Door or Eyelash?

Groupon is a beautiful thing I discovered again about a month ago when I found two items there at rock bottom prices I could not do without: Eyelash extensions and a series of 20 gyrotonics classes.  Sporting my pretty new glue on lashes I pranced along to my first gyro class.  My teacher was an adorable bright, young spark. She even commented on how nice my lashes looked.  We started right on time and she guided my classmates and me through our movements with clear instruction and beautiful demonstrations.  She had a terrific eye for proper alignment, a crucial component in gyro and offered helpful corrections, always with kind encouragement and a ready smile. I liked her and as a woman many years her senior I felt that Mommy urge kick in to want to help her pursue her dreams if ever I could. I was raised by non-church going parents and a Buddhist nanny but I’m pretty sure the above means I’m Jewish or must’ve been in a past life. I’ve been the beneficiary of guidance from elders and as they take their leave for higher plateaus I feel the life mantle fall increasingly on my shoulders to help nudge young careers forward if and when I can. Anyway…..during the course of the class I learned that my teacher was a dancer and planned soon to head to LA to check out the scene there.

Click! I knew just the right person to introduce her to: Val, a legendary dancer pal in LA whose career track over the last few years has transitioned into being a very significant choreographer, actress and master class dance teacher.  Val herself had danced for many of the most notorious choreographers of her day and now she in turn was actively involved in passing along her download to the next and next generations of up and coming dancers.

At the end of class I asked my young teacher if I might introduce her to my LA dancer pal? She accepted and we exchanged emails.  By the end of the next day a round of messages had been sent and I was thrilled to know that these two lovelies would be meeting up over the coming days.  Very smugly I felt I’d done a mitzvah. “I’d opened a door”, I thought in obnoxious self congratulations and imagined the downbeat to a grand mentorship that surely lay ahead.

Two weeks later my teacher returned from LA bronzed and sporting, I noticed, a snappy set of glue on lashes.  Excited to learn what had transpired I asked how their meeting had gone? My expectations of hearing about a bold new path having opened in her life were dashed when she reported that she had not had the time to meet with Val. Further she gleefully told me she had managed to find a great place to get eyelash extensions.  Really? Found time to get eyelashes glued on and failed to meet with glorious Val who would have changed her life? If my young teacher could have but touched the knob on this ready door a world of shortcuts, wisdom, experience, introductions had awaited her on the other side. Mighty me sat in judgement throughout my next hour in gyro class.   On my walk home afterwards other voices entered the fray of my disappointment. How many thresholds had I failed to cross, how many ready doors had I ignored? How many hours wasted “getting lashes” or the equivalent of, had I wasted when I had been her age? For that matter, now? How many hours have I wasted over even the last month on Facebook, or mindlessly watching the news rather than reading or meditating or working out?  How many doors have I opened that would have been better if they had remained closed?

Immediate overwhelm and I return to stewing in disappointment over my beautiful young teacher’s failure to meet Val.

Eventually I have to make my peace knowing she will find her own good way in her own good time.  I struggle to get ego back in its cage and commit to the best of my ability to watch for open doors I should walk through and thresholds I should not cross.  Is it, however, time to book an appointment for another set of lashes?

Je M’Excuse

I do concerts here and there on the road. Safe to say that some gigs go better than others.  I’m fortunate to have a particularly talented Music Director who usually travels with me but being in high demand as he is, on more than one occasion I’ve had to sub out his position.  A while back I was heading to Paris for a concert and was in just such a predicament, however the club there assured me they had a top drawer, jazz pianist who’d be happy to fill in. “Silly me. It’s Paris! Of course they have a fabulous jazz pianist!” Problem solved…or so I thought.

Unmitigated musical disaster is not too grand a phrase to describe what unfolded. I arrived at the club late afternoon at the appointed hour for our run through excited for our opening night.  There he was… Mario, the pianist. First, there was the look. His neon nylon suit was totally overshadowed by his enormous bouffe of hair that stood on end well past understandable boundaries of gravity…and then there was the large circa 1970’s plaid bow tie.  His smile was infectious though and after a few pleasantries we got to work. My first real clue that things might not go as well as hoped for was when he pulled out a single sheet of music instead of the music charts that had been sent over months before. Each song sent ran anywhere from six to fifteen pages filled with carefully arranged notes specifically crafted by my Music Director for the given tune.  Mario dug into the ivories and after a few measures it was patently obvious that his preferred style was oom pah pah, which is about as far from anything that qualifies as jazz you can get.  When I asked him why he was not playing off my charts he explained that mine were too complicated.  Evidently unaware of my mounting state of shock, he cheerfully continued with gusto, which was augmented by his terminal case of white boy rhythm. We were now only four hours before our first show. I excused myself for a moment and bolted to the manager to inform him of our looming disaster pleading please could he find a proper pianist?  Failing to make any headway I returned to Mario and the clock kept ticking.  We made what little progress we could and then ladies and gentlemen, it was show time. 

