Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Getting Through


A friend I don’t know on Facebook wrote:

“Is anybody else finding it exceedingly difficult to go about business as usual in the midst of this current reality? How do you do it?”

 And went on to express how her fears and hopes battled with each other each day in her mind. So I wrote back:

If anyone figures it out, do tell. Meanwhile, a few things have been useful for me:

• Keep doing what you do well and/or must do. From water the plants to feed the children to show up at work. Do it even better than usual, more mindfully, more engaged, more present.

• Feel daily life heightened and made more meaningful and serious by devoting a portion to social justice from what ever corner you stand in.

• Do things with others as much as possible. This is not the time to be alone with our thoughts, unless we’re under a tree in solitude and gaining strength from the quiet. Shift our life of extreme individuality and aloneness to collective and communal action and enjoyment.

• Share the fears to get some of the weight off our chests.

• Share the hopes while doing something— a phone call, letter, march, writing a poem, feeding the homeless. Intentional action charges our spirit.

• Fear is real, don’t deny it, but don’t give it the upper hand. It cripples us.

• Hope is real, but go beyond na├»ve wishing. Feel hope as the sense that this action, this thought, this conversation, is right and what the world needs now.

• Look the whole catastrophe in the face without blinking and saying, "Let's dance."

• Give your two cents in conversations like this and don’t think it’s not worth much. If 50 people do it, then we have a dollar!

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Innocence of Children


Lying half-buried in the mud and the muck is a crystal of a pure and simple truth. We wearisome adults don’t notice it. Or choose not to see it. Or decline to pick it up. We put on our heavy boots of dogma and crush it underfoot. We put on our tap shoes and dance all around it. We tiptoe by so as not to wake it up because we don’t want trouble. We put on our slippers of comfort and put our feet up on the T.V. table. We put on our expensive polished dress shoes and decline to step to the side to get them dirty. We put on our running shoes made in China and work more on our heart rate than our heart opening. So many ways to not see it.

It takes an innocent child to notice it, pick it up and hold it up to the light. The other day, my five-year old granddaughter Zadie accompanied her parents to her first political protest. She was mightily impressed by the swirl of movement, the energy in the air, the signs speaking to the new President elected by folks wearing all those shoes. She watched, she listened, she got very quiet, turning over something in her mind. At the end of the march, she turned to her parents and said:

“Now will he be nice?”

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Weekend Workshop


Outside the window of seat 16a, the snow-capped mountains of the Rockies below, with their intricate curves and ridges and slopes and jagged peaks, the long sentences of rivers filled with snow. A world apart from the daily news, aloof from the ill-fated actions and muddled thinking of us puny humans, unconcerned about the havoc we’re wreaking because it will survive even if we don’t. Will the mountains miss us? Will the birds notice we’re gone? Will the bees rejoice that they can feed again on the flowers poking through the abandoned Walmarts?

Not that I’ve entirely given up hope. I’m winging home after giving three workshops to music teachers in Colorado Springs at the Colorado Music Educators Association. Flying out there on Thursday morning, I felt grateful for this weird life of giving workshops to people in school gymnasiums, hotel conference rooms, university classrooms. Since 1984, it has been a steady part of my ritual annual calendar and along with the music room at The San Francisco School, the workshop has been the place of worship, of baptism, of trial by fire. It has been my temple, my courthouse, my playground, my lecture hall. Everything I care about, everything I think about, everything I dream about, is on full display. My hope is to affirm, to reveal, to challenge, to open, to offer questions previously unconsidered, to offer answers previously unimagined. I am at once blended into a circle, leading the line, observing from the side, at once a teacher, student and colleague, at once giving unconditional love and kicking everyone’s butt. Including my own.

My first two sessions were a mere 50 minutes each and that’s brutally difficult to get energy flowing and reach the full stride of the workshop rhythm. Made more difficult by some 150 people in the crowd. But hey, we did it—made some exciting music, created some simple, but dynamic dances almost instantly, shared our creations and filled the room with joy. My thinly-disguised political comments (always in context) seemed to fall flat—and later I was told that Colorado Springs is the heart of the conservative beast, with its Focus on the Family sites, Air Force base and Cheyenne Mountain hollowed out to protect the President in case of nuclear attack. Yikes! But a few people chuckled and later expressed appreciation.

