QUARANTINE

The good news is that my beau and I were offered a film to do together. The bad news is that because it was to shoot in Vancouver, we’d be obliged as per Canadian covid protocol, to quarantine for fourteen days in a hotel room. “Sure”, I thought, “Not a problem.” Mercifully it wasn’t and we’ve now lived to tell the tale but it was interesting for sure.  

First up, prior to departure from the US, there were the 15 or more online forms that had to be filled out…all for covid. ” Are you coughing? Are you unusually tired? Have you been around someone with covid?” Really? How would I know? 

As I was filling them out, I kept thinking how dumb this was…more forms, more red tape. I mean who was going to look at all this stuff?  Fair, if you were to call me grumpy. Then there were the five sites that needed to be joined…site for testing, site for info on the hotel in which we were to quarantine, site to show travel plans, etc.  Grumpier still but joined as was required and dotted all the “i’s.”

Soon as I boarded the Air Canada flight the grumpy started to abate.  The flight was far from sold out, passengers not traveling together were spaced apart. The plane crew were gowned, gloved and masked.  Clearly they were taking covid safety very seriously which immediately eased the tension of covid travel worries.  Easy passage to one of the world’s most beautiful airports, Vancouver International, which on past entries had been bustling with activity. This time the airport was, for all intents and purposes, dormant. Only our plane seemed to have landed, shops and restaurants were shuttered and the main lobby had been turned into a covid testing mash unit with a hundred or more cubicles, one to a passenger, staffed by a nurse who administered the required nasal swab. A most unusual but necessary welcome. Oh by the way, every single form we’d filled out had been claimed by a customs officer by the time we exited the airport. So much for my having prejudged them as being superfluous. 

With utmost courtesy, we were then escorted post haste to our airport hotel room. Probably wasn’t, but the door sounded particularly loud as it shut. Three days there til our tests cleared and then we’d be moved to a hotel in town for the remaining 11 days.  Meals would be delivered three times daily. Laundry could not be sent out nor any newspapers delivered. Hard core.  Pals of mine returning to their homes in Shanghai and Sydney respectively have endured the 14 days, now it was our turn. Light, view, connection to nature are crucial to me. I can’t remember a day over the last many years when I have not been able to/chosen to spend some portion of it out of doors.  How, I wondered would I fare being hermetically sealed in? Through the centuries people have endured jail cells, dungeons in shackles, darkened caves…surely we could manage 14 days with hot and cold running water, a loo and room service. Wait, could we?

Turns out, for me anyway, when you cannot go out the only place to go is in…in this case into self to explore what a pal used to call “the infinite space within.”  Love that. I have to admit there was a moment each morning upon rising, when I usually set my sites on the day ahead, when I felt like I was being slammed into a wall…but that quickly gave way to the inner road. Breath, meditation, prayer became the prominent features of the day. Yoga, online pilates mat classes. Time suspended itself in the cocoon and the days passed easily.  There may have been some red wine involved. Just sayin’.

Over the fourteen days I began to daydream about the concept of quarantine. Curious that some of it’s synonyms are “distance, keep out, close off, fence off, put a cordon on.” Sounded awfully like concepts we’ve exhaustively heard bandied about in the news over the last few years. I dug a bit to learn that the word quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta ‘forty’. Forty days…a significant passage of time used for transformations in many religious traditions. Seems to me our sorry world could use some healthy transformations about now. I for one certainly could do with a reset, renew, refresh.

As we emerged we felt, more than anything, a sense of gratitude to the Canadian government for taking the pandemic so seriously. Hadn’t seen that coming. Their restrictions felt more like care than confinement. They’d managed to construct and implement a whole infrastructure of covid awareness. The feeling continued as we witnessed everyone wearing masks and in restaurants where strictly out of doors dining with distanced tables was the norm. Camaraderie, that sense of all being in it together, was tangible. 

Would that it were so in America. We’ve been lax, uncoordinated. We’ve missed a golden opportunity to come together as one against the deadly virus. We have instead been splintered, angry, scared, some of us are in stubborn and ignorant denial, confused and dying.  We’ve missed a moment when we could have, dare say should have dropped the facade of ideological separations, missed the moment to heal divides and embrace the great adversity that could have brought us together when we need it the most. More’s the pity.

If this won’t bring us together, bring us into the awareness that we forevermore exist in a global reality, what will? 

Good Dirt

Mid winter, in anticipation of spring, I like to plant narcissus bulbs. It’s something my Mother used to do and come April, just when the world outside would have turned to brown slush, our home would be filled with sweet fragrances. It was a reminder of life’s promise of change as well as the promise of beauty yet to come.


