Category Archives: Music and Art

ON ATHEISM AND DIEGO RIVERA

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Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went on a tour of Guanajuato, Mexico.

Our tour guide, Dali (named after Salvador Dali), was born and raised in San Miguel de Allende, and educated at the University in Guanajuato. He was knowledgable about the state’s capital city and its rich history, and this made the tour fun.

The first place he showed us was Diego Rivera’s childhood home, and the museum that was built next to it in 1975.

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At the museum, we learned about Diego Rivera’s family, and his upbringing, and saw some of his paintings (unfortunately, most of them were unavailable for viewing because they were being restored).

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As we looked at the paintings in the museum, Dali told us a story about how Diego Rivera came to be an atheist.

He told us that when Diego Rivera was a five-year- old child, he wanted to know why his twin brother had died. His parents and teachers told him that his brother’s death was God’s will. “God wanted another angel,” they told him.

The young Diego Rivera rejected this explanation, and later, he told people that he became an atheist at age five.

This did not make him popular with the higher-ups in Catholic Guanajuato. Although as a young man he was a promising painter, and longed to go to Europe to study, the city officials refused to give him a scholarship.

Rivera found a way to go to Europe, anyway, and he became Mexico’s most famous painter. After his enormous success — in part, due to the murals he painted in Mexico and the United States — the Guanajuato town officials wanted to open a museum, but he refused to let them.

Later, after the town officials issued a public apology, Rivera consented, and the Museum of Diego Rivera was built adjacent to his childhood home.

Over lunch at the town’s beautiful Jardin, I told my friend that the story about Diego Rivera’s atheism bothered me. I said it reminded me of something William Sloan Coffin, a former pastor of The Riverside Church in New York City, said in the eulogy he delivered after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident.

Rev. Coffin said, “when a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said — that the death was God’s will.”

“For some reason,” he said, “nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels.”

Was it God’s will, he asked later, that no one put up guard rails on the road where Alex was killed? Was it God’s will that Alex had one too many beers the night he attempted to drive home?

Was Diego Rivera wrong, I wondered, to refuse to believe in a God who would will the death of a child, and take him away from his mother?

How could such a God be called “good”?

Sometimes I think atheists are better theologians than believers. At least they are able to say what God is not. In refusing to believe in a “cosmic vivisector” who would rip a child away from his mother and brother, they invite a more serious and thoughtful inquiry into the nature and purposes of a God we say is love.

Before we left the museum, Dali took us to see a duplicate of one of Diego Rivera’s most famous murals (the original is in the Diego Rivera Museum in Mexico City).

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We learned so much about Mexico’s history from this one mural, which is crammed full of historical figures, and people who were important in Diego Rivera’s life.

The biggest figure, the one in the mural that towers over the rest, is Benito Juarez, the Mexican President who, in 1859, guided the nation to the separation of church and state, and started public schools. Juarez is the only Mexican hero whose birthday, on March 21st,  is celebrated in Mexico.

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Two blocks from where I live, there is a wonderful park that’s named after him.

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Now I love it even more.

Guanajuato is a beautiful city, and after visiting the museums there, and the famous Juarez Theater, we were both left wanting to learn more.

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LIFE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL

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At the hotel where the San Miguel Writers Conference took place in February of 2017, I sat by the pool, and enjoyed talking to a friendly  older woman who, I soon found out, was Naomi Klein’s Mom.

It was a cool moment.

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve paid more attention to Naomi Klein  — not only because of her writing on climate change (she’s the author of  “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”), but because every time I heard her talk, I went away with a reason to hope.

I think she talked many of us back from the edge of despair during those difficult, post-election weeks.

I told her Mom, Bonnie Klein, that every time I listened to her daughter, I went away feeling better.

As we watched her four-year-old grandson playing in the water with his grandfather, I asked her about Naomi’s spiritual background, and enjoyed our dialogue about the left-leaning Judaism that  influenced her.

When her grandson came out of the pool, cranky, and needing a nap, we laughed about the joys of these golden years, which include sending kids back to the care of their nannies or parents when they get cranky.

I was happy that week, talking with the local people who were glad to help with the Spanish, dining with my friend who came with me to the conference, taking workshops, writing and sharing poetry, and listening to the addresses of the various writers (among them Mary Karr, Judy Collins, and the poet, Billy Collins) who encouraged us to put our stories into the world.

“There is a place in movements for people who know how to tell stories,” Naomi said.

20170216_103542“Your voice wants to make a sound in the world,” the poet, Judyth Hill, told us, “but remember to write about what you’re for, not only about what you’re against.”

