It’s the season of Christmas music. Like it or hate it, it seems to be inescapable just now. I’ve never understood why “My Favorite Things” is a Christmas song, but it always seems to be in the holiday music lineup, so the lyrics have been winding their way through my thoughts.
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One of the things I love about life is how multilayered it is, and how, paradoxically, the activities demanding most of our time and energy are not necessarily the things that truly nourish us and make our lives worth living. We can look around and identify a few of our favorite things on the surface of our lives. Several layers underneath the surface, however, is a different list, a list of what we’re rooted in. The loss of surface things is painful. The loss of what we’re rooted in is terminal.
I’ve come to appreciate the complex layers in life gradually. For a long time I was only aware of my shallow roots, and they were in other people. My possessions, my place and the people around me provided me with a sense of identity and I didn’t see myself as separate from them.
In fact, I didn’t see myself at all.
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens certainly enrich my life, but I’m not rooted in them. I don’t draw joy, passion, hope and my desire to engage with life from them.
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So, I’ve been asking myself for the last few days, what are my roots growing in? What lies in the layers beneath my favorite things and my stories, beliefs and identity? What makes life possible and beautiful?
The resulting list, not of favorite things but of essential things, seems very odd to me. It’s so odd and unexpected, in fact, that I’m wildly curious about how other people would answer these questions. Am I the only odd one, or does everyone have a strange little inventory of necessities in their deepest layers of their experience? I was also surprised at how hard it was to excavate so deeply, far below my desire for seductive surface things I can buy. Making a wish list is easy. Making an external inventory of the stuff in our lives is also not difficult, though it may take some time. Descending deeply within ourselves, past our relationship to others, past our identity and past the things that fire or flood can take from us to scratch and sniff and burrow among our own roots, tasting the soil and filling ourselves with our own scent, is a journey through the dark without guide or companion into our own soul.
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In that deep, internal place from which I draw faith, peace, and love reside a memory and a dream. The memory is of a crippled orange cat who taught me everything I know about unconditional love, survival, surrender, and courage. The dream is of my mother, young and carefree, as I have never seen her, leaping and running joyfully down a grassy hill under a blue sky toward a group of waiting horses, dogs and cats.
My roots must mingle with the roots of other lives, especially the patient trees, and always they reach for water in all its forms, as necessary to me as breathing.
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I cannot imagine living without stories. My childhood was spent in secret gardens, Oz, Narnia and on the river with Mole, Rat and ridiculous Mr. Toad. The greatest loss of things I can imagine is the loss of my library, but the influence and inspiration of all the stories I’ve read, told, written and even forgotten have shaped me in countless ways that can never be lost. I am never tired of watching, listening to and reading the stories around me, mine, yours and theirs.
Stories are only one aspect of creativity, and creativity is perhaps the strongest support upon which my life rests. The power to make something out of nothing, the power to interpret a piece of life with music, words, dance, fiber, paint or any other material or medium, seems to me the most sacred power there is. The compulsion to make, not for money or fame, but as a love letter to life, animates and inspires me. The work of creativity is the greatest spiritual treasure we can give ourselves, one another and the world.
A dream that all will be well with someone beloved. A memory of a great love. Trees and water, stories and the joy of creation. These are the essential things without which I would not be. A strange assortment that doubtless makes a strangely shaped soul, but I don’t mind. I know who I am, and I know what I need.
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At 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning, we park in the dark, empty parking lot and use a combination keypad to enter the building and a key to unlock the door to the pool, re-locking it behind us. We turn on lights, computers and automatic doors. We run a shower in the men’s and women’s locker rooms, as the hot water takes several minutes to reach them and the early swimmers complain of cold showers. We check the temperatures and chemicals in the pools. We peel off our winter layers and put on suits, shorts, emergency fanny packs and whistles. We check the day’s schedule. All the while, a rising chorus of voices and laughter comes from outside the still-locked door where the early water aerobics class gathers, as though it’s noon and not O-dark-thirty on a cold November morning. The aerobics teacher gets her music ready and checks the wireless headset. This class is large, so she will teach from the pool deck rather than the water.
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At 7:00 we unlock the door and they stream in, laughing and talking, tousled heads of grey, white and improbable shades of blonde and brown. Not one of them is under 55. This morning the entire class consists of women. They disappear into the locker room, where the mirth and talk continue as they change and shower. I gather up a rescue tube and get comfortable in the lifeguard chair.
Descending the steps into the pool, the women tease one another and complain about the cold water. Many wear glasses, though they’ve removed their hearing aids. Many wear earrings. A couple of them dispense kickboards, foam buoys and floating foam noodles from plastic laundry baskets on shelves at poolside.
