Estonian Charm Offensive

It’s official, friends. Music festival season is here.

In lab terms, music festivals are now almost TNTC. (Too numerous to count.) But just to name a few, let’s start with Bonaroo! Because I don’t know about you, but once I start saying it, I can’t stop! Bonaroo, Bonaroo, Bonaroo! I wanna howl it at the Bonamoon.

It also happens to be a real word in Creole that means a really good time. Between the festival’s green initiatives like the Refill Revolution and the Vonnegut-sounding names for locations within the venue…

 What Stage

Which Stage

This Tent

That Tent

And the Other Tent

I could be totally down for a trip to Tennessee. Never thought you’d hear me say those words, did ya?

Then we’ve got Coachella… with her precious flower crowns, nipple-baring macramé, and Hollywood ingénues attempting to blend in to the crowd. (Pay no attention to the supersized sunglasses.)

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Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny.

Oh my, and the technical difficulties! Poor, poor Radiohead. Any artist offering their music for whatever fans can pay just does not deserve what happened to them a few weeks ago at this year’s Coachella. It’s a bit of a disgrace. And don’t forget the time Coachella cut Arcade Fire’s set short forcing Win Butler to grab a bullhorn, jump down into the crowd to finish the song, and stir up the world’s longest mambo line of fans behind him. And what about Andre 3000’s 20th anniversary show in 2014 when the power was cut to the mics, too! Is this what the parents of millenials are paying up to $900 for?

If you’re more down for a European vacay this summer you can head across the pond to Glastonbury June 21. With its wellie-clad supermodels trudging through more mud than Woodstock, and a bunch of Liam and Noel Gallagher-looking blokes fresh in from their pilgrimage to Stonehenge, it’s a bloody good time and place to ring in the Summer Solstice while checking out Katy Perry, Barry Gibb, and Radiohead sans the technical problems.

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Not Actual Supermodels

Glastonbury is five days of not just music — but also, dance, comedy, theatre, cabaret, and because they’re Brits… circus?? Personally, I would go for The Healing Fields of Glastonbury alone, hold the juggling monkeys.

www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk/areas/the-green-fields/the-healing-field

Then of course there’s Outside Lands, the Bay Area’s answer to the dry heat of Coachella and the humidity of Lallapolooza. Held in Golden Gate Park, imagine a foresty diorama filled with cabalistic creatures, palm readers, and freezing cold teenagers too young to know the Mark Twain quote:

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.

BUT A MUSIC FESTIVAL THAT IS RESPONSIBLE FOR A REVOLUTION?

This is one I’m gonna guess you’ve never heard of.

Estonia has a tradition of gigantic song festivals dating back to 1869 featuring 20,000-30,000 singers. Music is woven in the fabric and fiber of Estonian life. The Atlantic going so far as to call it, “a country created by music.”

What is known as The Singing Revolution refers to the events that occurred between 1987–1991 that helped usher in an end to decades of Soviet occupation. Music was the Estonian people’s weapon of choice in this peaceful struggle for independence.

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As one of the oldest inhabited lands in the world, (going back 5,000 years – with some estimates putting it closer to 12,000 years), Estonia was on their own for a very long time. Right up until 1208 when Pope “Innocent” III decided to send a crusade to convert the pagans. After a 20-year war, the Estonians were defeated. Then from 1228-1918, they were continuously occupied by one country another (Sweden, Poland, Czarist Russia, the Soviet Union). Finally, they won their independence on February 24, 1918, which was followed by twenty years of prosperity.

But this was not to last. In 1939 Stalin came in and took over Estonia. They were terrorized by Stalin, then Hitler, and then Stalin again, and for 50 years were part of the Soviet Union. Then in 1986, Gorbachev came in promoting perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (freedom of speech), but this kind of change did not happen overnight and the old guard police were constantly having to reinterpret how to deal with the new freedoms under Gorbachev.

During the ‘white nights’ of June 1988, Estonians gathered to sing patriotic songs that were once forbidden under Soviet rule — not so much in defiance, but in a spirit of pride and joy. After many hours, the police decided that the festival had gone on long enough and tried to break it up and send people home.

But instead the people walked 3 miles to an open field and continued singing throughout the night. From there, it grew every night for 5 nights until their numbers reached 150,000 people singing in a field. How do you arrest 150,000 people? With the largest collection of folk songs in the world, they were prepared to be there for a while.

Somehow I’ve gone my whole forty-something years without ever having met an Estonian. That changed last year when I met bass player Mai Agan who was at my home recording music for the upcoming David Crosby album. I walked in the front door and found her sitting at the dining room table, one of her delicate arms inked with a large angel. I told her how my own daughter called my bluff and went ahead with several tattoos, even though I threatened to stop paying her college tuition if she did.

I asked Mai about the angel on her arm and she lovingly told the story of how each feather represents someone in her family and that whenever she looks at the angel she feels closer to them no matter how far away she may be. At this point, I felt like a big jerk for having such a reactionary feeling about my own kid and her ink — which now includes one wrapped around one side of her torso with some of Grampma Croz’s lyrics…

We have all been here before.

