Wednesday, August 20, 2014

License Plate Savant

I was 11 years old when I first visited a foreign country. My father had a business trip and decided to take the whole family on a working vacation to the exotic locale of… Toronto, Canada. Not exactly the culture shock that can turn a young life inside out, more like a starter trip. But memorable nonetheless.

What do I remember from over a half-century ago? Piling into the car in New Jersey and heading north into New York State. A stop at Corning Glasswares. A small motel in the Adironack Mountains where we watched Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton in the film Niagara.  Then a stop at Niagara Falls itself, including a visit to the Madame Tussaund’s Wax Museum. I think we took a ride on the Maid of the Mists boat under the thunderous falls.

Once settled in Toronto, I remember meeting my Dad’s business partner, Don McNabb, and going with his family to some botanical garden. I faintly recall being struck with my first case of puppy love with his daughter named Lizzie. I think we held hands and it was my first intimation that girls didn’t have cooties and I crossed the line from touching girls as repulsive to alluring. (Lizzie, where are you today?) I remember visiting some fort and then going to the Casa Loma. It was driving out to that historical monument that my Mom asked me to memorize the license plate of the McNabb car we were following. And for some bizarre reason, I’ve remembered it to this day. B23-882. If you ever meet me, anytime, anywhere, test me.

Little did I know that Toronto, along with Madrid and Salzburg, would become one of the places I’ve taught the most. I believe I’ve taught 9 full-week courses here since 2002, as well as numerous one-day workshops and various conferences. They like me here and I like them. Solid citizens, thoughtful and curious music teachers, good thinkers, fun people and though there’s a reputation for the cool emotion of Canadians, we flooded the room with tears as my class helped me grieve the death of my father in 2007. He passed away on the third day of a course I taught here and I believe the songs we sang helped lift him in glory to that other world.

Yesterday, I turned down a hall in the Royal Conservatory of Music where I’m teaching and passed a photo of Carl Orff, reminding me that this place was the site of a historical moment that shaped my entire life— the arrival of Carl Orff, Gunild Keetman, my friend Barbara Haselbach and others in North America to plant the first seed of their inspired vision in North America. That historical event happened once and once only in 1962, but it was enough to grow two national associations—Carl Orff Canada and the American Orff Schulwerk Association— that would impact the musical and humanistic life of hundreds of thousands of children across fifty-two years. And if my memory serves me correctly, it was exactly the same year I visited here! Might I have passed Carl Orff walking down Bloor Street without knowing it? Asked Gunild Keetman for directions? Ridden the bus with Barbara Haselbach? Now there’s an interesting thought.

The serendipity of life’s small moments that blossom into large consequences never fails to amaze me. Continuing Orff’s work in the place where he first brought it to North America gives an extra dimension to each day. I never met him and he never heard of me (though he knew my teacher Avon Gillespie), but I’d like to think he’d be happy to know of my efforts to recreate and expand his work. Or rather, I’d like to think that he somehow knows what’s going on and is happy.

The coincidences of what James Hillman calls “life lived backwards,” the idea that we come to this world with a destiny and in hindsight, can recognize all the “chance” encounters that had to be, give a shape and meaning to life more satisfying than the notion of random chaos. You can read in Orff’s biography all those meetings that happened without which his work never would have blossomed as it did. And I can feel it in my own. I believe every life has the same. I can see looking backwards how this led to that and how much poorer my life would have been without it.

The one thing I can’t figure out is why I needed to remember that license plate. 

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