The Grail

Aug 27

There are times in our lives when we cross over boundaries and migrate into new parts of the world. This may or may not be apparent in our outer life, but whether we will it or no, such movements are the dynamics of our inner being. If we are engaged in life, then its nature is to change us. To be able to change is to be alive. Such changes are more acute at some times than others, and accompany dramatic events involving loss or gain. The kingdom is besieged, it falls under an enchantment. We quest for the sacred through the wilds of other lands and in laying forth upon the unknown world explore whole dark continents of ourselves, unmapped places filled with lost civilizations and faerie castles.

When I was in my early twenties I entered into a dark time I jokingly refer to today as my quarter life crisis. As many who undergo the melding from childhood freedom to adult responsibility, I came to an understanding of the world that held frightening implications. We are free to make our own choices, and with that freedom comes a terrible knowledge that the world is our fault. It is what we make it. But how do we know what to make the world? Where do we obtain the source of that knowledge?

There was a lot of pressure, at that time, to graduate from college, and, upon graduation, to get a job and enter into the mainstream workforce. Not to do so was also an option, but this invariably meant dropping out altogether as a rejection of society’s conventions. Or did it? Perhaps it was really an admission to failure-a failure to find another way. Certainly, following the herd into the morning traffic was also an admission to failure, a surrender, a falling into a deep sleep.

I was fortunate enough to take a class studying Joseph Campbell, a man perhaps best known for having written The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In that class, Mr. Campbell went from being the subject of academic inquiry to a sort of shaman, a guide to my soul, as it went through the dark spiritual voids of a society that does not acknowledge the existence of such things. We were each required to hold a lecture on the source material, and to draw upon specific mythic cycles. I chose the Holy Grail.

In my work for class, I immersed myself in the Grail mythos. I read Parzival, I read L’Morte D’Arthur. I read the Mabinogion. I read Tennyson. I saw Galahad obtain the grail, as well as Perceval, Bors, Gawain, Peredur. The knights rode across the Wasteland, searching for the sacred item that could heal the Fisher King’s grievous wound. Perceval witnessed the holy procession of the grail and forgot to ask the Question. The Fisher King’s battle cry is “Amor!” The grail was the cup Christ drank from at the last supper, the cup that caught his blood-brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, whose staff budded when he planted it in the earth…

These stories and their innumerable variations washed over me, fed and sustained me, kept me going. Somehow, contained within them was an experience that was bigger than life, its measure in fact, defined life while transcending its limitations.

And then, as I studied, something interesting happened. One night, I came upon the Castle Munsalvach, a dark bricked fortress on a windswept promontory. Below the cliffs was crashing sea. I entered the demense and found myself racing down the halls and through the chambers of a vast estate. Labyrinthine, I could have wandered through the estate forever. And then, I stopped myself. With different eyes, I looked closer at things and saw a door with a golden chain. Somehow, I knew this was my chance. With an urgency borne from my most deep seated need, I burst into the room.

There, I met the Grail Keeper. I asked him if I could see the Grail. Without demanding the passage of a test, or the levying of some great price, he happily complied. A procession with the Cross went before us. Then, the Grail was unveiled. He poured water and wine into four vessels: two were earthen ware and two were glass. I drank from them. The Grail Keeper replaced the Grail to its cabinet.

Then, with a supreme effort, I asked if I could see the Grail again. With a smile, the Grail Keeper allowed me to do so. I reached into the cabinet and held the Grail in my hands. The stories say that the Grail is a changing thing-it is, at times, a cup, a dish, a bowl, sometimes it is a stone. This is true: the Grail shifted and reformed in my hands, ultimately revealing a set of symbols and imagery that etched themselves like carvings onto cavern walls in the deepest part of my being. I put the Grail back. I don’t remember what happened after that.

Later, I tried to relate what happened to my friends, my family, to anyone who would listen, really. I was convinced that it was more than just some strange dream, that somehow, my deeper working with mythology had uncovered profound truths, and in some sense, the experience really happened. Life is vast, beyond the experience of any single person. Within life are all things, all experiences, all ideas. Actively undertaken, its stories, the myths and archetypes common to all humanity, intersect with our own, and make us a part of the greater tapestry that is immortal and transpersonal.

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Whatever Happened To Peace Love and Understanding?

Aug 22

While I was growing up-and by that, I mean going through my twenties-I often heard the following quote from Winston Churchill: “If you’re not liberal when you’re twenty-five, you have no heart. If you’re not conservative by the time you’re thirty-five, you have no brain.” The words were repeated over and over, like a mantra, as though they embodied some inevitable principle that accompanied coming of age.

