Saturday, December 14, 2019

Shaped By Absence

In talking about the time and place and culture in which we grew up, poet David Whyte notes how we are shaped by the presence of certain values and influences, but adds this intriguing thought: we are also shaped by the absences. In my case, for example, a music education based on deciphering written notes while seated at the organ or piano and singing (poorly) forgettable songs seated in desks at school eventually developed a hunger for what was missing. And my life’s work became cultivating the kind of music education I wish I had had— more body, more soul, more intuition and imagination, more intellect and improvisation, more ensemble work and convivial community connections, all qualities found in my unconscious search for and discovery of Orff Schulwerk. The presence of Bach and Beethoven in my childhood was significant and echoes down to this day, but the absence of West African rhythms, Bulgarian meters, Balinese interlocking parts, Brazilian dancing and jazz omni-present in movies and radio making its way to my own fingers was equally influential in shaping the direction my life eventually took.

Likewise, some deep sense of spiritual connections that came to me in moments of grace didn’t fit into any prevailing notions of Jesus as my savior or a vengeful Yahweh including me as one of his Chosen People. Thoreau and Whitman gave me some of the first language of a sense of belonging to something larger than the daily round and this later opened the door to a Zen Buddhist practice. There was nothing growing up in New Jersey in the 50’s and 60’s that would have aimed me in that direction. Indeed, it was the absence of a way into spiritual belonging other than unthinking faith and belief in an old story surrounded by empty ritual that got me wondering if there might be another way in which I might be able to experience directly my place in the cosmos. 47 years after my first Zen retreat, I still sit every morning and breathe my way into a connection that needs no dogma. 

Finally, my painful sense that school was so much less than it could be got me searching for the language to describe it, found first in the books of A.S. Neil, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, later in the earlier works of Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead and then put into motion by the immense good fortune of landing in a school where fellow teachers and parents were driven by the notion that “there must be a better way to do this.” 45 years later, that moving target is still moving as we add, subtract, adjust, refine, widen, deepen an ever-evolving culture trying to give children what they so deeply need. There is so much present in our offering that still echoes on in the lives of our alums. And yet, by necessity, there are also the absences that keep them seeking for the things we missed. And so something as close as we can get to alive, alert, caring, kind and just plain fun human beings is released into the world. 

Shaped by presence, shaped by absence. Which defines your own life journey and how? Good food for thought alongside your breakfast today.

Friday, December 13, 2019

A Good Day's Work

Having taught together for some 41 years, my wife and I never went through the “how was your day, dear?” routine. But now in her 4thyear of retirement, it has become standard practice when I walk in the door. 

“How are you feeling?” she asked as I walked in the door at 7 pm and a 2-second body-mind scan revealed, “Exhausted in the way you are after a 12-mile hike or a day of vigorous physical work. A good kind of tired.” But still, not the kind to generate scintillating dinner conversation and she graciously understand when I left the table while she was still eating and just sat in the corner looking over the new Orff Echo magazine that came through my door. 

It was an intense day that went exactly as described in the morning’s post, with the added miracle that everything went fairly smoothly and the 4thgrade actually got to a place in their play preparation that helped me feel, “They’re going to make it!” I managed to do reasonable service to a few of Bach’s French Suites at the Jewish Home for the Aged, went back to school to put the finishing touches on the stage my colleagues set up (looks great!), drove home in the dark and rain and now the evening ahead. My wife and I started watching The Crown and hey, why not just release myself into someone else’s drama? Goodness knows I earned it. 

And then more winter dreams with the bonus of getting to sleep late on Saturday. Life’s small pleasures magnified larger around Play Production time. And this time next week will be the other teacher’s pleasure—two weeks off and for me, the grandchildren in the house again. It’s a wonderful life—and made more wonderful by hoping I’ll take Zadie to the Castro Theater to see that film! 

Winter Dreams

With the relentless rain, encroaching cold and darkening days, sleep is a robust tea bag and dreams are steeped under warm blankets, rich, colorful, varied and endlessly interesting. But not to anyone else. No one wants to hear of me trudging last night in the snow at 15,000 feet, trying to steal some phrasing from a jazz pianist who used to be my student and now is in the midst of changing genders. But when the light dawned enough for me to open my eyes, I would have preferred to throw the covers over my head and keep watching the unfolding story on the mind’s screen.

