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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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.

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

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.

Day of the Dead, November 2, 2012

photo by Javier Pinzon

It was a magnificent warm evening in SF’s Mission district as we gathered in the Day of the Dead celebration to pay tribute to those who have gone before us, our ancestors . Earlier this year I had met Francisco X. Alarcon and Javier Pinzon at a visiting writers’ program at the Merced Community College in Los Banos, California (set up by Meg Withers). Francisco and I collaborated on calling in the directions, he with beautiful words and me with the sound of the didgeridoo. Everyone seemed to respond so well to the didge and Francisco said, “The ancestors are riding on that sound!” In his enthusiasm he invited me to join him as he called in the directions at the Day of the Dead this year.

After a critical mass of people arrived, we set up in front of a beautiful altar on wheels and amidst Aztec dancers with long feather headdresses. Peggy Ho held the didge and the microphone for me and we proceeded to call in the directions. Each time it was my turn to play, a very loud drummer started pounding on the drum and I couldn’t hear anything that I was playing. I assumed no one else could hear it either but that wasn’t so as the microphone was picking it up. I would have stopped playing altogether in frustration if Javier (I think it was Javier) hadn’t said, after each song, “Beautiful, beautiful.”

The dancing was magnificent. People in the procession dressed in so many different ways to honor the dead. I love this tradition that western culture does not really have, to remember, honor and appreciate those who have gone before us. It is also a way of honoring the cycle of life and death and maybe calming some of that fear of death that is so strong in western culture. It was truly a celebration as the procession wove around through the Mission, adding people as it went. It was one of those magical San Francisco evenings where people got along and the energy was collaborative and celebratory.

I felt privileged to be a part of it.