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.

FIRE

The West Coast of America is on fire. Normally that would be deemed a ridiculous exaggeration. Today, it isn’t. We’ve had more than a share of breathing in smoke this summer where we live along the frontline of the Rockies. As I write the now too familiar tale of growing fires, rage out of control in California, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Reports abound from friends in these states whose circumstances range from coping with copious amounts of ashes falling from the sky, to having newly been evacuated, to having escaped with only their lives as their homes spontaneously combusted behind them. At this writing Mother Nature continues to spew forth her rage at what we’ve wrought, with no immediate end to the ongoing catastrophe in sight.

I drove through Yellowstone shortly after it had been ravaged in 1988. What struck me most was the evidence of fire’s surgical precision. Charred stumps stood next to barely singed emerald evergreens. Evidence of mercy? Of a random act of kindness? Of nature’s economy? Of the hand of God? Perhaps all of the above. I talk to the fires in my mind as I hear accounts of them encroaching on friends’ communities. “Be precise”, I tell them. “Take what you need but leave what is not yours.” It is the same voice I heard in my head when I was in the black hole of depression years ago.  Teeth chattering, I would say to the dark side “I acknowledge your presence and you may not have me today.”  That would not solve the inner upheaval but it did get me through the next minute and the next until finally the dark abated and the skies cleared.  

Three weeks after 9/11, a friend and I walked the perimeter of the Twin Towers’ ruins.  Our nostrils burned with the stink of sulphur, ours and everyone else’s cheeks were wet with silent, involuntary tears as we walked on the traumatized, turn sacred pavement.  At some point we stopped, rather were stopped in our tracks by the fallen, now twisted facade of one of the towers that stood before us. You’ve seen it..that mangled, once beautiful grid. In that moment I felt I was staring, plainly, into the face of evil.  That’s how the fires seem to me and somehow its all of a piece with the foment we’re living in America. Democracy under threat, the recent and continued ravaging of environmental protections ratcheting up the attack on our planet for the sake of profit, the anguish of racial injustice finally coming to the fore, not to mention the ravages of Covid…the list goes on.  A great deal has been unleashed on us to process, to live through and in spite of, to keep our flames of hope and joy and wonder alive. 

And yet….stories of incredible generosity abound. Reports of neighbors banding together to keep watch,  of dropping everything to help a family in danger evacuate. Prayer circles, inter faith and otherwise, have formed in number. Extraordinary acts of heroism on the part of fire fighters are ongoing. These outpourings of the very best of humanity, I chose to believe, will ultimately calm all the fires we’re living through at this moment. May it be so sooner than later. 

Mazama’s Bodhisattva Blue

I got to visit a gorgeous place the other day, Crater Lake, Oregon. Sitting at 6500 feet, with a perimeter of 913 kilometers, it’s round basin is filled with Bodhisattva blue waters. Klamath Indians call it Mazama. According to their lore Mazama is where the spirits of the Earth and Sky often come to talk with the people. A place where the forces of the Below-World are imprisoned forever beneath the weight of the lake’s surface, and calmed by her tranquil waters. It has been and remains a favored spot for Vision Quests.  Absorbing its transportive elegance, its easy to understand why. 

Klamath oral tradition holds a memory of when and how it was created 7700 years ago after the volcano erupted, collapsed in on itself to create a perfect basin which, over the centuries, has captured and continues to hold only the purest waters. So pure that no bacteria grows in it even today. I’ve heard of and sometimes experienced various sorts of geological phenomena…earthquakes, eruptions, shifting sands..but a crater lake? New to me. 

The geology of any one of our life paths is one lens through which to look back.  We’ve all had tectonic plate shifts, tremors, mountain ranges of immeasurable beauty emerge unexpectedly, glaciers carve valleys both awe inspiring and austere. Looking at the lake I think maybe we get to experience crater lakes too.  When something blows up to the point that it collapses in on itself and leaves a gaping hole in our lives.  Looking at Mazama I could see that that doesn’t have to be the end of the story, of any story. That a cavity does not have to be without meaningful purpose. It can, over time, become a vessel of wisdom and make peaceful the Below World of our lives, be a place so pure no rancor grows but instead boasts wondrous, still beauty.                                                                                                                                  

In meditation today, I was suspended somewhere in space. I could look up and feel a part of the stars. Looking to the east the regenerative dawn, the west the call of the frontier, south the encouraging warmth of the sun, north, the straight and narrow clarity of direction forward… forward momentum that beckoned.  Looking down I could see all my tears have not been for naught for they’ve filled cavities, watered the good ground that in turn has translated them into new life. Nothing is wasted, everything matters because everything folds into itself to ultimately find purpose. Thank you Crater Lake. Thank you Mazama. 

The Gray

I’m not ready…but here it comes.

I have many beautiful girlfriends. I’m writing about one in particular this morning…a person who has been like a sister to me for over 40 years. She’s an accomplished woman who has moved full tilt into life at all stages and we who adore her have always noted among other things, how fabulous she continues to look.  Fit, trim, lithe…the works. 

I’ll ramble here for a bit and eventually work my way to the thought  I’m trying to pull into focus. 

I know our experiences in the isolation of this quarantine chapter in all our lives are varying greatly. I have pals who’ve been stretched more than thin trying to be all things to all people working full time from home whilst continuing to raise their young children in a world of no playdates, schools, nor camps. Still others have been handling the stresses of keeping safe whilst being out in the workforce. Some of us fortunate enough to be able to shelter at home have taken on new projects.  I’ve started, however haltingly, to play the piano again. Be grateful you’re not under my roof to hear the struggle.  I’ve managed a couple of paintings…not that they’re good but I’ve enjoyed the process. Both of these I might add have proven somewhat antidotal to the heartache and madness we’re all witnessing. I’ve tackled house projects…upholstered, spackled, painted, etc. Believe me you would not want me to come anywhere near your house projects. In the fixing up department the success rate on home administered hair cuts, I’ve noticed kindness of social media posts, have varied enormously.

The mention of all this is a preamble to not being prepared for the update my beautiful girlfriend sent out this morning.  A photo of herself gorgeous as ever but with her long brown tresses shorn to a chic close crop and gray. Gray? Wait! If she’s gray then I am too. If she’s gray then she’s embracing her age, means she does not have endless years ahead to lead the charge as she has always done. Means that perhaps she has some aches and pains, that she’s entering a chapter when the horizon is not necessarily more life but you know that other thing. Death. There I said it.  Not that death itself is scary…that feels more like a new beginning to me…but to cross that threshold means to say good by to all of this, to the-infinite possibilities of life, that time is up, that the story is written, the chapters done. It means that the time for building has passed.

This begs the question “What about the chapters I thought I’d have?” If she is gray then the time for those dreams has passed and it is time instead to begin to look back and accept the brutal fact that I missed the boat on many fronts…not, mercifully on all but totally, tragically on some.  If she is gray I will have to make my peace, deal with the left undone-ness of life and come to terms with the fact that there are things I will never attain in this life time, that I screwed up, got unlucky, lived a life in some ways I intended and in other ways absolutely did not.  It means that some losses will go unredeemed, full stop. Life’s gains will not be castles so much as buoys I got to hang onto on the stormy sea of the story of my life.

But if you embrace the gray…what are the gifts? Does it mean that you’ve earned the privilege of finally giving yourself permission to say out loud how you really feel at times and to not continue to pour energies into those you should not? Is the letting go of dreams, whatever they may be, a grace note? A shelter from the exhaustion of longing? A blessing of forgiveness for others as well as for yourself? Does it mean to step off the gerbil wheel and exist in the contentment of now? If so, then maybe I am ready after all.

Bring on the gray. Metaphorically anyway…in the meanwhile I’m not quite as brave as my beautiful girlfriend has been so for now anyway, Amazon…one more box of Clairol please.

Forbearance

When my son was 5 we’d moved to a new city in the middle of winter. His lip quivered as we parted on his first day at his new school but his little self sucked it up and marched into the classroom. All day I fretted over how he was coping. When it was time to collect him 4 hours later, one of the longest four hours of my life, he bounded out of the school bursting with glee anxious for me to meet his new best friend Zack who towered over him, indeed still does. Playdates turned into sleepovers, birthday celebrations, ski trips and the obligatory rounds of playful boyhood mischief. 

One of the gifts to me of this fine friendship has been knowing Zack’s Mom, Ghislaine. The weave of our friendship deepened as we moved through our boys’ various rites of passage together. Conversations covered all aspects of our lives…from the joys and mysteries of parenting, to the stresses of being sole financial providers (both of us divorced), to the challenges of balancing career with Mommy duties. We were constant, bolstering resources for each other for tutors, coaches, minor medical issues, sales on school supplies. When it came time for our boys to get their driver’s licenses we fretted. Would they be good drivers? Would they, please Lord, be safe? Responsible? We talked about everything…or so I thought. 

A year into the boys enjoying autonomy zipping around town in their respective cars, a young African American man not much older than our sons was wrongly felled at the hands of a white police officer. Then another and another. I’m a white woman and with great remorse I confess that I had not been aware that these shocking, tragic and senseless events had been a fact of African American life. My veil of ignorance began to drop and as I started to become aware of a level of terror I’d not even been cognizant of, I called Ghislaine. Addressing her for the first time through the paradigm of my being white and she being an African American woman, I asked her if she had always been worried for her son Zack’s safety over and above the obvious dangers of driving on account of his being African American? There was a long pause, a deep breath and a simple, thundering, “Yes.”  

How was it possible that through the myriad layers of conversation this excruciating concern had never arisen? What metal of forbearance, of long-suffering was at play in juxtaposition to my blindness? 

In George Floyd’s final moments of slow assassination he cried for his Mother to save him. Experiencing the involuntary, primal rage and grief that ignites in me I am astonished at the forbearance so very many African American mother’s who have suffered the ultimate loss have maintained.  From what depth of faith have too many found the will to turn the other cheek let alone get out of bed in the morning?  I would not have it, I’m sure I wouldn’t.

These words, this confession of ignorance comes out with Frankenstein like awkwardness. I do not know how to begin to have this necessary conversation. What is the starting point? From where does the tide turn? Do we at first have to see one another as separate in order to come together? Is that the process? Have we all along been lying to each other? Will our voices unite above the cacophony of suffering in a universal cry to find higher ground together? I pray we will.

I continue, in the meanwhile, to be astonished at the level of forbearance expressed in the midst of the ongoing protests. This letting out of grief, rage, fear is needed. This unveiling. I need it. I need to hear it, witness it, understand it, bear its burden to the extent I can, be culpable to the extent I am. 

Saints and all that is holy, please protect all our children, keep them safe from harm in order that they live to thrive in better times than these. 

The Tunnel

I like to ride my bicycle. That was likely a statement I uttered for the first time at four when I was wont to pedal my red tricycle as fast as I could to the edge of the world. Of course the edge of the world then was to the post box at the end of the driveway but still, those wheels took me to new vistas with discoveries and challenges aplenty along the way.

For many years I was not biking but rather would pedal vicariously when I could get my brother in law, Larry (an expert and daring bicyclist) to tell me of flying over boulders and tackling near perpendicular single tracks.  Next lifetime for me on all of that, however, he did inspire me to try fire trails which are in abundance where I live. I knew from hikes that these fire trails were wide, well maintained and boasted no boulders.  Boring for most, perfect for me.  

So, one morning about 15 years ago after getting my son to school, I GPS’d to a nearby fire trail and dragged my spanking new bike out of the car. Helmet, gloves on, shoes clipped in and off I went sailing down the ridge of the Santa Monica Mountains with the Pacific Ocean in full view. I was in heaven. Wondering why I had stayed away so long from one of life’s great pleasures blinded me to the fact that every stretch I was sailing down was every inch I’d have to climb back up.  At the eventual stopping point I caught my breath and started pedaling…up, ever up.  You will quickly surmise that I’m no expert on wheels.  I panicked when a heavy patch of gravel lay ahead.  Helpful sayings like “You’ll fall! Get your toes out of the clips! Careful! Danger!” were just some of the voices that would go off in my head.  More often than not, down I’d go. Besides hurting, this started to piss me off so I started to experiment with mind games that might distract me from the mental fear trap that would gape wide open at the slightest challenge ahead on the trail.  To my glee I discovered that looking past the gravel patch or deep divot to a smoother patch just a bit further ahead, allowed me to sail past the challenge with no effort at all. OK, I get it…don’t get so focused on the challenge at hand that you loose your way. In life too? Why not. 

I became brazen. When a Colorado pal invited me to go up a single track through some pines I accepted. Things were going so well until I missed a turn and came off the trail. Mid air and still clipped in I heard a voice in my head say “I don’t belong here.” Got lucky. Crash landed to no ill effect except ofcourse to my pride.  Another life lesson…”Don’t be an idiot.”

These days I’ve been riding a trail that was formerly a railroad bed wending through the mountains. Perfect for me…flat, gorgeous vistas, graded inclines. There is however a tunnel. Uh oh. They ignite all those pesky voices. Ofcourse I could solve the pitch blackness of them with a helmet light but…I don’t know…maybe its the Yankee voice in my head that says that would be weedy. 

In an effort to foil the upcoming darkness I developed an utterly unglamorous system that’s equal parts superstition and logic. I shut one eye hoping to acclimatize atleast one eyeball to the void into which I’m about to enter. At the last possible second I lower my sunglasses, open the sealed lid and hope for the best.  All would go well for the first few meters but then, no matter what time of day, there would come that utterly disorienting moment of being plunged into total darkness save the mouth of light toward which I’d now be pedaling furiously.

Until recently panic would arise, my body seize up, I’d white knuckle grip the handle bars. Challenged by real and imagined giant potholes, what sense of center I’d been enjoying in the light of day would give way to the certainty that with nothing to orient myself, I would loose balance and crash…and did so more than once.  That pissed me off again. With nothing but black void to look ahead to the previously discovered remedy would not work here. The only place it seemed I would be able to go was inside….me. So I did. Easiest way in was to breathe, something I realized I’d not been doing in the tunnel.  Breathing, besides being good for you if you want to stay alive leads to the core, to the center. Riding the breath, if that makes sense…the focus went directly to the center and to everything I needed in the moment: balance, security, safety. Within a few meters I was back into the light, event free.

I look forward to the tunnel now…to the moment of continuing forward by going inward. In fact in quarantine mode, as we all are for now, that seems a pretty good practice to enjoy. 

Happy breathing. Happy pedaling and happy discoveries beyond the post box at the end of the drive.