Sunday, July 4, 2010

Delights of Italy THANK YOU-THANK YOU
CHARLIE HESS, ALL WHO MADE IT HAPPEN AND THOSE WE SHARED THE EXPERIENCE WITH!
We were in Italy from June 19-26th and most of our time was spent in Assisi and La Verna with the most wonderful group of friends. Here are pictures and a couple of short articles we wrote about our experience.
(click on images to enlarge)
Our Gathering in Assisi
(Top Row) Krystyna Jurzykowski, Wendy Parsons, Fran Insinga, Danny Martin, Marilyn Strong, Jerry Wennstrom, Manab Sen, Clark Winter. (Row 2)-Brookie Maxwell, Juanita Yoder, Gerarda Pizzarello, Richmond Mayo-Smith, Indrani Sen. (Front row) Charlie Hess, Rolando Brown, Jayadeva Mandelkorn.



An Assisi Triptych:

(click on images to enlarge)
"St Francis "
Thank You Gift Jerry Made for Charlie

The Assisi-influenced Shrine we made in our garden this summer. The carved cedar Madonna and fountain are enshrined in an old clawfoot bathtub.


Charlie and Wendy

Fran


Indrani and Manab


Richmond and Danny


Rolando and Wendy


Juanita and Charlie


Juanita and Gerarda


Charlie and Jerry


Gerarda, Indrani, and Jayadeva


Danny and Marilyn


Marilyn entering Assisi

Interior Basilica


Interior Basilica


Assisi Mystery


Eremo delle Carceri
(Legend has it, that the devil was chased out of this monastery through the hole visible in stone floor)



La Verna

La Verna


La Verna


Mary Magdalene Chapel at La Verna


Cave where St Francis lived at La Verna


St Francis' Robe


Nuns in the court yard at La Verna

Clark Winter and Jerry on the mountain trail at La Verna


Chieasa di S. Maria sopra Minerva in Assisi


View from our Rome hotel room


Bubblegum Wire
(Assisi barbed wire)



