Archive for April, 2015

winds of change

April 13, 2015

A truly wise person will not be carried away by any of the eight winds:  prosperity, decline, disgrace, honor, praise, censure, suffering, pleasure.

Nichiren

It is too soon to tell whether my next adventure will be a failure or a success.   Undoubtedly, both judgments will take turns tramping across my consciousness, whether in the midst of a sleepless night or in the dazzling rays of the setting sun.  There will be moments when I’m cast deep into despair, overwhelmed and exhausted.  Then there will be times I will want to pinch myself, incredulous at how much pleasure and beauty have manifested in my life.

Spring in central Virginia offers one of the best exercises in perceiving how quickly potential shifts.  Grey rainy days caution that winter’s retreat isn’t complete.  The next day, blue skies and mild temperatures tempt us, caution thrown to the warm wind as we step outside in short sleeves and bare feet.  One afternoon I walk by a shrub tight with buds; the next, its extravagant blossoms spill forth in colorful riot.

Every beginning starts with an ending, as inextricably mixed as sorrow and joy.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, our good news comes at the expense of another’s loss.  It is the economy, the ecology, of life.

I have little to add in comprehending this cycle of eternal resurgence, especially when so many talented others have offered their insights, works of art that comfort us at our lowest points and send our moments of celebrations into a higher pitch.  As I stand at this threshold, I want simply to capture my feelings and to say a prayer I hope I’ll remember in the months ahead.

 

billie

April 7, 2015

billie_holiday_1957

Billie Holiday would have hated my guts if she’d paid me any mind at all.

She bad-mouthed Mildred Bailey and envied Ella for inheriting Chick Webb’s orchestra.  How could she not have despised Peggy Lee?  White, beautiful, glammed to the nines, Peggy did her fair share of ripping off Billie’s style, like so many who never gave her credit.  Mindless songs like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” earned her wrath.  And those white fans, who clustered around her hoping some authentic jazz experience might rub off on them, Billie manipulated mercilessly.

On the flip side, in those pictures of Billie and her dogs, the depth of her tenderness is obvious.  When it came to Lester, from the way her voice and his sax swirled around each other to the look on her face captured on “The Sound of Music” as he’s soloing in “Fine and Mellow,” it’s clear she cared.  Dinah adored her, and since that woman was no fool, it must have been mutual.   And then there were those men Billie gave her heart and soul to who dragged her down.

Anita O’Day recalled the rumor that Billie heated her fix in a tuna can and shot up in her groin.  Although Anita was a huge fan and a fellow junky, when their paths crossed, Billie gave her the cold shoulder.  Anita understood.  I understand too why Billie would hate me.  Why shouldn’t she?  All her short life, people responded not to who she was but to what they thought she represented:  a black woman, a jazz singer, a drug addict, a success, a failure.

What was different about Billie was how her art derived from the same deep place her compassion for the underdog and her resentment of the victors resided.  When she was young, the division between these was like the sharp edge of a shiny coin, giving her voice a buoyant, joyful defiance.  By the end, holding so many contradictions had worn her down.  Still, the structure remained, the beauty of the form containing all that unendurable pain.

On this her centennial birthday, I’m shying away from any tributes that might want to even out Billie’s ragged edges, to make her more palatable to a larger audience.  To me, a woman who works up a good, solid hate is a force to admire.  But also, learning to hear Billie’s rage and understand her joy has been for me a long and private journey that began with my own limited judgments and has evolved into a perspective not only wider but deeper when it comes to art, to artists, and to the human race.

Billie Holiday didn’t have to be any kinder, any wiser, any better, than she already was.  Instead, she gave anyone who listened then and who listens today the means to accomplish those difficult but essential acts:  her marvelous, mesmerizing music.