Sunday, June 27, 2010

Peace And Understanding

During my marriage, we had a wonderful cat named Misha.  At the time Misha arrived at our house, our other pets were two Australian Shepherds, Sophie and Chaco. When the kitten was set on the floor,  immediately the two dogs charged and I feared it would be torn to bits in a flash. But remarkably, Misha did not know it was a cat, assumed it was among family, and did not flinch before the snarling dogs but purred a hello. This flabbergasted the dogs and they pulled up short of chomping down on the little creature. After that, all was well.
Another episode with a dangerous dog occurred when I was teen and delivering newspapers on my paper route. I had stepped in front of a home and thrown the paper when a German Shepherd suddenly attacked me. He charged, teeth bared and growling. For some reason, my reaction was perfect composure, and when the dog clamped it’s teeth over my arm I was calm and did not flinch. This reaction disarmed the beast and we both stood together, the dog with its mouth fastened over my wrist, while I was waiting to see what it would do next. He let go.
Another time, I was a student in College and during the summer had moved from Baltimore to a rural town called Hagerstown, in Maryland. I had gone there to support the tiny Baha'i community. I went to a realtor to find an apartment. This man owned many properties in town and because I was poor, he took me to a ramshackle house in the most impoverished district. In fact, the house was a former slave home in an area of dark people. He was nervous while unlocking the front door, and I could tell he was anxious for my safety, but also greedy to get the rent. The building was extremely run down and missing floorboards in some places. But I enjoyed the light, and had the whole house for only a trifle rent. The home was not on a street, but rather a back alley. One night, I had been walking alone on a street and had just turned to go up the alley when I was accosted by two youth. They stopped me and asked for some change—a quarter to be exact. I had a quarter in my pocket, but knew I was about to be robbed, so I said “no”. The two wedged me between them and while one repeated his demand, the other pulled a switchblade out of his pocket and clicked open the blade—and it flashed under the streetlight. From my head to my feet I felt a perfect tranquility, and then turned and walked away untouched into the dark alley. Something told me they would not kill me for the quarter, so I did not look back, but walked slowly to my house.
In this world, too often we see each other as adversaries. Muslims are adversaries of Christians, Republicans hate Democrats, rich people disdain poor, English soccer fans hate German soccer fans . . . etc. etc. For humans, these barriers are constructs and to release them can lead to peace and understanding.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cradle Of Civilization

One day, while on African safari in Tanzania, we had been on a grueling, bone-rattling, and dusty journey over the Serengeti Plain, and our excursion vehicle rolled to a stop near the boundary of the wildlife reserve. Everyone poured out to stretch legs and look around the barren landscape. Immediately I spotted a small group of Masai women gathered under the shade of a lone tree nearby. The sight seemed incredible since civilization was nowhere to be found in the area; no roads, homes, village, utilities . . . and I wondered how these females were here, in the middle of nowhere with no men in sight.

Our group had made previous stops where Masai were near, and I had noticed everyone stayed together and would not approach the Africans. It seemed as if an invisible boundary existed that could not be crossed. The tourists were on a mission to see exotic game animals, not people. However, the Masai drew me like a magnet—even more than the lions or elephants, and so I approached them. This day, I walked straight into the group of ladies. They welcomed me with smiles and I smiled back. The women were of different ages, including grandmothers and younger ones with babies in slings around their shoulders. Soon I motioned that I would like to take pictures and they smiled okay, so I snapped some shots. What was remarkable was how everyone maintained an unflappable equanimity and graciousness. I felt welcomed by strangers. Before going back to join the safari group, I spontaneously leaned over and gave a kiss to one of the woman . . . and that brought giggles and laughter from all.

I imagine that the Masai people are older than Christianity or Judaism. Not far from where our truck stopped is Olduvai Gorge, also called the “Cradle of Civilization”, where fossil remains of earliest man were found by anthropologists in 1931. It is believed man emerged 5-7 million years ago.

When I was among the Masai, I always felt a peacefulness that was special, distinct from the frenzy of the world. They seemed calm, fearless, and curious. Sure, they had great adversity living in unforgiving environs, but a nobility inside of them transcended their outer circumstances. I found I could not simply look at them from afar, but always had to step toward them, perhaps shyly, but lovingly and with eagerness to learn.

