Sunday, August 31, 2014


It’s the return of Numbers Nerd. Today being the last day of August, I had two blogs on my mind, but it brought up the tally to 23. Since every other month this year had an even number of posts—16-24-20-20-22-26-24— I should have posted one today and reserved one for tomorrow. But I didn’t and that brought it up to an unacceptable odd number—23. So I’m writing this for no other reason than to even the count.

The lightning bolt of inspiration came up with the title “Even-Steven.” And now I wanted to know its origin. My extensive sources (ie, the first two online sites I searched) just called it “rhyming slang” from the mid-1800’s and defined it as all debts on all sides have been paid. Wired as we are for rhyming, it didn’t have to make sense. But they could have had a little fun and made up a story:

 “Once upon a time, a man named Stephen borrowed some money from his friend Steven and Steven borrowed Stephen’s hammer. A few days later, Steven came over to return the hammer to Stephen and Stephen returned the money to Steven, exclaiming, ‘Now we’re even, Steven.’ ‘Yes, now we are ephen, Stephen.’ And that’s why English is the worst language in the world for foreigners to learn.”

Well, it’s no New York Times Bestseller, but now I’ve hit 24 blog posts in the month of August and brought the year-to-date average to 22 per month.

Okay, September, let’s see what you got.

Bad Rep

I have come to peace with God.

The word, that is. A word that has a bad rep for many— me included. Growing up in the Christian Western Hemisphere, I associate it with the almighty, stern, wrathful, bearded guy who judges, smites, punishes his disobedient children and sends them happily to an eternity of hellfire. The word is charged with the echoes of all the people who had “God on our side” while they obliterated the Indians and enslaved the Africans and burned the witches and exterminated the Jews. The God I learned about encouraged us to blindly obey, accept, not to think, commanded us to convert the heathens, and made little children suffer sitting on hard pews listening to boring worn-out talk while the birds were singing happily outside. I didn’t like that fellow and I still don’t. We have nothing to say to each other.

But the notion of a spiritual force above or below or beyond or within the everyday material world—well, I’m down with that. Always have been. Caught glimpses of it throughout my life, heard it whisper in my ear, felt it tingling in my blood or blowing like a cool breeze on a hot day or covering me like a warm blanket on a cold night. God is one of the shortest names for it and thus, convenient, but its pseudonyms make an impressive list: G*d, Lord, the Almighty, the Omnipotent, the Deity, the Supreme Being, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Lord, Elohim, Yahweh, Jehovah, Jesus, Allah, Spirit, the Great Spirit, the Goddess, Mother Earth, the Beloved, the Friend, the Divine Child, Buddha, Buddha Nature, True Nature, Original Nature, The True Man of No Titles, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna x 10,000 other Hindu gods and all the countless names from indigenous cultures worldwide. One principle, one experience, one revelation with a thousand different names and faces.

Reading the Persian poet Hafiz now, my translation uses the word God interchangeably with Sweet Uncle, Generous Merchant, Sky, Sun, Moon, Love, Beloved, Friend and more. Doesn’t particularly matter which you use. What matters is whether or not you have been graced with its presence.

So when I wrote today’s earlier blog about the one-letter difference between Gold and God as your motivating life force, I was worried about using that word God, concerned that people would think that I’ve sold out to that old guy in the sky, found my personal Saviour, gave up thinking, saw the error of my ways and was going to talk about God’s goodness in all future Christmas cards and encourage you to accept Jesus. So I suppose this entry is just a “for the record” clarification about what I mean by God and to make it clear how many different names I could have used.

Religion I have no use for, but to dig deeper into the spiritual purpose of our small existence and uncover the spiritual presence in each and every thing and person— well, that indeed is worthy work. And to do that work, God is a better driver than Gold and that’s Good. 

What a Difference an L Makes

Maybe it all comes down to one question.

Who is in the driver’s seat as you navigate through your day?

Is it God or Gold?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Still Side by Side

I shared a bit of our opening school ceremony in yesterday’s blog. I didn’t mention the staff xylophone band playing a hot Zimbabwe marimba piece while the kids and parents first entered the school grounds. I didn’t mention the Bulgarian bagpipe and drum that helped gather the kids by class in the courtyard (I know you’re picturing them running away from the sound!). I didn’t tell much about the two lines of teachers joined to make a human tunnel through which each grade passed while the teachers sang a sort of New Year’s song from the Bahamas. I didn’t mention the Head of School’s welcome address about building relationships and cleverly ending with the words “Side by Side” to segue into that old jazz standard.

After the song (and before the ringing of the gongs), I got to say a few words to the kids and parents that went something like this:

“ Do you know we have been singing that song at school for almost 40 years? The song itself is some 90 years old and was popular during the Depression, lifting up people’s spirits in hard times. This is the closest thing we have to an official school song. Now most school songs talk about how “our school is the best, we’re number one, we’re so much better than that one over here and the other over there and certainly that one around the corner and off we will march to victory holding the flag of our academic excellence and our championship football team. Rah! Rah ! Rah!”

