Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In the Arms of the Mothers

It is a quiet morning in Santa Cruz where ocean fog fills the 8am sky and a local family of mourning doves celebrate the fledgling babies who have grown strong, calling out one to another Hooo hooo hooooo hooo hoo. These last moments of summer surround me, and I realize that it has been almost two months since our last Sisters Singing event in Seattle. The weeks since have been full of family events, hosting visitors, my mother-in-law's 90th birthday gathering, then a final winding down into several weeks of deep silent rest. Now I find myself preparing to leave for a full month alone in Ireland, staying in a beautifully renovated traditional stone cottage on an isolated, craggy island called Bere Island off the southwest coast. I will be alone for 30 days... my gift to my monk-self after this past year of the public world and meeting so many wonderful sisters.

Now this moment. I find myself sitting back to breathe, review photos from the Sisters Singing events, and to be with that last remarkable
night in Seattle. Frankly, it left us all breathless, and me without words. Now that I am emerging, and reviewing our nine remarkable months of touring for Sisters Singing, I find myself thinking about a moment that later showed us how much the evening in Seattle was navigated by Grandmother Spirits with great care and delicacy.

I was in the women’s bathroom, fifteen minutes before we were to begin. I’d just completed a now-familiar ritual: find a quiet place to go over the program (this time a hallway backstage), jot down a few last thoughts, take a deep breath, make that last offering of thanksgiving, then into the local bathroom for a brief moment of final tending. I was there before the mirror, choosing earrings I believe, when Anne Mize walked in. A vibrant, small-boned blonde woman, she apologized for arriving late, saying that she had just the day before gotten off the plane from Africa. How lovely it was to hug her, to see and touch for the first time another of the sisters whose name I had heard for so long.

Anne was clearly happy to be there, but wondered whether her jet-lagged energy would dissipate before the end of the evening. She was scheduled the read last on the program. Could she read towards the beginning instead? In a flash I went through the flow of the evening, and suggested that in fact I thought it would be terrific if she could read first. This would have daunted many writers. But she smiled. Yes, I’d be happy to.

OK. About ten minutes to go. I sat back for a quick moment in the hallway to re-arrange some things in our carefully planned program. Pesha Joyce Gertler, a beloved Seattle poet and writing teacher, was originally scheduled to read first. It was easy to see that she would be wonderful as a closure to the evening. Moving quickly, I found myself putting Pesha just before the poet Beth Coyote, who would now be the last to read. I just had time to walk out and find Pesha and Beth seated in the audience and explain the change before it was time to open the evening.

In those last minutes the evening became woven together in even greater beauty. It was as if the grandmothers noticed a small thread out of place, which they neatly fixed at just the last minute.

But at the time there was only movement, coming to the stage in the theatre Downstairs at Town Hall Seattle, greeting 150 people in the audience, thanking the Seattle community, and diving in. Here were the Sisters, in our ultimate event before we would take a break from tour. I opened, as I have so often, reading from my Introduction about sistering
, the carpenter’s term for putting a piece of unseen wood next to another beam for extra support--that quintessential definition of what it is to sister another person. And how lovely to once again call the brothers as well as the sisters into the circle, to remind us all that as we love, pray, write and create, we are all sistering each other, and the future, and the world.

And then like unrolling a finely woven carpet, I had the happiness of introducing the sisters. One at a time
each stood and gave us the offering of a moment––some time when she had touched the world of spirit and returned with a poem, a song, a story. And to begin with the music of Alysia Tromblay was like morning air and dawn prayers fluttering through us and into the room. Alysia reminded us that at any given moment, somewhere on the planet, someone is praying. Then she opened with an ancient Tibetan mantra, which she chanted before and after her song “Awakening Heart.” Waking the morning, a bird is singing, far away and distant, getting closer to here… Perhaps the best way to imagine Alicia's music is like a prayer bell echoing in a human voice, soft and tinkling at times, deep and resonant at others, always nurturing, always a full-bodied call to prayer.

Ah. Then how lovely to welcome Anne Mize, a wonderful presence, the poet one who travels the world and turns it into poetry. She read “Arctic Wolf”, then “Sunrise at Dark Canyon,” reminding us as we set out into the evening’s journey This once, don’t shield your eyes. Choose to stand on the edge, and be your full self, melting.

Thank you, thank you, and the Sisters were weaving their magic and we were on our way. Linda Barton followed and how wonderful to hear her read two poems including “Fire Dance” from Sisters Singing,
set in the Himalayas––­­another journey in another land, another welcome into the mystery.

We were in the hands of gifted guides. And still who could have imagined what it would be to enter the sublime music of Jami Sieber as we continued to unroll the fine carpet? Jamie, that Sister who draws prayer out of the electric cello as if her hands and body blend with the instrument and become one. One great movement of music and praise. One great offering of self and beauty. She offered her etheareal instrumental song “Benediction”, the notes and rhythms set beside each other so as to make a poem

Blessings. And how blessed it was to then welcome Carolyn Davis Rudolph to the stage. Carolyn, who for many years was one of the “island people” in Seattle–arranging life around water, crossings, and ferries. Now deeply braided into life in Santa Cruz, Carolyn still has many Seattle friends, all of whom came out to hear her read. Her “Everyday Offerings” is a fresh, funny, and keenly insightful piece about one women’s search for God, and I was thrilled to hear her offer it to us all, fully embodied. We saw the beautiful woman that search had created, and we were hopeful.

Yes–for then it was June Bluespruce standing before us, glowing in a ephemeral way, as if some wisdom had flowed from the universe and now lived in her cells -- or, (and perhaps this is the same thing) flowed from her cells and now lived in her consciously. Her poetry of love and longing echoed and vibrated all of us, including “Heart Wood” for her son-I have loved you all your life/but can’t seem to let you know it/words too explicit/voice too loud/timing’s off//I give it up, let go/pound sympathetic rhythms/while you count out heartbeats/on soft rounded wood//who needs words/when we have an ocean?

And now the heartbeats were moving, as I introduced Jami to sing “In the Arms of the Mother” written in the 1990’s in war-torn Croatia. She told us that after speaking with Croatian women and mothers, hearing stories of rape and kidnapping, she and her friend the singer Rhiannon had gone to the Adriatic Sea to swim. From that came moment in the ocean came Jami’s haunting instrumentation and Rhiannon’s lyrics and music, a simple, rhythmic chant, not unlike the rocking waves of the ocean.
In the arms of the Mother, the great Adriatic mother/in the arms of the Mother, I lay down.

This was alchemy... June as mother evoking the ocean, Jami singing of the Great Adriatic Mother… I had not consciously seen these threads when planning the event. Yet we were all of us the fine threads the grandmothers used to weave evening's beauty, doing our best to listen deep, be where they wished us to be, to do what was required, to stand deep within our own full and true hearts.

After everyone took a moment to move and talk and touch each other at the intermission, the healer and vocalist Coleen Renee came to the stage and offered her music a cappella, joined by two friends with whom she has sung for many years.
They were wonderful. Coleen told us that the man singing on her right was a quintessential “sister” as described that evening in my Introduction. Coleen’s music offered us the gift of sitting inside the human voice. Braided together by their threesome, simple, ancient, beautiful–and joined by all of us as they call us to sing with them. It was pure benediction.

