Category Archives: Dignity

Elul and the Hero’s Journey

Promise yourself that you will remember who you are and not marginalize yourself within circumstance.  There is prosperity within our wake as we push into and become absolved within our own stream.
 
“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”
Joseph Campbell/ Reflections on the Art of Living
The Hero's Journey

For many years at this time of year, Julia and I would be heading to California to see our community and help lead High Holiday services.  The Jewish High Holidays are called the days of Awe because they are an opportunity to return to our truest being, and enter once again into a state of wonder where we can see the world with fresh eyes.  It is also a time of internal inventory, forgiveness and making amends.

The month before these days of Awe is called Elul, it is a time of preparation and study. Yesterday, I started my preparation by clearing the accumulated sea of weeds that had taken over our backyard.

Thích Nhất Hạnh was once asked why he spent so much time gardening when people enjoyed his poems so much.  He said, I garden like this, so I can write poems like that.

After the yard was clear, I rehearsed and then sat with a stack of books to gather wisdom to weave into the services that I will gratefully get to lead for my family this year. In the midst of this gleaning, Julia and I had dinner and watched a movie called Still Life.

The day before, we had allowed ourselves to see Kubo, and the Two Strings, which is still in the theater. My friend Emmet insisted that, “masterpiece is an understatement,” when describing this film.

kubo-main_0

In contemplating both films, (which I highly recommend) as I went back to my preparations, I realized they offered me as much as the clearing of the weeds, studying and rehearsing. These films in opposite ways demonstrated the Hero’s Journey.  Kubo, was among the finest examples of this mythical cycle I have seen.  Joseph Campbell is smiling from beyond. It utilized artistic and cutting edge animation, magic, storytelling and high action to bring the hero to the brink and back and have him return with a valuable gift that allowed his village to expand within themselves.

It may, as Emmet predicts, win an Oscar, or it may go under the radar. Still Life, will most certainly go under most people’s radar.  It was not animated, it was minimalistic.  It did not utilize magic or high action. It was sparse, gracefully slow and so beautiful. It was not the film  we thought it was going to be. If it had been, we would have thought it was quaint and forgotten it.

It was profound.

The hero of Still Life, is a solitary man who brings dignity to those who die alone. He looks for family and friends and if none can be found, he researches and writes their eulogies, selects their music and attends their funerals.  He stands as a witness to their lives and upholds the beauty they held.

Still-Life-2

We can become so used to our need to be entertained, to fill in the spaces, it is refreshing to return to the grandeur of subtlety. We are being showered with gifts all around us every day that call us back to being.

I went back to my pile of books after the movie and Ram Dass had this to say to me:

“…You study the scriptures, you study with teachers, you read books, you collect knowledge.  None of that is wisdom, it is merely the vehicle that’s going to help you get there.  As we move toward wisdom, we move on a path from intellect to intuition, from knowing we know about something, to an intuitive sense of our interconnectedness with everything. Intuitive wisdom is an appreciation of something through becoming one with it.”

Whatever your Elul or journey is, may you return with something greater than yourself that you can share with the rest of us.

Holding the chord

Barring love to uphold justice prevents the completion of the circuit that fulfils our aim.  Locked within us are the answers we seek to resolve the struggle that our minds cannot reconcile. Belief is an individual process that becomes entangled with our upbringing as well as loyalties to both the need to be accepted and our innate fear of punishment.  Love transcends our need for self-preservation.  Wanting to uphold for all beings what we desire for ourselves is not rational but instinctual.  Nestled in our conflict is the desire to embrace our vehemence and outrage, to allow the song of life to rejoin itself in harmony.

Israeli Palestinian peace*************************************************************

Last week I posted the Stream of Light about Elie Wiesel onto Facebook. A musical acquaintance of mine made some accusatory and ugly remarks about Mr. Wiesel.  I deleted his comments. He was outraged and asked me to unfriend him for censoring him.  We messaged back and forth.  I apologized for deleting his comments without asking him to.  My acquaintance is very passionate about standing up for the rights of displaced Palestinians and he felt that Mr. Wiesel, who stood for other groups rights, failed to do so for the Palestinians and was antagonistic to their plight.  I looked up an article written by a Palestinian writer who was a fan of Mr. Wiesel’s book Night but who was disappointed in Mr. Wiesel’s actions.  Since my acquaintance also works for peace, I pointed out that although outraged, our ability to not close the hearts of those who are needed to amend or help facilitate justice, is vital.

Elie Wiesel, who would have concurred that he was not a saint, said:

“No nation is composed of saints alone. None is sheltered from mistakes or misdeeds. All have their Cain and Abel. It takes vision and courage to undergo serious soul-searching and to favor moral conscience over political expediency.”

