When Heaven and Earth Collide

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Our society places a high value on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the STEM subjects. We no doubt need the knowledge and advances in those fields and I tend to believe that the very future of the world will unfold through the ingenuity of the people who are skillful in unlocking the mysteries of the universe. We live far more comfortably than our ancestors because of the innate curiosity and genius of our left brained brethren. Nonetheless, we all too often underestimate the value of individuals with an artistic bent. We urge our talented painters, dancers and musicians to follow a “more practical and useful” pathway as though there is something less than about the ability to create more abstract inventions of art. I would argue that humankind is often at the apex of intellect whenever we move beyond the concrete of time and space and into the incredible universe of artistic imagination. The truth is that we need both our STEM leaders and the individuals who bring us so much pleasure with the arts.

Humans are quite breathtaking in abilities and it is often through our artistic expressions that we leap toward the heavens. Leonardo da Vinci was a mathematician and scientist but his paintings are the works that remind us of how truly awesome he was. The paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo timelessly evoke our other worldly longings. The music of Andrew Lloyd Weber takes us to places that we might otherwise never have imagined and tugs on our emotions to leave us in tears of joy and pleasure. Watching Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in White Nights is sheer bliss that reminds us of how beautiful our very bodies can be.

I have always been awed by the ways in which we humans transcend our most basic needs to become creators of stunning works of art. I have often wondered what in our natures caused us to scratch out pictures on the walls of a cave. How is it that we realized that our very vocal chords were musical instruments? Why do we take such joy in using and twisting words to convey new meanings? What is it about us that prompts us to experiment with color and sights and sounds?

What truly separates us from the animals is the way that we use our minds and we don’t seem to be satisfied with merely building structures to protect us from the harshness of the elements. We want to decorate our abodes with artifacts that add a sense of individuality. We fill our lives with music, sculptures, paintings, dance, books, plays that strive to explain just who we humans are. We share an essential need to express ourselves. It is in our very DNA, and yet of late we tend to dismiss the artists and artistic contributions to society as being a notch below the work of our talented STEM citizens.

Try to imagine a world without art of any kind. Think of a totally utilitarian existence devoid of music, singing, visual arts, make believe. Only the colors of nature would surround us. Our minds would be focused on being ever practical. How dreary life would be. How frustrated many among us would become. Without artistic expression so much beauty would suddenly disappear. It is almost unbearable to consider.

There was a time when geniuses of all varieties were treasured. The era of the Renaissance enshrined all forms of human inventiveness. It almost seems as though the coming of the Industrial Revolution was a turning point in the way we view human talents. In the present day we tend to place more of a premium on STEM than on the arts. We scoff at a young man who majors in Creative Writing but admire one who follows a pathway to science. We are in awe of the mathematics teacher but believe that dance teachers are expendable in times of tight budgets. We constantly undervalue those with artistic talent and attempt to force our young to pursue the occupations that we deem more useful.

The miracle of humanity is that we are a species of great variety with brains that are capable of incredible thought. Some of us excel in STEM and others delight in the arts. If we are truly honest we will encourage our young to find themselves wherever that might lead. We will applaud not just the stars of the artistic world but anyone who is willing to make our lives more beautiful through art.

I was asked to describe my favorite work of art and I found that task to be impossible. How can I possibly narrow down my choice to a single artifact when there are so many incredible creations that fill my mind with profound appreciation? My home is filled with art in the form of music, books, movies, sculpture, paintings. I dance with joy in the sheer beauty of each day that is made better with the countless creations of the human mind. I am in awe of those who rise to the level of genius whether it be to build a driverless car or create a play that touches our souls. Art is the expression of our souls, the incarnation of heaven on earth.

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die

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Willie Nelson did not look very good at the Country Music Awards earlier this month. He appeared to be having difficulty breathing as he sang Rainbow Connection. It was quite sad to see him struggling to do the very thing for which he has been such a star. Since I had tickets for his performance at the Smart Financial Center on November 18, my birthday, I was rather worried that watching him perform might be a sad occasion marking the beginning of his demise. He is eighty-six after all and not in the best of health. To my great joy the Willie Nelson that I saw that night was beyond spectacular.

