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From Within And All Around

F. M. Alexander

F. M. Alexander

Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus. But no one will see it that way. They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind. It is that a pupil decides what he will or will not consent to do. They may teach you anatomy and physiology till they are black in the face—you will still have this to face: sticking to a decision against your habit of life.

 F.M. Alexander from Articles and Lectures (white edition), Mouriz 2011, p. 197.

The post office was crowded. Every line seemed equally endless. I chose one, and of course it soon became apparent this line was at a standstill. The teller had just disappeared into the back room, not to return for fifteen minutes.

Standing in lines made me almost claustrophobic. We were required to stand in lines every morning at Pennypacker Elementary School. Standing in neat rows out in the cement yard, we’d wait for the loud buzzer to sound before marching into school. On a particular day, while standing in line, a bee began buzzing around my mouth. Hysterically, I jumped out of line and began dodging, and ducking, and swinging at the bee. A teacher came over, demanded I get back into line, and the moment I did the bee stung me on my bottom lip.

In the meantime, I had just injured myself. We were rehearsing for an upcoming performance until well after midnight. Having hardly slept the night before, I was beat. Coming down from a barrel turn, I landed on the outside of my foot, my ankle twisting under me. A physical trainer did his best to tape it, but after another sleepless night, it was still swollen and throbbing. Standing was difficult. A poor, old kindly man was standing in front of me. His clothes were worn and soiled. There was a strong smell of urine in the air that was impossible to avoid. 

I escaped into my thoughts. Images of a recent fight I got into with my girlfriend surfaced. It was over money. We were living together. The rent was due and we were short about $100. She wanted me to ask my parents for the money. I didn’t want to do that. We ended up  yelling at each other and I heard myself sounding just like my father. I hated that about myself, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to get control over it. I felt like a dog who, when the mailman walked by, had to bark, and basically had to go crazy. Certain situations pushed my buttons, and immediately there I was, barking and going crazy.

About 40 minutes later, I found myself next in line. I had just had an Alexander lesson earlier that week with Catherine Wielopolska, a trainee in Alexander’s first teacher training class back in the early 30’s. “Kitty” was telling me how Alexander’s work was not about physical culture, not about how to get up and down from a chair, but that it was about how we reacted to stimuli from within ourselves and from all around us.  Kitty had begun working with me on speaking. Speaking was a nightmare for me as a child. At six I began stuttering, which meant also dealing with the humiliation and shame that accompanied it. It was clear to me now that this was the source of the fierce habit I still had of jamming the back of my skull down into my neck, which ended up compressing my entire spine right down into my lower back, which all too often was a source of pain.

Consequently, when the time came to ask the teller for a book of twenty stamps I was determined not to go into my old speech pattern of thrusting my head forward. As the teller gave his customer his change and receipt, I stood there doing my best to free myself the way I had been learning to do from my teacher. But just as I stepped forward and opened my mouth to ask for a book of stamps, my head thrusted forward on its own. I no longer stuttered but that old stuttering pattern was still there, seemingly hard wired into my nervous system.

I asked for a particular series of stamps that honored great Black American heroes. The teller told me they were out of them. All that was left he said were the usual stamps with the American flag on them. I said okay. He looked in his drawer and then said he didn’t have anymore books of stamps, only rolls of a hundred stamps. I didn’t have enough money on me to buy a hundred stamps. I heard myself sigh and felt my head press itself even further into my spine. I was tired and frustrated. It seemed I was at the complete mercy of stimuli bombarding me both from within and without. More training, I thought to myself as a hobbled away empty handed.  More training.

I was twenty-three years old. The trying twenties. Little did I know I was embarking on a life devoted to self examination and self reflection. Meanwhile, I had to get some control of myself, and of my life. 

I set about categorizing stimuli in hope of making the whole enterprise more manageable.  We all lived in time and in space. We all had to move. We were always in contact with the world through our senses, whether we knew it or not.  And, whether we were with people or not, we were always with them. If they were not physically around us, they were in our minds or hearts. They were always in our past, and in our futures.

