What a challenging and chaotic time we are living in.
As we are informed daily, there is no known vaccine that will keep your body safe from the COVID 19 virus. There are, however, time-tested strategies that can help keep your heart buoyant in times of despair. There are three practices that are particularly important to save us from dis-ease: gratitude, beauty and love. These may not be able to change your outer circumstances, but they can significantly alter your inner experience. I know, because I have felt the "immune boosting" effects of all three during one of the most disastrous weeks of our collective life.
On Wednesday, I led a day long retreat on "The Garden of Possibilities". About 30 brave souls gathered from across the San Francisco Bay Area at the stunningly beautiful Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael. We met in the exquisite chapel to sing Taize songs and read Mary Oliver poetry; we drank in the inspiration of the art of Andy Goldsworthy and the story of Hildegard of Bingen. We took time in silence to journal in the garden, meditating on the beauty of the daffodils and hummingbirds, and sharing from our hearts with one another in dyads.
It was a sweet and tender time that had capped a week of unforgettable and marvelous experience. Sunday I had performed with the astonishing violinist Nigel Armstrong in Inverness. Monday had a beautiful tapestry of Mediterranean Music from the Middle Ages with the luminous singer Catherine Braslavksy and poetry of Rumi recited by Hari Meyers and Doug Von Koss at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum.
Storyteller Hari Meyers and Musicians Gary Haggerty and Catherine Braslavksy at the Petaluma Museum
I was packing up my books to depart from the retreat when I received a phone call: my beloved step-father Doug had died that day. I immediately drove three hours to tend to my grief-stricken mother. Over the next forty-eight hours I wrote his obituary, helped my mother sign the death certificate, made arrangements for his cremation and tried to plan a memorial service in the midst of the Corona outbreak. At the same time, my fiancé Carl was out of the country and there was concern whether he would be able to return to the United States as international airports began to shut down. In the middle of all of this, I received one cancellation after another for every concert, class, pilgrimage and lecture I had planned on for the next six months. As of Saturday morning, there remains not a single paid job left. Like millions of other independent contractors, adjunct faculty, musicians and entrepreneurs who are affected, there is no insurance, sick leave or financial employment safety net for me.
These are three situations that would have sent me spiraling into the depths of despair and terror before, and yet I felt surprisingly calm, grounded and at peace. Why? I think it has much to do with the deepening of the practices I had adopted for Lent: to spend time every day in nature and to immerse myself in beauty and gratitude.
For weeks, I had begun each day hiking through the trails of Helen Putnam Park near my home, watching the sunrise from a meditation bench where I read poetry. I had practiced opening my eyes to learn to notice more and more beauty, observing each new cluster of wildflowers that popped up, taking time each night to bid farewell to the moon. I had been offering a steady stream of concerts and lectures that illustrated the fact that the most astonishing beauty can be brought forth out of times of darkness, death and disaster.
Every day, I had been keeping a journal of what I had witnessed and experienced that had touched my heart with goodness, beauty and kindness. Every day, I had been playing music by Bach and Dvorak that had been written in the midst of terrible grief and loss. Listen, for example, to this gorgeous piano quartet written by Dvorak.
I had a reservoir of resilience to draw on because day by day, I had been filling my cup with beauty. This allowed me to move grief into creative action: writing poetry, composing music and in so doing, holding on to hope.
MOdern neuroscience teaches us that we need practices that cultivate both the awareness of and the remembrance of the Good and the Beautiful, in order to have resilience. Knowing this, each day during this time of confinement, I will post a link to music, a poem or image to Mythica's Canticle page on Facebook that speaks to these critical themes. I invite you to join the group and do the same. Keeping a collective journal of acts of compassion an inspiration can inspire us each to hope and provide much-needed resilience for our challenging times.
Fill your cup with beauty. It is still here to be found. Even on a day when disease ran rampant, the daffodils are beginning to bloom.
