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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The homecoming

I’m not sure you can ever really leave home. I never did. And though the physical place where I live is different than it was when I was a boy, the idea of home is both a memory and a surprisingly tangible part of my life.

Some of my home returned today. And though at first I questioned its appearance, I realize now how much I really missed it. Here’s the story.

While my mom was somewhat tonally “challenged,” my dad had an amazing singing voice that developed with little training. Well before I was born, mom and dad bought a piano although neither played. It was, as I see it now, more than a gesture of faith. It was a gamble—no, an unspoken conviction—that their only child would know how to use it. And so, at the age of four, they decided to test the theory that there might be some talent behind my banging on the piano.

Petra Odeman was my first piano teacher. She was a wonderful person and, I think, knew that real music isn’t in the notes on a page. Music is something in the heart that awakens our spirit, our love, our lives. At just four years old, I could read the notes on the page, but not the words beneath them. Elementary school would fix that.

Petra married the love of her life and moved away but not before planting that seed of music in my head.

My next teacher (his name was Gene) was an unusual man, sort of hung up in the composers of the day who, to be quite honest, didn’t quite measure up to the notoriety they mustered. They were quirky. Dissonant. Jarring. He played their music precisely and without emotion. Despite their complexity, I could sight-read most of them and fake a piano lesson with aplomb. Instead, I preferred to play my made-up piano pieces for Gene who, honestly, preferred his music books to my compositions.

I learned an important lesson from that: Sometimes creativity is scoffed at. That didn’t shake up my life, but it shaped it.

Fast forward through grade and high schools, two years of college and an international traveling music group.

Here I was, this musician who played the piano, the large, cumbersome instrument that takes at least two people to move. Not the best choice if you want to play for others in the park or on a date. I needed a guitar. All self-respecting musicians should master the instrument of strings and frets and convoluted finger positions that John Maher so adeptly conquered. At least, that’s what I thought.

I reasoned that the only way to learn the guitar was to have one. And the best way to practice is on a good one. My music group friends preferred the Ovation guitar with its fiberglass-like, curved back. I learned, that if placed on the stage in the upright position, they called it a “standing ovation.” (Sorry for the bad joke.)

There were no dealers close by, so I drove an hour or so to seek out a standing ovation guitar that would woo and charm friends and others.

The music store was large—packed with instruments of all sorts—and overwhelming. To get to the guitar section, you had to walk through  keyboard instruments of all types and natures. It was a Steinway grand piano that caught me eye. She was a charmer with a rich walnut finish and white keys that seemed to dance in the light.

I don’t know that you fall in love with pianos unless you are a musician. I do know that you fall in love with what brings you happiness—even though, in the case of a piano, you can’t really “return” that love except by playing it and fulfilling its purpose of inspiring and lifting others. My love affair with the grand piano was born.

Without talking to my mom and dad, I traded the piano and organ (yes, the collection of musical instruments in the house had grown) for a grand piano. And, at a mere 20 years old, I owned a hunking grand piano financed by a job in a hardware store. So much for the portable standing O.

Fast forward another few years… The piano became an important part of my life and who I was. Music defined but didn’t bound me, I finished college and took on respectable jobs to pay the bills and venture into the world.

Then my work took me to a small place on the East coast that simply couldn’t accommodate the piano. It was comfortable space. I got out of debt. But the piano remained in storage. It simply wouldn’t fit in the condo.

Today, after moving three months ago to a big town in the lower states, the piano, in storage for 12 years, was delivered to my new house. At first, I was bothered by its size and how it imposed on the room. Furniture had to be rearranged and space had to be rethought.

But when I sat down at the keyboard after a dozen years of being away, I know it was meant to be here. It reminds me of years long passed—of mom and dad and the telling of the Steinway story. It is meant to be, as are most things that make us happy.

And now it’s home. I has always been there in my heart; it’s been out of sight. No more.

Fingers remember, almost effortlessly, the melodies, the chords, the passages that are filled with joy and, sometimes, sorrow. Beauty and tears wash away the hurt of separation and of being away from those “at home.”

