Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Not to Yield

The rains have come to San Francisco and the snows to the Sierras and this is a great comfort, Nature fulfilling her seasonal duties. I’m eager for more Spring, enticed by the daffodils and the crab apple blossoms and the cherries on the cusp of bloom. But the evening rain brings that indoor winter feel that sends thoughts inward, invites a sit on the couch with a good book or old movie. I think of the old Chinese poem: “If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.”

Not only the annual seasons, but the larger cycle of the season’s of life. One of my first students from a school I taught at turned 60 yesterday. That caught my attention. I welcomed him to my decade and sincerely told me it’s a good time, in spite of all the tugs of gravity and other advancing physical deteriorations.

But our culture is not helpful in initiating elders into their new lot in life. We are not wanted for the sexy ads and the sexy ads are what drives the imagery of the culture. Not life’s tracks on wrinkled faces or Buddha’s serene gaze or the eyes that have known so much joy and suffering and learned to accept it all. The elders in Washington at the moment are old only by years, but so many stuck in the toddler mind, the teenage mind, the grabbing-for-power young adult mind. They have refused all of life’s lessons and don’t even know what they don’t know.

And yet. So many grey heads at the meetings for canvassing neighborhoods, writing postcards, attending rallies. We are the children of the 60’s risen again, but older, wiser, less brash and sure but not less passionate about the issues that got us out to the streets 50 years ago.

Today, the 8th grade organized another school walkout of their class to continue to process their grief about Parkland. But they needed two teachers to accompany them to the end of the street. So a Humanities teacher and I went and stood outside their circle and listened to them. So much to admire and applaud, but I couldn’t help but think they cannot do this alone and I’m not sure they realize that. They need to team with their grandparents and marry their fresh idealistic energy with some of the been-around-the-block wisdom of the elders. Both sides need to reach out to each other and march together.

You see how quickly everything turns to politics and given the extreme state of our culture, it’s no surprise. But when I began writing, I was thinking of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses and his reminder to my peers and above to keep the flame lit. Not just the political flame, but the artistic one, the spiritual one, the community-minded one. To beware of complacency, of the end of dreams, of the endless golf game in the retirement community. “That which we are, we are, made weak by time, but strong in will.” Here’s the end of his poem:

…you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Each Day a Name

The schedule. A way to bring form and clarity into a life, a way to give each day a name and a face and a character. Today is Tuesday and when I wake up, I’m already playing blues with the 8th graders and dancing around with the 5-year olds. My day already has a certain color and shape and form and all of it enticing. Tomorrow is a different story altogether. And so the week rolls along, a different dance every 24 hours and the combined effect is a whole piece of music. A Suite.

Like the English and French ones I keep playing by Bach. Each section is named for a dance—Allemande, Courante, Gavotte, Sarabande, Gigue (related to, but also distinct from the more commonly known Irish Jig). Each a different tempo, a different meter, a different feeling. United by the key (which to carry the metaphor further would be the school, the common ground where the dancing happens for four or five days) and the signature style of the composer (my way of teaching kids). So just as music gives pleasure partly because it is so coherently tied together, each note part of a pattern, each pattern connected to larger patterns, just as this sense of everything making sense gives a meaning to things ordinarily experienced as random or chaotic, so does a well-crafted schedule give the same feeling. Enough variation to keep things interesting and surprising, enough repetition to keep things dependable and solid and comforting. To play music while living is one thing, but to live musically is yet greater.

Tuesday, here I come!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Larger or Smaller?

When you have a crisis, you either have a greater sense of yourself or you become a smaller person. When you’re facing a big obstacle, there’s really only two outcomes; you either become a bigger person and meet it head on with the full force of your imagination or you become a smaller person. If you go through the crisis and come out the same, it really wasn’t a crisis. A real crisis will change you and it will make you either bigger or smaller. It’s an opportunity.
-Michael Meade: Finding Genius in Your Life

Is America in crisis? Hmm. 400 government posts left unfilled, weekly turnover in the White House, a pathological narcissist with his finger near the nuclear button, a Secretary of Education confused that her 60 Minutes interviewer suggested she actually visit schools, an entire political party excusing something as serious as Russians tampering with our election, the next Me Too story, the next school shooting, the end of facts as viable parts of a discussion, the NRA now standing for Not Responsible A-holes. For starters. I’d say that qualifies as a crisis.

