It's raining, beebs,
and like I said in my message,
it came on in speed and silence.
And I walked, shoed,
on the warm road
until the lightning melted the anticipation
The rain swept in on a Southern wind
and, like your love, released
the sweetest aromas,
and - finally being in the right place,
at the right time - I smell
the honeysuckle mingling with sweet,
freshly cut grass.
It reminded me of you.
Love reconstitutes what has been dry --
sometimes it's harmonious and dolce,
other times it's pungent,
like death on the city's wind.
and with you,
I smell honeysuckle and fresh earth.
With my naked feet on the warm, wet road,
your love - now pounding and thundering -
unmoors my heart and mingles tears in its powers.
- Virginia, May 22nd 2018 // New York, July 12th 2018
I've been working on a set of bebop vocal exercises on and off for a few months, interspersed with another series of exercises. Today, I sat down to look at exercise 5 of 21, and they just don't make harmonic sense to me, so I'm having to analyse and then memorise. I'm jittery with various events looming in my mind, and so am focusing on nailing the exercises as a meditative process. I looked at exercises 1-4 and mastered them over a series of weeks, so that's encouraging.
The only way we can master something is by slowing down, reading the notes, understanding why that note is there, and singing it slowly. Allowing ourselves the time, the patience to do this is the most important work. Because you know in your heart that you have the potential to do this thing - or else it would not be in your heart!
But the repetition of mistakes is a difficult thing to face. You must trust that eventually your diligence will lead you to a new way. In this case, it will lead me to a new musical vocabulary. In other cases, my focused mistake-making will lead me to new ways of loving, of living.
In September, I met the guru ShantiMayi; she was holding daily sessions with her devotees at the beautiful lodge in which I live. I recently picked up her book, where I read this:
"Why can't you choose, when you are confused, to return to your heart as quickly as possible? You do have a choice so why, not make the best one that you can? As long as you believe in your ability to choose the simplest, most commonplace of everyday things, you can also choose to return to your heart. This means to be still and watch without involvement... to remain open to what life brings.
"Well you might say to yourself: I am going to train myself to return to my natural state. Can you do that? YES, you can! You have learned throughout life to exist within the confines of your mental conditioning. No you can relearn the significance of that "heart-full" place and grow familiar with it once again, freeing you from the confines of conditioned responses. So get used to returning to your heart. Make it your moment-to-moment practice! This also cultivates courage and awareness. Make this the greatest desire in your life, your refuge, and your sweetest lover beyond any other on earth...
"You can make this small switch quite spontaneously and without much thinking. Yet, cultivating patience is essential for this reflective consideration. Patience gives us the opportunity to accept a natural outcome rather than manipulated or desired ones, which inevitably bring disappointment. It is a switch from a sense of separateness to oneness."
(From In Our Hearts We Know, by ShantiMayi)
So as I look frustratedly at this exercise, I look back at the previous 4. I also am aware that I haven't even begun to tackle the next 15 yet. The difficulty of these exercises is not as great as that of cultivating heart awareness, but I'm grateful that I have a model for this.
Because art models life and teaches us the skills on how to master ourselves - our fingers, our voices, our hands, our seeing, hearing, our speaking and moving. Nurture that within yourself. This is something our animals and computers won't do: cultivate their heart-seeing. We're so lucky to be human!
I recently had a conversation with a dear one in my life about being an artist and how excited I am to be able to travel.
“I feel so lucky!” I exclaimed excitedly after reporting back on a new opportunity.
“Lucky you,” he said [and probably repeated, “Lucky you,” as he often does in a more pensive voice second and third times.]
Standing where I am right now, it may appear that sheer luck has gotten me here. I’m 37 and I live in a rural area where there are very few opportunities to genuinely and publicly practice my work. It may appear that my younger self was much harder working than this self but, gratefully, I now reap the benefits of the younger, more success-driven Rachel. I’m not saying I don’t work: I practice more than I have in years and I am much more intelligent about how I strategise and spend time and money.
We who have stuck with the vision of being an artist for whatever reason - opportunity, stubbornness, debt, desire, joy - are not here due to chance. I had a conversation with another friend recently who proudly told me that if you’re still an artist at 30, you’re an artist for life.* Like any dream, it takes commitment, sacrifice, and delusion.
