Beyond Music Appreciation

I think Music is the deepest language of our species.

Sound is the merest breeze on the surface, like the ringtone that tells me someone is calling.

A melody is a simple sentence. Happy Birthday To You is as common and understandable as “Where are my car keys?”

When rhythm and tone color make my feet move, my hips sway, and my mood change, I’m swimming in poetry, soaked in a Rhapsody in Blue.

When I am engulfed by a Wagner opera or a Mahler symphony, I’ve gone down in a diving bell, and my world shifts completely. I can feel the weight and complexity of the ideology communicated through these grand works; they move me and change me, physically.

Knowledge adds something to the experience of any language, but it is not the experience. Even though I can read musical notation, though I’ve learned a chronology of musical styles and composers, and I can identify a hundred compositions at the drop of a needle, I still haven’t experienced all there is to music. Even when I make music, the transformative power of the language can be illusive. My body is involved. My mind is involved. I feel my soul is involved. A community may be involved. Having all those elements involved at a level that reaches past the musicians’ egos, beyond continental shelves and cultures, and touches the deepest purity of global communication is a real phenomenon. It is powerful and rare, but it can and does happen when I am open to the possibility.

I know I’ve felt the transcendence of musical language. Perhaps you have, too. I now look for its icons everywhere. Even a glimpse is enough to move me. I get chills watching flash mob performances sometimes. What is that about? Why would I be moved by that kind of cheesy marketing for an upcoming production? Maybe it’s just my soul longing for a spontaneous communal acclamation of life. Why do I select clips of talent shows to watch a nervous young singer connect with an audience through the tremulous wagging of vocal folds? Maybe it’s because I relate to her yearning for a physical experience of expression and belonging.

But these are mere snapshots. Being present with live music is the gateway to the oceanic realm of the language. In the concert hall, I sit in the dark, in the center of an acoustic grotto. I let the waves roll over my tympanic membrane. I breathe with the phrasing of the melody, and feel my heart come into rhythm with the pulse of its message. Emotions rise to the surface. Memories and intuition swim in my consciousness. I am sent on a voyage to a new shore, a new experience, a new knowledge.

When I am one of the performers, I may be standing in the light of the rising sun, with the spray crashing over the deck, sounding the call to sail on through the storm. I may be rocking in the moonlight, sending my lonely thoughts over the still, open horizon. The language within me spills out in long waves, rising and falling, on and on, until my breath is spent, my message complete. When I am silent, the music continues.

I am the rest between two notes,
which are somehow always in discord
because Death’s note wants to climb over --
but in the dark interval, reconciled,
they stay there trembling.
And the song goes on, beautiful.
---Rainer Marie Rilke
excerpt from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke by Rainer Marie Rilke translated by Stephen Mitchell

© 2017, Priscilla Galasso

Theater Lessons

What has Theater taught me? Ego indulgence and humility. Confidence and neurosis. Teamwork and competition. Empathy and retreat. Deception and honesty. The story of humanity in a microcosm. My story.

When I was a little kid, I learned that I could entertain and amuse my parents and my older sisters and get positive attention. As the youngest of four daughters, I was eager to exercise this talent to my advantage whenever my ego felt bereft. This helped me compensate for having fewer general skills and powers than my seniors. I couldn’t win at games or read or figure or run better than the rest, but I could sing and mime and look cute. I also was the only blonde, which helped.

When I was in second grade, I was very good at reading aloud “with expression”. I remember (and still have a written report about) my behavior when the class did a Reader’s Theater story about a snake. I told the teacher that I had a toy snake the class could use…provided that I got to read the lead role. Mrs. Richie declined my offer.

When I was in third grade, Miss White selected me to play Captain Hook in the musical Peter Pan. I was stunned. “I’m not a boy!” I protested. She told me privately that she thought I’d do a better job than any of the boys in the class. She could tell that I was a ham and would take risks to win attention and applause. And I did. In the final week of rehearsal, she gave me a monologue, a poem in rhyme that she would put into a particular scene if I could memorize it. I worked on it very hard. In the final performance, though, I skipped it altogether because I forgot where it was supposed to be inserted. To this day, I can rattle it off by heart. “Methinks I hear a spark, a gleam, a glimmer of a plan….”

The pirate theme lives on in my legacy.

When I was in seventh grade, I was double-cast as the lead in our pre-Bicentennial musical. I was the Spirit of ’75 for two performances (why the Music teacher and the Home Ec teacher chose this theme a year early is anyone’s guess). So was Kevin Bry. Yes, I played a man. Again. I vividly remember being in performance and feeling sort of bored with the dialogue the teachers had written to link together the songs the school chorus had rehearsed. So I decided to overact. “The sun still rises in the East….doesn’t it????!!” The audience roared. I think they were pretty bored, too.

When I was in High School, I took real Drama classes. I learned to dance, and I gained some confidence singing solos in the Concert Choir and the Jazz Choir. I became a lot more aware of my own vulnerability, too. I will never forget the Talent Show in my Junior year. I was in a leotard and character shoes, posed and ready to dance when the curtain went up. I was listening for our taped music to begin. And I heard nothing…until the audience started to howl and whistle. Suddenly, I felt naked and taunted. Then the music started, and I couldn’t concentrate on it. I was humiliated. My father and mother and boyfriend (who became my husband) were in the audience, hearing those students jeering at me. We all went out for ice cream afterward, and they tried to convince me that the performance wasn’t bad and the audience wasn’t being critical, but I just wanted to block the whole thing out of my memory forever. Obviously, I haven’t.

When I was in college, I was a Music major with Voice Performance as my Senior thesis. I auditioned for a part in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as a Junior. I hate auditions. I tend to choke when I know that someone is out there in those dark seats judging me. I am awesome in rehearsal – prepared, alert, willing and tireless. I was working hard, getting better at performance in my Master Classes and feeling more and more that my teachers and colleagues were actually rooting for me. But not at an audition. I was nervous, my mouth was dry, and my voice wavered. I could see my choir teacher in the house, talking with the casting director. I am sure that Prof. Lamkin was telling him that I was a very good soprano despite my weak scale runs in Mabel’s aria. I managed to land a part in the chorus.

That’s me, third lady on the left.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa with my B.A. in Music, I auditioned for the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Worst audition EVER! Oh well. I found out that I was already pregnant. Got the role of Mother at age 22…and 24…and 26…and 28, and stayed off the stage for years. Meanwhile, my husband performed all over the country with a competitive Barbershop quartet and once at Carnegie Hall with the Robert Shaw Chorale Workshop. My children were on stage quite a bit, too. I was their coach. They were in all the school concerts and plays, took dance and music classes, and I watched and cheered and videotaped my heart out.

Then some neighbors invited me to help them start a Community Theater. I was tired of being in the background. I stepped up, and brought my oldest daughter with me. The next summer, I brought three of my children, my husband, and my mother-in-law as rehearsal accompanist. The next summer, it was just me, and my husband told me that he wouldn’t be able to solo parent while I was at rehearsal after this. Meanwhile, he was performing with the Chicago Master Singers and rehearsing every week. A few years later, my youngest daughter started taking theater classes with a group called CYT. The next summer, they did a community theater production, and I auditioned again and got cast. My oldest daughter played in the pit band. One of the performances was on my birthday, and the director brought me out on stage for the audience to sing for me during intermission. * shucks, folks! *

I ended up working for CYT and becoming their Operations Supervisor full time. In addition, I taught Voice classes and Musical Theater classes and Show Choir classes to kids aged 8-18 after work. All of my children and my husband participated at some point in the seven years I was employed there. I watched kids grow up in the theater, auditioning three times a year, growing in confidence and artistry, and questioning their identity every time.

“Who am I, anyway? Am I my résumé? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” A Chorus Line 

Accessing emotions, improvising with another person’s energy – initiation, response, vulnerability, defense. Mime, mimicry, mannerisms, artifice and accents. Playing in the muck of human behavior. This is Theater. It can be devastating and edifying. You can lose yourself and find yourself or never know the difference.

I wonder if I should regret raising up a bunch of performers and encouraging them in this charade or if I should be proud to have modeled survival in the arena. I don’t know. It’s complex. We’re complex. And maybe that’s the entire lesson.

© 2017, words and photographs, Priscilla Galasso

Water Wishes

Roughly, a liter of water is required to produce every calorie, so an adequate daily diet requires more than 2,000 liters of water to produce enough food for one person. Of this, 40 percent on global average can come from irrigated agriculture. New factors such as increasing world population and improved affluence will further strain water resources. In addition, the uncertain effects of climate change on drought, floods, and agricultural productivity will exacerbate the situation.
If we continue to apply current water management practices, by 2050 the global agricultural sector will need to double the amount of water used to feed the world.” Agriculture: Meeting the Water Challenge by Nadia S. Halim, John Hopkins water magazine

Water of the Earth
For the Earth
Siphoned and sucked into 
Nine billion thirsty mouths

Not to mention
The car wash
The swimming pool
And the golf course

In former ages,
Its power created
Canyon carvings and
Cave formations

What does Water want…for itself?

