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September 23, 1997

The Lie That Tells The Truth

Clark Powell

By the time you've folded your way to this back page, you probably know that certain issues of The Harbinger this year will be devoted to a single theme. This column will try its best to orbit those themes, though that orbit may be somewhat elliptical, like that of a stray comet or comment. I was told that this issue focuses on "arts education in public schools."

I'm for it, naturally. After all, I do almost have a Master of Fine Arts in poetry. In fact, I think most folks will say they are for arts in the schools, though what this may mean is not always clear beyond not omitting the art programs from high schools. And yes, the subject would never even arise unless money, or rather a shortage of money, is involved. Or, as in the case for the National Endowment for the Arts, founded in 1965, over the definition of "Art." Montana's Senator John Ashcroft and Jesse Helms of North Carolina objected to the NEA's support of "shock artists" and material they considered "obscene and offensive." (NEA also gave $930,000 this year in grants to the great State of Alabama, and $5,000 to the Mobile Opera Guild.) Ashcroft bought a one-word poem - "Lighght" - by Aram Saroyan to the floor as an example of NEA's funding idiosyncrasies from 29 years ago. But last Wednesday, the Senate rejected (77- 33) the Helms and Ashcroft's proposal to kill off the NEA.

Art cannot be defined by the self-righteous right - or by the equally self- righteous left. It need neither affirm, as the right would have it, nor shock, as the left leans. Perhaps we could say that "Art" is the dream that helps us awaken, or as Picasso put it, "Art is the lie that tells the truth."

In Java, I believe, beautiful wood carvings are created. Yet the Javanese have no word in their language for "art." In fact, the notion that "art" is some separate activity is unthinkable, as one wood-carver tried to explain: "We just do everything as well as we can."

Perfect. I left the MFA program a.b.d. ("all but dissertation") not only because there were no teaching positions available, but also because I was beginning to agree with Thoreau: "My life is the poem I would've writ / Could I have both lived and uttered it!" I got the feeling that one should attempt to make the whole of one's life a work of art. It is a grand idea, but an humble reality. It can be expressed in the way a Shaker chair is made or a Zen sand garden is raked, or the way a baker folds a croissant. It need not be fastidious, just awake. What we do, we do as well as we can.

Nor can Michelangelo's or W.B. Yeats's be created by funding arts programs - there have never been any genius mills. Genius can only be recognized, not created (at least, not yet). Yet the master-apprentice relationship is an ancient tradition in virtually all the arts. So what about such programs for schools? And where will we find such teachers?

Allow a detour here: Mother Teresa is dead. Allen Ginsberg is dead. James Dickey is dead. What do their deaths, which all occurred in 1997, have to do with the topic? For me, they do. I was fortunate enough to meet Mother Teresa in Calcutta, to correspond with and visit James Dickey at his home in South Carolina, and to hang out with Allen Ginsberg for three days in Mobile. I'm not sure how well I was able to learn from these three very different teachers, but they did have an impact.

I met Mother Teresa at her mission in 1993. I was being hosted in Calcutta by a rather well-off Indian perfume manufacturer. (The name of his company, I am afraid, was "Odorama" - or "Eau d' Rama." This is the truth. I was never sure which spelling was correct.) When my hosts asked me what I wished to see in Calcutta, I told them I wanted to visit only two places - the abode of the great 19th Century sage Ramakrishna at Dakineshwar Temple on the Ganges, and, if possible, Mother Teresa. It was sheer luck that Mother Teresa had just arrived back that morning from Delhi, and the sister who answered the phone told me to come by the next morning around 9 am, which was when Mother Teresa generally met whoever showed up at her door.

(I also took a boat down the Ganges - or Hoogli as the Bengalis call their portion of the great river - to Ramakrishna's temple, but that is another story.)

