Monday, September 14, 2015

The Magic of Surprise

Sometimes there is an intersection of magic and surprise. Those are times when you get more than you can imagine. A few Sundays ago was just such a time.
Agnes was going to play at a local church on the first Sunday in August with two services, each with communion. I decided to sign up as a volunteer musician on that Sunday because I figured attendance would probably be at its lowest point for the year with people on vacations. Thus, less pressure.

In the process of planning the morning, Partner and I talked about his role. Yes, he is the Sacred Schleper of the harps – especially in moving Agnes to and from the house to a venue. But, he also helps me by walking the space while I tune and warm-up. Harps are not the loudest instrument and I don’t have sound equipment. He gives me feedback on how the sound carries and what I need to do to accommodate this.

When we arrived, Partner unloaded and placed Agnes in her spot. I started tuning and practicing. Partner walked around the church. Later partner told me that the sound guy saw what he was doing and said there was no bad seat in the house and pointed to the rafters and the sound system.

While tuning, Sound Guy quietly set up one single mic beside the harp. He assured me that this was a very good mic. I saw him, but had no concept of what this would mean in the service. Canned harp, I thought, referring to a tinny kind of sound I dread. 

After the first service, Sound Guy came over to Partner and myself after people dispersed.

He had another sound person play back one of the songs I’d played over the sound system in the church.  My reaction was to try to keep talking and deny that it was the song Agnes was playing.
The music sang throughout the church.

The first song he played, I had a pause where I wavered in my playing. He quickly signaled to the other person to change to the next song. It was clear that he was trying to get me to listen in an encouraging way.

I paused and laughed saying that this wasn’t me, it was the magic of the sound system in this space. He patiently leaned in and subtly suggested that wasn’t entirely true.

It was so hard to take this in.

I am used to the sound of Agnes in my ear with the vibrations ringing through my fingers, chest and legs from her powerful voice. This is why Partner is so vital to sounding out new spaces for me. I have no perspective.

Sound Guy shared a bit about his background. Without giving away who he is, let’s just say I now think of him as Super Stealth Sound Guy. He has worked in the music industry for decades. But the thing that got to Partner and me the that Sunday was this man’s huge heart as a person dedicated to children with disabilities. There was a whole-heartedness to his very being. 

Did music help enable or support that in some small way?

He seemed to enjoy the harp. He said he treats the harp like the human voice because of its sound qualities.

After both church services, lots of people came up and said that that the church has its praise band, the organ and choirs, but the harp brought something quieter and more calming. There was so much encouragement from everyone. I was surprised when people clapped after I played in the church in both services . (Those irreverent church-goers.)

Afterwards, I got a cd from the Sound Guy of the tracks that I played in both services. It was shocking.

My playing wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t awful either. I am trained to listen critically to my music. In the midst of playing, I experience mistakes as huge in the context of the piece. It takes a lot of mental energy to play the music, anticipate the problem spots, recover from the oops, and keep playing. However, listening to the cd helped right-size the errors, and show me where I had recovered. In the scope of the whole piece, everything was just fine.

I found myself thinking of this experience as something akin to the Aboriginal peoples’ experiences of the shock of seeing oneself in a photograph for the first time. What is this? This isn’t me, as I pinch myself. Yet, this is me in a certain sense of space and time captured by a particular medium.

When I was a violin student in the 1970’s, my teacher loaned me his reel-to-reel tape recorder for demo tapes for competitions and auditions. One feature it had was  an “echo-plex”  function so that the sound could range from rather dead/flat to sounding like it was being played in a hall to a ridiculous echoing that distorted the music altogether.

I find myself struggling with the technology of sound capturing and containing – beautiful, but non-the-less, manipulating sound. The truth is that there are very important recording artists I would never have heard and who have enriched my life.

Sound Guy literally was a master sound guy.  My shy self has been playing harp because of its sonorous, vibratory qualities; and, I have viewed playing as an act of prayer that is lifted up to the heaven and penetrates hearts. Mostly, it is an act of impermanence. Now what? It has been captured and beautifully.

I forgot that the very healing qualities of the harp might extend beyond my small ideas of healing.

