Monday, November 24, 2008

Last Night at Yaddo

Bathroom/Yaddo/Spring 2006
(a meditation on the eve of departure)

I imagine in the summertime
when these grooved wall boards were painted white
that the wood was pressed in close at the joints,
swollen with wet heat.

But now it’s late March.

After three dry months the panels
are pulling apart right next to the toilet paper roll
leaving a translucent skin stretched across the void,
as if it were trying to hold on,
clinging to the part of itself that is departing.

It’s almost irresistible, like fresh ice on puddles,
and I can’t believe no one else
has yet sliced along that edge with the tip of a fingernail
as they sat here

just to have the satisfaction of that brittle tearing sound–
rending those last few tendrils of attachment to what is shrinking so slowly away.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Here's a simple slow air I wrote a couple years ago; it's a farewell for a friend's last night at Yaddo, the artist's colony in Saratoga NY...


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

two thoughts on winter

The cold has descended. The first snow has piled itself on the steps and the ground has frozen. Here are two thoughts about winter: a poem I wrote a few years ago, and a new fiddle tune called "The Early Dark."


Winter, 2006

One degree costs fifty dollars this year:
that’s the price to raise the thermostat
for thirty short days
up to 64,
where it seems
I live surrounded by a comfort
unknown to me at 63.

It’s only a temporary corrective.
The truth is
we belong to the cold.
We are its subjects,
and must eventually render unto it
what has always been due.

I believe that this is how it goes:
everything growing colder and colder,
each notch of heat in turn
becoming too dear–
until all the toasting of walnuts,
and all those steaming cups of tea
finally offer us no relief–
then at last
we fall to room temperature ourselves
and can’t buy even one degree of warmth anymore forever.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

choose the means, not the ends

As Americans, we are constantly being trained to be driven by desire--so many of us believe that in order to exist in the world, we must strive to get ahead: to decide what it is we want and lock our attention on the goal of winning the object of our desire. We are encouraged to use whatever means are necessary to get what we want.

As a result, many venerated successes have been achieved in this world through destructive means. Sometimes it seems like we are so addicted to getting what we want that we only see the getting, and close our eyes to the trail of destruction our grasping leaves behind. Even achieving something good is marred if it is reached by what Buddhists call "unskillful means." I would say that even spiritual enlightenment is darkened and stained if it is reached through cruelty and violence, either to others or to the sad old bag of bones that was its vehicle.

Let use choose our means before our ends. We will serve ourselves and others far better in the long run if we first decide on how we are going to go about living as a matter of informed principle, and then accept what comes of it. Instead of latching onto desire and allowing it to push us toward unethical actions, let us first choose moral, compassionate caring, even loving means, and then follow them where they take us.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Gesture of Meaning

When I was younger, I believed that the act of creating meaning would save us. There was relief in the movement toward beauty, and a sense of completeness in following the urge to voice longing and hurt. I had a physical sense of sacredness rising up behind those upwellings of emotion, illuminating the world around me. It seemed clear that by practicing that movement of release and rising beneficence in my creative work, I might be able to learn to live in accordance with it. I hoped others (someone, somewhere) could receive the beam I was sending out, and undertake to enact the gesture of meaning that had filled me by following the trace left in my music.

As I got older, though, I found a mercenary strain abiding in the professional music world working to convince me that it was more important to be eminent than to be honest, more important to have wide distribution than to communicate meaning, and far more important to generate measurable prestige than to reach for some kind of truth. Within that worldview, it follows that creating an image to push over on the crowd is primary, and connecting with individual human hearts is a secondary pursuit at best, something that has been devalued almost to the point of being worthless.

But in that worthlessness is another kind of salvation. To be worthless is to be beyond value, to exist outside of the system of economic objects, in which everything is collapsed down to its exchange value, it’s media fizz or institutional rank. We rank every single person at my university music school every year from most important to least, and let me assure you, those rankings are based almost exclusively on external validation and prestige. In such a climate, it starts to feel like a radical challenge to the prevailing moral landscape to believe in art as anything more than a means toward self-aggrandizement. Yet only if our art is born from compassion, from the recognition that every single soul is equally important will we be enlightening our society instead of putting it to sleep with illusions.

