Monday, August 31, 2020

Out of the Fog

My best friend Bruce Crookston moved from New Jersey to Ohio when we finished 7thgrade. Determined to keep our friendship going, I decided to visit him the summer after 8thgrade. By myself. Which meant my first flight on an airplane. 

 

I remember so clearly lifting off on a grey, cloud-covered day and feeling genuine amazement when we broke through the clouds into the sunshine. In a prophetic foreshadowing of my future interest in Buddhism and perpetual sense of hope for humanity, I wrote what I considered a deep insight: “The sun is always shining. It’s just the clouds that are in the way.”

 

And indeed, one of Buddhism’s main tenets is that we are all blessed with a Buddha Nature that gets obscured by the clouds of our ignorance. The practice of meditation is one of the ways to waft them away, to break through to the light, to be “enlightened.” And those clouds of ignorance can equally apply to our political awareness and/or our general sense of our own capability to contribute, the way “This Little Light of Mine” has trouble shining in the doom and gloom of our own cloudy minds and delusion.

 

I thought of this all again as I began my 6thday in fog-bound San Francisco, so romantic seen from the Berkeley hills, so dismal trapped inside of it. So I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and behold! my first spot of sunlight all week! And remembered my 8thgrade epiphany. Yes, we—or at least I—need sunlight like fish need water. It didn’t wholly eradicate the recent headlines (take your pick!), but combined with an 8-mile walk, it sure helped.

 

As for Bruce Crookston, we drifted apart and the last I heard from him is when he called me in the middle of my 40thbirthday party, very drunk and very nostalgic for our lost childhood. I’ve looked for him on Facebook a couple of times, but to no avail. Bruce, if you’re reading this, let’s get in touch! But before you start drinking.

 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Zoom Connection

“I’ve had to eat many of my words over the years and I find them rather tasty, “ quipped Winston Churchill and after ranting for years about increased screen time as the downfall of civilization, I’m having quite a tasty snack myself. In the past week or so, courtesy of Zoom, this happened:

 

• I had a workshop with 300 music teachers from Iran, none of whom I could have met in their country or they met me in mine. In your face, immigration patrol!!!

 

• I connected with some distant cousins over a Batmitzvah and got to see folks I haven’t seen in ten or more years. 

 

• I had a reunion with some of my dear college friends who, if I’m lucky, I get to see once every five or ten years. And here we all were together! (And happy to report, all still alive and healthy and doing good things, just as we hoped we would when we first met over 45 years ago.)

 

• I got to play my Sibelius arrangement of a game my granddaughter taught me so she could hear it. 

 

• I’m remembering to take screenshots of everyone in their squares, first time we’ve been in photos together since forever.

 

• I’m piecing together a Fall of Zoom workshops so my teaching muscles don’t atrophy and my life’s mission of spreading the good news of Orff Schulwerk can continue—and even increase! All without the guilt of excessive carbon emission.

 

And so on.

 

Of course, like everyone, I yearn for the renewal of live human contact, especially group music-making and dance. But meanwhile, a heartfelt thanks to Zoom. It helps.

 

 

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Feeling First

 “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”     - Maya Angelou

 

I recently received this note from someone on my workshop mailing list:

 

"I retired six years ago and can't really believe it's been almost twenty years since my last workshop with you.  I keep thinking I'll return just for fun, but I had a heart attack and bi-pass surgery in April, and am still on the mend.

 

I certainly enjoyed the times spent with you and Orff.  I did use a lot of the material the music classes I taught, but more important was how those workshops felt.  I will always appreciate those times."

 

Well, there you have it. 20 years later, the memory of how she felt was still present. I’m lucky that I’m teaching a subject that is in the feeling realm and supposed to bring happiness and joy. Yet how many of our memories of music lessons or classes are painful reminders of how are teacher made us feel like crap? Sadly, too many and my life’s mission is to correct that. 

 

This note and Ms. Angelou’s lovely quote was a good reminder that what we say and what we do is indeed important, but what really counts is how people feel in our presence. My question at the end of each class is not whether the children learned Objective 1, 2, 3 from the National Standards list, but whether they felt more musical than they thought they were. More interesting from my response to their ideas. More lovable from the way I seemed happy in their presence. When alums seem happy to see me, I hope that this is why, a reminder of how they (mostly) felt happy in my classes. And a reminder to me about how happy they made me feel.

 

Keep this in mind for the election. Watch a clip of Joe Biden talking to the stuttering boy, affirming him and blessing him so beautifully, and contrast it to the other guy, who only makes people feel good about being small, narrow, hateful people. Vote accordingly.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Fannie and Martin

Sometimes I make good choices. Like watching a documentary last night called Freedom Summer on PBS. I cannot praise this film highly enough. Especially in this time when the Repugnitans are doing everything they can to subvert our right to vote and make our most precious freedom and our most central democratic tenet more difficult instead of easier (and can someone explain to me why they aren’t being tried for treason?), this film shows who the real patriots and Americans are. It’s about the extraordinary determination of Mississippi citizens to claim their right to vote in the face of terror, beatings, bombings, murder wholly supported by the local white government to maintain their white supremacy. And the 1000 white students who came to help and find out how our country really works. 

