Why the New Archaic?

Why The New Archaic?

“The New Archaic, this expression of yours that I guess I love to hate,” said my colleague, Mladin Turk, professor at Elmhurst College in Illinois, “what does this oxymoronic expression mean?” This very good question came in the context of a talk I gave last spring at the Advanced Seminar of the Zygon Center for the study of science and religion in Chicago. I was talking about Pacific Gray Whales, trying, in fact, to imagine their souls; and trying to convince these scientists and theologians that imagining the souls of whales is a very worthy occupation. My colleagues were, to my great pleasure, receptive.

As for the New Archaic, I use these two words of seemingly mutual contradiction to signify a complex reality, that now we are in not just a “postmodern” era but a post-cultural era, and so the “new” that was once human culture is old and worn, and the archaic that is elemental nature is newly necessary and newly beautiful. Further, I think the challenge for this time of great change is to make a new human culture that incorporates consciously and wholeheartedly the archaic and elemental into the sanctuaries of our lives.

If I were to try to generalize about the last three thousand years or so of human history, I would say there’s been a trajectory of humans relating ever increasingly to human culture. Before that it’s a good guess that most humans lived primarily in relation to nature and that culture was the way they dealt with nature. Earth, air, fire, water. Is this fertile soil? Will the weather hold for us to gather in our crops? Will the sun scorch our crops in the field, or fail to warm them to life in the first place? Will the rains come, enough to water the crops, not so much as to drown the crops or even us? How can we make sure nature cooperates, and how can we make sure people cooperate sufficiently? These are the core questions of culture.

But that was all a long time ago. I know many people who scoff at my earthy stuff; they’re dialed in, urban, cultured and they neither know nor want to know nature. They are relieved that food comes from the grocery store and that the doctor has pharmaceuticals and that the air conditioner can be relied upon. In my heart of hearts, though I have some overlap with them, I am not one of them. I need to see the stars at night. I need to see water flow in creeks and rivers. I need silence. I despise the sound of machines. I love the company of animals and the dawn chorus of birds. But it’s not to express these personal preferences that I coined the phrase New Archaic. Rather it is to say that we have to relate to nature again, because nature is the contingent foundation upon which culture rests, nature is the source of “resources” that we use to make culture, and, though we wish to be something other, nature is us.

This is all to say that humanism is dead, though many humanists yet live. I once loved the quote from Saint Irenaeus, “The glory of God is man fully alive,” but now I nearly gag at the thought of it. This is not to say that I have no love for humanity. But it is to say that we are not the whole of the universe, and we are not the center of the universe, and we are not so clever as to be self-sufficient; we are not the highly prized in our own eyes “Other” to everything else in the universe. No, we are one expression of the universe. Human life can’t be defined or understood in the context of humanity; it really is that simple. Rather, we belong to something much bigger than humanity, and we are made of things much older than humanity, and we have effects much greater than those we have on humanity. And, though the urban humanists amongst us, and those who aspire to be human urbanites, might yawn and ask, “who cares?”, we will soon have to care.

Honestly, I think the other animals are worth caring about for their own sakes. I don’t think God loves us more than them. I don’t believe we are the most special thing that ever happened or ever could happen. I tingle to think that I was born 13.7 billion years ago, long before I had consciousness and that such parts of me as belong to the dance will go on and on. But, even if you’re not like me and you don’t crave nature and you don’t care about the elements coming into being and you like your food best in a cardboard takeout, you are still going to have to care because we all have to get beyond human culture; we have to embrace what is “beneath” and “within” humanity. Human culture is made out of things that are now threatened by human culture, like our own bodies and minds, like earth, wind, fire, water, ecosystems.

The earth doesn’t need us. We could be extinct in some imaginable, maybe now likely, future. But our extinction by way of nature would be a lot like nature’s past; species come and species go, planets come and planets go. But we are here now, and the elemental is necessary to us, necessary. Culture is only the icing on the cake of human life; the natural world is the cake, we are that world and, if we think otherwise, we die, even as nature goes on. It is us, but it doesn’t need us. That’s the New Archaic.

For me nature’s bounty and nature’s beauty is the most glorious thing about being human, nature within me, nature around me, nature beneath me, nature above me. That’s the human spirit of the New Archaic, and I am so grateful that it broke through the cement of culture in me, that green things have grown through the cracks in my heart. Oh necessary cracks that have awakened in me such a bountiful beautiful sense of living in a living world. I would like to see the whole of human culture transformed by our embrace of connection to everything. The universe is 13.7 billion years old and it is our grandma and our grandpa. Who knew?

And yet we might know this truth with sufficient depth to do something entirely new and creative, something so in the spirit of this one great being whom we express.

© 2013 Anne Benvenuti

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The Nones Are Off the Bus, and Many of Them are Alls

The “Nones” are the largest and fastest growing segment of the population on the religious landscape in America, according to the most recent Pew survey. In just the last five years, this group of willfully unaffiliated people has grown from 15% to 20% of the population. They are people who have no religious affiliation, and who don’t want one. Yet only 5% of those surveyed call themselves atheists. In other words, the Nones include many people who, while they don’t want a religious label also don’t want the traditional secular-rationalist-humanist label. 28% of them have practiced yoga, and I wonder how many of them have meditated. That question wasn’t asked. But 60% of these people feel close to the natural world. The majority of the Nones are white people who were raised in religiously affiliated homes. Beyond this, they cut across many of the more common culture divides; they are people with college degrees and people without a college education; they have incomes over 75K, as well as incomes under 30K. In this they defy traditional interpretations, that people who go to college outgrow a childish intellectual dependency on religion, and that poor people lean on religion to support them in living with poverty and its attendant adversity. And it’s especially noteworthy that the Nones are disproportionately young: they’re people who grew up on a socially networked planet, not a religiously networked town.

