Friday, February 25, 2011

The Blithedale Romance

Sacred Grove at Sadhana Forest

So, I've been away from blogging for a few weeks now and feeling a bit guilty about that.  

I know part of the reason for my absence has been because I've been thinking about a big complicated scholarly blog that I want to write about sacred groves and their cultural meaning.  This would be infused with my experience at the sacred grove in Sadhana, and the information I learned while there from a fascinating Tamil doctor of Siddha medicine who gave us a bio-heritage talk about sacred groves.  Dr. Thirunarayanan (say that 3 times fast) left me with his power point and pages of notes I took  during his enthralling lecture on the topic!  And all that's a little intimidating.  I mean, I can do it but I know to do it the way I want to do it (right) this will take hours.  

Since I've jumped with both feet back into my semester at PSU and am finding my non-teaching moments swamped with committee and planning meetings, this hasn't happened.  Weekends have been full of re-connecting with Michael, my mother, friends.  I guess I'm just not good at setting aside blog time, I confess.  Still, I love it and I miss it.  I WILL get to the sacred groves... just not this week, or the next.  But I am still thinking about FORESTS and INDIA, a lot.  Amidst other topics.  And I miss the simplicity of that life -- despite LOVING my job and all the good stuff I get to do!   Just to give you an idea...

This week I taught courses on Hinduism & Wife Burning in India (Sati), the Spanish Conquest of the Aztecs (Medieval Catholicism and Mexica cosmology), and on "How we teach values in the social studies classroom" (to my methods kids).  I gave a public talk on the history of Egpyt (focusing a lot on the Crusades from the Muslim perspective).  I taught a Sunday School class about Joshua Tumbling the Walls of Jericho ("is it right to kill in God's name?") and watched a movie about the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 19th century by American fruit robber barons (Damn Dole!).  I attended a great lecture on the White Mountain School, notions of the sublime in art, and health tourism. I spent hours emailing/planning a program to kick-off Women's History Month March 1st: a public reading of African American Women's Words (so I've been reading/researching poems and essays). I lectured on the non-carnal and cosmic spirituality of erotic temple sculpture and the advent of vernacular print capitalism in Uttar Pradesh (focusing on mass media, pornography and advertisements related aphrodisiacs).  This is alongside spending 5+ hours work for a new faculty search committee I'm on, or the other 6+ hours in other committee meetings and with students conferencing about their papers for my Sex and Empire class.  Topics there are interesting too, ranging from topics on British vs. Indian colonial concepts of obscenity, legislation concerning Age of Consent, prostitution, and conjugal rights, to the historic analysis of the Kamasutra and Victorian/Hindu views on homosexuality in late 19th century. WOW.  This is, by the way, a pretty typical week for me.

The point is, I think, that I've been putting off blogging (not only because like everyone else I meet these days, I'm busy) BUT because I've got 'performance anxiety' and I think I'm putting too much pressure on myself to blog.  So I've been avoiding.  Maybe even blocking. Who the heck knows, probably even PROJECTING... and an assortment of other unhealthy and unproductive things that psychologists have recently named in the last few decades! I'm doing them.

So instead of writing a long blog or a terribly interesting blog, I've decided to keep it (relatively) short and just check in about some things I've been thinking about.  Just in case anyone out there is still following this crazy blog thing I've kept since late December 2010, I want you to know I'm still here.  Originally, the purpose of this blog, of course, was to reflect on the WOODS and the idea of LIVING SIMPLY as I was preparing to take a group of my college students to India to live in the forest on a sustainability ashram.  Before departing, I was inspired by Thoreau and his Walden experience, but Sadhana was anything but silence and solitude.  We went, we lived, we came back -- overwhelmed and grateful for the indescribably intense experience.  There in the Indian forest, we were learning about permaculture and living in radical simplicity while exploring Indian culture, Hinduism and ideas related to spiritual ecology (which we had studied for a semester before).  We lived in community with 100 other seekers and we realized the challenges to that.  We visited temples and sacred groves and village shrines.  The trip went well -- more or less -- and last week my students gave a presentation to the campus that confirmed that indeed they had learned a lot and it was a worthy experience for them.  I should get a copy of the power point to post here (somehow) and share it with you.  They made me kinda proud!

