Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Wall: An Aging Yogini Reflects on Music, Meditation, Money and Mortality

I painted this picture in 1977, when I was 14 years old.  It was based on one of my favorite songs, "The Wall" by Kansas.  The painting had been packed away in a cardboard tube for years, all but forgotten, until "coincidentally" it was rediscovered last September just 2 weeks before Kansas came to play here at the Marina Civic Center.  We had finished renovations on the trailer and were in the process of moving when I found the box containing the tube.  Somebody, either my husband or his teenage son, had removed the contents of the tube to look at them and left them lying out in the open box, resulting in damage to the brittle old painting which was falling apart.  When I saw my damaged painting I burst into tears.  Other keepsakes from the tube included a couple of psychedelic concert posters from Haight Ashbury and the Hildebrandt painting "At the Grey Havens" from a 1978 Tolkien calendar.  All of these art pieces brought back poignant memories very relevant to the emotionally volatile perimenopausal state in which I find myself as I reflect back on my life.  Where did the years go?!

Born at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, I was too young to attend the concerts featured on those posters, which I collected later because I identified with the values and art of my older brother and sister flower children.  Gazing at the posters, I was suddenly struck by the passage of time and a deep sadness. What happened to our dreams?  It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, we were going to change the world, end the wars, bring about a new era of peace, love and harmony.  But the world did not want to change.  Instead, 40 years later, the world is now going to hell in a handbasket thanks to fundie religion and despotism at home and abroad, endless wars and the erosion of civil rights.  Here I am approaching menopause, while young women like my goddaughter and stepdaughter are in the midst of a battle that I thought we'd already won back when I was their age.

Life in the "real world" did not at all turn out the way I'd imagined in my youth.  I was spoiled by the charmed existence that was my childhood, had a life of luxury and lacked for nothing.  I was really into music and thought I might become a rock star, or else possibly marry one.  My parents were totally supportive of my dreams and creativity.  They never discouraged my ambitions even though I was not in fact very talented.  Believing that the arts were an important part of a person's education, they provided me with abundant art supplies and bought me guitars and lessons.  At one time I could actually play a few of my favorite Kansas songs on the guitar, albeit poorly and mostly for accompaniment.  I was better at singing than playing an instrument and later sang in choir after I joined the Episcopal Church and did play guitar at the folk mass.  While I never became a rock star, in more recent years I've been a star at karaoke.  I did sort of marry the ultimate Rock Star when I became a Third Order Sister and lived as a solitary for 14 years until unexpectedly meeting my partner in 2005.

We bought the tickets to the Kansas concert even though we really couldn't afford it, because we were thrilled that they were actually coming right here to our little town.  The guys were getting older and we didn't know whether or when that opportunity might happen again.  The VIP seats up front, available through the fan club, included various merchandise which I didn't care about, but also backstage passes and would have cost us $200 each.  I dearly wanted to see the guys again but it was absolutely out of our price range.  The last time I'd seen them in concert in South Florida, the after-show backstage meet and greet was free.  That seemed like just the other day but I realized it was actually 20 years ago!  As it turned out, the lineup had changed and Steve Walsh was now retired.  We couldn't help missing Steve even though the young man, Ronnie Platt, who took over for him did an excellent job and sounded exactly like him.  Our cheaper seats, along with generous "adult sippy cups" of wine and bottles of water, ended up costing a total of $100, a lot of money for somebody facing bankrupcty.

Ironically, my inability to afford the concert was at least in part due to the fact that in my youth I had bought into the antimaterialist philosophy expressed by the song:  "Gold and diamonds cast a spell/ It's not for me, I know it well/ The riches that I seek/ Are waiting on the other side/ There's more that I can measure/ In the treasure of the love that I can find" and others, like this one by Styx, which I also used to be able to play on guitar:  "Pieces of eight/ The search for the money tree/ Don't cash your freedoms in for gold/ Pieces of eight/ Can't buy you everything/ Don't let it turn your heart to stone."  When I was young, I thought money was not important, and believed that by being a spiritual person, the universe would ensure that my material needs would be met, which turned out not to be true.  While it is true that my poverty had other contributing factors including professional licensing changes, jobs being sent offshore, a faltering economy, and illness, as I have discussed elsewhere, it cannot be denied that I focused more on music and meditation than on career and money, and it is possible that my material situation would be better, had my priorities been different.

From age 13 on, I spent lots and lots of time doing yoga and meditation and sought the company of kindred souls.  One of my dreams was to establish a Music and Meditation Center, which I discussed with a famous musician friend who encouraged me, saying "I believe it will happen!"  Although my friend was in a position to do so, he was not serious about helping to make it happen, so that dream was put on hold for years.  My husband and I were on the verge of opening Lothlorien House as a yoga studio and retreat center a week or two before the Kansas concert.  Renovations were complete and I was in the process of investigating obtaining a license from ASCAP which (to my surprise!) was necessary in order to legally use music in our classes.  I had attempted to get permission from each of the artists to use the particular songs that I wanted.  My teacher Mark Whitwell granted permission to use all of his music, but I was turned down by everybody else except for George Harrison and Alanis Morissette's representatives, who kindly gave me their blessing.  Even the Jimi Hendrix folks refused, so I would need to pay for the license.  It turned out to be a moot point, however, because on the day of the Kansas concert, we discovered Black Mold in the trailer which necessitated moving back into Lothlorien House, and I burst into tears.

