Every Breath a Prayer

drum and fireAbout a year ago I blogged about the possibilities of living to breathe rather than breathing to live. The idea is that when we can truly take a deep breath, we connect ourselves to each other and to the plants, animals, and all of our ancestors. We take in the oxygen made by the plants and in return give them the carbon monoxide that they need. And the inert argon molecule is one that has existed on the planet since life began, going in and out of different lungs constantly throughout time, linking us with all ancestors human and non-human who have ever lived and breathed.oak and view

Every breath becomes a prayer when we are conscious of that breath connecting us to all beings, past, present and future ones as we infuse the out breath with love and take in the wisdom of the ages. Being able to breathe in deep peace, relaxing ourselves as we breathe, gives us a kind of resilience we can get no other way. We calm ourselves and gain access to realms of greater wisdom and resources.

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Sunset at a Spiral Gathering

I recently attended a Spiral Gathering in Jenner, CA. There eight women gathered to enter the world of the Between, (the space between us) through collaborative art and ritual. We have no prior agenda, though anyone who wants to can contribute art supplies and we may or may not use them. We usually let our dreams lead us into explorations through poetry, visual art, improv, music, and movement. We have found over the years that the more we breathe deeply and allow ourselves to be led, rather than impose our will on the gathering, the more magic we encounter that weaves us into a form not previously imagined.

The spirits of the Nigerian girls who have been kidnapped appeared in our circle and with them came a lot of pain associated with the devaluation of women over the centuries. (this gathering took place before the shooting rampage in Isla Vista this week enacted by a young man who evidently believed that if he wanted a woman, he should by rights have her as he would have any other “thing” that he wanted.)

Imagining what the Nigerian girls might need, we collaboratively made them objects out of clay and infused them with resourcefulness and resilience.

Because at times the pain of these girls (combined with centuries of violence against women) became overwhelming, we decided that we needed a ritual at the sea to release the pain so that we could approach such issues and not have to be frightened that the pain will overwhelm us.

But I couldn’t walk to the ocean because of a foot injury. After discussing how important it was to get to the ocean, I found myself saying, “Well, I am not opposed to crawling…”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe found a place where the parking lot was closest to the sea and then all those who could, crawled across the dunes with me to the sea. With all of us doing it together, it felt somehow evolutionary, like we were evolving back to the sea. There was a humility, a closeness to the earth, a different perspective on the sand and on the journey itself. This resourcefulness was what we had in mind for the girls. It involved being open to possibilities and transforming obstacles into opportunities.

Breathing in, we open to wisdom and assistance from the invisibles; Breathing out, we embrace the present circumstances.

We completed the ritual using material from dreams some of us had had and released it into the sea in a clay boat.

Healing and creativity are inextricably intertwined. Both are so much more accessible when we can release fear and our own agendas, take that deep prayerful breath and see what comes.

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collaborative mask made at a Spiral Gathering a few years ago

 

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Not Yet Out of Breath

Yesterday I heard the Del Sol String Quartet with special guest didgeridoo player Stephen Kent play a piece called String Quartet #14 composed by Australian Peter Sculthorpe for string quartet and didgeridoo.* The score was based on a legend that Tasmanian colonial government soldiers once drove a tribe of Aboriginals to a forbidding mountainous bluff where they had the choice of being shot or jumping to their deaths. They chose to jump and as they did, they yelled, “Quamby, quamby” which means “save me, save me.”

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Stephen Kent, master didgeridoo player, host of world music show on KPFA (Thursdays at 11:00 am)

The piece had four movements: Prelude, In the Valley, On High Hills and At Quamby Bluff. For me, when the didgeridoo entered he song, I felt a great sense of relief, of being held by forces unseen, as if instead of people jumping to their deaths, the earth came up to meet them and carry them home. It felt almost as if the strings were the human mind telling this gruesome story and the didgeridoo heralded a larger, ancient planetary story that is not yet ended.

Western culture is still, as it were, driving the indigenous people off the cliff and yet their very breath, the breath needed to play the didgeridoo still circulates around this planet, surrounding humans with the knowledge that we are part of the earth, that we are all connected, no matter how many times we drive try to that wisdom over the cliff.

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Aboriginal style artwork

Last fall I visited an overlook at Canyon De Chelly in Arizona that reminded me of this Tasmanian story. In the 1800’s there were people living in the caves along the rim of Canyon De Chelly and a massacre took place. Some soldiers stood where we were standing and shot into a cave across the way and some soldiers made their way into the cave to kill the remaining people. The cave is called The Place Where Two Fell because one of the native women grabbed a soldier and took him over the cliff with her. I read the story before my traveling companion, Viviane, and I went to the overlook and I was reluctant to even go there. But we decided that for the sake of healing, we would go and I would play didgeridoo into the canyon.

