The Garden of Passions
If any of my teachers from grade school, or especially high school, were still alive, it would kill them to find out I grew up to be a teacher. I was a less than enthusiastic student and once I started playing a little boogie-woogie, thank you Mrs. Wallace for breaking the iron wall of John Thompson piano books, and saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I just wanted to be in a band making music. It wasn't even so much about playing out, although I've gotten to do a fair amount of that, or being on the cover of Rolling Stone, but it was about making music. The problem was I also loved to draw, and read, and wander in the woods, and a host of other activities that now appear to actually have some sort of connection, or at least I think they do?
The year is 1957 and it was the best of times, it was the worst of times (with apologies to Mr. Dickens). The cold war was raging, communists are hiding under every true patriotic American's bed waiting to corrupt our youth, our culture, and our politics, while nuclear bombs are being stockpiled to a level capable of blowing our tiny thinly crusted spinning planet into a debris field of smoldering embers to satisfy the alpha male zeal of politicians. The dis-ease of consumerism, Affluenza and earth destroying consumption of the 21st century had only just begun to incubate but "better living through chemistry" and the lust for convenience had already been inculcated in the national psyche thanks to "our" national government and Victor LeBow.
Despite all this it's a quiet night in Western New York and I, the oldest of five siblings, remember being tucked into bed by my Mom, when she asked me if I'd like to take piano lessons. Seems like an easy question, not exactly like asking the Dali Lama for some insight into the purpose of life, or even if I wanted to kiss the Pope's ring, but for me personally, it was a life altering moment.
I absolutely remember the semi-darkness of the room, me being under the covers, and my Mom sitting on the edge of the bed asking me what seems like one of those extraordinarily ordinary questions that Moms ask their children all the time. But for me it triggered one of those rare in and out of body insights where I got to momentarily step just to the left of time and space to see in a way that transcended my five year-old rascallyness, I absolutely knew that I was supposed to play piano. Just to clarify, understand that my immediate family, my extended family, and all my Dad's family back to the goat shed in Sicily that my Grandfather and his folks called home, and everyone that I ever heard of on my Mom's side back to the Highlands of Scotland, the Hill of Tara and the Rhine River Valley, seemed to have no interest in playing music, but for some reason I knew I was supposed to. Also, I loved to draw and like most young children I was drawing up a storm. Somehow playing piano and drawing became inextricably linked and unlike most children, I kept drawing and kept playing piano and became involved in several other activities that any one alone could've easily become the focus of my life. But it's only at this point in time that I now realize that all these passions together are what make up "the" passion that has motivated me.
It's a bit like something Joseph Campbell commented on, that as you move towards the later part of your life, or as Douglas Harding might say, "get closer to your shelf life,” you look back and things that seemed a bit random at the time, in hindsight, begin to look completely purposeful. Almost like creating an image by connecting all these seemingly individual dots. What seemed so strange at times, now, retrospectively, appears so natural and planned. Along with music and art another huge element in my life is books. I am a passionate lover of reading and books and can't imagine a day without reading. We always had books around my house growing up but also, early on in grade school I learned that I could catch some get-out-of-class-free-time by going to the St. Joseph's Elementary School library. Lest you envision a Harry Potteresque library, or the Trinity College of Dublin Library, or any sort of quaint moldy smelling paper library, this was just a touch bigger than a closet with one wall of books. But the great thing about this library was you could go and pick out books to read and that was a legitimate way to get away from class physically and conceptually. When I learned that right behind the school was the Richmond Memorial Library, the "official" library of Batavia, which before all that urban renewal modernism hype destroyed any sense of aesthetics still had an amazing wooden encrusted space for kids and a wonderful collection of books, this was almost unimaginable! Of course all that reading, even for a grade school kid, can be an invitation for a bit of free and independent thought which was something not necessarily embraced by my Catholic school education directed by the ironically named Sisters of Mercy.
