Sunday, March 18, 2018

Larger or Smaller?

When you have a crisis, you either have a greater sense of yourself or you become a smaller person. When you’re facing a big obstacle, there’s really only two outcomes; you either become a bigger person and meet it head on with the full force of your imagination or you become a smaller person. If you go through the crisis and come out the same, it really wasn’t a crisis. A real crisis will change you and it will make you either bigger or smaller. It’s an opportunity.
-Michael Meade: Finding Genius in Your Life

Is America in crisis? Hmm. 400 government posts left unfilled, weekly turnover in the White House, a pathological narcissist with his finger near the nuclear button, a Secretary of Education confused that her 60 Minutes interviewer suggested she actually visit schools, an entire political party excusing something as serious as Russians tampering with our election, the next Me Too story, the next school shooting, the end of facts as viable parts of a discussion, the NRA now standing for Not Responsible A-holes. For starters. I’d say that qualifies as a crisis.

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see” wrote poet Kenneth Rexroth and indeed, I am inspired by all those who are choosing to leave complacency and do the hard work of enlarging themselves—enlarging their point of view, their understanding, their knowledge, their capacity to care and feel deeply even though it hurts, their courage to speak out. And equally depressed by those who grow smaller, keep parroting their comforting clichés fed to them by Fox News and right-wing radio, hide behind some fantasy of “making America great again,” sell their capacity for independent thought and their soul to the Devil of party allegiance.

In the face of what’s going down, America will never be the same. Nor should it be. If we take the enlarging path, we will move closer to the promises of the founding vision—true life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all of us, not just the privileged white male rich. We will enlarge the community of people we’re willing to accept, to talk to, to work with, to play with, to love. We will make larger the definition of economics and factor in the spiritual cost, the environmental cost, the amount we’re willing to borrow against our grandchildren’s future. We will enlarge the definition of education to include both the arts and an artful approach to teaching that keeps children’s curiosity lit, welcomes their questions and imaginative responses, helps reveal their unique character and blesses them in their own way of thinking and makes it all equally available to all as public education. We will enlarge our understanding of religion as different names and paths to the same end, the revelation and celebration of a divine Spirit that lives equally in all. The only down side to the response to enlarge? It takes work. It takes thought. It takes effort. It takes self-doubt. It requires awakening even when we’d rather burrow under the covers and stay hidden in bed.

The smaller path? Mouth the party line, meet no uncomfortable truths head-on, narrow the mind, close down the heart and send the spirit back to slumbering while shopping in the mall, playing video games, watching too much TV, going to the church of no questions, stockpiling money and weapons, dismissing anything you don’t like with “fake news,” denying your own actions (“can’t recall”), spinning everything for your convenience, rejecting all who don’t look, dress and un-think like you. Staying asleep and refusing to awaken.

Then I suppose there’s the middle path of ignoring it all, hoping it will go away, sidestepping the opportunity in some naïve faith that nobody and nothing will have to change. Hint: That’s  not going to work. In a crisis, neutral is not an option.

The students at Parkland and indeed, students all over the country, have had their lives torn open and turned upside-down. At a time when they should be worrying about pimples and studying for the math test, they find themselves on the national stage battling with calloused politicians and speaking truth to power. We have failed to protect them and keep them in their proper realm of wondering what to wear to prom. But in the end, it’s a good thing that they have been thrust into a battle that calls forth their idealism and engages their thought and emboldens their hope. They are meeting the challenge to enlarge themselves far beyond the norm to meet the world head on. I, for one, offer them all my support, encouragement, admiration and love.

And I hope the rest of us follow suit. With the unraveling of life as we’ve known it comes the invitation to re-weave the fabric of our collective lives. None of us know the design or pattern that will lead us to a brighter future, but there is no other choice than get to work and start weaving. Remember there is no neutral. We are either weaving or unraveling. “Bang, bang” goes my loom.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Green Hills to the Left

When Facebook debates push me to despair,
When the nightly news makes me want to tear out my hair.
When civility and sanity seem out of reach…
Why, then it is time to go to the beach.

