purpose

Weekly newsletter 3.9.2021

Friends,

When I lived in New York City, I welcomed a fair number of visitors, friends (and a few acquaintances) who took me up on my blanket offer of a couch to crash on in the Big Apple. When people wanted to see a show, Avenue Q was my go-to. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s like “Sesame Street” for adults, and it won the Tonys in 2004 for best musical, score, and book. Its success wasn’t based on just its musical theater innovations or parodies — for all its playful poking at the implicit queerness of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie in “Sesame Street,” the metaphor of prejudice among the puppet world (Princeton makes some pretty awful assumptions about monsters), and at the very human actors behind the faux-fur, the show cuts deep into the existential dread that greets newly-independent young adults (and that often returns to some of us later in life…or that waits just under the surface, ready to pounce on one’s mid- or later-life). After college, the protagonist Princeton finds himself aiming high to change the world but stymied by a lack of engaging work, the trappings of a tiny apartment, and, well, let’s just say, the temptations that prey on the young and naive. But with the help of his friends and neighbors, he finds his purpose, the thing he longs for in his initial “I want” song. In “Purpose,” he sings,

I’m gonna find my purpose
Could be far, could be near
Could take a week, a month, a year
At a job, or smoking grass
Maybe at a pottery class

In a strange way, Avenue Q always reminds me of one of my favorite books, The Treasure by Uri Shulevitz. In the fable, a poor, old man named Isaac dreams of a treasure buried under a bridge, but when he seeks it out in his waking life, he can’t access the well-guarded location. The captain of the guard mocks him for following his dreams, spilling that he had a dream once, too, that a treasure was buried under the stove of a poor old man named Isaac and prompting Isaac to return home where…you guessed it…he finds the treasure. After sending a priceless gem to the captain as a way of saying “thanks” (and as a little bit of shade), he builds a house of prayer with an inscription in the corner:

Sometimes one must travel far to discover what is near.

It took Isaac his whole life to find what he needed. It took Princeton, well, considerably less time. These days, I’ve found myself on the same road as Isaac, humming the same tune as Princeton. It’s only taken me two graduate degrees, three schools, and 17 years of teaching to get there. I don’t regret any of the last 20something years — I embrace them, and each day I search for points of intersection that allow my past to inform new experiences, and that allow new insights to inform the story I tell of my past.

UPCOMING

Guided Meditations | Mondays, 4:00pm PST, via Zoom

Good Stuff III | 4-week symposium on Mondays at 5:00pm PST begins on April 5. Sign up here!

Good habits: understanding nuns through film | 6-week symposium on Tuesdays at 5:00pm PST begins on April 6. Sign up here!

UPDATES

I started offering guided meditations four months ago (hard to believe), and I’m grateful for the groups that have shown up — sometimes I welcome a handful of folx, other times a bigger group; sometimes it’s friends from various corners of my life, other times strangers and new connections. In offering these, my goal isn’t dissemination of any particular idea — actually, I hope my technique is flexible enough for each person to find a connection between this practice and her or his own worldview and beliefs. What we’ve found in common is a need for a little peace and quiet. In the coming months, I hope to expand meditation offerings, but I need your help! I’ve got some ideas about the timing of meditation offerings and even expanding the types of meditations to offer. Let me know if I’m on the right track. If you’ve got 47 seconds (give or take a few), please complete this brief form: Guided Meditation: quick survey.

Guided meditations via Zoom continue! Mondays at 4:00pm PST. The aim is to practice being present — to ourselves, to others, and to the world. If you or someone you know could use a 20–30 minute dose of peace and quiet on Mondays,visit the meditation page on my site to sign up.

Next month, two new symposia are scheduled to launch: Good Stuff III (starting on April 5) and Good habits: understanding nuns through film (starting on April 6). If these topics pique your interest, or if you’re just looking for some meaningful conversation, consider joining a symposium. Full descriptions of all symposia are on my website. Symposia are limited to 10 participants and need 4 to run — if you’ve thought about participating, please sign up! For more details and to register, click here.

