Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Message from a Mosquito


“This is what you will write about today,” a mosquito buzz-whispered in my ear at 4 am.


So I could mention the blessed absence of this annoying bug in San Francisco— and northern Michigan too— and how rare their appearance. Or write a piece on “Mosquitoes— God’s worst creation. What was She thinking?” Or muse about mosquitoes, black flies, bees at picnics and poison oak as reminders that though the world is perfect as it is, it could stand a little improvement.


But it’s August 31st, most kids are back in school, most summer cottages closed up and airports filled with returning vacationers and September marks the turn to Fall, the return to work, the New Year that is more New Year than the New Year. Here in San Francisco, the fog is scheduled to depart and our sunniest season to arrive. We mark it with local Festivals— Opera in the Park, Comedy in the Park, the SF Mime Troupe performances in the park, the new Season at SF Jazz and the Symphony and Cal Performances, all ritual markers that we look forward to year after year. It marks the beginning of a new cycle of workshops for the local Orff Chapter, the one on September 17th, the first live one in ten years. 


Up until the pandemic, it also meant the announcement of my three Saturday workshops at The San Francisco School for the year ahead—usually September, January and March— that I have been doing since 1976. How I loved those workshops! Not only did I get to teach in the same music room where I taught kids, but because many of the same people attended, I need to keep the topics varied and interesting. Here is where I stretched a dynamic way to teach music to kids into realms where few music teachers have dared to tread. Some of my workshop titles from over the years:


• Modern Jazz and Modern Education

• The Intelligence of the Hand

• From Mali to Monk

• For the Ancestors

• The Ellington Effect

• Gender Issues and Music Education

• Myth, Ritual & Orff Schulwerk

• Celebrations Orff Schulwerk Style

• Sing, Sing, Sing

• Multiple Intelligences in Orff Schulwerk

• Math and Music

• Orality, Literacy and Orff Schulwerk

• Building Community Through Music and Dance

• Assessment in the Music Classroom

• From Bach to Bird

• Tell me a Story: Drama and Storytelling

• Education, Art and Neuroscience

• The Humanitarian Musician


And so on. This is where I cut my teeth exploring the larger dimensions of this work, with an ever-shifting community of local teachers who I mostly knew. For over 44 years. My last workshop was on January 4th, 2020 with a title: Music from Five Continents and then— well, you know what happened. 


As far away as 15 years before I retired, I spoke to the head of School about guaranteeing me use of the music room to continue these workshops. It was never formally granted and between the pandemic and the lack of clarity with the current admin about my future relationship with the school, I still don’t know if this is in option. Now that things are opening, I hope to request it. After all those years of memorable and ground-breaking gatherings in that room (now named the Doug Goodkin Music Room), how sweet it would be to come together there again with a new crop of local teachers (and hopefully, some of the die-hards) to teach again in that sacred space. Wish me luck.


So though my mosquito language skills are elementary, it seems that this is what it was whispering to me to write about. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Letter to Children on Their First Day of School

Today my grandchildren woke up to their clothes laid out, their backpack packed and that tingling sense of anticipation— it’s the first day of school! If you already had your first day, did you have that same feeling? If your school hasn’t started yet, are you eager to begin? I went to school for 17 years as a student and 45 as a teacher and I always felt that same excitement. A chance to start over, to re-connect with people I didn’t see all summer, to wonder what lay ahead in the grand adventure of learning.


To tell you the truth, after the first day of excitement, I often was disappointed as a kid with all the rest of the days. Too much standing in line, too much sitting in desks, too much raising your hand for the right answer to questions I never asked and often didn’t care about. As a teacher, I made sure it was more fun for both the students and me. More getting up and moving around— well, actually dancing! A lot of games and a lot of playing around, but always with a serious purpose to find out what our bodies can do, our minds can understand, what feelings our hearts can hold. 


So I wish that school will feel like a grand playground for you. My advice? Try everything out in the playground! Find out what’s easy, what’s hard, decide what you want to master and see if you can get all the way to the other side of the balance beam. Explore, discover, notice how cardboard gets you faster down the slide and choose your piece carefully. Climb up the ropes to as high as you’re comfortable and then go one step higher. Swing on the swings with your own pumping power and notice how your days will be like that, swinging back and forth between happy and sad, easy and hard, fun play and hard work. Teeter-totter with your friend and never, ever jump off and send them sprawling to the ground. Climb through tunnels, jump through hoops or just simply run around and then collapse on the grass looking up at the sky. See what pictures the clouds are making for you today. 


