2007- a fairly crazy year for me- is slowly drawing to a close. Beginning in January, Busdriver and I set out with Deerhoof and the Harlem Shakes for a trip throughout the south, then had the amazing experience of playing the Coachella Valley Music Festival’s opening night for tens of thousands of sweaty attendees. With a couple breaths of New York’s fresh air in between, and the launching of my website (www.caural.net), my springtime ended with our prematurely aborted tour with CocoRosie in Vancouver: Canadian officials denied their French band mates re-entry to the States.
After that fiasco, I had a only a couple weeks to move out of my apartment in Brooklyn, put nearly everything I owned in storage, and gear up for a three-month organic farming fellowship in Connecticut. As quickly as it began, it was over. Suddenly, it was early September, and the insanity of my summer ended with a two day, 160 mile fundraising bike ride back to New York City. I flew to Chicago the next day, then returned to New York two weeks later to begin co-producing my good friend Stuart Bogie’s new project, Super Human Happiness, finding time to model and bartend for (probably) the last time and drink far too much. Three busy, sunny weeks later, my sister and I drove back to Chicago and my childhood home, and it is from there I write this now.
As the progress of certain side projects has slowed due to label schedules, I have recently begun work on my first new material as Caural for the first time in a year! There is no set plan for now other than to experiment and have fun, but I’m aiming to have my next album finished by August… As their respective shelf dates in 2008 approach, I’ll let you know about new remixes and compilation appearances of mine to check out. Meanwhile, I am excited to announce these recent releases for which I am proud and grateful:
Caural on Visionaire 53. SOUND
I am thrilled to have my piece “The Plain Silvery Side of This Disc…” included on the 53rd issue of New York’s revolutionary Visionaire Magazine, “Sound.”
Visionaire 53 Sound
A portable record player with over 100 minutes of sound on 5 12″ vinyl record picture discs and 2 CDs, Visionaire 53. SOUND will consist of five 12-inch vinyl records, imprinted with images (picture discs), containing approximately 100 minutes of sound content featuring audio experiments, unreleased songs, samples, and spoken word pieces. The 5 records are packaged inside a domed case that also houses a custom-made MINI Clubman “Vinyl Killer” Record Player: a battery-operated toy car containing speakers and a needle. As the little car drives along the record’s groove, it plays each track, acting as a fully portable record player and sound system. The issue also includes 2 CD’s with all the sound content, and a booklet of credits and instructions. Sound is a limited edition of 4,000 numbered copies and retails for a starting price of $250. However SOUND is included in a standard subscription to Visionaire at no additional cost.
Contributors include: Musicians David Byrne, U2, Michael Stipe, Courtney Love, Laurie Anderson, Cat Power, Adrock, Lee Ranaldo, Antony & the Johnsons, Thurston Moore & Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth), Malcolm McLaren, Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Sylvian, Andrew WK, Danger Mouse; Artists Yoko Ono, Cerith Wyn Evans, Helmut Lang, Christian Marclay, Doug Aitken, Robert Wilson, Gary Hill, Sylvie Fleury, Vito Acconci, Mariko Mori, Carl Michael Von Hausswolff; Bands The Knife, Littl’ans, Unkle, Animal Collective, SunnO))), Gang Gang Dance; DJ’s Paul D. Miller (DJ Spooky), miss kittin, Trevor Jackson, Towa Tei, Nigo, Hiroshi Fujiwara; Fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld, Alexander McQueen, Stefano Pilati; and many more…
Orders ship in December 2007 in time for the winter gift giving season.
If you are in the Miami area, the issue will launch during Art Basel Miami Beach (December 5-9), and is available in stores and on Visionaire’s website. If you are unfamiliar with Visionaire, learn more about them in this nice article from the New York Review of Magazines:
And visit them here:
Caural collaboration with Take on his Earthtones & Concrete LP
Some time ago, my close friend Take and I took a week to slave away in his Los Angeles studio, and developed material for his new full-length Earthtones & Concrete. The result, his lush and moody album closer “Los Angeles Is Outside” (lamenting the fact that we weren’t, in fact, leaving his living room- save for trips to Trader Joe’s or hikes at Runyon Canyon) is out now on Innercurrent Recordings. The song features live instrumentation courtesy of Take and yours truly, as well as vocals by LA chanteuse Gaby Hernandez and Beth Grisa. Some goofing off led to one of the album’s interlude’s “Thinking of Courtney” (Take thought it was funny that I picked up our waitress at brunch one day). The album is available on three different formats: beautiful gatefold 2xLP, CD, and digital.
For more information, check out Innercurrent’s website:
I steadied my camera above the steering wheel as ghost-like, white drifts delicately laced the highway before me, my morning's caffeinated heart beating in excitement of falling snowflakes signaling the oncoming storm. My simple map directed me onto smaller and smaller wintry roads with subtly changing landscapes, all monochromatic in color: the farm houses, fields, trees, and rivers seemed only to be gray, and slowly disappearing into an ominous cloak of fog. And as my spinning tires progressively lost their grip, and approaching headlights became farther and fewer between, I knew I was reaching my destination of Fort Atkinson.
The Fireside Theater is a successful venue in the middle of nowhere. For over twenty years- as is the case for many regional theaters- its director travels to New York City to recruit eager actors and actresses hoping to fill roles in their off (times ten)-Broadway productions. If chosen, the lucky performers sublet their places and call this rural community home for the three-month duration of their contract, singing and dancing their way into the hearts of a sleepy, mostly geriatric audience bussed in five times a week- twice a day- from neighboring Midwestern towns; I nearly spat out the hot tea Jamie had prepared for me upon learning one patron actually died at one of the Fireside's shows- "the lights came up, and grandpa was dead." More recently, another happy customer had a not-so-happy accident in his pants during one of the numbers. Although he was later seen in the bathroom half-naked, cleaning feces from his body, some of it had escaped through his pant leg onto the beautifully carpeted hallway. Outside the gift shops selling scented candles and porcelain Santas, the stench compelled cast members to turn a nose at their costumed colleagues: "are you sure you didn't fart?" It's no wonder the American Bus Association declared the self-dubbed "spectacular" Christmas show "one of the country's finest attractions." I never knew there was such a thing as the American Bus Association but, then again, I hadn't even heard of the Fireside Theater, let alone the town in which it stands. If it weren't for my good friend Jamie lending her magic talents as one of Santa's elves, well, I probably never would have.
Shortly after a tour of the cute house she shares with other cast members, we drove to Scottie's: a favorite main-drag dive of theirs that serves pancakes larger than your head. Seated at the counter was an older man in a flannel shirt sipping strong coffee. A deep scar was carved from his ear, down his neck, and across nearly his entire face, ending abruptly at his cloudy left eye. Joined by his friend in a mesh hat, he stared unevenly at me as I entered without a blink. A single brunette in her late thirties sat a little further down, and briefly switched her attention from the Coca-Cola paraphernalia lining the walls to grin suspiciously at me. Scottie gave each of us menus, and I reluctantly decided on a skillet called "the Mounds": potatoes, cheese, mushrooms and sausage, topped with two eggs over easy. The cashier hadn't changed her hairstyle since the mid-seventies, and I smirked ever-so-slightly as she poured us ice water. A boy of about ten rushed behind my stool to look at a figure shoveling thick snow outside, and his rat tail bounced ever-so-lightly against his neck. His father counted crumbled bills above an empty plate and chatted with the cashier; I realized that he, too, had a rat tail. The man with the cloudy eye cracked a joke, and Scottie laughed heartily, weighing down the sizzling bacon. He asked Jamie how the shows were going, and when she'd come to Belmont's for a drink again (the actors at the Fireside are local celebrities in this town of eleven thousand, so a sighting at one of the two bars is inevitable). The clock ticked too quickly, and we had to leave before the food was ready. I slipped plastic bags over my rainbow Tigers and, with thanks and styrofoam containers already smelling of grease, stepped onto Main Street.
Navigating the roads was difficult, but I suppose that was part of the fun. When I picked up Jennifer and her son Jared, it was impossible to tell where their apartment's driveway ended and its lawn began, everything blending into one soft, sparkling white sheet of snow. My wipers were on full-speed, smearing sleet across my windshield and forcing me to squint, and over conversation and the tight snare rolls from Plug's album, Drum n' Bass for Papa, they started making a low, disconcerting chug on their way to the icy hood; it was almost as soon as I noticed it that the blades made their last triumphant rise- then stuck there. The rain-like flakes now cluttered the glass, melting red taillights with green ones telling me to go. I knew I was in trouble. Had the mechanism frozen? I parked in the Fireside's lot and tried my best to clear away any snow, then guided the wiper arms back and forth with my hands. No, they were not frozen, and surely nothing was in their way. Like the anonymous grandfather deceased in his plush seat, my wipers were through. So, I retreated for the time, following everyone to the green room with my disgusting mess of egg, cheese, meat and potatoes. Ah, Wisconsin…
While Jamie and the rest of the girls were putting on their faces and taping microphones next to their ears, the men simply adjusted their ties. A stagehand in black whisked by with a walkie-talkie, anxiously blurting out "five minutes 'til show time"! Through the walls came muffled cheers and applause as the host announced- with sincere bravado- the tour groups present. And then, I was snuck through the back and took a seat amongst the holiday revelers from Osh Kosh, St. Paul, and other destinations hours away, hiding a camera in the pocket of my kelly-green hoodie. On the right side of the theater-in-the-round sat a group of perhaps 50 women, all in matching red sweaters and ornate hats; on the left was another group of seniors in Christmas garb and wrinkly smiles. There was a smattering of families with mullets and 80's eyeglass frames and, when the canned soundtrack began, I felt I could only be in a deleted scene from Borat.
In its two hour running time, A Fireside Christmas boasted dance numbers, musical medleys and country star duets (?!), Christmas jokes ("Q: What nationality is Santa? A: North Polish"), the cast's fond "memories" of Christmas, magic courtesy of my elfin friend, and even a musical dramatization of Christ's beginnings. At one point, Jamie called Santa on the announcer's cell phone, and he posed the ethical dilemma to the audience: "do I sell the number to the National Enquirer?" The largely- if not completely- Christian and well-intentioned audience responded with a resounding "no," and I shuddered. There were mini-stories about imaginary families- some war-torn with the wives penning letters to soldier husbands- and four precocious children bringing resigned chuckles to the crowd. The finale saw all of the actors dressed in robes and ecstatically belting out a gospel-styled refrain, repeating "our lord, our king" with fluttering eyelashes and quivering lips. Their faces burned into my eyes as the lights dimmed, and I felt guilty- just for one second- for knowing Santa and Jesus aren't real. Yikes- was that lightning outside? I take that last comment back. How about "for *thinking* Santa and Jesus aren't real"? Any better? Cool- thanks God.
Maybe being a God-fearing Christian would've magically fixed the wiper situation on my snow-covered vehicle, but that's not the case. As a heathen headed towards an eternity in the fiery underworld, I was reduced to driving blind at 20 miles per hour, gripping the wheel a little tighter as if to help decipher scenery dripping in front of my strained eyes. I successfully crossed the street and practically sledded into the gas station, narrowly avoiding a gas pump. A twenty-something employee wore a wool hat they were selling inside and left the tag on, venturing outside to help me. She brought with her a bottle of blue liquid with the word "Splash!" emblazoned in happy red bubble-letters. "Yeah, your wipers are dead. Pour some of this on your windshield and go see my sister Jessica at [inaudible] Auto Parts. Go four stop-lights down, and take a left on Madison." I didn't quite make out what she said, but how many auto parts stores could there be? I chased the warm glow of traffic to a closed Napa store then dejectedly crunched the snowy path back to my humming car.
"Napa is closed," I informed the girl shoveling snow at the Citgo. She smiled cutely at me with white lashes. "I said to go to Advanced Auto Parts," she replied. "It's just a little further down that same road."
And so it went. I never did meet her sister, but a gentleman sold me a bottle of Rain-X which substituted for the impotent wiper blades. My next stop was Shopko, where I failed to find galoshes to wear; instead, I opted for larger shopping bags that I proudly tied just beneath my knees. It was quite a fashion statement. One of A Fireside Christmas' dancers informed me my makeshift boots had the same silhouette as a pair from Dior. "You mean," I began, "Dior has the same silhouette as THESE!" So, I made a nearby Culver's my runway, and put Heidi Klum to shame ordering a ButterBurger with cheese and fries. Sorry bitch, "as you know in fashion, you're either in- or you're out."
We did make it to a bar that night, but it wasn't Belmont's. Black Hawk Tavern was full of drunk, sports-fan locals, all of whom turned their heads to ogle Jamie and Jennifer with our (apparently) grand entrance. A wide-shouldered and bespectacled guy swayed in front of me and dizzily belittled his friend, lifting topped-off shot glasses in vague celebration and spilling well alcohol onto his fingers and the floor: "I buy the shots, so you fucking come to me." We took seats at a booth and battled to hear ourselves over jukebox picks ranging from Journey to Lily Allen and Gorillaz. Really, to be fair, we put on Lily Allen and Gorillaz. There's only so much jock rock one can take while glazed eyes undress your friends.
There had been some drama at that night's final performance. During a cutesy sequence in which the children tell Christmas jokes and welcome multiple Santas on stage, one of the young actresses wet herself, then cried as she ran from the glistening puddle left behind. The host had mentioned that the Christmas show had become a tradition at the Fireside, but evidently, so was urinating or defecating in your pants during it... I just smiled, and drank a couple more Effen and sodas. Jennifer took off her sweater to reveal a tight tee-shirt with the ironic caption "local talent," looking over her shoulder to make sure all eyes from the bar were still on her.
"The loser in the green will probably make his way over here if he gets the balls," she quipped, gulping down her vodka. But, soon enough, she found an excuse to venture up to him herself, occupying a stage outside of the dinner theater to which she had grown accustomed. As a young, single mother who moved to Fort Atkinson from New York a year ago, she certainly wanted to be in the spotlight as much as possible- not just as an actress. Maybe receiving more attention had been on her Christmas wish-list, or she had enough holiday spirit to go around and wanted to tease her admirers with a little taste. If I believed in Santa Claus, I would've only had one thing to ask of him at that moment: to saddle up his reindeer, and offer me a safe ride home.
It's a slow Monday here in Chicago. The brown ring my morning coffee left in its porcelain mug patiently reminds me to refill it, but I've already kicked off the Cole Haan dress shoes Sivi picked out for me and stretched out my toes. Its been well over an hour since my phone has rung and, after spending my morning pointlessly surfing the world-wide web, I'm only now remembering the feeling of having a day job. My friend Dimlite wrote to me yesterday and said "man, your life is constantly in steady locomotion," and yes- fortunately or unfortunately- he's right. I suppose the bad thing is that I've hardly had the time to process much of it, leaving a Pandora's Box of sorts in my cluttered mind just as my boxed belongings top my bedroom and basement floors. But, since I spent most of yesterday tearing away at packing tape and dusting off the old, open shelves of my childhood room, there's no time like the present to let out all of the ghosts from my head and share them with you.
In the middle of this week's fall winds blowing red and orange leaves across sidewalks, today's afternoon sun hinted at summer, and mine can't possibly feel any further away. Adamah- my three-month excursion into the beauty of farm country- quickly transformed into an extended exercise in masochism. Don't get me wrong... I knew I'd be spending a lot of time around (potentially) religious, self-righteous, crunchy, politically-correct, just-out-of-liberal-arts-college, somewhat lost hippie Jews, but little did I know the extent to which this group of folks would make all of my nightmarish expectations come true. It's funny, too, because I literally thought I was losing my mind! Everyone was overly excited and wide-eyed, sitting around our filthy house giving each other massages, or listening to grating klezmer music on computer speakers as they made runny goat cheese. At the field, they'd hold hands, circling around a cucumber on a makeshift altar, closing their eyes as someone recited a cheesy monologue penned by an imaginary B-movie director: "We thank our Lord, HASHEM, for the all-powerful healing energy of the sun helping the seed to grow into the amazing cucumber before us." And then someone would "mmm," or there would be an "amen," and I'd gag while someone lovingly rubbed another's shoulder. Saturdays, everyone wanted to bang on the kitchen table and raise their voices in prayer for three-hour stints, eating cold leftovers that somehow always involved zucchini. You wonder why I'd visit the town liquor store just to make it through each painful weekend? And not even halfway through the program, there were emails and talk about a reunion! It had become the best summer of their lives, and I couldn't wait to get the fuck out of there.
Though, to be fair, I had small islands of solace: my little Sveta and her crazy Russian friends on the housekeeping and kitchen staff, the two musketeers Eden & Adam (without whom I would've definitely jumped ship), the head chef Celena who would steal me away for expensive dinners in neighboring towns, and various other smiles here and there who came and went all too soon. I had an odd, paradoxical sense of passing time: how could something go by so fast yet feel like forever? I was dark and beaten by the sun with dirt under my nails and an itchy scalp, yet the end of August still held feelings of melancholy for me.
I remember in the middle of a drunken midnight swim, I put my legs up on the pool side to lay face-up beneath bright constellations. I submerged my ears to muffle the girls' house music playing from their small radio (they were busy in the hot tub, smoking cigarettes and drinking kosher wine they had stolen from the kitchen). The meteor shower had ended, but I was still able to wish on falling stars and have a little conversation with the universe. I realized- though not for the first time- how grateful I was for the entire experience: the plants, animals, and sky; the wine & the smoke; the bullfrogs, crickets, and birds composing each night's soundtrack; the clicking of Sveta's jaw I would sometimes hold in place while she slept; the hill from the field back to the center that would make my legs burn every day; the huge golden retreiver at the package store who'd look at us with glassy eyes as we bought more vodka; nighttime drives to Wassaic; jumping into the pool during a lightning storm and torrential downpour with Adam, and our more-frequent screaming mikvahs in the river; the falls, the forest, and our field... And I thanked the stars for every roll of my eyes, because on each occasion, I grew stronger. I really needed everything that happened this summer, and bicycling home to NY- along with almost three hundred others- was the ultimate finale and unfinished goodbye.
I opted to do the century (one hundred miles in a day), though I can't say I trained well enough for it. Really, it was less the mileage than it was the two flat tires my borrowed hooptie bike sustained on the trip into upstate NY; I still finished in time! At the last rest stop before our major uphill towards Camp Kinder Ring, I learned of the unfortunate fate of two other riders: one was hospitalized with a coma, and another- a girl on my program- had flown over her handlebars and landed squarely on her face! I filled my water bottle with Powerade, took another bite of a peanut butter Clif Bar, and again thanked my lucky stars.