Time. Waiting. Hurrying. Deadlines.

Space. My fears of spatial confinement. My fear of heights. My inability to organize my things, my desk, my clothes. My utter lack of orienteering. 

Movement. My limitations as a dancer and martial artist. My being injury prone..

Senses. Mental preoccupation with my unresolved past, or my fantasies of some utopian future often took me out of my body and out of the real world. How to come back to my senses. 

People. Well, if it were any consolation, people seemed to be an issue for everybody. It was people above all, communicating with people, or rather mis-communicating with people that seemed to be the major source of pain in the world. Communication between husband and wives, parents and children, between siblings, bosses and employees, even between countries.

And then there was the world within, the amorphous world of thoughts, emotions, drives, and sensations.

Thoughts. Comparing myself to other people, being better than them, or worse than them. Thinking too much about myself, about my body, or about how great I was at this or that, or how terrible I was at this or that. 

Emotions. Little control over anger, frustration, or fear.

Drives and Sensations. Physical drives ruled the day; a visceral appetite, culinary and sexual, and an insatiable appetite for new experience. I couldn’t seem to get enough. As for physical pain. My father was a man who, when he woke up in the morning and did not feel absolutely perfect, concluded that something was seriously the matter. I inherited this gene.

I know. I’m beginning to sound like Woody Allen.

Years have passed, 42 to be exact, and after a lifetime of disciplined, and increasingly pleasurable study, I am happy to say I’ve made some progress. Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus, I hear Alexander saying.

Time. Rarely do I rush. I have learned to give more time to things and to people. But then again, I am no longer raising children. When I need to be somewhere and I am running late, I have learned to ask myself if I am late, and if the answer is no, then I stop rushing. And if the answer is yes, then I decide to move lightly and swiftly and enjoy myself.

I rarely wait. When I find myself waiting I simply stop waiting and the world, through all of my senses, returns and entertains me. I still find myself waiting when I want to say the next thing on my mind and my translator is still translating, but less so.  And I still, at times, interrupt people, but less so. I still wait when my computer is not moving as fast as I think it should. But I feel a little less exasperated. 

And yes, sometimes I will awaken from an afternoon nap anxious about dying. It doesn’t last long. Once I get up and start moving, I am fine. Most of the time I feel like I have all the time in the world.

Space. I am no longer afraid of heights. I have not been for years. In Osaka, where I live half the year, I love feeling myself part of the river of people streaming in and out of trains morning and night. I get comfort feeling myself huddled together with others. I don’t mind the middle seat on planes. I like sitting next to people. I have no problem standing in lines. I enjoy not waiting.

Movement. I’ve learned to move well, comfortably and enjoyably. I used to think that movement was the end all and be all. Now, ironically, I move well and I care very little about the way I move. Or about how others move. I care about how I am, and how others are. I’ve fallen in love with stillness. I love sitting quietly and doing nothing.

Senses. This perhaps above all is what I have found through my years of study, the sensory world. The world of lightness and darkness, of sound and silence, of coolness and warmth. Literally, I have come to my senses.

My appetites no longer have the hold on me they once did. My sexual self seems to have fallen in love with the world at large, the wind against my face, the warmth of the sun on my shoulders, the scent of pine in the high country, the sand under my feet, the taste of the ocean in my mouth.

Thoughts. My thoughts no longer harass me. I’m at peace with my past. Most of my future is behind me. I’ve made it this far. I trust I will figure the rest out as I go along. At some point, thanks in large part to Byron Katie, I learned that I am not my thoughts. I’ve learned not to believe everything I think. I know how to question thoughts, how to diffuse them and let them fall. Thank God for teachers.

Physical pain remains a challenge. And I still bark like a dog when the mailman goes by. Something tells me I’m not going to work everything out this time around. But then again, who knows?

During the last few years of my father’s life not once did I see him get angry. Not once. My Dad had evolved into a peaceful man.

