In This Lifetime
We are given so very much to learn
And we sense we need to learn it well
To make our goals, fulfill our dreams
And save ourselves from hell
Such pressure creates ambition or depression
Sunny self-confidence or cringing inhibition
It would be nice if it was simply our decision
And oh, perhaps it is, or isn’t
Our order’s in for struggle, we know the twists and turns
The fire in our bellies, the longings in our spleen,
The agony, the ecstasy,
The ghost in our machine
But should we find inside ourselves, what we truly love
Our essence, which was meant to be, decreed by stars above
Then there’s a path that we must follow, and may we find our way
To the sweetness of self-knowledge and the innocence of play
If we get lost inside our fate, it’s our destiny that suffers
Without the nurture that we need, our vision isn’t buffered
But should we learn to heal these wounds while we are alive
The glowing essence that is ours must surely thrive
(Tom Goforth, 2013)
In this twisting turning process from which a blog emerges each month, I have come to realize that I am not in charge of what happens. My initial ideas about what I am going to write never come to fruition in the form that I intend, and so I have had to learn to accept and even enjoy the surprises that come my way. This is the final installment, for now, of my series on “Connecting to our Essence.” In this chapter, I hope to further reveal the process of connecting to our core selves, and showing what can happen when we do, by giving two examples of fully connected, creative human beings. I hope to arrive at my goal, by beginning with the source of my inspiration for this entry, the DVD of the making of Tony Bennett’s “Duets II” recording.
It’s often good to trust our instincts and impulses when in the midst of a creative enterprise. So when I had the notion while I was researching this piece, to turn on PBS to see what was playing, I did so, even though my inner voice immediately started scolding me for procrastinating. What was on was a Great Performance based on the making of Tony Bennett’s second “Duets” recording. I had missed the beginning of the show, so I didn’t know who was joining him, but that turned out not to matter, because I was immediately enthralled by the interactions between the then 85 year old Bennett and his duet partners. With Tony leading the way with his gracious, loving appreciation of each singer, one remarkable collaboration after another resulted. Each duet was preceded by some conversation about the particular jazz standard that Bennett had selected. There was then a period of warming up to the song and the vocal scoring, followed by the performance of the duet. In every case, the actual performance was profound, full of feeling, sweetness, beauty, and mutual respect.
I was particularly impressed with the footage of Tony’s collaboration with Josh Groban and John Mayer. Both of these artists have a reputation for having larger egos, and being difficult to work with, so I was expecting some choppy interactions. Instead Tony’s aura of love for both the music and the person he was singing with prevailed. I watched closely as both Groban and Mayer warmed to the creative task at hand with a growing appreciation of Bennett’s interpretive artistry and the warmth he radiated throughout each collaboration. At the end of the DVD, Mayer comments that he felt like he was being sung to, and had never felt so safe inside someone’s voice. That theme of safety was expressed by many of the duet partners who were interviewed both before and after each performance.
So here it is, I thought, a living example of someone who knows who they are and what they love, and pursues it through the whole course of their life. “I will never retire,” says Tony Bennett near the end of the film. “I love this!” When we find what we love, and delve as deeply as we possibly can into learning to express it, the results can be profound, inspiring, and healing all at once; for we are connecting to our essence when we do this, and our connection involves an expression of loving energy that others can feel.
Though I have listened to Tony Bennett’s music for much of my life, I didn’t know his life story. I found an extensive biographical article in Wikipedia, which details the remarkable map of his life. As we might expect, it’s not all pretty. Bennett has had three marriages, two resulting in children. He has had remarkable successes and his share of failures. He hit a low point in his Hollywood Years which included a failed marriage, great financial difficulties, and drug addiction. He appealed to his two oldest sons for help and help they did, taking over his finances, moving him back to New York, and advancing his career by beginning to appeal to a younger audience. This lead to a total renaissance in his career, international acclaim, great financial success, and growing respect and admiration from friends, fans, and colleagues alike.
In addition to his musicianship, Bennett is a visual artist, who has painted and shown his work successfully. His artwork is curated in two or three museums. During the “Duets II” filming, he presented kd lang with a beautiful still life of a vase of flowers that he painted for her that morning. What comes through, in every duet, is his warmth, generosity, creativity, and rapt attention to the work at hand.
Toby Landesman, Copyright 2013
In touch with his musical gifts and with the great pleasure of singing the music he loves, Tony Bennett becomes a gift of love and inspiration to almost everyone he encounters. I myself find him to be a source of inspiration for all of us, who desire to find what we love and to do it well, not just for our own benefit, but for the greater good of humankind and our planet.
As I tracked my way through the DVD for the third time this afternoon, I felt every bit as emotionally moved and spiritually inspired as I had the first two times I watched and listened. I realized that I was watching a Zen Master of music and song, who mentored his duet partners by example, by revealing his love of the music, his vulnerability to the lyrics and meaning of the song, and his great appreciation of them. And those lessons were quickly grasped by his collaborators. Sheryl Crow speaks of how “Tony really shows up. He’s fully present and loses himself in the song, embodies it. He actually invades the song and makes me want to sing in an honest way.”
Josh Groban expressed how comfortable Tony’s level of intimacy made him feel. Knowing that he didn’t have percussive jazz chops, Groban appreciated how Bennett allowed him to embrace the legato (melodic line) of the song, and that the song Tony chose for him, “This is all I ask,” was the perfect choice for their duet.
