27 January 2008

The Art of Prayer

As I child, school and church were two of the three social frameworks that supported and shaped my life--home or family being the third. To whatever degree I'd integrated a sense of "us and them," one way I understood "them" was in terms of anyone who didn't go to my school or belong to my family.

Where church was concerned, it was a slightly different matter: there were people who went to church and people who didn't; people who were Baptists and people who belonged to some other denomination; people who attended my church and people who attended some other Baptist church; and people within my church who had been baptized and those who hadn't.

And, of course, people who were related to me and attended my church versus people who were not related to me and attended my church.

I don't remember any significant conflicts arising at any of these church-defined borders. My sister and I played piano duets at the Sunday afternoon teas sponsored by Black Baptist and Methodist churches. We entertained "them" frequently and it was always a pleasurable experience.

Through music, I regularly traveled across the lines and into the camps of the Others. I generally had a good time while I was there and escaped unharmed.

I also don't remember denigration of any of the opposing religious camps within the camps to which I belonged. But perhaps I was too young or innocent to notice.

It was much later in life, my early twenties I think, that a friend became a born-again Christian. By that time I'd left my childhood church and begun exploring rituals and creation stories and origins of other faith traditions. The friend was someone I hadn't talked to for several years. She'd been Catholic when we knew each other in high school and wed never talked about religion. But now, she began a feverish proselytizing that made me very uncomfortable. She felt it was urgent that people see the error of their ways and be saved; and this was all she wanted to talk about.

We drifted apart.

Now and then over the years, I've found myself similarly discomfited when confronted by religious fervor. It's been happening more and more since I came to Gulfport and it happened again the other night. I've been thinking about it ever since.

Religious fervor, when accompanied by conflict or negative propaganda about another religion, disturbs me. It feels fundamentally wrong to me but when it happens, I often regret not having a more scholarly, researched comeback to offer. The recent "WWJD" ("What What Jesus Do?") campaign was an encouraging development. Ah, I thought. Surely they'll do the research necessary to live the answer to that question. It was disappointing to witness people in "WWJD" t-shirts doing and saying all manner of things it is difficult to imagine Jesus ever saying or doing.

Or is it a subjective issue, a matter of interpretation? Maybe they sincerely think they're doing what Jesus and/or God would do, based on their understanding of the Bible.

P____ shared a link with me last week. It led to a site advocating the adoption of the Aramaic Lord's Prayer by all Christ-based religions. As a child, I learned the Lord's Prayer this way:

Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done
on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
Forever. Amen.

I don't remember where or when, but some years later I encountered the prayer translated similarly but substituting "debt" for "trespassing."

At the link, I found the Aramaic translation that follows:

Abwoon d'bwashmaya

O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos/ you create all that moves in light.

Nethqadash shmakh

Focus your light within us--make it useful: as the rays of a beacon show the way.

Teytey malkuthakh

Create your reign of unity now--through our firey hearts and willing hands.

Nehwey sebyanach aykanna d'bwashmaya aph b'arha.

Your one desire then acts with ours, as in all light, so in all forms.

Habwlan lachma d'sunqanan yaomana.

Grant what we need each day in bread and insight:

subsistence for the call of growing life.

Washboqlan khaubayn (wakhtahayn)

aykana daph khnan shbwoqan l'khayyabayn.

Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,

as we release the strands we hold of others' guilt.

Wela tahlan l'nesyuna

Don't let us enter forgetfulness

Ela patzan min bisha.

But free us from unripeness

Metol dilakhie malkutha wahayla wateshbukhta l'ahlam almin.

From you is born all ruling will, the power and the life to do,

the song that beautifies all, from age to age it renews.


Truly--power to these statements--

may they be the source from which all my actions grow.

Sealed in trust & faith. Amen.

This version might be more difficult to teach to 5-year-old children but as I imagine the process through which a child's capacity to speak and understand this prayer would increase, the gradual maturing of mind and spirit that the process would permit, I cannot help but smile and hum.