Even on the day after Death came knocking on my family's door, there were still thirteen cherry trees bursting with vitality, their white blossoms raining onto the mortuary driveway. On the flatscreen of your computer or tv, it may be a nightmare unfolding, but outside, in the garden, it is spring. Let the sun sing to you, let the moon pour her love into the fractured cracks of your being. Every day, remember to fill your cup with beauty. Then, together, we can offer a cup of kindness back to a world so desperately in need of compassion.
Today, like every other day,
we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
From Rumi: The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing, by Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
I've just had the most wonderful dive into The Divine Comedy, offering lectures in Napa and a three-day retreat in Inverness. Revisiting Dante was a wonderful reminder of how much beauty can be found even in the midst of despair. The great composers, artists and writers of the world didn't wait until life was calm before picking up the paintbrush or the writing pen. Rather, they channeled their pain, grief, anxiety and fear into courageous acts of creativity. The Divine Comedy was written in the midst of financial catastrophe, rampant political corruption and personal despair in the years after Dante was exiled with a death sentence over his head and all his property confiscated. Bach's sublime Chaconne in d minor for solo violin was the outpouring of his broken heart after returning home from a business trip to find his beloved wife dead and buried. Beethoven's magnificent sonatas were composed as his deafness mounted and liver disease overtook him. Rumi's ecstatic poetry was birthed as an imaginal pathway to reunite with the mystic spirit of his beloved soulfriend Shams of Tabriz, who legend has it, was murdered by his own inner circle.
Too often we think we will make time for beauty and creativity after things "settle down". I hear people say they will make time for beauty after the stock market stabilizes or the Corona Virus is contained or after the next election or (fill in the blank).....But for Dante, Beethoven and Bach, life never "settled down" and got easier. They each created light in the midst of the growing darkness, light that shine on us still. It may well be that it was only the beauty that they brought forth in their acts of creativity that gave them the strength to endure and have resilience to hope.
In the escalating fear of headlines, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that life has always been -- and always will be-- tenuous, uncertain and fraught with anguish. This is not news. In fact, it is the First Noble Truth in Buddhism. However, it may be helpful to be reminded that things have been much, much worse throughout history. The Corona Virus is nowhere near as deadly as the Flu Epidemic of 1918, which claimed almost two hundred-thousand lives within thirty days. The flu was nowhere as lethal as the Black Plague that ravaged Europe in the 14th century, when 30-60% of the population of most large towns died. What our ancestors did in the face of true epidemics like these can give us pause and inspiration-- and a pathway of consolation.
The Laudario, two collections of extraordinarily beautiful music were penned by anonymous artists in the midst of the Black Death plague. Their songs of lamentation were sung as the guild members tended the dying and buried bodies in mass graves in Florence; the songs of joy were danced in the woods outside Cortona where the celebrants gathered to remember St. Francis's call to praise all of creation and befriend the entire cycle of life, offering even "Sister Death" a place of honor in their dances.
Ultimately, no one is immune from suffering and death. The question is, will you inhabit your days fully, drinking from the well of beauty while you are here? Can you unleash your creativity to give voice and shape to your longing, love and even loss? If you can, you will have found a path worth following, one that might well soothe your anxious spirit and offer an oasis of beauty, a sanctuary for your heart in times of trouble. In the poetic words of Mary Oliver, when death comes, will you be "a bride married to amazement? Will you be "the bridegroom taking the world" in your arms? Our ability to open to joy, Dante's Paradiso informs us, is directly related to our capacity to our ability to behold beauty. In times of distress, enlarging this capacity seems a matter of great urgency. What can you do this day to open your heart to more beauty?
How deeply we are all in need of a softer world and a gentler way of being.
