untitled memoir—ocean diving (From The Archives)

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The following are selections from my high school and early college journals. I pulled out every entry having to do with the ocean to include in MIT’s literary magazine (Rune Issue 16, Fall 1994). Some entries are poetic, some emotional, some studiously unemotional. All reflections of the inner drama of these teen years! Phrases from this still echo in my head now at twice the age as when I wrote these words. The last, undated, entry was not part of the journals as published in Rune. Because it fits in character with the others, I am including it here.

2/5/91
From the top of Depot Hill at the first glimpse of the ocean, I could see the large waves forming on a sandbar off the coast. As we neared the beach, we saw that the waves teamed with surfers in black wet-suits. I saw some zig-zag along the wall of the wave; some jumped off the wave and back down. One sped up the face of the wave, hung in the air, then fell into the water behind it. Others surfed over the heads of submerged surfers. What interested me the most were the voluntary wipe-outs. It was exciting to see a surfer caught by surprise and fall spread-eagled backwards onto the wave, but I wanted to see the faces of those who decided their ride wsa over and chose how to wipe out. They wipe out with as much drama as an actor playing a dying character. They give of themselves unto the wave. They coexist with the ocean and respect it greatly.

2/11/91
The egret waits and remembers reflections past in a drought-dry stream

5/2/91
Where is the person that feels the deep stirring within themselves, the awakening of the profound? Am I alone in my universe? I long for you but I am also afraid that in meeting you I will find too much of myself in you….At the beginning of the year I heard abou the girl who was on the swim team with me last year who fell off a cliff to her death. Was it push, fall or jump? There were no witnesses. What does a sixteen- year-old think of in the last seconds before her death?

5/8/91
I’ll only mention this because it happened once before. In eighth grade Biology we were listening to humpback whale music and I could feel my soul slipping out my back to follow. Today, I was lying upright on my bed finishing a book and listening to the radio. More than dream-like I could feel the salty breeze ad I could see the bay in the distance and I was standing at Elkhorn Slough. It was hard to come back.

6/29/91
We we left the shore of Elkhorn slough in kyacks, it was low tide and we had to wind through mud-bank covered with pickleweed and encounter dead ends…. At lunch we stopped at an old shack and got out and ate chips and juice. On the return trip, my mother and I split into single kyacks instead of the double one we’d been sharing. She tipped all the way over as she launched. The way back was even harder as the current was pulling away from shore, but there was a slight wind pushing in to shore. This made the steering very sensitive and difficult.

11/13/91
About my first ocean dive this weekend: It was a funny balance of feelings. At first I was concentrating on moving down the algae covered buoy line. When I let go and kicked off to the left to join the circle I almost panicked. It was only logical to assume that under normal conditions I would be drowning. I had to fight my surfacing instinct….As I looked around at the kelp, I could feel the power in them, the power to attach to rock, to grow faster than any plant on earth, to withstand currents, to shelter and feed thousands of animals.

11/15/91
When I descended or ascended I could neither see the surface nor the bottom. At a point, I felt I was falling into nowhere because I had been going down for a while and had yet to hit bottom. On the surface it was sprinking on and off from the mottled rain clouds above. There was one single rainbow arched over our beach….I couldn’t tell detritus filled water or kelp from a member of the other buddy team. The current was viciously strong, it blew us side to side and backwards, anywhere but the direction we were to go in.

12/1/91
When I took off my mask, I immediately panicked and couldn’t breathe. I ordered myself to calm down and breathe through the regulator. I still got half my breath through my reg and half through my nose. After a few seconds of struggling to get a breath, my instructor pinched my nose. Immediately, I calmed down and breathed again….All I wanted to do was surface….I closed my eyes and breathed deeply several times after putting my mask on, before I opened them and smiled at the instructor. He shook my hand.

1/4/92
It is raining tonight — really truly raining. I feel comforted, protected, forgiven of my sins — absolved. For the moment, the world seems so harmonious, so perfectly balanced. To everything there is a season, a time for drought, a time for rain, a time for sin, a time for atonement. Prokofiev’s Cinderella Waltz sounds like a crystal rain. When I look outside all I see is my reflection against the dark window.

2/7/92
Life is heaven punctuated by surface intervals.

5/2/92
“Come caress me wild ocean; clasp me in your young, strong arms, fierce sun.”

7/21/92
I read the article in the paper Friday morning, and didn’t think much of it until Liz called me to read me the Sentinel’s version. Mike Schofield, 36, of Soquel died while exploring the wreck of the Andrea Doria in 200 ft of water off New York. His dive buddy was the owner of the shop, Wings. Mike was one of the divemasters who helped with the Open Water I class I was in. He was with Liz and me on the last day of class….When I saw his picture in the paper, we couldn’t tell if it was really him, I just remember him in a wetsuit hood with a red stripe. Liz and I got separated from him on that day because of bad conditions, and that was how he died last week.

