31 December 2014

A Thank You to Readers of SITC

Standing here, on the back porch, my attention drifts to the warm cup of coffee in my left hand; and in that moment I am suffused with Pleasure and Gratitude. It is a sunny day but cold and the only warmth available comes to me through my hand. In the moment, cold is all but vanquished and I am completely content.

I set the cup down to light a cigarette and my attention drifts to the porch:  that chair is in the wrong place, the wind has swept the abandoned bird's nest (found by C many months ago) onto the floor. It is "out of place"; I also marvel that despite its delicate construction it has remained intact. 

The screens need repair. They have needed repair for over a year. I nurse an annoyance about this from time to time. I nurse it a bit as I take that long first draw on my cigarette. I am cold now. And annoyed about the screens. And fret a bit about whether or not to restore the nest to it's place on the little table.

And a bird calls -- not melodic but raucous and insistent.

The next moment is complex:  Simultaneously, several things occur in the space of perhaps two seconds. I perceive myself in a Scene; I feel a dramatic momentum carried forward by my thoughts and feelings and actions of the preceding seconds...and I am amused by this AND I know I am playing the final scene.

And, whoosh

I am free. I detach from thought and feeling

and breathe

When I return from that space/place and resume reading the external environment, I look out, beyond the ragged screens.

I see the courageous little gardenia bush returning from the dead...and the plum tree that stands beside it like a protective older sister... The deep backyard has become even more overgrown in the last few weeks, stubbornly refusing to take a winter break.

Past the houses that lie beyond the fence that borders our property, and their little yards, runs College Street. I see passing cars incompletely through stripped bare branches of young trees. And on the other side of the street, someone is lying on the ground doing situps. I can feel the exertion of the exercise in my body. I think "Whew! That's intense and it feels good." I lightly consider starting an exercise regimen...

It's the last day of 2014. There is widespread acknowledgement of this transition as significant. Portentous. The sense of farewell, release. We reminisce and look forward.

Wishing you, dear Reader, all the best. Now and in the year to come. Thank you for reading.

24 December 2014

Solstice Insight

Contemplation has revealed that, contrary to my preferred self image, there are things I fear.

Further contemplation reveals that a strategy I have frequently employed in recent history, both for self-protection -- heart protection -- and to achieve what I hope will pass for Courage, results in hardening my heart.  This realization was triggered with stunning impact this morning when I open a holiday package from Indiana. Inside I found a variety of quirky goodies and at the bottom of the box lay a long, flat package wrapped tidily in red tissue paper. I peeled off the paper to find a sedate book entitled "The Unfathomable City:  A New Orleans Atlas."

It took only a quick browse to bring tears to my ideas. A wave of ache and fear and sadness overwhelmed me. "Ah, my lost love..."

With my heart so open, a parade of other lost loves rushed to mind. Loss! My knees buckled beneath the weight of the devastating flood of pain.

And the Protective Guardians appeared in the doorway of consciousness, armed and uniformed, their faces hidden behind visors that reflected my own face back to me. They stood in firm readiness to
spring into action, resuming their posts around my heart; blocking the memories and associated pain.

I thought, they must be here because they love me. They want to protect me. They don't want me to hurt.

In truth, they are me.

They are "me protecting myself."

And I remembered, again, the primary negative side effect of protecting my heart:  a diminution of Joy. Encircled by the armed guardian angels, shielded from injury, I am also shielded from the rest of Life:  nothing can harm me but neither can anything comfort or caress or amuse me.

I know there are other strategies for coping with the pain/fear/protection complex. Pema Chodron (and others) share teachings that advocate opening the heart to pain, embracing difficult times with compassion and vulnerability. I am familiar with the practice. I have experienced the sensation of massive expansion that occurs -- big heart, big mind, big joy, big energy boost.

But I have strayed from that practice.

And I am returning to it today.

20 December 2014

Let There Be Peace on Earth...

My sister called the other day and mentioned the Sony leaks story. Since I don't follow "the news" closely, I knew next to nothing about it. A little research after our conversation uncovered an article laying out George Clooney's opinions on the story. I was impressed enough to leave a comment. Clooney raised the question "If we bow to foreign opinion on this, what's next?" I think it's a valid question.

This morning someone responded on the website to the comment I left, essentially saying that George Clooney is a sissy and an ass-kisser and no one pays him any mind. In addition, the Commenter believes any reasonable person facing a potential terrorist attack will do whatever it takes to prevent loss of life, including canceling a scheduled film opening.

What struck me was the high levels of fear and anger in the response. Waiving freedom of speech because someone might die (how many lives were sacrificed to secure freedom of speech?) and hurling personal insult at Clooney for holding his opinion.

I'm afraid and I'm angry. Now watch me turn into a really unattractive human being.

Thinking about fear and anger, I browsed the Web for images to include in a blog post and found this one

Compelling message despite the proofreader's oversight (though the imagery leaves much to be desired IMO).