A few months later, said tattooed daughter and I went to Sunset Sound to hear some of the final mixes of the upcoming Crosby album, Sky Trails. (Stellar!!) Mai contributed the gorgeous track Here It’s Almost Sunset for the record and I’m sure she would have loved to be there. But it seems that she was kind of with us in spirit…

You see, we headed to Wood & Vine www.woodandvine.com in Hollywood, and there we were greeted by an Estonian waitress. (The odds are a little crazy when you consider that there are about 1.3 million people in Estonia and about 4 million just in Los Angeles.) She recognized Croz who was really excited to tell her about Mai. But it was this girl who dropped the mic when she said, “Did you know that Estonians fended off the Russians by singing??”

She lit up as she told us the Reader’s Digest version of the story. I couldn’t help but be bombarded with Les Miserables imagery of these people singing for their liberation. It got me thinking: If a tiny country like Estonia can pull off a peaceful revolution to win their independence from Russia, think of what else is possible when done in this spirit. An editorial in an Estonian newspaper said it best:

A nation who makes its revolution by singing and smiling is a sublime example to the world.

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With a husband on the road from time to time, I become a groupie once in a while and follow him around on tour, which is always an adventure. Last week I went to Portland to hang out with him on his day off, see the show there, and meet up with my Pops and his wife who just moved to Oregon.

Riding on the tour bus with the band to the venue, James’s little brother Django Crosby spotted a piano store across from the Aladdin Theatre. Then another one. And another. It was a virtual piano row. How serendipitous for my piano playing husband and the other new member of the band, Michelle Willis, who plays keys and sings like a whole chorus of angels.

We poured out of the bus to rush this storefront only to find it all locked up. We knocked on doors and peeked through windows, hoping to find someone inside. Around back was a workshop with a couple of Portlanders working on piano hammers with their resident Jack Russell Terrier, contentedly sitting on the sidewalk in the rain. These guys pointed us in the right direction finally where we were greeted by the lovely Peggie Zackery, manager of Classic Pianos of Portland. www.classicportland.com

With her cherubic smile, Peggie surmised pretty quickly that she had a couple heavyweights on her hands in James and Michelle. Yup, this was one third of the band playing the Aladdin that night. She didn’t have to offer twice before James and Michelle got down to business. There were rooms upon rooms upon rooms packed tightly with pianos. It turns out, Classic Pianos is one big giant store comprised of many buildings. Once Peggie got a little sampling of James and Michelle’s playing, she led us to the most special room of all — the space that housed the Yamaha C9 — the nine foot concert grand piano that both James and Michelle www.michellewillis.ca got to lay hands on. The resonance, the brightness, and the richness of this sound was like nothing I’d ever heard before. So that’s what a $130,000 piano sounds like!

As Croz, Peggie, and I were being treated to an impromptu concert of double pianos playing the fat chords of The Doobie Brothers Minute by Minute, I was already streaming tears of joy when I looked around and my gaze landed on a ESTONIA piano. Really?!?! Where the heck was Mai? (She told me later she was napping on the bus. Smart girl.)

But I mean, shit! I’d been putting a lot of pressure on myself to finish this piece so that I could publish it before I left on this trip. Then I find out that the reason I couldn’t was that there was more to discover. I believe this is what is meant by a story taking on a life of its own. Revelations need time to unfold.

As Peggie started telling me about these extraordinary ESTONIA pianos, I asked if she’d ever heard of The Singing Revolution. Since she hadn’t, I shared with her what I was writing about and she was just as moved by it as I have been.

Then she tells me that their resident piano finisher, Arno Arrak, is Estonian as well. He is a master who brings his artistry to repairing and refinishing pianos — including one that fell off a truck and when Arno was finished with it, it was better than new. Peggie suggested that I talk to Arno to find out how he feels about his country’s incredible legacy of music preserving their culture and The Singing Revolution. I can’t begin to describe the sensation that came over me. Why is coincidence even a word?

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Michelle Willis, Classic Pianos, Portland.

Back in Los Angeles, I reached out to Arno and learned about his own involvement with the movement. He told me that in 1987, he risked imprisonment when he printed postcards with the Estonian flag on them, which was forbidden at the time. In 1989, in resistance to the Soviet occupation, Arno emigrated to Sweden to become an artist and printmaker.

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Arno Arrak — Painter,printmaker, piano refinishing miracle worker.

“While I paint I often listen to music. Vibration and rhythm directly influences the sensitive watercolor medium. I wish that in my painting I can create the window of inner peace and healing.”                                                                                             – Arno Arrak

Arno travels back to Estonia often to exhibit his paintings and be a part of the rich culture and art scene. His work is represented in numerous galleries and is a part of both public and private collections around the world.

