Monday, March 19, 2007

Caught Between Two Worlds

While I ponder the recent disappearance and subsequent recovery of the new photo of me over on the right hand of this blog page, I also reflect on the experience of being caught between two worlds: the real and concrete one here in Santa Cruz in which I have lived for most of the last 30 years, and the world I left behind in Thailand last month which is fast taking on the dimensions of a fantasy.

Tied up in this dilemma, I have neglected my bloggerly duties here in this internet space I reserved almost a year ago. The universe spins on its axis, Bush continues to predict victory in Iraq, dismissed U.S. attorneys cause a scandal in Washington, Phil Spector goes on trial for murder, thousands march in various streets to protest the war, Brittany copes with rehab, The Rev. Al Sharpton finds out he is related to racist Strom Thurmond, Hilary and Obama wrestle on celebrity challenge, Thim sends me a letter from her rice farm in Udon province, and I sit slumped in in a stupor.

Well, not completely. Before my Sunday afternoon nap, I did my duty as commentator at Holy Cross's 8:30 mass, and then rushed down to the 418 where Molly was the DJ for Dance Church. About fifty dancers of all sexes, ages and agilities moved to the music she played, offering up worship to the spinning universe in a variety of ways. A young boy in a wheel chair was twirled around by his mother and her friends. Another man in a wheel chair, with neither legs nor sights, was touched and jostled by a number of smiling dancers. Beautiful, sweaty, and often braless women recalled the temple dancers of old. Children crawled underfoot, and I felt the spirit. Molly ended the morning with the Beatles telling us that all we needed was love, and for a moment I believed it. The dancers, exhausted from their energetic prayer service, sat in a circle and communed. It gave me hope.

Last Thursday Molly, her friend Rachel and I went to hear Patty Griffin at the Catalyst. A tiny red-headed thing, almost anorexic, Patty's deep and resonant voice filled the former bowling alley. Backed by two guitarists, a drummer, and a woman who played both standup bass and cello, I stood in the crowd with a succession of beers and felt myself transfigured by their sound. Patty, accompanying herself on both guitar and piano, can sing the blues, rock with the best, and write in a folky and sometimes country style about New England ice storms and trapeze artists who commit suicide. Her only hopeful love song was written for her dog. She's over 40, a native of Maine who has seen a bit of life, and her listeners came in all classes and sizes. The packed house loved her every note, and so did I. Four of her CDs grace my iPod.

On Friday evening, the community of believers, who hope that organized religion might withstand the Christian conservative onslaught of the last few years, gathered in the old wooden chapel of Calvaray Episcopal Church to mark and mourn the past four years of war in Iraq. We were surprised to find we could fill the place. Ministers, pastors, youth leaders and singers from a variety of Christian denominations read from scripture, sang from Psalms, recited the names of Iraqi and hometown dead, and prayed for peace. We marched behind a veiled Lenten cross, holding candles, to the statue by the town clock that memorializes innocents killed in war, and laid a wreath in tribute to the so-called "collateral damage" resulting from legalized violence. For a too-brief period, I again felt hope.

On Saturday morning, a dozen of us Camaldolese oblates gathered in the basement of St. Joseph's Church in Captola for a our semi-annual retreat to hear Fr. Daniel from New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur speak about the "New Nomadism" (which he pronounced "nomadacism"). The search for security and stability often turns up only a mirage. We are a pilgrim people, on the move ever since Abram left Ur, and the only stability we can achieve is dynamic. As nomads ever in search of God, the touchstone of our faith is hospitality: how do we welcome and heal the other? There was an interesting discussion about "freedom," a word much used and abused by our politicians. Dan made a distinction between "freedom to," which often results in licentiousness, liberty run amuk, and "freedom for," which can lead to compassion. Such gatherings of seekers also give me hope.

Saturday evening, with my Cuban friend Ofelia, I went to see "Starter for 10," a light bit of fluff from England that Helen in London would call a "romcon" and we might label a "chick flick." It featured James McAvoy, the naive young doctor in "The Last King of Scotland," who comes of age at the University of Bristol in England when forced to choose between an uncaring buxom beauty and a Jewish campus radical, while also dealing with old friends back home who think he has turned his back on them. It's an old story but it was told in a delightful way by director Tom Vaughan from a memoir by David Nicholls. Afterwards we ate at Sitar, the new India fastfood restaurant at the end of my block. How convenient to be able to live on the same street with a movie theater and a restaurant (not to mention a gym, Toadal Fitness, that I have so far avoided)!

Last night I joined my adopted family to celebrate Lyle's 33rd birthday. I remember when Lyle was born. I went to his wedding when he and Daria echanged vows on the law of their house nextdoor to Lyle's parents, my dear departed friend Peter, who died three years ago on St. Patrick's Day, and Diana, who commutes weekly from her home in northern California to the Boardwalk to she earns a living as a facepainter. The party was held right here, where I live with Diana's mother, Shirlee, and her step-father David, my landlords. Lyle's kids Wyatt and Gwen watched their father blow out the candles on his cake and unwrap the expresso maker which he'd been given. It was a lovely scene, and I appreciate so much being included. Another sign of hope. The younger generation is going to do alright, if the world survives.

What about that other world, the one I left behind a month ago? Thim's letter came yesterday and my new friend Pim in Bangkok translated it for me, long distance. She wrote that she loves me and wants me to come back quickly and marry her. If not, she wants us to be together in the next life. But this is a dream, she writes, and telling it makes her cry. She remains in Udon, where both her parents are sick, tending to the rice farm. As I mentioned in my blog posting the other day, there is a cultural gap between the two worlds that is almost unbridgeable.

Almost, but not quite. In the last week I have discovered a web site where hundreds of Thai ladies -- widowed, divorced and single, with children and without -- are looking for farangs who will marry them and support their families, parents as well as siblings and children. Most of them are young and beautiful, and a 30-year age gap does not seem to be a liability. In my online conversations with a number of these ladies, I have learned much about Thai cultural values surrounding the romance of the sexes. Because their day is our night (14 hours later) and vice versa, I am finding my sense of time somewhat disoriented.

In addition to all my new friends, I have obtained a useful book, Thailand Fever, by a Thai woman, Vitida Vasant, and an American man, Chris Pirazzi. Each has crossed the cultural divide to marry someone from the other side. The book is written in both Thai and English and endeavors to explain American values to Thai women, and Thai values to farang men. Pim told me she had read it three times. Without going into detail, which might interest no one but me, I think that Thai cultural values dealing with sex and marriage are remarkably similar to those of the 1950s in America. Good girls don't do it until after marriage. Women yearn to care for their Man (the "total woman" ideal), who will in exchange take care of them forever. And there is a strong separation between good girls and bad, virgins and whores, despite the prevalence of prostitution in Thailand.

Still, there is little information about what happens when bar girls fall in love and when their clients become boyfriends. For both good girls and bad, however, family remains the central pole around which all turns. Men who marry Thai women marry their families, for better or worse, and financial support of everyone is expected and assumed.

The thought of two sick rice farmers in Udon who need my help is unsettling.

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