Rap With B-Cat

Baby Cat daydreaming

Baby Cat daydreaming

It occurs to me, as I sit in the studio on this cool spring morning, that there is a fourth member of my household that has yet to be introduced. We have a cat, an elder statesman, a worthy companion and sparring partner for Tripper-Dog-Dog-Dog. He has a name that no one uses because, early in his life, he became a rap star and dumped his given name. He is now known to all the world as Baby Cat.

When I first met Baby Cat I called him Sumo. He is a very large cat, a formidable kitty. Late at night I have more than once thought there was a burly intruder in the house but it was only Baby Cat pacing as he worked out his latest rap. It is an understatement to say that he is heavy on his feet. Sometimes the room bounces when he leaps from a windowsill.

photoBaby Cat is teaching me about clarity of intention. He leaves no doubt about what he wants (food or pets) and is relentless until he gets it. Truly, he is relentless. He does not know the word “try.” Baby Cat gets. He meets me every morning and guides me to his bowl. If I deviate, he wraps his hulk around my feet or herds me like a shepherd. If physical action is not enough to direct me to his bowl, he begins a verbal assault that would make his mother blush. He wants what he wants and he wants it now. Black and white. In addition to Sumo, I also call him Terrorist Kitty because he resorts to biting ankles as a last resort. Yoda would be proud of Baby Cats force of will. Were he not a rap star I’m certain that he’d be a Jedi. Actors would be well served to study with Master Baby Cat.

Baby Cat is teaching me about simple contentment (yes, like all things true, it is a paradox: intention and contentment are bedfellows). He shows me how to linger in sunny spots or stare out the window for hours, just because. He has reintroduced me to the fine art of daydreaming. He joins me every morning as I stretch and do a bit of yoga, shamelessly positioning himself in the optimal petting zone close to my feet and gives himself over to my affections. And, because he is so capable of presence and pleasure, I’ve found that my morning yoga has transformed. It is no longer a discipline, something I do that is good for me; it has become a practice of simple attention and loving. I am more capable of presence and pleasure. I rest in it. Like Baby Cat, my body tells me what it needs, and I breathe.

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Remember The Fire

this is the first painting in a triptych I did for The Creatures Of Prometheus, a performance I did with The Portland Chamber Orchestra. special kudos to Jen and Brad for housing these enormous paintings for me.

This is the first painting in a triptych I did for The Creatures Of Prometheus, a performance I did with The Portland Chamber Orchestra. Special kudos to Jen and Brad for housing these enormous paintings for me.

With the spring the storms have come. Brilliant blinding flashes of lightning followed by thunder that rolls and rolls for minutes without ceasing. Joseph Campbell once posited that the voice of the thunder was humankind’s first experience of the godhead; as I listen now to the sky roil and rumble, watching Tripper-Dog-Dog-Dog look for a safe place to hide, I am grateful to be inside protected from the god’s displeasure.

Last week I learned that the phrase, “blinding flash of lightning” was more than poetry. Kerri and I were taking our usual late night stroll. There were distant rumbles of thunder, but nothing close or threatening. The crack and flash seemed to come from nowhere. I ducked. Kerri screamed. It felt like we were inside the lightning rather than beneath it. The ground rumbled in concert with the sky. For blocks around us, car alarms whooped and beeped like Chicken Little. I imagined the cars were as taken by surprise as Kerri and I. For several moments after the flash, I was literally blind.

We were already running when sight returned, we laughed and squealed and kept our heads down as if that would make a difference. It seemed as if the storm was far distant one moment and on top of us the next. The sky spit hail. It rained for a moment. And, as suddenly as it was on us, it was gone. We stood still in the wake of the storms departure. I wondered if I’d imagined it except the parked cars were still sounding their alarms.

Once, when I was in high school, I hiked with a friend to the top of a peak. We were above the timber line and although I knew enough to be off the mountain top before the afternoon storms rolled over the divide, the thunder clouds came fast and we were caught in a powerful storm in a meadow just beneath the peak. It seemed as if we were literally inside the cloud as the lightning made the hair on my head stand on end. We wedged ourselves in a sitting fetal position between some boulders, and reflexively closed our eyes and covered our heads. Each flash sent a jolt of fear through me. I’ve rarely been as frightened or exhilarated as I was that day. The storm roared over the mountain top and descended into the valley. It was gone as fast as it came. It was awesome.