Then Katie! Katie Nelson, writer, artist and muse extraordinaire, who has been a friend and support to Sisters Singing
from the beginning. Her “In the Garden of the Heart” is a quintessential piece about the erotic abundance of a garden. For a garden to be alive there must be sex, lots and lots of sex… Hearing Katie read, to sense her great love of the physical, sensual world, was thrilling indeed. Marcia Moonstar followed her, evoking the goddess directly with her poem “Earthia” – the goddess who tells us: Once a day lay your body upon my body. Marcia, a priestess of the goddess right in our midst. The earth, the garden, the body of delight.

Can you see the grandmothers above and behind and within and at the center of the stage, weaving it all together? Next Jami returned to offer “The River Between”, and now everyone was swaying in their chairs, many were dancing in the aisles, off to the sides and in the back, swirling ecstatic movement. The body of delight, the garden. Many people become one.

And still there was more, for next I returned to the stage, glowing and well-used by the spirits, to introduce the final two poets. Pesha Joyce Gertler, beloved writer elder, stood before us as muse and possibility. She read “Meditation Journey” evoking the great movement that lies within the apparent stillness of meditation. Then she offered two more stunning short poems, including “To The Wind".

If you do not give your name to the wind/ if you do not yield to the notion of Paradise/ how will your clan find you/ how will they know it is your hands/ that are missing from the circle/ your dreams that could fill the holes/ in their own?

So beautiful. Now we were sighing and there were tears in the audience, for Pesha had found words for a great longing to find that place and that clan where we belong and can offer our hands and be easy and of use. And for long moments that night, we touched that feeling: what is is to be held by the sisters, and in the arms of the be held within a great and soft and unyielding embrace.

And now the alchemy was growing on its own, we had been spun and blended and joined together just so. I was out of my mind now, grinning like a happy Fool on stage, just happy to have midwifed such beauty. And as any midwife knows, we are not responsible for the beauty we help to birth. It is its own beauty. How lovely then to introduce Beth Coyote as the final poet: Beth the midwife whose hands only hours before had been welcoming a new being from between the legs of a mother. Beth stood in that calm and steady birthing glow that is like no other, and read her poem Milagros—miracles­––It is a milagro to be here. Then she offered as the final poem of the evening, “Mothers Do This”:

In the ambulance, I held you in my arms
you were small and limp
wearing a nightgown with light pink flowers

I thought you might die

sirens pitching through country roads

I was making deals, please take me

I can go in her place, take me

I knew then I would do anything

mothers do this

they give all the bread to the children

so the children might live

they stand in front of soldiers with guns

they swim across with the baby on their back

everywhere, mothers are holding out their arms

walking forward into the burning fields

saying, take me so she might live

Mothers do this.
We were now entirely in Her hands. For I had not realized why Beth had to read last, what it would be to have Alysia Tromblay come to the stage next to close the evening with music. She offered her voice of prayer and lamentation to “Mother Mercy,” which she wrote in New York City after September 11, 2001.

Mother mercy, I hear your wisdom call

May I answer with the sounds of forgiveness…

Mother compassion, if I’m willing can I stay

and learn to love your way one more day…

So I may move a mountain with the humblest of seeds

dare to whisper I’m willing to receive,

move a mountain with the simplest of needs?

Oh mother, have mercy on me.

As we ended we had been pulled as if by moonlit tides into a place together, beyond words, beyond music, beyond human sounds and intentions and into a place of breath and depth. A great applause filled us all, a final gladness, as if we had reached all possibility.

In the arms of the mothers. There we sat, and sang and danced and hugged and wept. There we hoped and promised and intended for beauty. There we insisted we believed such beauty could live forever.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Recipe (for Happiness)

Begin with a wedding. Make sure it is the wedding of someone wonderful, like your spouse’s beloved niece Sara who has found true love at age 33. Locate the wedding along the McKenzie River in Oregon, just outside of Eugene, in a place where eagles soar above the wedding canopy just when the officiate welcomes the gathered community to hold and protect the marriage. Make sure the bride is beautiful, wearing a long white gown, flowers in her hair, that certain glow that tells everyone you have entered a venerable ritual moment. It is best if at some point in the evening the bride and groom are lifted up on chairs and pranced around by young and strong friends, while a samba band plays and fifty people dance in the grass. Hug the groom, whom you have just met, admire his dancing, his stamina, his pure and unadorned love for your niece. Sit back and sigh.

After a few hours, gather up this happiness like a bouquet thrown by the bride, and travel it with you back to the little house you’ve rented with your spouse and daughters. Lay on the bed with youngest daughter Emily, still in your wedding finery, chatting about everyone and everything. Make sure your older daughter Katie comes into the room and lays down with you, then add your spouse Jean, crawling in among the arms and legs. Chuckle together late into the evening. Let daughter Emily read a chapter to your from the clever book she is reading, laying on the pillow with a grin. Before sleep, look up to the moonlit sky, and sigh.

If at all possible, the next morning arrange to have a massage from the local talent along the river. That afternoon enjoy your family, remembering when, two years before, they came together for your own wedding. Revel in the matings that enrich life and require everything from life, stretching us and making the heart big, messy, thickly-braided, connected at the core.

After a while, follow the map towards Portland to the home of your sister-in-law Sue and her husband Tom, the mother and father of the bride. Everyone put up your feet outside in their leafy yard, enjoying the long northwest evening, fresh salsa, a bowl of chips, and wine from the wedding. Give their much-loved son Dave a big hug. Talk together about everyone and everything. At this point it is good to add in wedding photographs, freshly taken. Sigh and coo together. Eat up the wedding a second time like a sweet, decorated cake.

After a day of relaxation in the good Portland air, take a shower and put on something dressy. Drive across town and meet some fine poets at a terrific restaurant. Ensure that they are all beloved to you, people you’ve known many years. After breaking bread and laughing together, make your way to a lovely independent bookstore. If it can be called Annie Bloom’s Books, you have the exact right ingredients. Notice your book in the window, and the sign at the door saying that Sisters Singing will be reading there that night. Admire the empty chairs all set up for your event, and wonder who will come. Enjoy the lovely woman from the bookstore helping you set up. Be glad when she allows you to light a candle on the altar that holds the Grandmother Drum and one blessed copy of your book. Notice that two people show up a half hour early, and sit right in the front row. This is a good sign, a very good sign.

Thirty minutes later, the recipe will have reached its apex. Let your eyes sweep over the sixty people gathered standing room only in the store. Test the microphone, and tell everyone how beautiful they are. Then begin introducing poets, your very favorite thing.

Start with Johanna Courtleigh. Make sure she is tall, beautiful, a gifted healer and writer. Dance in your heart with the happiness she has found in Portland, at the lovely new home along a lake she showed you earlier that day, at the clear way her love pours from her as she reads. Then after the applause, add in more poets, who are, as it happens, all from Santa Cruz. Begin your spouse Jean. It is best if her sister Sue, a long-time ally of Sisters Singing, is in the audience. Listen to Jean read “Prayer for My Mother (At 83 Years Old)”, knowing that her mother is about to turn ninety in a couple of weeks. Be glad yet again for the joining that has shaped and re-shaped your life. Gaze up at your spouse and sigh.

