Imposter in the Woods

Imposter in the Woods

The call of a cardinal echoes through the trees. A brown anole skitters up a palm trunk, pausing to listen and bob her head.

With one finger jammed between the pages of my book to mark the place, I crane my neck to peer under the lounge chair, seeking the fat brown ant that disappeared underneath. I examine the back rails to make sure the insect is not making her way toward me, and I shake out my discarded shoes. I regard the jumping spider on the arm of the chair with suspicion—I do not fear spiders, but the unpredictability of jumping insects and arachnids unnerves me. I like knowing where things are and where they are going. Especially if they’re creepy.

I consider myself a lover of nature, even presuming to write about birds and environmental issues. But I keep nature at arm’s length—a long-distance romance.

I devour documentaries of faraway rainforests, reveling in the flight of scarlet and green parrots and the majestic decisiveness of jaguars. I will never visit them, but to ensure their survival, I place my pen, my time, and sometimes my wallet at their service. The oxygen those trees exhale makes my life possible, and their destruction is my own.

The only reason I’d leave the convenience of an urban apartment for a house would be to plant fruit trees and let my lawn burst with food for people and pollinators rather than grass. But I know myself—I would rather suffer jury duty or fold laundry than dig in the dirt, where I’d encounter wriggling earthworms. And the very thought of bugs on my skin makes every hair stand up.

There is much in the city to feed my love of nature: The moss hanging from the southern live oaks. The barred owl behind our building periodically calling “Who cooks for you?” I long to answer him, but he stubbornly refuses to show himself for a real conversation.

The wonders of our national parks call to me, and I long to visit and marvel in the august presence of ancient trees, mirror-still mountain lakes, and multi-pigmented rock formations. But when the sun goes to bed, let me bask in the glory of indoor plumbing, snake- and insect-proof doors and windows, and the promise of morning elixir from the venerable coffeepot. (Though a  voice in the back of my mind scolds me, saying I should know how to “rough it.” For the future, when we’re all living in Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower.)

Am I an imposter, then, when writing about nature issues? I ask myself that each time I lift my pen to extol the delicate beauty of a green heron, the still vigilance of a lizard, or the mossy fairy-tale shape of a live oak. Yet I continue to look for that owl—through my apartment window—and to write about him and his bird friends.

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Cut and Dried

It’s been a while since I last posted. Like many of you, I’ve found it difficult to focus over the past year. I’ve also been very busy with ghostwriting and editing work, which is not really an excuse for neglecting my own work. I do actually have essays and stories, but most of them need revisions. The good news is, I’ve recently joined a critique group, so now I have to get those done!
For now, here is a short story I wrote a while ago.

Cut and Dried

I opened my body to the sun one morning. Warm, emerald life pulsed through me and the morning dew dried on my skin. In our birthplace, we are cared for every day. Humans in hats ensure we have enough water and that no green insects devour our flesh. My only worry is that I often hear sharp cries as our comrades down the line are severed and taken. This cold, silver “snip” invades my dreams, shivering me until the sun caresses me awake.

They say we’re often portrayed as the paramours of nightingales, but I have never seen one. The only birds that come here are pigeons and they, no devotees of beauty, ignore us. The bee is a much more likely candidate, although he doesn’t sing well. Bees are pleasant company and gentle as they take what they need, afterwards flying off, tipsy, buzzing their goodbyes as they return to their queen.

One day, they come for me. It isn’t like my dreams—the silver blades are not cold, but burning hot. I cry out as my flesh is savaged. I writhe in my executioner’s hand until the wound is soothed by fresh water. Drop by drop, the shock and panic leave me, so that I become interested in my fate.

After a bumpy journey, I am jammed, alone, into a vase and plunked onto a table. A woman unlocks the door and people flow in. Throughout the afternoon, humans sit in front of me eating, reading, and talking. They don’t look at me, but rather at their food, their phones, or their friends. Until late evening, when a man and a woman sit on opposite sides of me, and I feel myself pulsing on waves of electricity. A candle burns below me and its heat makes me recoil. She moves the candle a few inches away and I open myself further in gratitude. She smiles and runs her thumb over a petal, lightly touching the tip of a thorn. A connoisseur—or perhaps, judging from her picked cuticles, she needed a way to occupy her fingers.

Her hands and lips tremble as she sips coffee and sets the cup down, rattling the teaspoon on the saucer. When her companion turns away for a moment, she applies a scarlet layer of synthetic confidence to her lips, and then leans forward, resting her chin on her hand.