Now, technically, I'm off the blogging hook, I guess.  The trip  is over. But, the thing is, I'm kinda hooked! I mean, I like having a platform to share my ideas about the sacred and the spiritual.  I like blogging.  And these ideas are still whirling around as I process what happened there and what it means for my own development (something I didn't get to focus a lot when I was 'supervising' everyone else's experience).  I like having a place to talk about nature and what the forest means to me.  With only 16 followers on this blog, I imagine that these topics might not be too hot or high priority to others but for some reason, the blog remains important to me.  Also, oddly enough, I see that since December 26th this blog has been viewed 792 times!  OH MY.

Now that's not so impressive to the REAL BLOGGERS but to me, that was sort of a delightful surprise. Okay, so at least half of those views are mine and 1/3 of those left over 'views' are thanks to Michael, my partner... but that leaves a few hundred views unaccounted for.  So I thank my 'followers' and the occasional good-times, fair-weather friends who check on me.  And I send out my love and gratitude.  
I guess I'll keep going, why not?

One reason to continue is that I'm trying to put together a lot of jumbled thoughts about transcendentalism, nature, and eco-spirituality for a service I'm facilitating at my "church" March 13th.  Providentally, I've been invited to coordinate the whole service on that Sunday, soup to nuts, as they say.  I even get to pick the theme/message and I am elated.  Not so much nervous as excited.  This is something I've wanted to do for a long time.  Heck, it is why I joined the Worship and Music committee, in large part.  And here it is.  My chance to say something meaningful and inspire other spiritual seekers.  Whoa.

And while I'm pretty excited about pursuing this theme of transcendentalism and eco-spirituality, I'm looking for ideas for music and readings and sermon topics so if you read this and you have some, email me! PRONTO.
Just to give you a little context for my service, I should explain that I attend a Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Plymouth, NH.  Ever heard of the UU's?  Don't call them, YoYo's, they get peevish.  Also, we say Fellowship, we don't say Church, 'cuz it isn't just Christians.  Everyone is welcome to seek their own truth and worship with us.  We've got guiding principals, for sure, but we avoid the dogma thing.  We don't try telling people what type of relationship they need to have with the Divine.  We don't write rule books, call people sinners or ask for confessions.  That's between you and the cosmos.  I guess that's one reason it appeals to a broad spectrum of spiritual people, and I dig it.

Also, here in Plymouth, we have an incredible congregation of well-read, well-traveled, good- hearted folks from various faith traditions (Jewish, Buddhist, Catholic, Episco, pagan, athiest, etc.).  The congregation is, overall, highly conscientious and active when it comes to promoting issues related to social justice and the environment.  People are civicly minded and globally aware.  We quote scriptures from all over the world, from all times, and we recognize there were a lot of wise sages besides J.C. and the Boys.  We are a "welcoming congregation" that means we welcome everyone to worship regardless of gender (trans-included), socio-economic class, creed, race, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation.  And we say that, really clearly, at the beginning of each service.  I love that.
UU symbol of faith: chalice with flame in the middle.  The flame can symbolize witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, and illumination.  It means different things to different beholders!

