The Holy-day Spirit

The Holy-day Spirit


Another delicious Thanksgiving has come and gone.

Days are short.

Nights are long.

And increasingly cold.

Last week jazz pianist Joe Reid and I shared our program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers at a retirement community in Newton.

As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, a significant number of great winter holiday songs were written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers.

In 1942 Irving Berlin gave us “White Christmas.”

In 1945 Mel Tormé and Bob Wells gave us “The Christmas Song.”

In 1949 Johnny Marks gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

In 1950 Jay Livingston and Ray Evans gave us “Silver Bells.”

In 1959 Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen gave us “The Secret of Christmas.”

In 1966 Jerry Herman gave us “We Need A Little Christmas.”

In 1995 Jason Robert Brown gave us “Christmas Lullaby,”

And the list goes on and on!

In this political moment here on planet earth — when many are working to arouse a righteous sense of “us” versus ‘them” in their followers — I am grateful to be reminded of the folks who bridge cultures/identities and bring people together.

Mel Tormé’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled Russia for a new life in the United States. Although he is most famous as a jazz vocalist, he also co-wrote 250+ songs, many of them with Bob Wells (born Robert Levinson), who was also Jewish.

According to Tormé, the song was written during a blistering hot summer day in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.”

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As Mel recalled, he “saw a spiral pad on Bob’s piano with four lines written in pencil: Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos. Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter, he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”

The forty minutes that they devoted to creating that song certainly paid off extraordinarily well for Mr. Wells and Mr. Tormé!

Many songwriters aspire to create a holiday standard, which will then be recorded and performed year after year — generating an ongoing stream of revenue.

When I was first putting together a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish composers and lyricists, I worked with the wonderful pianist Megan Henderson — who is now the musical director for the Revels organization, which creates the beloved Christmas Revels held at Sanders Theatre each December.

As we were musing about the different reasons that these winter holiday songs came to be written, we came up with the term, “Christmas ka-ching!” to describe the economic motivation that no doubt was driving some of the songwriters.

Several winter holiday songs were created to be performed in films.

One of my favorite holiday standards, “Silver Bells,” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for a 1950 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, where it was sung by Marilyn Maxwell and Bob Hope.

I always associate it with my mother’s mother, a hard-working private nurse who lived in the borough of Queens for most of her life and no doubt did a lot of her holiday shopping on “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks — decked in holiday style.”

Jay Livingston, who wrote the music for “Silver Bells,” and Ray Evans, who wrote the lyrics for “Silver Bells,” were a famous Jewish songwriting team with many hits to their credit including “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera.”

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Jay was born Jacob Harold Levison in 1915 in a small industrial suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, and Ray was born Raymond Bernard Evans — also in 1915 — in Salamanca, not far from Buffalo, N.Y.

They met at the University of Pennsylvania when they both joined the university dance band, and their songwriting partnership endured until Livingston’s death in 2001.

I love the verse — not always sung — they wrote for “Silver Bells.”

“Christmas make you feel emotional. It may bring parties or thoughts devotional. Whatever happens or what may be, here is what Christmastime means to me…”

A contemporary Jewish songwriter, Jason Robert Brown, wrote another one of my favorite winter holiday songs — “Christmas Lullaby” — for his first musical revue called Songs for a New World.

 


Mr. Brown is an extremely gifted human being who sometimes works as music director, conductor, orchestrator, and pianist for his own productions — and has won Tony Awards for his work on the Broadway musicals Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.

JasonRBrown

“Christmas Lullaby” honors one of the deepest miracles of all — how a woman (with a little genetic input from a man — or, in the case of Jesus’ mother Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit) can grow an entirely new human being inside her body.

I think about this miracle in my Music Together classes, because I have been teaching long enough for many mothers — who originally attended with their first child — to become pregnant and return for more music with their second (and even third) child.

Neil Postman wrote at the beginning of his book, The Disappearance of Childhood, that “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Although this sentence also appears in a book published the following year by John Whitehead called, The Stealing of America, it appears to have been coined by Postman.

And regardless of who gets credit for it, I LOVE this idea.

One of my sisters-in-law — who has parented two children and worked with hundreds of others in the public schools of Western, MA — incorporated this quotation into a work of art which I see hanging on her wall every time I visit.

Sometimes I remember during my Music Together classes that part of my modest legacy here on planet earth may be the spontaneous and affirmative musical fun I shared with these extraordinary little souls — who will grow up to face unimaginable challenges stemming in part from the ignorant (and at times utterly greedy) choices that we grownups have made during the past 100+ years.

Perhaps some seeds of improvisation and collaboration and harmony and community and inter-connectedness and playfulness and creativity and love and respect will have been sown during our musical time together — which will blossom to help solve/resolve future challenges in a time that I will not see.

And perhaps these wonderful holiday songs will also travel into the future, continuing to touch and guide people’s hearts and minds for generations to come…

Let’s keep singing and humming and whistling and playing them!

Thank you to all of the songwriters who have created such a great legacy of music for us to share.

Thank you to Joe Reid for performing 47 shows with me in 2017 at retirement communities, public libraries, community centers, memory cafes, and synagogues around New England.

If you are curious to see what’s on our calendar for 2018 you can click here.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for recording — while playing the roles of both pianist AND engineer — the songs in this blog post with me.

Thank you to Nate Bloom, a writer who has made it a personal quest to track down and figure out which winter holiday songs have been written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and songwriters.

And THANK YOU for reading and listening to another blog post!

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In Praise of Doug (and others!)

In Praise of Doug (and others!)

 

I have been blessed to make music with a terrific array of musicians during my musical life here in the Boston area.

In recent years I have worked mostly with pianists, including Doug HammerJoe Reid, Tom LaMark, Mark ShilanskyJoe Mulholland, Mike Callahan, and Steve Sweeting.

Joe Reid fortuitously called me four summers ago — a few months after I had been laid off from my day job of sixteen years at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education — and asked if I might like to do a gig at a local retirement community with him.