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see” wrote poet Kenneth Rexroth and indeed, I am inspired by all those who are choosing to leave complacency and do the hard work of enlarging themselves—enlarging their point of view, their understanding, their knowledge, their capacity to care and feel deeply even though it hurts, their courage to speak out. And equally depressed by those who grow smaller, keep parroting their comforting clichés fed to them by Fox News and right-wing radio, hide behind some fantasy of “making America great again,” sell their capacity for independent thought and their soul to the Devil of party allegiance.

In the face of what’s going down, America will never be the same. Nor should it be. If we take the enlarging path, we will move closer to the promises of the founding vision—true life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of us, not just the privileged white male rich. We will enlarge the community of people we’re willing to accept, to talk to, to work with, to play with, to love. We will make larger the definition of economics and factor in the spiritual cost, the environmental cost, the amount we’re willing to borrow against our grandchildren’s future. We will enlarge the definition of education to include both the arts and an artful approach to teaching that keeps children’s curiosity lit, welcomes their questions and imaginative responses, helps reveal their unique character and blesses them in their own way of thinking and makes it all equally available to all as public education. We will enlarge our understanding of religion as different names and paths to the same end, the revelation and celebration of a divine Spirit that lives equally in all. The only down side to the response to enlarge? It takes work. It takes thought. It takes effort. It takes self-doubt. It requires awakening even when we’d rather burrow under the covers and stay hidden in bed.

The smaller path? Mouth the party line, meet no uncomfortable truths head-on, narrow the mind, close down the heart and send the spirit back to slumbering while shopping in the mall, playing video games, watching too much TV, going to the church of no questions, stockpiling money and weapons, dismissing anything you don’t like with “fake news,” denying your own actions (“can’t recall”), spinning everything for your convenience, rejecting all who don’t look, dress and un-think like you. Staying asleep and refusing to awaken.

Then I suppose there’s the middle path of ignoring it all, hoping it will go away, sidestepping the opportunity in some naïve faith that nobody and nothing will have to change. Hint: That’s  not going to work. In a crisis, neutral is not an option.

The students at Parkland and indeed, students all over the country, have had their lives torn open and turned upside-down. At a time when they should be worrying about pimples and studying for the math test, they find themselves on the national stage battling with calloused politicians and speaking truth to power. We have failed to protect them and keep them in their proper realm of wondering what to wear to prom. But in the end, it’s a good thing that they have been thrust into a battle that calls forth their idealism and engages their thought and emboldens their hope. They are meeting the challenge to enlarge themselves far beyond the norm to meet the world head on. I, for one, offer them all my support, encouragement, admiration and love.

And I hope the rest of us follow suit. With the unraveling of life as we’ve known it comes the invitation to re-weave the fabric of our collective lives. None of us know the design or pattern that will lead us to a brighter future, but there is no other choice than get to work and start weaving. Remember there is no neutral. We are either weaving or unraveling. “Bang, bang” goes my loom.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Green Hills to the Left

When Facebook debates push me to despair,
When the nightly news makes me want to tear out my hair.
When civility and sanity seem out of reach…
Why, then it is time to go to the beach.

Green hills to the left, blue sea to the right
Sand between toes, birds soaring in flight.
Midday sun with resplendent light
No matter now who’s wrong or who’s right.

No matter now who’s right or who’s wrong
Let it be, listen to the song.
Of the music of tides, the swishing of grass.
The splendor that endures, the beauty that does last.

To the left, the deep green, to the right, the deep blue
Me in-between, returned to what’s true.

