Thursday, July 28, 2016

Tap Dancing Swedish Blues


What I do is me. For that I came. —Gerard Manley Hopkins

I dutifully had big parties for my 40th, 50th and 60th birthdays, feeling like I needed help stepping over the decade line. I needed encouragement, witnesses, good-wishers and friends to mark the occasion and I remember enjoying all three. People are telling me that 65 is another milestone—Social Security and Medicare kick-in, I’d be obligated to retire in most European countries and it just sounds significant enough to warrant another big bash. But instead I just went to school and taught the 4th day of my Jazz Course. And it felt just perfect.

What better way to celebrate another turn around the sun than to keep doing the thing that makes your own light glow, the thing you’ve been circling around for most of those 65 orbits. I did miss having my family around—my wife in Michigan, my daughter in Portland, my other daughter visiting her sister, my sister at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center. But I got a wonderful Facebook video from the Portland crew and later Skyped them just as my wife called from Michigan. So we had a three-way conversation and they sang me Happy Birthday in canon. Not on purpose. Fun.

But the highlight of the day was going back to the Jewish Home where I hadn’t been for these last 6 weeks of travel. I brought the students from the Jazz Course and we played Bach with piano, viola and oboe, sang some Happy Songs from the 20’s and 30’s, featured our tap dancer Aaron and several drummers, had a Finnish Charleston dancer who later sang a beautiful Swedish song, had different singers dish up some Jerome Kern tunes, had a resident (who used to be in Beach Blanket Babylon) sing My Yiddish Mama. Each song a different facet of beauty exquisitely rendered.

My dear friend Fran had just come back from three days in the hospital and it looked like she couldn’t leave her room until the nurse had the brilliant idea of wheeling the whole bed out. We brought her the microphone and she sang (appropriately for what she’d just been through) Everything Happens to Me and then a haunting Embraceable You. Near the end, I played Over the Rainbow and after one time through, asked my class to choose a resident to be with and hold their hand while we sang it again. That was when the drought ended in California— a moment worthy of so many tears that the parched earth was restored.

My friends, I have complained about so much in this life, from the big disappointments to the small First-World problems—and let’s face it, I’ll continue to be annoyed when my suitcase is lost by the airlines for three weeks. But I’d be a fool not to feel the full measure of grace and blessing that has come my way, the good fortune to fall into a path with no end and no borders, a path with heart that perpetually gives back and refreshes me so that when I was playing and singing the Leaving My Mama Blues at the piano to close out today’s session, my friend Edie exclaimed that I looked like I was 35 years old.

And not only the good luck to so thoroughly love what I do, equally the teaching and the music-making and the writing, but to get to do it with so many people and so many different kinds of people, all of whom give back to me with the refreshment of their own beautiful selves. Nothing will stop the march of numbers and the astonishment that they speak something about my own body and mind, but if we have to grow old, we might as well do it with the full measure of our love and humor, tap dancing, playing blues and singing Swedish songs.

It was a lovely birthday. Now for some popcorn and an old movie.

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