There was another image

that also advanced my thinking. The bondage of fear and anger. Hearts and minds -- and ears -- imprisoned.

I started thinking about fear and anger in myself. This was possibly inspired by my last dream before waking. A dream in which I was driving fast on a mud-slicked mountain road and lost control of the car. The car veered to the right, smashing into the mountain wall and ricocheting across the road to the miles-deep canyon on the other side. I woke up as I screamed in the dream, realizing that I would not survive the crash. The dominant emotion was fear but there was anger, too:  it wasn't fair that my life was ending. Damn it! I want another chance...


One of my piano students is a middle-school-aged boy who I am fairly certain is gay -- but, of course, given the culture of this locale, he is not out to anyone, including himself. I feel for him. There is something sullen, depressed, locked-down, frightened and frustrated about the boy. I also suspect he is being raised in that old-school way, with discipline based in repeated corporal punishment and regular shaming. He is quietly suffering.

During yesterday's lesson, I came to an awareness of anger in me toward the boy. Not really surprising to find myself angry in the situation:  I have a long history of responding with anger toward those I view as willing victims. But how crazy to expect a pubescent boy in small town Mississippi to become, independent of everything he's been taught and everything he's seen modeled, a fierce warrior for freedom of expression and personal dignity.

Seeing and feeling the anger in myself, certain that it offered nothing constructive or beneficial to the student or the learning process or my own well-being, I made a conscious choice to lean toward the
compassion I also felt for him. I switched tasks from pushing through two measures of music he just couldn't seem to master to a review of concepts and symbols; using a deck of flashcards, I pulled those containing information I was either sure he knew or could figure out.

After a minute or two of facilitated Success, he became more animated. He even asked my advice about a Christmas gift for his mother. I felt honored by his trust and openness. The last 15 minutes of his lesson were the most beautiful we've spent together since his study began last month.

Fear and anger make it hard to listen        hard to find beautiful moments to share    New ideas and fervent dreams are suffocated.

My version of the nearly-universal wish for Peace on Earth is an increased capacity among all the Earth's peoples for self-reflection and diminished Fear and Anger among us.

18 December 2014

One Life

And so it's over
or it's begun

I am 60 years old.

Someone is dying to ask me "How's it feel to be 60?" but if I'm lucky they'll call while I'm in the shower or stop by when I'm away from home.

Eleven hours into the experience I am no less bewildered to find myself here. Words fail. I'm sorta stunned.

"Why stunned?" you might ask (a much more interesting question in my opinion). Like I said, words fail, so bear with me as I explore the question. I'm feeling my way, teasing strands of meaning from a foggy-night-cobweb sector of my mind.

Tonight I confront a mostly unchallenged assumption that has hummed along in the background of my life for....wow, I think maybe "forever" is the word I'm looking for. I have assumed that by age 60 (or thereabouts) some "main thing" that I was born to do would be completed or well on its way to completion. 

The "plan" seems to have been to live as fully as possible, saying "yes" and "yes" some more to ideas and experiences, leaning always toward Truth and Freedom and, somewhere along the way I would stumble upon (and recognize) the "main thing" and be irresistibly drawn to commit my talents and attention to it.

Sometimes complimenting and sometimes subverting this plan was the idea that 


and the main thing of my life was to live it.

I crossed a line when I turned 50. A niggling little equation I'd considered since around age 12 was:  if I live as long again as I have  already lived, how old will I be? I did the calculation, now and then, for years. It was an intellectual tic. I was amused and excited to imagine being 24 when I was 12 years old!

At 50, for the first time, when I made the computation, the result was large enough to trigger a footnote:  Two times 50 is 100. I might be dead. My grandmother, and both her sisters, lived past 100 years. The number gave me pause. It was a sobering moment; and I moved on.

There's no way to think about reaching 60 and not appreciate that my life is more than half over.       Do the math...      I am closer to The End than The Beginning. The main thing remains elusive and the show is almost over.   

Has making my life's work Living been enough? Have I gotten it done in my life (and what is the "it" I speak of it)?

I have collected and celebrated true stories that illustrate the hopeful adage "it's not over till it's over"  at least since 1982 when 89-year-old Helen Hooven Santmyer's novel "...And Ladies of the Club" became a best seller (she submitted it for publication at age 81). 

It's never too late -- how many times have I offered that counsel? Good heavens! I believe I've used it in my ads for piano lessons!

I believe it. But I am living it now. I am 60 years on this Earth.  

I was thinking the other night about "regret." What do I regret?

If I think of "regret" as a desire to go back and change something about my experience, I have no regrets. There's no way to go back.

If I think of regret as pain, whether mild or acute, that arises when I remember a time or a place or a person, "Yes" I have regret. I remember an almost-finished musical I composed but was never paid for...and I job I lost when a supervisor accused me of taking money from the petty cash box. Still hurts when those memories come round. But there are no do-overs for most life events. And reincarnation...well, maybe.


