Tuesday, May 31, 2022

My Personal Pronoun

For a project I’m involved in, I was asked to write a short autobiography. And so I did.


I didn’t love school as a child, but was enchanted by the world’s wonders and always curious about how the world worked— or didn’t work. And so in a mixture of revenge and vision, I became a lifelong teacher. Throughout my adult life, I followed my passion for multiple fields of study— jazz, world music, body percussion, children’s games, improvisation, ritual and ceremony, community-building, poetry, storytelling, mythology, human health and culture, brain research, history, social justice and more— and was thrilled to discover that each found a voice within the practice of Orff Schulwerk, a dynamic and wholistic approach to music education. 


In the course of almost half-a century of working with children and adults of all ages, I found myself not only releasing each person’s childlike love of play, but also articulating the deep thinking behind the fun games and activities, stretching if all far beyond simply teaching music well to offering a healing tonic to a deeply troubled world. I created contemporary rituals and ceremonies in both my school and my workshops, consistently spoke out on behalf of children’s deepest needs and told the stories of the music we made that often had their roots in suffering and oppression and rose toward justice and triumph. Constantly asking “how else can we do this?,” I treated each class like a musical composition or improvisation seeking to meet the needs of the moment, to help the students play far beyond what they imagined they could and to reveal the unique gift and gifts each brought to the class. As described by one student commenting on my teaching:


“His work is a long, earnest and continuing struggle to present music of integrity in a way that affirms our collective humanity.“


In my life outside of schools, I move from one pleasure to the next. A lifetime of reading, a daily writing practice, a daily Zen practice, an ongoing piano practice still trying to weave my way through the intricacies of Bach or jazz chord changes without anyone getting hurt. I keep my mind sharp with Crostics, solitaire and jigsaw puzzles, my body toned with daily long walks or bike rides, my palette pleased with home cooking and my spirit uplifted by poetry, tree hugging and grandchildren. I am not a gardener or a handyman or a mechanic, so don’t count on my help in those areas. But I sow seeds in the garden of human possibility, water those tender plants and weed and harvest. I do look at systems that are broken and see what needs adjustment or replacement. I offer music that can tune up and keep the engine of the human spirit running. 


Oh, and travel. A lifetime of it, seeking, searching, considering, “There must be a better way to do this” and finding hundreds of inspired ways to organize a human community more harmonized with the natural community, multiple ways to gather and celebrate through ritual, art, ceremony and a rich festival life. Alongside good healthcare and the wisdom to pause and savor. In the villages of Ghana, South India, Bali, on the beaches of Brazil and Buenos Aires, in the bustling streets of Bangkok and Barcelona, amidst the high-tech high-rises of Singapore, Sydney and Shanghai and in scores of other countries live many beautiful, intelligent and fun people that I am honored to call my students, my teachers, my friends. 


In short, as a Jewish man by birth, Unitarian by upbringing, Buddhist by choice with mixed-race grandchildren, as a musician blending bagpipes, banjos and balaphones winding through the folk musics of the world, the European classical tradition and jazz, a writer and reader equally at home with Dickens, Rumi, Basho and Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, I live at the cross-roads of multiple disciplines and multiple identities. 


My personal pronoun is “we.”

Monday, May 30, 2022

Memorial Day

Every day my phone and e-mail is filled with alerts about the next shenanigans by our elected representatives — and let’s face it, 99% of them Republicans—doing everything in their power to bring down democracy. You know the drill— the voter suppression, laws criminalizing teaching the truth to the children, the fueling of conspiracy theories to dupe the vulnerable, the tax evasion, the gerrymandering, the long shameful list of what we have become, how we have somehow used the precision gift of democracy like an unlicensed gun that keeps shooting us in our foot. Never has it been so important to be vigilant and informed.


And yet. It is so damn exhausting and so damn depressing and why do I have to spend my days with these people that make me ashamed of my own species? It’s like I know I need to shop at the store for food, but the only store available is run by people bruising the fruit, tampering with the package contents, jacking up the prices and yelling at the customers. When you spend time day in and day out with people like that, it starts to wear you down, somehow normalizes insane and malicious behavior, gets you feeling the purposefully manufactured despair about the human condition while those promoting it are drinking gleefully on their 500 million dollar yachts. 


Would what happen if the media packaged these malicious antics in a certain corner of the news, to be ritually opened by those determined to stop it, but with a 5-minute time limit? The rest of the news would be showing children being taught well and asking great questions and writing brilliant little poems and making great art and music, would be daily chats with poets, a daily history lesson by those who actually know. The news would show town meetings with respectful discussions and spirited family discussions around the dinner table and kids skipping stones. You know, simple little reminders about how to be a decent, kind and happy human being on this planet so that anytime we tune in, we can expect a bit of uplift every bit as real and every bit as needed as the report on the latest little (or big) piece of evil. 


Of course, the best news of all is that the people wouldn’t want to watch more than a half-hour because they’d prefer to be actually living a good life. So why not shut down the 24-7 addiction and mandate a 30-minute limit, with an optional other half-hour for examples of how humanitarian living works? Enough.


