Monday, April 22, 2013

The Living Pond


I’m no biologist, but I have this image of what constitutes a healthy pond of water. I imagine it being fed by a mountain spring at one end with an outlet feeding into the waters further down the mountain on its way to the ocean. That movement insures a constant cleansing and refreshing, the flow of a healthy organism. If the spring were to be cut off, no new waters could enter and the pond would eventually drain itself and disappear. If there were no outlet, it would back up and overflow. If both ends were closed, it would begin to stagnate. And as any Biology 101 class will tell you, stagnant water becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and various bacteria and parasites dangerous to our health.

I’ve just returned from two most glorious days in the Carmel Valley with some 80 beautiful souls gathering to partake of the theme of Jazz and Orff Schulwerk: Roots and Branches. A more harmonious, spirit-lifting, soul-stirring time would be hard to imagine. As a Conference host and teacher, I opened on Friday night with the old children’s song:

Old Man Mosie, sick in the head, called for the doctor and the doctor said.
‘ Please step forward, turn around, do the Hokey-Pokey and get out of town!’”

I congratulated everyone on having the good sense to listen to their inner doctor and get out of town to refresh themselves. I invited them to step forward out of their known comfort zone, turn around to see the things that we miss when we habitually look in one direction only, get up and dance—after all, the Hokey Pokey is really what it’s all about!

I believe that the ensuing two days was indeed just what the doctor ordered and what magnificent doctors there were! My fellow teachers Linda Tillery, Marty Wehner, Derique McGee, Sofia Lopez-Ibor, Connie Doolan, Jackie Rago (and informally, my Ghanaian xylophone teacher S.K. Kakraba Lobi, pictured above) each brought the gifts from their little corner of creation to the enthusiastic participants with the full force of their life’s work and delivered it with passion, clarity and dedication to passing on the good news.

The Saturday night Untalent Show was as remarkable a testament to the depth and breadth of human possibility as one could ever hope to see, opening with my Pentatonics Jazz Band (Joshi Marshall, Sam Heminger, Micah McClain, Marty Wehner, Connie Doolan, myself and guest artist Zack Pitt-Smith) and closing with me playing solo piano with lights off and everyone lying down on the floor. In-between were some 40 to 50 performers astounding us with their virtuosity, surprising us with their quirky creativity, tickling our funny bone with their humor and touching our heart with their sincerity.
Sunday morning we completed the workshop offerings and that gathered in the barn theater for the closing. After a short Ghana xylophone piece adapted for Orff instruments, an 80-person band playing the catchy tune Sway and a Hambone jam, we offered the well-deserved thanks to all who had made this possible—my fellow conference chairs Jeannie McKenzie and Bee Tee, Hidden Valley director Peter Meckel, the cooks and many more— and then I said some final words.

Here is where I invoked the image of the living pond and the way our time together had gotten the waters swirling and churning. Look up stagnant in the dictionary and you see descriptions like this: “Not moving or flowing. Foul or stale from standing. Showing little or no sign of activity or advancement; not developing or progressing; inactive; lacking vitality, sluggish or dull.” You could feel in every minute of the weekend how our vitality had been strengthened and renewed, our progress jump-started, our stuck parts unglued and moving again. We had swum together in the refreshing waters of the living pond, cleansed ourselves in its healing waters, splashed around together going nowhere in full delight in the play of it all. A present filled with the presence of the past has a different weight and texture to it, with more vibrant and cleansing water in its pond and I believe we all felt that.

But as if that weren’t enough, there was something else that had happened there. Those mountain springs were the voice of the ancestors, the griefs and exultations, triumphs and failures of the past feeding into the pond of our present moment. By singing their songs and dancing their dances and playing their music, we had brought the ancestors into the room to witness it and encourage us. Because all of this joyful music came from the depths of human depravity, ignorance, hatred and greed in the form of the slave trade, we were helping to heal the hurts by telling the stories of those who have come before, from Avon Gillespie to Dizzy Gillespie, from Bessie Smith to Bessie Jones, from Linda Tillery’s Uncle Tom to Tom Jobim.

And then here we all were as teachers, dedicating our lives to the future by meeting the children we teach in the present. I showed a picture of my granddaughter Zadie and thanked everyone for doing the work to help clear her future path as a mixed-race person. And, of course, to help create the future all children deserve. Our living pond, fed from the past, was heading toward the outlet of the future, flowing to the ocean were we will all meet again, past, present and future dissolved in its vast waters.

The room was quiet in only the way that rooms get quiet when an image takes hold and gives language to our deepest hopes and possibilities. The springs of the past feeding into the refreshing waters of the present leading to a more loving and needed future. That image put the experience of a bunch of folks having a romping good time together into a higher perspective, granted a dignity and importance to the work far beyond “party!”

Then from the words and the image back to jumping back into the pond as Linda led us to a sung and danced finale that made Mardi Gras seem like a dull church service. My deepest gratitude to all who made this possible. Louis said it all: “It’s a wonderful world.”

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