Read A Tiny Note [on Two Artists Tuesday]

I was still in shock. It was late, beyond midnight. The roosters were watching for the sunrise. The ritual I’d witnessed that night blew the metaphoric wheels off my car. Wave after wave of knife-wielding priests ran at the Rangda, a priest chosen for the evening to wear the mask, to enter the trance and become the demon. The priests stabbed the Rangda but to no avail. The blades bent. They were repelled. Eventually, all entered the trance and turned the knives on themselves, taking the energy, the protection of the Rangda, into their bodies. Into the community. No one was injured. Peace was made with the Rangda. Balance was affirmed.

I held one of the knives after the ritual was complete. It was not a stage prop. I could not have bent the blade on my chest without doing injury to myself.

Budi explained it all to me. I had so many questions. In his culture, the dark forces are not to be resisted or banished. There is no hell separate from heaven. Evil and good are not compartmentalized. There are energies, some dark and some light. There is no need to make peace with the light. The necessity is to face and make peace with the dark. Balance is created, an intentional relationship with a dynamic whole. It’s a dance of responsibility, a balance of dark and light. The middle way.

Balance.

I loved this photo when Kerri showed it to me. Clover. You can’t tell but it is tiny. It is bursting from beneath the stone that serves as the step onto our deck. It made we wonder if the fairy people were close at hand. They serve, in the western tradition, a similar role to the Rangda in Bali. Nature spirits. It was most important to keep in the good graces with the Fairies. Honor their places. Respect and maintain the balance. According to tradition, they went into hiding, they left because we assaulted their spaces; we came to value the path of resources, mining, deforestation, fracking, damming…over the path of balance.

This tiny breath of clover. I sat on the stone last night. The air was cool after a humid and hot day. DogDog was doing his rounds. I had not thought of the Rangda in years. A tiny community on a tiny island. The “mayor” of the town introduced the ritual to us as their art. “We have so little to offer you,” he said in his broken English, “but we bring you our most prized offering, our art.”

Art. A prized offering. The dance of energies, an intentional relationship with the dynamic whole. An ongoing ritual of balance. It was the first time I witnessed a community that had yet to exorcise its art from the sacred. It bent knives. It restored balance. It belonged and gave deep meaning to every member of the community.

Tiny. Like the Fairies or the community on the island. A simple respect for what is good for the whole. Balance is expressed in the tiny things, the choices of where to walk, what to say. What helps in the long run. What does not. What gives meaning and cohesion to a community. What does not.

Budi would caution us with COVID and guns and a globe that is weirding and warming, “Rangda is ignored,” he’d say.

“Yes,” I’d reply, “the fairies have gone into hiding.”

But, all is not lost. They left a tiny note at our back door. Balance, it reads, is a relationship, an intentional act. It is an ongoing ritual, a tiny sacred thing.

read Kerri’s blog post about CLOVER

Imagine It [on Flawed Wednesday]

Malidoma Somé wrote that a society with locks on its doors is a sick society. Something has broken down when a home needs protection from the other members of the community. Acquiring stuff takes precedence over honoring your neighbor. Can you imagine living in a community built upon mutual respect and trust, that valued and protected its members over its acquisition of stuff? Pie-in-the-sky? That might be the problem: we can’t imagine it.

Societies betray themselves. Despite the values inscribed in library cornices, despite the commandments we hold up as sacred ideals, we lock our houses against each other. We turn away when we see a person in need, their cardboard sign an appeal for help. The gap between the espoused and lived value-set is wide. In a society that claims greatness but practices mediocrity, is it no wonder that so much energy is dedicated to perpetuating a big lie? The lie is not the exception, it is the norm. The lock on the door.

Apparently, there is so much road rage on a particularly beautiful stretch of road rolling into Aspen, Colorado, that signs are posted giving travelers the number to call when the need for help is dire. Societies betray themselves. Why would a road through so much beauty, a road that dead ends in to some of the world’s great ski areas, a place where the elite retreat for some peace and quiet, why would there be so much rage on the road to such a place?

It must be a metaphor.