CHARLIE'S HAPPY BIRTHDAY
Wendy and Charlie


Charlie, Fran and Rolando


Krystyna, Gerarda, Wendy and Juanita


Richmond


Clark and Marilyn


Manab, Jayadeva and Brookie

Danny and Krystyna


Clark, Rolando, Danny


Jayadeva

Brookie and Clark


Nicoletta, Marilyn and Issabella
(Isabella works for the Vatican Museum, took us to a wonderful dinner and gave us a late-night tour of the city)

~~~~~*~~~~~

Three musings inspired by the gift of a Pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy
By Marilyn Strong


Musing # 1
Sacred ~ Mundane


I have been lightly grieving since I left Assisi, Italy this past July. Although we spent a couple of days in the beautiful city of Florence before we flew home (one day surrounded by Botticellis) there was an inner feeling of loss. It is harder to know the sacred when not held by the stone of that walled city, when not overwhelmed at the prayerful countenance of fellow pilgrims and the beauty of the Giotto frescoes and high vaulted ceilings of the large basilicas; when one is not surprised by yet another Mary statue or Mother and child painting at each twist and turn of the stone steps and cobbled streets, your eyes feasting on red geraniums bursting out of their planter boxes under each window, splashes of color against the ancient stone. And yet, I am reminded of the quote by Pema Chodron on the “Stay Inspired” card that Charlie included in my “Essentials for Pilgrims” package: “No matter what comes along, we are always standing at the center of the world in the middle of sacred space.” The center is everywhere, and the circumference nowhere.

It is easy to forget this. We generally experience the busyness and stress of our daily lives as the “mundane”, juxtaposed to the “sacred” that we experience in peak times such as this incredible trip - being held by the Divine through the conduit of Charlie’s generosity. For we live in a dualistic reality, an either/or realm, forgetting that the true work of our time is the alchemical holding and integration of the opposites – creating a third way or a “third body”, which incorporates the two. Perhaps that is what prayer is: an alchemical bridge that invokes and integrates the sacred into the mundane, transforming it into something wholly new, into a being present to “what is.”

I have recently followed a sense of a sacred calling into a new profession in the world of death and dying, specifically into work as a funeral director intern. My passion lies in helping our culture transform the way we work with death, to help us all to embrace it rather than deny it, to empower families to care for their dead in the way that we all did a century ago, before we hired professionals to do the work for us, and death became the industry that it is today. However, I decided to become a licensed funeral director and to learn the business from the inside out, so that I could better serve families in creating an alternative adjunct to that business.

What really drew me into this work was my first experience of death in 1997. I had the privilege of supporting my friend, Sarah, through drumming and chanting, over the threshold and helping to wash her body, dress her, and prepare her for lying in state at home for 24 hours or so before she was taken to be cremated. I had always feared death as a child, and here I was in my early forties, experiencing it for the first time. What surprised me was that as I fully faced it, my fear fell away, and I was transformed by the experience. I experienced death to be the same doorway as I had experienced when another friend gave birth. Both were numinous experiences. The experiences were of a naturally sacred and “altered state” that I have only experienced otherwise in the creation of sacred space through group ritual and ceremony. It is this “mountaintop” experience of the sacred in the mundane that has drawn me into this work.

However, as I have stepped into the role of a funeral director, I have discovered that death has another face to it when looked at without the lens of the sacred. Without the container of sacred space, there is ugliness in the mundane physicality of it, and I have struggled with a certain initial feeling of repugnance to caring for the bodies of strangers after they have passed. I have struggled with that same dichotomy of sacred vs. mundane, not feeling the same sacredness as I did in that initial experience. I am not always at leisure to bring out the tools of my trade which help me “call in” or reveal the sacred, such as sage for smudging, or essential oils to bathe the body, or the opportunity to invoke the 7 directions, or chant as I work. What does get me through, however, is to ask through prayer for help in seeing this person and treating them with the same love and reverence that I would my own mother or father. It is then that I pour my love through my hands and am present to the washing and preparation of this body that is no longer just inert matter, but a “thou”, whose soul is perhaps nearby.

Early on the first morning of our time in Assisi, I was sitting in the basilica of St. Clare, listening to the chanting of the cloistered nuns, and looking at the frescoes of the death and resurrection of Christ behind the altar. (The kind of icons I was never privy to as a young person growing up in a Lutheran church.) I was suddenly struck with the image of the disciples (female and male) gathered around a bier, caring for the dead body of Christ after they had taken him down off the cross. I was drawn into an immediate knowing, an immediate intimacy of that experience.
Because of my recent work I knew what it must have felt like to care for the deceased body of Christ. As I meditated upon that image I knew that I now had an even deeper image of the sacred to carry with me into the mundane world of the prep room at the funeral home. My intention is now to treat every person as though I am caring for the (literal) body of the Christ. The truth is, the sacred permeates the mundane all the time. We are just not always awake to that truth. I have known this intellectually for some time, but I now carry a more visceral experience of it as I leave this pilgrimage.
