No Shame

If you are looking for something to do this weekend, please take yourself to a treat of a play, La Cage au Folle at the Contra Costa Civic Theater, the last weekend it plays. The performances (all volunteer, by the way—community theater), were heartfelt, funny, talented and transporting. These are characters who play very specific people but whose emotions could be mine or yours. Never have I seen a production of this play that so reminded me of the times I did not fit in, tried to pass for something I wasn’t, hid in shame over some part of myself and found relief and redemption in coming out of the closet, voluntarily or–as if this case–involuntarily. My hat is off to the director and the actors.

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.

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 (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.

Follow the Children

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My niece and I

Several streams have come together for me into a confluence this week, all having to do with children leading the way.

Speaking on KPFA yesterday morning was a nine-year-old boy whose classmate and good friend Rodrigo and his family were sent back to Mexico because his father’s papers were not in order when the family was stopped in Houston, Texas after a trip to Mexico. Rodrigo’s classmates since kindergarten are launching a fight to bring him home and have been finding creative ways to bring attention to his cause including creating a video game that can be played worldwide for his benefit and the benefit of bring the peoples of the world closer together. They started a website called Bring Rodrigo Home.

I was at a friend’s house last night doing research for my next novel which takes place right after 9-11. I was interviewing them about their precocious 3 year-old on whom I am basing one of my characters who is part Aboriginal Australian. My friends’ child seems to have come into this world knowing so much already about ancient healing ways. My friends pointed me to a song that she loves to sing which was composed by Kenneth K. Guilmartin  for the Montclair Cooperative School in 1986. The song May all Children became popular after 9-11 and has been sung all over the world, mainly by children.

Then following the lead of these children into making connections worldwide through technology, this week I made contact with the Puuya (meaning “life force” or “heart”) Foundation in a remote area in Queensland Australia through an Australian friend of mine. I was able to donate to their foundation proceeds from an event called Didgeridoo Dreaming for Women held by Sound Rivers last fall. One of Puuya’s projects is to encourage youth to participate in ongoing leadership development opportunities, both within and outside the community.

Children, such whizzes at technology, are leading the way to bringing the world closer together. While I often think of technology as cold and distancing, this week, I am increasingly impressed with the creative ways humans, especially youth, find to connect ourselves to each other so that life-affirming songs, causes, and leadership can grow stronger.

May technology be a tool to bring ancient, alive and connected-to-the-earth wisdom from remote places to our modern world, empowering the life force of the planet which is love, not commerce.

On Ritual

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Altar at base of tree (photo credit: Nicki Koethner)

I have participated in many rituals that change people’s lives, including my own. To mark a change that has already happened, to allow the next phase of life to begin, to let go of what is no longer useful, to infuse the sacred into our lives, to allow community to bear witness to our transitions, to honor feelings of gratitude, grief, love, etc.–these are all ways to use ritual.

Indigenous cultures use ceremony and ritual in numerous ways throughout their communal lives. Western culture has a few very proscribed rituals such as graduation, wedding, etc. that are supposed to cover the bases but they do not come close. I am speaking of rituals that are designed to fit where we are at this moment and to help us integrate what we are learning on our life journeys.

In my next novel, Between Here and Hereafter, I have a scene in which the characters have designed and are enacting a ritual for the healing of veterans. You can click here to read an excerpt about a ritual for healing veterans.