Empty Room

When I turned 17, I began doing something odd: every few weeks, I would take everything out of my room. Bed and bedding, cello and chairs, stereo, bureaus, bookshelves. Everything. Completely empty the room. And then bring it all back in again — only with everything now in a different place. It was a game with its own strict rules: 1) absolutely everything had to vacate the room, and 2) it all had to go back in in a completely different and uniquely new arrangement. If my parents thought this behavior strange, they never said so. At least, not to me. If they had asked me what on earth I was doing, I don’t know what I would have said. So, what was I doing? Seems to me, I was practicing. At the time, I was involved in starting a new high school. Once it was up and running, I attended as a student, graduated, then joined the faculty and taught there. And then suddenly I was living in Indiana, playing cello in a symphony. And then I was living in Boston, driving a taxi at night and teaching Oriental Medicine during the day. And then I was running a business. And then I was editing journals. Each time I woke up in a new career, it felt as if I’d stepped out of the room for a moment, only to come back in and find it completely rearranged, with all different furniture. The only thing all those lives seemed to have in common were that they were all some version of me. So what was “me” — the stuff...

What a Great Leader Does

There were maybe ten of us meeting with him in the room that day, spread out in a circle, more or less, telling him about what we wanted to do, and listening to him tell us who he was and what sorts of things he’d done. The meeting went on for well over an hour. We were all teenagers; he was in his forties. We were a group of high school kids who had decided we wanted to start our own school, a place where we could really learn. He, a long-limbed, droopy-mustachioed writer and educator named Julian F. Thompson, was the latest in a procession of candidates we were interviewing for the position of director. At the end of our meeting, we all spontaneously crouched together in a huddle, Julian included, our arms wrapped around each others’ shoulders, then burst apart with an ebullient team cheer. We parted the room laughing. I remember marveling all that afternoon at that huddle, with its team shout trailing off into laughter, and how natural it felt. All our other candidates were wonderful people with fascinating backgrounds and delightful personalities, each strongly sympathetic to our cause. But we hadn’t ended any of the other interviews with a huddle and a shout. This man wasn’t one of us, exactly (he was an adult, after all), but we instinctively knew, somehow, that he spoke for us. The fact that we were looking for a director in the first place was kind of paradoxical. We were, after all, starting a school created by teenagers, for teenagers, where we could study whatever we wanted, without requirements...

Fountain of Youth

When I was a teenager, I stumbled upon the fountain of youth. I went to hear a concert one summer day at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. I must have been fifteen, maybe sixteen. As it happened, the guest conductor that day was the legendary Spanish cellist, Pablo Casals. At the appointed moment, a hush fell over the audience. Through a door on the far left, by the edge of the stage, an odd trio entered: two young people, a man and a woman both in their twenties, flanking a crinkled, slumped, nearly inanimate shell of a person. It was the maestro. Then in his mid-nineties, he honestly looked on the verge of comatose. Slowly, ever so slowly, the two edged forward with their charge between them. I could feel the audience almost willing him forward, praying with each shuffling step that he would be able to take another. Gradually, the trio approached the podium. “And this guy is going to conduct?” I thought. “He can barely see!” They reached their destination. After setting him into place at the podium, the two assistants silently withdrew. The old man remained in place, motionless, his hands latched onto the podium that was his only visible means of support. And then an invisible means of support appeared. All at once, so suddenly that I nearly jumped, his eyes snapped open and both hands flew up into the air where they paused like the twin triggers of two missiles launchers in the moment before ignition. It was as if a great electric current has suddenly shot through his body, or an unseen...

Hold Your Hats!

I just spent a few days with Nashville Hall of Fame singer-songwriter Gary Burr and his lovely wife, the amazing singer-songwriter Georgia Middleman. Gary has written hit after hit after hit. His songs have been recorded by a who’s who — from Reba McEntire to Christina Aguilera, Conway Twitty to Joe Cocker, Kelly Clarkson to Tanya Tucker, Kenny Rogers to Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes to Faith Hill, Lynyrd Skynrd to Ringo Starr. His stuff is gold. Gary says people sometimes ask if his head is brimming full of ideas before he sets out to write a song. He says it’s the opposite. More like he starts out in a place where there’s absolutely nothing in his head. Trusting that something wonderful will show up. And what comes out of that empty head? Stunning. As we talked about the songs Gary has written and how he came to write them, it struck me that the process of writing a song is a lot like the process of writing a book, or a blog post, or a poem. A lot, for that matter, like starting a business, or a new project, or a new relationship. Or creating your life. It starts with a pregnant emptiness. A blank page, an open space. A hole in the marketplace. A place where there’s nobody sitting next to you. A permission to experience some nothingness. And, along with that nothing, the passionate anticipation of something stunning showing up, an expectation that is almost childlike in its guileless totality. It made me think of something that happened a year before I was born. My older brother, Adrian...