My first night at home after almost 24 hours of air travel and layovers, I awoke in the wee hours, in a jet-lagged, altered state, and perhaps in a waking dream state, as well. For I was very aware that I was in my own home, and yet what I saw around me were the ancient stone walls and vaulted ceilings of a small chapel – just the size of my bedroom. It felt as though there were this “overlay” of realities, one on top of the other. This overlay experience stayed with me as I proceeded to walk through the rest of our small apartment. As I became more and more “awake” the present reality of my home became more solid, and the stone walls and vaulted ceilings faded. However, after being up and reading for a while, I could still sense the overlay as I turned off the light and began to fall back to sleep.

So, too, whether I feel it or not, see it or not, there is this overlay of the sacred on the mundane, or better yet, an infusion of spirit in matter. My commitment as I head back into the “mundane” reality of my daily life, is to be stalking this awareness, this overlay. I will be seeking the vision and sacredness of ancient stone and vaulted ceiling through all that I engage.


Musing #2
Stealing Beauty

By Marilyn Strong - 10/10/10

I find it interesting that I finally sit down to write on Beauty (the second of my musings inspired by my time in Assisi this summer) on a day that I read in my weekly Astrological newsletter that Venus is in retrograde (appearing to move backward in the sky). This means that the energies of the planet Venus are held back for the next six weeks. During a retrograde period, the things Venus influences will be less apparent, or be of less concern to the world. In general, Venus, the goddess of love, rules feelings and emotion, aesthetics and tastes, relationships, fashions and all forms of desire, money and wealth. What better time to write of beauty, to bring forward and highlight this aspect of Venus than as she goes backwards for a time?

I have been musing on this topic since the end of June, after returning from Assisi. I have been feeling a subtle yet profound shift in myself in the way that I perceive beauty, not only externally, but also internally. Being in Assisi was to be everywhere surrounded by beauty, but it was a beauty older than I am used to in America, a deeper beauty (we are such a young country!). Not one of newness, but a beauty that shines through the ancient stone buildings that have been built up by humans in one era, torn down by nature in another, and built up again. It is a patchwork beauty. Everywhere there was evidence of buildings having been shaken by earthquakes and having to be patched back together. Although there had already been much restoration since the earthquake in 1997, there were parts of the Giotto and other frescos that had cracked and fallen, leaving only partial images, requiring one’s imagination to fill in the blanks. In fact, there were lines and cracks everywhere in that city. And yet, this somehow made it all the more beautiful. This is how the soul of a place is created –through the passing of time, decay, natural disasters, falling apart and rebuilding.

This brings me to my own struggle with beauty – the struggle to still feel beautiful, to feel good about myself as I age. This is and has been a challenge for women (and men) throughout the ages. It is especially difficult now, in the age of cosmetic surgery and Botox, to not want to try to hold back the “ravages” of time, since the medical and “beauty” industries tell us that we can. We are told that we don’t have to look our age, if only we will spend the money. Believe me, I am embarrassed to say that I have considered it, especially during the years of my late forties, as the desire to hold on to the look in the mirror that I was accustomed to, joined forces with the despair I felt as I watched the years begin to catch up with me and etch themselves into ever increasing and deepening lines in my forehead, between my eyes and around my mouth. I am sure I am not alone in this desire and this despair.

At the same time, I would always tell myself, “It’s a slippery slope!” as I would think about how unnatural those stars and people in the media who have gone that route end up looking. An extreme version is Michael Jackson, but there are many, many others who actually, slowly, over time, lose their natural beauty in the desperate race to turn the clock back through cosmetic surgery. I would never really succumb to such drastic measures, but I still struggled with what I saw in the mirror or in recent photos of myself. What used to be crisp and clear is now a bit fuzzy and out of focus – even when I have my bifocals on – and I look tired. How much we take for granted when we are young!

In recently pondering these things I was inspired to do a couple of things. First, I wanted to watch again the movie (whose title I have borrowed) by Bernardo Bertolucci, “Stealing Beauty”. The story line is about a young protagonist named Lucy (played by Liv Tyler) who returns to Italy searching for her real father after the death of her mother, and looking to lose her virginity with a boy that she had fallen in love with years before. It did not hold much insight for my ponderings other than to underscore the equation of beauty with youth. Every man in the artist compound where Lucy is staying falls all over himself trying to capture the attention of “the virgin in the house”. But I did enjoy revisiting the sensuous landscape and the slow, sumptuous pace of the Italian culture.

Secondly I wanted to reread a lovely gem of a book by Robert Johnson, called “She: Understanding Feminine Psychology” (from his series “He”, ‘She’ and We.”) I had not read this since I was in my late twenties. It is the story of Eros and Psyche, an ancient, pre-Christian myth, first recorded in classical Greek times, and (like all myths) still pertinent to us today. Johnson does a beautiful job of succinctly telling the story and commenting as he goes along. The title that I had chosen for this piece – “ Stealing Beauty” was reminding me of something from the fourth task that Aphrodite gives to Psyche in the myth. I remembered this myth as being particularly helpful to me as a young woman struggling to come to consciousness, and could relate very strongly with the tasks that Psyche is given after she lights the lamp and sees that she is married to a god, pricks her finger on one of Eros’ arrows as he flies away, and falls in love with love. Each of the tasks given her by Eros’ mother, Aphrodite, is impossible – sorting a huge pile of seeds overnight, getting some of the golden fleece from a group of fierce rams, filling a crystal goblet from the River Styx, which is guarded by dangerous monsters. As she is given each one, Psyche collapses into despair and thinks of suicide, but then is helped by some outside, natural force. This speaks to the fact, Johnson says, that a woman, when touched by an archetypal experience, will collapse before it. She must wait until something in her gives her the means and the way and the courage to go forward.

