"Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened... ...Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” -Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
Don't turn on the television or open the newspapers. Instead, walk through the woods and smell the damp laurel leaves. Go to yoga class. Find your old Chopin books and sit at the piano. Take up a pen to write a thank you letter to your college mentor. Savor the sunset with a friend and hold their hand. Give the man with the cardboard sign your leftovers from lunch. Help the poor mother who doesn't have enough hands by entertaining her squirming toddler while she fishes for change at the check out stand. Gather wildflowers to put by the bedside of your sweetheart. Tuck an "I love you" note inside your husband's suitcase before he leaves for yet another exhausting business trip. Tell your imperfect father that you forgive him. Read Mary Oliver. Listen to Schubert. Buy the children with their noses pressed at the window an ice cream cone. Smile at everyone you meet today. Know that whatever armor clad hardness or seeming perfection is before you, Inside is a messy and aching being--like you-- filled with both unbelievable heartache and the seed of astonishing beauty. Be the breeze that blows love and hope towards that divine spark inside each pair of eyes you see. Then watch the world become illuminated from within.
The idea of "fake news" has gathered great force in the past few years. Perhaps the media truly has reached an unprecedented level of virulence, but the idea of disseminating and then amplifying a wildly inaccurate tale is not a recent phenomenon. History reveals that false reports have been circulated across the centuries, and once they take root in the collective culture, it takes enormous efforts to uproot the distortions and propaganda. It has only been in the past few years that ever so slowly the claims of Mary Magdalene as a penitent sexual sinner, adulteress and prostitute have been stripped away and her original titles as "Apostle to the Apostle" and "First Witness" have been championed once again. Mary Magdalene's true identity as loyal disciple and spiritual teacher was damaged, distorted, obscured and erased through elaborate fictions that emerged from the 4th to 13th centuries for a variety of reasons that ranged from sheer ignorance and confusion over the many different Marys in early Christianity to more deliberate and controlling socio-political purposes. But sometimes, the dignity of individuals can be destroyed for something less overt but equally insidious: pure entertainment.
A case in point is the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It took less than a week after his burial in an unmarked pauper's grave for rumors to fly from Vienna to Berlin that Mozart had been poisoned. The rumors persisted over the years and speculation began to fly about who was behind the dastardly deed? Perhaps his wife Constanze? Or maybe it was favored court composer Antonio Salieri? Modern science has determined that far more likely than poison is the premise that Mozart succumbed to strep before there was such a thing as penicillin. Ill in the midst of a brutal winter, exhausted from simultaneously working on The Magic Flute, the Clarinet Concerto and the Requiem Mass, it is more likely that Mozart succumbed to a combination of germs and fatigue, coupled with the prolonged inability to pay for decent heating. But perishing from a punishing schedule and a lack of heat is less exotic and entertaining as a story than murder. Six years after Mozart's death, these early and unfounded rumors gained new life when they became the basis for Alexander Pushkin’s invented story of rivalry and envy, Mozart and Salieri: A Little Tragedy.A century later Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, developed this theme in a play set in an insane asylum where an aged Salieri seeks absolution for driving Mozart to an early death. Amadeuswent on become a blockbuster film that garnered eight Academy Awards including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.
I confess that as entertainment, I thoroughly enjoyed Amadeus. Sumptuously produced, it was a cinematic masterpiece in many ways, with a fine rendering of the exquisite soundtrack conducted by Sir Neville Mariner with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. The opera scenes were scrupulously researched and visually fantastic, the costumes opulent, and the gorgeous filming in the cobblestone streets and palaces of Europe allowed the audience to really feel like they were time traveling to the 18th century.
However, as a biography, it was every bit as insidious as the smear campaign against Mary Magdalene. For the sake of drama (and a good laugh) both Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri were reduced to caricatures. In Tom Hulce’s hands, Mozart became a petulant, spoiled pottymouth, while F. Murray Abraham brilliantly etched an unforgettable portrayal of Antonio Salieri as a bitter mediocrity, brought to a state of deranged jealousy because of his own suppressed carnal desires. Meanwhile, Mozart’s father was portrayed as sober, upright, devout and respectable, and Mozart’s wife Constanze became a supreme nitwit and slob (in the director’s cut, even more horrifyingly, she disrobes in an attempt to prostitute herself to Salieri). All four depictions are dreadfully, almost criminally, incorrect portrayals.
