RIP Shakti Gawain

 

On November 11, a woman died in Marin General Hospital in Mill Valley, California. She was 70 years old, and her death was due to complications from hip surgery after a fall. For 20 years, she’d had Parkinson’s disease, and later developed Lewy body disease, a form of dementia. There were no articles published about her death, and in fact no stories online at all, other than a notice on the site of the publishing company she founded four decades ago. A week after her death, the San Francisco Chronicle published a pro-forma obituary that borrowed most of its content from the notice and misspelled the name of her first book.

The woman’s name was Shakti Gawain. Her first book, published in 1978, was called Creative Visualization, and it sold seven million copies. All told, her three other major books and assorted workbooks and journals sold an additional three million copies. And yet last week she vanished without a trace, except for the fact that she utterly transformed my life, and likely did the same for millions of others.

Had she wanted to, she could have had the celebrity and fame of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay, and other self-help and self-development authors. But she didn’t want any of that. She didn’t do speeches or personal appearance tours or PBS specials. She didn’t hype anything or make any grandiose promises. Now and again she did conduct workshops—I attended one in Orange County, CA two days after my birthday in 1994, driving south from L.A. with helicopters overhead as O.J. Simpson was being chased in his Bronco back north up the 5 Freeway. I remember arriving at the hotel with the chase happening live on TV, the ultimate ego distraction, and the feeling of moving from that surreal carnival into the calm and grounding of her workshop.

No, she was all about the lessons, and the work. And there’s no particular drama or excitement in the work. Her writing style is unexceptional and doesn’t lend itself to quotes; it’s like water that’s so clear and still that you see straight to the bottom. Her lessons and messages aren’t based on footnoted research or scholarship, and she’s not part of any tradition or orthodoxy. It’s a distillation of some Eastern and New Thought teaching filtered through her personal experience. There’s nothing to hang your hat on, so to speak. And yet, her work opened the door to a real and meaningful spiritual life for me by showing me how to find and trust the spark of divinity within myself.

Here’s how that happened. I was 30 years old. My so-called career, really a collection of terrible jobs, had crashed and burned. I’d managed to get married and have a kid, but I was lost and adrift and unconsciously at war with myself. With hindsight I’m aware I was living every day with a low-level anxiety that sprang from my confusion and cluelessness. Often I’d make a move that would work out badly, and realize I’d known better all along. Or I’d feel a strong pull to do something and yet hang back in fear. I would hit these speed bumps all the time and then go back about my business, aware that something was wrong but always blaming it on other people or my circumstances… which if I stopped to consider them just seemed like random bad luck.

The latest terrible job ended like they all did, and my wife suggested I take some time off and be the househusband while she took over as the breadwinner for a while. Our daughter was in preschool, so I got a part-time job in a children’s bookstore that shared the same parking lot, in order to keep an eye on my kid across the way and also to earn a little self-respect money. One day I opened a new box of books we’d received, and on top was a book that clearly wasn’t for children. That caught my eye, so I read the title—Living in the Light—and then the back cover to see what it was about.

“Are you searching for deeper meaning and purpose in your life? Do you sense that you have an inner wisdom that can be a guiding force for you, yet wonder how to connect with that intuitive self? How do you know which inner voices to listen to?” That’s how the blurb started. I felt a twinge or a shiver or something, similar to the feeling when the door of a dark room starts to open, I guess, a kind of anticipatory awakening. By the time I reached the bottom of the copy, my head felt like it was exploding. It was as if my entire life had been leading up to that moment, like I was passing through a crucial juncture even as I was reading the words, and I knew on some deep level that somehow that my life was never going to be the same again.