We all grow old, and in doing so, somehow lose our ideals and accept the situations of life as they really are, in opposition to the way they ought to be. We place our hands on the circumstances of life, and as we build a kingdom for ourselves, inevitably, the kingdom becomes walled in and we set guards to watch it and mobilize armies to protect it.

I came of age in the 1980’s. This wasn’t on the heels of the Peace and Love Generation-they died a long and slow death of libertine excess and anarchy in the 1970’s. By the 80’s, their arguments sounded vacuous, their political currency spent-the simple fact was, society didn’t change. The 1980’s are trumpeted by the conservatives as a sort of Golden Age. Reagan was their answer to Kennedy, his presidency was their Camelot. But the truth is, the Cold War reached newer and more dangerous heights, the Young Republicans flirted with the apartheid government in South Africa, a callow and trenchant materialism settled on the land, and staid conformity attempted to strangle out any voices of discontent. Nothing was better than it was before, in fact, it was worse. The motto the government tried to levy upon the youth, the propaganda they handed us, was a negation. Just Say No. The hippies had failed. It was obvious. They were selling insurance now.

The best response many of us could see in this situation, was a detached and practiced nihilism. We didn’t protest, we didn’t march. We didn’t engage. This astounded our counter culture forebears, who were shocked at the lack of showmanship we demonstrated. They didn’t understand ours was a more subtle and delicate rebellion. We weren’t naive enough to espouse any real ethos or creed. We didn’t subscribe to any overt tenets of faith, except for a vague understanding that we were liberal in our sensibilities-and this really just meant being tolerant of others. Yes, it’s that simple.

The 1990’s came, and with it the First Gulf War, and an attendant recession. Bush Senior was out of touch with the people. While Bill was trying to charm the Generation That Hates Being Called Generation X on MTV, George refused to pander to the ‘teeny-boppers‘ as he called us and went out on some quixotic nonsensical train ride tour of the country. We voted George out and let Bill in. The 90’s marked the longest period of economic growth in the country’s history-since they were followed by the Lost Decade (almost no growth at all during the aughts), the times seem almost mythic today. Astonishingly, despite the capable performance of Mr. Clinton, amid sex scandals and possible voting fraud, we let the Republicans back into the White House.

I voted for George Walker Bush. I admit it. The real question is, why? How could I betray the ideals I held so dearly in my youth? I may have worn all black, wrote bad poetry and acted like I didn’t give a damn about anything-but the truth was, I did. I cared dearly about the environment, civil rights, gay rights (which are really civil rights), women’s rights. I lamented the fate of the Native Americans, and the terrible practice of chattel slavery that this country was built on. I thought that colonialism and imperialism had caused much misery all around the planet. I felt that all this needed to be addressed-and actively.

So what changed? My family came to this country in 1904, when my great-grandfather Cristofalo Ristuccia stepped off a boat called The Prince of Napoli in New York harbor on December 24th. He came here with nothing. My grandfather worked as a fireman in New York City. On that meager income, he supported a family of five children. My father went to college and became an engineer. I myself went to college and worked my way through. Nobody handed us anything. We had no ill-gotten gains. Everything that was ours we had byway of our own tears, sweat and blood.

But in the circles of political liberalism, there was a festering malcontence, a resentment that lashed out against whatever wore the guise of the perceived enemy. The achievements of my family were somehow suspect. Just because I was a white male heterosexual Christian, I was a part of the engine of oppression. Never mind that my family hadn’t been here for a hundred years, or that during our time in America, we worked our asses off. No-somehow, we were granted an unfair entitlement just by being who we were. Our efforts and accomplishments were suspect, and I was expected to lay down my ambitions so that others could achieve and get a slice of a pie that only had so many pieces.

Yes, that was my perception (and alas, probably an inaccurate one). An unspoken one that is, no doubt, shared by many middle income Americans who regularly vote Republican. I voted for Bush because I was, as any person could expect, voting in my own interests. On my way to my thirties, I had lost my heart and gained my brain it would seem.

Then, the next eight years passed: 911, Afghanistan, Iraq, not one but two recessions. The government detained without due process at Guantanamo, they spied on citizens, they TORTURED PEOPLE!

I was, of course, horrified. My friends who were fellow Republicans didn’t want to face the facts, and found every excuse they could to apologize for the excesses of a government that was running amok around the world. I felt more burned and disillusioned than ever, as my thirties drew to a close and I was paying over two fifty for a gallon of gas.

