(The third talk on the occasion of my second birthday party of the week. )
“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”
I was 16-years old whenI first read this passage from Walt Whitman and for the rest of my life that followed, I ended up mostly taking his advice. Especially the part about reading and re-examining all I had been told at school or church or in any book or newspaper, not only dismissing whatever insulted my own soul, but embracing that which fed it. Living my life as a question that led to the next needed question.
We begin life with questions. From the toddler saying “Whazzat?” to the 5-year old pestering you with “Why is the sky blue? What happens when you die? Why do I have to eat my broccoli?” to the eye-rolling teen asking “And just why do I have to be home by 11pm?” And then more profoundly, “Is this really the way the world has to be?”
At first, the adults are charmed by our questions, but we finally discover that the world grows weary of our questions, that schools and churches are more interested in answers, particularly their answers to the questions they ask (99% of schooling is answering questions no kid ever asked). Wanting to be nice and accepted and part of the crowd, we slowly stop asking the questions out loud and worse yet, stop asking them to ourselves. That curiosity that was the engine that moved us into life and set us off down the long, intricate path starts winding down. Yet the Soul, that unique threaded part of ourselves that is by our side our entire lives, thrives on questions and begins to die fed only on easy answers unquestioningly accepted by the multitudes.
We discover that society likes answers, likes compliance, likes blind faith and acceptance. And so the drama begins— the inquisitive self pitted against the dogmatic institution. How we negotiate that mine-field says a lot about who we are and who we become. Of course, we love the New Age posters—"Go for it! You can be anything you want!!! Express yourself! Just be yourself!!” But the fine print reads: “Except not in my class or not in my church or not in my family or not in my social group or not in my political party or not in my affinity group. We don’t really want to see all of you, so check it at the door or risk a life of loneliness and constant battle.”
It’s not easy to be yourself. Poet William Stafford tells us “The Way It Is” in his poem of the same title.
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
And that’s just what I’ve done. Somehow, I managed to live 70 years of non-stop constant questioning. I never let go of the thread. A part of that thread was a lifetime as a troublemaker. I spent most of 3rd grade out in the hall, got in trouble often challenging the culture of my good-ole-boys high school, found a college that fit my way of being and accepted me and turned the troublemaker outward, marching on Washington in 1969 to protest the Vietnam War and identifying with the hippy counter-culture out to build a new world. Then a glorious 30 plus years building that world in The San Francisco School until I felt the school culture being threatened from within and in the next 15 years was suspended twice and put on probation for speaking up. And the same mixture with AOSA, at once feeling like I found home and then sometimes, speaking up when something smelled rotten in Denmark (and then the sweet redemption of receiving the AOSA Distinguished Service Award in 2018). A troublemaker.
And yes, there was a price for it— people wanting me to shut-up for the wrong reasons (okay, occasionally the right ones!), people uncomfortable with the questions, the feeling that I’m part of many groups, but not wholly a part of any group. Not entirely a teacher or a musician or a social justice advocate or a Zen student or a writer or even a music teacher in the conventional sense, or even an Orff teacher—and yet part of all of them and more.
I think we all have that troublemaker in us and its intimately tied to the dreamer. Because side-by-side with the eye-rolling teenager is the dreamer, filled with pimpled doubts about how we fit in and what we can accomplish, but also starting to hope for something larger and daring to dream about something better. I think we all have had that moment when the world fully announced itself to us, gave us a glimpse of possibility, called to us “like the wild geese, over and over announcing our place in the family of things.” Can you remember yours? From those seeds of doubt married with dream, new questions came that could not be easily answered, that would need years, or decades or a lifetime to properly chew over and digest.
The teen years are when an independent self starts to form, something aiming for a future authenticity. Now notice the connection between authentic and author. A big part of forming a self is to read and then read and then read some more. Find out what attracts you, what challenges you, what affirms you, what gives you a new unexpected point of view, what moves you. Somewhere around 15 or 16 years old, I read books that opened worlds and set the tone for a lifetime of investigation, books that did not casually accept the way things were, but opened the window to the way things might or could be. For example:
Walden: Solitude and Nature are worthy lifelong companions. How can we keep them alive in us amidst a busy, social, urban life?
Manchild in the Promised Land/ Malcolm X: Social justice matters and turning things around begins with understanding how they got that way. How can we perpetually awaken ourselves to such understanding and help awaken others?
