(an excerpt from my post on shekinacommunity.com)
So we packed up and left India, and our beloved meditation center, three weeks ago. Shekina people went all directions, away from each other. It’s just a short haitus until fall, when we all gather again in Goa again.
That’s three weeks without the soothing sound of crows cawing incessantly in the background. Three weeks without the strong shekina circle of sharing. Weeks without seeing scripture in a some unexpected and revealing light. And yeah I said the crows were soothing.
Nourishment is funny. Neglect feeding yourself and you kind of start to shrivel. Keep messing around and you will need some kind of intervention, and not long after that, out come the defibrillators, and all the yelling and pounding, and ominous long beep and the shaking of heads.
Not that meditation is spiritual food, its not really, although I’m sure it looked like that’s where I was going with all this. No, Meditation is a form, its just one way to get the real nourishment in.
A lot of things can do provide nourishment. You know like truly entering into spiritual songs, hearing scripture explained by a gifted speaker, being in a crowded room full of prayer, patching the holes in your understanding by reading theology, or a quiet moment in your garden that is swimming with fireflies. Everyone has their own list I’m sure.
God is the real nourishment, and that connection is food for us. You need it like you need water. I do anyway.
Sure you can haul your shriveled malnourished defibrillator-ready carcass from place to place and make a great show of things. People might not even notice. But weaknesses always show up when strength is required. I don’t have to tell you life is a trial, do I?
That’s why I’ve got the blues. Honestly I was being spoiled by all the rich thick silences, the open and intentional spaces we created for nutrients, the watering holes. And I didn’t really even know it. Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone.
So this post is turning out to be personal. Surely someone is thinking that I am selling something. But this is more of a confession than a testimonial. I know I’m putting in the terms of sage advice, but I am the real audience.
Walking beside Lake Fewa in Pokhara Nepal (our latest homeish-type location), I tossed out a casual bit of trivia for my four children walking beside me. It was about how the majority about how animals spent most of their time eating or looking for food. Trivia for three of the four I should say, the youngest was surely had better things to do, like admiring the size of the buffalo poo in his path.
In fact cows and buffalo were strewn about in the unused rice fields by the lakeside, stuffing their faces with every shred of green in sight, like they always do. “They’re either sleep, or dead, or eating” I said. My son reasoned that they could not possibly moo and chew at the same time.
Then it went off in my head like a bell. In a bizarre and somewhat unromantic moment of connection with the natural world, I realized how famished I was too. There they were, fat and sassy and full of everything they needed to stay alive, think happy cow thoughts, and generally get sleek and fat, just as cows should be. I warned you that it was bizarre.
Famished for God, which is strange considering how abundant God is from one perspective. Then again, the consensus seems to be that God takes some seeking to find. Shekina community has slowly become a great place for me to do that.
Shekina Community is a community of travelers. And although shekina meditation could be used by anyone, it was developed by us and our friends and mentors as one more way to keep ourselves healthy. And its started to spread, with other spiritual communities and curious individuals trying it in their own way. But come on, meditation is hardly new, and far unique to Christians.
We just woke up to it, dusted it off a bit. Its been really transforming for many of us, so much for me that the thought of coconut trees and the sound of crows transports me quickly into worship. Our meditation center was surrounded by both.
But I’m sure you see the weakness of it all. You can’t have some community or some practice as your only source of spiritual food. It was not my only inlet, but one so rewarding that I got a little dependant on it. But hey, here are worse things to be addicted to than meditation.
So, next challenge. How to practice meditation when I’ve been revamping the classic hours of prayer, vigils in particular. The night watches. I am a night person, but those hours tend to be unclaimed territory for me, vast expanses devoid of spiritual practice. I’ve been trying to seed them.
How practice community when you are not physically together. How to be strong, not weak, for the calling we have of sharing the life of God in our world of travelers. Things that require a strong and nourished spiritual body.
Wow, I feel better already. At least I know what I need to do.
