Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Enter Dreaming

The mystery of my missing memory on the eve of the 2012 Solstice clung to me for months as I searched for words and some sort of framework to hang it on. While working on the play at the gallery in Oakland, I met Lisa, a friend of Lenore's, who had also been at the Solstice ceremony. I pressed her for details when we went to fetch dinner. She found my story to be rather incredulous for she was not there after the ceremony to hear me ask the same question over and over—"Did I come with someone?" She was, however, able to tell me how many people had been there (a whole roomful backed up to the walls) and that the lighting had indeed been low at floor level.

"You must have been so scared," said my mother when I related the story to her.

"I wasn't actually there to be scared", I reminded her. I more felt like I had been through the looking glass like Alice. The experience was so dreamlike. 

Catherine was also worried when I told her that I had no memory of where I had gone the night before (by myself with complete strangers except for Lenore and two others I only met once). But when I told her that every time I tried to grip my mind around the experience, I felt a reassuring sense that everything had been alright, she was willing to trust that nothing serious had happened.

I did ask myself, as soon as I could hold a coherent thought in my head the next day, if I should abandon all things shamanic. My answer was immediate. No, I was not going to let this incidence take that away from me. That much I was certain of. Besides if a shamanic ceremony had been powerful enough to dislodge my mind, then it was worth further investigation. Our science minded culture wanted to put it in a medical context, a malfunction described as a black out, but I was looking for something else, a metaphorical meaning, a narrative explanation. 

"It could be viewed as an initiation," Dave agreed when we discussed it weeks later after he had taken me for my soul retrieval ceremony. "Especially for someone who put such significance on the date," he added.

Ah yes, I had forgotten about the significance of the 2012 Solstice date. Once it had passed and all the hullabaloo about the end of the world being for naught, only the seriously out-there New Agers wanted to mention it again. But I had indeed spent over a year focused on the Mayan prediction, not as an end date, but a gateway to a shift. I just hadn't thought of it as my own personal shift. 

I decided to ask my Grandmother spirit about it. On a journey to the upper world, I sat at her kitchen table and asked why the Solstice ceremony had unfolded as it did.

"Well it got your attention didn't it?" she asked. "The ceremony connected you with Lenore who could help you. And the soul retrieval was necessary to help you move along on your spiritual journey," she explained. It sounded quite logical and efficient especially given my disinclination to ask for help of any sort. And it was a soul retrieval I had asked for though I knew nothing about it and I don't know how I knew to ask for such a thing. My spirit Grandmother's answer still didn't explain the incredible feeling of lightness that it left me with.

At the close of 2012 Catherine was nearing the end of her cancer treatment. When I asked how she was doing her most frequent answer was that she was anxious about "impermanence" the Buddhist term for the temporal nature of the universe. 

At which point I would say "Oh, is that all?", extend my condolences and go back to my room for we had made an agreement that, in my caretaker role I would not attempt to offer much help in these existential matters. I would be allowed to save myself and not inhabit with her the state of anxiety. She had our dharma teacher and her therapist to help her cope with impermanence. But once I had lost my mind to the universe I was giddy with it, with the cosmic joke of it all. The next time Catherine complained of impermanence I could hardly stop myself from snorting with suppressed mirth. 

"Can't you see it from my point of view?" she asked as she faced yet another test that might reveal a recurrence of cancer.

"I just drove home from Berkeley with no memory at all and noting bad happened. Why should I worry again?" I said and giggled at myself.

I continued to think of life as a cosmic joke. After my soul retrieval with Lenore people treated me differently as if they could now speak to me where before I was a bit too enigmatic no matter how transparent I had tried to make myself through my writing. These essays had certainly helped by allowing me to be seen like a creature in an aquarium, but the formality of the essay form was as thick as aquarium glass separating me from my reader—keeping us both safe. Now the glass was disappearing in places, as I began to be able to talk to people in a more heartfelt way. It was liberating, like breathing fresh air. This part Catherine greatly appreciated; it allowed her to know what I was feeling in real time.

