I cried unexpectedly when I read Kamasi Washington’s liner-notes for “Harmony of Difference”. I found the suite while browsing for “Heaven & Earth” on Amazon.com and ordered both sent to my father’s house in Holland, MI. Absconding to a chair in a blind corner, I quieted too fast and my father came looking for me, asking “what’s going on?” —I handed him the liner-notes. I read them and nodded, said something about how beautiful the suite was, patted me on the shoulder. “I felt his good intentions,” I said, “reading them brought the thrust of the music into focus.”
The tears are a positive sign, overall. February through May was the deepest trench to-date in my mental state but June began a period of unprecedented insight and rebound. New approaches and new resources mean a new trajectory. Any ascent from depths that deep/dark is marred by ‘the bends’, true, and by a dizzying succession of layers. There were points where I forgot ‘which way is up’ but I sustained my trend toward the light — the surface. I considered myself to be on the beach, in November, readying to ascend ‘the mountain’ (whatever it may be). Washington’s piece reminded me of the common cause of peace and I wept with a heart that is growing large enough to love again — love humanity, love someone else, and love myself deeply again.
But “Heaven & Earth” stayed in its wrapper; I did not feel well. I knew I would viciously shush Dad if he tried to talk to me while the album played. A sore throat and sinus congestion ceded to an intestinal virus I caught on the train. My body is tired. All Autumn I loaded several fifty-pound-bags into my flat-faced, diesel lawn-care truck for a day of solo labor, five or six times a week, for over three months. I composed blog-entries in my head about the menagerie of aerators I used, earlier in the season, and the pig-themed names I called them: hog, swine, daeodon, boar, piggy …I tired of switching machines and inventing names. My truck was always ‘Desirae’ in honor of the Ray Lewis poster the previous operator left behind. My left wrist complains every day, since lay-off, about all the times I dragged a ‘hog’ up the ramp on Desi’s tail-basket or wrenched ‘hogs’ upright when they started to roll sideways on hills. The hours were long and I occupied my evenings with recovering— physically and otherwise. I cherished soreness as a sign of growth.
Overcast skies along Lake Michigan were no help ameliorating poor sleep and disrupted patterns, this holiday season. My perspective crumpled. Venomous thoughts spread into my psyche, again, despite my better knowledge. On some level, I always ‘knew better’ than to absorb the venom but I struggled to resist without extra help. The past ten months have been a welcome revolution but, when I woke at my sister’s house on New Year’s Eve Day, I felt like all my work was coming undone. “If I’m always going to be this susceptible, Dad, then how can I believe I will …” [just name it; I doubted everything]. A few hours later, my sister’s fiance took their dog to the groomer. “Now that Tucker won’t be bothered, maybe you’ll feel up to playing?” asked Dad. “Yeah,” I mumbled, “it’s been about three days and I’d better keep-up my lip.”
Friends, it only took about ten minutes in the garage with my cornet. I recovered; I rebounded so quickly it surprised and amused me— I bloomed into raucous laughter! “Oh you feel better?” interjected my father, “I knew you would. It’s your language.” Whatever my body and mood are doing, my artistic progress with my instrument never stops and cannot be easily lost. “I win, again.” As long as I keep investing myself in expressive practice, my human development will remain safe in the protection of the artform(s). I can [just name it; I felt like I could do anything] — I can keep winning. I just cannot keep winning if I am not willing to struggle, even lose, on a regular basis.
That reassurance is as delicious as a prickly pear but it comes with its own jacket of needles. A degree of acceptance will always be required; freedom will be a work in-progress rather than an entitlement. Saturday, I made the difficult choice to attend a contemplative retreat when I would normally attend Archie Edwards Blues Heritage Jam. There was no ‘wrong’ choice; the retreat included some guided meditation and readings of favorite poems. Jamming, I would have gone into the ‘barbershop’ space, found an empty chair, and tapped the advancing bars of blues with my heel until my turn came — and repeat. I ‘am’ mostly my instrument; it helps me belong. Walking into the library on the Adelphi Friends’ Meeting grounds, I was clearly the youngest. My characteristic vulnerabilities felt close to the surface; my body still didn’t feel completely strong, either. Life brought me again to a point of engagement; familiar instincts urged me to be guarded — others, to perform the persona of someone I ‘should’ be. Still, I had a great expanse of silence within which to linger with my feelings in safety. I parsed my mental state kinetically, massaging beads and stones between my fingers, but also laid in ambush — motionless below my wrists, staring at the flame on a beeswax candle.
After a lunch of lentil stew, I noticed the word-tents our facilitator had scattered to encourage us to wander the room in contemplation. I saw “resilience” first and glanced to its neighbor, “vulnerability”. ‘Well placed,’ I mused in silence. I ‘know better’ than to expect lasting substance from guardedness but knowing is often not enough. I hinted vaguely that I was a musician and they persuaded me to bring my horn inside and let it get warm. Loathe to be over-powering, I listened patiently.
The facilitator brought forward the term “self-compassion” later in the afternoon. “I misread that as ‘self-comparison’ for a moment,” confessed someone to my left. That resonated with me. Still, when tasked with journaling about the term I generated a string of metaphors for how elusive self-compassion seems. ‘Slippery, like its soapy,’ or ‘like trying to follow a flying bird with binoculars,’ or ‘like lighting a fire on a wet day.’ A literal second before we set down our pens, I realized I had said nothing about how self-compassion can be manifest and what it is, really. My co-meditators had the words we needed, nonetheless. When my turn came, the facilitator said, “you can play or talk or do both,” and I replied, “I’ll just play; that’s the closest I get to self-compassion.”
Musicians: I had an idea for a melody in G-major; I saved myself the trouble of choosing a song by improvising something Andante, making shifts to the IV and V chords and sprinkling in blue-notes as my mood dictated. Visits to the keys of D, A, and E were in order a la circle of fifths.
Non-musicians: I made-something-up in a key that made me feel comfortable, took it at a comfortable pace, and used some complimentary chords to make it more interesting and fit the mood. I changed keys but tried do be sneaky about it.
I ‘interpreted myself’ rather than performing anything in particular. Toward the end, I started throwing in familiar melodies (like “Native Tongue” by Kenny Garrett) but the medicine alarm on my phone interrupted just as I started “My Favorite Things” and I realized I was starting to show-boat-it. I stopped playing, silenced my phone, and again settled into our circle.
The same lady who brought the delectable lentil stew said that what I played at the beginning gave her the sensation of “warm caramel”; she closed her eyes, turned her palms upward, and smiled as if she were a brownie enveloped in warm, sweet heaven by the act of remembering my melody. Words like ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ might be (merely) polite but “warm caramel”, said with an inflection of relish, sank into me like roasted nuts into –yeah– caramel. The specificity of the compliment was both humbling and empowering. “Well, that seems like self-compassion,” I said, “it should be as good as that.”
That evening, exhausted, I laid flat on my back and listened to most of “Heaven & Earth” in a half-comatose state—
—and more reflections follow. There are implications for my writing. Presently, I want to let this linger on the tongues of your ears, want you to lick it from between the teeth of your eyes as you read “self-compassion = something improvised in G-major = warm caramel = him/he/his (me)”.