I longed for a life handbook.  What, I wondered, was the best thing to do? Girding myself with the Berlin lyric, I decided that we had to go on with the show.  We repaired to the dressing rooms.  I have no memory of applying my make up. I think this is what happens in moments of impending doom. Memory evaporates. The audience arrived, places were called, Mario and I took the stage.  We began.  He launched into the first number. I tried to find my note, really tried and could not.  I do remember thinking “Just sing and keep singing no matter what.” I jumped in and held to the melody like a sailor clinging to a shipwreck in a stormy sea.  Mario seemed to have some awareness that things were not going quite as well as they ought but this did nothing to help our predicament. More than once he turned the pages with such enthusiasm so as to skip to a much later part of the song. Trying, I’m sure, to be helpful, he would then sing the part of the song he was playing which had nothing to do with where I was in the tune. At the end of our second number I did what any seasoned professional would do (not), hailed the waiter from the stage and ordered a drink. 

The audience graduated through a few stages fairly rapidly. First I suppose they had been in a kind of happy expectation…they had after all bought tickets.  Next was confusion, quickly followed by uproarious laughter.  Humiliating, but at least they were in on the joke of us unintentionally being somewhere between a Monty Python and a Carol Burnett sketch.  I remember saying out loud at some point, after what I believe was his attempt at a solo, ”Throw me a note. Any note!” More than once I stopped mid song and asked him as diplomatically as I possibly could, to take a rest and continued on acapella. After an interminable hour plus, the show was over.  I thanked Mario for his work. He had tried awfully hard and there was no sense in being angry with him.  I retired to my hotel and spent a sleepless night wondering how on earth we could save ourselves the following performance.

By morning I had hatched a plan. I had recorded these tunes, and thought, if the audience could hear the music, even off my computer, in the manner it was meant to be played, I could sing along with myself sort of karaoke style and Mario could bang away doing his level best to keep up with the recording as a kind of guide track.  I strolled the stunning streets of Paris the next morning, which greatly abated the fret over the certain musical guillotine that awaited that evening. Once at the concert venue the manager introduced me to Jean Pierre who he explained was a very fine percussionist. Things were looking up. There was a large percussion solo in the finale and I almost started salivating thinking that if Mario and I could just make it to that point, we could perhaps redeem the evening with a fine percussion solo. Jean Pierre and I talked through the hastily printed off percussion lead sheet. I heard the manager in passing say something along the lines of no pay but free drinks for him and his guest.  We were good to go. Why I trusted this manager to provide a second musician is beyond me. That there were no percussion instruments was of minor consideration.  Necessity being the mother of invention, I grabbed two of large kitchen bowls, a vase, a decorative antler along with a couple of spoons and arranged them atop the piano next to my computer.  The doors opened, our audience took their seats, places were called and we began.

Mario’s survival instinct kicked in and if possible he was playing even more loudly than the night before.  I remedied this by leaning the microphone on its stand into the computer in an effort to amplify the recorded sound, leaving me sans mic. Nevermind. I karaok’ed along to the audience’s raucus laughter. I held onto the grand finale as if it were light at the end of a particularly dark tunnel. At last and with short-lived relief, I introduced Jean Pierre who had been seated at the back of the house. To my horror I saw him rise and stagger one painful, weaving lurch forward at a time. He had clearly taken free drinks as an invitation to imbibe.  Jean Pierre miraculously arrived at his home-made percussion set, picked up a spoon and with a great thwack to the antler, gave us the down beat.  Oh, for a hole in the ground, but finding none, I could only hold onto my self imposed dictum and continue singing no matter what.  I don’t recall who got to the end of the song first, Mario or myself. Whoever it was, Jean Pierre now having worked himself into a lather of rhythm, continued.  I lunged for his shoulders to let him know above the fray that “The song is OVER!” In so doing however I tripped on the leaning microphone, which then crashed to the floor. I was lucky not to impale my front pearly whites on the piano.

