Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Beyond Tribe

I’ve spent so much of my life of investigating other cultures—their religion, their literature, their myths and folk tales, their music and dance and art and celebrations, their food and more. Much has been through books, films, recordings, much through first-hand travel to some 60 different countries, much through direct study of music and much through the friendships I’ve formed traveling the world giving Orff workshops. The walls of my home are filled with artwork collected from travels, the CD shelves overflowing with music from just about everywhere, the refrigerator and kitchen shelves rich with diverse foods that I’ve somewhat learned how to cook, the bookshelves brimming with poetry, fiction, travel books and more from here, there and everywhere. All of it has become an indelible part of my identity that I claim through my interest, efforts and experiences. 

 

In light of all that, I’ve been disturbed by the trends of well-meaning people to dismiss all such cultural investigation and celebrations under the label of “cultural appropriation.” The young people in particular who have drunk the Kool-Aid that my generation has offered them (before the full development of their frontal lobes and the rich experience that puts it into perspective) feel particularly vulnerable to the idea that if you’re not Indian, you shouldn’t teach (or even practice) yoga, if you’re not born in Bali, you shouldn’t play their gamelan, etc. Not that cultural appropriation isn’t a real thing that can be damaging— it certainly is. But that this surface definition sends everyone “back to tribe” and ignores the reality of “the collective unconscious” we all share. It discourages people from moving out of their self-proclaimed identity and affinity group to partake in the universal feast of diverse people brought together. 

 

In my long career as a music teacher, I’ve developed, created, arranged and composed a wide variety of music for kids that I consider worthy of their musical promise. Equally, I’ve developed a pedagogical approach based on Orff Schulwerk and stamped it with my own particular way of making music classes more musical. The ten books I’ve written all have been a look back at these ideas and material and gathering them into that most marvelous technology, a book with a spine. Some of my books have to do with my classic Orff arrangements of nursery rhymes and poetry, some with jazz, some with pedagogy, all attempts to capture a bit of a much larger repertoire developed over 45 years. The one missing element has been something that summarizes my World Music curriculum. It has been on the back burner for some ten to fifteen years. 

 

Truth be told, I felt disinclined to pursue it in the face of this new atmosphere where a white guy sharing pieces he collected all over the world, mostly from people he either formally studied with or was friends with, was going to be seen as another case of cultural appropriation. But by refusing to share what I’ve discovered, I’m giving that definition more power than I believe it deserves. 

 

So yesterday I dove back into the work I had already done on this project years back and decided to go forward with it and not from a defensive place. I still believe in its power to enlarge both our own soul and connect us to each other in ways we desperately need. Below is the beginning of a possible introduction. People don’t have to agree with it and I’m happy to discuss it with anyone. But I believe it’s worth considering. Wish me luck!

 

“Children who sing the songs of their far-away brothers and sisters are thinking and feeling and acting out the inner lives of supposedly ‘foreign’ ethnic groups. And when they find that their notes and patterns coincide, they automatically discover, unconsciously and perhaps the best way, that their spirits and mind-patterns do likewise. If that can happen to children, there is no reason why it cannot continue to happen, more and more meaningfully, as they move into adulthood. There is a promise here of ultimate planetary oneness, of a true universality, and of the peace for which we are all desperately searching.”        - Leonard Bernstein: Introduction  Sing, Children Sing: Songs, Dances and Singing Games of Many Lands and Peoples)

 

Written over 50 years ago in 1972, Bernstein’s hope for the promise of peace and true universality echoes down to us today. Though it may seem further away than ever in our times of deep division, it may also be closer than we think, as many have awoken to the both the need and the pleasure to reach across all geographical, cultural, ethnic and chosen identity divides.  Aided by the increased ease of travel, decades of recordings, Youtube and Zoom, the presence of diverse neighbors in previously homogenous populations and the courageous work of refusing ongoing prejudice and bias, we are beginning to know the grand pleasure of feeling all of humanity’s expressive promise beating in our own breasts. We are tasting the possibility of music as the messenger of hope, connection and mutual understanding.