My thoughts now turned to the metaphysical. My mother, who was also interested in metaphysics, was holding out for a scientific explanation for things; she wanted me to read a book someone had given to her called "Proof of Heaven", wanted to know what I would think of it.

"It's about a surgeon who had a near death experience and he talks about how he found heaven," she said. I sighed inwardly. Yes for phenomena to be accepted as proof it had to come from the mouth of a man at the top of the medical pecking order and be a majorly dramatic event.

"I don't need a near death experience to know", I said, "I just had a near lost-my-mind experience and now I know I'm in the lap of the gods. I will never worry about anything again; everything was just fine without me even being there." My mother looked worried as though I might now throw caution to the wind. Hearing myself talk like this; my words sounded grandiose, but glorious at the same time. Sitting in the lap of the gods sounded like a box seat for an Egyptian prince.

The Collective Unconscious

It was not until my birthday, five months later, that I would find a satisfactory explanation from my friend Martine. Martine was our resident expert on multiple personality disorder (now called dissociative identity disorder) having shepherded an ex-lover through years of ineffective medical care for a lifetime of blacking out episodes when other personalities took over. I cornered her at my birthday party and asked her what she could tell me about this event of my having disappeared from myself only to have my ten year old personality take over.

"The first thing I can tell you is that everyone has alters." she explained. (Alters were personalities that were fragmented from the core personality and those personalities can come into play at any time to do different things.) "The only difference for people with dissociative identity disorder is that their alters have become separated from their personality and they have lost contact with them. Just be glad this happened to you now and not when you were a teenager," she added. Yes having to explain where you were when you were supposed to be in school and having no idea where exactly you were, would certainly make adolescence a harrowing experience. You'd have to make stuff up.

"Do you think soul retrieval would work for this disorder?" I asked her.

"Sure," she said, "but it's never going to happen with our medical system. All they're interested in is drugs." Yes we all knew that. It was hardly worth discussing. I gave her more details of my experience. She had not read my essay on account of Microsoft piling more work on her programming desk after the year of firings.

"How did you feel after you came back?" She asked. I described how euphoric I had felt for three days after. How every time I thought about the event I knew that nothing bad at all had happened. She nodded as though this was an expected part of such an experience. Then she told me that Jung had said that those who can slip from one personality to another are much more able to join the collective unconscious in that space between personalities. Which would explain the heightened sense of well being I had experienced. I knew it. I had touched the Universe. I had experienced the universal oneness of all beings. 

"And it was the solstice of 2012," I emphasized. "I was out there with the collective unconscious helping with the transformation." This was the story I most favored because if I was missing from myself why not? I could have been anywhere and no one could prove otherwise even myself. "And it was your birthday too," I added. Martine was indeed born on the winter solstice which just made her role in explaining all this to me even more significant. 

She was perfectly happy to accept that I had assisted in the 2012 shift. Then Dave who had been listening in chimed in about how recent research on alternative perceptions of reality had been censored from the prestigious TED talk series. Stacy joined in as the conversation drifted to how science, with its dogmatic worldview being the undeclared religion of our time, was completely threatened by these alternative views of reality. The conversation carried on while I poured oil in a pan to fry the chicken we would have for dinner. 


As initiations go, a near death experience is standard for shamans while other equally dramatic paranormal events had brought many to the practice. Okay so maybe contemporary people, need to be hit on the head with a 2" x 4", but some of us may just need to be woken up from a culturally induced numbness and welcomed back with a big cosmic hug. 

Now that I was back in the lap of the gods, I could remember incidents of my childhood when I felt this connection. Of being alone, once, after school, outside drawing on a chalk board which was resting on the ground against the school house wall. I paused and sat back on my heels, drawn to look across the yard at the quality of the afternoon light. Looking at that warm light, I was struck by a sense of a fully populated universe accompanying me and being a part of me. And I wondered then, at 8 years of age, why did adults worry so much when clearly just to be alive meant we were being buoyed up by spirits. I did not have all those words then, but this memory would stay with me asking me for a place to put it. I had written about it before 25 years ago, but my secular American writing teacher saw it as childhood naivete and I dropped it. Nor did it make it into my memoir of Thailand though I saw it as a encapsulating experience of my life there.