We tell a good story, that all are created equal, but we fight like hell to keep the full story untold. It’s happening now. Again. Still. Why are we so afraid to tell the whole story of a nation touting equality but built upon slavery and a rolling metamorphic racism? Like an individual, a society can’t address its problem until it admits it has one.

Gaps between espoused and lived values usually fill up with rage. Our gap is textbook. So many guns, so many locks on the door, so many patterns of violence and suppression that repeat over and over again.

Can you imagine living in a society that was proud of its story and need not dunk it in a lie? Or feast on an orgy of guns in order to feel potent and protected? Or post signs warning of the ubiquity of rage? That just might be the problem: we either can’t or won’t imagine it.

read Kerri’s blog post on ROAD RAGE

Complete The Ritual [on KS Friday]

One of the strangest rituals in directing plays comes in the closing hours of tech rehearsal. It is the final button, the cherry on the sundae; the last detail before the addition of the audience: choreographing the bow. The mechanics of gratitude. The curtain falls. The audience claps. The actors return to the stage to accept the appreciation. It’s important, in that moment, to know what to do and where to go. It’s important to know when to bow and when to vacate the stage.

It’s a mechanical moment made generous – made real – when the audience arrives. After having been led through a story or gifted with a performance, the curtain falls, the audience claps in appreciation. The actors, relieved and filled with gratitude, return to the stage and bow in thanks. Appreciation meets appreciation. The strange ritual of the previous day becomes the point of the whole exercise. Without the other, audience and performer, the storytelling is empty. We complete each other. We acknowledge in appreciation this absolute truth. My story is nothing without your witness. Your story is incomplete without my story. You applaud for me. I bow to you.

A major purpose of the artist is to remind the community of this truth. We are nothing without each other. We are capable of walking into impossible questions, when, together, we gather to share and complete a story.

Artistry is a service industry. It is humbling. It is meant to be humbling.

I sit staring at the screen. I am rewriting a script, a piece I performed with a symphony in 2008. I was terrified until the conductor lifted his baton. I remember very little after the first note was played. I came back into my body the moment the music concluded, my story told. The applause. I’ve never felt so small. I’ve never felt so full. Both.

The conductor wants to perform the piece again in 2022, only he asked that I revise the story, something that will speak directly to the issues of our times. The mechanics of writing. A strange ritual, this staring at the screen. I know the story I want to write. I wonder if I am up to this task. And then, I remind myself that this question, “Am I up for it?,” is the wrong question. It leads me to believe that I am alone in this creation. Of course I am not up for it! But, together, with the musicians, the conductor, the audience… Someday, after the mechanics, the rehearsal, the revision, the final button of preparation, we will gather and together, we will walk into impossible places, ask questions too big to be answered. Together, we will join hands and share the experience of a story. The curtain will fall. The audience will clap. The performers will bow. We will remind ourselves, as this strange ritual completes itself, that we are nothing without each other.

[I love this sculpture. Kerri keeps it close by her piano. The Bow by Duke Kruse.]

kerri’s albums are available on iTunes

See The Verb [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Random fact of the day: my waking thought this morning was about The Geography of Thought. No kidding. It’s a terrific book by Richard Nisbett. The subtitle is “How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why.” Somewhere in the recesses of my brain I must have been pondering the bumper sticker we recently saw: I’m With Earth.*

One of the points made in the book, the one that permeated my dream state, is that different languages place different emphasis on different parts of speech. For instance, many Asian languages place emphasis on the verb. English speakers place the emphasis on the noun. In listening to mothers talk to their infant children, an English speaker will say, “Look at the red truck! Do you see the red truck?” An Asian mother will say, “Look at the red truck go!” Do you see the red truck go?”

Why does it matter where the emphasis lands in a language structure? Noun or verb?

The language we use shapes our thinking and seeing. It shapes basic worldviews. Earth as a noun or earth as a verb. Earth as a stand-alone-thing or earth as a moving interrelationship. These are vastly different worldviews.

This was my thought/image coming out of sleep: earth and sky. In a noun world, earth and sky are two distinctly different things. In a verb world, earth and sky are not separate things, they are verbs, actions, interplay of a dynamic relationship. In a noun world, I am also a distinctly different thing. In a verb world, earth, sky and I are not separate things, we are a dynamic inseparable relationship. We.