I grew up Episcopal but think I was always sort of UU (even when I was in love with Jesus) because I love the global, liberal, progressive way UU's think.  Jesus is a fine and beautiful being, maybe Divine, maybe not.  Who knows?  What is sacred is his message.  That being said, he isn't the only truth and his path is not the only path.  At least, that is what I've come to believe.  And I'm okay with others not believing that.  I don't think they'll burn in hell or suffer eternal damnation or be miserable forever.  Unitarian Universalism is so tolerant, open minded and highly inclusive.  It makes room for everyone, no matter where they are in their spiritual journey.  If you haven't checked it out, check out wikipedia for some basics:

UU's are proud of the fact that their roots run deep in the New England soil.  We acknowledge the transcendalists as our intellectual/spiritual forefathers -- and being a lover of Thoreau, Emerson, and Fuller, this gives me warm fuzzies.  A lot of what I have been thinking about in the last few months has been wrapped up in ideas about transcendentalism and nature so I thought it might be best to do a Sunday service on all this jazz.  One might even say I feel called to do it.  But that's a whole other bucket of worms...

So I thought, why not channel this love of the wild and the spirit into a sermon?  I might use my recent experience/research on Indian ecological spirituality and combine my wisdom of Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, the Mother, and Sri Aurobindo?!  Why the heck not?
Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) novelist, early feminist, transcendentalist
Questions still arise for me about what this stuff all means, even having read about the late 19th century in America for years.  What did they want? These young naturalists and idealists who waxed poetic about a life less driven by consumption and the evils of an industrial/materialist/capitalist society?  They dreamed of a UTOPIA where people didn't feel so alienated from their labor and from each other.  They asked important questions that we should still be asking today.  How do the choices we make about the lives we lead here in this temporal plane shape our spirituality?  What lessons, if any, can we learn from the sages who opted out of this rat race (for communes, or ashrams, or cooperative socialist experiments?) -- or from those who opted for a life less driven by individualism and hedonism?  Many sages in India, America and Britain were writing books, letters, essays and novels in that period that suggested we might escape the spell of this wicked world and transcend into a higher consciousness.  Sounds like a bargain -- or is it a pipe dream?

What does it mean to be transcendental?

What did the transcendentalists of the late 19th century (both in New England and India) seek?

Why didn't they find it?  Can anyone?

My buddy/colleague, Rebecca Noel, who is a US historian specializing in the 19th century (my favorite century), also attends the UU fellowship.  Her office is also next door to mine at the university and she has an amazing collection of books on the period and the T. movement.  Last week, she loaned me a slew of Margaret Fuller books and also Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Blithedal Romance (based on the Utopian community that existed at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, MA) to help me prepare.  I found out about Brook Farm last year when I did a performance at the UU fellowship as Maggy herself!  I also used to live in West Roxbury and never knew this community existed there in the 1840's.  

The edition Becky gave me of the Blithesdale Romance is impressive.  What I love about this version, the Bedford Cultural Edition, is that in addition to Hawthorne's Novel, the book has several essays from the period to give the story context.  Woot! I drink up Primary Sources.  There are essays by famous social reformers, abolitionists, spiritualists and thinkers in the period -- Karl Marx, Theodore Parker, and William Lloyd Garrison.  There are essays with ideas about living in community from Utopianists and/or people who visited Brook Farm, like Robert Owen, Ralph W. Emerson, Joseph Smith and Louisa May Alcott.   Not to mention additional essays from Hawthorne and Fuller, herself!
Hawthorne was a founding member of Brooke Farm and lived there in 1841.
He wrote Scarlett Letter in 1850 and died in PLYMOUTH, NEW HAMPSHIRE in 1864.

From an early age I've been interested in the idea of Utopia.  When I was 8 or 9 I created one, on paper, called MORGANIA.  It had a complex social system, agrarian infrastructure and benevolent monarchical governance hierarchy.  I created a language for my land, spending months filling notebook pages with basic English words and their Morganian translations.  I drew intricate maps of the island where the kingdom existed, with explicit details as if from memory.  I even invented a cosmology and theology, based around a omniscient and beneficent magical unicorn deity named, of course, MORGAN.  This may have all happened a year or two before I read the Narnia Chronicles series but I was not surprised to learn that other magical kingdoms like mine had been invented when I later met C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. When I got to university I wanted to 'figure out' what was the most fair and efficient economic and political system, so I read everything I could about that  -- and in graduate school I started reading Fourier, Owen, and Marx.  Even part of me now longs for a Brook Farm experience, as short lived and unsuccessful as I know it was. And that's saying a lot having survived, recently, a challenging experience of 'living in community' for three weeks in the woods in India.  I'm curious to see if some of the same issues that plagued our experiment in Sadhana may have also reared their heads at Brook Farm in West Roxbury, MA.

