The Center for Creative Youth (CCY) is going full-throttle, and this year spending all this time around artistic teenagers has made me reflect back on my own headspace and artistic choices when I was their age. It’s fairly self-evident that I found things I loved in jazz music. What also struck me, however, through some of the brilliant young players I met at the time (including to-this-day colleagues like Jimmy Greene, Kris Allen, Wayne Escoffery, Amanda Monaco and others) was serious jazz musicians’ depth of study and exploration. None of these folks had the time or inclination to trumpet their capabilities (which far surpassed those of other far more ego-driven musicians I’d met) in large part because they were far too busy practicing. The music hooked me, but what sealed the deal was the notion of joining a community of people this driven toward growth and evolution, even without the promise of “getting there” in any quantifiable way.
At the time, I don’t know how consciously I perceived this, and I’m pretty certain I didn’t perceive it as being an allegory to life itself. Now, though, I have a very hard time imagining my life without the perspective of life as a journey as opposed to a destination. I can imagine it well enough to know that I would be utterly miserable. I actually have in my file cabinet a pretty comical (in hindsight) list I made at age 24 of accomplishments I expected to have “checked off” within 3-5 years. Frankly, I think I accomplished a lot in my first 30 years, but if I look back at that list and use it as my point of reference (without evaluating the enduring relevance of those goals), then BOY what a loser I was! We all know our time here is finite and that we can’t predict how long we’ve got or what obstacles will wind up in our paths . . . yet it’s so easy to go on judging ourselves (and others) based on arbitrary benchmarks of success or expected fulfillment.
It’s one thing to say you embrace the “life as a journey” mentality, but it’s another to live it. I’ve known some people who embody this ethos, none more potently then my wife’s aunt Dottie. Dottie married into the Ten Eyck family a couple weeks after Kate and I got married in 1998, so Kate didn’t have the privilege of growing up around her, but boy has she made up for lost time. Her wisdom and compassion have been enormous sources of support for us – it is hard for me to believe that she only has two shoulders, because it feels like we’ve cried on more than that, and she has also been there with us in celebratory times. All of this has been particularly striking as our family has grown. Our choice to foster and adopt teenagers has confused many well-intentioned people, but Dottie has never shown the slightest doubt that these are our kids and that they should be loved up with every ounce of her being. I always get choked up thinking about the spirit present when she spends time with any of our kids, whether she’s talking politics, reflecting on lessons learned from her experiences or simply basking in their presence.
This makes for a very nice story. Except that she has cancer. And not the kind that’s going away.
The natural response to a circumstance like this is some combination of anger, grief and despair and I think it’s safe to say that everyone involved has been in all of those places. Dottie herself, however, keeps coming back to a place of accepting reality for what it is and contemplating what lessons she still needs to learn and what personal evolution lies ahead on this part of the journey. When faced with adversity in the past, she has always come back to this perspective, so why should this be different? The role modeling for us is tremendous, both as an approach to life and as a means for eventually enduring a world without her.
The last piece I wrote for the Ripples album (albeit using some materials I’d been tossing around for a year) was a dedication to Dottie called “Peeling the Onion.” Jimmy Greene and Kris Allen played the melody so soulfully, and there are great solos by Chris Dingman, Linda Oh and Johnathan Blake. I even tried to embrace the spirit of journey (as opposed to “Journey” – no “Don’t Stop Believing” here) by taking the leap of playing slide guitar on the track instead of a keyboard instrument (save for a little organ to back up the vibraphone solo).
To me, the image of an onion makes for a potent analogy. You peel away one layer at a time and gradually get towards the core of it . . . and there are often tears along the way. The notion of a steady uphill climb towards some exalted peak is a quaint one and even one that is useful for providing the motivation to keep working. I can’t think, however, of anyone I know whose life has followed this trajectory. We all experience setbacks and challenges and, at times, tragedy. I would make the case, then, that the peak is not built on such fleeting things as money or success or comfort but rather on fully embracing growth, evolution and adaptation as what it’s all about, not just a means to the end of pursuing the more tempting but more ephemeral goals.
For each of us the onion-peeling is different. For some, the challenges come early and/or often and life thereafter consists of peeling away those layers one at a time to heal and work towards a state of being whole again. For some, there are long periods where things run smoothly and peeling the onion entails taking steps towards building the personal infrastructure with which to pursue fulfillment and to weather the storms when they come. There is no universally applicable formula, and that’s kind of the point.
Tonight I’ll be performing the piece for the first time, playing it for the CCY kids at the Faulty Concert. This seems appropriate, as CCY prides itself on emphasizing “process over product,” and that is certainly central to the way I teach. Many CCY students do not go on to pursue their art forms professionally, but they all are at the phase in their lives when it’s relevant to start contemplating the notion that a tangible goal can only lead to success and happiness if you embrace the process of getting there . . . and that the “there” is highly unlikely to remain static. Not everybody is blessed with a Dottie in their lives, but hopefully the spirit she embodies can be shared far and wide as people navigate the challenge of peeling their own metaphorical onions.