I have been attuned to the significance of Martin Luther King Day for my whole adult life. This year feels different, mostly because this occasion comes days before a particularly consequential change in our presidency. So that brings us, of course, to getting gross and painful butt boils.
It’s not a particularly fun topic, but I think now is the time. When I was in college I started having regular problems with painful, infected sores on my butt cheeks, bad enough to make sitting difficult (which is a particularly inconvenient obstacle for someone in music school to study the piano). At a certain point, a campus doctor who knew maybe a little about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (and who on that occasion was taking on the task of lancing a particularly agonizing boil) suggested that with my fragile tissue, this was perhaps an inevitability of sitting on hard benches, and perhaps I might benefit from using a cushion. So I stole one from my roommate’s couch, and when I remembered to use it started to experience much less of this problem . . . and when I didn’t remember, well, the results were predictable.
So, all of y’all who’ve seen me whip out a cushion when I have to sit virtually anywhere, this is why. And sometimes I don’t do it for any number of reasons. I don’t remember to bring it or I miscalculate the seat surfaces of wherever I’m going or I sit down unexpectedly without thinking much of it or I just determine that it’ll look stupid to do so and don’t want that. And sometimes I get away with it and sometimes I go back down the Road of Boils again.
So this past weekend I was in NYC on behalf of Resonant Motion, presenting at the National Conference for Chamber Music America. Specifically, I was organizing and moderating a panel discussion on Creating and Presenting Socially Conscious Art. It was an extremely important and gratifying experience, followed by some quality time with some inspiring people, one of whom joined me on the subway ride back. I was deep in conversation with him, overwhelmed by my awareness that less than 48 hours later I would be shifting gears to eulogizing my mother at her memorial, totally exhausted physically, carrying a lot of stuff, and emotionally overwhelmed by the awareness that I should have been commiserating with Claire about the whole experience before and after. So I didn’t feel like fishing through my backpack for my cushion and thus sat on the subway without it. When I got back to where I was staying and got ready for bed, I felt that certain irritation in my butt that suggested that I may have opened that unfortunate door (the back door, if you will). So as consciousness faded away, two things not directly butt-related bounced around my consciousness: Martin Luther King, and the upcoming shift in government.
In 2014, as I undertook the CD release tour for my Ripples album, I decided that I would eschew music in the many hours in the car and listen to speeches instead, about 85% of them Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. For full disclosure, I wasn’t actually looking to glean much from the content, which I had studied in such depth ten years earlier as I prepared the music for my “Soul Force” album, dedicated to his life and work. In this instance I had determined that my capacity to use my music in service of human transformation and social responsibility was being held back by limitations and flaws in my public speaking. As such, I was diving into hours of speeches by Dr. King primarily for the oratory itself. But, of course, I couldn’t help but pay attention to WHAT he was saying.
On that occasion what struck me most was how many of his speeches through the years focused on what in the grander scheme of his life’s work seems like minutiae. Yes, of course he was discussing the broader ideas and mandates of equality and justice, but so much of it was focused on very specific strategies. We mostly think of the Reverend in terms of how comprehensively he brought about change, and in that context it is sobering to hear him talking about a specific initiative in a specific city where he worked with citizens banding together to put pressure on a specific group of local stores to bring about greater opportunity and equity within that community’s economic and social landscape.
I wish I could claim to be sufficiently enlightened that my immediate response was one of inspiration, but actually my first response was that this was kind of depressing. I suppose I was naively looking for “this is how we will change everything!” – after all, who wants to hear a great leader and motivator talking about how they’ve almost figured out how to fix that leaky pipe under the bathroom sink. But I made myself sit with it and, of course, realized that this is what resistance and overcoming look like in real life. Shouting “viva la resistance” from the rooftop is important too, but doing the grunt work day in and day out on a consequential (even if comparatively unglamorous level) is utterly essential to real change. Just like my butt doesn’t care about all the reasons why I didn’t take care of it the other night (and it’s not going to issue a “no boils” edict because of that), the forces of oppression and greed aren’t going to wait for the forces of good to buck up emotionally or calculate a strategy. It’s the persistence in all the small stuff that is largely behind the transformation we celebrate this time every year.
And as we inhabit a time when it seems that there is a new threat every time we turn our heads, we must remember this. It is SO easy to get demoralized by the whole situation and feel as though there is nothing we can do. But each positive step we take is important. For some that will mean organizing protests or lobbying for specific policies. For some it will mean working to support those who are likely to become more vulnerable. For some it will mean simply taking care of themselves so they can recover from other challenges and remain in the game, so to speak. And this is likely to shift for a given individual. But just as using a cushion every day can keep my butt on the piano bench (and thus, if I dare say so, able to make an impact that way), consistent persistence in service of what we know to be right action is in and of itself a contribution to the world. Even if all we can do is keep ourselves strong and healthy and sane while we wait in the wings for the right occasion to stand up, that is in and of itself participation. Even if impact of our persistence is so local in scope that few take notice, we are still part of the greater good. As we march towards a time of challenge and uncertainty, we can also be marching to justice and freedom, remembering that such a march takes many steady steps. And to keep taking steady steps you need (in addition to a healthy butt) to remember what persistence is about.