Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Speaking the “the universal language of music” with inspiration and instruments from around the world -- The musical stylings of Daniel Moen

Saturday May 20th I had the amazing experience of witnessing—and being a part of—the first solo concert of Daniel Moen, accomplished Detroit-area musician, photographer, graphic designer, animator, and all-around entertainer. I’ve been close friends with Dan for about seven years, and have had the privilege of witnessing his personal evolution—and human revolution—that led up to this production.

Dan was encouraged last year by the folks at Starkweather Arts Center in Romeo, Michigan, where he is a regular at their open mic night, to do a solo show. Starkweather hosted the show at the Romeo Masonic Lodge 41, as part of the two organizations' concert-series partnership. Dan has been composing and recording his music at home for a while now, and regularly uploads his songs with videos on his YouTube channel. He records tracks in layers, combining himself playing live instruments, electronic tracks, sound effects from nature, samplings of chants and vocalizations from various languages, and even occasionally himself doing different forms of indigenous throat-singing.

One of the distinct features of Dan’s live performances is that whenever he plays an instrument from another culture, he will give a brief introduction to it and to the cultural group it’s from. Far from simply picking instruments at random because they sound cool, Dan has done in-depth research into every musical item he owns, as one of the ways he applies his passion for learning about and experiencing cultures.

His music also has a deeper purpose than simply entertainment. He composes and plays multicultural music in the spirit of honoring the cultures and people who inspire him, not to appropriate or capitalize on their style. He hopes to one day be able to give back to the cultures of origin from any monetary proceeds he makes from selling music that features instruments or musical styles from those cultures. He also maintains sensitivity to concerns about cultural appropriation, to make sure that what he is doing is respectful to the cultures of origin rather than coming across as an uninformed American interpretation of their music.

Some of his songs he will never sell, due to the personal nature of the songs (such as musical tributes to specific people), or if the cultures he’s drawing inspiration from have been disproportionately victimized by—and are particularly sensitive about—cultural appropriation for profit (such as Native Americans).

While the dozen or so instruments Dan brought with him to the show in Romeo—including the Chinese guqin, Chinese bawu, Irish tin whistle, Native American cedar flute, African mbira, African mukuri, Australian didgeridoo, Indonesian suling, Hebrew kinnor, Brazilian berimbau, African djembe, and my personal favorite, the Chinese hulusi—don’t even represent his entire collection, they do represent a pretty good cross-section of Dan’s style and the cultures he draws most of his inspiration from. (Click on the names of the instruments to learn more; you can also go to YouTube and type in the names of the instruments to find demo videos of what they sound like.)

Dan performed several of his original songs, most of which are featured on his YouTube channel, including “Bawu Dreams,” “The Yi Wedding,” “The Water Emperor,” “The Spring Clan,” “Temples and Jungles,” “Northern Grasslands,” “The Sky,” “Song for Joe,” “Mediterranean Groove,” “Daughter of God,”, “The Peaceful Sanctuary,” “Soar Across the World,” and “Triumph of John.”

The latter song is one of the most personal songs Dan has ever composed, and it never fails to draw tears from almost every person in the room who knew John Suggs, the father-figure for our friend group, as well as we did. The first time Dan aired this song for other people to hear was at John's funeral last year. Musically, what is distinctive about this song is that Dan did use every single instrument he owned at the time in the song, laying down layer after layer in the recording until he captured every sound that he wanted—including audio clips of John’s laugh that was pure joy to hear, and John leading our drum night group in singing ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s prayer of welcome.

All of Dan’s art is not just about connecting people to cultures but people to each other, so it was only natural that Dan wanted to share the stage with some fellow artists from his inner circle. I was delighted and honored that he invited me to recite my poem “My Heart Tells Me Something Different,” while he played the African Mbira in the background. Guitarist and composer Ryan Muns served as the opening act, delivering heart-stirring monologues and a few songs from his new album “Selah.” A few of Dan’s songs were also accompanied by the dancing of multimedia artist Kona and professional dancer “Angelique Ziara.” Our dear friend Joe Black also performed a song with Dan, to which I added some light percussion on a Hawaiian gourd instrument.

We concluded the show with a freestyle drumming circle during Dan's “Soar Across the World,” all of us feeling that we had indeed done just that.

Miigwetch, Dan, for one of the most heart-warming, original, and memorable musical experiences of my life.

Image: “Soleiluna” by Karla Joy Huber, 2013; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen, highlighter

Monday, May 15, 2017

With one foot in mainstream medicine and one foot in holistic healthcare, Heather Jose describes how to be not just a "survivor" but a "thriver"

A big theme for me since last year has been combining my Buddhist practice with holistic health, to both heal myself and help others think beyond diagnostic labels and textbook clinical outcomes. Through this, I have developed a greater interest in the stories of other people treating themselves as whole human beings in their journey to better health, rather than as broken machines that need fixing.