This first gig — an hour of songs co-written by Harold Arlen plus a few stories about how they came to be written — has led to over a hundred performances together at public libraries, coffee houses, and retirement/assisted living communities with programs featuring the songs of Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Larry Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwin Brothers, Jule Styne, Jerome Kern, and Hoagy Carmichael as well as a program of songs written (by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Styne/Sondheim, and others) for Ethel Merman to perform and a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish songwriters.

It has been a fruitful collaboration with no end in sight. Soon we’ll be debuting a one-hour program of songs co-written by Sammy Cahn, and 2018 will bring a program of songs written (by Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, Kern, Fields and others) for Fred Astaire to perform.

But so far Joe Reid and I have no recorded evidence of our collaboration because we have not gone into a recording studio together…

Tom LaMark, Mark Shilansky, and Joe Mulholland have all been a pleasure to work with as well, but I similarly have no recordings to document our time together.

Mike Callahan is now a professor at Michigan State (and the person conducting and/or playing piano in the Pops concert clips on YouTube — which he also arranged and orchestrated!) I hope to make music with him some day in East Lansing…

Steve Sweeting currently lives in NYC; so I don’t get to make music with him as much as I would like. I have, however, included many recordings that he and I have made together in past blog posts.

Which brings me to Doug Hammer.

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Doug in his backyard with trees and water…

I do not remember exactly when I started working/playing with Doug.

It may have been when Steve Sweeting moved from Brighton, MA to the upper west side of Manhattan (in the mid-1990s?)

I was living as an au pair with a wonderful family on Spring Hill in Somerville, and Doug and his wife were living not far away on the Somerville/Cambridge border.

If I am remembering correctly, Doug had a very intimate but functional recording studio near the back of his apartment — as far away from the traffic of Beacon Street as possible.

He’d come from Chicago to Boston to study at Berklee, had played piano in other countries (which is how he met his stupendous wife, who is French), and then moved back to the Boston area to build a life as a pianist, composer, accompanist, engineer, and producer.

I think our paths crossed because he played with other singers I knew from having taken a class with Mike Oster in the South End.

Maybe some day  Doug can read this blog post and correct or fill in some of missing details…

In any case, I loved the way he played the piano and accompanied singers and built a life with his wife (who is an artist and graphic designer).

And I loved that I could walk or ride my bike to his home studio.

But as many wise texts remind us, life is full of changes.

Doug and his wife decided they needed more space and moved to a new home on the north shore of Boston — where Doug built a recording studio in the lower level of the house and where he and his wife began raising a family.

DougStudio

Luckily it is accessible by public transportation (a surprisingly scenic bus ride from Haymarket T station), and Doug has also been kind enough to drive me to the nearest T stop, Wonderland, when the weather is horrible or the hour is late.

And his family is willing to be quiet upstairs when someone is recording downstairs with Doug.

There are two isolation booths to the right of the piano (which you can’t see in the photo above) which is where I usually stand when we are rehearsing/recording.

This is what Doug looks like when we are rehearsing/recording.

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One of the many great things about working/playing with Doug is that we are able to record all of our rehearsals in high fidelity.

He is not only a terrific, playful pianist, but he is also a super competent sound engineer and producer.

Over time he has invested in high-quality musical tools — a Schimmel grand piano, great microphones, and endlessly upgraded recording software and hardware (including an Apple computer which almost never misbehaves) — and he is able to switch effortlessly from being an engineer/producer to being a collaborative pianist/accompanist/co-creator and back again.

The songs at the beginning of this blog post are from a show we did called Will Loves Steve, which featured all songs written by people named Steve, Stephen or Stevie. “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” is by Stevie Wonder, and “Everybody’s Got the Right” is by Stephen Sondheim from his extraordinary show Assassins.

They demonstrate how imaginative and improvisational Doug’s accompaniment often becomes when we work together.

He and I have been operating on a very simple guideline — familiar to improv comedians among other creative beings — for many years.

We always say “yes” to each other’s ideas.

Sometimes I have a specific set of images I share with Doug: “Let’s imagine that we are next to the Charles River and someone has started a fire in an old oil drum” or “We’re in a piney woods on the Cape, and a downy woodpecker is hopping up and down one of the tree trunks.”

Sometimes Doug starts playing something interesting on the piano while he is familiarizing himself with the sheet music for a particular song, and I encourage him to pause and hit the record button so that we can start with his fresh idea before either of us has had much time to think about it.

After each take we usually offer each other feedback about what we liked, what we might retain, and what we might like to explore further (“Let’s try going into a Latin feel on the bridge…” or “How about we do it twice as long so that you can take a solo and then we’ll end it with a triple tag at the end?”)

By the third or fourth take we often find ourselves in completely new and unexpected musical terrain.

Then we let that particular song rest and move on to the next one…

I don’t remember what ideas led us to this thoughtful version of “In My Life” by John Lennon.

I think we recorded it when we were rehearsing for a benefit concert (or maybe when we were rehearsing for a show I did at my old high school in Connecticut?)

Doug’s solo on this take is one of my favorite things that we have ever recorded together.

 

In the past decade Doug has been devoting more and more of his time and energy to composing and recording CDs of original piano — and increasingly orchestral —compositions.

You can click here for a link to his YouTube channel if you are curious.

Those of us who love to perform with him have been both excited to see his star as a solo artist rise and also sad because it means that he is less available to perform with singers…

Ahh, yes.

Life is full of changes.

Doug4

But so far he is willing to continue to work/play with singers in his recording studio.

Hurrah!

He and I are slowly but surely working on a CD of my original songs — which I write using a ukulele and are then transformed by his inspired piano playing.

I do not know when this project will be finished, but I am enjoying the process — one song, one session at a time.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for being born, pursuing a life in music, and working/playing with me on various undertakings for over two decades.

Thank you to Doug’s web site for the photos (probably taken by his talented wife) I have included in this blog.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another post!

I Feel A Song Coming On

I Feel A Song Coming On

DorothyFieldsSunnySide

I am not sure why I love reading about the lives of songwriters.

And learning many of their songs.

And then sharing what I have learned in one-hour musical programs at retirement communities, public libraries, senior centers, memory cafes, and coffeehouses.

But I do!