Continue on. Introduce the wonderful Mary Camille Thomas, making sure her own sister, who lives in Portland, is in the audience. This ingredient always knows how to rise on its own. This heart is clear and quiet, as she reads her poetry that is prayer, that is blessing. Listen yet again to the applause. Next, stand before the assembled and bring up Cooper Gallegos. Listen to her resonant voice as she makes everyone laugh and sigh as she reads about attending a meditation retreat not knowing it will entail four days of silence. Journey with her into the heart of silence, finding the Buddha, finding the sacred in the tree, and in the plastic chair underneath the tree, and also in the silence at the core of her heart.

Then get down to the final ingredients. Bring up Marigold Fine, the irreplaceable, the lovely. If at all possible, ensure that her daughter who also lives in Portland, is sitting next to her before she comes up. Listen to Marigold read “Prayer of Thanksgiving” and give your own thanks to the divine Great Mother and to the Grandmother Spirits who have come to your life and blessed it. Admire Marigold’s beauty and fine good heart. Then stand before everyone and read your own poem “BirthSong." Feel it land deeply.

Then the last two ingredients. First bring back Johanna Courtleigh to read “The Coming of Grace"–letting her voice carry the luminous poem so that the room is carried into a hushed spell. Then welcome back Jean to read the last poem in the book, “We Must Insist.” This poem, she says, is a teaching from the ancestors about how to live in the future. Let the poem enter into your pores. Say yes yes yes. Feel the audience say yes yes yes.

Sit back, look up a the ceiling, close your eyes, and sigh.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Back at Nancy Rigg’s house in Camarillo where Jean and I were staying, a fire was crackling in the fireplace and a bottle of rare forty-five-year-old port sat on the table. Jean and I walked in around midnight, after a quiet moonlit drive along the Southern California coast. The night was easy, the sky clear. The full moon gleamed sweet and strong–another sister, singing. Unlike the hour-long drive north along busy Route 1 to Santa Barbara, filled as we were with details and preparation for the evening program, we slid back towards Nancy’s house like riding a gentle wave. To our right out the window, the mother ocean eased in and out of the shore, illuminated by a flute of moonlight sluicing through the ocean like a beam.

We traveled through the gorgeous hills of the Santa Susanna Mountains to lovely Camarillo, and to Nancy’s street, tiptoeing up to the door. We imagined she’d likely gone to bed after the long night, and planned to slip into her spare room with little fanfare. How sweet to be met at the door by Nancy and her beloved dog Fiona, the fire crackling and the brandy glasses waiting. And oh, who indeed could truly sleep? As we settled into the generous armchairs by the flames, each with our small glass, Nancy poured from the bottle of expensive port that her father, dead six years, had himself purchased fifteen years before--a rare treat they keep for special occasions.

It was indeed an evening worthy of ceremony, and we sat back to revel in our Sisters Singing readings in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Nancy had invited her friends and family to the Santa Barbara reading that evening, and in the front row her 84-year-old mother had sat beaming happily, along with several friends. Nancy's mother was once a concert violinist, before marriage to a gifted, unique man who brought his family to an abandoned western town in Colorado to work his own mine. Nancy grew up high in the mountains, watching her father go off to pull gold, copper and silver from the land. Her mother never seriously played the violin again, a story heartbreakingly familiar to many of our mothers. Yet the family instrument, over a hundred years old, is still with Nancy. And as is probably not surprising, she can play. At the reading that night she opened the second half with a melancholy Celtic tune, so that we were brought all the way in to the soul, as if deep on our knees.

Nancy's mother, despite a recent stroke and its many hearbreaking repercussions, was there to see it all: her violin brought out and played before an audience, Nancy reading about her healing journey after the loss of her fiancĂ© to flooding whitewaters almost thirty years ago. And how lovely it must have been to beam upon her daughter, to admire Nancy's work in the years since then creating the Drowning Support Network for families whose beloved ones die in water-related accidents. Over the years Nancy has witnessed and carried countless stories of shattering grief, including people who lost family in the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and Katrina. Our last morning there, she emerged from reading her email with tears in her eyes. Families members had written about the loss of their beloved ones, and how difficult it was, even after long periods, to believe their daughter or father was dead and not on an extended journey. Nancy told us about some of the stories, her voice breaking. “I’m not usually like this,” she said, wiping her eyes. “It must have been the poetry last night, and just, oh, everything.”

Yes, everything. I embraced her then, for a few long moments, and we were both held within the sweet sanctuary of her profound good heart. Here, I think, is the currency in all of the Sisters' networks. Sanctuary. Nancy’s spare bedroom, a glass of fine port, a hug, the many support networks we all carry, a poem read over breakfast, a meal, a place to sit and rest. This is the sweet, unexpected blessing that Sisters Singing has given me. I don't think I knew the world could be so welcoming. Again and again, those who only know Jean and I slightly have housed and fed us and treated us like kin. Gifted people with ordinary life foibles and difficulties, yet a true generosity of spirit that holds hearts and feeds lives and saves the soul.

Several years ago I wrote a vision which become the Afterword for Sisters Singing. It envisioned a web of safe houses in which we all nourish, hold and heal each other. A web that is invisible, world-wide, and netted together into one organic whole: each personal web connected to the next, and the next, and so on throughout the planet. What I did not know is that the process of bringing out the book would require me to enter this web as traveler and guest. We have accomplished a national book tour with few monetary resources; the gift of this is that we had to rely on the kindness of friends and the help of the Sisters.

One sister who first heard me read the essay "Safe Houses" aloud and encouraged me to publish it was Ayelet Berman-Cohen. Ayelet saw in that piece some essence of her own life vision: to provide a safe house for visitors, children, guests and travelers. And though she and her family were away the weekend of our visit to Los Angeles, they generously opened their home to us–a true safe house indeed.

Again and again, it has been the same. Good people, solid lives, safe houses. The worldwide network of Safe Houses is as strong and indelible as the vision suggests. Our existing connections and generosities have created a web that is held together by good, good hearts. There is nothing in the universe stronger than this.

And that night by the fire, Nancy, Jean and I sat re-visiting it all, like fingering prayer beads, beginning with our luminous evening at the Unitarian Universalist Church in LA in a sacred sanctuary, 150 people with us, such celebration, such applause! The sanctuary had a glow at the end, as a dozen of the Sisters stood before the audience and bowed together. Deena Metzger and Jami Sieber had just finished their set of joint poetry and music, Deena reading poems from Sisters Singing and her new collection Beauty and Ruin, Jami doing what only she can do, snaking her luminous cello through the poetry so that the words and the music dance together. Deena’s poetry, Jami’s music, two gifted women who love each other beaming their love like starlit galaxies across the stage.