The truth—as the truth often is—was far more complex, multilayered and nuanced.
The stories of Mozart as a child depict a boy so tender he would weep when animals were yelled at. He did everything he possibly could (include sacrificing his childhood) to try to make his ambitious and rigidly controlling father happy. Constanze was a well trained singer who underwent much grief, enduring grave illnesses and the early death of four of their six children. It was partly her passion for the music of Bach and Handel that encouraged Mozart to begin to write in a more polyphonic style towards the end of his life. After Mozart’s death, Constanze dedicated the rest of her life to preserving his memory and musical legacy.
Mozart’s delight in scatological language ? He learned it from both his mother and father, whose letters to one another are rife with endearments that would make many of us blush to the roots of our scalp.
As for Salieri? I rank him right up with Mary Magdalene as one of the most falsely accused and maligned figures of history. Not only was he a much better composer thanAmadeusmight lead us to think, he was also a stupendously gifted teacher and a profoundly generous human being. In the month after Mozart’s untimely death, he mounted a benefit concert for the bereaved family and conducted Mozart’s own works. Later, he was to become the most important composition teacher for Ludwig Van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Franz Liszt, and Franz Xavier Mozart (Wolfgang’s own son), all whom he taught solely from the generosity of his bountiful spirit, without any financial compensation.
Fake news and media – as Amadeus so deftly demonstrates- - can be entertaining. But I long for the world where the real (and for me, far more interesting) stories become part of our collective consciousness. To that end, I hope you will join me in learning a little more about the real man behind Amadeus. Mozart lived a life woven with both deep sorrow as well as unbridled laughter. Like most of us, he was a messy mixture of virtue and vice. Neither a perfect plaster bust of Apollonian perfection nor the “obscene monkey” idiot savant of Amadeus,Mozart was achingly human. In the days leading up to his birthday on January 27, I will be posting a little piece of “real news” about Mozart each day on Facebook, along with links to what matters the most about him: his sublime music. Should you want to explore even more deeply, I encourage you to ferret out books that quote in depth from source material, such as Maynard Solomon's moving Mozart: A Life.
Finally, I invite you to a birthday party in Mozart's honor at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum when we will celebrate both the sunshine and shadow of this marvelous man in an afternoon of story, song and cake. Joining me will be soprano Dianna Morgan, soloist of Sonoma Bach and two Concerto winners of the Santa Rosa Youth Symphony, violinist Grace Yarrow and flutist Devon Bolt. A portion of all profits will joyfully go to a cause Salieri gave his life to: nurturing the talents of the next generation of musicians. If you'd like to join us, you can purchase tickets here.
Poised between pilgrim journeys I listen to the sound of the wind. Echoes of the past whisper in my ear that History is not a memory, fading year by year from view But a chalice in which to collect the laughter and tears of the ages.
If you stare slantwise into the fading summer light, You can see the shadows of the ancestors Weaving their hopes with our dwindling days. In the liminal space of cathedral and cave, There is no distinction between past and present, then and now.
In the early morning hours of Italy, the footsteps of Dante and Francis are still wet with dew The vapor of Mary Magdalene’s sighs still rises each mist kissed morn in Provence And the stone in the garden is still warm where Rodin's caresses tried to lure his muse back into his life.
Do not make the mistake of thinking each one a forgotten song. Their memories still murmur and moan, and as Rossetti knew, leap like fire across the centuries To disturb and delight, And awaken the flame of inspiration from grief's iron coffin
Just when the world around you Seems to be unraveling, These might be stories that can bind you together again, Let them .become threads in the loom of your own life, And set your imagination ablaze.
