a little something extra

Sunday, December 31, 2006

quick holiday update

The next in the series of Sabbath blog posts is due imminently, but before I do that I wanted to deliver some highlights from my holiday trip back east. (And no, getting up at 3:30 a.m. will never qualify as a highlight.)

  • Travel went easily, including the drive up to LAX which only takes half an hour when traffic is that light! There were planes, trains and automobiles, plus subways in two different major metropolitan areas.
  • All relations were in good health and spirits, from the 90-year-old grandfather to the 2 1/2-month-old nephew.
  • The Wilmington Drama League's Playwriting Bake-Off was a rousing success. Highlights from the plays included a chase scene between a recently retired gentleman and his wife, a revelation of a bank robbery, and a three-way tango to "Hernando's Hideaway."
  • Two solid job interviews. Neither was the big hit out of the park that I have had with some interviews, but that suggests to me that my reach exceeds my grasp, which is in the end a good thing.
  • Chances to visit with three friends who live in NYC and one who lives in Washington DC. The DC visit included live performance of flamenco a foot from my elbow.
  • Shannon laughing at the note I attached to her Christmas gift, which I promptly had to take back from her to return and exchange for the gift I thought I had ordered for her, but apparently didn't.
  • Feeding Spaghetti-O's to Connor. This is a full contact sport.
  • Sipping Scotch with Lee.
  • Sort-of trying on the pieces of the sweater Mom is making for me, in the hopes that I will soon live somewhere cold enough to use it. :-)
  • Being introduced to vocalese by Erin, who is something of a connoisseur (connoisseuse?) of the genre.
  • Admiring the engagement ring Joe bought for Julie, and then hearing later after he drove home to Georgia that she had accepted said ring and they are Now Officially Engaged.
  • And of course, meeting Drew, who expressed his approval of me by sleeping on my shoulder during most of the time we spent together.
Now I'm back in CA, getting ready for a quiet solo New Year's Eve. It may involve a walk down to the beach (two blocks away) just before midnight. I like to be outdoors at the turn of the year. But it will certainly involve the petite bottle of Chandon Brut Classic that my assistant gave me as a holiday gift.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

I fleetly flee, I fly

One more concert with Pacific Chorale tonight, and then I am off for a week's travel back east. Can you believe this timeline?

8:00 curtain up on the concert
10:00 or so, lights down at the end of the concert
11:00 or so, Megan gets home
3:30 a.m., Megan's alarm clock goes off
4:00 a.m., Megan takes her stuff to her car
5:00 a.m. or so, Megan arrives at LAX long-term parking
5:30 a.m. or so, Megan is situated in LAX, drinking a peppermint mocha from Starbuck's and wondering why it is so early!!!
6:30 a.m. Megan's flight takes off
2:30 p.m. Eastern time, Megan's flight lands
7:00 p.m. Eastern time, play reading begins with valorous Bake-Off playwrights at Wilmington Drama League

Ladies and gentlemen, that is a loooooong 24 hours... and given the time change, it's actually only 21.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sabbath 6

This week's chapter was a mixed bag for me. Some things Muller says were bang on, from my point of view. Others displayed Muller's biases in ways that are ultimately not helpful to me.

The title of the chapter is Fear of Rest. In it, Muller discusses the reasons people tend to fill every little bit of their time with Something To Do. Some people, he postulates, do this out of an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, or even guilt, feeling like their stopping to rest requires that others suffer more, longer. Others, he says, fill their time in order to avoid the emptiness that (he believes) sits inside every one of us, and can drain our sense of self-worth. Still others, he suggests, keep moving all the time in order to stay ahead of the accumulated weight and momentum of the griefs and losses in their lives. Both these latter populations fear that if they stop and encounter the thing they're trying to escape (emptiness, loss and grief) they will be consumed by it.

