Original post published in March 2011. Updated on May 26, 2016:
In the spring of 2006, Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first book, The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, which was a collection of 32 “spiritual profiles” of well-known people (I won’t say “celebrities” as that label applies awkwardly to many folks in the book) who I had spent time with face-to-face talking about their spiritual lives. I then set out, as you do, promoting the book at various literary festivals and other public appearances. As part of that tour, we decided I should conduct a few of these “God Factor” interviews live before an audience. We invited Bruce Cockburn, long a favorite of mine and one of the first “celebrity” interviews I ever conducted way back when I was writing for my college newspaper. Bruce agreed to join me onstage at the Ann Arbor Book Festival in May 2006. I figured he’d fly in with his manager, do my little dog-and-pony show and fly back to Ontario. Instead, incredibly gracious and generous soul that he is, Bruce drove his van down from his home in Kingston, Ontario alone and spent a couple of days hanging out with me in the rain in Ann Arbor. Our conversation onstage was only a small part of the amazing conversations we had those few days in Michigan, but the only one for which I have an audio recording. (Our dinner at this fabulous Indian restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor — I’ve never before or since had curried okra quite as good — not far from the theater where I’d interviewed him backstage 15 years earlier, will remain one of my favorite experiences of all time.)
As for our public “interview,” it too remains one of my favorite of all time. For years I’ve meant to take a couple of hours to transcribe it and post it so all of you could read (and hear) Bruce’s thoughtful responses to my questions about his faith. I’ve sat down many times to do so, never finishing until tonite. So with my apologies for taking many years to share it with you in its fullness, I give you the Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview in its entirety.
Transcript of my Bruce Cockburn “God Factor” interview at the Ann Arbor Book Festival, May 13, 2006
C: Can everybody hear us ok?
I’ve done many of these interviews before but never with an audience before, and usually we’re sitting on a couch or talking across a dinner table, but I think we’re both game. And I’m gonna grill him.
B: Here I sit, ready for the skewer.
C: Ready? Ok. Here comes the first one.
How would you describe yourself spiritually?
B: As a seeker, I think. I think that’s the simplest way to put it.
I think I suppose in some way we’re all that, or those of who think we should be are. Not everybody cares enough, I guess, about spiritual matters to identify themselves that way. But I do. And that seeking has led me through a bunch of different stuff.
I started being interested in spirituality when I was in high school. I can remember – whether it was the influence of the Beat writers I was reading, it might have been that – or some other set of circumstances that conspired to kind of get me thinking that there’s more to life than just the physical and that whatever that ‘more’ was it was something we should be paying attention to.
And that was the beginning.
I flirted with Buddhism because of the influence of the Beat writers. I moved on when the 60s came along – I sort of moved on into the occult, studied the Tarot, read a lot of old musty books about the occult take on spirituality. Eventually became a Christian and tried for a minute or two to be a fundamentalist Christian because I thought they seemed to offer the clearest definition of what being a Christian was.
And then I realized that it was, that their definition left out a lot of things because really what fundamentalism seemed to be about was drawing lines around things that were uncomfortable when they didn’t have lines. And I wasn’t comfortable with that kind of comfort.
So it kind of went on from there. Since then I’ve fallen under the influence of Sufi writers of Hindu teachings through Yoga studies and various other things. And the search continues.
C: Were you raised with any kind of traditional religious upbringing?
B: I was raised going to Sunday school, with the obligation to wear grey flannels on Sunday mornings, which was horrible.
C: What flavor?
B: It was what is called the United Church in Canada, which is different from the one in the United States. Its’ an amalgam of Methodist and Presbyterian. Socially the United Church in Canada has a history of kind of a liberal, of social engagement. It’s one of the least attended churches in existence, although when I was a kid that wasn’t true. All of the churches had bigger attendance than they do now.
My parents are agnostics and the only reason we went to Sunday school was that, well, my great aunt would be unhappy and the neighbors would talk. This was the 50s. You don’t buck the system in the 50s. We did what we were supposed to do. And that basically was kind of clear from the beginning that that was what we were doing. Because my parents would go to church from time to time but we didn’t hear any talk of religion in the home at all.
We got a little bit in school. We had to say the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the first time I encountered that. For some reason, we moved half way through kindergarten, and in the first half of kindergarten they weren’t saying the Lord’s Prayer — I don’t really know what that was about because it was pretty normal, as I later learned. But the next kindergarten I went to, you said this prayer in the morning and I’d never heard it before.
So I’m mumbling away, ‘Our Father, which art in heaven, HELL would by thy name,’ which I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Whoah. Weird. Psychedelic, if I had known that word back then. But anyway…
C: Do you recall what your first idea of God was?
B: Oh I think, I’m not sure how much this has been colored with hindsight, but I think it was probably sort of the charismatic old man with a big beard hanging out up in the sky. I think that’s probably the image I had of God as a kid.
But I also learned to love books really young and I learned that from my father who at that time, especially – he’s not that much of a reader as he was then – but he was a big reader and introduced me to Greek mythology, for instance, really early and it captivated me completely. Which I mixed up with Greek history – ancient history – as well so that my sense of the past was tied up with gods and heroes as much as it was with battles and modes of dress and stuff like that – buildings whose traces can still be found around. But there was a period when I was really young that I wanted to be an archeologist until I found out how much kind of boring work that involved.
So, my sense of God had to have also been affected by pictures in my mind of Zeus and Thor and the other ancient gods.
C: What do you think God is now?
B: Um…I like the Kabalistic view of God as ‘the boundless,’ which is basically a way of saying, I think, that there’s no image that applies at all and there’s no limits and every image that you could possibly think of is going to have limitations. Dealing with the boundless – I can kind of relate to that.
But I don’t know. It all remains to be seen.
If you think of psychology, if you think of Jung or Freud and the Jungian archetypes that exist in our beings in that worldview, those have a divine aspect or offer a connection to the divine. And those are clearly images – the animus, the anima, the principles that we, in my dreams anyway, they show up as people – sometimes really screwball people.
I remember – and this< I’m sure it was God – but a dream I had a few years ago: I opened the door of my house, which was in the country looking over nice fields – and there’s this old man in a suit, a yellow three-piece suit with a straw fedora and a cane and walking up my driveway. And he walks right up to my front door and I open the screen door and I’m excited to see him – he’s an old black man – and I said, ‘Hi! Welcome!’ and he looked and me and went, ‘Putain!’ which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with that, it’s the French word for ‘whore.’
Oh, OK. Clearly this man is telling me something.
