The Next Response: Practicing the Future, Now

[On June 23rd, I delivered the 33rd annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy for Americans for the Arts, introduced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Below is a transcript of my remarks. The video link to the address can be found here.]

When
The violin
Can forgive the past

It starts singing.

When the violin can stop worrying
About the future

You will become
Such a drunk laughing nuisance

That God
Will then lean down
And start combing you into
Her
Hair.

When the violin can forgive
Every wound caused by
Others

The heart starts
Singing.

— Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

Photo by Jeremy Yap, Unsplash

The words of the poem “When the Violin” were written in the 14th century, by the Persian, Sufi mystic Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī — commonly known in the west as Hafiz. Yet 700 years later, the American experiment and forgiveness don’t really seem to be getting along.

How can we forgive the dream of our nation built on genocide, built by stolen people on stolen land?

How can we forgive eight minutes and forty six seconds — a knee crushing the life-breath from George Floyd as he cried out for his mother?

How can we forgive the wounds of the past as they bleed into the present?

Yet, indigenous cultures teach us, in the practices of restorative and transformative justice, that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Forgiveness is the impossible, audacious choice to take our identity from more than what was done to us, or what we did to others. Forgiveness is the end of letting pain be the only author of our story.

Artists understand forgiveness, because we understand failure. We understand that we will always be humbled by the crafts which seem to have chosen us. Writers, weavers, painters, dancers, musicians — we, like some willing Prometheus, submit ourselves to a daily practice of failure. We fail, so that we can fail better. We forgive, so that we can keep making. We make ourselves accountable to the possibility of expressing the unspoken beauty that lies within us. Forgiveness is when the heart sings a new future into being.

The work of the artist and citizen is one: to model — to practice — in our smallest, everyday actions, the world we long to live in. With every breath, every brushstroke, every word, every note — we cast a vote for the future we want to create.

We are called to create America.

We are called to create the next response.

We are called this responsibility beyond our rage, beyond the need for things to change. We are called because of our innate ability to respond — the human and artistic abilities we have forged- and which have forged us — through the excruciating crucible of human experience. We are the metabolizers of grief, the witnesses of ecstatic joy. We are curanderas and curators, tricksters and translators. Among us are those who dance the fandango at the frontera, who paint murals in prison, who make poetry from poison. We sing “Hallelujah!” in Skid Row. We are the mushrooms of our society, the ones who feed ourselves from compost, the ones who digest toxins and create nourishment from shit. In the face of all that is broken, we are the laborers of wholeness.

Wholeness, like forgiveness, is a choice. Wholeness is the choice to listen to the symphonic score of our common body — the human body, the cultural body, the body politic, the body of our Mother, Earth. We listen, with all our heart, to the body which keeps the score.

The author Parker Palmer teaches us that the work of wholeness is “create spaces between us where the soul feels safe enough to show up and make its claim on our lives”. The next response is to show up, and to make, of our broken American body still being born, a place safe enough for our souls to claim our lives.

***

My first violin teacher had an apple orchard in the land of Munsee Lenape people, in mid-Hudson Valley of New York where I grew up. At the end of each lesson, Mrs. Christ would lay out two baskets — one filled with candy, the other with shiny red apples. Because most of her students were four year old tykes like me, the apples usually went untouched.

Mrs. Christ instructed us in something called the “Suzuki Method”, developed by the famous Japanese pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki, who simply called his method “Talent Education”. Dr. Suzuki believed that miraculous talent was innate in every person — if a Japanese infant could learn to speak a language as difficult as Japanese, there was no reason why a child, nurtured by love, couldn’t learn an instrument as difficult as the violin. His aim was to teach more than music — it was to guide parents and teachers in cultivating the beautiful hearts of young people.

I was raised by not one, but two Bengal tigers as parents. After just a year with Mrs. Christ, my parents took me to other Suzuki teachers across the Hudson Valley, eventually to New York City to study with Louise Behrend — who dedicated her life to teaching the Suzuki Method. She was uncompromising. She sang and danced in her lessons. A few years ago I realized that I teach my students exactly the way she taught me. Ms. Behrend took us — 6, 7, 8 year olds, all the way to the stage of Carnegie Hall. There will always be a part of her which lives in me.

As I moved beyond the ten books of the Suzuki Method, my teachers became more even demanding than Ms. Behrend. Practicing now became a Zen-like discipline: slow was smooth, and smooth was fast — practicing each note, even the silent spaces between each note, like mindful microsurgery. For a boisterous kid like me, slow was boring, and boring — was an excuse to read novels and comic books while practicing.

While woodshedding my Tchaikovsky concerto or Paganini Caprices, I would escape into the stories of Greek heroes and Hindu gods, the entire Chronicles of Narnia, Tom Sawyer, The Hobbit, and even the first two and half Harry Potter books. Although the Prisoner of Azkaban did not entirely survive my mother’s wrath — it became infinitely easier to read on a music stand in fragments. Of course, now, I mostly practice off an iPad, and I think I read fewer novels and memorize less music than I did as a child.

