Thursday, September 6, 2018


"It is as if you walked down a road forever gazing into a mirror, walking toward yourself and blind to the world. Have faith." 
-The Hummingbird's Daughter Luis Alberto Urrea

I’ve lived enough life now to know that not all dreams are realized - and maybe it’s just as well. From around age 15, I dreamed that someday I might have a BOS (butt of significance) and become a Fly Girl. My efforts on the sweaty floors of NYC Haitian dance classes notwithstanding, neither part of that particular vision has quite come to fruition. Fate, god, the universe, destiny, fractals, karmic inheritance. . . and genetics - always get the last word.
A Boss Babe in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona

Having just spent two beautiful weeks of quasi-solitude in Spain, I’ve been thinking that if I was to return to this planet, it could be interesting to come back as a torera: a female bullfighter. Being a flamenco dancer/singer would also be a desirable option - and maybe safer.

But really, I don’t have any desire to outsmart, subdue or kill a wilder animal - two or four-legged - for sport or any other reason. I do like wearing cool costumes, and I think that bullfighting is interesting - both the literal and metaphorical traditions. I am interested pulling back the curtain, so to speak, on falsehood and delusional thinking - also known as bullshit

In the Spanish tradition, if there is no danger, it is not considered bullfighting. What does it say about a culture that condones this destructive, bloody and arguably depraved communal ritual? What determines which risky activities and risk-takers we celebrate and glorify, and which we punish, silence, imprison and otherwise subjugate? 

"There is no entertainment more passionate than reality."

The Castle of Montjuic in Barcelona
These questions call to mind the recent controversial Nike campaign — which features Colin Kapernick, an athlete and citizen who challenged the values of his country and the NFL by refusing to stand for the national anthem. The message of the campaign, attributed to Kapernick, is “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” 

Advertising is of course famous for offering trite, overly simplistic and grammatically incorrect ‘tag lines’ for complex situations - and at the risk of stating the obvious, I will note that an advertiser’s drivers are not so much principles-oriented as they are market-oriented. If Nike didn’t think its most important (i.e., its youngest) customers would sympathize with the message, they wouldn’t have created the ad. Kapernick’s motivations might have been more pure. I'll ask him next time we talk.

In any case, such apparent boldness can feel like fly-by mist from a nearby restaurant in a sun-seared plaza in Madrid. Even if it’s short-lived and superficial, it provides a little refreshment. In a world fueled by fear and the mandate to conform and contort oneself in order to be a good little soldier - whatever that means in the particular context in which you find yourself, - such gestures can feel life-affirming. 

What could be more affirming than to feel one's purpose on this earth - even if it means 'sacrificing everything'? Most of us are trying - misguidedly - to connect with some kind of reason for being here other than to be ground up by one deranged system or another. When we feel connected to our purpose - whatever that is - then sacrifice feels less like a loss and more like the only truthful way to live. 

One of my companions while on this journey was a gorgeous novel about a young curandera, a female healer who was willing to sacrifice everything for her belief in love - not romantic love, but universal love. It bolstered my feelings about devoted, passionate and self-possessed people who insist on inhabiting their ‘bigness,’ whatever the price. As long as our culture’s organizing principles are anti-social media, capitalism, religious evangelism and patriarchy, these are the types of risk-takers who - if they are glorified at all - will be punished in equal measure. The musty and dusty animating forces of the world persist as decidedly as the tides. . . but somehow, so does love.

Blue #1

Blue #2

Blue #3

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Blue #10

Democracy, freedom and liberation are lovely ideas. In many ways, I have to say that the Spanish are far more progressive than we are. Perhaps in response to 35 years of dictatorship, the Spanish seem to have adopted a kind of cynical realism - about religion, about politics, marriage, and relationships. I just re-read the most-read New York Times article of 2016 - the same year that particularly vile monster weaseled his way into the White House - by Alain de Botton on ‘why you will marry the wrong person.’ He articulates very clearly and succinctly - and with a clear nod to attachment theory - the reasons why our ideas about love and relationships are profoundly flawed. The tragedy is that these false narratives about ‘how things are’ are reinforced in every facet of society - which sets the stage for a chronic narrative of failure.