 

Consider our modern musical landscape. Americans studying taiko drums while Japanese play bluegrass, playing in gamelans while Indonesians play in jazz bands, performing in bands that include djembes and digeridoos. Such crossing of music and dance boundaries is almost common practice. For anyone with a sincere interest in enlarging our definition of music, the world is at our fingertips. The possibility of becoming larger, both musically and humanistically, can be realized, is being realized, through the way that diverse timbres, patterns, styles, movements open up new parts of ourselves. 

 

One starting place for this journey in and through music and dance can be in school music programs. This book comes at the far end of some 50 years of experimentation as to how that might be done. What began as an airy vision now is rooted deeply in the ground of work done with kids from 3-years-old through 8th grade, a grand tree branching into some 60 countries with the fruit of hundreds of pieces, songs, dances, poems, games, activities hanging from its limbs. The book is the gathering of some of the harvest in hopes that others may find it both nutritious and delicious. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

See Something, Say Something

We are here to see and be seen. To be known and to know others. Whether we attend a concert our friends give or are guests at their dinner table or teach kids in a classroom, it is good etiquette to comment on it afterwards, with an intention towards praise and thanks for them sharing something of themselves. It’s good form to let them know we not only appreciate giving of themselves, but to zero in on some beauty in their character that we noticed and left us both grateful and inspired that we know them. To give some details of a particular moment in the concert or the taste of a particular dish or how they helped their neighbor in the class or played a great glockenspiel solo. The airlines are training us to protect ourselves by ratting out suspicious characters—“if you see something, say something” and that’s fine for what it is. But let’s take it further as a guiding motto for appreciating each other and encouraging each other to keep cultivating our goodness. 

 

That’s what I try to do as a teacher, as a friend, as a father and grandfather and occasionally, others do the same for me— like the most lovely letter my colleague James Harding wrote to me after participating in my Jazz Course in New Orleans. 

It means a lot and goes a long way. 

 

So imagine my astonishment when my daughter shared a letter my grandson Malik’s friend Rangan wrote to him. I haven’t met Rangan yet, but a 9-year-old kid of this caliber is certainly someone I want to meet! As my daughter commented below when she shared it with me via WhatsAp, the boy wrote it entirely from his own initiative. (Unfortunately, when copying the photo over, my daughter’s comments obscure the last sentence, which was: “You’re a very funny guy that is very strong and full of courage.”)

 

And so I share it below as a vote of hope for the human beings of the future.

 

 


 

Pops at the Piano

It was the last day of my Jazz Course and we were joyfully romping through a New Orleans-style piece when Louis Armstrong showed up and joined us. His trumpet soared over the melee and lifted us all a few miles higher into the air.

 

At the end, he did something surprising and sat down at the piano to play a lovely ballad. No one had ever before heard Pops play piano and I fumbled for my phone to capture the moment. He finished before I got it out and off we went to play a free-wheeling joyous version of Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey. Me back at the piano, Satchmo back on his trumpet trading 8’s with our inspired tenor sax player. I brought it all home singing the lyrics and the cadence was like the finale of the 4th of July fireworks, lighting up the sky like Buddha’s crown chakra at the moment of his enlightenment. 

 

Then I woke up. 

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Jazz It Up!

I know a lot about jazz, but I can’t believe I missed this tidbit my brother-in-law passed on about the origin of the word. It’s actually in a book I read a while back, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom by Dennis McNally, so there’s no excuse. But check out this passage:

 

Among music’s little mysteries is the origin of the word “jazz.” My personal favorite comes from musician Garvin Bushell, who noted that the French had brought perfume making to New Orleans, and that ‘they used jasmine—oil of jasmine—in all different odors to pep it up. It gave more force to the scent. So they would say ‘let’s jass it up a bit,’ when something was a little dead. When you started improvising, they, they said, ‘jazz it up,’ meaning give your own concept of the melody…”. (p. 133)

 

I love it! I often talk about the alchemical golden transformation black musicians made of everything they touched musically. From the technique of the instrument to the style to the timbre to the rhythm to the connection to dance to the overall soul and spirit, all the things they had by necessity to deal with from the father’s European side were changed by the mother’s African sensibility and became part of this new language called jazz. It became the soundtrack of the 20th century, described by Darius Milhaud as “the thunderclap that cleared the art sky.” 