On this morning I count 17 in the class. We know one of them had a birthday over the weekend. The instructor gives her a blue plastic tiara and matching wand from the Dollar Store while we all sing “Happy Birthday.” She’s informed the tiara must stay on her head during the class. She presses it firmly onto her grey hair, laughing.
The instructor cues the music. I jiggle the dial on the wireless speaker, which never seems to work properly, and the class begins with the announcement of a Beatles soundtrack. “Hard Day’s Night” starts the warm-up to a 45-minute water aerobics workout.
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Music is so evocative. I can’t hear The Beatles without thinking of my brother, who owned and played all their albums when we were growing up. These women are a decade older than I am, and they greet each song with delight. They know every word. They bob up and down, kicking, twisting, using the kickboards and buoys for resistance and strengthening in the water. Most are generous-bodied and their bosoms bounce within the confines of their modestly cut suits. I see lime green, pink and black. I see loosened skin and wrinkled cleavage, pink scalp and cellulite while “Revolution” fills the brightly lit, echoing space.
The instructor guides the class from one set of movements to another. They stand in place. They travel back and forth across the pool. They lift, bend and stretch in a circle. We all sing together. They inform each other, soulfully, “I want to hold your hand.” The water churns with their efforts. “Got to get you into my life!” they shout at one another with hilarious passion.
As I watch, I try to imagine these well-ripened, glorious women as teenagers. I imagine them hearing “Good Day Sunshine” for the first time on radios, records and jukeboxes in diners, in cars and at parties. They were all young once, pretty, idealistic and probably as foolish as most young women are. They had homework and crushes on teachers. They had families and friends and gossiped. The Beatles were part of the soundtrack of their lives. Now, decades later, what old memories, thoughts and feelings do these familiar songs unlock? What stories do they recall, what pleasures, what griefs and disappointments when they hear “All My Loving?”
The very last song is “Yellow Submarine.” By now even I am breathless with laughter. Impossible to hear this music without moving to it, even if confined in a sitting position. The instructor is incapable with mirth. It doesn’t matter. The class guides itself, arms high in the air over their heads, red-faced, panting, dancing in the water. They turn, bump ample hips with one another, gesture flamboyantly, and we all sing at the top of our voices until the music stops and the class ends.
Knowing the routine, the class puts all the equipment away tidily in the sudden quiet. They pull the lane lines back into place and hook them up. They exit the lap pool and move to the 93-degree therapy pool, where they break into groups and chat, some in the shallow end and others floating peacefully in the deep end. The birthday girl is still wearing her blue plastic tiara. Now the talk is more subdued than it was before the class. I hear a discussion about snow shovels, snow blowers, and the performance of various men, hired and otherwise, with these tools. I hear talk of families, grandchildren and plans for the holidays. A group in a corner carries on a low-voiced discussion interspersed with much bawdy laughter. It’s not hard to imagine what they’re talking about. I smile in sympathy. Local news and politics are dealt with, along with the weather, the state of the roads, church gossip, local holiday activities and fund raisers.
It’s just 8:00 on a Monday morning. These women represent part of the backbone of the community. Seasoned, experienced, humorous and wise in the ways of the world, they know exactly who they are and what they’re made of. They’ve loved and lost, worked, raised families, volunteered, suffered grief, illness and injury. They’re outspoken, earthy and unapologetic. They know how to connect with others. They know how to play and laugh. They are kind and compassionate without being sentimental. They know how to love life.
Monday morning we all lived in a yellow submarine for an hour, and proclaimed it joyfully at the top of our voices.
I wish you all abundance this Thanksgiving.
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Saturday night I attended a monthly open mic event called The Coffeehouse. It took place in the basement of a local church, which is also where our Tai Chi group meets. People came from far and wide to participate. I was there to tell stories for the first time since I came to Maine.
My partner came with me, and I knew two other people there from Tai Chi. Otherwise, everyone was a stranger. I sat quietly in a corner and watched the place gradually fill up. I could see many of these folks were old friends. In fact, during the course of the evening I learned that The Coffeehouse has been happening for more than 20 years in that very basement, hosted by the same man since the beginning. I heard stories, both on mic and off, of cancer, divorces, moves, jobs, remarriage and grandchildren.
Cases were opened and out came guitars of every description. Musicians sat together, teaching one another chords and fingering, and playing together. Ragged sheet music, song lyrics and notes lay on every table. In front of the mic, I heard about being a cafe musician, playing music for weddings, and stories from a couple who composes, writes and performs music together, splitting their time between Arizona and Maine.
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One man stood up and read a short story he’d written. Another gave a hilarious rendition of a Shel Silverstein poem I used to read aloud myself as an elementary school librarian. Yet another read one of his own poems in between playing his guitar. A woman performed on her autoharp.