Full moon


Cairns in Formentera


Renouncing a more traditional travel guide for 
100 Places in Spain Every Woman Should Go influenced how and where to live these days. One destination inspired by the book was the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (convent of the real barefooted). Unlike most convents open to the public, it is currently inhabited by 18 nuns whose activities are alternately cleaning and tending to the building, and praying -- all while completely cloistered from the bustling commercial location in the center of Madrid that they inhabit. Talk about sacrificing everything for believing in something. . . Incidentally, I also stayed in a neighborhood in Madrid called 'Lavapies,' which means 'wash feet.' Interesting these references to the feet, which carry us where we need to be.

Big old rubber tree in Cadiz, Spain

Cadiz, the longest continuously inhabited city in Europe

I like to become a regular somewhere - my spot in Madrid was a restaurant/bar named for an impossible love story between a rebellious romantic poet, Jose de Espronceda, and Teresa Mancha - who was his muse and left her husband to be with him. The relationship did not turn out exactly as they'd planned (clearly they hadn't read the article about how we are destined to marry the wrong person), but Jose got some good poems out of it.  

In Cadiz, I stayed in an eccentric but ultimately charming hotel room decorated with clocks and wrist watches, as if to remind me to live in the present, to relinquish my battle with la realidad in exchange for the sweet bliss of what-is. 


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Open Doors

Hilary in La Concha, my shell in Guanajuato

I began the year in a dark cave.

My friends Lya and David I awoke on January 1st to coffee and papaya, then made our way to a small town south of Mexico City known for mysticism, magic and magnetic energies. Like many other visitors to the town of Tepoztlan, we climbed to its Aztec temple, sitting at the top of a small mountain - a mountain scaled and scrambled upon by athletes, high-heeled glamazons, hippies, gentle hombres blasting the melodic stylings of Freddie Mercury, children, grandparents, pets. . . it's an equal opportunity kind of ascent. Apparently the temple is dedicated to the Aztec god of the alcoholic beverage of pulque - one nectar of the agave plant I have never sampled.

Lya and David

We descended for a temazcal ritual, which is the Mexican indigenous people's sweat lodge tradition. It takes place in a small round adobe cave where a door is positioned to catch the midday sun, uniting masculine and feminine energies. Our guide led us through four 'doors' accompanied by songs and herbal infusions poured over hot volcanic rocks, each door representing a different element - earth, water, wind and fire. Temazcal means 'house of heat' in the Nahuatl language, and it is used for purification. The temazcal is sort of a return to the womb - the original cave - where we have the opportunity to be born anew.

Hilary is pressured to jump by a four year old
Lya takes a leap at Las Estacas

Storytelling, I'm convinced, is fundamental to everything we do - in whatever ritual, profession, creative pursuit or practice of self-reflection. We tell ourselves stories to create meaning, to understand our experience of life - and we tell them collectively as we write laws, endure government occupations and sell toothpaste. We use storytelling to establish cultural norms, as well as to define acceptable levels of deviance from those norms. Esther Perel, for example - a couples therapist and writer with whose work I have been fascinated of late - challenges the narrative we have adopted collectively about relationships, marriage, mating and fidelity. Our understanding of these experiences often fails to embody any nuance - we are rigid and fixed in our concepts and expectations, too afraid or threatened to consider other narratives, and therefore other forces that might inform or determine our experiences. Our collective understanding tends to provide a rather limited selection of acceptable life possibilities.

Fernando and Yola cut the rosco on King's Day

But never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as the saying goes. This also seems to be the guiding philosophy of the current White House occupation. You could say that Trump is a monster feeding on our own cultural gluttony; he is our obesity, which has developed its own appetite and metabolism. At the risk of defiling the French culinary tradition, he is force-feeding the goose. He is distracting our attention from the real power players: the untouchable multi-kabillionaires who are gleefully spreading the engorged liver of America on their Saltines while designing apocalypse bunkers. Of course, this is just one story, one way of seeing what-is. Truth remains elusive - or as ephemeral as the vapors of the temazcal.