I think he was kind of telling me stop fooling around with vague concepts and an intellectual kind of involvement and get down to trying to feel that kind of visceral contact.
So that’s what I currently work on.
C: Now, you said you became a Christian at some point. Can you talk about how that happened?
B: Yeah, I married a Christian. At the time we talked about spirituality but we really didn’t get down to religion too much. But over the first couple of years we were together, we talked a lot about that stuff.
She had grown up in a very freethinking household. Her father was a scientist. They were spiritually aware people but very disinclined to kind of attach any kind of imagery to things. And by way of adolescent rebellion, she had sort of run off and become a Baptist.
Kids have to separate themselves from their parents in some way and that was hers.
So we got into discussions about Christianity – she had abandoned that course after realizing that the people she had been with were very narrow-minded. They were glad to sign her up but they weren’t so good at dealing with being human.
We’re not married any more and we haven’t been for a very long time, but she remains a friend and she is a very psychic person with a lot of insight and she would have experiences that she couldn’t talk about with these people because it sounded demonic to them. So she left that.
But what she persuaded in getting me to do was to look at the Bible as something other than the chronicle of horrors that I had previously seen it as. We used to look in the Bible for the juicy bits, ya know? The guy stabbing his dagger into the king’s belly until the fat closed over his fist – that was a good one. And bits of the woman who was killed because she saved her husband’s life by grabbing his antagonist’s genitals. But because she’d touched a guy’s genitals, she had to be killed.
Ya know you find this – this is what I knew about the Bible as a teenager.
But, Kitty showed me St. Paul’s – whichever one of Paul’s letters that talks about loves – and one of the great things about the letters of St. Paul is that the guy – there is such a clear sense of him as a person in those letters. I don’t think I would have liked him very much.
C: I know I wouldn’t have…
B: But I really liked what he had to say about love. About the tongues of men and angels and that whole passage is a beautiful invitation to think more about that stuff. And that’s what Kitty offered me in terms of the Bible. So between that and reading CS Lewis and Tolkein and Charles Williams – who was another one of their cronies who wrote another amazing series of novels – almost impenetrable from a writing point of view – he was a terrible writer, but he was dealing with concepts that he seemed to have a really clear picture of – the bigger cosmos that we all inhabit and the way in which we interface with that cosmos, that are described in this series of seven novels dealing with kind of with the occult. Some of the people who are coming into these novels from the occult side are evil or represent evil and some do not. And his background seemed to, in some ways, parallel my own, some of the stuff that I’d studied before I got interested in Christianity came through in these novels clearly, and that attracted me to him.
So I came under the influence of these people and eventually I realized that I was in fact a Christian in every way except getting down on my knees and saying, identifying myself with Jesus as a person. And I did that. And then I was a Christian.
C: And here you are.
B: And here I am.
C: When we talked about spirituality once before, I don’t recall whether I asked you if you’d still call yourself a Christian, and I can’t recall what you might have answered. But would you?
B: Um, I guess I’m reluctant to not call myself a Christian because it’s been such a big part of my life. But I know that there are Christians out there who would not consider me a Christian and would probably be offended at me using that word about myself.
C: You’re in good company, Bruce.
B: I think so, actually.
But, um, so… In a certain way I do think of myself as a Christian, but I’ve learned so much from so many other sources that … and now we’re reading this very interesting book by a Canadian theologian called ‘The Pagan Christ,’ in which he deals with his own shock and dismay when he realizes that basically all of the elements of the story of Jesus as handed down to us in the Bible are present 2,000 years earlier than that in the Egyptian story of Horus, who is born of a virgin, has 12 followers, is murdered by the state in a horrible fashion and rises from the dead.
You think well…does that mean Jesus was there then as Horus? Or does that mean that it’s all metaphoric? Or something between the two? I don’t know the answer. For this particular guy, Tim Harper I think his name is, he comes to the conclusion that it is metaphoric and that’s how we should approach it and as that, for him, the stories are a source of inspiration and a model for us to approach God through. But it’s not that easy for me to make that leap if I believe his take on things.
I don’t know the answer.
I went to Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about this last night – Jerusalem seemed to me to be sort of a maelstrom of human spiritual hunger. It’s just this vortex. It seemed to me that there will never be peace in the vicinity of Jerusalem, partly for that reason. And it seemed, when you saw the distinctions that people went to such lengths to make between themselves as Franciscans or Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic or different sects of Judaism or of Islam – they’re all there and they’re all representing themselves in their various uniforms and with their various rituals and they are terribly suspicious of each other. And you think, ‘This is as good as we get? This is a close as we get?’ Everyone has their sense of it. The thing, in a way and this is off the top of my head, but the thing that that illustrates is more than anything else the subjective nature of our relationship with the Divine.
And how important it is to remember how subjective it is and not to require other people to approach the divine in the same way. And humanity being the sort of tribal creatures that we are, we want to make these divisions. There is something instinctive in us that requires us to create tribes and to have somebody to oppose us in order to make us valid, or something. And when you see that so clearly illustrated in the confined setting of the old city of Jerusalem, it’s just – I don’t know. It was interesting. I’m still thinking. I don’t know where that’s going to take me yet.
C: There’s a debate going on in the States, and I don’t know what the conversation is like in Canada, but and I think what it boils down to is in a political construct here mostly. But what I think it really boils down to is people debating over what it really means to be a Christian. And if you are a Christian what that should mean for your politics – and I mean that in a social-justice kind of way. What do you think that means? How has that played a role in your activism?
B: Love your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simple – until you try to practice it.
B: But it remains simple as a concept even if the neighbor is kind of smelly or whatever. It remains possible. And of course it also, in order to love your neighbor as yourself you have to start out first loving yourself, which is a big difficulty for a lot of people. We do the opposite. We project our self-hatred onto the neighbor and pretend that that, because it’s outside of us, we don’t have the problem. But it’s our problem.
So how do we translate that into the political arena? Well, it gets complicated when you’re dealing with issues like immigration, which is obviously a big one right now here, and a lesser issue in Canada but we kind of argue about all the same things that you guys do a year later.
B: …And with much less at stake, normally. But um, hah hah, ya know if you look at it – there are people somewhere in the world who are starving or who are victims of war and they’re victims of a situation that they didn’t create themselves – you go, well, that’s simple. I need to help those people. How can I help those people? Well, there are all kinds of nonprofit organizations and all kinds of avenues for helping people when it’s that obvious and it’s important to take advantage of those things because there are people who are our more immediate neighbors at those nonprofits who devote their lives to making the lives of other people in the world a little better. And they deserve our support. Ok? So that’s a simple take on it.
