Tag Archives: interview
My latest radio interview was on the inaugural broadcast of Livication Radio. In it, we discuss writing, my bestselling book Songs from the Well, Bud the Spud, life, death, and moving forward after tragedy.
Broadcasting from Melbourne, Florida, from inside Open Mike’s, from within Florida Discount Music, Livication Radio has interviews with musicians, authors, and much much more both local, national and beyond. You can listen live or to their podcasts. And Open Mike’s has some of the best organic coffees and coffee creations I have ever had, plus, they are a magnificent small venue for music and spoken word – comfortable, cozy, great acoustics and amazing talent. Plus, you can walk around and play with all the instruments. Who could want more?
And they had the good taste to interview me, so, what more can I say?
Craig Smith is an author and web designer, a translator to and from dead languages, the well-respected and well-read author of the blog Notes from the Dreamtime, the translator of The Inclusive Bible and a shaman. Even better than that, he is my exceptionally good friend.
Craig has been interviewing interesting characters for some time now. But no one has interviewed him. While I could not believe such an oversight, I sought to correct it. The result is below.
Late Monday night, Adam emailed me and asked, “So who’s doing your interview?” I replied that he was the first to offer. On Tuesday morning, these questions appeared in my mailbox. I replied that he was the cruelest human on the face of the planet.
His questions both terrify and exhilarate me, which I guess means they’re good ones.
1. You spend much of your time, it seems, as an editor. Thurber once wrote about editing, “Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, “How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?” and avoid “How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?”
Do you prefer to be an editor or collaborator? Or do you play both roles or either role depending upon with whom you are working?
The latter. It depends entirely on the writer.
A good writer—that is, one who has a strong writing style and a good command of the language—needs minimal editing. Then the task is to find overt mistakes (which the writer in haste simply didn’t notice), and occasionally smooth over rough passages where the writer’s intent doesn’t come through clearly. I am very careful not to change their style, and yes, it’s very much the role of a counselor.
The vast majority of writers fall into a second class. They’re not great writers, they’re just writing as a means to an end. These I take a heavier hand with. For a while I got a reputation for being able to cut a piece in half without the writer even realizing he or she had been edited—”You make me sound so good!” is a comment I’ve heard more than once. For them, I honor the writing style they’re trying to establish, but which they haven’t quite succeeded in creating. For them, I am definitely more collaborative.
Occasionally I come across bad writers. Honestly, I want nothing to do with most of them. I don’t want to read them, I don’t want to correct them, I just want them to go away. A few are on the bubble, and if I like the individuals at all, I absolutely want to show them how I’d approach it if it were my piece.
2. You once traveled, though shortly, rather extensively across the U.S. Whether you were in search of something, drawn by something, or leaving something may be of debate, but travel you did, and you wrote about it rather extensively in your blog before stopping short. Many of your readers might think you stopped before a revelation or just at the point you found a portion of your travel unresolved.
A Zen monk once asked, “It is the same moon outside and the same person inside, so why not sit?” Does location really make a difference or is it the process of transition? What did you gain? What did you lose? What is stuck? Could you have done as well staying at home? Does changing location change the person?
“Many” of my readers? Really?
Did I stop just before some major revelation? I didn’t think I did, but maybe you’re right. I had gone all revisionist on it in my mind; I thought I had stopped writing about the trip shortly before I took that long break between last December and this April, but it turns out my last Big Trip post was in March of 2007. I was shocked when I realized that.
Let’s see, when last I left the story, I had just visited Little Bighorn and was heading toward Bozeman. And I guess I do view Bozeman as the gateway to the most significant part of the journey. It doesn’t feel like I’m afraid to dig deep and expose something important, but my behavior may be telling another story. I’ll have to look at that.
That said, each trip post takes a long time to write. At the time I remember thinking I wanted to do some lighter, faster, easier posts, to take a little break. But you and Indigo have rattled my cage long enough; I’ll have a new Big Trip post next week.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that trip changed everything for me. You know how a lot of people personify Nature, talk blithely about the Web of All Being, and speak of divine immanence as being “the Goddess”? I knew all that, intellectually, but on the trip (somewhere in Washington, if I recall, but I haven’t checked my notes in a while) I had a palpable experience of it.
Does location really make a difference? I have no doubt that it’s possible to have any important growth experience in any number of ways. The same truth keeps knocking on our house until we let it in; sometimes it comes in by the door, sometimes through a window, sometimes down the chimney or up through the floorboards.
But for me, it was important to go out on my own, with two thousand bucks in my pocket (and no credit cards), in a car that really wasn’t all that road-worthy, to follow a quiet but insistent tug in my heart—a “calling,” if you will; to camp out in the national forests and wildernesses, searching for some essentially spiritual experience, rather than trying to go sightseeing; to be utterly alone with my thoughts and the world for an extended period of time. All of which I don’t think I could have gotten sitting at home.