And yes, it’s nice to occasionally go on the carousel and let the machine do all the work while you relax— but don’t get too attached to that. It’s your own body and mind and heart that needs to exercise, every day, and not just to tick off numbers on your fit-bit (I hope you don’t have one!), but for the pleasure of it all. And for goodness sake, sing! 


These my wishes for you as you begin school again. May them come true! And if the teachers forget, please remind them. 



Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Legacy of Gathering

One of my daughter Talia’s favorite books is called The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. As a teacher and someone tuned in to her social intelligence, Talia has long been a master of gathering. She cooked a turkey in her bikini in Argentina just to share the holiday with her new Argentina friends when she lived there. She makes everyone at the dinner table share their rose (highlight), thorn (lowlight) and sky flower (surprise) of the day before the first bite is taken. She’s created the ritual of a monthly 5-mile walk to school once a month with her class. The above book both affirms her hosting talents and gives her new ideas, but if she never read it, she could have written it.


My daughter Kerala has her own sense of appreciation for gathering rituals and traditions, chronicled so beautifully in her most recent writing piece on (see HUMANPARTS.MEDIUM.COM/ The Places Where We Make Our Memories: On the importance of gathering and tradition). As noted in that piece, she not only shares appreciation for our many and varied family traditions, but has worked to create her own new ones with her family in Portland. Like neighborhood pumpkin carving and the neighborhood block party.


Those apples don’t fall far from the tree, as perhaps my most significant legacy at The San Francisco School where I worked for 45 years was to create, develop and sustain a year-round ceremonial life. The opening ceremony with its bagpipe call to gathering, threading through the singing tunnel of teachers, the youngest and oldest gong ringing, the water pouring ceremony from oldest to youngest (the passing of knowledge) and from youngest to oldest (sustaining wonder and curiosity), the introduction of the teachers where each has to dance. The Halloween Intery Mintery ritual, the Holiday Plays, the St. George and the Dragon play with sword dance, much of the Martina Luther King Ceremony, the Samba Contest, the Cookie Jar Contest, the Spring Concert, the closing festivities involving a dessert called the Mud Pie, a hug line and much more. Not to mention the square dance, Wandering Nostril bedtimes, campfires and more on the many years we went camping. 


Once in place, other teachers, kids and certainly my colleagues James and Sofia contributed much to the evolution of each, but the initial impulse for almost all of it was mine. It certainly fit with my Orff Schulwerk style and skills, itself a constant gathering with structures to bring people together and connect them through play, song, music, dance, drama, poetry, storytelling and more. James, Sofia and I have also adapted many of the school rituals to our annual Orff Training Course and I believe it’s no small part of what makes the course distinctive. 


I’m happy to report that now two years retired, the rituals live on at the school without my presence. As I plan my future disappearances, it gives me great solace to feel how my two children value these things as I have and will carry them on in their own voices. And though she doesn’t relish a leadership role, my wife certainly plays a significant part in it all, appreciation peeking out behind her complaints about getting the house ready for the Neighborhood Caroling Party. (Which, of course, she does expertly.)


But before I step off the stage, I wonder if I should organize my interest, experience and skills in group gathering and travel the country, the world over, to help schools and other community groups do it all with more flair, more meaning and of course, more music and song. In all my long years training teachers, I’ve heard of a few who were inspired to apply some of the ideas to their own schools and community, but not nearly as many as I’d like. 


Of course, rituals abound in schools. Certainly seasonal concerts, sports events, hopefully plays, some fairs and most commonly, graduation. Yet there is so much more that could be done to help students and teachers alike feel the pleasure of anticipating the next seasonal marker, to help create the sense of a community celebrating the privilege of being alive together in this place, this moment, with great fanfare and festivity and fun, to help everyone discover a bit of what they can contribute through the opportunities to sing, play, dance, speak, decorate, cook, organize, document. If schools continue to be mandatory gathering places, why not make them more meaningful, more mirthful, more memorable?


I’m available for hire. My daughters too. 

The Secret Song

“From true emptiness, the wondrous being appears.” -Suzuki Roshi


The poet facing the blank page. The artist in front of the empty canvas. The jazz pianist seated with 88 silent keys waiting. The Zen meditator sitting down with nothing but breath and body.


This is how it begins. One word, one splash of color, one sound, one inhale and exhale and we’re off. If we’re lucky, each impulse leads inexorably to the next and some kind of coherent design begins to emerge. The wondrous beings appear. Our job is not to judge too early, just follow and let them have their voice and see where they lead. We’re along for the ride and best to let the paddles rest, just flow with the current. Until it slows to a halt or we get stuck in an eddy. 


