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Posts from the ‘Speaking’ Category

A Blink of the Eye/ A Tremor of the Soul

 

Buzz Gummere

Buzz died 12 years ago, at the age of 95. About a month before he died my daughter, Eva, and I drove up to Barrytown, New York to visit he and his wife, Peg, (who just died this year at the age of 100).

At breakfast Buzz says to me, “Well, I made it down the steps once again.” Buzz told me he’d rather fall and break his neck than not sleep next to Peg in their own bed. Besides, he liked going up and down the steps.

Before him on the breakfast table lay a row of multicolored pills and capsules. “My doctor says if I don’t take all of these pills in the morning that I’ll be dead by nightfall. So I take them.”

That afternoon John Gummere, Peg and Buzz’s son, drives us to the Hudson River, and Peg, 88, takes Eva and I out on her vintage wooden trimmed sailboat. Peg sits by the tiller, the wind blowing against her uplifted face, through her long, silver hair.

Buzz chose, rather than go sailing with us, to sit and rest under an old oak tree by the river. As we recede from the shore, I watch Buzz grow smaller and smaller. I knew this would be the last time I’d see him.

Five years earlier, when Buzz was a mere 90, he and Peg drove down in their Subaru to JFK airport, caught a plane going to Albuquerque whereupon they rented a Jeep and drove north for three hours to Ghost Ranch, where we were holding our Alexander Alliance Retreat.

On the Ides of March, 2000 the snow came down all morning but by mid-afternoon, under the New Mexican sun, all the snow had melted. We decided to put on some jackets, except for Buzz, and hold class outside.

Buzz wanted to work on his speaking, on giving a talk. Even though Buzz trained with F.M. and A.R. Alexander, and was a certified teacher, public speaking still got him off balance. He wanted me to help him. He wanted to give a little talk on his thoughts about Alexandrian inhibition and just what that was.

Ironically, Buzz had taught me a lot about Alexandrian inhibition via the help he gave me with my writing, writing being something Buzz did very well. He noted I seemed very at ease when I spoke, and he wondered what was getting in his way.

Fortunately, a student taped the lesson, more like the conversation Buzz and I had that day. And Anchan, our school photographer, took a photo of us working together.

Here, I share that day with you, that conversation, and Buzz.

Bruce:  I remember, years ago, writing an article in honor of Marj Barstow’s  90th birthday. I gave it to you to read.  Directly, you proceeded to remove about half the words.

Buzz:  I remember that.

Bruce:  You edited it severely. You pruned it way down. I remember rereading it thinking, “That’s not right! That’s not right!  That’s not how I write!” I was mad and insulted. I felt misunderstood. I remember defending the right to split every infinitive, because splitting infinitives sounded more expressive, sounded right.  To hell with the rules of grammar! I defended my run on sentences too. How else could I capture all the subtleties taking place simultaneously? There was no other way but to try to say everything all at once, within the span of one endless breath.

Buzz:  You were used to it, used to it like a bad habit.

Bruce:  “That’s not right, listen to how that sounds,” I said to you over the phone, then hung up. I handed your “improved” edition to Martha to read and she said, “Now that’s a lot better! First of all, it’s grammatically correct and secondly, it’s just more to the point. It says what you want to say, and it says it simply, directly, and clearly.”

Painfully, the more I read it, the better it sounded. “Maybe it is better,” I thought.  “Maybe it’s better. You know, I think it is better. In fact, I know it’s better.”

Buzz, I’d like to see if, right now, I could return the favor.  I’m going to be your editor, not for the way you write, which is exemplary, but for the way you communicate when you are before a group of people.

Buzz:  Very good.

Bruce:  We’re going to leave words out, sometimes whole paragraphs. It’s likely to feel wrong. You’ll probably get mad at me, the way I got mad at you.

Buzz:  Alright.

Bruce:  Erika Whitaker says, inhibition is decision.

Buzz:  That’s true.

Bruce:   Inhibition is decision.  Even though the talk you are about to give is not memorized word for word, I’d like you to decide that you are only going to let words come out of your mouth that have a direct connection to the main idea you wish to communicate.

Buzz:  The main idea.  First I have to decide what that is.

Bruce:  Right.

Buzz:  The title of this talk is A Blink Of The Eye/A Tremor Of The Soul.

Bruce:  That’s a beautiful and evocative title. Let me draw you a simple map around that title.  Let’s say we have a circle like this, and in the center of that circle is the essence of that title. The only reason you’re going to say what you say is to get people to understand the essence of that title. You are going to keep everyone in that inner circle with you.

Now, let’s put another circle around our most inner circle.  When you wonder off into that circle you know you are further away from the essence of your title.

For example, you might ask people if they know the meaning of a certain word you are using.  Or you might go into some unnecessary detail about something that’s truly interesting but does not sit in the most inner circle.

Because you know a lot and perceive so many important connections to your theme, sometimes you spin off into a commentary. That commentary can gracefully lead to a commentary on that commentary. Before you are aware of it you’re off track, out of the most inner circle.

I want to see is if you can stay right in your most inner circle.  You’re going to have to trust me for about fifteen minutes, and then you can mistrust me for the rest of your life!

I’m going to lightly tap you, like this, when it seems to me you are moving outside the core circle. Trust me to make the call, to do the editing. What do you say? I’m asking you to make a decision, a conscious commitment to yourself, to your material and to your students who clearly love you and value your wisdom.

Buzz:  Good, very good.

Bruce:  I want you to decide again to remain within your core circle, real close to what is essential about A Blink of the Eye, A Tremor of the Soul. Can you make that decision?

 Buzz:  Sure.

Bruce: Have you made your decision?

Buzz:  (After a long pause.)  Yes.

Bruce:  All right.  So be it.  Let’s begin.

Buzz:  I will try.

Bruce:  Hmmm….“Do not try. Do or do not, as Yoda once said.”  Stick to your decision.  You can always stop and make it again. You can make it as many times as you want. But don’t try to keep your decision. Make your decision. Be that decision.  Live out that decisionOr don’t.

Buzz:  (Buzz begins his formal talk).

“You can study anatomy and physiology till you are black in the face. You still have this to face – sticking to a decision against your habit of life.” (quote by F.M. Alexander).

Bruce:  Take all the time you need.  Instead of going into commentary, just be inside the silence.  Take all the time you need to connect to what is essential then, say what you want to say.

Buzz:  Alexander craved recognition by scientists. The most eminent one to support his ideas was the genial Sir Charles Sherrington. His bold research in physiology started with an intensive study of the knee jerk. You all know what a knee jerk is?

Bruce:  Stop there.

Buzz:  I’m not supposed to ask them am I?

Bruce:  I think it is safe to assume they know.

Buzz:  O.K.

Bruce: Now decide again.  Give yourself a moment.  Make your decision.

Buzz:  I’ve decided again.

Bruce:  Let’s do it this way Buzz. (Bruce addressing the students listening), “Fellow students – if you have a question, feel free to ask Buzz, on the spot. O.K?  That’s your job.”  (The students nod a collective yes).

Buzz:  Very good.

Bruce:  Decide again.

Buzz:  I’ve got it.

His bold research, at the expense of a small army of laboratory monkeys, carried him along to several major epic discoveries in human physiology, and to a Nobel Prize.  Among his discovers was what, in us vertebrates, he referred to as “inhibition.”

Bruce:  Now pause there. I just want to say to you, that it’s possible you might be feeling like this is going to be real boring to them, or you may feel you are not entertaining them enough. May I suggest you not worry because I, for one, am finding the content of your talk relevant. So there’s nothing extra that you need to do. Decide again, and stick, cling, adhere, lean into your decision.  You’ve made your decision, now trust your material.

Buzz: (Buzz continues his talk).

Now everybody raise one hand. That action took place because, leave your hand up for a moment, because your excitatory nerves went into action.  Leave your hand up there. Now you cannot lower that hand without the inhibitory nerves resuming their democratic role in the politics of your coordination. Those inhibitory nerves give you the permission, and the ability, to lower your hand.

I’m leaving out a great deal.

Bruce:  That’s okay.  We are engaged in an experiment. Just sense yourself leaving it out. Sense as you leave out what may not be essential how you are filling the space with repose. Look, the students are moving towards you. You have them. Whatever falls away, let it fall away. Just wait until what’s essential rises to the surface.