In one of the versions of the Prometheus story, Zeus charges Prometheus with the task of creating creatures for the sole purpose of worshipping the gods. Zeus wants the new creatures to be crude and stupid. Prometheus, instead, creates something beautiful and smart: humans. From clay, he sculpts a female and male form. Knowing that Zeus will never give life to his beautiful creatures, Prometheus steals the immortal fire, the lightning, and sparks the human hearts to life. To punish Prometheus, to keep his beautiful creatures from knowing their own beauty, Zeus introduces them to warfare, both the internal and external variety; he makes them doubt. He infuses them with fear. He makes it easy for them to focus on their ugliness so that they might misdirect their awesome power and forget the creative fire burning in their hearts.

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Make It Rain

Pura Besakih, the highest temple on Gunung Agung

Pura Besakih, the highest temple on Gunung Agung

Terry was a crazy expat dive master living in Bali. He’d been a deep water welder, a surfer, a fugitive from what most people recognize as civilization. He was an old soul, one of the few people I’ve met who was completely comfortable anywhere in the world. He was always a local.

When I signed up to learn to dive I had no idea that 1) I’d be the only person in the class, and 2) that my dive lessons would, in fact, be some of the most profound life lessons I’d ever receive. By the time I left Bali, Terry and I did a dozen dives including a magical drift dive (the closest thing to flying I’ve ever known), a night dive, cliff dives, and a wreck dive. Once, driving to a dive site on the other side of the island, Terry pulled off the road so a tiny elderly Balinese woman could bless us. He called it “dive insurance.”

Although I never saw it, I heard about the Buddha statue that sat in the corner of his small upstairs apartment. Terry threw money at the statue. Every time he was paid he took a portion of the money and tossed it at the statue. When there was too much money accumulated around the statue, he’d open his window and throw it out to the people working in the shops below. He called it the “agung rain.”

Gunung Agung is the central mountain in Bali. It is an active volcano. All of the altars and houses (and lives) are oriented toward the mountain. To the Balinese, it represents the central axis of the universe. When Terry opened his window, which he often did, and made it rain money, he was orienting his life to abundance. He was saying to himself and to others, there is so much, more than enough, for everyone. He was demonstrating that the universe in which he lived was infinite with resource.

He told me of the agung rain one day as we bobbed in a boat between dives. Even though I did not yet know, I am certain that he knew I was on the island to learn a new way of living. The old way wasn’t working for me. “The thing that people miss,” he said, “is to not hold on to stuff. People think the measure of their lives is by the chunk of stuff that they hold.” He smiled and added, “Life has open hands. You can’t really know how to live until you can make it rain.”

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Give Joy

This is an illustration from my as yet unpublished children's book, Play To Play.

This is an illustration from my as yet unpublished children’s book, Play To Play.

The question was, “What gives you joy?” People responded with things like, “family,” “the sunrise,” and “community.” Someone offered, “Other people’s laughter gives me joy.” There were nods of agreement all around.

It is hard for me to hear a question like, “What gives you joy?” and not think of Viktor Frankel. As a young Jewish man in Nazi Germany, he somehow survived years in a concentration camp. He emerged believing that, other than sheer chance, the line that divided the survivors from those who perished was a capacity to give meaning to life – as opposed to seeking meaning from life. He noted that the prisoners who sought meaning from the experience perished. Those who made meaning from the experience were more apt to live another day; they storied hope instead of looked for it.

Viktor Frankel famously wrote that, “Happiness ensues.” Happiness follows. It is not something sought. It is not found on the outside. Happiness is a response. It comes from within. We bring happiness to a moment. We do not get happiness from the moment.

