Archive for the ‘writing’ category

Teaching Moments

October 30, 2008

“Education is the manifestation of perfection already in man.”—Swami Vivekananda

What do our words and actions teach others? What do we learn by observing the words and actions of others?

You don’t have to be a “teacher” in order to educate someone. You do it by being who you are, indelibly shaped by your experiences and guided by your beliefs.

There are plenty of obvious examples of this. Parents show their children how to tie shoes, make sandwiches, drive cars and balance checkbooks. They sign kids up for piano lessons, dance or martial arts classes, religious instruction, sports clinics or art camp, and tutoring in preparation for college.

But what are you teaching others simply by going through life? When you have a brief conversation with a fellow passenger on a train, or stand in front of someone in the grocery store checkout line, the opportunities for being observed are countless. Whether it’s to notice the book you’re carrying on that train, or the different vegetables you’ve got in your cart, these can spark curiosity and encourage exploration, expansion of another person’s horizons.

We each hold unique knowledge that only we can pass on. Stories, songs, images, ideas—these are the vehicles for learning that humanity has relied upon for millennia. They will change as our society changes, to fit the needs and desires each generation has with regard to how they communicate and understand. (If you need an illustration of this, just consider the difference between sending messages with pigeons and sending them via e-mail, or hearing a village monk play a flute after a three-day pilgrimage as opposed to choosing from among ten thousand songs by pressing a button on your MP3 player.)

Each time we are presented with new information, we are also presented with a choice. Do we wish to further our knowledge and incorporate new material into our reality, or do we want to remain where we are?

To deny anyone this choice by restricting their exposure to education or limiting their access to it is one of the gravest disservices imaginable. For someone to say, for instance, that you can’t learn to read because you’re a girl or because you’re black or because you’re blind and can’t use print books like everyone else or because you can’t pay to attend a fancy school or because no one else in your family has ever done it before or because your parents work in a particular profession or worship in a certain way … These ideas may seem to make perfect sense to those who hold them, but from the outside looking in, they don’t.

Perhaps I’m thinking about this a lot since today, I will take sixteen boxes of Braille books to the post office and send them to a pastor in a very rural part of Malawi, a country in central Africa that is arguably one of the poorest places on earth. I’ve been sending books to this pastor since 2001. Where he lives, there’s no running water, no electricity. There are no services for people with disabilities, including the blind. In many cases, rather than going to school, they are sent out to beg by their families.

Not content with this outcome and knowing that, like every other human being, the blind and disabled have dignity, are respectable, and, most importantly, can learn and want to learn. So, he has gone from village to village and organized true grassroots groups of these people, teaching them to garden, to cook. Women who are blind have learned to cook. The Braille books have been passed from one person to another to another. Now, instead of one person reading them and discarding them, they may get read by twenty people, maybe more. Each person who touches the pages gains knowledge they didn’t have before and sees into a part of the world they never could have imagined before.

Once that’s done, I’ll go back to my “regular” job of teaching piano. It doesn’t matter to me whether you are five or seventy-five. All I need in order to teach you is your desire to learn. It is a great privilege to watch students of all ages, from all kinds of backgrounds, discovering an expressive art form. Teaching, for me, is about passing on the things I think are precious–art, knowledge, belief in the innate power of the human spirit to rise above challenging circumstances–that inspires me to teach. These gifts shouldn’t die with me. I have a responsibility to pass them to others, whether they are in generations younger than me or those who began life before I did.

Even writing is a form of teaching, and I’ve learned more, I think, from the various blogs I’ve visited than I have from any other aspect of the Internet. Perhaps this hasn’t been “pure” knowledge, as in verifiable facts. But the sheer volume of possibilities to catch a glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes is unparalleled anywhere on earth.

You can only give people the chance to choose. You can’t force them to follow your logic. For every person who chooses to change, there is one who refuses and remains in their current situation. To judge one as “better” than the other is easy, especially if we believe strongly in the advantages of one way over the other.

Today, I’ll be helped by many people. The woman who drives me to the post office has grandchildren of her own. What will I learn from her as we talk, laugh, carry boxes, maybe share a cup of tea? What will I absorb during my piano lessons, and who am I to say the “wisdom” of a 7-year-old is more or less valuable than that of a 12-year-old or an adult? That’s a judgment I refuse to make.

Judgment is, in its own way, a lack of education. If we can’t accept the endless array of humanity around us without a basic level of universal respect regardless of differing viewpoints, then what does that teach others about us? More importantly, what does that teach us about ourselves?


