I don’t know what the difference between a billboard, a beaver and a builder, a menu and a page, page content and a widget, and I just keep kicking around, discovering tiny clues, an hour at a time.
I climb the stairs of Franklin & Marshall’s “Other Room Theater” on the morning of Wednesday, September 13th, 2016 with unusual quiet. It’s with presence and pause that I unlock the door into the drama space, wherein live decades of ghosts of homegrown art. On a regular day, the spirits that move here swirl and writhe through this room infused in white hot words spoken with the faith and abandon that only the young and the most brave can summon. In tense crosses, raging counter-crosses, glares of hatred, actions of stormy love and passion, and stories full of burning humanity, the spirits that move here, well, they move us too. This morning though, they are silent. Perhaps they wait. Just beneath a black floor, between rows of folding metal chairs and a grey chalkboard, all contained within an interlocking stack of weathered bricks, every single one of these things scuffed and dented, perhaps the spirits wait in silence. I’ve got a knot deep in my gut this morning, pulsing slow and steady, bold and heavy while I slide a push-broom past weighty, pitch-black, felt curtains in prep to greet again, the members of my Acting II class. This morning’s session is brought to you by Election Night, 2016. This morning’s session will be entirely improvised. This morning’s session, we will attempt to summon the courage, consolation, transformation, wherewithal and wisdom we need to face a future that’s just sounded the silent alarm. None of us are well-versed in politics. Call us stupid, but Trump’s victory last night came to us as surprise. My students; intelligent, young, progressive, art-minded, diverse, full of compassion and on the cusp of meeting the professional world for the first time as adults, enter the room feeling this wind of change with immediate and pressing concern. To my knowledge, there is only one student in the class that does not claim GLBTQ, Latino, Black, Jewish, female or immigrant as at least part of their identity. From the look of it, if they slept the previous night, it was likely fitful at best. Myself too, but it’d be ignorant to say the stakes are as high and direct for straight, degreed, middle-class white guys like myself, presently in charge of greeting the group so hushed with heartbreak, now unloading their bags, taking off their shoes and gathering to sit together, center-stage.
Sorrowful, defeated and afraid, they appear as if in mourning and it’s clear that I must hold space right now for whatever they need to talk about. We begin each day seated in a circle with 10 minutes of meditation. In my view, concentration is essential to the habits of compelling performance. An individual that is aware of his or her thoughts, emotions and body; capable of directing and redirecting each while at work, is much more suited to deliver a performance that is powerful, present and relatable to an audience. Meditation in its many forms, exercises the “concentration muscle”. Today, these ten minutes are excruciatingly long and difficult. Thoughts are the creators of emotion, which turn around again to co-create thoughts, and so the cycle goes. It’s a difficult phenomenon to keep watch over, much less control, on a normal day. Today in my meditation, I respond to my thoughts, over and over and over again, “Yes, that is a valid concern, but please wait a moment while I take this time to breathe.” The sound of sniffling. The sight of one student moving to lie down and curl her body. Another wiping away tears. “Yes, these concerns are valid. Please wait a moment while I take a few more breaths.” The feeling of their sorrow and doubt. Of mine. The world feels unsafe for them now. Their personal safety is in question. “Yes. That is truly a valid concern. Please, a moment while I take this breath.” The desire to check the time and see how much longer we have to sit still. This is difficult for them. I don’t know if they’ll be able to hold out for another much longer. “YES, I acknowledge you. PLEASE, just this inhalation… this exhalation…” The timer sounds. Silence broken. Tension and attention, released. We take a moment to unravel, to straighten our bodies and face the inward circle. We bow in.
The next hour is mostly comprised of confessions. Experiences, fears, anger and uncertainty about what’s to come. The best I can do is to hold space for lamentation, words and tears of grief, and to encourage them to be open to the possibility of unexpected outcomes, if only to spot and help opportunities and changes come about. But I come to a tentative conclusion (as you may have read in one or another previous entries, I’m not fond of coming to conclusions of opinion). To me, the biggest political divisions in this country, and on the planet for that matter, come down to a simple question with long-rippling implications; a question that I perceive peoples’ political views and actions hinge upon so directly… It’s this:
How big is your “Us”?