Muller himself praises the emptiness, linking it to the Kabbalist concept of ein sof, "the infinite." If we touch this state, by stopping and permitting silence to catch up with us, Muller says we can receive the gifts that only come when a person is in a state of rest. When Muller describes the rewards of this practice, I find we are almost at opposite poles. He says "Prayer, touch, kindness, fragrance -- all those things live in rest, and not in speed."

Prayer -- I find prayer shows up wherever I have the presence of mind to think of it, including when I'm running very fast indeed. In addition, Muller may presume a level of faith I am not fortunate enough to share.

Touch -- from whom? of whom? This is Muller's bias about people not living alone, or people not being alone. Either way, it's a missed shot.

Kindness -- again, from whom / to whom? Same as the above.

Fragrance -- I'm giving him this one on grounds of poetic license, but I'm laughing at him all the same.

I'm really glad that Tripp is reading this chapter, because one of the lines in it reminded me especially of him and the challenges he faces in his first full-time pastoral job. After telling a story of a massage therapist who succumbed to overwork and linking it to the tale of the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive oil and earned rebuke from the apostles, Muller says,

Just as there is time for every purpose under heaven, so there is a time for nourishment and joy, especially among those who would serve.

I'm also glad that Cristopher is reading this chapter, and he has asked me particularly to talk about my experience worshipping in silence with the Quakers. As most of my small band of readers will know, I attended an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting in Atlanta for about two years before I moved to California. In an unprogrammed Meeting, the worshippers sit in silence until and unless someone is inspired with a message that they believe has divine origins. That person delivers the message as simply and briefly as possible, and then the congregation returns to silence. I have attended some Meetings where the messages flew relatively thick and fast, and others where the silence was never interrupted, even once, by a single message.

Reading about Quakers and Quakerism, I discovered frequent mention of a phenomenon usually named a "Gathered Meeting." That term was used to describe an ineffable union of consciousness that linked all the worshippers at a Meeting in their silence. It's the Quaker version of transcendence. I never experienced it myself, but I liked the silent worship very much indeed.

What a worshipper was supposed to do in the silence was not pray as we typically think of prayer, where we throw words at God and hope God will respond positively. Instead, we were trying to hear God's voice inside us. Not only is that where the messages for the congregation came from, but it was the source of God's intervention and instruction in our own lives, help in our own struggles, and ideally, some measure of peace.

Back to the chapter for a moment. The place where Muller reached me most directly in this chapter was in his diagnostic mode. I definitely carry more than a touch of what he calls "fear of rest." I think I fall squarely into his category of people who keep moving all the time in order to stay one step ahead of the massive weight of grief and loss I've experienced so far. This is less of a crisis than it has been in the past -- partly because I've learned to incorporate loss and grief better than I used to, and partly because I am less frantically in constant motion than I used to be. But the temptation is still pretty strong.

Muller's exercise didn't reach me as well this week, partly because it displays again his bias about people not living alone. The exercise involves creating a deliberate Sabbath period of silence, which might be a designated part of a day, or the duration of a designated activity like a long walk. This isn't as directly applicable to my life, because who am I going to not-talk to? Maybe I'm not drawn to this exercise because I already have the practice of seeking silence pretty deeply ingrained in my life.

Interestingly, Muller includes a poem in this chapter, one of whose verses reminds me of an insight I picked up a year or two ago, and returned to many times since. Now I can't remember who the author was (bonus points to any of you who can figure it out) but the idea went as follows:

Think of the thing you can least bear the thought of losing.

Know that you will, for sure, lose that thing.

Sounds terribly depressing at first glance, doesn't it? But for me, it helped to balance out my fear of future losses, based on my experience of losses in my past. Muller includes a poem by Jill Bialosky with this verse, which made the link in my mind:

I know how difficult it is,
always balancing and weighing,
it takes years and many transformations;
and always another loss to stop for,

to send you backwards.

Why do you worry so,
when none of us is spared?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ocular Karma, please!

Nephew Connor is having a minor procedure tomorrow morning, to help him see better. Not only is this a good thing on its own, but better vision will also help him with his tasks in school, and make all sorts of physical and occupational things easier and more fun for him.

