Here, I explore and celebrate the process and productions of bards who are also bodhisattvas.
In an early blog post about The Bodhisattva Dilemma, I shared that Will, as in Shakespeare, was my first love. While he may be known as "The Bard" bards are writers, poets, songwriters, singers & actors. I look forward to sharing work that illuminates The Bodhisattva Dilemma and may help us hold and resolve it.
Maya Angelou wrote, "Poetry gives you a backbone so you can stand your life."
A review of web-based interviews and articles about Hulu’s biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday shows this film was not critically acclaimed and it may not be historically accurate, but the story has me thinking. Billie Holiday, an American jazz and swing music singer, didn’t actually write the song, Strange Fruit. Abel Meeropol, a Russian Jewish immigrant and high school teacher actually composed it, but when Lady Day, as Billie Holiday was known, sang it, her voice captured listener’s attention. President Biden described the 2020 election as the one to save the soul of America. Chronically abused and mistreated, Ms. Holiday’s song embodied her own lived, physical, and psychic experiences. Holiday’s rendition of Strange Fruit was soulful first. Her rendition became political by extension.
It did not serve Billie to sing this song, closing show after show, by directing attention, bearing witness, and guiding audiences to face the strange evil undergirding a culture that allowed lynching to go unpunished. Billie Holiday was betrayed by lovers and harassed and punished by federal agents for insisting upon knowing what she knew about the existence of cruelty. Yet, she refused to be bullied into silence and would not stop singing. Her persistence is the primary message of this film.
Derived from a poem Meeropol called Bitter Fruit in 1937, and recorded by Billy Holiday is 1939, “Strange Fruit” was named “Song of the Century” by Time in 1999. Yet, today so many Americans live in fear of other Americans because of race, gender, class, environmental, and economic issues. It hurt Billie, cost her a lot to sing the song, and we have no certainty that her sacrifice ever caused any life-giving law to be codified. There is no doubt, her song moved and touched listeners. We can hope, but we will never know for sure, if her calling attention to cruelty and violence ever helped protect a single soul from unnecessary pain and suffering. Every time she closed her show with the controversial song, she embraced the Bodhisattva's Dilemma.
Psychotherapy is such a rewarding profession for me because I am always interested in what happens to people, how they respond, and, most of all, how individuals make sense of their experiences. When a person commits to sitting down, in therapy, with a notebook, or computer to reflect upon and share their life journey, they may be engaging in intrapersonal and interpersonal art. They may be offering their listener or reader an opportunity to glimpse soul in action.
Recently, I enjoyed listening to healer, bodyworker, author, and musician Jim Gilkeson share his new book, Three Lost World: A Memoir of Life Among Mystics, Healers, and Life-Artists at Bloomsbury Books in downtown Ashland, Oregon. In his book, Jim divides his life into three sections adeptly described in the title. He shares that even as a young boy, unbeknownst to his parents, he felt called to healing through religious and spiritual practices. He goes on to describe his induction into energy healing in Europe and Scandinavia as an adult in the 1980s. Jim describes his challenges to build a massage and craniosacral practice in the midwestern United States of the 1990s. Finally, he describes his many years of working at Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California. Jim seems to describe his own life journey when describing this healing site, “It is as if all the spiritual practices and memes of the world have been dumped out at this place and allowed to mingle.”
In terms of The Bodhisattva Dilemma and why our culture isn’t making the changes needed to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering fast enough, I am struck by the fact that Jim left his home in Wichita, Kansas to start his spiritual and healer’s journey in 1967. Jim is about the same age as my parents, but I was nearly forty before I found my way to massage, craniosacral, and energy healing work. At that point, I had spent two long pain-filled, stressful, confusing, and expensive years getting body scans, medications, and referrals from doctors, specialists, and physical therapists. I felt hopeless and depressed before I finally ended up on a treatment table with a practitioner like Jim. Why was it so difficult to find someone who understood how physical injury and inflammation coinciding with severe relational trauma can hurts the body’s “soft” unscannable connective tissue?
Of course, we need to proceed with caution and audit information no matter where we are seeking support for healing our bodies and souls. However, growing up in spaces reflectively dismissive of diverse spiritual practices, intuition, the link between body and emotions and, even psychotherapy, meant that engaging with alternative healing when I needed it even in the early 2000’s felt scary.