In the last weeks of his life, while in the intensive care unit, he began looking like Gandhi. He’d sit in the chair next to his hospital bed, wrapped in a white blanket, his shining bald head and his round wire rimmed glasses looking out from above, smiling, never complaining of pain or discomfort, though his pain and discomfort were considerable.

More training, I say to my self, happily. 

The End Of The Road

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

I think I’m getting it. The more we, as Alexander teachers go about waking ourselves and our students up to the true and primary movement, the primary control, inherent control, the primary pattern, the integrative pattern, whatever you wish to call it, the better. Whether it’s through Alexander’s procedures, Barstow’s procedures, (she had them), or other ways-etudes-procedures that talented teachers have evolved is not my main concern here. For me the key question is, for what are these procedures for? Imagine someone gives you a new tool; state of the art, top of the line. She teaches you how it works, but neglects to tell you what it’s for. That’s my question. What is Alexander’s work for? What does it offer us? What can it do for us? Why, 40 years later, am I still asking myself this question?

Phase One. We help one of our students, a singer, Maria, become beautifully poised, exquisitely organized. She now stands effortlessly, walks elegantly, and sings like a nightingale. People love watching and listening to her perform. Helping people with postural support, helping people to move well, sing well; it’s great. Phase one.

Phase two. Maria begins to notice how, not only her singing, but many things in her life are getting easier; doing the dishes, vacuuming the floor, riding her bike, opening jars, falling asleep. She’s getting increasingly curious about the technique. She begins to realize what still gives her trouble, what is still effortful; scrubbing out the bathtub; working at the computer, carrying bags of groceries up three flights of stairs, putting in her new contact lenses. You suggest she bring some of these activities into class. You tell her that if she brings her life into class, she will bring what she learns in class back into her life. You suggest having a lesson at her place to work on the site specific activities.  Phase two. As Marj once told me, “Bruce, our job is to help people become sensitive and to make good use of that sensitivity in their everyday life.”

Phase three. Maria comes into class obviously distraught. Her daughter is showing signs of anorexia. She sits at the dinner table and won’t eat. “It’s driving me crazy. I sit there angry, sad, scared. I have no idea what to do. I’m a nervous wreck.” You suggest that there’s no time like the present. “Let’s work on it right now. Remember, bring your life into class and you will bring what you learn in class back into your life. Be brave. I am sure your Alexander friends here will be happy to help you. Maria, what’s your daughter’s name?” “Jody.” How old is she?” ” Twelve.” “Where are you eating and who else is sitting around the table?” “Her sister, Laura. She’s nine.” “Is there anyone here that reminds you even a little of Jody and of Laura?” Maria looks around and finds two people. “Okay, will all of you help get a table, some chairs, go into the church kitchen down the hall and bring back all the stuff we need to set up a dinner table. Don’t dilly dally.” Off everyone goes, and in a flash everything is set up. “Maria where does everyone sit?” “I sit at the head of the table, Jody is on my right and Laura on my left.” “Great. We’re almost ready to go. I need to ask you a couple questions. Tell us what everyone’s day was like before getting to the table. See if you can do it in less than a minute.” Maria sums it up. “I drop off Laura at day care, rush to work, spend most of the day on the computer, pick up Laura, get home, throw together dinner, try to get my kids away from the TV, and sit down. Jody bikes to school, hates her school, comes home, does her homework. She’s super smart. She watches her favorite cooking show, which is funny now that i think about it, and then comes to the table and doesn’t eat.” “Okay. does everyone know who you are and what you are doing, I say to Maria, Jody, and Laura? Take about 30 seconds and just be quiet, and then begin.”

At first everyone is smiling a little but after about 45 seconds it suddenly becomes real. The triggers have gone off. The buttons have been pushed. Jody is curled over herself, sulking. Maria is off looking up to the left, away from Jody, her hands on the table, shaped into fists. Laura is eating as if she hasn’t eaten in a week. You can feel the tension in the air.

