Seymour: Three Daughters and a Pianist

At 88 years old, Seymour Bernstein looks more than a decade younger. He lives on the upper West Side of Manhattan in a prewar studio that he shares with his grand piano and momentos of his life in music. He is nothing less than extraordinary As a pianist. A musician. A composer. A teacher. And as a man.

The film “Seymour,” created by Ethan Hawke, is a work of wonder. Far more than a film about music, or the biography of a brilliant pianist, it’s a film about life. How to live it. How to look at it. How to survive it. And how to feel it in your bones.

It begins as Seymour speaks with Michael Kimmelman, award winning author, chief art critic of the New York Times, and a concert pianist himself, who has been Seymour’s student since the age of five. He questions Seymour about his life, and delicately, yet powerfully, this life unfolds before us like a worn, yet gorgeous, silken quilt.

His childhood: “There was no music in my house.” 

His father: “I have three daughters and a pianist.”

His time in Korea: “I hiked 20 miles in zero degree weather. Others didn’t make it.  I kept going. It was the musical mindset that did it.”

When I think of Seymour, and I’ve been thinking of him a lot, since I saw the film last week, he’s a place as well as a person. He’s the Seymour place, where the irritations and difficulties fall away. A place of solitude, grace, and beauty, where life’s detritus is forbidden to make the slightest appearance.

Along with hearing him speak, we see Seymour teach. We see the meticulous practice of a phrase played again and again, until the notes flow, until the slightest failed nuance is addressed.

Despite his success and stunning reviews, Seymour stopped playing in public when he was fifty. He was at the height of his celebrity, but had terrible stage fright — an experience he shares with Ethan Hawke.  It took too much from him. It got in his way when he wanted to give the world and himself something else. Something not so self-obsessed. Something beyond the conceit of a brilliant performance.

Toward the end of the film, there’s a small private concert where we hear him play. He admits that he’s nervous. Yet, once he begins he’s calm. Transparent. He plays like an angel. No drama. No ego. Pure art. Even I could hear it, and I’m no musician.

Life is many things. Love, beauty, connection, happiness, joy, pain, failure and triumph. At this juncture, I can add Seymour. Yes. Life, if you’re lucky, is Seymour. You might enjoy seeing this film. And you might choose to invite Seymour into your own life as well. You could hardly do better.

Note: A friend pointed out that Ethan Hawke was “the shy boy,”  in Dead Poets Society.” In a way, he remains that boy. Wondering what it’s all about; how to relate to life in a more genuine way. Here, he looks to Seymour, as his character did with Robin Williams in that long ago film. But Seymour is a better bet. He’s real. And he chooses life at every turn

Beauty and the Beast: The Ultimate Triumph of Anita Hill

Who knows what made me turn on my TV at 1 a.m. last Wednesday. I’m a night owl, but once I turn the thing off, it usually stays that way. Yet the spirit moved me. And with a flick of the switch I was transported to October of 1991, when I first bore witness to those infamous hearings where Anita Hill, a young black law professor was being quizzed by an all male senate committee about her claim that she’d been sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas who was being considered for a seat on the Supreme Court. The atmosphere was rife with testosterone. And it wasn’t long before I could see this woman was in trouble,

Justification for Night Owls

But this time I saw it all from a distance. Like a Chuck Close painting, the whole portrait instantly appeared. Painful. Yet, glorious and complete. And as I watched the documentary ”Anita: Speaking Truth to Power,” and saw Ms. Hill’s journey through the labyrinth of senatorial prejudice and ineptitude, I felt not only had she been vindicated, but so had I. And so had millions more who dared to stand up for their personal truth from that moment forward.

Risk takers beware!

Initially, it appeared she had lost, that Thomas had gotten away with his masquerade. His strategy was brilliant. The one brilliant thing I can recall him doing over these past 24 years. He claimed her testimony and the hearing was a “high tech lynching for uppity blacks.” He spewed rage; he bullied the committee into an embarrassed submission and the whole event went south. The slight possibility of Hill’s triumph was lost in Republican self-righteousness, and Democratic cowardice.The committee split its vote. The decision on Thomas’ appointment went to the Senate. And he was approved, 52 to 48 — the narrowest margin in a century. It was a blot on all those involved. One that shall remain in tact forever.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, what a life this woman has led. Though there were calls for her dismissal, she kept teaching. She became an inspiration for those who wanted and needed her to shine a light into the darkness of sexual harassment and lead the way to freedom. Ah, freedom. Nothing like it. No bending over backward to please others, to fit in, to be accepted. And thus, she became a model of how to live this ethic for women throughout this country and the world.

In the beginning of the film, we hear a phone message from Ginni Thomas, made twenty years later, asking Hill for an apology,” for what you did with my husband.Yes. Mrs. Thomas said “with,” not “to.” A Freudian slip? A sexual slur? However she intended it, it was insulting. And ultimately unhinged.

When you deal with insanity, never say you’re sorry

Ms. Hill did not call back. No apology was made. Nor will it be. Ever!

