Monday, July 27, 2009

East Meets West (the back story)

Today I scheduled myself to write about Buddah and Jesus, or more broadly, Buddhism and Christianity. It's not an entirely recent collision in my life. Although I have been raised Christian in America, the East just seems to keep crossing the borders. It started with Mrs. Martin, my sixth grade English teacher at Kellogg Middle School in Idaho, who introduced me to both Shakespearean theatre and Zen poetry. Imagine instructing a group of 11 year olds to listen to the silence for ten minutes and then write about it; a remarkable woman to say the least. During that entire year, I would spend most lunch breaks sitting on the carpeted corner in her room writing haikus about the sound of the radiator and the buzzing of a fly. It wasn't the most popular year of my life, to say the least, but I learned to treasure stillness, a quality I found seriously lacking almost everywhere else. After Mrs. Martin, there was Alex Ruff, the first boy I fell in love with. I was fourteen, he was a self-professed Buddhist-Atheist-Anarchist. We would sit backstage during rehearsal for the spring play and he would describe in great philosophical detail his mix-tape ideology. As a three-month anniversary present, he gave me the book "Buddhism for Beginners" and a yin-yang necklace; I gave him a Bible.

After the particularly gnarly teenage heartbreak that was my breakup with Alex, I subconsciously broke up with Buddhism as well. Or so I thought. I discovered after months of near obsession with the Beat writers of the 1960s that they were heavily influenced by Eastern thought and practice; they were the Dharma-bums, as Kerouac put it. Turns out that most writers or artists who I am fascinated and inspired by have Eastern influence: Leonard Cohen spent almost 10 years in a Zen Buddhist centre, T.S. Eliot studied Hinduism and other eastern philosophies at great length, and Thomas Merton fully incorporated a study of eastern mysticism, especially Zen, into his Christian faith and prayer life.

Last fall, Elizabeth Hess introduced me to the Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way. It a collection of short chapters, or poems, that are central to Taoist thought. I used the book to explicate an Eliot poem, but as I studied it for my essay, the bits of Eastern wisdom that seemed so paradoxical at first read began to churn in my head at all times of the day. Ask anyone on England Semester: for about a month I was Taoist Girl. Every conversation, every class discussion, every church service, every walk outside--all I could do was find connections with Taoist thought and life. After returning from England Semester, I bought my own book of the Tao Te Ching as well as several other books on the subject to begin fleshing out my uneducated interest. I'll also be taking a class in the fall on Buddhism, but since it a Westmont Religious Studies class, it is about where Christianity and Buddhism meet and where they depart.

I've thought quite a bit on that point, both theoretically and personally. Personally, I'm hyper aware of the balance between my Christian faith and my Buddhist "studies." To clarify- whenever I pick up the i Ching to learn about Chinese divination and leave my Bible sitting on the shelf (or in my suitcase, rather), I feel somewhat conflicted. But on the other hand, I feel my own faith being strengthened and clarified by studying another. Buddhism, from what I have learned so far, does not contradict Christianity. Suzuki once said, "Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach, it points." What is true in Buddhism is also true in Christianity, if not as central for most Christian's faith practices. Buddhism is about compassion, peace, surrendering ego and finding emptiness to be filled with God. What I have found most appealing is the Eastern embrace of paradox and "unknowing." Faith is not just a "right" doctrine and regular church attendance, it is a direct experience of God in our deepest self, whether found in a teaching, a walk outside, or a piece of art. In studying Buddhism, I also realize what is so profoundly different about Christianity. A knowable Savior, grace, and forgiveness. Words that get tossed around so often in sermons that we forget what they really mean. Without encountering other faiths, how do we know what we have?

Bishop Ambrose said in the fourth century that "all that is true, by whomever it has been said, is from the Holy Spirit". I've heard the same gist said by several Westmont professors: "All truth is God's truth." I encourage everyone to take a trip to the spirituality section at your local bookstore, step on to someone else's prayer mat, and empty yourself to find what is true.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

To drive or not to drive; that is the question.