 

Not that the European classical tradition was dead, but it certainly lost much contact with even a sophisticated audience as rhythm, melody and harmony spiraled away from the earth into higher and higher more abstract compositions. As jazz evolved, it caught the attention of classical composers, helping bring them back down to earth a bit. Debussy and Stravinsky wrote pieces inspired by ragtime. Horowitz and Rachmaninoff used to go hear Art Tatum play piano on 52nd Street. Gershwin walked both sides of the tracks as he studied with Ravel and borrowed ideas from Duke Ellington. Charlie Parker openly admired Stravinsky and his favorite recording was with strings backing him. Leonard Bernstein also crossed the tracks in many ways, including summarizing music thus: “It’s all jazz.”

 

Never would I suggest that “swinging the classics” improves them—each genre has its own integrity and stylistic beauty. But the overall effect of jazz in America is well-described by its possible word origin— giving a perky sweet scent to the otherwise somewhat mundane and odorless. Be it music or life, let’s jazz it up!

  

The Snake in the Garden

My wife is about to go out of town, so the other day she called me into the garden to train me as to how to properly water the plants. I noticed an extension to the hose I hadn’t seen before and we had a brief conversation about it. 

 

Then today I noticed this on Facebook:



Am I being paranoid here or worse yet, hopelessly na├»ve that such a thing might happen? But it seems to me that with my phone in my pocket, Siri was eavesdropping and alerted the “always-looking-to-make-a-buck” capitalists that here was a potential customer. Is that indeed what happened? If so, that hose clearly represents the snake in the Garden of Eden that is banishing us from the possibility of Paradise.
 

 

And stranger yet, we just finished the series Monk last night and suddenly there’s a short clip of comedian Jim Gaffigan doing a bit about how “it’s strange when you finish an entire series. You don’t know what to do…”  Could it be they knew somehow?

 

These are strange times, my friend. This cartoon says it all:

 



  

Kissing the Joy

 

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity's sunrise

-       William Blake

 

Let’s be honest. When the dust of the good fairy lands on our head and the world is sparkling brighter than usual, don’t we all wish we could put Tinkerbell in a cage and demand a repeat performance whenever we need it? Yet Grace almost always comes to us a surprise, an unexpected blessing, a call from the other world that is not on our Google calendar nor can it ever be. All we can do is the necessary work to invite her in, keep the house of our particular craft in good order, cleaning, dusting, repairing, setting the table and cooking the food with the tantalizing aromas that might do the trick. But no guarantee that any of it will work. 

 

For 67 years now I have been playing the piano and have no illusions about making a mark in that field. The competition is too fierce, my talent too small, the number of hours put in somewhat impressive but well below the numbers of someone like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane or Yuja Wang. But some days— like today— the fingers fly freely over the 88-key playground and seem to always land in the right place without effort. Those locked-on-the-page notes of Bach, Chopin, Debussy suddenly are released into the air, each one in its proper place. Likewise the invitations of tunes by Irving Berlin, Bill Evans, Rodgers and Hart and countless more are easily answered and the freedom to interpret, extend, dig out their essence finding its mark. 

 

What inspired all this? Partly just listening to select Chick Corea recordings—his duets with Hiromi, with Gary Burton, with Herbie Hancock. Somehow those notes in the air find their way to my fingers like Tinkerbell’s fairy dust. I happily accept it, but know that I can’t repeat it tomorrow or depend on it. But isn’t it extraordinary the way a good piece of music or poem or a painting can release the best of us? Instead of our trauma being triggered, our true nature and tremendous possibility flies out of its secret chamber where it hides. 

 

I actually have a few piano trio performances lined up in September, so this is good news. But again, nothing I can count on. It just helps to remember that it’s possible. For now, I’m content to kiss the joy as it flies.

 

Mwah, mwah. 

 

Saturday, July 13, 2024

The Mathematics of Mortality

Remember when birthdays were exciting? You advance one step closer to worlds previously closed— from learning to tie your own shoe to riding a bike to entering the exciting and confusing world of sexuality to getting your driver’s license to getting to vote to getting to drink in a bar to getting to rent a car. All these milestones of both human and contemporary life that further empower you and grant you more independence. 

