Sunday, August 28, 2011


For a few years I traversed much of North America researching the mother goddesses of indigenous faiths, which brought me in contact with a number of origin stories. After visiting a sacred site in New Mexico’s Holy Ghost Valley, I took in the rippling light of dusk in the desert and pondered a terse conversation with a Native American woman I’d had earlier in the day who was vehement against evolution.

This woman, who I’d just spent all day with at an environmental activism workshop, insisted her people literally arose from the center of the Earth long ago, when there were no dry lands. They struggled in the stormy seas until they found shelter on the back on a giant turtle, where they stayed until the world solidified and they could find their ancestral home. This was not a folk tale. This was her belief.

Our wide gulf in perceptions concerned me and certainly challenged my assumptions about Native Americans. The long shadows of mesas to the west cast the landscape into early twilight. Low overhanging clouds engulfed the Sun’s golden setting glow, brewing a timeless sepia hue. I looked around at the giant mesas. Many millions of years ago mega-volcanoes coated the land with oceans of magma. Now all that remained after erosion were blocky isolated mesas, with the eroded dust now forming the glittering soil of the valleys between.

In the muted light belonging to neither day nor night, in a landscape as inspirationally epic as the sky above, I realized it all happened exactly as she believed. Turtle-like gigantic landmasses did roam the planet in its formative origins, plate tectonics tearing jagged volcanic lines in the Earth’s mantle where fiery magma escaped. Her world was indeed formed when the inside of the planet came out in fluid waves of magma and solidified into mesas where her people made their home.

I interpret the Genesis story as I do all religious origin stories: archetypally. As someone steeped in ancient Taoist thought, I tend to view things metaphorically. It’s the way my brain works. I allow others their own interpretation and hope that we can meet on the isthmus of acceptance that much of what we want to know for sure will always remain a mystery, that before the universality of the divine all religion will forever be a penultimate solution.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Forgiving Summer Rain

We just watched our farm blow away. There was nothing else we could do. Five acres of cucumbers withered in the heat, unable to blossom. No blooms, no cukes, no money.

It was mid-September and hadn't rained much since June. In the garden, corn stalks crackled in the sparse wind, their kernels puckered, silks mere strands of dust. Peas dried on the vine. Grass lay flat on the ground. Buzzards patrolled the dry creek beds where cattle, weak from the drought, would go to die.

We hid in our houses like hermits, curtains drawn against the sun. When nothing grew there was nothing to do, and by noon it was too hot to do anything anyway. So we were surprised that day by a commotion at the door.

Standing against a sky so spotlessly blue you'd think it was paint, Elbert, our neighbor, insisted that a storm front was headed this way. He'd cut 40 acres for hay and most of it was bailed, unprotected in the fields. Now, he cursed, now the rains had come, threatening to ruin the grass it had almost ruined by not raining.

Off we went in his old flatbed truck. In the hay fields, we'd drive 30 feet, stop, and all fall out to load up, wrap our fingers around the wire bindings and hoist the bales onto the truck. Then we'd drive forward 30 feet and do it again. It was automatic after a few acres; labor machines fighting time and nature. Clouds began to fill the southwestern sky.

We unloaded bale after bale in low-slung, tin roof shacks that had blown down a time or two and been propped back in place. When the rafters started to get full, you couldn't breathe anything but hay dust and pollen, and you couldn't see the spiders and splinters laying in wait. We longed for the Sun that made it so hot and dry in the first place.

Thunder rumbled as the last bales went in. Elbert dropped us off at home. Too exhausted to make it up the steps inside, we lay on the hood of our pick-up truck, our hands frozen claws from hooking fingers under the bale wires.

We watched the storm coming across the fields; to the left, clear open blueness; to the right, the ominous sky. Tall, dark, turbulent clouds sat upon a layer of greyness. The setting sun reflected up through them formed angelic silver-blue edges etched brilliantly against the sky. Beyond these clouds was the white, where the rain was. All else was just a spectacle of weather, a ceremony for the coming of the storm.

Suddenly the wind turned nervous and wild, spinning the debris of dead crops and neglected harvest bags, carrying the whoops and hollars of elated neighbors, their voices like bells of a salvation homecoming. A crack of lightning sent the field animals to their dens; an owl swooped through the mist to catch them.

