Tuesday, June 30, 2020

A Taste of Walden

At the beginning of sheltering, there was a hilarious short video clip in which someone was explaining to a man: “You will be sheltering in place at home for a while and there’s two choices. Plan A is to be with your wife and family and Plan B…” The man quickly interrupts: “Plan B. Definitely. I’ll take Plan B.”

So here we are finishing the fourth calendar month of sheltering and I’ve been in Plan A, first with my wife, daughter and grandchildren for two weeks and then three months straight with my wife. We have been married 41 years now and one of the secrets of our longevity is a healthy dose of time apart. Throughout most of the four decades working together at school, I had Mondays off and she had Fridays off, giving us both a day alone in the house. Starting in the 90’s, I had anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks of summer courses. In the last 20 years, I’ve had anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months off during the year and some of that was traveling and teaching—by myself. And then she started taking art classes in France, Maine or Morocco. 

So we’ve always had a healthy dose of time apart. Until now. My daughter invited me over for a Father’s Day dinner last week and my wife commented that it was the first time she ate alone since sheltering began. And now she’s backpacking with that daughter and I have the house to myself for three days. Amazing!!

Before my time in my personal Walden was on planes and in hotel rooms and it is rare that it is in my own house. But in either case, it’s time I need. To be the only mood in the house, to settle into one’s own rhythm with no interruption, to play piano without someone closing the door or having to negotiate where my online class is going to be. To choose the lighting, to decide the dinner and wash the dishes at my own time. No matter how lovely your relationship, this is just healthy. From both ends. 

And so here I am in my second day and night. Today was the second day of my online Jazz Course, so different from New Orleans last year, but still vibrant and fun. The lunch in the garden, the bike ride through the park, the gazpacho and salad dinner and some glorious time with Bach, Chopin and a few jazz standards. And then the silence and stillness in the house is yet another glorious musical harmony, a little piece of Solitude that Thoreau would have appreciated. 

And now July. July and August used to be the two months of deep summer uninterrupted by school, but in the past decade or two, the first day of school has crept further and further back into August. This year staff has to be back on August 12th!! Blasphemy!

But not me! Retirement for me is clearly a shift in work rather than the cessation of work, but the choice to make my summer exactly as long as I want and need it already feels like the first delicious taste of freedom. The freedom to be not be at the mercy of other’s decisions is one I already am savoring.

Of course, one is never wholly free. Our fake leader’s refusal to lead in times of crisis puts us all in danger from his refusal to be decisive about what’s so clearly needed and the incapacity of so many of our citizens to understand that “my freedom to extend my arm goes as far as your face” is the only kind of freedom we should be attending to. 

But for the moment, I am master of my domain and I refuse to let any more of these thoughts and complaints into my house for the moment. It’s a time to look back at June and marvel at what feels like a lifetime of events. The month began with my hour-long farewell slide-show/ songs/ stories to school, the closing ceremonies, graduation speeches, farewell to staff, my last report card, a last online alum sing and neighborhood sing. All of that already feels like a lifetime ago! Then three online workshops with Russia, two with Iran, one (just finished) about my latest book, one (in process) about my two jazz books. Not to mention the horrific and hopeful events around the country with more police brutality and more folks out on the streets for the right reason. Hard to remember the July’s of yesteryear with long days with the ice cream truck passing by, lemonades on the lakeside deck, afternoon swims and naps on the beach. Will the intensity ease up? We shall see.

But whether or no, my hopes that this new level of reflection and inward turning will continue, that we all will seek in our own way our taste of Walden to remember what’s important in this life, to observe, to partake, to savor, to be still, to breathe the fresh morning air and take time to watch the sun set, whether alone or in company with our loved ones. Grandson Malik’s 5thbirthday to kick it off, my 69thbirthday to close it out, we shall see what awaits. 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Invocation Before the Jazz Course

PAST: We are here by the grace of those who came before. In any form of significant community gathering, we not only thank them for the efforts they made to bring us here, but we bring them into the gathering as both participants and witnesses. We invite them to partake. As they have no bodies, we dance on their behalf. As they have no voices, we sing (and speak) on their behalf. We feel their presence in the present. As Bessie Jones tells it in her book For the Ancestors: 

       “When I’m singing something that my old fore-parents knew, if their spirits came around 
        me, I believe they’d be rejoicing. They would say, ‘That’s the song that we used to sing.’ 
      What we have to understand is that they’re here all the time. Not yesterday or tomorrow,     
       but all the time. And as long as they’re around me, I believe they’d be happy.”

Here is one of many ancestors whose presence I feel daily in my teaching, Mr. Avon Gillespie.


PRESENT: (Kofi Gbolonyo and family sing the welcome song Miawoezon).The present is the effort the people in the here and now are making to carry on the best the ancestors offered, to reach for the places they couldn’t reach and to clean up any mess they left behind. When the garbage is on your front stoop, you don’t ignore it thinking, “Well, I didn’t put it there!” You take care of it.
That’s what we’re here to do through the commitment implied by your presence here. We dedicate our time and energy and effort to putting the mess we inherited in the compost bin and growing some new hearty and healthy plants from the new soil. Specifically, we are here to consider how to bring jazz into our students’ lives in a way that’s understandable, engaging and doable,  to uplift them through great music and to begin to tell the neglected stories they need to know.
Here is one of many inspiring colleagues joining us in this moment, a man who I have learned so much from, whose wisdom, musicality and love come not only from his shining self, but is born from a culture of great beauty who has so much to teach us materially rich overprivileged American but spiritually poor underprivileged Americans. May I present Dr. Kofi Gbolonyo.