To cope with all of that, I wrote an autobiographical novel called Cracked Bat which I originally published in 2008. I tongue-in-cheek envisioned it as part of a new genre I called Intuit-Lit. Bessel A. van der Kolk’s bestseller “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, was published years later in 2014. Meanwhile, Jim and his colleagues had already been releasing physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma held in bodies for decades.
As I explore in The Bodhisattva Dilemma, there are many forces that impede and attempt to derail bodhisattva work. Jim’s reflections on lost worlds are interesting not only as remembrances for his generation, but provide insight into our culture for those who come after. I encourage you to check out his work at https://www.jimgilkeson.com.
Note: The next edition of Cracked Bat is currently under revision. I will be sharing excerpts and commentary on Patreon soon.
When I met author and college writing instructor Karen Toloui at an Ashland New Plays Festival writing workshop, I was intrigued by her memoir. I came away from reading her book, A Late Stop in Queersville truly appreciating Karen’s personal journey and the beauty, clarity, and purpose of her writing.
In A Late Stop in Queersville, Karen details how she fell in love with a woman after she had raised a family, in two heterosexual marriages. As she describes her surprising attraction and subsequent relationship with a woman, she also documents her increasingly curiosity about lesbian love and community.
Karen grew up in a family and community that was unconscious, unable, or unwilling to acknowledge, let alone embrace or celebrate, same-sex love and attraction. As she attempted to learn more and find other middle-aged and older lesbians to support and orient her to what she ultimately claimed as bisexuality, she encountered barriers she never expected. She struggled to make sense of what she experienced as exclusion.
In her book, Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, another author, novelist, playwright, and non-fiction writer, Sarah Schulman details how homophobia in families and societies recreates and reinforces homophobia in both spheres. She also points out that, of course, leads to relational trauma.
As a psychotherapist with a special interest in supporting those healing from interpersonal and cultural narcissistic abuse and misuse, I am intrigued by Schulman’s conceptualization of homophobia as a form of narcissism. For too long, homosexuality was pathologized. Schulman invites us to consider how homophobia (and misogyny), like narcissism, is the pathology.
Karen’s struggle in A Late Stop in Queersville hints at how the pathologies of homophobia and misogyny in families and society made it more difficult for her to find other women of her generation to hear and help her. Yet, she also ultimately found great love and acceptance with her partner, also named Karen.
As an early twenty-something student engaging in cross-cultural course work for an undergraduate certificate in Children Literature, I was chagrined to contemplate that the “Disneyesque” or commercialized versions of “Happily-Ever After” that so many of us took in growing up fails to prepare us for real life. “Success” in love or work may last, but even so, it cannot prevent illness, conflict, and unhealthy coping strategies in a relationship from challenging and straining us in ways never imagined. A Late Stop in Queersville reminds us that the reality of a fairy tale ending is often also just the beginning of a new chapter in one’s life. Karen tackles this truth with love and gravitas.
And, she does even more.
By sharing her story, Karen represents lesbian and bi-sexual women in a lovely literary antidote to what Schulman elucidates as “prime time shunning” and “the exclusion of lesbians from culture.” In Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, Schulman emphasizes, “Not being represented in a media culture (like ours) puts one at a gross disadvantage.” As she outlines the difficulty in getting literary novels and plays with strong lesbian characters produced, Schulman explains how “the lack of mainstream, exterior authentic representation reinforces the dehumanization of gay people within the family structure” and, then because people’s perspectives are formed in these dehumanizing families, the dehumanization is re-enacted in society at-large. She points out how “The cultural exclusion of lesbian content replicates the relational and communal structures of scapegoating— victimization, false accusation, and shunning.”
People healing from a variety of forms of narcissistic misuse and abuse are familiar with the structures of scapegoating. Schulman’s book was first published in 2009. Today, in 2023, we see revived and accelerated legislative and social attempts to dehumanize and scapegoat LGBTQIA+ people in our society. Given all this and the history they have endured, Schulman notes it makes perfect sense if LGBTQIA+ people struggle to feel safe and relaxed in relationship - in their families of origin, in public, and sadly, even in LGBTQIA+ spaces.
In terms of The Bodhisattva Dilemma, Karen Toloui’s, A Late Stop in Queersville and Sarah Schulman’s Ties that Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences grapples with how ingrained and accepted, habits of mind and patterns of behavior can cause so much immediate and long-term needless harm and suffering to individuals, children, families, communities, and society. In this way, both of these writers they are bards and bodhisattvas.
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