Fast as possible I bid my adieus and jettisoned myself from the venue back out into the magic of Paris whose grand jazz tradition I was mortified to have offended.  I did discover I think that the Parisians, to their great credit, have a ready sense of humor.  I’m not sure a performance the likes of what Mario, Jean Pierre and I had inflicted would have been accepted in like manner in say, New York.  Looking back now, we all survived, no one died but I do ardently hope at some point to be able to redeem the experience.  Je m’excuse belle Paris.

The Artists: A Triptych, Part III

“You’ve got to meet the Landrums” my friend commanded one day at work. Apparently I had no choice in the matter so off we went to the Landrum dance class the following day. At 18, I had spent my share of hours at the ballet barre but coming out of my first class with Jacqui and Bill, I felt my body had been redesigned and that more doors, possibilities and energy patterns had been opened in my hour and a half with them than in all my previous classes put together.  They were what they taught…focused, insanely beautiful and hugely gifted.  Time in their classes led to working together when producers on a project I was doing were smart enough to hire them as choreographers. In the fullness of time our weave continued and led to one of my very most formative and enduring friendships.  Chosen family. Over the years I witnessed them apply their creative forces to their every life transition and challenge to beautiful effect. They always, but always moved forward no matter how high the hurdle. The ferocity with which they lived their good lives even as young talents, became a beacon for many.  When I wondered what the ideal marriage might look like all I had to do was witness theirs.  Their intertwined vibrancy was and remains the object of envy for all.  When my life would grind to a halt I only had to conjure a fraction of their gusto to get things moving again.  When at a life intersection I could always ask myself, “What would Bill or Jacqui do?” and get my answer.  When nervous about going into an audition I would channel Jacqui’s fearlessness and go for broke.  When I embarked into the world of cabaret singing I enlisted their coaching help. The list goes on. 

Tragically it has been a decade now since Jacqui died.   If the weight of words could fall into a black hole through the screen…the words in the last sentence did so.  

Having suffered so indescribable a loss, how, we all worried and wondered, would Bill ever find his way?  Well, he did ofcourse find his way forward with one breath at a time, with Herculean strength, with deliberate choices. Doing so I have to think has been the greatest test of and conjuring up of his own creative powers. Forward Bill moved not only to exist, but to create a new and energized life of different and equal depth.  

The dancer in him works every day in his studio…exploring and challenging himself to make new discoveries always with integrity of both mind and body.  The intellect in him took on learning a new foreign language and how to play the guitar. The perennial student in him took on learning about organic gardening. The philanthropist in him promptly set up a program for the elementary school in his village that graduated into a community operated farmers market, also a recycling effort run by the students. He carries no baggage, holds no grudges, nor does he pass judgement.  He keeps who he wants in his life and moves on from others without resentment when needed. If a moment comes that seems hard he’ll give himself the directive to “Change the energy” or “Change the character.” Challenges can be crippling but in the Landrum’s case and now in Bill’s alone, the creative principle no matter the G-force is the rocket he pilots. 

A multitude of students came through Bill and Jacqui’s classes. Many, who went on to great successes, attribute their rise to lessons learned in the Landrum studio. When any one of us in his circle point this out, it always comes as a surprise to him that he has had choreographic influence on life journeys. He never set out to be a mentor but the unique path they blazed and now he blazes, is its own map to true north on how to negotiate life’s rapids, how to overcome and how to build an astonishingly beautiful, meaningful life. For all these reasons and more my cherished, remarkable friend Bill is also my mentor. My friend was right. I did have to meet the Landrums.