How Children Fail/ Summerhill: Schools can put us to sleep, are too narrow, content with simple answers using a small part of the brain. But what of the body? Might we also train the body as an instrument of knowledge, as a sublime tool of expression, as a means of standing firmly on this earth with grace, agility, dignity, groundedness? Might we train the hand as an organ of intelligence? And what of the heart? Can feeling take a seat at the table, especially those things that ignite us and connect us—joy, wonder, excitement, enthusiasm and dare we say, love? And what of the imagination? We are never more involved, more connected, more ourselves, than when we create, be it a dance, a poem, a song, a painting, a woodworking project, a Science Fair presentation. Creation is always the real final exam, that takes everything we know and can do and marries it to that which we don’t yet know but begins to reveal itself in the creative act. In short, how can we indeed teach the whole child using the whole of our intelligences in places that welcome our whole curiosity and give us a sense of genuine welcome, meaning and fun?
The Three Pillars of Zen: We are not born into an original sin, but come “trailing clouds of glory” and arrive as spiritual beings. But our original Buddha nature is clouded over by ignorance and requires our attention, intention, and practice to realize. Not belief, not faith, not blind acceptance of dogma, not prayer to an omnipotent Being, not dutiful attendance at a weekly service mouthing platitudes one ignores the other six days, but the direct experience in this body, in this mind. There is no God in Buddhism, yet God is always with us. How to experience this first-hand?
And not just books. Music! Bach, Chopin, Debussy offered glorious answers with one question only: How can I erase the awful gap between my fingers and the notes on the page? But then came jazz with a more interesting question: How can I express something unique and personal, treat each song as the beginning of the venture, not the end and each time, sing it differently? Not only to begin to improvise, but to get to know a music born from a powerful African soul-force struggling to bring beauty, power and meaning to the world, a lily born from the swamp of purposeful oppression and violence and injustice that somehow was tied to the good, bad and ugly of my American identity.
And then the Nonesuch Explorer Series recordings offering new ways to join sounds together, on new instruments with new timbres within new structures with new meanings. If, as Coleridge suggested, “each piece of art, rightly seen (or heard) unlocks another faculty of Soul,” then my little fledgling Soul was growing with each note from the gamelan, mbira, shakuhachi flute. And then films like Black Orpheus that brought world-opening new music together with story and dance and images. Without a passport, the world was flooding in and I found the waters that carried me far beyond my “Leave It To Beaver” New Jersey childhood to worlds far beyond and yet, also forever inside of me.
And so here I was at 20 years old, a junior at Antioch College, beginning to weave together an emerging vision from the separate strands of solitude, social justice, spiritual seeking, schools that serve our whole selves, jazz solos that sing the self, world music that soared beyond the borders of our culture, our thinking, our feeling. And without knowing it, waiting for the one thing that would tie it all together and point out the long and winding path that would be my future life.
And it came one day in the person of a silent, smiling and soulful African-American man who motioned us to remove our shoes, follow his gestures and sing out, “Head and shoulder baby, 1-2-3.” The man, of course, was Avon Gillespie, a man I never tire of thanking and whose legacy lives in all of you who ever worked with me— and certainly the few of you who got to work with him.
And the song “Head and Shoulders” proved prophetic, singing a clear message to me as the initiate. We will need to use the whole of our body, the head, the shoulders, the knees, the toes. We will need to work. If we want the milk of human kindness, sustenance, comfort, we need to milk the cow ourselves, not buy it pre-packaged on the supermarket shelf. And alongside the work is play, the divine childlike quality that adults too often put to the side, but would be in the center of our life’s work, bouncing the ball just for the fun of bouncing, not to win the game. And the wisdom we seek will mostly not be found in school or college (though it actually was in San Francisco!), but on Balinese verandas and Indian homes and Bulgarian hotel rooms and under Ghanaian trees and in school gymnasiums and big barns out in the countryside.