 

Another piece of the resistance puzzle that my schooling conveniently left out was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that formed and went to the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to demand representation to counter-balance/replace the all-white Mississippi delegation from a state whose population was over 50% black. In stating their case on the Convention Floor, one of the speakers was Martin Luther King.

 

There is rarely a time when I am not moved to tears by the eloquence and moral courage of this man. The film shows some of what he said and as usual, it was clear and strong. But he was completely overshadowed by Fannie Lou Hamer. Not that it was a competition, but if it was, it would have been Fannie 10, Martin 1. And why?

 

Simply because she was from Mississippi and lived the horror. Martin had lived other horrors and could be empathetic to all similar examples, but she was the one on the scene and when she spoke from her heart, it connected. (Despite Johnson’s efforts to draw attention away from her— so shameless! You will see the film, of course, so watch for that moment.) The Convention offers a “compromise”—2 delegates out of 60—and the Party refuses. When Adam Clayton Powell tries to convince them to take it, that this is how politics works, Fannie looks him in the eye and says, “Have your hands picked cotton? Were you thrown into jail and beaten and had your life threatened by the Mississippi police?” 

 

That struck me deeply. The people most qualified to speak on any subject, the people with the earned authority (rather than the titled authority) to represent the issue at hand, are the people who lived the life down to their bones, who paid their dues, who suffered the slings and arrows of standing up to those who would pull them down. Even someone with the experience and eloquence of Martin Luther King can’t match the person who was there first-hand. 

 

Not to trivialize the grandeur of this dynamic with my tiny personal examples, but it’s how I felt at school dealing with a boss 25 years younger who didn’t have the humility to understand how little he knew about the school he was supposed to run. I was the one who sat in decades of meetings shaping the school vision, who lived through the highs and lows, who created, crafted and led the ceremonies that stamped the school with its character, who led the camping trip with 60 kids each year dealing with bears, rattlesnakes, snow, escaped convicts (all true). I was the one gathering with the kids every single day creating community through singing. He was just the guy who sat in his office and came out to claim the public glory of how wonderful the school was when the visitors came or our kids performed at conventions (with me and my colleagues loading and driving the U-haul with the instruments). 

 

Some 10 years ago, he supported a move to change the status of staff as voting members of our school corporation from those who worked 50% to 80%. Which eliminated my wife and I, the two senior members of the faculty. When I protested his stand, he had the audacity to say I’d still have a voice but no vote. So I had my Fannie Lou Hamer moment of reminding him that in a democracy, your vote is your voice. And then he suspended me. 

 

Where is your own authority? What have you lived the most deeply, cared about the most consistently, put yourself on the line for? If it’s something worthy, chances are it’s on the chopping block of this next election. If you need some reminders as to how extraordinarily important your vote is and some inspiration to get yourself or others out there, please, please, please, see this film. 

 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

S.A.D.D.

Three straight days of fog and I’m already feeling a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder. 

I’m not exactly sad, but I am craving a bit of sunlight.

 

Then there’s a different kind of fog happening at a certain unnamed convention, everything obscured in lies and rhetoric and hate speech. I am feeling deeply sad about that, a victim of a new disorder that I hope we cure in November:

 

Shameless

Anti-Americans

Destroying

Democracy. 

 

If you catch my meaning.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Sitting Still

“When things are going to rack and ruin, the most purposeful act may be to sit still.” 

                              -Henry Miller

 

There you have lesson number 1 of the pandemic. The Repugnitan Convention notwithstanding, that random collection of mindless platitudes that mean nothing whatsoever in the mouths of them who spit them out, there is an exponential increase of awareness that is aided by pandemic’s long “Time Out.” Time to reflect, to turn inward, to consider and re-consider, to read, to inform oneself more fully, to simply sit still is an invitation that some have accepted. And I don’t want to be na├»ve here—not everyone has that privilege or luxury as they awaken to the call of the bus to be driven, meat to be packed, things to be manufactured, patients to attend to. But for those who can, sitting still is an act of needed change.

 

But it also makes a difference where you sit. One place can be on your meditation pillow, but you might also sit next to a child reading. Or on the couch, balancing escaping into TV drama with awakening into a mind-opening documentary. And don’t forget the chair in the voting booth. Don’t forget the sit-in protest. Don’t forget the kitchen table writing postcards reminding people to vote. 

 

Action without reflection is only half-baked, but equally reflection without action. We need both. And most importantly, even when we’re Zoomed or socially distanced, let’s sit together.

The Kitchen Clock

During the four weeks at this summer cottage on the lake, I almost never wore my watch. Now it’s back on my wrist and my old life resumes. I’m making my lists and checking them off, organizing my days, planning some kind of schedules to frame the weeks and months ahead. All of which brings its own pleasure.