 

Then comes the climb over the walls of each decade—turning 30, 40, 50— that take on a different feeling, especially as you look at where you are compared to where you think you ought to be, either by society’s or your own standards. Still single at 30? No kids at 40? Haven’t recorded a hit album or written a best-seller book or been promoted to CEO by 50? 

 

By 60, you begin to feel the brush of the lion’s paw of mortality, yet firmer at 70 and then at 80 or 90, you see the claws unsheathe. Suddenly birthdays aren’t quite as fun! They seem to come around more quickly then ever and each one a reminder of that which we would rather not be reminded of.

 

For me, the sensation of my approaching demise is as unpleasant as I imagine it is for most people, but the more immediate question on my mind is: “How much longer can I keep doing this work I love so much?” Most of my colleagues giving Orff  workshops retired from their schools younger than I did and there are very few my age continuing to give Orff workshops around the country and the world. Even if they’re healthy enough and still interested in it, the invitations perhaps are not coming like they used to. 

 

Soon to turn 73, I’m happy to report that my health, energy while teaching, enthusiasm for teaching is as strong as ever—indeed, I feel like I’m at the top of my game. And for now anyway, the invitations keep coming and I happily accept them all. But the thought of it all diminishing, as certainly it will, is not a happy one.

 

And then I saw this on Facebook. It gives me hope that maybe I’ll have 20 more years of it rather than 5 or so! We shall see. If not, see you at the Elder’s Cornhole Tournament. 




Friday, July 12, 2024

Choose Knowledge

"In much wisdom is much grief. He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow."

-       Ecclesiastes; The Bible

-        

I’m reading Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed, his accounts of visiting plantations, cemeteries honoring Confederate soldiers, slave castles in West Africa and it’s not a happy story. Not only the horrors millions suffered in the past from the heavy blows of White Supremacy doctrines, but the determination of those in the present to keep that doctrine alive and pass it on (see the chapter on Blandford Cemetery). Indeed, this necessary knowledge of what went down and what continues to go down comes with the price of great sorrow and needed grief. Ecclesiastes got it right.

 

But it left out two important follow-ups:

 

1)   If we are to heal those sorrows brought on by human ignorance, greed, power and privilege, we have to pass through those sorrows and know the stories. That’s the social/political mandate.

 

2)   If we are to open our heart to joy, we equally have to open it to grief. That’s the spiritual/psychological mandate. 

 

We are in a time where those who purposeful promote mass ignorance and those who choose to follow that path are leading us over the cliff like obedient lemmings. Laws forbidding books in schools that tell the truth, conspiracy theories that care not for backing anything up with something as annoying as a fact, people who proudly profess “My ignorance is as good as your education” without a twitch of shame. Why do we even bother with the charade of schools and education beyond offering free baby-sitting for working parents?

 

Some of this comes from those terrified that they’ll lose their unearned powers and privileges, including their fantasy that even if they’re poor and marginalized, they might someday be in the “good ole boys club.” But I wonder if some comes from our mass illiteracy in the realm of social/emotional intelligence, our refusal to face grief because it hurts. Why read Clint Smith when one can be trolling social media and looking at cute cats? Doesn’t everybody tell us to. “have a nice day?”

 

And yet. Our refusal to look climate change in the face, to own our history of genocide and enslavement and make the long-overdue apologies, our excusing a convicted felon who openly vows to take down the freedoms so many have fought for, is about as dangerous a choice as we can make. We are literally making, as Carl Sagan suggest below, our own “Hell on Earth.” With heaven right at our fingertips, if we only choose to know. 

 

Let’s go, people. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Choose knowledge. 





Choose Wisely

Think about this. Human beings are the only creatures in all of Creation that can refuse to be themselves. No giraffe wishes they could fly, no fish wake up complaining about the water, no alligators make New Year’s resolutions to be kinder and more compassionate. But throughout all of time and in all places, we flawed humans constantly refuse the gifts of our incarnation.What sets apart from other animals is not just bi-pedalism, opposable thumbs and language. It is our capacity to feel and think, embedded in the very structure of our brain. And yet do we feel and think at our highest level?