Holding Up the Stars

October 28, 2008

In every aspect of life, from business to art, there are people at the top, and there are people at the bottom, with countless others in between.

We hear a lot about reaching our full potential, and we try to do this. But just as one person’s fingerprint is unique, their potential is, too. We have our own ideas about just how much we can achieve, and, whether we like it or not, the feedback we receive from the people around us plays a big part in shaping these ideas.

When we are children, no matter what environment we grow up in, we absorb things from around us. These can range from language and pronunciation to parenting style. They can include notions about what kind of career we will have (notice how many funeral homes include “and son” in their name!) to who we will marry.

No wonder, then, that we get ideas about what we can—or can’t—do, expectations that many people simply accept without thinking about where they came from, who they came from, and whether or not they are truly theirs.

Not everyone can become an internationally renowned musician, best-selling author, millionaire athlete or top-flight surgeon. Not everyone can become a teacher, farmer, veterinarian, secretary, cook, mother, or garbage collector.

To say that “surgeon” is better than “garbage collector” is impossible, since both are necessary. Without the surgeon, we have no recourse if something needs to be repaired in or cutting out of our bodies. At the same time, without the garbage collector, we would soon be overwhelmed by waste and clutter.

There are always people, in various callings, who will garner most of the public attention and recognition. Those are the “stars”. But for every one of them, there must be thousands of others behind the scenes, keeping things running smoothly.

We are all intricately bound together, from the surgeon to the garbage collector. The surgeon discards used sponges, needles, syringes and gloves without thinking twice about what happens to them once they leave the operating room. So the surgeon is directly connected to the garbage collector. Their salaries may be different—six figures versus five—but both callings, both professions, are invaluable.

Each of us is a star, and our light is the brightest thing in someone else’s skyscape. We shouldn’t necessarily go around trying to be this light. If we did, got caught up always wondering how a particular action or word from us will increase our shining, we’d become unbearable.

But every once in a while, particularly on the days when someone stops to mention it to us, it’s good to consider this, and even take time to savor what we’ve done that has inspired growth in another human being, lifting them higher so they, in turn, can become brighter stars in their own universe.

“Love” is a Four-Letter Word

October 15, 2008

There are as many kinds of love as there are people in the world. There’s familial love, the kind parents have for their children, children have for parents, and siblings for one another. Often, it’s one of the strongest forms of love, but there’s plenty of room in it for disappointment, and often, it can get colored by an underlying sense of duty, “expectations”.

We expect our families to love us when no one else will, and we expect them to do it in the unconditional, accepting way that takes us as complete people, with all our graces as well as the imperfections, and keeps loving us even if we don’t want to change or move forward.

Families have it hard. If you think about that last paragraph, I’m sure you can also think of how your own family has fallen short and disappointed you. Perhaps as a child, even if you’re already well into adulthood, your parents didn’t provide the kind of support you needed, even as they tried, in their own way, to demonstrate their love. Or maybe, as a parent who has invested a lifetime in a child and now needs some return on that investment as your circumstances change, you find that your child is either unwilling or unable to give you that return.

So if the family is not the place you can count on for love, where do you look?

We can all choose who we marry or make our life partners. We might have the romantic idea of love rooted in passion and physical attraction, but if you base a relationship only on those things, you’ll also find that bodies change with time, and there’s no guarantee that the partner who found you beautiful today will still feel that way ten, twenty, fifty years from now.

Nevertheless, in any marriage, there is a strong current of the physical that runs through love. This is to say nothing of the people who try to make themselves feel whole by marrying, when they should first try to discover who they are and come to the relationship as a free and independent participant.

In marriage, you take vows and sign paperwork that’s supposed to remind you of the commitment you’ve made to another person. How you choose to honor or ignore that commitment, nurture it or break it, will have a deep impact on the love that results.

So, we’re related by blood to families, and bound by law to spouses. Love from them is, as I said, often the strongest and most enduring. But there’s also some underlying colorations that go into both kinds.

The Greeks were smart. In English, we just say “love” and then have to add other words for nuance. The Greeks had several words to describe various kinds of love (“philos, or brotherly love”, “eros, or romantic love”).

Sometimes, the best example we have of love in its purest, most unconditional and universal form, comes from the people who call us friends. They have no legal or familial duty to love us, yet they do, anyway. We often don’t have any control of how they come into our lives or how long they remain companions with us on life’s journey. And often, they open us so we’re better able to appreciate and receive the love we are getting from family or spouse.

