Dancing Lessons

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Christmas Prom 1960

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Just before hitting the “Publish” button for my last blog on the importance of music in my life, I heard this voice in my right ear, “Of course, your next blog is going to be about dancing.” Music and dancing are intertwined, sort of like going on retreat and making a pilgrimage. My feelings about dancing, however, are more complicated than they are about music. I have always loved music; I have not always loved dancing.

I want to blame Arthur Murray, who, it has been said, taught America to dance. In the 1950s, when I first discovered rock ‘n roll and girls, there were over 3000 Arthur Murray dance studios in the United States, one of which sent instructors (I remember him as 30-ish, with thinning hair, wearing a wrinkled tuxedo, and her as blond—bleached?—in a black strapless dress that showed off her legs and the run in her stocking) to Yarmouth, Maine to line us boys up on one side of the room and the girls on the other, leaving a no-man’s land between the sexes that I spent years trying to cross.

Apparently, Murray, whose given name was Moses Teichman, felt that dancing was how people could become more sophisticated and move, as he had, into a “better” class of society. So, along with the steps to the waltz, the foxtrot, the jitterbug, or the cha-cha, the instructors also taught etiquette. Young men, for example, were instructed to walk across the floor to the young ladies, bow, and say, “May I have this dance?”

I have to say, however, that if the aim at the Masonic Grange Hall was to teach refined behavior to seventh and eighth graders, it was not a good idea after having taught us the steps to blow a goddamned whistle. The scene turned to something resembling the kickoff of a football game, as barely-pubertal males raced across the floor, elbowing each other in an effort to get to the four or five girls with breasts, the fastest and dirtiest fighters skidding to a stop in front of them, yelling “My’vethisdance!” while the chosen ones stood giggling and the rest of the girls stared at the floor, waiting for the losers to get to them.

My first experiences with dancing, then, taught me to divide the world into us and them: boys and girls, fast and slow, winners and losers, all engaged in a fight for survival of the fittest. (Which was underlined the evening my partner and I won a dance contest. I can’t remember how we won, but it certainly wasn’t because of my dancing ability. I think she and I must have been standing in the spotlight when the music was stopped or something. Anyway, my prize was a switchblade knife, once the weapon of choice used by street gangs.)

When I reached high school, the record hops in the gymnasium at first perpetuated my sense that dancing was a battle, first with myself to get up the nerve to cross the no-man’s land between the guys standing along one wall and girls standing along the other, and then with her to find something to say or how close to get or where to put my hands.

Until one night, dancing suddenly became unlike anything I’d ever experienced: losing myself in another’s embrace, looking into the eyes of someone and seeing both her and myself for the first time, forgetting my adolescent self-consciousness in our interaction with each other and with the music. (I think the song was “Dream” by the Everly Brothers.)

Fast-forward twenty-five years. I’m in Princeton, New Jersey, evaluating high school essays for the College Board. The last night of the reading, a bunch of us teachers are in a bar, bouncing our middle-aged bones around the dance floor to a collection of golden oldies played by some kids in ripped tee-shirts.  When the band switches from “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You,” the woman I’ve been twisting with says, “Do you dance slow?”

Thirty-four years later, we still try to get in at least one slow dance a week.

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I wonder if the reason I feel called to write about dancing is to make me more aware of how the secular and the spiritual intertwine, and to reveal how my relationship with the God of my Not Understanding has changed and where it might be going.

When my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer, I thought my belief in God had died with her. But after a year of raging at my family, friends, students, the driver in the next car, and Boston sports teams, I realized, no, I’m really pissed off at God, which means I think God exists. Focusing my anger at God became the first step in what I think of as my pilgrimage through grief and grace. And almost thirty years after Laurie’s death, I still often feel like Jacob in the Old Testament, wrestling with, if not God, then with God’s angel.

On my desk, I have a copy of a Rilke poem, The Man Watching, in which the speaker praises those “wrestlers of the Old Testament,” who, “…beaten by this Angel/…went away proud and strengthened/and great…” Winning, Rilke writes, is not important to such a fighter, because

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

 By constantly greater beings.”

And yet during the last few years, as I’ve become more and more aware of having received the grace not only to survive Laurie’s death, but also to have lived, all in all, a happy life surrounded by love, I’ve started wondering if I’ve really been wrestling with God, or whether I’ve been engaged in a sort of dance, where all along, God has been trying to embrace me, take me into loving arms. And if it hasn’t been during those times when I have surrendered—let God lead, if you will—that I’ve received the grace to sustain me.

Both scientists and modern writers on spirituality tell us that everything in the universe —animals, vegetables, minerals, living and dead—is interconnected. Everything exists in relationship. The question for me these days (and I wonder if it isn’t a question this country is struggling to answer), is whether this relationship is going to be in the form of a wrestling match or a dance—whether when I look out my window at tree branches in the wind, I see the trees struggling against the elements or dancing to them; whether when I see someone of another color or another life-style coming toward me on the street, I see an opponent or a partner; whether I still see the world as us and them lined up on opposite sides of the floor, or whether I see just us, moving in harmony to the music.

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Prayer flags and daffodils, dancing—I like to think—in the wind.

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A Musical Pilgrimage

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It’s Saturday, January 28, 1956, and I’m twelve years old sitting comfortably with my family watching “The Dorsey Brothers Stage Show” on TV. Tonight, however, instead of the usual big band number, a young singer with the strange name of Elvis Presley comes on stage in a black shirt and white tie. He’s got shiny hair, sideburns, and a wise-ass smirk on his face. Beating on a white guitar, he half-moans, half-yells, “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” and wiggles his hips.