I’d like to suggest that many of the Nones have “gotten off the bus,” an expression that refers to travelers who want to escape pre-packaged tourism so that they can discover a place as it “really” is. I know a lot of Nones and many of them are Alls. They celebrate the Winter Solstice, and Easter sunrise, they may do yoga or meditate, and they give thoughtfully to charities, all in no particular order, but depending on where they are, how they feel, what seems to be called for. They resist labels produced by media-saturated culture to represent certain predetermined sets of characteristics. They distrust such prepackaged beliefs, and also distrust religious institutions that are so often corrupt and hypocritical. Yet they value human spiritual heritage, often in great variety, and many of these people are more comfortable in a variety of religious settings than they would be in only one.

As a Trustee of the Parliament for the World’s Religions, I feel it is very important to acknowledge the Nones, and particularly the Alls among them, to notice that they have gotten off the bus and don’t want to get back on. They are not looking for certainties. The old definitions are not relevant for them. Atheist? No. Agnostic? No. Believer? No. They live in verbs more than in nouns; they are more about experience itself and less invested in beliefs about experience.

My best guess is that the Nones, and especially the Alls among them, express a vital spiritual pulse in the contemporary human world; one that samples spiritual practices, just as people sample the music and cuisine of many cultures. I’ve seen many religious eyes roll at the notion that people are sampling religion like hors d’oeuvres. I’ve heard religious people say that this cannot possibly be a path of spiritual depth, selecting from the menu the most delectable items while eschewing the solidly nutritious, wanting the pleasures of spiritual comfort without the disciplines of communal practice. But, I ask, why make such negative attributions to our fellow humans, especially when we know well the struggles of relating old institutions to an ever-changing world? Once the familiar critique from those who practice solely within specific religious institutions has been stated—and I think it worth a listen—where are we?

I think that we are on a new page, in a new chapter; maybe we are in a new book. For the first time in the history of human psyches, human life is global as a matter of course. At the same time, this global planet is suffering from the collective impact of the human species. It might well be this context that makes the traditional religious issues seem trivial, tribal, and irrelevant. A very legitimate question might be, “Who cares what you believe, much less about religious in-fighting, when we are on the brink of ecological disaster?” Perhaps those who carry forward the religious institutions should seek in the depths of our heritage the wisdom that is relevant to the global and ecologically threatened context in which humans, indeed, all species now live. We should expect to bring forward something of value for this utterly new context, and we might need to accept that many people will engage our traditions on their own terms, not on ours.

As an Episcopal priest, I think it is time to welcome conversation with the Nones, and to welcome spiritual practice with the Alls. It is time to listen and to see the way that the Nones can so easily incorporate the All of humanity’s spiritual heritage. We may offer to the Nones and Alls from our own religious heritage, but we need to respect them for what they are too. They invite us to get off the bus, to experience the contemporary world as it really is, a place in which increasing numbers of people are not only comfortable in mixed cultural settings, but who are themselves multicultural individuals living in a multicultural world. We can at least consider that some of the Alls are genuinely interfaith individuals, bringing religions into a new and global era in human history.

*Originally written for and published in the Parliament for the World’s Religions Newsletter, April 25, 2013.

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Courting a Gray Whale: Matters of Essence, Matters of Scale

Courting a Gray Whale: Matters of Essence, Matters of Scale– by Anne Benvenuti (c) 2013

(Photo by Denise Skelton*)

I have no idea how long ago I saw film footage of Jacques Cousteau in full dive suit, floating around in front of the eye of a whale, and then the interview in which he spoke of looking into the eye of the whale, seeing and being seen, how it changed him forever. Ever since then, I have wanted to look into the eye of a whale. I had heard that in the Baja lagoons, I would certainly see whales, and perhaps even touch one. But my secret highest hope as I packed for my Baja expedition in February was that I might look into the eye of a whale, that I might experience that seeing and being seen.

On our first launch into Magdalena Bay, the panga (fishing boat) driver told us to put our hands into the water and splash vigorously as this would attract whales. Monica, the ex-dolphin trainer, whistled a particular whistle. We had been out for almost two hours and were approaching our time allotment when finally, and to our great excitement, a whale approached. I was at the prow, that part of the boat with the greatest distance to water, when the whale swam up and under. I hung over the boat such that I was almost hanging by my ankles with my own whale-like portions high in the air when a I got my first feel, my first kinesthetic and proprioceptive sense of a whale. A gray whale is big, and that’s what I felt first. In fact, its scary, but I hung as far over as I dared (having been warned not to attempt an actual dive into the water). What a way to die! The whale’s fluke, powerful and not at all soft, brushed my hand as he dove under the boat on that first outing. The thrill of contact. Yes!

