World Tai Chi and Qigong Day 2022

Each year, groups around the world observe international Tai Chi and Qigong Day on the first Sunday of April. This is a way of signaling support to others around the globe that individual and group practices resonate beyond local and national boundaries.

It was a rainy morning in Seattle, but folks from the Embrace the Moon Studio gathered in Volunteer Park for group practice. I participated, and also took photographs until raindrops began to land on the camera lens. Here are a few photos of Luohan 18 Hand Qigong, one of the more athletic Qigong styles.

If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, you can check out an earlier post on this topic, A Brief Overview of Tai Chi and Qigong.

 

 

A Brief overview of Qigong and Tai Chi

One of life’s basic lessons is that we cannot halt the natural progression of aging. However, we can gift ourselves with opportunities for regular movement and exercise. Tai Chi and Qigong are two ways of promoting wellness. They are low cost, require no special equipment, and can be as easy (or as challenging) to learn as you might wish. And they can be meaningful social experiences. Which means we might very well stick with them for awhile!

The Mandarin Chinese characters for Qigong are pronounced “Chee” as in “cheese” and “gong” like a metal disc struck to make a sound. (Alternate spellings include “Qi gong” and “Chi Kung.”) Possible English translations include “Life Energy cultivation” or “working with Life Energy.” Modern teachers of Qigong develop sets of exercises that range from simple to challenging. On one hand, picture an older person with limited mobility, breathing and moving with ease and grace. Or imagine a Shaolin monk demonstrating superb physical and mental control during martial arts training. Those are two ends of a spectrum–Qigong is adaptable to the person and the situation. Most Americans start Qigong later in life, beginning with simple sets of movements that promote muscle tone, balance, and focused attention. There is no winning or losing, just practice.

Generally speaking, a session includes some dynamic exercises to enhance breathing, circulation, and ease of movement in the joints and spine. Self-massage targets acupressure points and easing of muscular tensions. Flowing movements offer gentle exercise of various muscle groups. The meditative and centering quality of Qigong can be especially appealing.

In Tai Chi, we learn a prescribed series of movements over a period of months, and through repetition, the experience of movement and attention deepens. Typically, Tai Chi involves movement in a larger space than needed for Qigong, and more footwork. A longer study of Tai Chi may lead to martial arts training. Yet as with Qigong, simpler Tai Chi forms are easy to learn and enjoyable. Some modern teachers are developing new styles that attempt a fusion of Tai Chi and Qigong principles. (A popular style in this category is the Shibashi 18 set.)

Within a larger framework of Integrative Medicine and wellness care, current research points to a range of benefits from both Tai Chi and Qigong.  Peer-reviewed studies (e.g., National Institutes of Health, the New England Journal of Medicine) suggest that regular practice can offer improvements in joint and bone health, muscular strength and balance, blood pressure, and relief from symptoms of stress and chronic pain.  If you are challenged by physical or mobility issues, Qigong might be especially helpful, as exercises can be adapted or modified for particular needs.

Several published books and online resources for Qigong and Tai Chi are available. These can be recommended as an introduction. However, the best way to learn about Qigong and Tai Chi is with a qualified instructor, in the company of others who can support you in your exploration and practice. GenPride currently offers online sessions, while Seattle Parks and Recreation offers in-person opportunities. Instructors may also offer small group or individual lessons upon request.

To read more about the wellness benefits of Tai Chi and Qigong, visit:

https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/tai-chi/art-20045184

https://www.longwhitecloudqigong.com/what-are-the-benefits-of-qigong/

Gerald is a certified instructor of Long White Cloud Qigong, and currently enrolled at Seattle’s Embrace the Moon Tai Chi / Qigong studio with Kim Ivy.

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh–reflections

Over the past month, I have been watching live stream videos on the Plum Village YouTube channel. This is the Buddhist monastery and practice center established by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, whose recent death at 95 has provoked a flurry of interest in his life and work. The hundreds of thousands of people spending time on the channel are an indicator of his global reputation. As a student of comparative religion, “Thay” and his teaching deeply influenced my thinking about Buddhism, Christianity, and community. Some written reflections feel both necessary and appropriate. 

The legacies Thay leaves us are many. At the core of his work is the establishment of a 20th-century Buddhist lineage, the Order of Interbeing. The order now has monasteries for men and women in the United States and Europe, including Plum Village in France and Deer Park in California. There are also myriad lay practice groups supporting meditation and mindfulness. And there is a catalog of some one hundred books, written primarily by Thay himself or with the assistance of students and editors. Topics include mindfulness, compassionate communication, conflict resolution, new translations of classical sutras (scriptures), and explications of Buddhist psychology and philosophy. Some of these books became best-sellers translated into several languages. Backing up all of this is a publishing house–Parallax Press–dedicated to books on the Dharma (teaching) and related topics. Audiobooks and YouTube video talks by Thay and senior students further spread his teaching. And there are many articles, essays, poems, calligraphies, and commentaries.

