Wall, New Orleans
The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. H.D. Thoreau from the essay, Walking.
"It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own." - Ralph Waldo Emerson on his friend Henry David Thoreau.
Walking is like writing in that each is a narrative, a collection of images one notices or is sometimes impaled upon. Walking, say, from one end of the airline terminal to the other entails countless decisions, small and barely conscious left and right turns, people we look at or choose not to, the way a thought influences the hunch of our shoulder or whether we are able to smile when asked for our photo I.D. The narrative of that walk is a never to be repeated and soon to be forgotten memory of it, though not memory as something vanished we might later recall, but the lingering, intangible atmosphere of it, how it felt to us and - a question we seldom ask! - how we felt to it.
Space and its atmosphere, its living flavor that we co-create with it, is what we walk though. Writing is the reconstruction of images and atmosphere, a selective process, a subjective chaos given an identity the writer discovers through writing. Thus walking and writing are practice.
Near Paris Ave. and Robert E. Lee,
Friday, 14-May: After I fetched my suitcase from baggage claim, I exited Chicago's Midway International airport through a corridor that took me past a series of photographs taken by telescopes, some earthbound others in orbit, such as the Hubbel. The photos were all compelling but none more so than the picture of our earth, with the Gulf of Mexico vividly in view and free of clouds. I was going there, to "witness the oil spill" to be in a place where the consciousness of many of us has become impaled, the oil spill a blunt reality and symbolic spear penetrating many issues and conflicts.
Even though I am traveling by bus, airplane, taxi and subway, I am still walking to New Orleans. That is the way I am experiencing it, that is the narrative I am choosing to live and write about: various parts commitment, compromise, hypocrisy and paradox. I am committed to writing and filming about issues of environmental sanity, social justice and the "awake" potential of each individual. Yet every plastic bag I use and throw away, destined for land-fill or the world's oceans, is an act of environmental insanity. Even heating my home is a profligate use of the world's finite natural gas reserves and a contribution to global warming. Nearly every activity a so-called middle-class person engages in is positioned somewhere between compromise and hypocrisy (perhaps the very definition of karma?).
Statues in front of house,
To underscore this equation, I received an e-mail from a reader of my Journal who is also a friend. Her opinion of me is also my opinion of myself, certainly from one corner of the paradox.
There is one thing that stopped me in my tracks this morning and that is, after many references to flying here and there all over the world to write about it, that you are going to fly to New Orleans to witness the oil spill. This is something I cannot understand about almost everyone around me. WHY ARE YOU FLYING? WHY ARE YOU DRIVING? If you care so much about oil spills, why are you using so much oil flying here and there? This is something I've come up against in the ecological world and bird-watching world. The very ones proclaiming how much they care about something are the very ones destroying it. Forgive my rant -- I have become allergic to hypocrisy.
The e-mail offers a chance to establish a "madhyamika" (the Buddhist method of examination the reveals phenomena to be empty of "self-nature" by exposing the extremes of eternalism and nihilism to be equally invalid) for our actions and deeply held unconscious beliefs. The following incomplete list is merely a starting point for this argument.
1. In our use of precious resources (gasoline, water, paper) do we consider how they have come to us and for what purpose (creative, kind, mindless, useless) we using them?
2. Do we feel entitled to our wealth? That we somehow have the right to it, an attitude which might be a "primitive belief" (Gampopa), a very dull appreciation of Indra's net.
3. Have we examined our "first-word privilege," that if we own a passport and have the money to travel, for instance, we are infinitely more privileged that most of our neighbors on this planet. There is tremendous potential and power for good or indifference in the exercise of our privilege.
4. Setting-sun, as Chögyam Trunga defined it, is a life and lifestyle oriented to seeking pleasure, comfort and convenience. Great Eastern Sun, on the other hand, is a life that "attracts the dralas" by staring into nowness, seeing the simple yet unfathomable demand that the moment makes upon us, a coil of fearless, loving and intelligent awake.
Girl on Metra, Chicago.
Shoes on Metra, Chicago.