“What did you gain? What did you lose? What is stuck?” Tough questions. I gained an understanding of the living, nonphysical energy that interconnects everything in the material world. I gained a hunger for greater personal and physical freedom. I opened the door just a bit to becoming more authentically myself and less what others expect me to be. I lost a parochial worldview, a limited image of who or what God is. I guess I’m still stuck in Comfortville (I laughed as I typed that, because everything in my life seems the opposite of comfortable): I don’t need to risk my life, physical or emotional, right now. I’m all initiation and no completion. As one of my favorite (and one of your least favorite) poets, T.S. Eliot, wrote:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act . . .
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow.
3. It has been argued that cues for discrimination that are obvious, such as gender or color, are of greater import than those which are not, such as religion or gender preference.
Is this so? Has discrimination affected you and, if it has, has this been your choice to reveal what could be occult and accept the discrimination as burden?
I don’t know that obvious cues for discrimination are of greater import as much as simply inevitable. When you can’t hide, the bigots have a more obvious target.
I came out in 1982, at the age of 26, shortly after my father’s death. I used to describe it as feeling a cloud of judgment over me had been lifted. In time I came to feel that my father had been a convenient excuse for my not being true to myself. On the other hand, when we decide it’s time to make a change in our lives, I think we probably use whatever tool or trigger is at hand to aid us.
For me it was all tied up (as just about everything is in my life) with my spiritual journey. I was wrestling with the realization that the God I knew intimately and the God of conservative theology (and much of society) were in conflict with one another. I knew that my God valued truth in the inner being above all else, so I knew I had to speak the truth about my sexuality even if it meant being damned for eternity: to save God, as it were, I had to be willing to give up God. And the moment I did, I knew that love and acceptance and was the ultimate truth, and nothing else mattered.
I can’t say I’ve faced a lot of discrimination. Some of it is because I’m not terribly fey (though I’m not terribly butch, either), so many people just assume that everyone is straight unless they announce otherwise. And I don’t wear buttons or have gay bumper stickers, and I tend not to announce it unless or until it comes up naturally. On the other hand, I tend to correct people if they make invalid assumptions about me, because (a) it’s nothing I need to keep quiet about, and (b) it’s no big deal. The older I get, the less I care what anyone thinks. To quote that old philosopher, Popeye, I yam what I yam.
In the ’80s, I lost dozens of gay friends or acquaintances—thirty-two to AIDS, one to a gay-bashing incident, two to drug or alcohol abuse. That was pretty awful. And I’ve seen lots of discrimination; I just haven’t been on the receiving end, except for having a few bottles (and epithets) hurled at me. Annoying, but not that big a deal—just some drunken rednecks.
So I don’t feel much of a burden, honestly. I once had a dream in which I was standing at the creation of the world, and God said, “This time, would you like to be straight instead?” I thought a minute then said, “No thanks, I’m quite happy the way I am.” It was a very satisfying dream.
4. Your religious and spiritual experiences are not quite within what we might call the common American experience. How do you define your present spiritual life? How have you come to where you are? Do you find your spiritual life effective? If so, are you more a spiritual materialist than purist—in other words, do you practice to build ego or to gain something, regardless of what that might be, or for the practice itself? Where do you think you are going with it?
I am an animist because I see all natural phenomena as alive. I’m a pantheist because I see God as synonymous with the material universe. I’m a panentheist because I see God as interpenetrating every part of nature and extending timelessly beyond it as well. I’m a Christian because for me Jesus is God enfleshed, and teaches us how we too can become God enfleshed. I’m an adopted Jew, a God-fearer who learned Hebrew to read the Bible in its original language because I wanted to know what YHWH was really saying. I’m a Buddhist because of the life and teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, and the silence, and the kōans, and the still point. I’m a Hindu because I revere Ganesha. I’m a Yoruba because I was visited one night by the orisha Shango, the sky father, the god of thunder and ligntning. I’m a pagan because I honor the natural rhythms of the earth, the sun, the moon.
But beyond all those classifications, I am a shaman, because shamanism, stripped of its cultural overlay, is simply a toolbox. It’s how the human brain naturally accesses nonordinary reality. It’s plugging into the way the body and the psyche can be balanced and healed. And it’s what underlies all human religion and spirituality, the barebones of our Selves, if you will.
How have I come to be here? Wow. I guess it’s just a straightforward process of following where my heart and spirit have led me. I would say it’s a combination of the theological and psychic shattering that my coming out afforded, and working through decades of chronic depression until I came to understand myself and God (or spirit or the Universe or whatever terminology you want to use) and the world in a radically different way.
I’m not sure what an “effective” spiritual life would be. Does it give me comfort or meaning? Yes, definitely. Does it make my life work better? Yes and no. It doesn’t make me more “successful,” particularly as the world defines success, but it gives me tools to deal with many of the challenges I face, and gives me a context with which I can understand the world better. But I can’t honestly say I practice it as a means to an end, as a tool to get something or become something.
It all comes back to that ineffable Call, the music from the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I’m like a dog snuffling the air, forever following the scent, wherever it may lead.
5. We all have traits that are annoying. Some of those traits, when found in another, are deal-breakers and we simply cannot abide them. What traits can you simply not abide in others? Which traits mean “I’ll not deal with that person,” and why? Which traits send you running? Of those traits, how much of each is found in you?
