Last night I began watching a film about Grey Owl, an Englishman who lived with, and as one of, the traditional Canadian indigenous peoples in the early 20th century.
My interest in the film was twofold: one, that Grey Owl was a conservationist whose writings had become popular amongst those of us in the ‘Ecology’ movement of the 1970’s in the USA.
The other draw was from my growing desire lately to touch the earth again.
During social isolation, which is still going on in my community, I have been reluctant to venture outside. With my compromised immune system, it has seemed wiser to stay indoors in my apartment where I have control, as much as one can have, of all the germs, where they are, who they are from, and the ability to avoid or remove them. Whereas going outside means I am subject to others’ rules about how they manage, or don’t manage, their germs.
But, the safety of staying inside, with all my various activities and hobbies and plugged-in entertainment devices, had begun to take its toll on my spiritual wellbeing. I looked at photos and videos of places I’d been over the past year pre-lockdown, and felt better and inspired by the memory that such places exist and that I was in them. There were pictures of the Southern California desert in bloom and of my home there, and of Italy where I spen a month of respite in a monastery last summer. The cool desert breezes and swaying plants, the rushing waters over the rocks and under the old Italian town’s bridge were healing. They touched memories of both my body and the experiences in those locales.
I watched the Grey Owl film with a bit of trepidation: was he a real Indian or a white man passing himself off as one, and did it matter anyway? Before finding an answer, though, my own memories stepped into that conversation space.
As a little girl, I was captivated by anything Indian. I wore my pink Annie Oakley cowgirl skirt, vest, boots, hat and holster so diligently that I would not even take off the boots or guns for bedtime, and regularly spent hours rocking on the spring rocking horse on our backyard patio in my pink cowgirl garb.
But when all the kids got together to play ‘cowboys and Indians’ as was the suburban norm in the 1950’s, I always had to be an ‘Indian’.
I would fight my bravest fight, which mostly consisted of belly-crawling along the grass to surprise the ‘cowboys’, and then obligingly get shot, and roll, tumbling all the way down the grassy lawn embankment. Then I would stay there looking up at the sky; even after all the other kids finished shooting their cap guns and calling ‘blam blam, you’re dead’ to each other and mosey off to get a cool glass of Kool-Aid from someone’s mom. But I stayed there on the grass, gone to another place.
My memory of that place is a woods, an autumn and northern country woods, with thick trees, green leaves on the branches, brown and ochre and yellow ones on the ground. I would tiptoe quietly, my brown skin and deerskin breeches soundless as I padded along in my soft low cut moccasins. The breeze was cool as it blew through my black-brown braids and I followed some call or presence. I felt a deep pain, so deep and desperate. “I must save my people!” was pulsing me along the path through the thicket. “I must save my people” I would stand brave and tall, then kneel, and the words would envelope me.
Then I would be back once again, lying face up in the suburban lawn, now a bit itchy from the little gnats and grass blades on my skin, roll over heavily, and go try to find out where the other kids had gone.
I have been told that children of that age, about 3-4 years old, can’t have such ideas about saving others and that their frame of reference can only includes themselves. So much for Psychology! But the power of those dreamtime experiences from then on, defined my life.
In grade school, my grandfather would take me to the little museum in Santa Barbara, where we would push the button on the display box to make the rattlesnake shake its tail, ptssssss–t!, and he would laugh and poke me to make me jump to experience the snake’s attack. Then after that warm-up, we would go out to the grounds and walk the trails through the vegetation; he and I called them ‘the Indian trails’. Back at home, my grandparents bought me ankle bells to dance in and for the most part indulged my ‘Indian’ role playing.
As I grew a bit older, I started going to Girl Scout sleep away camp and ate up all the experiential activities of building cooking fires and cooking, sleeping outdoors in a sleeping bag under the big sky of the far away national forest where the camp was located.
Eventually, I was invited to join their elite ‘survival skills’ program, and moved on to learn how to build traps and snares, skin and cook our catch, identify plants that were edible or toxic and how to eat them, and night vision and stalking skills. Our final exam was to hike to a remote area with no facilities and no food, only a blanket and a knife and a cup and our own hand-carved spoon, and a hatchet for the group to use.
We stayed 3 days. We behaved much like The Lord of the Flies! except we got hungry, so those of us who were in tune with the concept that we really did have to forage and trap for food if we wanted to eat, got busy. In the end, we had some okay Lupine beans that we leached with boiling and cold water baths, and some meat. We had some meat because ‘Sioux’, as I was now called, responded to another camper’s shriek that there was a rattlesnake; I corralled it and chopped its head off when it tried to strike me. (I can tell this secret now, because my parents are no longer here to know about it!)
