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)

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Serendipity

Many people have been asking how my husband Adam David Miller and I were able to go to Cuba without going in a group. The short answer is magic.

When I asked  Adam where he wanted to go to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, he said without hesitation, “To Cuba!”

Adam and me in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana

Adam and me in front of the Hotel Nacional in Havana

He then said that he did not want to go illegally, and he did not want to go with a group. Even though I had been to Cuba with a group 15 years ago, I was a bit stumped as to how to do that with the idiotic travel restrictions the US government has placed on its citizens in relation to travel to Cuba. I started researching and trying to get in touch with Cuba sister city projects to see if we could go under the auspices of either the Berkeley or Richmond projects. But we kept running into road blocks—unanswered e-mails, locked doors when we showed up a meetings, etc. and it was looking iffy at best.

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Elise playing didgeridoo in Alameda at an Esoterica event

Then one day (you could say once upon a time…) I was visiting my friend Edie to play some music. And there was a woman there that Edie had recently met, Karen Lee Wald, who looked vaguely familiar to me. After we were introduced, she began talking about her connections to Cuba. At some point I realized that I had actually met her when I went to Cuba since she is a well-known journalist and expert on Cuba, and our group had met with her. I told her that Adam and I wanted to go there. I also explained that I thought maybe I could teach didgeridoo to people there because I am sure that they cannot afford C-PAP machines, the most common treatment for the disease. Since didgeridoo is a natural and cheap alternative that actually ameliorates sleep apnea and is also very good treatment for asthma, I thought it would be a perfect fit for Cuba. She was not only interested in that, but said that she herself used a C-PAP machine and would love to be weaned off of it. We started a trade where I taught her didgeridoo and she helped us set up our trip to Cuba.

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Adam in Karen’s house in Havana reading from Ticket to a community activist

She wasn’t planning to be in Cuba when we wanted to go (January or February) so when she did go in November, 2013, she began making contacts for us, places to stay, drivers, and people to meet. She read Adam’s autobiography, Ticket to Exile and began thinking of many people in Cuba, especially poets and writers who would want to meet Adam. And she kept saying that it would be so much better if she were there when we were to make sure these meetings happened. Finally she wrote and offered to come with us if we would just pay her expenses. To save money, we could stay with her in her house in Havana. What an incredibly generous offer which we, of course, took her up on immediately.

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Film maker Gloria Rolando

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Adam and Pablo Armando Hernandez

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Adam, Elise and Poet Nancy Morales

Karen became our guardian angel, advising us on what to bring, how to document our trip so that we were sure to stay under the exemption to the travel restrictions. And she proceeded to take us under her wing, advise us to go through Cancun, whisk us around Cuba where we met famous poets, writers and artists including poet, Pablo Armando Hernandez; Esteban Morales (expert on race and racism in Cuba), Gloria Rolando (documentary film maker currently working on a project about Haitians in Cuba), poet Nancy Morales, and activist Yolanda Gonzales to name a few. She showed us a side of Cuba that could only be shown by someone who lived there (she raised her kids there starting in the late ‘60’s).

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Karen in the studio of Cuban community artist Fuster.

Talk about serendipity. That seems to have been our mode of transport. Thank you, Karen!

I feel a responsibility to tell the stories of Cuba now that I am back especially since we get such warped reporting here in the States. See the last blog and ones to come.

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.)

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.

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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!]

Integration is making me wait

I am still dealing with my injured foot/ankle and feeling as if I need to tell more stories from the National Parks trip to allow myself to continue to absorb what we encountered in those sacred lands.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (29)

After meeting the Bristle Cone Pines (on a mountain between Mono Lake and Death Valley), our perspective on time had changed. If those trees had survived for 6000 years and they continued to learn and adapt, our bouts with the cold, wind, sun were such specks of sand in a desert. I began to feel the expansion of myself filling in the spaces between the trees and me—we weren’t so different. Maybe I had some Bristle Cone Pine in me and now that I had met them, I could get in touch with that part of myself that was timeless, enduring, and appreciative.

