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)

Abuelita! Abuelita!

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In the studio of Fuster, community artist extraordinaire. “We think we are wandering through Never-Never Land… until like a thunderbolt, we become unexpectedly aware of the fact that this is a trip to the center of ourselves…” (from Fuster: the Quest for a Dream) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jos%C3%A9_Rodr%C3%ADguez_Fuster

“Abuelita! Abuelita!” cried the eleven year old autistic Cuban child in heart-wrenching and primal screams for his grandmother as their family boarded our plane from Santiago de Cuba to Havana a couple of weeks ago. Each time the family calmed him down a bit, something such as the plane beginning its taxi would remind him that he was leaving his Abuelita and his wailing would begin again. I don’t know if they were simply returning home to Havana or they were leaving the country.

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view from the roof of the house where we stayed in Santiago.

I can still feel that expression of deep grief and without much effort, I could join in that wailing, maybe not directly for my grandmother but for all those I am connected to and have lost and for deep connection itself, to others and to the land. Leaving Santiago, I felt a kind of bereavement because in such a short time, I had become connected to the neighbors in the neighborhood in which Adam and I had stayed. There we had had time to relax and let the energy of the place seep into our pores (as the sweat seeped out—maybe making room?).  Cubans say that Santiago is a place of great hospitality, but what I felt went far beyond that–to love itself and to a sincere looking out for one another. The place welcomed loving without reason, quickly and without reserve. It’s ineffable, yes. But I know it when I feel it and love was running through the streets.

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Vegetable and fruit vendor singing out, “Ajo, cebollo,” throughout the day.

So when I heard the young boy who had no inhibitions about expressing his grief, I could feel my heart break with longing for something that I miss back here in the United States with all of its material wealth. We speak of making sure there is a safety net so that no one hits the ground when bad times befall us. Cuba felt like a place where everyone was already on the ground. They hadn’t fallen there but fought long and hard to get there and to stay there, together. No one is way high up in some World Trade Tower, but everyone is together on the ground, in the squares and the backyards, taking good care of each other and the ground itself. All the resources there on the ground are shared; everyone has a guarantee of food, a place of live, excellent health care and education that seeks out what one is good at and nurtures it, be that engineering, visual art, music, etc.

Looking around here after returning from Cuba, I kept having the sensation of falling. Everything seemed so precarious with shiny surfaces reflecting a Potemkin village.** So much feels like surface- only, temporary and without depth. I contrast that with an honest and creative shabbiness that pervades Cuba, a sincere attempt to live lives as best they can with limited shared resources. They are the first to complain when something is not right there, but very few complain about socialism itself, just ideas to make it work better, with less bureaucracy and more streamlining. In the end, all the tweaking to make it better, rests on the intention that all will share in the wealth of the nation, not just the one percent who will get richer and richer at the expense of everyone else.

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Casteneda (left), wife and 100 year old parents and Adam (second from right)

It is no small difference between here and there. We, too, are constantly tweaking, but in the end unless we change things radically, we will still be living in a culture based on capitalism, where the primary motivator is greed, and our struggles will still result in environmental destruction and huge disparities among people with some in abject poverty, without the necessities of life: health care, food, education and a place to stay.

A net is a lonely and drafty place to land, though it is better than nothing. Luckily there is a place in the world that has been trying something different for 55 years now and while it is not perfect, it is definitely worth experiencing, if only to give us the knowledge that it does not have to be the way it is in our country. That small island has so much to teach us and because there are so many restrictions on our travel and trade imposed by our own government, we have so few ways of learning them. Maybe it is just too great a threat for our citizens to learn how many things are possible (even in a poor country) if we are looking to the benefit of humanity instead of the benefit of a few ultra-wealthy individuals.

Abuelita! Abuelita! May this deep and ancient sadness find expression so that our home, too, can be  one where people are real, watch out for each other, and express our love to each other and to the other beings that live here, on the ground, together.

**(originally used to describe a fake village, built only to impress. According to the story, Grigory Potemkin erected fake settlements along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool Empress Catherine II during her visit to Crimea in 1787. The phrase is now used, typically in politics and economics, to describe any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that some situation is better than it really is.)

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