The most recent program I put together with jazz pianist Joe Reid features the life and music of Dorothy Fields.

She was a terrific lyricist who co-wrote hit songs from the late 1920s right through the early 1970s.

When many of her friends and contemporaries — such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Oscar Hammerstein, Larry Hart  — were either dead, discouraged or stymied by evolving musical trends such as folk and rock, Dorothy Fields achieved one of her biggest hits on Broadway, the wonderful musical Sweet Charity.

She was 61 years old.

Go, Dorothy!

Dorothy Fields was born into a theatrical family and raised to be a wife and mother — NOT an actress or a songwriter (both of which occupations her parents strongly discouraged…)

Her father was half of a very famous and successful vaudeville team called “Weber & Fields” who had started as childhood friends performing in the Bowery and had risen as adults to the top ranks of theatrical entertainment in the US .

Weber&Fields

Eventually her father tired of performing and touring, and began to produce shows by other people, including a young team of songwriters named Rodgers & Hart, who were friends with Dorothy’s older brother Herbert (having collaborated together on original theatrical productions while attending Columbia University).

Dorothy and her three siblings had been exposed to theater their entire lives, and Dorothy played lead (male!) roles in amateur theatrical productions at her high school, The Benjamin School for Girls at 144 Riverside Drive on the upper west side of Manhattan.

So it seems a bit surprising (to me, anyways) that her parents attempted to dissuade her from a life in the theater.

When she was growing up, the family had blank books into which everyone was encouraged to jot down ideas for jokes, skits, plots and routines — which served as inspiration when a new show was being created by her father.

And both of her brothers were very successful on Broadway and in Hollywood as writers.

In fact, later on in her life, Dorothy and her older brother Herbert co-wrote the librettos (aka scripts) for shows by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin — including the smash hit, Annie Get Your Gun — which had originally been HER idea as a starring vehicle for her friend Ethel Merman.

Dorothy was supposed to write the songs with one of her most beloved collaborators, Jerome Kern, until Kern unexpectedly died.

 

Among other hits, she and Jerry had co-written “The Way You Look Tonight,” which won an Academy award for best song in a motion picture in 1936.

After a period of mourning, she and her producers — Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein — asked Irving Berlin if he would consider joining the project.

And the rest is history…

But Dorothy was born in 1905, when middle and upperclass women were expected to become wives and mothers (not actresses or songwriters or librettists).

Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920 — when Dorothy was 15 — and her life illuminates many of the social changes that unfolded in the US until her death in 1974.

Dorothy managed to finesse her parental/societal expectations by BOTH marrying young (to a doctor) AND pursuing a career as a lyricist.

Although she worked with a “who’s who” list of composers during her long career, three of them stand out as being particularly significant in her creative life: Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, and Cy Coleman.

FIELDS MCHUGH

Jimmy McHugh was a Catholic pianist from Boston, where he had left a wife and son (whom he dutifully supported from afar) when he moved in his 20s to Manhattan to find work as both a composer and business manager for music publishing companies.

He crossed paths with Dorothy when her friend J. Fred Coots — whom she had met while golfing and who went on to write hits of his own such as “You Go To My Head” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” — began introducing her to music publishing companies as a budding lyricist.

Dorothy and Jimmy hit it off creatively — and possibly romantically — although they were both extremely protective of their private lives and mindful about the potential for bad publicity.

During their ten-year collaboration they wrote hits including, “I Feel A Song Coming On,” “On The Sunny Side Of the Street,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

I love learning that “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” was not an immediate hit (one critic called it “sickly” and “puerile”) and was cut from two different shows before it finally caught on as part of  the Blackbirds of 1928.

Persistence, persistence, persistence!

Her next significant collaborator was Jerome Kern. They wrote songs — including “Pick Yourself Up,” “I Won’t Dance,” and “A Fine Romance” — for Hollywood movies with stars such as Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Here she is with Jerry Kern (on her left) and George Gershwin (on her right) at a nightclub in the 1930s.

Kern_Fields_Gershwin

Jerome Kern was older than many of his contemporary songwriters (Gershwin, Arlen, Youmans and others looked up to him when they were starting to write songs) and had a reputation for speaking his mind — and not suffering fools gladly. Some people in the entertainment industry were intimidated by him.

But not Dorothy. She loved him and even gave him a nickname which few others would have dared to choose: “Junior” (Dorothy was 5″ 5″ tall and towered over Kern, who was much shorter).

I have wondered whether the lyrics she wrote for their song “You Couldn’t Be Cuter” might have been something of an “in joke” between the two of them.

Here’s a version of that song — combined with an earlier hit she wrote with Jimmy McHugh, “Exactly Like You” — that I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer earlier this year.

 

Her third significant collaborator was Cy Coleman, a composer who had already written hit songs with Carolyn Leigh (including “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “Hey, Look Me Over,” and “Witchcraft”) before he met Dorothy at a party.

She was 59 years old, and he was 35.

cyanddorothy

He asked her if she might be willing to explore working together, and she allegedly said something like, “Thank g-d someone asked me…yes!”

They ended up collaborating on a musical inspired by a Fellini film — “Le Notti Di Cabiria,” about a prostitute looking for love — which Bob Fosse and his wife Gwen Verdon had seen and which had immediately inspired Fosse to start working on a musical version for Verdon to star in.

With Neil Simon added to the creative team as librettist, Fosse, Verdon, Fields and Coleman created what became the hit musical Sweet Charity — which went on to become a movie starring Shirley MacLaine and John McMartin, and which gave us songs such as “Hey, Big Spender,” “I’m A Brass Band,” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”

Dorothy Fields achieved a remarkable level of success in a male-dominated industry —where women were expected to be on stage, not behind the scenes as part of the creative team.

She was not a glamour girl nor a prima donna — although she was always very well-dressed and had separate closets for her shoes, dresses, suits, sportswear, and evening gowns.

DorothyFields

She was reliable, respectful and professional.

And she was a hard-worker.

At one point she said, “I wrote the words to ‘I Feel a Song Coming On,’ but I don’t believe a word of it. A song just doesn’t ‘come on.’ I’ve always had to tease it out, squeeze it out. Ask anyone who writes — it’s tough labor and I love it.”

