Music: A Soul Experience

This piece is featured in this month’s issue of The BeZine.  To go to the interactive table of contents, click HERE.

Addressing this topic is a tricky proposition for me. How do I write about “Music” after a lifetime of being in its company, serious collegiate study, professional and semi-professional music-making and now coming to an ever-changing place of informal interaction with it? It is as daunting as writing about “Being Female”.

My partner Steve, who has a more organic relationship to music than I, often asks me, “What is music? Is this Music?” My definitions are vague. John Cage hears music in the sound of traffic. Why not? Steve stands by a babbling brook or a wide lake shore, closes his eyes and begins to wave and conduct the irregular but compelling rhythms. Music is an experience. It is felt and lived, by humans, most certainly, and perhaps by oceans, birds and the cosmic spheres. We can pick it apart, measure it scientifically, codify and teach it and all but kill it while still trying to communicate something beyond all those characteristics. I taught Voice lessons for a few years, giving rudimentary information on practical aspects of sound production and score-reading, but when it came time for a student to prepare for performance, I said something like, “Feel your confidence; trust your instrument; let go and SING!”

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The music of the soul, singing, is not without dukkha, the intrinsic suffering of human life. Aside from Art or Artifice, singing is a conduit for emotion as vulnerable and raw as any primal utterance. Those who have guessed this often try to manipulate it or manufacture it for their own uses. Or they try to lose their egos and get as close to being on the edge as they can. Who are the great “emotive” singers you can name? Judy Garland is our favorite. Her story and her relationship with her music is a painful one, but we love to hear her inimitable voice and styling. I used to play my Wizard of Oz record over and over again and try to sound just like her…before I was 10. Before I knew much about suffering at all. She was all of 16 on the recording. She kept singing that song throughout her career. She knew exactly how to wring all the pathos of her life from that melody by the time she died. She did it repeatedly, convincingly each time.

Just two days ago, I read a passage about Singing that struck me with an entirely new impact. It is from Frederick Douglass’ own autobiography about his life as an African-American slave. It will haunt me now whenever I hear Spirituals or make up my own bluesy tunes in passing. This is written in Chapter II, a memory from before he was 10 years old:

“The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. …The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. … To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery… If any one wishes to be impressed with the soul-killing effects of slavery, let him go to Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, and, on allowance-day, place himself in the deep pine woods, and there let him, in silence, analyze the sounds that shall pass through the chambers of his soul,—and if he is not thus impressed, it will only be because “there is no flesh in his obdurate heart.” I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.”

Song pouring forth like tears for the relief of an aching heart. Music is a channel for all the emotion that lives within us, be it deep sorrow, longing, suffering, yearning, passion, joy or triumph. Have you never brought an embryonic ache to maturity by playing the right music? Have you not fed a wild impulse by stomping out an insistent rhythm and letting your voice, your body move along with it? Music is my companion, my teacher, my soul mate. It accompanies me as I discover myself, like my breath, my heartbeat. It is biological and intellectual, a genius of Life like an inalienable right. I could not endure existence without it; I can not imagine Freedom without it.

Jim at Carnegie Hall

My late husband was a singer, a gifted tenor. When he died, 300 people came to his memorial service to sing their good-byes – solos, congregational hymns and choir pieces. They sang as the living and imagined that there must be Music after death. They could not bear it to be otherwise. Though Death is entirely unknown and a very different (and luckier, as Walt Whitman would say) experience, I would not be surprised if there was music in it. Perhaps it is the very essence of all experience, conscious or not.

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Renewed Like an Eagle – Spiritual Lessons from Nature

Do you remember when your baby teeth fell out? Do you have any memories of being without central incisors, lisping and whistling when you spoke, unable to bite into an apple or an ear of corn? How much do you remember of the physical changes associated with your passage through puberty?

Would you ever choose to re-live those changes? (I imagine in response a loud chorus of ‘Noooo!’ and laughter.)