Over the last few years, travel has kept me from this ritual but this winter…well, you know…suffice to say that being at home meant I could once again set bulbs up and so I did. Some went into containers with dirt, others into containers with rocks. Pleased with my work, I placed them variously around the house and awaited their certain bloom. Disaster struck, however, when the baby shoots started to come up blighted and the aroma of rot permeated the rooms.  Clearly I’d lost the touch and because seeing, not to mention smelling so immediately what happens when you put the potential for bloom in a toxic, wrong atmosphere I began to wonder about my own atmosphere.  What dirt is my own life planted in? Is it good? Does it blight a bud? Is it conducive to growth? Do we have a choice about the dirt we grow in? Can we make our own? Okay…thanks for coming down that rabbit hole with me…that was the bottom line question…what is the dirt, the atmosphere of thought from which my life springs? Sadly not sure I have an answer but I know I’d like my dirt to have the right nutrients, ones from which I can draw sustainable growth. 
Pondering what first “dirt” was or is for any of us, I guess the answer is the womb. Must’ve been nice. Everything needed at hand, other than the task of growing a body within the time allotted, no deadlines to meet.  I was lucky through my childhood as well to be potted in an atmosphere that was stable, stimulating and very loving. At some point though, it was up to me, up to all of us to create the dirt.  Looking back I can clearly see that I have not always done a good job at that…largely through neglect, squander, hubris but what about now, today? What is the mental atmosphere in which I chose to grow?


Dirt, I’ve just learned, has five components: Water, gas, organic matter, mineral (primary and sub) and microorganisms. Microorganisms are very cool. They host bacteria that have symbiotic nutrient exchanging relationships with plants. Not only bacteria but actinomycetes, fungi, algae, protozoa and viruses. Yuck but I’m going to take comfort in the notion that these “undesireables” (aka so called life mistakes) are essential for soil development.  In fact without them, soil dies.

Close on microorganism’s heels is organic matter…all the dead stuff that gets fed back in, in order to fortify dirt.  Negative and neutral chemicals therein influence soil’s ability to retain nutrients. In other words everything, successes and failures alike get fed back into the dirt as compost serving only, ultimately, to make the mixture more fertile. Phew.

 
I’m going to call the ingredient of gas for my dirt mixture, mental calm…as in unencumbered empty space, a stress free zone, a place from which to imagine unimpeded.  One of the things calm demands is a prevalence of rational thought. Tends to dampen worries, imagined disasters, etc. In the way that deep roots help soil recycle nutrients, going deep during passages of reflection that calm allows for, must surely promote growth. 


Primary minerals, I’ll translate into optimism. A pal used to counsel me to “Carry optimism around in your head like a merry tune.” Lord knows that’s easier to do some days than others but even the effort I have to think provides some of the necessary nutrients. Sub nutrients of optimism are plentiful…resilience, perseverance, hope, joy, etc.  I’d take any one of those to grow a dream with.  Perhaps for you as well but I feel those qualities fuel my willingness to take on new projects, to tackle creative endeavors and their necessary learning curves. 


Water, I’ll give to the key element of a connection to the Greater as guide, true north, reassurance, identity. Some would call that Mother Nature, others might call that God or Spirit…whatever the belief or articulation of same, a connection to what is bigger and unhampered by our day to day challenges of life is a crucial ingredient for my dirt recipe. Water is the great conductor, the assurance of the constancy of change. It purifies, renews and reanimates. It’s flow cuts canyons, moves mountains, reshapes and fortifies.  Water can carry us.

It’s a pretty simple atmosphere recipe really, one from which fragrant blossoms just might bloom. 

The Princess and Me

Growing up, Mom used to go to the Okura Hotel hair salon Saturday afternoons for her weekly coif. The Okura was an elegant hotel directly across the street from the US Embassy in Tokyo, the city where I was raised through the 60’s and into the 70’s. In other words through the height of the Cold War. I can only imagine the number of spies and double agents who had exchanges in it’s storied lobby through that era. I digress. The salon boasted a row of comfy professional chairs each staffed by a stunning, shibui toned kimono garbed stylist. At the far end of the row, was a chair set apart from the others that would be hidden behind a drawn curtain when special customers wanted privacy.  Wafts of punishing perm stink and the delight of aqua net hung heavily in the air. No customer left without a work of lacquered art piled on top of their heads.  Once every six weeks or so Mom would take me with her for a hair cut of my very own. It was always a special treat, very grown up but on a particular early spring Saturday in 1964, my outing to the Okura, a day when the curtain at the end was drawn, turned out to be a very special one. 

My hair cut complete and Mother’s coif yet underway, the proprietress who was usually far too busy to even say hello to a mere 8 year old approached and asked if I wanted to meet a princess? In hushed tones, she explained that the Queen of Saudi Arabia was behind the drawn curtain and she, like Mom, had brought her daughter along. With Mother’s permission I gladly accepted to be taken behind the curtain. 

Seated in the salon chair was a rather voluminous woman, elegant but dour I’d say and beside her in white organza, white tights and little girl pumps was her daughter.  I think we were each as surprised as the other to clap eyes on, in her case a mere civilian, in mine a fairytale princess. We were equally alien life forms to each other.

I have no recollection of what we said to through the translator on hand…pleasantries I suppose of how old we were? That I loved her dress…but the upshot after our Mothers spoke, was that the Princess would come to our house the following day for a play date.  

You cannot imagine the spit and polishing that went on, the raking of leaves, ironing and fretting from the moment we got home until the hour of Princess Faisal’s arrival.  I dressed my dollies for the occasion, put ribbons on the doggies, tea and cookies would be served. At the ready a good hour before she was to arrive I stood in nervous anticipation on the porch overlooking the driveway awaiting her arrival.  