I’ll end with two more gems she wrote with Jimmy McHugh — “Don’t Blame Me” and “I’m In The Mood For Love” — which I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer at his terrific studio, Dreamworld, in Lynn, MA.

 

Thank you to Dorothy Fields and her many collaborators for writing such terrific songs.

Thank you to pianist Steve Sweeting for recording “I Feel a Song Coming On” and “The Way You Look Tonight” with me many years ago at his apartment in Brighton, MA.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.

This Moment

This Moment

 

I love this song by John Bucchino.

Butterfly8

I thought of it often as I was carrying boxes from my sister’s apartment in Laguna Niguel, CA to a 16′ Penske moving truck parked about 100 feet from her front door.

A monarch butterfly would appear every few hours — flapping from flower to flower before drifting away on a gentle breeze.

Monarch2

And I would find myself singing this song.

I don’t know what inspired John to write it, although I am guessing that he must have some sort of meditation practice.

Butterfly7

I first heard it sung at the Yale Cabaret Conference I participated in many years ago… and immediately wanted to learn it.

I practiced the lyrics over and over again one summer as I walked up and down a sandy path through a scrub pine forest en route to Head of the Meadow beach in North Truro, MA.

butterfly2

Pianist Doug Hammer and I have performed it several times since then (that’s Doug playing in the recording at the beginning of this blog post), and Mike Callahan did an arrangement which I got to perform with him as part of a Timberlane Pops Orchestra concert in New Hampshire.

It is a perfect example to me of a “wisdom song” — which helps me to re-align with my better, wiser self whenever I sing it.

Butterfly11

Writing this post inspired me to search on Pixabay for some butterfly images, and I was astounded by what I found.

Caterpillar

The idea that earthbound caterpillars can transform themselves into winged butterflies — that they can literally dissolve themselves and re-form their molecules into a new type of being — has fascinated and inspired us human beings for millennia.

Cocoons

I am also inspired by the paths they take — paths which do not travel in a straight line from point A to point B yet manage to cover vast amounts of mileage none-the-less.

Butterflies have a inner sense of where they are headed, but they also follow and respond to whatever flowers and breezes appear along their journey.

This seems to be how I, too, am moving through my musical life here on planet earth.

Monarch1

I looked online to learn more about the current health of our butterfly populations.

First I was directed to a relatively new company called “Butterfly Health” that seems to specialize in adult diapers…

Butterfly9

Then I found a lovely story about vineyards in eastern Washington which “stopped using harmful pesticides and created natural habitats with native shrub-steppe plants around the vineyards to keep out harmful insects (e.g., mealybugs) and attract beneficial insects (e.g., parasitic wasps) that feed on pests.”

These vineyard saw a significant increase in butterflies — from an average of five different species to more like twenty different species!

Butterfly13

The article noted that “butterflies don’t protect the vineyards or provide wine growers with economical benefits, (but) they are pollinators and an important element of the ecosystem. Furthermore, having butterflies flutter around a vineyard increases its aesthetic appeal and provides proof of earth-friendly pest control practices.”

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Amen.

I also found articles that were more discouraging, such as one in the great English newspaper, The Guardian.

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It reports that “more than three-quarters of Britain’s 59 butterfly species have declined over the last 40 years, with particularly dramatic declines for once common farmland species such as the Essex Skipper and Small Heath…

‘This is the final warning bell,’ said Chris Packham, Butterfly Conservation vice-president, calling for urgent research to identify the causes for the disappearance of butterflies from ordinary farmland. ‘If butterflies are going down like this, what’s happening to our grasshoppers, our beetles, our solitary bees? If butterflies are in trouble, rest assured everything else is.'”

Deep breath in.

Butterfly4

Deep breath out.

What, I continue to wonder, will it take for enough of us human beings to wake up and take significant actions so that the extraordinary species extinction we are now experiencing on planet earth can slow down…and maybe even stop?

Why are so many of us seemingly oblivious to what is happening to our ecosystems and unable/unwilling to make wiser choices?

Butterfly14

I recently visited a friend’s house (his/her second home, actually) and saw a small vat of RoundUp that I assume s/he is using to take care (??) of weeds in his/her lovely garden.

It was sitting alongside an aerosol can of pesticide to kill wasps.

Butterfly10

This is an extremely well-educated person who loves the views of nature from his/her home overlooking a beautiful river.

Yet s/he is completely oblivious to the increasingly well-documented scientific research linking herbicides and pesticides to all sorts of profound disruptions in the overall health of a wide variety of ecosystems. And disruptions to our own human metabolisms — since we human beings are deeply rooted in nature from an evolutionary perspective and share many of the same biological pathways/systems as our animal and plant cousins..

Butterfly5

I know that beautifully photographed and persuasively written advertising messages from the makers of herbicides and pesticides contribute to our human ignorance..

And lots of us think, “Oh it’s just a little bit of RoundUp or a little bit of wasp spray…”

But it all adds up and takes a cumulative toll on a wide variety of plants and animals and bacteria and fungae which we dearly need to be functioning in balance with each other.

Another deep breath in.

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And another deep breath out.

Thank you to Pixabay for these wonderful photographs of butterflies.

Thank you to Doug Hammer and John Bucchino for their tremendous musicality and songwriting expertise.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.

What steps — small and/or not-so-small — have you taken in your life to help keep life in balance here on planet earth?

I Wait…

I Wait…

 

“I Wait” was written by Steve Sweeting, a songwriter, jazz pianist, and teacher who currently lives in NYC.

He and I have been friends since we began making music together in Allston, MA, a couple of decades ago.

“I Wait” is one of many songs we recorded two years ago for a CD of his music called Blame Those Gershwins.

I love this song’s bittersweet, thoughtful perspective.

Berlin

It articulates how I often felt while I had a day job — and only made music at night and on weekends…

Monkey

It wasn’t until I was laid off by the non-profit organization where I had worked for 16 years that I finally dared/cared to focus on music full time.

Making it.

Leading classes where we do it together.

Recording it.

