It is the first line of a Marge Piercy poem that I think of often, on many days and for many years now since I first read it more than ten years ago when my son was first born.
“So much feels arbitrary.”
Poem “The Mystery of Survival” in “The Crooked Inheritance” (2006) page 131-133
And yet, I also have it’s equal and opposite thought a great deal of the time. Generally, a sense that I have on occasion that even the smallest act of kindness means just about everything. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed as a parent that each decision from the smallest “Which toothpaste to buy?” to the larger “Which school should I send my child to?” seems like it could radically shift the tragectory of my child’s life. In these cases, Marge Piercy’s poem both soothes my sense that every little thing is the most important thing and also terrifies me.
Part of what I love about my Pilgrimage Pittsburgh project is that I meet people while I’m walking around. It’s much easier to feel connected when we interact with the people in our neighborhoods and communities. There are so many people that live less than a block from my home who I don’t know at all. When I was in the yard that these pictures are from, a woman walked by and said to me, “Oh, the yard looks so beautiful. She just put a lot of work into it and I stopped by to tell her how great it looks.” I said, “I don’t know the person who lives here, I’m just taking pictures of the statues in the yard. They seems special.” The woman who I was talking to said, “Well, you know her husband died about a year ago.” No, you see, I didn’t know this woman who lives here or her grief or anything other than the fact that her front yard is filled with spirit. While some people might consider the appearance of their yard to be “arbitrary” or simply a matter of personal preference, nothing could be further from the truth. The person who created this yard is seeking solace through grief and also expressing a deep spiritual joy and profound faith. I felt the faith as I stood in the yard with the mixture of iconography and balance of playful and meaningful that existed there.
Next door to this small garden is a larger one with just as diverse iconography. In this yard, which has a prominent “Please Curb Your Dog” sign in the middle of the lawn, I found the most delightful “foo dog”, which is really a Chinese guardian lion. When the mouth is open like this it means “in and out” of the breath, like the symbol for “OM”. The ball under his foot suggests that this is a male guardian lion. The female version usually has a small pup with her rather than a ball. And, in another part of the yard, the most flat and yet delightful turtles. Turtles are considered a symbol of wisdom, endurance, wealth, and long life.
It turns out that as I pilgrimage around the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh that we have an incredibly diverse expression of iconography. This is both true of a single site and across multiple connected sites. In Diana Eck’s book, Darsan, which inspired this Pilgrimage Pittsburgh project, she illuminates how the iconography is an expression of the diversity in major religious traditions in India (Eck, page 24). She quotes Mark Twain’s journals from his travels through India when he states, “In religion, all other countries are paupers. India is the only millionaire.” (Eck, page 24) Yet, the diversity of iconography in these Pittsburgh neighborhoods suggests to me that we have an incredible diversity of presence of spirit, belief and faith. I sense so strongly that these leprechauns, turtles, protective lions and saints reflect on a commitment to higher powers, to playful energies and protection that is available to us through sources we can not see with the human eye. Therefore, we put these statues, that we can see with our human eyes, in our yards and make our communities a reflection of these powerful beliefs. This, in my opinion, is a commitment to a joined belief that we are, in fact, not arbitrary. That we are conduits for great ideas, beauty and profound hope. It is not an arbitrary act to set a leprechaun out on your front wall.
If this is your first Pilgrimage Pittsburgh post reading, I started this journey looking for “sacred images” in Pittsburgh and on my travels about three-years ago after reading a short book by Diana L. Eck called, “Darsan:Seeing the Divine Image in India”. I am using the third edition from Columbia University Press (1998) for my references. I keep a Facebook page for the project too and I hope that you will go there and “LIKE” the page because I post there when I have a new set of images and ideas up. If you aren’t into Facebook, then every Sunday, if there is a new post on my blog, my newsletter subscribers get an email newsletter with links to the new content. SUBSCRIBE HERE
Post by Sharon Fennimore, a rogue anthropologist, yogini and women’s health coach based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.