The house I left 6 weeks ago is blessedly still here (not so for some in California ravaged by fire). Things are pretty much as I left them. Except for the kitchen clock. It seems to have stopped and now it’s off the wall, my wife planning to take it to (gasp!) be fixed instead of simply buying another.


But here’s the thing. I miss it so much! Apparently, I look at that clock more than I ever realized. Maybe because it’s the only wall clock in the house. When I awake in the middle of the night, it’s a habit to flick on the kitchen light to see how much sleep still awaits me. When I used to rush off to school, the clock was there to let me know to get moving! When my stomach rumbles near dinnertime, the clock confirms whether I should start chopping the vegetables. And so on.


Joni Mitchell said it: ”Don’t it only go to show, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.” 


Even if it’s something as simple as a kitchen clock.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Getting In Line

My computer keeps telling me my storage space is almost full. This became the motivation to start deleting outdated files, an enormous undertaking perfect for the retired life. I decided to start, logically enough, with my school files, which dated back to 1999 or so. I got to around 2007 before I stopped (to be resumed later), but it was pretty fascinating. Here were notes from school meetings talking about the same things we talked about last year in school meetings. Makes you wonder if there really is such a thing as progress. 


But also some interesting things I wrote that I had forgotten about. Like an unsolicited answer to a question the then Middle School head posed: “How can we get kids in line?” Of course, he meant, “How do we get them to behave the way we want them to?” And here’s what I came up with. Same answer from 15 years ago that I would give today:

 

  1. First, I try to make sure that the line is an interesting place for them to be. I work hard to find musical pieces that are easy enough to give some feeling of instant success, while challenging enough to engage the students. I have to love the piece of music and hope that my enthusiasm for it will be infectious. With my 8thgrade curriculum, for example, kids mostly seem thrilled to get a chance to get inside the skin of Jazz and find out how to play it. They sense—rightly so— that it has something to do with their identity as Americans. It also has something to do with their own identity, as I give them a chance to solo and they find out what they have to say within the given structure of jazz. Hence they get to do more than replicate someone else’s discoveries—they get to make and publicly share their own. A big motivation for getting in line! In short, the more engaging, active and relevant the line is, the less time I need to spend convincing them to get “in line”—they line up by themselves. And they sense that the reward at the end is worth the wait in line.

 

  1. Secondly, I try to notice where they stand in line and what other lines they would 

more naturally gravitate to. Within the music class, there are many different places to stand—the drums, the bass, the chords, the melody, the solo, singing and occasionally, dancing and acting. At the beginning of the year, they write down their strengths and challenges and state what area they’d like to develop. I keep an eye out for opportunities to both follow their desires—“Can I sing in the next piece?” and push them a bit by suggesting some myself “Can you play cello in this piece?” This makes it more interesting for everyone to get in line, because in each piece, they often stand in a different part of the line. When the kids feel me stretching to discover their particular genius, they see that I’m interested in much more than teaching them how to play interesting combinations of notes and more eagerly get in line when it’s time for music class. 

 

   3.       Finally, another strategy for keeping them in-line is to set them free so that there is 

no line. Or rather, they have to create the line.  I recently left them alone for half a 

class to work out a jazz version of a simple piece they all knew. After the initial 

chaos of free exploration. they discovered they had to form their own line to make 

something coherent.

 

This had a different tone to it than simply getting in my line. As the adult in charge, I accept the responsibility to create interesting and meaningful lines for them and that is 95% of my work. But once in a while, it is great to turn it all over to them and this is another strategy that has proven successful.

 

How to get kids in line? Great question! These are the things that have worked best for me. 

 

Smoke and Ashes

From the frying pan of sizzling kid-energy to the smoke and ashes of the California fires—one way to describe our homecoming to San Francisco. It has been six weeks since I slept in my own bed and cooked in my own kitchen and played my piano. But two minutes inside the house and it feels like I never left.


And what have I come home to? A world of smoke and ashes, the now annual burning of California. A Fall ahead with little scheduled—I will have to create my series of online courses to keep the teaching muscles toned and feel like I can contribute. A large pile of mail, much expendable, some practical, one heartwarming note. (And yes, I’m still a 100% supporter of the Post Office!) Books that I took from my music room in school that I have to find a place for in my overcrowded, smallish house. (Hopefully without my wife noticing!) Some welcome space and solitude after the six weeks with my lovable but (and) high-energy 5 and 8 year old grandchildren. The work ahead to get all the undecided voters ordering the chicken (see Airplane Meal post) and convincing the wrongly decided ones (no ifs, and or buts about that) to miss the meal for their own health and safety (even if they don’t understand why the right choice benefits them). 


All of this amidst the burning world. No one chooses a devastating forest fire, but there is a truth that certain seeds won’t open without such a burn. Fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, opens it up to sunlight, and nourishes the soil. Reducing this competition for nutrients allows established trees to grow stronger and healthier.There’s a metaphor in their somewhere.

