Somewhere, beyond time and place

Reviewers are using words like “remarkable,” “history making,” and “moving” to describe Partners, the latest album of legendary singer Barbra Streisand. In its first week, her 34th album topped the Billboard 200 making Streisand the only recording artist to have a number one album in each of the last six decades.iStock_000048081726Medium

As you might guess from the album’s title, Partners pairs Streisand with well-known artists like Billy Joel, Michael Bublé, Stevie Wonder and even Elvis Presley (who is said to have been resting comfortably well before the recordings were made). Don’t ask.

But it was the duet with Josh Groban that caught my ear. “Somewhere” is the love theme in the musical and movie West Side Story, produced on Broadway in 1957 and later on the screen in 1963. It’s the story of rival New York City gangs.

I first heard “Somewhere” when I was in high school. Like others of school age, I suppose, I was taken with the idea that there’s a place for each of us. In West Side Story, the “place” is a life of peace, quiet and open air for the musical’s young couple. They dream of being far away from New York City’s then gang-infested Upper West Side where they lived. But for any of us, wherever we are today, our “place” may be a life of hope, love and purpose. For others it could be a place of health, family and food.

As my senior year drew to a close, it was time for my classmates to choose our class song. There were three on the list, one of them, “Somewhere.” For me, the choice was a no-brainer. But there were 300-plus other brains voting, so it was no shoe-in.Remarkably, “Somewhere” won by a landslide.

I was pretty tight with some talented fellow musicians, and we approached the graduation committee about singing it on the big night. They agreed. I wrote a six-part arrangement. It was almost surreal to stand in front of 2000 people and sing about a place and time for each of us.

Last night, as I listened to the Streisand-Groban duo, I found myself back at my high school graduation singing with my friends. The scene was vivid, as if it were taking place at that moment. I looked across the gymnasium at my parents who were about 100 feet away sitting in the bleachers. I saw my mom wiping her eyes and my dad beaming.

I wondered what they must have been thinking. And it came to me: pride and love—probably a similar pride and love that others were sharing. Suddenly, I felt a rush of pure love wash over me, breaking through the current moment. In much the same way that my parents felt pride and love, I felt it, too. “How could I have been given such wonderful, loving parents?” I wondered.

Today, my understanding of “place” is different than it was then. Now, it’s less about a physical location, bounded by time and (seemingly) unconnected happenings, and more about how I see things. Maybe “somewhere” isn’t “out there” after all. Maybe it is “inside”—in the ways we think, imagine, hope, dream, care and love.

Perhaps that’s the way “place” is built, one thought at a time. In much the same way there we’re building our place, others are building theirs every day and every moment. We catch glimpses of this phenomenon at unusual times, like when listening to a Streisand-Groban duet. It was if my parents reached across time and space to reaffirm my place and give new meaning to the words in “Somewhere”—

“Hold my hand and we’re halfway there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.”

You may be able to listen to “Somewhere” (unless it’s been taken down) by clicking  here.

West Side Story Story by: Arthur Laurent – Music by: Leonard Bernstein – Lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim

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Stories

Stoplights, for the most part, are dutiful little creatures.

Yesterday, I spent about 20 seconds at one waiting for the much-coveted green glow. It was one of those days when the world seemed very clear and sharp—you know, a time when light and shadow create crisp lines on the ground and a few carefully quaffed clouds float overhead?

We’re part of a much larger, infinite library of stories—some connected, others seemingly not.

Being a little disconnected from beauty of late, I’m not sure I would have noticed the splendor of the moment had it not been for the stoplight creature.

Life in one small town

It was sort of a “put your life on hold” instant in which I mentally returned to my days as a young boy. I grew up in a small Washington town in the middle of a desert so flat you could almost see forever. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know (firsthand, at least) that not all towns were that small and vertically challenged. It also didn’t seem to have much of a past–certainly not like the reach back of a Plymouth Rock, or Paris, or a Mayan ruin. It was recent history that, for this small town, seemed to date back only a few dozen years when the area was transformed from farmland to a nuclear weapons complex in World War II.