Green hills to the left, blue sea to the right
Sand between toes, birds soaring in flight.
Midday sun with resplendent light
No matter now who’s wrong or who’s right.

No matter now who’s right or who’s wrong
Let it be, listen to the song.
Of the music of tides, the swishing of grass.
The splendor that endures, the beauty that does last.

To the left, the deep green, to the right, the deep blue
Me in-between, returned to what’s true.

Limantour Beach, Pt. Reyes Station

Thursday, March 15, 2018

17 Minutes

In solidarity with the National Student Walk-out today, 4 of our Middle School students organized a Memorial Service for the Parkland victims. The 4th through 8th graders gathered in the Community Center with black paper and chalk and were invited to draw/ write or leave blank their feelings for 17 minutes. The student leaders read one name for each minute, bringing these young students and teachers into the room, not as a statistic of collateral damage, but as a once living-breathing human being whose life was cut short by our collective failure as a culture. A person with a name who just a few weeks ago was alive and now is no more.

And consider those names. There was a family name that spoke of their ancestry and their still-living loved ones, parents who conceived of them, conceived them, birthed them, fed them, clothed them, nurtured them, drove them places, had fun with them, got mad at them, read to them, sang with them and loved them. In that name might also be grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, all now joined together in inconsolable grief, face to face for the rest of their days with the empty bed where their child once slept, the clothes they wore, the papers they wrote and pictures they drew, left only with memories and the photos on the mantelpiece. Day after day only the shadowy remembrance of the living being who once was and now is no more.

And then the first name. Maybe named for a distant relative or place or special person, investing that newborn baby with a dream of a bright future, a vow to create a shelter for that dream and protect the future, only to have it shattered by a weapon of mass destruction sold for someone’s profit. “What happened to a dream deferred?” asked Langston Hughes and there are many ways to shut down the dreamers, but none more irrevocable than murder. And so these young teachers and students had their futures taken from them, futures they deserved and were worthy of. And who knows? Perhaps one of them might have come up with a viable solution to climate change? And now not.

Did Congress take 17 minutes out of their schedule to properly mourn or grieve these names? I don’t believe they did. Our national habit of a cursory “thought and prayer” and then back to business was all geared up to go and then something remarkable happened. The children said no. They woke up to the fact that the adults were stuck in their years of carelessly-crafted arguments that had shut down their hearts and crippled their imagination and crumpled their once-youthful idealism. And so they took charge. “Enough, “ they say.  “These are our lives and our futures and we say ‘no more!’ We will not sit in history class talking about the Civil War as an issue of State’s Rights or discuss al-gebra (does school realize we’re using Arabic numbers? Is it a conspiracy?) when we fear for what may come through the door. And no, our teachers with guns does not make us feel safer. Get that out of your head.”

After the 17-minutes of silence, kids returned to class. My Jazz History Class resumed and it was perfect moment to play what I had already intended, “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday. Another case of culturally-sanctioned murder, the shameful silence of those who could have done something about it and the determination of a Jewish high-school teacher, Abel Meeropol, to speak out about lynchings by the terrorist KKK. The kids listened with a deep intensity. They’re only 14, but I believe they are more capable of facing head-on the harsh truths of our time without losing hope than just about any member in Congress.

I passed the four student leaders later in the hall putting up the messages from the kids and made some logistical comment about something they might consider for next time. And without missing a beat, one of them said, “Well, hopefully, there won’t be a next time.”

Do you see what I mean about hope? Every statistic since Columbine predicts no end and yet, he still kept hope in his heart that we will come to our senses. And who am I to contradict him? Would you? I hope not.

Blessings to the children. The child is now parent to the adult.