Joy is like happiness. As I listened to the responses to the question about joy, I thought about the language of “seeking” and “ensuing.” In the English language it is hard not to create a paradigm of separation. We rely heavily on our nouns. Things are distinct. Dissimilar. “It” is found outside; “it” is located inside. “I give meaning” versus “I get meaning.” Give. Get. Either way, within or without, there is a line of division; “it” cannot be in both places. I wondered if the experience of joy and happiness (or sadness and grief, for that matter) are co-creations. I wondered if the language of us/them, within/without actually obscured the other option: we seek it and it ensues because we engage life. We open and life opens. Joy, like happiness, is generated in the relationship space, the space between, and in the relationship space there is no separation. Your actions and my responses are intimately connected. Where is the line between my action and the impact it creates?

After the conversation about joy, Kristi talked about being empathic. She said, “I can feel other people’s pain and then I carry it.” Earlier in the week, Kerri and I had the same conversation. She told me that she wanted to learn how not to take on other people’s stuff. I told her about the time I sought a teacher named Anna Christensen who showed me how to feel but not take on other people’s pain. “We are all empathic to various degrees,” Anna said. “Most people, to survive, need to numb their capacity for feeling. It’s necessary for most people because they need to know where they end and other people begin. They need the illusion of the individual. But, that comes with a cost; it creates the terrible experience of aloneness,” she added.

If other people’s laughter gives joy, and we can universally agree that is true, then my laughter and your laughter give joy to others. Isn’t it really just that simple?

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Join The Story

Johnny is sitting on a mule named Old Abe. This was taken a few months before he died.

Johnny is sitting on a mule named Old Abe. This was taken a few months before he died.

Yesterday I finished the final edit/redraft of The Lost Boy. It is a play I began years ago based on interviews with Tom. Late one night while I was visiting him at the ranch, he asked me to help him. “Do what?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know. He felt that he had an obligation to an ancestor, his great grandmother, Isabelle, and he felt as if he’d not yet met his obligation. In 1885, Isabelle had a son that died. His name was Johnny and he was only ten years old. Isabelle carefully packed a trunk with all of Johnny’s worldly possessions, she wrote notes, and when no one was looking, she hid the trunk in the walls of the ranch house. She told no one. Tom found the trunk 100 years later.

We decided that his obligation was to tell Johnny’s story. We decided that Isabelle wanted to somehow keep the memory of her son alive but her method was a mystery since she told no one about the trunk. Tom shared the trunk with school children and historical societies but somehow felt as if he had yet to fulfill his obligation to Isabelle. Our idea was to create a play. I would interview Tom and write the piece. He would perform it. Along the way a terrific band, Mom’s Chili Boys, composed and compiled music from era.

We had a play with music. We’d solved the mystery of why Isabelle plastered the trunk into the walls. We made a few attempts at doing workshop performances but the piece always stalled or something unforeseen blocked our path. During a living room read/play through, it became apparent that we missed our window. Tom was slipping into dementia and got lost during the read through. He was no longer capable of performing the play. We stopped. We let the play sit dormant.

During Tom’s decline I rewrote the play so I might tell his story. The Chili Boys were my allies and my rock of encouragement and support. They played the music at performances and told the story in a condensed version and gathered some good feedback. Once, we tried to organize another run at doing the play and it hit a wall of resistance. So, it sat for a few years in the projects-that-could-have-been pile.

When Tom passed this fall it was as if the universe that was so dedicated to blocking our path finally said, “Now.” The Chili’s have new music and it is gorgeous. In doing the rewrite I was gob smacked to realize that Tom had to pass before the play would be complete. He wondered how he might honor his obligation to Isabelle and the answer was something he never knew: he had to ask for help, not to share the story but to enter it. As it turns out, The Lost Boy is not about Johnny or Isabelle. It is about how Tom found his way home.

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Look Up And See

Another painting from my archive. Today I call this, "The Other Side Of Yearning."

Another painting from my archive. Today I call this, “The Other Side Of Yearning.”

The fire in the fire pit was waning. The party was over and everyone had gone. We sat staring into the small flames, quiet, exhausted from the day yet exhilarated from the amazing people and conversations that filled our evening. It was a cloudless night sky and I sat back into my chair and lost myself in the stars.