But when it comes down to whom you vote for, it gets very dicey. I didn’t vote in the last federal election in Canada because I couldn’t stomach any of the candidates. They all looked like cheap liars to me and they still do. After the elections, we have a government that wants to be Bush-like but doesn’t have America to work with.
So we’re saved from the worst excesses by virtue of being a country that doesn’t have any real power in the world. But the tendencies are there all the same.
C: What are you doing when you feel the most centered, or spiritually alive or something like that? Or the most authentically you?
C: It’s a pop quiz.
B: Hahahah. I don’t know if I trust feeling authentically me. Hahahah. I’m not sure what that means. There probably is a good answer to that but…
C: I can phrase it a different way: What are you doing when you feel closest to God?
B: It’s an accident and I can be doing anything.
But most often it’s in the presence of some – it can be a dream when I wake up and feel like there was something important about God in the dream, or it can be standing under a starry sky and feeling – that’s probably the most dramatic moment – or standing on a seashore at night hearing the waves, feeling the rhythm of it, feeling a part of this enormous fluid clockwork mechanism (I’m mixing metaphors horribly) but that’s how it strikes me. There’s this jigsaw thing that’s going on that’s always in motion, that’s always sparkling and once in a while I get the feeling that I’m a part of that in a conscious way. I think we’re all part of it, obviously, but most of the time I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about something that I think I’m supposed to think.
But when I forget what I’m supposed to be thinking, and it’s usually as I said in the presence of some kind of natural grandeur, I kind of whoah! Forget little me. This is the voice of the Real talking.
C: What about your music? If I don’t ask you about your music they’re going to …
B: In your book, Melissa Etheridge says she finds God in her music, which I really suspect. Nothing against Melissa – she’s very good – but if I were to say I find God in my music I would think, ‘You arrogant prick!’ right after.
But, um, I don’t know. Music for me is a way of sharing experience among people. I wrote one song for God, on purpose, and that was ‘Lord of the Starfields.’ I attempted to write a biblical psalm, and it’s kind of written in the style of the psalms and it’s addressed to God, in a way, and it’s … ya know, I mean, I don’t know if God’s impressed by things like that. I suspect not really.
What impresses God, if that word can even be applied, is the raw emotion, the raw feeling behind the creation of a song like that, which was there in that case. It’s not always there in the songwriting process. The songs come out better when there is something raw and visceral going on, but sometimes that’s a little harder to access. And sometimes you feel the feelings and there are no words to frame it in, so there is no song.
C: Unless it’s in “Speechless”…
D: Well, instrumental pieces offer a different kind of thing. I hadn’t even really thought of about this – I had with other people’s music. This harks back to the previous question about where God turns up and God can turn up in the incredible harmonies, the mathematical symmetry of Bach or the more kind of strenuous outside harmonies of Bartok. I mean, there is something sublime that comes through that music sometimes. And it comes through in a non-verbal way. You can listen to Bach chorales where there are lyrics, but the lyrics are not very important to me, and as a songwriter that’s a kind of sacrilegious thing to say. But when I listen to a Bach chorale I’m listening to the music and the sublimity – if that’s a word – that comes through the music, not through my understanding of the music. That’s something I should remember with my own songs.
I had never applied that notion to my own work, but we put together a compilation of instrumental pieces that came out last fall (2005) and with a few new pieces on it, and hearing a whole album of instrumental stuff put it in a very different light for me. I realized that these pieces have something to say that’s going to be very subjective. I don’t know what another person will take from hearing those pieces. Hopefully they’ll think that some of it is beautiful and be touched in some way. But I found that whatever was happening there is something very different from what those same instrumental pieces have done on the albums that they originally came out on where they function more like counter point to a bunch of words, or relief from a bunch of words, as they case may be. Cuz I do tend to be a little word-heavy in the songs.
I’m accused of that.
C: They’re always great stories.
Do you worship? And if so, how?
B: I don’t go to church. I did. In the ‘70s I did go to church pretty regularly, for the second half of the ‘70s, I guess. But then I moved from Ottawa to Toronto and I never found a church that I really felt as comfortable with and I started touring more, farther afield in the world, and ya know, I’d wind up at a Catholic church service in Italy, which is the only kind you can find there – or the only kind I could find there – and couldn’t take Communion because I’m not a Catholic and I didn’t want to compromise the priest.
I could follow the service because it was close enough to what I was familiar with – I went to an Anglican church. But anyway, I drifted away from it and I haven’t ever gone back.
But I pray from time to time. I meditate a little bit, from time to time. Which I think of as a kind of prayer, because it involves opening myself to whatever might come in. And I feel like I don’t’ think I really am able to execute this very well, but I feel like my whole life is supposed to be a prayer, that everything I do is in some way supposed to be in tune with the will of God – if the Boundless can be said to have ‘will.’
But I think it does.
C: How do you figure it out, though?
B: Well, I don’t think you figure it out. I think that trying to figure it out is what gets us into trouble all the time. But feeling it in some genuine way – and that I realize is a very loaded notion – but feeling it in some genuine way is a truer way to deal with it.
I find – something will tell me, ‘Don’t go in that store; go in that other store.’ And I’ll go in the other store and there will be someone in there that I’ll end up having an encounter with that was meaningful, whereas if I had gone in the other story it wouldn’t have been. Tiny little things like this happen all the time, if you listen. If I listen to that little voice that says, ‘Go here and not there,’ which I’m not very good at doing. But once in a while I do and it produces surprising results, frequently.
C: I have one last question I’d like to ask, and I’m sure folks here would probably like to ask you a few things themselves … I’m thinking back to something you said at the beginning when I asked you how you would describe yourself spiritually and then later you saying that you wouldn’t not call yourself a Christian but that you continue – you are a seeker and you find truth other places, at least that’s how I’m interpreting what you said. At the beginning of my book [The God Factor], it starts with a quote from my philosophy professor at Wheaton College – the only thing I remember from his 8 o’clock Introduction to Philosophy class, when he said, ‘All truth is God’s truth,’ which to me means, if it’s true – it doesn’t matter who it’s coming from – it’s really coming from God. And I was wondering if you could share with these folks a story you told me last night about Nepal and the fellow you met coming down the mountain.
B: Oh, man, yeah.
C: It’s a great story.
B: Well, I don’t know…
C: I think it’s a great story.
