Blessed Are the Weird People. . .

Illness, other responsibilities, and self-doubt have keep me from the blog recently. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking!

As the dates for the scholarship audition and recital come closer and closer, I think that, hopefully, the piano practice seems about where it should be. Nothing is perfect, but the beauty of the pieces is slowly emerging, and the terror of the difficult places is receding.

Sharon, from my home town in Wichita (and coordinator of our fiftieth high school reunion), recently posted this on Facebook, and I am hereby borrowing it:

Such beliefs comfort me during times when I feel  my art does not matter much.  Luckily, there are those who have gone before who have faced similar doubts and have left a trail of letters out of that quagmire.

Patricia of Colorado reminds me of some of the “notes” Madeleine L’Engle left, quoted by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1996 book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. According to Csikszentmihalyi, L’Engle  “aims to remind the reader of the world’s ‘grim realities’ but to frame them in a way that makes the possibility of overcoming them feel equally real, using storytelling as a ‘way to keep people from falling away from one another.’”

And Maria Popova in her essay “Kandinsky on the Spiritual Element in Art and the Three Responsibilities of Artists quotes Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, who said, “To harmonize the whole is the task of art,” and then goes on to quote others who felt something similar:

“Art is a form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit),” 31-year-old Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1964. “Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness,” wrote Alain de Botton half a century later in the excellent Art as Therapy. But perhaps the greatest meditation on how art serves the soul came more than a century earlier, in 1910, when legendary Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art (free download; public library) — an exploration of the deepest and most authentic motives for making art, the “internal necessity” that impels artists to create as a spiritual impulse and audiences to admire art as a spiritual hunger.

"Kandinsky’s words, penned in the period between the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the consumer society, ring with remarkable poignancy today. He begins by considering art as a spiritual antidote to the values of materialism and introduces the notion of “stimmung,” an almost untranslatable concept best explained as the essential spirit of nature, echoing Tolstoy’s notion of emotional infectiousness as the true measure of art. Kandinsky writes:

[In great art] the spectator does feel a corresponding thrill in himself. Such harmony or even contrast of emotion cannot be superficial or worthless; indeed the Stimmung of a picture can deepen and purify that of the spectator. Such works of art at least preserve the soul from coarseness; they “key it up,” so to speak, to a certain height, as a tuning-key the strings of a musical instrument. 

   Yellow, Red, Blue (Kandinsky1925) David Brooks challenged me with his article “A Moral Bucket List: What kind of adventures produce goodness, rather than build résumés?” in last Sunday’s New York Time’s Review section. I recommend the entire article as an exercise in soul-searching, but the part I’d especially like to quote is in a section called “The Call within the Call.”  Brooks writes, “We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have exeriences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.” 

He goes on to note that, “Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But [some] people. . .do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my instrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

And, as the opening poster suggests, all of the arts meet deep needs. And it has been from that perspective that I have devoted so much time over the past weeks and years, despite sometimes wondering if the practice, the writing “did any good.”  

It is my hope that the book and the music that I will bring on June 6 will travel some way toward meeting those needs that many artists before me have articulated.

It is also my hope that new non-profits like Jazale’s Art Studio here in Milwaukee will help to introduce the joy of making art to a whole new generation of young artists.


Patterns in Music, Poems and Fractals: Nearly the Same but at Different Levels

Stefanie, my piano teacher, has a button which she sometimes shows her students but, so far as I know, has never allowed anyone to wear.  The button says, “I played it better at home.”

That’s how I’m feeling these days at my lessons. At home, on my spring-untuned piano, I have fewer problems than I do at her house. The reason is obvious: playing for any audience is more stressful than playing by oneself, and part of the reason I started to take lessons again was to overcome my terror of playing in public.

It is true that the more you do it the less terrifying it seems.  I know this from being a seasoned teacher. However, just doing it often is not enough. You must have hammered out the difficult parts to such an extent that you no longer tense up when you know they are coming up in the music.  And so, these days, I am still doing that “scrub work” on the parts that trip me up—even at home!  As time grows short, I am working even harder on those parts. 

But that still leaves the rest of the music to practice so that its overall pattern, grace and beauty can emerge unimpeded, at different levels.

