I want very badly to challenge the ease with which we succumb to the false divide of labels, that moment in which our empathy gives out and we refuse to respond openhandedly or even curiously to people with whom we differ. As I see it, to refuse the possibility of finding another person interesting, complex and as complicated as oneself is a form of violence. At bottom, this is a refusal of nuance, and I wish to posit that nuance is sacred. To call it sacred is to value it so much and esteem it so highly that we find it fitting to somehow set it apart as something to which we’re forever committed. Nuance refuses to envision others degradingly, denying them the content of their own experience, and talks us down tenderly from the false ledges we’ve put ourselves on. When we take it on as a sacred obligation, nuance also delivers us out of the deadly habit of cutting people out of our own imaginations. This opens us up to the possibility of at least occasionally finding one another beautiful, the possibility of communion.
― David Dark, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious
We need myths that will help us to identify with all our fellow-beings, not simply with those who belong to our ethnic, national or ideological tribe. We need myths that help us to realize the importance of compassion, which is not always regarded as sufficiently productive or efficient in our pragmatic, rational world. We need myths that help us to create a spiritual attitude, to see beyond our immediate requirements, and enable us to experience a transcendent value that challenges our solipsistic selfishness. We need myths that help us to venerate the earth as sacred once again, instead of merely using it as a ‘resource.’ This is crucial, because unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.
What is the matter with these people, these people who won’t stop fighting, won’t stop hurting each other long enough to see that a body is a thing of beauty, is a miracle of rivers and oceans and islands and continents contained within itself? That the brain is divided into two hemispheres, each symmetrical, each perfect, each with its own system of waterways. These people of war should be shown an x-ray of an intraparenchymal hemorrhage, of a hemorrhage in an eighteen-year-old girl’s brain, a girl named Ivy. Take a look at that, people of war. See, you should not hurt each other, and this is why. Without you ever even trying, this is what can happen to your body, your beautiful body, and your brain, your beautiful symmetrical brain, and your heart, and your soul.
―Alison McGhee, All Rivers Flow to the Sea
The sun, like a golden knife, was steadily paring away the edge of the shade beside the walls. The streets were enclosed between old, whitewashed walls. Everywhere were peace and stillness, as though all the elements were obeying the sacred law of calm and silence imposed by the blazing heat. It seemed as though mystery was everywhere and my lungs hardly dared to inhale the air.
―Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl
How do we recharge when the world becomes too much to endure? Seeking different sights and sounds can help.
The recognizable prominence of Johnson Mesa, from Little Horse Mesa in Sugarite Canyon State Park.
Near Raton, New Mexico, a small, shabby town along I-25, a place where you can buy tobacco and school supplies on the same grocery aisle, lies Johnson Mesa. The mesa dominates the area to the east of Raton, near Sugarite State Park. NM Highway 72 clambers up the sides of it and cuts across. The world up here is different: rolling grassland with mountains in the distance and a wind that howls like someone looking for a lost soul. I’d be nervous to be on the mesa during a storm, but I am sure the show would be spectacular. Ever since we found this road years ago (at the time the mesa top was white with snow) I’ve wanted to take pictures up here.
Johnson Mesa, Set 1: Hello
Farmers have eked out a living on the mesa since the 1880s, when coal miners and rail workers searching for a safer, more stable occupation settled the small town of Bell, which had some of the first telephone connections in New Mexico. That’s a bit ironic, considering how hard it is to get a cell signal anywhere around Raton. This plain, 2,000 feet above the valley floor, was once a place of relative hustle and bustle, with 5 schools and a post office. Life was difficult and the entire community was snowbound every winter. After World War I, Bell fizzled and the post office closed in 1933. A few families live here in the summer, but no one makes a habit of staying through the winter anymore.
Johnson Mesa, Set 2: Barns
The old barns are magical, but the jewel is the Johnson Mesa Church. With pink pews and fake hydrangea blooms, the chapel has its share of the tacky and the provincial, but there is something more here, something enduring and reassuring. Maybe it’s hearing the mad roar of the wind outside or seeing bird’s nests solidly anchored under the eaves. Maybe it’s seeing an obviously beloved space exposed to the elements and to human experience, the door unlocked and the outhouses pristine. Perhaps these things help us feel the presence of a God too often obscured by modern noise. And if God is on the mesa, as lonely as it is, then God is in our world, sustaining and preserving and experiencing with us.