B: Well, I went to Nepal in 1987 on behalf of a Canadian nonprofit that does work there among other places in the Third World. I was there for five weeks traveling around and traveling almost entirely on foot, because that’s how you do it in Nepal. The last week or so we were there, on the pretext of going to the Everest region to look at Sir Edmund Hillary’s projects with the sherpa people, we went trekking, basically, in the general direction of Mt. Everest. We didn’t get there because of time considerations. But we’re going up and up and up and up these incredible mountains in this incredibly scenery in this landscape where every time you turn a corner there’s what’s called a chorten – a pile of rocks, basically, with ‘Hail to the Jewel and the lotus’ written on every rock that people have put there for centuries. They’re always at a little crossroads and the little roads or pathways are not, of course, what we think of as roads.
So we came over a mountain into a village at one point and the villagers were all away at the local market, but we could hear this bizarre music – Tibetan style music – and it was a funeral. And we kind of crashed the funeral and hung around for a while. The funeral was going on for days. This wasn’t part of the story but I’m telling it anyway: the people whose relative was being honored at the funeral had spent a year scraping up enough money to hire all of these monks and nuns to come and conduct the funeral, which was lasting three or four days of constant music and constant chanting and prayer and whatever. So this is the kind of landscape that we’re in.
We’re walking up this beautiful trail, and a party of people that became very quickly were Americans were coming down the other way. There was this old gentleman, a guy in his – older than me (I was a little younger in ’87 of course), this guy I would guess was in his maybe late 70s and he had spent his entire life in Nepal, or at least he had spent 25 or there abouts years in Nepal after he had left his job as a teacher at a seminary here, some kind of evangelical college here in the States. He boasted to me that he had taught Robert Schuller, the guy who has the Crystal Cathedral. But he was bitter. He was about to leave Nepal. He had gone on this trek up to see the Everest base camp as kind of the last thing he was doing in Nepal before leaving for good.
And he said he was so disappointed because he had spent all of this time trying to bring God to the people of Nepal. He said, ‘These people don’t want to know God.’ Well, they didn’t want to know his God. They didn’t get his God. And he didn’t get them, at all. I felt so bad for this guy. I felt sort of judgmental, I have to say, but I also felt like what a tragedy this was. This guy had been there all of these years and he hadn’t got that this whole place is steeped in Spirit and to me it was just so obvious. I don’t know what that means in the day-to-day and of course when you live in a place you become sucked in in a way that a casual observer might not be, so ya know, it’s not fair for me to judge him. But it just seemed like such a waste of that energy. Ya know?
C: Maybe it’s just not seeing God in other people?
B: Well, I think it’s the tribalism thing. I think it’s the conviction that your version of God is the only real one and – I mean, this is what we’re taught in church – everybody that doesn’t believe the way we do is condemned to a hereafter of torment. And he’s out there trying to save these people from that hereafter of torment and they’re going, ‘Well, I don’t think so. We’ve got our way of looking at these things and maybe you should take a look at it.’
The thing, too, and it’s part of the picture when you talk about Nepal and I’m sure it’s probably true in other places, proselytizing is illegal in Nepal for anyone on behalf of any faith. But it works fine for the Buddhists and the Hindus because they’re not into proselytizing anyway. And the Christians and the Muslims have a harder time in Nepal. A Catholic priest was jailed while I was there because he was caught proselytizing. That was part of the landscape that this guy had to face, too, which, of course, I didn’t have to deal with because I wasn’t there for that.
But I think it was a clear illustration, as clear as any that I’ve come across, of the problem when we try to identify God, when God becomes some kind of extension of a human construct, which the God that we grow up with – the same God with the long hair and the beard – is probably the same God that guy believed in, that God is not trustworthy. Ya know?
C: Thank you for answering my questions, Bruce, I appreciate it. If anyone has a few questions for Bruce Cockburn or for myself, I’m sure we’d be happy to answer.
AUDIENCE 1: I do. You mentioned some classical writers who are all dead – Lewis and Tolkien – are there any contemporary writers, Christian writers in particular, that you have found useful or influential for you?
B: There’s a guy named Bob Ekblad who’s a Presbyterian minister who put out his first book recently, which is called Reading the Bible with the Damned. Which is about his experience as a kind of aid worker in Central America and in his current practice of a prison ministry in Washington State, where he’s dealing with a lot of people from Central America, too. And it’s a pretty interesting take. I think he would probably consider himself an evangelical, but he’s one of the good ones.
This book, The Pagan Christ, I found very interesting. It’s a disturbing book and not a terribly great piece of literature, but definitely worth reading, I think, too.
AUDIENCE 2: I wonder how you balance being, apparently, the sincere, seeking Bruce Cockburn that everybody thinks is so cool and the public Bruce Cockburn that has to schlep his way to Ann Arbor to do a gig like this.
B: I came because I wanted to. The answer to the question is I try to keep there from being too much of a gap between those two things. I actually don’t do very much that doesn’t fit with who I think I am. Over the years I’ve learned to accommodate the music business to a greater degree than I did in the beginning. But I see that in human terms. I mean, I go to a radio station and the radio guys have their jobs that they’re doing and if I relate to them as human beings, we’re not really – it stops being the business game. As long as I’m able to do that, I don’t feel like I have to do too much of the other stuff.
It gets weird – my first taste of high-level politics, when I actually started meeting heads of state in connection with issue-related stuff of one type or another, there was kind of a heady intoxication that went with that. I thought, ‘Oh, I have power!’ The lure of power was out there. I didn’t feel like I really had it but I could get it if I played my cards right. But thank God I got over that. I realized, well, what liars these guys were and that I’d never be as good a liar as they were. So not to hold myself up as any paragon of virtue, but there are people who have skills and talents and mine isn’t that one.
AUDIENCE 3: I wonder how you relate to reincarnation and whether that has any resonance for you.
B: ‘In my Father’s house, there are many mansions.’ Uh, it was suggested to me years and years ago that that was a reference by Jesus to reincarnation. I don’t know one way or the other, but I feel like one lifetime isn’t enough and I kind of … I guess my … I’m not sure that I hold onto this assumption the way that I would hold onto a Teddy Bear when I was a kid or something, but I kind of assume that we have more than one life. At this point in my life, I feel like death is some kind of graduation ceremony and we’re on to the next level of education after that, whatever it is. I’m not sure if we can come back in human form or whether the bundle of energy that is in us goes somewhere else, but I do feel like I have a sense that I’ve been here before and that I might be here again.