 

But meanwhile, the pain and suffering of beautiful forests devastated, homes and lives threatened, smoke and ashes for hundreds of miles, giving our masks double-duty. That’s the world we’re in, the one I returned to after sheltering on a pristine lake.

 

So be it. On we go.


Saturday, August 22, 2020

Poem Du Jour

Part of the perks of being well-read is to have the right story, the right quote, the right poem, to meet any occasion. In the midst of the pandemic, the post office fiasco, the difficult beginning of school years, the California fires, the ongoing circus in Washington, this poem by David Budbill feels just right.


(Quick footnote: Issa was a Japanese haiku poet, sutras are Buddhist religious texts and “Life is suffering” is one of the first principles of Buddhism. None of which is vital to the sense of the poem, but might help a bit. Enjoy.)


Two hundred years ago, Issa heard the morning birds 

singing sutras to this suffering world. 


I heard them, too, this morning, which must mean,


Since we will always have a suffering world,

We must also always have a song.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Airplane Meal

“Think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”


To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.”  

                                – David Sedaris speaking of undecided voters


I’ve hated Republicans my whole voting life. Which began with the election of Richard Nixon. I rest my case.


But there was a time when I could at least almost understand that someone didn’t like government interference and too many social programs and liked the Republican candidate’s family values. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a time when I could almost conjure up a sliver of agreement with the Far Lefties that there’s not much difference between Republicans and Democrats and I should go for the Green Party. There was a time when the above-it-all “I’m not into politics” New Age seekers seemed like an almost viable spiritual posture.


But not anymore. The election of 2016, along with climate change, pandemics, school shootings and rampant police violence,  changed all of that. And here in 2020, the choice is not between free-range chicken and KFC or chicken and tofu. It’s … well, David Sedaris nailed it above. 


I could almost—again, a very tiny sliver of almost—forgive those who voted for the Toddler-in-Chief the first time, thinking that the country needed a maverick to shake things up. But after four years of lowering the bar beyond anybody’s imagination—and then lowering it yet again—and again—and again, I simply cannot conjure up an ounce of understanding, sympathy or compassion for those still backing the guy. 


The “undecided” group is beyond the capacity of my stomach to digest, but those who are decided and gleefully put up their Trump signs—like a neighbor just did in the rural Michigan setting where we’ve settled for the summer—well, that’s simply beyond my comprehension. It’s like they’re publicly announcing:


“Hey, I’m choosing the shit plate with the broken glass. Pretty cool, huh?”


Can we re-institute the Space Program and send these folks to the moon? At least on the trip, the flight attendants know what to serve them.  

 

1 Down

Every year after the first day of school, the teachers gather together for a tea and celebrate the occasion with short little sharings and cute little stories about their day. At the end, I traditionally raise my cup and say, “1 down, 174 to go!” 

I never actually feel that way, like the school year is a chore to get through, an item on the list to tick off before the real life of summertime. The joy and pleasure of teaching children has always felt like a different kind of summer beach, filled with heart-uplifting walks finding beautiful stones, refreshing dips in the cool waters, evening campfires on the dune singing songs and roasting marshmallows. 

Of course, all that is changed for a moment in these COVID times and personally changed for me as I accidentally made the decision to retire a year and a half ago, never suspecting how right that would be. But still I care and thought about my daughter and music colleagues at the school and indeed, all the teachers and kids and not just at my school, but so many schools where I know the teachers and then on to all the schools and teachers I don’t know, but still wish well. I could have gloated that I spent the day walking the beach with my grandchildren skipping stones, swimming in the lake and yes, making s’mores over a campfire at night while singing songs. Well, I was happy for it, but still a piece of my heart was with the school online opening ceremony. And my hands as well, as my colleague James requested a video of me playing Side by Side on the piano and used it in the virtual opening ceremony.

Yesterday morning, I texted good wishes to my daughter and beyond and then at night, just had to write, “1 down, 174 to go.” But to a fellow recently-retired teacher, I wrote: “Happy first day of school where we’re not there! 1 down, _______ to go!”

May that number be large!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

2020

This is my 220th blog post of 2020, with 220 followers. 

And yesterday was my 20th post in August. After 20 weeks of sheltering. 

Just sayin’.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Finish Line

 A goal is a dream with a finish line. -Duke Ellington

This is Duke’s way of saying, “Deadlines help.” Anyone can dream, but we all need a little pressure to get to work to put feet on our vision and bring something into form. 

Mortality is also a kind of finish line that reminds us that life is short and the time to birth our dreams is limited. Without that reminder, we get lazy and think that just maybe we’ll get to it tomorrow. 

