Sing me some of that song, good sir. The one you know so well.
If you’ve been following my little blog, fair reader, you know I’m all about doing things ourselves. “Look ma, no hands!” Building things, writing things, cooking things, being creative, as we humans are wont to be. I am impressed with our ability to do stuff. As I heard once in an interview, we are the “making ape.” We make stuff and do stuff and think stuff and thrive on it.
Let me share a story.
Just today I was walking along a pleasant little alley next to my new church’s music room, and there was a gentleman cleaning leaves out of a fountain. He had a pool skimmer, and he was dipping stuff out and dumping it in a pile, which I assume he was going to remove later. And he was singing. This guy had a high, clear, ringing tenor voice. He sang a gospel song, but it was unfamiliar to me. Dear reader, it came from his heart and it filled the space around us. I said “good afternoon!” and he said “good afternoon!” I said “what a beautiful day to be outside. And thank you for your singing!” He said “oh, I’m no good.” I argued, and said “you have a beautiful voice, sir.” But he wouldn’t listen. He preferred his self-assessment of his vocal technique! I thanked him again, and wished him a pleasant day. And as I walked on, he picked up right where he had left off, and sang again.
It was one of those moments, good people, when one thinks to oneself “gosh and golly. I have just encountered beauty.” And it brightened my day (which, I must admit, was already pretty bright, but our days can always be a little brighter, right?).
I wonder how we can become so un-self-conscious as to go about our daily affairs making our art, our music, our food, offering our services, doing whatever it is we do, and allow our beauty to shine through? It is in the shelter of each other that people live, or so goes the Irish proverb. This nice man didn’t shelter me; he surrounded me in a nice warm quilt of his heart-felt beauty. And he didn’t intend to do it, either. He was just being himself.
So. Enough of that. D major dances and sparkles. It reminds me of that wild and crazy Scarlatti guy, and his more than five hundred sonatas. Indeed, Bach uses that early basic sonata format in this prelude. Bach was known to steal from others, you know? He had some serious Italian and French influences in his long and varied career as a musician.
Become less self-aware. How does that other quote go? Is it “dance as though no one is watching you?”
George was a fine pianist and a remarkable teacher. He was Jewish, and his story in the States began as a refugee, a flight from the Nazis, a journey which eventually planted him on the western plains of our great nation. I met him in the early 1980’s, and his accent was as strong as ever. He was telling me stories about my friend and rival, a gifted young pianist, against whom I was to compete that afternoon.
“In music there is no place for the ego.”
These words have stuck with me since then, dear reader. And today, on a particularly blustery, wet, chilly afternoon, I’m chewing on them yet again. Isn’t it wonderful how thoughts and ideas from the past grab us and urge us to consider cool stuff?
It has been my experience, lo these many years, that the best artists and musicians and writers and etcetera have had enough ego to do their work, but not so much as to create overblown self-importance. In fact, it seems the opposite is also true. Those who hail themselves as the best, the most perfect, the long-awaited answer to prayer, are, when scrutinized, not worth as much table salt as they themselves might claim.
I might call myself a great organist, or a great choral director, or a great pianist. And it takes only one missed pedal passage, one forgotten and oh-so-important cue for the tenors, one left turn at Albuquerque whilst playing a Bach Prelude & Fugue, to bring me back to reality. And what of it?
This of it. (Is that a phrase?) We are here to serve the medium, we artistic types. Nobody cares, when I play the organ, if I’m a Very Important Person. All they care about is how they feel when I play. Nobody cares if a writer is a Guest Of Honor At Important Functions. They want to read, understand, and feel. Nobody cares if a potter makes Expensive Wares. They want beauty and form and function.
Enough ego to do the job, but not so much to become overly self-confident. That is a fascinating balance, my friends.
The problem with ego is this: when we sense that a friend or colleague has more than their fair share of the stuff, we are almost always guaranteed failure if we try to let the affected (or afflicted) know. It takes a certain amount of self-knowledge and humility to be able to hear what a friend might be saying. Ain’t that just a kick in the pants? Golly, when you need an intervention…
So. Here are some ways to run self-diagnostics and keep the ego in check.
Laugh. At yourself. Often. The ego is not interested in humor, my friends. The ego is interested in Very Important Things. So laugh. Rosamund and Benjamin Zander, in their bookThe Art of Possibility, talk about using the word “fascinating.” When you make a mistake, don’t berate yourself. Rather, say aloud, “fascinating.” Re-frame that mistake into an opportunity. Thus you disarm the ego, and prevent yourself from becoming too upset about a mere mistake.