Today is Memorial Day and in a time when I not only feel the daily shame of sharing the same citizenship as the people paraded in front of me every day, but wishing I could drop out of the human race, it’s crucially important to remember the long, long, list of good people, ranging from your grandma and nice neighbor and caring teacher to those who have used their exceptional talent to uplift, refresh and inspire. I had the good fortune to go to a wedding yesterday filled with such people, amongst them Zakir Hussein, one of the most extraordinary and accomplished musicians on the entire planet. As I was preparing to go, he was standing by the coat rack waiting for someone and I spontaneously said, “Thank you for all the beauty you’ve given to the world.” And how did he respond? He bowed to me acknowledging my thanks. That combination of virtuosity and humility is rare and precious. Then I told him I liked his shoes, he smiled and I left. That little exchange would be worthy of my new TV news, combined with an example of him playing tabla that would make all of us proud of Homo Sapiens.


I feel grief for all the young soldiers who dutifully obeyed the old men waging war for profit and plunder and sent them out to die, so yes, they will be on the list. But I would like to honor on Memorial Day all those who resisted the culture’s obsession with death, destruction, greed, profit, who used (and use) their precious life to master their craft, offer it up with humility, speak out for life and love and beauty. And as this is an American Holiday and America feels at an all-time high of relentless shamelessness, I want to remind myself and others of Americans who help make me feel proud of this land I was born into and live in. There are thousands that I know personally and thousands more that I know through their music, books, public life, etc. So in free-association style, with accent on those still living or recently passed, knowing full well that I could name a thousand more, I would like to honor Mary Oliver, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Angela Davis, Anne Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Lisa See, Amy Tan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Robert Bly, Michael Meade, David Whyte, Michelle Obama, Stacey Abrams, Sherry Mitchell, Steph Curry, Colin Kapernick, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, Jon Baptiste, Bobby McFerrin, Zakir Hussein, Yo-Yo Ma, Chick Corea, the Marsalis family, Stefon Harris, Regina Carter, Jackie Rago, Wendell Berry, Billy Collins, James Hillman, my teacher Avon Gillespie (who left us 33 years ago yesterday) and hundreds and hundreds more American citizens, known and unknown, who have lived with an open heart, a cultivated intelligence, an inspired imagination, a disciplined practice, an exalted spirit, in service to the whole of humanity. 


Who is on your list? Let us remember and honor them all. 


Sunday, May 29, 2022

Fox Hunt

I heard a powerful story about a sensible man who had always voted with the idea of helping people, of supporting services that improved the quality of every American’s life, of supporting candidates and programs that were aware of the inequalities purposefully fostered in our history and sought to re-balance them. He got sick and had to spend a month in the hospital where the TV in his room was featuring Fox News day in and day out. Within weeks, he completely changed his political views and now reacted to the world based on Fox’s deliberate campaign of spreading fear, lies, conspiracy theories. Day after day of being bombarded by their propaganda and his intellectual immune system was weakened. When he got out, it took a month of cold turkey before he was restored to his senses. 


Make no mistake. The purpose of the Fox News empire was from the inception and continues to be to preserve and protect the playground and privilege of the super-rich by spreading fear, division, hate and lies to unprotected citizens who grow to think that their fellow citizens are the enemy. As revealed clearly and forcefully by George Carlin:

….there’s a reason education SUCKS, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever,  EVER be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it. Be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country, don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the BIG owners! The Wealthy… the REAL owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have OWNERS! They OWN YOU. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought—and paid for—the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls.

They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying, lobbying, to get what they want.  Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.

That’s right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table and think about how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that!

You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your retirement money. They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street—and you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you sooner or later ‘cause they own this fucking place! It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it! You, and I, are not in the big club.

By the way, it’s the same big club they use to beat you over the head with all day long when they tell you what to believe. All day long beating you over the head with their media telling you what to believe, what to think and what to buy. The table has tilted, folks. The game is rigged and nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care! Good honest hard-working people; white collar, blue collar it doesn’t matter what color shirt you have on. Good honest hard-working people continue—these are people of modest means—continue to elect these rich cock suckers who don’t give a fuck about you….they don’t give a fuck about you… they don’t give a FUCK about you.

They don’t care about you at all… at all… AT ALL.  And nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care. That’s what the owners count on. It’s called the American Dream—because you have to be asleep to believe it.

Time to revive the tradition of the Fox hunt, get the dogs out and track down these people to drive them back into the hole in the ground where they belong. 

Another suggestion tomorrow. 


Saturday, May 28, 2022

A Mighty Fortress

After the first week of clearly being sick, I’ve felt 95% recovered from the Covid attack, reduced to an occasional mild cough. Yesterday, a clear moment when it felt like the last drop of the virus left my body. Enjoyed a vigorous walk through the park, the first little bit of food shopping I’ve done in two weeks (still masked, though) and the sense of emerging from the fortress my body made against World to deal with the viral battles within. 


The sense of the walls dropping and world pouring in was—and is—at once a great joy and a great sorrow. We are meant to merge with the ten thousand things, to relax the border guard of skin, dismantle the barriers of our separate ego-self, release our Buckingham Palace guards from their stiff duty of no movement and eye-contact and let them dance and smile and sing. Take off the heavy restrictive cloth we swaddle ourselves in, free the body from its confines, free the mind from its defensive dogmas and ideologies, free the heart from the iron cage we have built thinking we are protecting it —and live as we were meant to. With the openness of the young child, the unbridled expression of the jazz musician, the disciplined liberation of the Zen master. Once we taste that level of participation in the world, why would we ever choose to hide in our self-created corner cowering in fear and armed to the teeth?


