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Saturday, February 1, 2003
Sheer magic. That is my overall assessment and ultimate recollection of today's O Beautiful Gaia gathering in Gloucester. Forty women from Massachusetts, Cape Cod, and Rhode Island swept into author Deborah Cramer's house just as the tidal waters swept into the nearby creek. Deborah helped us feel right at home immediately--for example, she had kindly removed bulky furniture so that we could fit into her living room! We mingled and chatted for awhile until everyone converged. Chris Loughlin led us in appreciating how special it was that we were there; her words of gratitude were perfect. She pointed out that it is by learning and understanding that we can open our hearts to love; that we then work to save what we have come to know and love.
Deborah carefully laid out the plans for the morning, offering options so that everyone could participate in being near--and with--water. Then came one of my favorite parts of the day: she read a passage from her book Great Waters about anguilla rostrata, the American eel, and their journey from the Sargasso Sea to various rivers and streams throughout North America. This is significant because it is a story that links the watery realms of our three singing groups: Atlantic New England, Great Lakes Basin, and Atlantic Canada. As stated in Great Waters,
"In my neighborhood, the journey is relatively short: the creek finds its source in a pond not far from the sea. In other places eels swim hundreds, thousands of miles up wide, strong rivers into remote tributaries. They swim through the St. Lawrence estuary and into Lake Ontario. They climb the Mississippi and branch into the Missouri, swimming upriver until, thwarted by dams, they can travel no further. It is an epic journey rivaling that of migrating birds in distance traveled." She continues to describe the eels and their migration, speculating on the biological mechanism that allows them to find their way to the precise place of their birth: "Sliding down the creeks and rivers into the tide, they head out into the Sargasso, guided by senses to which we are stunningly oblivious." She goes on to describe how scientists have devoted years of their lives, using the most sophisticated equipment, fruitlessly trying to pinpoint the eels' spawning area in the Sargasso Sea: "The Sargasso still holds the secrets of eels."
And the ocean in Essex Bay still holds the energies of women who stood yesterday on the banks of the estuary and stared across the heavings of ice to its distant patch of open water. We had visited the small headwaters stream in Deborah's back yard (almost completely frozen) and were soon to drive a short distance to seek a closer connection with wind-tossed waves. Deborah's heartfelt words about her hope for the world became a part of our consciousness as we headed out to Wingaersheek Beach.
As we walked across the parking lot and passed between the dunes, the roar of wind and ocean engulfed us. Mist-sprayed, we marveled at the vast spread of waves before us. We climbed on rocks, we played and danced our way along the icy shore. We meditated too. I felt small indeed, embraced by the power and intensity that only Atlantic can provide.
Our return to the cozy house, lunch (the vegetarian chili was wonderful), and tea, apples, and cookies showed us that our bodies had healthy appetites after being out in the balmy 30-degree air. Women spontaneously launched into a few rounds of "O Beautiful Gaia" and we heard a wonderful story of connection--how years ago, Deborah's friend Carol had given her some of Carolyn's tapes which Deborah then listened to when she needed inspiration as she wrote Great Waters. We were gifted with additional readings from Great Waters and Deborah's articulate answers to all questions we posed.
At last, then, the exciting moment had come when songsheets were distributed: the song Great Waters, co-written by Carolyn McDade and Deborah Cramer. (I heard one woman remark: "I have goose bumps." I thought: yes!) Carolyn played the baby grand piano to great effect as we raised our voices in joy and harmony.
Great Waters Great Waters
Weaver of wonder and weaver of Web
Great Waters Great Waters
We are embraced by sea
Life embraced by sea
(Remind us again, Carolyn and Deborah: "We and sea are one.")
As the song's vibrations faded, a stirring silence filled the room. Then Chris stepped forward, raised a pitcher containing the mingled waters from the places we had visited in the morning: the small stream, the tidal creek, and the open ocean. She splashed the pitcher's contents into a bowl, and the sound that reached my ears was as if I were hearing water for the first time. Whoossh. Aaaah. Then, with reverence, for our closing ritual each woman was given the opportunity to place her hands in that bowl full of water. We spoke our truth in the power of that moment.
(Remind us again, Carolyn and Deborah: "May we return full measure.")
May we learn. May we learn to love. May we learn to save what we love.
P.S. I reflect today (Sunday) on what yesterday's experiences mean to me. I look to Joanna Macy's writings for the further connection she always provides. In a letter posted on her web site she wrote:
"As people speak
plainly of what they see happening to our democracy, as they express
anger and grief over the suffering inflicted on our fellow-beings,
I know what I'm hearing. I am hearing their love for this precious
world and their passion for justice. Each time I am awed by the
immensity of the human heart. Each time I am struck by how quickly
our pain for the world, once it is accepted and understood, can
bond us in resilient community, move us to creative action."
