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Mermaids, Whales, Poems, and Songs - nhpeacenik
Mermaids, Whales, Poems, and Songs
An image has been following me around since I first heard Ash Reiter's song La Bahia. She ends the song with the line. "talking with the starfish, and the mermaids sing to me". When I interviewed her for the radio show, I said glibly, "that sounds like a real life experience." She said she had included the phrase as a tribute to one of her musical mentors, Jolie Holland, who had included it in her song Darlin Ukelele.

I went back and listened to the Jolie Holland song for (I think) the second time and had that all-too-familiar feeling that I needed to put it on continuous loop if my heart was ever to achieve satisfaction in this lifetime. After I'd listened to La Bahia and Darlin' Ukelele over and over for a while, they entered my subconscious and floated around making connections.

This morning I awoke feeling the house shake with the repercussions of a blast that I later learned was a propane explosion at a nearby industrial plant. Instead of fear and paranoia and images of Baghdad, there was that line from La Bahia all tangled around a soothing quotation from William Penn. I went downstairs and noticed that Denise was reading a book by May Sarton, called Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing  I took a quick look at the introduction and learned that the mermaids represented the Muse that inspires poets. I asked Denise about the book's title and she said it was from T. S. Eliot's poem The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock:
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.   
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.   
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I have seen them riding seaward on the waves   
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back   
When the wind blows the water white and black.   
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea   
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
So, Eliot's timid hero thought they would not sing to him, but Sarton's heroine, a female poet,  heard them loud and clear. I vaguely remembered they had sung to me, but when?

We drove to Jaffrey for Quaker Meeting, and my conscious mind focused on the electoral work we'd been doing the previous day and the radio news, while the subconscious swirled furiously, firming up its connections.

As we entered the silence, an image rose up insistently... blood flowing from a circular wound in a whale's inert body and a feeling of unbearable sorrow. I was ten years old and alone on a pebbly beach on Alaska's Choris peninsula and had been drawn from a great distance to the side of the huge animal that lay washed up on the shore. I touched the body with my boot and blood gushed out of a wide circular hole in the whale's side. A casual shot from a large-caliber gun had killed this young beluga, probably from a speedboat . The Inuit family I was staying with would have considered this a shameful waste of meat, skin and bones, but I felt more like this was a relative who had died a senseless death; without any sense of how to proceed, I knew I empathized with this cousin and need to help somehow. I said "I'm sorry."

Just at that moment, a loud female voice called out from the cliff at the north end of the bay. She was singing, but I couldn't understand the words. I was scared. This was no ordinary woman singing... the cliff was more than a mile away. Then from the cliff at the south end of the bay, another voice took up the song. The quality of the singing was penetrating, felt in the bones as much as in the ears. At that moment I knew the mermaids were singing to me ... or was it to the whale? Singing the whale release from suffering, singing me release from my newly recognized obligation.

Later I concluded it had been loons, not mermaids. I put away the image and it only reappeared now, some fifty years later, insisting it was mermaids after all, and I needed to remember that they sang when two species came together in sympathy.

During Meeting, I  thought of my MySpace friend who goes by the name of The Natural Contemplative and whose mission in life is to end whaling.  After Meeting, I talked with a Friend about the vision, and he reminded me that Quakers from Nantucket had been the kingpins of the Whaling industry in the 18th century, rejecting international and interpersonal violence while exterminating fellow mammals for profit. So many connections, so much to sort out if we are to keep this planet intact!

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Current Location: Greenville NH
Current Music: Ash Reiter, La Bahia

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