And so the work begins. “Maria, don’t move. Just notice what’s going on physically. Start from the ground up until you have a picture of what you look like. Does that position feel familiar?” “Absolutely.” “Now, I’m going to come over and, together, quietly and ever so slowly and gently, we’re going to undue this pattern and see what happens.” My role, primarily, is to be softer than soft. The first impression I want to give Maria is one of nurturance and kindness. This is what she needs most. I proceed how I often do; dissipating the tension in her neck region. Everyone can see what happens. As the neck ungrips, the shoulders drop and spread, the hands unclench, breath enters, and her head turns and she looks at Jody. “Maria, what’s happening?” “I’m getting calmer. I’m really seeing Jody. I can see she’s sad and lonely.” Maria starts crying. Jody looks up. Laura looks up.

And so it goes. The ice breaks. The melting begins.

Phase three, and where I believe Alexander wanted us to go with the work. For me chair work was Alexander’s movement metaphor, a metaphor for what happens to us in our lives. In chair work someone tells you that in a moment you are going to stand up, and you find that your neurological preset for reacting to that stimulus, and the stimulus itself, are coupled together, like two links in a chain. Chair work then becomes about decoupling the stimulus from the response, so that you can unplug the neurological preset which, when successful, creates the option, the possibility of a different and perhaps better response, a new response, a fresh response. As Alexander said, “You are not here to do exercises, (doing chair work), or to learn how to do something right, but to get able to meet a stimulus that always puts you wrong and to learn to deal with it.”

It’s one thing to be able to decouple a stimulus that doesn’t have a lot of charge to it, as in chair work. For sure, it’s a good place to begin. That makes sense. Consider playing with other simple, everyday movement metaphors: opening a door, (entering into a new space), eating an apple, (a famous metaphor, how much do we bite off? Do we swallow things whole or chew them over), tying our own shoes (doing things for ourselves; remember when you couldn’t tie your own shoes?).

But then comes the truly formidable task, the truly humbling task of encountering what Alexander aptly called our habits of life. Until we’re able to discern what triggers our disintegration pattern, every time, and begin to deal with those triggers, be they our critical thoughts about ourselves or others, or our grandiose ones, or our destructive emotions like anger, jealously, envy; or resentment, hatred, and greed, or our fears, we don’t get our black belts, we don’t get into the major leagues. How can we be integrated, how can we be free if we are holding a grudge? How can we be free when we are gossiping? How can we be free when we are busy defending ourselves, or rebelling, or retreating, or panicking? Can we learn to meet a charged stimulus, something that unnerves us, and learn to deal with it in a better, more humane way?

It’s dawning upon me how profound our work can be.

I haven’t been able to stay on every road I’ve begun walking down, but I’m staying on this one. Like Nikos Kazantzakis once said, “At the end of the road, that is where God sits.” And that’s where I’m going, where I’ve been going all along.

House And Home

handwriting

Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet

Letters To A Young Teacher

Bruce, you write, “Aren’t there more direct, fun, practical, and effective ways to work with how we react to stimuli from within and without besides endlessly getting people in and out of a chair?” My AT teacher at school would probably say: “Chair work will indirectly affect their use in everyday life – let them make the transfer.” So how does that tie in with your take on teaching “activity work”, which to my mind is not indirect, but direct? 

Thank you for your good question. My understanding is that when Alexander spoke of working indirectly he meant that when a person comes to you with a specific problem, let’s say, a frozen shoulder, working directly would be choosing to work immediately to regain range and comfort in the shoulder, through working on the shoulder. A reasonable idea. The approach in Alexander Work, if we are sticking to the principle of working indirectly, is to attend to a person’s overall integration and coordination, and in turn that may, (and may not), resolve the shoulder issue.

It’s a bit like family therapy. Let’s say the whole body is the family, and the hurting child is the frozen shoulder. The parents are fighting, a lot. The kid begins developing asthmatic symptoms. The problem may not lie within the child, but within the family dynamics as a whole. By the parent’s shifting their way of functioning, their child may begin to function differently as well. That, as I understand Mr. Alexander, is what he meant by working indirectly. Indirectly, that is, getting to the part through the whole.