I read the book, which was predicated on the simple idea that each of us has a strong inner guidance, an inner knowingness, that is 100% present and 100% correct. In animals we call it instinct. In humans, we call it intuition. It’s a little bit magical and mysterious, in that it can’t be explained (Malcolm Gladwell later wrote Blink, a study of intuition in which he tries and fails to disassemble the butterfly). Even more mysteriously, it’s a kind of psychic ability that has access to facts and information that you have no way of knowing in any usual sense. For example, people who won’t get on an airplane because they have a bad feeling about it, and later the plane crashes. We all have this kind of knowing, but because we can’t quantify it or predict it or know where it comes from, we discount it or shrug it off.

The book was very simply written, but the lesson wasn’t so simple. I tested out my intuition, first on little parlor tricks on the order of finding my lost keys. When those worked I tried more complicated experiments. What I was doing without quite realizing it was learning to trust myself at an extremely deep level. Often I’d return to Shakti’s book, or her recordings, and her calm (faintly Southern accented) voice was very loving and reassuring. A few years into this process, she wrote The Path of Transformation, essentially a companion piece meant to clarify and enlarge the meanings of Living in the Light, based on what she had been hearing in workshops and personal sessions. Meeting her at the workshop was a little thrill, but since there was no drama about her, she just calmly acknowledged my thanks and appreciation. It was all about the work.

As the years passed, my “tests” of intuition became fewer, but much more difficult. I passed through some severe periods of doubt and trial, only to come through them with my faith strengthened ten times over. It was essentially religion without religion… spirituality discovered completely in action and doing. I hesitate to call intuition the voice of God, because I have no idea who or what God is. Neither do you, if you’re really honest with yourself. But I don’t need to know what it is. I know that it’s alive inside of me, that it wants the best for me. I know it doesn’t want me to be comfortable, necessarily, or even “happy” in the usual sense of that word. Sometimes it seems very quiet and far away, and then suddenly it’s hugely present and it reveals itself as having been at work all along. Over time, I’ve learned to trust it so completely that I don’t even think about it much. My life as I live it today would have seemed like a miracle to my 30-year-old self in that bookstore.

They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears. And so Shakti Gawain appeared, changed everything for me, and then quietly faded away. Her passing hit me hard, though: like the death of a parent. A wise and loving parent who has given you everything you need to live your life as a happy self-actualized person, and so you might undervalue the gift, thinking you did it all yourself. And you did, but only after someone else showed you the way. In fact, every day of my life for the past 30 years has been a tribute to Shakti Gawain and the power of her teaching. To say I’m grateful seems inadequate. To say I loved her seems almost silly. I owe her everything. There’s no way to repay the debt except to keep living out the truth she showed me, to be a small ripple in the energetic influence she had on millions of us.

Chef

Chef

In the wake of last week I’ve found myself reading everything I can find about Anthony Bourdain. His death hit me hard, and I’m still trying to figure out why… I wasn’t a regular viewer and I hadn’t read his book. I figured I’d always have time to get to him in a more major way. “I must have thought you’d always be around,” as Jackson Browne put it in “For a Dancer,” his classic song of coming to terms with grief and loss.

And I suppose that sense of him as reliable is a big part of the shock and disappointment. You knew he was out there, exploring new by-ways and finding new people to meet, new cultures to shine a light on. He seemed like an adventurer and an old-school hero, masculine, stoic, impatient with bullshit and foulmouthed and funny about it. But also new school: open, non-judgmental, unafraid to admit vulnerability and failure. A guy who, if he ever happened to have a suicidal impulse, would just tell you about it, make a wry face, and toss back some more oysters and beer with a shrug.

You try to make sense of a suicide, and of course you can’t know why for sure even if you’re close to the person, but there was a clue in the long New Yorker piece about him that ran a couple of years ago. The interviewer asked how he felt about being called “Chef,” and he said somewhat testily that he had earned that title, but then he went on to say that it did bother him to be called “Chef” by somebody whose culinary skills were way beyond his. It seems he was a decent, hardworking cook but nothing out of the ordinary. So maybe he suffered from a form of imposter syndrome.

We want a hero, no more than that we need a hero, that’s a deep yearning of humanity from our earliest days up to the present. But if you’ve ever been called one, or treated like one, you know how ridiculous it sounds. “No man is a hero to his valet” the old saying goes, meaning you can’t regard someone as heroic when you’ve gotten to know them well, seen them in the fumbling, gross, clueless, haggard, indolent ways most of spend the majority of our time. And if you can’t be a hero to your valet, you certainly can’t be one to yourself, knowing how often you feel and act like a crushed, sad, helpless victim.

But if you can’t really “be” a hero, you can act heroically from time to time. Try something new, go outside your comfort zone, face your fears. Reach a hand out to somebody who needs it, treat a “lowly” person with respect, give somebody some appreciation for what they’re trying to do even if they’re not quite making it. A simple act of kindness or consideration can make a life-changing difference to somebody, and in that moment you are a hero to that person. And in that context, “Chef” or any other nickname isn’t a title as much as a thank-you, a pat on the back, a salute. People were grateful to Anthony Bourdain, because in a world of posers and users, he talked and reacted and laughed like a person. We need more of those.

What Difference Does it Make?

p213624_2aMy lifelong habit of reading the news every morning, especially the political news, has become a real issue for me. What are you supposed to do when every single day brings multiple stories that shock, depress or terrify you? I used to find some distraction in the entertainment news… but now that Hollywood has started exposing and confronting its bullies and predators (e.g. all the executives and half the actors), that’s out too. These days I look at the news the way you might check out a terrible breakfast buffet: lift the cover, shudder and put it back quick, move down the line, and finally give up. I’ll just have coffee, thanks.

In calmer and more reflective moments, I think maybe we need this, that it’s a necessary purging. The shock of 2016 was realizing how wide and deep the racism and sexism run in our society, the horror of discovering that your benign-looking neighbors and friends might be raging bigots, anti-Semites, homophobes or god knows what. Probably everybody who wasn’t a straight white dude had already figured this out, but I hadn’t. Now in 2017 it’s been like we’re turning over all the rocks and the vermin have been slithering out into plain sight. Nazis? What the fuck? I didn’t plan on dealing with Nazis as I entered my so-called golden years.

And really, what is up with all the hate? Well you know what’s up with it, because you feel it yourself. Your own tendency to notice differences, and to use them to make yourself feel better. To judge people, as a handy way to stop having to think about them, consider their perspectives, and accommodate them a little bit. Put them in a box, and you’re not only done with them but you get to feel superior at the same time. At least I’m not a [fill in the blank]. We all do it, and what’s really crazy is that women can be sexists, gays can be homophobes, people of color can be the worst racists of all.

Think of the bitchy, snarky, nasty comments you hear when anybody is trying to climb out of the box they’ve been put in. Oh, look at her. Who does she think she is? The friendly fire from your own tribe is the most painful of all, because it’s a reflection of your own self doubt and self loathing. Right, who am I to think I could get that job, or go to college, or cross a gender line, or just stand up proudly in public with my real face showing? I’ll just crawl back to safety and join the others taking shots at the people in the arena who are sweating and bleeding and potentially looking vulnerable.

Indeed, that’s what you see in the Comments section of virtually any article foolish enough to allow comments. The sniping, the tearing down, the trash talk. It’s the absolute worst of human nature. It’s also embodied by our current *president, who is a walking talking Comments section. In fact if a Comments section had a face, it would have that face: fat, pasty, perpetually scowling, and slathered in poorly applied bronzer. And again, once you could just ignore the comments, but what do you do when the Comments section has a megaphone and the power of the state behind it?