It turns out that choosing to open the doors to joy also means letting in the sorrow and the pain. As I walked in the park uplifted by flowers, serenaded by crows, happy to see families playing frisbee, I also began to feel some of the pain I had had to shut the door to because I knew it would throw me down at a time when I was already struggling with Covid. There is a timing and a wisdom to the temporary shelters we build for ourselves that is not to be wholly discounted or dismissed. But if those hastily built structures of gathered sticks becomes brick and mortar, iron and steel and the situational protections become lifetime habits and a national style, if God is a mighty fortress designed to keep out anything not encoded in a self-referential and exclusive dogma of fundamentalism, we are in deep trouble. 


And so, though I still don’t know the details and don’t know if I’m ready to, the searing pain and grief of those 18 children and their teacher (teachers?) began to enter. Those are not “other” children, they are my children, they are your children, they are all our children. I listened to a bit of the usual Republican rhetoric trying to look away from the real issue (follow the money!) and suggest “hardening” our schools with armed guards, ballistic blankets, teachers with guns and soon, hey why not, children with guns? (Okay, kids, in your desk you’ll find your notebook, pencil, ruler and handgun. Now let’s go over the procedures.)


Even now, I have to quickly shut the lid that Pandora’s box to keep hope alive, resist the long explanation of everything that is wrong about this and the utter mental derangement of adult humans somehow elected to public office without a background check on their moral standing and capacity to actually think and feel coherently. Like the Republican politician who ran an ad proclaiming “Borders. Babies. Bullets” as his vision— protecting babies from abortion (see George Carlin's comments in yesterday’s post) so they can grow up to shoot bullets at people over the border. Just when you think the bar can’t go any lower, well, it does.


There’s a surprising light rain this morning, perhaps the sky crying from grief at what we’ve become. But from those tears, the earth is refreshed, the plants thrive, the dishes get washed, the showers get taken, the body drinks and all is cleansed. God steps out of the mighty fortress and starts tap dancing down the street singing in the rain. 


Let’s stop hardening and have the courage and wisdom to soften. Let our tears merge with the rain as we dance down the street together.

Friday, May 27, 2022

A Modern Man

… is the name of a book of George Carlin’s monologues, a political comedian who we needed when he performed from the 1970’s until his death in 2008. And who is as relevant today— if not more so—as when he was then. Read this prophetic piece he performed over 30 years ago!


 I think the planet probably sees us a mild threat, something to be dealt with. And I’m sure it can defend itself in the manner of a large organism, the way a beehive or an ant colony would muster a defense. What might you be thinking if you were trying to defend yourself against this pesky, troublesome species?


Let’s see, what might I try? Hmm. Viruses might be good: these humans seem vulnerable. And viruses are tricky, always mutating and developing new strains when new medicines and vaccines are introduced. …


 I heard him perform this in a two-part documentary about his life (highly recommended, on Hulu) and almost fell off my chair. The man had his finger on the pulse of so much. Including how this country really works in our fantasy of the land of the free and the home of the brave, captured succinctly in his sentence 


“They call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” 


 His job was to wake us up. And he took it seriously, did his research, spoke forcefully and eloquently and with plenty of “bad words” — strong themes sometimes need strong language. He confessed that he couldn’t worry about offending anyone, on either side of the political spectrum, because then he would be flinching, taking a step back from the truth as he saw it.


And again, his monologues from way back then are so timely now, a depressing affirmation that we continue to sleep and let the big boys with money put us to sleep. His thoughts about abortion should be required re-reading. In a piece titled, Not Every Ejaculation Deserves a Name, he writes:


Conservatives are obsessed with fetuses from conception to nine months, but after that they have no interest in you. None. No day care, no Head Start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothin.’ If you’re preborn, you’re fine. If you’re preschool, you’re fucked.


Once you leave the womb, conservatives don’t care about you until you reach military age. Then you’re  just what they’re looking for. Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers.


Conservative aren’t pro-life, they’re anti-women. Simple. They’re afraid of women and they don’t like them. They believe a woman’s primary role is to be a brood mare for the State. If they think a fetus is more important than a woman, they should try getting a fetus to wash the stains out of their underwear. For no pay.


Another thought. Why is it when it’s a human being it’s called an abortion and when it’s a chicken it’s called an omelet. Are we so much better than chickens? When did that happen? Name six ways we’re better than chickens. See? No one can do it. Do you know why? Because chickens are decent people.


He goes on. Unvarnished, direct, no flinching, honest truth. And funny as hell. 


He wasn’t perfect. Had the usual American problems with drugs (cocaine) and alcohol and money that our celebrities inevitably encounter. But he stayed married his whole life, worked through much of his issues and tried to hold himself as accountable as the society he was critiquing. Like Kurt Vonnegut, he seemed to give up on the human species near the end of his life and who could blame him? I’m trying to imagine him alive during the Toddler-in -Chief years and their continued aftermath. I think it would have done him in. 


Meanwhile, I’ll end with a little piece after my own heart. Reading through the book, I’m finding him saying many of the same things I’ve said and written about, but with a delivery punch and a following far beyond my skills and my little world. But the other day, I was giving an online music workshop to some teachers in Vermont and in response to something they said about what was going on with their school admin, I blurted out, “Fuck that!!!” Not my usual demeanor in a professional workshop, but if we can reserve strong language for the level of outrage a certain response demands, why not? Like crying at funerals, no need to apologize. And I didn’t. Interesting that this was the day before I saw that documentary, but I felt George Carlin by my side saying, “Good for you!”