One of the few "truths" I feel semi-comfortable supporting is that organizations, tribes, bureaucracies, families, religious groups, or anything that resembles the aforementioned institutions or associations are all about perpetuating said institution. Nothing wrong with that, it's sort of like institutional reptilian brain survival mode, but it can sometimes provide normally quite pleasant individuals with a license to promote the association at any cost. I, unfortunately, remember quite early on not exactly drinking the kool-aid and when I would ask questions, and I seemed to always be asking or wondering why, this didn't play well in an environment that was trying to create uniformity. And perhaps it was some Sicilian-Scotch-Irish-German genetic predisposition to be a contrarian, but the less answers I seemed to get the more I wanted to ask why? It may have begun, or at least became a bonafide passion when a first grade classmate was killed by a truck while at an end-of-the-year school picnic. All the rhetoric around the whole thing made no sense to my six year old mind. How could he be sitting next to me one day, then having a great time at the park and then dead? Just like that. Where did he go? He hadn't made his First Communion yet, would he make the cut to get into Heaven? Why did he go? Where would I go? Where would everyone I know and love go? Where did my turtle go? And if nobody I knew had gone and come back with a road map, why should I believe all this stuff adults were telling me? I'm afraid you might be getting the idea.
So to add to this growing list of passions there was one more factor that clearly influenced how all these passions interacted. I was the oldest son in my immediate family, as well as the oldest male in my generation of an extremely entrepreneurial extended Sicilian family on my Dad's side, all located in Batavia, New York. And there was an unspoken expectation that as the eldest, I was to simply move into one of the many family businesses and by virtue of my genetic pool to have a clear idea of what needed to be done at any moment, basically what would the old guys do, and to share their priorities about life and business. So I won't belabor the details but let's say things didn't quite work out that way. In high school I fell in with some people, started playing rock music, played for some parties, some dances, starting playing bars, lots and lot of bars and even some roadhouses. They still had roadhouses in Western New York back then in the middle of nowhere. The only structure at a four corners that you'd have to be lost to find but it was across the county line so it was open till four in the morning instead of two, so it was the place to go for serious drinking, and had cute names like The Doodlebug.
High school finally ended, I went in and out of my immediate family's and the larger family's businesses, worked a lot of crazy jobs in-between, and kept playing, drawing, reading, pondering, etc., and had no interest in "higher" education. The thought of voluntarily reenlisting in school was right up there with joining the Army, so I continued doing what I had been doing, eventually beginning to paint, and always asking, “Why?” Then, through some friends of a friend, I heard that the local community college had a band, and that they might have an opening for a piano player, and that maybe if I took a class or two, I might be able to be in the band. I started to wonder if maybe playing in a band, let alone a "big band" with a name like Jzzzzrck, led by some furry faced guy barely older than me was worth reenlisting in school for.
In retrospect it was another one of those clearly planned brilliant moves that I had no idea about at the time. I enlisted in a couple of classes, painting and music, and got to play in the band. Here was a group of people who were playing at a level I had no idea about and led by this really bushy faced rascal, Resnick, who was absolutely driven when it came to music. I met Art teachers, and English teachers, and all sorts of people who were thinking, and reading, and pondering, and trying to live purposefully, deliberately. To engage life and "learn what it had to teach" and to "live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” I loved it! This was like no education I had ever experienced. I was playing music that was fantastic, with people who were amazing and challenging, I was taking private lessons, classes at the Eastman School of Music, practicing for hours a day, playing in jazz bands, rock bands, jug bands, Celtic bands, and it seemed like maybe something was finally coming together.
However, this was the early to mid 1970's and along with all this "education stuff" and deep music work, I became involved with the whole back-to-the-land, Scott Nearing/Harlan Hubbard, grow a garden, tend the goats, feed the chickens, etc., thing. What my amazing and eternally nurturing wife Melissa refers to as my "chop wood carry water" phase. All these elements are percolating through and around me, along with the cultural milieu of Nixon, Vietnam, deciding where in Canada I would move to not come home in a body bag from perpetuating some politician's imperialistic dream, and then it happened.
