21 December 2019

Tome Poem #3

Written to accompany a Christmas gift of Revolutionary Love by Rabbi Michael Lerner...

Our waitress may be rapid-tongued,
though cheerful (for the tip).
Perspiring cooks flip pancakes
where we begin our trip.
Photos line the fake wood grain,
a century of pride.
Generations building war planes,
gaining victories for our side.
Next we crowd the airport gate,
discerning social clues
for how it is we must behave
to keep what we could lose.
And then I board the aircraft
with my stepson and my wife
and ponder how it was these things
became our way of life—
how we became entitled
through happenstance of birth
to eat three squares, to travel thus
on not-yet-ravaged earth.

We may think we choose our actions
on principles well-founded,
but more likely rationalize them
off of those we’ve been surrounded.
Once we judged the white folk
who viewed slavery as the norm.
But aren’t we just as oblivious,
as willing to conform?
No barrel for the plastic,
fuel burned without compunction—
maintaining time-worn patterns
of disposal and consumption.
As though this weren’t all finite,
that it is somehow ok
for each species to be downsized
till we join them in the clay.
For the globe that’s market-driven
has no human at the wheel—
sees nothing past the bottom line,
a reality surreal.

Though ‘tis the season to be jolly
and seek comfort from the weather,
there is so much to grieve alone,
seems time we grieve together.
From that grief may we find courage
to stand up for each other,
extend the line who we define
as sister or as brother.
The community thanksgiving,
instead of once per year,
may soon be happening daily—
if we can still the fear.

Aren't we now beyond protections
that may be bought or hoarded?
Will it be by what we give away
that we end up rewarded?
What worth my private comforts,
on which I have been leaning,
if a life based on self-interest
is one devoid of meaning?
Will climate and extinction
be the classless equalizer,
intervention on a system
strung out on some tranquilizer?
For, regardless if we see it,
we are still slave and master.
Just ask who stitched your clothing
or survived the last disaster.

What we’ve been sold, if truth be told,
Ne’er sat right with me.
And on reflection I believe
the same would hold for thee.
For we each have common interest
that we’ve long been kept from knowing,
to keep us all divided,
which keeps this system going.
Supremacy and racism
are means to someone’s end.
That someone is your master
charading as your friend.
This master has more money
than all of us combined.
We may have far more people,
but our people are resigned,
weary and discouraged
in need of clear direction.

Of necessities these souls may lack
the greatest is connection.
And so I humbly petition
recipients of this gift
to consider how this author’s thoughts
might bring about a shift
in those with whom you interact,
ideally when in-person,
illuminate the darkness,
by drawing back the curtain.
These times can leave one feeling
it only can get worse.
Why bother organizing?
Why bother writing verse?
Whatever confidence I’ve found
to prod my comfort zone
was nurtured in the family
I’m blessed to have here known.

21 July 2019

Lucia's 21st



We hope this birthday finds you 
soaring like an eagle,
without over-indulging 
on activities now legal.

We hope you’re standing for up 
for truths that be self-evident,
that where you find yourself 
is matched well to your temperament.

And that you’ll bear in mind,
as the temperature increases 
(wondering who can set things right 
judging from their speeches),
that out here in the San Juans 
the climate remains stable,
and there will be a place for you
seated at our table.

12 April 2019

For my brother

Again the month turns April;
one year becomes another.
I try to decide if ever I’d
made rhymes up for my brother.
Perhaps I did for Christmas,
or a song I once performed,
But not commemoration
of the day that he was born.
The reason I may offer
(well known to the masses):
A mere three days it comes before
the deadline for our taxes.
Yes, the table where I write this
is well be-strewn with papers
Concerning items purchased
and income for our labors.
Likewise we hope on the twelfth
you give yourself a break,
Not be mired or too wired
explaining what you make.

As has been my pattern,
in choosing what’s for giving,
I search up our old icons
to see which are still living.
Indeed there is one Elvis
who long outlived the other—
More than likely not still being
followed by my brother.
Well remember I the day
I waited at your place,
Curiously removed Costello's
record from its case;
How high did sound his voice;
his band buzzed like a hive!
Unaware was I the platter
spun at forty-five.
Forty years have come and gone
since then; can you believe?

More memories where that came from,
now pleasant to retrieve,
Of each our lives unfolding
finding just the mate
Who draws us into purchase
of excess real estate.
And though we may be dwelling
at distant longitudes—
Your clients seeking better sounds
while mine seek better moods—
There’s one connecting vector
that may not be ignored.
For like the mug you fashioned,
my key includes your chord.