Here is a piece that I could have written, but he did instead. Enjoy!


 I have a plan for world peace. It’s simple. Twenty-four hour, nonstop, worldwide folk dancing, once a year. Each year, on a designated day, everyone in the world would stop what they were doing and dance for twenty-four hours.


Any kind of dancing you want. Square dance, minuet, grind, Peabody, cakewalk, mazurka, samba, mashed potato. Doesn’t matter. Just get out there and dance. Even hospital patients, shut-ins, people on life support.…


One good result, of course, would be that during the actual dancing, no fighting could take place. But the plan would also tend to reduce violence during the remainder of the year, because for six months following the dance, everyone would be talking about how much fun they had had, and for the six months after that, they would all be busy planning what to wear to next year’s dance.


 Shall we try it?



Thursday, May 26, 2022

A Special Room

I’m no fan of the Burning in Hell doctrine, but there are times when I hope that it is true and that there is a special room reserved for those who keep hurting and harming with their heavy armed shoulders of power. Like all those who think it’s just fine to hold the NRA Convention in Texas just days after the recent school shooting. Who think that guns should be everywhere and don’t you dare curtail my freedom to open-carry wherever and whenever I want. Except, apparently, when Donald Trump is speaking at the NRA Convention. Then guns will be banned from the event. It’s fine for them to be used in school massacres, but we must protect the guy who vows that he will protect gun rights, except when it comes to the right to have them when he is speaking.


Like I said, a special room in Hell. And turn up the heat, please. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

No Comment

Now monkey pox. The Texas mass shooting of children while Ted Cruz speaks at the NRA. The Supreme Court upholding the right of men to impregnate women, run away from the scene, leave the mother with an unwanted child with no health care or parenting support, “educate” the child at a school that criminalizes telling the truth about our history, fails to fortify a critical thinking mind less vulnerable to crazed conspiracy theories and puts a gun in his or her hand easier than a driver’s license —and lets the cycle repeat again. 


How do we even get up in the morning? How can we even sleep at night? 


Sometimes we need to just shut the door to the horror, open the window to the promise of a new day and when asked about the above, politely answer:


“No comment.”

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The 50-Yard Line

There’s an old Buddhist legend about a seeker named Huike who went to the cave where Bodhidharma, the one who brought Buddha’s teaching from India to China, had been sitting in meditation for nine years. Huike appeared at the cave entrance and asked Bodhidharma to teach him, only to be turned away. He stood in the snow outside Bodhidharma’s cave all night until the snow reached his waist. 


In the morning Bodhidharma asked him why he was still there. Huike replied that he wanted a teacher to "open the gate of the elixir or universal compassion to liberate all beings." Bodhidharma again refused, saying, “how can you hope for true religion with little virtue, little wisdom, a shallow heart, and an arrogant mind? It would just be a waste of effort.” Finally, to prove his resolve, Huike cut off his left arm and presented it to the First Patriarch as a token of his sincerity. Bodhidharma then accepted him as a student. 


I think about telling that story to some of today’s entitled kids who think that the teacher is there to fully understand their particular emotional needs, wants and desires, to fulfill their differentiated instruction mandates to make every lesson 100% relevant to each student’s preferred learning mode, align all their pronouns, ensure cultural relevancy, to entertain the students and reward them just for being who they are and then be prepared to be insulted or ignored by the students, critiqued by the parents, unsupported by the administrators. 


We’ve come a long way from Bodhidharma’s time. And some of it is good and I certainly have done my part to push along the progressive education cart by imagining that everything that didn’t work in class was my fault and then, re-shaping my lesson to engage students more fully. But as often happens, in our efforts to straighten a bent stick, we have bent way too far in the other direction. 


This came up in a discussion about a student at the school where I’ve been helping out. The student in question has an attention span measured in seconds, is constantly asking irrelevant questions and interrupting, cannot—or will not—stay focused on a  given task, rarely succeeds in the simplest musical activity, thinks improvisation is doing everything differently regardless of musicality and generally, steals time from the class and the other students. With the Spring concert looming, there is the difficult question of how this student can successfully participate. 


One solution is simply not to have the student in the concert, as the behavior clearly did not earn him a spot. Another is to find something that he  can do well, like Emcee the event and shine the light there. Teachers met to discuss it and some felt that offering an opportunity for success in something the student liked to do could be interpreted as rewarding disruptive behavior. Though I wasn’t at the meeting, my suggestion would have been to make a concrete list of behaviors that needed to be improved that required the student to make an effort and then if sincere effort and progress was made, go for the Emcee compromise. As it turned out, teachers decided to simply not have him participate and my music teacher colleague was feeling some sense of guilt, remorse and failure about it, though I had witnessed him making every effort to reach this kid. So I wrote to him and said: 


“Don't spend a moment of regret. You did everything you could and he did nothing. This is an appropriate natural consequence that he'll either learn from or he won't. I sometimes tell difficult kids that learning takes place at the 50-yard line. I'll walk there to meet you, you walk there to meet me. Since I'm the adult, sometimes I'll go 75 yards to your 25 and occasionally 95 to your 5. But at some point, you have to step out to meet me. You have to choose to make an effort. If not, good luck with your life!”


