Weekly newsletter 4.6.2021
Last week, I participated in a virtual event to honor the director of my college chorus and celebrate 40 years at the university. Preparing my remarks, intended to represent 40 years of alumnx, I reflected on her impact on me as a student and as a singer, but all roads led me to focusing on her impact on me as a person. She taught, modeled, and expected professionalism, expanded my musical imagination, and deepened my desire to hear more and different voices. Most importantly, she made a safe space for her students so we could be ourselves, and she gave us the tools and technique to bring out our talents and make the world just a little more beautiful.
I’m not the only person who lionizes a great director. Expertise with the music and conducting and developing programs to keep students and audiences engaged — these are the skills that are central to the job, but that’s not (just) what we remember. We remember the charisma. We remember the balance of levity and gravity that kept us stimulated and invited the fire of the music into our interior lives. We remember the eye contact they kept with us during performances, those locked gazes that simultaneously mitigated the anxieties triggered by performance, kept us on our toes, and made us feel seen and known. They looked out on seas of performers, sometimes dozens, sometimes hundreds, and somehow made us feel like the only one on stage, that made us feel like a star.
I sing a lot. I sing in the shower (usually along with blaring showtunes or Rufus Wainwright songs). I sing in the kitchen while I’m chopping and stirring. I sing while I’m folding laundry or rearranging books on the shelf. To the surprise (and maybe consternation) of other folks on the sidewalk or the paths around Green Lake or Lake Union, I sing while I’m on brisk walks around the city with Stella (usually songs featured in lip-syncs-for-your-life). Early in the pandemic, my husband and I found ourselves belting songs from Cabaret, creating our own little piano bar when we couldn’t gather anywhere else, but in the last year, I’ve been singing more and more. It’s become my antidote to current events, an outlet for the rage and anxiety that have built and built, and the only way to process the grief that the last year has surfaced. It’s not always beautiful, but it works for me.
Jon Batiste’s new album (check Good Stuff below for my general gushing about the album) finishes with “Sing,” celebrating the bolstering, uplifting, saving effects of music. Hearing the song over and over (I’ve been listening to the album obsessively in the last week), I’m more aware that the ultimate impact of the tools and techniques I developed with her guidance isn’t just making the world (or, at least, my world) a little more beautiful. They connect me to others when I feel disconnected. They connect me to feelings I’d buried or forgotten, and they create a space to access and understand new ones. They give me a language to communicate and understand people in ways that conventional language falls short.
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- Guided Meditations | Mondays, 4:00pm PST & Thursdays, 9am PST (starting April 8!) via Zoom
- Madonna: a case study in religion & pop culture | 5-week symposium, part of Tacoma Arts Live’s Adult Conservatory, on Thursdays at 7:00pm PST begins on April 15. Sign up here!
- Good Stuff IV | 4-week symposium on Mondays at 5:00pm PST begins on May 3. Sign up here!
- Religion in film: a case study in religion & pop culture | 4-week symposium on Tuesdays at 5:00pm PST begins on May 4. Sign up here!
Guided meditations via Zoom continue Mondays at 4:00pm PST, and (drumroll, please!) starting this week on Thursdays at 9:00am PST! These morning (on the West Coast)/mid-day (on the East Coast)/evening (wherever else you might be) sessions will be just like the Monday session — our aim is to practice being present and finding a little peace and quiet. If you’ve already signed up for Monday meditations, there’s no need to sign up again — the weekly reminder email will include links to both Monday and Thursday sessions. If you or someone you know could use a 20–30 minute dose of peace and quiet on Mondays or Thursdays, visit the meditation page on my site to sign up!
Registration for the Good Stuff IV and Religion in film: a case study in religion and pop culture symposia is open! What, exactly, is a symposium? It’s a chance for a group of people to connect, experience something, and engage in meaningful conversation. Check out my website for more information and to sign up. Interested? More info and registration are here. Symposia are limited to 10 participants and need 4 to run — if you’ve thought about participating, now is the time to sign up!
In addition to the Good Stuff and Good habits symposia, I’ll be facilitating a symposium on Madonna Studies as part of Tacoma Arts Live’s Adult Conservatory. This symposium will meet on Thursdays for five weeks beginning April 15. To sign up, visit Tacoma Arts Live’s Adult Classes & Outreach page. If you know any Madonnawannabes or anyone who wants to participate in the amazing work of Tacoma Arts Live, you can point them to the symposium’s Facebook page, too.
At my first school, students culminated their high school experience with the Senior Project, a five- or six-week internship that concluded with a presentation to their classmates and a handful of faculty about their work, what they learned, how they applied the skills they developed in school, and how they grew. As one of the teachers tasked with evaluating presentations, seeing the ways that students were ready for their next step into the world was heartening, and through them I learned about local organizations and life outside of school. One year, a student interned at Grassroots International, and her presentation not only detailed the tasks she was given (like developing the format and creating slides for “house parties,” gatherings that invited small groups to learn about and engage the issues that the organization worked to address) but also gave me a window into a different realm of human rights and social justice work. I’ve been a fan and supporter ever since. Like many organizations, Grassroots International supports development and social justice movements around the world, but their approach through solidarity philanthropy is distinct. Instead of importing American-conceived solutions to communities around the world, they’ve worked to build partnerships with local organizations to promote climate justice, human rights, food sovereignty, movement building, resource rights, and sustainable livelihoods. Additionally, they produce materials to promote their and their partners’ efforts and for educators to integrate into their teaching.
A year ago, Arundhati Roy published “The pandemic is a portal” and anticipated not only the devastation that a global pandemic would wreak but also the opportunity that it and previous pandemics have offered.
What is this thing that has happened to us?…
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
She couldn’t have known that June would bring awareness of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and inspire outrage and activism on behalf of Black lives. She couldn’t have known that inequities in our country and around the world would be exacerbated and magnified. She couldn’t have anticipated the spike in violence against Asians and Asian-Americans and the solidarity among marginalized groups that followed. She couldn’t have known than transgender people would be so acutely targeted. Looking back, Roy’s words are almost prophetic — “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality” — and the question she poses is pressing: If this is a portal, will we choose to walk through it? What are we going to bring with us — the “carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies,” or the raw materials of a better world?
You might recognize Jon Batiste from his gig on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Or from Pixar’s most recent attempt at an Oscars-sweep, Soul. You may not recognize him at all, but he’s having a moment, propelled not just by his rising popularity and Oscar nomination but also by his new album, We Are. I have a hard time categorizing the sound — like his native New Orleans, it’s a little bit of everything and so much more than the sum of its parts. The songs were mostly written before 2020, the album feels like a conduit for all the emotions that have been stoked in the last year — fear, anger, grief, and, once in a while, explosive joy. Batiste published a “Visual Mission Statement” that mixes all those feelings and lifts up four themes that drive the album…and that could serve as a kind of daily mantra for all of us to move forward: lineage, authenticity, excellence, evolution. The whole album is worth a listen, but if you’re looking for a little taste of that explosive joy, check out “I Need You.” And if you really need a smile or want to see art come to life, watch the “I Need You” video.
If you stream music on Spotify, I’ve started a playlist called “Bill’s Good Stuff,” including music I’ve loved for a long time as well as things I’ve come across more recently. Feel free to add the playlist to your favorites! Bill’s Good Stuff Spotify Playlist
For this week’s meditation, I used a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.