The Mold itself may have been partially responsible for my mood, along with hormones and existential malaise.  I choked back tears while trying to find something to wear and make myself halfway presentable for the concert.  I'd always been slim and fit and had put on a few pounds in the last year, all of which settled in my abs.  I would normally have worn my Rocker Chick outfit to a concert, skinny low-cut jeans with little spaghetti strap belly shirt with ZOSO or some other cool design on it, but my now enormous belly ruled that out.  I didn't have any nice, appropriate clothes that fit, and finally settled on a long tie-dyed t-shirt over top of Jeggings (jean leggings), with my Reef flip-flops.  I had a couple of pairs of nice heels but could not walk in them for any distance, certainly not across the parking lot to the Civic Center and up and down stairs.  My skin was awful due to immune deficiency aggravated by the Black Mold and required careful application of Bare Minerals just to hide the flaws.  I did not even bother with eye liner, mascara, etc.

When we arrived at the Civic Center I felt envy and despair as I saw what the other women were wearing.  Some of the younger women looked great in their skinny jeans and rockin' halter tops like I always wore up until recently, while others sported elegant little black dresses that revealed their shapely and smoothly shaven legs.  They sauntered along gracefully in high heels in which I would have walked like a cow.  The women my own age were dressed more conservatively, in normal adult clothing that resembled nothing in my closet, their hair and makeup done appropriately.  Thanks to a lifetime yoga practice I looked younger and more fit than my peers, but nonetheless felt like a frumpy aging hippy in teenager's clothing.  The concert, which would probably be our last in the foreseeable future, was excellent.  I sobbed all the way home.

The melancholy improved after moving out of the moldy trailer and back into Lothlorien House, but some degree of existential malaise has persisted, in part due to the death of the dream.  The Retreat Center had been so close to being realized, and now I don't even have a place to teach yoga.  I did finally get a great job/contract in which I am being paid reasonably well for my services as a Spiritual Advisor, but it's too late to avert bankruptcy or fund my eventual retirement, because as an independent contractor, every penny I manage to put aside goes to taxes.  I'm not getting any younger and have become weary of this world.  The time is approaching when, like Galadriel, I must board the ship at the Grey Havens and sail beyond the western sea to Valinor, the Undying Land - if indeed it exists.  And that is something of a crucial issue.

For while my worldly dreams failed to materialize, yoga did.  In 2011, after 35 years of spiritual practice, the Wall came down!  At the time when I did the painting, the wall was still completely solid.  The painting depicted me sitting in meditation when rays of sunshine would eventually knock loose a few of the bricks and let in some light.  The picture was prophetic.  As I continued my yoga practice over the years, I experienced more and more love, light, bliss and silent ecstasy, until finally the meditative state burst forth into my ordinary waking consciousness and since then I have experienced the presence of God on a continual basis.  "And though it's always been with me/ I must tear down the wall and let it be/ All I am/ And all that I was ever meant to be/ In harmony/ Shining true and smiling back/ At all who wait to cross/ There is no loss."

Is there no loss?  Time is passing more and more quickly, and as I reach this point in my life where mortality is right around the corner, was it worth it?  The Westminster Catechism states, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever," and Yogananda affirms, "Man has come on earth solely to learn to know God... He will acknowledge your love by fulfilling His promise to you throughout eternity," and likewise Sivananda, "The goal of life is God-realisation."  The most famous Kansas song, "Carry on Wayward Son" says, "Now your life's no longer empty/ surely heaven waits for you."  

Except there is no "wait," because heaven is not just a literal place we go when we die, although it may be that as well.  Heaven and hell can be right here, now.  Many people are in hell on earth, the hell of loneliness, despair, poverty, starvation, illness, abuse.  For me "heaven" is being in the presence of God, at Home in the Love and Bliss in the center of our being, the deep stillness impervious to the inevitable storms on the surface of life.  No longer drowning, I can ride the waves fearlessly.  Life's drama goes on but I'm just an actor playing my role, enjoying the laughter and tears with enthusiastic non-attachment.  I expect that Love will only continue in greater fullness after the movie is over.  I have no fear of "hell," which for me would be separation from God, because He promised "I will never leave nor forsake you."

It could be argued that if the yogic/christian model is accurate, then maybe I should have spent more time and energy on practical matters like career, being socially respectable, and/or trying to make the world a better place (whether it wants to or not), because I will have eternity to enjoy the presence of God.  Perhaps it would have been enough to simply be on good terms with God, try to live a productive life and let heaven wait for later.  I could have accomplished more from a worldly standpoint had I spent less time singing, playing guitar, dancing, writing songs and poetry, painting, praying, yoga and meditation, and God knows I could have made a hell of a lot more money to invest in research projects and/or given to charity.

If, on the other hand, the materialists are correct and consciousness in all its aspects, including the subjective experience of God, is a product of the brain that will cease when we die, then what is the value of spirituality?  Ironically, a finite existence makes our spiritual practice all the more urgent!  Martin Heidegger said that our awareness of mortality enables authentic existence.  If indeed this short life is our only opportunity to experience God/ Being/ Consciousness/ Bliss/ Love by means of our amazing monkey-brain, then I have lost nothing by so doing and teaching others, and expressing That through music, dance and art.  If indeed all we are is ashes to ashes, "dust in the wind," I do not fear oblivion.  When it's over, it's over.  But while I am still here, I will be an embodiment of Love in this world.  

As a character in C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia says:  "I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia."  Then when it is time for me to board the ship at the Grey Havens, to cross the western sea or the river Styx, I will depart knowing that I have made the most of my limited time here on earth and be prepared to meet whatever awaits, whether that be Infinite Love or simply Nothingness.  Meanwhile, before the final curtain falls, I intend to clean the dust off my Ibanez and resume working on that metalized version of "Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring" that I began many, many years ago.  I want to get back on stage at karaoke and sing "Dream On" and dance ballet during the long intro.  And teach yoga.