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.
___________________
*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. 

20 December 2018

Scent of Hope


[accompanying a gift of Braiding Sweetgrass by R.W. Kimmerer]

Chinese lights are twinkling 
and I'm in the gifting crunch.
‘Tis the season when each sunset
starts up shortly after lunch. 
Likely you’ll be groaning:
“Here he goes again,
with incessant rhyming couplets 
and long-overdue Amen!”
But recently I’ve verified,
as one observant reader:
nearly every line of Emily’s 
was in this very meter!
Blithely do I burden
the earth with one more poem
while insisting it be tethered 
to yet another tome.
At first I thought to share 
the book from work I stole:
Beyond Consequences,
Logic, and Control. 
And while providing insights
from which we all may gain,
‘tis to help adoptive parents know 
the trauma-addled brain.
While certainly this book applies 
to clients I am seeing 
it also sheds new light upon 
the core of my own being. 
For each of us sought comforts
when we felt left behind; 
once means of survival 
now our character defined.
In memories of my father 
preoccupied with boats
I see my own obsession 
with all stuff involving notes. 
In this case the trauma 
not in my past but in his;
yet somehow it infuses 
Christmas-present as it is.
I next then sought suggestions
from my favorite avid reader,
with whom I’m blessed to dwell
near madronas and a cedar. 

So taken now with sweetgrass 
she bought some, braided too—
a sacred scent reminder 
of time with Lakota-Sioux 
on a North Dakota landscape,
a liberated nation. 
For them it was existence; 
for us it was vacation. 
The spirits that they honored, 
the lodges where they sweated,
so distant from big-oil execs
with spirits tourniqueted. 
One might ask in earnest, 
after all the broken treaties,
whether these two kinds of human 
truly are of the same species. 
The book addresses arrogance 
towards planet and its creatures— 
a clueless needing to control 
those who should be our teachers—
while also offering lessons 
from the scientific view
(much as did Dad’s novel;
let’s give credit where it’s due).
Might our drinking binge of resources 
be scaled back to intinction?
Could we treat this land indigenously 
to thwart our own extinction? 
What once was labeled progress 
we now must redefine;
harness all the insights learned 
for massive redesign. 
But more than the retooling 
of the power-hungry grid,
we need to build connections 
our economy forbids:
connection to each other, 
connection to the past, 
and connection to a future 
richly scented with sweetgrass.


05 August 2018

Apology from My Generation

This morning I was stricken by
the need to write a piece
to celebrate the birthdays
of my mother and my niece.
Though two weeks separate their dates
one poem must need suffice
which, like its predecessors,
mixes craft with bad advice.
One may expect nonagenarians
to focus on the past;
while 20-somethings scan the globe
and wonder what will last.
Which be the case for either of you
is a matter of conjecture;
my generation was that of
the Conscientious Objector.
But consciousness gets battered by
the blitzkrieg of deceit
that marks our education,
be it school or in the street,
leaving us to choose between
the numbing of our senses
and standing up for principles,
rejecting all pretenses.
Many were the facts we learned,
our vantage that of miners;
some wayward groundhogs rose to view
the hand of the designers,
which now ungloved leaves fingerprints
undeterred by detection,
confident how to subvert
results of an election.
What power do we have against
the money and the lies
but our inner Alexandria
who cannot compromise?
Well may you ask how I dare
confuse this celebration
of your chronological ages
with the status of our nation.
Each of us has finite time
to better our surroundings.
We’ll run aground this charter boat
if we don’t watch the soundings.
For our time is a gift not just to
us but all encountered.
So why could I not have done more
to stop things heading downward?
To leave an earth behind me
where every child has chances
to live, to breathe, to eat enough,
to sing and make up dances.
And though I’ve loved my countrymen
my love was insufficient
to mollify their fears,
kick down the walls resistant
to the light, to the darkness,
to the healing of their sorrow
that bars their playing forward,
and makes their days so hollow.
But I’ll refuse to give up trying
if you will do the same;
and one day, through this unspoken pact,
we’ll redesign the game.

04 March 2018

Monica's birthday verse



This birthday is the first one
when we haven’t been together,
though we both look out on Puget Sound
and have much the same weather.

How this will one day resolve
I wish someone could tell us.
When comparing to some others’ lives
I let myself feel jealous,

Even though I have advised
so many in recovery —
that thirsting after worldly things
will leave us going hungry —

I recall at the same time
how blindly we move forward:
trying to blame the waiter
for not bringing what was ordered.

But is it not ourselves who
in the end must shoulder blame
for moments lacking gratitude,
for joys we failed to claim?

Were we ever making
the best use of our gifts?
And how does one keep pace when it’s
the paradigm that shifts?

Yet, through it all, our partnership
continues to endure;
and with it redefining
what it might mean to mature:

no one point of arrival,
no ideal spot on earth,
but “a friend my soul can’t live without.”
There’s nothing has more worth.