Once you begin to get this idea of working indirectly, you begin to see that Alexander stumbled upon a very big idea, one that, now, everyone understands. If bees are beginning to disappear, or tree frogs, and you start looking for the cause inside the bee world, or the tree frog world instead of backing up and looking at the entire world they inhabit, their larger body, of which bees and tree frogs are an integral part, you won’t see the whole problem, or find the solution.

Alexander discerned an ecology within people, an inner ecology – the study of our inner house and home, in relation to our larger house and home.  (You could say we are the overlap through which our inner and outer environments become one.) Alexander, seen in this light, was a holistic and ecological thinker and practitioner.

As for working through Alexander’s “conventional” procedures, that is, the procedures that have  become the norm within today’s Alexander world, I am not an expert. Yes, I have worked with lots of teachers, including most of the first generation teachers who employed these procedures and, to the best of my limited ability, I have taught through these procedures as well. But I have spent more time learning about Alexander’s work through his less conventional procedures – walking, going up and down steps (lunge work is beautifully woven within this action),  the performing arts, speaking, and everyday activities. These were the procedures that my mentor, Marj Barstow, enjoyed and explored. Consequently, these are the procedures I have taught through most successfully.

Over the years I began to sense that working through Marj’s procedures were, in a way, working too directly, too specifically, but for a very different reason than your teacher might think. I started to see that any activity happened within a larger context, and that I had to zoom both further in, and further out if I was to work holistically or ecologically. That’s why I no longer refer to what I do as “working in activity.” I call it “working situationally.”

For example, a young man is late. He jumps up from his desk, swings on his coat, hops in his car, squeals out his driveway, double parks, runs up three flights of stairs, knocks on his girlfriends apartment door, and waits, standing there, reliving that phone call, the fight they had that morning, feeling like a total jerk, wondering if she will open the door or not, whether she will ever speak to him again, whether she will call off their engagement, and what his parents will say.

Okay. You could work with this poor, distraught young man by taking him in and out of a chair, a la Alexander, or work with him driving his car, walking up steps, and knocking on a door, a la Marj Barstow. Still, are you really going to get to the precise inner and outer stimuli that cause this man to fall apart, to lose his psycho-physical composure, his integrity?

If I am going to work with this man in his entirety, in relation to his inner and outer home, then I may need to address such factors as his relationship to time, how he listens to his girlfriend when she is feeling insecure and starts criticizing him, how he reacts when he starts believing thoughts like his being a total jerk, or what happens to him when he starts caring too much about what other people think about him. But I am going to figure out a way to do this somatically and personally, not psychologically or clinically. I’m going to “stick to principle” and work as the Alexander teacher that I am.

Not our postural habits, nor our movements habits per se, (though they are part of the picture), but our habits of life, these are the habits we are attempting to unearth, and bring into the light of day, to be seen, felt, and known, accepted, and resolved. This is, for me, profoundly humbling work, both personally and as a teacher. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any progress at all. I wonder if I will ever really be able to live and teach Alexander’s work. Forty years later, I begin to understand Marj when she would say, “I really don’t know how to teach this work.”

I really don’t.

Not knowing has for me become a good thing. It keeps me questioning, as you are questioning. It keeps me experimenting. It keeps the work fresh and alive in my soul, as it is in yours.

Let’s keep going.

Yours,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret That Deserved To Be Kept

Bruce Fertman 1971

Bruce Fertman 1971

My mind rains down memories thought long forgotten.

There was this kid, Fred, in my junior high school. I can’t remember his last name. There was something I liked about him. He was different, that is, from me. He was a twelve-year old chubby catholic boy with thin, straight blond hair, a pug nose, and icy blue eyes.

Fred entered Leeds Junior High School, not in the 7th grade, like everyone else, but in the 8th grade. No one knew why, except me.

Fred got kicked out of St Raymond’s, a catholic school in my neighborhood where the girls wore pleated, navy blue skirts and white pressed, button down shirts and were the prettiest, most off limit, sexiest creatures walking on two feet. At least that was how I felt about them, a brown eyed, wavy haired Jewish boy.

