Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writing on the Ball

Heading from the subway to work on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I see a woman carrying a big beach ball. She smiles as I snap her photo and stops to share that she has "big plans" for the ball. She is hosting a party and wants to invite guests to write on the ball. I walk with her to the corner. Then, she turns and disappears into a supermarket. The heat affords no time for lingering. I tuck away my camera and keep going.

Later, on my way home, I stop in Chelsea and browse at a small video store. Even though I could download films online, there's something about going into the store, and the conversations of fellow browsers and the folks who work there, that is joyfully intimate. Turning a corner, Breakfast at Tiffany's, the 1961 classic based on a Truman Capote novella, catches my eye. Watching it the next day, one scene tugs with renewed poignancy. Holly Golightly, the lead character adoringly animated by Audrey Hepburn, remarks as if sharing a revelation, "nothing bad can happen to you at Tiffany's." I feel her hopeful pulse in my body.

The next day, reading the NY Times, I learn of the passing of Elise Boulding, sociologist and Norwegian-born Quaker, age 89, whose writings (as Bruce Weber reports):

"[about] conflict resolution in both personal and global relations. . . helped establish the academic field known as peace studies."

Unaware of her until now, I am drawn to her story:

". . . nominated for the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize. . . She often said her path in life was determined by World War II. When she was a girl, she recalled her mother had been homesick for Norway and young Elise conceived of that country as a haven, a place to hold in reserve as a retreat, where she would always be safe. That vision was shattered in 1940 by the Nazi invasion of Norway."

Of this turning point in her life, Elise writes,

"And that was when I realized that there was no safe place on earth"

She continues,

"and I knew that I had found my life's mission."

Sitting with the paper in hand, I am fascinated by the interplay of hope and purpose in these women's lives, one fictional and one "real," and how they are shaped not so much by concepts of safety as experiences of peace activated by kindness.

Continuing to read the paper, a photo of a girl's face and specifically, her two big eyes, jump off the page. Having turned to the Fashion and Style section, I read about the latest trend among teenage girls: larger than life contact lenses known as "circle lenses." Available in a wide assortment of colors and patterns, these lenses cover not only the iris. They also extend into some of the white of the eye. Originating in Korea, and infamously worn by Lady Gaga in her "Bad Romance" video, the lenses are rapidly becoming popular in the U.S.

As reporter Catherine Saint Louis states,

"The lenses give wearers a childlike, doe-eyes appearance. The look is characteristic of Japanese anime and is also popular in Korea."

She writes that this anime (pronounced "a-nee-may") look is now popular with American high school and college students. Many young women integrate the lenses in their makeup ritual even as eye doctors continue to view them as unsafe.

Putting the article down, I wonder what drives someone to wear these lenses when they are considered unsafe. Do they offer a different kind of safety? How might playing with look, playing with identity and perceptions of beauty and "real"-ity meet an underlying need for authenticity and creative autonomy?

What troubles me is the bigger picture. When do I forget safety because of a driving impulse for self-expression? How does this impact those around me?

Thich Nhat Hahn in a book entitled, "no death, no fear - Comforting Wisdom for Life", offers a powerful image,

"You are just like a firework going off in every moment. The firework diffuses its beauty around itself. With your thoughts, words, and actions, you can diffuse your beauty. That beauty and goodness goes into your friends, your children and grandchildren, and into the world. It is not lost and you go into the future in that way."

He adds,

"You are present in the consciousness of everyone you have touched. This is real, not imagined."

A week earlier, as the sun begins to set, I head out into a stream of tourists and locals along Canal Street in Manhattan's Chinatown. My destination is the Hudson Riverway, a park beside the river.

Inclined to step back from the main traffic, I walk west along a different street. I'm surprised to hear a melody, which sounds like it's from a nearby piano. Indeed, crossing the street and entering Tribeca Park, I see two upright pianos. Both are colorfully decorated and painted on the side of one are the words, "Sing for Hope." I move closer and notice a man getting up from one of the piano benches. I approach and sit down. Along the front of the piano are more words, "Play me, I'm Yours."

This international public art project, conceived by artist Luke Jerram, brings 60 pianos outdoors all over New York City, from June 21 - July 5. Players and listeners alike are invited to post their impressions with words, photos, and videos uploaded to a central website.

I listen to what a woman is playing on the other piano. While I can't see her fingers moving on the keys, I hear and feel the notes. Attuned impulse guides my fingers. We're harmonizing. A few people listen attentively. Ten minutes later (the requested limit), she gets up and silently moves on. The time together seems complete. I get up and resume my river-bound trek.

I cross the West Side Highway at a point where the park turns into two lanes on which people travel by foot or bicycle. As I'm walking, I notice a man jogging by. His gait looks different so I turn my head. He is wearing a prosthetic leg from the knee down. His face looks filled with quiet determination. Is it a "real" leg? Is he expressing creative autonomy? Kindness? Hope? How is he impacting those around him? I can only speak for myself. I am inspired and greatly encouraged. I move at a brisker, livelier pace.

A week later, on July 5, I receive an email from friends in Berkeley, California who are engaged in Mindful Peacebuilding, about their July 4 "Mindful Holiday" gathering. They are preparing for what many say could be a riot.

This connects with the pending verdict in a controversial case in Oakland. Johannes Mehserle, formerly a San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer is accused of shooting and killing Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man who is said to have been lying face down on an Oakland train platform. Mehserle testifies on June 25, 2010 that he mistakenly pulled out his pistol instead of a stun gun when he shot and killed Grant.

Friends meet to strategize a non-violent response to escalating tensions. During the holiday gathering, they explore the use of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) to offer empathy to whomever might be on the scene and in need when the court decision is announced.

Drawing on the teachings of Thich Nhat Hahn, Joanna Macy, and Marshall Rosenberg, participants renew their commitment to train in various forms of peace practice. Their focus is far from conceptual. They often write to share and process peacebuilding experiences as they envision their purpose and ways to activate it.

The next day, I visit a woman being treated for stage-4 cancer. She's been asking to see a chaplain and as I sit down beside her, says with agitation, "I want answers." She wants to know if she's being punished. She says repeatedly, "I don't understand why this is happening, not just to me but at all. If only I could figure it out."

After listening attentively and empathetically sharing what I'm hearing her say, I ask, "what keeps you going?" This stops her thinking process. For a moment, she's speechless. I invite her to focus on her in-breath and silently consider, "what keeps me going?" After a few breaths, she says with vigor, "I'm alive." The statement emerges less as an answer to a question so much as an experience of call and response. This is direct. This is contemplative practice. The method is called Attuned Breath Centering.

Tears are in her eyes. I say, "to activate your deep question, your need to understand, what would it be like right now to breathe out while silently saying, 'Understanding'." To keep it simple, I say, "Breathing in, I'm alive. Breathing out, Understanding."

Her eyes widen as she looks me in the eye, nodding her head to indicate her willingness. As she attunes, I check in with her about her experience. She decides to drop, "I'm." Now we breathe together:

"Breathing in, Alive. Breathing out, Understanding."

We sit together in this active silence for several minutes. I sense a spaciously vibrant quality of presence connecting and flowing through us. Our eyes meet. I am here. So is she. At the same time, this open awareness does not distinguish one body from another. We smile.

In this moment, the word "safety" has no meaning. As for peace, that word is extra, unnecessary. Experience speaks for itself.

As I leave her room, the words of Omar Khayyam, the Persian philosopher and poet, spring to mind as if he is standing beside me speaking them:

"The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on."