What stands out

I’m getting ready for a trans choir “flash mob” performance that I’m going to be in tomorrow. We’re going to be “spontaneously” singing on 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver tomorrow afternoon. The chosen date falls just between National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11) and the Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov. 20). We’re singing, “We are here in the memory of those who have fallen…” Celebration, pride, and grief are all somehow simultaneously present.

I was going to bring a list of transgender people who have been murdered in the US in 2016, for anyone who is interested. I pulled some articles. One account noted that back in September, the 23rd killing made this the deadliest year for transgender people since such things have been tracked. I found this list of names and short descriptions on a Wikipedia page that’s clearly lovingly maintained by someone (or some group) who cares. And here’s an interesting fact:

Out of the 23 transgender people killed, sixteen are described as black. Three are described as Latina. One is described as a trans woman of color. One is described as white. Two are not described by their race.

What can be said here?

Here’s what comes up for me: That we talk some about how fucked up it is that realizing someone is transgender is a valid legal reason for murdering them, but we talk not much about the clear fact that being of a non-white race most definitely comes into play when it’s being determined how expendable your life is, here in the US.

Right now, I am just pointing out what stands out to me. And at this particular moment, that’s all the words I have.



Day 11: Ukulele Belly (With Video!)

So … On the list of terrifying things, making a video of myself singing and putting it on YouTube would be pretty high on the list. But, apparently such terrifying things are easier for me to do when I’m already … well, exposing parts of my body that I would generally consider to be shameful. ??? 

Because Hawaiian shirts go with ukuleles.

 This is me doing a cover of Eric Hutchinson’s song “Shine On Me.” EH, please don’t sue me! I will obviously never ever ever make any profit from this. If anything it will make people say to you, “Wow, you sure are better than this one chick who made a video of herself playing your song wearing a Hawaiian shirt that was not closed in the belly region.” And you can say “Thank you, thank you very much.” 

 I can tell you that watching this video (and the slightly worse one I made immediately before it) required a mad amount of stamina in the arena of self love. There are vast reserves of “ohmygod I can’t believe I look like this, I must hide forever” always ready to overflow the dam.

But on the other hand, there’s also a small pool of “yes, this is actually how I look, and in other universe I could just BE this aspect of myself all the time” in there. And a little bit of “and why shouldn’t I?” too. 

Sometimes doing scary things is good for me. It helps me to do other scary things. And that’s really all I have to say about it tonight. My brain is tired and my heart is — feely. And I’m putting this on YouTube where everyone can see it. Eek!

Some Thoughts Can’t Be Expressed As Statements

Remember watching The L-Word?  Maybe we were less picky about our entertainment back then.  Anyway, there was one point in the show where Bette, going through a personal crisis, took up meditation.  She wasn’t entirely unconvincing.  At the peak of this period she went on a week-long silent retreat at a gorgeous, swanky retreat center in the Pacific Northwest.  Man, it looked nice up there.  But it turned out that much silence was not what Bette really craved.  The episode ended like a dam breaking as she poured out her pent-up words into someone’s voice mail: “I want, I want, I want…”

This scene, and this line, have stayed with me.  I sometimes find myself thinking those words, in that same heart-filled voice, without really being able to finish the sentences.  Sometimes it seems as though what I want doesn’t exist yet, so how could I know what it is called?

And then there are the things too painful to name, or at least to call them by the words everyone else uses.  The real names of these things, maybe, are silent; these other words only code, because the real names, when spoken, are unbearably sad.

Sometimes all I can bring myself to do is ask questions, and let the many possible answers hang unvocalized in the air like invisible memorials.

Here are some questions that I would like to offer:

Who owns a neighborhood, who owns the streets?  Who has authority to say who belongs there and who does not?

Why is a life of so little value that people are allowed to act with lethal force toward anyone who scares them?

Why have we created a climate in which violence is so quickly reached for in every uncomfortable situation?  Is there any way we can uncreate it?

Why are alternative solutions suppressed?  Why do we stand for it?

When will our nation encourage people to take responsibility for the hurt they cause, purposely or inadvertently?  When will our nation lead by example?

Would different standards have been applied if the one who died had been a white teenager?  Can anyone ever be honest about this?

What if those deciders had observed their own reactions and sincerely asked themselves, why does a policeman “just sound more convincing” to them?

Will our collective inclination to be generous and compassionate toward one another ever overcome our collective defensiveness?

How can anyone say the gun did this?

How can anyone say race is not involved?

Does it mean I support the US criminal justice system as it now exists if I wish that some punishment had been assigned to this person who survived the fight?  Even though I know in my heart that jail causes far more damage than it heals?

What’s a better way?

What can we do?

What can I do?