But here I am, 68 years old and still beholden to the morning schedule of morning oatmeal and off in the car for the daily commute playing my little game with traffic lights. The children are awaiting, 6thgraders reviewing Holiday Songs, 8thgraders eager to practice their St. George and the Dragon play, 5-year-olds wondering what new rock-paper-scissors game the Intern will teach to them today. The TGIF lunch awaits, but no time to relax yet, with 22 4thgraders needing to get through their whole Phantom Tollbooth play without dropping a line. Then off to the Jewish Home for some piano playing to take us out of time, that ticking clock ticking yet louder—like Captain Hook’s crocodile—singing its song of mortality until overpowered by Bach or Gershwin. 

Then would be the moment to feel the pleasure of work well done. But not today. Back to school to help set up the stage. This the life I signed up for, the life that continues with its “whatever it takes” demands, the life that will shift next June, not wholly with an exhale of relief, but some questioning and mild regret while looking forward to the possibility of staying curled up in bed this time next year, steeped in winter dreams. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Are You With Me?

We all have our habitual little things we say and “by the way” is at the top of my list. But lately when I’m giving a talk in a workshop, I find myself saying “Are you with me?” It’s a nice way to check in with the audience, get them to feel like they’re vicariously participating in the ideas presented and wake them up a bit. 

It’s also one of the worst feelings a teacher can have when a class is not with you. You’re talking about something you think is important and they are looking everywhere but at you, side-talking, tuning out. The psychic scars of not grabbing the attention of your students are real and exhausting and discouraging and dispiriting and even with my enormous bag of tricks and endless years of experience, it still happens to me. Like on Tuesday with both the 8thgrade and the 4thgrade as we worked on respective plays. 

I know the routine. I can get angry with the kids and start talking to myself about how terrible kids are these days (not like when  was a kid ha-ha!) or start self-talking about how bad a teacher I am or how it’s time to hang it up, etc., etc. and etc. Or I can shake it off and prepare myself to be more present myself, to infect the kids with my sense of how fun this is going to be, to joke with them while still being clear about what they can be doing better, occasionally to read them a short riot act about consequences with a firm but friendly voice because after all, we know each other well and come on, let’s have a good time together.

So Tuesday, both groups were with me 100% and what a difference that made! We could mess up in 50 different ways—like the hilarious failures of my 8th grade group of six sword dancers trying to weave the magic star and getting it wrong 10—count them!—10! times in a row before we finally figured out who was messing up and how (and to set the record straight, it wasn’t Sam or Oliver) and still have a good time and insist that we master the particular thing we needed to master. The 4thgrade was open to all sorts of direction as to what would make the scene come alive—simple things like “use your arms,” “react,” “ feel the rhythm in your group”— and miraculously, actually remembered these notes the next time, resulting in a much more alive presentation. 

Life is so much better when the crowd is with you and for the right reason (Trumpies, take note) — you’re doing something worthwhile that brings happiness to everyone involved. 

By the way, I have a question for you, my readers: “Are you with me?”

Monday, December 9, 2019

A Small Glass Ball

To hold in your hand a small glass ball and hang it from the branch of a living tree brought indoors—a whole lifetime is contained in that simple, small act. Memory streams back to that same hand that held the same ball over 60 years ago, but  a smaller hand, less wrinkled and imprinted by the passages of time. The same act of hanging it on a tree branch, but in a different room with parents now gone then present. Perhaps the same music playing— carols sung by Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr.. Outside may have been snow instead of rain, but in both places a mere half block away a park that invites wandering and exploring. 

