Iona

Iona had been calling me for a long time. This tiny island, the last bit of land before the great Atlantic, is at the end of the earth. Ireland is 40 miles to the south but other than that the only thing west of Iona is the vast unknown. It is serious work to get there: fly to Edinburgh, take a train to Oban, then a ferry to Mull, cross Mull on a one-way road in a bus and then one more ferry ride to Iona, walk to the Abbey and you finally arrived. Why would anyone feel the need to go to such a remote place? Why would this tiny island call me?

The story goes that St. Columba got in a bit of an argument over the Psalms at his Irish monastery so he was banished to Iona and built a monastery there in 563 and thus credited for bringing Christianity to Scotland. The monastery thrived and the Book of Kells was written on the island. It became a major pilgrimage site and great honor to be buried on the island. The first major Celtic crosses stood in front of the Abbey and the remaining pieces are in the museum. But there is a power to this place that seems otherworldly. It is often said that “the veils are thin” on Iona and it is easier and quicker to reach heaven if buried on the island. Many years ago I read that it is an “Atlantis Priestess Portal”, I can’t remember where I read that but I never forgot that description. I can’t say for sure what the power is–history, geography, geology, myth– or what this island means to other pilgrims in the past but what I can say is that I had one truly perfect day on earth on Iona.

I didn’t go to Iona on my 2009 trip to Scotland, I knew that time wasn’t right. On this trip it was the final destination that all the holy sites on the way prepared me for. It was raining and foggy on the one-way road across Mull and the traffic was very heavy. I couldn’t see the landscape and felt like I was in a cocoon in the very slow moving bus. Every few hundred feet we had to pull over and wait for an oncoming vehicle. We finally arrived at the parking lot and I got my suitcase and walked through the rain down to the ferry and across the waves onto the ramp; no tourist cars are allowed on the island. I got to the hotel and settled in and then had a group tour of the Abbey. It is plain but it is hallowed ground. I visited the museum and took a walk. As I walked the path to the ocean I had the same overwhelming feeling of joy that I had on the Camino. Three black sheep grazing by the road added to my happiness.

That first evening after supper, most of the group went to the service in the Abbey. The Iona Community, which is dedicated to social justice, conducted a beautiful ecumenical service with singing and sharing of bread. Coffee and dessert in the hotel lounge with my dear friends ended my first partial day on Iona.

All day a song that I had in my iTunes had been going round my head, Cantique de Jean Racine by Faure. The words are in Latin so I looked up the translation, I felt there was a message. “O Christ look with favor upon your faithful people now gathered to praise you”. In my excitement to visit these holy sites and have experiences I forgot the true goal of pilgrimage—-devotion. I was on Iona not for my benefit but to give my devotion to the Divine. I was on this holy isle to sing praises and give thanks for life. I listened to the song over and over, soaking in the beautiful melody and important message.

I had been watching the weather all week hoping that we would have a sunny day on our full day on the island and my prayers were answered. I woke to bright morning sun and the sound of mooing. I walked out to find a herd of “hairy coos”–highland cattle in the nearby barnyard. The baby came running to greet me but was kept at bay by a long-horned mother with gruff voice. I promised her I wouldn’t touch, just admire. After breakfast the hikers in the group met at the ruins of the nunnery to walk across the island to St. Columba Bay. We had a few moment to enjoy this place of worship where stones stacked by man and meadows provided by Mother Nature come together to make the perfect chapel.

After obtaining a few snacks our little group started the walk. The sparkling sun, green meadows, charming animals and the chatter of dear friends made the world even brighter and more vivid. How about the ram with such curly horns that they looked like he had spectacles on. Or my personal favorite, white fluffy lambs frolicking on yellow-flower meadows—ahhhh, it was almost too much to bear. Every step was like walking in a dream. Down the final hill was a beautiful, turquoise bay. The beach is a thick pile of perfectly smooth rocks and down by the water are innumerable green marble stones polished by billions of waves for millions of years. I was surprised we could walk back to the hotel with the weight of all our treasured stones which are said to give protection.

I went over to walk the near by labyrinth and had a bit of an encounter with the head cow as we were walking in open pasture. Apparently I was on her path and she told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell out of her way. Big bossy cows not behind a fence are not to be trifled with and I quickly obeyed.

Then lunch and a bit of retail therapy—that didn’t take long for there are only a few shops. I decided I needed more time in the Abbey to wander alone. I sat in a stream of sunlight and listened to the theme song of my visit on my iPod and soaked in the glory. It isn’t a fancy Abbey but the history and devotion of 1500 years makes it a powerful place. I sat in front of the stone crosses in the museum and thought about all the pilgrims before me and those to come.

After supper I went to the Abbey for the evening service. I was the only one in the group to go but I felt called to be in the Abbey as much as possible. I was greeted by the shadow of the cross on the stone wall of St Columba’s tiny chapel and then made my way inside and found a seat in the Choir. The service was more traditional with just a handful of participants. That was fine with me because I love traditional liturgy. I know it was a time of devotion but the service was absolutely devised by the Divine for my perfect joyful day on Iona. First there was a cosmic joke—the young Englishman leading the service was wearing a bright green tee shirt that said “Dollywood Tennessee” I kid you not!! Dollywood is just up the road from my home and I have been there many times.

The first song, one I knew well, reminded me of my dad. He was a very spiritual man and would have loved my pilgrimage. A few Bible readings and then another song. This time the hymn tune was St. Columba. Wait, that is my favorite tune—I’ve played it on the piano hundreds of times—I didn’t know that was the name. I play that song like a chant. There I was singing new words to my most loved hymn, St. Columba was already a part of my life. A few more Bible verses and then the closing song. The veil between heaven and earth was nonexistent as I sang the final tune as a two-part round “All praise to thee my God this Night for all the blessing for the Light”. I knew all the words by heart. “Praise God from whom all Blessing flow, Praise him all Creatures here below”. A perfect reminder of the message of devotion from the day before. My voice echoed against the ancient stones and I held my hand to my heart in pure joy.

I joined my friends for our final coffee and dessert to share our experiences of the day as the sun set for the short night on this tiny island outpost in the north Atlantic. It was a magic day—not of big experiences but of subtle joys of our beautiful world, meaningful songs, sun and water, friends and history all bathed in the light of the Divine.

The Dove and the Stone by Alice O. Howell

Christ of the Celts, The Healing of Creation  J. Philip Newell

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The Sleeping Beauty

A couple of weeks after my trip to Southeast Asia I found myself yet again in a very different world and a very different experience. Alexandra wanted to meet up on NYC for a mother/daughter arts weekend—how could I say no to that. My sweet girl and art—never a better combination.

For both of us it was a pilgrimage for we were going to see the New York City Ballet perform The Sleeping Beauty. I have loved ballet since I was a small girl but it wasn’t available to me because of religious restrictions. When I became a mother and removed those artificial restrictions I put my daughters in ballet class the moment they were old enough. I was too old to begin ballet but could live vicariously through them—-I’m so glad it worked out for all of us. Alexandra became passionate about ballet and it was her life all through school and beyond. She still takes class regularly and informs me that it is essential for her life and mental wellbeing. She is six feet tall and professional dancing isn’t her career path but instead she just gets to find the joy with none of the pressure.

Over the last few years she has become passionate about the New York City Ballet and follows them like others follow football. She knows the players, the moves, the opponents, the dramas and the choreography. So in February NYCB was performing her number one ballet The Sleeping Beauty. This ballet contains the quintessential elements of ballet in its highest form. The music, costumes, story, dancers, orchestra and audience all come together to experience art at its most refined and inspired.

Tchaikovsky wrote the music to The Sleeping Beauty in 1889 and was first performed in 1890. It has been a touchstone for classical ballet ever since. Along with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty will forever remain a popular and perfect ballet as it is at once pure beauty and mythic story that touches our hearts.  For in the classic fairytale we are reminded that true unconditional love awakens us from our unconscious lives. The NYCB production is choreographed by Peter Martins and is very much in the school of George Balanchine who founded the company. It is this perfect combination of the magnificent score by Tchaikovsky and the unique and truly American style of Balanchine that makes this work iconic and universal. Yet it was over 100 years in the making. Balanchine, a half a century after Tchaikovsky, pioneered a style and technique that matches the music like never before and elevated the art to a new level. It is a unique art form that can change and grow but yet still convey the essence of the original story and music.

Ballet is art expressed with the human body in time and space and this is the essence of this pilgrimage but makes it so different from visiting sacred sites. This is a pilgrimage of Time and ephemeral beauty. It is Time that brings the music and movement together in a refined state. Only in Time does this experience exist, the music and movement are only in the Now, fleeting and yet eternal in the effect on all who participate; dancers, musicians and audience. Alexandra and I were enraptured by the experience and what human beings are able to create. Each perfect movement to the perfect note is a transcendent moment.

Alexandra is the poster child for October 2017 Knoxville Symphony.   This picture from 2011 is just pure joy.

Abbey of Gethsemani

Trappist, KY

A few weeks ago Hamilton set out early in the morning to visit friends in Gravel Switch, Kentucky, to do whatever grown men do that is legal and moral. I find it usually involves metal objects that have letters and numbers instead of names and is in a language totally unrecognizable in my world. But that morning I decided tag along because the next stop on my sacred tour of rural America was just 45 minutes up the road in Trappist, Kentucky, just south of Bardstown. We met up with another couple outside of Danville, putting the men in one car and the ladies in another to go on our separate adventures. Barbara is a native of the area but hadn’t been to Trappist in many years. So we headed down the empty, winding roads through the beautiful back country of central Kentucky.

Tucked into a corner of the rolling country side is a Trappist monastery, Abbey of Gethemani, officially known as Cistercians. I don’t know about you but rural Kentucky is not the place I would go looking for monks; Pentecostals, tiny non-denominational churches, maybe even snake handlers but not Cistercian Monks who live in silence and prayer. Apparently Bardstown was settled by Catholics in 1808 in a very non-Catholic region of the world. Seeing as how the Catholics don’t have a ban on alcohol like the other local Protestant religions, Bardstown became the seat of the bourbon industry so the local landscape has enclaves of bourbon warehouses next to a half a dozen local distilleries. It is a strange but charming combination of religion, ‘demon rum’ and southern history with My Old Kentucky Home presiding over it all.

The Abbey of Gethsemani was established in 1848 and on a cold day in late December the monks began singing the Liturgy of the Hours seven times a day and haven’t stopped since, 168 years of devotion to prayers for the world without ceasing. The prayers start at 3:15 am with Vigils and continue at intervals throughout the day until Compline at 7:30 pm. In the morning between prayers the monks work. In the past there was farming but now they produce bourbon fudge and fruitcakes to support the monastery. In the afternoon, there is time for reading, prayer and contemplation. Although they are not vowed to silence, silence is part of their way of living.

I first heard of the Abbey of Gethsemani many years ago because there is a large guest house open to anyone of all faiths for silent retreats. The simple and tidy rooms are attached to the church. There is a library and extensive grounds for long walks. There are no classes or events, just time and space to go on an inner journey of silence and healing on this holy ground devoted to prayer.

I arrived about 10, on an overcast and very humid August day. I spent sometime in the welcome center where there is a movie that highlights the history and an average day at Gethsemani. Next door is a lovely gift store with local pottery, spiritual books, handicrafts from other monasteries and of course the bourbon fudge and bourbon fruitcake made on the grounds. I bought a sample of each to bring home. Nothing makes me happier the sugar blessed by monks.

The most important part of the visit was at 12:15, Sext, the prayers just before lunch. I sat outside under the trees waiting for the appointed time, the breeze helping with the humidity a bit. The peacefulness of the land and nearby cemetery gave me time and space to find my own inner quiet. Visitors are allowed at any of the services but must sit in the narthex under a small balcony. There is a barrier and then the long thin modern sanctuary stretches out to a distant altar. The bell tolled and about three dozen monks started to enter one by one from several doors and took their appointed places. They each wore a long white tunic with a brown scapular cinched at the waist with a brown belt except the three novices who had white scapulars. Under the narrow stained glass windows, they sat in the choir divided in two by the aisle facing each other with a small organ in the middle of the right wall.

The bell tolled again and the organ played and the monks began their prayers. Nothing was spoken only sung and the words of those noon prayers echoed that day as they had over 60,000 times since the monastery opened so long ago. About 20 minutes later, the prayers were finished and the bell tolled again and the monks filed out to their next duty. The other 20 or so visitors quietly left to go back to their own prayers and retreat. No one wanted to break the beautiful silence of that moment. As I walked back to my car in the heat of the noonday, I felt blessed by those beautiful prayers and so thankful that these men had devoted their lives to God and for the blessing of all the world.

http://www.monks.org

Music of the Spheres

recital program

A few weeks ago an acquaintance called to see if I would be up for hosting a solo piano recital in my house. Sarah has a month-long concert tour arranged and wanted a chance to have a trial run in front of a small and adoring audience. Nothing could make me happier. I love classical piano and an hour of Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninoff played live in my home is pure heaven to me. We agreed on a date and I emailed some friends for my first of hopefully many salon concerts.

My mother’s wonderful piano is perfect for such concerts but was in need of a good tuning. The move from Colorado last year and the climate and altitude change made the tuning go out quickly as it adjusts to my humid climate. Fortunately a few weeks before Caroline had a party for some of her physics friends and one of them happen to have a first career as a piano tuner before deciding to be an astrophysicist. I texted him and we set up an appointment for the next week.

Noah showed up with equipment in hand ready to start tuning when I asked him about the trend back to tune instruments to the traditional 432hz for A rather than the modern 440hz. He checked the current tuning and the A was naturally falling at 432hz. He said that it would be no problem to keep it there and it would be a more stable tuning for my piano.

I first started to hear about 432hz tuning a few years ago and did some investigating then since I love classical music, am an amateur pianist and a devoted violin mom, so music is an integral part of my everyday life. Tuning A to 432hz is a more natural vibrational alignment to the patterns of earth, time, math and sacred geometry, it is also a component of the phi ratio, 1.618, also known as the golden mean, the divine proportion, the building code of nature that sets the proportions of our world to be in harmony. The Great Pyramid, Stonehenge, seashells and our inner ear are a few examples of this natural pattern. Harmony, frequency, vibration are all important to becoming in tune with the cosmos and our enlightened selves.

The standard tuning of 440hz was introduced early in the 20th century, a time when humans were increasingly out of tune with our natural environment and the rhythms of nature, a consequence of high speed travel, artificial light and world wars. We seemingly conquered nature and thus fell out of harmony with our own natural self. The advancements of our modern world aren’t going away but we can do much to restore our own personal vibration to be in harmony with the Universe. Nature, beautiful music, sunlight, silence, sacred sites are a few of the ways that we can bring our bodies back into alignment with the music of the spheres.

The concert was glorious, an hour of beautiful music masterfully played. The intimate setting of a few friends and small room made the music even more tangible and I felt that my whole being was part of the experience.

Chopin played with 432hz tuning

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mi145S-HfQ

The Magic Flute

 

It was time for a change. For many years my holiday celebrations always included Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. I’ve seen them both many times. When I hear the Nutcracker music I can practically dance the choreography. I can now quote whole passages from A Christmas Carol. So instead of The Nutcracker I spent a delightful afternoon watching a very fanciful version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute thanks to the Metropolitan Opera in HD broadcast. Next week I’m going to see The Sound of Music performed by a touring Broadway company. Neither of these productions you would call Christmasy but I like them and they are joyful and fun.

I’ve loved opera for many years now and I go to the Metropolitan Opera HD live broadcasts regularly. http://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/ It is kind of a hobby that doesn’t take up room in my house. I also get to see operas that aren’t possible for our local opera to stage. Opera takes all of the arts and combines them into one amazing expression of the human condition. The talent and dedication it takes to stage an opera combine with the genius of the composer, making it a brilliant presentation of our highest potential. OK, I know in grand opera the heroine must die in the end. That is the rule but fortunately there are happy of operas like The Magic Flute. No Kleenex needed for the final scene.

The music of The Magic Flute is spectacular, the sets and staging in the Met’s current production are phantasmagorical. There are some of the most famous arias in all of opera. But here is what makes it so fun for us pilgrims: it is an Egyptian initiation opera, I bet you didn’t see that coming. I was so shocked the first time I found out many years ago. Mozart was a Freemason and he put many of the ideals and symbolism of Masonry into his work.

First there is the clash between light and dark, the Queen of the Night and the High Priest Sarastro represent this polarity. It is hard for the hero and heroine, Tamino and Pamina to even find out who is telling the truth. Ultimately they end up in the Temple of the High Priest where he prays to Isis and Osiris to protect them on their journey through fire (courage) and water (endurance) initiations to make them worthy of love. Three spirits guide them on this journey advising them to be patient and courageous in the quest for truth and love. The magic flute that Tamino is gifted by Sarastro helps guide him and keeps him in harmony with his quest. In the end truth and love prevail and the Queen of the Night is conquered.

The delightful bird catcher Papagano is Tamino’s sidekick through the story and represents our more sensual nature. Papagano is not so interested in Truth and Virtue, in fact he has a bit of trouble with embellishing his story. He is preoccupied with food and finding a cute lady bird catcher. Sarastro gifts him magic bells to help harmonize him with his more earthly destiny. Papagano finds his ideal partner in Papagana and they plan their life together which includes lots of little chicks.

Truth, love, virtue and perseverance are all essential tools our magical characters need for their journey, the same essential tools for our initiation to a life dedicated to our sacred path. The magic flute and bells reminds us that we need to harmonize yourself with these ideals and that will keep us on the path that is taking us to our more enlightened selves.

 

 

Two Pianos

pianos

My house has to contain three things to be my home, a fireplace, a cat and a piano. I love the primal joy of essential and mysterious fire, linking me with my ancestors. Of course I’m cat obsessed so a fluffy kitty or two on my lap is pure joy. The piano is a great friend and comfort. I play when I’m happy, sad, bored, got a minute to spare or to accompany singers or my darling violinists.

I was raised in a very conservative religion that permitted few extra-curricular activities. Sports and dancing were out but not music so I took piano lessons from a young age. My teacher, Mrs. Harter, a lovely older lady and church organist, had a white toy poodle, Baby, that sat on her lap during lessons. When I was in high school I took lessons from Mr. Schneller at a music school. He smoked a pipe and drank coffee during my lesson—very exotic and worldly to this sheltered girl. I had the usual scales, new pieces, polishing pieces and every week a hymn to learn so I would be ready for any church occasion. My two closest friends were very accomplished pianists so we played for each other and learned duets. To this day, when my friend Melanie is driving to see her mother in Nashville she stops by and we play a Mozart duet that we learned almost 40 years ago for our 8th grade graduation. Our performance is little rusty at times but we are once again those young girls skipping class to practice our duet.

I didn’t have the talent to be a professional musician so I just play for my own pleasure. Without the standards of performance that trained musicians have, I learned to compensate for my short comings with amateur tricks like White-out if there are too many notes or just skip the really hard, tedious parts. My cats and husband don’t care, they are an approving audience. Alexandra loves having live music even if it isn’t perfect.

When Hamilton and I married, I was determined to have my dream piano, a walnut baby grand. I had always played a spinet but aspired to a bigger piano. So I took our wedding money to a piano restorer and picked out a lovely 1930’s vintage walnut baby grand piano. I made small payments for a few years until it was paid off. It took up a great deal of my 900 square foot apartment but I didn’t care. The dog had room to sleep under it and the girls played “fort” under it. I started them on violin very young and our evenings were spent playing the piano and violin together. I kept that White-out handy to be able to keep up with them when the accompaniments were orchestra scores.

Next month is my 30th wedding anniversary making my piano a part of the family for 30 years too. It has brought us much joy and solace, entertainment and achievement. Now it is time for my piano to go to a new home. It is a bittersweet parting. A newly married couple is coming to move it in a few weeks. It is a big task to move a baby grand, you can’t just throw it in the back of a van. It requires special movers, strong men, equipment and then a retuning. Definitely a high maintenance instrument.

But I haven’t given up playing. In fact I’m playing more than ever on a new piano. My mother’s beautiful Yamaha piano wouldn’t fit in her new apartment so I have it and it is magnificent. It has better quality tone and touch and is truly a joy to play. Mom can come play it any time she likes but it is mine everyday. In the mean time I have what I call my “intensely first world problem” of two baby grands in my family room. There isn’t much room to walk. This is a bridge time between my cherished old piano that has brought me so much joy and my new piano that will be my companion for the next thirty years. A strange time when I say goodbye to an old part of my life while simultaneously welcoming the new. The last few years have been such a transition in my life; the children are grown, the parents gone, the old house sold. I’m ready to leave this long transition time and bid a fond farewell to my old piano and my care-giving years and welcome with open arms my next phase full of the great unknown with an amazing sound track, compliments of my new piano.

 

My Caroline

physic ssign

New Majors at the University of Tennessee

This last year I’ve talked a lot about my daughter Alexandra and our adventures in Spain but I’ve not said much about my precious Caroline. So the other day she sent me this picture of her Halloween prank on the Physics building, I  decided it is her moment to shine.

How I got a child like Caroline I will never know, she doesn’t just march to the beat of a different drummer, she circles an entirely different solar system than the rest of us. Every day she does or thinks something that the rest of us couldn’t even imagine.   I’ve spent her life setting big boundaries so that she could be her creative self without falling off the earth.

As a little girl she was adorable, blonde and blue-eyed with rosy cheeks and such a vivid imagination that she was five before she stopped being a cat named Sally most of the time.   She didn’t have an imaginary friend, she was an imaginary friend.    She would use two combs as her pretend violin until I got her a real violin at four and began the all consuming world of Suzuki violin. The violin was her special place where her uniqueness could shine and be recognized by her peers.    By the fourth time through any piece she had it memorized including all her orchestra music.  My girls loved to perform and the “fiddlin’ Bowen sisters” went on the road for any and all occasions.

Caroline’s teen years were a challenge, she did well in school and on the violin but life wasn’t easy for her. I wrote about her challenges  in Demeter and Persephone.   The first few years of college were very bumpy but I made her stay in school because that was what moved her life forward in a positive direction.   I would tell her “just take anything but go to school.”

On April 27, 2011 there were tremendous tornados all across the southern states, wiping out whole towns, Caroline got caught in one of these powerful systems and had almost like a near death experience.   That storm changed the course of her life and she became fascinated with weather.   So after four years as wandering art student she taught herself college algebra and trigonometry and remade herself into a scientist.   She is now almost finished with her Physics degree and has minors in Art and Math.    OK, she is the last person on earth that you would expect to be a physicist but she loves it.   People ask me all the time “what will Caroline do with when she graduates?”    I always reply “something none of us have ever thought of.”

 

DSCN3839

Caroline at 16 trying to have a “Close Encounter of the Third Kind” at Devil’s Tower Wyoming.