That is, ultimately, what does “us” mean to you? It ranges from “Me, myself and I”, to “My family and friends”, from “My country”, to “Every living thing on the planet, now until the end of time.” And perhaps it’s simply a lens that I’ve been watching the 6 months preceding the election through, but I see it as the crux of the issue, why the 2017 United States is being referred to as the most widely divided it’s been, perhaps since the Civil War. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m no historian. My whole life, I’ve not been as politically responsible as I likely should be. I pay attention to people’s hearts though, and I see great love, compassion, care, sacrifice and generosity so readily given away between people wherever I go. Friends, family, strangers, wherever I am, whatever group, large and small, I see beautiful acts from “US“. As for them, well, depending on who they are, sometimes we’re looking to get them to come with us, sometimes we’re not, sometimes they get what they deserve, sometimes they get what we deserve. Sometimes we learn they were never one of “US” after all. I’ve never won an argument to change someone’s mind about it, but to me, everyone here is my “US”. I’m as guilty as the next person of falling short on follow-through when it comes to putting my time, money and body in the places they could be to help more, but I hope Woven helps articulate the idea in a better way than I could ever argue. It’s my prayer in answer to all of the confessions made by myself and the students of my Acting II class on the morning of Tuesday, September 13th, 2017. Here’s the link to the live performance of it, and here are the lyrics:
Sticks and stones, broken hearts and bones, and the truth be told,
We might not make it through the night
Both young & old, it’s the pain we hold, it’s so hard to shoulder
please lord just help me get it right
Now I watch her cry for the falling sky & the crumbling signs
And I fear we’re losing ground
With hopes so high & eyes so wide on the highest climb
No wonder it feels so far when we falter
But the dust will clear, the straight and queer will be enfolded
The wheel will spin, every shade of skin will be golden
The scale will shake, Athena will unseat the throne
The seeds are sewn, behold how tightly we are woven
Now it’s no surprise, mothers die, cells divide (or poets dive)
And I’m here sitting still and centered now
If what we will is what we find, and what we find is they’re the same inside
Tell me one thing: how many does your us abide?
The dust will clear, the straight and queer will be enfolded
The wheel will spin, every shade of skin will be golden
The scale will shake, Athena she will take the throne
The seeds are sewn, behold how tightly we are woven
Same friend, different question – This time, it’s “Why is your music valuable to your community?” Are we writing a manifesto or what?
I have both witnessed and experienced the transformative power of music and art; the power to deepen, soften, steady, make still or spark the heart; the power to create compassion and healing, inspiration and movement, curiosity and awe, recognition, appreciation and most of all, love – all according to the needs of the moment. These things, this influence, rarely if ever measured tangibly (if that were even possible), does effortlessly transcend the political, yet it shapes our thoughts, decisions, behavior and identity, both individual and collective. Simply, it makes us better humans. And the word value, though commonly associated with money, limits the scope of this influence. As an agent for change, as a bridge between the current depth and evolution of our humanity, and what it will grow into, it is not valuable – it is invaluable.
Now, I’ve heard somewhere that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (not this beholder). May be true. You and only you can be the judge for what you find in our music. If you’re here, you’ve likely heard a Featherburn tune or two. You’re invited to hear more. Renowned choreographer Martha Graham said:
“There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time this expression is unique. and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it! It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
We’re here simply doing our best to create art that’s true. At the core, it’s not for me to decide if or how my art is valuable. Just to keep working diligently. And even if you totally dig it, it’s absolutely reasonable to come back with “Dude, it’s just a bunch of songs. I like them, don’t get me wrong, but come on – the transformative power of music?”. And I say, go ahead with that. Dance, tap, sing; eat, drink, cook; work, play, make love to the songs – do a lot of it, whatever the music holds for you. Enjoy it. Revel. My experience and understanding is that the transformation and growth is taking place, whether we recognize or acknowledge it or not. My hope for you (and everyone) is that one day, you might find your Biko (see previous post) too; and when that happens, you see the act of generosity and joy you’re inspired to carry out, and witness it reverberate and multiply before you so loud and powerful that it comes back again flips you over like the great, profound omelet of love, passion and faith in humanity that you are, without busting you all over the pan into scrambled egg hash, which is also delicious.
