Music Review: A Wave And Waves

My musical instrument consisted of grains of rice and a bowl. I played it by dropping the grains of rice against the bowl at different rates of speed. Some of the other musicians bowed a piece of wood, dropped pebbles on glass, tore pieces of paper, or rubbed sandpaper against stone. At the time, I did not think much of being one of 100 volunteers to play for “A Wave and Waves” by composer Michael Pisaro at the Atrium in Lincoln Center.

At the very least though, I had the thrill of bragging to all and sundry that I had “performed” at Lincoln Center in New York City. And I sure had a marvelous time playing when cued, and slowly increasing my pace or quantity of sounding the grains of rice against the bowl at certain times. Yes, it was fun for all of us performers and audience members to sit in every other chair together (I could glance at the people to my right and left and see their reactions).

But like minimal art, with its monochromatic tendencies, a lot was missing for me. Minor concerns like a melody for example, or God forbid a rhythm. (At one point I fell into a rhythm and the composer walked over to me to remind me of the instructions.) You must think me a philistine by now, but as you can hear on the sample below, you only get waves of sound, represented by individual instruments slowly getting louder, and then quickly becoming softer and softer after hitting their loudest point and then repeating this pattern. Thus the “waves” in the title. And the singular form “wave” refers to the same thing for the ensemble as a whole. The four-minute excerpt is here: https://vimeo.com/151855753 How does this kind of music strike you?

As I say, at the time I was involved, I thought it was just a stunt and not very creative. Releasing waves of sound is just one element of several in a piece of music, and besides, for a composer to make me into a “performer” with an “instrument” seemed as much a fantasy as the Wizard giving the Cowardly Lion a medal for courage and voila! he feels brave. If the composer is reading this belated review, I hope he will have the courage to read on if not already too offended.

This concert was two years ago and I here I am still thinking about it. And as you can see, now writing about it. I don’t know if the audience came away with anything but I myself have. Ever since then I have noticed waves in so many things, including the weather, music, and human behavior in general. Not only that, I see that waves often have a shape, building up gradually until they crest, and then a rapid decline to the trough. To take an extreme example in music, I think of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, where the same melody plays over and over but more and more instruments join in and the volume gets louder and louder, though there is nothing after the crest. With weather, a storm builds up and then “crests” when the rain madly pours and then often quickly tapers off. Looking at human behavior, take for example the numbers of people at an event like a party. A few come in the beginning and more and more people join around midway through the party to form the crest which then diminishes as groups of people leave, ending with just the host remaining. Perhaps you have never thought of a party that way, or is this common? For authors, I am sure you have experienced waves in the number of sales through the days, months and years. Cashiers must notice that waves of people enter stores, or waves of people actually make a purchase as opposed to showing up all at the same time and nobody at all the rest of the time. Applause at a concert builds up and then fades rather than starting and stopping all at the same time. I bet you will now think of many other examples.

So why at least am I myself (and most of you?) intrigued by waves, whether literal ones or by all of these metaphorical patterns of them in our lives? Maybe we are glad to find patterns and explanations rather than randomness or outright chaos. What we encounter becomes more comprehensible. I suppose, too, there is simply an aesthetic pleasure in noticing the patterns of how reality plays out, and that is what Pisaro’s music, like all art, is there to teach us.

 

Early Bird COVID-19 Sermon for the Jewish New Year

Fans of my blog know that I never preach here, but given the pandemic, readers and colleagues may be curious how I am taking on the challenge of dealing with this topic–with no platitudes I promise– on one of the holiest days of the Jewish liturgical calendar. And as far as a sermon goes, it is not all that preachy:

There is a prayer we say only during the High Holy Days that for me is one of our most chilling prayers of all. The most famous part of it is,

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time and who in an untimely death. Who shall have rest and who shall wander. Who shall become rich and who impoverished.”

And so we are talking about fate, most basically, about life and death, and more broadly, about mental states such as calm versus anxiety and restlessness, and social states such as high and low classes. Then at the end of this prayer it proclaims,

“But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.” Somehow, for me, this is scant consolation. Look what has happened since the last time we said that prayer a year ago. The plagues of climate change, social turmoil, and of course COVID-19, with its offspring plagues of job loss, economic ruin, depression, loneliness and anxiety. Breathing room has been threatened globally and individually. Breathing itself has been put into question.

Last March, our congregation started having our Friday night Sabbath services on Zoom as soon as we could no longer meet in person. We did not miss even one service. At our first or second such service, fear and disorientation ran high. Someone said, “we are in exile yet again.” And even I, hospice chaplain that I am, was taken aback when someone asked me point blank, “How do we prepare to die?” “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die.”

As our services continued, and we saw that we were still alive, even after some of us had suffered from COVId-19, we relaxed some and looked forward to Friday nights. We were sustaining our community and even enlarging it to include people who could not leave home or who lived too far away to have come to our services in person, such as former members in south Jersey. True, the squares on the Zoom screen that looked so cute at first, became obnoxious reminders of how cut off from each other we were in certain ways. The squares became reminiscent of prison bars. And we could not share the earthly delights of a Sabbath dinner or feel the energy and comfort of sitting next to other members.

But we became more and more absorbed in the Torah discussion and felt the comfort of our voices and of the prayers and songs that we included. Which is what we are doing right now. Judaism has thrived through the centuries due to our resilience, our flexibility., and our creativity. We are masters at adapting to even the most dire of circumstances. We all have heard stories about secret seders during the Holocaust with the strangest of substitutes standing in for the ritual foods.

A very long time ago, we shifted to a religion based on the sacredness within, rather than to the sacredness of a particular external place called Israel. Here we are again expanding the idea of location, from a physical one to a virtual one. In fact, we are not tied to a specific location anywhere at all. It’s as if we are praying together here in another dimension…well who knows, maybe that will be the next change in a million years or so. Services by then might just be vibrations and emanations anyway. We have survived centuries of exile from the Land of Israel. We are surviving exile of another sort—,God grant it not be permanent,—- from physical connection, the connection of place.

What we still have, however, is a connection through time. We can now say, there is a time, but not necessarily, a place for everything. In writing about Shabbat, the modern sage Abraham Joshua Heschel says, Shabbat is “a palace in time; it is in a spiritual wonderland.” I think what he says about the Sabbath is also true for this precious time of year.

We have to make do, now, with less material connections and more spiritual ones. Ironically, the virtual reality we are now in, is just what the themes of the High Holy Days have to do with. This year, Yom Kippur, with its fasting and constant prayer and saying confession and not making love and now, no friendly hugs and no sensation of warmth from those seated next to us, will be even more like the rehearsal for death that tradition says it is supposed to be. As a New York Times writer said, “Yom Kippur asks us to look at our mortality in the face. Can we sustain the glare?” Here we are, for good measure, for Rosh Hashanah as well as Yom Kippur ,on the phone or on the Internet, de-materialized and disembodied.

We don’t want to be in this situation. We don’t want to live in fear. And those darn masks, that hide our smiles and looks of concern and interest and amusement and pleasure. Of course they also hide our frowns and looks of displeasure. Fully acknowledging all the negatives of a COVID world, what does it teach us, what opportunities exist, how can we be resilient?

You know as a chaplain, when people ask me questions point blank, like how to prepare to die, there is no way to directly answer; not really. They and I muddle through together and try to come to a new understanding or perspective, and it various depending on who is interacting with me and what my own circumstances and knowledge are at the point our paths are crossing. The fact that this congregation is having a service and to say the least, that we are sharing it under strange conditions can jolt us into spiritual growth. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to ask each other during the intermediate days of awe what we experienced, learned, disliked, focused on and grew from? Since I will have to wait until AFTER this sermon to find out, I’d like to offer at least a conversation starter. I came across an alternate kinder and gentler version of the Unetanah Tokef, which goes like this:

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So, if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read. -Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

Some Jews might think this is a wimpy version of the more terrifying traditional prayer. But you know: we’ve been through a Gehenna (hell) of a lot, and we all could use God’s more compassionate side right now. This IS the time for compassion: FROM God, directed TO God, and freely given to each other. Every deed each of us does, even if it affects just one person, counts. Even if you contribute one extra word, one extra syllable, even one extra letter, to the Book of Life, you will have crafted a holier edition for God to read.