The second day of the ride was a different story. There were only 55 miles to go, and it was as if I couldn't pedal quickly enough. I repeated "on your left" as I flew by other riders keeping a leisurely pace, and was one of the first ten to reach the lunch stop twenty-five miles outside of Manhattan; however, parking my bike and walking to the picnic table, I noticed my right knee was really bothering me. I wanted nothing more than to finish the ride and see New York City for the first time in months, so I continued- foolishly. By the time I was in the Bronx, I had shooting pains, and at the entrance to the West Side Greenway, I was nearly in tears, pedaling only with my left foot. Who said I wasn't stubborn? At the Boat Street Basin on west 79th, I pulled in to cheers and welcome signs, then quickly found a medic to wrap up my leg.
There was a reception at the JCC on Amsterdam, but everything had ended as far as I was concerned. We had one last closing circle on its roof and my mind floated elsewhere, even with teary eyes looking into mine and "see you soon"s falling short of my heart. Tali (our superstar farm manager) had set up a booth with some of the produce we grew and jars of pickles we lacto-fermented, and it was then- limping past with all of my luggage- that I made a hasty reentry into the "real world." Eden helped me hail a cab, and its driver took me south on 9th Avenue, through my old neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen and towards my friend Clare's apartment on Bleecker.
Everything I saw in that fifteen minute ride- all the haunts nearby the one bedroom apartment I shared on 10th Avenue and 37th Street- told me a story. I had moved in there with Jordan McClean after three months in Williamsburg with Stuart, Olia, Kristianne and Monsieur Papillon (RIP), and when he moved away only a year later, Jamie took his place. And then Sarah moved in with the two of us, but that's a story for a whole other time... Anyway, I ran through a list of all the bizarre hustles I had done to get by, and all of the characters that made my life in New York over the last ten years so wonderful. Then, pulling up to Clare's door, Adamah quietly buried itself beneath all of those memories with each step I took up her apartment's stairwell. It reared its head over a few beers on her fire escape, but only as I repeated how I couldn't believe it actually happened! We went around the corner to Bone Lick Park and had $3.50 mojitos and margaritas, and I reveled in my middle-finger meal of pork ribs with a side of mac and cheese. After three torturous months in a kosher kitchen, breaking all the rules never felt so good!
I flew to Chicago the very next day, and spent a week and a half with my family, resting my knee and thinking about how utterly broke I was. We took a day trip to Elkhart Lake and Road America, and enjoyed sports car racing and delicious bratwurst like only Wisconsin folk can cook! When I wasn't with my family, I entered urban civilization with friends for the first time in months, and it took almost no time to become reacclimated. Meanwhile, people from my program were writing email threads to each other about how much they missed the goats and the farm, or how they were back in the city "where [they] didn't belong." I just manned the delete button.
I lived out of my duffle bag for the entire summer, and that trend continued throughout September and the beginning of this month. Everything I owned was stacked into a self-storage space off of the BQE, and I was left drifting in this enormous, transitional limbo. It was in August that I decided to apply for the JET program in Japan for next year and, due to a million reasons, I felt that staying in NY for the eight months before I'd (hopefully) make the move overseas just didn't make sense. And so, my last three weeks spent back in Brooklyn were a bittersweet goodbye.
I had slept two nights on Olia's couch before learning that the Arcade Fire were still on tour, thus leaving my friend Colin's apartment empty! So, due to an amazing stroke of luck and a good friend, I had an apartment all to myself for the duration of my stay- blocks from the G train and the best Bloody Mary in town: Enid's on Manhattan Avenue. I lined up maybe a little too much work for the first two weeks, but I really needed the cash! I modeled for a portrait workshop at Harlem Studio and did night classes at the Art Students League in midtown, leaving a small window during the afternoons to read in Central Park. My nights promised all of the usual New York hijinx around the city, and reconnections with old friends who were still baffled by my summer farming extravaganza.
Besides spending too much money on drinking, I was happy to return to the world of music. I was excited to see my friend Matt Lux play a beautiful set with Iron & Wine at Town Hall, and Stuart sat in with Celebration a few nights later at Webster Hall, opening up for Man Man. Joe McGinty whet my appetite for 80's karaoke at the Lucky Cat, and I even crashed my pals Harlem Shakes' rehearsal at their Williamsburg practice space (since Lexy was unfortunately feeling under the weather, I had a perfect opportunity to karaoke my heart out there as well, although, I really only understand every fifth word Lexy sings!).
Stuart is working on a new solo project called Super Human Happiness, and I had the pleasure of co-producing a couple songs with him over the course of my last week in Brooklyn. He and I began re-working some of his compositions, and finished a lot of session work including musicians from Antibalas, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Celebration, and a revolving cast of friends; I am really excited to see it all come together! It was a week of really long days and nights, and by the time my sister came in town on Friday, I was absolutely exhausted and not quite grasping the close of that chapter in NY.
It's only been a week since my return to Chicago, and I am already beginning to fall into a routine. My head is spinning with memories and thoughts of what's to come, and I gratefully bring the future's promise closer with each passing moment.
Bathing in the yellow-green glow of sunlight through leaves, Chani guards Eden in an embrace as they read together on this lazy afternoon, glancing over at me every once in so often to smile. Having awoken at two PM this afternoon, I myself feel held within the fog of my mind as if today is just last night's echo, and I hear these passing moments without really listening. About a month ago, my friend Adam told me, "if you think things can't possibly get any stranger, just go to sleep and wake up tomorrow." Each morning, I've acknowledged and welcomed that truth without the slightest anticipation; it is just simply so. It's now late-July, and my heart and head have reached a calm among the crashes and ebbs of these summer waves. The translucent walls of this microcosmic world of which I've been part- this bubble of alternating idealism and cynicism- are becoming clearer now, allowing me to gaze at the life awaiting me outside. And, still safe within the approaching final five weeks of this program, I have begun slowly peeling back the layers between my seemingly separate lives, realizing my retreat was really just to a place deep inside of myself.
I had made a conscious decision to become fully immersed in this small Berkshires society though managed to forget how utterly different my life would become. My friends Emma and Allison joked that I "would last two weeks with [these] hippies," and to a great extent, they were right- it took me two weeks to begin to change. The honeymoon phase ground to a painful halt and I found myself cringing far too often, blaming my own suffocating discomfort on the qualities of others. I reasoned they were far more religious than I was, nauseatingly politically-correct, or more insecure and hyper-sensitive, and thus projected their own personal issues onto the rest of us to establish a space in which they felt invulnerable. Sadly, in most cases, their need to do so stemmed less from their perception of one's offensive remarks, actions, or opinions, but from their own pressing need to be heard and understood. The phrase "you should be aware that" or "I'd invite you to think about" came up so often that it became comical, and I began to have a dull pain in my head from rolling my eyes so much. Wasn't there anything a person could do or say that wouldn't provoke a pained response from someone else? And- even more frightening- why did it seem that I was at the center of so much ensuing drama?
It was the first shabbat following the silent retreat, and since my chore partner Noah was a lot more invested in services than I was, I allowed him to stay, assuring him I'd be happy to handle the responsibility without him. I soon found myself alone in the utter darkness of the pasture, alarming the goats and hens with a borrowed headlight in my unsuccessful aim to lock them all up for bedtime. Luckily, someone on their way to the kfar (a tenting area nearby) gave me a hand with the struggling animals and I was finally on my way home- late for dinner. As I pedaled within the black tunnel of kaleidoscopic, brief illuminations of fireflies, I inhaled the mingling perfumes of seven young women all headed the same way: the Russian kitchen and housekeeping staff. They were dressed to the nines in short skirts and fitted tops, and wore make-up on their smiling eyes and pouty lips. "Zak," they screamed happily when I rode up. "Walk with us!"
As usual, my living room was packed with people seated on couches and chairs or huddled together on the floor, all enthralled in conversation or song. Although I had been starving earlier, looking at food grown cold only made me want to drink. I had grown increasingly sick of kosher wine, so I happily retrieved some beers from our basement refrigerator and shared a "yobnim" cheers with my new friends, away from the davining masses in the other room. Abby and Aitan sat at the kitchen table yet- for the most part- we were alone together, enjoying secular company amidst a raging shabbat celebration. We moved our conversation outside to the driveway, and eventually- arm in arm with Yulia and Gala- I drunkenly accompanied them all up the same dark road towards their house.
In writing, this may read as a typical Friday night; in reality, it prompted a number of community meetings. Two days later, a number of women both in my group and Neshama (the other fellowship program here) voiced such deep concerns as "they were dressed like sluts," and "it became a frat party with them around." Oh, I'm sorry... You had never bothered to befriend, let alone speak to any of them before, ignorantly assuming they didn't speak English, but because these girls weren't wearing fucking daishikis and yarmulkes ready to bench with you means they were acting inappropriately? Or, is the problem that you view them as outsiders because they aren't Jewish, and you let that compound the fact that they stole attention from you? Regardless, we set "shabbat intentions" to define an environment that would offend the least amount of people: only those who wished to observe and appreciate the festivities would be accepted, and any energy associated with a divergent purpose- whatever it was- was no longer OK.
I thought this would be the end of it, but it was only the beginning. I had my individual check-in with the head of my program two days later in the gazebo after a relaxing swim in the pool. Finishing a brief session about how my expectations were or weren't met and what kind of changes I would like to make, the focus awkwardly shifted to my intimate relationship with "the Russian staff." He looked me deep in the eyes and said, "I am not interested in your business, but I want to make sure you aren't continuing any of your old patterns and are getting the most you can from the program." Frankly, I was dumbfounded. I rightfully refused to volunteer any information and just asked to what in particular he was referring.