The bumper sticker is a declaration: I am with earth. It makes perfect sense in a noun world because it is also possible, in a perceptual world of separate things, to be against earth. Nature needs to be conquered, tamed. In a noun world, earth, once tamed, is a resource and resources are meant to be used. In a noun world, we are capable of believing that our actions have no impact on our environment. Action and environment are nouns, separate things.

In a verb world, what you do to the earth is what you do to yourself. No separation. In a perceptual world of relationship, of verbs, it is understood that your actions not only have impacts, your actions are impacts.

We woke to the news of yet another mass shooting. This one in Colorado. As usual, we know that our community and leadership will offer thoughts and prayers but nothing really – not really- will be done to address it. In a noun world, we protect the rights of the individual, the separate thing. In a verb world, there are no mass shootings. None. Violence done to one is violence done to all. In fact, more people are gunned down in the United States in a day than are killed by gun violence in Japan in a decade. The differing linguistic emphasis extends to differing understanding of rights and responsibilities.

Language matters. Where we focus matters. What we emphasize matters. The story we tell is determined by the language we use to tell it. I am with earth. Or, I am earth. I go to worship. I am worship. I seek purpose. I am purpose. Separation. Relationship. A whole philosophy of living reduced to a simple bumper sticker.

So, when we ask complex questions like, “Why can’t we do anything about gun violence?” or, “How is it possible that people in a pandemic refuse to wear masks to protect each other,” our answer is really very simple: our language makes it so.

Perhaps in a world of nouns a declaration is the best we can do. It is a step toward the middle way, a declaration of responsibility to the commons. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. Stop Asian Hate. I’m With Earth.

*The “I’m with Earth” sticker is from the very cool company Gurus

read Kerri’s blog post about I’M WITH EARTH

Line Up Behind “They” [on Merely A Thought Monday]

When the world is just too much to ponder, one of our favorite bits of escapism is to catch an episode of Highway Thru Hell. Heavy rescue tow trucks working miracles clearing the highways of impossible wrecks. Flipping large semi-tractor-trailers, pulling them off of icy bridges and out of ditches. The physics of their work is mind-bending. Angles of lift, leverage, and thrust. Marvels of nuance in heavy metal. It is a symphony of paradox: crude meets delicate, tender masculinity.

On the surface, it seems an odd choice of wellsprings to refill our faith in humanity. But, every time we indulge in our flight from the news-of-the-day, I find myself whispering, “Unbelievable.” Not only do they willingly wade into impossible messes, they do it with a singular and clear understanding: they are serving a greater good. They are trying to open or keep open a highway. Connectivity. Commerce. Community. Like any doctor removing a blockage, they are servants to communal flow. I think that is why we visit them on the highway.

At the shop, they work out their pecking order. There is no lack of flexing muscles and man-drama. But, once they are called to a crash, all the “I” flees the scene. There are police, and flag people. There is traffic backed up for miles; each and every car and truck a person with a place to be. And the tow truck operators know it. They talk about it. Their service outruns their egos. They do not hesitate to call for help. They make choices based on the needs of others. The fantasy-world of “I” dissolves into the hard reality of “Us.”

In that hard reality of “Us,” you’d be hard-pressed to find a more thankless job. They work long hours in extreme weather. The conditions are dangerous and dirty. They clear the wreck, get back into their trucks, and move onto the next, with little or no thanks from the community they serve. Yet, they show up everyday. They take extreme pride in doing their work. There is a mastery that they acknowledge in the older drivers and strive to achieve it themselves. They learn from each other. They mentor each other. They celebrate each other.

They.

When Kevin, one of the tow truck operators, driving away from an exhausting job that took many people and many hours to complete, said with tired satisfaction, “There’s no ‘I’ in team,” I thought, that’s exactly why I escape from my highway thru hell to this Highway Thru Hell.