When I was a good deal less self-confident (and those of you who know me well will be rolling on the floor by now, because you know that deep down I am a mouse afraid of his own shadow), I was in a relationship with someone I believe has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One day he gave me a collection of Jane Kenyon’s poetry, and told me to read a poem called “Biscuit”:
The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.
I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.
He didn’t need to say so, but I knew I was that dog to him. And more often than not, I was given a stone instead of bread. Much has changed in me since then, and such cruel treatment—toward me, or toward anyone, frankly—is intolerable, and provokes a fierce reaction from me.
I can’t abide liars, though I understand the impulse all too well: the need to protect oneself at all cost, even when telling the truth might be so much easier in the long run.
And yes, the cruelty and the lying that I hate: both of these are parts of me. I don’t know that I hate them because they are in me; I know that I have worked hard to overcome them in myself, and so perhaps I am like an intolerant ex-smoker. I don’t know.
I am impatient and short-tempered with people who give poor customer service (I used to teach classes in how to go above and beyond expectations when dealing with the public). And I am intolerant of people I call “willfully ignorant,” who seem defiant in their lack of education or gentility. Perhaps this intolerance is a form of intellectual snobbishness, but I hope it’s because I love the language so much that when people abuse it, it’s like spitting on something sacred.
Occasionally I’ll run across people whose “vibe” makes me want to either run away or (more likely) do them bodily harm. I can’t explain it. It’s nothing they’ve done or said, really, or maybe it’s everything they do and say. It’s a reaction so visceral and so strong that I have to step outside myself and say, “What in the world is that about?” So far I haven’t found an answer.
6. Tell me about poetry. You say you are not a poet. Why have you said this?
Payback is so unbecoming, Adam.
I am not a poet because I am clumsy at it. (And don’t tell me that lots of people say they are poets who write perfectly wretched poems. Just because a mouse is in a cookie jar, it doesn’t make him a cookie.) I can sometimes shape prose with enough felicity that it sings; poetry needs a much sparer touch, which I don’t often have. Generally the best I can do is take a prose poem and break it into shorter lines.
What I think I do have is a poet’s heart. I think Deloney is a natural poet, despite the fact that his poems always look like paragraphs. Indigo Bunting sometimes comes up with phrasings that are breathtaking. I can see poetry in words. I can even edit poetry pretty well. But I think my natural element is prose. Maybe I just need a larger canvas to say what a poet can express in a few brush strokes.
7. We each have ways we make others suffer. Most of the time this is inadvertent or, at least, not on purpose. How have you made others suffer? Was any of it purposeful? How have you made yourself suffer? Are you doing so now? How and why? To what end?
I have been cruel. I don’t know if my cruelty made them suffer, or if they just shrugged it off. On the other hand, our actions have far-reaching consequences, and even acts of charity may have caused suffering, while acts of deliberate meanness may have brought someone to a new and better place.
I have certainly wanted to make a few people suffer, to make them feel what they put me (or others) through. I have wanted them to have a taste of their own medicine.
But me—ah, that’s the person I have been the cruellest to, both deliberately and inadvertently. I have a running tape in my head (I guess we have to change that metaphor now, don’t we? No one uses tape for recording things anymore!) that tells me what an enormous failure I am, how I always let everyone down, how I never live up to my potential, how stupid and petty and worthless I am. I think I am starting to hear it as old, worn-out programming, and I am trying to say “No, that’s not true,” and replace it with something that heals those old self-inflicted wounds.
Why is that programming there in the first place? Some of it stems from my childhood molestation. Most people who are abused spend their lives trying not to feel dirty and worthless. Some if it is habit—we keep repeating the things we’ve heard repeated over and over; we don’t question, don’t object. We’re sheep at heart, especially when the critical voice in our head is our own. We just say, “Yes, you’re right,” without questioning it. One of the blessings of meditation is that you get to see your thoughts as just thoughts, without attaching any value to them. You get to look at them dispassionately, then decide if you want to keep them or not. So I’m trying to rewrite the old self-destructive script, and I’m making progress. But I don’t know that I’ll be finished anytime soon.
I’ve known Adam Tritt for a few years now, though it simultaneously feels like forever and no time at all. He’s a kindred spirit with enough significant differences to keep things interesting. His blog, Adamus at Large, is where he publishes essays and poetry. He doesn’t post as frequently as any of us would like, but when he does, it’s an incomparable feast of words and ideas.
(Note from Adam: To make this as authentic as possible, I did no revision and answered all questions given without reservation and as the responses came to me. What you see is what was written the first time. I looked back at not one question. I wanted this to be as conversational as possible and not a prepared document.)
1. Why are you a poet?
I am not a poet. What a strange question. To call myself a poet would be terribly presumptuous and boorish. Not only that, but it would set up an unfair expectation and then I’d have to perform. Sit, Adam, sit. Show the folks how well you poe.
I am not a poet, I simply think metaphorically. I think in metaphors about everything. The contents of the world—whether we believe they originate from within one’s head, are a combination of that which is without and the experiences and expectations from within, or come wholly from within one’s head—always rumble around and find things to connect with. Everything is a metaphor. Since I don’t see terribly well and remember nothing of the visual world, I think in words. So I get a picture or a sound and I make them into words.
