Monday, March 31, 2014

Third Childhood

Today was great! I got to build towers with Legos and play with the Marble Maze. I got to swing on the swings and go down the slide at the playground. I did three puzzles and read “The Little Engine That Could.” Life is sure fun when you’re two! Or hanging out with a two-year old.

“It’s never to late to have a happy childhood” says author Tom Robbins and I quote him all the time giving Orff workshops where adults get to “play” music in the playful way it should be. For many, it’s a deep healing of those wounds inflicted on them by angry music teachers or dull hours of practice or not making the cut in the music competitions.

And as with music, so with the rest of childhood. We imagine childhood as care-free, innocent and pure joy, but some of us had a different experience. (Just for the record, not me! Of course, skinned knees, neighborhood bullies, occasional spankings, mean teachers and the like, but mostly, hours spend wandering in the nearby park and the chance to be wholly a child.)

When we have our own children, we get another turn to try for that happy childhood. Correct the mistakes of our parents and have fun with our children! We get to have a second childhood. And for some (me, again), it indeed is happy to read all those old books again and play all those old board games and initiate your kids into those first-time pleasures you once knew— from riding a bike to riding waves in the ocean to the first Hitchcock film and beyond.

But there is one catch. While trying to recover that sense of childlike play, we’re in the thick of work, the kind that brings home the money for the groceries and the rent and pays for the family vacation. In the midst of trying to feel carefree, we’re burdened with immense responsibilities, not the least of which is, actually taking care of the kids! Getting them to the doctor and dentist, feeding, clothing and sheltering them, comforting them when their bodies or feelings get hurt, being strict with them when they push at the boundaries. It’s a second childhood with a split personality.

But good news! There’s one more chance! The third childhood of grandparenthood!
You’re either retired or at the far end of your work life when some money is the bank and you’re done pleasing the boss. The mortgage is (hopefully) paid for and you are not your grandchild’s taskmaster—that’s your kid’s job. You are their playground! You get to be the “Yeehaw!” person who hands them back over when they’re grumpy or when you’re tired. You get to play with them in wholehearted abandon while also passing on some of your adult masteries— showing them how to cook or fingerpaint or pull weeds or sing songs or build masterworks of architecture with Legos. And when they take a nap, you can too! It’s great!

So don’t despair. If your first childhood was less than happy and your second always fraught with adult worry, there’s still hope with the third. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some serious tricycle riding to attend to. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

An Uncommon Inn

I’m sitting on a little deck with a river flowing by below. Crisp morning, mountain air,
the young green-leafed trees sparkling in the sunlight. I’ve just come from a hearty breakfast of eggs and hash browns, orange juice and herbal tea served on plates, glasses and coffee cups. The salt and pepper shakers are glass and there is a simple tablecloth on each table. There is a soft morning chatter in the room from my fellow diners and the TV on the wall is mute. And here’s the astounding fact: I’m at a motel in the United States of America.

How rare! My usual experience is a view of the parking lot out my window, Styrofoam cups and plastic plates, salt and pepper in paper wrappers, the TV blaring its ravenous 24-hour version of news designed to kill the human spirit and fill your head with tragedy, mayhem and murder. But here in Medford, Oregon, driving up to see my daughter, husband and the new (well, two year and four months old) love of my life, Zadie, The Inn at the Commons got it right. So simple. Just a little attention to aesthetics and my day is brighter and my spirit warmed. In my love-hate relationship with America, aesthetic murder by cheap, shoddy, fast, ugly everything is at the top of my list. How can we grow sensitive, caring, compassionate and fulfilled citizens when we not only tolerate shabbiness, but consciously cultivate it and surround ourselves with it?

Our dinner stop was at Dunsmuir, a sleepy little town near Mt. Shasta close to where my daughter was married up in the Trinity Alps some 6 years ago. We stumbled into a lovely little place called Café Maddalana and there I had one of the best meals in the past six months. Farro, peas and pea shoot salad, wild mushroom soup, risotto, lovingly prepared and served with care— and though the price was above the roadstop diner, it was reasonable enough, especially for the pleasure it delivered.

This is how we grow a culture. This is how we grow happy people. Simple attention to doing things well, with care, with nuance, with aesthetic subtlety. Leave the TV shouters mute on the wall, close down the Styrofoam factories, silence the devices and talk to the people at the table. Small little acts that build to big changes.

On to Portland, refreshed and rejuvenated by this most uncommon American inn. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Energy Is Eternal Delight

Some 21 hours of travel from the apartment in Copacabana, Rio to the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco. I left the possibility open of just going home from the airport, but after two weeks without visiting my Mom and another week ahead as I go to Portland, I walked from the BART Station with my two suitcases to see how she was. After all, when I was a kid, she put peanut butter sandwiches in the outdoor milk box (anyone remember those?) to sustain me when she was out doing errands— seemed like the least I could do to pay her back.