They serve as different windows for us to look out of and see our world. We may have spent years simply seeing a situation the same way until our perspective gets shifted and we realize there’s 360 degrees to every story, not just the fixed impression we’ve been focusing on.

If you have all three kinds of love—family, life partner, friend,–those three pillars can be a very strong support system. But the first and most important kind of love must be the love of self. A three-legged stool is fine, except if the seat is rotten.

“Self-love” does not mean that you are proud of all your character traits, or that you praise every aspect of your being. It doesn’t mean that you see everything within yourself through rose-colored glasses.

Properly applied, self-love is the deep appreciation that you are a complete being, unique and precious and valuable as an individual, but also a part of the vastness of the universe. This is a paradox—how can you be a “whole in one” as well as “one in a whole”?

If I knew how to answer that question reliably for each person, I would be one powerful person. But we must each come to this knowledge on our own. We must teach ourselves, often through long and repeated lessons, that, while not every part of us is beautiful, every part is integral to who we are and, therefore, it has to be taken with every other part.

Using a somewhat physical example, I am a musician, a writer, small in stature, blind, married, and have very thin, straight hair. I may really be proud of my music-making or writing—after all, I’ve dedicated my life to pursuing those arts and practicing them. It’s easy to accept them as strengths.

But my blindness is something I’ll be living with every moment of every day for the rest of my life. I don’t always like it, and often, it’s a huge problem. But I can’t change it, or avoid it, and if I spent energy trying to do either one instead of just accepting it as part of who I am, that would be energy wasted that could be put to better use working toward achieving my dreams.

This isn’t to say that I just woke up one day with a great attitude about my blindness. Most of the time, I am independent, determined to do the best and most I can by and for myself. But there are days when I don’t feel that way, and I’ve got to take those days right along with the ones on which I know to the core of my being that I can do what I set out to do.

This is self-love in practice. It’s not static. The acceptance you find today may be gone tomorrow, not to return until next week or next month or even next year. That’s the beautiful and frustrating thing about being a dynamic, thinking being.

Self-love is the foundation for everything else. It’s what we draw on when we create the image of ourselves that we use to form our responses to the world.

And even when family, partners and friends disappoint us, the self is always there.

Six Steps to Optimism: Day 5

October 3, 2008

“Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again: and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.”—Anais Nin

It isn’t enough to just look at your window optimistically and say to yourself, “Life will be wonderful.” If you expect your dream to blossom but do nothing to cultivate it, then it won’t flower. We must each discover our own dream for ourselves. No one can give it to us.

Once discovered, it must be nurtured. Choices must be made, actions taken, each following on the foundations laid by the one before, but all aiming for the fulfillment of the dream.

So, when we look out the window of our perception onto the world, it is colored by all our experiences and interactions. The decisions we make and the actions we initiate all spring from this place of accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

To return to my own life as a pianist, I can say, “I want to play a concerto with an orchestra”. But first, I must learn how to use my hands to create the sounds at the instrument I will need to give the most expressive and artistic performance of that concerto. Even after mastering the techniques with my hands and fingers, I must then learn the notes of the concerto and commit them to memory, absorb them so deeply into my heart that the music becomes an extension of who I am and I become an extension of the composer who wrote it, so that it’s impossible to see any of the seams between where one ends and the other begins.

And once I have learned the notes and made them into a work of art, I must find an orchestra to play with and practice with them. Once the rehearsing is done, other people must come to the concert hall, fill up the seats and be quiet long enough to hear the fruits of all our labors.

So, I can’t just sit in my chair in my house and let the sounds from my CD player wash over me and think, “Oh, my dream is to play this piece”.

I must get up out of my chair, go to the piano, take out my music, and begin, step by step, to build the dream into reality.

Then, when the concert is finished and the applause has died away, after the hall is silent and empty and everyone has returned to their own home, I must take a few moments to savor the sweetness of what I’ve accomplished, take a clear look at what I could do better next time, and begin again.

Sometimes, beginning again is the hardest part. It is easy to become complacent and settle for “just enough” or “pretty good” or “almost”.

The optimist looks at their gold medal, or their standing-room-only concert hall, or their million-dollar book sales and says, “What can I do next?”.

It’s not that they aren’t satisfied or don’t appreciate the richness of their experiences. It’s just that they are always seeing further up the mountain, just beyond the place where the path bends in the trees and they’re not quite sure what lies ahead.