These Highway Thru Hell guys are plugged into the simple reality of existence. They know unequivocally that no one walks this earth alone. They know that their work on this earth, amidst the mess and chaos and dirt, is about keeping the flow going, and that requires an “I” that lines up behind service to “They.”

read Kerri’s blog post about NO I IN TEAM

Follow The Lights [on KS Friday]

Before moving to Wisconsin I had no holiday tradition. Being “not religious,” my celebrations were more spontaneous and improvisational than rooted in any specific custom or expectation. Dinners with friends. One year I baked bread with strangers. One year I took a boat to an island because there was a hot springs by the beach. One year, because I was alone and life was crumbling all around me, I scheduled for myself 30 coaching calls; that was the most memorable and profound holiday season of my life. I helped people. I met Kerri.

Since moving to Wisconsin my holiday tradition has been to help Kerri create choir performances for services. When I suggest that I helped, I mean I carried stuff, set up chairs, pushed pianos, moved bells into the choir loft, set up microphones, hauled big bowls of sand for candles. I am part Sherpa. It has been the busiest and zaniest time of the year. After playing the late night Christmas Eve service – the last of many running through the week, we come home, and with our neighbors, light luminaria up and down the street, pull two fire pits onto the driveway and stoke them for warmth. We open bottles of wine and place on a table bowls of snacks. People come and, huddled around the fire, we talk and laugh until the cold wee-hours of the morning.

This year, with the loss of jobs and collapse of community, with the pandemic spiking, our traditions are erased. For me, this feels like familiar territory. For Kerri, it is a profound loss and is disorienting. She had a full-on-old-fashioned-melt-down a few nights ago after cutting her finger on a broken wine glass. “It’s too much…” she sobbed. I couldn’t help but feel as she wept that I/We have walked a full-circle. Eight years later, life is again crumbling all around me/us. This could be the most memorable and profound holiday season of our lives. I didn’t offer my thoughts. I have learned in moments of crisis that silence is often more helpful than platitudes of encouragement. I am slow but sometimes I get there.

Leo had a Christmas tradition that I admired. He gave everyone in his circle an orange and a few walnuts. He grew up very poor and, as a child, those were the gifts he received. It was the most and best gifts that his parents could give. Throughout his long and successful life, he gave them to remind himself – and those he loved – that the holiday was not about the stuff. It was about the people who stand in the circle with you, the people who stand in the fire with you. The people who you love, who give all that they have: their hearts. An orange. A few walnuts. Big, big love.

This year, those people will stand virtually with us and we with them. The hot fire of this year has burned away the superficial. The recognizable patterns have all but disappeared. Yet, the essentials remain. The essential few remain. Deeply rooted. Deeply felt.

The cycle of life, the cycle of The Lights in Kerri’s song, reminds us of all that really matters. New life, linking back. Ancient hearts beating in our breasts. Full of light. Full of big, big love.

Kerri’s albums – including the lights – are available on iTunes

read Kerri’s blog post about THE LIGHTS

the lights ©️ 1996 kerri sherwood

Get To Work [on Two Artists Tuesday]

On page one of the despot’s handbook is this instruction: silence the artists. Mute the intellectuals. Authoritarians have power only when people become sheep. Silence in the face of abuse is tacit agreement. Permission to bully.

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve stood before a school board and explained that art is supposed to be powerful, that it plays a very important role in a healthy society, I’d have a lot of nickels. I was generally called to speak when a play or a painting upset the apple cart, when the art made the community confront a truth or look at a reality. Brecht’s Epic Theatre or the plays of Artaud were/are meant to shake the irrational in people, force them into discussion and revelation.

Art can be beautiful, poetry can soothe, but that is only one side of the coin. It can also shine a light and expose an ugly truth. It can give voice to what is not-being-spoken. It can work out problems on the stage instead of sending the violence into the streets. It can ask us to take a hard look at ourselves and our motives. Picasso’s large painting, Guernica, a response to horror wrought by fascists on the people of a town in Spain, is a powerful art-mirror.

The conscience of a community, like the conscience of every individual that comprises the community, lives beyond the superficial, it bubbles in the place beyond words. An artist’s job is to reach into that place, pull the veil for a moment, root or re-root the community in its values.

