eye suddenly with the small marble inset sculptures, statues grand or delicate, majestic or touching, friezes. by some of history’s finest. There are constant, every so constant, reminders that those who built did not just build but instilled their faith, their esthetic, their pride (pompous or simple, as the case might be), their desire for a more transcendent atmosphere around them. I speculate it was so because it helps one rise above the pains of this world – pains I contend have scarcely changed in all these hundreds and hundreds of years.

The whole, tutti (all), captures one’s heart or soul just long enough that we too rise above. That rising has somehow occurred in people for all these five to six hundred year. Yea, it can be argued that it has done so for two thousand years if one remembers the floor mosaic – The Punishment of Dirce – in a Roman home in Pula, Croatia for example.

But, do not stop there. There is more, if not deeper, then appealing and absorbing. Waves lapping, church bells deeply toning their duty, rather soft sounds of boats, human voices. Nothing else competes for the ear (OK, occasionally a barking dog or the rather cacophonous sound of a sea gull). Unimaginable to the modern sensibility, there is no automobile drone – the drone that so dominates our world ear that we do not realize its ever present, unrelenting demand upon the senses unless we are lucky enough to escape far onto a mountain trail. One can hardly know anymore, really, what that drone has become in its own pervasive way. We drown it with TV, music, suburban enclave, but it greets us always, ever ready to climb into the ear and make a home where we do not even realize that squatting has occurred. Not so in Venice. Not so in Venezia.

Continued . . .