The rest of my childhood in Thailand was equally filled with spiritual conversations with myself prompted by the acknowledgement of the unseen world in the vividness of Thai culture. I was so adept at slipping from my mother's British culture to my family's Thai culture that it was not hard to think of the world of spirits as just another culture to enter. And when we came to California I picked up all the new thoughts of the human potential movement of the 60s and '70s just as readily. 

At a free lecture on self-hypnosis that my parents took me to when I was fifteen, I was one of two in the room to admit that I had indeed been floating along on a cloud with my name on it just as described in the guided meditation. My parents humored me, their dreamer child, but they themselves were self-consciously, poo pooing the whole thing especially my father (who suffered from nightmares and wasn't about to let anyone lead his mind anywhere).

"You're very suggestible," said Stacy when I told her that story. 

And having thus kissed the Universe on the 2012 Solstice—the birth of the age of transformation, I was now aware that I was in danger of becoming unbearable in that way that people are when they have found Jesus. I tried to keep a lid on it.

I still made all my walks with the dogs an opportunity to communicate with the universe and look for signs just as I had done the first dog walk following the solstice ceremony. And when I directly asked for things I found answers. Early on in my work with Lenore, I asked the Universe to show me the money to fund this spiritual work I was doing with her. When I got home there was a message from a client I had contacted a month before, but wasn't sure she would ever confirm. She would be a regular weekly gig. Coincidence? Perhaps, but I chose to see it as confirmation and gave thanks profusely.

The Cobra

The more convinced I was that the Universe was communicating with me, the more sensitive I became to the TV shows and movies we were ingesting. All of them were about desperate people, especially desperate white guys choosing a life of crime. These stories reflected Catherine's view that life was harsh and she appreciated the clever, well written scripts full of ethical dilemmas. While I had to fight to keep these stories from draining my energy and from eroding my own internal truths.

It was a bad week; an old friend of Catherine's had just been diagnosed with liver cancer and would likely die from it. I still refused to believe that life was set up to be harsh. People died. Whether they died well or not depended on their acceptance of it, but I had nothing to offer to prove otherwise. I feared being sucked into this vortex of despair, this dark night of Catherine's spiritual struggle.

At my next session with Lenore, I told her that I felt my relationship with Catherine was at a crossroads. I described how we were now living at opposite poles. At one end life was harsh and at the other life was a cosmic joke. I had not the strength to bridge this. Lenore asked how long it had been since Catherine's diagnosis. In April of last year I told her. "Not very long", she noted sympathetically. Then she told me that I could take a journey to find and talk to the spirit of my relationship with Catherine. And ask it what was the meaning of this "crossroads" as I had put it. 

Whoa, there was a spirit of our relationship? I was intrigued by the idea. Enough to make the journey right away with Lenore drumming for me. I lay down on the couch and put my cap over my face. With the drum beating, I ran down to the lower world calling for my power animals.

Mongoose and Bear and I set out to find this spirit. We rode Bear into the jungle rather tentatively, looking into the trees at all the ghosts. Along came a cobra crossing our path. "Don't make me talk to a cobra," I thought. And it disappeared. Well why not I wondered? It's true I was deathly afraid of snakes and maybe for good reason, but this was the dreamtime and I was with Mongoose (who was, of course, quite handy with cobras). The Cobra appeared again much larger, looming over us, facing us, ghostly like a phantom. I drew myself up to ask my question.

"What is the significance of this polarized crossroad in our relationship?" I said. Then I collected myself and waited for a response.

The Cobra's voice echoed in my head. "It is your task to learn compassion for Catherine's darkness. Your lightness will help her shift her view of things. It helps for her to know that you are okay so she doesn't have to take care of you as well. And it is fine for you to continue to nurture your lightness."

"That's powerful," said Lenore when I told her about the Cobra.

"Yes you have to be very careful how you step with a cobra," I said acknowledging the challenges of my relationship with Catherine. (But given the right tune cobras can also be charmed and domesticated.) 