I found one such story, Heather Jose’s Every Day We Are Killing Cancer, to be an excellent bridge between mainstream and holistic health. Jose used both mainstream and holistic methods to overcome a sudden stage IV breast cancer diagnosis, which her first doctors assumed would be fatal. Instead of accepting this, she became her own “hero” through maintaining certitude in her victory, enlisting the help of family and friends in unique ways, and by using her clinical misfortune as an opportunity to make life-long improvements to her health.

One of the most fascinating things Jose did early on was acknowledge the nasty slippery slope it can be for patients to do medical research themselves. Instead of making their experience that much harder by rigorously researching their conditions and falling prey to the power of suggestion regarding how they “should” be feeling, it would be far more empowering for patients to enlist family or friends as “information-managers” and focus their own thoughts and actions on the process of getting well.

Jose also decided, instead of living like a “leper” in medicalized isolation during the course of her mainstream treatments, to craft an entirely new health-promoting lifestyle with the help of her family and more holistic-minded health and nutrition specialists, to both counteract negative effects of the medical treatments and assure that she would be a “thriver” instead of just a “survivor.”

Jose beautifully sums up the results of her efforts in her reflections about the day she was discharged from the hospital. She described how she and her family “were learning so much, how every day has so much to offer, how we spend far too much time on things that don’t actually matter, and how we have a say in how things turn out. We were healthy, we were eating well, exercising and nurturing our spiritual lives. It was crazily ironic to think that my cancer made my life more abundant than we had ever known.” (86)

Jose’s book is as much about her journey to reinvent who she is as a person living on a different vibration than most people around her as it is about reinventing herself as a cancer survivor. While she does still heavily identify with the label of a person affected by cancer, her outlook doesn’t have the same kind of heavy, fatalistic feel of people who make that such an integral part of their identity that it seems to perpetuate the presence of cancer in their lives, as though they still have it. Jose makes it very clear her point in still identifying with her clinical diagnosis is to help people form a more empowered way of surviving the disease, rather than feeling like “victims” of it and living in fear of the possibility of its return.

It’s easy for those of us who have always preferred a health-promotion approach (instead of the more common disease-identification-and-treatment model) to expect people we know to get right on board with us if we say that their medical doctors are only giving them a fraction of their available options. Some people have been so conditioned for so long by fear-based medicine that they can’t just leap completely from that to holistic health without anything in between.

Such people often need a bridge, and I highly recommend Heather Jose’s blended approach of mainstream and holistic health as an excellent example for those who are vulnerable to being persuaded by fear of dying into signing up for treatments that can be just as damaging to their health as the disease itself, and discounting the value of any holistic approaches to supplement if not replace their medical treatments.

One of her friends stated in the book that Jose’s loved ones got to “piggyback off her survival” (129), and Jose did us a wonderful service by sharing that benefit with the rest of us by choosing to publish her narrative through Read the Spirit Books.

You can also read more about Heather Jose’s wellness tips and teachings for people learning to thrive during and after disease-recovery at http://www.readthespirit.com/go-beyond-treatment/.

Flower illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2011; Prismacolor marker and Sharpie marker

Monday, May 8, 2017

Song and Spirit Institute for Peace's new location is, for me, at the intersection of interfaith and Kosen-Rufu

In a 2014 post about my experience with the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace, I made the point that “being part of a religious community doesn’t necessarily mean you all have to practice the same religion.” The original worship services conducted at Song and Spirit are Christian and Jewish, and while I didn’t fit into either of those categories myself, I always felt spiritually at home there. 

Song and Spirit was an important part of my spiritual life from 2013 through early 2015, and I realized last Friday while attending my first Kabbalat Shabbat (Shir Hanishama) in over a year that it still is—regardless of the fact I now practice Nichiren Buddhism and no longer blend elements from different religions into my personal spiritual practice.

When I shifted my interfaith focus from shared worship to “the individual friendships and working relationships I have with people of other faiths,” the bonds I made at Song and Spirit were among the top of that list. I decided last weekend that the services at Song and Spirit can still fit into my spiritual life as celebrating sacred time with my friends, enjoying singing spiritual songs, and hearing the wisdom from Chazzan Steve Klaper and Brother Al Mascia, OFM, that transcends the contexts of their individual religions.

I don’t take the religious elements home with me to incorporate into my personal practice anymore, but I do take the warm memories of my experiences with my friends home with me—Even more so since last Friday’s Shabbat was the last one to be held at Song and Spirit’s original location in Berkley, Michigan. This summer, the organization will be setting up shop in a new space, and has already begun hosting some of its musical worship programming at Unity of Royal Oak.

Instead of feeling sad during or after the service as I looked around the cozy, vibrantly-colored combination library and worship space, I felt so grateful that I got to have one more heartwarming and soul-moving experience there.

I spent a lot of time at Song and Spirit’s Berkley building as both a worship participant and volunteer in 2013 and 2014, and I was pleased to notice that the positive vibration of those memories pre-empted any sense of sadness that could have come up. For sure there will be times I’ll think of how I’d love to be able to sit in that library again, walk those halls again, and socialize with the volunteers and the Duns Scotus friars there; regret and loss are feelings I’ve been working very hard to kick out of my life, though, and I was pleased to see how much progress I have made in not letting them crowd out my enjoyment of the present.