Sharing it in retirement communities and assisted living facilities and public libraries.

That was almost five years ago.

And I am now grateful that I was laid off — although I was surprised and shocked and disappointed at the time.

Kuwait

Some of us (such as me) become so grooved/entrenched in the flow of our lives that we need to be forced by outside circumstances to make important changes.

BrickCamouflage

I do not think that waiting is a bad thing.

Kingfisher

Patience can be a virtue.

Learning to delay gratification can be a huge developmental step on the path to maturity.

cheetah
And some animals wait patiently for hours before making their next move.

But — if I understand the concept of yin/yang correctly — within a reservoir of waiting there also lies a seed of activity germinating…

PotatoSprouting

Just as our torrents of activity/accomplishment need to be interspersed with spaces of calm reflection and “not-knowing.”

Time to mull.

ChileTime to muse.

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Time to dream.

Meerkat
Time to imagine the consequences of how our actions might ripple for seven generations into the future here on planet earth…

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What kind of balance are you able to find in your daily life between waiting and doing?

Thank you for reading and listening to this blog post.

SeedSprouting

And thank you to the photographers who made these beautiful images I found at Pixabay — and also to my sister Christianne, who (I think) took the photo of me gazing out over Cayuga Lake a few summers ago.

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Tempus fugit…

Mo-o-o-ore (than I’d ever have guessed)

Mo-o-o-ore (than I’d ever have guessed)

I had a somewhat unusual childhood — as you may know if you have read some of my previous posts.

Most of it was “normal” (in a privileged, white, male, upper-middle-class way).

I grew up with a mother, a father, three siblings, and various animal friends.

I had chicken pox.

I listened to James Taylor, the Beatles, Buffy Saint Marie, Cat Stevens, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Carly Simon (among others) for hours on end.

Carly SImon

One of my favorite Carly Simon/Jacob Brackman songs is “The Carter Family” — from her great album, No Secrets — which I recorded a few years ago with pianist Doug Hammer during a rehearsal for a show called Songs about Parents and Children.

You can listen to it using the player at the beginning of this post.

3600 Porter Street Aerial View

Up until the age of ten I liked to walk, run, bike and climb around our neighborhood in Washington, DC after school (which was Sidwell Friends, where the Obama daughters have been educated in recent years).

3600 Porter Street2

We lived in a semi-attached house on the corner of Porter and 36th Street.

One of my best friends was indeed a girl — named Eve — although (unlike the song) it was me who moved away from Eve…

Next we lived for a year in Queens, NY (in my grandmother’s house where my mom had grown up) while I was a standby for the very small role of Theo in the original production of Pippin.

Grandma Jo's House 3

When my mom moved there as a child, it was the first house standing on the block — and by the time my siblings and I knew it in the 1960s and 70s, it was the only house on the block which still had open space on both sides of it.

My grandmother had an organic garden; blueberry, gooseberry and currant bushes; lots of trees (I remember scaling oaks, mimosas, hemlocks and locusts); and big lawns on which we could play with our neighborhood friends.

I don’t recall my grandmother ever “nagging at me to straighten up my spine” (as Carly Simon sings in “The Carter Family”), but I definitely miss this childhood eden.

When my grandmother died, my mother sold this house and a developer immediately built two big houses in what had been her side yards.

Grandma Jo's House1

I definitely miss this place “mo-o-o-ore  than I’d ever have guessed.”

In fact, I dream about it on a regular basis…

Then we moved to the northwest corner of Connecticut — where I attended our local public school and rode my bike up and down the hilly country roads, exploring the woods and fields around our house.

10 White Hollow Road Aerial View

We did not have a swimming pool. Someone else added that after we sold this small log-cabin-style house…

Interspersed within my relatively privileged and relatively normal childhood were days, weeks, and sometimes months when I worked professionally as an actor.

Will Toddler Head Shot

That was not normal.

That was walking into a room full of strangers and doing whatever one needed to do in order to be hired for the job.

That was a lot of anxiety and disappointment interspersed with a few moments of elation — when I learned from my agent that I had been hired to do a commercial or modeling job or voice-over or theatrical production or made-for-TV movie.

WIll Smiling Head Shot

The elation inevitably morphed into fear as the date for the actual gig approached.

And then — depending upon the kindness and patience and generosity and humor of the people in charge — the filming or recording or photo shoot or performance was more (or less) bearable.

I do NOT miss working as an actor mo-o-o-ore than I’d ever have guessed. It’s a very stressful life.

Since this was before the era of the VCR, most of the commercials, voice-overs, and TV movies I made were lost along the way — ephemeral bubbles in the incessant flow of popular (and to a large extent disposable) culture.

So I was happily shocked when two of my cousins looked up a TV movie I had made in 1975 called Bound For Freedom and discovered that it had recently been uploaded in four chunks onto YouTube!

If you are curious to check out the first chunk, you can click here.

That’s me being sold into indentured servitude by my father during the opening sequence.

I played a character named James Porter, and I had a lot of strawberry blond hair back then…

Will Bound For Freedom

This is a photo from that movie which I found for sale on Ebay.

If my memory serves me, Bound For Freedom was originally broadcast on NBC during the Sunday night time slot usually filled by a Disney movie.

However, the husband and wife team — Suzette and David Tapper — who produced and directed the movie also managed to incorporate it into the social studies/American history curriculum of a few elementary schools in the late 1970s.

I learned about this when a friend in high school, John Gallup, told me how he and some of his classmates at Salisbury Central School had sometimes quoted lines from the movie to each other in jest.

Today I am VERY grateful to a man named Ethan Hamilton (as well as his teacher who at some point loaned him her VHS copy of Bound For Freedom) for recently uploading it to YouTube.

The main thing I remember from making Bound For Freedom is how kind and generous Fred Gwynne was as a fellow actor.

FredGwynne2

I may have written about this in a former blog post… but it made an impression many decades ago and bears repeating.

Often a non-actor on a movie’s staff will fill in for the star of the movie and read their lines off camera when other people’s closeups are being filmed. This gives the star a break.

