Monday, July 28, 2014

Letter to a Young Man on His Birthday

Dear Doug,

Biking in the Carmel Valley, morning fog swirling through the branches of the live oak trees and curling over the rolling brown-grassed hills, I recall a former self walking down a road in Bali. It was you on your 36th birthday. You got up early and snuck away from your wife and two young children and just started wandering down a road close to a beach watching the fishermen bring in their haul. As I remember, you were happy. Studying a bamboo xylophone for two months in Bali, loving sharing the adventure with your wife Karen and 6-year old Kerala and 2-year old Talia. The head of your school and the development director and their children (your music students) were there as well, inspired by your cultural curiosity to join you and see where you got the ideas that you brought back to the school in a new form, folded into the emerging school ceremonial life. Wasn’t that a fine feeling! Wasn’t that a grand time as the school was still evolving, built day by day by the inspired work of the teachers and their collective shared vision!

You had been teaching there 12 years, Karen for 13, Kerala had finished a glorious first grade and Talia was about to start in preschool. The Middle School was only two years old and you were just starting to initiate your Orff and Jazz program there. The Opening Ceremony, Halloween Intery Mintery ritual, the Winter Plays, the just-begun Revels, The Samba Contest, the Cookie Jar Contest, the Hug-line and Mud-pie song were all in place and going strong, as was the glorious Calaveras Camping Trip. You were the sole music teacher for all the kids for 11 years. You met James briefly that summer in Bali (little realizing what lay ahead) and had no notion whatsoever about someone in Spain named Sofia.

Elsewhere in your professional life, you had just taught your first Level 1 with your Orff mentor Avon Gillespie and had one more teaching collaboration ahead of you before he passed away in 1989. You had not yet taught in the Orff Institut, but in a mere three years, you would and a thousand glorious doors would open up for you that led to 24 years of traveling and teaching around the world. You hadn’t published any books yet, but were always typing away on articles and had begun to formulate the idea of the Jazz book. The following summer, you would teach your first Jazz/Orff Course, revealing another turn in the path that you are still walking to this day.

You had lived five years in your home on 2nd Avenue, still went down occasionally to Mt Baldy for intensive 7-day meditation retreats (your teacher, Sasaki Roshi, then 80 years old!). Your Mom and Dad were still in New Jersey and it would be another five years before they moved out to Novato, California. You had no computer yet nor did any of your friends, dialed a rotary phone with a cord, rolled out a funky TV from the hall closet for the once-a-week family watching of the Bill Cosby Show, Family Affair, a Different World and when the kids were in bed, Cheers. South Africa was still in the grips of apartheid, the Berlin Wall was up and the Soviet Union was still a country and still the enemy.

And so, young man, your birthday has rolled around yet again and now the digits are reversed. Then you were 36, now you are 63. You haven’t been back to Mt. Baldy since 1996, but did a three-day sesshin with your 100-year old teacher seven years ago in Sonoma County. (And just yesterday, he passed away at 107 years old. Rest in peace, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.) But still you mostly begin the morning with zazen meditation, a practice that has served you faithfully for some 41 years now. You never did get “enlightened” and it doesn’t look like you ever will, but still a pleasure to breathe yourself into the world, feel the boundaries drop and let your everyday ego disappear into love. For a short time, at least.

I think you’d be pleased to know that the paths you chose and those that chose you have been sturdy, reliable, challenging, stimulating and capable of opening your heart to the grand mysteries of this life, in connection with fellow travelers. Orff. Jazz. Zen. Those short pithy words that can blow open our petty concerns in astounding ways if we stay dedicated to the discipline and open to surprise. 

At 63, your Mom recently passed a few months ago, your Zen teacher yesterday, your Dad seven years ago, Avon 25 years ago, many of the jazz greats that kept you company moving on (most recently, Charlie Haden), you can feel the line moving up and the folks at the front dropping off and suddenly, you are often the oldest person in a gathering of 100 Orff teachers. And so you step up, trembling in terror, astounded by the advancing numbers, surprised by the face in the mirror, but somehow ready to take the baton.

But part of you is still 13, so hurt when someone doesn’t recognize your contribution, grieving over some of the changes that have swept through your school community and the apparent complete disregard of your contribution for almost 40 years, impatient for the world to recognize what you have to offer to jazz education and indeed, all of education, wondering why Oprah or Terry Gross haven’t called, furious at the news, distraught by the epidemic ignorance and organized hatred and the NRA and the mean-spirited Tea Party mentality and aghast at how far short of our vision back in the late ‘60’s our generation has fallen.

And yet, I hope you'll be glad to hear that at 63 years old, you are happy. You are grateful for your good fortune and the fruits that have ripened from your persistent work. You feel blessed to spend your birthday with 100 lovely souls doing the healing work that they all are doing. You feel lucky that you can still ride a bike up a big hill as you did this morning, that you are still living in your beautiful home on 2nd Avenue and that your family has expanded to the first granddaughter who you will Skype with tonight. 200 people on Facebook have greeted you when previously five or six birthday cards used to drop through the mail slot, an unexpected perk of electronic technology. Some of them are from your childhood, some high school, some college, some your students at The San Francisco School, some your students and colleagues at Orff courses worldwide. You know almost all 200 of them and it gives you great pleasure to picture each one and think about how your paths crossed and remember the wonderful work they’re doing or the wonderful fun you’ve all had together.

So there you have it, young man. I think you would enjoy hanging out with the older man you’ve become and he would appreciate you, even though you are 27 years younger. (Maybe tomorrow I will write to the 27 years older man of 90, fate willing, I would hope to become.)

Meanwhile, have a happy birthday in Bali. I’m having a great one here in Carmel Valley.



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