Tag Archives: Frances Figart

By the Light of the Fireflies

12 Jun

It was Thursday, May 18, 2017. Dark was falling and a storm was in the air. My husband John and I, along with our good friend Taylor, were traveling south along Tennessee Highway 352, back to our home in Flag Pond from Johnson City, where we had been to a Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy fundraiser. Though it had been a long week and we were all tired, we were deep in conversation about the most important topic on our collective mind: our backyard, Rocky Fork.

The 10,000-acre Rocky Fork watershed—roughly a fifth of which recently became Tennessee’s newest state park, the rest remaining part of Cherokee National Forest—has been inventoried and studied by scientists as a biodiversity hotspot for the Appalachians. Its cove forest and pristine mountain streams are home to Peregrine Falcons, the Yonahlossee salamander, the woodland jumping mouse, and delicate pink and yellow lady slipper orchids. The property is also part of the Unicoi Bear Sanctuary and lies within an Audubon Important Bird Area.

Taylor, John and I were talking about the fact that, although the tract was spared from being purchased by trophy-home developers a decade ago, it might now face another threat just as damaging to its fragile ecosystem. The park, which currently has no facilities and only limited parking, is accessed via a narrow one-lane paved road, tightly wedged between the gorgeous Rocky Fork Creek on one side and steep-sloping rocky embankments on the other. We were soon to pass this road en route to our house. Rumor had it that this enchanting corridor that led into our favorite slice of Appalachian Heaven on Earth might soon be widened to support the passage of huge RVs and that a large campground with all the amenities might be built there to accommodate up to 60 of them.

“Let’s go up in Rocky Fork for a minute,” Taylor suddenly suggested when we were about a mile from the turn. “I think the habitat could be perfect up there for Blue Ghost Fireflies.”

Not putting much stock in the possibility—and quite honestly not really knowing there were different kinds of lighting bugs to be found—I conceded. John, who had seen the creatures a few times on the Appalachian Trail, was intrigued. Taylor described Phausis reticulata and told us what to look for. We drove in a little ways on what John and I refer to as “the prettiest mile of road in Tennessee,” until Taylor said, “Okay, stop here, and turn off all the lights.” We complied and, in a few moments, our eyes began to adjust to the darkness.

And there, back a bit off the road, in the trees on a craggy bank near the gushing Rocky Fork Creek, I saw a group of 20 or so tiny lights moving around and toward us, somewhat like one might expect an inquisitive fairy colony to do. They weren’t exactly blue, but they did seem ever so ghostly, yet in a friendly way.

We made our way to the park’s entrance where, in an open area that used to be the field-like yard in front of an old homestead, we noticed a different small group of fireflies were blinking off and on, sometimes seemingly in unison. After watching them for a while, Taylor realized these must be the emerging Synchronous Fireflies that we all knew created one of the most exciting and fabulously popular displays each year in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The next night, John and I returned to Rocky Fork, this time entering the park and checking the newly created parking lot area for fireflies. And what we saw now nearly blew our minds. In the woods right in front of us were hundreds of the same Blue Ghosts we had seen on the paved road the night before. These seemingly sentient little beings moved around each other slowly, some coming curiously closer to us, keeping their friendly lights on for minutes at a time, reminding me of the fictional Eywa, the shimmery-light-clad ancestors who would occasionally visit the characters in the movie Avatar.

Off to our right, in the open field where we had heard the park’s new visitor center might be constructed, more Synchronous Fireflies had gathered than the night before, and their rhythm (six flashes in unison, then all dark) had gotten stronger, more in sync. The flashy mating ritual of Photinus carolinus was unfolding before our eyes, and our first rational thought was that we couldn’t wait to tell Taylor, then Tim and Jesse, our friends the park ranger and park manager. We knew they would be thrilled that our park had these amazing creatures—just like the Smokies!

That spring, during the four to six weeks of the two species’ peaks, Taylor, John and I were obsessed, burning the candle at both ends, seizing every opportunity to visit with our newfound insect friends, getting to bed after midnight each night, and rising early the next day to meet all our responsibilities so we could do it all over again. Rocky Fork State Park became more than just our Shangri-La; it was a wonderland of mystical lights, and we delighted in an ancient dance preserved through ages of genetic code.

Synchronous and Blue Ghost fireflies in Rocky Fork State Park

~~~

Having made my living as a writer and editor, foreshadowing is rarely lost on me.

Not long after Taylor, John and I discovered that Rocky Fork had the charismatic fireflies, I got an interview for a new job, and a few months later was asked to be the publications director for Great Smoky Mountains Association, an important nonprofit partner to the most visited park in the U.S., the park known for its fireflies. Since then, I’ve learned a tad of the science behind the glowing creatures. I’ve talked to experts like Will Kuhn, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tennessee, who explains that “bioluminescence is the process fireflies use to create light. These biological processes are the result of millions of years of evolution and are extremely efficient—much more so than light bulbs.” There are 19 species of fireflies known to exist in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Lynn Frierson Faust, author of Fireflies, Glow-worms and Lightning Bugs, has identified 24 different species on her farm near Knoxville.

But for me, the science is secondary to another kind of message invoked by being in the presence of the fireflies. I’m reminded of a passage from one of my favorite writers, David Brill, from his book As Far As the Eye Can See, that describes two kinds of AT thru-hikers. The peak-baggers “viewed completing the Appalachian Trail as a Spartan feat that would enhance their sense of machismo without reconfiguring their attitudes or values.” But the other camp were “those intent on savoring the trail experience… They tended to measure the miles in terms of quality—of events and experiences—rather than quantity. These were the hikers who… learned and grew the most while on the trail.”

The scientists of future generations will probably speak of our time in history as the era when homo sapiens became so disconnected from nature that we romanticized and objectified it as something totally different and apart from ourselves. More than 80 percent of the world’s 7.5 billion people now live in urban areas and experience the natural world mostly through artificial constructs like educational television series and movies (like Avatar) about humans having adventures in forests and jungles, and on rivers and oceans. Rather than surviving sustainably on the landscape for 70,000 years like our cave-dwelling Neanderthal predecessors, we have industrialized, digitized and cyber-sized ourselves out of balance with what is left of our wild spaces in just a few centuries!

Yet there is at least one place where modern humankind still has an opportunity to coexist with nature. In the U.S. alone, our 58 national parks and more than 10,000 state parks provide us with some of the last refuges in which to create a harmonious balance with the plants and animals of planet Earth. Visitors to the 520,000-acre haven of wilderness in the Smokies and the 2,058 acres of Rocky Fork State Park alike represent some of the few human beings who still seek to physically connect with nature in some tangible and meaningful way.

The trick of the firefly light is a complex topic about which many books and papers have been written. But the light also communicates something intangible that cannot be explained by measurements and algorithms. My feeling when in their presence is that the fireflies represent an ecosystem that still has some semblance of balance, even though we have likely reached the tipping point beyond which humans can no longer live in harmony with nature.

It’s a language beyond words, but if I had to give it some, I’d pick: hope, mystery, love and acceptance that transcends death and the millennia.

Synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by Radim Schreiber. See more images at fireflyexperience.org.

~~~

Irony rarely escapes me either.

Much has changed since last spring. Because we shared last year’s findings with Tim and Jesse, thousands of park visitors are also excited to come and see the species in action. Thus our own viewings of Phausis reticulata and Photinus carolinus in the park two miles from our home have been drastically curtailed. Rocky Fork State Park closes at dusk, and so unless we were lucky enough to score a ticket to a park-sanctioned firefly-viewing event in the five minutes during which they sold out on June 1, we cannot regularly visit our flashy floating friends this season.

But our concern remains that the habitat of these and many other fragile species may be in peril, and that those who love the diversity of Rocky Fork as we do might not get the chance to learn about the state’s plans for the park until it is too late to have a voice in the matter. Our greatest fear is that well-meaning politicians seeking the boon of economic development for our community would inadvertently destroy much of what makes this fledgling new park unique. If its beautiful entry corridor and parkland can remain pristine with only primitive camping and no large-scale development, with vision and foresight from local leaders, Rocky Fork has what it takes to attract a huge piece of the global tourism market: ecotourists, who are willing to pay up to three times more for the quality that comes from a rustic, biodiverse park experience.

While we wait for officials in Nashville to let us and other friends of the park in on whatever plans they have in store, we hope our discovery may be somehow fortuitous. If our sharing of the news of these species means that “the prettiest mile of road in Tennessee,” can be spared the ravages of huge construction equipment and that a large visitor center might now not be destined for the woods and field that host the hatching and mating grounds of the Synchronous Fireflies and their Blue Ghost neighbors, then all will be well that ends well.

We will be the lightning bug viewers who valued the quality of our experiences rather than the quantity—and used the light of the fireflies to see our way to save them, at least for a little while.

Blue Ghost exposure by Radim Schreiber. See more images at fireflyexperience.org.

Advertisements

I’ve written a book!

26 Nov

“When are you going to write a book?” has been an oft-asked question throughout my life. An English major who always focused on language, won awards for papers in college and worked consistently in communications, ironically I never really gave the question much thought. My flip answers ranged from “probably never” to “when the time is right.” But privately I considered the prospect highly unlikely. I believed I would only author a book if it somehow occurred “organically” due to some (as yet unforeseen) passion for a topic that would naturally and effortlessly lead to composing an entire epistle.

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

A little over a year ago, I was visiting a friend who lost her brother not long after I lost my mom. We were reflecting on the various ways one brings creativity to bear on processing grief. Sarah showed me a series of photographs she had taken over the course of an entire year, exploring the ups and downs of journeying through life while learning to accept loss. I shared that when I returned to Kentucky in 2010 to live with my mother, I started a blog so that I would not lose touch with my writing. What began as simply being around to lend a hand morphed into the role of caregiver—and the blog became an outlet for stress and, eventually, a way to come to terms with the death of a loved one.

While speaking with my friend and seeing her wonderful work, a realization rose up majestically from my subconscious like a giant sea turtle I once encountered while kayaking that had been lying invisible, yet grand, just below the ocean’s surface. I knew I had written my best essays as blog entries during the year of my mother’s death. Why not publish them as a book to honor her life and help others dealing with loss?

sks2

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

I asked Sarah if she would read the four essays I had in mind and, over the next several weeks, we communicated about the ideas. Sarah noticed that the dates I wrote the essays created a seasonal pattern: June 2, 2012; August 9, 2012; October 4, 2012; January 9, 2013—Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter! This pattern provided me with my title: Seasons of Letting Go. Like Sarah’s yearlong photography project (some images shown here), I had a year of essays.

Upon further reflection, I found on my blog site eight other essays that would fit in well following the first four about caregiving and grief. So the concept became a collection of 12 essays, presented in three parts, each containing four chapters. I had already written a book without even knowing it!

That is when the fun began. I set the goal of “doing” the book during the entire year of 2016. Though my 12 essays were already written, I had to edit them—but that was really no big deal. The intention now was to make this a creative experience by involving friends and colleagues who would bring their artistic abilities to the project during an entire year—and I would project manage. I told everyone involved: “There are no hard-and-fast deadlines or production schedules: Just have fun!”

And, you know what? We pulled it off! The book is now at the printer and, when it is available, you will be the first to know. I’ll write another blog about the creative souls who worked on the project. So please, stay tuned, and if you don’t already follow this blog, please sign up in the upper right hand corner so you will get updates about Seasons of Letting Go: Everything I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die.

Post Script added Dec. 10: The book is now available on Amazon.com.

frontcover

Graphic design and layout by Trish Griffin Noe | Cover image by Joye Ardyn Durham

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

Sarah and me.

Sarah and me.

StarGrief: What it means to lose our rock heroes*

15 Jan

In the early morning of January 10, along with millions, I began texting the close friends I knew would be affected by the sad news of David Bowie’s demise. One fan was sobbing: “Don’t you feel like he was your friend?” I was struck by that question and have spent my commuting hours this week pondering it and the role that rock icons play in our lives.

Just as the death of a pet affects us in a way that is more difficult to explain than the death of a person, so the powerful effect of the death of someone whose work we intensely admired—and whose persona became larger than life through the media—is intangible and near impossible to articulate. I remember breaking down at the breakfast table on April 8, 1997, when I heard the NPR announcement that Laura Nyro had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 49. I had loved her music from a young age, read her biographies and felt so close to her through my admiration that I was wracked with grief. I know I will be an emotional wreck once more when the time comes for others of my most revered singer/songwriters: Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Neil Young, Todd Rundgren, Jeff Tweedy, Pete Townshend… the list goes on.

2014DavidBowie_Getty101818565_210314.article_x4Yet fame, as Bowie wrote, “puts you there where things are hollow.” It is a barrier, on one side of which are the devoted fans who appreciate and identify with the artist’s work so much that they can mistake the emotion for a love of the artist himself, though they only know a version of him from the persona he’s created, amplified by the media. On the other side of the fame barrier is the artist who, while enjoying many pleasures most people only dream about, is also isolated by his status, never sure whom to trust, and could not possibly have enough energy in one lifetime to truly connect with the millions who imagine a connection with him that is powerful and real.

While I most certainly have shed a tear in the past several days—listening to favorite songs, watching YouTube footage, playing Wes Anderson’s iconic Bowie tribute in the form of The Life Aquatic with its other worldly covers rendered by Sue George—the bottom line is that David Bowie was not my friend. How could he have been? What was he then to me and to so many others, and what are all our special musical stars, to elicit such a powerful reaction?

Starting in the 60s, music became an acute expression of the political alignments and social mores of our era. It did that so well that the music itself began to take on epic proportions. Thus the period of music in which we live has created a powerful and unique historical culture of its own. It has come to play a central role in many of our lives, acting for some almost as a spiritual conduit.

In Roman times, there were household deities that looked after people and their homes. One of these household gods, the “genius” was the individual incarnation of the divine in every person, place or thing. Not unlike our concept of the “guardian angel,” the genius would follow each person from birth until death. I see our rock icons as an incarnation of the genius or deity that we have created and chosen to accompany us on our life’s journey. We each have our own personal cultural genius, the rock-n-roll paragons who define us and inspire us, dead or alive.