Let me pause here to consider matters of scale…an adult female Pacific Gray whales is roughly 8 times my length and 300 times my weight, that is, she is larger than me on a grand scale, akin to me standing next to a squirrel. Her commute is on a grand scale, too, roughly six thousand miles, one way. And the time scale of her life is vastly greater, too, she never sleeps because she has to think about breathing constantly, and she eats only during the summer, and not while making her long commute, and not for the months of  birthing and nursing. Her nursing allows her baby, born headfirst at about 1500 pounds, to gain 200 pounds a day for the period of its infancy in the Baja lagoons. Her vocabulary has not been deciphered but bioacoustics suggest that she likely speaks in low frequency ranges that carry over many miles, maybe even hundreds of miles in the water. In almost every imaginable way, this whale and I live in almost unimaginably different magnitudes.

I decided to ditch my camera and just give the experience itself my everything. Let the story be recorded in my cells, in my heart’s memory. That night, under black velvet sky, I could hear the whales breathing as they swam the lagoon, swimming all night and all day without sleeping, and breathing in the quiet dark. That roundest of sounds, “bPuwwwhhh;wHa!” Can it be? Am I listening to whales breathing by starlight?

The next day, there were high winds and waves and many whales, accompanied by a great many dolphins, who like gray whale breast milk quite a lot, and so like to be there when its released into the water. The day was cold and wet and wonderful; bouncing on the tops of waves, I got a face full of musty “blow.” I began to whistle what became my own distinctive whale whistle, and one toddler whale liked it very much. She came to the boat and I leaned over and touched the whole length of her as she positioned herself for just that contact before swimming under to the other side of the boat. There were eight of us going crazy with childlike delight, petting this playful baby whale. By the next day, she came when I whistled, gently turned the boat around in a circle, seeming very pleased with herself.

Over my few days there, I got everything I wanted, everything I’d remotely dreamed of, including an encounter with a “boat-hugger,” one of the whales who swims quietly up under the boat and lifts it out of the water. I had so wanted to feel that. But not everyone wanted to feel it. In fact, it was scary and the panga driver tore the hell out of there as soon as the whale set us down. Is that what the whale wanted? Was the whale sick of intrusion, wanting to feel his power, just having some playful fun? Certainly, he could easily have killed us, but didn’t even jostle our equipment. In fact, he was the essence of gentleness, inviting us to relax if we could relax with someone who’s 300 times our size, much as I might pick up a puppy.

The main event for me, though, was courting this little whale, Barbilla Blanca, who courted me, too. (It’s always so satisfying when a courtship is mutual.) I’d whistle and time after time, she came, not just to the boat, but to me. My fellow travelers gave me the name Holds Hands with Whales, after this baby turned and seemed to offer her fin to my hand. I was so overjoyed that it took me a minute to register that she was putting her eye up top, she wanted to see me! I whisked my sunglasses off of my face, and then looked into the eye of the whale. I did it again and again, same whale, every day. And she wanted to look into my eyes, she had to position herself just so for it to happen. This is what I cannot forget, and it is whale lore, too. People who have looked into the eye of the whale say that it changes you. It does.

And I put my hand into the mouth of this whale, gave her stiff baleen screen a good rubbing, even though I had to not shrink from her powerful jaw and muscular huge tongue. But I got a sense of her with her long jaw and its whiskers, her double blow holes, her flippers and her spinal knobs, her white chin and mighty fluke; I got a feel for how one might live in such a body, live in such a house of water and air, dolphins and stars, red dawns and black nights, and toy boats full of noisy little animals to play with.

Finally, on my last trip in the panga, I whistled and she came to the boat, this little whale that people were calling Ballerina because she loved to pirouette in the water.  Jessica and I called her Barbilla Blanca, little White Chin, for her very distinctive chin splotch. Jessica, our marine biologist had told us that she’d dreamed during the night of kissing whales. As she whistled, “my” whale went right to her and came out of the water for a kiss. Then she came to me and came out of the water for my kiss, a full face-plant, after days of gazing into one another’s eyes.

That whale kiss happened almost a month ago and I have thought of Barbilla every day, prayed for her every day, held imaginary conversations with her, remembered my own time of going out into the world on the cusp of toddlerhood and early childhood, how amazing it is, how engaging, how much you must learn, and how quickly—in my day, how to tie your shoes, and tell time, and take a bus, how to memorize your phone number and address, and how to call home, and how to read books and make friends, how to write your name, then someone else’s name, how to gather seeds from flowers, and then to plant them, how not to knock the dust from a butterflies wings, not to take candy from strangers. My God, it’s busy time of life! And she is learning her whaley version of life intensely and in a similar developmental burst of demand as she swims with her mom, not in the peaceful warm lagoon of her infancy and toddlerhood, but in the Pacific Ocean for about six thousand miles to the place where she will eat her first solid food. One day she will have to swim past Monterey, where the orcas wait with their playbook of strategies to separate mother and toddler so that they can eat the little one. And mom is hungry now, not having eaten in months; she might feel the need to take short cuts. Yes, I worry some, but mostly I love Barbilla and always will. I cheer for her; I try to imagine her life, her joys, her challenges, and her fears. Every day I pray for her, every day I encourage her, every day I am made so much larger for knowing her. She is written on the cells of my body, in the memory of my heart. And, on the scale of the heart, we are of equal size.

* I want to express gratitude to Denise and my other traveling companions, whose photos reawaken the joy of the journey.

