Saturday, May 27, 2017

Baccalaureate 2017: Make Your Music

Grateful for the opportunity to share some words at our Baccalaureate Ceremony this year... so here's a surprise post (since it's already written, it's easy to "publish"), just in case anyone ever checks back here.
(It's only been about 3, 4 years?)

Congratulations graduates, parents, family members, colleagues, friends. What a big moment this is...and what an accomplished group of humans!  I am proud and grateful to stand here with you this evening as a part of this community to celebrate you and hopefully to encourage you to use your unique gifts as you leave this place.

Two weeks ago, my 4th and 5th graders were preparing for their spring concert. They were especially excited to play the electric song Stir Crazy that the Moxie Strings taught them earlier this year… One particular student, CJ was counting down the days before this concert. He’s bright and enthusiastic, but also kind of an old soul, articulate, with big vocabulary and even bigger ideas. For him, making music, (especially playing the violin) is basically like breathing. While most people click pens or mindlessly fidget with their hands, CJ incessantly plucks his violin. He’s the kind of 10 year old  that shows up a week in advance before his own concert, just to be a helper for the younger kids.
So last Tuesday, moments before our performance, as the lights dimmed and I walked through the  side door onto the stage, I was startled to find him behind the curtain in tears, struggling to articulate anything through his sobs. He simply held up his violin….in two pieces. It was ugly, the scroll was completely detached, splintered wood, strings hanging. So I sprang into action, gushing reassurances about rental instrument insurance and rushing to my classroom to get a replacement violin he could play. But he still wasn’t ready to walk on stage...he needed to see his parents, who were, of course, sitting dead center in the front row of the packed house.  He ran to the front row, holding up the two broken pieces for his parents (and the entire audience) to see, unashamed of the tears, his sorrow was so deep, so heavy, his love for his violin and the irreparability of the instrument he loved.
CJ has great parents.  Really great parents. In fact, I probably won’t ever forget what his father said to him. Actually, I wish I’d had these words for him...and I wish I’d had these same words for my own daughter when, that same night, her violin ended up missing.
CJ’s father looked him in the eye and told him to go on stage with the borrowed school violin.  He said it would be hard, but it would be okay. And then he said, “CJ go on stage and play.
This isn’t your instrument. YOU ARE YOUR INSTRUMENT.”  

And those words, I am going to try to remember. I want to remember them to tell my students, to tell my children, and actually…  to tell myself.  “YOU are your instrument.”  

Things break.
Circumstances will be awful sometimes. Even horrific.
And life will be overwhelming.
Sometimes you will fail.
Expect all this. You cannot change it.
But you can still make your music.

You don’t know how many days you will have in this life, but use each one to practice and master your music and share it with the world. Don’t let a broken violin keep you from making the music that only you can make. Even when you feel broken and suddenly unprepared or out of your league…or when you doubt that you have what it takes.  Or when it seems that everyone else has it figured out except for you. When you doubt that you belong. Perhaps that small (or large) crisis will happen for you at the worst possible moment. When, like CJ, you tried so hard to be prepared and “together” but everything actually falls apart. It may feel like stepping on stage is impossible. In those difficult moments you have a choice: to quit or to make your music. And I hope you choose to make your music. Even if it means you have to improvise, or use a different tool than you expected. Don’t crumple under the shock of a broken violin. Don’t accept defeat (and miss the moment you’ve been waiting for, preparing for)...go step back on stage and play.

Sometimes, you’ll even have to improvise the notes.  Like on January 15th, 2009, when Chesley Sullenburger, or “Sully”, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 was forced into a high stakes improvisational performance that shocked the world.  A flock of Canadian geese took out both of his engines just minutes after taking off from LaGuardia...suddenly floating with ZERO engines, with little control, seconds away from an impending disaster and destruction, ... and 155 people on board...he had a daunting choice to make.  Should he try to make it back to LaGuardia? Attempt a landing at Teterboro Airport?  or make a crash landing in the Hudson River? Sully didn’t have an hour to decide. He had seconds. In those seconds, he had to process years of knowledge and practice and apply them to the present. The flight manual had guidelines for engine failure, but no definitive answers to his immediate question.  He had to create his own solution… he had to improvise.  He decided to head for the Hudson River, to attempt a crash landing in the water.  And incredibly, he did it.  The plane landed on the water without breaking completely apart. It floated on the water long enough for the passengers to evacuate and wait on the wings until they were rescued by ferry boats.. And all 155 lives were saved. We can easily imagine the outcome if “Sully” had succumbed to the overwhelming horror of the moment, if he had delayed just a few seconds longer... or spent his time panicking or wishing away the circumstances. “Sully” had practiced his instrument, mastered it even.  But he had never dreamed that he would have to play this music. It hadn’t been done before.

You’re going to have to make split-second decisions as well. And while most of yours won’t be life or death, they will have consequences. Know that you have years of experience behind you to make the right call. Process the information and choose your direction. In a book about his experiences, Sullenberger wrote, “We need to try to do the right thing every time, to perform at our best, because we never know which moment in our lives we’ll be judged on.” ― Chesley B. Sullenberger  
There have been so many defining moments in many heroes who in moments when you or I might have been overcome, they chose to overcome, to improvise and make a brave choice despite the odds being stacked against them…  Martin Luther King Jr, Oskar Schindler, Ludwig van Beethoven, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Alexander Hamilton, Malala Yousafzai, Marie Curie, Itzak Perlman

And yet, despite all these inspiring examples...and all our best ideals,  it is still easy (at least for me), to be overcome. When little girls (little, like the age of my own daughters) ...when little girls walking out of a concert become the target of deadly explosions….inexplicable acts of violence no longer shock us. Terrorism is now a frightening possibility to be prepared for anywhere at anytime. Racism still divides our country, everyone does not have equal opportunities….or even clean water in America, young children and teenagers suffer from depression in staggering numbers, poverty and hunger and even slavery are closer to us than we like to acknowledge. Each week, sometimes each day, we could choose a tragedy that overwhelms us. We know too much, the stories and statistics are so overwhelming and the information feed so constant on our screens, that we protect ourselves by tuning it out, sometimes we tune it out with mindless entertaining distractions, or busy-ness, we protect ourselves with numbness, superficiality, or cynicism.  And despite our values of kindness and empathy, sometimes we actually feel nothing and do nothing because we don’t know what to do, because we can’t fix it and we feel powerless.
But we are not powerless. We are instruments, and in the face of evil, we practice our music, we use our voice, and we love the people around us.  

After hearing that John F. Kennedy had been shot in 1963, Leonard Bernstein, (the American composer) was devastated.  Bernstein not only esteemed Kennedy as an American President who valued the arts and believed in the enduring power of learning and reason. But he had also been a friend. As he processed his grief, he wrote a letter:
“We ...are...numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before. “ ~Leonard Bernstein
Whenever disheartening news or world tragedies or personal sorrows threaten to overcome me, I remember his brave and practical response to violence…   “to make music intensely, beautifully, and devotedly.” When I am unable to see past the darkness, this gives me something to do, to lead me toward light. It helps to remind me of what is good: making our own our own unique way.. That is a good that overcomes evil.  

Around 56 AD, the apostle Paul, wrote a letter to the church in Rome, with a similar message: Do not be overcome by evil, he said.  “But overcome evil with good.”
In that same letter, Paul wrote an inspiring list of actions to overcome evil with good… a kind of guide for how to live in the world as a non-conformist... Instead of conforming, he said, be transformed by renewing your MIND.  Practice your unique gifts:
If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If it is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If it is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. Give with no strings attached. Lead with passion. Show love without pretending. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other.  Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic... Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer…..Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.
(Romans 12 paraphrased)

This is how it is to overcome evil with good. It’s daily. It’s usually quiet and small, unnoticed actions and decisions. It’s how we do our work, how we talk to people, how we spend our days.  Mother Theresa said “Be faithful in the small things, for in them your strength lies.”

What are these small things?
Love with sincerity. Show up and be present. Look up and notice each moment. Look up from your screens and notice and honor other people. Listen to the music they create.  Be creative and brave and improvise with them. Be inspired by one another. Stand your ground and do what is right. Be curious and take risks. Use your gifts. Use your voice. Pray. Help people in need. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Live in peace. Express gratitude as often as you can.
Practice your instrument every day.

“Be faithful in these small things,
for in them your strength lies.”
And with that strength,
you will overcome whatever lies ahead.  

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