04 March 2019

To Monica on her 67th

What makes birthdays more special
when divisible by five ?
What do we even learn from 
counting years we’ve been alive?
Are we still meeting milestones 
such as when we started walking?
Are there skills we still must learn 
through more listening and less talking?

There comes a realization,
the older we have grown:
how pointless is attachment 
to the objects we may own.
Is it wisdom we develop, 
as our numeral increases,
or does that come more from our luck 
assembling jigsaw pieces?

As I pondered what to get 
my dearly loving spouse,
I decided ‘twould be best to 
not add flotsam to the house.
Then I recalled her envy
of my mp3 collection—
organized by artist, styles 
of every predilection—
which up till now she accessed 
commandeering my computer—
her timely exploitation 
of my status as commuter.

But now I’ll be around more,
for better or for worse.
My five-minute commute leaves time 
to generate more verse!

I next copied all my music files,
leaving out head-bangers,
finding more room on her hard drive 
than on her closet hangers.
No Streisand or Sinatra,
for they’re a bit too slick,
or metal which my student 
once described as wicked sick.
Yet still she ends up having
a playlist so replete
‘twill play from now till mayday 
before any tracks repeat.

But all of this is merely
window-dressing on a life 
where I’m blessed as the husband 
to a most intriguing wife,
who daily fills my coffers 
with hope and inspiration,
and lifts me when I stumble 
on this path to liberation.

30 December 2018

Grief, Fear, Dancing


On and off over the years we have woken to a CD alarm. Recently I switched the disc to the Tallis Scholars recording of Josquin's Missa Pange Lingua. Though I take issue with their modal reading (refusing to raise the leading tone for minor-chord cadences!) they make an enjoyable sound; and theirs was the only CD version available to me in the 90s of this Renaissance masterpiece. (Some of you may recall this also being the mass I recorded on two guitars). At the stroke of seven, as the opening chant first filled the bedroom, I became convulsed with sobs. It was one of those cries that seems to come out of nowhere yet out of everywhere. Twenty years ago, after the nurse phoned to inform us that my father's marathon of monitored starvation was run, this very music was playing as I entered his hospital room. Perhaps intending to have the whole album repeat, she had pressed the button on the CD-player that repeats the first track only. Knowing it to have been the last thing he heard in this life, I therefore experience this plainchant as a portal to his soul. One memory bridges to another from a few years before when, following an operation, Dad was lumbering around the house on crutches. I was painting window trim while Mahler's Third played on the stereo. Unable to conceal his sobs while passing by en route to the bathroom, he made an attempt at excusing himself muttering, "this music undoes me." Perhaps, then, I am genetically predisposed to such music-induced weeping.

Grief is terrifying to face until you do. In our culture most primarily associate the process with the passing of a loved one. But every day we have had to act OK with injustices around us in the local and global community. We need to grieve the indifference—in violation of our inherent nature—we adopted to get through each of these moments. A few weeks back the preacher at Emmanuel Episcopal in Eastsound (also a therapist) in discussing the alienation and injustice resulting from capitalism reflected, "all we can do is grieve." By this I believe he meant that we cannot take effective action without grieving first—that is, ceasing to numb. I think of the Argentinian song "Solo le pido a Dios": All I ask of God is that I don't become indifferent to pain, to injustice, to war, to deceit, or to the future. It feels like those elements have all ramped up in the 40 years since the composition of that song; the songwriter Leon Gieco, it must be remembered, was then living under military dictatorship. Grieving offers an antidote to indifference. During my period active in RC (Re-evaluation Counseling), I got practice "discharging" grief in the context of regularly scheduled sessions. I got to a lot of tears by repeating the direction "I refuse to numb myself to injustice in the world." No longer scheduled, I presently grieve only when it hits me. Every day the headlines confront us with the choice to numb or grieve. When choosing the former we slip into addictive behaviors—behaviors that, especially as practiced by the world's wealthiest, drive the destruction of our planet and all its species. As with music performance, we get what we practice. Numbing leads to more numbing and to cynicism. It is when we choose to grieve that we create an opening in our shield for hope to slip in. 