The language of this translation is more poetic, more artistic and, as a result, comes from a deeper spiritual place than either of the other two translations above. Art is the "deeper" place of human existence. (One of the deeper places.) One might think that seeking concrete guidelines for modern living in a prayer full of abstractions and imagistic language would be a futile attempt.

And I would disagree.

The guidelines in this prayer are apprehended spiritually, precisely because they are delivered through poetry. Through art. This kind of learning is integral and durable. It's like the difference between swallowing a pill and swallowing a crushed pill, or eating a steak and eating a tomato, ripe off the vine.

Comprehension of the teaching in the prayer is assured because we grasp it on both intellectual AND spiritual/sensual levels. We can think about it and live (in) it.

In the concreteness of the earlier translations a passive petitioner stands in lead-foot submission and surrender, palms out for bread. Shackled to a chain, waiting to be led to right living. In the Aramaic translation the grateful petitioner remains an active, willing agent, infused with Divine light and energized. The prayer has wings.

It is possible to take flight in the other translations but it requires a pray-er who brings willingness and openness to the invocation. Such willingness and openness is embedded in the Aramaic translation. Making the prayer stimulates the heart to willingness and openness.

I'm going to learn this prayer.


Upcoming discussion The oppressive social dominance of Christianity in the Deep South...

18 January 2008


For a month or so, I've been noticing dead raccoons on the road. Each time I spot one, I have to force myself to keep driving. There is a stronger and stronger urge to pick it up and take it with me.

I don't know what's up.

When I was living in northern Colorado in 2005, raccoons started appearing frequently. At that time I was amazed by their size, much larger animals than I'd expected. One night, walking home from dinner I spotted two of them almost a block away. At first, I didn't know what I was seeing: an animal the size of a small collie but not moving like a collie. And the tail was wrong.

I slowed my pace as I approached, a little scared. When I came within 20 feet of them, one of them scurried into a flood drain. The other one stood up! I stopped cold in my tracks. What the ...!!? The animal stood there under the streetlight and looked right at me.

What a moment! OK. So you're a great big raccoon standing up, looking me in my eye. And I'm a colored girl frozen in her tracks and scared of you. Where do we go from here?

Nowhere. I stood there breathing shallow and trying to muster a "we're all God's creatures" frame of mind. Eventually he (?) fell back to all-fours and slipped into the drain behind the other. I hugged the fence, as far from the drain as possible as I passed the spot where they'd stood.

Back at the house, I looked up Raccoon in Ted Andrews' excellent book "Animal Speak". I can't find an excerpt online but the link leads to some of the kind of teaching I found. A couple of the ideas that jump out at me tonight:

  • "The paws are very dexterous. Raccoons can be expert at opening lids, latches, doorknobs, and such..." Thinking about raccoon paws at the piano...
  • "One of the most striking features of the raccoon is the mask ...Although some associate this with thievery, it actually gives the raccoon a very powerful mystical symbolism. The use of masks to achieve altered states and for other healing and ritual purposes has been a part of every society. ...with masks there is ambiguity and equivocation..." Reminds me of my attraction to veils. I've only once actually worn a veil in public. And, oh what a night that was!
  • " This is the magic of raccoon. ...expert at disguise and secrecy. ... It can teach you how to mask and disguise and transform yourself. ... Raccoon holds the knowledge of transformation through masks and disguise. ...Do you need to present a different face to people for greater success? Are you hiding your true self? ...Raccoon can help you find the answers."
Well. There's some food for thought, no?

Art Sashays In

It's The Topic today in my life.

Several streams of my life are roiling. On the outside I'm sluggish and over-smoking. On the inside, old questions and issues have cycled back into prominence.

I welcome their return...this is the work of my Soul.
I curse their return...for I have no "answers."
I am whining...because it really hurts.
I am exhausted...because they have returned with redoubled intensity.
I am humbled...what a vote of confidence; God thinks I have what it takes to face this stuff.