And back to that badass, Mai — who just completed her thesis for Stockholm University via David Crosby’s tour bus somewhere between Boulder and Dallas…

“I was about 4 or 5 years old when I started going to the song festivals with my parents, at first just to listen and later on as I started school – as a singer – many, many times. What an incredible feeling to be on stage and sing national songs for our country and for the freedom of our spirit with 20,000-30,000 other singers, and around 100,000 people in the audience. These festivals connect our people to a depth that is hard to describe. In 1870, Estonian folklorist and linguist Jakob Hurt said that if we, Estonians, cannot be great in population, we have to become great in spirit! Perhaps that is something that has been carrying us through the darkest days. Even though I was too little to take part in the Singing Revolution or the Baltic chain (2 million people holding hands and creating a human chain from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for around 420 miles), I have so many musician friends who wrote the patriotic songs that were sung during the Revolution. Songs that we still love to sing! I believe that love is the greatest weapon in the world, not because I’m naive, but because I’ve tried everything else. In that case, the love that we had for our country, won over the Soviet regime. My roots are extremely important to me and I am really proud to be an Estonian, and furthermore, an Islander.”

To learn more, watch the documentary The Singing Revolution.

https://singingrevolution.com

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No False Bingo!

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Two-Spirit Camp, Standing Rock #nodapl

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just get really tired of all the played out stale cultural narratives that we live with. A while ago, I came across the term Two-Spirit, which is the name that many Native American and Canadian First Nation tribes use for their brothers and sisters who embody both male and female spirits. Two-Spirit. How beautiful is that?!

Now before I go any further, I want to stress that I am not a gender expert — just someone easily moved to tears by beauty. Incidentally, I just learned that I’m an HSP — Highly Sensitive Person. If you’re taking the time to read this blog, you could be too! HSPs make up about 20% of the population. If you’re at all curious, you can take the quiz: http://hsperson.com Know thyself and maintain a humble curiosity… that’s my new mantra.

So it is with this humble curiosity that I delve into Two-Spirits. One of the things that I find so profound about this notion is that it can be a metaphor for so many things — reconciling our shadow side with our light. Meeting strength with humility. Think of the classic Myers-Briggs personality types: Introvert/Extrovert, Thinker/Feeler, Perceiver/Judger, and Senser/Intuitive. The whole idea of Myers/Briggs is to ascertain your type and then challenge yourself to move more toward the center in order to achieve better balance. Yoga for your personality. OH! And to try to understand others better, of course. Let’s not forget about that.

At a meeting in 1990, tribes chose to adopt the term Two-Spirit, in order to dispense with the antiquated anthropological and derogatory term berdache. Simply being gay does not make one a Two-Spirit, even though many Two-Spirits identify as LGBTQA+. Most tribes widely agree that in order to be a true Two-Spirit, one must be actively participating in their culture.

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Candi Brings Plenty, Leader of Two-Spirit Camp, Standing Rock

Prior to colonization, tribal Elders saw Two-Spirit people as sacred and gifted among all beings and as bridges between the two genders with the power to bring them together. Two-Spirits would often fulfill the roles of medicine people, peacemakers, and mediators. Their dual perspective and orientation made it possible for them to always see both sides, and they were honored and revered for these abilities. Nearly every Native American and First Nation tribe has a word or words in their language to describe Two-Spirits, as well as for multiple genders in addition to male and female.

Under the influence of colonial and Christian influences though, some native cultures and their Two-Spirits went through a dark period, and in some cases, acceptance turned into homophobia. Two-Spirits began to feel less and less integral or even welcome in their communities. Some Navajo point to their creation story in which the first men and first women fought and ended up on opposite sides of a river. There they stayed for some time — the women wanting to prove to the men that they could live without them. It was only with the help of a Two-Spirit that this divide could be mended, through the medicine that bridges the gap between genders.

But now, like a sacred hoop, things are coming full circle and Two-Spirits are banding together across tribal affiliations to celebrate all they have to offer and to support one another. It’s notable that within these cultures it is often believed that actions have effects for seven generations. Many tribe members believe that the absence of Two-Spirits triggered a period of imbalance that is just now beginning to shift.In October, the newly formed Two-Spirit Nation was honored with a official grand entry blessing into the camp at Standing Rock.

 “If the sun is male and the moon is female,

then Two-Spirit people are the dawn and the dusk.”

— Sheldon Raymore, Cheyenne River Sioux

It got me humbly curious about some of the other cultures in the world that have the wisdom to honor their two-spirit people in their societies. As you can imagine, there are many variations, and in a way, they can all be traced back to Greek mythology and Hermaphroditus, the two-sexed child of Hermes and Aphrodite.

I found a wonderful story of a the third gender in ancient Indic society. Some versions of the epic Sanskrit poem Ramayana tell the story of Rama, the hero, heading into the forest in exile. At the halfway point, he finds most of the people from his home town of Ayodhya, were following him. He said, “Men and women, turn back,”causing those who were neither men nor women to stay where they were. When Rama returned from exile years later, he discovered them still there and blessed them, saying that there will be a day when they, too, will have a share in ruling the world.

I feel mixed emotions when I pivot to another culture that I first learned about from my Albanian friend, Andamion Murataj. We were both Puglia Film Commission Fellows, where he was working on a feature film about the sworn virgins of Albania. His script, Man of the House, is a poignant tale that stays with you longer after you’ve read it. It was followed up recently with a photographer who went to Albania to shoot portraits of the sworn virgins.