We are all fine, very safe and sound, in case you were wondering. But you probably aren’t, because the news coverage is so weak.
I was standing at a surreal vantage point on khao san road in Bangkok. I came back to this spot because I had to, I was drawn there. Down past the tourist madness to the end of the street, which was blocked off with beaten yellow barriers.
If I looked left, there were photos of many men shot in the head, stuck with tape to a hastily erected shrine, with barely respectable offerings piled around them, left by people who obviously cared about the slain but had no time to offer their best on the newly hallowed ground. It looked like they just laid down what they had, a bottle of some cheap red soft drink, someone’s breakfast, lots of incense sticks, a crude bamboo fence. People came and bowed with palms pressed together then slowly took pictures.
The men who had been shot wore red headbands and red shirts. Their heads surrounded by red halos of blood. The people paying respects at the shrine were old ladies, toothless rickshaw drivers, young transvestites, bespectacled businessmen. Everyone was wearing red.
If I looked right, there were people shooting each other happily. I had been shot many times myself, by super soaker water guns of every variety. Bulbous fluorescent plastic water guns sprayed water in every direction. The street was full of water. Water hoses, buckets, pressure spray cannons, even old school finger action squirt guns.
They were Germans, English, Americans, Thai shop owners, Thai tourists, Thai transvestites, Thai old men with enormous smiles, music was thumping, people shrieking, squealing, running, to avoid the next blast, which came from everywhere, from every direction. It went on as far as you could see, if you looked right.
A woman approached me.
“are you a journalist”
“terrible thing happen here, 180 in hospital, they still in hospital”
“tell the world about what happened here”. She says this just like a movie script. Only she’s in earnest, and she’s jabbing me in the stomach with a large red clapper shaped like a heart. It comes now with every word.
“this used to be the land of smile, now it is the land of kill.”
I look around and wonder, will the water wash away the blood?
Everyone cut loose, eventually I dove in too. It was freeing. I understood the juxtaposition, how everyone seemed to need it. But when the party is over Thailand will have some serious wounds.
24 hours ago i was driving away from my little fishing village for the last time. Since then, I have come to new universe. In this universe, things are different from home. You know, home, deep in the coconut groves of Goa, in a far away constellation called India. Red-brown against green, the sounds of waves, incredible musicians and performers. Goat herds in the morning on the way to the store.
I am not there. The most shocking moments all stand out like raised braille dots on the surface of my sleepy and travel weary brain. The most shocking things are the most mundane, like water pressure. I picked up a sprayer and the water came out at warp speed. I wrestled it and finally got it off. Then I had to sit down and recover. A few deep breaths.
I have become a bumpkin. A wide eyed dislocated ruralite village man. The airport in Bangkok soared around me in steel and glass, impossibly high. I stared up and wondered where they got all that metal from. The streets were so wide, why so many lanes. Look, there was no way could see someone getting a herd of buffalo across, no way.
And then there was the order. Order, some invisible lines of force that supported everything, transmitted by some strange particle that physics has yet to identify. Cars and people moved in straight lines. Signs pointed to actual places, and were even followed by encouraging sign later telling you that you were going the right way. The signs and the numbers on buildings and the roads all matched and made sense. Amazing.
I was walking down the street when a rat emerged from a sewer looking fresh, even newly combed, he had a brisk and polite manner and headed out at an unhurried pace, onto an well managed street without so much as a single dead carcass on it.
In India, our rats are not simply big. Every sinew of the Indian rat exudes cunning, a will to survive by any means, and the chaotic markings, scars and notches hard fought turf battles. They were invariably covered in grease and filth and seemed capable of some primal intelligence that makes you reluctant to think about what they were doing to each other when you could not see them.
But not in Bangkok. This little tan yuppie rat in this bright city saw me standing and looking at him and lost his cool. Nervously he ran back to the sewer in a self conscious and bumbling manner, briefly exposing his tender and clean little belly a he flipped over in his haste. I smiled fondly at the comical, spotless, polite little rat. How cute.