Once, many years ago, I went to Kitt Peak Observatory outside of Tucson and spent a long evening looking into deep space. I saw stars and star clusters, asteroids, black holes and ice fields. We ended the evening looking towards Andromeda, the nearest galaxy to ours; it was so distant that its stars appeared to me as a mist, a shadow that shimmered. I was overcome with emotion that night. I’ve never felt so small and yet so undeniably connected. I was a universe within a universe within a universe. I was nothing and everything.

As I sat last night in my chair looking at the little points of light in the sky, I thought about all the things that seem so insurmountable on this earth. There are economies of exclusion, wars and markets that depend upon wars to prosper, slavery and drought and poverty, there are broken lives, broken hearts, and broken dreams. There are closed hearts and closed minds. There are people killing people over conflicting definitions of god. There are so many tug-of-wars over possessions and power and resources and boundaries that, from ground level, appear vital, real and important. But the moment you gaze into the night sky, the moment you place yourself in the context of the enormity, the moment you recognize the paradox of existence, the smallness of separation and the infinity of connection, you see how mechanical and rote most of our dramas really are. They are mostly made up. They are patterns of our creation. They are, each and every one, built upon the ultimate cop-out answer: we do it this way because we’ve always done things this way.

Once, in high school, I was at science camp in the mountains on the night of a meteor shower. We lay on blankets in a meadow oohing and aahing at the dance of stars happening in the heavens. I remember being awed. I remember thinking that the only real purpose people serve is to make up stories about the things we can’t explain. We are witnesses to miracles everyday and because we must somehow contain it, we reduce it. That night I understood that all belief systems were just that: systems. They are mechanisms to help us contain what we cannot comprehend. We need them to function, to orient ourselves in infinite space but forget that we invent them. In the face of the sheer magnitude of our existence, we reduce ourselves, too, and forget that what blinks at us in the night sky, is a force, an energy that transforms, and we are an expression of that force. We are part of it. Our role may be to witness, to appreciate, to interpret, to sense make, but mostly, gazing into the sky, I think our role is to recognize ourselves in it. If we are capable of losing ourselves in the stars we are equally capable of finding ourselves in the enormity of it all.

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Unbridle Your Enthusiasm

Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog's trophy collection

Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog’s trophy collection

Tripper Dog-Dog-Dog is tough on toys. He does well with hard rubber Kongs and rawhide bones but the stuffed animal variety haven’t got a prayer. We long ago stopped buying them for him. Even as a small puppy he’d make short work of anything that squeaked or resembled a creature. More than once, moments after giving him a new toy, I found him sitting happy and content amidst a nest of fiberfill with the empty body-shaped sack of toy remnant clutched firmly between his paws. Dog-Dog has several admirers who are unaware of his destructive talents and bring him stuffed animals as gifts. Like offerings to a high priests in days of old, Tripper graciously accepts their offer and removes to the backroom for immediate slaughter. For reasons I can’t explain, we keep the heads from his sacrifices. We use the heads as sleeves for our knife set or as wine bottle covers; it’s our own little version of Game of Thrones.

I’m learning much from master Dog-Dog. Lately his lessons are about faith and exuberance for the sheer pleasure of being alive. For Tripper, every doorway is an opportunity for bounding, every fence an opportunity for discovery. Even if he hopped at the fence 30 seconds prior, his return to the same spot is no less enthusiastic. He does not assume that he knows what he will find there, in fact, he assumes that the world is new no matter which way he looks. He does not blunt himself with notions of knowing like we bipeds. He is a four-legged master of beginner’s mind. If he had an inner monologue I’m certain it would be, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,…”

During our late night pre-bed visits to the backyard, Dog-Dog routinely stops and stands very still (unusual behavior for an Australian Shepherd), and for several moments he listens. He feels the breezes. He smells the air. He checks in with me to make sure that I am standing firmly rooted in the present moment. When he is certain that I am present with him in his quiet enthusiasm for life, that I have given up all of my stories and distractions from the day, that I, like him, am breathing in the miracle of existence, revels for a moment longer and then lets me know that I am ready for sleeping. He turns and prances toward the house, satisfied with my progress and exhausted by the sheer wonder of it all.

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