It is easy to see the rough edges and sharpness in the constant bombardment of noise laced with insults and toxic shards of our culture of discourtesy. Less obvious but as deeply insidious are the ways we mercilessly persecute ourselves. Both the outer crudeness of our increasingly hostile society and the relentless barrage of inner criticism that many of us endure are largely to blame for the rising tides of despair and depression in the world. Caught between these two forces, it is a wonder that there is any joy or hope to be found! And yet there is- nestled in the still point between the voices that shout "too much" and "not enough", there is a quiet place inside the heart where despite the outer turbulence of the world, we can sink in and find the still small voice that whispers "enough" and "just right".
We are in the first few days of Lent- a forty day period that has a really bad rap in our modern world as signifying pious and dour deprivation. But actually, I have come to embrace the Valentinian spirit of this tradition. The Valentinians believed that the deepest truth of the human being is that it holds the promise of goodness and beauty. We are "good seeds" that have yet to reach our fullest potential because we have fallen on rocky ground, or been choked by cares and concerns, or are overshadowed by fear and anxiety.
Lent is an invitation to ask ourselves the truly important questions: what stands in the way of me becoming the best version of myself I can possibly be? How might I clear away the weeds so that I can thrive and unfold in my fullness? What are the patterns that get in the way of peace and joy? What are new habits of heart I can cultivate to lead me to tranquility?
For myself, I have come to the realization that I suffer from a subtle form of gluttony. That's right: gluttony. I pile so many activities (mostly work) on my plate that I am often in danger of total collapse. This triggers a terrible cycle where there is simply not enough time to do everything (from spellcheck to laundry to practicing piano) which leads to my doing less than my best which triggers huge feelings of failure and shame and then creates more anxiety, and before you know it, I can't sleep through the night for fear that everything in my whole life will fall apart and everyone will be mad and disappointed in me and I WILL HAVE RUINED MY WHOLE LIFE AND BE A TOTAL FAILURE.
Have you ever gotten on the downward spiral of the Escalator of Vicious Thoughts? Have you also been assailed by the critical voice that is the Prophetess of Total Catastrophe? So often, she is often accompanied by the Grand Inquisitor of Regret, who comes armed with a complete assortment of whips, chains and torture racks. Before you know it, they have me locked inside the cell of What Should Have Been or If Only I Hadn't and then I find myself in an inner form of hell. I am so busy tied up in the Persecution Chamber that I miss the gorgeous sunrise or the smiles of the children who are trying to flirt with me at the market, and I don't even see the rainbow or hear the song of the lark. I think that process is what the early Christians meant when they talked about "sin" and "evil", two words that underwent woeful mistranslations in the centuries since they were first uttered in Aramaic. In the ancient days, "sin" was an archery term that meant "to miss the mark". Evil was a word that meant "bitter, hard or unripe". I can tell you when I pass the tipping point of gluttony, I miss the mark in a big way by losing the ability to see the beauty and love that is right in front of me. It's a short step from this blindness to to a state of bitterness and self hatred.
I am going to be spending Lent moving towards breaking this awful habits of self-flagellation and gluttony It won't happen all at once. In the meantime, I pledge myself to a little more softness, a little more mercy and to gently move to a more sustainable way of being.
The Valentinians, Pythagoreans and the Celts all believed that there were certain practices or "habits of heart" that helped us tune in to the beauty and goodness that is our deepest essence and find balance. Music, nature, poetry, silence and sacred conversation were considered the royal quartet that could guide you to finding harmony within an often turbulent world.
During this season of Lent, may you remember the messy beauty that lives inside your own perfectly imperfect human heart. May you find ways to nourish and nurture this essential goodness in the days to come and find yourself opening to live days of ever sweeter and more joyful juiciness.
