Friday, January 30, 2015

Letting Go

There are very few fairy-tale deaths, all the loved ones gathered around the bed in the home the elder lived in for decades, peacefully passing with a smile borne on the wings of the family singing and such. But there are some. Or at least some that come close.

And so this afternoon, my mother-in-law Pam Shultz passed to the other side after a complicated few years. It began around two and a half years ago, when she consciously announced that she was done, got friends and family to gather around and pack up the house as she prepared to go into hospice. Which they did and she did. And then she decided it wasn’t time after all and gave us another few years.

As I wrote about back in October, there was another joyful gathering, a kind of living memorial service in the form of an art show featuring her decades of rug hookings. Her first and last public art display, complete with friends and relations gathering from afar, moving speeches and tributes, fun gatherings in her room and me with a little music around the piano in the hall. She was well enough to get dressed (eloquently, I might add), get in the car and to the show, greet people and chat with them, sort through the various cards and letters people had written back in her room.

Soon after, she began to decline noticeably, perhaps some sense that this had been a beautiful cadence of closing chords in the long symphony of her life. And so my wife went out the week before Christmas and spent another six days with her. By now, she wasn’t getting out of bed, but was still lucid and could hold a decent conversation. And then phone calls every day, mostly the news of the day which she still seemed interested in hearing. And then the two brothers and her granddaughter Zoey and more friends gathered in her room a couple of weeks ago for her 90th birthday. I played Happy Birthday over the phone on the piano.

And then yesterday, my wife’s brother writing that there was another big drop and he thought that the time was near. So last night, I suggested to my wife that she call her on the phone and give her permission to let go. That her work here was done and we would miss her forever and remember her forever, but that she needn’t stay any more on account of us, with the body so clearly ready to give up its mortal ticking.

After school today, I drove five hours to Fresno (traffic!) and had the sensation that perhaps today was the day. I forgot to leave the secret cell phone on, so I got the news—well, you can imagine these days— from my daughter’s posting on Facebook. Immediately called my wife and she told me this:

“So I took your advice and called Mom and they put me on speaker phone and I told her it was okay to go and the nurse said she seemed to register the conversation. Then I called her back a half- hour later and told her that her granddaughter Kerala (our daughter) just found out that her second child will be a boy and that she now has a great grandson. Again, the nurse said there was a facial reaction that indicated the news was registered. And an hour later, she was gone.”

Death is probably one of the grandest mysteries we know, but the way my own Mom waited for me and my mother-in-law seemed to hear permission to leave and the way many wait until no one is in the room (both my Mom and Dad) to sneak out seems to indicate certain patterns, nothing reliable and absolutely true, but happening often enough to indicate that they’re worth thinking about.

A mere eight years ago, my children had four grandparents and now they have none. It was a great blessing to have them all for so long and a natural loss to let them go. This is not tragedy, this is not a passing sadness. This is great jubilation and great grief intertwined, the natural course of events, but always worthy of letting all the pain in and all the joy in. That's the work of all of us left behind.

As for you, Pam, I know you were lifted to the heavens on the wings of the love and admiration you received from your long life well-lived. I imagine you flying free of your encumbered body with its heavy oxygen tank and other devices that compromise dignity, ready to meet the next adventure that awaits you.

And I hope they have a glass of white wine poured and ready. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

No Thanks to Henry

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, but I’m pretty sure that no one before, say, the 1930’s, could ever say, “Sorry, boss, that I’m late for work. There was a horrible traffic jam. The (chariots/ ox carts/ horse and buggy’s) were bumper-to-bumper all the way!”

Only us modern humans know the stress and agony of rush-hour traffic. And some of us every day. The endocrine system is working overtime. In the old days, it kicked up big-time when we heard the roar of the lion or hiss of the snake, adrenaline flooding the system to prepare us for fight or flight. And then the danger passed and the system stabilized. Hormones working as they were designed to.