Videos of week-long ceremonies provide a glimpse into life at Thay’s root temple in Vietnam, and into practices and rituals in affiliated monasteries around the world. In these live streams, there is no rush, no hurry–everything seems to be in slow motion. Chanting, bows and prostrations, and quiet seated meditation go on and on. Ancient rituals are enacted by hundreds of people–monks, nuns, pallbearers, and lay groups. From Plum Village, running commentary in soft and reverent voices falls on the ear like a gentle sportscast. We hear Vietnamese, French, and a simultaneous English translation. Cameras are everywhere. Thousands line the roads for miles, and many bow and prostrate themselves on the ground as Thay’s funeral casket rolls by. One of Thay’s core teachings is that there is no true separation between one person and another, or one part of the world from another. The idea of separation, of “us” and “them,” is a fiction created by our minds. Rather, everything is interconnected. We “inter-be” or “inter-are.” The myriad electronic signals going out in all directions point to this truth.

Thay developed a framework for an “engaged Buddhism” with a concern for social justice, the environment, and interfaith dialogue. In contrast to (most) other Buddhist communities focused on meditation, he welcomed families and children to practice mindfulness as laypeople. Millions around the globe have been touched in some way by his teaching, and many have embraced his vision of a refreshed, contemporary tradition of Buddhist practice that is adaptable across cultures.

As for Western countries, the flourishing of Buddhist practice outside of immigrant communities is scarcely a generation old. “Insight Meditation” pioneers such as Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg transplanted seeds of classical “Theravada” Buddhism from Asia to American soil. Shunryu Suzuki embodied the Soto Zen tradition from Japan, and Seung Sahn brought Korean Soen (Zen) first to the United States and then to Europe. Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chödrön have written eloquently on Tibetan traditions and the transformative potential of personal meditation practice. But it is not an exaggeration to say that Thich Nhat Hanh is second only to the Dalai Lama as an evangelist for the relevance of Buddhist ethics and practices in modern Western life and culture.

Thay’s biography is extraordinary, and not totally without controversy. As a young monk, he lost both family members and friends in the Vietnam conflict, and worked to help refugees from the war. The term “Engaged Buddhism” appeared prominently in his early work Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire. He would go on to become an international student at Princeton Theological Seminary, a guest lecturer at American schools, and a peace activist, traveling around the globe to meet with antiwar groups, religious leaders, and journalists. One of his most famous dialogues was with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. This international attention did not play well back home. Exiled from Vietnam in 1966, he eventually found a home in France. It was 2004 before he was allowed to return to Vietnam for a visit. Following a debilitating stroke in 2015, he was allowed to return to his root temple to live out his remaining years.

Letting go gives freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything–anger, anxiety, or possessions–we cannot be free. (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching.)

After his association with Dr. King, Thay became a celebrity, traveling with an entourage and a security detail. Similarities with the Dalai Lama come to mind. No less a pop culture icon than Oprah Winfrey had him as a guest on her nationally syndicated talk show. Which provokes a question–in all these remembrances and expressions of regret on Thay’s passing, how many people are responding to his celebrity status, more than to his teachings themselves? We can’t really know the answer, and we can’t really know anyone’s hearts. What each of us hears, reads, or experiences can change our perspective in profoundly private ways. For some, celebrity is anathema to a sincere spiritual life. Yet celebrity can prompt curiosity, which in turn prompts engagement with the teachings.

Thay’s work as an interfaith leader is perhaps best illustrated by his book Living Buddha, Living Christ. His method was ingeniously simple–take passages from Buddhist sutras (scriptures) and the New Testament, place them on opposing pages, and let the reader reflect on parallels and commonalities. This framed an extended conversation between the two traditions, rather than proclaiming the superiority of one belief system over another. In the Christian tradition, this type of interfaith dialogue was also being encouraged by theologians such as Thomas Merton and Hans Küng, both of whom met with Thay personally and through letters. Of course, many have felt (and continue to feel) wounded by the politics, sexism, and dogmatism of religious traditions in which they grew up. If one renounces those traditions, there are many other movements and groups that may provide an alternative. However, there is then a risk of being caught up in an immature relationship with gurus and “New Age” thinking. Such encounters may bring some sort of insight, but also lead to a dead end. The kind of dialogue modeled in Living Buddha, Living Christ seemed to offer an alternative to both fundamentalism and relativism.