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But Fred, although he was the recognizable star of this project — having been a main character in the hit TV series Car 54, Where Are You? as well as in The Munsters — willingly stood off camera and interacted with me when my closeups were being filmed.

FredGwynne5

And something in the kind and empathetic way he made eye contact pulled all sorts of emotions out of me which I doubt I would have been able to access otherwise.

If you have time or interest to watch any of Bound For Freedom, you will see that Fred shines in a gentle, understated way throughout the entire film.

And I AM surprised to find that I miss him mo-o-o-ore than I’d ever have guessed.

Thank you, Fred Gwynne, for your generous spirit.

Thank you, Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman, for writing such a wise and beautiful song.

Thank you, Doug Hammer, for our decades-long creative relationship.

Thank you for the astounding magic of the internet which allowed me to find the images for this post.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.

May Your Life Be Blessed

May Your Life Be Blessed

horse-eye
I just opened up WordPress and was happy to find a post about gratitude from The Snail of Happiness in my daily feed.

There are a seemingly-ever-increasing number of energies and actions on planet earth that we can be aware of — due in large part to the magic of electricity and our wide-ranging embrace of modern media — yet which we can do very little to influence directly.

And I am easily overwhelmed by this onslaught of information.

However, we CAN re-align our own energy/perspective by doing something as simple as writing down three things for which we are grateful.

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And then — from a more grateful, grounded emotional space — we can send a card to an elected official, give a little money to a compelling cause, or volunteer our time at a local non-profit.

horses-water
Or make some art.

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Or write a song.
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Or simply sit and breath.

horse-winter-sunToday I am grateful that a friend’s husband is alive in New Orleans.

I don’t see this friend very often (our paths used to cross because of work) and have never met his husband.

I learned about his husband’s recent assault and robbery — while he was attending the Unitarian-Universalist annual general assembly being held at the end of June in New Orleans! — when I checked my Facebook page.

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Apparently it is all over the Boston and New Orleans news — since our media have (sadly) functioned for decades with a mindset of “if it bleeds, it leads…”

But I have been out of town and away from the local news.

horse-silhouette
So today I am grateful that my friend’s husband is finally out of the hospital in New Orleans and back at home in Boston.

And I am grateful that the other person who was (less severely) attacked is also recovering well.

chestnut-gallopingAnd that two of the four young men who perpetrated this crime (some of whom had been staying at a Covenant House shelter for homeless/troubled youth) have turned themselves in.

horses-clowningI hope they — as well as the two people whom they attacked and robbed — are being treated with compassion and respect by the judicial system so that some unexpected healing might take place as a result of this sad and brutal event.

And I am grateful for the basics: health and patience and delicious food — more and more of it organic — and a roof over my head.

horse-grasses
I am grateful for people who visit my blog even though I haven’t posted anything new for four months.

horse-three-day-eventI am grateful for progress (sometimes very sloooow) and persistence (sometimes almost imperceptible) on larger tasks such as letting go of un-needed possessions, processing complicated emotional situations, and crafting a CD of original songs.

Which leads me to the song at the beginning of this post.

horse-beautiful-neck
I wrote it last summer while I was camping with family in heaven a.k.a. North Truro, MA.

horses-in-green-fieldSome of the words came from a little piece of paper I picked up after one of my cousins was married a few summers ago on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake in upstate New York.

The little piece of paper turned out to be a crib sheet that the mother of the bride had used when she spoke during the ceremony.

horse-gray-galloping
I expanded her words a bit, consulted my trusty ukulele to find chords and a melody, and eventually brought it to pianist Doug Hammer’s studio on the North Shore of Boston to record.

Horses-mist-treesThank you to anyone and everyone who reads this blog post.

I am grateful for your interest.

horses-water-sunset
I am also grateful for the beautiful images from Pixabay that I have used in this post.

horse-jumping
My cousin who got married loves horses and is an excellent — and very hard-working  —equestrian.

horse-kissShe and her husband also just had their first child.

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And I am very grateful for that, too.

Stuff (and Amanda McBroom’s Blessing)

Stuff (and Amanda McBroom’s Blessing)

 

Recently we experienced the warmest February day ever recorded in Boston according to a radio announcer on WBUR.

Hmm.

In the short run, I am very grateful for this lovely respite from wintry weather.

In the long run, however, I wonder what’s going on with the larger weather patterns and ocean temperatures on planet earth?

Our opposable thumbs — and seemingly insatiable desire for novelty and innovation — have helped us to create all sorts of stuff.

And much of what we have created needs power from fossil fuels (in the form of electricity, for example) to function or is actually made from fossil fuels outright in the case of plastic.

Plastic wrap. Plastic toothbrushes. Plastic containers to store leftovers. Plastic bags. Plastic bumpers on cars (one of which my sister’s dog was able to chew into pieces when he thought a small animal was hiding under it!)

Plastic plates. Plastic silverware. Plastic cups. Plastic shower curtains. Plastic bowls. Plastic bottles filled with water and laundry detergent and shampoo and apple cider.

Plastic dispensers for easy-gliding floss (which is itself made out of plastic). Plastic souvenir tchotchkes. Plastic electronic devices. Plastic credit cards.

The list goes on and on.

Today I listened to a news story about an area in Texas where we human beings have been extracting oil and gas for the past hundred years.

We’ve been blessed with an inheritance of solar energy accumulated by plants growing on planet earth for millions of years — and we are withdrawing it — and spending it — in the blink of a cosmic eye.

What an amazing inheritance!

Why are we squandering it to manufacture and then purchase stuff that doesn’t usually make us feel any better after the initial thrill of acquisition subsides?

Stuff that won’t decompose for hundreds of years — thus contaminating and altering all sorts of natural processes and feedback loops on land and in our lakes and rivers and streams and oceans.

Why have we not been taught to weigh the long-term consequences of our manufacturing and consumer choices?

I sometimes wonder what an economy would look and feel like which actually honored the long-term costs and consequences of fossil fuel-driven lives on the larger ecosystems which sustain the amazing, interconnected web of life on planet earth…

I am guessing it would be simpler and slower.