When we arrived, we heard haunting Native American flute music drifting towards us. I not only played into the canyon from there, but I began to collaborate with the Native flute player, D’von Charley. We played for a long time with Viviane singing and Lu from Belgium dancing. The whole tableau was a prayer for healing.

pottery sherd found near Chaco Canyon, NM

pottery sherd found near Chaco Canyon, NM

The human race is not out of breath yet and neither are the indigenous peoples. A Navajo man that Viviane and I talked to near Chaco Canyon in New Mexico told us that in the Diné language, to say the word for “thank you” to someone, one must engage deep inside oneself at the diaphragm, taking a huge breath that penetrates one’s being. And one does not just thank the person, but the entire context in which that person arose, the ancestors, the plants, the animals, the land that supported that person’s life.

With the breath we make this healing music. With the circular breath of the didgeridoo, we acknowledge the circle of life that sustains us, the ancestors and plants and animals who came before us. We make a way for that breath that sustains all life. And we give thanks for that breath and for those who write and play such music. Thank you Del Sol String Quartet, Stephen Kent, composer Peter Sculthorpe and all those who  have lost their lives in this struggle to keep humans in right balance with the rest of the natural world.

(*the didgeridoo is an Aboriginal drone instrument made out of a eucalyptus branch hollowed out by termites that is used for ceremony and hunting)

Not Another Step

???????????  For about a week, I have been on crutches, unable to put weight on my left ankle/foot. This situation has caused a forced shut down of my activities. I had been trying to get back to normal after a series of journeys this summer and fall, when my ankle began to hurt and then got steadily worse. The pain started after the ten day National Parks trip and before I went to Tennessee to assist my mother in her recovery from back surgery which was right before a week’s trip to the ocean.

As I wrote that last sentence I realized that all of this is about the mother, writ large and small. At the Bay Area Daré (a monthly gathering for healing and peace-making) on Sunday, I asked for healing work for myself. When asked to tell the story of this ankle/foot, I began with the silent retreat I attended at Mt. Tamalpais in August. The retreat, including sitting and walking meditation, took place outdoors among the redwood trees. Since I was born with a neuro-muscular disorder that affects the shape of my feet and thereby my balance, walking meditation has always been extra-challenging for me. It is only in recent years that I have attempted the walking meditation and this year found myself deriving a great deal of joy and satisfaction from it. My high arches make it so that not much of my foot touches the ground when I walk normally. But in the deliberateness of the walking meditation, I found that my feet were given time to spread out and touch more of the ground.  Each step became an offering to the earth and the earth seemed to be reciprocating. Image

At times it was as if I were dancing with the earth as I walked, a kind of one, two, three, waltz rhythm. I remember that rhythm following me into lunch where I continued to sway to that beat as I ate my food. Time flew by as my consciousness was invited into my feet where it so seldom lives. Feet kissing the earth, dancing with its rhythms, my mind quiet.

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Wupatki

I started the story there because it feels as if that shifting in my relationship with the earth mother was a watershed event. The next thing I knew I was on the National Parks trip for ten days and walking on sacred ground in the footsteps of ancestors who have honored that earth for hundreds of years—in Yosemite, Mono Lake, Bristle Cone Pine Forest, Death Valley, Chaco Canyon, Canyon De Chelly, Sunset Crater and Wupatki.

Upon my return, my foot/ankle began to hurt but I managed it and continued on.

Then suddenly I am in Tennessee with my mother helping her in her recovery from back surgery. This interlude did not put a lot of stress on my feet but demonstrated a way to give back to the mother who has given me so much. The back is the primary support system for the body as well as a primary nerve center. Feeling. Reciprocity.

Then to the ocean at Sea Ranch and to a Spiral Gathering and ritual there for the oceans and especially for healing the fallout from the Fukishima disaster that goes on and on and does not stop at any country’s borders. And walking the sands of that place, entering sea caves and playing didgeridoo for the rocks, the sea, the seaweed and the seals.elise in cave

And then suddenly, I cannot take another step, there is so much pain. Perhaps my feet are taking in the pain of the Mother Earth or I have absorbed so much from these places where I have stepped that I must stop until I can integrate all of that energy into this small human body and learn the lessons I am meant to learn and tell the stories I am meant to tell.

After I told my story at Daré, and after I lay flat on my back and was held by a circle of lovely people and their ancestors and after they had walked around me in a reverent and joyful slow meditative walk, I felt relieved of something that had been too much for one individual to hold. They were taking some of the weight as well.