His pupils dilate as he leans forward, resting his chin on his hand. He smooths a dark curl from his forehead and smiles, gripping his own cup.

Their conversation is not noteworthy, but I mark glances through lowered eyelashes, a nibbled sandwich, lipstick on a coffee cup, fingers skimming over sleeves and brushing away nonexistent dust specks.

As they stand to leave, she casts a glance over her shoulder, grabs me from the table, and tucks me into her purse. I fear she may have received a cut for her haste. I am forgotten in her purse until morning, when she gasps and sticks me in a vase before hurrying to work, leaving me to survey my surroundings.

The days pass and I begin to fade and droop. A petal falls as she smooths a dark curl from his forehead and smiles.

Perceiving my mortality, she hangs me upside down in the hallway until I ossify in my brittleness. I am enthroned on the mantle. From there, I chronicle their lives.

I am there when she announces her promotion at work. I see their children arrive and grow up—all but one. I never felt my lack of water as I did in those days, when I had none to shed in sympathy with them.

The years deliver another generation to run and frolic below me. Then Chronos takes the man when his curls are no longer dark—I endure.

Until one day when my lady fails to wake up. I am taken up for the last time by her adult daughter and placed in her hands as she sleeps in her final bed. The sound of tools, not sharp but blunt this time, signals the end.

We are left in darkness and fall apart together.


Image from Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay

The Seven Hills Review 2021 Is Now Available!

The Seven Hills Review 2021, from Tallahassee Writers Association, is now available on Amazon! (Unfortunately, that’s the only place it’s available.)

This volume contains my flash fiction piece “The Path Unfolding,” which won second place in the flash fiction category of the Seven Hills Literary & Penumbra Poetry Contest last year.

I need to order a copy for myself as well. I’m looking forward to reading the other contest winners.

Stolen Feathers, Poisoned Land

Stolen Feathers, Poisoned Land

1.

Flamingo-themed kitsch fills gift shops on Sanibel Island: garden statues, picture frames, postcards, key rings, shot glasses. Though the items exhibit the words “Sanibel Island” in bright letters, they misrepresent the island’s reality—there are no flamingos here. Tiny communities of them live in the Florida Keys and Everglades, but Sanibel’s pink bird is the roseate spoonbill, also called Platalea ajaja, flame bird, or pink curlew.

2.

We almost lost the roseate spoonbill to the fashionable world’s voracity for subjugating and possessing any object of beauty in nature. Humans demanded the birds’ wings and feathers for fans and hats, and the pink bird was hunted nearly to local extinction in the 1800s, along with the reddish and snowy egrets. This took place during the “age of extermination,” when tourists on moving boats shot birds and alligators for amusement, leaving wasted, rotting corpses and terror in their wake.

3.

In the American West, passengers on moving trains took aim at bison, contributing to the near extinction of the species, from 60 million to 541. The animal that survived the Ice Age was no match for trigger-happy colonists. It took decades for the bison numbers to start climbing again, and the species’ recovery is still in progress, thanks mainly to Native American tribes such as the Sioux and Assiniboine.

The passenger pigeon fared worse than the bison, exterminated by colonists who perhaps assumed the bounty would last forever.

In 1886, ornithologist Frank Chapman went bird watching in Manhattan. He counted forty bird species in the hats of fashionable women. Another group of women, members of the Audubon Society, boycotted milliners who used feathers. They created a feather-free hat they dubbed an Audubonnet.

4.

At the time of Chapman’s bird census, the population of Native Americans in the United States was estimated to be 250,000, around 2.5% of their pre-Columbian numbers. European diseases such as smallpox had erased many of them; others were killed with guns, knives, and fire. Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee communities were forcibly relocated west because their presence was inconvenient to Southern white colonists. Years later, colonists’ great-great-grandchildren would conjure nativism with Kokopelli-embossed pottery, paintings of men in headdresses, and feathered flutes bought at tourist traps and gas stations.

5.

Gift shops line Florida’s highways, luring tourists with oranges and plastic garden flamingos, which outnumber real flamingos globally. They’re also pinker. Real flamingos are born greyish white and turn pink when they eat brine shrimp, who derive carotenoids from their own diets. Salt glands lie at the tops of their beaks and protect the birds’ kidneys from taking in excess sodium. Mother and father flamingos produce bright pink crop milk, bestowing upon their growing offspring so many nutrients that they themselves often turn white during breeding season.

6.

Closely related to the ibis, the roseate spoonbill has a long white neck, a pink body, red shoulders, and a fifty-inch wingspan. Like the flamingo, it gets its color from its diet: crustaceans and tiny fish. The bird moves its spatula-like bill back and forth through shallow water and mud. When the sensitive receptors on its bill sense food, the mandibles snap shut and, grunting softly, the bird shakes and swallows its prey. Sometimes what spoonbills eat turns out to be deadly. Shrimp eat tiny plastic particles that get into the water, mistaking them for algae, and when wading birds eat shrimp, the plastic pollutes their bodies.

7.

The spoonbill population depends on the availability and quality of shallow, brackish water for foraging. As an indicator species, spoonbills are rigorously documented, any disruption in their population alerting scientists that all is not well in the wetlands. When the Everglades covered South Florida, wading bird colonies bred and flourished. With the draining of these wetlands, spoonbills went elsewhere to breed. And because Florida Bay no longer has a true dry season, nesting becomes complicated. The species remains globally stable but still threatened in Florida.

8.

In 2015, the Animas River turned yellow, a result of the Gold King Mine spill in Colorado. The Animas River flows into the San Juan River, long used by residents of the Navajo Native Reservation for irrigation and livestock. The river contains lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals, as well as the radioactive particles such as uranium that made their way into the reservation’s drinking water decades ago. By the time residents realized the extent of the contamination, many suffered from cancer and kidney problems.

Meanwhile, the planned Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted to pass near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The original route, near the mostly white state capital Bismarck, was deemed too risky for the city’s water supply. It now passes under the upper Missouri River, the reservation’s only water supply. Standing Rock residents have reason to worry, as oil has already been spilled on or near Native lands—the Keystone XL leaked in South Dakota, an oil well leaked on Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, and a train carrying oil derailed and spilled its contents into the Columbia River in Oregon, among other incidents.

9.

Florida’s flamingos, like other wading birds, were once hunted in rivers and lakes for their feathers and meat. Until recently, ornithologists assumed that the few flamingos spotted in Florida were vagrants or escapees from zoos and tourist attractions. As sightings became more common, scientists realized not all of South Florida’s native flamingos had died, and the population was recovering—much like a phoenix, whose myth their species inspired.

10.

The feathers of shorebirds such as spoonbills and egrets are at their most beautiful during breeding season. By the late 1800s, the hunted birds had been driven away from populated areas and nested in large numbers in remote rookeries. Plume hunters planned their attacks meticulously: if they went before the eggs hatched, the birds would fly away. If they went after the eggs hatched, they could shoot hundreds of adult shorebirds in one day. They would strip the bodies of their feathers and leave the corpses behind. The nestlings would starve or be eaten by predators. Such carnage was possible because the spoonbills and egrets refuse to leave their babies, even when they are being shot at.

11.

Wading birds can no longer legally be sacrificed to human greed. At least not by a bullet from a plume hunter’s rifle. Rising sea levels, accelerated by our gluttony of fossil fuels, may leave spoonbills unable to access their food supply, as they can only forage in shallow water.

12.

In the 1800s, most people saw no problem with shooting birds in the name of fashion and leaving nestlings to starve. Colonists also justified worse atrocities, such as killing Native Americans and forcing them from their lands and enslaving Africans.

Today in Utah, easy access to fossil fuels and mining deposits is the flaming pink feather and Bears Ears National Monument is the hunted bird. The land is sacred to a number of Native American tribes and protected under the Antiquities Act, but protections can be stripped away and promises broken. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Other public lands, such as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, are under attack, as are Native American reservations such as Uintah and Ouray and Standing Rock, due to avarice for what lies under them or could be built on them. History did not end with our ancestors. The coveted objects change, but human greed lives on and recognizes no boundaries.

Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay 

“The Path Unfolding” Won Second Place!

I haven’t posted here since that long streak of essay segments, but I found out this week that “The Path Unfolding” won second place in the flash fiction category of the Seven Hills Literary & Penumbra Poetry Contest. It will be published in the Seven Hills Review literary journal, which should come out in early 2021. I will let you know when it is out!

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 13

This is the last segment of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 13

Reflections: Earth

Deep within the earth, near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, lies the world’s largest musical instrument. The Great Stalacpipe Organ spans three acres of the Luray Caverns and can be heard through all sixty-four acres of the cave. In the 1950s, engineer Leland Sprinkle tapped over 2,500 stalactites of different sizes with a rubber mallet to test their sound, finally choosing thirty-seven for the organ. When an organist presses the instrument’s keys, an electrical signal travels via a solenoid to a mallet that strikes the corresponding stalactite.

While a pipe organ is an aerophone, the Great Stalacpipe Organ is a lithophone: an instrument whose sound comes from a struck piece of rock. It sounds more like a xylophone or bells than a conventional organ. The tones echo through the cavern, producing a sound that is eerie, beautiful, and peaceful, all at the same time—music from the belly of Earth.

Today, Earth and her inhabitants cry out, oppressed by greed-fueled devastation, disease, and deep-rooted injustice.

Bono, activist and lead singer of U2, reportedly said, “Music can change the world because it can change people.” Such a bold quote begs examination. Does music actually change people? What can music do for us now?

Music usually accompanies social movements and change. Music by artists such as The Staple Singers and Bob Dylan encouraged and inspired those fighting for civil rights in the 1960s. Rock music was instrumental in helping Czechoslovakia through the Velvet Revolution, its nonviolent transition from communism to democracy. Songs such as “La Réveil de Peuple” and “La Marseillaise” fostered unity during the French Revolution. Obviously, not all social movements end well. Music is a tool, and it can be used to spur one to progress or spread propaganda. Musicians capture it all in song for later generations.

Music therapy addresses mental, behavioral, and physical issues. Sufi music was used in the Ottoman Empire for centuries to treat the mentally ill and restore balance to the humors. Different Ottoman musical modes affect the body and mind in different ways, such as making patients sleepy, reducing fever, dispelling lethargy, or even helping patients lose weight. The tradition has been revived in modern Turkey to complement conventional medicine.

As music heals the individuals of Earth, it heals communities. Numerous musical initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as the Mostar Rock School, the Pavarotti Music Centre, From Woman to Woman, and the Youth Cultural Center Abrašević, seek to bring people of different communities together and heal the wounds of the recent past.

A group of artists called the ClimateMusic Project wishes to save the world—literally—by raising awareness of one of the earth’s most pressing issues: climate change. They produced a thirty-minute interpretive audiovisual piece called “Climate,” which illustrates the earth’s climate over 500 years, beginning in 1800 CE. As the piece continues into the earth’s future, it projects two possible scenarios. The visuals come from the Community Earth System Model and illustrate the ocean’s pH and the earth’s CO₂ concentration, which is reflected in the tempo of the music. The earth’s temperature is reflected in the pitch, and the earth’s energy balance manifests as distortion in the sound. Response has been positive so far and audience members are intrigued, but will it produce real change? Will it transform people’s opinions and actions?

We cannot predict the future, but we can listen, educate ourselves, and promote positive change—and art. Whatever lies ahead, music will be there to document it and give us hope and, perhaps, solidarity. The path forward is always marked with musical notes. Let’s make sure it leads us to a sustainable and bright future.

Image by Dieter_G from Pixabay

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 12

I haven’t had the heart to post this past week because of all that’s been going on, but after the Lotus Festival this weekend I think it’s time. Music is, after all, a way to get to know one another. Be well!

This is Part 12 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 12

Spain: Fire

Across the fire, my co-worker strums his guitar and sings “Angie” by the Rolling Stones. Hundreds of small bonfires light up the beach. People sit around them and sing, cook shish kabobs, or make wishes and jump over the flames. Locals also tell me that my wishes will come true if I step into the sea tonight or place laurel leaves under my pillow.

The last suggestion is futile because it is 2:00 a.m. and we do not appear to be leaving any time soon. Our group contains about twenty people, but I only know three of them: a co-worker and my flatmates. We leave at 5:00 a.m., but it is La Noche de San Juan and, instead of heading home, everyone stops at a dance club. I sneak away to walk home but, new in Valencia, I lose my way and end up taking a taxi, finally getting to bed at 7:30 a.m.

La Noche de San Juan, or St. John’s Eve, falls on June 23rd. It coincides with the Northern European Midsummer traditions, marking the summer solstice. Many Midsummer celebrations also involve fire. According to pre-Christian tradition, supernatural forces and monsters walk the earth on this night, making it an auspicious time for divination and making wishes. The fires serves to keep away the evil spirits.

La Noche de San Juan is far from the only holiday that involves fire jumping. Hıdrellez, also called Ederlezi (Khidr and Elijah Day), and Đurđevdan (St. George’s Day) are celebrated across Turkey and the Balkans in late April or early May, depending on the calendar. Despite the religious names, these holiday traditions, like those of Easter, come from pre-Christian and pre-Islamic spring rites and include lots of music and dancing, picnics, and making wishes. Many people observing Đurđevdan build bonfires. Those celebrating Hıdrellez build smaller fires and leap over them in hopes of warding off disease for the upcoming year.

Iranians jump over fires the night before Chaharshanbe Suri, or Red Wednesday, which is the last Wednesday before the spring equinox. The practice originated in ancient Persia and is believed to purify one of sickness, as heard in the chant spoken as one jumps: “Give me your fiery red and take my yellow from me,” red symbolizing health, and yellow, sickness.

No one jumps over fires during Čarodějnice (Witches’ Night), celebrated in the Czech Republic on April 30th. The fire is much too big for that, as its purpose is to burn an effigy of a witch so that spring can come. The largest witch burning in Prague takes place in Ladronka Park, accompanied by a live rock band as little girls run around dressed as witches. The German equivalent is Walpurgis Night, which Faust attends with Mephisto in the Harz Mountains. I wonder if Faust and Mephisto would feel at home in Valencia tonight.

Fire is deadly, destructive, and difficult to control, but it also keeps us warm in winter, gives us light, and cooks our food. Symbolically, it represents anger and desire, danger and the comforts of home, magic and purification.

Continue to Part 13.

Image by Daniela Morescalchi from Pixabay 

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 11

This is Part 11 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 11

Bosnia: Water

In the forests of Šuljaga Mountain, a spring bubbles. Its water courses through a series of pipes until it reaches the village of Prusac, in western Bosnia.

It wasn’t always this way.

The year was 1510 CE. A severe drought hovered over Prusac. An Ottoman dervish named Ajvaz-Dedo (Grandfather Ajvaz) managed to find the mountain spring, but a seventy-meter boulder blocked the water’s passage. Perhaps inspired by Moses, Ajvaz-Dedo prayed in front of the boulder for forty days, beseeching God to split it so the villagers could get to the water. On the fortieth day, he dreamed of two white rams engaged in combat. When they collided and locked horns, they cracked the rock. Upon waking, Ajvaz-Dedo found the boulder had split, forming a canyon and revealing the water beyond. He ran wooden pipes through the canyon and brought water to the village.

Šuljaga Mountain and its spring are now the site of the largest Muslim pilgrimage in Europe: Ajvatovica. Far from a solemn affair, the annual Ajvatovica festivities feature a parade with horses and flags from different parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, music and dancing, sporting events, coffee and tea, prayers, and a trek through the rock to the spring.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to a large number of natural springs that provide its residents with fresh, clean water (their sparkling water was voted the best in the world). But pollution is starting to wrap its tentacles around this small country as well.

Water gives life. Most of the world’s metropolises were historically built near seas, lakes, and rivers. In his masterpiece, The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andrić describes the construction of the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge. In the stories that follow, the bridge and the rivers—the Drina and the Rzav—play a central role in the lives of those who live nearby. Musicians celebrate Bosnia’s rivers in songs such as “Miljacka” and “Kad ja pođoh na Bembašu.”

Many local and world religions include belief in water deities and spirits. People have offered sacrifices to bodies of water and their deities in return for a flood-free season, a large catch of fish, or protection at sea. Water sustains life.

Water spirits can be mischievous or even dangerous. The vodyanoi, or vodník, is a male water spirit found in various Slavic traditions, known for drowning people, destroying mills, or simply drinking beer with the locals, depending on the place and story. The rusalka, a female water spirit, is credited with granting fertility and with luring young men into the depths. The Scottish kelpie can take the shape of a horse and carry its rider to a watery grave.

In May of 2014, Cyclone Tamara hit the Balkans, dumping three months’ worth of rain and causing the Sava, Bosna, Kolubara, Drina, and other rivers to flood. At least sixty-five people died and tens of thousands were left homeless. Water takes life.

Continue to Part 12.

Image by Lisa McCarty from Pixabay

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 10

This is Part 10 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 10

Reflections: Air

Musical instruments that use vibrating air to produce sound are called aerophones. These range from bagpipes and accordions to saxophones, trumpets, and flutes. Flutes are among the oldest musical instruments that are still in use today. The Persian and Turkish flute, called a ney, was traditionally carved from a reed, though a modern neyzan may play a metal or plastic ney. The ney features in the first poem of Jalaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi, his last, and probably most famous, work. It begins:

Beshno az ney, chon hekayat mikonad. Az joday-ha shekayat mikonad.

“Listen to the ney as it narrates its story. Of separation, it laments.”

The ney continues its story in the next lines, grieving how it was ripped from its reed bed and asserting that, ever since, its song has brought men and women to tears.

Of course, Rumi uses the ney as a metaphor for the human being: we were plucked from the divine presence and consigned to Earth, and our souls long to return to their Beloved. It has been years since I have sat in a group zikr, and my heart laments like the ney.

Rumi’s ney uses art—music, in this case—to express its grief. So do we. This is a hazardous undertaking, as we risk producing a navel-gazing saga. However, sorrow and depression constructed the Taj Mahal, The Bell Jar, Francisco Goya’s black paintings, and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.

Western music employs major and minor keys, fast and slow tempos, and rising and falling tones to convey different emotions. In Persian music, the dastgah system is a skeleton on which musicians build and improvise a melody. A dastgah, literally “position of the hand,” prescribes a scale, a theme, and musical phrases. Musicians often use a relatively upbeat dastgah called Mahur during celebrations. Homayoun, on the other hand, conveys pathos. A group of Iranian scientists found that not only does Homayoun activate an area of the brain responsible for emotions, but also part of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, associated with decision making.

Continue to Part 11.

Image by Bob McEvoy from Pixabay

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 9

This is Part 9 of a thirteen-part braided essay celebrating my passion for music, intertwined with travel and spirituality. I will post one section every few days until it is all here. If you haven’t read the earlier sections, please start there: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8.

Marked with Musical Notes – Part 9

Spain: Xátiva

Orchards and farms race past as I gaze out the window of Abu Bakr’s big green monster van, the one he uses to transport furniture for work. We are on the way to Xátiva, a town one hour south of Valencia, for a zikr in the home of Abu Bakr’s friend Hamza.

This will be my first zikr and I am nervous. What will I have to do? Were “those people” right about Sufi practices? Am I ready?

The sun is just disappearing behind the hills as we enter Xátiva. Abu Bakr tells me most of the buildings still face Mecca. A castle with pre-Roman and Latin foundations crowns Monte Vernisa, a nearby hill. A thirteenth-century hospital, a food market, and numerous fountains adorn the city. They beckon dimly, and I promise myself to return during the day before I leave Spain (it’s a promise I will not keep).

Hamza is authorized by his and Abu Bakr’s Naqshbandi shaykh(spiritual leader) in Cyprus to lead the zikrs in the Valencia area. I picture an elderly, austere man with a long, sparse grey beard. It will be a small gathering this time, probably just three or four of us.

Hamza’s wife greets us and feeds us gazpacho. I haven’t learned to like this cold vegetable soup, so beloved in Spain. I eat it to be polite.

We finish the soup and enter the sitting room. I feel as if I’ve stepped into 1967. The heady aroma of incense fills the room, and six or seven children peer at us. In the center towers Hamza, massive and definitely not elderly or austere-looking. A ponytail and a full, dark brown beard frame his broad face, and he wears an assortment of medallions over his navy blue robe.

Hamza leads us upstairs to a smaller room with rugs and cushions on the floor, lit by only candles. We pray the sunset prayer and sit in a circle. Hamza starts reciting some familiar verses from the Qur’an. I glance at Abu Bakr. He recites along with Hamza, so I do too. Hamza’s powerful voice intones the names of God. I would find out later that the shaykh told Hamza to compose melodies for these litanies that fit Spanish musical aesthetics.

We recite the one-syllable names slowly, elongating the vowels. The tempo quickens. “Haqq. Haqq. Haqq.” (Truth.) I squirm a little. The ritual is new to me, but I soon relax and rejoin. We recite some praise formulae and supplications before finishing. The session has lasted forty-five minutes.

We drink black tea and talk for an hour or so before Abu Bakr and I say goodbye and start the quiet drive to Valencia. My blood is humming. I go to bed at 4:00 am and manage two hours of sleep before work.

Despite the lack of sleep, I am full of energy.

Continue to Part 10.

Image by Renate Anna Becker from Pixabay