"You would not cry, if you knew that by looking deeply at the rain you would still see the cloud."
- Thich Nhat Hanh
As I’ve pondered the announcement of Thich Nhat Hanh awaiting the end of his life, I have begun to wonder if my Sunday Song and Rumination should be called Eulogies to the People We Need Most.
It was Martin Luther King day last week and since the announcement about Thich Nhat Hanh, I have been thinking a lot about something I learned in my research for Point Vierge - Thomas Merton’s Journey in Song.
In March 1968, a Quaker couple from Atlanta, June and John Yungblut, were organizing a retreat that was to be held at Gethsemani Monastery, with Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh. The retreat was delayed due to Martin Luther King going to Memphis, where he was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. The retreat never took place, and Merton died 6 months later.
Since I learned that, I have often wondered what sort of dialogue could have been recorded at that retreat. What sort of innovation might have been masterminded, or at the very least might have been picked up on in future generations. I’ve even thought of considering each of them and what they might have said, to construct some sort of conversation in my head that could give further clues to the evolution of love.
Each truth tellers to be sure, but also each with an ability to name sickness and disease of violence and hatred, bigotry and systemic racism, while standing in a higher level of consciousness.
This week, as I went about my days with my children, and experienced a bit of an ache for my husband to finally be home (he got home just hours ago), I examined my own heart. I have been haunted by a story that James Finley tells about Thich Nhat Hanh. James told me that when Thich Nhat Hanh saw the infamous photo of the young man putting a flower in the barrel of a gun of a National Guardsman, he said, “that person is doing violence to that soldier, because the soldier is doing his duty. And the person is mocking.” James Finley goes on to say “you can have the ideology of peace and use it to do violence with it.”
For me, this is why I think that it is a damn shame that the arts and comedy are continuously sacrificed first in dualistic times, before other more practical needs. It brings dimension to flat places of only needing story for allegory. Of only needing to draw on the ancients, to make a thin, moral point in the present. Love in action is an art form, and good art can never be rendered to the literal. The art forms must hold!
For me, making art makes me dig deeper and work harder to make shapes out of the intangible. To speak the ineffable. To let myself be a “child of the unknown” and let that great mystery find its way into the music. So MLK and Thich Nhat Hahn showed us an art form, already forged in part by Mahatma Ghandi who famously, when asked if he was a Hindu, said “yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Jew.” This is not wishy washy, shallow relativism, friends! He had reached the point of seeing what Jesus meant when he said “love your neighbour AS yourself”. Not as much. But as.
So, this week’s song lyrics are a line from Thomas Merton's Turning Toward the World (page 325), and is especially dedicated to Martin Luther King and to our beloved Thich Nhat Hanh.
Here is something Christian in the history of our time.
I am in gratitude to this art form of love in action that challenges me exactly where I am.
Solo parenting small children, for 15 days, in a 1970 trailer, keeping a wood stove going, above the 49th parallel, in a cold snap in January, has its contemplative learning advantages.
The temperature has been consistently dropping from -25 Celsius during the day, to the -30’s every night with extreme cold warnings that with the windchill it is really in the -40s. Every day, I bundle my kids up in their snowsuits, their toques, mittens, boots, snow shoes, scarves and we blaze trails through the woods, trying to stay out of the wind, so we can get some fresh air and exercise. This very act of winter outfitting, and the patience that it takes, is a contemplative practice of such magnitude that it would challenge the most ultra-enlightened people on this planet. Most of the time, I fail miserably at doing it without losing my inner cool, and then I remember how James Finley says “the poverty of the practice is the richness of the practice”. So then I surrender into that poverty, (which is another way to say, fall into the eternal source of love), and somehow put that last impossible mitten on, with a love beyond what "I" could conjure.
We’ve driven into town to get the mail once, but because I don’t really like being out on the roads with such small children in this kind of cold, we just turn around and come right home. Also, we try not to use fossil fuels for no good reason.