FUTURE:  To complete any gathering, we turn toward the future and begin to take the next needed step down the beckoning path. And so we invite the children into the gathering, feel their presence physically or imaginatively and dedicate our efforts to give them what they so deeply need and richly deserved. We give them the tools to be more kind, more caring, more intelligent, the things they need to become more fulfilled human beings and responsible functioning citizens of the future. We send them off as messengers to a future we won’t see, equipped with the kind of flexible mind and artistic soul that will help them improvise through the changes.

And so here are two of the thousands of children I’ve taught who inspire me to keep going and dig deeper and reach higher—my grandchildren Zadie and Malik—wearing the sacred crowns of flowers with smiling faces filled with hope and promise. 

Here we join as one body our honored Ancestors, spirited colleagues and hopeful descendants, bring the past, present and future together into the dancing ring. Ashay!

PS This past month, I've had an issue bringing photo images into the blog. This is so much less powerful without those photos! I'll try to contact Blogspot, but if anyone knows how to fix this, please post a comment!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Double Pandemic

Here we are in the midst of two pandemics. COVID 19 has been causing havoc in the U.S. for over 4 months and COVID 1619 has been causing unbearable pain and suffering for over 400 years. One can be partially healed by wearing masks, the other by unmasking the purposeful lies and hidden truths. One asks people to stay apart, the other asks people to come together. One affects everyone regardless of class, religion, race, ethnicity, etc. and the other one does as well. (Though both are more dangerous for people of color.) One waits for a vaccine to inoculate against the spreading of life-killing germs, the other waits for an education, awareness and awakening to inoculate against the spreading of soul-killing hate. One requires intelligence and care to act responsibility, the other does as well. One might be curtailed within a year, the other would need either miraculous transformation of hardened hearts (not likely) or a vast commitment of every cultural resource—news media, schools, churches, neighborhood associations, film industries, Twitter, Facebook, sports industries, etc. —to educate the young to know the real deal, to care, to act. Also not likely, but who can tell me really, why not? 

While scientists work on the vaccine for one, let’s all get busy with the second. Okay?

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Radical Foundations of Orff Schulwerk

Reflective thinking has been my lifelong companion and when it comes to any success as a music teacher of young children and a trainer of other music teachers, it has served me well. Deep into the online learning world— some six courses this past month alone for teachers in Canada, Russia, Hong Kong, Iran and two more for anyone within a reasonable time zone, the thinking side of what we do, how we do it and why we do it works well in the online format. Singing in canon, folk dancing, playing instrumental parts together is of course, ridiculous online, but good hearty talk about what sets Orff apart from business as usual and how one must be alert and vigilant when the old assumptions creep into your classroom—well, this is time well spent. So here’s my little intro. to the topic.

What is music? How does one learn it? How does one teach it?

Orff Schulwerk is nearing its 100thyear as a radical approach to music education. At the beginning of an Orff workshop, it’s worthwhile asking the above questions. By considering what music education had become when Orff set out with his revolutionary experiments, and what it mostly still is in traditional Western music teaching, we might better understand the far-reaching implications of this pedagogical approach. It is extremely difficult to teach as one has not been taught. Without careful attention, those assumptions we’ve inherited from our culture will keep re-appearing. By naming them, we have a chance of noticing how they affect our teaching.

See if the following describes how your culture views music, the way one learns music, the way youlearned music and the assumptions you grew up with.

• Music is a special talent that some people have and some people don’t.

• You begin studying music by choosing an instrument you want to learn.

• You learn that instrument mostly by taking a private lesson with a teacher or going to a special music class.

• You learn musical pieces composed by other people.

• You learn the pieces by reading music notation printed on pages. 

• You practice daily by yourself anywhere from 30 minutes to many hours in order to master the pieces.

• The piece is finished when you can play it without a mistake. 

• Your teacher will be the most interested in the students who are the most “talented” and work the hardest to practice.

• Your teacher may be strict, insult you and shame you to motivate you to practice more.

• If you work hard enough and get good enough, you will perform in high-pressure recitals and concerts where an audience pays money to hear you and sits quietly while you play.

Since we go to concerts and buy CD’s and some of us enjoy playing Bach, Chopin and others, something about this system works. But not enough. 

Enter Orff Schulwerk. The Orff idea of music and music education is diametrically opposed to almost all of the above. Consider:

• Music is not a special talent, but a human faculty all possess. It is an intelligence, a language, a means of speaking before words coming and speaking beyond where they can go. 

• All levels of musical expression are welcomed. Though talent, aptitude and practice are appreciated, a student playing an inspired improvised melody on the glockenspiel deserves the same attention as the virtuoso mastering Rachmaninoff. 