Oh, the goodness of it all. Deena and Jami followed an already full evening of women's sacred writing. There was Danelia Wild, who was at the core of creating the reading itself—finding the venue, handling details, and in her usual way, creating a wonderful spread of flowers and food–then reading beautifully of her mother leaving Ireland as a young woman, yearning and longing dancing through each lyrical line. And Lawrie Hartt standing before the audience with her great and glorious resonant voice, sharing her poetry of journey, spiritual insight and reconciliation. Deborah Edler Brown, stunning the audience with her reading, including the searing “Women’s Work” which broke open everyone’s heart. Reem Hammad and her lovely piece about her grandmother and the care with which she’d been tended and raised by strong and caring women’s hands. Carmen Rita Menendez opening the evening with “Beets of Life”, with the wisdom and rare wit that is hers alone. Sharon Simone giving a beautiful reading of her ethereal poetry in the hushed and expectant room. Lori Levy, who I met for the first time that night, reading her poem “The Blue Embrace”, clear and lovely. And ending with the shaman Valerie Wolf/Grandmother White Bear, reading her dream “The Peacemaker’s Gift” about grief and hope, and the work we must all do to bring forth a peaceful future.

Yes, the room glowed and our ancestors hummed through the centuries as we stood together that night at the end of it all. It was the same on Monday evening in Santa Barbara, where many of the same poets read their work. And we were joined by two new voices that night. The luminous Holly Metz and her family joined us, her young sons running up into her arms after her beautiful reading of her piece "Owl." And Maria Papacostaki, poet, healer and racounteur, had traveled from Philadelphia to Santa Barbara, where she studies depth psychology, to read with us that night–her poetry beautiful, melancholy, juicy as ever.

It was Maria who brought us to Lori Pye and the Institute for Cultural Change, who had sponsored our reading, found the venue at the Montecito Library, and spread the word in Santa Barbara. It was a real delight to meet Lori, to turn again to find a friendly, intelligent and wise sister, to see that there truly are sisters and brothers all over the world. I had marveled at Lori's work fostering inner change and cultural transformation on the Institute's lovely web site. Hand to hand to hand, one to one, we find each other.

Around the fire long into Monday evening we lingered quite a while on one other gathering: a Sisters circle on Sunday at the quintessential safe house: Deena Metzger's home. The Sisters shared a meal and spoke our stories, doing as we do, carrying the thread. How luscious to introduce Nancy Rigg and Reem Hammad to the community at Deena’s home, to see Reem slide into the group as if she’d always been there, to hear Nancy and Deb Brown jamming on guitar and violin like old friends. And then that next night, sitting with Nancy in another Safe House friendly by the fire. Oh the moon, oh the ocean, oh these worlds of Sisters. And at the essence of it all: sanctuary. That is what our book provides, and what our extended community offers. Together, we are learning how to walk another way, hands extended, arms open–the body, the home, the pages of a book becoming sanctuary, safe house, that embrace that flows through all human meaning and warms us, the wise grandmother in the center of the web, dreaming us all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Home Stream

There are blessed, unending cycles in this world. We leave and return to the same places again and again, as if we are called by some force greater than we know. Perhaps we can't help it–we are a round planet traveling a circular orbit around a great spherical Sun. Every day we live cycles deep in our bones: day and night, moon waxing and waning, we slip in and out of the dreaming and non-dreaming worlds like a seal diving into the waves and splashing up for air. We leave home and we return, like whales traversing great oceans, or winged creatures traveling hundreds of miles each year to track light and warmth. When it is time to make new babies, salmon leave the ocean to swim upcurrent through rivers and streams, precisely back to home stream, the place where they were birthed.

Returning. The year I turned thirty, I met a woman. I had heard her name years before, because someone had mentioned intimate letters that this woman and a friend had written to each other over many years. One day they brought their intimate lives public and read these letters to an audience. This woman and her friend, as young mothers and emerging writers, would squeeze hard-won writing time together–and then go into separate rooms to write to each other. Something about this writerly intimacy, this act of breathing a letter out onto the page in a way that brought out the truth more deeply than anything that could be said, cut deep into my young heart. Here lie the essence of what written language could do to bring us together, cutting past the mundane world to touch what is authentic, melancholy, true in the soul. This is what that woman knew.

One night I saw her read her poetry, and sat dazzled. And in a rare moment after the reading when everyone was talking excitedly to each other, I turned to find her standing alone, a smaller being than she had seemed at the podium, suddenly stranded and a little shy. It was as if the waters had parted unexpectedly, and only momentarily– and though I was young and unformed and entirely undone by life and injury–I found it in myself to do the thing that would utterly and irrevocably change my life. I walked up to the poet Deena Metzger, stuttered a greeting, and told her I wanted to write.

So many of us have these stories. I think they are creation myths, stories of how our births came about, how we found the person fated to provide a signpost, saying Here, come this way, look up the canyon into these hills, see the light moving across the land. Look. It is possible to see, to look, to truly be alive. This is my writer's birth story: how I came to find Deena--creation-woman, animal dreamer, wise healer, luminous poet riding the night sky. For fifty years she has sought and created beauty in the written word, tracking like a lover the great language-song floating all around us on streams of pure air.

Deena. She is my home stream, that place I return seasonally in the endless cycles of growth and death. She is the place I come to as I wend my way through life's tempering dance, the spawning of what is new and laying down what is old. It has been two decades since the night we met, and we have become teacher and student, beloved friends, kin, and colleagues. And each year, like a magnetic pull, I follow the night stars, or my sense of smell, or some pulling force like tides at the new moon, and ride the waves towards her. Home stream, where I learned anything that mattered to me, and found the Self who could live this life and bear it. Deena activated and sheltered my writing and my soul for years, then when it was time for me to leave her town, like any good mother she gently released me into my life and work and ancestral destiny. And still, always and everywhere, every year: I return.

This first week of June is like any other week in these Sister-filled days: I check email and affirm details and gather people and poets and musicians and plan like a weaver our Sisters Singing gatherings. The river I am in is rushing wildly, great fast-moving Sister-tides sweeping me along, and I am tumbling and exuberant and managing to stay afloat and ride it all. But too, this week is not like any other week, for in three days I will enter again my own beloved, constant cycle: I will travel south towards home stream. And I will land at the home of Deena Metzger.

How many times have I done this? How many journeys have there been, packing the car and traversing the waves southward, following the scent that was imprinted on me twenty years ago when we first met and I sat haltingly– quiet girl with quiet pen–in a circle in her home and began to write? Who could have known, then, what was to come? But we cannot imagine our fates, and our futures are as unwritten and even unlikely as the future that young girl is now living. We simply cannot know, in any way, what is coming.

Some time in 2006, when I began to have a sense of the marvelous book we had in Sisters Singing, I wrote to my beloved Deena and asked if she would read the manuscript and write a Foreword. I left a huge binder at her home, and one day, in the weeks that followed, on my screen in that great transmission of electric wires and pure love, it arrived in my lap. Her Foreword is a stunning piece of writing about women and the sacred and the beauty of our book. It was one of those moments when perhaps I glimpsed the future that Sisters Singing would necessarily have. I sat back, in silence. Sucked in my breath. And prayed.

Now this: the joy of reunion. Sisters Singing moving into the world with great light and happiness, me gathering up the Sisters where I can find them so that we can be together and continue to thread the web that the grandmothers want us to weave and live. Here is the woman who showed me the way, who first taught me that the ancestors and grandmother spirits are not just stories or hopeful dreams. They are real and they have intentions and we are their partners. She taught me how to do what I do, and in that, Deena is the original blessing of Sisters Singing, and the reason the book exists.