Trust a friend. Do you have a friend whose thoughts and opinions you trust? One who will tell you the truth whether you want it or not? (Face it, not every friend is THAT kind of friend. Facebook don’t work here, y’all.) Listen to that friend. And really pay attention. Often we need another soul to tell our soul what we’re up to. If you don’t have a friend like this? Find one. Cultivate that rich, freeing, honest, heart-connecting power that will tell you when you’re totally over the line and fairly screwed up.
Serve others. No, I’m not going all Saint Francis on you here, although I do believe there’s much to learn from him that’s important, especially in our socially-sterile-and-insulated age. Are you an artist? Then create what you want, but realize that art is not only your expression, but the expression of those who interpret it. Are you a writer? Write something to affect people and change their lives for the better. Are you a musician? Music for the music-maker is fine, and valuable, and cathartic. But music begs to be heard. Serve your audience.
A little humility goes a long way.
And, speaking of humility, I’m not completely wrapped around the C-sharp Minor Prelude. The fugue almost plays itself. But the prelude is one of those highly ornamented aria-like works. With lots of cool trills and appoggiaturas and other cool stuff. It needs more practice. And more humility.
George Bernard Shaw. Quite the cool dude. See his quote below.
Re-visiting some ideas these days, I am. Because there is much that is new in my little life, and also much that is common.
We tend to recycle things. Like painting an old armoire to give it a new look. Or tricking out a ’69 Chevy. Or borrowing a melodic fragment from Brahms and embedding it so well into a new composition that it can’t be found, even by the composer. And really. How many plots are there? Seven? Twenty-one? Thirty-six? We even recycle our stories.
So here they are: a few of my favorite quotes. They’re a little lengthy, ‘cause I like my quotes long in the tooth. And if I’ve quoted these before in this here blog, well, just get over it. I’m recycling. It’s like listening to a John Denver song that I first heard in my youth. (Talk about being long in the tooth!)
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” – George Bernard Shaw
Thank you Saint George. I agree. How often do we get caught in our unhappiness, our negativity, our daily stressors? And how often do we succumb and sink, gasping and wheezing for the Good Breath that will cleanse our souls and restore us to where we think we ought to be?
Get over ourselves, already. Claim a purpose. I’m not sure it matters what purpose, but it needs to be a purpose about which there is real excitement. And get busy. Become that force of Nature. (I like how Shaw capitalized “Nature.” It’s like talking about Creation. Or Logos. Or something in control and bigger than any of us. And it gives a challenge to make a difference. Boo-yah.)
“My father says that almost the whole world is asleep. Everybody you know. Everybody you see. Everybody you talk to. He says that only a few people are awake and they live in a state of constant total amazement.” – Patricia, played by Meg Ryan, in “Joe Versus the Volcano.”
Wake up and smell the coffee. Stop and smell the roses.
I was walking to church this past Sunday and the sun was rising over the river. I saw it at the end of the street as I was heading downtown. And I saw it at the end of the next street as I went across to the choir room. Now granted, I’m a newbie in this little town. But Holy Chihuahuas, Batman. It was gorgeous. I wonder how many people go about their daily lives and forget to take notice of the beauty around them?
A prayer from the Navajo Way begins:
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again
And it seems to me an appropriate, awake, open way to be.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.” – Marcus Aurelius, trans. Gregory Hays
How do we treat our neighbors? Our acquaintances? Our friends? And even more, how do we treat the stranger? And how do we react when things do not go our way?
I remember a short video I saw once, published by some church somewhere (how’s THAT for scholarly research?). It showed a person walking through his day, and everybody he met had a tag floating by them, which said such things as “concerned about paying rent this month” or “just fought with her daughter” or “got a clean bill of health today.” Everybody is dealing with something. And if we react to their negative words and actions, well… aren’t we just adding to the general dissatisfaction of the world around us? Perhaps it’s time to take a step back and realize that we all deal with the “stuff” of life. That today my life may be peachy, but tomorrow it may take a turn. That my friend may be suffering a rough spot, but tomorrow all will be better. And maybe we just sit with people, hear them, and let them be who they are right now. Maybe it’s a better gift than trying to help solve problems? And maybe we can see a touch of the divine.
Well. You made it through some late-Monday ideas. Bully for you. C-sharp major, in Book 2, is gorgeous. It verily sparkles. And even though there are seven sharps in the key signature, it seems relatively easy to play. I may play it as a prelude some Sunday. Who knows.