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Photo credit: Jill Peters

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Photo credit: Jill Peters

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Photo credit: Jill Peters

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Photo credit: Jill Peters

The choice to live as men in this remote region of Albania has more to do with gender roles than any statement of sexuality or asexuality. This tradition goes back to 15th century Balkan tribal law, under which families lacking a male head of household were considered social outcasts. Often times blood feuds wiped out all the men in a family and so the only way to carry on was for a woman to step into the role of patriarch. These women take a vow of celibacy and swear to live out their days as men, gaining the privileges afforded to men only — smoking, drinking alcohol, voting, swearing, carrying a gun — you know, all the fun stuff!

Directly across the Adriatic Sea in Italy, which is always FULL of surprises (See Lucky Number Eight), I learned that in traditional Neapolitan culture, there were men known as the femminielli. These were homosexual males with a female gender expression, who were revered and enjoyed the full support of the community. For starters, the term femminielli unlike berdache, is not derogatory. The femminielli are so highly regarded that they played an important role in traditional and religious events such the matrimonio dei femminielli, where femminielli dressed in wedding gowns and were accompanied by a “husband,” as they traveled through the streets in horse-drawn carriages.

But the real kicker? The femminielli are considered good luck! People want them to hold their newborn babies and participate in games such as Tombola, which is the basis for what we call Bingo. So here’s the part where I call out TIME magazine. In 2007, they published an article attributing Drag Queen Bingo to a woman in Seattle.

“Bingo and drag queens. Where, you might understandably ask, did this ever come from? In the early 1990s, as director of development for the Chicken Soup Brigade, a support organization for people with AIDS, Judy Werle was charged with dreaming up fundraising events. ‘I checked out places where people gathered and spent money, because I figured if you had that, you could redirect the money to a good cause,’ says Werle. That logic led her to bingo halls. ‘They were totally full of obsessed people,’ she says. ‘But it was also extremely boring. So we decided to liven it up in the way that only gay men can.’”

So I must call a FALSE BINGO on TIME magazine, since it’s the femminielli that can legitimately lay claim to the origin of drag queen bingo, or shall we say, Tombolata dei femminielli. If the Native Americans are right about one’s actions having ripple effects for seven generations, then is it possible that the femminielli of the 1800s laid the groundwork for the drag queens of bingo today? Just sayin’. It’s fun to think about anyway.

All I know is that you don’t want to be spanked by a drag queen at bingo.

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Drag Queen Hostess Porsha Hayy & me

It happened because I called False Bingo. ROOKIE move! I just got way ahead of myself and overexcited. And boy, did I pay for it. Miss Porsha is not playin’ with that switch. And since I already got my spanking, I feel empowered to call False Bingo whenever I see it. Someone cuts you off on the road?? False Bingo! Not honoring Two-Spirits?? False Bingo. For any rejection of the wisdom that recognizes the special gifts in each of us?? False Bingo, for sure.

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Marching & Mysticism

Venice Beach, 1994

A stormy January day at sunset. The ferocious weather and the marbled purple sky, a perfect reflection for my own personal turmoil.

On Christmas night a week or so before, a man I’d only known a few months had asked me to marry him. Marry him! A memorable night for obvious reasons, there was also a hilarious part of the story (funny now) about getting locked out of my apartment after going outside for the big moment. In retrospect, it does seem incredibly symbolic — the time had really come to lock out the fear that had had me in its grip for too long.

You see, I saw myself as damaged goods. Possibly unlovable. That day on the beach I was torn apart by two equally strong impulses — one to run as fast as I could, and the other, to trust a person with my heart for a lifetime. These warring sides drove me out of the safety of my car and right to the edge of the earth where massive waves were pounding the shore.

There wasn’t another person on the sand. Tears squirted out of me like I was a cartoon character. I tasted my own salty sadness. Confusion swirled round and round, until I became so truly terrified over being that out of control of my own emotions that I wished I could have crawled out of my own skin, or traded skins with a seal who wanted to be a person for a while.

But then a spray of ocean mist came over me, mingling with my own tears. And that’s when it hit me. Suddenly I understood all at once that I was not separate from the world, I was of the world. My tears and the ocean were from the same source. The universe, Mother Earth, God… whatever name for the divine you want to use, was speaking to me.

I knew I hadn’t been hit by lightning (unless I was dead and didn’t know it), but a surge rushed through my veins all the same, as if someone had hit me with the lifesaving paddles. The trust problem I was having was not with the man I was in love with. The problem, was that at some point I’d stopped trusting myself. What changed in me right then and there on that squally beach was me finally insisting that I trust me. Since there has never been any satisfying combination of words that could ever adequately describe this experience, I did as Joan Didion tells us to do in times of crisis… go to the literature.

The literature in this case was the work of Abraham Maslow, who coined the term ‘peak experience’ after it became clear that his original term, ‘mystical experience’ would not be accepted in psychological literature. Some people also know it as Edmund Burke’s notion of the sublime or Freud’s oceanic feelings.