I declare that my life is not solely my own For I am woven with the stardust of the centuries And in my bones and breath, I carry the memory of the ancestors: The ones who crawled on their bellies to paint in the caves The ones who burned at the stake singing songs of love The ones who blindly marched off to war And the ones whose hearts broke from grief and the sword
I declare that my memory is not solely my own But a sanctuary for stories, especially of women, to find refuge: Mary Magdalene, Saint Claire, Hypatia of Alexandria, Blanche of Castile, Julian of Norwich, Esclarmonde of Foix, Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, Clara Schumann, Camille Claudel, Lou Andreas Salome, Josephine Baker
I declare that my voice is not my own only, for I am called to share it to sing the songs of Bach, the pilgrim music of Compostela, and to recite the poems of the mystics, to make a stand for compassion and mercy, to testify to hope and forgiveness
I declare that my life means very little if it is not woven in a tapestry of remembrance with threads that reach out to the next generation. I declare that my light is all too easily snuffed out It needs the shelter and companionship of others in order to stay lit with hope I declare that my joy is only sustainable When amplified by a sense that ALL the world's creatures are also growing In well being and fulfillment.
I declare that my joy can never be complete When children are weeping from fear When men lie in pools of urine in cages And when women live daily in fear of abuse. I declare that there is no Heaven for me Unless all the vulnerable are dancing and eating at the feast.
My dear mentor Francis Weller often paraphrases William Blake to say that spiritual maturity consists of having both hands full: one filled with gratitude, the other filled with the sorrows of the world. It has been quite a year for both for me-- perhaps for all of us. I’ve had magnificent adventures leading soulful pilgrims in Chartres, Provence and Italy; I've savored the surprise, honor and joy of lecturing with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and meeting Prince Charles in Wales, and I had my own personal pilgrimage in England to Cambridge, Oxford and Little Gidding. I’ve delighted in my growing connections with the Santa Rosa Symphony , the Petaluma HIstorical Library and Museum, Humanities West in San Francisco. I’ve witnessed the birth of the new Labyrinth at St. John’s Episcopal and had a powerful experience of connecting to an online community of artists through my collaboration with Shiloh Sophia McCloud on the Black Madonnas. I’ve been thrilled to join the faculty of the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, where I’ve felt a keen bond with beautiful and brilliant students, and I’ve cherished my time at the Red Shoes in Baton Rouge, the Women of Spirit and Faith Magdalene workshop in Orange County and leading an international gathering of Episcopalian deans for three days in Santa Fe. I’ve also witnessed many beloved ones suffering in the grip of cancer, depression and dementia, and watched with a feeling of utter helplessness as homes and communities I care about were devastated by fire, flood and hurricanes in Santa Rosa, Houston, Louisiana and Florida. All of this has made me feel, in the words of a song by Sting, “How fragile we are”. And yet I am also keenly aware that tragedy and loss often is the alchemical catalyst for deeper layers of beauty. If Beethoven’s hearing had remained intact and he had his amorous advanced welcomed, I am certain we would have no 5th symphony, no Ode to Joy, no great Piano Sonatas. If Dante Alighieri had not been horrifically betrayed , with a death sentence placed on his head, all his fortune confiscated and fated to remain in exile for the rest of his life from his native Florence, there would be no Divine Comedy. If TS Eliot had married wisely and lived his days in peacetime, there certainly would not have been either TheWasteland nor the Four Quartets. I have seen over and over—in the lives of the great artists I revere across the centuries and in the lives of those nearest to me as well- that the fires of loss often ignite not just destruction, but also the seeds of profound new awareness, and are often the necessary prerequisite for a beauty far deeper than surface elegance. I think of this every time I listen to Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132. Written by Beethoven after a life-threatening illness when he was utterly deaf, the middle movement bears the unwieldy title, "Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart" (A Holy Song of Thanksgiving of a Convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode ) In it, we hear both the tenderness that comes from complete surrender in the midst of illness, and the joyous stirrings of new life and the vision of the possibilities of transcendent joy
It is a piece which inspired my own humble offering for Thanksgiving last year. I offer it to you in this season of gratitude, with love for your own deepest unfolding, whatever the fires of loss in your life may be.