But something that we are not often told in the narrative of “What It Takes to Be an Artist” at a young age is something I wish I had known a long time ago. I read about it once in a collection of essays called “Women, Creativity, and the Arts.” Hand in hand with commitment is security. Lost in the post-renaissance-romantic-era shuffle, security for the artist has been seen to belong to the realm of a privileged class of institution-supported beings. Here in the US, if you step out as a full-timer, you do so as one of those romantic types. However, in parts of Europe, where I lived for well over a decade, it’s easier to find support that can give you the mental energy to be the secure type.
Why is security so imperative for an artist? I can only speak from my personal experience at this point. I have spent a great deal of my creative energy worrying about my car, buying equipment, getting public liability insurance, whether I can join my friends for dinner, having enough money to apply for residencies, etc etc - the list goes on and on. I also spent a lot of time wondering if the people with whom I spent my time had my best interests at heart personally and emotionally. Instead of investing that energy into love, I invested it into fear. And it’s a basic principle in life that whatever you sow you will reap.
In the last 6 months, I have decided to sow my energy into love and, delightfully, I have found myself creating more than I have in years and seeing very clearly what it is that fills me with unfettered joy. I am unashamed of my love; I am still young at this, so at times I must discern between love and obligation; between obligation and fear. But love is easy to find: you just follow your joy, like Bambi did in his first few steps. You follow your joy and as it grows and grows to exploding point, people can only stop and notice. It’s so beautiful.
I’m excited about the opportunities that are ahead of me this year. I love making enough money so I can undergird my practice; I love that my life is so flexible that I can take up those opportunities and, although I’m not living in a place that has a Great Cloud of [Avant Garde / Improvising] Witnesses in body, I am deeply blessed with long-term collaborators and mentors who hear my voice when I need reflection.
Maybe you’re older than me and feel you’ve missed the mark. Maybe you’re younger and are bent on stardom. Or maybe, like me, you’re mid-career and aren’t sure how to move ahead. In whatever case it is, tune into love. You’ll know what it is. When you find your love, you’ll find it difficult to catch your breath; your heart rate will speed up and, as you give it time and space, you’ll have no choice but to follow it.
But whatever you do, follow it. It will come back to you.
*I later realised the haughty note in his voice appeared because he’s 30 and had assumed I was in my mid-20s.
Exoticism is seemingly a benevolent form of Othering. Unfortunately, it has the same effect as regular-old xenophobia.
It's something that tarnishes your closeness with another, makes you question whether you are there merely for the pleasure of "another experience." I am guilty of this at times, drawing close to others out of curiosity. And there's nothing wrong with that in itself, but you need to take it in the wider context. Exoticism is an extension of prejudice in that it dehumanises the Outsider, and this happens within white communities as much as it happens between and within all communities. I could write until you're bored stiff about experiences I've had as being an Outsider, but I'll limit it to a few events.
My house was egged/stoned and vandalised with graffiti. There was a rumour that went around that neighbourhood I first lived in when I moved to Northern Ireland that me and my husband were child molesters. The adults wouldn't talk to us, not even our direct neighbours. We were the only foreigners in the estate and felt nothing but hostility from the folks around us. We got out of that place as soon as we could, about a year and half into living there.
As I was reflecting this morning on the fact that I have been in relationships with people who have seen me as exotic, I remembered the other side of this coin. My white American husband described me as different to people we met; "She's not like other Americans," he'd say. I am a Virginia-born Yankee, with parents from Long Island who homeschooled us deep in the ravines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At one point, someone threatened to burn our house down due to a misunderstanding. We left there a year or two after that happened. We had a few friends in that place, but we were always seen as outsiders.
I remember moving to the US and sitting at a table of other women - all black women - talking about our frustrations with not getting work despite being overqualified. I mentioned that a couple of Northern Irish friends had taken the initiative and confirmed an unspoken suspicion of mine: they thought I was suffering discrimination and not being offered work, gigs, or performances that I would be offered had I been Norn Iron-born. To my intense relief, rather than meeting my assertion with disbelief or incredulity, one friend agreed: "You keep asking yourself, is it me? What's wrong with my work?"