Well, enough of that and my head fills up, so I write. I can’t stand not being understood so I revise and revise and revise, cutting out everything that is not meaning because I’d hate for people to think something I didn’t want them to. My goal is to lead them to the same metaphoric feeling and understanding I experienced. By the throat, if need be. By the hand, if I can. Though truthfully, by the throat is much more fun.
The poetic model allows me to do this in a way that is deceptively short so people will read it. Otherwise I’d have twenty-six page essays.
I then put it out there for people to read, on the blog, in magazines, in anthologies, and in my own books, because part of me believes Descartes: I publish, therefore I exist. Besides, I like the fan mail and the undies that get thrown at me.
Of course, none of that explains why I also write twenty-six page essays.
Asking why I am a poet is very much like asking why I have two legs. I can’t help it. I’d have a prehensile tail if I could. My wife would love that. It would be like in Venus on the Half-Shell. But I don’t. So I have two legs. So I think metaphorically. So I put everything into words. It’s burden. It’s a pain. I’m simply built that way. It’s not my fault, I swear. I blame my temporal lobe. I once filled an entire sliding glass door with poetry. I write on my office walls. I write on people if they stand still long enough and give me enough exposed area.
2. Your first public reading was at a clothing-optional event, and you performed in the nude. And you’ve written about your visits to the local nude beach, and clearly have no problem with nakedness. On the other hand, you write about how you wrestle with body image, and seem to feel ashamed when you are battling weight. For me, being fat means I don’t want anyone to see me naked, even though I thoroughly enjoyed my one and only visit to a nudist resort, and am a closet naturist (I’ve even been skinny-dipping in my neighbors’ pool while they’re away, when I go over to feed their cat).
So how do you reconcile that dichotomy? How do you find the freedom to be nude with others even during those times when you feel discomfiture over the way you look?
Because I’m ornery. Because, unlike dancing, which scares me silly and I force myself to do, or parties, which scare me sillier and I don’t force myself to do, reading poetry at a clothing-optional gathering flies in the face of so many conventions I have no choice but to do it. I teach myself my fears are meaningless and my self-judgments are baseless and thumb my nose at society at the same time? Hell, where do I sigh up? Can I do it twice?
You can walk all the fire pits you want, jump out of airplanes hoping the chute opens, bungee-jump from any bridge you choose, but for sheer fright, read your poetry in front of a crowd while wearing nothing but glasses.
I always reserve the right to not reconcile anything. No need. What makes sense anyway? I am about as dysmorphic as a fella can get. I just got over yo-yo binge and starvation. I no longer run three miles because I ate a piece of bread. That ended last Thursday. A friend who knows me better than well (bless you Joyce) will notice the look in my eye as we are out to eat and take away the menu and order for me. It’s insane. And so, through all this, while I thumb my nose at the culture I live in I simultaneously thumb my nose at that part of the culture that lives in me and is discordant with my world-view, or at least the view I would like to have of the world.
In my mind, the more I push this particular illusion, the thinner it gets and, sometimes, I can see clearly through it and know it is untrue.
There is another part to this as well. I want the walls, those illusory walls between self and other, to disappear. I want the illusions to go away. I am happiest when I cannot tell self from other. That is a theme in my writing. That is a theme in my spiritual practice. That is a theme in my massage practice and in hypnotherapy. That is a theme in my life. Maybe I know it is true and I am working to make it happen, to experience it as much as possible and bring that to other people as well. Maybe I am just trying to convince myself that it is so. Which depends on when you ask me.
And let’s be clear—I do not seem to feel ashamed when battling weight. I have, in this area, a self-disgust that is deep and abiding. It’s open 24/7 and never takes a vacation. I am not sure where it came from and I’m not sure when it’s going, but my job, since I can’t seem to shake it, is to be happy anyway. Happy with the world around me. Happy with myself. My job is to thumb my nose, even from within, at anything that keeps me from being happy, at anything that keeps the illusion of separateness alive.
Besides, I am awesomely cute.
3. In both “Funeral, Expurgated” and “My Grandmothers Came from the Ukraine,” you talk about the quandary a writer faces over how much personal or familial information to reveal and how much to conceal or change to protect the innocent (or guilty). David Sedaris, when asked if his books should be filed in fiction or nonfiction, replied, “Nonfiction. I’ve always been a huge exaggerator, but when I write something, I put it on a scale. And if it’s 97% true, I think that’s true enough. I’m not going to call it fiction because 3% of it isn’t true.” And I can’t remember which writer says that the first duty of a writer is to kill his family—that is, write as if there were no one to offend, no one who would be upset if secrets were revealed.
So how have you struggled with the issue of “truthiness” in your writing? And what kind of fallout has there been among friends or relatives when you’ve revealed something that they would rather keep quiet?