She’s now one month short of her 93rd birthday and though she’s rail thin, the accumulated weight of all those years is weighing heavy on her spirit and her energy is low. She lies in bed for more hours a day than not and has three different awake modes when she’s sitting in her wheelchair: One is a disturbing spitting and throwing things, angry at the indignities of aging without the words to express it. Another (more and more rare) is the beatific smiling mother beaming unconditional love and exclamations of astonishment that her children could be so wonderful. The third is dipping in and out of sleep while sitting. You never know which one will greet you when you walk in the door.

Walking in with my suitcases, I was delighted to see that she was sitting up without any signs of hostility. I wheeled her over to the piano and started playing and a faint smile emerged and a slight nod of recognition. But her energy seemed lower than ever. It took all her effort just to purse her lips for a kiss or speak a word. She has no diagnosed malady beyond dementia— I could simply feel her life force fading.

By contrast, I was loving seeing her and playing piano for the many folks who came to gather around.  One man new to the Home was beaming song after song and feeding me with his pleasure in the music. In spite of just a few hours of sleep in the last 36 hours (and those 21 hours spent traveling), my energy level was high. As Blake said, “Energy is eternal delight” and doing that which eternally delights us gifts us with unlimited energy. By contrast, the loss of energy, whether from the accumulation of years or some spark of enthusiasm fading, is hard to watch and harder to live.

It’s a blessing to have a life reach the end of its natural cycle, but it sure ain’t easy and a mystery as to the timing. Who directs the show? What invisible hand calibrates the level of life force and decides how long it will glow? Never felt the need—and still don't— for the simplistic answer of "the big guy with the beard," but these are questions beyond scientific answers.

Meanwhile, grateful that she is still here for me to kiss and hold and grateful when I am graced with energy’s delight and can help spark a bit in her through the power of music.

But writing this at 10:30 pm, I think some sleep is in order.

The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful

Reluctantly leaving Rio after eight marvelous days. What lies ahead is wonderful— my quarterly visit with my ever-evolving granddaughter—and equally evolving (though at a slower pace) daughter and son-in-law. But still, to have an apartment on Copacabana, walk three blocks to the beach, sip fresh juice drinks with Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance— well, you can see why I’m reluctant.

So a quick farewell to this most marvelous magical city and appreciation as follows:

The Good

1.  An airport named Tom Jobim Airport. Imagine that! Honoring a musician! In the U.S., we have Ronald Reagan Airport, George Bush Airport, John Wayne Airport, but will we ever have airports named for John Coltrane, Pete Seeger, Art Tatum? America, surprise me!

2.   Music, music and yet more music.  The repertoire is varied, the bar is high, the community participation joyful. Alegria!!

3.  Beaches. Lots of them! Miles and miles and part of the city. Clean, intense crashing surf, perfect temperature water. And attractive bathing suits! J

4.  Fresh fruit drinks and coconut juice straight from the coconut. My favorite the Aceí berry drink. Topped with granola.

5.   No bugs!  This struck me today when I heard a fly for the first time. The apartment
I stayed in had a large picture window with no window, no screens anywhere, but
in my eight days, not a single mosquito. Rare for this kind of climate!

The Bad

1.  The guy who mugged one of my workshop students outside the door of the Conservatory on the lunch break. Threatened him with a knife. Took all his money and identification. Of course, could happen anywhere, but alarming in the midst of an Orff workshop.

      2.  Favelas. The Brazilian black ghettos that breed crime like the above and drugs and
           poverty and violence, same story everywhere in places that have the very poor and
           the very rich. Still the aftershocks of slavery that just take so, so long to heal and
           turn around— which starts with the government caring enough to turn it around.

        3. Bad education.  This is hearsay from the teachers I worked with, but they’re a
    pretty good source, describing bad working conditions, bad attitudes from
    dispirited teachers and students alike, very little music education, only 2% of the
    GNP funneled into schools.

4.   World Cup.  What? The bad? Well, again stories of excessive money spent for
lavish stadiums and taxing Brazilian citizens to pay for it, favelas bulldozed to avoid embarrassment, but no re-location plans for the people living there.

     The Beautiful

1.    Everyone I met. Without exception. Warm, spirited, intelligent, sensitive, musical, funny. Great conversations, no one talking about their latest aps or other nonsense. Special thanks to my hosts Beth and Patricia and their lovely and generous families.

2. Sugarloaf and Corcovado and the beaches and beyond. Simply one of the most
    stunningly and strikingly beautiful cities on the planet. San Francisco on steroids
    (higher hills) with warmer weather and a more swimmable ocean.

3.  The music, the music, the music. Brazil, like Bali and Bulgaria and Ireland and India
     and Cuba, is a remarkable musical culture with a wealth of musical styles loved   
     (and played) the world over. Samba is big in Finland, Bossa Nova in Japan,
     Maracatú getting popular in California. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg —  
     though  iceberg is definitely the wrong image for these warm to hot, sensual and   
    sexy, musical styles. And, in good old Orff style, “music” almost always means     
    dance as well.

So rare that I teach and tourist on the same trip and so grateful I did. Eight glorious days have captured my heart and I leave with that bittersweet feeling of “saudade”— a bit sad to be going, so sweet that I came. Muito obrigado, Rio de Janeiro!