"Well, it's just that some of the women mentioned an uncomfortable atmosphere on shabbat," he replied.
"Yeah, we already went over that together as a group, but thank you."
With that, I again incorrectly presumed we had nipped it in the bud. The next day during our lunch break, the three other men in my fellowship and I were taken out of the dining hall for a private conference with only (!) the male staff. The program leader began, "I just want to say it's a pleasure to have all the men together, and to put forward the intention that we'll support one another in awareness of sexual language we use around our female colleagues."
"Well, some of the women have expressed discomfort with some of the recent sentiment among the men."
"Sorry," someone asked. "Was there something in specific?"
Straining his face to grimace, he continued, "well, there was something said in regards to 'nailing the Russian girls.'”
"Jesus," I began. "The only time I've heard anyone say the word 'nail' was when Naomi used it as a joke. If people are uneasy about something, especially if they eavesdrop and take something out of context, why don't they just ask us about it?"
"Well, I just want everyone to be aware of the power dynamic here. Because they are women, they may not feel empowered to confront you about it."
"I'm sorry," I said. "I think you may be referring to girls... We're all adults here, and if a grown woman has a problem with a manner of speech or her misinterpretation of it, she should be mature enough to deal with it herself."
I was livid, but almost more embarrassed for the hypocritically politically-correct authority. Here were men in their mid-to-late thirties trying to sustain open communication among everyone- going so far as to utilize parenthetical "wo"s in words to erase gender distinction [i.e., calling the center "Isabella Freed(wo)man"]- yet here they were pontificating like privileged youth in a fucking liberal arts school about power dynamics between men and women? Sure, go ahead. Say we're all equal, then have a separate discussion for *just* the men to address the issue. Now I am really convinced of the balance here.
And suddenly, all the Russian women were upset. They hardly said hello, and were seen crying in the kitchen after passionately arguing amongst themselves. When I inquired what the problem was, they just half-smiled to say "it's okay"; clearly, it was not. From another member of the kitchen staff, I learned their boss insensitively gave them erroneous information, saying they were no longer allowed at our house and were not to associate with us due to their behavior over the weekend. To further rub in the lie that we were "angry" with them, they were to have a meeting the next day to examine these concerns and formulate some guidelines for the future.
I spoke to their boss, to another Russian staff member who could possibly communicate the absurdity of the situation to all of them, to the coordinator of my program, and then to the executive director of the center. I merely attempted to explain that they had done nothing wrong. These girls are all university students who came here for a unique summer experience: to work in America, make some money, improve their English, and hopefully be part of an accepting community. They did not come here to celebrate shabbat with fanatical Jews or necessarily have any kind of religious experience for that matter, and whatever personal choices they made along the way (as the executive director said, "I can't control people having sex") should be their own business, right? Well, in a bizarre twist, their little powwow the following day addressed nothing of the sort. The executive director retreated, swept everything under the rug, and simply advised them to wear helmets while on their bikes and not to swim without a lifeguard on duty. And, to illuminate them about their unintentional starring role in the whole soap opera scandal? "Everything's fine."
Though there was some more talk about it after this (I was asked to have another individual talk with a more "sympathetic" staff member, and some of the Neshama women again brought up their feelings during one of their program check-ins), it sort of faded into a realm of stilted looks and whispers. Life continued as, well, something approaching normal. It was only the fourth week by then but, to be perfectly honest, I was really bothered by the religiosity of everyone around me, and it pushed me to seek out solitude and alternatively more secular companionship. I withdrew little by little, wore my headphones around a lot more, and had less of a desire to participate in some of the scheduled activities, preferring to work alone in the field or on landscaping where I didn't have to talk to anyone. Where I had initially valued the change of social scenery and tried to brush off any instances where things felt too cheesy or hippie for me, I was now convinced I was part of a cult- complete with touchy-feely group therapy bullshit conveniently sequestered away from any sense of the real world. I was allowed no space to breathe, and found it brutally paradoxical that I was asked to bring my "whole and entire self" when it was that alone which helped to create such a discordance.
Having come alone for the summer, I feel blessed to have made friends here with whom I can connect honestly and fully, and having one-on-one, candid conversations helps to illustrate the obvious: I am not alone in this feeling. Everyone has their own varying degrees of problems living in an intentional community, especially one attempting to assimilate members whose backgrounds diverge so significantly. For me- a politically-incorrect, non-observant New Yorker nearing thirty who barely identifies as a Jew- let's just say it's quite a challenge being stuck in the country with people whose rabbi fathers raised them Orthodox on communes in Israel or, for different reasons, vegans so vigilant they post facts about energy waste involved with meat production on our refrigerator, or recent Ivy League graduates who are moved to cry aloud about the genocide in Darfur. Funnily enough, its all grown to be endearing; however, I think the trajectory of one friendship in particular helped me begin to develop true compassion, and though it ultimately soured, it is the one for which I am most grateful.
Prior to our program's commencement, I felt I knew her somehow, and we naturally entered the sort of relationship that seems fated in some way. It's never something you understand as it happens; more likely, we as humans aren't capable of comprehending that sort of metaphysical recognition- that is, if we are ever lucky enough to experience it at all. Hindsight lends coherence to everything I suppose, yet such reasoning can also become a little dangerous and self-serving, even if we try not to concede to the solipsist in each of us. For the sake of reading this next story, it doesn't matter what you believe, because it's altogether possible that things just happen with no tangible connection to anything else and we're all just spiraling in chaos, drawing our own conclusions and inventing a compelling narrative of progress. Yet, on second thought, what you believe probably has everything to do with this story, because belief was the burning core of our problem.
One day our group had a class about the significance of making brachot (blessings). Towards its end, she raised her hand.
"At first, I was really excited to be talking about brachot, but now I feel this sense of, I don't know, impending doom, you know? Like, we've just gotten so far away from the path. I mean, when the meshiach (messiah) comes, it can't happen if we are in the wrong place. Oy!"
She sighed insincerely- at least, that's the only way I was able to look at it- and I felt utterly repulsed. I wanted to respond right then, but bit my tongue knowing I would probably say the wrong thing... So, I waited a few minutes and said it anyway.
"While I think it's a good thing to elevate an action with a blessing, at least to express gratitude, it's important to remember not to put too much energy or fear into a metaphor."
If I ever write a book on what not to say to religious Jews, that will be the quote following the title page. Some people asked what I meant, and I continued.
"Religion is all metaphor. It's just one way of giving meaning to any of this- through stories, laws, traditions, whatever- and establishing a black and white version of right and wrong."
"In your opinion," she quickly spouted.
"No, that's what religions are."
"In your opinion," she repeated.
"Sure." I exhaled some of the tension building in my chest. "In my opinion."
The negative energy in the room was palpable. As people began putting on their shoes and heading towards their next obligation, Eden, Noah and I spoke about it further, and I tried explaining myself. That's when she approached me.
"You should be careful about how you voice your opinion, because some people can find it offensive," she began.
"You're right." And she was- completely. "But what you said just doesn't sit well with me. You're talking about this 'path' and the coming of the messiah, and you're taking all of this as some kind of impending doom? That's not just belief, it's fanaticism."
"That is Judaism," she coldly retorted. "You are calling me a fanatic?"
"I don't know, really. It doesn't matter what version of God you subscribe to. Even if you don't believe in any sort of power or connectivity among us, taking it to that extent- blindly reacting to fear of a story written thousands of years ago- is fanaticism. It's no different than a Christian waiting for non-believers to die when our planet explodes in a fiery ball, or a Muslim shouting 'Allahu Akbar' and blowing himself up."
Her face turned red as she lost her breath. "You are comparing me to those people?"
She looked at me as if I had grown horns, and interrupted even before I had finished inhaling to explain. "That's how you see me? I'm not having this conversation right now. This conversation is over." She stormed out swollen with tears, and apparently began sobbing. I didn't see it, though.
"Yeah, just walk away. That's really mature." My heart was racing.
Five minutes later, we passed each other on the road. Her face was streaked with tears, and she rubbed the last of them away from the misty, bloodshot eyes she made sure didn't meet mine.
It's true: I've always tended to hate organized religion, seeing it as more of a prescription for how to experience your life instead of an open course towards a true understanding of, well, anything really. Fanaticism of all kinds is flat-out wrong, and has been a main root of misunderstanding, gross disrespect and hatred, wars between nations, and unthinkable genocide. Within my own extended family, I've seen how such a staunch regard of religion has torn relationships apart and, sadly, my predominantly negative experiences with it have made me almost completely shun my heritage. That is really part of the reason I wanted to be part of a Jewish community for the first time this summer- instead of ignoring that side of me, why not see what it's actually all about? No, I didn't think I would come here and magically want to become a rabbi, but I did see this summer as potentially having an affect in my so-far non-existent religious life. It has, but only through finding that what I've come to believe on my own resonates strongly with Judaism. And while that's beautiful, I don't necessarily feel motivated to start going to shul (temple).