Later, we will look back and adjust and shift and paddle so that others might share the journey. With the artists, it’s the next step in creating a work— a poem, a painting, a composition/ recorded improvisation— that can be heard or seen by others, with the Zen student, we are the work we are creating and re-creating, still to be shared with others through the quality of our presence. 


All require some measure of stillness, some mindful attention, some unshakeable faith that there is gold underneath that needs us to bring it forth. And that’s precisely why gold is more valuable than granite. It is hidden, it is rare, it takes a special effort to sift through the silt to discover it, it takes a special desire to find it. 


The mistake is to take it literally. Literal gold digging created centuries of suffering in the form of ecological ravage, Indian genocide, African slavery, Wall Street billionaires foreclosing homes, shutting down Unions and hoarding resources. That kind of gold-digging is a disaster. That’s fool’s gold, like the pyrite mineral that miners uncovered that shone liked gold, but would flake, powder or crumble when poked with the metal point of true wealth and spiritual happiness. As King Midas discovered, that’s the gold that you can’t eat, can’t hug like a child, can’t take with you to the other side.


But what if one could take that hunger for gold, that desire for the rare, that yearning for wealth, and in a deft aikido move, flip it over from the outer gold to the inner gold? Ah, there’s a thought. What would that look like?


In my field of music education, it means working with the gold of artistic creation. This is the idea between one of my more fruitful music lessons I created called “The Secret Song.” The 5-year-olds (or any age) come in and gather around the xylophone set up in the pentatonic scale. In hushed tones, I say:


“Kids, I’m going to tell you an important secret. Come, gather closer. (dramatic pause) Inside these wooden bars is a secret song that’s waiting for you. Like gold that’s hidden in the earth that you have to dig it out. But instead of shovels, you’re going to use mallets to try to get your song to come out. If you listen, you might find your song coming out from its hiding place. Then you need to keep it singing long enough for you to remember, because later, you will come back to share with others. If you use your hands, ears and mind the right way, the golden song will appear. Good luck!”


And I send them off to the corners of the room, each with a xylophone, walk around and check in with them and then we gather back together to share. And lo and behold, everyone indeed finds a “secret song” that is musical and worthy of being heard.


Note how the xylophone was like their blank canvas. With the intention to make it come to life, time to explore and the expectation of sharing, each child indeed brings forth the gold of her or his inner musician. Yes, some may shine more brightly than others (though next time maybe not), but it’s not a competition. It’s a way for each child to discover—and for the teacher to notice—precisely how they’re thinking musically. And for them to be inspired by how other classmates are thinking musically, both affirming their innate musicality and encouraging them to consider new paths to expression. 


Note also that the gold is not meant to be hoarded, but freely given away in the sharing. And in the next “secret song” class, the idea is to find a new one, to perpetually renew and keep the flow of one’s golden musicality moving. Yes, we also might repeat some, work on them, further elaborate on them and turn spontaneous improvisation into a more fixed composition. That’s also part of artistic development. 


But it’s always a good idea to return to emptiness as an ongoing practice. The great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz revealed that he began every practice session with a free improvisation on the piano. No preconceived chords or tunes or rhythms, just set the hands down and begin from the first sounds that emerge. (Also interesting that he chose piano instead of his more familiar instrument, the saxophone). 


So the next time you feel stuck in any kind of endeavor (especially a creative endeavor), just stop, be still, stop planning, just attend to the moment and then see what emerges. And then watch and hear your Secret Song emerge.


P.S. The Secret Song is also the title of a film that has been made about my last year at The San Francisco School, now being submitted to various film festivals. I’ll let you know if and when it gets accepted. Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 27, 2022


I really need to look more closely at my airline tickets when I buy them. Somehow I agreed to a six-hour layover at the Denver Airport, which I only realized when I arrived in Denver and added two hours to the time change instead of subtracting them. This could be a great math word problem:


“An older man arrived in Denver from Michigan and his watch read 6:00 pm. Thinking it was 8:00 pm, he settled in for a short two-hour wait until his 10:00 pm flight. He then glanced at his phone and noticed it read 4:00 pm. Which was correct and why the heck didn’t he notice it when he booked the flight?”


Realizing there was six-hours ahead and almost done with my book, I had a number of choices to pass the six hours:


1) Organize my photos on the computer. 


2) Write the Great American novel. 


3) Take out my headphones and see what was on Netflix.


I opted for No. 3 and started watching a German spy series called Kleo. 8 episodes, 45 minutes per episode. Perfect! 