But low-grade, constant stress is another animal altogether. In the traffic jam, the tension mounts as the clock ticks relentlessly toward the start of your scheduled meeting/ class/ appointment. You get a momentary pleasure zipping into another lane and then re-entering the one you need three blocks down, but is this really satisfying, knowing how you curse the people who did that to you? Do you really imagine that you’re the only one who’s late and all the others have all the leisure in the world to crawl at a snail’s pace? And speaking of snails, traffic jams give new meaning to the haiku I posted yesterday: “The snail crawls two or three feet—and the day is over.” That snail was thoroughly relaxed and content with the slow tempo of a savored life. But the modern bi-ped housed in its steel shell while stuck in traffic is hardly savoring a life of leisure. Au contraire.

Somehow San Francisco has decided that the two roads I need to get to school, my Plan A and Plan B, both need significant work which simply must be done at rush-hour time day after day after day after day. I’m talking almost six weeks now in each place!! What are you guys doing out there?!!! Might you start at 10 am and end at 4:00? Work harder on the weekend? Work faster instead of chatting with each other smirking at us poor suckers crammed into one lane?

Well, it’s one way to get me out on my bike more. No stress, fresh air, good exercise, no carbon emissions— it’s a win, win, win, win. If only I could figure out how to do it with a bass xylophone strapped to my back. I’ll get back to you.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Snail Trails

Each morning, I step out onto the back deck to greet the day. Take a few minutes to get the news— whether the first plum blossom has appeared (not yet), what the sky tells of today’s weather (sunny), was there a light rain during the night (alas, no). Today I noticed a patterned slimy trail on the deck. Never have seen a snail there, but apparently, there was some partying going on last night. (Or were they slugs?) At any rate, a refreshing change of view as to what constitutes “news” and much more palatable than the newspaper's daily horrors.

Back in college, I once saw a small art film showing the coming of dusk in a forest. Slow images panning over the landscape with the sounds of evening birds and gurgling creeks and such. It went on for five minutes or so, nothing dramatic happening, but the actual pace of most of life, small movements and little changes. My nervous system adapted to the soothing tempo, like the stately grandeur of a Bach Sarabande, no need to show off with the gale force winds of the Gigue or Courante, just settle into the depth of the moment.

And then appeared on the screen a haiku which instantly became my favorite:

                                                 The snail crawls
                                                 Two or three feet—
                                                 And the day is over.

I vowed that this would be my guiding image and …Oops! Damn! I’m late for school!!!! Bye!!!!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Blame It on Bach

Been away from this blog for a few days now and I don’t like the feeling. But I have some pretty good excuses.

For starters, my two colleagues are halfway around the world spreading the good news of the Orff approach to harmonious living, leaving me alone at the salt mines to shoulder their schedule. Not that I’m complaining. I love getting back in touch with the kids I only pass in the hall or see in Singing Time (I officially teach every other grade, so half the school and I get a year off from each other). I love getting to teach two classical music pieces to the 7th graders, a curricular theme I created some 25 years ago, but have bequeathed to James and Sofia, who do it so well. I love being with the 3-year olds again! I like having the room stay just the way I leave it.

Everyone talks about how great it is for the three of us to share our work and make no mistake, it is great! But it’s also work to give and take, to share space and materials, to constantly collaborate to make sure our curriculums are aligned. I wouldn’t give it up for the world, but it’s refreshing to have some time as the only show in town.

So, like I said, I’m not exactly shouldering this heavy schedule, more like juggling a few more balls in the air with the extra alertness and skill it takes. But there is a weight to the sheer number of classes and today, my long-time friend and boss of sorts said, “You look like crap.” Well, we have that kind of relationship and she was right. Maybe I’m really not as young as I used to be.