In addition to practicing daily and teaching through mid-May, I have now committed to publishing my manuscript of poems through Create Space.  Publishing this way is allowing me to retain complete control over the design of my book. It will also allow me to purchase finished copies at a price low enough to do what I initially said that I wanted to do: to give them away for free at my recital on June 6.

Through a series of interesting coincidences, I have recently become aware of a new enterprise by two young men here in Milwaukee that provides art instruction and help with academics to city students who otherwise might not have such access. Such a cause is dear to my heart, and I may offer my event on June 6 as a venue for donations. The details have still to be worked out, but publishing my book in this manner is giving me that option. Stay tuned!

Here is the cover I am currently working on. The image is of a fractal, which I find interesting: a book of related poems is fractal by nature, in that the poems are similar and connected, but at different levels. I am using Photoshop and having a lot of fun.  


“Making a Difference” on a Day Made for Fools

Thanks to Rich, a student in my Public Literacy class, for sharing this 2013 Harvard graduation speech by Jon Murad, a police officer. “Making a Difference” has, for me, become a cliché, filled with increasingly impossible-to-meet expectations. I’ve come to cringe whenever I hear it. Having said that, I like what  Murad so eloquently points out: everyone makes a difference, not just a special few.

During the last few weeks I have not been spending much time on poetry. My manuscript received its latest rejection yesterday, leaving me more and more determined to publish it myself if there are no incoming offers within a month or so.  I “aspire” to have it in tangible form on June 6, the day of my recital, for giving away.  As Cynthia Ozick, in a recent NYT column called “Writers Old and Young: Staring Across the Moat,” indicates, “Aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds.”  Crowds? Maybe not, but I still believe that there needs to be an audience, of sorts, to receive one’s creative endeavors, in order to complete the process.

One recent poem, based on an encounter I had in January (see January 5 entry) with a homeless woman, was also recently rejected. Nevertheless, as usual, since then I have been revising it and will publish the current version of it here, perhaps appropriately, on April Fools’ Day:


Sheherazade on the Streets


…expect truth only from [she] whose belly is full.

                                                Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes this World

--After five years my eldest sister returned to me in beggar's gear with her clothes in rags and tatters and a dirty old mantilla; and truly she was in the foulest and sorriest plight. At first sight I did not know my own sister; but presently I recognised her and said "What state is this?"

                         “The Eldest Lady’s Tale”—The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night                                                    (tr.Richard Francis Burton)


Listen: stories can save your life.


She began with what she could tell

from my face and dress and hurry

I most wanted to hear:

Lady, I ain’t askin’ for nuthin.’


Neither old nor young, fat nor thin,

black nor white, she perched on

the edge of a stone planter by the Walgreens’

snow-banked lot.  Five pm,

and tears were streaming down her cheeks.


I ain’t askin’ for nuthin’,

she went on, but I just

can’t take the cold no more.

Cops can’t do nuthin’ for me

‘cause I am sober. Gave me

a breathylizer.

If I was drunk they would have took me in

out of the cold. I be lookin’

to trade the rest of my food stamps for

27 dollars to buy a bed

for the week, someone told me ‘bout.

I call the shelters on my Obama phone

every night but I’m 26th

on the list. They turnin’ away

every single woman in this cold.


She rocked back and forth, not looking

me in the eye. It was ten

degrees of meanness  out there with

a killing wind. I didn’t need food

stamps, but intrigued, I scurried back

to the Walgreens’ ATM,

which quickly spit out 40 bucks.


Where is this place? I asked.

I’ll show you, she said,

jumping right into my car.


My mother and me, we used to live in

my grandfather’s house. He was a preacher

and ‘cause of that his property tax was put

on hold. But when he died they finally come due

but my mother, she couldn’t pay.

After she died I was tossed out on the streets.

A neighbor took me in for awhile to mind

her kids but when her man came home from jail

he took one look and kicked me right out.

I been sleeping in doorways ever since:

one thousand and one hard nights.


This here the ghetto, she gestured like a guide

as we neared the old house with a sagging porch

she readily pointed out.  I stopped. We hugged.


I asked her name and she told me. I told her mine.

I watched her dart up the stairs, then drove away.


After just one night of listening

to the wicked portents of the wind,

I threw back my warm covers,

drove again to the ATM,

punched out five more twenty

dollar bills, and easily wound my way

back into the ghetto, this time

crossing a no-longer perceptible line.