Those were good times, though. I vividly remember my dad, a kind and soulful man with a big heart, entertaining me with stories of his childhood. No matter how often I begged him to repeat them, I never grew tired of the tales about his brothers, his dad, his aunts and uncles. And although they changed ever so slightly in the telling, their essence remained constant. Now, as I reflect on them, they were less about the characters in his family and more about how he was shaped by the experiences that, to a young boy, were absolutely awesome to hear.

Another small town

My mind returned to the moment. I was the only car at the stoplight, this time in a small southern town that’s been my home for 12 years. The sun tried to bake through my black hoodie, but the cold temperature outside got in the way. And then, in a spike of clarity, I realized that everything around me was part of a larger story going on almost unnoticed. There was the story of the huge gnarled tree to the right of the car. And there was the packed yellow building across the way where you could buy takeout. There was the elderly man walking with the aid of his cane. And the paper cup tossed in the gutter.

And then there was the story of the road itself, named “Whiskey” because in the 1800s it was used to run whiskey and rum to the north. Today, it’s the major north-south thoroughfare through the town. I watched as drivers sped along while talking on their cell phones, numb to the stories of the trees, the takeout joint and the man with a cane.

In those brief moments, I was reminded that everyone and everything has a story. If you were that tree, what would your tale be? If you were your dad, what stories would you tell you?

Listening and telling stories is one way to connect to the larger narrative of which we’re part. We’re richer for having had the experiences. It’s a wealth without tangible measure. Yet, we’re beyond just our story. We’re part of a much larger, infinite library of stories—some connected, others seemingly not. All of us are authors.

The traffic light turned green. It had been only a 20-second moment in the middle of eternity, yet it was so rich. A few minutes later, in a crowded grocery store, I pushed the cart past the barrister at Starbucks and by a senior Asian woman making sushi. She spoke in broken English. How did she get to the United States, I wondered. What was her story?

So many people whose lives, if lived out loud, would fill volumes.

Writer’s note

I’ve long been a believer that we’re all connected in some way. And, as I was writing this post, I received an email from a longtime friend—perhaps I should call her a soul mate. The timing and topic of her message were quite extraordinary. She wrote:

One reason I thought of you is because I read an interesting article in Guideposts.  (Yes … I’ve reconnected with that interesting little magazine of short inspirational stories!)  In the January edition, there’s an article by psychologist Edward Hoffman entitled “This Way to Memory Lane.”  The crux of it is that “science has discovered that nostalgia itself is good for us.”

I’ve always been so nostalgic about our past … growing up in Westinghouse Hanford with people like John and Charlie.  I don’t think that I’ve been stuck there, although as a “Cancer” I may have a longing for some of what has passed.  Now I find out that reflecting on the past is good for us… “waxing nostalgic from time to time doesn’t trap us in the past—it is healthy for our body, mind and spirit in the present.”

You can find Hoffman’s article here.

Six lessons from Dylan and Trevor

Life lessons come in many shapes, sizes and situations and mostly when we’re open to learning them.

One recent Saturday dished up some pretty good ones, each served by a couple of unlikely messengers—my coworker’s sons, Dylan and Trevor, ages eight and five. She and the guys showed up to help with some serious office cleaning and straightening.

Now I don’t hang with kids much, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Because I follow their comings and goings pretty much on a daily basis, I knew that her sons are (1) all boy, (2) very polite and (3) extremely smart.  I figured I was in for either a real treat or a pretty long day.

The workday began with lunch and a detailed movie review of the new Dreamworks film “How to Train Your Dragon” that they’d seen a few days before. I was struck that these guys were using complete sentences that logically developed from one thought to the next. I was still learning to tie my shoes at the age of seven. At five, I was sticking my head in chimneys and who knows what else…

Then it was on to the work of the day: packing, shredding, and boxing stuff—all of which was punctuated with lots of questions, laughter and, well, did I mention questions? Bunches of them.