Fred spent only one year at Saint Raymond’s, a year which suddenly ended the day a nun hit him across the knuckles with a ruler, over and over again, for passing a note to one of those particularly cute girls. Without thinking, like lightning, Fred snapped that ruler from the nun’s hand and smacked her across the face with it.

There we were, Fred and me, meeting up in the pitch dark, at 7 AM, on a wet, windy December morning. We had to get to choir practice by 7:30AM – an hour before school started.

We were waiting for “chicken legs” to come in, our choral director. I was amusing myself, and showing off, swinging back and forth between two chairs, as if I were on the parallel bars. The goal was to swing up to a handstand. Fred was sitting on one of the chairs and Glen Fortunato on the other. I remember Glen’s last name because he was the kid that suggested I go out for the gymnastic team. I wish I knew where he was now, so I could thank him for saving my life.

With one free, fateful swing, I swung up to a perfect handstand, and just as I did I caught a glimpse, between my arms, of old chicken legs walking upside down into class. That was it. I was kicked out of the choir, on the spot.

I liked singing. I liked singing a lot. I liked singing so much that when my parents bought their first stereo, a Magnavox, a cheap, essentially empty box housing a record player with an automatic arm, and a “diamond” needle, capable of playing 45’s, 33’s, and 78’s, (the setting that worked for some of my grandfather’s thick, old records), I was ecstatic.

Not only did we get the record player, we got twelve long-playing records, all at once, from the Columbia Record Club. I proceeded to listen to these records, constantly, until they were ingrained in my brain where they remain in tact until this day. My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, Gigi, Chinatown, West Side Story, Showboat, Johnny Mathias, Andy Williams, Judy Garland, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and An American in Paris, Ferrante & Teicher, two guys that played piano back to back, and finally, Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

Around the new stereo, there were four large, square, plastic cushions; two were black and two were powder blue. The cushions had black tassels dangling from the four corners of each pillow, like some Jewish/Japanese tallis. I would place two cushions under my head, position my head precisely in between the two speakers – real stereo sound – and there I would remain for hours, listening and singing, but most importantly, imagining.

Suddenly, something would possess me. I had to move. Reflexively, I’d spring up and start doing handstands against the wall, then handstand pushups, many of them.  When my arms began to shake uncontrollably, I’d spring onto my feet, leap up the steps, three at a time, turn around, lean forward, then execute near flawless falls down the steps. Usually I waited until my mom was about to go upstairs for something. I’d let out a terrifying scream, and down I would roll head first against the right wall, then into the banister on the left, until I landed in some contorted position at the bottom of the steps, moaning in pain, like I had just broken my neck in four places.

Directly I was sent to my room “to settle down.” Head lowered, I would gently close my door, take a deep breath, and proceed to throw all my pillows and stuffed animals up into the air and see how many I could strike, kick, and kill, before they touched the ground, dead.  Twelve causalities was my record.  I had never heard of, or seen a martial artist, but without knowing it, I had begun my training.  After an hour of punching and kicking and sweating I would feel, how should I say, rested.

If I were born in the late eighties, I’d for sure be one of those ADD kids on Ritalin. But as far as my mom was concerned, I was just a normal, fun-loving kid with five times the energy of any child she had had the pleasure, and misfortune, to meet. Sure I stuttered and had reading problems and could not sit still, and sure I had temper tantrums at random, whereupon I would run, approximately at the speed of light, around the dining room table for twenty minutes. But as my mom so calmly explained to Aunt Lee, our next-door neighbor, “Boys will be boys.”

Now that I think about it, Fred and I were not so different. And maybe that explains why we decided one Saturday morning to take a hike together. We put some water in a couple of aluminum canteens covered in green army canvas, with thin straps enabling us to wear them slanted across our hairless chests, making us look like the tough guys we believed we were. We headed off into what was, for us, unknown territory, well beyond the borders of East Mt. Airy, our neighborhood of endless two-story, red brick row houses.

We ventured all the way up to Ivy Hill Road, which was like the northern most edge of the world. I looked up to the top of a big radio tower, and there it was, the red flashing light.