You “Be the Change,” that’s what. I am noticing some things about my own reactions this past year. On the one hand, I’m listening more. I find myself stopping and considering other points of view that I might have steamrolled past. I’m letting other people have their say, and trying to understand. I’m trying to see where I might be asserting privilege, at least unearned privilege. And sometimes I step back. But on the other hand, I have some earned privilege, and I’m getting very comfortable with that. I’ve been speaking up more: confronting bullying, openly promoting what I believe, being an unapologetic voice for my own views. Lately I find myself with zero tolerance for bad behavior. And you don’t have to be a bully in return; sometimes a quiet, assertive change in topic or tone is enough.

I run an arts event in Orlando and for the past couple of years, I’ve been using it with more intention. I’ve put speakers on the stage who strongly advocate for the things I care about: tolerance, equality, justice, conservation, everything that’s under attack at the moment. Sometimes I think, well I have a very tiny voice and what difference does it make? But as my friend Aquanza put it, each of us is an instrument and if we express ourselves in harmony with those around us, the accumulated sound can be very powerful. I felt especially powerless after Pulse last year, when I was 3,000 miles from home and my people were attacked. And I thought over and over, “what can I do?” until I realized: I can do my work. That’s what I can do. And the event we put on a few weeks later was the Anti-Pulse: a bullet of inclusion and pure love to the heart of Orlando.

So yeah, we’re living through an ugly moment. A roiling and tumultuous time, and something tells me there might be worse to come. But hasn’t it always been this way? Hasn’t humanity always been in a battle with itself against its own worst impulses? Haven’t people always had to suffer and sweat and even die to conquer hate and oppression? Is it so bad to be in this fight, especially when you know you’re on the right side of it? I happened on a quote from Franklin Roosevelt yesterday: “Calm seas never made a skilled sailor.” In my best moments over the past couple of years, I haven’t cursed my bad luck at having to live through this shitstorm. I’ve seen the light through the darkness, and to me the light is as simple as this: Just show up. Speak up. And don’t give up.

Paul Prudhomme, I Love You

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In New Orleans for the first or second time about 15 years ago, I was walking down a street in the Quarter when I saw a line of people on the sidewalk. It took a second to realize they were waiting at the door of a restaurant. This was still mid-afternoon, but the line was longish already.

Then I recognized the third person in line: Billy Payne, the piano player from Little Feat — a man who is an idol of mine. I doubled back and said hello to him and garbled out some fan talk, just thinking “wow, Billy Payne.” I said something that made him smile, and that was sweet. All that day I was overcome by the encounter itself… but then later, I got to thinking: what the heck was that restaurant? Evidently so good that even somebody of Bill Payne’s caliber of awesomeness is patiently waiting in line to get in.

It was K-Paul’s. I hunted it down later — it’s hard to find, just another storefront on Chartres St, half obscured under the wrought iron. The inside is also fairly anonymous, just checkered cloth-covered tables and a big brick wall, ending at a kitchen with a huge window where you can see the chefs at work. There’s no fuss about anything, absolutely no sense that you’re anyplace special.

But oh, holy god, the food. Gumbo, etouffee, bread pudding, and a blazing hot cajun martini, that’s what I had. Everything perfectly proportioned, everything incredibly simple. And every single bite was mind-blowingly delicious. All the attention that other restaurants put into the decor and fancy menu and waitstaff performances, K Paul’s puts into the food. I’ve had some great meals in a lot of cities over the years… but that was the greatest dinner of my life.

Read Paul Prudhomme’s obituary and know the reasons why: not just his inventiveness and skill, his generosity and openness, but his commitment to the basics of good cooking. Think about that window into the kitchen: something you see in pizza parlors but never, ever in a fine restaurant. It’s indicative of the man’s whole attitude of transparency and inclusion. This sentence of the obit hit me hardest: “In keeping with Mr. Prudhomme’s gospel of fresh ingredients, the restaurant had no freezers.” I mean, what restaurant has no freezers?

The same restaurant that Billy Payne would line up for at 3:30 in the afternoon. The best damn restaurant in America.