Naomi agreed: “Make space for what you want, not only for what you’re resisting,” she said.

In the evenings, we listened to the music in the hotel lobby. There was a good piano player who played the Great American Songbook (Gershwin, and Cole Porter), and a guitar player who played and sang my favourite Mexican song, “Cucurrucucu Paloma.”

Music and art are well integrated into the culture of San Miguel de Allende, and this is part of what drew me to this beautiful, multi-cultural city.

One day my friend and I were shopping at a local organic market, and we were startled to see four men carrying a casket down the street, followed by several guitar and violin players, and about a hundred people.

It was a somber moment, and yet we could feel the sustaining power of the music that is so much a part of the culture, and the life of the Mexican people.

The colours are amazing, too: the green walls with white accents; the oranges and reds of the old buildings that line the narrow cobblestone streets; the roof top gardens where bright pink bougainvilleas topple down over the orange brick walls; and the indoor courtyards with white lilies and red hibiscus that surprise you inside of rustic doors.

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It was for the music and the art that I decided to move to San Miguel — but also for the economics: I learned I could live there cheaply, without a car, and the horrendous traffic of L.A..

It was bittersweet saying goodbye to the music students I had for so many years; still, something else called to me.

It was hard to explain.

“What? Why Mexico?” so many people asked me.

(Subtext: “Is she crazy?”)

During the weeks before I moved to Guadalupe, the neighbourhood where I live now, as I sold or gave away most of what I had, a line from a Jack Gilbert poem, “Tear it Down,” kept coming to mind. He wrote:

“…Love is not enough.
  We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time.”

We only have so many years on this earth. Will we spend them merely surviving, or will we take the risk, and answer the call to flourish? Will we live for security, or adventure? Will we follow the guidance of the indwelling spirit within us, that sense of inner knowing, or will we get caught up in what other people think we should do or say? Will we accept the status quo, or will we be like Naomi Klein and Judyth Hill, writers who call humanity to a different way of living?

20170401_134342There are problems in San Miguel, as there are problems in every city.

However, as I sit this morning at my favourite new hang, looking out the window at the colourful mural across the cobblestone street, and listening to the sweet melodies of a spanish guitar, I’m glad that I didn’t listen to the naysayers (including the naysayers within myself).

I am grateful for the poet who told me I should insist — but, shouldn’t we all insist? —  while there is still time.

 

REMEMBERING ELIE WIESEL AND MICHAEL HERR

 

ElieWiesel speaks at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. (© Diana Walker/TIME Inc.)

Elie Wiesel speaks at the dedication of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. (© Diana Walker/TIME Inc.)

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Michael Herr, journalist, photograph by Pierre-Olivier Deschampes 

“…it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”
— Michael Herr

We lost two great writers this year — Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and author of Night, and journalist Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, a critically-acclaimed book he wrote about the Vietnam War.

Michael Herr chose to cover the war in Vietnam, and Elie Wiesel had no choice but to be at Auschwitz — but both bore witness (to paraphrase Herr) to the death spaces and the life they found inside.

I met Elie Wiesel In the 1980s, when I was involved in the Sanctuary Movement. For several years, my church worked with some activist Dominican Nuns who lived at a nearby convent in San Rafael, California. Together, we housed and protected refugees from El Salvador who’d come to the United States to escape right wing death squads in their country.

Elie Weisel spoke at a Sanctuary conference in Northern California where I’d been asked to lead a workshop. I remember how touched I felt when some Native American Indians who lived nearby found out about our work, and sent a shell, and some herbs to burn, to prepare the room for dialogue.

After the conference, I talked to Elie Wiesel about the work we were doing with refugees.

Someone once said Elie Wiesel looked like Lazarus. It was true, with his thick, unruly hair, and the intensity of the darkness in his eyes. He was the most concerned, and serious person I’d ever met. My father got a kick out of me describing him, for years, as the man without bullshit.

What I remember most from Elie Wiesel’s talk was his warning against indifference, which he regarded as far worse than hatred.

“The opposite of love is not hate,” he said, “it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not  ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference.”

In his talk, Wiesel said the worst thing about being in Auschwitz was living with the feeling that no one cared (the title of his novel, Night, was originally The Silence of the World).

Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate in a few weeks, said the same thing about silence:

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Michael Herr died at age 76, on June 23, 2016, a few days before Elie Wiesel died, on July 2, 2016. Coincidentally, Herr died on the day I started to read Dispatches, one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Like Wiesel, who wrote about the love and tenderness he found in Auschwitz — the prisoner who gave away his only crust of bread to save his father’s life —  Herr wrote about the love he found in the midst of war:

“…Well,  good luck, the Vietnam verbal tic, even Ocean Eyes, the third-tour Lurp, had remembered to at least say it to me that night before he went on the job…Usually it was only an uninhabited passage of dead language, sometimes it came out five times in a sentence, like punctuation, often it was spoken flat side up to telegraph the belief that there wasn’t any way out; tough shit, sin loi, smack it, good luck. Sometimes, though, it was said with such feeling and tenderness that it could crack your mask, that much love where there was so much war.”

Michael Herr spent his life post-Dispatches in London, where he avoided the spotlight. There he met Stanley Kubrick, and wrote the screenplay for Kubrick’s film about Vietnam,  Full Metal Jacket.”

He also co-wrote Francis Ford Copallas’ “Apocalypse Now,” which Roger Ebert called “one of the key films of the century.”

As 2016 draws to a close, I’m grateful for the witness of these two men, and for their life-affirming messages, though they saw the worst of humanity. I’m grateful for their reminder to speak up. “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,” Wiesel said, “but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  I’m grateful that in writing about the mystery of evil, they did not fail to write about the mystery of the good.

 

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A Tribute to Rob Meurer

 

14484619_10209408058732713_6873369879369793826_nA friend, Rob Meurer, died last week in a tragic accident. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the street in front of his house in Studio City.

On the days following his death, I tried, but failed, to post anything about Rob on Facebook. I felt too raw. Too tender. Too shocked. Or maybe it was because I knew I needed to make a more thoughtful tribute to this gifted musician and generous person who taught me so much about art, and the dedication it takes to live a creative life.

On the morning of the day Rob died, I read a meditation about the importance of finding that “indwelling spirit,” or sustaining force within us that can carry us through times of sudden change — when events happen so fast we don’t have the time to adjust, or integrate the changes into our lives. The message helped to steady me as I dealt with Rob’s death, and how fast it had come, and how shaken I was.

Rob was a terrific musician, and he blew us away with his music every other week at the Unitarian Church of Studio City, where we met over ten years ago.

Sometimes he sang the music he wrote with his long-time collaborator and friend, Christopher Cross (Rob played keys and synthesizer on the album that won Cross a grammy in 1979).

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Other times he sang Bob Dylan,  Joni Mitchell, and Peter, Paul and Mary songs — “River,” and “Stewball,” and  “With God On Our Side.”

He was brilliant, and funny, and constantly made us laugh.

The work he did with Beth’s, his wife’s, project, the Rising Star Children’s Musical Theater Troupe, was an inspiration all its own.

Every time I saw one of the productions, I went away thinking about how lucky the kids were to have someone so creative and knowledgeable to work with and learn from.

14433143_10154597776821289_1919633696169282078_n       This is Beth, Rob, and “Audrey” in “Little Shop of Horrors”

Rob and I stayed in touch mostly on Facebook this last year, although our paths happened to cross the day before he was killed.

We lived in the same neighborhood, we both liked to walk, and he was on his way to the store when I was walking home from Trader Joe’s with a bag of  groceries.

I congratulated him on the musical he’d written that was being performed in Chicago. He told me the audiences loved it, but the reviews were not good.

“Many plays and movies that don’t get good reviews, initially, go on to be successful,” I said. ” “I didn’t think you were supposed to read the reviews.”

“The producers read them,” he told me.

Oh, right, money, I thought.

In an interview with the Daily News, Chris Cross talked about what Rob said to him when a project they’d hoped would be a commercial success had not worked out the way they wanted it to. ”Rob often said we should keep going, ‘because that’s what we do,’” Cross said,  “His love of the craft was as deep as anyone I’ve ever known. He knew why he was here.”

My most enduring memory of Rob (besides him letting me use his car for several months when I moved to Studio City ten years ago — In L.A., who does that!? ) is of Rob singing Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom Flashing” in church one 4th of July weekend.

“Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing, ” he sang.

It was the best cover of the song I’d ever heard. And it was so Rob, a Bernie Sanders supporter who was always rooting for the underdog, always standing against the forces — political or religious —  that would divide us.

Rob’s wife, Beth, asked us to light a candle on what would have been Rob’s 66th birthday last week.

As I lit the candle, I read a poem by Lisel Mueller I’d heard that day that  reminded me of Rob’s passing, and of what the meditation I’d read earlier said about change, and how change can empower us and help us to grow if we don’t resist it, if we take it in the right way.

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IN PASSING
by Lisel Mueller

How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness

and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:

as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious

And I made a vow to keep going — to keep creating. Because that’s what Rob taught me. That’s what we do. That’s what we’re here for.