A despot’s job is to secure a unanimous vote, no questions asked. Sheep.

Art is not superficial. It is not the image or the words on the page. It is what the image, the words, the dance, the music, touch. Hearts. Souls. Conscience.

Without it, what remains is propaganda. Propaganda is never news, it is the opposite of art. It snuffs the question, it prevents the quest for meaning and deep-felt-truth. Without it, communities flatten, lose their center, wither, and fall apart. Silence, eyes downcast or sideways glancing. Permission to bully. Sheep.

It’s time for the artists to get to work.

read Kerri’s blog post about ARTISTS

Simplify [on Flawed Wednsday]

Well, here we are. Counting all the votes. It is our practice, our right and our tradition. While we await a final tally, one thing remains abundantly clear: we couldn’t be more deeply divided. Maybe.

In the months following the 2016 election, Ken Wilber published a small book positing that our division was an evolutionary course correction. We’ve swerved too far into the fields of relative truth – so far, in fact, that there are only personal truths which means that there is no centrally-held value set or moral framework. Thus, we are awash in nihilism and narcissism.

This morning that seems undeniable. The road to integration must pass through a pull in the opposite direction, a course correction. The return to simple truth (make america great again) is what drives the folks in red hats. The irony, of course, is that their chosen champion is one of the great liars of all time. You can’t make this stuff up. The age of relativism and the age of reason are relegating themselves onto the dusty shelf of history and evolving into…

People always recoil when the pace of change announces a new world too fast. Think of this: the Wright brothers first flew a few feet above the ground in 1903. The moon landing happened a mere 66 years later in 1969. In the span of a single lifetime, the entire notion of what it meant to be human changed. We left the planet and looked back at it.

When I was a child and humans were first stepping on the moon, television was black and white, a phone was something with a dial that had a long cord attached. Both needed to be plugged into a wall. People had to gather around “the set” to watch the news. Now, I carry my “phone” in my pocket. It has more computing power than the lunar module. More importantly, I can personalize this magic device. And, to-really-get-to-the-point, my screen is my own. My screen is my own and need not be shared. My truth is my own and need not be shared. In the space of half a lifetime, what if means to be a human community has changed.

The folks in red hats want to pretend that they can go back to simpler times, black and white television, cords on phones, a car in every garage: a world that worked for straight white men but not the rest of the nation. A world of tradition and values. And, need I point out (yes, I do) that their chosen champion is void of anything resembling a value. He assaults our traditions at every turn as he attempts to interrupt the counting of votes, discredit our election process. You can’t make this stuff up.

Simple truth. Simple times.

I’ve learned a new phrase through this election cycle: the diploma divide. The difference between the reds and the blues, as the phrase implies, is education.

Consider this: the simplest of farmers is dependent upon the latest technology. No one is out there harvesting crops with a scythe and mule team. No scientist in the lab or engineer in the factory is growing their own food. Take a stroll through some of the poorest communities in this nation and you’ll find advanced technology. My grandfather could fix his car with a screwdriver and wrench; car mechanics in 2020 fix cars with a computer.

If we can, as Ken Wilber suggests, pull our camera back into outer space and take an honest look at ourselves, we are not as divided in practice as we are in perception.

We need each other. We depend on each other. We are stepping through a transition time, wrestling for our future-identity in rapidly changing times. We can’t go back. We can’t go forward without a shared truth. We need each other now more than ever. We depend upon each other more than ever.

It is that simple.

read Kerri’s blog post about TOGETHER APART

Become A Heart Symbol [on Not So Flawed Wednesday]

Almost anything can become a symbol. Almost anything can be made a symbol.

Symbols are very powerful, probably more powerful than we realize or are willing to admit. People die defending them. People die attacking them. They can serve as a moral compass. They can be a siren call and entice entire communities to crash on the rocks of devastation. Symbols can unite. They can divide. They can clarify. They can obscure. In almost every case, symbols serve as the defining line between Us and Them. They identify.