Music does that, whether we sing or not. Sometimes we need to sing. At other times we need to listen. Sometimes we play. All gifts are important.

Share yours.

A bit of a 2014 update: In a few days, almost two years to date from its last move, the special piano will return to its hometown in Washington state to become part of a dear church’s loving ministry of hope, love and healing. Music comforts. Music includes. Music heals.

And that, for me, has been the piano’s purpose and contribution all along.

How will you and I be a contribution?

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.

The truth about do-overs

There’s something unique about senior years in high school. Largely, they include things you’ll do for the first time and things you’ll do for the last time. I edited a school newspaper for the first time in my life and, just before graduation, for the last time. I acted (well sort of) and sang in Oklahoma! for the first and, so far, for the last time. I produced a talent show and haven’t done that since I graduated with my fellow 350 classmates, most of whom I’ve not seen since.

I’ve thought about reprising my senior year and playing certain things out differently—no doubt carefully applying the benefits that being older and wiser afford. I’d probably be friendlier and more outgoing. I’d be less concerned about being popular and more about helping others without regard for their place in the school. I’d befriend more people, ask more questions, help more folks, appreciate my parents more, find fewer faults, praise others more often, and find the courage to stand up to bullies…

The unfortunate thing about life is that we rarely get true “do-overs.”

We might have a chance to offer an apology for something we’ve done. Or, as they say (somewhere), “mend our ways.” But we can’t take back what’s been done. We can only choose what we’ll do in the present moment to make a difference, offer hope, change a life, encourage the dispirited, say “thanks,” open a door, smile, help others laugh…

The point is not what has happened—unchangeable and cast already—but what we choose to make happen in the here and now. Although decent intentions are always good to have, the future is only created by action.

The beginnings and ends of years, days and minutes are somewhat irrelevant—and mostly artificial—markers. It’s what happens within those markers that can change a life.

What if we lived life knowing (really knowing) that there are no do-overs? What would a life lived that way really be?

Redefining perfect

It’s been a nearly perfect day. But it didn’t start out that way.

I woke up angry at things too numerous to mention. My dad used to refer to it as “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” which always confused me because I could never imagine mattress makers purposely building right and wrong sides into their wares. Regardless, one’s bed-exiting strategy should be chosen with care.

As I lay there contemplating the day ahead, I decided to confront the belief that I needed to be unhappy, mad or upset. If I wanted a better outlook, I needed a better “inlook” (I suppose that could be a word). I realized there was no good reason to begin a day with thoughts of darkness and doubt. The here and now (see the previous post) was the only place I needed to be.

So, I exited the bed from the same side I got into it the night before: the right side.

I was to have lunch with a friend at 1:00 pm but, due to a schedule change, my friend wasn’t able to leave work until 2:00 pm which left me about an hour to “kill”—as they say. I’m not sure why anyone would want to kill an hour because, as they go, hours are relatively innocent and not deserving of such sentences. So, I went to a favorite store to shop. After returning to my friend’s place we sat outside eating, talking, laughing and enjoying the beautiful fall temperatures and bright sun.

Soon, the winter cold will seal all of us inside our long pants and jackets and we’ll look back on the beauty of autumn with longing. If we’re true to form, our complaints about summer’s heat and humidity will change to complaints about winter’s cold and rain, but none of those complaints will change a thing. We’ll invest our time and effort into something that we don’t control and miss that which we do—the way we think about those things supposedly outside ourselves.

Perhaps even the idea of a “perfect day” misses the point. Perfect is largely in the eye of the beholder. Maybe there’s really no set standard for bad, not-so-bad, nearly perfect and perfect. Maybe it’s more how we mine the moments to find the jewels they offer.

An author of a newly published book described her writing technique and how, with computers, it is easy to delete large passages of text by hitting a single key. She said that, when writing on a typewriter or with pen and paper, eliminating words was much more difficult. This made me wonder what I might remove from my life (so far) if I had the power of the delete key.