Buzz:   In any good legislature, the “excitors” are the ins, and the “inhibitors” are the outs. But everybody knows in a good legislature the outs are “the loyal opposition.” For the Alexander brothers it was civil war.  I heard them both say, “The excitors have got the better of the inhibitors!”

Student:  Could you say that again please?

Buzz:  I’m trying to be British.  “The excitors have got the better of the inhibitors!”

Bruce:  When you said, I’m trying to be British, you could have left that out.  I think that’s your false modesty at play. You are quite good at sounding and looking British. Isn’t that true?

Buzz:  Right.  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  I’ve learned something!

Sir Charles Sherrington knew a lot about excitation and inhibition, as a physiologist.  In his younger days, Sherrington did his work in a hospital. When he got bored with his laboratory work, he would climb up to the top of the highest tower of this Victorian hospital building and do parachute jumps.

Bruce: Buzz, when you’re leaving things out, just close your lips very lightly, just very lightly. Give yourself time. People are taking in that image. That’s a great image. Personally, I’m seeing Buster Keaton.  You got a little chuckle there. Did you hear that?

Buzz:  Yeah.

Bruce:   They are definitely listening and responding to you.

Buzz:  Recently an American physiologist named Benjamin Libet has stepped up beside Sir Charles Sherrington as a powerful supporter of Alexander’s ideas. He’s associated with a medical school on the west coast. Libet is studying inhibition while working with patient human volunteers rather than suffering laboratory monkeys.

Bruce:  Pause here for a second Buzz, and just come forward like that, away from the back of the chair. Now when you return to the back of the chair, just talk to your lower back for a second. Ask your lower back to un-posture. Just let it gently un-posture. Even more. Great. And then just talk to your shoulders a little bit.

Now, that’s good. There’s going to be a real temptation to want to comment on the strong change in kinesthetic feeling. But forget it because it’s not in your essential circle. See what I mean?

Buzz:  I was about to talk about how I felt. I was out of my circle.

Bruce:  In a flash you can go right back into your core circle. Go right back.

Buzz:  Libet went even beyond Sir Charles by clocking the time we are offered by our system for inhibition. He did it in milliseconds. A millisecond is one thousandth of a second.

Bruce:  Take a pause there and let them think about that. And while they’re thinking about it, let this shoulder drop. (Buzz’s right shoulder drops as his back widens dramatically). No comment Buzz, no comment.

Buzz:  Dr. Libet found that a human response to a stimulus, any stimulus – a doorbell rings, lightening flashes, you think of how much you’re going to have to pay the IRS, (laughter from the crowd), any such stimulus of the millions of kinds we have, takes 500 milliseconds. Everybody say one, one thousandth.

Students:  “One, one thousandths!”

Buzz:  That was one second. Cut that in half. That leaves 500 milliseconds. The first 350 milliseconds of that 500 are unconscious. The last 50 are unconscious too. They are the action you begin to put into motion. You hear the phone. You go to answer the phone. How much time is left between the unconscious beginning and the unconscious ending of a response? Anybody?

Student: One hundred milliseconds.

Buzz:  Take a ten and go to the head of the class. No, that was outside of the circle. I made a mistake. I could have left that out.

Bruce:  Maybe. Maybe not. You sensed that you might have gone outside the circle, and you knew it before you were finished speaking!

Let’s analyze what just happened based upon what you just taught us. The student answers correctly. During the next 350 milliseconds your response is unconscious. We slide into that slender, infinite space of 100 milliseconds. During that micro instant you weren’t quite awake. The power of your decision had weakened just enough to allow the excitors to sneak ahead of the inhibitors. Before you knew it you were into the last 50 milliseconds. Your tongue began to form the word “Take”, “Take a ten and go to the head of the class.” That 100 millisecond window had come and gone.

But you know, Peg used to tell me, I always had another chance.  Peg told me that a lot. She knew how hard I was on myself. And Buzz, I know how hard you are on yourself. So, I say to you Buzz, there is going to be a next time. There’s going to be countless opportunities for you to play with being awake inside of that 100 millisecond window.

Let’s continue.  Make your decisionBe your decision.

