In talking about the time and place and culture in which we grew up, poet David Whyte notes how we are shaped by the presence of certain values and influences, but adds this intriguing thought: we are also shaped by the absences. In my case, for example, a music education based on deciphering written notes while seated at the organ or piano and singing (poorly) forgettable songs seated in desks at school eventually developed a hunger for what was missing. And my life’s work became cultivating the kind of music education I wish I had had— more body, more soul, more intuition and imagination, more intellect and improvisation, more ensemble work and convivial community connections, all qualities found in my unconscious search for and discovery of Orff Schulwerk. The presence of Bach and Beethoven in my childhood was significant and echoes down to this day, but the absence of West African rhythms, Bulgarian meters, Balinese interlocking parts, Brazilian dancing and jazz omni-present in movies and radio making its way to my own fingers was equally influential in shaping the direction my life eventually took.
Likewise, some deep sense of spiritual connections that came to me in moments of grace didn’t fit into any prevailing notions of Jesus as my savior or a vengeful Yahweh including me as one of his Chosen People. Thoreau and Whitman gave me some of the first language of a sense of belonging to something larger than the daily round and this later opened the door to a Zen Buddhist practice. There was nothing growing up in New Jersey in the 50’s and 60’s that would have aimed me in that direction. Indeed, it was the absence of a way into spiritual belonging other than unthinking faith and belief in an old story surrounded by empty ritual that got me wondering if there might be another way in which I might be able to experience directly my place in the cosmos. 47 years after my first Zen retreat, I still sit every morning and breathe my way into a connection that needs no dogma.
Finally, my painful sense that school was so much less than it could be got me searching for the language to describe it, found first in the books of A.S. Neil, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, later in the earlier works of Maria Montessori, Rudolph Steiner, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead and then put into motion by the immense good fortune of landing in a school where fellow teachers and parents were driven by the notion that “there must be a better way to do this.” 45 years later, that moving target is still moving as we add, subtract, adjust, refine, widen, deepen an ever-evolving culture trying to give children what they so deeply need. There is so much present in our offering that still echoes on in the lives of our alums. And yet, by necessity, there are also the absences that keep them seeking for the things we missed. And so something as close as we can get to alive, alert, caring, kind and just plain fun human beings is released into the world.
Shaped by presence, shaped by absence. Which defines your own life journey and how? Good food for thought alongside your breakfast today.