The Artists: A Triptych, Part II

The Dancer

If you lived in New York in the 70’s as I did, you too would have frequently seen posters of an Adonis floating mid air, advertising the legendary Joffrey Ballet Company. If you were lucky you would have seen that dancer perform live. I was lucky. He had trained as a teen under Martha Graham. All the great choreographers of the day put their work on him…Agnes de Mille, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, Robert Joffrey, to mention but a few.  He transitioned out of dance to focus on his life long second love, costumes and was sought after to design whole ballets for many world class companies. He also designed Tina Turner’s performance wardrobe.  Are you breathless? I am and was recently on a daily basis when I stayed with him in London. Every morning over coffee and still in pajamas we would curl up on his sofas for another installment of, I’ll call them “life talks”.  Like a child at story time I’d soak in another tale of his having been in the rehearsal studio with Robbins or Gwen Verdon, for instance. Mid story, ever the dancer, his twinkling eyes would light up as he would illustrate the moment with a tendue, a port de bras, a whip turn. He also kindly brought out photo albums that documented his process in creating costumes.  First came the montage pages…a line of poetry, a sketch, a postcard, etc. Turning the leaf, the album went on to reveal his detailed sketches with accompanying fabric swatches. Last were photographs of the dancers in his final masterpieces. I was gob smacked. These morning sessions would end only because he had a rehearsal to get to for his upcoming cabaret performance.  The halls of his home are filled with portraits, paintings of life moments I only later realized were his own. Who needed to go to the British Museum?  Not I.  It was clear that each level of artistry had informed the next. His eye for line moved easily into silhouette on a costume, his breath control as a dancer had become the foundation of his singing, his visceral knowledge of dance had expanded into the swish of Tina Turner’s dress, making visible the aura of her fiery spirit.  For all the monsters in our midst there are also these rare wonders of nature who fulfill their destiny as creatives, as continual fountains of the beauty that is possible from within the human spirit.  Lucky me to have experienced this just when its needed most. 

The Artists: A Triptych, Part I

The Artists: A Triptych

I went last week to see a long term girlfriend perform in concert. Her show’s arc was autobiographical and included illuminating stories about having survived a long and successful career in musical comedy theatre. The strongest common denominator through her tales of adventures and misadventures was heartfelt gratitude for it all.  She was spectacular and the audience spontaneously stood to cheer and tell her so during the extended curtain call.  Every thought in the lyrics was explored to its fullest, every emotion was rooted in a truth, every syllable articulated, both literally and metaphorically.  She left it all on the table, got everything one could possibly get out of each song.  Her authentic effervescence radiated out to uplift her audience, she moved with the fluidity of a young gazelle and at 67 she looked impossibly youthful.  None of that was by accident.  She has worked hard to make it so. Knowing her for over four decades, I can bear witness to the fact that this is also how she has lived her life.  She has delved in full tilt at every chapter.  As a young woman she planted roots in good soil and then nurtured them.  In return for steadfast loyalty, her life is filled with an army of long term, beloved allies.  She’s been married to the same good man for almost 40 years.  Their home is filled with works of art by and photographs of their thriving children and now grandchildren. There is fresh fruit out on her sun drenched kitchen counters, healthy snacks in her pantry, comfortable well-lit places to plop in with easy access to wonderful books and magazines at the ready to dive into.  In other words she lives the way she creates her art and creates her art the way she lives.  With intentionality, smart choices, attention to detail, taking absolutely nothing for granted and always with gratitude. Brava Diva.

Loss and Redemption

A very wise friend of mine recently said he viewed life as mostly a journey of loss and redemption.  I don’t know if that hits a chord with you but it sure did with me. It’s making me reframe the past, if not the future.  Call it optimistic or naive or both but I’ve always believed that wins were the main thoroughfare on which only occasionally the shock of loss would trespass. Looking back now whilst I’m grateful for successes and blessings I can see that what I perceive to be losses have also been a large part of the journey. Sitting where I am on the chronological time line I can say with certainty that if you’re anywhere past say 35, you’ve also experienced your share of gains and losses. Kudos and condolences.

So…what to do with the losses anyone of us cannot seem to get past? Love for instance. Some folks get to keep their loves, get to have that journey continue to unfold through all the chapters of their adult life.  More, I’m coming to learn, are not granted that privilege. There is an individual I fell hook, line and sinker for long years ago.  We had a big, bold, adventurous life together, the stuff of dreams and now he is gone. Details don’t matter much. Gone though he is, the footprint remains, the bandwidth still occupied.  So brethren of loss, what to do?

First I suppose is to actually do the loosing, the letting go.  Easier said than done because to do so is to loose the remnants of what had been. For me, that “us” besides raising my son, has been the best and brightest time of my life thus far. How else though, except by letting go, can we make room for the new?

I got to sit by a Montana stream the other day.  Not one molecule of it looked back. It kept moving, was a constant if you will of letting go, of depositing debris, shifting the landscape.  Clever stream. If the stream is any example, letting go is part of the natural order of progress.  