Then the rain came, first in large splattering drops, little clouds of dirt arising every time they hit the ground. Then it fell in sheets and rinsed out the dust that hung in the sky, turning leaves from grey to green. Water ran in twisting rivulets on top of the parched fields, until broad channels of muddy water flowed between the rows. The corn leaves became turgid, the grass stood erect.

We laid back and let it caress the dust from our faces, our fingers uncurled and we relaxed in the warm wash of the forgiving summer rain.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Art, Spirit & Expression

by Amy Martin

Question posed by Texas Faith: What is the connection between religion and art

What is art? Nature concentrated.” ~ Honore de Balzac

To a Taoist, and to those who consider themselves spiritually unaffiliated, stellar examples of nature are our inspirational architecture, as well as our holy places. There are mountains that inspire with majesty and evergreens forests of reverent contemplation, of course, but for me it is the endless night sky and the awe it imparts, the way it stretches our conception of time and place in the universe.

"Creativity requires faith. Faith requires that we relinquish control." – Julia Cameron

I think a core value of many spiritual not religious people is that to truly embrace the divine one must move beyond words into doing. In my house and yard there are no less than a dozen art-altars of spiritual symbols and statuary, meaningful objects and whatever else it takes to coax the sacred into my life. Many change with the seasons and my own spiritual development. Those outside eventually relinquish themselves to the natural world in graceful decay. This is my art, for at the heart of being human is the need to creatively express.

“Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” ~ Andre Gide

In the act of creation we mirror the divine manifestation of the world. Facing the blank canvas, page or stage we draw forth from within ourselves ineffable visions that we craft into tangible, audible, viewable things. When I am in the flow of creativity as a writer, it is the same as a spiritual experience. Awe at the forces greater than myself, intimacy in partnership with the unseen, and feeling in touch with the absolute core of what it means to be alive, to be human, bringing home why the word “religion” comes from the Latin “ligare,” or connect, and means to re-connect.

published August 16, 2011 in Texas Faith religion blog of The Dallas Morning News

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Moment in Chimayo

People come to the Santuario de Chimayo because guidebooks extol it as a quaint day trip out of Santa Fe, because the historic adobe mission nestled in a picturesque enclave makes any photographers’ work look good, or because something within said they needed to go.

So they take the high road to Taos, winding through the Sangre de Cristo foothills to the small adobe town of Chimayo, set in one of the more lush valleys in the northern New Mexico mountains. A constant stream of them pulls into the santuario parking lot in shiny rent cars and disembarks with cameras slung over shoulders to investigate the place. The small church of clay, with thick square sides and broad flat roof, rests near a waterway where tall cottonwoods prosper. On this spring morning, winds building up for afternoon storms blow the downy pollen like snow.

Drawn to the place by a vision, in the early 1800s a desperately ill Spanish friar named Bernardo Abeyta fell upon the soil and was instantly healed. Or perhaps he saw a blinding light emerge from the ground and unearthed a miraculous crucifix of a dark-skinned Christ on the cross. Stories vary. Some say the site was once sacred to the Tewa Indians, a hot healing spring that dwindled into mud and then dried into dirt. Like any holy spot of healing under Spanish dominion, a Catholic edifice was built upon it, first a shrine and then, as miracles continued, the present church. In a small antechamber next to the sanctuary, a foot wide hole — El Posito —was left in the floor to retain access to the sacred soil.

I am one of 300,000 who come to Santuario de Chimayo each year, some tourists, some travelers, some pilgrims. On Easter weekend, between ten and thirty-thousand of the latter walk and even crawl here from all parts of New Mexico, a massive pilgrimage dating over a century. They come to rub the soil upon their wounded bodies or take a tablespoon back to the sick at home. Each April for the past 20 years, peace activists make a pilgrimage of their own, relaying bits of El Posito soil to an area near the atomic center of Los Alamos in hopes that its healing power can spread.

Each of us, regardless of our agenda, paces through the adobe wall courtyard, where old graves pitch and sink into the sandy soil, and past the old double wooden doors into the chapel, with the usual Virgin Mary icons in the back. Colorful and ornate folk paintings of Jesus and saints decorate the sides and front of the dim sanctuary, lit by sunbeams wincing past high windows. The sound of doves cooing beneath the eaves and dogs barking in the distance pulses though the thick mud walls. Local faithfuls sit in the pews and wait for midday mass, trying to ignore the tourists who stumble obliviously around them. It’s not easy.

