Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Time to Mourn

I’m thinking back to when I bought my first records. Can’t remember the first one, but early on, I bought Dave Brubeck’s Time Out, some Bob Dylan, Beatles, Rolling Stones, James Taylor, Incredible String Band, Gleen Gould playing The Goldberg Variations and the like. Each one was a treasure to me, a world unto itself with lots of time to hang around inside the sonic landscapes of an emerging mythology. Likewise, the first books I bought—Walden, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, How Children Fail, Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22, The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts and so on, each opening new vistas and inviting me to amble through the pages and explore the nooks and crannies of thought, vision, shared experience. I still have some of those original copies in my home (records and books), radiating with an old book smell and a Velveteen-Rabbit-loved kind of soul.

Over the years, as books and records multiplied into the hundreds and even thousands, the affection and worth of each one seemed to diminish. Well, yes and no. I still can name and remember each next wave of groundbreaking recordings and books, still opening doors and windows. But I remember giving an 8th grader a CD I thought she’d like some 15 years ago and got the impression that she would cherish it. And then 5 or 10 years later, got the impression that such a gift would get tossed into a pile and lost and mean nothing. And I think that was true.

We have entered the age of excess far beyond what anyone could have imagined even 15 years ago. Hooray for Facebook and blogs and instant ways to disseminate information and share one’s own writings, but the very volume and speed and ease of it makes each posting cheaper and less memorable and less important. We spend less time hanging out with it, thinking it over, reading and re-reading. Sure, the blogs are still there to go back to, but mostly they feel like fleeting insects gone with the electronic wind. The time once spent at a table by candlelight imagining the friend far away, holding them in mind and heart while the pen or pencil scratches across the paper, keeping them with us as we address and stamp the envelope, walk to the post office and kiss it before dropping it, then the delicious anticipation of checking the mail slot a week or so later to see if there’s a reply— all of this gone in the click of SEND on e-mail. Everything a mile wide and an inch deep.

And I mean everything. News used to be just that. Life moves on as normal and then at 6 o’clock, a smattering of noteworthy events. But along comes 24 hour news, a monster with a ravenous appetite that must be fed and now news dominates our psychic landscape, pulls us away from attention to our three-dimensional lives, assumes more value than a front porch sit chatting with the neighbor. Not necessarily better or worse—maybe our neighbor was boring—but just so damn hyper, the constant assault of information and sensation so that nothing means very much because there’s no contrast and no space and time to absorb, consider, experience.

The hyped-up election news starting over a year ago—and always sensational because who can sustain that level of interest?—needed someone like Trump to hit us in our survival fight-and-flight brain and shame on the media for giving him all the airtime just so that they could keep their ratings up. In the wake of that disaster they helped create, two significant American heroes passed away. Used to be that this was cause for pause, time spent reading about it in newspapers and magazines, time spent talking about it at the workplace and with friends, time spent remembering what gifts we received from the lives they lived. And now? One day, it’s “Oh by the way, Leonard Cohen just died.” “Really? Too bad. What did he write again?” and the next day, “Some guy named Mose Allison just died.” “Hmm. That’s a shame. Hey, check out my new ap!”

These events got washed away in the tsunami of last week’s disaster and it makes me sad not to give them the time they deserve. Leonard Cohen wrote the song Suzanne that was on one of the early records I bought by Judy Collins and it was a haunting song with lyrics I didn’t wholly understand, but could feel the poetry of them. Many, many years later, I taught the song Dance Me to the End of Love to a student group and it turned out to be an extraordinary moment for the 8th boy who sang it and I. He had been a challenging music student for me for most of the 11 years we had together, but in the last 2 years, he caught fire and sang this song with such soul and passion. And when I spoke about him at graduation, I told the whole story of our edgy past and our more deeply-connected present and ended with the image of us dancing through all those years together and at the end discovering love. I still tell that story at workshops and I still tear up when I tell it.

And then there’s Mr. Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah,” which my nephew Damion sang for his brother Ian at his wedding. I also can proudly say I sat for week in Zen meditation with Leonard Cohen on the pillow across from me (we shared the same Zen teacher up at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Joshu Sasaki-Roshi). At the end of the retreat, there was a group photo of the participants and I just happened to be sitting next to Leonard. Of course, I can't find the photo because I have too many photos! But there was my 15 seconds of fame.

As for Mose Allison, I love his clever and witty songs, often sitting at meetings and thinking of his line, “Your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime.” His wit never flagged and I loved his more recent Certified Senior Citizen. He was a white boy who sang the blues, as he himself would say, and did with integrity, authenticity and his own kind of soul. I got to see him perform at SF Jazz some 10 years ago and the concert was good, but truth be told, didn’t feel that extra spark of a live performance that one sometimes hopes for.

And so these two American icons are gone in a time where everything they stood for is on its way out and that deserves a few moments of pause and consideration. In days of yore, that would mean a few days. Now it’s five minutes before checking Facebook. Isn’t technology wonderful? An endless series of trivial blips on a screen.


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