The next morning, I brought along a French lady who, like me, was traveling in northern India with a Raja Yoga teacher and who was also keen to meet Mother Teresa. Our rickshaw driver said he knew the way well, but I was a little surprised to find that we were dropped off not in the Howrah, the poor section of Calcutta, but in a rather well-to do financial district. A little boy pointed down an alleyway and then ran ahead to open a nondescript door. A placard by the door said "Missionaries of Charity"

Inside was a wonderful atmosphere of calm and light. I recall cool slate floors, several young nuns moving purposefully about in the famous blue-striped white saris. A red-haired girl in bluejeans came up and asked us if we were "workers or visitors?"

"Visitors," I said. "We were told that Mother Teresa met with foreigners?"

"Oh yes, I see," said the young lady. She had a lovely Irish accent. "Just go up those stairs. Mother's room is to the left."

The worn stone stairs led to an L-shaped gallery that overlooked a central open-air courtyard. A group of nuns were washing clothes on the flagstones below - in the Indian manner, as Mark Twain noted 100 years ago during his own trip to India: "Hindus try to break stones by hitting them with clothes." Off the long end of the L was a spare, chairless sanctuary; at the foot of the L was a door covered by an old blanket. Outside, four Westerners waited for Mother Teresa.

I leaned on the rail and took in the wonderful lightness of the place. A small bell rang three times, and the nuns below laid down their washing and quietly assembled before a stone grotto in the corner, palms together in the gesture of prayer and the Indian salute of namasthe. From somewhere a single voice, girlish and high, lifted in a litany. All the nuns would respond in song, then the solo soprano would continue, then again a united response. Then the song ended. Calmly, without any wasted motion, the sisters genuflected and began to go back to work.

It was at this moment that I first saw Mother Teresa. During the litany she must have come out of her room, and she was standing maybe ten feet from me. Tiny, bent with severe osteoporosis, she was barely able to lift her hands over the banister to bless the sisters working below. It seemed I was the only one who took notice of this gesture - Mother Teresa praying for the sisters, who were already back to their washing work. I was drawn to her as ineluctably and involuntarily as a moth is to a flame. She turned to walk into the bare sanctuary, where she genuflected and prayed for a few seconds.

Mother Teresa came out and looked up at me with her bright twinkling eyes. "Blessings, monsieur," she said softly, smiling and coming to me with her palms raised. I am six feet tall, and I had to almost kneel so that she could touch my head. Mother Teresa moved back to the others who had been waiting and gave them similar benedictions, then she went back through the curtain to her office. Everyone left, but my friend and I waited. After a while Mother Teresa came back out and smiled at us. "Waiting so patiently," she said.

Paula began to tell Mother Teresa about her own Catholic girlhood in France and, to my horror, how Catholicism had done nothing for her, and that she had come to India and was now studying with a guru -

"Oh? You have a guru?" said Mother Teresa, looking at us with her childlike eyes. "And what will you do with your guru?"

It was a perfect question, really. When my teacher returned from Assam the next day, I recounted the visit, and told him that Mother Teresa had asked us a Zen question: "What will you do with your Guru?"

Chariji slapped his thigh and laughed. "Yes, it is a very good question!" he said, then, like any good teacher or Zen Master, demanded that I give him an answer on the spot.

I had none, or many - same difference, I guess. If there are answers to such questions, then these answers must continually change, or else require a radical shift of consciousness or spiritual condition. Who, or what, is my teacher? Who am I? What is my mission? What is important?

These are the kinds of questions that are fine to toss about in an academic manner, but when they are asked from the depth of our being, in the midst of anguish or in the thrall of wonder - in other words, when such questions are asked passionately, they belong to the realm of Spirit or of Art. Teachers who can frame the right questions, who can awaken this passion and guide us toward an answer that both kills and liberates ... well, these are rare souls.

And these rare souls, these teachers of Art and Spirit, can be encountered in the most unlikely places - a band director, a high school art teacher, a poet in his day-gig surviving off Academia, the last patron. Such "art teachers" were James Dickey and Allen Ginsberg. Next issue.


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