The pain is gone now and I am gradually putting a little weight on my foot. And I am telling the stories here and will continue them in the next blogs. Now you, too, help me carry that joy and that load. We can all begin to walk again in a different way, sharing the pain and the joy of the earth mother, one foot after the other, giving and receiving.????????????????????

Living to Breathe

Mask created at a Spiral Gathering

Mask collaboratively created at a Spiral Gathering

While driving, I turned off the radio to let my mind open up to a topic that has been of interest to me lately, didgeridoo and breathing. What came floating into me was this: Many people in Western culture breathe to live instead of living to breathe. My first reaction was that this thought was too radical–what in the world would it mean to live to breathe?

Then the rationale started to come. When we are anxious (according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is now the nation’s most common psychiatric complaint, affecting some 40 million people), we breathe in a shallow way, taking in the minimum oxygen required to live. It is as if by controlling our breathing, we feel we are controlling the situation. And breathing becomes a means to stay alive, nothing more. We limit air’s entry into us, limiting what comes all the way into us.

But what if?  What if the act of breathing deeply, allowing air into the center of ourselves is actually what connects us with all things? Oxygen, of course, has been produced by the plants and trees and provides us with a connection to the plant world. And then there is the element called argon, an inert gas that we breathe in and out without absorbing. Argon has been around since the atmosphere was first formed and because it is inert, it has been in and out of the lungs of people and animals on this planet for millennium.

In his book The Sacred Balance, Canadian scientist David Suzuki says”Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets.” And from the exhalations of dinosaurs, whales, and our grandmothers. Suzuki continues saying, “each breathe is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come… Air is a matrix that joins all life together, past and future as well as present. We inhale our ancestors and exhale into the lungs of our children.”  From the Green Interview–The Most Important Idea in the World – Sunday column, March 20, 2011 http://www.thegreeninterview.com/blog/most-important-idea-world-sunday-column-march-20-2011

My contribution to this conversation is that this air that we breathe, when we breathe deeply, can help to in-form us, to form us as connected beings. We then have access to the wisdom of the ages at our deepest core. Our culture is so visual that something like air which cannot be seen (unless it is so polluted that it has a color…), is over”looked” as an essential part of our being. But air is in our every cell. When we breathe deeply, we can feel that connection with the unseen that assists us in choosing right action in every moment. Anxiety’s shallow breathing tends to keep us from accessing that support, wisdom and, I might say, love.

When I am teaching didgeridoo and I demonstrate taking that deep breath that activates the diaphragm, I move into a place of great letting go and peace. I am not forcing the breath into my body, I am simply letting go to make space for breath to enter. That deep breath reminds me that I am not an isolated individual having to make it on my own, but am part of a huge matrix of past, present and future that is holding me, supporting me, keeping me from falling. When I take that breath, I know that I am held.

So living to breathe is not a far-fetched an idea; it is actually something to ease into that has the power to change how we stand in relation to this moment, this breath, this life, this planet and all that we encounter here. Try it on and let me know how it fits for you.

Honoring the Trees

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oak at sunrise, Henry Coe State Park

I read not too long ago of an oak tree in China that sprouted in the year 550 AD and just fell down recently. What a lot it saw in all those years! Where do tree spirits go when the trees die?

In Turkey, people are staging an uprising because of a plan to cut down trees in their plaza and replace them with a mall. It is a flashpoint for bringing people together and allowing them to think about what trees mean to the planet and to all of us creatures who live here. The trees are making everyone consider what’s important to them; the trees seem to be inciting democracy.

I have been following the proposed action by University of California at Berkeley (UCB), City of Oakland, and East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). They have applied for FEMA grants to cut down a half million trees in the East Bay hills and spray thousands of gallons of herbicide in the clear cut areas. This is part of a misguided fire hazard risk reduction project.The plan is to remove all non-native trees (eucalyptus, Monterey pine, acacia, etc.) and vegetation from the project area: about 86,000 trees in Strawberry and Claremont canyons and in Oakland.  Of course this will have an effect on possible landslides and will reduce habitat for so many birds and insects who have always known these trees and have a relationship with them even if they are non-native.

The public has until June 17, 2013 to submit written comments on the project. Please take the time to  submit written comments:

Via the project website: http://ebheis.cdmims.com

By email: EBH-EIS-FEMA-RIX@fema.dhs.gov

By mail: P.O. Box 72379, Oakland, CA 94612-8579

By fax: 510-627-7147

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Old Man’s Cave State Park in Ohio (Photo Credit: Mark Peeples)

I urge all of us to take the time to go and sit with a tree, see if some of that wisdom and democracy rubs off on us. And take the time to thank the trees for all they do for humans and the rest of the natural world. What steadfast presences they are on this planet. They have so much to teach us about patience and standing our ground.

