Saturday, July 30, 2011

Where Music Comes From

Young Adash pulls his guitar from its case. He begins to pick and strum, and, at first, it’s a bit jarring. There’s nothing prepared or practiced here. He picks one note, or three, and he follows it with others. I recognize the slightly muddy aura of a guitar strummed open-stringed. This is the instrument itself talking firstly, Adash only follows it, pressing down on a string and responding to the vibration that shudders or twangs into existence, born into the air, into space.

This isn’t music, exactly. It’s an exploration into sound. It’s a tactile “What might this sound like?”, followed by a “Let’s see what plucking this note will do.” It’s music by questioning, by being willing for the surprise to spring out of the instrument and direct the hand to do the next thing.
I’m enjoying Adash’s music. No – not music – the sound he invites from his guitar. And so I walk to the car and I retrieve my alto, take out a reed and put it between my lips, allowing my saliva to soften it, preparing to play.
Play is what this is. The essence of music, not? Adash is nowhere close to professional. But this is a responsive, second-by-second musicality. It reminds me, it remembers me. This is what all novice musicians sound like in that early period, when they are willing to allow an instrument to be teacher, to teach its own voice, its own expressions.

I get my sax put together and go and sit by Adash. He looks up and, for a moment seems to slow and shift away from what he’s been doing. Maybe he’s expecting the standard, “Do you know ‘Body & Soul?’ type of question.” But instead I ask him just to keep on doing what he’s doing. Which isn’t a fair request, really, though it’s the best one possible, if something needs saying. I know because I remember doodling. I did it with my guitar, thirty years ago.  No time, no money, no talent – I thought – for lessons. No space for taking this seriously. Only space for playing. Which isn’t really ‘doing’ anything.
Playing? That’s what it’s called, isn’t it? Playing music. A game, a joke, a free-hearted, goal-less exploration of vibration and sound, the confluence and the channelling of something like meaning, like feeling, like living, into something called notes.

Adash and I play together. And it’s some of the freest playing I can remember. He lays down gorgeously invented, brilliantly found foundations, and I dance upon them, stumbling and weaving through the notes that materialize, in the scales that arise, in the patterns that seduce and invite us.
This is music. Not something remembered. Not something reached for. Just a bubbling presence, a potentiality breathed in, an afternoon suspended and flowing in time, so much so that it stands still while it floats and bobs and weaves. Music being discovered as where it is. In the thin air. Everywhere. All ways. Now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Felling a Tree of Heaven

Our backyard is a small one - approximately 14 feet by 30. That's less that one hundredth of an acre. From our tiny yard we can see the back windows of more than a dozen neighbors, and from our upper floors we can peer into more than a dozen yards.Despite its size, our yard is luxurious. It's outdoor space inside of a city, a space where things grow. And despite being crowded in among so many other yards, it offers privacy, and a sense of retreat and of tranquility. From the yard, one can hear what's going on inside the house, in neighboring yards, and in the surrounding streets. Splashes of music and television and conversation waft in, but they don't feel intrusive. I imagine that my neighbors pay as little attention to what goes on in my yard and inside my home as I attend to what goes on in theirs.

A couple of days ago, I cut down one of our trees, seeking to free up the air and light, to return to us a more open view of our graceful space. And because I've never known what kind of tree it was, I did some research. Surprising how difficult it proved to identify it. I'm still not sure I got it right, but that's okay. Tree of Heaven? How can I pass on that! Until today, I didn't know there was such a thing.

When we moved in eight years ago, the yard contained no trees. There was only the patchy lawn and a few shrubs. The first tree we planted was a memorial for Meggie, Ponczka's Brittany Spaniel that died shortly after we moved in. We buried her ashes by the back fence and marked the spot with a birch tree. Sometime later that same year, we planted four young conifers along the east fence, then a crab apple tree near the back deck a year later. In the meantime, we re-sodded the lawn, and a few more shrubs and flowering plants went in. A single pot of ivy has gone rampant, completely engulfing half of the fence separating us from one neighbor, all the walls of our deck, and on the way to claiming the rear wall of our house. About three years ago, a maple seed took root, and it's now stretched and filling out, angling for the best of the afternoon light.