The chancel altar shelters Abeyta’s dark and crying crucifix — dubbed El Señor de Esquipulas, just like the one that materialized 200 years prior in Guatemala. To the left, a small stooped entryway leads into a chamber cobbled onto the chapel’s side. In the long narrow room, icons of Christian saints and such are interspersed with mementos of those whom the magic of Chimayo healed: cast aside crutches, photos of children now free of their ailments, eye patches the blind no longer need. Attached is the El Posito antechamber, accessible by an even smaller doorway piercing tunnel-like into the adobe wall.

Through the entry I watch a young woman kneeling next to El Posito, obviously moved by its miracles. In her face I can see that she waits for one herself. She touches the dirt, sifting the grains through her fingers, and rubs her face and arms. Two laughing tourists jostle each other trying to squeeze at once through the antechamber’s small opening, flustering the devotee who flees in a panic, her saved portion of the soil spilling onto the floor.

I take a seat on a rustic wooden bench and watch the constant march of people into the antechamber, hoping for an ebb in the flow. Sitting here, peeved at the idiot tourists, I realize that I am one myself. I came hundreds of miles for a tablespoon of dirt to heal a tree in my backyard, yet neglected to bring a bag. I remembered many pilgrim tools — prayer shawl, smudge stick, herb offering, silver milagros, compass, pendulum and bell — but not a bag. I improvise.

And then I get my chance. Somewhere after the gaggle of California tourists discussing resorts while standing around El Posito as if it were a cocktail table, and before the busload of camera enthusiasts on tour snapping photos of anything or anyone not moving at a dead heat, a moment opens up. I duck through the doorway into the antechamber.

The small, womb-like room holds a concentrated reverence, its thick walls sheltering the prayers of thousands. I quickly kneel to collect my own tablespoon from El Posito and give thanks for the earthy gift’s potential. Santuario de Chimayo was built to house Abeyta’s crucifix, yet it is this simple room, this lowly dirt, which garners the most patronage. Then I notice all the pictures on the walls. Unlike the other rooms where images of Christ and male saints abound, half of them here are of the Virgin Mary and most of those are the Virgin of Tepeyac. From dust to dust, the Christian creed says, and in between some come here for a refill from the Mother.

As if magnetic, I am pulled to the north and end up facing a blank spot on the wall like a cat. A sigh instinctively spills out and a sense of peace cascades down my spine. Relaxing first the muscles of my face, my shoulders drop and chest lifts up, my stomach softens and knees bend, settling the weight fully into my feet, my pilgrim’s feet. No thunderbolt of healing, no transcendent revelation. Just a moment of ease, as if the fear of death at the back of my mind abated for a moment, soothed by the one thing that seems eternal — the dirt beneath my feet, the leavings of erosion as even the greatest mountains crumble into dust. This mundane dirt, into its deep bedrock we pierce the supports that hold our structures, from its dark humus we draw the fertility to grow our food, and to its subterranean realm we give our bodies after death. Why wouldn’t it be sacred?

Suddenly I feel the presence of someone else in the room. I turn to see a woman of about 50 pressed against the wall in the opposite corner. Though silent, she seems apologetic for intruding, yet desperate to escape the shutterbug melee outside. She probably wonders why I was staring at the wall. I quickly leave her to the place. Pausing outside the doorway to adjust my clothes, I block the flow of tourists so that she might have her moment, too.

It seems to me that a moment, this present moment, is all we ever have. This moment of life between the cataclysmic beginnings of a volcanic planet turning itself inside out and the cold hard rock of an Earth we’ll be when the Sun cools in millions of years. Humanity’s moment between the animal of our origins and the mankind we have yet to be. Our own moment between birth and death, between waking and falling asleep, between inhale and exhale. The moment that is only a moment, but after which nothing is ever the same. Even the bothersome flotilla of photographers outside is just trying to capture that moment their own way.