In the spirit of remembering the names and ages of those martyred so the gun business can keep earning big money, I reprint them below. Consider have a private or family ritual of your own, your own 17 minutes to feel the genuine grief and rise up determined to turn this around. Read about them, look up their photo, say each name out loud, take a minute to mourn and renew your vow to protect our children with love, care and sensible policy.

Alyssa Alhadeff-14. Scott Beigel-35. Martin Duque Anguiano—14. Nicholas Dworet-17. Aaron Feis-37. Jamie Guttenberg-14. Chris Hixon-49. Luke Hoyer-15. Cara Loughran-14. Gina Montalo-14. Joaquin Oliver-17. Alaina Petty-14.Meadow Pollack-18. Helena Ramsay-17. Alex Schacter-14. Carmen Schentrup-16. Peter Wang-15.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Freedom of Tyranny, the Tyranny of Freedom

It has been ten days since I left China and I kept meaning to gather some final thoughts on my visit. School and jet lag and life intervened. But I feel impressions still echoing and the short version is this:

By my standards of social justice, free speech, democratic process, public discourse, China is in the Dark Ages. The government seems afraid of the free exchange of ideas, of their citizens forming their own thoughts and speaking them, of encouraging multiple points of view to arrive at a greater or more honest or more inclusive truth. Facebook and Youtube are shut down not only for practical business purposes of cornering the Internet market, but from general fear of ideas different from the Party Line entering the national dialogue. People speaking out against the government or questioning a decision will have their e-mails shut down or lose their job or get sent away or have their family members threatened, whatever the tyranny-du-jour is at the moment. The President decides to abolish term limits (one of the three pillars of a government made safe by checks-and-balances I mentioned in a former blog) and the people have no choice but to shrug their shoulders and accept it. Indeed, the people I spoke with said plainly that the population is apolitical because they know that their opinion means nothing and their ability to influence government is non-existent.

And yet. I walked through the night streets of Shanghai on my last night and they were spotlessly clean. Not a single homeless person was to be seen (indeed, never saw one my whole trip). I never worried that people in the crowd might by carrying assault weapons and to my knowledge, there hasn’t been a single school shooting in a nation with the largest population in the world. No families were torn apart by identifying as red or blue, the outer appearance was prosperity and the few hundred teachers I met were uniformly friendly, generous, spirited, thoughtful and eager to teach their students well. Though I believe to the marrow of my bones that the one-party-line-or-else attitude of the government is harmful to the human spirit, intelligence and just government, the outside appearance is that something is working pretty well.

Especially in contrast with the “freedom” of the United States, where corporate greed overshadows human sympathy even in the face of innocent children gunned down in schools, where you are free to criticize, but unless you have a couple of billion dollars behind you like the NRA or Walmart or the like, you ain’t gonna change much, where you’re free to shut off Fox News or right-wing talk radio, but the brainwashing is doing its work masterfully in ways that any totalitarian government would admire. My streets in San Francisco are every day more littered and more peopled with homeless, I have to spend staff meetings talking about lockdown procedures, my public school teacher colleagues are at the mercy of a clueless and heartless and incompetent woman. So are we really that much better than China?

I still stand by free speech, the legal system and term limits as the beginning points of civilization, alongside public education, health care and fair elections, I still believe that dialogue and discussion is better than unilaterally shutting down dissent and demanding obedience and compliance. But when such discussion is tainted by lies not even trying to disguise themselves as truths, with sheer stupidity not even trying to aim for intelligence, with shouting matches not even aiming for civil discourse. The way free speech is working—and rather, not working— in the United States, is it really so much better than having your voice shut down?

Well, time will tell. Tyranny and justice, prosperity and poverty, independent thought and the party-line, have many different faces and many different effects on a society. I think I know where I stand, but China caused me to re-think my assumptions. There's a kind of freedom inside their tyranny and a kind of tyranny inside our freedom. It’s complicated. But still I stand for the end of tyranny and the rebirth of genuine freedom. And you?