But then, I realized some things. Or rather, I returned to some ideas I always had. Dispensing with government, and considering just the human being it is supposed to serve, certain understandings come to light. Human beings are inherently good. They don’t want to hurt each other. The average person just wants to provide for their family. They want food, clothing, shelter and an opportunity. And a safe world to enjoy it all in. It’s that simple. War is something that is enacted by governments, not by those who fight in them. Conflict is fomented by institutions (political parties, for example), not by individuals.

Looking at the world and society, we can’t just value the self at the expense of the whole. As members of society we are obligated to serve it-this is the best way to ensure its health and stability. The values of this are simple, summed up, they are: Peace Love and Understanding. Hmm. That sounded familiar.

Recently, our country elected its first African American president. I woke my children up to see it announced officially. I saw tears (of joy, and something more) in the eyes of many-my own were misted. I said to myself, as history was being made: “This country works. It really works.”
Here, ideals had, in a rare example of concordance, converged with reality.

Dark times fell on the land and a hard wind blows. But at least, we have our hearts back. Yes, our hearts are beating and they keep us warm. We can face trial if we know we’re in it together, as a people.

Things are cyclical, the wheel turns and we find ourselves in the same place we once were-the same, but different. Life is a spiral.

Churchill said if you’re not a conservative when you’re thirty five you have no brain. Well, if you’re not a moderate by the time you’re forty-five, you have no soul.

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Brooklyn comes to Dixie

Aug 20

My name is Peter M. Ristuccia, and believe it or not, I’m as Southern as kudzu and college football. I was born here in the South, at Athens General Hospital.

I’m a Southerner. Or am I? It would seem that, my name alone would preclude me from making any claim to Dixie. All my life, I’ve watched (or, perhaps, heard) people trip over the name. I’ve had to stop and explain what it is, where it came from, and, of course, how to pronounce it. I had to break it down into syllables and say it slowly, with emphasis on the phonetics: RIS-TOO-SHA. Do you hear me? Let me repeat: RIS-TOO-SHA, RIS-TOO-SHA. It’s Italian. No, I don’t have any relatives in the Mafia. Yes, I make good pasta, it’s official. Yeah, I’ll spell it for you.

Then, it follows, “Where are you from?” It is assumed that I am from “Up North.” Who says we don’t have provincialism in the U.S.? There is Down South, Up North, Out West and Back East. My question is, where is Florida, since it ain’t Southern no more. Probably North Cuba, or something like that.

Up North is a vast, sprawling region in the Southern Mind. Up North stretches from Maine all the way to Chicago and encompasses everywhere in between. Up North is strange and Other. Up North is moving Down South. Up North is foreign, exotic, a land of sin and excess, a place where America isn’t America anymore, the melting pot has stewed and fermented into a broth of alien provenance. And that pot runneth over, it is spilling all the way down to the sacred red clay of Georgia herself.

“I’m from here.” I reply. They look at me dumbfounded. How can this man claim such an absurd thing? His name is strange. His nose is too big. His skin is too dark. He eats weird food. He doesn’t sound like us. Who knows what this boy does on Sundays.

“I’m from here. I was born at Athens General.” I add.

“Where’s your family from?” comes the next question regarding my pedigree and here they have me at last.

“New York.” I reply.

“NEW YORK? NEW YORK? Did you say NEW YORK?” Up North is Other, as I have said. And New York is the quintessence of Up North. New York is a yammering, crowded, crime-ridden, pestilential hell-hole carnival of licentious Blue State liberalism.

“New York! Hah! I knew it! You ain’t no Southerner, boy! Your folk ain’t from around here.”

Perhaps not. My place of birth did not confer the status of Southerner. This bothered me for awhile. Then, I realized, Southerners were an ethnic group, just like Italians! Think about it-they eat their own food, speak their own language, play their own music. Suddenly, I understood. Southerners weren’t insular and xenophobic-they were just like any other people Up North who keep to their own part of the city. Of course!