What, you say? Hold on, you think? Just a doggone moment, you ask? Aren’t you a musician? Isn’t that a regular, normal, expected part of your life?
Well, uh, yes (imagine my averted eyes and shuffling feet here). But I have a dirty little secret.
I don’t practice much.
There are reasons galore. Let’s see: I’m a productive member of society with a 40-plus hour-per-week job. Can’t practice four or five hours a day any more, as I did in college. (Interesting to note, though, that I rehearse with choirs, and I’m all about practice there. Hmm.)
And then: People tend to talk during prelude and postlude on Sundays so I don’t have to be quite so prepared, and I’m able to do some good hymns and hymn introductions with minimal prep, and I’m a self-proclaimed boss at playing liturgy, so I can limit my practice time.
Or: I have some darknesses in my psychological past, and I’m not comfortable with people hearing me practice, whether they are altar guild people returning linens on a weekday, or students waiting for a lesson, or the spouse baking bread in the homeplace kitchen.
My logic is flawed. And here is my solution:
Clifford’s Practice Project (heretofore referred to as CPP)
For one hundred days (thank you violinist Hilary Hahn for the idea) I shall practice the mighty organ. I shall set me some goals (I love me some goals) and work toward attaining them.
I practice on workdays at the church. Organs are not like violins, thank you very much, and I live a half hour away from the church. I shall practice when I’m there.
I include sightreading in every practice.
I don’t get stuck on my favorite style period (North European baroque organ works are da bomb, thank you very much… think Bruhns, Buxtehude, Bach…) but I expand to other countries and other periods. Got me a book of trumpet voluntaries on order.
I keep pencils and metronome nearby, even though my old organ professor from Arizona State, Dr. Bob Clark, eschewed the use of metronomic devices, claiming they made an organist rigid and non-responsive, or something like that.
I shall record my progress in my little notebook, and celebrate my achievements.
I shall learn some new and exciting organ works, also some drab and boring ones.
I will better my technique.
I shall re-learn the importance of a daily regimen.
There are other areas of life which benefit from practice. It’s not just for music and sports, y’all. For example: is it possible to use the same discipline and learn to practice truth and honesty in tough situations? Can I be more structured in my daily work habits? Can I practice resisting the all-too-common urge to complain about people? Interesting.
And by the way. C minor Prelude and Fugue, Book 2. I love this prelude, with its sewing machine motor energy. These things are just durned fun to play. The fugue is as I find many fugues… it’s a beautiful piece of work, but doesn’t do much for me. Oh well. At least I’ve practiced and learned it.
If you’ve been with me a while, and if you’re back after my recent writing absence, you know I finished Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier , Book 1. I even figured out how to post a video of myself playing the C-sharp minor Prelude & Fugue, one of my favorites. Yay me for being so technologically daring! I may have entered the twentieth century!
I do not believe that Herr Bach was doing a restart in writing his Book 2. I believe he had so much fun creating twenty-four preludes and fugues, one in each key, major and minor, that he thought he’d do it again. Did you know the preludes and their corresponding fugues weren’t necessarily composed together? Some were pre-existing works, likely used for teaching purposes. Some were composed as a set, and others were assembled later. I can see good ol’ Johann now, rummaging through his music desk, muttering to himself “I thought I had a d minor fugue in here somewhere. Now what DID I do with that? Sheesh. Likely in the same place I left my carriage keys. Probably underneath my powdered wig, wherever THAT is. Johann Christian? Wilhelm Friedemann? Either of you kids have my d minor fugue?”
I’m not restarting. I’m continuing. New book of preludes and fugues, new music, new experiences. And it begins with Everybody’s Favorite Key, C Major. (An imposing professor of mine used to call it the Moronic Key, but that’s for another time.)
I think we can never truly restart. Classic Star Trek episodes aside, we are not able to find that glorious time portal, go back to the early twentieth century, change the outcome of a World War, and restore our existence. At best, I think, we can learn from our experiences, clean up our messes, and keep moving. (Isn’t there a movie with a fish who just… uh… keeps swimming?)
Today, as I think about life and liberty and my personal pursuit of happiness, I recognize the troubles I’ve seen. There have been plenty, as befits a normal life, I think. Check out this terrific expression of pain in life…
That’s what makes me who I am. And it’s what makes us who we are. I am proud of the scars and imperfections I carry with me, from the marks on my body caused by tangles with barbed wire and violence to the emotional roadbumps of ended relationships and the spiritual confusion of mortality.