I moved to Oakland hoping that I would find camaraderie, and I did: I felt less out of place there than I have anywhere. But still, I couldn't live down the exoticism; a lover told me I was different and fascinating, laughing at my cultural oddities and confusion. Sometimes it was friendly and I laughed, too; sometimes it was counter-productive and completely inefficient. I think he took what he could while he could before moving on. This has happened to me before: the person moves on to someone more like themselves, someone of the same nationality, etc.
Now, you could look at this and say that this is just what happens in love: we're fascinated by the Other and we want to know them. And sometimes it doesn't work out. I get that. But after living through so much Othering - not just the big events, but the daily grind of having to explain/defend your presence in a place - you become extremely skeptical of someone celebrating your Otherness. And here I am - at home now. I moved here so I could stop and blend in for a minute, only to find that I can't because of the above experiences. I can't because - well, I never did - and I don't agree and now I don't even want to blend in here. And here even I have experienced this Romantic Exoticism, perhaps as much as anywhere else.
I am not at risk of being wrongly arrested, deported, or imprisoned in this place, or subtly pushed out. It's not just the big events that make you question others' actions towards you, but the small ones. And communities that hide their narratives of trauma often do not understand or validate those who witness and share their pain.
Because what does it come down to? The desire to be seen as merely human, to be seen as a fellow human, capable of mistakes, and capable of receiving and giving true love, compassion, and intimacy.
I have no words of wisdom, no directions, nothing else to say, except that possibly in order to welcome the otherness in "Outsiders" I must first see and accept it in myself. I'm grappling for answers. Please extend a hand or words if you have any.
At the beginning of May, I moved to Virginia, a wedge-shaped state in the middle of the USA's Atlantic Coast. I have a lot of family here and it also happens to be the place where I lived until I was 20 years old. I would not say it’s the place I choose to call home, although when I tell folks the above story, they congratulate me on being home and begin to make references to things I don’t understand.
I moved away from Virginia 16 years ago because I had a rather heavy hunch that as a white person living in a sheltered, rural valley I was living in a fantasyland and I wanted to see what else was out there. So I packed my bags, grabbed a blanket, and headed off to Belfast, Northern Ireland. I add the following context only so you understand what I didn’t at the time of moving: 5 years previous to my relocating, a peace accord had been reached after decades of overt violence and centuries of conflict between an imported ruling class and a native working class. Whether you agree or disagree with my summation of the NI story, I’m telling it as an immigrant. Moving into that place at that time meant that I joined 1.8% of the population that was not born in Ireland or Britain.
I fused my roots there: I earned a diploma, gigged my arse off, learned how to wash dishes the right way, learned how to properly drive a car (hill starts, roundabouts, reversing around a corner), gained a true reverence for The Guinness, worked hard to establish myself as a singing teacher, learned the difference between spice and a spouse, and so many other minute cultural things I never dreamed existed. Essentially, as opportunities arose, I continued to live the life of an outsider, of a female immigrant who hadn’t married into the place. To my friends and loved ones, I am Northern Irish, although on a wider scale, I will never have access to the same social privileges of a Northerner.
In late 2013, I returned to the US to move to California. In that incredible place, I learned - after months and months of struggle and cognitive pain - that there was no cultural norm. The Bay Area is full of individuals with roots in all corners of the globe. I had to let go of the idea that I could learn how to be Californian, as though there was a looming monoculture like in Northern Ireland or Virginia. Eventually, I figured out what it meant to be Californian, but that’s not the point of this short piece.
But I am nearing my point.
I have moved back for a temporary period to a place that for over a decade I referred to as home, to Virginia. Even though I read Salman Rushdie’s fantastic Imaginary Homelands essay, I still wasn’t ready for what I’m experiencing now. I was ready for what I had for a month or two this past winter: the welcome and reconnection with family and friends-like-family; a deep interest in the socio-political life of the place where my bones were formed.
But I’ve been talking a lot recently with friends whose stories are those of migration and attempted integration. With some of them/you, I share a very deep part of my own story as an immigrant. In 2001, I made a life decision that meant, unbeknownst to me at the time, I would eternally understand and relate more to the lives of other immigrants (and - more recently - migrants) than to those of the people with whom I grew up or those with settled lives. To be welcomed “back” into the society in which I now live - a monoculture with shades of liberalism and conservatism and marginalised other cultures - is shocking to me. In this welcome, there are certain insinuations that I cannot embrace.
