Monday, October 4, 2010


Traversing the rough-and-romantic road that leads to the kitchen door… and into the soul

LOCAL RESTAURATEUR Rosetta Star Rzany was once quoted by Asheville’s Mountain Xpress, “Rosetta’s Kitchen is an extension of my childhood home in which the door was always open and it led directly into the kitchen.” The mere mention of the word, “door,” never fails to fascinate, or mystify me… it always conjures a poignant sense of beautiful selflessness and nonchalant generosity. What Ms Rzany was trying to communicate, I felt, was that that “extension of my childhood home” was actually a community center, where “many hands came together to create a casual, friendly place to relax, visit friends and satisfy a healthy vegan or vegetarian, appetite.”

Doors, food, fun, community, spirit…
In a deteriorating synthetic, consumerist society where the physical body is voraciously fed by microwaved, chemical-enhanced so-called fastfood, Rosetta’s “opening doors” become a welcome passage to spiritual redemption. I might be dabbing too much profundity to a seemingly simple, ordinary health-conscious trade alternative—such as Rosetta’s Kitchen—but “food” has always been a trancendental ritual to me. I was born and raised and grew up in a culture where “food” and “mealtime” are considered sacred rituals parallel to Angelus, rosary beads, mantra, and homage to Gods and Goddesses via raindance. Food is linked to “casual, friendly” convergence not by virtue of societal circumstance but because it’s part of human existence… people interact with people and food is always the starting point, middle ground, and end gesture. A very effective familial pitch in Manila goes, “The family that eats together, stays together…” In whichever culture one comes from, that human dictum rings true.

A Rosetta Star Journal
It couldn’t be truer than a peek at Rosetta’s life journal.“… I am from Old Fort, a little town, 40 minutes east of Asheville. My parents, I would call them pretty darn extreme people, as loving and good as can be. We had milk goats, big gardens, apple trees, and lots of time. Mom always stayed home with my sister and I… Dad did construction job just enough to buy the very basics... We were very poor, we never even had a car, we hitch-hiked, the whole family, including our dogs. I went to public schools all the way through...”
Rosetta’s memories—sentimental and mawkish, like creasy polaroid photographs neatly collected on a graying scrapbook… people and places stay like peeling latex paints at the backdoor porch. But there’s always a story behind, in between the pages.
Rosetta Star’s “kitchen door”—which commenced in “a 12-foot square room house that Dad built out of a building that someone else was going to tear down,” and slithered to Hardee’s and Taco Bell in Marion and Warren Wilson College – extended to a wild-and-romantic intercontinental wanderlust life that’d surely rival Bridget Jones’ diary. “I could write a book about this time in my life…” she beams. “Crazy!”
Let’s turn the pages of Rosetta’s scrapbook/journal…“
While at Warren Wilson, when I was 19, I met a German guy, real cute and with a cool accent… I got married as a joke in a mall in Tennessee to a man I didn’t even know. We had been seeing each other a month, he was 25. We spent a few months working and gardening and playing house and then we flew away…“
A few nights in London and then to Sri Lanka… Extremely jetlagged, and hung over—into New Delhi. My senses were all blown—everything in India was sensory overload. The smells, sights, my thoughts… We spent 6 months in India and Nepal, two months just partying in Goa… It was just too much intensity to a Southern girl. I was so home sick as could be when we left so I parted from my lover in an airport in France and, came home. A week of grounding in the mountains and I was again dying to get back to him. I flew to Hamburg, Germany, planning to move there…“
I spent a month living in the red light district of St Pauli and was fed up with my life there... too much coffee, cake and beer. I needed some meaning in my life, I was dreaming of big gardens and tea with my best friend in the apple orchards, I needed to come home. So back we came, we lived in a school bus behind my parents house and hung about. That fall, I found out I was pregnant. I had just turned 21. I took a pregnancy test in a bar bathroom in Little Italy, NY… We were driving some friends to the airport in Boston, and I knew I was very late and we were going to be out drinking that night. I didn’t tell anyone that night. When we got back to home we had been planning to go to Mexico for the winter but we were kind of scared to go so far so we went to Key West, instead.“
We squatted in an empty teepee and I worked at a café. We lived in our van with a cat and two dogs for a couple of months and then when I started to be swollen up pregnant I was ready to come home again. We moved back in with my parents. Luka Star was born Aug 18 in 1998 at home, he was a big loud baby but my ex-hubby didn’t take it so well, his new job as father. We did still have some fun and we partially built a cool straw/clay slip house on my parents’ land but finally we moved to town as a last resort to save our marriage. It didn’t work… we split in a nasty way and I redefined myself…
So that’s how Rosetta traversed life, rediscovered some wisdom along the way, and then headed back home. “Home” later became Rosetta’s Kitchen in downtown Asheville—which was inaugurated on a September three years ago, before her 26th birthday.“
Luka was 2 ½ and I loved downtown. I was amazed at how everyone ate out all the time and I reached back to a plan we had had before to open a place just like the kitchen in Hamburg or Berlin and instead I asked my family for help and they came through with shining colors.”