And it was, thoroughly immersing me in its intriguing plot and characters. It even made me forget about my mysterious aching shoulder that had bothered me the whole time in Michigan and was not getting better. Got home at 1:00 am SF time (for your math problem solvers, that was 4:00 am Michigan time), spent my first day home meeting with my music teacher mentee and playing piano again at the Jewish Home. My shoulder still bothering me, tuned back into Kleo to finish the series and it got me thinking:


She gets knived, shot, kick-boxed, thrown over a balcony and somehow the next day, she’s off and running again as if nothing ever happened. I stub my toe and it stays with me for three days! Well, yes, she’s half my age, but still. I know no one wants to see the TV heroes rubbing their shoulder and whining, “Dang. This is really bothering me.” But still the level of bounce-back is like the cartoons of my childhood, Bugs Bunny flattened by a hammer and then the next frame, he’s back to his bouncy self. 


Me, I’m off to the chiropractor today to see if he can help me with some old-guy slow-motion bounce- back. Wish me luck!

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Proud Papa 2

  • (Kerala’s Facebook post)


    Another summer reunion in Michigan.


    And, a long overdue expression of my deepest gratitude for my parents and sister for consistently going above and beyond when it comes to my kids -- and *particularly* this summer. Each kid had their own "special time" with Mima, Poppop, and Tita in San Francisco earlier this summer and then my parents and sister stepped up again to watch them in Michigan while I worked remotely.


    But “watching” my kids does not even begin to describe the extent to which my “first family” engages, teaches, co-creates, and plays. 


    Doug Goodkin is the most playful adult I know. You never just “play Frisbee” with my Dad, you invent a whole new Frisbee game. Maybe it also involves a paddle ball or a baseball bat. Maybe you sing a song while you’re at it. Poppop can turn anything into a game, and my kids eat it up almost as enthusiastically as the ice cream cones he spoils them with. 


    My Mom Karen is the planner. Any visit with her grandchildren entails weeks of preparation. Test-flying a kite in Golden Gate Park, researching new art projects to try, making lists of activities. My kids come home laden with toilet paper tube robots and tie dye shirts and entire sketchbooks full of watercolors. They make their own lists of what they can do with Mima next time. 


    And Talia Goodkin is amazing at speaking my kids’ language. She can get them excited about anything. Want to learn multiplication tables? Sure, Tita! Want to do beach yoga? Yes, wait for me! Want to row the paddle board to Wisconsin? HECK YEAH! My kids confide in Tita and cannot wait for their special Tita time. They emphatically insist they don't want cousins because then Tita wouldn't be able to pay as much attention to them. 


    My first family’s only fault is living in a city I can’t afford, but it makes our time together all the more special. Ronnie swears the kids grow at least an inch every week they spend with Mima, Tita, and Poppop. So much learning and growth. That they are all teachers helps, of course, but more than anything it’s the commitment, energy, and ❤️.



Proud Papa 1

Proud Papa 1


Amidst all my worldly ambitions, raising two caring, smart, fun daughters was the one that seemed a crap shoot— so much out of my control. Parenting , unlike woodworking or sculpture or playing the cello, is the one craft that defies mastery and predictable results. Yet somehow, against all odds, my two daughters are at once my forever children, my friends, my colleagues and my inspiration. Kerala (the elder) shares my passion for writing, but does it so much better than I do. Talia shares my passion for teaching and again, as a classroom teacher, digs deeper into helping kids reveal themselves than I ever could as a music teacher.

Both recently posted in Facebook, so this Proud Papa will share their posts here. Talia’s is a letter written to her 5th grade students before the first day of school. Kerala’s is a simple appreciation of the whole family helping raise her two marvelous kids. For better examples of her exquisite writing, go to Kerala Taylor at


Dear Fifth Graders,


It is 6:15 Tuesday morning and I am sitting on a couch in my backyard with a blanket my mom knitted wrapped around my shoulders. It is very quiet, the world still asleep, but when I listen closely enough, I can hear the flap of a hawk’s wings above me and the squeaky exhale of a bus. It is not yet light, but the transition from night to day has begun, like a huge dimmer switch that someone is slowly and carefully switching on. 


Tomorrow is the first day of school and I am thinking about you. For a week now, I have been preparing. I printed out your class list. I labeled your cubbies and your hooks outside. I ordered you each a new writer’s notebook. I bought fancy pens and sharpened pencils. I arranged and rearranged the tables and chairs. I took down the hundreds of pictures of last year’s class from the wall outside where I stapled them every week, making space for your own memories to fill it back up again.