I’m writing this piece to say: I cannot agree with inexplicably frequent racial generalisations and assertions. I will continue to question and - in a very Norn Irish sense - jokingly deride xenophobia. I cannot polarise my opinions and in so doing fit into a political mould. I love learning through experience, which means I’ve done a lot of things (I just finished a short stint with generous and hilarious Midwestern conservatives). I am more like a European (or Latin American?) socialist, leaning toward the collectivity of shared food, dancing, good music, standing tall in the face of a riot, and loving confrontation.
If I focus on the trees, birds, and insects and make work and write until I figure out if I can find any sense of home here, do not feel sorry for me. This is the life I have chosen and celebrate and call my own. My heart is open.
Instead, let's sit down over a pint and share our stories: you tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine. Or I would love - in Irish tradition - to share a cuppa and a few bikkies - and to listen. If you are living in a place that is the home of your bones, please heed the voice of the immigrant, the expat, the refugee. They see your home as their own land and can reintroduce you to it, and celebrate it in ways you couldn't understand even in your most playful moments. Their experiences may sound outlandish and odd to you, but they are true.
Listening - deep listening - true space - is the way forward.
For years, since going to Detroit to do some sound recording for The Unseen, a documentary low-lighting the underground hip hop producers working and engaging in that city, I’ve been processing ways to use rhythm in unconventional ways, to push the boundaries of what my ears will accept. I have sought to definitely not replicate in any sense the work of producers steeped in a geography, demography, and history that I have no space dallying in. What I’ve done is work through multichannel pieces of competing rhythms that don’t and are not meant to line up with each other. Eventually, your ear makes sense of it. The ear and the brain are pretty accepting. You don’t need to take an exacting, metronomic approach. You don’t even need to consider the idea of swinging. Some things swing so hard they’re not even in time anymore - and that’s okay.
So since then, I’ve been pushing the limits of my own understanding of rhythm, which is kind of great considering I used to write a lot of work dependent on loops that needed to be in exact time or else the whole thing was thrown off. But I am truly a deconstructionist at heart, despite any historic and futile attempts to reconstruct. Think about it: in life, you hear a car go by playing a thumping beat that takes over part of your consciousness for a moment and then you go back to the conversation you were having, the game you were playing or whatnot. So why not this in music? Flip, why not this in melodic music? You just gotta follow the old improviser’s promise: commit to what you’re doing and people will accept it.
Right now I’m continuing to work on song-pieces that incorporate a disregard for traditional meter. I think around the same time I discovered Dakim and Ras G, I realised I had a dreadful aversion to beautiful music. It has a lot to do with my general shame over beauty, my general shame that beauty can be used in such rough ways. I began to attempt to write material that was beautiful, and I succeeded. It became kind of achingly beautiful, scarily, so much to the point that I abandoned my beauty project.
If you were to crawl into my nighttime process-wakes, you’d hear pieces that are filled with layers of ethereal harmonies interrupted with sections of antithetical rhythm. Because the subject matter is really a juxtaposing of beauty with roughness, each kind of disregarding the other. You would also need to attempt to not be put off by my blatant disregard for the violent connotations of the samples I’ve used - field recordings from a certain festival at home. When I get to a point of open process, I'll share what I'm working on.
I call myself home. I awake in the early hours, 5:30am, 6… I see the sun cracking the sky like some peach bursting out of a shell. As my consciousness arrives - maybe more quickly than you would think at such a graceful hour - I greet it. Eventually, I have the presence to ask what it brings me.
My body is heavy with concern over my well-being. How will I survive? With what shall I go forward with this insane plan of making ends meet without reaching for the system for which I have lost any sense of desire or belief. Maybe this is insane - insane to be cognisant of the fact that things usually work out. The cycle: Impending Poverty == Furious Hustle == Trickling Increase == Contented Earning == A Big Leap Forward or A Small Loss :: Repeat.
And then I see: just because you are aware that something is a pattern or that something happens, doesn’t mean it stops. You learn to move past it; your station of heart doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Guilt: carrying around some perceived wrongdoing (endlessly, until you are too tired to fight its repetition).
Freedom: being able to move past perception to reality (endlessly, though you spring unfettered and move naturally into what you want).