(Note to colleagues: Feel free to use this sermon all or in part, but please refer to my name and my blog. And if you really want to avert the severe decree, mention my book Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died.)

 

Whimsy (Surely You Are Up For Some Comedy)

I am a little nervous, because this is the first time I have been a chaplain for a dragon. My client will be coming on Zoom shortly. I wonder what her concerns might be and why she wants to talk with me? Let’s find out…

Bonnie the Dragon: At last! A human who is not so self-absorbed to assert that dragons don’t exist. (As she speaks, I take in her spongy sandals on her stubby legs and a rock necklace that looks like it could slip off her neck and over her head at any moment.)

Chaplain Karen: That must be frustrating to no end.

Bonnie: Tell me about it! (She hops up a couple of times in emphasis.) Even those few who do know we are real, think such ludicrous things like we all have to be male. Dummies, how do you think we have babies? And they think we breathe fire. You have got to be kidding. We’d not last more than minutes. That is not fire, it is a glowing chemical that makes it easy for us to see at night and also deters some predators. Above all, I really hate it when humans portray us as the bad guys who must be vanquished lest we do some unfriendly things to a princess in distress.

Chaplain K: The things that people think!

Bonnie: (She gently moves her shiny tail up and down, perhaps in pleasure at hearing me validate her feelings the way a dog wags its tail in content or humans lift up their lips into a smile.) And now the tables have turned.

Chaplain K: Whoa, where are you going with this?

Bonnie: Well, just as people think dragons should be banished or slain, a teeny virus is now banishing you all in quarantine, and killing some of you. Not that I am glad about this, but it should make everyone think again about us dragons with more compassion.

Chaplain K: You’re right. Sometimes we only learn things the hard way. Maybe we should unite, and defeat the virus and dragon stereotypes together.

Bonnie: Now you’re talking! Gosh, I feel so much better being heard, and the meeting did not drag on at all.

Chaplain K: Oh, that is so funny!

Bonnie: Huh?

Chaplain K: We’ll talk about that next time; my next client is scheduled shortly. Take good care.

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For more of Karen’s offbeat compassion, see her at Twitter: https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

All To Ourselves

My husband Steve and I were seated with a billionaire in a bustling restaurant in Paris years ago. (Oh yes, lovey, we do this all the time–ha ha just kidding.) I gazed at the man to see what exotica this creature would release, but I was treated to none. As soon as I heard he was always running here and there (meaning from one country to another) and hardly ever getting to see his family, my chaplain radar went up in disappointment. Not someone to envy after all. But something unusual was afoot in the restaurant itself. As we progressed from course to course, it grew more and more peaceful. As customers left, no fresh ones replenished them, even as it became closer to the peak hour. By the time we got to dessert,we were practically the only ones there except two gentleman and their dog at a nearby table. Steve told me later that the gentlemen were famous French actors, with the dog allowed to share their glory, and that the billionaire had arranged things so we could have the entire restaurant to ourselves!

It is rare indeed to have a desirable public place all to ourselves but it happened twice again to us all in the past two months. April first, we were strolling all over Branch Brook Park, which according to Wikipedia, “is noted for the largest collection of cherry blossom trees in the United States, having over 5,000 in more than eighteen different varieties.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Branch_Brook_Park Nope, the billionaire was not on hand to chase everyone out. Nor was it an unfavorable time to go. It was the height of the cherry blossom viewing season and the weather was spectacular. We hardly saw a soul, and as a healthy-looking gent who had logged many more years than us jogged past, he called out “enjoy it now, because tomorrow they’re gonna close-up the parks.” This was true, as the Corona virus restrictions were just then descending upon us in New Jersey. People were already scared to go, which made it supremely safe for us, with no people to steer 6 feet clear of. Just as astonishing, no litter blighted the trails. Bittersweet to have this fleeting privilege, self-denied by most, and starting the next day, externally denied to all..