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A Valentine for my Wild Lovers

I used to say that the way to save a wild animal is to sleep with him. I enjoyed the double entendre, especially because we project all our own feelings of beastly sexuality onto our furry friends. But there’s some simple and literal truth in my self-entertaining expression; I learned by sleeping with wild animals that they want the same things we do, that they communicate their desires with surprising clarity, if we pay attention. I’ve slept (and sleep, of course, is the operative word) with a fawn, a raccoon, a Brazilian cardinal and an acorn woodpecker, a pregnant sea lion– okay she was just a quickie, an afternoon nap. These wild lovers have offered me the most thrilling encounters of my life, and so, for Valentine’s Day I want to sing of them.

Rosebud, a wild fawn, nuzzling up my arm, her expression of gratitude for a safe night, her hard cloven hoofs, her pale pink palate, her gentle invitation into a country not my own. Fling, a fledgling acorn woodpecker, who woke me up each morning by wood-pecking my forearm with surprising power, a hungry baby, who returned to greet me several weeks after his return to the wild. The way that a Brazilian Cardinal’s family came from a mile away to escort her home when we released her. The way it felt to hold a pregnant sea lion, soft and warm the full length of her, the way she utterly filled my arms, so like holding a human lover. The bat who told me with desperate pantomime that he was dying of thirst, clutching his throat with both hands, not once but repeatedly, then drank water like grace, for grace it was to him, as it is to us.

Most of these wild animals didn’t come looking for me, but were injured, and so the rescue motif. If saving is what it takes to get close to these friends, neighbors, relatives, I will do my best. A wounded or encumbered animal wants the same things we do; safety, comfort, refuge, rest. And animals across a wide range of features and habitats express themselves not so differently from us. Perhaps they are more like us than we want to know, and perhaps this has to do with the way we project what we wish to project onto them—beastly sexuality, kingship, servitude, a life of desperate fear, or cold aggression, stupidity, or our imagination of superior sensory awareness—or, to horrendous effect—that they don’t suffer from the same things that we do, that their joys and pains are lesser, more base than ours. The fact is that they go crazy like we do, and from the same kinds of things, horror, grief, debasement, deprivation, the frustration of not being allowed to do what they can do. Every day I pray for caged animals.

Today my Valentine is this letter to publicly declare my love for my wild animal relations, as well as my love for the domesticated animals from whom I first learned the notions expressed by naturalist, Henry Beston* in 1928:

“Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”

But, though they are not human, we share a very great deal by way of our common ancestry and habitation of this planet, not just in a theoretical way, but in the experiences of thoughts, feelings, and a shared recognition that we are caught in the same beautiful and frightening network of life. We can learn from them, we can learn very important things forgotten in our complex cultures and technologies, human things that take us away to a place where we “too much discuss, too much explain,” where we suffer from loneliness and disconnection at our roots.

I say that we can learn vitality from animals because I have experienced it, not once, but many times. I say this because I think we must turn to them, and so my Valentine, which is written on this Ash Wednesday of the Christian liturgical year, is also a hope that we humans might turn in a great conversion to love the world we have so feared and disdained, a world that does not belong to us, but to which we belong.  My hope is that we can surrender ourselves to this world, as to a lover, in trust.

I quote from the very long poem, Ash Wednesday, by T. S. Eliot:

“Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Who can teach us to fly again? Who can teach us to sit still?

The central work of my life now is writing a book to express these ideas in scholarly and storied form. Soon this blog will include a response option for sharing your stories about what you’ve learned and shared with animals. At the end of this month, I will visit the birthing lagoons of the Pacific Gray Whales in Baja, Mexico, to visit a species that has reputedly adopted the strategy of befriending humans, after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1970’s. I am told that mother whales present their babies to humans in boats, as if to say, “Isn’t he precious? Shouldn’t she live?” No doubt, I will write about them next month…

Saint Valentine was executed on February 14th, not long after writing a letter to his jailer’s daughter, whom he’d befriended. He found friends in unexpected places, and so, I think can we. If you don’t have an animal friend, I encourage you to make one. If you have a pet, try to imagine her world from her point of view. Or become a regular visitor to a zoo animal, especially if you see one who seems lonely or bored, perhaps the only one of his kind in an enclosure. Or go out into the wild, trying to leave your projections behind, ask what its like to be that coyote, deer, squirrel, or bird who lives in your neighborhood.  I trust you will find new love, and for the many of you who already know this love, I challenge you to declare yourselves!  My wish for all of us this Valentine’s Day is to find new love and new kinds of love in every niche on earth.

Because, in contrast to the opening lines of Ash Wednesday, I do hope to turn again…

*Henry Beston, The Outermost House (1928)
‘Ash-Wednesday’, from Collected Poems 1909-1962 by T S Eliot, © T S Eliot 1963, Faber & Faber Limited

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The Beauty We Love

Beauty is the way that the universe makes love to us. I neither exaggerate nor blaspheme nor trivialize. An encounter with beauty simultaneously awakens and calms us, bonds us to the world, deepens our feeling of living. What else gives so much for so little effort? Or, as John O’ Donohue expresses it, beauty is God’s invisible embrace.