May I not lose sight of the potential in all life. May my life be (and yours) be filled with creativity and beauty as a gift of life. What we do with it matters. May that vitality, bliss, be made manifest until it echoes out in infinity. What magic!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Blessing of the Harps

Agnes, Grace, and Gloria
It seems to be my practice to reserve some things for obsessive planning and others for holding lightly and seeing what comes of it.

Last weekend, we held a Blessing of the Harps. This was done with Partner. But the impulse arose after attending the Therapeutic Harp Forum in July and hearing most of the spokeswomen from various therapeutic harp certification programs speak of some kind of spiritual component that makes this all work for them.

In my gut, I knew when I started playing the harp that I would need five years of harp lessons before taking the harps into the world. This past year, the sixth year, there was a slow, natural unfolding of taking the harps out of the house and beyond student recitals. Hearing about the healing power of sound, the science and the art, and the relationship to the player and receivers, I found myself ready to act on owning this work in partnership with the harps and Partner. And, Partner, in his supportive role as his role of Sacred Schleper and refiner of the sound, was in agreement.

Partner, growing up Lutheran, thought there would be a formal program. How was this to go?

With our experiences of hosting Quaker meetings for worship, I was thinking of worship in the manner of Friends. This usually means that we sit together with the intention of quieting ourselves and listening for the Still Quiet Voice Within or the Divine; then, speak or share if moved to do so. But we weren't limiting this to Friends-style Unprogrammed worship.

I had asked some friends to attend. Some had experience with Friends' style of worship while others hadn't. Some were familiar with meditation practices. Some were clergy.

Perhaps they could be thinking ahead of time about the role of music in their spiritual life, or music as an instrument of healing. In hindsight, it interesting to note that no one from my spiritual direction peer group (although, some held the event in prayer), nor meditation group, nor Friends meeting showed up. Instead, the women who showed up are spiritual friends with whom there are deeply personal connections. Somehow, this was as it was supposed to be.

I had no set agenda. Just that the three harps, named Grace, Gloria and Agnes, would be blessed as instruments of healing, in service to Love.

Preparation amounted to this: I cleaned house; Partner did yard work; I made cookies for the potluck. We reflected on the teachings I had learned about the harp, music, healing and the sacred.

Friends brought a dish to share. A friend, who grows flowers, brought a beautiful vase of flowers for the room.

My youngest daughter happened to be around and took pictures of the harps. Photography is a gift of hers and I was overjoyed that she would stick around to do so.

At the appointed time, we began to gather. Pictures of the group were taken. Daughter left the room to attend to her art and we settled into our circle.

The singing bell was rung to start the worship/blessing.

Two ordained Interfaith ministers brought their stoles and one of them smudged the harps and each participant with sage. This would have never occurred to me, but was a lovely start. Another person added their opening blessing and gave a precious gift of three 2-cent coins from Ireland - the ones with the national symbol of the harp on it. (Ireland is the only nation with a musical instrument  - a harp at that - as its national symbol.) Later we taped a coin to the bottom of each harp.

Stories of music as truthtelling, of ritual and community building, and healing were shared. Singing. Blessings. Heart-felt connections, weavings of that mystical place that uses words and sounds and silence to evoke something deeper. Love. All present.

A little way into the sacred circle time, there was a pull for me to introduce the harps and let everyone hear each harp's own voice/sound.

Grace is the little lever harp I got started on with the simple tunes. She is a friend's harp on "permanent loan," in need of care at the time I got her. Grace was given to me with the prophesy that: You are going to have a mid-life crisis and need her. She got put back together in playable condition once the crisis hit and launched me into harp playing when words no longer helped for what I was experiencing in life.

Gloria is a petite pedal harp that I got second hand on consignment with no intention of buying one. I thought I was buying a better lever harp to take while getting trained in trauma work. During warm-up before the blessing of the harps, I played around and came upon the pedal settings for that Calgon-bath sound - a pentatonic scale where there are no wrong combinations of notes. It all sounds good together. So I "riffed" on her for a little while during the sharing. Later a friend said she felt transported to her mountain home with creeks and streams running nearby. I would later reflect on how this little powerhouse is often neglected. I need to let her out more.

