Saturday, May 30, 2020

Simmering on the Stove

           "We are more closely connected to the invisible than to the visible." -Novalis

Again, my perhaps unfounded faith in a world that has purpose, meaning, shape, design, invisible forces present and willing to reveal it all to those who pay attention, comes from things like this: Last night, I awoke from a dream that reminded me of the exact activity I needed to complete my online workshop today and tie all the threads together. I was fine with my workshop plan and didn’t even know that I needed more, but the world that speaks in dreams and daydream and signals from the surrounding world was telling me otherwise. 

And that’s what makes my life feel so rich, that sense of multiple projects going on that are incubating below the surface, multiple pots simmering on the stove and the ding of timers that tell me which one to look in to see if the soup is done. All of it  beyond any conscious control, schedule or prediction. It talks to me in my dreams and I awake knowing just what is needed. Again, not only in the dreams of sleep, but in the words that pop into my head to give a blogpost title and then invite me to sit down and write it out. 

And interesting that for me, these messages from beyond/below/around, are almost always words or ideas rather than tones and rhythms. I’ve long suspected that I’m not truly a musician, which is a bit odd since I’ve made music my entire life, worked at improving technical skills, theoretical understanding, expressive potential and built an entire career around teaching music! Actually, I think that’s one of my powerful allies in teaching music, knowing how to communicate effective music-making to those who are not one of the elect few who hears and perceives and speaks the world through musical tones. I’ve been around those people, who are always singing to themselves and drumming on their legs and hearing things inside that they bring outside in their jazz solos or composed pieces. Wagner famously said that he composed music like a cow gives milk and Mozart was famous for feeling he was merely taking dictation for the music running through his head. Such people often make impatient music teachers, because they can’t understand that others don’t hear those same things inside. Like me. But there’s still a place for them at the banquet table of music.

It doesn’t matter what’s running through your head—for some, mathematical equations, some images, some dance choreographies and so on. Of course, we should pay attention to the particular nature of those rivers running through us to decide which to follow, to understand which of our multiple intelligences have found their home in us and request our presence and our work to bring them forward. What matters is to listen to them, to trust them, to commit to bringing them out into the physical world. And may I add, only if they bring something useful, beautiful, connective to the world. I suspect mass murderers and such also hear voices, but I do NOT recommend that they follow them!

Alongside the certainty that there are invisible angels guiding one’s purpose (as my recent dream confirmed), there is also the affirmation of serendipity, things that seem to randomly appear just at the right moment to give yet more weight to the feeling that the world, in spite of the chaos around us, makes sense. While I was organizing these thoughts around the “simmering on the stove” image, that sense of the underground coming above ground, an 8th grader turned in a poem for an assignment. She was doing a report on Miles Davis and in addition to telling his biography, had to react to his music in some kind of project form. She chose to write a poem while listening to Blue in Green and note how it relates to these thoughts above. 

                  I drift beneath the surface
                    Slowly getting deeper and deeper,
                  Colder and colder and then,
                 Suddenly being pulled up by reality.

                       I can taste the music.
                     My heart hums along to the rhythm.
                    My mind sings the harmony
                   And my soul does a dance.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Open the Floodgates

Having just praised the benefits of ordering one’s world, organizing your things, your thoughts, putting your feelings into some coherent container, now I suggest the opposite. Open yourself to the possibility of opening the floodgates of deep joy and sorrow, unbearable grief and inexpressible happiness and let it flow.

I’ve often recommended Camus’s “Live close to tears,” but that’s so tame compared to body-shaking weeping. It might be a necessary first step, tiptoeing toward some hidden heartache that you’d really rather not wake up, but at no appointed schedule, that anguish—or ecstatic bliss—leaps out and takes you over. Your body shudders from head to toe, you heave up deep sobs and you look bad. This is not something you want anyone to witness, unless they’re deep down into it with you.

And that’s what happened to me today. I’ve been wrestling with finding some proper way to close out my life at a place that never was just a school to me, but a crystalized version of the vision I’ve carried my whole life (and I have the journal entries to prove it!). Things were lined up for the final cadence with the usual farewell ceremonies, but all of that was thrown under the bus by a little bug. “Oh well, something will happen in the Fall” didn’t quite make the grade, so I organized my own little ceremony with the alums I’m singing with online (see Retirement Speech) and that helped a little. But the emotion I expected to come from my little talk was more a trickle than the enormous wave it deserved. 