Tony Bennett not only believes in and delivers the artistry of the music he sings; he deeply appreciates his fellow artists. He refers to Faith Hill glowingly, as the female Sinatra. “She asserts her authority in the same way that Sinatra did. She shows you where the song can go.” And he pauses just before his duet with Lady Gaga is about to begin, looks into the camera and speaks to the viewing audience. “She’s got it all. She’s a great improviser and her playfulness and creativity make her a great performer.” Gaga sighs at the comment, and then goes on to give a marvelously innovative performance that has Tony laughing and smiling throughout the duet.
So what can we learn from Tony Bennett about what it’s like when we are in touch with our essence and accepting of our true self. If he is the example that I believe he is, we can experience his love for what he does and for his fellow artists as one of the characteristics of connection. He has a humble appreciation of both himself and others. He is gentle, giving, attuned, empathic, and generous of spirit. Every one of his duet partners felt thrilled and honored to be singing with him, and many signed the sheet music for this 85th Birthday celebration with expressions of gratitude and appreciation. In addition he is full of the joy of singing, performing and collaborating. “I could do this all day,” he says at one point, and it’s completely believable. “He makes everyone feel so comfortable. He’s as easy as butter,” says Natalie Cole. “We blended perfectly. It was like a dream come true,” says Amy Winehouse in what was to be the last performance before her death. “He’s so caring. Information comes from him that is easy to receive, because he has nothing to prove.”
The implication, I believe, is that when we are connected to our core and doing what we love, life and relationships become much easier. We can relax and let ourselves be, because there really isn’t anything to prove. Other people are our friends, not our competitors, and we can collaborate with them, and allow them to be themselves. We can all follow our instincts, and if problems arise, it’s no big deal, because we can work together to solve them. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, what follows immediately are some imbedded You Tube videos from these performances, so you can get a feeling for what happens when we are truly in touch with the core self!
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, “That’s why the lady is a tramp.”
Tony Bennett and Aretha Franklin, “How do we keep the music playing?”
Tony Bennett and Alejandro Sanz, “Yesterday I heard the rain.”
If you have trouble accessing these videos, simply go to You Tube and put Tony Bennett duets 2 in the search bar.
Toby Landesman, Copyright 2013
My second example of someone who is connected to their essence is Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Mary Oliver, who has been making poems since she was 10 years old. She is, I believe, one of our greatest living poets and also our best-selling one according to the New York Times. Although she has published many volumes of her poetry, most of which are centered in her experience of nature, she has given very few interviews. She says that she wants her poetry to speak for itself, and indeed it does. Her writing is very accessible, and is full of her tender and deeply appreciative feeling for Nature: flowers, trees, birds, animals of all kinds. The flowing and reciprocal connection she expresses between nature, her creatures, herself, and us is poignant, moving, and mystical in her down to earth way. As with Tony Bennett, you can feel her as she “sings” her poetic songs. Like Tony, her artistry originates in humility, vulnerability, and a deep appreciation for both beauty and heartbreak. Here’s a paragraph borrowed from Wikipedia that attempts to describe her approach and style of writing.
“Oliver has also been compared to Emily Dickinson, with whom she shares an affinity for solitude and interior monologues. Her poetry combines dark introspection with joyous release. Although she has been criticized for writing poetry that assumes a dangerously close relationship of women with nature, she finds the self is only strengthened through an immersion with nature. Oliver is also known for her unadorned language and accessible themes. The Harvard Review describes her work as an antidote to “inattention and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives. She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making.”
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
What follows is one of my most recent favorites taken from a volume of Mary Oliver’s poems called “Evidence.” I bought the book at my favorite bookstore, “Women and Children First”, intending to give it as a gift to a friend of mine who loves poetry. But I couldn’t part with it, so I ordered him another copy. Here’s how to know if someone is connected to their “essence.” When you are around them you can feel their energy, and that energy is inviting. They can welcome you without words, and make you feel safe with a smile, a gesture, a gentle touch. And if they are not physically present and you can read their words, or see their artwork, or hear their music, or just recall their image, the same things happen. You sense yourself breathing more deeply; your muscles begin to relax; you experience a sense of calm in the air. Suddenly life gets a little easier and more pleasurable.
The connection to our core selves is a “soul” connection. It is born of love, of awe and tenderness, and it inspires compassion and loving kindness in us. This is the reason we meditate, walk in the woods, watch the sunrise or the sunset over the water, sing at the top of our lungs, or do a little dance when no one is looking. We long for this soul connection. We remember it in our daydreams and we long for it when it is missing. My two “saints” that I am writing about here as examples of this connection are always available to us; Tony Bennett in his lovely recordings and videos; Mary Oliver in her marvelous books of poetry.
And here is one more for your baby or one more for the road!
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
from Dream Work by Mary Oliver
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
© Mary Oliver
My appreciation and thanks to you, dear readers, for following this work, and for your enthusiasm and support. Great thanks, as always to my friend and colleague Toby Landesman for her beautiful images. Looking at her photographs of flowers, it is easy to see why flowers have always been the favorite visual metaphor for the Soul. You will find Toby’s Work at www.tobylandesmanphotographics.com.
Please feel free to leave comments, questions, and critiques in the space below. Thank you in advance for your responsiveness.
Article Written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.