On Memorial Day weekend, (May 23rd) again with no billionaire to work his magic, we found ourselves virtually alone as we walked through the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, which “is an internationally renowned garden…with more than 10,000 irises and 1,500 varieties.” https://www.visitnj.org/nj-arboretums-gardens/essex-county-presby-memorial-iris-gardens Like Branch Brook, it was just a short car trip away. No jostling to get in close to snap photos of rare varieties, no one trying to sell us some packets of iris seeds with the perfect iris depicted on the front, or greeting cards decorated with pastel iris drawings. Just a lone figure near the gate, keeping his distance, with a black mask on—a government employee? Yes, it was drizzling, but on a holiday weekend, and right around the peak time for viewing irises, and no one there? Lucky us, because of that, we did not even have to wear a mask.

Just a couple of weeks ago, parks had reopened,with a nest of restrictions but we figured open is open can’t be picky. As my husband and I wondered out of the park and onto a street nearby, we struck up a conversation with a mother and child. The child was looking at a discarded pipe that a chipmunk had just crawled into and who knows might deign to peep out of soon to say hello. Both park neighbors were glad of some brief company, human presence now highly prized. As we marveled on our solo experience at the park, the mother explained that it had just opened up two weeks ago, and lots of people did not know about that yet. Not wanting to linger overly long in case we had other unwanted company whose name has to do with crowns, we sauntered onwards, much to the regret of the child. I hope the chipmunk would come out for at least one more salutation to encourage her.

I normally would stop my post here, but perhaps that is not fair to leave you wondering what we were doing in the presence of that wealthy man. The answer is, my husband has a newsletter about investments, which the gent had subscribed to. They got together to “talk shop”. And if this further arouses your curiosity, my husband’s site is https://truecontrarian-sjk.blogspot.com/

May you, too, find enriching moments of unexpected glorious solitude in these confounding times.

Portents

I slip outdoors to gauge the mood of living things. Humans range close to home nowadays, tentative and tense. Motorists are more deferential towards us foot-bound folks, slowing to give us a wide berth to compensate for our wayward movements. The birds are bossier and loudly state their business. Larger clans of squirrels and chipmunks clamor for my devotion at the expense of the dogwood trees and the azalea bushes. Gophers and skunks trespass into human domains of space and time, cautioning me to tread with less swagger.

My husband had said to me the other day the animals “are getting ready.” Nature is maneuvering into place, a master at outwitting us in the long run when we misstep or fail to honor its dictates. It is the most authoritarian government on Earth.

Neighbors out on porches exchange remarks with me while their children wave their hands and elders throw me guarded looks. I shyly partake of this privilege to see my kind in person, a privilege due to expire by the time it takes to walk past. How we used to disregard occasions spent in proximity with others!

I detour to the commercial streets for the last part of my walk; a mistake. After seeing so much closed off to me there, I feel shut out. And shut off. Chastened, I retreat back inside.

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For more of my offbeat compassionate observations, see me on https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

 

Religion Out The Window

Add this to my job description in the new normal: intermediary. In the bad old days, when a family wanted a priest to give Sacrament of the Sick to their seriously ill loved one, I would go fishing for a priest, and they often slipped out of my reach as I left voice mails and talked to gate-keeping receptionists, all the while hoping to find one before the loved one slipped out of everyone’s reach if you know what I mean. Talk about contests.

And now? An anecdote about how a family, priest and I negotiated the new waters that have come rushing before us. Let’s call the loved one Diana and her daughter Katherine and the priest Father Anthony. I first told Father Anthony the family did not want more people in the home than absolutely necessary due to the risk of bringing in you know what. They wondered if Father could do the last rites over the phone or by video conference,which some priests have been doing. “Oh no,” said Father Anthony, “I must be in person at the home, or say the prayers on their behalf in the church.” I found out that when I asked for details that the family would not be able to witness the latter in any way but would have to take his word for it. I thought to myself that would not go over too well. Bad enough to remove their participation in the sacred rite through the impersonal glow of a Zoom screen. So I said I would talk with Katherine. After I told her what seemed an unsavory forced choice,she said, “You know what? Mom’s bed is right near the window. How about if he stands outdoors by the window and does the ceremony from there?”