The maple tree's main competition is coming from a former stalk that Ponczka planted about a year before the maple showed itself. She'd liked the look of it, and harvested it from near her office. It surprised both of us when it quickly grew into a tree, bulking up and outstripping the conifers, the crab apple and then the birch in about two years. This - it turns out - is the Tree of Heaven, so named because of how quickly it shoots its single, straight trunk right into the sky. It's a nice looking tree: it's branches angle out broadly, creating a nice canopy, and the leaves evenly line the reedy branches, a half-dozen or more to a side. And it keeps growing, towering over the birch and maple, and even over our third floor deck.

Our once sparsely planted yard is now a mini-forest, lush and tangled with growth. We'll soon be able to string a hammock between the Tree of Heaven and the maple, they've grown so robust. We now only catch glimpses of the surrounding homes and yards through all the interlaced foliage. The sounds still permeate, but muffled as they are, they enhance the sense of distance separating us, creating for us a cool oasis for enduring these dog days.

The tree I felled was not the giant I've described, but its offspring. A tiny sprout we overlooked two years ago became a sapling last year and by last week was itself on the verge of overtaking the still slender birch. Situated on the fenceline separating us from our neighbor to the west, it already overhung both yards, and threatened to obscure the rest or our yard from the kitchen window. So we decided to take it down. It was surprising how easy it was. It had reached a height of more than twenty feet, the trunk with an eight inch diameter. I de-limbed it first, then sawed off the top half. I finished by chopping away at the root until I could dislodge the trunk from the soil.

As quickly as it appeared in our yard, the speed of its removal was surreal. In some of the online descriptions of the Tree of Heaven, it's referred to as a weed, due to its rapid and invasive growth. We'll want to be on the lookout for others shoots that spring up unplanned. But as to our first Tree of Heaven - it's firmly entrenched. The books say they only live to be fifty or so, but that's almost certainly enough to see us gone. For now, it remains the lord flora of our little urban forest. And we're happy to watch it grow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Insect Revelation

I had a very surprising experience at Cape Croker this weekend. Over the last several years, Cape Croker has become a spiritual grounding point for me. Going there always presents opportunities for quieting my mind, and for clearing myself of the build-up of demands, expectations and dissatisfactions. Time takes on a different quality. Removed from all the things that would become chores at home, I'm left at peace to act on a whole different set of impulses. I always take my sax along, and being here always leads me to play. I hiked, I wrote, I napped in the hammock and I read, and I floated limp-bodied on the waters and let the tide carry me. And I had an experience unlike any I've ever had before and would never have expected.

As I wrote about awhile ago, I've been going through a kind of cleansing and regrouping during the last weeks. A major element of that has been regular meditation. Vipassana, the Buddhist tradition I practice, is all about acceptance of what is, and the means to the equanimity it offers is via a hyper attentiveness to bodily sensations. Unlike the foggy trance I once imagined meditation took one into, Vipassana meditation generates a really sharp awareness of all of ones sensations, but particularly the tactile.

Now, with all its wonders and beauty, Cape Croker also comes with its multitude of insects. The ants, flies and mosquitoes are everywhere, and it wasn't always easy to remain peaceful when the creatures were swarming, biting and stinging. But I've been trying not to have too much 'attitude' about insects. At home, I swat, squash and stomp them when they're on my food or in my face, but I try not to get angry or in a frenzy about it, or to go out of my way to bring death to their entire populations.

Over the weekend the creatures were maddening some of the time. But with the help of Off!, it was mostly tolerable. Until it came time to meditate. Coming out of a swim, and before I'd applied any Off!, I decided to do my sit yesterday and I determined that I wouldn't let the insects detract from it. I was going to take the notion of acceptance to a new level. The insects are natural to this environment I love so much, so couldn't I simply accept them as that, and overcome my usual aversion?

It was difficult at first. When the first ants began to crawl, and flies descended onto my skin and scurried about, and the mosquitoes buzzed in my ears, it took everything to remain still and to continue my sensory scan. I recognized how geared up I was for the anticipated bites and stings. And I realized how uptight I was about the creatures invading my ears and nostrils. The sensation of them on my skin, in rapidly growing numbers, was repellant and provacative; it felt so unnatural not to react.