With unrest brewing in Saudi Arabia, King Faisal my parents were informed by a US Embassy staff member who had somehow been made aware of this impending visit, had sent his first wife and their two daughters to Tokyo as a safety precaution.  (The King was indeed assassinated several years later.) They had been ensconced at the Okura for three months when we met. 

At last I could hear a car coming across the driveway gravel…not one but three shiny black sedans pulled to a stop below me.  Out poured black suited bodyguards from the first and third cars. Some scattered around the property, three stood guard at the middle car. After what seemed an interminable wait, the Princess emerged from her car. I bolted down the stairs to greet her and her entourage.  When she stepped across our threshold the body guards had discretely disappeared. It was only Mother and I who greeted Princess Faisal and her translator. I’m not sure my feet were even on the ground at that point.  She was shy, modest even, poised and curious. Her large black eyes took in my world through what lens I cannot  begin to imagine.  To her, our home must have looked like a pauper’s cottage. 

Tea was served and Mother excused herself leaving just the three of us, if you don’t count my dressed up dollies, to our “playdate.”  I don’t recall much of what we did together.  I remember asking her if she could sing a song she liked. She declined to do so explaining that she was not permitted to sing without her father’s permission. As she did so she held up the hand painted, diamond encrusted porcelain pendant to show me the portrait of her father that hung around her neck.  I remember in that rendering that he had a kindly face.  Over our month of knowing one another, on another playdate we daringly sat on the teeter totter in the back yard.  That was the only time I recall seeing her laugh and with abandon too. The Queen kindly permitted me to visit them at their sprawling Okura suite.  On one of these visits, the Queen told me they were to return soon to the Kingdom and asked if I might take an interest in going with them for a visit? She knew ofcourse that I would have to ask my parents but looking back now, I think how very modern it was of her to have first mentioned the possibility to me. Surely the instantaneous glee on my face had been an answer even before I’d blurted out an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

Things now moved very quickly. They were to leave in only a few days. I was certain my parents would accept this once in a life time invitation. I was already, mentally, packing my bag. To my utter dismay ,however, my parents forbad me to go.  Only later did I learn that they had sought counsel from the US Embassy on my possible travel. The Embassy had emphatically advised that I not go…stating that they could not ensure I would be seen nor heard from again were I to go.

Furious with my parents in only the way a spoiled eight year old can be, I stealed myself to bid adieu to my Princess, to my friend. Early the following evening, I was taken one last time to their suite. Things were bustling…papers, bags, body guards readying for what I’m sure was to be a private jet back to the Kingdom. Amidst this, the Queen was her serene self and taking me by the hand guided me for the first time into her private room. There on the floor, against the wall was a medium sized, wooden chest. She pointed to it and instructed the translator to open it and for me to choose three items contained therein as a remembrance. The heavy lid lifted to reveal a combination of loose jewels and gold coins that filled the casket to the brim. Sapphires, rubies, diamonds, emeralds..the lot.  The Queen stood over my left shoulder as I knelt down to make my selection.  Not wanting to appear too greedy, darn, I selected two gold coins. She asked if I was sure. I said “Yes” and the treasure chest was closed shut. I cannot imagine that twice in my life I will see such glittered bounty.

It was time now to say goodbye. My parents had arrived to collect me and to say their goodbyes. I wonder now what the look was, what the silent exchange of primal understanding between two mothers was in that moment? Princess Faisal and I hugged each other, probably for the first time knowing we would likely not see one another again. My parents and I exited the suite, I in pouty mourning. 

Years later my parents told me that the US Embassy had informed them that I was in grave danger of being kidnapped that night and so in an abundance of caution, they had posted MP’s at all the Okura exits. My folks had been coached on what to do, what would happen should an emergency arise. My loving parents had taken the brunt of my disappointment not wanting to complicate a fairytale memory with world politics in a heady time.

I wonder sometimes what life the Princess has led? What sort of education she was afforded, how many children she has, what heart aches she has had to heal from? I wonder if she remembers her time with a little American girl on the teeter totter?  I wonder if we will ever meet again? 

2021

Out with the rat, in with the ox. “Year of” that is as here comes the New Year.  I wonder again what intentions to set for the coming trip around the sun? What goals matter, what vision quest, what resolutions, what dismissals? Dismissals I’m finding are so much easier at this stage of life. I pretty much say what I want, when I want, to whom I want and on occasion, let silence do its work. It’s not a perfect plan but it is one of the liberations of advancing in life that I’ve adopted. It is also a two way street.  For the most part I’ve come to cherish my friends’ blunt speak. Here’s an example. Me: “Do I look fat in this?” S/He: “Yup.” Me: “I can do a cartwheel!” He: “Nope. Not so much.”

Resolutions, goals…those can be more difficult to deal with. Where do you start the process of articulating them, of distilling their essence? One possibility is to follow the Japanese New Year’s tradition of tidying things up. Over December bills are paid, the house is cleaned, what needs tossing gets tossed, what issues can be faced are dealt with. Space in every sense of the word is cleared for the new. As the shift approaches trashy novels are put aside for deeper thoughts, deeper readings. The fridge is stocked for a clean diet. 