And no judgments, please. Let’s not beat ourselves for supposedly bad decisions, or so-called failed relationships, or other such nonsense. There is a certain beauty and logic and peace to simply saying “it is.” Did that breakup cause pain? It sure did. But it’s become part of your story. Is that cancer destroying you? You bet. But it’s a real part of your life, and it is part of who you are. Is that job dragging you down, causing you to lose sleep, ruining your social life? Probably.
Viktor Frankl, in his most raw and beautiful book Man’s Search for Meaning, talks of being stuck in horrible situations, like his concentration camp experience, and he talks of finding hope and keeping alive. If you can get out of a bad situation… well golly, go! Make that change! Take charge! Never stay in a harmful or destructive situation if it can be helped. But also realize that our experiences make us. I may have worked through the pains and pleasures of my past, and I am a different man because of them.
Fascinating. What can be helped? Only current crises. Nothing in the past can ever be changed, and yet we spend so much time and energy trying to fix what was.
And what then? It seems that new relationship, that new job, that new house, that new diagnosis… they may or may not be what we would judge as good. Maybe they just are. And maybe they help us to be who we are, difficulties and pains and problems and frustrations and all. And maybe we just keep moving.
So. Enough of my ramblings. If you’ve made it this far, thank you. I must go practice, and continue my journey.
Well. It’s taken longer than I expected, for sundry reasons. But I have now played through all of Book I. Well-Tempered Clavier. Boo-yah. Woot-woot. Let the celebrations… uh… continue!
B minor is one of my favorites. The prelude is moving and sweet, and the fugue, although not a truly great subject, has many gorgeous episodes. Interesting, how a weak subject can be bettered by crafty connecting episodes. Wonder if there might be a life lesson there somewhere. Like it’s not all about the job, and the relationships, and the stress, and the debt, and the difficulties. Maybe it’s all about the connections. Make of that what you will. I’m entertaining idle thoughts today.
So the project is half-something. Half-0ver. Half-started. Half-baked. This just means there is more to do! More to learn, more to explore, more to bake. I have already started Book II, C Major. You’ll hear about that soon, you good readers you!
In the meantime, here’s a video of Book I, C-sharp minor. Out of all twenty-four P’s & F’s in that volume, this is my favorite. Scroll back quite a ways to read my comments about it, if you dare.
Interesting thing, this little recording. It shows only one time I played this work. Mistakes are there, and those mistakes are different than any other time I’ve ever played this P & F. The tempo is different. The attitude is different. I am reminded of Maya’s line in the rather messy movie Sideways: “if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day.” Fascinating. That’s like music.
If we play it right, it is always a new, living thing, and always different from the last time (or the next time) we play it. Perfection is for those who build bridges over which I plan to drive sometime. Art demands something higher, something free.
And with that, my happy readers (three of you now?) I sign off of Book I. Book II will follow. After that? Well. I’m not so sure it’s about the actual pieces I play, but the stuff that connects them. Maybe Bach will connect me with a Beethoven series, or a Schubert series, or… heaven perish the thought… a beginning fiddle series. Much to learn out there.
What a shock to see your tiny, furry body lying there underneath my honeysuckle. Those big, powerful front legs that moved a ton of dirt hanging limp and loose, a tiny spot of blood at your pointy snout. I buried you underneath the cannas in my bird habitat. Said a prayer over you, covered your grave with a huge piece of quartz, and drank a toast to your moleness.
I believe in the sanctity of all life. I have been known to protect the spider in the corner of a classroom, to trap a wasp in a coffee mug for release outdoors, to free a mouse caught on a glue trap. I mourn the lives of squirrels dead on the roadways. Life is fascinating, beautiful.
So what happened?
A dog. Little Lola dug you out of your tunnel and killed you. Killed you like she did the fledgling sparrow and tried to do with the juvenile squirrel. And she left you there.
Here’s where it gets interesting, little mole.
I cannot be upset with little Lola. She’s a half-breed. Half Chihuahua and half Dachshund. Beautiful little thing she is, too. From the Chihuahua bloodline she sports the apple-shaped head, the slightly bulgy eyes, and a frustratingly energetic intelligence. And from the Dachshund she has the length, the short legs, and the predator drive. Her ancestors were bred to dig into burrows and dispatch the many creatures people considered “vermin.” She dug, found you, grabbed you, and ended your little life. It’s what Dachshunds do.