• Music is learned through direct experiences in the body and through the ear. Sound comes before symbol, speaking music comes before reading and writing it.

• Music is learned in group, community experiences, not in isolated practice rooms. Playing together in the group is the main form of practicing.

• A piece is never “finished,” but is always the beginning of the next possibility— improvisation, re-composition, dance choreography, integrated arts, etc. 

• Making mistakes is essential and improvising into new territory is more important than playing perfectly notes someone else has given you.

• Love and humor set the tone of the class. The teacher can, and should, have strict standards and expectations, but creates a playful atmosphere to achieve them. No place for fear in the music class—or any class.

• Performance is part of the learning, but it is more a sharing to refresh the community than a test to pass.

• Music is not confined to any single instrument and is best learned through a wide variety of media— hence, Play, Sing & Dance.

Each set of values has their gifts and shortcomings and in the real world, both can co-exist together. But there is no question that the Orff approach is not only more inclusive, more welcoming, more fun, more motivating, more following the natural ways children learn, more community-minded, it also can help produce better musicians who can understand more fully what they’re playing, hear it more clearly, feel it more deeply and express it with more nuance. Naturally, those who choose music as a profession will often need some of the disciplines of the first—some long hours of solitary practice, reading skills, mastering note-perfect challenging compositions, but an Orff foundation will help them in their pursuits. 

It is worth noting that It is challenging for those brought up in the first set of values to try to teach the second set. By naming these principles above, we can be more aware of those times when we just teach as we’ve been taught. When your class does not go well, the students seem bored or frustrated, consult the list above and change your teaching.
Both you and your students will be happy you did.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Cleaning the Fish

 A couple of days of silence here, not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I have too much to say. And in the midst of deep online teaching—Saturday, Russia, about my book Play, Sing and Dance,  Saturday and Monday  night, Iran, with body percussion theme, Monday through Friday mornings, my book Teach Like it’s Music and was supposed to do a 4-evening Jazz course for Hong Kong and thank the stars, enrollment was low and I was thrilled to postpone it to a later time.

But in this past week, also saw the film Thirteen,Michelle Obama’s Becoming, the old film Black Like Me from the 60’s, an hour and a half  Youtube video on white fragility, followed by buying the book of the same name, had a meeting with my men’s group around the theme of reparations. This subject of how racism literally endangers or ends the physical lives of black folks and eats away at their sense of self and likewise diminishes the lives of all the whites purposefully perpetrating the system for their own economic gain and sense of self-esteem, and most damaging of all because so invisible, the whites whose culturally supported ignorance keeps the whole horror going, this has been with me my whole life, but still I have so much to learn and so much more I can and should do to contribute to the healing. 

And so I have been fishing in these dark waters and pulled up some new creatures I haven’t seen yet and now it’s time to clean the fish to prepare for the meal. Which means mulling things over, adding the new information to the old and thinking yet larger and acting yet wider. And then eating it all to wholly own that this whole history is part of my flesh, blood and bones, parts of all of ours. (On one hand, this is not my preferred metaphor, as I’ve hated fish my whole life—but maybe it’s a good one, as it’s a meal that is not tasty and is hard to swallow and probably the fish is poisoned with mercury).

So that’s my “don’t have anything to say yet” attempt to say some of what I want to say better. I know none of you are on the edge of your seat waiting for the next post, but while you’re waiting, consider seeing the above films or Youtube or reading the White Fragilitybook. Keep these needed, difficu.t, courageous and way overdue conversations going within yourself and with those around you.

See you at the fish fry.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Toppling Statues

Let me be clear. A statue is a monument, a statement that this person mattered and helped make us who we’ve become and that who we’ve become is worthy of pride. So when I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama years back and saw a statue of Martin Luther King in front of the State Capitol, I thought that this was a good sign. The person who called the country to rise to its conscience and died for that cause is finally given his due in the state where he was threatened, beaten and jailed. That’s what felt to me like progress.

Then I wandered the grounds a bit more and saw another statue of someone named J. Marion Sims. He was being honored as “The Father of Modern Gynecology.” What the monument didn’t say is that he performed experimental surgeries on 12 enslaved black women without their consent and without the use of anesthesia, even though it was available at the time. 

Well, Alabama, this is known as cognitive dissonance. You can’t have it both ways. (I already was struck in New Orleans when standing at the corner of Robert E. Lee Parkway and Martin Luther King Way! Well, that's an interesting corner!) Don’t know whether the Sims statue is still here, but I’d certainly be in favor of taking it down and putting it in the Museum of Still Condoning Slavery 150 Years After Its Abolition.

The subject has come much closer to home as the Columbus Statue in front of Coit Tower in San Francisco was toppled during the protests. I’ve long wished for its removal, especially after reading an excerpt from Columbus’ journal. Why would we celebrate this man once we found out what he did and how he talked about what he did, without a trace of shame or remorse?
So good riddance Columbus. 

But then things turned weird. The statue of Cervantes was painted red with the word BASTARD! across the base. Really? The man who wrote Don Quixote, the single most read piece of literature after the Bible (it’s true!) about a lovable buffoon and his sidekick? Really?

