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

Advertisements

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.

Doing nice

Mom and dad’s advice about being nice to friends, strangers and animals didn’t fall on completely deaf ears although some of my friends would argue that on occasion.

Being nice has lots of parts to it. Being polite. Being kind. Being patient… understanding, thoughtful, respectful, courteous, forgiving… The list isn’t quite infinite, but it gets close.

The word “being” implies a state of existing. For me, it’s a passive word in that it doesn’t require action. Being just is.

And when it comes to life there are lots of opportunities to respond with niceness or not.

I was reminded of this during the week while flying cross-country with plane loads of others who just wanted to get from here to there with as little hassle as possible. Generally people were patient and courteous—nice, if you will. And, with the exception of the woman who couldn’t pry the cell phone from her face while speaking loudly, I found myself thinking “nice,” too.

But then I started watching the flight attendants as they helped mothers with small children to their seats, served drinks, read safety messages, passed out headphones and the myriad other things that airline people do in the course of their jobs. I offered the usual “thank you’s” for the coffee and the pillow. Mom and dad would have been pleased.

And, then it struck me.

Maybe there is something more than just being nice. Maybe we should elevate it to “doing nice” to others. Sure, the flight attendants were just doing their jobs and getting paid for it. So, “thanks,” should be enough, right?

I realized that the answer to that question might, in a small way, make a difference in the lives of others.

So, while sitting in 8B I decided to think about what they were doing for me: making the trip more safe and pleasant, calming passengers during some turbulence and bringing countless glasses of water to the person in 6C.

While leaving the plane and under the moniker of “doing nice,” I spoke to one of attendants and thanked her for making the flight pleasant and enjoyable. She paused, looked at me and said, “You just made my day.”

That made me wonder why it took so little to do that. And, if it took so little effort on my part, why wouldn’t I practice “doing nice” more often: think store clerk, the guy on the help line, the boss, the neighbor.

Being nice is good. But why not trump it with “doing nice.”

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…”

The gift

iStock_000006416445XSmallI was scanning the online version of a local newspaper yesterday and I was amazed at comments from readers who, to put it mildly, seemed really angry (if not hostile) about the closing of a particular store in the city’s downtown area. It’s not what you think: They were angry because the store, in their opinion, catered to wealthy people and, as such, deserved to close. Yes, the logic is somewhat flawed.

It made me think about the opposite of anger and hostility. Could holding kind and loving thoughts make a difference in our experience and in that of others? We do know that people who constantly look at the emptiness of the glass (and embrace other limiting thoughts) have higher rates of depression and less health. And, conversely, we know that people who are positive, reinforcing and who express joy spread it to others. (Here’s a post about that.)

As I thought about the comments on the store’s closing, I was tempted to add my own to the ones already there. I would write about how such criticism of the store or others (regardless of their financial conditions) really didn’t better mankind much at all.

Instead, I went in a different direction. What if we thought about our lives as giving to others without regard to status or wealth? Those who are given lots share with those who don’t have. And those who have less share their gifts with others. Each of us has a gift to give.

What if you had a gift to give someone: a gift that you knew was beautiful and would bless others.

What if the person wasn’t ready to receive it? Would you withhold it because you fear it would be rejected and you along with it?

But what if the gift had to do with the Universe unfolding to someone and nothing to do with you?

And what if the gift–even if not acknowledged–would remain what it was, ready to come to life in the way a dormant flower or plant awakens in the spring? And what if it might, at some point in the future, be recognized for what it was?

And what if that gift was love?

Being the change

DENVER, COLORADO. It’s not your usual story about restaurants, food, or about prices and cash registers.

It’s about serving people, serving dignity, and serving hope.

You see, when you have lunch at SAME Café, you become part of a larger mission of helping others, So All May Eat.

picture-201SAME Café, sandwiched between local bars, thrift stores and tattoo parlors on East Colfax Avenue, is the loving work of Brad and Libby Birky. “We think that everybody deserves to eat well,” says Brad. They started the small restaurant by borrowing from their own retirement accounts when no bank would lend them money.

The menu changes daily and features soups, salads and pizza, using mostly organic ingredients prepared fresh by chef Brad.

Customers place their food order and receive a small envelope in which they put their donation for the food they eat. There is no cash register, credit card machine or change drawer. Some pay sparingly. Others are extremely generous. Others can’t pay. They are encouraged to donate an hour doing dishes, sweeping floors, wiping tables, doing some mopping.

Today, with the economy, SAME Café finds more people volunteering.

Despite that, affluent couples mix with those in need. Each enjoys the good food, the chance to be warm and to sit and chat.

One news reporter likened SAME to Gandhi’s admonition to “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Brad and Libby are inspiring builders of a better society. One thing we know is that there are many other Brads and Libbys out there. Their spirit of giving is part of who we are, too. The question is how we will pass it on to others.

You can visit www.soallmayeat.org to learn more or make a contribution and you can watch the NBC News report on SAME Cafe here.