The food. Dare I mention it? I scooped up a very small spoonful of prawn sauce from my plate and was transported instantly into serene and otherwordly contemplation, like the peace of the most accomplished monk. My eyes were closed, my fork waving in my hand like a conductor wand to some sublime inner music. How could something taste like that? In my mind a new category was created, with everything else I had ever tasted on one side, and this bite of prawn sauce from New Joe’s Guesthouse on the other.
Yeah, I know it’s not real. It’s just perspective. something you get at 3,200 ft above another strange ocean, heading into the world between worlds, where all kinds of magic is possible. Magic like continuous electricity. Something we have not experienced in many months.
Steve jobs can tout his magical and revolutionary device, I was satisfied with the curved and futuristic looking dashboard of my taxi. All that molded plastic, not one broken dial in sight. My dashboard in India still has a choke on it. I’m not kidding, people, a choke. I’m not ready for the iPad.
Something in me sees everything here in Bangkok exactly as it must be, a sprawling Asian metropolis, dirty, with many secrets and full of very sad stories. But that perspective sits like tiny unwatched flickering movie screen deep in my subconscious. I know that Bankok is not a particularly clean place, pretty much the same way I happen to know that Venus has creamy yellow clouds. I know it, but I can’t see it.
All I see now is this magnificent Oz, a city carved from a jewel. Is this how children see? This second sight will fade, I know. In fact it already is. Like Moses’ face, like every rare and moving dream upon waking, like the taste of perfect prawn sauce on the tounge.
A few days I knelt on the floor being soaked by my own son’s blood. He had fallen and gotten a spectacular gash on his forehead. Who knew that three says later he would be doing this…
I just wanted a picture of the stitches. But unexpectedly he started chanting, I am optimus prime. Dozens of times. I flipped the camera over to video mode and shot away. It was in no way planned, and I caught a fraction of the total number of chants. I take it that he likes the transformers.
On the operating table, he dealt with all the strangeness and pain the same way, apparently shooting missiles out of his forearms and grappling evil robots. The nurses got a chuckle.
Yeah its been a minute.
I return to this blog a bit like a drifter coming home from the Florida keys after a binge. I mean, you feel guilty for being gone so long, but you have to come back sometime. Its easier to just slip in the back door and crash on the couch. The you are there at the table for breakfast like nothing happened.
What have I been doing? God, don’t ask. But its been very busy, daily meditation with some teaching thrown in, playing in a world folk band, raising four kids and all that. Is that any excuse? Of course not, Rachel has been doing the same (except you have to throw in writing a book) and manages to keep her blog up. No, its just that I am a binger, I like heroic moments, daily events just feels…ho hum. This despite the fact that I live in what is arguably the least ho hum location this side of the Mississippi.
But I just had to come back. You see, soon I will need all the narcissistic catharsis I can get. you’ll see, lots of angst and bold declarations of faith snuggled in next to moments of aching vulnerability. I’m talking about A class shameless introspective blogging with photos to boot. I will need it all and more, all your fawning comments and astute observation. You see, I am returning to the Americas.
What is it about and me that requires some massive change to spark a single blog post? I love transition, I feed off it somehow. It draws out the longing, the melancholy and the joy of the worlds between worlds. It illuminates the impermanence of things with a bright and unwavering light. Times of transition and change are when i wake up and notice life. But to be honest, this time I am actually a bit afraid. I am going to one of the most foreign places I know, the Americas.
As ungracious as it is, the truth about my feelings about America is all in these images flashing in my brain. Images of strip malls, mass consumption and waste, grotesquely obese people with hot dogs in their hands, plastic things sold in plastic bags, hordes of relentless suvs, everything adding to the overhanging insipid pall of the status quo.