A friend is thinking of me today and sends this email:

"As an artist, you must be a prophet, not in the sense that you foretell
things to come, but in the sense that you tell your audience, at the risk of
their displeasure, the secrets of their own hearts. The reason why they need
an artist is that no community altogether knowns its own heart, and by
failing in this knowledge, a community deceives itself on the one subject
concerning which ignorance is death. For the evils which come from
ignorance, you as artist prophet suggest no remedy. Your remedy is the art
itself, the poetry itself, the dance itself, the song itself. Art is the
community's medicine for the worst disease of the mind, the corruption of

-- Book of the Principles of Art by Robin G. Collingwood, 1938
I like finding this message in my box tonight. At lunch, tears of frustration flowing down my cheeks in response to my companion's question "What do you want to do?" I said, "All I want to do is make music. The highest deep, the most profound uplift I've ever experienced has come always from music. It's the only hard work that this lazy woman is ever motivated to do."

There's always enough space, light, encouragement, challenge, humor, stimulation, peace, reward, education, romance, juice and shadow when I make music. No identity crisis when I'm at the keyboard. No confusion about etiquette or discretion at the piano. No boredom.

The path at my feet....the keys at hand.

16 January 2008

The Book and I (revised)

A new friend recently loaned her copy of Eat Pray Love. We're new friends and both relatively new to the Gulf Coast. Every few weeks we get together and go somewhere and do something. On the day she brought the book to me our plan was to check out Ocean Springs. It was my turn to drive so she came to my place and left her car.

She said, "Oh! And here's the book..." and laid it on the couch. I said thanks and looked at it -- didn't touch it as I recall. Just looked at it. And we left.

When I came home I looked at it again and didn't touch it. My lip curled into a little snarl. Nothing grotesque -- just a barely perceptible sign of mild distaste on the left edge of my mouth. The title on the cover was spelled out in unique font; I could see the printed letters had irregular shapes. But I didn't look closely enough to really see what was going on.

I wasn't fully committed to a negative idea about the book but something unacknowledged in me did not like this book. Or this author. Or something. It was like the feeling I used to get in junior high school around certain girls. Like Sylvia Stubbins. When Sylvia entered a room I felt a mixture of embarrassment and anger and fear and longing. She was popular and never wore a piece of clothing in her life that wasn't either universally recognized as "in" -- or soon to be recognized as such. She was popular with white kids and black kids (I was only popular with white kids...).

(We actually had only recently begun to identify as "black," thanks to James Brown's hit record, "Say It Loud: I'm Black and I'm Proud." I was an intellectual artist girl child being raised in a moderately conservative Baptist community. There, Brown's proud and exuberant slogan broadcast a pride that aspiring Negroes had not fully embraced. The message sounded militant, aggressive and more expressive of Black Panther politics than the salt-of-the-earth, faithful lifestyle that they nurtured.

I still aspired to acceptance in that community but the fires of discontent had begun to smolder. Within two years, I would run away from home and the event would mark a turning point in my life; it would be the first eruption of a true flame of rebellion in my soul.)

Though she sometimes pretended otherwise, I was on Sylvia's radar, too. Beginning in middle school, she actively sought opportunities and devised tactics to challenge or ridicule or upset me. I never shed tears in her presence but internally, great shreds were torn in my psyche and my heart was terrorized and broken often.

A private vibration of recognition flowed between Sylvia and I. We actually admired (were envious of) each other but, somehow, in the complex socio-political scheme of middle school, we had both been recognized as leaders and landed in a freeze-frame scene holding antagonistic postures of opposition. We'd earned our statuses mostly in separate sectors of the social galaxy: me in academics and music and Sylvia in sports, fashion, and general "sociability." Eventually our worlds would intersect in theater, though she was drawn to a place on the stage while I preferred a seat in the orchestra at the piano.


The book lay on the couch for a couple of days. A visitor was pleasantly surprised to notice it. "You're reading Eat Pray Love," she cooed. "Yeah. Somebody loaned it to me," I mumbled, trying to distance myself from the book. From the apparent throngs who adore the book; no fewer than six women have mentioned it to me in the last few months and it's been mentioned on NPR. After my visitor left, I touched the book for the first time and moved it to the end table. Where it lay for another couple days.