Some of what I write falls into the category of New Reporting or New Journalism. Some into creative non-fiction. But, regardless of what I write, I have never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
Many have made the mistake of thinking every piece I write is true just because most of it is non-fiction. So the poetry must be as well. Sure, some of it is but much of it is not. Poetry can be creative storytelling just as much as any other type of writing. My daughter never gathered angels in a field. My wife never complained about her life over coffee as I dreamed of moving west. But with few exceptions, what I write is based on the amazement of that which makes up everyday life. So I did almost hit a wall while she was changing in the passenger seat and the monk did make the spoon stick to his nose. But just because most of it is true does not mean it all is. I reserve the right to tell a story from time to time.
Given that, those who read me know if you see a name in the essay, the account is true. Percentage? If you see a name, it happened. If you see my name, I reserve the right to make my life what I choose it to be. If that is after the fact, then that is just fine with me. My memory is fluid.
That said, there are some things I just don’t write. I don’t write things I feel will hurt a person or compromise them in some way. I have made that judgment incorrectly from time to time but I never set out writing knowing what I am putting down will hurt. I can’t do that. It’s not in me. Even if the person has done me harm, I won’t.
There is so much out there to write. There is no need.
As far a narrative therapy goes, that is the truest account, the most full exposition I can manage. Your example of “Funeral, Expurgated” is narrative therapy. So is “The Shadow.” I write them so fully, so completely there is nothing left inside and, in the end, the content is all without and not within.
Many fail at narrative therapy and are sure it does not work. But they just write it once and get it out in the immediacy of the moment. That is ineffective. To work it must be revised and revised and revised again, experienced over and over in the writing, pared down, blown up, filled and emptied until it is all truth as you see it, until it reads like drama and feels real to one and all. Then, and only then, is it out.
In the essay you mentioned I spoke about the potential fallout a writer can experience and the fear that can engender. My wife, I mentioned in the first paragraph or two, said she cannot grasp the bravery of writing in tha manner. Sometime, neither can I.
But I did not think I wrote anything that would hurt anyone. As my daughter had pointed out, if they thought what they did was wrong or embarrassing, then why did they do it? One would think they felt their actions just fine and so why not record them?
But I did hurt some feelings. After it was out for a while my mother calls with some confusing story about an email and a letter and whatnot. It took me quite a while to put the bits together and figure out it was about the essay. The feeling was, I gathered, that I had aired the family’s dirty laundry in giving the blow-by-blow account of the funeral days.
I have a very small family. Now, it is much much smaller.
4. A casual reader of your blog may be confused about your spiritual inclinations. Are you a Buddhist? A Jew? A Unitarian? A Pagan? How do you reconcile all your disparate beliefs? Or are they really disparate after all?
I am a Jewitarian Buddhaversalist Pagan. What could be more clear than that? I follow the shamanic elements in Judaism as well as in Buddhism but find Buddhism and Judaism are quite similar in their emphasis on tikkun and right action.
I spent ten years studying with the Center for Tao and Man. Master Ni told me I had the cosmic egg. What difference what I call it? OK, so I am a Taoist. I follow the watercourse way and sometimes that flows through Judaism and sometimes it washes me into the Thai Buddhist Temple where the abbot explains to me the deeper meaning of the Kol Nidre.
After many years of attempting to reconcile seemingly disparate paths, I have stopped any attempts at reconciliation. The result is that all things now seem much more similar and it becomes more and more difficult to see the space between them or recognize there are differences.
Besides, name one cantor who does not like to be accompanied by a rattle or drum.
5. Tell me about turtle shells.
[Note: I had a turtle shell that I brought out whenever I did any group shamanic work. Every time Adam was present, he clutched the shell as if it were a talisman or protective shield. And when I do energy work with him, particularly when I use quartz or amethyst crystals, he seems to find the shell soothing, since my energy feels “edgy,” for lack of a better word. It became clear one evening that the shell wanted to go and live with Adam.]
The carapace is the dorsal, convex, magical part of the shell structure of a turtle, though a turtle would argue it is concave. It consist primarily of the ribcage which is a strange concept because there is never any chance of the ribs escaping. The spine and ribs are fused to bony plates beneath the skin which interlock to form a hard shell when blue and yellow make green, locking freshness in. Exterior to the skin, the shell is covered by scutes, horny plates that protect the shell from scrapes and bruises. Underneath they are made of backhoes.
They are alternately named Don, Horace, or Filbert.
They are not like crystals at all.
They go wonderfully with a cup of papaya juice and Northern Exposure.
One called to me for a year before it ended up coming home with me.It was playing hard to get.
If you lie one on your stomach, you might not have seizures.
Turtles don’t mind.
6. A dear friend of mine named Geralyn said an old chum once told her, “You know what’s so wonderful about you, Schulz? You can’t sing worth a damn. But it never stops you!”
I know you love to listen to music—music of all genres, music that makes you think and feel, with a smattering of Broadway just for good measure—but I think you like making music even more. Singing for the joy of it.
I remember a workshop you conducted on chanting. It was something everyone could do even if they couldn’t carry a tune. And there’s that wonderful Yom Kippur piece you wrote where you imply that chant and prayer and incantation are different aspects of the same thing.