Buzz:  Blink your eye; one normal quick blink.  That’s a half second, 500 milliseconds.. You should be getting an idea now of “inhibition time” – one fifth of a blink of the eye. Inhibition time. It’s just a hundred milliseconds. 

Bruce: Rest in that thought. They are really thinking. Look at them. They are more than thinking – they are meditating on the magnitude of that truth. They’re inhibiting right now. They have stopped thinking about inhibition as they have thought of it before. They are in that space of wondering, of not knowing.

Buzz:  What a small window of opportunity. The freedom to decide, the freedom to choose offers itself to us in one-fifth the time it takes for us to blink. Do we remain open to something new and surprising in our response, or do we stay with something old, familiar, predictable?

Bruce: Pause there. Look at these faces. They are hanging on that question. Now, come forward a bit, like that. Have no doubt that what you’re doing, even though it may feel strange and wrong, kind of empty, overly spacious, or too quiet, not funny enough, is working.

Your old habits may be trying to convince you that they know the right way, the time proven way. They want to re-convince you that there is no good reason to do anything any other way but the old way. They’re trying to talk you out of the experience you just had.  But I can feel them losing ground.

Look around.  Look at the facts. You’ve got an engaged group of people here who are taking you very seriously. Now, we’re going to let go of that lower back. Gently and decidedly un-posture. Undo. Undo yourself. I want to keep those front ribs soft and moving, soft and moving. Now kindly let go of your hip joints a little bit too, so you roll back nice and easy.

Now you’re not going to comment on this at all, you’re just going to use it.

Buzz:   Sir Charles Sherrington was the first physiologist to recognize and state that to not do something is just as much of an act as to do something. That bothered a lot of the bustling Edwardians around the turn of the century. But Sherrington proved this experimentally. He published a classic book, “The Integrated Function Of The Nervous System” – 650 pages, weighs about 4 pounds. 

 I couldn’t resist saying that.

Bruce:  I think that was inside your circle, maybe at the edge, but still inside.

Buzz:  The central point of Sherrington’s great book is that he glorifies inhibition! For Sherrington  inhibition is the source of the command over the entire organism –  the muscles and the bones are the servants of the brain and its inhibitory machinery.

Bruce: That’s a powerful thought. Give it some time. Let it have its weight.

Buzz:  Now when you enter some Alexander studios what do you see?  You see a skeleton. Occasionally you will see in the studio of an Alexander teacher a wall chart of the human musculature. You think you’re in a butcher shop.

What you rarely see is a wall chart of the central nervous system – the servant of the brain. The beautiful filigree of the human nervous system as it spreads and fans out. It’s got its little dendrites and axons fluttering everywhere, like bees coming out in the spring.

The present tendency in promoting the Alexander work, 19 out of 20 leaflets that I’ve seen about workshops in the Alexander Technique, convey the work as body work. 

Bruce:  Now let them deal with that constructive challenge. This could be one of the most important ideas these teachers may hear about what it means to be a teacher of Alexander’s work. It was for me. Now can you feel my hand touching your back?

Buzz:  Yes.

Bruce:  You’re almost going with me back here, but not quite.  You’re pushing against my hand a little bit.  Can you give yourself a little time to sense my hand back here and when my hand goes this way, can you go with me?  It’s going to feel like I’m taking you into a classic slump. I know this feels strange and wrong.

But what’s happening as you go with me is you are ceasing to pull your upper body back. That’s terrific. This may feel rather un-presentational, like you are just some regular guy sitting, relaxing, saying something you know to these people who are sitting around you, too ordinary, but this kind of ordinary is quietly extraordinary.

(Buzz is listening to the birds that suddenly seem to be singing all around us. Everything is still wet from the snow and sparkling from the sun.)

Buzz:   You hear that?  Coming from the top of the ziggurat? It’s a voice! It’s got a British accent! There it is! It’s saying, “Inhibition time.”

Buzz takes a bow. Everyone is smiling, a few of us crying a little.

Yeah, I miss Buzz. I miss his intelligence, his energy, his thoughtfulness, his endless openness to learn. What can I do? I have a few photos. I have some writings, some memories. I’ll do my best to learn from his example.

I’ll share him with others when I can, as I have with you.

 

Richard M. Gummere, Jr.

