Saturday, October 31, 2020

Fishing in the Keep of Silence

Outside my door is the chatter of children trick-or-treating, the buzz of adults happy to connect. The night is dark at 6:30 pm and tomorrow night will be 5:30 pm— winter is approaching. My phone dings every 20 minutes with the next plea for money, the next extreme fear-based adjective evoking alarm and despair. 10% of the e-mails I get are from people I know and the rest—well, you know what. 


I have been part of it, posting a lot of politics on this Blog and inundating my Facebook page with reminders (hopefully artfully put together) to vote. But the “likes” are few and far between—people are tired. 


But not all—some are upping the phone calls to voters and asking me to help. And I feel I should— and yet I don’t. I’m truly not convinced in their efficacy at this point and the thought of spending these last few days at some training about the technical side of the matter and staying married to my phone checking for texts…well, I just don’t have it in me. Forgive me if it would have made a difference and of course, we’ll never know. But I do believe down to the depth of my soul that there are other things needed at the moment, some silent petitions to the other world and some Self-care, meaning not just make sure I’m feeling okay, but that my deep Self is attended to and ready to meet whatever comes next. 


And so, besides teaching three Zoom classes, always an inroad to Soul for me, in the next three days, I want to spend some time with Bach’s Preludes and Fugues on the piano, to feel the intelligence of the lines and the beauty between the notes and the extraordinary capacity of human beings to create something of this magnitude when my cynical self is just disgusted with the thought of people with something akin to a brain even thinking about voting for you-know-who. I need an antidote to that and Bach is just the ticket.


And then Nature, the turning of the earth that is still dependable and the rise and fall of plants with the seasons and the movements of the birds whirling in the sky and the coyote in the Arboretum with his breakfast in his mouth. I plan to spend all of Tuesday out on some mountain, away from phones and screens and radios and any semblance of news. If I was truly brave, maybe wait until Wednesday morning to face it all. 


And finally, poetry. I was going to name this “Gone Fishing,” a conscious effort to put the damn phone away and return to the foundation of all of life. And then remembered a poem titled “Fishing in the Keep of Silence” by Linda Gregg, found it on my bookshelf and yes, once again, an evolved human being took time to experience something more fully than the daily round, to capture it in language and to pass it on, not knowing (but yes, knowing), that it would be useful someday for someone like me to read in a moment like this. And perhaps someone like you. 

Here it is:


There is a hush now while the hills rise up

and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship

of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully

as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.

He knows the owls will guard the sweetness

of the soul in their massive keep of silence,

looking out with eyes open or closed over

the length of Tomales Bay that the herons

conform to, whitely broad in flight, white

and slim in standing. God, who thinks about

poetry all the time, breathes happily as He 

repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,

lots of fish this time in the net of the heart. 


How Else Can We Do This?

Whether I’m planning an Orff class for kids, an Orff workshop with adults, playing a familiar jazz tune or imagining a social policy, this is the motto that guides me. It has kept my work fresh and new for over 45 years, kept my music constantly interesting (to me, at least!) and given a certain freshness and vitality to all aspects of my life. 


In the face of crisis—and that’s clearly where we all are now—it also has proven to be a handy companion and a useful discipline. It’s a question that helps keep things moving, keep things bearable, that opens the door to a new perspective and sheds light on the possible renewal just around the corner from the collapse.


Like all of us, I have always planned ahead “as if” what I plan can actually happen— and it almost always does. Until now. All of that changed on March 16thwhen school announced we would be closing for a few weeks. A few weeks? Little did we know. The pandemic clearly had other plans. 


And this my retirement year. How I dreamed for almost a year about the last few months of school where I would sweetly savor “the last” of each milestone of school—the Cookie Jar Contest, the last Spring concert, the last 5thgrade camping trip and the last of the remarkable last week of school—the closing rituals, the final singing times, the Mud Pie Song, the Hug Line, the 8thgrade graduation, the final staff luncheon and yet more. How I looked forward to a big party of rip-roaring fun, bringing together many of the thousand-plus kids I had taught for 45 years joined with all the local teachers I had trained since 1976. How excited I was about the separate Alum Concert all lined up at The Presidio Theater where my Pentatonics Band and my colleagues James and Sofia and I could play music with select alums who went on to become musicians and dancers.  