We do our best to construct meaning from advertising, religion, and other cultural building blocks. Another way we learn to create meaning is by perceiving the world through a lens of duality - you/me, good/bad, surrender/conquer. This construct of duality - though limited and limiting - gives us a simple formula for the stories we tell ourselves about our lives - which, in turn, create our reality.

Somehow I seem to keep finding myself in conversation with people who actively challenge this, the dualistic nature of our conditioning - and I am questioning and paying attention to this in my own habits of constructing meaning in my life. I can't help but wonder if these encounters are a doorway to a new story, a new way of being for me. A wonderful Australian architect I met in Guanajuato was telling me about the spatial theorist Edward Soja and his concept of 'thirdspace,' where "everything comes together. . . subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable. . . " Tantricas are another philosophic group whose way of thinking and being challenge the notion of duality. They are not just people who are sexually experimental or unconventional - although indeed pursuit of the ecstatic in sex may be one aspect of their interest.

I will admit that a freewheeling, playful, experimental approach to life - one in which I create and accept less conventional possibilities and ways of being - a 'third space' - is harder for me to embrace in some arenas than in others. I straddle the realm of conventional responsibility - the realm where I aspire to do things like excavate my apartment in the case of my untimely death, or buy renters insurance - and the realm where I surrender and open myself to whatever is happening in the moment. Of course, pitting these two ways of being against each other is just more dualistic thinking - I'm pretty sure that you can have renters insurance and still be free-spirited. . . I just haven't tried it yet. I would like to believe there is a way to both be experimental, and to apply the learning from those experiments to future decision-making - this is the way of the seekers, intellectuals, artists, tantricas and third spacers. This is the way of those who sit in the house of heat and sweat it out - the people who find out for themselves rather than taking someone else's word.

My friend Pablo Diablo in Guanajuato, a glass artist, gardener and patio revolutionary - maintains that there are studies indicating that 9/10 people are 'go-alongs,' or people who want to be told what to do, what to think, and ultimately how to live. I was reminded of this principle when reading an essay on narcissism - perhaps the most popular psychological diagnosis being bandied about these days, - in which the writer references a famous social psychology experiment from the 1960s about obedience to authority. As much as we like to think of ourselves as exceptional and the other as corrupt, Stanley Milgram attempted to illustrate that people will do terrible things if the conditions and a compelling authority figure dictate such behavior. According to Pablo Diablo, only 1/10 people - assuming they manage to avoid being burned at the stake, kidnapped or otherwise eliminated - dare to think independently, differently, and based on a more experimental approach to life. Their narrative is less determined - they inhabit questions rather than conclusions. Their story does not begin with 'This is how it happens' but rather, 'Let's see what happens if . . .'

La Playa Aragon

my patio

I sat at a table the other night with a wonderful group of people, all of us captivated by a professional storyteller and teacher. Intoxicated by the sound of the ocean and yet another nectar of the agave plant, he led us through an exercise in 'constructing our future narrative.' Each person at the table shared an aspiration, which Murray pledged to support when he makes his fortune. When it was my turn to share my project for Murray's support, I struggled to come up with anything. Have I come to recognize that money can't buy what I really want - or have I just lived in Brooklyn for too long, such that my aspirations have become as mundane as having a washer/dryer and a real couch? Live the life that is in front of you, he said, and 'don't try to walk through closed doors.' I challenged him in saying that if women accepted that idea, they wouldn't occupy board rooms or corporate executive offices. . . but of course, not all doors that appear to be closed actually are, which is why it's not as simple as it sounds to follow this instruction.

Life begins in a cave - the womb - and ultimately it ends there as we turn to the infinite, away from our contracting and dying bodies. Everything but death lasts a very short time. Let us drink the fullness of this stream, hear the message in these whispers, lose ourselves in the position of the stars.

sunrise from my patio