Being Bodies: Reflecting on the Song of Mehitabel as a Zen Text

Being Bodies: Reflecting on the Song of Mehitabel as a Zen Text August 11, 2018






We are called by the world itself to growth and depth and the miracles of change.

Here I find myself thinking of our being bodies, and especially of the mysteries of our being sexual beings.

If you’re not up  on such things, here’s a little help.

Along this way of our full humanity, of being bodies, of being sexual beings, we also need to understand constraint, we need to know time and place. We need to understand power. And we are always dealing with power. Please keep that in the back of your heart as we proceed along here…

All that said, you cannot deal with any of these things without knowing in some deeper way who you are. Any “should” has to follow an understanding of what is. And anyone of a certain age knows how important is, is.

There are any number of ways for us to more consciously explore who we are. For me, it is the Zen way. It has problems, Zen. Historically Buddhism has dealt with sexuality by emphasizing celibacy. But, it also has tended to be more benign in its distaste for sex than most religions. However, Zen. Well, the truth is that once one begins the exploration of reality sitting with who we are – somewhere along the line sexuality, gender identity, all of that will arise.

And, so, the American Zen master Robert Aitken famously said one can’t practice Zen in the closet. I don’t exactly agree. Closet implies doors. And, you don’t have to open doors to everyone. There are many reasons we may not share or overshare our lives. But whether one is in one closet or another or not, the light must be on. That’s the point. We need to know ourselves.

We cannot practice Zen or liberal religion, any authentic spirituality of presence, without bringing our whole selves into the great matter. That which is part of us and which we deny, will, inevitably return to haunt us, a hungry ghost of our night longing.

But, here, in this moment, I’m mostly thinking of what we find as we open our hearts and minds to the mysteries of our lives.

Let’s go in a somewhat different direction for a moment. It might be helpful. Many, many years ago, in seminary when I was in a seminar with the renowned progressive Christian ethicist Karen Lebacqz, the conversation turned to feminism. I stated, perhaps naively, perhaps not fully getting the nuances of it, that I am a feminist.

Several people present did not think it possible. From my perspective today, another dangerous way of dividing us. But, Karen took hold of the conversation and pointed it right for all of us. She said, “James, absolutely, you can be a feminist.” There was a silence, pregnant, if you will. And then she added, “All you have to do is to become a sister.”

Become a sister. So, much in that. Challenge. Invitation. Possibility.

Today in an era of more conscious intersectionality, perhaps the invitation isn’t so startling. But, may I suggest, maybe it really still is. Still. For all of us. Each, of course in our own way. Sexuality and gender identity is powerful, astonishingly powerful; so it might be exactly the place where we can step beyond our ideas, our stories, and begin to see something bigger.

In Zen practice there’s another koan. It goes “a young boy is coming this way.” It’s an invitation into seeing beyond self and other. As the practice came West many of our teachers noticed how it might be a richer question, and don’t forget a koan is that pointing to reality and an invitation to stand in that place, if male identified people might be asked instead, “A young girl is coming this way.”

Now for many of us here, you might ask what’s the big deal? But, for many, it can be a very big deal. In fact, I know as I say these words for many it is a bridge too far. Actually, I think the deeper invitation may be illusive for many of us, whatever our gender by birth or necessity.

I think of that young man who went to the good rabbi and said what must I do to be saved. And he replied love God and love your neighbor. And the young man said, I have done these things, but my mind is not at rest. The rabbi then replied, give up your privilege, and follow me. And the young man couldn’t. I know how Karen’s words lodged in my heart, how for several heartbeats I thought that’s too hard.

And, here, our time together is about seeing bigger. It is about pointers to who we really are. The whole thing, perhaps, maybe, is a koan.

Challenge. Invitation. Possibility.

Jalalluddin Rumi sang of the invitation in still one more way, “Out beyond our ideas of wrong and right, there is a field. I will meet you there.” Out beyond our divisions, which have a certain utility, absolutely, I’m not saying collapse everything into some indistinguishable mush. But. And. The path of the wise heart is harder than simply distinguishing or mushing. It is sharper. It allows us our existence as we are, and it allows us to see we are at the same time so much bigger. Come to that field which include you, it includes me, it includes the whole blessed world.

As we’ve been told nothing human is alien to me.

Our actions have consequences for our relatives as well as for us, you and me. We are in that field one family. If we can find that field in our own lives, we find at the same time a new way to engage the distinctions and differences that are not oppressive, that do not leave some behind. That does not poison our world.

From that field we can engage in ways that heal.

So, what might this look like? Well, I propose we don’t need to look much farther than the Song of Mehitable to find one very good way to see it.

If you don’t recall, Mehitabel’s song is recounted by Archie the cockroach and told to the newspaperman Don Marquis by jumping from key to key on an old upright typewriter. So, there are no capitals or punctuations in Archie’s recounting of things. Now how the cockroach managed the return on the typewriter, I don’t know. It’s one of those mysteries.

Anyway, the story, Mehitabel’s story is ours, yours and mine. Mehitable dreams of past lives – but lives in this one. Her motto is “tojours gai,” which she translates roughly as “wotthehell.” Let me hold her up as a model of our western Dao, our Western way.

Throwing heart wide and living full, “i once was an innocent kit/wotthehell wotthehell/with a ribbon my neck to fit/and bells tied onto it/o wotthehell wotthehell/but a maltese cat came by/with a come hither look in his eye/and a song that soared to the sky/and wotthehell wotthehell/and i followed adown the street/the pad of his rhythmical feet/o permit me again to repeat/wotthehell wotthehell.”

Now, I’m not calling us to a libertine life. I feel the need to underscore this point. And, please, if you need, reference my underscoring how we need to remember there’s enormous power in all this, and constraint and respect are enormous parts of the deal.

What I am calling us to is living full.

Full lives. No lights off in the closet. And Mehitabel frames the whole thing deliciously. “i know that i am bound/for a journey down the sound/in the midst of a refuse mound/but wotthehell wotthehell/oh i should worry and fret/death and i will coquette/there s a dance in the old dame yet/toujours gai toujours gai.”

On our way, I am suggesting, we need to bring it all together. As we ride down the sound on that garbage barge, toward some unknown fate, the terrible and the beautiful are all brought together. Or can be. And as we bring mind and heart together, as we bring body and heart together, a dance does emerge, something beautiful to behold.

Toujours gai.
Toujours gai…

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