Monday, July 21, 2014

the heart of the matter

Looking out from The Abyss. Grand Canyon South Rim. Rakha-7/2014

I was blessed this last week with a special, one week bonus residency at the Grand Canyon. That meant that once again I had the opportunity to live at the VerKamps studio, a  100+ year old home and shop perched on the edge of the South Rim near the El Tovar Hotel. The last time I was there was February, 2013. It was a cold snowy month, subzero temps, gale force winds, and I loved every moment of the experience. Now, though, it is summer, and the skies are clear and the temperature warm, and when clouds do come (which they did in full force my first night back) they are heavy with monsoon rain, and blazing with lightning.

Another difference: my previous residency was largely an isolated experience. I knew no one, and spent each day on my own. Now, I have friends at the canyon. One is Carol, a recent import from Portland. My first residency at the canyon ended up changing Carol's life more than my own when I suggested she look for a teaching job at the National Park. The Grand Canyon is the only National Park with a public school, and Carol, my writing buddy and dear friend, had been looking for a teaching position in the NW for quite some time. When I emailed my contact at the Grand Canyon School, I was told it was good timing, the current high school english teacher was leaving. Within six weeks, Carol had packed her life, including her two African Parrots and about a ton of books, into a U-Haul and headed southeast to the heart of the desert Southwest.

So this time, instead of my having a totally isolated residency, I was able to share time with someone who loves the canyon just as much as me. Carol is a naturalist as well as a writer and teacher, and so we enjoyed walking and talking and trying to understand better where it was we were—this land, this history, this wildlife and fauna, these people—a mosaic of language and color and belief all there to revel at the gigantic "gully." (Gully, a term President Howard Taft gave the canyon the first time he saw it. As in, "Golly that's one big gully.")

My schedule was thus: Wake at sunrise, coffee, write, then exercise. A nice bike ride up to Hermits Rest and back. Nice runs through the woods, or along the rim. Majestic hikes, then more writing. All the while with an eye to the window. Then before sunset, it was time to be with my friends. I had a dinner party one night, and we ended up lying on the roof staring up. The high altitude skies making the Milky Way appear exactly as its name suggests.

And all the while I am pinching myself, because I felt so damn happy.

The Grand Canyon is my reminder of how impermanent human existence is. How fleeting. Yes, we make marks, but they are small marks. Tiny etchings. What matters then? To be in this life as fully as possible. To work hard, to produce what you are proud of, and care about. To explore and question and push your physical and mental limits. To breathe deep and make good food and eat it with friends, and laugh and laugh and laugh. And then, at night, to lie under the stars and try to figure out what we are looking at, and what it is all about.

Just like humans did 100,000 years ago.

And what is 100,000 years to the canyon? Barely a layer of dust.

-Naseem Rakha 7/21/14

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Live, Love and Forgive

I was honored to be asked to contribute to a new book that just came out this week entitled LIVE, LOVE AND FORGIVE, Insights from Artists, edited by Justin St. Vincent in cooperation with The Fetzer Institute.

The new book is filled with short essays from musicians, film makers, photographers, writers, actors, and healers, and is a remarkable and honest meditation of the ways craft can help heal our world. Here is a little sample.

Art fortifies our capacity for compassion, which means "to suffer with," by allowing us to step into experiences radically different from our own.
Dale M. Kushner | author & writer 

Music may be a way—a passage—a common plane we can walk on with bare arms raised in appreciation versus anger.
Naseem Rakha | author, speaker & storyteller 

To me sitting at an instrument to compose music is like sitting on a beach, running my fingers through the sand. My fingers hit upon something solid, and I start to dig the sand away from around the object...
John Adorney | composer & musician 

When I started doing music it was tunnel vision. I saw my hood, my circles and my thoughts. After talking to people all over the world and expanding my intake of art, I've found such valuable stories and perspectives that relate to mine more than I could have ever imagined.
Demi Amparan | poet & director of publications & communications at young chicago authors

When we stop and listen to a musical work, life or expression of another, sometimes wholly different from ourselves, we allow that difference to come inside and are made new by it.

When art touches us in a deep way, our feelings, ideas, beliefs and perspectives can change in an instant.

Art and music have the ability to disarm, to help us move beyond what's bothering us and soften our edges.

The personal development of the artist is just as important as the artistic development

Forgiveness requires vulnerability. It requires the unleashing of your own ego. It requires the ability to face the truth. It requires a small crack—like a light leak in a camera—to penetrate your walls of division leaving you no choice but to give way

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Religion as Story

On Good Friday I found a vulture lying in the middle of the road, wings spread wide as if crucified. Blood pooled under its belly.

And I wondered about the meaning: a dead vulture on Good Friday, its brethren circling overhead.

A day hallowed by people around the globe, heads bent down, tears pooled, as Christ's agony—arms spread wide on his cross—is remembered. It precedes Easter, the day he is said to have risen to heaven to return to his father's side.

It is a rich, allegorical story, with meaningful conflict, memorable characters, and a clear protagonist and antagonist.

And that is exactly what I understand religion to be. Story. A creative fiction meant to give meaning and purpose and structure. Rules. Codes. Laws.

Was a man name Jesus Christ executed by the Romans for being a traitor? Probably.

Was he the son of god? Maybe. But maybe everyone is a child of god, as some stories say. Or maybe no one is, as some stories say. Or maybe it doesn't matter, as some stories say.

But it is a good story. A martyr on a cross, blood weeping from his wounds, salvation just words away. And we do circle it still. Brethren, all—gleaning meaning,  purpose, heart.

Whether we believe or not.

-Naseem Rakha 4/19/14

Friday, April 4, 2014

Don't be a Sucker for Online Quizzes

They are everywhere.