The problem is this: while it has been fortuitous to glean my own truth from various spiritual vantage points and personal experiences, doing so has only strengthened my opinion that a more encompassing perspective of spirituality is a healthy starting point for examining any certain religion. If from childhood your parents (as most do) offer a distinct prism through which to understand life, when you start seeing other colors that don't fall within that spectrum, you are in for some serious trouble. I saw the documentary "Jesus Camp" earlier this year, and shuddered at brainwashed children speaking in tongues and ecstatically praying to a life-sized, cardboard effigy of George W. Bush. No, eight year old children should not be engaging in glossolalia, nor should they be weeping at a local abortion clinic, begging their savior to purge the souls of women who chose to have control over their own body. The point is, fanaticism within any religion often breeds bigotry and a very specific kind of ignorance which comes from mistaking an opinion as the big (and only) picture.
So, she and I didn't speak for a week. I refused to apologize because she didn't have the decency to let me explain my side, choosing instead to be controlled by her anger and flee the conversation. There was truthfully much more to my decision not to make amends with her, but since I learned a lesson- appropriately through her- I am intentionally being vague and eliminating some details entirely. At risk of sounding like an asshole, in short, let's just say I had no desire to continue the friendship for reasons other than her religious upbringing.
True to form, the personal became public, and I soon learned that she requested to have a staff-mediated session to discuss how I had offended her. Oh joy. The head of my program took me aside after dinner one night and said that a visiting rabbi and he were going to sit us down and listen to our personal business. "It's going to be a great opportunity for me," he said. For you? This has nothing to do with you, I thought. What sort of a cruel joke is this? I don't need to divulge the reasons this person grates on my nerves in front of you and a fucking rabbi, OK? This is our business- not a community issue.
The day came for our intervention session. During breakfast that morning, she looked into my eyes for the first time that week and said she no longer wanted to have it.
"I don't either," I said laughing.
"But I just got off the phone with [the program head] and he said 'it's not an option.'"
"Getting into our personal business shouldn't have been an option in the first place!"
I groggily ate eggs from our hens and some sauteed zucchini we had grown, and washed it down with cold, raw goat milk. I needed a nap. I lay in bed, and she came in my room to talk. An hour later, we looked at each other in amazement: what I had told people in confidence was twisted around and relayed back to her, and we realized that- for an entire week- people had lied to our faces. How can such a small community simultaneously have such an appetite for shit-talking gossip and drama, then have the audacity to pride itself on openness and sharing? I wanted to vomit.
She and I had gotten lost so many times on these roads in Falls Village, and here we were, driving together for one last time to the center, feeling more disoriented than ever. The sun was hot and shining, and the movie of our lives was flickering in the speckled gravel road ahead. In utter disbelief, we parked in the lot, waved limp hellos at passersby, and swung open the screen door to the yurt. There was a circle of four pillows on the floor, two of which were occupied by the rabbi and our program head. They smiled hello and we reluctantly sat facing each other, stifling embarrassed giggles. Then we were asked to meditate and "become present," and I think that was the first time a suggestion to meditate made me want to run out of a room.
When we finished the sitting, I began to verbalize what I had been holding inside for way too long.
"I really appreciate that the both of you took time out of your schedules for this, and that you feel it's going to be a positive experience for you, but frankly, this is absolutely none of your business. For the last hour, she and I went over our personal differences and came to a good place; knowing that this intervention is not optional is really disconcerting. This is not the real world- this is a bizarre cult full of hypocrisy and people who love to hear themselves talk, then process every fucking miniscule detail. Half of the people here seriously need therapy, and I don't feel right opening up my personal history with another community member so that *you* can benefit from it. Everyone is in everyone's business as it is, and it's pathetic. And here I was wrongfully assuming that I could trust others in my group. I asked advice from them in confidence so that I could better approach some kind of resolution with her, but they wound up going behind my back and putting their own spin on what I said to make the situation even worse! People just can't get enough of other people's drama here. Get your own fucking life! But no, there's always some camera rolling- some hidden eye- and it's capturing all of the hand-holding and the idealism and the pseudo-spirituality. This little community is really just a bad movie about hippies who are in need of some major help."
Yes, I said all of that out loud.
The rabbi cooly unraveled her words. "So, what I heard you say is that you feel betrayed by the community. What do you need from us to feel comfortable?"
Quite honestly, after my initial rant, the meeting took us to a point I don't think we would've gotten to on our own, and I can't understand why. Since it was such a forced reconciliation, conceivably it surpassed our bitterly low expectations just to prove us wrong. Or maybe it succeeded because it took place in this weird kingdom of make-believe- "Jewtopia" as Eden lovingly refers to it. I think both are true. In an intentional community, everything is magnified to an impossible extent, and being yourself- remaining honest while trying to be understanding- is incredibly tough. No, it's not the real world; instead, it's like a laboratory for it, helping you grasp how the energy you put out affects everyone whether you want it to or not. And while it's not your obligation to conform, you are given a stronger lens to determine how you could if you so chose.
Seeing her cry that morning with huge, heaving sobs as she explained how her religious life has alternately been a blessing and a burden, I no longer recognized her as the person I had judged and berated, but as a person I really didn't know or understand. The truth is, I will never be able to fathom the world of Orthodoxy, Kashrut, Halachic law, Hebrew day school, religious texts covering every shelf in one's house, long skirts, separation of women and men in temple, expectations of marriage and motherhood before real adulthood, and true ethical polarity (no gray area and no reasonable explanation why). None of that was her choice, nor could I have prevented being raised the way I was as her total opposite. And then I too started to cry- not from guilt or sadness, but from a love I couldn't comprehend... An overpowering sense of compassion.
A week later, for reasons unrelated to our argument, she left the program. It's as if she came specifically to teach me a lesson, and left when she saw it start to sink in. Of course, that's solipsism talking again, but isn't it comforting to think the universe exists specifically for you? Then, instead of judging everything and reacting negatively to something outside of yourself, you can turn inwards and ask exactly why it bothers you in the first place. More often than not, you'd be surprised by the answer. All of these obstacles hold lessons, and instead of circumvention, crashing headfirst seems to be the only way to uncover them. If they manifest as others' opinions, beliefs, styles of speech, personality quirks, or whatever differentiates you as people, then it's all the better for your own self-education; in that way, the universe indeed exists just for you. So take a deep breath, smile or cry, and offer thanks from the bottom of your heart to the characters who help write the story of your life.
Caural - The Plain Silvery Side Of This Disc Is Involved In Sound Reproduction. Be Careful Not To Scratch Or Mistreat The Silvery Side Of This Disc (from Suicide/Krylon Psychology 7" on Consumers Research & Development)
Video conceived & executed by Sean Capone
(From Seancapone.com): "A small sketch of emotional click-and-cut abstraction."
Exhibitions: Abstract Visual Music
NYC Digital Salon, 2007
Cologne OFF, IMAGE VS MUSIC
Cologne, Germany/Online, 2006
"Words are just noise. Words are only noise. Repeat after me."
So begins the title track from Bowery Electric's beautiful second album "Beat," a phrase which became a mantra for me as I did my best to participate in this week's silent meditation retreat led by Rabbi David Cooper, the author of "God Is A Verb." Upon his arrival, there was a staff debriefing at which we discussed behavioral boundaries and expectations, and while most people weren't thrilled about the effects the retreat would have at the center, I was ecstatic. Of course, there was quite a catch: I was the only one in my program observing silence, and in no way did I anticipate the unfortunate rift it inevitably created within my close community. It was an interesting and challenging week to say the least...
Remaining true to my experience last winter at Massachusetts' Vipassana Meditation Center, I began observing silence and avoided eye contact early Monday morning in our field while kneeling in the soil and weeding beets. Eva was on the other side of the plant bed and, for some time, she too remained silent; but finally- almost luckily- I was alone with the beets, the weeds, and the subtle sensation of breath subtly moving in and out of my nostrils. Tali, the farm manager, gave me instructions regarding other tasks to complete, and while she spoke, my eyes remained averted. I only nodded to convey understanding. Walking barefoot in the mud back to my bike, my friends' smiles and hellos were left ignored, and I pedaled away quickly to join the others in silence at the cafeteria.
Ironically, what I thought would be my safe haven from the everyday clatter became a comedic exercise in ignoring the Russian kitchen staff who, upon learning I was keeping silence like all the other "crazy zombies," reveled in making that endeavor nearly impossible. I suppose if they weren't so cute, I would have gotten a lot angrier: 21 year-old Russian party girls aren't people with whom you can stay upset for long. And so, each day I stood in line, spooned food onto my plate to their stifled giggles and soft, unintelligible whispers, then found a window-facing seat and ate slowly, trying to maintain a meditative state. A door would slam, a chair would squeak against the floor, someone would cough or sneeze, and I'd find myself mildly annoyed. For my part, I hardly even scraped a utensil against my ceramic plate, and would lift my chair before moving it backwards or forwards, still pretending it wasn't futile to expect complete quiet. Most staff and people on my program ate elsewhere, so I was thankfully alone with the other retreatants.
There was a sitting that night, and I arrived shortly after finishing dinner. Feet padded around the room as people found comfortable pillows then awaited the resonant bell to begin. I breathed in its vibrating tone and watched my thoughts become less scattered, but my allergies were unfortunately acting up, leaving me to alternately contemplate a void and my runny nose. A half an hour later, the sharp bell marked time again. We walked around the periphery of the room with muscular motions so slow and deliberate that we appeared still, then returned to our floor spaces for a second session to close out the hour. Noticing members of my group paying me more attention than I preferred, I returned home to draw up a note and hung it next to the hot water heater in our kitchen, a place that gets constant traffic:
"If you wish to observe silence until Shabbat, please write your name below. Also, specify if you wish to avoid eye contact. For those not participating in silence, please only speak to those who are when completely necessary. Thank you!"