So today, I decided to put together a little slide show drawing from one I put together for the school’s 50thAnniversary 4 years ago. I just happened to notice that a lot of the photos from that collection happened to be of the people who were attending this alum sing. So I made a new folder and thought a song might go well with it and settled on Judy Collin’s version of In My Life. As I clicked through the photos with the song playing, many of them old black and white photos that carry a certain mythological dimension, the tsunami arrived. I wept and I wept and then I wept some more. 

And that is precisely what I needed to do. It was the proper response to the unfathomable gratitude that I got to live the life I led at the school with these ordinary and extraordinary human beings and likewise the proper acknowledgement of loss, of mourning for something that is now gone. Not just because I’m leaving, but to be honest, because the whole nature of the school is tainted by the world outside that insists on rules and procedures and protocols and legal constraints with no place for intuition, faith, imagination, nuance. Each one by itself makes sense, but the combined effect of it all is to choke that simple faith that grew the school I have known and loved—feeling our way through the dark with bold risk, spectacular failures, heartfelt forgiveness. I’ve been denying that this is so because inside each classroom, the magic ingredients are still there to create the world as it should be. But the thorns are growing around the castle and some of the beauty is being bewitched into sleep. 

And now, instead of talking about fixing it, the convulsive sobs of grief and gratitude said precisely what needs to be said. Which is there is nothing to be done. Just feel it. Wholly. Fully. Don’t hold back. Let it come. And damn, didn’t that feel good!

So that’s my report. I can’t program anyone else (or myself) to grieve, can’t mandate it, can’t charge people money for my seminar. All I can do is say that living close to tears is much better than banishing your sorrows to the basement and putting on a happy face. But letting the wave of sorrow and joy wash over your whole body—even if once a month, or once a year, or heck, once a lifetime!— is an enormous step to the healing—personal, political, cultural—that we desperately need. Try it.

The Blessings of Order

“Order is the only possibility of rest.”  —Wendell Berry

I often think of Wendell Berry when I’m cleaning my desk—my actual desk or my virtual desktop. There is a satisfaction in the filed papers, pens in a row, folders on the screen neatly arranged against the backdrop of a summer vacation photo, that nothing else can bring. The mind that has been trying to hold too many disparate things at once, that has felt as jumbled as the loose scraps of paper and the screen-filled files, now can rest as ease by putting them all in their place, getting all those scattered soldiers marching in formation. Or better yet, those random dancers unified in a sequenced choreography.

The physical schedule that had a clear and known rhythm—Tuesday was 8th, 8th, 5’s, 5’s, lunch, singing, etc.—and was made tangible by kids entering the music classroom has now been replaced by links and passwords while sitting at my desk. The preschool, elementary and middle school classes all have their own portals and entry procedures, which makes it yet more challenging. It finally settled into some sort of recognizable rhythm, but now it’s the last two weeks of school and all sorts of special meetings and ceremonies have entered the mix. On top of that is arranging the summer courses moved to online, keeping track of the ones I’m already teaching and when, etc. Without the “wheres,” it indeed is harder to keep track of.

The juggling balls in the air have reached a critical mass and it’s time to line them all up in a place where I can see and remember them, get them out of my head and onto some easily findable to-do list, calendar, schedule that I remember to check. I am grateful to have more to do than invent from scratch each day a way of ordering nothing I have to do, but I’m at the edge of the amount of commitments I can handle. But as Wendell Berry suggests, it’s less about the quantity of things and more about ordering them into coherence.

Lest he be misunderstood, let me say that Mr. Berry was talking about something much larger than cleaning your desk. I believe he was reminding us that the apparent chaos of the universe is actual an exquisite, complex and innate order that we are often incapable of seeing and appreciating. That we need to align our human order with the natural order. Here is the rest of the quote, from his book What Are People For?

Order is the only possibility of rest. The made order must seek the given order, and find its place in it. The field must remember the forest, the town must remember the field, so that the wheel of life will turn, and the dying be met by the newborn.

And with that in mind, off I go to clean my desk. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Faith and Patience

Those title virtues might well be the most important qualities for a teacher to cultivate. There is a child at my school who is a bit of a compulsive side-talker. (I’m sure there’s a syndrome with a name for this—like Turrets without the swear words). I especially noticed this in the five years of elementary Singing Time, when it was a rare moment indeed when he was actually with the group singing a song.