After all, “dream” is only a noun until, by choice, you make it into a verb.

What stage on your dream’s path are you in, and what action will you take next? What choice have you made today that has moved you a step closer to realizing your dream? And, if you are at a pinnacle in your mountain range, look out and see: Which mountain in the distance is calling your name, beckoning you to begin anew?

Six Steps to Optimism: Day 3

October 1, 2008

“Optimism is essential to achievement, and it is also the foundation of courage and true progress.”—Nicholas Murray Butler

What do you do once you’ve begun to change your mind?

Well, that depends. It varies from person to person. Just as there are many different ways to see a mountain, there are just as many paths to the top. They all start, though, at the same place and in the same way: at the bottom and with one step.

If you start at a place, as an optimist does, where you believe that, no matter how difficult something appears to be, you have the capacity to take on the challenge, then you will take that first step as a natural outgrowth of your perception.

The optimist doesn’t ignore obstacles or have delusions about what’s possible. The optimist just says, “I don’t know how I’ll solve this problem right now, but I’ll find out as I begin moving forward”.

And sometimes, “forward” might appear to be anything but. It’s very difficult to understand, for instance, how clearing away other people’s dirty dishes at a mediocre restaurant until all hours of the night will help if what you really want to do is write a best-selling novel. When you’re two months behind on your bills and your car dies, it’s really hard to know what these circumstances have to do with your passion for baseball. And when you’re sitting in the hospital waiting for the most recent round of MRI’s, x-rays and tests to come back so you’ll know what’s slowly robbing your mother of her ability to walk, it’s completely normal to have no comprehension of how this could possibly have any connection to your lifelong dream of performing on Broadway.

As I noted yesterday, optimism isn’t just a magic-wand feeling. It’s often hard-won over long periods of self-examination and self-discovery.

Optimism isn’t an impenetrable shield that protects us from life. But with it, we can move ourselves further along our path toward realizing the dream that is innate to every human being.

If I have optimism, even if I face adversity, I can find the courage either to reach deep within myself and persever, or, when I find my own reserves running low, reach out to other people for the encouragement I need.

For me personally, this lesson has been very concretely illustrated over the past ten months. As a pianist who is blind, I often listened to recordings or live recitals and thought of all players who were better than me as being beyond anything I could ever hope to achieve. I gave all kinds of reasons why I would never reach that level.

In short, I was a pessimist. My reasons were really excuses, and I remained stuck where I was because my perspective and perception weren’t changing.

If your mom says you do something well, that means a lot. After all, she’s your mom. But on the flip side, she’s your mom, and moms do that kind of thing, or at least many of them do.

If your husband says you do something well, that’s wonderful, too. You can derive a lot of satisfaction from pleasing first your mom and then your husband because you love them both and want to give them something to be happy about. But he’s your husband.

If you’re really committed to your dream, you won’t settle for a teacher who is just a yes man. You’ll want the one who can push the hardest and inspire you to go the highest. Whether that teacher is a “brand-name”, well-known person affiliated with a big conservatory and with lots of high-profile students or is just some seemingly average person living off the beaten track doesn’t matter.

When you go out in search of a teacher to further you along the path toward artistic greatness, that’s a choice you actively make. And if you really want your dream to progress, you won’t rest until you find that teacher, even if this searching isn’t in the forefront of your mind.

I know it wasn’t in mine when I climbed onto a bus at a music conference in Minnesota. It wasn’t on my mind when I first flew to Denver, then took the long drive into Kansas. It wasn’t even in my mind as a friendship blossomed through phone calls and e-mails.

Well, it’s in my mind now, and every day, when I sit down at the piano to practice, whether I’m doing basic technical exercises or working on repertoire, it’s impossible to escape. And, when a teacher you’ve spent a lifetime searching for tells you you can go so much farther than you believe and won’t let you wiggle out of that fact, insisting you take on the pieces you once thought would be impossible for you to play, well, that does something to one’s fundamental outlook, and everything else flows from that shift.

I’ve talked a lot about encouragement from the direction of inspiring people to reach beyond their own perceived capacity. But courage is also the displacement of fear and loneliness. Of course, we are alone within our own hearts and minds, and we are alone in our quest to attain our dreams. No one can share our journey completely with us.

Yet we are given companions who walk beside us, some only for the briefest of moments, others for decades. These companions are the people who, by words or actions, demonstrate to us in ways large and small that they salute our dreams and our calling to make them reality. These are the people who are there to encourage us and restore our strength when we are beset by doubt, fear, and all the other emotions that we carry with us always. By their belief in us and their expressions of faith in the rightness of what we are doing, we have our stamina renewed and our faith strengthened.