Also, not either altogether related or unrelated, one of my favorites from Thoreau:
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each.”
A new friend reminded me recently to continue to reckon with “why?” Why make music? An important question. So, for myself, for Featherburn, for anyone who might be into reading, I’ve come up with some thoughts. My own take for now, and maybe we can look forward to hearing just where and how the band weighs in.
The first, simple reason? I and the good people of Featherburn all love making music. The act of playing music, of creating and playing together is enjoyable to us at the very least. One or more of us might argue that we need to do it. Enough to keep us meeting, practicing, writing, wrestling with chord progressions, song forms, melodic phrases, vocal harmonies. Creating and playing songs is for us, an enjoyable act. It may seem like a given, but I think it’s worth pointing out. If each of us didn’t simply love completing the tasks, I don’t think we’d be doing it.
Beyond that, the question for me is “Why do I make art?”, which is indeed more personal. I first began performing in college. I had a curious and good audition for a theatrical spin on the story of Red Riding Hood called “Little Wolf”, about a young wolf who thinks he knows everything, but subsequently learns from his grandmother to stop and listen to the wind. I wish I still had that script. I landed the part of that little wolf (was I type-cast?) and though I remember literally shaking on stage for the first few performances, by the end of the entire run, I was feeling pretty good about my work. And very much enjoying the applause and praise that came after every show. Many lessons, indeed.
Renowned Japanese theater director Tadashi Suzuki writes, “There are no good or bad actors, there are only greater or lesser degrees of profundity for an actor’s reason for being on stage.”
After my final bow and howl in wolf costume, I continued to work diligently at acting for years, getting on board with every production I could. Being a male who could walk and speak clearly in a small town with a small college with an even smaller theater department offered a great deal of opportunity. And what fun, too! For a while, anyway. Always landing good parts, always enjoying applause and praise, always onto the next show. It didn’t take long though, before I began to experience feelings of doubt and need tucked within those curtain calls. Still improving with time and experience, but soon feeling a greater need to hear from more people that they thought I was a good actor. A growing disparity between what I got out of performing v. what I wanted to get out of it. In hindsight, the components gained and wanted, were both from the same side of the stage. In hindsight, it was ego, in the stereotypical sense of the word, just being its good old insatiable entity. Feeling that sense of hollowness and doubt in my work and ability, I had just enough time and insight to start to sit quietly with it, and listen to the wind, to recognize a pattern first, then wonder what in the hell was going on, and then to ask myself sincerely “Why does it seem to never be enough praise for me to feel good?”. Then I had a deeply transformational experience.
College debauchtastic, post-party wind-down in my housemate’s room, I stumble across the last song on the 2nd disc of “Peter Gabriel Plays Live”. Looking at the title, “Biko”, I experience a quick childhood flashback – lying in the way back of the big blue family station wagon, turning slowly up the driveway home, and over the radio, a repeating melody to the repeating words “Oh, Biko, Biko, because Biko”. Just a flash of the melody, a flash of the memory, and back to the cd player college post-party, but now in the mind and body of a budding artist, wondering what that missing thing is, the missing thing from the quest making such an inner ruckus with its accompanying big and hollow feeling. At this point, I’m not a musician. Not an avid music listener. Not familiar with a significant number of artists. Hadn’t ever heard of Peter Gabriel. But in goes the disc, forward scans the track, press gets the play, and zeros in the sound. Crowd cheers fading out from the previous song. “Cheering, I can relate to that.” Cool, steady, exotic, drum pattern. A low, electronic drone comes in. Gabriel says “This is for Stephen Biko!”, the crowd erupts in recognition. And as if to answer “Yes. Yes, this is your life about to be changed here and now,” comes David Rhodes’ slowly executed, single barred D chord downstrum, and I am enveloped. Enveloped by the music, by the vivid images, by the story he tells, and the message he relays about a freedom fighter died 1977, in prison almost in deliberate sacrifice, fighting against apartheid. And events which continued to incite a revolution against oppression, changing the world.
