The image above is one I took this past week as soon as the trails of my beloved Helen Putnam Park opened up. How grateful I have been to immerse myself in the sensual pleasures of sunlight and stars, the smell of freshly cut hay and the sound of frogs, crickets and birds. The simple beauty of the natural world has been a balm for my soul and made me feel an ever deepening connection with the poets across the centuries. I think of Mary Oliver's lines from her poem "Mindful" in which she exults:
Every day I see or hear something
that more or less kills me with delight,
that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen, to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself over and over
in joy, and acclamation.
Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary, the common,
the very drab, the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar, I say to myself,
how can you help but grow wise
with such teachings as these –
the untrimmable light of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made out of grass?
I am pretty sure that Mary was having what I call a " conversation across the centuries" with Walt Whitman. In her autobiographical series of essays Upstream, Mary Oliver had written about how important Whitman was to her, that she felt he was "the brother I never had" and her imaginal mentor during times of deep loneliness and alienation from the world (see a NPR article here) . I suspect that my favorite line in "Mindful", the one of " the prayers made of grass" was her nodding homage to Walt Whitman's alpha and omega, Leaves of Grass. First published as a slender volume of 12 poems in 1844, the collection achieved scandal and notoriety because of its frank and earthy appreciation of the human body and the valley of sensual delight with such poems as "A Song of Myself and "I Sing the Body Electric".
At first, Whitman's work was decried and banned as "immoral". A turning point came with the support of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lauded a subsequent edition as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that Americas has yet contributed" .
Whitman continued to add to and refine Leaves of Grass until the end of his life. On his deathbed, he wrote to a friend, "L. of G. at last complete -- after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts he land, and peace & war, young & old".
Was Whitman a saint? A sinner? A scoundrel? Depends on whom you might ask. During his lifetime, he was regarded by some preachers as dangerously immoral. For others, like Henry David Thoreau, he was a prophet of authenticity, the godfather of liberation bridging the world of nature and humanism. Born into financially challenged circumstances and almost entirely self-educated, Whitman encountered widespread opposition to his work during his lifetime. He witnessed firsthand the horrors of the Civil War when he walked on foot to tend to his wounded brother. Despite the unfolding challenges of his life, he was nonetheless able to give voice to hope, wonder and joy. He believed deeply in freedom, democracy and reconciliation, holding within his being the need for individual freedom and the desire for harmony and unity. In his writings, he encourages us to"Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you." and to "regard everything in the universe as a perfect miracle". He saw when he looked at his own life that despite the challenges on the surface, "there is no imperfection in the present and can be none in the future. And I will show that whatever happens to anybody, it may be turned to beautiful results". Above all, he encourages us to sing with joy the celebration of our own true selves. Whitman's legacy lies in how powerfully he encourages us to celebrate life and the messy, imperfect but glorious experience of being human.
This Sunday will mark the 201st anniversary of this extraordinary individual. In celebration, Mythica invites you to "One Hour of Madness and Joy" a Virtual Salon where we will tell stories, recite poems and play music that reflects the energizing and optimistic spirit of the Grandfather of American Poetry. Joining me will be my dear friend Hari Meyers, a dead ringer for Whitman himself.
A master storyteller who has presented one-man shows on Parsifal, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and Celtic myths, Hari has been immersed in the life and works of Walt Whitman for the past few years. Originally, we had planned for Hari to present his show at the Petaluma Historical Library and Museum with a ticket price of $30.00, but like so many in -person events in these past months, it had to be canceled. Now, in honor of Whitman's birthday, we offer this celebration now to you as part of the emerging " "Mythica Feastdays" series of virtual salons celebrating the great guiding lights of culture who can help us keep our flame of hope alive. In the continuing spirit of accessibility, this is a pay-what-you-can offering. If you can contribute the asking price of $30.00, thank you. If you are financially challenged, please come anyway and offer what is comfortable (even $5) during these challenging times. And if you are moved-- as several patrons have been-- to offer additional support to underwrite those who need scholarships, we send you a thousand blessings.
Whitman's deep commitment to excavating his interior life in a spirit of affirmation of the potential goodness of humanity places him squarely in the center of an ancient tradition. This Tuesday evening at 6 pm PST, I will offer Part 2 of "The Way of the Hermit" where we will encounter the history of individuals from Egypt to Ireland. These "Desert Fathers and Mothers" and Celtic monks followed the call of a different drummer to pursue lives away from the madding crowd of the masses in order to live lives of authenticity and inner celebration in harmony with nature. Part 3 will conclude on June 4 Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. Click here to register now.through the Salome Institute of Jungian Studies.
As we approach Whitman's birthday, I want to invite you to consider who else you might want to celebrate this year. Mythica is creating a calendar of feast days from Bach to Dante, Clara Schumann to Mary Oliver. Who do you think deserves a salon where we celebrate the Good, the Beautiful, the True? What figure from the past has been a beacon of light for you who encouraged and empowered you? Write and let us know.