We’ve been to our dear longtime friend’s (a family down the road) for supper, and will be doing a sleep over at my sister’s, but this week has otherwise so far, been a very real, challenging time, to bunker down and simply live out our days. We draw pictures of our garden together and we sort our seeds. My 2 and 3/4 year-old has announced he is going to have a booth at the farmer’s market this year, to sell magic beans like the one from Jack and the Beanstalk. My 5-year-old has announced that he is planning on being way more cooperative when he turns 6.
This week, as you will know, one of the world’s great poets, Mary Oliver, died at the age of 83. I have to say, that although losing a poet like Mary Oliver leaves a grievous void in the world, hope rose in me, as I watched how many people shared and posted what her poetry meant to them. Even people I wouldn’t have guessed. The flicker of what’s real, behind the smoke and mirrors of our time, shone more brightly than I’ve seen in awhile, as folks revealed their secret. That they read poetry. Good poetry. Life-altering poetry.
There have been many Mary Oliver poems, scribbled in the journals, and on the very hearts, of questers around the world, who’ve carried them like guides, out into the woods, the desert, the wild, back country. Those seekers who awaken out of the pathologies of urbanity, and hear the call, the primordial yearning, to come home, to really belong to this earth and to the mystery that gives it breath. (Normally, I would capitalize “mystery” but I’m currently rereading The Life of Pi, and laughed out loud when Pi observes how much Christians love to capitalize words! A telling trait I will probably continue on with, but for this bit of writing.)
I have been such a person. Once, in the Colorado back country, I cast off the chains of the need to ask for permission to live my own life, and the words of Mary Oliver were there to see it done.
There are some grudges, some ancestral coils, to be released and unbound, in the presence of a magpie and an old cottonwood tree, that can never be liberated in the presence of tall buildings. It grieves me that nature should be either parochial or gentrified. Vinyl pressed on a billboard, an idea of it, that exists in the mind of someone who hunts for sport, or someone with a pocketbook for elaborate hiking gear and cautionary guidebooks on regional fauna… but never touches, never tastes, never vulnerably indwells.
As my children sleep under their warm blankets and the heat-powered fan rattles on top of the wood stove, loaded with dead-fall poplar, I am reminded that I walk in the world of contemplation through the lens of dwelling in nature. Contemplative practice erases the false lines of separation between me and God and others, and asks me to be attentive to unnoticed things. Through embodied, country dwelling I am taught attentiveness and simplicity, and out of this place, there are clear calls to action that take shape.
Much of the time though, it seems that contemplation and nature are not necessarily in authentic unity. We haven’t reconciled all the threads that lay deep down in our psyches. The ancient earth powers, when our same wild God hadn’t yet been put in a book. The great first axial iterations of higher consciousness that miraculously stayed swords and then, all of them, fell into bloodshed, split after split. The off-by-a-mile trajectories that led to rigid, disjointedness, and eventually to literalism, and then eventually up again to a sold-short kind of myth-telling. But there are stories and mysteries that still quiver in each of us, under the surface of things, that are too incarnate to be metaphor. Or to say it differently, God has dwelt among us in the flesh as a human metaphor. Sacred has the last word, down to the smallest quark and beyond the farthest reaches of the universe.
The song for this week is We Do Not Attend, from the album Point Vierge. The lyrics belong to Thomas Merton, and my dear friend and teacher James Finley, does the spoken word at the end.
Merton was drawn to nature. To the solitude of fire making and walking in the woods. He could see the neurosis of power and greed infiltrating and controlling the lives of all of us, and he grieved that we can be so distracted by all of our many plans to be great, that we blunder the opportunity to pay attention to God’s most profound gifts.
In one flock of birds is a hundred words of God in full flight. In one smile from a child in your life, is an opportunity to mirror them, which multiplies the smile into laughter upon laughter, echoing all laughter that ever was or will be.