Why do we find change so awkward and uncomfortable? Why do we imagine a state of perfection achieved and unchanged, and why is that stasis desired? Consider this: change is natural; metamorphoses are observed and documented in every species — birth, maturation, reproduction, aging, death, decay, absorption, and birth. All around us there is a process of movement, going from one thing to another, losing some properties and gaining others. This is Life. It is dynamic; it is not good or bad; it is. Often, however, we decide we like where we are. We want to stay put. It’s familiar. It’s comfortable. But we are, in fact, stuck, and it takes a great deal of energy to stay there, resisting the current of Life all around. We feel drained, exhausted, spent, sapped, worn out. We want to feel the flow of energy again, but in order to do that, we must make a change. Fear holds us back. This is a pivotal point of decision – we must choose Change to choose Life.

The Old Testament talks about having youth renewed like the eagles’, about mounting up with wings as eagles and being borne on the wings of an eagle. Golden eagles populated the Holy Land, and their lifespans were observable to the ancient poets. I have seen bald eagles in the wild on a few occasions now, but not before I was 45 years old. What do I know of an eagle’s life? I did a little research. Southwestern Bald Eagle Management told me “In their five year development to adulthood, bald eagles go through one of the most varied plumage changes of any North American bird. During its first four weeks of life, an eaglet’s fluffy white down changes to a gray wooly down. At about five weeks, brown and black feathers begin to grow. It becomes fully feathered at 10 weeks of age. In its first year, the mostly dark-colored juvenile can often be mistaken as a golden eagle. However, the bald eagle progressively changes until it reaches adult plumage at five years. Notice in the pictures how its dark eye lightens throughout its first four years of life until it becomes yellow. Also, see how its beak changes from gray-black to a vibrant yellow. It is believed that the darker, more mottled plumage of a young eagle serves as camouflage, while the white head and tail announce that it is of breeding age.”

Renewal is for the purpose of maturity. It is not about going back to a juvenile state. It is about soaring with the movement of Life toward the next place of energy. It is not about resuscitation; it is about resurrection. We shall all be changed.

My daughter recommended to me a book titled Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. The author is a medical doctor and a gerontologist. He tackles the real and practical implications of growing old and dying in this culture: nursing homes, DNR orders and advance directives, heroic life-saving surgeries, hospice and what it is to live with meaning and dignity. This book terrified me. I read it in small doses. It made me face denial and delusions head on. It was not a comfortable read, but I would recommend it to anyone. It puts Change in the forefront and invites you to get real. I would not have been able to read it 7 years ago, right after my husband died. I wasn’t ready. The book I read then that helped me to accept change was Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart (which I recently discovered is a phrase from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”).

Where are you in the flow of Life? Where are you stuck? What are you afraid of when you face Change? How have you embraced Maturity? How have you run from it? What images of Peace in harmony with Change are meaningful to you? These may be your symbols of Renewal.  Here are a few of mine:

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

This article is featured in the blog magazine The ‘B’ Zine.  Please click on the Zine link to view the rest of the Renewal volume and support my Into the Bardo & Beguine Again colleagues!

Five Days Challenge – Day One

I have been invited by Terry of Through the Lens of My Life to participate in a Five Day Challenge.  Each day, I will post a photo and write a story to go along with it.  (I probably will interpret the term ‘story’ quite loosely.  I do that.)  I will also invite one person each day to take up this challenge on his/her blog.  I’m excited to participate, as I have been eager to set aside time to indulge my creative side.  It’s a spring awakening, of sorts, so thank you, Terry!  Here’s my first offering:

frost script

Sometime during the night, a winged spirit must have visited my window. There are the traces of his presence and his flight, frozen against the pane. It’s as if he were caught peeking in at my dreams, and perhaps left a note to apologize for the intrusion. Dear Messenger, does your scrolling script bring word from that soul who lives in my memory and heart, the figure of my dreams, the love of my past youth? If so, then I thank you for this precious gift, gone with the rising warmth of morn. A brief delight, as was his kiss, a fluttering pulse. It is enough to tickle my imagination and leave a smile.

– Next, I invite you to visit Naomi Baltuck at Writing Between the Lines.  She has already accomplished much more than this challenge requires, and as a professional storyteller and author, she may not have time to participate in this specifically.  (You’re off the hook, friend!  But you’ve been tagged for visits. 🙂 )  I love her posts…it’s like nestling into the cozy corner of a children’s library for Story Hour.  Her photos and stories are like the picture books that you loved to discover as a kid: humorous, expertly illustrated, and with a great message to take away.  Enjoy!  And thanks for spending time here!