It was a growing awareness of all the stuff in my life which inspired me to write lyrics for a melody by Steve Sweeting many years ago which became the song “Stuff.”

I was visiting dear friends who had moved into a large new home on Bainbridge Island near Seattle — and reflecting upon the pros and cons of our very blessed — and privileged — lives.

Two years ago Steve and I recorded “Stuff” for a CD of his songs called Blame Those Gershwins.

I recently sent a copy of it to Amanda McBroom.

She is a songwriter and singer and teacher whom I met when I participated in a week-long cabaret conference at Yale.

I  — and many of my singing peers — love to perform her songs, the most famous of which is probably “The Rose,” which she wrote for the movie starring Bette Midler.

She has recently finished a new CD of her latest batch of songs called Voices.

I guessed that she might be sick of listening to herself (which one ends up doing over and over and over again when one is recording and mixing and mastering a CD) and open to the possibility of hearing something new.

And, bless her, I was right.

Here’s what she wrote back after listening to Steve’s CD:

“Thank you so much for sending the lovely CD!  It was such joy to hear your voice again. AND to listen to something that wasn’t ME for a change!

The songs are terrific. Your performances are nuanced and touching and lovely.

My very favorite is STUFF.

I think I have to have it.

Feels like it would something perfect for me to put in my repertoire if your friend is willing to share.”

Needless to say I was astounded and excited and humbled that she had made time to listen to the CD, that she liked Steve’s songs, and that she liked one of the songs to which I had contributed lyrics well enough that she might end up adding it to her repertoire!

Deep breath in…

Deep breath out…

It’s funny how something as simple as someone asking for the sheet music for a song I have co-written gives me a renewed sense of validation and encouragement to continue on my (still extremely humble) path as a songwriter.

Maybe it’s another example of the power of feedback loops — in this case feedback that Amanda found the melody and chords and ideas and arrangement of “Stuff” compelling enough that she might want to learn it and then share it with others.

Another deep breath in…

And another deep breath out…

Despite all of the larger patterns of disrespect and dishonesty and disbelief which are rippling around our country and around the planet these days, I will continue to count my blessings, continue to reduce my ecological footprint, and continue to sing — and sometimes write — songs.

Thank you, as usual, to Pixabay for the lovely images in this post.

Thank you to Steve Sweeting for entrusting his melodies to me.

Thank you to Amanda McBroom, for making time in her complicated life to listen to Steve’s CD AND then to send such uplifting feedback to us.

And thank you to YOU for reading and listening to another one of my blog posts.

PS: I hope you noticed the irony of me ranting about all the plastic junk we human beings create and buy and sell on planet earth and then agreeing to make a CD recording of Steve’s songs — thus creating 250 shiny, round, flat pieces of plastic which will be obsolete junk within another decade or so…

Yet another deep breath in…

And deep breath out…

Count Our Blessings

Count Our Blessings

 

I am writing this blog post, appropriately enough, in the middle of the night.

I just woke up from a nightmare in which I was attempting to rush a group of children away from a place full of dangerous people who wanted to hurt all of us.

The children — blessedly and also appropriately — did not understand why these people were dangerous, and I did not want to explain.

I just wanted them to keep moving as quickly as possible away from the old warehouse where I knew the dangerous people were hanging out.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

I woke up with a burst of adrenaline coursing through my bloodstream and a mixed feeling of panic and relief.

Panic that maybe I hadn’t been able to rescue the children in my dream.

And relief that it was “only” a dream.

Fox Sleeping

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Except — obvious to anyone who reads the news or watches TV or listens to the radio — my blessed nightmare is the horrific reality for hundreds of thousands of human beings on planet earth.

Syria.

Nigeria.

Afghanistan.

Mexico.

Iraq.

Cameroon.

Turkey.

Niger.

Chad.

Somalia.

Pakistan.

Libya.

Yemen.

Sudan.

Egypt.

Ethiopia.

Ukraine.

South Sudan.

Israel.

Palestine.

Myanmar.

Thailand.

Columbia.

The list of countries with ongoing bloody conflicts is long.

And here in the USA we mostly don’t think about them.

And that’s just the human-to-human devastation…

There is also an extraordinary wave of extinction of other forms of life on planet earth unfolding right now… and most humans don’t want to think about that either.

bear-sleeping

We are ignorant — choosing to ignore the complicated and heart-breaking repercussions of our actions because it is too painful.

And because the challenges of how we might change some of these patterns seem too vast.

And because our media tends to give us a very limited glimpse of what is happening here on planet earth.

And because our media — which at its most basic level exists to entice human beings to BUY THINGS — has very little incentive to do anything other than reinforce the allure of fame and wealth and celebrity and insane over-consumption.

Over-consumption of cars and alcohol and clothing and accessories and medication and food products and music and fossil fuels and hair dye and eyeliner and TV shows and lipstick and sunblock and pesticides and movies and plastic bags and electronic devices and travel and “entertainment” and a myriad other things that most of us do not need.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

piglets-sleeping

“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep,” the songwriter Irving Berlin once wrote and set to music.

According to Wikipedia (and a book edited by local musical expert Ben Sears called The Irving Berlin Reader) it was based on Berlin’s real life struggle with insomnia.

He wrote in a letter to Joseph Schenck:

“I’m enclosing a lyric of a song I finished here and which I am going to publish immediately… You have always said that I commercial my emotions and many times you were wrong, but this particular song is based on what really happened… The story is in its verse, which I don’t think I’ll publish. As I say in the lyrics, sometime ago, after the worst kind of a sleepless night, my doctor came to see me and after a lot of self-pity, belly-aching and complaining about my insomnia, he looked at me and said ‘speaking of doing something about insomnia, did you ever try counting your blessings?’”

koala-sleeping

Mr. Berlin certainly had experienced many things that might have hung heavily on his heart.

He emigrated to the US when he was a small child to escape the anti-semitic pogroms unfolding in Czarist Russia.

His father died when he was young, which catalyzed Irving (or Izzy as he was called by his family) into leaving school and earning money as a paper boy on the streets of lower Manhattan.

His own son died when he was less than a month old on Christmas Day.

