Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Desert Way: A Lenten Reflection

I am tempted to start this post by whining about the dearth of solitude in modern life. Thanks to cell phones and Blackberries (which I’d rather pluck from brambles) we can now be in constant contact and ceaseless conversation. But since it is Lent, I will resist. The truth is the human herd has always huddled close for comfort and survival. Trips to the village well were for more than water and many other tasks now done in isolation (or not at all) were once communal activities. To leave family and village to seek solitude in the desert, as Jesus did, has always been a radical act that puts survival—and possibly sanity—at risk. Without our social context, without our human constructs, who are we, what are we, where are we?

Old age may provide a hint.

When my father had been widowed for three years, he decided to follow through on plans he and my mother had made to move to a retirement community far from the small town where he had lived much of his adult life. Though there had been subtle signs of slippage, his social identity had been held in place by a host of people who knew Ray Cunningham—the grocer, the pharmacist, the neighbors, the fire chief, the parishioners at the church where he was still rector emeritus. After the move, all of that life, along with the memory and mention of my mother, fell away. Yet some essential core of him remained, wandering in a dream desert, speaking in metaphor about the train he was riding or how rivers get confused when they near the sea. Despite full-blown dementia, he became more emotionally available than he ever had been. In a Lear-like phone conversation near the end, he actually asked for my blessing.

For several years, my mother-in-law has been making valiant efforts to cohere, to pull herself into a recognizable shape for her many visitors. She would sometimes eagerly and other times dutifully take an interest in the family anecdotes I would bring her. There was a long period in which she would punctuate my every sentence with, “So all is well.” Today when I saw her she managed a smile and an intent gaze. I sense that, like my father, she recognizes me, but does not know me as her daughter-in-law, because she has come unmoored from context and is riding that dream river—or whatever metaphor she might prefer. The last time she spoke much, she told me “The shepherd is separate from the sheep. The shepherd deserves to rest.”

I have never spent forty days and nights alone in the desert, but I have gone on solitary retreats that have lasted long enough for me to feel the familiar fall away and sense something nameless emerge. Though I have filled many social roles, to be a writer intent on a (now twenty-year) project, The Maeve Chronicles, that no one asked me to undertake holds more than a hint of desert madness and determination. I will close this reflection with a poem from my first collection Small Bird: Poems & Prayers (copyright 2000 by Elizabeth Cunningham).


If you want me to walk this way,
you’ll have to help me,
but that is supposing you are there at all
and have a will to command.
And if you have who am I
to argue and bargain?
Isn’t it more dignified to say yes
or even no?

You know, it could be that I am only
crazy or, worse, grandiose to think
I am on speaking/listening terms
with whoever you are. Who are you anyway?
My craziness dressed up as god?
And if you are more than that,
what’s your game? Did you call me?
Is there a path? Or just
the stretching desert I say I love.

Yes, this is the desert way.
And it is so beautiful.
I was going to say something about stark
bone reality truth, but
it’s the illusions of desert I love,
the way the mountains seem to float in certain lights,
the way the land looks like sea.
I am seduced by loveliness and mirage,
by the way cloud shadow deepens the plain.
I am seduced by solitude and sage-smelling silence,
by the way my mind slips my skull and soars.

I’ve followed you—or my delusions
to this place of secret water and rattlesnake wind.
There is no shelter here from extremes
of noon or night or my own nature.
I am naked as a newborn, exposed to the elements,
and I could die as easily,
if you desert me.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Soulkiss Live: Revival Beyond Religion

For me the experience that is Soulkiss begins as soon as I walk into the venue, in this case the Triad Theatre, an upstairs cabaret just off Broadway in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Everyone is already smiling. Strangers strike up conversation in line for the bathroom as if they were family at a reunion. And for that evening, they are. The crowd at a Soulkiss concert is always multi-racial and multi-generational, reflecting the diversity of the singers themselves and their ability to create community wherever they go.

The band ready, with the incomparable Ron Gilmore on keys, Soulkiss walks down aisle and takes stage with a Tim Dillinger original “You Take the Clouds Away.” The crowd is with them immediately, clapping, moving, cheering. Tim is in the center with a new hair color, red this time. To his right is David Sosa his long, dark curls tumbling, his face luminous. And Kare Alford to Tim’s left is wearing…a kilt, complete with a sporran, and not just any kilt but a Douglas plaid as a surprise for my husband Douglas who inspired this bold sartorial move.