Letting Go: I sat with a friend tonight. I am fresh to this small community and she… she has occasioned in and out of it, a loving, empathetic, and intelligent person. We spoke of being used, tracked, of needing to give a Firm No to potential lovers; we spoke of what needed to be done in our communities and of What May Be To Come. I let out some of the confessions and avoidances of my past few months; it has been hard. I have come close to loving, whilst what I have been seeking is not a new angle, a new adventure, but rest.
And as I storied her, my heart grew tired. I could see that it seemed to her that I had been asking for trouble - and maybe I had been! But I saw it in the look in her voice, the tilt of her face. And I withdraw. I must stop, backtrack, find a safe place with her again. She is growing to detest what I betrayed about myself. And what I want least, what I am weary with is feeling I have betrayed my friends.
How strong must I be?
How strong must I be in the midst of learning myself? Is there a limit to questioning?
I hear there is a way to question whilst not alienating others. Is that so? Or is it so that I must remain the same person, the locked woman, the woman who could not be herself for fear that someone may step on her, may crush her? And when it finally did - it happened - my friends were there. They stood with me, they helped me find my grace, my face and feet again. After I had made a confession true in heart to another soul: - I want to be with you. I will negotiate this place in order to be with you - : and I was soon after literally struck in the face and then shunned, they were nearby.
And here I am, head covered and teary eyed, drinking Turkish coffee… wondering if my friends are able to carry within their bodies the same tension of disagreement, misalignment that I carried for them for so many years whilst I betrayed myself. Sometimes for the sake of them, often for the sake of lovers when I would cry on a friend. And now I stick my neck out for myself… because I know myself. Because I have slowed down and cared for and listened to myself above all else. Whilst listening to the silence around me - the lack of other humans, the haunting nights in so many houses, the unfamiliar but meditative nature of foreign language - I learned that what is not important is having external peers but having the companionship and adoration of the self… What is not important is holding another but rather feeling grace in the company of my younger self, or in wrapping my arms around my own body, stretching out my own fingers.
This is power and adoration and being centred. This is a daily meditation, a moment-to-moment awareness of the pain and unrest in my body that used to often lead me away from myself.
I have awoken in the morning knowing I am alone and the sense of freedom that only comes with a broken heart. I have awoken in the mornings with clenched fists and tight forearms. I have awoken - yes - ready to punch. And I have also awoken - eyes closed - after a night of turmoil that led me to thoughts of ending my life - only to open my eyes and see a fuchsia rose rising against a fairy tale sky, bringing with it a complex joy after such darkness-darkness.
How strong must I be?
I met a priest recently in a crypt at a moment of deep need. I asked him my questions: dear sir, I can see you have knowledge of the self that I cannot conceive, but that I must know. I have turned myself off to my EGO for a moment and, sir, I hate myself. I hate myself for hurting people, for speaking my mind when I should have been quiet, for being weak, for leaving my husband, for falling in love, for not pushing for my rights, for being walked over, for hurting friends, for moving, for not walking the prescribed path. Sir, why has all of this come out at a moment when I am turning inward, when I am defending the nugget of truth within my deepest, tenderest heart? I thought this turning point would be like a celebration!
Because, he said, your EGO doesn’t like being ignored. You are listening, he said, to a part of yourself much deeper than your EGO.
—— —— ——
I remember the howling in the woods in the mornings. It always happened between 9 and 10 am. I would sit on the terrace alone and hear her, a dryad or a youngling, crying out in a whimsically needy tone from the deep forest at the bottom of the hill. There were no cigales there; just Roberta the robotic lawnmower, and birds and other flying things.
I remember her howling and calling me into her space. I remembered, at that time, so many fairy tales that begin with this naïve call. Some imbecilic, unknowing child would follow it down and meet some ancient dead mother or a wolf, or another character, only to be lost for awhile.
Lost for awhile. It’s only a while. It’s never really forever. Sure, the child may emerge deformed, in totally different condition, or the child may only emerge out of the telling of the story and remain in the imagination, the psyche of the receiver. But that child did not die inside the forest.
I resisted that physical call in the mid-morning. I am learning that resisting some things is futile and counter-energetic. Resisting your own hagship is a thing done in vain. You must follow her into the woods, knowing it is terrifying. But - think about it - were we put on this earth to follow a system, to follow the crowd? Were we put here to continue to ride or reinvent the wheel? Perhaps there are other things to invent. Perhaps the things you invent will never be recognised by another soul. Perhaps leaving safety for that voice that calls out from the deep darkness is exactly what you need.
