Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year 2012!

Beyond Good Intentions...
By Andrew Cohen

I don't have any particular New Year's message for you because the concept of the "new year" doesn't really mean anything to me.

I see the passing of time as one spiraled line. So I don't really see that there's anything special about this particular day.

For most people, the beginning of a new year means a renewing of those commitments that we feel are the most important. But to me, every single day is that day! I would hope that we would each get to that point in our own spiritual and moral development where making those commitments is something that we have already done and are always doing. 

And the way that we were living and the consequences of our actions would be an ongoing reflection of that fact. I think we have to get to that point - otherwise we're living in a world of broken promises and good intentions that don't really amount to much in the long run. 

So we want to evolve to such a degree that we're always very clear about what's most important. And then we make good on it, and we spend the rest of our life making good on it - in such a way that there is tangible, objective evidence that we have done it, and that we are continuing to do it. So I just want to encourage people to get moving - sometime around yesterday! There is no time to waste.

Another year comes to an end! I hope it was a good one for you. The next should be even better! Wishing you just that - with Love Light and Laughter - Dominique


Friday, December 30, 2011

Crossing the Threshold?

By Charles Eisenstein

For a few decades now, it seems, humanity has been on the verge of a breakthrough in collective consciousness. Perhaps it was the Hippies in the 60s who saw it first. To them, it was crystal clear that the consciousness revolution would sweep all before it, that within a few years’ time such institutions as government, money, marriage, and school would become obsolete. Forty years later, their vision has not come to pass and, superficially at least, the defining institutions of our civilization are more powerful, more encompassing than ever. Nonetheless, to many of us much of the time, and to most of us at least once in a while, the breakthrough in consciousness the Hippies foretold seems imminent still.

Perhaps it seems imminent because, in those peak experiences when we know the true potential of our humanity, the true vastness of our minds, and the love that is the default state of existence, it seems so obvious that we have returned to our birthright and recovered our original estate. It could be a near-death experience that brings us there, a psychedelic experience, a moment in nature, giving birth, making love; it could be a religious experience, or come through a dream, music, or meditation; it can also be awakened through psychological work, a transformational seminar, even a book. Usually, though, the high does not last.

I’ve had many such experiences where I think, “Nothing will ever be the same again,” but after a few days or weeks, I notice that I must struggle to maintain the realized state I’d been in. What was once effortless and self-evident becomes the subject of reminders and practices. The “old normal” encroaches, until I am back where I started, and the state that had felt so true and obvious becomes a mere memory. I can try to repeat the experience, but as with a drug, the second high is a little less intense than the first, and the return to baseline more rapid. Eventually I come to doubt: maybe the experience was a drug, an excursion away from reality and not, as I’d believed, something more real than the world I’ve come to accept. For some people, that voice swells in volume until it becomes a deafening tumult of despair. Before the experience, there was at least hope, but having entered paradise and been ejected, what is there now to live for?

So it was on a cultural level, that after the enlightenment and exuberant expectations of the sixties, much of the counterculture turned to the hedonism and consumption of the Me Decade. What a sense of betrayal we felt, as the psychedelic revolution gave way to the War on Drugs, as the Clean Air Act gave way to Ronald Reagan and James Watt (“Trees pollute more than people do.”)

Happily, whether on a personal or collective level, the despair can never be complete, for the ember of the awakening experience lives on inextinguishable in our hearts. However deep the despair to which we may descend, we carry a first-hand knowledge written into our cells that there is more than Just This. Even if we know not how to return to that more beautiful world, we know it exists. This knowledge lives independently of beliefs, underneath the currents of reason and doubt and impervious to them. We cannot cultivate or practice that knowledge, but it cultivates and practices us. The first thing it does is to prevent us from wholeheartedly participating in the old normal. We can do our best to participate in the program, we can go through the motions, but deep down we know that it isn’t the real thing. The effort to direct life energy at goals unworthy of our knowledge is exhausting. 

Eventually, our reservoirs of health and luck depleted, we enter a state of crisis. Whether it is health, relationship, money, or work-related, the crisis is a birthing from the old normal. We cannot go back, yet neither do we know how to go forward. This is a special state, the threshold between worlds. Many of us are there right now, individually; the collective human body is approaching it as well.

The purpose of this essay is to describe a paradigm of mutual care that can carry us across the threshold between worlds.

We did glimpse a more beautiful world in the 1960s, but the old normal wasn’t finished yet. The story had not yet been told to its fullness. Therefore, we could not abide in the new reality; the pull of the old was too strong. To be sure, there were many individual exceptions; to this day there are unregenerate hippies living in the interstices of our realm, as invisible to us as the Taoist immortals of legend, holding the template of the next world until such time as we are ready for it. But for the most part, after the sixties people returned to the world they’d left behind, and followed it indeed to new extremes.

Forty years later, that world is falling apart at an accelerating rate. The stories that undergird our civilization are crumbling. Two are primary: the story of the self, and the story of the people. The first is the discrete, separate self, a Cartesian mote of consciousness looking out onto an objective universe of soulless masses and impersonal, deterministic forces. In biology, the separate self manifests as the paradigm of the selfish gene seeking to maximize its reproductive self-interest; in economics, it is homo economicus, who seeks to maximize rational self-interest as measured by money. In psychology, it is the skin-encapsulated ego; in religion, the soul encased in flesh but separate from it. Such a self is naturally in opposition to all other beings, whose interests are indifferent to or at odds with its own. Spiritual teachings based on this story of self, then, tell us we must try very hard to rise above nature, to conquer our biological and economic drive to maximize self-interest at the expense of other beings.

