Celebrate Anyway

Christmas day means nothing at all to a whole lot of the world. Even some fairly devoted Christians are either skeptical about the accuracy of modern guesstimates of when the historical person Jesus appeared on earth or, in some cases, just plain weary of the commercial kidnaping of Christmas as a secular holiday. Beyond that, there are innumerable people and nations so impoverished or endangered as individuals, as communities, or as entire regions of the world that the last thing they can afford to pay attention to is an arbitrarily set date for recognizing anything as a reason for joy and revelry.Photo: Cymbals

There are no gladly clashing cymbals, no brass choirs trumpeting their huzzahs to the skies, no parades or packages, masses or meditations that can fill the void in hearts and homes oppressed by war, famine, disease, hatred, or inner turmoil. The very thought of happiness and reverential bliss, if it can even pierce the noise and violence, the stress and terror holding such people hostage, seems hollow and artificial. Goodness and light are as distant and unimaginable as the most ridiculous fiction.
Photo: What a Lot of Brass

These sufferers deserve to have their sorrows and their pains lifted from them, obliterated by any and all who dare to change history. No one knows better than I that not everyone has the strength and wherewithal to be so bold in action. But if we cannot do so with our physical labors, we must do so with our hearts and minds, our words, our plans, and our constancy in spirit. One voice at a time, one solitary note sung by a tiny, quavering voice, is the only way to begin moving toward a day when others, also one by one, will join and build to a worldwide song of peace. Only when we direct our every breath toward healing, harmony, and hope will the song come fully alive. Every atom of our being will whisper, speak, sing, and shout until the whole of humanity rings with echoing gladness.
Photo: Stringed Instruments

One moment’s pause, one hour of cease-fire, one hospital patient or lost child or elderly neighbor rescued for one single part of a day at a time makes space for the sound to bloom. We need to make room, and lest the horrors should return to fill the void, we must fill it up instead with songs of hope and joy and celebrate any way we possibly can. The other voices will someday, if we sing for long enough, follow.

10 Terrible Words that Shouldn’t Exist in Any Language

Digital text-illustration: 10 Terrible WordsOne person who hates is a Weapon of Mass Destruction. One who cares and shares? Perhaps the only antidote.

As I recently said to my friend Maryam: poverty—both of concrete, material resources like food and shelter, and of intellectual and ephemeral resources (education, spiritual enrichment, the arts, community engagement, etc)—seems to me to be perpetrated and perpetuated more by selfishness than by an actual shortage of any of those resources. The rich and powerful always want more riches and power, and what they do have makes them able to afford and acquire more and to keep their feet firmly on the backs of the have-nots. Plenty is never enough. The resulting imbalance is as old as history, and rotten as ever. Only those who will speak up and resist entrenched inequities and injustices will have any hope of making change.Photo montage: Wolverine & Badger

The badger and the wolverine have a reputation for being among the most tenaciously savage brutes of all the mammals. Yeah, Honey Badger even has his own meme to show for it. But let’s be honest: no beast of earth, air, or sea has a capacity for vile, rapacious cruelty rivaling that of the human animal. Even creatures of the natural enmity of predator and prey compete, fight, kill, and are sated. They have little apparent ideation of hatred and war to match people’s. A wolverine or badger will fight to defend, or to kill for food, but unlike the human, doesn’t seem inclined to attack indiscriminately outside of its primal needs for safety, shelter, and food; when the skirmish is done as efficiently as possible and the need assuaged, the sharpest of tooth and reddest of claw among them doesn’t do an end-zone dance to celebrate its pleasure in winning but will usually depart the scene or go to rest for the next time of need. The remaining food and shelter and other resources stay in place for whatever creature comes next, hunter or hunted, cousin or not.

Can we humans not learn from such a thing? I’m pretty sure that if we destroy each other and ourselves in our constant self-righteous, self-congratulatory belief that we deserve everything we can get our hands on, Honey Badger won’t be the only creature that doesn’t care.

Just a Different Stripe, or a Horse of a Different Color Altogether?

Does it really matter whether our differences make us varied members of the same family or citizens of separate countries entirely? At the bottom of it all, we remain genetically bound to each other as disparate parts of the same species. What we choose to do with and in response to that simple truth is what really defines us as individuals and as parts of the human family, not how different we are from one another.

Working for respect, kindness and peace toward and among all the people whose paths cross mine in life seem to me like perfectly viable ways to respond. That’s the choice I’m going with, and I hope that it will be seen as defining my true colors always.

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Our differences may be subtle or they may be tremendous, but they’re still contained in remarkably similar packages.

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It’s a gift and a privilege to see the beauty in those of a different stripe than ourselves.

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What, are you really so concerned about the cut of my hair or the color of my hide?

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I should always try to get a leg up on what challenges my expectations, whether it’s my nearest neighbor or someone from worlds away.

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After all, some of my best friends are zorses….