Rosetta’s Kitchen’s Concept
Rosetta’s Kitchen’s concept was “reborn” in the early spring of 2002… “a place to be, a community kitchen. It was basically to take the idea of my home kitchen which had always been a colorful and fun place to be full of good food and open it to the public.”
As expected, Rosetta’s restless star gravitated to downtown Asheville’s gruffly-romantic and sweetly-flawed humanity… “I love the beauty of the fact that no one really knows what is the `right way’ to live anyway but are each trying in their own way… I see a whole community of people really open to knowledge and change and tolerance of others trying to do the same thing in their own way. I think this community is learning about the power of interdependence, and that the more we all keep this dialogue of conscious community open, the more it will spread.”
She continues, “I love the community. I love having a huge group of people who feel like family, all the connections and networks of all the little different groups; professional, social, activists, diverse cultures, there are so many great people here. There are great people everywhere, but in Asheville I find people that are more excited about life and living it to it’s fullest, people who see solutions to civilization’s problems, people who are consciously creating themselves and the world around them, rather than just being apathetic and following the status quo.”

Nasty Workings of the American System
That excitement about life trudged a scary episode when she, along with other protesters, had a dose of what she calls, “nasty lessons in the workings of the American system...” during the first day of mass protests against the outbreak of war in Iraq.“
I was arrested by choice while trying to get everyone present to follow my example... when the police started making violent arrests, I thought that from what I learned from history of civil disobedience in this country that we didn’t want to let them only take a few scapegoats and chase every one away...”
Rosetta, at this point, could easily, effortlessly ramble from childhood memories of her parents’ Old Fort kitchen to an Oktoberfest soiree in Hamburg to a kirtan afternoon in New Delhi to why her second child Petra Star (with partner Gary Buan) was also born at home on Oct 23, 2003 to her sweet anticipation of her third child... back to that violent street demonstration in downtown Asheville where she was pinned down to the ground… to her exuberant pronouncements of having “a beautiful family of my own… family is the most important thing there is and to have a stable one is such a blessing”…
I haven’t even talked about her Kitchen’s Korean BBQ tempeh, pad thai, and broth of life of miso, ginger, arame and garlic. While this article wasn’t intended to be a restaurant profile or food review, I can’t help but touch the spirit behind the counter... or beyond the kitchen door. That’s all that I could do--considering the fact that my subject has opted to talk about a screenplay-worth of beautiful, intriguing trials, triumphs, and tribulations--than offer me an obtuse recitation of entrepreneurial flair and/or overwhelm me with heavy-handed socioeconomic rant. You see, I just want to write something nakedly human about the soul behind one of the beautiful spirits of downtown Asheville.
However, I must admit that before I got to liking Rosetta’s flailing, gypsy/neohippie fashion sense… I first got enamored to the kale and peanut butter tofu in her little Lexington Av eatery. But, as I previously mentioned, “food” and “mealtimes” are sacred rituals—you don’t really talk about them, you just let them live within yourself, enjoy them… These days, we don’t really visit a diner or eatery to partake of its culinary pleasure--we, more often than not, try to feel and savor a communal vibe and, simply, feel good. We want to observe humanity, eavesdrop once and a while, or engage someone in a freewheeling, rambling conversation...
Such is Rosetta’s Kitchen from dusk till dawn... such is the experience of a lazy August afternoon with Rosetta Star Rzany. She has more magic and secrets to share other than skillet corbread and granny’s gravy. Obviously, she wants to talk more about gifts and blessings beyond the kitchen door, such as… “I still have lost of pets and a colorful house…”

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Reading Kimberly Summer's blue skies

[First published in The Indie, 2005, Asheville NC]

KIMBERLY SUMMER’s (Kimberly Summer Pollock) blue sky reveals warm vulnerability and quiet defiance that could be both disturbing and contradictory yet admittedly, mystifying. Her exquisitely hushed ache cuts across like a sweet, soft serenade of wounded sincerity-tenderly delivered by a kneading, voluptuous moan, “Read these lips and open your eyes to me.” With that, I found it hard to simply pre-judge her straight-ahead, seductive melancholia as another wry example of sweet-and-sour singer-songwriter atmospherics.