Externalized, this war against the self manifests as the second defining story of civilization, the story of the people that I call “ascent”, that says that humanity’s destiny is to overcome and transcend nature. It perfectly complements the story of self, elevating the mental over the physical, the ideal over the concrete, and spirit over the body.

In describing these myths, I use the word “story” in a special sense, as an unconscious narrative that makes meaning of the world, that assigns roles to human beings, that explains the nature of life, the world, and the purpose of human existence, and that coordinates human activity. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are approaching the end of ours, of the stories upon which our civilization is built. To the extent those stories are no longer true for you, you do not feel like a full participant in this civilization.

They are becoming untrue for more and more of us, as the world built upon them falls apart. How can we believe in the conquest of nature, when because of our actions the ecological basis of civilization is threatened? How can we believe any more that the final triumph over disease is just around the corner, or an age of leisure, or space vacations, or a perfectly just society, if only we extend the realm of control just a bit further? And how can we believe any longer in the paradise of the separate self, independent of all, beholden to no one, financially secure, when we see first hand the alienation, the despair, the starvation for community that makes that paradise a hell? When depression, addiction, suicide, and family breakdown strike even the winners of the war of all against all?

Whether on a personal or collective level, we are discovering that the stories of separation are untrue. What we do unto the other, inescapably visits ourselves as well in some form. As that becomes increasingly obvious, a new story of self and story of the people becomes accessible to us. I have written of these in other essays, among them Money and the Turning of the Age, Rituals for Lover Earth, Autoimmunity, Obesity, and the Ecology of Health, and in greater depth in The Ascent of Humanity. The new story of self is the connected self, the self of inter-being-ness. The new story of the people is one of co-creative partnership with Lover Earth. They ring true in our hearts, we see them on the horizon, but we do not yet live yet in these new stories. It is hard to, when the institutions and habits of the old world still surround us.

Poised as we are at the transition between worlds, and traveling, many of us, back and forth between them, we need a way to enter the new one, learn to live in it, and be able to abide there. We need, in other words, a midwife. The birth metaphor is perhaps imperfect, since we are undergoing not a single, final expulsion, but a series of brief experiences of a more radiant world in which we have been unable to stay. How can we stay? How can we fully establish ourselves in a radically different way of thinking, relating, and being? Make no mistake: this revolution goes far beyond the acceptance of an idea. To know and embody as an experiential, lived, enacted reality the truth of inter-being-ness, to live in the spirit of the gift as appropriate to each relationship, to absolutely trust one’s divinity and that of others, to know in every fiber of one’s being, “I art Thou,” and to navigate this knowledge with appropriate boundaries, constitutes a fundamental revolution in human being-ness. Moreover, though we have entered the new territory, we lack models and maps to live in it. We need guidance, we need sacred teachings. But who are to be our teachers, when all is new?

To be sure, we have inherited teachings and models for the new world, both from visionaries who saw through the stories of separation centuries ago, and from tribes who avoided civilization long enough to transmit their knowledge to us. Much of this knowledge has been distorted through the lens of separation, but as the new stories come into focus, we can discern their original intent. For example, the usual formulation of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a moral injunction that we hear as yet another version of the dictum, born of the separation of spirit and matter: “Try hard to be nice.” It is a standard of behavior, something we must overcome our natural selfishness to attain. From the perspective of the connected self, though, the Golden Rule changes form to become not a rule but a reminder: “As you do unto others, so you are doing unto yourself.” The intent of its original articulator is recovered.

Similarly, the Boddhisatva Vow, “I will not enter Nirvana myself until all sentient beings have entered Nirvana,” lands on us as the ultimate self-sacrifice, a heroic and magnanimous vow beyond the reach of ordinary people. For the connected self of “I art Thou,” however, it is merely a distorted articulation of a simple fact that we might call the Boddhisatva Realization: “It is impossible to abide in Nirvana alone. If any sentient being is left out of it, then part of me is left out of it.” Only someone under the delusion that he is a discrete, separate soul would imagine otherwise.

Enlightening as these teachings might be, mere information is not enough. As many spiritual traditions recognize, a living teacher, a guru, is necessary to bring the teachings to life in their unique application to each individual. We need something from beyond our old selves, someone to illuminate our blind spots, to humble our conceit, to show us the love we didn’t know we had within us. This presents a problem today, because the age of the guru is manifestly over.

No human being can hold the guru energy in post-modern society. This is old news - the age of the guru has been over for at least thirty years. In the 1960s and 70s, any number of masters came to America from the East and, absent the cultural structures that traditionally kept them in an insulated realm, succumbed one after another to scandals involving money, sex, and power. The same thing happened as well to many of the gurus who remained in the East, as even their traditional structures crumbled under the onslaught of Western cultural warfare and the money economy. In the past, to even access a guru you had to make a journey and to some extent leave the old normal behind. Now, gurus were interfacing directly with the old normal. No journey was necessary to receive a mantra; soon all that was necessary was money. This interface was perilous to guru and seeker alike.

The gurus that did not fall found ways to maintain their exclusion from a story of the world that would drag them into it. Some, like Neem Karoli Baba (died 1973), took the simple expedient of dying. Others retired or disappeared. After the 1970s, anyone who got into the guru business was quickly corrupted; the wiser ones stayed away, preferring to act as teachers, mentors, spiritual friends. Human consciousness was approaching, on a mass level, the template that had been prepared, in insulated, secret lineages and remote sanctuaries, for thousands of years. Millions were ready for what only a select few were prepared in the past. The gurus through the ages had finally succeeded: they had awoken an energy of a magnitude no single human being could contain. For those who tried, the uncontainable energy inevitably emerged in subterranean ways as shadow and scandal, and their followers learned not only the lessons of their teachings, but also the lessons of their failures.