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Check out the instruments that James played on the song

She would walk to where the land and sea/met each other in a dance of violence/She found a treasure of untold beauty/tossed it back and swore herself to silence…                                                                                                                     One for Every Moment — Crosby, Pevar & Raymond

Downtown Los Angeles, 2017

Another January, twenty-two years after that day on the beach. I found myself marching in the Women’s March in Los Angeles, my daughter heavily on my mind. Were her rights and the rights of every woman really being threatened? How could it be that this many people felt under seige on so many fronts?

The last thing I expected was to feel anything like I did that day at the beach all those years ago. While I didn’t know at the time that my group was marching with 750,000 of our fellow Angelenos, it didn’t change the fact that I felt awed and humbled and overwhelmed by all the people who had come together. I felt unity on an unimaginable scale, at a time when we’re always being reminded of how divided we are. The mystical experience is one of communion, a momentary dissolution with the self and its boundaries in order to become one with our surroundings. This is what leads to moments of transcendence.

But I also felt the fear again, so what was going on??

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You’ll see that at the top of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs is self-actualization. The self being referred to here however, is not the egoistic self, but the self we recognize when we are immersed in awe and the recognition that we are part of something much bigger and powerful than we are. The call from this ‘self’ is to fulfill the deepest possibilities in our being.

Mytical experiences are glimpses of the divine. Those moments that grab and take hold of you, like when your breath is sucked out of you as you stare wild-eyed at Half Dome or drop into a wave for the first time. Some people describe them as feelings of limitless horizons. And yet, there is something inherently overwhelming about witnessing the vast power in our own being. Many people speak of being simultaneously more powerful and more helpless than ever before while having a mystical experience.

I had to go back to the literature. It was there that I discovered a another aspect of Maslow’s theory, referred to as The Jonah Complex. For a bible refresher, Jonah was called by God to share a prophecy and instead of fufilling this destiny, Jonah resisted and sailed away in another direction. This caused a great storm and flood and landed old Jonah in the belly of the whale. And there he stayed for 3 days until he was given another chance to deliver on what he was called to do.

The Jonah Complex is our desire to escape the fear of responsibility that accompanies self-actualization. We are terrified of our own potential because of the interpersonal and social consequences that can happen with that kind of change. It could mean a complete obliteration of life as we know it so that a new and more powerful and impactful way of living could emerge. Sometimes we must lose ourselves to find ourselves.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. -Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love http://www.marianne.com

When Maslow set out in this study, even he believed that mystical experiences happened to one saint every century. What seemed to blow his mind the most was learning that not only was that not true, but the fact that all of his subjects used the same kind of language to describe their experiences — from an 18-year-old athlete to Mother Theresa.

Some people do not remember having mystical experiences. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t forever changed by them, because science shows that they are. A 2016 Johns Hopkins study found that stronger mystical experiences tend to “reframe life priorities, with pleasure-seeking dropping, and other aspects increasing family, connection, higher principles.” [i]

Self-actualizing people are,without a single exception,involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves.      – Abraham Maslow

As Gandhi said, “Politics should be sacred.” And by sacred, I don’t mean necessarily religious, but that which originates from the deepest part of ourselves. The march manifested universal belonging. Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director of the Imagination Institute at University of Pennsylvania said, “Peak experiences shake us out of our ordinary concerns and point our attention toward something higher, perhaps greater visions of ourselves and others. Peak experiences come along with a realization of purpose or higher meaning for one’s life.”

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Sometimes a higher meaning for one’s life isn’t exactly what we thought it would be. But a hero or heroine is made by the strength of the villain or villains they have been called to defeat. With great power or knowledge comes great responsibility. I know I’ve said those words from time to time, but I couldn’t come up with who said it without a search. Turns out no one knows! (It’s not Spiderman, as some would like to believe.) The strongest evidence traces it back to a translation from a moment during The French Revolution. And here we are on the precipice of our own revolution.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and author, puts it brilliantly when he says, “The mystic is not a kind of human being, but every human being is a special kind of mystic.” So please. Do not fear your own formidable power. Let us not languish in the belly of the whale when there is so much at stake.

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[i] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/00952990.2016.1170135

 

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One Thought

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Hug A Teacher

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Some days I feel incredibly foolish.

I know I probably shouldn’t, it’s just that I’ve spent my entire life believing with all my heart that my storied Generation X was ushering in the end of racial prejudice. I used to believe this in the way some people believe in the gospel and others believe that a zombie apocalypse is imminent and they just can’t be convinced otherwise. I knew even in my seven-year-old heart that racism isn’t a natural state. I refuse to accept that hating anyone because they are not like you is our highest destiny.

On a postcard kind of a day on the shores of Lake Michigan when I was a kid, my young swingin’ single mom brought me along to meet a new beau — a professional Puerto Rican soccer player named Fernando. (Cue Chicago’s Saturday In The Park for the full effect.) As he came running toward us, heading the ball with mechanical precision, and dribbling ever-tightening concentric circles around us — I yanked mom’s arm and whispered that I couldn’t wait for my grandparents to meet him.