In-between workshops, I wandered around the grounds of the opulent Broadmoor Hotel. My first taste of a little snow that fell Thursday night, cold invigorating air warmed by some sun, ducks and swans on the pond. A paper on my room’s desk listed possible activities that included zip-lines, air rifle shooting and tomahawk-throwing. (Hmm. It’s been a while since I’ve worked on my tomahawk-throwing chops, but these days, it could come in handy.) But mostly I walked about, sat and read, peeked in on a few workshops, retreated to my room and the Facebook party of my friend’s WTF??!!! reaction to the next transgression of common human decency coming down from above.

I did have a wonderful dinner with my friend Paul Cribari and two other spirited Orff colleagues. Paul is 24/7 hilarious, but his best story was promising his two daughters, aged 8 and 6, a dinner of Frozen Pizzas. He baked them and served them and they burst into tears. “These aren’t Frozen Pizzas!” After five minutes of confusion, he finally realized that they expected pizzas topped with characters from the movie Frozen. So Paul cleared it up, but they kept crying. So he sang, “Let It Go!”

Today I walked to my final workshop on jazz and my host said, “Hey! Good news! There’s no workshop after yours, so you can go a bit longer if you want!” So not only did I get to help people play some hot jazz within fifteen minutes and astound one woman with the quality of her xylophone solo with me at the piano, but I had to time to remind them that they had to pay for what we just experienced by vowing to tell the stories to their kids that we keep on neglecting. I’ve been criticized by some for stepping up on the soap-box in a venue when folks just want plans for Monday’s lessons, but never have I felt so proud of it as now. Because it’s not about me just ranting about my opinions to a captive audience, but it’s about connecting my carefully crafted points of views with the pleasure of what they all just experienced. And I have been right. Our purposeful ignorance about the sorrows and glories of our history are now hitting us in the face.

And it’s not just about our fearful leader. It’s about ignorance in all its manifestations of authority that doesn’t know what it doesn’t know and doesn’t care to know it. One teacher afterward told me how discouraged she was because she was forced to make her kids fill out paper tests in most of her music classes. Because it was “the law.” After my usual offer to have me come speak with the lawmakers (which exactly no one has ever followed through on), I suggested she give a Spring Concert with her kids up on stage filling out the answers on paper tests in front of the audience. And at the end, turning to the parents and saying, “I hope you enjoyed the concert. I followed the law exactly and this was the wonderful result! See you next Spring!”

And so, dear diary, that was my weekend. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

The New Enemy

We have met the enemy and he is us.
Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly back in the 60’s

You know what I miss? The enemy! Just before and when I was growing up, we had the Krauts and the Japs to hate, then immediately followed with the Commies and the Ruskies and Fidel Castro and his beard. Later still, we had the Axis of Evil to contend with and then Al Qaeda and then ISIS.  It was so invigorating to have all the bad guys out there so we could conveniently ignore our own history of broken Indian treaties, slave-owners, lynchers, ruthless big business exploiters, imperialist invaders, women-haters, homophobic policy-makers, certified environmental trashers and beyond. Sure, we had out little problems, but this was still the greatest country in the world and the ones to be hated, pitied, warned against, were always “out there.” We took great comfort in the “starving children in India, the South American despots, the war-torn/ famine-ridden Africans, the commie-deluded Chinese, the quaint Europeans stuck in their museums and fancy architecture and so on.” Such a shame that they couldn’t enjoy the wonderful freedoms of being an American—that is a straight white-male Christian white-collar one. What made us “great” was our comforting delusions of being united against “them.”

But when the Berlin wall came tumbling down and Russia collapsed and Mandela was freed and then elected and China made most of our goods and Europe surpassed us in education, health care and general quality of life, the notion of defining ourselves by the enemy abroad began to topple. Such a great moment to re-consider the strange need to create an identity dependent upon an enemy. But instead we took this opportunity to begin eating our own.

Of course, if you believed as so many did, that Native Americans, blacks, blue-collar workers, Latinos, women, children, gay folks, Jews/Muslims/atheists and beyond are something other than “our own, “not “real” Americans, then turning against our own citizens is as American as apple pie—without the acorn mush, collard greens, Irish potatoes, tacos, latkes, falafel and organic vegetables, thank you very much. But in our insatiable greed for money, the controls against monopoly toppled one by one, Corporate America and Wall Street rose unchecked and we began to devour our own children and eat away at whoever stood in the way.