So, since we didn’t really know Jerry Garcia or Freddie Mercury or Lou Reed or David Bowie, and we still have their canon of music after they are gone (which is all we really ever had), why are we all so profoundly affected when they die? Where does this type of grieving really originate?

I think their passing represents the very special connection we share with our contemporaries, made even more poignant during a crisis like the death of a musician we loved together. I first experienced this collective consciousness of sorrow back in August of 1977 when, at age 12, I mourned the loss of Elvis with my slumber party girlfriends. I felt it again in 1980 when, as a high school sophomore, I watched in horror as the TV news reported John Lennon’s assassination. Sans Facebook, cell phones and texting, we all reached out to each other then, just as we do now.

article-1027216-012A9ED500000578-778_468x480_popupThe end of a rock idol also represents our own passage into a time when we are not as connected to each other as we were in those earlier days when music held a more central place in our daily lives—when we danced ecstatically to Young Americans, sang along to Fame and Heroes in our cars or first shared Ziggy Stardust with a friend. Our strong identification with those who championed our culture was central to our home and hearth. We basked in the glow of the artists who represented the creativity, diversity and brave new inclusiveness of our epoch. Back then, we each shared the music of our icons in an intimate way with our friends, probably some of the very same ones we texted on Sunday morning.

Did I feel like David Bowie was my friend? Well, no, not really. But I can understand the sentiment—and I think he would have appreciated it too. As our genius figures pass, we are reminded how truly fortunate we are that the music and musical heroes of our era express our unique and inimitable culture, perhaps more accurately and passionately than at any other time in history.

 

*This piece was first published under the title “David Bowie was not my friend,” which seemed to be misunderstood to the extent of turning away potential readers. So, here it is again with what is, hopefully, a more palatable headline. 

 

50, here I come: 11 lessons from my 40s

24 Feb

Tomorrow I turn 50. This afternoon I got a birthday message from Laura, a younger friend I met in Switzerland around the time I turned 40. Over the years I’ve known her, Laura has had many ups and downs and now has created a successful culinary business for herself on a Swiss farm. We have only been together twice, but shared a deep connection and enjoyed comparing notes about how to deal with life’s challenges. After an initial greeting, her opening words were these:

390864_352805314794540_1782318286_n“I often think about you and imagine you are happy. 50 now… I remember last time when you were 40. Loads of questions and thoughts about life: How is it today? How did these past 10 years help you find peace and answers?”

Wow! These immense, broad questions came to me at just the right moment, as I’d already been formulating the vague idea for a blog to reflect on the past decade in some comprehensive way.

My 40s were incredible, and I migrated through many changes, the culmination of which was the death of my mom, and the realization that she was the true love of my life – even as I was flitting about on several continents during my stint in the travel industry. Finally going home to Kentucky to help her die was the best decision I ever made and although I didn’t do it perfectly, I was strong and I helped her live her last days the way she wanted to.

IMG_0909In 2013, I sold a house, moved, rented for six months, got a part-time job, and then bought a house and renovated it… all of which have led me to my current situation, a new resident of Asheville, NC, still recovering from loss, but growing stronger as I connect with my new community, and find my niche socially and professionally.

What follows is a collection of salient lessons from the past decade, each supported by a favorite quote.

LESSON 1: LOVE YOURSELF

“The most important relationship you have in life is the relationship you have with yourself.” ~Diane von Furstenberg

IMG_2646Last year’s birthday came at a time when I was still grieving the loss of my mom so heavily that I expected others in my life to somehow compensate for the internal void of having no parent left to celebrate my life in the way that only parents can. I learned then the final lesson of independence: that I really needed to only have expectations of my own self, and to face the fact that I was truly alone – and be OK with that. And that helped me to focus on my relationship with myself more in the past year than I ever had previously.

LESSON 2: LOVE OTHERS

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” ~Thomas Merton

This is only common sense, but with those expectations mentioned in the first lesson always creeping into relationships, keeping the right attitude toward love of any kind can be a challenge. It’s good to be reminded day after day that what we love about others is what makes them different from us and it our not our job to shape them or mold them into something we think is best for them – or for us. I think I finally learned this lesson during my 40s and am ready to practice it well in the next decade.

My last Friday morning

LESSON 3: ACCEPT WHAT IS

“Stop resisting. So much of our anguish is created when we are in resistance. So much relief, release and change are possible when we accept, simply accept.” ~Melody Beatty

During my 40s, I think I adopted a more natural acceptance of reality, learning more about not pushing for things but allowing them to come to me organically. A huge lesson of grief is the acceptance that you cannot change what has happened, what is. Learning to relax into the “luxury of grief” and allow it to consume you for a period of time is actually healthy, and takes you on a tour through all of your emotions so that none is left unvisited – and then you are ready to move on, to move forward.

LESSON 4: BE HERE NOW

IMG_6134“If you no longer want to create pain for yourself and others… then don’t create any more time… realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle

I can’t stress enough how much reading Eckhart Tolle helped to shape my outlook during my 40s. It was like a homecoming finding his writing, because so much of what he says, I feel I’ve always operated on, and just thought that no one else was like me. These were lessons hard-learned and I made plenty of mistakes, but meditation and focusing on the Now helped me prepare to help my mom die, and live through it and on beyond it with a new enthusiasm for life.

LESSON 5: BE STILL

“It is said that all you are seeking is also seeking you, that if you lie still, sit still, it will find you. It has been waiting for you for a long time. Once it is here, don’t move away. Rest. See what happens next.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes

As a natural progression of learning not to push so hard for what you want and to accept what is, there comes a realization that you are moving toward things as they are also moving toward you – that its not up to you to facilitate getting there yourself; the movement is one greater than you can orchestrate. This doesn’t mean do nothing; it means be open, listen and conserve energy in preparation for what is coming rather than spending it all. A great convergence is occurring and things are being worked out that you cannot imagine. So be still.

IMG_6106

LESSON 6: BE IN NATURE

“I have passed the Rubicon of staying out. I have said to myself, that way is not homeward; I will wander further from what I have called my home – to the home which is forever inviting me. In such an hour the freedom of the woods is offered me, and the birds sing my dispensation. In dreams the links of life are united; we forget that our friends are dead; we know them as of old.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Time in nature I always find to be my greatest teacher. Moving to Asheville was largely about connecting to natural areas and a sustainable lifestyle that values the environment. From my base in my new home here in the mountains, my intentions are set to contribute personally and professionally to the health of our natural resources, our true home. Through moving in this realm I know I will be comforted and cared for in many ways yet unforeseeable.

1660609_10201466213760447_1674709993_n

LESSON 7: BE ALONE

“To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions.” ~Deepak Chopra

I remember at a younger age a feeling that for any experience to be truly meaningful, I had to share it with someone. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more and more comfortable with having amazing solo experiences, and enjoying them just for me, not even telling anyone about them. But this took a long time for me. As an only child, it was a hard lesson; I wanted to always be with others. This past year I’ve been alone more than ever before, and now I even have my own house. I confess I’m happier when others are visiting, but my alone time does provide many answers and insights. I feel I have more balance in this respect now than ever before.