I continue to pray for a me, and for a world, in which being attentive to these purportedly small things becomes valued beyond the measure of all our extractive, plundering ignorance. And so we might honour the poems of the poets, with our offered service, at home in our “place in the family of things.”
On a good week, Friday night gets to be “date night” for me and my husband. Which consists of putting the kids to bed, making tea and then popping corn, and choosing a film to watch together without putting extra hours into being artists.
The film we chose to watch this week was Springsteen on Broadway, an intimate storytelling and acoustic music performance by Bruce Springsteen held at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. It is breathtaking in its simple depth.
I had noticed that Oprah recently mentioned she went to see his live performance three times, and now that I’ve watched it, I can see why.
Because of the demands of everyday life, the moments where a couple can weep healing tears together are quite rare. We got to do that with this film.
In the way Bruce Springsteen tells his story, you can tell he’s gone the distance in his healing, because it is not the kind of storytelling that passes the buck and scapegoats, but it is the kind of storytelling that has become a sort of sacrifice for the listener and the viewer, to be mirrored and healed, almost by proxy. And there was no oversharing - a lost art form that I long to emulate.
The way his face contorts just a little bit when he speaks about his father. The way he implies how, if our story still haunts us, those in our bloodlines, become our ghosts. But when our stories are transformed, the ghosts become our ancestors.
The way he walks through the stages of life, really brought me some centering, and helped me to look at the journey I’ve been on as a songwriter too.
In the mid 2000’s, I had the opportunity to stand stage side at a Bruce Springsteen concert in the UK, but I declined the offer with thanks, saying that I was also on a concert tour, albeit much smaller. The night he was playing for probably 80,000, I was playing for about 60 people in a beautiful little venue outside of Liverpool.
In the early days of my time in the music business, I had a lot of youthful naiveté and more attitude than I care to admit. At one point I was described in the papers as “having the exuberance of a young colt” (I still recognize that performer’s clamouring tendency to stand out, in me, but it has been tempered by time, age and contemplative practice). Later, an Irish paper music reviewer said I was “maturing like a fine malt”.
Watching Bruce look at his 20 year old self, I couldn’t help but remember my own rock star complex when I was younger.
The performing arts are a tricky business. You need to showcase your gift in an embodied way. You really need to be present to deliver the goods. And sometimes what that takes is a whole lot of drive, and tireless effort, and the willingness to be witnessed. In her 2009 Ted Talk on the elusive creative genius, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the dancer in North Africa, lit up, on fire with divinity, and the people watching the dance, knew it for what it was, and would chant “Allah!”.
When I think of how many transcendent performances Bruce Springsteen has delivered in his lifetime, and how I know he needed that youthful egoic, edge to give himself to the music, there is something new here in his performance on broadway, that should be observed. And that is, that in this performance, we are witnessing what a rock star looks like when they become an elder. Tempered by time, he still has all his moves, but he can sort of laugh at his own moves and love his young self with the tenderness of an aging father.
In a beautiful sermon recently delivered by Matthew Wright, at one point he reads this brilliant parable by Niko Kazantzakus:
"A man came up to Jesus and complained to him about the hiddenness of God. “Rabbi,” he said, “I am an old man. During my whole life, I have always kept the commandments. Every year of my adult life, I went to Jerusalem and offered the prescribed sacrifices.
“Every night of my life, I have not retired to my bed without first saying my prayers. But . . . I look at stars and sometimes the mountains—and wait, wait for God to come so that I might see him. I have waited for years and years, but in vain. Why, Why? Mine is a great grievance, Rabbi? Why doesn’t God show himself?
Jesus, in response, smiled gently and said: “Once upon a time there was a marble throne at the eastern gate of a great city. On this throne sat 3,000 kings. All of them called upon God to appear so that they might see him, but all of them went to their graves with their wishes unfulfilled.
“Then, when these kings had died, a pauper, barefooted and hungry, came and sat upon that throne. ‘God,’ he whispered, ‘the eyes of a human being cannot look directly at the sun, for they would be blinded. How then, Omnipotent, can they look directly at you?