The fourth task given Psyche is to “go into the underworld and obtain from the hand of Persephone herself a little cask of her own beauty ointment.” This time her helper is a tower that gives her instructions for her underworld journey. After she takes the dangerous journey and follows the tower’s instructions faithfully, she has the jar of ointment. She has completed the most difficult part of the journey, yet for some reason she decides that she must try this beauty ointment for herself. She opens the cask and a deadly fog of sleep overtakes her and she falls to the ground as dead. Johnson comments, “When Psyche opens the lid of the casket there is no beauty ointment in it – only the sleep of death. Perhaps it is the persona that Psyche has been working with. Beauty is death for her now.” I wasn’t exactly sure why I was dipping back into this myth after so long, but when I read that last quote, something clicked. When a woman reaches a certain age, she must shed the persona that requires her to look beautiful in the way she has in the past. “Stealing beauty” in that way (which I would equate with face-lifts and the use of Botox) does not work. Beauty in the way our culture defines it (which is so youth-oriented) is death for her now.

What happens at this point in the myth is that even though Psyche has failed her last task, and is in the throes of death, grace enters. Eros flies to her side, pulls off the sleep of death, revives her, and takes her to live with him in Olympus. The Gods all agree (including Aphrodite) to make her a goddess, Eros and Psyche are married, and she gives birth to a daughter named Pleasure.

For myself, having taken in the beauty of Assisi, beauty is being turned on its’ head in my psyche. I am beginning to look for and appreciate, as I look in the mirror, not perfection, but completeness – not the smooth and perfect beauty of a youthful face, but the lined and “fuzzy-around-the-edges” beauty of age, the remnants of years of extreme emotions – happiness and bliss, anguish and sorrow – that have etched themselves onto my face. As I look deeper into my own eyes that are the “window to the soul”, they tell a much more ancient story and carry the wisdom of my 55 years and beyond. I am in a process of “stealing beauty” away from that younger image of myself, as I allow myself to see beauty shining through the cracks and lines in my current image. This is how the soul of a being is created – through age, natural disasters, falling apart and rebuilding. I am reminded of a line in a Leonard Cohen song, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the Light gets in.”

Little Miracles
By Jerry Wennstrom

First I must say, the high point of the journey to Italy was connecting in-depth with many of you in the group. I have to admit; I was a little hesitant to even go on the trip without feeling some sense of larger purpose in doing so. I have grown accustomed to traveling to speak at some public event or to travel along with others who might be experiencing some difficult passage in their lives. Perhaps because I have lived a formless life for so long, even a “pilgrimage” felt out of context in the larger scheme of things. In many ways, all of life became a pilgrimage for me after my initial leap into the void.

However, when I considered the possibility of going on the trip all of the signs seemed to say yes and point in the direction of Italy. I can only say, I am happy I didn’t let my head get in the way of making this magical journey with such an extraordinary group of people. Charlie’s intuition in bringing us all together was from the heart, (as his hunches often are) which will always create the proper conditions for grace. Charlie bringing us together as he did was miracle number one.

Marilyn is my teacher in fully inhabiting the earth. To have her with me on this trip doubled the depth and shared reverence of the experience. Seeing her joy upon arriving in Assisi would have been gift enough, and yet there was more. Life being what it is, every opportunity to connect with others in a meaningful way “…offers the possibility of a miracle…” -- it says in “A Course in Miracles.” Connecting with individuals in the group and spending the joyful time we did together was miracle number two for me.

Miracle number three was/is the reverent and sacred atmosphere Assisi holds for all who come. It is a place people go to heal, pray and seek answers. The holy momentum of the place was, at times, overwhelming in the gravity of its physical and spiritual beauty.

Miracle number four was awakening at 2:00 am the first morning at home. I walked sleepily out of the bedroom and into our dimly lit living room and noticed the golden light that lit the little Assisi chapel I thought I was in. I saw our suitcases sitting on the floor and thought they belonged to the pilgrims who had come to worship at the chapel.
The ceiling and walls appeared to be fresco and stone.
The next thing I noticed was "Union of Opposites", a 7-foot tall art piece that is currently installed in our living room. When I saw the piece I was amazed to see that it was in Assisi.
When I was at the Tomb of St Francis I had
reverently placed a small talisman between the bars of the grate surrounding the tomb. I did so as a prayer for my art, that it might find its way into the world in some meaningful way. Seeing my art piece in what I thought was an Assisi chapel, I believed my prayer had been answered and somehow my work had found its way to Assisi.

Still disoriented, I looked towards the source of the golden light to see Marilyn reading by a dimly lit lamp at my computer desk. It was only then that I realized I was at home in my own living room. The amazing end to this story is that Marilyn told me she too awoke believing she was in an Assisi chapel! She told me she could still see the golden light on the vaulted stone ceiling when she closed her eyes, even after realizing she was at home! Perhaps she will share something of her experience in more detail later.