Limantour Beach, Pt. Reyes Station

Thursday, March 15, 2018

17 Minutes

In solidarity with the National Student Walk-out today, 4 of our Middle School students organized a Memorial Service for the Parkland victims. The 4th through 8th graders gathered in the Community Center with black paper and chalk and were invited to draw/ write or leave blank their feelings for 17 minutes. The student leaders read one name for each minute, bringing these young students and teachers into the room, not as a statistic of collateral damage, but as a once living-breathing human being whose life was cut short by our collective failure as a culture. A person with a name who just a few weeks ago was alive and now is no more.

And consider those names. There was a family name that spoke of their ancestry and their still-living loved ones, parents who conceived of them, conceived them, birthed them, fed them, clothed them, nurtured them, drove them places, had fun with them, got mad at them, read to them, sang with them and loved them. In that name might also be grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, all now joined together in inconsolable grief, face to face for the rest of their days with the empty bed where their child once slept, the clothes they wore, the papers they wrote and pictures they drew, left only with memories and the photos on the mantelpiece. Day after day only the shadowy remembrance of the living being who once was and now is no more.

And then the first name. Maybe named for a distant relative or place or special person, investing that newborn baby with a dream of a bright future, a vow to create a shelter for that dream and protect the future, only to have it shattered by a weapon of mass destruction sold for someone’s profit. “What happened to a dream deferred?” asked Langston Hughes and there are many ways to shut down the dreamers, but none more irrevocable than murder. And so these young teachers and students had their futures taken from them, futures they deserved and were worthy of. And who knows? Perhaps one of them might have come up with a viable solution to climate change? And now not.

Did Congress take 17 minutes out of their schedule to properly mourn or grieve these names? I don’t believe they did. Our national habit of a cursory “thought and prayer” and then back to business was all geared up to go and then something remarkable happened. The children said no. They woke up to the fact that the adults were stuck in their years of carelessly-crafted arguments that had shut down their hearts and crippled their imagination and crumpled their once-youthful idealism. And so they took charge. “Enough, “ they say.  “These are our lives and our futures and we say ‘no more!’ We will not sit in history class talking about the Civil War as an issue of State’s Rights or discuss al-gebra (does school realize we’re using Arabic numbers? Is it a conspiracy?) when we fear for what may come through the door. And no, our teachers with guns does not make us feel safer. Get that out of your head.”

After the 17-minutes of silence, kids returned to class. My Jazz History Class resumed and it was perfect moment to play what I had already intended, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. Another case of culturally-sanctioned murder, the shameful silence of those who could have done something about it and the determination of a Jewish high-school teacher, Abel Meeropol, to speak out about lynchings by the terrorist KKK. The kids listened with a deep intensity. They’re only 14, but I believe they are more capable of facing head-on the harsh truths of our time without losing hope than just about any member in Congress.

I passed the four student leaders later in the hall putting up the messages from the kids and made some logistical comment about something they might consider for next time. And without missing a beat, one of them said, “Well, hopefully, there won’t be a next time.”

Do you see what I mean about hope? Every statistic since Columbine predicts no end and yet, he still kept hope in his heart that we will come to our senses. And who am I to contradict him? Would you? I hope not.

Blessings to the children. The child is now parent to the adult.

In the spirit of remembering the names and ages of those martyred so the gun business can keep earning big money, I reprint them below. Consider have a private or family ritual of your own, your own 17 minutes to feel the genuine grief and rise up determined to turn this around. Read about them, look up their photo, say each name out loud, take a minute to mourn and renew your vow to protect our children with love, care and sensible policy.

Alyssa Alhadeff-14. Scott Beigel-35. Martin Duque Anguiano—14. Nicholas Dworet-17. Aaron Feis-37. Jamie Guttenberg-14. Chris Hixon-49. Luke Hoyer-15. Cara Loughran-14. Gina Montalo-14. Joaquin Oliver-17. Alaina Petty-14.Meadow Pollack-18. Helena Ramsay-17. Alex Schacter-14. Carmen Schentrup-16. Peter Wang-15.