So now, when my neighbors park their bass boats in the driveway, set fire to their yards, let their dogs run loose, drive fifty miles an hour through the neighborhood en route to a Wal-Mart sale, or eat okra and think I’m the one eating weird stuff, I realize that any friction isn’t Regional. It’s ethnic. And, well, that’s something a Northerner can understand…

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Ashes

Aug 18

Ashes to my ashen boy
Once you were gold
And now gray by the hearth
The red blood of its fire
And its tongues and its eyes
Then short life suspires

Ashes to my ashen boy
The world opens and shuts
Now it turns, now it’s still
Spoken words from creation
The soul is the breath
Then silence, its meditation

Ashes to my ashen boy
Clothes, ripped and torn
Rent and stained frocks
Grant me shriving
And lights for the dead
Then sleep for the living

Ashes to my ashen boy
Aureoles and glorianas
Revelations from below
Time past, time passes
Time now for baths
And then, the world’s vastness

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The Little Prince

Aug 15

Like all of us, I once loved someone more than they loved me. Of course, I was young and undergoing a rite of passage common to everyone, even if it isn’t openly discussed except in hindsight. There are many milestones we use to notch our lives, like the marks we make on doors as children to show our growth as years pass. Some are religious: Baptism, First Communion. Some are secular: Getting Your Driver’s License, High School Graduation. But many more are never acknowledged, not even discussed openly: the First Dead Friend, Heart Break. Perhaps it is because the experiences are too painful to fully acknowledge, or perhaps in our highly competitive and material modern society any admission of failure reveals weakness, a chink in our armor that others may observe and exploit. Failure is, of course, impermissible; whether the threats without us are real or imagined.

Fairy Tales, in their true and unexpurgated from, can be terrifying stories. As children, we often read censored versions rather than the actual tales that were told around peasant cook-fires. It’s only as adults we learn that, in some versions of Little Red Riding Hood, the Wolf eats the girl. There is no noble Woodsman. We learn that the Little Mermaid dies at the end. The poignancy of these actual endings strikes us. Through the revised and more real telling, we’ve learned some truism of life, something that was veiled to us as children.

When I was a boy, I read The Little Prince by Saint-Exupery. I loved the book-the whimsy of planets the size of houses and sentient roses spoke to my imagination. We know such things are impossible, which makes it all the more engaging. The child, as is often the case, is wiser than the adults he meets. Unable to please the Rose-which he loves-on his world, he leaves. The Little Prince journeys from planet to planet, meeting various adults-each engaged in exanimate tasks that have consumed their lives. Finally, the Little Prince arrives on Earth. There, he meets the aviator to whom he relates his story.

Saint-Exupery was, of course, French. The text is used to teach French to students in many classes. I dated a woman in college that was a talented artist, a francophile, a dedicated vegetarian and environmentalist. She was beautiful and her family was loaded. I had no idea how I wound up with this woman, and being the first person I practically lived with, fell very hard for her. Things were great-for a time. I’d met someone that was not only attractive, but also interesting and passionate in their ideals. But then, I found that I lacked some essentials in my character. I wasn’t a vegetarian. I wasn’t eco-conscious enough. Of course, my lack of means-I worked through college and rode a ten-speed bicycle. It was either education or a car for me-also did little to help matters. Rather than accept the situation for what it was, I raced about trying to please this Rose.

One day, I saw that she was reading The Little Prince for class. We talked about the book. I was excited to discuss it with someone. We argued about the ending. She insisted the boy dies at the end of the story. I insisted that he went back to his home planet. Reading the text, one could argue for both interpretations. But, nonetheless, the boy is bitten by a serpent at the end of the story, and in some sense, dies. He is gone the next day, with no body. During the course of our debate, where again, I was unable to please this Rose, I realized that things weren’t going to work out. No matter how hard I tried. No matter what I did or said. And I was right-within a few weeks, it was over.

I was left with the unenviable task of explaining to others in our shared social milieu just why things were over. I didn’t really have a direct answer. A lot of the women assumed it was my fault, somehow. I went through the course of being together even though we were apart, of trying to be mature and accept the situation and ‘be friends’, of watching some of my friends try to date her afterwards, of, finally, avoiding her completely.

Happily, I can say I never again underwent the painful process of critique and rejection I endured for reasons that, now, escape me. The Fairy Tale’s true ending came to me-the Little Prince dies at the end. I understood it. It happened. And once I arrived at this new perspective, my former view was beyond me. I was so sure I was in love. But now, years later, I feel absolutely nothing-except for a vague shame that I didn’t protect myself and my dignity by moving on earlier. That, and a strange wonder I could be so impacted by another human being.

The serpent, among other things, is an ancient symbol of wisdom. Death, often, is a device for transformation. We die to ourselves and are reborn, anew, a different person. There was a time when I was the Little Prince. But now, clearly, I am the aviator.

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