This is not all about PJ Harvey rereading Sylvia Plath via spunky bleeding-heart histrionics, or Liz Phair approximating Marianne Faithfull’s blasé seethe - this is Kimberly Summer evoking the sandpaper-raw, bleedingly honest journal entries of Kimberly Summer. That’s it.
So as Ms Summer proceeds with, “Close your mouth, open your ears, get off the ground and look at me” or a more demanding, more insistent, “You nod your head but do you hear me?” you know from that point on, that you just have to listen more… That is why, when she sings, “Sarah yelled out, do you hear me, I need your help / When no one answered she fell to the ground,” in “Sweet Sarah,” we know fully well that Kimberly Summer’s debut CD, “Listen,” a collection of thirteen of her unaffectedly transparent and nakedly tender songs wants us to exactly do that, LISTEN.

Excellent backup musicians
BUT WHAT sets this meticulously-packaged album apart from most local (read, Asheville-based) solo female acoustic efforts-is the excellent technical boardwork that producer Chris Rosser and the masterful accompanying musicianship of percussionist River Guerguerian, violinist Joe Ebel, bassist Tim Pollock, and Rosser rendered to the entire project. Rosser and Guerguerian could easily be considered two of the ten best, most respected musicians in Western North Carolina.
Their inclusion in “Listen”-not to mention Sherri Ebert’s design and photography that fittingly dabbed dramatic sensitivity to Ms Summer’s lovely albeit dark musings-makes this CD such a tempting proposition. (Side comment from a friend: “Kimberly Summer’s stunning photos, alone, makes the CD worth keeping… and it’s not even Shakira’s or Gretchen Wilson’s”).
Almost a month before I actually listened to “Listen” in full, uninterrupted moments, I had an almost two-hour conversation with Kimberly Summer at Bearly Edible Café in downtown Asheville. But for some reason, I don’t really usually use even fifty or thirty-percent of my interview material as background to an article, profile, or review. Yet I find it very important that I listen or observe or talk with my subject, live in person, right in front of me-the very bare humanity of the unguarded persona fronting me. In that way, I find the personality less distant, more accessible.
I however reviewed my interview notes a week after my mid-afternoon chat with Kimberly. But like an empty canvas that enticingly sits there, with a thousand possibilities of multi-hued exploration a-waiting, I had no story that’s worth a brushstroke. I got the obligatory info-Kim was from West Lafayette, Indiana… moved to St Augustine, Florida… she now lives in Arden with her schoolteacher hubby, Tim, who also occasionally plays bass on her gigs. That’s all about it.

Wounded moonshadows
THEN, ONE rain-drenched afternoon, early last month, by a waterfront bench in Fells Point, Maryland, I nonchalantly put “Listen” on my Walkman… and so, slowly but surely, the story of wounded moonshadows, crying angels, and rain-drenched sonatas came to life. Then, one early evening at Herald Square on a very crowded 36th Avenue and 7th Street in Manhattan, Kim’s pleadingly sighing voice kept me company. As I traveled back to Asheville from Alexandria VA-two weeks before deadline-I again drowned my Greyhound nights with, “Show me my purpose, give me peace / Use me, make me, what you want, what you want me to be / I come to you, I fall at your feet.” Like exploding chakra, “Listen’s” emotional/spiritual kick had me hooked. Lean, sparse, uncomplicated singing--and just about enough minimalist instrumentation to get the piercing melodic honesty down deep.

Cuts like a razor blade
SUCH IS MY reading of Kimberly Summer’s “blue sky.” Like a mournful, drunkenly dazed Lucinda Williams wailing “World Without Tears” under a weeping full moon, or Sheryl Crow admonishing her lover, “Lie to me, I promise, I’ll believe,” as she entices him to fall down on his knees-Ms Summer’s knife-edge honesty cuts like a razor blade but it doesn’t actually hurt, the words and melody simply cut you, it’s just that. So that the sweetly, achingly mesmerizing experience of listening to “Listen” is like watching a wafting thunderstorm break through the glade while the rain belts Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.”
Listen as Ms Summer revisits her wounds with, “The nights are so long, and it’s hard to be alone,” in “What About Us” (my personal favorite), while Joe Ebel’s haunting and bewitching violin pours more bourbon to an already-smashed aftermidnight… you will know what I am rambling about here. The young lady hurts so good.

