Thursday, December 3, 2020

Flowers for Princess Di

Princess Diana died on August 31, 1997 and Mother Teresa on Sept. 5, 1997. Guess which one got the most media coverage?


And so I never followed the Diana story, not interested in playing into the rich and privileged star celebrity culture. But having just watched Season 4 of The Crown and Diana: In Her Own Words, I’m fascinated by her story. It really was a fairy tale life, not in the superficial sense the media means it, but in a deeper mythological vein. 


Consider: She was the youngest daughter in the Spencer family. In the fairy tales, it is the youngest one who is set apart, who accomplishes the needed tasks the older ones often fail to carry out. She recounts that she always felt herself apart, with some intuitive sense of a great destiny awaiting her. 


Meeting Prince Charles was a bit like Cinderella at the ball. Of course, the Spencers were royalty and she was not shoveling ashes, but she was living with roommates and working in various low-paying jobs (like teaching!). 


After the marriage, the place where most fairy tales end, is the moment where hers begins. She is like Rapunzel locked in the tower of Buckingham Palace, the Queen and the Royal Family not intentionally mean to her, but unpracticed in offering welcome, love and support. Including her emotionally-arrested privileged husband Charles, more interested in polo than exploring a deeper humanity. She is like the neglected step-daughter, thrust by circumstance into a new life that becomes unbearable. In the midst of riches and fame and fortune, she feels yet more isolated, more lonely. Like Cinderella weeping at the hearth, she sits at the toilet vomiting, her unhappiness manifesting as and driven home deeper by bulemia.  


Each day she is attacked, not by monsters shooting arrows, but paparazzi shooting photos. Each and every flash of a camera bulb sends a wound to a soul that only craves a human-size privacy. Alone and unloved inside the palace, assaulted by cameras and cheers outside the palace, there is nowhere for her to be, to fully breathe her authentic self. 

She soon discovers that breaking through the wall of adoration, connecting in short bursts of person-to-person humanity with the screaming, adoring throngs brings some comfort. Simple acts like taking someone’s camera and taking a picture of them or hugging a boy sick with Aids moves her out of the Ice Queen role the public expected and allows her to feel a bit more of who she is and could be.


But then the backlash. Now she is even more excessively adored and the cameras and crowds multiply. And inside the palace, her husband is jealous that she gets more attention and turns his own to his long-standing mistress. Having two children has its healing moments—she genuinely loves and adores them and hugs them and tells them so. But now post-partum depression is added to the bulemia, isolation and media assault. Kids, be careful what you wish for—being a princess is no fun!


Back a few posts ago, I wrote: All wisdom traditions agree that the light shines through the cracks in our armor, that our wounds are the entry points to our larger selves. Betrayals in the human world are often necessary to the soul’s awakening. 


And so it was with Diana. Prince Charles seemed stuck in his small world (though to be fair, would be interesting to hear his side of the story), but in the midst of this relentless and deep suffering, the woundings from being unloved by the immediate family and overloved by the media-soaked crowds let some light into her soul’s calling. She throws herself into working with those wounded literally by land mines and Aids viruses, especially the children, and uses her fame and privilege on behalf of them. She becomes a sexier, more glamorous, but possible equally important and effective Mother Theresa, not in spite of her fairy tale life, but because of it. 


Then from the fairy tale to the Greek/ Shakespeare tragedy. She became affectionately known as Princess Di and add an e to that and you can see that it was not going to end well. That the very thing that haunted and stalked her her whole life long was following her through that tunnel with cameras poised to shoot and that the driver’s careless mistake trying to flee them became the tragic flaw that led to her death. (Interesting enough, she was buried with a rosary in her hand that Mother Theresa had gifted her. Yet more proof that this was a story that had to be.)


The thousands of flowers placed in front of Buckingham Palace by her mourners at her funeral were testimony to an impact that began from superficial star worship and moved in the course of her life to soulful human appreciation. 


This little piece is my own offering, a small bouquet of flowers to a fellow human being who suffered greatly and worked with her wounds to bring some light and healing to the world. 

R.I.P. Princess Di.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Divine Rights

The jazz pianist Art Tatum. The British royalty Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The German philosopher/poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Today’s assignment—make a connection between them. 


• Art Tatum was a virtuosic jazz pianist who astounded everyone—including other virtuoso pianists like Vladimir Horowitz— with his impeccable technique, clear tone and dazzling imagination as he improvised instant re-compositions of jazz popular songs. Thanks to Norman Granz, he was sufficiently recorded to leave behind an aural legacy of his genius. Yet he never performed in Carnegie Hall, there is barely any film footage of him and he spent most of his professional life performing in nightclubs with audience members talking while he played. When he died in 1956, his savings amounted to $6000. Every jazz musician knows his work, but it is unlikely that more than 2% of the American population knows who he was. 