I thought about each of you and what gifts you will give to our class, what confidence you will discover, what will challenge you, make you laugh, make you cry, and make you blush. Whose poem will give me goosebumps? Whose memoir will make me cry? Who will catch their first touchdown at recess and finish their first cross-country meet? Who will read a book that changes them? Who will fart and blame it on someone else? Who will always bend to lend a hand to those that fall? Who will make new friends? Who will shine leading family time? Who will try something new, fail, and try again and again? Who will tell me when I have cilantro in my teeth? Who will rub someone’s back when they are feeling down? 


I imagine that you have also been thinking about fifth grade. Perhaps older siblings or last year’s class has told you what to expect. Perhaps you’ve heard about monthly walk to school field trips, books we read, projects we do, topics we study, MOSAIC camp, leadership recesses, and the camping trip at the end of the year. Perhaps you can’t wait! Perhaps your first day of school outfit is already laid out on your bed. Perhaps you’re nervous about new teachers, a new classroom, and new expectations. Perhaps you’re excited to reconnect with your classmates, to share your summer adventures. Perhaps you’re already tired thinking about having to wake up earlier. Perhaps you’re racing to finish the summer reading (FYI- we won’t be doing any classwork around the book until next week) Maybe you’re still on vacation and haven’t even thought about tomorrow! Wherever you are, I want you to know that it’s okay and we are going to have a wonderful year together. 


There is an unparalleled newness to the start of each school year. When you walk through the school doors tomorrow morning, you get to choose exactly how you are going to show up this year. For the last four years, you have looked up to the fifth graders and now it is finally your turn. I hope you choose kindness, a curious mind, and an open heart. I can’t wait to welcome you!




Wednesday, August 24, 2022

The Last Kiss of Summer

And so it arrived. The last full day of beach paradise and summer leisure began in a rocky canoe that I was sure might tip over. (It didn’t.) Yesterday, the lake was a rare afternoon calm but today it was a morning rough. We— my wife Karen and a friend Pam— made it to the outlet intact, hung out a bit at that special spot and they canoed back while I fulfilled my morning swim quota. But unlike the pitch-perfect waters of the day before, it was neither wholly relaxing nor satisfying to battle the small waves. A short beach read finishing my book The Piano Tuner, an intriguing story set in late 1800’s Burma with a wholly unsatisfying ending and then up for some leftover quinoa salad late lunch. 


Last year’s beach read was Beach Read and last time I was in town, the cozy Frankfort bookstore said the author’s new one would come in any day. So off I drove to town, treated myself to walking down Frankfort’s most Americana street with large trees, large houses architecturally distinct and delightful, with enticing front porches and lovely front and back lawns. The mythos of my Leave It to Beaver ideal town (though this much, much, more attractive) surfaced and though of course, I wished for all sorts of complexioned people to be living there, it was at least heartening to see many Black Lives Matter signs.


Got my new book, Emily Henry’s Book Lovers, and returned feeling somewhat headachy and even slightly feverish. Too much sun? Bad sleep? Not the dreaded C, please! So indulged in some self-healing playing Bach’s Inventions on the worst electric piano that never has yet been replaced (I looked into it last year, but it didn’t work out) and that helped a bit. But still not the perfect-health feeling I’ve enjoyed these last 12 days.


And so I did something that I hadn’t done all vacation. I took a nap. After reading the first two chapters of the new book. (Looks promising!) Now the sun is beginning it’s 7:00 pm descent, Pam has left and Karen is ready to talk to me about her impression of my new book (first-draft) chronicling our trip around the world in 1978-79. Besides the always valuable perspective of another reader, she was the one that lived that extraordinary year with me and it will be interesting to see if she thinks I’ve captured a bit of it. 


An overcast sky and no spectacular sunset, but so it goes. Tomorrow still a morning’s worth of swimming or biking or walking the beach and then back on the plane heading homeward bound. And though I opened with “the last full day of summer leisure,” that’s not wholly true. Technically, there’s one more month of summer until the Autumnal Equinox and metaphorically, the retired life means I can choose leisure. So in both senses, more to come.


But I will miss the beach and the lake. Farewell, my long-time friends!




Having just written “Life is sweet” in my journal, I got up to go inside and tripped over the back leg of the Adirondack chair. Literally “hit the deck” and got up with scraped skin on my right forearm and left elbow, a stubbed toe and a bruised knee. A reminder from the world that it’s fine to celebrate a benevolent universe, but watch where you’re going. 


A month or so ago, I fell down from my standing bike and again, earlier in Italy. Luckily in all cases, no broken bones or permanent damage, but the sense that these could be coming attractions for the years that lie ahead. How often we hear of elders falling and it’s not a happy thing. For one thing, ground is hard. Especially human-made surfaces like concrete, linoleum, wood. Sand or soft earth is kinder. For another, our aging bodies are brittle. 