A Blessing for Thanksgiving, written after Beethoven by Kayleen Asbo
May I have the eyes to see The sacred ordinary miracles that weave their web of light Around each darkening day: The dappled dew-dropped leaves that decorate each dawn, The shimmering sunrise on the glistening grass, The symphony of birdsong that greets each new morn And the owl's lament as the moon rises and sets. May I be mindful of all the graces I did not deserve and yet fell upon my thirsty soul: For the beauty that ran to embrace my hurried, harried eyes and ears, For the kindness of strangers that softened the shadows of sorrow, For the loyalty of friends who saw my need and wordlessly offered their tender touch, For the courage that Beethoven kindles across the centuries As he shows us the way To compose a life of hope in the midst of despair, Joy in the midst of sorrow, Love in the midst of loneliness. No matter what may come, May my soul, too, remember To sing a song of Thanksgiving Until my last, grateful breath.
Click here to listen to Beethoven's song-- perfect for this season of gratitude.
Florestan and Eusebius by Kayleen Asbo For Clara Schumann
There was a split so deep in Schumann He gave names to his different sides: Florestan, the bold, confident hero Eusebius: the tender, melancholy, soulful pilgrim
At first, the split was a game they played , Etched in song in Carnival and Opus 6 She proofread the witty reviews he wrote under the two pseudonyms in the music journal that gave them their daily bread.
The crack widened over the years . Florestan became filled with rage and fire, burning with humiliation and fury, while Eusebius, sank into total silence: agoraphobic, listless and depressed. Eventually the crack opened so wide, the conflicting voices threw Robert into the Rhine River and he passed his last days in the asylum in Bonn.
Through it all, Clara trudged on: practicing piano, birthing children, teaching students, writing love letters from her concert tours and tender melodies for his birthday.
She was drawn by a siren song she could not tune out. Despite the paranoia, the fits of abuse, the whirlpool of instability and emotional extremes, even in the face of suicide attempts, she played on, remembering the beauty that lived trapped inside him.
At the end , she dipped her fingers into wine so he could suck on them like a baby. She closed his eyes with tears of both sorrow and relief and spent the rest of her days enshrining the memory of her love in the music that leapt him back to life under her devoted fingers.
I think of this as I go aching with my own grief to the piano to play ‘Widmung” Noticing for the first time that the words translate as “You are my grave”. I imagine her shaking, a leaf in the wind after one of Robert’s storms, Pasting a smile of composed tranquility on her face while she practiced this song Though inside, her stomach heaved and her pulse raced.
Day after day until the end She continued to inscribe their conjugal felicity in the marriage diary they shared -- Marking in frail symbols their nights of passion unable to deny their sacred splendor as she held fast to the songs that she knew were inside of him.