Two nights ago I decisively carried the book upstairs and granted it a place on my bedside stand. Along with The Piano Teacher (Elfriede Jelinek) and the November and December issues of The Sun. "Alright!" I thought. "I don't want to read this book. I don't want to like this book. I hate liking things that everybody else likes. I hate that someone has written a popular book -- that I have not written a popular book."

But the stories in The Sun had not grabbed me by the throat like they used to do regularly. And the language and story of The Piano Teacher were bumpy in that way that certain translations can be; so I had not been able to lose myself in it -- though I fervently wanted to.

So there was a space in my reading life for Eat Pray Love. I was ready to confront my resistance.


I fought the urge to climb into bed with a book. I spent a few sad, frustrating minutes at my malfunctioning piano trying to make music. I fixed some food and ate. I watched a "Frasier" episode on DVD. I played a computer game and answered some email. I washed my face.

I looked at the book, a bomb bathed in gentle lamplight. I climbed into bed and pulled The Piano Teacher out from the pile. A couple of nights before I'd watched the film version of the novel. I opened the book to the bookmark, read less than a page of Jelinek's (as translated by Neugroschel) quirky voice and closed the book.

OK. I'll do it. I'll open Eat Pray Love.

I don't want to like this book. I read the Intro...the mathematics of the prayer beads...I like this device...I don't want to like this book... Hummm.... She has changed the names and the reasons for her decision are reasons I would have given. And she warns that she will break her own rule -- just once -- and explains why. More reasoning in my own style.

I don't want to like this book. I close the book and examine the cover. "Eat" is spelled out in pasta. Cute. "Pray" is spelled out in prayer beads. Well...okay. "Love" is spelled out in...flowers? That look sorta like satin ribbon? Nah. That's not what I would choose. I smile. Maybe I won't like this book after all.

I read on. Damn! Anne Lamott's favorable review appears right on the cover, hovering under the "pray" beads. I like Anne Lamott.

Chapter One, Page One (or Book One, Story One) begins: "I wish Giovanni would kiss me." Hah! I snort. I don't like this book! But I keep reading to collect evidence. I don't like this book. I won't like this book. Let me count the ways."


I reached paged 53 last night. The author had arrived at a discussion of depression and loneliness, describing them as two familiar strangers who track her down in Rome. Argh! She's hitting close to my bone...

I closed the book somewhat disturbed. As I turned off the light a little before 2 am I said aloud, "I don't want to like this book but I think I do..."

***first image in this post is entitled "Adolescence" by artist Gary Slipper

13 January 2008

Mind Maps and Life Paths

Somewhere in the last few weeks I heard a song whose lyric included "World gone mad..." The music and the vocalist's style got under my skin as much as the lyric. The world feels and looks mad to me and there is a comfort having my impressions affirmed by someone else--especially another musical artist.

It was a kind of "chicken or egg" conundrum, trying to figure out how the recent holiday madness fit with the general world madness. Was the world madness more difficult for me because holiday madness was at fever pitch? Was the fever pitch an attempt by the masses to deal with the surrounding world madness?

For weeks now, my thinking has been muddled, cluttered, disordered on nearly every front: socially, politically, artistically, spiritually... I've been waiting for a tiny shimmering ort of clarity to emerge from the mess, something I could snatch up and use as a launch point for blogging. The burst of energy and clarity that led to "Improvisation of Presence" was a short-lived aberration. The clouds returned shortly after clicking the "Publish Post" button.

I believe the surrounding world madness is largely responsible for my cluttered mind. Or more accurately put, I've searched my trick bag and found no light there strong enough to dispel the fog and cloud.

In November I was given a copy of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." The book comes to mind now as I anticipate the voices of sympathy responding to my narrative here. In the novel, a father and son make their way across a devastated, post-apocalyptic America. They have somehow survived a horror that has decimated the population; now and then they encounter other survivors, mostly people who have sacrificed their goodness in the name of survival.

