“…What we chose to fight is so tiny!
what fights with us is so great!
…When we win, it’s with small things
and the winning itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
Does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
To the wrestlers of the Old Testament…
Whoever was beaten by this Angel…
walked away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand…
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how we grows: by being beaten, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Excerpts from Rilke’s poem “The Man Watching” (translated by Robert Bly)
The zazen cushion. The piano bench. The blank page. The old grey rug in my music room. These are the venues for my daily wrestling match with “constantly greater beings.” Every day I get thrown to the floor and every day, I get up again and lock arms. On the best days, it’s a beautiful dance, this little David taking on the Goliath of breath, posture and my unsolvable Zen koan, of massaging the 88 keys of the piano's muscled body, of walking across the white snow of the page leaving footprints for the Muse to find me, of sitting criss-cross applesauce with small children who have the power to make me weep. Every day tempts me with Facebook, TV, newspapers, official forms to fill out filed away and never read, the errands I think I need to do, the 1001 distractions that entice me to decline the fight. The things that I could win and remain small. The victory lies in choosing the right-sized battles to fight, the ones that we cannot wholly win.
So each morning in Zen meditation, I sit on my pillow and coordinate posture and breath and feel the edges of the body disappear into a larger World and calm the jumping monkey mind to just sit and enter more fully into the fleeting moment until it has a new thickness and weight. I face the blank page or screen and try to corral the chaos of my thoughts into coherent ideas and images that speak with an energy and eloquence higher than the daily banter. I sit on the piano bench and look for which notes of the piano’s 88 can take the jumble of feeling and emotion and craft them into an intelligible form. I sit on the grey rug with young children bursting with raw energy and extravagant fantasy and help them temper the steel blade of imagination in the fire of disciplined ritual and practice. Every day I am gloriously defeated by them all, but notice how I grow to be thrown down less frequently and that I rise up more quickly and stronger and more eager to enter the fray again. It works.
Two days ago was the birthday (he would have been 99!)of that great American hero, Thelonious Monk. I went to SF Jazz to hear pianists Eric Reed, Fred Hersch, and Barry Harris celebrate it in grand style. Monk was that rarest of artist who took the language of jazz handed down to him and re-shaped it in his own marvelous way of hearing and seeing the world. His compositions are unique and 50 years later, musicians are still trying to mine their depths.
These three glorious wrestlers did Monk proud. Eric Reed turned the place into a rollicking gospel church, Fred Hersch hushed us into a twilight forest and Barry Harris, 87 years old, a man who played at Monk’s funeral back in the 80’s and now lives in Monk’s old apartment, brought us yet further to the edge of our seats. Each note had the weight, wisdom and experience of all that life and struggle behind it and if this culture is ever to understand the glory of aging well, we would do well to look to the octogenarian jazz musician. (Ah, there’s a wrestler’s biggest challenge—fighting against gravity, declining bodies and minds, looking the Angel of Aging and Death square in the face without botox, chin tucks and the like). Near the end of the concert, all three pianists played on two pianos and that was a wonder to behear.
Some unexpected time off from school, my wife away on a trip and the house to myself (that’s another wrestling arena—marriage!), I’m free to fight all my favorite opponents. Today’s project is memorizing 15 Monk tunes ( I already know several). Also on my list is trying to get reimbursed from Iberia Airlines for the things I had to buy when they lost my luggage. That will be a two-hour nightmare through voice mails and/or dead-end e-mails, so I have to choose wisely. I might win, but that small victory will make me small.
Monk it is.