Though the fires are not yet out, the smoke has cleared enough for a brief while that last night the stars shone again on parts of suffering Sonoma County. The air outside where I live in my little meditation studio is once again yielding the fragrance of eucalyptus and rosemary, and my own heart is filled with to the brim with sweet and profound tenderness after witnessing others in their vulnerable depths at a moving grief ritual led by Francis Weller and Taylor Lampson on Saturday and drinking in the loveliness of last night's labyrinth walk. Francis (whose amazing book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief should be required reading for our world right now) reminded us that in previous ages, those whose lives had been marked with tragedy would wear black arm bands, so we could more gently and compassionately greet them. Though each of us carry our sorrow in moments of solitude, grief cannot be digested alone. In order for grief to be both felt and to transform, we need community and we need things that are strong enough to hold our despair. Without these, we are prone to either freezing into numbness or to staying stuck in a place of emotional overwhelm. All of us here in Sonoma County, and many of you who are close to us in other parts of the world, have been traumatized by the events of the past week, which have followed so swiftly on the heels of the tragedy of Las Vegas shootings, the hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and Texas and countless other tragedies large and small. What will make it possible to stagger through the days to come? What will make it possible to start anew? How can we stay in a place of deep feeling without becoming so overwhelmed that we freeze or become incapacitated? I believe that what we most need now most are two things: beauty and blessing. The act of blessing is something that needed to be reclaimed. It is not the province of priests, but a birthright and soul-calling for all of us. We do not need holy water or prescribed litanies. It can be as simple as saying to a stranger ( as I have witnessed so many doing here in Petaluma): “How are you doing? Is your house still standing? Are you safe? And then, “Take care of yourself. Be well”- and then offering a hug, or a kind touch on the shoulder or just a gaze full of sincere loving kindness or maybe one of your biscotti. Now is the time to invoke and awaken beauty. Time and time again throughout history, beauty has been a pathway, and sometimes the only pathway, of hope when old structures are crumbling. We are now living in a time of a New Hero’s Journey. Both Joseph Campbell and the Dalai Lama indicated that the future salvation would hinge not on an individual but on a community. It is up to us as a community to create a refuge of beauty for the souls of the world. In the days to come, I will be announcing partnerships for our community that will also be able to connect with you wherever you might live, to offer beauty, depth and meaning through community-- to a new level. In the meantime, I hope wherever you are you might give yourself the gift of beauty--and I urge you to consider how you might bring more beauty into your own life and the lives of others. We bought roses in preparation for the labyrinth walk last night. At first we debated whether it was a senseless indulgence, but truthfully, we need roses more than ever, to remember that life is not just thorns but blossoms. I offer you this song by Dan Forest: Entreat Me Note To Leave You. Filled with dissonance in the beginning, it opens to offer a song of profound love and hope. Though it can be heard as a poignant song between two individuals ( the text is from theBook of Ruth), I imagine it now as a song about our collective. It mirrors the commitment I have to my own dear little community.
Entreat me not to leave you For where you go I will go And where you live I will live Your people Shall be my people
Roses, music, poetry, stories of hope and healing: may you drink deeply from these wells of beauty wherever you may be. Hold each other gently with kindness.. I cannot predict whether or not there will be fires tomorrow- but today there will be Bach and Mozart, and in the weeks to come, Beethoven and more labyrinth walks. Such things might just be the beauty we need in order to plant the seeds of hope for our future.
I write this from Sonoma County, where a deadly blaze has been burning without containment for the past five days. The death toll climbs daily. My car is packed with the things that truly cannot be replaced: my books of musical compositions, the sculpture and a drawing that is all I have of my father’s legacy, photo albums of my daughter’s childhood, paintings that I have cherished and which define “home” for me. Dozens of my friends have evacuated already, and several have lost everything they own, including my friend and sometimes videographer, Christopher. In the ashes of his home are the melted remains of the Mythica video equipment and the films we made the past year that we had hoped to turn into a revenue stream for both of us. All of this is tragic—but with the large lens of time, it is not unusual. As a scholar of Ancient and Medieval history, I know that there have been so many worse disasters in the world, like the plagues that killed 30% of the population of parts of Europe in one summer. Or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Or the Albigensian Crusade, which decimated Southern France in the 13th century, leaving a vast swath of burned lands and tortured citizens. It is not yet as catastrophic as the World Wars my grandparents and great grandparents endured, or the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s or the Great Potato Famine in Ireland. Tragedy is a tune that returns again and