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.