The difficulty, then, is that we are ready as never before for a guru, yet no single human being is capable of taking on that role. Whence are we to obtain that spiritual midwifery, “someone to illuminate our blind spots, to humble our conceit, to show us the love we didn’t know we had within us”? What can bring to the masses what hidden lineages and gurus once brought to a select few? To answer that question, let us follow the trajectory of spiritual teachings after the 1970s.

What followed the demise of the guru was a new age of spiritual independence. Its motto might have been, “All that you need is within you.” People trusted their own inner guru, their guidance. The spiritual teachers of this period were just that, teachers not gurus, not accorded a different category of being, but a kind of spiritual friend, a more experienced colleague. It was a time of self-improvement and doing your own spiritual work. The goal was a kind of self-sufficiency. We sought to eradicate negativity from our minds and take full responsibility for our lives. We worked on forgiveness. We sought to “manifest” health, wealth, and romance through the power of positive thinking. We resonated with teachings like, “Change yourself, change your beliefs, and reality will change along with it. All the power is within you; each person is a self-sufficient creator of his or her own reality.” We sought to liberate ourselves from victim mentality, the belief that our happiness depends on the choices of others. Sure, we wanted to attract good relationships into our lives, but we didn’t need anyone.

Though I am writing in the past tense, I don’t mean to denigrate the beliefs I describe, nor even to say they are not true. They were true, and there is truth in them still. They are not the whole truth though, as many people are now starting to realize. For having reached the pinnacle of spiritual independence, they want something more.

A participant at one of my retreats put it like this: “I really do have it all. I run my own wellness center, I live in a beautiful house with a view of the mountains, I have manifested financial abundance, I have a fabulous relationship with my wife, who is my partner on the spiritual path. We’ve done the most amazing retreats, the most powerful transformational workshops, had deep experiences of altered consciousness, states of samadhi, experiences of kundalini…  But this is no longer enough. There is something else, a next step, and I’m not sure what it is. It’s not that I’m unhappy - I have a lot of peace, joy, and contentment in my life - but I know there is a next step.”

 Spiritual self-sufficiency ignores the fundamental truth of our inter-being-ness. Without each other, we cannot make those peak experiences, those glimpses we have all had of a more vivid way of being, into anything more than glimpses. How can we make them into a new baseline for life? How can we enter into the world that they show us, how can we redeem their promise? How can we bring into living reality the knowledge that we have been shown something true and real? Each time, the old world drags us back. The inertia of our habits and beliefs, the expectations of the people surrounding us, the way we are seen, the media, the pressures of the money system all conspire to hold us where we were. Coming off a peak experience, we may try to insulate ourselves from all these things, to live in a bubble of positivity, but eventually we realize that is impossible. The negative influences find a way to creep back in.

From the understanding of the connected self, this is entirely to be expected. Because you are not separate from me, you cannot be fully healed until I am fully healed. You cannot be enlightened until I am enlightened. This is the import of the Golden Reminder and the Boddhisatva Realization described above. Each one of us is pioneering a different aspect of the connected self in the age of reunion, and each one of us as well carries vestigial habits of the age of separation that are invisible to us or that, if visible, we are helpless to overcome on our own. Quite practically, to inhabit a more enlightened state we must be held there by a community of new habits, new ways of seeing each other, and new beliefs in action that redefine normal.

In other words, in the age of the connected self our guru can be none other than a collective, a community - as Thich Nhat Hanh put it, “The next Buddha will be a sangha.” By a community, I don’t mean an amorphous “we are all one” mass devoid of structure, but rather a matrix of human beings united in a common story of the people and story of the self. Aligned with these defining stories, this community can hold us in the vision of what we are becoming.

Until recently, such a community barely existed. Either we were alone, gasping for breath in an ocean of separation, or we nurtured the new ways in isolated and insulated bubbles that, with rare exceptions, quickly popped. Such bubbles cannot last very long alone; like soap bubbles, their substance evaporates unless replenished and sustained. Today it is different, because these bubbles, Ken Carey’s “islands of the future in an ocean of the past,” are appearing faster than they can pop, clumping together, strengthening each other, forming a connected matrix. We are reaching critical mass, a point where we can live so much surrounded by nascent institutions of the new world that we can stay there most of the time. No longer will we need to struggle to remember what those special experiences showed us was true.

Health and spiritual well-being are maintained through relationships, not through self-sufficiency. No one is so enlightened that they don’t need help. Rather, they are enlightened because they receive the help they need. Enlightenment is a state of dependency. And to the extent that any other being is sick in any way, so is each of us. Every hurting person out there matches a hurting thing in here. It could be as subtle as a grain of sand in your sock: unnoticeable when major wounds are still hemorrhaging blood, but increasingly intolerable as the big wounds heal. As wholeness increases, these little things come into consciousness and become intolerable. We can no longer comfortably abide in our idyllic house with a view, eating health food, and thinking positive thoughts. Our self-sufficiency is no longer sufficient, when we feel the pain of the world echoing inside our selves.

If we try to stay in the bubble of spiritual self-sufficiency, the hurting of the world sneaks in as various of the new diseases, forcing itself upon our consciousness. Consider, for example, two of the most significant of the new diseases, MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities) and electromagnetic sensitivity. Toxic chemicals and EMFs are the physicalization of our negativity, as well as the byproduct of our mindset of separation that sees nature as an indifferent reservoir for our wastes. For the chemically and electromagnetically sensitive, no amount of retreat is enough. Trying to avoid negativity, we have to retreat further and further, until the repeated intrusion of the world upon our serenity makes us realize we have to cleanse the whole world of toxic chemicals and all they represent, not just avoid them.

