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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Feeling for the Trees

ImageI feel for the trees. A huge (120-150 foot) eucalyptus tree that lived for over one hundred years next to the Victorian house at 14th and Lakeside in Oakland blew down in the big windstorm we had about a month ago.

At Daré (Daré is a Shona word for Council and is a once-a-month gathering in Oakland open to everyone and dedicated to healing and peacemaking) held two weeks ago, someone spoke of the downed Eucalyptus tree that he had used as an anchor point when he jogged around Lake Merritt. To see it on the ground had stunned him. Walking amongst its downed branches, he could see beauty that had been too high for his eyes before—the patterns in the bark, the colors of the leaves. ImageSo much beauty on this earth takes place outside of our ability to perceive it. And yet, how often do we really look at what we are capable of seeing. We move so fast.

When a friend and I went to pay homage to the valiant tree last week, a feeling of immense vulnerability swept over me. That something so large and seemingly invincible could crash down that way. It could have taken some humans or their structures with it, but instead it fell onto a large magnolia tree (it is yet to be seen if that tree will survive) but not onto the road or the structures that stand nearby. It lay there, immense, broken, with its root ball exposed, its lifeblood, its lifetime of stories laid bare for all who cared to listen. We climbed down into the hole left by those roots and could see a rottenness at the core that must have contributed to the fall. Image

The tree seemed to have been perched on a rock (or at least very hard clay) at the middle of where it had stood. Now we could run our hands over exposed roots, intertwine them with our fingers and our minds. Was it the drought that caused this to happen? And how many more will fall before it is over? How many will they take with them? How much unseen suffering is happening right now to the trees?Image

Trees are a huge part of the respiratory system of our planet, taking in our carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis converting it into nutrients and oxygen so that some kind of balance of in-breath and out-breath can be maintained. Our future is caught up in the web of well being of trees. There was a time in most cultures when humans worshiped trees as sacred bridges between earth and sky. Trees are living beings which have the capacity to slow us down, to allow us to see inside of time as they span centuries as guardians of place. They provide constancy when so much is changing around us. And yet maybe that takes too much for granted as they, too, are vulnerable to disease, old age and drought.Image

Poet Morton Felix who passed away almost two years ago wrote these lines.

“This evergreen chill

spirals through lungs shaped like leaves

breathing its breath

upon being’s instrument.”

                                      From a poem entitled Autumn by Morton Felix

 

Being’s instrument. Isn’t that what we are as we live to breath (instead of breathing to live), fully inhabiting this instrument that is us? This breath, kept in a place of honor and primacy, connects us to all beings who live now, who have ever lived and those who are yet to come. And it places us directly at the roots of our fellow travelers, the trees, as they work to keep this planet in balance. We must not be cavalier with their lives—each and every one is a precious being, as is each and every human. How can we honor them, tend them, learn to understand their sacred language (see the book by A. T. Mann: The Sacred Language of Trees)?

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tree altar. (credit: Nicki Koethner)

 

In this new year, maybe we can all consciously notice the trees in our neighborhood and in our travels, spend extra time getting to know and appreciate them, breathe with them, talk to them and most of all, listen.

 

 

 

 

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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.