This on my mind as we prepare to leave our little slice of Northern Michigan paradise. Leave-taking is a small slice of mortality, the sense that all good things must end that makes our appreciation of the moment just a bit more vivid. These long days of daily swims in pristine lakes, bike rides on the rolling hills of back roads through the cornfields, the games and chatter and laughter with my two grandchildren and evening dinners on the deck looking out at the sunset on Lake Michigan. Precious all and in some ways, the four weeks—one of my longest visits to this family haven—have flown by too fast. 

There is much ready to welcome me back in San Francisco—my piano, a quiet house that stays clean, my kitchen and Trader Joe’s and as of now, a rare heat wave that may just hold so I don’t return to fog. But I know there is much I will miss, much summer sweetness stored in my bones that has renewed me and fortified me for the months that lie ahead. And so I will cross this little finish line filled to the brim with gratitude.

But first, three more days of vacation!

PS And speaking of mortality, I wrote a different version of this that I weirdly lost and had to try to re-create. But not a single sentence returned to me and I believe there were some good ones lost. Aargh! 

Subterranean Trumpsick Blues

With thanks and apologies to Bob Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. (Worth a listen—check it out!) 


1) Trumpies in the White House, bleaching out the medicine

We’re in the fight now, tryin’ to save the government,

Fauci with a mask on, almost got laid off, 

Says he’ll tell the truth and he won’t be paid off,

 

Look out, kid, it’s nothin’ wrong you did

You gotta keep on talkin’, keep tellin’ us again.

Don’t duck down the alleyway, go into hidin’

Just wait a little longer for Prez Joe Biden.

 

2) Dump Trump, fence Pence, turn around the governments 

Tear down, tear gas Repugnitans kissing ass,

Damn Graham, ban Barr, got caught in the Cookie jar

Jail Cohen, jail Stone, askin’ “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

 

Look out, creeps, can’t spin it with a tweet,

God knows why but you don’t even try to

Say it straight, skip the hate, nothin’ but your lies, lies,

A man in a red tie and weird orange hair

Got his leg all tied up, caught it in his own snare. 

 

3) Step up, step down, take it all to higher ground.

Out the gate, at the plate, standin’ on the pitcher’s mound,

Speak out, shout out, “Black lives matter!”

Throw the pitch, aim for Mitch, but don’t hit the batter.

 

Look out, Don, we’re bringin’ it on,

You can whisk away, knock ‘em down, bring your troops into the town.

Hit the bottom, think you got’ em, you keep on getting lower,

But vets, Moms, Dads got their giant leaf-blowers.

 

4) Hit hard, be on guard, keep writing on a postcard.

Work from home, write a poem, get to talkin’ on the phone.

Keep on fightin,’ put the time in, get the vote out for Joe Biden.

Skip Paris, be Roger Maris, hittin’ home runs for K. Harris.

 

Get the vote out, kid, donate the quid.

Keep on hopin,’ keep the post office open.

Working day and night for a blue tsunami, 

Gettin’ rid of Donald T. and Rudy Guliani.

 

 

5) Wear a mask, don’t ask, keep your social distance.

Hit the street, ignore the tweet, keep up the resistance.

Work online, let it shine, support your teachers in the schools.

Cross the moat, get out to vote, let’s get rid of the fools.

 

Come on, folks, it ain’t no joke, 

We gotta bring back the power, the power to the people, 

Go high, pass on low, Trumpublicans they got to go,

The church is closed cause the vandals took the steeple.

 

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Create

I’m remembering an old record cover (remember those), Charles Lloyd’s Soundtrack, where he is quoted on the back cover, something to this effect:

There is all that  ugliness in the world and I want to wipe it out with beauty.

Beauty is the antidote to ugliness, love the antidote to hate, truth the antidote to lies. Those committed to transforming both themselves and the world can only do so by actively constructing the beauty, truth and love they’re hoping for. 

And so, create. When thrown down to the ground by life’s terrors, the act of creation is a step up. When we create—be it art, music, poetry, dance, woodworking, what have you—we are wholly engaged with body, mind and imagination. No room for all the negative voices in our head to dominate the conversation. By letting the “mirror of malicious eyes” get under our skin, we deny ourselves the things we were made to create. 

So alongside the reflection, meditation, exercise, active creation is another vehicle to heal ourselves and move on. When Duke Ellington was denied the well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for racist reasons, he said: “I pouted about it long enough to write some blues.”

So ends my four-step program. To re-cap: 

Let it go, meditate, sweat it out and create!

Good luck!

Sweat It Out

A wise neighbor who I always passed jogging in the neighborhood up through his 70’s explained why he does it. “My father gave me two words of advice: Keep moving.”

These days, it’s preaching to the choir to say that exercise is important. So many people I know of all generations are members of the gym or bike or jog or swim or do Pilates on a regular basis. They know the basic science of how exercise feeds the brain and the body and affects your mental health and mood as well.

So remember the negative thoughts accompanying me on my bike ride? By the 20thmile, they were pouring out in my sweat and 10 miles later, I couldn’t remember what I was upset about. Of course, exercise doesn’t attend to the core issue that needs some kind of resolution, but it definitely helps loosen its grip on you and gives you the strength and mental clarity to deal with it. 