• Prince Charles is the eldest son of Queen Elizabeth who married (and later divorced) Diana Spencer, known later to the world as Princess Di. When they married, tens of thousands of people lined the streets cheering in festive revelry as if the Golden State Warriors had won another NBA Championship or Joe Biden had won the election. When they traveled to Australia, the streets were again lined with thousands and thousands of adoring British subjects. While watching those scenes recently in The Crown and later Princess Diana: In Her Own Words, I couldn’t help but think: “All that attention—for what? What had they done other than be born into a royal family and played polo or put on a nice hat? Without having had to accomplish a single noteworthy thing (as Art Tatum did), they simply rode on “The Divine Rights of Kings” that convinced whole populations that what the royal couple ate for breakfast was worthy of front page stories.” (This was well before Diana actually had done some good works and revealed a humanity that touched people). 


• And Goethe? When I turned my calendar page to December, this was the quote:


“So divinely is the world organized that everyone of us, in our place and time, is in balance with everything else.”   


So Art Tatum is graced with a divine spark of genius that he meets head-on and cultivates through hours and hours of disciplined practice and then generously shares with the world. Prince Charles inherits a human-fabricated mythology of the divinity of royalty and does little to meet it beyond showing up for the newspaper photo. 100 people in a club pay scattered attention to Art Tatum, 10,000 people in the street cheer for Prince Charles just because. What’s wrong with this picture?


But Goethe suggests we all have the possibility of participating in the divinity of the world, that it is not enough to ride on the coattails of the stars and celebrities, but watch for our own place and time and understand that each person’s divine spark is in balance with all others. 


Stay tuned for more on Princess Di. 

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Three Levels

Do you know people who have gone through this life unscarred by disappointment, by unfairness, never having felt unseen or unheard or unknown? If so, I’d like to meet them!


A simple survey of any random ten strangers on the street in any neighborhood worldwide would be testimony to this simple truth—no one gets through this life or year or heck, sometimes even a day!—without feeling wounded in some way. Life’s arrows, be they intentionally aimed or randomly fired, eventually hit us all. 


If we accept this truth—and really, what other choice do we have?— the first question becomes how we read what happens, what stories we tell that help make sense of it all. I’ve found it helpful to look at this from three distinct perspectives, three layers of storytelling. 


The first is political. Analyzing what happens sometimes reveals socio-political forces that drive things to happen in predictable ways based on the logic of previous assumptions. Rather than read an incident as a personal attack, it becomes understood through the lens of these assumptions, the long line of isms that passed on beliefs and ideologies that harmed and hurt. Take your pick. In this case, we become victims of forces beyond our control, hurt simply because “that’s the way it is” regardless of how we act or treat others. In short, the people causing harm are upheld by institutions that give them permission. 


In child’s terms, this translates as “That’s not fair!!” In the adult world, it’s called injustice.


The second is psychological. Here we analyze what our part in the drama is, what we did to attract hurt or invite it. Did our resistance to our father’s authority spill over to our boss? Did our protection of our mother cause our later relationship to go awry?


In this paradigm, “analysis” means analyzing the emotional patterns that move things in certain directions. By becoming aware of the patterns, we can both understand and possibly avoid the behaviors that cause hurt and harm.


The third layer, the one often least considered and the hardest nut to crack, is mythological. All wisdom traditions agree that the light shines through the cracks in our armor, that our wounds are the entry points to our larger selves. Betrayals in the human world are often necessary to the soul’s awakening. 


So now comes the second essential question—which story are we in? Jacob Blake, shot seven times and paralyzed by police officers protected by our history of white supremacy, does not need to talk about his mother and father issues. Identifying the political forces behind the atrocity is necessary to stopping the violence.


The next time your boss puts you down, some astute psychological reflection may help you understand how you play into the dynamic. Is it his issue or mine or both and if so, how?


As you add up the litany of wrongs from childhood to yesterday, mythological thinking may help reveal a pattern that closed door after door so that the right one could finally open. At the human level, your “it’s not fair!” self might still whine a bit, but your deep self, your Soul is celebrating—“Okay, now we can get to work.”


And finally, the third question. Having considered these three stories, named the one most relevant to the situation, how do we respond? We might re-commit to our work in social justice while fine tuning our emotional intelligence and at the same time, start to consider the bigger picture. Our wounds are not just our wounds, they’re everyone’s. Yes, the particular nature of our particular wounds are important, but ultimately it’s the universal fact of woundedness that we come to grips with and the hard, hard truth that none of it is fixable. But it all can move toward healing when we accept it as our soul’s work. We learn to sing with it, dance with it, play with it, sit with it, walk side-by-side with it. If we’re lucky, we come to ultimately forgive and even thank the people who wounded us.  