And so it was Orff that tied all the strands together, allowed me to integrate jazz and use it both for its sublime musical expression, its carrier of joy, its perfect democratic model where all the voices get to both blend in and stand out in conversation with each other, its stories that lead to the needed awakening of social justice in this country. Orff that demanded the intelligence of the body, the mind, the heart, that married intellect and imagination. Orff that opened up music far beyond the Western canon to xylophone music from Ghana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Thailand, Java and Bali, to drumming from Ghana, Brazil, China and Japan, to recorder music from Medieval times to the Andes. Orff that demanded first-hand experience, hands-on exploration, that celebrated imagination and welcomed all questions. Orff that connected elemental music with this great, glorious, green earth and its elements, that sang the fire of metal, the breath of air in songs and recorders, the water of flowing movement, the earth of drum skins and wood xylophones. Orff that could transform schools into places of joyful celebrative community marked by ceremonies and rituals both invented and transformed. Orff that would demand that each class be planned anew, never going through the motions of yesterday’s successes, but always revitalizing and dreaming anew the next needed step born from the next revealing question.
And so it continued for 45 blessed, crazy, happy, heart-breaking and joyful years at The San Francisco School, teaching teachers 3 times a year in my music room and then 30 years of teaching this summer course and traveling around the country and then the world to all those marvelous places meeting all those marvelous people and working with my two extraordinary and marvelous colleagues and accompanied always by the question of how this might touch people in Iran or China or Estonia or South Africa or Colombia or Iceland or 45 other countries I had the good fortune to teach in. How might this work with folks in their 90’s, with babies, with the blind or deaf, with folks in wheelchairs or with Down’s syndrome, with Zen monks or food store workers or corporate IT people, with modern dancers, high-level jazz musicians, high school orchestra students, South African choirs, body-music musicians, with classroom teachers, with my neighbors? And the answer always was, “Marvelous! Marvelous! Marvelous!”
And then came—retirement from the school. The pandemic. My 70th birthday. Time to ask a new set of questions beginning with “Now What?”
In some cultures, it’s the time to go into the woods, to retreat from the world, in some, time to take up Bocci ball or go on cruises, but I’m not there yet. There’s so much more I hope to do. Get my Jazz and Social Justice book published by a big publisher, finally publish the World Music and Orff book, go on tour with The Pentatonics, teach college kids, re-package the 1,000 plus recordings from The San Francisco School, launch a Podcast, do another TED talk, help market this film, give Orff workshops before each session of Congress. Not to mention actually learn how to play the gaida, craft a decent jazz solo, learn all of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues. And dealing with old cassette tapes, file drawers of workshop notes, listening again to the 1,000 records in the basement, etc. etc. and yet again, etc. Plenty to do.
But the deeper question is to consider what it means to be an elder. It doesn’t mean simply reaching a certain age. That’s an older, when biology and time do the work for us. But an elder is something we create by the life we have lived and continue to live, a life that never abandoned the questions and held on to the thread and keeps spooling it out. To be a genuine elder, especially in a culture that doesn’t value it, cultivate it, encourage it, recognize it—what does that take? What does it offer? So I’ve come up with three qualities, not things I can claim as having accomplished, but things that guide me in my hopes for the next phase of life. So pay attention, you young folks, because the training for eldership starts now:
1. To live simultaneously in three times—past, present and future as one.
– The past is the underground stream feeding the present. There’s the personal past, the satisfaction of looking back at what one has accomplished. I updated my resume the other day and thought, “Damn! I’ve done a lot! The legacy of books, CD’s, workshop notes, million miles of plane travel, the 45 years at one school, the 30,000 classes with kids, etc.” That gives a lot of weight to my ideas about teaching, no longer an intuition or hope or vision, but a solid reality that has been proved 10,000 times over, with story after story to uphold it and give it breadth and depth and color. Trust me, it’s wonderful to be at the beginning, with that starry-eyed glance into a future ripe with possibility. But there is also great satisfaction of sitting down and looking back and knowing, “There. I have done it.” But don’t stop there!
There’s also the collective past, the increased closeness with the Ancestors as we prepare to join them. As many cultures (but not all!) understand, the presence of the Other World at the table of this world is vital and necessary. An old Irish saying says that whatever is wrong in this world can only be healed by the other world and whatever is wrong in the other world can only be healed in this world. That is to say that the Ancestors depend on us mortals to try to finish their unfinished work and that we mortals need their presence and encouragement as we do that work. A genuine elder can help mediate those conversations.
– The Present is all we have to work with and is, of course, a constantly moving target. By the end of this sentence, the present that existed at the beginning of the sentence already is now the past. So we must be wholly attentive to each present moment and bring all the lessons of the past, our personal ones and our collective ones, into it. Imagine the present as a cool, still lake and the past as the underground stream that feeds it.