And then the next day, down came Francis Scott Key, Junipero Serra and one more. Hmm. Well, Key was ambivalent, defending both freed slaves and slaveholders. And Serra likewise was forcibly converting Native Americans in his Missions, mixed with reports of sympathetic (for the times) treatment. But the one more? Ulysses S. Grant!

Yep, the man who won the Civil War for the North, who went after the Ku Klux Klan, who was given a slave by his father-in-law, but apparently never had him work and freed him soon after. And when I went to view the aftermath of the toppled statues, a young woman was walking near the Grant Pedestal and told her friend, “Good riddance to these racist murderous bastards!” I asked, “Do you realize he was the general who led the North to victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery?” She shrugged her shoulders as if “no, but he probably deserved it anyway.”

So here’s where I draw the line. Nothing would be more tragic than to have ignorant right-wing folks replaced by ignorant left-wing folks enraged by Cervantes and Ulysses S. Grant. Nothing would be sadder than to see issues that could be cut out with cuticle scissors lopped off with a chain saw. Nothing would be a more disturbing turn of events than to see tyrants of one regime toppled replaced by the tyrants of the topplers (see French Revolution.) Please let’s not repeat that particular History.

Which means we actually have to learn history. Ignorance is the enemy, mindless ranting with no foundation is the enemy, the inability to think critically and understand nuance and context and degrees of wrongdoing and the weights of each event is the enemy.

And again, let me be clear. The toppling of statues, even when mistaken or wrongly done, is nothing compared to the police murders of innocent black people. But once we start excusing it and letting it pass and justifying it simply because it isn’t as bad, we head down a slippery slope into a pool where I don’t want to swim.

And so this note to my fellow protestors. Let us think harder, act more responsibility, educate ourselves. Cervantes warned us about attacking windmills like Don Quixote. Let’s take heed.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Truth and Reconciliation

There are times when I lament that my voice is so small. When an inspired idea strikes in the realm of music education, I have the wherewithal to get it out to my cohort of colleagues in the form of workshop, article, book, Facebook post, etc. But if the idea is outside of that tiny lane, there’s no platform for it to spread and get traction.

I am certainly not the first to ever consider that the U.S. needs some form of Truth and Reconciliation Hearing or to suggest that this would be an enormous step toward healing the gaping wound of our forever-bleeding racism.  But in this very special time when the country seems ripe for getting serious about this, I haven’t heard anyone suggest this alongside the protests and statue-topplings and police reform and such. 

Simply put, I propose we hold a series of nationwide Truth and Reconciliation hearings. In schools, in Town Halls, on TV, on radio, everywhere and anywhere. The topic? “What has been your experience as a black person in the United States?” The speakers? Every single black person in the United States.

As a white person, I have thought about this topic my whole adult life, done considerable research into its history, given considerable thought as to its motivating causes and resistance to change and possibilities for healing, talked to black folks here, there and everywhere. I have a lot to say on the subject. And I do whenever the occasion presents itself and sometimes when it doesn’t and most of it in the context of jazz education.

But when it comes to telling the real stories that every single non-African American needs to hear and consider, I have nothing to say. Here we need to hear from each and every black person in this country. No need to select the authors or political activists or college professors. Every black person, (including mixed race folks who can’t “pass”) no matter what age, gender, class and so on, is eminently qualified to speak of their experience. The only criteria is to tell the truth. No need to elaborate with political analysis, historical perspective, statistical data. Just simply tell the stories of what happened to you not because of anything you said or did, but simply because you are a black person in the United States. No shame, no blame attached, just the facts, the things you lived through. Imagine the collective weight of story after story after story. The only challenge would be making some kind of limit, because there simply is not enough time in a human lifetime to hear all the stories. 

And somehow (stick with the idea, we’re smart enough to figure out the details), every white person in America would have to listen. They wouldn’t be allowed to comment, ask questions, raise objections. Just listen. Then go home, sit with it, consider it. 

And then the conversations could begin in earnest. 

Now I’m not naΓ―ve. I know that many simply can’t hear it because the price of re-thinking what they’ve been taught is too high for their emotional bank account. And others don’t want the story told because it interrupts their “get rich off of ignorance” program. But I firmly believe there is a significant population, most of whom vote, who might respond, “Wow. I had no idea.” And that would change everything. 

So simple. So powerful. So clear. So doable. 

Why don’t we do it? I mean, really, why don’t we?