Those of us who have administered substance use disorder assessments know the diagnostic criteria that qualify a client for mild, moderate and severe levels. Most of these concern willful ignoring the consequences of use (exemplified in another song: "there's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes.") Unchecked addiction to lining one's pockets might explain how some born predisposed to compassion for living things can develop the tolerance for cruelty seen today. For the addict brain is a merciless hungry reptile—the crocodile waiting under the bridge for whatever prey falls in. The addict brain experiences fear but understands nothing. I imagine it dwells within all of us to a greater or lesser degree. As a child it was of utmost importance that the closet door be closed at night because I was imagined there to be ghosts in there. As I matured so did my fears. Autocratic leaders, driven by their own addictions to wealth and power, gauge their message to the fear-maturity of the public they were misplacedly entrusted to serve. 

As much as I miss having more time to devote to music*, having the day job as a therapist helps moderate my own addictive proclivities and maintain something of a balance between serving others and indulging myself. Recently becoming a provider in the suspect mental health system has given me a glimpse through the eyes of those challenged by societal expectations. Who am I to say whether my ability to cope is any less functional than their dysregulation over being expected to cope with a world that makes so little sense? Perhaps you have been hearing recently about Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 15, diagnosed with depression, obsessive compulsive, and autism spectrum disorders. The first two would appear appropriate reactions to having one's eyes open to present reality (that on top of whatever personal trauma may have been experienced). The latter (neurological) diagnosis—whether resulting from genetics, toxins in the environment, or whatever—affords her a perspective in social interactions that cuts through the BS. Being a female young person adds to her vulnerability—a vulnerability that qualifies her to speak truth to numbed-out adults. In addiction treatment we also assess for stages of change: Pre-contemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, and Action being the first four. Greta is in the Action stage, and she implores the rest of us to leave behind the self-involvement that keeps us in fumbling about in the first two stages. She may not picture herself courageous as much as sensible. Her activism is a dual intervention on behalf of her own mental health and a terminally ill planet. Allen Ivey (who I read for a career development class) wrote about the therapeutic value in "client-collaborators" taking decisive actions against the societal sources of their oppression. Systemically we penalize those who cannot accommodate themselves to an irrational culture and reward those who can. But we desperately need the former to lead us out of this mess we're in.

Each time I hear intoned the words of Paul, "love casteth out fear," I see more areas where it applies. In her book Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control —mentioned in the accompanying poem—Heather Forbes identifies love is the crucial element missing from typical interventions practiced with traumatized youth. Once caregivers start feeling manipulated by a child most will default to acting on that feeling rather than maintain the objective curiosity required to lovingly or effectively address the child's behaviors. The deficit of secure attachment means the child lives in fear, expressing that fear in behaviors that stimulate adults' fears. But it is not solely adoptive youth, the objects of this book, who experience chronic fear and lack of love. Who carries out hate speech that does not feel both unloved and fearful? Show me someone who feels truly connected to other humans who rallies with white supremacists. As with children or adolescents, they can make no sense out of persuasive arguments until their needs for love and connection are met.

I imagine that some of you may not have read this far if the post had been titled merely “Grief, Fear." For I would also like to recount times doing kitchen tasks when my phone—in shuffle mode and through a loudspeaker—starts playing a track by Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France. My feet are suddenly at the mercy of the boom-chick of rhythm guitars. My knife-wielding arm slices zucchini slaved to the backbeat. Whether the meal even gets prepared becomes of secondary importance to my expression of joy at being alive in this time and place. I heard that Django's unchecked spontaneity meant that he often did not show up for his gigs, leaving bandmate Stephane Grappelli to carry on as best he could. One readily hears that fully-alive quality in Django's impish, fiendishly clever, live-wire solos and fills. It leads me to ponder if it is possible to live the moment so well without burning out so fast. 

I quoted the minister above saying "all we can do is grieve"; can we likewise say "all we can do is dance"? While living in Gloucester I was blessed to have a friend in songwriter Joanne Schreiber. Knowing her death was imminent, she organized one final performance at Blackburn Studios. She did not take the mic, however, until she had greeted us all individually with a hug and brief exchange. A few weeks later we gathered in that same space to memorialize her. The CD of her song "Ooh Your Love" was put on and we all danced together. One might expect it to have posed a barrier for Joanne that I was a straight Christian male. To the contrary, she offered unconditional acceptance and held out for the dancer in me.
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*I was able to get 20 pieces recorded this past Fall, my first efforts on the 8-string. You may listen at http://soundcloud.com/jsteele-2. In the new year, as my position shifts to my own island, I anticipate recording videos of original pieces in the hours I currently lose to commuting.