Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Maeve on Shame and Shamelessness

"Just like the Eve I hadn’t heard of yet, I saw that I was naked. Shame I hadn’t yet grasped." -Maeve from Magdalen Rising

Elizabeth posted that quotation on Twitter this morning. (Yes, speaking of shamelessness, we are on twitter. Follow us: http://twitter.com/EliznMaeve How shameless is that?)

I have been asked to write a blog about shamelessness. I suppose scenes like the one cited above have earned me a reputation as an expert on the subject. For those who haven't read Magdalen Rising, this incident happened when I was about fourteen years old, away from home for the first time, having my period and missing my eight mothers. My mothers always went to the beach and fingerpainted on the rocks when they were bleeding. At druid school, I was shocked to discover, there were no organized activities for that time of the moon. Feeling a bit blue, I went off by myself, stripped off my tunic (it was a hot day) and practiced writing ogham, the druid ceremonial letters I was studying. I inscribed the name of the boy I liked on a rock. Well, what would you have done if you were me? You wouldn't have thought of writing your crush's name in menstrual blood?

Neither would Viviane, a stuck-up girl in my class, who tried to shame me for it. I showed her. I dipped my fingers into the original ink well and hauled off and anointed her, so to speak, right across the face. She didn't appreciate the honor, and we got into a bloody brawl, literally. Guess who ended up coming along to break up the fight? My crush, Esus. You know him as Jesus. Can you imagine his horror at this unclean naked girl writing his name on a rock with her blood? Please! (How he could possibly end up with someone like me is also a requested blog topic. Next time perhaps.) Many editors and reviewers were also shocked, and Elizabeth was told to omit all scenes having to do with bodily functions. She refused. She is not as shameless I am, but she is stubborn.

By the way, my next two volumes have very little about any bodily function--apart from sex. Elizabeth fretted that she had been influenced by the critics. But really, it's just that I grew older. In Magdalen Rising, I am a young girl, and everything is new to me. The truth is, until Viviane no one even attempted to shame me about my body or its functions, and she did not succeed. I kept that ease and comfort with my body all my life.

But many people do feel ashamed not only of their bodily functions but of their bodies, which tells you something about shame. We often feel shamed, or are shamed by others, for things that are out of our control. Shamed not so much for what we do (actions are at least somewhat in our control) but for what we are. We are too short, tall, have ears that stick out, have a big behind. We are not smart enough, quick enough, pretty enough, rich enough. There is something inherently wrong, and we feel shame.

Then there is also shame that we carry for someone else. That shame is even more insideous, because it's harder to identify. I once met a man who trained his dog to writhe and wimper in shame every time that man passed gas. It was supposed to be a joke, but it's not so funny when you consider that many of us are that dog. That's how abuse works, any kind of abuse from sexual abuse to economic abuse. The victim carries the abuser's shame. So shamelessness is not necessarily a good thing, not if someone else is carrying the shame that should yours. If you make a foul smell, people, own it!

I had no shame about my menstrual blood and no shame about sex, having been reared on my mothers' tales of Queen Maeve of Connacht, who delighted in freely offering the friendship of her upper thighs, who boasted that she was "never without one man in the shadow of another." She also had a devoted husband and lover, and no one called her promiscuous. This upbringing stood me in good stead during the years I was a whore. I felt no shame in being a whore and took some pride in being a skilled one. What did shame me deeply was being a slave, for my people considered loss of freedom shameful. They blamed the victim. Being a slave was not something I chose; it was not something I did. There was no way I could make amends for it. Though I tried to escape, I failed and my shame deepened into despair which fed the shame. There are many people who are suffering in just this way today whether or not they are called slaves.

So I do know something about shame. Freedom came to me by fluke. I was on my way to being crucified when the very woman who got me into the fix and who had enslaved and abused me for years, finally faced her own shame, her own culpabilty and pleaded with a woman who justifiably despised her in order to save my life. Read The Passion of Mary Magdalen if you want to know more.