I am so sorry.
There is a lesson to be learned, little mole, if I can find it.
Nature has a balance. Sometimes delicate, sometimes blatant. And it doesn’t always work out in our favor. Shit happens. Spiders eat flies. Leopards kill baboons. Killer whales kill seals. Snakes… well, let’s not think about that.
And, supposedly at the top of all that mayhem and carnage is Mankind. But maybe not.
What happened to you was violent, beautiful little one, and certainly unnecessary, although in a different day and age you would have become part of the food chain. It was a perfectly natural thing. Dog is predator, mole is prey. Lola enjoys a very good diet from my kitchen, and once she killed you she had no idea what to do next. Or maybe she merely had no need to do anything. Introduce hunger and the search for food into her mix and you would have been swallowed, justifying your sad fate, like the fates of so many earthworms and grubs you munched.
How many creatures kill just for the sake of killing? Some do. I’ve watched cats with birds. But let’s think about mankind.
We kill our food, and we waste those animal bodies when we throw away what we can’t eat. We kill our environment and doom our future. We kill people who don’t bother us and we allow those who harm us to continue. We kill the dreams of our children and lead them into lives of frustration and anger. We kill healthy relationships. We kill ourselves through socially sanctioned self-loathing.
And do we learn? Hell no. Our bloodlines have given us hatred and violence, but also our intellect. We have the ability to learn, but we just don’t. Seems to me that our intellect should prevail, right? We should understand how to make our world a better place, right?
We like to think we’re the rational ones in the animal kingdom, and we like to think we’re able to change. So why don’t we? Maybe we haven’t really claimed our bloodline. Maybe we wander through our lives oblivious, unaware, perpetually foggy, like herd animals following a leader who tells us how to think and behave. We have such potential, and we give it away for the wrong things. Like power, wealth, status, and I’m-better-than-you-ness.
Little mole. You led a simple life and I might think you reveled in your moleness. Lola leads a simple life, and she is overwhelmingly Lola. My life is complex and overwhelming and confusing. Is this the legacy of my humanness?
Thank you, little mole, for your little life. For the things you contributed to our fragile ecosystem. For sharing the earth with me, even underfoot in your tunnels. For just being. Rest in peace, my little friend.
Postscript: part of little mole’s tribute included the playing of Bach’s B major prelude & fugue. Bright and serene, it seemed to help me celebrate rather than lament. There are plenty opportunities for lament in this world, if only we pay attention.
These words, spoken by a friend from the pulpit, have stuck with me. And there must be a reason, right? I mean, phrases don’t get stuck in our minds and demand replay for nothing. Sometimes words strike us and resonate. So?
(Stop reading if you want happy talk today. You know, sunshine, flowers, and peppermint. Visit the Book of Face or the Tube of You and look for cute animal videos instead. Goats are fun. Look up goat crossfit. Catch up with me next time. I’m welcoming some darkness today.)
B-flat minor is such a dark, dark key. It feels good to play in this key, being the relative minor of D-flat, with five flats… that means all the black keys for a pianist. Long fingers play the black keys, short fingers play the white. Easy, right?
I find it hard to believe that Mr. Bach, writing his way through the various keys now open to him with Well-Tempered Tuning, was writing only as an exercise. It’s possible, but I feel such depth and despair in both the Prelude and the Fugue.
Or maybe it speaks to me because I need to search for something. Something Bach perhaps did not intend.
We want, we seem to need, to seek for something to feel. Or so we are told.
I think we’re afraid. Afraid that if we truly listen, get still, introspect a while, we’ll discover there ain’t nuthin’ there.
We are decidedly not okay with that. We are told that there are places inside us, thoughts deep within, an inner child, inherent specialness, real inner resources. We are told we are likeable, lovable. We search for meaning.
What if that’s wrong? What if we seek something that’s not there? Have we been duped? Consider these:
The person who Self-Harms. Feeling pain on the outside to fill the void inside?
The woman in perennial Crisis Mode, who creates adversity where there is none. Is she trying to feel alive?
The man who Drinks Too Much after work every day, who feels nervous and uptight until he’s had a few. Is he afraid of an inner empty quiet?
The teenager who steals her mother’s “stash” and gets high with her friends. Is she trying to find a way to be Popular, To Fit In? To make meaning?
The couple in The Affair, afraid to live in dull, stuck marriages and seeking self-worth in the arms of another?