Two unexpected incidents came along that altered my musical trajectory. The first involved an ancient piece of farm equipment, a hand cranked fanning mill wicker, that I bought at a farm auction to help separate grain from chaff. Even though I was playing out with a couple of different bands, I was still hip deep in goat poo and chicken manure during the day reveling still in my chop wood carry water phase. After the auction I brought the mill home and set it up in the driveway to give it a test run. About the fifth or sixth crank, as the gears all had some good momentum going, the tip of my glove got caught and dragged the end of my middle finger and ring finger on my left hand through the gears. It was painful, and unpleasant, and pretty much ended my playing for quite some time. As I was dealing with this new reality, I got a call to fill in for a friend of mine who had been teaching painting and become unable to finish the semester. I was being asked to teach painting at the very same high school I had barely eked out a graduation from. I waffled about doing it but then decided to go ahead and was totally hooked. Here was the vehicle that allowed room for bringing all the crazy and disparate passions into "a" passion, teaching.
For me teaching has more to do with nurturing a recognition of relationships than delivering facts. Facts are an inexpensive commodity easily gotten from a textbook or cellphone, but what do you do with "the facts?” That's what I find interesting. For example, there's an entranceway on campus to one of the main classroom buildings that has a simple inverted half circle of glass with panes and mullions that radiate out from the center like a kid's drawing of the sun. Most people don't notice it or if so only casually. I was sitting with one of the senior faculty on a bench in front of the building and she made a reference to metaphor. I pointed out the window but she only saw a window. No symbol for a sun, or the associations that go along with such a shape. Such as enlightenment, or the light of knowledge, or the fact that it was on the east entrance of the building, the rising nurturing sun entrance, and a number of other references. It was just a window, but it also might be a message from the builders, or a directive from the institution, and in the act of asking why this shape, this location, this direction, why was this important, what do you do with the recognition of the story once you see one, etc.. In teaching I learn so much and only hope that I can help nurture an interest and recognition of the amazing interconnectedness of it all.
Even though teaching seemed like the place I belonged, it took me a long time to get there, with a lot of diversions along the way. I was thirty-seven before I graduated with a degree that would allow me to teach, but I consider that a good thing. I clearly wasn't ready earlier, despite the cultural emphasis to plow through education, get out, get a job, buy a car, a house, a vacation home and have 2.2 kids with a dog, not a cat, and a retirement plan. I think taking the long way home, at least for some people, is an advantage that provides more material to work with and, hopefully, more to offer. One of the classes I teach is called Visual Literacy and I have taught some variation of this subject ever since I began the "adjunct shuffle" back in 1989. It basically is a class that addresses how we, as individuals, are communicated to, as well as stimulated and motivated by visual images. It is the class that I am most passionate about and I believe the class that allows me to draw on all my mini-passions.
Think about it, there is no particular reason for any of this to exist but since it does, how a person answers the question of why, how they respond to the stimuli of life, has a huge influence on how you experience it. So it's not about the facts. As Thoreau suggested, "It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." So the question is, “What do YOU see?” Not what someone else wants you to see, or told you to see, or is stimulating you to see, but what do you authentically see for yourself? I approach this class, and frankly a lot of what I consider, with a quote in mind from Viktor Frankl who suggested that "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
What in the past I often thought was an inability to focus on one passion, in hindsight appears to have been a passion to try and pay attention, to feel what I was feeling, to try and understand how to respond to life, to experience life. And teaching, for me, has been the ultimate form of education and passionate inquiry because I learn so much in the process. But then this may just be the ramblings of a geezer trying to make sense of it all. As Candide suggests to Pangloss, we must each "take care of our own garden." For me, the many interests and passions that I've had the good fortunate to nurture, the amazing people I've known and know, my soul-mate and wife Melissa, our daughters Isabella and Carmen, and our herd of cats, are what I consider my remarkable garden.
And maybe at the end of the day it's the teaching that has taught me how to take care of my own garden. To pay attention to the garden I'm already standing in, to be here now in The Garden of Passions.
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Hello there! Jeff here, happy to share true stories with you!