She was huddled on a broken-down

dirty couch in that cold house 

watching a blaring TV. Wrapped up

in all her raggedy clothes, she said

my room’s upstairs, but

I’m worried‘bout what I’ll do

when this week is up.


Happily, I presented her with

the twenties and my cell phone number.

She smiled. We hugged again.


Back home, my people shook their heads and

told me I’d been scammed;

a reporter  I called said this woman

was well-known for her stories.

Change your phone number, she advised.

Give her no more money.


And so I did, and

I did not. But I’ll tell you



Like all great storytellers  

who subsist on that bare

thread between harsh truth and

the sweet recompense of fiction,

she charmed me, made me

believe every single word, and changed me

in the telling. I still worry

about her these cold nights,

am anxious about what might happen next.


Wherever Sheherazade continues to spin

her tales, I hope her listeners will hoard

every nugget of their gullibility,

let their hurry, for a moment, fall

away, wrap themselves snugly  in what

she’s woven from whole cloth, perhaps

even pay a little something toward

the royalties that are, no doubt, her due.


Sheherazade costume in ballet by Daighilev


Reflections after a Week of Being Seventy

by L. DavisIt’s my belief that most seventy-year-olds in good health do not consider themselves old. I add the caveat “in good health” only because I have learned, at least for me, that even a day of the stomach flu can make me feel as if I’m on my “last legs.”

I just missed qualifying as a member of the baby-boomer generation, which has made common such statements as “50 is the new 40” and so on. But I believe that there have always been hale, generally hearty seventy-year-olds who do not feel old—at least most of the time.

Indeed, I hunt out such examples wherever I can find them, for I have very few in my personal experience. For me, nothing is as convincing as a good example. All sorts of marvelous things, it is said, move into the realm of possibility if one has seen it done even once.

That’s why such articles as “Finding Success, Well Past the Age of Wunderkind” by  Abby Ellin from the Personal Business section of last Saturday’s NYT draw me in. She gives many examples of her premise that “many people are discovering that the latter part of their lives can be just as (or even more) rewarding creatively, emotionally and spiritually.”

She quotes Karl A. Pillemer, professor of gerontology at Cornell University, who found, after interviewing 1500 people age 70 and older, “that a large number. . .said they had achieved a life dream or embarked on a worthwhile endeavor after age 65. ‘There was this feeling of somehow “getting it right” at 50 or 60 or older,’ he said, noting that this sentiment applies to creative efforts, relationships, and work.”

I agree, and am ever grateful to an old friend who, when I was in my 50s and thinking of starting formal piano lessons again, said, “Don’t wait too long.” He gave me that push that sent me on my way.

I also appreciate Pillemer’s connections among creativity, emotional relationships, and spirituality. There seems to be an experimental, unrushed openness that comes in later life--as well as a willingness to surrender absolutes of all kinds—that can free all aspects of life.

David W. Galenson, in his book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, (2007) speaks of the difference between conceptual and experimental minds. “Conceptual minds tend to be younger and typically better with abstractions. Experimental minds, on the other hand, take longer to gestate, working by trial and error.”

Seymour Bernstein’s memoir, Monsters and Angels: Surviving a Career in Music (2002)—see my previous post --narrates his finding his main passion in life—teaching, NOT being a professional musician—when he was in his 50s. He says, “Ask career-minded students what their goals are in their study of music and you receive responses such as ‘I want to win a big contest!’ or ‘I want to perform with a major symphony orchestra!’ or ‘I want to concertize all over the world!’ Rarely do I hear from such students what almost all amateur musicians would say—that they study music for the sheer love of it.”

I taught my first English class when I was 23, and so I have been teaching for a rather long time. Last weekend I completed my first two weeks of part-time teaching for two classes of returning adult students at Marquette University, something I’ve been doing since I “retired” in 2007. I greatly enjoy teaching returning adult students, largely for the reasons Ellin outlines in her article above. The concept of Success shifts meaning as we grow older, and it often takes time to discover our personal, unique definition. Almost always, when students return to school after “stopping out” for awhile,  they have a better sense of what matters most to them than they did in their youth.

I know I do, and I’m still learning about it.





On the Other Hand....