© 2015, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Winter Solstice: “…oh, the night…”

 

Yesterday, I lost the sun at 4 p.m.  I arose this morning at 6:30 a.m.  It is still dark.  There is no snow on the ground, but the air hovers at the freezing point.  I wish I were in New Mexico still, where the stars are so close.  Steve read me a poem yesterday, and I’ve been trying to digest it ever since.  There are so many heavy, rich ideas in it: angelic terror, love and death.  And then there are sensual images I recognize immediately and viscerally, like this one: “…the night, when the wind full of outer space gnaws at our faces…”   It made me think of exiting my tent in New Mexico, turning my face upward, and beholding the heavens.  The translation I’m working with is by A. Poulin, Jr.  It is quite long.  Take it in doses.  Meditate on parts that speak directly to you.  Search for your own vibration in the Void.  

Rainer Marie Rilke — The First Elegy from Duino Elegies:

And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic

orders?  Even if one of them suddenly held me

to his heart, I’d vanish in his overwhelming

presence.  Because beauty’s nothing

but the start of terror we can hardly bear,

and we adore it because of the serene scorn

it could kill us with.   Every angel’s terrifying. 

   So I control myself and choke back the lure

of my dark cry.  Ah, who can we turn to,

then?  Neither angels nor men,

and the animals already know by instinct

we’re not comfortably at home

in our translated world.  Maybe what’s left

for us is some tree on a hillside we can look at

day after day, one of yesterday’s streets,

and the perverse affection of a habit

that liked us so much it never let go.

arboretum in winter

     And the night, oh the night when the wind

full of outer space gnaws at our faces; that wished for,

gentle, deceptive one waiting painfully for the lonely

heart — she’d stay on for anyone.  Is she easier on lovers?

But they use each other to hide their fate.

   You still don’t understand?  Throw the emptiness in

your arms out into that space we breathe; maybe birds

will feel the air thinning as they fly deeper into themselves.

Yes.  Springs needed you.  Many stars

waited for you to see them.  A wave

that had broken long ago swelled toward you,

or when you walked by an open window, a violin

gave itself.  All that was your charge.

But could you live up to it?  Weren’t you always

distracted by hope, as if all this promised

you a lover?  (Where would you have hidden her,

with all those strange and heavy thoughts

flowing in and out of you, often staying overnight?)

When longing overcomes you, sing about great lovers;

their famous passions still aren’t immortal enough. 

You found that the deserted, those you almost envied,

could love you so much more than those you loved.

Begin again.  Try out your impotent praise again;

think about the hero who lives on: even his fall

was only an excuse for another life, a final birth. 

But exhausted nature draws all lovers back

into herself, as if there weren’t the energy

to create them twice.  Have you remembered

Gaspara Stampa well enough?  From that greater love’s

example, any girl deserted by her lover

can believe:  “If only I could be like her!”

Shouldn’t our ancient suffering be more

fruitful by now? Isn’t it time our loving freed

us from the one we love and we, trembling, endured:

as the arrow endures the string, and in that gathering momentum

becomes more than itself.  Because to stay is to be nowhere.

ancient sufferingVoices, voices.  My heart, listen as only

saints have listened: until some colossal

sound lifted them right off the ground; yet,

they listened so intently that, impossible

creatures, they kept on kneeling.  Not that you could

endure the voice of God!   But listen to the breathing,

the endless news growing out of silence,

rustling toward you from those who died young.

Whenever you entered a church in Rome or Naples,

didn’t their fate always softly speak to you?

Or an inscription raised itself to reach you,

like that tablet in Santa Maria Formosa recently.

What do they want from me?  That I gently wipe away

the look of suffered injustice sometimes

hindering the pure motion of spirits a little. 

It’s true, it’s strange not living on earth

anymore, not using customs you hardly learned,

not giving the meaning of a human future

to roses and other things that promise so much;

no longer being what you used to be

in hands that were always anxious,

throwing out even your own name like a broken toy.