Now he’s about to graduate 8thgrade. I’ve had a good year with him, but the side-talking often persisted. I remember one class when I was talking and he was and I said in a lighthearted tone, “There’s two of us talking right now and only one should be. Who?” One minute later, he was talking again. “Didn’t we just have this conversation? Come on, step up to the protocol here!” Still lighthearted. Guess what happened 30 seconds later? Still, in an affectionate and lighthearted but clear way, I called the student’s name and said, “Will you just SHUT  UP!!!” Well, that got everyone’s attention and in this twisted litigious culture, the kids picked up on it and apparently someone reported it and a higher-up reprimanded me with no interest in the context or the tone. Well, that’s another blog post entry in itself. 

But back to my 8thgrader. I never lost faith in this student as a valuable human being and though my patience was often mightily tried, it paid off in the end. For in the last project about a jazz musician, he wrote a wonderful essay about Frank Sinatra, someone who (apparently) he loves to listen to. It was quite late and I was wondering if he would leave school with this work incomplete, so not only was I happy he did it, but I genuinely enjoyed his paper. And so I wrote to him:

You did it! Not only completed the assignment, but I really loved what you wrote, showing your understanding of the complexity of human beings, their failings and their triumphs. And at the end of the day, for artists, it's their artistic accomplishment that lasts and gives people hope, comfort and beauty. And you're right about that voice. It was a gift from the gods and he not only accepted it and used it, but worked hard to use it as expressively as he could and worked hard to get it to the public—1400 recordings! That's extraordinary!

Good work and whatever field you end up in, I hope you'll carry Frank's inspiration to work hard, persevere and bring beauty to the world. (And yes, you can skip the womanizer part!)

Finally, whoever would have thought that that young boy who so often wasn't singing in Singing Time would pick a singer as his inspiration! :-)

Wishing you all the best in the future that awaits you,


Monday, May 25, 2020

End Times: Part II

The next advice to my friend is to tell a story to his daughter from Michael Meade’s book: Why The World Doesn’t End. Perfect title for her question, no?

Written in 2012 (which now feel like the Golden Years), Meade writes: 

To be alive at this time means to be in a  mythical condition that includes being faced with all the massive problems and impossible tasks that currently plague the modern world. It is an extraordinary time as both nature and culture need all the healing and creative attention that people are capable of giving. There is an increasing sense that time is running out and whatever can be done must happen immediately. 

Yet old mythological ideas suggest another way of seeing the situation. When time is running out, when no one can find time anymore, it is not simply time that is missing but the touch of the eternal…

In a time of many endings, it is important to have a sense for lasting things, a narrative feel for life, and a reverence for the unseen. In the end, or near it, the real issue is not simply the future of humanity, but the presence of eternity.”

Take a moment to ponder those wise words. While asking ourselves the necessary question “What can we do?”, don’t forget to include “How shall we be?”

The book's central story tells of an old woman in a cave who is weaving a beautiful garment. The only time she interrupts her work is to occasionally go to the back of the cave to stir a soup that has been bubbling there a long time. Each time she goes back, a black dog grabs hold of a thread of the beautiful weaving and begins pulling it until it completely unravels. When the woman returns to the weaving, she finds it in chaos strewn about the floor. She then sits down to weave again, not trying to duplicate the former garment, but to re-imagine it and try to make it yet more beautiful. Of course, when she goes to stir the soup again, the dog unravels it and the whole drama starts again—an endless cycle of creation and destruction. And so the world will never end, just perpetually be re-imagined and re-woven by the collective imagination of each and every one of us. The black dog takes many forms—plagues, wars, big cultural shifts. And now it feels like a pack of dogs—nuclear annihilation, overpopulation, climate change, toddlers as Presidents, the corona virus. 

But the story suggests that the weaving will go on. No one knows what the garment will look like—it is awaiting our patient work and aesthetic imagination. And of course, we’re devastated to see the threads strewn in chaos on the floor. But it does no one any good to just say “Bad dog!!” No choice put to pick them up and start making the world anew. 

I think a seven-year old can understand that. 

End Times: Part 1

A friend’s 7-year old daughter recently asked him: 

“Daddy, is the world coming to an end?” 