Friday, June 19, 2020

Dancing on the Grave

Planning a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth. Threats of more police violence against protesters—from our President!—at said rally. Purposeful ignoring of COVID restrictions. Armed white supremacists beating down peaceful protestors in Ohio. Yet more murders of black folks by police. Former Trump staff member who stayed silent during Impeachment Hearings now publishing a tell-all book that Trump is trying to shut down. Trump’s niece joining in the Portrait of a Sad, Sick Man. Supreme Court passing two legislations in the face of Trump’s displeasure. Non-college-educated white women who voted for Trump now saying they won’t this time.
What’s going on?!!! I believe we are witnessing the last gasp of a dying monster, the death throes of a monstrous beast clawing the air and thrashing its tail, enraged to realize that his days of privilege are numbered. Our job is to stay out of reach and let him finish himself off, taking down his fellow brutes that supported him and are now turning against him and deserting the sinking ship like rats. And then stand fierce guard over the ballot box and send every Senate Republican (except Mitt Romney) packing. They can all go somewhere and hold their mask-less rallies, get sick from the “fake pandemic,” get denied health care, miraculously survive the disease, but get charged with a felony for endangering their fellow citizens and be denied future voting rights. And then Trump gets hauled off to prison (pick a crime. any crime.) to room with some of the black inmates incarcerated as part of a deliberate nefarious government strategy to stop them from voting and corporate strategy to earn big bucks(see the movie Thirteen).
This the fairy tale ending of our long nightmare that I am wishing for. And then comes the glorious ending, when we all join hands and jubilantly dance on the grave of centuries of purposefully fostered brutality, purposely perpetuated ignorance, purposefully preserved unearned privilege. I want to be there for it. Yes, I do. 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Stone Soup

My retirement after 45 years was made yet more poignant by walking out the door with two other beloved colleagues who had shared this life with me for 31 and 33 years respectively. One was Laura Burges, the third-grade teacher whose first job at the school was as a guest drama teacher for preschool. My daughter Kerala was in her play Stone Soup and that became the guiding image of a letter of appreciation I wrote to Laura. As follows. (Made up a rap for Maggie Weis, the other teacher, perhaps to be shared later.] 

Dear Laura,

Who ever imagined that what began with Stone Soup would end with us walking out the gates of 300 Gaven St. 33 years later? How to capture this moment?

Well, Stone Soup. We began by dropping a single stone into a pot of water and day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, we kept going into the pantry of our dedication and love for children to see what was there and then came out to drop it into the soup. A soup that grew each day more hearty, more delicious, more nutritious, pleasing secret hungers and enjoyed at the table of convivial company.

At a luncheon event celebrating his 30thyear as the head of Mt. Baldy Zen Center, my teacher Sasaki-Roshi was asked to make a speech. He said: “The soup is good.”

There it is! At the end of it all, we can say to each other with satisfaction, “The soup was good.” Besides feeding the children, we also passed the recipe down to all the many teachers who apprenticed with us and those who also taught side-by-side. And here it is:

1. Find a stone.
2. Light a fire.
3. Put water in a pot, the stone in the water, the pot on the fire.
4. Add everything you’ve grown in the garden of your intelligence, imagination and humanitarian promise.
5. Stir daily.
6. Taste and adjust for seasoning as needed.
7. Serve to the guests and enjoy the meal.

It’s as simple as that.

Laura, it has been an honor and a pleasure to walk this extraordinary path together side by side these many long years. Alongside the joy of it all were also the pantries raided by raccoons, broken stoves, garden vegetables ravaged by pests, closed kitchens and more. But at the end of the day, we can say with a sigh: 

“My oh my, wasn’t that soup good!”

Speak Truth to Power

Well, that was interesting. Last night’s shows on the Dream Channel found me teaching kids in some international school, but having to share it with our Toddler-in-Chief. The so-called President went first, delivered his usual incoherent jumble of words about nothing and then I took over and got them singing and dancing. At one point, I glanced back and so him talking off on the side and called him out in front of the kids, saying, “Excuse me! No side-talking while I’m teaching, please.” 

When the next class came in, I planned to do the Funga Alafia Welcome Song with the gestures that mean, “With my thoughts, I greet you, with my words, I greet you, with my heart I greet you, there’s nothing up my sleeve” and explain to the kids how important it is to have your thoughts, words and feelings aligned and greet people with no agenda, with no thought of tricking them or trying to get something from them. And how some people think one thing, but say another, feel one thing (or feel nothing!) and say another, and some always meet people thinking, “What can I get out of this deal? How can I dupe them and trick them for my own personal advantage?” While speaking to the kids, I was going to gesture with my eyes to the buffoon behind me. 

But before I could do that, the scene switched to my music room and a game I made up with some kids marching around to the song 76 Trombones while other kids quickly figured it out on the xylophone. And me telling them all how wonderful it felt to be back in the music room. And Mr. T was nowhere in sight.

I’m sure he was just afraid that I would speak truth to his unearned power. 

And I would have.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Leave Room for Grief

I had a happy day today. Lovely weather, long bike ride, inspired piano, delicious dinner. Perfect night to enjoy some Seinfeld re-runs. Instead I chose to watch the documentary Thirteen. 

I think I understand a lot about my country’s true history, but like all of us, I have my blind spots. Of course, the powers-that-be would prefer that I have many more blind spots—everything I learned was not from the government’s encouragement, my teachers’ encouragement, my family or neighbor’s encouragement. But even with the efforts I’ve made to understand how everything in today’s news is fed directly from yesterday’s true history, there’s so much I still don’t know. And Thirteen helped me learn it.

And you, dear reader. Have you ever heard of ALEC? Understand the ramifications of the 1994 Crime Bill? Know about CCA or SB1070? Thought about the details of the purposeful manufacture of the New Jim Crow that fosters mass incarceration of some 2 million people, 40% of them black and at great profit to some private businesses? How many of us know about the murder of Fred Hampton? And the list goes on.

