Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lucky by Design

Every visit with my Mom is a lesson of sorts. Yesterday was her eloquent lecture on the nature of desire. It went something like this:

“Hi, Mom.”

“Get me outa here.”

“Okay, it’s a beautiful day. Let’s go outside.”

So I wheeled her outside, with her pointing and commanding, “Go here. Now here.”

We went outside into the fresh air and settled down to breathe in a fogless San Francisco day of perfect temperature. We were there about a minute when she said:

“Now take me back.”

“Mom, we just got here. Don’t you want to sit in the sun and watch the birds in the fountain?”


No arguing with her when she’s in a mood like this. So back we went.

“In the elevator.” For years, she lived on the 2nd floor of a building, but moved down to the first floor last Fall. But following her lead, we went into the elevator, walked around the old floor a bit and…you guessed it, “Back to the elevator.”

We wheeled to the piano where I always play, I played one piece and she seemed almost settled. But when I began the second piece, out came a sharp “No! Let’s go!”

So it was back outside to another spot when my wife pulled up in the car and sat down to join us. “Hi, Florence!” An old social etiquette broke through her mood of constant dissatisfaction for a moment as my Mom smiled and greeted her. And then back to, “C’mon, let’s go.” I explained to my wife, “She seems to want something, but it’s not clear what. She just wants.”

Well, I guess we all have times like that, when we just want and we don’t know why and sometimes don’t know what, just anything but what’s happening in the moment. We are creatures of appetite, the body constantly striving for an elusive equilibrium, commanding and pointing, “I need food. I need exercise. I need rest. I need a hug. I need to go shopping.” We’re often coveting our neighbor’s goods or their life or their wife or husband, imagining that if we had that, we’d finally be content with this. Even when we’re in a good place, the flicker of desire has us wondering what might be better. The old haiku poet Basho put it eloquently:

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry,
I long for Kyoto.

After coming back from two glorious weeks in China and Japan, I turned back to the airport and took off for Kansas City. Back on Sunday to a rehearsal for The World Music Festival, learning Tibetan music with fellow South Indian, Azerbaijani, Chinese and Spanish musicians and SF kids of all backgrounds. The next day met SK, a xylophone player who I took exactly three lessons with in Ghana in 1999 and hadn’t seen in 13 years. But we’ve kept a karmic connection and I’ve taught some of his music to the kids. Imagine my pleasure in bringing him to school and helping to organize a workshop for local teachers and musicians, a dream we’ve discussed for over a decade. Tomorrow, I go to Montreal and then to Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’m like my Mom yesterday, being pushed around from place.

But with one important difference. Living this crazy life, I should be exhausted. But I’m not. Jet lag aside, each place I find myself is a marvel. Instead of restless dissatisfaction spurring me on, I’m being led from one home to the next, edging closer to the particular reason (or reasons) I seem to have landed on this earth. When the work is aligned with what you love to do, what you need to do, what you have to contribute, it constantly refreshes. You do it wholeheartedly, digging to the center of why you’re here.

One can only be grateful for such luck, a luck both supported by seen and unseen helping hands and hewn from a life of constant sacrifice, the dues one pays to organize your life around your passion. Lucky by design, lucky by intent, lucky by hard choices and their consequences.

I’ll visit Mom again today and see if I can coax her with well-chosen notes on the piano back to a place she often goes to, of pure contentment, timeless bliss and the momentary end of longing. Wish me luck.

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