Agnes. Lamb. What is there to say about the concert grand pedal harp with the big sound box? Agnes named herself. Several mornings I woke up to the name Agnes. "Really, Agnes?" I thought. But she wouldn't let it go. From what I knew of the name Agnes, it come from a celebrated prepubescent girl in the third century A.D. who was martyred for her Christian faith. I could see a bit of Agnes in myself. My mother wrote "strong-willed" in my baby book when I was less than a year old. I can relate to those youthful characteristics of tenderness and rawness of unadulterated youth and the steeliness of strong moral beliefs - a certain kind of innocence. What I really heard in Agnes was "pure tones" of something timeless, beautiful and powerful that belies the outward label of youth. She is my workhorse - of immense intelligence in that big body. Agnes sang Sarajane Williams' music, a contemporary and gifted healer and musician, during the blessing.

During the service, each harp wore a stole over their post. Each had significance. One stole was woven as a clergy stole for me years ago. Another cloth was hand stitched to read, "The road to a friend's house is never far." The third cloth came from a friend's trip to India with family. When I played a harp, I took off the cloth and wore it, returning it to the harp when finished.

Harps go back to some of the earliest times. There are cave paintings with a lyre-style harp. In the Old Testament, David was called to play to sooth Saul's soul/mind/misery. Pythagoras used music tones to heal. The Celts believed harpers needed to be able to evoke three emotional states: laughter, tears and slumber.

The Celts have a pretty extensive relationship with the harp. Their tradition views harps are living, made from wood and gut. It would take up to one-hundred years to make a harp. The community looked for the harper to play that particular harp and they would be joined for life, with the harp being buried with the harper.

Modern concert harps have so much tension on their soundbox (roughly, one ton of pull), that they don't last much longer than 100 years - as they are only able to take three rebuilds before not being functional. They aren't like other string instruments with a much longer livability time. Yet, a concert harp takes at least a year to break in, and warms in sound over time. Harps live about as long as a long-lived person.

For the Celts, harps are sacred. The harper's job was to play the songs the harp witnessed. In the role of war, harpers would hold up the harp to witness what took place and return to play the harp's story. It was believed that the song would reveal the truth in the hearts of those who could hear.

As the circle deepened in sharing, personal losses and joys and the state of the world were included in our stories. Earlier this spring, a friend in the circle shared with me the story of the Iranian cellist who played at bombing sites to help us all remember our humanity in the face of inhumanity.

How do we attend to each other?

As the timeless time of the blessing of the harps wound down, a song of blessing  and completion was sung. The Nepalese singing bowl sounded. We rose and gathered in the kitchen for food and talking and lots of laughter.

The basic framework of showing up, sharing stories in an honest way, and communing afterwards sounds like a basic formula for tending to the sacred. But it is what we bring to it. And, that cannot be predicted. The tenderness of the Blessing of the Harps blew my mind.

May Grace, Gloria and Agnes sing their songs in a way that attends to the needs of the world with mirth, tenderness, and calming in truth. Blessings.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Waiting for the world to become sane

I keep waiting for the world to become sane and remember that seems similar to wanting to be God. You know, idolatrous, wanting the world to be in my image, not the way it is. Which doesn’t compute, really. Why can’t it be like I want it?

Dad's Bible was always somewhere near one of his many thrones around the house. I got my own Bible for confirmation in 5th grade and still have it with those underlined scriptures, so important to an achingly searching- to-be-okay-with-herself teenager. It was in those texts that spoke of love and kindness and a kind of utopian Kingdom of God that gave voice to what I hungered for.

My own life is anything but a utopian KoG.

Monday before last, with the clinical director out of town, I got a call in the morning from the church administrative assistant: You might want to come in early. A van drove into the side of the building and knocked a hole in the foundation.

Sure enough. Everyone was huddled around the side of the building as the van was being towed and the police were leaving. The building inspector said the building was safe enough. We had power, phones, and water. I leaned over to the administrative assistant and said, “I’ve always told folks that I could counsel from the back of a truck.”

I remembered a picture that I took of a crack in the church parking lot just a few weeks before. Two rogue marigold blooms defied the odds by planting themselves in the ashalt.

I’ve been in worse situations. One counseling job that I had gave me no notice of a problem. The building had been burned overnight and I pulled into the parking lot that morning and wondered why it looked like a fire drill. Building to the left; people on the right side of the parking lot huddled. Next client in a few minutes. Nothing like taking a seriously paranoid schizophrenic to the local McDonalds for coffee and "counseling." 