GOOD STUFF

Listen
I’m not sure when I first stumbled across Guatemalan singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno’s music, but soon after Illustrated Songs was released in 2011, the album was on repeat. She sang to me during groggy morning walks to the subway and on the way back to the subway as I trudged up the hill at the end of long days. I don’t speak Spanish (her songs include a mix of Spanish and English lyrics), but one of the things I quickly appreciated about her music is that I could understand the song even if I had no clue about the lyrics. She uses a diverse musical vocabulary — a little jazz, a little rock, a little blues, a little folk — a trait I rediscovered when she frequently performed on Chris Thile’s (much missed) Live From Here. “Y tu sombra” is one of those tracks — dreamy, lilting, and somehow simultaneously upbeat and forward-moving, before I ever searched for a translation I knew the song tapped into feelings of love and longing, right through the final moment of cascading blue notes. Listen to the song on Spotify, or enjoy the equally dreamy video.

If you stream music on Spotify, I’ve started a playlist called “Bill’s Good Stuff,” including music I’ve loved for a long time as well as things I’ve come across more recently. Feel free to add the playlist to your favorites! Bill’s Good Stuff Spotify Playlist

Watch
This year’s Golden Globes show was extraordinary for a few reasons (and for the moment, I’m setting aside scrutiny of its serious deficiencies in recognizing and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion aside). For one thing, it was hosted via split screen from both New York and Los Angeles with scattered and masked audiences of first responders and essential workers. Awards in the era of COVID, right? For another, Hollywood glitterati appeared via Zoom. Daniel Kaluuya even delivered a literally muted acceptance speech until someone figured out how to change his Zoom settings. #theyrejustlikeus Oh, and, because presenters and recipients weren’t distracted by a ballroom full of tipsy celebrities, speeches were tight (well, tighter than usual), thoughtful (well…), and much more impactful than ceremonies-past.

For me, the most extraordinary aspect of the Globes this year was Jane Fonda’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award, recognizing a lifetime of career achievement and social activism. Fonda didn’t heap praise on her costars and production team. She didn’t tell off-color stories from the golden days. She didn’t gush with exaggerated gratitude or get nostalgic by invoking her Hollywood-dominating family. Instead, she delivered a compelling and pointed reflection on the medium of film and the industry that is failing to fulfill its promise. She also offered a masterpiece of critical reflection. Succinctly, authentically, Fonda framed film and the people who create it as storytellers, rooting them in an ancient and central practice that has shaped the world as we know it. She found points of intersection with “all the great conduits of perception — Buddha, Mohammad, Jesus, LaoTzu” without reducing those conduits to the rank of Hollywood scriptwriter or suggesting that these great figures were all saying the same thing, a universalist tendency in many of us that sneaks in to avoid conflict or competition but that discards difference and ignores the authority of experience (I mean, if we are all doing the same thing, then we’d be doing the same thing). Instead, Fonda sees a common medium, not a common origin, message, or destination, and in this, she communicates pluralism more effectively (and accurately) than any other celebrity speech I’ve seen (and that includes presidential inauguration addresses that always seem to default to an inclusivist orientation”).

Fonda could’ve just relished in intellectual imaginings and still walked off the stage after a beautiful and thoughtful speech, but she recognized the moment we’re in and drew on the tradition of storytelling to hold a mirror up to Hollywood’s (and, by proxy, our collective) face. “[T]here’s a story we’ve been afraid to see and hear about ourselves in this industry, a story about which voices we respect and elevate and which we tune out, a story about who’s offered a seat at the table and who is kept out of the rooms where decisions are made.” Whether you’ve already seen it or have successfully avoided the start of awards season, it’s worth another watch to consider, what are the stories we’ve avoided? Who’s at the table, and who isn’t even in the room?

Read
In this week’s meditation, I used a poem by Mary Oliver.

“Messenger”
Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird -
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished,
The phoebe, the delphinium,
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we will live forever.

Looking for previous newsletters? They’re all posted on my blog.

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Bill Hulseman

Bill Hulseman

Ritual designer & officiant, educator, facilitator | billhulseman.com