The jazz literate amongst you might be expecting me to write about Miles Davis' great album of the above title. But the reference is to an American’s interpretation of a Balinese teacher’s lesson—for me, one of the more intriguing conversations in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love (not to be confused with my own Play, Sing & Dance). Her teacher was describing a meditation that takes him up seven levels to heaven, where beauty and love abound. He then described another meditation that went seven levels down to hell. And when asked: “What’s it like in hell?” he replied, “Same like heaven. The universe is a circle. Up, down, all same at end.” (p. 262)
Well, that’s an interesting thought. But the truth of it held me mesmerized driving the other night listening to a radio program featuring five inmates from San Quentin speaking about their experience in that prison’s extraordinary rehab programs. They came in angry, violent, uncared for, unloved, self-loathing, describing their seven step journey to the bottom of the pit and then took these classes on writing poetry, theater, art, yoga and more—and came out the other side. Rarely have I heard such depth of expression coupled with awareness of the harm they had caused. Their determination to heal themselves and help others—fully aware (some were murderers) that they could never rest wholly satisfied in who they were knowing who they had been and what they had done, was breathtaking.
Now me, I’m dedicated to “Let’s get it right the first time” practice, avoiding the need for
re-covery by never covering children’s shining light potential in the first place. And I suppose there’s a place for this in the world. Perhaps my tiny efforts to constantly speak on behalf of children’s flowering promise, watering them through the power of music, might contribute a few drops in the ocean of healing that’s needed.
But I'm intrigued by the idea of working with the population that never got the nurturing they deserved. It would bring my Tom Robbins quote "It's never too late to have a happy childhood" to a new level of potential truth. And the timing of this radio program seemed auspicious.After not seeing him for some 20 years, I just re-connected with an old San Francisco acquaintance who had gone from selling beer to creating a worldwide program of prison yoga (James Fox, look him up!) and was moved by his stories. I then wished happy birthday to a fellow music teaching colleague who is quite well known in the choral world. Now she’s retired and as she says, “spending a lot of time in jail.” A dramatic pause and then, “Teaching music there, of course!”
My work with kids has expanded out occasionally to babies, seniors, kids on cancer wards, jazz musicians—maybe it’s time for the Orff in Prisons Programs? I don’t want to be flip or naïve about this. Playing a good pentatonic glockenspiel solo the second class is not going to melt the heart of a hardened murderer. It would take some inner strength and resources on my part that I’m not sure are wholly there. But first step is this little announcement to myself and World. We’ll see what happens.
And of course, if it works, I’m going to teach them Miles’ great tune Seven Steps to Heaven.