When I told Catherine about this vision she was pleased that I had taken the trouble to inquire about our relationship and assured me that she was coming out of her darkness. A week later she went to help her friend Al get to his chemotherapy treatment. She had to drive to LA to do this, but the four days she spent with him filled her with the purpose and perspective of the caretaker. And Al, who was a Chinese medicine doctor had such an equanimous view of his death, that he was ready to go. He just wanted to get his affairs in order and Catherine and other friends helped begin this process. He died two weeks later and Catherine was sad, but not devastated. She had learned valuable lessons from him she told me and seemed to have a renewed strength.

While I had so much to read and investigate from a list of books and resources that Lenore had recommended that I would be busy for a while building context for the shamanic culture I would further immerse myself in.

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Thursday, May 02, 2013

The Play's The Thing

Story telling meets audience resulting in a rich discussion of race and gender, visceral reactions to segregation and the need for seeing our mixed race experiences reflected on the screen. The backstory performance of American Ubuntu, presented in Oakland. 

A Play Is Born

The kernel of the idea, when Lenore took on the gig at Joyce Gordon Gallery, was to offer the audience an experience of racial segregation. And we didn't warn them ahead of time. That was the surprise audience participation part of it. What they did know was that this was a story of a high school romance set in the '70s with an interracial component—a bold confident black girl pursues a shy sensitive white boy that she has noticed watching her for some time. 

And because no tickets were being sold it was hard to know if anyone would even come, save for friends and family. But all who signed up to help produce this show were committed to see it through.

When I came to the project, six weeks ago there was neither a script nor actors, just a conversation with Eric the gallery curator to present a live performance in a segregated environment. On top of it Lenore was going to be away for two weeks. I was not accustomed to this approach, this diving into the deep end to sink or swim. But I was intrigued by it. And as Lenore posted to her Facebook page "you can only create fantastically when you're willing to fail spectacularly".

Labor of Love

A community derived grassroots production has a lot of room for participation and for some reason I needed to prove myself to an artist with a big vision. Possibly because all of my visions had gotten so small they were hardly worth doing. But also because working with someone on a project with high stakes and a deadline is a very good way to get to know who they are. 

When I arrived at the gallery the week before the performance I had my eighteen tables ready to go. And two helpers to put them together with me. Eighteen tables have 72 legs. Seventy two legs that I wrapped with rubber bands and masking tape to make them friction fit into the pre-drilled holes. It worked without too much difficulty especially once I figured out to wax them so they would slide into the holes better. Seventy-two pieces multiplied by all these procedures takes a while. Nearly thirty hours went into these tables with their many legs. It kept me connected to the project and made me feel like a genius when I had worked through all the design problems.

I loved seeing them in the space, a bit quirky and cartoonish with their legs slightly askew. All of them different and you could still tell they were doors since I had left them unpainted. (I liked for people to be able to see things transformed into new things; it breaks the consumer mindset.) And though not robust they were light and easy to move. The holes where the doorknobs had been we used for cup holders. As we put them around the room, it became clear that the tables were the set; they delineated the space into an environment that would hold all the action and the audience too. I was proud to have made such a significant contribution. And rewarded by the look of appreciation in Lenore's eyes for all I was doing.

Down To The Wire

I built them while Lenore was away at Hedgebrook working on the script. (Hedgebrook is a women's writer's retreat on Whidbey Island.) When she returned two weeks later she still had no actors; the actors she originally had in mind were booked that weekend and though they said they would help find others they had not done so (possibly distracted by Spring break). Lenore was asking me if I knew anyone. I had one tiny lead to a boy actor which turned out to be a dead end. Time was ticking down. She would have to go to the mat to find them herself. Ten days before the show date she was able to meet the drama teacher at Berkeley High to let her audition students there. And finally she had her actors.

When Hannah walked into the gallery Lenore introduced us and told me she was playing Will, the boy lead. I was surprised especially since she was wearing a skirt. (She had just come from a memorial, Lenore told me later.) Boy actors had been hard to come by in my day and that apparently had not changed. Hannah had come to the audition wanting to do Will's part. And in fact, there had been a boy actor there too, but he just refused to get who Will was, argued with Lenore about how things should be done, wasn't getting the meaning of the play and generally sounded like a jerk, while Hannah nailed the part of Will from the beginning. Though her girl's voice did at times interject a layer of lesbian subtext to the mix messing with my mind.

