Friday, February 10, 2012

Burnished, Deep Splendor

What Life Does To Us

Yes. I said it. Life does stuff to us. I am not of the point of view that we cause ALL our own troubles. I admit we do a good job on ourselves by our choices and habits, but life does a good deal to contribute to the messes we find ourselves in on a larger scale. There are these surprises...earthquakes and accidents...depressions both emotional and financial...unexpected brain tumors. There are genetic tricks that turn into addictions and brilliant savant-ism. There is rape. There are children with cancer. There are starving children. Don't bother writing a comment that those children are paying off past life karma because I don't buy it. We are already forgiven for all that so let's just say that I do not explain what life does to us as pay back.

It would be easy enough to extrapolate that I must harbor some ill will.  You might assume I am resentful. That would be wrong. In fact I am amazed, impressed and marveled by the stuff life does to us. I am unusually humbled by the dings I’ve gotten from a life I hope is only half-way through. There are some doozies, as you will know from this journal of sorts. I view them as the experiences that make me human.

I watched with my kids the Kennedy Center Honors awards show last month where they were celebrating some of America’s finest performers in music and drama. I bring this up because here is a group of people I truly admire for making this world more bearable with their contributions (yes, even Neil Diamond). One would think from the glowing love they got that night that they are an unblemished, untouched sort. I was familiar with four out of five of the artists, Neil Diamond for his amazing collection of pop hits, Yo-Yo Ma for his adventures as a Cellist, Sonny Rollins and his saxaphone, and Meryl Streep the endless Oscar Winner. I had never heard of the fifth, Barbara Cook, though it turns out I was familiar with her work on a few of my grandparents’ “Original Broadway Cast” albums. Not one of them had truly escaped hitting the proverbial wall of life, though, and Barbara Cook may have hit it even harder than Sonny Rollins (though he also hit a wall called “da Man” and landed in prison for a time).

Barbara somehow said the thing that struck me and has stayed with me for several weeks now. She was filmed giving singing lessons to a group of talented up and comers and someone was singing what sounded like a silly, romantic song  in her voice, and then Barbara took the same music and made it downright sexy. She told this girl, “This is a song about sex. Remember that and you’ll do all right.” She’s 83 or 84 years old and she said it just that bluntly. Then the next clip she was speaking to the whole class and she said, and this is the thing that stuck, “These songs, this music is about what life does to us...” and  she added something like - you have to bring it, all of it to the music, to your expression.

“...this is about what life does to us and you have to bring it...”

Here was a woman, that as a young person literally wrote her own ticket on Broadway with this incredible voice that became the model of Marian the Librarian (my first theatrical role as an earnest and unlived fifth grader), but then drank herself into anonymity. Yes, she had that habit and she paid, but the circumstances that drove her, the genetic make-up, the loss of boundaries all piled up together and that is life. Life did it and she complied...for a while... in a soul-destroying, sopping drunk choice. Then she stopped, and that was her choice, too, and she turned her life around and she went on to win the Kennedy Center's Award in 2011. So. It wasn’t just the words she said in that one sentence that impressed me, but that her devotion to sharing all of the dings, scratches and bruises through music is her gift to humanity, and she does it so intimately that you feel you are with her alone. Like this song, that I think she sings to life itself and of what we do to life

And, this makes me think of the author, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, who also has this same kind of relationship with life, a love affair that sometimes forces uncomfortable questions that she so generously shares with us even in the midst of a crisis. These two, of many of artists I have met and admired, leave me stunned with a clear idea of who I hope to be in a year or fifty years...something I call “burnished, deep splendor.” The tender yet incredibly resilient quality that acknowledges what life does to us and polishes it until there is a way to see all the way to the core is what I want to be.

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