“Have pity, Lord, temper your strength, turn down your splendor so that I, who am poor and afflicted, may see you! “Then—listen, old man—God became a piece of bread, a cup of cool water, a warm tunic, a hut and, in the front of the hut, a woman giving suck to an infant.
“Thank you, Lord,’ he whispered. ‘You humbled yourself for my sake. You became bread, water, a warm tunic and my wife and son in order that I might see you. And I did see you. I bow down and worship your beloved many-faced face!’”
There is something here in this text, that pertains to witnessing a rock star who has experienced many times what being a porthole of divinity is like, on a massive, liminoid scale. But now he wields himself like a covert mystic, where he “turns down the splendor” and humanizes the music and the man, so that we can step into it with him.
I decided to cover Bruce Springsteen’s song Land of Hope and Dreams for this Sunday Song and Rumination because I understand him when he sings:
I will provide for you
And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion
For this part of the ride
He is singing those words to each listener he gets to serve.
For the songwriter, we love writing many kinds of songs, but perhaps our very favourite are, at least for me, and I daresay for Bruce, songs for the journey. What might be called, Psalms of the Ascents. The songs that will help you feel heard… that will help you to take another step, and be a light for you when it is hard to see in the dark. Songs that can help you feel ok, about being human.
There is something about the descent from the stadium show into the small theatre that symbolizes a god coming down from the heavens, to enter the world as a real human being. Something to watch for these days, as so much can appear shapeless and without poetry.
PS: a friendly language warning for the film. Personally, I am far more offended by hypocrisy than a few well-placed f-bombs but I thought I'd let you know :)
In our partially finished DIY barn home, my husband Ian and I just held the first annual Twelfth Night feast (a potluck) tonight (the eve of Epiphanytide). We played live music and did group social dances that could include children, made a rum cake for the grown ups and a children-friendly Twelfth Night cake, both lightly sweetened with maple syrup. Ian also has a lot of experience doing the Cabane à Sucre (heated maple syrup poured on snow), so we did that too!
It is very late, and I was planning on taking a bunch of photos to inspire embodiment rather than presenting some construct or other for this rumination, but by the time I thought of taking pictures, my 2-year-old was having a melt down and it was time to put him to bed. The dance was over by the time I would have been able to capture more video and photos and the families had all gone home. It really was an incredible night of feasting, merry-making and marking a the end of the Christmas season in a way that includes community.
James Joyce, who lived much of his life in exile, wrote in his novel Finnegan's Wake, a complex character named HCE, but the acronyms have gone on to mean different things. Joyce did write "catholic means: here comes everybody", and since I've learned that, I like to ponder that on the eve of Epiphanytide.
I wrote a simple little song for The Magi that I'm sharing in this rumination. A great inspiration for this song is a children's book called You Are Stardust (Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim), a scientific picture book that refreshingly keeps wonder intact.
I like the interplay between the stargazers, the Seers from the East, discovering they are made of stardust, as they gaze upon the Christ child. For some reason, I always like to bring the cosmos into play at this time of year and I think perhaps it is because the earthiness of the birth has happened and somehow this porthole that has always been, is opened between the heavens and the earth. I am "of the earth" and of the earth came from the heart of a star. I know they might not have been kings, but I love the image of big kingly men bowing down to a wee infant in the crèche.
Below is a photo of my twelfth night cake. My step daughter foraged the beautiful garnish, which would have had evergreen, but my five year old's shark ate the needles (or at least that's how he tells it).
A blessed Epiphanytide to you and... here comes everybody. Amen.
Star gazing brought us here
To this young master's door
To discover we are stardust
One in God forevermore
One in God forevermore
We are born from above
And are a not apart from love
We are born from above
And are not apart from love
We were kings before we entered
Now we bend our knee
But he raises us to standing
Brothers to the prince of peace
Sisters to the prince of peace
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer, recording artist and music producer, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on a regenerative farm on the Canadian prairies.