again, weaving its dark and often brutal sounds in the tapestry of life. The question for us is not will tragedy break us---but will it break us open? The great traditions of alchemy and depth psychology invite us to consider that inside the ashes of outer destruction are the seeds of new life, liberation and depth. These great traditions affirm that what looks like a breakdown can be a breakthrough, and that when all seems lost, something of greater meaning and authenticity might be found. This is the arc of the Hero’s Journey that we see played out over and over—not just in the myths of Parsifal or the stories of Jesus and Buddha, but also in the lives of Francis of Assisi, Dante Alighieri and Ludwig van Beethoven. I am heartened and inspired by the story of the Confraternities of Florence, groups of laypeople who responded to the horrors of the plague during the calamitous 14th century. There were not enough doctors to tend the victims, nor enough priests to bury the bodies, and so ,ordinary folks gathered together to do what needed to be done: to tend to the sick, to bury the dead, to console the bereaved. Inspired by their patron saint Mary Magdalene and Francis of Assisi, they gathered their courage to stand fully present in the midst of pain, and also offered what they could of hope. They also created joyful liturgies of song and dance, commissioned works of art, and in the midst of unbelievable suffering and sorrow, found reasons to remind each other of the goodness and beauty that still existed in life. These words of Goethe capture something of what I am feeling:
Perseverance by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe We must not hope to be mowers, And to gather the ripe gold ears, Unless we have first been sowers And watered the furrows with tears. It is not just as we take it, This mystical world of ours, Life's field will yield as we make it A harvest of thorns or of flowers. I look around my community and I marvel. The evacuation centers are overflowing with donations and volunteers. The local coffee shops and restaurants are giving a percentage of all their sales to fire victims. People are opening up their homes to friends and strangers alike to stay. Hairdressers and massage therapists and yoga studios are offering free services tot those displaced by fire. In the midst of the worst of circumstances, we are also seeing the best of humanity shining forth. Marc Andrus, Episcopalian Bishop at Grace Cathedral, told me a wondrous tale a few years ago. He had collected disaster relief funds for Haiti to assist in recovery after their horrific earthquake. When he arrived with his wife Sheila, who has a background in public health, they were astonished to learn that the first thing the Haitians wanted to rebuild was not the hospital or the water treatment plant. The first thing the Haitians wanted to rebuild was the music conservatory. This, they were told, was because music represented something even more important than medicine: it represented hope.
Bishop Marc's story has stayed with me. In the coming months, Sonoma County will need so much assistance as we rebuild shattered lives and charred and now desolate landscapes. We will need all the help we can get with building, and no-interest loans and housing. But just as much—maybe even more—we will need hope. If you are one of those people who needs to be reminded that there is still beauty and goodness in the world, I invite you to join my email list. Each week I promise to send out music, poetry or art that might be balm for your soul--- I know it is for mine. Together may we find the seeds for renewal, to live a life of communal celebration, intimacy and connection deeper than we have yet dreamed.
Once, in his prime, He strode across the stage to the Steinway and bowed Sat at the cool keyboard And poured molten passion upon its shiny surface. Her 13 year old heart melted All the way back in row Y. The flame of that concerto burned in her breast, Kindling a fire That lit the way through the underworld of adolescence.
It was during that terrible year That she learned what it is to become Orpheus To pour love and longing, loss and grief Into the strings of the piano How if she opens up her bleeding heart with her small fingers And impassioned words She might even cause Sisyphus to stop and weep As she pleads on behalf of the dead.
Now it is thirty five years later. The seeds of that dark year have ripened, Flowered into bouquets of stories and songs. She bestows garlands fragrant with beauty Upon the aged ones gathered in hopeful expectation at the senior center to listen to the life of Beethoven
His steps falter and he grasps another’s arm for support as he crosses to the speakers’ podium. He teeters, almost falls Barely able to see through the tears with his fading eyesight before he gives her a kiss on each cheek, Benediction for passing the torch of inspiration Back to him after all these years.
Inauguration Poem by Kayleen Asbo There are shadows looming, and fears of war Nightmares about belonging and safety and Anxiety over whether hate will reign. But this has always been the case in the world. There have also always been moments of astonishing courage and connection And people of extraordinary decency and integrity Bravely listening to a different drummer to find a pathway to hope and unity and peace. Amidst the storms and thunderbolts that rattle this winter sky, there are still rainbows And the lush green grass reaching for a glimpse of the sun And the yellow roses glazed with rain blooming with radiance when least expected Let us be like them-- No matter what comes, stretching out our souls for the light Unfurling our magnificence against the broad expanse of sky Reaching for the possibilities of hope that always, always Are there for the plucking.