So, was it just this morning that I woke up thinking I needed a good scare? That I just don’t feel that old motivational anxiety sufficiently to live vibrantly? And did I think, too, that I probably needed a dose of gross ugliness, things repugnant to my senses, like loud grinding noises at irregular intervals, the smell of machine exhaust in large noxious blasts, a cacophony of visual glare, fingernails screeching on slate for a dose of both auditory and tactile aversion. No, wait. It was not this morning, nor any morning of my entire life. I don’t need anxiety to feel alive, and I don’t need ugliness to appreciate beauty. Never have. That’s why there’s so much about popular culture, and, if I am honest, about myself, that I just don’t get.

Why does so much of what we make play on terror and horror and ugliness, when these are not what we want? Why do we produce so much of it, and consume so much of it? Movies, advertisements, petitions, information sharing; they all warn us what to do to avoid getting mugged on the way to work, having our cars break down, being unable to pay our bills, being old and sick and left to die, having the boss dislike and sideline us. And we are advised ad nauseum about what to do if you get PTSD, or depression, or restless leg syndrome, or erectile dysfunction, not to mention cancer or diabetes. So that’s our mental diet, and we wonder why it doesn’t feel good in here? Or we don’t wonder, but take a pill for it? It seems a bit of a vicious circle.

Lately I have been so hungry for beauty that the longing is seeping from my pores, leaping from eyes, magnetically drawing my hands out to touch. Conversely, I have recently been repelled by ugliness of every kind, most especially the news, but even Facebook which carries just enough of the ugly to be aversive, certainly movie trailers and billboards, talk shows. I feel stuffed, glutted, as though I have eaten nothing but greasy food for months. No more. Please. No more. And I am almost groveling with gratitude for those counter-culture inspirational billboards. Pass it on.

“Let the Beauty we love be what we do.” This is a nearly ubiquitous line from the poet Rumi. Seeing it somewhere almost daily tells me that my own longings are not some idiosyncratic desire. Yet they stand in stark contrast to the reality of harsh political rhetoric, a broad culture of critique in which, for nearly all of us, criticism comes most readily to mind, and even defines what it means to be smart. “Would you take a moment to rate this?” NO! But I am almost dying to take a moment to appreciate something, the beauty of human hands, the leaping grace of my dog, Bunny, the way the morning light smiles coyly through the few winter leaves remaining on the oak trees behind my back fence, the sound of the creek refreshed by rain and singing loudly. Would you take a moment to notice the utter extravagant brush that has painted the world beautiful? Yes! Please. I would love to!

I used to say of living on the Kern River in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, a line from an Allman Brothers song, “Before the breathing air is gone, before the sun is just a bright spot in the nighttime, out where the rivers like to run, I stand alone and take back something worth remembering.” This is an act of hunger for beauty itself. There is nothing more worthwhile. There is nothing you should sell beauty to get, but perhaps should sell everything else to get beauty, like the pearl of great price that it is.

And so I say with Rumi, let the beauty we love be what we do, but I have done many other things, and not the beauty so much. I have done so many other things with my time, activities done not for intrinsic reasons, but to get something else: money, recognition, pleasing other people, all in the hopes that somewhere I will arrive at true worth. But the beauty I love is always right here, very nearby, ready to give me the full value of every day. It is beauty that bonds me to another person, not some abstract idea of his dignity or her worth. It is beauty that bonds me to the natural world, not the threat of extinction or an estimate of its numerical value. What on earth is wrong with me? What permission do I need to simply show up and choose it? What permission do you need? I give you my permission, and I beg for yours: please do encourage me in the ways of beauty. I think God must weep with longing that we just show up to receive the abundant beauty bestowed upon us every day.

So this year I arrive at the early seeding season, the time to reflect on what I would like to plant in the garden of my life over the coming year. I want to choose seeds that I care about, that I will attend to, that will nourish me and be good in the world. I have one clear and strong desire: to plant seeds of beauty. These I know I will want to nourish, to tend, to notice; I will walk in beauty and let that walk be the harvest. And not just for this year, but for the rest of my life, as given in the Navajo Beauty Way chant, an inspiration that has been there nagging at the edge of my mind for the whole of my adult life. The Navajo exhortation to walk in beauty, beautiful in its own right, ends this way….”In old age, on a trail of beauty, may I walk lively. Let it finish in beauty.”

When the soul cries out for beauty,
feed her with beauty, so
like the pollen of bees,
beauty is powerful food.

Like the honey of bees,
beauty’s sweetness heals the
soul’s wounds, strengthens
her wings for flight.

When the Soul cries out for beauty,
give her beauty to drink
like humming bird’s nectar,
straight from flower’s kiss.

When the soul cries out for beauty
bathe her in beauty, let a
thousand and one drops fall
as dew on the soul’s parched skin.

Receive each kiss of beauty
like a wedding night. And
in your own most beautiful voice
welcome her, saying Yes, Yes!

 

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A Star, A Star, with a Tail!

This last year, to my surprise, I began to follow a star, and it’s led me to my inner Baby Jesus, made of both the heavens and the earth. Yes, it’s been a stretch of imagination and has called for a creative mixing of elemental metaphors.

