Recapturing Paradise Lost

~ By Franca Telesio Smith ~

In early childhood, life is experienced with avid rapture and an all-absorbing, frolicking delight in ‘just being”, a being-ness that has not been corrupted nor mangled out of shape, yet.

With the passage of time one does become aware, that something primordial, visceral and non-questioning has transmuted itself, ever so stealthily, into a diaphanous, evanescent memory. We believe more and more that the dictates of the ego, with its opinions, contradictions, logic, the intellect, etc. that all that is the non-plus-ultra of terrestrial experiences. “Is it, though?” bemoans a tenuous, infiltrating susurration of a cavernous voice within. Month, years pass. One feels constricted and suffocated – Ego has donned its barnacle-encrusted cuirass. (Of course one needs the ego-self, the problem is that we don’t know how and when to let go of it; we hold onto it like dear life, not realizing that that is the source of all sorts of tribulations and sufferings.) I want to reflect on how the pursuit of that state of innocence was recaptured and how that would have a tremendous influence on my capacity to accept some very difficult situations, and, in spite of them, still be able to enjoy subsequent actions.

I grew up in “Marianum”, a convent school in Menzingen, Switzerland. My mother Kara deemed that to be the only and best solution for my well-being. After escaping from a German Prisoner of War Camp, she was confronted with, not only, the bleak reality of having lost everything, the apartment in Milan and all the cherry orchards, but she had to endure the implacable, scathing virulence of most of her family’s baleful glare: “She has a daughter out of wedlock!” a hermetic intransigence which would not allow compassion for what had befallen her. In the camps, she and the other women had to submit daily to the soldier’s brutality and bestiality or they would either be struck down, plenty of that! or die. Anyway, she was ostracized by her own family and had to look for help somewhere else.

I’m going back to the convent, to one of my most vivid memories. At break-neck speed, my legs devour the space between the main convent and the white, square school building. My legs pump vigorously up the interminable stairs, two at a time, until I plop myself down, steam still coming out of my ears, into my allocated desk. I am as happy as a lark. A sigh of contentment suffuses me: not only ’cause nobody has beaten me to being the first one there but because my whole being yearns to be there and learn new mysteries that Herr Lehrer Koppli, my teacher, is going to expound on that day. Although extremely severe, I loved him as a mentor.

One day, my first piano melody reached my ears, and, though its cascading resonated behind a “verboten” door, I dared to sneak a peek, so the music could enchant me more vividly. I was totally flummoxed by the sight of Koppli at the piano. He was deeply absorbed in his piano-playing. Never could I have fathomed that such a dour man could play with such mellifluous tenderness and passion. In all probability, that occasion awoke my love for classical music.
Many years later I find myself every day, all day, in a dance studio, submitting myself happily to the grueling sculpting of a dancer’s body. A body, that at first glance, appears fragile and delicate but is lightning fast and as strong, well, not quite, but almost as strong as Bruce Lee’s, and imbued with possibly even more lithe, feline grace. Finally, after eleven years training, I am ready to take the leap and dance on stage. Extraordinary things happen when one succeeds to go beyond the daily exhaustion from classes, interminable rehearsals (one time I counted one hundred twenty repetitions of the same dance phrase until all the company members were synchronous). To reiterate, when one succeeds in going beyond that exhaustion, suddenly one is flying high, very high and the love and joy one feels is so sweet, so deep and indescribable. Scintillating diamonds oscillate and linger tremulously, until they inundate the eyes with their copiousness… Nothing can match that resplendent rapture for me! Of course, the music helps fuel and enhance that rhapsodic ecstasy as well.

Hours later, after the performance, I am still cradled by that all-consuming ardor; I cannot eat – I cannot sleep. I savor and relive the evening, still in the throes of such sweet bliss, a bliss that has nothing to do with the acclaim of the audience. It is solely generated by an immense focus on the activity at hand, where even the notion of this body called Franca has disappeared.

A warbling song without words, the so-called Muse, captures and lures me into its filigree depth.

At age twenty eight, all that was shattered. All that jumping, all that dancing and rehearsing without respite, the minuscule eating and insufficient sleep, all that had taken its toll. I broke my back in three places.

