The Day the Music Died

Music is what sustains me, what has always sustained me. Music is about memory and wishes and hopes and dreams. What was the soundtrack of most of my  days is now elevator and television commercial music.  It makes me feel annoyed, and somehow disrespected, some days; the music was so very good and carrying so much intention.

I know there is excellent music out there now, but it seems harder to find. My baby brother helps to send me to some of it. Some of it I find by accident. Some of it my bandmates find and share.

I am closest to the God of my understanding when I am making music. I am closest to my truest self when I am making music. I have always had a voice but in these last few years I have found my best and truest voice. And now…there is nobody to make music with during this weird time of social isolation. I miss it deeply. As a singer my most precious moments are blending my voice with the voices of others, in the amazing sound it creates when people sing in harmonious joy. Having found my bandmates is a gift beyond telling. So as a singer it is not my best to sing in isolation but I do it anyway. Belting away at the piano with just the chords as my accompaniment; I never learned to play anything other than classical music correctly.

As a musician, and someone deeply affected by music, the last years have also brought many sorrows. So many of those greats who created that soundtrack have fallen. Dr. John, Paul Barrere, Hugh Masekela, Cecil Taylor, Yvonne Staples, Charles Neville, Aretha Franklin, Marty Balin, Leon Redbone, Ginger Baker, Butch Trucks, Al Jarreau, James Cotton, Chuck Berry, J Geils, Greg Allman, Rosalie Sorrels, Glen Campbell, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, Della Reese, Kenny Rogers, Bill Withers and now John Prine. This is just in the last three years and it is very, very incomplete.

People refer to the Day the Music Died as the day the plane carrying Richie Valens and others went down. I feel as if my music is dying out slowly and inexorably. And each death brings me closer to my own. But I have music to make yet, and I am still standing…and still singing.

Attentive Reading

During this odd time of social isolation I find myself picking up books that have been in my stack either unread or partially read for some time. Oddly, the last two revolve around the great tragedies of the last centuries; the “transatlantic” slave trade and the exterminations of World War II. They are slim volumes that would be read quickly if they were less important or less affecting.

Barracoon, just completed, is a non-fiction work written by Zora Neale Hurston begun in 1927. It was extremely difficult for her to find a publisher and this is a re-issued version with a foreword by Alice Walker. Hurston, a cultural anthropologist, managed to find the last survivor of the last African slave cargo ship brought to America. The book is the story of this survivor, of how he was taken and how he was living then and in that present time in America. Barracoon was the word for the slave barracks where slaves were held for transport and sale. The book is resonant with a sorrow I cannot begin to understand. It is written exactly as she heard him speak, in a difficult pidgeon. And so it requires close concentration to get the meaning. I am generally a fast reader but this held me to a slower, more attentive pace. It is a heartbreaking account of a tragic life, ripped from his home and family, sold into slavery, finding a way to live in “freedom”, losing his wife and all his children. This is his account of heartbreak in his simple, affecting words; of looking across to the hill where his entire Americky family lay buried at the time he recounted his story to Hurston. This pierces the heart of the African American identity in a visceral and personal way. This is not an observer account, it is a subjective memoir spoken in his own voice with very little interjection by the “author”. Everyone should read this as a stepping stone to some small understanding.

And then, as if this wasn’t sufficient sorrow, I picked up Night by Elie Wiesel. This was the first thing he wrote, again reissued. It wasn’t popular when published as nobody wanted to acknowledge the truth of the european extermination. It is his first hand account of the time that, in denial still, his community was first turned into ghetto and later emptied of Jews, transported first to Birkenau, then dispersed to the ovens or work camps. It is his first hand account of the last time he saw his neighbors, loaded into cattle cars, and then his own family’s journey. It is his account of the last time he saw his mother and his seven year old sister as they walked to the crematorium. It is his account of witnessing his father’s death. It is his account of his loss of youth and faith and humanity. I have stood in the crematorium at Birkenau, remarkably intact. I have stood in the ruins at Dachau. And as much as I felt the presence of what happened in those places, and have seen the evidence – the coats, the hair, the shoes – I still cannot truly imagine the horror and enormity of the evil. He describes watching truckloads of babies being loaded into the fire, how do you survive the memory of that? For some reason, one of the most compelling images in this slim volume is of Jews speaking the Kaddish Yatom, the prayer for the dead, for themselves as they marched to their death. This is the prayer we speak for our dead, for others. It is a prayer of praise, not of death. And despite his loathing of any prayer praising a God that would allow the abominations to happen, he found himself reciting it as he thought he was about to die, so ingrained it was in him.

So why am I reading these things? I have no idea, they were next in the stack. But being in isolation allows me the space to read them with attention, with care and with thoughtfulness. That is my book report for today. Shalom

Both Sides of Isolation

Isolation is a strange thing. We are in “quarantine”, or at least we are supposed to be, all of us. I find that people are so stressed about being isolated that I am bombarded with invitations to zoom meetings, talks, confabs and telephone calls. I like that I am able to “see” some people I ordinarily don’t get to see, that I am connecting or reconnecting with people I don’t ordinarily talk to often, or at all. I like feeling in touch. But it is an odd kind of in touch. Nevertheless, I am overwhelmed.

When I am stressed I tend to isolate anyway, and so physical isolation is hard for me.  I am single, so there is nobody to fight with, talk to, vent on or sleep with. My roommate is still working and has a life, and a partner, of her own. She leaves here in mere days and then the silence will echo even louder. I am cleaning, cooking, mending, fixing, watering – a lot. I am trying to keep busy with chores at home. My plants look beautiful because unlike the usual sporadic neglect I can tend them every day or every other. My house is ridiculously clean, my laundry always done.