Blue sky blessing
THE LAST time I saw Kimberly Summer, it was… well, the blue sky was about to bless us with rain. Before an intimate but attentive crowd at Bearly Edible, she opened her set with “Me and Bobby McGee.” Midway through that early Saturday evening, and two PBRs hence-her firm, butterfly fingers started to strum the opening bars to the next heartache sonata, “Push Me Away,” and then she went, “How can I talk to you when you don’t want to be heard / You keep quiet and undisturbed and you don’t want to say a word.” Ah, I need another drink, I thought. But then she followed that sorrowful serenade with Sarah MacLachlan’s “Ice Cream” … so, I guess, I was allright. One thing is sure, once again, Kim’s deeply-personal, gorgeously-sad songs make the rain such wonderful blessings.
"Listen,” like the almost-innocent, immaculate way by which Kimberly Summer treats her “Blue Skies,” isn’t the sort of heavy-coated women-in-rock confectionary that permeates the candy store these days. Ms Summer’s wearied sighs can be limited, her melodies are mostly uncomplicated, her lyricism, like glorious nudes with beautiful imperfections. But that’s not the true beauty and enticing fervor behind Kimberly Summer and “Listen” - it’s the way she makes this otherwise lean musical landscape stretch a long way. You gotta agree-sweet, sentimental indulgences like these are such hard habits to break. []

PHUNCLE SAM: a community vibe with a "ph" factor

[First published in The Indie, 2005, Asheville NC. Phuncle Sam is still playing but with a new membership]

riffs and Delta bluesy broadsides, exuberant but ascetic percussions, dirty soul keyboard gallop, gravy-sweet and painfully alluring vocals - interspersed with an ethereal cadence that sways with the vibe than rolls with the beat. It’s the sort of subdued but insistent collective, rock ‘n groove aura that I longed to experience in my previous visit to the Rainbow Gathering in the Shenandoahs. Sadly, I didn’t get it there.

To rephrase funkmeister George Clinton, “If you could really remember it, you weren’t there. ” Well, I don’t remember that much. I wasn’t really there-that sunflower era of peace and community. But I could easily re-live the transcendent melodies that leapt and somersaulted with undulating bodies playfully splattered with beautiful mud. That was the truth of the past. And that memory keeps me under the influence of some sort of magical mystery tour - disturbing, but warm… nostalgic, but comforting-reassuring, dreamy, peaceful.
But don’t get me wrong. It certainly wasn’t about weedful bliss and magic mushrooms-yet, admittedly, it could be about dreamcatchers, beads, crystals, and psychedelia. The common denominator, though, is - it’s all about the vibe, the feel, the music, and six guys called Phuncle Sam.
Phuncle Sam is a new jam band based out of Asheville, North Carolina-by way of Bearly Edible on Eagle Street, on the same ‘hood as The Traveling Bonfires. Phuncle Sam’s original music “embraces a wide variety of rock, blues, bluegrass, and reggae” or, according to their website, “Americana with a Ph factor.”