Really hearing a bird sing or really seeing the blue sky, we touch the seed of the Holy Spirit within us. Discussing God is not the best use of our energy. If we touch the Holy Spirit, we touch God not as a concept but as a living reality. (Living Buddha, Living Christ)

In my own life, Thay’s books appeared at a time I needed them. Caught in the grip of depression from personal loss and career disappointments, The Miracle of Mindfulness * was the most useful of self-help books I turned to. Psychotherapy was certainly beneficial, as were antidepressants. But I can credit my therapist with pointing out that while some of life’s problems are psychological, others are spiritual. I sought out one of the Plum Village lay practice groups in Los Angeles, and later spent a few weekends at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido. One takeaway from these experiences was a way of understanding suffering without taking it personally. Can we know the causes of suffering? Can suffering be transformed into happiness? Thay’s writings offer mindfulness as a practical and immediately available medicine for the daily and chronic unease we may experience. More often than not, we have all we need, if only we learn to notice the rhythms and small miracles of our daily lives. Cultivating awareness around our sense perceptions can be an ongoing practice, whether sitting on a meditation cushion or engaged in daily activities–eating, washing dishes, doing laundry. And perhaps most importantly, mindfulness can be practiced in our relationships with others. This is a central axiom in Thay’s teaching about compassionate communication and conflict resolution.

( * In a Fresh Air interview with Krista Tippett on NPR, Thay shared that The Miracle of Mindfulness had its origins as a field manual for relief workers in Vietnam. They were suffering from stress and anxiety as they worked to help myriad homeless people left bereft displaced by the war. Later, the manual was expanded and translated into English, becoming one of his best-selling books.)

To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now. (Touching Peace: The Art of Mindful Living)

In Thay’s more scholarly works on Buddhist psychology and philosophy, one encounters the mind of a professor. As I have that kind of mind, it felt as if I had found a high-class teacher that I never needed to meet in person. Yet after a time, books are only blueprints for thinking and practice. If our path takes us to a spiritual restaurant, we don’t want to confuse the menu with the meal, lest we end up chewing on paper. Thay was a monk who taught the virtues of living simply, with constant attention to the smallest details of our daily routines and habits. “Breathe, you are alive” is one of several gathas (sayings) assuring us we need not look far from our own experience for encouragement and peace. That is practical advice, and no intellectual constructs are needed to fully experience the “present moment.”

Many who are drawn to spiritual life and practice feel like outsiders looking in, be it for reasons of race, gender, sexuality, or intellectual independence. Personal psychological or spiritual work is our individual responsibility, but it can feel lonely at times. After all, human beings are social creatures. The Buddhist concept of sangha (community) allows for many ways to organize groups of monastics, dedicated laity, and secular students of meditation and Dharma (teaching). The myriad lay practice groups affiliated with the Plum Village tradition strongly emphasize community and social support. There are no memberships, no financial commitments, no insistence on believing a certain set of dogmas, and no gurus. On this last point, some people certainly placed Thay in that role. Human tendencies to cede spiritual autonomy to charismatic figures should not be underestimated. Lay practice groups function as egalitarian spaces for exploration and support. At their best, those spaces offer refuge and a sense of belonging even while preserving ethical and personal boundaries.

Throughout my life, I have been fascinated by spiritual teachers who have made a profound impact, skeptical of the organizations that grow up around them, and disillusioned in the end by their all too human failings. The hijacking of American Evangelical Christianity by opportunists pursuing secular power in politics is perhaps the most egregious example. Many Catholics also continue to wrestle with cognitive dissonance. The church advocates for families, respect for life, and social justice. And yet the patriarchy persists, with women still excluded from vocations in the priesthood. And the church is still embroiled in the aftermath of systemic sexual abuse of children. In several Asian countries, Buddhist nationalism is a source of conflict and suffering, directly contradicting its central messages of wisdom and compassion for others. And in the West, a patriarchal ethos still is evident in many Buddhist communities. All of which is to say that putting a spiritual teacher or religious organization on a pedestal likely will lead to disappointment.

If you crave acceptance and recognition and try to change yourself to fit what other people want you to be, you will suffer all your life. (The Art of Power)

Thay’s teaching resonates because he tells us, in myriad ways, that there is ultimately no inside or outside, no us and them–if only we look deeply into our experience as human beings. Interbeing means that as we take care of ourselves, we take care of the world. And as we take care of the world, we take care of ourselves. The truth of statements like these is not to be found in dogma or logical proofs, but rather in constant attention to the small details of our lived experience. You do not need to identify as a Buddhist to learn and grow through Buddhist teachings.