The next day we went back down the steep trail by the waterfall, to our counsellors. I was a bit of a hero, and the counsellors were very stoic when hearing that I’d killed the rattler. I’m sure there must have been some panicky feelings going on inside, knowing a camper had done that without adult supervision, but that was what they put us up to!
Upon return to camp, we cleaned up, which we all badly needed. That night was our last one together. We had a campfire and awards ceremony. In the spirit of maintaining Indian tradition we were each given a coloured pony bead for each skill we had mastered, strung on a multi-coloured cord. While mine wasn’t the longest string of beads, it came close with only 2 missing; but it had the only long jade green one, for killing a rattlesnake. The cords held a copper arrowhead pendant, and we also received a deerskin feather pendant necklace, for remembrance of our time together. I still have them, complete with long jade green bead.
That was in 1968.
Today, Fathers Day, I looked once again at the photo of my father, sitting perched over Half Dome, his legs dangling from the top, shirtless and certainly a part of the whole; and nothing like the dad I knew who commuted 4 hours every day into downtown Los Angeles when he wasn’t far away at some salesman’s convention. When I found this photo last year, some of the mystery was resolved.
The other clue came last year and was from my updated DNA test results. I am not 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, like most of my friends, but 92%: 7% is from an area that covers a remote Siberian area, the Yamal Peninsula and Novaya Zemlya archipelago. The native inhabitants of these areas are the Nenets or Sami peoples. My mother used to tell me that my grandfather’s mother looked Chinese, and so I am now guessing that there is some tethering of my ancestors with this earth bound sense of myself through true genetic inheritance.
Although my home is now an urban setting, the urge to touch the earth remains. My day today strolling the grounds, touching flowers and pine cones, walking along shrubbery, and taking photos of flowers and berries to look back at, has been grounding for me. Although we are unsure of our future abilities to mingle socially, we can rest assured that Nature will continue to anchor our innate humanity.
My father loved his job with the Forest Service in Yosemite. He referred to it often as we grew up but not so much as he got older. Instead, he designed numerous cruise vacations to enjoy with my mother, and at home, curated the thousands of photos and mementos from them. He died unexpectedly from pneumonia, caused by a chest cold he picked up on their last ocean cruise, ten years ago.
Perhaps his excitement with packing his daughter’s duffel bag for overnight camp so many years ago was more than just a parental task: perhaps it had been his chance to touch the earth once again.
Thunder and Music
Tonight I am breaking the silence.
It has been a year and a half since my last post on ‘The Compassionate Oboe’, and tonight I begin to write again.
Last night, I got out my big-sound oboe, my Yamaha 841L, my beauty that I can play as round and fully and deeply as I want; it is my instrument to make a Big Sound for outdoor playing. Tonight, it is my partner when the piercing voice of the oboe needs to be heard over the din of pain and chaos.
But, about my absence, where have I been? Where have we all been these past 17 months?
The answer begins with the spectacular thunderstorm began outside last night, a perfect response to the plaintive call of people in pain calling for healing, and needing to hear a response.
Just the same way, two years ago before my absence, I underwent a major thoracic surgery. Some ligaments from my diaphragm had to be removed in order to release their pinching off the blood flow through the major artery that feeds my abdominal organs. I responded to those cries of organs beginning to fail and moved to the USA to have the surgery.
I did not know if recovery from such an invasive surgery could include playing the oboe again.
Then a few months later, just before my last Blog entry in September, my mother called me to be with her. She was dying and had begun to have home hospice care.
I flew north to stay with her, something I hadn’t done for years. My mother sat opposite me in her favourite swivel chair, a French wine cup balanced in hand, her belly swollen from the effects of leukemia on her spleen. The fire churned in her gas hearth and it was cold outside. She had never shared any of her inner thoughts with me before, but during this time together, her last weeks, she accepted and wore the mantle of elder, imparting her acquired wisdom to her surviving heir, as one is wont to do at the end of life.
“I’ve seen a lot”, she grimaced as she rocked harder in the chair, “grew up in the Great Depression, World War II, the 60’s and 70’s, but I never imagined things could ever be as bad as they are now.” She shifted her position, her breathing heaved and rasped but she spoke on. “We did so much to make things better–civic work projects made by the government to pull ourselves out of the Depression; fighting in those horrible wars, the Nazis. Then we had Vietnam and the fights for Civil Rights and Equality. Now look at what it’s all come to!” She paused to stare and conquer her breath. “The world is controlled by the wrong people, all our hard work is being undone.” Her voice changed to a sobering timbre now. “I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see any more of this.”