If you’ve gone so far as to read this, please follow up and watch this film (free on Netflix/ Amazon Prime). As I wrote a couple of posts back, “if only I had known” is no longer an acceptable excuse. There are a thousand ways to know now and a thousand reasons to know now and this is just one possibility on the list. But put it on your list.

As I mentioned last blog post, this film requires heavy emotional labor. After the whimsy of the day, it was down into the depth of grief. The machinations of purposefully manufactured systematic evil in this country I have tried hard to love my whole life is even worse than I thought. And the needless suffering it has imposed on people who did nothing to deserve it has me sinking into the well of grief. 

I’ve been there before and it’s not light and airy, though more livable than the windowless cells where innocent people are sentenced to spend a lifetime. I have the luxury of just stepping out, as simple as changing the channel. But I don’t want to. I want to sit with it and feel it and let it sink deeper into the bones so I can rise up with yet more determination to do my tiny part. I want to feel it like that three-day West African funeral.

I think we all should. The facts are the facts and we better start learning them, the number of people finally waking up is also real and sometimes inspiring and hopeful, but the grief is the missing piece in our cultural stuckness. Grief brings any airy hopes of "what can't we all just get along?" down to the ground, grief is the proof of who's serious and who's casual, grief is the price we pay back for all the looting our ancestors did. Without grief, we either have repression—"don't want to feel bummed out so I'll just pass it by"—or depression—"since I won't go down willingly, it will press on me from above." Without grief, we're stuck in the quagmire of all the untold truths, all the unhealed brutalities, all the unmourned murdered. It is the weeping that is necessary to help heal the wandering ghosts, to help cleanse our tainted bodies, hearts and minds, to get this ship rising on the waters of our tears and moving to the promised land. 

Leave room for grief.

Leave Room for Whimsy

I think it’s safe to say that we as a culture lean further to the side of comedy than tragedy. Given a choice between watching Seinfeld re-runs and the epic film The Sorrow and the Pity, I’m pretty confident what most would choose. We’re much more inclined to say “Have a nice day” than “Look deep into your Soul.” And whereas funerals in Ghana are three days of weeping, drumming, dancing, rejoicing, we’re much more inclined to the short affair with a dash of somber, a tasty potluck and a sense of relief when we can get back to work, often on the same day. 

I get it. It’s hard emotional labor to look life squarely in the eye with all its terror  and horror. It’s backbreaking heavy lifting to watch the news with the outrage and deep grief it deserves. And who really gave us the proper exercises to be able to shoulder the weight of the world and still be able to walk to the nearest Starbucks for an expresso?

And I think that burden must feel particularly terrifying to our children. I joined the cheering throng sending our 8thgrade graduates off with the charge of saving the world, but hey, shouldn’t they leave some time to fret about pimples and the unreturned crush? Could we lower the bar just a bit and just ask them to not do anything too stupid and be a little bit kinder to their friends and classmates?

And so on down to the little ones. I’m not talking about pretending the weight isn’t there and thinking they don’t feel it. It is and they do. But they also deserve some time to build with legos for 3 hours without feeling that they have to build the future house of justice. They deserve the chance to be kids and leave the world-saving to the adults in charge.

And so today. I joined my daughter’s masked socially distance summer camp in Golden Gate Park with 6 of her 5thgrade students and how fun was that? We got to do some of the important things kids—and adults— need to do in-between the protest marches. Things like popping leaves. Rolling down hills. Running to statues and copying their shapes. Adding up points in my trivia questions related to the park. Most popular book besides the Bible? Nope, not Harry Potter, but Don Quixote and there’s the statue of Cervantes. Name of a flowering bush that rhymes with “photo-blend-in?” 10 points to the first kid to touch a Monterey cypress tree! And so on. 

So alongside life’s heavy serious matters, let’s remember to leave some room for whimsy. Life is short and lightness and laughter help.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Technology Matters

I once saw a documentary about a Guatemalan refuge who escaped to the U.S. and became a hairdresser in a small Midwestern town. In the course of the film, she decides to return to Guatemala to uncover the truth of what happened to the family left behind and who was responsible. She discovers the role of the C.I.A. in training and supporting the soldiers who terrorized and murdered innocent Guatemalan citizens. When she returns to the U.S. town, she tells the story to her church. These good-hearted citizens were aghast and answered the unspoken question: “How could you Americans let this happen?” 

And the all-too-common answer: “We didn’t know. If only we had known.”

And there you have it. So much evil is allowed to continue when people don’t know. Take slavery. Through minstrel shows, postage stamps, songs and stories, most Americans were fed a portrait of slavery as a happy experience, black folks singing and dancing and eating watermelon. Long after slavery was officially abolished, the images and stories continued—witness Gone with the Wind. And the lynchings and K.K.K. murders and terrorism were mostly hidden, despite a few photos and songs like Strange Fruit.

When did things begin to turn around in the Civil Rights Movement? Many people linked the tipping point to the TV cameras televising the fire-hosing of young children. In ways I still can’t understand, many would see that and not be moved, but there is a large population of innocent, good-hearted people like the folks in that midwestern town who finally see what’s happening and something shifts. “No. This cannot be. This must stop.” The footage coming in from Vietnam on the 6 O'clock News also helped the usual rah-rah heroics of the good American war get brought down to the knees of its horrific reality. In short, the television cameras made a significant difference.