Yet another affirmation of the cycle of life. From baby diapers to adult diapers, from helplessness of one sort dependent on others for care — being washed, spoon-fed, etc.—to the same, to music being the preferred language over words. The toddler beginning to walk tottering and falling and the elder replaying that drama, with much more dire consequences. 


The evolutionary move to bi-pedalism made all the difference in the world to our species. It freed our hands to fashion tools and create technologies imagined in our advancing neo-cortex layer of the brain. At the same time, it moved us further away from the sensuous earth and narrowed us to talking heads on TV.  Perhaps our falling is the earth’s invitation to lower down again, to give in to gravity and get out of our heads. That’s my generous view of the matter.


But still, it hurts!

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Who Knows?

A near-perfect day. Began with a 22 miles bike ride that included a stop at the charming Ice Cream Shop in Arcadia, then jump into the back lake to swim and then to the front, a thousand-stroke swim between the two in perfect-temperature silky water. Read on the beach and then canoe out toward the horizon, turn around and canoe back. Up to the house to put together a quinoa-salad dinner.


While chopping vegetables, I decided to play some music on Spotify, something I rarely do. Found the playlists I made for our RV trek across the country in the early months of Covid. One of them was titled “Rock Ballads” and so this music from my emerging life as a high school/college kid became the soundtrack for chopping peppers, tomatoes, red onion, avocado, cilantro and more. No quicker way to time travel: Because/ And I Love Her/ Something Stupid/ Spanish Harlem/ Save the Last Dance for Me/ On Broadway/ Groovin’/ Traveling Man/ Johnny Angel/ If I Fell/ Yesterday/ Michelle/ In My Life/ Early Morning Rain/ Pack Up Your Sorrows/ The Last Thing on my Mind/ Fire and Rain/ Homeward Bound/ Moonshadow/ Teach Your Children/ So Far Away/ Lean on Me/ Leaving on a Jet Plane / The Sounds of Silence, etc. etc. and yet again, etc. Damn! Those songs were good!


And then came Judy Collins singing “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” Ka-ching! When I listened to that song with a sense of aching 50 YEARS AGO, little could I imagine the depth of that question! 50 years ago! Sat on the beach with a group of folks my age and with the revelations of bathing suits, couldn’t help but notice the varicose veins, sagging flesh, enlarged bodies of us all. That’swhere the time goes! 


On the bright side, the conversation was sparkling, the shared wisdom of our aging selves peppering the day’s news. And back to the physical side of the matter, don’t think that I could have imagined at 21 that my 71 year old self could bike, swim, hike and canoe as I did today. Nothing more to add, no new insight into the ever-present phenomena of “how did that face get in my mirror?!” no reminder to savor more fully each gifted moment (which I just did). Just the quinoa salad cooling in the fridge and now, Joni Mitchell singing “The Circle Game.” Indeed, round and round we go and I, for one, am grateful to still be on the ride.

Letter to Teachers

(This my post on Facebook to all my fellow teachers as schools begin their new year. The photo is from a walk in a bird refuge in Arcadia, Michigan. You can read the Rilke poem in my earlier post, The Swan)


Happy New Year to all my fellow teachers far and wide as you begin teaching school yet again! Each turn of the wheel is a new beginning, a chance to renew hope and re-dedicate ourselves to the most important job on the planet— the care of children. We teachers are often marginalized, misunderstood, expected to carry the burdens the rest of the culture has neglected, made to jump through hoops that lead nowhere, all for low pay and little status. Nevertheless, we persist, out of our love for the children, for our craft, for our community, determined to honor the past worthy of preservation and create the future the past failed to reach. 

Rilke’s poem “The Swan” describes how the swan who lumbers clumsily on the land instantly becomes elegant and regal in the water. And so children, force-marched through the unfriendly landscape of schools run by people who don’t know them and love them, appear as clumsy and awkward creatures estranged from their natural habitat. But once a teacher invites them into the flowing waters of play, humor, discovery and artful imagination, watch how they swim with such grace and beauty. 

Both today’s teachers and students often have to waddle through the mined landscape of submitted lesson plans, test results and now yet more horrific desperate moves to outlaw truth in the classroom. Let us resist and organize and support each other. But first and foremost, let the water flow when you close the door to your classroom and be astounded. Let us lead our precious children toward the future they deserve, like the swans in these flowing waters. 


Monday, August 22, 2022

Sweeping the Garden

We try to teach the children to clean their room and take care of their things, but let’s be honest.  So much of our life fully and wholly lived takes place amidst the chaos of stuff. The music room before the Holiday Plays with sets and props and instruments strewn about, the desk overflowing with open books and papers in the midst of the writing project, the kitchen in a holy mess while the pots are bubbling, the oil splattering, the counters littered with peelings. And how can one get through a visit from the grandkids without stepping on Legos and finding forks in the bathtub and every piece of clothing dropped helter-skelter as if clues to a treasure map?