Mr. Berlin served in both the first and second World Wars, producing (and performing in) theatrical revues to raise money, lift the spirits of a country at war, and comfort soldiers fighting all around the planet.

soldiers-and-dog-sleeping

As a Jewish man, he must have been deeply affected by the unimaginable reality of the Holocaust… and atomic weapons… and so many other astoundingly destructive human creations of the 20th century.

Mr. Berlin used the song in the 1954 film White Christmas.

Bing Crosby’s character sings it to Rosemary Clooney’s character to comfort and (it being a Hollywood movie — perhaps to begin a romantic relationship with) her.

I join with millions of people who have sung this song in the past 62 years to restore a sense of peace and gratitude in their lives when they are tossing and turning in the middle of the night.

And as 2016 slouches towards 2017, I also count my blessings:

Clean water at the twist of a faucet…

A functioning furnace…

Fossil fuels to power the furnace and stove and water heater…

My sweetheart of almost 25 years…

flying-foxes-sleeping

One remaining parent + a wonderful step parent…

Siblings who love and communicate with each other…

Friends…

Employment that involves relatively modest consumption/destruction of natural resources (CDs of music to the families in Music Together classes, electricity to play them, fossil fuels to heat and sometimes cool the karate studio where we lead classes, gasoline to power the hybrid car in which jazz pianist Joe Reid and I drive to gigs, electricity to run the PA systems where we perform)…

Music…

The magic of digital recording…

My trusty iPods for learning songs…

My ukuleles and laptop computers for creating new songs…

My rhyming dictionaries for inspiration…

The amazing interlibrary book/CD/DVD loan system for more inspiration…

seal-sleeping

How our bodies can heal themselves…

White privilege…

Male privilege….

US citizen privilege….

Human privilege…

Curiosity….

Once one starts, the list of blessings goes on and on and on.

puppies-sleeping

Thank you yet again to Pixabay photographers for the lovely images in this blog post.

Thank you to Irving Berlin for his musical and poetical genius.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his reliable studio plus his exquisite rapport while playing the piano (and simultaneously engineering our sessions).

And thank you, brave and hardy soul, for reading — and listening to — this blog post.

human-infant-sleeping

Let us all fall asleep counting our blessings…

Life Goes On…

Life Goes On…

megaphone

 

Like many people in the United States — and in many other countries around the planet — I have been experiencing a wide variety of feelings since our recent election.

international-flags

And a lot of denial — for which I am both grateful and apprehensive…

One of the things that I have found the oddest is how most of us have continued to do the same things that we did before the election.

I have continued to buy groceries.

I have continued to take books out from the library.

I have continued to do laundry.

I have continued to get up and lead Music Together classes on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings.

I have continued to do gigs at retirement communities with jazz pianist Joe Reid.

I have continued to learn song lyrics.

I have continued to clean the toilet and wash the kitchen floor.

I have continued to draft blog posts.

I have continued to watch TV.

And I have continued to love the song “Life Goes On” written by Stephen Schwartz (a version of which is in the player at the beginning of this post with Doug Hammer on piano and Mike Callahan on clarinet which we recorded during a rehearsal for my show called Will Loves Steve several years ago).

Photo by Ralf Rühmeier

Photo by Ralf Rühmeier

As you probably know, Stephen Schwartz is the composer and lyricist for Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show, The Baker’s WifeWicked (and more) on Broadway as well as the lyricist for animated movies including Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.

“Life Goes On” is not from one of his shows or movies, however.

I found it on Mr. Schwartz’s first solo CD release, Reluctant Pilgrim, and have been gently haunted by it ever since.

According to Mr. Schwartz’s web site, “I originally began to write the songs that make up Reluctant Pilgrim in response to a ‘challenge’ from a songwriter friend, John Bucchino. I had been encouraging John (who had always written individual and highly personal songs) to write for the theatre, and John in turned asked why I never wrote individual songs based on my own life. He said it was time to stop ‘hiding behind Hunchbacks and Indian princesses.’ So I decided to try… The first song I wrote was ‘Life Goes On.’ This was an attempt to deal with my feelings after a close friend of mine died of AIDS. Writing the song turned out to be very therapeutic for me.”

I recently heard a great interview by Terry Gross with Cleve Jones on Fresh Air.

Mr. Jones was involved with the AIDS crisis from the very beginning, and he (although he is beautifully soft-spoken and articulate during the interview) reminded me of how loudly and angrily and stubbornly AIDS activists had to demonstrate and organize in order to make progress on understanding and treating this virus when our president and many of our elected officials just wanted to ignore what was happening.

Have we re-entered a time in US history when we will need to act up — regularly, passionately, strategically — in response to our government’s actions and/or inactions regarding climate change, immigration, civil liberties, the rights of the media to investigate those who hold power in our society, etc. etc. etc.?

 

london-protesters

 

I do believe that grass roots action is a crucial part of how things — laws, attitudes, opinions, political leadership, prejudices — change.

What might be the most important issue(s) to which I might devote myself in upcoming days/weeks/months?

I have a sense that protecting and maintaining the amazing web of interconnections which make up our various ecosystems is a fundamental priority which underlies (and, dare I say, trumps) many of our specifically human challenges.

 

agriculture

 

But maybe election and campaign finance reform are more crucial in the short run, as an antidote to the oligarchic voices which increasingly dominate (and frame) our political and cultural debate?

 

oligarchy-puppet

 

How do we address and respond to and heal the enormous reservoirs of fear and anger and disrespect which seem to be percolating in the hearts of so many fellow human beings on planet earth these days?

 

us-flag

 

How do we plant seeds of hope and trust and respect and love while simultaneously standing up with great power so that we are not run over by ignorance and ego and power and greed and fear?

 

Parched-Earth-Plant

 

How do we nurture kindness and gentleness while also standing up for justice?

I am clueless.

I hope that music can somehow play a part in whatever activism and consciousness-raising and healing are on the horizon.

Until then, life goes on…

Thank you for reading and listening!

And thank you to Pixabay for the images in this blog post.

I welcome any thoughts, feelings, ideas, and recommended actions in the comments section.

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