Thursday, July 25, 2013

Many Steps, One Dance

Wells Harbor Park, Wells, Maine. Sunday 21 July, 2013

Not enough fluffy clouds high in the sky. Brilliant, brilliant sun, ninety degrees of temperature or more.

The ground underfoot is gravel, white and crunchy, a mirror throwing the sunlight back up in your face.

Some men are bare-chested, some wear ribbon shirts. One wears a bear head and skin over his skull and down his shoulders. Many wear silver bells tied in bands around their ankles.

Most of the women carry shawls of varying degrees of thickness and decoration either wrapped around their shoulders or wafted like iridescent wings marking their movements. Many wear jingles sewn onto their dresses, catching the overwhelming beat of the drum, keeping the beat like the ringing feet of the men.

Some people wear no regalia at all, dancing in whatever summer-wear they bring to the event. No swimsuits. No short shorts. This is not a ceremonial circle but a certain decorum and respect to the traditions of all the represented tribes is to be expected.

Everyone is dripping with sweat. The MC reminds the dancers to stay hydrated, there is a jug of iced water with a pile of cups next to the entrance to the circle. A small shade tent is on the other side of the entrance, reserved for the lead dancers, who, since they are almost certainly paid, are expected to dance at least a third of the time.

The drum begins and the dancers move.

The underlying beat is simple but explosive, the singers weaving inside the pulse, around and around, before and after the beat, emphasizing the pulse by stepping on either side of it.

The dancers do much the same. Some are more traditional "straight" dancers (I count myself amongst these) keeping the beat, stopping, waving their arms at the "honor beats', generally three in number, that mark each phrase in the music.

Others are more unrestrained, imitating the steps of a hunting bird, a prancing horse, a butterfly.

A few are "fancy dancers", bouncing in regalias festooned with threads that wave like grass in the wind. Besides the "grass dancers" you see women in jingle dresses, swinging like racks of bells, shaking out the beat so clearly, making it easier for fancier dancers to bounce around them.

Those wearing regalia - of whatever complexity or authenticity - are dressed in a style thousands of years old, at home being themselves

Here we are being who we are - savages in many ways, certainly non-partakers in many of the ceremonies of restriction that dominate so much of American culture.

We are savages. For myself I am at my happiest when that part of my life is unrestrained and free - when it "leaves the reservation" so the speak.

Dancing around a fire, screaming the high-pitched cries of my people, keeping my part of the vision of this people who have lived so long under the influence of the dominant culture. We are still here and our sense of reality is very different from those around us.

But a beat is a beat, a dance is a dance and a soul set free to live in both is free indeed.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mirrors In Stone

 The dream started after a night of fitful sleep - tossed, turned, the comforter shed, pillows crammed against the wall, air conditioner turned off, turned on, turned back off.

Grey light hiding behind the blinds at least a full hour before the alarm called me up to go to work.

Suddenly it was cool again and dark, stone walls arched overhead into far space. The enclosed area was so large you could hear something most people never ever sensed - the sheer sound of a great room, the pressure of a great span of air against your ears.

The Bishop - elderly, taller than I, sharp-nosed, silver glasses more perched on his nose than aiding his eyes - asked me if I was ready, if everything was ready.

Beside him the Verger rocked back and forth from her heels to her toes, a slow ecclesiastical dance in the tempo of a great hymn, "Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah" perhaps.

"This has to  be right" she interjected, "I'm trusting you to be ready," Her job was organizing pageantry in the Cathedral. She knew all the requirements of the sincere if mystical theatre of religious ceremony.

The job would be simple: conduct one of my own a capella anthems during a great celebration in the Cathedral, the kind of feast day that regularly occurs in a great spiritual space, a feast that had continued in regular order, sustaining the spirits of a thousand people for seemingly a thousand years.

I nodded, bowed my retreat and headed out into the bright sunshine to the small cell that doubled as my study. I was a guest of the Cathedral living in the "Stranger's" Quarters, writing and helping carry the spiritual traditions of the great space forward.

I knew I should be practicing, preparing to start my music, a simple anthem that needed only a four note chord to start - but the touch on the keyboard had to be sure, there could be no time to repeat it, no second chances to recover the flow of the service.

Somehow I couldn't bring myself to practice. It wasn't trusting to luck, it was the certain feeling that I was unprepared but that somehow it would be OK just to try.

And so as sunset approached .... as moonrise began ..... I took my place at the back of the choir stalls, next to the great pipe organ, a small but very talented group of singers ready to perform my notes, a dark space pushing against my ears, thousands of people wrapped together in the deep sense of common feeling and purpose.