At the end of the film, Anita Hill says that “honesty, dignity, and courage is what will always be remembered.”

I hope she’s right.

Some people tell me they don’t watch TV.  As though it’s not worth it. Not worthy of their time. But when I tune in at 1 a.m., on a freezing cold winter night in D.C., and get to see Anita Hill still standing her ground, I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Use this visualization to stand your own ground, and to become your own hero. It’s a good tool to have in reserve.

Become Your Own Hero 

Close your eyes and breathe out one time.

See and sense how it is to become your own hero. Know that you are connected to your Source. Imagine this Source as coming from above and beyond you, from the highest and most powerful. See and sense the blue-golden light of courage and truth emanating from this Source and streaming through you, from the top of your head through every cell and bone in your body. Feel this powerful light strengthening and emboldening your entire body and mind. As your own hero, see yourself overcoming the gremlins of fear and doubt, and doing what needs to be done.

Celebrate your power, and your new life. Then breathe out, open your eyes, and return.

 

Tell Me A Story

A good and wise friend recently sent me a piece about the power and presence of stories  in our lives. It reminded me how much  I love them and live by them. How I speak to the characters about their choices, their victories, their foibles. How I chastise and adore them. How I cry at their disappointments, learn from their experiences, am changed and heartened by them. These stories are more than entertainment. They are among my closest companions. They act as advisors. They influence my discussions and behavior with friends and family. They enrich my daily life and my dreams. What I would do without them, I don’t want to know.

 Where do they come from − How do they arrive?

They come in many forms: by word of mouth, in the  morning paper, in books, film, from the Internet, from stage, screen, TV, and as I walk down the street. Some arrive with more value and clout than others.  Even if I don’t consciously remember them, they carve out a place in the cells of my body, that make them a part of me.

Before I could read, I listened to the radio on Saturday mornings and fell in love with Nila Mack’s “Let’s Pretend,” with its fairies, witches, wizards, mystery, and magic, ” The fairies cast spells that, for me, were real. And then there was Lamont Cranston, “The Shadow,” who was scary, yet good, invincible and invisible. Jack Armstrong ate his Wheaties. I ate mine too. “Grand Central Station,”was more exciting than the real thing, and so it went.

Miracle on Broadway

In 1959, a few days after it’s Broadway opening, I saw “The Miracle Worker” starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Patti was twelve when she played the part of the seven year old, Helen Keller, locked away from the world and herself, unable to hear, see or speak. I had seen Patti in the hallways of  8 West 86th Street, where I lived. She was friends with our super’s daughter. A nice girl. Polite. Pretty. Quiet. I was unprepared for the hurricane force I saw onstage.

I always loved Anne Bancroft who played Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, mentor, and friend. Who didn’t?  She made you a better person just by watching her. And, oh, what a story!  By the time the cast took their curtain calls I was crying so hard, I sat there, head down, embarrassed by my emotion, stunned and changed by what I had witnessed. Bodies and objects flying. Emotions going crazy. Nothing held back. And then, the Miracle, when Helen first speaks. Elizabeth Taylor was there that night. No one paid much attention. She was the side show. This story, not her’s, was the main event.

True Story

The play conveys the pain and wonder of life, of family, of love, disappointment, courage and fear, of victory and  defeat, of resilience, and despite impossible odds, of coming out of the darkness and into the light. It was a story that moved heaven and earth. Helen was real. Her trials were true. Annie Sullivan was an incredible force. a mountain for Helen to climb, and climb her she did. What more could one ask?

Stop for a moment if you will, and remember a  story of your own. One that affected and moved you —and perhaps even changed you, and (or) your life. Remember what you learned and what you felt, no matter what that lesson or feeling may have been.

And as hard as it may be to acknowledge, consider that we’re the co-creators of these stories. .And that although we can’t rewrite the past we can author new stories, direct them in a different way, and see them in a  new light.

Beyond all else, be true to these stories and to yourself. Especially if you’re a celebrity. Poor Brian Williams seems to have missed the boat on that one.

Here’s an image to experiment with. Use it and see what happens:

Story Time

Close your eyes and see your life as an open book. Look at the cover, feel the pages. Flip through these pages. Read the words. See the pictures, and allow them to remind you of what you need to know. Live and sense how this story defines you. If it’s a story you cherish, see it as a golden thread that links you to your true self, and give thanks. If not, take this moment to rewrite it, knowing you can’t change the past, but you can change your beliefs and feelings about it. Then open your eyes, and return, as you remember it in a new and healing way.

New Year Musings: Out with The Old

New Years eve was never one of my favorites. Perhaps it’s those memories of dates and days past when I expected so much and wound up with so little. The right place, but the wrong boy. The right boy but a lousy kisser. Worse even. A blind date. A beautiful dress worn to a terrible party where some dolt spilled his drink on the dress, ne’er to be worn again ─  where it was too close for comfort, too disappointing to do anything but ignore, then forget, as I stood in the freezing cold, waiting for a cab that refused to show up, or even worse, passed me by.

