Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Power of Literacy

Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, had a wife and couldn’t keep her.

He put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.


Not my favorite rhyme and one I choose not to do with the kids. Domestic imprisonment is not a theme I support. However, I came across another verse:


Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, had another and didn’t love her.

Peter learned to read and spell, and then he loved her very well. *


My interpretation? That literacy has the capacity to help open the heart to love. But how?


Fiction: Enlarges our power to imagine the other, to step inside other shoes.

A woman working with teens in jail asked them what they planned to do when they got out and was met with blank stares. She discovered that they couldn’t imagine a future, but simply reacted impulsively to the sensation of the moment, just moved from one sensation to another. She found out that none of them had been read or told stories as kids, none of them read books. They lacked the ability to project themselves into a story, into a situation, with multiple models of how they might respond. So she began telling them stories, eventually had them start writing their own story and that changed everything. 


Non-fiction: Encourages us to engage in ideas supported by authority.

“Author” and “authority” are connected and unlike “publishing” on Facebook, requires authentic background to present ideas coherently, with multiple references from other authors on the subject, often coupled with a practice of reflection combined with life experience. The reader can—and should—approach the ideas with both openness and a healthy doubt. By reading other points of view on the subject, one can establish one’s own point of view. Note— point of view is distinct from opinion, the latter frivolous and instinctive with no expectation of supporting data, the latter crafted from a more rigorous discipline. Not only does our healthy curiosity stay alive through non-fiction reading, but our capacity to think independently protects us from mindlessly accepting conspiracy theories or lies told by people purposefully manipulating us for their own ends. 


Poetry: Provides a direct road to the soul.

Poetry combines both the story aspect of fiction and the ideas of non-fiction, but it’s primary gift is like music, with the rhythms and musical sounds of language and images going directly to the soul and lifting us up to a larger world. Again, people who not only know that the soul is real, but are committed to enlarging their own through the encounter with poetry are people who might open up more fully to compassion, caring and love. 


Let me be clear. People in oral cultures can experience all three, telling stories around the campfire, discussing ideas, reciting poetry or singing their sung versions. It's not all about books. But in a literate culture, people who don’t read— meaning mostly people who can read, but choose not to—are often narrowed in their experience of the world, vulnerable to Fox News and Qanon insanities and less likely to open their minds and hearts in the way that both the world and their own souls need.


This is on my mind because I’m noticing how much happier my almost-six-year-old grandson Malik is since he has learned how to read. Last year, he was inching through those primary readers, but now he is as fluent as can be, reading chapter books effortlessly with a rhythmic flow and not even pausing at words like “camouflage, lasagna, sandcastles” and more, with good inflection and perfect comprehension. Not only has his imaginative world expanded, but his sense of accomplishment of independence, of growing toward a capable adulthood, has risen many notches. I can’t easily attribute the diminishment of whining or crabbiness solely to reading, but I suspect there’s a deep connection. He now has a private world into which he can retreat and the freedom to choose which worlds attract him. 


Joseph Campbell, one of the more influential and fascinating thinkers I’ve encountered in my life, said he had a five-year period where he read every day for eight hours. Like monks sitting in meditation in caves or John Coltrane practicing his horn “25 hours a day,” reading became his yogic practice that brought him into the fullness of his extraordinary capacity for thought, understanding and deep compassion. It’s an authentic path. One of many, but so freely available to all. 


 Thanks for reading this!


Friday, May 14, 2021

Talking with the Other: Final

Okay, I lied. The retorts kept circulating in my head and ruining my day and I just couldn’t quite let it go. But then I went the satirical route and that helped a lot. So at the risk of losing any readers who really tired of this back and forth, hang in there for one more and hopefully enjoy my attempt to say serious things with humor. And then I’ll talk about the fun singing I had with the kids! So my reply to: 


“White privilege is not a thing. It has been disproved by greater minds than both you and I.”


“Sasha, thanks SO MUCH for enlightening me!  I’m so happy to hear that some GREAT MINDS (white, I presume?) have PROVEN beyond a shadow of a doubt, that WHITE PRIVILEGE isn’t a thing!! I’m sure they are using incontrovertible evidence, meticulous historical research and their deep compassionate concern for the betterment of humanity to come to such a HAPPY CONCLUSION! Such a relief! I think of all those many hours I wasted reading hundreds of articles and book, watching select movies and documentaries, talking to black folks about their experience. Now I can tell them to relax—it was all FAKE! The experts SAY SO! 