Inspiration like I’d never felt it before, coursing through me. Making me want to fight every injustice, join every rising movement of positive change, share every message of wakefulness and fearlessness, but also to sing. Rarely in my life do I feel such a clarity of purpose, but here it is. Specifically, the thought is as follows: “THIS. THIS is what I want to do. For my life. I want to make music, like this.” Looking back, it was partly the story about fighting injustice and partly the drugs. Mainly though, it was a feeling, an answer to the hollowness, which changed me, upon hearing another artist dedicate his work to another, to something greater than and outside himself. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d found the missing piece. From the back of the station wagon, to the curtain call as a little wolf who knew everything, to Tadashi Suzuki’s declaration about stage-worthiness and, then for the sell – in witnessing an act of humility and generosity by an artist and hearing the inspiration as it hit his community. Why make music? This is why. The mission is clear.
It’s been twenty years since then. I’ve struggled at length with the question, especially during the long transition period. As my own motivation as an artist has changed, I’ve wondered deeply if I should continue to create. “Can one perform the same action, for a different reason?” It’s not really my style to decide upon definite conclusions about the philosophy of life and right action. I’m highly suspect of people who believe in things with a great deal of assuredness, especially those willing to say so, and especially those willing to say so without being asked. Action demands decision, though. Can’t decide? Don’t DO anything. I don’t know much, but that isn’t the way to go (see my favorite excerpt from “The Summer Day”, by Mary Oliver below). So, it is the part of me which is deeply hesitant to proclaim what I believe that I stand aside from now, that I set aside now, in order do just that. I believe that one can perform the same task for many different reasons, but from different motivation comes different action. The action is part “what you do”, but also part “how you do it”. In short, you can play the same song for different reasons. Different reasons (in and for your practice, in and for your performance) change how you play the song. And how you play the song makes a world of difference.
I think there’s a balance. Peter Gabriel has got to be like the rest of us. He’s got to enjoy a crowd of cheering fans as well as his bank account that can afford all things big time. But in writing a tune like “Biko” into his concert, he showed me a component of performance that has made the biggest impact on my decision-making as creator, and as a ringleader of Featherburn. For every set, I’m asking myself “How are we going to wrangle the attention, and then the hearts of our audience so that we can all experience something transformational?” I ask myself for each song we create and add to our line-up, “How is this contributing to a transformational experience?” Some of our tunes are for raising heart-rates, some are madcap and silly, some are slow and quiet with messages of deep, personal meaning. But we’re shooting to give. Give a great ride, that ultimately leads to inspired transformation. To lead us to good reasons for action. Like Biko, like the little wolf who learns to listen to the wind, like Tadashi Suzuki stomping around the stage, and like Mary Oliver penning some last lines to The Summer Day which happen to go like this:
“Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
I’m often given a variation of the same advice from wiser, more deeply experienced folk than myself on live performance. They say, “Remember, YOU are there for THEM. Not the other way around.” If we’re reflective and honest enough for the message to hit home with enough power, we might proceed with a new awareness and perhaps a struggle of consciousness, between the self-seeker and the giver within. This is how it’s been for me, anyway. For decades. Renowned theater director Tadashi Suzuki put it this way, “There are no good or bad actors. There are only greater or lesser degrees of profundity in an actor’s reason for being on stage.” Tracking that idea all the way down the line, to me, it’s vanity v. generosity. It’s being there for my own good, or being there for the good of others. Perhaps at the very, very end, there’s the ideal of actually synthesizing the two. To be in service and be served sounds simple enough, but the actualization is a mission. How many of us are selflessness in performance, to the extent that it happens like it should all of the time? How about for one brief moment in a given performance? Often? Ever?