Monday, March 12, 2018

My Life in Salzburg

My agenda today was to work at home (Monday’s my day off) and make sure I got out on a bike this afternoon. So when my colleague called to say she was sick and asked if I could sub, I decided I’d simply bike to school. The ride there is about 30 minutes, a steady slight uphill and then a long sweeping downhill and I arrived one-minute before Singing Time. Had a delightful sing and two satisfying classes with the 7th graders who I hadn’t taught all year (that’s my colleagues’ job). Then back on the bike to face that long sweeping uphill before the steady slight downhill, only this time in a light drizzle. I powered on for the 45 minutes return trip and arrived to meet someone for our 4 o’clock “What Is Orff?” appointment one minute before 4.

I wanted to complain about the difficult bike ride for this out-of-shape traveler and having to face the rain, but the truth is I loved it. It reminded me of a time in my life when I was more consistently happy than just about any period.

The year was 2003, in the Springtime of Salzburg, where I went to teach my first group of Special Course students at the Orff Institute, 16 teachers who had arrived from Japan, Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Turkey, Greece, Finland, Italy, Spain and the U.S. I had six whole weeks to share my life’s work with people so ripe and ready to receive it, a group that had already bonded from 7 months together as strangers in a new land, housed in the very place where Carl Orff had laid the cornerstone. The social dynamic was dialed high to “yeehaw!”, the classes fun, engaging and musical and the sense of adventure exploring this beautiful city together the stuff beautiful memories are made of.

Amidst the many highlights was me staying in a small village a 25-minute bike ride away from The Orff Institut, in a farmhouse next to a church with a landlady who spoke no English to match my no German, tucked up in a cozy third-floor room all by my lonesome, but embraced by a delicious sense of solitude and living a new life in a new place with new people, the kind of renewal my 52-year young self was ready for.

And one of the best features was having an old sturdy bike as my main transport. That meant that each day, I was guaranteed the refreshing exercise of the bike ride in and the bike ride back, starting the day with the muscles pumping and the lungs working and ending the day with the same. And that ride!!! Through this charming village to a large field looking out at the distant Bavarian Alps (one mountain silhouette a dead ringer for Beethoven’s profile), past the zoo where I greeted the lions each day, on into Hellbrun Park with its large ancient trees and spreading lawns, down Hellbrun Allee where Julie Andrews skipped in the Sound of Music and voila!, the welcoming arms of the Orff Institut. And then everything in reverse. So not only exercise, but my eyes filled with beauteous sights, my ears tickled by morning birds and roaring lions and church bells, the fresh air in my nostrils along with the farm smells. Legs pumping, class plans dancing around in my brain, my little dimly lit room awaiting me with its warm comforter and books to further awaken my imagination.

“Spring” in Salzburg can mean rain, from the drizzle to the downpour, winds, sun and even snow. I biked through it all, prepared with boots and rain-pants and gloves and if there had been an evening concert at the Institute and I’m riding back in the dark with the snow blowing, I could have complained bitterly. But truth be told, I had never felt so alive! Out there in the elements, moving my body, moving my mind, opening my heart to the beauty and the beautiful people. I loved it!

And so I felt a bit of that again today biking home from school. There’s absolutely nothing to stop me from biking to school every day, rain, shine, hot, cold, putting myself back out there in the world of sweat and chills and meeting the Goliath uphills with my old David legs. But of course, I have become that creature of comfort who’s content to listen to music in the safe temperature-controlled car. In Salzburg, I had no choice and that was perfect. Here, choice is the devil always tempting us to take the easy route—and then sign up for the marathon to compensate. Oh well.

And a confession. I’ve been back to Salzburg and taught seven more Special Course groups in the past 15 years and each time, I stayed in a place a little closer. Until the last time was the new motel a five-minute walk away. I have sold my soul to convenience. But I do always take that nostalgic ride back to the farmhouse in Anif and the last time, knocked on the door. My landlady was still there and she remembered me! So note to self: consider the farmhouse in Anif next time. Even if they don’t have Wifi.