None of that happened. My consolation was looking forward to the summer courses—Orff-Afrique in Ghana, the annual Levels at Hidden Valley, a Jazz Course in New Jersey and a World Music Course in Vancouver. One by one, I watched them disappear. Well, at least then the Fall— workshops in San Francisco, St. Louis and Little Rock, courses in Russia, the Ukraine, Armenia and Italy. Oops! Don’t think so. I imagined school reopening and pictured me dropping in at school for choice events, showing up with my bagpipe at Halloween, maybe helping with the St. George play in December, subbing for James and Sofia when they wanted to travel during the school year, going on a field trip with my daughter Talia and her 5thgrade class and giving them part of my S.F. tour. I had the transition neatly plotted out and all the happiness of doing what I loved for so long, now without the staff meetings, report cards and fighting for a parking space at school. But it wasn’t to be.


And so as each plan became a provisional possibility that never happened, I turned to my companion question: “How else can we do this?” Now it was not just a luxury that made music classes more intriguing, more interesting, more satisfying—it was the necessary question that determined if and how I could continue with the things that had sustained me throughout my many long years of teaching. 


“How else can we do this?” I suspect you know the first answer— ZOOM!! Whoever could have imagined I would turn to a technological solution as the savior? But so it was. Zoom allowed a version of Orff-Afrique, my Jazz Course and many courses from the SF Orff faculty to sustain us through the summer. Zoom allowed me to “go to” St. Louis, Little Rock, Canada, Russia, Armenia, Ukraine and beyond to keep some connection minus the hand-held circles, singing in canon, dinners out and immersion in different cultures. 


“How else can we do this?” New possibilities emerged. Back in April, I started an Alumni Zoom singing, gathering the “kids” now 30, 40 and even 50 years old together to sing the old songs, many with their own children on their laps. We did this once a week for some three months and it was also here that I put together a slide show and got to give a sort of farewell speech to the people, kids and former teachers, who had lived that life together. The Alumni Sing continues, now once a month and my alum “grandkids” are learning a lot of the repertoire their parents did.


“How else can we do this?” Since my wife worked (for 42 years) as the art teacher at The San Francisco School, my daughters Kerala and Talia attended school for 11 years each and Talia now teaches at school in her 10thyear, I had always hoped my grandchildren could go there and I could be their music teacher. But San Francisco is an expensive place for an alum from our school to live, especially since we told them to follow their bliss and not care about money! So with my grandchildren Zadie and Malik in Portland, Oregon, the best I could do was to an occasional guest class at their wonderful local public school whenever I visited.


Until now. With Zoom, I’ve started a weekly singing time with Zadie’s 3rdgrade class which looks like it will continue throughout the year. Isn’t that a pleasure? And just yesterday, I did a Halloween singing time for…my daughter Kerala’s colleagues at her workplace! Wasn’t that fun!


“How else can we do this?” Zoom was not the only answer. Knowing that it was safer to be outside six feet or more apart, I began a neighborhood singing time on the street and sidewalk. In the Spring, we gathered twice a week for about 45 minutes, took a break in the summer and resumed in the Fall, now once every two weeks. It is mostly the neighbors with kids ranging from 2 to 10 years old, neighbors who didn’t know each other before this, but have certainly come to enjoy each other now. One definition of community is a group of people who know the same songs and that is exactly what we’ve become. Drawing from my repertoire of over 200 songs that I’ve done in our daily Singing Times at the SF School, I’ve shared some of the greatest hits that are just right for the different ages of kids. Songs with motions, songs with a lot of repetition or choruses to join in on (no printed words needed), songs for different occasions (lots of protest songs, recently Halloween songs), clapping games (to be played just with the family members) and even dances adapted for the situation. Turns out the kids—and adults—are pretty good singers so at least a few times a month I can actually hear songs sung in canon or in parts! (Terrible on Zoom.) 


None of this is to be too casual about the very real grief and suffering this pandemic has brought—and continues to bring. My own sadness about my 45-year grand symphonic work at The San Francisco School ending with all the instruments going out of tune, the musicians playing the wrong notes and the audience leaving is my little personal corner of heartache and it’s real. And also small compared to loved ones dying and the circle of those that loved them unable to gather around the bedside. No one should ever be casual about the “good things” that happened—and continue to happen— in the pandemic without acknowledging this very real sense of loss and suffering.


And yet life goes on as it can and in fact, it is the music that can help sustain us and bring us together in this time of crisis. As kids begin to return to a modified school experience, it is clearly preferable for them to be there in their full body outside of that two-dimensional gridded square on the screen. But the “no singing” mandate, while understandable in terms of physical health, is a bitter pill to swallow in terms of mental health. The very thing we need more than ever to help us through this is the very thing that is shut down.