But then I had a different thought: What if we had the power of the insert key to add something to our lives? What would it be?

For me, the answer would be “more time to love.”

Well, that’s not as difficult as it might seem.

As I reflect on it, today was more perfect than I could have imagined.

be here now

Several weeks ago, I came across a phrase that seemed sort of ordinary at first. Lately it’s been growing on me—and in a good way.

The three-word phrase is pretty simple: be here now.

As used in the context of the meeting I was attending, it meant that to truly listen to someone else, you have to turn off the mental chatter that often fills our heads and focus exclusively on the person you’re listening to. Listening for words and inflections, observing their posture and gestures, but always doing just one thing: intently listening. (Not that anyone reading this ever lets the chatter drown out another’s voice, but just in case…)

As most of us know, shutting out the chatter isn’t as easy as it seems. At any given time, there can be lots of stuff going on in our lives that begs for our attention. Whether it’s concern about work, finances, partners, the children, health, a busy schedule, (the list goes on), all these things can keep us from being “fully present in the moment,” a phrase I’ve never really liked enough to make it work for me.

But be here now has a different ring to it.

No matter how much my mind wanders, or which thoughts are clamoring for attention, “be here now” brings it right back to, well, the here and now and the place I’m being asked to be.

But the idea has uses beyond listening to others. I had an example of be here now a few days ago when a big deadline loomed. Although I was making progress, I found myself going through a series of distracting “what-ifs” on a variety of subjects, some of which were relevant but most of which were rabbit trails to nowhere.

At some point I just stopped and reminded myself to be here now. The mental clamor stopped, the computer screen became clear and my mind stopped wandering. Be here now.

The phrase is also a reminder to appreciate a moment of beauty, to laugh, to thank someone for their help, or to offer a compliment. As fall approaches, I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities to enjoy the changing colors and crisp morning air, provided that we be here now.

Give it a try.

Big things, small steps

When it was built in 1962, Seattle's Space Needle was the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

It was in the sixth grade when I realized that I liked big things. Growing up in a relatively small town where grade school was a 10 minute walk from home and the public swimming pool a five minute car ride away, my sense of space and scale was somewhat limited. After all, the tallest building, a department store, was just two stories high.

But that changed when dad and I crossed the state to visit Seattle, city of tall buildings, crowded sidewalks and six lane freeways. I remember standing near the base of the Space Needle and looking up at its top some 600 feet above us.

And so my passion for big was ignited. Monuments like the Pyramids and the Sphinx. And Michelangelo’s statue of David and the Sistine Chapel. Titanic. Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. Symphony No. 7 by Gustav Mahler. The Sunday New York Times.

It’s hard to fully comprehend the complexity and scale of these “big things.” Whether it’s monument, a painting, an airplane or a symphony, they share one common factor: each began with a single idea and a single action that began the building process.

Don’t get me wrong, I like “simple”, too. Simple is good because it’s a good place to start. Take last week, for example.

A friend asked if I’d help with a writing project but, frankly, I didn’t know where to begin. I worried about the “tone” it needed to take, and how many pertinent facts needed to be told. Perhaps it was my zeal for “big” that was making too much of this assignment.

So, I did what every writer (or most anyone facing the situation) does, I put a few words down on paper. They weren’t the right words, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they were a start from which the right words emerged after only a few minutes. Five paragraphs later, followed by some fact checking and polishing, and it was done! A brief email sent the project on its way.

Brings to mind the nearly cliché quote about a journey of a thousand miles beginning with one step. It is true. If you want to make a change of any size, you have to take a step of any size.

Recently, I’ve been using this idea to gain a greater sense of personal peace. Admittedly, they’re small steps like listening more and talking less. Or showing more patience and trying to make more people “right” than “wrong.” Or encouraging others in what they’re doing.

Will this usher in world peace? No. Will it help? At some level, yes.

For me, peace is a “one gal, one guy at a time” effort. And each day is the day to wage it.