At the end of our conversation, my acquaintance and I reached an understanding. We both were able to be heard.  In fact, that Friday night as Julia and I sang for a service at a temple, I was wrestling with the issue of people wanting a home for themselves and their families. The depth of the situation, is parallel to the plight of the Native Americans, whose land many of us rent or seem to own.

During the service, Julia and I were asked to sing Jerusalem of Gold, by Naomi Shemer. The song reflects 2,000 years of yearning for a homeland. In the middle of it, I held one of the chords and stood there with my eyes closed. I had to wait, overcome by what felt like an endless torrent of tears.  The innate connection to the song felt deeper than my identification with my tribe. The moments of holding that chord in silence felt like the collective longing all of humanity has for shelter, to belong, to be embraced by the dignity of their own wholeness.

When I related this event to my mother, she shared this excerpt from one of the I Am discourses:

   “When you enter into the understanding of what Indestructible harmony means to Life, you will have entered into the Powerhouse of the universe, because discord is disintegration; and the only thing that is Eternal Perfection is Indestructible Harmony. There is no freedom without Harmony, no permanent health without Harmony, no Victory over that which you call evil, which is discord, except Indestructible Harmony.”

Last night, here in Iowa, Julia’s mom gave me an article she has saved for me about Elie Wiesel talking in a church. Mr. Wiesel confessed that he was only able to speak and sing in this church because he was able to put aside his anger and recognize that not all Christians had turned their backs on the Jews during the holocaust.  What he said after that was what had stayed with the author of the article ever since:

“I believe people who can stand together and sing together, can live in peace together.” – Elie Wiesel

Even in the midst of all this heart wrenching unrest and the Civil Liberties that we still need to stand for here in America and around the world, remembering our harmony will help us to sing as we stand.  I believe our internal harmony bridges the gap between us.

May you hold the chord, even as you struggle to regain your voice within the silence of yearning.

 

The Threshold Choir- Singing healing into dying.

Grief Literacy

When Death comes it will be a final opportunity for dignity. Will we clutch frantically “Can I have more?”  “What else can I take?” or will we be granted the serenity to know that we were granted an entire world, an entire life of free will.  Perfect your reaction now.
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After a late night gig on Friday in CT and an early morning gig on Saturday in NJ, Julia and I spent our Saturday night off driving three hours to an 80’s party in North Hampton Mass.  We decided that while the allure of the couch and the tube would be delightful, that we would make the effort to go see sweet friends.
On the way we listened to Bill Bryson’s memoir about the 50’s.  He was discussing how society back then was indestructible.  It was a group held belief that all food was good for you, that smoking and drinking was good for you.  There were x-ray machines in the shoe stores to bathe you from head to toe to get your shoe size.  There were bombs tested in Nevada and families in Las Vegas had picnics to watch and would line up as the men with Geiger counters came around to see how radioactive they were. It was a lark.
One of our friends from The Boxcar Lilies was throwing the 80’s party and put on Talking Heads and B-52s for us to dance to.  The Lilies are three strong and in-depth women that sing and play instruments together.  Their men folk are all rugged, huge- hearted talented gents.  One of them,  Erik Hoffner is a photographer and writer.  He turned us on to Stephen Jenkinson and an interview he just published with Stephen in the latest Sun magazine.
 Stephen Jenkinson is an author, a spiritual teacher, farmer and activist.  His message is not that we are indestructible but are, especially in North America, suffering from “grief illiteracy.” We do not know how to acknowledge our own death or be faithful witnesses to each other’s dying.  We act as if things are normal, right up to the end, “Death doesn’t burden your life. It animates your life and gives you the chance to live, because it says, “Here’s the bad news: “It’s not going to last. Here’s the good news, “It’s not going to last.”
I had mentioned during our 80’s party how important as it was as an adult to pull back in the summer, stop working long enough to experience the stillness and expansive space summer can offer. Something that we knew as kids.
Stephen Jenkinson talks about the cultures that used initiation to create a mini-death between childhood and becoming adults to teach us, respectfully, to take responsibility and transition from being self-absorbed to becoming conscious of our lives and those around us.
Pema Chodron cites the problem with going up to the mountain to transcend is that there are those who are suffering left behind.  She suggests going into the heart of the earth and being able to be with the grief here.
Stephen Jenkinson also says, “There’s no withdrawing or running or transcending.  Stay here. Stay long enough that the grief can have its way with you, and you begin to realize that this grief is a wisdom, a recognition that human beings are maintained by the death of other living things…Your better self is born of grief… You can live your life as someone who has an enduring obligation to that which has kept you alive.” We can remember and be human.
Last night we went into the city to see a production of The 39 Steps and the four actors playing all the parts, bringing expertise physical comedy to the adventure of life, fraught with death, brought  the realization home.  While we are here, we can develop ourselves and our skills and share them to the best of our ability while we can. Acknowledging the finite, we can keep the story going, pass it down through the decades and centuries to prepare the decaying quilt for future generations to marvel at  and maintain.  May the patch we contribute engender wonder.
Stephen Jenkinson- The Meaning of Death:

