Thursday, May 19, 2011

Tough Vulnerability, Gentle Ferocity

What is it like to have your best friends be between 80 and 95? Inspiring, to say the least. And what I love most of all is the gradual erosion of all those walls of niceness and careful choosing of words and getting straight to the heart of it. “You’re out of your mind!” “Hey, you, get over here and pay attention to me!” “I’ve had enough of that!” Similar to the honesty of three-year olds, but more tough and grizzled and cooked through with a lifetime of sparring with the world. Not trying to impress or get ahead or worry about offending someone. When you enter elderhood, you receive your license to “tell it straight” and damn anyone who demands sugar-coating.

I, for one, find it refreshing. And don’t get me wrong. Most of the conversation in-between the songs is appreciative and loving and fun, but when time is short and mortality is looking over your shoulder, no one has patience for playing games and amen to that!

I grew up in New Jersey and was well-versed with the New York taxi-cab driver style of conversation, but truth be told, found it a bit too harsh and grating. So I came to mellow California and lived on the edge of the New Age, where soft and gentle was the guiding aesthetic and everyone spoke with good intentions at a decibel level just below my current hearing. In-between the two was the great passion of my Spanish friends, the cutting “dozens” of my African-American friends, the loud chatter of my Jewish relatives.

But I have to say that the California-culture equation of a raised voice as a plea for anger-management classes, of conflict as an alarm to shut down fast or at least press Snooze, of disagreement as distasteful, is starting to wear on me. I love the story of the Italian teacher trying to oversee the transplanting of the Reggio-Emilio education approach to the United States. When asked about the difference between American and Italian culture, she replied: “Here you see disagreement as the end of the conversation. In Italy, it’s the beginning.”

Circumstances have thrown me in the boxing ring and every day lately, I need to dance around with my fists raised, throw and block punches just to survive. And truth be told, there is something exhilarating in it. I’m alive. I’m alert. I’m using every muscle in the body and every synapse in the brain. And though I sometimes get knocked silly and my mouth is bleeding and the blows keep catching me by surprise, I’m still standing and in the ring. That counts for something and feels more real than living a dull safe life where I’ve managed never to offend anyone.

But even as I grow stronger in my determination to stand up for a lifetime of cultivated values, I’m also finding the soft and gentle side that comes through when I play jazz ballads on the piano more tender than ever before. Not a posed, wimpy mellowness that comes from skirting around or damping down conflict, but a muscular gentleness, a passionate tenderness when I step from the boxing ring to the piano. Rumi has a poem about it:

“Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
You would be paralyzed…”

So during the day, the fist is clenched: “Power to the people! Umoja! El Pueblo, Unido, Jamás Será Vencido!” and at night, it spreads open on the piano keyboard and sings out the heartbreaking beauty of “That Old Black Magic” or “Haunted Heart” or “Embraceable You” and everything that was closed in defense during the day opens like a flower in the morning sun.

And so it is with my elder friends. The look on my mother’s face when I play these ballads for her is pure openness and reception, the innocence of a baby re-forged from the wrinkles of experience. And when she’s had enough, she has no qualms about telling me—“Douglas! No more playing! Let’s get ice cream!” 

Ah, elderhood. I can’t wait to be even more feisty and outraged and impatient with ignorance and stupidity—and more tender and caring at the same time.

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