But this song is a little different, isn’t it? I don’t think we’re the greatest school that ever was, but there are moments in every school year where we rise to greatness. When we work hard and master something that was difficult and have a great time doing it, that’s a worthy thing to celebrate. When we do the things that make us happy and that make this a happy place to come to, well, that’s a great thing. When we speak out courageously against an injustice, whether its defending our classmate who was teased or writing a letter telling the government to stop selling guns so easily, that’s definitely a moment to be proud of. When we’re kind to each other, when we’re kind to ourselves, when we’ve learned to love something or somebody that was hard for us to love, well, that’s a 21-drum salute!

But perhaps the most worthy is this feeling of community, this feeling that everything we work hard for and master is offered back to the community. And not just our tiny piece of paradise on Gaven Street, but to all the communities outside its gates. Something good starts here and ends up there.

Now here we are at the beginning of another year and we “don’t know what’s coming tomorrow,” there may be some “trouble and sorrow,” some bad weather, some falling skies, some ragged and funny moments, but we’ll get through it all together, singing, dancing, playing, working, imagining, thinking, loving together… how? You got it ‘Side by Side.’ After all these years, it’s still the song that gets us through the day.

Now let the wild rumpus begin!!”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Letter of Condolence

A teacher in my recent World Music Orff Course wrote about his prep days before school, lamenting his long meeting about computers. He sent me the slick presentation with its bubbles trumpeting how “tech allows for significant task redesign through modification, acts as a direct tool substitute, with functional improvement through augmentation or with no functional change through substitution.” Huh? I dare you to explain that to a first grader!

I wrote him a letter to try to offer some comfort.

“This will be a condolence letter, as if you had lost a loved one. And in a way, you have. You signed up for teaching because of your love for children. Where are the children in these words about ‘direct tool substitutes?’ Where is the slightest inkling of understanding of how children live and think and learn? Where is anything that will help children master thought connected to feeling connected to body connected to earth connected to each other?

That the meeting left you feeling physically sick and dispirited is a good sign— it shows you still have a beating heart and a thinking brain. I’m sure the contrast with the week we just had was almost unbearable. To come from five days of joyful music-making in company with passionate teachers, immersed in a community of learners taking bold leaps into the imagination, slow steps towards awakening their rhythmic bodies, vulnerable forays into opening their hearts and thrilling descents into the depths of thought and ascents to the giddy heights, to go from that into the zombie-land of machine-minded people must have been quite a shock. It’s no wonder that you wanted to leave the room and scream. I had the same feeling just reading about it!

I feel your frustration trying to explain some of this to your colleagues, but it’s almost hopeless. They don’t even know what they don’t know, have no inkling as to what they’ve forgotten, mesmerized by the glitz and allure and ease of jiggling some buttons, hooking kids up to machines and pretending they're doing something fancy and sophisticated. And it’s not wholly their fault. They just haven’t come across something different from the old-style sitting in desks watching the clock with incalculable boredom or the new-style addiction to sensation and fast-moving electronic blips isolated from their classmates and their own marvelous bodies and minds. They haven’t been baptized in the well of genuine art taught artfully that awakens every human facility we know. But don’t give up— I’m sure some are just waiting for someone else to say out loud that the machined Emperor has no clothes.

How I wish they could at least witness the opening ceremony at our school today, where some parents and teachers were moved to tears simply observing eight kids pouring water into each other's classes. I repeat: eight kids, one from each grade, standing in front of 200 other kids and 200 parents. They were passing down the “water of knowledge” from 8th grade to 1st one glass at a time and then with the little water each left in their glass, emptying that into the 1st grader’s glass to hold the empty vessel of possibility, of curiosity, of beginner’s mind. The 400 plus people were pin-drop silent— and here I’m talking about young kids, as mesmerized as the adults by the power of this simple ritual, listening to each drop of water as if their lives depended on it. How I wish there were prep staff meetings considering this kind of opening to the year instead of the energy spent talking about the pinball-machined-bells-and-whistles of the latest and greatest screened technologies.

Before the water ceremony was the ringing in of the year by the oldest and youngest child and again, the room was bathed in an intense silence listening to the age-old technology of Balinese gong-making as the vibrations slowly dissolved in the bath of silence. Big gong, small gong, big gong, small gong, big gong, small gong and then the older child making such beautiful eye-contact with the younger one to time their simultaneous ring. And wasn’t it fun when the kids erupted into the rehearsed silent cheer, their bodies and faces showing the excitement of the winning goal in the World Cup, but without a sound coming out of those 200 mouths.

And before that was the school anthem, voices raised singing the old jazz standard “Side by Side” (more on that tomorrow). And after the water was the “Earth Day Rap” while the eight kids held up the giant Earth Ball. And then processing out to ”Siyahamba”— “we are marching in the name of peace.” Environmental caretaking, social justice, creating a community of learners— why didn’t these words enter the meeting about “tech’s qualities of augmentation and substitution and task redesign and functional change?”

All I can hope is that when the kids come, you can close the door and start the real work of meeting their deep needs using every ounce of your background, knowledge, intention, passion and love. Let me know if I can be of any further help.

All the best,