Another book which made it to my music stand was “Farewell to Manzanar”, the true story of a Japanese-American family living in Los Angeles in 1942. Following President Roosevelt’s devastating Executive Order 9066, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were forced into war relocation camps across the American West. They were fenced in by barbed wire, search lights, and men with guns. Manzanar, in the Paiute land of the Owens Valley of California, in the visage of Mount Whitney and the Sierra Nevada, was an abandoned apple orchard.

During their three year incarceration, the residents of Manzanar did their best to create a normal life. The Nisei children went to school and played baseball. There was cheerleading and baton twirling. They even formed a dance-band called the Jive-Bombers which would play any popular Glenn Miller tune, all except for the nation’s number one hit at the time — “Don’t Fence Me In”.

Many of the Issei — the first generation immigrants — were master gardeners. They created parks and fountains and planted vegetable patches called Freedom Gardens. They made tile work and painted watercolors to impress their neighbors. They tended to the abandoned apple and pear trees.

Ansel Adams: Monument in Cemetery, Mt. Williamson, 1943. Private collection; courtesy of Photographic Traveling Exhibitions

In 1943, a white tower was erected in the cemetery at Manzanar, inscribed with 3 flowing Japanese characters: “I, Rei, To”, meaning “soul consoling tower”. While the Issei and Nisei citizens waited out their wrongful incarceration, they cultivated the consolation of their souls. In their longing to be American, they did their best to create a place to belong.

***

Tonight, in Los Angeles, 66,000 people will be told that they do not belong. The epicenter of the crisis of homelessness in America today, Los Angeles County is only 8 percent African American, but Black people make up a whopping third of the homeless population. As early as the 1960s, Skid Row — the 50 square block neighborhood of downtown LA — was the terminus of “Greyhound therapy”, when an institution would buy a patient with a severe mental illness a one way bus ticket to the city of Angels. Skid Row is often the end of the line for many who are consumed by intergenerational trauma, manifested through chronic addiction and mental illnesses.

Defining a neighborhood by its afflictions is a convenient excuse to erase it. Skid Row is precious land to developers and gentrifiers, especially in the light of the impending 2028 Olympics. But Skid Row could also be considered a recovery zone — one of the largest in the nation — a precious, vital place of new beginnings.

In 2009, Americans for the Arts conducted a case study on the role of arts and culture in Skid Row. Part of the Animating Democracy program, the seminal study, which gathered testimony from community members and leaders of neighborhood organizations, was co-authored by Maria Rosario Jackson — then of the Urban Institute — and my mentor and friend John Malpede, the founding director of Los Angeles Poverty Department, the first theatre company to be made up primarily of unhoused people, and the first arts program of any kind for the homeless community of Los Angeles.

Respondents of the study saw the power of art as being core to reclaiming their neighborhood, their cultural lineages and their very lives, while also challenging a stigmatizing narrative. A community member stated “We are creating the recovery process…A part of the wisdom that has been discovered and is operational in the neighborhood is that once you are given a safe space, positive things happen.”

We ostracize what we consider fragile, and criminalize what we call vulnerable. We create the margin, and then push people we call broken into that margin. We define people as problems to be solved, to then erase them by locking them up. But the residents of Skid Row choose to define themselves by their art, by their cultures — and by the possibility of a life which matters.

Since 1985, Los Angeles Poverty Department, which calls themselves the good LAPD has celebrated the art and cultures of Skid Row with projects like “Walk the Talk” — the parade commemorating neighborhood initiatives and the people behind them; an annual two-day “Festival of Skid Row Artists” — which has created a registry of over 800 artists working and living in Skid Row; and the Skid Row History Museum and Archive, a gallery space for Skid Row artists, and a center for challenging, generative conversations with community activists and policy makers across the city to create a vision for a healthy, vibrant Skid Row. Skid Row is an artistic ecosystem, composed of the painters of Studio 526, the tile mosaic makers of Piece by Piece, the singers of Urban Voices Project, and the musicians of Street Symphony — just to name a few.

Festival of All Skid Row Artists. Courtesy Los Angeles Poverty Department.

The work of Street Symphony is to create a relational laboratory through music. The music we offer is just the beginning of a dialogue, of a relationship — whether we’re playing Jazz or Schumann at a county jail, singing the “Hallelujahs” of Handel or Leonard Cohen at The Midnight Mission, or playing the music of Mariachi, Reggae and West-African traditions on the very streets of Skid Row — the music we play is a conduit of relationship, a way to listen to the voices and experiences of a community. In Skid Row we were taught that listening is one, sure act of love. Often, we who get to leave Skid Row and return to our homes are the ones leaving with the greater gift.