 And I am not dead.

I have exactly THIS LIFE in which to do everything. What do I want to do? Is wanting even required? Can living be enough? 

08 December 2014

Negative Space

Some things can't be fixed. Sometimes, there's just no going back, no reset, no do-over.

And sometimes, when things break or get broken, when we encounter irreparable damage, we feel sad or angry or disappointed.

I might be moved to make a sad or angry or disappointed expression in such situations.

"Oh, what's all this negativity?" a well-meaning friend might say at such a moment.

"I'm expressing a feeling," I might respond and the well-meaning friend might then launch into a mini-sermon on the power of positive thinking and how there will never be Peace on Earth until we all learn to accentuate the positive.

What I want to say to my well-meaning friend is that there is power in both "positive" and "negative" thinking. I want to say that the Positive can only be accentuated where the counterpoint of Negative exists. I am opposed to the abolition of all negativity. I find "all positive, all the time" environments to be flat, disorienting and boring.

I want to ask:  Did I miss a meeting? The one where it was agreed that, no matter the existence of misfortune, malady or disaster, no comment will be made about the misfortune, malady or disaster?

It seems a dangerous arrangement. Bullies, dictators and tyrants, for example, would applaud such an arrangement, comforted by the assurance that no one will criticize or complain about their behavior.

It seems an anti-social arrangement as it restricts intimacy, the sharing of the full spectrum of human thought, emotion and experience.

It seems an unholy arrangement as it denies or suppresses the rich and variegated sensations of the human experience.

Some things cannot be fixed. Things break. Isn't it better to acknowledge the shards on the floor than to risk injury, walking on broken glass with a smile on your face?

03 December 2014

Na Floresta

I spent Thanksgiving in Picayune MS on acreage belonging to a lesbian couple. I was the invited guest of one of their dear friends. Their house is a work in progress, mostly a bio- and eco-friendly design sensibility with a good measure of that "raw" resourcefulness that I find so prevalent among the people of the Gulf Coast and bayous.

A kitchen, dining area, living room and sleeping space occupy the main house, a massive, many-windowed structure built 11 feet off the ground. The approach crosses an open, circular, grassy area bounded by a delightful variety of structures and semi-structures and work areas and projects-in-progress; then, up a flight of sturdy but irregular steps to a balcony-porch that overlooks the yard...and beyond into woods.

They are flood survivors. They have learned some lessons. The house sits on stilts. The only visible evidence of prior flooding were the deep ruts in the road leading back to the house, some still cupping water. Nothing close to the water content in this accompanying photo (borrowed from Porter Briggs website). But I did have my first up-close encounter with a cypress tree on a walking tour the day after Thanksgiving.

Cypress is tightly interwoven in so much of New Orleans' history, something I learned while living there right after Katrina. I had read of cypress and heard of cypress and witnessed damaged cypress and signed petitions for the protection of cypress...  But I had never actually seen a living cypress. They are majestic and mysterious like redwoods. They embody stillness --  and demand it. Their silence is eloquent and sacred. Strange, yet also familiar in a timeless, fundamental kind of way.

We were seven for Thanksgiving dinner, two men and five women. The table was beautiful -- if I can ever figure out how to make stills from the video I shot, I will post some pictures. The food and drink -- with the exception of water -- were delicious and plentiful. I was grateful. I gave thanks.

Except for A, we were a decidedly "middle-aged" group. One of the hosts had had a stroke the week before The soundtrack for the day was provided by Pandora radio via M's laptop; it was not "middle-aged." It was mostly what I would call "club" music:  music designed for dancing, drinking, drugging and finding a sex partner. None of us danced.

I will be 60 years old in a few weeks. I feel it in my knees. And my neck. And, with particular weather patterns, in my hands. I felt it on Thanksgiving as dance music boomed and I remained seated. And I felt it in the forest, standing with the cypress, deeply grateful for a silent, uncomplicated encounter with another living being.

19 November 2014

Music for the Memorial


when I die
IF people decide to gather and
IF there's a space for music in the programming

I have started a list here called "Music for the Memorial" which will contain the titles and, in some cases, the composer and/or recording artist of the music that moved me.

When I die
IF people do not decide to gather

the list will still be here for anyone who's interested.

11 November 2014

As Another One Bites the Dust

All signs suggest I'm about to lose another piano student. It always hurts. In this case, it's not the student's lack of interest or willingness; it's a Parent Problem and this familiar situation is one of the most dreaded and heart-breaking.

What I wish students and parents knew -- what I wish everyone understood about me -- is that I am strong but not invincible, flexible but not insensitive. When you leave, my heart breaks. When you lie to me, I fall apart.

Yeah, so far,  I always pull it back together, crawl out of Hell and march on. But there are scars and something is lost.

I don't know if you ever look back and think of me but you can be sure I think of you. Where teaching and music is concerned, it's always a matter of the heart for me and I never forget.

