Sunday, September 4, 2011

I Love Hate Mail

I’ve been getting some hate mail lately and I love it. It’s not the kind written by ignorant fools with mean hearts and way too much time on their hands— I’m not public enough to attract their attention and that’s well and good. This hate mail comes from people I know— teachers I’ve taught, colleagues, even friends. People, for example, who came to one of my summer courses relatively content with their teaching and afterwards wrote things like: “ I was too comfortable in where I was and I am VERY HAPPY that this class shook me up…YES!  Time to Work, work, work!”

This student didn’t add the “I hate you!” clause, but those who have make me feel happy that I’ve worked long and hard enough that I’m presenting difficult and challenging ideas. It means I’ve hated lots of people—my first Orff mentor, my first jazz teacher, my colleagues Sofia and James, almost every jazz piano player I hear—and that has helped inspire me to “work, work, work” until I got some people hating me.

And by the way, I sometimes also hate my students. Like the 8th grader two years ago who played amazing dumbek and cajon. One day I walked into the school band practice and he was playing some swinging saxophone with great tone and good solo ideas. Another day I caught him messing around in the music room on the piano, hammering out Stevie Wonder’s Superstition with a killer groove and good technique and my hatred grew in leaps and bounds. And yet another day, I ran into him playing guitar with some friends during recess. If I caught him playing Bulgarian bagpipe, I would have had to hurt him very badly.

Of course, new-age Californians want only love to abound, but this kind of hate is so important. First off, noticing who you hate is a big clue as to what you love and what you desire to master. I’ve never hated a financial officer because that’s not a world I care about. Secondly, any Zen master can say to you “You are perfect as you are” but they should add, as Suzuki-Roshi did, “but we can all stand a little improvement.” Zen is a good example of people getting up way too early in the morning and sitting with pained legs occasionally beaten with a stick to realize that they are perfect and that there’s nothing they need do—except practice long hours for decades to finally get that. The right kind of hate can be like that—a stick to wake you up when you're dozing off and just enough pain to keep you paying attention.

When I go to a workshop or a concert or a poetry reading, I hope for two things:
      1) Work that affirms my sense of worthiness and helps me feel I’m on the right track.
      2) Work that kicks my butt and reminds me to get back to work.
I’m not talking of personal relationship here, where the teacher actively affirms or criticizes. Often, it’s simply someone playing their music or reading their poems or teaching their class at a high level that both inspires and depressed. Both reactions can be useful in the right dose and balance. When it’s too much affirmation, we get complacent. When it’s too much butt-kicking, we get discouraged and frustrated and angry.

So embrace the hate as a message to keep working, but don’t forget the love. When we see someone doing something we wish we could do, it can push us back or pull us forward, depending on our mood. We’re never going to do it like they do and part of the deal is 100% acceptance of how we do it and feel it and understand it in a way that no one else does. I suspect that we never feel wholly comfortable with our own genius, some part is always comparing and contrasting and wanting to be a bit like someone else. But in my experience, that desire starts to fade as we start to come into our own. All of that hero worship and admiration and imitation and "hatred"is pointing the way to the things we love in common with our hero. Its purpose is to encourage us to discover how to love it in our own particular way. And then things get really interesting.

So keep the hate mail coming and eventually, you’ll be getting some of your own. Maybe from me!

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