On New Year’s Eve day itself, ablutions be they hot spring soaks, cold plunges and the like are performed. Restored and reset perhaps that can be the place from which to discern goals. 

Resolutions though admirable are unrealistic for me. At least on cue at the stroke of the new year. Too ill disciplined, so rather than set my self up for failure I simply don’t make them. I know, chicken.  I do, however, set intentions. In the event putting them into writing helps manifest them, I’ll attempt to do so here and ask you to bear witness. 

First I need to take stock and clear out the old rat year. A recent NY Times article prompted its readers to sum up the year in one word. Mine was “tumultuous.” What with the closures of all nature, covid mortalities compounding the numbers of deaths, fiscal/political uncertainties I’m sure it has been a year of profound losses for all of us. I’d been living in NY, doing a play..all that ended. Concerts for the year cancelled. Six friends gone. Because my immediate family members have all remained healthy, because we have roofs over our heads, because my son is happy, because I have a remarkable life partner, my tumult falls I’m infinitely grateful to say into the realm of inconvenient and sad. The life that was, however, cannot be returned to. A new chapter has to be envisioned and built with considerations of what our new world looks like. 

I’ve read articles recently about corporations adjusting business models to accommodate consumers who, during the pandemic, have discovered that they’re happier with less. That’s cool. Less stuff, less noise. I’d like to incorporate that into the new year. 

Since we know now that a pandemic can happen, some consideration of this needs to go into being prepared should it happen again. 

Time is more precious now. I should use it more judiciously. 

Have adventures. 

So, my intention (gulp) for this new year will be about building the new normal, about building the new nest wherever that may be, about home and putting down roots from which adventures can be taken. My goal is for home to become a petrie dish for germinating the possible. I intend for this new chapter to be created to nurture health, to welcome family and friends, to be fertile ground for the expression of music and art.

Whatever our collective intentions and goals, perhaps we can all draw on our inner oxen over the coming twelve months to help accomplish what we’ve set out to do. Ox have qualities linked to physical and mental strength. They’re known to be hard workers and according to a Chinese zodiac blog, they are patient builders of their projects and dreams. So, goodbye Rat and all its mischief. Bring on the Ox. Let’s get to work. 

The Sea Churns

Its a mid week morning and I’ve completed my usual routine of reading the news, listening to voice mails, reading through texts and emails.  Over the last three days of this ritual, here are some of the things I’ve learned…

Over 300,000 dead and counting from Covid in the United States alone.  As reported to me by my favorite cousin, another cousin died last week. Yet another was told to get his papers in order as his health will not see him through the coming year.  I learned that my 93 year old friend’s daughter died. Just died, no pre-existing conditions. An acquaintance who was until one year ago vigorous and in the prime of her career is languishing with the horrors of ALS.  Her doting husband can but support, weep and watch.  A brilliant writer friend at the peak of his talents has entered hospice. A lifelong friend is dealing with cancer that is treatable but cancer none the less. A colleague and world renowned dancer/choreographer died suddenly in her sleep. A covid stricken friend is struggling on a ventilator. A middle-aged pal is at a moment of crisis as he looks at life and wonders where his life partner is? Where his house is? Where money for retirement is going to come from? He’s scared. A young friend in an hour of profound grief, is struggling to keep himself from suicide. Another young man, 24, battling cancer for his life. The sea churns. If you are the praying kind and if you have a moment, please offer up a prayers of light, particularly for these two young men. 

I reflect on all these recent and ongoing events whilst sitting in a sun filled Southern California breakfast nook that today overlooks a calm sea. There is food in my pantry, there are presents to be wrapped and put under the tree. In the obscene bounty of this privilege, I become keenly aware that the best of life could be snatched away in an instant and I ask by what thread of mercy am I spared in this moment from being plunged into an abyss? I think of when I muttered some frustration over opening an overly sealed new pair of scissors earlier this morning. Appalled at my hubris I cancel my grumpiness over the mundane and instead rejoice that there is a mundane at all. I wonder what paltry strength I could send, what lifting thought could pierce a friend’s struggle? More than that I wonder how the human spirit bears such devastations? I am in awe of those moments when I’ve witnessed a friend reach for flotsam and jetsam to stay afloat midst a life storm. When they’ve managed, by act of will and/or divine intervention, to change the energy, become unmesmerized by the apparent black hole of their surroundings and emerge one thought, one breath at a time into the light. 

The sea churns. It changes its own inner landscapes on a regular basis to create new realities, redesigned horizons, newly formed shorelines. I suppose if we can but choose to exist in the place of not knowing and can manage to breathe deeply within that space, if we allow ourselves to know we’re doing the best we can in that moment and the next, we can find grace enough to go with the churn, however painful. Particularly in this Christmas season of renewal I wish for all of us the grace to let go, the resilience to hang on, the joy of riding a perfect wave and smooth sailing on calm seas. 