This year’s myriad ceremonies, chants, and songs around the world honor Thay’s life and work on a global scale. With an international organization to carry his legacy forward, I wonder if the seeds of mythology have now been planted. Legends and stories from the “Golden Age” of China’s Tang Dynasty often feature anecdotes about Zen Buddhist masters. These were men (and women) grounded in wisdom and confidence. They established lineages of Buddhist practice, and their stories tell how gods and humans came to realization and enlightenment. Centuries later, we hear stories about Bodhidharma, Master Rinzai, and Laywoman Pang. And if we don’t know who they were, then we have heard of legendary yoga masters, or Christian saints, and a pantheon of prophets ancient and modern. Centuries from now, will Thay appear in similar stories?

If you have read this far, you may wish to spend a few more minutes with a slideshow autobiography. The pictures may help some of these words come to life.

 

FLEE — review and reflections

(ca. 1200 words, 3-4 min read time)

FLEE (2021) is an animated film making waves on the independent festival circuit (Cannes, Sundance, et al). I saw it on a $5 budget day, at what may be one of the last remaining independent movie houses in the Pacific Northwest—the Crest Cinema in Shoreline. It is a theater much like the first Nickelodeon in Boston, where I worked during my student years. I was happy to settle into this vintage theater’s ambiance to experience a highly unusual film.

FLEE’s screenplay is by Afghan author Amin Nawabi and Danish director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. The British actor Rizwan Ahmed (Emmy Award) and Dane Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Primetime Emmy nominee, Game of Thrones) voice the two main characters, and also serve as executive producers. FLEE is now Denmark’s official submission for the “Best International Feature Film” category of the 2022 Academy Awards. It has also been shortlisted for “Best Documentary Feature.”

The animation is mostly hand-drawn, much like a graphic novel come to life. At critical points, archival newsreel footage unspools to anchor the story in its historical context. The screenplay of FLEE is based on Nawabi’s own life. At 36, he is a successful academic planning to marry his Danish boyfriend. Yet a secret he has been hiding for more than 20 years looms ever larger. We eventually learn that this is tied to the day he arrived in Denmark. The true circumstances of Amin’s story could not be told, lest he find himself in danger of losing his relationship, his position, and his home.

In a narrative that develops in episodic fits and starts, Amin relates his life’s story to Jonas. The two had met as young men, lost touch, and then reconnected as adults. One trauma is the loss of a father to the repressive Afghan politics of his youth. A second is the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Amin’s family flees, taking only what they can carry. Stateless, they eventually arrive in Moscow and go into hiding from the corrupt local police. After long months, the family collects enough money to pay traffickers to smuggle them out of Russia, with the goal of joining Amin’s oldest brother in Sweden. The sisters go first but barely survive the trip, locked with others in a crate on a freighter. A year later, Amin, his other brother, and their mother buy passage on a smuggler’s boat, again with the hope of reaching Sweden. Adrift in storms on the Baltic sea, the leaky boat eventually encounters a Norwegian cruise liner. The joy of rescue is visceral, but Amin is numb, and his instincts are proven right. The Norwegians alert the Estonian National Guard, and the boat’s refugee passengers are taken back to Tallin and placed in detention. And so it goes, on and on, a grim chronicle of events particular to Amin’s life. But these particulars might be generalized to any refugee fleeing from danger and seeking safety.

Amin’s biography unfolds in memories, some clear and detailed, others vague and fleeting. The animation provides a surprising and flexible way to bring his dreamscape to life—and to emphasize the continuing sense of fragility and hypervigilance he feels in the present. The main characters are given simple outlines, with some thickness, as if drawn with a marker. Lines, slashes, and curves give us eyes, noses, arms, and hands. Colors seem chosen to correspond with mood—grey for anxious, blue for open skies and relief, mixed palettes for nighttime and city scenes. Some characters are fully animated with faces, clothing, and personalities depicted by their movements. Others appear as wraiths or faceless sketches in motion, appearing and then evaporating in moments of anxiety or terror. Thankfully, there are also occasional moments of tenderness and humor, signaled by a movement, gesture, or wink of an eye. Once the viewer acclimates to the style, the artificiality of the animation no longer disturbs, but rather invites continued attention to details.