 


© 2017, Priscilla Galasso

Brain Tools

Science, the scientific method, and related modes of logic and thought are wondrous tools. Like any tool, they are beneficial when applied wisely, and they are detrimental when applied unwisely.  The ‘If’ and ‘When’ and ‘How’ and the results of their applications to culture, religion and politics are so varied and storied and possibly ambiguous that I decided not to write an essay for my submission this time. There is just too much to discuss. So, although I am the least of all the poets here, I put my thoughts into a poem.


Ages of Thought,
whether Dark or Enlightened,
attempt to encompass the world.
Is it magic and mystical,
hypothetical, physical?
Can our rigorous study
render clear from the muddy?
Will our critical thinking
keep the spaceship from sinking?
Systematic inventions,
clever social intentions —
are they matters of preference,
coercion or deference?
Does “control and predict”
do us good, or constrict?
Can brain work help to consecrate
Humility and celebrate
such Human traits
as Wonder? Appreciation?
Morality? Cooperation?
When bullet points kill conversation,
and no one takes your word,
Do you trust experience, experiment,
story or definition —
And whose?

Transcending Anger, Power and Fear

I grew up with three older sisters. At times when I felt picked on, I would shout out my hurt feelings, “I hate you!” My mother was often right there contradicting me. “You don’t hate her. Come now, settle down…” Consequently, I have long convinced myself that I do not hate anyone, and I’m never angry. I am completely reasonable and can explain exactly why I am disappointed or frustrated. I will cry, but I am never angry. Except that…when I grew up, I yelled at my kids. I punished them. I rejected their behavior. I sometimes got physical, restraining them and even spanking them. But I do not get angry. And I do not hate anyone.

1965

“That’s not fair!”…“How dare they!” I yelled at the television set, which was uncharacteristically out of its closet and in operation in the living room. “Hush now. We’re trying to listen,” whispered my mother. The story of Kunta Kinte set my 14-year old indignation afire. Injustice is wrong – even I knew that! How could grown-ups in leadership be so obviously abusive? How could I undo the damage that was done before I was even born? How in the world could the balance of power be corrected? “I hate authorities!”

My 31-year old husband was having chest pains. The doctor figured it was probably heart burn, but he finally did some blood tests and cardiac diagnostics. It turns out the father of my four young children had diabetes and arterial blockages and needed bypass surgery. I couldn’t understand why this evil, incurable disease had afflicted my family. “I hate diabetes!” I raged. But a metabolic disorder doesn’t choose a target out of malice. What I couldn’t admit was that I was mortally terrified.

These three snapshots into my awareness of hatefulness show me that I can’t overcome the underlying feelings of anger, injustice, or fear by rejecting or opposing them. Neither can I grow in compassion by being intolerant. I can only transcend hatefulness and grow in compassion by practicing understanding. That includes understanding myself – not passing judgment on my emotions, not avoiding uncomfortable feelings, but engaging with them head on. How can I practice this? I slow down and ask myself: What is it I feel? What triggered those feelings? Where am I hurting? What is it that I want that I’m not getting? I want to be kind to the little girl inside me giving voice to her felt needs. I sit with this idea for a while. I thank those feelings for bringing me awareness. I will use that in my decision-making. Then I look at my desires more critically. Is being attached to that thing, that outcome, causing me pain? What if I let go of it?

The more I work with my own feelings and come to understand myself, the more I can begin to understand others. When I see someone who is angry and hateful, I understand that he is suffering. Can I be present with him in this place of frustration? Can I be kind to that little child in his temper? Can I engage him in a discussion about the real causes of his anger, his feelings of powerlessness, his fear? Can my presence and interaction help him realize that attachment to uncontrollable outcomes may be causing some of his suffering? And finally, can I invite him to let it go?

The Thich Nhat Hahn Foundation blog motto is “planting seeds of compassion”. For the Lunar New Year of the Rooster, 2017, they suggested a practice phrase in the form of two parallel verses: “Awakening the Source of Understanding” and “Opening the Path of Love”.  The Plum Village practice is to contemplate the first verse as you breathe in and the second as you exhale, “not (as) a declaration, but a living aspiration we wish to nurture”. Overcoming hate with a practice of understanding and love is a beautiful way to transform the world, I believe. I invite everyone to try it with me.

Namaste,

scillagrace

Practising Freedom of Choice

To The States, or any one of them, or any city of The States, Resist much, obey little;
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved;

Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.”   —Walt Whitman

James Hepworth and Gregory McNamee chose these imperative words from Whitman’s writing for the title of a book they put together on writer and radical environmental activist Ed Abbey. I think of Ed in the desert wilderness of Utah’s Canyonlands. He is choosing to explore without roads, without a vehicle, without expensive equipment. He is on foot. He has matches, a knife, and boots. He drinks from the river. He walks in the cool of the night. He gathers sticks and makes a fire. He cooks a fish from the river. He is free. He is central to his existence, no other. I met some of his friends at the Wilderness 50 Conference in Albuquerque in 2014. They were a spirited bunch and passionate about the value of wild places, places without systems, where humans are visitors only and do not dominate the landscape. These wilderness advocates represent a resistance movement that truly inspires me.

wildernessThe freedom to choose how you will act is basic autonomy. To relinquish that choice is enslavement. However, exercising that choice need not be violent or ego-driven. I believe it is possible to act freely while maintaining a posture of love and openness. I admire the practice of Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk who engages in political activism in a peaceful and mindful manner. The first step to acting in freedom is awareness. Being aware of the present moment includes being aware of the suffering inherent in a situation, of the emotions that all parties bring to bear. It also includes being aware of the values you wish to embody. The Eight-Fold Path describes values to consider: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  Determining to walk this path while resisting temptation and influence in other directions is indeed a form of activism.

I am wary of the pressures that systems in this country employ to urge compliance.  I don’t want to see my freedom of choice reduced to “paper or plastic?”, as George Carlin suggests.  At the same time, I recognize that freedom requires responsibility. If I make my choices, I must abide by the consequences. Again, I think of Ed in the wilderness, happily accepting the dangers along with the adventure, feeling completely alive. There is risk involved in living in freedom and an opportunity to respond in community to the outcomes of those risks. That I will be wise enough to respond with compassion and not restriction is my hope. I cannot say that I practiced that as a parent raising four children, though!  I do know the urge to stifle the free exploration of a youngster. I am not convinced that it is the best practice for the spirit of either parent or child.

May we all have the courage to resist enslavement, the compassion to encourage freedom, the awareness to recognize the choices before us, and the will to act in love.  

© Priscilla Galasso

Armageddon and The Art of French Cooking

“Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” – Nietzsche

Civilization kills. We are living in apocalyptic times. The Anthropocene is here; humans are dominating and destroying the Earth. Like all civilizations in history, though, ours will fall back into the dust, and Earth will absorb it in some fashion. I get angry with humans because of this. Our arrogance and hubris and stupidity is truly abhorrent. I would wash my hands from all association with my species if I could, but for two things: music and food. I am willing to forgive everything for Puccini and Marcona almonds sauteed in butter and thyme.

Perhaps it is nothing but hedonism to feel that my pleasure in a fine meal at La Reve on Tuesday might bring me back from the brink of utter despair. The “Holiday Train” event in the village late that afternoon had created horrific traffic congestion with black-clad pedestrians pushing strollers into the dark streets while some pop Christmas frenzy blared over a loudspeaker. I felt truly Scroogeish; humans are complete humbug. But then the ambiance of a Parisian bistro — chattering guests and tremulous accordion melodies — and the buttery oak in the Chardonnay spread its warmth over that cold, post-Truth fear surrounding my heart. I asked Irene, our Asian-American server, about how the chef prepared the pumpkin soup. We talked about how roasting brings out the deeper flavors of vegetables and stock bones and what items on the menu were gluten-free. By the time I had savored my way through triple-cream brie, salmon, lamb and chocolate caramel, I was ready to admit atonement of the human race was possible.

thanksgiving-sideboard

The next day, however, my thoughts turned dark again. How could I justify the expense of that meal, even though almost half of the cost to me was covered by a gift certificate? How had the animals invested in that meal been treated? How far had the ingredients traveled on fossil fuels to get to my plate? My awareness of suffering may have been dulled for a time, but it was not erased. I may have been treated quite well, but was I healed?

Healing. In Western culture, it’s about fixing pathology. In Eastern culture, it’s about making whole. Awareness is about opening up to understand the whole, the complete Oneness of the Universe. “Life is suffering” is the first noble Truth in Buddhism. Suffering is in the Oneness. Arising from the awareness of suffering are two responses (at least): Fear and Compassion.buddha

I experience my fear for the human race and my compassion for it as well, blended contrapuntally. To recognize that only as thoughts criss-crossing my brain might drive me mad. To see that reflected in a complex pairing of wine and cheese or in the first act duet of Mimi and Rudolfo in La Boheme saves me from perishing from the ugly truth. I will never comprehend the Truth, although I live it every day. Making, enjoying, or experiencing Art is as close as I may ever come to holding the Whole in my heart. I believe that those who practice Meditation seek to do the same, while sparing the harm caused in producing Art.