 

Neurology 101 tells us that our brain stem shares the same qualities as reptiles (indeed, all creatures), a survival instinct that requires no thought or feeling, just action reduced to flight, fight or freeze. That’s about the range of a cold-blooded reptile’s or bird’s or bug’s capacity, but rather than replace it in the mammal’s brain, evolution then adds another layer capable of feeling and necessary to those who nurse and nurture their young. The former lay eggs and move on with their life, but the warm-blooded mammal learns to care for another, even if only for a short time. That second layer of the brain, the cortex, sits over the first so the necessary survival instinct remains intact, but the capacity to care, to feel affection and ultimately love becomes possible. We share this with all mammals and indeed, some will testify that their dog’s love and affection is superior to their married partner’s.

 

Then come humans, those physically inferior creatures with less ability to hear and see and smell and run and fight that many of their fellow animals. For us to survive and prosper, we needed another layer of the brain capable of both concrete and abstract thought. And so the neo-cortex covers the cortex and the brain stem. Aided by language to communicate, bi-pedal posture that leaves our hands free to make things and opposable thumbs that allow for further nuances when constructing technologies, we become the Earth’s thinking creatures not only capable of great intellectual achievement, but also imaginative capacities. We are perhaps the only creatures cognizant of time and mortality who can consciously project ourselves into the future and reach back into the past, who can read a book and feel like we’re in a different time and place even though we physically are not. We are the only creatures who can choose whether to accept the full measure of our human promise. 

 

And that’s where the catastrophe begins. The Mafia hit man choosing to live in the brain stem is a lower life form and more dangerous than the rattlesnake, who at least will generally only bite you when threatened. The parents who abuse and abandon their young, the killers in school mass shootings and the gun manufacturers who arm them and the NRA members who support them, are a lower life form than any mammal on God’s earth. The scientists who use their capacity for complex thought to build nuclear weapons or invent theories of racial superiority or create elaborate Ponzi schemes to rob their fellow humans are the lowest of the low, using the inherited gift of human birth to wreak havoc, cause harm and threaten the very continuity of life. 

 

At the other end of the spectrum is the long line of those who have chosen wisely to use the full measure of our human potential, to bring, share and reveal beauty and truth and love to all of humanity. Who have wholly accepted and nurtured and cultivated our capacity for nuanced feeling, critical thought, unleashed imagination, deep compassion and kindness. They abound in our history of genuine spiritual teachers, poets, philosophers, novelists, artists, musicians, humanistic scientists whose names we know and millions who we don’t, including our next-door-neighbors who brought over a fruitcake to us at Christmas and volunteered to water our garden when we’re off on a trip. 

 

In John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, the character Lee is discussing a Biblical passage (Genesis, 4th chapter) translated in some versions as “Do thou triumph over sin” and in others “Thou shalt triumph over sin.” The first feels like a command, the second like a prophecy. But another translation of the Hebrew word “timshel” is “Thou mayest” which gives a choice. As Lee explains: 

 

“There are millions in their sects and churches who feel the order “Do thou” and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in “Thou shalt.” Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But “Thou mayest!” Why, that that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for…he has still the great choice…A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. …But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man“ (p. 301)

 

There you have it. Timshel. Choose. And choose wisely. Especially in this election year.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

This and That

After the constant 95 degree heat of sunny New Orleans, the 55 degree cool of foggy San Francisco should be a relief. But now in the fourth day without a glimpse of the sun, its charm is fading. Still it’s a pleasure to walk through my Golden Gate Park again, even if bundled up with a puffy jacket. Yesterday played some cornhole there with two music colleagues, came back to my lovely piano and spend some three hours wandering around its multiple 88-key landscapes. In between such spirit-lifting endeavors, my wife and I met with our financial advisor to get a reality check on what we have and what we should do with it. Which included getting out our Last Wills and Testaments to consider what to bequeath the children and how and also setting up a college fund for the grandchildren. Good to prepare for the future in that way, even as it's sobering to remind ourselves that that future does not include our presence there to witness and enjoy. We are caretakers of our own demise. Ah, mortality.

 

But here I still am to report on it, to keep working on all the bread crumbs I leave behind to mark the path, not to the witch’s house, but to our mutual possibility of living a joyful and authentic life. I’m diving back into the book I wrote months back, Zen, Jazz & Orff: A Life in Three Worlds with the intent to submit it to a publisher or two before choosing to publish it myself. It seems to hold up from my last reading and though it’s far from a world-changer, there are crumbs worthy of a reader’s consideration. 