The keyboard and the stops around them - small white knobs that controlled the passages of air into a forest of tuned pipes - became a forest of thorns, a frightening tangle of choices, a wall locking me away from all contact with the people around me. I was alone, bereft, lost in the middle of a thousand people.

And so I froze. Below I saw the Verger's glare, saw her robes billow out as she rushed up from the ambulatory floor to catch my attention.

I walked out. I chose to leave rather than face them all.

I knew I was alone. Totally alone, locked away from the people I wanted to love and be loved by most. They were all so accomplished, people who had read and studied and thought and written and corrected and spent their days learning their way through the challenges of life and work.

Running through the vaults of the Cathedral I raced past the skulls and bones of scholars and spiritual leaders who had spent their lives improving their ability to be themselves. I had nothing to give because I had done nothing.

Suddenly I was stopped by the Bishop, still in his robes from the Celebration. Beside him the Verger, dark, black-eyed behind thick glasses, glaring at me, her black ebony rod firmly gripped but resting lightly against her robes.

I fell to my knees, sobbing, hot tears of shame coating my face, begging the Bishop to kill me then as punishment for the crime of being me.

The Verger, I knew, was raising her rod, preparing to strike.

Yet the Bishop looked me dead in the eye - I though he was smiling but I couldn't really tell - he looked me in the eye and held up a golden mirror ....

..... and then I woke.

Tears were still soaking my face. An instant later the alarm went off. I was dizzy, sick, unsure of where I was for a moment, unsure even what day it was.

The mirror. The view of myself. Knowing it was my hand that held me back. That I was so afraid, so afraid of being alone that I'd do anything to separate myself from people in order not to fail to connect - to lose myself in order to save myself.

This fugue built quickly - voice adding the theme to voice, each adding to the texture and carrying the music forward.

It was more important to be me, to lead and if others were willing to follow - or not - then that's what happened. I had no control of it.

There was too much music to write, dances to do, things to see - too much inside of me that had to get out.

I will never be like others and the drive to be so, to make myself safe from others by being like them was doomed to failure. And that was killing me.

So many things I should have done, choices to not work, practice, connect, love - all it trying to keep me safe not from others but from myself.

The song, discordant but effective, is over. A new song begins.

You take what the world gives you and you make art.

And life.

(Photos of St. John the Divine c. 2011 Jim Alberty)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

One Garden, Many Fruits

 Link to FaceBook album is here.

I should know better now. I've done more than 56 orbits of the Sun by now and you'd think I'd know better.

Life gives you what it gives you and it has to be accepted then used.

And thanks for whatever comes along is required as well. Sooner or later we'll have to give thanks for it, no matter how it feels at the moment.

That said I'm still surprised at how surprised I am that less than a week after the tragic passing of Erin Cummings I can see how life continues to amaze.

Today though really stunningly hot - Oklahoma hot, I'd say - I took up a friend's general internet invitation to attend the opening of the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion at Colby College.

With this addition (so I was told by a seatmate at the hamburger feast afterwards) Colby now has the largest exhibition space in the state. I'll have to check on that but it certainly seemed that way today. Designed by Fredrick Fisher and Partners of Los Angeles it seemed graceful and bright, a well-implemented minimalist design.

 Trapezoidal shape and of a generous height, I know it was brightly lit but I have no memory of how the lighting system was actually implemented, no visual memory of fixtures or lighting sources.

On the terrace, a wonderful, evocative illustration of what life can be like - a tree with 40 fruit branches grafted onto it. You can see it in closeup in the FB gallery linked above.

I'd very much like to be there in Autumn when the pie is baked.

There was a lot of similar use of unobtrusive tech to display and even create the art. I spoke with Marc Nabarowsky, who set up the video system to overlay images over a brushstroked canvas - everything was considered.

Below the new pavilion were smaller theme-based galleries - some based on "modernism" or "water" or "poetry" or "exotica seen by Americans" ....

..... and one gallery I was "warned" about containing the "Taos Society of Artists" (Wikipedia link is here) dating from 1915 - labeled "Art Of the West", when it might better have been described at "Art ABOUT the West".

So here were classically - i.e. European - trained artists painting Native American ..... you know, it's not helping my mood that Barber's "Adagio for Strings" just came up in my playlist as I'm writing .... where was I? Oh yes, what were these guys thinking as they worked? Was it out of pity, nostalgia, avarice, loss? I'm going to have to spend time with this room and figure it out, because the questions still ring today.

And the irony is not lost. I had to leave after a couple of really fascinating hours, promising myself to come back and try to see all the parts and figure out why I found it so evocative - and what was being evoked.

So back down 95 I went - down and over to the right, to Lisbon, the third day of the Moxie Festival, to the Spirit of the Wolf Pow Wow.