It’s strange not to wish your wishes anymore.  Strange

to see the old relationships now loosely fluttering

in space.  And it’s hard being dead and straining

to make up for it until you can begin to feel

a trace of eternity.  But the living are wrong

to make distinctions that are too absolute.

Angels (they say) often can’t tell whether

they move among the living or the dead.

The eternal torrent hurls all ages through

both realms forever and drowns out their voices in both.

At last, those who left too soon don’t need us anymore;

we’re weaned from the things of this earth as gently

as we outgrow our mother’s breast.  But we, who need

such great mysteries, whose source of blessed progress

so often is our sadness — could we exist without them?

Is the story meaningless, how once during the lament for Linos,

the first daring music pierced the barren numbness,

and in that stunned space, suddenly abandoned

by an almost godlike youth, the Void first felt

that vibration which charms and comforts and helps us now?

mysteryThe cloudy sky grows lighter.  I wish you peace, my friends, in your night and in your darkened day. 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone, But Not Forgotten

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Gone, But Not Forgotten.”

Well, this is an obvious one.  After all, I am a widow.  How can I forget the love of my life, my one and only husband, the father of my four children and the man who bought me my first Canon (an AE-1 for Christmas when I was 17)?  I am in a wonderful relationship now with a new partner, Steve, and he’s featured in many of my posts.  But Jim is my first love, the man who was beside me for 30 years, from the time I was 15.  So much of my adult formation took place in those years, even though profound change has happened since.  Shortly after Jim died, I became an empty-nester, I sold our home, and I stopped practicing evangelical Christianity.  Gone are my ‘suburban mom’ characteristics…the van, the mortgage, the disposable income, the salaried position with a Christian company in my home town, the prayer groups and Bible studies, the daily involvement with my kids.  My life is definitely different.  I am much more independent and self-reliant now.  But I haven’t forgotten how well loved I was, how dedicated Jim was to taking care of me.  As his best friend said at his memorial service, he was a Prince of a man.  And he was definitely Charming. 

Saints, Souls and Scorpions

What are we, really?  What is our essence?  Is it distinct? 

What a burning question!  How we long to know that we are special, unique, inimitable and eternal in some way.  Our egos seek definition, boundaries and refinements.  This is me!  That’s not me! But is that really how the Universe is made up?

Carl Sagan says that we are made of star stuff.  Ah!  What a beautiful idea, connecting us with the cosmos, the eternal past and the eternal future.  Thich Nhat Hahn says that we are ‘continuations’, the recycling of energy into life.  Environmental education seeks to instill the understanding that we are a part of, not apart from, the natural world. 

I love that today is a day for celebrating those connections.  All Saints’ Day, Dia de los Muertos, Steve’s Birthday, my sister Dharam’s Birthday, all of those holy notions come together today.  We ‘inter-are’, we interconnect, we are interdependent with all forms of life.  It so happens that those born on this day share the zodiac sign of Scorpio.  That reminds me that we are interconnected with forms of life that are not human.   And somewhat scary.  I saw my first wild scorpion in Texas one week ago.  He was promenading around in the light of the bathroom facility at Guadalupe National Park’s Dog Canyon campground in the middle of the night.  I was making a night visit without a flashlight but aided by the starry host. Had he not been directly under the security light, I would have missed him.  He was pale and small, and I walked right past him in my drowsy stupor.  It wasn’t until I was ensconced in the bathroom that it dawned on me.  “That was a real scorpion!” By the time I emerged, he had moved on.  I was sorry I missed a better look.  And I wish I had a photograph. 

The manifestations of star stuff that we get to see are fleeting and fascinating.  Enjoy them.  Look long and hard.  Take pictures if you like.  You may never see this combination again.  And you will see other combinations to delight you instead.  What a thing to celebrate!

© 2014, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

I Haven’t Forgotten This Day

I haven’t forgotten what we shared and how much it meant: how meeting you for the first time made me feel…

I haven’t forgotten the gift of holding you in my arms…

…or the joy of our shared laughter…

…or the sweet music we made together.

I haven’t forgotten the caring; deep, yearning, hoping for all good things for you.

He whispered these things to my heart, and I responded, “Neither have we, my darling.”

To us: many happy returns of the day.