Many of the performers expressed nervousness, but each was volubly supported by the audience. Jokes were cracked, stories exchanged. Everyone was applauded warmly, including me.
When it was my turn, I stood before them, my heart throbbing uncomfortably in my chest, looking out at a roomful of faces I’d never seen before. I introduced myself briefly and told a short peace tale from China, followed by a longer story from Jane Yolen. The audience was generous, attentive. The poignant memory of other, more familiar audiences in my old place caught at my throat. As I wove the stories, I looked from face to face, speaking directly to each one as though we were alone. Their expressions softened as they entered into the stories with me, seeing what I was seeing and feeling what I was feeling. I know my own face wore exactly that expression as I listened to their music and songs.
Each performer took his or her fifteen minutes or so to share their art. It was a long night. In fact, it started about the same time I like to be heading for bed. Yet that evening fed something in me that’s been starving for three years. I had a strange sense of coming home, of belonging and kinship.
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My partner and I talk a lot about community, how essential it is, how to create it, how to join it and how to support it. I believe, as humans, we must find some kind of community to meet our connection needs if we want to live well. We’re social animals, and I think we’re beginning to see the high cost of isolation and disconnection play out in suicide rates, violence and addiction.
The Coffeehouse clarified for me an aspect of community I haven’t really discerned before. Right now, the world is chaotic and increasingly complex. We’re faced with serious issues and changes we’re ill-equipped to deal with. I’ve been thinking about the local food movement, grassroots politics, permaculture, and alternative energy and housing through the lens of community. All of those issues are vitally important, and becoming more so by the day, but I’ve been skipping over the most important thing community can give us, the aspect that must be present, supported and nurtured before any kind of problem solving or effective organization can happen.
The Coffeehouse is, essentially, an adult playgroup. I heard nothing about diet, gun control, immigration, politics or climate change. I heard nothing about social justice or gender politics. We all shared the same bathroom, the same coffee and snacks. We all put a voluntary donation in the basket. Instruments were shared. We shared time, microphones, personal stories and creativity. There was no talk of cultural appropriation.
We laughed together.
We played together.
We were kind and generous with each other.
We took turns.
As I sat there watching it unfold, it occurred to me to wonder how we’re ever going to manage to address all the pressing problems in the world today if we can’t come together as human beings and play with one another first. How do we find our way to collaboration and cooperation unless we build trust and respect and are able to just have fun together? The Coffeehouse showed me humans at their best. Heck, I was at my best. In such a warm and supportive atmosphere, my social anxiety was not disabling. People talked to me, welcomed me, expressed appreciation for the stories and received my appreciation for their contribution in return. I recognized several who performed were more nervous than I was. None of us were hiding behind technological screens. There was no escaping a forgotten lyric, the wrong chord or symptoms of performance anxiety. One of the musicians talked ruefully about a new tremor in his hands that impeded his playing. We could all see it. He played anyway.
In the days since The Coffeehouse, I know I’ve found something I’ve been looking for since I came to Maine. I thought I just wanted a place to share stories again, and I do, but this gathering is about something much bigger than that. This is about mutual authenticity, creativity, contribution and play. It’s about friends. It’s about celebration and connection in the midst of a dark and stormy time.
I can hardly wait for the next one.
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This week I’m exploring the idea of cultural appropriation. In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions.
I approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote several books, among them Draw Me a Star. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .
“Sing me a star …”
And the Artist sang a star.
It was a shining star.
“Color me a sun,” said the star.
And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather.
It was a red feather.
“Weave me a tree,” said the feather.
And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web.
“Build me a fence,” said the spider.
And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world.
It was a glorious world.
“Tell me a story,” said the world.
And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …”
It was a wonderful story.
“Tell me some more!”
So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories.
They were strong people.
The people said, “Teach us what love is.”
And the Artist said,
“Sing me a star …”
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Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.
“Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island,” by Kitaro a Japanese artist.
“Maryam,” by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
“Aye Lon Lon Vadjro,” by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
“Kozuma,” by Professor Trance and the Energizers, who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
“Stars Align,” by Lindsey Stirling, an American violinist.
“Mwari,” from the album World of Rhythm.
“Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu,” by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
“Barcelona Nights” by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
“Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence” by Kitaro.
I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects belonging to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.
Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.
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It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. Science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.
Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.
Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?
We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.
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What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.
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Have you noticed, though? Life — human, animal, plant — goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain going right back to the first humans.
Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of Draw Me a Star to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.
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The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.
Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.
The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to add my own work to the dynamic, ever-changing culture of humanity.
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