 

 

 

Remembering What I Frequently Forget

bruce's hand

From a new student at the Alexander Alliance Germany upon finishing her first Retreat…When I read letters like this I suddenly remember what I frequently forget. I remember why I first began studying, why I first began teaching.  I remember that I have a job in this world, no matter how modest a job, something given to me, of value, to be given to others.

(Replies below, in italics, are mine.)

It has been a very intense week for me and I am very, very grateful for everything I experienced.

I now understand what you mean by “voice work”.   I had a more technical understanding of voice work, resulting from my singing lessons. Somehow it clicked in when you were talking about it in another context, as you speak of  “hand work”.

Yes, I mean it in the most basic way. Humans seem particular inside of the animal kingdom in four ways – our uprightness, our brains, our  extremely articulate and versatile hands, and our extremely articulate and versatile voices. It turns out that Alexander Technique is about what is distinctly human. Humans use their voices primarily to communicate, and that means in social situations. So working with the voice is my way of entering into how we function socially. Social situations, relationships or the lack of them, are when we most often disturb ourselves, get ourselves off balance. So learning how to deeply dwell within ourselves as we interact and empathize with others, for me, is a big part of our work. 

I’ve joined a workgroup which meets regularly on Mondays to practice and discuss everything we have learned in the school. That’s great and I enjoyed this first meeting very much.

I am so glad and moved that you guys do this. What a great bunch of students at the Alexander Alliance.

I have started observing myself and other people. Concerning myself, I now realize how much additional work I do in every day things like brushing my teeth, kitchen work, using the telephone and much more. I didn’t realize this ever before. It’s, on the one hand, surprising to realize what I have been doing for years to my body, and on the other hand, good to know that I can change it now.

This is perfect. It’s exactly what is supposed to happen. Suddenly you begin to notice all the little movement and actions that make up everyday life. You wonder why you never really noticed these things before. You start to sense them, become curious about them. This is what I mean by the Sensory World. You are not just going through the motions of life unconsciously, you are now consciously sensing your life, the little things, which collectively make up the majority of your time on earth. What could be more important? Felt existence. Experienced existence. Lived life. Letting it all in. 

Concerning others, I am seeing them with different eyes. For the moment I often observe how they walk, stand, and move. That’s so interesting. I could spend hours just on this…

For me seeing is one of the great pleasures of the work. That’s why I studied Figure Drawing for some years. I just wanted to be able to look at someone for three hours until I began to see them, really see them. I would come home from those classes, after such a long day, full of energy, so exhilarated because my eyes were opening. My eyes were beginning to touch what they were seeing. Marj Barstow and Erika Whittaker both felt that watching people, not critically, not judgmentally, but just beholding them was an important practice for an Alexander teacher. When I sit in a train station, or at an airport and do this I begin to love everyone I see. I don’t know why. It just happens. You begin to see the precise relationships between a person’s emotional being and their physical expression. You begin to really see what they are doing physically – how they are holding themselves, how they move, where they hurt, how they gesture. It’s like you are beginning to study homosapiens. Oh, this is what we humans do! 

I am also thinking about the question ‘What would the body be without the word body?”  That reminds me of a book I read about Constructivism during my linguistic studies at university. I’ll let you know when I have come to a conclusion.

I don’t often come to conclusions! My life seems perpetually unfinished, in process, sometimes in limbo. So any conclusions would be most welcomed. Yes, I think language is very powerful for humans. We construct whole worlds out of words. Sometimes these words help us to better see the real world, but so often they can prevent us from seeing the world as it is. I look forward to learning more from you about language, and I hope you will share your insights with all of us at the school.

I hope you are having a good time in Japan.

I am. Thanks. And thanks for your good letter. Stay in touch. I love hearing from my students.

Yours,

Bruce

The World In A Dewdrop

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

It’s uncanny. You start working with a person doing some simple activity, like eating an apple. You slow it all down. You give someone a chance to sense how they’re doing what they’re doing as they’re doing it. “Well, what do you notice,” you ask. They say, “I’m biting off more than I can chew.” The bell goes off. There’s nothing you have to say. There it is, his whole life in one action. He gets it.