AUDIENCE 4: Cathleen I have a question for you. Would you consider yourself a seeker of the truth? You hear that term a lot. And if so, what is the truth that people are seeking?
C: Wow. I wish you’d asked Bruce that. It’s a tough one.
Am I a seeker of truth? I certainly hope so. I’m a Christian. I use that term begrudgingly only because I suck at it.
I’m trying to be a Christian, in the true sense of what that word means. And I guess… what is truth? Dang, with three minutes left in the hour. God, I guess? I think when people are seeking truth, I think the ultimate truth is God and so what they’re really looking for is God. And I suppose that leads to the question, ‘Well, what is God?’ And I don’t think I’m going to try to box that in. I don’t think you can box that in.
So, am I a seeker after truth? Am I a seeker after God? Yes. And that’s why I wrote the book [The God Factor]. And that’s why I do what I do for a living, which I enjoy a great deal. And that’s the way I try to live my life, and in my best moments, I think I’m kind of heading in that direction.
B: C.S. Lewis said that all it takes to be a Christian is a belief in the reality of Christ. So you can’t really suck at it.
C: Are you sure?
B: Well, he was sure, and I’m taking his word for it.
Had a ball last night in a far-ranging conversation with radio host Billy Fried talking about pretty much my whole life story, and my most recent visit to Nepal. It’s a long one (81 minutes long, to be precise).
Have a listen HERE.
With 36 hours left in our too-short sojourn in Nepal earlier this month, I yearned to escape the “strange, bewilderin’ time” of Kathmandu and its cacophony of humans, motorbikes, sequined lorries, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, giant hens and cockerels, wandering bands of ill-tempered goats, dozy cows, and incessant beeping that together comprise the intoxicating, maddening heartbeat of the capital city.
My 16-year-old son and I had hoped to make it far out of the city to Pokhara and the foothills of the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas, but time was not on our side. So we opted instead for an overnight in Nagarkot—a village in the Bakhtapur region of the Kathmandu Valley with what is generally agreed to be one of the best views of the Himalayas (including Everest) in country. If the weather allows it, that is.
Whether my boy and I were able to glimpse Chomolungma (as the Tibetans call the sacred, tallest mountain on Earth) didn’t really matter to me and he was more excited about the hotel pool and hot tub than anything else. I just wanted some quiet, alone time to reflect on our week in magical, mystical Nepal—my second visit to the country I first visited days after the devastating earthquake in April 2015.
Eight of us piled into our friend Gautham’s Mitsubishi I-guess-it’s-a-small-SUV for the two-hour journey (because of the aforementioned cacophony and thick traffic jams that produce much of it) to Nagarkot. Only three of us would be staying the night. The other five just came along for the ride and the chance to gulp some fresh(er) air in the mountains outside Kathmandu and stop twice (TWICE) for the delicacy known as King Curd (a cross between yogurt and custard that is best enjoyed in the Bhaktapur region; it’s delicious).
Of the nine of us, save for the driver I was the only passenger not to feel the effects of motion sickness as Gautham deftly navigated the switchback dirt mountain roads with potholes the size of small caves. (I’m generally a world-class nervous back-seat driver. But not in Nepal. Even amidst the craziness and hair-raising maneuvers, I don’t wear a seat belt. Nobody does. And the more nerve-wracking the driving gets, the more I laugh. It’s an unfettered, I’m-not-in-control-here kind of belly laugh.)
After Gautham, his lovely wife Reykah, their son John, soon-to-be-daughter in law, and chosen nephew Arjun grabbed some lunch on the hotel’s expansive deck facing the mountains, they headed back to Kathmandu, while my son and Gautham’s eldest child, David, adjourned to their room and the indoor pool.
Alone. Finally. I love my friends in Nepal and my traveling-companion child, but my inner introvert—which has taken to exerting itself with greater frequency in my 40s—really needed some solitude.
I placed my overnight bag in my room, grabbed my smartphone and my Canon (opting to bring only the short lens), and returned to the panoramic deck which, much to my chagrin, was occupied by a group of yuppie types from China, all smoking actual cigarettes and talking loudly into their cell phones.
I ducked back inside to find a more peaceful perch from which to (perhaps) glimpse the mountains and, alternately, watch the sunset over the valleys to the west. Three flights up and a few minutes later, I found myself on the rooftop deck of the hotel, completely solo.
I stood on the edge of a parapet and stared east, to where the Himalayas and Everest were supposed to be. I saw nothing but for the terraced farms of the verdant valley and wondered if I was facing the wrong direction. A quick check of a nearby map with arrows pointing in the direction I’d been facing told me that, yes, that was where the mountains were. But they were completely obscured by haze, clouds, smog and/or a combination of all three.
It’s not that I was disappointed or surprised. I knew before we alighted Kathmandu for Nagarkot that this time of the year, spotting the mountains was a dodgy bet. “If it rains tonight, even for ten minutes,” Gautham assured me before he left, “you will see mountains at sunrise.” So there was another chance and even if the Himalayas still were obscured at daybreak, Nagarkot is a beautiful spot no matter the weather.
The thing is, knowing the mountains were in front of me without being able to see them was, somehow, disorienting. They were there, right there, right in front of me—the most majestic range on the planet. But I was seeing through a glass dimly, if you will.
The sensation was strange, as if I were one of the Hobbits standing in front of Mordor just blinking into an abyss of wan sunlight filtered through a thick layer of khaki-colored smog.
A little lightheaded (Nagarkot sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet and I spend most of my time at literal sea level), I sat down at one of the many empty, metal cafe tables and pulled out my notebook, perhaps to write or doodle. After a few moments, I realized I’d been humming a musical phrase from Cat Stevens’ “Katmandu” song all day, so I took out my smartphone and (thanks to the 3G network in Nepal, even at such great heights) found a live performance of the song Cat gave in 1970. Played it twice. Sang along. Then I let YouTube take me, as it does, to the next song in the play list: Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You” from another live performance recorded the same year, a few weeks after my birth.
I found myself in tears. At first I wasn’t sure why, but as I reflected on the lyrics to Stevens’ ballad, I began to see what it was, or at least what I think it might have been.
Whoever I’m with
I’m always, always talking to you
I’m always talking to you
And I’m sad that you can’t hear
Sad that you can’t hear
Now in midlife, things aren’t quite how I expected they might be. My life and my physical person have changed in ways that sometimes bring more than a whiff of despair to my breath, which is, as someone taught me long ago, the truest form of unceasing prayer. There is much in my life that brings me unfathomable joy and I see grace all around me, all the time. And yet, there’s a sadness that lingers in the corners of my room.
