This was the wise grandma blessing Rita Conway gave to grandchild Katie on her maiden college voyage. 'Have fun and play hard!'
By all accounts, mine included, Mrs. Conway was a remarkable, infatigably genuine woman who couldn't keep herself from loving you, you who stands before her at this moment, even had she tried. And why would she try?
We buried Rita yesterday. In her memory, I hold up some creative souls I've noticed lately, hard at play. As with Rita's life, their potent love inspires me.
Sour, a band from Japan, makes a music video out of geometrically choreographed fan clips. The music is good, the editing tight, the effect - a kaleidoscope of community. YouTube excels at this. This is what people choosing to pool their strengths for the sake of a worthy project looks like.
Love with legs. That's what Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, calls justice. She and her cohorts shepherd would-be pastors to pastures of plenty. Plenty of need. Plenty of problem solving. And the need is fairly divided between the poor who need opportunity and the elite who need meaning richer than accumulated wealth.
Justice is nothing but love with legs. Justice is what love looks like when it takes social form.
Serene Jones, Bill Moyers Journal
Prosperity - posterity - depend on this version of hard play.
And what exactly is posterity? Bill Moyers asks double Pulitzer Prize winning poet (accolades never fail to impress, no?) W. S. Merwin if he's more concerned with posterity now, in his 80s, than in his youth.
The poet, like good poets everywhere, specializes in love with legs. The legs of his poems become those of his listeners. When he reads Yesterday, hearers rush from the reading to call their fathers.
So when asked about posterity, Merwin has a simple answer.
I’m exploring Spiritual Emergency as a counterbalance to David Halberstam’s exhaustive exploration of how media giants have influenced modern life.
Mr. Halberstam hammers home outer world realities in words like this:
'He exercised awesome power over four decades, he was the voice of the Los Angeles Times; Harry Chandler had begun it, he had created Kyle Palmer, and in time Kyle Palmer and the Los Angeles Times created Richard Nixon... [Palmer] made careers and he broke them, sometimes the same career. He chose the candidates for the Republicans, dictated policies, floor-managed legislation in the California legislature, told governors which bills to sign. He was a journalist and a political writer, but in a real sense he was a kingmaker.'
David Halberstam, The Powers That Be
Apparently, Kyle Palmer spent zero time engaged in the pursuit of his inner world. Spiritual emergency was not his concern. But curiously, it seems to be mine. Some quotes from a book about this:
What both Freud and Jung called ‘the unconscious’ is simply what we, in our historically conditioned estrangement, are unconscious of. It is not necessarily or essentially unconscious... We need not be unaware of the inner world.
One enters the other world by breaking a shell: or through a door: through a partition: the curtains part or rise: a veil is lifted... Our time has been distinguished, more than by anything else, by a mastery, a control, of the external world, and by an almost total forgetfulness of the internal world.
When we listen (click on the player above) to Edward R Murrow's November 1939 broadcast, we find ourselves in London's underground Central Control Station of its Air Raid Precaution System. Americans of his day hung on Murrow’s disembodied words. In well conjured worlds, our minds decouple from literal time and space.
In 1941, poet Archibald MacLeish praised Edward R. Murrow for his overseas radio reporting during World War II. He said Murrow had destroyed a superstition:
'...the most obstinate of all superstitions - the superstition against which poetry and all the arts have fought for centuries, the superstition of time and distance.'
David Halberstam, The Powers That Be
This morning, mired in the laws of physics, I drove 39 minutes and 26.33 miles to Strongsville to ply children with songs and stories. Once we got going, we abandoned the here and now. No one stopped me from shepherding forty campers to a river in West Africa where Turtle was teaching Anansi to fish.
We are children of story. Are we born en route to untethered regions; do we learn the language of fact only when asked?
Is music innate? Are humans the only species equipped to make it?
Look no further than Youtube for some pretty convincing anecdotal evidence. So eight million people discovered this tiny celebrity before I did. My grin is just as wide.
Watch her gears lock into beats she hears in her head; the toddler's grasp of Hey Jude gives credence to the humans-wired-for-music scenario.
Then there's the research. Oliver Sacks, author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, says certain brain regions are wired specifically to process music.
One would have to look for aspects of music which have no equivalent in speech. This certainly seems to be true of the regular beat or pulse. Speech has its own rhythm, but it doesn't have the fixed metrical quality of music. There's spontaneous synchronization with rhythm in all human beings, even in childhood. You tap with it, nod with it, and even if you don't, the motor parts of your brain move with it. There's an auditory/motor correlation in human beings not found in any other animal.
Oliver Sacks, Wired
CLEVELAND (June 21, 2009)
'Songwriters are artists who compress their message into 3 or 4 minutes of elegant, powerful viral marketing we call ‘a song.’ Our world needs honest messages from creative thinkers and doers.'
Here is an author who understands flow.
'I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know.
Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Indeed, The Elegance of the Hedgehog bears witness to the efficacy of Ms. Barbery's altered state. As I read, I scratched myriad rich quotes in a notebook. But a novel tells its own story; out of context, words can lose their sheen. Talking about a story, unless you are a very good ventriloquist, is hard to do.
Risking this, let me quote the protagonist, Renée, as she contemplates a Japanese masterpiece.
The camellia against the moss of the temple, the violet hues of the Kyoto mountains, a blue porcelain cup - this sudden flowering of pure beauty at the heart of ephemeral passion; is this not something we all aspire to? And something that, in our Western civilization, we do not know how to attain?
I wonder if it's true, that a culture keen on acquisition and scalability handicaps its artists' sense of the ephemeral. Can pure beauty walk this earth of concrete and billboards without becoming some means-to-end, cheap trick, fast talking ad copy?
Babies can’t think outside the box because, for them, there is no box. It’s all inside - everything. That’s what I gather from a Boston Globe look Inside the Baby Mind.
Person in flow: completely involved in what we are doing - focused, concentrated
Baby: utter absorption in the moment
Person in flow: A sense of serenity - no worries about oneself and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego
Baby: incredibly aware of what's happening - experiences are very vivid - not self-conscious at all
Because of an undeveloped prefrontal cortex, babies lack the ability to filter. They absorb whatever comes their way, voracious egalitarians.
And flow is not just the province of babies and creatives. Consider the study of adult brain states when captivated by a work of art. Scans of viewers engrossed in a Clint Eastwood movie showed patterns of activity where their prefrontal cortexes were suppressed, similar to those of jazz musicians in the midst of improvisation:
The scientists compare this unwound state of mind with that of dreaming during REM sleep, meditation, and other creative pursuits, such as the composition of poetry.
Jonah Lehrer Boston Globe
You don’t have to be making something yourself to experience flow. If the art is engrossing enough, you can get your flow on from the peanut gallery.
This might explain why a listening audience can infuse live performance with flow-on-steroids, amping up the unwound state of mind for creators and receivers of music. We are enabling each others’ childlike openness to new experience.
The school year is winding down. The day custodian is using up his vacation time, so Roger’s been called off his regular 3 pm shift at Amherst Elementary to handle the day.
‘Don’t mind me if I’m cranky,’ says the compact gentleman, no taller than a fourth grader. ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night.’
The man’s grin belies his claim to crankiness as he goes to fetch a flatbed cart to haul my gear. We truck out to my car where he calmly grabs my heaviest stuff and we begin to talk shop.
‘You got a Martin guitar in there?’ he asks, eyeing my duct taped case. I’m not surprised at all to hear my school schlepping partners talk about the music they subsidize with the day job or, in this case, evening.
Roger, from Kentucky, pronounces acoustic ‘a-cue-stic’ and says he plays a little guitar, a lot of mandolin and even some banjo. His wife is a keyboardist and he plays in 3 or 4 bands with and without her. We talk sound equipment, Martin vs. Taylor, performing for non-existent audiences and the built-in ones at church, a favored venue for Roger. I don’t think he says ‘perform’ - he’s a player; music is his instrument; listeners are a bonus.
As metal doors clattered open before me, with visions of penetrating Darth Vader's lair, I slipped my car full of puppets, ladybug accoutrement and guitar into the dungeony garage. I'd already circled several black granite behemoths in search of their epicenter, this Early Childhood Enrichment building. It made sense, really, for the bankers to keep their progeny locked in the safest vault of the best fortified gated realm I'd ever close encountered.
After two security check points, several phone calls, a signed affidavit, one visitor's pass and three doors that sprung mysteriously open as I approached, I made my way to the well appointed story room, set out my effects on the beige leather couch and waited for the children to arrive. Considering my tax contributions had helped fund a $45 billion bailout of this very bank, I felt right at home (sort of).
This very morning, driving through tree lined, mansion-appropriate boulevards, I wondered at my sense of well being. With giant insects adorning my tee shirt, ladybug necklace and freshly washed hair, here I was, jazzed up on chocolate and some quality time with my amp. I was happy. My question: does a person living in one of these gigantic houses feel gigantically more at peace with her world than I do? Is there a direct correlation between the two, and if there is, how does it feel to be any happier than this? I wondered if waking up in the morning felt monumentally better to these castle dwellers than to me. Just curious.
I've given some thought to excellence over the past few days. My work on a two minute video for a Cleveland Tourism contest was interrupted by the nine hour road trip to my nephew's senior concert at Interlochen Center for the Arts. Sam did a great job, as did the other guitarists, high school students demonstrating the lush reward of preparation.
Most of my time en route to and from Michigan was accompanied by randomly downloaded TED talks offered by titans of creativity like Ben Dunlap: The story of a passionate life and Louise Fresco on feeding the whole world. At TED, each speaker distills his/her expertise into 18 pure and often evocative minutes. One of my favorite 'talks' was wordless, Eric Lewis: Striking chords to rock the jazz world. Excellent.
By the time I emerged from the Vulcan mind meld with TED on wheels, I knew I'd pass on the Cleveland video project. Why? Because I had no heart for excellence-lite.
Here's an analogy. I once worked in Switzerland with barely a word of German to my name. On the Swiss farm we spoke with hands, copious head nodding and kind smiles. We lost a lot in translation.
Three years later, I lived in Germany with an excellent tool to fit the experience: fluency. I talked with Germans about slavery, the Holocaust, WW II, Vietnam, religion, food and art. I dreamed auf Deutsch, got the jokes and made lifelong friends who no longer thought of Americans as vacuous gum-chewing TV addicts.