As the fires raged and smoke swirled in Sonoma County, I found moments of unexpected grace and joy tucked between the waves of fear and anxiety. Without power, cell reception or water at my home, I took sanctuary at St. Columba's Retreat House in Inverness. A little community of old friends and new refugees formed, pooling our resources each night to prepare a simple supper. Afterwards, we gathered together by candlelight to share in meditation and music, praying for all the brave firefighters and those who might be in harm's way. In the dark, we all felt our vulnerability but as a community it made it us feel deeply tender and connected with one another. The music held us in a profound way, binding us with one another and leading us from fear to hope. I was able to shift my own perspective from feeling frustrated (because of all the "normal" things I could not do) to feeling a deep sense of reverence for my ancestors, most of whom never had electricity or power or heat of any kind. I found myself remembering the stories of my Norwegian grandmother during power outages of World War II when there was not enough food to be found, and of relatives who were born during covered wagon expeditions as they crossed the frontier of the heartland. My small inconveniences opened up a deeper sense of humility, awe and wonder that the challenges of the week were-- and are-- the everyday realities for my ancestors and for millions of people on the planet right now. These feelings bubbled out from me into an improvised musical prayer which was captured by someone's cell phone. My friend Nancy Castille set my music to images from the past week. You can watch and listen here.
What my ancestors knew well to do in times of fear, darkness and depravation was how to share. Today on All Saint's Day, I especially honor my grandmother Evelyn, who nursed a neighbor's hungry infant along with her own in Immigration Canyon in Utah during WWII when baby formula could not be found. I think of my other grandmother Astrid who could "make shadow of a chicken soup" when no meat could be found. Even in the most difficult, dangerous and impoverished circumstances under Nazi rule in Norway when her husband was being tortured for his efforts in the Resistance, she never ceased to search for and create beauty, gathering the most delicate wildflowers and colorful leaves for table decorations from the forest, melting old candles together so new ones could be made.
My earliest memories of both grandmothers is of them singing to me, and of encouraging me to sing back to them. It is a memory that lives inside my blood and bones, along with the determination to, like them, bring forth generosity and beauty even in the darkest times.
Tonight, I will sing for them once more as I light candles at St John's in a ritual of remembrance for our Taize Evensong.
In the Ancient world, such rituals expressed the very purpose of music: to be medicine for the soul and to connect us with the eternal. By singing together, the Ancient Greeks believed we found the common ground of our humanity, dissolving our differences, opening to expansion and healing our grief.
I invite you to join me tonight, bringing a picture of a departed loved one for our altar, or to join with Mythica next Sunday, November 10 when we will share music and poetry of 2,000 years in an interfaith ritual for peacemaking.
In this time when the veils are thin, may you find yourself singing the songs of your own grandmothers, and bringing forth the beauty that is inside of yo
Be careful what you ask for.
As I set sail for France, I suggested that the inner theme of my six weeks of pilgrimage would be “holding the tension of the opposites”.
I got exactly that.
My facebook posts are filled with the good moments that I hope to always remember: the staggeringly beautiful scenery of the Dordogne and Provence, the spectacular light show at Chartres Cathedral and the stunning artworks of Paris along with pictures of food (almost) too gorgeous to eat. What you don’t see memorialized in my posts are the daunting difficulties, increasing exhaustion and often almost insurmountable challenges that increased along the way. If Woody Allen is right and “time+ tragedy= comedy”, one day I will create a Monty Pythonesque skit with the title “Machine Guns, Rat Poop and Near Death by GPS”.
One of the images that continually impressed me throughout my journey, though, were the ancient stone walls (sometimes covered with angry graffiti) from which the most vibrant and delicate poppies would burst forth in scarlet splendor. I tried to keep having the eyes to see these, to savor the moments of beauty, even during the darker days. It is a capacity that the great poets, artists and composers that I love have in abundance.
If ever there was a patron saint of holding the tension of the opposites and snatching beauty whenever and wherever you can, it was the prolific Schubert who once said of his music, “Whenever I tried to sing of love, it turned to sorrow, and whenever I tried to compose songs of sorrow, they turned to love”. Legend holds that one of my favorite songs, Standchen, was penned by Schubert at a tavern. In the brief period the composer enjoyed between his first onset of syphilis and its second onset that culminated in his untimely death at age 31, Schubert would stroll through the countryside with his friends. According to early biographies, he wrote the music for this beautiful song in the one hour period at a village inn as he awaited his lunch.