Many more of my world photos are at Graphixshoot

Sunday, June 13, 2010

People Of Color

Lately, I have been pondering the nature of prejudice. Here in the USA, we immediately think of racial bias. But prejudice comes in many shades. It can be nationalistic, religious, have to do with class and status, or intellect . . . the list goes on and on. What is sure is that prejudice diminishes life. Why? Because prejudice is a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known and in most cases, these opinions are founded on suspicion, intolerance, and irrational hatred that resists alteration or enlightenment. Life, to me, is all about change, growth, flux, alteration, mystery, and surprise—in short, it cannot be contained by small minds with petty judgments.

When I set out upon my travels, I begin by looking forward to meeting the world in all of its diversity. I forget the color of my skin, my nationality, my religious affiliation . . . in short I abandon all that sets me apart from the matrix of where I am going, and then my eyes are open like a child's—full of wonder and awe at what is before me. Remarkable things happen this way. Doors open and miracles are plenty. Ecstasy demands abandonment. This is esoteric, but think of the mother’s love for her child. It is ecstatic in the moments of complete abandonment to the relationship.

I find it humorous and pathetic the attempts to define race. We all share the same genetic background and are of the same substance. Terms like “people of color” are particularly stupid. I am an artist and observe that everyone is colored. The term “colored people” is a silly contrivance. Melatonin produces the color we see in each other, and it also controls the amount of ultra-violet rays from the sun that enters our bodies. It is totally neutral and has nothing to do with intelligence or character.

I have painted people of various skin tones and find that I use the same colors, but in different proportions. If you look closely at the two portraits I include here, you will see that the two people share some colors. 

Nobody is black or white and everyone is colored. Many years from now, this need to define race will be gone, and all that will remain is the human family. For now, it is fun seeing the differences. When I first arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, from Rome, Italy, my initial impression was shock at witnessing a drab, dilapidated city, since I had come from one of the most culturally iconic and artistically dazzling places in the world. My eyes hurt, until I became entranced by all the dark skinned people who offered a beauty I had not seen before in such a grand way. From then on, my vision was not so much on the material surroundings as upon the people. Love allowed beautiful experiences to unfold. Prejudice would have killed my time in Africa. I am so glad that it did not—the ecstasy was waiting for me to experience.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Plenty To Write About

 “Have you thought of writing your memoir?” Several people who have watched my life unfold have put this question to me. There is plenty to write about.  I could make a book out of just the year 2008, when I traveled around the world and lived in nineteen countries.
It strikes me that there has been so much contrast in my life. I come from a family of contradictions. My father is the product of an upper-class southern household, and went on to the highest echelons of education and career. My mother’s history involves broken childhood homes, poverty, and little education after high school. The two conceived five children in eight years. I am the first-born.  From this crowded scenario, I have found that in adult life, I prefer solitude, or at least anonymity in crowded places.
My first wife had no material wealth when we met.  Several years into our marriage, after our daughter Naomi was born, she revealed mental instability, divorced me and was institutionalized.
My second wife was born into wealth and it only increased with time. We share a beautiful daughter and our marriage lasted 21 years. After my first daughter died when she was nineteen, our marriage became seriously undone. After divorce, I took my year to travel around the world and live as a homeless vagabond, experiencing the basics of earthly existence and living in what I call THE DREAM, in flux. 
A question I am pondering is how truthful to be in divulging my life story. Do I describe growing up in a household without religion and my teenage years as a hippie? Do I tell of my first sexual experience that happened to be with my girlfriend and her girlfriend both? Do I include my times in jail? Hitchhiking experiences from coast to coast? Religious conversion to the Baha'i Faith is easy to tell, but not so easy is my subsequent mental breakdown and three days in a psycho ward. This was after graduating Art College and driving across the USA in my car with four other Baha’ís, visiting Indian reservations and transfixed by conversations about extra-terrestrials, the Urantia book, and Baha’i writings. Do I tell of visions I have had in prayer—of vibrating light coming through walls and then entering my body and causing me to smell roses?
The common advise in writing a memoir is to follow a time line moving forward. Another encouragement is to “go deep” in the emotional experiences, and to write what is hard to write. It is said that those parts can be what readers remember and value most because they reveal inner struggle. Especially, reveal changes in life . . . and for this I have had plenty to speak of.