The fire/arson was related to a recently discharged patient. I was nine days into this particular job. I lasted 10 months at that counseling center before deciding my life was important enough to honor my fear and sleeplessness.

It’s been ten days and the hole is still there with a piece of plywood covering it. Anyone could break in. I found a shoe on the outside steps this week. Staff thought a homeless person had probably been sleeping on the landing and lost their shoe. They kindly placed it nearby, in case the person returned.

This past Monday before leaving for a family funeral, I heard sirens galore near my home. I looked to see if the highway was backed up, but no sign of any problem there. I left the house and drove down the road only to see two police cars and police tape around a popular parking area. A car looked like it had wrecked. I couldn’t make out any people in the car.

A friend texted me soon afterwards and throughout the memorial events. News reports of a possible double homicide – people in the car didn’t die from the “accident.” And, a nearby apartment fire burning out several families was also the home of one of the "accident" victims. It seems likely that the female was murdered by an estranged husband. They were supposed to be signing divorce papers that morning. Other reports surfaced of the male running from the apartment building shortly before the fire.

Relief was my first response when I learned that the victims weren’t on my client roster. This might sound selfish, but I think any reasonable therapist would be worried for their clients. It might be considered one of my worst fears on behalf of my clients.

This week has been a no-radio news and definitely a no-TV news week. I can barely stand the ridiculous political shenanigans while people of all kinds are suffering in ways that are not being addressed in any serious way.

And then there is a weirdness to my own poor timing. Partner and I finally got it together to agree to see Jimmie Carter give one of his famous Sunday School lessons at his church in Plains, GA. I literally booked the flight on the same day it was announced he was having surgery. Since then the news reports indicate he has advanced cancer and is getting treatment. It is highly unlikely he will be giving a Sunday School lesson for the public in September. Sorry Dad. This was a Dad bucket list event that neither of us will get to fulfill.

There was a time I imagined myself a politician or a minister or a lawyer or a social worker or a musician or an artist. Maybe even a teacher or a writer. In all those roles, there seems to have been a desire to create a better world through an idealistic lens. But, I am not sure how sane that would have been. I don't have the juice to save the world anymore, let alone save myself.

But, I seem to be learning a different kind of sanity through the harp as a spiritual practice. It is building on my meditation practice by applying the arts in a way I don’t entirely understand. To be sure, the beautiful and sonorous sound of the harp is a deceptively alluring and challenging partner to master. Do we ever master anything?

In an age where talk is cheap and harsh, I am looking for another way. Perhaps, I am applying the Buddhist concept of the middle way, somewhere between silence and noise: music?

The best part of playing the harp is that talking is optional. Mostly, I let the music speak for itself.

I am feeling more and more like the KoG exists in our heart. I am just one person. Jimmie Carter seems to have mastered many of the things I'd hoped for. (Although, I haven't heard anything about his musical talents.) Dad really struggled with his lessons in failing and failing greatly.  The harp isn’t a substitute for hugs or food or clean water or health or housing or justice. But I can let the harp’s resonant voice sing a song that promotes love and sanity.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Turtle Mountain meditation

Turtle makes annual trek.
Little Turtle carries home with her. No matter where she goes, there she is. How beautiful. 

There is a turtle who seems to cross from south to north through our property about this time each year. It goes from one small creek to another. We put up a fence for Finn last year in the back yard where the trek usually took place.
What will happen this year? Will the turtle return? Will is get confused or just go around the fence?
Apparently, the birds and trees must have warned the little turtle. It crossed our property in front of the house this time.

The anxiety was all mine.

I am reminded of a week-long silent meditation I was on in March of this year. The words "Turtle Mountain" kept coming up for me. It had something to do with the quiet silence of being with oneself no matter where I was or what is going on.

In Chinese lore, the back is the human body part connected to mountain energy. Unlike mouth that speaks or ears that hear, back is just there supporting activity. The symbol of back as earth's mountains is that one can experience them as easy such as coming down the mountain or resting on a boulder, or taxing as one climbs up the mountain. Sometimes effort is called for; sometimes rest is required. 