Abduction from their homelands, 400 years of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, voter suppression, redlined housing, fight for freedom, but no G.I Bill benefits when you get back, denied loans, mass incarceration, firehoses turned on children, bombs blown up in church basements, police murders without accountability, Emmett Till, Breonna Taylor, Nat King Cole attacked on stage, Miles Davis beat up by police taking a break outside the jazz club and on and on and on— none of it happened because of a spoken and unspoken white supremacist narrative. The EXPERTS say so and we are OBLIGATED to believe them. Oh, and should we throw in apartheid in your home country of South Africa? Never happened. Have you called Trevor Noah with the news? That he made up being “born a crime?”  Or maybe it all did happen, but according to Lindsey Graham, NOW there is no racism in the U.S. I’m sure there’s not in South Africa either. 


And the best part of all? We two white men like us can agree with those great minds and decide all by ourselves that—well, you know. White Privilege isn’t a thing.


So thanks again, Sasha, now I can go back to the important work of teaching kids the difference between quarter notes and eighth notes and not ever have to use my voice again to invite people to actually think about all those things I thought happened, but apparently didn’t. So I think I’ll just kick back, enjoy my fake white privilege and listen to early Sonny Bono songs."

Talking with the Other: Part 2

When talking with a friend once about what we would have been if we hadn’t been called my music teaching, I came up with “lawyer.” Because the way my mind works, I am constantly collecting evidence to win a case and considering how to present it. This drives some people crazy— and sometimes drives me crazy—but has been a necessary element in clarifying my thinking. And when that thinking is married to caring about the betterment of the world and speaking on behalf of the voiceless (included the unvoiced parts of ourselves), it is a positive attribute. 


I confessed last time about my impulse to try to win an argument with the guy who denies white privilege and how I finally had the good sense to drop off that merry-go-round. And then he wrote this on my Facebook page.


White privilege is not a thing. It has been disproved by greater minds than both you and I. Perhaps do some research. In closing, it has always annoyed me that you use your platform, whether it be during a class or a workshop or on social media, to force your uninformed political opinion onto your various subjects. What really annoys me is that is has no place there and the fact that you use it to place yourself on some moral high ground and anyone who dares to disagree must do some soul searching is really unbecoming.


Well, that ruined my day. I immediately crafted twenty different responses, from sarcastic (“Oh, now I see! All that pesky slavery, apartheid, lynchings, police killings, mass incarceration, was not really “a thing.” I’m so pleased to know that it has been scientifically disproved and thank those greater minds for setting me straight. By the way, were those white minds? Just curious.) to serious (the list of all the reading I’ve done, documentaries I’ve watched, people I’ve talked to), but in the end, the most sound advice came from another Orff colleague: “Don’t waste your time talking to idiots.”


But I have one more thought and that is to ask the guy to tell me his life story. Try to find out what happened to someone that he would believe the things he does. It reminded me of a powerful story that I once read. The details elude me, but it went something like this: 


A kid murdered another kid and got a light sentence and before he was sent off to prison, the mother of the victim wrote to him and said, “I’m going to kill you.” When the murderer got out, he had nowhere to go and a woman took him in and cared for him and got him back on his feet. There grew a great love between them, so when some time later, he discovered that the woman was the mother who of the kid he had killed, he was both shocked and confused. When he asked her why she did it, she said, “Remember I said I was going to kill you? Well, I did. I killed the part of you that was vicious and scared and confused and brought to life your more loving self. That was the only thing I could do to help heal my own grief and sorrow. To kill you with kindness.”


So it would be interesting to find out what happened to this music teacher that made him so vulnerable to being manipulated, so indifferent, so callous. To sincerely listen to his life story and help him pick through the parts that made him shut down his intelligence and caring. (And no, I won’t apologize for being on moral high ground here or arrogant. Anyone who can say what he has said is just simply deluded, no ifs, ands, or buts.) That would be a big commitment and would probably take a love and caring for this particular person that frankly I don’t have. But could grow to have with enough effort. 


In the end, I’m sure I’ll take my other Orff friend’s advice and direct all my energy toward planning the surprise live singing time I’m about to do with my granddaughter’s 3rdgrade. Of course, gleefully forcing my uninformed political opinions on them with every joyful note. 



Thursday, May 13, 2021

Talking with the Other

"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."  -John Adams


So began my Facebook post, with my further comments: 


A reminder to Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Rudy Guiliani, Tucker Carlson, Brian Kemp, the former POTUS who should be in jail and a horrifically long list of other traitors to the Constitution from our 2nd President. (Note: "Religious" as in living the words "Love thy neighbor as thyself.")