It was a quick 2-1/2 hours. While driving home, I found myself laughing out loud at the time we spent together. There were lessons here. I counted six. Call them Lessons from Dylan and Trevor:

  1. Expect good from everyone you meet.
  2. Think of work as a joy because it can be if you let it.
  3. Tell stories about what you like to do as it makes living more fun.
  4. Say “Yes” when asked if you want to do something—even if you don’t really understand what it is.
  5. Thank people, even if the gift they give you is small.
  6. And, finally, love each other, because it makes everything better.

Thanks guys!

The virtue of bad news

Newspaper and television reports, filled with stories of hardship and misfortune, affect us on some level. Yet, each report takes on a different meaning when the casualty of war is a friend’s son or daughter, or when unemployment becomes a family member’s story.

Although the news seems to be about “the other guy,” it may be more about us than we think.

I was reminded of this the other day when a co-worker’s dear mother passed on unexpectedly. At a spry 80-plus years, she was filled with spunk and lived a strong and inspiring life. Although I never knew her personally, her death reminded me of my parents’ lives and how much their values permeate my work and friendships today. As I wrote a note to my friend the other night, I found myself thinking that her mom’s enthusiasm and drive didn’t die with her, rather, it was being passed on through the stories she shared with me and others. Her passing, a huge loss for her family, contained a small note of inspiration for me: How could I dial up my own enthusiasm for life? It was a small measure of good to be found in the bad news.

Something similar could be said for news accounts of the Haiti earthquake. Most of us have trouble relating to devastation on such a large scale, but it becomes real when a neighbor’s home is damaged by fire or flood. Suddenly “over there” moves closer to home. What does that mean to me and can I reach out to lighten the burden? Perhaps the news calls us to be a contribution.

Millions of people today are looking for work after losing their jobs to economic conditions. The big numbers and statistics shield us from individuals with faces, names, families and their own stories. For them, the bad news contains little good. Yet that judgment may be hasty, especially if causes us to miss how the closing of one door points to others we didn’t see.

And, that may be the point. Sometimes the current situation—good, bad or otherwise—can lead us, if not lull us, into complacency about how much we really have to offer others. We may accept the status quo because the not status-quo is scary or not even apparent. So, we settle for what we have because it’s convenient, if not easy and safe.

What if the “We have to let you go” message that many have heard is really “We’re setting you free.” I don’t credit employers with all that much smarts, insight or unselfishness. We have to assume that for ourselves. We must read the lines and understand the real story. We choose how we hear the message.

Being set free isn’t such a bad thing. Neither is taking a longed-for chance or a risk, something that can be scary and heartening at the same time.

Set free. Seeing new doors and opening them to a better life and greater contribution.

That’s the virtue in bad news.

Olympic mettle

I’ve not always been a fan of the Olympics. Not being particularly athletic or overly interested in sports, they always seemed to be a non-event. That was until, a few years ago, a friend and colleague told me how much the athletes’ dedication, incredibly hard work, and personal sacrifice inspired him and his wife.

And so, I started watching. At first, with disinterest and skepticism. Then, with curiosity. Later with attachment. And now, with awe.

Yes, there are carefully choreographed opening spectacles with parades of athletes bursting with national pride. And there is the generally good-natured rivalry between teammates who cheer each other in nearly selfless joy.

But it’s the stories inside the events that speak to the mettle of which these young athletes are made.

Snowboarder Kevin Pearce and brother David. Click on the picture to watch an NBC story about Kevin and his family.

There’s the story of Joannie Rochette, the Canadian figure skater who lost her mother just two days before her walk onto the ice. Understandably shaken, but undeterred, she won a bronze medal.

And there’s Kwame-Nkrumah Acheampong, the 33-year-old, one-man ski team from Ghana. Nicknamed “snow leopard” because the animal is as uncommon as a skier from Ghana, his skiing career started only five years ago.

And Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, a man who faced down addiction and pain to become the first skier to land “the hurricane,” a wrap of five twists into three somersaults that takes place 50 feet in the air. For Speedy, it was a silver medal.