Finally, that boy, my crush? He became my beloved. You know who he is. He was sentenced to a death that was designed to shame as well as torture. What is more shaming than to be hung naked and completely helpless while slowly dying in front of anyone who wants to watch? Yet I am here to tell you, he was not ashamed. All that shame that was cast on him, he burned away, as if he were the sun. I am witness.

Burning with shame. That's what we say. That's what it feels like. And that's just what to do with shame. Burn it up. The problems come when we are so afraid of that burning that we bury shame (and carry it as depression) or try to escape it through some addictive behavior that casts us back into shame or we dump it on someone else. So I say, if you are burning, burn. If you can stand it, the shame will burn away and leave you shining, radiant, and righteously shameless.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Recording MaevenSong

A few months ago Tim Dillinger www.timdillinger.com announced to me: We are going to Nashville to record your album. It sounded natural and inevitable. Though I am not a professional singer and have never recorded anything but nine minutes of my voice a capella, it did not occur to me to think twice or do anything but set a date and be grateful for having an experienced guide and companion who has produced two of his own albums. I didn't even get nervous until a couple of days before the trip. Then I wondered if I was crazy.

I would have been more worried if I had known that three days is considered a very short amount of time to make a full length recording. But I knew Tim had arranged for an expert guitarist, Dave Martin, to create accompaniment for the eleven songs I had sung into Tim's phone in August.

On Monday morning, we all met at Colorblind Soul Productions, the excellent studio Mike Torino runs from his home. Before going upstairs to the studio, we sat around Mike's dining room table.

"So," said Mike, looking from me to Dave, the guitarist. "You two have never met before? You've never rehearsed?"

Dave, who was having surgery later that day, remained calm and said that he'd heard the songs and had some ideas. I sensed that Mike was thinking something like: here's this lady who wants to make an album and doesn't have a clue.

"Do you know what key and tempo they're in?" he appealed to Dave.

"Some of them don't have a tempo," Dave allowed.

"Elizabeth has perfect pitch," Tim interjected at one point, perhaps picking up on Mike's skepticism.

"Some of them do have tempo," I spoke up. "Some of them have very standard forms, like Mountain Song. Let's start with one of those."

"Mountain Song?" said Dave. "I don't remember any Mountain Song."

It seems Mountain Song somehow got dropped from the songs Tim sent Dave.

"It's easy," I told the other three as they searched for the lost recording. "I'll just sing it."

And then the collaborative magic of music began to unfold. Dave and Mike brainstormed and found cords, and I soon understood that Mike was not just a sound technician but a brilliant and imaginative musical director with a perfect ear. I instantly forgave him for treating me like a dotty old lady. Dave's guitar playing was rich and supportive, and when we began to work on Pentecostal Alley blues, I was in heaven hearing his blues guitar. In less than an hour we had a rough arrangement for three songs including harmonies created by Tim, and we headed upstairs to lay down Dave's tracks so he could leave for his appointment.

Mike was thrilled to have a chance to work with a guitarist of Dave's caliber and he admitted to Tim that that I did indeed have perfect pitch. It made me feel a little better to be considered a dotty old lady with some natural talent, but I was worried about the songs that did not have a conventional form. I was especially worried about Miriam's Lament. I had never been able to sing it the same way twice. I was doing some short pieces a capella, but Miriam's Lament seemed too long and uncertain.

"I think I'm going to have to scrap it," I told Tim. "They'll never be able to find a tempo or a structure." Things both Dave and Mike had insisted were essential.

"No," said Tim. "You're not going to scrap it. It's a preach, and I know just what to do. I'm going to go get Ron. I'm going to get my son!"

Tim is not only a brilliant vocalist of immense range, he has another genius: people. Knowing people, loving people, seeing their gifts, encouraging their gifts, bringing people together. Everyone Tim loves becomes family. His son, Ron, is a young musician he met and has mentored since Ron was sixteen.

"I don't know what I'm doing," I told Ron when he arrived. "It goes something like this." I sang a bit. "But it never comes out the same twice."

Ron didn't bat an eye or respond in any particular way at all.

"It's a preach, Ron," explained Tim. "You'll know what to do."