In case you are wondering, sporran is Gaelic for purse. It hangs from the waist to rest over the man’s groin. It serves as a pocket for the pocketless kilt, but until you have seen Kare Alford perform Bill Wither’s “Use Me” you really don’t know what a sporran is for. He uses it to tremendous comic and erotic advantage. The crowd howls and I bond with the woman sitting next to me, exchanging high fives as she shouts out: “What you got in that purse!” and I holler: "Shake your sporran!"

The singers take turns as lead, each one’s style distinctive. Kare, also an actor, turns his songs into stories, using his face and his body to engage, and well, command the audience. David’s voice has a grace that is both intricate and sounds effortless. His hands and fingers follow all the small notes and the nuance he brings to songs like Rachel Farrell’s “I Gotta Go” and his virtuoso rendition of Burt Bachrach’s “A House is Not a Home.” I don’t have an accurate octave count of Tim’s range, but it is huge, and on full display in Charles Stepney’s “Love has Fallen on Me” made famous by Chaka Khan. A Gospel singer from an early age, Tim knows how to catch the Holy Ghost, as he calls it. He opens himself and goes, and he takes everyone with him.

Part the joy of a Soulkiss concert is the obvious joy the singers take in each other’s talent. The three share a house together and pool all the resources to make the music happen. Rehearsal begins at home and happens every night. One of the thrills of the evening, for which the rowdy audience held its breath, is the trio’s a cappella rendition of The Beatle’s “Yesterday.”

The only bad thing about a Soulkiss concert is that it has to end, but what an ending: LaBelle’s “Going Down Makes Me Shiver.” By this time I have begun to suspect that my fellow enthusiast is none other than Sarah Dash, one of Soulkiss’s “mothers” along with Reba Rambo Rambo McGuire Susaye Greene, Charlene Moore and I am happy to say, me! Sarah has performed this song with LaBelle, and Tim is singing her part. She is transported, and so is everyone else. Everyone in the place joins in on the chorus, singing “going down to your river, going down to your river.” That’s where we are, at the river, the source. With no need to repent, to profess a creed, we are at a revival, souls washed through with song: we are revived.

For more about Soulkiss and about Elizabeth and The Maeve Chronicles.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Tell Us a New Story: Brenda Peterson’s New Memoir

When novelist and nature writer Brenda Peterson taught creative writing in Arizona she was disturbed by her students’ penchant for killing off their characters. For one semester she forbade death as a plot resolution. The results were notable and revealing:

“Soon they began to attach to their characters more empathetically and to expand their character’s possibilities. Plots changed, relationships between characters opened up, there was a commitment to continuing lives. A love scene was much harder to write than a death scene.”

In her new memoir I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, Peterson issues a similar challenge to doomsayers of all fundamentalist stripes, environmental and religious, asking:
“What if both camps simply stopped all their fear mongering and found a new story?”

That new story is Brenda Peterson’s own story, and she shares it with great tenderness, humor, poignancy, and yes rapture, a quality for which she has gift, as one of her professors notes. Born to conservative Southern Baptist parents, her first home is in the high Sierra where her father served as a forest ranger. Her early childhood, where she was surrounded by more animals than people, (including a rattlesnake with whom she once enjoyed a peaceful sunny nap), was her own Eden and a template for her life.

Peterson grew up to be the lone left wing (or feather) of her family, the green sheep. Yet her passionate love of this earth becomes a point of connection as well contention with three generations of her family. All of them eagerly anticipate the Rapture and fret only that Brenda will be left behind. Their arguments over global warming are so heated they might be considered a contribution to the trend. Yet they find common ground, literally, in their attention to life on this planet. When she and her father can speak of nothing else during the Vietnam War years, Peterson listens raptly (yes) to his description of Aspen roots:

“Aspen can live together thousands of years, even though each individual tree only lasts about fifty to one hundred and fifty years above ground. But its roots live on in the shared system.” He paused to look at me meaningfully. “It’s like a family.”
Peterson leaves her family’s faith and finds her own spiritual practice that like the Dalai Lama’s, she quips, “is private.” But she never stops seeking ways to share heaven on earth with her kin. In one of my favorite scenes, Peterson and her parents declare a moratorium on all talk of politics and religion and go to visit the Gray whales in the Baja birthing lagoons. The whales themselves are a new story. Formerly hunted, some bearing harpoon scars, the whales seek out human contact, proudly and trustingly introducing their newborns. No one knows why.