I sit in my little upstairs room and gaze at the redwoods out the window. A moment ago as I was writing a great black Crow flew by. A squirrel family lives in these trees; baby squirrel yesterday was hopping our fence and checking out our garden. This is a sign of the newness of the spirit, I think, the possibility of the coming time. Soon Jean and I will pack ourselves and our things, put some books in the trunk, point our hearts and steering wheel southward, and make our way towards home stream. And on Saturday June 6 in LA, in my great happiness I will stand before an audience and welcome Deena Metzger and her poetry and her light and her great, astonishing heart. And together with Sisters Singing, we will introduce to the world her new collection of poems, Ruin and Beauty–dazzling pieces of vision of which the beloved writer Susan Griffin says, 'If as a poet I have long believed that poetry can save the world, what I want to say now is: this poetry can save the world.'

This poetry can save the world. This is the landscape we have entered. All of it: these praise songs to the divine in Deena's language and in our luscious book of Sisters prayers. I think of June 6 and am thrilled: so many beloved poets and writers will read that night that I can hardly imagine the joy of it all. And so I prepare, keep things in place, navigate details and flyers and books and sound systems. But in my heart, there is a great tingling. I often say that Sisters Singing is a great gathering of community. The home stream where I am going is one of those places where community hums and the great heart at the center of the world pulses with love.

Soon I will look out on the hills of Deena’s land, hold her beloved self. She is, always, smaller in body than I expect, and for all her largeness of mind and heart, she is still a little shy. I like to sweep her up in my arms and hold her close. And this I will do, in just a few days.

There are moments in our lives that are made of universal breath, when our eyes are opened and we awaken to ourselves, and to the pure Beauty at the core of Creation. Deena provided such a moment for me. Some debts are unpayable, except to be named as such. Or, the way to pay the debt is to fully live the gift. So here I am. I fully live what you offered me, my Deena. There are cycles in this world, over and over, around and within. In this life, my beloved, wherever you are, I will find your scent, I will follow your imprint, in whatever realm you reside, I will always return to you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Alison's Bench

She was one of the holy ones. We knew it as we sat in my living room week after week, hearing Alison Bermond read fresh new words from the many pages she'd filled during our thirty minutes of writing. The stories she wrote were like luminous quilts, passages of deep spirit and ancestral memory set against each other just so, not unlike the lovely fabrics she chose to wear. Her modest heart would look up after she read to our circle, almost apologetic or embarrassed, wading through the stunned silence as we let her language flow through us and then stuttered out some form of response. She sat rounded sometimes, bent like Ghandi, over-quiet, filled with a fierceness of belief, a heart large, overly-brave, exploring her life of devotion to beauty and the divine, to seeking a path to language and creativity, to piercing the truth.

There were so many surrounding her: spirit-brothers and sisters who held her with profound love. And we women of her writing group knew we held a special place in her life, and that our embrace was one of the things holding her up.

Just a year ago, she died. Alison Bermond, the author of two beautiful essays in Sisters Singing–and countless other poems, stories, essays hundreds of paintings and drawings–was gone before she and I could revel together over a stunning dream I had about her a week before she left. Her death was sudden–and of course it was not. She had lived with metastasized cancer for 18 months, longer than many, and had written achingly beautiful pieces about the place and metaphor of illness and cancer in our world. All of us sharing the path with her knew that her chemotherapy had taken a difficult turn. But still. She had begun to seem like that wild phoenix, always rising, and her last year had been joyful, with horseback riding classes and African dance, walking at the beloved ocean where she lived, spending time with deep friends, writing.

It seemed possible she could ride this last turn as well, squeeze more time out of the hour glass, though we’d recently seen her gaunt body and swollen ankles, and knew the signs. Still, even death that is not sudden nonetheless often is. So it was that one day she was out lunching with her wonderful step-mother who was visiting from London, after a blood transfer and a “good day." And the next she was asking to go to the hospital, that last place anyone ever asks to go. When she emerged a few days later she had begun that passage that awaits us all. Her last blessed hours were surrounded by her nearest beloveds and family in her home.

As fate sometimes arranges these things, our writing group had our regular meeting the day of her death. In our great grief we wrote, filling the page: about Alison, about death, about life. Then we went to stand around her body as final blessing. She was surrounded by candles, flowers, altars, incense, beautiful textures and cloths. She looked like the holy woman she had always been, and her face was serene. She had a small inward smile, as if she was acknowledging a pleasing private thought. She’d tripped that crazy portal, joined the light.

Again and again we learn this truth: we have to relinquish our most cherished beloved ones. One day, it is inevitable. They move farther beyond us on the path. And one day, we too will relinquish our bodies. When we do, the ones who love us will likely come together, in order to remember. So it was that a circle of twelve or so stood last Sunday at Seabright Beach–Alison's beach, just a block from her home–to bless a wonderful physical artifact erected in her memory. Not a tomb stone, not a building or an institution–but a place to sit. A place to gaze at the sea, to write a poem, talk with a friend, to think.

We were at Alison’s bench. And inscribed along the top was the following:

1953 -2007
With love from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the stars

Bob Jaffe, Alison’s beloved, had arranged it all, inscribing words Alison used to say to her daughter Serena. We gathered together and made a circle around the bench, situated at a sweet corner on Seabright Avenue across from a popular beach on a busy street. The day was bright like summer, and our circle stood drenched in warm sunlight. Behind us enterprising kids set up an old-fashioned lemonade stand, calling out LEMONADE! LEMONADE! so as to let the scores of people streaming by with chairs, towels, and beach umbrellas know there was sustenance to be found. An ice cream man on a bicycle trundled over towards the beach and up the road, twinkling his little song. Above us pelicans flew by, again and again in formation, so that they became a sign.

Two weeks before she died, I dreamt that Alison and I were at a spiritual retreat, and the leader, a small holy man from India, paired us to work together as a team. We stood before him, and he showed us the image of our beds moved together foot to foot, so that our sleeping spirits could dance in the night. We looked at him, a little shy, questioning how to proceed. He smiled reassuringly, held his arms out to touch our shoulders, then said simply, “You are to cherish each other. That is all.”

Cherish each other. Standing at the bench together, Bob told us that at first the City of Santa Cruz had said another bench was simply not possible, the park was full, it couldn’t happen. And Bob had told the Parks employee of his love and cherishment of Alison, his sweetheart. Then something shifted, suddenly there was an opening, a possibility, let me call you back–and after the paperwork and the waiting, it happened. We were there surrounding the bench, and Alison’s name was inscribed to the stars, under the great sky, before the sea.

In the circle we each spoke a small tribute of love. Some put flowers on the bench, some sang. Miriam Chaya, who had helped to organize the day, spoke of the pelicans above, soaring with Alison. I read the last stanzas of “Four Quartets” by T. S. Elliott, one of Alison's most beloved poems.

