Friday, October 31, 2008

Game on

Starting at midnight tonight, please send every ounce of good vibes, prayers, whatever ya got, my way. I am beginning one of the projects I mentioned before tonight, and I might be around online and in person a bit less over the next month or so. Check in on me...chastise me if you see me wasting time on Facebook. It's time to get serious about not only being creative, but productive.

Game on!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


My relationship with singing has been a rocky one, but it has withstood the test of time, as well as overcome my addiction to chronic dabbling. I don't remember much of the early years. I was no child prodigy, singing in gospel choirs or entertaining the family on holidays. In fact, I was noticed for my talent on the clarinet, but I only once remember being complimented on my singing.

We were doing some kind of choral concert in elementary school. Perhaps a holiday one, I don't remember. Fact is, I don't even remember who our chorus teacher was. Anyway, I have this memory in my head of her chastising me for not singing loud enough. She said that I knew the melody and other students were following my lead. If I did not sing out fully, then many others would trail off into uncertain, indistinguishable "counterpoint". So, I sang out.

Memories are funny though. I don't remember her name. I don't remember the setting (did she say this in front of the class? Oh the embarrassment if she did!) in which she delivered her exhortation. I often ask myself, did this really happen at all? Or did I create some memory in order to serve as a reminder to me to continue with the craft? I don't know.

However, I do clearly remember the agony of enrolling in junior high and finding out that I would have to choose between being in choir or in the band. As I mentioned before, I was recognized for my talent on the clarinet, and in the end it wound up not being much of a choice. Nonetheless, there was a pang of disappointment at not being able to continue singing in a choral setting, something I enjoyed immensely.

And that was that for a long time. I focused on clarinet, made All-Region bands, played solos at concerts, and excelled at the path I had chosen for myself. Then I burned out.

I still regret the timing. I was finishing up my sophomore year. I had gotten a relatively high chair in All-Region band and my clarinet instructor was excited about my chances at All-State. But I told him I was done. Finished. I was too stressed out to continue, could not deal with the pressure. He was dumbfounded, but accepted my decision after his initial prodding was unsuccessful. I know he was wondering, "What in the world have we been working for?"

And I had no answers to his questions. I ditched band and played football my last two years in high school, which was a great experience, but athletics were clearly disadvantaged in having a future for me beyond graduation. So it is that I arrived at college and tried to take my alto sax into private lessons and a jazz studies minor. I never got going. I didn't give it the time, I didn't have the passion for the instrument anymore. I could not for the life of me remember modes. Everything just stopped.

Except singing. See, during my senior year in high school the choir teacher made an impassioned appeal to the senior football players to be play the mostly nonspeaking parts of cowboys in Crazy For You. Somehow, several of us ended up signing on, and it involved singing and dancing. There's probably video somewhere, but woe to the person who puts it online.

Anyway, it was my first time to really sing in almost five years. We practiced hard. There were harmonies, and I had to be told that I was in the low tenor range. It was such a great experience that I kept singing in college. But, without an official venue, I subjected my roommate Sean to hours upon hours of torturous, slightly off tune singing while I tried to figure out Boyz II Men harmonies through my computer headphones.

But, through Sean's perseverance, a voice actually started to emerge. The tones got sharper, more accurate. Coming up with accompanying harmonies became more automatic. I sang in public a couple of times at some church events. Then four of us got together and formed a band at the end of college. Listening to the recordings now, I feel like we were as good as we could have been considering our relatively sparse amount of practice. And it was unbelievably fun.

Being in a band is without a doubt one of the defining social experiences of my life. I think can say without any hint of pretension that I miss being on stage. The thrill of being the point of focus for everyone's attention, hidden only by a guitar and the much more talented musicians at my side. While I still shudder slightly at hearing my recorded voice, it was nonetheless a consistently wondrous thing to hear my voice coming out of monitors or house speakers.

Then we went the way of college bands. Sam moved to California, I eventually moved back to Arkansas, and the Fellowship was broken. I still sang on my own. Recorded a few of my songs solo with terrible microphones on laboriously work intensive recording equipment. But, within six months of moving back to Little Rock, the well went dry. Without new songs, singing became an exercise for me, an enjoyment. That's nice, but I lost my voice.

Here in the last five years I've been trying to figure out what happened, trying to recover one of the great joys of my life. My listening in the last few years has honed in on jazz, blues, soul...vocal heritages that I had not explored in my songwriting nor in my casual singing until I joined a gospel choir in Little Rock. The music fit my voice like the missing half of a treasure map. "My vocal cords were made for this!" I thought excitedly.