I understand that this student needs help and that he simply doesn’t have the tools at the moment to improve. But what he does need is an adult community to constantly remind him, hold him responsible, walk him through possible steps to improvement, let him know that he has to make an effort. He has to recognize how his behavior affects others and his own learning. He can’t get the feeling that his confusion or learning issues or challenges of race or gender identity or adoption status gives him a pass. He doesn’t have to stand out all night in the snow, but he does have to start walking toward the 50-yard line. 


Between the student cutting off his arm and Bodhidharma being sued for emotional abuse, I’m leaning toward the former. (After all, his student eventually did “open the gate of the elixir or universal compassion to liberate all beings" and went on to become the second Patriarch of Zen.) But no need to choose the extremes. Let's agree to meet at the 50-yard line, the teacher making the effort to wholly see and understand and encourage the student and the student making the effort to work hard, meet the teacher’s offering and go beyond where they thought they could. That’s where the game takes place. 


Monday, May 23, 2022

Pleasing the Gods

“Religion. Together we can find a cure.” So read the T-shirt that had me nodding my head in agreement and asking “Where can I sign up? “ The etymology of religion is the Latin “religio” which means to yoke, to bind. And in the big organized religions, this usually means yoking us to an all-powerful Deity who demands obedience, to a dogma that conveniently suits a ruling class of priests and often has given permission to loot, to plunder, to dominate, to rape, to murder in the name of God. That portrays each innocent and beautiful baby born as a miserable sinner who must blindly believe to be redeemed. 


This is particularly true of the three monotheistic religions— Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The multiple gods of Hinduism and a Buddha who is “not a god, not a saint, not a deity, but simply awake” has always held more appeal for me and while not exempt from the pitfalls of mass organized religion, both have created less havoc in terms of justifying conquest, forced conversion, slavery, genocide and other atrocities in the name of spiritual duty.


But these “Big Five” are far from the only show in town. In addition to others like Shintoism, Taoism, Zorasterianism, Sikhism, Bahai and the various mystic traditions within the big five— the Jesuits, the Sufis, the Kabbalah mystics, the Yogis, the Zen monks— there are indigenous religions throughout the world of extraordinarily diverse (though constantly threatened) indigenous populations, from the various North American native American populations to the South American ones to the Australian Aboriginals, the Lapps, the Candomble practictioners in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba, Voudon in Haiti, and countless groups throughout Southeast Asia and the continent of Africa.  There are literally thousands of paths to Spirit and most of them offer a more connected and experiential way to awaken Spirit in us, with a more beautiful and less world-wrecking story about what the Gods want from us and what we are here to offer them. 


In his introduction to a second book by Martin Prechtel titled  Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, the poet Robert Bly writes:


 Mayan tradition does not teach that the Gods want people to be sinless or perfect, but they believe the Gods love beauty, eloquence, fine clothes, great music, good poems, bravery, high animal spirits and gratitude. These human qualities taste like honey to the Gods and the Gods are like bears who have to come into the village whenever they smell that honey. Thus, the Mayan people’s main and ancient job is to be beautiful and grateful.”


Imagine a speed-dating situation where everyone is shopping for religion. In one booth, you’re told that someone had to die because you’re a miserable sinner and if you don’t obey, you’ll be roasting in hellfire for eternity, while in another, that the Gods want you to dance and make great music and dress well and savor life with gratitude. Which would you choose? And what kind of culture would flower out of large groups making the same choice? Bly goes on:


 From these metaphors of honey, of Gods crazy about smoke and dancing, we get a scent of the “original, flowering earth,” the fantastic fragrance that can come into human life when old women and men help the young ones to embody beauty and eloquence and eight-hundred-old rituals of gratitude get a chance to play themselves out…That people are taught that it’s good for each person in the village to be in debt, economically and spiritually, to every other person in the village, that it’s wise to give payback to the spirits and to Mother Earth constantly, that it’s good to weep generously when a human being dies so he or she can make it all the way across to the other side…”


 Can you feel what a different culture this is and how it leans towards the community connections, ecological sustainability, artistic expressions we all so desperately crave? What a beautiful alternative this is to God’s alleged permission to dominate the Earth, subdue the people who live closest to it and love it the most, plunder it with some fantasy of a better afterlife, assault us with threats of punishment and torture if we dare to question or disobey dogmas created by fallible human beings who benefitted by keeping us afraid and subservient? A bit more:


It's enlivening also to understand that the Gods are charmed and fascinated with us as human beings, because we have thumbs— which spirits do not—and so can carve masks, weave cloth, invent musical instruments and play them, whittle sticks and make paintings. It’s good to know that what is needed most in the world, more even than food or warmth, is eloquence: it’s good to know that most of life is maintenance, to keep in constant conversation with the spirits rather than imagine that we can be saved once and for all.


This is not a tract designed to convert you to a Mayan theology, an attempt to substitute one dogma for another. Rather let’s think about what new story the world desperately needs and consider how this old story serves much better than the ones we keep repeating. 

Naturally, as a writer and a music teacher and a musician, I love the notion of gods that celebrate eloquence, children, music and dance. Returning to yesterday’s idea of the needed conversation between the worlds of the living and the departed, each one necessary to the other, the idea that thumbs and tongues can make the difference and we can use them to please the gods and they in turn, can bless us with their unseen presence in gratitude for our creations. It is something to consider.