For the record, I'd always, always, prefer a difficult conversation to being prettily lied to or just ignored. I'd always rather work out a payment schedule to your leaving without a word because you can't keep up with tuition.

I should start a list of Favorite Things. Then, on occasions of heartbreak it would be easier to soothe myself; just pick a treat or luxury from the list to distract myself from the distress and grief. It is difficult (so far, impossible) to interrupt the sorrow this morning. It's always like this:  memory and imagination fail, I writhe and wallow in a flood of sad regret.

It will pass. I'll survive. New students will appear and I will begin again.

06 November 2014

Father's Face

This beautiful image of James Baldwin appeared in my FaceBook feed today. It contrasts sharply with photos of my father I revisited this morning while clearing my desk. While all the pathos, passion and drama of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concert exploded on the CD player, I stared at the three images:  two of them taken from a distance and a closer shot on his front porch. His face is indistinct in all of them. "I don't have a single decent photo of my father," I thought.

It requires special attention and intention to capture photos of dark-skinned people. Formal school photos were never a problem but as a minor celebrity in my small town, my picture appeared in the newspaper from time to time. I hated those pictures:  they were always either under-lit or over-lit, turning my face into either a featureless dark blob or a mosaic of shine and shadow.

My name in the caption and, in the best cases, the recognizable pattern of whatever I was wearing were the only clearly identifiable features of the photo.

The Baldwin photo was likely shot by a professional photographer, but there's more than the quality of photo or the skill of the photographer contributing to my dissatisfaction with these photos of my father. I struggle to see my father's face even when I'm with him. It is in part my reluctance to read the pain of his life written there. And it is also a reluctance to read the pain of my life that I project onto his face.

I look at the Baldwin photo, and the several others of him that have appeared recently as part of an ongoing celebration of him this year in New York, and I see pain; but he is not my father. I also see triumph and intellectual vibrancy in Baldwin's face. The Baldwin photographs reveal an artist, a complex human, a black man.

My sister, who is currently willingly estranged from my father, is sending me a camera. It was to be a bon voyage gift for the trip to Brazil. I decided this morning I will make a trip "home" in the next few months and attempt to take a decent photo of my father...if he'll allow it. I'm ready now to see him, to read whatever's there in his face, in his eyes.

02 November 2014

The Big Erase

It wasn't just our tree.

We are his neighbors to the west. He also stripped the trees on the eastern border of his property. Now, from either side, his neighbors have a clear view of his house. I am sitting on the back porch. I can look into the windows of his house. Probably his eastern neighbor has an equally clear view into the house as well.

The other thing I notice is that he has created an ecological dead zone:  the squirrels and blue jays and raccoons and cats and robins and crows and spiders and tree frogs are gone. These are just the creatures I'm acquainted with for whom a "there" has disappeared.

It is the story of Civilization, writ small and close.

31 October 2014

The Morning After

It feels like a new world. Like The Morning After.

While it was happening, and for the remainder of the evening, "rape" kept coming to mind. And given the violent, unexpected brutality of the event, "rape" is a logical association.

But this morning, as a survivor of only one actual rape, there's something different in it for me. It's different because the abuser is still present. He lives right next door. I must see him again, and again.

And so it reminds me more of childhood. Of living with the abuser. And it reminds me of the final confrontation with my mother in Lake Tahoe. In the kitchen of the luxury cabin our family rented for reunion when I was about 35...  The evening when she spoke with virulent pride of her "100 friends" who would happily line up to hurt me if she called for their assistance. Her face was unrecognizable to me. She was my mother but I did not know her.

I was speechless and ran to my room and closed the door. The next morning, was a Morning After. The world felt different:  I was the (adult) child of a mother who wished me harm -- and wanted me to know it.

"Live with this, then" says the voice of Evil as the sun rises. "Live in this world where now you understand my power and know your place."

24 October 2014

All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go

Although the denial of my application for VISA to Brazil hurt, the process of attempting to gain approval is proving to be far more painful. In response to my multiple emails confessing bewilderment and asking for clarification -- specifically, the straightforward explanation of what I did "wrong" -- the Brazilian Consulate has found 100 ways to say "Figure it out for yourself."

My packet of documents was returned to me with a form cover letter that includes a checklist of reasons for denial. None of the reasons were checked. A handwritten note on the back side of the form instructs me to apply for a different type VISA -- the type that I actually applied for.

And the rules keep changing. The non-refundable $200 application fee I paid at the beginning of this month has now become $250. The required letter from sponsoring institution verifying invitation and support is now "not enough."

With a few notable exceptions, my dealings with Brazilian people have been marked by a near total disregard for punctuality. More often than not, correspondence is either never acknowledged or the response is late or incomplete. Skype dates are missed; promises broken.

I have taken it in stride. The years spent in New Orleans were excellent training for relaxing my meticulous standards of efficiency and timeliness. And living in Mississippi for two years has offered additional training. I am approaching Mastery status in the art of Meeting People Where They Are (unless I share a house with them...but that's another story for another time).