The yogic teaching, “Don’t try to cover the world with leather, just wear shoes,” served us well in the age of spiritual self-sufficiency, but it serves no longer, especially if taken to mean, “Heal thyself; the world is not your responsibility.” That was true, for a time. It was medicine. It healed us of self-rejection and self-sacrifice. It was a necessary stage toward the next step, when we do seek to heal the world - not as an act of self-sacrifice, not at the cost of our own well-being, but as a necessary step in our own self-healing. Through our relationship to the other we heal ourselves. There is no other way.

This realization often manifests as a desire to find one’s true purpose in life, one’s service to the world. Such a purpose is never just about the separate egoic self. It is always about service; it is about one’s gifts and how to give them. Purpose is about gift and relationship. The emerging state of vitality, joy, and love that humanity is entering is not a place where we can abide for long on our own. We need each other.

It is not only in spiritual life that this is true; the same shift is manifesting in economic life and our ecological relationships. Indeed, because spiritual well-being can only proceed to the next level through our relationships to other people, other beings, and the planet, the very word “spirituality” as distinct from social, economic, and material life is losing its relevance. Built into the concept of spirituality is the idea that some areas of human life are not spiritual. That divide between spirit and matter, between the life of the soul and the life of the flesh, is crumbling. High time, too: look at the results of treating the planet as not sacred. Look at the results of treating part of our own selves as profane. The war against the self and the conquest of nature, each mirroring the other, are coming to an end in our time as the intuitions of the connected self wax stronger.

Interdependency is something of a euphemism for what is really a form of dependency. The latter word is a trigger. Whether it is emotionally, financially, or spiritually, most people seek to avoid dependency. That, I am sorry to say, is a conceit. By our nature as ecological beings, we are helplessly dependent on other beings to survive, to thrive, even to exist. In the heyday of the age of science, we thought it human destiny to become independent of all other beings: we aspired to a wholly artificial world in which even food would be synthesized, the flesh transcended, and death overcome. No longer. We are learning, painfully, our utter dependency on the rest of nature. Interdependency is a sub-category of dependency in that it is mutual and multi-directional, but that doesn’t make us any less dependent. And that is OK! To be dependent is to be alive - it is to be enmeshed in the give and take of the world. And when we allow ourselves to enter it, to release the perceived safety of self-sufficiency, we access and can sustain an intensity of being and of love that we could only glimpse before. That is because we are encompassing more of our true connected being. We are being more fully ourselves.

Humanity collectively, and many of us individually, are at a threshold between worlds. The world we are entering is both a new world for us, and a long-forgotten realm. As we step into it, we can be each other’s welcoming committee. We can do for each other what a guru does for a disciple: hold each other in the knowing of who we really are, and teach each other how to live there. Each of us, as we experience our own piece of the age of reunion, becomes a guide to a small part of that vast new territory.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hopeful in Bad Times

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places - and there are so many - where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of present moments, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Howard Zinn

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lifting the Veil of Duality

We are all masters, although we have managed to disguise ourselves as students, pretending that we are ignorant and in need of guidance. Now we are ready to show our true essences.

There is not going to be a new master or a Messiah who will suddenly appear and take away all our troubles and pains. The Second Coming is not an external event. We are the Second Coming, every one of us is.

It is not about being spiritual and doing spiritual things in life or gathering others around you who can learn from you how to live spiritual, meaningful lives. The only thing that counts now is being the Spirit. Being the Spirit is our essential nature and requires no special skills.

Just being the Spirit helps others to go through their own transformations and assists Earth to go through her birthing process without unnecessary pain or upheaval.

We, each in our own way, have committed ourselves to transmute this planetary sphere, for otherwise we would not be here.

By Andreas Moritz

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Helen Frankenthaler Dies at 83

 "Mountain and Sea" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952
 "Mountain and Sea" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952

The lyrically abstract painter, Helen Frankenthaler died December 27, 2011 at her home in Darien, Conn. She was 83.

Known as a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, Ms. Frankenthaler was married during the movement’s heyday to the painter Robert Motherwell, a leading first-generation member of the group. But she departed from the first generation’s romantic search for the “sublime” to pursue her own path.

Refining Jackson Pollock's technique of pouring pigment directly onto canvas laid on the floor, Frankenthaler, heavily influencing the colorists Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, developed a method of painting best known as Color Field - although Clement Greenberg, the critic most identified with it, called it Post-Painterly Abstraction. Where Pollock had used enamel that rested on raw canvas like skin, Ms. Frankenthaler poured turpentine-thinned paint in watery washes onto the raw canvas so that it soaked into the fabric weave, becoming one with it.

 Helen Frankenthaler, December 12, 1928- December 27, 20111

Her staining method emphasized the flat surface over illusory depth, and it called attention to the very nature of paint on canvas, a concern of artists and critics at the time. It also brought a new open airiness to the painted surface and was credited with releasing color from the gestural approach and romantic rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism.

Although Ms. Frankenthaler rarely discussed the sources of her abstract imagery, it reflected her impressions of landscape, her meditations on personal experience and the pleasures of dealing with paint. Visually diverse, her paintings were never produced in “serial” themes like those of her Abstract Expressionist predecessors or her Color Field colleagues like Noland and Louis. She looked on each of her works as a separate exploration.

