April 2018

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Art and Healing

Last night Ann I went to see Jennifer Hopper, Norbert Leo Butz, and others at the Angel Band Project at The Neptune Theatre in the University District. It was an amazing evening of music, love, joy, sadness, remembrance, and healing. 

Ann and I had read about the concert in the Seattle Times, and it may have been The Times that called Hopper the most courageous woman in Seattle. Though I often disagree with The Times, this time they got it right.

Five years ago, a man broke into Hopper's and her partner Teresa Butz's home. The attack that ensued was awful. Skip the rest of the paragraph if you'd rather not read it. Both women were repeatedly raped and stabbed until Butz threw a piece of furniture through the window, allowing Hopper to escape. Butz was murdered. 

The Angel Band Project's mission is to break the silence about sexual violence and to help survivors heal through music. Hopper is a survivor with a Broadway voice, so her performance and the heart that she brought to that performance were powerful indications of art's ability to heal.

The event was open seating, so Ann let me off at the curb to secure seats for the two of us. When I approached the entry of what used to be a movie theatre, I felt a younger and hipper vibe than usually attracts those of us in the second half-century of our lives.

The entry was dark, and the walkway somewhat uneven, so I made my way into the venue by following the crowd noises inside. First I passed by a large gated area reserved for those who were over 21 to drink alcohol during the concert. Though a beer seemed tempting, we came to hear the music, so I held on to the gate to keep my balance as I made my way to the sober rows of seats in front. 

As the venue filled, our white-haired peeps filled some of the chairs, and Ann joined me after parking half a mile away, so I felt more comfortable. Behind me, two women who had been strangers when they arrived talked about their personal connections to Jennifer Hopper: one went to high school with her and the other worked with her before "the tragedy."

Shelly Hart, who is the--what do you call her--personality at the Storm games (our beloved WNBA team), announced the evening's purpose and kept saying that "BC" was there. If you're a lesbian or any ordinary person who listens to music and lives in Seattle, you know that's the musician Brandi Carlile.

When Hopper came onto the stage (flanked by a seven member band and two back-up singers), she seemed overwhelmed by the crowd. To open the evening, she sang Shawn Colvin's "I Don't Know Why." 

For anyone who knows a piece of Hopper's story, the song's poignancy dug deep. She closed: 

I don't know why, the trees grow so tall,
And I don't know why, I don't know anything at all,
But if there were no music,
Then I would not get through.
I don't know why I know these things,
But I do.

Just as Hopper sang about the power of music in her emotional survival, she talked about music and healing later in the evening. This connection between art and healing has become my passion, my direction as I seek a new career. I'm no musician, but I do believe, as I have read, that art reaches places in us that ache, and art can help us transcend pain even as we feel it. At least that's how it's been for me. In writing this blog, for example, and in connecting with you as you read it, I am healing from the wounds of my brain tumors and a life that is not unfolding as I expected it, too, though no doubt (as the poet Max Ehrmann wrote in "Desiderata"), my life and the universe are unfolding as they should. 

A few songs later, Hopper sang a wistful arrangement of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road":

So goodbye yellow brick road,
Where the dogs of society howl.
You can't plant me in your penthouse.
I'm going back to my plough.

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad.
Oh, I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road.

Hopper sang of leaving her path as I have left mine. (Don't get me wrong: I don't compare my trauma to hers, but it's not a contest, and I'm learning and healing from her.)

There were lots of songs about angels throughout the night, which has me remembering that I learned recently from a chaplain at Children's Hospital in Seattle that children often see angels. Perhaps the most powerful song about angels is the one Hopper sang with "BC" (Brandi Carlile). Hear the refrain: 

Calling all angels, Calling all angels.
Walk me through this one, don't leave me alone.
Calling all angels, Calling all angels.
We're trying, we're hoping, but we're still not sure how…

What a voice and what a spirit. While Hopper didn't mask her pain, she also didn't wallow in it, and the evening was more one of joy than of sadness. 