As you can see, I’m still working this out. Hope something is of interest to someone somewhere. 

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Good Ole Bad Boys

Youtube is a marvel. Each week preparing for my Jazz History Class, I discover another treasure. The most recent was a celebration of Duke Ellington’s 70thbirthday at the White House. The year was 1969, Richard Nixon was President and this was one of the first times that notable jazz musicians performed here. From the Whorehouse to the White House was the path of racial progress precisely in Duke Ellington’s lifetime. 


Joining Duke were other luminaries like trumpeters Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie, pianists like Billy Taylor, Earl Hines and Dave Brubeck, Milt Hinton on bass, Louis Bellson on drums, Joe Williams singing and yet more. None of the black musicians had to come in through the back door, in fact where announced like royalty as they stepped from their cars. In various combinations of musicians, they played many of Duke’s signature tunes, took a break and had a snack—all together, blacks and whites eating food in the same room. When they came back, the floor had been cleared for dancing and the played some more, and some, like Duke, also danced. 


Finally the moment came to award Edward Kennedy Ellington with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of all he did to bring happiness to people in the United States and the world at large. Nixon himself presented the award, with some elevated speech about the importance of what the award represents, Duke met the occasion with his own eloquent statement about the four freedoms—and then kissed Richard Nixon on the cheek. Four times! Nixon then went to the piano and played Happy Birthday while all sang along. 


Now let me be clear. I have no love—and never had any love—for Richard Nixon. When he finally left the White House in disgrace, I was in a bar in San Francisco cheering. He was the President I protested against in my first anti-war demonstration in 1969. His involvement in Watergate felt like an outrage. He initiated the War on Drugs legislation that helped create the school to prison pipeline for young black men. His association with the McCarthy anti-Communist hearings back in the early 50’s did little to earn my respect. 


But here he was honoring and kissing Duke Ellington! And talking about freedom and overcoming prejudice and honoring this American art form called jazz by bringing it into the White House and giving Duke the award. This was a different sort of human being altogether from the present incarnation of the Republican Party. 


And then going to my trusty source (ie. Wikipedia) to re-gather some information, I found some other surprising sentences. (If this were a term paper or a public speech, yes, I would research more. But meanwhile it’s just interesting to read the following):


• In early 1957, Nixon undertook another major foreign trip, this time to Africa. On his return, he helped shepherd the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through Congress.


• In 1960, Nixon narrowly lost the election; Kennedy won the popular vote by only 112,827 votes (0.2 percent). There were charges of voter fraud in Texas and Illinois, both states won by Kennedy. Nixon refused to consider contesting the election, feeling a lengthy controversy would diminish the United States in the eyes of the world and the uncertainty would hurt U.S. interests. (Is our current Toddler-in-Chief reading this?)


• In his victory speech in 1968, Nixon pledged that his administration would try to bring the divided nation together. Nixon said: "I have received a very gracious message from the Vice President, congratulating me for winning the election. I congratulated him for his gallant and courageous fight against great odds. I also told him that I know exactly how he felt. I know how it feels to lose a close one."


• In his inaugural address, which received almost uniformly positive reviews, Nixon remarked that "the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker"— a phrase that would later be placed on his gravestone.  He spoke about turning partisan politics into a new age of unity:

“In these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words; from inflated rhetoric that promises more than it can deliver; from angry rhetoric that fans discontents into hatreds; from bombastic rhetoric that postures instead of persuading. We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another, until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”


None of this casually excuses the bad decisions Nixon made, but it does paint a portrait of a more complex human being than Mr. T, gives a picture of a flawed man who did some honorable things, admitted mistakes (see the David Frost interview) and genuinely cared for his country beyond his own personal power. On his worst day, he was light years ahead of the narcissistic psychopath so many chose to define and represent our country on his best day. (And was there a best day?)


But despite Trump's predictable inability to concede, to congratulate the winner, to encourage unity, to consider how his actions diminish our national character, he’s heading out and there’s hope we can return to the worst amongst us at least having some of the qualities of the man who kissed Duke Ellington in the White House.


Now go watch for yourself and enjoy!


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Another One Bites the Dust

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, each December I would go to Mt. Baldy Zen Center near L.A. and spend seven days in an old Boy Scout cabin sitting still with pained legs trying to breathe my way back to some Original Buddha Nature. It was a marathon-style challenge, but you emerged from the silence (no talking for a week!), the physical pain, the mental self-doubt, feeling more vibrant and alert and alive then you ever normally do. 