LESSON 8: GROW

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” ~Albert Einstein

As we continue to evolve into higher consciousness and greater awareness, we find ourselves able to tackle challenges that previously seemed beyond our grasp. Lessons learned become the foundation for new ways of taking care of our self, interacting with others and moving through our sphere of existence. Suddenly some things that always seemed hard in the past are now parts of everyday life. This is growth.

Unknown

LESSON 9: EMBRACE SURPRISES

“So hold your head high
and don’t be afraid
to march in the front
of your own parade
If you’re still my small babe
or you’re all the way grown
my promise to you
is you’re never alone

You are my angel, my darling, my star
And my love will find you, wherever you are.”

~Nancy Tillman from “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You”

Whenever I have extra time at my job at The Compleat Naturalist, I take a moment to read some of our wonderful children’s books. Many of them remind me of the love of my parents, and none more so than “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You.”

I had thought that once I found romantic love again, I would be so sad that my new partner could not meet my parents or know them that it would make the relationship somehow impossible. But something happened that I could never have imagined.

IMG_0730

I met someone who loves me in so much the same way that my parents did, that it is as if this person was sent to continue that deep connection – and that through him, their love has found me. So what I thought would be a desire for them to have met each other is transformed into a serendipitous feeling that they are the same energy, and know one another through understanding and loving me. This is a form of being surprised by joy that I could never have anticipated. I feel that all the other lessons somehow prepared me to be open for this one!

Inner strength

LESSON 10: KEEP MOVING FORWARD

“Inner strength comes only to those who move forward in the face of adversity.” ~ Phil Stutz & Barry Michels in “The Tools”

The Andean Torrent Duck spends its entire life swimming upstream against a strong current. You can see some cool video of it in the PBS nature movie “An Original Duckumentary.” This species, now in decline due to pollution, forest destruction and hydroelectric damming, really inspires me! No matter what your passion or intuition, it’s all about picking a path and moving forward on it… whether you’ve got the perfect plan or not. Sometimes going out on a limb will create adverse situations, but learning to persevere through the storms will make us stronger – and help us appreciate the calmer days.

Image

LESSON 11: DON’T FEAR MISTAKES

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” ~Neil Gaiman

IMG_0804_2My closest girlfriend in my new town I met through my time in Costa Rica with Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours. Nina is a constant inspiration and has given me a great deal of emotional support in my new life here. She posted this quote before the dawn of 2014, but it is apt for the eve of a new decade for me as well. It sums up much of the feeling behind this blog, in that I intend it to be helpful to others, and in no way to say that I have not made tons of mistakes along the way. I have made them… and I encourage you to make them too. And then forgive yourself, and move forward.

50, here I come.

Photos by Joe Lamirand, John Beaudet, Frances Figart

Editors, the conductors of the publishing world

6 Mar

I was recently asked by a potential employer to describe the editor’s role within the publishing process. I immediately thought of Swiss conductor Mario Venzago, former Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Music Director.

mariovenzago001_webEach time I have attended a performance by a symphony orchestra, most memorably those directed by Venzago, I have sat through most of it in tears. Whether Bruckner or Wagner, Schubert or Liszt, Dvorák or Ravel, the music always moves me deeply. But the emotion comes more from the fact of identifying so strongly with the conductor, and seeing what he does as the quintessential metaphor for what I do, and what others do, when we are editors in every sense of the word.

We put it all together. We choose the material. We set the pace. We communicate and network with all the community stakeholders involved. We choose the players we feel can contribute the most effectively to our ensemble.

We coach others on minute details of their style and performance and somehow keep them feeling not criticized, but motivated because we are working together for something greater than us.

mariovenzago003_minWe hear and see the big picture of how everything needs to come together in the giant whole of a publication. And yet we orchestrate every single detail of everyone on the team pulling together to make it all happen as perfectly as possible.

We cross t’s and dot i’s a lot of the time. But we also plan, prod, goad, think at 20,000 feet so others can focus on smaller parts, coach, mentor, teach, challenge others to reach their potential, juggle all the balls at once – all the while keeping time for the entire group.

Even now, having gone several years without seeing Venzago in action, without hearing the product of his amazing vision in the musical realm, I’m still stirred and motivated by remembering the times I was in his audience. And although he was released unexpectedly and inexplicably from his duties in Indianapolis, I know I join throngs of others in wishing him well as he continues to inspire those fortunate enough to see and hear him in Newcastle, Bern and beyond.

mariovenzago004Not long after being asked to reflect on the editor’s role, I attended a networking luncheon in Asheville, North Carolina. After everyone took turns delivering one-minute introductions, a woman came up to me and provided the name and e-mail address of someone she knew in publishing. “He might not be much help, though,” she said. “He’s just an editor.”

Just an editor? No, I thought. No one is just an editor. Our role is akin to that of Socrates, whom Plato described in his Apology as having said, “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, all day long… arousing and persuading and reproaching… You will not easily find another like me.”

Perhaps like Mario Venzago, I continue to be amazed at our current economy and life’s unexpected crescendos and diminuendos. But in the face of uncertainty, and when I wonder what comes next, I know one thing, and that is that I am proud to be an editor.

We are the conductors, the visionaries, the directors and the gracious gadflies of the publishing world.

Learn more about Mario Venzago.

mariovenzago005

Let’s roll: A tribute to Ruthe

9 Aug

My mother did not want it said that she died peacefully. True, she was in her home, surrounded by the people and things she loved. But despite the fact that she had no fear of making the transition out of her earthly, physical form, she fought willfully for more time here, mainly to be with me, her only child.

In life, however, she was a peacemaker, helping dissenting parties to focus on common ground long enough to realize the folly of their conflict. She was a teacher, a student, a leader, a speaker, a writer, a decorator, an accountant, a musician, a nature enthusiast, an animal lover, a baseball fan, a fashion maven (she could tell you exactly what she wore at every important event of her life) – and a spirited woman who wholeheartedly supported her family and partners, while paradoxically remaining staunchly independent.

The third of four daughters born to a farming couple in Clark County in 1931, Mom gleaned her sense of fashion from her father, who wanted his girls stylishly clad, even during the Depression. If growing up with few possessions created in the sisters a penchant for the finer things, they were nonetheless well aware that spirituality trumped materialism every time.

Losing her mother at age 16 must have contributed to Ruthe’s early individualism and maturity. Georgetown College student Ross Figart was the visiting youth minister at Carlisle Baptist Church the summer of 1948 and he couldn’t help but become fascinated with the most beautiful and interesting girl in the choir. Some of her favorite memories are of staying in the original Rucker Hall at Georgetown during their courtship. They were married in 1950.

My parents had been pastoring the county seat church in Vanceburg, Kentucky, for seven years when I arrived in 1964; Mom nearly died having me and doctors cautioned, “Don’t try this again.” Not one to gravitate toward anyone else’s children, she loved her only child fiercely and spared no energy in teaching me her spiritual values, her thirst for great literature and music, and her love of all creation, especially birds and cats. My earliest memories are of her scrubbing coal dust off of me and off our black and white tomcat in Hazard, Kentucky, where she would emerge from our tiny mountain parsonage ready for church looking like a combination of Donna Reed and Jackie Onassis.