If moral values can be communicated through behavior, then they can be communicated through art, and artists can therefore influence us in our own moral convictions. It is by participating in the root assumptions presented in a work of art that we are altered–by tracing the source and the qualities of its gestures, and by turning our attention to that which it is gesturing toward. Every act, every attempt at communication is generated from a ground of assumptions about what matters. Every artistic statement puts forth a stream of actions and associations that flow from that field, and serve to represent it in the experience of the creator as well as the receiver. Meaning is something we do. The world invites us to burn up our attachment to our own importance and to dissolve into a state in which everyone and everything shines with sacredness. This is the gesture of meaning.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Cost of Prosperity

In spring 2006, I was staying at the artist’s colony Yaddo, which is on the estate of the 19th-century venture-capitalist and railroad baron Spencer Trask. On the shelf in his wife Katrina's room, I found some prophetic words about our current cultural situation in an old book titled Our Business Civilization: Some Aspects of American Culture, by James Truslow Adams. I was a little shocked to find such a clear-thinking criticism of the extent to which American society is driven by business concerns there in the study of the wife of a great industrialist! I felt deep sympathy with the writer’s sentiments, and found it remarkable how current the ideas seemed, in spite of the fact that it was published in 1929. Here is a sampling:

Overwhelmed by the material advance made in the past five decades or so, and by the vast amount of Pollyanna literature with which we are flooded by politicians and business executives with axes to grind, we are apt to lose sight of the law of compensation and to think of all change as unalloyed improvement.”

Change may or may not be “progress” but whether it is nor not it is bound to involve compensatory losses.” p 35

“It is obvious that with a national income of even ninety billions, a hundred and twenty million people cannot buy everything. Some things have to go if we are to have new things constantly and pay double or treble for the old.” p48

In a chapter entitled To ‘Be’ and To ‘Do,’Adams quotes Matthew Arnold’s description of culture as “a harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature.” He goes on to say: “This is far removed from giving the degree of Bachelor of Arts to a student who has learned how to truss and dress poultry or has compassed the mysteries of how to sell real estate and run an apartment house. Of course, life is short, and getting rich is long–or may be. Many people who go to college to-day, aside from their lack of desire for education, have no time for it, because it does not lead immediately to ‘power’…”


Adams also cites a foreign critic of American life who says “ one feeling he always had here was that all our goods were in our shop windows and there was nothing behind.” Adams writes in response” “We are so busy doing that we have no time to be. …at present what we need above all else in America is education–not the infinitely variegated supply of courses that make a college catalogue look like Sears, Roebucks, but a liberal education that will enable us to create a scale of values for our experiences and to take a philosophical attitude toward the complex reality about us.” …is it not time that we stopped marking down all our spiritual goods to the price that the lowest in the cultural scale can pay?

We’ve had ample opportunity in the eighty years since those words were written to see many of the other costs of our prosperity: a citizenry disenfranchised and apathetic, our political process reduced to the lowest fear-mongering and the basest manipulation of the electorate, the concentration of power in the hands of large corporations, the privileging of profit above all human values, and the celebration of unchecked greed as the motive force of capitalist democracy. This is not to mention the continuing destruction of the planet upon which we live, and the countless lives destroyed in our wars. These are the real costs of our prosperity.

Our own integrity as humans has been tossed aside as an encumbrance in the race to get more money, more fame, more prestige, more stuff. We have gutted our culture and our civil society and our human relationship to each other in order to get more. Now, we are in the midst of yet another global economic crisis triggered by our own desperate unprincipled grasping and denial. It is not so dissimilar from the one that loomed when James Truslow Adams was writing, and we find that we have forgotten the hard lessons that the great depression taught us.

In spite of the campaign-slogan Hope offered by president-elect Obama, I can’t help thinking it will be hard to undo the damage: we’ve had over thirty years worth of dismantling society in favor of an “every man for himself” business model. In our business civilization, we don’t see fellow citizens and neighbors around us, only competitors to be defeated. But when everyone is driven only by their own hunger, blindly pursuing selfish short-term gain, they end up eating the system that sustains us all. If there is any real hope for us out there, we will have to compost the corporate marketplace nightmare worldview that has been driving our society for a long, long time now, and rebuild our values and our connections to each other based on something other than money and commerce.