Down in the fertile folds of the Sangre de Cristo foothills, among the ridges reaching toward high, the air retains a touch of humidity, protected against the constant wind that whips moisture from the soil. Here life is enclosed and nurtured, in high contrast to the desert just a few miles away. Someone two hundred years ago sensed this land was sacred and now the santuario stands here. But is it any more sacred than a thousand places like it, where land opens up to offer succor to those who need? In these folded foothills there are a thousand Chimayos, needing only their own weary pilgrim to fall in faith upon the ground.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Prayer Tree of Spring

In my backyard, there is a tree that blooms. When we moved here many years ago, it was lost in the darkness of oaks and cedar elms that grew to tower over it. An odd scrawny tree with tough green skin like a succulent instead of bark, it bore tiny round leaves in sets of three and nasty two-inch thorns. Later we found out it was a trifolate orange tree from China, brought back by the traveling businessman who built the house.

Almost imperceptively it grew, slowly edging around the eave and up toward the sunlight. I fertilized and watered it, took care of it in every way. And it took care of me. My life had shattered and everything seemed lost. Inside the windows overlooking the tree lay my husband recovering from a series of back operations. I held out hope for the tree, hope for us, and waited.

Almost a decade passed. His back healed and my life regained its meaning. One fall, we were surprised to see a few pecan-sized oranges on it, bitter fruit, all seeds and pulp. The next spring we looked for flowers and were rewarded with a few white blossoms the size of a small pea. But it wasn't until a statue of Kwan Yin was placed beneath its boughs that the tree truly bloomed. The Chinese goddess of compassion sacrificed her place in Shinto heaven in order to feel the pain of earthbound humans and help them to transcend.

On this spring day, flowers bedeck every branch, beckoning of fruit to come. Dozens of colorful ribbons flutter as well, each one tied with prayerful intent by visitors. The Prayer Tree. Planted in the 1950s, the trifolate orange lived for decades before going through a period of extended darkness. Then in just a day, everything changed. Someone cared. It took years to rebuild, years when it seemed nothing was happening, but the blooms did come. Now it is not only reborn, it is deeply sacred.

With its thorns and flowers, its history and the people who hope for its peace, the Prayer Tree evokes a quote by Thornton Wilder: "Without your wounds, where would your power be? The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and bumbling children of Earth as can one human being broken in the wheels of living. In love's service, only the wounded soldiers can serve."

Spring is the reservoir of hope. Enjoy this season of Easter with its abundance of metaphors to live by and have faith in the life force that infuses every leaf, every stone, every grain of soil.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Man in the Bed

There is a moment just as you start drifting into sleep when your mind bounces randomly between thoughts in a foggy state, not quite conscious, not quite unconscious. At that ambiguous moment, we sometimes let our mental guards down. The unresolved anxieties of life will intrude, those questions and conflicts we've been so busy avoiding all day every day of our lives.

Despite the well-reasoned arguments of wise men and saints, even the most believing of us caught in this midnight limbo will think of the universe, so infinite and so cold, and become overwhelmed by our insignificance. We wonder: What if it's over when it over? What if it doesn't mean a thing?

On this night, the thought sends me reeling from the bed, pacing through the darkness of the living room. The wind buffets the trees outside, casting shadows on the wooden floors that waver in the moonlight. The frenetic beating of my heart finally calms and my nervous pace slows to a disheveled dirge. Questions and beliefs, theories and credos, crash around in circles in my head. Then I turn into the hallway of the bedroom, catch my breath for a moment in the doorway, and cry softly at what I see.

There's a man in the bed, a man I love very much. He's got the covers pulled close to his face, though it's not very cold. His quiet body is wrapped in a cocoon of unconsciousness that I envy. One cat sleeps beneath his arm in the warm spot where I was moments before, another is curled at his feet. I long to be there beside him, my body nestled in the curves of his like two spoons, snug beneath the covers and the shared glow of our skins.

But now I'm lost in the night, standing in a doorway trying to keep it all together, to capture this feeling, this essence of life, as if I can take it with me when I go. It haunts me. Why does all this exist, these feelings, these bonds, our warm bedroom and our warm life, just to be taken away? What could that possibly mean? At times it makes beauty unbearable.