Back/Mountain is always there in a self-contained way. It is deeply sacred space and unknowable. You cannot take it all in, yet there are glimpses of its grandeur.

On this day of the turtle crossing, it feels like we have our own little sacred Turtle Mountain. In the silence, we exchange gratitude for this intersection of human and turtle on earth's back.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

You can’t unring a bell.

I awoke at midnight. It had been a busy day. By the end of my time at work, I was having word-find difficulty. Counseling looks easy, I think to myself. But right now, it feels like a kind of marathon.

It is rewarding to see clients express new-found epiphanies, others continue the hard work of moving through difficult content.

Coming home, I was hot and tired after sitting in a small stuffy room  on the second floor of a mid-1900's Cape Cod-style house. The bathroom is probably bigger than my counseling room. I bring my own water because the kitchen sink's plumbing doesn't want to drain.

Dinner with Partner was at 8:30 p.m. A blessed time of eating on the patio before the mosquitoes started nibbling at our ankles.

Maybe I need to pray for a client or my family or the world. Maybe I should go outside and meditate under the night sky. Maybe I could roll over and go back to sleep. But I can’t.

The night before last, Partner and I were tired when we finally caught up with each other. Another late night. Struggling with the confluence of past decisions and the repercussions now, we tried to talk it out. We are old enough to know that at 10 p.m., nothing good is going to come out of this attempt to problem solve. So we headed off to bed.

This led to difficulty settling down. We couldn't keep our hands off each other. Soon childhood memories were expressed  - of the times we slept with our respective siblings and got into trouble. For Partner, mom would holler from her bedroom. For me, dad would holler from his bedroom. But our memories diverge from there. 

I had a strong memory of terror once the Daddy Dragon had been aroused. He would get up, march/stomp angrily to our bedroom. The covers would be ripped off. We would get  pulled around or half-lifted out of bed and received his rage-fueled spankings. No Daddy, we would beg. I would beg. Wouldn’t it have been great if I could have kept my hands to myself?

I kept this to myself, but asked Partner if his mom ever got up and punished him. Sure, and I deserved it, he said.

Is this one of differences between mother/son and father daughter relations? Mom’s punishments weren’t so threatening? Dad’s force could tear you to shreds. I kept these thoughts to myself, too. But I couldn’t shake the embodied memories of dad’s spankings and the terror.

Partner rolled over and went to sleep. I got up and journaled – about other things. But not that.

Lately, I’ve noticed I have been shuddering. You know, the involuntary sudden shivering that has nothing to do with being cold. Partner said I’ve always done that. But I am more aware of it right now. My colleague noticed me doing it while talking about a family situation. She was encouraging – good, get it out. Shaking helps move energy through the body.

Tonight, I know that I want to meditate outside, but I am afraid. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of snakes. I saw two dead black snakes on the road today. A copper head was killed last week at my parent’s farm. The snake in my mind is all wrapped up in reptilian fear.

I’m not excited about the healing metaphor of the snake’s regeneration and shedding of the skin, etc. It’s the bite I’m afraid of. And, I wish it weren’t so.

I am remembering another ringing bell.

The sweet chiming of the beginning and end of the sangha's (meditation group) time together. We ring the bell to start our practice time together. We ring the bell to end our practice time together. We ring the bell before we dedicate our practice time to all living beings - no short-cuts, no dividing into good/bad, important/insignificant, no splitting or mincing generosity.

No matter where I am, they are with me, too. And, it has been the causes and conditions of my life that brought me to them.

And, may my father and all aggressors including me, be a recipient of that merit, too.

This is a bell I don't want to unring.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Teacher and Friend Moves On

Written mid-January 2015:
I am not a person short on words or ideas or images. However, I am struck by the uselessness of them sometimes.

It has been like that in trying to write over the past year.

After continuing struggles over the past years, it is quite a show to watch stunning tragedies unfold. Last year's pain had a lot to do with family members with mental illness and/or addiction. I got to experience Nar-Anon's love and support - the 12-step program for families with a loved one with the illness of drug addiction.

In the middle of all of this, Finn developed a neurological problem. We thought we were going to lose him in August. His vet changed medications and put him on a drug that bought him time.

As we upped his medication with each backslide, there was a point in January of this year where he could no longer tolerate the increase in medication. He was incontinent, in pain, and having difficulty with getting up.