The Maestro

A little over a decade ago it was my extreme good fortune to be hired to perform in a tribute to Ira Gershwin. Crafted by the very brilliant Rex Reed, produced by the equally brilliant Deborah Grace Winer, our merry band was to sing a roster of songs penned by Ira.  A fellow named Tedd Firth was to be our Music Director. I’d not heard of him, nor I’m sure he me…little did I know the day I turned up for my first rehearsal with Tedd that my life was about to change…for the better.  Nice guy, cheery, young enough to be my son and I’m going to say a bit bashful was also amongst my first impressions. Bashful that is until he set his hands to the piano keys. What unfolded was stunning.  He moved through the music like no pianist I’d heard. Facile, swift, surprising, smart…he didn’t just play a tune well, he electrified, illuminated and elevated it.  

Over the course of that production I got to see him take each singer on, molding the arrangements to each of our keys, styles, likes and quirks.  The result was an evening of musical dips and turns, heft and delights. The result was also that all of us wanted to be glued to his musical talents going forward. Fortunately for me I wormed my way into his busy schedule and since then I’ve had the life privilege of working with him on several concerts a year and (unabashed plug here), three CD’s.  

He’s an extremely disciplined person. Rehearsals are always jovial, always focused.  He arrives ready.  He moves with ease between solo performances and conducting multiple musicians.  On rare occasion after a show he’ll linger for one beer and one beer only.  More often than not he retires immediately and rises early for a run…no matter the weather….December in Michigan in a subzero blizzard/in an August Colorado swelter at 6000 feet above sea level.  With a punishing work and travel schedule, this is how he keeps body, soul and family together. He lives his priorities and is universally admired for doing so. 

There is not a time, be it rehearsal or performance but what I do not learn from him.  Such is his standard. He invites the music out of the singers he works with by following, by leading and always by inspiring.  He shows us what we are capable of.  He has no ego…always has another take, another choice or nuance.  I’ve never, not ever seen him just start to play.  There’s a moment, a breath before he dives into a song…as if aligning his heart, his intuition with the tune to come.  Most times just before a mid tune solo he quickly shifts position on the piano bench putting himself squarely enface with the keys as if starved and about to tuck into a meal, as if a high diver on the plank, as if a sprinter in the blocks…pick your metaphor.  What follows is always true, always astonishing and never the same twice.  

I asked him once how it is he decides to play what he plays when accompanying one of the many, many singers with whom he works?  I wanted to know what drove those split second decisions to lift, back phrase, repeat or introduce the next musical phrase, play the hint of another tune that has a thematically connected lyric….and one of the many things he does, to play the subtext of the lyric?  He said he follows the singer’s breath.  So he folds into, not so much accompanies but compliments, folds into the negative space a singer leaves when s/he is breathing.  Creates a platform on which s/he can re-enter.  

Here’s point in case… my girlfriend’s daughter unexpectedly died last week. God rest the departed’s good soul. Saints preserve us. My bereaved girlfriend wanted played at the Covid restricted funeral the poignant song,  I’ll Be Seeing You. Within thirty minutes of my asking, Tedd sent an MP3 accompaniment.  Just at the debut of describing the places where the singer will be seeing the departed…”the small cafe, the park across the way”…Tedd parted his hands to play cords that encompassed both the ethereal joy of seeing on the upper keys, as well as a devastating single note way down at in the bass clef that carried the gravity and loss both…leaving the singer standing in the middle, suspended between these two emotional states.  Who does that?? 

I’ve stood on stage when colleague and fabulous singer Tom Wopat has been doing a solo with Tedd and been brought to tears for their bro-mance.  They have 19 years together and their patina of mutual respect is powerful to witness. Theirs is a musical marriage at its very best. I’ve sat in the audience as he musically thrust and parried with prodigy Michael Feinstein, electrifying the rarified air of New York’s finest venues. 

I have many fond memories of performing with Tedd but a favorite was when we were in a particular town for two back to back concerts. Three local musicians had been hired to play with us…bass, drums and percussion. As Tedd took them through his arrangements of our tunes in rehearsal, their heads shook in admiration. Two hours later it was showtime.  The first show went well enough but as we launched into our second night it was clear that the boys were performing with greater ease than they had the night before.  All was rolling along well until the penultimate number which included a huge Latin drum/percussion solo. It didn’t exactly fall flat but I knew these young bucks had more to offer.  As we were about to launch into the final number, something came over me and I asked the audience if we could do the former number again?  I guess drinks had been free flowing enough that they gave us permission.  Thank heavens my son wasn’t in the audience because I then turned to the drummer and percussionist and said, “Take your shirts off, give me everything you’ve got. I can take it.”  I turned to Tedd who was looking at me bug eyed. He asked in his sedate tone of innocence if I wanted it a bit faster?  I said, “No, just give me MORE.”  Be careful what you ask for.  Tedd quietly stood up. Took off his jacket, folded it neatly and placed it on the piano bench.  He calmly took the stack of music off the piano and having placed that on the floor, lay flat the music stand and in one of the sexiest moves I’ve ever seen, slid it up under the grand’s raised lid as if raising the skirt on his woman, to reveal the hammers and keys.  One deep breath and his hands dove into the strings which he began to play, pluck and then bang on with his wedding ring. Now it was my turn to be bug eyed.  I whipped around to the percussionist who was now laser focused on the Maestro and jumped in to follow our fearless leader.  Once their grove was established Tedd nodded in the drummer. It was at that point I think I entered into the music of the spheres.  Uncharted territory made real only by the harmony it was producing.  It was on that magic carpet that I got to reprieve the tune.  This, I thought is where Bach and Mozart spent their lives…this is the beauty the gifted, the touched hear, the celestial beats they live by, that place where everything translates into music, its flow, its movement and limitless possibilities.  Where thought and heartbeat are one, pulse and emotion one, that existential place ever unfolding, excruciating beauty.  Where love is articulated, it is that land beyond the point of word’s efficacy to express thought.