Surely I'm not the only one unable to sleep at night who wonders about existence. It has to be the most overwhelming thought in our minds. What else is there? So why, with this before us, do we thrash about in politics, wage war among peoples, and waste our time here on Earth with mundane busyness. Life's got to be more than that. There must be some cosmic meaning to it, more than the answers in religious books that are bound by faith, more than the monuments to humanism that are built from sand. All I know is that whatever the meaning of life is, it has something to do with the man sleeping in the bed.

painting by Gretchen Schmid

Monday, February 7, 2011

One Night Only: Gamelan D'Drum

One Night Only: Gamelan D'Drum

by Amy Martin

In Bali and Indonesia, music arises from life: the steady rhythm of pounding rice into paste, the choppy beats of waves in shallow tropical bays, the polyphonic swelling of frog song at dusk, the rolling rhythms of gentle jungle hills. This merges with a spirited grace captured in their gamelan ensembles. Based on melodic tuned gongs that are arrayed in the manner of keyboard percussion such as marimbas, they also include wood drums, bamboo flutes, and bowed and plucked strings.

The Dallas-based ensemble D’Drum takes these rhythms and others from around the world, melds them with their own jazz and classical sensibilities, and executes them with a stunning level of musical chops. This makes them a perfect match for a Dallas Symphony commissioned composition from the former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, a globetrotting musical synthete with a precise drumming style that never loses track of the groove.

“Gamelan D'Drum” debuted on February 5, 2011, after the first two shows were canceled due to a freakish ice storm that also led to a minimum of rehearsals. Not that anyone could tell at the debut concert. The half-hour composition was virtuallywithout flaws, even with the five D’Drum percussionists having to move rapidly between dozens of colorful instruments crowding the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Hall stage.

Truly a milestone in both the band’s and Copeland’s careers, “Gamelan D'Drum” was the first time for D’Drum to perform a piece not created from improvisational interactions as the band usually does. The piece was, however, highly collaborative, with recordings passed back and forth over several months between composer and band. The resulting percussion score was a monster, especially the vibe, marimba and cimbalom parts.

So committed was D’Drum to seeing this piece to fruition that they commissioned Javanese and Balinese sets of gamelan bells in concert pitch by their favorite Indonesian instrument maker. In the relaxed manner of the Indonesian islands, gamelan in one village might be set to a different tuning than that in another, and neither truly syncs up with western intonation.

For Copeland it was a chance of a lifetime to merge his global sensibilities, arising from his peripatetic childhood and so showcased in WOMAD, with the classical style composing he’d made a name for in film for the last decade. But unrestricted by the necessary limitations of soundtracks, and fueled by the soaring excellence of the Dallas Symphony and conductor Jaap van Zweden, Copeland’s creativity bloomed into true fine art, with D’Drum as the inspiration for it all.

Copeland chose an orchestration of piccolos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets and trombone, along with a full string complement, to highlight D’Drum’s Balinese and Javanese gongs and bells, African and Middle Eastern drums, and assorted gamelan percussion. The percussion bloomed under the Meyerson acoustics, at times overwhelming the symphony that could have used a touch more amplification.

Possibly no other composer today could have blended so seamlessly a global improvisation-based percussion ensemble with orchestra. At times, D’Drum would showcase a rhythmic section, creating a textural bed, and the orchestra would slide in, echoing and then expounding on the motif. The composition sounded natural, fluid and spirited under van Zweden’s passionately precise direction. The violin solo by guest (and former DSO) concert master David Kim with D’Drum was goosebump inducing. A true testament to van Zweden’s depth of skills that he so gracefully fused improvisational percussion and scored orchestra. His intense focus on the band’s spontaneity was thrilling to behold.

Because of the unique instrumentation and skills of D’Drum, it’s doubtful this composition could be performed with another ensemble. Copeland took care to showcase each band member’s strengths. John Bryant had a turn with his global drum kit, highlighting a versatility born from his own considerable composition chops. Jamal Mohamed was spotlighted in his classic doumbek solo in which he plays the small ceramic goblet drum from both sides of the drum skin, much to the perplexment of the audience. Douglas Howard’s nuanced marimba work and Ron Snider’s cimbalom excellence show why they are such valued leaders in the symphony’s percussion section. But the heart of the composition belonged to vibraphonist Ed Smith, who most captures the taksu spirit of gamelan, especially on the Balinese reyong.