So what does singing give to you, or do for you, that other forms of creativity do not?
Everything sings. The Earth sings from beneath and around us. Everything on/in/apart of it sings. We come out of the Earth and go back into the Earth and, therefore are never apart from the Earth, and so we sing. Any part of a whole carries the nature of the whole. So I do a whole lot of singing.
I think everyone should. And, no, it does not matter if the person can carry a tune. Sing. We are made of an Earth that sings and it is a function of our bodies. We get caught in subjective notions of quality which we mistake for objective ones and which we then assign value to. People do not sing because they are not good at it. But we do many things we are not the best at. We don’t see people refusing to walk because so many other people do it so much better. So sing.
Music reconnects me to all that is around me. I can disappear as a separate entity—the illusion of disconnection evaporates—when I sing. When I am singing with others in harmony there is an experience that is ecstatic, in what I feel is the true sense of that state: I am outside of myself. The harmony creates a larger sound that is made of but is not simply the voices that create it. The harmonious vibration is larger than the sum of the voices. Larger and different. And that applies holographically from the macrocosm to the microcosm, and fractally from the microcosm to the macrocosm.
What is it that vibration does not do, is not made of? I remember someone wrote somewhere in some well-known book something about “In the beginning there was the word; the word was in God’s presence, and the word was God.”
Names, sounds, create things. And it is the naming that creates separation and, therefore, identity. It is my feeling that what wounds can also heal, and sound heals. Singing heals. Music heals. The cantor sings to the congregation the holy words. We chant holiness. Incantations create. All is sound.
Other forms of creativity are, for me, secondary. They are derivative. They pale. To learn to write I took music classes. My writing exists because I do not play an instrument well.
7. I actually went back and reread every single entry in your blog this evening. I teared up at a few, but mostly I smiled. Or sighed. I am honored to know you.
One of my favorites (though to pick even a Top Five would be next to impossible) is Day of the Manatees. There’s a quote by Henry Beston that we both like—in fact, we’ve emailed it to one another, forgetting that the other had already sent it to us—that goes:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
If you’re a panentheist, then you believe that God (however you define the concept) interpenetrates every part of Nature. My friend Tim has a wood carving of a fish; on the side is painted the word COD, except that the bottom of the C curls in just a tad too much, making it halfway between a C and a G. It’s the God Cod. (Or, for the dyslexic, the Dog Doc.)
Speaking of dogs, here’s my second favorite zen kōan: A monk asked Zhàozhōu, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?” Zhaozhou answered, “Wú!” (Wú means “no” and “non-being,” and is also the sound of a dog’s bark.)
There doesn’t seem to be a question in there anywhere. Hmmm.
How’s this: Manatees. Dogs. Cod. Us. God. If all our separateness is maya—illusion—then do manatees bark, and does God swim in Turkey Creek?
Hafiz tells us:
Ever since Happiness heard your name
It has been running through the streets
Trying to find you.
And several times in the last week,
God Himself has even come to my door—
Asking me for your address!
If God can come to my door, I am sure God can swim in Turkey Creek.
Danny Rolling was executed today and they want to know what I think about it.
It is 4:34 in the afternoon. I am in the office of Jeannette Westlake, acupuncturist and herbalist extraordinaire, when my cell-phone rings. Normally I would not bother to reach for it, sitting there having my pulse read, discussing how my week has been, how I’ve slept (very little), what my energy level has been (very little), and how much I like my job (very little), but I felt the need to answer it, knew I needed to, and reached for it. I did not recognize the number but it was a Gainesville area code. I flipped open the phone.
Is Adam Tritt there?
Yes. And who is this?
Miles Doren with AM850. I spoke with your wife earlier and was wondering if she got to you before I did.
Why, yes, she did.
Oh, good, then you know why we want to interview you. Is this a good time?
No, actually. I have no idea.
But I thought she got to you before I did.
She did. About twenty-five years before you. But I doubt you want what she wants. You don’t, do you?
Again? Why? Have they measured how thick the paint is again?
No. They are executing Rolling today.
Are they? I don’t keep up. Why would I?
It is a reporter from Gainesville. It is a bad time. He wants to interview me about Danny Rolling. I have no desire to talk about him again. Again and again. Again.
I’ll have to call you back. Will a half hour be ok? Just in time? Oh, you want to talk with me before he dies. He has less than two hours. I see.
His death has been scheduled. I think of how some feel God calls a person home at a certain time, pre-determined. We do the same. At a little after six this afternoon, in Starke, Florida, we will do what some say only God should. We will commit the act profanus. We will be obscene.
My appointment has finished and I am in the truck and on my way to a peace rally. It is being held in front of a candidate meet and greet. It is at least twenty minutes away and I call the reporter back after plugging in my earphone.
Yes, I am the person who created the student memorial. No, I didn’t do it alone. Paul Chase lives in Gainesville still. Call him. No, I didn’t know Rolling was being executed today.