So we went upstairs. Ron sat down at the keyboard. I sang a phrase, and a miracle happened. I knew just where the notes were, and Ron supported each one with rich, complex, soulful sound.

"Let them do this live," said Tim. "They need to do this live."

So I stood up, put on the head phones and went with Ron, as Tim later put it, to the foot of the cross. When it was over, we all wept. And remembering that moment still brings tears to my eyes.

That was Ron's first miracle. The next day, he also played with me on Psalm, which despite its Biblical form, lacked the requisite tempo and structure. The Prologue, which was to have been sung and spoken without accompaniment, now has blues piano all the way through. It was done in one take.

The biggest challenge was Resurrection Song. Dave had valiantly returned the day after his surgery to lay down the rest of the tracks. He has found some beautiful hypnotic chords for Resurrection Song and created a structure. It was taking all my concentration to stay within it, and I was having trouble building the intensity the song needs.

"I haven't raised him yet," I said to Tim at one point.

"Let Ron accompany her live," said Tim. "In addition to the guitar."

It took more than one take, because of the complexity of the rhythms. Ron turned to Mike between takes, and asked for a pad. I think that's the term. They searched around. At Ron's suggestion, they decided on strings.

I sang the next take carried on a swelling river of sound, and at last I was able to go where I needed to go, to the tomb, to the beloved. At last I raised him.

The night of that day, only the second day, a day in which time must have been suspended, Tim's friends Pam and Jerry came over to sing on Thou New Moon, an a capella piece. My idea was to go from a straight singing of it to a jam, perhaps with drums.

"No," said Mike. "I can't record that. That would be chaos. I thought you wanted a choral piece. Let's record it that way and then you can improvise over it on another track."

In record time, Pam and Jerry learned the tune and the upper and lower harmonies Tim had created. Together we laid down three tracks. Mike looped them to make it sound as though we were a huge choir. He had no way of knowing that this song was the one the entire druid college sang to Maeve went she was sent beyond the ninth wave. The effect was gorgeous, and I happily let go of my idea improvise over it.

"So," I said to Mike. "Maybe it could be a solo voice, then unison voices, then harmony?"

"No," Mike said bluntly. "The purpose of this song is to be a break between some of your other songs. Once is good, but three times, no."

By this time I had learned Mike was almost always right, and I appreciated his directness. That night when I woke at 3:00am to lie awake for two hours, as I had every night, I remembered what he said about the song's use, and the whole structure of the album became clear to me. I knew exactly how to group the songs.

When I woke up on the third morning the sky (which for two days had been as dark as the crucifixion, in Tim's words) was a brilliant blue. We went to the studio where Tim laid down harmonies on two more songs while enjoying a visit from Reba Rambo McGuire and Destiny McGuire, more of his beloved kin, his mother and sister.

Later Mike added percussion to two songs. I didn't have to do anything but sit and listen. I remember thinking I wanted to spend the rest of my life in a sound studio making music with wonderful people. At last Mike played us some of all the songs, marvelling that they sounded as good as they did when he hadn't cleaned them up yet. Tim and I cried again.

After a warm parting with Mike, and a late lunch with Lenny, another brilliant musician and the one who led us to Mike, Tim and I went to see sacred Nashville sites, first one: the shelf in the library where Tim found The Passion of Mary Magdalen some fifteen months ago. It was there on the shelf in very battered condition, which Tim admitted was probably because of him.

I remain in a state of awe and gratitude for the miracles that led to MaevenSong. I will close with thanks from my heart to Lenny, Mike, Dave, Ron, Pam and Jerry, Reba and Destiny, brilliant musicians all and so welcoming and encouraging to someone new to their world. Thank you to Midori and her children and to Crystal for a celebration full of riotous laughter. Thanks also to David and Kare for sparing Tim for a week as they all get ready for the Soulkiss concert at Don't Tell Mama in NYC on October 23 and 30th. Most of all, thank you Tim, for MaevenSong, for your friendship, for your genius at generosity. Sing on! Write on! I love you!