I hadn’t brought a camera, so instead I looked closely around the room during and after the service, to inscribe in my memory how everything looked and felt—The Shabbat candles, the beautiful rainbow-mosaic banners on the walls with the names of the Divine and the word “peace” in several different languages, the brightly-colored Tallis that the community made for Steve Klaper as a gift for his ordination as Chazzan which hangs over the altar-space, the stained-glass flaming bush (a community art project on which I assembled one of the leaves) atop the arc-cabinet housing the Torah, and of course the arc itself. I was struck by how much Song and Spirit's arc looks like a giant butsudan, so in my head I now think of it as the “Jewish butsudan.” 

Most importantly, I was so glad to re-kindle my relationships there, and though I won’t start attending every event again, I do look forward to participating with the Song and Spirit community in both the organization’s new headquarters and its new worship-space at Unity of Royal Oak. Song and Spirit hosts many interfaith educational opportunities, and I’m particularly interested in the Torah study that Chazzan Steve Klaper is thinking of re-instating, to help people understand key teachings and historical elements of the Old Testament that have been totally misinterpreted and mistranslated ever since Christianity removed them from their original Hebrew context.

While having more than one spiritual home used to feel like a crowded house that I needed to clear out some space in, I now see that there is enough room in my Buddhist home for participating with Song and Spirit as part of the interfaith component of my vow for kosen-rufu.

Image: "Interfaith Collective 2" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008 and 2015; Prismacolor and Sharpie marker

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The more we talk with people, the easier it becomes to learn how to bridge our differences

“Those who at least recognize that they may have all kinds of unconscious prejudices are likely to engage far more amicably in intercultural dialogue than those who are convinced that they have no prejudices,” SGI President Daisaku Ikeda wisely points out. He goes on to say that “When we stop reflecting on ourselves and asking ourselves questions . . . we don’t listen to others and cannot engage in dialogue. Dialogue for peace starts with a humble and honest dialogue with ourselves.” (December 1, 2001 World Tribune, pg. 10)

The Soka Gakkai International (SGI) has a strong tradition of dialogue, created by Daisaku Ikeda. Since the 1970s, Ikeda has met with many revolutionary thinkers and activists to demonstrate ways in which we can work together with people who have different beliefs than us. (The complete list of Ikeda’s published dialogues is available here.)

The purpose of dialogue is to find ways to meet in the middle to negotiate regarding issues we may not agree on, and thus learn from and expand our thinking through our exploration of our different viewpoints.

At the April 14 Vanguard Discussion series event on “Respect for the Dignity of Life,” which I wrote about in-depth here and here, facilitator Carolyn Ferrari prompted us to reflect on the challenges of relating with people different than ourselves in our current national culture which is deeply divided by the “existential division of self and other.”

I gave the example of having to assign a value-judgment to every aspect of ourselves and to each other. Even if a person is giving unsolicited praise, having to insist that “you’re this and I’m that” often makes people feel alienated and misunderstood, by implying that we and our attributes must be ranked against other people—And that when ranked against another set of people, there is always the risk we'll come out with a lower ranking.

Assigning value judgments to people, religions, careers, economic status, and so forth is an affront to human dignity. Dignity has been defined as “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect,” as Carolyn pointed out, and such dignity should be treated as an inalienable right, not conditioned on how we are ranked when compared with other people by using our religions, ethnicities, cultures, careers, nations, or personal opinions as criteria.

One of the most damaging forms of this is the rankings assigned by race, as Vanguard panelist Daniel Moen pointed out. Last year he wrote a report about the “the youth, the media, and its effects on race,” for which he interviewed dozens of people. “The biggest thing I realized,” he said, is that a lot of people “on both sides were actually more terrified of trying to bridge” their differences, “because of the fact they were afraid they’d be judged.” He said his friends who are white were “terrified of talking about race” because they feared being labeled racist. His studies got even more interesting when he realized that his friends of color were just as hesitant to discuss race in the larger intercultural context.

He realized that “They actually have more in common than they realize,” and that one way to help us get through these restrictions and judgments is for us to bear in mind that “individuals are not the representative of the whole,” meaning that it is not correct to judge an entire ethnicity or culture just by the actions of one person or even a group of people.

The only way to start to bridge the self-and-other divide is to talk to people. “Once you start to talk to someone, they become human,” as Susie Beber paraphrased from a book she read.

To conclude this second installment of the Vanguard Discussion series, Carolyn challenged us to read the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” of the United Nations, and pick one of the rights that we can seek to foster in our communities. She invited people to email her at vanguarddiscussions @ gmail.com with their thoughts, or with ideas for upcoming discussion topics for the Vanguard series.

I look forward to sharing with you about what we come up with when the third event takes place in a few months. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Illustration (SGI lotus) by Karla Joy Huber, 2015; Prismacolor marker, white-out pen, Decopage on fabric