Monday, January 15, 2018

For M.L.K. (and for all of us)

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day.  I’m not sure how I feel about the implication one might infer from the idea that there is a particular day that might suffice for the purpose of reminding us of…

What? What does this day offer us?  

I can’t answer that for you.  But I feel as though it might be a good time for me to remind myself of some things.  Perhaps writing them down is a good way of clarifying.  And as I’m writing this, I’m not sure I’m really going to post this.  It feels like a risk.  Is it self indulgent?  Perhaps I’ll be misunderstood.  Maybe that’s ultimately harmful.  Or maybe it’s more harmful not to.  Putting this on line risks losing context.  Next to any other thing you just saw before finding this, and the next unrelated thing you’ll see after leaving, what is it?  More words.  Sometimes silence is louder.  And certainly actions are the real deal.  But in the end, something feels as if it’s rising up in me and needs to be said.  If for no other reason than for my own benefit in living in this world.  A world that I’m not sure I really understand.  But here we are.

I do feel some innate intuition about a few things.  Music taps into something that feels deeper than my limited sense of self.  I play music, and I like to talk about the process, and to teach.  But do I really understand music?  Is there truly any way to understand music (or anything else) at a remove, at an analytical distance?  At a certain point you simply have to give up, and listen.  Deeply.  So deeply as to lose yourself.  Interesting, that in investing ourselves fully, we can lose ourselves fully.  How does that work?  I can’t really say, except that a sense of separateness in the first place may not be a complete picture.  I think we actually know this as being fairly obvious but it’s so easy to carve the world up into pieces that we lose sight of or take for granted our connectedness.  And so how wonderful is it that we have music to remind us of what’s true?  It doesn’t just remind us.  When musicians fully invest themselves, and fully lose themselves, it is true.  And of course music is just one thing, one form.  Of liberation.

Maybe that sounds great to you.  Positive, inspirational, aspirational.  But it’s words.  So if it resonates, it must be resonating as something in you already.  And that’s great.  But I can’t say that I’m quite satisfied with it.  There’s something missing.  Something I’m not seeing.  I’m not sure what it is, I just feel it.  Maybe it’s too lofty.  Not untrue, but if it’s that easy, why so many problems down here on the ground?  I suppose it’s good to move towards the positive and away from the negative.  But just as positive words might resonate, so do negative ones.  And so really, how can I possibly move towards or away from something that is already “in me”?  And this is the tricky part, because in saying “in me” I’m talking about the innate truth that we all sense, that we are in fact not separate from each other.  And yet we separate in ways every day.  That’s why this discussion is potentially painful.  The pain is the separation, the separation is the pain.  So this is where the discussion becomes real.  Maybe you don’t feel it.  Maybe you’re already comfortable.  Maybe you already understand.  Sometimes I feel that way.  I want resolution.  I want peace.  I don’t want to be uncomfortable.  I don’t want to experience pain.  And yet I’m often uncomfortable, I often feel pain that I can’t identify.

And then there is this reminder, from Martin Luther King, Jr. written from a jail cell in 1963:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

As I get older and this discomfort and pain remains, less responsive to distraction, I am forced to realize some truths.  And even though there are certainly political ramifications I really see this as a central moral and ethical issue in American life, for everyone.  There’s no way to avoid being conditioned by our shared history, no matter what we think of it, even if we think we see through it.  But rather than take the lofty approach, I’m going to walk towards the unresolved, the potentially painful.  And I’ll use the only tools I have, which are based in my own experience.  Yes, I am a musician, but specifically one who plays a form of African American music that is seemingly based outside of my experience as a white person.  I grew up in Baltimore and had many opportunities to learn directly from some master musicians.  Micky Fields, Gary Bartz, just to name two.  And to play for audiences who often came together, black and white.  And in some situations in which I was the only white person in the club.  I miss those days.  So it’s certainly a central issue in my life as a musician, even if I’m not always forced to look at it deeply enough.

But I feel as if I was afforded an opportunity to see life from a perspective that I would not have had if not for music.  That was amazingly positive, that music could be a form of medicine, addressing the conditions I saw, the pain I saw around me.  But what might I have missed?  It’s difficult to say.  You don’t see what you don’t see.  So I have to look at my perspective and how it was formed.  Over time, as a musician, I began to see myself as separate from the larger society.  I thought I saw through the superficial romanticized version of the bohemian ideal, and that I was somehow living a “real” version. I thought I saw into certain truths about hypocrisy, greed, materialism and injustice.  That because I saw it, I was somehow apart from it.  But to think that I am apart from any of those things is an illusion.  And it’s an illusion that is compounded by being unwilling to deeply look at what it is to be white.  Ultimately I can say that “white” or “race” is also an illusion.  But for that to be true, I need to deeply understand.  And I do not, because I have not yet seen all of the ways in which I am connected.  I might say that race is an illusion but if I’m not willing to see my role in maintaining this illusion then I’m trapped.  And more importantly I’m causing harm in ways that I don’t see.  Other people see it though.  You can rest assured of that.  So what to do?  How to move?  Is this a trap?  A neurosis?  What keeps this from ultimately being an exercise in narcissism?  Let me throw a few things out there…

1. It’s not about me.  It doesn’t exclude me, but it’s not about me.
2. Nobody signed up for this, none of us choose this situation for ourselves.
3. I can recognize how race functions as a social construct in the United States and yet in a very positive sense I can take responsibility to do the work of addressing it without the need for guilt, shame, anger or defensiveness.  It requires sincerity and humility.  A sense that the situation is in fact intolerable.  And yet there is no need for or benefit from self righteousness and anger on my part.   Just compassion.  Love for others, love for self.
4. It’s not easy.  There is fear.  And yet we are each perfectly able to meet the situation as it affects us and others around us.
5. We will fail.  And try again.  Over and over.  If I can learn, there is freedom in this.

So I apologize.  To everyone.  And vow to operate less selfishly.  It feels transgressive to write that, because I know that there is so much that I continue not to see.  It’s hypocritical.  Preaching ethics and morality can be dangerous.  Just words.  I might just say that I’m completely bullshit.  Which is certainly true if it were just about me.  So I’ll remind myself again, this day and every day.  It’s not about me.

I still don’t fully understand the reasons my life has lead me to this music.  It simply feels like a larger truth, unseen but felt.  I make no claims.  It’s too humbling.  And the truth is annihilating.  Because it destroys the limited perspective that I use to live by.   And liberating, if I can truly embrace it.

Enough with the words…

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for these words. They resonate. Sometimes I feel like resonating is all we are here to do. With saxophones, words, breaths, sighs, laughs...all resonating with one another. As one.