Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Jumping Over Fire


I’m following Spring around the globe. First, the Setsubon Festival in Tokyo in February where I ate the 59 roasted soybeans. Then home in San Francisco early March, too late for plum blossoms and too early for cherries, but just right for the crab apple blossoms in the Arboretum. And now in Salzburg, where two uncharacteristically warm days appeared as a welcome surprise to everyone. I walked downtown yesterday to rent my bike and none of the usual rental places in the plazas were out. I asked a local ice cream vendor and she explained: “It’s March. We expected it to be snowing.”

So I’m settle back in Room 24 in the Uberfuhr Guesthouse, overlooking the Salzach river, the Schloss castle on the hill visible in the distance, the bridge where the youth sit and hang out close by. Of all the places I’ve traveled, Salzburg is one of the few I keep coming back to time and time again and as the home of the Orff Institute, this is no surprise. I’ve probably come here on the average of once a year for 21 years now, which makes it all the more shameful that my German vocabulary has stayed constant at about twenty words and five phrases. But to my credit, I rarely stay more than two weeks at a time and I’m always teaching in an English-speaking course and thus, constantly around people speaking—well, English. And like so many places in the world, shopkeeper English is high and thus German not a necessity out on the street. I still don’t like not speaking the language of a place, but time is short and real estate in the brain is limited and it is necessity that often drives the choices we make about what to study.

And so it is again that I am here with 16 marvelous people as a guest teacher in the one-year English-speaking Special Course at the Orff Institute. As usual, it’s a blend of folks from the distant corners of the world and that’s half the marvel of the experience. This particular course throws together people from Colombia, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, the U.S., Canada and Iran.

The last group is particularly intriguing, as there is a growing body of teachers from Iran intrigued by the Orff approach that are coming to Salzburg (and San Francisco) to study. I’ve always found them to be a warm, dynamic, sharp-witted and exceptionally intelligent group of people and was delighted to be invited to a celebration last night of one of the rituals of No Ruz, the Persian New Year. An ancient pre-Islamic ceremony to welcome the Spring, its rituals include a thorough house-cleaning (Spring cleaning) to sweep out the old and invite in the new, certain foods and ritual objects to invite in and pay homage to the ancestors and most intriguing—and fun—jumping over an open fire. Just before the jump, there is a spoken phrase about giving your “yellow” (representing sickness) to the fire in exchange for the fire’s red (robust health and dynamic energy). And so out on the deck we went, leaping back and forth over the open fire. Fun!

I’m trying to imagine the reaction from my school’s recently-formed Risk Committee to doing this ceremony at school. Ha ha! Well, in the good ole days, we did used to have a Winter Holiday sing with candles and it is true that one of the teacher’s hair did briefly catch fire. But as often happens, we were an intelligent group of adults who quickly figured out how to handle it and we all survived just fine. And it sure was beautiful singing those songs in candlelight. Now in schools in Australia, a teacher needs a “Ladder License” to be able to climb up to change a light bulb.

I’m all for reasonable precaution, but the Culture of Fear has us by the throat and every day its fingers are tightening. I just finished reading a much-needed and on-the-mark book titled “Life Without Lawyers” that gives the gory details of how we are crippled by our fear of litigation, how it skews our decision-making, tears the cultural fabric and harms children and adults alike. (I knew something was off when a few years back, I gave a time-out to an out-of-control three-year old and he threatened that his parents were going to sue me. I repeat—three-years old.) It is also suggests highly practical and ultimately do-able alternatives that make reasonable efforts to protect us from abuse of authority while shutting-down the mania to sue if we poke ourselves with a toothpick after eating at a restaurant. Highly recommended!! (The book, not the toothpick litigation.)

But at 5 am in the jet-lagged morning, the birds up and about their day with a song, the outlines of bare-branched trees and the distant snow-capped mountains taking shape in dawn’s slowly developing photograph, this is not the time for another Mr. Crankypants’ entry on the demise of culture. I’m grateful to be in a place where the young and old alike lie on the grass on the riverbank breathing in the Spring, where people ride on the elaborate system of bike-paths, many (gasp!) without helmets, and where visiting Iranians can jump over fires on their deck. Happy Spring!

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