“How else can we do this?” With legal pressures outside the school gates, my casual neighborhood solution of singing outside properly distanced probably can’t happen. But isn’t that a shame. While we wait for the vaccine and proper leadership to control the pandemic, why not get together your own neighborhood sing? And wouldn’t it be wonderful if such things could become a new cultural norm of the future, not depend upon pandemics to organize? The kind of community music-making found in New Orleans, Ghana, Bali, Ireland and beyond, the sense that people were made to gather and be together and that music, dance and song are some of the most joyful ways to do so. So why not have all neighborhoods out on the streets or in the backyards or in the parks gathering to play, sing and dance? Just because. Just for the comradery, pleasure and joy. Think about it.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

When You Vote

The word of the week, of the decade, of the century? 




Step number one: Vote. If you don’t vote, you have betrayed your privilege in a democracy, betrayed your opportunity to shape the future, betrayed your responsibility to care. 


Step number two: Know precisely what you are voting for when you choose who you are voting for. Know who you’re voting on behalf of.


When you vote, you are not just voting for the issues you care about. 

You’re voting for the issues your children need you to care about. 


Don’t vote for the past:“My Granddaddy voted this way and I’m going to vote this way!”


Don’t vote for the present:“Well, the economy’s pretty good this week.”


Vote for the future:“Children—my children, your children, my neighbor’s children, our children, all children— deserve a future.” 


VOTE! But don’t vote for you. Vote for them. Vote for what they need and what they deserve.


• They need a planet with dependable air, water and food. 


• They need to be protected from pandemic.


• They need schools that are open (but only when it’s safe to be open).


• They need to know that they won’t be torn from their parents and locked in cages if their skin is brown.


• They need to know they won’t be choked or shot by police officers if their skin is black.


• They need to know they won’t be tear-gassed if they assemble in peaceful protest. 


• They need to know that they won’t be grabbed by men if they are women. 


• They need to know that they’ll be valued and respected if they follow a different religious or spiritual path than Christianity.


• They need to know that they’ll be allowed to love whom they please.


• They need the models of adults who are kind and thoughtful.


• They need the models of adults who are encouraging and forgiving.


• They need the models of adults who are fair and good listeners. 


• They need to be protected from leaders who tweet and publicly speak insult and hatred.


• They need to be protected from leaders who excuse, pass on or spin hate-speech.


• They need to be protected from leaders who encourage and defend those filled with hateful words and actions. 


• They need to know that when adults teach them to be kind, to study hard, to learn the facts, to think critically, to notice beauty, to care for materials, to care for others, to care for themselves, that they really mean that these things are important, that they will vote with these in mind.


• They need to know that the adults thought about them and cared about them when they voted. 


Vote as if your great grandchildren are watching, looking whether to thank you or curse you for what you left them. 


And if you care nothing for any of the above, care nothing about thinking about what’s at stake, care nothing for reflecting a bit deeper about which each candidate represents, care only about what makes you feel more important than you deserve because of male or white privilege, care only about what benefits you even if it hurts others, may I make a suggestion?


Don’t vote.


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Fairy Tale For Our Time

Someday, we need to come to grips with the losses that came with Monotheism. In polytheism, there is an understanding that we are plural, not singular beings. So if you had a need in ancient Greece, you didn’t pray to Zeus, but found the god most relevant to your situation and petitioned them at their particular temple. So it is in the Hindu pantheology and even Catholic saints suggest you be more specific. 


In a similar vein, the most useful response to crisis is not, “Which fundamentalist ideology should I cling to to give me the illusion of security?” but rather, “Which story are we in that I need to consider now?”


Every Halloween, I tell a story to the kids at school and one that I often recycle is a Norwegian tale about a giant who has no heart in his body. Can you guess where this is going? One week before our election, this is the story we need to hear.


The short version is this: 


A King and Queen with six sons sends them out into the world to make their fortune and begin their families, keeping their youngest child, a daughter named Hope, at home with them. The sons happen upon a castle with another royal family with six daughters. They conveniently fall head-over-heels in love with just the right one and begin to make their way back home. But on the way, they pass a giant who, jealous of their happiness, turns them all into stone.


The King and Queen begin to mourn that their sons didn’t return and their daughter, Hope, insists that she go out to find them. On the way, she meets a Raven, a Salmon and a Wolf, each of which is in some kind of distress. Hope helps each of them and each promises to help her in return should she ever need them. 


When she tells the Wolf the nature of her quest, the Wolf takes her to the Giant’s house and advises her to ask the Princess who lives with the Giant for help. The Princess advises her to leave, warning him that the Giant has no heart in his body, but Hope persists and finally she advises her to hide while she tries to find out where the Giant keeps his heart.