The presentation of “Gamelan D'Drum” represented some serious boundary pushing for North Texas musical culture. Jaap van Zweden and other leaders in the Dallas Symphony, plus all the performers, are to be congratulated for enabling such a groundbreaking work of art to become reality -- a trans-global effort that even surmounted at the end considerable weather odds. The audience showed its appreciation with a thunderous and extended standing ovation that included repeated curtain calls.

This reviewer is going to look back many years from now and say: "I saw that show, that one night, that one show, and it was sincerely amazing." Or maybe the Dallas Symphony will realize the importance of this work and do it justice with a return extended engagement.

Visit the D'Drum website

Photo by Mark Birnbaum

Friday, February 4, 2011

First Light A poem of Imbolc and Candlemas

A flame appears, lit from within

It emerges, tender light

Upon snow and ice

Upon brown winter fields

Whose wan color hides

The busy roots beneath

On stem and branch

Buds thrust against the cold

The promise of leaf and flower

Its own warming reward

Potent waiting, energy storing

Nascent is the spring

MidWinter Convergence of Light's Return

An interesting convergence is upon us. Today is the 2nd of February, known on U.S. calendars as Groundhog Day, our pop culture harbinger of spring.

Starting centuries prior, this date was celebrated as Candlemas, a Christian observance of Virgin Mary’s presentation of the Christ child at her local Jewish temple.

Candlemas came to be observed with candlelighting and the honoring of feminine fecundity, both beautiful reflections of Brigit, also honored on this date, the great mother goddess of the Celts whose Kildare shrine sheltered her eternal flame.

But our need to connect with rhythms and archetypes of nature long preceded our feeble attempts to confine time with calendars.

Ancients knew that when the second New Moon after Winter Solstice came around, the days had lengthened enough that the light’s return was evident to our senses.

With this mid-winter New Moon in Europe they celebrated Imbolc, honoring the gestation of life, the potent waiting in the belly of the ewe, whose infant lamb suckles milk in mid-winter in order to graze on the lush first growth of spring.

Imbolc embodies the metaphor of the potent waiting of our own human potential, the gestation of the human dream, the planning and patience, but most of all, the faith in life that we as a human species are on our way.

This emergent New Moon, arising from mid-winter darkness, is such a natural surge of energy that many in the eastern half of the world peg their new year to it, popularly known as the Chinese New Year.

On this date in 2011, all these converge, with Groundhog Day and Candlemas falling on the New Moon of Imbolc and Chinese New Year.

Our urban and natural rhythms are for this brief moment in sync with one another. Enjoy the synchronicity of life’s unfolding and feel yourself drawn to the deeper beats

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Rhythms of Deep Time

The Rhythms of Deep Time
by Amy “Moonlady” Martin

This is the day of deep time, the kind of time that stars and planets feel, their big bass beats to our tiny staccato days and nights.

Boom! Solar perihelion!

As our planet swings around the Sun in squashy oval, we are at the point in the loop closest to the Sun by a few million miles. It happens every year about this time, making the sunlight a little brighter, the brilliant winter light.

So close to the Sun, yet so cold. Earth is the paradox planet. The daily solar path arcs low across the southern horizon, matching the deep tilt of the Earth on its axis. The slanting rays struggle to pierce extra layers of atmosphere and loose their heat.

Yet the brilliant winter light remains, providing more light for the Moon to reflect, creating the Grandmother Moon of winter, nearly 10 percent shinier than other times.

Boom boom! New Moon at solar perihelion!

Today, just as the Earth is making this close approach to the Sun, the Moon has slipped between us and disappears into the solar corona, silent in the night, invisible in the sky.

We are tight, lined up with fierce accuracy so that in the wee early morning hours of Tuesday, the Moon moves into place with such perfect grace that it suddenly appears and completely covers the face of the Sun – a total solar eclipse.

Boom boom boom!

Winter Solstice, solar perihelion, New Moon and solar eclipse, and in four weeks another New Moon that marks the halfway point to spring.

Seize this moment when deep time converges with our own earthly time. Feel the rhythm, dive deep for the next few weeks. Use the fertility of darkness, the energy of the perihelion turning, to refine the purpose of your life. And then surface into new light, your own initiation complete.

January 2010