In light of the tit-for-tat/cat-and-mouse game the Consulate and I are playing, however, the laid-back, noncommittal Brazilian posture begins to look and feel more inconsiderate and thoughtless.

I'm losing sleep. I'm sad. I'm frustrated. I'm suffering and around 4 this morning my anguish yanked sleep away. Hard work to achieve a goal is acceptable. Hard work that boils down to dancing to an insatiable task master is not. The Brazilian Consulate wants something from me but when I write 
What did I fail to send?   Please advise.

The form letter enclosed with my returned materials DID NOT indicate what was missing from the original application packet. 

I am very sorry to seem so dim-witted but I cannot guess the answer.  

Please advise.  Thank you.

they respond
This means that if you send an incomplete application, or an application with wrong information, we will not return your Money-Order, even though not issuing the Visa. Please, read our website twice before sending your application.

Not really a helpful response. Certainly far from a clear, informative explanation that would permit me to rectify the situation.

So I could take a stab, make a guess, buy another money order and send the stuff in...  And be rejected again. (I have heard several stories this week of people who received multiple VISA denials, one of them even after taking a day off work to fly to Atlanta in hopes that a face-to-face meeting was the solution.)

On this bright, crisp morning it doesn't seem worth it. I am disinclined to send more money to the Brazilian Consulate. It feels like a high stakes gambling game. I'm at the wrong table.

I purchased a passport and a (non-refundable) plane ticket because the Consulate required it. And now they won't let me in?

A bit of research reveals that I can fly to Portugal and Spain for lower airfare and a VISA is NOT required for U.S. citizens. I speak Spanish. I speak (am learning) Portuguese. It's looking like time to switch directions.

Brazil is a beautiful and fascinating place but experiencing it firsthand is just not worth this much work, money and heartache to me.

21 October 2014

The Dream of Claire

I was up all night.

Never mind why. Never mind what I was doing. That's not what this post is about. (Although it could be...)

Somewhere around 8 a.m. it was clear I would not make it to my noon meeting. My eyes felt like sandpaper. Every yawn triggered head to toe, uncontrollable, almost convulsive, trembling. From a purely physical point of view, it was time to go to bed.

But I was also craving coffee. (That's kind of a physical event, too, isn't it? But there's so much more going on when I want coffee the way I wanted coffee this morning...)

The pot was already programmed to start brewing at 8:45 a. A full discussion of the extreme pleasure and delight this feature of the coffeepot brings me deserves its own post. Let it suffice for the current narrative to confess that my affection for the machine and its automatic processes necessitated a whispered apology as I disengaged the "Auto" function and hit the "On" button ahead of time.

I had my coffee, turned off the phones, changed into pajamas and went to bed.

I lay there tired but no longer sleepy for what seemed like forever, eyes closed, resisting the panic that insomniacs know so well -- that "I'm not sleeping, I'm not sleeping, oh my god! I'm not sleeping, should I get up, no, no, any minute now I'm gonna get sleepy again...." wailing in the head; telling myself "It's okay, precious. Lying down with eyes closed also counts as rest. It's alright."

My sense of smell was in overdrive:  the pillowcase smelled like my hair conditioner and the unscented laundry detergent I use and "feathers" (I can't explain). I could smell furnace and Renuzit and the loaf of bread I baked Saturday in the room. My hand curled beneath my cheek smelled like tobacco and soap and pencil lead.

There was an unidentifiable, indescribable scent in the mix, too.  Something that triggered a "false" memory of a large, well-furnished room with low ceilings, bathed in a gentle, marbled
gold-and-umber light and soft burgundy-colored music. I have no memory of ever having actually been in such a room.

In the end, I fell asleep and dreamed of Claire. The daughter from the HBO series "Six Feet Under." After a few minutes of Google searching, I still can't find a photo of her that conveys how she looked in my dream. In the dream, as in her life story as portrayed so unforgettably by the actor Lauren Ambrose, her face reflected the fluid stream of her thoughts and feelings. A hundred different expressions in the span of five minutes....

In the dream I struggled to hide the intense sexual attraction-verging-on-love I felt toward her. But she knew. I could hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes. She knew how I felt.

She wanted me to know it was okay to feel what I felt and to think what I was thinking. She wanted me to know that sexual attraction is magical, spiritual, to be celebrated. It's among the most complex and noble of human capacities. It is Us at our most eloquent and energetic best.

The free and unaffected expression and fulfillment of sexual attraction is perfect freedom.

In the dream we joined our bodies and hearts and minds. We laughed and whispered and cried and looked at each other and explored and confessed and rested.

It was a beautiful dream. And I woke up full of longing for the best of times I've had with women lovers. I have always spurned the application of labels to people so it's never been easy to identify as "bisexual." It is an incomplete naming of my sexual orientation. It says something, but not everything.

