Once there was a brilliant unsung jazz musician named Grover Mooney, a big barrel-chested man with wild hair, a bitter smile and satirical eyes. When he wasn’t playing, you could feel the chaos in him. Sometimes, out of the corner of your eye, you could see his ancestors going a few rounds with each other behind his trickster’s smile. I swear I saw Chief Two Moon wrestling a drunk Irish poet into civility in there at least a dozen times. When he wasn’t playing music, Grover seemed unfinished and uncertain, the hurt child he’d been lashing out from safety behind his massive, but haphazardly built, defenses.
But when he was playing, ah…. the hair on your arms stood up and vibrated to the sound, your heart cracked open to possibility and your soul danced on the streams of synchronicity. Having met him out of his element, one could easily dismiss the man as childish and irrelevant. If you ever heard him play, even for a few precious moments, no matter what you witnessed in the soundless part of his life, you could never ignore his greatness. Never before, or since, have I had such a shocking experience as the first time I witnessed Grover at the drums. Experienced is a better word. Those of you who know me well may realize just how significant that statement is. It may be that this single jazz concert prepared me for thousands of incredible journeys I’ve taken since. It cleared off most of the dusty arrogance of youth and tugged my gaze from my navel. After that, I understood that a brilliant teacher could peek out from behind any face.
The details blur, considering the power of the experience, but I’ll share what I can.
It seemed like an ordinary night out in Boston. Grover was backing up a bold and beautiful jazz singer with my first name – Rebecca Parris, I believe. I’d heard her inspiring voice and was looking forward to the evening in the elegant, crisp hotel bar with the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the water. Grover was an afterthought. He was my ex’s father. We’d come out to support him as a kindness, an indulgence, the way you go to a naughty child’s Christmas concert. I can’t believe the ignorance of that attitude, but I had no idea of the transformation about to take place. We got our drinks and sat on stools 8 or 9 feet away from the drum kit, so we could see Grover’s face and watch him connect with the bass player to move the music. We wanted to make sure he saw us too, to prove our fidelity and make the most out of our act of kindness. I cringe at the memory. Grover smiled and nodded as he shuffled into place, waiting for the other artists to settle in. His smile filled with intriguing knowledge and his eyes turned to things I couldn’t see. I tried to ignore the brash wink he threw me, suspecting for the first time that I’d underestimated Grover. Annoyed by the thought of being wrong, I tried to hide in talk and liquor. A few laughs and sips later, the train started rolling. That was the last I saw anything in the room clearly until it reformed around me.
For a while I tried to make sense of the experience, to protect my separateness and bear witness. I struggled to identify the source of each sound and nuance of feeling. The effort was pointless. The rhythm wore down, cracked, then dissolved my defensive analysis. I lost track of where I was, with whom, and the lame, silly excuse manufactured for being there. It was destiny. My spirit woke, rose and danced through emotions I didn’t know existed and can barely freeze long enough in memory to spy as lacy edges to a story sculpted in what might be. Drums widened to the range of an orchestra and narrowed to the focus of a single heartbeat. It was the heartbeat of The Mother, beating as a guide to my smaller organ, and the heartbeat of every creature in the Universe weaving our common story together into one web. There were sounds to create any nuance of every plot twist imaginable, but it was impossible to see how they were made. The movements of the man, and the finite look of the drum kit he interacted with, belied the magic produced in those precious moments. There was the Heartbeat made flesh.
My energy pulsed behind the veil of decision. The Heartbeat beckoned it forward, lay down the bridge at my feet and danced away smiling. My soul hinted up the veil. The Heartbeat stomped and whooped with teasing power, and no paving stone wobbled. “Safe to come out,” it danced. “Safe to explore.” My soul withdrew and listened in the space between, the dark comforting connective tissue weaving a larger cocoon as I held back. The breath added its ragged rhythm to the music. In moments the space was cavernous, the world of Love and Truth, as rich and expansive a mix of earth, sea, sky, fire and possibility as my blocked senses would allow. My spirit inched toward the Heartbeat. Halted.
“I can carry you if you let me,” the Heartbeat promised, weaving my own safest place. Threads of mother and honor and wisdom and grace formed around me. The long pause yielded. The Heartbeat carried me until I could dance on my own. Safe in this new freedom, exploration was easy and fluid. Where we traveled, I can’t explain here. In short, we crossed planes of time, space, matter, perception and order within the cells of the infinite. The persistent magic made us all and singular at once. Many spirits danced there on waves of rhythm as the Heartbeat made sense of our blended individual stories. The moment was perfect. And then it was complete.
The Heartbeat led us back, we followed contentedly through the elements, through the walls, into square world. The Heartbeat singled out each heart from the rest. It led each rhythm back to its heart, unwrapping it from the new cocoon and gently reconnecting it to its old one. When the music stopped, there was no regret. Each heart was fulfilled. That infinite experience was enough to justify a whole life of feeling “other.” Giving over, not giving up, brought me where I needed to be – in tune with the universe. That sounds corny and intangible now, crazy and wrong, but the fulfillment of that moment was more real and tangible than any of the practical plans and dreams I’d invented myself up to then. It was just right.
