Thursday, October 25, 2007

Robert Frost Wisdom

I’m back from dates in Seattle and Tacoma where I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the bill with Roy Zimmerman, Ann Randolph and Jay Leonhardt. These are three wonderful artists who write and perform their own material and offer a fresh look at life through their stories and songs. I’ve written a blog about these guys before so I won’t go into details – just read Dropping Keys if you haven’t already.

Whenever I go through a chunk of time when I’m performing a lot and not squeezing it in between teaching I am reminded of how happy it makes me to be on stage. I wrote all day, performed at night and occasionally went out afterwards for drinks with these fascinating individuals.

I love my students. God I love my students. Okay not ALL of my students but most. They make me laugh, they challenge me, they make me think of what I need to work on in my life. If I were to walk away completely from my job, I would really miss them.

I want to miss them. I want to spend my mornings writing, walking, stretching, and my evenings performing. Anyone else out there dealing with this? I know my ex is. He was telling me about a conversation with his Dad – a man I deeply love who is slowly slipping away due to Alzheimer’s AND Parkinson’s. A double-whammy. Anyhow, they were discussing dreams deferred. My ex’s Dad was a wonderful writer but he hid in the university and never fully threw himself into his writing. It’s only now, thanks to the diseases that he is candid enough to admit his deep regrets over this. They discussed the Robert Frost poem Two Tramps in Mud Time – in particular this stanza:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight
.Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

I guess that’s what I’m wanting – to unite my vocation and my avocation. I know most people would say I already do that – I teach eager young ( and not so young) people performance skills. Why is that not enough? And why do I get sick every time I get close to a career breakthrough that will allow me to perform and step back from teaching?
During the performances I mentioned earlier in this blog, Jay Leonhardt sang a song about Robert Frost. It’s a funny yet oddly moving song that addresses the plight of so many wonderful artists I know.

Robert Frost did write of settings beautiful and rustic
He wrote of rolling hills and green terrain
Poor me I must do my writing in the chaos of the city
Sometimes even on a subway train
How am I to ever learn about the woodlands
And the falling leaves of autumn and such things sublime
When I must spend all my life just truckin’ round this dirty city
Doing what I can to make a dime, dime dime

The song goes on to humorously ponder whether or not Frost had an attractive and rich lady sponsor who took care of all the day-to-day minutia so he could spend all his time being….well…Robert Frost. The song has a beautiful twist at the end:

Boy if I had Bobby’s life I could be a hero
Go out and find my fortune and my fame
The only trouble is I’ve heard from people who have found it
That everything in life stays just the same, same same

Jay is such an authentic human being that the last lines don’t surprise me at all. He’s a husband, a father and a superb musician but he hasn’t ( it would appear from my vantage point) sacrificed his family or sense of self for career. Also from my vantage point he is wildly successful but not, I guess, compared to Robert Frost.
The Greeks wrote these cautionary tales in which parents sacrifice children for career or love/lust. Medea kills her children to revenge herself after Jason jilts her and Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to insure good winds for his journey to war. Abraham is ready to kill Isaac for his religious beliefs (he was probably hearing voices and this was before anti-psychotic drugs) and we see countless stories of people divorcing over career disparities. How many times has A Star is Born been remade?

Is the desire to unite vocation and avocation nothing more than a deceptive temptation? Are we meant to have these polarities pulling at us – a sort of spiritual isometrics? What is my body telling me when I get sick after /during creative triumphs? I want to listen to the wisdom of my heart but my head is so loud and obnoxious it’s hard to hear anything else.

I’m reaching out into the blogisphere to ask the artists out there – how do you deal with the competing demands of doing the work you love and making a buck? What sustains you through the dark moments? What does your dream life look like? Are you living it?

To the potential patrons out there – if you adopt me I’ll create your money’s worth and then some!


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Do you believe in Karma?

Dear Anonymous,

In response to a heartfelt blog I wrote about a tough year (actually 3 tough years) you asked me if my conscience was clear and if I believe in karma. It’s a dicey question to answer since there are so many interpretations offered of the concept. A little like asking someone if they believe in a higher power.

If I were asked that question, for example, I would need someone to define their terms. I do not believe in an old man with a beard who punishes and judges and favors one ball team over another. While I respect those who do believe in that guy, he is troubling to me because he strips us of our power AND our responsibility while being less than forgiving of our very human-ness, insisting on exacting some kind of payment for our transgressions. This god leaves us little responsibility yet all the blame.

I do believe in a higher power, however. I think of it as a hovering question mark – a mysterious force that puts our tiny lives into perspective – players strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage, etc. – a power that occasionally inhabits Wayne Shorter, Dustin Hoffman – that used to flow through Michael Jordan. An awe-inspiring wonder we feel when looking at a mountain, listening to the ocean, nursing a baby. God is in all of this and more. The homeless man on the corner is god, Stephen Colbert( on his good nights) is god and yes, even you Anonymous – though I do worry that you might have a bit of that old testament vengeful god in you.

But I digress. In order to believe in Karma in the traditional sense I would need to believe in reincarnation and I’m still not sure I do. I have trouble with inherited Karma – even though I know that in a larger sense it exists in things like fetal alcohol syndrome. I wonder if I need to pay for the sins of my ancestors or my actions in another life. I’m not sure I like that notion enough to take that leap of faith. I’m assuming you were referring to a more immediate and surgically precise Karma, but again, you didn’t define your terms.

I do believe in a Karmic bank account from which we should not withdraw more than we have deposited. I do believe we can be the architects of our own downfall ( to paraphrase Trail of Tears) to some extent. I believe we should earnestly strive for right speech, right thinking and right intention and that we should forgive ourselves when we fall short of that goal. I think we can make ourselves and others close to us sad or sick if we are not conscious of the impact of our actions.

I think you were probably asking me a rhetorical question. Did you want to know if I had ever hurt anyone? Absolutely. Who hasn’t? Did I mean to? Almost always the answer is no. Does that matter to the person who was hurt? Probably not. However, I don’t think it follows that I should be “punished” with broken bones, ( still a bother) a broken heart (healing nicely) and persistent health issues and I want no part of a philosophy that would have it so….or a man who would wish it upon me – even just a little.

My understanding of Karma is that it is not fixed. We can learn from our mistakes and remedy our wrongs to alter our future destiny. I start by forgiving you, whoever you are, for your comment, which I’m sure you didn’t intend to be mean.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

I wish I had a River I could skate away on

I’m sitting here listening to Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter play “Both Sides Now” from “River – The Joni Letters”, Herbie’s newest effort. If you held a gun to my head ( and you’d have to ) and forced me to say who I thought the greatest musician alive was I would say “Herbie Hancock….now please put the gun down.” He dazzles and he breaks your heart; he’s as complex as they come, yet so accessible.

Right now Wayne and Herbie are capturing the poignancy of the lyrics of the song like lightning in a bottle. You don’t have to hold a gun to my head for me to say that Joni is the best lyricist of her time. Sorry everyone, it’s true. She bitch slaps Bob Dylan and tears Leonard Cohen a new one. There. I said it.

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

So there I am, driving down Route 24 and listening to the album on the Ipod and I hear the cover song “River”. Herbie and Wayne like an old couple on a dance floor putting all the youngsters to shame, anticipating each other’s every move, yet still offering each other the odd surprise. I laughed out loud and heard the words coming out of my mouth “I’m so fucking glad to be alive.” Then came the tears. I get the same way when I listen to the Ravel piece Herbie plays on “Gershwin’s World”.

Herbie casts each song so beautifully. Luciana Souza understands the restraint needed to sing Joni’s lyrics. A devastating understated melancholy accompany the words to Amelia.

I can’t say that all the singers bring out the combination of acerbic wit, heartbreaking vulnerability, artistic detachment, pain and reckless love that make up Joni’s tunes but I particularly love River and Amelia.

Joni – my Canadian homegirl - sings of a loneliness that is so familiar to me I feel like she’ s whispering in my ear. “People’s Parties”, “A Case of You” and the new “If I Had a Heart” and of course “Amelia” (mentioned above) bore straight into my heart. You know that feeling you get when you hear a singer or read a poet and think –“How does she know how I feel?”

Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm

What a treat for me – my childhood hero’s work being played by a magician musician like Herbie.