8/22/92
So I’ve finally gone on my first dive since Mike’s death. It was overcast and intermittently rainy on the way out to the first site. I sat in a farmer john and a sweatshirt and watched the waves. I was a little bit seasick from watching the video in the cabin. Wet, seasick and silent, I watched the waves grow and subside, the spray scatter on my glasses, the outbursts of rain come and go, the lone tern flap over the sea and the schools of flying fish pass by — they look vulnerable, scared, desparate, huge dragonflies with the bodies of fish….The first group started to come up…two or three came up with blood in the nose-pockets of their masks, 110 ft. is deep….I didn’t have enough weight so I had to pull myself down the anchorline for a while. And then we saw the U-352. She is a beautiful submarine, mostly intact, lying at a 45 degree list in 110ft of water. Bobby had said on the boat: follow me, and I did….As I ascended the anchor line, I felt a stinging sensation on my hand. I released the line with that hand and grabbed it with the other. That was stung, too. I put both hands on and saw part of what it was, a hydrozoan or a jelly or something. I brushed my left hand and found that part of this practically invisible creature as still stuck to my hand. At this, I started frantically wringing my hands. Bobby noticed my distress and pulled off one of his gloves and handed it to me.

10/31/92
Yesterday, I walked over to the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor from my voice lesson. I walked to the Murray Street bridge and crossed to the east side of the harbor. I walked past drydock, the marine lab, California Commercial Divers, SCUBAVentures and out past the beach along East Cliff. I was holding a rose in my hand that I had found on Fredrick Street. I walked past people in parked cars to Twin Lakes State Beach where two men were burning things in a fire ring.

12/11/92
First we stopped at Pigeon Point Lighthouse to look out at the waves. The wind was so strong that we could lean over and not fall….Around sunset we had reached Pleasure Point, so we got out of the truck and stood on the cliffs in the rain watching the waves. I stood with my head leaned back and let the rain drench me. I was on the verge of tears. It was raining hard and the waves were huge and phosphorescent in the dying light.

12/23/92
Because of the winter solstice, we had minus tide. I got to explore the rocks of the breakwater at Capitola Beach. I found two pink spiny stars, one bat star and two ochre stars. There were dozens of anemones, hundreds of mussels and thousands of barnacles. We then went out beneath the cliffs and looked at the exposed meadows there. I found a small green conical rock, very lightweight, with a very flat base and a somewhat rounded tip. In some places far out towards where the tiny waves lapped the shore, I wrote three names in the sand with the rock. As I turned away, I felt I had made some benediction. The sun was setting as I turned around to walk back. The water and sky were illuminated, but the sand, cliffs and buildings were black. Lights shone from the wharf….I love the Bay so much. Everytime I see it I feel such and incredible sense of longing. Watching it gives me peace unlike anything else. Being in it makes me feel supported, needed and awed. It is a breathless, heartstopping love. It is painful to realize that I can not give myself completely to the ocean, that I must remain a separate individual.

1/18/94
This week I’m at Woods Hole staying in Swope and taking an MIT course at the Oceanographic Institute. It’s good to be with the sea again, even in winter, for I want to know all its moods. Last night we drove back from dinner in Falmouth past the lighthouse. We stopped to look at the light, and I crossed the street to stand looking at the ocean in the extreme dark, the crests of waves glowing intermittently with the light. The wind was strong and the sound of the waves great, and I could do nothing but stand there, facing it. I fail again to understand why the ocean inspires me so much, why it arouses such passion and energy. It’s true that water in general has always fascinated me, but I tire of streams, ponds, lakes and rivers, however pleasant they may be. Only with the ocean can I acheive a state of absorption nearly like a trance. Examining my life elementally, earth shelters me, air sustains me, fire transforms me, but water feeds me, body and soul. The ocean, as the most complex body of water, provides an endless set of analogies to myself and an endless source of beauty and wonder. I wish to tie my life to the sea — but I worry that this may be a very limiting constraint for me. Becoming an oceanographer would ensure that, but do I really want to live in the world of research and papers and experimentation?

undated
So i’m still having strange feelings but I haven’t come up with any
ideas of what to do about them. I guess i feel like what i do is not
making me happy, and that’s a problem. So I’m trying to reach out to
humans because they’re so beautiful at times but there are so many
barriers and i’ve lost the energy to penetrate them. When did i lose
the spark of determination? When did i lose my lust for the world?
Walking home in the rain today, i was picturing myself playing with
seals underwater. I came with them up to the surface at night and
just hung quietly there, breath from my nose rippling the water, my
whiskers teased slightly by the wind. Then I sank back down, and
could feel the cool slick surface of the water close on the crown of
my head and could see the moonlight still shimmering through the
dancing waters my head had just cut. I looked at the other seals,
their eyes were so large and quiet, but not lacking intelligence. I
think the Tao flows strong in this race. We chased each other in
dignified play among the kelp strands, disturbing fish who only looked
at us solemnly as they finned away. Passing over the rocks i looked
at creatures with strange mouths and lungs, each one’s fragile defiance
of the pull of death, and I was filled with a great feeling of kinship
with the little ones. Each one fulfills its capacity perfectly, and
I have been cursed with limits i can never reach, i must always doubt
myself and wonder if i could not push higher, be more.

Teach Our Kids to Code

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A friend of mine (http://carlknerr.com/) posted a link today to this Wired magazine article — http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/09/ap_code/ — about teaching computer programming to young children, and asked for thoughts.  I had a few.  It started looking like a blog post, so I thought I’d post it here, too, trying not to edit too much so as not to feel too inhibited about blogging!

My first reaction was that the headline was overstated, which they always have to be to drive up clicks, right?  “Forget Foreign Languages and Music. Teach Our Kids to Code.”  Yeah.  But the body of the article wasn’t as dismissive of foreign languages and music as the title implies, and was in fact using what we know about the advantages of learning those at an early age to support also learning to code young.

As described in the article, I was one of those kids in the mid-1980s who used Logo! My 4th grade teacher was getting her PhD in computers in elementary education, and did a computer programming unit with us (Apple IIc‘s and Apple IIe‘s, baby! it was 1984).  I was 8 or 9, and I have to say this was one of the best things I did in all my K-12 schooling.  My first experience with computers was as a programmer — I was in control, the master of the machine, not the other way around.  From then on I had a sense of what was going on behind the curtains of all those pretty Mac programs I used in my teen years, and then the WWW and so forth.  I knew computers programs were only as good and smart as the human-coded instructions that built them, so I could be a critical consumer and a power user.

Now, as a Waldorf parent, I’m 100% behind delaying technology use so that my children get a wholistic education that engages all their senses and their bodies in a healthy way… but when they do start using computers I want them to feel this mastery, too, and I feel like this age of 8 or 9 is about where it should come.  I am actually at quite a milestone today in this journey – my son is 8, turning 9 in December, and today I got his Snap Circuits kit hooked in to my iPhone with an oscilloscope app, so that for the first time he’s using a computer/mobile device for something other than entertainment (which we kept really limited before now). he’s been building snap circuits and following the circuit diagrams since before he could read, so he already has that hacker attitude ;) He taught himself how to construct all the logic circuits and can build them on demand without reference to instructions. so he’s totally primed for computer programming — I just still hesitate to plonk him in front of a computer when he could be out digging in the dirt!!  In fact today he was just oriented to the farm chores he’ll be doing at school for years to come now.

I think music and languages are critically important to brain development, and what is more, can and should be taught with more human interaction than computer programming affords.  But unless you’re planning to isolate a kid forever, they are going to grow up in a world that’s increasingly managed by computer programs, and giving them this mastery at the dawn of their computing years is very empowering whether or not they will become computer programmers.  Of course in my ideal world children aren’t weaned onto iPads from infancy, but instead come to computers once they are ready to have mastery over them instead of being passive consumers.

Ave Maria

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If you know me, you know I have a deep affinity for music, both listening to it and performing it. One of the earlier of the profound lessons I’ve learned through music is that the silences are as important as the notes, if not more so. My understanding of this has been fairly simple in the last likely 20 years since I first heard this idea from someone else. My idea was that the silences help define the notes—they are a container or a border for them. That when silence is there to delineate the notes, you are more cognizant of the “music.” Or I’ve had a rudimentary idea that silence can be used to raise anticipation or allow you to catch the aftertaste of a work before the applause or the next song.

But from now on I can no longer conclude there. Now I see that silence is what makes Music—Art. It is what connects music to the audience members’ souls, not just their eardrums. And I became aware of this not while hearing or making music at all, but through watching a dramatic production—not something that typically resonates with me artistically.

As the beginning of my Waldorf teacher training, I’ve been doing a year-long set of seminars on the foundations of anthroposophy, the spiritual philosophy of the Waldorf schools’s founder, Rudolph Steiner. Our latest seminar was led by actor Glen Williamson, and he commenced with a one-man performance of his play “The Incarnation of the Logos.” (He has a trailer for this production here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULmjSobEZQM if you want a sense of what Glen’s storytelling is like and an introduction to this particular one.)  I’ll try not to spoil too much of the plot in case you have the fortune to see him do it some time, but I must necessarily spoil the most striking moment for me, as that’s what I’m here to talk about! The subject is the incarnation of Jesus into his earthly vessel—from conception to baptism. The moment that I can’t get out of my head was when Jesus is telling his mother his troubles and she listens and advises him to go see his cousin John.