As the family faces one challenge after another, Amin’s inner life is also gradually revealed–especially his attempts to understand his same-sex attractions. As a gender-fluid boy with a penchant for wearing his sister’s dresses, he was the center of doting attention. As a teen, blending into the background becomes an essential survival skill. This is not a story of a young man’s sexual awakening, and Amin’s fantasies exist mostly in his mind. Spending much of his youth in hiding, the relationships he forms with other teens are fleeting. So while FLEE’s main theme is the search for a safe place to call home, it also about breaking out of a closet of shame and fear around sexuality. By the end of the film, rescue on both fronts mercifully appears to be within reach.

My knowledge of refugee crises over the years is superficial and fleeting. I certainly knew of “boat people” from Haiti and Vietnam. As a student, the plight of refugees was the topic of college classes, occasional church sermons, and reading or watching the news. The reality became a bit closer during the time I lived in Germany, where one might occasionally meet a stateless cleaner (like Amin’s brother) in the theater, or a youngster selling drinks at soccer games. And the recent catastrophes in Syria certainly fueled waves of stateless migrants into the EU. Different countries, but somehow the same stories. Of course, immigration debates during the Trump campaign and presidency brought the topic of “illegal aliens” back to the center of national discourse in the USA. Refugee waves in Europe and Asia may seem removed from our experience as Americans, but the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the southern border swept up hundreds of Amins. For those migrants, it might be years before family reunifications are accomplished, if they are possible at all.

One of the more visceral aspects of FLEE is experiencing human trafficking through Amin’s eyes. The film does not shy away from presenting the gritty ugliness of its situations, but it balances that with flashes of beauty. More fundamentally, FLEE points to the inherent fictions and inequities of national borders, and how the preservation of those borders leads to continual violence and cruelty. The film itself takes no political stand, but challenges the viewer to fully face the suffering that nation-states can inflict on vulnerable individuals.

I experienced both unease and fascination while watching FLEE. And I found myself invested in the characters and situations. Perhaps FLEE will one day appear as a graphic novel–certainly, the animation could easily be re-purposed for this format. Voiced in Danish, Russian and Dari with subtitles, FLEE could be a heavy lift for some viewers. For me, the two hours spent in the theater brought ample rewards. I left the theater grateful for a rich and ultimately hopeful film about one family’s strength and resilience, and its youngest child’s journey from boyhood to his adult present.

Here is a link to the official trailer for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

 

 

Getting back in the game

January 2022, singing with the professional Evensong choir at Epiphany Parish in Seattle. (Perhaps the best group I have ever worked with in a church setting.) I am on the right with the orange-ish mask.

Reflections on personal concerns, and a wider view of our social predicament. (Ca. 1200 words, est. 4 min. read time)

The pandemic has been, well, stressful. Performing artists in all disciplines are gradually emerging from a period of unease, frustration, and disappointment. For singers especially, we needed first to understand–and then to accept–that SARS COV-2 was a respiratory virus transmitted through the air by aerosols. Among others, we can thank the National Association of Teachers of Singing for research that informed general guidelines for singers and singing teachers. It was this research that convinced me that public singing (indoors, at least) would need to be set aside, at least for a time. This began a hiatus that lasted more than a year and a half. (During this period, I worked on the Dog Days Poetry Gallery, which will be the topic of a future post.)

I regretfully gave up working with different two ensembles. It was not that these groups ceased to meet. Rather, it was that the groups’ leaders downplayed risks. It is difficult to say whether this was a misunderstanding of the situation, benign negligence, or sheer denial. Perhaps some combination of all of these was in play. And to be fair, continuing business as usual may not have been their call. In churches, music directors answer to Bishops, Rectors, and governing boards. Of course, deflection around risk happened across the economy. Though generalizations are slippery, the more invested an organization was in maintaining business “as usual,” the squishier it was in protecting worker safety. Moreover, guidance from municipal authorities was often confusing or contradictory. And certainly, there was a perfect storm of libertarian impulses and misinformation in the echo chambers of social media, podcasts, and talk radio. Living in “red” Georgia during 2020 and 2021, I experienced resistance and cognitive dissonance to masking, distancing, and vaccines in every public space I found myself in.

As the pandemic dragged on, some singers and ensembles pivoted into online spaces to continue producing work. I know a few of these folks, and I followed their endeavors with interest. View counters on YouTube and Vimeo pages certainly don’t tell the whole story. But the trade-offs between time invested and audience interest often seemed discouraging. For a few of these intrepid producers of digital content, paying viewers and listeners followed. For many others, they did not. Singers and players who depended on teaching income had some luck so long as they were able to equip themselves for teaching in online spaces. Others (including me) had neither the space nor the resources to do so. Many of us encountered the same economic disruptions of the pandemic that challenged restauranteurs, salons, or any other business directly serving customers at close quarters.

Some commentators are now proclaiming that the worst is over, even as Omicron infections are still cresting in many parts of the country. Many places in the USA are still resisting or dropping masking, to say nothing of continued resistance to vaccination. Only today, I received an email notice from a (former) director stating that planned choir services were canceled–too many members were out sick (presumably with Omicron). Currently, I am in Seattle, where compliance with public health guidelines is generally high. Yet the volunteer Cathedral choir is–again–on hiatus as members test positive.

Certainly, the continuation of the pandemic is in part a consequence of failed leadership and mistaken ideas about freedom. Both in the political sphere and many “essential” workplaces, expediency has often overruled prudence and safety. But politics and economics are not the only factors at work. We should not discount our natural, human impulses to steer a course back to some sort of “normal.” And sometimes, even our best intentions and practices don’t shield us from bad luck. Human beings who love to sing want to be together and make music. It is difficult to balance risk and reward not only in group singing, but in life.

As we move into 2022, many in-person singing ensembles are again meeting and presenting work. Though still a questionable call for some, most of us deriving part of our income from this work are back in the game. But enjoyment is elusive. For myself, I have internalized a sense of vigilance and unease that needs to be acknowledged and worked with as we all move forward. I find myself wondering about decisions around spacing, room ventilation, and the (understandable) tendency to drop social distancing if everyone is masked. And try singing for an hour while standing in front of an open window with a strong draft, wearing a cap and gloves, and a KN95. Perhaps we are channeling our ancestors who sang in winter in unheated churches!

On a practical level, many singers need to get back not only their mojo, but also their technical chops. Like any athlete who has been out of the game for a long period, gradual re-training on a sensible technical foundation is necessary. As we rehabilitate our vocal techniques, we are also working with the constraints of masking–and those constraints are not insignificant for breathing, resonance, and a sense of ease. They are, however, required if we are to balance risk and reward. And with masking, ensemble directors are needing to sharpen their ears even more, as the visual cues they seek from the faces of singers and players are absent with masking.

In my own practice, I did not fully understand what needed attention until I was back to singing in rehearsals and services. Though I didn’t necessarily embarrass myself, it certainly was not my “A” game. My voice teacher brain can guide me through this rehabilitation process, but it may be a while before high-level singing feels free and easy.

I started the pandemic with training in contact tracing, and have continued to serve as a volunteer on a community committee looking at data around Covid safety. Mask efficacy, airflow studies, cases numbers, and trends all occupy a lot of real estate in my brain. As the Omicron variant subsides, we will find ourselves in an endemic scenario, rather than a pandemic. However, the probability of future variants down the road is high. Those of us who weathered the storm may be breathing a sigh of relief, but heavy rains will continue.

By the time Omicron is behind us, and assuming another variant does not extend the game of virus whack a mole, the USA will have lost upwards of a million or more people to Covid. Many more lives will continue to collide with challenges in the aftermath. This has been a wrenching, generational calamity that has exposed both our weaknesses and our resilience. In the big picture, Americans and other Western countries have been fortunate to have access to medical care, vaccines, and the Web for remote work and distance learning. But we should forget that these affordances are lacking for many in other countries. That so many Americans would forego vaccines and simple masking, even as people fell ill and died in the thousands and then hundreds of thousands, remains baffling and points to disturbing truths about our society and culture. Textbooks and case studies in psychology, sociology, and public health will be grappling with this disconnect for years to come.

In the realm of the professional performing arts, perhaps we have learned to be more empathetic and forgiving to ourselves and of our colleagues. The professional musician game is familiar, and high standards are (usually) the norm. But those standards can at times be needlessly stringent and unforgiving. If we are now able to sing or play music together, perhaps we can do so with gratitude and hearts that have grown.

 

 

Favorite Photos from 2021

Early in 2021, I finally replaced my older Canon camera that was stolen in 2020. My pandemic era budget was limited, and it took some thinking! Eventually, I chose a Lumix DMC-ZS60, which ended up being a very good value for the money.  I have taken hundreds of photos over the year in a dizzying array of places and situations. Here are (some) of the best ones posted on my Facebook feed. (Click on any photo to switch to a Gallery view.)

 

 

Lo Zampognaro (Gianni Rodari)

LO ZAMPOGNARO (The Bagpipers)
(Free English translation by G. Seminatore)

Gianni Francesco Rodari (Italia 1920-80)

An Italian writer and journalist who wrote popular works of children’s literature. He received the biennial international Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1970.

