It was a typical i-Pod moment driving in the car—randomly scrolling the alphabet without looking and just landing somewhere and listening to whatever comes on. I hit upon the burning guitar of Jimmy Rosenberg, the 15-year old gypsy wonder from the group Sinti (whatever happened to him?) playing Que Pasa? The next thing that came up was “Questions.” It was from a talk given by Martin Prechtel on Grief and Praise and one of the wisest, funniest and most soul-stirring talks I’ve had the privilege to hear. He is an American, part Swiss-German, part-Native American, who was initiated as a shaman by a Mayan tribe in Guatemala. In this talk, he explained to us “have-a-nice-day-Americans” that grief and praise in this Mayan culture are the same thing, or at least share the same root. People incapable of proper grieving (the kind that when you’re through, “you don’t look so good”) are also incapable of proper praising. And in a downwardly spiraling cycle, people who aren’t properly praised, as children or adults, carry yet more grief and are blocked from praising others.
The praise he’s talking about is not the pat on the back “good job!” variety (though that has its place). It’s about seeing deeply into the heart and soul of a person’s beauty and letting them know in many different ways that you see them, hear them, know them, celebrate them, understand a part of them, love them. Sometimes praise means simply giving folks an opportunity to express themselves in the form that suits their character.
The other day, I went to visit my Mom and my 98-year old friend Ben, who asked for my “advice.” Apparently, a doctor or someone told him he should stop playing piano, but having not played if for several months, he’s finding that he’s missing it. I knew Ben had played piano most every day of his later life and told him that it was essential to his spirit. I got off the bench, rolled him up the keys and requested “Besame Mucho.” Off he went and then continued with two more. He did seem a little winded from the effort, but he was smiling ear-to-ear in happiness and kep shaking my hand with tears welling up thanking me for encouraging him. Not a big effort on my part, just making a space for his Spirit to be set free.
Seems so simple. Why don’t we all give each other such permission and praise? Probably because the moment we open ourselves to joy we realize that sorrow is close behind. To affirm life is to love something so much it hurts and it will hurt because everything we love is bound by mortality. Inside the exuberant Yes! of affirming praise is the seed of loss and the grief of saying goodbye. So we opt for the safe middle ground and surround ourselves with all the strategies and distractions to keep the extremes at bay.
There’s more to Martin Prechtel’s story, the part about doing this work on behalf of those who we have lost, the spirits in the other world who need both our grief and our praise. When we pay our dues to the ancestors, they do their part to keep us alive and soulful. When we sing from the belly or weep with heaving sobs, they come to check it out.They love to congregate around the gospel church and tend to stay away from Walmart. But that’s another story.
I know I have many stones of grief waiting to turn to water and too much that has been left unpraised. But where I have managed to open doors to people’s musicality or encouraged them directly or by example to take the death-defiant risk of expressing the heart of who they are, it is by the grace of all that I have met with the full measure of my sorrow and the full measure of my joy.