Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Sing, Sing a Song

I once won a prize in an Indonesian beauty contest. Yes, I walked the catwalk with my face caked up beyond recognition and my hair sprayed and gelled to a smooth, crisp absurdity. The wide band around my waist, which rose to a sharp point between my breasts, was the sole fashion innovation of my get-up; my gratitude for that additional indignity goes to the host sister for whom I agreed to play pet person when I consented to participate.

The contest was the Pemilihan Puteri Sutera, or “selection of the princess of silk.” The event was kitschy and conventional, but the tradition of silk weaving in the city of Makassar (then Ujung Pandang) which it honored is exquisite. I was the only Westerner competing, to which I attribute my capture of the title “Favorite,” though I doubt a black American would have been so readily cherished. I’m glad I signed up; it makes a great memory—one of those things one gets into early in life due to an over-developed desire to give others what they want and an under-developed self-respect, resulting in infrequent use of the word “no.”

I had my revenge, though I didn’t really intend it that way. I was just trying to survive and be a sport at the same time. There is a tradition in Indonesia of asking people to sing for large groups impromptu. Especially guests. Especially important people. It is assumed that everybody can sing, has a song ready to go on short notice, and will oblige. Someone informed me backstage that I was expected to sing before the announcement of the winners. I am not a singer. I did not think I knew all the words to any single song that I could sing . . . except maybe one:

Down on the banks of the Hanky Panks,
Where the leap frogs jump from bank to bank,
With an eep, op, oop, op,
Eesophagilley and a
[Dramatic slurping noise]

A great American song. I had the words down solid and the tune to match, and I could sing it with confidence and gusto. So after being introduced with the gratuitous misinformation that I was very happy about the recent election of George Bush (senior) as my new president, I took the microphone in hand and, before a crowd of several hundred, did just that. A friend in the audience said my two host sisters were so mortified one almost left the room and the other looked ready to crawl under her chair. I loved them and felt a teeny weenie bit sorry for them. But, hey, my humiliation as a large, light-skinned toy had been on stage and very well lit. Maybe I did have a slight revenge pleasure in my song selection. It was just a hiccup in the contented lockdown of conventionality, a small intrusion of health and personhood. But sometimes a little disruption is appropriate.

I’m glad I signed up for the Baha’i Faith too. It saved my life by giving me much-needed personal structure at eighteen (about a year after the above story). And it continued a process, begun in Indonesia when I was living with a Muslim family, of getting over my atheism and reckoning with my own God-desire. But ultimately the Faith was party to my own near destruction, and getting out was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I don’t think my blog will have much effect on the pageant of the Baha’i Faith, but I’m gonna sing my little song anyway—even if it makes some people I love uncomfortable. There is too much control, certainty, delusion, and group-think in the Baha’i Faith, not enough reality-sense, play, open thought, and transparency. Individuals are too often used as the means to the triumph of the Faith, not cherished enough as the necessary, quirky, and particular revelations of God’s love that we are. Sometimes a little disruption is appropriate.



Kemba said...

I loved every mortifying minute of your Indonesian Beauty Contest experience; how many of us can claim that notch on our belts? Once I won a set of martini glasses for being the Gutter Ball Queen. It was at a local bowling alley. I don’t like brag too much about it, but the glasses have come in handy from time to time.

Well lady, as they used to say during the revolution, “Write On!”

Bruce said...

Your adoption of Baha'i at that time in your life parallels a similar journey of mine. Having rejected vapid, robotized Christianity (the only form I knew at the time), I was a soul being blown to and fro in the hurricane of modern civilization. I needed a spiritual anchor. I investigated several leads. Transcendental Meditation, Buddhism, Kundalini Yoga, some form of fundamental Christianity that a boss of mine practiced, and finally, Surat Shabd Yoga. I found a Godman, Ajaib Singh (who can be Googled with many references), who, I am sure, saved me from some grim life path if not death. How did I recognize Him? How am I so certain of His effect on my life? How do we know anything of the spirit? We just do. SOMETHING cuts through the stuff of this world, as well as our intellectual/emotional interference, and hits us in the heart. As I sat in front of Ajaib, He connected with my heart and I felt the truth of his message of Love. Even as I write this and recollect that exact moment, I feel a wave of His Love sweep over me. He has left the physical body but he is not gone.

After Ajaib left the physical body, I gradually drifted away from the community of Sant Mat (also Google-able). I can't explain it metaphysically, but there is something necessary and indispensable about the spiritual tutelage of a living person that isn't available from a Bible, Koran, Gita or other sacred text. So, as I have not been drawn to another Master from Sant Mat, I have left behind its rituals and overt practices. Possibly not forever. But who knows? I still meditate occasionally and believe that, in one way or another, the spirit of Ajaib/God will always be the guardian of my soul.

I do not feel at odds with Sant Mat as Priscilla does with Baha'i. But I understand that the search for God/Love/Truth has no fixed path as the major religious organizations would have us believe. Each and every one of us has our own spiritual destiny. If we are honest with ourselves and listen to our hearts we will find the direction we need to find.