We made our way back down the mountain and continued to Lake Diaz to camp for the night. Lake Diaz was a bit strange and at first it looked like we would be camping right near the road but it turned out that the campsite was in a small oasis on the other side of the lake with trees and stiff breezes. We set up in a sheltered spot, hoping the winds would not blow us away or irritate us too much. There were very few other people there. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (37)

We  cooked and ate our dinner of polenta and soup and then admired the stars before curling up in the little tent and getting much needed sleep (the night before at Tuolumne neither of us slept much at all even though we were warm and cozy, but perhaps because of the excitement of starting such a trip, we couldn’t settle in).

We got going the next morning fairly early again, getting better at breaking camp and stowing our stuff (of which we had too much) in the car and moving out. We were near the entrance to Death Valley and the scenery demanded our constant attention as the terrain changed drastically from moment to moment—stark yet ever-changing desert, rock, mountain, valley, the subtle colors that Death Valley’s elements materialize so beautifully.

Just before we officially entered the park, up on a ridge above the valley, we stopped and Viviane collected larea, a strong anti-cancer plant. These plants were healthy and growing in this most magnificent place. A raven watched our every move as we collected the herbs.nat'l parks trip 9-13 (49)

Then down into the valley where one feels as if one is going back in time. The ancient is what rules the valley—no Congress or President can begin to think they can close or open this park—it wields true power. The sheer drops, the subtle colors, the expanses, the growth of an occasional Joshua Tree and larea plant or sage brush. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (39)Our clocks seem so puny there where so much has happened over such a long period of time. Even the Now cannot hold it. It is a place of yesterday, today and tomorrow all at once.

As we drove time telescoped and microscoped around us, a playground for the atomic and the galactic all at once.

At the Artist’s Drive where the mountains show off strange colors that look like a palette of different colors, strange blues and reds and oranges. Viviane stopped and painted a sketch of the area as I played the didge to it and to different rocks that were strewn about.   I discovered that volcanic rock seemed to have the strongest response (reverb) to my playing. nat'l parks trip 9-13 (62)The hungry winds quickly swallowed up the sounds of the didgeridoo. In such a place where my human form is diminutive and the place ancient and still, some ineffable part of me seeds itself into the surroundings and the boundaries separating me from the land, the animals and those who came before me, soften and spread out like shifting sand.

We were lucky that the temperatures were in the 80’s that day and not into the 90’s or 100’s as they often are. Their record for the summer was 128, six degrees shy of the top heat recorded in the Valley of 134 degrees.

Our timeline did not allow us to stay overnight in Death Valley, and we traveled on through to Tecopa Hot Springs on the south side of Death Valley. The campsite we found was challenging in many ways: gravel under the tent, no picnic table, surrounded by RV’s. But we made the most of soaking in private tubs containing the special mineral laden waters that underlay the area.

At about three in the morning we were disturbed by a drunk man and woman who came by to use the springs and who were noisy and vaguely threatening as they were swearing loudly and just seemed out of control especially to two women lying in a tent, vulnerable and awake. But they finally left without incident, and we tried to resume our night’s sleep. No one in the RV’s seemed to hear them.

The next morning in order to have our breakfast, we carted all of our stuff up to the building in which the hot springs were housed and took over the foyer there to cook. Since it was windy, we also rolled up the tent there and then had a morning soak before heading out for our longest day drive to Holbrook, Arizona, almost at the border to New Mexico.

Our aim was to get to Grants, New Mexico by noon the next day to meet our cohort Connie for her 75th birthday. Look someday for the U-tube video of us singing the song we wrote for Connie, inspired by both Connie and her creative life and by what we had been seeing along the way. It is called She’s a Julep and features a chorus that goes like this:

Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone, Bristle Cone Pine (repeat).

Don’t let your energy be caught in a bind,

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

Standing tall and feeling fine

Just think of, think of the Bristle Cone Pine.

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