This is going to sound awful, but even better than gospel choir is karaoke. I'm not gonna lie -- when you sing Al Green at karaoke and make a roomful of drunk rednecks from central Washington get up to dance and applaud when you finish, your ego is insufferable for the rest of the night.

Yet, there is something in me that is misplaced. There's a fear in that thrill of singing now. I don't in any way understand it. As much as I loved being on stage, I hide my voice away now. Ask any of my friends in Portland...most of them don't know I was in a band in St. Louis. If they know I can sing it's only because they've heard me at work or they were present at Lizz's birthday party when I sang "End of the Road".

What happened? Just the other day at work, a friend asked me to sing a line from John Legend to help jog her memory of whether she'd heard him or not. I refused. I don't know why. I love singing John Legend songs...what was the block there?

I don't get it, and I don't like it. I want my voice back. I want to be comfortable with it again, wear it like an old pair of jeans that are slightly frayed at the edges, but oh so comfortable in the seat. I want to invite my friends to witness one of the things I enjoy doing most in life. Seriously, I think there is a lightness in me that is only present when I'm singing and performing music on a regular basis. How many of you have ever seen that?

I don't know what this post is ultimately about. Glancing back over it, it seems a bit narcissistic and self indulgent. But, I think I needed to write it. Put it out of my head and onto some medium, to prod myself to recover that lost love. So, if you've read this far, thanks for following along with my logorrhea. Yeah...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A memory

When I was still living in New Jersey, we had a huge icy snowstorm one time. School was canceled for a few days and the roads and sidewalks were treacherous, despite prompt plowing and salting. Back in our neighborhood it was particularly slippery, and it was in these conditions that I found myself walking to my best friend George's house a few blocks away.

I was dressed appropriately -- jeans tucked in snow boots, scarf tied round my face against the wind. Each step had to be placed carefully, and I was slipping and sliding all over the place. At one point I must have lost my concentration, because the next thing I know I am staring at my legs unceremoniously splayed above my head, steel sky above my legs.

Yes, I was falling in the most out of control, awkward, unrecoverable way possible. Now understand -- this was the beginning of junior high. Acute self-consciousness falls so far short of describing the paranoia and anxiety of that time. Yet, here I was, walking through the neighborhood where both friends and enemies lived, and I was making a complete ass of myself. Never mind that slipping on the ice is something people do all the time; in that state of mind, it felt like an act with fatal consequences.

After falling solidly on my back, breath whooshing out noisily, I had to take a moment before I could gather my motor control. The first thing I did was look around to see if anyone had seen me. I scanned the crystalline surroundings for any color splashed against the white; any evidence of someone in the vicinity. A beat. Then relief. There was no one.

Once the nervousness of being seen in such a compromised position passed, I began to laugh. A loud, uninhibited laugh. The kind of laugh that carried a hint of the maturity I would have in looking back in hindsight and shaking my head at the ridiculousness of my junior high anxieties turning ordinary clumsiness into social suicide. The kind of laugh that I would never allow myself in any other situation than when I was alone, unseen.

As my laughter subsided and I pushed myself off the ground, I began to get very sad.

I was 12 years old and trying very hard not to believe in God. After all, this was the year that witnessed the only time my father hit me in the face. The subsequent altercation involving a knife and baseball bat ended with me on the ground being choked by the very man who had helped give me life, the man I had just tried to kill.

This was the year I was consumed with guilt after finding out my mother had bipolar disorder, her internal chemistry influencing the mood swings for which I had begun to hate her. When I realized it wasn't her fault, I could direct that hate nowhere other than myself. What kind of son hates his mother?

This was the year I told myself that there could be no God at all if these things could happen to one family. The self-centered trajectory of such thoughts is symptomatic of adolescence, I suppose, but to this day I am amazed at the narrowness of my scope. I had friends in school who had it much worse, and it never crossed my mind to doubt God's existence because of their situation. But this was happening to ME.

Brushing the snow and ice off my coat, I breathed in the aloneness that had moments before released me to laugh wholeheartedly. As that solitude expanded in my mind to a cosmic scale, I was overcome by the stark emptiness I felt surrounding me on Homan Avenue.