But I still have some regenerative aces up my sleeves. Every spare moment in the past few days, I’ve been playing Bach’s French Suites, both on my Yamaha upright at home and Steinway grand at school. And lo and behold, I’m getting the hang of it! Bach was the first composer I played as a kid on the organ and he stayed with me unbroken throughout my childhood. So there is some ancient muscle memory going on there, some foundation that pre-disposes me to fit my fingers in the groove of his magnificent cranial neuro-circuitry manifested as sound and kinesthetic pattern. The more I play, the more I feel lifted up into the highest regions of my own neo-cortex and that’s where the regeneration show takes place. Well, not just the brain, but the brain aligned with the fingers setting off vibrations in the heart. Bach’s pyrotechnics can seem a bit distant, cold and calculated, but make no mistake, the guy knew how to work a melody and bring harmonies constantly to the tiptoe edge before swan-diving into glorious resolution.

My blogs are usually triggered by an experience, an observation, a poem or passage in a book or scene in a movie, a dream or just an interesting thought that arises from somewhere, but what can I say about Bach? Or rather, what can’t I say about Bach? The guy leaves me breathless every time I play. Like many musicians, I can come up with a passable melody with a few conventional chords and a decent rhythm, but every piece of his is filled with intricate mechanisms more elaborate than Swiss watches, both hands conversing back and forth, sometimes taking the role of three or four voices. It would be extraordinary for anyone to create one piece of music like that. He composed over ONE THOUSAND!!! That we know about. With feather quills dipped in ink with no electrical lighting at night, a full time job with the church and 20 children running around underfoot. Yeah, I know he probably didn’t change any diapers and was a different kind of father than today’s, but he did teach them music—and several became distinguished composers in their own right. The mind boggles.

Well, I’m 15 away from my thousandth blog, so take that, Mr. Big-shot Bach! Of course, my most inspired blog probably equals one measure of his music, so it’s hardly a fair comparison. But hey, we do what we can.

Back to French Suite No. 5, my current personal favorite.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Report Cards

We’re knee-deep in report cards. My wife, daughter, myself and other colleagues at the school are refusing the invitation of sunny, warm days and are huddled indoors around our screens wrestling with how Johnny or Julie is “making good progress.” “Let the euphemisms fly!” declared one of the teachers and she got that right. “So-and-so is a delight to work with” means “I have no idea how your kid is doing, but hey, she mostly pays attention in class and that’s good enough for me.” “Improving on recorder” means that “Yesterday he got one tone that didn’t pierce my eardrum.” “Sometimes engages in distracting side conversations” is teacherese for “Never has heard a single direction I’ve given.” You get the idea.

Report cards are something every teacher loves to hate. But truth be told, when done well, they’re a good reminder to do what we’re paid to do— notice each child, think about each child, know what kind of help they need, praise the things that they’ve done well, bless the ways they’ve revealed their character, let them and their parents know that you care about them and are leading them to their best promise. They can help keep the whole enterprise honest by making the teacher accountable for knowing the kids.

Of course, they also can do lifelong damage and I spend a good deal of time on my soap-box talking about the difference between naming what we need to help the kids and mindlessly and heartlessly judging them, comparing them, labeling them, branding them with the hot iron of A’s and B’s and 1’s and 2’s. I talk about the prepositional difference between assessment of learning for dubious purposes and assessment for learning, finding out precisely where the disconnects lie and how we can help kids navigate the thorny paths that separate them from what we expect they should know and do and the way they’re actually put together as learners.

And it is helpful to remember that in the big picture, report cards are a human invention about 200 years old, a mere blip in the time scale of human achievement. Bach and Shakespeare never got report cards and managed to do all right. And that in the long run, it’s a little game we play for about 12-15 years and then never again. It’s good to remind the kids that past 20 years old or so, nobody—and I mean nobody— will ever ask to see their third grade report card. Or care if they do.

Writing report cards also reveals a lot about teachers as learners. How do we get through it? Do we do the “easy kids” first or save them until last? What rewards do we promise ourselves? Chocolate? A breeze through Facebook? One Friends re-run on Netflix for every 20 kids? How do we procrastinate? Re-organizing the spices on the rack, a job that simply must be done now!? Looking up the history of Report Cards online? Writing a blog about report cards instead of finishing the 8th grade comments?

Okay, you caught me. Lots more I could say, but time to celebrate Darren’s unique performance as the Dragon in our St. George play and his spirited solo in Watermelon Man.