 

And speaking of Orff, it’s Carl’s 129th birthday and always a good practice to thank him for my life that he made possible. So thank you, Carl and I hope you’re pleased that I’m doing my part to keep your legacy alive, keep it glowing and growing. 

 

And so I begin the day just reporting a little bit of this and a little bit of that, my way of saying “Kilroy was here” and isn’t it marvelous? A happy Carl Orff’s birthday to you, dear reader. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Cancel the Appointment

 

                  “I know the world’s being shaved by a drunken barber. I don’t need to 

                   read about it.”     - From the film Meet John Doe

 

I’ve never been a big fan of reading newspapers or watching the news. And knowing how doing so never made me happy, I wondered why so many do. Here is a whole industry devoted to the shining the light on the worst of humanity, accenting nature’s unpredictable upheavals, thriving on disaster, entirely uninterested in the miracles of human goodness I witnessed daily in my music classroom. Why make a daily appointment to sit in that barber’s chair?

 

Well, I know as a citizen I’m responsible for a certain amount of knowing “what’s going on” and in the old days, I’d glance at newspaper headlines and my parents would spend 30 minutes or so with Walter Cronkite and the 6 o’clock news. But somewhere around the 90’s or so, 24-hour-news was TV’s preferred venue, a mammoth beast that once created, needed to be fed. So its appetite—and ours— became voracious and insatiable, organized into an entire corporation of drunken barbers working around the clock. Like that old folk tale “The Clay Pot Boy,” it devoured everything in its path and grew larger and larger. Then came the Internet and now the pings are pinging every 10 seconds with the “news” you neither want nor need and following us everywhere. And while having a few corporate executives deciding where to aim the camera was not ideal, now everyone had one and it became increasingly difficult to tell the “real” from the “fake”. 

 

What is the effect on us consumers pulled into the vortex of the constant tornado of news? Mostly that life is to be feared, people are horrible, hope is a hoax. It beats us down, feeds our cynicism, dismantles our optimism. Despair manufactured for a tidy profit wins and we all lose. 

 

But the whole show is built on us tuning in, leaving the phone on to be pinged, sitting down in that barber chair. What if we refuse? What would happen?

 

Here’s some advice from Akaya Windwood, someone on Facebook who I’ve never met, but am mightily impressed by her insight, eloquence and courage:

 

I’m done with wringing my hands, gnashing my teeth, and clutching my pearls. 

Every time I engage in these behaviors I relinquish power. I become centered in someone else’s story, and lose track of what’s true for me and everything I care about. I become a puppet of those whose intentions are to rattle, to sow doubt, and to render hopelessness. No more - I’m done. 


So I’m going to take heart again, and take huge audacious leaps of faith in our common humanity, purpose, and resilience. We are in a time of great transformation, and I know that we have everything we need. We actually are ready for this - our ancestors have our backs, and our descendants are cheering us forward. Grab hands with a cousin/pal/neighbor (even if you don’t know them yet) and let’s all go together. 

 

We have everything we need. 

 

Let’s remember that the Earth revolves around the Sun, which is our magnificent, beneficent, and eternal source of life. I call that Love, and it is our birthright. 

 

That’s the only real truth I know. My heart to yours.

 

Amen to all of that. 

Monday, July 8, 2024

The Tree in the Forest

Remember those days when you had so much time on your hands that you could spend an hour with your college friends discussing whether a tree falling in the forest that no one saw or heard really happened? This is not to lapse into false nostalgia, because really, who cares about that hypothetical tree? Maybe we could have spend that time talking about how we might dismantle the patriarchy or turn around the toxic narrative of white supremacy or hold the rich accountable to give back to the common good. Well, truth be told, we did that too and look at where we are. Maddening how little seem to have progressed. 