When Taylor, who was playing the part of Sharon, the young black woman, arrived, the two got right down to rehearsing their lines. Taylor was just right for the part, pretty and sassy, but sincere and heartfelt. I stayed for the entire rehearsal because Lenore was going to let me be one of the videographers and I took the opportunity to practice. Her friend Scott would shoot with his camera on the other side of the room. The more experienced person she wanted on the job was already booked. Nothing like having the decks cleared of competition to feel needed. And there were more props to be made. I volunteered to make a stand for the confederate flag that Will's father displays at his house and a sign for the restaurant where the young lovers are refused service. This gave me more fun stuff to do until the play date.

An Audience Is Ready

By the time the actors came to rehearse the morning of the show, they had really bloomed into their roles. Will embodied his epiphany of his racist white heritage in a touching way that was honest without being self flagellating. While Sharon as a young woman filled with ideas she picked up from progressive parents, was full of confidence and smitten enough with this white boy to bridge whatever social barriers came between them and forgive his whiteness.

The 30 minute show partly acted, partly read in prose form gave more backstory to the movie than most movies have front story. The greeters were prepped as we awaited an audience. They would be the ones who told people where they could sit so they would be segregated by race. One was an African American man, Antonio, who had been the model for the Black Panther character in the poster. Another, Rabia, was a soft spoken African American muslim woman whose words were so carefully chosen it gave her a  calm elegance and the third, Ignacio, was an immigrant from Columbia with a friendly open face. 

Soon the gallery was filled to capacity, mostly with people of color, mostly black. As it happened I had chosen to be the videographer on the colored side of the room. The effect of being immersed amidst a majority of people of color flooded me with the realization that I spend a lot of time being white. By this I mean I forgive with regularity the exclusion of my experience; I don't mention these observations to anyone and I make excuses to myself for people's ignorance. 

Even though I was not a member of the African American community I shared the hyper vigilance of living in a white man's world. Of knowing that at any given time something will come out of nowhere and remind you that you are the other, that you are excluded from an assumed privilege. And how this can feel like an attack so you have to learn to fight back. But what was more draining was that in such a world, your impact is largely ignored, your chance to influence the world deemed irrelevant while the concerns of the majority in power—of white men— are the center of the discussion. Standing on the colored side of the room there was comfort in being seen in numbers too large to ignore.

A Story In Common

This was an audience who had come to hear their story told. And once the performance started they hung on every word, hardly making a sound as each line spoken revealed a path well traveled by those who live intimately with mixed race issues. What prompted this young couple's interest in each other? What did Sharon's mother say when she found out? How did Will come to terms with his alienation from his dad's racist perspective? How would they handle how the outside world greeted their love?

In many ways this story was mine too both in the element of forbidden love and in the mixed race aspect of it. My parents mixed marriage had been notably unusual wherever we lived and when they divorced somehow my identify took twice as much to explain. I am touched whenever color lines are crossed, made whole again. To love across the color line (or any divide) is to appreciate what is different from your own point of view and respect that perspective as if it were your own. It forever changed you. I identified with Sharon's strength and confidence expressing her sexuality and her ideas. And with Will for I also had a father who's conservative politics and alienating social opinions I had to separate myself from.

After the performance was over all were silent until Lenore and crew clapped to prompt the audience that the play had ended. We then moved the tables out of the space and invited the audience to form a circle with their chairs and integrate themselves again. No one left as people often do when an event threatens to become touchy feely. Everyone had questions, wanted to know what this was about. And about the movie that would be made from this story.