From the moment that Willie stepped on the stage he was magical. His gray hair was woven into his trademark braids and he wore nothing fancy at all, just a teeshirt, some jeans, boots and a straw cowboy hat over his signature bandana. His face was carved with the deep wrinkles of time and the adventures and misadventures of his lifetime. His hands were bent and worn but they still made sweet music beat up old guitar, Trigger. His voice was strong, with no sign of the breathing trouble that seemed to plague him only days before. He sounded just like himself and he played with joyful enthusiasm sometimes urging the audience to sing along with him which we happily did.

His playlist included favorites like On the Road Again, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, and Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. He paid homage to old friends like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings with pieces that he had once sang with them. He poked fun at himself and those who believe that his time has passed with songs like Roll Me Up and Smoke When When I Die. He seemed to be having great fun proving the naysayers wrong while at the same time facing his own mortality. There was a bittersweet tone to his performance that brought both smiles and tears.

There were a few lucky folks who received priceless treasures as Willie tossed his cowboy hat into the audience and later threw out some bandanas as well. All of us fans were in awe of his talent and his stage presence. Somehow he made his performance seem so personal, so moving. With an amazing energy he literally went from one song to the next without taking a breather like some artists do. It was all so good that we would have liked to have him perform for hours but we all seemed to know that he had given us his all and when he walked away he looked tired but happy with himself. He enjoyed our adulation while at the same time seeming to be so humble.

Willie Nelson is a Texas treasure. As a young man he went to Nashville only to be told that he just didn’t have the right personality or voice to be a successful performer. Instead he wrote music for other singers, like Patsy Cline who made Crazy an iconic country western tune. Eventually he found his way back to Texas and the Austin music scene where he proved that he was commercially popular as a performer in his own right. In fact, his unique style, melodious voice, and uncanny ability to play the guitar made him a worldwide phenomenon.

Willie has never forgotten his Texas roots. He performs in front of a gigantic Texas flag, lives in Texas, and draws much of his material from his Texas experiences. His band is a family affair with few electronic devices beyond microphones. His little sister is on piano and other siblings and children accompany him as well. All he seems to need to create unforgettable music is his own guitar, a bit of percussion, a harmonica now and again, the piano, a big bass and a few other instruments here and there. Of course there is also his unique voice that is so enticing whether he’s singing about going to pot or describing the joys of love.

I have seen some great performers in my time, but I have to say that Willie Nelson remains at the top of my list. I felt that seeing him on my birthday was a very special gift that I will forevermore cherish. He is beautiful in his very essence. His hands strumming his guitar are a work of art. His face tells as much of a story as the lyrics of his songs. Willie Nelson is pure poetry. The stuff of legends, and I actually got to see him one more time.

As I grow older myself I realize that experiences are the true treasures of our lives. The trips to places far away, the occasions when we see or hear greatness are the things that we will remember at the end of the day. I have been blessed to have had so many wonderful moments. Seeing Willie Nelson is a thrill that will bring a smile to my face whenever I think of it. I wish that there were a way for me to express my undying gratitude to him for all of the joy that he has given me through the years. I love you, Willie andI hope that you will be able to do what you so obviously love to do for a long time more.

Dancing With Reckless Abandon

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My empathy meter has been in overdrive of late. It has been a rough few months and weeks for so many that I know and for others whom I have never met, but for whom I have great sympathy. I have felt incredibly frustrated because I have not been able to actually give tangible help to any of the people about whom I have worried. The best that I have had to offer is a kind word, a listening ear, a hug and some prayers. The list of people for whom I am sending entries to God has steadily grown to the point that I just say, “you know who needs your help” whenever I implore the Lord to give them comfort and maybe even a miracle. Still, my efforts feels so feeble because I tend to be a control freak and the world is crowding out my ability to take charge. For that reason I reached a low point recently and felt that I needed to find a way to lift my own spirits. That’s when something rather extraordinary happened.