Back then, all was possibility and future and mortality was a thing for storybooks. Now, so much is past and mortality a more vivid presence, but possibility has not left the room—still there are dreams of some glories to come. Back then, there was gleeful anticipation, those visions of sugarplums dancing in the head, the moment of fulfillment, the aftermath of time off from the greys of daily routine and everything heightened in color, shape, sound, taste. Now the same cycle is renewed, the visions more the vicarious sharing of the grandchildren’s delight, but still the sense of renewal of a more affectionate and kind humanity, a more vibrant edge to all the senses, a comfort that amidst the swirling chaos of all our failures daily displayed on the news, there is something beautiful to be savored in the small act of hanging a glass ball on a tree branch. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Bach's Children

The past 10 years or so, I play some Bach pieces when I sit down at the piano—usually French or English Suites, Partitas, Goldberg Variation. Every day I am astounded anew by his genius. He probably composed more notes than any composer before or after (Guinness Book of World Records, have you looked into this?) but besides his incredible quantity of compositions, written without Sibelius programs, copy machines, electricity to work easily at night, etc. , every single one of those notes is in its proper place in a harmonious and intellectually and emotionally satisfying relation with every other note in the composition. It simply boggles the mind. 

It’s well known that Bach had 20 children and the next question is: “How could he have done all that work with kids around?!!! Not just one or two, but twenty!!!” And the answer is… 

Well, you probably figured it out. I imagine in his patriarchal time, he wasn’t preparing meals or changing diapers or playing catch or card games (though he was giving some music instruction). I’m pretty sure all that fell to the two different mothers. Still though, imagine a household of 20 children!

But it turns out there weren’t 20 children in the house. 10 of them died between childbirth and three-years old. This was fairly common in those days (between 1685-1750), but I suspect that this didn’t make it any easier to lose a child. In my book, it’s one of the most heart-breaking things that can happen to a human being. Losing one child would echo throughout a lifetime in an inconsolable grief that would soften with time, but never go away. Imagine losing two children. Or three. It really is beyond my comprehension. 

But 10! How does one hold all that sorrow? Bach lived in a time where the universe was seen as meaningful and comprehensible, the work of a just and merciful God. He himself was quite devout and perhaps he consoled himself with some sense of some divine plan. Who knows? I have a book called The Bach Reader which tells of his life through Letters and Documents. But this particular book, at least, is all about the details of building organs, applying for jobs, composing this piece of that and I can’t find a single reference of his grief of losing his children. In some future leisure time, that’s a research project I’d like to undertake. 

But if you believe, as I do, that music can hold the extremes of our joy and sorrow, I can only imagine that his non-stop composing was a record of feelings too hard to face directly, but possible to feel in the sounds and silences of music artfully shaped. Which gives me yet a greater respect for this towering figure. 

Has anyone else talked about this? If so, let me know. Meanwhile, belated condolences to the Bach family. 

PS It did occur to me that I may have been taking my usual naive, rosy view of human nature and that perhaps Bach was an indifferent, callous or cruel father who didn't care anything about his children. Looking through a book about his cello suites, I found a letter he wrote to a town official asking him to excuse one of his son's conduct in regard to an unpaid debt. He wrote:

"Since I have now opened my heart to Your Honor, I have every confidence that you will not impute to me that bad conduct of my son, but will recognize that a devoted father, whose children are dear to him, will do everything he can to help promote their well-being."

So back to compassion for his many losses. 

Life Close Up

Thanksgiving at my sister’s in Sebastopol included a walk down Florence Ave. marveling at these whimsical metal sculptures in people’s front yard. I started snapping photos (do photos “snap” on an i-Phone?) and for some reason, started taking close-ups of the art work. To my eye, these were much more interesting and engaging. Which captures your attention more, the first photo or the second? 

So last night at the Magnificat Choral Concert, we were seated far back in the church (cheaper price) and I felt so disengaged. The sound was far away, the people were far away, I sorely missed the sense of participation that being up close creates. After intermission, we snuck up closer and it made all the difference in the world.

I’ve felt this before, the difference between seeing a jazz musician in a jazz club and in a symphony hall. I also feel it in my workshops, the change between 150 people in a circle and 20 or 30. And even in my daily classes, the kids sitting on the risers is different from all of us down on the floor in a circle or a clump. 

In short, intimacy matters. We are made more for participating in life close-up than observing it from far away. Proximity yields different feelings than distance, emotionally, aesthetically, humanistically. We are the new-age Romans, more prone to big spectacle—the Super-bowl football game, the rock concert, the Oscars awards—than the playground pick-up game, the chamber-music concert or jazz in the club, the awards dinner at the small restaurant. Well, they all have their place, but at the end of the day, I know which one I prefer. 

And you?