That is what he did, and I imagine the scene unfolding thus: Katherine told Diana, bored and worried and in bed, that her priest was coming to visit, but not in exactly the way one would expect. She was not sure what that meant, but she perked up at the news. It was a fine day and Katherine said the priest would be talking with her by her window. There he was now, with a small container with the oil, which he handed to Katherine to put on Mom at the right moment. His benedictions, loud and sure, made an arc from his mouth to the wide-open window to her ears, and her “amen” resounded through the window over to the priest’s affirming ears, and upwards, as her fear dissipated among the breezes.

 

These days, we are getting lots of examples of offbeat compassion.

The Plague And My Pet Peeves

Case # 1: I get emails that wish me comfort peace and good health during these trying times that begin with “Dear Friend”, which is not my name. Look out, when we get lazy even about providing comfort to others, we are in trouble. These emails going to untold numbers of people are almost worse than no email from those individuals at all. To me, an email to comfort everybody is an email that comforts nobody.

Solution: choose a few people a day, address them by name, personalize the message, and separately push “send” for each. Yes, my dears, I know how painstakingly slow that is. Alas, being a source of comfort takes time and attention to detail.

Case #2. (See, I’ve been saving these up.) Someone who unquestionably has a heart of 24-karat gold attempts to give me solace by saying “I know how stressed and frightened you are but just think how much harder it is for (fill in the blank with one of the following:) a. home health aides b. immigrants (never mind the undocumented) c. delivery persons d. grocery clerks e. you name them.”

Yes, of course, I do count myself lucky that I am better off and safer than all those necessarily taking more risk, and very privileged that I can work from home. But where does pointing that out leave my own negative feelings? It’s like saying I am not entitled to them. Worse than not recognizing my distress, a possible spin off is I should feel guilty about my distress and/or being safer. How dare I feel scared about grocery shopping when doctors and nurses are within breathing and even touching distance of COVID-19 patients?

Solution: acknowledge the feelings of people better off than the category you are thinking of, and assume that maybe we privileged persons are doing our part to help out and not just indulge in feelings. For example, 60 Minutes this evening featured some factory workers who are donating work hours so two people could share the same job rather than either having no job at all. Or less dramatically, folks with extra money can support a local restaurant through ordering more take-out than usual from them, and the like.

Prime real estate is about location, location, location.

Prime spiritual state is about compassion, compassion, compassion.

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For more offbeat compassion, see me on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

In Place Of Comfort Food

When New Horizons was churning through three billion miles of space to reach Pluto, a nine-year trek ending five years ago comforted me the whole time. Even the memory of it does. You no doubt are wondering, “Comforting?. Aren’t things like soft chocolate chip cookies with their smell trailing behind them as they come from the oven more like it? Or gentle embraces or timeless lullabies? You find comfort from frigid lifeless Pluto?”

Perhaps one person’s comfort is another’s reminder of loneliness and distancing. Let me hasten to explain lest you find this essay anything but comforting. Each time during those nine years that I paused to think about New Horizon’s progress, I pictured the spacecraft progressing smoothly and steadily toward its known and certain goal. Earthlings could patiently wait as it slowly but surely followed its predictable trajectory. Perhaps the certainty of its route ( a nonstop to Pluto) soothed me as well as the clarity of its mission and the promise of safe adventure. (I mean come on, how likely would an unidentified object nearing Pluto prompt the release of deadly aliens?)

As we connect with broader swaths of the Universe, I feel like I am being included within more of it, and that all humankind is too. I like taking my humble place within a bigger picture as I journey from self-importance to humility. Even Pluto itself has taken a like journey since 2006, taking in stride its demotion from an honest-to-God planet to a “dwarf planet”.

What is comforting you these days that might be surprising to others?