A much lauded concert pianist pal from Texas says it best: “He can play the shit out of any piano.” I hope dear reader that if you have not yet, you have in this lifetime the opportunity to hear Tedd Firth play the piano. He works with a plethora of artists, he also on rare occasion choses to do a solo concert.  Seek him out. I promise you will not be disappointed. You will be astonished.

The Baton

Inanimate objects hold energy but do they hold memory? Some would argue that they do.  I pondered this the other day in Sara’s kitchen.  Sara, salt of the earth boot straps girl who made her way off the plains of Texas as a young woman because she had grit and a world class singing voice that got noticed. Noticed in competitions by judges, then teachers and conductors in the world of opera.  Her talent and hard work took her around the world performing and eventually into love and marriage with world class Maestro, Christopher Keene.  They shared a huge life, moving from success to triumph on the international stage.  I never had the privilege of knowing Mr. Keene, but knowing Sara I cannot imagine he’d ever have found a better life partner than she.  She has an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music, a keenly discerning ear, an egoless support of artists…you get the picture.  As happens life moved on for them decades ago. Too soon Christopher was gone but Sara has thrived over the past several decades on her own in a multi chaptered, full life. Her home, the walls of which are lined with posters bearing witness to legendary performances of yore is filled with a constant rhythm of family and of diverse friends, most of whom are musical, all of whom are interesting, engaged and up to something good. 

I wanted to give you this background because you will understand why it was that Sara was able to pull a box with remarkable contents, from her shelf.

As we sat over coffee… Uh oh, have to interrupt again…Sitting over a libation or meal with Sara is never just that.  The famous, the workman and very famous sit elbow to jowl at her table in equal welcome. Conversations are robust and sometimes I feel her walls will burst from the peals of laughter they have to contain…and oh the stories! Disasters averted or survived, feverish opening nights, diva meltdowns and through it all the music.

OK…the box…she placed the rectangular box from her bookshelf on the kitchen table and as she was opening it said, “What do you think I should do with these batons?” 

The opened box held six batons, six magic wands that had drawn music from orchestras around the globe.  They’d helped lift black notes off the printed page, bent tones mid air, cued masters in their own right, had been the swaying beacon wooing it’s handler’s interpretation of a given score once again into the atmosphere.  Staring at the batons I had the feeling that if I listened carefully enough I’d be able to experience for myself the passions they’d stirred. Apparently Maestro Keene’s favorite baton had been the most simple, a slim white needle with a tear shaped cork handle.  No added weight nor adornment and the cork would’ve solved the slippery challenge perspiring hands might present.  There was a terribly heavy black baton adorned with silver filigree that had been given the Maestro by a Maharajah. Yet another in this collection had belonged to Toscanini.  Toscanini! I tried especially hard to listen to that one. 

A baton holds focus, pulls the collective energies of those assembled before it into an harmonious one, out of potential chaos makes order to produce and to give something beautiful away. Seeing these wands meant that those musical geniuses had been real, meant that they had led music in magnificent concert halls, co-ordinating sometimes upwards of one hundred musicians. These events had happened, their blessings felt, their epiphanies and emotional swells lived. 

Years ago Sara bought a rambling turn of the century inn in New England. Notes on a yellowed score, she’d seen the potential and had taken it on. No small task. As if that had not been enough to tackle she additionally took on the renovation of a ruined barn that sat on the back acres of her property.  The first time I saw it was on a frigid January morning.  Sara and I stood, with teeth chattering, on the barn’s floor beams looking at the frozen dirt below and waved at the birds sailing through the crystalline sky above. I saw bones, she saw a performance space. She had interpreted the score.  Within two years The Barn had become a thriving establishment that continues to draw audiences from far and wide so much so that it has been featured in Vogue as a cultural hot spot. 

Sara is a practicing, ecumenical Christian who through her eight decades plus has made strong demands on her faith.  There have been times when all but her faith and music have failed her.  Health, loved ones, funds, world events, friends…all of it.  One Easter morning I asked her what had got her through?  “Prayer” she answered in a delicious drawl.  Somehow that led to an hysterical story of how Agnes de Mille had helped potty train Sara’s infant son in between rehearsals in Vienna for the European premiere of “Carousel”, Maestro Keene conducting/ Ms. De Mille choreographing.  I circled back to prayer asking her how she prayed? “Oh that’s easy. I drop to my knees, clap my hands together, look up and holler DO SOMETHING!” Surely that’s the crescendo.  No score is too daunting for her to take on.

If The Barn is the score, Sara is the baton. On a regular basis she lifts her interpretation off the page and with great intentionality draws dreams out of thin air, translates them into something beautiful and gives them away.  She both holds and makes memories.  At the ready Maestro. 

