Saturday, September 24, 2005

Dispatch from 37,000

This is going to be a very short introduction as my laptop is practically in my chest and the screen is at a very awkward angle. I’m on an Airbus A-330-300 with one of those 2-4-2 seating setups with me and Sheila and me in a 2 on the port side of the plane. The seats are blue and gray, really narrow across the shoulders, at least for me, and kinda close together front to back too. As we passed through business class I noted the spaciousness and comfort of the section. I told Sheila that I knew she loved me as she was passing up being there to take me with her.

Sheila and I are on the way to a conference in Denmark…I should say she is on her way to a conference, I’m on my way to my first hop across the Atlantic to hang with the Danes. Soren, Hans, Hamlet…well, the first two anyway. I’m told Copenhagen is a good hangout city. My plan is to do as much walking around as possible, and we’ll see about the hanging.

The Danes I’m meeting on the flight are friendly enough. In a xenophobic sortta way I can’t help but notice that all of them seem to switch effortlessly between Danish and English. I’m still gonna brave the native tongue…while I can’t spell it I can say ‘bon mel’, which means breakfast. Listening to it, Danish sounds like a cross between German and French, or perhaps some other Romance language.

The coffee on the plane is great, so’s the food. As always I’ve been uncovered by one member of the flight crew as the passenger-you-can-mess-with-‘cause-he’s-got-a-sense-of-humor.

This gets posted when I get to the hotel and some sleep. I can’t sleep a bit on the plane. Seven hours, huh? Lights just went out, guess I’ll listen to some iTunes and watch some movies…

Monday, September 19, 2005

Ah, What a Lovely Fragrance

Everybody dies. And as William Wallace said, not everyone truly lives. From what I can gather Maxine R. Baker truly, wonderfully, and graciously lived. She has created ripples that move outward even now, touching others in ways that proponents of chaos theory would support. You know, like the butterfly whose wings end up creating the wind storm thousands of miles away. I attended her memorial service last week. Her daughter, ‘Little’ Maxine, is a dear friend of many decades. Her mom was an extraordinary presence on this planet for ninety years.

I met her the first time over thirty years ago. I was a young musician, recently dropped out of law school and substitute teaching to pay the rent and feed myself. I lived for my art, for sound, being connected to universal rhythm through my drum circles and band. Teaching was something easy to do, get the kids quiet through some ‘song and dance act’ and ‘beat’ some information into their heads.

The fact that I was very young, had an Afro-to-die-for and wore jeans to class helped me be popular with the kids. The fact that I actually knew some stuff about a variety of subjects and knew how to present it got me connected to a school near my house. The vice-principal told me after my first day that I had a permanent substitute position a twenty minute walk from my house. Couldn’t beat that with a stick, right? I planned on charming my way through the days, occasionally dropping some knowledge on classrooms full of junior high kids.

The third day I was there this fiery but very well mannered woman cornered me on a stairway and dressed me down for my comportment, my lack of professionalism. She demanded that I act responsibility and actually teach.

“I see you young man, acting all cool and being the children’s friend. You are not here to be popular, you are here to teach, to hand down knowledge, and, more importantly, to give the children an example. So, act your age and behave like you have some sense in that fine head of yours. You are smart, intelligent, and gifted. Show them the way like I’m sure others have shown you.”

She was scolding me like I was gonna be taken to the woodshed if I didn’t follow her instructions to the letter. I lowered my head and said, “Yes, ‘mam.”

In a sense I have been saying ‘yes ‘mam’ in some way to her ever since we crossed paths. Her service was memorable, emotional, joyous, a testament to a life well lived. I believe we only take that aspect of ourselves people call ‘integrity’ to our graves. The memories stay with those we leave behind. The impact of our lives can be, like the minister mentioned in Maxine’s eulogy, “like the scent of someone’s perfume, still in the room after that person has left the room!”

Like fine perfume, Big Max’s fragrance lingers, carried in the memories and actions of all who were lucky enough to have been influenced by her. She was, and always will be, an inspiration to always do your best. You never know who is following in your footsteps.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Looking Up

A few months ago my friend Jamillah urged me to take a broader perspective in my musings. She said I needed to look up. I’ve been attempting to do that but was overwhelmed by the images from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Looking up was painful and harsh. It caused a lot of anguish the past couple of weeks.

I have written and disposed of words that spelled out both my sadness and my anger at the appalling rescue effort and the abysmal political mealy-mouthing of our so-called leaders. I ranted about the hypocrisy of compassionate conservatism and the real ‘Jesus’ of our born-again president and his minions…tax cuts for the rich.

But I had only to look up to what was going on with my son to find what it was I needed to write about. He asked us many questions about each and every aspect of the disaster and its aftermath. Honestly speaking, I found my ability to answer stretched thin.

Answering Robert’s questions about both the hurricane and why there were so many people still in danger was difficult. I almost always ended up with an answer that sounded like, “It’s the will of God.”

Speaking with a Catholic priest I revealed my ‘faith’ when I shared an answer I had given Robert about why God allows such sadness and suffering in the world.

I said that questions like that were important to us while we lived but that the answers weren’t always available to us. Robert asked me about a couple of my good friends that have died and whether or not they knew the answers and would I get a chance to hear from them when I died.

I thought before I answered and said, “When we die and get to heaven we will either have the answers to those questions or they wouldn’t be of any concern to us at that point.”

My priest friend said that my answer was a good example of faith. Faith, for those of us professing to have it, must surely be tested right now. All of us must surely be wondering about things, whether we have an allegiance to any recognized religion or not. But something came to me today that tests my faith even more.

I got an email that informed her friends and family that Jamillah has brain cancer, or, more precisely, she has a mass on her occipital lobe located above the back of her neck. She has endured more cancers over the last two or three years than I care to enumerate here and she consistently exhibits a strong faith in the Creator and a boundless resolve to live to the fullest in spite of her trials.

Jamillah is an exemplar of Islam, a person standing strongly against the stereotyped images of Muslims a lot of us carry. She has been my touchstone and sounding board for many issues, social, political, and cultural, ever since we ended our coaching relationship about four years ago. Since then I am honored to call her friend.

After reading the email, I told Sheila the news and immediately went into a funk and sadness that lasted a few hours. I wondered how this could be happening to someone so gentle, so loving, and warm, giving, honorable, spiritual, etc.

“Insha-Allah” I hear her say, by the will of God. It works its way into my consciousness until I find that my questions about her condition matter little to me in the long run. What does matter is being connected to such a human being and sharing with her.

So…looking up I see that I have a wonderful life. A great mate and growing, full-of-life children, challenging work and a quest to be more of the artist I know I am are the prime elements of that life. Learning more and giving more are my goals. In the ancient Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, I found these words recently:

Knowing others is intelligence;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
Mastering yourself is true power.

When I got my act together enough to call her Jamillah sounded more at peace and stronger than I would imagine myself to have been in were the situation reversed. She seemed more concerned with me at the time, and very much centered, grounded, and calm. She recounted from her email the efforts she had already planned to uncover, and fight, this new challenge. I listened with awe and reverence to this bright, strong spirit as she spoke with confidence, courage, and faith. I marveled at her strength.

She would probably have told me that she gets her strength from her belief in Allah and His will.

I sense her power coming from her mastery of herself. She would say this mastery comes from submitting to the will of Allah; here lies a small circle of words in my poor attempt to not only praise a friend but to also expose my own attempts to have faith. Regardless, I am learning that in looking up there are many stories to tell, many lives to be touched.

Alhumdulilah…Thank God.