And I walked away sad.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Postcards Without Postage, pt. 1

This is the first in a series of postcards I am writing to people with whom I am no longer in contact--people from the past; people who are estranged; people who have passed away (names have been changed where appropriate). This was inspired by a gift from my friend Natalie credit her if you like it, and blame me if you don't.

Dear Elena,

Wow, it's so great to hear from you after such a long time and distance between us. I've thought of you often on this journey. Tentatively, but often. So many things I've seen, people I've met, remind me of our love in its infancy. When I'm melting my eyes out on towering landscapes or crystal clear starlit skies, I am reminded of that perfect New England night. At least, that's how it seemed to me then. Cinematic in its timing, its scenery, its cathartic embrace. But remembering back, I celebrated our kiss like I'd won some race. It was reduced to a goal achieved, an affirmation of self. You were utterly left behind, transubstantiated into a phantom of love's ideal instead of the very solid, very present Elena who had been my friend since I disembarked from my East Coast exodus. Elena, I'm sorry. I didn't even know how to crawl, much less walk with you. I caused you a lot of pain over the next year, willfully and spitefully. Childishly. And now, regretfully. It's been over a decade since that snowy night in New England, and I don't remember the kiss anymore. The feeling of apparent victory. There is only the dull ache of love betrayed. For that, I am sorry. Love is a hard teacher. -- Ramón

Saturday, October 25, 2008


One of the inadvertent consequences of deciding to be definitely here is risking the pain of separation after being fully present with people. This is a basic tenet of right relationship -- amount and depth of love is directly proportional to amount and depth of pain that can be experienced.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, my tendency has been to stay lightly disengaged so as to mitigate these effects, but I can do that no longer. It is no surprise, therefore, that soon after making that decision engage fully I am confronted with the potential of two very dear couples leaving Portland. These couples are integral parts of the family that I've found myself among out here, across the Rocky Mountains and Mississippi River from my blood relations.

It's hard. I've always been the one to say goodbye. That's hard in it's own way, but the adventure of what's next is soothing, or distracting at the very least. Staying behind...that's something I'm going to have to learn how to do. Especially in a city like Portland, where so many young people come not so much in search of something as to escape somewhere else. We are refugees, us transplants, often running from things we cannot recognize until we come here and realize they have followed us.

The inevitability of having to deal with those things tends to draw us back to where we have some kind of root system. To family. To friends with whom we have history, inside jokes, even drama. To place...the street corners and sandwich shops where we feel utterly at home.

My friends are not considering leaving Portland. They are considering going home. How could I, who have searched for a home for so long, ever be against that? If/when my friends leave, I will be sad. I will regret all the times I should have called, should have visited, should have hugged.

But more than that, I will laugh with them; remember. We have made a home for ourselves here, in this Portland, even if only for a little while. For that, I will ever be grateful--not to the idea of a city, but to my dear friends. We will always come home to one another.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I need some discipline, some regularity, in my writing once again. In my life. Perhaps posting simple blogs can help me get that train back on the tracks.

The weather in Portland has been phenomenal for the last three or four days. The mornings have started out pretty cloudy, but over the course of the day the clouds break and the sun begins burning itself into our pleasure receptors. These sunny, crisp days are amazing in their clarity and briskness.

I've been back from Phoenix for nearly three months now. Though I have come back with some very clear ideas of the values I want to drive what I do here, the day to day decisions, the longer term trajectories, are exceedingly unclear. What do I do with myself? How do I occupy my time with the things that highlight and express the values that are infusing me with purpose?

I've got a couple projects I want to undertake. I will not write about them, because I'm tired of talking. I only mention them for the sake of accountability. Ask me occasionally how those projects are going, though I might not share details with you.

Suffice to say that beginning to post on a regular basis is a move toward a habit, a discipline, that may spark other things. Attempting to write a poem a day in April ended up being such a fruitful exercise for loosening my writing as the spring and summer progressed, and I'm looking for a little more of that magic now with other endeavors. We'll see...

I was thinking about the future the other day. Alternately dreaming and worrying, and then I recalled this line from Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

"People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten."

I've determined to be fully here in Portland. Here does not describe a locale or a time frame (which has dictated the way I viewed most of my living situations over the last decade), but a way of being. A wholeness. An acute attentiveness. And, perhaps, a contentment.

I believe this requires letting go of the illusion that control of the future can be attained, as well as loosing the absurdity of wishing the past could be altered. Perhaps being created in the image of God means living within the bounds, the freedom, of God's self revelation to Moses from the burning bush -- I am who I am.