Sunday, October 26, 2008

Magically Delicious

When I was in second grade our class did a play. My teacher insisted that I was the Irishman—or Irish girl who danced a jig because my name was Colleen and I had a streak of red in my hair. A lot of genealogy has never taken me back to the emerald island but I think that we all occasionally feel a wee bit Irish. Irish music speaks to our souls and Irish stories resonate with us as if we have heard them before. Dreams of Gold is retold in the modern story Acres of Diamonds. We all search the world over for treasure and happiness only to eventually find it is our own backyard. Usheens Return to Ireland has images of Rip Van Winkle. The Birth of Finn MacCumhail is Homeric. We sense Odysseus and Beowulf in the wings. And smile as we hear strains of O Brother Where Art Thou in the back of our mind. The Man Who Had No Story teaches us that we all have a story to tell.

Jane Yolen in Favorite Folktales From Around the World relates the following story. The famous philosopher William James had just finished a lecture when an older woman came up to him and said that he was wrong, the earth did not revolve around the sun. He asked the lady how the earth moved? She said, “The earth sits on the back of a turtle”. So he asked and what does the turtle stand on? And she said, "on the back of another turtle". James continued relentlessly, so what does that turtle stand on? The old woman drew herself and said, “It is no use Mr. James, it is turtles all the way down.” Ms. Yolen then explains, it is the same with literature; it is stories on the back of stories all the way down.

Irish Folktales speak to us because we have all looked at a rainbow and hoped for a pot of gold. The King of Ireland's Son like Finian’s Rainbow features "a little green man" coming to the hero’s aid. Since we all were raised on “pink hearts, yellow moons, orange stars and green clovers” these Irish Tales remind us of a magical isle where fairies and leprechauns and druids and heroes still live.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sacred Spaces

As I look out my back windows, I can see a new temple overlooking the valley where I live. In my LDS culture this temple is a sacred place and holds a central place in our beliefs. There is much meaning and symbolism associated with this building. As we have continued our study of Japanese theater and the plays of Noh and Kyogen, I have seen many similarities to the temple of my religion and the Noh stage of Japanese theater. Both are sacred spaces and both have their roots in ancient temple traditions. The Noh stage is based on Buddhist temples and the LDS temple is based in the Old Testament tradition of Solomon’s temple.

The Noh stage is open on three sides to the audience. Each side of the square stage is 5.5 meters long. The Noh temple is built of cypress wood as was Solomon’s temple. The Noh stage has four pillars. One of these pillars called “the sighting pillar” helps the actor to position himself on stage. The two pillars of Solomon’s temple, Jachin and Boaz, were symbols of continuity and endurance. The back wall of a Noh stage features a pine tree. This pine tree is painted by a special group of specially trained artists. It is a symbol of unchanging green and strength. Likewise the walls of Solomon’s temple were covered with palm trees. An integral part of the Noh stage is the bridgeway leading to the stage. This is where the actors enter and leave. Along the bridgeway are three pine trees in graduated sizes representing heaven, earth and man. The actors enter and leave the stage through a multi-colored curtain. Behind the curtain they stand in a mirrored room where they look at themselves and contemplate the role they are about to play. We can see the similarities between this curtain and the sacred veil of Solomon’s temple.

The Noh stage, like the temple in my backyard and ancient Solomon’s temple, are all sacred spaces, liminal in nature, connecting heaven and earth. Benito Ortolani explains,

“The noh stage creates a sacred space, set apart for the projection into our dimension of the “other dimension” outside our time-a space within the ritual frame of the illud tempus. The importance of the journey that occurs in shamanism and noh has been also underlined. In some cases the shaman travels in spirit to the other world and there meets gods and departed souls from whom he later relays message to the faithful. Such a journey also takes place at the beginning of noh plays.”

Anciently and today temples serve as a place where heaven and earth meet. Likewise, seeing similarities in my religious traditions and those of Japanese helps to bridge the gap between our cultures. In respecting our unique sacred places not only can heaven meet earth but also east can meet west.