Beautiful lovers have many things in common whatever their gender or sexual orientation:  generosity of spirit and creativity to name but two. And yet, perhaps as we are products of a world that demands a hard-and-fast decision about who we are sexually, and as sexuality has been extensively (over)analyzed, there are some marked differences between male lovers and female lovers and transgender lovers that present with some predictability.

My current longing, however, has less to do with psychology and gender-style than with the way a woman's body is "put together." Good sex is good sex and an egg is an egg is an egg but there are important differences between scrambled and poached, between fried and hard-boiled.

Claire was a beautiful lover in the dream. She was, as a former woman lover once called it, "thorough." I felt whole and satisfied and generous and humble and comfortable in my body when I woke up ...and I still do.

20 October 2014

Vai Dar Certo

My application for VISA was denied.

As in the two prescient dreams I had in the weeks after submitting it, the reason for the rejection is unclear.

Why does it feel like a personal injury?

But only a little.

I told someone recently that I enjoy a challenge. I love games and figuring out how to change this "no" into a "yes" feels like I game. A "big" game because I want very much to go to Brazil.

My bristling dissatisfaction and disappointment with Holly Springs MS has been placated -- somewhat -- through teaching piano but for a long time, and still occasionally, I was gripped with a resolute determination to either change this place or escape. It didn't feel like a game. It wasn't fun or inspiring. Felt more like desperation. How can one Northern woman change a Southern town? Where does a middle-aged black woman go in the U.S. to start over....again?

I'm in a cage here but I am fed and sheltered and I have piano students. I'll make do and wait.

I am much less resigned as re the Brazilian adventure. Unlike the Holly Springs situation -- where I am outnumbered and the rules of engagement are largely unspoken -- getting to Brazil is a process of navigating bureaucratic waters. There are explicit rules, although they seem to have changed in the last few weeks. Communication is possible. My opponent is not swayed by my place of birth or skin color or speech pattern. We are, ostensibly, playing by the same rules.

Via Skype, I am practicing my Portuguese language skills with new friends in Brazil. Additional benefits of our conversation include learning about the histories and cultures of the country as a whole and individual regions. And I am encouraged, fortified in the "game" of securing a VISA by the beautiful smiles and repetitions of "vai dar certo" and "vamos vê-lo aqui". Some of them assure me that I "look" Brazilian so my arrival there is a certainty.

This last notion is interesting when I consider how often I've been told that I "look" African. Maybe they are the same thing.

08 October 2014

Free As A Bird

A few moments ago I received an email from a friend (and former employer) containing this Nina Simone clip. The friend said I came to mind as she watched it.

I'm flattered.

The sincerity of the performance is hugely compelling.  As I watch, I am transported to that "space" in which/from which such performance springs. It is a gentle, wide open, heart-centered meditation to make music in that altered stated. The sensation inhabits the intellect, the body, the psyche...

Introducing students to that space is an essential aspect of teaching piano for me. I talk to them about focus. I describe what it's like for me. When they feel they are focused, I ask them to describe what it's like for them. For those students whose descriptions center on thought processes, I invite them into an awareness of the physical and emotional attributes of "focus".

As their understanding of the orientation matures and they become familiar with how it feels to focus, it is possible to coach them during performance, to say "Go 'there'" and a "there" exists for them. They know the route and they know more and more about how to get "there".


A little while ago, after several minutes of noting a mild ruckus in the garden, I walked to the west side of the porch to investigate. A lone bluejay was foraging amongst the fallen leaves and ground cover. He was less than six feet away from me and looked up at me when he sensed my presence. He looked at me, but seemed not in the least startled or troubled.

His look was more in the spirit of "Yes? Can I help you?" I returned to my chair on the other side of the porch, thinking "There's freedom!" Freedom from fear. Freedom to be and to be about whatever he was about. "I'm a blue jay. I'm doing my blue jay thing. What are you doing?"

Some students, especially adult females, are wont to apologize:  if they miss a note or forget the meaning of a dynamic marking or make some other "mistake." And each time they apologize, I remind them gently that no apology is needed. "You are learning to play piano. Mistakes are an important -- and unavoidable -- part of the learning process."

Blue jays make a lot of noise. Students make mistakes. No apologies. In the space where focus abides, we are free to do our student thing -- to learn, through trial and error, turning away from the distraction of self-consciousness, escaping the bondage of apology and excuse. 

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
Say 'em loud say 'em clear
For the whole wide world to hear

The blue jay has relocated to this side of the porch. Rummaging noisily now on the other side of the screen, less than 3 feet from me. Bothered not a wit by my presence or my opinions about what he's doing. He's focused on what he's doing. Living his own life.

29 September 2014

Patriotic? Citizen of?