ALL SIX Phuncles - Glen “Woody” Henkel, Bill Evans, Danny Joffe, Phunstix Mott, James “Stymie” Collins, and Ned McGinn - have been part of several acts and bands before they hooked up Oct last year. They brought with them a wealthy creative bunk of musical experiences… plus, a potent cornocupia of influences that practically run the gamut of the populist “converge, jam, gather-‘round” radical romanticism of rock music - expectedly, The Grateful Dead, the Beatles, John Lennon, Tim Buckley, Bob Marley, Chicago, Kansas, Bob Dylan, The Band, Phish, Widespread Panic, John Prine, Bruce Cockburn, Frank Zappa, Charlie Parker, Bruce Hornsby, Sun Ra, John & Alice, John Coltrane, Pharaoh Saunders, Richard Thompson, Holy Modal Rounders, Stone House, Mike Hutchinson, Les Claypool’s Frog, Brigade, Aquarium Rescue Unit, J.J. Cale, and Doc Watson.
I sort of discovered Phuncle Sam at a downstown sidestreet restaurant called Bearly Edible, that is frequented by Asheville’s ultra-colorful dreadlocked, gypsy-garbed, rainbow-ambianced humanity - AKA the neo-hippie, new-ager crowd. They have been gigging there-from dusk till dawn-for almost a year now.
As mainperson for “Bonfires for Peace” concerts at Pritchard Park, I have been scouting for acts that could “pied-piper” the community, not necessarily aesthetically neat or rock-star savvy, but a band that could simply rock around the vibe and get the people glued to where they are when the sound started groovin’, and then pay attention.
So on June 18th, I invited them to be play at the park. The show proved to be phenomenal-albeit the dark clouds, thunder and rain. Asheville downtown’s diverse population gathered around and paid attention. On July 16 and Aug 6, they were back at Pritchard Park-and now the community owns them.
What makes Phuncle Sam click is that they’re able to offer what most musical collectives-bands and acts of diverse genres - tend to overread or underplay. These guys just want to play-no rockstar grandstanding or slick sideshows. It’s because of the fact that the people don’t want to hear skyrocketing, Fender-bending, fuzzy Stratocaster soliloquies, in the guise of rock ‘n roll earnest. The community wants to hear a conversation, or imagine themselves as part of one-hence, Phuncle Sam talks to the people and the people become part of the music, the vibe, the sentiment.
From the jitterbugging playfulness of Woody Henkel’s “Taqueria” to the brooding depth of Bill Evans’ “Grain of Salt,” Phuncle Sam captures the sensibility and sensitivity of the every day people. The gunslinger ardor of Henkel’s keyboards in “Let It Go,” plus the subversive ache in his throaty delivery of “Althea” - this is blue-eyed rock `n soul drenched with moonshine-soaked blood, sweat and tears. Toss in the devilish boogie mischief of “What is Now”-woven around Joffe, McGinn and Mott’s menacingly flirtatious rhythm section, Evans’ and Collins’ twin-guitar swoon, and Henkel’s soulful snarl - you get a boozy, warm, trance-like freight-train hitchhike to psychedelic heartland.

PHUNCLE SAM is, obviously, still in the process of strengthening their body of collective work. That shouldn’t be a problem. These working man’s blues brothers could play to a crowd of two rowdy souls in the universal intimacy of a dairy farm, no problemo. When you play, they will come-and they will keep on playing, yes, from dusk till dawn, come rain or shine. These guys have gathered enough musical moss and spiritual wisdom-not through age and gut, certainly-but through a journeyman’s tales of such beautiful gifts as summer rain, leaves of grass, and gorgeous women on perpetually swaying hips of god-given grace. These amigos make us re-experience heavenly places even though we haven’t really gone there. All it takes is a vibe “with a Ph factor.” Whatever that means, it must be working good inside us. It’s all because Phuncle Sam makes us remember. []

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Business of Spiritual Consumerism and the Search for Inner Peace

[ ] The Transcended Christian: Spiritual Lessons for the Twenty-First Century
by Daniel A. Helminiak [Alyson Books]
[ ] Peace is Possible: The Life and Message of Prem Rawat
by Andrea Cagan [Mighty River Press]
[ ] Awakening Into Oneness: The Power of Blessing in the Evolution of Consciousness
Arjuna Ardagh [Sounds True]

A PUZZLED illumination of a smile painted across his pale face, a traveling sage from southwest of Punjab cautiously gleaned over a mesmerized throng of mostly middle-aged individuals in a suburban Monroe NC talk one winter’s morning.