And here we are again, but now with the cameras in the hands of any cell-phone user (read “everyone") who is within shooting distance and a social media that doesn’t depend on journalists or news outlets deciding what to show. Though those who have taken the time to educate themselves and just about every black person in this country knows that such things have been happening forever, here was finally the wake-up call that made a difference, that people with an ounce of an open heart (apparently not Senate Repugnanticans and their supporters) could finally understand, “This must stop.”

Yes, there has been other footage that could have, should have, made that same difference, but for whatever reason, this was the firehose moment over a half-century past that earlier form of government-sanctioned brutality. 

Gunter Grass once said, “Your job as a citizen is to keep your mouth open.”

The modern addendum, “And your phone open ready to video.”

Technology matters. But not in the way we thought.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

The End of Normal

 Like anyone, I look forward to the day when I can go out to a movie or a restaurant or get my hair cut. When I can pass people in the street and see their whole faces and talk to folks (gasp!) three feet apart! And I will certainly rejoice when I can hold hands in a circle with kids and adults and sing and dance again. 

But part of me is also dreading it. The idea that we would return to business as usual is at once enticing and terrifying. Because truth be told, business as usual wasn’t that great in so many ways. When we take life for granted, we often tend to squander it. Get caught up in the hyper-paced insanity of screened distraction, choose to ignore the cries of a biosphere in crisis and a culture unraveling, think that mortality is some distant abstraction that needs no thought. We keep the thinking going that it’s okay for some to win and some to lose and stay on the treadmill of the old tired arguments that has people screaming at each other across divides constructed to serve the privileged and perpetuate the old hatreds and ignorances. We waste the extraordinary opportunities of children gathered in schools on trivial skills and think it’s okay to look at their grades instead of their souls, to keep them imitating yesterday’s failed solutions to yesterday’s problems and let the imagination and the heart go to sleep in the classroom.

Amidst all the uncertainties and fears and desperate clinging of the old dying patriarchy to think that they can “dominate the streets,” there has been a rising up of the human spirit that can’t be shut down by police or more Fox- News spin. The dormant imagination is roaring like a slumbering beast rudely awakened and instead of making obscure abstract art, it is singing for it’s very life, painting the streets, dancing with purpose. The closed heart is finally opening and ready to admit grief and outrage and caring and love far beyond the norm. As Michael Meade says, in a time of crisis we are called upon to either be smaller people or larger souls and the numbers choosing the latter are remarkable. 

How tragic if the passing of the virus put it all back to sleep again. Already entire states like Massachusetts are deciding to cut all arts programs in their new version of school. Really? Haven’t they learned anything? That in the big life moments, it is the singing and poetry and imagination that leads the way. No one gathers around the deathbed of a loved one and takes out their old math sheets. We are all gathering around the deathbeds of so much— fellow citizens murdered by police because of skin pigment, birds and bees and little creatures losing habitats, predictable weather patterns going awry because we drive so often to Walmart, the foundations of democracy being purposefully dismantled while so many just sit around and watch. In the face of all this, we're just going to give the kids more math sheets to fill out?

This is the time of our singing, the time to dance that moral arc towards justice, the time to improvise through the staggering accelerated changes like a disciplined jazz musician. This is the time to work on your downward dog and then come up barking ferociously at the robbers trying to steal the treasures of our humanity, the shameless profiteers coming to steal the souls of our children.  This is the time to connect the mindfulness of our breath with the denial of some of us to breathe while the knees of centuries long purposeful brutality are on their neck.

Alongside the millions finally rising up and speaking up and figuring out how to contribute from their corner of expertise must come a new commitment to the real education our children need and have always needed and need more than ever, the one that nourishes heart, mind, body and spirit as one undivided entity, the one that puts arts education in the center and awakens to the kind of art that is not a specialized talent off to the side, but an exalted and necessary faculty of the human imagination that is in the center of the way we live, think and act.

As Arundhati Roy says:

“Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew, to enter a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

See you on the other side in the dancing circle.

Friday, June 12, 2020

George Floyd's Yoga Class

Teacher: ”Let’s all stop and feel our breathing. Peaceful and calm. We are ready for mindfulness. Breathe in. Breathe out."

George Floyd: “I would like to. I really would.”

Making a Difference

In the early 1980’s, I was involved in the Nuclear Freeze movement. In a meeting of some 12 people at someone’s house, a guest speaker came—Daniel Ellsberg! Of Pentagon Papers fame! He told an inspiring and surprising story about the importance of organized protest and resistance.

In 1969, there was a March on Washington to protest the Vietnam War. (I was there!)
Many years later, Daniel Ellsberg talked to one of the organizers of that and other marches and asked him if he thought those efforts made a difference. “None at all,” the man replied. And then Mr. Ellsberg said, “Well, here’s something you didn’t know. Around that time of the March, Nixon was making plans to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. When the protest started, Nixon told reporters he was going to his office to watch the football game. But instead he looked out the window and saw the massive crowds and decided that his plan would be too unpopular at this time. Hardly anyone knew the impact that the march made—in fact, averting would might have become the beginning of a nuclear holocaust. They thought Nixon was watching football. But their presence that day in Washington made an enormous difference.