Tonight, time writ both large and small is upon us, time as the stars tell it. Tomorrow, we finally realize the oft-repeated fact of the end of the Mayan calendar, and another oft-repeated event, the annual winter solstice in the northern hemisphere. As Christmas is next in the line up of Big Days, I think also of the wise men who followed a star to that near naked baby in his straw bed, Baby Jesus, sweet little animal, born as all mammals are from his mother, ready to root and suckle and belong to the human family. “Said the shepherd boy to the little lamb, do you see what I see? A star, a star, burning in the night, with a tail as big as a kite.” Surely the little lamb had a tail; what’s amazing to me is that even the star has a tail! And so I imagine the star loves the animal world, the far-flung consequences of its own creativity; stardust the ancestor of shepherds, and lambs, and even a baby in a manger. And so I think today about stars and animals and the way we humans are both star and animal.

Over this past year, destiny erased my self-story–not my life, not even my livelihood–just my story about my life, just my sense of character and direction. But what is a human person without a story, if not a bunch of bones stewing in a psychic cauldron? The end of your story feels like an end of personal time, a death, especially if you have spent 50-some years constructing your self-centered story. It happened to me this year, but it happens in every life and I am old enough to know this, to know these are both devastatingly vulnerable and stupendously freeing moments, very much like the newborn baby moments we cherish and celebrate. But I am no newborn; without my story, there were no signs for me to follow, no one to point for me.  As my life settings changed, and the characters in my story morphed unpredictably, I did not know where to go or what to do.  Ah, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I meditated every day.

And, in my meditations, I found the inner star I’d been told about.  I mean by this a particular phenomenon of experience, the radiant light that can appear at the “third eye,” the sixth chakra between the eyebrows. It appears there naturally when our minds become calm enough to perceive it. Once perceived, you know it was there all along, gently at the periphery of awareness.

This star became my guiding light and I came to love it and to feel comfort and a kind of gentle exhilaration whenever it appeared in my mind’s eye. I think this star may be the tunnel of light that people who have had near death experiences report going through. I would love to see brain scans of the mind’s experience of the star. I can’t help but wonder about the neuroscience of the phenomenon. I think it’s got to be something important about being human, whether that importance is some cosmic connection to the stars out there, or simply a mind calm enough to perceive its own light. In any case, these come down to a common interpretation–that stardust out there made this inner light in here and we can experience this scientific fact subjectively and directly; we can find comfort.

I wonder if those wise men of long ago who followed the star till it rested over the manger of Bethlehem were themselves exiles without a story. Forced alone into the darkness, I followed my inner star and that star led me to a naked baby self, lying in the manger of the animal world, myself a vulnerable and new human with the impulse to root and suckle and to belong to the family of things… I’ve come to think this Baby Jesus to whom the star points is the promise that, without the distraction of a tidy self-story, we’re fresh; we rise and shine because we have that inner star to follow, and no death can eat that star because it is the portal from life to life.

This last year of the Mayan calendar is the year that I followed a star because it was the only thing I could do, and it led me to a kind of Baby Jesus, the flash of pure potential, of innocent being without the baggage of a complicated life story, the broken open, fresh from the womb potential. This is the wisdom that Buddhists name with elegant simplicity, “No Story.” The wise ones from the East followed the Star to a little bundle of pure joy for the whole world. And this year, may we all know where to find that Star, the greatest of all blessings, a Christmas gift for the time beyond time.

Do you see what I see? A Star, a Star, shining in the night, with a tail….

 

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Thanksgiving for a Wild Harvest

Tryptophan stupor has got me not thinking. It’s a good thing, a quietly glorious thing, the big and permissive time out that follows the feast.

But leading up to the feast, I was trying to  recall the illustrations of cornucopias in my childhood geography books, woven horns of plenty, stuffed with the stuff of fall harvest. Recently I have been trying to remember what was in those baskets because I am thinking the contents would not really have been all cultivated crops. Surely there were some nuts and seeds, some grass heads and fruits that just happened to grow, along with the cultivated pumpkins, ears of corn, stalks of grain. Or maybe it was the role of the turkey to just happen along when a human hunter was out there standing around in knickers with a big buckle, wearing a tall hat and carrying that bullhorn of a gun. Do we thank the turkey? And does the turkey count his blessings? It so easily gets complicated.

In years gone by I counted my blessings by assessing my “successes,” how many carefully crafted goals I’d scratched off the list in my day planner. It was common practice in those days, and so goals not achieved were failures that caused me to hate my obstacles with a fury, and the fury spurred on my efforts. Maybe my obstacles really were insurmountable or at least unfair, maybe my opponents were more diabolical and powerful, or, worse, advantaged by privilege that amounted to my being handicapped in the great competition of life. And maybe not. Maybe I spent more time in whipped up painful furies than was good for me or anyone else; maybe I’d have arrived without all that.

Perhaps in reality my obstacles were as blessed as my achievements, like that broken neck that interrupted my race to have it all, that slowed me down for so long that I finally remembered to question the wisdom of wanting to have it all. Some of my opponents were, I remain convinced, diabolical, Shakespearean Iagos in modern dress. Like the boss who offered me the world if only I’d curse God and claim her instead, and through whom I learned what reserves of strength I have, even as these morphed into a simple understanding that I choose to live in some ways and not to live in other ways. I learned on that particular rugged obstacle course that I could be harried beyond my capacity to imagine, but I couldn’t be bought or intimidated. My worthy opponent taught me that I could choose how to live; what freedom she made available to me!