“You are very privileged children of God,” he softly assured the group. “You have almost all of the blessings that we pray for in our country…” Before he continued, he closed his eyes—then, a deafening thirty-second pause ensued. The crowd was even more enthralled… Then, with a voice that was so meek yet so sure, the sage spoke closer to the microphone. “But why are you so unhappy?”
Blank silence enveloped the hall. This, after the 50 or so attendees to the $265, 6-hour “spiritual convergence” each narrated their reason for coming over. Divorcees, cancer survivors, rehab grads, ex-drug addicts, starry-eyed students, AA survivors, housewives, bejeweled matrons, hippies on tie-dyes, hipsters on cellphones—they all gathered to find solution to misery and isolation that they couldn’t really understand, seeking inner peace that they couldn’t define or describe without being swallowed by a mix of embarrassed reluctance and uncontained emotion.
A long time ago, according to Daniel A. Helminiak in his new book, “The Transcended Christian: Spiritual Lessons for the Twenty-First Century”: “Religions used to hold communities together, religion now splinters our world apart. What used to be the solution has become a problem for many of us.”
Truth is, communities still do gather together—but not because of “religion.” We gather not really to worship or pay respects to traditional faiths or a Divine Image – but we converge to find, explore, or invent a “religion” that fits the convenience, comfort and accessibility of a fast-paced, rational consumerist existence.
Traditional (eg. “primitive”) religions have been essentially consigned to oblivion and indifference—in favor of “spiritual” denominations that wittingly or unwittingly combine god/idol exaltation and nature-worship with new age ideals and high-technology justifications. The Yoga Teacher becomes The Priest depending on what the market (“breathrens”?) demand; the Shaman mutates into a self-proclaimed “Reverend” by virtue of a summer’s odyssey in India; the mountain ascetic is now the neighborhood Martial Arts instructor and vegan restaurant chef. The Church turns into a Spiritual Retreat – either in a 50-acre lot bedecked with organic gardens and “peaceful vibes” or an air-conditioned suite in a downtown condo (distilled water and green tea are free after a $5 suggested donation). “Unfortunately, Yoga teachers, priests, politicians, and police are human too,” says Paul Jerard, co-owner and director of Aura Wellness Center, in North Providence, RI.
“There are many caring Yoga teachers who spend time working with seniors, fibromyalgia groups, alzheimer patients, and many more people in need,” continues the much sought-after Yoga teacher. “They don’t get front page billing on Yoga magazines or Time Magazine, for their efforts, but they do get gratification.”Such as good money and a thriving day job.
“Spiritual gatherings,” “shamanic seminars,” – all mostly tied-up to/with Yoga discipline, “healthy, clean living” (vegan/vegetarian/organic produce diet), and physical fitness – have attracted the masses out of the Church. For instance, Yoga—a 5,000-year-old discipline from India—is so mainstream USA that companies including Ford Motor, Pfizer and Clairol are pursuing millionaire yogis with advertisements for the first time in Yoga Journal, the community’s leading magazine.
Consider these. sells 17 yoga DVDs, while yoga teachers – like rock stars and big-name athletes – for the first time are endorsing consumer products. “Yoga superstar” Rodney Yee, for one, pitches Vitasoy milk and tofu, and is featured in 26 yoga videos and DVDs.
Yoga vacations are also going strong. The Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Lenox, Mass., claims to be the nation’s biggest yoga retreat center with room for 450 people. It expects guest stays to be up 12% to 18% next year from this year, which is running about 10% ahead of last year. Typical cost of a five-day yoga stay: $615 to about $1,200 depending on dormitory or luxury room.
It is in this context (and current reality) where Helminiak’s book—and Arjuna Ardagh’s “Awakening Into Oneness: The Power of Blessing in the Evolution of Consciousness” and Andrea Cagan’s “Peace is Possible: The Life and Message of Prem Rawat”—become urgent and utmost reading.While these three books – written by a Catholic priest, a well-traveled and wealthy “spiritual scholar,” and inspired by a Maharaji – fall short of directly disputing (or justifying) blatant consumerism in traditional worship, these offer us enlightening arguments and inspiring/consciousness-awakening words of wisdom that help us go through, or work around, the current “confusion.”

YOGA ENTREPRENEUR Jerard ushers a rationale that is hard to contend: “Yes, everything in this world is business, to some degree, but ethical business practice is much different from greed. Some thriving Yoga businesses actually contribute to many charities, help the community, and spread the word of living a quality life.”