Speeches of Acceptance – worth the gold

After a successful weekend in Kansas City at the Folk Alliance International with amazing musicians from around the world, Julia and I got to watch the Academy Awards.  What struck us were some of the acceptance speeches. JK Simmons started by telling children to call their parents.  Then, without anger or histrionics, an actor, a writer and musicians stood up, not for themselves alone but for their particular portion of humanity.  Beyond the nit-picking of behavior and evaluating performances and dresses, people from around the globe were treated to earnest concern and bravery.  With the overlapping of these speeches alone, the bridge towards our collective humanity gets a boost in production.
That was worth the price of watching.
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 “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.” – P.A.
http://youtu.be/OteoFQvQczc
We stand in solidarity with Commons, John Legend, MLK and all of those who long to see this truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave.
“…the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the Civil Rights movement marched on, 50 years ago. This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation, but now it’s a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects a kid from the South Side of Chicago dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion, and elevated by love for all human beings.
Thank you. Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights, the act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on.
“-
from Commons and John Legend’s acceptance speech at the Oscar’s.
 
“I tried to commit suicide at 16 and now I’m standing here,” he said. “I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. You do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message along.” – Graham Moore
 “Call your mom. Call your dad. If you are lucky enough to have a parent or two alive on this planet, call them. Don’t text, don’t email, call them on the phone. Tell them you love them and thank them and listen to them as long as they want to talk to you.”- JK Simmons

Happy MLK Day! Wedging ourselves into the doorway of love

This weekend Julia and I had the pleasure of playing at a Folk Festival.  We were part of a songwriting competition.  We were grateful to be asked and got to play under a huge banyan tree, a living backdrop that made this the most amazing stage we have played on. We really allowed the songs we sang to not be about us exclusively and had a wondeful time. It was a pleasure to connect with so many beautiful songwriters and the people for whom music appreciation is not only a lifestyle but is life manifest.
The three judges announced their favorite three songwriters and we were happy for our friend who was among them.
Now, while I personally went though a sadness of not “winning” and noticed the thoughts that go with that dissappointment, I was keenly aware when one of the winners said to me, “You two (Julia and I) get to play together. Many of us have tried to make that work and weren’t able to. You are the real winners.”
The next day what stuck me was that it is great to win and to be recognized in a certain light, to be able to put things on your resume, but what is most vital is the ability to come back in with your love and delight, to honestly connect to the people around you, to see them, to build them up.  We all seemed to play from a relaxed place the next day and we got to hear some amazing songs from the heart.
All of this seems relavant today as I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and all of the men and women and children who persevered through doubt, sadness, humiliation and death to uphold their love and the belief that we can all be together, free to share the songs of our hearts.
Surely our troubles are very small compared to many who have plunged into the frey for freedom. Still, our struggles can seem insurmountable in the moment.  Here is to the bonds of friendship, family and even strangers who see our light and help us get back to a place of joyful strength.
My friend, the poet Ashby Lankford shared this MLK quote:
 
“I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the ‘isness’ of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal ‘oughtness’ that forever confronts him. I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
-MLK
While this is more pertinent today, it holds up and holds us up.
We may see ourselves as winners or loosers but beyond all labels or external acknowledgement, it is about wedging ourselves into the doorway of love, to let the light come through as long as we can.

Eulogy for a bold force of kindness

This week a woman Julia and I knew from a handful of gatherings, through a family that we are very close to, passed away. We were both moved by her passing as if we had known her our whole lives.  This was a woman who embodied the maternal. She did not apologize for being here.  She parted the waves of complacent ignorance.  Her laugh emptied you of fear and filled you with a support that encouraged your being to come forward.  She created an arena around her, a forum for whatever truth was present to be nourished. She was real in every sense of the word.  Her candor was so refreshing, not only did it put you at your ease but lightened you up so that you could laugh at your own pretense.
We went to her service and learned that when her children were being bullied in school she brought the bully to tears of contrition in the principal’s office by asking “What is hurting you so much inside that you have to make my children sad?” She was not only larger than life, she was larger than death.  When she had learned she had cancer, she refused to let it stop her from embracing the things and the people she loved.  She raised money for cancer treatment and continued to be a brash force of kindness.
The couple who introduced us to this wonderful woman, led her service.  They were strong in the way that everyone needed them to be, but not only did they put us at ease, they lifted us up to her level.  We would all be rich beyond compare to have someone lift us up after we have gone, with such good humor and earnest praise.  Certainly, she lifted herself up enough to be remembered in the best way but it takes a true friend to present us to those who didn’t know who we were and expand us to those who did.
It makes me feel very fortunate to have such amazing people in the fabric of my time here.
One of the last people to speak said that if she was there she would have said, “What were you thinking having these people get up at this hour of the morning?”
This was worth getting up early for.  It wasn’t a funeral, it was reminder to love fully, regardless of the rules; to live life on our own terms. To remember that we are all part of one delicious Self and then to be Self-ish and wrap our arms around life and not let go, even when we loose form.
For all of those who have shown us the secret value of being here, no hug is strong or long enough.