Let me be explicit here that while a certain “case” (if that’s really what we want to call it) has been in the news so much that even I have heard of it, and while I am truly saddened by the end of this particular story, this “case” is an EXAMPLE of one localized outcome of the values of violence-before-compassionate-action that permeate American society, and that’s why I feel sorrow for our country as a whole.  Other outcomes are other young people’s deaths, within the borders of the US and around the world.  That’s why I have chosen not to mention any names in this post, even though I hope it’s clear what national conversation has inspired these reflections.  I don’t know the specific people involved and I would hate for any of them to feel that I used their names for personal gain or publicity.  But I do recognize patterns.  And on occasion, throughout our history, certain other murders that were widely covered by the press (to the exclusion of thousands of similar stories; why those few get chosen, I don’t know) have served as motivators for change, as instigators for discussion, as alarm clocks for consciences.

When my own words can’t be found, songs sung in other languages can be comforting.  In the ardor of the singer’s expression, I can imagine whatever grief I’m feeling coming out in the music, too.

I remember listening to this African music show called Motherland Jam on KOPN, the community radio station in Columbia.  The host began each installment with “Shosholoza,” a South African folk song.  I always loved the sounds and melody of this song, even before I knew what it was about.  In fact it’s a song about working in the mines.  It came on my MP3 player while I was writing this, and it felt like medicine to my heart.  According to Wikipedia, it was sung traditionally sung call-and-response style by all-male groups in the Ndebele language to “express the hardship [and] heartache” of that deep, dark, dirty work underground and in camps, separated from families, abused by bosses.  The word “Shosholoza … means go forward or make way for the next man … It is used as a term of encouragement and hope for the workers as a sign of solidarity.”  The article continues, “In contemporary times, its meaning is to show support for any struggle.”

The lyrics alchemize the trials endured by the miners into poetry:


Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume South Africa


Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume South Africa

Wen’ uyabaleka

Kulezo ntaba

Stimela siphume Rhodesia

Go forward

Go forward

on those mountains

train to South africa

Go forward

Go forward

You are running away

You are running away

on those mountains

train from Zimbabwe

So if I may place one thing on the altar of the memory of this one particular almost-man who was killed, and whose death, for whatever reason, allowed America to engage in a conversation, even if the conversation hasn’t yet led to any answers, I would make it this song.

New CD: Starter Kit!

Oh goodness, how did that much time go by? I got caught up in the rapids of the end of the semester. Then, no sooner had I hit “save” on the final grades than I was off to Missouri for Ozark Sufi Camp, and when I got back to Colorado, here it was, time for summer session to start.

And then there’s that old “I don’t want to write about that, that’s boring, but I do want to write about thisthisthisthisthisthis and this, ah, but, maybe later, right now I need to, uh, rearrange all the cans in the kitchen cabinets.” That ever happen to you? No? Must be just me then …

Well, one project I did work on and actually finish during that time was this CD that I made with the help of my friend Jen F., who provided the equipment and technical know-how. It’s called Starter Kit and it’s a collection of songs and chants I’ve written over the past few years. This past spring I started really working with reclaiming my dreams around writing. I started to have a growing sense that before embarking on new projects (or at least while embarking…), it would be good for me to clear out some of the stuff I’d written but never published. For whatever reason, I got the inspiration to make this CD. I had long resisted the idea of putting folk-type songs and chants together on the same album — I planned to wait until I had enough of each to make two separate records. But it just came to me one day that this was the thing to do — collect the songs I have, and let them be available for those who have expressed interest. My goal was perhaps as much to open the flow of writing and sharing as anything else.

So this is basically a DIY project by two women.  I played all the instruments (wow, multi-track recording! I am such a newbie) except for one track on which my partner Sam plays the bass, and Jen did everything technical, including providing the recording location in her home studio.  I wanted to do it all with an intention and an aesthetic of simplicity.  I drew the art for the cover of the CD; that too popped into my head in a sudden flash.  Weird, but honest!  All these ideas, I just went with them, and crossed my fingers that it would sound ok! I frequently quoted Anne Bradstreet in my mind: “In better dress to trim thee was my mind, But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find,” etc.  But I wanted to take the CD with me on my summer travels, so we took the takes we liked and put it together in a little less than a month.  Craziness! And yes, we had a lot of fun!

Starter Kit Cover

So, you can read more specifics about that CD here on its own page, including how to get one if you want!

In other news, my dad asked me today if I was still working my ass off. I told him, “No, it’s summer; I’m only working one cheek at a time.” That means I actually have a couple of days off in the average week, and I’ll be posting more soon about my travels in the Show Me state, new projects under research, and more thoughts about paradigms.