You see, when I was five years old, my mom would come into my room at night, tuck me in, look at me and have me recite with her, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God my soul to keep, and if I should die before I wake, (And if I should die! What is she talking about?)  I pray to God my soul to take.”

Then real fast my mom would add, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite, (Beg bugs! What bed bugs!), and when you wake up in the morning everything will be alright.” (But what about the bed bugs!)

“Good night,” she’d sing as she swaggered cheerfully out of my room, feeling like she’d performed a minor miracle, or won a major world war. Bruce was down for the count.

As soon as my mom was gone I’d throw off my covers, kneel Japanese style at the foot of my bed, and gaze out my window over the flat rooftops into the night sky. Living in the city, and unlike the planetarium, there were not many stars to see. The few I could see were white and twinkling except for one, which was red, and flashed on and off, like it was breathing.

God, I thought. That must be God. It didn’t occur to me to wish for anything, or tell anyone. It just felt like a secret that deserved to be kept.

So when I saw that red light flashing on top of the radio station, I felt hurt, and embarrassed. Once I had believed in that red star. I believed I was, in some mysterious way, connected to that red star. Maybe that red star had something to do with my unusual amount of energy?

It was a real disappointment seeing the red light just sitting up there atop some big, metal erector set. But I accepted it as a signal. It was trying to tell me something, in code. But what?

Exactly what it was Fred and I were looking for, we wouldn’t have been able to say back then. But now I know we were out there looking for a world we could live in.

We turned left, and headed down Ivy Hill Road, past a cemetery, ducked under a fence and came upon a huge green pasture. There, standing before us was a big, official looking sign. It read: The U.S. Department of Agriculture.  No Trespassing.

Fred and I looked at each other and thought the same thing at the same time. How can you be on an adventure without trespassing? So we disregarded the warning. We broke the law. We became partners in yet another crime.

I had never seen such green grass, and so much of it, so much green coming into my eyes all at once. We took off our shoes and socks. The grass was thick. I could feel it pushing up between my toes. I gave my shoes, my socks, and my canteen to Fred, then proceeded to execute high, arching dive rolls over and over again, the kind I did in tumbling club, flying over twelve boys, on their hands and knees, lined up in a tight row. As soon as I caught my breath, I proceeded to do a back handspring, then another and another, an endless row of back handsprings, each one faster than the one before, until I was so dizzy I could not tell the difference between the blue grass and the green sky.

Fred attacked me when I was down. We wrestled and rolled until we were dripping with sweat. Out of steam we pulled up some long pieces of grass, leaned our backs against the trunk of an old tree, legs outstretched, ankles crossed, put the grass in our mouths, and chomped on it like two hobos. We sat there, under the tree, by the railroad tracks, waiting to see what would happen.

I had placed three pennies, and one Indian head nickel, on top of the tracks. As if by command, a big, slow moving, mammoth locomotive, with a half dozen or so cars attached to it, appeared, and rolled over our little silver and copper coins.

Totally smashed, hot to the touch, Fred picked up the three pennies. I picked up the Indian head and gave it to Fred, which was not easy. We were true friends, together on a true path.

We came to a particular street. This was no ordinary street. It was Stenton Avenue. Crossing Stenton Avenue meant being out of our neighborhood. We knew this to be an indisputable fact, because we knew if our parents knew we were about to cross Stenton Avenue, they’d be furious, and we’d be in big trouble.

There we stood at the red stoplight, at the intersection of Ivy Hill Road and Stenton Avenue. We knew crossing Stenton Avenue meant, yet again, breaking the rules. The light turned green, and without hesitating, we flung our arms around each other’s necks, defiantly tossed our heads back in delight, and floated across Stenton Ave.

Once on the other side of Stenton, the railroad tracks mysteriously disappeared. We climbed down a steep hill and found ourselves in a forest. A tiny brook trickled by. A fawn stood motionless. Rays of light shone through the trees.

There was no turning back.  We had crossed over. Fred and I followed that brook until it became a stream. We followed that stream until it became a river. We followed that river until it met and flowed into an even larger river!