IMMIGRATION and CURRENTS
Immigration is "the introduction of new people into a habitat or population" and is therefore another word for walking. My three-day Chicago walkabout led me from Midway to a hotel on the Chicago River to a wedding, a visit to the Art Institute
I went out looking for breakfast later in the morning and turned right rather than left on Armitage Avenue. One block later the neighborhood became a primarily Mexican one, of recent immigrants, "legal" and "illegal," from south of the U.S. border. I entered a grocery of astonishingly low prices and few signs in English. When I've traveled in Mexico I've felt embraced by the warmth of the Mexican people but in the grocery I encountered the same body-language I often do back in Boulder among my Mexican neighbors. A hesitation to make eye contact, a slightly noticeable hunch of the shoulders, a closing in, a making oneself slightly shorter, less visible, a movement to avoid radar that is also a shield. I am perceived as an agent of the less welcome side of America, its law, politics and still primarily white power base, and in detecting this my own body tightens into a stiff nonchalance (as if such a thing were possible). Once inside, say, a restaurant and engaged in conversation, our smiles come out, but there is naturally or potentially still a distance.
Like viewing a body of water, seeing the surface but not the depths which tell us so much more about it, humanity is also fluid, with untold, unseen currents that hold truths headlines obscure. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1993. Headlines promised improvements for the American economy and a massive lifting out of poverty for Mexicans. But the agreement overrode local and national environmental laws and opened the way for U.S. agribusiness to flood the Mexican economy with cheap corn, which rapidly wiped out the livelihood of 2.5 million farmers and only fueled a desperate need to migrate el norte. During the booming economy Mexicans were essential to our labor force (still are). Just as our body has a skin to repel the other, countries create borders to keep the other out and/or keep us in (borders that are also fluid; before 1848, Mexico ended just south of Casper, Wyoming) and immigration laws are obviously necessary. But the future promises rising ocean waters that may force millions from coastal cities, as well as food crisis and water shortages. The kind of migrations we will see in the future are inconceivable. What kind of walls will we have? What kind of neighbor will each country be? Who will be the other?"
Store window, Chicago.
This advertisement for money transfer services in a store window on Amritage Avenue, signifies a kind of caring I can only admire. It is not in the fees, often steep, a company like Sigue charges to wire transfer funds, but in the $13 billion (a 2003 figure) sent annually by migrant workers in the U.S. back to their families in Mexico. The beautiful, selfless goodness of it. And probably the only way many survive the emotional hardship of being alone and undocumented in a foreign country, for who would chose such a life willingly unless driven by economic necessity?
After three days of being in New Orleans, I am finally writing about it. I have passed through the membrane of arriving as pure neophyte, a man who'd never set foot in the Deep South, and now know the look of Bourbon Street and Lake Pontchartrain. Names that entered me in the years since Katrina have now become tangible, such as the Ninth Ward, which I walked through yesterday in blazing heat to discover odd juxtapositions of the derelict and gentrified. Some houses boarded and rotting from the inside out, others seamlessly puttied and coated in glowing Sherman Williams latex paint. I stopped to film two young people on the porch of their house, white, tattooed, with a flask in a brown bag they were sharing; the young woman from California with the look a a runaway and the young man a native with a dog named Grimace. The man had grown up in New Orleans and agreed with me that everything here was beautiful, from this semi-wasted Ward to all the other concentric rings of the city.
Wall, New Orleans.
I stopped at another porch, five young black women (though one was a grandmother) and a couple of under four-year-olds. The accepted me with the same good-humored tolerance that people in Cambodia would; some fool with a camera and an indeterminate purpose. I began the interview and, like a fool, later realized I hadn't pressed the video record button. I lost a thirty second statement by an eighteen year-old named Jasmine who, when I asked how it has been since Katrina, replied with a heart-breaking simple, gentle, plaintive candor, "It's been real hard and it's still real sad so many are gone." I asked her about the "so many" and in her case both her cat and grandmother were drowned in the flooding. Plus the rents are going up and the water around and under them seems poisoned.
Corner building, Ninth Ward, New Orleans.