I knew I could be that connected again, that ease and wholeness were the natural state of being, and the journey to it could be instant and safe. I could learn to go there myself, and take others with me, if I devoted my essence to it every moment of every day. No artificial drug or thing or person or job could take me on the journey then leave me to myself without a major crash or slice of isolation flooding in where it had been. So what could I do?
Many a soul has wilted, hovering around the Heartbeat, waiting for that magic to repeat in the times without sound, without drums, without faith. That night, I started my journey of stopping. Stop trying to control my life. Stop trying to make sense of everything. Stop trying to prove my cleverness and worth. Stop trying to find myself and my purpose. No amount of thinking or planning could substitute for the steady work of learning the fundamentals. I turned my attention to surrender. I opened by senses, and got down to work.
As for the two us, once Grover realized he had my respect, at times the cruel imp in him stopped lashing out at the ignoring egotist in me; we listened with care and could share real conversations. Grover was family to people whom I love deeply or once did, so most of the time we danced around the edges of each other’s lives. Occasionally, though, we shared a meal or sat quietly together watching something unimportant on TV or listening to music in the space between comings and goings. One shadowed twilight in one of these spaces, Grover shared one of the most important bits of advice I’ve ever absorbed from any human source. It made sense of the magical musical tour he’d taken me on. We may have been completely quiet digesting some feast, we may have been listening to scratchy old jazz records or wilting tapes of Moon Unit and talking about art and people and colors and rain, but that context is out of my reach. I can’t even say for sure whether or not others were in the room, what time of day it was or if walls and furniture existed. All I know is that the recorder in my brain started when Grover spoke ten inscrutable words: “You have to play in before you can play out.”
I perked up at that. It sounded cool and mystical and simple, but my high and mighty brain could make no sense of it. “You think too much,” his indulgent smile seemed to say, “and understand too little.” The bitterness had melted from the corners of his mouth and the magic lit his eyes from the music inside playing too softly for me to hear, so I didn’t take it personally. Grover talked about practicing every day, about paradiddles and pentatonic scales and things I don’t grasp as a weak and barely trained musician. He spoke of repetition as the safe zone we can return to when our fellows aren’t following, or can’t. He spoke of building bridges with the safe sounds as you travel, moving two steps forward and one step back to build the faith of our fellows as the bridge we’re building grows more solid under us all. We wrap the fragile egos, psyches, energies and resonance of the beings we lead on the journey delicately in the comfort of familiar things so they can open to the unfamiliar like roses to the rain and sun on the other side of the bridge.
We had the conversation several times over the years, and each time the lesson became clearer, the message purer. So what if you have a gift, if you can go places no one else even dreams of going!?! If you can’t take anyone with you, the trip is pointless. All of our arts are about communication and evolution. The pretty form is nothing without the substance of hard-earned skill and the intangible quality of surrender to the truth, to the Love. It lacks relevance.
Listening to Grover, exploring new worlds swaddled in familiar warmth he’d tucked me in, made me realize my own work lacked relevance – sad and dismaying discovery. Oh, I could turn a gorgeous phrase no doubt. But why should anyone care what it meant if I didn’t? I wasn’t trying to communicate, really, just to display something clever and pretty and easy on the ear. Arrogance. Hubris. No matter what I wrote, I was only saying “Look at me!” Then, I still wanted to “control my destiny,” “conquer the world” and “prove my worth.” I stopped creating and started listening, searching in every face, every voice and each vibration for clues to the truth. I practice reading rivers of communication flowing like water beneath and between words and notes. I practice lines and rhythms to bring different kinds of thoughts to life. I practice ways to breathe and focus that change the flows. I practice dancing out traditional rhythms to build solid bridges over them. For years now, I’ve tried only to write when I have something to communicate that can’t come across without words. The occasional poem slips out of the surrender alongside the frequent notes to loved ones. At work, play and prayer, I make daily attempts to learn and grow, to help myself and others understand our needs and motivations and those of our communities. Through all that, maybe I can communicate more clearly and kindly with others. I’m doing the work, dancing the void. More about all that later.
Thanks to time, patience, Love, death, and a lot of dear friends & enemies, I can surrender now. To survive and evolve, I’ve had to. I can surrender to that higher vibration, whatever you call it, and get down to the rhythmic, steady practice of communicating and evolving. Grover showed me how to nurture and protect people while taking them places he’d discovered on his journeys. How much better it is to write, now that the rules are part of my routine and I understand how I get to where I always went so easily.
If you come on a journey with me, I’ll do my best to keep you safe and happy so you can revel in the ride, and come back without regrets. Thanks for your company today.