“It is a mystery,” says one of the Mexican guides, “I think maybe las ballenas…the whales…are like God. They forgive us….They forgive us todo…everything.”
With this luminous, surprising memoir, Brenda Peterson completes her own assignment, giving us a story where no one is killed, dismissed, or left behind, where empathy is not only possible but imperative, where rapture can be ours here and now.

For more about Elizabeth Cunningham and her work: The Maeve Chronicles

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Heart's Ease: Loving a Place

I do not have classic fear of flying. But I do have separation anxiety—about being disconnected from the earth. Last time I faced the prospect of a long flight, I wrote this poem.

“It is good to love a place

It is good to have a backyard
that knows your footprints
that has fed you and become
part of your flesh and bone.

It is good to have a place
where you raised your children
and made love outside
in the afternoon, where you

know the animals and birds
where the heavenly blues
have finally bloomed outside
the bathroom window.

Today I stand in the backyard
and put down my roots.
Tomorrow I fly over an ocean
to another place in this round world.

If I should find myself falling
in a bit of metal crammed with fear
I will close my eyes and be back
in my good place, my backyard.”

In his excellent article, “Is There an Ecological Unconscious” (NYT 1/27/10) Daniel B. Smith quotes philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s definition of a term called heart’s ease. “People have heart’s ease when they’re on their own country. If you force them off that country, if you take them away from their land, they feel the loss of heart’s ease as a kind of vertigo, a disintegration of their whole life.” The article goes on to survey the growing field of ecopsychology and to posit the question of how to restore not just individuals but communities and regions to ecopsychological health.

My home region New York State’s Hudson Valley, is an incredibly and increasingly fortunate place from this perspective. Pete Seeger and many other grassroots activists continue to work to restore and preserve the area’s natural resources and beauty. Since 1963 Scenic Hudson has been creating parks and hiking trails on both sides of the river. Dutchess Land Conservancy helps preserve open and agricultural land. In recent years, community supported agriculture has burgeoned in the region. Last summer Poughkeepsie’s old railway bridge was transformed into a New York State Park called Walkway over the Hudson, connecting people from all over the region face to face with each other—and the river itself.

The Hudson Valley has advantages that many regions do not. It is undeniable that money and other resources flow from New York City upriver with the tide. In the other direction organic farmers have a ready and affluent market in the metropolitan area. In contrast, much of the rest rural New York, though just as beautiful, is economically depressed; jobs are scarce, services minimal, many former village centers have been all but abandoned, and school districts span enormous distances.

Ecopsychological health involves more than living in a beautiful place; it’s about relationship between a place and all its inhabitants: elemental, plant, animal, and human. The human beings need a way to work and live sustainably. There is a growing awareness that the way we build human communities matters. High rises can box and alienate people. But so can suburban tracts where everyone has their acre of chemically enhanced lawn and must commute by car.

Sixty-five years ago my mother-in-law Olga bought a farm in rural Dutchess County where she started High Valley School that we now maintain as a not-for-profit community center. Whenever adjacent land came on the market she bought it to preserve it. This land is now in conservation easements. She also wrote into town zoning law a provision for cluster housing, people living close together and preserving common open land.

At High Valley there are no extraordinary views or remarkable species, but there is heart’s ease, not just for those of us who live here but for the many people who visit. Last Fall, we realized we could no longer care for Olga in her home. All of us dreaded her separation from her land. When I walk in her gardens now, I am struck by how strongly I still feel her presence. She has adjusted well to her new place just across the river. As she has for several years, she sleeps a great deal. She denies dreaming, but when I asked her if she travels when she sleeps, she said, “Of course!” I suspect that often when her eyes are closed, she is back in her good place, her backyard.

For more about Elizabeth Cunningham and The Maeve Chronicles