Then I read from “Tiferet,” one of Alison's essays in Sisters Singing. Raising my voice to be heard, I read her words among the cars spinning past and people calling to each other on the beach, the lemonade kids behind us making a sale, and yet another band of pelicans soaring by. As I read, I noticed that Bob had brought his cell phone over towards me. On the phone was Ed, Alison’s beloved friend and ex-husband, who had cared for her in her last year in the same way he’d loved her for so long: gently, fiercely, calmly, a stream of devotion so wide, clear and tender it had engulfed us all. Ed was in Brazil, half-way around the world–but with us too in that moment, listening as Alison’s words rang out into the air, piercing everything, raining down upon us, upon her bench, as benediction:


...I ask myself what is the place of beauty for me? Is it the arched windows of my house, the way the light moves across the floor, the vivid colors? This is only a part, like the sequined shoe of the tango dancer. The dance itself is something else. I know that for me it is the voice on the end of the phone trying to tell me the story and it is my ability to listen, to hear between the words, that vast silence.

Sitting at Sara's table at night, a candle burns. The traffic rushes past outside. We have eaten foods from her island, food from a culture that no longer exists, that perished in the ovens of Poland with those who died. Leeks and spinach bourekkas and her special rice with pinon nuts. She is telling me about her life, about the time when she fell into an abyss, when all seemed lost, all was taken away. She tells me about the men in her life who treated her badly, but mostly she speaks about what sustained her and continues to do so. The operas, the music, the poetry. How she and her husband would sit weeping together as they heard La Traviata, La Boheme. She is sharing these jewels of her life with me. I am in awe. We are laughing as we speak, even of the sadness. Time has vanished.

As I hear her words, I am at the feet of my mother and my grandmother and my great grandmother. I am drinking in the connection with life. The connection with this mystery, with the traditions of my people: the ragged cloth, the worn bag carried from place to place that holds the tallit and the tefillin. Blue velvet like a desert night embroidered with gold. I am here in this dark place that holds the trees at night glistening with fruit.

Inside I am a dancer. I wear a costume of black lace. I wear the strap shoes with a heel of the flamenco dancer, a shawl with red flowers. I move to the sounds of hands clapping and the voice of a singer who cries like the wind. I am in the heart of the meeting in the words not spoken but clearly heard. I am in the touch of the hand in that place opposite my heart where there would be wings.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Linda and Linda

Oh my, I am a bit surprised to be here–curled up warm under two sleeping bags in a tent cabin surrounded by redwood trees, pen and notebook in hand, at Big Basin Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We’ve just arrived in the forest, after the sprint of the past couple of weeks since returning home from our wonderful east coast Sisters Singing tour. Last Thursday we drove five hours to Chico for a sweet and intimate reading at Lyon’s Books, organized by the poets Linda Serrato and Lara Gularte. Since returning from Chico I’ve been a little akin to a crazy stalker in the night, tracking venues and singers and media and poets for the last portion of our tour. Email like a constant dance, those stolen phone calls with the key person, finally found, cell phone in the car, and my mind searching out the pieces of an intricate, beautiful and intriguing puzzle.

Now this. Plans made months ago for a two-day getaway to the mountains for Jean and I with our beloved friend Joyce. I look out the window to these ancient trees. In a moment we’ll walk through a stand of ancient thousand-year-old redwoods, their great old bark craggy and hairy and thick, and then our dinner outside under the stars. Oh this life.

If I sit very still by these great trees, I can remember the time I first heard Linda Serrato read her poetry. It was like a watery cascade of language and sound, Spanish sprinkled with English, and I didn’t try to translate from my rough high school Spanish–it was too beautiful for that, too buttery on the tongue and ear. Though some words did enter, like alma, luna, abuelita, that glimmered like diamonds as the song of her poetry flowed past.

It was early 1994, and we were at a poetry group at the wonderful poet/teacher Patrice Vecchione’s home. At the break I walked across the room to find the source of such a song. Linda Serrato: beautiful soul, a hint of melancholy in her beauty, a knowing of history, ancestry, and the gorgeous and broken voices of the Mexican diaspora whispering through the world. And as we talked, there came to us another woman, tall, thin, long blond hair, fair-skinned and almost ethereal. Her poetry was luscious, full of her three year old son Nathan, poignant pieces of teaching, love and heartache. And in a quick moment a fated threesome was formed. I did not know I was meeting the venerable Linda Holiday, Founder and Chief Instructor at North Bay Aikido. That didn’t matter then. We were three poets, and we identified each other by cadence, story, song, and a particular lilt of phrase and language that moved our souls.

It was as if I was suddenly handed two poet-angels who shared a name and a love of language, and who would accompany me throughout the journey. For eight years, Linda Holiday and Linda Serrato and I met every other month for lush long afternoons of poetry, laughter, tea, cookies, personal myth. It was with them that I grew into my writer self.

After many years and many deep and intimate life changes shared within our circle, one afternoon Linda Serrato quietly told us she was moving to Chico. She was heart-worried about her young son and the gangs of Salinas where she lived. She’d gone to college in Chico, and had family there. And thus Linda did that act of the fierce mother bear: she uprooted herself, her daughter and son, began teaching at a new school district, and started a new life. It was not an easy transition. The first year frayed the threads of all of their hearts. But in time Linda settled into a new school, a new home and a vibrant writing community. Her amazing son found his footing. Her daughter fell in love with Chico and the local state university. And our friend was five hours away.

Linda Holiday and I never relinquished meeting regularly and acting as ally and beloved on the writing path. Linda was the first to hear an early draft of my Introduction to Sisters Singing, providing her keen insight, and strengthening it’s rhythm and sentences. Linda, too, was one of three people I asked to read the first full draft of the manuscript, and her detailed feedback was a touchstone for me as I completed the book. And in the meantime, Linda herself continued with the project that Linda Serrato and I had years before first seen flicker into possibility: a book about the deep heart and spiritual philosophy of Aikido with her teacher in Japan. Her work on this book began with regular trips to Japan, recording hours upon hours of interviews with Anno Sensei. Then painstakingly transcribing these tapes, then shaping the material into passages–years of carving impossible writing time out of her already overflowing life as a mom and teacher and administrator of her ever-growing Aikido community. Her perseverance for many years has been the essence of that slow climb up the mountain–as so many books are–those impossible months or years when it feels that there will never be anything around the next bend but an endless, unending road. Linda kept her feet on the path. After many years, she is now beginning to talk with publishers and envisioning the final form for her book.

Both Lindas write poetry of pure spirit that moves my soul, and it was a joy to place their work in Sisters Singing. And, after my own long climb up a mountain, the moment came: our beautiful book was published, and Linda Serrato met Lara Gularte, another Sisters contributor in Chico, and proposed we come there for a reading. Suddenly Linda Holiday was driving north with Jean and I for a Sisters Singing reading, and a wonderful reunion of our sisterhood of poetry. How sweet and luscious to gather in Linda Serrato’s home and hug each other in happiness and recognition.

Heather Lyon, the vibrant young owner of Lyon’s Books, grew up in Santa Cruz and was thrilled to have us at her terrific independent bookstore in downtown Chico. Our Sisters tribe met early before the reading, in a little tutoring room in the back of the store. And there we were again, cohering as a unit of a greater stream of Sisters energy. I was particularly happy to meet Lara Gularte for the first time–a wonderful, soulful poet who invokes her Portuguese ancestors in a collection of poems she calls Above Paradise. Her “Grandfather” is one of the most poignant pieces in Sisters Singing. Lara was lovely, thoughtful and attuned as everyone spoke and connected, and I felt that wonderful sense I often have around a Sisters contributor I've just met–that I'd known her forever.