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/09/us/paul-prudhomme-creole-cajun-louisiana-cooking.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1

Getting into Cars with Alex

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A business trip took me to San Francisco this week, which gave me the opportunity to look up my old friend Alex. He drove all the way out to where I was staying to have dinner with me, but when he arrived I didn’t get his text right away. So he circled the block and waited until I got it and I hurried out to the nearest corner, where he stopped and picked me up quickly at a corner.

We’ve all had déjà vu, that sense that something happening now has happened before, but you can’t remember what. This was like that except that I did remember: countless other times I’ve stepped into Alex’s car over the last 40 years came rushing to my mind all at once.

We met in 1974, in high school. I was a freshman and he was a senior and at that age, those years are a chasm. He could drive and I couldn’t — a stick shift I might add — he had relationships and I didn’t, he’d experienced controlled substances and I hadn’t, though he took care of that eventually. He liked me and more to the point he approved of me, and that meant the world to me at a time when I was struggling with huge family issues that had rocked my self esteem. We were on the school paper together, and when I’d write something he’d take it into the room where the seniors were and read it to them, laughing and putting it up on the board and telling them I’d be the editor of the paper someday… the first time somebody saw something in me. I didn’t see it until he did.

Alex was this impossibly glamorous figure: whippet-thin, blond hair parted in the center and hanging to his shoulders, handsome in a fierce hawklike way, with piercing blue eyes. He played rock guitar like a star, could write well enough to make a career of it if he wanted to, was gifted at math and science, but disdained and minimized all of his own gifts. I remember one time in the late 70s when he picked me up, he took me to the lab where he was working, because he wanted to show me something. I was itchy and impatient to go start partying but he insisted that I look at this tiny thing on a small sliver of glass. “That’s a microchip,” he said. “Someday that’s going to change the world.” One of many conversations I should have continued but didn’t in my headlong rush to go waste my opportunities.

Another conversation that always sticks in my mind is when we first bought a house. I was still in my 20s and in way over my head with a wife and baby, just a kid trying to be a man. The place was the only thing we could afford, a cool little Art Deco bungalow in a terrible neighborhood, a fixer-upper in need of just about every kind of repair. He came over to check it out and we sat cross-legged on the floor of the empty living room, the cool desert air of Los Angeles blowing in through the open windows, the night sky dark beyond them, and he said “your house is beautiful, man.” Just a small thing but again that glimpse of hope and that seal of approval for a step I wasn’t sure of yet. Awesome.

Alex loved David Bowie and he had Bowie’s offhand indifference to himself, the same chilly remove and distance. Actual, real cool. It can’t be faked, or acquired. I’ll never have it, but I sure do know it when I see it. We can be heroes… yeah. He would have laughed then, just as he would now, at the idea of himself being any kind of hero. Every time we’ve met up since high school, he’s talked about me and my accomplishments and acted like I was the somebody.  Talking cynical and intellectual and pretending he doesn’t have the biggest heart around, like he never saw a suffering mess of a boy and put a hand out. Like it was nothing.

But it was everything.  Thanks, man. I hope you never stop picking me up.

 

The Pope Smokes Dope

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Click here to read Pope Francis’ encyclical
, released last week. Let’s start with my frank admission that I have not had time to read it in its entirety… yet. But the parts I have read are blowing my mind. It’s what the hippies were saying in the 60s, basically, but it’s coming from the Pope.

His points about climate change are getting all the attention, but really this is a stunning critique of modern society and its completely wrongheaded values — consumerism, capitalism, over-reliance on science and technology, social injustice, violence and war, and the destruction of the Earth.

And he shows how those wrong values all spring from the same source. He knits everything together, showing how all of the major troubles of the world can be traced back to us… to individuals… to people like you and me, who have lost (or never had) a basic attitude of humility, of wonder, of gratitude. People who view the world as something to be used and discarded. He brings it all down to selfishness, basically, and shows the irony of how placing yourself above everything else destroys not only you, but others.

