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)

The Space Between Us

ScannedImageI was recently introduced to  a new-to-me author, Thrity Umrigar, an Indian-American. I was originally drawn to the title of her novel, The Space Between Us. In my philosophical work, I created the concept of The Between, the space which lies between the dichotomies this culture has created such as men and women, night and day, humans and the environment. The Between offers connection, creativity, and love. However this culture has for the most part amputated this rich and alive part of our lives. See The Emperor Has  Body: Body-Politics in the Between.

Anyway, I loved that first book. Thrity’s astute sensibilities picked up on the very things that interest me about human culture. She sees class, gender, friendship, parenthood with an eye for context, uncovering the underpinnings of culture that push us into places we can’t understand ourselves. I went on to read another of her books and got my step-daughter hooked as well. This week I needed a birthday present for her and went in search of more books by Thrity. I called four bookstores in Berkeley, none of which had her books. Since I was planning a trip up Route 101 anyway, I tried Book Passage in Corte Madera. What an amazing bookstore! They have a huge inventory and what looks to be a thriving author’s reading series. Not only did they have several of her books on hand, but the clerk, who knew her work, was able to suggest to me another author I might like.

I used to find myself in Cody’s on Telegraph quite frequently, but I must admit that I haven’t been in a bookstore in a while. I have gotten in the habit of purchasing used books online from bookstores all over the country. In Book Passages I was reminded of what I had been missing. I saw so many books that caught my eyes; the atmosphere was so pleasant I felt as if I was visiting an old friend. When I found the books I was looking for, as well as another one for my niece for her graduation, I leafed through them as if I had just drunk some kind of love potion. The smell of the books, their loving arrangement in neighborhoods, the familiar feeling of my love of reading, an electricity in the air created by the books themselves and all that went into making them, the friendly clerks who share this love—what an aphrodisiac!

Then in giving the books away, I felt as if I was giving some of that very feeling to my step-daughter. I could have given her the gift on Kindle but since I don’t have one, and I am going to want to borrow the books, I gave her the real thing. I can’t imagine feeling the same feelings if I had given her the books on Kindle. I feel as if I have created a reciprocal relationship with those books; this, even before reading them. I had gone on the first date in the dreamy atmosphere of the bookstore and I had established a loyalty, not just to the author, but to the beauty of the thing itself, the thing that I could smell and feel and rub against my face.

I feel as if I had awakened from a 21st century cyber-dream where I was beginning to wonder if we ever needed to see each other face to face or if e-mail and texting would do fine. Now I remember the value of something that I hadn’t even spoken of before. I hope we can articulate the value of unseen qualities such as touch, smell, and a kind of electric energy before we lose them in more places than bookstores, but surely there, surely there. As Joni Mitchell would say, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…

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.