But there was one New Years eve that I gave a party and it all came together. When everyone showed up in formal dress. When everything clicked. When the snow started falling before midnight and we all went off to play and allowed it to anoint us with a moment of magic. When romance was in the air and in my heart and anything seemed possible. I tried to create a repeat performance the following year but it fell flat, as my neighbor’s husband decided to hit on me, the guests left their fun genes back home, and the snow refused to snow on cue.

New Years gets so much hype that it’s hard to live up to the foreplay.The peak moment comes and goes; there’s lots of noise and hoopla; the rockets rock; the bubbly bubbles; the kissers kiss; and the ball comes down in Times Square while the people from Queens, Staten Island, the Bronx, Indiana, Ohio, and Kansas, watch and cheer and stand there in the freezing cold insisting they’re having a fabulous time. Then poof, its over and done with. And everyone goes home. And the old year is out and the New Year is in. And we make our resolutions and get set to do it again in one form or another the following year. So what ‘s it all about Alfie?

On a scale of 1 to 10, (10 being the best,1 the worst) 2013 was a 2. Not  quite a 1, which I reserve for events like September 11th. It earns this dubious honor via government shutdowns and mass shootings. Petty, self interested law-makers who refuse to tame gun rights or renew unemployment benefits. And right wing rants by Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Hannity, and the Palin woman, insisting that the poor give up more, and the rich give up nothing. That ObamaCare, is destroying American civilization and must be stopped at all costs.That Obama is a Kenyan who’s destroying American civilization.That Obama’s birth certificate is destroying American civilization. And that American civilization is exceptional and must be saved by getting rid of Obama and all things that bear his name, likeness and subversive socialist soul in any shape or form. Also, that Pope Francis, who may be way too cool a dude for a pope, is really a communist who threatens the pillars of Christianity, which they consistently fail to recognize is based on those awful “socialist” concepts about being thy brother’s keeper, especially if thy brother is poorer than you and less powerful.

It feels good to leave this past year behind although the Toronto mayor proved good for some laughs, and Chris Christy managed to show his true colors by closing down the access lanes to the GW Bridge as punishment for the  mayor of Ft. Lee, New Jersey having failed to support his reelection campaign for governor. Speak of ego gone wilder than usual. Even for a politician.

Despite this undistinguished history I look forward to a better and different 2014. Yet we had best stay vigilant. As actor, producer, writer, and general all around bigger than life talent Harvey Fierstein says: “You can’t just ignore evil.”

The author Thomas Cahill, spoke with Bill Moyers on Moyer’s show this past week and set my priorities straight.

“There are only two things in this world,” Cahill said. “There’s cruelty and there’s kindness.”

For this year, just beginning, as yet unblemished by anything cruel or dark, I pray we choose kindness. Each of us. One by one. It may just be enough to put a protective circle of light, a blessed imprint of “good” on our lives and on our world.

Thomas Cahill is the author of “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” “Pope John XXIII, ” “Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter,” and most recently “Heroes and Heretics.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remembering Joan

I found a New York Times clip on line today — A montage of Joan Rivers moments. Seeing how she changed herself over the years is both amazing and scary. Before she put on the  Zsa Zsa face, she was no ugly duckling. Indeed, there was a time when she looked quite lovely. But Joan wanted more than lovely. She always wanted more.

 

I never really liked Joan. Her mean streak put me off in life, as it did on stage. But despite my judgment call on her character, she made me laugh. I loved her wit, her work, her ceaseless energy, her fearlessness, her devotion to making her audience happy, and to them loving her, at least a little.

I once had a dream where both Joan and Woody Allen made brief appearances. In the dream, Woody was my friend. He liked me. Joan was not my friend. She didn’t like me. In fact she hated me. For years, when either of these people were mentioned, by me or anyone else, I explained that Woody liked me, while Joan hated me. It became part of my shtick. It made me famous by association..

Though I never actually met Joan, I did come face to face with Woody at the Cafe Carlyle some years ago. He was walking toward the stage to perform with his jazz band, I was on my way to the ladies room. The aisle between the tables was so narrow he stepped aside so I could get past. And call me crazy, but I swear there was a moment of recognition. How could there not be? We had already met in my dream.

The good thing in all this, a kind of blessing really, is that Joan was in top form to the end. No withering away. No extended painful illness. She went out looking and performing the way she wanted. At the top of her game. No downturn. No dementia. No final act. She was the energizer bunny of female comedians. Like Robin Williams, when she was out there, on stage, she kept going and going and going. But unlike our dear tortured Robin, she wanted to live forever. And I get that. For so do I.

Use this image if you dare to experiment with Living forever:

Eternity

Close your eyes, breathe out one long exhalation, and see yourself living forever. No beginning no end, just you and eternity. See, sense, feel, and know this endless state of being. Cast off your fears and be.in this one timeless moment. What happens how do you feel? What do you see, learn, discover, know?
Then breathe out, return, and open your eyes.