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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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!]

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.

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.

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.