Underneath this was two columns for participants' names and preferences for eye contact. Though intended as an invitation for others to join me in silence, not-so-secretly it was also the most non-confrontational and roundabout way of telling people to leave me alone. Smiling, I signed "Zachary" and "no eye contact," then fell asleep.
I filled my plate with food the next morning at breakfast, and mainly ate alone in my room, listening to Loscil really loudly in my headphones to try and tune everyone out. And for the rest of the day, focusing on my meditation and ignoring everyone became easier and easier- even amidst their laughter and chatter. As the song says, "words [became] noise" (no different than whistling breeze, passing engines, rickety gear-shifts on my rusty bicycle chain, or the chorus of insects and birds), and if I held my focus strongly enough, the english language was just gibberish within a sonic tapestry I largely disregarded.
But, another thing started happening as a result of my withdrawal, something I had never experienced for such a prolonged duration before: a grasp of time and space extending outside my own frame of reference to become an out-of-body, meta-recognition of the present. A "macro moment." Instead of lasting only seconds with humbling, grateful sighs escaping as you wonder just how in the fuck your journey brought you to such a beautiful place, I entered a museum of this time in my life, and wandered its exhibits for a couple of days. Its walls seemed to fade in and out depending on how present I was able to remain or how distracted I allowed myself to become, but I was there- as myself but watching myself- going through the motions. And I wondered something about what Rudolf Steiner had posited. If it's true that when we die, we re-live our lives in reverse (but at a higher speed) to learn how karma unfolds, do we do so as active participants or passive observers? Because in truth, I felt I had been given that opportunity- at least for my consciousness to embody that sort of spirit essence. I was granted invisibility and the unique perspective of profound separation, all without a voice to clarify just how my ego felt about it.
Yet, then the museum walls would fade. I'd hear my name sung almost as a taunt, Sveta and Lena approaching and smiling from behind. "How are you, what are you doing today?" delicately in thick, Russian accents. Gala covering her mouth to quiet her giggles, her ice blue eyes on mine as I looked away frustrated but hardly able to stop grinning. The bubble burst. I was back to pouring balsamic vinegar on greens, grated cheese and walnuts as people stared into space. Yulia brought out more barbequed tofu and quinoa on a hot pan, uncomfortably setting it into a basin of hot water heated by a blue flame, then snickered at me before slinking sexily back into the kitchen. Defeated, I surrendered to a chuckle and found a new spot to sit and start all over again.
Wednesday morning, Avodat Lev was held in the forest again. We were asked to find a "prayer partner"- not a person but an object- and meditate or pray with it as we wished. At the triangular base of soil created by three trees, I found mine in a small, crooked fern. There's an idea that all things are constantly praising God, and that when we recite blessings, we're merely joining in that constant, eternal process. But, it was in meditation- not in prayer- that my "prayer partner" in this trinity of trees brought me to a place far from the forest. I was in my childhood home, the house in Evanston that my dad still shares with my sister Shana and the spirit of my mom.
I walked down the sidewalk which is cracking from years of rain and up the stairs to our white storm door. All the details were so vivid in my mind's eye: its brass knob and the handle on the other side upturned; the four squares of glass on the inner door revealing the front hallway to the bathroom, and the woman's ghostly ceramic face that hangs inside; a staircase covered from top to bottom in a soft, patterned rug whose center is worn nearly threadbare from over thirty years of footprints; pairs of shoes neatly lining the entry way; coats and hats covering the halltree's hooks and umbrellas resting against the dark, reddish wood. I pressed my finger against the yellowing doorbell and heard its familiar, descending harmony. I felt the sound in the back of my throat as if in anticipation of guests on the holidays. Then I was inside my house at the top of the stairs, looking down at the faces behind the door's paneled glass. It was my Aunt Paulette and Uncle Al holding gifts in a large, red, department store's shopping bag. Ding-dong. I heard the sound so clearly, and like the bell signaling a meditation's beginning or end, it pulsated in my skull as I breathed. Ding-dong.
Then, I mentally toured the house. I started downstairs, entering through the front door after another depression of the doorbell. My mom was on the phone, her voice singing sweetly with genuine cheer as she washed dishes in the kitchen. She turned over her shoulder at the sound of the door closing behind me, cradling the phone with her neck. "My boychick is home," she'd say smiling. I took off my shoes and went upstairs, rounding the banister and up two more steps before going into my dad's office, the carpet going from flat, creamy knots to thick, storm cloud gray strands. Manila file folders lined the wall where the bookshelf ended. Yellow legal pads filled with the ink of my dad's chicken scratch cluttered the desk next to his computer. Photographs of Ferraris and Jaguars were set on foam core or framed next to Father's Day cards from a much younger version of my sister. "Daddy, I love cuddling with you. Love, Shana." Two small speakers filled the room with jazz made faintly fuzzy through radio frequency. "Hi, this is Marc. I'm not in right now, but if you leave your name and number at the sound of the tone, I'll be glad to call you when I return. Thank you." Beep. My dad was sitting at his desk, looking through papers, concentrating with his head down. "How's my favorite boy? Muah!"
I went through his door and into my bedroom, and attempted to remember all of the different ways it had looked over the years: different orientations of my bed, posters that had come and gone, the Sri Lankan mask hanging in the corner in between windows, the way my ceiling looked before I created constellations with putty and glow-in-the-dark stars; then, tiny, blackened marks on my windowsill- the aftermath of bubble gum wads placed there from between my first love's fingers. Carefully, I tip-toed through the scarce available space on my sister's floor as she read in bed while listening to the television (I still don't understand how she does that). "Ackabee," she beamed. I saw the stairwell again and gazed into the bathroom to my right, having a hard time remembering the wallpaper pattern before the walls were sponge-painted. Stripes? I floated into my parents' room, into their bathroom, and then I flew out of the window to land on our neighbor's front lawn. Where would I go next?
I chose to stay right there, but changed ages. Up Lincolnwood Drive we went, my parents on either side holding the tiny hands of a three year-old me. "One, two, three, weeeee!" They swung me high above the ground over and over again. Sprinklers oscillated or waved on summer lawns as fireflies blinked brilliantly in twilight. We would've made it to Baskin Robbins on Central Street, and I would've licked a light green scoop of daiquiri ice nestled in a sugar cone, but I didn't make it there: I was back in the forest with a heavy heart and my eyes open and stinging, blinking out the tears that made my fern appear blurred. I rose and stretched, then trudged alone to the pasture where I had parked my bike. One of the white baby goats stood at the doorway of the chicken coop among the hens, and it seemed to be smiling perceptibly. I wiped away more tears.
The day continued as usual: alone in the field picking at bails of hay, mulching rows of peppers, weeding a bed of onions, and then dealing with the Russians' flirtatious mockery at mealtimes. Outside of the cafeteria, I was affronted by three of them as I tried to get tea. As soon as I put my paper cup on the table in search of a tea bag, Lena quickly poured sugar into it and Yulia and Kate started their rapid-fire whispering, trying to meet my eyes. I pulled at Lena's collar and tried emptying the sugar down her bare back, but Yulia swiftly grabbed her away as she squealed. There was a retreatant walking towards us, so the girls escaped to the kitchen. I just filled my cup with hot water and shook my head, grinning incredulously.
For the last two weeks I had the morning chore of watering the gan (garden), herbs, and seed-saving plants, but that Wednesday at dusk, I happily rode to the pasture early to meet the goats. The pasture manager Aitan and my milking partner Noah were arriving at 8 for a training session and our formal introduction to Zilpah and Angie (the two goats we'd milk each evening), so I had a half an hour to meditate there at the lake's edge. I sat on a bench facing the animals and closed my eyes, listening to the hens coo with an occasional "baah" from one of the kids. A few minutes passed, and I realized it would make a lot more sense to keep my eyes open and become acquainted with my new friends. It was over the course of those thirty minutes that I once again entered that "museum"; this time, it wasn't just one of my life, but of the earth's.
There are three adult goats (two females and one male) and roughly 5 kids, all of whom are bleach white and under a year old. Angie and Zilpah are the mellow matrons, and Omer- the adult male- is the force to be reckoned with on the pasture. While he's a bit of a primadonna, moreso, he is asserting himself to establish the natural power dynamic between dominant males and their young. If he wants food, or if he prefers that a different kid be fed over another, he will chase or ram the young goat out of the way. I sat and watched this happen repeatedly, then witnessed the kids imitating Omer, gently touching their horns in a harmless pantomime. They were learning through repetition: communicating without words and through instinct. And there I was, silently watching patterns develop among the collective, but seeing how each kid's unique personality influenced his or her interactions within it. Movements were echoed endlessly and, eventually, as I beheld this process, it became like holding a mirror to myself.
Like a fractal extending infinitely in- and outwards, these patterns of maturation and evolution have no real beginning or end. They are all simply cycles. We so often forget we are breathing, and we don't focus on the rhythm of our beating hearts; these are both subconscious habits that, thank God, we don't need to remind ourselves to complete every second. The funny thing is, when you look at nearly any naturally occurring phenomena, you realize they too operate in cycles which are out of your control, and perhaps lay within the realm of a subconscious which is greater than (yet inextricably connected to) our own: death and rebirth, sleep and waking, sunset and sunrise, the waxing and waning of the moon (and its effects on our bodies), cell growth and deterioration... These are some of the aspects comprising life at its most pure and basic level, and their every recurrence seems completely new.