And then, my sensations underwent a shift. As the bites and stings did not come, and as the creatures approached and skirted, but didn't enter my cavaties, I began to relax. And then I began to take in the sensations they produced in the context of the natural setting. The feel of their scurrying legs and wings was accompaniment to the brush of the grasses and twigs surrounding me, and to the breezes that danced in the air, and to the droplets of moisture that descended from I can't imagine where. The movement across my skin was no longer bothersome, and in fact, it soon became pleasant. The totality of all the faint, light lines of movement became like a shimmering, tickling caress. And finally, on top of that, came the sense of curious, exploratory life that all this tiny movement represented. And then it began to feel almost that life was lightly tickling me. What a surprise, what a pleasing joke, that just as the sun presses down with its warm embrace, and the waters cradle my body like an infant's, that so to, even the insects could welcome me with their touch, and leave me feeling so at home.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Culture Skirmish

I’m standing on a borderland of cultures. Queen and Bathurst on the west end of Toronto’s downtown. It’s the tail end of the morning rush hour and I’m waiting to see if one of my clients will show up. She’s a nineteen year old who is being bombarded with a whole slew of stresses these last months: breakups and emotional blackmail, a parent arrested, a landlord threatening eviction, drama and fistfights among friends. She’s experiencing the dulling efficiency of booze to numb her and the encroaching enticement of crack; discovering the power of her sensuality in her arsenal against lonliness, and its very different power as a porn commodity. It’s all so much that suicide becomes an inviting dance partner on her horizon. But she doesn’t want that dance, and has instead opened the door to counselling, has in fact become a demand for it.

But when I phoned last night to tell her that a colleague had arranged a quickie, shortcut intake, she suddenly cooled to the plan, was full of excuses. “I’ll be there anyway,” I told her. “I have to be. The guy pulled some strings to make this happen.”

That made her angry. Emotional blackmail again? “Well I don’t know,” she said via text message (she wouldn’t take my live calls). “It’s just not a good day for me.”

“Fine,” I told her. “I’ll just go, and we’ll talk later.”

So I’m there now, in front of the clinic, waiting, hoping she’ll turn up. A small group of Native Canadians are packing their sleeping bags into a grocery cart and about to make their way to the Meeting Place, the Drop-In across the street. The Health Centre makes no bones about them sleeping there nightly, so long as they vacate once the doors open. Among the guys is one of the first people I ever housed through Streets to Homes. He and his girlfriend have shared a tiny bachelor in a run-down low-rise a few blocks from here for almost two years now, but he still prefers to sleep outdoors with his friends most nights. We share small talk while they pack up, and while a steady stream of young office workers crowd from the streetcars to the various businesses nearby - tech, fashion, publishing and retail.

There’s an entire range here: those who are at the pinnacle of the culture, in their designer wear, in sleek hybrids, on scooters and expensive bikes. They frequent the bistros and boutiques and the high-end tech and fashion shops that are springing up, replacing dying, old businesses that thrived in the last century. Then there are the young fringe-dwellers, with their multitude of piercings, tattoos and hybrid hairstyles, some of them on skateboards or their own different class of bikes.
It’s fascinating to see this inter-mingling: those at the very point of the culture’s forward thrust, those trying to break the culture sideways in various directions – political, musical, sexual, conceptual – and then, all those almost beyond the fringe, living off of the dregs, some threatening full release into self-destruction. These require an entirely different level of metaphor; the angle of relationship is more skewed. Those on the outside came to there from every segment of the culture. Some, if you probed deep enough to where it seemed to matter, would reveal beliefs that are entirely conservative; others would espouse progressive beliefs, or thought patterns that were woven along spiritual or mystical lines.
Heavy in the equation is an element of dispossession.  It’s not only the sense of the new coming in constant waves that replace the old and the dying. It’s also the sense that what’s being sought so avidly through the sharp commercial energy, leaves out something that was sought and thought precious before. It’s as though life has been simplified, but in a way that devalues flavours and accents that can no longer be tasted or heard. There’s a sense something like that of waking from a delicious dream that’s fading so fast in the light of day, that even as its flavour lingers, there’s a certain knowledge that you’ll never be able to explain it or recapture it. In fact, you know that quarter of an hour later it will all have evaporated, and whatever notes you’ve jotted down, as signposts, will ring hollow and meaningless.
It sounds and feels grim, put into words this way, but the experiencing of Queen and Bathurst this morning is anything but. What I’m feeling as I lounge near the intersection, is a settledness that transcends the shifting skirmish. It’s a feeling that says, “once in existence, impossible to destroy.” It’s reassuring, somehow timeless.
I’ve sometimes, as an African American descendent of people who were enslaved, reflected on the experience of the native people of these lands. While I, in the body of my forebears, was taken from my land and culture, and stripped of my knowledge of it, there has always been the knowledge – to my own generation and the ones that have followed, if not always to those that preceeded us – that Africa remains there, rich in culture and history, with a population too large to decimate. It is a gift that I think must be similar to the gift of being a parent, of knowing that the individual self will be survived, by something larger and more permanent.