EXPOSED

I learned a few days back that I had been exposed to the dreaded Covid. After months of being exceedingly careful I had gone back to work. Our union lays down very strict protocols…across the board Covid tests at regular intervals, crucial practices of equipment sterilization, separations of workers into isolation pods, etc., so my partner and I agreed it would be safe for me to proceed. To my knowledge these protocols were more than less followed but in that small percentage of less, the damned bug managed to breach our protective walls and two weeks in, some company member test results came back with the dreaded positive. Our project was immediately shut down and after virtual adieus, we all scattered to our respective homes to quarantine in hopes our ensuing tests ran negative.  According to CDC guidelines, five days to go before I’m totally in the clear. 

As I sit and wait, I’ve been thinking about that word “exposed.”  Good heavens, what we all have been exposed to in this year of 2020!  A pandemic, rampant untruths spewing from a seemingly ever growing number of yahoos, virile divisiveness, free flowing tragedies in race relations, raging wildfires, continuing alarm from scientists on climate change. We know now that our attention has been monetized by selling it to online advertisers which in turn makes it harder for us to connect to the truth, harder to connect to the authentic in the virtual or actual town square.

What is that collective trauma to society I wonder, from such exposures? What are the components of our collective response? Depression and anxiety are among them we are told in the news. I’m sure though that resilience is as well. Thank heavens there are those who fill the black holes of life with willful optimism. 

In the quiet and solitude of quarantine, exposures of a different sort have presented themselves.  Dawn is one. I usually wake up in the dark, in time to see it give way to the light. Zoom parties reaffirm a treasure trove of friends. One on one zooms with my partner and immediate family members move life forward on deep reassuring levels.  A text from my son sparks tears of gratitude. The unessentials fall away to make increased room for the essentials. I know in those moments of deep quiet, when the world drops away and the fertile void comes into view, we can expose ourselves to the good, to the true..to the infinite paradise within.  Wishing you and yours, a very happy exposure.

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SACRIFICIAL SNAKE

I like to ride my bicycle and today I got to ride it along a very long stretch of high desert on a two-lane back water highway in New Mexico.  With a siren’s tease, enormous rose and sage striated mountains loomed in the distance inviting me to continue over the next rise and the next.  The further I got away from the town of Truth or Consequences though the more it began to dawn on me how stupid I was being.  I was in a “No Service” zone, more than once wind gusts had threatened to knock me down…what if did a face plant? Who would be there should I need help? What if one of the rare trucks coming by stopped and kidnapped me?  The whole scenario played out… there I’d be sequestered in the back of some truck never to be seen or heard from again. What would my family and friends would say. ‘Nice girl and all but what a stupid thing to have done?’  Then I began to worry about snakes, big ones, rattlesnakes. I have an aversion to snakes I mean, a real aversion. Even as a kid I had trouble turning the page of the encyclopedia (throwback) if it had a photograph of a snake on it.  Maybe that had something to do with a toothless and grinning man just outside Calcutta offering me his giant boa constrictor to hold when I was eight years old.  Residual trauma? Anyway, I was sure a big snake was going to jump out and bite me.  Peddling furiously now, I realized I’d best get ahold of these paranoias if for no other reason than to actually enjoy the beautiful ride. I started to talk myself off of every cliff. The passerby was rare and after all what would they want with this old bag of bones? My partner has my share location and as for snakes, last I heard there were no boa constrictors nor flying snakes in New Mexico. Should a run of the mill vertebrate come along, I was the one on two wheels and he’d only have a long slimy belly to crawl on. At last I was breathing again and pushed on a bit more. 

I began again to take in the Georgia O’Keefe landscape and the luminescence of the bright blue dome above.  About an hour out, I decided it was time to turn around.  Pedaling back over the same territory, be it because of my shift in perspective and/or the change in light, the view was entirely different. The monotone beige sands now had a palate moving through all the mauves imaginable. What seems at first endless has variation in it after all.  Sage cactus’ boasted hues of periwinkle and teal. Prickly things can be beautiful too.  In a kind of reverie I wondered what you could see were you to enter a time/space warp? A backwards in time one in which you could witness the glaciers etching the mountains. What would the music be?  In one stretch riding alongside the Rio Grande, I took in the poplars bordering that fabled river as they rose tall and stick straight piercing the sky. It didn’t take much to imagine their roots sunk deeply into the flow’s moisture pulling the life force in.  Hope rising.  Surrounded by the grandeur of these timeless wonders, by their majestic continuum I felt realigned, safe and struck with a sense of grateful awe. 

About then I saw something flat and glistening on the road ahead. As I passed it I realized it was a huge and very smooshed, snake. He had most definitely not been there on the ride out.  Filleted as he was, his demise spoke as metaphor to my vanquished worries. Keep going, quiet irrational thought, move into higher observations and as if by magic the pettier ones will be…well smooshed.  At last an image of a sacrificial vertebrate on which I can now turn the page. 

