Every two weeks for the past 21 years, I meet with a group of men. We began spawned by the fervor of the “men’s movement” in 1990 and have remained steadfast beyond the rise and fall of cultural fashion. Sometimes we have a given topic, sometimes the dramas of eight lives is topic enough. But we always begin with a check-in and no matter the details, mine can usually be summarized as “Heaven and hell, gentlemen. Heaven and hell.” It may lean toward one side or another, but even in the shining glory of a fortnight filled with accomplishment, glory, revelation or sheer pleasure, the dark shadow of hell lurks in the background. And vice-versa—though its light is obscured in my tangled, hung-up mind or aching heart, heaven’s dawn is just a few bird-songs away.
A couple of days ago, it was hell’s turn to visit. A conversation that left me feeling unknown, unseen and unwanted in a community that I thought was home (I’ll keep the contents of that laundry tucked away in the closet here) grabbed me by the throat and threw me down. I went home and had to write out the words for the next day’s jazz piece (work doesn’t care how you feel—onward, soldier!) and it seemed like they were written for me: “Every mornin’ finds me moanin’, ‘Cause of all the trouble I’ve seen. Life’s a losin’ gamble to me. Cares and woes have got me moanin’. Every evenin’ finds me moanin’. I’m alone and singin’ the blues. I’m so tired of payin’ these dues. Everybody knows I’m moanin’”… Yeah! Nothing like a little blues to remind you that you’re not alone when you sing them and work it out with a few well-chosen flatted fifths.
After that, I played Bach, who remains a constant source of consolation. With his dazzling mathematical configurations, he’s known as a composer of the intellect. But it turns out that playing through the labyrinth of his complex thought softens the jagged edges of the heart. There is passion and soul hidden in the figured patterns of those notes, not the hand-wrenching sobs and passionate displays of Chopin, but a more understated emotion that surprises you when you discover it. Friends, next time Mr. Blues is pullin’ you down, play through a Partita and see what happens. Or at least listen to the Mass in B Minor.
The next day began with dark clouds again and not a silver lining in sight until I practiced Philippine pole-dancing (no, not that kind!), played jazz with 8th graders and sang with 5-year olds. Then three boxes arrived and there were the books my colleague Sofia Lopez-Ibor and I had waited for after almost two years of steady, difficult and detailed work. On her part, that is. She is the author of Blue Is the Sea: Music, Dance and Visual Arts—I am the mere publisher, through my company Pentatonic Press, as well as friend who supported and occasionally advised throughout the process. I patiently waited for her to arrive at school before tearing open the boxes and seeing the marvel of work captured between two covers, in full color prints on glossy paper. The light of heaven glowed on each page. Things were looking up.
Then on to the Jewish Home for the Aged and a luncheon for all residents with birthdays in April—on the exact day of my mother’s 90th birthday! To borrow her favorite expression these days: “Imagine that!” We ate a delicious mushroom soup with garlic bread and at one point she blurted out, “This is the best birthday I’ve ever had!” St. Peter's hand was firmly on the doorknob.
Back I rushed to school to continue rehearsing for next week’s Spring Concert—and in case you’re wondering, the second graders are now almost ready—and on to a parent-staff meeting where the 17 kids going to Salzburg with James, Sofia and myself this summer performed their dazzling body percussion routine to open the proceedings. By now, trumpets were sounding and angels playing harps—with a jazz inflection.
But my day wasn’t over yet. As I was packing up to leave school, a four-year old girl came with her mother into the music room. Her mom said, “She has something she’s been wanting to tell you since you came back to school from your travels.” And the girl said, “Welcome back, Doug.” After they picked me up sobbing from the floor, I gave her a hug and went on to a delightful and delicious dinner alone at Little Nepal restaurant on Cortland and then on to…the men’s group. I came prepared to open yet another difficult conversation about belonging and vulnerability and I did and felt over two decades of caring for each other flood the room. It buoyed me up, made me feel welcome and isn’t that all any of us want? To be in the club, invited to the party, to feel like we belong? But not at the expense of who we are—you can’t join the club that makes you leave parts of you outside without doing damage. And you can’t stand outside the door, alone with your whole self, without a different kind of damage. To find where we belong and to whom—that’s a life’s work.
Let’s see what tomorrow brings.