The way Glen related this conversation was hypnotic, with his voice, pace, and gesture of his arms sinking lower and slower with each inexorable moment of falling into the well of infinite sorrows that Mary bears within her. I felt this must be what silently drowning feels like.  Was I experiencing a legitimate hypnosis? With each pause between words the meaning sunk in deeper and then we were asked to go deeper in, and deeper still. Without the pauses I would not have been let alone with my thoughts. Without the silence, I would have stayed on the surface of the story, appreciating it as a mere observer, and I would not have become personally, intimately drowned in the compassion and wisdom of Mary and in the passion and yearning of Christ.

So this, then, is why music needs silence from time to time.  It’s not just an accounting device to make the beats line up.  It’s not just a utilitarian pause for breath.  It’s not just to make you anxious to hear the music start again.  It’s to let you sink into the music, hearing the echoes of it before you even consciously realize it, creating a void by your experience of nothingness that engenders your authentic human response to what you just heard.  And then you create the container for how the piece comes through to you.  You create the context in which you will hear the next part, if it comes, or if the song is over, the melody will linger on and the rest of your life is created by you, at least in some small way contingent on the music you have just experienced.

There is also music that never stops to take a breath.  I can think of many examples that are music of oblivion or ecstasy.  Something that takes you out of yourself.  The effect can be transporting and mesmerizing in its own way.  This can be artificially created in clubs and dances where a DJ spins one song into the next without a pause.  The party never stops, and you are never led inwards to face yourself—likely just what clubgoers are seeking.  In the best of the sonically full compositions, you can visit the ethereal, and when you tumble out of the cloud afterwards that is when you can let what just happened sink in, as when waking from a dream if you work to recall details from the dream  it leaves a deeper impression than if you’d let it just dissolve into the mists.  For a hint of this ecstatic journey, try Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, the amazing tabla artist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZF32UPLzHe4 For mastery of the emotional interplay of silence and sound, the sequence in Verdi’s Requiem of Dies irae-Mors stupebit-Liber scriptus is so rich: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZRIwD09IW0

Whether you are invited into silence during the piece, or led, gasping and panting for it at the end, it is this resonance of the piece within you, where your soul works on it, that creates the Art.

Awaking (From The Archives)

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Went out to dinner tonight with my husband and brother-in-law and we got to talking about the quality of our dreams, that is, what they are like, not how good they are.  This little bit of writing of mine came to mind as it captured the sense of some dreams of mine, and my reaction to them upon waking.  I’m not sure when I wrote this, probably early college, age 17 or 18.  I can’t even recall now what I was thinking about, though I would guess it’s to do with a dead end in love. The sense of dreams, smells, and a sense of belonging (or not) still speak to me.

i came to find my life was not the one i anticipated
looked for a bed that was not mine
yielded to directions blindly having lost my own
saw faces i trusted wary of me
standing in a room of cleansing
my mind dark and unclean
walking up a steep slope
i couldn't catch my breath because of the sweat of my brother
in vain i chased after the ones who were gone
and read their work, copied their art
tasting the fear-taste of my mouth
my feet grow into the ground
the dark fire of the walls drains away
the fear-taste becomes a sleep-taste
i hesitate to open my eyes
i smell that i am not in my bed
i do not stir, though i am alone
something sits true with my soul here
this completion is not from the day, nor has it roots in dream
i seek the third side of a two-sided coin
that this life so little belonged to me as that of my nights
that i could cast it aside by watching the dawn beyond the window

The Monster in Newtown, Connecticut

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The word monster comes from the Old French word monstre, to show, as an omen, a warning, a sign. The same Latin root shows in demonstrate, premonition, admonish (read here for a fuller etymology.) The term was once applied to people with birth defects who seemed to bear an omen in their bodies. And indeed, this is a warning—perhaps a recessive gene showing up in a population, or a bad case of malnutrition or toxic exposure. We also have monsters who don’t show their omen to the world until they are grown and ready to wield a weapon. But already I feel the modern connotation of monster distances us from the mass shooters—they are other, they are unstable, they are not like us, this is random evil from a sick monster. Unfortunate, regrettable, forgettable.

And if we recognized that our monsters are showing us something? What would they be showing us? The quick answers are the desperate need for gun control—the dramatic mass murders being but the tip of the iceberg for gun violence in America—and the need for better mental health care, these incidents also being the tip of the iceberg for so many who do not get adequate care (see here for an incredibly affecting post from a mom of a 13 year old on the verge of being capable of this kind of violence).