 

But I’m thinking about that tree this morning because I was a part time tour guide to a dear friend from Hong Kong the last four days. Both on her own and with me, she went to Alcatraz, took the Bay Cruise, went to the Dear San Francisco show at Club Fugazi, took in the Fillmore Street Jazz Festival, ate sushi in Japantown, wandered through Chinatown and North Beach, went on an evening Ghost Tour, walked the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral, snuck into the Crown Room at the Fairmount Hotel with its stunning view, peeked into the Tonga Room Bar, drove around the edge of the city with short stops at The Palace of Fine Arts, Fort Point, the Legion of Honor Museum, went to a Body Music workshop in Berkeley, admired the view from Twin Peaks, played music with me at The Jewish Home for the Aged, peeked into the gates of The San Francisco School (it was closed) and yet more. 

 

Throughout all that, she never once saw the Golden Gate Bridge, as every single minute of every single day it was wrapped in fog. Even at Fort Point when we were right below it, all you could see was a dim outline of its girders. The sun shone often in many other parts of the city, but the fog stayed stubbornly clinging to the bridge.

 

So here’s a question for today’s college students. If a diehard tourist visiting San Francisco never once sees the Golden Gate Bridge in four days, does it truly exist?

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Morning Birds

Caw, caw, caw, caw, caw. I woke up straight into the arms of morning crows and I could have been 5-years-old in my New Jersey home, the birds calling from the two oak trees just outside of my second- story bedroom window. They often welcomed me into the day like this and that cellular memory is like the smell of cookies baking in Grandma’s kitchen, warm, comforting, a daily announcement that we belong to this earth, this life, this extraordinary gift of consciousness. It was lovely to revisit that reminder offered to me yet again on this foggy morning in San Francisco. 

 

But there is a deep shadow hanging over all the joys of my present life, from the New Orleans Jazz Course to Slovenia biking to the SF visit from the grandkids in the big picture and playing at the Jewish Home, walking 7 miles yesterday touring a visitor around this beautiful city, watching the end of 8 Seasons of Monk last night. It looks like my first daughter, who I have loved to the ends of the earth these past 44 years, is headed for divorce. 

 

Of course, there is no shame in divorce and no honor in never divorcing (sometimes when it might have been a better idea for both partners). Indeed, most of the people I have admired who helped shape my life and my thinking—Carl Orff, Gary Snyder, Louis Armstrong—all had four different wives. And working in a school for 45 years, I worked with probably over 50% of the kids coming from homes of divorced parents. 

 

But it struck me today how rare divorce has been in my immediate family. My grandparents, parents, four uncles and aunts all stayed with one person, as has my sister and six cousins. 3 of the 9 men in my Men’s Group had been divorced, but all of them before I met them and none in the 34 years we’ve been meeting. And only one (to date) amongst their sixteen children. It seems like with this background, some part of me is hardwired to stay the course.

 

Yesterday was my daughter’s 16th wedding anniversary, so her present struggle felt yet more sad. As of now, she and her husband are separated and having a very difficult time communicating with each other. I won’t go into the details, but it ain’t pretty and from my point of view, 95% of it is his significant traumas long kept at bay rising up and overtaking him. In spite of her heroic efforts over the years to give him the love and support he never got that he deeply needed (as we all do), it wasn’t enough and he’s in some kind of trance where he’s incapable of thanking her and indeed, blaming her for everything that’s happening to him now. She herself is doing impressive inner work to own her part in the dynamic while also committing to take care of her own needs and those of her two children. Who seem to be doing much better without the tension in the house, but of course, are still suffering.

 

12 years ago, Hurricane Sandy blew through my childhood town and felled the two oak trees outside my house. Not only were they gone, but they crashed into the house and the entire house had to be demolished and built anew as a new home. Being the nostalgic person I am, this was a severe blow to me, a literal version of “you can’t go home again.” I have been back to see the new unrecognizable house and my one tiny consolation is my old garage toward the back is still there. 

 

But the birds sing on in new trees, people are living in that new house and as Robert Frost says in his one incontrovertible truth, “Life goes on. “ No one knows how this complex drama and trauma will play out, but all I can do is be present for my daughter and grandchildren and yes, for my son-in-law as well in spite of my anger with him at the moment for his refusal to take responsibility. I need to acknowledge the deep sadness and at the same time, be grateful for these two children, celebrate the many victories my son-in-law achieved, the many sweet moments their family knew and keep listening to those birds announcing “our place in the family of things.” (Mary Oliver- Wild Geese)