“To be an American writer today means mounting an underdog attack on all that Americans believe themselves to hold sacred…..it means fighting an astute and agile guerilla warfare with that American complacency which so inadequately masks American panic.” -- James Baldwin

 I started this post several months ago by transcribing the Baldwin quote. The depth and complexity of emotional and intellectual resonance I experienced prevented further comment. This morning I found myself suddenly awake at 7 a.m. (typically an ungodly hour for me) with three pressing needs:  I had to pee. I had to write. And I needed a lover's hands on my body.

the hand you're dealt
I went to the bathroom...and returned to bed. Because my writing has been blocked for months now, I have no lover and there is nothing I can do about either reality. I lay there for another hour and a half, thought and memory and desire colliding and swirling within me. I felt trapped, incapable of doing anything I wanted to do or having anything I wanted to have.

At last, encouraged by the steadfast encroaching daylight and the gentle persuasion of wind in the
curtains, an awareness of a few simple things I COULD do dawned. I could get out of bed. I could wash my face and brush my teeth. I could make my bed and make coffee. I could get dressed. I could open the blinds in the living room and dining room.

I did all of those things. The progression energized me sufficiently to timidly open my blog...and there was the Baldwin quote again. "To be an American writer..." the quote begins. Shame and frustration flooded my sensorium. I'm a wannabe writer.

I took a sip of coffee, took a deep breath and read on. Questions arose:  Is the charge the quote defines unique to writers? Could it not be said of all creatives? All thinking people of conscience?

I learned this weekend that Brazilians recognize only one America. Exploring the website of the
International Center for Theatre of the Oppressed, I read "...este é o método teatral mais utilizado em todos os cinco continentes" and wondered what it meant. Aren't there 7 continents in the world? I asked my Brazilian-American friend over tea.

In Brazil, she informed me, we are taught there are five:  Africa, Eurasia, America, Antarctica and Australia. 

"To be an American writer..." The quote suggested new implications this morning when viewed through the Brazilian lens. "Buy American" and "Proud to be an American" take on new meanings, as do "the American Dream" and "America, Home of the free" and "the American flag" and "American food" and ...

Something of the American "complacency" and "panic" Baldwin speaks of is apparent in "our" appropriation of the term "American." We speak about Mexicans and Guatemalans and other who want to come to America. We say "North America" and understand it as a distinct society and land mass rather than the "northern subcontinent of America" (Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_America). "Latin America" is "them" not "us". The perspective is one of those things we "hold sacred."

I relish these new ideas, this new perspective. It's truer, more accurate. And, for better or worse in terms of finding my voice again as a writer, it expands the possibilities and responsibility. There's more to look at and more to say. The definition of "homeland" has changed.

I don't know what I'll do with the rest of this day, with no lover and my writing apparatus out of commission. But I will move through it with a different point of view, taking a closer look at the hand I was dealt. I am American, yes, but that means more to me than it did three days ago.

21 September 2014

Heart to Heart

J is the only boy student currently in the piano studio. He's 7 years old and, though I often wonder about the origins of the phrase, he is "cute as a button." He's tiny:  preparations for his lesson include placement of a big red dictionary beneath the bench as his feet don't yet reach the ground. I traced
each of his hands during the second lesson. "Now we have a snapshot, a reference point," I told him. "We'll look at these again in a few months and see how much you've grown."

His mother called in response to an advertisement I placed in the newspaper. "He's been saying he wants to play piano since he was old enough to talk. I been playing it off 'cause, you know, I don't want him to turn into a sissy. But when I saw your ad and saw that you teach 'keyboard' I thought, well, maybe he'll be satisfied with that."

He loves playing. He works hard. He has some intriguing cognitive challenges; he still has to count
his fingers when I ask him to place finger #3 on Middle C, for example. He's sensitive, tenderhearted. When he makes a mistake that he feels he shouldn't have made, he grows very quiet, his face turns somber and sometimes he cries.

I grow more fond of him every week.

His parents rarely return on time to retrieve him after the lesson. We fill the time by strolling in the yard or conversing on the front porch. Last week, seemingly out of the blue, he asked me "What time do you get up in the morning, Miss Alex?" "Oh, it varies. Usually somewhere between 9 and 10," I told him. "Why?"

"Because my school bus goes right by here in the morning and I always think maybe I'll see you sitting on the porch drinking coffee."

This is the kind of thing that melts my heart. I can just imagine this tiny person on a big yellow bus each morning. The anticipation he's feeling as the bus approaches my street. His face. The associated memories evoked as the stone pillars at the foot of Johnson Park come into view. Maybe he has boasted to a fellow student "That's where my piano teacher lives."

The culture romanticizes "the innocence of children" but, for me, it is the vulnerability of children, their willing transparency, the absence of masks that impresses me more. They don't know yet to hide their hearts. And so, heart to heart communication is possible.

Oh, for more of this among my adult peers.

23 August 2014

Returning to Myself


I woke up with these words in my head and on my lips:

So now I am returning to myself, these things that you and I suppressed...

Somewhat surprised to discover I have somehow failed to include the full lyrics and recording of the song that includes that line -- "Hejira" from Joni's 1976 album of the same name -- on this blog previously. It is a big song for me; extremely high personal resonance with the sentiments and ideas expressed in the lyric. One of those songs that knocked me off my feet when I first heard it because of the specific way it fit my life at the time.