So if you're a praying person, please say a prayer on his behalf today or tomorrow morning. If you are a vibe sender, send vibes. Think good thoughts. Do whatever it is you do, but do it for him!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Bocelli and Friends

Lots and Lots of Friends.

Last night's concert, held in a hockey arena (seriously, the home of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks), seems to have gone well. Signor Bocelli sang about half the program solo, but the lineup also included three orchestral pieces without any vocal component, and a number of additional musicians.

There was a soprano who did "Ah, je veux vivre" from Romeo and Juliet, and a baritone who sang the Toreador's Song from Carmen. They both sang duets with Bocelli, and the three of them performed a trio that concluded the first half of the program.

In the second half, which included more pops selection and promotion of Bocelli's recent album Amore, the album's producer David Foster came onstage and played the piano part of a song the two men had written together for the album. A beautiful pop singer came on to sing Heather Headley's part of the duet "My Prayer," also from that album.

And then there was Paul Anka.

Yup. Paul. Anka. He appeared to sing "My Way" with Bocelli. The combination was moving at times, comic at others. Anka started repeating and riffing on the lines Bocelli sang, and then Bocelli started doing the same back to Anka -- Bocelli's English deserves praise, it is not easy to joke in a second language!

Conductor Steven Mercurio kept the evening moving, including many trips to the stage door to guide Bocelli (who has a vision impairment) to or from his place at the microphones. Mercurio's conducting style is very loose -- I do not want to see that man's golf swing -- but he does a great job using gravity to emphasize his downbeats. Sometimes with his entire body. Watching him, I was reminded of some of Mickey Mouse's gestures in The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

The choir held up, despite the fact that half the time we didn't have light on our music. I think some changes in the order of the program might not have made it to the lighting world in time.

And it only took me 15 minutes to get out of the parking lot. Given the thousands of people who came to the show, I thought that was pretty impressive.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sabbath 5

Before I plunge ahead into this week's chapter, I want to confess: I did not perform well on last week's exercise. Every once in a while I would remember the three-breaths idea, but I failed to attach it to any trigger or to do it regularly.

Oh well. I'll find a way to have it take root, or I won't. Even if it doesn't work the way Muller envisions it, any time a person stops to take a few quiet, full breaths, that is a Good Thing (tm).

This week's chapter is entitled It Is Good. Unfortunately, I think the chapter wasn't, particularly. Good. In this chapter, Muller give free rein to his tendency to bend scriptural ideas to fit his idea of rest. He even coins an unnecessary word, "rhythmicity." Give it a rest, Wayne.

Though the chapter as a whole didn't do much for me, one of the ideas Muller puts forward in this chapter did. He addresses the concept of innate human wholeness. I actually groove with this idea, that everyone is essentially whole and healthy, though there are times of pain, grief and difficulty which temporarily obscure that basic condition. But at root, we are each whole and, to borrow the chapter title, good.

Muller moves on to discuss how he understands and employs this concept in his work as a therapist. And here we part ways again. When Muller works with patients who are grieving or in pain, (he says) he believes his role is to remind them that they are essentially whole, and to believe in that wholeness when the patient isn't in a position to do so himself or herself.

This is where we differ. When I'm in pain, I don't want to be told that I'm essentially all right. I know that already. What I want is for my pain to be acknowledged, and not diminished or brushed away. So, dear readers, if you're ever in a situation to deal with me when I'm grieving or in pain, practice this phrase which will come in handy: "Wow, you're right, that really sucks."

Interestingly, though the chapter didn't hold much for me, one part of the exercise at the end of the chapter did. Here's the quotation I like...

[Buddhist meditation teacher] Sharon Salzberg suggests we practice guerrilla compassion -- silently blessing people on line at the bank, at the supermarket, in the cars next to us in traffic.

The basic blessing phrases Muller uses in this chapter are "May you be happy. May you be at peace."