People say you must live within the system you are in. I doubt that's True. I mean, unless that’s what you want to do. Then yes, you must live within it. You don't need to abide within a system, society and bents, dispositions and institutions. I cannot say where you will flourish. I can say this, though: if you have glimpsed another thing - even if only the peach and fuchsia cracks of morning - and you have allowed it to crack you for just a moment, then you must follow it.
I'm working weekly on Wednesday nights at the beautiful, old, old Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. These evenings I've found refuge and, despite whipping winds and cold rains, warmth in its various chapels. And there are regulars - folks who come and sit to meditate, to take in the ambient reverence of the space. One person comes each week, reads a book, chats with me about what he's been up to. The first week he came to the workshop, which provides the source material for the resonant recordings I'm doing in the various chapels. That first week, something difficult was happening with him and he did, he cried, he walked, he breathed, he sang and vocalised. In that workshop, we explored voice, the body, breath, and their relationship to our true selves. I'm proud that this practice of meditation makes up the bed of the piece I'm writing for my dancer-collaborator Maria Nilsson Waller's scores.
Desert - Flowering - Wind.
We're creating a moving score, an improvised liturgy with contemplative sound design for the cathedral.
It feels so ... disconnected from the world, even during prayers when we mention shootings in London. A that moment only during the evening did the cathedral feel cold, hard, out of touch. I miss being close to my family, to the unexpected rootedness and conviction of knowing that home is Home. But when each person comes in out of the cold, and we talk about our difficulties, the complexities of just being now, being here, maybe it's essential work - connecting with our Selfs. We have a couple more weeks of work before we present improvised dance/sound liturgy on April 11th at 7pm. But this piece is about process, and that's what we're celebrating during Lent: the process of getting there - to redemption. Wherever you are this evening (I'm in cold, rainy Dublin!), choose the road that's harder, the path that takes you somewhere new, even through sweat and confusion.
Spirit is not something attained by going to a church service or to the right workshop, or by posting the most liked rant.
Not for me, anyhow.
Rather, it's found as I lie in bed at night fearlessly asking myself difficult questions. Not the questions about the future, or the questions about the past, but the questions about the present. These are the hardest ones to answer with presence and honesty.
It is knowing that I still have a long way to go before I eliminate war from my own body, let alone the wider world. (But not shrinking back from the unrest in my body.)
It is acknowledging that in every new encounter, I must listen more closely to the Self and to the understood Self of the other.
How far down does my Self look? Can I cope with resting with the unknown in others so that I can call out into my own Self? Can I silence the shallow ego long enough to see, to know, to graciously accept that which I see in the other - any other - standing before me?
The closer I get to myself, the less acutely lonely I become. Still, I am Body. I find my Self on the dance floor. My truth arises from ego-less bodies moving, surrendering to rhythm (preferably complex with stellar hip-hop engrossed beats). It is here - dancing - that I embody what I find as I lie in bed: celebration, life energy, moving past the past.
Here: I can't see into the future, but I can see into my Self. That is the place from which I move.
I'm spending 6 weeks working at Christchurch Cathedral in honour of giving voice to questions over Lent. This is not a coincidence. Throughout my time in my original home in Virginia, I found myself face to face with the most difficult parts of my psyche. The questions were coming too quickly and, as I have made a pact with myself to pay attention to the difficult moments in my life, I have spoken with things that I have until now not understood or wanted to address about myself.
Here are the words we use as a starting point for our questions at the Giving Voice workshop coming up on Saturday:
What questions do you need to ask?
This moment will be a time of call and response; part of the call will be external, though part will also come from within you. An internal call is an act of faith - creating space and resonance in your body to allow the question somewhere to grow.
What are the questions you cannot ask? Are there questions you can verbalise, or things that can only be sent out by your body to the Universe or to the deepest self and universe inside of you?
What are the questions you can ask? Give space to those.
Let's search for the elusive questions, knowing that the season of Lent gives us a time to reflect with full knowledge that hope is in the pipeline. Until then, we must come to rest with the difficult things that must be asked.