--Joanna Macy, Oct. 2002 (www.joannamacy.net)
We gathered with all the excitement and energy of Februaryís new moon on the coast of Massachusetts. Deborah Cramer graciously invited us to her home in Gloucester so that we could visit with Atlantic and itís freshwater siblings in riverbed and creek. Before we braved the cold weather outside, Deborah told us how the small creek in her backyard connected to the estuary, an eighth of a mile down the road, which in turn opened out to the seaís salty waters. We asked questions trying to situate ourselves within the intimate relationships of this coastal landscape.
Deborah read us passages from her book, Great Waters, and we discussed the elegant passage of "long-distance swimmers" like the black eel and wild salmon. I tried to imagine the feel of a call that could draw me thousands of miles from my natal waters, a call so powerful and embodied, such that fifteen years later, it would beckon me home to the sea where my life began. Throughout the morning we talked of freshwater and saltwater, the way a cold, briny sea sinks while freshwater rises to the surface and freezes on winter shores like that of the estuary we would visit. Everything we discussed seeded my curiosity as we ventured outside to visit with the waters.
We started out at the small freshwater creek in Deborahís backyard. It was frozen over at the edges, its cool current swiftly passing over green rocks. Some of us stood in silent meditation, others of us laughing, sharing insights, staring out over the land from which the creek flowed or following the line of its quiet progression. We scooped up some of the creekís fresh water in a small container from Deborahís kitchen and continued on a footpath toward the estuary.
The snow was wet under our feet. At points we called out to warn of slippery ice, laughing and helping one another over difficult patches. I felt a bit like a schoolchild on fieldtrip, shifting between moments of playfulness and moments of wordless awe as we came close to the gray green waters of the estuary. It was high tide. As we worked our way along the narrow shore, we saw an ice covered surface where the cold fingers of river and sea intermingled. The ice was melting at points, the current pushing through yet everywhere I felt that great stillness exclusive to winter. It seemed like a hush fell over our gathering as all eyes turned out upon the water following its expanse toward the open ocean.
We left the estuary, moving on to one of Gloucesterís sandy beaches. Unlike the eels and salmon we discussed earlier, our own passage from freshwater to sea was humorous and unwieldy. We huddled and waited patiently, some of us needing more layers, a trip to the bathroom, a snack. And then the coordination of drivers and passengers, directions, clarification, more laughing and huddling to keep ourselves warm. Finally motion and warmth as our caravan organized itself, one long body winding through Gloucesterís narrow roads.
When we reached the beach parking lot I could feel and smell the cold ocean wind but the dunes obscured my view. As we walked out toward the shore the wind felt more powerful, more daunting at points pushing me back toward land. Some of the women wisely turned their backs, walking backward to conserve heat while inching slowly toward the water. I tried to do the same but couldnít take my eyes from the breaking waves. I had never seen snow and ice accumulate so densely on beach sands. I picked my way through the slush, trying to find hard ice to sustain my step. At the edge of the shore where the waves crashed upon this ice, I stood in a kind of shock. Being from California, all my experience of seashore included warmth, sun, soft sand, and wading in bare feet. But here with Atlantic on a February morning, I felt the danger of losing myself to romantic associations. As I tried to get closer to the crashing waves my face became numb and my hiking boots and thick gloves could no longer resist the damp chill of the sea. I was so cold and yet found it difficult to walk away from the waterís edge.
But we did walk away, slowly making the path through sand dunes. The cold weather and knowledge of work to be done brought us back to Deborahís home. Though each of us brought lunch there was much sharingóDeborahís delicious chili, fresh bread and sweets. All deeply appreciated after the cold morningís explorations. Lunch was officially called to a close with song. Some of us finishing up while others sang and cleared away and cleaned. We drew together again for more questions and discussion of Atlantic.
This discussion felt a little different from the one we had before venturing outside. Now the very body of the ocean was within me, the sound of wind and wave still breaking on the inner ear. Our visit with Atlantic had stirred my own body from its city-fed stiffness such that by the time we finished singing Great Waters I found myself tear-filled, slightly embarrassed but also noticing that others were discreetly wiping away their tears and smiling with an expansive grace.
I feel as though our day revealed itself as a song of return. A physical return, each body perhaps waking in pilgrimage and a spiritual return as our voices interlaced Deborahís words with Carolynís music, the phrasing and sonic heart awakening in that small space of time where we shared ourselves in song. Before we began to sing Deborah told us that while she was writing her book she would listen to Carolynís tapes at moments when the writing became unwieldy. As Deborah said this I could see again the rhythmic motion of Atlanticís waves rising and falling, each wave unique and inseparable from the whole. I could see as well the way we draw support and sustenance from each otherís voices, especially at moments when we feel small before our dreams. In the dream dark of our wildest hopes, for the planet and ourselves within it, we share our voices and return.