My teeny heart shattered when she told me that no one else in our family would ever meet this adorable human who had pogo sticks for legs. Nope, they would never meet him because they were… prejudiced. I asked what in the world that was, with my face screwed up real good. Mom said she’d explain later. But she really didn’t have to. I began to put it together right then and there that it had something to do with some people thinking that they were better than the next human, just doing their damndest to navigate the mystery that is life. The older I got, I felt that this distortion in one’s thinking could only be blamed on a facocta (Yiddish slang for ‘fucked up.’ Also super fun to say!) idea about themselves — that the need to feel superior over others is wrought from a crazy-sad inferiority complex. And while that should be a comforting thought, it’s not anymore, when the world’s been turned upside down. But believe this: The tyrant fears the poet. Rise up, poets!

A couple of years later Mom & me moved to San Diego. She was only halfway through law school and couldn’t afford anything fancy. We ended up in an apartment that had a magnificent view of the San Diego skyline, but was in a rundown neighborhood of tall palms shading crumbling craftsman bungalows and half-way houses. Mom being the open-minded young parent she was, enrolled me in a magnet school in an even rougher neighborhood than ours.

For the 5th and 6th grades, I was the lone blonde girl on a practically empty school bus en route to Fred Baker Elementary, where I would become only the fifth white student. Baker was a science magnet, named for the San Diego physician and civic activist, Fred Baker, who was also an amateur malacologist*. Instead of bussing lower socioeconomic students into affluent areas, Fred Baker Elementary flipped the script by stocking the school with brilliant teachers, (most of them with Ph.D.s) in order to attract students to a predominantly black neighborhood plagued with gangs and crime, in exchange for an extraordinary education. I was in!

My 6th grade teacher was Mrs. Smart. I tell you, I never wanted to let that woman out of my arms and she has never left my heart. In Mrs. Smart’s class, we began the day like any other public school classroom, with the pledge of allegiance. But what followed was something Mrs. Smart wrote called the B-7 Creed that the students recited together:

I have the right to be myself in this room. This means that no one will treat me unfairly because I am black, brown, or white, fat or thin, tall or short, boy or girl. I have a right to hear and be heard in this room. I will be free to express my feelings and opinions without being interrupted or punished. I am somebody. I am 10 feet tall. I am loved.

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This was 1980, dear readers! You have no idea how long those words rung out in my mind. To listen to Mrs. Smart, who shared so many of her personal experiences with us and empowered and inspired us all everyday, why shouldn’t I think that racism was in the rear view mirror? It seemed like an ugly thing from Mrs. Smart’s day that we saw as part of the horrible past. I thought of humanity and progress as things that could only move in one direction. Forward!

The Baker community cheered on my attempts at singing Michael Jackson at the talent show and on less celebratory days, we mourned together with a black band tied around one arm when one of our classmates’ siblings was lost to gang violence. Dr. Hassan El-Amin was my endlessly patient music teacher who deeply understood my need to vacillate between flute and trombone. I finally landed on trombone, because we were allowed to check instruments out over the weekend and the trombone made the bus ride a little less lonely. Dr. Callaghan was my Spanish teacher who invited our entire class for a sleepover at her 1-bedroom beach cottage so that some of the students could see the ocean for the first time. Mr. Shaheed was always laughing as he told us riddles and fables. Mr. Rashada was quieter, but consistently had a nugget of wisdom to impart — like when I’d walk home with my best friend Queenie on a Friday for a sleepover and he’d tell us a better way to walk around the part of the park where an open drug market was operating.

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How could my mom let this happen? I don’t know, but I thank God that she did.

In sports and entertainment, it sure seemed like color was beginning to fade away. As an undergrad in D.C., I was told to avoid the SE and SW quadrants, neighborhoods responsible for earning Washington the unwelcome distinction of being the nation’s murder capital. But it was at American University (ooooh, the symbolism!) a professor told us how the CIA was responsible for planting crack cocaine in South Central LA in the early 80s and had drug dealers on the payroll to fund the fight against the Sandinistas.

I graduated and packed up to move to Los Angeles just as the riots broke out. My co-workers at the Post-Production house where I interned offered me a job and couldn’t understand why I was running off to a city on fire. But I couldn’t be stopped. I was heading to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and no one was going to stop me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the CIA’s involvement and tried to share this information with anyone who would listen. No one was listening. So I told the story in a screenplay about an interracial love story leading up to the riots. Even with that kind of fallout from the Rodney King verdict, I still believed that things were getting better.

November 8, 2016. My friend Daphne, an elementary public school teacher returns to her classroom after the election and described the feeling as suddenly seeing herself as a first responder. Wow. How %*&#ing profound. When the entire world seems to be sending one message with their votes (or lack of vote), teachers are in a unique position to teach first, by their own example. So while they are mandated to remain politically neutral, it doesn’t matter because kids have the most well-calibrated bullshit meters of anyone and they know how to judge someone by their personal actions and not the blah-blah-blah that comes out of their mouths. What teachers do can affect the next generation more than any one scary clown.