I sing at the piano, I fortunately have a large stack of reading and I am chewing through it steadily, I watch too much TV, I am working on paperwork projects that I have put off for years and, yes, I am trying to write. I find myself oddly resistant to sitting still. So writing is hard. Sitting still makes me feel sad, and lumpy and not well. Hard to articulate it, so that’s the best I can do.

I normally live a busy, full life with a calendar full of events, appointments, rehearsals, classes. And so my house feels like sanctuary when I am able to spend time at home, alone. It feels like a warm bath at the end of a busy day. Right now the house feels like confinement. I go out for a walk, I take my coffee and a book on the lanai in the morning but the walls still feel like a boundary that I am not supposed to cross.

I find myself talking to the cat too much, sometimes he seems to understand. Ridiculous I know. But he is happy to have me home and we have settled into a new routine which includes his being spoiled rotten now that he is an only furbaby.

Isolation also gives me an opportunity to focus on meditation, prayer. The flip side of sitting still is sitting still. Allowing my mind to quiet, to reflect on my life generally and not just in the day to day. That can be painful sometimes but the learning is a growing process. Growing is always painful but the end result is self-awareness which is a good thing and leads me to good things.

In the end I know that gratitude is the panacea for all negative feelings. At the moment I have a beautiful prison with a peaceful and serene outdoor space. I have a safe neighborhood to walk in. I can pay my bills for the moment. I have enough to eat. Everyone I love is safe and healthy for now. Everything else is just dross. I am lucky.

Things I See

Seeing. Often we go about in the world with blinders on. Picture the horses that draw carriages in historic places. They wear real blinders, able only to look straight ahead. More and more, I find myself looking around with more focus not on what’s ahead but what’s around. There are those of us that have the knack for this instinctively. I am not sure I do. But I am trying to be more mindful about looking around, not at. I am trying to see past the brick to the history of a building, past the spoken to the intention, past the facial expression to the heart.

Sometime the things we see can be funny depending on our perspective. I was driving along a fairly rural road. There were few buildings and fewer businesses on it. Smack in the middle of nowhere was a long low building the signage on which read “Recovery Saloon”. All I could think of was in what world do those two things go together? Recovery from a long hard day of work at some terrible rural job? I think of recovery as the sobriquet for abstinence from the use of alcohol or drugs, or any other obsessive or addictive behavior. And thus my confusion, or amusement, arose.

On another occasion, while scrolling my Facebook feed, a marketplace headline popped up: “Electric Chair $900”. I could not stop laughing, as morbid as that sounds. As a death penalty attorney, I worked with people charged with the death penalty so, of course, that is where my mind went. It seemed to me unthinkable that someone could write that headline not imagining what it sounded like. I eventually went to the listing out of curiosity and, sadly, it was a mundane attempt to sell an old powered wheelchair. Sadly only because it was so ordinary and not funny. But I suppose it deserved gratitude for not being a do it yourself sparky.

What about our “snap judgments”. We judge people on their clothes, on their speech, on their eating habits. Do we look past those things? Do we listen hard to “see” who they are? Do we watch them to see how they actually live, what they do? Are they kind? Are they generous? Are they smart? Do we see it? Are we willing?

Not everything I see is with my eyes. If I am willing, if my ears are open I can see with my ears, if my heart is open, I can see with my heart.

 

Peace and Justice

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

We packed a lunch, and snacks, and set off for Alabama. Why? Glad you asked. The Peace and Justice Memorial Center and Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama had been calling my name for quite some time.

From the New York Times, April 25, 2018:

“In a plain brown building sits an office run by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, a place for people who have been held accountable for their crimes and duly expressed remorse. Just a few yards up the street lies a different kind of rehabilitation center, for a country that has not been held to nearly the same standard.”

The Center, which opened in April of 2018, is a small building in the city that was the center of the slave trade in the United States and was itself a slave warehouse for those brought by river and train.

The old brick wall at the entry to the warehouse building reverberates with the chains of the imported, calling out for justice. The center is a museum that is overwhelming with the physical evidence of the cruelty and evil that is part of the American heritage. Glass jars filled with sand from the known sites of lynchings, some with names, some unknown. And so much more.

The signs collected from everywhere segregation and hatred were overt were startling but not unexpected in retrospect. One sign in particular I will never forget:

“No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs”

You will forgive the word, but it is what the sign said and it would be cowardly to edit it. As a Jew, this resonated in a more personal way. My thought was this – of the three, the dogs had experienced the least oppression.

The Memorial itself is both beautiful and grim, a field of 800 hanging metal coffin shaped boxes in a roofed area that includes fountains and quotes. The metal coffins hang at varying heights, at first at eye level, like a grave monument and finally above, as the lynched would be hanging. Each is inscribed with a county, and the names of those lynched in that place, some simply marked as unknown, most not. It is stunning and horrifying and important.

The Memorial stands in a rolling green field, quite beautiful in stark contrast. Just as the lynched might have, and did, hang from a beautiful tree in bloom in a green field. You cannot help but cry, and feel shame at what this represents, and pride that it is memorialized now in a way that cannot be ignored.

Bryan Stevenson said:

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is Justice.”

In that field, aside from the structure of the Memorial, are enormous “tables”. These are raised areas that hold duplicate metal bars, exactly like those that hang. They are not affixed, they are just lain in these beds. The point is that each and every county has been invited to take the one marked with their name and erect it as a memorial in that county.

My hope is that I will visit there again someday, and all the bars in that beautiful green field will be gone, raised against racism, bigotry and intolerance.