As a servant to identity, a single symbol can facilitate diametrically opposing points of view: hope and threat. It can be the taut rope in a social tug-of-war. Crazy things happen when, within a community, a symbol runs in opposite directions. We are witness to that today through the symbol of the “mask.” Some see a mask as communal responsibility. Some see it as a threat to individual freedom.

The challenge with any potent symbol is that it burns either through the heart or the guts. Only then does it run to the brain.

For instance, mask-wearers begin their symbolic journey in the heart. The symbol of “mask” is proactive. It signifies service to others and community protection. It unites in a common cause. It runs in the direction of hope. Giving. Inclusion. For them, a mask is a positive symbol. It confirms and accepts science, data, fact. It adapts to new information. It grows.

Mask resisters begin their symbolic journey in the guts. For them, the mask represents a fear of personal loss. It is a divider. It runs in the direction of threat. The symbol is reactive and signifies service to self. Exclusion. A mask, for them is a negative symbol. No amount of data or fact can assault a negative belief. A gut inception inflames the brain. It entrenches.

We’ve heard that, where mask wearing is concerned, there is a declining vigilance of the public. I wonder if that is true. I suspect the perception of declining vigilance is actually a matter of noise. Those who operate from their guts, their fear, will do anything, are capable of any and every form of cage-rattling. Theirs is a symbol of distress and is loud and enraged as is the case with most “me” focused symbols.

Those who operate from their hearts are generally quieter. They know the restraint that compassion brings. They are focused on the betterment of the entire community, including the fearful, so, as is true of most “us” focused symbols, calming the panic is an essential aspect of the action.

I doubt that vigilance is in decline. The fearful gut is screaming louder, garnering attention, daring to be made to wear a mask, cranking up the volume, loudly crying “hoax” – all the while knowingly spreading the disease.

In the meantime the quiet heart, the larger part of us, moves masked through each day. Hope need not make noise or news or announce itself. It is satisfied simply by doing the work of community, the real work of public vigilance.

read Kerri’s blog post about DECLINING VIGILANCE

Come Together [on Merely A Thought Monday]

My theme of life-as-a-circle is still with me. Today, this Labor Day, 2020, bubbles with portent. Unlike any Labor Day in my lifetime, this day seems to dip its toe into the cold origins of this national holiday celebrating laborers but also serves as an omen. An augury.

This holiday, so benign as we now practice it, was borne of fire and conflict. It seems our nation is only capable of learning through the violence that it inflicts upon itself. Waves of riots, years of bloodshed as laborers as young as 5, worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week, and barely eked out a living. The income gap in 2020 mirrors that of the 1890’s, America’s Gilded Age. As historian Nell Irvin Painter explains, “‘Gilded’ is not golden. ‘Gilded’ has the sense of a patina covering something else. It’s the shiny exterior and the rot underneath.” The violence in the streets, the frustration and anger, riots and protests by the common working people forced the government to act. Among other things, Labor Day came into existence. A day off.

“We’re in these cycles in which we learn and forget and learn and forget,” Painter says.

We are in the ‘forgetting’ part of the cycle. It’s Keynsian economics: a capitalist economy can only thrive with the existence of a healthy middle class. Consumption requires capable-and-able consumers. Investment crumbles when consumption stalls. We’ve been here before. We don’t need a crystal ball to see where our unsupported gig economy is taking us. On this Labor Day it is fair game to ask, “What exactly are we celebrating?”

We cycle into remembering when we need to pull together. When we start considering the interests of the whole over the few. When, as the sign says, we remember to take care of one another. During this Labor Day there is a true tell of our capacity to consider one another: a pandemic rages. The estimates top 400,000 deaths by the new year. The only force that can reduce that number is our capacity to consider one another.

Life in the forgetting sweep of the cycle: the streets are alive with riot and protest. People by the millions are losing their homes and their jobs. Desperation and division reign; panicked people rarely think straight.

Life in the remembering sweep of the cycle: people pull their energy and resources together remembering that no one can thrive in a vacuum. A united workforce is capable of reminding “the system” that it was meant to serve them and support them in a shared prosperity. Not to use their labor to benefit the few. Coming together for the betterment of all: it is the original impulse and meaning of Labor Day.

read Kerri’s blog post about LABOR DAY