Those who Must Have Music Always? Scared of empty silence?
A shrink (I love calling counselors that… it makes me smile…) once told me to get friends. Lots of friends. Because humans are meant to be social, and they need to interact with their support groups. Never mind that I’m introverted (he helped me understand that, too). Apparently, contemporary thought views people with many relationships as healthy, and solitary individuals as flawed. Is that right? I don’t think so.
I read an article recently about a woman who seeks a life of mediocrity. Hers is a simple life. She seeks only enough for her family. No bigger houses, no faster cars, no huge theater-style TV screens on the wall. No two-income family. And no pressures to procure and maintain what she doesn’t want or need. Fascinating. It’s like she’s pleased with her status quo. She wants to live an un-remarkable life.
I wonder if that applies to our inner lives, too? I wonder if we’re told what we should feel, and how, and when? And I wonder if we despair when we don’t pass muster?
I think I have made a self-discovery. I think there’s not much inside me. I am a simple guy.
I’ve been inside you see, and I’ve studied myself fairly thoroughly. It’s what an introvert does, yo. I don’t think I have any more lurking surprises in the freshly-cleaned cubbyholes of my mind, waiting to launch a crippling assault. They did that already. I was felled like a mighty sequoia tree, and I still have the axe marks to prove it. I got back up. I talked. I studied. I explored. And I know myself pretty damn well. Really I do. Did some cleansing. And I’m kinda empty, y’all.
Do you suppose there are those who do not feel inner joy? And do you suppose that might be totally appropriate? Are there those who live with pure, remarkable emptiness? And is that okay?
Are there times in our lives when we must just BE, and not TRY TO BE? Should we enjoy the moment, whatever that moment brings, and not try to change it?
Perhaps the beginning of Enlightenment, that fascinating Eastern concept that we, in our hard-driven consumer culture dismiss as “far out.” I don’t know.
A mess of questions, my friends.
Maybe the secret is flow, attentiveness, mindfulness to the present moment. Maybe it’s a matter of not caring about the “stuff” of life, but also not knowing that we don’t care. Follow me? Maybe it’s about choosing a pursuit not for the attainment of goals, but for the sheer experience. Maybe it’s about becoming so lost in our work or our play that we enter that timeless condition and just exist.
I wonder if I’m trying to fill an emptiness that is wholly natural and right, only because I think I’m incomplete and need filling.
Thoughts, those of you not currently lost in goat videos?
I’m still on the subversion kick. I ‘spect I’ll be on this kick a while. Current ramblings:
Notice people and be kind.
The scene: Whole Foods market. I was waiting in the express lane to purchase some good food for my wife. The man ahead of me was doing his transaction at the card thingy (what are those card thingys called?) and talking on his phone. “Rude,” thought I. He left, and I said to Emily, the nice checker, “how are you today?” She didn’t smile. She didn’t answer me. She said “I wish people would hang up their phones. He didn’t pay me any attention.”
He, a smartphone-wielding Important Person, couldn’t be bothered to hang up his Most Important Phone Call and interact with the checker. Doesn’t that say something about class values? Apparently, since she’s working as a cashier, she must not be as elevated and worthy as he.
Poppycock. Notice people. Be kind.
Subversive? You bet your boots, cowboy. It seems to go against our system.
Just watch. It’s all around. We are so wrapped up in our little bubbles that we forget the underdog.
How, pray tell, does it bother you to pass a kind word on to somebody? “Gee, that’s a great color on you.” “I love how you sing!” “Those teenage boys are yours? Good job raising them, you good parent, you!”
Try this experiment. Say something nice to somebody. Somebody you a) don’t know or b) don’t like very much. Observe this somebody’s reaction. Analyze your own.
In a culture of believing that we are better than everybody else, take some time to realize that we’re really in the same proverbial boat.
Rick Blaine: “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” (What. You’re not a Casablanca fan? GO WATCH IT. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Really.)
Don’t be part of the problems. Be a subversive part of the solution.
I’ve mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert before. She’s the one who called us, in an interview with Krista Tippett, the “making ape.” We make stuff.
What would happen if you made your own fresh-baked bread? Golly, I can see it now. Not only would you have a good, wholesome loaf of bread missing all the preservatives and hidden added sugars, but a slice of that bread, fresh from the oven, with grass-feed cow butter, is a meal. And just imagine how your kitchen will smell. Nothing, I say NOTHING, smells better than fresh-baked homemade bread.
