Last week, several people asked me about how I get involved with EarthSpirit and my relationship with Jimi. It turns out that I wrote about it, long ago. I hope you enjoy it!
Come, sit down and let me tell you a story. Now, when Jimi tells this story, it begins, “When I first saw Morwen, I knew she was the one.” But that’s not how my story begins. Granted, when I met Jimi it changed everything, but I didn’t know it at the time. I had no clue that the path that was opening before me would take me so far from the world I had known and into the realm of my wildest dreams. I only knew that I had met an intriguing character, unlike anyone I’d ever known.
It wasn’t just the shoulder-length brown dreadlocks, caramel complexion and aqua green eyes, or the colorful tie-dye shirts. It wasn’t the’57 Chevy panel truck he was driving, or the kinetic energy exuding from his small wiry frame. It was what came out of his mouth when he talked that fascinated me, the stories of his adventures and experiences in an alternative world I hadn’t even known existed, and his visions of a future world based on living lightly on the land and intentional community.
At that point I thought I had already come a long way from my fairly ordinary Jewish middle-class roots. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, the oldest daughter of liberal parents whose love was both abundant and unconditional. I was well-educated and well adjusted, albeit with an artistic temperament and a passion to make the world a better place that bordered on radicalism. I was still in my teens when I rejected Jehovah as the ruler of the Universe, although I continued to enjoy my family’s Jewish ethnic traditions. A long agnostic phase supported by academic studies in psychology and sociology was followed by a connection with Goddess spirituality. Since childhood, though, my closest connection to Spirit was in nature, and ultimately that became the foundation of my spiritual practice.
I had moved a hundred miles from the place where three generations of my family had settled, and after years of walking a solitary earth-based spiritual path had discovered a community of pagans in the Boston area. It was 1988 and this was my third time attending Rites of Spring, the EarthSpirit community’s annual gathering.
So there I was at Rites of Spring listening to this peculiar fellow talk about one exciting thing after another. Rainbow gatherings. Traveling on a hippie bus, camping in national parks. Living in a community house with a dozen other people. Dance as a spiritual practice. I didn’t know how hard he was trying to impress me. He was doing a good job.
I was married at the time, to a man I’d been with for over a decade who was not interested in attending Rites of Spring. Even though I was unhappy and quickly growing apart from him, I was committed to my commitment and still believed I could follow my new path of Neo-Paganism and stay in my marriage. So I was oblivious of Jimi’s interest in me, even as I was hanging on his every word. As far as I was concerned, it was the ideas that were seductive, not the man. I left the gathering at the end of the weekend and went home to my husband, head spinning and full of ideas about creating community and a different way of being in the world.
In the following summer, I received a postcard and a brief visit from Jimi, and then there were many months of silence until it was time for another Rites of Spring. During that year, I realized that peace in my marriage was dependent on my not expressing my dreams and desires or instigating change in any way. More and more my inner world became separated from the motions of my everyday life. Mostly I tried to ignore this increasing tension, but as Rites ’89 approached I found myself wondering if Jimi would be there, and looking forward to seeing him. I couldn’t wait to continue our conversation, and get affirmation of the part of myself that wanted to change the world.
When I finally saw him and saw the way he was looking at me, I remember thinking, “My life could be really different.” I still did not have a clue, even then, how very different it would be!
Driving home from that Rites of Spring in 1989, I knew my marriage was over, and it took only three months to dismantle the life I had spent fifteen years constructing. In what I later saw as the first in a long series of blessings fortuitously arranged on my behalf by the Universe, a friend had stopped by two weeks before Rites to tell me that he and his wife were looking for a housemate in Concord, Mass, where they had recently moved. After Rites I realized that Concord, 20 miles outside of Boston, was on the way to where Jimi was living. When I went to see the house I found a large pond in the back yard and a commuter train to my Boston job just a five minute walk away. Not knowing anything else about the place, I signed a lease and began to move my stuff. I ended up living in that house for more than twenty years. (now almost 30 years! still there).
In the first few months, though, everything was changing very quickly. Jimi’s presence in my life created a veritable whirlwind, often verging on chaos. He came and went at all hours, and often had car trouble that prevented him from being on time. Although he still had his little cabin in the woods an hour west of Concord, there was no heat or plumbing there and he was at my house so much that first year my housemates wanted him to pay rent. Soon after we got together, at my request he gave up his work driving tour buses that kept him on the road for half the year, and I found myself supporting him and coaching his quest for right livelihood. This was not easy, as years of living an alternative lifestyle – keeping odd hours, espousing unconventional political beliefs, participating in an underground barter economy – had rendered him unfit for standard employment. A 9-5 job? Not bloody likely.
In the meantime, I was still working at my 9-5 job in the city, and my commute had expanded from a short subway ride to an hour on the train each way. I enjoyed my work as executive director of a small nonprofit, but the dissonance between the life I had and the one I wanted began to build.
That fall, a couple of months after I had launched my new life, I was on to lead a clan at the 4th Twilight Covening, an autumn spiritual retreat organized by EarthSpirit. Jimi decided to attend Twilight for the first time and joined the Hare Clan, focused on drumming. I knew that he had been playing congas for some years, part of a loose-knit group that had been gathering to play on the Cambridge Commons on Sunday afternoons since the ‘70s, and that he had recently taken up African drums. I was glad that he was getting to do his thing while I was doing mine.
Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Each heartbeat an eternity, a lifetime flying by in the space of a single breath. Bones and flesh and skin of my hand stroking and coaxing sound from the skin and flesh of animal and tree. Skin on skin, resonating in the chest of the world, touch on touch, breath after breath, pulse answering pulse, vibration rippling out, and out, and in, and out, passing around and through each thing, each body, subtly and outrageously rocking each one into resonance, changing everything it touches. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. The world cracks open and my heart spills out upon the earth, diaphanous and pulsing. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
I hadn’t come to this event to drum. Honestly, I didn’t know what the big deal was about drumming. It was obviously not as interesting as real music. I was there to lead a small group on the art of creating ritual, but my new lover of just a few months was a part of another group that was gathered around a fire with the intention of drumming a heartbeat through the night until dawn. My own group had finished our evening activities and had gone off to bed. With my own bed empty and nothing else to do, I decided to sit by the fire for a while and listen.
As I approached the glowing fire spitting sparks to the sky, I felt rather than heard the low monotonous thump-thump, thump-thump. I drew closer and saw a dozen or so people, each holding a different size or shape drum. The variety of instruments did not make the rhythm any more interesting. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. The boredom I felt was reflected in the faces of the people playing, which were quite unlike the lively, engaged faces I was used to when playing music with others. In the flickering light, these people seemed spaced out, disconnected. No one looked me in the eye, but nevertheless they made room for me to sit down, and someone handed me a drum and a padded beater.
I’d never held a drum before and I looked at it curiously. Crudely made from a sawed-off section of wooden cable spool, it was a fairly ugly thing, about a foot in diameter and a foot long. Some sort of animal skin was stretched over both ends and laced together with strips of rawhide. A rawhide strap was attached to one side. I quickly figured out that if I rested the drum against my body it would only speak with a muffled “thmp, thmp,” but if I held it up by the strap it resonated with a warm tone that belied its homely appearance. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Soon I set aside the beater in favor of the pleasure of skin on skin. I was fascinated by the variety of different tones the drum could sing in response to my caress – dark and deep in the center of the skin, sweetly alto near the edge, sharp and high on the rim. I found the note that sounded best, the one this drum was meant to sing, and I focused on producing it consistently, on connecting with the drum the same way and in the same place over and over, in perfect synchronization with the group. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Beating hands, beating heart, pulsing, throbbing, silent sobbing, porous edges, open, open, pouring spirit into bodily cauldrons, palpitating secret places, the body of the drum my body, its heartbeat answering my own, animal and tree and human woven together in rhythmic dance. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. Someone added wood to the fire. Thump-thump. Thump-thump. The stars shone over us, circling slowly in their wheel.
After a while I roused myself, put down the drum, scooped my tender and diaphanous heart back into my chest, and went to bed so that I could be reasonably coherent to lead my own group in the morning. I was shocked to discover that what I thought had been a half hour of drumming had in fact been several hours.
I was never the same again after that. I found myself thinking about it for the rest of the weekend. On the way home I listened to Jimi with more than a little envy as he enthused about his experience with the Hare Clan. I’d had a fine time with my clan, but the memory of slipping into timelessness by way of the drum pushed everything else into the background. I’d been seeking altered states of consciousness in ritual for years, and I’d just gotten the first clue about a reliable vehicle for getting there.