From England, the center point of my dancing, I took a plane back to Venezuela. Twelve years before, I had beseeched my mother to let me go and let me train at the Arts Educational Trust in England otherwise I’d kill myself. And now, oh mauling and brutal irony! I was returning, my spirit and back, broken. She would be the only one who had the patience, love and resilience to take care of me. I was living in an internal devastation, I wanted to die.
For eleven years I never listened to music for fear of rekindling the searing fire of a voracious and all consuming longing for music and dance – its softly crepitating embers still coruscating in crepuscular oblivion.

Inexorably, life goes on. I wasn’t dying fast nor soon enough. Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that something had to give, that I had to do something else. I was hoping to find again that elusive “something” from my childhood and from my dance experience.

In Boston, I studied Macrobiotics, bolstered by hopes of improving my back. And it is in Aveline and Michio Kushi’s study house that I had my first Zen meditation experience. It was horrible and transcendental all at the same time, and, despite the agonizing knee and back pain I was so inspired that I asked Shinzen and Maylii, recently arrived acquaintances from Monte Negro, when the next session was.

The explosive clap of an up-close thunderbolt lacerated my internal aridness and lambasted years of apathy asunder! I just had the same, deeply loving experience, the same immense aliveness that had engulfed me when I was still dancing, thawing, playing an instrument and listening to certain kinds of music. A gargantuan belch finally had been freed from the most recondite corridors of my mind.

Thence, I became a seeker. I found myself going from one Rinzai Zen Buddhist monastery to another: first, Cimarron Zen Center, then Mt. Baldy Zen Center, a Benedictine Monastery, possibly in Massachusetts, Jemez Bodhi Mandala in New Mexico and San Sho Ji Monastery in Nara, Japan.

I am deeply intrigued by Zen Master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. In Sanzen, a private interview during a seven day sesshin/retreat, he glows with caressing affability and inexhaustible patience, a vividly incandescent example of that “something” that could be awakened in me, in everybody. Deep is my link to him. And it did, indeed, take me twenty five years to fully understand and, most of all, to experience and pin-point the way to let go of myriad abstruse concoctions of my ego-self’s mind so that my True Nature could shine forth. But even in my early days, despite those glimpses being only sporadic, the relentless pursuit and deepening of that internal music is what enabled me to take care of my husband Erlend who became almost totally incapacitated, mentally and physically, after two unsuccessful brain surgeries. I am sure, had I not experienced those moments of my True Self, at first during meditation and, as time passed that meditation state carrying through and imbuing more and more my daily activities, I could not have done it.

Like most of us, I wanted to run away, far away, forget what had happened, just leave Erlend in the lurch, in a nursing home, and turn my back to a horrid and hauntingly difficult situation. My impotent twisting and writhing in irresolution could have sucked me into a quagmire were it not for an insistent, internal voice exhorting, cajoling me to honor a promise that I had made at the time I’d met Erlend. He had thrown me a lifeline, his friendship and care, as I was shriveling up in the vastness of my loneliness and despair. At that time I had vowed solemnly to myself that if ever anybody needed friendship and care like I had needed it, I’d be there for them. And it is this cause, plus the meditation, that had the effect of empowering and sustaining me for the twenty-four years that were to follow.

Now, in the midst of chaos, squalor, opulence, disgusting and foul behavior, no matter what, nothing can destroy that glowing joy and gratitude of being ALIVE, except for the fears hunkering in the penumbra of my mind. Fulminate them at once, for they are the ones that put a noose around me and prevent me from being totally in the moment! Shatter the preconceptions, the likes and dislikes, the comparisons, the should and should-not, strike them into oblivion the moment as, like a periscope peeking out of the waters, I become aware of their malodorous, pervasive, malefic insidiousness!

It was, still is, an arduous journey escalating the steep and scabrous precipices that life has thrown at me. All those mountains are blessings in disguise. Now, after all that insular, self-centered seclusion, I relish meeting people, hidden fears of them left way back. I do love learning new things now and I cavort delightedly in the aureus splendor of creation.

Daily, I am cradled by that inexplicable love that comes from nowhere…

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