But what must it feel like, to be indigenous to a land that has been overrun by the other, where hardly a trace of what was yours remains, where even your numbers have been reduced to a hardly acknowledged fraction, to a presence that seems sometimes to be merely symbolic? It must be painful on a visceral, existential level, and I sometimes wonder if it isn’t this pain that animates what sometimes appears to be a determined and defiant disconnect with the dominant society.
But there’s life here on this corner rather than death. When one is part of the seething crowd, it’s the crowd that seems to matter, to be the focal point. But when standing here, silent and still, it’s different. Time takes on a different energy and weight. I get then that while the wind makes the weather, it’s the rocks that endure. The skirmish is among styles as fleeting as breezes. That which was solidly in existence, is not so easily destroyed. That the wind won’t carry it may only mean that it’s too heavy for the wind, weightier and slower moving, richer and slower to the touch, subtler to the taste.
My nineteen year old came after all. She sent a text message, just at the time of the appointment.

“I’m walking down from Dupont,” it said. “I know I’m late, but I’m on my way.”

“That’s okay,” I messaged back. “I’ll wait here for you, and we’ll make something happen.”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Makes Me Wanna Holla!

I'm at ING bank, trying to open an account. After years and years of watching those "Save Your Money!" commercials, I finally decided to have a look, after receiving a joke of a 2 cent interest deposit into an account at another bank that's holding hundreds.

So, I found an ING product online that seems to fit, and that offers a measurable interest rate, so figured - Why Not? It looked like it was going to be easy. I set up an automatic deposit schedule and - since I haven't actually written a check in years - decided I would go to their 'cafe' location to drop off an initial deposit along with my account information for the transfer.

At the ING cafe I was told that they 'don't do cash', and that I wouldn't be able to open my account with a credit or debit card payment either. And, though I know from my sales days that it would be legal, I also couldn't simply make a check by hand-printing one with my account information. No, it would have to be a bank issued cheque. And this was needed because of 'legal verification requirements'. I was assured that my own bank would give me a counter check. But I visited a large downtown branch of my regular bank, TD Canada Trust, and was told that they don't do counter checks. If I want a check, I'll have to buy an entire box of them - 200 minimum, I believe. And why would I want those around!?

So at this point I figure...Why does ING even want me dealing with my other bank? What if I walked in the door and said, "Finally, a bank I can do business with. A bank that will respect me, and respect my money, and care for it as I would myself."? What about that?

The surprising answer is that they'd tell me to get lost. In kinder words, of course. But ING won't give me an account unless I already have an account with another bank. Jason here explained it to me. It has something to do with the fact that ING isn't full service yet. And something to do with the 'legal requirements' I've already mentioned.

So the company that seems to be making its way by convincing consumers that we're abused by regular banks, requires us to deal with these other banks before it will do business with us!

And while we're on the subject of banks...Do you have a credit card? I do too. And these days, you can use a credit card almost anywhere, from fast food outlets to convenience stores, right? Guess where you absolutely CAN'T use your credit card? Try walking into any full-service bank and using it to get twenty dollars! Unless it's a credit card issued by that bank, even if you have your account and do all your financial business at that bank, they will tell you that they have no means of doing business with you via that card!

Weird, huh!? And aggravating!
And it absolutely Makes Me Wanna Holla!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Time Travelling on a Tune

Over the last couple of days, I found a number of new links on the internet, to my Mom’s career as a singer in the 60s and 70s.

Mom was a preacher’s daughter, born in Ferndale, Michigan and raised in the north part of Detroit. Granddad and Tootsie (the nickname an older cousin bestowed on our Grandmother) lived off of 8 mile road, and the Mt. Beulah Baptist Church wasn’t far from there. Mom was a smart, imaginative, dreamer growing up. She sang in the church, but may have had more of an interest in writing, going so far as having a small chap book of poems printed when she was still in school. I know that she and her cousin Earl talked a lot about how they intended to travel the world when they grew up.