Seldom has a man had such an influence on so many fields and yet been so little known by name. You have probably heard Erik Satie's haunting music for all of your life, but never known who composed it. His exquisite Gymnopedies were an essential part of creating the melancholy and enigmatic atmosphere of films like My Dinner with Andre, Man on a Wire, Being There and The Painted Veil.
As a composer, he had a profound influence on Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, John Cage, Philip Glass and the entire minimalist movement.
Of equal importance, Satie is considered the grandfather of the surrealist movement of art, film and literature. The list of painters who were influenced by his ideas reads like a "Who's Who" of 20th century art, with Magritte, Picasso and Dali all paying homage to him through their work. Picasso and Satie even collaborated together with Jean Cocteau for an avante-garde ballet, Parade, which featured live zoo animals.
Sunday will mark the birth of the man known as The Velvet Gentleman. His signature gray suit and umbrellas (he had over 20 identical ones) were a hallmark in any weather in Montmartre and known to all the young Bohemians of Paris who gathered to drink a glass of absinthe, read his manifestos and listen to his witty pronouncements on esoteric religion, mythology and the creative life.
Satie's sense of the absurd was legendary. His friend Claude Debussy once accused his music of being "shapeless". In response, Satie dedicated to him his next work, called sardonically, Three Pieces in the Shape of A Pear- a series of five (and not three) piano duets.
In that playful spirit, I invite you to an online ZOOM surreal salon for Satie the day AFTER his birthday, on Monday, May 18 at 11 am PST. During our 1 hour and 17 minute salon, I will tell my favorite Satie stories, play live my favorite pieces like the Gnossiennes and the Gymnopedies, and trace his imprint on 20th century art as we discover how some of the most important threads throughout culture are often the ones we don't actually know by name.
For those of you who might want a "jump start" on this evocative man, I suggest watching the video Satie and Suzanne, a suitably dreamy film layered with his piano music and dance choreographed by Cirque du Soleil that evokes his one and only ill-fated romance with trapeze artist and artist Suzanne Valadon
on I once heard an Episcopalian priest define a "saint" as "someone who has brought light to the world and created a path of hope for others to follow". Personally, I prefer that definition to many others because it is so open and inclusive. Traditionally, "saints" were acknowledged by having feast days where special music was played, poems (psalms) were read and stories about their lives were told. Sometimes, there would be special treats, as in the Yemes (egg yolk cakes) de Santa Teresa served in Avila, Spain or the Madeleine and Navette cookies distributed on Mary Magdalene's feast day in Provence.
I am in the process of creating my own "calendar of saints" that includes not only the mystics of the spiritual realms like Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and St. Francis, but also the "saints of culture": Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Dante, Clara and Robert Schumann, Emily Dickinson, Carl Jung, TS Eliot, Fra Lippi, Gustav Klimt. In my opinion, their lives and works also deserve annual celebrations and reverent attention and devotion.
Today in my calendar is the Feastday of Gabriel Faure. A sensitive young boy growing up in the Pyrenees mountains, his love of nature was only exceeded by the call of music. Faure would sneak into his school's chapel whenever he could in order to play on the organ. One day, an old blind woman heard him-- and somehow persuaded his father (a butcher) that Faure's extraordinary gift should be nurtured and supported.
Faure became a very successful organist in Paris-- but his compositional gifts were barely acknowledged. It was only because of the friendship of an American sewing machine heiress that the composer did not succumb to utter despair: Winnaretta Singer supported him in mind, pocketbook and spirit until a scandal rocked the musical world and brought Faure much deserved prominence and recognition. Faure went on to become the President of the Paris Conservatoire and opened the doors to women, one of whom was his student Nadia Boulanger. A dedicated and generous teacher like her mentor, Nadia was the force that shaped Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass and virtually every other great American composer. So, in a way, you can regard Faure as one of the greatest of grandfathers of modern music.
The Catholic church will never canonize Faure. Some of his behavior was scandalous: quite the ladies man, he was fired from one of his church jobs for showing up to play the Sunday service one morning in his evening wear after staying out all night dancing and drinking. He had no patience or deference for convention: he would leave his post at the organ to go outside to smoke a cigar when the priests would preach because he couldn't bear listening to their sermons. Faure's aversion to the orthodox doctrine is clearly manifest in his glorious Requiem where he refuses to incorporate any vision of hell. His music, however, might be just the heavenly thing you need when you are crying out in grief (try his Elegie, for cello and piano) or lging to melt into sublime bliss (the Pavane) or yearning to have your melancholy reflected in an exquisite mirror (try Apres un Reve)
Faure's story is proof that genius requires many things in order to survive, and perhaps the most important of those things is friendship. Watch the 20 minute impromptu facebook lecture I lived streamed on Faure in honor of his birthday here- and look for future Feastdays of Satie (May 17) and Robert Schumann (June 8)