Throughout my life, I’ve been told by Kentuckians of all ages how much my parents influenced their spiritual development. During my dad’s 13 years as director of missions for Boone’s Creek Association, and his 11 years as director of missions for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, I watched my mom live her roles of “preacher’s wife” and “missionary’s wife” to their fullest – from the slate-rock hills of Eastern Kentucky to the jagged coastline of Brazil, South America. She had a gift for helping others to reach their potential, whatever the field of interest.

Growing up in the idyllic setting of Boone’s Creek Camp, I tagged along as Mom led campers on nature hikes and bird walks through the wooded hillsides. I watched her transform the tiny timid Corinth Church choir into a forceful ensemble that could deliver a cantata to rival those she’d been a part of during music weeks at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. Sometimes we’d arrive at a church where Dad was slated to interim preach, and when no one came forth to play the piano, Mom would matter-of-factly assume the bench, unrehearsed and unruffled.

Any time I heard her speak publically – from small circle gatherings to state WMU conventions – she always made herself vulnerable to her audience by sharing a moving anecdote or reciting a powerful verse that would inevitably bring my highly emotional “Mom Bit” to tears. But this caused others to respond on a far deeper level than would have been possible if she had refrained from crying.

After my dad died in 1992, Mom finally had her own college experience when she majored in English at the University of Kentucky in her mid 60s. She won awards for her writing, as her daughter had done decades earlier – not surprising since my communications talents were obviously inherited from her. She won an entire piano once for writing in 100 words, “Why I love my Baldwin.” Never forgetting her Georgetown connection, she supported the school whenever possible as a way of honoring my dad.

When Mom fell in love with Bill Sphar in 1999, she cycled back to the farm life she had left behind in childhood. After five years of traveling and enjoying Spring Hill together, he became ill and she managed his daily care for two years. In the stressful throes of caregiving, she accidently ran over her own dear cat, Louisa, and a part of her soul never recovered from this trauma. Her strength and determination made Bill’s final transition a comfortable one. When she left the farm, she took with her his faithful hound, Bebe, and gave her a life of luxury until her death this past January.

When Mom could no longer continue teaching her beloved adult Sunday School class at FBC, she turned her creative energies to writing a memoir of her bucolic childhood, “A Feast for Charlie,” which was published earlier this year. About the same time, God sent Paula Underwood Rhodus – who was born and raised in Vanceburg a decade after we left – to help me care for my mother. Every day Paula came, Ruthe taught her something new – about birds, about flowers, about language, about music, and about life. Paula gave Mom a new connection to one of her favorite communities and provided an opportunity for her to continue to teach at home.

Ruthe never lost her sharp mind, offbeat sense of humor or “the-show-must-go-on” poise. Whenever she became bored with crossword puzzles and Neiman Marcus catalogs, Mom would gaze resolutely at me or Paula and say, “Let’s roll.” We’d get her into the small transport chair and she would pedal along as we rolled around the house–first to the screened-in back porch to see her squirrels, rabbits, finches, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, cardinals, wrens and blue jays; her roses, crape myrtles, hydrangeas, herbs and tomatoes on the vine. Next she’d visit favorite books in the library, gleefully wake the cats from their naps, watch fervently from the front door as we went to retrieve her abundant mail, and sometimes she would play hymns on her piano, as she always had, by ear.

On the night of July 23, Mom watched with satisfaction as the Reds trampled the Astros. As the game ended and we got ready to go to sleep, she looked at me on the couch beside her bed and said earnestly, “I love you too much.” I responded, “And I you.” After that, she closed those piercing eyes that remained ever clear and bright, and I imagine she must have said to her Lord something along the lines of, “Let’s roll.”

~ff

The Georgetown College flag was lowered to half-staff for two days after Ruthe’s passing to honor her inimitable spirit. Her ashes will be scattered in Vanceburg’s Kinniconick Creek. We will all miss her grace, humor, insight and unconditional love.

Coming UpArt

26 Oct

This new communique about artists and their art is dedicated to my mother, Ruthe Ballard Figart Sphar, who taught me at a very early age to surrender to the call of creativity. Without Mom, I would not be the creative communicator that I am — and this first installment would have been finished a month ago.

For the past 30 days I have been beside my mother day and night, 24/7, intuitively taking care of her as her body tries to find a way to coexist with a deteriorated heart, and her mind struggles to let go of the physical limitations she cannot change. I have perhaps learned more from her this past month than in all my 47 years with her, because I have listened more attentively, cared more affectionately and loved more fully than ever before.

During this trying time, the few hours I’ve been able to devote here and there to this project have brought me release and inspiration. The goal is to promote artists that I admire, spreading the word about their work. Artists are the least compensated members of the work force proportionate to the amount of joy they bring to human beings. Even in the face of difficulty, the inspiration of art, music, film, theatre or literary composition can make us feel that everything’s coming up roses. Coming UpArt is a new e-mail blast and blog update of fresh art you can enjoy, buy for holiday gifts, and learn more about through online links. Get in touch with me via e-mail if you would like to provide feedback or have your projects featured in Coming UpArt.

~~~

Nate Miller, Photographer ~ Asheville, North Carolina

Nate Miller hails from Parma, Ohio, where he started focusing on macro nature photography about a decade ago while being a caregiver to his father. Now working in the artsy Asheville, North Carolina, he still uses a fairly rudimentary camera and takes a bold approach to his subjects, mostly flowers. His collections include thousands of nature portraits, about which fellow artist Cynthia Cusick has written, “He pours you into the middle of the flower’s petals or the connection between blooms. His framing immerses us in the richness and luminescence of color, cropping out any distractions.” Landscape photographer John Snell says, “Nate has a great eye for nature’s graphics and simplicity.” But Nate stakes no claim to the title of artist. “I’m rather an interpreter,” he says, “seeking to reveal that which transpires behind that which appears.” He is currently booking guest appearances at open houses in both homes and businesses from North Carolina to Ohio to show and sell his prints during November. See more of Nate’s work and purchase prints on his web site; follow his work on Facebook; purchase his art on various household items, including laptop skins, phone cases, organic t-shirts and more on his CafePress site; read Cynthia Cusick’s blog about him and check out mine as well.