I'm curious about the Blithedale Romance because I understand that Hawthorne was a member of the community (Blithedale = Brook Farm) and then wrote the novel, mostly as satire. He left the community before the end of one full year -- he greatly disliked the physical labor and he held some of the people he met there in contempt, despite respecting their ideals.  He based the character, Zenobia, they say, on Margaret Fuller.  Her pride is much an issue in the novel.  He loves her spirit but criticizes her ego.  She has a disastrous end (the real one and the Zenobia in the book).  I think Hawthorne may have something to say here about EGO and its dangers...

If anyone reading this blog has read this novel, please pipe up and put in your two cents!  Mixed metaphor, sorry.  Here's a quick plot summary for those of you who are unfamiliar:

Abjuring the city for a pastoral life, a group of utopians set out to reform a dissipated America. But the group is a powerful mix of competing ambitions and its idealism finds little satisfaction in farmwork. Instead, of changing the world, the members of the Blithedale community individually pursue egotistical paths that ultimately lead to tragedy. Hawthorne's tale both mourns and satirizes a rural idyll not unlike that of nineteenth-century America at large.

and this one... also none too cheery... from a book review on Amazon

Brook Farm was only the best-recorded of the many utopian communities founded in the USA in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Some of them were based on religious enthusiasms, some were philosophical, but several were essentially built around pre-Marxian communism. Brook Farm was launched as a joint stock commune of philosophical bent and evolved in a few years into a rigid socialism that disappointed "free spirits" among its founders. Hawthorne was in fact one of the founders and a member of the board, so to speak, but he withdrew in dismay after less than a year. Literary scholars of the 20th C have tended to treat Hawthorne as a "conservative" who rejected social and political reform. In 'Blithedale', the 'reformer' Hollingsworth is a man of talent and integrity who is 'diminished' by his reform monomania. But the 'anti-reformer' Coverdale, the failed poet narrator, is equally diminished by his inability to commit his talents and energies to anything worthwhile. Hawthorne himself was a study in ambivalence and irresolution, as peculiar and variable as any of his characters.

Well... I've got Blithedale and I've got these delicious essays for the weekend.  

I'm like a kid in the candy store.  And because I spent most of today (a snow day) catching up on emails and other 'responsible' things, I think I'll spend all day tomorrow reading this great novel and some of the juicy essays in this collection.  Whoopee!  And maybe I'll come to find some more answers to my questions...
What is a Utopia?  Why do we seek Utopia and is "out there" or "in us"?

What is dystopia? 

Does living in community (like Sadhana or Brook Farm) bring us closer to Utopia?  Closer to ourselves?

In addition to reading Hawthorne, I have also been re-reading Walden, Walden II (by Skinner) and a funny novel entitled "Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ;s Childhood Pal" (just to keep the balance). Gotta laugh too!

I find that the best sermons our Minister, Sarah, gives are those well researched, historical, intense/sincere, personal, funny and philosophical, with a dose of good practical example.  So maybe I can find something worthwhile in these pages and in reflection.  Let's see.

The fire crackles in my stove, our pooch is snoring curled up on the couch between us.  Snow falls gently.  The trees in my wood are mystical white as the sun sets.  I miss the green and lush tropical evergreen forest.  But I'm happy.  Michael is here with me.  He is also jealous that I am hogging the Blithedale Romance and all these essays about the 19th century -- he eyes my stack covetously -- he is a sucker for the transcendent.  

Still, he knows the answers to my questions without reading any of this.

He'd tell me our  UTOPIA IS RIGHT HERE, BABY.  And he is probably right.

At least this weekend, he is.

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