Within our mortal framework as men and women, perhaps we share a natural inclination towards perfection, and grow together through these cycles towards that unattainable end only to forget the progress we made once we perish; that is, unless we break the akashic cycle and enter "God Consciousness," becoming One with the creator as some believe is possible. Yet, if we are created in God's image, and indeed have that desire to perfect our souls, does that mean that God is evolving as well, and through His "subconscious" cycles is looking to attain an even higher perfection? Or, since God is truly within us, do we inexorably evolve simultaneously as one Being, a single alive Consciousness?
Rabbi David Seidenberg explained the Kabbalistic concept of angels to me a week before I began the silent retreat. Jewish mystics believe that everything on earth- even individual blades of grass, or the tiniest and most insignificant pebble- has its own angel, and the proximity of each angel to God is contingent upon its order of creation (ancient forms of matter such as rocks have their corresponding angels closest to God, followed by the plant and animal kingdoms, and the human race whose angels are furthest away). The angels' awe of the Creator varies in accordance with their distance from Him, thus explaining the reason rocks and plant life are silent, and why animals and humans communicate with the sonic vocabulary or language to the degrees they do.
So, if it is said that all things are constantly praising God, and they do so not with words but by expressing gratitude in their own inherent fashion, why then do we as humans deem it necessary to verbalize prayer and not learn from our "elders" on earth? Our human race, through the luxury of using words, was the only species to unreasonably demarcate boundaries within what may as well have remained one belief, and forced us to carry the hardest burden in our spiritual ascension! Personally speaking, entering what is described as "universal consciousness" has hardly come from religious observance for me; instead, it has been actuated through intense experience, often while alone. Again, I am referring to those "macro moments" when "time stands still." I can use any of those now-cliched expressions to describe it, but they each illustrate the same all-encompassing perception of our being. And it was in silence- first in the forest and then in the pasture- that I realized that we, too are constantly honoring this energy that animates us all: we do so subconsciously- just as we breathe, and just as our hearts beat. And it is when we shift our awareness to this level of being that we realize thankfulness is intrinsic, and tears of joy are our silent blessing. "Words are just noise. Words are only noise."
Colors are so vivid during storms, especially outside with the hood of a 4 dollar blue poncho sliding further down your eyes. I stared at my shovel cleaving at soil and clay with the soft sound of rain drumming against plastic, metal, earth, and skin. Our muscles burned, clouds continued to cry and melt dirt into mud, and we took turns carrying the heavy fruits of our labor away in a yellow wheelbarrow to dump in dark, dampening piles. And then our rainbow spectrum was altered in the safety of tinted ski-goggles. We swung a sledgehammer into the side of a hollow cylinder of concrete, and cheered each other on with each crack or chunk that broke apart. Isn't it wonderfully ironic when destruction becomes productive?
Then, running through an acapella version of Minor Threat's discography with Eden, we struggled carrying long pieces of wood through the forest's wet terrain. We ducked under branches, slid on sodden leaves, then tried to balance on the precarious staircase of bright mossy rocks leading to the rushing ravine. It was there that Jeff stood in tall, rubber boots, taking the planks with Sher Yaakov to his tent deeper in the forest. Luckily, we were too weak to bring the ten by ten foot wooden platform from the back of the pick-up truck, but instead pushed ancient refrigerators up the kitchen's basement stairwell once we were back at the center. A couple of them were too large to fit, so after they were cleared of cobwebs, they were sawed in half. I didn't do the cutting- I was already planting in the field.
By that point, the mist in the gray sky was cooling me uncomfortably. Mud had caked on my boots and soaking-wet jeans, and I had crumpled my poncho in the tall weeds at the end of the bed. We laid irrigation line, then "key-holed" black plastic along the bed to sufficiently warm the soil for our plants. There wasn't thunder- it was peaceful. And fog hung like exhaled smoke on the trees.
I remembered an old photograph of myself today. In it, I was probably three years old and squatting barefoot in my flooded backyard with a huge smile on my face. I distinctly recall the smell that followed a healthy spring shower. Do you remember the smell of a wet lawn? The smell of dirt? Or even the smell of your front hall as you stripped your clothes off to be dried in a towel, tiny leaves still speckling your shins down to your tiny toes?
The sun wasn't yet out this morning as we led each other through the forest, taking turns closing our eyes. Chani was barefoot as usual, and had me remove my shoes and socks so I could feel the earth's floor as well. She brought my fingers from hers and onto the bark of a tree, then onto elaborate ferns and weeds grateful for the storm, and touched them to my inhaling nostrils. Then, she wanted to try something different. The ground hardened slightly under my toes as she walked me carefully along, pushing away tree branches and lifting my leg when there was an obstruction.
"I am taking you to the main road now. We are going to run, and I want you to trust me."
"I trust you," I replied, and I took another deep breath.
We ran hand in hand across the path, and it seemed the forest moved stones out of the way for our bare feet. My eyes were closed tightly, letting hers see for me. For a short while I perceived the darkness subtly changing as early morning light created shadows through the trees, but as I ran further- and as we began to laugh- I pictured that photograph. That smile captured on my face came from somewhere very real: the primal connection we share with nature- too easily taken for granted as we grow old.
Every night when I've gone to sleep, I've seen brightly-lit earth crawling with insects, and felt an exhaustion and peace stemming from honest and real work. It's now the end of our first week. Time has stretched itself out to the molasses pace of shape-changing clouds where we welcome forevers in single breaths, and today marks our first rest: the first shabbat. I snoozed past my usual waking time of 5:45 AM and awakened with a slight Jameson headache just after nine. The home I cohabit a half-mile from the center is one of the communal hubs for our fourteen-person group, so people are constantly coming and going through our unlocked front door, leaving their bicycles outside in the hutch before collapsing on one of the couches, showering, checking email, or meditating. Right now, most have just returned from a morning service and are eating lunch in the kitchen. We have a great deal of food left over from the dinner I prepared with three others last night, but my late breakfast of challah, grapefruit, kale harvested from our field, and eggs from our chickens has given me a fully-satisfied stomach. I am nearly ready for a nap.
Monday began our morning routine of singing and meditation commencing at six AM, luckily held in our house! That means six of us can simply roll out of bed, brush our teeth, and sleepwalk to the meditation room with hot tea warming the sides of mason jars; for the remaining eight staying up the road in tents, it's not such an easy commute. Regardless, one by one, we found comfortable seats on pillows to the quiet plucking of a guitar. A form of Judaism called "Renewal" informs the style of chanting we do each morning. Instead of completing an entire prayer, we focus on a single line to repeat, and whoever leads the morning service (called Avodat Lev, translated from hebrew as "work of the heart") explains the significance of each.
The first is Modeh Ani Lefahecha Ruach Chai V'Kayam (I am grateful before You eternal living spirit). So, our first affirmation is gratitude for waking each morning- a pure simplicity, but only when taken for granted. Then Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yisrael (How great are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places) in which- directly following our thanks for life- we express gratefulness for the bodies our breath animates. As the prayers continue, we shift from the physical to the ethereal, and end with the Shema (God is One)- reinforcing spiritual unity through illustrating the quite literal meaning to "loving thy neighbor as yourself."
Contingent on the whim of each morning service's facilitator, the mediations that ensue can range from basic breath observation through advanced visualizations. In one of the more powerful ones this week, we imagined a thread extending from deep in the earth's core to the base of our spines. With each breath, we brought energy along this thread until it filled our bodies, then- anchoring the thread's tip far above to the most distant point in space- we sent it upwards and outwards into the cosmos. For breakfast, we cook each other greens and eggs, or share yogurt, fruit, or cereal, then begin the meat of our day with positive intentions: Avodat Bayit ("work of the house"), rotating our responsibilities every two weeks.
Our chores include housekeeping at the center and its residences, food preparation in the cafeteria's kitchen, maintaining compost and recycling, tending to the animals (collecting eggs from the chickens, and feeding and milking the goats), landscaping the grounds and watering the gardens, and generally tidying the communal spaces within our house. Then we have lunch together, and sit outside the cafeteria on its long, wooden balcony overlooking the lake and surrounding woods. If we hadn't been farming earlier that morning, we bicycle down the hilly, bucolic roads to our nearby field for Avodat Sadeh ("work of the field"). We are in the midst of readying the beds and planting the first of the crops- adding mulch and composted manure shoveled from wheelbarrows- but enjoyed our first summer harvest of collard greens and kale last night.
The sun is at its height when we are out there, sending sweat mixing with sunblock and insect repellent down trails of our darkening skin as we dig hands in the warm soil, uncovering worms, spiders, and unidentified beetles crawling beneath. And towards the end of our time in the fields, and after returning the tools to the shed, we walk through the wall of tall grasses to cool off in the swimming holes lining the field's edge. I am still trying to find a technique of putting my boxers and pants back on without getting them full of muddy sand, but being dirty- truly dirty- is something I am quickly getting used to.
Along with the ups of the experience (including silly name games, forest trust walks, and silent hikes to overlooks- all of which have turned this into a bit of a "summer camp") there have already been some downs. A major concern for us here in New England is disease-carrying ticks. We knew the dangers before arrival, and planned on doing checks every evening to prevent those critters from accomplishing anything substantial (the common Lyme Disease takes just under 24 hours to contract, and happens after the tick becomes so engorged with your blood that it releases the virus into your veins through a backwash of sorts). I was about to take a shower the first evening when my roommate Eden found an unwelcome visitor burrowed halfway into his thigh. "Fuck," he screamed, and I looked down at the large insect subtly moving in his flesh.