May we all find a way to happiness, a way not to perish from the Truth, a way to be at peace with the Whole.

arte

© text and photos, Priscilla Galasso

Meeting My Neighbor

gate

My new next-door neighbor is aging and physically challenged, although he’s probably around my age. He walks with a limp, speaks slowly and wears a hearing aid. He gets around our 56-acre property on an electric golf cart. He also wears a camouflage cap, hunts, and works on his prized stock car engine in the garage. I’ve met him on just a few occasions. The last time was during the summer when the Conservation Foundation held a meeting at his home. He told us that his dog, Reggie, was also hard of hearing and was concerned when one of the guests let the dog out in the process of coming in to the meeting.

After a week of settling in to our new home to the south of his, it was time to pay a visit, introduce my partner Steve, and discuss things like garbage pick-up and snow removal. Dave met us at the door and led us to the living room. The dog bed was empty. Dave sat down in his recliner facing the blank TV. An Elton John tune from the 70s played on the radio.

“Where’s Reggie?” I asked.
“Reggie died…on the sixth…of September.”
I dropped to my knees on the carpet in front of Dave’s chair so that I could look him in the eye. He looked like he might begin to cry.
“Oh, Dave! I am so sorry!”
Dave began to talk, haltingly at first. He told the story of how he noticed changes in his beloved companion, of decisions he had to make, and how his life had been altered. I listened and kept eye contact. The conversation changed to the present and more mundane matters, and I got up off the floor. Dave asked us to sit down on his couch.
“Don’t worry, I vacuumed the dog hair off the seat already.”

We visited for another half hour. I saw Dave laugh for the first time. And smile, and stretch, and tell jokes. We negotiated an agreement about the garbage, and he recommended a good Toyota mechanic. On the way out, I noticed a paw print plaque on a box with Reggie’s name on it.
“Oh, did you get that from the vet? My daughter got one for our cats when they passed.”
“Yeah…”
I told him I was sorry again and that we’d be seeing him around.

I have never had a dog.

I don’t remember thinking about dropping to my knees in grief at the news of Reggie’s death. I just did. I needed to look in Dave’s eyes as he spoke. Grief is a familiar friend, even if Dave was not yet.

I have a Bernie bumper sticker on my car.

I don’t know how Dave votes, and I was surprised that Wisconsin went to Trump. Now that I live in a rural community and not in Milwaukee, I see lots of folks who look like Dave.

I am a stranger here.

I work here on behalf of the land. I came to live here so that I can know it better. I am just beginning to know the people who have worked and lived here before me. I don’t know how well I’ll fit in with them, but I am very interested in seeing the adventure unfold.

I want to show loving-kindness wherever I go. This is my opportunity: this place, this day.

(from Wildmind Buddhist Meditation:
Metta is friendliness, consideration, kindness, generosity.
Metta is the basis for compassion. When our Metta meets another’s suffering, then our Metta transforms into compassion.)

 © Priscilla Galasso

How Will I Behave Here?

September 15, 2016

“Environmental Justice” is a rather fancy framework – two words with seven total syllables to convey a concept. Let me give you a simpler structure – one question to ask yourself as often as possible. How will I behave here? Five important words make up this question, and each one can continue to yield insight the more time you spend with it.

Let’s start with the subject – ‘I’. Bringing awareness to how you think of yourself is a huge step in understanding – not just for environmental justice, but for Life in general. Know thyself. What are you biologically? How do you fit in the ecosystem or the food chain? Do you have a beginning or an ending? What does it take for you to survive the middle? Who are you psychologically? What has influenced that and what makes that change?

The direct object in the sentence is ‘here’. What is the Here that you relate to ? I suggested in the writing prompt “Tell Me: What IS Environmental Justice?” that our contributing authors may look at the environment from a perspective of Nature, Place or Community. As you ask yourself this question on a daily or more frequent basis, Here will be increasingly specific.

Now the verb: ‘behave’. It’s the act of acting; perhaps it’s all verbs in one. What we do matters. In my work as a volunteer at a Nature Center, I learned a short maxim for Environmental Education. It was made up of 4 words beginning with ‘A’: Awareness, Appreciation, Attitude and Action. Action is the outcome of our character. A lot goes into making us who we are, but it’s who we are that will most influence what we do. There are those who hope to influence action from the top down and employ legislation, incentives and consequences. There are those who hope to influence action from the bottom up and employ education, compassion and liberty. Behavior is often the event that gets a conversation started, the outward and visible sign of internal forces. We see video clips in the news and wonder, “Why THAT behavior?” (the Oregon rock tippers, graffiti in National Parks, buffalo calf rescuers, photographers disturbing marine life, etc.)

The word ‘will’ in the question can be both a verb tense and a noun and makes a great pondering point. What is your Will? What do you desire, hope for, intend, long for, want, choose and champion? You get to bring all your personal energy into this question. You will behave in some way. You will act or refrain from acting one way or another, and this will make a difference.

Finally, we’re left with the very first word: HOW? This is where we’re invited to expand our imaginations and reach toward infinity. This is where creative people can lead and model and catapult the status quo toward a more distant target. It is also where we can entrench ourselves in habits, in conservative approaches that allow for little or incremental change, in comfortable measures of disturbance offset by self-congratulation. This HOW will be the expression of our will and our identity.

So, think and ask: How will I behave here? That is how you will engage in Environmental Justice.

And you will engage, whatever you do.

Priscilla Galasso, Contributing Editor
with Steve Wiencek, Guest Editor

Naturally Devoted

Can I bore you with another epic love affair?

I have fallen in love with Nature and intend to grow with it until death – and beyond. This is an Environmental Justice that is not at all fair or dispassionate. It is rather the opposite. It is a righteous sensibility, a championing of something I highly and intimately respect.

(photo credit: Steve Wiencek)
(photo credit: Steve Wiencek)

It started with admiration and wonder, as if worshiping my adolescent crush from afar. I saw my first Rocky Mountain while on vacation when I was ten years old and living in Illinois. I felt emotions bigger than all outdoors welling up in my small breast and had no idea how to respond except by singing John Denver songs lustily by heart at the top of my lungs. It was a hormonal, corporeal, visceral attraction. I felt my own biology resonating with Earth but had no idea how to develop a relationship with it. So, I did what any lovestruck Midwestern pre-teen would do: I started inventing ways to rendezvous with it in a haphazard way. I played in the woods across the street every day. I started an Ecology Club in 6th grade, which meant that I stayed after school to pick up trash in the schoolyard. (No one joined me.) I kept up with Girl Scouts so that I could go camping and hiking. Gradually, I felt more connected and responsible in the relationship. When we moved to California, I had the opportunity to take it to the next level. I explored coastline, redwood forests, Sierra mountaintops and Joshua tree deserts. And I experienced betrayal and heartbreak for the first time. I visited my college of choice in Southern California in March. Palm trees lined the streets of town, and the view of snow-capped Mt. Baldy from campus was clear and inviting. But when I moved into the dorm in late August, there was a brown haze in the air and Mt. Baldy was a shadow. Looking straight up into the sky, the blue color I expected looked more like the rinse water from a dirty paint brush. I was deeply sickened – homesick, heartsick, and ashamed. The betrayal was against Nature, but Nature never betrayed me. When my husband was dying and my four teenagers were exhibiting traumatized responses in almost every manifestation of self-abuse, I would walk to the prairie near my house for sanctuary. From the moment I stepped off the sidewalk and onto the path, I could feel healing in process. Touching Earth with my feet, breathing the scent of flowers and rain and decaying leaves, listening deeply to the song of birds and wind, I knew that every manner of thing was in a state of change and that it was ultimately okay. How I knew that, I was not able to articulate. I just kept coming back, arriving in tears and leaving in peace, righted.

(photo credit: Steve Wiencek)
(photo credit: Steve Wiencek)

This sense called Justice lies in the valley between Love and Suffering. Its orientation is in the shadow of those monumental feelings. I love Nature. I feel her suffering. I want to protect my Beloved’s health. I want to preserve her dignity, to fight for her autonomy and to respect her individuality. At the same time, human interference is the biggest factor in Nature’s distress. How can I care for my Beloved and do no harm? This is the question lovers ask when they’ve been together for a while.

“Do no harm.” It is a koan, an impossible concept that plunges me into a metaphysical dilemma. How can I treat Nature justly? I delicately explore our relationship; I imagine the poetry of our situation; I try to love and defend her. Eventually, I will simply allow her to do as she will and absorb me. This, I suppose, will usher in our eternal peace together.

in-death-valley
(photo credit: Steve Wiencek)

The love affair metaphor engages my emotions and focuses on my experience. But Nature is a cosmic Beloved beyond my comprehension. It is mystery and reality and demands my humility. My perspective is challenged in every moment, and this is good for me. More important, this is Good. It is the Truth.

 © Priscilla Galasso

Dream What You Will and Will What You Dream

I took a quiz recently to test my Bible knowledge. I used to be a bona fide college campus ministry staff worker. I studied my Bible…religiously. So, I wondered how much I’d retained after having dropped the Christian label six years ago. I got one question wrong: “In a list of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit, which one is NOT in the basket? Kindness, Peace, Forbearance, or Hope?” Turns out it’s Hope.

“Hope is a mannequin. Love is a battlefield,” sings Bobby McFerrin’s voice in my head.

Hope is a deceitful kind of thing. It sounds like a marvelous, Puritanical virtue. I think it’s a slippery slope. Hope is passive. “I hope it won’t rain.” There’s nothing you can really do about it, one way or the other. You’re stating a wish, a sort of desire or thought without any teeth. “I hope my insurance will cover this.” You’re placing the burden of responsibility or action on something, someone other than yourself. “I hope in the future.” You’re making present moment decisions while not being present in the moment.

On the other hand, I think Will has gotten a bum rap, as in “the willful child”, “not my Will but Yours be done”, “keep your servant from willful sins”, etc. I much prefer Ralph Waldo Emerson preaching Self-Reliance to that doctrinal negation of determination. I think it’s important to know what you want, what you like and why. At the same time, I think it’s very important not to get attached to those things. Some people will defend their desires because they feel that their identities are shaped by them, and they want them to be. In a Universe of impermanence, that can be problematic. What if the thing you desire is altogether unattainable? Or even unapproachable? Your identity becomes “the person who is not going to get what they want – ever”. Sounds like a life of frustration and suffering to me.

To be able to say that I think this thing is good, that I want to use my energy and resources to practice and promote this thing, while I acknowledge that much of the success of this thing remains out of my control, is Self-Reliance. Furthermore, I no longer believe that the success of this thing is in the control of a supernatural power. And I’m OK with that. I don’t need to have a guarantee that this thing will succeed eventually in order for me to feel my efforts are worthwhile. I can have a moral conviction of the value of this thing without supernatural endorsement.

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I suppose I should mention that my philosophical transformation began after my husband died. My identity was shaken. I lost Faith; I lost Hope. “How very sad!” I hear you cry. Let me add that I was then asked repeatedly by a dear friend, “What do you want?” “Who do you want to be?” and I eventually found myself. I became aware of delusions and habits of thought that I’d never examined before. I discovered my will, my values, my feelings and my ability to accept change, adapt, and practice living gracefully and gratefully. I know good things intuitively, and I have learned that I am trustworthy.

And I believe that everyone else could say the same. See, I do believe in something.

Text and photograph © Priscilla Galasso, 2016. All rights reserved; you can read Piscilla’s bio HERE.

Faith Means Making Choices

Faith.

“Firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Merriam-Webster

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We all act on faith. Each of us, every day. We make decisions based on ideas and concepts for which we have no proof. We take action based on insufficient evidence about the cause and the effect. This is unavoidable. When are we ever going to have all the information about anything? The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. The more we experience and the more we learn of others’ experiences, the more we realize that possible experiences and conclusions are infinite. None of us is ever in possession of “all the facts”. We are all guessing.

Similarly, we all have delusions. We all look through various lenses, have particular blind spots, and wear custom-made blinders for one reason or another. Sometimes these serve as coping mechanisms to protect us from overwhelming stimuli. Sometimes these simply magnify our ignorance.

Let’s try on an example.

I have to make a decision about how to commute to work in the morning. I have been told that taking the freeway is the fastest route. After all, the speed limit on that road is 55 mph. However, it’s always under construction in the summer. But is speed the best value to consider? Maybe I should not burn fossil fuels and ride my bicycle instead. I will then arrive at work sweaty and tired. There is a bus, but buses are full of germs. But my friend takes the bus, and I could ride with him and chat…And so on.

street scene

The point is, there are a number of ways to get to work and a number of reasons to justify each one. Those reasons may be weighted by experience, by social influence, by practice, by value and by preference. We each make our choices, our decisions, based on incomplete data and bias, but the point is WE MAKE CHOICES. And that is our great freedom, a right of autonomy.

We have the opportunity to make new choices at any time, although they will also be based on incomplete data and bias even when they are made in an attempt to incorporate new information. The dynamic of deciding and re-deciding is perhaps the greatest activity of life for our species. It’s what our big brains are for. But it is a process that does not have a product. We will never get it all figured out. Dogma is unsupportable in the long run, even if it seems beneficial in the short term. We will never, ever arrive at what is absolutely “right”. Perhaps a better pursuit is simply what is “better”.

Where faith turns into action or behavior, we make moral judgments. Based on your beliefs in the moment, you chose what to do. Was that action beneficial? Did it cause harm? If you decide the action was harmful or that acting in that way did not help you to be the person you want to be, you can choose a different action…AND you can choose to change the beliefs that justified your action. A flexible framework allows a lot more options.

Back to our commute example. What if…

Believing that getting to work quickly was the most professional, responsible thing to do, I set off on the freeway. Soon afterward, I ran into road construction. Flag operators stopped my car. The minutes ticked by. I got frustrated, angry, eventually enraged, and I expressed this state of mind by shouting a curse at the flag man and punching the accelerator as I was allowed to move forward. In the process, I rear-ended a car in front of me. Now I have caused insult to the construction worker on the scene, injury to the car and possibly the person ahead of me, and acted like a person I do not wish to become. I can decide to be more careful not to act in anger in the future, and I can decide that getting to work quickly is not an important value so that I’m less likely to feel frustrated when I can’t fulfill that value. I can examine my beliefs and thoughts as well as my actions and make changes in both in order to practice non-harmful behavior more effectively.

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This is a simple example. My real life is much more complex. At one point, it involved decisions I made about raising teens to adulthood while my husband was dying of a chronic illness. I realized that acting on my faith sometimes caused me to harm them and to become someone I didn’t want to be. So, not only did I stop the behaviors, I stopped believing the underlying principles that motivated them. I kept wondering if I was “losing my faith”, a phrase that sounded so negative and irresponsible. What I was actually doing was evolving my faith and my self. That, I think, is a very positive and responsible practice. I intend to practice striving for “better” and doing less harm. That’s my new choice, my new faith. 

victory

Text and photographs © Priscilla Galasso, 2016. All rights reserved.

Friendship and the Serious Introvert

I had all but disqualified myself from writing about Friendship this month. “I have no friends,” I thought, envisioning ladies’ magazine coffee klatch groups, beer commercials and Facebook statistics. I don’t have the requisite exercise buddy, shopping buddy, or the Oprah-sanctioned “5 Friends Every Woman Should Have”. That little childhood rhyme started playing in my head: nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I guess I’ll go eat worms.

I’ve decided to re-frame the topic.

I do not have a lot of friends. I do not make a point to get together with acquaintances to socialize. I am an introvert and was raised by introverts. I didn’t have birthday parties or play dates as a kid. I had one good friend who lived two doors down, and we played together almost every day. He was a year younger than I and a boy. When I was in 5th grade, a girl joined my Sunday school class, bringing the class total to three – myself, the rector’s son, and this new best friend. She still sends me Christmas cards. When I moved from Illinois to California the summer before high school, I had to start all over. After a year, I had made a good friend who was a year older than I. She was a bit bossy, but she connected me to the Girl Scout troop, the school choir, the Italian club, and my husband. I was 15 when she introduced us. I was 45 when he died. Later that year, I met someone online – a bookseller who’d just finished a course in Spiritual Psychology. I’d found my new best friend. We’ve been together for almost 8 years. 

photo credit: Carol Toepke
photo credit: Carol Toepke

What I know about Friendship is not about quantity. It is about quality. I think I have enjoyed all the important health benefits that Friendship adds to life distilled into a few precious draughts. To feel that freedom that creates well-being, we have to be able to establish a trust that allows me to be completely myself; we have to create a safe vulnerability. Honesty, copious communication, time, and kindness are the key ingredients. For me, this doesn’t happen easily. It takes concerted effort. More often, I find myself in relationships with mentors or students. I feel quite comfortable as a student or a teacher. Those are roles I can hide in. To be in a true friendship, I have to come out of hiding and operate in an arena of wholeness and equality…which is far more risky. A tremendous accomplishment of my 24 year marriage is that I know that I can survive and thrive while being fully open to another human being. Still, I suppose it has to be the right human being. And those are rare.

The love of a true friend is extraordinary. It goes beyond the giddiness of fun, beyond the pleasantries of companionship, beyond the nobility of human kindness, beyond the affirmation of attraction. The love of a true friend is challenging. It asks you to be entirely forthcoming. It asks you to question your habits and assumptions. It asks you to change and react to change. It asks you to be the best you can be. And it asks you to challenge your friend in return. Because of this dynamic love, life is never boring and your relationship never goes stale. Because of the trust you build, you can enter into the most intense realities of life with some security and the sense of adventure. As my husband used to say after another trip to the hospital, “Never a dull moment!”

My calendar is not full of lunch dates or parties; my phone doesn’t ring for days at a time. Still, I have tasted the best of Friendship and grown braver, healthier, happier and wiser. And no worms were harmed.

© Priscilla Galasso, essay and photographs or as indicated above

BOOKS THAT CHANGE LIVES

I have 4 broad cubbyholes for experience titled “Distraction”, “Entertainment”, “Useful” and “Inspirational”. This is not a system of judgment, simply an organizational game that my homo sapiens brain finds oddly relaxing. I can truly laud events in any of those categories, but sorting them is something that satisfies in a strange way, like the way I play Solitaire on the computer before bed. When I thought of all of the books in my life (and since our home is an online book-selling business, I literally have tens of thousands of books in my daily life!), I wondered how to pick which to write about. These categories are going to help me navigate this topic. Books that change lives can fall under any of these headings.

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I have to start with Children’s Books because I was a child when books began to influence me. Certain Children’s Books can fit under each of those labels. Did you ever try to distract a child in tears by offering to read a story? Sure. Did you ever pick up your jacketless copy of Ferdinand and flip to the illustration of the contented bull under the tree smelling flowers because you were seeking escape? Yes! So maybe “Distraction” is a place where some of my favorites can be filed.

“Entertainment” is a fine role for a Children’s Book. Pure imagination (Roald Dahl), puzzle-solving (Graeme Base, I Spy…), and song and dance (Priscilla Superstar, Eloise) come to mind. Rhyming books by Dr. Seuss and Bill Peet were always fun to read aloud to my kids. Of course, I do voices. (After all, I was a Voice Performance major in college and a theater teacher!) Books can serve up silliness in all shapes and sizes.

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A child’s book becomes “Useful” when it has a gentle way of teaching a very important lesson. I loved Babar immediately, and slept with a plush version each night, thumbing the yellow felt of his crown until its softness lulled me to sleep. I learned to respect animals and humans, that responsibility can bring anxiety, and that belonging to a community helps you to feel secure and peaceful.

When I think of books that are “Inspirational”, I think of them as initiating changes that transcend mood and feeling and circumstance. Perhaps you can call them “paradigm-shifters”. Every so often, a Children’s Book has that kind of impact, too. They defy the age-ism of the Children’s or Young Adult section. The Lorax, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Little Prince, A Wrinkle In Time. These books introduced me to the realms of mysticism and philosophy that I began to explore in greater depth as an adult. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Poems by Hafiz.

There are iconic books that have shaped my life that I think I would put in a separate cubbyhole, perhaps shaped and decorated more like a shrine. These are sacred texts: The Bible. The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn. They became almost monolithic in my life journey at certain points.

Most of the goods manufactured by human beings are problematic to me. Luxury items strike me as senseless and leave me completely cold. Clothing is necessary but has a seamy underbelly in Fashion. You don’t even want to get me started on Plastic! But Books – well, they could be the veritable justification of civilization itself, as far as I’m concerned. I cannot imagine my life without them.

– Priscilla Galasso

© 2016, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Exclusive, a poem

My favorite poetry is philosophy dressed in dreaming, not logic. It imagines a larger reality, a more expansive love. Rilke is the gold standard, I think.  Oh, but that is the pièce de résistance, and there’s so much more besides that. I am a poem consumer, not a gourmet chef. I know very little of form or craft, but I love to taste and participate. So I’ve written a poem for International Poetry Month. It’s a love poem to my late husband because, well, you might as well start with breakfast.

Exclusive

Thick, boyish lashes fringe
Other eyes, perhaps as blue,
Open, tender toward Beloved

Still smiling youths may offer
Eager grins, warm confidence
Gleaming ‘neath soft whiskered lips

Clear voices might ring
Thrilling, gentle as yours when
You sang at daybreak just for me

Surely now first loves make vows,
Grow mature together, devotion’s
Friendly joy becoming solid strength

Fathers must bend heart and arm
Wrap manhood’s grace boldly around
Each golden, blessed child – like you

No doubt live sorrowing pairs
With looming loss, still holding,
Fingers trembling, to brave last words

I cannot boast an only, greatest grief;
I know this storied world is vast.
But still I weep in fond belief
That you and I loved first and last.

© Priscilla Galasso

View Contributing Editor Priscilla Galasso’s bio HERE

I Love This Place

What exactly is our relationship with Earth, its wilderness, its gardens and its green spaces?

wilderness river

Of course we all value this place in some way. I won’t call it our home, although we all live here; we can live nowhere else. To me, the idea of ownership seems inappropriate at least and inaccurate at best. This place may be closer to owning me, in fact.  And ‘home’ makes it seem so domesticated. Is that what it is? Or is it unapologetically wild and autonomous? I have decided to approach this place as I would an equal: with humility and respect for both of us. That seems to be the best moral decision I can make at this time.

Others don’t agree. They consider this place a servant in need of stewardship. They talk of ‘eco-system services’ and measure the value of this place by the benefits it provides to one species, a single leaf on the great Tree of Life – Humans. They extract the elements that serve them, but they are not producers, like plants; they are consumers. They talk in economic terms, like ‘board feet’, but the only thing they truly produce is waste, of which only a minimal amount can be absorbed and re-used. They concern themselves with ‘management’, imagining a parental responsibility for the growth and training of this place. It’s ironic to me that the child they attend is billions of years their senior. 

Sturgeon River Gorge Wilderness

This place is often valued for its beauty, prized for delicate and powerful sensual elements that fill the soul and spark the imagination.  Many who praise it lift it far up on a pedestal of mysticism but decline to offer it their understanding or their presence. To them, it can become remote, surreal and alien, a romantic fantasy on an epic canvas.

Some view this place with disinterest, perturbation, or downright disgust. Standing on it just means that it’s beneath them; they will not allow themselves to be grounded. It takes a great expenditure of energy to maintain this separation, but they achieve this distance by employing every distraction and applying every veneer currently available.

Cudahy

This has been called the “Athropocene Era”, the geological epoch of Humans. We are the dominant species at the moment and the major force impacting the Earth. We’re no longer a hunter-gatherer society, and our advancing technology is always at the expense of natural resources, even if our intention is to use it for conservation efforts. For example, the ‘progress’ we have made in recycling plastic still uses tremendous energy to break down the material and still results in the production of waste and toxins. The unchecked growth of our species has effected the climate of the entire planet and threatens a mass extinction.  

It stands to reason that the only way to lessen our impact is to become less numerous, consume less, and produce less waste. We must slow down and live simpler, more sustainable lifestyles in order to stop this growth mentality that has become a global menace. Then we can begin to nurture an equal relationship to this place and its inhabitants.

schottler

Let us spend time with this place, pay a lover’s attention to its moods, its responses. Let’s be careful what we take and what we leave behind. Let’s respect this place in every detail and not dismiss the nuances of its character. Let us champion its autonomy and dignity, seeking to understand but not using that understanding for our own advancement and growth. Let’s explore to gain wisdom, not to invade. And let us celebrate our love for this place! Teach it! Demonstrate it in song, story, art and work!

Lake shore meditation

I hope we will not grow weary or discouraged in this love. There will certainly come a new age of geography yet, whether our species is included or not. In our own lifetimes, though, living a loving relationship to this place is its own reward. It is a love to fill the heart, soul, mind and body and to bless the entire world.

Essay and all photographs © Priscilla Galasso, 2016. All rights reserved.

All That Matters

Once upon a time, there were a bunch of Big Brains who decided that living things (which they rarely called ‘living beings’) needed to be neatly organized. Grouping things together based on similarity was important to them for some reason. So they made up categories and named them Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species, in succession from broad to specific. Then they had to remember these categories, so they memorized “Kindly Professors Cannot Often Fail Good Students” – apropos of nothing much. (Personally, I think “Kindly People Courageously Offer Fauna/Flora General Sympathy” might make better sense.)

Meanwhile, some other Big Brains decided that everything in the Universe was made by one Creator and that He gave humans dominion over all the other animal species on Earth and gave every plant for human use. That made them feel they were Most Important among the creatures on the planet. They felt very comfortable with that and valued themselves, and those that looked and acted most like them, very highly. 

As for those creatures who were terribly different from them, well, they were kind of “icky”.

Well, these Big Brains were very clever. They prospered and multiplied (and divided and conjugated and came up with quantum physics). They learned how to make a Big Impact on the Earth, making things they liked out of the raw materials Earth had. And every year, there were more of them. They liked to be comfortable, so they tried to eliminate things that bothered them. Like locusts. grasshopper And dandelions. Dandelion They liked to be powerful, so they claimed victories over other living things that had power. Like lions. lioness And giant sequoias. sequoia

Gradually, they noticed that some of the other living things (or Living Beings) were disappearing completely. buffalo Some people thought that was a shame, especially if the thing was useful or furry or had a face. badger Others noticed that when one type of thing was gone, things began to change for the rest as well. bee A few Big Brains began to ask some really Tough Questions about why things on the Earth were changing so quickly and whether the Big Impact of humans had anything to do with it.

I can’t tell you the ending of this story. Perhaps the Big Brains will disappear like so many other Living Beings did,dinosaurand Earth will go on without them. wildernessPerhaps the Big Brains will become less numerous, less dominant, and Earth will go on with them. horse and riderPerhaps something altogether different will happen. It doesn’t really matter how I tell the story.

What does matter?

Well, here on Earth, ‘matter’ can also mean every Living Being boxy frown and every non-Living Thing. non living matter

What we Big Brains decide to do with all matter will matter and will help tell the end of the story. migration stop

– Priscilla Galasso

© 2016, essay and photographs, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Interview of Priscilla Galasso

unnamed-5JAMIE: I think you started with us in 2012, not long after initiating your blog, scillagrace. Your life at that time was very much in transition and you had quite specific goals for yourself and your blog. Where do you find yourself after the passage of almost four years?

PRISCILLA: My blog began as a sort of online journal of self-discovery. I had been widowed in 2008 and began a new relationship within the year. By 2011, my four children had moved out of the suburban home I’d kept for 19 years, and I moved in with Steve. I took more than a year off from any kind of employment as I worked through my grief in writing, reading, walking and talking with Steve. My goal in this transition was to learn to live gracefully, to face and accept life as it is. Now, four years later, I find myself still practicing that way of life, but with far fewer tears and fears. I feel more compassion, understanding and respect for myself and more eagerness to engage with the broader world.

JAMIE:You write the most remarkable essays, always well-considered. Logical! Always perfectly edited. What in life – education, teachers, friends, inclination – prepared you for this? I know you don’t do it for a living at this time, but writing certainly appears to be a natural endeavor for you, a kind of home-place.

PRISCILLA: I have to say that my writing style was probably most influenced by my parents. My father was a Harvard man of science, math, and letters and became an educational project director for SRA (a subsidiary of IBM before McGraw/Hill bought it out) and a technical writer for IBM. He helped develop national standardized tests for high school students and volunteered as a computer tutor later on. He was on a minor mission to teach young people how to think and write clearly. My mother was a Radcliffe English major and the volunteer editor of church newsletters and such. They probably had a critical hand in everything I wrote for school. When I was 15, I fell in love with the man who became my husband, and suddenly, I wrote poems and love letters in alarming abundance…and didn’t show them to my parents. I am still far more confident in prose and essay than in poetry and fiction, but learning to value my emotions and communicate them with greater facility and expression has become increasingly important to me. I am a sort of “recovering perfectionist” who is learning to love her feelings.

JAMIE: Since we are concerned in this issue with parents and parenting: I know that your parents – especially your mom – were quite accomplished. How did they encourage your moral and intellectual grown? How did you in turn foster good qualities in your children?

PRISCILLA: Moral and intellectual growth can be encouraged from the top down and from the bottom up. I have learned, however, that the “top down” style can lead to resentment and rebellion in spirited children! I was a compliant kind of kid, eager to please my parents because I was afraid of them to some degree. They espoused some rigorous moral and intellectual standards, and I did my best to meet them. As this was my model, I attempted to repeat it in the next generation. I discovered that neither my 3 daughters nor my son was interested in being that compliant, especially as teenagers! So, I have modified my approach. My mother is my enduring inspiration for “bottom up” encouragement and growth. She lives her values – positively, joyously, and with diminishing criticism and anxiety as she ages. This is much easier once your children aren’t living with you, though. I find that celebrating how we are maturing as equals is a lot more rewarding than policing behavior! Their good qualities continue to emerge and develop, as do most people’s, and my estimation of a “good quality” also is evolving. I had pride in the fact that they were quite accomplished as children, but now I know that they were not at ease with themselves and they developed some serious anxieties. My hope now is not that they will be “successful” in conventional ways. I hope that they will be happy, at peace, and continually growing in awareness and responsibility.

JAMIE: Over the past few years, you’ve been to several wilderness events and you are a great supporter of wilderness protections. What is/are you major concern/s and what are you doing to address your concern/s?

PRISCILLA: My major concerns for the health of the planet and its inhabitants revolve around the attitudes of human beings. We are way too arrogant and detached from the rest of the tree of Life, in my opinion. We have a penchant for “doing things” in the world instead of granting autonomy to other creatures and natural systems. We impose our will without compassion or understanding far too often. And this is especially dangerous because there are more of us than ever, demanding more resources for our growing technology. Our domination is reaching critical proportions; I don’t believe it can be absorbed much longer. This is why I think it’s of paramount importance that we preserve and protect wild land, places where we are not dominant, where we are merely visitors, places that can teach us humility.
What am I doing to address this? Trying to live an ethic of humility and harmony with the rest of the world and communicate that at every opportunity. So far this includes visiting wilderness areas, working for a conservation foundation, making political choices that support the environmental movement and becoming more mindful of habit and practice – like what I eat, what I buy and what I throw away. Steve and I are also operating a used book store online that is his only source of income, so we are in the salvage and recycling business. Steve is also researching a book on wilderness management philosophy and operation and developing his own blog, http://www.forthelastwolverine.com. This is sort of the way we are “parenting” together: modeling our values and putting our energy and resources into projects that can effect the future. But we may be poised at the brink of some radical changes in how the planet responds to our footprints, and we need to be ready to act differently!

JAMIE: You’ve had to deal with a lot of grief: the premature death of your relatively young husband and the tragically early death of your sister in a car accident. What have you learned about dealing with grief?

PRISCILLA: I am learning about suffering from the Buddhist perspective now. It’s a vastly different vantage point than the Western one. When my sister and I were in that car accident, I was not yet 17. Grief was something I wanted to “fix”. I wanted a remedy as quickly as possible. I was raised in a devoutly Christian family, and I plunged myself deeper into that doctrine. It was about having an answer, undoing the spell, reversing the consequences. My sister was in heaven; her death was somehow made “okay” at the end of the story. By the time I was 45, I’d been studying and teaching that story at higher and higher levels, but I was still afraid of death. My husband died at the age of 47. My life changed overnight, and I was terrified. The Christian story was played out in epic pageantry at his funeral, but I still had fears, anxiety, and suffering that I needed to deal with in real life. When I met Steve, he began to tell me about Buddhist philosophy and consciousness. It looks at grief and suffering head on. There’s no “fix”, no story. It’s part of the fabric of life: painful things happen. There’s no aberration; nothing’s gone horribly wrong. You have experiences, and you think about them, but you can decide how to think about them. It was like a veil lifted then. I had been told all my life what was the “right” thing to think, and it all had to do with that story. And now I realize it is just that, a story I decided to believe. So, I made a new decision to try to think in a different way. I think about suffering and grief as part of being alive. I’m not singled out in it or exempt from it. It just is what it is. A lot of added anxiety has unraveled since I started making conscious decisions about how to think. I have befriended grief and life, in a way. Grief has taught me that I practice attachment and aversion: I loved my husband fiercely and hated the idea of living without him. That kind of thinking caused me a lot of suffering. So now I try to practice appreciation and awareness. I still love my husband and appreciate the time I spent with him, and I know that life is lived in the moment and death is inevitable.

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Mankind: The Modern Mystery and Myth

The hero’s journey is a deeply challenging topic for an amateur writer and philosopher. What a great invitation to read and research, to tie strands together and squint to see a pattern! Typically, I submit essays to this forum, as I am much more comfortable in prose. This time, however, I decided that an essay on this topic would be way too ambitious. What I have is Swiss cheese and spiderwebs, full of holes and only loosely connected, so I thought a poem would be more appropriate.  However, I will preface this one with a bibliography.  I began with the final chapter of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, where I read this:

“Today all of these mysteries [“the great pantomime of the sacred moon-king, the sacred sun-king, the hieratic, planetary state, and the symbolic festivals of the world-regulating spheres”] have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental science from the the heavens to the earth (from 17th century astronomy to 19th century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in 20th century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the force of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.” (emphasis mine)

That reading led me to recall lectures I heard from Dave Foreman at the Wilderness 50 conference. His essay on “The Anthropocene and Ozymandius” can be found in several online posts. From there, I considered Nietzsche’s Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra. And always underlying my thoughts is my admiration for Buddhist practice and The Middle Way. So, with all that as the primordial soup, this emerged:

Homo sapiens sapiens
Oh most separate, separating
Anthropocene anthropocentric
The Egoid egotist
Ozymandius, great Wizard of Man
Eyes on screen
Fingertips fiddling

Journey who will
That
Über undertaking
Condescend to transcend
Dare to die in darkness,
Awake in wilderness
At one, atoned
In mystic Middle

Cosmic consumption
Preposterous presumption
Unsustainable usurpation
Deplorable devastation

Parading Nero
Begs a humbler hero

hero

© 2015, essay, poem and photograph, Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

Think Continually of Those at Risk

Under the light of the half moon, David Attenborough speaks to the camera on Christmas Island, surrounded by a moving mass of red crabs. Tens of thousands of crawling females, heavy-laden with hundreds of fertilized eggs, are approaching the high tide in order to release their burdens into the surf. The water turns reddish brown as a surge of life heads out to sea. Millions, no, billions of little babies are set adrift. Enormous whale sharks cruise the waters nearby, ready to feed. Sir David explains that the hatchlings will spend one month in the water before returning to land to move into the forests and begin their lives as adults.

That’s probably not the first picture you conjure when you hear the phrase “at-risk youth”, but it’s the one that came to my mind. It may not be popular to approach this topic from a biological standpoint, but there is a meaningful truth in this perspective. If the “risk” you are referring to is death, that is something that youths face as much as anyone. Death is certain for all of us, and no one is guaranteed adulthood. The human species, however, is far from the threat of extinction. Our population is dominating the globe, in fact. So, “at-risk youth” is not about the peril of the demise of our race. I believe it is much more about social and behavioral dangers than biological ones. This is where we can be optimistic. We can create and control our societies and our behaviors much more readily than we can our biological tendencies.

What does it mean to “survive” to adulthood in our society? How do we measure the success of childhood? Certainly benchmarks in health, education, safety, justice, self-reliance and freedom come to mind. We set standards and often cast about for whom to blame if they are not met. Aren’t our children entitled to these milestones? Are they goals to strive toward if not guaranteed rights? And what about the risk of “merely” surviving?

My youngest child is now an adult. She has survived the death of her father. She has survived self-destructive behavior due to depression. She has survived being institutionalized in the mental health care system. She has survived living in the third largest city in this nation, finding a job and supporting herself. She has survived coming out as queer and has proudly announced her engagement to another wonderful young woman. Her survival of everyday panic, anxiety and body-image crises is chronicled in her Facebook updates. While all of this is great success that I do not mean to diminish, I keep wondering, “Is the mere survival of the hazards of our society the best our young people can hope for?” My daughter is highly intelligent. She is a naturally talented singer and dancer. She is passionate about history and poetry and science. I fear there is a great risk that these traits may remain embryonic throughout her lifetime because she is so focused on navigating social pressures – in a culture that is probably the most economically and socially privileged one on the planet!

That our systems erect road-blocks to social survival and detour our young people from paths of true greatness is a profound risk, I believe. Read the poem “The Truly Great” by Stephen Spender. I get to this stanza, and I am openly weeping.

What is precious is…

…Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother

With noise and fog, the flowering of the spirit.”

We can so easily provide food, shelter, and opportunity to our youth with the systems we have devised, but those systems have become mine fields where kids are sabotaged on the journey. We have become so enamored of control that we have hobbled love and freedom and self-worth, and our young people will always be the most vulnerable to that constriction. Their symptoms are obvious. They are fighting to survive amid an abundance that mocks spiritual destitution. The Dalai Lama commented on his first visit to America that the thing that surprised him the most about Westerners was that so many suffered from a sense of low self-esteem. He’d never heard the term up until then, but everyone he asked agreed that it effected them.

Our young people have the best advantage for living long biological lives. If they are to live good, happy lives as well, we all must take responsibility for creating caring social space within our psyches and our communities. We need to nurture and model the spirit of social justice from the ground up AND from the top down. We need to encourage and not criticize; we need to live as models, not as victims. One of my favorite examples of a person who dispels social danger with kind communication is Fred Rogers. He takes time; he is present; he sees truth and speaks love. Here is an excellent illustration of that.  And a great example of modeling fairness and social progress from the top down can be found in this video about the new Prime Minister of Canada.

We will never be finished addressing the social risks facing our youth. They will be new every moment. If we take up the challenge to face each of those moments with awareness and a commitment to justice and kindness, though, we can be confident that we are living out the remedies even as problems continue to arise.

– Priscilla Galasso

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

Farming a Dancing Landscape

On Poverty—Spiritual Lessons From Nature series by Priscilla Galasso

Raising a child is not rocket science. It is more complex than that. Rocket science is merely complicated. What’s the difference? The Latin root for complicated “folded,” like pleats. There are hidden surfaces, but you can unfold them and draw an iron straight across it. Rocket science requires a long series of problems to solve, but with enough time and effort, you can get through them all and even repeat the entire process with very similar and predictable results. (Any one with more than one kid knows this is not the case in parenting!) In the same way, you can determine which peak is the tallest one in the Appalachian Mountains. You probably can’t guess correctly just by looking out over the landscape from a single overview, but get enough people with GPS tools to climb the hundreds of peaks on the horizon and take measurements, and eventually, you can figure out which one is the tallest. Complicated, but do-able.

Guadalupe range

Complex is a whole different story. The root of that word means “inter-woven,” like a spider’s web, where each fine thread is connected to another. And they’re all sticky except for the ones the spider uses to climb directly over to her stuck prey. But can you tell which is which? Can you tell that the one you just stepped into is sending a ripple right over to where the spider is sitting? She now knows exactly where you’re stuck, but she doesn’t know that you harbor a parasite that will kill her and make its way to yet another host when yonder sparrow snaps up her dead carcass. That’s complex.

spider web

Raising a child is complex. Trying to tell which peak in the Appalachian range is the tallest is complex, too, if the landscape is dancing: changing in an unpredictable pattern , moving to the rhythm of an imperceptible music. Which peak is tallest now? And NOW? And why are we even trying to find the answer to that question while watching this mysterious dance?

Poverty is complex. It is not something that is solved by simply devoting more time and effort to the problem. If it were, we would not be looking at thousands of years of history on the subject. We give in to the temptation to simplify poverty into a matter of dollars over time, reducing it to something measurable, predictable, and controlled, a mere graphic—the poverty line. But poverty is an inter-woven network of relationships and concepts—self worth, social justice, resources and their extraction, economic policies and global politics. It is as complex as our planet’s environment.

the shack

So how do you engage with a complex issue like poverty?

Aldo Leopold arrived at a Land Ethic after years of developing and recording a relationship to a particular place in Wisconsin. In the book A Sand County Almanac, he writes: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Making personal decisions about right and wrong based on your relationship to the community is the responsibility of every individual. Applying that ethic rigorously and non-dogmatically is the work of love. How do you love your neighbor? How do you preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community on this planet of inestimable and finite resources? How do you alleviate the suffering caused by poverty?  These are complex questions. 

“We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.”  —Aldo Leopold

Maybe a more accessible question is this: How shall we strive to end poverty?  To that question, I can imagine simple answers.  Start early in your learning. Teach children about sharing and portion, not dogmatically, but in relationship. Strive toward understanding basic needs and toward a sense of what is enough.  Build trust and hope and compassion.  Be flexible, changing with the land and its resources. Be present with the multiple factors involved; do not look away, diminish or dismiss what is real.  Be authentic and honest and diligent, and finally, believe that even on a dancing landscape, food is growing underfoot.

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

Music: A Soul Experience

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 and brilliant 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!”

opera night

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

Oscar Wilde and “The Critical Spirit”

“THE CRITIC AS ARTIST: WITH SOME REMARKS UPON THE IMPORTANCE OF DOING NOTHING” — Oscar Wilde wrote this essay in the form of a dialogue between two characters, Gilbert and Ernest, in the library of a house in Piccadilly.  Here are some key quotes from that piece:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.  That is not the least of the tasks in store for the critical spirit.”

“When man acts he is a puppet.  When he describes he is a poet.”

I confess I have not read The Critic As Artist in its entirety and so have not discovered Wilde’s “remarks upon the importance of doing nothing”.  However, I do have some understanding of our critical mind, the ways we apply it, and the results of being dominated by it.

First of all, what is ‘the critical spirit’?  I think what the author is getting at is the individual thought process that creates meaning.  What we ‘know’ of the world might be broken into three categories: Fact, Experience and Story. Fact is the measured detail of life — how old it is, how big it is, how it reacts chemically, that kind of thing. We learn some things from it, but it has no emotional arch, no meaning.

Experience is the raw sensation of the moment: emotions, smells, sounds, tastes, sights, awareness, feeling.  It is how we know we are alive.

And then there’s Story, and this is how we are all poets: we take in data, we see events transpire, we feel emotion and sensation, and then, we put that together into a narrative that makes ‘sense’ to us.  We have created a story, a meaning, and attached it to history.  That work is largely supervised by our Ego as our thought processes select and omit and weigh the data according to our own preferences and values.  We imagine and imitate what we like, we suppress what we don’t; we spin what comes out.  These stories become part of the body of data that we use to create further meaning as well. 

It is essential to realize that we are constantly making up stories.  Civilization is a story.  Religion is a story.  Philosophy and Art and Psychology and Anthropology and so many other pursuits are simply ways that we have manufactured meaning by creating stories.  There is wonderful wisdom in recognizing “the danger of a single story”, and so it is a fortunate thing to have so many different ones.  (A Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, fleshes this out in her profound TED talk, HERE) Stories are ubiquitous.  There is no ‘right’ story.  Good stories point at Truth, but there are lots of ways to construct them.

This awareness of the creation of story by your own Ego is the key to “the importance of doing nothing” as well.  The plethora of stories and the facility of story-telling in our culture tends to dominate our reactions and expectations, creating drama, manipulation and anxiety along with meaning.  In some ways, we want that.  We find it exciting.  But it’s also exhausting and can be exploitative.  To be able to leave the story-telling aside and simply BE is important for my well-being and my personal peace.  Meditation is helpful in the practice of stilling the ego and refraining from making up meaning.  When I concentrate on the present moment and return to the simple activity of breathing, I allow the world to be what it is instead of conscripting it into the service of my creative ego.  Then I am free to relax my mind and let go of my anxieties about how the story will turn out.  My energy is renewed, and I am at peace.  (This is a practice that I am only just beginning to employ.  Awareness is the first step!)

“The imagination imitates; it is the critical spirit that creates.”  We are invited to engage with the world on many different levels, all of which can be useful and appropriate at certain times.  Wisdom is the art of choosing how to engage in a way that is edifying for yourself and others.  For everything, there is a season: a time to imitate, a time to create, and a time to refrain from creative ego activity.  May each of us find joy in the exploration of this Wisdom and delight where we recognize this exploration in others!

swallowtail

– Priscilla Galasso

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

Diversity and Car(ry)ing Capacity

According to Wikipedia, the term “biodiversity” came into popular usage in 1985 as the 1986 National Forum on Biological Diversity was being planned. A decade earlier in scientific studies, the term “natural diversity” was the expression used to describe the variety of different types of life found on earth, and “species diversity”, “species richness”, and “natural heritage” are even older terms. The same Wikipedia article goes on to describe how biodiversity benefits humanity. This is where I want to jump off the Wiki-wagon. I have a diminishing tolerance for anthropocentric thinking. Diversity isn’t important because it’s good for us. Diversity is important because it IS.

