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Apocalypse Never

Photo by Esben Bog

I was delighted today to see that The New York Times ran my “Letter to the Editor” in both its print and web editions, in response to the excellent op-ed piece by Professor Denis Dutton “It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It” from January 1, 2010.

Much of my work has been about trying to reconcile Deep Ecology and fundamentalism. I grew up in a Southern Baptist tradition that portrays the earth as “skewed” and a temporary habitat – or as the hymn says “This World is Not My Home I’m Just A’Passin Through.” But because I was raised my early years in a pristine wilderness on a national forest lookout station on the High Sierra between California and Oregon, I was also blessed with the abundant living world as my spiritual tradition. And my father, who worked in the U.S. Forest Service, made sure we kids knew that the vast forests were to be respected as The Standing People; that the other animals were our “brothers and sisters under the skin” and that we were not to be in dominion over the Earth, but to be stewards of God’s creation.

So nature was never a place we visited as if we didn’t belong. It was not a park or well-kept yard. It was our habitat, wild, tender, and shared with fellow creatures. You might say that the forest got to me before the faithful or the True Believers who were always talking about paradise as a disembodied afterlife or heaven. As a novelist and nature writer, my life’s work has been in celebration of the living world – whether it’s gray whale birthing lagoons in Baja for the National Geographic Society book, Sightings or the ocean realms in my novel, Animal Heart.

Imagine then my dismay when I began to witness an unsettling echo of the religious EndTimers among my own environmentalist allies – what I came to think of as Apocalyptic Greens. Using fear and tragedy as a rallying cry, both camps issue their evangelical calls to their faithful followers. But this tragic vision – extinction or Rapture -- doesn’t serve us when we’re trying to find our way into a future.

This religious and environmental focus on tragedy and apocalypse pits man against nature – and both end with transcending through death. “I’ll leave it all behind,” as the hymn says. If we can embrace our lives and our natural world without our tragic projections, either environmental or religious, we open up a vast future for all species.

I am not saying that the way forward is through denial. Yes, we face global warming, yes, we are consuming our world at an alarming rate. But how about a little balance, some celebration, some new stories? And most of all, a sense of humor! Have you ever seen a fundamentalist or environmentalist stand-up-comedian? John Stewart and Stephen Colbert come close and bless them for it.

The great scholar and mystic Simone Weil once said that there are two ways to Truth: suffering and beauty. I’m choosing the beauty way, as indigenous peoples have always taught us. I’m choosing rapture here on earth and other teachers than terror. I’m choosing, as the wonderful poet W.S. Merwin wrote in “Place”:

On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree


Reasons To Be Left Behind: New Year of Music

Photo by Miami Love1

As promised, here is my traditional New Year’s Music CD for 2010, entitled “Sweet Old World” after the Lucinda Williams song, covered by Emmy Lou Harris.

1. Sweet Old World by Emmylous Harris
2. Hallelujah by Allison Crowe
3. K’erachaim’av by Brenda Peterson, accompanied by Diana S.
4. Peace In the Valley by Sam Cooke
5. The Crossing (Osiyeza) by Overtone
6. Yesterday by Boyz II Men
7. I Dreamed a Dream by Susan Boyle
8. If Love Were All by Rufus Wainwright
9. Bird Girl by Antony & The Johnsons
10. Yahweh by U2
11. Drops in the River by Fleet Foxes
12. Trouble in Mind by John Gorka
13. Here Comes the Sun by Yo-Yo Ma, James Taylor
14. This Little Light of Mine by Marika Hughes, Marcus Rojas, Yo-Yo Ma
15. A Primeira Vez by Jane Monheit
16. Un gaou a Paris by Magic System
17. Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall In Love) by Alanis Morissette
18. World In Union ’95 by Overtone
19. Singing Sisters by Zap Mama and Sabine Kabongo
20. What I Did for Love by Caroline O’Connor
21. Gracias a La Vida by Mercedes Sosa

Listening to and choosing the playlist for this New Year’s music CD was so much fun. Hours spent with headphones at my computer, as I walked along the Salish Sea with my iPod, and while driving. So far, friends and family are giving it the “thumb’s up,” but we’ll see what the general consensus is before claiming it as a success.