I have ceased writing. I feel teary and stop to call Paul. It is a few minutes after eleven and too late to be calling and I call anyway. I need to talk, vent. I feel he would understand. He painted the wall with me. I want to tell him how the interview was. How they talked of Rolling continuously. I want to tell him they didn’t understand how I could be against his death, any death. Treated me as though I, whom they had called, had suddenly blackened the names, darkened the day of their celebration. How the interviews ended in awkwardness and the semi-silence of the confusion of a person not hearing what they expected to hear and not knowing what to say in response.
He doesn’t answer and I leave a message. I write more and soon go to bed but it takes me longer than I hoped to sleep.
There were small memorials all over the city. Terse, frazzled, at once jangled and quiet with desperate attempts at safety, small rings of candles, tiny altars, flowers and wreaths were everywhere. People were doing their best to deal with the murders: five students in 48 hours – senseless, absurd, heinous, brutal, in-human.
We sat in an apartment in Corey Village, married student housing for the University of Florida. Paul and Dulce, Myself and Lee. Two couples. There is a wall nearby people had been painting on for years. Graffiti, signs, birthdays, slogans, political, social, comic. The 34th Street Wall was the city’s billboard and the police turned a knowing blind eye to the midnight artistry and the rest of the city stayed clean and clear. It was there we decided to place our memorial. It is there. The memorial is still there. That was 1990.
Somehow, after the memorial, people stopped arguing so much about whether the wall should exist. It was as if Tritt’s panel had become something the town needed.
When the city last resurfaced 34th Street, the plan to widen the bike lane would have required tearing out part of the wall. Instead, the DOT’s Busscher said, officials opted to narrow the median to protect the graffiti.
Sixteen years later, the black-and-white panel hasn’t changed much. New students, who were toddlers when the murders occurred, seem to know not to paint there, even if they don’t know why. (Kelly Benham, 2005. St. Peterburg Times)
We got flack from our wives. The expense. No-one had gas or grocery money. How long would it take? Do you know how? Isn’t it illegal? We don’t have money for food let alone bail. We took the flack. We also took the Honda Spree, both of us on it, to Wal-Mart at nearly eleven at night and bought mistake-paint of whatever colors were there for a dollar or two a gallon, some brushes, a roller and a pan. We spent $11.25, put it all in the milk crate behind us on the scooter and all of it 49cced back to the 34th Street Wall. It was nearing midnight.
More questions. All this is available in newspapers and on television. It was on CNN and 20/20, The St. Pete Times and Tampa Tribune, Miami Herald, Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, Gainesville Sun, The Orlando Sentinel, The Alligator (where it tore apart the staff and ended potential careers), manifold college newspapers. USA Today, Florida Today. It is in them again and again and again.
My son, 2006, at Palm Bay High School in Melbourne, learned about me in history class, in law class.
At the tenth anniversary, 2000, I was invited back to Gainesville by Keep Gainesville Beautiful and the Tenth Anniversary Foundation. I was thanked in public by officials, by Lt. Sadie Darnell, then spokesperson for the Gainesville police. Privately, later, I told Sadie (who is now running for Sherriff of Alachua County… You go Sadie!) it set a bad example, having me at a golf course function, thanking me in public for an act of vandalism. I was cried over by the families of the five. Why did I do it they wanted to know. It was the thing to do. There was no question.
It was just right. Our thought was the city needed a focus; one place for tears and altars and vigils, one place to pool energy. The wall was recognized and it would be. It would last a week, maybe, on this wall of the ephemeral and the transitory, before being painted over, reclaimed. Maybe not even that long. It would be enough.
We rolled on the black paint at the selected spot; the crest of the wall as it follows the hill at the south wall of the U of F Golf Course on one side, and, on the other side of that serenity, a main artery of the city and one of its busiest streets. Rolling on the midnight paint in the pre-morning darkness. We painted a twenty foot section. Occasionally a car would go by and we would lay low. We didn’t know there was no need.
Then, a large white heart on the right. A red heart in the center of that. The five names on the other half of the wall. It took us until nearly four in the morning before we finished our rough painting, under the heart, “We Remember.” We cleaned up and went home. Paul to Corey Village and me, taking my scooter back to my trailer at Windmeadows. It was the thing to do. There was no question. It was enough.
The next morning there were flowers at the wall. More by the end of the day. By the evening, there were wreaths, candles, altars. People taking pictures.
No. we didn’t expect it to stay. It never did, never does. In the space of a week, with the memorial still at the wall, part of it had been painted over with something rather callous telling us “People Die.” True enough. But, by mid-day, it had been repaired. People were taking it upon themselves to keep the memorial intact. We knew people who kept paint for just that purpose. Across from the wall was Spanish Trace apartments. Residents would notify the right people if the memorial was defaced. It would be fixed by day’s end. A month had passed. We were astonished. An actual group had been formed. They called themselves “Keepers of the Wall.”
In a year, we could barely believe it. Phone calls, interviews, pictures and I told one reporter I actually had thought of painting over it myself. Why? Time to move on, to not have murder as the central focus of the city. And who had a greater right to paint over it than me? But the wall belongs to the city and they had taken the memorial as their own. As long as they took care of it.
And every time they did, it was just a little different. Neater this time, an extra heart another, Always changing slightly.