Where diversity exists, you know the carrying capacity of the environment is at a high level. This means that there are enough resources to support a large community of biota. There is abundance and health….for everything. There are food sources, water sources, shelters, places to meet others of your species, safe habitats in which to reproduce and raise young, and plenty of predators, large and microscopic, to keep the population in balance. Where diversity is threatened, you see widespread extinction, the development of large mono-cultures, and the altering of climate and landscape. (For a fascinating example of this, see this story on how the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park changed the course of a river. How Wolves Change Rivers on youtube.com.)

farm and wood

Diversity and abundance or extinction and scarcity. These are snapshots on either end of the spectrum of possible futures for our planet…or for any small subset of it. My question isn’t about how diversity benefits humanity. My question is about how diversity feels. Not only to you, or to us, but to the Universe. As Eckhart Tolle would say, think beyond the Egoic Mind. What is diversity to the Power and Source of Life? It is essential; it is essence poured out on reality. You might say that the Divine is manifest in diversity. What is diversity to the Ego? It is a threat. It is Other and Dangerous. I’m sure you can see how this plays out across different parts of history in different parts of the world.  Where mono-cultures restrict diversity in the human community, what is the effect? Take a moment here to think of all you’ve ever read or heard, seen or felt about genocide, extinction, ‘ethnic cleansing’, segregation, persecution, and intolerance.  The human Ego fighting the reality of diversity is a war that makes no sense to me.  There is no possible victory in it anywhere, for anyone.

My final questions are these: what is diversity to the Person you want to be, in the world where you will live? How is your carrying capacity, your caring capacity, today?

abundance

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

Morning Dove

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In praise unceremonious

birds sing to greet the morning.

In liberty they make their voices heard. 

Each separate tune a secret speech

upon Creation’s ear,

an intimate awakening of love.

What expression can I give you

to welcome your affection,

to place myself within your waiting arms?

The murmur of my scattered dreams,

the sigh of lonely longing,

a wish for lasting closeness on my lips. 

Hear in my stuttering, open heart, 

Oh, lover and companion,

the grateful, private music of the dawn.

 

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

Father Sky

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Did I ever thank you, Father Sky,
      spread far around like an open field
           piled high with moods and structures,
                a playground for my soul?

Your face above bids my thoughts expand
      to climb the heights of an anvil-cloud
           and teeter on the edge of a dazzling glare
                or slide down the shafts of the sun,

To swim to the center of your lonely blue
      where I find no mist to hide me,
           and lie exposed to the western wind
                like a mountain braced for sunrise.

Or clad in the shroud of brooding gray,
      you coax me to musing
           far removed from the minutiae
                that chains me to my life.

I search for light and openness
      to shadow the bonds of earth,
            exploring the vault of heaven
                for its meaning and its truth.

Thanks for this cathedral speaking glory through its art,
For opening my eyes, admitting Sky into my heart.

© 2015, poem 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 (click on the first one to see a slideshow with larger images):

– Priscilla Galasso

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

Ego, Redunancy, Fasting and Abunance ~ Lessons From Nature

Have you ever had an experience of ego awakening? I have. The first one I remember happened as I was sitting in church on a Sunday morning, listening to a sermon. I was a child of about 7, I think, squirming about in the pew beside my family members. None of them were paying attention to me. They were simply silent. I suddenly became aware that I was there and that it was possible that I could ‘not be there’. I could not be born, for example, or I could be something else. I wondered why I wasn’t a rabbit, but a girl, Priscilla. I wondered why I was aware of being present for this sermon when I had sat through so many others and not been aware at all. I paid attention to the words of the Rector for a time, staring straight at him, but his talk was not as exciting as this simple new awareness. I figured he wasn’t really addressing me. I think it was Spring, the stained glass windows were open a bit, and the sun was shining. I sat facing the windows, away from the pulpit, and in rapt and embryonic ego transcendence.

My ego returned to center stage, though, shortly after that. I was the fourth daughter in this church-going family. I grew up with questions about whether or not I was special, with feelings of redundancy. My sisters were always more intelligent and talented and capable, having the edge of years of experience beyond mine. What did I have to offer that they couldn’t deliver more readily? And what would be my share of the resources available? Could my parents really give their attention and their love to all of us equally? Somehow, these questions kept arising for me, causing anxiety and an eagerness to convince myself that I was unique and uniquely loved. I spent 47 years in the church-going habit, seeking to resolve these questions in community with others looking for a similar comfort.

1965

Let me insert a different image now. David Attenborough on Christmas Island, surrounded by a moving mass of red crabs. It’s nighttime and quite dark. Thousands of females, heavy-laden with eggs, are approaching the tide in order to release their burdens into the surf. The water turns reddish brown as a surge of life heads out to sea. Millions, billions of little babies set adrift. Redundancy and abundance. Life in a beautifully mysterious burst of activity, at a specific time and place, choreographed by some ancient awareness and acceptance. It is awesome – possibly divine. Are those babies unique and uniquely loved? The question seems moot. They ARE. No less. No more. (http://www.arkive.org/christmas-island-red-crab/gecarcoidea-natalis/video-00c.html – this is not David Attenborough, but at least it doesn’t have advertisements.)

We were driving out to the University last week to attend an enrichment class entitled “Understanding the Mysteries of Hibernation” when Steve popped in an audio book CD, The Power of Now. Eckhart Tolle began to describe his pivotal ego experience: For years my life alternated between depression and acute anxiety. One night I woke up in a state of dread and intense fear, more intense than I had ever experienced before. Life seemed meaningless, barren, hostile. It became so unbearable that suddenly the thought came into my mind, “I cannot live with myself any longer.” The thought kept repeating itself several times. Suddenly, I stepped back from the thought, and looked at it, as it were, and I became aware of the strangeness of that thought: “If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me – the I and the self that I cannot live with.” And the question arose, “Who is the ‘I’ and who is the self that I cannot live with?”

He went on to talk about the False Self that is edified, criticized, and mortified in our Western culture. I nodded in complete recognition. Don’t we call that the Ego? And then…I began to think of that ‘I’, that divinely authentic, fully alive, completely unique and inter-dependent being that each of us is. It was like a flash. My face lit up in excitement as I turned to Steve, “YES! I get it!” The things I had been hearing about enlightenment and no-self in Buddhism finally made sense. It’s not about the abasement of your being, it’s about the shift from False Self to ‘I’.

An hour later, I was listening to a lecture about mammals who suppress their metabolic systems, who turn down the fire of life in order to more effectively harmonize their energy with their changing environment. They go through cycles of torpor and arousal, staying alive (and in some cases, giving birth) without adding any food energy into their system – for 5 to 6 months! This is fascinating! Heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature, digestion – all of these vital systems depressed by as much as 75%, and still, there is Life. The speaker discussed implications for biomedical research, but I am not as impressed by what humans might do with this knowledge as I am by the beings who live it. They are the authentic ‘I’; they are themselves, in a web of inter-dependence and autonomy, using and conserving their energy in response to what IS, what is available in the environment and what is intrinsic to their survival. Descriptions, terms, charts and statistics become gibberish. Even Science is a False Self. These are “stepping-stones”, as are all words, in Tolle’s estimation, serving to propel us to the next place in the movement of existence.

photo from sciencenews.org
photo from sciencenews.org

The flow of Life, the flow of energy – what is that about? It’s not about clinging to stepping-stones: food, love, identity, thoughts, dogmas or practices. It’s about finding “the joy in change and movement” (as Steve would say), the dynamic of relating to an abundant, redundant, mysterious and unexpected Universe. It’s about waking up and being conscious of where we are right NOW…..and how beautiful and wonder-filled that place is. That consciousness is the beginning of Peace, an intuitive harmony with life that is unfortunately made dissonant by the noise of Falseness in this culture. What would it be like to give up that False Self more and more? Instead of giving up chocolate or the Internet for 40 days, I’m going to challenge myself to move more into ‘I’ existence. I don’t want to live with my self any longer. And that’s a good thing. 🙂 Namaste, Priscilla

© 2015, essay by Priscilla Galasso, All rights reserved

A Celebration of Femininity

Female energy. I see it as a sisterhood of excitement…

My daughters

…and of compassion.

connect

I recognize it in generations of curiosity and understanding…

female curiosity

… and in powerfully individual dreams.

female dreams

It is the energy of a sparkling and fecund Universe…

female sparkle

…and our human response to it.

female

A response that encourages our own growth…

female hope

…and the growth of other lives around us.

female growth

It is creative…

female creative

 

…and loving…

humanity 3

…and life-affirming.

female life

Feminine energy in harmony and peace is a vibrant good in the world.

My three daughters

May it resound across dividing spaces, bringing us closer in union with All.

between* Dedicated especially to my mother, my three sisters, and my three daughters. Your energy brings me life!

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