Today, Skid Row serves as a point of reentry for thousands of Californians emerging from incarceration in the state’s 35 prisons, and from the billion dollar LA County Jail — which is effectively the planet’s largest psychiatric facility. In 2018, Street Symphony started a program called “Music for Change”, supported by the California Arts Council’s Reentry through the Arts Program, which empowers our musicians to engage individuals paroled from life sentences in prison. It was through this program that we met a musician named Duane Robert Garcia, a participant of programs at The Weingart Center in Skid Row. In his youth, De was a radio DJ in his home state of Hawai’i and across the western US, before his deployment as a Marine to Vietnam, Okinawa and Guam.

Our first encounter with De was at Street Symphony’s 4th annual “Messiah Project”, a singalong of Handel’s Messiah featuring solo performances and new works created by and for the Skid Row community. Our performance ran longer than expected, but De, sitting in the 2nd row — sitting in his first concert experience after an incarceration lasting 30 years and 44 days — was shushing antsy social workers, telling them to be patient and enjoy the music.

At the next Messiah Project, De was one of our opening acts, sharing his voice and his story with the people he came to call his new family. Each week, even through COVID, De speaks and sings to us through his phone or Chromebook like some grand priest of music, a constant human reminder of the power of love.

Ladies and gentlemen, my heart bursts with pride to introduce you to my beloved friend and colleague, a true American for his Art — Duane Robert Garcia.

Duane Robert Garcia. Photo courtesy Dustin Seo, Street Symphony. (Visual art by Duane Robert Garcia.)

“Words the spirit longs to express are many times best quickened to life in melodic forms we cordially and lovingly call music.

Single notes, triplets, arpeggios strung together like a precious pearl necklace adorn the listeners heart and soul.

Music stands in the gap when even the human embrace does not suffice, a first responder, if you will, to the longing of the spirit at the very core of who we are. Our divinity drinks from the fountains of sound. Ever refreshing the drought that at times can be a desert of space and time.

Music, second to none, stands alone — the go-to place accessible to all — knocking at the doors of our being, crying out from the rooftops and on the highways and byways of all of our life experiences.

Always eager to please, ever pleasant, kind and loving, soothing the troubled waters of our sojourn — onward and upward lilting and lifting us to crescendo — resolving in the rapture of auditory bliss.

It’s not about the gift, it’s about the giver, ever giving glory to the Creator. Loving in its expression, music solely gives to all asking only that we share the unveiling of itself with each other.

Music lends grace to the hearers.

Music is purity.

Music is perfect love.”

***

At the end of March, I watched the video of a man named Anthony Almojera, a 17 year veteran EMT and lieutenant of the New York City Fire Department. He spoke of the imminent wave of post traumatic stress in first responders because of their inability to complete the first response. On top of the horrifying scale of human loss due to COVID, responders are unable to comfort the grieving with the first touch or embrace. In the face of loss, the human touch is as necessary for the responder as it is for the bereaved.

Less than a month after Mr. Almojera’s interview, a 23 year old EMT named John Mondello, the son of a retired NYPD officer, took his own life with his father’s gun. He had been on the force for three months.

Like the thread which unravels the tapestry of all grief, the pandemic of COVID and the pandemic of racism have laid bare a fundamental brokenness. As artists, wake up empty and frightened, knowing that producing some quick commodity of art is not the same as processing our collective grief through our craft. We know that empty statements of solidarity and diversity are not enough to undo structures of white supremacy. And even as we are gaslighted into a new “normal”, we know that binge-consuming entertainment through an algorithm is not the same as recovering the creative economy of a soul. We can’t consume our way back to wholeness.

How might we, Americans for the Arts, stand in the gap of what is broken?

How might we, like the gardeners of Manzanar, create a soul consoling beauty?

How might we, like those who march and sing in Skid Row, create spaces where our soul feels safe enough to claim this American life, and sing out our next response?

Another ancient voice from the Sufi world, that of Jalal-al ud-Din Rumi, teaches us:

Today, like every other day,

we wake up empty and frightened.

Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.

Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

As we rebuild the nation for which we stand, the artists of America must kneel and kiss the ground.

We must let the beauty we love — the art we love, the nation we love — become what we do.

We must become America, the beautiful.

We practice the modest, un-applauded integrity between notes and brushstrokes, we practice the relationships between us and our colleagues. We practice listening, and we practice new conversations of accountability between our funders and our communities. We practice standing in the gap across the atavistic fear and sadness and pain which keeps us disconnected from ourselves and from each other. As artists have always done, we practice change. We practice evolution.

We practice a human policy of connection.

It is time to make our garden grow.

I’m a violinist and speaker living in LA, and I direct Street Symphony, which engages communities affected by homelessness and incarceration through music.