Until then,
Much love!

The creek's up; now that's "in the flow"!

The creek’s up; now that’s “in the flow”!

Ukulele Contemplation

I belong to a group that meets monthly to study teachings and practices given by Hazrat Inayat Khan and other Sufi masters.  The circle gathers in a comfortable room in a center for Vedic studies that’s housed in a big, one-hundred-year-old Victorian house in Denver.  As the days get longer, our evening classes begin while sunlight still pours through old-fashioned stained glass windows, the sort that decorate the entryways and living rooms of the former homes of the barons of industry.

 This month we began to explore the topic of Contemplation.  For myself, I am truly just dipping my toe in this ocean of wisdom from which teachings and practices come.  But as the woman who guides this class shared a series of quotes describing the way that some Sufis understand the nature of Contemplation, some of the words resonated with me, and a string of lights went on in my brain as it associated these suggestions with other areas of life that have had my attention lately.  For example, she read:

 Contemplation is about relating to something, moving from outside to inside.  The highest form of contemplation is relating to the divine.  Contemplation engages the heart and the sense of meaningfulness.  Love always focuses us.  No one has trouble being concentrated on the Beloved.  Seeing with the eyes of the soul is a good doorway into contemplation.  If the beholding is experienced fresh, if there is an unveiled encounter with the object, then it is a portal into a deeper connection and meaning.  We long to live our lives not just on the surface.  The process of contemplation is the way in to the center.  (The attribution of this passage is “From Ischtar and Gayan.”)

 I think I first felt my spirituality through relating to objects, elements, and plants, the non-speaking, (mostly) non-moving energy entities around me.  I felt a special connectedness to materials like the bricks in the wall of a building (especially if they were old), or the water in a lake, soft and vibrating with life against my skin.  In the long walks I took around my town as an adolescent and teenager, I frequently felt the urgent impulse to stop and touch things, to meet and experience them with the flat palms of my hands and all of my fingers stretched out and receptive.  These interactions opened parts of my being that had, at that time, never stirred in my relationships with human beings.  In fact, I recently started to understand this part of my personality as a capacity to actually be in love with the non-human.  (Now that adds another dimension to polyamory!)

As I continued to follow this pull toward the inanimate world, and to relate with objects as beings, the impressions that formed in my mind began to express themselves in poetry.  This remained a strong theme in my writing in that format – the exploration of ways in which we can see ourselves, our ideas, and the divine reflected in both natural and human-made things, and the existence around us of a variety of beings that we don’t typically recognize as alive.  Though it’s been a long time since I regularly wrote poetry, since I have been doing the practice that I wrote about here, I’ve also found this aspect of my creative self reawakened (to my great joy!).  When I saw the National Poetry Writing Month challenge, I had the strong feeling that it would be really good for me (and my mental health) to participate.  I haven’t written every day, but I’ve written poems on a lot of days this month, and the awareness that the part of me that thinks in poetry is waking up, stretching, and reintegrating itself into my life is – well – awesome.

So all this was the background as I heard the passage that I quoted above.  It hit at least two bulls’ eyes in my heart: the place that has always honored relating with things as a pathway (one among many) to understanding life and the Divine; and the place in which poetry has just woken up, famished, after a long hibernation.

As part of this class, we have exercises that we are supposed to do at home during the month between meetings.  The ones from this month were reviews of previously learned concepts around Concentration, and introductory “first steps into the ocean” of this new topic of Contemplation.  They are designed, it seems to me, to prepare us for and open us to the possibilities of explorations to come.  And one of the gates through which we enter this realm is a practice in which we choose an object to contemplate, and, through a combination of breath, concentration, and interest, get to know the object – inquire as to what its nature is, below the surface of its exterior.  The does not mean to think about the materials or parts that make it up – or at least, not only to do that.  Rather, it’s asking what this object is about, what it’s here for, in the world and in our own vicinity.  It’s becoming receptive to messages and teachings which this object may carry to us from Spirit.  For, after all, as the foundational truth of Sufism, la ‘ilaha ‘illa allah, states (in one way of understanding it, anyway – as always, one among many), there is nothing that is not part of Allah; all of existence is part of Allah; there is nothing that exists that is outside of Allah; there is nothing but Allah.

So today I sat down to try this at home.  I hadn’t pre-planned what object I was going to try contemplating.  My eye first fell on a large conch shell that I brought back from the Bahamas, which now sits on my altar.  I thought it would have a richness of impressions to offer!  But then my gaze wandered over to the right of the altar, where I keep my musical instruments.  And I thought, Hey.  I’d really like to get to know the inner essence of my ukulele.  ‘Cause we work together.  And maybe we could work together even better if I was more aware of what it wanted.