We finished our day with another form of song. Chris Loughlin poured the water we gathered from the freshwater creek and salty shore together into a basin in the middle of our circle. She spoke of all the great waters, the estuaries and river currents, the modest creeks and the immense seas from which we came. As Chris and Barb Harrington offered the basin, each woman dipped her hands into the water and gave a prayer or hope, a supplication, ablution, thanks or joy. One woman simply said, "I love you." The nakedness of her speech seemed to resonate throughout our circle; as though the gong of a prayer bell had been sounded leaving only silence, open ears and open hearts in its wake.
*to see more photos
from the February 1 gathering, click on Gloucester photo album
O BEAUTIFUL GAIA MEETING--MARCH 1, 2003
Spring is coming, the days grow long and winds lift the scent of naked soil through still cold air. Snow melts in the strength of an emboldened sun and the earth moves closer to equinox. The vernal turning is a pivotal passing, as the sunís course marries with the path of the celestial equator. Day and night match perfectly in duration before exchanging ascendancy over the horizon. The sun, from night, takes precedence.
At Crystal Spring we gather on the first Saturday of March, our bodies slowly shifting gears, slowly sinking into the musical work before us. Carolyn McDade leads us in a naming round, each of us asked to say her first name and hold it for a moment in offering to the circle. We begin to go around, listening to the names, the mood almost reverent then all at once broken with laughing as latecomers enter and seek an empty seat. After a couple of tries, starting and stopping to wait for new members, we absorb the rhythm of naming and interruption. The circle feels like a small bird settling itself in nest, stray feathers slowly finding their place under wing.
Carolyn speaks to us of singing the songs. She asks us to think not of performance but of animating the music from within, that the life of the song fuses with our shared desires, hopes, our strengths and vulnerability. She asks us to take responsibility for recording the music within our bodies, so that in knowing the music we can turn to each other, really hear each other and weave our voices as one. I hear her asking us to hold ourselves within the circle, gathering our power with the power of the words we sing such that our offering to the world proffers life.
We begin to share methods for memorizing the music. One person says that it helps when she writes out the lyrics. Another woman tells of singing the words aloud while stamping or clapping the beat so that her body records the rhythm. Whether it is rhythm, the words, the melody or any other part, I start to feel excitement as I sense a shared desire to render the music as best we can. I know how easy it is to let belief fall to the wayside, to let the practical necessities of the day push creative work aside and yet I sense in our group a shared belief that we can, in fact, create a living thing of beauty, a body of songs that will take shape in the world and resonate with others.
With this invitation to believe in our voices and the sound of our circle we begin to practice Great Waters. Once we start singing the day moves swiftly. We work our way through Great Waters, I Sing the Longing, Naming Species and Continue Onóall before lunch! We also take some time to discuss the business of recording and supporting the final CD and tape. We are going to record the music on June 7 and 8 in order to offer a finished recording by November of this year. We will be fundraising to cover the cost of producing the CD and tape. We also have a form on our website so that we can sell CDs or tapes before November. Any profits from the sale of the recording, will go toward conservancy projects and environmental education as envisioned by the three groups in Atlantic Canada, Atlantic New England and the Great Lakes Basin.
After lunch we go back to practicing our music. We work through Among the Many, Return Again and Sun Look Out. By the time we finish practicing, our time together is almost over but before we take leave Willie Hurley leads us in a beautiful ritual. In the middle of our circle, a small table holds a spiral of candles as well as keepsakes from our trip to Gloucester. Photographs and rocks, a feather and below the table, in a circle, are pages turned face down on the floor. Willie asks us to name that which we cannot live without in nature; the life we would most miss were it to become extinct or in some way lose its true character. With each naming we light a candle in the spiral, moving from the center to the edge.
We name many things. We name experiences we would miss like hearing the howling wind through trees or climbing to the top of a white pine forest. We name lives like that of the wolf and the monarch butterfly, the Orca whale, the blue crab and so many others. We name wild places that we knew as children now tamed into suburban lawns and strip malls. We name moments of awe, sometimes remembered from many years prior, moments when we saw the non-human simply as it self, free from the strain of human projection or exploitation. The process of naming our loves in the world brings out stories of awe and wonder and also feelings of sadness for what is passing away before our eyes.
One woman among us names hope. She recalls us to the complexity and resilience of non-human nature. I try to hold that hope as I continue to listen to our naming of loves we fear we might lose. I try to hold as well my own sibling nature, a body evolved from star and sea, from the concupiscence of hydrogen, from risk and necessity. As we finish lighting the spiral of candles we each take a page from the floor. On each paper is a different animal. Each of us holds in our hand a life we will adopt as familiar, learning about the animal and perhaps taking part in its protection. I feel hope as I leave for the city. In my hands a stranger of sorts but also someone related to me if only distantly. And perhaps more tangibly a life related to mine in spirit for without it, the wisdom of the animal in me cannot flourish.
To visit the web pages of our "O Beautiful Gaia" sisters, simply click on the following links: