Michael Mauldin

Distinctive Tonal Music Inspired by Magical Places
 
 
 
10 November 2013

The Spirit That Needs Me

Mauldin was at "Annacarla," his composing and teaching retreat in northern New Mexico on the winter solstice, 2010, when seeing the eclipse of the full moon stimulated him to write this essay to refocus his thoughts about love, sacredness, spirit, beauty and art.

The Spirit That Needs Me

Michael Mauldin, December 21, 2010

Of all human endeavors, music is perhaps closest to representing the world of the spirit.  In music we attempt to render into form what is essentially formless, we attempt to describe what is beyond description, to frame silence, to measure infinity. --STING

As I tried to see the total eclipse of the full moon (on the Winter Solstice, exactly two years before the celebrated alignment in 2012), it occurred to me that it's been a while since I jotted down any thoughts here at Annacarla.  As racing clouds veiled the luminescent disc furtively and then completely, I came inside to write words that might connect some loose ends--of my observations about love, sacredness, spirit, beauty, art--into a less knotted string.

It's the same urge that compels us to write anything--words or music--or to put movement, shape and color into thoughtful patterns.  Life (spirit) demands it.  The scope of my loose ends make me doubt that I can untie any knots.  But I'm compelled to try--not to tempt anyone to accept my point of view, but to focus it, so as to better understand it myself and more nearly find resolution (if not absolution).

"The Spirit That Wants Me," was the name of an anthology of testimonials by all kinds of creative people who migrated to New Mexico.  All non-natives, we were asked to share what impact we thought the place had on our creative output.  The project's title caught my attention.  My essay, "Beyond the Four Hills," bore witness to years of sacred interaction that I barely recognized as such at the time.

I grew up surrounded by the belief that nature was created.  That it was created primarily for mankind to use and dominate, a "manifest destiny" for the whole planet.  When I was young, it didn't occur to me to question such an entitlement.  Instead I questioned myself--and nature.

It took a lifetime to see that my early fascination with magical places, where the spirit of nature and the spirit of man merge and interact with mutual reverence, was more than childish sentimentality.  I finally recognized it as child-like wisdom, an unpolluted trace of the still, small voice of "all that is."

It is that depth--of the freshly emerged universe--that I associate with the beauty of children.  Yet their vulnerability epitomizes our human predicament.  The young feel everything more--both joy and pain.  Fragile is their share of the collective consciousness, out of which they recently came.  Without genuine nurture, and in the face of fierce conditioning, their spiritual wholeness is weakened, just as their bodies and their earthly savvy grow stronger.

How egocentric it must sound for me to say that "all that is" needs me, or even wants me.  Likewise, it may seem self-centered and anti-religious for the Pueblo Indians to believe (according to Peggy Pond Church in "The House at Otowi Bridge") that the orderly functioning of the universe depends on people.

But as the earth shrinks (and languishes), the interdependence of "all that is" dawns on us.  D.H. Lawrence said, "I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and my blood is part of the sea. There is not any part of me that is alone and absolute except my mind, and we shall find that the mind has no existence by itself, it is only the glitter of the sun on the surfaces of the water."

The sacred is indeed powerful.  I'm referring to the sanctity of "all that is"--the dynamic universe.  How unapproachable is the vastness and the smallness, the sound and the silence, the absolute satisfaction and the unquenchable need.  We are the offspring of a mighty, yet malleable universe, in which a single observation may change reality without fanfare.

"If our hearts are right, the rain will come," said the Pueblo Indian.  How can prayer--spiritual connectedness--change reality?  It may seem "super" natural, but the power of intention is a very real, if small, voice that can transmit its frequencies far and wide.  We waste its power when we close our minds to the possible result of our intention, or when we co-opt beauty and wholeness, sacrificing it to impress others (including deities) with our worthiness and reverence.  Molded by forces that helped our bodies survive, we are tempted to "own" beauty, delight and wholeness, and to expect something in return when we try to give (or threaten to take) it.  Can we not share the spirit and beauty of our "first born"--meaning whatever is lovely and important to us--without sacrificing it on the altar (of religion, commerce, conquest)?

One reason I was impressed with the Anasazi in Chaco Canyon was the apparent absence of slavery, conquest or human sacrifice. I never denied the place of adversity and suffering there.  The evidence of possible cannibalism at Chaco (now thought to be perpetrated by visitors from Mesoamerica) did not destroy some kind of "idealistic myth" of mine about the Chacoans' goodness.

That they thrived and coexisted for centuries in a harsh environment convinced me even more strongly that we can learn much from both their blind spots and their sharp insights into the nature of things--all things, including ourselves and the Cosmos.  We will indeed learn--if we remember how to balance our thinking and our feeling.  To help us find that kind of balance, we can love children enough to share with them our own childlike wonderments.  We will be amazed at the insights they share with us.

On a recent trip to Chaco I heard a young park ranger (younger than some of my students) share what was to me a new insight, even after twenty years of my haunting the place, about one possible purpose of the grand cities there. He first acknowledged the ancients' celebration of sacred space, of the center-point or "in between" place, based on what we know of the beliefs of their descendents.  But then, as we stood on the boulders of "threatening rock," overlooking the remains of Pueblo Bonito's 700 rooms, he pointed out that the "south gap," the ancient entrance to the canyon, was directly across from the great city.  He imagined what effect, after the long trek over flat land, the first appearance of Bonito would have had on a youth such as himself.

Rather like the first sight of the United States Capitol, or the Statue of Liberty, it might have caused him to look for a new direction in his life. It might have encouraged him to immigrate to this "melting pot," to enjoy the fruits of the combined efforts of varied and interdependent groups of people.  They found it more productive (perhaps more sacred) to work together, tolerating--even absorbing--their differences, than to conquer and pillage.  We know that when they left Chaco, they split into three groups, the Zuni, the Hopi and the Rio Grande Pueblos.  The youth argued convincingly that these groups may have been separate before their time together in the canyon.  Perhaps during the 300 years of Chaco's peak, they were attracted to a place and to an idea--a grand cooperative experiment.  If that's so, then the Chacoans were the quintessential Americans.

With humility, I now believe it was that spirit of movement from tribalism to universal acceptance, to "synergy" and oneness with the cosmos, that I sensed when I first came to Chaco, and that it led me--blind as I was--through my composing, teaching and living.  When I subtitled "Fajada Butte" with "An Epiphany," I chose the word for its literary meaning, which Random House Dictionary says is "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something."  The discovery of the Sun-Dagger marker on Fajada Butte was a striking insight into the depth of the Chacoans' fundamental and child-like--yet sophisticated and profound--belief in the movement of the cosmos toward order, wholeness, and sacredness.

So, thanks to a young ranger, I now suspect Chaco was also a spiritual epiphany for me.  When I first visited there, I was not as young as he (or the ancient youth he portrayed in his discussion), but it was at the formative beginning of my life in New Mexico, and as a husband, father, composer and teacher.  If I was led, why?  To give something?

In a flash, I remembered something about my first visit.  Bonnie had taken our two-year-old son to visit relatives.  I had taught school all year and was feeling "blocked" on a commissioned piece.  I trekked to the canyon, seeking inspiration.  On my first day there, dumbstruck by the place's energy and "presence,"  I saw a teenaged boy (probably 14) whose parents let him wander the monoliths and mesas surrounding the campground.  I was also heading out to explore, and found myself drawn to watching him for a few minutes--not to encounter him, just to get a brief glimpse of the transcendent joy he radiated as he blithely surmounted and surveyed the landscape, several times glancing back at me and Fajada Butte behind me. His eyes glowed his "oneness" with the place.

Until I heard the young ranger's viewpoint, I had forgotten that incident. All I remembered was coming home and writing feverishly for days, completing "Voices from Chaco" (now I understand the second theme), which won a national prize. Though I had worked hard and used a lot of craft, I somehow felt I didn't fully deserve the honor.

I remembered someone's declaration that Beethoven's greatest strength was his ability to remain calm and calculating while under the fire of imagination.  I had been calculating, if not calm, and had certainly felt the "fire".  But, like Tchaikovsky, I lamented that I couldn't fully understand it.  So I worried about its return--or the lack of it.  Somehow it seems ironic that the boy in Chaco who may have helped trigger my inspiration was about the age of Tchaikovsky when he lost his mother to cholera, and about the age of his nephew when they began to become close.

A sensitive, creative child, freshly minted by "all that is," Tchaikovsky was traumatized by separation from his mother (at boarding school) at age 8 and by her death at age 14.  Later he said he would have gone mad if it weren't for composing.  His music and his nature-walks nurtured his spirit, since she was not there to do so.  Perhaps part of his devotion to his nephew was to give a young male the love and nurture he felt he missed.  It became more than a platonic relationship.  But I cannot hear his last symphony, dedicated to "Bob," without hearing genuinely compassionate affection and spiritual reverence.  The government gave Tchaikovsky the choice of leaving Russia or ending his life.  He drank un-boiled water during a cholera epidemic.

Earlier I had heard a different park ranger at the canyon say the Chacoans might be seen as "losers" since they had to abandon their homes because of a severe drought. He said they might not have, if they had built their "big apple" a little to the northwest, in the San Juan River Valley.  Perhaps their grand experiment--which succeeded wonderfully for three centuries--was doomed by a fundamental lack of judgment.  Our great experiment in this country was only a little over 200 years old.  For some geographical reason, might North America later be shown to be a poor place for the democratic experiment?  Would we become "losers" in time?  I decided that neither we nor the Chacoans were losers for those reasons.  That would be a little like saying we are all losers because our bodies eventually die.

William Temple in discussing some of the noblest works of art, writes: "In the presence of such transcendent beauty, we realize the hope of mysticism. In a single impression we receive what absolutely satisfies us, and in that perfect satisfaction we ourselves are lost.  Duration vanishes; the 'moment eternal' is come.  The great drama proceeds; the music surges through us; we are not conscious of our own existence.  We hear and see; and when all is done, we consider and bow the head." 

In "The Elegant Universe," Brian Green says that "light does not get old; a photon that emerged from the big bang is the same age today as it was then. There is no passage of time at light speed."  I'm forever grateful to have stumbled into a place designed to celebrate light--and spirit.  The universe sings when we observe, revere and reflect it.


 

 

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