In the membrane between neophyte and experience ("neophyte" also means an adult convert to Christianity; I have converted to falling in love with New Orleans) I am often in bewilderment, often hot and lonely, penetrated by an emerging but still confused sense of why I came here and for what purpose. I could have learned as much or more about the oil spill simply by staying at home and researching the Internet. In general, people here know only a little bit more than the rest of us, it is still abstract, tangible only through newspapers and television. The oil spill is moving closer and has now made contact with the shores of Louisiana. Fishermen are already effected, restaurant workers know they soon will be. I sense that whatever I "learn" or "experience" will be secondary to a feeling that is already upon me, that I have moved closer into the global calamity.
Cross, Ninth Ward, New Orleans.
I am seeking to understand the oil spill in terms of the drala principle, which is a three-fold understanding, one that cannot found in a single newspaper or a single web-site. The three-fold drala principle is taking responsibility for our state of mind, state of body, state of the world. Responsibility for our state of mind means our attitude, our "secret" intention (one that cannot be seen by others, only felt) such as how we hold others in our heart (heart and mind being the same). Responsibility for our body means how we treat, dress and experience it. It is not a set of puritanical guidelines (though rules can play a part) but one of extending awareness to our body so that body and mind "talk" to each other, are joined. For example, a smile joins body and mind (as well as self and other). Responsibility for the world means we become aware of our effect upon it, that we take responsibility for decreasing harmful effects and increasing beneficial ones. Responsibility brings joy, love, and hardship, it is like raising a child.
Prayer Flags, French Quarter, New Orleans
We can only make this three-fold commitment by realizing that body, mind and world are all equally "alive" and are one. This is a "spiritual" solution to the issues of war and environmental destruction. This is a spiritual approach to survival.
Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans.
A floating glob of garbage, debris and
pollution, Lake Pontchartrain.
pollution, Lake Pontchartrain.
I am here to live within these premises as much as I can, to test them, become their experiment, to shed preconceive ideas and cut through the ever-arising array of my petty mind occupations; fear and contraction, self-abasement, naivety, blatant distraction and vanity. As in Chicago, here I received an e-mail that entered and altered my narrative. It is from another reader of my Journal, Jeff Krouk, someone I have only recently met, on line, who reads my Journal, who has a website (with rare and fantastic footage of early Chögyam Trunga) and who wrote:
The oil spill is a black swan event. its important that you are there. Very "naga serious." The spill is not really a spill. They busted a geologic artery. The spec's for the equipment that failed was not built to handle what happened and is now in progress. This is as big a deal as the financial meltdown and it is all playing into the same configuration of collapse and social unwinding we are experiencing... Within 3 years of Chernobyl the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR was gone. In three years the US may not be gone but we may not recognize it. If you can see the web cam images some of the web sites are running from the well head you can see what a catastrophe this is in real time with no end in sight. Even with all the news about the blowout continuing it still is being suppressed by omission and coverage of other far less important events. - Jeff Krouk
Naga heads on path to shrine,
Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Body of Nagas, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Nagas are snake-headed beings, found in the mythology and religions of India and Southeast Asia, and are associated with water. The Shambhala teachings speak of "The Great Lu, Tsugna Rinchen" who might be considered a "mere" naga or potentially obstructing spirit in orthodox Tibetan Buddhism, but as a drala, Tsugna Rinchen represents the elemental wisdom principle of lu, which are the lowest elevations within any particular geography, hence where rivers and wetlands are, the domain of water. If one embraces water as being - or a being - then nagas (or Tsugna Rinchen, or any name that any tradition gives to water beings) are those who we participate with, as they participate with us (who also are largely water).
The only way I have found to "participate" with Tsugna Rinchen or the dralas of water is to go blank. "To have the capacity," as Ibn Arabi puts it, "to become a mother of what it presented." This is a very simple extension of meditation or resting the mind. In "going blank" (for lack of another term) one surrenders pre-conceived ideas and instead tunes in to space and the atmosphere of space, the intangible that surrounds us (as awareness, dralas, God). "Becoming a mother" means that space tells us what do do, (and what not to do) and we give birth to that, which is manifestation.