 

 

The Violinist, the Conductor, and My Question

I was not going to miss my chance this time at the pre-concert discussion, especially since I could think of an enlightening question and not ask any old thing such as “How many hours a day do you practice?” just to be a show-off. This was a New Jersey Symphony Orchestra discussion between the audience and the soloist Simone Porter and conductor Christoph König who would be presenting Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64. I asked, “When you perform, do you strive to keep the piece the same or do you play or conduct it differently each time?” (Notice how I got to have both personages respond.)

Maestro König answered, “When I go back to the same piece, I get more to its essence each time. I acquire deeper levels of understanding and so it stops being the same thing.”

Ms. Porter replied, “No, I do not play it the same at all, and I would not aim for that anyway because that would make me nervous. I change it to keep a piece fresh. And there are many factors that influence how I play it, like the venue, who else is playing it, how the audience is responding, and so on. I make so many decisions about what area to emphasize and what not to, and this can change even in the 24 hours between concerts.”

With those answers, I can boast that I asked a worthwhile question, right? The conductor’s answer is the antidote to boredom and taking things for granted. We could apply this wisdom to anything we repeat, such as rereading a novel, giving the same lecture to students at the beginning of every semester, observing a religious holiday, listening to an elderly person relating the same story for the umpteenth time, going to the same museum with the kids or a friend, and listening yet again to that Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto you know all so well.

Porter is telling us that she wants the freedom to grow with the piece, and not have the artificial restraint of making it the same. By changing it some, she is repeating it yet keeping it fresh. I did not make a connection between the views of the conductor and the violinist until writing about them this moment. I just realized that their answers represent two approaches to performing music, and maybe to engaging in other repetitious acts in our lives. The conductor is talking about a change within himself that makes the piece different for him, while the violinist is changing the piece itself by emphasizing certain aspects of it and de-emphasizing others.

The next time I go to a concert and hear the “same” piece, I look forward to applying both approaches to it, and growing in enjoyment and perhaps wisdom thereby.

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Special note to my followers and “repeat” readers: I often write stories and essays about loss, but I feel after all these years I would rather, like Porter, emphasize other matters and de-emphasize those associated with death and grieving. You will also see a change in the subtitle of this blog, just look up at the top. Thus I aim to retain the offbeat compassion element but give myself more freedom as to where it may show up. Let me know what you think.

 

Staying in Character

Lucy, the main character in Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, really does reveal all, including her thoughts about how our personality provides a script for how we finish up our lives:

“You do have some control over how you slide out. People manage it in their own peculiar style, you know?…It’s in you all along. It ain’t no net that falls from up on high. It’s there—like a gift for music, this appetite, long hid, waiting. Comforting to see how it’s tucked inside our marrow from babyhood forwards…so when old Death rears up—you can control and shape it some, it being you…Cradle to crypt, we get to stay who we are. Only fair, really…we die in character.”

In those few sentences, she spells out a message about our final exit that gives us control, comfort and meaning all in one. She seems to be saying that we have “designer” endings, and that how we view ourselves and our life story plays into that design. I am not sure what that means, and I might not find out until the time comes, but when I try to imagine it, I think of blending in with a deep but somehow burgeoning quiet. Maybe for someone else it might involve a feeling of unity, or a return to the inchoate state we were in before birth, or a merging back to God. Even Lucy’s description of “sliding out” suggests for that character something gentle and smooth rather than harsh and abrupt. Perhaps you have some other image for yourself. If so, “tell all” in the Comments section!

Lucy’s outlook is meaningful because instead of viewing death as an alien Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum rampaging Thing that bears down on us and um, “stops us dead” and cuts us off from all that went before, Lucy perceives it as the fitting finishing touch to our life story. We are who we are in life, in the moment we pass, and possibly in the hereafter. (At one point in my hospice career memoir Encountering The Edge I describe my view of the afterlife in terms of a “designer” one, in that there might be many more options out there for us than simply the two best known ones of heaven and hell.)

To say we “die in character” says to me there is a cosmic justice. We are not completely surrendering all that we each have taken a lifetime to create and preserve.