The Festival was pretty much over - the streets of Lisbon looked as they always do - but behind the High School I could feel the unmistakeable pounding of pow wow drums, even from two blocks away - with the help of open windows.

I've not been to a pow wow in a year or more - I usually work at least one weekend day and often have no time to spare. I'd intended to blend both events together - it turned out to be a fortunate idea.

I was too hot - and my schedule was too tight - to allow me to dance. Also by this time I'd switched into a Cherokee tribal t-shirt, and not being dressed in regalia is frowned upon in formal dances. It's not "illegal" but it is considered a faux-pas.

A visit to a dealer's stand replenished my supply of white sage - I might offer to smudge the Museum if they'd like - though judging from their crowd Colby's luck is holding just fine.

It was refreshing to see the swirl of colors, hear the thunder and hidden form of the singing.

These - thankfully no one was wearing buckskins, though you will seem them in Autumn - are called "regalia" rather than costumes.

A "costume" is something you wear to dress up as something you're not - these are people dressing as they truly are and it's not taken lightly.

And so I had to consider how all of this fit together - well, really I didn't, I was also singing ideas for a new piece into my phone so at least I got some creation of my own in there as well.

Does contemplation of both Colby's collection - and others around me - and the fire and grace of regular people dancing in clothing tracing itself back thousands - thousands - of years - will these help me see the relationships in life - and my own compositions - better, more holistically?

I think art is what your personal truth is - whether you're acting, singing ,dancing, writing, composing, sculpting or whatever.  Life can be art if what you're living is what you truly are.

Or who you truly are.

The trick, as always, is to have some kind of idea what that actually is.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Threnody on a Tanda Ended Too Soon

In Argentine Tango you can end a set of dances, a tanda, by looking your partner in the eye and saying, perhaps kindly, “Thank you”.

Politely said or not it is a dismissal. For good or ill the set of dances is ended before its time and for good reason or no reason the possibility of continued connection is gone.

Perhaps the partner wasn’t good enough - or was too good.

Perhaps the stares and expectations of onlookers were too much to bear.

Perhaps an uncontrollable outside event pushed things so far in the wrong direction that the only gracious thing to do was say “thank you” and leave the floor.

Those of us - and I am one - who have been so dismissed usually try to guess the reasons it ended. Sometimes they are clear, obvious whether fair or not.

Sometimes they are unassailably random - patternless stardust blowing across the dance floor, never to be collected, never to be sifted, never to be understood.

So we who are left are left to ponder and consider if we could have been better partners, more sensitive, more perceptive, more - or less - powerful.

Comes the bigger question, the original question, the question that brought us out with our vanished partner in the first place.....

.... Shall I dance? Shall I heed again the music’s patterned urging and seek another partner?

We live and we dance. We can occasionally  be the ones choosing to say “Thank you”. We shall all be forced to say it someday, perhaps kindly or not. But say it we will.

The totally certain possibility of connection. The certain possibility of loss.

And the music still calls.

In Memory of Erin Cummings

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Holy Laughter, Batman .....!

Happy 2013!

When falling asleep it's my habit to say "Thank you, thank you, thank you", and then visualize whatever I have to be thankful for.

As my last post said I nearly lost one of my best friends to a disaster in a surgical procedure. Now, more than two weeks later she is still in the Special Care Unit but mostly for monitoring.

She looks very good but the process of recovery, though seeming certain, is going to be much longer than originally planned for.

So along comes Reality to inform me that another dear friend, my surrogate older sister (I'm the little brother she never had) has deteriorated rapidly due the the results of a stroke she suffered some three years ago.

Native Americans seems to have a different sense of time than other cultures - or more aboriginal cultures see time differently than modern American culture. We see events as existing in the past, present and future at the same time. This helps when editing music.

It also helps when seeing the context of events. "Eternal tense" lets you see everything around you, the good and the bad, see all the connections that influence each other.

So last night, processing all of this information as I began my end-of-day thinking/feeling - the summation of "plus column/minus column" - or just "column" - and began vocalizing my thank you's I was surprised to find myself laughing.

Giggling (which is hard to see myself doing, much less hear it) led to laughter. I have spent so much time feeling scared, angry, sad - "negative" emotions, though I think of them as the necessary price of being alive and involved with the human race - that maybe the Universe was putting me in a place where I could see the balance of life and then let me respond.....

..... and I respond by laughing. Also crying. Also screaming, dancing, writing, and loving.

I respond by being alive. And I am grateful for the chance to feel whatever I am led to feel by the path I'm on.

Portland, Maine

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Seven Days in the Life .... Death ..... Life

Christmas night.