Lara read her poem to us there in the back room, gathered around a table with Elizabeth Tozier, Judy Phillips, both Lindas, Jean and I. Beth Tozier had journeyed five hours from Fort Bidwell in Modoc County with her husband to read. I met Beth years ago when she joined my writing group: a soft-hearted being of steel-like intelligence and crazy will. Beth, who has a librarian’s manner, taught at a Watsonville school for troubled teens for years, and knows a thing or two about gangs, colors, blood, spit, hope, perseverance, and the possibilities of the human heart. She retired a year ago, and made her way to the far northern edge of California where she and her husband are renovating a hundred-year-old farmhouse, and gazing at wild geese and a great horned owl who lives in the hills near their home.

One by one we all took a moment to practice in the small room, then came out into the store where a small intimate group gathered. How sweet for the reading to commence, to introduce my beloved Linda’s, one by one, how lush to hear them read. And what a lovely gift to then introduce Judy Phillips–who has the knack of having close friends all over the country. Two of them moved from Santa Cruz to Chico, so she and her poet-musician husband Dan planned their next trip to visit with our Sisters Singing reading. Judy read of grandparenting and of Spring! with great verve and beauty, and I gazed at her happily: she is a bedrock of our writing community, a beloved soul I am grateful to call friend.

I could do this forever, it seems: introduce the writers and artists and musicians from Sisters Singing and create a space for them to offer their gifs to the world. It is a strange and rare happiness, and it feels that my treasure trove is full. And so there I was, yet again introducing wonderful women to the world, feeling the room become more warm, the air rarified, as each poet read–from both of my Lindas, to Judy, to Jean, to Lara, to Beth. And then I was reading my own poetry, and Jean was ending with what Linda Holiday now calls her instant classic “We Must Insist.” And then the reading was over and everyone was talking and signing books and there were photos with Linda Serrato’s son and daughter, and that happy chattering that comes of something very well done. We walked through the warm Chico evening to a little cafĂ© a few blocks down, and gathered to meet Judy’s friends and Beth’s husband, to talk with Linda Serrato’s daughter about college, and to Lara Gularte about being Portuguese and what it is to write poetry of ancestry and memory.

At the end of it all we found ourselves back at Linda Serrato’s house at 11pm, changing into pajamas– but this was too rare, too lovely, and Linda Serrato had told us she’d been writing a lot, including a piece that began, “I write skinny poems…” and we could not resist that. So we all gathered in the living room on the big couch, our old threesome along with Jean, up past midnight reading to each other. It was Linda Serrato’s new poems, more mature and beautiful than ever, and then Linda Holiday giving out copies of the Table of Contents for The Floating Bridge of Heaven: Exploring the Heart of Aikido with Anno Sensei, and then reading to us from the first chapter. It was me reading aloud from the Asheville portion of this journal, and Jean sharing with us new poems written just that day–and we were happy, and sated, and clear inside our skin.

We drove home the next day through heavy rain, talking and catching up, Linda Holiday telling Jean and I about the recent college search for her son Nathan, now seventeen. Time stretches and changes character, it seems. This is not new to say, but it is still surprising to find that fourteen years have gone by. A very different woman met Linda Serrato and Linda Holida all that time ago, and when I touch in with her it seems she is quite young indeed. But still, where did fourteen years go? That three-year old toddler who was immortalized for me in the first poems of Linda's that I ever heard has become a tall, thoughtful philosopher-mystic about to begin college 3,000 miles away. We have our book Sisters Singing now. Linda Holiday’s new book will be published in a year or so. So too, hopefully, a poetry collection from Linda Serrato.

The future we saw, when we began all those years ago, unfolds before us almost like a golden walkway. We worry and wonder and life is not simple. But looking back on our first meeting that night in 1994, our reading at Lyon’s Books and our reunion would have thrilled us to imagine then.

Around me, the redwoods creak and moan. A day and a half have gone by since I first began this piece. It’s night now, and I write with my flashlight on in my little tent-cabin. Today Joyce, Jean and I hiked together through the redwood forest, to a lush waterfall of smooth stone, green fern and joyous watery poetry streaming from the mouth of the earth. Tonight we sat by the fire and talked of our lives, laughing and sipping Irish whiskey. The moon rose between the trees like an ethereal spirit shyly flirting with us. The campground is empty: we have the forest to ourselves. Now the quiet of the night blankets me. Whatever it is that clamps down on my brain in a town has lifted. My mind is free. I can sit here and know that some essence of me, despite much recent change and newness, is entirely intact: in love with silence and redwoods, a campfire and old friends. What Sisters Singing has done is solidify and broaden the circle of communities that ring my life. And at the center is a simple woman: a poet, in love with this beautiful earth, a pen, and my notebook.

I brush my hand along this page. Thank you, I say to the trees, venerable ones, for the gift of your bodies, that I may write this song of love and remembrance. Thank you to the mountains, to these redwoods, to my dearest friend Joyce for bringing me here, and to my oldest poet friends, Linda Serrato and Linda Holiday. To you both, I say: you brought me to myself.

Monday, April 13, 2009

That Great Circle

It was ten minutes to seven. I left the room with my little binder and notes in hand, to do a final bit of preparation in my little office-away-from-home: the local ladies' room. The local National Organization for Women (NOW) chapter, co-sponsoring our evening in Fredericksburg, VA, had laid out a fine spread: strawberries and fruit, crackers, cheese and several bottles of wine. A few friendly young women worked with older ones setting things up. Jean and I, along with Maria Papacostaki (who drove in that morning from Philadelphia), and Sarah Knorr from Richmond, were the evening’s special attraction–“Oh, it’s the authors!”–and it was sweet to enter a new circle, to share another world of the sisters.

The evening had been put together by one quite amazing woman: Alicia Knight. Alicia, writer and Sisters Singing contributor, political activist and child-care advocate, is also my sister-in-law. It was Alicia who had brought in the NOW connection, and no wonder–I learned that night that among many political roles she recently became President of the Local NOW chapter.

Alicia and I had looked at each other earlier that day, saying, really who could predict who would come? Several of her friends, and also friends and family of Sarah Knorr’s would be there… but beyond that, who knew? Since most of us reading that night were unknown, and did not live in the local Virginia area, I was quite prepared for this to be a sparse gathering. And that would be no problem-who could be greedy with so much abundance during our tour? A sweet, small group of 20 or so would be fine. We’d finish our tour in a communal way, with plenty of extra wine and cheese waiting at the end.

Getting ready in those last moments, I touched up lipstick, then found a quiet place to sit and think. We had the rhythm of it now. We were in a lovely meeting room at the Central Rappahonick Library that we’d earlier transformed into a Sisters Singing space with cloth and artwork, the grandmother drum and the altar. I looked over my notes. Then rose and dusted myself off for another dance with the Sisters.

And in those few moments, some alchemy occurred. It was as if some great push of breath washed into town. Suddenly 40 or 50 women and men were standing around chatting, sipping wine, catching up, finding each other. More people made their way in every minute, so that by the time we tore people from their refreshments and began the reading we’d added ten more chairs to the group of fifty, and some people still standing in the back.