“Ethical business,” which is clearly rooted to physical/material gain, is apparently beyond what both Helminiak and Maharaji Prem Rawat exalt as “the nature or man.” Says Prem Rawat, “I believe the worst evils of the 21st century are the same as they have always been—not being able to understand one’s self, not being able to understand what we are all about. Those become the worst evils because they cause us to distance ourselves from our true nature.”
What I witnessed in the $265/6-hr Monroe NC “spiritual convergence” articulates the point. In the outset, we see well-heeled citizens on Prada, Russian Broadtail coat, and Forzieri earrings, who could easily score a $199 leather yoga mat and $55 “Zen flare” biking pants—but couldn’t find the right word to express their funk. “I seemed like I had everything,” recalls ex-country star Tanya Tucker on Good Morning, America, “but I couldn’t understand why I was depressed.”
Helminiak—a Catholic priest, theologian, psychologist, and author of the best-selling “What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality”—presents essays that “take the experience of alienated Christians as a paradigm of the current religious crisis: religious people ousted by their church claim that they are the true prophets of the day.”
The book discusses similar cases most “spiritual retreats” and yoga courses vow to address: divorced people ostracized by their religion, youths torn between sexual adventurism and physical intimacy, “women seeking ordination in the churches and equality in society,” educated, matured and devout believers who still seek a “deeper spirituality” thereby questioning traditional doctrines and ethics.
What I find illuminating in Helminiak’s book is its discourse on the “spiritual equivalence of Western and Eastern religions” and “the “moral bankruptcy of consumerist capitalism, the religious requirement for political activism.” It would be hard to navigate that discussion or let it seep into a “seeker’s” crowded room of acquired truths, unless that individual has already somewhat passed through or experienced life and living’s criss-crossing avenues. We all search for the ultimate peace in material gain (that slides to hedonism) and sociopolitical/ideological “selflessness,” but still we gravitate to that dark, cold corner of unmitigated sorrow.
Helminiak isn’t telling us how to solve our misery. Like Prem Rawat and Arjuna Ardagh – or even Paul Jerard – he is simply guiding us back to where we came from and where we’re supposed to be heading, depending on where we are at the present time.
"Peace is Possible" breaks down Helminiak’s theological/socio-psychological sermon into a more personalized conversation. The book delves into the extraordinary life of Prem Rawat. Andrea Cagan, a best-selling biographer, brings home the Maharaji’s transcendence straight into the living room – accessible, concise, articulate, tangible, and sparkling.
Throughout his life, since age 3, Rawat has opened doors to enlightenment with just his pronouncements and lectures. It was widely reported that he was discovered by nomadic hippies at his home by the Himalayan foothills when he was a child, and then brought to the West at thirteen.
This book may invite doubting thomases in us, but we cannot mistake the “immaculateness” of the Maharaji’s message—a return to the pristine basics of inner serenity against a complex journey into the labyrinths of “spiritual deduction.” Given present day realities, the spirit that lingers in this book may prove to be quixotic and ethereal – when contextualized within and around where we’re deeply submerged (technological disconnect, market economy, disintegration of family). The author, however, was able to communicate Prem Rawat’s inspiration without glorifying the man’s mortality; this book is more of journalistic reportage than an exaltation of one’s divination.

“AWAKENING INTO Oneness: The Power of Blessing in the Evolution of Consciousness” elevates (or simplifies) Daniel A. Helminiak’s Christian “spiritual lessons” and Prem Rawat’s almost-mythological aura into a radical, scholarly thesis. More importantly, Arjuna Ardagh takes the discourse of spiritual reawakening to a more clinically personal but globally significant and urgent issue.
Of the three books discussed here, “Awakening” remains closer to Paul Jerard’s argument that spiritual “masters” also “serve somebody” (to evoke a Dylan song), profit-wise. Ardagh has hundreds of thousands of followers in India and the West which makes his “house of worship” more of a cult empire. Reports say that his temple cost $17 million dollars. He sees this phenomenon as a sign of a global transformation of consciousness—which easily communicates with the sensibility and sensitivity of people these days. His teachings zoom in on the “personal and professional relationships,” without so much atmospheric rhetorics, and his “solutions” can be deductive as it is clinical (“enlightenment as a specific threshold of neurological functioning”). Hence, Arjuna Ardagh is economically-viable, AKA the “global transformation of consciousness.”
Daniel A. Helminiak, Prem Rawat (by way of Andrea Cagan) and Arjuna Ardagh give us three one-way mirrors how to look at the world, outside and in, not the other way around.
As we all grapple for reasons to believe and continue to search for the everlasting-life chamber of joy—as Gucci grabs headlines with its $850 yoga mats, the body-conditioning Pilates arrives in Asheville, and health and fitness instruction takes 60 percent of U.S. fitness clubs’ prospectus, and we all save up few hundreds for six hours of powwow and “spiritual talk” by an enterprising nerd with an assumed Cherokee name – the search for inner peace remains elusive. It is always difficult to breathe peace and contentment – nurture a healthy body and pure spirit – without balancing the checkbook.
So while “instant bliss” is peddled in your neighborhood health shop and “ready-made” tips are available at Yoga Journal—whose subscribers increased 90,000 (in 1998) to 310,000 to date—healing time continues to elude us. Take time, however, to check out the aforementioned books. Their combined cost, at least, is lesser than a “$265 for a 6-hour spiritual convergence” in Monroe NC.
Peace is possible if we start from within than without. That is free, always.