A few more music notes on some of the choices: If there is a regional dominance it seems to be Canadian and South African singers. Rufus Wainright’s album of Judy Garland songs at Carnegie Hall was an unexpected discovery; he makes a tender and haunting ballad of “If Love Were All.” And the aforementioned Allison Crowe, will probably be a staple on many more of my homemade music CDs. The South African multi-dimensional harmonies from the soundtrack of the new movie Invictis by the group Overtone are soaring examples of what human voices can do when they seek the most subtle and heartfelt harmonies.

Perennial favorites are back on this 2010 “Sweet Old World” CD, including the bombastic blends of Eurasian sings Zap Mama (“Singing Sisters”), the elegant jazz singer Jane Monheit in “Priemera Vez,” and the marvelously inventive Fleet Foxes (”Drops in the River”), whose fame will surely not be fleeting.

A surprise discovery this year was Anthony. I arrived at his astonishingly vulnerable and gender-bending voice while following one of those “If you liked this, you’ll love . . .” links. I chose “Bird Girl” because it betrays such longing for another world, either those 60 other dimensions that string theory surmises exist if we could but find the portals – or simply the yearning to be feminine, from the soul of a man whose voice can fly.
U2’s soulful “Yahweh” calling upon the sometimes forbidden name of God to “take this soul and break it” is for all of my spiritual seeker friends. It seems a call-and-response to the mighty Sam Cooke’s “Peace in the Valley.”

Recently, my niece interviewed me for her high school report on the civil rights movement and integration in the 1960s when our family lived in northern Virginia. Our high school was segregated; and even the white kids were listening to Motown and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna’ Come” we had to wait until the 1964 Civil Rights Act to make it official. I write about this tumultuous change in my new book and especially how it played out on the girls’ basketball court. So choosing Sam Cooke’s voice to accompany this New Year, the second year with a strong and visionary black president, who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, seems right.

“Sweet Old World” closes with the magnificent Mercedes Sosa singing “Gracias a la Vida” – thanks to life. This song always reminds me of a friend of mine who long ago said, “You know, I realize after all my searching, that the love of my life is – my life.”

So here’s to life abundant, to a New Year and decade together in this sweet old world, sharing all the multitudinous reasons to be left behind, to simply be here now.



Reasons To Be Left Behind: Hallelujah

 Photo by syndstarr

As promised in my earlier blog, I’m still working on my New Year’s CD to send to friends and family. As I select each song I imagine a person to whom I’d be playing DJ. So many of you are experiencing the holidays in different ways -- from surprising new romance to subtle joy over something accomplished in one’s soul or one’s life, to heartache as you mourn a beloved person lost during this holiday time

So each song on my playlist is a story, a call-and-response. I hope my playlist will reach out to each and every one of you listening.

Here’s the playlist so far:

Sweet Old World/ Emily Lou Harris (see this post)
Hallelujah/Allison Crowe
K’erachaim’av/Yiddish prayer/Brenda’s solo with Diana Shvets accompanist
Peace in the Valley/ old spiritual sung by Sam Cooke
The Crossing (Osiyeza) Overtone [from the new South African movie “Invictus”

This heart-stirring song “Hallelujah” was written by Leonard Cohen and covered by other artists -- from the Canadian Rufus Wainwright to k.d. Lang. I chose for my 2010 New Year’s CD a lesser-known, but passionate and soaring version by Canadian singer Allison Crowe on her album “Tidings: 6 Songs for the Season.”

The first time I ever heard Crowe’s version I fell on the floor in absolute stillness to better hear it, to bear it. Crowe asks, “Why singing? Why Breathing?” on her website and her soulful vocals, her craftsmanship are another reason to be left behind. There is an echo of incandescent grief to her voice that is haunting. BBC radio listeners voted Crowe’s “Tidings” album among the greatest cover albums of all time. Listen in at this video link and see why. And then listen to her “Hallelujah” for yourselves.