We may make some improvements in gun control in the wake of this tragedy, though it seems less likely we will do anything about mental health services. There are some improvements in each that could surely save many lives in incidents big and small, and we should follow through with action to prevent harm in effective ways that reduce real risks, not just build up our fear culture and lock us away from each other.

But I’m thinking even beyond this, about what it means when a mentally ill person takes the tools of destruction we let flow freely, and goes supernova, and what it means when we let it be—mourn and move on with the status quo intact. I believe this shows us something about the violence in our culture. And the kind of violence I mean is not just the virtual violence of video games and movies, or even the real gang and drug violence. It’s about the violation, the disrespect, the dehumanizing we do in little doses all the time. It’s the violence that is rape culture. It’s the violence of how we treat our Earth’s environment. It’s the violence of partisan vitriol. It is the violence of corporations above people and the environment. The violence of racism. The violence of all -isms.

When I was younger, I thought of violence in its simplest terms—the violence of bombs, of guns, of fists. I first heard about non-violence through hearing about Martin Luther King, Jr. and imagined it merely to be standing up for your convictions without using physical violence. Later heard about Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. By college I started to understand violence more in the abstract as I learned about sexism, hetero/cis-normativity, racism and classism and how we are all prone to those violations even if we also seek to uproot them. A few years later I was hearing about non-violent communication through my experiences living in intentional communities and becoming involved in union leadership in grad school, and next I embarked on that great living experiment in non-violence: having children. From the violence of the birthing room for so many families to the violence of discipline, some of it is more obvious as physical violation, but there is also the violence of the mommy wars, the violence of calling them “mommy wars,” the violence of coercive and conditional parenting (yes I have been guilty of this and will continue to be, I’m sure), the violence even of schooling for all the times it breaks a child down instead of lifting them up. And as with the isms no parent is fully free of this even if we are working for change.

Not to digress too much, but in addition to parenting’s gift of bringing me face-to-face with the struggle to be non-violent, I have learned so much about non-violence from the unconditional love of my children, and so much from my 8 year old son, who lives the path of non-violence and compassion in a natural way that is an example to me every day. As with legions of mothers, fathers, and other caregivers before me I’ve found children to be challenges, teachers, and healers.

So perhaps that brings me back around to this latest slaughter of children. It is the fact that they were targeted for their innocence that makes this so horrific and perverted. It shows us there is a cancer of violence in our culture that cannot be contained and excised. It is a mirror held to our faces to remind us of all the little acts of violence that we allow to slip by that will crest in the actions of the armed and unhinged. We can try to call it a random unpreventable event, or we can accept our complicity and work to change the culture it came from.

The parallel in our violence to the environment might be a hurricane like Katrina or Sandy, or the Fukushima earthquake. All natural events and we could just clean up and move on, or we could look at how human forces intensified the storms (I’ll let us off the hook in responsibility for causing the earthquake) or intensified the damage caused. Seeing violence as only the physical force of the disaster diminishes our ability to change the underlying conditions. In order to address our role in the violence, we need to teach each other about all forms of violence so that we may be aware when we are contributing to our culture of violence, and so that we can be clearer in our intentions to practice non-violence at all levels.

By working to heal the violence in our culture, we will also get at more than the tip of the iceberg. It makes little sense to put drastic measures in place to prevent just these mass shootings, even though they are becoming more common. But the increase in mass shootings and the unbearable horror of 1st grade victims is a sign for us. I think this is what Mike Huckabee was getting at when he said that violence in schools is what you must expect when you ban prayer from schools. Of course saying it in this blaming, judgmental way is its own form of violence, but he senses the loss of something sacred here and is expressing it in the terms that make sense to him.

We need to honor and value and practice non-violence in everything from the way we speak and move through the world as individuals, to the way we design our systems that serve us—yes systems of gun regulation and mental health care, but also all of health care, our schools, our corporations, our energy production, our food systems, our foreign policy. It is violence when people suffer without adequate health care, it is violence when people suffer without adequate and nourishing food, it is violence when we place corporate personhood above humanity and the environment, it is violence when we suck desperately for energy at all costs to life on the planet, it is violence when we turn our back on oppression within or without our borders. Let this tragedy—this monstrosity in Newtown, Connecticut serve to show us the wounds in ourselves and our culture and inspire us to work for a non-violent culture.

Teenage view on religious faith (From The Archives)

It is striking to me how little has changed here superficially, and yet how much in me has grown at deeper levels.  My understanding of faith and God is deeper now, and I have much more meaningful respect for the concept of faith and of God, but the characterization of myself as not-theist, not-atheist, and not-agnostic still fits more than any term I’ve found since.  A major change: I can no longer separate the philosophical and the emotional—it is a false dichotomy. A minor change: I have tried alcohol by now, and who knows, perhaps that was partly responsible for some of the leaking of the emotional into my formerly airtight philosophy.  Either that or it was a symptom of this merger…

I am currently in the middle of reading Rudolf Steiner’s book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path [link][pdf] and laughing now at how much my 17 year old self was primed for this.  Didn’t read it until I was twice that age.  I’ll put a couple related passages from the book at the end of this post.

