Friday, May 2, 2008

making a symphony

i'm thinking of one of the church songs i grew up with. it lay buried in my archive until i started thinking about this post. on my bike handlebars today i tapped out the bluesy rhythm as i rehearsed how i might teach it at camp this summer:

holy spirit, come down on me
make my life a symphony
take my blindness and let me see
holy spirit come down on me

i waited for the L train on my way to the airport at bedford ave around 6:30 sunday morning. my colleagues at home in california would be getting up soon for weekly celebrations of life and love in the example of jesus and in the company of spirit. i was shifting under the weight of my backpack and wondering about how my four-day pilgrimage back to new york had coalesced to such artistic effect. like a symphony.

at first it felt like time travel. JFK's terminal 6 still has the same weird concrete circles. nice old ladies still offer to help when you pull out a map on the subway, and sometimes share something of themselves (mine admitted that she journals on the train on loose-leaf paper, and it's okay that she can't read her handwriting because she never goes back to read these journals). i went straight to grand central, hoping to catch the hudson line train that would get me to beacon in time for clearwater's afternoon sail. i knew i wouldn't sleep much on the train: i still always wonder about sailors trying to navigate the strong currents at Spuyten Duyvil (spitting devil) at the northern tip of manhattan back when that was necessary, and my mind without fail plays the Weavers' song about Tarrytown as we pass that stop ("wide and deep/my grave will be/with the wild goose grasses growing over me").

i didn't recognize many of the faces when i hopped on the boat at lunchtime, but i did recognize their conversations, expressions, clothes, and rituals. i was disappointed to notice that i felt as competitive and snarky as ever, ungenerous in making new friends yet eager for everyone to think i'm a legend in the tall ship world. but this time, i shared my desire to become a better shipmate (generous) and sailor (humble, paying attention) with the friend who invited me. (see the description of this blog in the right margin!) then for the rest of the day he called me on it when i spoke or acted in ways that went against my intention. (thanks, Brian!) i jumped in at the part of the sail where the educator explains why we always include music in programs on the boat. i asked the kids what they thought singing together might help a group accomplish, as they had just demonstrated on the fishing net and sails. music makes community.

i arrived at St. Paul's chapel thursday morning to begin our music that makes community conference. i felt excited but not anxious, unsure but safe and at home. we began singing right away. here's one of the first songs we did (this particular video from another iteration of the conference):

i knew i was in the minority in this group, not a professional musician and not a musician who's ever paid much attention to music i made. i napped in the park at lunchtime. in our first small group meeting, marilyn taught us one of ana's songs. the clapping pattern featured a way to stay in time by flinging your hands out away from each other in between claps. that hit me because i've never paid enough attention to get the beat right when i'm singing. sure enough, i tried to teach the small group one of the songs i brought. i tried to conduct but had no idea where the beat was supposed to fall. hrrmph. i have a ways to go.

thursday night was laura's birthday party in brooklyn. i got to meet stephanie, the force behind party for the people, and learned that my new friend lou is working on boosting civic engagement through e-government. i liked that i could hook them up with others doing similar work. yes, networking is part of my calling. looking for the counterpoints in each of our songs.

back in the saddle friday. i got a little bolder. not sure if i worked any harder. i learned some more about how to practice and prepare, study and learn in this work. emily talked about how good it feels when in a musical conversation, someone else hears what you've "said" and bounces it back to you. improvisation takes more practice, not less, and certainly more focus. my friend suzanne mused when her son asked why he had to practice scales on the saxophone when he "already knew all the notes":

"you must practice scales now so that when the spirit stirs up its power and comes upon you, you can play what it tells you uninhibited, unhindered by the clumsiness of your fingers or breathing or bad habits. your sound must be so pure that you can translate the most divine secrets into a language other souls can understand, if g-d so wills it. you must prepare to be a servant to your scales now, so that later you will be able to play with more freedom than you can possibly imagine" (suzanne guthrie, grace's window, cowley 1996)

the heart-breaking and heart-opening doesn't come for free. but it's worth it.
check it out:

i approached my friday night with emotional energy high, but also prayerful and quiet. i couldn't have done it otherwise. see, i was having dinner with a friend from college whom i hadn't seen in three years. we had some reconciling to do. but the music had made me open and given me practice in listening without making it about me, and now i have my friend back. and like in the music, i have new tools to help me practice and listen. i just need to use them. he played piano and we sang the love duet from the fantasticks, "they were you."

my last day in new york was a very long one. i woke up before the alarm, buzzing and ready to get to work. we finished the conference with a eucharist and it didn't feel like goodbye at all, it's so clearly a beginning and continuing of what i was born to do. i went down to chelsea to see a performance of one-act plays, one of which was directed by my friend corinne. i was pretty sleepy but was a ways from home. back to Brooklyn (via newton's method; i could not for the life of me get going the correct direction on 14th st!) for one more college friend reunion. i marvelled at marc's new studio which will include a real black box theatre when he paints it. a marvellous dinner of greens and rice and wine with his building-mates, eaten with our hands indian-style.

i offered (maybe more like pleaded) to teach them a couple of the songs i had learned at the conference. singing together could be cool--these are artsy, spiritual folks. i said it could be like a grace after dinner. we tried "freedom come" and "open my heart" (i failed to explain about the dissonant major seconds) with limited success. i gave up. but then, downstairs in the other apartment, i asked marc to try with me an experiment we've done before: he beatboxes over (under) me singing one of my favorite ruthy songs.

it spread like wildfire. before i had finished the song, ethan was at the keyboard, jan on the drum set, and angie sprawled on a beanbag with a melodica. they kept playing when the song was over, and ethan tried again with "open my heart." i can't explain how great it felt to be singing my heart out and truly improvising, listening and responding to what my friends were offering. i wasn't tied to one song, i bounced between folk songs, church songs, freedom songs, and sanskrit chant (yep, all the words to the gayatri mantra came back to me). when we were winding down, it was just marc at the keyboard. i've never been able to follow marc's musical musings, any more than his academic ones. but i listened. what i heard was a melody that would go well with "they were you", so i sang that. amazing. we could complement each other in a new way.

i haven't mentioned that my reading for the trip was eat pray love (elizabeth gilbert, penguin, 2006). my journey home was much longer than intended since i missed the check-in cutoff time for my flight. it seemed clear early on that g-d just wanted me to be alone that day, my birthday, to contemplate and let all this begin to sink in. liz gilbert was good company for that. and every time i encountered breathtaking beauty: the mountains behind salt lake, the sunset over san francisco bay, the music started on its own in my head: