Prelude & Playing by Ear
Posted on September 13, 2011
This morning, as I lay in bed in the first, tender moments of waking up,
I saw my father’s face. My father died six years ago.
My father’s face. And behind him, his father’s face, his mother’s face.
Beyond them, faces blur into light, into shadow, into darkness.
Faint voices telling stories, singing songs, fade into silence.
And then my mother’s face. My mother died five years ago.
My mother’s face. And behind her, her mother’s face, her father’s face.
Beyond them, faces blur into light, into shadow, into darkness.
Stories and songs fade into silence.
And those beyond, who I never knew, and the ones beyond them,
at one time their faces were all there in that light, in that shadow,
in that darkness, their voices were in all those stories and songs,
in that line through which I came to be here, with my face,
my songs, my stories — the way all of us came here
with our faces, our songs, our stories.
Playing By Ear
My mother’s father, Gersten Samuel, was a handsome man, a slender, dashing figure with a large handlebar mustache, penetrating dark brown eyes, and a classic strong chin. My mother, Blanka, adored him. He smoked cigars, wore a silver watch fob, and dressed as a bit of a dandy. He was not, however, finicky. My mother often related how, whenever her mother tried to clear the plates from one course, before serving the next one, he would say, “I don’t need a new plate, Karolina. Just put the next course right on this one — it’s all going in the same stomach!”
He was an illegitimate child and bore the stigma all his life. Abandoned by his father, given away by his mother to an older, married, but childless sister, he was raised in a wealthy home and inherited a large house and enough money to live on comfortably. By day he was an accountant, but he spent his nights playing boogie-woogie piano in the smokey, racy nightclubs of Budapest. (One of the other stories my mother told about him was of the night, when she was two or three years old, when her father and mother were arguing, as they often did, about him going out again for the evening. She remembers standing up in her crib, saying to her mother, “He’ll stay here for me.” He didn’t.)
He did, however, have extraordinary musical gifts. He was not only an excellent pianist; he had an uncanny ability to hear a piece of music once — sit down at the piano, and play it back from memory. If you hummed him a tune he could instantly play it, and then improvise variations on it.
He was much better at playing piano than he was at gambling, which is the other thing he did during those late nights in the clubs. He died of throat cancer when my mother was twelve, and the family was devastated to find out that he had squandered all his fortune. The house was all that was left, and my grandmother had to take in boarders to make ends meet.
He passed on his musical gifts to his only son, Nandor, who became a very fine classical pianist by his early teens, though he did not inherit the ability to play by ear. My mother, on the other hand, was not only unmusical — she was profoundly tone deaf. And yet, in the mysterious way that life and destiny unfold through time, my mother passed on her father’s gift to me.
Though the image is vague, with hardly any details, I can still see the room where I first discovered this. I was about 10 years old. We were living in a tiny, ninety-family mosav (cooperative farm) called Ein Ayala, some forty miles south of Haifa, in Israel. We’d left Budapest two years before, in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. I had been playing violin for three years by then — not very well, and not enjoying it particularly, but in those days, playing an instrument was considered a basic part of a well-rounded education. I took weekly lessons and was “encouraged” by my parents to practice every day.
It was late afternoon, I was alone in the house, and getting bored with practicing. As twilight approached, I started not being able to see the music on my music stand. Whatever I was working on had a D minor scale in it, starting on the open D string of the violin, and going up to the open A string. As I played these five notes in order — re, mi fa sol la — it struck me that this was the beginning of the melody of the Hatikvah, the Israeli National Anthem. (I later found out it was also a theme in The Moldau, a symphonic poem by the 19th Century Czech composer, Bedrich Smetana.) So when I got to the A string, I abandoned the notes on the sheet music in front of me, and continued playing the melody of the Hatikvah by ear — and was delighted and amazed to find that I could do it! Re mi fa sol la, la ti la ti re la, sol sol sol fa fa, mi re mi fa re. My fingers seemed to be magically, intimately and inevitably connected to my inner ear and to my memory of the melody, and I could no more play a wrong note on the violin, than I could sing a wrong one. I kept playing and finished the song, and tried a couple of others — with the same thrilling result.
I tried playing it in another key. Easy. I tried turning the melody from D minor to D major. Nothing to it. I tried making up simple melodies — hearing something inside, and simultaneously duplicating it on the violin — and this too was immediately available. It felt so simple and natural — I assumed everybody could do it, and I had just discovered that I too could do it. Like I’d lived in this house of music for three years, and just noticed that there was a door I’d never opened before — and I opened it, and found a fascinating, wondrous chamber on the other side.
That small room in the twilight, and me alone in the house, and the silence after I stopped playing, and the utter stillness, fullness, sense of satisfaction and happiness — I’ve never forgotten it. And yet, strangely, when my parents and brother came home, I didn’t tell them about it. It had felt so natural that I was sure everyone could do it — and yet, at the same time, it felt like a secret I had stumbled on. And in order to protect its preciousness I needed to keep it a secret — not so much to hide it from others, but to keep it treasured inside.
I don’t know if my mother had already told me about my grandfather Shamu, and his wonderful ability to play by ear, but in that moment of discovery, I’m sure I didn’t think, “Oh, this is something I inherited from Grandpa Shamu.” But now, looking back, I’m sure there is a connection — and I’m very grateful. Grateful that he developed this talent, and in some mysterious way, passed it on to me. And grateful to all those unknown ancestors, some of whom undoubtedly had this ability, each of whom developed it to some degree, and passed it on to the next ones in the line.
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Our Union is Like This
Posted on March 13, 2011
It was twilight, and Helen and I were playing Rumi and Hafiz songs at an Interfaith service. Behind us, two large windows faced out on a snow-covered field, and behind the field, woods just starting to darken with the setting sun. We were singing a poem of Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky, whose chorus is:
“Our union is like this, our union is like this:”
The verses are:
“You feel cold, so I reach for a blanket
to cover our shivering feet.
A hunger comes into your body,
so I run to my garden and start digging potatoes!
You ask for a few words of comfort and guidance,
and I quickly kneel by your side,
offering you a whole book as a gift.
You ache with loneliness one night so much you weep.
And I say here is a cord, tie it around me —
Hafiz will be your companion for life!
Our union is like this, our union is like this.”
I’ve often wondered how it can be that someone who lived 700 years ago, on the other side of the world, in another culture, who spoke and wrote in a language I didn’t know, and who practiced a religion different than my own, could have such an enormous effect on me — and millions of other people! How is it that I experience such a deep, personal connection to Hafiz, and feel so inspired, guided and protected by him in so many ways? I feel this especially strongly when I’m singing these magnificent lyrics of Hafiz that I’ve been privileged to set to music — and I feel very grateful.
As we were partway through the song today, something unusual began to unfold. I noticed that the audience members had stopped paying attention to us and were looking out the large window to my left. People were nudging one another, pointing and smiling. While keeping the song going, I followed their gaze. Two deer were coming out of the woods and crossing the field behind us. As we were ending the song, they’d crossed the field and we could see them in the window to our right, re-entering the woods and disappearing in the gathering darkness. As people applauded the end of the song — and the sighting of the deer — a very strong feeling came up in me.
But I need to give you a bit of background first. My father passed away 5 years ago. He and I had had a difficult, stormy relationship from the time I was a teenager. Some of our conflicts remained unresolved at his death. We disagreed vehemently in the three areas of my life that were the most important to me: who I fell in love with and married, what kind of work I did, and the spiritual path I chose to walk. My father was an Orthodox Jew, and when I fell in love with Helen (who was not Jewish) and we got married, he cut me off and would not speak to me for many years. He had wanted me to be a doctor, or at least something respectable — and I became a traveling musician. And he’d assumed that I would, of course, remain as he had raised me, a devout, practicing Jew — and I left the practice of Judaism the day I left home to go off to college,. Years later, I began practicing meditation under the guidance of an Indian Meditation Master — a path I love and have continued to practice for nearly 40 years now.
I was a terrible disappointment to my father — and felt very unsupported by, and separated from him. And though I had accepted to some degree that I would never get his approval, still, when he died, I found myself holding a great deal of sadness and regret about what might have been, and anger at what was. Over the past few years, I’ve worked on these issues in various ways, but I knew there was more to do.
The last bit of information you need to know before I return to the story of singing the Hafiz poem with the deer in the background is that my father’s middle name in Hebrew was Tzvi — a relatively common male name in Hebrew, and a word which also means “deer.”
When I saw the deer, while singing the lyrics, “Our union is like this…” I felt that it was not Hafiz, but my father who was saying that to me. It was as if Hafiz stepped out of the way and said, “It’s not just me; your father is now supporting you also, every step of the way.” I felt a deep, inner shift occur, one that brought me to a new level of forgiveness and healing.
I feel I was given a great gift — a glimpse into another reality — beyond the death of the body — where the differences of this world, over which we can get into such terrible conflicts, are brought into unity. Where unconditional love is not only possible, but natural, and perhaps the only way of being. And my father was reaching out to me, with that love, from that other reality. And inviting me to respond from this world in the same way. He’s changed — wherever he is — and now it’s up to me to change, here where I am.
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Rumi: Poet of the Heart
Posted on September 17, 2007
©2007 Lazlo Slomovits
(This article was first published in the September 2007 issue of the Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, Ann Arbor, MI. Thank you to Bill Zirinsky, owner and editor, and heartfelt thanks and credit to Coleman Barks, both for his magnificent translations, as well as for the stories of Rumi's life, on which much of this article is based.)
Come, come whoever you are -
wanderer, worshipper, lover
of leaving. It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your
vow a thousand times. Come,
come yet again, come.
This was the first poem I read by Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th Century Sufi mystic, and I knew immediately that I had a friend. In just a few short lines he made it clear that he knew me (and most everybody else!) through and through - and loved us all unconditionally anyway. There is such hope and encouragement in those lines.
Reading more of his work I soon found out that, compassionate as he was, Rumi could be equally fierce with hypocritical or weak-spirited behavior.
Gamble everything for love
if you're a true human being.
If not, leave this gathering.
Half-heartedness does not
.....reach into majesty.
You set out to find God,
but then you keep stopping
.....for long periods
at mean-spirited roadhouses.
To this day, the more I enter Rumi's world, the more I discover the many-layered richness and variety of the perspectives he gives on life.
This September 30th marks Rumi's 800th birthday. Throughout these centuries, his work has inspired, encouraged, and delighted millions throughout the Middle East and beyond. Although Rumi began to be widely known in the English speaking world only about a hundred years ago, interest in his poetry has exploded to such an extent in recent years that he has become the best-selling poet in America. Popular icons such Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Demi Moore, and Julia Cameron quote him and express gratitude for the gifts he has brought into their lives - which they share with their large audiences. There is a moving story of Leonard Bernstein, the night before he died, asking for several Rumi poems to be read to him over and over.
But it's not just celebrities who have embraced Rumi. You find his poetry quoted in a huge variety of places - in books on creativity, psychology, and business, in self-help and spiritual books, on calendars, bookmarks, greeting cards. Calligraphers decorate his lines on hand made paper, illustrators paint his passionate images of love, dancers whirl to his mystical metaphors, and musicians improvise while poets recite his ecstatic verses. In recognition of his world-wide influence, UNESCO has designated 2007 as The Year of Rumi.
Rumi was born in 1207, near the city of Balkh, in what is now Afghanistan. During his childhood his family moved a number of times, fleeing before Genghis Khan's armies, finally settling in Konya, Turkey. One of the first legends about Rumi comes from this time of traveling. It is said that a great poet and teacher, Fariduddin Attar, recognized Rumi's greatness even as a boy. Seeing the young Rumi walking behind his father, (Bahauddin Walad, a highly respected theologian and mystic, and head of a medrese, a dervish learning community) Attar said, "Here comes a lake, followed by an ocean."
After his father's death, when Rumi was still in his early twenties, he became head of the medrese, quickly gaining a reputation as a great scholar, with many students. However, he himself continued to study with several renowned teachers, to deepen his understanding both on an intellectual and mystical level. He also married, fathered four children, and from the letters one of his sons preserved from this time, we know that he was actively involved in the practical affairs of the life of the community, as well as guiding it spiritually.
With all his knowledge and growing fame, it is said that Rumi knew his studying was incomplete and limited; he longed for deep transformation, not just more learning. Legend has it that, at the same time, a wild mystic, hermit and wanderer, Shams of Tabriz was praying to meet someone who yearned for God in the same passionate way he did, someone who could hold what he had to give. He asked inwardly again and again, "Who will be my friend?" Finally, a reply came in the form of a question. "What will you give?" Shams replied instantly, with no hesitation, "My life." "Your friend is Jelaluddin Rumi in Konya."
There are many stories about their initial meeting. In my favorite one, Rumi, then thirty seven years old, was sitting by a fountain in a square in Konya, reading to his students from rare books that included his father's writings on divine love. Suddenly, Shams pushed through the crowd and knocked all his books into the water. Rumi cried out, "Who are you and what are you doing?" Shams replied, "It's time for you to live what you've been reading about." Seeing Rumi looking despairingly at the precious books in the water, Shams reached into the pool and brought one up - dry. In some versions of the story Shams proceeded to restore all the miraculously dry books to Rumi - who now understood the dryness of mere intellectual knowledge. In others versions, when Shams offered to retrieve them, Rumi turned away from the books and said, "Leave them." Either way, the incident was symbolic of Rumi's initiation into a whole new level of experience, leaving behind his old way of perceiving the world.
Shams and Rumi secluded themselves for many days at a time, completely absorbed in sohbet, mystical conversation. Andrew Harvey, a contemporary Rumi scholar and translator says, "A massive transformation of Rumi's heart and whole being now began to take place in a transmission from Sham's heart to his. Shams knew he had very little time and that Rumi had to be utterly remade so that the revelations he was destined to transmit would be potent in him."
Part of the reason Shams knew he had little time was that he was twenty or more years older than Rumi. But another, more compelling reason, was the growing jealousy of Rumi's disciples, seeing the great influence Shams had on their teacher. Shams was forced to flee from Konya to Damascus. Rumi, overcome with grief at the separation, sent his son, Sultan Velad, to bring Shams back. But the jealousy and hatred of Rumi's students soon flared up again, and this time when Shams left - some say Rumi's disciples murdered him - he did not return.
This is when the Rumi whose poetry has come down to us through the centuries begins to emerge. According to legend, holding on to a pillar in his courtyard, Rumi began to turn around and around the pole, (this later became the basis of a core practice of the Mevlevi order of Sufi whirling dervishes) spontaneous poetry of intense longing pouring out of him. Students copied down his lyrics as he kept spinning in his grief. He traveled twice to Damascus, hoping against hope that he would find Shams. It was on his second trip, several years after Shams' disappearance, that a great revelation came to Rumi. He suddenly understood, experienced at the core of his being, that he and Shams were one - he carried Shams within himself. In a poem from that time Rumi expresses their total merging in an unbreakable bond of soul friendship. "Although I am far from you physically, without body or soul, we are one single lightÖI am him, he is me, O seeker."
This theme of union comes up again and again in Rumi's poetry in a wide variety of ways. It's in his gorgeous images of the lover and the Beloved,
Lovers don't finally meet somewhere
they're in each other all along.
in the powerful lines denouncing all divisions of religion that cause conflict between people,
Two hands, two feet, two eyes, good,
as it should be, but no separation
of the Friend and your loving.
Any dividing there
makes other untrue distinctions like "Jew,"
and "Christian," and "Muslim."
in the advice he gives us on how to live a fulfilling life,
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
in the sublime images of our intimate connection with nature,
What was said to the rose that made it open
was said to me here in my chest.
and most often, in the metaphors for the longing human beings feel to be one with God. Perhaps the most famous of these is the metaphor of the nay, the reed flute.
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source longs to go back."
The poetry kept flowing out of him for the rest of his life, for nearly 30 more years, along with a rich panoply of teaching stories and discourses. The sheer volume of his prolific writing is awe-inspiring - and with all the translations that have been done recently, it is estimated that still only about a third of his work has been rendered into English.
The person who is perhaps most responsible for Rumi's fame in America is his foremost translator, himself an eminent poet, Coleman Barks. He in turn credits Robert Bly, poet, translator and author of the classic book about men, "Iron John", with starting him on what has become his life work of translating Rumi. In 1976 Bly handed Barks a scholarly translation of Rumi and growled, "These poems need to be released from their cages." Bly himself had done a number of translations of Rumi, but since the late 1970's Barks has published book after book of versions of Rumi poems.
I've read Rumi's poetry off and on for many years, but since I heard, five months ago, about Rumi's 800th birthday coming up, I've felt drawn to immerse myself in his work, to read from his poetry almost every day, and to set some of his poems to music. Certain lines have started to come up spontaneously to guide and inspire me. For example, one poem begins,
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep!
Some mornings, when the pull to stay in bed is stronger than the knowledge that getting up to meditate and to work on a new song will be much more uplifting, those lines have actually bubbled up through the lethargy and have gotten me out of bed. Of course, like most of Rumi's poems, this one works on more than one level; going back to sleep can happen in a lot of ways, as we move through our daily lives - and Rumi wants us awake all the time, on all levels of our being.
I'm not the only one on whom Rumi has had this kind of effect. Coleman Barks says, "I find, as I explore the world of Rumi's work, that I keep discovering those qualities with which I need attunement."
Hosain Mosavat, poet, photographer, instrument maker and former teacher, was born in Iran, but has lived in the Ann Arbor area for more than 50 years. He first heard Rumi the way many children still do in parts of the Middle East - his mother sang Rumi poems to him as lullabies. Later, Rumi's poems inspired him to start writing his own poetry - a practice he maintains to this day. When asked how Rumi's poetry has affected his life, he replies like a poet: "It has made me go through life with a sword in my heart, which severs love from that which is not love."
Gernot Windfuhr, Professor of Iranian Studies at the University of Michigan, first encountered Rumi as a student in Germany. He has seen the power of Rumi's influence not just in his own life, but in the lives of thousands of students who have been in his classes - many of which include a focus on Rumi - in the forty plus years he has been teaching. As a scholar, he is aware of subtleties of Rumi's artistry which, as he says, "are impossible to render in translation." And yet, he sees that what comes across to everyone is Rumi's "profound depth of longing, which is probably unsurpassed."
Domenic Tamborriello is a clinical social worker, who is also the primary organizer of RumiNations800, an Ann Arbor celebration of Rumi's 800th birthday, September 28-30. He said, "No one has braided the rope of the human with the rope of the divine like Rumi. Every poem is a love poem to God, or as Rumi would say, to the Beloved. He can find the presence of the Beloved in a drop of the ocean and help us become both that drop and the ocean itself."
As I talked with people about Rumi, it seemed that everyone - poet or not - gave amazingly poetic answers, Rumi's deep influence shining in their replies. Mahmoud Moallemian is a member of the Academic Computing and Network services at Michigan State University. Born in Iran, he has lived and worked in the US since 1982. "Rumi's poetry has taught me that love and tolerance are essential parts of living, especially in today's world." And then he begins to quote Rumi by heart,
From love thorns become flowers...
From love vinegar becomes wine...
From love fury turns to mercy....
And he continues reciting, each line beginning with, "From love..."
Everyone I asked about Rumi responded by talking about love in one form or another. Sepideh Vahidi, Iranian singer, painter and graduate student in Fine Arts at the University of Michigan, summed it up most simply, most eloquently. When I asked her, "What are the two or three most important teachings of Rumi - to you, personally?" She replied, "To be in love, to be in love and to be in love."
Rumi's love knew no boundaries.
The clear bead at the center changes everything.
There are no edges to my loving now.
I've heard it said there's a window that opens
from one mind to another,
but if there's no wall, there's no need
for fitting the window or the latch.
It was, and is, a love meant to dissolve what separates us from each other and from God - whatever our conception of God is. When Rumi died, on December 7th, 1273, his funeral procession included Christians, Jews, Moslems, and members of other faiths, all coming to honor the man who taught and so fully embodied universal love, a love that transcended religion, race, nationality and all the other artificial barriers humans put up between each other. This may be why, 800 years after his birth, he continues to inspire people all over the world - perhaps now more than ever - with a bright hope; that we can each live our lives in touch with our divine source, and from this core of our being, share with each other a profound vision of oneness.
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