I think that the great mythologist (and beer lover) Martin Shaw would appreciate this story of Schubert- and not just because it happened over a pint of ale. Shaw encourages his students to give themselves just ten minutes to write a poem in his workshops: he swears that having such limits helps keep the inner critics who expect perfection at bay and the time pressure allows for more uninhibited creativity. So, in that spirit, I took up a new practice after my 6 am yoga class today: writing a ten minute letter from my favorite figures from the past. I was curious what Schubert might say to me in my imagination after immersing myself so deeply in his music and biography this past week for the five hour Schubertiade on Sunday. This is what emerged.
What Schubert Said…
by Kayleen Asbo
June 18, 2019
We may all be poised in the moments between agony and death.
Our symphonies may never be performed in our sight.
Marriage, children, fame and wealth may elude us.
We may be forever haunted by the ghosts of lost siblings,
failed dreams and tragic choices.
But even so, there is a path towards hope.
If you look closely,
The swan on the lake has never been more luminous
Gliding with her soft white wings.
through the ebony shadows and the pearly water lilies.
Take the time to really see
and capture the light in whatever way you can.
Take the time to really listen,
And you, too, might hear a song
that makes the whole journey
There are cracks in even the hardest thing .
Find a way to celebrate the scarlet poppies
that still insist on blooming
even in the darkest days of life.
I am choosing my titles more carefully these days. While I will always honor those people throughout history who have held the tension of the opposites, my next series, beginning July 8, is now subtitled Heroines of Hope. This four week summer salon series at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum will bring to life four of the women who left an indelible imprint on the history of France and whose lives reflect profound resilience, integration, courage, grace and creativity. I will be taking dictation each morning from them as I await my morning coffee after yoga.
(From the Prologue of the Passion of Mary Magdalene, by Kayleen Asbo)
I am the first and last.
I am the scorned one.
I am the holy saint they’ll call the whore
In the first years, they called me the Apostle to the Apostles. In the early scriptures, the ones hidden for sixteen hundred years, they called me the Woman Who Knew All,
the Embodiment of Sophia,
the Companion of the Savior.
But as for Jesus, my teacher, my rabbi- what did he call me?
Jesus called me anthropos, meaning:
I sat at his feet to drink of his wisdom.
Through his words, this is what he taught me:
The kingdom of Heaven is within.
And so is the kingdom of hell.
Healing is possible for the least of us, for
Each one of us possesses an unquenchable spark of divinity.
We lose our way when we forget the good that is in us-
and the good that is in our midst.
If we bring forth what is inside us- it will save us.
And if we don’t, it will destroy us.
In the end, his message was simple,
just one four letter word:
I sat at his feet again after all the men had fled and hid
I watched him weep, and moan and bleed.
I held him in my unwavering gaze as he cried out in pain and then surrendered, his arms stretched out
Wide enough to hold the whole world
with the love that was in him.
With his grieving mother, I cradled his tortured body
after his last sigh had left his lips.
I kept vigil that night
And in the darkness before dawn,
I journeyed alone to the tomb to hold his feet once again,
To wrap him in clean linen
To anoint him in death as I had in life.
And then the Mystery came.
Through his broken and remade body, this is what he taught me:
The darkness and the light,
life and death
are inseparable companions of one another.
And yet even when all seems lost, God finds a way.
To heal, to hold, to rewrite the end of the story in a way we could never have imagined.
Remember, Jesus said, Remember.
We must return, again and again, to who we really are and what we were really made for:
Begotten out of love, begotten for love, begotten to love.
What I come to tell you is this:
Behold the pain
But open to joy
Gaze upon death
But never lose hope
For Love is as strong
Love is as strong as death,
In Rumi's Footsteps