Five years past. It was still there. People had come and gone, stewardship had passed from person to person, care was taken that care was taken. Fraternities took keeping it up as a social concerns project. Families made it their business to keep the area neat. And then, the father of one of the victims asked the city for permission to do what had never been done: make a portion of the wall permanent. It was granted.
A permit was issued to allow, actually allow someone to paint on the wall. And not just paint, but build. A coquina shell frame was created around the memorial. Our handiwork, the continued handiwork and labour of care was covered with a protective clear coating that would allow any paint put on it to be washed off. The ephemeral had become permanent. The transient, stagnant. That is never a good idea.
It cost quite a bit. And someone made more money off it than they should have and sold the family an inferior coating. It leaked. Water got in. In a few years, it was in need of repair. The Ten Year Anniversary Foundation was created. They needed money and lots of it. And this time it would be done right.
I was asked to take part in the repainting. They said they wanted the continuity of having me help strip the old paint and repaint the memorial anew.
I met some of the parents, grandparents and siblings and there were more pictures and interviews and scraping and chisels and the paint came off in sheets and chunks nearly an inch thick. How many layers of paint in the space of nearly forty years of constant covering and recovering? Well, for the central section, thirty years. Thirty. An inch thickness of paint, nearly two inches in some swollen sections, comes off and cover the sidewalk. Over the space of a weekend, done.
The wall is prepared. I am asked to take a brush and paint. I do, making a brushstroke, then another, then handing it off to a family member, a Paules, a Taboada. I have done what I was asked and I am finished, but for the new set of pictures and interviews.
Now it is sixteen years. The reporters are calling me again.
This is a radio interview.
How do you feel knowing Rolling is about to die?
I turn my phone over and look at the time. 6:10.
I feel terrible. No, I do not believe in the death penalty. It is not a deterrent. No, I feel it is an example of the power over structure and this is accepted so in our culture that those with more power feel it is acceptable to wield it over those with less, as Rolling did over those five students. Silence.
What he did is beyond horrific. And not one person would say he isn’t sick. Torturing someone and slowly bringing about their un-natural death as they wait, a passive participant in their own end. No good person would do what he did. No good person would torture someone with the fear and knowledge of impending, un-natural death. Worse yet to have that scheduled, planned. Who could live with that? A day? A year? Sixteen?
No, Ma’am, I’m not saying how could Rolling live with that. I am asking how could we? If no good person would do that, what are we? What are our laws? What does that make us?
So you don’t feel he should die?
I don’t believe we should kill him.
But what about the families?
She wants a specific answer. I am not following the script and she is pulling at anything she can to elicit the sound bite that will work for her; the one that will do the job. A place for my voice has been scheduled, blocked out, set aside and what I’m saying simply isn’t going to do. I does not fall within their plan and the reporter seems upset I am not validating her belief of what I should believe. And she sounds astonished I feel as I do. That I could feel as I do. Do I get angry? Yes. No, it should not have anything to do with my stance. We are to temper our feelings with knowledge. Why else be human?
Someone once told me something about the angels of our better nature. It stuck.
The families deserve more than revenge.
I tell her while I disagree, I hope it brings them closure. I hope it brings them peace.
Rolling has been in the execution chamber for some twenty minutes. Two intravenous tubes have been inserted into his arms by the execution team; one in each arm. These tubes feed through a wall into an anteroom where the executioner is located. He is on a heart monitor and strapped to a gurney as saline solution begins to flow through the tubes.
Sodium pentathol, at two grams, comes next. This is a short acting barbiturate. It is designed to render the inmate unconscious. Florida has had botched lethal injections. The best laid plans…
The warden gives a signal, the execution team begin with another flushing of saline and then pancuronium bromide is administered. This will paralyze the diaphragm and lungs.
More saline. Then potassium chloride. This interrupts the electrical signal of the heart and it stops beating. The syringes are numbered in order.
At 6:12 the reporter asks if I have anything else I’d like to add.
Yes. In the time I have been speaking with you, you have talked about no-one but Rolling. You talk as though it is wrong of me to not want his execution. The real shame is you keep talking about Rolling, but you never, not once, mentioned the names of the students. Not one time did I hear any of their names. You are more interested in celebrating his death than their lives.
Let us put their names here, right now. Sonia Larson, Christina Powell, Christa Hoyt, Tracy Paules and Manuel Taboada.
I am reminded that, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recently, two students, Quakers, were murdered. Young children. The Quakers reached out not only to the families of the slain but to the family of the slayer. They honoured the lives of the children by supporting peace. This is not supporting peace. This is perpetuating violence and the students deserve more than that. They deserve better than that. Their families deserve better than that. They deserve better than a wall and vengeance.
“I feel like I should have a sign placed on me saying that I remember Christa, but not with this killing.” (Bonnie Flassig, Gainesville resident now and then and a neighbour of Christa Hoyt)
I turn over my phone to glance at the time. 6:14. At 6:13, Danny Rolling was pronounced dead. While I spoke. We killed a man while we talked of him. Obscene.
I think maybe that interview did not make it onto the air.
Good. Maybe they’ll stop calling.