So if the deeper reflections of “let it go” and the enlarging activity of “meditation” are not helping you in whatever tangles you’re feeling ensnared in, get busy exercising and see what happens. My own preference is biking out in the real world, urban or rural, swimming in a lake or ocean if possible, hiking/ walking anywhere. But of course, if you like the gym, by all means. 

Happy workout! 

Meditation

 One must become a sea to receive a polluted river without becoming unclean.” -Nietzche

What to do when the weight of grief becomes too much for the human body to carry? When sorrow is too much for the human heart to hold? When suffering is too great for the human mind to comprehend? Repressing the pain only makes it grow larger. Expressing the pain in great grief-shouts helps release some of it, but it fills right in again. 

But there is a third alternative. Making yourself larger reduces the proportional size and weight of the pain. Becoming a sea. And that’s where meditation comes in.

The kind that I practice is called zazen, a Zen Buddhist practice with a  few thousand years behind it. It involved sitting with legs crossed (full or half-lotus), back straight, arms in a circle with hands resting one on top of the other and thumbs touching and attending to the rise of the fall of the breath from deep in the belly. When done well, the borders of the body begin to dissolve and the body-mind seems to blend into the larger cosmos, swallowing up the constant buzz of jumpy thoughts and bodily aches. You don’t stop thinking or feeling, but you change the ratio so the passing show of thought and sensation become smaller as you become larger.

I cultivated this practice in the 70’s going to some fifteen 7-day meditation retreats called sesshins. From 3 am in the morning to 9 or 10 pm at night, we sat zazen in 30 to 40 minute sessions balanced by walking meditation and interspersed with meals, chanting, listening to the Zen Master’s  (Roshi) lecture, private interviews 4 times a day with the Roshi and a short post-lunch work period. All in silence and all with formal gestures and postures. It was a spiritual retreat, but different from the feel-good dancing bliss of some of the Indian counterparts. The atmosphere was severe and the practice rigorous, somewhere between running a marathon and Army boot camp. 

For example, sitting in the lotus posture for so long invariably created pain in the legs and then more pain and often, great, almost unbearable pain. Yet one was not allowed to move the body during each meditation session. So when the pain kicked in, I found myself needing to attend more to the breath, to breathe deeper, to reduce the pain by enlarging the self. In fact, it began to feel like the meditation didn’t really kick in until the pain set in.

So there it is, the metaphor made concrete and tangible by the actual experience of sitting meditation. When adversity hits us head on, we can choose to be larger souls or smaller selves (Michael Meade’s words), but if we choose the latter, the pain stays with us and nothing changes. So while we might curse at the world and those people who hurt us, we know it’s futile to change them. Might as well work with what we can change, which is the size of our own selves and souls. And meditation helps. 

Friday, August 14, 2020

Let It Go

Yesterday I set off on a long bike ride around the back roads of Northern Michigan. Perfect weather, the happiness of my 5thweek with the grandchildren by my side, 3 weeks of more constant exercise than I’ve had in 20 years, a retired life of endless summer stretching before me. And what did I start to think about?

My unhappy end to school. Not just the Covid disaster, but the feeling of little appreciation from the current admin for 45 years of service and my work that not only helped create the school culture, but helped develop it, sustain it and protect it. And the compliance of my colleagues in not noticing was equally sorrowful. 

Well, that was a surprise. We can’t control our thoughts any more than the weather and our dreams, but we do have some choices as to how we react to them, how we pursue them or follow them or further reflect on them. So I made up a little chant:

“Let it go, Meditate, Sweat it out,  Create.” (2x) And that guaranteed four new blog posts. So this is the first:

    “Let it go” as advice is as absurd as shouting at someone to “relax!” It doesn’t happen with a casual shrug, but requires some deeper perspective. Here’s how I think about it:

 

 “The finished man among his enemies? How in the name of Heaven can he escape

  That defiling and disfigured shape, the mirror of malicious eyes

   Casts upon his eyes until at last, he thinks that shape must be his shape?”… Yeats

 

    Powerful words from Yeats. We become partly how others see us and if those others choose to see us in a “defiled and disfigured shape,” we either begin to accept their “gaslighted” view of us or dig deeper and name our own shape. Certainly with my students, kids and adults, but also with family and friends and even the cultures I visit, I am looking for qualities worthy of blessing. And because I look for them, I almost always find them—sometimes more than is deserved! I try to be a mirror of

a  accepting and loving eyes based on what they show me of themselves and how I can imagine it flowering further. 

 

     As a human being myself, I also appreciate my fair share of blessing. In regards to the school situation, for example, I helped craft farewell ceremonies for some 50 to 100 teachers, made up songs to celebrate them, wrote letters of appreciation, helped lead the ceremony. When COVID made it impossible for me to have the same kind of ceremony, no one thought about an alternative version. Except me. I created four different farewells to alums, parents, kids and fellow staff and in each, gave my appreciations and blessings to the school. But with the exception of a lovely video collage my colleagues James and Sofia gathered from former Interns, there was nothing coming back my way. And the silence from the current administration was deafening. 