Powdery snow. Very cold winds. Deserted streets.  Eye-level spots of colored light are everywhere: red, green, blue, white, orange.

Two mylar balloons, blue and silver, are tied to a light pole - they thump softly in the wind.

The night seems tired. Expectant. Tensed for travail that may or may not come.

If you've been following my Facebook posts you'll know that one week ago this morning - or a lifetime ago in our hearts - my dear friend Catherine Collins Bernard suffered what seems a one-in-a-million medical injury during a routine laproscopic procedure at Mercy Hospital.

That deeply internal injury led to a complete bleedout and began a massive, heroic fight to save her life.

Catherine led it.

90 minutes of chest compression. Heart failure due to blood loss. Possible brain damage from lack of circulation. Surgery to stop the bleeding. Possible intestinal ischemia. Possible lateral herniation.

And that was day one.

On night one she shocked everyone by squeezing our hands in response to questions. She should have been dead.

Her sheer determination to stay alive, coupled with her physical strength, defeated every possible setback over the next 5 days.

Catherine is perhaps my best friend in the world, one of those people who knows everything about you. Not someone you tell everything to, but someone who knows everything, beyond mere telling - someone with a rock bottom sense of who you really are - not that they love it all, or even like it, but a person who knows what the really important parts are.

Though some of the specifics of your identity may not sit well with them the totality of it is clear and beloved.

And so it is with Catherine.

She is also the "mother" of Chief the Wonderdog (shown above), a huge, rescued brindle Greyhound who celebrated his 11th birthday Monday last, the day before it all broke loose.

I was terrified. Once on site there was the paralyzing sense that I could do nothing, that I would do anything, but could do nothing - to keep her safe, that the idea of losing her was intolerable. It took over my stomach, climbed up my back with talons of ice.

One week later - one lifetime, it seems - I've spent every spare moment, ended every evening with sitting at her side, channeling all the grace and energy - and violet light, at one friend's suggestion - into her hand. It's what you do for a friend you truly love.

So now we're transitioning into the recovery phase, with the occasional setback. This is just how it is.

Tonight, Christmas night, I can only breathe, listen to my feelings and thoughts, acknowledge the friends and loved ones - pretty much the same, actually - who have held me up so I could hold up Catherine's family and all of us hold her up.

Or she held us up, in some strange way.

Something like this puts your life in context - puts everything in the universe into a context. You see how it all relates, connects - all for one terrifying, astounding, eternally unfolding instant. Then it ends and you have to live it to recover it.

At least now you are aware of what is possible and you must change. You must.

I must change so that I can be there to hold a hand and give.

Portland, Maine

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Balance

Lee Elementary - my first alma mater
Tonight, rather ill with flu and tolerating an enforced home stay to recover my energy I find it useful to follow events online and write about them in the same place.

The first wave of reactions:

The country reels from the shootings in Newtown CT - horrified, terrified, emotions settling like a flight of birds, momentarily calm and organized then whirring off again. Fight or flight. The horror of contemplating frantic parents rushing to the fire station near Sandy Creek Elementary, slowly seeing others reunite with their children, the sense of despair building as they see all the survivors reconnect.

I can imagine it. I've lost people suddenly, without preparation, even students, but never a child.

I've always served in loco parentis. Your sense of protection is fierce. The loss experienced by these parents must be paralyzing.

You do not know what to do. We watched developments online at the Orchard that Friday and were horrified. I saw in my mind all my ex-students - some of whom work right there in the store - and found fear and love I never knew was there before.

The second wave of reactions are starting to come in now:

Calls to action. Those who were further away, whose loss is not personal but also profound, they reach out. Vigils are held, political positions taken.

Perhaps there will be change. I hope so. I find myself willing to help.

In "Blink - the Power of Thinking Without Thinking" Malcolm Gladwell shares that the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo took all of 3 seconds - 41 shots. All them based on a horrible series of false impressions. And, that dramatic depictions of violence never look like that. 

We tell ourselves that guns are used to settle arguments. They're not. They're used to throw tantrums that kill. Guns do not kill people. People kill people using guns. I've had it.

Tonight I believe in the scary things. 

The senseless things that caper and kill and rip the bonds of life asunder. I believe in shadows and the light that causes them. 

In people who stand in light and cast shadows and turn from one to the other and back again - and who can see both the light and dark of those who share the world. 

Knowing that we all can reflect great light and cast great shadows and that though we cannot choose to be all light or all dark we can choose which one we reach out to. 

And that in reaching out to each other we reach out to ourselves.

Perhaps that irrational hope will balance the irrational horror visited on us all.

We shall see.

Portland, Maine