Hello, my name is Jessica Drake, and I do not have a drivers license. Upon hearing this news, if you did not already know it, you are likely experiencing one of several reactions. In the past four years that I have been eligible to have a license and have chosen not to get one, I've heard about every possible response. Most commonly, the reaction follows this pattern:
1. Raised eyebrows, indicating surprise and possible disbelief.
2. A question, choked out like a laugh that got stuck, "Are you serious?"
3. A quick social check, a straightening of posture, and a holding of breath in fear that they have offended me by not knowing about the disability I surely have to prevent me from this rite of passage.
4. Once assured that I am indeed fully functioning, the questions follow: "Don't you want to drive?" "Are you afraid?" "How do you get ANYWHERE?"
5. Then the declarative statement: "Driving is the best thing in the world once you get used to it."
6. The persuasive techniques: "Driving aimlessly really clears my head, it would be good for you." "Shouldn't you just get it, in case of an emergency?" "You should start practicing now, so you aren't a hazard when you do have to drive."
7. Finally, a look of either pity, frustration, or endearment that ends the conversation.

In response to that reoccurring encounter, I have a stockpile of explanations and excuses that I pull from depending on my conversation partner's socio-economic status, geographical location, age, politics, and hairstyle. The weather and my mood are also highly influential factors. Several of my favorite go-to reasons are as follows:
1. I've never really needed a car. Friends drove me where I needed to be in high school and no cars allowed the first two years on campus at Westmont.
2. A fit of anxiety overtakes me every time I enter a car from the left side.
3. I've saved a ton of money not paying for gas, insurance or car payments the last four years.
4. Save the earth, man, pollution is gross.
5. I'm planning on living in Europe anyway, no need for cars there.
6. Public transportation RULES!
7. The thought of being that crazy old lady in the corner house who has never driven a day in her life really appeals to me.
8. Being chauffeured makes me feel famous.

These have all surely factored in to my decision in some way or another, or at least I have realized them as benefits along the way. Honestly, I think I just missed that gene in every red-blooded American teenager that compels them to beg their parents to drive them to the DMV as a sixteenth birthday present. Really, it's not a gene at all, it's the craving for independence, and for most teenagers, that's a set of car keys. But while all my sophomore peers were climbing into the driver's seat of their mom's mini-van, I was boarding a plane to Germany for a month. I lived in a small Bavarian town where cars where not allowed in the city center and everyone was free to walk and bike along cobbled streets. Walking down a busy street, stopping to people watch or window-shop, or even strolling alone on a forest trail, that's what clears my head. It's an immediate sensory experience: the smells, the sounds of life happening, the cracks in the pavement. Following speed limit signs in an air-conditioned metal box on wheels is not as appealing to me.

So okay, I'm being idealistic and romantic here. Of course cars serve an important purpose, and of course we can not all live in walkable cities. I don't actually have a serious aversion to cars, in fact I've spent uncountable hours traveling in them, just always in the passenger side or backseat. I've seen most of this country fast-forward through a window thanks to touring with the Continentals and my family's crush on road trips (try Idaho to Kansas, through the Dakotas, that'll take the glamour out of driving). I've probably stopped at every rest stop between Seattle and San Diego. I really don't feel as if I've sacrificed any of my independence so far in life because I haven't spent more than 30 minutes of it behind the wheel of a car. In fact, if anything, I've had more freedom to experience more of the world. If you have never been on an Amtrak bus before, you are really missing out on some interesting people.

Now we come to the present. The kicker is, I want, no, I need to live off campus my senior year at Westmont. I'd like to stick around Santa Barbara in the summer too. Do I need to get my license to do this? The conflicting thing is, I've spent so long convincing people that I am a woman who does not need or want a license that it's like I'd be betraying myself to get one now. I'd be giving in. I've made it this far, how far can I go? Is it possible to live an independent life in America without a car? Am I revolutionary or just stubborn and afraid? Is one year of some inconvenience and shuttle-shame worth it? Worth what? What am I holding on to? What am I resisting? That is the question.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Pledge

I, Jessica Drake, pledge to write one blog entry every day this week to compensate for my recent inactivity and to clarify my own thoughts on several major topics I've been chewing on all summer. To give my (few, but cherished) readers something to expect and to discipline myself, here are my chosen topics for each day of the week:

Sunday: To drive, or not to drive: that is the question.
Monday: Can Buddha and Jesus be friends?
Tuesday: He made the heavens and the earth: Creator God and the Zodiac.
Wednesday: The Beauty of Decay
Thursday: "Quod me nutrit me destruit"--my love-hate relationship with theatre.
Friday: Monastic Life and Me
Saturday: Enlightenment or Elitism?