I positioned it (okay, I really call it her) on my bed, far enough away that I could see the whole thing without having to move my eyes, close enough that I could see the grain of the wood and my fingerprints on the body from the last time I played her.  I fluffed up the comforter at one end so that she’d be resting on her side at a jaunty angle, and so I could clearly see each of the four tuning pegs.  Then I closed my eyes and watched my breath for a while.  I tried to clear a space in which I could receive whatever awareness she wanted to share with me.  When I opened my eyes, I tried to keep a softness in my vision, allowing for a little blurring of edges, not just of the physical object I was looking at, but of the boundary between ordinary perception and the other, energetic senses.  (I think of Lynn Woodland’s teaching that when we are engaged in spiritual or deep internal inquiry, what comes to us through our imagination is often a communication from our higher self.)  Here are some of the ideas that came to me as I contemplated my ukulele.

First I got some images of the journey of the wood from which the instrument is made.  When my old ukulele broke (it was a very cheap, but very cute, model, with a rainbow and a palm tree painted on the front), I asked my partner’s mother to bring me a uke from Hawaii, where she travels from time to time.  She did bring me one – which, to my amusement, turned out to have been made in China.  No matter, I thought; it had been on the island, it had absorbed something of the vibe, which I could access when I played her.  Now I felt the distance from which the pieces had come, and some trace of the hands of the people who had assembled it; I even got a little notion of the power of the glue that held the parts together. Then I felt the wholeness of the ukulele as an instrument.  I sensed that in her utilitarian design, plain but much sturdier and more resonant than her predecessor, she reflected to me an awareness of the growth and strengthening of my own spirit and my development as a creative person offering words and music to the world.

 I noticed that the shape of her body is like mine: round at the shoulders, round and wide at the hips, with a lot of fretting at the head, and a big hole right over the heart, which is simultaneously the most sensitive, undefended part of both of us, and the only place from which the healing sounds can emerge.

I imagined us just being together, tuning to each others’ pitches.  I tried to hear the music she wanted my to play on her, the pressure of my fingers on her strings that would feel just right to her, and allow her to express what was inside of her.

I got the sense that musical instruments carry an energy of potentiality about them.  At rest, they are still always poised on the cusp of sound.  They are like cords that connect us – the amplifiers – to the divine, say, lead guitarist.  When we take them in our hands, we plug ourselves in to that source, so that the song that is always already being played may flow through us and be heard by others.

But then, she reminded me, we humans are not just amplifiers but also instruments ourselves, not just in our art, but in our whole lives.  So really, my uke and I are more peers than I thought.  Something I read recently on the website of the International Sufi Movement about the heart as an instrument came back to me.  I believe these are the words of Hazrat Inayat Khan, though it’s not stated on the site:

Krishna is pictured in Hindu symbology with a crown of peacock’s feathers, playing the flute. Krishna is the ideal of divine love, the God of love. And the divine love expresses itself by entering into man and filling his whole being. Therefore the flute is the human heart, and a heart which is made hollow will become a flute for the God of love to play upon. When the heart is not empty, in other words, when there is not scope in the heart, there is no place for love. Rumi, the great poet of Persia, explains this idea more clearly. He says the pains and sorrows the soul experiences through life, are like holes made in a reed flute, and it is by making these holes that a player makes the flute out of a reed. This means that the heart of man is first a reed, and the sufferings and pains it goes through make it a flute, which can then be used by God as the instrument for the music that He constantly wishes to produce. But as every reed is not a flute, so every heart is not His instrument. As the reed can be made into a flute, so the human heart can be turned into an instrument, and can be offered to the God of love. It is the human heart which becomes the harp of the angels; it is the human heart which is known as the lute of Orpheus. It was on the model of the heart of man that the first instrument of music was made, and no earthly instrument can produce that music which the heart produces, raising the mortal soul to immortality.

 The instructions for the object contemplation exercise conclude, “We allow the object that we perceive to touch us.  The world is full of meaning when we listen.”  I believe that this is so.  I think that Spirit has many messages for us, and that guidance is ALWAYS there, all around us, in every aspect of our existence – if we are able to read it, hear it, see it, get it.  I believe I’m aware of about one gazillionth part of the continual stream of divine guidance that is beamed directly to my own personal internal satellite dish every microsecond of every day.  But on the other hand, every additional gazillionth that I’m ever able to recognize has an inversely proportional impact on my life: that is, it’s huge.  So the value of contemplation, regularly practiced, is immeasurable.  It puts me into a mindset of wonder, which helps me to make myself, and all the potentialities with which I was born, available for God’s purposes.  In that state of mind, I don’t need to know how the song goes.  Like the ukulele, I just need to be.