Two nights in a row, the Giant returns and sniffs around with his Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, but the Princess assures him that a magpie accidentally dropped a bone down the chimney and then asks him where his heart is. Both times he lies to her (for he is a chronic liar). but the third time he finally relents. “Far away in a lake, there is an island and on that island stands a church and in that church is a well and in that well swims a duck and in that duck there is an egg and in that egg, there lies my heart.”


Hope calls on the Wolf, jumps on his back and rides to the island. There she finds that the church keys are high up in tower and calls on Raven to fetch them. She is able to grab the duck from the well, but the duck drops the egg and it sinks to the bottom. She calls on Salmon, who retrieves it. With egg in hand, she begins to squeeze it and she hears the cry of the Giant (who is a sniveling coward) screaming in the distance and begging for mercy. Hope demands that the Giant release her brothers and their wives. He does. Hope then squeezes the egg in two, the Giant falls down dead and Hope and company all return home to feast and celebrate, the brothers and their new wives and Hope with the princess who the Giant had held captive. And it goes without saying that they lived happily ever after.


So there it is. Our Giant with no heart has turned so many into stone, rendered them frozen and incapable of human thought and feeling. He has held college-educated suburban housewives captive in his house, with no clue as to where his heart is. It took the daughter, the youngest still in touch with her ideas and ideals, the one who unquestioningly helped those in need, the one brave enough to set off on behalf of her brothers instead of claiming all the inheritance for herself, to get things moving. And in our modern version of the story, we can say that inside of the egg was a voting lever she pulled, a ballot she filled out and delivered—and the giant was no more.

May it be so!

(PS All gender roles can be changed as you wish. Given their voting record, I'd say Hope would best be cast as a black woman)


Life in the Brain Stem

A little neuroscience goes a long way to understand the un-understandable. Many years back, I remember learning about the triune brain. The short story is that evolution did not replace former models of the brain, but added layers to it. The bottommost layer is at the brain stem and can be likened to the reptile brain. It knows no emotion but fear, no motivation but survival. When it is threatened, it responds with three choices: Flight/ Fight/ Freeze. No thinking is involved, it just immediately assesses which of the three strategies will best serve its survival. There are two more F's that live in the instinctive layer of the brain stem, two other essentials for our survival— Feed and (pardon my French) F***. 


As mammals ascended the evolutionary ladder, the cortex, the mammalian layer was added. Reptiles simply laid eggs and left the young to themselves (or in some cases, ate them), but mammals needed to nurse and nurture the young until they were old enough to fend for themselves. And so emotion came into the mix, the ability to care and coddle and protect and love was an essential part of survival. Because this layer grew over the reptile layer, flight-fight-or freeze was still active when needed, but this second layer was mostly the brain one lived in.


Then came the human beings and a new layer, the neo-cortex, was added. Not blessed with the teeth of the carnivores, the speed of the gazelles, the strength of the elephant, their survival depended upon the capacity for abstract thought. Along with the opposable thumb and the ability to make tools, this layer gifted humans with both the language to communicate and the skill of conscious thinking that can perceive, describe and connect patterns and make intelligent decisions based on acquired knowledge. The mammalian warmth and capacity for emotion was—and is—still alive and well and indeed, often overcomes this new layer as emotion clouds clear thought. And the reptilian capacity for instinctive survival was—and is— still present and often overcomes the capacity to both feel and think.


And so these three layers are in constant conversation as we move through the world. Things go bad when one dominates over the other. The cold abstract thinker who has not developed the capacity to feel either grief or joy, the explosive personality fueled entirely by emotions, the survivalist convinced that the world is constantly cruel and dangerous and is either frozen in depression or escaping to some outpost in the woods or in a constant state of clenched fists. In the ideal world, our critical thought is driven and framed by our care and love, our emotion is tempered by our understandings of our own feelings and a visit to the brain stem is reserved for the real emergencies of life. 


But would happens when emergency is the norm? When a real emergency occurs— a car cuts in front of you on the freeway or someone enters a room and shouts “Fire!!”, the brain immediately floods the system with adrenaline and other needed hormones for the quick rush of energy needed. This is the body working as it should. But because of the power of the imagination, the emergency can be real or perceived. Which means watching a thriller, violent movie triggers the same responses in the body or reading the newspaper or simply imagining all the terrible things that can happen. And if that sense of emergency becomes a constant presence, ongoing stress or anxiety, the begin to live in the brain stem and lose access to higher feeling or thinking skills. Not a happy situation.


People in power know all about this and purposefully try to keep us in a high-medium-or low grade of fear, knowing that we can’t think clearly and will simply obey those who promise to save them. You see it in the debates, with Pence saying “they’ll take your jobs away if they pay attention to climate change,” Trump saying, “they’ll take your guns away and I’ll keep your neighborhoods safe (won’t let black people move in).” Fire up the fear, shut down human thought and feeling. 