Every once in a while, an opportunity presents itself by and for which we are alleviated from the internal opposition, and only need to put into action what’s been prepared. The difference in those occasions, to me, is in the crystal clarity of why my presence as an artist is required.
Saturday, 3/18/2017 Featherburn plays at Trooper Thorn’s Irish Pub in Reading, Pa. About an hour into our set, a group of 10-12 people arrive and fill the tables and chairs in the middle of the room. Our first time in the place, we don’t know anyone, but (team fiddle player) Claudia, observant, caring and intuitive as usual, notices them to be an oddly talkative yet receptive bunch. They’re both encouraging and appreciative, but also involved within, especially for a group of that number. At any pub, coffee shop, restaurant show one plays, it’s common to have people present but drawn within their own gathering, the music often an affectionately chosen backdrop for folk who come to talk and libate. In my experience though, typically they attend in smaller groups. I say it’s not as common, for a collection of 10-12. So, why is it different tonight? Minutes into our set break Claudia, in a low voice close to my ear, “I don’t know what you want to do with this information, but I’m gathering that the group in the center of the room are the family owners of this place, who have just lost their father/husband/owner/patriarch two days ago.”
When on the periphery of a community in grief, I don’t know if there’s much to be done proper, but to acknowledge, respect, and honor the present experience of those we’re next to. They don’t want attention called to them, but their experience is important, and the gravity of the occasion comes alive. So what can we do to help? We can do our job very well. And then something special happens, when we’re thinking of the others as the important ones. Our self-consciousness fades. The piggie-ghosts of our hopes and desires for the future, our fears and apprehensions based in our pasts, are allowed to melt away, leaving us with (looking back, what seems like such a simple gesture and appropriate state of being) reverence. Humbled by the deep joy, love, anguish and fragility of the human experience, we can be reminded to act simply to help each other through.
The middle table at Trooper Thorn’s are here for a wake, if an informal one; to laugh, embrace, weep, meet with swollen and cracked hearts; to honor, remember, celebrate and ache in the presence of one another, the shared experience of a person powerfully held in their lives. We on the outside can ask our hearts to take a knee in acknowledgement. And then act for them. So, that’s what we do. Hearts open, minds off, playing fiddles, drums and guitar, one beat at a time. Offering smiles when eyes meet. Offering the song sung as fully as possible, for there’s no use in leaving – there’s no use in backing away, or averting eyes – but there IS a use for an usher. There’s use in the arm of another, strong at present in our own footing, to hold while walking forward to aide the knees shaken by loss. It’s what I think I would want, if I were in their position. And from my perspective, which is of SECONDARY IMPORTANCE, this is a simple, clear and easy task. Being of secondary importance is often hard to art, though. None of us had met Tom Bain, but through an odd sort of timing, our place is to offer our arm, just by playing the songs we’d spent time readying until now – to help usher. It’s a gift to be lead to this place, with such clarity of purpose; and I could finish with the story here and now, except there’s just a bit more.
The members of Featherburn offer our best personal condolences, then begin to gather up our gear. The house sound system we used is our responsibility to put away, and after wrapping, boxing and bagging some cords, mics and instruments, I carry the first of two 15” speakers up a narrow set of wooden stairs tucked just out of the way between the front bar and the back, leading up toward a private dining room, dark, quiet and separate from the rest of Trooper Thorn’s. Reaching the top, the change in atmosphere pops my heart’s eardrum. With the significance of the night very much in my consciousness, I immediately have the notion that this room is where Tom Bain is right now. A presence, palpable and still, even and sitting, no use denying it. I’m not one to see dead people. I’m more likely one who passes by the quieter voices, unaware. On occasion, I have inklings of my mom (died twenty years now) or my step-father (seven) that I feel as stronger or weaker taps of their continuing presence. Not at all often. At this moment though, the feeling is strong. Not overbearing, but completely evident, and it would be a dishonor to ignore it. So I stand, and receive. Open, breathing, quiet acknowledgment of the presence. And somehow it makes sense that he’d be here hanging out. The room’s energy at the same time joined and apart with the rest of the place and its people. When I open my eyes after a long break of still and silent appreciation, they’re looking high on the back wall of the room, straight at the sign hanging top and center next to pictures and crafts and reminders of days gone by. It reads to all who arrive here and take a moment to look, as if written by Tom Bain himself, “Live, Laugh, Love”.