A person walks to the door, opens it, and leaves the room. Simple enough. I invite her to return. “Well, what did you notice,” I say. She says, I don’t know. I saw the door handle, felt the door open, felt myself leaving. My eyes were cast down. Something sad about the whole thing.”

“Very good”, I say. “You’re waking up.” This time see the whole room you’re in before you leave, and everything and everyone in it. Say to yourself, thank you and mean it. Walk to the door, open it, and as you are crossing the threshold, linger there between two worlds. Sense how leaving is entering. Let your eyes take in the space you’re about to enter. Just this time, don’t look down and see what happens.”

As I make this suggestion to my student, the bell goes off, for me. Yes, every lesson is for me. Every life is my life. Everyone in everyone. The whole world in every dewdrop.

Sometimes movement is just movement, and sometimes movement is metaphor. Sometimes movement means something, something important. Something about our lives and how we live them.

This passage from Where This Path Begins is one example of how I have attempted to convey Lao Tzu’s insights through the workings of the body. The goal? Always, always to get to the heart, to the heart of the matter.

Twenty-Four

You’re Too Much

Arms are limbs for your hands.
Arms fold and unfold.  They raise and lower.
They don’t like to be stiffened or over-straightened.
If something is beyond your reach, get closer, or do without it.
Why strain?

Clutching, grabbing, gripping, grasping.
Why hold on to things so tightly?

Legs are limbs for your feet.
Over-stride and your heels will strike against the ground.
Your back will tire. Your feet will ache.
Why get ahead of yourself?

Puff up your chest, and your lower back will tighten.
Your shoulder blades will narrow.
Your nose will stick up in the air.
Look down on others, and they will not look up to you.

Talk too much and you will lose your voice.
Why over explain?

Too much is too much.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

For Yourself

When one writes a book, best to write it for yourself. If another person likes it, that’s great, but not necessary.

To be honest, I like my book. It’s already a success, a best seller, a classic. It’s my map, my guide. I read it when I need to read it. It helps me. It brings me back to myself, to others, to the world.

It is as if I extracted, with the help of Lao Tzu, every ounce of wisdom this one little soul possesses. I’ve got it down on paper.

It sounds dramatic, but it’s true: this book saved my life, because at one time I had seriously contemplated ending it. It’s true I wept over almost every one of the eighty-one passages in this book. Yes, they were tears of sorrow, but they were also tears of relief, and tears of gratitude.

Gratitude for the chance, and the endurance, that came from I know not where, (my children? my parents?), to turn my life around for the better. Not that my life was terrible, and not that I had created some grave crime. No, if I am guilty, I am guilty of being completely and utterly human, of daring and not knowing, guilty of built-in-selfishness longing for release.

I almost called this book, Where This Path Ends, but thanks to a dear friend, Celia Jurdant-Davis, I didn’t.  Celia wrote, “How about Where This Path Begins?

Thank God for my friends, for people who sometimes know me better than I know myself. How often I have things precisely turned around one hundred and eighty degrees! That’s good. Just one flip and there’s the truth, smiling.

My book is about, at 61, where my path begins, from here, always from here.

Where is my book? Like so many books, it’s sitting inside of some laptop, unpublished, unknown, but not forsaken.

It’s as if I’m having labor pains. I have to breathe. I have to push. I have not to give up, no matter how difficult this feels. I have to birth this book.

I’ll send you an announcement, when the baby is born.

Until then,

Bruce

Beyond Hope – for Alexander Teachers Young and Old

Photo taken by Elisabeth Walker – Botanical Garden, Kyoto, Japan

Beyond Hope

– For Alexander Teachers, Young and Old

As it turns out, I am now older than most people in the world. You know this when once again you do not have to pay as much as normal people to get into a movie theater.

I am now also older than most of the people in our little Alexander world. I was a young whippersnapper and then one morning I woke up, and I was a young senior citizen.

When I was a young whippersnapper, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (http://rzlp.org/), told me there was one way, only one way, to be saved. He said save yourself the way you save stuff in your computer, and then give away what you like and what you think might be helpful, and enjoy doing it.

So when I share my old writings of Alexander’s work, or tell of my experiences as an Alexander teacher, I am writing for all those young, less experienced, wonderful Alexander teachers out there.