This is a deeply spiritual document, and a lodestar of wisdom and guidance. Personally, I’m not a Catholic, or a Christian, but so what? No human being really knows the nature of God (as the Pope has admitted), so we’re all making guesses in the dark there. In the meantime, we live in a physical world, and we’re fucking it up and we all know it, and he shows just how we’re doing it. And why we feel so lost, so alienated, so afflicted.

What’s wrong with humanity and society is what’s wrong with us. The global crisis is our crisis. The answer isn’t even that complicated. It’s love, for ourselves and others and our planet and everything on it. Not conceptual love. Love in action… which is actually not easy. If you don’t find it painful and difficult, you’re not doing it right. Because love in action means subjugating your ego, and recognizing that you’re one among many, no less no more.

I’ll be reading the whole thing. I’ll be thinking about it. I’ll be trying, again, only harder this time, to live it. I hope you will too.

Giving the Bird

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Put a Bird on It
Mixed media
O’Connor, 2015


This is a public art project by my friend Brendan O’Connor entitled “Put a Bird on It.” Brendan is a local artist whose mission is to “art-up” the city of Orlando. His medium, interestingly, is the ugly stuff that’s all over every city… the stuff you train your eye to look past or ignore, like dumpsters, bus stop seats, or in this case traffic signal boxes. It’s subversive in a way, because while it’s transforming something utilitarian into something whimsical, it’s also drawing attention to the very thing everybody is trying to ignore.

Somebody got the message, because yesterday the Florida Department of Transportation took down this signal box on the flimsiest of pretexts. Too close to the road, they said. This despite their having signed a contract with the Mills 50 district to initiate the project. You could ask why they just discovered this now, after the box has been there for decades; you could ask why the box was there at all if it can be removed in a day with no effect on traffic. But of course you’d be asking the wrong questions, because those are questions of logic and this was obviously about something else.

And although I love Brendan, I understand this decision. As an artist myself, I live with decisions like it every day.

One of the central wars of humanity is the ongoing, endless war between the Artists and the… let’s be polite and call them the Non-Artists. The N/As have damaged or destroyed countless works of art in this war. In 1924, MGM producer Irving Thalberg whittled down Eric von Stroheim’s masterpiece Greed from eight hours to two. In 1963, the government of New York City demolished the original Penn Station, a soaring 1910 landmark of breathtaking beauty and elegance, and put a squat, faceless monstrosity in its place… one that could only have been approved by a committee of bureaucrats. In 2001 the Taliban dynamited two enormous Buddhist statues that had stood silent watch on the side of a mountain in the Bamyan Valley of Afghanistan since the 6th Century. And the list goes on.

Art and beauty and creativity are subversive because they draw attention, by contrast, to what is not artistic and beautiful and creative: greed, intolerance, power, control, and the raw fear that lies beneath those things. Many people, the N/As, live in this consciousness of fear, and many of them don’t even know it. And so creativity, with its positive and uplifting vision of possibility and potential, does not inspire them. Art, with its window into new ways of looking at things, does not uplift them. It terrifies them. It makes them aware on some level of what a small game they’re playing, of how limited they are. And so, like children who violently reject what they don’t understand, they feel nothing but an urge to destroy.

And so if you’re an Artist like Brendan, you need to understand that through your work, through your very existence, you are making some people very, very uncomfortable. Angry, in fact. You are stirring up opposition, sometimes very powerful opposition. Often this opposition has a lot of money, because money is often the compensation for people who have turned their backs on larger possibilities. Making some people squirm and begin to hate you for it is part of the job, and in fact it’s a sign that you’re doing something right. You’re inadvertently shaming these limited, unfulfilled, unhappy people, and they will make you pay a price for that if they can.

Art is in a precarious position in this brutal world, but so are love and joy and peace. Maybe we couldn’t appreciate these things so much if we didn’t have the N/As constantly threatening them. The answer is to keep on creating regardless. The answer is to keep on giving those people the bird.