Things I Used to Know

In olden times, when I was young and Apatosaurs snacked on the treetops, I knew stuff. I’ve forgotten more since then than most sentient beings learn in a lifetime, although in fairness to them and to my own addled and limited brain capacity, much of that was only memorized and not really understood or applied. And what little I have learned or known has mostly long since been reduced to dribbles and scribbles and other forms of rubble.

digital illustrationI once knew how to ice skate and roller skate. Not particularly well, mind, but I could stay upright and toddle around a rink or lake without breaking ice or ankles, which for a person of limited grace and less skill is good enough. I could ride a bike, row a boat and climb a tree. I read books intended to make me smarter and ones intended only to amuse me, and a fair bunch that had the possibility of doing both simultaneously. I sang in every section of a choir that would let me in, played the piano poorly but enthusiastically, and learned about four chords on the guitar from Dad.

Much of this is gone, forgotten or so rusty that it would be somewhere between horrifying and laughable, or possibly both, if I were to try my hand at any of it now. And I’m not proud of that. But I’m not too worried about it, either, nor am I ashamed. I’m probably not all that different from most people when it comes to such things. I wouldn’t mind, though, if the opportunity arose to revisit any of those things and I discovered that (a) it’s true what they say about bike riding coming right back as though I’d never left off the practice, and (b) everything else I’d ever once loved doing would come back as easily as zipping around on a long-neglected bike. Before all the rest of me freezes over, as it were.

I also used to know how to leave the house without much thought of what lay outside its doors or worry over what I was to avoid and/or accomplish before returning to its safety. I had a firm grasp of many, many things that didn’t matter in the slightest in keeping the earth rotating properly or making my part of consumerism fully sustainable, let alone in achieving and maintaining world peace. As a supposed grownup, I learned to worry and fuss a great deal over that sort of stuff, even (or especially) when I knew full well I hadn’t any hope of challenging my born impotence in these matters.

But one thing I have learned as an adult that is remarkably useful–assuming I can keep it in mind, an increasingly slippery endeavor as I age–is that no individual human ever did really have any control over anything of this great importance. Occasionally, one of our kind manages to break through the barriers or even simply to fall into a solution by being in the right-or-wrong place at the right-or-wrong moment, but most of us are not able, alone, to learn or do anything much more complicated and meaningful than reading or singing or ice skating. And most wonderful of all, I’ve learned that that’s okay. It’s important to care, and to do and be the best that I can, but it may be equally needful that I grow wise enough to stop banging my head against any brick wall that practice has taught me will never actually budge and, yes, be content that I made the effort, not carry around pointless guilt that I’m not killing myself with further useless striving and angst.

As much as I loved ice skating when I was young and owned skates, and lived near a park where I could use them in winter, I don’t feel terribly cheated that decades later I’m fairly certain I couldn’t even remember how to skate. I’m happy to hang up those old blades and let someone newer and nimbler learn how to ice skate, and finally to get old enough to forget it too, in turn. The world itself will probably continue turning, with or without us.digital illustration

Röda tråden (The Red Thread)

Röda tråden is the Swedish phrase for connectivity. I learned it from my husband, who in turn learned it during his dissertation studies on modern Swedish choral history, and in a way it’s the perfect encapsulation of what his research revealed: that the astonishingly deep and broad influence of such a small country, in such a short time, on such a large field as Western choir singing and music came about primarily because of the remarkable and unique confluence and joining together of a huge number of events, people, ideas and resources in that little land at the end of the Second World War. As unimaginably terrible as war is on any scale, it’s all the more a testament to connectedness that at the end of one of the largest we’ve known, such good and meaningful and positive elements were all drawn into one significant, beautiful growth spurt in the art of singing together.digital illustrationAs a miniature of String Theory in the arts, this surge of the choral art in Sweden is notable (no musical pun intended) not only because it posits a reasonably substantial explanation for the larger choral sector’s modern expansive development amid the general devastation and struggle following the end of WWII, but also because in doing so it illustrates wonderfully how the intertwining of all sorts of seemingly disparate elements such as safe havens from political unrest and postwar reevaluation of norms, personal and professional relationships and experimentation with new media could come into contact and interact to create a new mode of thinking, acting, composing, teaching and singing. In turn, this is a striking model of how people from distinct cultures, educational backgrounds, economic resources and political systems and of widely varying personalities, unified by the one tiny thread of choral music, could be pulled together into a complicated system that, though still colorfully messy and imperfect, led to a potent common end that has had lasting and marvelous influence for long and fruitful decades since.

I am, of course, grateful on a personal level because this Swedish postwar influence on Western choral culture has not only enriched my husband’s professional and artistic endeavors–not to mention was the basis for his award-winning doctoral dissertation that in turn opened a lot of friendly doors to us both in Sweden–but because it produced so much spectacular music and inspiration for so much more.

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Röda Tråden is the Swedish version of the idea that–indeed literally–fascinates so many of us: the connecting thread–that which binds one thing to another. I can think of nothing greater than to spend life seeking the Red Thread that shows us our commonalities and binds all people together as well.