“Good God! What the hell is that?” says my father.

I love it.

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A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a blog by Paul Cannon, an Anglican priest in Australia, called “Songs Lift my Soul,” (http://pvcann.com/2018/04/15/songs-lift-my-soul/). That same week, two of my Facebook friends posted the names of their ten favorite musical albums. I started thinking about the importance of music to my earthly pilgrimage and wondering just what it is that makes music so important to so many of us.

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In high school, I worshipped Elvis and his disciples: Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ricky Nelson, Brenda Lee, Wanda Jackson, The Everly Brothers, and Ray Charles. In college I listened to the jazz of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and George Shearing, as well as the folk songs of Bob  Dylan, Joan Baez, and Odetta. Rock ‘n roll, jazz, and folk music tapped into my longing for romance and freedom—my need to rebel against the small- town Maine culture I’d grown up in—while at the same time remaining safely wrapped in a security blanket of likeminded peers. In other words, I could be independent and dependent at the same time.

But almost overnight, it seems now, my love of music went from being about the promise of the future to nostalgia for the past. Perhaps because I’m just a little too old to be a Baby Boomer or because growing up in an alcoholic family made me diffident and fearful, I, for all intents and purposes, opted out of the rebellious 60s, choosing the security of marriage and a steady teaching job. For me the Beatles were about how much they reminded me of the rhythm and blues of early Elvis. I never cared for their psychedelic stuff, but I did like the rawness of the last albums, which, along with what became known in the 70s as Outlaw Music—Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Jerry Reed—had that sense of romance and rebellion I remembered from my teenage years.

When I think of the music from the 80s and 90s, I think of my daughter Laurie. I listened to her tapes of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Joan Armatrading not only with my ears, but hers—heard the promise, the passion for change. Laurie was also a self-proclaimed “flower child,” and after I’d divorced and remarried, her interest in the Grateful Dead, Pete Seeger, and the electric Bob Dylan made me feel as if I had finally entered the 60s.

When Laurie died in 1988, everything changed, including my musical tastes. I became obsessed with the requiems of Mozart, Brahms, Verdi, and Britten. I saw how grief can be given a structure, and I later used some of that structure for my novel, Requiem in Stones. My interest in spirituality led me to Elvis’s gospel music and the songs of Leonard Cohen, who along with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon continue to guide me as I age.

I also became more interested in playing music. In my early high school years, even as I’d followed Elvis, I’d also played trombone in a Dixieland band “The Ivy Leaguers.” Later in high school, I’d swapped my trombone for a guitar because of the Kingston Trio, who introduced me to folk songs. I became a member of the “The Fish Factory Trio”:

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During my first teaching job in Woodstock, Vermont, I played guitar and sang Ian and Sylvia songs with “The Faculty Three.” After Laurie’s death I took up the banjo (see https://geriatricpilgrim.com/2016/07/25/joy-and-the-banjo/), the instrument of black slaves and impoverished whites, a sound of sorrow and longing, yet at the same time, joy and gutsiness.

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One reason I don’t think I could exist without music is that both listening to and playing music let me escape for a time what Hamlet called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Or, put another way, music takes me out of what some of the writers I read call my “small,” or “false” self, leaving behind those anxieties to which I’m usually addicted. At the same time, I actually become more myself. Playing in an old-time string band, I am one of a group of musicians, all playing the same song, and yet, my part is individual; in fact, without the others playing their parts, my part makes no sense. I learn that I am the most authentic me only in relationship to others—what Courage to Change: One Day at a Time in AlAnon, calls “unity in diversity.”

And it’s this synthesis that helps me better understand that while spirituality is discovered in solitude, it is fulfilled in community. “Union differentiates,” wrote priest, philosopher, and paleologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. We find our true “personhood,” he said, only by uniting with others.

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But I wonder if music’s almost universal appeal doesn’t go even deeper. As I was writing this blog, I decided to take a break and go for a walk in the woods behind my house. Perhaps because of what I’d been writing, I found myself aware of the music around me—the birds’ various songs; the wind through the trees. I thought of the music from some of my pilgrimages through the years: the Sanctus of sheep bleating at sunset on the island of Iona in Scotland, the dies irae of coyotes’ wailing in Arizona, and the Kyrie eleison of rain and wind through the branches of trees outside my hermitage at Emery House in Massachusetts.

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Feeling my feet tramping through the leaves, I thought of how I have always been drawn to the rhythms of music (which is why I like the later Paul Simon more than the earlier Paul Simon), and how music connects us—well, me at least—to the earth through its tempos: the ebb and flow of tides, the pulsating whistle of the cardinal, the percussion of rain on the roof. In contemplative prayer, I feel the rhythm of my breathing, which sometimes becomes part of a much larger breathing, almost as if someone or something is breathing in me.

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 These days I’m often found, as my wife says, “down the rabbit hole” of You Tube. I look at old videos of my early rock ‘n roll idols—Oh, hey, here’s Fats Domino singing with Ricky Nelson!—reliving my life’s ups and downs. I watch clips from old-time music festivals and artists like John Hartford and Dom Flemons, slowing the videos down as I try to learn “new” old-time tunes. And then, I might watch a lecture by Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, or Cynthia Bourgeault on spirituality.

They aren’t as different from one other as you might think.

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