I was idly perusing the posts on my Facebook wall when I saw a photo from my friend Serena. It was a picture of her and her daughter at the beginning of the school year. My relationship with Serena goes back decades when she and I were both teaching mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Our principal had chosen both of us to attend a conference and so we shared a hotel room where we got to really know each other. Serena was literally young enough to be my daughter. In fact, she was around the same age as my two girls.

I suppose that I appeared to be a middle aged motherly figure to her but that all changed when she set her alarm to play music to wake us up one morning. The radio clicked on at the appointed time and played a song by Depeche Mode. Serena quickly apologized for not thinking that songs from such a group might be a bit too strange for me. When I laughed and admitted that Depeche Mode was one of my all time favorite bands our friendship was sealed. We talked about which of their songs we liked best and what other groups we enjoyed. That broke down the wall that our differing ages had created and from that point forward Serena and I regularly got together for long and very deep conversations. It was only when she decided to return to her home state in the midwest that we lost touch.

Eventually Serena and I found each other again on Facebook and I happily learned that she was married, had a daughter and was still teaching math. I have taken great joy in viewing her happiness over the years and I’ve even considered making a trip up north one day to visit with her once again.

That takes me back to seeing a photo of Serena at the time when I was feeling rather dreary over all of the pain and suffering that is going on around me. It made me smile to think of how wonderful Serena’s life has been, but it also reminded me of a time when I was a forty something woman at the peak of health, joy and accomplishment. In those years I regularly listened to Depeche Mode at full volume and danced around my house with reckless  abandon. It was an unbelievably freeing experience that unleashed the person that I truly am. The photo of Serena triggered those feelings of elation that I used to feel and I thought what elation dancing has always provided me. I suddenly decided to ask Alexa to play some Depeche Mode and when I heard  those familiar sounds I pranced around my great room like I was at a party . I didn’t feel at all silly since my husband was off helping his father with a computer problem. I was energetic and free and chasing away all of my negative thoughts.

One thing led to another as I took a kind of walk down memory lane and felt a genuine sense of happiness in thinking of friendships that I have cherished with people like Serena. I also harked back to my teaching days and how I had felt such a sense of purpose in helping so many students to master the fundamentals of mathematical concepts. The faces of my students literally passed through my mind. That’s when I realized how to channel my worry for those about whom I care into something meaningful.

I am presently working with a student who is feeling rather anxious about his high school math class. Helping him will be so constructive, and it is something that uses one of my talents in a positive fashion. I also now homeschool seven other students in math. It takes little of my time, but makes me feel as though I am still contributing to the good of the future. Somehow I have always found a modicum of comfort in the act of learning during the most difficult times of my life. Focusing on something that engages my brain helps me to stop the cycle of anxiety that builds up when things are going awry. I’ve found shelter for my fears in academic pursuits from the time that my father died and all through the years when I was caring for my mother. I highly recommend learning of any kind as an antidote to sadness.

I also realized as I was dancing around that any effort that I make to ease the pain of someone else is a good thing regardless of how small it may be. I know that I whenever someone has sent me a card or thought to call or invite me to something that might take my mind from my woes, I have always felt better. They could not change the situation that concerned me but just knowing that someone cared was enough to get me through the worst times of my life.

It’s funny how that little photo of Serena lifted my spirits and helped me to think more deeply about how to tame my sadness. Friendships are like that. They reach across the miles and and through the years to remind us of the blessings that we have. My heart is lighter now and I know that there will be brighter days ahead. They always come and I foresee lots of dancing my future.    