But though I know the Repugnitans are cruelly exploiting our brain structure for their own power and privilege, I also feel good-hearted Democrats asking money for important causes using the same strategy of tapping on my fear to get me to donate. And I hate it! Because each extreme phrase with its CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points!!! sends me right to the basement of the brain, changes my mood and ruins my day. And between e-mail and texts on the phone, it’s a constant assault. Here’s a sampling just from yesterday:


·     Joe Biden GONE

·     Donald Trump WINS

·      I can’t sleep


·     Really painful

·     Livid!

·     Biden’s lead has DISAPPEARED


“If it bleeds, it leads” is the prevailing motto of both movies and news, because the brain stem overpowers the other two layers of the brain. So when there are 500 channels to choose from and 500 organizations you can donate to, those in charge need to get your attention. That’s why Sex and Violence sell and are so often paired. And it works. The maddening thing is that not only are most people unaware of this dynamic and thus, constantly fall victim to those in power and are duped, but even those who are aware still get dragged down into it. It’s just the way our brains work.


But having read through this, see if you might notice why you are reacting as you are.

A little bit of consciousness goes a long way. And people asking me for money or to sign petitions, please, please, try a different strategy to get my attention. And if you have to use capital letters and exclamation points, “A HOPEFUL SIGN! Join us!” will work much, much better. 


A brain stem is a terrible place to live. May we all ascend on November 3rd!

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Remember Me

Way down yonder in the brickyard.

Remember me.

Way down yonder in the ole brickyard.

Remember me.


Gonna step it, step it, step it down.

Remember me.

Gonna step it, step it, step it down.

Remember me.


Gonna turn my loved one round and round,

Remember me.

Gonna turn my loved one round and round.

Remember me.


-       Georgia Sea Islands game song


I often use this song to open a workshop, invoke the ancestors to be present in the circle. This is not a common practice in American education. Yet the ancient understanding is that time is not just the present moment of our ticking clock, but a fuller mix of past, present and future. To feel the fuller dimension of the moment, the seriousness of our undertaking, why not invoke and invite those who have come before? They can be particular people who have passed on—in my Orff workshop, it might be Avon Gillespie, Carl Orff or Gunild Keetman—or a more general invocation, like thanking the original inhabitants on whose land we’re standing.


How have we arrived where we are, in a world that mindlessly razes rainforest, that excuses 20,000 lies from a national leader, that shouts angrily across created divides? I think some of this is a forgetting, both unintentional and purposeful. It is as if we have drunk from the River of Lethe, erased a collective memory of how to be on this earth, in this life, in these human bodies. We certainly need political strategies, clearly annunciated laws, scientific solutions, new imaginative ideas, but all of it can, and perhaps should, begin, with the simple act of remembering. 


We have forgotten so much. 

• How to welcome creation and re-connect with the bugs and the birds, the trees and the flowers, to feel ourselves as a co-participant of the natural world intimately, directly and more profoundly than just taking our dog for a walk. 

• How to expect and insist on civility in our leaders. 

• How to keep money and material things in proper proportion to the really important things in this life.

 • How our body can be an instrument of intelligence and carrier of spirit beyond an appendage to merely exercise and count out steps. 

• How the imagination is not an add-on, but a central faculty to be nurtured and cultivated. 

• How the heart is made to love and can only love fully after being repeatedly broken. 

• How the mind gifted with the capacity to think, to analyze, to compare and contrast, grows through the habit of constant reading and writing and thinking and discussing, how exercising that capacity is essential to good citizenship. 

• How the simple pleasure in moving bodies expressively, feeding the mind, working the imagination is sufficient unto itself and doesn’t need an American Idol panel with their bells and whistles. 

The list is long.


To forget how to honor our human incarnation is like losing a limb. To remember is to re-member, to grow that lost limb again. Also to sign-up again, renew your membership in both the human and the natural community.It is to move toward the truth we need, truth as in being true to ourselves and what life promised us that we have squandered. The Greek word for truth is Aletheia, which means “remembering” (notice the word “lethe” embedded there). 


So the “me” in the song “Remember Me” can refer to a person or our own plea to be remembered when we are gone. But it is also the rainforest speaking, the diminishing habitats and their inhabitants speaking, our Constitutional promises speaking, our sense of civil discourse speaking, our lost imagination and diminished intellect speaking, our hardened heart and inexpressive body speaking. Note how the song suggests we step it down, which means to get up to dance and not just alone, but with a partner and not just one partner, but all our loved ones. It will be in the act of remembering that we can begin to move forward from our stuck place.