Many people I love dearly have passed out of my life and this world in the last several years and I know that mourning is anything but linear. Surely that’s part of it. Disappointment as well. At things professional and otherwise that went pear-shaped and haven’t yet found their original form and maybe never will. That I’d peaked a decade ago and have since begun a slow descent into the never-ending adulthood of blighted hope.
All of that. The tears were for all of that. And still, I saw neither mountain nor setting sun.
So I decided to take a walk—something more than a stroll and less than a trek, even if I was wearing the hiking boots I’d bought before the earthquake last year and had worn (in Nepal) precisely once—that very day in Nagarkot. I thought I should at least try to get them dusty.
The grounds of the hotel where we stayed are expansive and had the feel more of sanctuary than resort. Being Nepal, there were Buddhist prayer flags flapping in the wind from trees and in courtyards; shrines and tiny temples to various Hindu deities, and brass prayer wheels affixed to the wall every few feet along the warren of corridors. I ducked out through one of those courtyards and kept walking downward until I found a trail that led along the edge of a bamboo forest (at least that’s how I’d describe it) along the eastern side of the property, in the direction of Everest and the clouds.
Lost in thought I walked and looked at flora until the path ended at the back side of the hotel amidst rudimentary construction equipment. I probably shouldn’t be here, I thought. Not exactly what the hotel management would want guests to see. But it was Nepal and the pervasive easy-breeziness of the culture assured me no one would come out yelling.
I walked on, as the path darkened and the pine trees on one side made a canopy with the bamboo on the other. Ten minutes later, after wandering without paying attention to direction or the setting sun, I stopped in my tracks, realizing I might be lost.
It was at that moment I heard Harold Ramis’ voice in my head. Ten years ago, I’d interviewed the late actor-director for my first book and he’d told me a story. Harold was born Jewish and embraced Buddhism as an adult. He described himself as “Buddh-ish.” I loved that guy. Anyway the story went like this:
“Watching other people on their journeys forced me to think reactively about it: Well, what do I believe? You don’t believe in past lives, so if you don’t believe in the continuity of the soul, what do you believe in? I never was able to give myself over to another human being as a spiritual trainer or leader. I could never affiliate with an organization, any doctrinal organization. I could never have a guru or a spiritual teacher because I always believed it was so personal. It seemed to me logically impossible that there could be a concrete answer to a spiritual quest—by definition—and so anyone who said they had an answer was immediately suspect. I’m right now convinced that no matter how much I seek, there wouldn’t be an answer. It’s like when you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”
It was that last part that echoed in my mind: “When you’re lost in the woods, instead of running you should just sit down.”
So I did. On a ramshackle wall on the pine side of the ersatz trail. And another sacred word came to mind, this time from Stephen Hawking who said, “Remember to look up and not down at your feet.” A favorite college professor used to remind us of the same. Look up. You’ll be surprised what you find if you change your perspective.
I looked up. And there, perhaps 100 yards above me in a clearing in the woods, I saw a man praying.
And then I heard faint music. I started to walk toward the man and the music, clambering through a rocky path in the woods until I came upon a house.
Once again, I stopped, worried I might be trespassing, an unwelcome guest and interloper. But this is Nepal, I told myself, and slowly walked toward the building when, surprising both of us, a young man appeared carrying a cup of tea.
“Namaste,” I said.
He bowed slightly, one hand in front of his chest in half of the prayerful posture with which most Nepalis greet each other. (His other hand still held the cup of tea.)
“I think I’m lost,” I continued.
“Where are you trying to go?” he answered with a the kind of genuine empathy and tenderness that is uncommon in most places.
Where am I trying to go? I thought, spotting someone in my peripheral vision. The praying man.
It wasn’t a man, per se, but a statue of Sri Chinmoy, a well-known Indian guru and meditation instructor who passed away in 2007. One of the mountain peaks in the invisible range in front of me is named for him.
“Is this an ashram?” I said.
The man bobbled his head in affirmation as Nepalis do.
“You’re lost?” he said.
“Maybe not so lost,” I said, as my voice cracked and tears filled my eyes. “May I sit down for a minute?”
“Of course,” he said.
I put my head in my hands and had a big boo-hoo cry like I haven’t in a long, long, clearly too-long time. And the kind man didn’t stare or shift uncomfortably. He just sipped his tea and stayed with me, looking up at the sky. I composed myself and said I was trying to get back to the hotel.
“Ah,” he said. “It’s just there.”
Sri Chinmoy’s statue, I quickly realized, sits a few dozen yards away from the hotel’s helipad. I wasn’t lost. I just couldn’t see where I was going.
The sun was almost down and I thanked him for his kindness, and began walking toward the hotel entrance. If it’s possible for one’s ears to come into focus, mine did just then, and I heard the music that was playing inside what turned out to be a kind of ashram gift-shop where the man worked.
A woman’s voice sang the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
It is in dying that we are born into eternal life.
The singer was Snatam Kaur, an American-born Sikh musician and peace activist. I opened iTunes on my phone and bought it immediately.
Later that night, after dinner with my son and our friend, we all retired for the evening, hopeful that sunrise would bring a view of the mountains. I fell asleep listening to Kaur sing St. Francis’ prayer on repeat.
I awoke before sunrise and sat on my balcony alone in the dark, hoping to see the mountains at first light. When it came, I could see nothing but clouds and haze.
Still, the light was beautiful. And I had faith that the mountains indeed were there, even if I couldn’t see them, and that they would wait for me to return to find them another day.
Click on the photo below to view the first of several photo essays from Nepal on my photo website, Flaneur.Guru
KATHMANDU, Nepal—The Boeing 737 loaded with relief supplies and caregivers touched down at Tribhuvan International Airport six days (nearly to the minute) after the first of two cataclysmic earthquakes wrecked havoc on the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal.
Joining me aboard the flight from Singapore were a few other journalists from the United States and Europe, a team from the China Lingshan International Rescue in their distinctive fire engine red uniforms, and several dozen surgeons from South Africa who had come to Nepal with Gift of the Giver organization, an NGO founded in 1992 by a Sufi sheik from Istanbul.
Among us were Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains—people of good will of many religious traditions and none at all. What we had in common was a desire to help the gentle people of Nepal (one of the poorest nations in the world) who had suffered through the devastation of an earthquake on April 24 so massive that it actually moved the global satellite positioning of its capital city by nearly 10 feet.