Further, though, I am grateful that such an otherwise inexplicable event as the ‘Swedish Choral Miracle‘ seems to me ample proof that all things and people really are connected. And that through recognizing and making good use of those connections, however, odd or tenuous they may appear, there is hope for new and better songs to be sung everywhere.

If I needed further proof of this, last night’s concert gave it amply. My spouse conducted the combined forces of the Chancel Choir of the church where he’s currently interim choirmaster plus their excellent hired pro orchestra in performing Haydn and Dvorak’s two settings of the Te Deum text as the concert opening and closing, respectively, bookending the extraordinarily lovely and moving Missa Brevis of Kodaly. I came in to sit for the concert among strangers and acquaintances from the church and discovered a friend from another parish sitting across the aisle from me, then learned from one of the choir administrators that a friend of hers in attendance turned out to be a long-ago colleague of my husband’s from another state, and finally went up to greet my guy after the concert and found him speaking with a group of ladies in the front row, one of whom was the wife of a former US president. What brought all of us divergent people together in this moment? Music. Beautiful singing and playing. Chance, kismet, divine intervention. Call it what you will, the slender but unbreakable thread that connects us all drew us into one place for a time of basking in the inscrutably beautiful harmony that is beyond craft, beyond art. That is a concert without peer.

Equilibrium

photo montageOne of the things I enjoy most as an artist–as those of you who frequent this joint know–is playing with all of the commonalities I find in the visual world. I am very much an analogous thinker; what I see is tested, examined, recognized and theorized on the basis of what it reminds me of at first glance. I suppose it’s the virtual equivalent of judging a book by its cover, but what it allows me when I’m thinking in strictly visual terms is the opportunity to fiddle with the ideas of what I imagine to be the links between one subject and another and as patterns emerge from it, use that for creative fodder, learn something about these pet subjects of mine, build images based on them, and in turn, learn something about myself along the way if I make even a little effort.

It’s very easy to become a collector. We all have our idiosyncratic passions and interests, to the degree that when we’re not actively gathering objects and concrete stuff that reflects them we are still busy building our internal storage of ideas and images related to them, and we end up with personalities shaped by, and like, them. People associate us with our sets of tastes and ways of thinking. Me, I am addicted to patterns and repetition and all of those other characteristics that seem to me to express the wholeness of the world. I like the unique iterations that make each part of the larger network have its own personality or meaning yet remain subservient in one way or another to the more visible and outspoken qualities that are held in common.

I strongly suspect that this simply showcases my longing for a wider world wherein the beauty of each individual is respected and nurtured yet the things we know we have in common are celebrated above all else because we treasure our place in a bigger picture. That’s a work of art that we shouldn’t have to take art classes to appreciate.

What if I Never Grow Up?

digitally doctored photoAside from the fact that all of you know already that this is a given rather than a question, I can still pose it rhetorically and ask it of all people in general. See, I think about this a fair amount, and not just because of my own level of maturity at any given time or in any given category. It’s simply a question we all get asked in one way or another at some point, or should jolly well ask ourselves, at the least.

This marvelous Möbius loop of inquiry and insistence begins the first time we are told, as children, that we need to Grow Up, and it can be applied to any number of circumstances. The irony that this mandate is almost invariably handed down to us by a person or persons barely older and more grown than ourselves is of course lost on all of the parties involved, because we’re all too inexperienced and naive and, conversely, too full of ourselves to understand it. The bigger kid tells the littler kid to Grow Up mainly because the elder wants something that the younger has or has simply lost patience with her.

It doesn’t change. When we’re older, the toys and privileges may have changed to different brands of money and power, but as long as we think someone else has more of whichever kind we desire than we do, we’re just as inclined in adulthood to nit-pick at that someone for his supposedly lower maturity levels both as cover for our covetousness and in shallow hopes of shaming him into being more generous than we are ourselves. The failure of this silly system doesn’t change either, but it doesn’t stop the less magnanimous and less mature from nagging at those who are more so, no matter the age or the occasion.

There are perfectly good reasons to wish anybody, including ourselves, would think and act with maturity and keen sense and the wisdom of experience. Those things tend to lead to our being more level-headed in emergencies, more practical in the everyday, and more inclined to share those traits and all sorts of other things with other people–and that leads to better community. Who knows, even World Peace.

But isn’t it grand, all the same, to forever retain a large enough pinch of immaturity and, if not childishness, then at least the ability to be childlike, that we can still look at the wide world with the awe and wonder it requires. We should hang on, with youthful enthusiasm and gleeful tenaciousness, to innocence and hope, to curiosity and rambunctiousness, to unalloyed silliness whenever the moment permits. Maybe we should even be willing to get down there with the actual kids and roll around in the grass once in a while without batting an eye over how dirty it’ll get us or whether it might make our old joints sore tomorrow. If we can’t still do somersaults, then we’d better find other ways to regain and retain our not at all grown up point of view, because the world, especially while it’s still short of outright Peace, can really use a healthy splash of the ridiculous now and again.