Maybe the greater portion of suffering we encounter in life is not personal, not something we did wrong, or failed to do right, or even intended to hurt us, but just part of what happens, a wild harvest of sorts. And maybe part of the blessedness of a good life is that we come to see we are not so different from other people, that life happens to a greater extent than it is chosen or intended. No matter our circumstances, life just happens to us and around us from before we are born. As teenagers perennially remind their parents, we did not ask to be born, nor did we choose our parents, and thus the greatest portion of our life story was chosen for us by others who in their own right had no idea what they were choosing. Our own lives are only marginally, if also importantly, cultivated crops, more what we got given than what we intended and made for ourselves. A good many of us are in our very bodies our parent’s wild harvest.

It remains, though, that for most of us, this life is fat and juicy with experience, and the single thing we might most genuinely choose is—yes—our attitude. Thanksgiving seems a concerted effort to do that. We look up from the Herculean struggles that obsess our psyches, endlessly spinning the autobiographical story line, trying to get ourselves right. We together choose to look into the everyday blessedness of living on earth, the everyday blessedness that we know is somehow the more real story.

This year, I lift my eyes and my heart to a world much bigger than my strengths or weaknesses, my efforts, my opportunities lost or realized, my health good or bad, my fortune greater or smaller than yours, or than my last year’s reckoning. I give thanks for a world that allows for me but is blessedly not about me. Like Thanksgiving Day, the universe is generous and permissive. It’s a wild harvest that just wants to be enjoyed.

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A Thin October in the Milky Way

A Thin October in the Milky Way  © 2012

Last night, to my surprise, I stepped off the front porch into the middle of the Milky Way. It’s where we live, in the Middle of the Milky Way, and last night I was able to perceive that bright band of densely packed stars encircling me. There was the black upon black of the sky, the bright blue white of individual stars, the gathered glowing band of multitudinous stars thickly bound to each other, and little me stepping off the porch into the arms of the galaxy that is home.

I have the privilege of living where there is very little light pollution, where you can step out your door into the reality that, while you are necessarily the center of your world, the world is unimaginably bigger than you, even with the baggage of all your cares weighed in. It’s what my Celtic ancestors might have called a thin place, a place where you can see through the veils of illusion into the great beyond. And I find that with my self-importance framed in this way, in the middle of the great galaxy that is home, my suffering diminishes and my joy increases. Nothing else has changed, just the size of the context around me. As equations go, I’d say this one is worth calculating daily.

But thin places are necessarily also thin times. To look out and out into the deep black depths of the sky is also to look back and back in time, till I am looking at the infinite depths of my own body in its context of time. Here is my lineage of mammals with hair and teeth and breasts, and deeper down again, the vertebrates with their nerves and muscles and bones, gifting me with the ability to move myself out into the world that my senses reveal, and further back, deeper down, eyes to see, ears to hear, noses to smell, all bringing that world out there into here, into my private experience. Deeper down in the temporal body, I find my cellular relations, the 90% of me that is cellularly other, my bacterial renters, and the 10% of me that is my own particular human lineage, moms and dads going back and back, grandpas and grandmas, bless them every one. And deeper yet in this body, I find the molecules and chemicals formed so long ago in some distant reach of the vast sky.

It’s a beautiful haunting, the way that looking out is looking in, the way that I am not my own, but possessed of so many others. And the ghosts are as funny as they are scary. In spite of my best efforts to bear no resemblance, I’ve got my father’s eye and it looks back at me from the mirror. And my mom’s work worn hands wiggle restless from the ends of my would-be zen princess arms. And I’m a hairy monkey, too, and even that lizard over there has got something of me about it, lazing around, then doing a push up just when you thought she was dead.

The New Archaic
Anne Benvenuti © 2008

In the beating of my heart I hear
the beating of your drums.
In the whirring of my brain I hear
The shaking of your rattles and
the jingle of your dusty steps.
I myself take up the rhythm;
I myself take up the chant.

In the beating of the drum, I hear
your feet come near to me, hear your
hearts in my own body, your thoughts
in my own mind, strong and clear as
shining stars, deep and long as rivers run.

Nearer now celestial wheels, your spirits
awake my ears; beaming faces full of hope,
you know and claim me as your own.
My own beloveds, yes, and look behind you!
Back and back spirals are turning,
eternally beating, beaming, whirring.

On the double helix road, we are walking
the heartbeat way, beyond time and space
we come home remembering,
re-membering bonds never broken.

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We’Moon Gala Salon Announcement!

I will be in San Francisco on November 11, as one of the poets reading for the We’Moon Gala Salon!

If you know We’Moon, you’ll want to be there. If you don’t know We’Moon, I heartily recommend you make acquaintance.

Sunday, November 11, 7 pm
The Dance Mission Theater • 3316 24th, at Mission, SF
www.dancemission.com • 415.826.4441

“Beautiful collections of art, poetry and musings
that have guided women for decades.” —Starhawk

LIVE & IN PERSON! Artists and Writers step off the calendar pages and present their creative offerings in a first-ever Bay Area gathering of We’Moon contributors and friends. Join us in honoring local women visionaries and celebrating over three decades of the co-creation that is We’Moon: presentations, performance, snacks, networking, and
We’Moon Products for sale, including We’Moon’s historic Anthology.