Well, you know how it is on Facebook. You generally gather like-minded people into your “Friends” tribe and they regal with you likes, shares and “right on!” comments. It makes you feel good and supports your bubbled perception that the world and its people are better than the news portrays. But this time, I got this comment: 


“I always loved Bono from U2. I thought he was a deep and soulful lyricist and vocalist. That was until he became political. I think the same applies here.”


I knew the person he wrote it, a music teacher from South Africa who studied with me, taking both the Jazz Course and the Levels training. So I replied: 


“Hmmm. Not sure of your intent here, but if it’s resistance to ‘being political,’ I would say that it’s a symptom of the worst kind of privilege, the kind that thinks one can afford to not dirty oneself with ‘politics.’ It’s a branch of the white privilege that allows white folks not to think about black folks getting murdered by the police, shut out of housing, denied justice, etc. But to think that one can ignore politics altogether is na├»ve at best and dangerous at worst because that privilege won’t protect you from the aftermath of political decisions. There’s simply no where you can run where politics won’t catch you. As we have learned the hard way, how a leader responds to a pandemic that can kill you and your loved ones is political, how a leader deals with climate change that threatens your safety with fires and hurricanes is political, how a leader feeds or discourages the rise of right-wing fascism is political. Soulful lyrics are wonderful, but they won’t mean so much to you as you gasp for breath on a ventilator, flee your home from a fire, find your right to vote threatened. Of course, there’s still room for beautiful music and fun gatherings with friends, but I simply don’t see how anyone paying attention doesn’t understand how that must be balanced with political awareness, speaking out, taking action. Do you?"


While it’s easy for me to step up on the soap-box, I thought my answer was mostly respectful, thought-provoking and inviting sincere dialogue. And the response? 


“I’m so busy enjoying my white privilege that I don’t really have time to think about all that crap.”


Bam! The game was on. A rare dialogue across a yawning gap with someone I had some kind of relationship with. I actually had noted some reactionary comments a few years ago, so it wasn’t a complete shock, but still it disturbed me that someone I trained and someone teaching kids has this attitude. I tried one more way into a sincere conversation, with some strong but gentle questions and what I thought was a generous reading of his character. As follows: 


“I’m so disappointed in your posture of not caring. I don’t think that’s who you are in your heart. You certainly must have felt the humanity of the diverse people in the Orff course we experienced together, but I simply don’t understand how you can dismiss the struggle that people who did nothing wrong face every day when people hate them and block them and dismiss them and hurt them and even kill them because such people refuse to question the legacy of white supremacy. And again, this is now so much more than a racial issue. “All that crap” is exactly what’s on your doorstep as the sea waters rise and the virus keeps spreading. If you hold to the privilege you think you are enjoying without shame, I believe we have nothing more to say to each other. But it indeed makes me sad that you accept this lesser version of yourself.”


Shall I go on? No, I shouldn’t, but he did, asking me how dare I criticize Ted Cruz or Tucker Carlson without having had meaningful conversations with them, accused me of "spewing hate" and so on. I kept the ball in the air a few more times, not so much from my macho “I’m gonnna kick your ass in this argument!” self (though I admit it’s there!), but as a model for others to consider when they’re engaged in “discussions” like this. But at the end of the day, you can often tell from the tone whether it’s worthwhile and in spite of our relationship, it don’t believe it was. 


But it was a good exercise for me to think about how to approach such things, having had little practice with my “like” Facebook friends. How are such things going for you?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Circle of Men

In faith that the doctors are right that fully vaccinated people can gather, the Men’s Group I’ve been in over 30 years got off of Zoom and the nine of us took a chance spending 90 minutes sitting in a room together some three feet apart. Without masks. Ending with our ritual circle of silence with arms on each other’s shoulders. For the first time in 14 months. 


On one hand, it simply felt like the next meeting since we’d last done it. On another, it was so refreshing to feel each other’s three-dimensional energy, to see the whole body and face, to call and respond without unmuting and muting. And so the first sign of returning to life as we’ve known it, but with renewed appreciation and savoring of each precious moment. 