Being Ourselves

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One of the hardest things in life is to be brave enough to be yourself

—-Bradley Cooper to Lady Gaga before their performance at the Oscars

It seems as though the whole world is suddenly in love with Lady Gaga. In the movie A Star Is Born she shed the outrageous costumes and makeup that has always been so much a part of her onstage persona and instead looked into the cameras in all of her natural glory. Without gimmicks or electronic orchestrations she simply sang and showed the world her inner beauty and vulnerability and strength. It landed her an Academy Award for her music and allowed her to come close to winning one for her acting in her screen debut. I suppose that we all love the movie both for its tender story and for the truth that in those celluloid moments a true star of enormous merit was born and her name is Lady Gaga.

I like pop music and I have enjoyed rocking and singing along with Lady Gaga in hits like Telephone, Bad Romance, and Alejandro. I smiled at her goofy costumes that I never thought she actually needed to attract attention. I liked her music just as it was, but I suppose that in today’s market there have to be ways of standing out from the crowded field of would be artists. It was when I heard Lady Gaga sing a duet with Tony Bennett that I first understood what astonishing talent she had. She stood next to him in a black evening gown reminiscent of the 1940’s and without much more than the accompaniment of a piano sang a torch song that displayed her voice as never before. Later she sang the National Anthem and both surprised and thrilled the crowd with the realization that she was much more than just a flash in the pan of music.

Still, it was other information that I had learned about Lady Gaga that made me a dedicated fan, someone in her corner for the long haul. I was tutoring students at a local high school when I met a sweet young man who was struggling not just with mathematics but with all of the kinds of angst that torture teenagers. He was trying to find himself and to determine the direction in life that he truly wanted to follow. He was a bright and reflective individual who constantly considered probing questions about the world and his place in it. He worked hard to improve his knowledge of math, but also was dedicated to critically thinking about life in general. He often spoke of both his fears and his dreams and I enjoyed being of small help in his journey of self understanding.

At one point he had an opportunity to apply for a spot at a conference for teens sponsored by Lady Gaga. He asked me to write a letter of recommendation for him which I was more than happy to do. Not long after he excitedly announced that he had been chosen to participate in the gathering of young people from across the United States. I was happy for him and felt that the committee that selected him had been wise in noticing how earnest he was to learn more about coping with our human condition.

The student returned to our usual tutoring sessions with a renewed spirit not just about his academics, but also his feelings about himself. He glowed with a new confidence and spoke of how inspiring all of the sessions had been. He showed me photos with the friends he had made and breathlessly described how he had surprisingly been tapped as a leader. Then he talked about Lady Gaga and how she had motivated him and all of the kids to love themselves and be proud of whomever they were. He showed me a video of her speaking to them that was so encouraging and understanding. He felt as though she understood the struggles that he and the others had been enduring. He noted how her concern for them showed in her facial expressions as she seemingly spoke to each of their hearts.

When I listened to him and then to Lady Gaga’s words I felt her compassion and sensed her wisdom. I understood why he believed that she was targeting him with her gaze and her advice. She was not a star pandering to her audience but a human with a generous heart hoping to help heal those that where broken or confused. It was a moving experience for me to see just how much she really cared about the teens who had come to find some kind of solace from her.

I’ve since learned that Lady Gaga is from a big happy Italian family. She enjoys old fashioned Sunday dinners with them and is unabashedly proud of her heritage. She is a sensitive soul who worries a bit too much and like many is sometimes her own worst critic. All of her natural beauty and talent and vulnerability came through in her movie portrayal under the direction of Bradley Cooper. What we saw on that big screen was as though a butterfly was emerging from a cocoon and we rejoiced at the wonder of it.

I suppose that most of us are romantics at heart. We enjoy a good love story and A Star Is Born is certainly one of those, but it is also a story of illness and addiction. I believe that given her real life efforts to help those who struggle it is little wonder that Lady Gaga’s role as an unconditional lover was a perfect part for her. Every aspect of the wonderful person that she is burst from the screen and into our hearts.

As we watched Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper perform at the Academy Awards we witnessed a personal chemistry that may be the love of friends, the love of collaborators or perhaps even a bit of romance. Whatever it was came directly from Lady Gaga’s heart and Bradley Cooper’s belief in her. It was so true and good and devoid of guile that like my student we felt as though she was sending us all a personal message, telling us to be brave enough ourselves. There is nothing quite as beautiful.