One of those questions that stops you in your tracks and you know that Siri is not going to help you here. He posted it on Facebook and everyone offered their advice, which made for a stimulating exchange. My two cents is 1.9 cents too long for Facebook so I’ll put it here.

My own thoughts (if one can ever be said to have one’s own thoughts separate from everything people say around you, in conversation, poems, books, etc.) is first and foremost, the obvious. “We don’t know.” Well, I do suspect that the world itself will continue, but whether the dominant species is cockroaches or humans is another question. 

My second sense is that this is a conversation between God (shorthand for some underlying spiritual presence that gives meaning to the whole mystery of life and can be glimpsed in moments of clear vision and sublime attention) and humans, that flawed species given the gift of choice and most squandering it and making consistently bad decisions. If you shrug your shoulders in face of the facts and naively say “God will provide,” you’ve missed it. Likewise, if you confine yourself to the literal facts of science and have no sense of the grander mythological/ spiritual dimension, you also are too narrow in your thinking.  Consider this joke:

A deeply religious man lived in a house by a river. One day, a storm came, the river overflowed and the house was flooded. The man climbed on to the roof of the house and a neighbor came by in a boat and said, “Climb aboard.”

“No, I’ll stay here,” said the man. “God will provide.”

The waters kept rising and the man climbed up to the top of his chimney. Another boat came by. “Jump aboard!” 

“No, I’ll stay here,” said the man. “God will provide.”

Now the water was rising to the man’s waist. A helicopter swooped down. “Quick!” said the pilot. “Climb aboard!!”

“No, I’ll stay here,” said the man. “God will provide.”

The water continued to rise and the men was swept off the chimney and he drowned. Up in heaven, he went up to God and said, “Hey, I thought you were supposed to take care of me!”

God answered: “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want?!”

In short, there may indeed be a grander sweep to our human drama that wants us to survive and thrive and if we can touch that feeling—again, through attention, through an open heart, through the capacity to still feel wonder and feel part of something beautiful and mysterious— it can bring us the kind of faith and comfort we long for in these difficult times. But at the same time, it’s not a story handed down to us that we either believe or reject, it’s a story that we are co-participating in, writing in every action and decision we make. The future is not a finished script awaiting us. We are writing it in each moment of the present time. It’s an ongoing work-in-progress and God has sent us the boats and helicopters of intelligent thought, caring hearts and prodigious imagination to do our part.

Stay tuned for Part Two.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Beware the Postcard

Remember seeing some postcards of idyllic beaches or mountain lakes or the grandeur of Yosemite Falls? You sigh wistfully wishing yourself there, sipping your gin and tonic in the vacation of your dreams. And then, fate willing, you find yourself in the exact spot where that picture postcard was taken. And then—too late—you realize you’ve been duped.

The pristine postcard beach didn’t communicate the fact that it’s 105 degrees and humid and the beach is jam packed with tourists like you, except they’re playing loud bad music on the blanket two feet away from you. And there are shark-warning signs and biting flies. The tranquil postcard lake neglected to mention the swarms of mosquitoes, the jet skiers and that the sun in the photo has been hidden by five straight days of rain. Yosemite Falls is magnificent, but you forgot that you’d be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for three hours to get there and by then, you’re so exhausted that you snap a quick photo and head for the overpriced park hotel. 

And so a few days ago, I had the romantic notion that it would be lovely to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, thinking it would be a nice change of pace from my neighborhood walks and Golden Gate Park bike rides. I looked forward to the inviting expanses of the water on both sides, the view of the city, the fresh ocean breeze. I was ready to enter into the picture postcard of that symbol of my beloved city, tall, majestic, inviting. And then, once again, I realized that I had been duped.

Because though the views are indeed lovely and the waters shimmering and the boats and skylines picturesque, I forgot about one thing. The traffic! As you’re walking across, you realize that you’re four feet away from a steady stream of cars hurtling by at 60 miles an hour. Pretty much like walking on a freeway. The assault of the sound of traffic is anything but relaxing. Then, of course, the bikers are whizzing by you so you have to be constantly on the alert and while for some weird reason I like that the rail is low, I can’t help but think of the people who have jumped off, two of whom I knew. 

So after walking to the first tower, I turned around and decided to walk to Fort Point down below instead. And that was indeed refreshing. 

So the moral of the story? Beware the Postcard! Remember everything it doesn’t show.