Never made bread before? Find a recipe. Try. It may fail, and you may wind up with a doughy lump that don’t do nothin’ except lie in the bottom of the mixing bowl. Or it may succeed, and rise beautifully, and start you on your own new adventure.
Grow something. Tomatoes or zucchini or basil. Learn how to tend and cultivate plants, and make your own food.
Paint a picture. Remember those crazy watercolor kits we had as kids? Get one. Try it out. You may discover you have absolutely no color sense whatsoever. Or you may discover you are talented beyond belief. Nevertheless, give it a try.
It’s that infuriating small voice inside that tells us we can’t do something. And we listen to it, and we agree with it, because we think it acts in our own best interests. It ain’t necessarily so.
Steven Pressfield, in his book The War of Art, discusses what he calls “Resistance,” and the way it convinces us to stay safe, not risk, not accomplish, not live. I’m thinking that’s my small voice. It works hard to keep me lethargic and stuck. And it works harder when I try something new.
Find something you want to do, and do it. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. (Wait. Why do we say that? History? Civil War?)
My good mentor, Mr. Diebel, told me, a young whippersnapper of fourteen, to question. It is all well and good if I understand stuff, but if I’m confused? Ask for clarification. If I’m intrigued? Ask for an explanation. Want to know stuff? Figure it out.
I noticed a tattoo on the neck of a postal clerk the other day. It was a music staff with notes, flowers, and hummingbirds. It was stunning. I complimented her on it (see Notice People and Be Kind above), and asked what made her choose such an interesting tattoo. Interesting answers followed, and I learned something about her relationship with her daughter, a French horn player who wrote the song tattooed on her mother’s neckline.
I wonder if it’s acceptable in my neighborhood to replace most of my lawn with white clover? A quick internet search proves that, yes, it is. And I’ll help the honeybees and other beneficial garden insects, too. My little village doesn’t adhere to any homeowner’s association. And Johnny’s Seeds sells white clover seed. I can start sowing this spring. I learned something, and I may be able to help soil nitrogen and pollinator population in the deal.
Wonder what a middle-schooler thinks about current events? You might be surprised. But you’ll never know unless you have some interest in the kid and a curiosity for the way their minds work. Ask the question! What have you to lose? The worst you’ll get is a well-practiced eye-roll. The best is a glimpse into a young, beautiful soul.
How is all this subversive?
Yeah. Good question. Let’s see:
When we really see people and practice kindness we drop our own shields and become open. We risk a real encounter. We stop seeing divisions like race, status, and creed. Each of us becomes human, and we interact on a very real level, if only for a moment. Tell me that’s what our culture values, Oh Ye of the Small Yards and the Big Cars and the Small Minds and the Fear of the Other. Boo-yah. That’s what I’m sayin’.
When we make stuff we rely less on manufacturers and service providers to keep us going, and we develop self-sufficiency. We purchase less, create more, and strengthen our mental acuity and our very souls in the process. We continue to admire Those Who Can, but we realize that We Can, Too. Seems to me there’s a certain sense of freedom there.
Curiosity makes us open to new ideas, strange situations, alternative views. Ah, how easy it is to think we know it all, and close ourselves to any conflicting ideas. How expeditious to choose a political thought train and ride it blindly. Cultural rhetoric wants us to believe that a certain kind of cat litter is so good at odor elimination we will want it everywhere in our houses, that Mexicans are crossing our borders and committing crimes, that lawns should be weed-free grass to rival any golf course. Curiosity and research might yield different results. Who knows! Maybe cat litter is indeed good for old sneakers. Maybe Mexicans will become friends. And maybe you’ll plant some white clover in your lawn. It could happen.
Have you had the misfortune to follow this blog this far? I would be remiss if I said “gee, do this, try this, experiment with that,” and didn’t do it myself. This week I shall:
Continue being nice to people. It is my biggest fault, being a nice guy. J
Make something outside my comfort zone. I might try watercolors.
Ask some good questions and do some good research.
Do not use one of these. Ever. Do not try this at home. Or anywhere.
Isn’t it great to do something new? Something personally unprecedented? Something so far away from our daily realities that it inspires us, organizes us, fascinates us, and launches us into something beautiful?
It sure is.