Caution: Do not drive while listening. You may not be able to stay between the white lines!

Allison Crowe, "Tidings" album videos
Please join in with your harmonies and your suggestions. If you have songs that are especially dear to you during the holiday or New Year season, please post them so we can all enjoy a call-and-response. Kind of an impromptu on-line choir, or an cyberspace acapella. Also, for those of you who are blue at Christmas, see this PBS link to “Blue Christmas” on their Religion and Ethics website.


I Want To Be Left Behind Featured on Seattle's NPR

 Photo by Mukumbura

To join in the celebration of Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights, the winter Solstice return of the sunlight, and Christmas, I recorded this week a holiday commentary for our beloved local NPR station, KUOW, for “KUOW Presents” with gracious host, Megan Sukys. Called “Night of Miracles,” this story is taken from my new book, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth (DaCapo, Feb. 2010)

Here’s the beginning paragraph and then you can listen to the rest at the link: “When I was fifteen our church youth choir carried our Christmas treats and our singing to St. Elizabeth’s mental institution in Washington, D.C. The complex cantata we had practiced all fall was called “Night of Miracles,” and in addition to my mother’s piano accompaniment, our performance would be lifted by the choir’s diva, Mrs. Helena Simmer. Her rich, dark mezzo-soprano voice was reason enough to go to church . . .”

Brenda Peterson's commentary on Seattle's NPR produced by Megan Sukys



Reasons To Be Left Behind: This Sweet Old World

How many of us have soundtracks revolving in our heads throughout the day? Growing up in a family that sang together -- in church, on cross-continent treks, in the garden, and at any gathering -- we just naturally assumed that singing was another form of communication. Sometimes it was our most genuine and generous dialogue. We tuned into each other’s voices with an attention span and curiosity that we might not exchange at the dinner table.

In order to harmonize, singers must truly listen to the Other. Our gifted chorale director, John, calls it “blend” -- that intimate weaving of voices that brings the listeners close, as well. Every week, John leads us in warm-up voice exercises; he asks us to stand next to someone with a different part than our own. So a first soprano might stand next to an second alto, a first alto next to a second soprano, and so on around the circle. John builds major and minor chords and we each sing our part. But the trick is not to overpower another’s voice. We must listen and match our voices with one another’s until there is that perfect equipoise of sound -- a song-tapestry that vibrates together. Blend.

In the dictionary, one definition of “blend” is “to pass gradually into each other, as colors.” Sometimes singing in my chorale when the pitch is just right and the parts are mingled in complex harmonies that are yet so very simple in their pure mix, I almost see prismatic sound. Like synethesia. Musical notes have colors. A middle C might sound like purple; an ultrasonic high A might look electric, like turquoise.

In his wonderful book Musicophilia, the neuroscientist Oliver Saks says the human brain, like many other species, is hard-wired for sound. “We are a musical species,” Saks writes, “no less than a language species.”

Perhaps that’s why every holiday season I make my traditional New Year’s CD as my gift to friends and family. I ponder the playlist for months before I burn the CD. I take requests and try to find a theme for coming year. For 2010, my theme is “This Sweet Old World.”

The terrific songwriter/artist Lucinda Williams wrote this haunting, tender song for her 1992 album, “Sweet Old World.” Apparently, the song was a Williams elegy for a family friend who had committed suicide -- someone who chose not to be left behind. The mighty Emmylou Harris picked up this song for her 1995 album “Wrecking Ball.” I prefer Emmylou’s version for the longing and dark warmth of her voice; but the lyrics are pure Lucinda.

Without judgment or even pity, the song is a love letter, an elegy:

“See what you lost when you left this world
 This sweet, old world

Williams then goes on to name the simple radiance of what is left behind:
The sound of a midnight train
wearing someone’s ring
someone calling your name

The song ends with what in this world we can still cherish:
Millions of us in love
Promises made good
Your own flesh and blood
Looking for some truth
Dancing with no shoes
Being the rhythm of blues
The pound of your heart’s drum
Together with another one . . .

Listen to the song.

I will continue to post my playlist for 2010 each week until we reach the New Year!