Father and son walk on through the physical nightmare. What else can be done? They don't cry or complain or despair. They just keep going. I have a similar feeling lately--I keep going. Not full of fear or anger or complaint. Just pressing on. Through fog.

Suicide crosses my mind from time to time. But that's par for my life course--it's been an item for contemplation at least since the age of 9. I checked myself into a hospital around Thanksgiving of 1993 because my "suicidal ideation" was so intense; but these days it's no cause for alarm when I hear Suicide, snarling angrily and throwing itself against the walls in the next room. I open the door carefully and enter barefoot, approaching slowly, speaking softly in soothing tones. I've learned how to win sufficient trust to hold It in my lap, stroke it's little head--being careful to avoid it's teeth.

K____ turned me on to the Mindjet Mind Manager software a few months back and I downloaded a trial version of the software. Beyond my predictable delight with having a new toy, using it to attempt to gain a partial appreciation of the contour and scope of my fogginess proved informative. I built three personal mind maps: one each for Brazil, the "why" and "how" of living on the Gulf Coast and the dream of establishing a leadership school in South Mississippi (I haven't talked about that here yet....). If you're trying to figure something out, I highly recommend following the link to the download and giving the application a try.

Besides my explorations with Mindjet, one other light has gone on that is worth a note here:

Since I began to listening to Joni's latest CD, "Shine" (see previous post "If I Had A Heart I'd Cry"), I've been listening again to her old albums and watching Joni Mitchell documentaries. I can't get enough of her.

Most recently, I watched "Painting with Words and Music", an intimate concert she gave in 1998. It's Joni at the age I am now singing and talking and dancing before an audience that includes some good friends.

Admittedly, I projected my personal issues all over this film but here's one thing I got: with all the ways Joni's thinking and mine are similar, there's a difference of particular relevance to my current fog.

Some of the clutter in my head is the accumulation of detritus from decades of exposure to ancient wisdom teachings and new-age hype and psycho-babble and the like. I mean no disrespect to Pema or Deepak or Buddha or Jesus or any of them; I'm just having an insight.

I suspect Joni's been exposed to the same stuff but while I took it deeply to heart and mind and made integrating it into my life a mission, Joni placed it on a shelf along with everything else she's experienced.

The example I've offered friends is that when I encounter an "asshole" personality, I reference teachings that suggest that what we don't like in other people is a reflection of some part of ourselves still in need of attention. Joni, on the other hand, writes a song about the "asshole" and moves on. Most of the time, I never get around to making art from the experience of encounter; I'm too busy studying my navel and searching for clues on how to "fix" my life.

Interestingly, as I thought about all this, I remembered--again--the encouragement offered by nearly every teacher to not take their word for anything they say. Over and over they advise the seeker to live and see what wisdom emerges from their own life experience. Maybe one's life experience supports the idea that a "difficult" Other is an external manifestation of a personal aspect. But maybe not. Maybe an asshole is simply an asshole.

Discussing it with another friend produced more food for thought: if we are all a part of one Story, couldn't it be that the "asshole" role is covered and I play some other role -- if only for that chapter?

So, 13 days into 2008 I'm considering not making a New Year's resolution but commencing a focused experiment. What wisdom is MY life bringing me? What truths are being proven in my experience? To borrow a ministerial friend's sermon title, where does "the path at my feet" lead?

09 January 2008

Another Found Poem

I found this poem tonight on a Stumble! It speaks to what I was saying the other day about letting people down and being shattered when they leave me.

"After a While"

After a while you learn
the subtle difference between
holding a hand and chaining a soul
and you learn
that love doesn't mean leaning
and company doesn't always mean security.
And you begin to learn
that kisses aren't contracts
and presents aren't promises
and you begin to accept your defeats
with your head up and your eyes ahead
with the grace of woman, not the grief of a child
and you learn
to build all your roads on today
because tomorrow's ground is
too uncertain for plans
and futures have a way of falling down
in mid-flight.
After a while you learn
that even sunshine burns
if you get too much
so you plant your own garden
and decorate your own soul
instead of waiting for someone
to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure
you really are strong
you really do have worth
and you learn
and you learn
with every goodbye, you learn...

