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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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.

The Best Season of Your Life

Snail on persimmon leaf in fall

If your mind isn’t clouded

by unnecessary things,

this is the best season of your life.

                              –Wumen

Last week I heard a discussion by Bernie Krause who wrote The Great Animal Orchestra. To say that he brings to light how visual this culture is and how much we leave the auditory in the back seat is to prove his point that our metaphors are mostly visual. I search for one that is not.  Maybe he amplifies the auditory. One of the most memorable things in his talk was that he played for us a soundscape of a forest recorded both before and after it was selectively logged. The logging company assured everyone that selective logging would have virtually no impact on the ecosystem. Even though the eye couldn’t see the changes, our ears told us how much the ecosystem had deteriorated after the logging. He said, “A soundscape is worth a thousand pictures.”

I have at the same time been reading a book called Seven Thousand Ways to Listen by Mark Nepo. I loved the title and bought it not knowing anything else about it. It has been a wonderful accompaniment to both the Bernie Krause information and teaching the didgeridoo and studying Aboriginal philosophy.

Nepo says, “One of the purposes of listening is to break our self-reference. Listening beyond our own silhouette, each thing we encounter is alive—be it a stone, a dragonfly, a symphony, or a peach.” (p.121) This reminds me of what Jon Young  says about 360 degree listening—that you cannot carry on the same story that may have been repeating itself inside your head when you listen so completely to the world. It takes you out of your own silhouette. The Aboriginals of Australia believe that everything on earth is alive and that we can learn from listening not just to humans but to the rest of the natural world. Teachers abound if only we could stop endlessly listening exclusively to our own stories, take that step out of our minds (clear the clouds) and enter into deep listening.

One of the things that we did at the Didgeridoo Dreaming for Women weekend a few weeks ago at Sea Ranch was to listen until we heard a call and then play to respond to the call. When music comes, not to fill up empty space but is drawn out of the silence, it becomes in essence a dialogue with the world.

Nepo says, “In this way listening becomes a partnership by which we listen and converse with everything. And this conversation with everything—yes through words, but more through presence and attention—becomes the partnership by which we keep everything joined.” (p. 121)

So when our minds are not clouded by unnecessary things, and we can truly listen to what is calling us, we enter into the best season of our lives.