Poets write odes to dirty dishes and laundry left damp in the machine and while creativity seeks to set things in order, it seems to thrive on clutter and disarray, surround itself with tangled heaps of muddled confusion. Long live the untidiness, for there lies life in all its joyful cacophony!


And yet. Today, a hired housekeeper, my wife and I cleaned the cottage for four hours. Rolled up our sleeves and scrubbed and scoured and swept, , vacuumed in and leaf-blew out the dirt, the dust, the sand, cleaned out the entire refrigerator, shook the rugs, stacked the books and wasn’t that glorious? Yes, it was and yes it is and what a pleasure to walk barefoot on the deck without the grit of sand, to see the clean lines of table and counter surfaces, to proclaim with Montessori “a place for everything, everything in its place” and with Wendell Berry, “Order is the only possibility of rest.” 


If life is meant to get us dirty, water is there to get us clean. And what is meditation but a cleansing of the mind? Gary Snyder’s Zen teacher’s succinct advice? 


“Sit and sweep the garden. Any size.”


So yes to it all! The chaos, the order, the dirtying, the cleaning, the confusion, the clarity. Each in its turn. For now, a clean body, clean mind, clean cottage radiating out their shine. 

Looking Up From My Book

For two weeks, this summer cottage on the lake filled 

with the joyful noise and clatter 

of my children, my grandchildren, my niece,

     my wife, her brothers, 

the visiting neighbors. 

That welcome cacophony of life and love. 


Now only my wife and I remain. 

            Such space and silence. Empty chairs around the table,

                       clean floors, the quiet exhale of the furniture.


After dinner, I sit on the deck reading poems

from those who have taken time to pause, to observe,

      then report 

            how nature’s bounty —

 a snail, 

                                    a  fiddlehead fern

a cool breeze on a hot day—

restores them. 

These simple things are enough— 

          to soothe our anguish, 

   to remember our beauty,

 to welcome the first bud after a hard winter.


I look up from the book and there is the blood-red sun 

easing into Lake Michigan, 

            a lone gull winging across its dying light in one direction,

                        a boat gliding over the sparkling waters in the other direction. 


I close the book and bow.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Choices at the Crossroads

Just finished listening to Emma Straub’s This Time Tomorrow, an intriguing premise about someone who time-travels back and forth between her 40th birthday and her 16th birthday and begins to make choices in the 16th that will affect the 40th

Now there’s a good conversation starter! What choices have you made that led you to your present life, crossroad moments in which a different choice would have led you to a quite different life that you will never know about? 


I arrived at five such choices that all took place in a short two-year span between 1973 and 1975. I’m fully aware that they’re of no interest to anyone else, but set them down here as examples that might lead you to your own reflection. As follows:


Winter, 1973— My Antioch College Co-op job was at a Quaker boarding school with some 30 Middle School kids in the North Carolina Mountains. I fell in love with the setting, the work, the kids and one of the teachers and was convinced that I would return after graduation to live the rest of my life there. Concerned that the first-year Head of School was being weird with the kids (and he did later get called out for child-abuse), I joined the half of the faculty that wrote to the Board and suggested they investigate. They did decide to fire him, but worried about these radical hippy teachers bold enough to speak out when they saw injustice, the new Heads did not invite me back to teach. Which is how I ended up choosing to go to San Francisco and see what life awaited me there. Had I not spoken out or they had not felt threatened, I might still be tucked away in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. 


Spring, 1973— My last semester of classes at Antioch, I signed up for an intriguing class titled Introduction to Orff Schulwerk by a guest teacher named Avon Gillespie. Had I not made that choice, who knows, I might have encountered the Orff approach later with someone else, but it most certainly would not have been the same. That class literally changed my life and hard to imagine who I would have been without it.


Summer, 1973— My last quarter at Antioch had me touring Europe with a choir singing 15th Century Masses. That not only set the tone for a life time of travel and music, but marked the beginning of my first journal, a discipline still alive and well almost 50 years later. Unlike the previous two, I can imagine my life without having taken that particular trip— I probably would have traveled later and begun writing journals— but nevertheless, it was a powerful, memorable and significant couple of months. 