~~~

Joe Lamirand, Filmmaker/Musician/Songwriter ~ Indianapolis, Indiana

Film director, writer and producer Joe Lamirand won accolades during the past year when the short film “Turning Japanese” swept through numerous world-class film festivals winning countless awards, including best short at the prestigious American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at Cannes. “It was truly a life changing experience and an opportunity to work with some very talented people,” he says, “including our star Brian Austin Green.” The feature length version of “Turning Japanese” is currently in development with Robin Gurland, notable casting director for Star Wars Episodes I and II. Joe’s earlier films include the off-beat feature-length comedy “Talent,” and the short “Hollow.” In addition to being a producer, Joe co-wrote three original songs for “Turning Japanese,” two of which he produced with vocalist and collaborator Mia Joseph. After the film’s success, the two teamed up to form an alternative rock band, Blue Spark, which has been making waves in Indianapolis during 2011. The band is going into the studio in early November to record their first CD. Helping to grow the band’s cult following, Joe directed a whimsical music video featuring Blue Spark performing one of their most popular originals from their demo, “Punk Cowboy.” Watch “Punk Cowboy” on YouTube; listen to other Blue Spark songs on ReverbNation; follow Blue Spark and Turning Japanese on Facebook.

~~~

Cynthia Cusick, Ceramicist ~ Irvine, Kentucky

Growing up just north of New York City and spending much of her young adult life immersing herself in what she calls “the energy and grittiness of the City,” Cindi moved to an old farm house in rural Eastern Kentucky in the late ‘90s. This shift to a more natural environment, she says, “added a dimension to my self-expression. I rediscovered my sense of awe and fulfilled childhood dreams long thought abandoned.” One of these dreams was to be an artist, so in her 40s she finally took time off from her graphic design business and got a BFA from Eastern Kentucky University with concentrations in ceramics and metalsmithing. Much of her work references organic objects as metaphors for life experiences, focusing on women’s issues, sexuality, nature and intimacy. Shown above: Porcelain Juice Cup with Slit and Red Eruptions. A continuation of other “eruption” works, this whimsical piece sits on small, unobtrusive feet placed inside the bottom edge and is brushed with pink and mauve underglazes. Read more about this item on Esty; follow Cynthia Cusick, Teahorse Studio on Facebook; see more of Cindi’s work on her web site; read Cindi’s marvelous blog about her process and check out my blog interview with her.

~~~

Paul Ramey, Author/Musician ~ Jacksonville, Florida

Artist, writer and musician Paul Ramey lost his best friend Salvador earlier this year. Salvador was Paul’s dog. Within two months, Paul had published “Zen Salvador,” a tribute to “Sal” in the form of a bound series of minimalist ink-brush illustrations depicting man and dog, along with original observations about life’s path. All proceeds from the sale of this book are earmarked for the Jacksonville Humane Society. “Salvador and I had an amazing 16-year journey, and he taught me many things along the way,” Paul says. “After his death, I wanted to do something that honored that journey, and would send some positive energy forward. Helping other animals in Sal’s memory was a natural direction.” Paul hopes that people will consider this 24-page publication as a collectible piece of art more than simply a book. Each page is intended as a meditation, allowing the reader to stop, absorb the thought, and have a quiet moment to contemplate. The book ends with the touching story of how Paul and Salvador first met each other back in 1995. Visit the “Zen Salvador” web site; follow “Zen Salvador” on Facebook; learn more about Paul; and check out the 2-CD goth/rock opera Veil & Subdue that Paul composed and recorded.

~~~

Patrick McNeese, Musician/Painter/Director ~ Lexington, Kentucky

Patrick McNeese is a Kentucky-based visual artist, singer-songwriter and documentary filmmaker. Perhaps best known for his highly expressionist artwork, Patrick has been creating distinctive oil and mixed media paintings for nearly three decades in his downtown Lexington studio. His paintings are included in numerous public and private collections throughout the U.S. Patrick writes and performs his original songs on piano and guitar. “My recent work has been described as ‘Appalachian Jazz’ because it embodies the energy and freedom of certain jazz ideas (i.e. syncopation and improvisation), as it also borrows from the rich traditions of music-making and song craft from the Appalachian region,” he says. Patrick has written, performed and produced three independent albums: “The Singing Bridge” 1989; “Me, Mywolf and I” 1993; and “Any Day Now” 2005, and has also composed original music for several film and video projects. Patrick wrote, produced and directed five independent documentaries, most dealing with the lives and work of both historical and contemporary artists and musicians. In 2006, he received a Director’s Citation at the Black Maria Film Festival for his film about a Vietnam veteran who is also a gifted artist. See more of Patrick’s art, check out his music on iTunes, CDBaby and ReverbNation, follow Patrick on Facebook and read my blog interview with him.

~~~

Hans Peter Jorgensen, Sculptor ~ Decorah, Iowa

Like many artists, Hans Peter (HP) Jorgensen has worn many professional hats to support himself throughout his career, and has returned to a more concentrated focus on art in his retirement. Earning a BFA from Michigan State in 1965, HP soon discovered that making a living as a sculptor in the Midwest was problematic. So instead he earned his living through design and construction of architectural elements, historic restoration and, more recently, non-profit program design. “I’ve always thought of myself as an artist, whatever I was designing,” he says. Over the years, HP has produced thousands of objects—sculptures, furniture, clothing accessories, photographs, books, architectural restorations and programs for various non-profits. Since retirement he has focused on producing sculptures featuring the human figure with an emphasis on faces. He works in clay and casts in either plaster or bronze. Shown here: Homo Technologicus II (detail) is painted plaster, 18″ x 32″, 2011, the second in a series exploring the interface between humans and the technology that is an increasing part of our society. This piece is one in a series currently on display through the end of October at Perfect Edge Gallery in Decorah, Iowa. Click here to follow Hans Peter Jorgensen, Sculptor, on Facebook.

~~~

Kathleen Farago May, Fine Artist ~ Ottawa, Ontario

The evolution of her art from drawing to painting, to printing (etchings and silk screens) and finally to digital painting has been part of Kathleen Farago May’s life adventure. “Each medium has allowed me to more clearly express the spiritual impulses that have driven my creative work,” she says. She perceives her creative process to be a collaboration, to which she contributes her experience, technical skill and aesthetics in order to express the ideas and feelings she is inspired to bring to life. While her early paintings often expressed a rejection of traditional religious forms, today’s images are about “embracing the sense of the numinous that we feel when we acknowledge Oneness.” Kathleen’s themes reflect the fact that she adheres to no single spiritual tradition, but rather remains open to guidance from her higher self. The imagery is symbolic – a sphere, a face, wings, water, the sun – alluding to elements of philosophical and spiritual significance. When the images are not figurative, there is simply a feeling in the abstracted color-scapes and mandalas – a sense of awe, wonder and transported gratitude. Shown here: Time Lapse Self Portrait 1978-2011. You can view Kathleen’s collections on Facebook by clicking these four links: EmergenceAffinitySpringWall.

~~~

Mike Coykendall, Producer/Musician/Songwriter ~ Portland, Oregon

Best known for touring with and producing M. Ward, Mike Coykendall (“Kirkendall”) fits his own songwriting and recording in between recording projects with artists like Blitzen Trapper, Richmond Fontaine, She & Him and Pancake Breakfast. Mike’s folk-rock sound features his trademark wise, raspy vocals set to country-infused psychedelia. In the early ‘90s, he and musical partner Jill Coykendall formed San Francisco’s Old Joe Clarks, an alternative country ensemble whose highly acclaimed CD “Town of Ten” shot to number 16 on the Americana charts. Rubbing elbows with musicians such as GIllian Welch, Bright Eyes, Jim James, and Victoria Williams, Mike has appeared on Austin City Limits, Late Night with David Letterman, Conan O’ Brien and Craig Ferguson. He performs around Portland regularly with The Golden Shag, has recorded two solo CDs – “Hello Hello Hello” (2005) and “The Unbearable Being of Likeness” (2009) – and is seeking the right label for his new double-CD release. Taking bookings across the U.S., Mike says, “I just want to perform as much as I can and tour as much as is possible.” Learn more on Mike’s web site; listen to his music on  iTunes; watch him perform “Lost as You Are” and the cover “I Can See Clearly Now,” and read my blog interview with him.

~~~

Please, before you buy your holiday gifts, consider purchasing art from one of these eight or countless other artists who have their work available online or in your local community, wherever you may be. Thank you for taking time to read these profiles! Get in touch with me via e-mail if you would like to provide feedback or have your projects featured in Coming UpArt.

Ecotourism: Why I am headed to Hilton Head

16 Sep

One of my professional incarnations placed me in the role of magazine editor for a mainstream travel industry association. I was attracted to that position because of its three-fold offering of people, places and publishing: the extrovert in me loved meeting the people who made the travel industry go ‘round; the adventurer in me loved exploring new places and learning new things; and the editor in me loved being able to publish a monthly full-color magazine. In that role, I met an industry mentor who was like the Edward Abbey of ecotourism, and he started educating me about responsible forms of travel: ways of traveling that ensure there are environmental, social and economic benefits, what we call the “triple bottom line.”

There are many definitions of ecotourism, but it boils down to environmentally responsible travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features, both past and present). It promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local people in the areas visited. Most ecotourism is by its nature also sustainable, meaning it can be maintained over the long term because it results in a net benefit for the social, economic, natural and cultural environments of the area in which it takes place.

Once I started learning about these forms of travel, I was no longer interested in supporting most mainstream types of travel because they were not taking into account the environmental and social aspects of the triple bottom line, only the economic aspects. So from then on, I dedicated myself to responsible travel. But first I had to learn the ropes, and I got involved with several organizations in order to complete that learning curve. One of these organizations is The International Ecotourism Society.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES as it is known in the travel industry), had its first North American focused conference in Bar Harbor, Maine, in September of 2005 and I went – flew there and rented a cottage and paid for my registration – all on my own dime (although my boss did give me the time off) knowing absolutely no one at the meeting. By the end of it I had met many of the movers and shakers in the sustainable travel industry, people who would become significant colleagues and friends for life.

Six years later, I’m headed to yet another Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference by TIES, this one in driving distance of Kentucky, which is a relief. As I did for the conference when it was held in Madison, Wisconsin, a few years ago, I have been working as a volunteer on the Advisory Committee, helping to plan the educational sessions and disseminate vital information to speakers. I will moderate/facilitate two sessions and be a panelist on one – and I am so psyched that all my professional responsibilities fall in the afternoon, which is when I am most revved up! Here is a taste of what my three days on Hilton Head Island will be like:

Day 1 Monday, Sept. 19, 3 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 1.1 Mainstream Goes Green: Many Shades of Green.

One of the speakers on this panel is Jerusha Greenwood, Assistant Professor in the Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Administration department at California Polytechnic State University. I asked her how she got interested in her field.

“I became interested in tourism and natural resources when I was an undergrad at the University of Utah studying Environmental Studies. I was in a multidisciplinary class, and the geography professor who was teaching a session of the class started his lecture with a discussion about the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which had just been established by President Clinton. This immediately became a hot-button issue in Utah, and a number of the students in the class were vehemently against it. They felt like their land was being ‘stolen,’ that what the president had done was unfair, and that jobs and economic opportunity had been taken away from a pretty poor region of the state. The geography professor talked about all of the alternative opportunities that were going to become available to the region, primarily in the form of tourism and outdoor recreation. Until that day, I’d held a pretty simplistic view of the interactions between humans and the environment, but the controversy surrounding the establishment of that monument made me realize that these issues are actually very complex. I ended up studying the support for tourism development to the Grand Staircase monument among the residents living nearest to it in a context of sustainable tourism development for my masters thesis.” Read my interview with Jerusha to get a glimpse of the issues she will address at the conference.

Day 2 Tuesday, Sept. 20, 3:30 p.m. I’ll be a panelist on Get a Step Ahead: Student-Professional Networking Session.

This session will allow students going into sustainable tourism to ask some questions of those who’ve been in the field for some time. TIES interviewed me for a blog to promote this ESTC session, and asked me what significant changes I have seen take place in my profession since I chose it. My answer: “While it was rare to hear talk of sustainability or ecotourism in the mainstream travel industry a couple of decades ago, now this language is fairly commonplace. That is indicative of both a paradigm shift in mainstream travel moving to more green thinking and also a general adaptation of greener marketing terminology where actual sustainable practices that take into account the triple bottom line may not yet exist. Simultaneously, we have more and more focus on sustainability in learning institutions, and more young people graduating with degrees in sustainable and responsible forms of tourism. These future leaders are charged with helping to make the entire industry accountable and to ferret out and dispel the green-washing that still exists.” Read the complete interview here.

Day 3 Wednesday, Sept 21, 1:30 p.m. I’ll facilitate/moderate Session 3.4 Win-Win Partnerships: Connect Locally; Grow Globally.

Ethan Gelber, one of the speakers for this session, is the chief communications officer for the WHL Group, the largest local-travel company in the world and a great example of driving business through local and global partnerships. I asked him how he got into the role.

“Although it wasn’t until a few years ago – at about the same time as the proliferation of niche travel labels (ecotourism, responsible travel, sustainable tourism, local travel etc.) – that I accepted being branded as a certain kind of traveler, I have always approached a voyage as something more than a holiday. Along the way, in addition to confirming a commitment to communicating with people across cultures, I discovered many facets of the travel industry. In the late 1980s I helped establish, manage and run trips for Blue Marble Travel, a European bicycle tour operator. In the late 1990s, I led a nine-month ‘Internet educational adventure’ called BikeAbout – the Mediterranean, billed as the first ‘wired,’ human-powered (bicycle), land-bound circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea. In the naughties, including a couple of years with the French Government Tourism Office, I pursued my passion for ‘alternative’ travel and writing about it, including as a Lonely Planet author. I have lived on four continents and journeyed (often extensively, often by bike) in 77 countries, all without a diminished sense of wonder at the beautiful complexity, but also fragility of the world.” My interview will give you a preview of the stories he’ll relate at ESTC!

Howe Gelb remembers Sept. 11 in “NYC of Time”

10 Sep

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“NYC of Time,” the second track on Giant Sand’s 2004 offering, Is All Over the Map, pays homage to the resilience of New York City and delivers a deeply felt encouraging word to all who were affected by the devastation of September 11.

Now based in Tucson, Arizona, Giant Sand’s front man Howe Gelb is no stranger to The Big Apple. I interviewed him recently about the city, the song and the events of ten years ago. Howe is both a poet and an innovator, and as such desires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own in cadence, tempo, beat and pause. This interview was conducted via e-mail, Howe typed his answers exactly the way he wants them to appear and requested that they be provided here sans capital letters. I am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: You lived in New York City not one but three decades ago, when you were heading up your first band, Giant Sandworms. What was your experience like and what do you remember most about living and playing there?

Howe: i lived there in 1981 in the lower east side with my band for a year when living there was a daily danger. it was like a city attacking itself back then, but it always made more sense somehow than any other violent place. that time there lent itself in a way that made everywhere i’ve ever been since, easy by comparison. it was a training grounds to survive the time there then with our fledging band. adventures like being mugged and playing cbgb’s and wandering the streets all night became part of strength and fiber needed for continuance in me. i loved the time spent there then, no matter how tough it was, now only respect the place more since that day 10 years ago that dared to show what its people are made of and how to deal with horrors beyond anyone’s imagination.

Frances: One of the most compelling tunes on Is All Over the Map, “NYC of Time” makes the acronym “NYC” into the word “nick,” as in a cut, scratch, gash or dent – and as in the adage “in the nick of time.” Its climax contains the ironic yet triumphant line, “New York, there’s more to you now that something isn’t there,” which I take to be a direct reference to the city’s way of coping with the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Howe: of course it is. the horror of that day was of biblical proportions. we as a species deal with it and continue finding ways to fall in love and live on no matter the consequences of this existence. new york being as intense as it always has been is probably the only place on earth to take it on the chin and continue to be even greater than before. it’s like what happens to martyrs; they become more powerful after their destruction.

Frances: How do you feel looking back to 10 years ago and how do you hope people who hear the song “NYC of Time” will interpret what I and many of your fans consider a bright, powerful and uplifting tribute?

Howe: i still say prayers for those that were on those planes. to envision them in that ordeal and send them the kind of thoughts and real energy from this life in hopes of some connection and embrace beyond this place. especially the mothers and children and the words they must have spoken to comfort each other in those final moments. the babies and the mothers on those planes, how they embraced each other in a way of representing the best quality of us as a species and the love that binds more than anything. then to all the countless people from such immensely varied cultures in the towers that only new york could ever accumulate, and how they then had to cope with their final moments and plunge into the next world with such conviction they never knew they had in them until that moment.

the song “nyc of time” pales by any comparison, but its thrust is there to help move it all ahead to a better time and place, and a dance to get us there.

nyc of time

new york, big city of dreams
take a bad time and make it better
there on the sidelines
you redefine, redefine, redefine.

n y c… spells nick to me
adjust in space
and just in time
you redesign, redesign, redesign.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

new york, it’s good to have you there
there’s more to you now
that something isn’t there
see it shine. see it shine.

in the nick of time
in the nyc of time

Listen to the song here.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Image credits: Howe Gelb by George Howard; Twin Towers by Cynthia Cusick.

What do the Rolling Stones have to do with Gratitude?

25 Mar

I got a call today from an old college friend, a friend who knows me well and appreciates my eccentricities. When he asked what I was doing, I replied that I was watching a Rolling Stones video. I then tried to explain that I was doing research for my blog and that the Stones were helping me practice Gratitude. This ended up sounding lame even to me, and I had to tell my friend to just wait for the blog, and then it would all make sense. And so, here it is…


A year ago at the time of the Spring Equinox, I was living in the tropics, taking part in an exotic international experience full of adventure, romance, fun and excitement. Immersed in the beauty of the ocean environment, I relished gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, thrilled to amazing ecosystems and rare wildlife sightings, all the while embraced by the warmth and openness of the Latin American culture. The full moon rising over the Pacific Ocean on the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica took my breath away. There was never a dull moment.

Over the past year, my mom had some health issues back in the states, my romance became more challenging than nurturing, and I realized that in order to be true to myself, I needed to transition away from the exotic life of travel, and back to what I felt was a much more mundane existence: living with mom in my bland, dull, ordinary, conservative hometown, what some half-affectionately refer to as “Rifle Town,” Winchester, Kentucky.

Then, in one of life’s awesome little ironies, my former husband gave me this book called “How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of the Ordinary” by Timothy Miller. And I opened myself to the possibility that maybe life was not so bad.

This is not a book about anti-materialism or voluntary simplicity, as the title might suggest. It’s about how to stop constantly wanting something other than what we have right in front of us. Miller is a cognitive psychologist who writes in a very simple, straightforward style, exploring ideas based in Eastern philosophy from a modern psychology perspective. He examines how we drive ourselves crazy by focusing so much attention on our human desire for more of everything… more wealth, more stuff, more power, more attention, more sex, even more spirituality or more love! According to Miller, whether what we want is good or bad for us doesn’t really matter; it is the act of focusing on the desire that prevents us from living in the here and now, appreciating what we have, and treating others the way we want to be treated.

One of the passages I like the most talks about how meditation – or taking a meditative approach to life (however you choose to do it) – is conducive to wanting what you have because when you meditate, you realize over and over again that you just need to stop thinking about what you want and just sit there with an empty mind. “If you meditate regularly, the cycle of desire and renunciation is repeated thousands of times,” Miller writes. “You might think of it as reprogramming a computer. The original program essentially states, ‘Try to get what you want. Try to gratify your instincts.’ Meditation gradually alters the original programming.” Meditation also is conducive to helping us practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, which are the disciplines Miller advocates to facilitate wanting what we already have.

When I was talking to my friend about this earlier, he reminded me that Sheryl Crow must have read this book when she wrote “Soak up the Sun,” which has that line, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.” But I actually use three other songs to remind me of the three practices that Miller advocates to keep us focused on wanting what we have: Attention, Compassion and Gratitude. You are free to try this at home, and the videos provide a fun way to remember the ideas.

Practice: Attention

Artist: Carly Simon

Song: Anticipation

Theme: “These are the good old days.”

Concept: Being here now and realizing this is the precious present. We can all easily remember the line that ends this classic tune, and remind ourselves that even though we tend to always look to the future and think of what we think and hope is going to happen, even that future, when it does occur, can ultimately only happen “in the now.” If we use the reminder “These are the good old days” as a way to bring our attention back to the present, it becomes easier to see how good we’ve got it, right now, and to realize we have no control over what will happen.

Watch the video.

Practice: Compassion

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Song: Hungry Heart

Theme: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

Concept: Empathizing with others and seeing that everyone you encounter is just trying to get the same things you are in life. In another of life’s little ironies, I’ve never been as big a Bruce Springsteen fan as is the partner I recently left behind. But I have to admit it resonated with me when Miller mentioned “Everybody’s got a hungry heart” as the mnemonic to help us in realizing that even the people who annoy us most (he uses examples such as neighbors with barking dogs or kids scrawling graffiti on our town’s infrastructure) only want the exact same things we want in life: acceptance, shelter, power, love.

Watch the video.

Practice: Gratitude

Artist: Rolling Stones

Song: You can’t always get what you want

Theme: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”

Concept: Being happy with what you’ve got and thankful for the things that surround you each and every day. Remember the opening funeral scene of The Big Chill? This song was the perfect choice for expressing the resolute nature of grief when we lose something, or someone, we thought would always be there. This theme is a perfect way to remind me that, even if I may not have everything I think I want, I always have all that I really need… and then some. And that realization makes me immensely grateful.

Listen to the song.

This year, the Spring Equinox visited central Kentucky with an appearance of the incredible super moon, the same moon that shines over the Pacific Ocean, and over the tropical beaches I have now left behind. I’m now focused on taking part in what adventures, fun and excitement I can find in and around my old Bluegrass stomping ground, immersed in the beauty of a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing home in a wonderful park-like neighborhood with older trees, squirrels, rabbits and lots of bird species. Here I am embraced by the warmth of very close friends, some of whom have known me for more than 40 years. I relish this special time with my mother, here and now, a relationship that is precious and which I know I cannot have forever. When I practice Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, there is never a dull moment… and occasionally, if I’m lucky, I even get to soak up the sun.

Watch the video.

Read another cool blog post about this book.