Essentially, we are called upon to act as teachers — therefore, we all have the opportunity to be first responders, too. Let us respond with humanity and kindness to our fellow beating heart humans. A post-racial world? Why should that be the goal? Race is not going away. Race is diversity and beauty. Race is cultural history and identity. Race should be celebrated and shared, and we can’t do that in a ‘post-racial world.’ Reveling in race and its rainbow of colors and ideas is marvelous, don’t you think?

 

(*Malacology, the study of mollusks. Not to be confused with Conchology, the study of mollusk shells. Talk about specialized!)

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Lucky Number Eight

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There’s no doubt you’ve heard of the ‘lucky number seven,’ a real scene-stealer if you ask me. The star in my mind, is seven’s older and wiser sibling, number Eight. The best thing about Eight? When it gets all tipsy and uninhibited — say at a holiday party where all the other guests seem overly upright and linear, and Eight is just hanging out with its curves and such and then just falls right over! Do you think Eight gets even a little bit self-conscious in this situation? Not a chance. In fact, that’s when things get really interesting — when Eight topples right over into Infinity.

As a person of letters, I sure have been thinking a lot about numbers as of late. Since the start of the apocalypse a few weeks ago, I’ve returned to a specific place in my dreams and musings quite a bit. It’s somewhere I had no idea existed until I was lucky enough to visit it a few years ago — a place where Eight adds up to a delectable mystery known as Castel del Monte (Castle on the Mountain). You may have seen it before and not realized it, perhaps on the back of an Italian issued one-cent Euro.

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The builder of this far out and fascinating citadel was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who by the way, died in the year 1250. (Go ahead, add those numbers up!) Let’s just call him Freddie for fun. Freddie was known during those times for his, wait for it… love of peace and justice! Imagine that!

This castle has a whole mess of Eights everywhere. From the octagonal floor plan, to Eight towers, to groups of flowers painted in Eight — the theme is in every detail. The most amazing thing about the castle though, as we contemplate it in the year 2016, is that there is no universal consensus among people who study these things as to what the actual purpose of it was. It doesn’t have the features of a regular fortified castle such as a moat, drawbridge, or underground tunnels that would suggest a military purpose. There’s no kitchen! Some have theorized that it was a super swanky hunting lodge. Really?! Without stables?

What were you trying to tell us with this masterwork of wonder, Freddie?

When I went to the castle it was with a group of, no joke — 16 writers from around the world, chosen for a screenwriting fellowship funded by the Apulia Film Commission. The concept was to fast track the development of scripts to bring more film and television production to Apulia, way down south in the heel of the boot. Needless to say, all 16 of us felt pretty damn lucky.

The day we visited Castel del Monte was magical and mystical, just like all of our days in Apulia, where pretty much anything was bound to happen. This was due to the fact that the program leaders never told us in advance where we were going, creating a very raw and real backdrop that kept us on our toes emotionally — literally not knowing what was going to be around the next corner. Consider that by this point in the trip, we’d been on the high seas with a dozen officers of the Italian Coast Guard, visited stylishly dressed inmates at a men’s prison (not one standard issue prison jumpsuit to be found), and heard harrowing stories from too young of patients at a drug rehab. We even met a Clown Priest! (it’s a thing) So who knew where we’d end up next.

After touring the inside of the castle, some of us were drawn to the center of the octagonal courtyard. Standing there with three of my new Italian friends, we sort of inexplicably hooked arms and felt a rush of energy course through our veins.

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Lots and lots of eerie things happened over our several weeks there. I mean, these were sixteen highly creative and tuned-in people. Basically, we were all kind of laying our souls bare to allow the stories we were there to work on flow through us without the usual angst that writers so often suffer working in solitude.

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According to http://www.charmingitaly.com, “the octagon was the favorite shape for buildings erected by the Templars, the famous warriors who are said to have fought to defend the Holy Grail. The octagon is also said to evoke strong symbolic and esoteric images. Some say the Holy Grail was octagonal itself and that it was hidden in this Puglian castle.”

Were our eight feet standing on the spot where the Grail was once hidden?

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Another incredibly lucky thing for our group was having Christopher Vogler one of our as our writing coaches. https://chrisvogler.wordpress.com I’d stared at Chris’s picture on the back cover of his brilliant bestseller The Writer’s Journey for well over a decade. The book’s title is a play on The Hero’s Journey, made famous by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell (A Hero of a Thousand Faces) whose ten hours of interviews with Bill Moyers will change your life.

Chris is known the world over for translating Joseph Campbell into a form for film people to use to make sure that their storytelling succeeds by leaving audiences with that deep catharsis they unknowingly crave when they watch a movie. (As generous and big-hearted of a man Chris is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he translated Campbell’s work to prevent Hollywood from producing any more dreck.) As a story analyst at Disney in the 1980s, he blazed a new trail with a little ditty he penned called Memo From the Story Department and revolutionized the thinking about story for the screen.