Images of things which my judgment flies out towards with untamed unmitigated ferocity every time I think of them. These things I fear, just a bit. Somehow I fear getting trapped there, quite unreasonably I should add. The problems over waste and consumption are evident everywhere, in my so called enlightened hippy life too. certainly my harsh judgement is way out of line. Yet some that few places have such power over me to erode my convictions and suppress wonder as thoroughly as the USA.
But then all I have to do is think about the faces of my friends, in an out burgers calling to me on the side of the road, the clouds sailing over the hills of San Francisco, clean water emerging miraculously from the end of faucet, the voice of my father, fat plump burritos, people driving in lanes, lakes in Canada, NPR on car stereo, and a thousand other things I haven’t even thought of in two years. And yes consumption, all the wonderful things there are waiting to be consumed. moderation is the key, except with in and out burgers of course.
No, America and Canada will hold plenty of wonder for me. The wonder of law and order. You don’t know what that’s like until you live somewhere where justice is purchased universally by bribes alone. The wonder of sanitation, which is lost on you until you live somewhere with raw sewage never more than a stones throw away, mostly closer. Where pigs and cows and monkeys all live with you all around, until you just accept them as completely normal parts of your community. Yes there is a strange attraction in all of those things too. But it will be pure wonder to be without them.
So I will be blogging about that journey no doubt. The return home after too years, with one extra kid, 30 pounds lighter, and having experienced a thick slab of life in a very short time. I want to sit around fires and tell my stories. I want to hear about the lives and goings on of all my dear friends, to eat with them. i ant to catch up with my family. I want to squeeze the cheeks of children who have grown tall and spindly, who have learned all kinda off-beat and interesting things to say. I want to take pictures of everyone and post them. In the its all of you I am coming home for, my beloved familia.
In the end it will probably turn out to be another spasm of writing followed by some months of eerie silence. But then you are used to that by now arent you.
and now for something completely different
This is the part of the show where the audience (das you) gets to tell me what they think about a particular portrait. I am collecting a crew of people with sharp and discerning eyes that have really given me a fresh perspective, more than once. Also more than twice, but less than a google.
Sometimes I like a picture very much, but am insecure about liking it. See here’s the problem. Just about any little kid (and some adults) will be inordinately proud of a large bowel movement they had last night. They may, quite justifiably, reflect on it years later with some fondness. But that doesn’t mean they should take it and show it to others.
Just as often, I just need someone to tell me I am doing a good job, that it will all be fine. Please tell me what you think, how you would adjust the crop, so on and so forth. I’m all ears.
On to the pic.
Take this fine pic as an example. You may remember my Low Keys of Varanasi. I shot this around the same time, and you can see the dominance of black in the composition, although its by no means a Low Key. It was a girl selling poojahs on the River.
By the way, a poojah is a small religious ceremony any observant Hindu can do to nab some quick and easy karma. That’s how karma works, you just get it whenever you can, a little here, a little there, a big slopping helping now and then. The poojah is simple, you light a candle, put in a little leaf dish boat thing, and waft it out onto the Ganges while reciting something or other.
Being a focused and sincere Christian, I don’t often find much reason to do it, besides maybe a chance to see pretty lights on the river. I do have Christian friends who just pray thanks to Jesus and fire that sucker up anyway, but I was not in the mood and decided to decline.
Mistake. These girls make their living off of soft bellied suckers like me. She tore into me, using every line in the book, machine gun style, without a singe breath. “siryoubuypoojahnowberyberygoodluckyouluckynowmyorphannomamanodadaberyberyhungryonlytenrupees….”
I decided surprise her by asking her for money. This sometimes gets a chuckle. Surprised she paused for a second and I swung my around, all smiles. I took the shot when she was doing some quick math. There is a basic equation that works the world over. If camera = tourist, and tourist = money, then camera = money. I saw her eyeing my soft underbelly.
“you take my picture, you give thirty rupees!” she said triumphantly, so relaxed and confident in her new position that she didn’t bother rushing anymore. I used my secret king-fu technique against this unassailable logic. I laughed loudly, from the belly, like Gordon Liu in Shoalin Drunken Monk.