Let me tell you of just such a little journey. It began with a house purchase, a cute little mill home, built in 1905. And in this little house was a sad, tragic little kitchen. There was a sink and a dishwasher in a corner cabinet built of quarter-inch plywood nailed to two-by-fours. There were two small cabinets hanging on the wall. And the fridge, vintage 1970’s, was possibly last cleaned during the Reagan administration. (I did find a rather cool beer glass in the freezer. Washed and sanitized it like all heck before I used it, though.) The stove was the best part of the kitchen. Electric, mostly clean, operational, but not inspirational. And my wife a chef. Meals would better be prepared with a kerosene stove and a picnic table out back. Which is, interestingly enough, how the mill workers cooked. Outdoors!
As a kid I had the fortune (or misfortune, as I thought at the time) to assist in the building of two houses. Seems my parents had the great idea that, rather than buy an already-existing home, it would be cheaper and somehow fun to build our own. We built a nice little split-level in the 1970’s, and followed it with a modified Swiss chalet in the early ‘80’s.
How many pianists and organists do you know, my good reader, who can toenail a stud wall? Can wire outlets and switches and not get zapped? Can solder copper pipes with one of those old-fashioned torches that they now sell in antique shops and have banned in seventeen countries? (Did we really use gasoline for the fuel?) Golly. That thing spit fire like an ill-tempered hemorrhoidal dragon. And do you know how much fiberglass insulation itches? How many of today’s high school youth can lay out a foundation and build a cement block retaining wall? And who can deny the heaven-sent joys of drywall… mudding, sanding, mudding, sanding…
My new old house’s kitchen had to be gutted. And I had the opportunity to rebuild.
I would love to say I did the electrical and the plumbing in my new kitchen. In my advanced middle-age, though, I thought it best to leave those to a professional. I am not a fan of flooding, and house fires are a definite deal-breaker. But I did design and build my own cabinetry (hand tools, y’all. Pianists and rapidly spinning sharp things are not good bedfellows). A new combination gas and electric stove was installed. I re-used the same sink but updated the faucet. Bought a stainless steel fridge. The new space is vastly superior to the old space.
Except for the cabinet doors. Drawers were easy to build (with my hand-cut blind dovetails. Ever see one? I did three drawers with those. Boo-yah). But doors have always baffled me. I suppose, if I had a proper shop, and I had all the power tools, I could make perfectly matched joints. But hand tools, y’all. And I have a tiny space in which to work. My doors tend to be slightly off-square and a little warped. Kinda like some people I know.
So I left the doors off while I waited for inspiration. Wife thought it looked good, the open shelving, showing off our Fiesta table service and all her canned goods (‘cause she’s a madwoman, growing food and canning it in those cute little jars). But quietly, deep within, as a murmurwhisper, I kept hearing “wouldn’t stained glass look beautiful there?”
Nope. No stained glass there. The open shelving concept looks lovely, and we plan to keep it. I was inspired, though, so I managed to order a stained glass kit, and I tried my hand at a few designs. And you know something? I love it.
Anita and Seymour Isenberg, in the introduction to their book How to Work in Stained Glass, call stained glass “imprisoned sunlight.” How beautiful! How fascinating to think that glass, neither a liquid or a solid, can capture the sun’s rays.
I seem to be on the “look ma, no hands!” kick. Do-It-Yourself. Create something. And sometimes I amaze myself that I’m able to do these things. It’s a general fascination with the ingenuity and creativity of us humans.
I hear told that LED light manufacturers are partnering with show biz people so that, as you sit on your overstuffed couch watching “Dancing with the Stars” on your extra-large TV, ingesting chips and beer, the lighting in your very living room will be the same colors and patterns as that on the stage. And others are finding ways to connect scent modules in the same room, so you can smell the forest as you watch Cheryl Strayed trek the Pacific Coast Trail. A former student of mine created a photograph of a tree but replaced most of the leaves with primary- and secondary-colored butterflies. Ever watch an oboist shape and carve her reeds? Heavens. Creativity with a healthy dose of science. We are mightily and remarkably creative, when we open ourselves to inspiration and industry.
Speaking of sparkling, that’s this Prelude. Bach is here in his happy place. It’s a toccata, a showoff, a fantasyland. When people hear it they say “ooh! aah!” Light and brilliance.
It’s like stained glass. How many people can look at glass, with the light behind just right, and say “um… I’m not really feeling it right now.” It sparkles!
So What, you ask?
So What indeed. Let’s get off our collective butts. Let’s write, read, dream, paint, draw, engineer, devise, discover, create. Up now! Off the sofa, turn off the TV, power down the smartphone, reclaim that which makes us… creative.