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.”

stephen kent picture copy

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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)

Advertisements

Abuelita! Abuelita!

2013-01-31 22.24.22

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.

2013-02-07 03.43.07

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.

2013-02-07 23.58.47

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.

2013-02-05 23.07.14

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.)

They Can’t Take That Away From Me

If you’ve been reading these blogs, you know that I am reporting on the trip my friend Viviane and I took to visit National Parks and to see our great friend Connie on her 75th birthday. Connie and I go way back (more than thirty years). She was the co-founder of our non-profit organization called Art Between Us. But even before that, I never would have finished my first book The Emperor Has a Body without the discussions she and I had every Friday night for years.BookCoverSm We would meet and just talk, some gossip but mostly talking about ideas and how to make the world a better place. Since she moved to Albuquerque some 14 years ago, I have never found a replacement for that deep connection that she and I had. Art Between Us, The Spiral, Explorations in the Between and ensuing Spiral Gatherings which still continue, were amazing accomplishments that would not have materialized without her.SpiralCover Since Viviane is a major player in the Spiral Gatherings, it was fitting that she and I make it to pay homage to Connie on her 75th birthday.

The last installment of this blog brought us through Death Valley and to Tecopa Hot Springs. Next came a long tedious drive through Arizona to Holbrook, Arizona, near the New Mexico border.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (67)

The one happening worth reporting that day was when we stopped at a Rest Area. Outside the bathrooms, a Native American woman was displaying her stunning jewelry. On our way out, we looked at her wares and struck up a conversation. She lived on a reservation not far from there. We decided to buy Connie a necklace with a heart within a heart that had turquoise decoration but was made mainly of hematite; it was colorful and appealed to both of us. Before we had finished our transaction, a man flashed a sign to our seller that the cops were coming. Before we could complete our transaction, she grabbed up her stuff and ran into the restroom where we followed her. Evidently it is against the law to sell your wares that way at a rest stop. We sympathized with the woman, completed our transaction and left, wishing her well, having been witnesses to that harassment.

After passing a horribly stinky coal plant not too far from our destination, we arrived in Holbrook, Arizona to stay at a motel there. We reveled in the bath tub and re-charged all of our various electronic equipment. I couldn’t find my phone charger so had to keep the phone off the whole trip. My mother had had surgery the day we left so I was worrying about that on and off throughout the trip, calling for updates occasionally and just generally feeling too far away to be of any use.

The next morning we had a long conversation with the clerk at the motel while we were eating the breakfast they provided. He was an artist and filmmaker just working there to make ends meet. He told us of his plans to make documentaries and narrative films. Loved the title of his production company, Refrigerator Door Productions. He seemed to get in trouble with his bosses for not getting his work done properly. We slipped out so that he could concentrate on the business at hand.

We met Connie and her friend Karin in Grants, NM on September 28th, Connie’s seventy-fifth birthday between 11:30 and noon. Our plan was to eat lunch and then drive to Chaco Canyon. However, since the region had experienced 10 hours of rain a couple days before, the main roads were washed out and we would have had to go a long way around on bad roads to get there. Connie was afraid of the bumpiness of the drive and opted to just stay around Grants and the lovely hotel and relax. We had a nice lunch and then took a swim in the hotel’s indoor pool and a soak in their hot tub—we had it to ourselves.

For dinner, the hotel recommended a place they called the Bistro and we went in search of it. However, we drove by where we thought it was three times and could see nothing resembling the Bistro. We asked some people and finally found the restaurant which was actually called La Bella Vida. We were charmed the minute we entered the colorful and joyful place.

Every surface that could be painted, was painted in a naïve style. We were all dressed colorfully as well so we fit right in. Turned out that the restaurant has only been in business for one month and the owners, a couple, were there and available to speak with us about how the restaurant came to be. The site had been a restaurant before but had been unoccupied for seven years. The wife was the painter of the tables and pictures hanging on the wall and in the restrooms. They had a Navajo cook who was from the Acoma people nearby. He also came out and gave us his story about having learned Italian cooking and then going to Italy and staying with a family there to complete his studies. When he returned, he found that he could not work at say, an Olive Garden, because his creativity would be crushed. So this small place near his birthplace was perfect to allow his creativity to blossom. He began work at 7:00 am making the soups (the Minestone was fabulous) and was there when we left at about 8:30 pm. Our meals of eggplant parmesan and fettuccine were first rate. And they whole staff came out to sing happy birthday to Connie as she ate her gratis cannoli. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

nat'l parks trip 9-13 (70)We returned to the hotel and continued the celebration making a collaborative birthday card, having Tarot readings from Connie. Viviane and I then sang Connie our song based on the George Gershwin song, They Can’t Take That Away From Me with a rhythmic bridge that introduced the idea that if she thinks she’s old, she needs to just think of the bristlecone pines.