Unlike many of her painter colleagues at the time,  Ms. Frankenthaler, came from a prosperous Manhattan family. She was one of three daughters of Alfred Frankenthaler, a New York State Supreme Court judge, and the former Martha Lowenstein, a German immigrant. Helen, their youngest, was interested in art from early childhood, when she would dribble nail polish into a sink full of water to watch the color flow.

 Helen Frankenthaler at work

After graduation from the Dalton School, where she studied art with the Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo, she entered Bennington College in 1946. There the painter Paul Feeley, a thoroughgoing taskmaster, taught her “everything I know about Cubism,” she said. The intellectual atmosphere at Bennington was heady, with instructors like Kenneth Burke, Erich Fromm and Ralph Ellison setting the pace.

As a self-described “saddle-shoed girl a year out of Bennington,” Ms. Frankenthaler made her way into the burgeoning New York art world with a boost from Mr. Greenberg, whom she met in 1950 and with whom she had a five-year relationship. Through him she met crucial players like David Smith, Jackson Pollock, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Franz Kline.

Her marriage to Mr. Motherwell in 1958 gave the couple an art-world aura. Like her, he came from a well-to-do family, and “the golden couple,” as they were known in the cash-poor and backbiting art world of the time, spent several leisurely months honeymooning in Spain and France. In Manhattan, they removed themselves from the downtown scene and established themselves in a house on East 94th Street, where they developed a reputation for lavish entertaining.

Ms. Frankenthaler and Mr. Motherwell were divorced in 1971. In 1994 she married Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., an investment banker who had headed the Export-Import Bank during the Ford administration.

She never aligned herself with the feminist movement in art that began to surface in the 1970s. “For me, being a ‘lady painter’ was never an issue,” she was quoted as saying in John Gruen’s book “The Party’s Over Now” (1972). “I don’t resent being a female painter. I don’t exploit it. I paint.”

Article source New York Times

Monday, December 26, 2011

American Culture

 "Mercy Otis Warren" by John Singleton Copley, 1763
 "Mercy Otis Warren" by John Singleton Copley, 1763

Only a few days ago I had an interesting conversation with a German colleague of mine. We started talking about politics and ended up with the American culture... or rather lack of it. According to my colleague America had no culture.

"The Circus" (detail) by George Bellows, 1912
"The Circus" (detail) by George Bellows, 1912

I have heard such categorical statements before and usually became very upset trying to persuade my prejudiced interlocutors that America had a culture and it was a very rich one on top of that. In fact, there were many cultures in America and some of them were very ancient...

"In the Generalife" by John Singer Sargent, 1912
"In the Generalife" by John Singer Sargent, 1912

This time, I decided not to persuade anything to my colleague and not to get upset. Her statement did not mean that America had no culture. It only meant one thing: she was either ignorant or stupid. It meant that despite her high opinion of herself she lacked a big chunk of knowledge. For an educated German person this must be a reason to be ashamed. 

Can you imagine someone who never heard anything about, say, Henry Miller, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Jacob Lawrence, or Charles Edward Ives? How embarrassing that might be? Even if you were not interested in American culture in particular, these people made invaluable contributions to the world culture as such and not to know anything about them is shameful when you consider yourself well educated and well versed citizen of the world.

"American Gothic" by Grant Wood, 1930
"American Gothic" by Grant Wood, 1930

The word "culture" can mean many things. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as:
  • the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education
  • enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training
  • acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
  • the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations 
  • the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time,
among other things. 

To make sure that we are talking about the same thing we had to define what she meant by "culture". In the past I talked to Germans who used to compare McDonald's fast food culture with Beethoven and Brahms. The fact that there were fast food outlets like McDonald's in America was according to them a proof for the notorious lack of culture in America. On the other hand, the fact that there ever was a Beethoven or a Brahms in Europe was the very evidence of cultural superiority of the old continent. But how fair is that? Apples and oranges? How can anyone compare the high culture with McDonald's?

"Waterfall" No. III, Iao Valley, Hawaii by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939
"Waterfall" No. III, Iao Valley, Hawaii by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1939

For the many Germans I talked to in the past America had nothing to offer, except of course, shopping malls, Disneyland, stupid Hollywood movies, and fast food while Germany, of course, was full of concert halls, opera theaters, and museums. Was it possible that someone who traveled to America and spent most of his or her time in a shopping mall did not have the time for theater or a museum? Surely, they must have heard about the Metropolitan Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, the Chicago Art Institute, or the Metropolitan Opera.

"Report from Rockport" by Stewart Davis, 1940
"Report from Rockport" by Stewart Davis, 1940

I asked my colleague whether she liked literature. When she confirmed that she was a voracious reader I asked whether she has ever heard of Americans who received the literary Nobel Prize. Oh, yes! But they were actually all European writers who lived in the USA, was her answer. This was more than embarrassing, but I did not let her go off the hook so easily. She could not possibly think that Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, or Toni Morrison were Europeans. No, she didn't, but she actually did not think of those writers when she meant that America has no culture. She kind of did not consider the American literature to be that important... I was more than shocked and decided to continue. Socrates would do the same thing.

"Galaxy" by Jackson Pollock, 1947
 "Galaxy" by Jackson Pollock, 1947

We moved on to music. She played an instrument herself, but never heard of Amy Beach, Aaron Copland, or John Cage. How about Gershwin and Bernstein? Oh, them. They were making popular music and, therefore, could not be truly considered makers of high culture... Generally, when she thought of American music, she meant rap and hip hop. How about jazz, lady? She was drowning deeper, and I must admit, I almost enjoyed seeing her flounder in her own ignorance...