Almost 40 years later, it still fits like custom-made gloves.

There's comfort in melancholy
When there's no need to explain
It's just as natural as the weather
I see something of myself in everyone...
You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or stick to some straighter line

I seem to turn the same corners over and over again in my life. The same realizations dawn with blinding brilliance repeatedly. Over and over, I learn that my life is mine...that nothing is permanent...that life is short. I forget, then remember, that breath and death are the only remotely non-negotiable aspects of existence.

Those of us who were brought up properly bear the weight of responsibility and obligation like a ship's anchor. I forget, then remember, that anchors must be pulled up when it is time to move forward. I stand at the bow of my life ship today, facing the horizon and ready to sail. It is time to weigh anchor. While the anchor rests on the sea floor, assessment of here and now is possible. "Ah, here I am. Here's what I have...here's what's been lost. This sustains me and this can be tossed overboard -- don't need it any more."

 Sometimes it seems safest to remain anchored, to stay in a place -- metaphorically or literally -- that we know well. There is a kind of comfort in familiarity. We might even delude ourselves and believe that we have control while we are in a place whose contours and colors and cycles have become predictable and old-hat for us. "I'm safe now. Nothing can get me here. I know this place."

But it is an illusion. It is impossible to be both in the ever-changing World and protected from change
at the same time.

I am hoisting the anchor to "return to myself." I embrace two readings of the phrase:  coming back to myself after wandering far afield AND reclaiming abandoned or sacrificed essentials.

Revitalizing Holly Springs MS is not my mission. I relinquish all attachment to that goal now and return to myself.

Joining the community of warriors against racism and injustice is not my mission. I relinquish all attachment to that goal now and return to myself.

My mission is the nurturing and advancement of the evolution of consciousness -- my own and others. I return.

I am not committed to building a personal and professional network of human resources to facilitate the blossoming of my "career." This will doubtless happen, peripheral to pursuit of the aforementioned mission but it is not a central intention.

I care about my blood family and wish them always the best that Life has to offer. And, though I have walked and talked as though I accept a responsibility to actively promote this, in truth, I do not believe I have a responsibility to promote their well-being at the expense of abandoning the path toward "awakening," to which I am unconditionally committed.

I care about my friends and wish them always the best that Life has to offer. And, though my ego has been flattered often enough by the dreams that they dream for me, in truth, it is impossible and unnatural to attempt to lend my life to the fulfillment of someone else's dream. "I am not your dream of me..." (from "Getting to Know You," my first SpotLife performance, February 2011).

Admitting to myself that I believe in prayer (sorta) the other day ("Thinking It Matters") felt like "coming out." I'm having a similar experience with the present "returning to myself" post.

It is both daunting and invigorating contemplating next steps, lifting my foot -- and eyes and heart -- to take up the journey from here. Beginning again....

22 August 2014

Coon Time

They're not afraid of me. I'm afraid of them. It's my problem to get over.

I live in a smoke-free house so I spend a lot of time on our enclosed-by-screen back porch, smoking as I do whatever else I'm doing. In the months since the neighbors moved away the raccoon presence has steadily intensified. The neighbors had three dogs.

In the beginning, I only saw them occasionally, usually around sundown, a quick scurry under the hedge a the periphery of my vision. They were cautious and seemed to avoid being seen or confronted.

Then came the afternoon when C and I were sitting on the back porch and a raccoon sauntered across the yard. Hours before sundown, completely unconcealed, and untroubled by the sound and smell of human beings less than 30 feet away.

Since then their boldness has only increased, to the point that they now frolic nightly in the
branches of a tree less than 15 feet from the porch. They aren't in the least intimidated by my presence, smoking...talking on the phone...James Brown wailing on my computer.

Unanimous local advice when I've asked about strategies for controlling them is "Get a gun" and everyone has a raccoon story (or three) to share. I spotted raccoon traps in the hardware store the other day. "What would I do with them after I caught them?" I asked. The store owner looked at me like I was ten kinds of crazy. "Well, you shoot 'em," he finally replied. "Waste of time and gas to drive 'em out and let 'em go. They'll just come back."

After half a century of being adamantly anti-gun, something is shifting in me. There are no light fixtures in our deep backyard. Sitting in the light on the back porch it's impossible to see beyond the screen. Last night, I listened without being able to see while raccoon scurried and crashed about in
the yard and door-less storage shed. When I heard the ping of the chain link fence they use as a springboard into the aforementioned tree, I turned on a flashlight and threw the beam on three large raccoon. They looked at me. My imagination or were they annoyed?

I cannot imagine myself pointing a gun at a caged raccoon and pulling the trigger; but I admit I wished that flashlight was a shotgun last night.

They're only going to get bolder I predict. They have no fear of me. I'm the one with a problem...