I am writing for you when I share my new writings too, like this one. I am over the hill, but that is a good thing. You see, I made it to the top of the hill, and now I am over that! Now I’m coasting. I’m picking up speed. My foot is off the brake. The moon-roof is open, the windows are down and booming out of the speakers B.B. King still sounds as good as ever.

As for my fellow Alexander senior citizens, I won’t be offended if you pass me by. I’ll just wave whether you smile or curse me out. Anyway, I’ve got to watch where I’m going. I’m not the best driver. My kids say they’re giving me five more years, at which time they’re revoking my license and getting me a designated driver.

Right. I was telling you about Reb Zalman. Rebbe Zalman mostly taught through telling stories, stories within stories within stories. That man taught me more about teaching, without teaching.

We were all there waiting like little kids. We were enrolled in a graduate level class in Early Hasidic Masters at Temple University in Philadelphia. Zalman, about five minutes late, walks into the room, crosses the room without looking at us and stands by the window gazing out and taking in the day. He stands there for a minute or so, turned away from us, as we watch him without blinking. He starts quietly singing a Niggun, a simple, wordless melody that repeats itself indefinitely. After about a minute of listening to Zalman’s soft, resonate voice, we shyly join in. Zalman keeps it going until we are no longer self- conscious about singing. My eyes are closed, my head slightly tilted back like Stevie Wonder, and inside I’m spinning around like a Whirling Dervish. Gradually, Zalman’s voice fades out. Our voices, no, our beings, are exactly in sync with Zalman and with each other. We’re sitting in a silence that’s palpable. My eyes open and there is Reb Zalman grinning, sitting on top of the desk that he is supposed to be sitting behind. He sways a few times from side to side, strokes his long salt and pepper beard then, looking at us, no, into us, out of his big eyes, he excitedly says, “That reminds me of a story.” The class has begun.

Now telling stories and gossiping are two different things. When you gossip you hurt three people. You hurt the person you are gossiping about. You hurt the person who has to listen to you gossiping. And you hurt yourself, more than you know.

Good storytelling hurts no one.  It’s an indirect way of teaching.  You’re not giving advice, not telling a person what they should or shouldn’t do. You’re not moralizing. You’re creating another world and a person is slipping into that world. They’re traveling through a world unknown to them, and they are going to come out of that world getting what they were supposed to get. And it doesn’t have anything to do with you.

One summer my family was driving up to Vermont to teach on Jan Baty’s freewheeling Alexander summer retreat. Martha Hansen was reading Hemingway’s, The Old Man and The Sea out loud. We were all in another world, literally. Noah was ten and dreaming about fishing. Eva was 12 and beginning to understand how symbolism worked. I was shaking in my boots realizing I was that old man who caught a fish that was clearly more than I could handle. And Martha, she was doing what she loved doing since she was 5 years old, reading a great story out loud. Then we realized we missed our turn, were in the middle of nowhere and our gas gauge was way, way, way below empty, but that is another story.

Stories are so exciting to me that I can no longer read books about self-improvement. I’m beyond hope. It’s not that there isn’t room for improvement mind you. It’s just that the concept doesn’t make sense to me anymore.

That’s why I read novels. I get lost in other worlds, in other people, in how other people see. And it’s through getting lost, that I find myself.  There I am losing myself in someone else. Losing my self. As an old guy, this is my idea of a good time. I just finished ready Murakami’s 1Q84. It’s a 1000 pages long, and it was too short. I feel terrible,  like I just lost a couple really good friends.

There are some good things about getting older. If you’re lucky you start not caring about what other people think of you. You don’t care if everybody likes you, or your work. You don’t take offence easily, and you’re too tired to defend yourself or try to prove anything to anyone. You’ve been there, done that.  You’re not sure if being accepted or rejected is a compliment or an insult. It’s not personal anyway. You sing your song for all it’s worth and you stop caring about your voice – like Leonard Cohen or Dylan, you sing your truth.

Or like Walt Whitman.

I am larger, better than I thought,

I did not know I held so much goodness.

All seems beautiful to me,

I can repeat over to men and women,

You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,

I will recruit for myself and you as I go,

I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,

I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,

Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,

Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

Blessing others, and receiving blessings when they come my way, and they do, more and more because now I notice them.

That’s it.  All the rest is commentary.