I’d been struggling with certain aspects of my story, mostly because it was based on a real person I had not yet been able to interview, so I had lots of blanks to fill in. Her name is Sally Becker, a Jewish painter who saved hundreds of Muslim children from war torn Bosnia in 1993. http://www.sallybecker.co.uk Sally became known as The Angel of Mostar, named after a town with a very beautiful and symbolically important bridge, the Stari Most, that separated the Muslim and Christian sides of Mostar. During the war, the bridge was blown up, which gave me the idea to title my script Bridge Keeper to honor Sally as someone who was working to bridge the gap between warring sides.

After one of Chris Vogler’s mind-blowing lectures, he passed out his business cards to all of us. They have these gorgeous illustrations from the newest edition of his book, so there are several designs to choose from. He was so instrumental in helping me find the heart of my story (screenplay structure is NOT for sissies!) that I felt most drawn to the card with the skeleton key. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to the small castle in the background, but the very next day, we arrived at Castel del Monte. I pulled Chris’s card from my back pocket, flashed it in his direction for a knowing nod from my guru, and stormed the castle in search of answers.

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It happened quickly. In the chapel on the first floor, I knew that my character would have to come here, to Castel del Monte (she’d been living in Puglia at the start of the story) to have the whopper realization that would send her across the Adriatic Sea with no plan for how to save those children. Carved into the wall above me as plain as the red nose on that clown priest, was a cross, a Star of David, and a crescent moon with a star. Movie-Sally would gather her courage standing here, after receiving a message from a Roman Emperor who lived some 800 some years before her — that it’s our humanity that binds us, no matter what terrible deeds are done in the name of religion or anything else.

Perhaps part of the mystery of Castel del Monte is that it holds many more answers. Could it simply be a monument to peace? With a little luck, we’ll learn to ask the right questions, and trust that wisdom is infinite.

 The number eight is the symbol of infinity, eight is the eighth day after the seven days of creation, and so goes beyond creation.

Apulia, A Film Tourism Guide

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Embracing Disaster

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Our cracks are showing! It’s as though we’ve dropped a precious piece of pottery on the ground and smashed it all to smithereens. I’m talking about our country of course, if you live in and love the Not-So-United-States. The sinking feeling is the same as when we break some cherished gift from our Great Grandparents, say like, the votecivil rights, or clean air. Did we take too much for granted and not protect the most important pots holding our American ideals?

So we’re left now to pick up the pieces while trying to avoid getting cut on the shards of divisiveness and pernicious politics. For many of us, our first instinct when something seems broken beyond repair is to throw it out. After all, who needs the painful reminder of what we’ve lost?

In Japanese culture, there is a brilliant art form called Kintsugi that dates back about 600 years. This is the art of repairing pottery with gold (or other metals) with great reverence for the idea that something is MORE beautiful for having been broken. Instead of hiding the damage, Kintsugi exhalts and elevates the broken piece to a never before realized elegance. It’s a metaphor for so many things, you can just fill in the blank of what parts of your life may be in need of a gold infusion.

The story goes that a 15th century Shogun broke a prized tea bowl and sent it back to China for repair. When it was returned, the staples used to fix it were visible and so the Shogun asked his Japanese craftsmen to improve on the aesthetics. With such an inspired solution, it’s not surprising that the evolution of Kintsugi has come to include modern day applications on a much larger scale, such as a floor.

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Like the earth’s fault lines, we too, have our individual lines that tell our stories. There are lines we can see, like with our veins, in our palms, or in our wisdom wrinkles — but there are also more invisible ones. Like the friction between the tectonic plates, we have to release the pressure within ourselves to avoid severe cracking. With the tectonic shift that occurred last week and that has left so many of us devastated, we MUST not let it destroy us.We have to try to take it on the chin.

That’s an expression I’d never stopped to think about before I had a dog years ago who jumped off a thirty foot bridge and survived. The vet told us that since Rio The Base Jumper was under two-years-old, the two sides of his doggie jawbone had not yet fused together, and that it was all still cartilaginous tissue around the chin. That’s what allowed him to bounce instead of break.

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This image of Kintsugi simply stopped me cold. Her ‘cracks’ are kind of everywhere. We can’t see her legs, but the cracks are clearly wrapped around her hips and shall we say, her sexual epicenter. They are also all up and down one arm that has undoubtedly attempted to embrace disaster time and time again.

For me though, the kicker here is the damage in her face. After almost two years of living with trigeminal neuralgia, (inflammation of the trigeminal nerve that comes from the back of the neck and branches out into three parts on both sides of the face), I cried when I saw this — it’s even on her right side like mine. Neurologists and pain management have explained it to me as my body going into ‘fight or flight’ mode, and then just staying there long after an initial event, usually a virus.

So when I think about the work ahead, I realize that it’s not only about tending to the cracks in myself, but more importantly, identifying the cracks all around us, so that we can begin to pour in the gold and to rebuild all that’s been broken. I believe in the power of Kintsugi and know that we can make it more beautiful than it was before, by celebrating and adopting the diversity of solutions that come to us from every culture and civilization on earth.

Now on to Mexico, that blessed country that brought us tequila — now available with gold-flakes in it — a gift from some friends that we’ve been saving for a “special occasion.” While special occasion isn’t exactly the right way to describe this new reality, I can’t think of a better delivery system right for the gold right about now.

 

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