Sunday, June 27, 2010

Unspoken Stories

I don't know who it was who pointed out Marina Abramovic's performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art, but I certainly have to thank them for the link. I keep revisiting the website and see something different each time. Abramovic invited people to come and sit with her, one-on-one, for as long as they chose to stay. And people took her up on it, lots of people. Some stayed a few seconds, some stayed for hours, but all were recorded in a moment of sharing with the artist. And all without saying a word.

Each person had a story, each had a life that they brought to the (nonexistent in this installation) table. Each face was captured and it is left to us to read the stories that are being shared. Some had tears, some smiles, one or two almost laughing, some with what looked like agony in their eyes. Some came back several times while most were just there the one time. At least one woman brought her baby cuddled against her chest but almost all were there alone and vulnerable. All sorts and conditions of people: old, young, sophisticate, punk, from myriad races, probably myriad religious faiths (and no faith), serene, agonized, joy-filled to the point of brimming over, tearful past the point of brimming over. I couldn't help but be mesmerized by the faces, the eyes, the stories written there drawing me in and inviting me to be virtually present to them, their tales, their needs, their sharings.

I'd like to have had the opportunity to experience this installation in the real world. I wonder -- could I have borne to spend more than a  few seconds looking into the face of someone who wasn't judging me but rather offering a moment -- or an hour-- of silent conversation, quiet acceptance and patient listening?  It is so hard for me to meet someone else's eyes; it feels like I am invading their space, however briefly, and, worse yet, they are invading mine. I force myself to do it from time to time, but it's a rare thing for me. 

I am fascinated by those who can look into the face and eyes of another with such candor - and even sometimes with such apparent fear. I wonder, of those who asked Jesus for help, how many of them were afraid to meet him eye-to-eye, fearing judgment in those eyes and possibly rejection of them not just as petitioners but as people because of who or what they are or had been. I wonder if Jesus met the eyes of God as he raised his eyes to heaven and prayed. Surely he didn't fear rejection but perhaps asking something that God couldn't or wouldn't do for him, much as the woman with the hemorrhage, Jarius, the man who was lowered through the roof by his friends and countless others must have felt they were risking. It's all about risk, taking a chance, gambling that what we ask for will be received, weighed and then given.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Art, Science and Theology of Cat Herding

There's a YouTube video that simply has me in stitches even after having seen it a few dozen times. It's about cat herding and it hits me on so many different levels.

"Cat herding" is a metaphor, something that uses an image to convey something else that is much broader in scope. The image of the cowboy is that of a rugged, tough individual, riding for hours at the southbound end of a northbound herd of cattle, eating the dust they kick up, rounding up the strays so the group stays together and much safer than they would be on their own. The dusty clothing, the scars, the wide-brimmed hat and gloves, everything has a purpose and enables the herder to focus more on the herd than on himself. And yes, himself -- the traditional role of cowboy is a male. Women were to stay home, keep the household going, raise the children and wait for the cowboy to come home with money and groceries at the end of the drive.

The art of the cat herder is the ability to take an animal (or group of animals) that are basically independent as well as alternately playful and fierce and coaxing, cajoling or luring the critters in a given direction in a realtively cohesive group without fights or distractions. It takes a whole different set of skills to herd cats rather than cattle.  Cattle will be driven; cats must be convinced. Getting them to stay on a trail and not scatter to the four winds is an exercise in patience and at times frustration.  In short, it's a lot like life, when you come to think about it.

The science of cat herding is the exercise of psychology -- how do you convince a cat to do something it might not want to do?  You could lead it along with a toy on a string that gets pulled along the ground. You could lure it with the scent of catnip (although I've only had one cat out of the 10 or so housecats I've shared my domiciles with over the years who reacted to it). Feeding a herd of cats requires extensive care and planning -- you can't just plop them down in a pasture and let them feed themselves on grass. But put them in the middle of a prairie dog colony and that's something else again. Come to think of it, a lot of the same stimuli that get a cat going -- treats, mild inebriants, curiosity, even an offer to play or be silly at times -- are the same ones that can move me in one direction or another.

Theologically there are a lot of stories in the Bible that very possibly could be said to represent the theological version of cat herding. I'm sure Moses must have thought his bunch of Israelites were at times unruly, wanting to go their own ways, not willing to follow directions and getting themselves into troubles from which they had to be extricated. Did the prophets feel they were possibly herding cats in the sense of being ignored, even when they spoke for the good of the very people who, in essence, turned their backs and cleaned their fur as if to say that there were more important things to be considered? I wonder if Jesus ever felt like he was herding cats when, no matter how clearly he tried to make the lessons, the disciples kept missing the point and wanting to hare off in all the wrong directions. Frankly, the story that cat herding brings to my mind is that of the good shepherd who goes to find the stray, probably the ugliest, nastiest, dirtiest and meanest one of the bunch, and brings it back safely to the safety and shelter of the group and fold.

In EfM the mentors sometimes have to act as cat herders. They can present a thought, an idea, a picture, a text, a video, but after that all bets are usually off. The mentor might have some wish for the conversation to move in a predictable direction but once the topic has been introduced, it can take on a life of its own, often like a herd of cats, going off in all directions. I find that as a mentor I can't be so in love with what I think is a perfect and predictable direction for the conversation to move that I try to force it into a place the cats, er, class members, don't want it to go. They want to follow THIS idea, not THAT one. And it's funny -- some of the greatest insights come from the very unpredictableness I never thought of but somebody else did. I can still love my own conclusions but I find I'm often very much richer from having cats in my class who don't passively follow a baited trail.

In contemplating the cat herders in the video, I come to one simple conclusion: in the cat-tle drive of my life where I am a cat, I need a herder to watch over me and occasionally come rescue me from a tree, a stream or my own wilfullness. I need somebody to put me on the front of the saddle and give me a ride when my paws get sore and who will make sure that I am safe and cared-for.

In the cat herding video of my life, God may wear a cowboy hat and use a lint roller to clean the cat hair off a sling. He may wear leather gloves because I can scratch and gnaw even on hands that are kind and loving. Maybe I will make him sneeze with allergies but he won't give up on me and will love me in spite of myself sometimes. Seeing God that way gives me a sense of hope and a sense of comfort. If God can love a mangy, opinionated, independent-minded cat like me, then what do I have to worry about? God will get me where I need to go, with or without my total cooperation or sometimes even my own cognition. Oh, I will have a choice, but God will use the art, science and theology of cat herding to gently nudge me almost imperceptibly, I hope, in the right direction. After all, God made the cat; there's nothing about a cat that God doesn't know, including how to herd a stubborn cat.