Dying Laughing

As my sisters and I gathered around my father’s coffin, shortly after he passed away, we were all slightly taken back by the smile on his face. We commented to the mortician on how nice of a smile he had put on his face. The mortician laughed and said that he had nothing to do with it; whatever expression was on my father’s face when he died was what we were seeing. My father seldom seemed to smile and so the peaceful look on his face seemed very comforting at the time. Fast forward fourteen years and my sisters and I were gathered in another funeral home talking about our grandmother who had just passed away. It was a peaceful time and happy thoughts mingled with laughter. As we caught ourselves, the mortician came up and said, “It’s o.k. girls, you know that if you mix up the letters in the word “Funeral” it spells “Real Fun.” Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Perhaps I know why it is man alone who laughs: He alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”

Laughter and tears are inextricably connected. This week as we have studied Japanese theater I am reminded of the need for both. Benito Ortolani writes in The Japanese Theater: From Shamanistic Ritual to Contemporary, “There is a standard pattern to all Japanese festivals since time immemorial-the combination of serious ritual with comic amusement.” This combination is best demonstrated in the twin sisters of Noh and Kyogen. Noh is a serious religious play, which is broken by the comic relief of Kyogen. Both are performed on the same stage and share similar formal structure, training and basic movements. Manzo Nomura one of the greatest modern Kyogen actors speaks of the Yin of Noh and the Yang of Kyogen. Kyogen in Japanese culture is an ancient form of comedy that has withstood the test of time.

Laughter is universal. It is common to all languages and cultures and can cross boundaries. Humor though is more often rooted in culture. Both have deep roots in truth. Something usually strikes our funny bone if it is based on truth. Often the comedian tells us more about ourselves, our culture, our fears and our desires than any psychiatrist or philosopher. Saturday Night Live is more revelatory than McNeil/Lehrer. Laughter is the coping mechanism that has been show to relieve stress, strengthen our immune system and foster instant relaxation. In the seriousness of life, it does us good to remember that we all need an intermission. Every Noh play needs Kyogen and every Presidential debate needs Tina Fey.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Creating a Better World

Many years ago, while an undergraduate student, a senseless robbery occurred in our small college town. A fellow student, who was a young father, was gunned down as he was taking a deposit to the bank for his employer. I remember the shock on the campus that such a senseless crime had occurred. What I remember even more was the words of our university president as he addressed the student body the next day. He said, “There are two kinds of people in this world, those who create and those who destroy.” He then admonished us to always be the kind of people who create.

Over the years, as I have been a keen observer of human nature, I have found these words to continue to ring true. There are only two kinds of people, those who create and those who destroy. It is impossible to do both at the same time. Whether I have been working in the business world, developing family relationships or writing a story, I know that you cannot create and destroy at the same time. The two great powers that control this universe remain two separate and distinct entities, the Creator and the Destroyer.

This past week, I have continued to immerse myself in the world of art as I read and study great artists of the past, as I view videos on African Dance and as I struggle to capture the beauty that surrounds me at this time of year through word, paint and photography. In the middle of all this, as part of my studies, I was asked to view the movie, Hotel Rwanda. This movie vividly depicts the Rwandan genocide of 1994. As I contemplated the relationship between African dance and the atrocities committed in Rwanda and throughout the world, I once again heard the words “you cannot create and destroy at the same time.” When a country is building, growing, developing it is not killing off its most valuable resource. Likewise, when a person is building, growing, developing, and creating there is little time left for backbiting, criticizing, undermining, and other activities that destroy our spirit or those around us.

Ellen Dissanyke in What is Art For lists several reasons that we create. She says,

1) Art can restore significance, value, integrity and sensuality and the emotional power of things.
2) Art exercises and trains our perceptions of reality.
3) Art echoes or reflects the natural world.
4) Art is therapeutic. It integrates powerful, contradictory and disturbing feelings.
5) Art gives order to the world.
6) Art arouses sympathy or fellow feelings among people.

Finally, Ms. Dissanyke says, “Art provides a sense of meaning or significance or intensity to human life that cannot be gained in any other way. Persons who feel assured of this meaning are more likely to accept the periods when there are difficulties and problems in life.”

Who knew there was so much power in a box of crayons!!