But if it’s not to your taste, let’s put all theology and cosmology aside and simply ask:


What are we doing with your tongue? Using it to lash out at others and insult, demean, put down for no other reason to try to raise ourself a little higher? Are we letting it lie in our mouth unused when it’s most needed to speak out? Or are we shaping it to a poetic eloquence that sings out beauty. That speaks needed truths. That praises the young when we see a bit of their gift revealed.


And what of our thumbs? Are we using them to pull triggers, to send hateful texts, to post lies and conspiracy theories on social media? Or do we train them on the piano keyboard to usher forth splendiferous sounds. To have them grip a pen to capture an exquisite moment through eloquent language shared with others. To use them to hitchhike across a magnificent landscape and get picked up by a benevolent god disguised as a person.


I’m told that Jesus will love me if I will but blindly believe, but I prefer the notion that I need to do something worthy to attract the Gods, something that brings forth a flowering fragrance in words or music, that praises children, animals, plants and all the glory of Creation, that serves life and that sometimes gets a little crazy and dances ecstatically with the gods happily dancing invisibly by my side. 


That’s the kind of "old-time" (very old!) religion that moves me. And you?

Sunday, May 22, 2022

When Not to Say Sorry

It happened again. A strange phenomena in our culture that I have witnessed many times and am always perplexed as to why. Someone in a group conversation who begins to tear up and immediately tries to wave the tears away and says, “I’m sorry.”


Now if it was a staff meeting discussing the dates of the next field trip, such an apology might make sense. The person might have to tell the story about how the field trip location or the date proposed reminded them of a beautiful romance that turned sour and ask to be excused for a moment. 


But this occasion was a Memorial Service for a recently departed friend who all gathered had deep feelings about. If ever there is an occasion for tears, this was it. And yet, what is it in us, in our culture, that makes us feel the need to apologize for tears? What does it stay about the depth of the Puritan ethic of repressed emotion that fills the air we breathe daily? We can “have a nice day” or laugh joyfully because we are drinking Pepsi or chose the right deodorant, but God forbid we publicly display grief. These were good people, many of them who dabbled in poetry and were generally willing to drink from the well of emotion, and yet, still it came, from three different people. That break in the voice, the moisture on the cheek and immediately, “I’m sorry.”


For what?! In some cultures, the only thing you should apologize for is not crying. As told by Martin Prechtel in his book The Smell of Rain on Dust,  there is a Mayan group in Guatemala who believes that when we die, we cross the Ocean of Time to arrive at the Beach of Stars where those who have gone before will lovingly welcome us. But the only way the departed Soul can reach the Beach of Stars is through the paddle of tears shed by those left behind. If there is no grief honestly expressed by those who loved that person, they are in a canoe without a paddle, left floating in a kind of Purgatory, unable to reach the other shore. 


The people crying in the Memorial Service were doing exactly what the occasion called for and exactly what our departed friend needed. Had they copiously wept instead of holding their tears back, it would have been better. Every tear shed was a needed paddle stroke to the other side. Laughter, too. Music. And good stories. All of which was also present. 


Prechtel goes on discuss in his book what happens when people choose not to grieve (which also is deeply connected with praising life and blessing oneself and others) and the next generation inherits the unexpressed grief. And then passes it on down to the next generation. The Mayans say that after five generations, each refusing their responsibility to properly grieve, a family problem become a tribal problem, Three more generations and the tribal problem becomes an inter-tribal problem. And then it becomes— a national habit.


In this land with so many people devastated by genocide and slavery without the rituals of proper grief to begin healing, we are all complicit in agreeing to keep the door of grief locked. And so, when it slips open, even at the most appropriate of times, our first impulse is to apologize, as if we’ve broken some sacred social contract. 


Things get more serious yet. Those who arrive at the Beach of Stars go through a transformation to become a living Ancestor, whose benevolent presence is felt in this world. Those who cannot reach it, either because those living failed to properly grieve or because the departed lived despicable lives causing harm and hurt to others and no one is sad to see them go, do not get initiated into their new role as a life-affirming Ancestor. Instead, they become hungry ghosts inhabiting the minds and bodies of the living and continuing to cause havoc. While we try to solve everything with drugs and laws and personal therapies, much of the world understands that some of our most pressing issues require conversations between the worlds of the dead and the living. As the Irish say:


“That which is wrong in this world can only be healed by those in the other world. That which is wrong in the other world can only be healed by those in this world.”


More on that tomorrow. For now, if you feel you haven’t properly wept for someone who has left, particularly in this isolated time of Covid, it’s not too late. And best to do in a group. Yesterday’s memorial was on Zoom and even there, the depth of feeling can come through. 


And please. When the tears come forth, do not say “I’m sorry.”


Saturday, May 21, 2022

Three Words

There are three words I hoped I’d never have to say. Pick one.


a) Where’s my wallet?

b) The Warriors lost.

c) I’m a Republican.

d) I have Covid.

e) All of the above


And the correct answer is…


e). With special emphasis on d)


As mentioned in my Coldvid post, I tested negative on Tuesday, but on Friday was tested as usual before entering the Jewish Home for the Aged to play piano. I sat outside to wait my fifteen minutes and when the nurse came out, I started walking in and she shouted: “Stop! Back away and put on your mask. You are positive!” Which is a word you don’t want to hear these days when it comes to Covid or teenage pregnancy tests in Texas.