Fall, 1974— In the Fall of 1973, I moved to San Francisco, spent a year knocking about with small jobs accompanying dance classes, teaching piano lessons, volunteering to teach music classes at progressive schools and starting up a Renaissance Choir with a friend. In November of that year, I was “dating” two of the sopranos in that choir, Susanne and Karen. In that time of “free love” and youthful naivete, we thought it fine to have ongoing multiple relationships. But eventually it seemed clear that one had to choose and for a variety of reasons (including Susanne returning to Antioch to finish her studies), I went with Karen, who later became my wife. A big crossroads moment. Everything would have changed if I had chosen differently. 


Spring, 1975— Amongst the many karmic unfoldings that happened with Karen was her introducing me to The San Francisco School, telling me about an Orff training there that I was allowed to attend which led to me replacing an incompetent teacher for one class which led to a job offer to teach music. I was poised to teach for pay next year at the Rivendell School where I was volunteering and still have the journal with the two side-by-side columns about pros and cons of each choice. I chose The San Francisco School and yet again, an enormous crossroads moment which would have changed everything.


So there is was. Five choices that led me to the life I’ve known that I can’t imagined not having lived. My kids, my grandkids, my 45 years at The San Francisco School, my life of international travel teaching Orff Courses, my journal writing that grew to articles that grew to books and so on and so on and so on. I will never know what other wonderful or less-wonderful things might have happened had any one of those choices been different, but I can say with conviction that if someone offered the time-travel to go back and change any of them, I wouldn’t. Not for an instant would it cross my mind. 


What are your crossroad moments? What would you change if time-travel presented the possibility? Write it down and then talk about it at the next party, family gathering or staff meeting when the conversation sags. 


Saturday, August 20, 2022

Grand Hotel

In this life that swings between hellos and goodbyes, our time at the Michigan lake is at the goodbye swing of the pendulum. One more walk to the Baldy sand dune, one more splashing about in Lake Michigan, then my daughter and grandkids will pack up their suitcases and I’ll drive them down to Grand Rapids. After 12 glorious days together, the kids are yearning for home—and just in time! Ironic to be in a place that is just about pitch-perfect Paradise and still wish to be somewhere else, but that’s the way we’re put together, kids and adults alike. 


Last night, we completed our check-list of fun things to do with a trip to the Drive-In movie theater, that last gasp of 50’s Americana playing it for all it’s worth with music and posters from that time. Saw Minions: The Rise of Gru, which dutifully entertained us. Though not as heartwarming as The Parent Trap movie I saw at the same theater when my kids were kids. 


Earlier, it was miniature golf with Zadie, both of us with an exciting hole-in-one (well, actually, I had two) and the mandatory post-game ice cream cone. Earlier still, a walk to the outlet, tubing down the swift stream where the back lake pours into the big lake. Somewhere in the midst of that, my solitary swim in the warm waters of Lake Herring, my ritual return to the watery womb that I do most each day of each summer visit for over 47 years and still can swim to the raft and back without any sign that the old body is failing. 


Malik at the table with me playing cards, Zadie awakes and gives me the morning backward hug, her arms wrapped around me as they have each morning in a gesture of love that I’m going to miss. Truth be told, at 10-years old, she has spontaneously and sincerely turned to me often these last two weeks and said, “I love you, Pop-pop.” One could get spoiled. The first time she said it, we were on our way to the ice cream store and I responded, “So is that your way of trying to get a double-scoop ice cream cone?” My defensive way of admitting that part of me, part of all of us, can’t wholly believe we’re worthy of unconditional love. She assured me that there were no strings attached. 


Malik and I have also had wonderful connections together, with a heavy accent on balls. Playing catch, pitching wiffle ball to him, hitting wiffle balls to him, paddle-ball, football, frisbee on the beach and then basketball in town. At 7-years old, he’s good at all of them and it’s fun to play with him. Balanced by finishing the D-Aulliare’s epic book on Greek Mythology. He was mesmerized the whole time and can tell you about any of the Mt. Olympus gods and even their Roman names. 


Such a varied time. My wife Karen picked them up at the airport over two weeks ago, their Aunt Talia came the next day, the great uncle and aunts Barclay and Lori the next and then me. Some days all together and then Barclay and Lori’s daughter Zoey came when they left, followed by great Uncle John. Next door, another group of old family friends coming in and out, then Zoey left, then Talia, then John and now there are five. The comings and goings of the extended family and friends marking the days, stamping their signature on each and leaving their scent in the air. 


This would usually be the time for me to leave, but I have another five days here. It will be both eerily quiet and blessedly silent and then I too, will turn toward my other familiar life and return to San Francisco, Karen some 10 days later and the wheel of the year begins its turning. 


Like Grand Hotel— “People coming, people going, nothing ever happens.”


But in that nothing is everything.