I used to think that Chopin’s Sonata in B-Flat Minor Op. 35 was something I’d never play. For that matter, at this time last year, the idea that I’d play Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D Minor wasn’t even registering with me. Even Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 57 (Appassionata) was just something I put on my CD player when I wanted to hear true drama.

Last November, my friend Anne started insisting I could play the Prokofiev. I ignored her until January, then decided I’d at least try.

I finished learning notes midway through February. I played it for informal music gatherings in April and May (or maybe it was march and April—can’t recall right now). I added it to a public recital program in August, and it’s still growing and maturing. But I own it. I live it.

I could not have achieved any of this without optimism. I may have had optimism in other areas of my life, but it took the encouragement of another person to rekindle it in my piano playing. With that as the foundation, I have the courage to take on new and bigger challenges and to do the daily, unglamorous work that’s necessary if I want success. And finally, because of all those elements arranged in that particular order, I am experiencing progress, and that progress is obvious to anyone who hears me now.

If you lose the courage within yourself, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. Look outside yourself and find someone who can spark it again. For me, one of the greatest joys of traveling is the possibility that I may meet someone whose interaction with me will change my life. Two years ago, it happened on a bus in Minnesota.

If this is true for me, imagine how many opportunities await all of us as we go about our daily lives. This is optimism at work. We are all “source material”. We are integral parts of the universe, givers and receivers of wisdom. Even if the wisdom isn’t in your particular area of interest or directly related to your passion, it’s wisdom nonetheless and is a priceless gift.

Today’s challenge: With every person you encounter in the next twenty-four hours, consider both what you can learn from them and what you may be teaching them.

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

September 10, 2008

Yesterday, I wrote about how the universe “conspires” to help us as we follow our hearts toward our dreams.

As a composer of music and of written words, I’m also keenly interested in “inspiration”. Where does it come from? How do we get “chosen” (if we do indeed get chosen) to receive it? If we don’t want it, where does it go, and will it have an outlet anyway?

There’s something deeply spiritual about the creative process, especially when it’s done right. In my “Soul Essence” series, I compose pieces of music for people that capture their true being in sound. Most of the people I’ve composed for are people I have never met. I only know them by name, and whether they are male or female.

Just as “conspire” comes from “breathing together,” I think that “inspire” is the drawing in of universal breath into yourself so that you can transmit the universal message to another through whatever creative outlet you’ve been given as your expressive medium. For me, it’s music and words. But for someone else, it might be visual art, sculpture, blown glass, wood carving, stonemasonry, architecture, gardening …

The list is as endless and various as we are, because, for every person who is seeking a message, there must be a messenger who delivers it in the most deeply meaningful way possible. My music and words may do absolutely nothing for some people and be dismissed as worthless, foolish, quackery or any number of other things. But there are messengers out there for those who can’t understand my way of expressing.

To be inspired, we must first be open. We can’t respond in a dynamic way to inspiration if we stubbornly insist on always following our own best way. Sometimes, we have no idea what we’re doing, and then, we must have the grace to follow instead of trying to lead. We are often referred to as “God’s instruments”. Just as a violin can’t usually play itself, we shouldn’t always be trying to mold our lives into an orderly series of events that fits our patterns of understanding. The divine was here long before us and will remain long after, and we should be mindful of both our importance and our insignificance in that never-ending stream.

There are many names for the source of inspiration. But I think, when it comes right down to it, it’s one of the fathomless mysteries of the universe. We only try to name it because we want to understand it, quantify it, measure it, organize it, harness it, make sense of it.

And yet, there is nothing to be made sense of. Why, after all, were the stars created in the way they were and scattered across the vastness of space? Why are flowers shaped, fold upon fold, petal by petal, and arrayed in such a variety of colors and fragrances? Why do the whales sing to each other in the depths of the sea, or swans sing one song before dying after remaining silent for a lifetime?

We don’t have to know where inspiration comes from or where it goes when it passes from us. There are days when composing one measure of music seems more difficult than trying to teach a spider to thread a needle. There are nights when no words will come at all.

We are spiritual beings clothed in physical flesh, and one day, we will leave this world behind. On that day, we may stop, just for an instant, caught on that grand threshold, and wonder: “Did I, in my time here, bring inspiration to another, and have I, in my own way, given thanks to those who inspired me?”