"Office in a Small City" by Edward Hopper, 1953
"Office in a Small City" by Edward Hopper, 1953

How about the visual arts? She heard of Andy Warhol, but for her someone who painted canned soup wasn't really an artist. The Belgian surrealist René Magritte who painted a pipe that wasn't a pipe, was considered to be a great artist. How was that?

The whole conversation was hopeless, so I suggested that she visited the Whitney Museum Of American Art on her next trip to New York. This museum has an amazing collection of American art and was a good start for someone who would like to learn something about the very rich history of visual arts in America.

"Scene with Nude" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952
 "Scene with Nude" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1952

America is a relatively young country. The first European immigrants brought their own aesthetic traditions and went on to create a new, rich culture in their new homeland. In the 20th century many artists escaped the Nazi oppression and found creative freedom in America that was unknown anywhere else. But many famous writers, composers, painters, and sculptors were born in America. And although they studied their European counterparts, they created a very unique and original culture that to this day inspires people from all corners of the world.

By Dominique Allmon ©2011

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Other Roswell Incident

By James W. Allmon

Edgar Jensen, you drunken fool, you’d better not forget the dang tree again this year!” The shrill harpy-like voice of his wife Madge shot through his head like fingernails on a chalkboard. He winced as he pulled himself up onto the bony swayback of Ol’ Bess, his long in the tooth, but still reliable mule.

“Yes dear.” he said noncommittally. Edgar heard her, but his mind was on the frosty beer the boys down at the Lazy A Bar over in Roswell had lined up. It was time for their annual Christmas Hootenanny and chili cook off and he couldn’t wait to get his taste buds seared to perfection with Cookie’s Horned Toad Chili then cooled down with several frosty mugs of Blatz. It was as close to heaven as he supposed he’d ever get.

“I mean it, you old coot! If you don’t get that tree, you and that walking jerky factory had better not show yourselves back here. The grand kids are comin’ and they need something to put presents under!”

Edgar sighed and gently nudged his mule in the direction of town. It was a long way, so he’d better get to it.

* * *

“Zisnak! Are you listening to me? We need to hurry up and get to that place where your stupid brother and his drunken friends crashed so we can set up the beacon! Zisnak? Do you hear me?” Zisnak Hlpsnk shuddered as the shrieking voice of his nagging wife cut into his reverie of the good times he and his buddies were going to have on their R&R next week. Without wives!

“Yes dear.” he said cautiously as he rubbed his nearly shattered eardrum. She wasn’t a bad woman. Just a little intense. Yeah, that’s it. Intense.

“Good. We have to find the exact spot or the sub-ether transponder won’t allow the wormhole to open and allow our battle fleet to come through so we can take over this world! Remember, you fool, it must be within a three meter radius or the fleet will be shunted to who knows where!”

Okay, maybe more than intense. Borderline nagging, perhaps, but she was the commander of this mission after all.

“Is it ready to deploy, Cholnak?”

“Of course it is! Do you think I’m incompetent, my dear husband?” Her derisive tone was a bit much. Oh well. Next week is coming and the pristine beaches of Sagitarian IV were calling. Zisnak sighed wistfully. It can’t get here soon enough.

* * * 

The boys at the Lazy A Bar were in rare form. They murdered several old favorite Christmas carols with a wanton display of off key blaring while belching and farting their way through several kegs of Blatz and gallons of the meanest chili that ever oozed up from the fiery pits of hell. The air was an evil shade of blue and it was a good thing there were no open flames within a three-mile radius.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Especially when Stu Whitman fell into the two holer out back and they had to lasso his legs to haul him out. Even after they tossed him in the watering trough he was too ripe to allow back inside so they passed his mugs through the window to him. You can’t allow even a stinking man to go without libation. That would be downright uncivilized!

The hooting and hollering continued unabated well into the night and even the coyotes and crickets joined the chorus. It was certainly a night to remember, that December 23, 1947 local Earth time. Interestingly, no one but a lone scraggly prairie dog noticed a small star that was headed over toward Edgar’s ranch.

* * *

“Prepare landing sequence and put some fresh batteries into one of the little gray drones. We can’t have a repeat of the last time when one fell over and was taken by their military. I still say your brother should have paid for that one!” screeched Cholnak.

Zisnak winced, but only said, “Yes dear.”

“Yes dear! Yes dear! Is that all you can say?”


“Never mind. Just get busy!”

Zisnak opened the bulbous gray head of a drone and slipped two cylindrical batteries into the sockets inside. The batteries were DurableCells, the only kind Intergalactic Hyper Scouts ever used! After snapping shut he switched the creepy little droid on. The thing turned its large black eyes on him and simply stared. Zisnak shuddered. He never liked this model. He much preferred the more voluptuous MK XII that came complete with Seduction Pack 8. He thought it was much better for abduction purposes. Oh well, it wasn’t his call. Bureaucrats and back room deals ruled the galaxy after all.

“The drone is ready.”

“Good. Give him the beacon and have him mount it to that indigenous plant right over there.” Cholnak pointed to a scrubby little tree sheltered by a large rock. “It should be safe there until morning when the invasion begins! Hail to the conquerors!” She punched the sky and hooted with unbridled glee.

Zisnak looked sideways at his wife and commander and wisely kept his mouth firmly shut.

* * *

The revelry, like all good things, finally came to a close. Cookie swept out the last of the drunken ranchers and began to muck out the overflowing spittoons. He smiled and hummed Jingle Bells and chalked up another great time with the boys.

Edgar crawled up onto the back of Ol’ Bess and weaved uncertainly back and forth until he grasped the saddle horn to stabilize the rough seas his mule was sailing through. At least that’s what it felt like to him. Ol’ Bess took it in stride like she always did. Nothing fazed her.