I am humbly grateful to have been given this gift by Charlie and to have had all arrangements made by Fran Insinga and the other wonderful people who work in Charlie's office. The trip was a complete Blessing.
(Jerry)

Our friend Judith Adams responded to our blog by writing this poem.


Italian Holiday

It can’t be put into words, how the frescoes spanned the domes
and Madonnas in blue and red with sideways glances
picked you from the crowd for passive interrogation.
(A delicate veil must be an impossible thing to paint.)
For centuries the interior light of the chapels
has been separate from the world.
You can’t tell me with accuracy of the early morning fragrance,
or distance that holds the sonorous sounds of nuns chanting.
It is a moment’s ecology;
voices, sunrise, stone and early breeze or no breeze,
a kind of lift-off inside the heart that is not religious -
there is nothing between the experience.
You sent me a postcard
of a large Rubenesque lady hanging out washing,
her strong arms securing the last pegs on a petticoat,
her print bosoms loaded like flats on the windowsill.
There is no literature for how your foot fell on the cobbles,
what window beckoned your desires,
how you sat together in the piazza,
or the face that looked up in the cafe
from wrinkled contours of a life,
or which pastry you finally chose.

Judith Adams

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Headstone

click on images to enlarge
Headstone

Headstone


The Headstone's final resting place (and ours too) at the Langley Cemetery

Reverse side of headstone

In the Beginning...

- 2



etc...



I carved the headstone in 16th/17th century New England style. Things just seemed to fall into place for the creation of the stone. Death, as a potentially liberating experience (metaphoric and literal) has been a theme in my art and life for many years. It is the essential mythos described in my book and Parabola/Sentient Publications documentary film made about my art and life.
My wife Marilyn Strong trained with Jerrigrace Lyons of Final Passages and is currently doing home and family funerals through Visser Funeral Home. Marilyn is also president of the Langley Woodmen Cemetery Board here on Whidbey Island. She worked with the Board and Langley City Council to establish a green burial section of the cemetery recently. There are very few green burial sites in Washington State or in the country, generally. Green Burial is however, an emerging national trend so hopefully we will have a better option than polluting the earth and ground water with enormous amounts of toxins that are used in our current burial process. We recently purchased one of the new green burial plots at the cemetery so I decided to carve a headstone for the two of us.
I had it in mind to create my own headstone for many years. I was originally inspired by an older Eastern European man I knew in my teens. He was an artist and made his own beautiful headstone out of free-form cement, embedded with glass and ceramic fragments. It wasn’t until years later that I was driving by a large cemetery in the New York area, where I grew up, that I saw his headstone from a distance and discovered the man had died.
I carved ours out of stone, which was an enormously difficult task, not actually knowing what I was doing when I began. The base for the stone is made of formed concrete and includes a special piece of embedded marble. The marble was found on the beach of a sacred site on the isle of Iona, Scotland Marilyn, being a fan of C.G Jung and loving the fact that he carved words and images into stone, took up the hammer and chisel at one point and helped create the very feminine spiral on the back of our stone. The stone was completed on Easter day -- a fitting end-date.
With the help of my friend Van, I installed the headstone on site April 7th.
There is something both mysterious and liberating about giving one’s self, in an embodied way, to facing one’s own ultimate demise – even if only as a symbolic gesture.
Friend and poet Judith Adams happened to be walking with her dogs in the cemetery one day when I was there measuring the ground for placement of the stone and she sent me 2 wonderful poems she wrote that were inspired by the encounter:

*
Jerry’s Gravestone

We keep the dead separate.
How can it be otherwise, for
they hob -nob with God in person,
under slabs of mossed stone,
they have their supine conversations.

You kneel on the spring grass
to assess your compact property,
your death cot between strangers,
a tape measure dangling off center,
your face like a boy with a great scheme;

and like a boy, not afraid of the
big bad wolf, at ease
with the exciting pulse of
the unknowable, say,
of Voldemort or Aslan.

Standing there watching is a novelty.
We are used to planning the future.
Designing a house or flowerbeds
is a sensuous occupation,
an understandable manifestation.

But your own headstone!
The carving, the quote, shocking!
The illusive inevitability
deliciously chilling and
the final province along with

the only, true alumna sublime.
People will say to one another,
“there’s no date of the departed.”
They will think,
“This man likes to skirt the premises,

to rattle the door a bit, to live
with the tremor, the paramount visitation
of the dreaded terminus.
Only when skeletons dance,
is the party is in full swing!

-By Judith Adams

*
Grave Stone

You have not finished your grave stone yet,
I want to come across it one day on the undisturbed grass.
A great surprise as I round the bend with the dogs.
The carved skeleton, and chiseled words of a poem,
the joint resting place, and the weather
would be significant too.

What if every bride and groom undertook
the task to find words at the beginning
that survive the hand grenades of marriage?
What if the blushing bride and nervous groom
had worked away for weeks on a death project;
an artistic expression of the hyphenated life,

a home for lichen, eternal silence, the use of
language sparse and demands an undisguised
journey, amid acquisitive romance.
The bringing in of a dark stranger
with chilling suggestions a robust embrace,
a raw pre nuptial, that challenges constancy,

a wonderfully morbid and
charming commitment.
And I am sure,
the use of
course sand paper
is happily discussed!

- By Judith Adams

Here is an inspiring video about hand carving headstones in early New England Style.