We had heard about different techniques, but apparently the only way to successfully extract a tick is by firmly grabbing its head with tweezers and very carefully pulling it out. I gave him my Swiss Army knife and- for the first time in my twenty years of owning it- felt excited that it would soon be used for something other than opening a bottle of wine! Eden remained relatively calm, swearing every once in so often as he picked away at the intruder. It seemed fairly routine until the tick snapped in half and, while its head disjoined in the vise of my little tweezers, its body remained in Eden's leg: another opportunity to exclaim "fuck!" We called in Naomi from the other room and she knelt at his bedside, trying unsuccessfully to poke into his skin and remove the tick. I just stood grimacing nearby. The tweezers weren't working, so finally we used the little fish-gutter to dig; it was at that point I resigned to taking a hot shower and forgetting about it (luckily, the next morning, the director of the program was able to remove the last tiny remains of the culprit).
And this morning, waking from an amazing, drunken dinner and week-end celebration, we were saddened to find one of the baby chickens living in our basement trampled by the others, laying limply and sadly chirping in a bowl of feed. The chicks had been mailed to us yesterday, and all but one survived the postal service before being put into their new home. But now, another victim! Yes, even cute things are subject to a natural "pecking order": the runt of the group- a small, yellow bird we hadn't yet named- was slowly dying. None of us really knew what to do. Its pre-feather fur was matted, it was obviously in pain, and its miniature leg seemed to have been broken. I wasn't present for the attempt to suffocate it with a plastic bag, but knew it failed when Eva, Abby, and Naomi brought it out of the house on a small white cloth: its hearse to the deathbed of the forest floor.
The sun seems as if it will set earlier than usual tonight. Other than in the bathrooms, we've had to leave house lights off for those in our group observing "Shomer Shabbat" (a more conservative sabbath relegated to ancient Judaic law). We've reached a compromise in which laptops and electronics can be used in common areas during the day (as long as its with headphones), and we've turned the meditation room into an alternative space for Saturdays in which we can play music out loud... Honestly, everyone has been so busy singing and drumming on tables to really mind the loss of a stereo. In fact, it wasn't until last night- while everyone was off at an evening service and I stayed to finish cooking our meal, enjoying my own personal cocktail hour with some whisky- that I listened to any music other than that we created together. In doing so, I brought an inevitable flood of nostalgia for the life I've temporarily left behind in New York. Yet, it isn't truly temporary, is it? In the aftermath of any journey, we never really return to the home we remember.
The sun is just beginning to set on the first full day I spent in my new community of Falls Village, and I already feel a substantial shift in my mind and heart. The program will commence tomorrow; however, for today- as well as yesterday evening- it was time to acclimate to a completely new and open environment in woods surrounded by fields, where nature is simultaneously deafening or silent depending on one's perspective. It took only a day for me, now reclining comfortably in the living room of the house I will share with five others this summer, to go from a stressful and hung over morning preparation in New York to a state of complete bliss. Perhaps it's the morning I spent cooking fresh eggs whose yolks held the deep, orange hue of setting suns, or spending the early part of my morning looking into the forest and playing guitar, focusing on arpeggios in different tunings and repeating improvised phrases along with the singing birds and humming insects. And then sitting on a white tree branch extending over the placid lake, trying to ignore the flies as I continued.
Eventually, I took a long bike ride alone and got a feel for the world outside of the center: neighboring farms and colorful homes, with bicycles left lazily in their yards, winding all along roads bordered by green and topped with clear blue (aside from the occasional cloud or jet stream unzipping the sky). My thighs were burning from a lack of practice, but my curiosity kept me pedaling until the pain turned to warmth, and I allowed the breeze to cool me down.
Returning to my home, Jeanette and Abby arrived with produce from a nearby market, and we drove the half-mile up the road for yoga held in a wooden gazebo facing the lake. During savasana I drifted into outer space, hardly able to focus on my breath any longer because the images in my mind were so sharp. It's fascinating how being in such an open space- away from the claustrophobia of the city- allows your mind to breathe so much more, leaving you safe from the inevitable transfer of psychic energy from everyone else... The schizophrenic feeling you have riding the subway and watching your thoughts accelerate to the point of a confused blur, all from tuning in to everyone else's noise. But now with some tea, I feel so absolutely slowed that I've reached nearly a dead stop, and I am present to observe my molecules frozen in space as I inhale almost in between them.
Last night, after unpacking and cleaning up my bedroom, I joined a group of about 15 seated in a circle around the oriental rug on our living room floor and, in the flickering glow of a pair of candles, we introduced ourselves for the first time (only four of the fourteen in our fellowship were present- the rest were staff and their visiting friends). Conversation quickly turned into song while claps, stomping feet, and a drum I found in the meditation room maintained a steady rhythm. We danced together- new friends made from complete strangers- and then enjoyed our meal with wine and coffee-flavored vodka until the timers switched off the lights.... Now, It's pitch-dark outside, and the silhouettes of trees barely stood out against the horizon on our walk home following dinner. Four of us- Naomi, Abby, Jeanette and me- are back in the soft light of our house, eagerly anticipating a tomorrow we can't even imagine... Goodnight friends, goodnight angels.
I am now back in Brooklyn after my third plane ride of the day; thankfully, the last one was very short- from Philadelphia to New York's Laguardia Airport- but sadly, it represents the premature ending of our tour with CocoRosie after completing only 6 dates on the west coast. Beginning in Los Angeles a week ago at the El Ray, we continued north on to Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle before crossing the border into British Columbia. It was there, in Vancouver, that we had our best show yet. Regan and I stayed nearby at a quirky hotel called Lamplight, and each room there had a theme developed by a different artist. The inside of my room (209), for instance, looked as if it were adjacent to a house, complete with a shuttered roof hanging halfway over my bed like an awning. Regan was excited about his room next door full of patterns on the walls, but evidently his lock was broken! He yelled for me through the window, and he slipped me the key underneath his door so I could let him out. A hotel with character is definitely not without its share of problems.
There was a fun after-party that night where I tried some bizarre wine and avoided Yohimbe muffins, and we finally retreated to our rooms after sharing some late night pizza with new friends. I awoke the next morning and enjoyed "The Goonies" on TV, had a sashimi lunch up the street, and drove for hours back to Seattle... We spent 2 hours in queue at the border as I tried to sleep over El-P's "I'll Sleep When You're Dead" blasting from Busdriver's iPod- not an easy endeavor, believe me. All the while, we knew nothing of what happened to our tour mates....
Once back in Seattle, we met up with Nick, Sebastian and Aaron from Islands (ex-Unicorns) and had some beer and dinner at Elysian Brewing Company. Only an hour prior, a woman on the street had randomly offered them two free tickets to that night's Morrissey concert in town, and they more-than-happily obliged. Aaron bought a third ticket from a scalper and- assuring us it would be easy to get some more- we decided to accompany them to the show. As they waited out front for us to find parking, a girl approached them and sold Nick a ticket for only five dollars (!!), and we were able to get the final ticket for twenty: mission accomplished.
The show was amazing. He opened with "The Queen is Dead," and the crowd went bananas. To be honest- and this may be blasphemous to say as a rabid Smiths fan- I don't have a single Morrissey solo album; thus, the show's highlights for me were the 3 and a half Smiths songs performed (he cut off "The Boy with a Thorn in His Side" midway through, complaining that something felt wrong). Towards the end of "Life is a Pigsty," he curled himself in a tiny ball center-stage, illuminated by a bright, colored spotlight as the sounds became quieter and quieter, resolving in silence and near darkness. And then, the dirty vibrato guitar from "How Soon Is Now?" began, and I lost my shit! Throughout the set, star-struck fans continually rushed the stage to be forcefully removed by bouncers waiting in the wings, and I was in awe of Morrissey's continuing command of his audience, many of whom have been loyal since the early eighties.
After an encore of "Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want" we made it to a Red Roof Inn for only a few cozy hours of sleep. As per usual before a flight, we were up at three, returned the rental car by four, at our airport terminal by five, and onboard Frontier Airlines for our 6 AM flight after snarfing down a breakfast sandwich at Wendy's. Somehow, I managed to stay awake enough to watch the new movie re-make of "The Bridge to Terabithia," and I wished I would've known how sad it was! Regardless of my teary eyes, the day was moving along as usual. We had an uneventful layover in Denver and boarded our flight to Philadelphia; but it was then, right before the stewardesses rattled off safety instructions, that Sierra (from CocoRosie) phoned Regan. I was wearing headphones but heard enough of the conversation: "Are you serious? Back to France? Where are you?"
Magically, Pitchfork had mention of it before we did, and we were already receiving phone calls from friends who heard the news. Frankly, I still don't know the gruesome details other than the proper paperwork for two out of three band members (all French) were not provided to them, making their entry back into the states impossible. On top of that, the two in question were deported, but don't quote me on that since I still haven't spoken with any of them. The end result is that the tour, very unfortunately, is over. Once in Philadelphia, Busdriver and I stood at the baggage claim sort of staring into space, and I briefly entertained the idea of hanging out in North Carolina for a couple weeks. Alas, exhausted and upset, and subjected to a special search at security, I was on a tiny plane back home. I am so sorry that such a horrendous thing happened. I'm sorry for CocoRosie and their amazing accompanists Ben, Gael & Tez, and especially sorry that Busdriver and I won't be able to see many of you in the cities we had yet to visit together.