What Downtown Abbey Character are you?

What Superhero?


There is even one to help you discover - get this - "What Arbitrary Thing Are You?"


Are we that fricking board? Self absorbed? Lost? What?

You know I was in Guatemala last week, and I did not meet anyone wondering about these things. Instead, people were busy working and cleaning and talking - yes talking - face to face. Not chat icon to chat icon.

What an idea.

But the bigger, nastier, more insidious problem with all these online "quizzes" is that you are not the only one investigating your inner donut.

So are corporations.

Remember the surveys?
Long lists of questions which were trying to figure out if we were better suited for Time Magazine or Playboy? Well, people don't like filling them out. Too invasive, they say. And that, my dear quiz-takers, is bad for business. Why? Because business believes they do much better knowing your business.

So, instead of surveys, Facebook and other social media sites are teeming with cute little "quizzes." Which Twin Peaks Character am I? Well, Buzzfeed will gladly tell me once I tell them my favorite movie, song, drink, and TV show. Oh, and while I am at it, also describe a bit about my personality.

Get the picture? It doesn't matter. The people willing to buy the answers to your questions just did—a great big 3-D image of what I am likely to buy, watch, indulge in and who knows what....

I heard the other day that Target knows when a woman is pregnant before she does. It all has to do with buying patterns, which they track like a hummingbird tracks nectar.

In other words, you there in the pseudo-world of internet quiz-land, while you think you are having a little fun finding out if you are Dumbledore or Severus Snape, know in reality it is you who are being played.

What kind of candy are you? Let's hope it is not a sucker.

-Naseem Rakha 4/4/14

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Wavering Capacity of Memory

Lauren Artess and Naseem Rakha, Fetzer Institute, 2010
I flew to Oakland today to spend the weekend with three women I met four years ago at a Fetzer Institute retreat for writers examining the subject of love and forgiveness. My friends are bright, funny, and wonderful people doing the important work of writing and teaching and reaching out and into the world. The four of us have talked about reconnecting for a while now, but life, you know how it intercedes—work, obligations, family. It's a rare thing to actually reconnect with those you've met along the way—the kindred spirits you've held before departing, promising to "get together, somehow, someway..."

Windswept encounters. Little jewels of life.

Yet, here we four are in a house overlooking Tomales Bay, a geologic nexus where the North American and Pacific Plates merge.
Shell Beach State Park, Tomales Bay - Point Reyes

We spent last night catching up on each others' lives. The turns in our relationships, the struggles of our work, the causticness of the publishing world, the mechanization of creativity, the pain and preciousness of this time—caught between life's three great changes—the fading of our parents, the blossoming of our children, and then our own dance with change—the new aches, the temperamental chemistry, the flux of moods. And, most worrying, the wavering capacity of memory.

Each of us notice our mind's latest gaffs: the conversations we swore we've never had, the growing accumulation of words which sit on "the tip of the tongues", the lost items, forgotten names, faces, phone numbers, birthdays.

"What was it that woman said to us about this wine?" Alison asked as she pours me a glass of Petite Sirah. The woman she speaks of is a sommelier we had only just met a few hours before at a market in Point Reyes Station. She was incredibly knowledgable, and had many keen words to describe the taste and structure of wine. We talked with her for about a half hour, pressing her like writers tend. And yet, there Alison and I were just a few hours later, unable to remember a word of what the wine woman had said. We laughed about it, blaming the gaps in our memory on the hormonal meham of menopause. But I couldn't help but worry.

Jennifer Louden and Alison Luterman, Fetzer Inst, 2010
Almost everyone I know has or had someone in their life with dementia. For me, it is my husband's parents. First his father, who passed away two years ago, and now his mom. It's a terrible thing to watch, this slow extraction of identity. It takes away one of the crucial things that distinguishes us as a species: self-consciousness, that ability to contemplate one's actions and see them in the light of how they affect others; to process and evaluate and make choices based on experience and feelings, conceptual calculations rooted in memory.

Self-consciousness is often considered something negative, associated with conceit and confused with self-absorption. But I wonder if the world isn't in need of more fully, self-conscious people: individuals who are aware of how what they think and say and do impacts others? Wouldn't the world be better in some big and important way? Kinder maybe? More considerate, at least? Maybe not. But certainly memory and self-reflection are the bones of our identity. Without these elements, what are we? That is what I, sitting on the edge of the San Andreas Fault on this fine spring morning, want to know.

Jennifer Louden, Alison Luterman, Lauren Artress and Naseem Rakha
at Point Reyes National Seashore, 3/1/14
We four talked until what I thought must be late into the night, but wasn't. It didn't matter, though. We are women of a certain age, and we do not care about convention. So we cleaned the dishes and headed off to our rooms, promising each other a morning of writing before we launch off to hike this spit of land called Point Reyes. We might stop for oysters, we might try to find elk, we might come back and soak in the hot tub, we might read to each other, and figure out someway to watch the oscars tomorrow. We have a whole day to do whatever we want. We are lucky. Blessed. Happy.

At least, if memory serves....

-Naseem Rakha 2/29/14 (oops, no such date....)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

How To Shut up A Fundamentalist

I once had a house painter who tried to convince me the earth is just 6000 years old. I am a non-believer, I told him. This just fueled him more. So I told him I am a mongrel—father a Muslim, mother a Catholic, husband a Humanistic Jew, and me, just an earth-loving freak that likes to dance around bon-fires. That gave him even more gas.

Then I laid the bomb: I am a geologist.

That shut him up.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson posted today on Twitter:

If Noah's flood carved the Grand Canyon 4400 yrs ago, then it nicely exposed rocks at the bottom, laid 2-billion yrs earlier.

October, 2013 - Grand Canyon