Monday, November 23, 2020

The Mathematics of Astonishment

This is the month of miracles. Each day, I get another lesson in the mathematics of astonishment. The cornucopia of almost a half-century of harvest is overflowing with fruits and flowers and each one delicious. No peasant finding a god’s face clearly marked in a tree trunk could be more overwhelmed by it all than I am. 

 

And so yesterday’s lesson: what is the sum of 8 miracles x 1? Get out your pencil.

 

1) A lifetime ago, I arrived at a Quaker Boarding School in the North Carolina mountains and before I was gifted with a named path called Orff, already had the sense that making music with these middle school kids was important for them and me alike. 

 

2) And so I started a jug band based on nothing but listening to a Jim Kweskin record and some blues and ragtime piano chops in their infant stages. 17 of the 30 kids in the school and three other teachers joined up and figured out how to organize some semblance of coherent sound on spoons, washboards, kazoos and even a trumpet mouthpiece. 

 

3) Near the end of my 6 months there, I single-handedly organized a two-week tour of the South with nothing at my disposal but some addresses and a few phone numbers. No e-mail, no text, no cell phone. Using just dial phones and stamped letters, I contacted some 15 different places—alternative schools, community centers, a radio station, churches and more— to house us and host our performances in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee. I was 21 years old. 

 

4) I also rented an old school bus, was allowed to share the driving with one of the other teachers (none of us older than 24), loaded up those seventeen 12-14 year old kids, helped organize the food and set off. For two weeks. With no cell phones. No thick notebooks of signed legal documents. Just trust in our abilities to pull it off, the guidance of fate and the kindness of strangers. 

 

5) I reunited with many of these students some eight years at the school’s 50thAnniversary and some semblance of that Jug Band performed again (minus the other three teachers). Almost everyone remembered all of the tunes and at least some of the words. In some attic somewhere, we found an old group journal we kept and laughed about sentences like this: “Doug picked up six hitchhikers yesterday.”

 

6) There has been a core of about six of the students who mostly have kept in touch with each other throughout the years and a few that I’ve maintained some kind of contact with. But no one had been in touch with one of the teachers these last 48 years and only a few with the other one. The third teacher had married one of the students!

 

7) A few nights ago, I had a dream about two of the students and got in touch with one feeling the dream was trying to tell me something. In the course of writing to her, I got the idea of a Zoom reunion. She got out her e-mail list and last night, we had a two-hour reunion which could have gone on four more. It was the first time that all four teachers and these six students who represented some core spirit of the school had been in one place together since almost a half-century ago! Each one told some of their life story, I screen-shared some of the old photos from that time, and then we sang some of the songs—mics off, of course. One of the teachers said that this was the happiest moment of the entire past year for her and another eloquently spoke about how singing two notes of these songs was like smelling your favorite cookies in Grandma’s kitchen, instantly transporting him back to that more innocent and most joyful time.

 

8) After that delightful reunion, I turned to my nightly reading (A Gentleman in Moscow) and within twenty seconds, came upon this paragraph:

 

When you reach our age, it all goes by so quickly. Whole seasons seem to pass without leaving the slightest mark on our memory…But even as the weeks go racing by in a blur for us, they are making the greatest of impressions upon our children. When one turns seventeen and begins to experience that first period of real independence, one’s senses are so alert, one’s sentiments so finely attuned that every conversation, every look, every laugh is writ indelibly upon one’s memory. And the friends that one happens to make in those impressionable years? One will meet them forever after with a welling of affection.

 

This is the time in a live class when after telling this story, we would sing “Old Doc Jones” and find out who believed it. “Thumbs up” means that every single detail has to be true. 

What do you think?

 

You’ve noticed my recent posts about the inflated use of the word “Amazing!” and now prepare yourself because the real truth, the no-kidding-every-word-truth is…

 

Thumbs up.

 

And that, my friends, is amazing.

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