In God We Trust

When it comes to religion, I disclaim any expertise or higher learning. I attended catechism classes with other fledgling faithfuls but very little sank in. Memorizing has never been one of my strengths. I was never awed by the dumbed-down retelling of biblical myths and the pious illustrations that filled the textbook. The whole thing seemed like propaganda. I kept my true feelings to myself, though, as is the general rule for most things when you’re a pubescent teen. It wasn’t my idea to go to church, anyway. It was my mother’s.

She seemed to be on a mission. To this day, I’m still not sure why she wanted her children to be exposed to conventional religion. She did allude to a passing exposure to Catholicism in her youth on a couple of occasions, but she never elaborated. Her excuse was that it would just be good for us. So I gave in to adopting the appearance of a bonafide Christian, knowing that it would never last. Neither one of my parents professed Christian devotion so why should I.

While my father sat at the dining room table with his coffee and crossword puzzle on most Sunday mornings, my sister and I had to get dressed and go. My mother always drove us there and back. Thankfully for her, Grace Lutheran was only ten minutes away. It always felt a little odd as she pulled into the parking lot and up to the curb at the rear entry. Parishioners would be filing past our car in their Sunday best while my mother paused to make her delivery. She’d uncomfortably look straight ahead as we hopped out, as if quilted by the vivid hypocrisy of ditching us there.

But now I’ve begun to wonder if that look was something else. It could have been a bit of impatience along with a sense of obligation. It never occurred to me that both of my parents may have been where I am today – ambivalent. If I were ever to label myself in any one way among many, it would be as a humanist. One god cannot be our only hope. Humankind has created a plethora of gods and look where it’s gotten us. From the beginning, our heroes have been gods. But no one hero can save us.

That’s where each of us comes in. The monomyths of Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha, etc., outline paths to follow. We just have to explore them; first for ourselves, then for the sake of others. There are many. I thank my mother for allowing me not to become content with following just one.

Buddhas

My first Buddha encounter involved a figurine of the legendary “Laughing Buddha.” I don’t recall exactly how or when he landed beside the cardboard cigar box I kept on top of my dresser, but I was sixteen at the time. It was a carved-wood rendition of the famous monk, both arms stretched upward with open palms cradling the sky. His bald head was tilted to one side giving him a diagonal smile with just a glimpse of a tongue. Keeping with tradition, his belly bulged over a simple sash and the draping folds of an open robe. I don’t know who told me, but I knew it was supposedly good luck to rub that belly. I probably did at least once.

What I clearly recall were my attempts to photograph him. I had this vision of looking up at him with a bright halo framing his euphoria. Photoshop and any idea of special photo-effects were still decades away into my future. All I had to work with was the family Polaroid camera, the lighting within my attic bedroom, and a near total lack of photographic know-how.

Undeterred, I assumed that the good fortune this little guy supposedly guaranteed would carry me to immediate success. I stood him on a small inverted gift box in front of the dresser-mirror, left on only a reading lamp in order to at least see what I was doing, and assumed that the reflected flash would provide the halo I envisioned. I positioned myself and the camera below his feet in order to peek over the dresser’s edge and fill the entire frame with his life-size eminence. Holding my breath to steady the camera, I clicked the shutter. The flash went off like lightening. I immediately thought, “YES!” I paced the room waiting for the photo to materialize. “It’s gonna be great,” I whispered. However, as I stared into the rigid 3 by 4 Polaroid photo-frame, all that emerged was a white sheen engulfing the faint outline of a head beneath upright arms reminiscent of a referee signaling a touchdown. “No way!” I thought to myself.

This scenario went on for hours until I wasted all of the film packs. I tried every which way to capture the exotic joy the little monk embodied. I spent subsequent afternoons reviewing where I went wrong and contemplating future fixes. Eventually the memory of this string of photographic mishaps faded away. But my introduction to a Buddha stuck with me. It didn’t take long for me to find traditional images of Gautama Buddha. Far from the jolly smile and Santa Claus physique of my first encounter, this Buddha sat cross-legged in serene stillness. I later flirted with the practice of yoga and read sections of The Tibetan Book of the Dead as I began to search for a shortcut to nirvana. Still in my twenties, I lacked the patience that I later learned was a prerequisite to any journey.

When I was 62, my girlfriend and now wife gave me a cross-legged, stone monk the size of a small child for Christmas. We both thought of him as a young Buddha.  His shaved head and body are golden. His eyes are closed and his face reflects the comfort of meditation. He’s dressed in a red robe with a studded sash draped over one shoulder. I placed him on top of a wooden chest facing the area I used for my morning yoga routine. I’d look into his stillness before starting my daily series of asanas. Later in the day I’d pass by him as I came and went from my home office.