Following the wisdom my pal offered, next up would be redemption. Webster’s dictionary offers helpful hints by way of defining redeem with actions like “restore, reform, retake, make good, to free from harm.”  Taking “restore” and “reform” at face value could mean we need to gather the pieces of our shattered selves and put them back together on a new trajectory.  “Make good, free from harm” could be to fill in the gaping hole with gratitude that we got to experience the good at all.  

Loss and redemption. Working on it.

Mountain Call

For all her considerable elegance and city sophistication the call of her West Virginia roots could not be denied. So it was that Mom found a funky wooden cottage at the base of Mt. Fuji to which we would repair when the swelter of Tokyo summers overwhelmed. Once out of the city, we’d continue the three hours up the precarious windy mountain road to reach our paradise. The first days there were always busy making rounds on dirt roads to the hog, chicken, rice farmers, tofu vendor, the kindly man with the loan village cow, for supplies. Each would beam welcoming smiles back to this funny Western family, patting my sister’s and my heads noticing how we’d grown during the winter months. Filthy lucre was never discussed but rather passed over in an envelope with much bowing and thanks.

Every country day brought new adventures of running up and down hills in the cover of scented pine forests behind the house. Now and then through the branches we’d glimpse Mt. Fuji, her serene presence, in stark contrast to our own, somehow always bearing witness. We’d ride our bicycles ever forward on trails we in our youthful hubris, felt sure no one had discovered before. We’d head to the ramshackle Ping Pong Pavilion…a barely standing open walled shed with a rickety table and corroded net, for a game. A favorite neighborhood destination was to the convent school’s spring fed, cement swimming pool, complete with slime green walls and water bugs seemingly performing complex water ballet on the pool’s surface. We didn’t mind. It was wet and inviting. We’d explore again and again the giant timbered, laced with cobwebs and abandoned, Buddhist temple with its enormous Taiko drums. We were sure it was haunted and would tell each other made up ghost stories until we were shaking in our flip flops and had to run away. When the cicadas started up we knew it was time to head home. Once there, we’d get under way with our primary evening chore…stuffing and then lighting the firewood underneath the stone water vat so as to heat water for the eventual bath. Someone would light the incense coils so as to keep the mosquitoes at bay, someone else would set up the mahjong table with the click clack of tiles. Someone else would put the needle on the record…Stan Getz, Jobim, Herb Alpert were our soundtracks. Everyone slept like logs on those summer nights. The thing is that magical place engrained a summer rhythm of needing to spend as much time out of doors as possible, of needing to explore, of being alone in the powerful, realigning force of Mother Nature.

Life evolves and for chunks of the year now, I live in a city setting that boasts some of the best museums and galleries in all the world. Like my Mother, however, the calling of my privileged summers will not be denied. Different mountains, but the same theme. I love to hit the trails, usually alone. I love the splendid solitude they offer, their humbling challenge that both invigorates and inspires.

The time honored Masters hung on city cultural temples, grand though they are, do not hold a candle to the art in nature. To its outrageous color combinations, leaning boulders that would be the envy of any monumental sculptor, breathtaking vistas, complex valley systems…and behind each image a living metaphor. I suppose in the deep breathing and endorphin high of an ascent, immersed in that beauty the subconscious is at liberty to throw up old sorrows and/or life tangles to be metabolized one foot step at a time. For instance last week in the free flowing euphoria of a descent, I found myself ruminating over my six miscarriages…yup…of long years ago. A wave of buried sadness washed over me. I turned to the life force of the surrounding trees for solace. Surely their patient witness would issue comfort. They did. There, on the ground at the base of a giant tree were pinecones and small baby pine trees. Some had taken hold, others had not. Even amidst death the dominating force was life. The image told me that each of those six precious souls found a next ride into life. They had not died, just had been lost to me.

On spiny ridges, apparently unaware of their peril, I’ve seen trees improbably growing out granite slabs 1000 feet off the valley floor simply reaching beautifully toward the light. Others heroically curl and twist up between and around jagged rock outcroppings with fearsome tenacity. In direct correlation to the challenge of their circumstance, the more beautiful the tree. Is this it I wonder? We twist and adapt, we expose our roots and hang on for dear life always reaching toward the sun. Is our own beauty expressed through the overcoming of challenges? I will think of the tenacity of those trees next time I hit a wall in life. The tree found a way to hang on. So must and can, apparently, we.

Maybe this is the calling…to insight, to solace.

Whatever it is, I wish it for you.