Summoning Ghosts (part two)

In the last blog, I promised an excerpt from Between Here and Hereafter that was connected to the theme of Summoning Ghosts.

At the beginning of that as-yet-unpublished novel, the main character Miriam is turned toward death, constantly summoning her conjoined twin sister Katie who died when they were separated at age six. She was living out of balance with the here and the hereafter, leaning in towards the hereafter.

Western culture strikes me as also being out of balance when it comes to mortality and the cycles of life. Death is a taboo subject in many ways and yet, we see violence and death glorified in films, video games and television. Barraged with images of death and dying, guns being sold both within our country and to other countries, we inure ourselves to other’s suffering and dying. Do we think that the more we act as if we don’t care about death, the less chance there is that we ourselves will die?

We are not a culture who honors the ancestors, or allows ourselves to grieve. I recently read Edie Hartshorne’s book Light in Blue Shadows: Transforming Grief where she faces the death of her nineteen year old son by his own hand. This book is not a bestseller, not because it is not beautifully written and wise, but, I think, because our culture is so afraid of such topics. And yet such topics are exactly what give meaning and beauty to our lives, speaking directly to our hearts, to what we know in our bones is important and why we are on this earth.

My novel is an attempt to bring out of the shadows the topic of death and to see how we might transform ourselves with that conversation into whole beings who embrace the light and the dark.

Here is a short excerpt from Between Here and Hereafter:

“The whole world has mourning sickness and doesn’t know it,” Miriam said, as she started class on the Monday before Thanksgiving. She went into a kind of reverie. “All around me I hear the moans of mourning sickness. Grief exploding in more bombs, causing more grief. These are time bombs of unshed tears. Death as an enemy can never be vanquished, but there are many other foes who can. So we direct our missiles towards them. If this nation ever fully grieved, we could be compassionate leaders.”

That day they spoke of war and its effects not only on the dead and their loved ones, but on the ones who are required to kill and on their loved ones. Joe’s group took the lead in the discussion.

        Near the end of class, Miriam reminded them that she would be going out to Alcatraz on Thanksgiving Day to pay tribute to the ancestors of this land. “This ritual on the island supports those Native Americans who, in spite of the genocidal actions of this country, are still managing to live in this country, often in grief, anger and poverty. There will be drumming and dancing in the sunrise ceremony. A celebration of a new day and the hope for a new way.Image

Summoning Ghosts

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Photo Credit: Cynthia Waters

This week I went to see Summoning Ghosts, the title of a current exhibit at the Oakland Museum. It is the Art of Hung Liu whom some of you may be familiar with if you frequent the Oakland Airport where she has an exhibit called “Going Away, Coming Home.” The exhibit is nothing short of phenomenal and may be one of the best exhibits I have ever seen.

I am particularly drawn to these paintings after a dream I had last week in which I was playing the didgeridoo toward a wall and I knew that on the other side of the wall were people who had died. As I played the wall slowly became a window and I could see that those on the other side were young people. I felt in the dream as if I had been “summoning ghosts.”

One of Liu’s inspirations is using old photographs depicting people who have been forgotten about and whose individuality in their lifetimes was devalued and maybe despised, such as prostitutes or orphan girls. In one instance, she separated the orphan girls out and featured them in individual or smaller groupings and gave them dignity, emphasizing their uniqueness.

Most of those she paints have most likely passed over into the realm of the ancestors. And these “ghosts” who may have suffered greatly in their time on earth are shown in all of their compelling humanity, embodied souls who lived as best they could in the political milieu into which they were born.

One of her most compelling techniques is to allow certain paint drippings to remain in the painting. These drippings signified sweat, tears, a sense of the ancient, and for me the most important was the feeling of gravity in the paintings as the drips were pulled down towards the earth and one had the sense of creatures connected in such a real way to the ground on which they stood. She uses butterflies and birds as a motif and paints circles, maybe to remind us all of the cycles of life.

In this new spring and the season of Easter and Passover, we all ponder the circle of life and death and what is important to us in this place that we are only passing through.

In Adam David Miller’s words from his poem Forever Afternoon:

 “…Life is a wheel of fortune, my life

a gift to be passed around the wheel.

 Do we ask where does the caterpillar

go when it becomes a butterfly?

The caterpillar does not go, it becomes.

Spirit of caterpillar lives in butterfly,

same heart, beating stronger.”

In Part Two of this blog, I will post another excerpt from my novel Between Here and Hereafter.