Glenis Redmond's earth, wind & fire

DO NOT READ Glenis Gale Redmond. You don’t have to. She reads to you. She is a SHOUT for all those who have heard poetry’s direct flight from mouth to ear. Listen to her with your eyes. I borrow these words, with sincere apologies, from Bob Holman, one of the founders of downtown New York City’s Nuyorican Poetry Café, as a fitting invocation to Ms Redmond’s Muse, a dragon spirit with the ethereal grace of a dove. I spent almost three weeks trying in vain to capture in written word both the exhilaration and insistence, urgency and sensation of her work’s impact on me. Long after I nailed down the last syllable in this rereading, I’m sure I’d still be mooning for the apt body of words that’ll speak of her with justice and appropriateness. It’s simply bothersome.
Like an old Chinese poetry, as espoused by Li Po and Lee Young-Li (on line with Holman’s observation), there is no verb without a noun—it is contained in the character. I do agree. For, the poems that Glenis Redmond spew, pray or chant out of her body and soul are not just aesthetic recognition and exaltation of earth, wind, and fire – these poems know poetry is a contact sport. It is physical, as well as mental; emotional, as well as spiritual. On her couch, cabin, cafe, and cabaret, poetry warms the wearied spirit, shelters the wandering rebel, and celebrates the downtrodden.
When she lets loose words out of her system, she simultaneously unleashes fire that ignites light more than it burns the glade—unwavering and powerful, at the same time, enlightening and comforting. Imbibe this ferocious grace -- “If If I die from love / this life, / I want to be recycled / as fire. /Fed by orange / brandished flame. / Spread openly / like desire / over love’s / candid plain.
And when she emotes the human condition through language and movement, she also breathes the earth’s gifts and grime like a mother to a child—unrepentant and proud, sacrificing but volatile. Then, as she belts out her poetry like the blues that feeds off “sweet brown fat juicy raisins” of grandmother nature, you can almost feel the soulful warmth of a gospel singer’s celestial voice: “I need some fresh from the garden, ripe and ready, old fashioned, cooked in a pot three days, lip smackin’, homemade, backslappin’, sweet brown and juicy kind of love.” The rhythm is exhilarating, the vibe is jubilating—it is a prayer recited amidst the howl of conga drums. The impact stays inside long after the trajectory cut deep into you, ricocheted within and then left like a winter’s wandering wind. Her spirit is disturbing and haunting but it’s not ghostly or cold – it’s transcendent and warm.
These are, to me, understatements below Ms Redmond’s azure sky and blue ocean. While most of the poems in her book, “Backbone,” are sparkling gems of sheer, earthly grace, mystifying pungency, and burrowing passion, the essential appreciation of her work come with the actual, live contact.
She unwittingly, yet continuously, blur the grey line that separates the sublime from the mundane, and the immaculate from the corporeal—without losing their respective lustre. In other words, for Redmond, there are no picket fences thrust between her and her audience. Whenever she delivers her message – may it be with fire or wind, stone or rose – it’s definitely got to be straight-put, bottoms-up, no chasers in between.

Ring out your song, shout it out, girl, in the midnight hour until the noonday sun.
Petition it to the left, slam it to the right with fist and head held high.
You are moist clay, they can’t break you now.
Sing your song that cloaks you in honor with each stretch on your belly,
With each wrinkle around your eye.

LIKE A SOUL and blues goddess, she possesses the uncanny ability to laugh in the midst of adversity—hence, she makes the struggle at the bottom of the social order a celebration, if not victory regained. Her poems define everyday people’s most cherished moments—when bitterness is transcended and spirits lifted to exalt existence, not to mourn them.
That’s the magic of Redmond’s craft: Her metaphors refuse to tilt on a so-called intellectual perch, which could make her elusive, even remote. Instead, she weaves her images so deftly and flawlessly, making sure that we’re not left bewitched, bothered or bewildered by the poetic trance – but warmly let inside, and welcomed as integral part of her creative moondance.
“Poetry has followed me all the days of my life.” Glenis Gale Redmond, a self-proclaimed native of nowhere, is telling us a very physical truth. Her poetry is her life – like a beautiful spirit that commune in harmony with earth, wind and fire. Without these gifts of existence, she ceases to be. But we all know these blessings of life, like poetry and Glenis Redmond’s Muse, are eternal...