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Elemental Fall Equinox

The New Archaic. Elemental Innovations. What’s that got to do with the fall equinox?

It matters to me that today I change the table runner to the one with autumn colors and patterns, I get down the acorn and oak leaf candle holders. I change the bedding to the fall leaves pattern, and to slightly warmer covers. I put away the blues and greens of my summer season for next            year, with the quiet questions about next year just out of mind’s reach.

I’ve got most of my Christmas shopping done. For many years, I noticed that I did my Christmas shopping in September, then put everything away on a top shelf in the closet for wrapping in late November and early December. Other people sometimes commented that it was kind of strange, especially the way it preoccupied and satisfied me. I had no idea why I was so compelled. Then one late September day, I sat on my back deck watching the acorn woodpeckers gathering acorns and stuffing them into the holes they had worked so hard to make in the telephone pole. (Sorry, Jesus, they do toil and gather into barns and they are birds of the air, but I still totally respect you.) The squirrels were equally industrious, gathering nesting material, bird feathers and dog hair, fluff from the clothes dryer, leaves; and they too were making acorn caches for the winter ahead. Suddenly and easily I understood myself. Oh! Christmas shopping is my inner animal meeting my cultured human in preparing for winter. It’s elemental and archaic, preparing in fall for the winter festival, for the moment when the days will start to grow longer again.

No wonder, then that I felt a particular satisfaction this week when I took stock of my emergency supplies, food and water and the capacity to make light and heat. Ahhh. Bring it on! Winter, I am ready, even though it is still 90 degrees in the middle of the day. Yes, but the nights are cool, and the days are shorter. In fact, see, tomorrow the day will be as short as the night is long. My inner animal knows this, along with many other things that my sophisticated cultured self does not know, things like when it is time to eat and to rest, when it is time to work, time to fight, time to hole up and recover from some insult or injury. My inner animal knows the seasons of the year and the seasons of the day. And because I have this abstracting and predicting human brain that interacts with my animal nature, there is a space inside where she knows how she will be unhinged if the seasons go away, that life itself will be changed, everything she knows will be called into question and us animals will all change, all of us. We will have to change. Some of us will be lost forever, some already are.

I have been spending time with the older generation, people in their eighties. I find myself studying them, listening to them, wanting to know how life is for them, and loving them intensely. They are figuring out how to let go while hanging on. The ones I know are of the “use it or lose it” school, so they are still fully engaged in living, but even with that attitude, and even though they err on the side of risking too much rather than too little use, they have to give things up. They have to know when it’s time to quit driving, when it’s time to get a medical alert button, when it’s time to give up a certain beloved food or drink, when to change over to slip on shoes and elastic-waist pants, when to let someone else help. When they decide to let something go, they know that it will be gone forever. They know that one day they will be gone forever. They are trying to wrap their minds around that, but their minds can’t go there, not really. So they tell me about living.

My old friends want to tell me what they did that matters to them. I am stunned at the courage with which they have lived, at the things they have accomplished, quietly for the most part, without notice, at the sacrifices they made for others, again quietly. I might be the first to know, and I take in the consolation that good deeds go unnoticed, but also define the person. My old friends might want to tell me something they regret. They don’t want to ask too much of me, though, and there’s no pressure to fix it. They feel the way they are tipping towards the time when the nights are longer than the days, towards the time when the night is forever. They are surprisingly compassionate about my forms of insanity.

I am talking about seven or eight real people. I see them in my mind’s eye, I hear them; I listen to them as I have not listened to them since I was a child. Because I know I am still a child, for all I have acquired by way of knowledge and competence, I still don’t get it; I don’t understand so much. These people are the last line between me and the final knowledge that I’ll never get it. Just as I was surprised by life once, I will be surprised by death. I’ll never know if I did it right. As I came in both wise and ignorant, I will go out similarly wise and ignorant. I will have to give up the notion that I’ll get a handle on it if I just keep trying. I find that I need to learn from my particular older generation once again, these World War II survivors. My love for them feels like that boundless awestruck love I felt as a child for good adults, the ones who were competent, and the ones who were kind, or funny or fun. I love them as I see them caring and funny and sad and real, and I hope I can be like them.

Usually at this time of year, I am taking stock of the past several months, taking stock of my personal harvest, assessing what I hope to bring in before the year is over. I am doing that, of course. I especially learned that I love the writing life; that Chapter One is a bear in the way it has to foreshadow the whole book while being entertaining, engaging, and credible. I learned that I work in a dogged fashion, doing whatever it takes to produce outlines and chapters. I learned the humility that goes with understanding I am going to have to work in this way for a long haul, over and over and over again, doing whatever it takes. My writing life was not what I dreamed when I thought I’d be monastic, every day a rhythm of prayer and meditation, exercise and manual labor, and a few hours of desk time. Instead I surrendered to the unexpected rhythm of three or four days of being intensely and obsessively in a writing mode, followed by two or three days of complete disengagement from all of it.

This fall equinox, I do the rituals of every autumn, changing over the house, gathering in supplies. But also, this fall I find myself in a larger autumn looking into a longer winter. One thing I know differently than I did last September is that I want to write while I live. I so appreciate the clarity. But I also love the cool nights, the way that light comes slanted instead of powering on overhead, the way the rattlesnakes seem to have tucked in, away from the hiking trails, the way I’m ready for the long nights when they come.

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