Edgar blearily focused on a pair of Cookies until they merged into one. He hiccuped, belched and said, “Merry Christmas Cookie! ‘Mon muh way home now. Gotta git a tree or the old hen’ll skin me alive!”

Cookie smiled and said, “Good night Edgar. It’s a dang good thing Ol’ Bess knows where the barn is! Now don’t go falling off and getting lost out there.”

“Won’t”, Edgar said under his breath. As his mule carried him past the watering trough he noticed Stu sprawled out beside it with a pair of skunks curled into his armpits, snoozing like smelly little babies.

* * *

Zisnak handed the drone a bright five-pointed golden object and a string of bright green, yellow and red lights and instructed it to attach them to the vegetation. The drone looked blankly at him and didn’t move.

“Kritslak!” he cursed and kicked the drone between its lower appendages in order to restart its motor functions. The drone gave an audible sound like someone sucking on a lemon and moved toward the airlock to complete it’s assigned task. It was limping noticeably.

“The drone is deployed, my darling commander wife.” he said.

“It’s about time!”

They watched through the glass dome of their saucer shaped ship as the drone shuffled to the scruffy tree and began to attach the signaling apparatus. When the last orb was attached the drone plugged the end of the light string into the side of the tree. The lights began to glow and the five-pointed beacon was satisfyingly golden in the night.

“The biometric power of the shrubbery should produce enough energy to guide the fleet straight here. At last we will overcome another planet to build a new hyper mall! The shopping will be amazing!” Cholnak’s eyes gleamed with what could only be called maniacal glee. Zisnak privately mourned the fate of his Galactic Express card. He was glad he left home without it.

“When the drone is back on board we’ll rejoin our glorious forces for the attack to come!”

Zisnak rolled his eyes, but only after his wife and commander turned her attention to the flight preparations. “Yes dear.” he said.

* * *

The miles went by very slowly for Edgar’s bladder and finally he couldn’t take it anymore. “Whoa, old girl. I have to take a moment or you won’t like me much.” The bowlegged mule stopped beside a large boulder and Edgar slid unceremoniously to the ground wile giggling like a drunken cowboy. Which was perfectly in order, given the state and employment he was in.

After he finished his necessities he stood swaying like a sapling in a stiff breeze. He noticed it was a bit bright on the other side of the boulder and staggered around to see if someone was camping out for the night.

Instead of a campsite he saw a forlorn looking tree bent under the weight of some lights and a beautiful golden star. “Well, I’ll be dipped in… Bess! Come over here you old mule! Look at this! It’s a Christmas tree right here in the middle of the dang scrub!”

The mule poked her head around the boulder and gazed without a hint of interest in what had gotten Edgar all riled up. The barely sober cowboy tried to dance a jig, but managed to trip over himself and fell flat on his nose.

After several moments of writhing and cursing, Edgar pulled himself to his feet with a Herculean effort and glared at the mule. “You’d better not laugh!” She didn’t.

“Well, one thing’s for sure. I don’t need an axe or anything, This thing is scrawny enough to pull up by the roots.” Without further ado, he proceeded to do just that. It was a smallish thing, but kind of cute, he thought.

“I think the wife’ll like it just fine. What do you think, Ol’ Bess?” The mule silently approved. “Good! Let’s get ‘er home then.”

Neither Edgar nor Ol’ Bess considered it strange that the lights on the tree continued to glow even after it was strapped to the bedroll on the back of the saddle as they moseyed the last few miles across the scrub toward home.

* * *

“Commander, the fleet is preparing to drop out of the wormhole and begin our attack on the planet Earth!”

The Supreme Commander, resplendent in his black and purple Battle Toga smiled at his second in command. “Thank you. You may proceed with the attack.” He took another sip of his steaming cup of gluh. “Mmmm, it’s good to the last sip!” he muttered.

A hideous alarm blasted his reverie into oblivion and the navigator screamed fearfully that the beacon wasn’t where it should be! “Wha..” was all he managed to articulate before the wormhole collapsed and the entire fleet was ricocheted like a well hit billiard ball into the left pocket of the universe.

* * *

Edgar nursed an epic hangover as he and Madge sat back in their favorite chairs sipping coffee. Their grandchildren put brightly wrapped presents under the odd little tree with the strangely glowing lights. Tomorrow was Christmas and it would be a nice one this year. Their new Victrola was playing the best holiday music and it was a beautiful day, without a doubt. 

Suddenly there was a burst of static on the radio and a faint voice could be heard screaming. 

“Zisnak, if we ever find our way home again, I’m going back to my mother!”

“What in the world was that?” Madge asked as the music suddenly resumed.

“I have no idea.” Edgar said, shaking his head and immediately regretting it.

Yes, it was a beautiful life!

Art and story by James W. Allmon ©2009

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Little Tree

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don't be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i'll give them all to you to hold
every finger shall have its ring
and there won't be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you're quite dressed
you'll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they'll stare!
oh but you'll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we'll dance and sing
"noel noel" 

By e. e. cummings (1894-1962)

Merry Christmas!

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown:
O, the rising of the sun,
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.
Wishing everyone a very Merry Christmas  - Dominique Allmon 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas...

For James

We were planning this for years! It never worked, no matter how much we tried. Each year we would promise to celebrate Christmas together, but each year around Thanksgiving at least four of us would find an excuse. Maybe because neither of us ever forgot that fateful Christmas Eve party of 1981. We were in it together. We promised to stay in touch and we did, but we kept avoiding each other. And no one ever mentioned Ginny.

Occasionally one or two of us would accept an invitation to a wedding or to a birthday party. And each of us knew what the others were up to. But the whole gang never met together again. Until this year, that is. Thirty years later!

