Saturday, November 29, 2008
In 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet released Time Out, featuring jazz songs which experimented in use of alternative time signatures. Included on this album was the song Take Five, a tune that quickly became the quartet’s signature song, with its mesmerizing 5/4 beat. The album was wildly successful, propelling the well-known quartet into the national limelight of jazz stardom.
Behind that signature song sits a signature human activity. Rest. Settle into an easy chair. It will only take five minutes or so to finish reading this little essay. Nothing to it. Take five. As a jazz pianist, I’ve attempted many times to play Take Five, a song easier to hear than to play. For a while, in graduate school, I played with a great drummer who had the 5/4 beat down. As a result, I was able to settle myself into the offbeat piano jazz vamp of Take Five and enjoy some 5/4 improvisations of my own.
Taking time off is a common offbeat activity for many humans. As a culture, we usually evaluate our worth by what we produce or by what we do. One of the first questions asked between strangers is “What do you do?” with the answer revolving around our jobs or careers. Even when the question is more generic, such as “Tell me about yourself”, we find ourselves describing our professions, ‘what we do for a living’, as the way we speak about our identity to others.
When we do take time off, we often fill our weekends with physical activities or home chores, allowing ourselves little time to “take five”. The phrase “take five” refers to more than merely napping on Saturday afternoon during a football game on television. It involves stepping intentionally into a whole new way of living, an offbeat, alternative approach to life that allows for “time-off” in the middle of activity.
Take five. In other words, stop doing. Let the music play on, and just kick back and listen. Take some time to reflect, to rest, to settle down inside. While the instrumentalists play on, enjoy the echo of the words you’ve just been singing to repeat their phrases inwardly, to penetrate your soul and do their wonderful work in you while you do no work at all. It’s a whole new way of living. Right in the middle of a business management meeting, hear that song inside your soul. Take a slow breath and rest. While on the cell phone, speeding down the interstate on your way to the next appointment, hear that haunting offbeat melody calling you to rest. Take Five. Try turning off the cell phone, relax your shoulders and take Brubeck’s wisdom to heart, literally.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Every day is filled with them. We face so many cracks in a day that we hardly even notice them underfoot. Until when we have to wait for a few extra minutes on hold, or sit waiting for a few extra minutes for a webpage to download, or wait a few extra minutes in rush hour traffic, or wait while someone slides into the parking space we’ve been waiting to fill. Cracks. Little slices of every day.
Remember the childhood saying, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back”? The English language fills in cracks with a variety of meanings. Humor: “He cracks me up”. Measure of quality: “Not all it’s cracked up to be”. Measure of distance: “Open the window a crack”. Emotions: “Wear him down until he cracks”.
Waiting cracks up no one. There are kinds of cracks that aren’t funny and they’re not pretty. There’s a common occurrence in contemporary life I’ll call “spontaneous cracks”. It is a little like spontaneous combustion but different. Instead of flames, you get smoke. A spontaneous crack is a brief encounter with unasked for waiting; a little unfilled crack of time in which you find yourself feeling impatient, resentful or frustrated.
Filling cracks. If our days are full of cracks, what can we do to smooth things out? First, welcome cracks. See spontaneous cracks in your day as little unasked for gifts. Who doesn’t enjoy received an unlooked for gift. Rather than curse a crack, welcome the crack as an unopened gift. Returning and rest is nothing more than a receptive approach to life allowing us to experience empty places in the day with gratitude instead of grumpiness.
Second, fill in the cracks. Step right into those little spaces of time with special material of your own choosing. Make something creative happen in that specific minute of your day. What am I talking about? Try smiling at the crack. Fill the crack with a little bit of humor. Tell a joke. Laugh silently at a rude person who is making you wait. Your smile just might be the seed crystal which transforms the whole chemistry of the situation.
Here’s another cracked idea. Meet gift for gift. Give a quality part of yourself to the crack. Fill the crack with one of your favorite wise sayings. Recite poetry while you wait. Carry with you a few hand-written cards with wisdom sayings, proverbs, great life quotes, a sentence or two from Scripture. Work on memorizing one of those in that crack.
Finally, think of cracks as soul time. Take those brief moments handed to you every day and zero in on the state of your soul. Breathe a few good slow breaths. Focus your attention for a few moments each day upon the cracks. As odd as it sounds, those are the places where wonders happen, the creative spaces which help you become a radiant human. As Leonard Cohen sings,
Monday, November 17, 2008
By the pond, in the dark,
'neath the trees, chanting
Raising voice, rhythmic song,
joining force, rejoicing
Stillness now, 'neath the trees,
silence hangs, gently
In the dark, one brave throat,
breaks the night, boldly
By the pond, vigil's choir,
chanting frogs, communing.
- David Robinson, 1995
Monday, November 10, 2008
A broken ALTAR, Lord thy servant rears,
Made of a heart, and cemented with teares:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch'd the same
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow'r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name:
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctifie this ALTAR to be thine.
The Altar, by George Herbert (1633, from Herbert's poetry collection, "The Temple)
Sunday, November 2, 2008
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
By Wendell Berry
Collected Poems (North Point Press, 1985).