The World Is A Choir

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I have lovely memories of my home life when I was a very young child and my father was still alive. The house is filled with the sounds of piano concertos from the records playing on our RCA Victrola. My father sits reading, a habit that was integral to his daily routine. My mother is busy with baking or sewing, her own hobbies that she delightedly enjoyed. I bask in the calm of the moment when my life seemed perfect, and I had no idea of the challenges yet to come. I suppose that ever since those idyllic moments I have had a penchant for reading, and I have secretly wished to be a pianist.

I have few regrets about the pathways that I have chosen in life save for one. I have always wanted to play the piano beautifully. I had a cousin named Lily who entertained and awed us with her skill on those ebony and ivory keys. I so longed to have her talent. Somehow I have always imagined that is must be incredibly rewarding and relaxing to be able to bring music into the world. I have romanticized the very act of playing a piano and wondered what it must be like to have such a remarkable ability.

I have learned over time that there is definitely a branch of my ancestry that possesses musical talent. In fact many of them gather each spring in New Mexico to learn more about our family’s history and to sing and play instruments. I suspect that this may be the source of cousin Lily’s abilities, but in my own case it is rather unlikely that I would ever have been capable of taming those keys the way she did. My fingers are quite short and even in my younger days I was unable to stretch them far enough apart to span the distances between keys. Somehow I inherited the hands of my maternal grandmother, short and stubby and strong but not particularly flexible. I appear to have been made for other talents unrelated to making actual music.

Thus it is with each of us. We have the power to orchestrate different kinds of music that is as lovely and necessary as that of a concert pianist. Some like my brother Mike are masters of mathematics with the capacity to chart and direct pathways to the stars. Others like my friend Tricia have an innate ability to understand and guide our human natures to health and happiness. Jose is an artist in the care of my lawn. Dr. Septimus understands how to keep my body working in tip top condition. Teachers like Father Shane led me to finding my own talents and then helped me to perfect them. In other words, we each have destinies that are important for the functioning of our world. Some appear to be more glorious than others, but all of them are necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Each of us contributes in important ways based on our interests and our potential.

I was helping a young girl with an essay and I was reminded of how unique and important we each are. She is in that confusing adolescent stage during which we humans question ourselves and wonder if we will ever find the purpose for our existence. It can be a frustrating time during which we more easily see the wonder of everyone else, but can’t seem to realize our own essence. So it was with this teen.

She spoke of a friend who has the gift of compassion and wisdom. She wondered why she can’t be more like her brother for whom learning appears to come so easily. She complained that she works twice as hard as he does, and still comes up short. She worries that perhaps she will never find her own talents because she suspects that they may not exist. She is not yet able to understand that her willingness to take risks, accept challenges and dedicate herself to overcoming difficulties are qualities that will take her farther than innate aptitude. She is unafraid to experience the world warts and all. This will make her strong and interesting and able to persevere when the going gets tough, which it most certainly will.

We underestimate ourselves and the people around us. Sometimes we are unable to see the remarkable value of that person who smiles and greets us as we enter a Walmart. We joke about such jobs as though they are unworthy, and forget to consider the impact that the simple act of greeting has in humanizing us in a busy world. We take people and their life’s work for granted, focusing only on those whose skills seem superior. We rarely stop to think of the importance of each contribution made by our fellow humans.

I’ve recently become a Eucharistic minister at my church. It has humbled me and made me ever more aware of the people around me. I stare into the faces of the communicants and I am moved. I see longing and goodness and earnestness in their eyes. I realize how precious they are, and how much we need them. 

I don’t have to be able to play the piano. I can simply appreciate the music of those who do. I have found my own muse, my distinct talents and those of each of the people that I encounter. We are all important, unique, and wonderful. The glory of our diversity is what makes our world a choir.