You and I had a discussion a while back about faith. I ended the discussion without giving you a rational reason why I am uncomfortable with faith. To begin, I feel that now, as a teenager, it is appropriate for me to explore different systems of thought and discover what has meaning for me. A specific faith is inessential to me, and might impede my intellectual development. I do not know what the case is for others. Some people are sustained by faith through difficult times and to the extent that this appears to be a basic human need I recognize it in myself. When I am in need of faith, I place it in my ability to handle difficulties or in the support of my network of family, friends and community. But, although I make use of faith, I question it. My greatest fear is of being controlled by something else. I believe very strongly in the rights and responsibilities of the individual. In practicing a faith, I see too many people ignoring the tasks of self-examination and thinking. I see religion as an attempt to simplify life, explain mysteries and form a framework for a community. However unsatisfying it may be, I prefer a complex and uncertain view of life.

I label myself an atheist, but I dislike the amoral connotations of the word, and the implication that I deny the existence of God. I do not accept His existence (theist), deny it (atheist) or question it (agnostic). It is not very important to me to believe that He does or doesn’t exist. Some people with views similar to mine have chosen to call themselves satanists, and to worship individuality, autonomy, free will, inspiration and knowledge: the gifts of the light-bearer and rebel, Lucifer and the knowledge-bearer, the serpent of the garden of Eden. I dislike this term as well, again for its amoral connotations, because it validates the Christian mythology, and because the very choice of the term is rebellious and provoking. People will call me pagan when they see my awe before Nature — but that term does not fit me either. I profess that I do not like ritual, but I do not know how true that is. My conscious mind objects to ritual on the basis that it is easily possible to lose some of the “true meaning” of a concept by ritualizing it. However, something in my subconscious mind is satisfied by ritual. Perhaps ritual makes difficult topics comprehensible and meaningful to us, or in other situations opens us up to discover deeper meanings. I never asked for life to be comprehensible or simple, and grasping the mystery of the universe will not help me through the next day or decade.

From a scientific point of view, I believe in my own insignificance as one of billions of sentient beings that have ever existed, I believe in the insignificance of my sun and solar system as one of billions of solar systems that have ever existed. If my family were killed tomorrow, or the earth were eradicated by nuclear war, or the universe began collapsing, it would not matter to me from a philosophical perspective. Emotionally, these events would upset me, as I’ve assigned emotional values to certain things. Philosophically I’ve assigned no meaning or value to anything. Yet I choose, emotionally, to love, to care about existence, and to function in society with a self-designed code of morals.

Maybe I discovered early in life that “behaving” would take me farther than disobedience, but I also now see the necessity of morals in terms of karma. I like receiving respect, cooperation, consideration and compromise from others and the fastest way to do this is to act this way towards others. I also like to maintain my life free of artificial influences such as alcohol, tobacco or other drugs to concentrate more fully on myself, and to keep my emotional life stable by choosing my friends carefully and cultivating good relations with my family and community. I take responsibility for my actions and strive to be respected by those whom I respect.

Speaking quasi-mathematically, I could probably map my system of beliefs onto yours or those of most other people with a transformation in the symbol set. There is still something I don’t understand about religion yet, especially monotheistic ones: Is God the simplest answer? Is God the most beautiful answer? Is God the most satisfying answer? Is God a necessary answer? Is God the only answer? I would venture to guess that everyone would respond differently to my query. Is God a separate entity? part of us? a different term for something we all experience? a convenient system? Again the responses to this will vary. Were we given 11 or 12 dimensions and 3 or 4 forces and set at the mercy of entropy or was our universe carefully guided by an omnipotent hand? If our universe is entirely deterministic, did our consciousness arise from the substance of the universe, or did God intervene again as He did before the beginning of time?

I accept now the idea that people need and want faith and that its benefits to ones life may outweigh the potential intellectual and spiritual atrophy, but I do not now know if and when I will ever want or need faith personally.

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And Steiner says… “To act out of freedom does not exclude moral laws, but rather includes them. Still, it stands on a higher level than action dictated by moral laws alone. Why should my action serve the welfare of the whole any less if I have acted out of love than if I acted only because I feel a duty to serve the welfare of the whole? The simple concept of duty excludes freedom, because duty does not recognize individuality but demands instead subjection of individuality to a general norm. Freedom of action is thinkable only from the standpoint of ethical individualism.”

and

“Humans remain in an incomplete state if they do not take in hand the transformative substance within themselves, and transform themselves through their own power. Nature makes human beings merely natural creatures; society makes them law-abiding actors; but they can only make themselves into free beings. At a certain stage of their development, nature releases human beings from her chains; society carries this development up to a further point; but human beings must give themselves the final polish.