So there you have it. I thought I would get through this untouched and though there’s no shame in getting it now— I have LOTS of company—still it’s a weird feeling to connect my body to that word. In my 6thday, I feel notably better. Perhaps helped by two vaccinations and two boosters, the whole thing has mostly been like a medium bad cold. It certainly affected my first week home, each day feeling like something to simply get through rather than thoroughly enjoy and savor. But a friend brought over a jigsaw puzzle and alongside the piano, reading and walking in the park (still feels okay to do and yes, I will stay far away from others and be masked), I have the necessary tools to get through. 


Very sad that I didn’t get to play piano for the seniors after five weeks away. But the good news? My wife had to do the shopping today! 

The Art of Blessing: Part 3

When I first moved to San Francisco in 1973, I shared a flat on Shrader Street with a roommate named Andy. Andy introduced me to Kevin, somebody he had met who lived a couple of doors down in our apartment building. 


One day, there was a knock on my door and when I answered it, Kevin was there. He looked somewhat agitated and told me that he was having a bad acid trip (this was 1973 in San Francisco) and asked if Andy and I could help him. Andy wasn’t home and here I was, a 22-year old who knew little of the world. But I agreed to come into his apartment, made him a warm glass of milk with honey, sat next to him and held his hand and read to him from the book The Wind in the Willows. He calmed down and we passed a nice hour together until another friend came over. 


I moved out of that apartment some months later and never saw Kevin again. But I wonder if he’s somewhere reading the Wind in the Willows to his grandchildren and telling them about a nice neighbor who read it to him when he needed help (omitting the bad acid trip part!). Maybe yes, probably no, I’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. 


But this little story surfaced as an example of a “random act of kindness” that ended up in my skillset and made me happy that I could be of help. I don’t deserve any credit for it, just offer it as an example of the small things we can do they don’t give prizes or awards for—nor should they— but it perhaps much more important than the winning an Oscar. (Especially if you do something unkind after winning that Oscar!)


The teacher in yesterday’s post who thanked me for inviting her into the school’s musical community went on to tell another story. Truth be told, I didn’t remember that much about the interaction she describes, but was moved that she did and happy that against all odds, I had somehow done the right thing.  (I’m sure there were similar occasions with other people when I didn’t!) Here’s what she wrote: 


Once at a staff meeting, an African American woman led us through a diversity training where we were asked to speak of our identities. We were partners and I was vulnerable with you in a way that peeled away layers of scabs and scars. At the time, I think I may have been afraid of the side of you that was a cis white man (to speak in today’s vernacular of wokeness). I cried through our whole conversation. The next day, you sat under a tree with me and spoke of being Jewish, of your childhood and what you had been thinking since we spoke. No cis white man had ever/ has ever— held space for me like that. And here I am, here we are, —20 years after that time—and that memory is seared into the part of me that remains unfailing full of love for you. I know you will carry on and spread your love and gifts to the world, leaving a wake of people such as myself who will never forget the great gift of you.


Sometimes in writing old-fashioned letters, a teardrop might fall and mark the page, but it doesn’t work on computer keyboards. Nevertheless, the keypad is wet after re-writing the above. Without the occasion of this retirement party, I never would have known. 


So three things:


1) Let’s remember to create occasions where such stories can come forth. They matter. 


2) Simply listening to someone can often be the greatest gift and blessing we can confer.


3) Blessing blesses both the person giving it and the person receiving it. 


I hope these three pebbles thrown into the pond of conferring blessing will create rings that radiate out to reach those in need. Which is all of us. 


And if you ever need someone to read the Wind in the Willows to you or your children, I’m your man. 


Friday, May 20, 2022

The Art of Blessing: Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about giving intentional blessings to the people who cross your path. I suggested that this be at the top of the list for any schoolteacher, but it applies equally to co-workers, family members, friends, people you might notice out in the world performing a small act of kindness. Our job is simply to be alert to the occasions and to commit to actively speaking out— it’s not enough to just think it. 


Yet there are many levels to blessings and perhaps most of them come from simply living our life well and treating others with care and respect, never quite knowing the effect that it has, has had or continues to have on others.  I believe I’ve written before of the extraordinary generosity of a couple named Jim and Karen Bold, from the small village of Nether Poppleton in the Yorkshire District of England. Jim picked my wife and I up hitchhiking at the beginning of a trip around the world in 1978 and after five minutes in the car, invited us into his home with his wife and two young daughters for dinner and then offered a room for us in his house until he could drive us to our next spot in a couple of days. 


That level of generosity and trust astounded us and is the reason I still remember their names over 40 years later. It helped me believe in the kindness of strangers. A belief that helps fulfill itself, as it did yet again in our recent four weeks in Europe. Naturally, I would love to connect with that family and thank them in person/ by e-mail/ on Facebook, but my little efforts to find them haven’t born fruit. And who knows? If I did find them, they might not remember it. But I do.


Yesterday, I finally was able to pick up a little “Memory Book” from my retirement party some five weeks ago. Naturally, I loved reading the notes from former students, teachers and parents expressing appreciation for all the things I hoped that would remember from our time together at school. My job as music teacher is to convince each and every child—and adult— that they are more musical than they think they are and that when they join others in music’s common endeavor, it spreads beauty everywhere. To them, to their fellow musicians, to the listening audience. So I’m very happy to read something that two parents wrote in that memory book:


We’ll never forget our amazement at seeing our boys play in the ensemble with such skill and enthusiasm that we didn’t know they had. What a treat!