Frankenstein and the Torch Bearer’s of Life

We went to go see Danny Boyle’s (director of Slumdog Millionaire) Frankenstein filmed at the National Theater in London and shown in movie theaters around the globe. Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller who both currently play Sherlock Holmes on TV, (Cumberbatch/ Sherlock and Miller/Elementary) co-starred as the creature and the doctor, switching roles alternately. 

We saw both versions and they were amazing, but the production with Cumberbatch as the creature struck a reverberating chord with me. 
 
I found myself almost involuntarily weeping for the creature’s yearning to be allowed the most basic human dignity. It wells into the same response I have had watching Charles Laughton play the Hunchback of Notre Dame telling the beautiful Esmerelda that he saved her because, she gave him water and a little pity and Tom Robinson attesting to his innocence on the stand in 
To Kill a Mockingbird.  
 
It is poetry when someone is able to portray the ‘monster’ as a mirror to the part of us that is shunned for being different.  Instead of being discounted as an aberration, a number, an equation, an experiment gone awry, we are the torch bearers of life.
 
“All life is precious, even mine,” the creature says and reflects what a luxury it would be to have been given a name.
 
Mary Shelly, penned Frankenstein at 18 and was able to point out that our attempts to circumvent the nurturing feminine aspect of nature itself in the creation of life is and always will be tragic.  
 
The responsibility to nurture whatever life we bring in, in any form, will haunt us and comfort us in turn. 
 
 
Creating Frankenstein 13 min. Documentary (with spoilers ; )
 
Have a happy Halloween- may your light and darkness dance a merry waltz together. 

 

Stream of Light for 9/11

Where there is love, we can overcome lamentation.  Beyond the fortress of censure and confrontation, we are allowed a glimpse inside the inner workings of beauty.  Where is the beauty in the ashes? In the rising; in the life that continues.  Where we are today in the stream of our own lives intercepts with the lives of countless who have ventured beyond our sight.  In this moment of stillness, feel the lives of billions around the world, yearning for the same freedom we hope to attain. Count what you have that can be taken away. What remains? What can you keep?  Hold it up. Hold that up for all to see.
Extending the moment of silence into now, we can reach out in our hearts to all of those who were directly and indirectly effected by the attack on the world trade center thirteen years ago.  We can hold them in our embrace and be with them as they yearn for healing and justice.
Beyond the controversy and the outrage, today allow this silence to help us ponder the suffering of those around us that we never fully know of or understand, and of the rising life provides us daily.  There is anger, there is fear but life itself offers strength and a freedom beyond what can be attacked.  
Hatred breeds more fear and decreases what security we may already have.  Looking at the examples of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani school girl who stood up to the Taliban and others around the world who stand up, not just for themselves or their countries, religions, or cultures but for an individual’s right to freedom that can apply to all of humanity.  
The Vietnamese teacher/poet Thich Nhat Hanh toured America at the time of 9/11 in 2001 and was aware of how much fear there was within our shores.  “How do we calm down our fear?  In the Buddhist tradition, there is a practice called compassionate listening.  This can help people suffer less. We also have the practice of loving speech.”
Whatever tradition or practice we have that allows us to be there for those around us and lift them up on this day, and every day, may me remember we have access to it.
Let the grass grow, let our hearts become tender as we guard what is essential to us.
“Positive vibrations toward healing of the planet
and our beloved beings who inhabit its many shores.” 
– David Picarillo

 

Stream of Light 7-22-14

When out of shame or a painful memory someone unexpectedly shows you a courtesy, something simple, you are allowed to experience what has been intended for us all: Dignity and release from all cruelty.  Life is not meant to be controlled and manipulated into fear and separation. Take the laughter inherent in your heart and braid it into bread that you can feed those around you.

Endings and beginnings are subject to change, nothing is as tragic as we imagine it to be.  Life is more of a comedy than we realize.  Lighten up and proceed with the joy of your bliss.