Take Walmart. Comes riding into town like the old gunslingers, buys up the Moms and Pops, builds outside the city limits and Main Street collapses and people drive to the outskirts and then we wage war in the Middle East to get the oil to fuel the cars to drive to the mall to buy the products made more cheaply in sweatshops overseas. So our own factories close, put our own people out of work, local culture dies and Walmart takes all of the profits.

And then the most incredible thing happened. Without a single shot being fired, we elected in a “fair” election (well, let’s not talk about Russia’s part in it), the leader of our own demise who despite a few million less in the popular vote, feels he has our permission to make America the old kind of “great” (all those citizens who aren’t “real” Americans) and start shooting ourselves in the foot and eating away at our own body of democracy.

And we did it. Not the Nazis, not the Commies (well, again, Russia), not the terrorists. It was us. Or at least the gerrymandered Electoral College us. And all the people whose jobs got shipped overseas were so duped and deluded that they voted for the guy who was part of the 1% who made it all happen. Who claimed he was turning America back to them (wink, wink) and getting rid of all or shutting down all those pesky other pseudo-Americans who dared to look, feel or think differently. Twitler rises to the top and nobody notices. Well, except for some 4 million people worldwide who gave up shopping at Walmart last Saturday to say that this Emperor has no clothes and it ain’t a pretty sight.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow. We’ve chosen castor oil as the daily condiment of our new cuisine and we better get used to it. The carnage has begun and is simply extraordinary. Even conservative Republicans are shocked.

Of course, we have another choice. Recognize once and for all that the enemy is us, and us is our fellow workers, family members, colleagues and citizens in states that can feel more foreign than any country in the world. The enemy is also apathy, ignorance, greed, manufactured distrust, hatred that we all potentially carry and that we all need to recognize and work to overcome. That’s the common enemy that could and should unite us. But that would require a subtlety of thought that makes for bad T.V. and apparently is beyond our capacity at the moment. Maybe it's time for a Martian invasion. Get the enemy back out there where we like him. 


How Are We Today?

I understand that when we greet each other with “How are you?” no one really wants to hear the answer. Unless it’s a serious sit-down meal between two old friends who haven’t talked for a while. And even then, just as you’re talking about the devastation of your messy divorce, you’re liable to be interrupted by your friend taking the phone call from their kid asking where the Cheerios is.

Let’s face it: We Baby-Boomers are probably the most self-involved, narcissistic, obsessed-with-our-feelings generation to ever come along. And I was part of the movement. My father was emotionally repressed, part of the male grin-and-bear-it, buck-up-and-take-it, never-talk-about-your-feelings-but-just-go-to-the-bar-and-drink-down-your-sorrows model (though he never did the latter). So I was only too happy to grow up on the cusp of the feminist movement and become a sensitive male. The ethos was that it was cool for men to be gentle and share their feelings and read and write poetry and cry and such. I did all of these things and still do.

I also got into Zen meditation and the daily practice of monitoring my spiritual temperature. So conversations (after the 7-day silent retreat) often centered around how much in-the-moment you are or how you were flooded with spiritual light or how your relationship with the Divine was going. The New Age spiritual-practice-du-jour continued the measurement of your biorhythms, the amazing good feelings your cleansing diet evoked, the remarkable breakthroughs in your therapy when you forgave or wholly rejected your parents and all the other babble that put you in the center of the universe and allowed you to pretend that everyone cared so deeply how you were progressing. And then came Facebook.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect that all of it was necessary and important and perhaps helped move us up the human evolutionary scale. But then again, maybe not. As James Hillman said in his book title: “We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Therapy and the World Is Getting Worse.” Because if all that work—physical, dietetic, therapeutic, spiritual, artistic—becomes or stays wholly personal and self-involved, it falls short.

Right now, for example, I don’t feel like answering when people ask “how are you?”, as in “I had a great bike ride and eat oatmeal every morning and I feel great.” Who gives a rat’s ass? And what kind of achievement is that in the face of what’s going down right now (and forever) in this country? I think a much more interesting question, a much more useful conversation-starter is “How are we?” What have we done as a people lately that merits praise? 

So next time someone asks me “how are you?” I might answer, “I don’t know but let’s talk about how we are. What happened today that we as a culture, as a community, as a nation, did that might move the dial toward further health and happiness, joy and justice? Who spoke up bravely? Who kept hiding the truth in a fantasy world of alternative facts? Who sat by and said nothing? And if we asked these questions daily, our personal state-of-being might finally join hands with our collective well-being and things would start to get interesting.

So I ask you, dear Reader. How are we today?