But the most surprising— and thus, most meaningful in some ways— was a note from a former teacher who I haven’t seen for a couple of decades. Her note confirmed a fantasy that I’ve long had that if the too-long list of people dominating the news with their mean-spiritness and low ethics, those politicians and TV news pundits using their power to put others down and hurt them, if those people had gone to my school and had the opportunity to discover some inside beauty revealed by myself as their music teacher and all their other teachers in their fields of study, well, perhaps they would have turned out differently. Perhaps not— human beings are simply too complex— but at least they would have had a chance to discover that if they carried such beauty in them, why, others must as well. Perhaps they might have re-calibrated their lives to share our common experiences as both the walking wounded and the joyful dancers. 


Here’s what this teacher wrote: 


In my first year, I shadowed my 4th grade students to all their classes, but my favorite of all was to join the music class. It made me think that the path of my life would have been completely different had I had music teachers like you as a child. In that moment, I knew, I knew, that my faithlessness in my value would have been averted. I would have pivoted from my petty criminal activity, I would have finished high school with pride, I would have known of avenues that had been invisible to me.


And the things you let me do! My Lord, to be a part of the 4th grade Halloween ritual telling the story, to make a brief appearance in the Winter Play, to dance with you in the music room after the horror of 9/11 happened as we tried to heal ourselves. Your warmth and smile and open arms made me feel so seen and valued.…”


Her testimony was an unexpected blessing, the sense that my intentions with the kids I taught ended up reaching further. 


But it was the next part of her letter than most moved me. Stay tuned tomorrow.


Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Art of Blessing

After five weeks away, I’m back helping out teaching music to kids at Children Day’s School. At lunchtime, a 7th grader who I did a few classes with back in October came up to me. “Remember you said I had potential?” he said with a smile. I answered, “You’re Levi, yes? Absolutely! Are you doing anything with it?” All his friends around him chimed in “No!”, as 7th grade friends would. “Well, don’t wait too long!”


This was the boy who in the very first class I taught was singing too loud and kind of fooling around, but when I invited them to dance, had some great moves. I stopped the class and said, “Wow! I didn’t get to watch everyone, but there was one of you in particular who really impressed me with his style and energy.” In the silly way I do, I dramatically went around the circle and then stopped in front of this boy Levi. “Can everyone copy his motion”?


At the end of class, I called him aside and asked if he was studying any music and dance outside of class. He said no and I told him, “Well consider it. You have great potential.”


And he remembered that. Six months later. I imagine many adults— and peers— are often yelling at him to stop doing this and stop doing that, but here I was telling him that this energy was not bad, just needed to be funneled into artful expression. It obviously made an impression. Not that he’s suddenly taking hip-hop dance classes or taking up an instrument, but that an adult blessed him with the thought that he might be better than he thought he was. 


Don’t we all need that? Don’t we remember the adults— a special teacher or aunt or uncle or sometimes even a stranger at a bus stop— who said something that made us feel seen or known, even beyond what we could see or know in ourselves? Dear reader, take a moment to think of the people in your life who gave you that gift and take a moment to thank them. Maybe even call them or write them a note if they’re still on the planet. 


This kind of praise and blessing is as essential to us as bread and water. It doesn’t come from Facebook telling us “we value your memories” or the guy on stage yelling “I love you all!” or the fake scripted “I like the way you put your pencil away without breaking it.” It doesn’t come from a quota system where you make sure each person in the circle is praised exactly the same amount for the same amount of time, worried that someone might feel left out.  It certainly doesn’t come from multiple-choice pre-written computer comments on the report card. 


To praise authentically, you first have to be aware of what is praiseworthy. Little artistic breakthroughs, acts of kindness, efforts above and beyond the call of duty. You have to constantly watch the children, alert to the moment when the right word is needed and take the time to give it. It can—and should— come side-by-side with a challenge. “I see this in you. This is what you need to do to have it fully blossom. Are you up to it? If you make the commitment, I’ll help you and when you go beyond where I can go, I’ll help you find the next helper.” Sometimes it’s just hanging out together and sharing enthusiasms— books you love for the aspiring writer, music you love for the up and coming musician and so on.


Most likely, it comes from people who themselves have been blessed and thus, have a model of how that can change people’s lives. Which means that if you start to practice the art of blessing, you send forth ripples in the pond that will continue to echo into the future and affect people who you will never meet, blessed by the person you blessed. 


It’s also possible that you learned the absolute need for such praise by the absence of it in your life and your determination to stop the chain of refusing to see, value or know others and tell them about it. A teacher I know who gave the gifts of blessing to her students for over 35 years was recently celebrated at a retirement party. Her mother attended and witnessed all the love and appreciation this teacher inspired. When she asked her Mom at the end, “Well, what did you think?” the response was, “Well, the snacks were good.” 


As she told me this story, I could feel the pain in her voice. Over 70 years old, she was still hoping for her mother’s blessing and more than a little bit heartbroken that it was not there. It should have been. It should have been. And perhaps never was for her mother, so the neglect kept moving down the generations. Until the teacher put up a Stop sign and turned it around for her own daughter and her own students. It’s possible.


Having thought of who blessed you in your life, think of who you blessed in the next generation. And keep going. It’s never too late.