Wednesday, August 14, 2013

M is For A Vision of the Future, Maybe

So last week I sorta saw my future.

Well, my potential future. My future in the event that I manage to manifest the insane dream of building a magical museum. Which is, let's face it, not exactly the world's most easily-realized ambition.

What happened to me between July 27th and August 3rd, however, served as a sort of week-long kick in the pants by a semi-benevolent universe. What the heck did I do? I attended a world-music-and-dance camp in the Mendocino Woodlands. It's called Lark Camp. It's another universe.

In the Lark Camp universe, people play music together eighteen hours a day -- not because they have to, or because they're obsessive virtuosos, but because they love it and it makes them happy. It doesn't matter how good you are; whether you've just picked up an accordion or you've been playing the fiddle since the age of three, you're invited. If you don't like what one group of musicians is playing, you can walk twenty feet and find another group of people playing something else behind a stand of trees. Or by the river. Or around the fire. Or in a tent.

You can't see them, but there are at least three different groups of
musicians playing within a fifty-foot radius of this idyllic little spot.

In the Lark Camp universe, you can dance from 8 in the morning til 4 in the morning. There's the morning waltz. There's the afternoon swing class, or Turkish Roman class, or Morris dance. There's the evening Balkan dance, or Greek dance, or salsa party. There's the midnight ceili dance, the 1am country dance. Don't know how to dance? Whatever. You'll learn.

Instruments everywhere, and the kindest, warmest people I've ever met, and their kids. I got in a car with a strange man for the first time in my life. And it felt so safe and ordinary that I didn't even notice until halfway through the ride that it was anything to be surprised about. I learned how to sing in Bulgarian. My little sister taught me how to polka, and how to play a few simple chords on my dad's guitar. Occasionally - very occasionally - I sat down with a book just to calm myself in all the whirl of movement and music and insane woodland beauty.

What I didn't realize until after I had gone home and found myself a weeping, naked-hearted emotional mess upon trying to readjust to the outside world was just how radically present-tense the experience was. The entire time that I was there, I had no to-do list, no brain chatter, no mental background noise. Whatever I was doing - singing, dancing, reading, sharing meals with my family - was exactly what I wanted to be doing. Not only that, but I was doing it completely. I only looked at clocks to catch the battered schoolbus full of people singing rounds between one class and another, and occasionally to make sure I made it to the dining hall in time to catch my family. No cellphone, no computer, no lights in my cabin; electricity was pretty much confined to the dancehalls and the strings of lights wrapped around the bridges that crossed the creek. I walked the half-mile or so between two of the camps in the dark with my flashlight off just because I could. (I did fall off the road once, but it was worth it.)

I have never lived so completely in my body in my life.

I'm a thinky person. I spend a lot of time floating around in my head, inches or miles away from my body; for all that I'm a dancer and a lover of the body and of movement, I spend a helluva lot of time completely ignoring my physical existence. Even right now, as I'm typing, I'm ignoring the fact that I need to get up and pee and do yoga and stretch out my back and get outside because I have thoughts and I listen to them first. So spending an entire week in my body was a truly intense experience. I didn't sleep much; I dance probably six to eight hours a day without noticing. I sang. I don't sing, or maybe didn't sing is a better term, because I sing now -- and it feels so good, singing does, the way it vibrates in your chest, the sounds you discover you can make, the beauty your own throat can produce. I once referenced here on this blog a moment of having my mind kinda blown when a singer friend of mine asked me to imagine creating the music I was most moved by. Now I know what that's like.

Of course, given that some of us in the Balkan singing class were rank beginners, we didn't sound exactly like these ladies. But this is the song we sang, and I can tell you that it was an utter, absolute joy to sing it.

It's not that I spent the whole week in one long, sustained moment of joy. Joy doesn't work like that. But joy did come along and pierce my heart full of little holes all day long, in these sweet, tranfiguring, tender moments that almost hurt me with their beauty -- while dancing in a huge line of two hundred people all linked together and stomping in rhythm, while singing melodies I didn't know my throat could make, while holding my sister's hand on a long walk through the dark forest, while swing dancing with my dad, while looking up at the cold stars on a riverbank with a beautiful man I had just met and felt I'd known a long, long time and not at all, while drinking coffee under the cawing of the confused crows who couldn't understand what we were doing in their redwoods, while listening to teenagers play klezmer together in the night, while watching a woman do Persian dance that made her look like a crescent moon reaching up into the heavens.

Each one of these things cut into my heart, pierced me, sliced me a little more open, so that when I came home I discovered I was bleeding everywhere. My usually loud and opinionated mind was quiet and still; I just had feelings, huge feelings, tender, painful, throat-closing feelings of joy and grief, as if I was wearing my heart on the outside of my body. I love to talk and I didn't want to talk; tellingly, the very last morning of camp, when we were leaving, I woke up and discovered that I had lost my voice and couldn't speak at all. I came home and my mind simply wasn't working. I wept for two days, not over anything in particular, just because I felt so open that the slightest little thing could tip my heart over like a too-full water jug.

It was extraordinary, in part because this flood of feeling came on after I left. I was very happy while in the woodlands, and certainly far more open and tender and kind than I am normally, and far more in my body. But I didn't go around bawling about it. It was when I left, when I came back to my ordinary life, that I found myself completely flayed. And a large part of the feeling was like the line in Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo": for here there is no place/that does not see you. You must change your life. 

It went away after just a couple days, and I went back to normal. I was disappointed; despite the intensity, and the mess, I liked feeling so completely open-hearted, and I didn't want it to go away. But once it did I couldn't really mourn, because I was ordinary again and not overflowing everywhere with Feelings-with-a-capital-F, and I couldn't even totally recall to myself the depth of those Feelings well enough to be upset about what I had lost -- the way a dream fades, or falling out of love. But one thing was extremely clear  to me, which was that the universe had seen fit to give me a glimpse of what my life might be like if I managed to build the Museum of Joy.

I've been thinking and writing and dreaming about the Museum for years now. And yet, in all my dreaming and scheming, I've never really even thought to think of how it would feel to have it, to have done it, to be living in the universe in which I'd made it possible. Everything has always been - unsurprisingly - about how to get there. "And what is Victoria now that you have got there?" asks the anarchic poet Gregory in The Man Who Was Thursday. "You think Victoria is like the New Jerusalem. We known that the New Jerusalem will only be like Victoria." This is something that actually plagues ambitious projects: the fact that once they've been accomplished they can sometimes disappoint, because the fire and fury was in the work to get there. I've been guilty of that, absolutely. The projects I've worked hardest on are often tinged with a strange sense of deflation once they're done. And so I feel wildly grateful to have been given (and it does feel like a gift, a beautifully-wrapped present from the universe, or the muses, or the powers-that-be) this startling week-long fragmentary vision of a place that tastes and smells and feels like the thing I want to build. Architects are notorious for planning gorgeous buildings that are actually semi-impossible to inhabit, houses that never look better than the day before anyone moves in. It is so easy to dream that way. But now I have something else to dream about: what it will be like to live there once the building is done.

NEXT WEEK: quitting my job to start a non-profit, or a real-time experimental test of John  Burroughs's saying "Leap and the Net Will Appear" (Yes. Really.) Stay tuned for more adventures in visionary lunacy!

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