We had the good sense to bring some poetry alongside the usual check-ins ranging from clipping the dog’s toe-nails to profound interactions with highly-evolved beings. As it does, the poems charged the air with a different quality of attention and brought a different thickness to the moment and as we turn into the next phase of our time together, now almost all of us in our 70’s and one in his 80’s, we considered a new ritual of at least one poem read out loud each meeting. I suggested that we consciously balance the organ recital (the litany of our physical failings) with signs of soul-making, the latter growing larger while the former shrinks. The poetry will certainly help with that. 


And so the re-opening begins. Went to a restaurant with my wife and daughter on Mother’s Day (outdoors), fly on a plane tomorrow to visit the grandkids in Portland, will go to Zadie’s school for a surprise (shhh!) singing class, first school I will have set foot in in 14 months and getting to meet the kids I’ve gotten to know over Zoom and actually hear them sing(!)— step by step returning with great pleasure and some reluctance (traffic!) to the life we used to know.


As Billy Strayhorn liked to say: “Ever onward and upward!”


Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Each Day a Wedding

Today’s Mary Oliver poem, sent by my dear friend Debby, is one I’ve long loved. Not the kind of title you think you’d be happy to wake up to—When Death Comes.  But we could all use a little reminder about mortality, that deadline that reminds us to do our homework so we’re prepared for the final exam. Some lines near the end are such a beautiful and loving reminder:


When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement,

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.


Well-timed, as last night’s Jazz History class was my own particular form of being wedded to amazement, bringing together two of the finest human beings I know in conversation. Kofi Gbolonyo from Dzodze, Ghana, who carries in his body, mind and heart the extraordinary depth and breadth of his Ewe culture and jazz drummer extraordinaire, Herlin Riley, who represents the American reincarnation of the African soul and spirit. For 90 minutes, the sparks were flying as each spoke from their own experience and discovered what they already knew— that the fire that centuries-old practices of horrific systemic racism kept trying to douse could not be put out and was still burning brightly, warming all who had the good sense to gather around the campfire. And that we did, even feeling the heat coming through the Zoom filter. 


Or to switch from campfire to wedding, I was the officiate at a beautiful marriage with moments of profound silence, joyous laughter, soul-nourishing food and of course, dancing—to a great African Diaspora Jazz Band! Made all the more meaningful by the wedding guests (minus the embarrassing drunk uncles) who gathered to witness the love and partake of the amazement. 


And shouldn’t every day be like that? Well, perhaps not every day. You have to leave time for the honeymoon! And there are bills to pay. But it certainly would be good to keep perpetually renewing our vows, in company with a community of beautiful souls, each with their own particular way of taking the world in their arms and kissing the bride. 


PS And don’t forget the kids that need raising!

Monday, May 10, 2021

Poem Du Jour


“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet people die every day from the lack of what is found there.”     - William Carlos Williams


Every day, an old friend sends me a poem by Mary Oliver. Before I read it, I’ve already sat in meditation, stretched, had breakfast and played solitaire. After the poem, I’m ready to get to work and face the day, to note the AOL news headlines as I check e-mail and decide which, if any story, is worth pondering. “To be informed” about the news is my responsibility as a citizen, but to be informed about the soul’s possibilities and the world’s delights is my responsibility as a person. There’s a different kind of news one gets from the wisteria blooming one bloom further, the breath dissolving the borders of self, the Mary Oliver poem reminding us of the simple glories of sunshine and the admonition to savor its warmth and beware of going crazy for power, for things.


My daughter complained about listening to her podcasts first thing in the morning and already feeling depressed and beaten down before arriving to teach at school. I suggested she replace that routine with the “poem du jour.” Plenty of online possibilities, both aural and written, to ease you into each day with the news that poetry delivers. Or —imagine that!— actual books of poetry that invite you to open their pages. Try it! You may discover, as I have, that the sub-text of most every news item is a report about people who have “gone crazy for power, for things,” people who have died from the lack of poetic sensibility in their wounded soul and are determined to drag the rest of the world down with them into that soul-less abyss. 


Resist!! Arm yourself with the artillery of hope and attention and gratitude and wonder before meeting the beast to find out what mischief it’s causing now. And if you start to feel yourself dragged down, turn off the damn news and fortify yourself with a few more poems. Or play with some children. Or listen to Bach or Blossom Dearie. Paint. Garden. Walk in the woods or in the bustling city streets. Reclaim the life that awaits when we refuse to be brought yet lower by the Cretans hurting the world with their heavy shoulders of power. Stand in the sunshine and be warmed before entering the dark to be warned. 


So here’s Mary Oliver’s Poem Du Jour, The Sun,  to kick off your new morning ritual: 

Have you ever seen
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?