Partner and I learned about ourselves as we each dealt differently with Finn's decline.

I could see the pain, dealt with the incontinence, and overheard the vet staff talk amongst themselves about how a dog owner they'd seen before us was keeping a dog alive inhumanely, selfishly when it was in terrible pain. I felt a knife cut through my own heart as they were talking. Were we doing the same thing?

Partner was often the person who fed and got Finn up in the morning to go outside before leaving for work. He also played and talked with the dog after work. He had hoped that Finn would just die in his sleep (isn't that what we all want?) and that we wouldn't have to make a decision. But, who knows how long this could go on?

After Finn had several bouts of incontinence of bowel while I was on a medication that made me nauseous, I felt I couldn't keep this up. Partner and I spent time talking, processing our thoughts separately, and coming back to talk some more. There were tears. I spoke with the vet. They had difficulty getting him up and dealing with his incontinence when we left him with them during a visit to friends between Christmas and New Years. The decision was up to us. He had a good life with us. He wasn't going to get better.

Conversation with Partner also revealed a need not to have to bury him. Our new property is basically a crust of grass and trees over rock. Partner had buried our other animals for the past 30 years. Not this time. Okay, I'll have him cremated. Partner also didn't know if he could emotionally go with us to the vets. Okay, just help me get him into the car. The staff and I can get him out.

In the end, Partner did go with me to the vets. He came home from work, took Finn around the property to his favorite spots, loved on him, and cried the whole time. When it was time to go, he went in with me and stroked Finn lovingly. We both did. The vet gave Finn a sedative first. This is when Partner really got how much pain the dog had been in.

When we first got Finn, he was very anxious and panted for the first 3 days, puked from anxiety, etc. The way he responded to the shot was similar to his relaxation response when we got him to settle down. Pain creates anxiety and tension. Our beloved Finn never barked and was true to his nature of not complaining.

The vet came back and gave the final shot. Almost immediately, the breathing ceased. He looked asleep and relaxed. We sat with him a little while longer. But truthfully, we had been given plenty of time with him in the room while he was alive. We couldn't stand to be there much longer after the death.

We walked out into the snowy night and cried.

Finn got me through some tough times. I'd gotten him before the year of some big deaths: my last remaining grandmother, my dad, Partner's dad, extended family, friends and neighbors - over 20 deaths that year.

Losing Finn was like losing a spirit guide. He soaked up so much grief and anxiety. There is nothing quite like collie fur, so soft and fluffy. He was an easy-going friend who shared our home with us during his last years.

Thank you, Finn. We miss you.

On Finn in August 2014

Written mid-August 2014:
Finn is on his last legs, his last dog year, his last days. Our family is saying their good-byes to our sweet canine friend.

Below is a slightly modified version of a letter to a friend who asked how Finn was doing:

Talked to the vet this morning. We are in "doggy hospice" mode. I'm trying to be home during the day with Partner here in the evenings. Somehow, the Universe provided a light work week for me. 

Finn's having difficulty getting up. He walks in circles. Head is pulling to the left side today. Twitching eyebrows on both sides, but more on the left. He stopped eating from his dog bowl yesterday and stopped drinking today. He'll take his medicine tucked in a chunk of cheese from the floor while lying down or eat cooked chicken given to him yesterday from the floor; but otherwise, is not interested in eating.

Bowel movements have gone from solid to diarrhea this morning and this evening to mucus. He's been somewhat incontinent for a while now, just more so.

The vet tried to prepare us for some kind of progressive neurological degeneration a few weeks ago. 

Looking back at our most recent visit, I had asked for a six-month refill on heart worm medication and flea/tick coverage. They didn't give it to me. I thought they forgot and asked again. But still didn't give it to me when I picked up the first pain med.

Partner and I had our cry yesterday as it became clear that Finn is really sick and dying. 

I am so going to miss this dog. He's been such a gentle soul and companion. He has gotten me through so much. 
We are glad we could provide some safety and solitude for him these last 2 1/2 years after what appears to have been a very hard life.
Since the letter, his pain medication has changed and he is more animated. We are told this is temporary, but I'll take it if it means he feels better.

I hope our efforts are what you need. 

Blessings as you journey from here to the Great Outdoors, Finn.