Hopper sang with several others during the evening, but her most prevalent and poignant singing partner was her partner's brother, Norbert Leo Butz. (Yep, that's a mouthful, but that's his name.) They sang together a good bit, and he sang on his own sometimes. 

When he introduced one song that he would sing as a song by Amy Grant, and the crowd moaned a little, he remembered Grant when she first became a hit: "She was 15 and a Christian, and she was hot." I wish I could remember the song he sang. It was lovely and made me think that perhaps Amy Grant, like I have, has grown up some since I was in college and she shocked the Christian music world by wearing a sexy leopard jacket. 

Though Norbert Butz was talented (a two-time Tony award winner), funny, and energetic, in the background of every song he sang was his sister's death. At the close of Lucinda Williams' "Can't Let Go," for example, we saw the pain of his loss as he sang: 
I'm like a fish out of water,
A cat in a tree.
Well it's over - I know it - but I can't let go.
Well it's over - I know it - but I can't let go.
Well it's over - I know it - but I can't let go.

Before singing Otis Redding's song to men about how to treat a woman, he said, "We need to talk to the men, to the boys who cause such pain. We need to teach them how to treat a woman." Then he sang: 

Just try a little tenderness, ooh yeah yeah yeah
You got to, know how to love her man, take this advice, man
You've got to, squeeze her, don't tease her, never leave
You've got to, hold her and rub her softly man
Try a little tenderness, ooh yeah yeah yeah
Don't tease my baby
Love her, lord.

There was so much love and healing, so much pain and need for further healing, on that stage. And such talent. I again wished I could sing, but that 's not my art. Here, witnessing the power of art in healing was powerful. 

This morning, I was still singing last night's vibe in my head (where my music sounds best), when I read The Rattler's Alan Fox's interview with the poet Jane Hirshfield. In part of the interview, Fox says, "I’m thinking that the fear of being intimate is perhaps the fear of losing one’s individual identity." After some silence, Hirshfield replied:

I have no doubt that you’re right, and yet … To lose your individual identity is one of the most profound things a human being can do. And it’s something we seek out continually, isn’t it, whether by mind-altering substances or going to a concert. I have no question that falling out of the self is one of the deepest pleasures of music, that we enter into music in order to become it and no longer ourselves. And yet you are also right that this is terrifying to people. My maternal grandfather, who was a Rosicrucian for a while, and the only person in my family with an interest in mysticism, told me a story when I was a child. He had been given anesthesia, and as he went under, he said, his mind traveled out into the universe, into the vast blackness of the universe, until all he saw was a single point of light which he understood as the beginning of all time and all space. Now, I thought that sounded extraordinary, absolutely wonderful. For him, it was so frightening that he never consented to full anesthesia again. Every operation after that was done under only a local.

So for Hirshfield, as for me, our greatest fears--even our fears of great pain and obliteration--can lead us to new states of awareness. Though we don't seek the pains in our lives--as I didn't seek brain tumors and their losses and Hopper and her partner didn't seek the violence of that terrible night--we may transcend those pains. Perhaps we even need the pain to transcend the smallness of our lives and see our greatness. 

We don't ask for the pain--that would be masochism--but it may offer a door to a new space. And it may not. Going into that new space requires courage or at least passion for a transcendent life.

As Hirshfield said, "I really am a terrible coward, yet I have not wanted the narrow life that comes with cowardice.... Art’s example reminds us that it is possible to develop an awakened and courageous and indecorous soul, in the face of a world that mostly asks us to be obedient sheep.…

“I’ve always wanted to discover. It is the only thing I’ve wanted. Everything else in my life stems from that. What is this life, this moment, and how fully can I know it? And the interesting thing is that if you pursue those questions, astonishments step forward, and you find things that you never would have guessed were there to be found. I think this is true for any inch of ground, looked at with the mind of open awareness."

And perhaps of everyday language of concrete this and that and small thoughts isn't big enough to help us hear what poetry and music can help us hear: love and peace have a power that is bigger than we are, bigger than our language is, as big as God. 

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