But life lived only in the moment, moving from one sensation to the next, reading only what’s published this year and what music is current and what new idea is in fashion, is too narrow. The elder (remember, not necessarily the older) brings the long view of experience into the moment and enlarges it through that practice.
- The Future is the outlet on the other side of the lake flowing to the ocean toward which we all are headed. And so the elder keeps the descendants in mind, not only spending time with the grandchildren, but keeping the vision of the life they deserve alive and vibrant. As Neal Postman so beautifully says, “Children are a living message we send to a time we will not see.”
And likewise mentoring. When we started out, we most likely found someone further along on the road who had mastered what we hope to achieve. Now we have to return the debt and invite the next generation to the path, encourage them to surpass us when our work is done. Indeed, that’s the way these courses work and you all have benefitted from it. Naturally, you have a lot to teach each other and the youth have a lot to offer the elders (I’m not just talking about computer skills here). But the root way of learning for humanity has always been mentoring, someone teaching from the essence of themselves to another on the way.
So the elder is not the one rocking in the chair exclaiming, “Did I ever tell you about the time…” nor the one filling the day with TV and Bingo nor the one who looks at the future as nothing but smaller and smaller numbers of possible years and smaller and smaller physical and mental capacities. All three will be as true for the elder as the older, but the elder brings much more to the mix, the blend of ancestor, still active human and companion to the descendants. The body will indeed diminish, but the Soul will grow larger.
2.) Wisdom is the top of the pyramid that begins with data and information, grows towards knowledge and peaks with wisdom. Drawing from a large repertoire of experience and knowledge, wisdom knows what could be done but also knows if it should be done and when and with whom and how much. Elders need a place at the table of decision-making, in conversation with the young and the middles.
3) The capacity to bless and express gratitude.When time grows short, gratitude grows long. The ability to find happiness and comfort in small things increases in the elder’s world. We are finally not rushing through the world quite as busily as before and have the time and leisure to savor and enjoy. The touch of a hand, the call of a bird, the taste of a peach, everything endowed with a more vibrant presence and worthy of appreciation.
And if we feel blessed by the world, then we are ready to give the greatest gift an elder can give— a genuine blessing to those coming up. Of course, this can and should be happening one’s whole life. From the 30 year old jazz musician encouraging the 15 year old, the 40 year old teacher mentoring the 25 year old and so on up the ladder. It can’t be a superficial “You’re awesome!” It might not be in words at all. For me, a blessing from Avon was simply a little smile instead of a frown.
I have done my best to appreciate the unique talent and genius of each and every student, child or adult, I have taught. And I’m sure I’ve failed miserably many times over. My apologies for that. But if anyone here has ever felt a meaningful blessing from me, then please use that to think about who you are going to bless and how and why. And as for gratitude, you all know how much I complain about the world being so much less than I think it could or should be. That’s not going to stop! It’s integral to my particular thread, one of the key ways I keep the vision growing and glowing. But I also want you to know that I have lived a blessed life and you all are a big part of it and I couldn’t be more grateful for the chance to get to share it with you, to get to know you, to be inspired by you, to be in genuine awe of you, to laugh with you, to cry with you, to play with you, to sing with you, to dance with you. Thank you. And I’m not done yet!
Finally. In times of radical change and threshold crisis, we have to find our place to stand, stand for something and stand on something. I feel in my bones that what I have stood for—what so many of us here have stood for— has always been needed in the world, but never more so than today. Anywhere we stand can be sacred ground, but a place like this, I place where I stood with Avon 34 years ago, I place where I’ve circled with so many of you in song, well, this is a powerful and beautiful place for me to stand. And though every person is a sacred vessel, I’m standing here with the people who have revealed their beauty and genius, which also includes those not physically here whose presence can be felt —not only Avon, but my departed parents and my wife and daughters and nephews and grandchildren who couldn’t be with me today. Ancestors, the present community and also descendants, all the people yet to come who will stand here or in some other place enjoying the fruits of these labors. From the young man with a fire in his head setting off to find his life’s work to the old man wandering the hilly and hollow lands, it has been a most marvelous journey.
(RECITE YEATS POEM: Song of Wandering Angus)
Here, now, is where I found that glimmering girl who called me by my name, where I kissed her lips and took her hands, where we picked the silver apples of the moon and the golden apples of the sun. Where more such fruits are still ripening on the trees. While I can still reach up, I intend to keep picking them and bring them to the table for all to enjoy.