 
 

Gerald reads Lo Zampognaro in Italian.
(The link will open in a new table so you can follow along with the translation.)

Se comandasse lo zampognaro che scende per il viale,
Sai che cosa direbbe il giorno di Natale?

If the bagpipers piping down the avenue ruled,
What would they say on Christmas Day?

Voglio che in ogni casa spunti dal pavimento
un albero fiorito di stelle d’oro e d’argento.

I want, in every house, growing from the floor,
A
flowering tree of gold and silver stars.

Se comandasse il passero che sulla neve zampetta,
Sai che cosa direbbe con la voce che cinguetta?

If the sparrow pawing on the snow commanded it,
What it would say with its chirping voice?

Voglio che i bimbi trovino, quando il lume sarà acceso,
Tutti i doni sognati, più uno, per buon peso.

I want the children to find, when daylight appears,
All the gifts they dreamed of, plus one more for good measure.

Se comandasse il pastore dal presepe di cartone,
Sai che legge farebbe firmandola col lungo bastone?

If the shepherd in the cardboard nativity scene were a king,
What law he would make and sign with his staff?

Voglio che oggi non pianga nel mondo un solo bambino,
Che abbiano lo stesso sorriso il bianco, il moro, il giallino.

I command that not a single child in all the world will cry,
For they all have the same smile —white, dark brown, yellow.

Sapete che cosa vi dico io che non comando niente?
Tutte queste belle cose accadranno facilmente;

You know what I tell you?
All these beautiful things will happen easily, though I do not command anything.

Se ci diamo la mano i miracoli si fanno
E il giorno di Natale durerà tutto l’anno.

If we only shake hands, miracles are performed,
And Christmas day lasts all year.

West Side Story (2021)–exhilarating, provocative, and worth seeing more than once

AT THE MOVIES: Many films just come and go for me, but this one stirred up some strong feelings. My enthusiasm led to an argument with a friend who chastised me for alleged nostalgia. A recommendation elicited yawns from a colleague. After reading other reviews, I felt restless and dissatisfied, so I wrote my own.

The new film version of “West Side Story” is a masterpiece, albeit with occasional plot jumps and tonal inconsistencies. But every musical has those. The 1957 original’s creative team was Arthur Laurents (book and screenplay), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Jerome Robbins (choreography). Often, “West Side Story” is simply presented as a re-telling of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in contemporary terms. And the source material certainly shaped the story. But focusing solely on teenage desire and angst would be missing the point. There are deeper, fundamental questions that don’t lead to easy or comfortable answers. What does it mean to be an “American?” How does it feel to aspire to the “American Dream,” and how does it feel when it has passed you by?

First, to acknowledge an elephant in the room. Some recent commentators have asserted that “West Side Story” should disappear as a relic of a colonialist and white supremacist mindset. And the conversation also revolves around appropriation and who can “authentically” speak about the lived experiences of people different than ourselves. Granted, representation in the Broadway show’s and 1961 film’s casting was a problem. And certainly, the work trafficked in stereotypes of Puerto Ricans. Of course, Puerto Rico is unusual in its status as a US territory (since 1898). While remaining largely self-governing, the island often has an uneasy relationship with the mainland. (See the Trump administration as a recent example.) Movements for island statehood have ebbed and flowed without ever really cresting. Is Puerto Rico truly part of the USA, or not? In the 1950s world of the film, the answer is either a defiant no or an optimistic yes. The no is from the white citizens (themselves often from immigrant backgrounds), while the yes is from those hoping to have a better life in their new country. Ostensibly, the conflict between the rival gangs of the Jets and the Sharks is over territory, but it’s really about this question of who is an “American,” who is an outsider, and who is where in the social hierarchy. It may seem that American society has advanced beyond the crude binaries presented by the Jets and Sharks in the 1950s. But if we are honest, “West Side Story” remains a parable for America in the 21st century.

As for representation, this new production actively recruited and cast Puerto Rican actors in many of the roles, embraced some (untranslated) Spanish dialogue, and called upon cultural historians to help shape the film’s depictions of time, place, and daily life. Many of the characters seem to aspire to assimilation into society on the mainland, but there are also explicit nods to a dream of the islands’ independence. For some commentators and critics, these attempts at representation, authenticity, and nuance are not sufficient. For a few, they are futile gestures. Yet for (many) others, the new film rehabilitates an iconic work of American theater for modern audiences. And finally, viewers with no experience of the original show or film will see and hear the work through fresh eyes and ears.