For some of us, that assistance took the form of pulling corpses and a few miraculous survivors from the concrete and brick ruins of homes, businesses, and even houses of worship leveled by the first earthquake. (A second earthquake of nearly the same size—7.3 on the Richter scale—struck Nepal on May 11, the day after I returned to California from Nepal.)
Others—the healers from Africa and elsewhere—would offer relief to the traumatized during grueling shifts in Nepal’s overwhelmed hospitals, in surgical theaters, setting broken bones, stitching wounds, and compassionate bedside care.
Interspersed among us, undoubtedly, were those hoping to offer some kind of spiritual aid, solace, or direction to the Nepalese. In generations past, we might simply have labeled this cohort “missionaries,” visitors hoping to share their version of the gospel truth with the broken and brokenhearted.
Continue reading the entire report at Religion Dispatches HERE.
For nearly 30 years, Nepal has occupied prime real estate in my imagination. It began the summer of 1987 when I spent the summer in London as a “mime for the Lord.”
I recognize the look on your face, so let me explain …
I was 16 years old and traveling with a Christian missionary organization called Teen Missions International that, for decades, has arranged for hundreds of teens to spend six weeks or so of their summer breaks in locations circling the globe, mostly performing construction and other manual labors as a means of spreading the evangelical Christian Gospel. Having inherited my parents’ chronic wanderlust, I couldn’t wait travel, but I was’t a so sure about spending July and August sweating in the jungle. So I chose what was at the time a new missions “team” that would attempt to spread the Gospel using truly awful street theater in the exotic urban jungle of London’s West End. And so began my sojourn in white face, red suspenders, yellow bow tie, black Dickies trousers, and Red Wing Steel-Toed Work Boots (which were a requisite or every member of Teen Missions, no matter where you went, although we did get special dispensation to wear ballet slippers whilst “performing.”)
That summer in London, I learned many things, not the least of which was how repellant and ineffectual “cold-contact witnessing” — which is, ostensibly, accosting a stranger with the Good News of God’s Love and Grace by trying to engage them in conversation that has, ideally, been provoked by the miming and other street performances — is. I returned home from England convinced that literally throwing Bibles at the heads of passersby would have been more effective than what we’d been trying to do — a conviction I hold to this day.
Before my tenure as a MFTL came to its merciful end, my “team” spent a long weekend in (if memory serves) Oxfordshire, England “debriefing” with another missions team that has spent its summer working at an orphanage in Nepal’s capital city, Kathmandu. I spent hours in the English countryside talking to the members of the Nepal team about what they’d seen, heard, and experienced. A couple of the girls came home with nose rings or hennaed hands. More than a few of the Nepal team members returned to the West with a kind of enlightenment London had not afforded me.
Nepal had changed them, not the other way around, and that was a good thing.
With their stories and anecdotes, they painted mental pictures of a deeply spiritual, difficult, sometimes brutal and staggeringly beautiful land that took hold of my teenage imagination and have never let go. They also instilled in me a healthy skepticism about faith-based organizations working in the developing world, particularly in locales (such as Nepal) where proselytizing is (or has been for long stretches of history) illegal.
Although I have traveled fairly extensively, both privately and as a journalist, I never had been able to arrange a trip to Nepal. As most of you know, the focus of my nearly 20 years as a journalist has been religion (defined broadly to include faith, spirituality, beliefs, ethics, philosophy, and identity) and where it intersects with culture — including politics, education, development issues, justice issues, and gender issues. Of particular interest to me is where those two things — religion and culture — overlap in the developing world where they so often are intertwined with extreme poverty, women’s rights, healthcare, education, and food security. I have looked at these issues through the religion-and-culture lens on several occasions in Ethiopia, Malawi and Zambia, where I traveled to as a journalist and in my capacity as a member of the ONE Girls and Women advisory board at the ONE Campaign.
I’ve recited this lengthy preamble in the hope that you will understand why, when one of my great friends in Laguna Beach, the artist Iris Bourne (who had traveled with me to Malawi and Zambia a few years back) said she was going to Nepal with a new Fair Trade not-for-profit from our hometown Laguna Beach that is working with women artisans in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, most recently, in Kathmandu, I heard myself say aloud, “not without me you’re not,” before I could even think.
I said I’d go and write about the work the organization The Peace Exchange is doing on the ground, tell the women’s stories, raise some consciousness, maybe inspire readers to help or do something to change their corner of the world.
Iris and The Peace Exchange’s founder, Katie Bond, set about making their plans for a month-long visit first to Congo and then to Nepal, while I tried to figure out how to get myself to Kathmandu without having to sell a kidney. I applied for a journalism fellowship and for grant money to do an independent reporting project related to the Millennium Development Goals and how Nepal’s prevailing religious culture (Hindu) influenced, supported, or hindered progress on the MDVs and how is it might be shaping and preparing for progress to be made toward the Sustainable Development Goals that will follow the MDVs that expire this year.
In one application, I explained that I hoped to pay particular interest to then status and welfare of women and girls in relation to development goals — i.e. are women and girls in Nepal better off now than they were 15 years ago, and what influence has their religion and the prevailing religious culture had on that status. Harkening back to my MFTL days, I said I also wanted to look at Christian NGOs in Nepal and how they have played a role development, the status and welfare of women, the education of girls, food security, health care, and, in turn, the socio-political climate in country.
But as I look back now on those applications for funding, a couple of lines stick out to me as vital. I said,
Most often, I find the most powerful stories to be those of ordinary people and I’d imagine the same will be true in Nepal. Telling the universal through the specific, making the obscure or theoretical personal in the voices, faces, and stories of “regular” people is, in my experience, what makes the most indelible impression on readers and viewers. I’m certain Nepal will not disappoint.
To make a long story short, I didn’t get the grant money or the fellowship, and so, a month away from The Peace Exchange’s departure date, I thought (momentarily) that my long-awaited journey to Nepal was dead in the water. But then a friend said, “why don’t you do a GoFundMe camapaign to see if people donate to get you there as an independent journalist?” A couple of hours later, I launched the crowd-sourcing campaign and six days after that was fully funded and booked my tickets from Los Angeles, through Singapore, to Kathmandu.
Last Friday night, just before midnight, I was all packed and ready to leave the next day at noon for LAX. As I reached to turn out the light on the nightstand, I heard the laptop open to my Facebook page on the bed, go “BING!” I looked and found an instant message from my friend Vicki that said, “There was just an earthquake in Nepal?”