Most Olympic stories are not just about an athlete. They are the stories of people who, through their own sacrifice and support, make another’s achievements possible. Take Kevin Pearce, whose half-pipe moves are compared to those of fellow snowboarder Shaun White–this Olympic’s gold medal winner. Kevin, who couldn’t compete due to a serious injury he suffered on December 31, 2009, now fiercely struggles to talk again and to regain the use of his limbs. It’s a slow, slow process. But it’s his brother, David, born with Down Syndrome, who has provided an unexpected perspective on Kevin’s recovery. “We learned patience from David,” his mother said, remembering that it took him three years to learn to put on his seatbelt.

For many Olympians, there will be medals. For all, there will be memories deeply etched in Vancouver’s snow.

But for Kevin, brothers David, Andrew and Adam, and parents Pia and Simon, there are no medals, no snow, only love.

And, perhaps that is the best metal of all.

May 3, 2010 UPDATE: Kevin is making a remarkable recovery, has been released from Craig Hospital in Englewood, CO, and awaits the real victory of returning to his home in Norwich, VT. His doctor says he’ll be able to make another return: to snowboarding!

What’s your gift?

Time for a trivia challenge.

Think “1970s.” Down select to “music groups.”

Who comes to mind?

Chicago, the Jackson Five, Earth Wind and Fire?

Excellent choices.

For many, the brother/sister duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter will be on the list. The Carpenters hold the distinction of being one of the best-selling music acts in history with a distinctively soft music style that was a sharp contrast to the loud and wild rock of the decade.

Karen died in 1983 of an eating disorder. She was just 33.

Even the most ardent music critics characterize her voice and the Carpenter style as among the country’s finest. And so would her fans. But, despite wide-spread acclaim for her obvious gift and natural talent, it may be something that, on various levels, she never accepted.

In a recent interview*, brother Richard was asked if Karen understood what a good voice she had. His answer was that both he and Karen realized they could do just about anything musically and that, at some level, she knew about her gift. Yet he said, “I don’t really know.”

And then he added, “You know, being human, we do tend to take things for granted. So, I honestly can’t answer that one. I’ve tried.”

It’s always interesting to me how others see talents in us that we overlook or diminish. Wow, what a wonderful gift they’re giving us.

It’s safe to say that taking our talents for granted and not using them isn’t the best place to be. Neither is being haughtily arrogant. But, if you placed these two approaches on a continuum, being in the middle isn’t necessarily the place to be either.

Perhaps this is another call to be a contribution in the world, being less concerned what that is or how credit is bestowed. Not waiting for all the circumstances to be right and for all the stars to align, but just to be a contribution.

To become carpenters ourselves, building others up and encouraging them.

To sing our song and to help others sing theirs.

*     *     *

[Another post about being a contribution can be found here.]

*Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 25, 2009

Writing to students

It’s nearly impossible to catch a network newscast of late without hearing a story about people helping people.  Even CNN has added its touch with “CNN Heroes, everyday people changing the world” broadcast Thanksgiving evening. It’s a welcome change from the (unfortunately all-to-common) coverage of violence and hate that, if unchecked in our thinking, can jade and discourage.

Dan Stroup's story of writing birthday letters to his students was shown on the Today Show. You can watch the segment by clicking on the photo above.

A particular story caught my attention this morning—the account of a teacher who, for the past 30 years, has sent handwritten letters to his students on their birthdays. You can watch the video HERE.

The ritual takes place every night in the living room of Dan Stroup, teacher of Bible studies at Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis. Stroup, with an uncanny memory of his eighth-grade pupils, reflects on their time in class and poses questions about their lives today. Every note is closed with a Bible verse, written in red, at the bottom of the page.

He takes the job (he wouldn’t call it that) seriously and hopes that each letter brings encouragement and serves as a reminder that he remembers them.  “I don’t know who is going to need what and on what day, and I don’t know how God is going to use this,” he says.  “I want to make sure that I don’t drop the ball. Maybe this letter today is exactly what that person is going to need.”

Sometimes we don’t know the words that others need or how, if spoken, the words will fall on their ears. Maybe, if we listen, they’ll come to us. And if Stroup’s 30-year labor of love holds a lesson, it could be that his yearly act of 2500 individual letters will nurture each student. One by one.

“I will listen…”