Then we called my mom. Luckily, Fred had a dime in his pocket and enough sense not to have put it on the railroad track. I told my mom we were in some really big city, maybe downtown Philadelphia.  I told her we had no money, that our socks and sneakers were soaking wet, and that we were starving of hunger.

My mom picked us up. Silently, we drove back up the river, crossed over Stenton Avenue, passed by the flashing red light atop the radio tower, drove by Leeds Junior High School, and Saint Raymonds, and re-entered our old neighborhood. I needed some air. I rolled down my window and stuck my face out into the wind.

The little red row houses looked smaller than ever.

For The Love Of Peace

 

No words.

Moms

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 …from Where This Path Begins

Renderings from the Tao Te Ching by Bruce Fertman

 Sphere within a Sphere.
A child grows.
 
Sphere within a Sphere.
Without knowing this child, she loves this child.
 
Sphere within a Sphere.
A child comes into this world.
 
The child begins to crawl, then walk.
The mother’s sphere grows larger.
 
The child begins to run and climb.
The mother’s sphere grows larger.
 
The child leaves home.
The mother’s sphere grows larger.
 
The child has a child.
The mother’s sphere grows larger.
 
The child’s mother dies.
The child’s sphere grows larger.
 
Sphere within a sphere.
The mother grows within the child’s heart.

Freely Choosing That Which Is Required Of Us

That which is required of us

Photo: B. Fertman

The past feels determined because it has already happened. When we’re old life feels as if it unfolded according to plan. When we’re young life feels like an open road.

Can we change the past? Once I looked upon my past as a success. Then I saw it as a failure. Now I see it as neither. Perspective shifts. New memories surface. Old memories recede. The past is like an old book on a shelf that magically rewrites itself when we are not looking.

Free will. Determinism. Chance. Were there chance encounters in my life? Did that car accident happen by chance?

The night before the accident I chose to stay up a bit later than usual and, against my better judgment, drank a second beer. It was winter, and dark, and it was snowing. Factors beyond my control.  I was driving up a hill. A car was coming in the opposite direction. I couldn’t see. My body was lilting to the left, which it does when I am tired. Unconsciously I was turning my steering wheel slightly to the left. Do we have less free will when governed by actions that have become unconscious? Do we have more free will the more we are conscious, alert, and acting non-habitually?

Impact. A head on collision. What if the driver of the car had not been thinking about his teenage daughter coming home last night at 3 a.m. smelling of alcohol? How much had she had to drink? Was she getting into drugs like some of her friends at school? What was going on sexually for her? Was she being safe? What if this man was just thinking about his driving? Do we have less free will when we are disturbed, distracted, and more free will when we are experiencing what we are doing?

Perhaps choice, chance, and determinism are like three strands of one braid. We have no direct control over the moving strands of chance and determinism, but we do have some say over the course our one strand of free will takes. And this might influence the overall pattern of the braid. Maybe our destinies are not completely determined. Maybe we are not just dust in the wind.

Some braiders of life may be more skilled than other braiders. How about the relationship between skill and free will? Imagine a great musician. Why are they so good? Genetics? Practice? Both? And what are the odds a child will find a good teacher if she grows up in a poor family who has no extra money to pay for piano lessons, or if she has parents who are well off and sending her to a very fine Quaker school, and who studies piano privately three afternoons a week with Martha Argerich?

Is talent determined genetically, the family we are born into a matter of chance, and the decision to practice what we love  a choice?

And what of love? Are marriages made in heaven or are they made here on earth? If marriages are made in heaven then what about divorces? Are they made in heaven too or are they made here on earth? Could I have saved my marriage? Or was divorce inevitable? Or were we just unlucky? Hmm…

Not so simple.

Some things we can do and some things we can’t. I think we can do our best to remain open, free from prejudice, free from dogma, free from grudges. It’s our job to attend to our openness. So when something comes along, good or bad, we are ready to respond, ready to receive, ready to give.

Freely choosing that which is required of us.