Tony Kushner give us a nuanced portray of the rival gangs– the rival Jets and Sharks. The screenplay adds dimension and complexity to the original’s source material. Their female companions are also drawn with a finer brush. Kushner’s expansion and reimagining of the story also point to the artificiality of singing — the same problem faced by any musical aspiring to be compelling drama. There must be an agreement between authors and audience to accept both spoken dialogue and singing as part of the same storytelling experience. Once agreed to, (many) narrative contradictions largely resolve themselves in a willing suspension of disbelief. As with “1776,” “Hamilton,” “La La Land,” or indeed any work in the American musical genre, the stories are told partially, largely, or completely in song. It is ultimately on the viewer to either engage with the work, or not.

Rachel Zegler’s portrayal of Maria is Juliet in another time and place, and her singing satisfies. Ansel Elgort’s Tony has come in for occasional critical knocks, but he does justice to the material, and then some. And he sings well, with a flexible timbre and vulnerability. Mike Faist’s layered Riff startles in the seeming contradiction of his love for Tony and the Jets, and the free rein he gives to his darker impulses. (His last moments with Tony are arresting in their finality.) David Alvarez’s suave and pugilistic Bernardo is so much more than the caricature of the 1961 film. As Chino says, Bernardo is a fool, but a fool with the charisma needed to balance the magnetism and strength of Ariana DeBose’s Anita. Debose has big shoes to fill, for the original Anita (Rita Moreno) is also here, cast in the newly imagined role of Doc’s widow Valentina. And Moreno is the pole star of the entire enterprise. Tony delivering “Something’s Coming” not to himself as an inner monologue, but rather to Valentina as a statement of joyful possibility, is a masterstroke by Kushner. The number builds a bridge of respect and affection between two generations of performers. And “Somewhere,” which Moreno delivers as a weary and vulnerable monologue about love and loss, may bring tears to your eyes.

Beyond the performances of the principals, the ensembles shine. The singing and dancing of “Jet Song” and “America” are spellbinding examples. Taking the company onto the streets created a huge canvas to choreograph upon, and drew the people (extras) all around into the story. The “minor” players all have individual moments to shine in their ensembles. The satirical “Officer Krupke” illustrates the timing and characterization chops of the Jet players, and adds depth and intelligence to their characters. “I Feel Pretty” becomes a joyful fantasy in the halls of Gimbels department store, where Maria, Anita, and their co-workers have nighttime jobs as cleaners. In this setting, the appealing naivté of the number makes sense, musically and dramatically. Anyone who has spent hours at a tedious or repetitive job and daydreamed of something different will relate.

The cinematography captures broad swatches of time, place, and color in breathtaking detail. As with many American cities in the mid 20th century, Manhattan’s west side is slowly disappearing in a wave of demolitions to make way for “progress,” which would come to be embodied in such iconic locations as the Lincoln Center theater complex. The overall ambiance is gritty, the lighting and art direction often dark. The Jets and the Sharks are disillusioned young people searching for a sense of belonging in a concrete jungle. Their world is literally decaying around them. As with their Shakespearean ancestors, we know they are destined for tragedy, and those outcomes are painful to witness.

Sixty-plus years on, Leonard Bernstein’s music remains fresh and captivating, focusing the aspirations, joys, frustrations, and sorrows of the characters like a laser beam. Steven Spielberg (now 76) could have stopped making movies years ago. That he chose this work as his career capstone(?) demonstrates that big-budget musicals on screen are not only still possible, but necessary. With a Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 92 and an audience score of 94 (!), one can only look to Covid reluctance and yet another Spiderman franchise installment as contributing factors to the lagging box office of “West Side Story.” And with this film, we bid farewell to Stephen Sondheim, the last of the original’s creative team, who passed just as the movie was entering theaters. This only adds to the poignancy and timeliness of this reimagined and refreshed American classic.

If you are curious or still unsure if this movie is for you, here is the “official” trailer.

Welcoming 2022

The Covid-19 pandemic was over, except when it wasn’t. And it isn’t. Many independent performing artists and teachers are attempting to resume “normal” activities under abnormal conditions and circumstances. As I re-start singing in public, I am also feeling constrained and concerned about the future. Yet it is time to imagine new projects and content under new conditions. There is a lot of work in the pipeline. We’ll see how this all develops.

This website was the former home of the Spacious Vision Song Project, and content from that five-year period remains archived here. If you are looking for my digital E-Portfolio with professional work history, reviews, and teaching philosophy, please visit www.geraldseminatore.com.

(The cover photo is an accidental abstract of the Seattle Space Needle.)