Now fast-forward to today. Someone posted the following on Facebook and I was stunned. It is irrefutable proof that it matters to speak up, especially speaking up on behalf of compassion, justice and human decency. (Protestors mad because they couldn’t get haircuts also spoke up, but that’s not exactly the deep healing the world needs.) Next time you’re wondering if it’s worth your time and effort to write that letter, call that Congressperson, take to the streets, consider this extraordinary response:

So what has protesting accomplished in the last 10 days?

πŸ‘‰πŸΎWithin 10 days of sustained protests:
Minneapolis bans use of choke holds.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎCharges are upgraded against Officer Chauvin, and his accomplices are arrested and charged.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎDallas adopts a "duty to intervene" rule that requires officers to stop other cops who are engaging in inappropriate use of force.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎNew Jersey’s attorney general said the state will update its use-of-force guidelines for the first time in two decades.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎIn Maryland, a bipartisan work group of state lawmakers announced a police reform work group.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎLos Angeles City Council introduces motion to reduce LAPD’s $1.8 billion operating budget.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎMBTA in Boston agrees to stop using public buses to transport police officers to protests.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎPolice brutality captured on cameras leads to near-immediate suspensions and firings of officers in several cities (i.e., Buffalo, Ft. Lauderdale).

πŸ‘‰πŸΎMonuments celebrating confederates are removed in cities in Virginia, Alabama, and other states.

πŸ‘‰πŸΎStreet in front of the White House is renamed "Black Lives Matter Plaza.”
Military forces begin to withdraw from D.C.

Then, there's all the other stuff that's hard to measure:

πŸ’“The really difficult public and private conversations that are happening about race and privilege.

πŸ’“The realizations some white people are coming to about racism and the role of policing in this country.

πŸ’“The self-reflection.
πŸ’“The internal battles exploding within organizations over issues that have been simmering or ignored for a long time. Some organizations will end as a result, others will be forever changed or replaced with something stronger and fairer.


🌎Protests against racial inequality sparked by the police killing of George Floyd are taking place all over the world.

🌎Rallies and memorials have been held in cities across Europe, as well as in Mexico, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand.

🌎As the US contends with its second week of protests, issues of racism, police brutality, and oppression have been brought to light across the globe.

🌎People all over the world understand that their own fights for human rights, for equality and fairness, will become so much more difficult to win if we are going to lose America as the place where 'I have a dream' is a real and universal political program," Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the US, told the New Yorker.

🌎In France, protesters marched holding signs that said "I can't breathe" to signify both the words of Floyd, and the last words of Adama Traoré, a 24-year-old black man who was subdued by police officers and gasped the sentence before he died outside Paris in 2016.

🌎Cities across Europe have come together after the death of George Floyd:

✊🏽In Amsterdam, an estimated 10,000 people filled the Dam square on Monday, holding signs and shouting popular chants like "Black lives matter," and "No justice, no peace."

✊🏽In Germany, people gathered in multiple locations throughout Berlin to demand justice for Floyd and fight against police brutality.

✊🏾A mural dedicated to Floyd was also spray-painted on a stretch of wall in Berlin that once divided the German capital during the Cold War.

✊🏿In Ireland, protesters held a peaceful demonstration outside of Belfast City Hall, and others gathered outside of the US embassy in Dublin.

✊🏿In Italy, protesters gathered and marched with signs that said "Stop killing black people," "Say his name," and "We will not be silent."

✊🏾In Spain, people gathered to march and hold up signs throughout Barcelona and Madrid.

✊🏾In Athens, Greece, protesters took to the streets to collectively hold up a sign that read "I can't breathe."

✊🏾In Brussels, protesters were seen sitting in a peaceful demonstration in front of an opera house in the center of the city.

✊🏾In Denmark, protesters were heard chanting "No justice, no peace!" throughout the streets of Copenhagen, while others gathered outside the US embassy.

✊🏾In Canada, protesters were also grieving for Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old black woman who died on Wednesday after falling from her balcony during a police investigation at her building.

✊🏾And in New Zealand, roughly 2,000 people marched to the US embassy in Auckland, chanting and carrying signs demanding justice.

πŸ’Memorials have been built for Floyd around the world, too. In Mexico City, portraits of him were hung outside the US embassy with roses, candles, and signs.

πŸ’In Poland, candles and flowers were laid out next to photos of Floyd outside the US consulate.

πŸ’And in Syria, two artists created a mural depicting Floyd in the northwestern town of Binnish, "on a wall destroyed by military planes."

Before the murder of George Floyd some of you were able to say whatever the hell you wanted and the world didn't say anything to you...

Don't wake up tomorrow on the wrong side of this issue. It’s not too late to SAY:

"Maybe I need to look at this from a different perspective."

"Maybe I don't know what it’s like to be black in America..."

"Maybe, just maybe, I have been taught wrong."

There is still so much work to be done. It's been a really dark, raw week. This could still end badly. But all we can do is keep doing the work. Keep protesting.

PEACEFULLY. How beautiful is that?