“The standpoint of free morality does not claim that the free spirit is the only form in which a human being can exist. Free morality sees in free spirituality only the final stage of human evolution. This is not to deny that acting in accordance with norms has its justification as one stage in evolution. But it cannot be acknowledged as the absolute standpoint of morality. The free spirit overcomes such norms in that free spirits do not merely feel commandments as motives, but order their actions according to their impulses (intuitions).”

Om

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One of the ritual elements of the yoga classes I’ve been doing is the chanting of the word “Om” together—three times at the start and once at the end. The instructor starts and we join her, some of us matching pitch, some not. I love it when most of us are in tune, not just because of my delicate ears that are easily offended by anything off-key, but because I get to experience a whole new level of Om.

When we are in tune and I can maneuver just the right resonating shape to my mouth, I start to feel the overtones produced by the consonant vibrations in the room. My voice alone is not enough to excite the overtone series to an audible level. With the reinforcement of others, I hear—and actually feel—the overtones at play in my mouth. For some reason the 4th overtone is often the strongest. Sometimes I only hear the 1st (or 3rd?). The more in tune everyone is, the more overtones I can distinguish. When there is a bass in the class the overtones are most vibrant because having the fundamental down the octave makes the higher-order overtones much more noticeable.

For the physics background—when you have a resonating cavity of air (in the mouth of a singer, the bore of a flute, etc.) the main note you hear is but one of many frequencies (pitches) that are resonating in the cavity. However, there is a relationship among the allowed frequencies, due to the number of wavelengths that can fit in the cavity exactly. The lower order overtones are the strongest in volume, and the most harmonic with the fundamental pitch. The beginning of the overtone series goes:

  1. up 1 octave from the fundamental pitch (e.g. C4, “middle C,” if C3 was the fundamental)
  2. up a 5th from the 1st overtone (e.g. G4 given C3 as the fundamental)
  3. up a 4th from the 2nd overtone, thus up 2 octaves from the fundamental (e.g. C5 if C3 was the fundamental)
  4. up a major 3rd from the 3rd overtone (e.g. E5 for C3)
  5. up a minor 3rd from the 4th overtone (e.g. G5 for C3)

For those paying careful attention we have now touched on all the notes in the major triad, going from 1 to 1′ to 5′ to 1” to 3” to 5”. From there on up, the overtone series covers ever more bases, and also deviates more significantly from the equal temperament scale (think piano keyboard) in pursuit of the mathematical purity and physical reality of the overtone series.

If you have a cavity whose shape you can manipulate, you can reinforce the strength of different overtones—I find for the chanting in yoga class it feels like a narrowing of my palate to capture the right overtones, but it must involve my tongue somehow. The space just above my tongue feels wide, but my palate feels narrow. If you’re exceptionally good at manipulating the shape of your resonating cavity to produce an audible overtone note while you are still sounding the fundamental, you may have a career opportunity as a throat singer :) Wikipedia says this ancient art may have originated in southwestern Mongolia, but you’ve most likely heard of it as Tuvan throat singing or Tibetan throat singing.

I’ve felt a similar effect in choral singing before where I can feel the notes the other singers are singing resonating in my mouth as I sing, but with the purity of the tone and pitch of singing “Om” together I can be much more clearly aware of the individual overtones. As I focus on them my awareness seems to bounce around from one to another, giving it a feeling of dancing or playing. I don’t know whether this is just due to my awareness, or to subconscious shifts in the shape of my resonating chambers to reinforce what I’m hearing.

When our group is not in tune I can feel the character of our out-of-tuneness—sometimes it feels like people having a cranky day, not ready to settle into this intense awareness of other people’s pitch. Sometimes it’s the awkwardness of newbies hastily singing, caught off guard, finding the pitch with a stab in the dark. But when we get it right and all the angels are singing right there in my mouth I experience a deep joy and sense of connection that the word “Om” must be designed to elicit.

So wish me yoginis and yogis with good ears, and a few good basses in the mix!

standing in the past, stepping to the future

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I’ve been doing as much yoga as I can manage this month before I go back to teaching.  Maybe because I went seeking yoga again after a 4 year hiatus, or maybe because of this transitional time of year for me, the lessons I’m seeing in yoga are really hitting home, and I wanted to share a quick insight.