This sometimes gets a smile. But I was outmaneuvered once again. She looked so furious and sullen that for a second I feared I had done the wrong thing. All apologies now, I offered one rupee.
This fresh affront elicited a world class sulk that so convincing, so emotional breathtakingly genuine that I relented. You see, this is a game we play together, one closely related to the game of haggling in the market. I’m no slouch at this game, but she gets a lot more practice and naturally has much more drive to win. I gave her 5 rupees.
As she walked away in mock disgust, she couldn’t really hide her momentary smile.
Israel is as thick as my grandma’s cornbread, sweet and fresh from the jiffy box. You cant walk two feet without tripping over something mind-blowing. I have been here many times and thought I was used to it. I am not.
But today I went to Nazareth for the first time. I saw the unearthed old village where Jesus played as a kid. This morning I walked by a synagogue freshly unearthed that was certainly attended by Jesus at some point. Bought camping gear in Tiberius where he pushed out in a little boat and gave his mind-blowing sermon. Of course as I write this I am sitting on the top of mount Carmel where Elijah fought the prophets of Baal.
But Nazareth was truly moving. I went to a church that was built on layers of other churches going back to byzantine times. In the very middle is a tiny grotto that is believed to be the place where Mary heard the angel.
What do you think of looking at these things? It all grows on you slowly, and many abstract things become very real and sure. In your mind, you sometimes imagine Jesus as a large floating spiritual being. Being in Israel snaps it all down to earth, into the real. A small hebrew boy who was raised right over there, just like anyone else is raised. A young man that taught with such passion and fire that everyone remembers the hill that he talked on, which other that that one auspicious moment, is just like any other hill around the sea of Galilee.
I woke up this morning at the rainbow gathering in the Golan, looked outside my tent at rushes and oleander, fig trees and a small stream, winter clouds in the sky, a scene almost exactly like the one that would have greeted Paul on his way to Damascus, Peter on a fishing trip, or the Nazarene possessed man in his lucid moments between fits. One thing that would not have fit in very well is the roaring apache helicopters practicing maneuvers 20ft above our heads.
My mind goes to my family in Goa. Especially to Rachel. She is so deeply entwined in me that we are never really apart, and the longing so deep for her that I am never really close enough. She is always on my mind in every thought and decision. I wanted her to taste the perfect shawerma I ate in Nazareth today, just in front of the church. To get good food you have to go the arab cities. My beloved, it was as good as our falafel in Rehovot, did you know that? And it was followed by baklava so sublime, so elevating, that you had to close you eyes and sigh after every bite. Oh how I wish you could taste it!
Now I am on top of mt Carmel, exactly where Elijah called down fire from heaven. If I could call it, where would I direct it? Certainly into the hearts of every soul around me, and everywhere else too. I would direct such a stream of living fire that the truth and love of Yeshua (the little boy, the rabbi, the broken body, the light filled body alive again!) Would be as clear and real as the rocks and trees that I awake to every day. Such fires are not ours to direct. Direct them Hashem, Melech HaOlam!
Tomorrow its back tot he rainbow, and so much that I love. Back to fire circles and working together. Back to the stories and lives of my beloved family, imperfect and beautiful as they are. I cant wait to in the circle again and share yeshu bhajans, to sing More Love More Power and, I am a Rainbow my Soul Will Never Die.
Photography is like big game hunting, with fewer bangs. You are on the move, thinking about a lot of technical details, wondering whether to be stealthy or bold, with a lot of black gear jangling around your neck and shoulders.
Sometimes a photo just jumps out and shouts in your face, hey take me! In this case, that’s exactly what happened. This girl saw my camera and jumped out and demanded that I shoot her. She then valiantly fended off all the other waifs with the patented windmill attack (a complicated maneuver involving rotating every limb at high velocities a full 360 degrees) before posing dramatically.