Good old Fredericksburg. You had to bow your head and say thanks. That old sweet colonial town where you can visit George Washington’s mother’s Mary Washington’s house, and drive right by James Monroe’s law library. Cobblestone streets and an old apothecary with the original sign out front and a little museum of the jars and herbs and old bones stored in the shelves along the back. A quaint little town with a vibrant arts community and weekend drum circles that keep the town flowing and shaking. I’ve loved Fredericksburg since Alicia started bringing me here years ago.

Gazing about me, I found myself floating over to Sarah Knorr. As it turned out Sarah was standing with two of her biological sisters, beautiful women who glowed in the same quiet way as Sarah. How lovely it was to touch their hands and say Welcome. With Sarah were other friends, who were also "sisters," as she put it, and her wonderful husband Ken, who we’d met at dinner. He had volunteered to take photographs and had his camera out. People poured wine and found their seats.

What an amazing final night it was. People wept in the audience, everyone entirely present with every word. As soon as I stood and began speaking, thanking NOW and then specifically naming Alicia, the audience spontaneously applauded. What can there be said of this sister? That she is the beloved wife of my much-loved, deceased brother Dan is enough to make me love and cherish her. She is the mother of two young men who I consider my own, my nephews Roger and Lee. She has an uncanny place in this world: a fearless way of saying what is true, but not only talking. She brings her sons to volunteer at voter precincts on election days, attends Democratic conventions, volunteers to help returning soldiers and the military families in her area, though she worked hard against the war. Her father was a Vietnam veteran; and she understands the world is complex and full of contradictions.

Alicia. She’d promised small for that night, and said she’d do her best to get people to come, but as we got started a realized that Alicia and her friends don’t do small. So there was wine and drink and food and also the son of a local NOW member who is running for Virginia Lieutenant Governor who stopped in to introduce himself to the crowd. A lovely, tall, electable-looking person who spoke of social justice and raised our hopes for a future with good-hearted people acting for the collective and the circle. Later I saw him, square-jawed and handsome, walking out with our book in hand.

Sisters singing. All around us all evening there were Sisters: that great gathering of community which seems to spontaneously form around our book. Women and men, young and old, people holding Sisters Singing, thrilled to be sitting down to listen to poetry.

In addition to the amazing Alicia herself–who read her beautiful poem from the book, as well as a terrific piece about the election of Barack Obama–there are two things about that last evening which still thunder in my heart. One is Sarah Knorr. Lovely Sarah, who had been a sweet note of fresh Virginia air during the entire process of working on Sisters Singing­-always signing her emails wishing us spring blossoms like dogwoods blooming in her neighborhood, or thanking us for all our hard work. Lovely Sarah, who’d written a beautiful, soulful piece about loving her mother through her illness with cancer. And also a poem about the sacred present in the simple act of making soup. She was as lovely as her emails and her poetry, as lyrical in person as one might imagine.

This, I think, is why I came to be with the Sisters. The little meal beforehand at the diner, hearing about grown children and life’s work, about writing and poetry and what is calling the soul. It is a great and luscious thing to put a face with a Sisters Singing writer or artist, to meet their beloved family and circles of love. It fills me with some great happiness, as if these wonderful names I have been tending for so long can live even more deeply in my bones. Sarah read her work with great beauty; we all sat entranced by a glow that seemed to come around her as she read of her mother, of love, of illness, of an exuberant alliance with life and memory that can never be extinguished, not by illness, pain or death.

Yes. As Sarah taught us, so may we live. And following her courage, I did what I had imagined I would do that evening. In the town near where my brother Dan lived, in the presence of his wife and two sons and many who had known him, I read the piece “Requiem” I’d written in his name. I’d spoken with Alicia, Roger and Lee in advance and they’d all said they were looking forward to hearing me read it.

But then there is nothing like actually doing it. As the evening opened, I had dedicated the entire reading to him, my voice breaking, and I wondered if it would be possible for me to do this. The piece was written four years ago, and has been carefully edited to be published in Sisters Singing. But still now, whenever I re-read it, I weep. I saw Roger next to his mother, and Lee off to the side. When I thought of them, when I thought of our great loss, my voice broke. Breathe, dear one. Breathe. And then that great breath that filled the room earlier came and filled me. I stood tall, and carefully, feeling each word, read of my brother Dan teaching me as an ancestor, in the world beyond this world, telling us all to go on loving.

And I walked then into the forest and to the great stream, and vowed to love, only to love. These lines end the piece, and as I came to them it all flowed into me, and I could hardly croak out those last words. But I did, and around me the room shone like brightness everlasting. Roger held Alicia, and I looked up, a bit stunned, full of tears, saying, “I’m so glad I got through it!” From the first row, where Jean sat, I heard her calm voice say, “Yes you did.”

Yes, I did. I heard the call and made the journey and sang out the words. It was impossible to do, it was impossible to re-visit that great heartache, and yet the teaching that Dan holds for us is so important, and so grand. He was there with us, an elder now, impossibly tall, holding us all. I could only look up, raise my hand to the heavens, and say Thanks, brother. Thanks.

So much changed after my brother Dan died. Still his life echoes like a great flowing chamber of prayer and love. I feel him with me, inside my skin and in my bones, and I am stronger for it. He lives for me every day in his sons, in Alicia, in all of us his family, every morning when I pray. Oh Dan.

I’m sitting now cross-legged in bed, tapping away at my sister Pauline's house. It's Monday, three days later. I’ve attended a wonderful family wedding–Jean and I, along with my sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends dancing our hearts out. I’ve danced with Roger and kidded with Lee in his dark blue wedding suit. Along with my wonderful sister Pauline, we have visited my nephew Paul and his wife Shosh and their two kids in Columbia, Maryland, playing basketball and soccer with four year old Nick and two year old Becka. Dan would have loved all of this. And, I believe, somewhere, he still does.

We've come to the end of our great journey. Tomorrow Jean and I will go to the Smithsonian, one of her favorite places on the planet. And on Wednesday we will make our way back home to California.

I take a deep breath, try to capture it all. A kaleidoscope of images and people file past when I close my eyes, like a moving merry-go-round with figures I myself chose, or that the grandmother spirits conjured for me. All of us involved are changed for this passage. Maria Papacostaki, who read her haunting, beautiful poetry at the readings in New York, Philadelphia and Fredericksburg, said to me at the end that she could do this for another year: travel town to town, carrying the Sisters. Reading the poetry itself is a by-product, she said. It’s being together, meeting everyone, sitting within the field that the Sisters create. It’s that irreplaceable thing, a circle of love and intimate connection, that everyone wishes to touch and doesn’t want to leave.

Go to the great River. Share the great Life. This is what my brother Dan taught me. When we love with a great heart, we love him-and we love all of those we have lost and all of those we have yet to meet. When we cherish each other, we cherish every ancestor, every star in the galaxy, every leaf in the bud ready to unfurl. We say it is possible. It is possible to be called and to spring forth, to hear a call for poetry and creativity and to answer it, to find community wherever you turn.

I did not know it, but as I think of it, perhaps I did. In creating Sisters Singing, we were at essence calling forth a circle. A place of connection that lives on. We have at our center not a book, but our hearts. We are ready to move into an unknown future. Together. If we are together, with each other, held by that great circle where the living and the dead and the spirits and the grandmothers all live, it will be alright, it will be shining–it will be a fresh day indeed.