© 1971 Veronica A. Shoffstall

06 January 2008

How to Please Me

It's been said that I am




but notice: after a day of teaching and preaching, on a Sunday no less, I am home in a sweatshirt, with a candle and a cigarette burning, a cup of hot cocoa beside me and Joni Mitchell singing in the background and I honestly cannot think of anything I want or need in this moment.

03 January 2008

Improvisation of Presence

So far, in the two plus years since coming to the post-Katrina South, it's been hard to know for sure when some-thing is ending and some-thing-else is beginning. Sometimes change comes abruptly --like the morning the armed guard arrived to tell us we had one hour to gather our belongings and vacate our tent at the FEMA encampment in Algiers--and there's no mistaking it; the next chapter has definitely begun.

But most of the time it hasn't been that clear. Most attitudes or projects or relationships have felt like experiments or improvisations that, of course, don't feel like an exact fit at the beginning but "let's just see where it goes, see whether it holds..."

In Action Theater, the improv school where I received my start-up training, we partially disable the analytical mind to allow impulses to surface from...well, wherever impulses come from, and then surrender the body to "follow" the impulse, to let it bloom into movement, gestures and sounds. But the absence of analysis does not at all mean the form develops haphazardly or absent-mindedly; far from it. The player commits his/her attention diligently to the unfolding impulse.

Ruth Zaporah, my teacher, was quick to shout across the studio "What is that?!" when it was apparent any of us had shifted our attention from the impulse to an analysis of the impulse. To her, and increasingly to us under her tutelage, it was glaringly perceptible when this happened. The body lost fluidity. The work suffered. The performance failed.

Ruth talked about this method as "the improvisation of presence." Being present, right here. Fully focused and committed in body and mind to the present moment, the new one that is always improvising itself into existence. I enthusiastically bought into this method, this attitude, this approach. Not that I came anywhere near mastery of the practice but, oh, talk about resonating with a concept.... Yeah. There is a way in which I see "improvisation of presence" and "hope" as antithetical....and I'm sure this has something to do with my recently-discussed abstinence; but this is a philosophical discussion I'll leave for exploration at some other time.

For now, MS Public Broadcasting has broken my heart and soul today. I don't have television access and rely on NPR radio a lot for news and entertainment and background noise. MPB might just as well closed shop today for the shoddy job it's done in all three areas. It's been so bad I've actually shed tears about it. And wrung my hands and questioned my existence in Mississippi, in the South, in America. "What the f**k am I doing in MS?! We don't even have a decent radio station down here!"

Pulling back just a bit from that ledge of over-the-top dramatics, I'm left wondering whether it's a sign that a change is coming, needs to come... The work with the Steps Coalition has pretty much dried up--as has my confidence or enthusiasm for the Coalition....hummmm. Hard to say which happened first or whether the two phenom are related.

My passport application is complete except for photo and $97 application fee. I really want to go to Brazil but what does it mean that my income disappears just as I begin serious plans to head further South?

I jumped at the chance to become an EPSS trainer last fall, "hoping" it would turn into a means of at least partial self-support by early 2008 but that prospect is vanishing. Or is it?

It's like that down here: hard to say or see whether an experiment is succeeding or temporarily tanking or progressing slowly or definitely going down the tubes. I try to stick with pure impulse, commit my attention and energy to its bloom without fretting or analyzing...

After all, maybe Brazil can happen. Maybe EPSS will reach solvency in the next six weeks. Maybe the Coalition will become a place where I can again make a meaningful contribution. But, as ever, for the gazillionth time, money anxiety is the demon distraction.

Oh!! Wait a minute: what was that line from Shortbus? Something about embracing the demon...

Note: Shortbus trailer is embedded at the bottom of the page for a limited time only.