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homeless

You see them and try not to see them, but there they are: standing on the intersections of boulevards and roads, with dog, child or crutch in tow, and always with a sign. You may think that they are lazy, or unwilling, or you may feel sorry for them, or you may dig into your reliable trove of excuses and explanations and then the light turns green. Few who have not actually stood on corners asking for help and sending cardboard blessings know what it’s like. I have an inkling, and every time I see them, I cringe.

At a certain point in my life, for reasons still unclear to me, I ended up working 15-hour days, 6-times a week, for a full summer. Almost the entirety of each day was spent outside, in the city and suburbs of Baltimore, selling educational study-guides door-to-door. Baltimore summers are toasty, and sometime mid-summer I noticed that I had formed burn-scars on my knuckles from knocking on so many white-hot doors. But what I also noticed, from the very first day, was the inordinate toll that being outdoors, in a man-made environment, takes on a human body and on a human psyche.

Let’s start with the obvious: the elements. You are out there rain or shine, and sometimes you wish it was the rain because after being outside in 90+ degree weather in 100% humidity for a couple of hours, you start seeing things. You are lucky if you come across a McDonalds or a kind person who will offer you water. Mostly, though, you suffer. The wind messes up your hair, the drivers splatter you with puddle-grime, mosquitos sting you, as do bees, spiders, nettles and sometimes dogs. By three in the afternoon you are lobster-boil red, by five your blisters have popped. If it’s cold, you’re cold. If it’s hot, you’re hot. But whatever the weather, you are completely vulnerable, completely unsafe and mostly helpless against it.

Before all of your senses are dulled as a survival mechanism, the smells are as abrasive as the sensations of freezing and heat. You are bombarded with olfactory information that you do not need: gasoline and fumes, garbage odors, toxic whiffs of $5.99 perfume. The tantalizing aromas of fresh, sugary donuts and coffee wafting out of Starbucks wannabes are no better. You are hungry and have no place to sit down and eat your food. And when you have eaten, you have no place to relieve yourself.

The sights, too, are overwhelming. Hundreds of eyes bore into you: questioning, suspicious, misunderstanding, empathetic, apologetic, frustrated, disgusted. Before they know what you’re about, they have already passed a judgement. We all do this, don’t we? Standing precariously close to oncoming traffic, those in need must see a thousand averted glances, a thousand cars, busses, cyclists, trucks, vans – within a span of a few hours. They see everything, and, what’s worse, everyone sees them. There is no place to hide. No place to be alone, to be safe.

You’d think the visual overload would be the worst, but for me, walking up and down the streets of those subdivisions that are now permanently charred into my cerebral cortex, the worst was the noise. The cars screech, the gusts of wind howl menacingly, there is a general hummmmm to the city that insidiously bores into your sub-consciousness and slowly replaces everything else. By 7pm, there are no more songs running through your head, no thoughts, no worries; nothing at all. And this is just the first day.

For years afterwards I had nightmares that I was lost in those streets, alone and helpless and drowning in the intensity of it all. I cannot imagine what such a life does to someone who is forced to live it for months or years. Unable as I am to solve the problems of poverty, when I see folks out on the street, my heart goes out to them because I know that they must be hurting.

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Recently I read an enlightening article about the German violinist Christian Tetzlaff, and his understanding of music performance, creation and interpretation. While I cannot recount the many lucid, insightful ideas and anecdotes described and quoted there, (for that you should read the article), one idea particularly struck me. At some point Tetzlaff was describing the way Alban Berg incorporated many nuances from his personal biography into his scores. He went on to say that “the secrets embedded in Berg’s score were not intended for the listeners in the hall. They were there for the performer, whom Berg was addressing as a confidant…Interpretation should ultimately be an act of compassion.” This concept touched me deeply, and I have been ruminating on it since.

Within the fine arts, music is unique in that its generation, performance and reception involves three parties rather than two. In painting and sculpture, there is one person who comes up with the idea and executes it (the artist), and another who receives and processes it (the audience). The same can be said of writing. But in music there are three mandatory components: the composer who generates the piece, the musician who interprets it, and the audience who perceives and digests it. In a way, the audience interprets the interpretation. If you compare music-making and painting, the role of the musician in music gets broken down into various aspects, some of which are taken on by the artist, and some – by the beholder. For example, the act of interpretation or of “understanding” the intent, which falls squarely on the shoulders of the musician, is typically given to the artist who, ideally, is able to represent through the art media his or her own intention. From this breakdown many revelatory questions follow: what is the reason for creating a piece of art? Is the musician responsible for simply transmitting that reason or intent to the audience, or can he add his own flavor to the mix? Is the audience obligated to appreciate or at least to seek out the initial idea, or is it allowed to assign its own meaning to what it perceives?

If you think about the composer-musician tandem, you begin to see how intimately dependent on each other they are. It’s as if the composer has the words, but no voice to express them with, while the musician has a voice but needs the words. The composer has profound things he wants to share, but they are so personal, so complex, that only a highly skilled and attentive musician will appreciate all of the nuances. This is why his interpretation is an act of compassion. With his performance he can express to the composer his own understanding of the messages embedded in the bars of music. He can offer empathy and give voice to what has been hidden. The audience also offers a listening ear while the performer, and through him, the composer, share deeply personal things.

Poignantly then comes the realization that compassion flows both ways. An artist, a poet, a sculptor, a novelist are able to provide organization and structure to amorphous feelings and intimations of thought, both vague and transparent notions. They validate one’s experience and reveal how vastly similar and connected we are. As a poet, how many times have I met the eye of grateful listeners who finally heard, coming out of my mouth, words they themselves felt but could not adequately express? As an appreciator of music and art, have I not been flooded by relief, overwhelmed with joy, when I heard or saw something that I also felt within? Were not the pieces of art which evoked gratitude and resonance in others created with love? With immense compassion? The circle is closed then, and the creating, performing, and appreciating of art becomes one comprehensive communal experience.

Christian Tetzlaff points to this as he describes his personal encounters with music. “..That’s what the concert situation is about for me, when I am sitting in the hall and also when I am playing myself. It’s about communication – I almost want to say “communion”. As a player, you don’t really interpret anymore. You listen, together, with the audience.”

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