Her first steps away from home were going off to college, to Bluefield, West Virginia for a time, then to somewhere in Oklahoma, I believe. I don’t recall with certainty what she studied, but I know that she dropped out in her final year, to marry my Dad, a charming, sweet-talking man even now, in his late eighties. He’d run off from small town Indiana to the big city of Detroit, on the night of his high school graduation, and returned there after a couple of years in the military.

When he met my Mom, he romanced her hard, taking her to clubs and ball games and shows, and had even the serious Reverend Hardwrick so won over that they had use of the family car whenever they wanted. Mom put her other ambitions on the shelf for awhile, married Dad, had two kids, and before long, seeing the world seemed the furthest thing from possible.

But it wasn’t a very happy marriage. Dad liked the ladies more than a marriage could contain, and somewhere in there, Mom began to nurture the seed of her own liberation. The story is that the seed broke ground the day she was riding in an elevator and singing a tune to herself. There happened to be an agent in the elevator with her. He said something like, “Hey babe, you got some sweet pipes”. And next thing you know, Mom is doing gigs in local clubs, then going on weekend trips to Columbus and Cleveland.

From there, things changed pretty fast. Mom got called to New York, and went. Dad, after awhile, loaded my brother and I into the family car, and followed her there. A year or so later, she got a chance to travel to Berlin, to be part of an international revue titled, “Schwarz/Weiss” – Black/White, that featured black and white performers from several countries. She was supposed to be gone a couple of months, but the show was a hit and she emerged as its star. When the show kept getting extended, our ever game Dad loaded us up again and surprised Mom when we all appeared at her hotel room door.

We were actually a good family there for awhile, bouncing from city to city while Mom developed a reputation and a career. My brother and I learned German and thrilled at being intrepid explorers in foreign lands. Those were the Golden years of our childhood, and created a bond between us that nothing has ever weakened. Ever since then, I’ve felt sorry for the vast majority of chronologically close siblings who fail to nurture any sense of special devotion between them; but I’ve come to understand that my brother and I had blessed circumstances in which to do so.

Dad may be coming across as the bad guy in this story, but it didn’t end up so. There isn’t a bad guy, or a bad gal. When our parents saw that their marriage just wouldn’t work, they did the smart thing and ended it, before the grudges and arguments could become a fixture in our lives. He returned to New York, then did a round trip a year later to take my brother and I with him. The plan was that we’d go back and forth between them. But that never materialized.

Mom’s career peaked over the next few years. She finally travelled the world, as she’d always intended. The next time my brother and I spent substantial time with her was when she came through New York as the star entertainer on the around-the-world, maiden voyage of a luxury ocean liner. It was apparently just too complicated a life – professionally and personally – for her to feel she could adequately parent us. Which was absolutely the tragedy of my young life. But, on the flip side, my brother and I were fortunate enough to have a father who, despite the entreaties of relatives on both sides to allow them to raise us (because no single man, especially one who liked to play like James Kirby, and who worked nights, should be trying to raise no two kids all by himself in no New York City!) insisted that he was going to raise us himself and love doing it.

Of course there’s lots more to it. I will always be proud of Mom that, in the late 1950’s, she, a young, black woman, broke away from a narrow and unhappy life as a housewife, and turned herself into a globe-trotting, jet-setting, diva glamourpuss! The parts of that I shared with her are infinitely precious. Among my best memories are the times I’d come from school and have long, deep, searching, anything goes conversations with her, while she dressed and made herself up for her show that night. And I missed her enormously all those following years when she wasn’t around.

So you can imagine the thrill when, every now and then, when I do a google search, I discover a missing piece of Mom’s life. The last discovery came as a result of my brother finding some long lost photographs, and that spurring me into doing a routine search. Amazingly, these last finds include a few seconds’s worth of video, close ups of Mom singing, fronting a band and wearing a sleek, glittery gown and stole, and a curly, almost platinum wig. It’s a clip from some 1970 Eurocomedy, and she’s off-screen as the camera focuses on the antics of a nightclub’s patrons. But Wow! It’s about the first moving image I’ve had of my Mom since she died twenty years ago.

I’ll have to send a note to the person who posted the clip, thanking them. What a treasure! What a lovely, heart-warming gift, to see my Mom again, smiling, singing, doing her glam-glam thing!