 

    So to telescope out to the general human situation that we all face of similar, disappointments, betrayals, unjustly malicious shapes and so on, what helps me to “let go” is to realize it’s not my problem, but their inability to bless. An inability that might come from their own situation of people not blessing them, of them unable to wholly bless themselves, of them feeling threatened by my sense of inner power, of them using outer power inappropriately and so on. Of course, we each are responsible for looking at our part in the exchange, but there are times when it’s clear that the reflection you see in the mirror of others’ malicious eyes is their image and not your own Soul's. And as such, not to be accepted. To let it go is simply to refuse it. To name your own shape, thank you very much.

 

     Option one. Three more to come.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Osiris Restored

Yesterday, 5-year old Malik biked some 9 miles. But the last mile was grueling. He simply stopped and yelled that his legs hurt and he couldn’t go on. He knew ice cream was the prize at the end, but at the moment, such deferred gratification wasn’t enough. I gave him some “electric” water, he drank a half-a-bottle and valiantly tried again. It helped for a few hundred yards. I needed a Plan B.

So I told him the story of “The Little Engine That Could” and he started to chant along with me “I think I can, I think I can!” It was working. And as we crested a small hill and saw the ice cream store in the distance, we changed it to “I knew I could! I knew I could!” It worked!

And so knowing the right stories and telling the right stories at the right time is a good skill to have. I made a little story about my hook-in-the-finger adventure yesterday and it seemed to throw some light on the bigger story of racism in my country. 

Today I read a passage from a surprisingly excellent book by Steven Rowley called “The Editor.” The main character has had his book accepted by Doubleday Publishers and his editor is…Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Good material! In the context of helping him with a passage, she tells him the ancient story of Isis and Osiris. Osiris was a king who is usurped by his brother Set, murdered, chopped into pieces and scattered around the countryside. His wife Isis searches for and collects the scattered pieces to put them back together and bury them as one whole body—in fact, the first mummy. The story goes on with the birth of their son, Horus, but for now, that’s the background for this little meditation about the difference between curing and healing.

“Don’t tell your story to change something about the past; the past in inherently unchangeable. There is no cure.…The goal is to find a way forward. To assemble all the lovely bits, like Isis did. To truly remember, I believe, is to heal.”

 Are you with me here? I find this stunning. The dismemberment of African cultures, tearing apart families, languages, customs, religions, music, dress, freedoms and more, was an act as brutal as Set’s misuse of power and horrific murder of his own brother. The pieces of the people’s cultures were spread throughout the American South, the Caribbean, South America, the scattered pieces of their once-unified identities, now need to be re-collected and re-imagined. There is no cure for that brutal past. What happened never should have happened from our evolutionary standpoint, but the past is unchangeable. 

But to heal is to remember and to assemble and restore, to become the Ancestors that our own Ancestors couldn’t be. That’s a useful story for where we are, a way to find a way forward. A step toward the healing we all deeply want and desperately need. Let’s start walking. 

"I think we can, I think we can…"

The Barbed Hook of Racism

I’ve never fished in my life, but when my grandkids asked me to go with them and their Uncle Barclay to watch them fish, I figured I’d be with them for a bit before my daily swim. In casting, Malik managed to get his line caught in a tree branch and when I helped to untangle it, I ended up with a fish hook stuck in my finger. Seemed like a simple matter to just pull it out. Little did I know.

Turns out that the hooks have a barb, a kind of small t that happens once the hook is embedded so you can’t simply remove it the way you would a sewing needle stuck in your finger. Luckily, Uncle Barclay was not only an experienced fisherman, but a doctor who had removed several such hooks before. But there was a difference here. This was to be his first operation without anesthesia. And without his usual tools. Lucky me.

So while he was working on it and my wife and daughter were trying to help, but growing pale at the sight, I couldn’t help think about that barb in the context of our unabated 400 years of systematic racism. That hook stuck in our collective finger that we can’t seem to pull out. A long ago and as recent as yesterday lust for gold joined with the technology of guns and the permission granted by the God we invented to create and sustain a narrative that we now call white supremacy. Gold, guns and God pretty much sums up the conquistador terror, the Native American genocide, the African systematic slavery, the story that keeps on going in today’s news, the barb that prevents any simple ways to pull out the hook.

Now if you’re squeamish, you might want to sit down. What was the strategy for getting the hook out? The opposite of what you imagine. Pushing it into the finger so the barbed part could come out the other side and then all of it pulled through. Without anesthesia. Was it painful? Yes, it was. Was it necessary to go into the finger deeper, go towards rather than away from that barbed story? Yes, it was. Did it finally work? Yes, it did.