And it was in this state of mind that I would return to San Francisco and often go to Cost Plus to shop for Christmas gifts. From the austerity of rocks and pines and silence to the cornucopia of things to buy, the bustling store, the bright lights, was quite a transition, but weirdly kind of fun. Cost Plus is where my wife and I bought our first Christmas ornaments (probably around 75 cents each and we still use them!). It was here that we could find things imported from the countries we had recently visited around the world— Indian bedspreads, Turkish throw rugs, Indonesian angklung, alongside food and spices. (My last visit to Cost Plus was back in January when I bought some Vegemite!).


And so the other day, we chose the Fisherman’s Wharf area for our new tradition of exploring (or re-visiting) another neighborhood in San Francisco. We decided include a stop at Cost Plus in search of papadums and a little nostalgia invoking that holiday shopping we used to do all those years back. As we turned the corner to face the store, we were surprised to discover that it was gone! Empty. No sign saying “thanks for all the years” or “we’ve moved.” Nothing.


And so invoking Queen’s song (my shameless attempt to attract more readers), there’s another icon of our San Francisco life gone. Joining the Clay Theater, Art’s CafĂ©, Louis’ restaurant near the Cliff House and other long-standing SF memorable places. If those years at Mt. Baldy taught me anything, it was learning to accept impermanence, the inevitable rise and fall of people and places and even whole cultures. But one should never do it casually. If you have loved something long, it is worthy of notice and some measure of grief and loss. And so this farewell to Cost Plus (yes, I’ve heard there are others in the Bay Area, but it’s not the same) and thanks for all the years.


Now, moving on…anyone know where I can buy some papadums?

Friday, November 27, 2020

Cranberry Sauce

I love cranberry sauce. But I never eat it more than once a year and you guessed it, at Thanksgiving. In our family tradition, I’m the guy who makes the cranberry sauce and how I look forward to those little bursts of the red berries as they boil and putting it out on the deck to cool and checking in to see how it congeals. 


So when my daughter hosted this year and said she would make it, I was a little put out. Of course, it’s the simplest recipe in the world, there was no fear that she would ruin it and it felt like some inevitable passing of the baton to the next generation, so why not? But when we arrived at her house (outdoors, of course) and the dishes started coming out, cranberry sauce was not amongst them. Apparently, she had changed her mind, put it on my list of what to bring in a somewhat long e-mail and never alerted me otherwise. I hadn’t read the whole e-mail and so the unthinkable had happened— a Thanksgiving meal without cranberry sauce!


If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is precisely what any teaching worth its salt teaches— be open to outcome, but not attached to outcome. By all means, make plans but be prepared to change them. Decide what is essential and ready to let go the rest. 


And so I ate my first Thanksgiving meal without my beloved cranberry sauce.


And it was delicious.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Call and Response

“… the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That's the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’” —Mary Oliver

And as this blog testifies, my daily answer is “Yes, I would.” But unlike Ms. Oliver, who started each day walking in the woods and marveling at the miracles of frogs, bugs, flowers and trees, my calls tend to be from e-mails, news items, books I'm reading, occasionally the night’s dreams. And then my responses (thank you, Blogspot!) have a place to land rather than circulating aimlessly in my mind. The last Post was prompted by a Facebook message from an old student, this one from another Facebook message from a teacher who took my Jazz Course in New Orleans last summer. She wrote: 


 “Presently, I am attending a professional development session on Racism. I am so grateful for our honest conversations, experiences and shared time where we explored this issue in a safe environment. Just wanted to take the time to say thank you to Doug for the opportunity to learn together and for all of you for sharing your time and experiences.”


And I wrote back:


“Thanks for your note! Talking about racism and social justice in the context of Jazz is a double-win— learning the necessary and important stories for us to understand our own history deeper alongside the beauty and triumph of this great music! Grieving for the world that has been and exulting in the new world we’re building, one based on the practices of a good jazz band—deep listening, responding , finding the next needed notes with a flexible mind well-practiced in improvisation, balancing our unique expressive self in our solos while celebrating our collective connected self in the ensemble passages— and all of it swingin’!”


 Ain’t that the truth. I keep coming back to Wynton Marsalis’s profound observations:


“Jazz is what American could become if it ever became itself.”


Without playing a single note on a single instrument—though a good idea to consider!— we all of us would benefit from living the jazz life. Not the late night drinks and smoking kind, but cultivating the ability to both call and respond. To the different qualities within ourselves, to the people around us, to whatever the world throws at us each morning. To constantly create— and re-create— a new version of our self that brings more intelligence, more beauty, more happiness to each and every moment. 


PS Pasting Ms. Oliver’s quote from a Website, I noticed that the font was one I had never used—Georgia. In honor of the political moment we’re in, I’m publishing this post in this font, responding to the call in this quirky way. Go Georgia!