Lenore asked the first question—did people think this couple would stay together? A range of answers all from the black audience members, some generous to the romance some fearful of the social pressures against it. But one question hung in the air. An older black woman sitting next to me asked the question. What was it that prompted Lenore, a white woman from Iowa, to take on this story? This had also been my burning question when I came to learn of the project. Lenore explained that she had been a part of a mixed family by adoption of a Native American brother; through him she learned how different the world treated him. Thus she had been an activist for civil rights from the age of fourteen. And she had also had interracial relationships, she said. This seemed to be her ticket into the club, for the black woman also shared that she had had a relationship with a white man in her youth, a Jew. (My first lover had also been a Jew; Jews seemed to be the entry level white lover for people all across the board for both people of color and white Christians curious about the Other.)

Lenore also asked how people felt sitting in the segregated spaces. Again an articulate response from a black woman explaining that it was part of the black experience to be segregated often purposefully for protection and support so there was no sting to it, but she herself wanted to know how the experience had been for the white people who were told they couldn't sit where they wanted to. Several white women shared their discomfort at being separated from people of color, for being denied the unified family feeling of oneness that they had come to the show to support. While a young mixed race woman shared that she was given the choice of sitting in either section, but had stayed on the colored side. Was there any benefit to sitting on the white side in this scenario, I wondered? Apparently not. 

People also shared their responses to the characters whether they believed them or not, whether what the characters said rang true. Much discussion about whether the aggressiveness of the young woman in the relationship was a stereotype of black women. (It was not one I was familiar with stuck as I was with the stereotype of Thai women being assumed to embody the loose morality of the sex trade we're so famous for.) The only discussion for Will's role was why the part had been played by a young woman rather than a guy, but people agreed that Will's sweetness had been successfully expressed by Hannah. The success of the play was that it was a story about how race divides us, but Lenore had told it in such a way that everyone could empathize with everybody. 

She explained how this back story related to her movie, but she hardly needed to for everyone was already eager to see it, had made the leap from the play to the movie. The movie itself was a post 9/11 political and spiritual thriller with Will now an FBI agent haunted by the memory of Sharon. He goes in search of her and discovers that she is no longer with us, but she has left a legacy of forward thinking ideas which have led to the creation of a utopian vision of Ubuntu, a village looking very much like an eco village with its adobe houses and farmed fields. (Ubuntu means I am what I am because of who we all are.) The movie's heroine is Sharon's daughter, a healer seen in the poster with her shamanic panther drum. Part of the drama was a battle over water rights.

There were so many elements of this movie that I could relate to. Others would too, but does the existence of an audience drive the forces that get movies made? It had for the gay community, but this movie was bigger, more ambitious with a budget of 5 million. It was an idea that encompassed many threads, many communities. It offered so much that needed be addressed. Our audience would have stayed long past our allotted time sharing their insights. In fact more people had come in just to see what was going on. But we had to send them home.

A black man helped me take down the sets and the job was done quickly. I had introduced myself to and talked to more black men and women than I've probably met my entire life. Antonio had told me about his martial arts training and asked about mine. Rabia had shared with us her experiences of dating a white man in her youth in Ohio. And while looking at a portrait painted by a Thai woman of Tiger Woods displayed on the wall of the gallery, Eric the curator and I discussed the various cultures who claimed Tiger. He shared with me his trip to Thailand and how he had a Thai girlfriend there. (Had I had more time I would have asked how he had been received in Thailand for it was not so long ago that Thai text books taught their people that the African race was inferior in intellect.) Through these brief interactions and shared stories I felt enriched for having discovered this world of people so aware of the issues of moving between cultures. 

Lenore had worked hard to bring this show together and had overcome all the obstacles. Whatever perfection she had sought, she had let go with grace, celebrating what we had accomplished each step of the way as a new achievement. She would frame this event as a success bringing the movie closer to reality and would soon look at where it could go next.

As one of my writing group members once said, trying to get published is like throwing popcorn at the moon. But that didn't discourage us from the attempt. Or having fun trying. This performance event was an uncommon bid to attract a producer, but it had ignited further interest in the movie. And the homegrown phenomenon of it beckoned for more such events—for an ubuntu village of its own. Whatever the fate of the movie, what it was already was a happening that brought people together in multiple moments of unification and healing, not to mention all the fun we had. And for that I was satisfied and grateful.

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