There's nothing in those phrases about God, or Jesus, or Buddha, or any other divinity or organized spiritual system. Just "May you be happy. May you be at peace." Even if all that is behind the phrase is our own personal momentum, I still think that's significant.

And, it definitely feels good to do it. I recommend it strongly to everyone. Go on out there and practice some guerrilla compassion, especially at this time of year when schedules tend to be unusually packed, and tempers can grow short from fatigue, hunger, cold, darkness, and stress. You'll never get caught, and it will feel goooooood.

Friday, December 08, 2006

two out of three tenors

I think I posted early this fall about performing with Pacific Chorale in a concert that featured Placido Domingo as the headliner. (Who knew Sr. Domingo had a website?)

Now, we didn't sing with Maestro Domingo. We sang the opening two pieces of the concert, then Domingo came on and sang a song cycle with the orchestra while we sat very, very quietly in the choral stalls.

But this weekend, I'm singing with a group from Pacific Chorale and Cal State University - Fullerton, as the Pips to Andrea Bocelli's Gladys Knight. (And he too has a website! Must be the thing to do when one is an international opera superstar these days.)

He's singing a mixed program -- happily for me, none of it is in German -- mostly Italian and a little French. There are places where we sing with him a lot, and other pieces where we sing four measures out of the whole thing.

But even when we're not singing... we get to listen to Bocelli, for free. What's not to love?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Sabbath 4

I'm delighted to note that my friend Cristopher has joined the Sabbath blogging fun. I also want to put links in to Tripp's first, second, and third Sabbath posts.

And I believe Cristopher is right: a dinner party with himself and Tripp both as guests would be rich indeed. It would be full of music and laughter. Tripp and Cristopher both have amazing capacities for putting up with me!

Muller's Chapter 4 is entitled A New Beginning. He starts by letting us who are not scholars of Biblical languages into some new insight about translations of phrases and sentences in Genesis and Exodus (and Wayne, what's with the lack of chapter and verse notes?) Muller drives towards the point that God made rest on the seventh day -- that rest is part of creation, not separate from it or inferior to it.

About halfway through the chapter, Muller briefly discusses how important the Sabbath tradition was to preserving the Jews' identity as a people, as well as their religious life, after the destruction of the first Temple and the exile that followed. He draws a parallel to the exiled people of Tibet, noting that the Dalai Lama consulted with rabbis and other Jewish leaders about their experience of the Sabbath, considering how it might help his people in their exile.

That's interesting to me as someone who moves around a lot. My Sabbath practices can unfold wherever I am, under whatever circumstances present themselves.

Having drawn the line from Palestine to Tibet, it seems only meet that this week's exercise immediately puts me in mind of Indian yoga, which would be a stop along that line. The exercise calls for choosing a common daily event -- Muller suggests a stoplight while driving or hearing a telephone ring -- as a trigger. Each time that trigger arises, Muller says, stop and take three silent, mindful breaths, then go on with what you need to do next.

I heard a related recommendation on Lime radio, one of the billion channels I get on satellite thanks to a Communist plot of a birthday gift from my sibs and brothers-in-law. I was listening to Lime on the way to the gym one morning last week, and a brief spot featured yoga teacher Rodney Yee recommending a method of mindful breathing in stressful situations.

Yee recommends releasing tension from muscles in the head and neck while inhaling, and "lengthening the side waist" while exhaling. Since I experience a lot of tension in my head and neck muscles, this is an especially good idea for me. The lower-body relaxation associated with the side waist is good for me too.

So this week, I anticipate combining Muller's and Yee's suggestions, using the physical method Yee describes for the three breaths that Muller prescribes. Using the ringing phone would be great for me -- I have lots of bad associations with the telephone, which I am trying to train myself out of -- but I don't think I have the patience for that yet. I think on my work days, I will use the commencement of reading a new script as my trigger. On weekend days, I'll use the act of exiting my apartment door. And we'll see how it goes.

What about you? What daily act would be a good trigger for a momentary break, of the length of three breaths?