American Bounty

Years ago I was driving across the country returning to Los Angeles when I learned I’d been invited to host a delegation led by China’s Defense Minister in the coming days. Of course I was thrilled to receive such an honor and knew I’d need to provide a welcoming gift.  As my journey was taking me across the West I felt confident that I’d find some appropriate memento of Americana to fulfill this duty but to my dismay everything that caught my eye in stores had been made overseas. Usually in, you guessed it, China. One of my last stops before LA was a favorite town, Santa Fe New Mexico and I had the very good fortune to have arrived there on Market Day when a host of Native Americans display their gorgeous wares for sale. Under the graceful arches of two full blocks in the iconic Plaza, was a cornucopia of blankets, baskets, potteries, handcrafted turquoise and silver jewelry of every imaginable design enough to make anyone drool.  These treasures that had without a doubt been made in America, provided just the authentic bounty I needed to be able to present to my guests. 

On Election Day 2020, I found myself again sitting in that beautiful plaza and in contemplation of all that was at stake, pondered what America meant/means to me. The plaza was deserted, thank you Covid, save for one other soul…a Native American singing in full voice and with great intentionality what sounded to me like a prayer. In his timber you could feel the connection to and reverence of the land. Perfect. Moved by the purity of his voice thoughts drifted back to my growing up years overseas, when the U.S. had been a place I went to occasionally for holiday. As such it had remained largely an idea, rather than a place of experiences. America represented everything that was possible, a bright, limitless horizon shimmering with independent thought.  The flag was sacred, America in my mind was powerful, moral and to be trusted.  It was the embodiment of optimism, a true north unencumbered by a lengthy history of cultural mores, unweighted by restrictive traditions. America and her citizens were free to create their own way, free to express, free to become. 

I realize this was fairy dusted with the hubris of youth but it was what I believed. America remained the shining city on the hill until I came to the States at 16 and began to see it through a variety of new lenses which included the necessary upheaval of the civil rights movement, findings on our nefarious doings in Central and South America and through stories from anguished vets, a different understanding of the Vietnam War. Whilst these and more did not dim my love for America they did begin to tarnish my view. The next dent, in a continuing confession of naïveté, was 9/11 when, watching  fellow citizens jump from falling towers, the crushing realization that we could be so hated in the world dawned on me. Yet another blow to my Pollyanna image has been our present incarnation in which we are all suffering the lashes, as either participants or observers, of tsunamis of rage and fear. Like trying to find the authentic gift those years ago, I’ve been trying to understand the impulse behind these outcries, particularly those in fervent favor of the current occupant of the White House. Why do these supporters hurt so and perhaps more importantly, where do they hurt?

Recently. I heard a fascinating interview with two former skinheads. Two questions posed were “Why did you join?” and “How did you get out?”  The one, a teen rape survivor, responded that she had come from so broken a childhood that she’d lived in a state of swallowed anger until she met a group of youngsters who like herself, were full of rage.  She did not hate who they hated, however, their emotional boil matched hers and so she moved quickly to be in lockstep with them. After a few years she had met a young man and lived with him in the home of his mother where she saw that mother care and love her young baby. Witnessing that love so moved this young woman that it slowly but surely unknit her rage, soothed her spirit and thusly, she managed to disentangle herself with the skinheads. 

The young man interviewed said that he too had come from a deeply unstable home in a poverty stricken neighborhood and had been fearful all his young years until he met a group of youngsters who appeared to be very powerful. The fact that they were skinheads was irrelevant. They presented as conquerors, a clan to which he could belong and in which he could feel protected. He eventually landed in jail after which he was hired at a small shop by a Holocaust survivor. This man chose never to comment on the youth’s bald head nor swastika tattoo but rather loved and encouraged him until one day this bullying youth fell weeping into the arms of his employer. Needless to say the boy left the skinheads and had the swastika tattoo removed. 

Anyone can see where these two souls hurt. They seem to me to represent the turbulent forces of hatred currently at play. Is it possible the fearsome toxic roars of today are actually a cry of fear? A raging against unknown midst the certain change that is underway? Perhaps the slogan “Make America great again,” lands on them as “Make me great.” Make me count. Value me. I don’t know and frankly why bother tangling with irrational rants?  

Except wait! Here’s a rant of my own: To my view Biden/Harris move and think from a standpoint of abundance, not from lack or fear. Certainly they embrace science, science that will keep us and the planet alive. They understand that we have moved into a global reality and that if we continue to move backwards into the fierce myopia of nationalism, we will also continue to be left behind. India, Africa and China will continue to not launch new ventures with the US, but rather will continue doing so with one another.  

Biden/Harris understand the worthlessness and danger of military spending focused on old technology simply for the sake of having armory built in America, not to mention for purposes of lining the pockets of cronies running dying industries. Biden/Harris understand we must address the rapid advances China is making in space, in A.I. and acknowledge the advances Russia is making underwater.  I’ll spare you the rest of this rant.

None of us know what will happen in the ensuing days but I pray that we as a nation are collectively drawn to a vision of America that, to whatever degree possible, resembles the vision I held as a child.  One that embodies the core values our President Elect appears to live by, among them: honesty, integrity and resilience. I hope we find one voice and that it sounds as pure as the man singing in the Plaza, Election Day morning. I hope we can emerge from these dark days to find an authentic bounty of the better, bounty we would be proud to present be it to China, to our own communities or to the future.