In tonight’s class, the instructor was talking about kalapurnata, which she explains in her own blog post here:  http://yoga-sanctuary.blogspot.com/2011/01/living-in-fullness-of-time.html — living in the fullness of time — in past, present and future alike.  Towards the end of the class we did some poses with a back foot firmly rooted to the earth, strongly buoying us up while the front foot led us into the future — and in midst of one of these, I had a sudden muscle memory of feeling that stance in scuba diving.

When you are boat diving, there are a couple ways to enter the water, the most direct being the “giant stride.”  There you stand on deck of a boat, heavily laden with gear.  You shuffle up to the edge in your fins and then plant your back foot firmly, giving you stability on a rocking boat and a base from which to push forward, launch your leading foot far out over the water, and from there plummet into that sweet, sweet abyss!  The rear foot is not something that is left behind or neglected, or surpassed — it is an essential foundation for the next step, and it must be strong enough to allow you to make a wide step out a safe distance from the edge of the boat.

scuba diver taking a giant stride off a boat

Photo credit: spartanjoe, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Now all the analogies here seem quite obvious to me, and maybe even trite to you :) But what fascinates me is that this insight only bubbled up to my conscious mind when my legs felt themselves doing that work in yoga that they’d done in the giant stride while scuba diving so many years ago.  I’m pleased that the discipline of yoga has gotten the wisdom embedded in my body to make itself heard to higher levels of consciousness where my intuition can integrate this knowledge.

By the way, the other way to get off a boat that I know of is to sit on the gunwale, facing in to the midline of the boat, and then hurtle yourself backwards, letting the weight of the tank on your back bring you down.  There’s a lesson in there, too…Or if you have a ladder over the side of the boat, I suppose you could leave your fins off, climb down the ladder, and then put the fins on once you’re floating in the water, but that’s just annoying and not nearly as cool as plunging in!

Die Sonnenfinsternis (from the Archives)

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semi-circular image of a solar eclipseThis was written after seeing the total solar eclipse in Germany in 1999. I had many parts linked to maps or useful astronomy pages, but most are gone. Props to NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day and the Exploratorium for having links that are still valid almost 12 years later!

I saw the eclipse from outside of Stuttgart with my German and American family. Traffic was backed up on the autobahn about 30k from Stuttgart, which was on the center line of the eclipse, so we just pulled off the road and parked at the top of a little hill in Schwäbisch Hall. We set up our tailgate party about an hour and a half before the total eclipse and watched the partial eclipse while picnicking. The weather was partly cloudy and at times we had 13 people ranging in age from 4 to 74 yelling in English and German at the clouds to disperse or at least for any particularly dense cloud to pass quickly by. Other groups of people soon joined us along the ridgeline, and an older woman biked slowly by calling out (auf Deutsch) “The Savior is coming!” She was headed in the direction of a small church. At noon, half an hour before totality, the church bell rang out an alarm for several minutes, and then the woman biked back the way she came, repeating her tidings. The wind picked up speed and we watched the sun disappear through passing veils of mist. Only in the very last minutes before totality did we notice a dimming of light, because the lighting had been so variable due to the clouds that we couldn’t trust it was the fading sun until it was a quite eerie evening light. A flock of ducks winged in their awkward way by, which might have been just a normal occurrence, but I’d like to imagine that they were confused into heading home for nightfall. At the moment totality was reached, the sky between us and the sun was clear! We all saw the ghostly coronal halo around the sun, and those who were collected enough to make detailed observations (my dear mother among them) saw “red beads” along the rim. I was too excited to even pretend a scientific observation of the details or the timing. A cloud did cover the sun partway through, allowing us only maybe 30 seconds of clear viewing, but no one was disappointed by the show. Venus was also visible but we were too distracted by the Sun to look for any other planets or stars during the eclipse, and besides which, the sky was mostly cloudy. It was pouring rain in Stuttgart during totality, as we saw on TV later, so in fact we were lucky that we couldn’t make it to the central line. As the diamond ring appeared on the opposite side of the sun everyone applauded the sun and moon for their perfectly executed pas de deux.

Drawing from the Archives

I haven’t had the time to be creative with blogging since I started teaching high school last fall.  But I recently came across some of my writing from my teens and early 20s back when I did take the time to write, or more accurately, felt the irrepressible, compulsive, life-depends-on-it urge to get my thoughts onto paper, or at least onto floppy disk (3.5″ HDs,  I’m not so old as to have ever had a 5.25″ floppy drive, honest)!  In an effort to save these pre-blogging bits of writing from the depths of time and to liven up this present blog, I will post a few offerings in their own posts.

When we move on to whatever format replaces blogging, I hope this will make it easier to port more of my writings with me.  If we end up in a post-electricity and post-internet world, then this will be useless, but until then, enjoy!  First up, a bit of a travelogue.  If that goes over well, I may post the more personal stuff!

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