Johnson Mesa, Set 3: Without
Johnson Mesa, Set 4: Within
It’s been a hard summer for my family. Our home flooded for the second time this past April (we flooded previously in 2009) and my mother’s health has been terrible. Between working to get things in Houston stable and running up to Oklahoma City to help my mother, there hasn’t been a lot of time to listen or create. When I have tried to keep up with the world around me, I’ve been struck by the tragedies: Orlando, Nice, Turkey, and depressed by the incredible rudeness and lack of compassion in American politics. It is a difficult time, but Johnson Mesa tells me that something always survives, always endures. I needed to see that. Maybe you need to see it, too.
Johnson Mesa, Set 5: Farewell
If you would like to see more photos, please check out my Flickr album. All images are licensed with Creative Commons Licenses, so you are free to download them and use them in any way that makes you happy, as long as you attribute the image to me.
In the Kimberley area of Australia, indigenous tribes worship the Wandjina, supreme creators of the world. The Kimberley nations are recognized by all other tribes in Australia as the only group allowed to paint these figures, recognizable by their large eyes and lack of mouths. Elaborate headdresses, which are interpreted as different types of storms, often grace their heads. These unique and beautiful paintings require special permission from tribal elders to be made and their veneration and sacred qualities are a pillar of tribal culture.
For the outsider, these iconic images pose a lure. While the relationships of Wandjina to the believer are not easily understood, the images themselves are easily assimilated and copied by artists and bear some similarities to what many science fiction and alien conspiracy buffs would call Grey Aliens. Excited by both the strangeness and familiarity of the figures, artists have created their versions of the sacred images without permission. Their motivations vary from seeking common ground with another culture to making money off of a trendy image, but the reaction from the Kimberley community has been understandable outrage.
Vesna and Damir Tenodi sought to place a large stone sculpture depicting an outsider’s interpretation of Wandjina in a very public position outside of their art gallery in Katoomba and were ultimately denied permission. This was known as the Blue Mountain case. You can read in depth about it here. There was also a case in Perth, outside of the Kimberley region, where Wandjina showed up in graffiti, which you can read about here. In that situation, some indigenous people saw the street art as an homage to their culture, while others took offense that it was done in the wrong place by unapproved individuals.
In “westernized” nations, creative people are generally allowed to represent what they want or need to, even if it offends some people deeply. There have been and will continue to be controversies, such as that over Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine, but such art is allowed to stand as valid expression of human experience. Public opinion is not seen as a reason to censor art and the individual voice is given protection unless it becomes deemed dangerous or intolerant. What constitutes dangerous or intolerant is a legal matter of some contention, but is not determined on religious grounds.
By contrast, sacred images have lost a great deal of their power in western culture. By marketing a particular interpretation of a sacred figure and allowing it to be plastered on billboards, we present a particular picture of a faith. This obscures other interpretations and drives away people who are made uncomfortable by that picture. Does using art almost as religious logo contribute to the exclusion of some people from faith communities, even when this was not at all the intention of the artist?
The Kimberley people are newer to the assimilation game and many of them would like to keep their faith and art authentic. Unfortunately, they are fighting two forces which will make that very difficult as our world becomes increasingly globalized. The first is the driving force of financial gain propelled by advertising. As long as there is money to be made from the sale of an iconic image it will be replicated and sold. Both faith and artistic expression are likely to suffer.
The second force is that of inspiration and creative impulse. Despite the desire of religion to control both artistic and faith experiences, the creative spirit cuts across religious and cultural lines, often with delightful results. You cannot control the effects your art will have on a stranger, nor can you deny that stranger an encounter with the forces you revere. Blending of culture can result in wonderful art even as it upsets order and the common ground. It is my hope that empathy and sensitivity can help us find venues and spaces for both the traditional and the new, even when the new seems sacrilegious.
Consciousness expresses itself through creation. This world we live in is the dance of the creator. Dancers come and go in the twinkling of an eye but the dance lives on. On many an occasion when I am dancing, I have felt touched by something sacred. In those moments, I felt my spirit soar and become one with everything that exists.
I become the stars and the moon. I become the lover and the beloved. I become the victor and the vanquished. I become the master and the slave. I become the singer and the song. I become the knower and the known. I keep on dancing then it is the eternal dance of creation. The creator and creation merge into one wholeness of joy. I keep on dancing…and dancing…and dancing. Until there is only…the dance.