Man, thank God she wasn’t a lion.
This part of the blog is where you get to critique a shot and tell me what you think. I am putting up shots that I like but am not quite sure about, maybe I have a nagging feeling there is something I could have changed.
It’s nice when people fawn and say, its perfect. It’s also nice when people point out what I could change. You can’t lose. Tell me what you think.
It is no secret that Varanasi is my favorite place on earth. Nowhere is India more thick, more pungent, more vibrant and startling than in the oldest human city on earth. It’s like condensed India syrup, that you really should add a few cups of water to before you drink.
I decided to bring my camera and be ready. But be ready for Varanasi? Not a chance. It always surprises.
I mean, It’s like saying, I’m ready to have my abdomen trampled by four hundred and twelve water buffalo with tap dancing shoes on. Of all the things you would undoubtedly be in that moment, ready is not one of them.
One problem with bringing a camera to Varanasi is that, you’re hardly the only one who thought of it. Everyone needs the obligatorey shot of a sadhu and a guy soaping himself up on the river in the morning. I was trotting down the street, looking for more interesting shots when I came under fire from two dozen canons that swiveled to capture my every move. Oooo look! He’s stepping again! The canons were wielded by a loud raucous flock of middle aged Korean women who, emboldened by superior numbers no doubt, decided to throw all courtesy to the wind and get what shots they could while the spectacle lasted.
After all, its not everyday that you see a 6″2 dread-locked black man striding down the choked streets of India. The rapid fire report of their many shutters sounded like someone snapping armloads of twigs. Not to be outdone, I swung my giant white 70-200 towards them and snapped away like a paparazzi. In the end we all got a bunch of fairly worthless shots.
Enough of that, on with my mission. My own photography mission. Try to shoot the varanasi that people rarely see. Wandering around, I started to see shots I in the gullies at night in low key. If you didn’t know, Low Key is a composition style that favors black and other very dark colors.
They’re not underexposed, you are shooting pictures of things that are dark by nature, and in doing so reveal shape and line over detail and clarity. It’s also a powerful tool for mood. But it is not easy to understand, you have to look at them for a minute to catch the subtlety of it./As an artist, I think its a great tool. Here’s are some of my attempts.
Varanasi is anything but low key, but looking at it this way somehow tames it, let’s it breathe. This time Varanasi surprised me with its softness, the bare feeling that these shots convey. Of course i will post my classic varinasi pics too, but these were part of the vision i had, let me know what you think.
Today I am going out again with my camera and renewed purpose. One problem with living around stunning imagery all the dang time is that it stops stunning. You trot past so many flabbergasting things on your way to get buffalo milk (for cereal) that your few remaining ghasts refuse to be flabbered at all.
But just a few days ago I dragged it out and returned with a smile on my face. I had to slow myself down, but I got shots I never tried before. An as Usual I brood over every shot and bemoan its mediocrity. All artist are predictably narcissist, perfectionist, and tortured. What’s new?
Here are a couple, feel free to tell me what you think. Especially if its constructive criticism. ["Its pure bullocks pizzle, c'mon just say it" - finding neverland, remember?]
This is a development for me because I don’t like to take pictures of people unless I am setting them up in a studio for a portrait. Just taking pictures feels rude. To convey life and story into pictures like this is challenging, but I am up for trying. To me these feel a bit flat, but its a start.
The trick is, you just have to go do it. You don’t heave to be perfect at first. I have a great camera that is up to the task. The images are out there, milling around and kicking up dust. Even when you dont feel like it, you have to get out.
I got some great tips over at strobist and other sites I ruffle through. One even suggested putting snippets of paper in a hat with words scrawled on them like; “street”, “faces”, “close-up”, “moody”, “black and white”, and “poultry” and pulling them out randomly before you head out the door. Then you try finding those exact shots and capturing them.
Hmm…I hope I don’t get close-up poultry.