The 24 hours that followed were a blur of activity and anxiety. How bad was it? Should I stay or should I go? If I go would I just be in the way? I’m neither a doctor nor an engineer and I don’t want to be a burden in an catastrophe. What help would I be? My inclination was to go, but was that ego or some misplaced bravado talking?
The prospect of walking into an disaster of the magnitude of what happened in Nepal with the 7.9 earthquake and 6.6 and stronger aftershocks, the photos of collapsed buildings and UNESCO World Heritage sites destroyed, gave me pause. Bodies pulled from the rubble. Chaos and terror in the streets. All of the unknowns and potentially perilous variables.
After they breathed a sigh of relief that I was still safely in Laguna, I began to hear from some of my true-north people — the ones I trust with my life, whose judgment is sound, who know me best, who are prayerful, thoughtful, rational, and love me. To a person, they were getting the same thing (I don’t know what to call it exactly) as I was: Go.
My son, Vasco, has veto power on such things. He took a while to think about it and then told me that he thought I should go, just not right away (by which he meant, don’t take the flight you’re booked on that leaves 12 hours after the earthquake; wait a few days.)
With that, I unpacked and began assembling what I’d need for a very different journey from the one I’d had planned. There would be no trek on the Annapurna range below Everest’s base camp. There would be no occasions to wear that cute boho dress. But the new hiking boots would do just fine as work boots if the need arose.
I started to put together bundles of first aid supplies, some medications, and then I thought about what else might be helpful. That’s about the time news that I still planned on going to Kathmandu began to spread through our little seaside hippie town. Friends and neighbors were calling, emailing, stopping me on the street and asking what they could do, handing me cash, offering their prayers and contact numbers
“You can’t go to that party empty handed,” David, one of my very best friends, said as only he can. I think he was emailing from the other side of the planet — Shanghai, maybe? I lose track of his Where’s Waldo work schedule. But what he meant was, let’s do something significant to help. Within what felt like seconds he was texting me and Jon Rose, the pro surfer and founder of Waves for Water, an NGO that provides these ingenious portable water filters to crisis spots all over the globe.
The next morning, after David’s brother Joel took care of the logistics, I drove up north of LA and picked up 40 filters that will provide enough clean drinking water for 4,000 people. FOUR-THOUSAND PEOPLE. And they all fit in one duffel with room to spare.
Another friend bought dozens of bottles of eye drops and sunglasses for me to hand out as I move about Kathmandu where the normally horrendous air quality has been made a million times worse by the brick and concrete dust from collapsed buildings and ongoing excavations.
I needed a satellite phone in case of emergencies but didn’t have the time or cash to rent one. Within two hours, the brother of a friend from the church community my family is a part of lent me his.
Lisa and Dr. Love, a husband-and-wife team that runs a holistic health and chiropractic practice in Laguna, handed me hundreds of pre- and post-natal supplements as I was headed to the airport. Four duffel bags packed to the hilt with supplies bought and paid for by friends and even a few strangers.
The MARVELOUS Singapore Airlines (Thank you Joseph and Matthew!) helped me rebook my non-refundable ticket and then persuaded the airline to waive the $500 in fees for excess baggage. All the while, people continued to donate money to the GoFundMe account, which allowed me to buy more Bandaids, maxi pads, antiseptic spray, salves, face masks, sterile gloves, and even six packs of UNO cards for the kids at one of the orphanages I’ll be visiting.
There are times when all the cliches are true. This is such a time.
It does take a village.
We are all connected.
I am because we are. (UBUNTU)
And there but for the grace of God go I.
We can’t do everything, but what we can do we must do.
If you build it, they will come.
I’m typing this from the airport in Singapore waiting for my flight to Kathmandu. I hope to report and tell the stories and do all that I can.
Thank you all for helping me show up.
Namaste for now,
And they call, can’t you hear it?
Roads of the earth
And roads of the spirit . . .
— Bruce Cockburn’s “Child of the Wind”
Mali. Mozambique. Central America. The Himalayas. Kosovo.
I’ve never been to any of these exotic locales, but I feel as if I have because of the more than 30 years of music made by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn.
He is, in a very real way, a citizen of the world. Apart from being one of the most accomplished and innovative contemporary guitar masters, Cockburn is a consummate storyteller, and for as long as I can remember, his musical stories have taken this kid from the suburbs to the far reaches of our world of wonders.
I last caught up with Cockburn 18 months ago in Bozeman, Mont., when he was at the tail end of a lengthy tour. Not long after, the singer left for a long holiday, first to Argentina (where he planned to learn Spanish and how to tango) and then to Nepal.
More than 20 years ago, Cockburn traveled to Nepal on a fact-finding mission with the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, an international development organization that helps communities in the developing world create ecologically sustainable agricultural projects among the desperately poor. Cockburn has been involved with USC Canada’s work since 1970, the year I was born.
In late November 2007, Cockburn, now in his 60s, returned with the USC Canada team to see what progress has been made in the generation since he’d first visited Nepal, a longtime monarchy that is now the world’s youngest republic, snuggled in the Himalayas between China, Tibet and India.
This time, Cockburn took a film crew on a two-week journey where he traveled far beyond thriving Katmandu to the remote, largely Buddhist Humla district to visit some of the organic farming and micro-investment programs begun with the committee’s help.
The result is a beautiful and moving documentary film called, “Return to Nepal,” which was released late last year. (Click HERE to watch clips or order a DVD.)
Nepal is one of those magical places of my imagination that conjures images of flapping Buddhist prayer flags, smiling women and children swathed in colorful layers of wool, silk and cotton; prayer bells ringing in the background as herds of sheep wend their way through the foothills of the Himalayas.
But Nepal has not been as peaceful as my imagination would have it be. Throughout my lifetime it has been rocked by political and military turmoil, unrest that I first learned about as a teenager, in the lyrics of Cockburn’s music. In “Return to Nepal,” which Cockburn narrates, the hardships of Nepal aren’t ignored, but they never eclipse the beauty of the spirit of the Nepalese people and their mystical land.
“Step off the tourist path, and you find a different land altogether. It is to this hidden Nepal that I am traveling,” Cockburn says. On his 1987 journey he “discovered a country that is beautiful, complex and desperately poor. Wherever we went, I was moved by the Nepalese resilience and by their efforts to improve their lives. So now the winds have blown me back here to see how things have changed.”
The film opens with a close-up of Cockburn’s hands strumming his guitar. His music — some familiar tunes from his 22 albums, such as my favorite, “Child of the Wind,” and new tunes he wrote as journeyed through his return trip to Nepal that he calls, “Humla Meditations.”