That was the end of her speech, and I felt so sad with her and for her. She indeed had worked hard; I recalled her grass-roots meetings at our home for liberal candidates in the 1970’s; her proudly taking me out of school to see Senator Eugene McCarthy speak; and how she showed us to not just hear about the plights of others in the news, but to roll up our sleeves and openly fight for causes we believed in.
And it was now about six months since my surgery. I had packed along my quieter oboe, my lyrical Covey, as a way to centre myself during what I knew would be an emotional visit. One evening, as she sat rocking in her chair by the fire, I quietly came in and set up my stand and music. I chose the most important pieces to me, and knew her fondness of classical music was deep. The pieces were Saint-Saens’ Oboe Sonata and Godard’s ‘Legende Pastorale’. I adored these pieces and had over the years striven to play them as well as my teacher, Joe Robinson, even playing along with his album recording. This time, I abandoned the student-mind and played the music; because music, this music, needed to be present here.
It seemed that some great shift happened during the playing. She never spoke, we were both silent, and I put my music away. I don’t remember what happened next, but all the years of vexation over my decision to play the oboe instead of the flute and so many other divisive causes seemed gone, and were replaced with the understanding that music had happened. A truce and peace emerged.
And then, last night, came the same.
I watched the news, the American news and saw what I already knew. I had gone back to the USA in 2017 to be in the quiet desert near where I grew up, and took advantage of the opportunity to have the life-saving thoracic surgery. Along with my mother last autumn, I realized that America had changed too much for my comfort.
I came back to Canada.
Part of my reason for returning to Canada was the violence in the United States. Not just recent politically motivated violence, but also the mindset that allows people to carry guns, literally or figuratively, to sort out disagreements, mirroring American values still extant from frontier tales and Wild West films. Being called un-American is just such a gunshot.
These were also the concerns of my mother. In her day, the protests effected political change and a peace-minded consciousness-raising for America. This time, though, America is not faring any better than other countries with their political problems.
As I watched the American protestors on TV I felt relief at the emergence of peaceful protest out of the more violent activity of the weekend; the images were so reminiscent of 1960’s on TV. With one exception: I do not see the same concerned reaction by the President or White House Administration.
Carried away with the energy and passion of the images, I longed to be there. I wanted to protest, too.
But I am here in Canada and the border is closed. Meanwhile, my move-in plans are stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic. I live with piles of orphaned books and office supplies, because I cannot buy or bring in new furniture. But my oboe paraphernalia is unpacked, accessible and curated.
I stare at the grand Manhasset music stand set up for playing, at the music books and boxes of reed-making supplies that I had lovingly sorted for occasional use.
On Sundays I play a small concert of familiar tunes, ending with ‘O Canada’ in solidarity with others singing and playing at noon nationwide, to acknowledge our frontline health care workers.
That little concert is also the thread that keeps me alive and well in general and in particular, as an oboist.
But last night, outrage spilled over in me. In part it was over the huge expense of my new home paired with still living like a hobo out of boxes. Part was the outrage that political leaders could ignore science and common sense and forgo proactively taking care of citizens when the obvious signs of the coming epidemic were there in China months ago.
Thankfully, my personal inner outrage and pain were mirrored on the TV screen: I was not alone. We’ve all had too much. Too much anger with systems that are breaking down, with the racial indignities that are still rampant, with the replacing of facts with political egos: and in America, with a President who makes threats against its citizens’ safety and rights to gather and protest peacefully.
I was so pleased to see the peaceful yet powerful approach that was being taken and with the contained and focused encouragement by the mostly young leaders.
Their determined message for change surged through me, a charge felt beyond words. The years of confusion, of who I am and what my work is post-surgery, now became clear: Music.
My Manhasset was already set, and out came the Yamaha.
I played, full, big, and passionately for all to hear, my balcony door wide open to the world. I began with the Beatles, because we all know they were the sound of the 60’s: ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘When I’m 64’. Then came a few more tunes: ‘Amazing Grace’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Kum Ba Ya’, and Dvorak’s ‘Largo from The New World’.
Afterward, I gave my oboe its seasonal bore care with sweet almond oil and put it away. I felt an inner calm resume that had been lost for a very long time, for years perhaps.
Remarkably, just as I began to settle back onto my rented sofa, Nature took her turn to let go, too. An hour-long thunder and lightening show, complete with pelting rain and hail, seemed to validate the outpouring of pent up energy seen across the globe.
I swaddled all my oboe things away for the night, ready to be played tomorrow; because with those loud blasting cries, I was reborn.