It’s nice to meet you, Tom. Thanks.
There are few images that have, since I was young, pushed my heartbeat just for considering them. One has a spot on the map. Thalassophobia. Pertaining web-found pictures below.
I figure I can count myself lucky in that growing up, I didn’t have any powerful conscious fears. No horrible occurrences or losses. As far as I can say, most of it was pretty idyllic. Well-loved, secure and quiet child, creeks and forts in the woods. There’s probably relevant stuff that could use unpacking, but I since I was a kid, I think the one genuinely pinpoint-able, palpable image that scared me was being out at sea, perhaps swimming atop a very deep body of water, while a huge sea creature swam underneath, perhaps just immense and unaware, perhaps hungry enough to come up for a tiny morsel…
Jormungandr, Bloop, Cirein-Croin, Kraken, a really big whale. Doesn’t matter. Just something so big, it’s hard to imagine being next to it. Probably more pertinent to my own world these days – angels. Not necessarily ones that might gobble me up in less than a bite. I figure something that’s more likely present to help us through, and I, often pull kicking and screaming, toward the things I think are best.
So, resistance. To the forces, the angels, that guide us. They’re busy right now steering us, whispering in our ears, timing the traffic lights, shaping in ways unseen, the events in our lives to generate our futures. And we fuss. I fuss, fight, complain and wish for the otherwise. And they’re IMMENSE. And we’re pulling against it all. At them. I see myself sometimes, a fisherman on a tiny boat out in the middle of the deepest sea, hook snagged on the eyelid of the giant sea-monster, an island beneath, heaving with all my might.
Futile but, on the other hand, this is the way humans are built. These are the forces of nature at play, maybe forever.
“It’s the art of the moon to come pull at the sea, it’s the charge of the sun to come fracture the nighttime.
With the shadows beside and the seraphine sighted, let the fisherman heave at Leviathan’s eyelid.”
I Fight the Angels – MiloSolo (band version forthcoming)
When my nephew began to crawl, he would come to me. Everyone else propped him up on their hips where he would float around in standard fashion, giggling or crying according to the standard elements. But he could count on me to lift and place him high on my shoulders where he could survey the area with a superior view.
“A breathing dirigible for laughing and wailing…”
We found “Eating the Alphabet: Fruits & Vegetables from A to Z” by Lois Ehlert, and things were never the same. The book is a series of bright, bold, watercolor paintings of fruits and vegetables alongside their corresponding first letters. Artichokes, Apples, Avocados, Bananas, Beets, Bok Choy, and so on, from the common to the obscure, to the elusive. We began searching for and sampling any and all of them we could find, starting at the salad bar, then the grocery store, next the Asian, Latino, African and Middle Eastern markets near and far, and finally, in the garden. The ones we couldn’t find, we ordered seeds for, planted and harvested ourselves. And over the years, it’s become apparent that he is the real garden, nourishing our spirits as we help him grow.
“The garden was spirit and spoke through the dirt in the field. If in summer did land on her belly our breathing and await the arrival of sprout from the seedling, how she gifted our homes with her body and meaning, and under it all was the mystery of being alive…”
So when I landed a role in a two-year tour, I had him out to a number of places. Philly, DC, VA, NC, AZ, CO, CA, MO; he was one well-traveled 5 year old. But I also missed him badly. Stolen from the poem by Victor Hugo, the English translation below.
Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.
Tomorrow, at dawn, in the hour when the countryside becomes white,
I will leave. You see, I know that you are waiting for me.
I will go by the forest, I will go by the mountain.
I cannot stay far from you any longer.
Our site has a player with the tune on it…