We rented a house near Aspen and booked our air tickets on time. We agreed to take our spouses with us, but the kids were to stay at home. 

We all made it in life. Ron in Boston. Kira in New York. Bob's law firm was the best on the West Coast. Tom did well on Wall Street. Susan became a Governor of Texas. John decided to give a shot for the White House in the next elections. Chris directed the best Symphony Orchestra in the country. And my project won the prestigious 2011 Architectural Vision Award. Only Donna wasn't doing so well. Her company was under Congressional investigation and you could read about it for weeks in papers across the country. Even the British Financial Time mentioned the scandal. Heads would have to roll, they wrote, and we knew precisely whose head it was to roll first.

I guess, no one in the gang knew that John was cheating on Donna back then. They were to get married, but John could not resist temptation. Ginny was absolutely gorgeous and all the guys had eyes on her. But she was a taboo. Because of her father. There was even a rumor that she was a mistress of Senator Coldwell, but we did not believe it. Coldwell was a friend of her father. They both were running the political scene in Boston. We simply could not imagine that anyone would want to risk his career for a seventeen years old beauty. But after we found Ginny dead under the Christmas tree, I wasn't that sure anymore. 

We were so stoned at that Christmas Eve party that neither of us could even give a coherent testimony to the cops investigating the crime. We smoked too much Mary Jane and the Christmas punch was stronger than it was supposed to be. It was pure booze with cloves and cinnamon. Ginny's time-tested recipe.

Poor Ginny was strangled that night and if she screamed for help, we did not even hear her. The music was too loud.

I remember that there were few other people in the house, but they left early. Ginny's parents were attending a Christmas reception at the Governor's house and all the servants were given a day off. 

The police did not find any traces of an intruder and speculated that it must have been one of us. They could not prove anything, so Ginny's murder remained unsolved. 

Things were never the same for us after that. A shadow of suspicion spread over our friendship. After the funeral we decided to never talk about Ginny again. 

For years I suspected Donna, but never went to tell the cops. She was the jealous type. There wasn't a day that she would not make a scene. Eventually, John broke off their engagement and Donna moved to Chicago to live with her older sister. She told me that she wanted to get her degree there. I knew better.

* * *

My flight was delayed for another twenty minutes, but strangely, I was relaxed. I seldom traveled for pleasure and usually got very upset when my schedule got messed up. But today I was holding Jim's hand. He was still talking on the phone with his secretary. Last minute business had popped up unexpectedly.

The flight was quite pleasant, but I could not stop thinking about our reunion. Jim had met Susan and Ron before, and was a great fan of Chris, but I knew that his political views would collide with John's vision for the country. If we could only leave the politics out of our gathering!

I took a nap while Jim was reading his book. I don't know how long I have slept. I only knew that I had a nightmare. For the first time in years I found myself in Ginny's house. Drunk. Everybody was singing and dancing. I saw John disappearing with Ginny. Oh, no! He was the last person who have seen her alive. It occurred to me that this actually wasn't a dream. It was a memory that I repressed for years. I could even hear Ginny's laughter. John meant nothing to her. He was not a match to the man she was in love with. 

I now clearly remembered that John reappeared from the library quite disheveled. Back then I thought that he just spent some exciting time with Ginny, when in fact, she was struggling with him. No sooner than he entered, Donna was all over him. I had another cup of punch. The next thing I remember was the scream. Susan had found Ginny under the Christmas tree. Ginny was lying there like an unwanted gift. Dead.

* * *

John probably will win the presidency. But what if he is a murderer? I need to talk to someone. Can anyone of them be trusted? Or shall I confront John? We were good friends back then...

Thirty years on and we still looked great! Everybody was already there when Jim and I  finally arrived. Many new faces. Susan came with her second husband. Ron brought his dazzling new wife. Kira came with her lover. Tom finally married his college sweetheart, a prominent Boston lawyer whose name I could never remember. And freshly divorced Chris brought his new love Maureen. She was Irish and played first violin in his orchestra. Chris looked very happy. But when didn't he?

The house was fantastic! We had a large Christmas tree in the living room. And a fire place! Donna took care of the entire arrangement. An old friend of her was a real estate mogul in Colorado. He knew how to live in style. You could actually smell the money.

Everything seemed perfect. It wasn't very cold outside and all was set for the greatest Christmas Eve party ever. A five star catering company took care of our meals, while John provided the champagne. He was in the mood to celebrate. The primary campaigns were absolute success and everything looked like he would secure his party's nomination. The incumbent in the White House had no chance! Dom Pérignon for all!

Champagne helped us relax into a festive mood. We cracked old jokes and laughed at our past adventures. The music was loud and someone brought Mary Jane. Like in the old days! We smoked at the porch and drunk hot Christmas punch that wasn't as good as the one Ginny made years ago. All the years that separated us from that fateful day seemed to be forgotten and we were our old selves again. 

Susan was making angels in the snow and everybody laughed. Ron was dancing with Kira. Jim mingled with the other spouses. I approached John and asked him to follow me into the house. No one seemed to have noticed that we disappeared from the porch. Standing next to the festive Christmas tree, his smile vanished when I told him that I knew he killed Ginny. If this ever came out he could forget the White House. The next thing I knew was that John was glaring at me, his hands around my neck. I could hear everybody sing my favorite Christmas song. Have yourself a merry little Christmas... La la la la la... I struggled. Unable to utter a sound, I saw my world disappear into a deep, scary blackness...

By Dominique Allmon

Creative Commons License
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas... by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Also of interest Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Mark Steyn.