Living alone, he became my quiet companion. I have to admit that it was a bit spooky at first. There were times that I expected him to relax his legs over the edge of the chest, stand up, and join me for lunch on the garden patio. I never expected us to have a conversation. It would be enough to share his company as we silently noted recent changes in the fig tree as the flapping buzz of a hummingbird simultaneously caught our attention. I eventually created a permanent spot for him in the shade of the plum tree. He’s become part of his surroundings.

Today I’m quickly approaching the threshold of my 65th birthday. The word Buddha conjures a variety of memories for me. It also evokes a symbolic lifeline from my past into my future. For me, within the central stillness of the meditative Buddha there’s the reality of constant change – an inevitable evolution. That’s why in the latest photo of my symbolic Buddha, reflected light is combined with the movement of water. A flash of stillness discovered in any given moment reminds us that nothing remains the same.

What was I thinking

I began working on this image a couple of weeks before the recent 2016 presidential election.  Like many other people, I’d become weary of the drivel that had dragged most election related conversations into the gutter.  What I had anticipated to be a no-holds-barred dogfight had turned into a nightmare reality.  Substance no longer mattered.  It was all about mud and seeing what would stick.

What was even more disturbing were the parallels with the rise of Nazi Germany.  It didn’t help that I had just spent a week in Dusseldorf.  I had attended glasstec along with thousands of other trade show enthusiasts.  The week leading up to the show had been filled with festivities in the center of town, culminating in cycle races through the city’s streets on Sunday afternoon.  The harsh sound of German shouted through loudspeakers combined with roaring crowds of Aryan onlookers gave me flashbacks of scratched black and white scenes of Hitler addressing a sea of mesmerized faces.  As I wandered through pristine neighborhoods, the orderly parade of shiny Audi’s and Beamers along with the periodic flash and growl of a top model Porsche made me quite certain that beneath the veneer of serenity was a very aggressive and capable economy and culture.

Back at the hotel, news of the American elections with scenes of Trump egging on a crowd juiced with the power of us against them hovered above the bar beside panning shots of the chanting soccer audience on another TV and channel.  I had this weird sense that humanity was spinning out of control.  It was like any minute, rioting would become a sport.

While still under this influence, I sorted through photos I’d taken at the holocaust memorial below the Legion of Honor in San Francisco a couple years earlier.  The encrusted bodies frozen in despair said what I felt.  I began constructing their message and filling in their world.  The more I looked at the monitor, the more intently I felt as if I was one of them.

Close Your Eyes and No One Sees Me

For me, Portugal is all about the backstreets and alleys.  Whether you’re slowly trudging up a winding pathway of cobblestone through the Alfama or climbing the seemingly insurmountable steps in Medieval Coimbra, the sights, scents and sounds deaden the ache rising from your feet.  You’re pulled upward by the search for that perfect vantage point to look out over layers of red tile roofs and whitewashed stucco descending to the banks of the nearest major river.

 

citizen-consumer
Citizen Consumer, Coimbra

 

It was along the ascent to the grand plaza of the Universidad de Coimbra that we came across the first of a series of messages taunting the tourists that struggle to make their way to the top.  This alley led to the plaza’s rear entrance and broke off from the street serving the central shopping district.  Students dressed in their black cloaks congregate along the stone steps and ledges in front of fado bars, cafes, and shops filled with phony curios and Portuguese trinkets, watching over the weary travelers with unsympathetic smiles like crows perched on a wire on the lookout for prey.

On our return back down the hill from the university’s monumental facades and empty hallways, I collected a few more images that reflected the somber tone of the many Portuguese men and women I had passed by during our visit.  The reality is that people work very hard and long for very little throughout Portugal.  For most tourists, Portugal’s affordability is a reprieve from the expensive attractions and getaways in Western Europe.  City streets throughout the country are cluttered with brightly painted Tuk Tuks operated by multilingual entrepreneurs who have abandoned professional careers offering little in the way of upward mobility and financial prosperity.  Tourism is now driving economic growth.

Just as in their music, there’s an undertone of sadness and inevitable misfortune in many Portuguese eyes.  Many faces appeared to feel forgotten.  Others have simply lost sight of themselves.

 

looking-at-me
All Rights Reserved, Jeff Griffiths 2017