nat'l parks trip 9-13 (23)

She’s a Julep                                             September 28th, 2013

The way she throws down words

The way they fly like birds

The way she reaches our hearts

Chorus:

Oh, you can’t take that away from her

No, you can’t take that away from her

The way her eyes mesmerize

The way she swims with words

The way she sweeps us on our feet

Chorus

The way she southerns us up

She’s a julep with a sprig of mint

We have a thirst for her

Chorus:

…her away from us

…her away from us

The way she cat…alyzes

The way she conjures the muse

May she linger in lavender

Chorus:

…From her

…From her

2x Bristlecone, Bristlecone, Bristlecone Pine

4000 years of electric energy

Breathe the magic (audible breath)

Longevity is its sweet wine

Don’t let your energy be caught in a bind

Just think of, think of, the bristle cone pine.

[Riff with didgeridoo and voice: Standing tall and looking fine

Just think of the Bristlecone pine!]

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.

Image

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.????????????????????

Sacred Lands

After traveling much of September and October, I have returned home and settled back into the routine. It’s hard to know where to begin to update readers on all that has happened.

I will start with a piece of the National Park’s trip. At the end of September, my friend Viviane and I went on a ten-day journey to visit sacred lands from California to New Mexico. The impetus for the trip was that I am working on a new novel called Here After which takes place in the months following 9-11. Some of the characters in the novel end up driving to New York from San Francisco in what becomes a pilgrimage to bring the wisdom of the sacred lands of this country to NYC and the devastation there. I found in writing it that I needed to visit these places in order to write about them. Thus, the trip.

nat'l parks trip 9-13 (3)

Berkeley camp entrance–burned trees

The first day, after driving through areas devastated by the fire, we landed in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. We had to find our camping legs rather quickly that night as Tuolumne Meadows turned out to be the coldest spot in the United States that night. We couldn’t hang around there long in the morning as we had far to go that day, but also it was too cold to dally.

nat'l parks trip 9-13 (7)

Tioga Pass

We continued through Tioga Pass down to Mono Lake where we stopped for viewing and to get our bearings and pay homage to those who worked so hard to save that precious lake from being drained by voracious water-users. Yes, we had attacks on this country in New York City, but how much devastation do we do to ourselves that goes almost unreported?  nat'l parks trip 9-13 (25)

Our main destination that day was the Bristle Cone Pine Forest, about an hour’s drive up a mountain from Route 395. It was well worth the extra driving as this forest is home to the world’s oldest living beings, the Bristle Cone Pines. They are 4000 to 6000 years old. I had not heard of these trees before a couple of weeks before we left on the trip when someone I met began telling me about a trip she was taking to the forest.  nat'l parks trip 9-13 (23)When I looked it up on the map and saw that we would be going right by there, we made a point of taking that detour to visit the trees.

As we walked around the forest and I played didgeridoo to some of the trees, I could feel an uncanny presence among them. Several times I looked over my shoulders, sure that some humans were coming up on us, only to see that there were just the trees. These trees have learned how to survive in very harsh conditions, high altitude, strong winds, extremes of hot and cold and poor soil.

nat'l parks trip 9-13 (31)nat'l parks trip 9-13 (32)Their presence felt watchful and full of gratitude for the interaction as they absorbed more than just nutrients from their roots. I could sense an openness to our presence, a way in which they may have been taking in even the small amount of energy we were offering them. Perhaps this is the evolutionary step that makes them able to survive on so little.

Maybe they have learned how to appreciate even the smallest gesture of connection, take it in, let it nurture them. I wanted to sit at their roots for long periods of time and to see if I could learn it too. This place could surely be a destination for the future.

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

oak at sunrise 2

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

IMG_1903

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.