Although I leave many of my lessons happy and inspired, as I described in my last post, there are also those times when I leave thinking, “What am I thinking? I can’t do this! There are so many people who can play these pieces better than I. What is the point? “

But before I whine too long in my corner, the piano beckons and I am off again. There are no such thoughts when I am actually practicing.


Two amazing people have come to my attention this week, and I would like to offer a window into their worlds.  Seymour Bernstein, 87-year-old pianist, composer, teacher, and philosopher, is featured in a film that opened on March13th (though not, to my knowledge, yet in Milwaukee)—a documentary by Ethan Hawke called “Seymour: An Introduction.”  The link is to a trailer for the movie; if you are intrigued, I urge you to look at the longer interview with both Hawke and Bernstein about the making of the film.

Manohla Dargis, in his review of the film, “In Music, as in Life, the Lesson Is Perseverance,” says,  “Among the lessons, musical and otherwise, that Mr. Bernstein offers is that surrender isn’t an option. ‘The struggle is what makes the art form,’ he says. ‘I had to go to war for my art form.’ . . . What Mr. Bernstein reveals through both the example of his life and the many recollections and conversations threaded throughout this documentary, is that struggle—long, brutal, enervating, interminable-must have its due. That this is as much a movie about life as about art is clear from the first few minutes, as is the sense that the terms are inseparable for him.”


The other amazing person of whom I was made aware through the gift of her book The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labor Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations is Zhu Xiao-Mei. She says in an interview accompanying the liner notes for her 2014 cd The Art of the Fugue,  “'The Art of Fugue' is a work that’s sometimes discouraging to practice. It’s very difficult in terms of notes. The sustained notes are tricky for pianists like me who don’t have big hands….I’ve never suffered so much when practicing a work. And when I say suffered, I’m also talking about physical suffering: I was sore all over, sore hands, sore shoulders.” So what makes you do it? asks the interviewer: “There’s a paradox with this work. To practice it causes you cruel sufferings, but to perform it give you the impression of entering a state of perfect balance. And as you know, for the Chinese, the search for balance—of thought, of the body, of life—is the ultimate goal.”

But then there’s that self-doubt. Both Bernstein and Zhu faced in childhood immense struggles for their music. Bernstein’s musical interests were apparently not supported by his entire family. In fact, Dargis says, “his father said he had two daughters and a pianist…. Bernstein played at the front in the Korean War and in concert halls afterward, winning praise and admirers, only to give up his public career [for teaching] when he was 50.”

Even more dramatically, Zhu spent five years in a work camp in Mongolia as the Cultural Revolution closed all art schools and sent artists away for “re-education.” As a teenager, Zhu struggled with the brainwashing strategies of the Communist party, which turned family member against family member and friend against friend. Since then, she has struggled greatly to reclaim enough self-confidence to play. As she says in her book, “Success in itself is nothing. Once you have achieved it, the most difficult task still lies ahead—mastering yourself.”

Both Bernstein and Zhu insist on the close connection between music and life. Zhu says in her book, “After everything I have experienced, I cannot take an intellectual approach to music. When I play, I try to speak to people, to tell them something, to show them the beauty of a work, to move them. Having an audience is crucial for me. Some of my fellow artists assert that they play for themselves rather than for an audience. I take the exact opposite approach: my goal is to share with others.

“Humanity is the truth of music. What is important to me is that, this evening, I may be able to reach one person, someone who is not a musician. That I might be able to reveal a part of his or her humanity, of our shared humanity, of which he or she may be unaware. And one day, who knows, perhaps this may help that person to speak out when what is essential is threatened.”

I have no such great ambition as Zhu or Bernstein.  Anxiety has always threatened my playing, as well as other important elements of my life.  And yet I hope, at my recital on June 6, to give back, in some small way, the gift of music that has been given to me. Zhu closes her book with this: “At night I question myself, I am afraid of others, of myself. I have an acute awareness of my impotence, my inability to achieve perfection. But in the morning, I know that it is still there, in the next room, waiting for me. It always keeps its promise of fulfillment. My piano.”

So, on this, my 70th birthday, I raise my glass to all piansts who struggle—indeed, to all who struggle with anything-- as well as to the rather fierce-looking seven-year-old child I was when I began lessons. Here’s to you, kid! You have an amazing ride ahead of you! And I'll be with you every step of the way!