I did almost faint from the pain and had to lie down and my wife rushed to town to get antibiotics to prevent further infection. But an hour later, I was in the lake swimming. 

Why did this happen? Who knows? But at least I got a useful metaphor out of it. And remember that getting out the hook of systematic racism doesn’t need to hurt quite so much—there is some anesthesia available. Don’t be afraid of it. And the pain we will suffer from going into the finger is nothing like the pain millions have suffered and still suffer from our refusal to do so. 

Happy fishing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Alien Invasion

A spaceship arrives in the United States and a Martian emerges and asks the first person met, “Take me to your leader.” Here are four different versions of what the Martian says next when the request is fulfilled:

1)“No, I said leader!”

2) “ You’ve got  to be kidding!”

3) (Talking in his radio) “Theory confirmed. There is no intelligent life on this planet.”

4) (BEST ENDING) “Save-Planet-Earth Mission Accomplished. We’re taking him away.”

PS: While we’re at, think we’ll stop in North Korea, Brazil, Turkey, China and pick up some U.S. governors. 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

From Innocence to Experience

Finishing the trilogy of 60’s songs revisited, we turn to the change from innocence to experience. William Blake set the groundwork with his two poems, “The Lamb” and “The Tyger.” The innocent puts flowers in the gun barrels of soldiers, the experienced bring leaf blowers to blow away the tear gas. Two points on the same spectrum of dreaming toward our more compassionate and life-loving selves, but one understanding that the tyger is real and that the lion will never lie down with the lamb. And acts accordingly.

I was in the March on Washington against the Vietnam War in 1969 and have attended various marches in 2019—50 years later!— and the shift from long hair to grey hair is significant. The folks that neither sold out nor just let their dreams peter out, but like jazz musicians, kept the song playing through all the inevitable changes, with new nuances and scales and phrasing and harmonies. And there’s lots of us.

I thought I had another clever list of 60’s songs changed to reflect this population, but truth be told, only came up with one and it’s late at night. So I’ll start you off and those who are intrigued can make the list. Good luck! 

Here’s mine: 

From Light My Fire to Fight the Liar.

From the 60's to the 60's

Those of us who came of age in the 60’s are now in our 60’s (and 70’s). And so the songs that we once sung have a different meaning. Here are some new versions: 

• Will You Still Feed Me Tomorrow?

• Where Is My Fortune

• Where Have All My Flowers Gone?

• I Can’t See Clearly Now

• I Felt Good

• Mild Thing

• Waking Up Is Hard to Do

• My Baby Wipes Me with her Hanky

• Early Morning Pain

• I Know where the Time Goes… you can count it in my wrinkles and belly inches

• Lean on You… please, I forgot my cane

• Sugar Free Captain Crunch… well, make that Captain Munch


And then the same titles with new meanings.

 

• Ain’t Too Proud to Beg… please don’t send me to that senior home!

• Yesterday is so much larger than Tomorrow!

• I I Fell… hope I have my pager alarm with me

• So Far Away… where the hell are my kids?

• No Particular Place to Go… they got that right

• Great Balls of Fire… that describes my Migraine

• Whole Lot of Shaking Going On… never thought this was about Parkinson’s until now

• The Little Old lady from Pasadena… is my wife.

 

Once again, feel free to add your own.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Selling Out

As a young hippie crusader for social justice in my college days, I was convinced that the revolution—preferably the peaceful transformation of consciousness—was going to come soon. And now look at where we are.

One of the fears we revolutionaries had is that as we aged and needed to deal with inconveniences like jobs and mortgages, that we would “sell out to the Establishment.” In fact, none of the people I’m still in touch with from my college days have become Republican and most have kept their visions intact, now naturally matured and evolved. More on this later.

Meanwhile, I was listening to some old 60’s songs the other day and hit on a format to revisit the titles in the face of the sell-out, the matured evolutionary and the simply aging (ie all of my generation) person. Here’s the first installment.

For those who abandoned their youthful dreams and values and hopes to change the world in favor of simply getting their share—or more of their share— of the pie ( and the pie ain’t organic blackberries with whole wheat crust and natural honey sweetener)—here is how they sing the old songs. See if you can figure out the title of the original song, changed to: 

• Sitting on My Yacht in the Bay.

• All I Want to Do Is Scheme

• Who Knows Where the Best Time-Share Is?

• Here Is My Fortune

• I Can Always Get What I Want

• Born to Be Filed

• I Want to Sell My Land

And then some unchanged titles with comments:

If I Fellon your property, I’d sue your ass!

• Teach My ChildrenCOVID be damned! I’m busy!

• So Far Awaythat’s where we should deport all immigrants

• Catch the Wind… windpower is profitable these days.

• Stand By Me… and don’t give me that masked 6-feet crap!

• Fools Rush Inand that’s how I got rich on my Ponzi scheme.

• The Last Thing on My Mind…  is to care about you. 

Get the idea? Feel free to add your own!